The sword was more trouble than Neda had anticipated. Not only was it heavier on her hip than she’d imagined it would be, but it kept sticking out at odd angles, tangling itself with her legs and the legs of any unfortunate passersby who happened to be in the way. She’d always thought the swordsman’s pose of hand-on-hilt was all about swagger. Now she understood it was a practiced attempt to keep one’s sword under control while moving. Fortunately, with the exception of two girls she knocked over on the dance floor, most people were indulgent of any mishaps. As for the girls, she thought they were probably potters, who were known to be uppity and deserved a little knocking down anyway.
By the time she’d finished her conversation with Romeric, she was ready to give the dancing another try, but her friends had other ideas.
“It’s really important!” Kelyn declared as they hauled her away to a less crowded section of the bridge. There, among much giggling and twittering, it was Etiana who finally blurted out what they wanted.
“Neda, you have to introduce us!”
“The boys!” Mierra bounced on her toes. “Your boys!”
“It’s the Trienelle, Neda. It’s not fair to keep them all to yourself. Everyone knows it’s good luck to get a kiss during the Trienelle.”
“They’re so handsome, Neda.”
“You’re so lucky! You get to live with them.”
She stared at them, not quite believing what she was hearing. In the first place, she had never felt particularly lucky having the three boys invade her home. They were loud and obnoxious and smelled bad most of the time. In the rare times when they were not being irritating, they were occupying her father’s attention and learning the things she wished she could be learning herself. And second, she couldn’t understand why her friends — all smart and sensible girls — were suddenly so wound up about them. They’d never shown much interest before, except to commiserate when Neda complained about all the aforementioned flaws.
“So will you?” Kelyn asked. “Introduce us?”
“We already decided,” Mierra burbled on. “There are three of us, and three of them. Kelyn is tallest, so she gets Barris…”
“I don’t mind,” Kelyn said. Neda imagined she was turning a bright red behind her mask. “It’s just a kiss.”
“…Etiana gets Tierce…”
“He’s so cute!”
“And I am going to kiss — wait, I can never remember his name right. The Jurati! I bet he knows a lot about kissing.”
“Wait!” someone said, and by this point Neda’s vision was so full of red that she really had no idea who said it. “Who is Neda going to kiss?”
“I’m not going to kiss anyone!” she snapped, her voice rising with sudden temper. “And I’m certainly not going to play matchmaker so you three can indulge some stupid fantasy! If you want them to kiss you tonight, you’re going to have to go find them yourselves!”
With that, she wheeled and stormed off. She was pretty sure that she caught at least two of them with the tail of her sword as she went, but she didn’t care. She wouldn’t have cared just then if the lot of them had tripped on their trains and fallen over the rail into the river. The nerve of them, she fumed as she dodged her way through the crowd. Divvying up her boys as if they were nothing more than a pie they were planning on gobbling up.
A sausage pie, she thought to herself, and immediately burst into fit of laughter. An image flashed through her mind of Barris, Tierce and Romeric, lined up and waiting with puckered lips while her girlfriends came at them brandishing knives and forks, with napkins tied around their necks. It only made her laugh more, and the more she thought about it, the harder she laughed, hard enough that she had to duck behind a booth to try and get control of herself. Hidden from view, she let the laughter run its course until, breathless and teary-eyed, she slumped against the wall and slid to the ground.
The real Daena had never had to deal with anything like this, she was sure. The warrior princess who she was trying to embody tonight had faced real troubles — a warlord who had sought to force her into marriage. She’d fought for her freedom and defeated the villain in single combat, only to suffer a mortal wound during the fight. It was only after she died that her grieving brother, the Evreme king, had outlawed women from bearing weapons in Corregal. It had happened centuries ago, but the women of the city still remembered her with a mix of feelings. It was hard not to admire a woman who had fought so fiercely for her independence. On the other hand, if she hadn’t gotten herself killed, they’d all be a lot more independent today.
Neda ran her fingers over the hilt of her sword while she wondered what had gotten into her friends. None of them had acted like this at the last Trienelle. Of course, there hadn’t been three boys living in her house then. It wasn’t hard to imagine why they’d be thinking about kisses now, when she herself had spent plenty of time thinking about it herself.
I should go apologize, she thought to herself. Tonight was not a night to be at odds with friends. She climbed to her feet, adjusted the sword belt around her hips, and set out to find them again. Not with any great haste, though — she was half afraid they might have taken her advice and gone looking for the boys on their own. That was not a scene she wanted to witness. So she wandered among the game booths, and tried her hand at a few while she went.
