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The King's Blood
By Abraham, Daniel
OrbitCopyright © 2012 Abraham, Daniel
All right reserved.
Cithrin bel Sarcour, Voice and Agent of the Medean Bank in Porte Oliva
Cithrin bel Sarcour, voice of the Medean bank in Porte Oliva, stepped out of the bank’s office with her head high, her features composed, and rage burning in her breast. Around her, Porte Oliva was entering its springtime. The bright cloth banners and glittering paste jewels of the First Thaw celebrations still lay in the streets and alleyways, slowly decaying into grime. Snow haunted the shadows where the midday sun couldn’t reach. Cithrin’s breath plumed before her as if her heart were a furnace belching pale smoke, and she felt the bite of the air as a distant thing.
Men and women of several races bustled on the cobbles before her. Kurtadam with their slick, beaded pelts; thin-faced, pale Cinnae; brass-and-gold-scaled Jasuru; black-chitined Timzinae; and fleshy, rose-cheeked Firstblood. Some nodded to her, some stepped out of her way, most ignored her. She might represent one of the greatest banks in the world, but as far as the hazy sky over Porte Oliva cared, she was just another half-Cinnae girl in a well-tailored dress.
When she stepped into the taproom, the warm air caressed her. The related, yeasty scents of beer and bread tried to gentle her, and she felt some of the knot in her gut begin to ease. The anger slipped, showing itself only a mask for the despair and frustration beneath. A young Cinnae man came forward to take her shawl, and she managed a tight-lipped smile as she relinquished it.
“The usual table, Magistra?” he asked.
“Thank you, Verril,” she said. “That would be kind.”
Grinning, he made an exaggerated bow, and gestured her on. Another day, she might have found it charming. The table was at the back, half hidden from the main room by a draped cloth. It cost a few coins more. When she felt capable of civil conversation, she would sometimes sit at the common benches, striking up conversation with whoever was there. There were more sailors and gossip of travelers farther south at the docks, more word of overland trade north where the dragon’s road opened to the main square and the cathedral and the governor’s palace, but the taproom was nearest to her bank—her bank, by God—and not every conversation needed to be a bid for advantage.
The Kurtadam girl who most often served in the daytimes brought a plate of cheese and brown bread with a tiny carved-wood bowl full of black raisins. More to the point, she brought a tankard of good beer. Cithrin nodded sharply and tried to make her smile genuine. If the girl saw anything odd in her, the soft fur of her face covered it. Kurtadam would make good card players, Cithrin thought as she drank. All of them wearing masks all the time.
The front door opened, light spilling into the main room. A shadow moved into it. Without seeing a single detail of face or body, without so much as a cleared throat, Cithrin recognized Yardem Hane. He was the second in command of her guardsmen—her guardsmen—and one of two men who had known her since her flight from Vanai. With that city burned and all its residents dead, that made him someone who’d known her longer than anyone alive.
The Tralgu walked gently across the floor. For so large a race, the Tralgu could be uncannily quiet. He sat down on the bench beside her. His high, doglike ears pointed forward. He smelled like old leather and sword oil. His sigh was long and deep.
“Went poorly, then?” he said.
“Did,” Cithrin said, trying to match the laconic banter Yardem and Captain Wester employed. But the words wouldn’t stop coming. “She barely even heard me out. I spent all winter negotiating that deal. Yes, there are risks, but they’re good risks.”
“Pyk didn’t think so.”
“Apparently not,” Cithrin said. “God damn, but I hate that woman.”
Cithrin had known from the moment the deal was made that answering to her notary would chafe. For months, Cithrin had exercised total control over the wealth of her branch of the Medean bank. Any loan she’d thought worthy, she’d made. Any partnership she’d felt wise, she’d entered. She’d cut thumbs on dozens of agreements and contracts, and she’d made good profits overall. Only, of course, the foundation documents of the bank had been forged and the contracts she’d signed illegal. It was still four months before she reached majority, inherited her parents’ holdings in the bank, and became fully adult in the eyes of the law. But even after that, the role she’d taken on of an older woman and only a quarter Firstblood would remain hers. The bank was built on lies and fraud, and her discretion would be needed for years before the suspect agreements could all be purged. She fantasized about throwing it all to the wind just to spite the notary sent from the holding company in Carse. Pyk Usterhall.
You’ll sign nothing. All agreements are signed by the notary. And the notary alone. Negotiations don’t happen without the notary present. If you’re overruled, you accept it. Control rests with the holding company. You’re a figurehead. Nothing more.
Those were the terms she’d been offered, and she had agreed to them. At the time she’d been half drunk with relief that she’d kept any hold at all. She’d felt certain that once the notary was in place, it would be a matter of time before she could maneuver herself back into real power. The period in between would be a necessary test of her patience, but nothing worse than that. In the weeks before the notary’s arrival, she’d fallen asleep every night imagining herself playing meek before some well-seasoned member of the bank, offering insights that would catch the new man’s attention, building up her reputation with him until he trusted her judgment. From there, she told herself, it would be a short leap to making policy for her bank again. Her work was only to win over one man. Even if it was difficult, it was possible.
It had been a pretty story.
Pyk Usterhall arrived in the dead of winter. Cithrin had been in the café across from the Grand Market where she paid Maestro Asanpur a few coins for the use of a private room at the back. Winter’s dark came early, even so far south as Porte Oliva, and there was little to do in the dark, cold afternoons besides play tiles and drink down the ancient, half-blind Cinnae’s stock of coffee beans. That day, there had been four Firstblood queensmen resting after their patrol in the café trading jokes and stories with a Timzinae merchant. The Timzinae had been wintering in Birancour before heading back to Elassae in the spring, and Cithrin had been laughing at his jokes for days, waiting to see if some news of that nation might slip from him. The six of them had pushed two of the tables together and were playing a complex round of tiles when the door had swung open and a cold draught had washed away the warmth of the room, literally and figuratively.
At first, Cithrin thought the woman was an enormously fat Firstblood. She was huge, wide across the hips and shoulders both, fat and strong both. She stepped into the room, her tread heavy on the floorboards, and unwound the black wool scarf from around her head. Her hair was grey where it wasn’t black. Heavy jowls and full lips gave her a fishlike expression. When she pursed her lips, the gaps where her tusks had been filed off came clear. A Yemmu.
“You’ll be Cithrin bel Sarcour then,” the woman had said. “I’m your notary. You have somewhere we can speak?”
Cithrin rose at once, leading Pyk back to the private room. Once the door was closed, Pyk lowered herself to the little table, scowling.
“Playing games with the city guard? That’s how you run this place? I’d have thought Komme Medean’s voice would be at the Governor’s Palace or dining with someone important.”
Cithrin still felt the thickness in her throat when she remembered the words and the scorn that soured them.
“There’s little going on in the coldest months,” Cithrin had said, cursing herself silently for the apology in her tone.
“For you, I’d guess that’s truth,” Pyk said. “I’ve got work to do. You want to bring me the books here, or is there someplace you do the real business?”
Every day since had been another minor humiliation, another opportunity for the notary to remind Cithrin that she controlled nothing, another scathing comment. For weeks, Cithrin had swallowed it all with a smile. And for months after that, she’d at least borne it. If there had been even a pause in the assault, a crack in the dismissive façade, she’d have counted it a victory.
There had been nothing.
“Did she say why?” Yardem asked.
“She won’t deal with Southlings,” Cithrin said. “Apparently a pod of them killed some part of her family in Pût nine or ten generations ago.”
Yardem turned to her, his ears shifted to lie back almost flat against his skull. Cithrin drank deeply from her beer.
“I know,” she said. “But what am I supposed to do about it? No negotiations without the notary present. I’m not permitted to sign, even. And if she doesn’t cut thumbs on it, it doesn’t happen.”
As part of her bargain, Cithrin had surrendered all the leverage she had over the bank. If Pyk sent a message back to Carse saying that Cithrin was a liability to the bank, Cithrin had nothing that would keep them from separating her from the business. She broke off a crust of bread, chewing on it absently. It could have been spiced with dirt for all the pleasure she took in it. Yardem pointed at the plate, and she pushed it toward him. He pinched a corner from the cheese and popped it into his mouth. They chewed in silence for a long moment. The fire murmured in its grate. From the alley, a dog yelped.
“I have to go tell him,” Cithrin said, then took another long drink.
“Company? I’m stood down for the day.”
“He won’t get violent,” Cithrin said. “He isn’t like that.”
“Could offer moral support. Encouragement.”
Cithrin laughed once, mirthless.
“That’s why I’m drinking,” she said.
