/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy, / Series: Nighrunner

Cascet of souls

Lynn Flewelling


Lynn Flewelling

Cascet of souls

Casket of Souls is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

A Spectra eBook Edition

Copyright © 2012 by Lynn Flewelling

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Spectra, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

SPECTRA and the portrayal of a boxed “s” are trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Grateful acknowledgment is made to Jennifer Crow for permission to reprint “The Hour of Blue Leaves” by Jennifer Crow, copyright © 2010 by Jennifer Crow. Reprinted by permission.

eISBN: 978-0-345-53023-3

www.ballantinebooks.com

Map by Virginia Norey

Cover art: © Michael Komarck

CHAPTER 1. An Evening Entertainment

SEREGIL hadn’t been sure what to expect-or rather, he hadn’t expected much. This sweltering, run-down little theater in Basket Street used to cater to merchants of middling means with aspirations to culture, but who had neither the purse nor polish for the likes of the Tirari in the Street of Lights across the city. This place had been shuttered last he knew. The proscenium’s faded paint was peeling, its gilt dull, and the footlights flickered in the draft. Only the scrim behind the stage was new, expertly painted to suggest a dark, forbidding forest.

The theater was barely large enough for a hundred people, most of them groundlings in front of the raised stage. It was nearly full, and the smell of overheated bodies was already oppressive. It was unusual for it to be this hot so early in the summer.

“Are you certain this is the right theater?” asked Duke Malthus as he handed his wife Ania, Lady Kylith, and her niece Ysmay into their chairs.

“I was just wondering the same thing myself,” Seregil remarked, settling cautiously into a rickety chair between Alec and Kylith.

“Of course it is!” Kylith chuckled, tapping them both playfully with her fan.

Malthus and Kylith were considerably older than Seregil appeared, but he’d known them both in their youth. Malthus had risen to become one of the queen’s senior exchequers. He had a short cropped beard but wore his grey hair to his

collar-rather daring for a man in his position. Kylith, a former lover, was one of Seregil’s closest friends, and an unimpeachable source of society gossip.

Seregil dabbed the sweat delicately from his upper lip with a lace-trimmed handkerchief and scanned the crowd, acknowledging those he knew-merchants and sea captains mostly-who puffed up among their friends at his notice. Even at this level of society, whom you knew, and whom you were known to know, meant a great deal. Seregil, the infamous Aurenfaie exile, had made his living playing that game in Rhiminee for a good many years now.

He and his party were certainly attracting looks and whispers. Lady Kylith’s elaborately coiffed hair sparkled with jeweled pins as she murmured something to Duke Malthus. As always, she, Ania, and Ysmay were dressed in the height of summer fashion in light silks and jewels; here they looked like swans among ducks. Seregil supposed they all must. No doubt there were a few cutpurses in the audience below, sizing them up for later.

Seregil and Alec cut quite a figure themselves, two handsome, lanky young men-one dark-haired, one fair-dressed in long linen summer coats stitched in gold, fawn breeches, and well-polished boots. Seregil’s long, dark brown hair was caught back with a thin red silk ribbon that matched his coat. Alec’s thick blond braid hung down the back of a coat the same dark blue as his eyes.

Half-blood ya’shels like Alec aged a bit more quickly at first, but he still looked younger than his soon-to-be twenty-one. He had something of the fine ’faie features of his mother’s people, and was likewise beardless, but had his human father’s coloring.

Seregil played the role of a dissolute young exile that was only half true; he wasn’t particularly dissolute, though he played the part well. He and Alec were well known for carousing with the young blades of the nobility and a good many not-so-young, like Kylith and Malthus. But they managed to stay just on the boundary of respectability, and when they happened to stray outside it, Seregil’s distant relation to the royal family made up the difference. Handsome, foppish,

and exotic, the grey-eyed ’faie was known to be somewhat well connected but of little importance.

Their true vocation would have raised more eyebrows than their dissolute ways, if it ever came to light.

“I don’t suppose you’ve heard the latest news from the front?” asked Malthus.

Queen Phoria was still at war with the Plenimarans; the army had left winter quarters two months ago and marched north again to the battlefields of Mycena.

Malthus leaned closer to Seregil and lowered his voice. “The heralds will be announcing it tomorrow, so I suppose there’s no harm in my telling you. The Overlord sued for a parlay. Phoria refused. She’s sworn to drive the enemy all the way back to Benshal and crush them on their own ground.”

Seregil shook his head. “She means to end the endless conflict. Do you think she can do what her mother couldn’t?”

“Prince Korathan seems cautiously optimistic.”

The door opened again, and Lord Nyanis and his much rowdier party spilled in and noisily ascended to the far box. He and his companions had brought several pretty courtesans from the Street of Lights as their companions, and it was evident they’d all had a lot of wine. Among them was brown-haired Myrhichia from Eirual’s brothel, with whom Alec had once spent a night. Seregil was not the jealous type, particularly since he’d taken Alec there for that very purpose. She waved to them when her partner for the evening wasn’t looking, and Seregil blew her a kiss. Alec shyly waved back.

Nyanis spotted them and shouted over, “We’re going gambling after this. You must come with us!”

Seregil gave him a noncommittal wave.

“I haven’t been to the theater in weeks. I hope these players are all you claim, my lady,” Alec was saying to Kylith.

“And that we don’t go home with fleas,” Seregil muttered, scratching at a persistent itch in the crook of his left arm.

“Count yourselves lucky to be under a roof, my dears,” Kylith replied. “Until recently, this company was performing in the streets of the Lower City. They’re refugees from Mycena. They barely escaped with their lives when the Plenimaran army overran Nanta this spring.”

Mycena had always been the battleground when Plenimar and Skala went to war. Those who could fled north up the Folcwine, or south to Skala. There were Mycenian enclaves up and down the northeastern shore, and quite an alarming number had found their way to Rhiminee, thinking to make their fortune here. Most were quickly disillusioned. The tenements around the Sea Market and Temple Square were crowded with families eking out a living any way they could, with the unluckiest driven into the abject poverty and degradation of the south Ring-that no-man’s-land between the inner and outer city walls.

This troupe of players seemed to be among the lucky few to advance their fortunes, having attracted the attention of people like Kylith, who’d heard of them from her seamstress. Like Seregil, she never allowed rank to get in the way of anything that might prove amusing.

“What’s the play called?” asked Malthus.

“The Bear King,” Kylith told him. “Have you heard of it, Seregil? I never have.”

“No, but I’m no expert on Mycenian theater. I have heard it can be a bit dull.”

“Not this play, apparently.”

Just then the sound of a drum began backstage, slow and deep as a heartbeat. An imposing, red-haired man with a long, solemn face stepped onto the stage, dressed in what appeared to be a poor approximation of ancient noble garb cobbled together from some ragman’s cart. His eyes, outlined in black, seemed to look to some far-off vista as he raised a hand for silence.

“Long ago, in the time of the black ships, a caul-shrouded babe was born deep in the wilderness of the eastern mountains,” he intoned, his voice deep and resonant. On the stage behind him, a girl in a tattered gown and veil writhed and cried out on the boards, then pulled a painted doll from beneath her skirts, its face covered with a veil.

“There aren’t any eastern mountains in Mycena,” Alec whispered.

“Dramatic license,” Seregil murmured back with a smile.

The narrator continued. “And when the caul was lifted,

eyes like gems of ice did steal the very breath from his mother’s lips before she could give suck.”

The girl expired with a groan. Someone offstage did a credible job mimicking a baby’s crying. Then an older actress draped in a fusty bearskin shuffled out and gathered up the doll, rocking it in her arms.

“A she-bear found the babe and suckled it as her own until a huntsman struck her down.”

An older man with grizzled grey curls leapt onstage with a crude lance and mimed running the bear through. When she expired, the man peeled the skin off her and wrapped the doll in the edge of it.

“The huntsman wrapped the child in the pelt of the she-bear that had nursed him and took him back to his wife,” the narrator went on. There was no chorus, but he already had the crowd spellbound.

Despite the raggedness of his costume, the tall narrator commanded the stage as well as any player Seregil had seen at the Tirari this season.

The hunter walked around the edge of the stage, while the woman who’d played the bear took her place on the far side in a different veil and held out her arms to the child. Together the couple walked offstage.

“The baby grew to child, and child to youth, known to all as Auron the Bear’s Child.”

The narrator disappeared; apparently this pantomime had only been a prelude. Now the actors took over, and they were indeed very good-far too good for a place like this.

The young Auron soon revealed an unfortunate power to kill his playfellows with an angry look. At the end of the first act, ill-starred Auron reached manhood, in the form of a strikingly handsome man with wavy auburn hair.

“Well, well, who do we have here?” Kylith murmured, leaning forward for a better look at the newcomer. Her tastes ran to actors as well as officers and nobles.

Over the course of the next two acts, Auron’s fortunes rose to great heights due to his dark powers and prowess with his sword. He ended up as a tyrant king, but in the end he slew his beloved and very beautiful wife and children in a fit of

jealousy, turning the fatal gaze on them, then ended his own life by looking at his own image in the polished surface of a shield belonging to a younger hero-the actor who’d played the young Auron-who’d come to avenge them. Somehow, even with their ragged costumes and overlapping roles, the cast managed to maintain a veracity that impressed Seregil, who knew a thing or two about working in costume.

When it was over, people were weeping and applauding and tossing handkerchiefs and coins to the actors as they assembled to take their bows.

“I must say, I’m impressed!” said Malthus.

“Come along,” Kylith said, standing and smoothing her skirts. “I want to speak with the players before that fool Nyanis gets to them.”

The crowd parted for them as Kylith led the way down to the stage. Two little boys who’d played Auron’s sons were still picking up the favors thrown by the crowd.

“Lady Kylith would like to speak with the master of the company,” Duke Malthus told them, distributing a few coins of his own.

One of the boys made them a bobbing bow and ran backstage. A moment later the entire cast came back and bowed to them again. There were ten in all: the handsome auburn-haired lead actor, the grey-haired man and older woman, the lovely black-haired woman who’d played Auron’s wife, the tall narrator, a teenage boy and girl who appeared to be twins, and three young children-two boys and a red-haired little girl-who rode on the narrator’s shoulder.

Up close, their costumes looked even more threadbare, their stage paint little more than chalk and charcoal. Still, to Seregil’s practiced eye, they’d made skillful use of what they had.

Kylith smiled up at the tall man. “My compliments to you and your fine company.”

But it was the man who’d played Auron who bowed with an elegant gesture. His eyes were the same dark blue as Alec’s. “You are most kind, gracious lady. Master Atre, lately of Nanta, at your service. May I present the company?”

“Please do!”

“This tall fellow is Brader, and this is Merina, his wife.” The black-haired beauty who’d played Auron’s wife curtsied to them.

“My daughter Ela,” Brader told them, patting the little girl on the leg. “And those two rascals are ours, as well: Kalin and Van.” The two youngest boys who’d played Auron’s sons made them expert bows, with an actor’s poise even at their ages. They had their mother’s dark hair and eyes.

“And this is Master Zell and his wife, Mistress Leea.” The old hunter and his wife bowed. “They are Merina’s parents and actors of great renown in Mycena. Our twins complete our little company: Teibo and Tanni.” The boy had played both young Auron and the young hero who’d killed Atre at the end of the play. Tanni had been Auron’s mother. Both were lithe and shared the same high cheekbones and brown hair and eyes.

Seregil made the introductions for his friends.

Atre’s eyes widened. “We are honored to have such nobles attend our humble performance! I must apologize for our lowly state and poor showing.”

“You’re far too modest,” said Seregil. Behind the man’s fawning smile he sensed a sharp mind already wondering how to best capitalize on this bit of luck.

“It pains me to see great talent in such poor estate.” Taking out her silk purse, Kylith gave it to the actor unopened and Seregil heard the mellow clink of gold. She gave Merina a ring from her finger and a kiss, then turned to the rest of her friends. “Come along now, talent must be rewarded! You, too, Nyanis.” She waved over the other lord and his guests.

Seregil and the others could hardly refuse, and Brader and his wife had to help collect the money-quite a bit of it gold.

“And how did you fare in Nanta, Master Atre?” she asked. “I suppose you had your own theater?”

“We did, my lady, until the soldiers burned it to the ground. As you can see, we lost everything. Four of our players were killed. The rest of us barely escaped.”

“I hope our contributions tonight help you. I look forward to seeing more of your performances.”

Atre took her proffered hand and kissed it reverently. “You will always have a place of honor in our theater, my lady.”

“That was a more expensive evening than I’d anticipated,” Seregil murmured, pretending to be piqued as they took their leave of Malthus and his wife, and followed Kylith and Ysmay out to find their carriage. “I think, between us, we gave him enough to buy the wretched place.”

“You can certainly afford it,” Kylith said with a laugh. “And admit it, you were transfixed.”

“They were very good,” said Alec.

Seregil glanced around as they waited for the carriage to make its way to them through the departing crowd. There wasn’t a link boy in sight, what street lanterns there were in this part of town were only sporadically lit, and the hazy gold half-moon didn’t cast much light. Emboldened, a knot of ne’er-do-wells lurked on a nearby dark corner like wolves waiting to pick off stragglers from the herd. Their numbers had increased over the summer-thieves, footpads, even gate runners emerging from their sewer kingdoms at night-and they were becoming more brazen. It was getting to be an annoyance.

The carriage rumbled up at last. The page followed behind, leading Cynril and Windrunner. The footman jumped down and held the carriage door open for his mistresses. Kylith held out her hand to Alec and Seregil.

“Are you sure you two won’t join us at Duke Laneus’s for supper? He’ll be so disappointed. He’s been wanting to meet the handsome young men I talk so much about.”

“Please give him our regrets,” Seregil replied, kissing her cheek. “We have a long journey tomorrow.”

“But we’ll see you all at my party in a few weeks, won’t we?” asked Alec, kissing her good-bye.

“I hope before that!” she exclaimed. “Perhaps you could ask Atre and his players to be part of the entertainment.”

Seregil laughed. “So you’re already their patron?”

She settled back on the velvet seat and winked at him. “I know talent when I see it. Perhaps not all of them, but that fellow Atre, at least, could go far in this city.”

Mounting their horses, he and Alec rode beside the carriage down the Street of the Sheaf, the broad thoroughfare that bisected the city, and bade her and her party good night at Merchant Circle. The carriage continued on into the Noble Quarter while Seregil and Alec made their way toward the Oreska House.

There were throngs of people out strolling and taking the night air. Summer had come early to Rhiminee. Now, in mid-Gorathin, it was so humid and hot by day that even in the Upper City the air pressed down like a great, unrelenting hand. The market squares were all but deserted at midday except for a few stray dogs and beggars stretched panting in the shade of the stalls. Though not only because of the heat; with the war still dragging on, many goods were scarce or had disappeared altogether. There had been riots over food more than once this year, and the poor were reduced to stealing when they could no longer afford even a loaf of stale bread.

Many nobles had already fled to summer villas by the sea or in the mountains. Those unlucky enough to have neither a country home nor an invitation to one languished abed or at the finer public baths by day, and in the Street of Lights by night; the elegant brothels, theaters, and gaming houses there were seldom short of custom once the night cooled off.

In the poorer quarters of the Upper and Lower city there were no such luxuries. Bodies were found in the streets among the squalid tenements every morning, tossed out for the Scavenger Guild to deal with.

The Oreska House was a palace of sorts, and home to most of the wizards in Skala. It had been built in the heart of the Noble Quarter, symbolizing the unity between the wizards and the Crown. Its four tall white towers glimmered in the moonlight above the high walls that surrounded it. Inside, a huge park surrounded the House, with grassy lawns, groves, and gardens filled with plants useful to the wizards. It was always spring or summer there. Seregil drew in a deep breath of the cool, fragrant air as they followed the tree-lined way

toward the grand entrance. The Oreska House had been his home once.

The glass domes that capped the soaring white palace and its towers sparkled in the starlight. Cherry and lime trees were in bloom today, scenting the air and casting drifting petals on the breeze that caught in their hair and their horses’ manes. To his right, a young woman hovered cross-legged above a rosebush, her face serene as her fingers wove on the air glowing patterns of light that emitted sweet soft music. Farther on he caught sight of a wizard and his young protege working on some outdoor spell by the glow of a lantern. The sight struck a sore spot, a very old one, bringing with it memories of fires, hysterical horses, insects pouring in under the doors-Seregil’s inexplicable magical impediment had saved his life more than once, and set his feet on the nightrunner path-but even with these failures, his days as Nysander’s apprentice had been some of the best of his life. He’d thought they’d remain the best, until he met Alec.

Servants in red tabards bowed deeply to them and took their horses. Climbing the wide marble stairs, they entered the echoing atrium and strode across the huge dragon mosaic floor. Climbing five flights of stairs, they walked down the corridor to Thero’s tower and knocked. One didn’t just lift the latch at a wizard’s rooms, even if he was a friend.

There was a pause, then a loud popping sound and a muttered curse. A moment later the door flew open and Thero glared out at them, his thin, aesthetic face framed by tendrils of curling black hair that had come loose from the leather thong tying the rest of it back. He smelled of smoke and looked characteristically annoyed. “What? Oh, it’s you. Did you find it?”

“Of course.” Alec took out a packet of papers and waved it at him as they followed him inside to his immaculate workshop, which at the moment was filled with a haze of coiling smoke.

“I hope it wasn’t anything too serious,” said Seregil, taking a chair by one of the long worktables. Apart from the smoke, everything else-thousands of books and scrolls on their shelves, various pieces of magical and astronomical

equipment-were all in their places. Nothing like the comfortable chaos of Nysander’s day.

“At least I still have all ten fingers.” Thero sat down by a shattered crucible and opened the packet. “Just as I thought. Did you have any trouble?”

“No, the house was laid out as you said.”

“Of course. And how was the play?”

Alec hitched himself up on the table next to Seregil. “Quite good, actually. You should come with us next time.”

“I’m far too busy.”

“We’ve hardly seen you in weeks,” Seregil noted. “What have you been up to in this heat?”

“Among other things, I’ve been trying to make sense of this.” Thero picked up the oo’lu horn leaning against the table, one of the two they’d brought him from their battle with the Retha’noi. Nearly five feet long, it was decorated with a black mark in the shape of a hand and bands of designs cut in with a hot knife. One end was fitted with a ring of beeswax that acted as a mouthpiece. Placing his lips inside it, Thero puffed out his cheeks and blew a few throbbing, buzzing notes.

“You’re getting the hang of it,” said Alec. “But isn’t it dangerous, using it without knowing what the sounds can do?”

“I thought of that, of course, and sealed myself in the casting room for the first few tries. So far, all I’ve managed to do is annoy the servants. As far as I can tell, the magic must come from the witch who plays it. The oo’lu only channels it. I donated the other one to the Oreska museum.”

“How are you coming along with the alchemist’s books?”

“Ah, yes. Those. If you’d been able to get me more than half of each volume, I’d be doing better. Some of the details of the making of rhekaros were lost, but there are a number of other interesting concoctions. Alchemy is really quite fascinating- Oh, sorry, Alec.”

“It’s all right, Thero. I’m past it.”

The wizard shot Seregil a quick, questioning look, but he just shook his head slightly.

Changing the subject, Thero asked, “Did you pick up any interesting gossip while you were there?” The young wizard

was the head of the secret spy organization known as the Watchers, which included Seregil, Alec, Seregil’s friend Micum Cavish, and now Micum’s oldest daughter, Beka, a captain in the Queen’s Horse Guard. It was a responsibility passed down from mentor to chosen pupil for centuries.

“It seems Queen Phoria turned down a parlay for peace and means to drive the Plenimarans all the way home,” Seregil replied.

Thero raised an eyebrow at that. “Doesn’t she know what a tinderbox Rhiminee is becoming, with all the shortages and death? This news won’t set well with the populace.”

“No, it won’t. But Phoria’s always been stubborn.”

“And eager to outdo her mother’s accomplishments,” Thero mused. “So, what are you two up to now?”

“We’re off to visit Duke Reltheus’s summer villa south of Cirna,” Alec replied.

“And by ‘visit’ I assume you mean burgle? Or do you know the man socially?”

Seregil chuckled. “Hardly. He moves in far more august circles than we do. Do you know him?”

“Slightly,” Thero replied. “Some fifty years old, a very wealthy, influential man with the huge summer estate you’re going to, a hunting lodge in the mountains, and a villa in Silvermoon Street. He was a favorite of Queen Idrilain. His great-aunt on his father’s side married one of the lesser sons of Idrilain’s grandmother, so there’s a tenuous blood connection. He was a friend of the old queen, and rumored to have been one of Phoria’s suitors, years back.”

Alec raised an eyebrow. “I thought you didn’t know him.”

“He hosted half the court last winter for a hunt at his lodge, and several of us wizards were brought along, as well.”

“At Klia’s request?” asked Seregil with a knowing grin.

Thero colored a little but didn’t rise to the bait. Seregil and Alec were probably the only people in Rhiminee who knew that Thero had fallen in love with Princess Klia while he’d been her personal wizard during their time in Aurenen. It was a hopeless match, to be sure, but Thero had gone so far as to offer to go with her to war as her field wizard. Queen Phoria had instead assigned her half sister one of her own

choosing. Seregil suspected that Thero’s feelings were reciprocated, but the wizard wasn’t telling.

“It was a grand affair,” Thero went on. “The queen was there, with Korathan and Princess Elani.”

“And Klia.”

“Yes, and Princess Klia!” Thero snapped as his ears went red. “So, this job of yours?”

Seregil relented. “This Reltheus is a bit of a rascal. There are certain letters a former mistress wants back before her wedding day that the duke is loath to return. Naturally, the unfortunate lady called on the Rhiminee Cat.”

This summer had been a fine time to reestablish the Cat’s reputation. All it took was a word in the right ear-and gold and a message in the right hand-to engage the services of the shady, faceless nightrunner for hire. For years, the nobles of Rhiminee had employed the Cat to carry out their intrigues, thefts, and deliveries, little realizing that their money was lining the pockets of one of their own-now two of their own, since Alec’s arrival five years earlier. Seregil even let it be known that he’d used the Cat’s services, just for show. It wasn’t that he needed the money; it was the zest of the risk, and Alec craved it as much as he did.

“We have it on good authority that the duke will be away from his villa at Cirna,” Alec told him. “His young wife is here in the city, in the final weeks of her first pregnancy.”

“He’s not a man you want to be on the wrong side of,” Thero warned. “Do be careful.”

“Aren’t we always?” asked Seregil.

Thero raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Not in the slightest.”

CHAPTER 2. Light Work

HOLDING the lightstone’s slim wooden handle between his teeth, Seregil wiped at the drop of sweat rolling slowly down his nose and glanced over one of the many letters they’d found in the duke’s private study, including a bundle hidden in a drawer with a false bottom. Archduchess Alaya, Princess Elani’s chief lady-in-waiting, was apparently a friend of the duke’s and not above sharing some interesting court gossip. According to the latest missive the vicegerent-the queen’s twin brother, Korathan-had taken another lover, young Lord Byris. A long time ago, Seregil had briefly held that honor. Korathan had always liked his bedmates young. In another, she spoke of a man named Danos, saying that the princess royal seemed to regard him warmly and looked forward to his letters.

Across the large study, Alec was a dark silhouette against the glow of his stone as he searched the racks of scrolls and books that filled two walls. According to the duke’s kitchen maid, whom Alec had charmed at the fish stall in Cirna Market earlier that day, their information had been correct: the duke was away visiting friends at a nearby estate, and was not expected back for several days.

It was well past midnight, but still so muggy that everything-the parchments, the leather blotter, Seregil’s thin linen shirt-felt uncomfortably moist. He’d pulled his hair back for the job, but it hung heavy against the back of his neck, making him feel that much hotter as he riffled through the rest of the letters. No breeze stirred the thick

velvet drapes that framed the balcony door. The sawing of crickets was so loud it drowned out the sound of the surf against the cliffs below. It was starting to give him a headache. But he did manage to find one more letter of interest among those that had not been hidden. It was from Count Selin, who happened to be a friend of Alec’s. In the brief note, Selin thanked the duke for a night of gambling and a good supper and invited Reltheus to dine with him and his widowed mother the following week.

Alec was on the floor now, lifting the edges of the round wool carpet the desk stood upon. After a moment he let out a low whistle.

“Find something?” Seregil whispered.

“Hidey-hole, with a box.”

“Traps?”

“No.”

Seregil heard him working a pick in a lock, then the rustle of papers. Alec reached up and handed Seregil a packet of letters tied up with dark ribbon. Seregil pulled one out and opened it. Finally, what they’d come for. He quickly checked a few more in the bundle, just to be certain. Judging by what he read, the secret affair had been passionate; Marquise Lania was a very descriptive correspondent and had obviously been thoroughly infatuated with the much older duke. It hadn’t taken much effort to learn that a land deal hung in the balance between Lania’s soon-to-be husband, Marquis Deciel, and another noble. Reltheus wanted the land for himself and meant to use the letters to pressure her into persuading Deciel. It was typical of the endless intrigues and posturing among the Skalan nobility.

Seregil pulled out another letter to check the date, but suddenly Alec grabbed him by the shoulder and propelled him out onto the moonlit balcony. Seregil understood and pressed himself to the wall outside the door, clutching the purloined letters as Alec silently pulled the door shut. An instant later light showed beneath it. Someone was talking, but too low to make out the words. No, there were two voices: a man and a woman. Had the kitchen maid been wrong, or had the duke come home early for some reason? He hoped Alec had

managed to get the secret compartment he’d found covered up again.

Whatever the case, they were trapped. The balcony projected out over a deadly drop to the ocean below. The tide was low and there were rocks jutting up out of the foaming surge. If the tide had been in, Seregil might have chanced it as a last resort, but there would still have been the matter of getting Alec to jump. Picking him up and tossing him had worked in the past, but Seregil didn’t like doing it.

The voices rose and fell inside, punctuated with laughter, then took on a decidedly amorous tone. Alec shook his head, then held up what appeared to be a letter.

What is that? Seregil signed.

Alec handed him the letter. It was dated ten days ago, on the fifth of Gorathin, with the salutation “Your Majesty, Most Esteemed Aunt,” and signed, “Elani, Princess Royal of Skala.” He looked up at Alec and saw his triumphant grin. Seregil grinned back and held up thumb and finger, signing Good!

The letter itself was nothing particularly interesting, just the description of the young heir’s daily life-sword and archery practice, the gift of a new horse from a Marquis Kyrin, lessons with the royal falconer, the death of a favorite dog, mention of a letter from the potential suitor, Danos. The tone was very matter-of-fact, with little trace of girlish excitement. That struck him as rather sad, though not surprising. From what little he’d seen of Phoria’s closely guarded heir, she seemed like a very serious sort of girl.

Never mind that, though. What was Reltheus doing with this? Seregil looked at it again with a critical eye. The handwriting looked more like a man’s than a young girl’s, and someone who was adept at fine writing. That suggested a few possibilities.

There was no sign of a seal, either, so it was either a copy or a forgery, though it was puzzling that anyone would bother to forge such a prosaic letter.

The sounds of lovemaking were building to a crescendo now, full of grunts and incoherent endearments. Seregil

nudged Alec’s shoulder and waggled his eyebrows suggestively. Alec rolled his eyes, shaking with silent laughter.

The lovers came to what sounded like a mutually satisfactory conclusion and tapered off into panting moans and laughter. A happy couple, but who?

After a few moments of silence the light went out and they heard the study door softly open and close. Seregil had barely gained his feet when the door beside him swung open and a burly young man strode out completely naked and apparently quite pleased with himself. He went to the edge of the balcony and leaned on the stone railing, humming a little tune under his breath. He was too young to be the duke, and the duke’s adult sons by his first wife were off at war. Probably a servant taking advantage of his master’s absence for a little fun.

Touching Alec’s wrist, Seregil inclined his head toward the door and silently slipped into the darkened room. Alec followed close behind. The happy lover remained oblivious. There was no choice now but to use the study door. Seregil led the way into the dark corridor and into a bedchamber a few doors down, praying it was unoccupied. It was, and had a disused smell.

They waited there, listening at the door until they heard the happy swain leave the study, then crept back inside. Alec kept watch while Seregil sat down at the desk to copy Princess Elani’s letter, using the duke’s fine parchment and expensive ink. With that done and the documents returned to their hiding places, they hurried down the steep servants’ stair at the end of the corridor, boots whispering on the worn wooden risers.

There were watchmen at the front door and other main gates, but not in the well yard. In a spinning room they squeezed out through a tiny window that a larger man couldn’t have managed and dropped twice their height to the muddy ground below. After that it was a simple matter to scramble over the wall behind the well and make their way along a ditch to the highroad. They kept watch over their shoulders as they went, prepared for an outcry, but the villa

was dark behind its ornate stone wall, the night still except for the raucous din of the crickets.

Satisfied that they had gotten away clean, Seregil gave Alec’s braid a playful tug. “I’m glad you heard the lovers coming our way. It would have been a shame to spoil their evening.”

“And ours. Home?”

Seregil patted his shirt where he’d hidden the letters. “Home.”

They took passage on the Nimbus, a small coastal trader, and reached Rhiminee just six days from when they’d left. The evening sun cast the ship’s rushing shadow ahead of them, flecking the surface of the busy harbor with touches of gilt and turning the towering cliffs above the Lower City pink. Joined by the crooked, climbing line of the walled Harbor Way, the Upper City, with its palaces and great markets, crowned the bluffs while the Lower City spread out around the head of the broad bay below-a jumble of warehouses, customhouses, tenements, guild houses, and countless taverns and cheap brothels catering to sailors and traders.

Alec leaned on the rail beside Seregil, watching the city draw closer. They didn’t cut much of a figure today in their rough, well-worn traveling clothes-long linen shirts, stained leather breeches, and salt-stained shoes, with long knives hanging from their belts and hair hidden under their faded straw wayfarer’s hats.

The stench of the Lower City rolled out to meet them on a hot land breeze as soon as they passed the inner moles. Alec scratched absently under one shoulder blade as the sailors furled the sails and the ship glided up to the stone quay. Even without their coats, they were soaked through down the backs of their shirts and under the arms. Thanks to the roles they’d had to play to get into Reltheus’s house, it had been nearly a week since they’d had a decent wash.

“I’d give just about anything to be in the House baths right now,” Alec murmured.

Seregil sniffed himself and grimaced. “We’ll need a wash first before they’ll let us in.”

As soon as the ship docked, they shouldered their packs and slipped over the rail, anxious to lose themselves in the crowd. Here they might be recognized, if someone got a good look at their faces.

The reek of spoiled fish and sour milk hung on the air as they hurried into the maze of stalls and booths in the harbor market.

The beggars were thick as flies here now, many of them proud souls forced to it by rising prices caused by the interminable war. As they passed a bread stall a young boy dodged out with a loaf under his arm, the baker’s boys in hot pursuit. They soon caught the lad and had him down on the ground, kicking him as he cried out for mercy.

It only took a moment for an angry mob to form, coming to the boy’s aid. As Seregil and Alec watched, the baker and his boys were knocked down and beaten, and the stall set on fire.

Seregil shook his head sadly as they made their way into the relative safety of the twisting streets of the slum beyond. “It’s a wonder the city hasn’t burned down already.”

Here the tall tenements leaned against one another like drunken friends, with washing drying over the windowsills and women shouting to their children playing in the filthy street below to come home as it grew dark. The Scavenger crews didn’t patrol this sort of neighborhood very often. Garbage lay stinking in the gutters.

Children ran up to them, begging coins, and Alec tossed them a handful of pennies. They left the children scrambling for the coins and rounded a corner into a narrower lane where big black rats were making a meal of a dead dog. It was growing dark, but Alec caught sight of what looked like a child’s body slumped against a rickety fence across the street. A few rats were crawling over it, as well.

“Hold on.” He went to the boy and bent over him for a closer look. The child was an emaciated little thing. His eyes were open and Alec thought he was dead until he saw the boy’s chest rise and fall. Alec patted his cheek lightly. “Hey boy, what’s wrong?”

But apart from breathing, the child showed no more life

than a doll. His eyes were dry and dull, and there were specks of dirt caught in the corners of his lids.

Alec looked around at the blank walls and empty windows. “Someone left him here to die.” Life was cheap in this part of the city, especially the lives of children.

Seregil nodded. “There’s a Dalnan temple a few streets over. They’ll care for him there.”

Alec passed his pack to Seregil and gathered the boy in his arms, then almost wished he hadn’t.

There was no resemblance, of course, but the slight weight of that spindly little body reminded Alec far too much of Sebrahn, his alchemically begotten “child of no mother” he’d lost so recently. But he swallowed the sudden swell of pain and said nothing.

The temple was little more than a shrine cramped between two taller buildings, and its sacred grove consisted of nothing but a pair of apple trees. A few sleepy brown doves cooed softly from the shelter of their branches when Seregil pulled the string of the small iron bell beside the gate.

Two brown-robed young women wearing the drysian’s bronze lemniscate came out to greet them. Their welcoming smiles turned to concern when they saw the boy.

“Maker’s Mercy, another one!” the taller of the two exclaimed softly.

“We just found him lying in an alley,” Alec explained. “I didn’t feel any broken bones, and there’s no blood.”

The other woman held out her arms, and Alec passed the child to her. “We’ll see that he doesn’t suffer,” she promised.

“You’ve seen this before?” asked Seregil.

“A few. Some new summer fever, I think.”

“Thank you, Sister.” Alec, raised a Dalnan, gave her a silver sester.

“Maker’s Mercy on you both, for helping a child of poverty.”

Alec knew a thing or two about poverty, himself.

Emerging from the slum, they hired horses-which took a bit of fast talking, given their attire-and rode up the Harbor

Way to the great Sea Market. This square was three times the size of the harbor market. In better days one could find fish, cloth, sugar, spices, and silverwork from Aurenen, the wines of Zengat. In short, a bit of everything that came up from the port below. But here, too, the privations of war were all too evident. Cloth, metals, and horses were hard to come by, and prices were high.

Thankfully there was a night breeze up here and this part of the city smelled considerably better, thanks to a proper sewer system. Crossing the city, they skirted the Harvest Market and entered the warren of twisting streets beside it, making their way to their real home, a respectable inn on Blue Fish Street.

Three stories tall, the Stag and Otter was built of stone and timber, with a steeply pitched roof and several stone chimneys, its yards surrounded by a stone wall. Lamps were lit in the tavern room at the front, and they could hear the night’s guests laughing and singing.

“Sounds like Ema’s having a good evening,” Seregil said as they circled to a narrow lane behind the inn. Finding it deserted, they led their horses in. Seregil produced a large iron key and unlocked the gate at the far end.

The stable yard was empty, too, except for a lone horse drinking at the long stone trough. The stable boy heard them come in, and emerged from his little room to take their hired horses.

Seregil took off his hat and shook out his long hair, combing it back from his face with his fingers. “Ah, that’s better!”

Continuing on around the corner, they walked between the towering woodpile and the stone well, and past Ema’s kitchen garden. As they reached the kitchen door, Seregil’s large cat Ruetha bounded over to them with a dead rat in her jaws so large that both head and tail dragged on the ground. She dropped it at their feet and wound around their ankles, purring loudly as they scratched her tufted ears and white ruff, and stroked her long mackerel-striped fur.

“What a good girl!” Seregil nudged the dead rat away with the toe of his boot. “Come on, puss.”

But Ruetha had further business with her rat and disappeared with it into the weeds by the far wall of the yard, striped tail crooked over her back.

The lamps were lit in the kitchen. The remains of the day’s roast meats, pies, and breads were set out on the long tables and a young scullery maid stood fanning away the flies, while others went in and out with trenchers and flagons for the patrons in the tavern.

Mistress Ema sat at the end of the table, nursing her baby girl. Little Tamia was nearly a year old, now. Ema looked up as they came in. She and her husband, Tomin, ran the inn for them. Tomin was some kin of their friend Magyana, and the couple was utterly trustworthy. Ema was the cook and ran the household.

She greeted them with a smile, not bothering to disturb her babe. “Welcome home.”

It had been only a few weeks since their last visit-sometimes it was months-but she was accustomed to their unannounced comings and goings and never asked any questions except the inevitable, “Are you hungry? It’s only lentil soup, but there’s boiled leeks out of the garden to go with it.”

“Don’t trouble yourself. We’re going out again,” Alec told her.

Hopefully Thero would offer them something to eat later; Ema was a good soul, but they liked her more for her discretion than her cooking, which was worse than usual with the shortages. At least she hadn’t boiled salt cod and onions today, or pickled any more beets, the smells of which made Seregil queasy.

Alec fetched a bucket of water from the cistern while Seregil lit a candle to light their way up the staircase that led from the lading room to the box room on the second floor. A hidden panel in the far wall concealed the narrow staircase that led up to their chambers. Thero frequently changed the passwords on the hidden glyphs that guarded the stairs for them.

“Scera,” Seregil said at the first one-Aurenfaie for “cold.” He always used ’faie words, figuring any Skalan who blundered in here was less likely to guess in that language.

Only once, when the Cockerel Inn had stood on this site, had anyone gotten past them, with tragic results. The current ones were wishful thinking in the summer heat.

“Por.” Snow. “Taka.” Cool water. “Ura teshil.” Miserable bastard.

Reaching the landing, he spoke the last. “Temi.” Ice.

The large sitting room was hot and stale. There were, in fact, windows, but obscured with Thero’s magic, which rendered them invisible from the outside even when Alec opened the shutters to catch what breeze he could. Seregil lit several lamps with the candle and carried the bucket into the bedchamber across the room.

They’d used the place sporadically since the spring. A layer of dust had settled over the workbench under the east window, the old sheets covering the couch and dining table, and the clutter of letters, locks, jewel caskets, and oddities on the marble mantelpiece, including three Plenimaran slave collars propped up there, one sized for a child.

Pain closed around Alec’s heart again. Two reminders in one day, and this one his own doing. He had no doubt that the little rhekaro was better off among the Hazadrielfaie-safe from harm and from causing it-but the loss was still a raw, throbbing wound in Alec’s heart. The sight of the collar, and the tiny braid of silver-white hair with it, kept the wound bloody, but he couldn’t bring himself to part with either.

“Alec?” Bare to the waist already, Seregil leaned out the bedroom doorway, framed in golden lamplight. Alec’s expression must have given away his thoughts. “Tali, shouldn’t we at least pack them away?”

“No.” Forcing a smile, he went to the bedroom, pulling his sweat-soaked shirt over his head as he went, then sat on the wide, velvet-hung bed to pull off his shoes and rank socks.

Seregil filled the washbasin from the bucket and gave himself a quick but thorough scrub.

As he waited, Alec absently counted Seregil’s various scars; he knew them by heart. The imprint of the cursed disk just over his breastbone-an object that had nearly cost them both their lives-was obscured by magic. Alec carried the mark of that same disk, burned into the palm of his left hand.

Of the wounds that had killed him and nearly taken Seregil’s life as well, there were no traces-thanks to Sebrahn.

Seregil turned and caught his eye. “What’s wrong, tali?”

Alec just shook his head.

Seregil rinsed the flannel and wrung it out, then gently washed the day’s grime from Alec’s face and neck. “Come on now,” he said, kissing him on the top of the head and draping the wet cloth over Alec’s shoulder.

When they were both reasonably presentable, they set off for the Oreska House.

The stars were out and it was cool enough now that light cloaks and drawn hoods didn’t attract much notice as they made their way through the Harvest Market and on into the Noble Quarter to the Oreska House.

“My lords!” Thero’s man, Wethis, waved to them from one of the mezzanines and hurried down the stairs to greet them as they crossed the atrium. “He’s upstairs.” He halted at a respectful distance and Seregil saw the man’s nostrils quiver just a bit, though he was far too polite to say anything.

Seregil gave him a knowing grin. “The baths first, I think.”

“I’ll inform Master Thero that you are here.” Wethis bowed and returned the way he’d come, knowing Seregil needed no guide.

Bath chamber would be an understatement. The vaulted room was larger than the entire Stag and Otter. A broad octagonal pool lined with red and gold tiles lay at the center of the room, with four gilded marble griffins spitting arching streams of water into it. This was surrounded by individual tubs sunk into the floor, each with its own accoutrements and servant. Nymphs and sea creatures glowed in rich colors on the frescoed walls.

They made use of the individual tubs first, Alec with a flannel cinched modestly around his waist, then went to the griffin pool to swim. Seregil was floating happily on his back, hair spread around his head like a dark halo, when he opened his eyes and found Thero looking down at him with a wry smile. “I half expect to find you taking up residence here.”

“I’m considering it.”

“I didn’t expect to see you again so soon.”

“But I know you’re glad to see us,” Seregil said.

“Especially since we brought you a present,” said Alec, swimming over to join them.

“Really? How nice. Will you join me for supper?”

Seregil grinned. “Have you ever known us to turn down a free meal?”

“When you’re done, then.”

They left the pool reluctantly, and when they were dry and dressed climbed the five flights of stairs to the east tower. Wethis let them in and directed them downstairs, where a light repast of cold sorrel soup, cheese-a rare delicacy these days-and sweet spice bread awaited in the sitting room. With a snap of his fingers, the young wizard summoned a snow-crusted jug of wine from his store on Mount Apos. Some things didn’t change, even with the war.

“First things first,” he told them as they settled down to eat. “I have a letter for you, from Beka Cavish.”

“From Beka!” Alec exclaimed. “Why didn’t you say so?”

Thero raised an eyebrow. “I just did. It came in a letter Klia sent me.”

“She’s sending you reports from the front now?” Alec exchanged a knowing grin with Seregil.

Thero ignored the comment and did not choose to share the contents of his letter with them, except Klia’s news that the war was being hard fought, and that they’d captured a significant gold shipment on the Folcwine. Going to a cabinet across the room, he took out a sealed square of parchment with their names scrawled across the front and gave it to Alec. “There was one for her family, as well. I sent a servant out to Watermead with it.”

Seregil looked over Alec’s shoulder as he unfolded the letter and read in Beka’s slanting script about the battles she’d fought so far this summer, and the raids she and her celebrated Urghazi Turma had made into enemy territory. Her Aurenfaie husband, Nyal, had proven himself among them and served as a scout.

“It’s dated nearly a month ago,” Alec pointed out. “A lot can happen in a month. I don’t suppose you’ve cast a wizard eye for her?”

“You know how unfeasible that is if I don’t have some idea of where she is,” the wizard replied. “But what about you two? Did you have good hunting?”

“Very good,” said Seregil. “Though we were interrupted while we were at it.”

“Interrupted? As in almost caught?” asked Thero.

“A pair of servants snuck in to have a quick go of it,” Alec explained.

“Go of what?”

“Fucking,” Seregil clarified.

“Ah. Well, the duke is probably on his way back to the city now. Duchess Palmani gave birth earlier than expected-a son. So, what did you find?”

Seregil gave him the copies of the letters from Alaya first.

“The princess royal’s dowager lady-in-waiting?” asked Thero, surprised. “Don’t tell me you suspect the archduchess of some kind of disloyalty to Princess Elani?”

“She never struck me as the type for intrigue of that sort,” said Seregil.

“You know her?”

“I met her when I was at court. She pinched my cheek and gave me sweetmeats whenever she saw me, but I doubt she remembers me after all these years.”

Thero perused the letters. “Hmmm. Not anything treasonous, at least.”

“I saved the best for last, though.” Seregil handed him Elani’s letter.

Thero gave him a questioning look, then began to read. His eyes widened when he realized what it was.

“We thought it was a bit odd, the duke having a personal letter between the princess royal and the queen hidden in a compartment under the carpet in his study,” said Alec.

“Indeed,” Thero replied, frowning. “What could he want with it?”

“Hard to tell yet. But what we saw appeared to be a copy,” Seregil told him.

“So it had to come from someone who has access to her inner apartments. Alaya herself would be in the best position to see Elani’s correspondence, and from what you found, it’s clear she’s in touch with the duke.”

Seregil helped himself to another cup of the excellent wine. “But the handwriting appeared to be in the style of a royal scribe. You wouldn’t happen to know who serves Elani?”

“No idea.”

“Too bad. But the question remains: why would a letter like this be of interest to Reltheus?”

“Perhaps because she mentions Danos.”

Seregil blinked. “You know who Danos is?”

“Of course. He’s Duke Reltheus’s eldest son. I think the duke has some hope of the young man taking the princess royal’s heart. They did spend a lot of time together. He’s of marriageable age, and she will be, too, before long.”

“Still, it seems rather underhanded, stealing Elani’s letters,” Alec remarked.

“I would like you two to find out more about that for me. What can you do?”

“As it happens, we have a mutual friend. Young Count Selin,” Seregil replied.

“He’ll be at my party,” said Alec. “There was a letter from him in Reltheus’s correspondence, too. Apparently he and the duke are friends.”

“Which seems a bit odd, given the difference in their ages, wealth, and rank,” Seregil added. “Their friendship appears to have started since Reltheus began frequenting Alaya’s salons. Selin was already a family friend. His mother and the archduchess are close.”

“So you think Reltheus is trying to worm his way back into the inner court?” asked Thero.

“Easier to charm his way into the good graces of an old woman and a girl young enough to be his daughter than those of the formidable queen herself,” Seregil replied with a shrug.

“That’s certainly a possibility. See if you can insert yourselves into Alaya’s circle.”

Alec reached across the table and tapped the letter. “What about Reltheus?”

“He lives on Silvermoon not far from the archduchess. It should be an easy enough job for you to keep an eye on him, and see who he meets with.”

“We will.”

“When are you two planning to reappear in society?”

“Not until the night before the party,” Seregil replied.

“I don’t need a party, you know,” Alec said for what seemed like the hundredth time.

“Yes, you do,” Seregil countered, grinning. “And that gives us some time to pay the duke a visit.”

“Burgle him, you mean?”

“Of course.”

“Do you think we should say anything to Prince Korathan, Thero?” asked Alec.

“I’d like to know what this is really about first. Until we have more certain evidence, I want this kept to Watcher business.” Thero refilled their cups. “Will the Cavishes be at the party?”

“Yes.”

The wizard smiled. “It will be good to see them again. It’s a shame Magyana is away in Sarikali. She’ll be sorry to miss it. So, what else will you two be doing, when you’re not burgling houses or floating around in my bath chamber?”

“The usual small jobs, I suppose,” Seregil said as they rose to go. “Though the Cat has had more commissions from the pleasure houses than Silvermoon with so many nobles out of town.”

“I’m not surprised. By the way, Seregil, I’ve been refining that translocation spell that gives you so much trouble. I’d like to test it to see if it still makes you so terribly ill.”

“Another time. I’d hate to lose this fine supper,” Seregil told him, hurrying for the door.

“Coward!” Thero called after him.

“Sadist!” Seregil shot back with a laugh.

CHAPTER 3. Beka Cavish

BEKA Cavish crouched in the deeper shadow of a huge oak tree and bound her wild red hair back with a bit of leather lacing. Syra, her fellow scout tonight, did the same with her own dark hair. Or at least that’s what the uncertain shape in the darkness seemed to be doing. Between the gloom and the light ground fog, Beka could see her fellow soldier only because she knew where to look.

It had been tricky getting this close to the Plenimaran encampment; the moon was just past full, and oak mast rustled and crunched inconveniently under cavalry boots. Beka envied her Aurenfaie husband his ability to make little noise as he moved and wished he were here, though Syra was a skilled scout, as well. Luckily there was no starlight to betray their movements.

From here they could make out the enemy watch fires through the trees and mist, spread out across the Mycenian plain, and hear the soldiers laughing and singing. A raiding party wouldn’t be making so much noise. There must be enough of them that they weren’t worried about an attack.

There would be sentries posted around the perimeter, of course. She and Syra were both armed, in case they ran into anyone here in the woods, but that would be a doubly unlucky thing, since dead or missing soldiers could alert the Plenimarans to the Skalans’ presence less than two miles away.

They’d left their horses tethered at the far side of the long,

narrow wood, knowing that, even through trees, sound carried. It had been a long walk, and slow going.

They made it to the edge of the trees, and Syra boosted Beka up into an oak. Climbing higher, she counted the enemy watch fires spread out before her, scattered like bright flowers on a sea of fog. There were more than fifty. Beyond the encampment were the smoldering remains of some unlucky farmer’s house and barn, and beyond that, the crucial ford Queen Phoria had ordered her half sister to capture at any cost. The warm night breeze carried the sound of rushing water.

“How many, Captain?” Syra whispered in Aurenfaie when Beka climbed down again. Nyal had taught Beka and the members of her Urghazi Turma the language when they were in Aurenen, and they used it in the field when an enemy might overhear.

“Three hundred. Maybe more,” Beka replied, frowning.

Princess Klia had nearly a third less than that. The Queen’s Horse Guard had taken heavy casualties, along with every other regiment. The queen had refused a truce offer from the Plenimaran Overlord a few months earlier, and there were plenty in the field who’d been disappointed. Despite recent successes in battle, there had been desertions.

“Are we going to take a closer look?” whispered Syra.

Beka grinned. “What do you think?”

They kept to the forest for as long as they could and saw several sentries silhouetted against the light from the encampment. After a while, however, the forest line curved inconveniently away from the camp. There was no choice but to cut across in the open.

The rolling meadow had been trampled down by the Plenimarans. At this close range, Beka could hear the night sounds of a herd of horses, and smell them on the warm summer breeze. So at least some of the Plenimaran force were cavalry.

Beka put her lips to Syra’s ear. “Find out how many, then meet me at the lookout oak.”

Syra saluted, then disappeared into the mist without a sound.

Beka skirted the camp until she came in sight of a larger tent, then belly-crawled to just outside the ring of light from a blazing watch fire in front of it. There were too many guards to get any closer, but she could see two standards on poles in front of it: one cavalry, one infantry. She sent up a silent prayer of thanks to Sakor that there were none of the dreaded Plenimaran marines. She’d fought against them several times and it was always brutal. They had a nasty habit of torturing their captives, including nailing them by the hands to a board across the shoulders. Their treatment of captured female soldiers was-worse.

Not all Plenimaran soldiers were like that, of course. She’d crossed swords with a number of honorable officers, and their soldiers were no better or worse than any Skalan force. And the goal of all of them was victory.

