The Shadow Throne – Excerpt
The Last Duke
There were stories about what went on inside the Ministry of Information. The building—dubbed “the Cobweb”—was innocuous enough on the outside, another example of Farus VI’s fondness for marble, classical columns, and elaborately decorated facades. Inside, the stories ran, it was a place of dust and shadows, full of hidden archives, rat-infested cells, and elaborate death traps. More than one adventure serial had featured some hero rescuing his ladylove from its forgotten oubliettes.
Duke Mallus Kengire Orlanko, Minister of Information and head of the Concordat, found all of this faintly offensive. In reality the Cobweb was lit by thousands of standing lamps, day and night, and a whole corps of junior servants was employed refilling oil and replacing wicks. There was no point in having the clerks ruin their eyesight trying to squint by candlelight, after all. And if one thought about it logically for a moment, it would be much harder to sneak into a brightly lit building bustling with activity than a moldering dungeon full of death traps. As for cells, there were a few, of course, but they were hardly rat-infested. Orlanko tolerated no vermin in his domain.
It was yet another example of the popular taste for colorful fantasy over prosaic reality. In Orlanko’s opinion, if the Vordanai as a people could be said to have a fault, it was an excess of imagination outweighing proper sense. Not that the duke was complaining. He’d become an expert at playing on that imagination over the years.
His private office, at the top of the building, was a remarkably small and well-organized one. If an outsider had wandered in—though of course none were ever allowed to do so—he might have wondered where all the books and papers had gotten to. This was, after all, the heart of the Ministry of Information, the nerve center of the Concordat, the omniscient (again, in the popular imagination) secret police who knew everything about everyone. And yet here was the Last Duke himself, sitting behind a modest oak desk with only a few clipped bundles of paper, and not even a bookshelf to decorate the walls or a leather-bound tome full of dark secrets.
Again, the duke thought, a failure of common sense. What was the point of turning his office into a library? The whole building was his library, and all he really needed to do his business was the little copper bell on his desk. Ringing it would send in a clerk—there was always a queue of them waiting outside—who would silently accept the Last Duke’s instructions and take them down into archives, deputizing subclerks and sub-subclerks to break his order into manageable tasks. Files would be read, copied, summarized, and collated, until the original clerk returned to Orlanko’s desk with another neat clipped bundle of paper. It was a machine for knowing things, for carrying out the will of the man sitting behind the desk, and Orlanko was immensely proud of it. Building it had been his life’s work.
In that sense, Andreas bothered him. Not the man specifically, but the need for him, and others like him. Duke Orlanko wished that everything was like his Ministry, where he could just ring a little bell and speak a few words to set the whole vast apparatus clicking into motion. Beyond the walls of the Cobweb, unfortunately, things were messier, and required the employment of those who, like Andreas, had . . . special talents.
Andreas was in his middle thirties, with an average build and a forgettable face, both assets in his line of work. He wore one of the black, floor-length leather greatcoats that were the unofficial uniform of the Concordat. The coat had become a symbol. Parents frightened their children with it. This was useful, since if everyone knew what a Concordat agent looked like, it made it all the easier not to look like one when that was what was required.
Orlanko shifted in his special chair, which creaked slightly as hidden springs took up his weight. He adjusted his spectacles and pretended to notice Andreas for the first time, though the man had been waiting patiently for at least a quarter of an hour.
“Any progress with your investigation of the Gray Rose?”
Some things were too delicate to trust to the machine. The Gray Rose had been another of Orlanko’s special employees, one of the best, but she’d slipped the leash several years back and disappeared without a trace. As a matter of principle, the duke couldn’t allow that sort of thing. Andreas had been pursuing her ever since, patiently following the faintest traces with a persistence that would have done credit to a bloodhound. Andreas, the duke sometimes thought, was a bit like an automaton himself.
“I have several promising leads, sir,” Andreas said. “My people are following them up.”
“You’re still convinced she hasn’t left the country?”
“The balance of evidence seems to suggest she remains in the city, sir.”
Damn the woman, Orlanko thought. If she’d done the logical thing and fled beyond his supposedly all-powerful reach, he would have happily called off the hunt. She knew nothing that would damage him, not at this stage. But by remaining close by, she implicitly challenged his authority, and that could not be tolerated. It was an irritating waste of resources.
“Well, I’m sure your men can proceed without you for a time. There are other matters that require our attention.”
“Yes, sir.” Andreas waited patiently, hands crossed behind his back.
“Have you heard the news from Khandar?”
“Yes, sir. Colonel Vhalnich appears to have won a great victory. The Vermillion Throne is secure, and newly indebted to His Majesty.”
“So the papers would have us believe,” Orlanko said sourly. Vhalnich was already well on his way to becoming a popular hero. Such stories were usually exaggerations, but the duke’s own agents reported that the broadsheets were, if anything, understating the case. “Vhalnich is on his way back here, apparently. He’s expected any day.”
“And the special asset you sent with him?”
“I’ve heard nothing.” Orlanko’s finger tap-tap-tapped on the report. “Which, in itself, speaks volumes. If we assume the worst, she’s been eliminated.”
“And the Thousand Names may be in Vhalnich’s hands.” A hint of animation entered Andreas’ face. “Would you like him removed upon arrival?”
The duke stifled a sigh. If Andreas had a fault, it was a definite tendency to resort to drastic measures too quickly. It was an odd failing in someone so patient in every other respect. Orlanko suspected that Andreas simply liked to kill people.
“That would be a bit obvious, don’t you think?” Orlanko shook his head. “No, Vhalnich will undoubtedly enjoy the favor of the king and the adoration of the mob. For the moment, we dare not touch him. But His Majesty is very ill. If he dies . . . we shall see.”
“We need to know what happened in Khandar, Andreas. If these Names our Elysian friends are so interested in really exist, and whether or not Vhalnich has them. Whether he even understands their importance.” He leaned back in his chair, springs creaking. “Find out.”
“Vhalnich is a very clever man, and he’ll be on his guard. Concentrate on the people around him. Nothing too obvious, of course.”
“Yes, sir.” Andreas betrayed only a hint of disappointment.
“And I may have another assignment for you soon, depending on how the king’s health progresses. There are quite a few little cabals out there hoping to capitalize on the confusion. We have them all infiltrated, naturally, and there’s nothing terribly dangerous. But a few well-timed disappearances should put the fear of God into them.” Or rather, he thought, the fear of the Last Duke. That was better. “Make sure your people are ready.”
“Of course, sir.”
“That will be all.”
Andreas ghosted out. Orlanko looked at the stack of reports, adjusted his glasses, and unclipped the top pile.
What nobody understood was how hard his job was. Riding herd on the city sometimes felt like trying to keep his seat on an unruly stallion. Yes, he knew about everything of importance practically before it happened, and yes, he could whisper a name and Andreas or someone like him would drag that person into a cell where they’d never see the light of day again. But really, what good was that? You couldn’t lock everybody up. His task was much trickier—to make them forge a prison in their own minds, out of their own fears, in which they would lock themselves in and throw away the key. He’d been working at it for years, and he liked to think he’d done a fair job. The black coats were part of it. The occasional vanishing, the odd body found floating in the river, those just helped to grease the hinges. Fear would populate every shadow with hooded figures, when even he couldn’t possibly employ enough agents to do the job.
He wasn’t afraid of conspiracies. No conspiracy could survive exposure and decapitation, after all, and he was an expert at both. But Orlanko had learned to feel the mood of the city, as though it were a single vast organism. Sometimes it was sleepy and complacent, when times were good and people were fat and happy. When times were lean, it was snappy and irritable, prone to sudden rages and panics. And the death of a king always put people on edge.
He could feel something coming. The city was like a dog, growling deep in its throat, not quite ready to leap but not far from it. It was his job to calm it, with either a nice bloody steak or a well-placed boot. Which it would be, Duke Orlanko had not yet decided.
But once the king died, after the chaos subsided, he would finally have what he’d dreamed of, all these years. A ruler who would listen.
She’ll listen. Orlanko smiled to himself. Or else . . .
The mirrored halls of the Royal Palace at Ohnlei were dark and quiet.
Not silent, for the thousands of footmen, maids, gardeners, guards, cook and candle boys who made the great palace run could never really stop moving, any more than a heart could stop pumping. But they moved cautiously, avoiding loud footfalls on the marble floors and talking in low voices, and only a few candles flickered in the enormous braziers. The great black velvet drapes and carpets had not been hung, for the king had not yet died, but in a hundred cellars and storerooms they had been unrolled, aired out, and checked for wear.
Raesinia and her party clattered through the hush like a wild stallion in a glazier’s. First came the princess’ hard-soled shoes, tak-tak-tak, and then the heavy, flatfooted tromp of the trio of Noreldrai Grays who provided her escort. It gave everyone plenty of warning to form up and clear the way, so that her progress was marked by a bow wave of dipping heads from staff lined up on either side of the corridor. The occasional courtier sparkled like a precious stone among the pale blue of the Royal livery. Ordinarily, politeness would have obliged her to stop and exchange a few pleasant words with anyone of sufficient rank, but under the circumstances the nobles merely bowed their heads and let her by. No doubt they began whispering as soon as she turned the corner, but Raesinia was used to that.
The ground-floor apartments of the king were reached through a broad marble arch, carved with a frieze depicting King Farus VI in the act of smiting some armored foe. Raesinia’s great-grandfather was everywhere at Ohnlei. He’d died decades before she was born, but she’d seen his narrow-cheeked, pointy-bearded countenance on so many statues, bas-reliefs, and portraits that he was as familiar to her as any of her living family. This one was actually not a particularly good likeness, she’d always suspected. The sculptor had given the king a squint, and he looked out at the viewer rather than keeping his eyes on the business at hand, as though to say, “Who are you, and what are you doing at my battle?”