She looked over at him. His eyes were deep brown, his head broad. He had a scar just under his left ear she’d never noticed before. Yardem had been a priest once, before he’d been a sellsword. The beer sat in its tankard. One wouldn’t do much. Two would leave her feeling looser and less upset. But it would also tempt her to reach for a third, and by the fourth she’d be ready to postpone the unpleasant until tomorrow. Better, she thought, to end it quickly and sleep without dreading it in the morning.
She pushed the tankard back, and Yardem stood to let her up.
The boarding house was in the middle of the salt quarter, not far from the little rooms Cithrin, Yardem, and Marcus Wester had hidden in during their first days in the city. The salt quarter streets were narrow and twisted. In some places, the streets were so narrow that Cithrin’s fingertips could have brushed the buildings on both sides. Everything stank of raw sewage and brine. By the time they reached the whitewashed walls and faded blue windows of the house, the hem of her dress was black and her feet cold and aching. She pulled her shawl closer about her shoulders and went up the two low steps to the common door. Yardem leaned against the wall, his expression empty but his ears high. Cithrin knocked.
She had hoped that someone else would answer. One of the other boarders or the man who kept the house. Something that would postpone the actual conversation for another minute or two. Luck wasn’t with her. Or, more likely, he’d been perched by the door, waiting for word from her. His ash-grey skin and the oversized black eyes of his race made him seem childlike. His smile was bright and tentative at the same time.
“Magistra Cithrin,” he said, as if her appearance were a delightful surprise. Her heart thickened. “Please come in. I was just making tea. Have some, have some. And your Tralgu friend.”
Cithrin looked back at Yardem. She thought there was pity in his expression and she wasn’t certain who it belonged to.
“I’ll be right back,” she said.
“I’ll be right here,” he rumbled.
The common sitting room smelled damp despite the little stove that kept the air almost uncomfortably warm. The high, wailing voice of a colicky child forced its way from somewhere in the back, even when the doors were shut. Cithrin sat on a cushioned bench with lank tassels of red and orange that had probably been beautiful once.
“I’m pleased to see you,” the Southling man said. “I’ve been writing to my son in Lyoneia, and I just got a message back. He said that he could—”
“—have a full shipment as early as midsummer. Last year’s nuts are dried and ready to grind. He said they smell like flowers and smoke. He was always good with words that way. Flowers and smoke. Don’t you think?”
He knew then. Or guessed. The words flowed out of him, pushing hers back. As if he could keep the inevitable at bay. Cithrin remembered being at the seashore sometime when she’d been very young. Maybe even before her parents had died. She knew what it was like to try stopping a wave with your hands.
“The bank can’t move forward with this plan,” Cithrin said. “I’m very sorry.”
The man’s mouth kept working, trying to bring out new syllables. His brows shifted, rising in the center and falling at the ends until he looked like the caricature of loss and disappointment. Cithrin forced herself to take a breath. Her stomach hurt. When he spoke, his voice was small.
“I don’t understand, Magistra.”
“I’ve had some new information arrive, unrelated to our conversations, and I’m afraid at the moment it isn’t possible for the bank to move forward with the loan you would need.”
“If, if, if I could just read you the letter my son sent me, Magistra. You see, we could—”
The man swallowed, closed his massive eyes and hung his head.
“Can I ask why not?”
Because you’ve got the wrong eyes, Cithrin thought. Because my notary won’t let me. I’m as sorry about this as you. I think you’re right. She thought all the things she couldn’t say, because they would mean admitting that she was ruled by Pyk Usterhall. If that became public knowledge, the last bit of influence she had over her bank would be gone. So instead she hardened her soul and pretended to be a banker who was working her own will, and who had the power to match her responsibilities.
“You know I can’t divulge other people’s conversations with me,” she said. “Any more than I would disclose our discussions to them.”
“No. Of course not,” he said and opened his eyes. “Is there any chance you might reconsider?”
“I’m afraid not,” she said, every word costing her.
“All right. Thank you, then. Did—did you still want some tea?”
I’m not drunk,” Cithrin said.
“You aren’t,” Yardem agreed.
“Then why can’t I have another glass?”
“Because that’s how you stay not drunk.”
They hadn’t gone back to the taproom. That was where Cithrin went to have meals and polite company. She didn’t want those. She wanted to scream and curse and break things with a stick. Frustration and impotence were like a thin iron cage, and she was a finch beating itself to death against them. Her own rooms were above the bank’s office and had been since before there had been a bank. It had been a gambler’s stall when she’d first walked up the steps. And she’d shared it with Yardem and Marcus Wester and a cartful of crates loaded with silk and gems, tobacco and jewels, and the wax-sealed account books more precious than all the rest put together. Now it held her bed, her desk, her wardrobe. Where there had been bare boards, she’d put a thick red rug to keep her feet warm in winter. A painting hung on the wall over her bed with the mark of the Medean bank worked together with the sigil of Porte Oliva. It had been a gift from the governor.
Cithrin rose from her table, pacing. Voices rose from below them, reminding her how thin the floor was and how sound could travel. There were always guards in the office, making sure that no one could reach the strongbox set in stone beneath the building. It held the hard reserves of the bank. But the real wealth was in the paper—loan agreements, partnerships, depositors’ contracts—that were no longer even in the office. They were a long block to the south in the rooms that Pyk had taken for herself, the secret base of the bank.
“She’s gutted me,” Cithrin said. “She’s taken it all.”
“That was the agreement,” Yardem pointed out.
“I don’t care what the agreement was,” Cithrin said, fighting to keep her voice—even the tone of it—from leaking to the ears of the guards below her. “It’s not just that she disagrees with me. Or that she condescends. She’s making bad choices, Yardem. She’s walking away with coins still on the table. And she’s doing it because she’s too proud to take direction from an underage half-Cinnae girl.”
Cithrin raised her palms, daring Yardem to disagree. He scratched his knee in a way that made her think it hadn’t actually itched.
“Well, I am done with this,” Cithrin said. “If she wants war, then she will by God get it.”
Dawson Kalliam, Baron of Osterling Fells
Wars are easier to start than end, and where they take you is rarely where you intended to go,” the ambassador said. “It will be better for all of us to avoid it.”
Dawson turned back from the window. Sir Darin Ashford, Lord of Harrin and Ambassador of King Lechan to Antea, sat in the old library, his legs crossed at the ankle and a carefully charming smile on his lips. He had come to the Kalliams’ holding at Osterling Fells two days before, announced by a letter and bringing a small enough retinue that he posed no obvious threat. They had observed the forms of etiquette since his arrival. This was the first candid conversation they’d had.
The walls of granite and dragon’s jade gave the room a sense of terrible age and grandeur that Dawson liked. It lent the room and the holding the sense of permanence that they deserved. The sense of right things in their right order. It was a contrast to the subject of their talk.
“You might have thought of that before you plotted to kill Prince Aster,” Dawson said.
The ambassador sat forward, one finger held high. He wore the silver cuffs that Dawson’s wife Clara assured him were the fashion in Kaltfel that year and the decorative wrist chain that marked a married man in the courts of Asterilhold.
“Now that’s just the kind of rhetoric to be careful of, Baron Osterling.”
“As long as you’re lecturing me on how to speak, you may as well call me Dawson.”
Ashford either missed the sarcasm or chose to ignore it.
“All I mean is that Asterilhold didn’t have any ill wishes toward the prince or the Severed Throne.”
Dawson walked three steps and gestured to a pelt that hung on the wall. The years had greyed the deep golden fur, but the sheer size of the tanned skin was still impressive.
“Did you see this?” Dawson asked. “Mountain lion killed ten of my serfs. Ten of them. I left court a month after my first boy was born to hunt it. It took me three weeks to track it down, and four of my huntsmen fell before we brought it to ground. You would have been… five years old, then? Six?”
“Lord Kalliam, I respect that you are my elder, and I see that—”
“Don’t lie to me, boy. We both know there were knives meant for Aster’s throat.”
“There were,” Ashford said. “In both our courts. Asterilhold’s not a single thing any more than Antea is. A few people corresponded with Lord Maas about his ambitions. To hold the whole court responsible for the secret actions of a few will drag both our kingdoms into chaos.”
Dawson stroked the dead cat’s fur as he weighed what to say next. The kingdoms of Asterilhold and Antea were like brothers. In centuries before, they had answered to the same High King. Several generations back, the noble houses had made a fashion of intermarrying in hopes that it would drive their nations toward peace. Instead it had confused the bloodlines and given dukes in Asterilhold a plausible claim to the Antean throne. If only you killed enough of the people in between.