She remained there for some time, hoping the commander would show himself, but the camp was asleep. Giving up, she crept away and found Syra waiting for her.

“Thought I’d lost you,” the rider whispered.

“What did you find?”

“At least two troops’ worth of horse.”

“Damn!”

“That was my thought exactly, Captain.”

It was a few hours shy of dawn by the time they reached the Skalan lines again. Syra whistled to alert the pickets, and gave the countersign when they reached them.

“How did it go, Captain?” Corporal Nikides asked.

Beka shook her head. “We’ve got our work cut out for us.”

The camp was already stirring, and the green-and-white tabards of the riders looked ghostly in the morning mist. They were on cold rations rather than risk the smell of cooking reaching the enemy.

Captain Danos waved to her as she strode by his troop. They were sitting in small clusters on the dew-soaked grass with their cold beef and stolen cheese. This part of Mycena had been overrun by both armies twice this summer; there was little left to forage.

Beka smiled and waved back. Tall, broad-shouldered, and

fair, Danos was as good a fighter and able an officer as any under Klia’s command. She was proud to call him her friend.

Her riders were on the far side of Klia’s tent, which was distinguished by the green horse-and-sword pennant flapping on a pole at the tent peak, and the black Aurenfaie horse with a distinctive white mane and tail tethered outside.

“Go eat, if you can find anything,” she told Syra, her own empty belly rumbling with hunger. “I’ll give Klia our report.”

“I’ll see if I can find us some meat that hasn’t turned green yet,” Syra replied with a laugh.

As commander of the Queen’s Horse Guard, Princess Klia led a squadron-half the regiment-under General Moraus. There had been talk when she was not given the general’s position after her unexpected recall from Aurenen. Moraus was an able man, but Klia had proven her worth in the field, too, and was Queen’s Kin. It had only fueled the rumors of bad blood between them, but no one could say they’d heard Klia complain.

Two of Captain Danos’s riders were on duty at the tent door and saluted Beka as she entered. Inside, the tent was divided into two rooms: this one, large enough for a map table and the commander’s council of officers, and a small one beyond a canvas wall at the back where Klia slept-when she slept, which didn’t seem to be very often these days.

Klia and her aide-de-camp and friend, Major Myrhini, were at breakfast in the front room, eating the same rations as the soldiers. Beka’s heart skipped a beat when she saw that the Aurenfaie-her Aurenfaie, as she liked to think of him-was with them as well, lithe and handsome in his worn leathers and corselet.

Even without the sen’gai of his clan, there was no mistaking what Nyal was. He had long, dark hair and fine ’faie features, and his lively hazel-green eyes were unlike any Skalan’s. He was a brave man, to be here in the midst of a war that was not his own. Harshly as the Plenimaran marines treated captured female soldiers, they treated ’faie far worse. Those they didn’t eventually kill they shipped back to their

homeland as slaves. She’d heard stories of ’faie falling on their own swords rather than be captured. It made it all the harder that she and Nyal were often apart from each other in the field; as her husband, it was against regulations for him to serve under her, so instead he was a scout for the whole troop, often working with Danos or directly for Klia. It had been nearly a week since she’d seen him.

He smiled, hazel eyes tilting up at the corners as she came in; she could tell he was equally relieved to see her. Nyal had no official rank beyond scout, but in the field he took his orders directly from Klia. It had taken them both time to get used to that. In the winter they lived as husband and wife, but here in the field they were hardly more than fellow soldiers most of the time.

Beka saluted Klia, pressing her fist to the front of her battle-stained tabard.

“Good morning, Captain,” said Klia. “Come and join us. You must be starving.”

“Thank you, Commander.” Beka pulled up a stool and gratefully broke her night’s fast. Even salted, the meat smelled a bit high, but she was too hungry to care.

Klia looked as if she hadn’t slept in days. Months of steady battle had sapped some of her beauty. Her face was sun-browned and haggard under the dark widow’s peak, and her linen shirt hung more loosely on her than it had when they resumed the war in the spring. Myrhini, the older of the two, didn’t look any better. Beka supposed she didn’t, either.

“What do you have to report?” asked Klia.

“I estimate a force of at least three hundred, Commander. Half of it cavalry and the rest foot.”

Klia raised an eyebrow at that. “You estimate? Don’t tell me you went out yourself again?”

“It was my turn, Commander,” Beka replied. It was a matter of pride to endure the same dangers as her troop. In return, her riders had followed her through fire and hell. Klia wasn’t one to talk, either. She’d done the same as she came up through the officers’ ranks, and was equally respected by those who served under her.

Klia took another bite of beef and stared down at the

trampled grass that served as carpet. “We’ve got to take that ford before Phoria arrives. If we can pull this off, the queen’s army can push all the way to the Folcwine in a matter of days. And if we take one of the major fords there-” Her eyes shone at the prospect. “Then we can finally take on the Overlord’s regiment.”

Beka shared her commander’s cautious excitement. For the first time in years, the possibility of victory glimmered before them.

“Can we take the horses through the forest?” asked Myrhini.

“I don’t advise it,” Beka replied. “The trees are thick enough that we’d get strung out and make enough noise for the Plenimarans to hear us coming.”

“If the horses go south along the edge of it, it’s no more than a mile ’til it ends, close to the edge of the enemy camp,” said Nyal.

“Beka, did you get a sense of the layout of their encampment?” asked Myrhini.

“It was hard to tell in the dark, but I think they’ve set out the tents in lines, well away from the trees, roughly in a square.”

Going to the map table, Beka took up a wax tablet and stylus and sketched the camp, with the ruined house and the bank of the Silver River. “They’re caught between the trees and the river, Commander, and the horses are corralled here, on the northern edge. If we can push them to the river, they’ll have no choice but to fan out into a thinner line.”

Klia considered that for a moment, then nodded. “I want you to take your troop through the forest on foot here. Send your Urghazi Turma to scatter the enemy’s horses before the Plenimarans can get to them. I’ll take Captain Anri and Danos’s riders south around the wood, mounted. Nyal, I want you with me.”

“Yes, Commander.” Nyal exchanged a quick look of regret with Beka. Separated again.

“Myrhini, pass the word. We march at once,” Klia ordered. “Beka, Nyal, you’re dismissed.”

Beka gave her a grateful nod; Klia was demanding, but not unkind.

Outside Nyal took her hands in his. “I hope the Plenimarans provide us with a good supper.”

Beka forced a weary smile. Neither of them ever said good-bye or spoke of the very real possibility that each parting could be their last.

It had been easy for them when she was stationed with Klia in Aurenen. Several others in the turma had taken ’faie lovers; there was no rule against it, and in fact it had been encouraged. Half-breed children might carry some of the vigor of ’faie magic-something that was growing thin in Skala. Fewer wizard-born children were presented at the Oreska House every year.

Not that Beka had any desire for children. Not yet. She loved Nyal with all her heart, but she lived to serve Klia. Nyal understood that, and had solved the problem by volunteering to become a scout when they returned to Skala. She’d married the handsome ’faie at her parents’ home at Watermead, then had gone back to soldiering with him in the spring, much to her mother’s disappointment. Her father had understood better. She and Micum shared the same restless spirit. He had Seregil and Alec, and the Watchers; she had the cavalry.

He leaned down and kissed her, not caring if the sentries were watching. “Good hunting, beloved.”

“And to you, my love.”

Beka could feel his gaze on her as she walked away to gather her riders, but resisted the urge to look back.

CHAPTER 4. Alec Gets a Bit of Exercise

DUKE Reltheus-a tall, striking man with silver-streaked hair and dark eyes-kept them fairly busy. Their first night on watch, Seregil scaled the back wall, but the house was too well guarded front and back.

“Looks like we’re going to have to get in by the front door,” he muttered.

“Hopefully our friend Selin can help us with that,” said Alec.

The duke’s house had only one main entrance, easily watched, and he came and went during the day at civilized hours over the next week-several times to the Palace, they noted with interest. He was often out in the evenings, as well-without his wife, Palmani, who was still in the days of her birthing confinement-visiting friends and attending Archduchess Alaya’s salon. Not quite the doting husband and father, he spent several evenings in the Street of Lights gambling houses, with a visit to the brothels here and there. From what they observed, his tastes ran solidly to women, including a fair-haired girl at their friend Eirual’s house.

Dressed as beggars or workmen, Seregil and Alec took shifts shadowing him. It was too risky to ingratiate themselves with any of the servants here in the city where they were known, so they had to content themselves with watching from a distance and awaiting their chance.

Silvermoon Street was the grandest avenue in the city, home to both the royal Palace and the villas of the most

prominent nobles. Alec happened to be on duty in his one-armed beggar’s garb when he saw a carriage leave and caught sight of the duke’s face at the open window. Instead of heading for the Street of Lights, however, the carriage went west.

It was an easy matter to follow. It had been another muggy day, and many nobles were out taking the air in carriages, on horseback, or on foot. The heavy traffic made for slow going.

Alec’s dirty, bandaged face and empty right sleeve drew a few disgusted or pitying looks, but little surprise, beggars being a common sight in all parts of the city. His hair was well hidden under a grimy head rag.

He nearly lost the duke when the carriage turned into Emerald Street. Alec narrowly missed being trampled by a band of drunken horsemen as he dodged across the street, managing to keep the carriage in sight until it turned in at the carved gate of one of the larger villas there, one they hadn’t seen Reltheus go to before.

The gates remained open but were guarded by several armed men in green livery. Alec waited a few minutes, then limped over to the open gate, holding out his wooden begging bowl. “Penny for a cripple, kind sirs?”

One of them took out a few pennies and tossed them into his bowl. “Go on now, boy.”

“Maker’s Mercy, sir. Who’s the master of this fine house?” Alec asked. “Does he have a heart of charity? Maybe a crust in the kitchen?”

“Marquis Kyrin can’t be bothered with the likes of you!” another guard told him. “Now get before I take my cudgel to you.”

“Bad luck to hit a beggar,” the kind one said.

“Worse luck to have the marquis find this creature hanging around the front door. Go on, boy, off with you!”

Satisfied, Alec made them a fawning bow, then limped away to take up his position across the avenue beneath a tree, waiting for it to get a bit darker to have a closer look. Kyrin had been mentioned in Princess Elani’s letter. Sitting on the ground, he set his bowl in front of him and began to rock slowly back and forth, droning his tale of woe.

“Maker’s Mercy, kind people, a penny for a cripple,” he

whined, keeping his gaze averted from any sharp-eyed acquaintances. Most people ignored him, but some paused to toss a coin or two in his bowl.

He wasn’t the only one begging among the rich; there were more about this summer than he’d ever seen in the city. Half a dozen other ragged folk had staked out a position as he had, or wandered among the crowd, bowl in hand. A hollow-eyed man with an equally hollow-eyed boy on his shoulder passed by and gave Alec a nod. Some of the rich citizens were generous with these unfortunates; others simply averted their gaze, or looked through the beggars as if they weren’t there. There was no doubt that their sort wasn’t welcomed here, as Alec soon discovered.

Before he’d collected the price of a cheap meal, rough hands hauled him to his feet and he found himself surrounded by five blue-coated men of the City Watch. One of them ran his hands down Alec’s sides and gave him a nasty grin as he felt Alec’s perfectly good arm hidden beneath his dirty peasant’s smock.

“By the Flame, look what we have here,” he exclaimed loud enough for some of the well-dressed passersby to hear. A few even stopped. One of them was Lady Mallia, a good friend of theirs, on the arm of some blond nobleman Alec didn’t recognize. Alec kept his head down, heart hammering in his chest.

The bluecoat tore the shoulder of Alec’s smock open and yanked his arm out. “You know what the penalty for false begging is, my boy?” he asked, giving him a hard shake.

“Pity, your honor!” Alec mumbled.

“Twenty lashes in the Tower,” one of the other bluecoats informed him, as if Alec didn’t already know. “And the pillory. Let’s see what we have here.”

He reached for the bandage shrouding nearly half of Alec’s face. Mallia was looking on with evident pity, murmuring something to the gentleman with her. One of the bluecoats still had Alec by the arm. The other four had him hemmed in pretty well, and most of them were a good deal taller and heavier than he was. Before the one reaching for his face could touch the bandage, Alec twisted his arm free, dropped

into a crouch, and sprang between two of the men at knee level, taking them by surprise. One still managed to grab the flapping tail of his torn smock, but what was left of the side seam let go and Alec sped on shirtless through the evening crowd, dodging the grasping hands of those trying to heed the bluecoats’ calls for help as they pursued him. If he’d been tackled it would have been the end of him, but Alec was fast and agile, and he knew the back alleys and low roads of the city as well as the lines on his own right palm.

Outdistancing the shouting, he turned into Gannet Lane at a dead run, narrowly missing collision with a pair of young ladies and their escorts. Screams and curses followed as he ran on, searching his memory and Seregil’s lessons for the right combination of turns. He rounded another corner, and another into a narrower street. He’d left the fashionable neighborhood behind. Respectable merchant folk filled the streets here, enjoying the cool of the evening. He earned plenty of disapproving stares as he stopped to get his breath, sweat clammy on his skin. His head rag and bandage were still safely in place, but a half-naked young man was notable in any street. This was borne out all too quickly when he heard someone shout, “There he is. Down there!”

The bluecoats hadn’t given up the chase after all. Before any well-intentioned citizen thought to grab him, Alec bolted for a narrow alley one street over, barely wide enough to walk down without turning sideways. At the end of it was a locked gate that led down into the sewers. Reaching into his head rag, he took out one of the picks buried in his braid for just such an occasion and quickly worked it around in the heavy lock. This one was well maintained and gave in a moment. Slipping into the reeking darkness beyond, he locked it behind him and felt his way down the steep, narrow stone staircase, following the faint sound of running water and squeaking rats.

Tamir the Great had laid down these vaulted channels before the first building was erected, and made her new capital the cleanest, least plague-prone city in the Three Lands. Stone walkways ran along the sewer channels, and the high-arched ceilings trapped the evil humurs overhead, allowing

the Scavengers to go about their business in relative safety. Grates made of metal bars crossed the channel in places, each with a locked gate that only the Scavenger crews had the right to open. But that didn’t stop footpads called gate runners from using this as their private refuge and highway.

Alec was acutely aware of the possibilities, and the fact that his current disguise had forced him to go out unarmed. Reaching into his head rag again, he pulled out a small lightstone and by its soft glow navigated his way along the stinking channels, back toward Emerald Street. Fortunately, it proved an uneventful journey. He came across only a woman and two young children-some gate runner’s family, or just a poor woman and her children seeking what shelter they could find. She swore at him and brandished a rusty knife, but he jumped the channel and gave her a wide berth.

Another stairway let up to a street near Emerald. He jiggered the gate and crept up to the door at the top to peer through the large keyhole. Night had fallen, and there didn’t appear to be anyone about. He left the sewer and found himself in a side street between the back gardens of large houses. Being half naked was just as much of a disadvantage here, for someone who wanted to go unnoticed. The street was deserted, so he scaled a few walls until he found an unattended clothesline and helped himself to a shirt. It was too fine and too clean for a beggar, so he rubbed it around in the gutter until it was suitably filthy. Dressed again, he checked his head rag and bandage, then made his way back toward Marquis Kyrin’s villa.

It was too dangerous to show himself in Emerald Street again. Keeping his distance from the guards at the marquis’s gate, he found the lane that ran behind the house. The walls surrounding the back courtyard weren’t impossibly high, but they were too smooth to scale without help. There was a gate wide enough for a wagon, but it was securely locked. Of course no one had conveniently left anything as useful as a ladder or rope lying around. Walking up and down the street, he finally found an empty barrel and lugged it back. Upending it, he climbed on top and stretched his arms toward the top of the wall. He was still a foot too low, so he sprang as

high as he could and managed to grasp the edge. The barrel fell over and rumbled away down the street, leaving him hanging there.

At this point, a less stubborn person might have given up, but Alec was tired of coming home empty-handed every night. With the edge of the stonework digging into his palms, he managed to pull himself up until he could see the house and the large garden below. The waxing moon cast just enough light for him to see the holes spaced evenly along the top of the wall, and the uneven remains of broken mortar. There had been iron spikes here originally, pulled out and sacrificed to the war effort. It was a common sight and made a nightrunner’s job a bit easier, too.

The garden was laid out in a pattern of formal paths composed of crushed oyster shell. There was no sign of a dog. A balcony spanned the back of the house, and lamp- or candlelight showed at two of the five upstairs windows. Through one he could see a small group of fashionable ladies playing cards in an elegantly furnished parlor. Through the other window he could see what appeared to be a library. While he watched, a man walked past the window and the room brightened as he lit another candle.

Just then two servants, one of them with a lantern, came out a back door of the house and headed toward the gate.

“I know I heard something,” the man with the lantern, presumably the watchman, was saying to his companion. Alec heard the rattle of a heavy chain being undone.

There was no time to drop and run. Instead, he pulled his legs up as far as he could and hung there, praying silently Don’t look up! The corded muscles in his arms felt like they were on fire and the edge of the wall was cutting into his palms but he managed to hang on.

The watchman and his companion found the barrel lying in the gutter across the street.

“Probably a dog, or a drunkard,” the companion said.

The watchman held his lantern high, looking this way and that but thankfully not up. Sweat ran into Alec’s eyes and slicked his palms as he struggled to keep still. At last they went inside again and chained the gate shut.

Alec’s arms were shaking with the strain, but he managed to pull himself up and balance precariously on top of the wall.

There was still no sign of a dog in the garden, so he carefully lowered himself and dropped into a bed of fragrant flowers. From here, it was a simple matter to scale a wooden drainpipe to the balcony. The first lighted window was the room with the ladies. The casement stood ajar to catch the breeze, and he could hear them laughing and talking over the game. There were five of them, including Lady Mallia. She must have been on her way here. He didn’t recognize the others, but a stately woman with silver-white hair seemed to be presiding, and she sent a servant for more wine as Alec watched from the shadows outside.

“Really, it’s too hard,” said Mallia. “I haven’t had a new piece made this year.”

“Pearls are the only reliable jewel these days,” their hostess replied, touching the long heavy strand she wore.

“Only because no one’s discovered a way to make them into a weapon, Marquise!” another woman exclaimed.

“At least silk is still available,” said Mallia. “But what are we to do this winter, if the wool route is still blocked?”

“I haven’t had a new cloak in two years, have I, Mother?” said the youngest of the group, a dark-haired young woman, to the hostess. Evidently Kyrin had a daughter.

“It’s the shortage of eligible young men I’d be worried about, in your place,” the fifth woman pointed out. “Let’s hope the queen doesn’t get them all killed. There’s not much to choose from in the city these days, except for cripples, old men, and wastrels.”

Alec waited until no one was looking his way and stole past the window. The next two rooms were too dark to make out anything inside, but the library was still brightly lit. Reltheus sat with three other men, drinking wine and smoking long clay pipes. An older man-presumably the marquis-rose as Alec watched and put a scroll of some sort into a large painted cabinet, then locked it and pocketed the key.

“Remember, Kyrin, there is madness in the family,” Reltheus was saying.

“I hardly think the queen mad,” a middle-aged red-haired man replied, facing the window where Alec lurked.

“Poor judgment needs no explanation,” said the fourth, the small man with a shock of blond hair Alec had seen with Mallia. “It’s pride on the queen’s part, plain and simple. Nothing short of total victory will suffice for her.”

“Could that ever be?” wondered Reltheus. “These wars against Plenimar never quite end, do they? No matter who wins, within a decade or two they’re at it again.”

“I believe one of the sticking points of the truce offer was that Skala would finally take possession of sacred Kouros,” said the ruddy man. “The Plenimarans refused.”

The blond nobleman puffed at his pipe. “A tiny, useless island, Stenmir. She should let them have it. The Hierophants went from there to Plenimar, after all.”

“It’s the birthplace of all the Three Lands, Tolin,” Stenmir reminded him. “Skala, Mycena, and Plenimar all have a legitimate claim.”

“Small and useless,” Tolin grunted around his pipestem.

“There was a great deal more to the terms of the truce than that. But whatever the case, it’s bankrupting us.” Kyrin put aside his cup and stood to tap out his pipe on one of the dolphin-shaped fire irons. “This has to stop. It’s breeding dangerous unrest. There have already been grain riots.”

“I don’t suppose you’ve heard any more from Danos?” Stenmir asked Reltheus.

There was that name again.

The duke took a folded missive from his coat pocket and handed it to him. The others rose to read over his shoulder.

“Commander Klia has Sakor’s luck, doesn’t she?” Tolin remarked, frowning.

“So it’s always seemed,” Kyrin replied with a sigh. “It would be best if circumstance worked to our favor, but she seems to be especially blessed. Now, however, I think it’s time we went back to the ladies.”

The others knocked the dottles from their pipes and followed him out, leaving Alec with nothing but the laughter of the women and a vague sense of dread. It appeared this

Danos was indeed their spy and that Reltheus and the others weren’t on Klia’s side. Or the queen’s, either.

Alec was about to go back the way he’d come when he heard the marquise inviting her guests to come out onto the balcony to enjoy the night air. That room lay between him and the drainpipe, and the balcony was far too high to jump from without risking a broken ankle. Instead, he slipped in through the library window and pressed himself against the wall beside it. He could hear the women walking up and down the balcony, talking of the latest play at the Tirari. Mallia said something Alec didn’t quite catch.

“I’ll ask him,” the marquise’s daughter replied, and Alec heard her coming his way. There was nowhere to hide except behind one of the long tapestries. It was a terrible hiding place under any circumstances, but especially in a brightly lit room, where the girl might notice the slight bulge in the fabric, or his broken beggar’s shoes visible beneath the lower edge. He didn’t dare risk taking a look, but could hear her moving about the room.

“Father’s not here,” she called out at last. “I’ll go find him.”

Alec heard the inner door open and shut. He waited a few breaths, then cautiously peered out from his hiding place. The other women remained on the balcony, making it impossible to leave.

He leaned back against the wall again, resigning himself to a long wait. He wanted a look inside that locked cabinet.

It was hot behind the tapestry, and dusty. As Lady Mallia went on about some other play just outside the window, Alec’s nose began to itch. He squeezed it between two fingers, hoping to kill the urge to sneeze, but that only made it worse. Still holding his nose, he pressed his other hand to his mouth and choked back a short succession of sneezes, nearly at the expense of his eardrums.

And still the women talked on. His back began to ache from pressing himself as flat as he could against the wall behind him, and he could feel his overtaxed arm muscles beginning to stiffen up. Worse yet, he had to sneeze again.

As he stood there wishing them all to Bilairy’s gate, the door opened again and he heard someone moving around the

room. Little by little, the room went dark and he heaved a silent sigh of relief. It must be a servant. A moment later the door closed again. Better yet, the women finally went indoors.

As he sidled out from behind the tapestry, the shoulder of his shirt caught on something. He took out the lightstone and discovered a small door set into the wall at about eye level, with a tiny handle and a brass lock plate. The plate looked solid, but when Alec ran a sensitive fingertip around it, he discovered two tiny holes on either side of the keyhole, tamped with wax. This usually meant that a poisoned dart or spring lurked inside, waiting for the unwary burglar to tackle the workings of the lock. Standing to one side, he probed the lock at an angle with a small pick and heard the snick of the trap releasing. Two slender steel barbs shot out, five inches long-long enough to pierce the hand of an unwary thief. Their tips were coated in some dark poison, too. Working carefully around them, he soon had the small door open.

Inside was a metal box, similar to a military dispatch box. Holding the lightstone handle between his front teeth, he squatted down with the box and quickly got it open. Inside were three small scrolls. The first was a list of names, including Klia, Lady Kylith, Seregil, Duke Laneus, Duchess Nerian, their friend Malthus, and himself, Lord Alec of Ivywell. He felt his heart turn over at the last name-Prince Korathan’s-with a question mark after it. There was no heading to hint at what the list meant. The other two were ordinary shipping manifests, though some of the items included were gold and gems from Aurenen. At the moment all gold was going to the war effort, making any private hoard contraband. Alec wondered if Seregil’s Uncle Akaien was smuggling again.

There were no writing materials in the room, so Alec had no choice but to replace the documents in the box and lock it away. When the tumblers fell back into place the needles retracted, but the tiny wax plugs had been lost. Hot and dusty, Alec slipped out from behind the tapestry and pinched a dab of still-warm wax from one of the candles placed on stands around the room and used it to seal the needle holes again.

Once the lock plate was buffed clean with his shirtsleeve, there was no sign that it had been disturbed.

The cabinet across the room was fitted with the same sort of trap. In addition to the scroll, there were some leather cases containing various pieces of expensive jewelry and household documents of no interest. The scroll he’d seen Kyrin put away was nothing more than a love poem. He scanned it briefly, then put it back.

He returned the rest of the contents, locked the cabinet, and replaced the wax, as he had with the hidden cupboard, then went to the inner door and put his ear to it. There were still people talking and moving about somewhere close by. Going to the balcony door, he stepped out and quickly scanned the garden for watchmen or guests. For the moment it was empty.

The marquise’s salon was dark now, but the window next to it showed light. Moving silently, he glanced in around the casement and saw that it was a bedchamber, fortunately empty at the moment. He hurried past and crouched by the drainpipe just as the watchman came out with his lantern and took a turn around the garden, then went back inside.

Alec shinnied down the drainpipe and kept to the shadows until he was in reach of the large gate.

The lock on the chain that secured the gate was too large for any of the picks he’d brought with him, but the wooden crossbars were thick enough to give him a toehold. He quickly climbed over it and headed for the Stag and Otter.

He was halfway up the secret stair when the door opened and he saw Seregil standing there with a lamp.

“Bilairy’s Balls, Alec, where have you been?” he demanded as he stepped aside to let Alec into the box room. “I went to Reltheus’s house but there was no sign of you. I was beginning to think you’d been taken up.”

“Sorry.” Alec gave him a quick kiss, then took off his head cloth and pulled the night’s implements from his braid. “I had a bit of luck following him to Marquis Kyrin’s house.”

“Kyrin? He’s Korathan’s secretary-” Seregil paused and gave him a pained look. “You’ve been in the sewers.”

“I left my shoes outside. I didn’t think I’d been down there long enough to pick up the smell.”

Seregil followed him into the bedroom and sat on the bed while Alec washed himself from head to toe with tepid water in the basin and told him of the night’s events, making light of his near capture by the bluecoats. Seregil let it pass, but Alec had the distinct impression that his lover had been more worried than he let on.

“From the sound of things, they are ill-wishing both Klia and Phoria,” said Seregil, frowning.

He grew more serious when Alec got to the mention of the potential spy, Danos, and the contents of the box from behind the tapestry and the cabinet. Seregil had him write down all he could remember of the list of names.

Alec tapped his chin with the goose-feather quill, picturing the list in his mind, then began to write.

Princess Klia

Duke Malthus

Duchess Nerian

Marquis Areus

Lord Thero

Lord Seregil the Aurenfaie

Lord Alec of Ivywell

Marquise Yrin

Prince Korathan?

“Good,” said Seregil. “And the scroll?”

“The scroll was just a love poem.”

“Didn’t it strike you as strange that Kyrin would be showing his friends a love poem in the midst of that other conversation?”

“Uh-not at the time.”

Seregil sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “That may have been the most important thing there. If only you’d held it up to a lamp.”

Alec smacked his forehead. “Bilairy’s Balls! It didn’t even occur to me.” Some hidden messages were done in pinpricks over the letters of a seemingly innocent document. All one

had to do was hold it in front of the light and copy down the letters to reveal the message.

Seregil made a noncommittal noise as he turned his attention to the list. “Korathan. Our friend Duke Malthus, one of the queen’s exchequers. Marquis Areus, Duchess Nerian. Thero. Us. What do all of these have in common?”

“Except for us and Thero, they’re all high-ranking nobles.” Alec frowned down at the list. “And at least some of them are friends of Klia.”

“Very good. But you missed one important correlation. With the exception of us and Thero, they all hold high positions in the Palace. You had a good start on the night’s work.”

“We’re going back?” Alec reached for a clean pair of breeches.

“Yes, but not until the household settles down.” Seregil grinned and snatched the breeches away. “In the meantime, I think you deserve a reward to pass the time.”

Alec let Seregil pull him down onto the bed. “Don’t I still stink?”

Seregil nuzzled Alec’s neck and one armpit, sending a dizzying tingle down that entire side of his body, then rumbled “Not in a bad way” against one bare nipple.

Alec gasped at the sensation. Ruetha tried to butt in between them, but Seregil nudged the cat aside and pressed Alec back on the bed, pulling the tie from the end of the disheveled braid and combing Alec’s long hair out over his shoulder.

Alec shivered at the light tickle of fingertips over his scalp, but still had the presence of mind to ask, “Shouldn’t we tell Thero?”

Seregil slid his hand in slow, determined circles down Alec’s flat belly. “At this hour? Hardly civilized. And there may be more to tell after our second visit.”

Alec groaned softly and arched his back, surrendering-mostly. “At least we know that there’s-some-there’s some-connection. Thero-”

Seregil leaned in very close, warm breath tickling Alec’s ear, and whispered, “We’ll see him tomorrow, tali.”

Alec was surprised to feel a flash of need and worry cut

through his own haze of arousal along the invisible connection of their talimenios bond. Only then did it occur to him that this was the first time he’d done a job on his own since they’d returned to the city. He caught Seregil’s roaming hand. “You do know I can take care of myself?”

Seregil regarded him seriously. “Would you have been worried about me if I’d disappeared for hours on a job?”

“You used to do that all the time! You still do.”

“And you worry.”

Alec sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. “And you do what you need to and come home safe.”

Seregil was quiet for a moment, then Alec felt the mattress shift as Seregil knelt behind him and put his arms around Alec’s shoulders. “I know. I’m not questioning your skills, Alec. I swear to you that’s the truth and you know I don’t lie to you. But after what happened to you in Plenimar?” His arms tightened. “I suppose I’m still trying to get over that. If you…”

Alec covered Seregil’s hands with his own. “Are we going to quit the nightrunning business, then?”

Seregil laughed softly. “No. Just… Give me time.”

“I’ll try. But sometimes I wonder if maybe I have more faith in your skills than you do in mine, even after all this time.”

“Oh, Alec! I know that you can take care of yourself. I do, really. Now…” Seregil gently cradled the back of Alec’s head and kissed him. “Are we going to make love or have a fight? Personally, I don’t want to fight.”

Alec’s lips quirked in a half smile as he turned in Seregil’s arms and kissed him back. “Then that only leaves one other choice.”

Their lovemaking that night was fierce and full of need. Surging and tumbling, each got as good as he gave, leaving a few fingertip-shaped bruises and teeth marks in their wake. Afterward, they fell away from each other, sweaty and winded. A rare night breeze wafted in through the open window; cooled, Seregil rolled over and lay with his head pillowed on Alec’s smooth chest as Alec lazily stroked his hair

the way that made him feel especially content. Seregil kissed the warm skin over his lover’s heart, savoring the salty taste and strong pulse beneath his lips.

If you die, I won’t be far behind.

Some emotions and thoughts traveled over the talimenios bond more clearly than others, or perhaps Alec knew him too well. Gently tugging a strand of Seregil’s hair, he murmured, “I’d wait for you at Bilairy’s Gate. Now stop worrying. I love you.”

“I love you, too, tali.”

They waited well past midnight, then stole back to Kyrin’s house in dark clothing. Retracing Alec’s previous route, they made it to the library window without trouble. Seregil opened the inside latch with a thin lime-wood shim.

Alec retrieved all the documents he’d found and they laid them out on the carpet, then held them one by one in front of the lightstones and one by one discarded them until they came to the scroll. Alec unrolled it and held it up for Seregil, who had the stone. Tiny points of light shone through the parchment like miniature constellations.

“What does it say?” Alec whispered.

Seregil squinted at the letters for a moment, then his eyebrows shot up in surprise. “It’s in Aurenfaie.” Seregil scanned the page, muttering under his breath. “Dark moon with the tide. Twenty-five. More?”

“More what?”

“Who knows? But ‘dark moon’-perhaps the traitor’s moon-and ‘tide’ suggest smuggling to me.”

Alec nodded excitedly. “That and the manifests!”

“Sounds like our marquis is stockpiling valuables. The question is, why?”

“It must have something to do with that list of names.”

“Very likely.”

Putting the room back in order, they went out the way they came in and headed back to the inn.

Early the following morning they carried the news to Thero, who was at breakfast with several other wizards. A

spread of fresh currant buns, ham, pears, boiled eggs, white cheese, puffed berry pastries-an Oreska House specialty-and pots of strong tea were laid out on one of the worktables. Nysander’s breakfasts had been famous, and to everyone’s surprise, Thero had continued the tradition.

The other wizards greeted them warmly, believing, as intended, that Lord Seregil and Lord Alec had just arrived back from their travels.

“Ah, you’re just in time for another free meal,” Thero noted dryly as they came in.

“Cranky this morning, are we?” Seregil grabbed him in a hug and kissed his bearded cheek, much to the wizard’s dismay.

“Do that again and you’ll find yourself at the top of Mount Apos,” Thero warned, slopping his tea on the table as he shook Seregil off.

“At least it would be an escape from this heat,” Alec said as he filled a plate.

There was no choice in front of the other wizards but to make small talk and pretend they’d come for nothing more than breakfast. But when the wizards were gone Seregil and Alec detailed the findings of their night’s work.

Thero nodded as he listened, then considered it for a long moment. “There’s no way of knowing if the list of names and the apparent smuggling are related. You did find the suspicious documents in different places.”

“There could be any number of reasons for that,” said Seregil.

“Maybe Kyrin was waiting until nobody was there to move the scroll to the hidden cupboard behind the tapestry,” Alec pointed out.

Seregil nodded. “Perhaps.”

“And don’t forget Elani’s stolen letter,” Alec reminded them. “If Kyrin is sharing secrets with Reltheus and the others, maybe they know about the letter, too.”

“Korathan’s secretary, and someone stealing the princess royal’s letters.” Thero frowned. “This could strike at the heart of the court.”

“More work to be done,” said Seregil. “I think Lords

Seregil and Alec will be out of the city again for a bit while the Cat attends to this Watcher business.”

“But I’ll be able to reach you at the inn if need be?”

“Of course. We’ll work out of there until Alec’s name day, then reappear from our ‘travels.’ ”

“Keep me informed of your progress. I fear you may have stumbled onto something quite serious.”

Seregil nodded. “So do I, and I don’t much like our names on that list.”

CHAPTER 5. Whispers in the Dark

KLIA and her force took the Plenimarans by surprise just before sunrise in a carefully coordinated attack, striking at one corner of the encampment. Beka and her troop successfully overwhelmed the pickets before they could raise the alarm, then Lieutenant Kallas and the Urghazi riders went after the enemy’s horses. Klia rode through the gap with Danos, Anri, and their troops, thundering into the camp as the first startled soldiers emerged from their tents.

Even taken by surprise, the Plenimarans were quick to mass against them, and it was a hard-fought battle that surged back and forth between the wood and the river. But as Klia had hoped, the Plenimaran line did begin to thin as they were pushed back.

Within a few hours the broad meadow was littered with the dead and dying, Skalan side by side with Plenimaran.

Bloody to the elbows and half blinded by sweat, Beka and her riders were fighting beside Klia when she heard Danos shout, “Commander, look there!”

Beka couldn’t see Danos, but she did spy a Plenimaran standard wavering above the melee no more than a hundred feet away. Summoning her flagging strength, throat already raw with shouting, Beka yelled, “Riders, to the commander! Blood and Steel!”

Fighting like the demons the Plenimarans had named them, they hacked their way through what felt like a wall of

flesh and armor, scattering the enemy commander’s bodyguard and clearing the way for Klia.

Beka was in the lead when they broke through at last and there was the Plenimaran officer, wearing the insignia of a cavalry commander.

Klia must have been as exhausted as any of them, but she gave no quarter as she shouted “For Skala and the queen!” and lunged past Beka to attack the commander with Beka and Captain Danos at her back. The others had their hands full holding off the Plenimaran soldiers.

Suddenly a cry went up from the enemy. Beka dispatched the man she’d been fighting with a blow to the neck, then looked over her shoulder quickly to see the Plenimaran commander on the ground, with Klia’s blade at his throat.

“Bretza!” Klia shouted, loud enough to carry around to the men still fighting. It was the Plenimaran command to yield.

The fallen officer glared up at her for a moment, then dropped his hands to his sides, relinquishing his sword. The day was theirs.

It took well over an hour for word to spread around the field that the Plenimarans had lost. Meanwhile, Klia had the captured officer and his bodyguard disarmed and escorted to the edge of the river, where Beka and several of her riders stood guard over them.

The sun had passed noon when the fighting finally stopped and the last of the enemy were disarmed. Klia had the Plenimaran provision wagons emptied, then gave them to the vanquished commander so he could gather and transport his dead. The wagons were nearly empty to begin with, just a few barrels of salt fish and hard biscuit; the Plenimarans were as badly supplied as they were, if not worse.

Leaving Klia with a sizable guard, Beka, Captain Anri, and Danos went to gather the remaining squadron.

“That was a bloody day.” Anri sighed, looking around. She was as filthy as the others, and there were dark circles under her darker eyes. She was a good friend, too. Years of bitter war had forged a solid bond between them.

“Do we see anything else?” asked Danos, yawning.

They continued on in silence, taking in the carnage. As the battle fever drained away, Beka felt exhaustion creeping into its place, but there was still much to do.

One by one, they found their lieutenants and listened to their reports. Urghazi Turma, which had already taken losses that summer, had lost eleven riders more and Braknil, who’d been lieutenant since Beka’s promotion, was mortally wounded. Sergeant Zir had only three riders left. Most of the others had wounds of some degree.

Klia allowed her exhausted forces to eat what they had, then gave orders to recover the Skalan dead for burning. What was left of Beka’s Red Horse Turma were ordered to guard the ford, sparing them the grim task of dispatching the enemy wounded and speeding on those of their own who were too badly hurt to survive. There was no time to grieve for the fallen.

The field was lit with funeral pyres and rank with the stench of death and burning flesh. The battle had cost Klia nearly half her remaining force, and the Plenimarans far more, but they had the crucial ford.

Klia’s tent stood just upstream near the burned farmhouse, so Beka set off on foot to make her own report. The waxing moon turned the rising mist to a gently roiling silver blanket spreading up from the river.

She used the funeral fires to guide her over the churned ground. The bodies had been cleared in this area, but the smell of death still hung on the damp night air. She was between fires when she heard low voices nearby.

“You see how the queen throws us into the dragon’s maw?” a man was saying. She couldn’t make out who the dark forms were, or recognize the voice. “Sending her own sister out with less than a full squadron!”

“Half sister,” said another.

“And for what?” a third voice scoffed. “Phoria could have rolled in here with her entire force and swept the whoreson bastards out like spiders out of a drain!”

It was the usual soldiers’ talk, and nothing Beka hadn’t thought herself. She was about to walk on when another said,

“What about the officers, Restus? Whose side would they take?”

“Can’t say about Anri, but from what I’ve heard that redheaded one is Klia’s friend,” another man replied. “I expect she’d take her side of things.”

Beka paused, frowning. Take Klia’s side in what?

“It’d be different if Commander Klia was general, wouldn’t it?” a young-sounding rider asked. “Then maybe she could talk sense to the queen.”

“Mind your tongue, Callin, and keep your damn voice down!”

“And about time, though,” one of the others muttered.

“To better days,” one of the others said, and she heard a murmur of agreement.

This was not the first time Beka had heard the sentiment. There’d been growing discontent since Phoria had refused the Overlord’s offer of a truce. Most of the officers, Klia included, shared Phoria’s belief that they would finally see victory before the summer was over; the state of the enemy’s captured provisions was a good sign. But it was hard to convince the ranks of that, even after a day like this.

Cursing the darkness, she listened for more, but the talk turned to the day’s fighting and no more was said of Klia or herself. After a few minutes they set off in her direction. Beka moved away, then trailed them to see who they were.

There were five of them, and as they stepped into the glow of a nearby watch fire, she recognized Sergeant Werneus of Captain Anri’s Fourth Troop; he’d saved her life that morning. She owed him something.

“Sergeant,” she called out.

Startled, the man turned and squinted through the darkness, then saluted. “Evenin’, Captain. Good to see you’re still in one piece and breathing.”

“And I have you to thank for it,” she replied, coming closer and lowering her voice. “Listen, I overheard you just now and I should report you to your captain.”

Werneus’s men exchanged nervous glances, but the sergeant saluted and went down on one knee. “We meant no harm.”

Beka held up her hand. “Given the good turn you did me, I’m not going to-this time. But don’t ever forget, we’re the Queen’s Horse Guard, the best and bravest regiment in the army. Leave the running of the war to the generals and the queen and keep your mouths shut. Is that clear?”

“As springwater, Captain.”

“Good. Blood and Steel, men.”

“Blood and Steel, Captain!” the others replied, fists to hearts.

CHAPTER 6. Ulia

ULIA squatted in the weeds above the breakwater, poking at the dead gull’s shiny gold eye with a twig. It was pretty, and she wished it were a bead she could wear on a string around her neck. But it also meant that the bird was freshly dead.

The child’s bare arms and legs were like knobby twigs themselves, sticking out of the shapeless grey folds of her sister’s cast-off dress. She picked the bird up by one still-supple orange foot and carefully held it at arm’s length so the blood dripping from its gaping bone-colored beak wouldn’t get on her clothing or bare feet. The bird was nearly as big as she was. Even when she held her hand up high, the head dragged on the ground and the broad grey-backed wings flapped clumsily, as if it didn’t want to go in her mama’s stewpot. Ulia looked around quickly, judging the distance across the barren shorefront to the row of sagging tenements where she and her large family lived, and measuring who else was around to see. An older child, or even a grown-up, would take it from her for sure, and then her family would go hungry another night. But there was no one at the moment, except for the bent old woman sitting on one of the granite anchor stones nearby, leaning on a gnarled stick.

Ulia would have avoided her, too, except that the woman was holding something up between her gloved fingers that caught the light and sparkled like sunlight on ice. Curious, Ulia sidled over toward her, arm already aching from the weight of the bird. Keeping out of reach, she craned her neck, trying to see what it was that was sparkling so.

The old woman wore a dress as crude and tattered as her own, and the scarf wound around her head under the brown shawl might have been red once. But Ulia was a child starved for color. Even the gull’s blood was pretty to her. What she could see of the old woman’s face under the kerchief was sun-browned and lined, and she had white whiskers on her chin. As Ulia came closer, she saw that the old grandmother had on the strangest belt; it was made of rope, and had things hanging from it on bits of string: bent spoons, broken hair combs, bones, a bracelet made of dried rosebuds, stones and shells with holes through them. But Ulia’s gaze lingered longest on what the woman still held between her fingers. It was a bit of yellow rock crystal, clear as rainwater, bright as a star in the daytime, prettier than the gull’s golden eye.

“Hello, little one,” the old woman said, giving her a broken-toothed smile.

Ulia warily kept her distance. “Hello, old mother.”

“I see you’ve found your dinner.”

Ulia instinctively tried to hold the gull behind her.

The old woman laughed. “I’ve got my own supper waiting, love. I’m not going to take yours.” She thumped her twisted stick on the ground. “My chasing days are over, anyway, don’t you see?”

Ulia stood on one leg and scratched the back of her calf with the other foot where the seagull’s wing feathers made it itch. “That’s a pretty rock.”

The old woman cocked her head and regarded the crystal. “It is, indeed, but I have so many!” She leaned her stick against the stone and rummaged in the folds of her skirts. At last she found a pouch on a length of fisherman’s twine and dumped the contents into the palm of her glove. White and yellow stones caught the light like sharp crystal teeth. “Would you like to have one?”

Ulia’s eyes widened at that and she let the gull fall and took a step closer, eyes fixed on the sparkling stones. “I can have one?”

As she raised her hand to reach for one, however, the old woman drew her own hand back and closed her fingers around them. “A trade, to keep the bad luck off.”

Ulia glanced back at the gull.

“No, love. I told you, I don’t need your dinner,” the old woman said with a warm chuckle.

What else did she have? The child raised her hand to the little bit of faded blue silk ribbon knotted into a hank of her lank brown hair. It was only a few inches long; her mother had found a long piece trodden into the dirty snow in the marketplace last winter, lost by some wealthy girl. She’d washed it and cut it into five little pieces, one for each daughter, and tied it into their hair in bows that looked like tiny butterflies. Ulia pulled the bedraggled bit of cloth loose, wincing as several strands of hair came with it, and held it out.

The old woman smiled down at her, holding Ulia’s gaze as she took it. Her fingers brushed the girl’s and for an instant Ulia felt the slightest hint of a tingle in her chest, as though she had to cough.

The old woman tucked the ribbon away inside her tattered glove and let the child choose the stone she wanted. The one the grandmother had been holding when Ulia had first seen her was the largest. Ulia’s fingers hovered over that one and the old woman smiled. “Whatever one you like, love.”

Ulia hesitated, then chose a smaller one that was yellow as a daisy’s eye. “It’s so clear! Is it magic?”

“No, sweetness, it’s just a pretty stone I found. Not worth a broken penny but to you and me. Now you better run along and get that fine bird to your mama.”

Unused to such kindness, Ulia impulsively kissed the old woman, then grabbed up the gull and ran home, laughing.

CHAPTER 7. Wheel Street

OVER the next week Alec and Seregil kept an eye on the duke and Kyrin from a safe distance, but the men did nothing particularly suspicious, other than frequent visits to each other’s houses. Thero was getting impatient, and so were they, especially at not being able to burgle Reltheus.

It was something of a relief to move back to Wheel Street on the third day of Shemin, despite the usual fuss of having to make a show of returning to the city as if they’d actually been gone. Riding through the afternoon crowds, Alec and Seregil made a point of waving to friends and acquaintances they met along the way.

Wheel Street was a quiet boulevard on the edge of the Noble Quarter, and fashionable without being grand. The narrow houses with their fancy Skalan facades fronted onto the street, saving their walls for the back gardens. Here and there a shop took up the street-level floor: a tailor, a milliner, a gem dealer, a dealer in fine cards and gaming pieces.

The street ended in a circle, and there was a public stable there to serve the minor nobles like Seregil who didn’t have room for their own. Leaving Windrunner and Cynril with Master Rorik, they walked across the street to their house, the one with the carving of grapevines above the polished oak door. The rich, toothsome, and very unexpected aroma of roast duck greeted them as they walked through the small antechamber and into the painted salon beyond. Poultry was another scarcity.

This room was already decked out for the party. The murals of forest scenes were festooned with ropes of bright dried flowers and greenery, and the carpets had been taken away, leaving the colorful mosaic floor ready for dancing. Trestles were set around the room, already laden with Seregil’s best freshly polished silver chargers and cups. The musicians’ gallery overhead was freshly dusted and free of cobwebs. Runcer the Younger, who ran the household, appeared from behind the curtains of the service corridor with Seregil’s two huge white Zengati hounds, Zir and Marag, at his heels. As soon as the dogs caught sight of their masters, they ambled over to greet them. Alec went down on one knee to hug them and give their heads a good scratching.

Seregil looked around. “Where are our houseguests? I expected to be swarmed by Illia and the boys.”

“Not knowing when you’d arrive, the Cavishes have gone to dine with their daughter Elsbet at the temple. Will you be wanting dinner now, my lords?”

“Yes. Is that a brace of duck in pastry I smell?” asked Alec.

“It is, my lord,” Runcer replied with the hint of a smile. He prided himself on anticipating his masters’ wishes.

“Where in the world did you find ducks this summer?” asked Alec. “Or pastry flour, for that matter?”

“I can’t say, my lord. Perhaps Cook knows.”

“And she’ll tell us to ask you, I bet,” Seregil chuckled. “Whatever the case, well done.”

“Will you eat now, my lords?”

“As soon as we wash up.”

“Very good, my lord. Oh, and the package you’ve been expecting arrived in your absence, Lord Seregil.”

Seregil grinned at Alec. “Come upstairs, tali.”

Alec returned the grin, murmuring “I always like hearing that.”

But Seregil led him into the library rather than the bedroom. A long, thin bundle several feet long lay across the desk at the far side of the room, wrapped in oilcloth and string and wax seals.

“What’s this?” Alec asked as Seregil placed it in his hands.

“Your birthday gift, of course.” He looked remarkably pleased with himself.

“The party isn’t until tomorrow.”

“I wanted to be the first. Go on. Open it!”

Intrigued, Alec sat down in an armchair, pulled the strings loose, and unrolled the bundle, feeling something curved and familiar underneath. When the last of the wrapping fell away, he let out a gasp. “A Black Radly! But-how?”

Seregil was positively beaming now. “I sent for one as soon as we got back this spring. I had no idea if it would make it all the way from Wolde, but as you see, it did.”

The wayfarer bow, made in two halves, lay in the wrappings in pieces, a braided linen bow string curled around them. Alec fitted the steel-clad post of one limb into the ferrule hidden in the grip in the other and twisted it to lock the two together. In one piece, it was only a few hand spans shorter than a long bow. Made of black yew, which grew only around Blackwater Lake in the north, the oil-rubbed limbs shone like dark horn. Master Radly was the finest bowyer Alec had ever found, and he’d mourned the loss of the first Radly that Seregil had given him, which was probably in the hands of a slave ship captain now.

Alec inspected the maker’s mark engraved on the ivory disk set into the back of the handgrip. Radly’s yew-tree mark stood out, and there was a tiny R in the crown of branches, proof that this was the product of the master’s own hands, rather than one of his workmen. Such bows were costly, but more than worth the price: strong, sturdy, and true.

Still gripping it in one hand, he jumped up and grabbed Seregil in an enthusiastic hug. “Thank you, tali. I just… I don’t know what to say, except thank you!” Holding the bottom end of the bow against his foot, he bent it to set the bowstring in its notches, then eyed down the length of it. “It’s perfect.”

“That’s good. It would be a long ride to return it. That bow Riagil gave you is a good one, but I could tell you missed yours, so I couldn’t very well leave you without one, could I? I had Runcer set up a few targets in the garden. Care to try it out?”

Alec was already out the door to fetch his quiver.