Beyond the arch was a grassy courtyard, roofed over with great sliding panes of glass that could be opened to let the air in when the weather was good. Here the king, in better days, would receive guests or dine with his favorites. It was surrounded by a colonnade and a terrace floored with marble, from which a dozen oak-and-gilt doors led to the king’s private chambers and the residences of his servants and guards. A dozen of the latter were scattered around the courtyard, not just the somber-uniformed Noreldrai Grays but Armsmen in their forest green coats and white trousers and Royal Army grenadiers in Vordanai blue and polished brass. Guarding the king was a great honor, and none of the three services were willing to leave it to the others.
In the middle of the lawn, looking a bit incongruous, was a polished oak dining table surrounded by high-backed chairs. Raesinia had eaten there many times with her father, in the company of the mightiest nobles of the land, surrounded by a veritable swarm of servants and flunkies. Now the long, mirror-smooth surface was nearly empty. At the far end sat a gray-haired man, back hunched from a lifetime of bending over the beds of his patients. He got painfully to his feet as Raesinia approached, in spite of her urgent gesture.
“Good morning, Your Highness,” he said, with as much of a bow as his stiff back could muster. “I hope you are well?”
He had a Hamveltai accent, which turned “well” into “vell.” Raesinia nodded.
“As well as ever, Doctor-Professor Indergast,” she said.
He peered at her over the top of thin-rimmed half-moon spectacles. “I ought to have a look at your diet,” he said. “Some days it seems to me that you are not growing up properly. Your mother was nearly as tall as I when she was nineteen, you know.”
Raesinia, who had to look up slightly to meet the stoop-shouldered doctor’s gaze, gave a careful shrug. “Perhaps, someday. But we have more important things to worry about at the moment. I got a message to come at once—is he all right?”
“His condition has not changed, Your Highness,” Indergast said. “I am sorry to have worried you. It is only that he is awake, and asked to see you.”
Raesinia’s heart gave a weak flop. Her father slept more than he was awake, these days, and sometimes he was delirious with pain and fever. She’d spent many hours at his bedside, holding his hand, but he hadn’t often known she was there.
“I’d better go and see him, then,” she said, “before he falls asleep again.”
“Of course, Your Highness. Pay no mind to me.” He gestured at a huge book, which lay open on the table where he’d been sitting. “I was only paging through a volume of Acheleos that the Grand Bishop was kind enough to lend me, to see if he had anything useful to tell us.”
“And does he?”
“Alas, no. Like all the ancients, he has many theories but very little practical advice.”
“You’ll figure something out. You always have.”
Doctor-Professor Indergast ran one gnarled hand through his wispy hair. He had been personal physician to her father since before Raesinia had been born. Some at the court wondered why the king needed a foreign doctor to attend him, but Raesinia had come to love the old man. He’d pulled the king back from the brink more than once, when no other doctor at the University would have dared even make the attempt.
“I’m honored by your trust, Your Highness,” he said, but his expression was grave. “I beg you, though, not to place too much faith in my poor skills.” He paused, then added quietly, “Miracles are the department of His Grace the Grand Bishop.”
Raesinia set her lips but said nothing. She gave the old man a nod and swept past him, toward her father’s bedchamber.
“The Grand Bishop is with him now,” Indergast said from behind her. “As is His Grace the duke and the rest of the cabinet.”
She faltered but didn’t break stride. This wasn’t a matter of an ailing man wanting to see his daughter, then. If the king had summoned his ministers, then he had something official to say. Raesinia breathed a silent thanks to Indergast for the warning, told her bodyguards to wait outside with the rest of the king’s protectors, and slipped in the door.
The king’s bedchamber was small by the standards of Ohnlei, which meant that it wasn’t quite large enough to host a tennis match. The royal bed was enormous, though, its four oak posts practically trembling under the weight of silks and velvet hangings. In the center of it, drowning in a sea of covers and embroidered cushions, the king was visible only as a disembodied head surrounded by expensive fabric.
A group of well-dressed men stood at the end of the bed, huddled together for mutual support. The Grand Bishop of Vordan, prevented from huddling by the voluminous folds of his crimson robes of office, affected an ecclesiastical aloofness a little ways off.
It was apparent to Raesinia that she had walked into the middle of an argument, though one that might not have been obvious to anyone who hadn’t spent their lives at Ohnlei. It was the kind of roundabout, exquisitely polite disagreement carried on by men who are aware that their opponent could, technically, have them executed.
“I’m certain Your Majesty has considered the matter carefully,” said a large, thick-bearded man at the front of the huddle. This was Count Torahn, the Minister of War, his soldier’s physique running to fat beneath the careful tailoring of his court uniform. His normally florid complexion was practically aglow now. “But I wonder if you have given a thought to the situation from my position. We are speaking of a young and talented officer, showing great promise, and to remove him to what is, after all, an interior post . . .”
“So promising that you sent him to Khandar?” said the king. It made Raesinia’s heart break just to hear him, his voice reduced from the confident baritone she remembered to a wheezy, petulant rasp.
“Where he has achieved great things,” Torahn said smoothly. “And, in due time, if his career is not interrupted—”
“I’ll leave that to his judgment,” the king said. “He may choose to decline the post.”
“But he will not, Your Majesty.” This was from the Minister of Finance, Rackhil Grieg. He had always reminded Raesinia of a ferret, with a narrow face and beady, wary eyes, an effect that was not helped by his unfortunate choice to wear his ratty brown hair long at the back. Torahn shot him an ugly look when he spoke up. Grieg was a commoner, unique on the cabinet, and the others resented him for it. He owed his advancement entirely to the patronage of the Last Duke, and was therefore widely considered to be Orlanko’s creature.
“After all,” Grieg went on, “an offer from Your Majesty is an honor not to be lightly refused. Even if it went against his judgment of what was best for the service, would he not feel obligated to accept so as not to dishonor Your Majesty with his refusal?”
“That’s true,” Torahn said, recognizing a good line of attack like a proper soldier. “For any officer of the Royal Army, Your Majesty’s wishes must be placed above any doubts or personal concerns.”
“Does that include you, Torahn?” the king snapped, with a little of his old vigor.
The Minister of War bowed deeply. “I am only attempting to bring to Your Majesty’s attention aspects of the matter that may have escaped your notice. We will, of course, abide by your majesty’s ultimate decision.”
Even from across the room, Raesinia could read the expression on her father’s face. She decided the time had come for an interruption.
“Excuse me, gentlemen.” Raesinia bobbed her head in the direction of the ministers, then curtsied deeply toward the bed. “Your Majesty, you sent for me?”
“I did,” the king said. “The rest of you, out. I would speak to my daughter alone.”
Raesinia stepped aside so the assembled notables could file past her. The Grand Bishop murmured something sympathetic in his heavy Murnskai accent as he went by, and Torahn dismissed her with a glance and a perfunctory nod.
Only the last one to leave caught her eye. He was a short man, no taller than Raesinia, and his bulging waistcoat made him look very nearly round. The crown of his head was bald, but a wild ruff of hair behind his ears and around the back of his skull made up for it, giving him the look of a classical philosopher. The most remarkable thing about his appearance, though, was his spectacles. They were enormous, each lens almost a handsbreadth in diameter, and so thick and curved that they provided only the most distorted vision of the face behind them. Strange, twisted blobs of nose- and cheek-tinted color moved and twisted as he turned his head, but when he looked straight at you, as he looked at Raesinia now, his eyes would suddenly appear magnified disconcertingly to five times their normal size.
It would be easy to dismiss this funny little man, and many had done so, always to their sorrow. His Grace Duke Mallus Kengire Orlanko, Minister of Information and master of the Concordat, was always ready to embrace any advantage, even that offered by his own innocuous appearance. Raesinia was not fooled. The Last Duke was widely agreed to be the most dangerous man in Vordan, and she had spent enough time at the palace to know that this was, if anything, an understatement. She wasn’t certain there was a more dangerous man in all the world.
Today he only favored her with a brief smile and a little bow before continuing on his way, shutting the bedroom door behind him. Raesinia went to the bed, which was so big she was forced to climb up onto it to reach her father. He extracted one hand from the constricting comforters and reached out to her, and she took it between both of hers. It was thin and light, like a songbird in her palm. His bones seemed as brittle as twigs, and his skin was papery-dry.
He turned his head in her direction and blinked watery eyes. “Raesinia?”
“I’m here, Father.” She gripped his hand a little tighter. “It’s good to see you awake.”
“For a change.” He coughed. “Every time I wake up, I think of a thousand things to do, in case this time is the last. But I’m always exhausted before I can get through one or two.” He closed his eyes and let out a rattling breath. “I’m sorry, Raesinia.”
“Don’t speak that way, Father,” Raesinia said. “This may be the beginning of an improvement. Doctor-Professor Indergast—”
“Doctor-Professor Indergast is honest with me,” he interrupted. “Unlike the rest of the fools and flatterers, or that great whale in red.”
“He is very skilled,” Raesinia insisted. “Better than any other doctor in Vordan.”
“Some things are beyond skill.” The king squeezed her hand and opened his eyes. “But I did not call you here to argue.”
Raesinia ducked her head, and there was a moment of silence while the king composed his thoughts. Finally, he said, “Do you know Count Janus bet Vhalnich Mieran?”
“Only in passing,” Raesinia said, blinking in surprise. “He was at court three years ago, I think. We spoke briefly.”
“You do not know much about him, then?”
“Just that he went to Khandar to suppress the rebellion, and that he’s been doing well. Why?”
“His mission to Khandar has been a success. A complete success, in fact, beyond anyone’s expectations. Even our good Minister of Information seemed surprised, and you know how rare an event that is.” He gave a dry chuckle, which turned into another cough. “I’ve summoned him back to Vordan. He’s on his way as we speak. When he gets here, I’m going to make him the Minister of Justice.”
Raesinia was quiet. Plans rearranged themselves at the back of her mind, new information slotting into place. She kept her expression neutral.
“I’m sure he’ll do well there,” she said, after a moment. “But—”
“But what does this have to do you?” The king sighed. “I have to look ahead, Raesinia. Think about what you’ll be left with after I’m gone. Orlanko has too much influence on the cabinet already. Grieg is in his pocket, and Torahn is heading in that direction. Count Almire has made a career of avoiding politics. If Orlanko puts one of his own in Justice as well, he’ll be king in all but name.”