It was the fate of all reforms that they turned against the reformers. History was rotten with men and women who had sought to remake the world in the image they had created of it. Inevitably, they failed. The world resisted change, and the nobleman’s role was to protect the right order of things. If only that order were always clear. He caressed the dead animal one last time and let his fingers fall from it.
“What do you propose, then?” Dawson asked.
“You are one of King Simeon’s oldest and most trusted friends. You were willing to sacrifice your reputation and accept exile from the court in order to expose the plot against the prince. No one is better placed to speak in favor of negotiation.”
“And in addition, I was the Palliako boy’s patron.”
“Yes,” Ashford said placidly. “And that.”
“I thought you were a skeptic of the romance of Geder Palliako.”
“The sure-sighted viscount who burned the city he’d been set to protect in order that he rush back to Camnipol and save the throne from insurrection. His mysterious self-exile to the east taken at the height of his triumph and his return with secret knowledge of the traitors within the court,” Ashford said. “It sounds like something a man would pay good coin to have said about him. Next, he’ll be waking dragons to play riddles against them.”
“Palliako’s an interesting one,” Dawson said. “I underestimated him. More than once. He lends himself to that.”
“He’s the hero of Antea, savior and protector of the prince, and darling of the court,” Ashford said. “If that’s being underestimated, the truth must be something out of an old epic.”
“Palliako’s… odd,” Dawson said.
“Does he respect you? Does he listen to your advice?”
Dawson didn’t know the answer to that. Once, when the boy had just come back from Vanai, Dawson had been fairly certain that he could exercise whatever influence he liked over the younger Palliako. Now Geder had a barony of his own and Prince Aster as his ward. There was an argument that he outranked Dawson, if not formally then in effect.
And there was the temple. Ever since the boy’s return from the wilds of the Keshet, it was unclear how much the foreign priests he’d brought back were his pets and how much he was theirs. The high priest, Basrahip, had been central to the raid against Feldin Maas, once Baron of Ebbingbaugh and now bones at the bottom of the Division. From what Dawson understood, without the priest, all might have been lost that night. Geder might not have escaped with the letters of evidence, King Simeon might have gone ahead with his plan to foster Prince Aster with Maas, and the world might be a very different place.
And still, there was an answer to the question that he could honestly give.
“Even if Palliako doesn’t bend his neck back to look up at me, he’ll listen to my son. Jorey served with him in Vanai. They were friends of a sort even before it became the popular thing to do.”
“A word from him would go quite a long way toward throwing oil on these waters. All I’m looking for is a private audience with the king. If I knew what assurances he would need, I could take them home with me. Plots of regicide are no more appealing to King Lechan than King Simeon. If nobles in Asterilhold need be called to justice, Lechan will be the one to do it. There’s no need to field armies.”
Dawson made a small sound in the back of his throat, neither assent nor refusal.
“King Lechan would be very grateful,” Ashford said, “for any aid you could be in mending the breach with his much-loved cousin.”
Dawson laughed now. It was a short, barking sound like one of his dogs.
“Do I seem like a merchant to you, Lord Ashford?” Dawson asked. “I have no interest in turning a profit from serving King Simeon. There is no gift your king could offer me that would bring me to act against my conscience.”
“Then I rely upon your conscience,” Ashford said, dropping the offer of bribery as if it had never been made. “What does it say, Baron Osterling?”
“If it were mine to choose, I’d want the testicles of every man who wrote to Maas in a pickling jar,” Dawson said. “But it isn’t mine. Simeon sits on the Severed Throne, so the decision is his. Yes, I’ll speak with him.”
“I’ll have Jorey approach him. Perhaps the two of you can meet when court is called. It’s only a few weeks from now, and I assume you were going to Camnipol anyway.”
“For the opening of court, as it happens,” Ashford said. “But there’s much to be done before then. With your permission, my lord, I will take my leave of your holding in the morning.”
“What? More Antean nobles to dangle Lechan’s generosity before?” Dawson said.
The ambassador’s smile thinned, but it did not vanish.
“As you say, Lord Kalliam,” Ashford said.
The holding at Osterling Fells had been Dawson’s home when he was only a boy, and his memories of it were of snow and cold. The dim patterns he’d divined as a child put autumn’s feasts of pumpkin sweets and brandy-soaked cherries in Camnipol, snow and ice in Osterling Fells. Almost into adulthood, he had thought of the seasons as residing in different cities. Summer lived in the dark-cobbled streets and high walls of Camnipol. The ice and snow of winter belonged to the narrow valley with its thin river. Granted, the conceit had become more poetic in nature. He wasn’t an innocent to think no snow fell on the bridges that spanned the Division or that the summer heat wouldn’t bring hunting dogs to torpor in his father’s kennels. But the idea had the deep resonance—the rightness—of a thing known in youth and never entirely disbelieved.
The holding had stood in its place at the base of a sloping hill, unchanged for centuries. Before Antea rose as a kingdom, the walls of Osterling Fells had been there. Dragon’s jade, eternal and unyielding, wove through the stone and defied wind and weather. The hard granite had eroded in places, and in some even been replaced, but the jade would never fail.
The room he used for his private study was the same that his father had used, and his grandfather, and so on back and back and back. Before this same window, his father had explained that the walls of the holding were like the fabric of the kingdom, that the noble houses were the jade. Without their constancy, even the most glorious structure would eventually fall into ruin.
When his father died, Dawson had taken the holding as his own, raised his own boys within it, and told the same tale over their winter cribs. This land, these walls, are ours, and only the king can take them from us. Anyone else who tries, dies in the attempt. But if the king requires it, then it is his for the asking. That is what loyalty means.
His boys had taken the lesson. Barriath, his eldest, served now under Lord Skestinin in the fleet. Vicarian, second of his sons, and unlikely to inherit, had entered the priesthood. His only daughter, Elisia, had married Lord Annerin’s eldest. Only Jorey still remained with the household, and that only until he was called again to service. He had ridden out once, under Lord Ternigan, fought well, and came back a hero and the friend of a hero, even if it was an unreliable one like Geder Palliako.
Dawson found Jorey in a perch at the top of the South Tower. Dawson had spent time there himself as a boy, sticking his head out the thin window and looking down until the height made him dizzy. From here, the lands of Osterling Fells spread out like a map. Two of the villages were clearly visible, and the lake. The trees were all the pale green of new leaf, the shadows all thick with the last of the snow. The cold, soft breeze ruffled Jorey’s hair like the feathers of a crow. Two letters—one still sealed with wax the resonant blue of House Skestinin—were forgotten in the young man’s hands.
“Letter from your brother? What news from the north?” Dawson asked, and Jorey started, pushing the letters behind him like a kitchen boy caught with sticky lips and a jar of honey. Jorey’s cheeks flushed as red as if he’d been slapped.
“He’s fine, Father. He says they didn’t lose any ships to the freeze, so they’re expecting to be on the water again. They might already be.”
“That’s as it should be,” Dawson said. “I met with that idiot from Asterilhold.”
“I’ve agreed to speak with Simeon about meeting with him. He was also asking whether you would speak with Palliako. He seems to think that soft words from Geder would keep the wheels of vengeance from rolling too far.”
Jorey nodded. When his eyes were cast down, he looked like his mother. Clara had the same shape of jaw, the same quiet. The boy was lucky to have that from her.
“Did you say that I would?”
“I said I’d speak to you about it,” Dawson said. “You aren’t bound to anything.”
“Thank you. I’ll think on it.”
Dawson leaned against the wall. A sparrow darted in through the window, whirled twice through the narrow space, and vanished again in a panic of wind and dust.
“Are you against the thought of war or of speaking to the new Baron Ebbingbaugh?” Dawson asked.
“I don’t want to go off to war unless we have to,” Jorey said. The first time he’d faced going on campaign, he’d been equal parts anxiety and joy. The experience of it had pressed both out of him. “But if we have to, we will. It’s only that Geder… I don’t know.”
For a moment, Dawson saw the ghosts of Vanai reflected in his son’s face. The city that Geder Palliako had burned. It was easy to forget that Palliako had that potential for slaughter in him. But perhaps it was hard for Jorey.
“I understand,” Dawson said. “Do what you think best. I trust your judgment.”
For some reason Dawson couldn’t fathom, the blush in Jorey’s cheeks returned and deepened. His boy coughed and wouldn’t meet his eye.
“Barriath sent me a letter,” Jorey said. “I mean another letter. Inside his. It’s from Lord Skestinin. It’s a formal introduction to Sabiha. His daughter.”