The back garden wasn’t large enough to set up a very challenging target, but Alec split a few wands and murdered a bull’s-eye painted on a board propped against the garden wall. When he was done, Seregil and several of the servants who’d come to watch applauded.

“I feel safer already,” said Seregil.

They were at supper when Micum and his family arrived. Alec tossed his napkin aside and hurried into the hall to greet them.

“Here we are at last!” Micum had little Gherin on his shoulder and his giggling blond foster son, Luthas, under one arm. Gherin had his father’s red hair and freckles but his mother’s dark eyes. Luthas looked more like his birth mother every time they saw the child. That couldn’t be easy for Seregil, Alec knew, given the lingering guilt he still felt over Cilla’s death.

Kari came in just behind Micum, one arm around Elsbet, their middle daughter-still in her temple initiate’s robe-and holding young Illia by the hand, laughing with them over something. Unlike Beka and Gherin, both girls had taken after her, pretty and dark-haired.

“Uncle!” Illia ran to Alec and threw her arms around him. When he’d first met her at Watermead, he’d been able to sweep her up in his arms with ease. Now her head came nearly to his shoulder, but she hadn’t lost any of her natural exuberance.

“Why haven’t you come to Watermead this summer?” she demanded.

Alec laughed. “That’s your greeting?”

Ignoring that, she ran to hug Seregil as he came in. “Uncle Seregil!”

Seregil swung her around and kissed her. “At least she isn’t demanding presents from you, Alec.”

“Because she knows you always have them,” her mother said, shaking her head as she came to kiss them both. Illia was wearing the tiny pearl necklace and earrings they’d given her a few years ago, as well as a silver ring from Seregil.

Elsbet had lost some of her shyness since she’d entered the Temple of Illior as an initiate and didn’t have to be coaxed into a hug.

“Look,” she said, showing them a round, elaborate tattoo of Illior’s dragon on the palm of her hand. It was done in black, but now some small parts of the design had been filled in with green and blue.

“Second level already?” said Seregil.

“She is the family scholar, after all,” Micum said proudly. “The head priestess was very complimentary.”

“I’m not surprised,” said Alec.

“Do I get to sleep in the library again?” asked Illia.

“Of course,” Seregil replied.

“But you’re not to stay up all night reading,” her mother warned.

Illia gave Alec a conspiratorial look; why else would she want to sleep there?

They’d hardly gotten settled in for the night when Runcer appeared at their chamber with a familiar pinched look of disapproval around his eyes and mouth.

“That young boy is back, asking for you, my lords,” he told them, sounding pained at having to deliver such distasteful news. “I put him in the garden.”

“Thank you. I’ll see to him,” said Seregil.

They’d met Kepi, so to speak, in the spring when the boy had cut Thero’s purse in the Harvest Market. He’d led Seregil and Alec a merry chase to get it back, too. It wasn’t that there was anything irreplaceable in the purse, but the fact that the boy had been able to get that close to a wizard and two nightrunners and then nearly gotten away intrigued Seregil. Since then, they’d found occasion to use him as an extra set of eyes and ears, together with a handful of other youngsters Kepi brought them.

The boy was perched on the rain butt, wolfing down a mince tart. Runcer might not approve of him, but the cook, Sara, had a soft spot for the child and never let him get away without something in his belly.

Kepi was a true child of the streets, and knew neither his

parents nor his own age. From the looks of him, he could have been anywhere from ten to a malnourished twelve or thirteen. He was skinny, with a pointed little face, wide blue eyes, and a tangle of blond hair so pale it was nearly white under the faded silk head scarf Seregil had given him. His long tunic-some nephew’s castoffs that Sara had cut down for him-hung loose on his narrow shoulders, and his legs and feet were bare and dusty beneath it. He could play the innocent when needed, but in truth he possessed all the craftiness and the streak of savagery needed to survive in his part of the city. But he was also bright and quick, and utterly devoted to his benefactors. As soon as he caught sight of Seregil and Alec, he hopped down from the barrel and made them an awkward little bow. “Evenin’, my lords,” he said, spewing crumbs. “Hope I didn’t disturb you or nuthin’.”

“No. Is there something you wanted?” asked Seregil. The boy had no outstanding assignments from them.

“I was hoping you had some work, my lord. With you gone so long, it’s been a hungry time.”

“What happened to the money we left you with?” asked Alec.

Kepi’s brash grin faltered. “Gambled it, my lord.”

Seregil chuckled. “A lesson from Illior. Hard-won money is easily lost.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“You’re in luck, though. I do have something for you to do. I want you to watch the house of Duke Reltheus in Silvermoon Street. It’s the fifth one on the palace side, east of the gate. If the duke goes out at night, especially alone late at night, I want to know when and where. And keep an eye on who goes in. Don’t worry about the daytime, just after dark. And find someone to keep an eye on Marquis Kyrin in Emerald Street, too.”

“I will, my lords, just as you say.”

Seregil counted out a handful of coins and let the boy out the back postern gate. Kepi disappeared into the night like a stray cat.

CHAPTER 8. A Glittering Evening

ALEC wasn’t really displeased about the party, but when he was growing up in the wilds, his father had never made any particular fuss about his name day except to note it. Neither had Seregil until now, since it came so soon after the summer festival, but this year he claimed that Alec reaching his majority warranted a proper party among the nobles.

“It’s an important event, tali. People would talk if we didn’t,” he told Alec firmly as they shared breakfast with the Cavishes that morning.

Alec rolled his eyes. “They talk about us, anyway.”

Micum chuckled. “Well, you were quite the scandal.”

“What’s a scadnal, Papa?” asked Luthas.

“It’s silly people being jealous because our uncles are so handsome together,” Illia explained, much to her father’s amusement. “Aren’t they, Uncle Seregil?”

“Of course! They’re green with envy at my good luck.” Seregil raised Alec’s hand to his lips, making him blush.

Illia noisily kissed the back of her own hand, mocking them, and the two little boys did the same, thinking it the greatest joke. Alec stuck his spoon to his nose and crossed his eyes at them, making the children scream with laughter.

“That’s enough of that,” said Kari. “Illia, take these jackdaws out to play. There’s still work to be done for the party. Come along, Elsbet.”

“Kari, you’re our guests,” Alec objected. “You don’t have to work.”

“Don’t be silly.” Kari shooed the children out and headed for the kitchen to consult with Sara.

Micum sat back in his chair and sighed. “I learned long ago to just get out of her way when she makes up her mind. And you know she enjoys it.”

“And I hate to have you working at your own party, too, Alec,” said Seregil. “But if you can sound Selin out about his friend, it will be a good night’s work.”

Micum raised a bushy red brow. “You two are up to something.”

“Just a little job for Thero,” Alec explained.

“Anything I can help with?”

“Keep your ears open for talk of Elani and Phoria,” Seregil replied.

Laughter drifted in from the garden through the open dining room door, then the sound of something breaking.

“Micum!” Kari shouted from the kitchen.

Micum rose, taking out his pipe and tobacco pouch. “I think I’ll go help Illia keep the damage to a minimum.”

As much as Alec had complained, by the time the guests started arriving that evening he was the very model of a noble young host. He wore his embroidered violet coat impeccably, as he did the fancy amethyst earring dangling from his right earlobe. With his long blond hair loose over his shoulders, he looked a bit older than usual. Or perhaps it was his demeanor. Glancing sidelong at his talimenios, Seregil-in sea green and gold tonight-felt a familiar tug of pride. When Alec had first come to Rhiminee he’d been charmingly-and sometimes dangerously-naive and unworldly. The naivete was long gone, of course, but there was still a freshness about him that drew people, and made many underestimate him in the most convenient ways, just as they dismissed Seregil as a rich young wastrel-charming and entertaining, to be sure, and always a generous host, even in these hard times, but a wastrel nonetheless.

“My face is beginning to hurt with all this smiling,” Alec muttered as they greeted the steady stream of guests.

Stationed at the salon door in his best blue coat, silver buttons

aglow in the candlelight, Runcer announced each noble as they arrived.

A good many of them were young lords and ladies Seregil and Alec gambled and drank with, including Count Selin, who arrived early and caught Alec in a friendly, one-armed hug as he balanced on his elaborately carved and gilded crutch.

The other guests were interspersed with wealthy merchants who oversaw Seregil’s many and varied trade investments. There were also poets, artists, and even a few of the most brilliant male and female courtesans from the Street of Lights houses.

“How many did you invite?” Alec whispered to Seregil as guests continued to arrive.

“Counting the Cavishes? Only a hundred or so, give or take.”

“Lord Thero of Rhiminee,” Runcer intoned gravely. “Wizard of the Second Order of the Third Oreska.”

The abbreviated name still sounded strange to Seregil. For centuries, ever since one of the Skalan queens had taken one of Seregil’s great-uncles as consort, the court had used the ’faie fashion of lengthy patronymics and matronymics. Despite the fact that Aurenen was supplying horses and arms to Queen Phoria, she had put an end to that, reverting to “proper” Skalan nomenclature and short hair for men. The latter was fashion rather than law, of course, so Seregil and Alec, as well as a good many others, had left theirs long in silent protest.

Lady Kylith was the next to arrive, accompanied by her niece Ysmay and the handsome auburn-haired actor from the Basket Street theater, resplendent now in black and silver. It appeared the man had wasted no time in spending their money.

“You remember Master Atre, don’t you?” Kylith said as she kissed each of them.

The actor bowed deeply. “I hope I give no offense, my lords, with my humble presence.”

“Great artists are always welcome here,” Seregil assured him. “I think you’ll find yourself in good company.”

“I hope you will visit our theater again, my lords,” Atre said. When he smiled, the corners of his dark blue eyes tilted up in the most engaging way. A touch of cosmetics there? Or perhaps it wasn’t necessary. Atre’s skin was smooth, his eyes bright with youth. A naturally handsome man.

“We have several other plays, depending on the night,” Atre was saying.

“If Seregil can be coaxed from the bakshi tables,” Kylith said, lazily waving a fan in one hand. “Oh, but I see the delightful Lady Kari is here!” Kylith went off to greet her friend with Atre in tow.

Duke Malthus entered with his wife, Ania, and they both hugged Alec warmly.

“We haven’t seen nearly enough of you this summer!” Ania exclaimed as Malthus carried their silk-wrapped gift to a table already groaning with them.

“I couldn’t agree more, dear lady,” Seregil replied.

“I’m off to our summer villa in a few days. Malthus must stay and work, of course, but you two should come with me.”

“I will consult our calendar,” Seregil promised.

Their friend, Eirual-yet another of Seregil’s past lovers-who owned one of the most elegant pink-lantern brothels in the Street of Lights, swept in soon after with several of her protegees. The queen had set the fashion for higher necklines. Eirual and her courtesans led the fashion and flouted it all at once; their gowns featured bodices made of colorful jeweled lace and high lacy collars, but sheer enough to still offer a tantalizing hint of the assets beneath.

Eirual was half Zengati, and her exotic beauty had made her fortune in the Street. But it wasn’t only her looks; she enjoyed life to the fullest and made sure those around her did, too. The lovely Myrhichia was with her, her dark, elaborately coiffed hair sparkling with sapphire hairpins.

“My darlings!” Eirual cried, kissing them both soundly. “Why in the names of all the Four don’t you have a country house to whisk me away to?”

“And rusticate away from the delights of the city?” Seregil shuddered. “I wouldn’t last a week!”

“And yet you’re always disappearing.” Lady Syllia and her

current lover, the celebrated actress Lavinis, had come up behind Eirual and stood there, smirking at Seregil. Seregil could smell wine on their breath from here. “Where do you two get off to, anyway?”

“Other cities, I assure you,” Seregil said with a laugh. “I have all my ventures to oversee. Not all of us were born to fortunes.”

Seregil and Alec’s occasional disappearances did cause talk, but over the years Seregil had gotten very good at spinning yarns boring enough that his listeners seldom asked for details, and Alec had easily picked up the habit.

As more guests arrived, Seregil waved to the musicians and they struck up a lively tune, not for dancing yet, just to keep things festive. Everyone was gravitating toward the well-laden tables at the far end of the room, which featured more than a few contraband delicacies shipped in from Aurenen and Zengat. Illia and the boys had already found playmates and disappeared into the garden.

As Alec mingled with his guests, he found Thero gazing around with a rather odd expression.

“What’s wrong?” Alec asked.

“Nothing, I just thought I felt-No, it’s nothing. Wonderful party, Alec.”

“I’m glad you’re here. And guess who else is?”

“I have no idea.”

“Atre, the Mycenian actor we told you about!” Alec looked around for Atre. “I don’t see him, but he’s here somewhere. If I find him I’ll introduce you.”

Thero looked less than enthused at the idea.

“And you are going to come to the theater with us,” Alec chided. “You spend too much time up in that tower of yours.”

“I will, at some point. I’m very busy.”

Alec grinned. “So you’re always saying. Well, I’m glad you came tonight.”

Seregil appeared out of the crowd and took Alec’s arm. “Time to begin, tali. It’s up to you to do the honors.”

“I’ll talk to you later, Thero,” Alec said as Seregil led him

away to the feast. “And I’m holding you to going to the theater-”

But the wizard had already disappeared into the crowd, no doubt to avoid making any promises.

There was no sign of the summer’s deprivations here. Stacks of flat parsley loaves were piled on the table beside platters of cold sliced duck, boiled lobsters, butter fish, and bowls of little whelks in vinegar, as well as roasted vegetables with lemon sauce. Fruit tarts and spun sugar animals crowded another table. Anat, the young scullion, was stationed there, guarding the food from the hounds, who were lurking among the guests, yellow eyes fixed hungrily on the food.

Alec picked up a loaf of bread and tore it in two, then poured the libation to the Four, signaling the beginning of the feast.

When the meal was done and the sweet wine was being passed, there were gifts to be opened and admired-gloves, rings, earrings, expensive gaming stones, wines, embroidered handkerchiefs from several young ladies, and the like. Given the current privations, much of it was probably secondhand. Alec lingered just long enough over each one, and then it was time for magic and dancing.

“Shall I?” asked Thero.

“If you would,” Seregil replied with a wink. “Runcer, please fetch the children.”

Over the years it had become something of a tradition for Seregil’s various wizard friends to bring the salon mural to life. The leafy grove, with its distant view of the sea, had been populated by all sorts of fanciful animals and beings, from fiery salamanders to centaur harpists. Tonight Thero conjured dragons-not just large ones flying in the distance, but also the little fingerlings often encountered in Aurenen, skittering among the fallen painted leaves, darting up painted tree trunks, and fluttering among the branches. To the Skalans it was magical, a gorgeous fantasy; for Seregil and Alec, it was a bit of home. Singing birds with golden feathers soon appeared with them, and a huge dragon stalked its way

around the room just inside the trees, glaring balefully at the partygoers as it emerged from behind a doorway.

Amid much clapping and laughing, Seregil took Alec by the hand and drew him halfway up the sweeping staircase. Raising his wine cup, he saluted Alec with it. “To my lover!”

“Who’s finally old enough for you all to stop shaking your heads over,” added Micum, raising his cup.

“A scadnal!” Luthas piped from somewhere in the throng.

This was greeted with cheers and more laughter, and the dancing began. Alec and Seregil led the first lively reel, then split up to make the rounds of their guests.

So it was that Seregil found himself partnered with Atre for the pavane.

“Will you really come to the theater again, my lord?” the actor asked, affecting a rather warm look as they moved through the slow graceful steps.

Seregil laughed. “Don’t go working your wiles on me!”

This was greeted with a dazzling smile. “Merely humble admiration, my lord!”

Alec passed them in the circle with Kylith’s niece, Ysmay, on his arm and gave Seregil a questioning look. Seregil just winked.

“Lady Kylith told me that you and Lord Alec are among the greatest patrons of the arts in Rhiminee,” said Atre. “I can see that, by your guests.”

It was extravagant praise, but there were many artists and poets in the crowd, several of whom had gathered clusters of rapt listeners. Donaeus, the most famous-and the most arrogant-poet was, as usual, the focus of the largest, youngest knot of admirers. The man towered over them in his shabby velvets, declaiming his latest epos in his rich, sonorous voice. The great sculptor Ravinus, who had recently unveiled an acclaimed statue of the late Queen Idrilain in Temple Square, was apparently explaining some method to Lord Zymeus, shaping the air with his hands.

“You excel at patronage,” Atre noted.

“And you at flattery,” Seregil countered. “Would I be right in guessing you’re looking for backing for a new play?”

Atre didn’t even look abashed. “And how could it not be a

lucrative investment, with me as the principal actor? We are constrained by our current location, though. So many nobles won’t go there, and it’s so small we’re having to turn people away…”

“That’s too bad. Have you come up with a solution?”

Atre completed a stately turn and faced him again. “I have been looking at a larger venue in Gannet Lane.”

“Gannet Lane? How ambitious of you!” Seregil chuckled. It was on the outskirts of the Noble Quarter, close enough to attract rich patrons. “Well, I am getting a bit bored with trade.”

As the music ended, Atre bowed over Seregil’s hand. “My lord, your servant.”

Seregil kept his expression neutral as he tightened his hand on the actor’s and murmured, “I do hope you mean that, Master Atre.”

The actor blinked, caught off guard at having his polite blandishment taken literally. “Of course, my lord.”

“Good. We’ll talk soon. I’d like to see this place in Gannet Lane before I decide whether to invest in it or not.”

“As you wish, my lord.” Atre bowed again and went to find another partner.

“He’s a fickle one,” Kylith murmured as she took Seregil’s hand for the next dance.

“I hope you don’t think I encouraged him too much.”

“No matter. He’s handsome enough that I can forgive him a bit of flirting, although men aren’t really his sort.”

“But he knows they are my sort,” Seregil noted. “And he is an accomplished actor.”

“You are going to invest in his theater, aren’t you?”

“Are you?”

“We simply must get him out of that dreadful place they’re in now! And admit it, he charmed you.”

Seregil gave her a gallant smile. “You’re a wicked woman, my lady.”

Alec smiled and nodded to everyone, and gave the simpering youths and girls enough attention to be polite but not encouraging-which, to his continual surprise, seemed to

make him all the more alluring-and let the older ones fuss over him or regale him, as the case might be. When he’d had enough, he escaped to the dancing, which he’d come to enjoy very much since those first awkward lessons at Watermead.

He’d just finished a reel with Illia, and was about to make his way through the press to seek out Selin when a bit of conversation caught his attention.

“I’m as fond of Seregil as anyone,” Duchess Nerian was saying to Duke Malthus as they stood with heads together near the servants’ passage, “but this is different. The Aurenfaie know they have us over a barrel and they’re taking full advantage.”

Alec lingered inconspicuously, listening carefully as Nerian harangued Malthus about the price of Aurenfaie steel. Her name had been on Marquis Kyrin’s list, together with Malthus’s.

“They are abiding by the terms arranged by Princess Klia,” Malthus reminded her. “It’s hardly their fault that the war continues to drag on. Like it or not, we need foreign horses, steel, and grain. Mycena’s decimated. There are reports of starvation in the midlands and along the river. The northern trade routes are unreliable at best this summer. There hasn’t been a gold shipment to the Royal Treasury since early spring. The ’faie are already granting us credit. Really, my friend, I think you’re being unfair.”

Nerian paused a moment, then turned away, muttering, “Well, I suppose you’d see it that way. Sometimes I wonder if you’re really-” Just then she caught sight of Alec and smiled. “Happy name day, Alec. So nice of you to invite me.”

The abrupt change was not lost on Alec, nor Malthus’s look of discomfort. “I’m delighted to see you again, my lady,” he replied. “I hope you didn’t find the fare too paltry.”

“Hardly! Your Sara is amazing.”

Alec lingered for a bit of small talk until he spied Selin talking to a poet at the bottom of the staircase. Before Alec could reach him, however, he was waylaid by Eirual and Myrhichia.

“I think you owe us both a dance, Lord Alec, to make up

for your absence from our house,” Eirual declared, her violet eyes bright with amusement and wine.

“Both at once?” asked Alec.

Eirual laughed, making the jeweled netting over her breasts twinkle in the candlelight. “You know I charge more for that, my lord.” If she’d meant to make Alec blush, it worked. It was an affliction he seemed not to be growing out of. “No, you take my lovely girl here. I’ll go find that lover of yours, if I can pry him away from those young men.”

Indeed, Seregil was presently hemmed in by the poets and their set across the room near the front entrance. Thero was with him, and appeared to be enjoying some spirited debate with Donaeus. Eirual strode through the press and claimed Seregil for her own, pulling him by the hand from their midst and out to dance.

The musicians struck up another reel and Alec took the young courtesan in his arms and whirled her across the floor. Out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of Illia beaming and chattering away as she danced with Atre, who appeared to be charming her the way he did every other female in the room.

Myrhichia laughed, cheeks flushed and strands of her dark hair escaping from the jeweled pins to frame her pretty face. “You’re in fine form tonight, my lord!”

“It must be my dancing partner’s influence,” he replied gallantly. In fact, he liked her quite a lot. She was the second-and last-woman he’d slept with, the only time he’d done so willingly. He’d been halfway up the brothel stairs with her that night before he realized that she looked a bit like Seregil with her dark hair and grey eyes. That had been the beginning of a succession of unsettling revelations, the upshot of which had kept him out of brothels and women’s beds ever since, but he still felt a certain affection and gratitude toward her, and was beginning to have a greater appreciation of how Seregil remained friends with past lovers.

Myrhichia was smart and amusing and proud of her craft, which involved a great deal more than what went on upstairs. She was a lovely singer, skilled conversationalist, played

several instruments, and had Seregil’s own skill at bakshi and cards. It was not at all uncommon for young nobles to engage the services of such women for the mere pleasure of their company, and Myrhichia had many admirers.

Illia caught him next and held on to him for three dances, teasing him through every one of them.

“Are you having a good time?” he asked, swinging her around the steps of a gallop. “You look very grown-up with your hair up like that.”

“I am getting grown-up,” she replied haughtily. “And I’m still a better dancer than you are.”

“You’ll have to take that up with Beka, then, since she’s the one who taught me.”

“I remember, that first time you came out to Watermead. You were a regular donkey, stepping all over her feet.”

“You’d better be nice to me on my name day, or I’ll tread on yours,” he warned, hoisting her into the air as the music ended.

Illia let out a most un-grown-up squeal, but hugged him soundly as soon as he put her down.

He finally managed to excuse himself and caught Selin in the dining room, where people were playing cards. Elsbet was there, and had a respectable pile of winnings in front of her. Alec gave her a quick kiss on the cheek, and she went pink in the face.

“I didn’t know priestesses in training were allowed to gamble,” he teased as Elsbet laid another winning card on the table and her opponents groaned.

“They shouldn’t be,” Selin exclaimed, throwing down his cards in disgust and paying his wager as Alec took a seat beside him. “Illior favors gamblers, and she wears the Immortal’s mark.”

“Uncle Seregil taught me to play,” said Elsbet. “I don’t need any more luck than that.”

“My apologies, I was only joking,” Selin returned, blushing, and Alec realized that the young lord’s chaffing might be more than idle banter. He seemed quite entranced by Elsbet’s quiet charm. “I’m not playing with you, either!” he announced to Alec, throwing an arm around his shoulders. “My

grandmother taught me never to wager against anyone on their name day. It’s bad luck the rest of the year if you lose.”

“If I lose or you lose?”

Selin thought a moment, clearly well into his wine. “Well, I don’t recall, but it’s bad luck for one of us and I’m not going to risk it.”

“Why don’t we take a turn in the garden?” Alec suggested. “It’s much cooler out there.”

Selin, who’d lost most of his right leg in a carriage accident as a child, retrieved his ornate crutch and nimbly followed Alec outside. It was a clear, moonless night, but the stars were bright enough to cast shadows. The trailing roses on the arbors were in full bloom, scenting the night air.

“What have you been up to all summer?” asked Alec. “We haven’t seen you in ages.”

“Tending to my mother’s affairs,” Selin replied. “Since Father died, she’s gone to pieces. She stays in bed all day, sometimes.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. But you do get free now and then, obviously.”

“Oh, yes. I’ve managed one hunt this summer, and I attend Archduchess Alaya’s salons whenever I can.”

Ah, there was an opening. “How do you know her?”

“Mother sends me for the latest gossip. It’s one of her few pleasures these days.”

“Isn’t Duke Reltheus a friend of the archduchess?”

“Why, yes! And a friend of mine, as well. Do you know him?”

“No, but I’ve heard he’s an interesting conversationalist.” Alec had, of course, heard no such thing. Fortunately, his guess was on target.

“A very amusing fellow!” Selin agreed. “The archduchess is very fond of the man.”

“How do they know each other?” Alec asked.

“The princess royal hunted on his estate last winter. His forests are teeming with deer! Princess Elani’s whole court accompanied her, and evidently the archduchess was quite taken with him then.” Selin lowered his voice with a wink.

“It’s rumored that the princess was rather enamored of his oldest son, Danos, too.”

Alec pretended surprise. “So Danos is courting the princess?”

“From a distance, if he is. He’s with the Queen’s Horse Guard.” Selin sounded a little wistful, absently drumming his fingers on his crutch. “To be honest, I don’t know the son as well as the father. Duke Reltheus is quite the bakshi player.”

“Perhaps you could introduce us sometime. He sounds like a fellow worth knowing.”

“I’d be happy to! Write me tomorrow and I’ll arrange something.”

This had been a good night’s work after all.

Thero was rather drunk and dancing with Elsbet Cavish when he suddenly felt a faint crawling sensation on the back of his neck again; it could have been a spider but he sensed a whiff of magic to it. Looking around the crowded room, he couldn’t find the source. It was gone as quickly as it came.

“Is something wrong, Thero?” asked Elsbet.

“No, I felt something odd, just now.”

“Magic?”

“Perhaps.”

“Well, maybe someone is wearing a strong charm.” She gave him a twinkling smile. “Or maybe it’s the wine.”

“You’re probably right.” But he spent some time wandering among the crowd afterward, without success.

Kari took the exhausted younger children upstairs around midnight, but the party lasted most of the night. Lord Seregil kept an excellent cellar and the wine, ale, and Zengati brandy flowed very freely. The younger guests-and some of the more feckless older ones-overindulged, as was to be expected. Dawn was breaking when the last of the ambulatory ones were seen off, and the ones left snoring in a stupor on benches and under tables had been made comfortable with pillows and blankets.

Seregil yawned and clapped Alec and Micum on the

shoulder as he looked around the salon with satisfaction. “I always say it’s not a successful party unless someone pukes in the garden.”

Alec gave him a wry look. “Then it was a rousing success. We should have set out buckets.”

“I don’t envy your servants who have to clean up,” said Micum as he followed them upstairs, weaving a little. He paused as they reached the landing. Lowering his voice, he asked, “Did you hear any talk of Princess Klia tonight?”

“No,” Seregil replied.

“Malthus and Duchess Nerian were talking about the truce she made with Aurenen,” said Alec. “And she was on Kyrin’s list.”

“List?” asked Micum.

“I’ll explain when we’re sober,” Seregil told him.

“Count Selin asked after Klia, knowing that Beka serves under her,” Micum told them. “I didn’t think much of it. Then I caught her name again when I was out for a stroll in the garden to clear my head. I passed Lord Areus and Lady Yrin whom I thought were doing the same.”

“Their names were on that list, too,” said Alec.

“They had their heads together and I caught Klia’s name and something about the succession,” Micum went on. “When they saw me, they started chatting with me about horses.”

“Interesting,” said Seregil, and yawned again. “Not the sort of thing most people chance talking about in public, though. The succession. Not horses.”

“They were well into their cups.”

“Too bad you didn’t hear more of it.”

“I managed to work Beka into the conversation. They didn’t know that she serves under Klia. Anyway, that didn’t go anywhere. I thought it was all a bit odd.”

“I’ll have to sound them out, next chance-” Seregil said, and yawned until his jaw cracked.

“Bed?” asked Alec.

“Excellent idea!”

Micum grinned. “Don’t expect to see me before supper tonight.”

He went to the library first, though, and Alec paused by the open doorway, watching Micum lift Illia from the armchair where she’d fallen asleep. There was a burned-down candle on the stand by the chair, and a book on the carpet in front of her, where it had fallen. Micum laid her on the couch that had been prepared for her and pulled up the blankets, then gave Alec a wink and whispered, “Don’t tell her mother.”

Alec nodded, and followed Seregil into their chamber.

Seregil had tossed his coat in the general direction of the wardrobe, kicked off his shoes, and sprawled facedown across the bed.

Alec closed their door and draped his coat over the back of a chair by the window to air.

“I saw you talking to Selin finally,” Seregil said, his voice somewhat muffled by the bedclothes.

Alec flopped down beside him. “I think Danos might be the one sending those coded dispatches to his father. He’s in Klia’s squadron.”

“Spying on his own commander? That’s not very loyal. Did you get anything else out of Selin?”

“He’s going to introduce us to Duke Reltheus, who happens to be a gambling man.”

“Excellent! That should make things easier!” Seregil turned over and propped himself against the bolsters. “Did you enjoy your party?”

“Of course I did, tali.” Alec moved around to rest his head on Seregil’s lean thigh. “I got Elsbet to dance, and I beat all the bakshi players in the dining room while you were cornered by those poets. What did you learn from that pack of leeches this time?”

“Leeches in packs!” Seregil chuckled at the image. “Let’s see. Lady Lania is cuckolding her husband with two different lovers and no one knows whose child she’s carrying. Duke Northus’s wife ran away because he beat her once too often. Korathan’s beautiful young Lord Byris gorges on sweets behind closed doors, and keeps his figure by tickling the back of his throat with a goose feather to bring them all up again. Lady Mora is sleeping with Lady Stania. The usual foolishness.”

“I overheard something more interesting than that.” Alec told him of the conversation between Malthus and Nerian. “I thought they were friends, but they sounded angry.”

“The heat and the shortages are rubbing tempers raw. When Phoria comes back, things will calm down.”

“That’s not the first time I’ve heard someone grumbling against the ’faie.” Alec tugged gently on a lock of Seregil’s long hair. “You call attention to yourself, you know.”

“We’re ’faie, Alec,” Seregil said, eyes fluttering shut. He wound his fingers in Alec’s thick hair. “At least I am, as far as anyone knows, and obviously you’re in my thrall. No one cares-” He yawned again. “-how long our hair is. And Phoria isn’t happy with us anyway, after we cocked up that last job.”

“Maybe not, but it’s things like that that are dividing the nobles,” Alec mused. “How can Phoria go out of her way to insult an ally like Aurenen when they’re her greatest source of help now that Mycena is ravaged? And this talk of the queen not considering the truce? Do you think that may have something to do with whatever it is Reltheus and Kyrin are up to?”

“Too soon to tell.”

Alec grinned as he ran a finger down Seregil’s cheek, admiring the smooth, beardless skin. “That actor was certainly doing his best to charm you.”

“Me and everyone else.” Seregil caught Alec’s hand and looked down at him. “Did it bother you?”

“No, tali. He’s just vain and wants your money.”

“Our money. And you’re right about that. Seems we’re about to own a partial interest in a theater.”

CHAPTER 9. Patrons of the Art

THE next day Seregil went to speak with Thero about what they’d learned at the party, and Kari went out with Elsbet and Illia to buy fabric. Alec remained behind with Micum and the boys to practice shooting in the garden. The new Radly already felt familiar in his hands, but too much city living threatened to dull his skills. Gherin and Luthas had toy bows, and Micum and Alec were teaching them how to use them, amid much laughter.

Runcer leaned out the dining room door. “My lord, Master Atre is here.”

“Send him out,” said Alec.

The actor greeted Alec and Micum warmly and produced pennies out of the air for the boys, earning delighted laughter and a hug from each of them.

“You certainly have fine children, Lord Micum,” he said when the boys had run off to play again. “And please, don’t stop what you’re doing on my account! I heard a great deal about Lord Alec’s skills as an archer last night.”

“All true,” Micum assured him. “I’ve never seen the like.”

“I’d love to see for myself, if it’s not impertinent of me to ask.”

The man’s manner was less fawning and flowery today, Alec noted, wondering if it was the lack of wine or the present audience. Taking up his bow again, Alec sent four shafts in quick succession into the center of the bull’s-eye target at the far end of the garden, then framed them with a star pattern of five more.

Atre clapped appreciatively. “The praise I heard was no exaggeration, my lord. You must be a formidable huntsman. Or were you a soldier?”

“Hunter.” Alec set the bow and shatta-decked quiver aside on a stone table. “Can I offer you something to drink? We’re sticking to cider today, but there’s wine if you’d prefer.”

Atre patted his flat belly. “Cider, please! I’m still a bit delicate.”

Runcer brought another cup and they sat down in a shady corner, enjoying the scents of the summer flowers and herbs around them. The conversation turned naturally to the theater, and Atre enthusiastically described his latest play and the theater in Gannet Lane where he hoped to move his company as soon as their fortunes increased. He was clearly angling for money, but his obvious love of his craft was contagious and Alec found himself asking questions about acting and theaters. Micum asked a few questions himself.

“Lord Seregil said that he’d like to see the Gannet Lane theater,” Atre said, steering the conversation back to that. “You must come with him, my lords.”

“I’m heading home early tomorrow,” Micum told him. “I have hay and oats to cut.”

“Well, I’d like to see the place,” said Alec.

“So would I.” Seregil stood in the dining room doorway in his shirtsleeves. “Though I suspect it’s going to be an expensive visit.”

Atre laughed. “I fear you may be right, my lord, if fate chooses to smile on me in my venture. Tomorrow, perhaps?”

“Very well.”

“Thank you, my lords! May your Lightbringer smile on you in all things. And you must see the new play. The money you gave us on the occasion of our first meeting has been most helpful. You will see a great improvement in our costuming.”

“I was very impressed with how you made do, especially the cosmetics. Charcoal and chalk, wasn’t it?” Seregil asked.

Atre looked pleasantly surprised at that. “Why, yes, and some candle tallow.”

“What was it you used in place of carmine?”

“A distillation of some red flowers we found growing in the ditches outside the city. You’re most observant, my lord. Few of our patrons pay any attention to such details.”

“Well, as you guessed, I have a few amateur theatricals in my past.”

Alec tried not to smile as he exchanged a quick, knowing look with Micum. They’d both seen him play roles ranging from crippled beggars and old men to the lovely, if somewhat disconcerting, Lady Gwethelyn.

“I’d like to discuss this theater of yours further, Master Atre,” said Seregil. “Will you stay for dinner?”

“I’m most honored, my lord, but sadly, I must decline, as we have a performance tonight and I must be there to manage things, as well as play the central role.”

“Ah, of course. Another time, then. I won’t keep you.”

Atre bowed and took his leave.

Seregil sat down and poured himself a cup of cider. “Charming, isn’t he?”

“And persistent,” Micum said with a chuckle. “He didn’t waste any time coming back.”

“Hardly surprising. According to him, they’re having to turn people away at the door at their current location. I’d say he’s going to be a very rich man before long.”

“And you like him,” Alec observed. “So do I. I bet he’d make a good nightrunner.”

“No doubt he would. Actors often make good spies. We’ll have to keep an eye on that one.”

Atre met them in Gannet Lane at the appointed time. Lady Kylith was there as well, fanning herself in her open carriage.

“I’m so glad you two have decided to invest,” she said as Alec helped her down.

“I didn’t know it was a foregone conclusion,” Seregil replied.

She laughed and rapped him with her fan.

“I wouldn’t presume!” Atre exclaimed.

“You might as well.” Seregil sighed dramatically. “My

lady here seems to have made up her mind on the matter. Come on, then. Let’s have a look.”

This theater was a far cry from the one in Basket Street. The huge polished wood doors were carved with the Eye of Illior, patron Immortal of creativity and actors, as well as wizards, nightrunners, and the mad. Inside there were banks of proper benches and a dozen fine boxes large enough for couches and wine tables. The stage was twice the size of the one at Basket Street, and flanked by tall wooden columns carved in the shapes of trees whose branches, laden with gilt leaves and fruit, spread across the theater ceiling. Atre led them around it, pointing out the finer details of the stage area, then took them back through the warren of little dressing and storage rooms behind it.

“It’s perfect, and worthy of your fine company,” Kylith said at last. “Seregil, you and Alec will be generous, won’t you?”

Seregil looked around approvingly. “It makes a nice change from my usual investments.”

“And once the army comes home, business should be even brisker,” added Alec.

“It will be before then, I assure you,” Atre told him. “Our Mycenian patrons tripled their money in a year. I expect we’ll do at least as well here.”

“Illior’s Light, it’s not about money!” Kylith exclaimed, scandalized. “I’m not in trade, Master Atre. No offense to you, dear Seregil.”

“None taken, dear lady.”

“No, I only wish to bring the beauty of your artistry to its proper standing in Rhiminee,” Kylith said, patting Atre’s arm.

Atre gave Kylith a warm look that made even the seasoned old courtier blush. “You are most gracious, my lady.” Then, to Seregil and Alec, “All our performances will be dedicated to you three. And I am, as always, my lady, at your service.”

“He made me the same promise the other night at the party,” Seregil told her with a wink. “Perhaps we should work out a schedule?”

CHAPTER 10. Teus

TEUS crouched at the end of the alley across from Crab Quay, hiding from the older boys who’d been picking on him. Squatting with his chin on his knobby knees, he was drawing in the dirt with a bit of broken crockery when a shadow fell across the mouth of the alley. He looked up to find a strange-looking character regarding him. He was a young fellow on a crutch with a bandaged foot and a patch over one eye. The ragged yellow hair sticking out under his hat looked dirty, as did his face and hands. He had on a long tunic with a rope for a belt and carried a lumpy sack over his shoulder.

Teus jumped to his feet, aware that he was trapped. But the stranger stayed where he was as he said, “Boy, I am lost, I think. Can you tell me how to get to the Sea Serpent tavern?”

“The Serpent?” Teus squeezed one eye shut, trying to think of how to tell the man all the twists and turns. There was something funny about the way the man spoke. You heard all kinds of accents here in the Lower City, but he’d never heard this one. “It’s a ways off.” He pointed. “That way.”

The man gave him an embarrassed smile. “Maybe you could show me? I’m not used to a big city like this. I’ve been lost all morning and my friends must be wondering where I am. I’m afraid they’ll sail without me. I can pay you a bit for your trouble.” He took a silver penny from his purse and held it up for Teus to see.

Eyeing the money hungrily, Teus still hesitated. The Serpent was on the edge of a neighborhood worse than this one,

but the man did look worried, and friendly, too, and he clearly wasn’t from here. Maybe he’d tell him where he was from. Teus liked to hear about foreign places. He was going to sea as a cabin boy when he was old enough, to see them for himself. Anywhere but this stinking slum would be fine.

He glanced up at the sun. There was plenty of daylight left; if he hurried and ran all the way back, he’d be home in no time, his mother none the wiser. He could tell her he’d found the penny and she’d be happy. “Come on, then.”

As he’d hoped, the young man was glad to talk, hopping along spryly on his crutch. He was from somewhere up north, in the Ironheart Mountains. Teus had never heard of those and was a little disappointed when the man told him you couldn’t sail there.

“But you might want to go anyway,” the fellow said, “if you want to see dragons.”

The boy’s eyes went wide. “Dragons! Really? You seen ’em?”

“Seen ’em? I’ve eaten ’em,” the young man replied proudly. “Little ones, anyway. The big ones are too dangerous to hunt, but the little ones are tasty.”

Teus was skeptical but he wanted to hear more and they were nearly to the Serpent already. “I never heard of any dragons in Skala. Not for years and years.”

“Where I’m from is a long way from Skala, lad. And there are dragons there. I can prove it.” He stopped and rummaged in his sack, then pulled out a little leather pouch. “Hold out your hand.”

Teus did and the man poured out half a dozen little white teeth on his palm, no longer than the end of his little finger.

“Dragon teeth,” he told the boy. “They’re good protection from bad luck.” He pulled a tiny cloth bag on a string from the neck of his tunic. “See? I wear one all the time, to keep me safe traveling.”

“Really?” That would be a good thing for a sailor to have.

The man smiled. “You like them, eh? Maybe we can make a trade.”

“Like what?” Teus didn’t have anything in the world worth a dragon’s tooth.

The man looked down at the teeth and shrugged. “I like these. You give me something you like for one of them, and it’s a fair trade.”

“I have a toy horse back home.”

“No time to go back. Do you have something on you now?”

Teus’s heart sank. He did. He’d found a little penknife in the street in front of one of the countinghouses in Merchant Street last year. It had only half a blade, but what was left still cut and the sides of it were made of bone with designs carved in. It was a special treasure, really, though nothing compared with a dragon’s tooth!

He reached into his purse and held it out.

The man acted as if Teus had offered him a sack of gold. “Oh, that’s fine, isn’t it? That’s a beauty!” He smiled down into the boy’s eyes as he took it and flipped the knife like a coin. “For this you may have two of the dragon’s teeth. Take the ones you like best.”

Teus was going to miss the knife, and since the man seemed so happy with it, he took the two biggest.

He ran all the way home, clutching the teeth in one hand and the penny in the other. His mother was sitting in the sun in front of their tenement, braiding candlewick to sell in the marketplace.

“What’s wrong?” she asked as he came to a halt, puffing. “Are them boys after you again?”

“No, Ma, I’s just helping someone get to-to Gull Quay and I wanted to show you what he traded me!”

“Traded you? For what?”

“My broken knife.” Teus unclenched his fist and showed her. “Look! Dragon’s teeth, from baby ones.”

His mother looked, then shook her head and went back to her braiding. “Teus, you looby. Them’s the eyeteeth of a cat.”

CHAPTER 11. Sin and Sociability

SEREGIL was very pleased when an invitation from Selin arrived a few days later, asking them to meet him and Duke Reltheus at the Drake for some gambling that evening.

The Street of Lights gambling houses were, like the brothels, lavish establishments, surpassing some nobles’ houses in the richness of their appointments. The Drake was a favorite of the middle echelons of Rhiminee nobility, and it was not unusual to see members of the court on their way to one of the private gaming rooms.

They found Selin and Reltheus at a bakshi table, where Reltheus was being badly beaten by a wealthy dowager. When the last of his pieces had been captured, he paid his wager and bid the lady good night.

Selin made the introductions. “Your Grace, allow me to present Lord Seregil of Rhiminee and Lord Alec of Ivywell. My lords, His Grace, Duke Reltheus of Tenmont.”

“Well met, gentlemen.” Reltheus clasped hands with them warmly. “Young Selin has been singing your praises. You’re said to have Illior’s luck at the gaming tables, Lord Seregil. I was hoping a bit of it would rub off on me tonight. My purse is a good deal lighter than it was when I started out.”

Seregil smiled. “Then you must play with us, Your Grace.”

“Enough of titles here,” the man scoffed. “Names are good enough among gamblers. Do you play the stones?”

Seregil lifted the bakshi pouch from his belt and rattled the pieces. “Now and then.”

“A round then. Which of you will partner me?”

“Youth against experience, I say. Alec, you partner with Selin.” Seregil took the dowager’s place across from Reltheus and poured his stones into the wooden trough carved into the elegant tabletop in front of him. Alec and the young lord took their places to either side and did the same. Seregil and Alec had both brought their best sets for this place. Seregil’s were lozenges of the finest blood-red carnelian carved on the backs with dragons; the symbols incised on the fronts were highlighted with gilt. Alec’s were round pieces of dark blue chalcedony, with Illior’s Eye on the back, and the symbols limned with silver. His were still shiny, while Seregil’s were well worn from years of use. So were Reltheus’s onyx pieces, inset with gold. Selin’s, cast in silver, had seen considerable play, too.

Bakshi was everyone’s game in Skala; the rich played with fine pieces at tables like this one, while the poor squatted with their fistful of scratched pebbles over a gaming grid drawn in the dirt or chalked on a floor or the deck of a ship, vying to make the serpent, flower, snare, and spear patterns for wagers.

“I’m surprised we have not met before,” said Reltheus as he and Seregil took the first round with two serpents and caught half a dozen of Alec’s pieces with a snare.

“Alec and I move in more modest circles,” Seregil replied with a smile.

Reltheus chuckled at that. “Every man’s an equal over the gaming table, as the saying goes.”

“But you both know Archduchess Alaya, don’t you?” Selin put in, unwittingly shifting the conversation in the right direction.

“A grand lady, indeed, but I doubt she’d remember me,” Seregil demurred. “She did used to pinch my cheek when I was at court, but it has been many years since I’ve spoken with her.”

“You speak of years, Seregil, but look at you!” Reltheus exclaimed, slapping down a counter and capturing two of Alec’s pieces. “That enviable Aurenfaie youth. If I didn’t know better, Lord Alec, I’d say you had a touch of that blood

yourself. You have something of that look about you. But you’re from Mycena, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I am. But there are rumors of mixed blood,” Alec explained, as he always did when the subject came up. “My family was in trade and traveled in the south.”

“Ah. Well, it suits you. Don’t you think so, Seregil?” The man gave him a wink.

“I do, indeed.” Seregil slid one of his coursers into place to block Selin’s serpent.

“Then it is true, what they say of you two?”

Seregil glanced up with a slightly crooked grin. “More than likely, whatever it is. Do you know Alaya well?”

“Oh, yes, I attend her salons. You should join us. I’m sure she’d be glad of your company, with her taste for handsome young fellows. You’ll be expected to provide some sort of entertainment your first time, however, and you will be judged accordingly.”

Seregil smiled to himself. He knew just the “entertainment” to bring.

They played for several hours, with the money washing back and forth between the two pairs, then went to the card tables to try their luck at Hawk and Hunter. Seregil won mercilessly there, and the other players finally gave up and departed.

“That was thirsty work,” said Selin. “Where shall we go to drink at this hour?”

“I know a very welcoming establishment,” said Seregil.

They all piled into the duke’s carriage and Seregil directed the driver to Eirual’s house just down the street, where a pink lantern glowed invitingly over the door.

“Your Grace, my lords, come in!” the doorman, Manius, said, ushering them in at once. “I will inform the mistress that you are here.”

The lavish reception hall was filled with courtesans and their patrons for the night. Beautiful women of every description lounged around the room in silk gowns and jewels fit for any lady, entertaining their partner or partners for the evening. In a pink-lantern house, all the patrons were men.

The other three colors, white, blue, and green, signaled other combinations. Alec had once unwittingly stumbled in under a green lantern and found himself surrounded by male courtesans intent on entertaining him, much to Seregil’s amusement.

It was an elegant room, and rather exotic, reflecting the owner’s taste. Tapestries covered the walls, rather than murals, giving the room a warmer atmosphere in spite of the size, and displaying lush but tasteful scenes of carnal pleasures. The incense scenting the room was musky and sensual. At the far end of the room, a blond girl was plucking a lute, accompanying Myrhichia as she sang a love song.

Manius disappeared up the sweeping gilded staircase at the back of the room, returning a moment later with word that Eirual was still receiving visitors.

They found her in her broad, silk-hung bed. The explicitly erotic murals that covered the walls seemed to stir with a life of their own in the light of dozens of fine beeswax tapers.

As was the custom in this particular street, and in some of the finer houses on Golden Helm and Silvermoon, too, if truth be told, she held her evening salons from her bed, where she sat propped up against lavish silken bolsters, clad in an embroidered velvet dressing gown, the front of the lacy nightgown beneath it open to reveal her breasts. Several of her courtesans were there as well in similar dishabille, and there were half a dozen male guests already in attendance, Duke Malthus among them, talking and laughing over their wine and sweetmeats.

“Seregil, my love! And the handsome Alec!” Eirual greeted them gaily. “And you’ve brought friends. Duke Reltheus, it’s so good to see you. And this handsome young man.” She gave Selin a twinkling smile. “Didn’t I see you at Alec’s party?”

“Yes, mistress,” Selin managed, looking a little flustered. Seats were found for the newcomers, and wine was poured.

Reltheus sipped his and nodded. “Even in these times, you still serve excellent wine, my dear. How ever do you manage it?”

“Oh, I have my ways,” she told him. She turned to Alec

with a roguish pout. “What brings you here tonight? I’m sure it’s not to seek my custom.”

“Your company, of course, dear lady,” he replied.

Eirual laughed and turned to Reltheus. “I had no idea you knew this pair of rogues.”

“I’ve only met them tonight, and soon learned that it’s better to play on their side than against them.”

“I’ve lost many bets to them,” Malthus told him. “Yet I can’t seem to forgo their company.”

“I’m beginning to understand why,” Reltheus declared, and Seregil could tell the man was more than a bit drunk, and comfortable in these surroundings, as he’d hoped.

Seregil raised his cup to him. “May we have many more such nights of debauchery. What is life without pleasure?”

“To pleasure!”

Seregil and Alec sipped their wine sparingly while the others indulged more deeply. When the duke was flushed and merry, Seregil gave him a wink and said, “I understand you attend Archduchess Alaya’s salons. Does she entertain in this fashion?” He took Eirual’s hand and kissed it.

Reltheus laughed and Selin blushed. “Not these days,” the duke declared. “But she’s a grand woman still. To the lovely old thing!”

They all drank to that.

“I think she would appreciate the ‘lovely,’ but not the ‘old,’ ” Eirual chided. “No woman likes to be reminded of the passing of time and beauty.”

“Time does not end beauty, but transforms it,” Reltheus replied gallantly. “I’m sure your charms will never fade, lovely lady.”

“The archduchess must still be very youthful, to have the honor so late in life to be the confidante of the princess royal,” Alec remarked, steering the conversation back on topic.

“Oh, she dotes on the girl,” said Reltheus.

“I wonder what Princess Elani is like? They keep her so closely guarded. Have you met her?”

Reltheus nodded. “I have the honor of knowing her rather well. She can be very serious, like her aunt the queen, but she

has a girlish side, too. She’s wickedly adept with sword and bow.”

“She’s what, about sixteen now?” asked Seregil. “Has there been any talk of finding her a husband yet? I suppose the queen must be anxious to see her bear a daughter.”

“Not as yet, but-” The duke paused. “I do have hopes.”

“You?” Alec asked ingenuously.

“By the Flame!” Reltheus burst out laughing and slapped Alec on the shoulder. “I think my wife would have a thing or two to say about that. My mistresses are enough to vex her.”