“If you don’t trust Orlanko, get rid of him,” Raesinia said, unable to keep a bit of heat out of her voice. “Better yet, have him executed.”
“If only it were that simple. The Borels would never allow it. And, like it or not, Orlanko may be all that has kept us afloat since . . .”
He trailed off, eyes losing focus and staring away past the ceiling. But Raesinia could finish the thought on her own. She’d been only thirteen at the time of Vansfeldt, the battle that had cost Vordan its war with Borel and its crown prince in one disastrous afternoon. Her father had been sick then as well, too sick to go to the front as he felt he ought, and though his illness had waxed and waned since then, she wasn’t sure his spirit had ever recovered.
The king blinked and shook his head weakly. “Tired. I’m so tired, Raesinia.”
“Rest, then. I can come back later.”
“Not just yet. Listen to me. Count Mieran is . . . more than he seems. I had hoped . . .” He swallowed. “I had plans. But I am running out of time. I think . . . I think you can trust him. At the very least, he is no friend of our Last Duke. He will help you, Raesinia.” Tears glistened in the royal eyes. “You will need all the allies you can get.”
“I understand, Father.”
“It will be hard for you. I never meant for this to happen.” His voice softened, as if he were drifting away. “None of this. You were supposed to have . . . something else. Not this. But . . .”
“It’s all right, Father.” Raesinia leaned over him and kissed him, gently, on the cheek. His attendants had bathed him in rosewater, but the perfume was unable to cover the sick-sweet scent of rot wafting from the royal flesh. “Everything will be all right. Now rest.”
“I’m sorry,” he said again, eyes slowly closing. “My little girl . . . I’m sorry . . .”
Raesinia’s own quarters were in a faux-medieval tower named, inelegantly, the Prince’s Turret. Most of its rooms had been shut since the death of her brother, Dominic, and Raesinia preferred to live simply in a few chambers on the ground floor. She had the keys to the whole place, however, and it was easy enough to unlock the servants’ stairs and slip up, past silent sitting rooms and parlors with furniture covered in dust sheets, and emerge on the roof.
Strictly speaking, she did not have to be naked to accomplish what she was about to do. There was no point in ruining a perfectly good dress, though, and it appealed to her sense of melodrama. Raesinia had decided long ago that this was a defect in her character, that in the same way a coward lacked moral foundation and a drunkard strength of will, there was something in the pit of her soul that gave her an unhealthy weakness for sappy gestures and romantic poetry. Alas, the acknowledgment of this flaw did little to help excise it, and periodically it got the better of her.
The sun had set behind the forests to the west, but dark crimson light still stained the sky in that direction, painting the scattered clouds the color of blood. All around her were the lights of Ohnlei, neat rows of lanterns marking the avenues and byways, clusters of more distant lamps picking out the dark hulks of the Ministry buildings. Most of these had gone dark already as the clerks retired for the evening, but as always the Cobweb was a blaze of light, and smoke puffed merrily from its many chimneys. The Ministry of Information ran in overlapping shifts, it was said, like a coal mine, and there were clerks in the deep basements who had never seen the sun.
Farther to the south, across the intervening belt of royal parks and carefully tended wilderness, a deeper, ruddier glow marked the edges of the city of Vordan. Raesinia stared for a long time in that direction, as the wind whipped around her and raised goose bumps on her bare skin. It was a warm July night, but four stories up the breeze still carried a chill.
Only a single lantern burned atop the Prince’s Turret, and no guards waited there. It was just a circular expanse of slate surrounded by an irregular raised lip meant to suggest a real castle’s crenellations. In better times, the prince might have used it to breakfast in the sun, but Raesinia was certain no one but her had been up there in years. The pigeons that infested Ohnlei like lice on a beggar had stained the stones white and gray.
For her purposes, the important feature of the roof was what it overlooked. The Prince’s Turret formed the northeasternmost corner of the great rambling palace, and it was well away from any of the heavily trafficked areas. Looking down, Raesinia could see a raked gravel path four stories below, and beyond that a low stone wall marking the edge of the gardens. The only windows that looked onto it were her own, and she kept the curtains drawn. Squads of Noreldrai Grays patrolled the perimeter in a slow procession, but they only passed at twenty- or thirty-minute intervals, and the torches they carried made them visible from a long way off.
One of these squads had just passed out of sight, and Raesinia gave them a count of two hundred to get safely around the corner of the vast, irregular building. She stepped up onto the lip of stone, staring out over the darkened trees beyond the edge of the grounds, and forced herself to stand straight, with her arms at her sides.
She felt as though she ought to say something, to mark the occasion, although there was no one to hear.
“I wish,” she said, “that there was a better way.”
Raesinia extended one foot, let it hang tingling for a moment in midair, then tumbled forward off the wall and into darkness.
She’d always pictured the few seconds of fall telescoping into an eternity, time stretching like taffy as the wall of the tower rushed past and the wind whipped across her bare skin. In fact, she was barely aware of it, a single blurred moment of weightless, involuntary terror before the crashing pain of impact. Her shoulder hit the ground first, shattering the bone instantly, and an instant later her skull impacted so hard on the gravel it shattered like an egg. The princess’ body twitched once, feet pushing weakly at the gravel, then lay still and broken in the gathering twilight.
Deep inside, in the darkest pit of her being, she felt something stir.
Raesinia wished she could faint. Some of the ladies at court were given to fainting, and she had always considered it a useless affectation in that setting, but she had lately come to appreciate that it was simply the body’s way of trying to spare its occupant some grief in a difficult time. Unfortunately, in her current state, she seemed to have lost the knack, and so she could feel the grinding of bone against fragmented bone in her shoulder, the slow seep from the cracks in her skull, and the drip of blood from where innumerable bits of sharp gravel had driven themselves into her back.
She had become somewhat indifferent to pain over the years. Repeated demonstrations had made her acutely aware that there was her body, currently lying in a broken heap in the gravel, and herself, somewhere else entirely, and that pain and all sensations of that kind were simply signals from one to the other, as one ship might warn another of a dangerous reef via semaphore flags. Still, she couldn’t quite banish her discomfort, and she directed a silent, metaphorical glare at the magical binding and demanded that it quit lazing about and do its job.
It emerged languidly from the depths of her soul, yawning like a sleepy tiger coming out of his cave. Raesinia imagined it casting about to see what she’d done to herself now, heaving a sigh at the extent of the damage, and reluctantly setting to work. She knew it was ridiculous to anthropomorphize it so—it was simply a process, after all, no different from that which consumed wood and phlogiston to make fire, or turned exposed iron into rust. But after living—if that was the word—for four years with the thing wrapped around her soul, she couldn’t help feeling as if it had moods and feelings of its own. She imagined it looking in her direction with hooded, reproachful eyes before it set to work.
Her skull shifted, as though under invisible fingers. Chips and fragments of bone reassembled themselves like a jigsaw puzzle, knitting back together into a seamless whole. The rents in her skin drew closed, like someone stitching up a seam. Her shoulder was next, torn muscles reknitting, arm straightening as the bones snapped into place. She felt an unpleasant stirring along her back, and as soon as she was able she heaved herself up onto her knees and listened to the quiet click-click as bits of rock that had been forced deep beneath her skin dug themselves out against and clattered to the ground.
Within a few minutes, she could stand. The binding had restored her to the state she had been in before she stepped off the roof, plus or minus a layer of grime and a few pints of blood smeared on her skin or soaking into the turf. As best she could see it was the state she would be in until the long-postponed Day of Judgment finally came to pass. The same state, in other words, that she’d been in four years ago, before she had died the first time.
Sothe appeared out of the darkness. She had a way of moving that was so quiet she seemed to materialize from nothing, like a ghost, with equally terrifying effect. In this case, her aura of menance was diminished by the fact that wore the long blue dress and gray apron of a palace lady’s maid, and was carrying a fluffy towel. Even in this attire, though, she had a formidable air, tall and slim as a blade, dark hair cut short as a boy’s and sharp, aquiline features.
As far as the world was concerned, Sothe was Raesinia’s maid and personal attendant. That was true, but her duties went considerably further than that. Raesinia knew that before entering her service Sothe had been highly placed in Duke Orlanko’s Concordat, though she was closemouthed about what exactly had prompted her depature.
“There has to be a better way,” Raesinia said. “I mean, this is ridiculous.”
It was easy enough to get into or out of the palace during the day, when a steady stream of delivery carts arrived to feed its vast appetite. Unfortunately, during the day the princess royal needed to be seen. By night, the grounds were closed off and patrolled, which had forced Raesinia to devise this somewhat unorthodox method of escaping unseen.
“It has the virtue of being unexpected,” Sothe said.
“We should knock out those ridiculous leaded glass windows and put in something I can open. Or at the very least get the gardeners to put a planter here. Fill it with dirt and grow something soft. Lavender, maybe. Then I wouldn’t come out of it smelling like blood and brains.”
“The gardeners might wonder,” Sothe said, “why it looked like something had fallen on their plants from a great height.”
As she spoke, she dragged one foot back and forth across the gravel where Raesinia had landed, erasing the small crater and burying the bloodstains. Raesinia sighed and rolled her shoulders, feeling a few errant splinters of bone click back into place. She wiped the worst of the blood off her skin and handed the towel back to Sothe, who accepted it without comment and offered Raesinia a folded silk robe. Thus at least minimally attired, the princess led the way away from the house and out into the woods, Sothe ghosting along behind her.
“Any trouble tonight?” Raesinia said, pushing aside an overhanging branch.
“None at all.” Sothe frowned. “The man Orlanko has assigned to you is . . . inattentive. I ought to write him a reprimand.”
“I hope you’ll refrain, for both our sakes.”
“I don’t know,” Sothe said. “I might enjoy a bit more of a challenge.”
Raesinia looked over her shoulder at her maid, but her expression was unreadable. That was the trouble with Sothe—she never smiled, and it was almost impossible to tell when she was joking. Raesinia was fairly sure this was one of those times, but not completely certain. Sothe did occasionally complain that soft living was taking the edge of her skills, and she’d been known to take extreme measures to stay in practice.