The pause that followed seemed to have some weight. Jorey’s dread was as palpable as it was strange.
“I see,” Dawson said. “Introduction to his daughter, you say? Hmm. Well, if you don’t care to make the connection, we could say the letter went astray…”
“I had asked, sir. I asked for the letter.”
“Ah,” Dawson said. “Well. Then good you have it, yes?”
Jorey looked up. His eyes betrayed his surprise.
“Yes,” he said. “I suppose it is. Sir.”
They stood in awkward silence for a moment, then Dawson nodded, turned, and walked back down the narrow spiral stair, his head almost against the stone of the steps above him, with the uncomfortable sense of having given his blessing to something.
Clara, of course, understood at once.
He’d no sooner mentioned Lord Skestinin’s daughter than Clara’s eyebrows tried to rise up to meet her hairline.
“Oh good God,” she said. “Sabiha Skestinin? Who would have guessed that?”
“You know something about the girl?” Dawson asked.
Clara put down her needlework and drew the clay pipe from between her lips, tapping its stem gently against her knee. The window of their private room was open, and the smell of the lilacs mixed with the smoke of her tobacco.
“She’s a clever girl. Very pretty. Sweet-tempered, so far as I can tell, but you know how it is with these girls. They know more ways to lie than a banker. And, more to the point, she’s fertile.”
Dawson’s confusion resolved and he sat on the edge of his bed. Clara sighed.
“She had her boy two years ago by no one in particular,” Clara said. “He’s being raised by one of the family retainers in Estinport. Everyone’s been very good about pretending it doesn’t… he doesn’t exist, but of course it’s common knowledge. I imagine Lord Skestinin’s quite pleased to write letters of introduction for anyone with a drop of noble blood, and lucky for the chance.”
“No,” Dawson said. “Absolutely not. I won’t have my boy wearing secondhand clothes.”
“She isn’t a coat, dear.”
“You know what I mean,” Dawson said, rising to his feet. He should have known. He should have guessed by the shame in Jorey’s body that the girl was a slut. And now Dawson had said that getting the letter was a good thing. “I’ll find him now and put a stop to this.”
Dawson turned back at the doorway. Clara hadn’t risen. Her face was soft and round, her eyes on his. Her perfect rosebud lips curled in a tiny smile, and with the light spilling across her, she looked… no, not young again. Better than young again. She looked like herself.
“But, love, if Jorey—”
“There are weeks between now and the first chance he could have to see her. There isn’t a rush.”
He took a step back into the room before he knew he’d done it. Clara put the pipe stem back in her mouth, drawing gently. Smoke seeped out of her nostrils like she was some ancient dragon hidden in a woman’s flesh. When she spoke, her voice was light, conversational, but her eyes were locked on his.
“As I recall, I wasn’t the first girl you ever took to bed,” she said. “I believe you knew exactly what you were about when my bride’s night came.”
“She’s a woman,” he said. “It’s not the same.”
“I suppose it isn’t,” Clara said, a note of melancholy stealing into her voice. “Still, we’re all round-heeled sometimes. I would have fallen back for you months before you made me honest, and we both remember that.”
Dawson’s body began to stir without his will.
“You’re trying to distract me.”
“It’s working,” Clara said. “Indiscreet and unlucky doesn’t make her a bad person. Or a bad wife. Give it time, and let me see what I can learn of her when we’re back in Camnipol. Lord Skestinin might make a very fine ally if Jorey were to lift up his fallen daughter. And really, dear, they may be in love.”
She held out her hand, guiding him down to sit beside her. Her skin wasn’t as smooth as it had been two decades and four children before, but it was still as soft. The amusement in her eyes called forth a softness in his own heart. He could feel his outrage fading. He plucked the pipe from her mouth, leaned forward, and kissed her gently, his mouth filling with her smoke. When he drew back, she was smiling.
“As long as she’s not unfaithful,” Dawson said with a sigh. “I won’t have someone in the family being unfaithful.”
A cloud seemed to pass over Clara’s eyes, a moment’s darkness but nothing more.
“When the time comes,” she said. “We can worry when the time comes.”
Captain Marcus Wester
It was a week past his thirty-ninth name day, and Marcus squatted at the alley’s mouth, waiting. A soft rain fell on the night-dark streets, beading on the waxed wool of his cloak. Yardem stood in the shadows behind him, unseen but present. In the house across the narrow square, a shape passed in front of the window—a man peering out into the darkness. A less experienced man might have stepped back, but Wester knew how to keep from being seen. The man in the window retreated. The tapping of raindrops against stone was the only sound.
“It’s not as if I can tell her what to do,” Marcus said.
“She’s a grown woman. Well, she’s almost a grown woman. She’s not a child, certainly.”
“It’s an awkward age, sir,” Yardem agreed.
“She wants control over her life. Autonomy. The problem is that she didn’t have any her whole life, and then had all of it at once. She had free rein with this bank for months. Long enough to see that she could do it well. After getting a taste for it, I don’t see how she turns her back.”
Marcus sighed. His breath barely misted. It was a warm spring. He tapped his fingertips against his sword’s pommel. Annoyance and concern gnawed at him like rats in the grain house walls.
“I could talk to her,” he said at last. “I could tell her that she’s got to be patient. Give the situation time to change on its own. Could she hear that, d’you think?”
For a moment, the rain was the only reply.
“Did you want me to answer that?” the Tralgu asked.
“I asked it, didn’t I?”
“Could have been a rhetorical point.”
Across the square, a thin line of light marked an opening door. Marcus went still for a few seconds, but the door closed again without opening fully. He eased his grip on his sword.
“No, I really meant it,” he said. “She’s my employer, but she’s also… Cithrin. If you’ve got a suggestion here, I’m open to hearing it.”
“Well, sir, I believe that every soul has its own shape—”
“Ah, God. Not this again.”
“You asked, sir. You might let me answer.”
“Right, sorry. Go ahead. I’ll tell myself it’s all a metaphor for something.”
Yardem’s sigh was eloquent, but he continued.
“Every soul has its own shape, and it determines the person’s path through the world. Your soul is a circle standing on its edge. At your lowest point, you will only rise, and your highest is when you are most likely to fall. Someone else’s soul might be shaped like a blade or a brick or a branching river. Each of them would live the same life differently.”
“Which would make it the same life how?”
“I can explain that if you’d like, sir. It’s theological.”
“No, forget I said anything.”
“If the magistra’s soul leads her in one way, it will seem the simplest path, whether it is or not. If she’s left within herself, she’ll turn in that direction just like Old Imbert drifted to the left after he took that hammer to his head. To make another choice would require the action of a different soul—”
Marcus raised his hand, and Yardem fell silent. The door that had opened before shifted. The light behind it was gone, and the movement was only a deeper bit of darkness. Yardem shifted. Marcus squinted into the dim.
“He’s going north, sir.”
Marcus took to his feet and shrugged back his cloak, the rain dampening his newly freed sword arm. Around them, Porte Oliva slept, or if it didn’t sleep, at least huddled close to its fires. If there had been moonlight, the pale walls and blue-painted lintels of the merchant quarter would have glowed. Instead, Marcus navigated by shadows and memory. Here and there, a lantern hung from an iron hook beside a door, spilling thin light, but there was more than enough gloom to cling to for a man who didn’t want to be seen. The bricks under his feet were slick with grime and rain. Marcus walked quickly, not quite trotting, and straining his ears for his quarry’s footsteps. Yardem could have been his shadow.
The man’s mistake was a small one, and inevitable. A small splash of a heel coming down in an unexpected puddle and an involuntary grunt. It was enough. They were close enough. It was time.
“Canin!” Marcus said with a friendliness that might almost have been genuine. “Canin Mise, as I live and breathe. Imagine meeting you out on a night like this.”
For a moment, it could have gone either way. The man could have greeted him, pretended some legitimate business, and had their conversation. Instead, there was the soft hiss of steel clearing its sheath. Marcus was disappointed, but he wasn’t surprised. He stepped back slowly, putting another foot or two between himself and the man.
“It doesn’t have to be like this,” Marcus said, easing his own blade free with a finger pressed against it to keep it from singing. “No one has to die here.”
“You cheated me,” the little merchant said. “You and that half-breed bitch you dance for.”
The buzz in his voice wasn’t a drunkard’s. It was worse than that. It belonged to a man who had taken the humiliation of his own failures and forged a weapon from them. That was hatred, and too much wine would have been easier to recover from.