She’d just won a handful of tart candied cherries at the ring toss when somebody crashed into her from behind and grabbed her arm, sending the sugary treats flying from her grasp.
“Watch it!” She whirled with her hand raised to fend off a potential attacker, but the pop-eyed visage of a frog caught her up short. “Pash! What are you doing? Be careful. You made me drop my—”
“Neda! You have to come quick!” His voice cracked comically on the last word. “It’s Tierce!”
“What about him?”
“He was with a girl,” he panted breathlessly, “and he went off with her, and-”
She twisted her arm free. “Oh, please. I don’t want to hear that he went off with some girl. Why does everybody seem to think I care about who’s kissing who tonight?”
She turned in annoyance and started to stalk away, but he snatched at her tunic and held her in place.
“No! Listen to me! I was following and they went in the palace and then I saw a man go after them and they hit him!”
“Someone hit Tierce?” The frog mask bobbed up and down. “In the palace?” She glanced northward, towards the gaily lit facade of the Old Palace, the gate shut tight and locked. “Pash, no one can even get in there.”
“There’s a secret tunnel! I followed them and it was dark and I don’t know who it was but we have to help him. Neda, we have to.”
It could be a joke, Neda thought. An elaborate prank set up to make her look like a fool and give everyone a good laugh. But there was something in the heightened pitch of Pash’s voice, the white-knuckled grip of his fingers on her tunic, that made her think he was telling the truth. At least he believed it was true. If it wasn’t, well, she’d just have to be sure to pay back whoever it was that was setting her up.
If it was true, and Tierce really was in trouble…
A sliver of resolve slid down her spine, and she reached for the sword at her side.
They hurried northward across the bridge, weaving through the crowd just slowly enough to avoid drawing the attention of the Black Shields who were boredly supervising the festivities. At the palace gates, he tugged her behind one of the pedestals that flanked it. When he pushed on the side of the pedestal and it swung back, it revealed a pitch black opening just wide enough for a grown man to duck through. Her nerve almost failed her. This suddenly felt a lot less like a prank. Maybe it would be a good idea to summon the Shields after all.
It wasn’t what Daena would have done, though. The warrior princess wouldn’t have let anything stop her from helping a friend in need. Though her heart was racing in her chest, she wrapped her hand around her sword’s hilt and let Pash lead her into the darkness.
They’d left the door partway open, but by the time they’d circled a dozen steps down the spiraling stairway it was impossible to see anything. They had to go slow as they negotiated their way with only their sense of touch. “Why did they come in here?” Neda whispered, but Pash didn’t answer. Only the quiet padding of his feet on the stone reassured her that he was still in front of her.
The bottom of the stairs took her by surprise. She stumbled when her foot hit the floor unexpectedly, and as she struggled to keep her balance her scabbard scraped against the stone wall, appallingly loud against the silence of this place.
“Shh!” Pash hissed, and they both froze as the sound echoed down a long corridor. Only after the longest minute in her life had passed without anything happening in response did they allow themselves to breathe again, and then begin the slow trek down the hallway. Somewhere up ahead, Tierce was in trouble. Maybe. Or maybe he was enjoying a Trienelle tradition with some girl he’d just met. In some half-buried recess of her mind, Neda wasn’t sure which one of those possibilities would be worse to find.
They had only gone a little way when she began to notice shadows in the darkness around her. There was more light here — not much, but enough to see the bulging shape of Pash’s mask as he crept along beside her. Up ahead, she could just make out a blush of silver limning an opening of some sort. As they got closer, the layers of silence took began to take shape. There was a low, continuous murmur that she realized must be the sound of the river rushing nearby. A dull, irregular thunk. And, just loud enough to hear, the sound of voices. She grabbed Pash’s arm and stopped him.
“That’s where he went?” she whispered, and he nodded. She could feel him trembling with nerves and could hardly blame him. “Listen to me, Pash. I want you to go find Barris and Romeric. Bring them back here as fast as you can. I’ll stay here and make sure they don’t leave.”
He nodded once, and she squeezed his arm encouragingly before he scuttled off into the darkness.
Neda turned back down the corridor and listened again — she could make out several distinct voices, but she was still too far away to hear what they were saying. Hugging the wall and moving as silently as possible, she began to creep forward, terrified that someone would emerge at any moment and discover her. That’s if her heart, pounding in her chest like a barker’s drum, didn’t alert them to her presence first.
It wasn’t until she was nearly all the way to the opening that she could start to make out any words and phrases.
“Not my…” a woman said, her voice rising in a petulant whine. “…did what … told me!”