The forest they were traversing was as much a work of artifice as the manicured gardens of the palace. It had been carefully tended and sculpted by generations of gardeners into the very epitome of what a forest ought to be, with tall, healthy trees spreading leafy branches, and no irritating undergrowth or unexpected deadfalls that might tangle the footing of an unsuspecting courtier. It was therefore easy going, even in bare feet and by moonlight, and before long they’d reached one of the many little lanes of packed earth that wound through the woods. Here a carriage was waiting, a battered one-horse cab. An elderly gray mare waited in the traces, munching contentedly from a feed bag.
Sothe attended to the horse while Raesinia climbed inside. Gathered on the battered wooden seat, with Sothe’s usual attention to detail, were her necessaries: more towels and a jug of water, for a more thorough cleaning, pins for her hair, and clothes and shoes for the evening. As the carriage lurched into motion, Raesinia set about effecting her transformation.
By the time the regular clicking of the wheels over cobblestones indicated that they’d reached the city proper, she was ready. No one from the palace would have recognized her, which was of course the idea. Her normally shoulder-length hair was pinned up and tucked under a short-brimmed slouch cap, and she’d traded the silk robe for cotton trousers and a gray blouse. It was a boyish outfit, although she doubted anyone would mistake her for a boy. That wasn’t the point. Rather, it was the kind of thing a girl student of the University might wear—comfortable and casually defiant of custom. In the taverns and eateries of the Dregs, it was as good as a uniform.
She’d originally wanted to change her name, but Sothe had advised against it. Responding properly to a false name took a good deal of training, and there was always the chance of slipups. Besides, there were thousands of girls named Raesinia in the city, all roughly her age, products of a brief fashion for naming children in honor of the newborn princess. So she became Raesinia Smith, a good solid Vordanai name. Raesinia had spent a few interminable court sessions daydreaming an elaborate backstory for her alter ego, complete with parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, family tragedies, and bittersweet young loves, but somewhat to her disappointment no one had ever asked.
The clicking slowed and stopped. Raesinia checked herself over the in the hand mirror Sothe had thoughtfully provided, found nothing out of the place, and opened the carriage door to step out into the Dregs.
She was immediately assaulted by a blast of heat and a blaze of light. It was well past sunset, but the streets were as crowded as if it were noon, and nearly as bright. The torches and braziers burning in front of every open establishment were traditional, as were the lanterns carried by some passersby, but Professor Roetig’s new-pattern gas lamps outshone them all with a steady, unceasing radiance, standing tall atop their high steel sconces. They gave an oddly manic cast to the whole scene, as though the scurrying nighttime revelers were flouting some celestial law.
Carriages were rare in the part of town, and those that were visible were all hired cabs. The three or four miles of Old Street that ran across the front of the University were mostly fronted by shops and drinking establishments catering to the student body, but above and behind these places of business were innumerable second- and third-floor rooms and tumbledown tenements. Here lived those scholars not wealthy enough to secure living space on University grounds, alongside the hawkers, publicans, and prostitutes who worked on and around the nearby streets.
Raesinia loved the Dregs because it was a contradiction in terms. It was on the north side of the river—that was to say, the correct or fashionable side—and only a stone’s throw from the respectable brick-fronted town houses of Saint Uriah Street. And, in theory, the students of the University were mostly the scions of gentle families, or else the very best and brightest the lower orders had to offer. On the other hand, that student body consisted almost exclusively of young men, and wherever young men gather together with money in their pockets, an industry will arise, as if by magic, to provide them with what they need in terms of wine, women, and song. The paradox gave the whole area a kind of reputable disreputability that attracted exactly the sort of person Raesinia was looking for.
Most of the taverns and restaurants had a signboard displaying their name and a painted crest for the benefit of the illiterate, in accordance with ancient tradition, but in more modern times some bright storekeeper had come with the idea of erecting a flagpole, cantilevered diagonally out over the heads of the pedestrians, to fly the banner of his establishment. Like any good idea, this had been rapidly copied, and so the gaslights shown on rows of hundreds of triangular flags, now hanging limp in the hot, windless air. Tradition had grown up surprisingly quickly here as well, giving the flags a uniform shape and design—three simple bars of horizontal color, different combinations marking the various shops to the eyes of the cognoscenti.
A trained observer could gather quite a bit from those colors. In a crowded market, the wine sellers had specialized, and by now their particular combination of colors marked them as surely as a count’s heraldry. The top bar usually represented the political affiliation of the clientele, or at least the primary language spoken within. The University drew its students from half the continent, and so while the majority of the flags Raesinia could see were topped by solid Vordanai blue, she could also spot the muddy red of Borel, the yellow of Hamvelt, the dove gray of Noreld, and even a few spots of white for lonely Murnskai scholars, hundreds of miles from home.
Nor were the triple-striped emblems confined to the flags. Quite a few of the young people on the street wore armbands blazoned with the symbol of their preferred establishment. Others showed the colors as a band around their hats, or, in the case of the more well-heeled students, in jeweled pins on their breasts or at their collar. Thus one could tell at a glance who was who, since where a someone drank conveyed a great deal about his views and affiliations, and Raesinia’s practiced eye automatically sorted the crowd into Republicans, Utopians, Redemptionists, and a hundred other factions, sects, and splinter groups.
The pin she wore at her own collar was a delicate butterfly wrought in silver, its wings colored in blue, green, and gold. She sought out the flag that matched it, and found it floating lazily over the warm updraft from a torch stand. The windows of the Blue Mask blazed with light, and as she walked toward it she could smell the familiar cocktail of sawdust, charring meat, and cheap liquor. Raesinia looked over her shoulder at Sothe.
“You can come in, you know,” she said. “You don’t need to follow me out in the dark like some kind of voyeur.”
“Safer not to,” Sothe said. “You know I’ll be nearby if you need assistance.”
“Suit yourself.” Privately, Raesinia thought Sothe simply preferred lurking alone in shadowy corners to sitting with friends by the fire, but it wasn’t worth the argument. She squared her shoulders, pushed aside the curtain that blocked the doorway—the door was wedged open to admit the summer air—and went inside.
The common room of the Blue Mask was a miasma of wood smoke, tobacco fumes, and delicious-smelling steam wafting from a couple of big cauldrons over the fire. The tables were crowded tonight, and the pair of serving maids were having difficulty threading their way past the tight-packed patrons. In other taverns, in other places, there might have been games of dice or cards, discussions of merchant shipping or criminal enterprise, even poetry and literary criticism. Here at the Blue Mask, the overriding obsession was politics. Raesinia could hear a half dozen arguments in progress, overlapping and occasionally interrupting one another in a nonstop babble of voices.
“—the natural rights of man demand—”
“—you can’t just assume equity. You’ve got to—”
“—don’t give me ‘natural rights.’ I—”
“—the parliament in Hamvelt resolved to do something about—”
“—Voulenne can suck my cock, and so can you—”
Raesinia breathed this atmosphere in with the air of a creature returning to its natural environment, or a man surfacing after a long dive. A few patrons noticed her, and waved or shouted inaudibly in her direction. She waved back and threw herself into the throng, working her way past the crowded tables and stepping nimbly out of the way of wildly gesticulating limbs.
Here and there a catcall followed her, but she was used to that. Barely one in a hundred University students were female, and while the ratio was somewhat redressed by visitors who didn’t actually attend the school, Old Street still felt like the eye of a raging storm of indiscriminate masculine humors. When she first came here, Raesinia had taken such things personally, but she’d since come to understand they were more of an automatic reaction, like dogs barking at one another when they meet in the park.
At the rear of the common room was a flimsy door, leading to a short corridor off which there were a number of dining rooms where one could talk with at least the illusion of privacy. Raesinia headed for these and knocked twice on the second door along. Inside, a barely audible conversation was suddenly silenced.
“Who is it?” someone said, a bit muffled.
The door opened, slowly.
“We ought to have a secret knock,” someone said from inside. “It’s not a proper conspiracy without a secret knock. I feel stupid just shouting, ‘Who is it?‘”
“You and your secret knocks,” someone else said. “And codes and signals with dark lanterns and God knows what else. If you had your way we’d spend all day memorizing the damned things and never have time to get anything done.”
“I just think it adds tone, is all. You wouldn’t catch Orlanko’s people just shouting, ‘Who’s there?’ through the damned door—”
Something small and fast-moving hit Raesinia around the midriff, and a pair of arms locked behind her and made a spirited effort to squeeze the air from her lungs. For Raesinia this was actually not much of a handicap, but she staggered under the impact of the ballistic hug and had to throw an arm against the doorway for support. She hoped that Sothe, no doubt watching from somewhere, would not conclude that she was under attack and charge in with guns blazing.
“You did it!” her assailant squealed. “You did it, you did it, you did it! It worked!”
“Did I?” Raesinia managed, in a croak.
“Cora,” someone said, “I think Raes might be in a better state to appreciate the news if you let her breathe.”
Cora detached herself reluctantly, like a barnacle peeling away from a ship’s hull. She still had to look up to meet Raesinia’s eyes, but only just. Cora was fourteen, with the gangly, broad-shouldered frame of a girl still growing like a weed. She had straw-colored hair bound back in a thick ponytail and a face that looked like the site of a pitched battle between freckles and acne. She had a tendency to bounce on the balls of her feet when she was excited, and she was bouncing now, her green eyes blazing.
“And close the door,” Faro said, from the direction of the sofa. “Unless you want to share our secrets with everybody in the common room. Honestly, you’d think that none of you had ever been part of a cabal before.”
The back room was a bit cramped but cozy. The fireplace was cold and dead, but the night was quite warm enough already. The battered old sofa and chairs had been dragged from their ordinary positions into a rough circle. Faro had claimed the entire couch for himself, legs propped up on one arm and head hanging off at the other, upside down. It was a testament to Faro that he could make even this awkward position look graceful, if not particularly dignified. He was a slender youth, with short dark hair and a fact like a hatchet, dressed in well-tailored gray velvet.