“You borrowed money,” Marcus said, circling slowly to the right. The rain chilled his sword. “You knew the risks. The magistra forgave you three payments already. And now there’s a story you’re looking to leave the city. Set up shop in Herez. You know I can’t let that happen until you clear your debt. Now let’s put the sharp things away and talk about how you’re going to make this right.”
“I’ll go where I want and I’ll do what I please,” the man growled.
“That’s not where I’d put my bet,” Marcus said.
Canin Mise was decent with a blade. Veteran of two wars, five years as a queensman before the governor’s magistrates suggested he look for work elsewhere. His plan for starting a fighting school had been a good one. If he’d followed it, he’d likely have died with a reputation and enough money to set up any children he’d fathered along the way. Instead, his foot scraped against the cobbles and his blade hissed through the rain-thick air. Marcus held his sword in a ready block and stepped back out of his reach.
Probably out of his reach. If there had been even a glimmer of light, it would have been safer than what they were doing now. In the darkness, Canin Mise could no more judge his attacks than Marcus could avoid them. Marcus strained his senses, listening for the small noises that could guide him, trying to judge the pressure of the air. It was less swordplay than gambling. Marcus slid forward and took an exploratory swing. Metal clashed against metal, and Canin Mise yelped in surprise. Marcus pressed in with a shout, blocking the counterstrike by instinct.
Canin Mise shouted, a full-throated roar filled with rage and violence. It cut off suddenly. His blade fell to the cobblestones with a clatter. Soft, wet choking sounds came through the darkness, the splash of heels beating at the puddles. The sounds faded and went still.
“You have him?” Marcus asked.
“Yes, sir,” Yardem said. “You’ll want to carry his heels.”
“So,” Marcus said, “you’re saying that someone will choose against the shape of their own soul if some other-shaped soul’s in the room with them?” Canin Mise’s boots were slick and the unconscious man’s legs were dead-weight heavy.
“Not that they will, but that by having that, the opportunity arises. The world has no will of its own, so it can’t. Action that comes from without can change the awareness of other possibilities. Are you ready, sir?”
“Wait.” Marcus swung his foot in the darkness until he found the fallen man’s sword. He lifted it with one toe until the steel was close enough to grab with his encumbered fingers. He didn’t want to be responsible for a horse or a person stepping on a live blade in the darkness. And they might get a few coins for it. Likely more money than he’d paid on the loan. “All right. Let’s get him to the magistrate.”
“So talking to her may or may not improve things, but keeping silence certainly can’t help?”
“Yes, sir,” Yardem said as they started off at a slow walk, Canin Mise slung between them like a sack.
“And you couldn’t just say that?”
Marcus felt Yardem’s shrug translated through their shared burden.
“Didn’t see the harm, sir. We weren’t doing anything else.”
The public gaol of Porte Oliva looked like a statue garden in the first light of dawn. Blue-lipped prisoners huddled under whatever tarps and blankets the queensmen had seen fit to throw over them. The wooden platforms they stood or squatted on were dark with rain. A Kurtadam man, all the beads pulled from his pelt, stood bent double with a carved wooden symbol at his hip that showed he hadn’t paid his tax. A Cinnae woman moaned and wept at the end of an iron chain, her pale skin stained by its rust, for abandoning her children. Three Firstblood men hung by their necks in the central gallows, unconcerned by the cold.
To the west, the huge brick-and-glass hill of the Governor’s Palace. To the east, the echoing white marble of the high temple. Divine law on one side, human law on the other, and a bunch of poor bastards dying of cold in the middle because they had the misfortune to get caught. It seemed to Marcus like the whole world writ small.
To the north, the wide, soft green of the dragon’s road led away, running solid and eternal out to the web of ancient roads that the fallen masters of the world had left behind when madness and war destroyed them. For a moment he stood on the wide steps of the square and watched the queensmen wrestle Canin Mise into a tiny metal box with a small hole on top where his head would be exposed to the air. Canin Mise would be easy enough to find until the magistrate had time to review his situation. By taking the man into custody for breaking a private contract, the governor had tacitly purchased the debt at a tenth of its price. Whatever value the law was able to squeeze out of the man now was no concern of Marcus or Cithrin bel Sarcour or the Medean bank.
Dragons had built this square in millennia past, and the sun had risen on it every day since. Rain and snow and hail had battered or caressed it. Porte Oliva itself was an artifact grown over the remnants of a fallen age. None of these buildings had been where they now stood when the races of humanity had been made. Empires had risen and fallen, and while Porte Oliva itself had never been stormed by an invading host, it had been home to riots and slaughter and death just as any city. It had suffered its fevers and loss. It had become complex, pulling its history around it like a knit shawl. The square hadn’t been meant to house the suffering and the guilty, but it served the purpose.
A pigeon took wing, grey in the grey, flying out over the square to alight on the top of the gallows post. Marcus had the sudden and profound sense of living in a ruin. Generations of Firstblood and Kurtadam and Cinnae had risen and fallen, lived and loved and died within the walls of the city. And so had the pigeons and rats, the salt lizards and the feral dogs. He couldn’t say that there was a great difference between the walls and roofs and passageways that humanity had built and the birds’ nests that huddled in their eaves. Except that birds didn’t have thumbs. None of them were dragons.
He considered Canin Mise’s lost sword. It was a nice piece, well forged and well cared for. The letters SRB were worked into the pommel, but what they meant was anyone’s guess. Perhaps the blade had been a gift from a lover or a commander. Or Canin Mise might have taken it from its owner before him. Regardless, the letters had meant something once, and they didn’t now.
“All right,” Marcus said. “I need food and sleep. I’m getting maudlin.”
But when they reached the bank office, Pyk Usterhall was waiting for them. The grey slate still hung on the wall, an artifact of the building’s history as a gambler’s stall. Where the day’s odds had been posted, the duty roster now stood. The three names for the standing guard—Corisen Mout, Roach, and Enen—were listed in Yardem’s block letters, but none of them were present. Marcus had noticed before now that when the Yemmu notary was in the front room, there always seemed to be pressing work in the back.
She sat at a low desk, leaning on one massive elbow. The papers on the doomed Canin Mise loan were spread out before her. Her lips sagged in where her tusks should have been, the gap between front and back teeth giving her face a horsey look. She could almost have been a fantastically ugly, obese Firstblood woman. Almost, but not quite.
“You’re back,” she said.
“Yes, ma’am,” Marcus said.
“She’s still sleeping.”
“I saw you looking around for the girl. She’s not here. She’s still sleeping. What happened?”
Marcus put the sword on the desk. Pyk looked down at it, then up at him, scowling.
“He was where we thought, and he knew we were looking for him. When I talked to him, he tried to cut me down.”
“He didn’t manage.”
Pyk nodded curtly.
“You’ve handed him to the magistrates?” she asked.
“Saw him in the box before we came back.”
Pyk sucked at her teeth, plucked the pen from its inkwell, and wrote a line in the margin of the original contract. For a woman with such huge hands, her writing was tiny and precise. Putting the pen back in place, she sighed prodigiously.
“I need you to fire half your guards,” Pyk said. “Whichever ones you like. Use your best judgment.”
Marcus laughed before he saw she wasn’t smiling. Yardem coughed. Pyk scratched her arm, looking up at him from under her eyebrows.
“We can’t do that,” Marcus said. “We need the men we’ve got.”
“All right,” Pyk said. “Then cut their pay in half. Doesn’t matter to me. But I have reports to send back to the holding company, and we need our expenses down. If we see fewer cock-ups like this”—she gestured at Canin Mise’s blade—“we can hire some back in the autumn.”
“Ma’am, all respect, but the guards will need to eat before autumn. I try to bring them back, they’ll have other work. I’ve run a company. It costs less to pay a few men you don’t need than to need a few you haven’t got.”
“You haven’t run a bank,” Pyk said. “I’ll want the names of the ones you’re losing by tonight. Can you handle that, or do you need help?”
Marcus leaned forward, his hand resting on the pommel of his sword. He was tired and hungry and the anger that boiled up in him felt liberating. Like anything that felt good, he distrusted it. He looked over at Yardem, and the Tralgu’s face was perfectly bland. Pyk might have asked him whether it was raining outside.
“I can handle it,” Marcus said.
He nodded, turned, and stepped back out into the street. In the east, the sun burned at the top of the houses. The rainclouds had broken like a fallen army, and steam was rising from the stone streets. Marcus stretched his arms and his neck, only realizing as he did that they were the same movements he made before a fight.
Marcus took a deep breath.
“I believe that woman is trying to upset me,” he said.
“How’s she doing with that, sir?”