Another woman answered, sounding displeased, but Neda still couldn’t understand her. She edged closer, her toes brushing against the square of light that fell through the opening.
“What are you going to do with him?”
“That’s none of your business,” said the second woman. “I want you back out there. See if you can find the right target this time.”
“But what if he recognizes me? He’ll wonder where his friend is.”
“Then you better think of a good explanation if he asks!”
“Go!” There was a soft thump, and the first woman let out a started “Eep!” The sound of her rapid footstep heading for the opening caught Neda by surprise — the only thing she could do was drop into a crouch and bury her head in her arms. She held her breath and hoped the patch of shadows was enough to hide her.
Fortunately, the young woman was in enough haste that she didn’t stop to look around. As she disappeared into the darkness of the corridor, Neda let out her breath in a quiet huff. Then she leaned close to the opening to listen again.
“You realize she’s not coming back, right?” a man asked.
“Good riddance,” the woman said. “This whole thing was an idiot’s plan to begin with.”
The man snorted with amusement. “Do you want me to get rid of this one? I can throw him in the river for you.”
“Why is murder always your first thought? I swear, someday I’m going to be able to afford help that knows how to think.”
“I think plenty. I think you don’t want him talking about us.”
“He hasn’t seen anything that can hurt us. Just put him in the boat. We’ll take him with us, leave him somewhere. Landslip, maybe. He’ll think he was jumped and robbed.”
The man answered with a grunt, followed by the sounds of something — or someone, Neda realized with growing horror — being moved.
“If we’re gonna make it look like a robbery…” the man said.
“Not now, you guff. Go check that the watergate’s still open. It’d be just like the idiot Shields to do their job tonight of all nights.”
“Fine. But I claim dibs on that sword. Looks a decent blade.”
Neda sat still, silent as the moon, until the heavy footsteps had receded in the opposite direction.
The question of who they had meant to abduct gnawed at her, but right now she knew she had to do something to help Tierce. Killing him didn’t seem to be part of their plans, though who knew what might happen if they dumped him, defenseless, in some dangerous part of the city?
Holding her breath, she peeked around the edge of the opening into the cavern beyond. There, in the sparse moonlight that slipped past the obscuring bridge, she could just make out a half submerged dock and the small boat tied to it — that’s what was making the thumping noise. A hooded figure stood bent over in the boat, but what she was doing Neda couldn’t tell.
How long before the man came back? What if Pash didn’t get back with the boys in time to stop them from taking Tierce away? Neda knew in her gut that there was no time to waste. Without waiting to think about what she was doing, she pulled her badge off of her tunic and stuffed it into a pocket. Then, after making sure her mask was firmly in place, she stepped out of her hiding place.
“Get away from him!” Her voice hardly trembled, which surprised her a little, but her hands were shaking as she pulled her sword out of its scabbard. Still, it came smoothly free, testament to the hours she’d been practicing just such a move in her room over the past week. The blade, slender and keen, a caught a shimmer of moonlight as she raised it into guard.
The woman in the boat moved fast, turning and springing from the boat in a single, fluid movement so graceful it looked like she must have practiced it in anticipation of Neda’s arrival. She landed on the stony floor of the cavern, hands raised as if ready to strike until she took a moment to look Neda up and down.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she said, her voice thick with scorn. It was impossible to see anything of her face inside the hood. “Go away, girl, before you get yourself hurt.”
“I mean it. Get away from him.”
“Or what? You’ll poke me with your toy sword?”
“Look again,” Neda said, stepping further into the light. “This is no toy.”
The woman tilted her head, gave the sword a second, longer look, than glanced Neda again, as if trying to see who she was behind her mask. “So I see. Who are you?”
Flustered by the question, Neda jutted her chin forward. “I… I’m Daena Falisse Duresia, Princess of Averest, Champion of the Alund, Lady of a Thousand Tears, and I want you to get away from my friend.”
The woman let out a dry laugh. With a swift movement, she reached into the boat and came up with a sword in her hand. “Make me.”
Neda didn’t hesitate. Tierce had told her that hesitation could cost a fight. She dove in with a standard low thrust. The other woman parried it with an effortless stroke, the metallic clang of their swords meeting echoing loudly through the cavern. Neda struck again, and again, hoping that a rapid volley of attacks would throw the other woman off guard. But she met every one of Neda’s moves as easily as if they’d been practicing a drill, until Neda was forced to draw back in order to catch her breath.
“Not bad, Princess,” the hooded woman said. She spun her sword casually in her hands as Neda heaved for air. “You know what you’re doing.”