Behind him, Johann Maurisk—who, for reasons Raesinia had never quite understood, everyone addressed by his family name—paced beside the window. He was as thin as Faro, but where Faro was lithe and graceful, Maurisk had the sunken-eyed look of a desert hermit. He was constantly in motion, walking back and forth, toying with his shirt or rapping out an unconscious rhythm on the windowsill with long, bony fingers.
Cora stepped back, took a deep breath, and made a visible effort to get control of herself.
“It worked!” she said. “I mean, I knew it would work, if everything went the way you said it would, but now everything has, and I’m having a hard time believing it. Do you have any idea what’s going to happen when the markets open again on Monday?” She giggled. “The whole Exchange is going to be swimming in coffee beans! I know at least three firms that have been hoarding for months, waiting for bad news, and now I hear they’re clearing out the warehouses. You won’t be able to sell the stuff for two pennies a bushel!”
“I’m thinking of putting up nets below the Grand Span,” Faro said. “We could fish the jumping bankers out of the river and go through their pockets.”
Maurisk slapped the windowsill and turned to glare at Faro, who smiled back impishly. Maurisk appeared to completely lack a sense of humor, which left him ill at ease in Faro’s company.
“I take it the news has reached the market, then?” Raesinia said.
“This afternoon,” Cora said. “We saw De Borg himself strutting about like the top peacock, rubbing everyone’s faces in it.”
“And we did well?”
Cora gaped, made speechless by this colossal understatement. Faro, grinning upside down and head lolling like a corpse, said, “Quite well, apparently. I don’t pretend to understand the specifics of it, but I gather we’ve just about hit the jackpot.”
“It’s not that complicated,” Cora protested. “I bought De Borg’s paper at ten pence, on a ninety-five-point margin, and as of close today it was back to par. After fees and so on, that gives us a return of about a hundred and eighty to one.”
Truth be told, Raesinia didn’t follow the specifics, either, but she trusted Cora’s assessment. She’s a prodigy, after all. That last number made her sit up and take notice, though. Raesinia was no financier, but she could multiply, and a hundred and eighty to one meant that the little pool of money their circle had laboriously accumulated had been transformed overnight, as if by alchemy, into a substantial fortune.
“I’m not really recommending it,” Faro said, “just throwing the idea out, really, but you realize that we could just take the money and run. Go to Hamvelt and live like princes for the rest of our days.” He looked around the room, from Maurisk’s burning eyes to Raesinia’s guarded ones, and sighed. “Fair enough. I’m just saying.”
“It’s not about the money,” Raesinia said.
“Of course it’s not about the money,” Maurisk said. “I’ve always said money is only a distraction. We should be out there”—he stabbed a finger at the window—”raising the awareness of the common—”
Faro laughed and slid off the couch like a cat, landing in a crouch and rolling his shoulders before straightening up.
“I think awareness is not our problem,” he said. “Everyone is perfectly aware of what’s going on. They just don’t see anything they can do about it.”
“Then we need to tell them—” Maurisk began.
“In any case,” Raesinia said, raising her voice before the usual argument could get started, “we’re on our way.”
“We certainly are,” Faro said. “Though God knows to where.” He slapped his thighs. “This calls for a drink, I’d say. Let me go and get something.”
He went out, and Raesinia turned to Maurisk. “What about Ben and the doctor? Are we expecting them?”
“Not tonight,” he said, with a glower. “They’re in Newtown. Reconnaissance, Ben calls it, though he wouldn’t tell me what he’s expecting to find.”
Cora waggled her eyebrows and gave a lewd giggle, and Maurisk snorted. This was a joke; neither of the last two members of their cabal was likely to be found in of the South Bank’s notorious brothels.
“Well, I’ve got news. I suppose we can fill them in later.” Raesinia paused as the door opened and Faro returned, with two bottles under each arm. “I’ve had word from my contact at the palace.”
“Oh?” Cora perked up. “Anything I can take to the Exchange?”
“I’m . . . not sure. The king is going to name Count Mieran to the Ministry of Justice.”
There was a pause. Faro uncorked one of the bottles and started setting up mugs on a side table.
“This is the same Count Yonas or some such who has been smiting the heathens so heroically in Khandar?”
Raesinia nodded. “Count Janus bet Vhalnich Mieran.”
“And what do we know about him?” Maurisk said.
“Not much,” Raesinia admitted. “But there’s no love lost between him and Orlanko.”
“That’s got to be good for us, then,” Cora said. “The enemy of my enemy, and all that.”
“I don’t know,” Faro said. “I’ve found that most of the time the enemy of your enemy can be relied on to stick a dagger in your back while you’re busy with the first fellow.”
“We’ll see soon enough,” Maurisk says. “It’s Giforte who really matters. If Count Mieran puts someone new in as head of the Armsmen, it’ll tell us a bit about what he plans. If he promotes Giforte instead—”
“Then I’ll drink another toast,” Faro said. “Giforte is a crusty old fart with more breeding than brains. Not that there’s any shortage of such around His Majesty.”
“Long may he reign,” Cora said, and the others echoed her automatically.
“Here,” Faro said. “Better to do that with wine in hand.”
Maurisk glared at him while Faro distributed the mugs, then looked up at Raesinia.
“Was there anything else?” he said. Maurisk was a teetotaler, yet another point of contention between him and the hard-drinking Faro.
“Not at the moment,” Raesinia said, accepting a mug herself.
Maurisk’s habitual scowl deepened. “Then I will say good evening.”
He went for the door, dodging Faro’s attempt to offer him a mug, and let it bang close behind him. Faro stared after him for a moment, giving his best impression of an abandoned puppy, then laughed and turned back to the others. “And I will say good riddance.” He took a long sip from his mug and swallowed thoughtfully. “Honestly, Raes, what possessed you to bring him into this?”
“He’s smart, and he believes in taking the country back from Orlanko,” Raesinia said. “And he takes it seriously.” She brought the mug to her lips.
The wine was actually rather good, Raesinia thought. In spite of its run-down appearance, the Blue Mask kept a good cellar. The unwashed floors and ratty furniture were a deliberate affectation, an act; situated as it was on prime real estate beside the University, the rent on the Mask was probably higher than many noble town houses.
An act. Raesinia stared into the depths of her mug, letting the conversation drift around her. Faro talked enough for three, anyway, pretending to flirt with Cora and laughing hugely at his own jokes.
It’s all an act. Raesinia Smith was an affectation, just like the Blue Mask. So, for that matter, was Raesinia Orboan, the delicate, empty-headed princess she played at Ohnlei whenever formal ceremonies demanded it. She might have been real, once, but she’d died four years ago, coughing her lungs out in a bed stinking of piss and vomit. What had risen from that bed was . . . something else, an imposter.
She felt the binding twitch, ever so slightly. It wouldn’t let her get drunk—she suspected it saw the inebriated state as a problem to be corrected like any other. Once, as an experiment, Sothe had procured a gallon of potent but awful liquor and Raesinia had downed the lot in a single sitting. All it had produced was a powerful need to visit the toilet.
There were only three people in Vordan who knew what kind of creature lurked underneath her masks. One was Raesinia herself, and another was Sothe, whom she had come to trust with her life. The third was the Last Duke, Mallus Kengire Orlanko. It was Orlanko who had intervened when Raesinia ought to have died. He’d called in his backers, Sworn Church priests in black cloaks and glass masks, and they had done something.
At the time, Raesinia hadn’t appreciated the brilliance of it. Now she understood all too well. The king had no sons, not since Vansfeldt, so what better way to keep the future queen under your thumb? Let even a whisper of the truth escape—that the princess was cursed, damned, not even human—and the mobs would be howling for her head, with every priest in the city egging them on. When the king died . . .
Long may he reign. Raesinia took a pull from her mug. But he wouldn’t; anyone could see that. Already the city lived in fear of the duke’s Concordat, and the tax farmers squeezed the common folk to pay the Crown’s debt to Viadre. When her father died, Raesinia would ascend the throne, but Orlanko would be king in all but name. His northern allies would come seeking their rewards, and no doubt Raesinia would find herself married to some Murnskai prince, while Borelgai profiteers looted the kingdom and Sworn Priests burned the Free Churches.
And so Raesinia Smith had built her little conspiracy, step by step, lying to everyone. The depth of her betrayals—not telling Cora and the others who she really was, breaking her father’s confidences—roiled her stomach, but there was no other option. If Orlanko found out she wasn’t the empty-headed, pliable princess he thought she was . . .
Cora laughed, and Faro grinned. Raesinia looked away from them and stared down into her mug. It’s not a betrayal, not really. We all want the same thing. Power in Vordan for the Vordanai, and the end of the Last Duke. No more tax farmers, no more Borelgai bankers muscling honest merchants into poverty. No more disappearances in the night and mysterious bodies floating in the river. No more screams from the depths of the Vendre.
It was the right thing to do. She knew it was. Even Father would understand that, wouldn’t he?
By the third day, we were pretty much used up, and those big naval guns were knocking the place to pieces around our ears,” Marcus said. “If the colonel hadn’t turned up when he did, I doubt we could have held on until nightfall. Even as it was, things got pretty heated. I had to go out myself—”
He stopped. And Adrecht saved my life, and lost his arm. Adrecht, his best friend, who had later tried to kill him, and who was now a set of slowly bleaching bones somewhere in the Great Desol. Along with quite a few others.
Count Torahn, Minister of War, knew none of this. His jowly face was alight with vicarious martial excitement. “Splendid, Captain. Absolutely splendid. Have you thought about writing up your experiences in the campaign? Colonel Vhalnich will submit his official report, of course, but it’s important to have as many perspectives on the thing as possible. I’m sure the Review would jump at the chance if you did them a little monograph.”
Marcus tried not to grimace. “Thank you, sir. I think Giv—uh, Captain Stokes was trying his hand at writing something about it when I left.” He didn’t add that Give-Em-Hell’s memoir, titled Across the Desert with Bloodied Saber, looked more like becoming an epic than a monograph.
“Wonderful. I look forward to reading it,” Torahn said. He glanced over his shoulder. “I’ve always said that a properly led Vordanai force should be a match for any army in the world, eh?”