“The duke has several handsome sons, Alec,” Malthus told him. “Danos is twenty, now, isn’t he, Reltheus?”

“Twenty-three,” Selin told them, “and a captain in the Queen’s Horse Guard, under Princess Klia’s command. Seregil’s friend Micum has a daughter who’s a captain and squadron leader in the Guard, too.”

“She was the leader of the famous Urghazi Turma before her promotion, I believe,” said Reltheus. “I’ve heard ballads sung about them and their exploits. She has a brilliant reputation.”

“I’ve heard your son’s bravery well spoken of, too,” Seregil lied. “And he is of an age and station to be considered for a consort, don’t you think?”

Reltheus smiled. “I’m in hopes that he may catch the queen’s eye.”

“And the princess royal’s, as well, I suppose?” said Malthus dryly.

“They have hunted together,” the duke said, ignoring the barb. “Elani’s mother birthed a fine string of girls, and I have four daughters myself. Queen Phoria is said to be taking such matters into consideration. Skala can’t afford another uncertain succession.”

On one hand, it was tempting to mark down the duke as just another social climber, trying to position his heir to ascend the royal ladder by way of the royal bed. But there was something about the cold-blooded manner in which he spoke of the match that fueled Seregil’s suspicions. It wasn’t the tone of a would-be father-in-law. There was often truth to be found in wine that didn’t come out otherwise.

“But I’m not the only one with a connection to the royal family, am I, Seregil,” said Reltheus. “I believe you and Alec here know Princess Klia.”

“They’re good friends with her,” said Eirual.

“We have that honor,” Seregil replied, puffing up a bit. Something in the way Reltheus was looking at him now twigged his suspicions. As innocent as the question seemed, he sensed more than ordinary interest and thought again of the list Alec had found with their names on it. “I’ve known her since she was just a little thing, and Alec came to know her well while we were in Aurenen.”

“What do you think of her? I understand she’s a delightful woman, and a fearless warrior.”

Alec nodded. “She’s as brave as she is beautiful and intelligent.”

“Spoken like a true devotee,” Reltheus said with a smile. “I suppose that’s what makes her such a fine commander. And there are those who think she’d make a fine queen.”

“I suppose there are,” Seregil replied noncommittally.

“Well, you are lucky young men, to be counted as friends of one so near the throne.”

“So near, yet so far.” Seregil watched for a reaction.

“Indeed,” said Selin, shaking his head.

“Word around court is that the queen is cold toward her youngest sister,” Reltheus said. “Do you know anything of that, Seregil?”

“Klia doesn’t bear her sister any ill will that I know of. As I understand it, they had their differences over allying with Aurenen.” Once again, this was common knowledge. “The queen had already chosen Elani as her successor, though. That had nothing to do with her decision, as far as I know.”

“Why do you suppose Queen Phoria recalled her sister from Aurenen so suddenly?” wondered Reltheus.

Seregil laughed and waved a hand. “I’m sure I don’t know. We haven’t seen Klia since she came back, and we’re certainly not privy to the queen’s reasoning.”

“Oh, of course not,” the duke replied. “I was only curious as to your opinion.”

“Queen Phoria must need all the commanders in the field

she can get, given how many she’s lost since the war started,” Alec offered.

“What else could it be? Or do you think differently, Reltheus?” asked Seregil.

“As you say, Seregil, I’m not privy to the queen’s thoughts. But we grow too serious. Bilairy take politics!” He raised his wine cup. “To the queen!”

The rest joined the toast.

“And the princess royal,” Seregil added, and saw how Reltheus’s gaze flickered his way. Surprise, perhaps?

“Alec, young Selin here tells me that you’re a good man with a bow,” said the duke.

“He can shoot the eye out of a woodcock at a hundred paces in the dark,” Malthus told him.

“That’s a bit of an exaggeration,” Alec demurred.

Reltheus clapped him on the shoulder. “And modest, too. That’s a good trait in a young man. I must have the two of you out to my estate for the hunting. You do hunt, don’t you, Seregil?”

“Not well, though not for lack of Alec trying to teach me.”

“And sadly, he’s not just being modest,” Alec put in with a grin.

For the next hour Seregil and Alec took turns telling altered tales and outright lies for the amusement of their companions, and the duke called them both “friend” before the night was over and renewed his invitation to come with him to the duchess’s salon as he and the other visitors took their leave.

Seregil and Alec lingered behind in Eirual’s room.

Eirual yawned behind her hand. “Pardon me, it’s been a long day.”

“We’ll leave in a moment,” Seregil told her. “But first-”

She gave him a knowing smile. “You want to know more about Duke Reltheus?”

“He’s a new acquaintance, and he interests me.”

“Well, he likes my girl Hyli, and has had more mistresses than you have teeth. But you already heard the best bit of gossip tonight. Reltheus means to marry his son Danos off to Princess Elani.”

“Who are Reltheus’s friends?”

“Oh, Earl Stenmir, of course, and Count Tolin. Those are the ones I’ve seen him here with.”

“I understood he is friends with Marquis Kyrin, as well,” Seregil prompted.

“Perhaps, but from what I’ve heard of the marquis, he doesn’t frequent brothels, or gambling houses, either. Rather boring fellow, wouldn’t you say?”

“I would, indeed.”

“Why this sudden interest in Reltheus?” she asked.

“I like to know who I’m gambling against.” Seregil rose and kissed her on the cheek. “Thank you, my friend.”

“It’s very late,” Eirual noted with a mischievous smile. “You could both sleep here tonight.” She patted the bed to either side. “There’s plenty of room.”

“But if we stayed, we might not get any sleep at all, and we have a busy day tomorrow,” Seregil teased back. “Another time.”

As he and Alec came down the sweeping staircase overlooking the salon, Seregil grinned as he caught sight of Atre, together with Count Tolin and a few other young lords, lounging with a cluster of courtesans. Atre appeared to be the center of attention, as always.

“My, my,” Seregil murmured. “He’s certainly making inroads with the nobility.”

“Not only them,” Alec muttered, and to Seregil’s surprise, he sounded piqued.

He glanced back and realized that the courtesan Atre appeared to be paying homage to was Myrhichia.

Just then the actor noticed them and waved. Seregil smiled and waved back. Alec didn’t.

Outside Alec avoided Seregil’s questioning look. Myrhichia could choose whomever she wanted; he wasn’t even sure why it bothered him so much, except perhaps because he knew Atre.

“Alec?”

“That was a good night’s work, wasn’t it?” Alec strode off

through the crowd of late-night revelers toward the ornate archway that marked the entrance to the Street of Lights.

“Yes,” said Seregil, catching up and linking his arm through Alec’s. “Kyrin interests me greatly. Why would a roisterer like Reltheus have such a reticent man for a friend?”

Alec shrugged. “Reltheus seemed to be sounding us out about Klia.”

“Yes, and clumsily, too. He certainly takes an interest in the royal family.”

“If he’s really so interested in Klia, I wonder if he sees her as a threat?”

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Seregil murmured. “Something has Reltheus’s attention, and Kyrin’s. My guess is that they think all of us on that list are potential members of a rival cabal. And just because we don’t know about it doesn’t mean there isn’t one.”

Atre had designs on Myrhichia from the start, but Alec’s unmistakable look of dismay across the room made it all the more delicious a challenge. Were the young man and the whore more than friends? It seemed unlikely given all he had heard and seen of him with Seregil, but clearly Alec felt some warmth toward her. Why else that sour look as he locked eyes with Atre?

He made room for himself on the couch beside Myrhichia, took her graceful, bejeweled hand in his and raised it to his lips. Looking up at her through his thick lashes, he murmured, “You are lovelier than silvery moonlight on the face of the sea. Your beauty makes me tremble like a green boy.”

Rather than blushing, as most women did under the influence of his charm, the girl tapped his arm with her fan and laughed. “And you are as charming as the smitten swain you played the other night, dear man. I think he said something of the sort to lovely Aphinia. You are my favorite actor, and playwright, this season!”

“It’s women like you who are my inspiration,” Atre purred. “Your wit, your charm, the delicacy of your demeanor.” He raised his wine cup to her and announced to their circle of admirers, “I shall include a beautiful courtesan in my next

production. When you see her, know she is but my pale effort at homage to the beautiful Myrhichia.”

The others clapped and laughed approvingly. Myrhichia gave him a twinkling smile as she pulled a handsome golden pin set with a citrine from her dark hair and presented it to him. “Such gallantry deserves better reward, but perhaps this will do until I view the completed effort.”

Atre tucked it behind his ear like a flower and kissed her hand again. “You are too kind.”

The evening went on in that vein, flirtatious and witty, but after a time Atre began to get the distinct impression that she was politely putting him off. The more he continued to woo her, the more she spread her favors among the other young bloods. Atre continued to smile, tamping down his resentment. He’d have had any other woman-noble or whore-upstairs by now. It was becoming a matter of pride.

At last the others drifted away with their own conquests of the evening. Myrhichia was hiding yawns behind her fan.

Atre pressed Myrhichia’s hand to his heart and gave her his most ardent look. “You’ve won my heart. Don’t break it so quickly.”

“Break your heart? Why would I do such a thing, Master Atre?”

“The hour grows late and I fear you’ll want me to leave you. Please, my shining star, don’t send me away.”

The woman’s smile faltered at that. “Oh, dear Master Atre…”

“What’s wrong, lovely one?”

She took his hand in both of hers. “I’m so sorry. I thought your friends would have told you.”

A little speck of coldness flared under Atre’s heart, but still he kept up his attentive mask. “Told me what?”

She paused meaningfully, skillful as any actress. “I’m so flattered by your attentions tonight. You’re such a delightful man. But I don’t-entertain actors.”

“Ah.” He gave her a look of fondest regret. “My apologies for discomforting you.”

“I’m so sorry!” She sounded quite sincere.

“Think nothing of it. The pleasure of your company is

delight enough.” He took the citrine pin from behind his ear. “Perhaps I should return this to its rightful owner?”

“Oh, please keep it,” she said, folding his fingers around it. “As a token of my regard, and for all the pleasure you’ve given me onstage, and tonight. I hope you’ll visit again.”

“Of course I shall!” He rose and kissed her hand one last time. “Know that you occupy a very special place in my heart, broken though it may be.”

CHAPTER 12. Strangers in the Light

KLIA and her forces had spent the last two days pushing half a troop of Plenimaran infantry-two squadrons of which were marines-out of a wood twenty miles east of the Folcwine. It was their second major victory in the past three weeks and as bloody as it had been, they’d given worse than they’d gotten. In the process they’d cleared the enemy out of a small Mycenian town, and the grateful villagers had brought Klia a dozen pigs and some beer. For the first time in weeks her riders had a taste of fresh meat, if not very much of it.

It was nearly midnight but reports kept streaming in to Klia as officer after officer appeared at the front of her tent with news of successes and losses. She found herself stifling yawns and at last she allowed Myrhini to announce that she would hear the rest of the reports tomorrow.

“You’re asleep on your feet,” Myrhini chided as she helped her friend out of her filthy tabard and hung her fine chain-mail hauberk on its rack.

Klia pushed through the flap at the back of the tent, pulled off her boots, and collapsed on the narrow cot in her breeches and sweat-stained shirt, utterly exhausted.

Myrhini chuckled. “Sleep well, my friend. You’ve earned it.”

She lit the night lamp and pulled a blanket over Klia, then went out to her own cot at the front of the tent.

Tired as she was, Klia didn’t sleep well. Her dreams were filled with the clash of battle and the screams of the dying.

Perhaps that saved her life; the moment she felt a hand grasp her shoulder she grabbed the dagger from under her pillow and threw herself off the bed. The night lamp was out, the little room in darkness.

“Myrhini!” she shouted as hands found her again in the darkness. She struggled, twisting in their unseen grasp, but they held her fast and sudden pain shot through her arms, hands, and right hip.

She heard Myrhini’s outraged shout and the hands released her. She dropped to the ground and crawled toward her sword rack. Torchlight flared suddenly, illuminating Myrhini lashing out at three men, a fourth writhing in pain underfoot. More riders came crowding in, but before they could kill or apprehend the assassins, the invaders brought something to their lips and fell down as if stricken by magic.

Klia sprang to her feet, glaring at the others. “How in Bilairy’s name did they get in here? Where are my guards?”

“Dead, Commander,” one of her rescuers told her. “They’re lying out front with their throats cut. Bastards killed them before they came after you.”

“Why wouldn’t they have killed me, too?” asked Myrhini as she began checking Klia’s wounds. The men had been armed with daggers, and between the darkness and her struggling they had only managed to inflict superficial wounds.

“I-I don’t feel well,” Klia said, pressing a hand over her eyes. Suddenly she felt light-headed and nauseated.

“Hertas, fetch the healer!” Myrhini ordered, righting the overturned cot and helping Klia to lie down.

“I’m all right,” Klia said, looking at the cut on her arm.

“It’s not deep, but it’s bleeding.” Myrhini staunched it with the corner of Klia’s blanket, then turned on the others. “Quit your staring and raise the alarm. If there are any other assassins sneaking around, I want them captured. Alive!”

“Thanks.” Klia winced as Myrhini insisted on looking at the stab wound on her hip.

“Bastard must have been going for your belly.”

Klia looked past Myrhini to the dead men littering her room, which was beginning to spin. They wore Plenimaran uniforms. “Looks like we missed a few. They must have been

carrying poison in case they got caught. I think-” Her tongue felt thick and she tasted something bitter. “I’m poisoned, too.”

“If you are, it’s something different, or you’d be as dead as they are,” the other woman growled. “This wound is deeper and bleeding badly. You’re lucky as Sakor that it wasn’t a few inches to the left, or it would have been in your guts.”

Klia couldn’t help a shudder; gut wounds were some of the worst, and generally ended in a lingering, painful death. But perhaps the poison- It was becoming difficult to form coherent thoughts.

The last thing she heard was Aden the drysian shouting for hot water. Coldness crept over her, but she could feel Myrhini’s hand warm and sure around hers.

Klia came around in daylight, sick, achy, and very surprised to be alive. Myrhini was still beside her cot, watching her intently.

“How long?” Klia tried to ask, but her throat felt swollen and her mouth tasted bitter. Her head was splitting. “Water-”

“Aden left this for you.”

Myrhini held Klia’s head up and helped her sip from a cup. The infusion smelled of herbs and minerals, and tasted mildly sweet. She managed a few sips, then gagged it up again.

“You have to keep it down,” Myrhini told her calmly. “Aden did what he could with magic, but he said you need this to fight any remaining poison. It’s a good thing you bled the way you did, too. Apparently because most of the wounds were shallow, the bleeding washed out the poison, or at least the worst of it. The stab wound to your hip was the worst.”

Klia flexed her leg and grimaced. “He didn’t have to cut anything out or off, did he?”

Myrhini chuckled. “No. Here, have some more.”

“Bilairy’s Balls,” Klia groaned, then doggedly accepted a few more sips. After a few moments of lying absolutely still with her eyes closed, the awful feeling in her stomach began to subside, though her head hurt so bad she was seeing

flashing lights behind her eyes. “How did they get past the guards?”

“And me?” Myrhini sighed. “They killed the guards, then opened the seam at the back of your room with some kind of acid.

“No sound. Who was on guard?”

“Two of Danos’s people: Saura and Melkian. I have Captain Beka and her Urghazi on guard around your tent now. Klia, I’m so sorry-”

Klia waved aside the apology. “Not your fault. The killers knew what they were doing. What do we know about them?”

“Just that they were soldiers, and must have been specially tasked with your assassination once they escaped from the battle yesterday. They wouldn’t have been carrying poison and acid by chance. Who was giving the orders is a mystery. The survivors of the battle must have regrouped and chosen a leader. I doubt there are enough of them to stage a major attack, but I have the perimeter under full guard.”

“Well done. I suppose I’d better get a report off to Phoria. You’ll have to write it for me, though. I can’t see straight yet.”

Myrhini brought Aden’s cup to her lips again. “Drink.”

Klia drank and the pain and nausea retreated a bit more, enough for her to send Myrhini to her clothes chest for the leather bag containing the small painted wands Thero had supplied her with before she’d left Rhiminee in the spring.

“I’ll leave you to it, then,” her friend said, and went out to the map room to compose the report.

Klia pressed the wand to her lips, then broke it, releasing the message sphere spell infused into it. A blue point of light hovered over one broken end. “Thero, I must speak with you,” she said softly, then touched the sphere and sent it speeding off to the south. It was the nature of the simple but powerful spell to find the recipient, wherever he or she happened to be.

A tingle of magic woke Thero. A message sphere was floating over his face; there was only one person he’d given

any message sticks to recently. Heart tripping a beat, he touched it and heard Klia’s whispered message.

He threw a robe on over his nightshirt and went to the wardrobe, where he pushed aside the neatly hung robes and took a small marble box from a shelf at the back. It was a solid piece of stone until he spoke the command word and the seam under the lid appeared. Removing it, he took out a fine linen handkerchief spotted with dried blood-her blood. Klia had pricked her finger with a dagger and made the talisman for him in Aurenen, when he was recalled to Skala before she was. Blood magic was frowned upon at best by the Oreska, but it was part of the heritage passed down to him through Nysander. With this he could do a sighting, find Klia anywhere, anytime. It was a privilege he was careful not to abuse. Holding the handkerchief between his palms, he invoked the window spell, opening a portal between them over the long miles that allowed them to see and speak to each other.

Nothing in her brief message had prepared him for the state he found her in. A blanket was pulled up to her chest, but her shirt was off, leaving her in only her breast band, bare arms on top of the blanket. Even in candlelight he could see how pale she was, and the bandages on her hands and arms; defensive wounds. Her padded glove was off, and her maimed hand rested on her chest, a reminder of the poisoned needle that had nearly cost her not only her hand but her life. No scar, though, no matter how severe, could ever make her less beautiful in his eyes.

“By the Light, Klia, what’s happened?” he exclaimed softly.

She managed a wan smile. “Two days of fighting without a scratch, then tonight assassins attacked me in my own bed.”

“But how?”

She waved the question aside with obvious weariness. “I don’t have the energy to talk for long. They were Plenimarans, and came after me with poisoned knives. The drysian and Myrhini saved me.”

“You look ill.”

“I am, but it’s passing.”

“What can I do?”

Klia closed her eyes for a moment and licked her dry lips. “Not a thing, except to bear witness, I suppose. I just-I just wanted you to know. Silly, I suppose, but…”

Her words sped his already pounding heart. There were so many things he wanted to say to her, but as usual the words jammed somewhere in the region of his heart. All he managed was, “I’m so glad you told me. I wish there was something more I could do for you. I could come there.”

“No, my friend, that’s not necessary, and might raise a few too many questions, since you’ve no business here.” She paused and shook her head slightly. “I wish you could, though.”

Every fiber of the wizard’s being ached to brush aside her warning and cast the translocation that would take him to her side.

“I want you to take word of this to Korathan, and tell him I’m fine.”

“Fine? All those bandages-”

“Minor wounds, Thero. It was dark when they attacked and I didn’t make it easy for them.”

“How many?”

“Four. They killed themselves with poison when they failed. We were unable to question any of them.”

“And you’re certain they were Plenimarans?”

“They were in uniform.” She let out a small laugh. “And who else would want me dead?”

I can think of a few. But he held his tongue. A Plenimaran attack was really not that surprising, and those were certainly recognizable tactics.

Klia gave him the details of the latest battle and the attack, but soon it was obvious that the effort was taxing what strength she had.

“Rest well, and call on me whenever you need,” he said.

Her smile was warm this time. “You know I will, my friend. Don’t let Korathan worry too much, please.”

“I’ll do my best, Highness.”

“Good.” With that she closed her eyes. After a moment of gazing at that beloved face, he broke off the spell.

* * *

Thero entered Prince Korathan’s palace room just after dawn. The prince was dressed and seated by the hearth, stroking the ears of one of his hunting dogs.

“I have news, Highness,” Thero told him. “Klia was attacked last night.”

“Attacked?” Korathan stared at him in alarm. “Sakor’s Fire, is she all right?”

“Yes. There was poison involved, but her drysian saved her.”

“Thank the Sailor. But how do you know this?”

Thero explained the night’s events as succinctly as he could.

“They sound more like professional assassins,” Korathan remarked when he was finished.

“Yes, but they might have been soldiers, as well. Klia said they were in uniform.”

“I suppose so. Have you told Seregil and Alec?”

“No, I came straight to you.”

“Good. I think it would be better if we kept this to ourselves for now. Klia is a popular commander and given the mood of the city, this kind of bad news isn’t needed.”

“But Seregil wouldn’t-”

“There’s nothing they can do about it, Thero. I’m not asking.”

Thero bowed low. “Of course, Highness. I will say nothing.”

“Good. She can tell the story herself when she comes home. And Thero?”

“Highness?”

“How did you happen to be talking to my sister?”

“She gave me a talisman, Highness, so that I could contact her. And I gave her message wands so she could contact me. That’s what happened last night; she called for me and I opened a window spell so we could see and speak to each other.”

Korathan raised a pale eyebrow. “Really? And how did this unique system come about?”

Thero couldn’t tell if the prince was displeased or not, but

he forged ahead with the truth. “When I had to leave her behind in Aurenen, we exchanged talismans. So I could help her if she needed it.”

“You consider yourself her protector, then.”

Thero met the prince’s gaze steadily. “I do.”

The prince looked at him for a long moment, then, with a hint of a smile, said, “Good.”

CHAPTER 13. The Golden Crane

ONCE Atre had Seregil’s and Kylith’s money in hand, the actor wasted no time in moving his company to their new theater, now named the Golden Crane.

Two weeks after they’d first seen the place, Alec attended the opening performance with Seregil and Kylith. Tonight Atre was launching a new play-a lovers’ tragedy-and it was the best production so far, now that the players had the money for proper costumes, cosmetics, and scenery.

As promised, Seregil and Alec sat with Lady Kylith in the lavishly appointed patrons’ box reserved for them. A wine jar and fine cups stood waiting on a small table, with a basket of pears.

“Patronage has its pleasures,” Seregil said, selecting a piece of fruit. “We certainly have the best seats in the house.”

“And room for more,” Alec noted.

“I do hope you don’t mind, but I invited a few friends,” Kylith told them.

“Not at all. Who will be joining us?”

“Malthus and Ania, and Duke Laneus and his lovely wife, Eona. I don’t believe you know them.”

Seregil squeezed her hand. “We’re always happy to make new acquaintances, my dear.” He knew Laneus by sight; he was one of the queen’s ministers.

“I’m sure you’ll like them. Eona is such a dark beauty! Her grandmother was a Zengati princess, you know.” Kylith paused and gave Seregil a concerned look. “I’m sure she’s from one of the tribes friendly to Aurenen.”

“I’ll assume that to be the case,” Seregil replied with a smile. “Besides, you can’t blame anyone for their grandparents, now can you?”

Word of the company had certainly spread, and the seats were soon full, from the boxes crowded with nobles down to the crowded groundling area.

The rest of their party soon arrived in satin, silks, and jewels. Alec rose with Seregil and bowed to the newcomers.

“You honor us with your presence,” Seregil said, shaking hands with the two men and kissing the duchesses’ hands.

Though fair-skinned, Eona had the dark shining curls and deep violet eyes of her Zengati forebears. As Kylith had noted, she was a stunning beauty, and Alec did his best not to stare.

“Oh, I am looking forward to this!” she exclaimed, settling next to Kylith. “And I’m so glad to meet you, my lords. One hears such wicked things about you.”

“Don’t embarrass the gentlemen,” her husband, a tall, grizzled man, scolded mildly, though the look he gave her was indulgent.

Seregil gave her his most charming and foppish smile. “I’m sure most of it’s true, but I promise we’ll behave ourselves tonight.” He raised Alec’s hand to his lips. “Won’t we, my love?”

“I’ll try,” Alec assured her, managing to blush a little, which clearly amused and charmed their guests.

The play was very fine, one of the best they’d seen so far.

“Doesn’t Atre look especially dazzling tonight?” Kylith whispered.

“The wonders of expensive cosmetics,” Seregil said with a soft chuckle. All of the actors were professionally made up, but Atre did stand out among them, looking younger and more vibrant than ever. Alec supposed they must be eating better these days.

Between acts Brader’s young sons Kalin and Van sold wine and ale, and little Ela went around the boxes with a basket of flowers. Their party already had refreshments, but Seregil summoned Van over and gave him a sealed note-an

invitation for Atre and his cast to a celebratory dinner after the show. During the second intermission the boy brought back word that the older players would be honored to join them.

“You will join us, I hope, Your Graces,” said Kylith.

“Unfortunately we have a previous engagement,” Malthus told her. “But certainly next time.”

When the show was over, the dukes and their wives departed with promises of invitations to come. Alec and the others remained in their box as the cast received compliments and gifts from their admirers.

It was obvious that while all the actors had some following, Atre and Merina were by far the most popular. Flowers and small gifts were pressed upon them by women and men alike. Alec watched as one besotted young merchant’s daughter took a gold chain from around her neck and placed it around Atre’s. The way he gazed into her eyes as she did so pinked her cheeks and left her flustered. He was less warm to the men, though polite, although that didn’t seem to dampen the ardor of the more smitten.

At last Brader made their apologies and the actors disappeared backstage to change clothes and wash their faces. Atre looked up and waved to Seregil and Alec as he went, as if to make certain they were still there.

Soon bored, Seregil wandered down to the stage and jumped up into the glow of the footlights. Striking a pose for Alec’s amusement, he sang a verse from the lover’s lament Atre had sung in the second act.

“My love, why do you look so coldly upon me?

Why is your heart as distant as the moon from mine?

What have I done that you should spurn my knee

And refuse your limbs with mine to entwine?”

Kylith laughed. “That’s the first thing that came to mind, is it?”

Seregil pressed a hand to his heart. “The heroine’s death has left me a bit melancholy.”

“It suits you. My lord looks very natural on the stage.”

Atre stepped smiling from the shadows of the wings. He was richly dressed tonight-more of his patrons’ money well spent-and had rings on nearly every finger and an expensive teardrop-shaped black pearl dangling from one earlobe. “And you have a far better singing voice than mine. As good as any bard’s.”

Seregil made him a florid bow worthy of Aren Silverleaf. “As always, you are too modest, Master Atre.”

The actor had evidently removed his paint, but still looked exceptionally handsome. Alec caught himself staring and hastily looked away.

“Do nobles ever take the stage here?” asked Atre.

“Only for private entertainments.”

“Well, if you ever want to arrange something, let me know. I’ve a number of roles that would suit you very well.”

“Heroes or villains?” asked Alec from the groundling area.

“I’m sure Lord Seregil could play any role, my lord. You yourself would make the perfect young lover.”

“I’ll leave that to you two. I prefer to stay on this side of the proscenium.”

Brader, Merina, Leea, and Zell soon joined them, all dressed in new finery, though far fewer jewels. Brader wore none at all, Alec noticed.

They dined together at a nearby tavern and found the actors good company, raucous without being crude, with many entertaining stories to tell. When the fruit and nuts were gone but the wine was still flowing, Atre and Merina entertained the house with several songs. Their fellow diners were a receptive audience, and Atre wasn’t shy about promoting their upcoming productions.

Alec took stock of the actor and his friends. Or perhaps friends wasn’t quite the right word, for they clearly deferred to Atre-all except for Brader, but he was a quiet one and hard to read. Zell and Leea were journeyman actors, good at their craft but not stellar, and there were still traces of the Mycenian countryside in their accents, while the vivacious Merina had all the polish of a noblewoman. She shone brightly, flirting harmlessly with Alec, tossing her shining

dark hair as she laughed. Brader showed the most emotion when he looked at his wife or spoke to her, and Alec guessed there was genuine love between them.

But Atre was the real star and center of attention. He was at ease with his patrons, despite their rank, yet never overstepped the bounds of respect. He was careful to include all three of them in the conversation, but showed Kylith just that little extra attention that acknowledged her as the most influential of the trio. No doubt he’d done a bit of asking around. In his place that’s what Seregil would have done, Alec knew, having observed him play that game many times. Watching Atre, Alec began to feel like he was watching Seregil immersed in some role, and he wondered what was really going on behind those lively blue eyes.

He looked more closely at the earring, which Atre most assuredly hadn’t been able to afford the last time Alec had seen him. A gift, no doubt. The hole through his earlobe was an old one, well healed, so he wasn’t new to such adornments, or to such gatherings as these, either, if his manner was anything to go by.

“Who was your patron in Nanta, Master Atre?” he asked at last.

“The lord mayor and his wife, my lord,” Atre replied with obvious pride. In Mycena that was the equivalent of nobility. “Alas, I don’t know if they are alive or dead now, after the siege on the city last fall that drove my little company westward.”

“Tell the tale of how you and your players came to Rhiminee, won’t you?” Kylith urged.

“We began our escape from Mycena on foot, after several of our members were killed,” Atre replied. “It was a dreadful journey. Finally we took ship in Nysana and reached Cirna just before your Mourning Night. We earned enough there in the streets to buy passage here early this spring. We began in the marketplaces, adding to our meager savings, and managed to scrape together enough to rent the theater in Basket Street where, most fortuitously you, dear lady, found us. And you, my lords.”

Seregil raised his wine cup. “To those in whom the flame of art burns brightest!”

The rest joined him in the toast. Alec was impressed to see tears glitter in the actor’s eyes as he humbly accepted the praise.

“I must say, I am delighted with your success,” said Seregil.

“Tell me more about yourselves,” said Kylith, nodding to Brader, who had been largely silent. “How did you and your lovely wife meet?”

“Father, Mother, and I were with a company of traveling players,” Merina told her. “Atre and Brader joined us at Rudderford in Mycena. Do you know it? No? It’s in northern Mycena, almost to the freeholdings.”

“What were you doing all the way up there, Brader?” asked Alec, trying to get the taciturn man to speak for himself.

But it was Atre who answered. “We are northerners ourselves, Lord Alec. We’d established a small company in Dresher’s Ford, but a plague struck the town and carried off most of our players. Brader and I took to the road to seek our fortunes elsewhere, and ran across Zell and his company in the process. They invited us to join them.”

“And as you can imagine, Atre soon took over,” old Zell said with a laugh. “Our own principal actor took issue with that and dissolved the company. We threw in with Atre and Brader and headed south to seek better fortunes. And along the way, Brader stole my girl’s heart. No woman could ask for a better husband, either.”

Brader smiled with a warmth Alec hadn’t suspected the man capable of. “And no man could have a better wife.”

“And such talented children,” Kylith added. “I’ve enjoyed their antics in the comedies, and Van died very well tonight! We all wept, didn’t we, Alec?”

“No higher praise than that,” Brader said, warming more at the mention of his children. “They’ve been onstage all their lives. They don’t know any other life.”

“But you’ve been unlucky in finding a home, it seems,” Seregil noted. “First plague, then the attack on Nanta.”

“And a few troubles in between,” said Leea.

“But our luck has changed for the better in Rhiminee,” said Atre, saluting his patrons with his wine cup. “I hope to stay here for a very long time.”

“I’ll drink to that!” said Seregil.

CHAPTER 14. Making an Imperssion

SEREGIL and Alec’s fortunes continued to improve when they received an invitation in the archduchess’s own hand, asking them to join her salon the following evening. Seregil, in turn, sent a message to Atre. The actor appeared at their door the next day, dressed nearly as splendidly as they were.

“Sorry to pull you away from your work,” said Seregil as they set off on horseback, but only out of politeness. “I suppose you had to cancel the show?”

“Oh, no,” Atre assured him blithely. The man had hired a glossy black gelding for the evening and rode well. “We have a few plays in our repertoire that don’t include me. My understudy, Calieus, and young Teibo have center stage tonight. But of course, I would have come, even if it meant canceling a performance. I’m delighted to repay your generosity in such a small way.”

“And I’m delighted that you are a man of your word,” Seregil replied.

A damp, salt-laden breeze blew up from the harbor as they rode through the well-lit streets of the Noble Quarter to the grandest part bordering Silvermoon Street.

Alaya’s villa was four times the size of the house in Wheel Street. When they arrived, Seregil was surprised to find not only two servants in white livery ready to greet them and take charge of their horses, but half a dozen of the Palace Guard on duty as well.

The captain politely asked their names and gave them a slight bow. “Her Grace is expecting you.”

Servants ushered them inside and led them through a lavishly appointed receiving room into a grand salon, the walls of which were painted, Skalan-style, with colorful murals depicting ocean scenes. The archduchess’s main holdings were on the southeastern coast, though she was seldom there now that she served at court.

A large set of double doors at the far side of the room stood open, and through these they stepped into a garden courtyard ringed with fragrant flowers and trees and lit by crystal lanterns on tall gilt stands. The center was paved with pink marble slabs with compact lines of aromatic creeping thyme between them, bright with tiny purple flowers. Alaya and her guests reclined at ease on silk-draped couches set up beside a moss-crusted fountain. Carved sea serpents rose up out of the broad marble basin to spit tinkling streams of water.

Reltheus was already there, sharing a couch with a middle-aged woman Seregil recognized at once as Princess Aralain, mother of Elani. The princess royal sat with Alaya, slender as a boy in her sea-green silk. Elani had her aunt and mother’s fair hair and pale eyes, but must have taken after her father more than the royal side, for she was rather pretty, though Seregil noted a small scar just to the left of her chin, and another across the back of her right hand; swordsman’s scars. Her hands were not coarse-no doubt she wore gloves-but her nails were trimmed short.

Archduchess Alaya was dressed in purple silk, her white hair a mass of jeweled braids and ringlets. Marquise Evesia and her husband occupied another couch, and Marquis Kyrin completed the party, Seregil was surprised but pleased to see.

A young woman with red-blond hair stood in the circle of couches, the celebrated poetess Jenaria. She was reciting lyric verse at the moment. Seregil, Alec, and the actor remained respectfully in the doorway, waiting for her to finish.

When the poetess finished and sat down amid a flurry of applause, Seregil and his companions stepped forward and bowed deeply to the princesses and their hostess. Atre remained behind them.

Reltheus stood and joined them. “Your Highnesses, Your Grace, allow me to present Lord Seregil of Rhiminee, and his companion, Lord Alec of Ivywell.”

Princess Elani inclined her head, accustomed to deference, but Seregil was almost certain her gaze lingered a moment on Alec, though it was to him that she spoke.

“Lord Seregil the Aurenfaie? I’m pleased to meet you at last, cousin. Aunt Klia holds you both as great friends.”

“It’s been a long time, Seregil,” Princess Aralain said a bit less warmly.

“Your Highnesses greatly honor us,” Seregil said. “And Your Grace,” he added, bowing now to Alaya as Alec did the same.

Alaya smiled as she waved them to the last empty couch. “I’m pleased to meet you, Lord Alec. And look at you, Seregil! You have grown up from that sad little thing you were at court.”

A servant immediately came forward with a gilded wine table, golden cups, and plates of tiny sweetmeats for them. Alaya eyed Atre approvingly. “Tell me about this other handsome young fellow you have brought with you.”

“This is the great actor, Master Atre, lately of Nanta,” Seregil explained. “Perhaps you’ve heard of him and his company?”

“I have indeed. How clever of you to bring him. Princess Elani has been so curious to see his players.”

“A pity they are in such a poor venue,” added Princess Aralain, as if Atre weren’t there to hear.

“Ah, but that’s changed, Highness,” Seregil informed her. “Lady Kylith, Alec, and I have set them up properly in Gannet Lane.”

“Very good!” said Alaya. “Master Atre, I am so glad we will be able to sample your talent tonight. I’m sorry you missed Jenaria’s first offerings, but I’m sure she has another prepared for us.”

The poetess rose again and bowed to the guests. “It would be my honor, Your Grace,” she replied. “I offer to you

‘The Hour of Blue Leaves.’

“I’ve met my love in the shadowed bower,

and we embraced as the sun’s last rays

bled over the horizon. Leave-taking

burned behind the eyes, promises kindled

skin to skin. As the evening wind

turned the leaves, pale blue against the night,

I let my love drift out of the garden

with only a fading musk on my palms

where once we touched. How was I to know

my love would become only a reflection,

a shadow beneath the current,

a blue leaf adrift on the stream of memory?”

“How lovely!” Princess Aralain exclaimed. “Do give us one more.”

“As you like, Highness.” The poetess pressed a hand to her heart. “ ‘Leave-Taking at Dawn.’ ”

This one was much longer, a lover’s lament. Seregil lounged against his end of their couch, sipping his wine and nodding appreciatively at particularly well-turned lines. Alec sat beside him, cup raised halfway to his lips, his expression one of rapt attention. It was only partly an act on both their parts; the woman was talented. Even so, Seregil was acutely aware of the curious glances Princess Elani was stealing in their direction.

He wasn’t the only one to notice. Reltheus looked their way more than once, and Aralain was watching with a hint of disapproval at the corners of her mouth. Alec was oblivious as usual to the attention he was attracting.

When the poetess had finished, she bowed once more and withdrew, leaving the archduchess and her guests to discuss her verse. Having missed most of it, Seregil and Alec had little to say, but he noticed that Elani was equally quiet and not fully at ease. The conversation flowed around her, hardly seeming to register. Marquis Kyrin, on the other hand, was particularly knowledgeable. Apparently this sort of entertainment agreed with him, for he recited a few short poems himself, in a deep, melodious voice. Even then, he had a reserved air about him that was in sharp contrast with

Reltheus’s open manner. Perhaps it was their political interests that had brought them together.

When the subject of poetry was exhausted, Alaya looked to Seregil. “And now for Master Atre, I think.”

Atre stood and delivered the soliloquy from an upcoming play in which he had the lead role of a wizard intent on capturing the affections of an unwilling young woman. It was dark and fiery, and Seregil found himself engrossed in spite of himself. Atre followed this with a comic monologue as the saucy but sharp-witted servant of a hapless noble who had a habit of getting into trouble of various sorts.

Seregil smiled, watching him. Even without costume or makeup, the man captured the demeanor and arrogant stance of the wizard, then changed completely as he capered lightly around the courtyard declaiming the servant’s irreverent speech. He impressed even Seregil, who was himself an expert at such transformations, though never for a knowing audience.

By the time he bowed, everyone was laughing heartily and applauding, even Princess Elani, who looked much more interested in this than she had the poetry.

“You are the consummate performer, my dear!” Alaya said, offering the actor her hand to kiss and gifting him with a golden ring from her finger.

“I am honored beyond words, Your Grace,” Atre said, gazing into her eyes as he took it, making even the old woman blush like a girl and clear her throat. Atre was already wearing a ruby ring Seregil recognized with a twinge of annoyance as having belonged to Kylith; Seregil had given it to her.

“I think you must be the most amusing man in all of Rhiminee,” Aralain exclaimed, clearly charmed as she gave him a bracelet from her wrist.

“You are far too generous, Your Highness,” Atre demurred, but pride shone in his eyes as he bowed and pressed his hand to his heart. “I hope you will come and see the plays in their entirety.”

“I shall attend your theater very soon,” she assured him.

“I shall, as well,” the princess royal said. Blushing a little, she pulled off one of her own rings and gave it to him.

Atre was allowed to withdraw to a back table with the poetess, and talk turned to other subjects.

“Tell me, Reltheus, what do you hear from Lord Danos?” Princess Aralain asked.

“I received a letter just the other day, Your Highness. He and his company captured and held a bridge at Redpoll for the queen, who led her forces to victory on the Plenimaran frontier.”

“He’s very fortunate to serve so close to my aunt,” said Elani. “I’d like to hear more of his exploits from him, when he returns.”

“May Sakor bring him safely home,” added her mother, who appeared to be as smitten with this potential suitor as her daughter.

“Most assuredly, Highness,” Reltheus told her. “Perhaps you’ll come to my estate again. Danos would be most honored to lead a hunt for you.”

Elani smiled, looking charmingly girlish. “I’d like that.”

And which more? Seregil wondered. The hunting or the young mans company?

“He also sent a private note to the princess royal, if you will allow it, Highness?”

“Certainly,” Aralain replied.

Elani blushed a bit as she took the sealed letter and tucked it into her sleeve.

“Do you have any more news of the war, Your Grace?” asked Alaya, clearly in his camp. “Is there any end in sight?”

“I don’t think so,” Reltheus told her with a sigh. “Part of the regiment was moved up the river toward Fleet Ford. Danos said they’d seen a great deal of battle, and he’s lost some good riders. He himself was wounded-”

“Not seriously, I hope!” exclaimed Elani.

“A mere flesh wound, he said. Although knowing my boy, he wished to spare my feelings and those of his stepmother with any detail.”

“Does he ever speak of Captain Beka Cavish?” asked Alec. “She’s with the Queen’s Horse, as well.”

“Now and then,” Reltheus said, clearly intending to keep the focus of the discussion on his son’s exploits and bravery,

which he extolled for several minutes. Princess Aralain hung on his every word, as did Alaya. And Elani, too, though her gaze did stray Alec’s way every now and then.

“And what does he say regarding his commander?” asked Evesia, who’d been quiet for some time.

Interesting, thought Seregil, that Aralain had not asked after her half sister.

“Nothing but praise!” Reltheus assured the marquise. “After the queen herself, Princess Klia is accounted the finest commander in the field. But you must hear a great deal of news, working so closely with her brother, the vicegerent. What does Prince Korathan have to say?”

“Very much the same,” Evesia replied. “Only the other day he noted that the Queen’s Horse has one of the highest success rates in the army, but also among the highest casualties. No doubt because they are on the front line so often.”

“The queen must have great confidence in her sister,” said Seregil. “We were honored to serve her, Alec and I, in Aurenen, and found her tremendously capable and intelligent.”

“Oh, she is,” said Elani. The obvious affection there made Seregil doubt that Elani knew anything of a plot against Klia.

As talk turned to the summer’s fashions and concerns about the lack of fine wool for the fall, Elani again fell silent. Alec must have noticed, too, for he took advantage of a pause in the conversation to ask her a question about hunting.

The girl brightened again and soon they were discussing the pull weights of their bows and the relative merits of swallowtail arrowheads and broad heads. Alaya and the other guests were soon left behind and looked on in amusement-all but Reltheus and Aralain, Seregil noted, watching them through lowered lashes. There was a hint of annoyance behind Reltheus’s forced smile, no doubt at the attention Alec was getting, and Elani’s mother clearly had other plans for her daughter. This wouldn’t do, not after the work they’d done to curry the duke’s friendship.

Seregil leaned over and draped an arm around Alec’s shoulders. “It’s a shame you don’t have your bow, love. I’m sure Her Highness would find it of interest.”

The intimacy of the gesture was not lost on anyone, least of all Elani. She colored a bit and looked down at her hands.

Embarrassed, but not angry, Seregil noted with interest. He leaned back and let his arm fall away, point made. It wasn’t jealousy but protectiveness; not only could they not afford to alienate Reltheus, but the slightest sign of interest in Alec by the princess royal would not set well with the queen.

Alec shot him a puzzled glance, then turned back to the princess and smoothed the moment over by describing the Radly to her, and how it could be taken apart.

“I’d like to see that,” she said, enthusiasm returning. “You and Lord Seregil must come shoot with me at the palace lists.”

“I’d be most honored, Your Highness,” Alec replied.

“As would I, Highness,” Seregil said, giving her a warm smile. “Although my shooting will be strictly for your amusement, I fear.”

“Aunt Klia says you are one of the finest swordsmen she knows, though,” Elani replied. “Perhaps you will give me a match.”

“I am yours to command.” Seregil hoped the invitation came soon, as he doubted Phoria would welcome his presence or Alec’s on the palace grounds after her return, much less contact with her niece.

“She will prove quite an opponent for you, Seregil,” Reltheus said. “After all, she’s been trained by the queen.”

“I’m no warrior, as you will soon attest,” Seregil said with a laugh, playing the fop. “I’m sure I wouldn’t last half an hour on a battlefield.”

Talk turned back to the war after that. Seregil glanced now and then at the actor, who sat at the back table with the poetess. To most eyes the man would have appeared to be politely concealing growing boredom as he toyed absently with the expensive pearl bauble hanging from his ear, but his lazy gaze was never quite at rest.

A man of no account, but one who pays attention, Seregil thought, once again feeling a certain kinship with him.

* * *

It was not yet midnight when Alaya bid farewell to her guests. As they were waiting for their horses to be brought around, Seregil turned to Atre. “You were absolutely wonderful.”

“My lord, it was nothing, but I am glad to have been of service,” Atre replied modestly, though he was clearly pleased.

“Come have a drink with us to finish off the evening. There’s a decent tavern in the next street.”

“Of course, my lord!”

The Mermaid was a luxurious establishment patronized by the nobles of the area. In addition to excellent wines and ales, it also had small private rooms available off the main chamber. Seregil gave the doorkeeper gold and he led them to one of these, a pretty little room with velvet couches arranged around a common wine table and murals of the amorous doings of mermaids on the walls between blue velvet hangings. A serving boy soon appeared.

“Do you have any turab tonight, Yustin?” Seregil inquired.

“We just got a cask in, my lord. It hasn’t even been tapped yet.”

“Excellent. Turab it is.”

“What is that, my lord?” asked Atre, settling on the couch across from the one Seregil shared with Alec.

“Ale from my native land. Very rare and it doesn’t come cheaply these days.” Seregil unbuckled his sword and shrugged out of his heavy embroidered coat. “Do make yourself comfortable, Atre.” He took a lace handkerchief from his sleeve and patted his brow and upper lip. “It’s too warm to stand on ceremony any longer.”

“For what you paid, you’d think they’d at least have given us the room with the window,” Alec complained, following Seregil’s lead as he took off his own sword and coat.

“Thank you.” Atre undid the silver buttons of his coat to reveal a shirt of fine embroidered linen that probably cost more than Seregil’s and Alec’s put together.

“You have the most exquisite taste in dress, Master Atre. You must steer me to your tailor,” Seregil noted. “Our venture in Gannet Lane seems to be playing out quite well for you.”

Atre’s smile faltered. “My lord, if you think I am taking more than my share-”

“Nothing of the sort. I was simply complimenting your wardrobe. I’m sure your accounts are all in order. But let’s not spoil the evening talking of such things.”

The boy returned with a tray of colorfully glazed clay mugs topped with golden foam, and a platter of fine cheeses, grapes, and sliced apples.

Lifting his flagon, Seregil said, “To the queen, may the Four protect her.”

Alec and Atre joined the toast and took their first drink.

Atre licked his lips appreciatively. “That’s very good!”

“And they serve it properly here. Metal cups dull the flavor.”

“I should like to hear more of your homeland sometime, my lord.”

“A beautiful place!” Seregil sighed, staring pensively down into his mug. “So much more civilized than here. Your company would do very well in Viresse.”

“Is that a city there?”

Seregil smiled. “Yes, and a grand one. Viresse rivals Rhiminee itself, a thriving seaport and city. The folk there have more of a taste for things foreign than most of the clans.”

Atre sipped his turab. “Perhaps I’ll see it one day for myself. Tell me, my lord, if it’s not too personal, but is it true that Aurenfaie can live to be five hundred years old?”

“Many do.”

The actor shook his head, smiling. “So much life. So much time! How many people you must know. You must be able to accomplish a great deal.”

“It depends on the person, I suppose, though time seems to move more slowly there. I remember-” Seregil paused, dabbing at his eyes as he pretended to be overcome by memories.

“It pains him to speak of home,” Alec explained, putting a consoling hand on Seregil’s shoulder.

“Forgive me, I shouldn’t have brought it up.”

Seregil shook his head as he laid a hand over Alec’s. “No,

it’s quite all right. But you know well how it is to lose your home, don’t you? Were you happy in Nanta?”

“Oh, yes. For a lad from Dresher’s Ford, it was quite an exotic place. Or so I thought before I came here.”

“Where did you say Dresher’s Ford is?” asked Alec. “Somewhere in the northlands, isn’t it?”

“Nowhere you’d know of, I’m sure,” Atre said with a laugh. “It’s a tiny place in the hills north of the Folcwine Forest.”

“From there to performing before the future queen of Skala!” Alec raised his mug to Atre. “You have come a long way in every sense.”

“If there’s one thing I admire in a man, it’s ambition,” said Seregil. “And I think you are not lacking in that, Master Atre.”

The actor smiled modestly but did not deny it.

“Mistress Merina spoke of you and Master Brader meeting her family in Rudderford,” said Alec. “Is he kin of yours?”

“He’s my cousin on my father’s side, but he’s been more like a brother to me. We vowed as children to seek our fortunes together, and so we have. I must confess, I’d be lost without him. He’s far more practical than I am and sees to the business of actually running the theater. We’d still be street players in the northlands if not for him.”

Seregil chuckled. “I very much doubt that. But since you’ve brought up the subject of business, tell me, have you ever done more for your patrons than make money for them?”

Atre looked up sharply at that, blue eyes suddenly wary with the first honest emotion Seregil had seen all evening. “What are we speaking of, my lord?”

“Your virtue is quite safe, my friend, if that’s what you’re thinking of with that dark look,” Seregil assured him.

Color crept into Atre’s cheeks as he quickly tried to cover up his misstep. “Pardon, my lord, I shouldn’t have presumed-”

“But I wouldn’t have been the first to ask, I think?”

Atre’s silence was answer enough, and Seregil was

reminded of how much cooler Atre was with his male admirers. “No, what I meant to propose was that I have a taste for gossip, and would be most appreciative if you could pass on any bits and pieces you might pick up among your various admirers. You’re moving in very good circles these days.”

“What sort of gossip, my lord?” asked Atre, looking not at all opposed to the idea.

“Well, about Alec and myself, of course. One does like to know who one’s real friends are.”

“And anything to do with the royal family is always welcome,” added Alec, as if an afterthought. “We happen to be good friends with Princess Klia and are rather protective of her. The nobility can be so fickle, even cruel.”

“But of course!” Atre assured them with a knowing wink. “And who knows what people might say in front of the mere entertainment, that they wouldn’t say to your face, eh?”

“I think we understand each other,” Seregil replied, reaching for the purse on his discarded belt.

“No need for that, my lord. You’re far too generous as it is. You and Lady Kylith were the making of our little company, such good connections.” He gave them a seated bow. “Having the honor of your trust is worth far more to me than gold. I am eternally in your debt, my lords.”