But impressing her wasn’t defeating her — in the next instant, her sword shot out towards Neda in a swift cut, and before long her fast-moving blade had driven Neda back across the cavern. It took every ounce of concentration she had just to protect herself. Desparate, she forgot every tactic Tierce had tried to teach her in the few short weeks she’d been training. She was reacting only, barely managing to keep the other woman’s sword from slashing her a half-a-dozen times. Her quick retreat had her backed up against the cavern wall in moments, and in the end that’s all that saved her. In the dark, the other woman misjudged the distance and her sword, in an overhand swing aiming for Neda’s shoulder, smacked into stone instead. Jarred by the impact, her recovery was slow, and Neda seized the opportunity to swing wildly at her midsection. She only missed slicing into her by a matter of inches.
Quickly, the woman backed off. “Interesting,” she said, sounding hardly winded by the brief skirmish. “Tell me who you are.”
“Princess Daena Duresia,” Neda panted. Her arms were aching, but she kept her sword upright in front of her. “And my friends will be here any minute, so surrender and put down your sword.”
The woman swore under her breath. “All right, Princess. This was fun, but I really don’t have time. I’ll give you a choice. We can keep fighting, and maybe your friends will get here before I skewer you. Or…”
She leaned down and, with a flick of her blade, cut the rope that held the rowboat tied to the dock. “You can go after your friend.”
The river tugged at the small boat, spinning it about as it was caught in the current. It only took seconds before it was a yard away. Two yards. Three.
“Tierce!” Neda rushed to the edge of the water but it was already too far for her to grab hold of it.
The hooded woman shrugged and tossed the sword she was holding to the ground. Without another glance at Neda, she walked towards the far side of the cavern.
Neda didn’t pay her any attention, though. Instead, she dropped her own sword and plunged into the river after Tierce.
As Romeric wove through the crowd of partygoers on the Palace Bridge, people kept pointing at his painted face with various expressions of delight or disapproval. “Clever!” one person said to him, only to have someone else a moment later declare, “Cheater!” He didn’t care. He met all the comments with the same lazy half-grin. Let them think what they wanted. He’d only come here for Barris’s sake anyway.
He was doing his best not to ruin the revelry for his friends. He knew they thought it odd he wouldn’t join in, and he couldn’t blame them. If there was one thing the stereotypes had right about Jurati it was that they loved a good party.
But he found it impossible to really relax around so many masked faces.
Hands filled with a variety of sweet and savory treats, plus a mug of spice (and hopefully spiked) punch, he found a bench near the bridge railing where he had a good view of the dancing. He could pick Barris out easily; his height plus the bull’s horns made him stand out above the other dancers. Tierce circled into view now and then, hands joined with other dancers in lines that moved around the dance floor in nimble-footed patterns. It didn’t look either of them would be ready to leave any time soon.
At least the food was good enough to alleviate at least a little of his misery. Skewered beef, seared and sizzling. Rings of fried dough glazed with honey. Pockets of bread stuffed with soft cheese and herbs. Fruit tarts, custard tart, tarts filled with seasoned meat. His favorite were tiny little meringues, dusted with sugar and flavored with a tart liqueur that reminded him of home. He had just popped the third one in his mouth, smiling with bliss as it practically melted on his tongue, when someone spoke from behind him.
“I’m glad to see you’re having at least a little fun.”
He turned to find Nedalya, grinning with amusement at the pile of food he was working his way through. Her eyes twinkled behind her mask, and there were flecks of glitter sprinkled through her hair.
“It’s not the worst party I’ve ever been to,” he admitted as he brushed crumbs from his lips. “What about you? Are you having a good time?”
She tilted her head and smiled. There was something secret about her expression, he thought, though perhaps it was just an effect of her mask. “I am.” She waved behind her, where a group of girls with flowers and songbirds over their faces waited for her. “They think you’re not dancing because you don’t know how.”
“Oh, I can dance.”
“Are you going to prove it?”
He hesitated, his pride pricked. True, he didn’t actually know the precise steps of the dances here — they danced with partners in Jurati, not groups — but normally such a small thing wouldn’t bother him. In fact, not knowing the steps would be a great excuse to ask someone to teach him, and before you knew it the two of you were dancing together, and from there…well.
He couldn’t do it, though. Not tonight. Not when every masked face was like a nightmare dredged from the worst corners of his memory.
He shook his head. “Maybe another time.”
“I thought you’d say that.” She pursed her lips together thoughtfully. “I know why don’t like masks,” she said and leaned close to whisper. “It’s because you’re wearing a mask all the time.”