This last was directed at the other end of the little anteroom. Duke Mallus Kengire Orlanko sat in an armchair, stubby legs barely reaching the ground, flipping idly through an enormous leather-bound ledger. He looked up, spectacles catching the light from the candles and becoming two circles of pure light.
“Indeed, Torahn,” he said. “You have certainly always said so. Now if only our soldiers could learn to walk on water, the world would truly be within our grasp.”
It was hard for Marcus to believe that this was the infamous Last Duke, Minister of Information and master of the dreaded Concordat. He looked more like somebody’s cheerful old grandpa, at least until he turned those oversized lenses in Marcus’ direction. Then his magnified, distorted eyes became visible, and they seemed to belong to some other person altogether. Not a person, even. Eyes like that belonged on something that lived at the bottom of the sea and never ventured out of the shadows.
You sent Jen to me. Marcus matched the duke’s gaze as levelly as he knew how. You sent her and told her to do whatever she needed to do.
He’d always known Jen had worked for the Concordat, but somehow he’d allowed himself to believe— What? That she could fall in love with me? At the very least, he’d thought she’d finally been honest with him. Then, that awful night in a cavern full of monsters, she’d thrown it all back in his face and revealed herself to be something much more than a simple agent. Ignahta Sempria, the Penitent Damned, the demonic assassins serving an order of the Church that was supposed to have disappeared more than a hundred years ago.
Marcus had tried to kill her, in the end, but Jen had brushed aside his best efforts. Only Ihernglass, in some way that Marcus still didn’t understand, had been able to use the power of the Thousand Names to bring her down. When he’d left Khandar, she still hadn’t awoken, and Janus wasn’t sure she ever would.
“Are you certain?” she had said. “Are you—”
Count Torahn was saying something, but Marcus had missed it entirely. He smiled at the Minister of War and wondered how to politely ask him to repeat himself, but a click from the door saved him the embarrassment. Janus slipped quietly out of the king’s bedchamber.
“Well,” the Last Duke said. “I take it congratulations are in order.”
Count Colonel Janus bet Vhalnich Mieran bowed formally. For his visit to the Royal Palace he’d put on a formal uniform Marcus had never seen him wear before, a cross between his usual blues and something more appropriate for a courtier. It included a long, thin cape, which fluttered elegantly as he moved, and was trimmed in the bloodred and Vordanai blue that were his personal colors as Count Mieran. In his ordinary dress blues, giltless and patchy from repeated washing, Marcus felt like a beggar by comparison.
“Thank you, Your Grace,” Janus said. “I will do my utmost to be of service to His Majesty.”
“Gave it to you after all, did he?” Torahn said. “I argued against it, you know. Nothing against you personally, you understand, but it didn’t seem a proper post for a military man. I’d hoped to use you elsewhere. Still, I suppose the king knows best.”
“I’m sure he does,” Janus said.
Marcus felt as if he’d come to class to find everyone else had studied for a test he didn’t know was on the schedule. Janus, as usual, had explained nothing, either during the uncomfortable journey or since they’d arrived at Ohnlei. He must have been able to see the confusion in Marcus’ face now, however, and he took pity on his subordinate.
“The king has honored me with his trust,” Janus said. “He has named me to the cabinet as Minister of Justice, to oversee the courts and the Armsmen.”
There was a shuffling sound from one corner. Representatives of all three of the organizations tasked with protecting the king’s safety were on hand, standing at attention so quietly that Marcus had nearly forgotten they were there. There was a sergeant from the Noreldrai Grays, big and imposing in his dark uniform and tall cap, and an impeccably uniformed grenadier from the Royal Guard. In addition, there was an Armsman, in a somewhat more ornate version of the dark green uniform worn by these officers of the law. At Janus’ words, he had stiffened up and saluted.
“Speaking of the Armsmen,” Orlanko said, as Janus nodded and signal for the guard to relax, “their captaincy is vacant at the moment. If you’d like, I can have my people prepare dossiers on some suitable candidates. I believe Vice Captain Giforte has been serving in that role since the previous minister’s passing, but he—”
“Thank you, Your Grace,” Janus interjected, “but that will not be necessary. My choice is an easy one. Captain d’Ivoire will assume the post.”
“He will?” Orlanko’s magnified eyes shifted.
“I will?” Marcus said.
He looked at Janus and caught a flick of his eyes. Marcus didn’t have Fitz Warus’ effortless ability to understand his superior’s unspoken commands, but he was slowly getting the knack of reading the colonel’s expressions. This one said, Later.
“A good idea,” Torahn said. “That’s the trouble with the Armsmen these days. Too many layabouts at the bottom, too many lawyers at the top! A good, honest soldier will shake things up a bit. And you could hardly do better than the captain here.”
Marcus wasn’t foolish enough to believe that the Minister of War had taken that much of a liking to him in their few minutes of conversation. This was another salvo aimed at Orlanko. Marcus felt like a fisherman rowing between two foreign men-of-war, caught in a conflict he understand next to nothing about, crouching to keep his head beneath the gunwales as broadsides flashed back and forth overhead. Whether this one had hit the mark, he had no idea, but Orlanko brushed it aside.
“I’m sure the captain will do a fine job.” The Last Duke closed his ledger and heaved himself onto his feet. “And now I must be going. You may rely on my people, of course, for any information your new duties may require.” He gave a very slight bow. “I look forward to working with you, Count Mieran.”
“Likewise, Your Grace,” Janus said. “Your Excellency, if you will excuse me as well. I have much to do.”
“Of course,” Torahn said, then wagged a finger genially. “Don’t think this gets you out of writing me a proper report!”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Janus said. “Come, Captain.”
The Armsman beside the door saluted again as they passed. The anteroom let onto a corridor leading out the back of the king’s suite, opposite the much larger entrance to his formal audience chambers. Like all the hallways at Ohnlei, it had been decorated within an inch of its life, in this case with a pattern of tiny bas-relief eagles whose eyes were tiny, sparkling mirrors. Candles flickered in cleverly concealed braziers.
“Sir—” Marcus began.
“Jikat,” Janus said quietly.
This was a word in Khandarai, of which there were probably only three speakers within a hundred miles. It was an ancient and expressive language. The word “jikat” meant “quiet,” but more than that. A literal translation might read “the silence we observe in the presence of our enemies.”
Enemies? Marcus said nothing.
“Back to our rooms,” Janus said. “Everything should be ready by now.”
The invisible, omnipresent administrative apparatus of Ohnlei—the true rulers of the kingdom, Marcus sometimes suspected—had assigned Janus and his staff to a cottage not far from the palace, on one of the many curving gravel roads that wandered through the grounds like a plate of dropped noodles. “Cottage,” in this context, referred to a two-story stone-and-timber building, elegantly appointed and self-sufficient in the matters of kitchens, baths, and so on, with its own staff and caretakers. This one was called Lady Farnese’s Cottage. Marcus had gathered that the kings of Vordan were in the habit of building these little houses for their friends, mistresses, and favorite courtiers, and once these original inhabitants died or fell from favor, they were repurposed as housing for guests of the court.
Small squads of Noreldrai Grays patrolled the grounds, mostly for the look of the thing, but they were met at the front door of Lady Farnese’s Cottage by a pair of soldiers in an unfamiliar uniform, cut like a Royal Army outfit but with the same red-on-blue trimmings Janus was wearing. Marcus guessed that these must be men in direct service to Janus in his capacity as Count Mieran, and this impression was shortly confirmed. One of the pair, a lieutenant by his shoulder stripe, stepped forward and saluted, and Janus made the introductions.
“Captain, this is Lieutenant Medio bet Uhlan, of the First Mierantai Volunteers. Lieutenant, Captain Marcus d’Ivoire, lately of the First Colonial Infantry.”
“Honored, sir,” said Uhlan, speaking with a gravelly upcountry accent. He was a young man, clean-shaven and handsome, with a crispness to his stance and salute that Marcus found depressingly keen. “Thank you for taking such good care of the young master.”
“For the most part it was him taking care of me,” Marcus said. “But it’s good to meet you in any case.”
“You’ve made the preparations as I asked?” Janus said.
“Yes, my lord.” Uhlan saluted again. “Everything is in readiness.”
“Good. Let’s go inside.”
The cottage had a serviceable parlor, suitable for entertaining guests, and another pair of Mierantai guards stood at attention as they entered. When Uhlan shut the door behind them, leaving his companion on guard outside, Janus gave a small, contented sigh.
“Here, I think, we may speak freely.” He glanced at Marcus. “The Last Duke knows everything that goes on in the palace, so you should always assume you are being overheard. The same holds for most of the rest of Ohnlei. We’re only a mile from the Cobweb, after all, and he’d be a poor spider if he didn’t know what was going on in his own lair.”
“But not here?”
“Here Lieutenant Uhlan and his men will keep watching for stray eyes and ears. They’ve already swept the house for hidey-holes—did you find any, by the by?”
“Yes, my lord,” Uhlan said. “One trapdoor and a tunnel through the foundation, and a spot outside where the moldings make a sort of ladder leading to a way in through the roof. We’ve closed them both, as you instructed.”
“And the staff?”
Uhlan grimaced. “It took some argument before they agreed that you could provide your own household, but we managed. I’ve sent to Mieranhal for our people, but it will be a few days before they arrive.”
“Mieran County is too remote and too insular for our friend Orlanko to infiltrate easily,” Janus said to Marcus. “I thought it best to import a few people we know we can trust.”
Marcus didn’t feel quite so blasé about it, but if Janus wanted to trust in Uhlan and his crew, he had little choice but to do likewise. He nodded.
“Where’s Lieutenant Ihernglass?” Janus said.
“Upstairs,” Uhlan said. “And asleep, I believe.”
“Just as well. It’s been a long journey, and I won’t need him until tomorrow.” He gestured at an armchair. “Sit, Captain. Lieutenant, would you ask Augustin to bring us some refreshments?”
“Of course, my lord.”