“As you wish. More turab?”

Atre bid his patrons good night and headed home, very well pleased with his evening’s work on all accounts. Holding up his hand, he admired the rings he’d been given tonight. The oval amethyst from Princess Elani looked good enough to eat.

Lord Seregil’s proposal had not been a complete surprise; Atre knew a fellow actor when he saw one, and there was a good deal more to Seregil than the man let on. For all his foppish airs and fawning over his young paramour, there was a hint of shrewdness about both of them that Atre knew better than to discount.

An odd pair, that, he thought as he rode from the noble quarter to the Street of the Sheaf. Lord Seregil had clearly been born to culture and the cutthroat world of court life.

Lord Alec’s manners, on the other hand, were a thin veneer that couldn’t quite mask his country roots. Given what Atre had learned about the pair in the short time he’d been moving in noble circles, he wasn’t alone in wondering how a young bumpkin from a place so obscure no one seemed to know where it was held the attention of a rake like Seregil. Atre allowed himself a thin smile; nobles did indeed gossip about them, and it was generally assumed that Lord Seregil didn’t keep the boy around for his conversational skills. Atre believed that was an underestimation of both men; the affection between them seemed quite genuine, and Alec was no fool.

Unlike the area around the old theater in Basket Street, Atre’s new haunt was an unlikely place to meet with footpads, but he still kept a sharp eye out as he passed under the swaying street lanterns.

Thanks to the largesse of their several patrons and the success of the plays, he and his company had been able to rent a large house in Gannet Lane quite near the theater. For the first time since the near disaster in Mycena, they had a proper roof over their heads and enough rooms for the various members of their little household to spread out in. It had been below Atre’s dignity to share space with the boys of the company in that Basket Street attic, but there had been little choice.

Here he’d already begun to surround himself with fine things again-rich furnishings, luxurious linens and hangings for his carved bedstead, a few tapestries and carpets. He’d filled two wardrobes with excellent clothes and had caskets overflowing with jewelry, most of that gifts from his ever-growing circle of admirers.

The house was quiet when he arrived, flushed with turab and success. His aspirations among Skalan nobility reached far beyond Lady Kylith and Lord Seregil; meeting the princess royal and her mother had been an unexpected turn of luck. He could tell that his performance had pleased Elani far more than that poet woman’s drivel. Another potential connection.

The large, sparsely furnished front room was dark except for a candle someone had left burning for him in a clay

holder. Taking it with him, he climbed the creaking stairs and unlocked the door at the far end of the hallway. Entering his room, he set the candle on the dressing table and studied his handsome face in the gilt-framed glass on the wall, looking for flaws and finding none.

He thought again of the fascinating Lord Seregil. It was a shame, really, that title. The man was wasted on nobility. What an actor Atre could have made of him! Not that he’d share a stage with such competition, but with another handsome principal actor to build a second cast around, Atre could expand the repertoire still further, perhaps even acquire another theater. Yes, it was a pity, but having the man’s patronage was something, and his interest. He’d seen the way Seregil’s gaze had fixed on him now and then, and the way the princess royal had been looking at Seregil’s young lover. Indeed, such a pair could prove useful. And there was the matter of Seregil asking him to spy for him; it seemed he’d gained the man’s trust.

Sitting down at the dressing table, he began sorting the night’s jewels. For each one he wrote out a label with the name of the previous owner and tied it on with a bit of blue silk thread. Some went into a jewel casket on the dressing table. A few others were set aside for special safekeeping.

Brader came in without knocking.

“Look!” Atre showed him the amethyst ring on his little finger. “A gift from the princess royal herself.”

Brader raised a disapproving eyebrow.

Atre closed the jewel box with a dramatic sigh. “I can’t help it if people give me things. The rest of you have your own little collections, too.”

“We don’t flaunt them. And we don’t label them.”

“How else can I be sure to wear the right ones when I’m with the person who gave them to me? They want to see them on me, as you very well know.” The frown tilted into a fond smile as he fingered the jewel hanging from his ear. “It makes them feel special.”

There was a touch of malice in Brader’s answering smile. “Yet not all of them give you gifts. Or do you have a new bauble or two in there from our lesser patrons?”

“Lord Seregil and his boy give me money, and they have some useful connections. The higher-ups seem to find them amusing.”

“And did they find you amusing tonight?”

“Of course! I told you we’d be entertaining royalty before you know it.”

“Nothing less is good enough for you, is it?”

Atre grinned at his reflection in the mirror. “Why should it be? We’ve fallen into a nice bit of luck here, cousin. I plan to take full advantage. You’re not going to oppose me, are you?”

The big man shrugged. “You’re the master of the company. But your ambition and vanity have led us-”

“My ambition and vanity have kept us alive and prospering. Now, if you don’t mind, I’m tired and we have a full rehearsal tomorrow. You should get some sleep, too, cousin. You’re looking a bit haggard. Are you eating well? Shall I fix you a little something?”

Without a word Brader turned and left, shutting the door softly behind him.

Smiling to himself, Atre admired the princess’s amethyst ring again. He was indeed fortunate in his patrons.

CHAPTER 15. Rubbing Shoulders with Royalty

ALEC was sitting on the kitchen floor, playing with Marag, when Seregil came in with a letter.

“Aren’t we the popular fellows!” he said with a grin, passing the letter to Alec. “A royal page just delivered this. That’s Elani’s personal seal, by the way.”

It was written on expensive parchment, and had an impressive seal dangling from it on a ribbon, showing the image of a coursing hound running under Illior’s thin crescent moon, surmounted with Sakor’s stylized flame. It was an invitation written in a looping girlish script, inviting them to shoot with her early the following morning. Seregil studied it, committing it to memory.

“Apparently your little show of possession didn’t put her off the notion,” Alec noted.

“She seems a levelheaded girl. Maybe she takes after her aunt Klia.”

Alec was sweating in his light coat before they’d crossed the Harvest Market, though it wasn’t due to the weather. The air was blessedly cool at this hour, and the lowering clouds held the promise of a summer shower. He pulled nervously at the quiver strap across his chest. The shatta clicked and rattled together against his left hip in time to Windrunner’s pace.

Riding beside him on Cynril, Seregil glanced over at him and shook his head. “Stop looking like you’ve been sent to the Red Tower!”

“I hope I don’t land myself there before this is over,” Alec muttered.

“Just remember your manners, and keep up that country charm. She already likes you.”

At the appointed hour they showed the invitation at the gates of the royal park and rode into the grounds surrounding the forbidding Palace. The Palace was built against the side of the inner curtain wall, like a barnacle on a rock. It was a dour-looking fortress, built by Tamir the Great to withstand sieges, and had no hint of the Oreska House’s airy grace, though they were built at the same time. Buttressed by the western curtain wall that surrounded the city, its square towers overlooked the city and the harbor below. There were barracks on the extensive grounds, but gardens, as well, that softened the ugliness a little. Having come here in less-than-pleasant circumstances before, Alec shivered a little as he rode through the ornate iron gates.

The royal lists were located in the south garden; archery was a favorite pastime of the nobility, as well as a martial skill. Courtiers of both sexes had already gathered with the princess, including Princess Aralain. A few of the women and girls were dressed in men’s clothing, the princess herself in something like a military uniform, with her fair hair in a braid over one shoulder, and a fine bow and quiver over the other.

The vicegerent, Prince Korathan, was there, as well, dressed for shooting rather than court, together with Alaya, Duke Reltheus, Count Selin, and a host of other retainers and friends, including Tolin and Stenmir, whom Alec had seen at Kyrin’s house the night he first burgled it.

Korathan stood talking to the princess as they approached. The prince was a tall, fair man, and Phoria’s twin, with the same pale eyes and hair now streaked with grey, as was his short-cropped beard. He had a somewhat warmer manner, however, and doubly so, it seemed, around his niece. He was another of Seregil’s former lovers, too, if very briefly and a long time ago. Alec tried not to think about that.

Elani caught sight of them and waved. Alec waved back,

then yanked his hand down and glanced nervously at Seregil. “Should I have done that?”

“She’s smiling, tali. Remember, just be yourself and respectful. That’s why we’re here, after all.”

Alec looked to Korathan for a read of the weather and found the man also smiling and at ease.

Once in the royal presence, Seregil and Alec bowed deeply. “We are most honored by your invitation, Highness,” Seregil said, speaking for both of them.

“Thank you for coming,” she replied, and he noticed her gaze straying again to Alec.

“Alec, perhaps Her Highness would like to see the Radly.”

“Oh, of course.” Alec unshouldered his black bow and held it out to her with both hands. There were a few titters among the courtiers at his slight awkwardness, but Seregil didn’t mind; it only bolstered the country-bred reputation that they’d so carefully cultivated.

Elani ran her hands over the smooth black yew limbs and the ivory plate, admiring the etched maker’s mark. “And you say it comes apart?”

Alec took it back, unstrung it, and twisted the handgrip, unlocking the steel ferrule and pulling the two limbs apart. He showed her how they fit back together, then took it apart again for her to try. She assembled it and set one end against her foot to restring it with practiced ease. Raising it in her left hand, she drew the string to her ear, then slowly eased it back. “The mechanism doesn’t weaken it?”

“No, Highness.”

Seregil exchanged a slight smile with the prince as Alec and Elani stood there, talking bows and shooting for some time, as if the rest of them weren’t there. Elani and Alec might be worlds apart in rank, but they spoke the same language, and with the same enthusiasm. In his element, Alec was almost as at ease as if he were talking with Beka or Micum.

“Perhaps we should get to it?” Korathan suggested at last. In truth, the others were getting a little restless, no doubt less than pleased to see a newcomer of low rank getting so much

attention from the princess at their expense. Seregil had spent enough time at court to know that the closer you got to the throne, the closer to the surface jealousy ran.

Anxious to see the Radly in action, Elani took Alec as her partner, and Seregil found himself paired with the prince.

“Well, well. I’ve gotten the lesser part of this bargain,” Korathan remarked as he stepped up to the line at their target. “Unless you’ve improved since I last saw you shoot.”

Improved is such a relative term. But you still probably wouldn’t want to depend on me for your supper.”

Korathan just chuckled.

Alec’s efforts with him had not been completely in vain; Seregil didn’t come close to besting Korathan, but he did manage to reliably strike the target.

It felt at once strange and familiar, this. It had been years since he and Korathan had met as anything other than prince and lord, but for this brief time the barriers were lowered at least a little and Seregil got a glimpse of the man he’d liked and bedded when they were both so young. Years past the pain, the memory made him smile.

“Are you going to shoot or stand there woolgathering?” Korathan asked, sounding more amused than impatient. A voice from the past. Maybe he was remembering, too.

“I must ask a favor of you,” Princess Elani said to Alec as they took their places in the list, softly enough so that the crowd of courtiers watching couldn’t hear.

“I’m yours to command, Highness,” Alec replied, surprised.

The girl smiled and shook her head. “People have a habit of letting me win because of who I am. I don’t appreciate that. Rumor has it that you are an exceptional archer. I’d prefer to see your best.”

Alec relaxed a little; in fact, Seregil had warned him to not make too much of a show of himself. He did insist, however, on giving her the advantage of shooting second. Placing his toe to the line, he adjusted his leather tab and nocked a red-fletched arrow to his string, bow arm still relaxed and hanging down. Then he fixed his eye on the distant bull’s-eye,

raised and pulled the bow in one smooth motion, and let fly. The shaft struck dead center. He sent a second one after it and it struck so close on the left that it shaved a bit of fletching off the first. The third embedded itself just to the right of the first one. The feat was greeted with uneasy silence among the courtiers until Elani began to clap. As the others joined in, she raised an eyebrow at him. “You certainly took me at my word, my lord.”

He bowed, at a loss for words and hoping he hadn’t put his foot in it right off the mark. He was glad he hadn’t gotten carried away and split one of the arrows, which he could very well have done on such a calm day.

A page cleared Alec’s arrows from the target and Elani took her place at the line. To Alec’s considerable relief, she let fly three of her black-and-white-fletched shafts in quick succession and landed them in a grouping just as tight as his own.

“Well shot!” Alec cried, as the courtiers applauded. As soon as the words left his lips he wondered again if he’d overstepped.

Yet Elani looked pleased. “Thank you, my lord. Shall we have another go?”

They shot several more times, with Elani proving herself Alec’s equal each time.

“May I try the Radly?” She could have commanded him, but instead asked with the respect one archer accorded another. You didn’t ask such a thing lightly.

“Of course, Highness.” Alec traded with her, and held hers carefully as she sent half a dozen arrows unerringly into the target, making a star design.

When she was done she ran a hand over it again. “It’s a thing of beauty, Lord Alec. You must tell me where I can get one like it.”

“Please, accept this one, Highness,” he said, though the words came with a twinge; this would be the second one, another gift from Seregil, that he’d lost.

But she shook her head and handed it back. “No, it would be as wrong to part you from it as to take one of your hands.”

“Then at least accept these, Highness.” He untied half a

dozen of the best shatta dangling from his quiver and presented them to her, a collection of carved gold, silver, ivory, two jades, and a carnelian. “They’re from Aurenen, and they’re called shatta, which means ‘prize.’ Archers win them from one another in matches like this.”

Elani held them up, admiring them. “Yes, I know. Aunt Klia has some, from her time in that land. I gathered from how many you have that you must be very good. Thank you for these. Perhaps I’ll start the custom here.” She turned to her uncle in the next list over. “How are you and Lord Seregil faring, Uncle?”

Korathan gave Seregil a wry grin. “If we’re going to start that custom today, my dear, then Lord Seregil owes me a good many more shatta than that.”

They sat in the shade of a large grape arbor after that and drank chilled wine, then it was clear that Alec and Seregil were expected to take their leave. Alec left with a parting promise to send directions to Radly’s shop in Wolde and set off for the stables.

Reltheus excused himself and accompanied them.

“You’ve certainly made a favorable impression on the princess,” he said as they walked along. “Especially you, young Alec. You should be careful, or you’ll make your lover here jealous.”

“He has no reason to be,” Alec replied, coloring a little.

Reltheus chuckled at that. “Many young men would be pleased with such a conquest.”

“I’d hardly say he conquered me,” Seregil said with a smile.

Reltheus blinked, then got the joke. “I’ve heard you called the most amusing man in Rhiminee, Seregil. Since I’ve gotten to know you, I think I may just agree. Will you dine with me tonight, gentlemen?”

“Why, we’d be delighted!”

“I’ll send a carriage for you. I don’t suppose you could bring that actor fellow along?”

“I believe he’s onstage tonight, unfortunately,” said Alec.

“Let’s go and see him, then! My wife has been badgering me to take her. We can dine afterward.”

Bidding the duke farewell at the stable gate, they got their horses from the liveried stable boy and set off for home.

“Well, how did I do?” asked Alec.

“Very well, tali. But you noticed we weren’t invited inside with the others? Korathan whispered a little warning to me while you and the princess were shooting.”

“Really? What did he say?”

“Just that while Elani has taken a liking to you, Phoria will most likely put a stop to it when she comes home. We’re not the sort of company she’ll want her future queen to keep. Then again, maybe Elani will have some say in the matter. We’ll just have to wait and see. Enjoy it while it lasts!”

“Are you certain you’re all right with this?” asked Seregil as they waited for Reltheus’s coach to arrive that evening.

“Stop asking!” Alec muttered, less than happy with the night’s plan.

The duke and his wife soon arrived, and they set out for Gannet Lane.

Reltheus introduced Palmani, who was out of birthing confinement. She was very young and quite pretty. Alec felt bad for her, knowing what her husband got up to on his nights out. She was also a little shy, but Seregil soon had her laughing and talking about her baby son.

There was a large crowd gathered in front of the theater, and the playbills hung on each side of the doors promised a comedy tonight called The Wife’s Revenge. It seemed appropriate, although Alec was fairly certain from the way Palmani fawned on her husband that she knew nothing of his philandering ways.

A few people muttered as Seregil led his guests to the head of the line, but the man taking the money knew them and bowed deeply as he ushered them in.

“This is quite wonderful!” Palmani exclaimed, looking around excitedly as they settled in the finely appointed patrons’ box. “I’ve been asking my husband for weeks to bring me.”

Reltheus raised her hand to his lips. “And here we are, my love, courtesy of my good friends.”

“He speaks of you so often,” she told Alec.

Young Van soon appeared with chilled wine and a plate of sweets. “Compliments of the house, my lords,” the boy said with a deep bow.

“Thank you, Van,” said Seregil. “Tell me, do you know if Atre is free after the show tonight? We’re dining with the duke and his lady and they would very much like to meet him.”

“I’m sure he is, my lord!”

The play was, as always, excellent, with Atre playing the cuckolding husband and Merina the triumphant wife. Brader played the husband’s roistering companion with more humor than Alec had thought the man capable of.

It ended with the unfortunate husband locked in a cupboard with a malodorous servant, played by Teibo, and a flatulent hound. The crowd loved it and threw all manner of favors onto the stage when the cast came out to take their bows.

“Oh, they were wonderful!” Palmani exclaimed, wiping away tears of laughter. “I do look forward to meeting this handsome actor of yours.”

The footlights were extinguished and the crowd milled out, talking and laughing, while Seregil and the others waited in the box. Atre soon joined them, dressed in an elaborately embroidered blue coat and silk breeches.

“Your Graces.” Color flashed from the jewels of his earring and the numerous rings he wore as he bowed. These were almost always different, and Seregil very much suspected that he wore whatever jewels his host or hostess for the evening had given him, to please them and curry favor. The one constant, Seregil noted, was the amethyst ring Atre wore on the little finger of his right hand; the one Elani had given him. That had been quite a coup, and it seemed Atre was happy to remind people of it.

“What an honor to offer my humble services!” Atre was saying, not sounding particularly humble.

“You can thank your patrons, Master Atre,” Palmani said, offering her hand for him to kiss.

“They are unfailingly generous, Your Grace.”

* * *

There was little overt sign of the war deprivations in the Noble Quarter, or at least not in Reltheus’s huge Silvermoon Street villa, where a sumptuous feast awaited them. They ate in the elaborate garden, enjoying the cool night breeze as they dined on courses of venison and hare from the duke’s hunting estate, and jellied eel and lobsters from the bay. Seafood was still plentiful in Rhiminee, since it didn’t travel well. The bread, it was true, was made from coarser flour than one might expect, and there were candied fruits rather than tarts for dessert, but no one commented on such lacks.

Atre was in his element, and amused the whole table with stories of his travels and experiences with curious characters. Seregil joined in, and soon they were vying to see who could tell the most outrageous story.

The wine flowed freely, and Alec drank cup after cup. By the time they got to the dessert course, he was drunker than Seregil had seen him since last Mourning Night, laughing loudly at everything and swaying in his chair. Seregil shot him increasingly annoyed looks through the meal, trying to catch his eye, and by the end of the meal he was pretending embarrassment and poorly concealed his anger at his young lover.

“Your Grace, I really must apologize,” he said to Palmani, reaching out to steady Alec in his chair.

“Ah, temperance comes with age,” Reltheus said with a laugh.

“You serve the mos’ essecellent wine, my dear Reltheus!” Alec slurred, holding out his cup again.

Seregil snatched it away and put it out of reach. “I’m sorry to end the evening on such a note, but I fear I should take him home before he can’t walk at all.”

“I most certainly can walk!” Alec exclaimed indignantly. To prove it, he stood up, knocking his chair over in the process. He wavered a moment, then collapsed in a drunken faint.

Seregil quickly righted the chair, apologizing profusely as he and the actor tried to get Alec onto his feet. “Alec, you fool! Of all the boorish-”

“Oh, the poor thing!” Palmani cried. “He’s going to be very sorry in the morning.”

“Perhaps sooner. Really, I fear for the state of your carriage.”

“A wise concern,” said Reltheus. “Please, stay the night.”

Seregil sighed. “We’ve abused your hospitality enough already.”

“Nonsense!” said Palmani. She summoned a servant. “Have one of the bedrooms made up for them at once. And send some men to carry Lord Alec upstairs.”

“You’re far too kind,” said Seregil.

“He’s not our first guest to enjoy our wine too much, Lord Seregil. It’s no trouble at all.”

“Perhaps I should go,” said Atre, watching it all with counterfeit concern.

“Oh, do stay a little longer!” Palmani pleaded. “This will only take a few minutes.”

“Want to stay ’n’ watch Atre,” Alec mumbled, leaning unsteadily on Seregil.

“Some other time,” Seregil told him none too gently.

They were given a room overlooking the garden, and Palmani accompanied them upstairs. As Seregil followed the servants carrying Alec, he tried to take stock of the other rooms along the corridor, but most of the doors were closed.

Their bedchamber was large, with tall fretted summer doors that let onto a balcony beyond. The furnishings were richly carved, and the walls were decorated with murals of fantastical undersea scenes.

The servants placed Alec on the bed and pulled off his boots.

“If I might trouble you for one last thing, dear Duchess,” Seregil said. “I think a bucket may soon be in order.”

“I’ll have one sent up at once, and water.” She looked down at Alec, who was snoring softly. “I fear you’re in for a restless night. I can have one of the servants tend to him, if you’d like a room of your own.”

“Thank you, but that won’t be necessary. We’ve been through this before.”

“Good night, then. I’ll have breakfast sent up in the morning.”

“I think bread and tea will suffice.”

When she was gone, Seregil sat down on the edge of the bed and stroked Alec’s flushed cheek. “Tali?”

Alec moaned and looked up at him. Though not quite as drunk as he’d pretended, he was still glassy-eyed. “Did it work?” he mumbled.

“Perfectly.”

Alec gazed blearily around. “Is that octopus on the wall really moving?”

“No,” Seregil chuckled.

“The bed is moving!”

“No, it’s not, love.”

Two maidservants hurried in with the bucket, water, and several small flannels. Seregil folded one into a band, soaked it in water, and laid it across Alec’s forehead. “Does that help?”

“No,” Alec gasped, looking pale. “Bucket!”

Seregil supported him over the side of the bed as Alec brought up both wine and dinner. When he was finished, Seregil set the bucket outside, undressed Alec, and settled him more comfortably in bed with a fresh cloth on his brow.

“Better now?”

“A little,” Alec said, eyes fluttering shut. “You damn well better find something!”

Leaving Alec to sleep, Seregil paced the long balcony, peering in through the windows of the other rooms. There was enough moonlight for him to see inside; all bedchambers, one of which was the nursery, where a wet nurse was watching over two of the duke’s younger children, and the new baby. The one next to it appeared to belong to the duchess.

He went inside again and waited until the house was quiet, then slipped out into the corridor to begin his search.

The rooms at the front of the house proved to be more bedchambers and a day room. Taking out the tool roll he’d hidden under his shirt, he searched that room but found nothing of interest except the duchess’s correspondence box. He

looked through it quickly and found nothing of note. Whatever Reltheus was up to, it was doubtful his young wife knew anything of it.

As he stepped out into the corridor, a brawny servant with a lantern appeared at the head of the stairway just a few yards away.

“Who’s that there!” the man demanded, coming closer and raising his lantern. “Oh, it’s you, my lord! Whatever are you doing out here in the dark?”

“I was looking for the garderobe, actually,” Seregil replied, feigning chagrin. “I didn’t want to disturb anyone with a light.”

“No chance of that, my lord. You’d be lucky not to break your neck. But you know, there’s chamber pots under all the beds.”

“I can’t abide the things! Surely there is a proper toilet here?”

“Oh, yes, downstairs. Here, I’ll take you to it.”

There was no choice but to follow him down, but as luck would have it, they passed the open door of what looked like a study overlooking the garden.

The toilet was a rank little closet in a far corner of the house. Garderobes were common in Rhiminee, just a shaft down to the sewers below, with a seat on top. With the watchman waiting outside to light him back to his room, Seregil made use of it and allowed himself to be led back to his room.

“Thank you,” Seregil said, giving the man a silver half sester.

“Much obliged, my lord.”

Alec was fast asleep and not so pale. Seregil washed his hands at the basin and went back to the door. There was no sign of the watchman. In no mood for any more surprises, he felt his way to the staircase and made his way back down to the study. If the watchman found him again, he’d just say he was indisposed.

The room was lost in shadow, but Seregil could make out the furnishings in the faint light from the window. A search of the desk produced only a few letters from the son detailing

life in the Horse Guard and Klia’s actions. From the tone, it seemed he admired his commanding officer. In the one locked drawer-and if you wanted to catch a thief’s attention, one locked drawer was the way to do it-he found an ornate dagger and a leather portfolio containing a report on him and Alec.

It was written on decent parchment in a rather clumsy hand. It gave in brief detail the tale of how he and Alec had come to be in Rhiminee-the public version, anyway-and a few pertinent details about whom they knew, including Klia, Kylith, Thero, Malthus, most of the names Alec had found on the list in Kyrin’s cupboard, and Duke Laneus. That last was odd, since he’d only met the man once, at the Golden Crane. But that helped him gauge when this report had been written. The main body of the several close-written pages, however, was devoted to their relationship with Klia. Once again, it only contained public knowledge, and nothing about them saving her life that night at Kassarie’s keep, but there was mention of how Seregil had discovered what had poisoned her in Aurenen, and his role in the truce negotiations. This spy had either been there, or talked to someone who had.

He replaced the report and locked the drawer, then turned his attention to the floor under the desk. As expected, he found a small trapdoor, just like the one Alec had found at the duke’s summer villa. There was another of Elani’s letters, copied out in the same male hand and dated only two days earlier, in which the girl spoke of Duke Reltheus in friendly terms and mentioned receiving a letter from Danos.

Seregil shook his head as he replaced it. It seemed Reltheus was taking an unreasonable amount of risk just to see if the girl was interested in his son. Or perhaps he was afraid she had other admirers. Then again, having a direct channel to the correspondence of a future queen might be valuable in itself, if Reltheus was taking the long view.

Next, he saw with a start, was a note from Malthus to Duke Laneus, dated nearly a month ago and written from his summer villa. Or rather, a copy; he knew Malthus’s handwriting as well as his own, and this was someone else’s.

Which tended to rule out a forgery. He doubted very much that Reltheus would be so clumsy.

Korathan insists that all is going well at the front, despite the casualties, it read. However, he keeps the queen’s dispatches under lock and key, impossible to see. I fear that even if victory comes, it will come too late for the people, especially since the last raising of the war tax. Rhiminee is becoming a tinderbox.

Seregil committed the short message to memory, then examined the remaining documents, which proved to be the most interesting of all. There were three dirty, ragged scraps of parchment with lettering on them that to an untrained eye would appear to be mere gibberish. Seregil, however, recognized the writing at once as some sort of cipher. The messages were too long and complex to chance copying all of them, and it would be a bit too obvious to steal them, especially since the night watchman had caught him wandering the corridors. Laying the three of them out side by side on the floor in front of him, he studied them in the glow of the lightstone, trying one system after another to get them to make sense. It took only a few minutes to recognize it as nothing more than an offset code. With his host’s pen and ink, he copied the shortest, then interpreted the other two and wrote them down. He frowned down at the revealed messages, then tucked them inside his shirt and hurried back up to his room.

Alec was fast asleep on his side, snoring softly the way he did when he’d had too much to drink. Rather than chance disturbing him, Seregil settled in an armchair and took out the copies he’d made, puzzling over them for some time.

Alec woke the next morning with a throbbing head and queasy stomach, but managed a humble apology to their hosts. He suffered their well-meant reassurances and managed not to throw up in the carriage on the way home.

“Next time, you get drunk!” he groaned as the carriage jounced over a rough patch of paving. “You never feel this ill afterward.”

“I’m sorry, tali, but your sacrifice was not in vain,” Seregil said. “I found a report on us, and these.” He showed Alec the letters he’d copied. “Thero will certainly want to see these.”

Alec cradled his head in his hands. “Then you can damn well go on your own!”

CHAPTER 16. Comlexities

“YOU’VE certainly kept yourself busy,” Thero said approvingly as Seregil followed him into the workroom. “Tea?”

Seregil accepted a cup and pulled out the copied documents. “I found another copy of a letter from Elani to the queen, a report on Alec and me that mentions you as one of our friends, a letter from Malthus to Laneus, and these.” Seregil handed him the copy of the enciphered document first. “I found three written in this code. I didn’t have time to copy them all, but I did this one as an example.”

Thero frowned as he scanned it. “I don’t know this system. Can you read it?”

“Yes. It’s just an offset encryption. Let me show you.”

He went to Thero’s desk across the room and took out a sheet of scraped parchment and a quill.

The wizard joined him, looking over his shoulder. The first line on the page read SORITO ALA TIRLYK SMIEXT YWBIMTUH YHSAWWEKRI. The second was longer: BIUB UI KJNA ERTOARXMEN BMOPIU YNERSBQUIUS ESPYTEBV CWATP OSMRYIUP TRADFTVIH OUY.

“It’s not a hard code, but whoever wrote this knew a trick or two. The beginning of it is pure gibberish, designed to throw off anyone trying to make it out.” He struck out the first two groupings of letters of the first line, except for the last one in the second grouping: A. “Taking every second letter from there, you get AILK.”

“Klia, backward.”

“Exactly. But from here, taking every second letter, you

get them in proper order left to right: METWITHHAWKI.” He drew a series of slashes between the letters, dividing them into MET WITH HAWKI.

“Hawki?” asked Thero.

“It’s probably meant to be ‘hawk.’ And we don’t know who that is. Perhaps someone from the Red Hawk or White Hawk regiments?”

“But that cipher doesn’t work on the next line,” Thero pointed out.

“No, because you start with the third grouping and read every third letter. It’s a common system, although whoever wrote this may not have known that. An amateur intriguer, probably. So using that…” Seregil slashed through the letters of the second line, leaving: ATREMINSUSPECTSYMPATHY. “ ‘At Remin suspect sympathy.’ The second word nearly threw me off, but Remin is a small town on the Folcwine, probably the site of a battle.”

The wizard shook his head. “The first part sounds like something that could be common knowledge. But the ‘sympathy’ suggests some sort of collusion.”

“I think you may be right. Here are the two I translated.”

The first read: ailk recalled to queens camp given more riders appears in favor rumor she is to be made general wolves with her. The second read: no general ailk shows no ill will openly but ire among ranks hawk seen three times spent several hours alone in tent unable to get close wolves too loyal forgive slow progress difficult.

“This ‘hawk’ again,” Thero noted. “And Klia’s name spelled backward. But still with no clue as to who the hawk is, or the wolves.”

“ ‘Wolves’?” said Seregil, surprised the wizard hadn’t twigged. “Urghazi is Plenimaran for ‘ghost wolves.’ It’s common knowledge, especially in the cavalry.”

“The message said that the wolves are too loyal. Too loyal to do what? Involve in a coup to convince her to mutiny? Or too loyal to turn against her?”

“Either one could be true, believe me. They’re her personal guard.”

“You don’t need to convince me, Seregil. What else did you make of them?”

“All three were written in the same hand, so one spy,” Seregil replied. “And they were all written on grubby scraps of parchment with rough surfaces and torn edges. Cheap scrap. What does that suggest to you?”

“That’s what the military uses. Even Klia.”

Seregil nodded. “So there may be a spy in the regiment. And I think I know who it might be.”

“Who?”

“Reltheus’s son Danos also serves under Klia.”

“He serves in Klia’s squadron?”

“You didn’t know?”

“He didn’t at the time of the hunt last winter. Perhaps Elani had something to do with it, since she was so taken with him.”

“More likely the father.”

“But it makes sense. The father would trust his own son above anyone else. I do wish he’d been a bit more forthright in his communications, though this is quite a help all the same. But why spy on her at all?”

“Perhaps it’s not only Klia they’re worried about. Perhaps there’s a rival cabal who favor Klia for the throne. I hate to say it, but the letter from Malthus, and the fact that Reltheus has it, suggest that he may be part of one.”

Thero frowned down at the messages. “Two warring cabals. That doesn’t bode well.”

“Not with the unrest already brewing in the city. I can’t help thinking of that list Alec found, the one with us and a number of our acquaintances, including Malthus, on it. I think it’s safe to say that Reltheus’s cabal has taken an interest in us, though I have no idea why. But we’re going to need a lot more than we have here to prove anything one way or the other.”

Thero turned back to the messages regarding Klia. “Even by the royal courier service, it takes at least a week by land to get a message back to Rhiminee, and nearly that long by sea,” he mused. “These messages could be old news by the

time they get here. And by the time any kind of answer was sent, things could have changed completely.”

“I’m afraid this is as far as I can take you for now,” Seregil told him, “unless we find more of these.”

“This is frustrating. Without names, interpretation is impossible. And he has letters from Elani, as well. What is he doing with those? They don’t contain anything particularly sensitive. Do you think it’s connected with the cabals?”

“If Malthus had them, then I’d be more inclined to think so, but with it being Reltheus? He’s very anxious for Danos to marry Elani. Could be he’s looking for signs of favor, or mention of rival suitors.”

“I’d like to know who in Elani’s household is doing the copying.”

“I’m working on that.”

“If you’re right, then Reltheus is taking a terrible risk. If word of this ever got out, he’d be ruined at court, if not worse!” Thero paused, drawn to the coded messages again. “Why would anyone think that Klia would betray her sister and niece in the first place?”

“Because someone other than Klia is thinking of doing it? Reltheus clearly knows something we don’t.”

“Klia simply wouldn’t involve herself in something like that!”

Seregil clapped Thero on the shoulder. “I don’t believe it, either. But there could be a faction building that plans to put her on the throne, even without her knowledge of what they are planning.”

Thero ran a hand back through his black curls. “You must get me more than this. There’s nothing that proves that Danos is the one, other than supposition.”

“Don’t you think it’s time we communicated directly with Klia? I’m guessing you can do that.”

Thero nodded. “I will, after you and I are done.”

“I see.”

“Don’t give me that look.”

“What look?”

Thero scowled. “Like you know something.”

Seregil held up his hands, grinning. “I don’t know a thing, and I’m not asking. I’ll leave you to it.”

When Seregil was gone, the wizard went to his bedchamber, shut the door, and retrieved the marble box containing Klia’s handkerchief from the wardrobe. Opening it, he held it to his nose for a moment, imagining that the scent of her perfume still lingered there. Her fingers had brushed his when she gave it to him, one of a hundred such innocent touches that heated his body-

Stop it! he told himself sternly. A princess and a wizard? It was impossible, but that didn’t cool his passion, just made him ache to the center of his being. Seeing her wounded so recently had only made it worse.

Pressing the precious handkerchief between his palms, he spoke the spell softly and waited for the vision to take shape. His unruly heart was racing again at the thought of actually seeing her.

The vision came almost instantly. Klia was lying on a cot again, grimacing as a healer bandaged a wound on her leg. Her breeches were off, leaving her in just her linen, and he felt a rush of heat through his body at the sight of those smooth, slender legs.

He waited while Myrhini covered her with a blanket. The tall, dark-haired woman’s face was solemn as she looked down at the princess and asked, “How is it?”

Klia flexed her leg under the blanket and gave her friend a wincing grin. “I’ll be able to ride tomorrow.”

“You heard what the healer said.”

Klia snorted as she folded her arms behind her head. “I’ll be fine.”

Choosing his moment, Thero opened a small window spell a few feet from the two women and whispered, “Your Highness.”

Myrhini’s hand flew to her sword hilt as she looked around, instantly alert to possible danger.

“It’s all right. It’s just Thero coming to call again,” Klia said with a chuckle as she found Thero’s face floating in midair. “Hello, my friend. Do you have some news for me?”

“May we speak alone?”

“Since when do I not speak openly before Myrhini?”

“It’s all right, Klia,” Myrhini said, stepping out of Thero’s view.

Klia waited a moment, watching her go, then turned back to the wizard. “Well?” she asked, keeping her voice low.

How to couch it? thought Thero. “Seregil and Alec have been working for me. I believe they’ve uncovered a spy in your regiment.”

Her bright blue eyes widened. “A spy? Who?”

“Captain Danos.”

“That can’t be right!”

“We have some evidence, Klia, but not enough, and it’s not completely clear what he’s up to. It appears that he’s been sending his father coded messages about your movements.”

Klia’s expression darkened. “Impossible! Why would he be doing that?”

Thero paused, not relishing what he had to say next. “We think that his father, Duke Reltheus, believes you might be plotting to supplant Elani for the throne.”

The incredulous look she gave him eased his heart considerably. “On what grounds?”

“Again, we’re not quite sure, except that there may be a cabal unknown to you who want you on the throne. But Reltheus definitely means to marry Danos to the princess royal.”

“Thero, are you asking if I am plotting against Elani and the queen?”

“I don’t believe it.”

“Thank you for that. But if it needs to be said, I’m not. I have no reason to.”

“I know. But Duke Reltheus seems to think there is a cabal working on your behalf. He could be right about that. Alec found a list of names, including his, mine, Seregil’s, and Duke Malthus’s. And yours.”

“If word of this got to Phoria-”

“I understand. We’re working as quickly as we can to learn more. We haven’t even spoken to your brother yet. In one of Danos’s coded letters, he mentions someone called ‘the

hawk,’ someone close to you. Does that mean anything to you?”

“That’s what the riders call General Moraus.”

“Is it unusual for him to visit you?”

“Not at all. He’s my commanding officer, and he’s known me all my life. He’s been concerned about my losses.”

“He is not alone. There are those in Rhiminee who think Phoria is trying to get you killed.”

“That’s ridiculous. We’re stretched thin this year. Every officer is doing all they can with what they have. You know the Queen’s Horse has always been in the forefront.”

“In one of the messages Seregil found, it sounds as if the queen was considering making you general of the regiment, then changed her mind?”

“There was some concern about General Moraus’s health-a summer fever-but he recovered. I have no hard feelings over it, Thero.”

Thero feared that Klia might be too trusting, but he kept that to himself for now. “The messages also mentioned ‘wolves.’ Seregil thinks that may refer to Urghazi Turma. They’re referred to as being too loyal.”

“To whom? The queen or me?”

“We don’t know for certain, but I assume to you.”

“Do you think Elani is in any danger?”

“There’s no evidence of that yet, but Seregil and Alec have recently been taken into the royal circle, thanks, ironically, to Reltheus himself.”

“She must be protected at all costs! You have to go to Korathan with this.”

“We need to gather more evidence before we risk implicating anyone. Seregil and Alec won’t be much good to me in the Tower, or me to you.”

“I don’t like it, Thero. The longer I keep this from Phoria and Korathan, the worse it looks for me.”

“I know, and I’m sorry. But do you really want a repeat of what happened with your mother, with the falsely accused traitors being executed? We could have lost Seregil then.”

“Very well. But I want regular reports!”

“Of course. It could be that Reltheus is merely being

cautious, considering you potential competition for the throne. My fear is that you may be in danger, one way or another. Do you have spies of your own?”

“Yes, but they’ve never been called to spy on their own comrades.”

“I’m afraid it’s necessary now.”

“But what am I supposed to do about Danos? He’s a damn good captain, and I’ve never had any reason to doubt his loyalty to me or the regiment. Sakor’s Flame, Thero, it was his people who were killed the night the assassins came after me.”

A ruse to throw off suspicion? “Watch him. And you and your spies will need the key to the code.”

Klia reached under the bed for a wax tablet and a stylus and copied down the specifics of the offset code. When they were done, she set the tablet aside and ran a hand over her chestnut widow’s peak. “Once again, I wish you were here, my friend.”

“So do I,” Thero replied, heart beating a little faster at her words. “I miss our peaceful time in Aurenen.”

“I do, too, very much. But this war can’t last forever. If nothing else, I’ll be back in a few months. You still owe me a round of cards, you know.”

Thero smiled. “Of course. I look forward to it.” Then he paused. “How is the war progressing?”

“Well, I think. We crossed the Folcwine two weeks ago and are in southern Mycena. Resistance is hardening against us, but Phoria believes we can break through.”

“Sakor’s luck to you all. Be careful. I can’t bear finding you wounded every time I look in on you.”

She grinned. “I’ll try, but no promises. Good night, my dear friend.”

Thero closed the spell and sat for a moment, trying to hold her image in his mind a little longer, and the sound of her voice as she called him “dear friend.”

It was all he dared hope for, but when he slept that night, his dreams were filled-as they so often were-with that sweet voice and lovely visage, and, tonight, the sight of a bandage encircling a slender bare leg.

CHAPTER 17. Intrigue

WHEN Thero was gone, Klia lay there for a moment, picturing his face and, as always, missing the wizard more for having had such a fleeting glimpse of him. During those precious, peaceful months together in Aurenen, she’d come to first like Thero, then something more began to develop-or so she thought. One moment they’d be laughing together, the next he’d be his old stiff and formal self again. But tonight, just before he’d broken off the spell, she was sure she’d seen him color when she called him “friend.”

She had no time for such thoughts now. Pulling the blanket around her, she limped to the tent door, where two of Beka’s men were on guard duty. “Rider Yonus, send a runner for your captain. Where’s the major?”

“Here.” Myrhini stepped from the shadows beyond the watch fire.

“Come in, and close the flap.” Klia lowered herself into one of the chairs by the map table with her wounded leg stretched out in front of her. “We have a problem.”

It was not unusual for Beka to be called to Klia’s tent. But Klia’s and Myrhini’s deadly serious expressions as she came in made her halt just inside the tent flap. “Commander?”

“Come, sit with us,” Klia said, gesturing her to a stool very close to her own. She and the major appeared to be trying to keep anyone else from hearing. Beka soon understood why.

“You’ve never given me reason to doubt your honor, Beka,” Klia began. “Apart from Myrhini, I trust you the most

of any of my officers, so I’m about to put my life in your hands.”

Beka went down on one knee and pressed her fist to her chest. “Your Highness, command me.”

“No need for that. Sit, please. I’ve had some disturbing news. There may be a cabal who want to put me on the throne in my niece’s place. There’s another that may be working against me. Beka, would you say you’re friends with Captain Danos?”

Beka felt a flicker of apprehension. “Yes, Commander, I am. I saved his life in the spring and he’s done the same for me. He’s a good man, and a friend.”

“That makes this even harder. I’ve had word from Thero that Danos may be sending news of my movements to his father in code. Do you know of any reason he would be doing that?”

“No,” Beka replied, shocked.

“Thero is working on this from Rhiminee, with the usual help. I need you to be my eyes and ears here, Beka.”

“Of course, Commander,” said Beka at once, though she disliked the idea of spying on her own people. She liked what Klia said next even less.

“The information Thero has is still unclear, but there was mention, we think, of your Urghazi Turma.”

“You want me to spy on them?”

“Both you and they are known to be completely loyal to me. The conspirators supporting me might approach you, thinking that supersedes your loyalty to the queen.”

Beka thought of the conversation she’d had with Sergeant Werneus the night after the battle at the ford. “We’re good Skalans, Commander, and Phoria is our queen.”

“And when Elani takes the throne?”

“As I said,” Beka replied solemnly. “We are loyal to the queen, whoever wears the crown.”

“As am I.” Klia smiled sadly. “I know what I’m asking of you. But there’s no one else I can trust with this. It could mean my life if Phoria finds out and thinks I’m part of it.”

“Can’t you just go to the queen and tell her, Klia?” asked Myrhini.

“My sister is not a trusting woman. She recalled me because she needed me in the field, and Korathan spoke for me. But it was on the condition that I recognize Elani as the princess royal, and give up any claim to the throne.”

“It still doesn’t seem fair,” Beka said without thinking.

“Understand this, Beka, and don’t ever forget it,” Klia told her sternly. “I don’t want to be queen. Growing up, I had two sisters ahead of me in line for the succession. I never expected to be queen. All I want is to do my duty to Skala. When Elani takes the throne, I will serve her, and gladly. But I want to know who is behind this plot, and how serious it is before I send anyone to the Tower.”

Beka pressed her fist to her heart again. “I won’t fail you, Commander.”

“I know. It’s why I asked you. Now that you know what is going on, I want you both to keep this to yourselves,” Klia warned. “Except for Nyal, Beka. He works with all the troops, coming and going without any questions asked. I know I can trust him as I trust you.”

“I’d stake my honor on it, Commander.”

“Good. I want you to court Danos, so to speak, see if you can be taken into his confidence. And most especially, I want you to intercept any secret messages he tries to send. They’re written in code.”

She handed Beka a wax tablet with the key written down. Beka read it over several times. It was fairly straightforward, so long as you could count.

“I think that’s about it,” said Klia when Beka handed it back.

Beka took a deep breath, knowing she couldn’t remain silent in the face of all Klia had just told her. “There’s something I should tell you. I should have brought this to you sooner, but I thought-” She shook her head. “The night after you defeated the Plenimarans at the Silver River ford, I overheard some of Anri’s men talking. From what I could make out, they’d back you for the throne, and seemed to think I would, too.”

Klia sighed, running a hand over her tangled hair. “Watch her, too, then.”

“From what I gathered, she didn’t know about any plot. The men were unsure of her.”

“That could have changed by now,” Myrhini said, frowning. “You should have brought this to Klia sooner.”

Beka pressed her fist to her heart. “I’m sorry. I thought it was just the usual grumbling. I took them to task for it at the time.”

“Who was it you heard all this from?”

Beka knew better than to hesitate in speaking out against the sergeant, regardless of what she owed him; she owed Klia far more. “It was one of Anri’s sergeants, a man named Werneus.”

“Have one of your trusted riders bring him to me, but don’t tell Werneus where he’s being taken. And you stay with your squadron. I don’t want you associated with this, or Nyal.”

“Werneus is likely to guess why, since it was me who spoke to him about it.”

“That can’t be helped. You’re dismissed.”

“Thank you, Commander.” With a final salute, Beka took her leave.

Myrhini had known Klia a long time and could tell when her friend was angry, even with the princess doing her best to hide it.

“It could just be an overabundance of loyalty, Klia.”

“One that could get me executed. And Danos?” Her anger was clearly tinged with hurt.

“I’ve never had cause to doubt him. Maybe you should bring this to the queen yourself.”

“I will, when I have more proof. Seregil and Alec are working on it in Rhiminee, thank the Four. And Thero, of course.”

“Of course.” Grinning, Myrhini clasped her friend’s shoulder and gave her a friendly shake. “Then you have the best of the best working in your favor.”

“I just hope they work quickly.”

Beka found her husband at a watch fire with some of Danos’s riders.

“Nyal, a word?” she said, stepping into the firelight.

This elicited, as always, a fair amount of ribbing and whistling, but they were used to it and took it with good humor.

The Aurenfaie waved and grinned over his shoulder, but waited until they were away from the light to slip an arm around her waist. “Talia,” he whispered in his own language, “I looked for you but couldn’t find you. Someone said you’d been called to the commander’s tent.”

“Yes. We need to talk.” She kissed him as they walked across the trampled battlefield toward a stand of trees near the edge of the encampment. Beka skirted it, checking for nearby pickets, then led him into the trees and told him all that had passed between her and Klia.

“I’ve heard muttering, but nothing treasonous,” Nyal told her.

“Be especially careful around Danos and his troop,” she warned. “Bring anything the slightest bit suspicious to Klia at once.”

“I’m always careful, talia.” Nyal took her in his arms and kissed her again. He was tall for a ’faie, and her head was level with his shoulder. He smelled of leather and horses, as she did herself.

Beka ran her fingers through his long hair, chuckling at the tangles there. He did the same with her thick red hair, and the feeling of those long fingers caressing her scalp sent a shiver of need through her. It had been weeks since they’d found the time to be alone together. Time was short and life was uncertain. She didn’t want to waste such a rare moment, and neither did he. She wore a pessary as a matter of course, as all the female soldiers did-not only so they could indulge in pleasure without getting a round belly, but in case of rape in the field. The little hank of wool soaked in oil worked well. In the shadow of the trees, moving only as much clothing as was absolutely necessary, they made hurried, silent love, groaning into each other’s mouths as they came together.

Sergeant Werneus looked suitably uneasy as he ducked under Klia’s tent flap and went down on one knee before her. “You sent for me, Commander?”

Myrhini stepped behind him, guarding the door.

“Yes,” said Klia. “At attention, rider.”

Werneus, a grizzled warrior at least two decades her senior, stood stiffly, hands behind his back, eyes fixed on a spot just over her shoulder.

“I’ve heard some disturbing rumors, Sergeant. Rumors involving me.”

Werneus said nothing, but she caught a flash of alarm in his eyes.

“Speak, Sergeant!” she ordered.

“It’s just soldiers’ talk, Commander.”

“About what?”

A muscle flexed in the man’s stubbled jaw. “Just talk, Commander, about what it might be like if you was in charge of the regiment, that’s all.”

“Just the regiment?” Klia narrowed her eyes. “I heard that some might want me to be queen.”

The man went paler still under the scruff and grime. “That’d be talking treason against Queen Phoria, Commander!”

“You were heard, man.”

Werneus stiffened. “There’s talk, but it’s only wishful thinking, Commander. All the riders love you. We’d follow you to Bilairy’s gate.”

“And would you follow General Moraus?”

“Yes, Commander!”

Klia regarded him in silence for a moment. Her gut told her this was an honest man. “You know that mutiny and inciting mutiny are hanging offenses, don’t you?”

To the man’s credit, he met her eye squarely. “ ’Course I do, Commander. I swear by the Flame, it’s just talk!”

“And who’s doing the talking? Out with it, man!”

“Some of the other riders, Commander.”

“Names, Sergeant!” Myrhini barked.

“Rethus, Morson, Sorian…”

“And?” snapped Myrhini.

“And Callin, but he’s just a boy. He don’t mean any harm, just takes in the older riders’ talk.”

“That doesn’t excuse him, Sergeant. But none of your officers?”

“No, Commander, by the Flame I’ve heard nothing of the sort from any one of them. They’re as loyal as summer’s turning is long.”

“We’ll see about that. I want you to go back to your friends and tell them what we’ve said here. I will hang anyone talking mutiny against the queen or our general. Is that clear?”

“As springwater, Commander.” Werneus saluted, fist to heart.

Klia nodded and Myrhini dismissed the shaken soldier.

“What do you think?” asked Myrhini.

“Summon the others he named.”

One by one the riders appeared, and each told the same story as Werneus, young Callin in tears. It was only the mutterings of loyal soldiers who idolized their commander. She’d deal with that in the morning. Which left Danos to worry about.