“Fairly good job of it. So. The day you throw me in a ditch and take control of the company?”
“Still not today. Breakfast and sleep, sir? Or would you rather go about this hungry and tired.”
Marcus walked west without answering. A pack of city dogs trotted at his heels partway down the street, then veered off, seeking out some urban prey only they could smell. Porte Oliva was awake now. Sellers on their way to market, queensmen on their morning rounds. A Timzinae boy walked by with a black wooden yoke across his shoulders and two huge buckets of piss swinging at his sides, hauling the pots from taproom alleys to the launderer’s yard where he’d sell it for bleach. Marcus stepped aside to let him pass.
Marcus stopped at a small house with a red door where a Firstblood girl, dark skin barely lighter than the Timzinae’s scales, sold spiced chicken with barley paste wrapped in wide leaves. He leaned against the wall, Yardem at his side. When he was finished with the meal, he licked his fingers and spoke.
“This fight you worried Cithrin may start with the holding company?”
“I think it’s already started. And I don’t think she threw the first punch.”
“Was coming to that myself, sir,” Yardem said. And a moment later, “Are you still going to talk to her?”
“About being patient and mature and waiting for the situation to change of its own accord?”
Geder Palliako, Baron of Ebbingbaugh and Protector of the Prince
The nature of history itself defies us. To know with certainty what the last Dragon Emperor thought or planned or schemed would require not only an understanding of the draconic mind lost to humanity (if indeed it were ever available), but also a comprehension of the particular form of madness which took him in the violent days that ended his reign. Certain facts are known: that Morade’s clutch-mates contested his selection to the throne, that the battle between them raged for three human generations, that their end marked the opening of the ages of humanity. But these are generalities. Vagaries.
As we reach for greater precision, certainty recedes. For centuries it was understood that the Dry Wastes east of the Cenner range had been empty since Seriskat, the first Dragon Emperor, battled his semi-bestial fathers there and founded civilization itself. It was only questioned when the chemist Fulsin Sarranis, made suspicious by the metallic content of certain inks in the ancient Book of Feathers, proved that the documents were forgeries written not by the secretary of Drakkis Stormcrow, but by a scribe of the court of Sammer a thousand years after the death of Morade. Expeditions into the Dry Wastes since that time have confirmed the existence of the Dead Towns, Timzinae agricultural centers that suggest a full and active farm culture. As the Timzinae were not brought into being before the last great war, it must be assumed that these towns were built after the rise of humanity, and that the Dry Wastes result from another more recent calamity.
The documentation of these hoaxes of history has been the work of my life. From the time I first set out for the great universities of Samin and Urgoloth, I knew that my destiny was to chronicle the follies of my fellow historians and define the limits of historical knowledge. I began my quest at the age of seven, when as a follower of the poet Merimis Cassian Clayg, I uncovered a misattribution in the notations of his rival poet, the repulsive half-lizard known only by the name of his philosophy, Amidism.
Geder closed the book, pressing his eyes with finger and thumb. The pages were soft rag, thick and limp. The binding was cracked leather. When the book had been presented to him, a gift for his twenty-third naming day, he’d had high hopes for it. Ever since he’d found the temple of the spider goddess and heard of the age of the goddess that reached back even before the dragons, he’d been looking for some evidence of it. A history of frauds and lies seemed like an excellent prospect for finding some sign of it, even if it was only a suggestion.
Instead, the book was a tissue of increasingly improbable discoveries by the almost supernaturally clever author, leading to the discovery of more and more supposedly earth-shattering revelations, and more than once confessions of sexual misconduct more boastful than repentant. Every ten or twenty pages, the nameless author felt moved to restate his thesis, often using the same phrases. And each time the apparent sincerity of the book began to persuade Geder, some new improbability would come to throw him back out. A half-lizard named Amidism?
With the clarity of disappointment, Geder saw that he’d expected a parallel between the writer of the essay and Basrahip, high priest of the spider goddess. Both, after all, promised to tell of a secret history otherwise unknown to mankind. But where Basrahip had the power of the Sinir Kushku, Righteous Servant, the goddess of spiders, this other person had self-aggrandizing stories. If only Basrahip could judge the truth of written words as clearly as living voices…
Geder looked up, half annoyed by the interruption and half pleased by it. His house master was a Firstblood man with a long white beard and bushy white eyebrows that reminded Geder of drawings of Uncle Snow from a children’s book he’d had as a youth.
“You have a caller, my lord.”
Geder stood up from his desk. His personal study was a disaster of papers, scrolls, notebooks, and wax tablets. He looked around with dismay. He couldn’t have anyone see this.
“All right,” Geder said. “Put him… put him in the garden?”
“I have put her in the north drawing room.”
Geder nodded, more than half to himself.
“North drawing room,” he said. “Which one’s that?”
“I’ll take you there, my lord.”
The mansion and grounds of his estate were still new to him. A year before, he’d been the heir to the Viscount of Rivenhalm. Now, after Basrahip had helped him expose the treason of Feldin Maas, he was not only Baron Ebbingbaugh but Protector of Prince Aster. The boy who would one day be king of Antea was his ward. It was an honor he’d never dreamed of in a life now full of things that had once seemed beyond his grasp.
He’d wintered in Ebbingbaugh when he wasn’t chasing around after the wandering feast of the King’s Hunt. Returning to the mansion in Camnipol had been strange as a dream. Here was the storage room where he’d watched Feldin Maas, the previous Baron Ebbingbaugh, slaughter his own wife. Here were the garden paths he’d fled through in the night, the letters proving Maas’s guilt pressed to his chest. Everything about the place screamed danger. But it was his by right now.
The north drawing room was the one he’d mentally labeled “the sitting room by the courtyard.” And the guest he’d expected wasn’t the one waiting for him.
He’d seen the girl in court the year before, but he’d seen more or less everyone in court. Her skin was the soft brown of coffee and milk, her hair spilling softly around her long, high-cheeked face. She wore a dress of startling green under a black leather cloak cut slightly too large, a fashion Geder himself had unintentionally begun. Her chaperone was a looming Tralgu woman in an almost comically frilly dress who stood in the corner.
“Ah, oh,” Geder said.
“Lord Protector Geder Palliako,” his house master intoned. “Her Ladyship Sanna Daskellin, third daughter of Lord Canl Daskellin.”
“I hope I haven’t come at a bad time,” the girl said, gliding across the room toward him, her hand out for him to accept. He accepted it.
“No,” he said, nodding. “No, this is fine.”
Her smile was fast and bright.
“My father is hosting the opening of the season, and I wanted to bring the invitation to you especially. You don’t think I’m too forward, do you?”
“No,” Geder said. “No, not at all. No. I’m delighted you could stop by.”
She squeezed his fingers gently and he realized he was still holding her hand. He let it drop.
“We’ve only just returned to Camnipol,” she said. “How did you find your new holdings?”
Geder crossed his arms, trying to affect an ease he didn’t feel.
“With a map and a guide for the most part,” he said. “Maas never invited me out. We didn’t travel in the same circles. I spent most of the winter just trying to find out where he’d put everything.”
She laughed and sat on a red silk divan. It occurred to Geder that she wasn’t leaving. The combination of unease and excitement was slightly nauseating. He was talking to a woman in his own house with her chaperone present. There was no transgression against etiquette or propriety, but his blood raced through his veins a little faster all the same. Geder licked his lips nervously.
“So what are his plans for the season’s opening. The usual feast, I assume.”
“A fireshow,” Sanna Daskellin said. “He’s found this marvelous cunning man from Borja who can build structures to channel flame and make it burn in all different sorts of colors. I’ve seen him practicing.” She leaned toward him, a small shift of weight that indicated a shared secret. “It’s beautiful, but it smells of sulfur.”
Geder laughed. Behind the girl, the Tralgu chaperone remained impassive as a guard at a counting house. Geder moved toward a leather chair, but the girl slid to one side of her divan and tapped gently against the abandoned half, inviting him. Geder hesitated, then sat at her side, careful not to touch her. Her smile was made of sun and shadows, and it left Geder feeling both uncomfortably aroused and subtly mocked.
“Isn’t it awkward sharing a courtyard with Curtin Issandrian?” she asked.
“Not particularly,” Geder said. “Of course, he hasn’t even returned yet. I suppose it could be once he’s back. He might be a bit unpleasant to be near. Could be some conflict.”
“I wouldn’t think so,” Sanna said. “Issandrian may be ignorant enough to keep company with traitors, but he knows a lion when it looks at him.”