He blinked at her, startled. Tried to come up with some response, but couldn’t. Neda just nodded once then pulled back.
“I really came over to tell you,” she said. “I saw Calette by the maze.”
“Calette?” he said, startled again. “Where?” He narrowed his eyes at Neda. “How do you know about Calette?”
She giggled. “We live in the same house. It’s hard to keep secrets. She was all by herself. If you want to talk to her.”
“Of course I do!” he exclaimed, his heart skipping a beat. “What’s she wearing?”
Neda laughed again. “If you can’t figure that out, then you don’t deserve her.” She wiggled her fingers at him in parting before whisking off to rejoin her friends.
“But…” he called after her, but she was gone too quickly.
Well, all right, he thought to himself as quaffed the rest of his punch (not spiked, unfortunately). The night was about to get a lot more interesting. He left the empty mug along with the remains of his self-indulgent feast behind and headed towards the maze.
The maze, which had been built just for the event, was hard to miss, rising up from the square on the far side of the dancing pavilion, a multilevel scaffold made out of wood, with billowy lengths of fabric hung throughout, making walls and partitions. It was only dimly lit, adding to the mystery of the whole thing. Partygoers — mostly the younger ones — ran in and out, screaming with laughter and excitement.
Romeric scanned the people standing in the vicinity, picking out the girls who looked about the right height. A rabbit, several birds, two more girls in the same antique blue livery that Nedalya was wearing. None of them felt right for Calette, though. Had she gone into the maze? There was only one way to find out. He ducked in through the nearest entrance to go looking for her.
It was darker inside the maze than he expected, which was fine with him. No one paid him any attention as he navigated the twisting walkways with their rippling walls of fabric. He didn’t really pay attention to which way he was going, trusting to Aratanne that she’d lead him where his heart desired. All the same, he had to turn back often when he reached a dead end, or when a cluster of partygoers made a blockade he didn’t feel like trying to wade through. Every time someone raced by overhead, their thudding footfalls made the whole structure shudder and waves of light and shadow turned the narrow space into a dreamscape.
Nedalya’s words played on his mind while he went. Had she really known what she was saying when she accused him of wearing a mask all the time? Or had it just been a lucky guess? He didn’t like to think it was so obvious that he’d been hiding anything about himself. He settled on just being thankful that she hadn’t pushed the issue, forcing him to cover up the truth with more half-truths and diversions. He didn’t like to think of them as lies. He didn’t want to think of himself as a liar.
Another turn, another dead end — this one occupied. The two girls were too wrapped up in their kiss to notice him, and though he told himself he was only pausing to make sure neither of them was Calette, his gaze lingered a little longer than needed. Now that was love, he thought to himself. An inexorable yearning for another that could only ever be satisfied through touch. A bittersweet sigh escaped him. It had been far to long since he’d had a chance to indulge that longing himself.
He left without drawing the girls’ attention, and with the sinking sensation that his search was all in vain. If Calette was here, he’d never find her in this tangled labyrinth. And if she’d already left, as he was beginning to suspect, this whole thing was a complete waste of time. He needed to get back and check on his friends.
Of course, the moment he made up his mind to give up, that’s when he found her.
He knew her instantly, even with the costume she wore. She was dressed all in gold, an ornate confection covered with lace and beads, with ribbons woven through her hair and a mask like a star over her face. It was the way she was staring up at a panel of filmy white fabric that caught his attention. A light behind her cast her shadow up in stark relief, and as he watched, she raised her arms in undulating movements, observing the play of light and dark with apparent fascination. For a moment, he watched her with the same fascination, admiring the slow grace of her movements, the curve of her figure, the mesmerizing current of her hair as she swayed back and forth.
He almost didn’t want to disturb her, so enchanting was the sight. But a need for more than looking drove him to speak. “Hello, Calette.”
She paused her movement, glanced over her shoulder. “Oh, it’s you.”
“I’m not bothering you, am I?”
She glanced back at her shadow, then at him again. “Don’t move.”
“I was hoping we could–”
“Wait!” she said, and before he knew what was happening she had pulled aside the fabric sheet and disappeared behind it.
He groaned to himself. Posing, again. But he did as she had asked, because of course.
Only a few seconds passed, though, before she stuck her head back around. “Would you dance?”
“Like…” she moved one arm up and down again, like she had been doing herself moments before. Obedient to her whims, he emulated her movements, and she smiled in appreciation before disappearing again.