CHAPTER 18. Brader

STARVING on the road had been hard on the whole company, but their stunning degree of success here in Rhiminee carried its own burdens. Atre had hired scrim painters and a few servants, but he’d also set up a grueling performance schedule. Brader saw his family more onstage than he did in their quarters. Atre was in great demand among the nobles, too, and often disappeared after the night’s performance to entertain at private parties.

On the days the theater was dark, Brader took his wife and children away to find various amusements about the city-anything to get them away from the crowded house and the demands of the theater. In the markets they found necessities for the company, like pigments and cloth, toys, puppet and mummer’s shows to amuse the children, and dressmakers for Merina. The long months of deprivation had been hard on her, and he was happy to buy her the pretty things that made her so happy. Good food and a proper roof over their heads had put the roses back in her cheeks and the children’s, too. He didn’t ever want them to suffer like that again. If only Atre could be content here, and live quietly. Sometimes Brader wished he could pack up his family and leave the company, setting up somewhere to herd cattle, as he had as a boy, before Atre had lured him away to this traveling life. How many years had it been? He’d lost count. He’d forgotten what his mother’s face looked like.

He’d had other wives and other children, and walked away when he had to, but Merina was different; leaving her and

the children would be like cutting out his own heart. And so he couldn’t leave Atre, either-the man his children called uncle, as others had before.

Returning from such a day out, Brader found Atre in the room with the bucolic murals that might have served as a salon in the past, but was now a practice space. He was helping the twins with their tumbling skills, and laughing with them as they flipped backward and walked on their hands in their loose-fitting leggings and tunics. They were playing mischievous spirits in the play opening the following week. They adored Atre and lived for his praise.

“Excellent! Outstanding!” Atre cried. “You’ll have the audience believing you can float and fly like hummingbirds at this rate. Ah, Brader, back so soon?”

“It’s going to rain,” Merina told him, kissing Teibo and Tanni. “Such hard work, you two! Now, children, I believe it’s your turn to practice with Uncle Atre. Run upstairs and change your clothes.”

Atre kissed her on both cheeks. “They are coming along well, too. They have their mother’s talent.”

“I should hope so!” Merina laughed as she followed her children upstairs.

“Can we go now, Master Atre?” asked Teibo.

“Yes, go have some fun. You’ve earned it. Just be ready for practice tomorrow morning.”

“We will!” Tanni said as she followed her brother from the room, already pulling off her sweat-soaked tunic.

When they were alone, Atre looked closely at Brader. “You’re looking weary, cousin, and I see some lines around your eyes.”

Brader nodded, resigned. “Yes, it’s time.”

“Tonight, then, after the show.”

Atre was changing into fresh clothing when Brader came to his room that night. “You’re going out again?”

Atre went to the mirror and pulled his long auburn hair back with a ribbon that matched his embroidered black coat.

“Yes, Duke Laneus invited me to a drinking party he’s having tonight. Tanni is coming with me. Didn’t she tell you?”

“No.” Brader frowned, not liking the idea of the impressionable girl in such company. “Does her father know?”

“Zell doesn’t mind. Why should you?” Atre replied with a shrug. He appraised Brader’s reflection in the mirror. “You go too long between these days, cousin,” he scolded. “It makes things noticeable.”

“And you do it too often,” Brader said, weary of the perpetual argument. “You’ll start to look like Teibo if you’re not careful. The night of the opening I noticed Lord Seregil and Lady Kylith staring at you all evening.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I know what I’m doing. It’s your own choice to starve yourself.” Going to the wardrobe, he moved a few hats aside on the upper shelf and took down a battered leather case. Setting it on the dressing table, he unlocked it and took out two glass phials sealed with cork and wax incised with a circle of tiny symbols. The contents were milky and one of the phials clinked as he handled it, the child’s clay marble he’d used to make the elixir knocking against the glass.

“There you are,” he said, giving it to Brader.

The tall man gazed at it a moment, his expression a mix of regret and revulsion, then broke the seal and quickly downed the contents. The effect was slight, not even eliciting a shudder as some of the stronger ones did, but those were risky. And addictive. Brader had given them up years ago.

Atre inspected him closely. “One more, I think.”

The second phial contained a tiny bow made from faded blue ribbon; it looked a bit like a butterfly. It made Brader think of Ela, and he did shudder as he drank this one, but not because of the magic.

“That’s better. Life was easier before you grew a conscience,” Atre remarked with a smirk.

“When did you lose yours?”

Atre emptied the marble and ribbon into the rubbish basket among the fruit peelings and candle ends, then replaced

the empty phials in the case, and the case in its temporary hiding place, the one Brader knew about.

Brader watched, his face sad and devoid of the old hunger. It made Atre want to slap him. There had been a time when his cousin relished these draughts as much as Atre did. Now he pulled a sour face every time. Just as Brader’s brother Van had, before he’d given up and left them. Perhaps that was when Brader’s regrets began?

“We’re running low, my friend. Time to hunt again. Unless, of course…” Atre went back to the wardrobe and took out the special jewel casket, setting it on the bed between them. Taking the little key from his purse, he opened it and drank in the sight of all those jewels with all their shining threads of life attached. He held up a ring labeled KYLITH. There were so many threads that it looked more like a gently wavering nimbus of light, though Brader could not see it.

“Ah, dear cousin. Think how many precious little ones could be spared with just one draught made from this lovely bauble,” Atre teased.

Lady Kylith was indeed a fine prospect, now that he didn’t need her money anymore-so many years, so many connections. Where a slum child might share the threads with a few family members no more potent than the child was, the nobles were thick with them, part of the great net of life that he and Brader supped from. It was like comparing a moldy crust with a banquet. He ran his finger through the other jewels, admiring the combined glow that issued from the casket. His mouth fairly watered at the thought of all that accrued life force, all that power. And these weren’t even the best ones. Those he kept hidden away even from Brader.

They’d taken a few powerful souls in Mycena-a few too many, as it turned out-but nothing to rival the potential he was reaping here in the Skalan capital, itself a nexus of great power. Even a noblewoman of modest rank like Kylith would be a veritable feast, and so generous with her little gifts, as were so many of her kind, ready to lavish a little something on the lapdog actor.

And he’d captured one of the greatest possible prizes. He smiled as he glanced down at Elani’s ring.

Brader sighed. “Take care, Atre, for all our sakes.”

Atre and Tanni rode in a hired carriage to Duke Laneus’s villa. The house was in Ruby Lane, at the heart of the Noble Quarter. Tanni, looking older in her silken gown and upswept hair, was fidgety and excited. This was her first time entertaining at a noble’s house.

A servant ushered them in and led them to the duke’s opulent salon. Atre had half expected to see Seregil and Alec among the guests, knowing that they were the duke’s friends, but they weren’t there. Laneus, Marquise Lalia, Duke Malthus, Duke Zymir, Duchess Nerian, and a fat, bluff man introduced to him as General Sarien sat on couches set up in a wide circle, drinking wine and eating nuts and fruit. Shells and peelings littered the floor.

“Ah, here they are!” Laneus exclaimed as Atre and Tanni came in. “Master Atre, it’s good of you to come.”

Atre bowed. “We are honored, Your Grace.”

He and Tanni performed scenes from several plays, and were rewarded with small gifts and much applause.

“Wonderful!” Duchess Nerian exclaimed, giving Tanni her silk and ivory fan.

“I told you they are the best in the city,” said Duke Laneus, gifting Atre with a fine gold chain.

“You weren’t exaggerating their skills,” the general said, eyeing Tanni in a rather unpleasant way. “Pity the trials of war have kept me so busy as not to see them in the theater.”

“Are you home from the front, my lord?” asked Atre, interested to meet another powerful personage.

“Oh, no,” the general replied. “I’m the Protector General, second to Prince Korathan himself in the defense of the Palace and city. This is my front in the war.”

“Please, go and refresh yourselves in the kitchen,” Laneus told the actors, as if it were an honor rather than the treatment one would give to a mountebank or tradesman.

Atre covered his annoyance with another smile and allowed a servant to lead them to the back of the house, where

the cook, to her credit, offered them a very fine venison pie and excellent wine. Still-in the kitchen!

While they were eating the cook and her scullion took their leave for the night, leaving them alone. Atre saw a chance and took it.

“You stay here,” he told Tanni, patting her arm. “I’ll be right back.”

“Where are you going?”

“Just to look in on our host and thank him for this fine repast.”

He gave her a wink and retraced his way to the salon. Finding the corridor deserted, he put his ear to the door.

“I don’t mean to offend, Malthus, but I begin to doubt your faith,” the fat general was saying.

“Just because I won’t go along with out-and-out murder?” Malthus replied. His voice was soft, but the actor could still hear the anger that edged his words. “Tell me, my friends: are we seriously contemplating that?”

Atre’s eyes widened. This was not at all the sort of conversation he’d expected. He held his breath and put his eye to the thin opening between the door and frame. Malthus was on his feet, pacing, while the others sipped their wine.

“A quick slice makes for the most successful surgery,” Duchess Nerian noted, swirling the wine in her cup. “We can’t simply ask Phoria to step aside, now can we?”

“And then there’s Elani to be dealt with, after that,” Duke Zymir said. A chill ran up Atre’s spine, thinking of the gracious young girl. If anyone was going to claim her life, it was going to be him! Anything else would be a ridiculous waste.

“Not if she were to have an unfortunate accident or illness,” Zymir replied. “Now that they’ve chosen to attack Klia herself!”

“The message said it was Plenimaran assassins,” said Malthus.

“You don’t really believe that, do you?” asked Laneus. “No, I think the battle has been joined.”

“I wonder if an assassin could breach the Palace?” said Marquise Lalia.

“Perhaps that Rhiminee Cat fellow?” Sarien suggested. “By all reports the man can break in anywhere.”

“He’s no assassin, as far as I know.”

“But this is ridiculous!” Malthus objected again.

“You want Klia on the throne as badly as any of us, don’t you?” asked Laneus.

“Yes, of course, but-”

“Then don’t stand in our way.” That sounded like a threat, though the man’s cool smile never faltered. “But we do need someone close to her. Reltheus and Kyrin have Alaya in their snare. Perhaps one of the squires? Or-” He paused and turned to Malthus again. “What about that ’faie friend of yours, Lord Seregil, and his boy? Word is Elani is quite enchanted with them.”

“Seregil?” Lalia sneered. “I wouldn’t trust that wastrel with a half-sester piece. And he’s one of the greatest gossips in Rhiminee.”

“But he has excellent connections to the royal family, and Klia in particular. And you’ve always said there’s more to him than most people see, haven’t you, Malthus?”

Malthus sighed. “I don’t know. He’s on good terms with Korathan, as well, and if word ever got to the vicegerent about any of this-” He shook his head. “Let me think on it. And for the love of Sakor, leave off this talk of killing! I thought our purpose was to protect Klia from Kyrin and his lot.”

Just then Atre heard footsteps approaching from the front hall and hastily retreated to the kitchen before he was seen. Tanni was where he’d left her, bored and fashioning little shapes out of bread.

“Can we go now?” she asked with a yawn.

“Of course, my girl. Come and say your farewells.”

Atre made a point of conversing with her on the way back, to let Laneus and his conspirators know they were coming. He suspected neither of their lives would be worth much if the nobles knew what he’d heard.

Back at the house in Gannet Lane, Atre saw Tanni to the room she shared with her brother. Going up to his own chamber,

he pocketed a few items from the box hidden in the wardrobe, took the battered leather box down from the shelf, and slipped out again, unseen.

The small, plain room smelled of damp earth and contained only the few things Atre needed. He locked the low door behind him and set the lantern on the table in the middle of the room. Its light reflected off dozens of glass phials carefully arranged in tall racks against the far wall. Most of them were empty now. The old clay bottles, inherited from Atre’s mother with her power, had long since been broken or lost in their frequent escapes. The glass ones suited his purposes much better; you could see what was inside.

Atre went to the corner farthest from the door and pried out a loose stone from the wall. In the space behind it was a small iron box. Carrying it to the table, he unlocked it and lifted out the ancient necklace it contained. It was made of human finger bones strung on a rawhide thong made of human skin, or so his mother had told him when she taught him the magic. It was what she believed, and he had no reason to doubt her. Traces of the black designs that had been scratched into the bones still remained, but they were worn smooth at the ends from long use. He hung it around his neck, selected six empty phials, and stood them on the table. He began with the plain box under the table; opening it, he scooped up six items at random: a broken penknife, a carved walnut, a clay marble, a piece of red glass, and two tiny braids of hair. Squinting, he examined the faint glowing threads that emanated from them-no more than a few on any of them. A man could starve to death on such fare, if there weren’t so much of it to be had. These required the full curing time to get the good out of them. He placed each one in an empty phial, then pulled the carefully labeled chain Duke Laneus had given him tonight from his pocket and contemplated it, sorely tempted after the insulting supper in the kitchen.

With a sigh he squatted down and unlocked the larger, fancier casket under the table, adding the chain to the small collection of fine jewelry it contained. He held his hand over it

for a moment, and a shiver went through him at the power there. It took considerable will to lock the box again and push it back under the table. What mischief he could make with these! From what he’d gleaned from his eavesdropping, Reltheus and Kyrin were part of a plot against Princess Klia, one opposed by Duke Laneus and his friends. And were Laneus and the others really planning to kill the queen herself, as well as the princess royal? Another possessive frown creased his brow at the thought.

Rhiminee was certainly one of the more interesting places he’d been. He hadn’t seen this much intrigue since the time he and Brader had spent in Zengat. It could be quite lucrative, if you were cagey and backed the right side.

He wasn’t ready for the so-called plague to manifest itself in the better wards just yet. Not that it had to, of course. The stronger the life force on an object, the less seasoning it took to create the elixir, especially if you were willing to sacrifice some potency for the sake of timing. But timing of another sort had to be considered, as well. It wouldn’t do for their host to die the very night Atre had been with him. That sort of thing could get a man in trouble, as Brader would have been happy to point out if he knew Atre was having these kinds of thoughts again. As if Atre hadn’t learned a thing or two over the years!

Resisting temptation, he set about preparing the poorer items, which needed days to leach out their meager power. He filled the phials from the waterskin and corked them. Then he lit the thick tallow candle on the table from the lantern and used it to melt dark green sealing wax over the top of each bottle, coating the cork and the neck. When they were cool he incised the proper markings with a copper stylus that had been his mother’s-all but one symbol, the central one. Holding a hand over each bottle in turn, he spoke the words of power. Faint light glowed inside each one for an instant as each soul was drawn in. Six more little sleepers in the slums.

He placed the phials carefully into the rack and locked the necklace away. Then he selected a matured elixir from the rack; he could just make out a crude, blue-glazed bead

through the milky liquid. Such beads were supposed to ward off evil, he’d been told. He smiled as he broke the seal and swallowed the contents, careful to leave the bead in the bottle. The elixir tingled across his tongue and down his throat, leaving a bitter, metallic aftertaste like blood in his mouth. The little life force swirled through him, and he sighed at the sensation.

It wasn’t enough.

He drank another, and another, then stopped himself with an effort, hands shaking. Not enough.

Teeth clenched, he selected a dozen of the matured elixirs and slid them into the padded pigeonholes in the leather box, then replaced everything as it had been and took his leave, locking the door carefully after him.

CHAPTER 19. Picnics and Partisans

ALEC, at least, must have made a good impression on the princess. A few days after the shooting match, he and Seregil were invited shooting again, and then to a picnic on one of the islands in the harbor. In the invitation, the princess reminded Alec to bring his bow.

It was hardly an intimate affair. Princess Aralain and her three younger daughters came along, as well as Duke Reltheus, Alaya and five young ladies-in-waiting, and a score of courtiers, most of whom Seregil recognized from the archery contests. Selin had not been included, he noticed.

There were also a host of servants in charge of the hampers and cushions, minstrels, and a bodyguard of twenty. Elani took Reltheus’s arm to ascend the gangplank of the sleek caravel moored at the royal quay. She was dressed in a blue summer dress today, but her shoes were sturdy. She wore no jewels, and her fair hair was caught back in a brightly colored ribbon under her broad-brimmed sun hat.

The minstrels struck up a lively tune as they set sail under a clear blue morning sky and a few of the guests danced on the deck. Elani and her women remained at the rail with Reltheus, and she beckoned for Seregil and Alec to join them.

“My lords, welcome again,” she said, offering her hand. “My uncle mentioned to me that you are a gifted harpist and a fine singer, Lord Seregil. I hope you will contribute to the entertainment.”

“I am, as always, yours to command, Highness,” Seregil said with a bow. “And Alec here has a very pleasing voice.”

Elani smiled at Alec. “You have many skills, it seems.”

“A few, Highness,” Alec replied.

When the minstrels paused in their playing Seregil borrowed a harp and he and Alec found themselves the center of attention for some time, singing love songs and war ballads. Seregil even managed a few of the songs he’d heard in the theater, which won him much applause.

“Lords Seregil and Alec are patrons of that new company in Gannet Lane,” Reltheus generously informed the party.

“Indeed?” sniffed Count Tolin, the young blond man Alec had seen at Kyrin’s. “I prefer the Tirari myself.”

“Then you are denying yourself a great pleasure,” Reltheus told him. “Their lead actor is a marvel.”

“He entertained at my salon, Tolin,” added Alaya. “I’ve since been to his theater and really, it’s as good as anything I’ve seen in the Street of Lights. The plays are quite original.”

Tolin bowed to them. “Perhaps I shall try it one night, then.” But he sounded less than enthusiastic.

The ship skimmed across the harbor to a secluded cove on the seaward side of a wooded island just beyond the outer moles. Sailors rowed them ashore and Elani led the company up to a pretty wooden pavilion that stood in a clearing just above the shingle. Its ornately carved posts and railings were weathered silver with age and decked with flower garlands. While the servants prepared the midday meal and the older courtiers settled down to gamble and gossip, Elani, her ladies and sisters, and the younger nobles wandered the trails that wound through the woods to various vantage points overlooking the sea.

Seregil found himself revising his view of Elani. She’d been bored at Alaya’s salon until the talk had turned to hunting and bows, and had been cheerful and friendly at the lists. This island was clearly a special place for her, and she seemed much more her age as she held her youngest sister, Princess Leali, by the hand and led the party to gulls’ nests that covered the ground on the leeward side to see the fuzzy grey-and-white chicks, and on to a shadowed glade where

rare pink and white saphis flowers bloomed, the frilled, slipper-shaped blossoms swaying gently on their long stalks. There was a pond, as well, stocked with huge, precious gold-and-white-striped fish that rose greedily to eat the crumbs the girls scattered for them.

Duke Reltheus occupied a favored place at her side. He made her laugh, and she occasionally took his arm. Seregil and Alec, however, found themselves at the back of the pack among the lesser courtiers.

“Her Highness certainly seems fond of the duke,” Alec remarked to Earl Stenmir.

“She’s fonder of the father than the son, they say,” Tolin murmured, keeping his voice down. Then, without much warmth, “And you seem to have made quite an impression in a very short time, Lord Alec.”

“I don’t know about that.”

“Oh, but you have. Wouldn’t you say so, Lord Seregil?” Stenmir insisted with a somewhat nasty grin.

“They’re both archers,” Seregil said with a shrug.

Neither answer seemed to satisfy the count. “Of course, you’re some relation to the princess, aren’t you, Lord Seregil? Odd that we haven’t seen more of you at court. Is it true that you’re in trade?”

“I amuse myself with a few investments now and then,” Seregil replied with an easy smile, not rising to the bait of what was clearly intended as an insult.

“And with Lord Alec,” a young countess said with a laugh.

“A lucky thing for our friend Reltheus,” Duke Solis, a friendlier sort, noted, nudging Alec good-naturedly with his elbow. “He wouldn’t welcome any competition for a certain person’s hand.” He shot a meaningful look in Reltheus’s direction that no one missed.

“Do you think his hopes are well founded?” asked Seregil.

“I hear the son has caught the queen’s eye in the field,” Earl Stenmir sniffed. “And the princess royal is said to have been taken with Danos during a hunt. The young man is pleasant enough, but the father is quite the social climber, don’t you think?”

“I am honored to call the duke my friend,” Seregil replied

stiffly, recognizing a gossip trap. “I will thank you to keep such insulting opinions to yourself, my lord.”

Stenmir was clearly taken aback, given Seregil’s lower social rank. “I was merely making an observation.” With that he walked quickly to the head of the line and struck up a conversation with a marquis. The others who’d been walking with them moved away, as well, and that was the end of conversation for a while.

“You drew a little blood there,” Alec whispered in Aurenfaie.

Seregil chuckled. “At least it drove them off,” he replied in the same. “Tiresome lot. But I think we’ve both made a name for ourselves among them.” He nodded at Tolin, now walking with Elani. Reltheus had fallen back and was laughing with a portly duke. “I expect a bit of bad-mouthing is going on-in the most veiled way, of course. ‘I had no idea Lord Seregil was in trade.’ ‘My, but that lover of his is very young, don’t you think?’ ‘I’m surprised the queen hasn’t kept him at court. Isn’t that interesting?’ ”

Alec smothered a laugh. “You don’t think the princess is really interested in me, do you?”

“She’s a young girl, tali, surrounded by women and old men. I expect any handsome young fellow would at least catch her eye.” He slipped his arm through Alec’s and kissed him on the cheek for the benefit of those stealing glances back at them and added in Skalan, “Not that I’m in any way discounting your natural charms.”

The air in Dyer’s Street reeked of various pigments and their fixatives, mingled with the heavy odor of wet wool. Thero held up the hem of his blue robe as his horse splashed through a red puddle. The gutters here often overflowed, filling the street with swirling pools and rivulets of color-stained water and making islands of the cobblestones. A narrow boardwalk ran down each side of the street, for the benefit of those who had to pass through on foot.

Without an apprentice to send on errands, Thero did his own shopping. He happened to enjoy it, and welcomed the opportunity to get out of the Oreska House, something he

didn’t do often enough these days, as Seregil most annoyingly insisted on pointing out whenever he saw him. Alec wasn’t much better, always after him to come to the gambling houses with them, or the theater. These days the younger man was constantly talking about some actor he admired, the one Thero had missed meeting at his party. Thero had no interest in gambling, and little time for pointless pleasures.

Turning the corner, he left the puddles behind for the equally stained cobblestones of Painted Lane, the pigment dealers’ street. It was late morning and the street was crowded. There were dozens of shops here catering to artists, ink makers, mixers of cosmetics, and the occasional wizard. Thero needed a particular shade of purple ink for a spell and he knew just the shop to find the necessary dried thorn berries and another for the finest ink-making gums.

He was coming out of Master Syin’s shop with the berries when a strange, crawling sensation ran up his spine. It was familiar, though it took him a moment to place it; he’d felt a hint of it at Alec’s birthday party. He looked around, trying to decide where in the crowd it was coming from. A tall, red-haired man with several large parcels under his arms caught the wizard’s eye; Thero only had a glimpse of a long, stern face and broad shoulders as the man wended his way deeper into the passing crowd. Leaving his horse tethered by Syin’s shop, the wizard shouldered his way through the crowd, stepping on the occasional foot in his haste to catch up to the man, but to no avail. By the time the crowed spilled out into the Sea Market, the fellow was nowhere to be seen. Thero could have cast a wizard eye, but it was difficult to concentrate in the commotion of the marketplace and the strange feeling was gone, leaving no trace to follow. He walked awhile in the direction he thought the man might have gone, but found no sign of him. Giving up, he went back to his shopping and soon forgot about it.

There was an archery list just beyond the pavilion and Elani and Alec shot for a while with some of the young courtiers. The shatta Alec had given the princess hung from

her quiver, and similar ones from the quivers of some of the other archers, made of jewels and coins.

“You’ve started a fashion,” Seregil noted as Alec stood waiting his turn.

At midday everyone gathered in the pavilion for the luncheon picnic. There were cold aureoles and pheasant, bits of beef in a fiery red sauce, cardamom bread, strawberries and clotted cream, and plentiful wine and cider. Afterward the servants spread blankets on the ground and most of the courtiers sought out a shady spot for a nap through the hot part of the day. Seregil was about to do the same when Alaya came to him. “The princess has heard about your bakshi playing, Lord Seregil, and would like a game with you.”

“Of course,” Seregil said. “Are there stones? I didn’t bring mine.”

Stones were found and he joined the princess at one of several lichen-crusted marble tables under an ancient spreading oak.

“I’ve heard a great deal from Reltheus about your skill at gaming,” Elani said, pouring her stones into the tray.

“Alec can shoot. I can gamble, Highness,” Seregil said with a smile.

“Perhaps you can teach me a thing or two, then. I don’t have much luck, but everyone except Alaya and Reltheus always tries to let me win.”

“Just as they do at shooting?”

“Alec told you that, did he?”

“Yes. And I assure you, I play to win.”

She grinned. “Then you’re both honest men. I like that.”

“If I may, Highness, you seem like a very direct young woman, yourself.”

“Do I?” She seemed pleased. “Mother says I’m too blunt.”

“Just another word for being honest. The queen herself is very-honest.”

Elani laughed as she placed her first stone. “Yes, she is, but I think that’s part of what makes her such a splendid warrior and queen, don’t you?”

“I do indeed, Highness.”

They began to play in earnest, with Seregil giving advice

now and then. In spite of his help, however, he won three games in a row.

“I see your reputation is well deserved,” Elani laughed. “You have the Lightbearer’s luck, as they say. But you would, wouldn’t you, being ’faie?”

“We’re not all lucky, Highness, and my luck only runs in certain ways, none of them very useful.”

“But I hear that you back privateer ships. That’s very useful. May I ask you something?”

“Of course, Highness. Anything.”

“We’re said to be distant kin. Why aren’t you at court?”

Grinning, Seregil flipped a bakshi stone in the air and caught it. “Because I’m not very respectable, Highness.”

“But you were at court for a time?”

“When I was very young.”

“I’ve heard that you were friends with Aunt Phoria and Uncle Korathan.”

“I was. I think I can say that I’m still on good terms with your uncle.”

“And Aunt Klia. That’s why I wondered-But you’ve already said. So why aren’t you on good terms with the queen?”

How to answer that? “Well, as I said, I’ve become a bit of a wastrel over the years.”

“You don’t seem like a wastrel at all. And Lord Alec certainly doesn’t,” she said, then blushed.

“I’m afraid I’m rather a bad influence on Alec. And I suspect your mother and aunts would agree.”

“That’s not what Aunt Klia says. She says the alliance with Aurenen would never have been struck if not for you. And that you and Lord Alec helped save her life when she was poisoned.”

“She honors us. We only helped.”

The princess surprised him with an unexpectedly shrewd look. “If she trusts you, then you both are worthy of trust. I won’t forget that when I’m queen.”

Reltheus wandered over just then, carrying a three-legged stool. “You two are looking very serious over a game,” he said, sitting down beside the table.

“Lord Seregil is teaching me strategy,” she told him. “But you were right about his luck.”

Reltheus chuckled. “Seregil, you better mind your manners or you’re likely to end up in the Tower again.”

“I’d forgotten that,” said the princess. “But Grandmother did let you out.”

“I’d rather not take my chances there again,” Seregil replied with a wink.

“I won’t send you there, at least not for beating me at the stones. Reltheus, will you give me a game so I can try out my new skills?”

Seregil rose and bowed. “May you have Illior’s luck, Highness.”

He was aware of jealous eyes on him as he searched out Alec, who was dozing under a birch tree. Seregil sat down with his back against the white trunk and settled himself as if for a nap, then kept watch under his eyelashes.

Presently Elani stood up from the bakshi table, laughing over something Reltheus had said, and joined her ladies to nap in the shade. Reltheus sat where he was, looking pensive, until Tolin and Stenmir joined him and the three strolled off into the forest.

Seregil waited until they were out of sight, then stood and stretched, and ambled off in the opposite direction. As soon as he was in the cover of the trees, however, he quickly skirted the clearing and soon caught sight of Reltheus’s red coat. The three nobles were standing on the path, heads together, deep in conversation. Seregil had worn his brown coat for just such a chance. Keeping low, he stole silently closer to a hiding spot behind a fallen tree.

“How could you be so careless?” Tolin hissed.

Reltheus gave him a dark look. “It was intercepted from the courier before it ever reached me. There was little I could do about that.”

“What are we going to do? Are you certain the duke has it?”

“Yes.” Reltheus started off along the path again, deeper into the woods, and Seregil followed, staying just close enough to hear what was said.

“We must get it back!” Tolin hissed. “It’s not just your head on the block if he goes to the prince with it. Have you told Kyrin?”

“Of course I have.”

“Any more word from the north, Reltheus?” asked Stenmir.

“No, and nothing at the Palace. I suspect if they’d been successful in killing her, we’d have heard about it by now.”

Killing her, Seregil thought, shocked at the words. There was only one “her” he could think of that they would be speaking of. If there had been an attempt, how could Thero not know?

They passed through a clearing, and Seregil lost the thread of the conversation as he had to skirt wide to avoid being seen. All he caught were bits and pieces of some argument between Reltheus and Tolin. Stenmir said little, listening more than he spoke. The men stopped again and Seregil heard Reltheus say something about “the cat.”

Seregil’s heart skipped a beat at that, doubting the conspirators would be discussing someone’s mouser. A stop in at the Stag and Otter might be in order when he got back to the city.

He shadowed them back to the others, but their conversation had turned to the war and Phoria.

“I would wish no harm on her, of course, but it might simplify things,” Tolin observed, and he seemed to be still speaking of the queen.

Simplify what for whom? Seregil wondered. The most obvious answer was that Phoria’s untimely demise would clear the way for Elani to take the throne, and assure Reltheus’s interests if the girl wed Danos. If that were the case, and he suspected it was, then Phoria’s life might be in as much jeopardy as Klia’s.

“Enough of that. We’re too close,” Reltheus warned. Then, raising his voice a little, “Tolin, do tell me about that new kestrel of yours. You must bring her to my next hunt.”

Seregil faded into the trees and hurried back to his place beside Alec before Reltheus and the others appeared on the far side of the clearing.

Alec cracked an eyelid as he sat down and murmured, “Find what you were looking for?”

“Mmm,” Seregil replied noncommittally as he signed yes. “Just needed to stretch my legs.”

When the heat of the day had passed, the courtiers roused themselves and there were games, more shooting, and wading at the shoreline to catch shrimps and collect periwinkles and black mussels.

Alec won a few shatta and purposely lost a few, too, to avoid bad feelings. There was no question that the more time either he or Seregil spent in Elani’s presence, the more they were regarded as interlopers of low degree.

As night fell, the servants built a bonfire on the beach and everyone gathered around to eat mussels boiled in wine and spices and sing under the stars. Seregil was loaned a harp again and sang a love ballad in his lilting tenor, then called on the company to join him in more love songs and warriors’ lays, finishing with a few ballads celebrating the queen’s battles.

At last they were rowed back to the ship and sailed home across the glittering harbor. At the quay Elani bid them good night and rode off with her court.

Collecting their horses from a public stable, Alec and Seregil started for home through the backstreets of the Lower City.

“You wouldn’t mind staying at the Stag tonight, would you?” Seregil murmured.

“No, why?”

Seregil’s grin flashed pale in the starlight. “Just a bit of business, if we’re lucky.”

As they turned into Cod Street, Alec noticed a young bawd sprawled awkwardly near the open doorway of a tavern. He first supposed she was either drunk or murdered, until he saw that her eyes were wide open and that she was still breathing. He reined in and dismounted.

“What are you doing?” Seregil asked impatiently.

“She’s alive.” He touched her brow with his palm. “Like that boy we found.”

Seregil joined him and pressed two fingers against the inside of her wrist. “Her pulse is strong.”

“You there! What are you up to?” a man demanded, and Alec turned to find a blue-coated sergeant of the City Watch regarding them with obvious suspicion.

“We just found her like this,” he explained.

“Oh, pardon me, my lords,” the man said, taking in their fine clothing. Then, looking down at the woman, he shook his head. “Sakor’s Flame, another one?”

“You’ve seen this before?” asked Seregil.

The man came a bit closer, but Alec could tell he was nervous. “Mostly back away from the merchants’ streets. It’s the sleeping death, all right.”

“The what?”

“Some new sickness here around the waterfront,” the bluecoat explained, taking a step back. “We’re seeing a lot of it, here in the dog days. A person will just be walking along, then all of a sudden they stagger and go down, then just lie there. After a while, they die. Leave her. The Scavengers will see to her.”

“But she’s not dead,” said Alec.

“The Scavengers are the only ones who’ll handle these poor beggars, except for the drysians. It’s spreading, you know, though folks aren’t talking about it, on account of what could happen.”

“Quarantine,” said Seregil.

“Yes, if there are enough cases reported that it’s deemed a contagion, the whole Lower City could be cut off. And you can bet the traders don’t want that. Not on account of a few whores and their brats falling sick. Things are bad enough already. Now you two move on, and see that you wash your hands. I’ve heard it said these sick ones are unclean.”

“If that’s the case, then shouldn’t there be a lot of dead Scavengers and drysians, too?” asked Seregil.

The sergeant snorted. “The Scavengers are bred to filth. Ain’t nothing that kills them but each other. And the drysians

have their Maker to protect ’em. Go on, now. You’d best be on your way, my lords.”

Seregil swung up into the saddle and gave Alec a surreptitious wink. “Clearly, there’s nothing we can do for her.”

They rode slowly around the block, giving the sergeant and his men time to move on, then circled back. Alec carried the woman and Seregil led the horses as they took her to the little Dalnan temple where they’d taken the boy. People they passed along the way shied away from them, and some made warding signs against ill luck and sickness.

They rang the bell and, after a time, a sleepy-looking young drysian looked out, then quickly opened the gate so they could bring the woman in.

“How many of these people have you seen?” Seregil asked the drysian when they were inside.

“A boy was brought in yesterday, but I’ve heard of more,” he replied. He took the woman in his arms and led them through the temple, with its stone hearth altar carved with sheaves and fruit, to an inner room beyond. A young boy with dark brown hair and eyes lay on a straw pallet, staring sightlessly at the ceiling.

The acolyte spread a pallet for the young woman and covered her with a blanket.

“I’d like to speak with the priestess, Brother,” Alec told him.

“Of course, my lord.”

The man disappeared, and a moment later the priestess they’d spoken with before joined them.

“This one’s from one of the Hake Street houses,” she said as she bent over the stricken woman. “I’ve cured her of the usual things a few times. I suppose this is a kinder end for her than many she could have come to.”

“You’re probably right.” Alec reached into the purse at his belt and gave her two new-minted silver sesters.

The drysian took them with a weary sigh. “Maker’s Mercy on you, for your kindness and generosity.”

“How long has the boy been here?” asked Seregil.

“His mother brought him to me two days ago.”

“Do you know who he is?”

“Yes, he’s the candlewick maker’s son, Teus.”

“You handle these people without any fear, it seems. No gloves. No bird beak masks full of herbs.”

“It didn’t occur to me to do so, when the first one was brought to me,” she explained. “By the time others came, I was quite certain it was not a contagion spread by touch.”

“That’s not what the bluecoat we just met said,” Alec told her. “And some of the folk we met on the way treated us like we had plague.”

“I’m beginning to think it might be one,” she replied. “But you, young sir-you carried her with no thought of danger?”

“The same as you, Sister. We’ve encountered this before and I didn’t catch anything.”

She patted his arm. “You’ve good hearts, my lords, to stop for such a girl.”

“We’re all one under the Maker’s eye, Sister,” Alec replied.

“You’re a Dalnan?” she asked in surprise.

“Raised one.”

“Good! Not enough of us down here in the south. Those flame and moon worshipers could learn a thing or two from us. Maker’s Mercy, my lords.”

“And to you.”

They rode up through the deserted Harbor Way and through the Sea Market.

As they threaded their way through the poor neighborhood beyond, Alec turned sharply in his saddle, peering down a side street and reined his horse around.

“What is it?”

“I could swear I just saw Atre pass under a street lantern down there.”

Seregil shrugged. “His old Basket Street theater isn’t far from here.”

“What would he be doing back there?”

“Who knows? Come on.”

The Stag and Otter was shuttered for the night. They approached carefully, making sure not to be seen coming here in noble dress.

Entering the darkened kitchen, Seregil went to the broad

mantel over the hearth and took down the large painted pitcher that stood in the center of it. Inside were two folded parchment packets, both sealed with wax that bore no emblem.

Alec shook his head. “More work! Just what we need.”

Upstairs they lit a few lamps. Seregil sat down on the couch and told Alec all he’d heard on the island.

“You think they tried to assassinate Klia?” Alec exclaimed. “By the Light, Seregil, how could Korathan not know? The news should have been all over the city!”

“Not if he didn’t want it to be. As vicegerent, he has to keep the peace and he doesn’t need any fuel being heaped on the fire of unrest he’s already contending with. I just can’t imagine Thero not knowing. It will be interesting to see what he has to say about it. But now to these.”

Alec leaned over Seregil’s shoulder to read with him as he opened each letter.

“Another bauble delivery,” Seregil said as he read the first one. Tossing it aside, he opened the second and showed it to Alec. “Just as I thought.”

“Someone wants us to burgle Malthus’s house?”

“Yes, and look at this clever phrasing. For ‘any missives of interest to the queen.’ ”

“That must have been what you heard Reltheus and the others talking about.”

“I’d say so. Reltheus must have sent this before we sailed this morning. Does the handwriting look familiar to you?”

“No, but the sender might have had someone else write it for them.”

A great cloak of secrecy surrounded the workings of the Cat, requiring any message back and forth to pass through a number of trusted hands. Not only did this system protect the Cat from being unmasked, but it made their noble patrons feel safe dealing with them. Whatever they found would be passed to one of several people, who would pass it on to others, until it reached the agent of the person buying their services. Money changed hands in the same manner.

“It’s risky. If he caught us, knowing who we are?” Alec shook his head doubtfully.

“It’s riskier for Malthus if we don’t, though, Alec. If the Cat doesn’t take the job, whoever sent this will just employ a less sympathetic, and probably less discreet agent. And it’s hardly the first time we’ve burgled the house of someone we know. The Cat would be out of a job if we made such distinctions!”

“I suppose so.”

Seregil went to the desk, took out a piece of charcoal he kept for the purpose, and scrawled Yes in crooked letters across the missive. Resealing it with tallow from a cheap candle, he disappeared downstairs to return it to the pitcher for delivery. Ema’s husband was the first of many couriers, taking the Cat’s replies to a run-down tavern called the Black Feather, where Seregil, in disguise, of course, had an agreement of many years with the landlord.

And so it began.

CHAPTER 20. Reports

THEY found Thero in the Oreska garden the following morning, with a silver trowel in one hand and a flat gardener’s basket in the other. His hands were uncharacteristically dirty, as was the front of his long canvas apron, and his dark curls were sweat-plastered to his forehead. So far Lenthin was showing no sign of being cooler than the previous two months.

Thero’s basket was filled with roots of various shapes and sizes, elements for spell work. Such gathering had to be carefully done, often with the aid of spells, and could not be left to servants.

“When are you going to take on an apprentice for this sort of thing?” Seregil chided, dismounting to greet him.

“When and if I find the right child,” Thero replied.

“Then you’re looking, finally?” asked Alec.

Thero sighed. “We’ve only had six children presented here since Mourning Night, and none of them were suitable for me.”

“What are you looking for?”

“Nysander once told me, ‘You’ll know when you’re ready, and you’ll know them when you meet the right person.’ I understand now what he meant.”

“Don’t tell me you’re getting lonely in your tower?” said Seregil.

Thero shrugged. “I suppose I am.”

They left their horses with a servant and walked with Thero into the shelter of a small cherry orchard. Delicate

pink and white petals drifted down to settle on their hair and shoulders as they sat on the soft grass under the trees.

“Any word from Klia?” Seregil asked quietly.

“She has Beka and Nyal spying for her, but so far they haven’t caught Danos sending any messages, or doing anything else suspicious.”

“Give her time. He’s sure to slip up sooner or later, unless he’s more of a nightrunner than I give him credit for.”

“He must have some skill, to go unnoticed for so long.”

“Apparently,” said Thero. “Now, I assume you’re here to report about your day out with the princess?”

Seregil grinned. “You heard about that?”

“You two are becoming the talk of the Noble Quarter. Especially you, Alec. I never expected you to be taken into the royal circle. No doubt it will prove useful. If nothing else, you can keep an eye on those around her. Anything new on Reltheus?”

Seregil related the conversation he’d overheard, including Stenmir’s potentially treasonous comment regarding the queen and what appeared to be talk of a failed assassination against Klia.

“That does sound serious,” Thero said when he was done, looking curiously unsurprised by the news.

“Did you know that someone tried to kill her?” asked Alec.

The wizard hesitated, then nodded. “Korathan doesn’t want word of it getting out.”

“But to us?”

“He and Klia both assume it was the work of the Plenimarans. I did, too, until this news.”

“Maybe it would be just as well that they keep thinking that for the moment,” said Seregil. “If Korathan arrests those we know of now, there could be others who escape. We don’t know the full extent of either cabal just yet. I assume that Klia is taking precautions against another attempt on her life?”

“Yes.”

“Very well. Let us do our work.”

“What about this mysterious document that Reltheus and

the others were talking about? What could it be, and who has it?”

“That we should be able to answer soon,” Alec replied. “When we got to the Stag last night, there was a job waiting for us.”

“To find the letter, I presume? Where?”

“With Malthus, I’m afraid.”

“This grows more serious by the day. Alec, how close are you to Elani?”

“Close?” Alec shrugged. “She’s just friendly and likes to shoot with me. And gamble with Seregil.”

“All the same, you’re in a better position to look out for her.”

“Klia’s paved the way for us there,” Seregil told him. “Apparently she’d spoken well of us to her niece often enough to make an impression. And I wouldn’t discount Elani for her age. She strikes me as very astute.”

“Her father is said to have been a brilliant man, and a fine general. Apparently she takes after him. I’m glad to hear she can still enjoy herself, though. She’s very serious at court.”

“Being chosen the heir when she was half grown, rather than being born to it, would make me pretty serious, too,” said Alec.

Thero looked around, then lowered his voice. “If Phoria dies, do you think Elani can rule?”

Seregil shrugged. “In the field? Who can say? But she’s been trained by Phoria, and if the queen has confidence in her, then the girl must be made of strong stuff.”

“And there have been warrior queens her age before-Tamir the Great, and Gherilain herself,” Alec pointed out.

Thero nodded. “Well, use your connections. I must know if something is seriously afoot against any of the royals. Has Reltheus said anything more to you about Princess Klia?”

Seregil exchanged a knowing look with Alec. “He’s asked us about her several times, actually. Nothing very specific, really, just our impressions of her and how close friends with her we are.”

“I see. I suspect they’ve underlined your name on their list by now, even with this unexpected good luck at court.”

“I get more the impression that he’s sounding us out as possible allies, or at least trying to use us for information.”

“So you’re next move is to burgle Malthus, I suppose. And if you do find something treasonous?”

“It comes to you, of course. I just hope we don’t.”

As they were taking their leave, Alec paused at the door. “Thero, have you heard anything about a disease called the sleeping death?”

“No. What is it?”

“Some sort of sickness down in the port. People just fall down and lie there with their eyes open for days until they starve.”

“Doesn’t sound like any magic I know of. Some form of epilepsy, perhaps. I haven’t heard anything of it up here.”

“No one has, it seems,” Seregil told him. “It’s only affecting the poor in the Lower City.”

“Ah, that would explain it, then.”

“We heard a bluecoat talking quarantine,” Alec added.

“That would certainly get people’s attention. Has Valerius looked into it?”

“Not that I know of,” said Seregil. “It could be that the priests and healers down there are as worried about quarantine as anyone else.”

“With good reason. It could cripple the whole city.”

“And if it spread up here there could be a panic.”

“I should think this is a matter best left to the drysians,” Thero warned. “See that you two don’t catch it.”

Seregil raised an eyebrow. “Why, Thero, I’m touched by your concern.”

“I only meant it would be inconvenient to find replacements for you,” Thero replied, but there was a hint of humor in his eyes that hadn’t been there a few years earlier.

“By the way, when are you coming to the theater with us?” Seregil asked. It was becoming a bit of a game, trying to lure the wizard out to do something he clearly had no interest in doing. “We’ll stand you a good supper and the gambling houses afterward.”

Thero gave him a long-suffering look. “Don’t you have someone to burgle?”

“We’re dining with Kylith and her niece, Ysmay, at Wheel Street first, in celebration of my name day. At least join us for supper.”

When Thero hesitated, Alec wheedled, “Grilled eel and leeks, spiced bluefish in jelly, poached pears with rosemary syrup, cakes…”

“Your cook’s grilled eel? And her cakes?” Thero grinned. “For that, I’ll come.”

Kylith and Ysmay arrived first and coaxed Alec into a show of archery while they waited for Thero. The wizard soon followed, and they sat down in the cool garden to enjoy the fragrant repast. Seregil poured the wine freely but he and Alec took little themselves, needing their wits about them for the night’s real work.

Ysmay, a very pretty blond, flirted determinedly with Thero, but the wizard appeared oblivious while the others chatted about horses and hunting.

“Do wizards hunt?” Ysmay asked.

“Some do,” Thero replied, helping himself to more eel. “I did, growing up, with my father and brothers, but since putting on robes I really haven’t had the time or inclination.”

“He’d rather putter about in his tower,” Alec teased. “We go by and dust him once a week.”

“Well, I’m glad to have the chance to see you tonight,” Ysmay said warmly. “Tell me, why are wizards celibate?”

“Not all of us are,” Thero replied, keeping his attention on cutting up his eel. “Those who are think it increases their magic to withhold from spending energy on the pleasures of the flesh.”

“Nysander certainly didn’t agree with that,” Seregil said with a chuckle. “He was quiet about it, but he had quite a string of lovers.”

“I always wondered about him and Magyana,” said Kylith.

“Friends of the heart, but not the flesh,” Seregil explained. “But I think she was his true love.”

“You believe in true love!” Ysmay exclaimed, delighted, glancing Alec’s way.

Seregil pressed a hand to his heart and declaimed with

mock-solemnity, “Dear lady, it’s the only thing that makes life worth living!”

“Oh, you should be on the stage, my lord,” said Ysmay, flirting a bit with him now.

“He had his chance,” Kylith told her. “Atre offered him a place in his company.”

“I’d like to see that! You’re every bit as handsome as he is.”

Seregil inclined his head modestly. “You flatter me. I doubt most of the women of Rhiminee would agree with you.”

“Most, indeed!” Kylith noted with a slight frown. “Since you and I established him in style, he seems to be in a different bed every night. I’m rather piqued about that, and considering withdrawing my patronage. There are certainly enough others who’d put up with him.”

“You’d do that?” asked Alec.

“I most certainly will. I told him as much the other night, when he refused my invitation to dinner. Of course, he was very apologetic about it, but I heard the next day that he’d been with Duchess Arelia. To be honest, I’m growing a bit tired of him anyway. I think Master Raneus at the Tirari is a bit more convincing-onstage and off.”

Seregil doubted that, but Kylith had her pride and had wrongly assumed she was buying a young lover as well as a theater.

Talk had turned to recent plays at both theaters when Runcer came to the door. “Master Atre is in the salon, my lord. Shall I have him join you?”

Seregil looked to Kylith. “It’s up to you.”

“Oh, please, yes!” Ysmay pleaded.

Kylith sighed. “I have no objection.”

Seregil motioned to Runcer, who escorted the actor into the garden.

“My dear Lady Kylith!” Atre exclaimed, going to her at once to kiss her hand. “How lovely to find all three of my dear patrons here at once.”

Kylith regarded him coolly. “Still only three?”

“You wound me, lady!” Atre gave her an imploring look.

“Come sit by me, you rogue,” Seregil said, laughing. “To what do we owe this pleasure?”

“Only a bit of mundane business, my lord. Nothing that can’t wait.”

“Then you must join us. There’s still plenty of food. You can help celebrate.”

“Celebrate?”

“His name day,” Alec told him.

“You honor me, my lords,” Atre replied, taking a seat with obvious pleasure. When Runcer had filled his cup, he lifted it to Seregil. “Long life and good fortune, my lord.”

After seeing Kylith and Ysmay into their carriage later that evening, Seregil turned to Atre with an expectant look.

“My news would be better delivered in private, my lords.”

“Ah, I see. Well, come to the library.” He led the way up and closed the door.

“Someone’s tongue has been wagging?” asked Alec.

“Indeed, my lord,” Atre replied, glancing around the well-appointed room with evident interest. “Tanni and I performed for a small party at Duke Laneus’s house a few days ago. The duke and his friends spoke very highly of Princess Klia. The first toast was to her, rather than the queen.”

“I see. What exactly was said?”

“Several people had letters from her and shared them. It was mostly salutations and details of battles.”

“Who was there?”

“The duke, Duke Malthus, Marquise Lalia, Duke Zymir, General Sarien, and Duchess Nerian.”

“Sarien? Are you certain?” asked Seregil, trying to mask his dismay. General Sarien was the protector general, in command of the City Regiment.

“Of course, my lord,” Atre replied. “A round fellow, and generous with his gifts.” He fingered an ornate silver ring on his right forefinger.

Seregil waved that aside impatiently; everybody in Rhiminee threw their jewels at the actor, it seemed. “Is that all?”

“There was some talk of Princess Klia taking the throne somehow.”

“And they said this in front of you?” asked Alec.

The actor grinned. “No, my lord. They thought I was in the

kitchen with Tanni, having supper. I stole back to the salon and listened by the door.”

Seregil raised an eyebrow. “How clever of you. Have you done that sort of thing before?”

Atre gave a modest shrug. “Now and then.”

“I assume there was also mention made of Lord Alec or myself?”

“You, Lord Seregil. Duke Malthus suggested speaking to you regarding whatever they’d been talking about before I came back, but the others…” He paused, and gave Seregil an apologetic smile. “Duke Laneus said you weren’t influential enough to be of any use, and the others agreed.”

Seregil chuckled at that. “Do you know what they were talking about?”