Marcus settled himself into the chair, wincing at a protest from his lower back. It was a legacy of the hell-for-leather carriage ride from the coast, two days of misery in a jolting, bouncing wooden box trying valiantly to hold on to his lunch.
It had, indeed, been a long journey. Preparations had been under way to bring the entirety of the First Colonials back to Vordan, but when Janus had received the news of the king’s illness, he hadn’t wanted to wait. He’d commandeered the fastest ship in the harbor by the simple expedient of asking the captain how much gold it would take to convince him to dump his current passengers and cargo and make for Vordan, then offering him half again as much for the quickest passage he could manage. The ship, a sleek Vheedai frigate, had made the run in less than half the time it had taken the lumbering transports on the way out, at the cost of running full-sailed through a blow Marcus had been certain was going to sink them.
Then, instead of turning west for the mouth of the Vor and the slow plod upriver to the capital, the colonel had led them ashore at Essyle and paid another hefty sum to arrange a stagecoach. Riders galloped ahead of them, bearing instructions to have fresh horses ready and waiting, and so the wheels of the coach had barely stopped turning from the coast to the capital. Even the famous Vordanai mail coaches didn’t run by night, but Janus had paid for spare drivers as well as spare horses, and the broad highway of the Green Road was smooth enough to traverse by torchlight. As a result of all this effort, their little party had covered the three hundred miles from Essyle to the outskirts of Vordan City in a bit more than thirty-six hours, which Marcus was certain had to be some kind of record.
The few hours of sleep he’d managed to snatch between their arrival and the royal summons had not made up for the previous few days, and Marcus couldn’t blame Lieutenant Ihernglass for taking the opportunity to rest. He himself found the overstuffed armchair dangerously comfortable, but a certain anxiety kept him from drifting off. Janus favored him with one of his flickering smiles.
“I imagine you have questions, Captain? I’m sorry I couldn’t explain earlier. It wouldn’t do to tip our hand.”
“I can think of a few,” Marcus admitted. “What did the king say to you? And what did you mean about making me head of the Armsmen? You know I don’t know the first thing about running a city—”
Janus held up a hand. “Let me begin at the beginning. I believe I’ve had the opportunity to explain that Duke Orlanko and I do not always see eye to eye?”
“I’d gathered that, yes.”
“Our success has placed him in a difficult position,” Janus said, with another half smile. “He doesn’t know what happened in the temple. All he knows is that his gambit to obtain the Thousand Names and to destroy me has failed, and that his assassin has not returned. At the same time, the victory has given me a certain popularity with the commons as well as favor with the king and the Minister of War.”
“I can see how that would vex him.” Janus had yet to explain just what was so damned important about the set of ancient steel plates he called the Thousand Names. Having gotten a glimpse of the world of demonic magic firsthand, Marcus wasn’t certain he wanted to know.
“Indeed. However, by returning without the rest of the Colonials, I have placed myself at a disadvantage. Apart from you, Lieutenant Ihernglass, and Lieutenant Uhlan and his men, there is no one in the city I can fully trust. Whereas for Orlanko this is his home ground, mapped and quartered, and he can call on legions of informants and all the power of the Concordat.”
Marcus frowned. “In that case, why the damned hurry to get here? We could have taken the transports with the rest of the Colonials.”
“Unfortunately, waiting that long would mean giving away the game before it began.”
Janus sat back in his chair as Augustin entered, bearing a tray with a teapot and cups. The sight of the old manservant reminded Marcus of how much he missed his own adjutant, Fitz Warus. He’d been forced to agree when Janus suggested that Fitz be left behind to supervise the transfer and loading of the Colonials; Val had command by seniority while Marcus was away, and that kind of organizational detail had never been his strong suit.
When he was equipped with a steaming cup of tea, Janus continued. “You know the king is very ill.”
“You told me he was dying.”
“He is, though that is not yet widely known. When he dies—which cannot be long delayed, I’m afraid—the crown passes to the princess royal.”
Marcus accepted his own cup from Augustin, ignoring the man’s faint scowl. Augustin had never approved of his master’s putting so much trust in Marcus.
“All right,” he said. “So Raesinia becomes queen.”
“It’s been more than three hundred years since Vordan has had a queen regnant, and we’ve never had one so young. Things are going to be . . . unsettled.”
“From the sound of it,” Marcus said, “the Last duke has matters well in hand.”
“That is exactly the point,” Janus said. “There is considerable unrest in the city. Orlanko is not well liked.”
“Nobody likes the man who has to crack heads to keep order,” Marcus said, omitting for the moment the fact that Janus proposed to put him in exactly that position. “And there’s usually someone willing to cause trouble whenever an excuse comes up. I remember the riots after Vansfeldt.”
“This may go beyond mere rioting. There are plans for full-scale insurrection.”
Marcus snorted. “You can’t be serious. We haven’t had a real revolution since Farus IV and the Purge.”
“Times are changing, Captain. How long has it been since you’ve spent time in the city?”
Marcus reckoned backward, and felt suddenly old. He could remember leaving home for the last time, waving to his little sister as his carriage lurched into motion, the familiar old house vanishing around the corner . . .
He clamped down hard on that line of thought, before it could lead him into familiar darkness. “Not since I left for the College, I suppose. Nineteen years.”
“Since Vansfeldt, things have been different. After the end of the war, Orlanko all but threw in his lot with the Borelgai, and their influence has only grown since then. Borelgai merchants rule the Exchange, Borelgai bankers run the Treasury, and Borelgai Sworn Church priests preach on the streets. There is nothing that so arouses a people as an infestation of foreigners.” Janus raised an eyebrow. “As you and I have good reason to know.”
Marcus grinned wryly. “Fair enough. Nobody likes the Borels. How does that lead to revolution?”
“Nobody believes that Raesinia will be able to rule in her own right. When she takes the throne, it will be Orlanko who takes power. And as far as the people are concerned, that means the Borelgai will have finally completed the conquest they began ten years ago. Rising against the rightful king is one thing. Rising against a queen perceived as a foreign puppet is quite another.”
“I hate to seem callous,” Marcus said, “but what of it? If all this is true, Orlanko must be well prepared by now.”
“Indeed. In fact, I’m certain he’s planning on it. The revolt will be bloodily suppressed, and the subsequent crackdown will cement his control. Then there will be no stopping him.” Janus cocked his head. “You see now why we had to hurry? If the king had died while we were en route, we would have arrived too late to take a hand in matters.”
“Balls of the Beast,” Marcus swore. “No offense intended, Colonel, but I’m not sure I want to take a hand in matters. You make it sound like Vordan is as bad as Ashe-Katarion, and you remember how that turned out. Maybe we should have stayed in Khandar.”
“That might have been an option for you, Captain, but not for me. If Orlanko consolidates his power, he will have no more reason to fear me. A mere ocean would not be enough to blunt his reach.” Janus did not appeared particularly discomfited by this thought, but Marcus thought of Jen, glowing with coruscating, unnatural power, and shuddered. “Besides,” Janus went on, “I have a duty to my king, and my future queen.”
“So, what did the king tell you? Giving you Justice when there’s going to be fighting in the streets seems like setting you up for disaster.”
“Fortunately, the situations are not exactly analogous,” Janus said. “The king has always been aware of Orlanko’s ambitions, of course. He asked me to serve as a counterweight on the Cabinet. To protect Raesinia, and try to ensure that she gets a genuine chance to rule in her own right.”
“He doesn’t ask for much, does he?” Marcus muttered.
“He’s desperate,” Janus said. “And he knows that Orlanko has ways of getting to even the best people. He needed someone who already had the Last Duke’s enmity. The fact that our victory in Khandar has gained us something of a reputation is all to the good.”
“All right,” Marcus said. “Fair enough. So, what’s the plan?”
“I’m still working on it,” Janus said, with another fast smile.
“We’ve been here less than a day, Captain. All my information is weeks old. It will take time to receive new reports from my sources, and more time to formulate a course of action.”
“Wonderful,” Marcus growled.
“One thing is for certain, however. We must discover the depth of the connection between the duke and the Priests of the Black. That may shed light on . . . a great many things.”
Are you certain? she’d said. Marcus nodded slowly. “How?”
“Putting you at the Armsmen was the first step. The more friends we have among the city authorities, the better.”
“Making me captain doesn’t put the Armsmen in your pocket,” Marcus said. “Not if we’re talking about fighting in the streets. When both sides wear the same uniform, the chain of command can get a little . . . confused.” An image of Adrecht came to him, scared and defiant, clutching the flap of his empty sleeve.
“Of course. And I have no doubt the Armsmen are liberally salted with Concordat agents. But you will do what you can. In the meantime, you will have the legal authority to investigate the activities of the Black Priests, once we uncover them.”
“Do you think that’s likely? With Orlanko’s backing, I imagine they’ll be well hidden.”
“I have a lead that may prove fruitful. You get accustomed to your new command, and I will do what I can. For the moment, I suggest you get some sleep. A rest in a real bed will do wonders for your disposition.”
After all this, Marcus thought, I’d better learn to sleep with one eye open.
“Before you do,” Janus said, sipping his tea thoughtfully, “you might wake Lieutenant Ihernglass. I would like to have a word with him.”
She awoke from a warm, jumbled mess of a dream. The feel of a body pressed against her, soft skin, fever-hot, and delicate fingers running across her. Lips pressed against hers, hesitantly at first, then with mounting enthusiasm. Hot breath against her neck, her hands running through long red hair, spiky with the sweat of their exertions. Green eyes, boring into her like daggers.
Jane. Winter groaned, half-awake, and opened her eyes. The air was stuffy and smelled of dust, and she lay in the peculiar semidarkness of a room with heavy curtains drawn against the daylight. The bed underneath her was titanic and sinfully soft, and she was surrounded by a nest of silk pillows. The one beneath her head was damp with sweat.
Ever since that horrible day at the Desoltai temple, she’d traded one set of nightmares for another, though. The new ones had begun as a vague feeling of confinement, of being trapped in darkness while distant voices droned on and on. On the journey from Khandar, they’d gradually sharpened until she could nearly make out the words. She knew, somehow, that these visions welled up from the pit of her being, where the thing Janus had called Infernivore slumbered like a quiescent predator digesting its meal.