What you do for love, he thought to himself. He knew he should feel ridiculous, standing alone in a darkened maze, waving his hands around like some kind of demented magi during a weather summoning ritual. A group of younger kids, Pash’s age, ran by, some of them giving him odd looks as they passed. He just shrugged and kept waving.
After a few minutes, Calette called out, “That’s enough! You can stop.”
He dropped his arms and waited for her to reappear. When she didn’t, he called out her name. “Calette?”
She didn’t answer. Curious, and little worried that she might have slipped off, he stepped forward and pulled back the panel. She was still there, kneeling on the ground in a puddle of beaded gold, bent over a scrap of paper with a stub of charcoal in her hand.
“I was just trying to remember,” she said, as he came close enough to see the silhouettes she had scribbled onto the page.
“Are you going to paint it?”
“Perhaps.” The charcoal and paper disappeared into a pocket of her skirt, and she scrambled to her feet. It was only then that she looked at him, really looked at him. “You’re not wearing a mask.”
“I like my face too much to hide it away,” he said, trying to forget Nedalya’s too-astute comment. He reached up to touch her mask. “It’s full of stars.”
“My parents,” she said, touching it briefly herself. It was made of glass, and tiny lights flickered within its surface, pinprick enchantments that made it look like she wore the night sky on her face. “They like to be sure everyone knows how much money we have. I’m sorry about Cael. I told him he shouldn’t make fun of you.”
“He doesn’t bother me,” Romeric said truthfully. “Not as much as you never answering my letters.”
“I wrote you back.”
“‘Dear Romeric, thank you for your letter’ is not much of a response. I didn’t know if you wanted me to keep writing or not.”
She shifted her gaze away. “I am not very good at writing.”
“That’s all right,” he said. He moved his hand away from her mask, letting his finger graze her cheek, almost as if by accident. “You can just tell me now.”
“Romeric…” she said, and when the space after his name became too drawn out, he realized he had expected too much. He stepped back, and he heard the soft sigh of relief she let out. “Thank you for letting me paint you the other day.” She glimpsed up at him, a smile flashing oh so briefly across her face. “You have remarkable eyes.”
“I was hoping you might like more about me than my eyes.”
“You don’t have to apologize…”
She leaned forward and kissed him. He responded automatically, kissing her back even as he sensed the tightness of her lips, the stiffness in her torso. He resisted the urge to wrap his arms around her, to draw her close and ravish her with his lips. Instead, when she pulled back after a few seconds, he eyed her curiously.
“Why did you do that?”
The stars in her mask twirled in excited constellations. “Because it’s the Trienelle. Every girl is supposed to want her first kiss at the Trienelle. And I thought, if I’m going to have my first kiss, it might as well be with someone who looks at me like you do.”
He nodded slowly, but didn’t say anything. He didn’t think he had words in Rhemish to say what was in his heart just then. Maybe not in Jurati, either.
“It’s just too much, though.” She touched the pendant he wore, the amulet of Aratanne. “You’re too much. For now, anyway.”
“I understand. Maybe someday?” He caught his hand in hers and brought it to his lips. The kiss he breathed over her knuckles was softer than the wind. “When you are ready?”
Calette bit down on her lip but she didn’t say anything. He let go of her hand and stepped back. “I’ll leave you to your shadows,” he said, gesturing at the billowing sheet of fabric. On the other side, someone raced by, laughing.
He turned and left, hoping without expectation that she’d change her mind and call him back. But she didn’t.
“There is nothing good about masks,” he grumbled to himself as he tried to retrace his steps out of the maze. It took him longer than he expected to find his way and, frustrated by the increasing number of couples he was finding amidst the twists and turns, he finally gave up and forced his way through one of the flapping panels. He emerged beneath the moonlight, and the colored lights of the paper lanterns, and the overpowering scent of jasmine.
The music and laughter was like an assault. He wished he could get out of here. Maybe, he thought, if he could leave Barris with Tierce to back him up — but even as he contemplated it, he heard a surge of raised voices from not far away. A sixth sense told him what was happening, even before one voice made itself clear above the others.
“You were warned, Aderen. You’re not wanted here. Now, are you going to leave on your own, or are we going to have to do it for you?”
Be something you’re not.
That’s what Neda had insisted when they were picking out their masks, and why Tierce had ended up with this monstrosity of teeth and bone on his face instead of something that actually looked nice. He’d been hoping to wear something grand, maybe even noble or heroic. Something that inspired more than nightmares. But then Neda handed him the skull-shaped mask with its jagged metal teeth and spiky feathered crest and that had been that.