“Unfortunately not all of it, my lord. As I said, we were sent to the kitchen for a meal-” He made a sour face; clearly the memory of being treated like a common minstrel was distasteful. “But Duke Malthus seemed to be arguing with the others about something.”

“But you don’t know what, except that it might have involved Alec and myself?”

“No, I couldn’t hear what he said clearly.”

“Most interesting. Anything else?”

Atre seemed to hesitate for just an instant before he shook his head. “No, my lord.”

“Well, thank you, and well done.” Seregil reached for his purse without thinking.

“No, my lord. As I said before, you are generous enough with your gold.”

“Ah, that’s right. Now, do I have your word that what you’ve told me goes no farther?”

“I am as constant as the sun, my lords. You have no need for concern. The politics of Skala are no concern of mine.”

“A very wise attitude. Good night to you, Master Atre.”

For just an instant Seregil thought he saw a look of annoyance cross the actor’s face, but it was fleeting and he couldn’t be certain before Atre pressed a hand to his heart and bowed and took his leave.

“Atre definitely has a bit of nightrunner in him,” Alec noted.

“I thought he might. What do you make of what he said?”

“I’d say with all you heard yesterday and now this, the two cabals may be at war. I’ve been thinking, though. General Sarien wasn’t on that list I found.”

Seregil considered that. “He may be a recent addition to the group. Or Kyrin didn’t know about him. By the Light, Alec, if Laneus has the protector general in his pocket, that shifts everything. If Sarien could get the City Regiment to follow him, they could hold all of Rhiminee hostage.”

“Maybe the Cat should pay him a visit. Where does he live?”

“Unfortunately, he’s quartered in the Palace itself and even I’m not about to try to burgle him there. We’ll start with Malthus tonight, and see what comes of that.”

Atre smiled to himself as he rode home, pleased that he’d kept the best of the gossip to himself; perhaps he’d have a bit of fun among the nobles, after all.

As for his patrons, would they never part with so much as an earring?

Perhaps Duke Reltheus or Kyrin would be more generous. Kyrin, he decided; he already had a ring from Reltheus, from the night he’d dined at the duke’s house when Alec had disgraced himself with drink.

Perhaps he’d even inveigle one or both of them as new patrons. From Kylith’s reception tonight, it was clear he was going to need one.

CHAPTER 21. How to Burgle a Friend

IT was a simple matter to break into Malthus’s fine house in Rowan Street that night. Ironically, it was less than five minutes’ walk from Reltheus’s house. Seregil went inside alone, over Alec’s objections, claiming that it would be easier to explain one of them being there, rather than both, should he get caught, and that he knew the layout of the house. All the same, Alec insisted on coming as far as the garden wall and keeping watch while Seregil climbed over and into the shadows beyond.

It was a sticky night, and the black silk across the lower part of Seregil’s face was uncomfortably hot and moist before he got halfway through the extensive garden. Elegant as this house was, it was sadly lacking in balconies, so Seregil was forced to find another way upstairs, where Malthus’s library lay. The man didn’t have a study, but carried out his business from a desk there. Seregil hoped that’s where he kept anything sensitive. As conniving as the Rhiminee upper classes tended to be, they were woefully predictable to anyone who had a wide experience of them.

The narrow window of the garderobe chamber granted cramped entrance for a snake-hipped nightrunner with the wit to jigger the catch on the interior leaded pane. A lime-wood shim inserted between glass and frame soon found and lifted the latch. An earthy smell drifted out on the damp air as he swung the window inward and shimmied through. He wrinkled his nose. Someone in the household wasn’t feeling well, from the odor.

Holding his breath, Seregil stole silently to the door and inched it open. All was dark beyond. Listening intently for watchmen or wandering servants, he found the servants’ doorway behind a tapestry in the hallway near the kitchen and crept up to the second floor. Fortunately the stairs were solid and well maintained. They hardly creaked at all.

The library was at the front of the house, down a long corridor that branched off the one leading to the household sleeping quarters. An ornate Zengati carpet ran the length of the hall and muffled his footsteps nicely as he hurried along.

The simple lock on the library door was enough to keep servants and nosy guests out, but not Seregil. He pondered suggesting something more complex to Malthus the next time they met, but decided it would be an awkward topic to work into casual conversation.

Once inside he checked the locked drawers of the desk, finding little of interest, then searched the room for hidden compartments. Once again, it was all too easily found, in the wall behind a small tapestry. Dust had collected around the edges of a square of wood paneling, making it obvious to a trained eye. In Seregil’s experience, the more honest the person, the easier it was to burgle them. Feeling a little guilty, he carefully pried out the panel and found a flat wooden box hidden in the space behind it. Roughly square, the box was about a foot wide and half that thick. Seregil carried it to the desk and inspected it closely with the lightstone from his tool roll. Finally, a lock with a little spirit to it! Perhaps even a nasty device incorporated into the lock or brass plate. Smiling to himself, he took out the slender pick he’d designed for just such a situation. It was purposely bent so that it could probe the lock while keeping the hand out of range of any needles or other dangerous deterrents that might pop out.

It was a good thing, too. Malthus had been much more careful with this; a burst of white flame flared from the keyhole, melting the pick and catching the edge of Seregil’s rolled-up shirtsleeve on fire.

“Bilairy’s-!” Seregil struggled out of the shirt and hastily threw it away from him. He knew this magic. He’d seen

Thero-who had a peculiar fascination with all things flammable-place it on various objects to protect them. This sort of magical fire could consume flesh if in contact with it for more than a few seconds. For all Seregil knew, Thero had placed the magic on the box for Malthus himself. Unfortunately it set anything else it touched ablaze, too, and he’d thrown the shirt a little too close to the drapes behind the desk.

Hard-pressed to think how he could make things any worse, he grabbed the box, which had stopped spewing fire, and hurried back the way he’d come. As he passed the kitchen, he shouted “Fire! Fire upstairs!” and ran for the garderobe. Tossing the box out the window, he wiggled after it, grabbed it up again, and bolted for the garden wall. He could already smell smoke and cursed himself for a fool. The last thing he’d intended to was to burn down a friend’s house. Fortunately someone had already raised the alarm. He could hear shouting inside. Bolting through the garden, he heaved the box over the wall, then scrambled up the rope and down the other side.

He found Alec scrabbling around on the ground, gathering scattered documents and stuffing them into his shirt. Apparently there was no magic on the box to prevent it from smashing open when thrown over a wall onto a paved street.

“A little warning would have been nice,” Alec whispered as he grabbed up the last of the scattered documents. “You nearly brained me with that thing.”

“Sorry, I’m in a bit of a hurry.”

Alec looked up and sniffed. “Is that smoke?”

“Is it?” Seregil picked up the last pieces of the splintered box and hurried away with Alec close behind.

At the Stag and Otter, Alec shook the documents from under his shirt and spread them out on the table. There were five in all, ordinary missives from Nalian and Laneus with no apparent hidden messages, as well as one from Elani, thanking Malthus for some gift. This one bore both signature and the princess royal’s seal, and was in Elani’s hand.

“Well, that was a waste of time.” Alec stretched his arms

over his head and yawned. “Why would he go to the trouble to hide those?”

“Why, indeed.” Seregil turned his attention to the pieces of the box. It had landed on an upper corner; the left side panel was cracked, and the lid had broken in two, with one of the pieces hanging by one hinge. The lock plate was a melted medallion surrounded by charred wood. “You’d think he’d have used something sturdier.”

“He probably didn’t anticipate it being tossed over walls.”

Seregil detached the lid and set it aside with the splintered pieces. “Or he thought the fire spell on the lock would be enough to keep it safe.”

“Fire spell? So that was smoke I smelled. What happened?”

“Just a little mishap with the drapes,” Seregil hedged. He scrutinized the bottom of the box, tapping it lightly with his finger. “I think there’s a space under here.”

He pulled the remains of the left side of the box free and his smile went a little crooked. There was, in fact, a false bottom, with a space about two inches deep beneath. “Lend me your knife.”

Alec gave him the black-and-silver-handled dagger and Seregil used it to pry the false bottom of the box free. Underneath he found a folded letter still bearing a waxy spot where the seal had been broken. Even though it had no salutation or signature, he immediately recognized the familiar, slanted script; it was from the same spy who’d sent the other messages to Reltheus, and written in the same code. Skimming it, Seregil made out “Ten more to the cause. Think the wolf bitch is watching. Taking steps.”

“If it is Reltheus who hired the Cat, then I bet this is what he was looking for,” mused Alec.

“Or something like it. It’s certainly proof enough that Laneus and his crew know about the other cabal. This ‘wolf bitch’ is almost certainly Beka. And ‘steps taken’ might refer to preparations for the assassination attempt. This isn’t good.”

“We have to warn her!”

“Yes, although if this was intercepted before it was seen by

Reltheus and the others, there may not have been any order sent back yet.”

“But if we give this to him-”

Seregil grinned. “Oh, we’ll give him something, all right.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Forge a replacement, of course.” Going to the basket on the desk, he took a piece of scraped parchment and began making the edges ragged and smudging it with soot from the hearth. When that was done, he mimicked the writing style of the sender and the code. His note read: Ten more to the cause. Wolf bitch suspects nothing.

“There, that should do it.” Seregil gathered the other papers. “When the time is right we’ll send these off to the Cat’s employer and see where they turn up. I’ll give this original to Thero.”

“What are we going to do about Malthus?”

“I think we’ll send an invitation for him to join us for dinner and a jaunt to the theater tomorrow night. Perhaps Thero would enjoy another evening out, as well.”

CHAPTER 22. Changes of Plans

SEREGIL and Alec were dressing for dinner with Malthus the following night while Thero, whom they’d finally worn down, strolled in the garden, when Runcer appeared at their chamber door with a sealed letter from Lady Ysmay.

Alec broke the seal and read the contents. “Oh no!” he gasped.

“What is it?” asked Seregil, looking up in the act of pulling on a boot.

“It’s Kylith. She’s-she’s dead.”

Seregil stared at him a moment, dumbstruck, then let the boot fall and reached for the letter. “Illior’s Light! Does it say how?”

“Died in her sleep in her bedchamber this afternoon.” Alec shook his head sadly. “She didn’t look sick at dinner last night.”

Stricken, Seregil sank back on the bed and rested his face in his hands. “I can’t believe it. I mean, I knew I’d outlive her, but she was one of my first friends when I came into society. She helped me so much-”

Alec went to him and put an arm around him as Seregil drew in a shaky breath. “I’m so sorry. I know she was more than a friend. It sounds like she went peacefully, at least.”

Seregil sighed. “Looks like we’ll be disappointing Malthus tonight. We’d better go give Thero the news.”

“What’s wrong?” the wizard asked the moment he laid eyes on them.

Seregil showed him the letter.

“May Astellus carry her gently. Seregil, I’m so sorry. She was a delightful lady.”

“The wake begins tomorrow morning. I’ll send a note to Malthus,” said Alec, taking charge.

“Thank you, tali.”

Atre was dressing to go out the following morning when Brader came in without knocking.

“What are you doing up here?” he demanded. “The others are already at the theater, waiting for rehearsal.”

“I’m afraid the theater will be dark tonight, and a few more besides,” said Atre, still dressing in front of the mirror on the wall. “Haven’t you heard? Lady Kylith passed away. I’m going to pay the respects of the company.”

Brader stared at him a moment, then grabbed him by the front of his fine linen shirt and slammed him against the wall hard enough to set the mirror swinging on its nail. “Not again!”

Atre grinned. “What makes you think-?”

Brader pulled his fist back, trembling with anger. “I can see it on you! I can see it in your eyes. You swore to me!”

Atre ignored the imminent threat to his face. “She was old, cousin. Old people die. I understand that it was very peaceful. What do you care anyway? She’d already cut us off. What use was she anymore?”

“We’re safe here, Atre! Or we were. You’re taking too many anyway, and now?” He turned away with a look of disgust. “You just can’t leave well enough alone, can you?”

“You’ve forgotten what it’s like with the good ones, cousin. How you relished them. You’ve been living on crumbs for too long. I have another one with me, right over there. Seems old Marquis Yarin took sick suddenly at his summer estate last week. Such a pity. Look me in the eye and tell me you don’t crave it as much as I do.”

“Brader, did you find him?” Merina called. They could hear her coming up the stairs.

Atre clucked his tongue. “Dear me, cousin, what will you tell her this time? Or shall I bring her into our little secret?”

Brader closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Damn you.”

“Brader, is that you?” Merina called from just outside.

“Yes, love. I found him. I’m afraid we’ve had some bad news.” He looked back at Atre as he reached for the door handle. “At least put something on your face!”

Atre lounged against the wall and pouted at him. “Oh, look, you’ve torn my favorite shirt.”

Leaving Atre to make himself presentable, Brader went to head off Merina. He thought he’d schooled his expression, but Merina took one look at him and her eyes widened with dismay.

“You two are fighting again?” She caught up with him and clasped him by the arm. “And don’t tell me it’s nothing, Brader! Things have been going so well. He’s happy. I thought you were happy, too.”

“It’s not that, love.” How he hated lying to her! “We’ve just had word that Lady Kylith died.”

“Oh, no!” Merina came into his arms and rested her head on his shoulder. “The poor dear! She was so good to the children, and so generous.”

“Yes.” Brader held her close and kissed her hair. With her warm tears dampening his shirt, he couldn’t say any more than that. Building on the lie caught in his throat.

“Another dead patron,” she whispered against his chest.

“She was old, Merina, and she’d withdrawn her patronage.”

“She did? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t want to worry you.”

Merina sighed. “She wasn’t that old, Brader, and not the first. Sometimes I wonder if we bring bad luck with us.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. People die.”

She gave him a worried look. “It’s more than just today. I’ve been concerned for a while now, though I haven’t wanted to say anything. Atre gets this gleam in his eye sometimes, something wild, and so often it means we’re moving on again. This is the best place we’ve ever been!”

“Not to worry, my dear!” Atre exclaimed as he came out of his room, dressed in his best black coat. “I’m off to pay the

company’s respects at poor Lady Kylith’s wake. Such a loss!” He kissed her cheek, then pulled on a fine pair of black kid gloves. “Nothing to fret your pretty head about, though. There are plenty more rich fish in this lovely, fertile Rhiminee sea, and I plan to stay here for a very long time.”

Seregil, Alec, and Thero arrived at Kylith’s villa to find it already full of mourners and a cold feast laid out in the reception hall. Dead she might be, but Kylith’s hospitality lived on. Looking around, Seregil saw Eirual and a number of her courtesans, as well as Count Selin and Malthus. A very somber Ysmay was attending to the guests, dressed in black and jet.

Seregil went to her and kissed her on both cheeks. “Ysmay, I’m sorry for your loss. Thank you for sending word.”

“Of course,” she replied sadly. “She loved both of you very much.” She paused and dabbed at her eyes with an already damp and wrinkled lace handkerchief. Seregil took his out and pressed it into her hand.

“Thank you. It was so sudden! And she was so looking forward to the play last night. She just said she was a little tired. I had no idea-”

“I doubt she did, either, my dear,” Seregil said.

“May we see her?” asked Alec.

“I’ll be here,” Thero told them.

Ysmay led Seregil and Alec up the gilded marble staircase to Kylith’s bedchamber, where the lady was laid out on the bed in a magnificent gold-embroidered gown and slippers, and heavy gold and ruby jewelry. Her hair was perfectly coiffed, as always, and adorned with jeweled pins.

“You did her proud, Ysmay.” Seregil went to the bedside. “Rhiminee has lost some of its light today.” He placed a hand over Kylith’s where they rested on her breast and bent to kiss her brow. A single tear ran down her cheek as if she were weeping rather than him. Accepting Alec’s handkerchief, he carefully blotted the streak of moisture away so as not to mar her carefully applied cosmetics.

They returned downstairs to find Duke Reltheus there.

“Such a wonderful lady.” Reltheus sighed. “I wish I’d gotten to know her better.”

“Mother is devastated,” said Selin. “She was friends with her since before I was born. Lady Kylith was always there, my whole life, like an extra aunt.” He broke off and wiped his eyes.

Just then Atre was ushered in by the doorman. He could easily have been mistaken for a nobleman, so richly was he dressed and bejeweled. His mouth was set in a tragic line, and he looked pale and drawn.

“I hope I do not give offense with my presence,” he murmured, coming over to join them. He cast a curious look at Thero. “I could not believe the news. Though when you did not come to the theater last night- Such a tragedy!”

At this range Seregil could see that Atre was wearing a bit of cosmetics. His grief might be genuine, perhaps enough to affect his looks, but his vanity was clearly intact.

They exchanged condolences, then Atre went to offer his sympathies to the grieving niece.

“He must have been very fond of her,” said Thero.

“Perhaps, though I think he was more interested in her purse, which is now in the hands of Ysmay.”

Thero shook his head disapprovingly. “The man is nothing if not bold.”

“It’s a shame he and Kylith were on such strained terms at the end,” said Alec.

Ysmay was weeping in Atre’s arms now.

Seregil frowned, watching them. “It doesn’t seem to have affected relations with the niece. I suspect he’s just secured his new patron.”

CHAPTER 23. Malthus

“WELCOME, my friend, it’s been too long since you’ve dined with us!” Seregil exclaimed the following evening as Runcer ushered Duke Malthus into the salon. The theater was still closed in mourning for Kylith, and it was too soon to go out carousing.

“Not that long, certainly?” Malthus replied with a sad smile. “Terrible thing, Kylith. She’ll certainly be missed. Good evening, Alec.”

Alec shook hands. “Good to see you. I hope you’ll forgive me, but I must leave after supper for another appointment.”

“Not at all, dear boy! Attending to Princess Elani again?”

“No, Seregil forgot that I’d promised to visit Myrhichia tonight.”

Malthus raised an eyebrow at that.

“They’re friends,” Seregil said with a chuckle as he led the way to the dining room. “I understand you had an unfortunate bit of excitement at your house the other night.”

“You could call it that. Some servant left a candle burning in the library and set the room on fire.”

“Oh, dear! I hope the damage wasn’t too serious.”

“Fortunately it was confined to the library,” Malthus said with a sigh. “Gutted that room, though, and took all my books and papers with it. My wife has gone to our summer estate until the mess is dealt with.”

“How inconvenient for you,” Seregil commiserated, secretly relieved that he hadn’t done more damage than that. At least the fire had covered the theft.

He and Alec kept the conversation genial over the roast quail and white pear and cheese tart. As they adjourned to the library upstairs for Zengati brandy, Alec excused himself. “Good night, Malthus.”

“It’s been good talking with you.”

“I won’t be late, Seregil.”

“See that you’re not,” Seregil said teasingly.

When Alec was gone, Seregil closed the library door and locked it. “Malthus, I arranged for him to be gone. I have something very serious to speak of, and I don’t want him involved. I pray you’ll hear me out.”

The man raised a surprised eyebrow. “You being serious, Seregil? I’m not sure I’ve ever witnessed that.”

“Perhaps not, but I’m serious now.” Seregil filled a cup for each of them from the crystal brandy decanter and sat down with him by the window. He paused and sipped his drink. “You know how gossip floats around the city.”

“Yes, and how you take it in.”

“Yes, well-This isn’t easy, my friend, but I’ve heard whisperings that a group of nobles may have ideas about putting Princess Klia on the throne, and- Well, your name came up.”

“That’s preposterous!” Malthus exclaimed indignantly, but he wasn’t as skillful a liar as Seregil. “Where did you hear this?”

“I can’t say, but I think by your expression that I’m not wide of the mark.”

“You’re wrong, Seregil. I wouldn’t have any part of that.” He paused, a little short of breath. “Have you told anyone else about this?”

“No, of course not. I speak to you as a friend, Malthus. And one concerned with your safety.” That last bit was true, at least.

The duke’s hand was unsteady as he sipped his brandy. “I appreciate your discretion and your concern, but you must put such thoughts out of your mind at once.”

“Of course.”

They sipped their drinks in silence for a few moments, then Malthus said, “Princess Elani is a fine girl, very intelligent, by all accounts. But she is very young, don’t you think?”

“She wouldn’t be the first green girl to wear the crown,” Seregil replied with a shrug. “But really, chances are she’ll be grown and more experienced before she has to rule. Phoria is healthy and from a long-lived line.”

“Her mother died in battle,” Malthus reminded him.

“Yes, she did. And I suppose you’re right to think there’s always that possibility. But deposing her heir? By the Light, that would mean civil war. You can’t want that.”

“Of course not.” Malthus paused. “You have gotten on very good terms with the princess, haven’t you? And Duke Reltheus, who’s so close to her.”

“Alec and I have that honor.”

Malthus gave him a thoughtful look. “Perhaps you’ve lost some of your affection for Klia.”

“I don’t know what you’re getting at, my friend, but I am and always will be Klia’s friend and supporter. And because of that, I could never believe that she would do anything that would threaten Skala’s well-being and stability. Don’t tell me you do?”

“No, but I’m not so certain about Reltheus and his lot.”

Seregil shook his head. “I’m completely confused. First it’s Klia, then it’s Reltheus. I’ve never heard anything of this from you before. Please, Malthus, speak plainly!”

“I don’t know if I can, Seregil. With your new friends…”

“Are you saying that Reltheus is up to something?”

Malthus nodded. “He’s a smooth man. A very smooth man, and an ambitious one. You’d do well to be careful around him. He may seem to be your friend, but I suspect he’s more concerned with your connection to the throne.”

“He’s better connected at court than I’ve ever been.”

Malthus gave him a long, measuring look. “Are you going to report me to the queen, or Korathan?”

“If I was, we wouldn’t be sitting here talking now. And what is there to report? I’m your friend, Malthus. I don’t mean you any harm. I asked you here to try to save you from disaster, and anyone else involved in this madness.”

“You’re satisfied with my innocence, I hope.”

“Of course, and I’m glad of it! You wouldn’t just be putting your own head on a spike, you know. Alec and I are rumored

to be part of it. And if word of this ever reached the queen, do you think she would believe for one moment that Klia wasn’t involved, as well? I only hope it’s not too late to quell such rumors. If I’ve heard of it, then others must have.”

“Where did you hear of it?” Malthus asked again.

“Some noble I met at Kylith’s salon. I don’t even remember his name. But you can rely on me to uphold your honor. You have nothing to fear from me, I assure you.” Seregil was beginning to feel a bit heartsick with all these empty promises.

“And Alec knows nothing of this?”

“No, and I have no intention of involving him. That’s why I sent him out tonight.”

Malthus clasped Seregil’s hands tightly. “Thank you, my friend, for this warning. Rest assured that I have taken everything you’ve said to heart.” This time, to his credit, he spoke with an almost convincing lack of concern.

Hidden in the bedroom, Alec heard the library door open and the sound of Seregil and Malthus going downstairs, chatting amiably. He waited for some time before it was clear that Malthus was in no hurry to take his leave. Perhaps Seregil had suggested a game to finish off the evening. Or they’d gone out together.

Alec, already changed into a dark, plain coat, was pacing impatiently when Seregil finally came in, looking serious. “Well?”

“Go.”

Alec hurried off after Malthus.

Seregil went to his clothes chest and retrieved the fake message he’d crafted. “Now let’s send you home.”

The first leg of the letter’s journey began at the inn. One of the scullions took the wrapped and sealed packet and a handful of silver half sesters from Ema, unaware of Seregil-plainly dressed and armed with the tools of his trade-trailing along behind. Not surprisingly, the first stop was the Black Feather, where the boy left it and some coins with the landlord. It was late, and the barmaids began putting up

the shutters. As the tavern cleared, the tavern keeper placed the packet-minus a few coins, no doubt-behind the model ship on the mantelpiece and reversed the ship’s direction, then called the girls away into the back of the shop. One of the drinkers, a young ne’er-do-well in a broken-brimmed hat, had lingered behind, and as soon as they were gone he grabbed the packet and money, tucked it into the front of his coat, and strode out, not noticing the dark shape ghosting after him.

Packet and coins changed hands again at a cheese shop, where a young boy took them and changed direction, heading at last toward the Noble Quarter, as expected.

The hunt ended, not at Reltheus’s villa, but at Marquis Kyrin’s. The sentries at the gate seemed familiar with the boy and let him pass.

Seregil ran silently down the side street to the alley behind the duke’s high garden wall. The barrel Alec had told him of was still there, lying on its side across the way next to a garbage pile. It served well again, and Seregil was soon through the garden and on the balcony outside the duke’s library. The heavy draperies were pulled across the window, but as he waited he saw the glow of a lamp in the sliver of space between the panels. Seregil pressed close to the glass, peering in.

Inside, Kyrin walked to his desk and opened the packet, frowning as he carefully perused it. The frown soon changed to a look of relief. The marquis went to the painted cabinet Alec had searched his last time here. Opening both doors, he reached inside and did something that pivoted the cabinet out to reveal a dark hidden room or passageway, then disappeared inside with the lamp.

Well, well, thought Seregil. I wonder what you keep there?

He waited until Kyrin reappeared and left the room with his lamp, then waited a bit longer, just to be safe.

Seregil threw the window latch with a shim and slipped inside, relying on the faint moonlight to see.

Alec had warned him about the device on the cabinet lock. Taking out his lightstone, he found the telltale pits in the lock

plate. He picked the lock carefully, angling his hand so the long needles didn’t pierce it when they sprang out.

Opening the cabinet, Seregil cautiously reached inside, looking for the mechanism. It turned out to be nothing more than a small brass lever that secured the cabinet and its panel in place.

Cool, stale air drafted out as he turned the cabinet and slipped behind it. He found himself on a small stone landing above a short flight of stairs. Seregil pulled the secret door nearly closed, in case someone wandered in, but not all the way since he couldn’t seem to find any corresponding lever on this side.

He was about to go down the stairs when he caught sight of a slight space between the first stair and the riser. Kneeling, he pressed on the step and watched the stairs pivot on some unseen mechanism to become a smooth granite slide. A large trapdoor fell open at the bottom, revealing a square of blackness, ready to swallow up the unwitting thief. Seregil took his hand away and the stairs righted themselves, looking deceptively solid. With a creak of hidden pulleys, the trapdoor closed. Any unwary thief would be securely held until the master of the house came to find him. Or perhaps already impaled on iron spikes or blades. It was as nasty as it was ingenious, Seregil thought, impressed. It was the most elegant device he’d seen for some time. Now to find the locking mechanism.

By the lightstone’s glow he inspected the stonework on either side of the landing. An iron lever was set into the mortar, just inside the door, quite out of sight unless you knew to look for it. He pulled it down and heard the rasp of metal somewhere underfoot. Pulling the lever down as far as it would go, Seregil felt it shift, no doubt locking into place. He was cautious all the same, testing the upper step again. It seemed solid.

The stairway was narrow enough for him to press his palms firmly against the rough stonework as he made his way down, just in case the stairs went out from under him. Even now he went cautiously, aware that where there was one trap there might very likely be another, perhaps like the

glyphs that protected his own secret staircase at the inn. But Kyrin either was too cautious to share his secret with a wizard, or lacked imagination, for Seregil reached the small chamber at the bottom without incident. Hopping over the trapdoor, he held up the lightstone.

The room was sparsely furnished with a desk and two large cabinets similar to the one upstairs. The sweet aroma of snuffed candles still hung on the stale air.

The cabinets were all locked and needle-trapped. Seregil carefully picked the lock of the left-hand cabinet and found stacks of papers on an upper shelf, and on the lower one cloth-wrapped parcels that reminded him of round wheels of Kerry cheese. He reached for one and found it surprisingly heavy. Undoing the wrappings, he saw that it was an Aurenfaie kar, a bowl-shaped ingot of pure gold about the size of a large bird’s nest. There were fifty-two in all. Seregil whistled softly through his teeth as he examined the markings on it; it bore Golinil clan’s hallmark.

So Kyrin must be smuggling something south, but what? The khirnari of Golinil was hand in glove with the khirnari of neighboring Viresse; together they had opposed the opening of Aurenfaie ports other than wealthy Viresse, a treaty made by Klia. Perhaps they were backing a plot against her out of revenge, or foresight, if they really believed that she was a viable rival for the throne. Seregil eyed the kars; this represented a considerable amount of support by the ’faie, in return for what must have been some pretty convincing assurances from Kyrin. Since Aurenen was a collection of separate but interdependent clans, Golinil could do this, while other clans, especially the western ones like Bokthersa, benefited from the open ports and supported Phoria in her war.

There were several caskets of jewels in the other cabinet. Taken all together, it was more than enough to finance a conspiracy-or a hasty escape.

He turned his attention to the papers on the top shelf of the first cabinet, expecting more manifests. Instead he found a collection of short notes and, after reading a few, realized that they were most likely the translations of Danos’s coded

letters. “Klia disagreed with the queen in front of the troops at Monton.” “Klia wounded at Alford.” “Hawk clipped Klia’s wings at Morninghill.” “Klia’s troop defeated at Ustin.” His forged note was among them. Another caught his eye: “Klia lives. No survivors.”

“You bastards, you really did it,” Seregil muttered.

There were more of the same in the other cabinet, and some in a different hand, pertaining to the queen’s movements. That came as little surprise, but it was the first time he’d found anything suggesting there was a spy in Phoria’s camp.

Among the rest of it he found a rolled letter tied with scarlet ribbon. Seregil slipped the ribbon off and scanned it, recognizing Reltheus’s bold handwriting even before he read the signature at the bottom. It was addressed to Tolin. The first part dealt with the sale of some horses Tolin had purchased from the duke, and then made reference to the courtesan Hyli, whose favors he outlined in graphic detail. It was the last paragraph that sent Seregil’s heart racing.

In reply to your question at the ball the other night-yes, when Danos is consort, I will urge him to have you appointed chief minister of the exchequer. Upon that you have my word.

Seregil seriously doubted that Reltheus had placed this in Kyrin’s hands. Bilairy’s Balls, was everyone in Rhiminee blackmailing each other this summer? And what could have possessed Reltheus to commit something like this to ink and parchment? Strictly speaking, it was not treasonous, but the wording-when Danos was consort, not if-would reflect extremely badly on both father and son if it was shown at court, and most likely end any marriage hopes between the two families. Had Kyrin snared Reltheus into this plot, this cabal? What Seregil had found so far pointed to the marquis being the head of the serpent, rather than the duke. Kyrin was not as social, but he seemed to have the more impressive collection of information. It appeared that Danos sent his messages to his father, to avoid suspicion, then Reltheus passed them on to Kyrin. Which meant Kyrin was taking the greatest risk, though Reltheus had something more personal at stake.

And how had Kyrin gotten the letter? From Tolin himself, perhaps, since the man seemed to be quite solidly in the plot. Unless Kyrin was blackmailing him, as well? Seregil frowned as he replaced the letter; holding a conspiracy together by coercion was a recipe for disaster. No, it was more likely only Reltheus, whose use lay in his son’s position in Klia’s regiment. Should Reltheus’s hopes be realized, Seregil wondered if he would be the power behind the throne, as he clearly hoped, or Kyrin?

At the back of a shelf he discovered a leather box. Inside, padded in blue velvet, were two small, wax-sealed phials. Viscous liquid half filled each, black in the soft glow of his lightstone. Seregil carefully cut the wax seal close to the mouth of each bottle and worked the little plugs out. He sniffed the contents of each phial, then hastily stoppered them again. It was poison, what the assassins called Wyvern Blood-a type of viper’s venom, blended with some other unhealthy ingredients, including blue myrtle, which gave it such a mild but distinctive herbal odor and incredible potency. One scant drop of this in someone’s wine and they’d be dead after the first sip. And even a drysian or wizard couldn’t detect it, since it was such a small amount and not magical. Needless to say, mere possession of this could land a man in the Red Tower. Kyrin was indeed playing a dangerous game, which meant the stakes were very, very high.

More disturbing still, there was space in the box for one more phial, and the velvet was crushed, as if one had been removed. Could this be what was used on Klia? Doubtful, since she survived.

So what does Kyrin want, then? Elani on the throne, perhaps, just as much as Reltheus? Or Phoria off it.

“Six of one, half dozen of the other,” Seregil muttered as he warmed the poison phials’ wax seals with his breath and fingers and smoothed them back as they had been. It might be what was on those lock traps, or Kyrin could use it on himself in case he was caught. It would give him a far quicker death than Phoria would.

Seregil put the phials back where he’d found them and went to the desk. It was plainly made, with only one drawer,

which was locked and rigged with the same poisoned needles. Someone should tell Kyrin not to use the same device more than once. It gave the rest of them away and made for boring thievery. He loosened the works and pulled the drawer open. Inside was a packet of those copied letters of Elani’s, dating back over a year, and several from Alaya. The contents of both were seemingly innocent, but contained a lot of information about the princess’s daily business, and frequent mentions of her interest in Danos, and her warm feelings for Reltheus, whom she clearly liked a great deal.

They’ve been at this for a while, he noted. Since before Elani met Danos at that hunt last winter.

He quickly shuffled through them, wishing he had more time to read them in detail, since there was no question of stealing them or time to copy them. As with the others, nothing of earth-shattering importance jumped out, but anyone with a discerning eye could at least get a sense of the girl herself. Which would be quite useful to anyone trying to find a young man to catch her eye. Or groom one to catch her eye, perhaps.

And there was one other point of interest: all copies of Elani’s letters were done in the same script. Seregil went back for a second look. The script appeared very similar to that taught to the palace scribes. This looked like a poor attempt to disguise it.

One way or another, he was going to have to find out who was making these copies.

Alec followed Malthus’s carriage at a safe distance, and was not surprised when it halted at the gates of Laneus’s villa. The duke’s face was grim as he alighted under the lanterns and was ushered in by the watchman.

Alec skirted the walls and found a way over into a kitchen yard. From there he made his way into the back garden. As he watched, a light suddenly showed at a window on the ground floor. That was a piece of luck, not having to climb for once.

Creeping up to the window, he looked into a large dining

room, where the two men were conferring in low tones. The window had been propped open to catch the evening breeze. Alec hunkered down under it, listening.

“If he knows, then how many others?” Malthus was saying, and he sounded genuinely frightened.

“Why did you not press him on where he’d heard it?” snapped Laneus. Alec could hear him pacing. “That is the greater question.”

“I had the impression that he’d heard it from Duke Reltheus.”

“Ah, yes, his new friend. Lord Seregil and his boy are quite popular in those circles these days.”

“All the better for us to make use of them, don’t you think?” asked Malthus. “Why else would he have come to me?”

“Don’t be a fool, Malthus! Seregil could just as easily have been sounding you out for Reltheus and his pack. It might be time for your friends to suffer an unfortunate accident.”

To Alec’s horror, Malthus said nothing to this.

“Go home, and keep this to yourself,” said Laneus. “I’ll see to the details.”

“Don’t you think the others should know? We’re all in danger.”

“He didn’t name any names except yours. Did you have any indication that he thought there were others?”

“Yes, but not who.”

“I’ll take care of this, Malthus. Go home.”

The two men parted company on strained terms. Alec waited until the room went dark, then crept back the way he’d come.

He was just lighting the lamps when Seregil entered their rooms at the inn and flopped down in one of the chairs by the empty fireplace to pull off his boots. “Not a bad night. How did you make out?”

“Malthus went straight to Laneus’s house,” Alec told him. “Laneus wasn’t very happy with his news. He suspects you didn’t tell Malthus all you know, and that you might be working

for Reltheus. And it sounds like he-Laneus, that is-means to have us killed.”

“Does he really? He’s a sharp one, all right. Anything else?”

“That’s all you have to say? He means to kill us, Seregil!”

“Well, he won’t be the first, will he? We’ll worry about that when it happens. What were the exact words?”

“Only that Laneus said he’d take care of things.”

“We should certainly avoid eating with him. Not that he’ll dirty his own hands.”

“What did you say to Malthus to bring all this on?”

“I made out that I knew more than I did, and gave the idea of assassination a gamble. Malthus went pale, and though he denied it, I’m pretty certain he was lying.”

“But who? Phoria or Elani?”

“I don’t know. Both? I did my best to warn him off the idea.”

“Do you think he’ll listen?”

Seregil sighed. “I have no idea. If he’s telling Laneus about it, probably not.”

“I still say you’ve put yourself at too much of a risk, talking to him. They had you safely dismissed. Now they know that you know something. He didn’t come to you to be part of the plot so now you’re a danger to them.”

“We’ll see.”

Alec still looked dubious. “I think we should be very careful.”

“Always, tali.” Seregil reached for Alec’s hand and kissed the back of it.

Alec sat down on the arm of Seregil’s chair. “Did you send the Cat’s answer back?”

“I did. Would you like to guess where it alighted?”

“With Reltheus?”

“Close. Duke Kyrin. I had a look at what was behind that cabinet in the library. He has a secret room down a flight of rather unreliable stairs.” He held up a hand before Alec could ask and told him the whole of his night’s adventures, including finding the deadly poison.

Alec shook his head. “I guess we’d better not eat at his

house, either. So they’ve been gathering information longer than Elani has known Danos?”

Seregil twisted a dark lock of hair around one finger. “Yes. There may have been more than just Reltheus’s ambition that brought them together at that hunt. Perhaps you could work that into conversation, the next time we see Elani.”

CHAPTER 24. Spies in the Ranks

DUTIFUL son, or diligent spy, Danos wrote letters frequently, which were carried back to Rhiminee by the royal courier service, a highly efficient network of expert riders that stretched from the city to the front. Klia and the other higher officers had couriers attached to their camp, but for the rest of them, there was the general courier who showed up irregularly to carry the letters of those of the lower ranks who could write or pay someone to pen a letter for them. When the courier arrived he or she would hang their leather mail bag on a post near the cook’s wagons in a squadron camp and leave it for a day or so, then collect it and ride back.

Beka and Nyal managed to keep an eye on Danos when they were in camp, and saw when Danos’s servant, Caem, went to the post bag with a letter. It was often Nyal who crept through the shadows to pilfer it, then carried it to Beka’s tent to open and inspect. Most were addressed to his father, with a few to friends and the occasional missive to Princess Elani, but not one of them contained anything suspicious, and no sign of the code Thero had told them of.

It wasn’t until after the bloody siege of the captured Mycenian river town of Galltree that Nyal caught sight of Caem, tucking what appeared to be a letter into his tabard and setting off in the opposite direction from the post bag. It was nearing dusk, and the Aurenfaie managed to follow him among the sea of small soldiers’ tents without attracting his notice. As Nyal watched, Caem suddenly stopped at an empty tent and went inside. Nyal gave it a wide berth, then

came around the back side and stretched out on his belly to look under the edge of the canvas in time to see Caem carefully lift Danos’s seal, place a folded bit of parchment inside the packet, and then apply something from a small bottle to fix the wax down again. When he was done, he put the packet into his tunic and walked back to the post bag.

Nyal waited until he’d passed out of sight among the tents again, then went to the bag, ostensibly to put in the letter he always carried with him for just such an occasion. Beka used the same ruse.

It was a simple matter to glance at the topmost letters in the bag, find the one addressed to Duke Reltheus, and slip that under his leather coat. Back in the relative safety of his own tent, Nyal lifted the seal and found not one but two letters inside. One was sealed with the same wax and addressed to Princess Elani. The other was sealed with tallow and contained a few lines of code. He scanned this quickly, then shook his head as he went in search of Beka.

She was eating with her riders, so he joined them. Catching her eye, he gave her a meaningful wink, the sort sure to be misinterpreted by anyone else who saw. When they were done with their meal, they made their way to Klia’s tent.

“You have something good, I assume,” Beka whispered in Aurenfaie as they walked along in the darkness between the watch fires.

“Very good, though the commander isn’t going to like it,” he replied softly.

Klia was conferring with General Moraus. They waited outside, and presently the general came out. When he caught sight of them he clapped Beka on the shoulder.

“I hear you and your riders distinguished yourselves again, Captain.”

“Thank you, sir!” Beka made him a smart salute.

“Quite the fight, but you were in the forefront again as I hear it.”

“Yes, sir, we were.”

The general nodded approvingly. “Lose many?”

“Only two, sir.”

“Astellus speed them, eh? And you-Nyal, isn’t it? I hear

good things about you. They say you’re one of our best scouts.”

Nyal bowed. “Thank you, General. I’m honored to serve.”

“Well, keep up the good work, both of you. We’re going to drive those damn Plenimarans into the sea before the summer’s out.” With that he strode off into the darkness with his escorts.

One of the sentries announced them, and Nyal heard Klia call for them to come inside.

Klia was alone. “You have something for me?”

“Finally,” Beka said softly as Nyal handed their commander the purloined letters.

“Let’s see what we have.”

They followed her into her private quarters at the back of the tent. Klia sat down at her field desk and spread out the three letters next to the candle. The first was a letter to Duke Reltheus, filled with news of battle and questions about family and life at home. The second, the one for Elani, was a love letter, full of protestations of affection, suggestions for places to hunt on his father’s land, and cautious mention of a possible life together.

“Seems pretty sure of himself,” Klia murmured as she set this one aside. Turning her attention to the third, she handed Beka a wax tablet and stylus. “I’ll count. You write.”

Slowly, letter by letter, Klia puzzled out the hidden message. “Let’s see. Here’s my name spelled backward. And T-O-O-K. Took…”

Her eyes widened with indignation as the message took form. “ ’Klia took east gate of town, led troops. Seen stealing gold from mayor house.”

“By the Flame, that’s an out-and-out lie!” Beka hissed.

“Yes, it is,” Klia said, frowning over the message. “Thero said nothing about Danos spreading lies, just reporting on our progress. This is troublesome.”

“May I see the two letters?”

Klia handed her the two sheets of cheap vellum. “What is it?”

Beka studied them for a moment. “I don’t think these were written by the same person. I know Danos’s hand; he wrote

the letters. But the code looks like someone else’s handwriting.”

Klia took them back and scrutinized them. “By the Flame, I think you’re right. Or he was at pains to make it look that way.”

“If Danos did write the second one, then why go to all the trouble of having Caem put it in separately?” said Nyal. “It would have been safer to do it all at once.”

“Perhaps he was being doubly cautious?” Beka suggested. “We should get this to Thero. Shall I call your courier?”

“No,” said Klia. “Come with me.”

They met Myrhini outside and Klia motioned for her to come, as well. The four of them walked in silence through the camp toward the ruined town. Half the regiment was here, and it took some time to wend their way among the lanes between the tents, but at last they reached the shattered gates. The sentries saluted Klia and let them pass.

The streets that weren’t still in flames were largely deserted except for the scattered Plenimaran and Mycenian dead. Klia walked on, looking this way and that, until she settled on what appeared to be a deserted house. After a search to be sure, they gathered in the kitchen at the back of the building, which was lit by the red, shifting glow of distant flames.

Klia took a small, painted wand from her purse and broke it, releasing the message sphere. “Thero, come to me. I need you,” she said softly, and touched the sphere with the tip of one finger. It sped away through the walls, in the direction of Rhiminee.

“How will he find you here?” asked Beka.

“Don’t worry. He will,” Myrhini told her with a smile.

A few moments later Thero himself stepped from the shadows at the back of the room, dressed in a nondescript coat and boots rather than his usual blue robe. Concern showed clear on his face. “Are you hurt? What’s happened?”

Klia laughed softly. “Nothing so dire. We have something for you.”

* * *

It wasn’t the translocation spell that left Thero a bit dizzy. He’d waited months for such a summons. By the time he stepped out into the light, he’d managed to shake off the disappointment of finding the others with Klia, concerned instead at how thin she looked, and how drawn.

“Thank you for coming so quickly,” Klia greeted him.

“Has there been another attempt on your life?”

“No.” She handed him two sheets of creased vellum. “Nyal saw one of Danos’s riders open this letter and put this smaller, coded one inside. He managed to steal it for me.”

Thero took the pages from Klia and snapped his fingers, lighting the candle half melted on the mantelpiece over the hearth. “Hmmm. This isn’t good.”

“It’s not true, Thero. I’ve never looted and my riders are forbidden to do it. Any gold captured goes to the queen.”

“I have no doubt of that, Highness.”

“We think Danos may not have written the coded one,” Beka told him.

“Just going by the handwriting, I’d have to agree, but it’s best to be sure.”

He set the coded message aside on the kitchen table and pressed the one from Danos between his palms. Images swirled across his mind’s eye: the goat that had given its skin, the man who’d scraped and stretched it, a few other people who’d used this particular page before Danos. He could have guessed at that last; the vellum hadn’t been scraped well of the last writing that had been on it, which still showed here and there under Danos’s strong script. And at last, there was the man himself. The letter itself was perfectly innocent, just the details of the siege that had no doubt destroyed this town, and salutations to relatives, friends, and Princess Elani.

Turning to the coded message again, he began the same spell, with much the same results, except that the last person to write on it wasn’t the one they described to him, but a young soldier Beka identified as Corporal Caem.

“It would appear we’ve been suspecting the wrong man,” said Myrhini.

“Perhaps,” Klia replied. “Unless Danos knows what Caem

is doing.” She paused and shook her head. “Are people really so sure that I’m a usurper?”

Klia sounded so weary that if they’d been alone, Thero might have been tempted to take her into his arms. As if she’d read his thoughts, she said to the others, “Keep watch outside, please. I’ll just be a moment.”

When they were alone, Klia went to the window. The ruddy light played over her face through the broken glass, giving her solemn features a mask-like appearance. “You haven’t happened to have become a truth knower, have you?”

“I’m afraid not. But I do have a spell that might work just as well. It would be best to do it here. If Danos and this Caem fellow can be brought in without attracting too much attention, so much the better.”

Klia managed a tired smile. “I’m sure clever Myrhini will think of something.”

Klia went out to give the others their orders. Thero remained behind by the window, but soon heard Myrhini’s raised voice.

“I’m not leaving you here without an armed escort. Sakor only knows how many Plenimaran cutthroats are still lurking around!”

“I doubt there are any who’d be a match for Thero,” Klia replied, and the wizard felt a little coil of warmth in his heart.

The conversation fell to murmurs and Thero resisted the urge to use magic to hear what else was said.

When Klia came back, however, she was smiling, if grimly. “Myrhini can be a little overprotective at times.”

Without giving himself time to second-guess, he said, “I’m glad she is. It’s been difficult, knowing you’re so far away and always in danger.”

Klia’s smile softened a little. “Not you, too?”

Thero’s heart was beating just a little too fast. As always, the words gathered in a lump at the base of his throat and refused to budge. “I worry,” he managed. “It’s-difficult. When I was your wizard in Aurenen, you were my responsibility.”

She tilted her head slightly. “Is that all I was to you?”

“No! Never.” And still the words he most wanted to say

stayed jammed painfully just beneath the notch of his collarbones.

Klia came to him and raised a hand to his cheek, her face half in shadow. “Won’t you ever say it, Thero?”

That touch and those words made his entire body go hot and cold all at once. “You know?”

She smiled. “I’m not a fool, Thero, or blind.”

“I have no right.”

Klia dropped her hand, but kept her gaze locked with his, not letting him look away. “To love me, or to say that you do?”

“Either one,” he whispered. “You’re royalty. I’m an Oreska wizard.”

Her beautiful lips turned up at the corners. “But not a celibate one, from what I’ve heard.”

Thero could well imagine whom she’d heard that from. How could he tell her that he had been exactly that since their time in Aurenen? “You know wizards are barren. I could never give you children.”

“And yet you’ve never asked me if I want children. Quite honestly, Thero, I don’t care much whether I have any or not, and certainly not now. At this point I’d consider it an advantage, really, not having to worry about it. And I’m not the heir, so it doesn’t matter to anyone else, either.” She stopped, and the teasing smile slowly faded. “Or is it that you don’t want to be tied to a lover who will age and die?”

“Illior willing, I’ll be there to see that, regardless of-anything.” This brought them to the nub of the issue. “Could you bear to see me stay young?”

“I’d certainly be getting the better end of the bargain.”

“I’m serious.”

“So am I!” Klia sighed and turned away to the window. “I suppose Beka and Nyal had this very conversation.”

“No doubt.”

“But you see how happy they are, even here in the field.”

“But will that same light be in her eyes after two decades, or three?”

“Don’t you mean in his?” Klia asked bitterly. “When he looks at the frail Tirfaie with her grey hair and wrinkled

face? Do you think so little of Nyal? Do you imagine I could ever believe that of you? Or is that how you truly feel?”

“No!” Thero groaned.

“Then prove it.”

She was so close he could smell the sweat and blood of battle on her, but also fresh air and horses, and a hint of sweet balm leaves on her breath. That, and the challenge in those blue eyes looking up at him, were a more potent mix than any Flower Lane perfume. Abandoning duty and responsibility, he took her in his arms and kissed her with a passion born of deprivation. Her lips were chapped but sweet, and met his with equal fervor as she buried one hand in his hair. Standing there, pressed together and overwhelmed by the enormity of the moment, Thero took her face between his hands and kissed her eyelids, her nose, chin, brow.

Laughing, she kissed him deeply, then pressed her face against his neck. “Are you going to make me say it first?”

Thero rested his burning cheek against the cool silk of her hair. Suddenly the words came. “I love you, Klia!” he whispered hoarsely. “I have for ages.”

Her arms tightened around him. “Thank the Light! I love you, too, you silly wizard.”

“If only I could stay with you…”

Klia sighed. “Something a soldier quickly learns is to seize the moment.”

Taking her hand, he pressed it over his pounding heart. “This belongs to you, Klia, and always will. But right now your life is in danger and I’m charged with protecting you.”

“Charged by whom?”

“Your brother. And myself.”

She took his hand in hers and pressed it to her heart, just below her gold-chased gorget. “Then I charge you to protect my heart, as well as my person. Will you do that, my love?”

Standing there, hand to heart, and heart to hand, Thero could only nod. There was no romantic flutter of pulse under his palm, only the roughness of the embroidered tabard she wore over her chain mail. All the same, a tingle passed through him. They’d seldom touched before.

Klia kissed him again and he buried both hands in her disheveled

hair, something he’d only done in dreams. He ached to simply whisk her back to the Oreska House where he could protect and make love to her, but even if he could have cast the translocation again so soon, he knew what her answer would be; she’d never leave her soldiers, not even for him.

They both heard the sound of approaching footsteps.

Klia released him and stepped back. “This war won’t last forever,” she whispered. “And when it’s over-”

Before she could finish, Myrhini came in. “We have Danos and Caem outside. Do you want them both, or one at a time?”