Dreams of Jane were almost a relief, a familiar ache in her chest. Jane, whom she’d fallen in love with and then abandoned to an awful fate. Whose memory she’d fled across a thousand miles of ocean to escape.
And now I’m back. Under a different name, wearing a different identity, but . . .
The knock at the door came as something of a relief. Winter tried to sit up, but the deep feather bed thwarted her efforts, and she ended up half rolling, half flopping until she got to the edge. The knock repeated.
It was Captain d’Ivoire. Winter managed to escape from her mattress, kicked off the ensaring sheet, and got to her feet.
“I’m awake,” she said. “Just one moment.”
There was a full-length mirror in one corner, a luxury she’d rarely had in Khandar. Winter went through an automatic self-examination to confirm that her male disguise was intact. While Janus knew the truth of her gender, Captain d’Ivoire did not, and there would be servants and guards as well. She found that she was still wearing her uniform, though a couple of buttons had come loose as she tossed and turned. Apparently she had barely managed to get her boots off before collapsing.
She fixed the buttons, adjusted her collar, and tugged a bit at her cuffs. Once she felt reasonably presentable, she went to the door. Doors with proper latches—that was something else to get used to. Khandarai mostly made do with curtains.
Captain d’Ivoire was waiting in the corridor. There were dark circles under his eyes, and Winter sent up a silent prayer of thanks that the colonel had let her sleep. D’Ivoire looked about ready to fall over.
“He wants you,” the captain said. No need to specify who “‘he” was. “Downstairs, in the parlor.”
“If he needs me, I’ll be over”—he gestured vaguely towards the doors to the other bedrooms—”there. Somewhere.”
He staggered off. Winter stepped out into the hall and shut the door behind her, looking around curiously. She hadn’t gotten much more than a cursory look at the cottage when they came in, tired as she’d been. Now, making her way down the stairs, she let its fundamental weirdness sink in. It was huge, ceilings far higher than necessary and corridors far broader, and what wall space wasn’t occupied by vast paintings was taken up by glass-shielded braziers, ablaze with candles even in the middle of the day. The art was mostly moody, sweeping landscapes, with the occasional nautical scene thrown in for variety, all set in fantastically carved gilt frames. The carpet underfoot was thicker and softer than her army-issue bedroll.
The only place she’d ever been that was anything like this was the palace in Ashe-Katarion, and that had been partially burned and entirely looted before she’d got there. The orphanage she’d grown up in—Mrs. Wilmore’s Prison for Young Ladies, as the inmates had referred to it—had once been a noble’s country house, but any vestiges of luxury had been obliterated by decades of careful effort on Mrs. Wilmore’s part. The casual opulence on display here took her breath away.
She could hardly believe they were actually at Ohnlei. The Royal Palace and its grounds had always seemed semimythical to her, like the heavens the Khandarai believed were somewhere up among the clouds. The stories of the king and its other inhabitants had felt no more real than those same heathen myths. The idea that it was a physical place that you could simply drive to in a carriage was something she was still getting used to.
The parlor was a large room downstairs with no obvious function, containing a couple of bookshelves, a fireplace, several armchairs and a sofa, and few fussy little tables. Janus sat in one of the chairs, feet propped up on an ottoman, reading from a thick sheaf of paper. He looked up as Winter entered.
“Ah,” he said. “Lieutenant. You rested well, I hope?”
“Very well, sir.” After weeks aboard ship and days in a rattling coach, just lying still felt like an unimaginable luxury. “Captain d’Ivoire asked me to tell you that he’s gone to bed.”
“Just as well. It’s been an exhausting day for everyone.” Though if exhaustion had any effect on Janus himself, it didn’t show in his face. “Have a seat.”
Winter settled herself cautiously into the chair opposite Janus, and Augustin glided in with tea.
“I should start out by telling you the same thing I told the captain,” Janus said. “At Ohnlei, the walls quite literally have ears. You should always assume you’re going to be overheard. I’ve brought down some of my own men from Mieran County, men I trust, and so this cottage is probably secure for the moment. You may speak of anything relating to our mission.”
He hit the last few words with peculiar emphasis, and his gray eyes drilled into Winter. She took his meaning easily enough. “Men I trust,” eh? She supposed that trusting someone not to betray your confidence was one thing, and trusting him with the secret of the Thousand Names—and Winter’s involvement with it—was quite another.
“I . . . understand, sir.” She paused. “What is our mission here?”
“Much the same as it was in Khandar, at some level. The king has appointed me Minister of Justice.”
Winter wasn’t sure how to respond to that, so she decided to play it safe. “Congratulations, sir.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant,” Janus said politely. “But I fear the problem it presents is considerable. The city is close to the boiling point, and getting closer as the king’s health worsens. I am expected to ride herd on it with no time to prepare, and no way to know who among my subordinates may be working for my . . . enemies.”
This last, again, carried more than its surface meaning. As far as Vordanai politics was concerned, Janus was opposed by Duke Orlanko and his allies, but only Winter and a few others knew it went deeper than that. The revelation of the true nature of Jen Alhundt had shown that there were more sinister forces at work. Feor, the Khandarai priestess Winter had rescued from the Redeemer cult, had called them the Black Priests.
“I understand, sir.” Winter sipped her tea thoughtfully. “And I appreciate the difficulty.”
“Accordingly, I’m afraid I will be leaning quite heavily on you and Captain d’Ivoire, at least until the rest of the Colonials arrive.”
Bobby, Winter thought automatically. And Folsom, Graff, Feor, and the rest. Not to mention the nondescript wooden crates full of steel tablets, engraved with the secrets of centuries. “I’ll help however I can, sir.”
“I’m going to take you up on that,” Janus said, with just a hint of a smile. “I have a task for you.”
Something about his tone made Winter’s skin crawl. I’m not going to like this, and he knows it. “A task, sir?”
“One of the primary centers of unrest in the city is the Southside Docks. There’s a . . . society, you might call it, of dockworkers and other menials who have been responsible for an increasing number of violent incidents. They call themselves the Leatherbacks.”
“I see,” Winter said, though she didn’t.
“The Armsmen have attempted to suppress this group, with no success. Much of the Docks is a rat’s warren, difficult to penetrate and search, and the Leatherbacks enjoy the tacit support of the residents. The occasional arrest and, I may say, brutal example has not dampened their ardor. A more subtle approach is required.”
“Infiltration, Lieutenant. We need to know more about this group. Our friends at the Concordat claim to have placed several agents among them, but given the lack of success we have to assume they are either withholding or deliberately falsifying the information they pass along. I need someone I can rely on.”
“Someone—you mean me, sir?” Winter almost laughed out loud. “I’m sorry, but do you really think I would be able to blend in with a gang of burly dockworkers?”
“Ah, but I haven’t told you the most interesting part,” Janus said. His half smile returned, and he leaned forward in his chair. The bastard was enjoying this, Winter thought. “The Leatherbacks have an inner circle that appears to be composed entirely of women.”
“What?” At first Winter was occupied trying to picture a band of revolutionary dockworkers taking orders from fishwives in skirts, so it was a moment before the real import of his words struck home. “What? Sir, you can’t be serious!”
“You don’t think you can pass as a woman?” Janus said, eyes flicking to the front door, where the guards were waiting. “I understand it’s something you’ve done before.”
“I don’t . . . I mean . . .” Winter paused and sucked in a long breath. “Even if I could . . . pass as female, that doesn’t mean I’ll be able to just waltz in and join up! These women are all Southsiders, aren’t they? I won’t . . . look anything like them, sound like them, or anything!”
“I agree that you are not the spitting image of a fisherman’s daughter,” Janus said, eyes sparkling. “Fortunately, there is another way. In the district adjacent to the University, colorfully known as the Dregs, there is another center of unrest. The students are notorious for preferring talk to action, however, and now and then one of them gets fed up and crosses the river to join the Leatherbacks. I believe you could present yourself as one of these pilgrims quite easily, and it would provide a useful explanation of why you lack friends or connections.”
“But . . .”
Winter couldn’t say what she wanted to say. Not just because of the guards, who didn’t know her secret, but because she had a hard time even putting it into words. He wants me to . . . to put on a dress and walk down the street in broad daylight? The notion filled her with a sort of instinctive revulsion, born of two years of terror at the thought of being found out. To just throw off that mask, after so long . . .
She swallowed hard. “I . . . appreciate the trust, sir. But I’m not sure I could do it.”
“I appreciate that it’s difficult for you. But you would be, after all, only putting on a disguise. Once the current crisis is surmounted, you can simply . . . take it off.”
“I . . .”
“And I hope that you appreciate,” Janus said, leaning forward in his chair, “how important this is. There is no one else I can trust with this. And when I say that the fate of the kingdom may rest on what we do in the next few days or weeks, understand that I am not simply being melodramatic.”
Winter closed her eyes and said nothing. Her throat felt as if it had fused into a solid mass, blocking her breath.
“There’s another thing,” Janus said. “Before we left Khandar, you asked me for a favor. Locating an old friend of yours, I think.”
“Jane.” Winter’s eyes opened. “Have you found her?”
“Not just yet. But I suspect we’re on the right track.”
“She’s alive? She’s not—”
“As far as we know.” He held up a hand. “It may take some time. I just wanted you to know that I hadn’t forgotten the matter.”
Winter stared at the colonel’s face, so apparently guileless, wearing a half smile that never touched his bottomless gray eyes. He would never stoop to anything so straightforward as an obvious quid pro quo, but the implication was clear enough. Remember, he was saying, what I can do for you, when you think about what you will do for me.
In the end, Winter reflected, not without some bitterness, what choice did she have? She’d saved Janus’ life in Khandar twice over, but in doing so she’d placed herself at his mercy. There was nothing for it but to go along, and hope like hell he knew what he was doing.
“I can . . . try,” Winter said, around the knot in her throat. “I still don’t think they’ll accept me, but if you want me to, I’ll try.”
“That’s all I ask, of course,” Janus murmured.