“Well, I wouldn’t know about that,” Geder said. Sanna’s expression invited him to smile along, and he found it very difficult not to. “I mean… I suppose he would.” He made a claw of his fingers and scratched at the air. “Grrr,” he said.
Sanna’s laughter brought her a degree nearer to him. She smelled of rosewater and musk. When her fingers brushed his arm, Geder’s throat felt oddly thick.
“Oh, I’m terribly thirsty. Aren’t you?” she asked.
“I am,” Geder said almost before he understood the question.
“Ma’am?” the Tralgu woman asked.
“Could you go fetch us some water?”
“Of course, ma’am.”
But she’s your chaperone, Geder thought, then bit back before he could say it. He was going to be alone with a woman. A woman of high blood was clearly arranging things so that she could spend a few minutes alone in his house with him. He felt the first insistent stirrings of an erection and ground his lip hard between his teeth to check it. The Tralgu woman moved for the door, as calm and stately as a ship in the ocean. Geder was torn between the impulse to let her leave and the one to call her back.
The issue was taken out of his hands.
“My lord,” the master of house said, appearing at the door just before the Tralgu reached it. “I am sorry to interrupt. Sir Darin Ashford has arrived and requests a moment of your time.”
“Ashford?” Sanna asked. The surprise in her voice made her sound like a different woman, and a more serious one. She looked at Geder with less coquetry and greater respect. “I didn’t know you were entertaining the ambassador.”
“Favor,” Geder said. Words seemed difficult to come by. “For a friend.”
The perfect skin went smooth. Geder had the sense—possibly accurate or possibly imagined—that some complex calculation was happening behind her deep black eyes.
“Well,” she said. “I can’t keep you from affairs of state. But say again that you’ll come to Father’s party?”
“I will,” Geder said, rising to his feet as she did. “I promise. I’ll be there.”
“I have witnesses,” Sanna said with a laugh and gestured to the servants. She gave her hand to him again, and Geder kissed it gently.
“Let me see you out,” he said.
“Why thank you, Baron Ebbingbaugh,” she said, offering her arm.
They walked together from the back of the mansion to the wide stone stairs that led down to her carriage, an old-fashioned design drawn by horses instead of slaves. Geder gave her up to the care of the footmen with a bone-deep regret and also relief. Sanna stepped up and let herself be seated behind a cascade of lace. The smell of rose and musk returned to him, but it was only an illusion or a particularly visceral memory. The horses clattered out to the courtyard. He looked past them to Curtin Issandrian’s empty mansion and a sense of unease trickled down his spine.
“You play a dangerous game, my lord,” an unfamiliar voice behind him said.
The man was a Firstblood with pale brown hair and an open, guileless expression. He wore riding leathers and a wool cloak entirely covered in patterned embroidery that seemed understated until Geder looked at it closely, and then seemed like a boast. Geder didn’t need to be told who he was. Sir Darin Ashford was his own introduction.
“My Lord Ambassador,” Geder said.
Ashford nodded, but his gaze was set farther out. To the courtyard.
“Lord Daskellin’s girl, isn’t she? Beautiful woman. I remember when she first entered society. She was all knees and elbows back then. Amazing the difference three years will make.”
“She was here to deliver her father’s invitation,” Geder said, defensive without knowing precisely what he was defending against.
“I’m sure she was, and she won’t be the last. A baron without a baroness is a rare and precious thing, and protector of the prince carries as much prestige as a wardenship. Maybe more. You’ll have to step clever or you’ll find yourself married before you know who you’re married to.” Ashford’s smile was charming. “Is the prince here, by the way?”
“He’s not,” Geder said. “I thought it was poor form to have him too close to hand when you were here.”
Something like chagrin passed over the ambassador’s face.
“Well, that doesn’t bode well for me. It’s hard to ask for your help when you already think I’m an assassin.”
“I didn’t say that,” Geder said.
“No, you acted on it,” Ashford said. “And that, Lord Protector, very much matches your reputation. Should we retire inside?”
Geder didn’t take him back to the same room. Having the voice and face of Asterilhold in the same room where Sanna Daskellin had been felt like dirtying something Geder didn’t want soiled. Instead, they went to the private study where Feldin Maas had killed his wife Phelia and all his elaborate, clandestine plans to join Antea and Asterilhold with her. The significance was lost on Ashford, but Geder knew.
Geder sat on a wide-set chair, leaving an upholstered bench for Ashford. A servant boy brought in a carafe of watered wine and two glasses, poured one into the others, and retreated without speaking or being spoken to. Ashford sipped the wine first.
“Thank you for seeing me, Lord Palliako,” he said. “I’d have understood if you’d refused me.”
“Jorey Kalliam spoke for you.”
“Yes. I’d heard you two were friends. Served in Vanai under Alan Klin, didn’t you?”
“We did,” Geder said.
“Klin, Issandrian, Maas. The triad, and Feldin Maas the only one who didn’t get thrown out of Camnipol that summer. King Simeon sent Dawson Kalliam away instead.”
Ashford looked pained and sat forward, the glass of wine cradled between his fingertips.
“King Simeon is a good man,” Ashford said. “No one doubts that. King Lechan is too. But no king can be better than his advisors. If he’d known then what he does now, Dawson Kalliam wouldn’t have been exiled and Feldin Maas wouldn’t have been let stay. Simeon needs good men to guide him. Men like you and Kalliam.”
Geder crossed his arms.
“Go on,” he said.
“His son was threatened. Go to any man, peasant or priest or high noble, hold a knife to his child’s throat, and he’ll kill you to keep his own safe. It’s nature. You saved the prince, and Simeon saw justice done when he finished Maas. But it has to stop now. Give Lechan a season—a year—to root out what parts of the conspiracy were in Asterilhold, and there’ll be justice done there too. Bring swords to the border, and a few men’s follies become a tragedy for thousands. And for no reason.”
Geder chewed absently at his thumbnail. Ashford’s sincerity was persuasive, but something bothered him. He started to speak, then stopped.
“Both our courts had rot in them,” Ashford said. “You’ve cut it out of yours. All I’m asking is the time to do the same.”
“Maas wanted unification,” Geder said. “The plan was to unite the kingdoms.”
“Maas wanted power, and he made up any story he needed to justify it. If Lechan had gotten word of this, he’d have ended it in the same breath.”
“Your king didn’t know?” he asked, annoyed at his own voice for sounding so querulous. The ambassador looked directly into his eyes, his expression was sober. Solemn.
Geder nodded, but he didn’t mean anything by it. It was only a gesture, a thing to fill the silence. If it was true and the king of Asterilhold would have acted against Maas just as much as King Simeon had, then helping to keep peace would be in everyone’s best interests. It would absolutely be the right thing to do. If, on the other hand, the ambassador was only a good actor playing his part on a series of very small stages, taking his side was collaborating against the throne. The good or ill of the kingdom—and more than that, of Aster—rested on Geder’s judgment. He frowned seriously, trying to match gravity with gravity.
The fact was, Geder didn’t know what to think. He felt he might just as well spin a coin.
“I will think on it,” he said carefully.
The long months of winter, Geder’s patronage, and a dozen lesser priests from the temple in the mountains past the Keshet had made the temple grander and more polished. Where the grit and grime of centuries had blacked the walls, the tilework glowed now. Most of the traditional religious images and icons had been taken apart and the original material reused to make different images. Most had the eightfold symmetry of the great red silk banner that fluttered over the main entrance. The air was thick with the scent of the nettle oil that burned in the lamps.
In the center of the sacred space, a half dozen priests stood in a circle, laughing and playing a game that seemed to involve pitching hard, uncooked beans into one another’s opened mouths. A half dozen priests and one prince of the realm. Aster’s pale skin and round features stood out in that company. All the priests shared long faces and wiry hair, like members of the same extended family. Their brown robes looked dusty beside Aster’s bright silks and brocade: a songbird among sparrows.
“Geder!” Aster shouted, and Geder waved. It was good to see the prince laughing. Though Aster hadn’t complained, the winter had been hard for him. Especially the weeks after the end of the King’s Hunt and the return to Camnipol for the opening of the season. This was the first time of any significance that Aster had spent away from his father, and the darkness of the holding at Ebbingbaugh had taken its toll. Geder had done what he could, but he’d never had a brother and few enough friends among his peers. They’d played cards together in the dark nights. It was the nearest thing to comfort he could offer.
Basrahip, the high priest, was in his private room. The huge man sat on a low cushion, his eyes closed in meditation. For a moment it was hard to think why the room seemed bare. It had its bed, its desk, a tall cabinet with carved rosewood and inlays of ivory and jet. The fire grate had unlit logs and tinder ready for the spark. The carpet was a deep red with a pattern of gold that seemed to undulate in the lamp’s light. But it wasn’t littered with books and scrolls. So that was the difference.