“Let’s start with Caem,” Klia replied, all soldier again. As soon as Myrhini was gone, however, she whispered to Thero, “We’ll continue our discussion soon, my love.” One last warm glance promised much more than discussion.

Myrhini returned with Caem and Nyal.

Klia eyed the rider. “So this is our letter carrier.”

Caem, a tall young man with a shock of blond hair, glanced at Thero in surprise, then fell to one knee and pressed his fist to his heart. “I don’t know what you mean, Commander,” he replied calmly, and Thero detected the slight accent of the mainland territories in his voice.

“I saw you slip another letter into the one Captain Danos gave you to post,” Nyal told him.

“Another letter? I don’t know what you’re talking about.” A bald-faced liar indeed.

Klia nodded to Thero.

“Stand up,” the wizard ordered. The man rose to his feet and faced him at attention with a look of bland indifference. “Hold him.”

When Nyal and Myrhini grasped Caem by the arms, Thero took out his ivory dagger and set it spinning in the air inches from the man’s eyes. To his credit, Caem did not flinch.

“You will speak the truth when questioned. If you lie to me, you will die very unpleasantly,” Thero told him. “At the first lie it will blind you; at the second it will cut off your nose; at the third it will cut out your lying tongue.” He was pleased to see the color drain from the man’s face. “However,”

he went on, “if you tell the truth, Commander Klia may show you mercy. The choice is entirely yours.”

Thero seldom exercised his powers with this sort of force, but in the case of this traitor, he was happy to make an exception. “Commander, ask what you will.”

Klia fixed the rider with a dark look. “Who gave you that coded letter?”

Caem opened and closed his mouth several times, clearly warring with himself. At last, voice trembling, he said softly, “No one, Commander. I wrote it.”

“I see. You are the spy?”

“Yes, Commander.”

“Are there others?”

“None that I know of, Commander.”

“And who directed you to send reports about me?”

The rider hesitated again, eyes fixed on the blur of the spinning blade. No doubt he could feel the stir it made in the air. “Major Salana.”

Klia exchanged a look of shock with Myrhini. “Commander Myr’s aide? In Bilairy’s name, why?”

“I don’t know, Commander, and that’s the truth! I only did it for the money, and the promise of a transfer and promotion in the major’s squadron, once we get back to winter quarters in Rhiminee.”

“Why did you turn coat against me? Do you have some grievance with me?”

Caem hung his head. “No, Commander. It was just the money.”

“And just what was the price of your loyalty to me?” The words were tinged with hurt.

Caem mumbled something.

“Speak up!” Myrhini snapped.

“Five silver full sesters for every message sent,” Caem blurted out, beginning to snivel. “I’m sorry, Commander! It was stupid and disloyal and I wish I could take it all back.”

“Does Captain Danos know what you’ve been doing?”

“No, Commander, by the Flame! He’s blameless in all this.”

“All what?”

“Whatever it is that made the major want me to spy. I don’t know what it is, and that’s the truth.”

The ivory dagger bore out the declaration. True or not, it was what Caem believed.

“Is Commander Myr mixed up in all this?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you know Danos’s father, Duke Reltheus?” asked Thero.

“Not really, though I’ve seen him a few times, in the city.”

“And it was not he who asked you to spy?”

“No, my lord. I only know about the major.”

“Tell me everything you know about the plot against me,” Klia ordered.

“I swear on my life, Commander, I only took the major’s money and posted the messages! Major Salana is the only one I ever talked to.”

“Who are the ‘wolves’ you wrote of?” asked Thero.

“Urghazi Turma.”

“Are they involved?”

“No! I was told to watch out for them, and you, Captain Beka, since you’d be the first to defend Commander Klia.”

“Defend me from what?” Klia asked sharply.

“I wasn’t told, Commander. Only that I should keep an eye on them, for any signs of disloyalty to the queen.”

“Bastard!” Myrhini hissed between clenched teeth.

“And who is the ‘hawk’?” asked Thero.

“The general, my lord.”

“General Moraus?”

“Yes. Same reason, to see if he is loyal to the queen.”

“Tell us everything you have reported,” ordered Thero, although he already had some idea, from what Seregil and Alec had found.

“I was to report on anything the commander did that seemed out of the ordinary, anytime she met with the other officers and the general, where she had defeats, and the like. And if I heard her say anything against the queen. Truth be told, I couldn’t figure out why they had me watching you at all.”

“Thank you for that, at least,” Klia remarked dryly. She

held up the coded document. “And why did you write this lie about me?”

“Major Salana was getting impatient with my reports. She needed something to impugn your honor, but I swear by Sakor, I never saw you act dishonorably! I-I lied to keep the silver coming.”

Myrhini gripped the hilt of her dagger. “I should cut you open where you stand, you whoreson bastard!”

Klia stayed her with a look. “Is there anything else you have not told us, Corporal Caem?”

“No, Commander, on my life.”

Klia let out a humorless laugh. “That will do, Thero.”

Thero broke the spell and caught the dagger as it fell. Caem sagged with relief, but it was short-lived as Klia said, “Bind him and place him under guard. He can give evidence to the general before he’s hanged.”

The accused man shot a disbelieving look at Thero. “But you said she’d show mercy!”

“I am,” Klia growled. “Hanging’s a quick death, and more than you deserve. Take him outside, Nyal. Myrhini, bring in Captain Danos.”

The young captain, a tall, well-favored young man with a blond chin beard, betrayed no emotion except respect as he entered the room and saluted. “You sent for me, Commander?”

“Yes. Do you know why?”

“I assume it’s something to do with Caem. What has he done?”

“I’ll ask the questions for now, Captain,” Klia replied. “Lord Thero is going to gauge the truth of your answers with his magic. I expect the truth.”

Danos went to one knee, fist to his heart. “Of course, Commander! Ask me anything you like.”

“Stand,” said Thero. He set the dagger spinning, explained the consequences, and nodded to Klia.

“Are you plotting against me, Captain Danos?”

Danos went white. “No, Commander. I swear by the Flame!”

The dagger spun where it was, much to Thero’s relief.

“Are you plotting against the Princess Royal?”

“No, Commander.”

Once again, it was the truth.

“Do you know of any plots against me or Princess Elani?”

“On my honor, Commander, I don’t.”

“Did you know that your man, Corporal Caem, has been sending reports to parties suspected of plotting against me?”

“No, Commander.”

Klia seemed genuinely relieved as she looked at Thero and said, “That’s enough.”

The wizard broke the spell and caught the knife. “Would you like me to leave?”

“No. You and Major Myrhini will be my witnesses.” Klia turned back to Danos. “I’m sorry to tell you that Caem is a traitor. He’s been including reports on my movements and actions in letters you send to your father.” She paused, letting that sink in.

“My-my father?” Danos was white to the lips now, and swaying. Myrhini quickly guided him to a stool by the map table and poured him a cup of water.

Danos accepted it with trembling hands but did not drink as he looked up at Klia. “By the Four, Commander. What does my father have to do with this?”

“That’s what I’m trying to ascertain.” Klia sat down beside him and took his hand. “I’m relieved that you’re not involved, Danos. You’re one of my best, and most honorable.”

Despite her kind words, he still looked poleaxed. “I’ll resign my commission, of course-”

“You’ll do nothing of the sort. You will remain as my officer, and you’ll say nothing of anything you’ve heard here tonight to anyone, and most especially not to your father. That’s an order, Captain. Do you understand?”

“About not saying anything? Of course. But why would you want me under your command, knowing my father’s shame?”

“Nothing has been proven, Danos. And you are not your father or his deeds. In all the time you’ve served with me, I’ve never known you to commit a dishonest act. If I didn’t

respect that, I wouldn’t be much of a commander. Can you continue to serve me wholeheartedly?”

The young man’s voice was unsteady as he huskily replied, “To my last drop of blood, Commander. To Bilairy’s gate!”

Klia clapped him on the shoulder. “That’s good enough for me.”

Danos drew a deep breath, trying to recover his composure. “But what do I say to the riders about Caem? He’s popular among them.”

“That he was caught spying,” Klia replied. “I’m sending him directly to the general. You’ll come as well, and I will vouch for you. Wait for me outside. Go with him, Myrhini.”

“Do you need me to come with you and offer evidence?” asked Thero when the others had gone out. “I can’t go back yet. I have to rest before I can cast the translocation again.”

Klia sighed. “No, stay here. It’s better for both of us if you’re not seen. At this point I’m not sure who to trust. I’ll use one of your message wands to send word of what comes of the other interrogations. I want you to go to Korathan with news of this as soon as you get back.”

“Of course.”

“Thank you for all you’ve done.” Klia paused, then kissed him.

He held her tight, trying to memorize the feel of her, all the angles and curves.

She seemed to be doing the same, and his face went red and hot as he thought of her feeling the hard press of his rigid member against her belly.

Yet she gave no sign of repugnance. Instead she pressed her hand to his chest over his unruly heart again. “You say this is mine? I claim it and charge you with keeping it safe until I return.”

With that she turned and strode away to join the others. He heard voices, then footsteps fading into the night. The memory of her touch and words ached like fever in his bones. Staring into the darkness beyond the doorway, he whispered, “I love you, Klia.”

CHAPTER 25. Inside Work

SEREGIL and Alec were to go riding with Elani the following morning, but it was sheeting down rain and word had come from the Palace that they would spend the day indoors instead.

“I’m beginning to feel like the court pet,” Alec laughed as they gathered their gaming stones and Seregil’s harp.

“Elani has certainly taken to us, and we’re finally getting inside. We’ve got to find out who is providing Reltheus with her letters. My money is still on that scribe of hers. He’s in charge of her correspondence, unless things have changed since my days there.”

“You’ve never said much about that,” Alec noted.

“Not much to say. I wasn’t well suited to court life,” Seregil replied. “And it wasn’t a particularly happy time.”

They were just about to leave when Runcer knocked at their chamber door.

“Is the carriage here?” asked Alec.

“No, my lord. Lord Thero is asking to speak with you.”

“Show him up to the library.”

Seregil caught the scent of smoke and magic on Thero’s clothing as the wizard strode past him into the library. He was dressed in trousers and coat, and looked decidedly troubled. “Did you finally manage to set your tower on fire?”

“Klia summoned me last night,” Thero replied. “I just got back.”

“Is she all right?” asked Alec.

“Yes, thankfully. So are Beka, Nyal, and Myrhini. They managed to catch our spy. It’s not Danos after all, but his aide, a young corporal named Caem, working for Commander Myr’s aide-de-camp, Major Salana.”

Seregil poured wine for them while the wizard told them what he’d learned the night before. “General Moraus’s truth knower questioned Commander Myr, Major Salana, and Danos, as well as several riders. Danos and Myr were found innocent of any knowledge of a conspiracy, or having any part of it. Salana refused to speak, and died under torture. Caem was hanged before the regiment at dawn. A full report was sent to the queen.”

“Damnation!” Alec set his empty cup down with an angry thump. “That certainly tips our hand to Phoria.”

“It can’t be helped,” Seregil replied. “But this does put a different light on the assassination attempt on Klia. Plenimaran uniforms aside, the poison they used on themselves-”

“Could have been Wyvern Blood, like what you found in Kyrin’s secret room,” said Alec. “You thought a bottle might be missing from the box.”

“If it had been on the knives they struck Klia with, she’d have died on the spot. Perhaps on themselves, however. Whatever the case, we have no way of knowing what was in that third bottle.”

Alec let out a frustrated growl. “Still, I think we should assume it was Kyrin. It could be why they were tracking her movements so closely. They weren’t just looking for something they could accuse her of treason for; they needed to know where she was so the assassins could find her!”

“Yet there’s the problem of time,” said Seregil. “It takes days, even weeks for those messages to get back and forth, unless they have a wizard working for them. It’s not like Kyrin could order an assassination from Rhiminee and have it carried out immediately. Or that he’d even know where she was at that moment.”

“Someone on the spy’s end might have just been waiting for the go-ahead,” Thero pointed out. “Could you have missed something in the coded messages you found?”

“I suppose so. Although with Caem’s capture the line of

communication is cut off, at least for now.” Seregil gave them a crooked grin. “I suspect Commander Danos will be a bit more careful with his correspondence from now on.

Klia’s left him in place?”

“Yes,” Thero replied. “After the general’s truth knower vouched for him, and after making him swear fealty to everything but the tent pole.”

“All the same, that rider and the major can’t possibly be the only ones in the regiment in on the plot, and now we’ve lost the only person who could have connected them with Kyrin and the others,” said Alec. “There’s probably a whole nest of snakes Salana knew about. For all the good that does us now.”

Thero shook his head in disgust. “That’s what comes of torture.”

“Did Klia speak to anyone about Kyrin’s cabal, or us?”

“No,” Thero replied. “When Salana refused to speak, Klia thought it better to leave you to work from this side.”

“Reltheus and Kyrin are sure to hear about the loss of their spy. What do we do about that?”

Seregil shrugged. “We’d better work quickly. Have you spoken with the prince yet, Thero?”

“No. I’m on my way there now, and I want you two to come with me and tell him what you’ve learned before things take a turn for the worse.”

“Yes, it’s time.” Seregil tucked his bakshi bag under his belt. “We’re going to see Elani anyway.”

“Oh, and remember,” warned Thero. “You two know nothing of the assassination attempt on Klia.”

They rode together in a hired carriage through the pouring rain. At the Palace, a page led them not to the main audience chamber, but to one of the many rooms set aside for private business. Leaving the three of them in the corridor, the page knocked and went in to announce them with instructions from Thero to tell the prince that they had news of the utmost importance.

They were admitted, and found Korathan in his robe and chain of state and black velvet hat, talking with bluff, bearded

General Sarien. That wasn’t good, seeing as how the protector general was one of the people Atre had reported as conspiring with Duke Laneus.

Knowing this, Thero bowed to both men, then to Korathan. “We bring you a matter of the utmost delicacy, Highness.”

“The general and I were just finishing,” Korathan replied. Sarien understood the tacit dismissal and took his leave. Leaning on the edge of the table, Korathan looked the three of them over, taking in their disparate apparel. “What’s all this about?”

“I visited Klia last night,” Thero replied.

“Ah, so you were behind all the uproar.” He held up a sheaf of parchments. “You’re a bit late. I’ve had reports from the queen and General Moraus already this morning. Wretched business. No one mentioned you, though.”

“Klia and I agreed it would be better that way. I helped her question the courier, who gave up Salana’s name.”

“Who died without giving up any others.”

“Yes, Highness. Things would be a great deal easier if she had. But that’s why we’re here now. Seregil and Alec have uncovered evidence of a cabal working against Klia here in Rhiminee. Klia employed spies on her side and we on ours.”

“And you didn’t think I should be informed of this?”

“I’m sorry, Your Highness. I’ve been trying to give them the greatest latitude in searching out the roots of this plot. Arresting the conspirators we know about now may let others escape.”

“I see.” Korathan gave them a wry look. “As I recall, Phoria disbanded the Watchers.”

“Indeed, she did, Highness,” said Thero. “But as an Oreska wizard, I have a duty to the Crown. I felt it was imperative to look after the safety of the royal family in any way I could.”

“The same for us,” said Seregil, giving Korathan a wink. “And since we’ve rendered good service to your family before, I didn’t think you’d mind us sticking our noses in again.”

“So, you’re just acting as loyal subjects? I suppose Phoria can’t dismiss you for that. What information do you have?”

“We’ve sort of stumbled across information that we think points to two cabals-” Seregil began.

Two? I thought this was about Klia.”

“That one is led, we think, by Marquis Kyrin, who supports Elani for the throne.”

“Aside from plotting against my youngest sister, not a bad thing.”

“But we don’t know what that support means, or how far they’ll go. Alec overheard something that might have been a threat against the queen herself.”

“Bilairy’s Balls! I’ll have word sent to her at once to strengthen her bodyguard. Who else do you think is involved with him?”

“Tolin, Stenmir, and-” Seregil hesitated, knowing Korathan was not going to be pleased. “And Duke Reltheus.”

“Reltheus? Is that why he’s thrown his son in Elani’s way every chance he gets?”

“No, I think he just desperately wants his line joined to the royal house,” Seregil replied. “And I believe he feels genuine affection for your niece. Kyrin has found a way to use that. He’s blackmailing Reltheus; it seems the duke was already passing out royal favors.”

“That makes him no less a traitor to the royal family, if he’s conspiring against Klia! How far has this gone?”

“All that we’ve learned makes me wonder if that attempt on Klia’s life was actually made by assassins disguised as Plenimaran soldiers,” replied Thero.

“Attempt on Klia’s life!” Seregil exclaimed. “Why weren’t we told of this?”

“Perhaps I should have-” Korathan looked sharply at Alec. “But you two already knew, didn’t you?”

Alec colored hotly. “Well, that is…”

“Only recently, Highness,” Thero told him. “And only because they uncovered evidence of their own as to the perpetrators. Seregil, tell the prince what you heard on the island.”

“Reltheus, Tolin, and Stenmir went off into the woods on their own and I followed to see what they were up to. I overheard Stenmir ask Reltheus if he’d had any more news from ‘the north,’ which I assumed were the messages from Danos.

Then Reltheus said that if someone he referred to only as ‘she’ had been killed, they’d have heard by now.”

“And you assume that this ‘she’ was Klia.”

“Yes.”

“And still you kept this knowledge to yourselves?”

Thero hastened to Seregil’s defense. “As far as we knew from the evidence Seregil and Alec found up until then, they were simply keeping an eye on her to see if she was making any move toward claiming the throne. We had no idea a plot was afoot to kill her.”

“What other evidence do you have, beyond an overheard conversation with no names?”

Seregil showed him the copies of some of the coded messages and purloined letters they’d found so far. “From these, it appeared that they were keeping a close eye on Klia, and also trying to gauge how deep Elani’s interest in Danos runs. And I found a number of other interesting items in a secret room in Marquis Kyrin’s house, including more letters and some phials of poison. And he’s hoarding Aurenfaie gold kars with Golinil clan’s mark on them, and some gems.”

“Those are all capital offenses!”

“Yes, but I think that pales beside his real motives, don’t you? Arrest him for that and you tip your hand to the other conspirators. They’ll scatter like fleas off a dead dog.”

“Charming image.”

“You take my meaning, though. Please, Korathan, let us pursue this.”

Korathan sighed. “And what’s this other cabal?”

“We’re less sure of this one,” Thero replied, “but Duke Laneus seems to be conspiring to support Klia in some fashion.”

“And how does he propose to do that, without her consent?”

“He may just be trying to protect her from Kyrin’s group.”

“And assassinate the queen.”

“Possibly. We’re not sure of that, yet.”

“And who is with him?”

“It’s not entirely clear, but we’re fairly sure of Marquise

Lalia, Duchess Nerian.” Seregil hesitated again. “The protector general-”

“The man I was just speaking with? Bilairy’s Balls, man, he’s charged with protecting Elani! If he persuaded his regiment to turn on her-on me? The whole city would be plunged into chaos. Phoria would be forced to lay siege to her own capital.”

“Very likely,” said Seregil. “Once again, though, if you arrest him for that, or even relieve him of command without a plausible excuse, the others will know the game is up. I’d suggest sending the general on a tour of the coastal cities to assess their defenses against a sea attack. With his correspondence closely monitored, of course. That should get him out of the way long enough for us to complete our work.”

Korathan rested his head in one hand for a moment. “Yes, that can be arranged easily enough. Are there any others in league with that faction?”

“Marquise Lalia.”

“Mistress of the Royal Wardrobe.”

“And Duke Malthus,” said Seregil. “But I’m not certain Malthus is supporting their plans, at least not any talk of assassinating Phoria. He was overheard objecting.”

“By whom?”

“One of my spies.”

“And this spy is?”

“The actor, Atre,” Seregil admitted reluctantly. “From what he heard, Malthus was the voice of reason.” He paused. “Again, if you bring this all to light now, it will look like Klia is in the middle of it.”

“But I assure you, she isn’t!” Thero quickly put in. “I’ve had it from her lips, and I have no reason to doubt her.”

That earned another raised eyebrow from the prince. “Perhaps you’re not the most objective judge, when it comes to Klia?”

“Your Highness, I-”

Korathan waved that aside. “I must tell you, I don’t like any of this, or your keeping it from me for so long. From now on you’ll all keep me apprised.”

“Of course, Highness,” said Thero, bowing with the others.

Korathan turned to Seregil. “I understand you two are playing with my niece again today.”

“We have that honor.”

“That’s good. You can keep an eye on Reltheus and the others for me. I’ll make certain the queen understands your sudden interest in Elani.”

“Thank you.” It seemed they’d improved their standing with Korathan since that day at the archery lists.

“Well, go on, then. It’s not polite to keep the princess royal waiting.”

“Of course.”

In the corridor Alec let out a pent-up breath. “That went fairly well. Didn’t it?”

“Considering the alternatives, yes,” said Thero, looking equally relieved. “Good luck and good hunting.” With that he went off the way they’d come.

Seregil straightened Alec’s coat collar and brushed a wisp of hair behind his ear. “There, all presentable to ‘play’ with the princess.”

Another page led them down the long succession of corridors that took them through the public areas to the royal living quarters. Seregil could have found his way on his own, though it had been a long time since he’d lived here. The queen’s suite was the largest, with its own garden. The other royals lived in the same wing, the highest ranking closest to the queen. Seregil’s old room had been far away at the other end.

Elani occupied the spacious suite next to the queen’s quarters, rooms that had once belonged to Phoria. Her mother’s were next to hers on the other side, and Korathan’s suite lay just across the hallway, although the prince also had his own villa in the Noble Quarter and spent the majority of his free time there.

Seregil was familiar with Korathan’s rooms, but not Elani’s, as he hadn’t spent much time with Phoria in her youth.

Footmen bowed to them and opened the polished double doors to admit them into a large, already crowded drawing room. The walls were decorated with murals of countryside

scenes, and the sumptuous furnishings were done up in gold brocade. Bookcases lined the back of the room from floor to ceiling, framing an ornately gilded door. The bookcases were filled with leather-bound volumes on history, warfare, statecraft, and other topics suitable for a future ruler; the warm smell of them mingled with the scent of the wax tapers and the perfumes of the various courtiers in attendance, forming an almost incense-like aroma that was very pleasant and cozy on such a stormy day. A large marble hearth took up the center of the right-hand wall. No fire burned there, as the day was warm in spite of the rain. The tall windows overlooking a smaller garden stood open to the damp breeze.

The usual courtiers and servants were there, including Reltheus, who clearly still occupied a place of honor among the assembly, and the unsociable Marquis Kyrin, Seregil noted with interest. Neither of them appeared to be worried about anything.

“Here you are!” Archduchess Alaya greeted them, kissing both of them lightly on each cheek. Then, lowering her voice, she confided, “You two have become quite the favorites, my dears, at least with the princess. Her mother is less enthusiastic. You’ll do well to stay out of her way.”

“Thank you for the warning,” Seregil murmured with a smile.

“Elani needs some friends outside of the court. Lord Alec, you’ve been a breath of fresh air for her.”

Alec bowed, coloring a little at the unexpected praise.

“And I’m so sorry about your friend, Lady Kylith.”

“Thank you, dear lady. The pain lingers on, but she’s vibrant in memory,” Seregil replied with genuine feeling.

Alaya flitted on, teasing Earl Stenmir about something. Seregil looked around at the crowd, then brushed Alec’s hand with his own and inclined his head in the direction of Elani across the room. She was laughing with General Sarien.

“Interesting that such a busy fellow has time for court pleasantries,” Seregil murmured. The thought that the general might well be planning harm to the girl he was now charming was chilling. “Though it’s hardly surprising that he

has access to her, both for his rank and position. He’s an archduke.”

Apart from General Sarien, everyone was gorgeously attired and bejeweled today. Elani was resplendent in a crimson gown and ruby-studded neckband and girdle; her hair was dressed with jeweled pins. Catching sight of them, she came over to greet them with warm delight.

“Thank you so much for attending,” she said, extending her hand to them in turn.

“The pleasure of your company is always a ray of sunshine, Highness,” Seregil said, gesturing at the rain-lashed windows overlooking the queen’s garden. “And what better day for sunshine?”

Elani laughed. “I hope you’ll allow me to try my bakshi skills against yours again. I have been practicing.”

“I’m at your disposal. Alec is a good hand at the gaming table, as well.”

“Then I’ll test your mettle at the stones, too, Lord Alec.”

Just then her mother called out for the princess and Elani let out a small sigh, muttering, “Oh, what now?”

Seregil smothered a grin; for a moment she was just an ordinary young girl, chafing at her mother’s demands.

“If you’ll excuse me?” she said. “And don’t forget, I want a game with both of you!”

Seregil and Alec bowed and she went to join her mother. As Seregil watched, Aralain introduced her daughter to a Lord Orin-the handsome son of Marquis Roleus-whom Seregil had gambled against a few times when the young lord was out carousing with his friends. He was also a member of Sarien’s regiment, and wore his uniform and commander’s gorget with style.

“Danos may have more serious competition than you, Alec.” Seregil chuckled softly, watching Elani blushing under the young man’s attentions. “I wonder if this signals a chilling of affection for Danos?”

“Do you think Elani knows about what happened?” murmured Alec.

“I think Korathan would have mentioned it if she did. No, soldiers at the front die on a regular basis, even officers; perhaps

dear Mama is simply hedging her bets, anxious to get Elani married off and producing heirs. If you get a chance today, sound her out on her feelings for Danos. I’ll do the same. But be discreet.”

Alec snorted softly at that.

Reltheus came over with Kyrin. “Kyrin, these are the friends I was telling you about. My lords, may I present Marquis Kyrin, a dear friend of mine.”

“My lord,” Seregil replied with a sweeping bow.

“Ah, the infamous Lord Seregil,” Kyrin said, looking him up and down with questionable approval. “And this must be young Lord Alec.”

Alec bowed. “Pleased to meet you, my lord.”

“Reltheus tells me you two have become fixtures here at court.”

“I’d hardly say that, though Princess Elani has honored us with a few invitations,” Seregil replied.

“Archery, isn’t it?”

“Alec’s forte, not mine,” Seregil said. “Have you known Her Highness long?”

“Since she was born,” Kyrin replied, sounding mildly offended that Seregil did not know that.

“It was Kyrin who suggested the hunt at my estate last winter,” Reltheus told them.

“Where Princess Elani met the handsome young Danos, I believe,” Seregil replied with a knowing grin. “At least that’s what I hear among the gossips.”

“Yes, indeed.” Reltheus clapped Kyrin on the shoulder.

Which of you gave the word to kill Klia? wondered Seregil. It was interesting to see the two men together like this; the friendship between them appeared genuine, rather than coerced through blackmail. Reltheus might be a better dissembler than Seregil had assumed. That, or he didn’t know that Kyrin had the letter. Perhaps it was being held in reserve, in case the duke needed a little extra encouragement at some point?

“It must be difficult for her, with him off at war,” said Alec, glancing Elani’s way; she was still talking with Commander Orin.

“Oh, yes.” Reltheus noticed the pair, and the hint of a frown threatened. “Yes, indeed. Excuse me, gentlemen.”

He and Kyrin drifted away to Elani’s side of the room and soon captured the conversation.

“Determined, aren’t they?” noted Alec.

“I wonder if Elani is as taken with Danos as they’d like?” Seregil replied softly, taking in the look of annoyance Orin was giving the duke. “And even though Danos was proven innocent by a truth knower, having his aide turn out to be a spy right under his nose may tarnish his luster at court.”

As the rain continued, everyone was called upon for a song or story to pass the time, then gaming tables were brought in and most of them settled down to play. Seregil found himself paired with the supercilious count who’d insulted him during the island picnic trip. Everyone played for wagers, and Seregil soon made quite a bit of money. Tolin paid up in a huff and left the table, making way for a pretty lady-in-waiting who was far friendlier, and a bit flirtatious.

Meanwhile, Alec and Elani had retreated to a corner and were playing some card game on a small table, heads together and chatting.

“You’re far too good at this to be a proper courtier!” Elani teased as Alec claimed another trick and discarded his last card.

“Will I be banished?” he asked, smiling.

“No, not if you’ll play another round with me.”

“Oh, dear. I suppose I must, then. Same again?”

She nodded and he dealt the cards. As they each gathered and sorted their hand, Alec said, “That Orin is a handsome fellow, in his uniform and all.”

“Shame on you, Lord Alec, looking at other men!”

“One can at least look, don’t you think? You seemed quite charmed by him.”

She rolled her eyes at that, reminding him very much of Illia Cavish. “Mama is charmed. I’m polite.”

“Then Captain Danos has little to worry about?”

She blushed prettily as she went back to sorting her cards. “I suppose it’s common knowledge that I-like him?”

“I’m afraid so.” Alec chuckled, glad that she seemed at ease talking about it with him. “You met hunting, or so I heard.”

“On dear Duke Reltheus’s estate near Tyborn Mountain. We out-rode the hounds and speared a boar together.” She lifted her chin proudly as she exclaimed softly, “He doesn’t treat me like a child. And he’s a wonderful archer, nearly as good as you are. And he’s a poet and an artist! He sends me poems, and the most amusing letters with funny little drawings in the margins.”

“He sounds like quite the suitor.”

She blushed again. “Yes, he is.”

“I certainly look forward to meeting him when he returns to the city. Only a few more months to wait, eh?”

“You make it sound like tomorrow. Have you ever had to wait for Lord Seregil?”

“A few times, yes-” In cages and cells, sometimes. “Though not as long as you have for Danos. But you must think him worth the wait, if you haven’t encouraged any other suitors. There must be others.”

“Oh, yes. Mostly Mama’s choices, and some I’ve met at balls and salons.” She looked up with a secret smile. “But none I like so much as Danos.”

Knowing what he did, the girlish confidence almost broke Alec’s heart.

After a few games Seregil excused himself and went to one of the diamond-paned terrace doors, pretending to look out over the rain-soaked garden as he studied the crowd behind him reflected in the glass. Across the room Alec had been pressed to sing, accompanied by one of the ladies.

The handsome commander was talking with Elani again, but the watchful Reltheus was nowhere to be seen. The door at the back of the room stood slightly ajar. It was an easy matter to wander over to the bookshelves and have a peek.

A paneled corridor lay beyond, and then the princess’s private rooms behind another ornate door. Several other doors let onto the corridor-the rooms of the princess’s ladies and workrooms of various functionaries, no doubt.

Seregil heard men talking in low voices, one of them recognizable as Reltheus. He waited until no one was looking and slipped through the door into the corridor.

The voices were coming from a half-open doorway on the left. Seregil crept silently closer, until he could peer through the crack between the door and frame.

As he’d guessed, Reltheus was speaking with a middle-aged scribe, recognizable in his silver-trimmed green robe. As Seregil watched, the man handed Reltheus a packet, which the duke tucked away into the front of his coat. Money changed hands.

Caught you! thought Seregil, amazed as the brazenness of it. Their business seemed to be concluded and Seregil quickly retreated to the salon. By the time Reltheus appeared, Seregil was halfway across the room, thumbing through a book on the life of Queen Idrilain the First. He watched Reltheus from the corner of his eye as the duke went to Elani and began some animated conversation. No one seemed to have taken any notice of Seregil’s brief absence, or Reltheus’s. Perhaps it was not unusual for guests to move freely about here. Seregil wandered slowly back to the door, which was still ajar, and glanced in. There was no sign of the other man.

It was too risky to go exploring the back rooms, not knowing what servants there might be lurking about, including the scribe. You couldn’t always get away with saying you were looking for the toilet-especially here.

So he made small talk with the other guests and kept a surreptitious eye on Reltheus, but the duke’s conduct was above suspicion.

Seregil and Alec were taking their leave late that afternoon when Reltheus caught Seregil by the sleeve. Seregil’s heart skipped a beat, wondering if he’d been seen spying after all. Instead Reltheus said, “What would you and Alec say to a bit of gambling at the Three Dragons?”

“I haven’t been there in years.” Seregil gave him a self-deprecating smile. “That establishment is a bit above our station.”

“You’ll be my guests, of course.”

“Then we’d be delighted.”

“Excellent. General Sarien is coming along as well. Will you join me in my carriage?”

“You’re most kind.”

“Very good! If you’ll wait a moment, I will make my farewells to the ladies.”

“You’re looking pleased with yourself,” Alec noted as they waited for Reltheus and the general in the corridor.

“Tell you later,” Seregil replied, nodding slightly in the direction of the watchful footmen. “By the way, I hope you didn’t mind me accepting Reltheus’s invitation on your behalf.”

“Of course not. You know the Three Dragons?”

“I’ve been there a few times. You’ll need plenty of money if you want to gamble. That’s not why I accepted, though.” He lowered his voice. “With any luck, I can finagle us another invitation back to his house afterward.” He wanted a look at the letter Reltheus had gotten from the scribe.

Alec leveled an accusing finger at him and whispered, “I’m not getting drunk again!”

Seregil grinned, making no promises. “And did you and Elani have an interesting conversation?”

“We did. She more or less admitted that her heart is set on Danos. According to her, he’s not only handsome, but a poet and an excellent archer. And he makes her laugh.”

“Good marriages have been made on less. What about the attentive young officer today?”

“Apparently her mother thinks highly of him, and keeps throwing him and others in the princess’s way. It didn’t sound like anything more than that.” Alec shook his head. “It’s going to ruin Danos’s chances, isn’t it, if his father’s arrested?”

“I expect so.”

Alec cast a sad look back in the direction of Elani’s chambers. “If she really does love him, that will break her heart.”

“It’s duty first for royalty, Alec. So long as she makes a respectable marriage and produces a girl baby or two, she can take a second consort when she likes, or lovers. Even Danos.”

“It’s not the same, though, is it?”

“No, tali, it’s not,” Seregil said, taking his hand. Alec hadn’t been much older than Elani was now when he’d fallen in love with Seregil, and Seregil with him. If they’d been separated by circumstance? He shook off the dark thought. “But we didn’t make this mess; Reltheus did.”

CHAPTER 26. Lord Seregil Distinguishes Himself

“MY lord, it’s said that there is no way to cheat at bakshi, so I can only assume you are using magic,” Duke Foris growled that evening as Seregil slapped down one of his carnelian pieces and captured the duke’s spear.

The Three Dragons gambling house stood a few doors down from the Drake and was even more opulent, attracting a clientele made up of higher-ranking nobles. Young Selin had been invited, as well, and several other nobles Seregil knew only slightly; General Sarien was also there in the crowd that had gathered to watch the battle being played out between Seregil and Foris. Seregil’s reputation was well known up and down the Street of Lights, as was that of Foris, a young rake with a reputation of his own-one that had gotten the man banned from several of the brothels here in the Street, including Eirual’s, as it happened. Seregil was enjoying besting the man very much.

“No magic, Your Grace, just Illior’s luck,” Alec drawled, leaning on the back of Seregil’s chair.

“I’ve played him enough myself to agree, Foris,” Reltheus told the man. “He’s just damn good, and lucky.”

“It’s all right,” Seregil said, sliding one of his carnelian pieces into place in front of Foris’s lapis one to blunt another spear. Picking up the captured stones one by one, he glanced up at the duke with a cold smile. “I’m sure it wasn’t your intent to impugn my honor.”

The duke, however, was a little drunk and not put off by the veiled threat. Lord Seregil was better known for avoiding

duels than fighting them. “Nine rounds in a row? You must have a charm on you somewhere!”

A murmur went through the crowd; it was a serious charge.

Seregil leaned back in his chair and spread his arms. “Search me, Your Grace. I swear by Illior you’ll find nothing of the sort.” He looked around at the crowd with the slightly inane grin he affected when dealing with situations like this among the nobles. “Why, the rest of you can wager on it, but I say your money is best laid on me!”

“I’ll take that wager. Have him strip!” one of the ladies cried, holding up her silk purse, and the cry was quickly taken up by the crowd.

Foris’s smile was mean. “Yes, I’ll take that wager. Fifty gold sesters says he has a luck piece or mark on him. What say you, Lord Seregil? Will you stand by your offer?”

“I suppose I must,” Seregil said with a shrug.

“You can’t be serious!” Reltheus murmured, raising a surprised eyebrow.

“It’s a matter of honor,” Seregil said firmly.

“But how will we know it?” the general asked. “A charm could be anything. Is there a wizard here?”

“Here’s one!” someone at the back of the crowd shouted.

Old Reneus, one of the senior Oreska wizards, was none too pleased to be pressed into service for such a menial task, but with some cajoling and a fresh cup of wine he finally consented.

“Now you’ve done it,” Alec muttered as Seregil handed him his sword belt and pulled off his boots and socks.

The wizard took each one with evident distaste and quickly handed them back. “No magic here.”

“Better than a duel,” Seregil whispered back, then climbed onto his chair so everyone had a good view of him. “Really, Foris, you’re throwing your money away.” He slipped off his coat and dropped it into Alec’s waiting arms. The wizard took it and searched through the pockets. Seregil pulled off his shirt and tossed it aside with a flourish.

“There, you see? Nothing,” said Seregil, turning for the crowd to inspect his bare torso.

Foris smirked up at him. “There are still places to hide something. Keep going.”

“Perhaps he has it hanging from his cock!” one wag suggested loudly.

“I’d like to see that,” the woman who’d placed the first bet concurred. “Come on now, Lord Seregil. Out with it!”

One thing Seregil had never managed to master was blushing at will, but he made a good job of looking comically outraged. “You’re not serious? Really now, Your Grace, I’ve left those days behind me.”

“A wager is a wager, my lord, unless you’d rather settle this on the plain?” said Foris.

“I’m afraid he’s within his rights, my lord,” Sarien reminded him with an avid look in his eye. Seregil made a mental note to find out what sort of brothels the man frequented, if any.

Dueling was not allowed inside the city, but a blind eye was turned on whatever went on outside its walls, and killing someone in a formal duel there was not considered murder. It had been some time since Seregil had fought for his honor.

“Very well, then.” He unlaced his leather trousers and pushed them and his linen down with a graceful flourish. The crowd exploded in applause and laughter. Those closest to Alec slapped him on the back. Seregil climbed off the chair and stood grinning, hands on hips, as his trousers were inspected, then took them back and dressed as carefully as if he were in front of his looking glass at home, smoothing out every wrinkle. Money changed hands around him; it was clear that public sentiment was on his side, for whatever reason.

“Bravely done, young man!” General Sarien said, clapping Seregil on the shoulder before wandering off in the direction of the wine servers.

Taking his place again, Seregil raised his chin and grinned across the gaming table at his opponent. “Shall we continue, Your Grace?”

More applause erupted at the duke’s expense.

Caught, Foris had no choice but to finish-and lose-the game. With gritted teeth he paid off the wagers, swept his

stones back into their fancy embroidered bag, and strode off with all the dignity he could muster.

Seregil looked around at his admirers. “Next?”

The woman who’d championed the wager took the chair Foris had vacated and poured her stones into the polished tray in front of her. They were made of blue opal, and she held one up, showing him Illior’s crescent inlaid in silver on the back of it. “The Lightbringer will have to decide between us, my lord, for I’ve been known to have the Immortal’s favor, as well. Or would you like to inspect my clothing for charms first?”

“A tempting offer, Marquise, but your honor is above reproach.”

“You’re very gallant, Lord Seregil, but now I’m disappointed,” she said with a teasing smile. “Well, you had your chance. Shall we play?”

They were still arranging their stones for the first round when a young page made his way through the crowd and whispered something to Alec. He, in turn, leaned down and whispered in Seregil’s ear, “Kepi’s outside.”

“Nothing too serious, I hope?” said Reltheus.

“A messenger,” Seregil told him. “Alec, be a dear and deal with him, would you?”

“I promised Palmani I’d make an early night of it, and it’s nearly midnight,” Reltheus noted after half a dozen rounds.

“Oh, I’d rather hoped we could get in a few more games together,” Seregil told him.

“Come to the house, then, you and Alec, when you’ve finished your business. I believe I might have another bakshi game or two in me.”

“In that case, I hope you have a few coins left in your purse. Just let me go see where Alec has gotten to, and I’ll meet you at the house.”

He found Alec and Kepi on the pavement near the entrance to the gambling house, under the watchful eye of the doorman, who clearly disapproved of such an unsightly character in the Street.

Seregil hustled them both quickly out of sight into the shadows beyond the reach of the street lanterns.

“What is it?” Seregil demanded.

“It’s Atre,” Alec told him. “He’s gone and gotten himself stabbed.”

“That actor fellow’s a friend of yours, ain’t he?” asked Kepi, looking pleased with himself.

“How in the world did you know that?”

Kepi just winked and grinned.

“Bilairy’s Balls! What happened?” asked Seregil.

“Don’t know the particulars, only that he’s over in Brass Alley, back of the Skulpin. I just heard of it and I come straight up to tell you.”

“The Skulpin? What was he doing there?” The gambling house was in the unfashionable-and at this hour, dangerous-area near Atre’s old theater and catered mostly to locals. There were plenty of cutpurses, bawds, and footpads about at this time of night, ready to relieve the unwary of their winnings.

“Is he alive?” asked Alec.

“He was when my friend heard about it. I went to your house and they told me you was here. I come straight on.”

“Good lad. We’ll deal with it.” Seregil took half a dozen coppers from his purse and gave them to the boy. Kepi made him another ill-formed bow and took off at a run, darting between horses and carriages. He was soon out of sight among the evening crowd.

“Damnation!” Seregil scrubbed a hand back through his hair. He needed to find out what the scribe had given Reltheus, but he could hardly abandon the actor in such circumstances.

“I’ll see to Atre,” Alec told him. “You go with Reltheus and make some excuse for me.”

“All right. As soon as you’re finished, come to his house, or send word to me there if you won’t be coming.”

They walked in silence to the nearby stable to collect Alec’s horse. A groom led Windrunner out. As Alec went to mount, Seregil caught him by the arm and brushed his lips over Alec’s. “Take care, tali.”

Alec gave him a knowing look. “You know I will. And you.” He swung up into the saddle and rode out into the

throng. Trying to ignore the knot of tension in his belly, Seregil went back inside to find Reltheus.

Alec road to Brass Alley at a gallop and found the actor alive and groaning on a couch in a poorly lit back room of the gambling den. He was dressed uncharacteristically plainly without a jewel on him-an apparent attempt to fit in with his surroundings. Or perhaps he’d been robbed.

A small crowd of ne’er-do-wells and doxies were peering in from the doorway, but parted for Alec at the sight of his fine clothes and sword.

A drysian was with Atre, tending to a wound on his belly. The actor was white-faced and looked frightened, but at least he was conscious.

“What happened?” Alec asked, kneeling down beside him and taking the man’s hand.

“Oh, my lord!” Atre gasped, clinging to Alec’s hand with both of his, which were sticky with blood. “How did you know?”

“Never mind that. What in Bilairy’s name happened to you?” A few patches of stage cosmetics near his hairline stood out against his milk-pale skin, Alec noted absently. He must have been in a hurry to come here.

“It didn’t happen in my establishment, my lord,” a round-faced man in dusty velvet told him. “This is an honest house.”

Alec doubted that.

“It was a girl, on the street,” Atre told him. “She said she was hurt, and when I tried to help her-look what she did!”

“It’s not as bad as all that,” the drysian scoffed as he bandaged the wound.

“And took your purse, I suppose,” said Alec. It was a common ploy among the girl cutpurses. “What are you doing alone in a place like this?”

“Oh, you know-” Atre was too pale to blush but he looked rather ashamed of himself.

“Got tired of the pampered nobles and came back here, looking for a bit of rougher fun?” Brader growled as he

strode into the room and stood over Atre. Apparently he’d gotten word, as well.

The actor looked away, saying nothing.

“This is no place for the likes of you,” the drysian scolded. “Stay with your fashionable friends and find your fun there. I have better things to do than patch up you silly thrill seekers.”

“I will, Brother. By the Maker, I will!” Atre mumbled, then looked up imploringly at Alec. “Please, my lord, don’t leave me here.”

“Of course not,” Alec assured him, then turned to the master of the house. “Is it possible to hire a carriage at this hour?”

“No need,” said Brader. “I brought the cart.”

The drysian finished with the bandage and straightened up. “There, that should hold your guts in well enough. See that you keep the wound clean and it should be healed in a week or so, if a bit sore.”

“I have to be onstage tomorrow!”

“That’s why you have an understudy,” Brader muttered, handing the healer some silver.

The drysian nodded to them and took his leave.

“Oh, Calieus will be pleased!” Atre groaned. “He hangs over me like a carrion crow, just waiting for something like this to happen.”

Alec chuckled. “It’s his job, isn’t it?”

“Indeed. Good night, my lord.” Brader lifted Atre in his arms as if he weighed no more than a child. Alec followed them outside and watched Brader place the wounded man on some folded blankets in the back of the cart.

“Really, I think a carriage would be more comfortable,” said Alec. “I’ll happily pay.”

“No need, my lord,” Brader said gruffly. It was clear that he was angry with his friend and perhaps meant to deny him the comfort of better transport. Or that’s what Alec thought until Brader added, “With respect, we take care of our own.”

He climbed in and snapped the reins over the grey mare’s back.

That was a bit rude! Alec thought as the cart rattled away. I might as well have stayed with Seregil.

He was on his way back to the duke’s house, riding past a narrow side lane, when he noticed a hand on the ground at the mouth of it, just visible in the faint light of a nearby street lantern. Reining in, he got down and hurried over to see if someone was hurt. A young, poorly dressed man lay facedown in the dirt. Checking quickly for signs of footpads, Alec rolled him over. His eyes were open, but not fixed in death. It was another of the mysterious sleepers. The man was young, with the disreputable appearance of a footpad and the odor of a gate runner. From the looks of him, he’d been lying there for a day or more. All the same, Alec felt guilty at the thought of leaving him to die in the street like a sick dog.

With some effort, he slung the man over Windrunner’s saddle and led the horse to a nearby Dalnan temple. It was late, but temples didn’t close, at least not a Dalnan one. It would only take a moment.

A young, brown-robed girl answered the bell and helped him carry the stricken man in.

“What have you brought me, young man?” asked the old priestess in charge.

“One stricken with the sleeping death, Sister.”

“Ah, another. Bring him into the sick room.”

“Another? You’ve seen more here in the Upper City?”

“Only a few.”

There were two younger boys and a man with the flattened features and slanted eyes of the god-touched laid out on clean pallets.

Leaving the drysian and her helpers to take care of the man, Alec bent over the boys. “This one’s gone,” he said softly, resting his hand on the chest of the smaller boy.

The drysian went to the child and pressed a finger to his wrist, then nodded sadly. “Astellus carry him gently. This one lasted longer than most, from what we’ve heard. Who knows about others left to die unnoticed in some hovel or tenement?”

“How many others have you seen here, besides these?”

“Two others. I think they must have made their way up from the harbor.”

“Sister, when these stricken ones come to you, do you inspect them closely?”

“We do, my lord, looking for any kind of wound.”

“And you find nothing?”

“Nothing unusual, just the occasional bruises or cuts, but not on all.”

He thought a moment, trying to decide what Seregil would ask if he were here. “No markings?”

“What sort of markings?”

“Any kind. Guild marks, tattoos, brands.”

“No, my lord, nothing like that.”

“Are there more of these sick people at any of the other temples in the Upper City?” asked Alec, still kneeling by the dead boy.

“No, but as I said, with us being so close to the Harbor Way, it’s us who finds them. The main temple down in Grampus Street is where most of them are being taken, as there’s more found on that side of Trade Street.”

Only a few streets separated Trade from some of the lowest stews in Rhiminee. He took out his gambling winnings and gave them to her. “Thank you, Sister, and Maker’s Mercy.”

Her eyes widened at the weight of the purse. “Maker’s Mercy to you, too, kind sir.”

The whole household was awake when Brader arrived with the cart.

“What happened?” Merina demanded in alarm, following behind him as Brader carried Atre to his room.

“A foolish accident on my part,” Atre gasped. He made no objection as she helped him out of his clothes and into his ornate bed. “I found myself missing some of our former haunts-”

Merina exchanged a doubtful look with her husband. “More fool you, then. What would we do without you?”

“We’ll be doing without him for a few days, at least,” Brader told her, glowering down at Atre, then at the anxious

people hovering at the door. “Go on to bed, all of you. I’ll sit with him for a while.”

He closed the door firmly after them and pulled a chair up to the bedside. “What in the name of Soru were you thinking, going down there without me?”

“You were off with your family, weren’t you?” Atre’s tone bordered on accusing, and not for the first time. Atre had never married, never cared enough about any woman to do so, though he’d had no end of romantic conquests. If it had been up to him, Brader would have done the same. “Someone has to go. We’re running low again, you know.”

“It’s getting dangerous. You’re taking too many chances.”

“What choice do we have, my friend? Unless…”

Brader clenched his fists. “No!”

Atre gave a maddening little shrug. “Well then. Fetch me a draught, will you, please?”

Brader went to the wardrobe and took out the leather elixir box, selecting a milky phial at random.

Breaking the seal, Atre drank it down greedily, hand pressed to his bandaged belly. “Ah, that eases it a bit. Another.”

“You drank just yesterday. It’s too soon for so much.”

“Not with a wound!” the other man snapped, holding out his hand.

“You’ll still have to pretend to be hurt for a few days,” he reminded him as he went to fetch him another bottle.

“Acting is so much easier when you’re not in pain,” Atre shot back.

“Too easy, perhaps,” Brader muttered. “At least take warning from this.”

At Reltheus’s villa, Seregil and the rest of their party from the Three Dragons settled down over wine and pipes in the smaller salon.

Reltheus disappeared for a moment and came back without his coat on, he noted with interest. Seregil sat laughing over his wine with the others for some time, then announced a full bladder and walked a bit unsteadily from the room.

Reltheus’s study lay just down the corridor. The coat was

thrown carelessly over a chair and the pilfered letter was in the desk, concealed under a stack of other correspondence. Seregil hid behind the study door to read it, so as to be able to hear anyone approaching, and see who it was through the crack in the door. The letter was dated yesterday.

Your Majesty, Dearest Aunt, I made sacrifices at the Sakor Temple for your success and safety yesterday. I hope the Immortal will continue to smile upon you.