He wasn’t going to complain about it, though. An ugly mask wasn’t going to stop him from having a good time tonight, not when there was music and dancing to enjoy. Not to mention games with prizes, and good food to eat. And girls.
Without meaning too, he let his gaze slip towards Neda. She was laughing with Pash about something, halfway up the stairs from the boat landing, and her radiant smile made his heart leap despite his best intentions not to let that happen. Her delicate filigree mask didn’t really hide much of her face, and he could see how excited she was, almost oozing with confidence in the costume she’d chosen for the night, every bit the warrior princess she was pretending to be.
Only Tierce knew she wasn’t really pretending.
She’d pulled him aside before they left the house, setting his pulse racing to an all-too-familiar rhythm as she snuck into an unused storage closet near the kitchen. Though their secret lessons had continued, neither of them had ever said anything about the day she’d kissed him in the garden, and he’d done a pretty good job convincing himself that nothing had happened at all. But in an instant, all his hard-earned denial evaporated in a rush of yearning.
But she hadn’t brought him there to kiss him again. Or even to talk about the kiss. Instead, she pulled a long bundle out of a corner and yanked off its wrapping to reveal what was inside. “What do you think?” she asked in a hushed voice.
It was a sword. Tierce just stared at it a moment, not sure how to respond. It looked like a decent blade. Not too fancy, with a slender, tapered blade and what looked to be a keen edge. The boxy pommel and guard were finished with brass, and fresh leather wrapped the grip.
He glanced up at her, unsurely. “Who’s is it?”
“Mine.” She grinned. “I’m going to wear it to the masquerade tonight.”
“Neda, you can’t. They’ll arrest you if they find you wearing a sword.”
“There will be dozens of girls dressed up like Daena tonight, and most of them will have swords. No one is going to check to make sure they’re all fake.”
“You can’t be sure of that.”
She just set her jaw.“I wasn’t asking for your permission, Tierce. I just…I just wanted to show someone. It’s a good sword, isn’t it?”
There was something in her voice he recognized. He remembered the thrill of getting his own sword. Helpless in the face of her enthusiasm, and more than ever charmed by her daring, he’d only been able to flash her a crooked smile. “It’s a good sword.”
She grinned and slid the sword into the scabbard on her belt. With a gleam in her eye, she had pulled her mask down over her face and darted out into the hallway before he could say anything else. Not that anything he could have said would have made a difference anyway.
But he’d made a decision afterwards, coming downriver in the boat at twilight, with a hideous mask covering his face and a night of merriment up ahead. If she wanted him to be someone he wasn’t tonight, then he would be someone who wasn’t in love with Nedalya Fleuracy. There were countless girls his age in Corregal, and most of them would be at the masquerade tonight. There was no reason he couldn’t spend time in their company, dance with them. Laugh. Maybe more.
Surely there was nothing wrong with that.
Except why did he feel guilty every time he looked at her?
“I don’t believe it,” Romeric said, astonishment plain in his voice. He stood with Tierce at the top of the stairs, and they both tried not to gape at the spectacle laid out before them. “The Rhemish actually know how to throw a party.”
The Palace Bridge had been transformed. From a distance, it had looked as if someone had plucked every star from the night sky and strung them across the river. Up close, it was like stepping into another world. Light from scores of magic-filled paper lanterns illuminated the ancient arcade with pools of shifting colors, rose and turquoise and violet and gold, and made the iridescent streamers and canopies of silvered linen shimmer with rainbows. Lush garlands of night-blooming flowers wrapped all the railings and arches, scenting the air with their sweet, unsubtle perfume, while fist-sized soap bubbles bobbed overhead, sprinkling showers of glitter whenever they popped onto the masked faces below.
It was nothing like Tierce had expected. He’d attended grand events before, traveling between the courts of the petty kings with his father. But nothing that he had experienced in Corregal had prepared him for this kind of extravagant display. Solemn, serious, the people here took pride in their austerity, their answer to the excesses of the Empire they’d liberated themselves from decades before. He’d been to festivals in the city before, but they’d been nothing like this.
He glanced at Romeric, wondering if the sight was enough to shake him from his sour mood. He hadn’t even planned on coming until he’d heard about the ominous warning Sindera Vallen had given Barris. Loyalty to those he had taken to calling his “brothers of the blade” overcame his reluctance, but he’d made it clear he wasn’t planning on enjoying himself. The swash of black grease paint across his eyes was as close as he’d come to wearing a mask, but it was his attitude that was the real disguise. Tierce had gotten used the Jurati’s ever-cheerful demeanor, always ready with a disarming compliment or racy joke. It was strange to see him work so hard at being unhappy.