When Geder, in the doorway, cleared his throat the big man smiled.
“Prince Geder,” Basrahip said.
“Lord Palliako. I’m Lord Palliako. Or Baron Ebbingbaugh. Prince means something very particular here. It’s not like in the east.”
“Of course, of course,” Basrahip said. “My apologies.”
Geder waved the comment away even though the man’s eyes were still closed. Geder waited, shifting from foot to foot, until it became clear that Basrahip was neither likely to open them nor send Geder away.
“Thank you for keeping Aster for the day. The ambassador’s come and gone.”
“We are always pleased to see the young prince,” Basrahip said.
“Good. Anyway. Thank you.”
“Is there more?”
“What? No, nothing else.”
The priest’s eyes opened, and his dark eyes locked on Geder.
“Fine,” Geder said. He’d tested the arcane powers of the Sinir Kushku often enough. He’d known the lie wouldn’t pass. In a way, he’d been counting on it. “May I come in?”
Basrahip gestured toward the little desk with a broad-palmed hand. Geder sat. He felt a bit like a schoolboy answering to his tutor, except that his tutors hadn’t ever sat cross-legged on the floor.
“Last year?” Geder began. “When we were in court, and you would tell me if someone was lying? That was very useful to me. When the ambassador came, it was a thing where if you had been there and could have told me what he meant, it would have… it would have helped.”
“The power of the Righteous Servant burns through the lies of this fallen world,” Basrahip said, as if he were agreeing.
“I know that the temple is your work, and I don’t want to take you from it… I mean I do, but I don’t.”
“You wish the aid of the goddess,” Basrahip said.
“I do. But I’m not comfortable asking. Do you see how that is?”
Basrahip laughed. It was a rich sound, and filled the air like a thunderstorm. The high priest rose from the floor with the strength and grace of a dancer.
“Prince Geder, you ask for what is already yours. You gave this temple to her. You brought her out of the wild and returned her to the world. For all this you are beloved in her sight.”
“So it wouldn’t be too great a favor to ask?” Geder said, hope blooming in his breast.
“It is already yours. I am your Righteous Servant. I will attend you at any time, or at all times. You need only keep the promise you made to her.”
“Ah,” Geder said. “And which promise is that?”
“In each city that comes beneath the power of your will, grant her a temple. It need not be so great as this. Do this for her, and I will never leave your side.”
The relief was like putting cold water on a burn. Geder smiled.
“I can’t tell you how glad I am to hear that,” he said. “Really. I’m really not cut out for court life.”
The priest laid a huge hand on his shoulder and smiled gently.
“You are, Prince Geder. So long as your Righteous Servant is with you, you are.”
Clara Kalliam, Baroness of Osterling Fells
Winter was a different thing for men. She’d seen it for years. Decades now, and there was a thought. Decades. With autumn came the close of court, the ending of all the season’s intrigues and duels and political wrestling. The great houses folded up their belongings, put cloths over their furniture to keep the dust away, and returned to the lands that supported them. For a month or two, the lords worked their holdings. The tribute of the farmers and potters and tanners accepted in their name and absence were accounted. The magistrates they’d appointed would consult on whatever issues they’d felt the lord should decide. Justice would be dispensed, tours made of the villages and farms, and a plan drawn up for the management of the holding over the next year. And all of it as quickly as possible so that it could all be finished when the King’s Hunt began, and they all rushed off to one holding or another—or, if they were unlucky, prepared their own homes to act as host to king and royal hunters—and ran down boars and deer until first thaw.
There was no time to rest, and Clara didn’t know how they managed it. How her husband managed it.
For her, the short days and long nights were the time of year when she could rest. Recuperate. For weeks before and after Longest Night, Clara slept long and deep. She spent her days sitting before a fire, her fingers busy with their embroidering and her mind at rest. The stillness of winter was her refuge, and the thought of a year without it inspired the same dread as contemplating a night without sleep. She was an older woman now, the grey in her hair no longer sparse enough to bother plucking out. Her daughter was married and with a child of her own. But even when she’d been young, Clara had known that winter was her season away from the world.
And spring was her return to it.
“There have always been religious cults,” she said. “Lady Ternigan was brought up in the Avish mysteries, and it never seemed to do her any particular harm.”
“I’m just concerned that there won’t be any silver left for the real priests,” Lady Casta Kiriellin, Duchess of Lachloren, said. “Your son’s in training for the priesthood, isn’t he, Clara?”
“Vicarian,” Clara agreed. “But he’s always said there are as many ways to worship as there are worshippers. I’m sure if something new comes along, he’s quite prepared to learn those rites as well.”
Lady Joen Mallian, the youngest of the group, leaned forward. Her skin was pale as daisies and showed every drop of blood in her cheeks. There was a vicious rumor that she had a Cinnae grandmother.
“I’ve heard,” she whispered, “that the Avish mysteries make you drink your own piss.”
“The way Lady Ternigan’s tea tastes, I shouldn’t doubt it,” Casta Kiriellin said, and they all laughed. Even Clara. It was uncalled for and cruel, but Issa Ternigan did serve the strangest teas.
The party was seven strong, each of them dressed in new clothes with bright dyes. Clara always thought of these days as a sort of religious rite. The twittering and gossip and bright colors worn as if by mimicking the glory of flowers they might call forth the buds. The gardens belonged to Sara Kop, Dowager Duchess of Anes, who sat at the head of the table in a dress of glowing white lace as pure as the old woman’s hair. She’d been deaf as a stone for years and never spoke, but she smiled often and seemed to take pleasure in the company.
“Clara, dear,” Lady Kiriellin said, “I’ve heard the most unlikely rumor. Someone’s said your youngest is pitching woo at Sabiha Skestinin. That can’t be right, can it?”
Clara took a long sip from her teacup before she answered.
“Jorey has taken a formal introduction,” she said. “I’m meeting the girl this afternoon, though of course that’s all form and etiquette. I’ve known her peripherally since she was just walking. I can’t fathom why we put ourselves through all the fuss of ritual to pretend to meet someone we already know quite well, especially as Dawson’s the one she’ll really need to win over. But tradition is tradition, isn’t it?”
She smiled and lifted her head, then waited. If anyone was going to bring up the girl’s past, this would be the moment. But there were only polite smiles and covert glances. Jorey’s unfortunate connection to the girl hadn’t passed unnoticed, but neither was it a thing of open derision or false concern. It was good to know, and she tucked the information away in the back of her mind, should she need it later. Joen Mallian suddenly squealed and clapped her hands together.
“Did I tell you I’ve seen Curtin Issandrian? Last night, I was at a reception that Lady Klin held. Nothing formal, you understand, just a dinner party for a few people, and he is my cousin, so I was utterly obligated to go. And who should be there, sitting by the roses as if nothing was odd, but Curtin Issandrian? And you’ll hardly believe it. He’s cut his hair short!”
“No!” one of the other women said. “But that was all he had that made him at all attractive.”
“I can’t believe he’s still being seen with Alan Klin,” said another. “You’d think those two would put a bit more air between them after being lumped in with Feldin Maas.”
Clara sat back a degree in her chair, listening, laughing, sharing bits of barely sweetened cake and biting lemon tea. For an hour, they spoke of everything and nothing, the words pouring out of them all in a flood. Even Clara with her love of winter also saw the joy of talking in company after so many weeks alone. This was how the court wove itself into a single tapestry—small gossip and news, speculations and enquiries, fashions and traditions. Her husband and sons would have made no more sense of it than of birdsong, but for Clara it was all as legible as a book.
She took her leave early enough that she could walk back to her own mansion. Camnipol in spring could be a shockingly beautiful place. In her memory, the city was all of black and gold, and so the real stone and ivy always surprised her. Yes, the streets were cobbled dark and soot marked many walls. Yes, there were great burnished archways throughout the city, tributes to the victories of great generals, some of them generations dead. But there was also a common with a double line of burgundy-leaved trees, a Cinnae boy, pale and thin and ghostly, dancing on the street corner for coins while his mother sawed away on an ancient violin. Clara paused for a moment in an open square at the edge of the Division to watch a theater company declaim on their small, sad wagon-mounted stage. The actors playing tragic young lovers were decent enough, but the grandeur of the view behind them kept distracting her.
Excerpted from The King's Blood by Abraham, Daniel Copyright © 2012 by Abraham, Daniel. Excerpted by permission.
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