As if guessing his thoughts, Romeric rolled his eyes. “You look ridiculous,” he grumbled before stalking off into the crowd.
“That’s the whole point!” Tierce called after him, though underneath the mask he felt his cheeks redden. It really was a stupid mask.
Well, no matter. It wasn’t his responsibility to make sure Romeric had a good time. Any more than it was his job to make sure Neda…
He stopped that thought before it went any farther.
She was gone, anyway, disappeared into the crowd to find her own friends. Pash, too, had scampered off as soon as he reached the bridge.
Barris had stopped up ahead to wait for them, though. His extra height and the grand spread of his bull mask’s horns made him easy to spot in the crowd. Even from a distance Tierce could see the rigid set of his friend’s shoulders, the tight line of his jaw beneath the edge of his mask as he scanned the partygoers, probably looking for anyone who was ready to make good on Sindera’s threat.
He pushed his way forward, earning a few sharp words from those he jostled on the way. When he reached Barris’s side he leaned close to be heard over the music and laughter.
“Are you ready?”
His friend nodded, his lips pressed tight. “Ready for what, though?”
Tierce elbowed him in the side. “Ready to have fun.”
Barris turned to him with an almost startled expression, as if the thought of having fun tonight hadn’t even occurred to him before this moment. But it only lasted a moment, and then a wide grin split his face and he let the tension drop away from his shoulders. “Definitely.”
A lively cacophony of pipes, horns and drums had Tierce tapping his toes as they wound their way through the crowd. He was looking forward to dancing later, but for the moment he was just enjoying the parade of fantastic faces—furry cats with jewel-tipped ears, fearsome fanged monsters, beribboned birds and bugs that bubbled with excitement. Everyone was looking and pointing and laughing at the spectacle. Every time one of the glitter-filled bubbles popped there was a chorus of shrieks and a mad scramble as people either tried to escape the shower of sparkles, or get themselves coated with it.
His own mask garnered a fair share of attention — usually from girls who squealed as they fled in the opposite direction. He did his best to embrace the role, making threatening gestures and noises as they ran off. He wasn’t very convincing, though, and his efforts mostly earned laughter from those around him. At one point, another Daena — Neda had been right, there were dozens of them on the bridge, all in blue with scabbards bumping at their sides — drew her wooden sword and harried him with it. Caught up in the spirit of the festivities, he pretended to let her skewer him, and then clutched at his gut as he staggered back and forth, before falling prone in a dramatic death. The applause was enthusiastic, and the Daena paraded off victoriously with her friends.
“Ridiculous,” Romeric said as he gave him a hand to help him rise. But the Jurati’s mouth quirked with just a hint of a smile.
They spent the next little while wandering past the rows of brightly painted game booths and food stalls that lined the bridge. It was all free, a gift to the young people who lived here, a chance to put aside the allegiances that dominated life on a daily basis. Whether it was the antiquated feuds between the Great Houses that still sometimes flared to violence or guild rivalries that went all the way back to the Age of Kings, in a city where everyone wore a badge, everyone, young or old, picked sides every day. The uneasy authority shared by the Guilds and Houses in the Civic Ministry only barely managed to keep control, and even the Bell Guard and the Black Shields clashed sometimes. The Trienelle Masquerade was one of the few times when none of that mattered, and the youth of the city could come together and celebrate without worrying about which side they were on.
Everything was crowded, but spirits were high, and nobody seemed to mind having to wait their turn. They tried a few of the games, throwing darts and tossing rings and knocking down a tower of tin cups with a cotton stuffed ball — well, Barris and Tierce did; Romeric lurked nearby, frowning, but they refused to let him spoil their fun. And when someone corralled passersby into a massive game of tug-of-war at the center of the bridge, they bullied him into joining them. After a fierce battle that lasted close to ten minutes, their side won. But only because the boys and girls on the other side all let go at once, sending them sprawling across the pavement on their asses.
“I need a drink,” Romeric groused as they sorted themselves out of the tangle of arms and legs.
Barris nodded his agreement, still grinning as he dusted off his trousers and straightened his cuffs.
It looked like everyone who had been in the tug-of-war had immediately headed for the nearby refreshments booths, though. “Maybe we should go-” Tierce started to say.
A frog-faced youth hopped suddenly into his path—Pash, his bulging eyes popping comically from his mask. “That was really great. I got you this,” he said, and pushed a full cup of bubbly cider into Tierce’s hand. He dashed off again before he had a chance to say thanks.
“What about us?” Romeric called after the youth as he scampered away, but Pash never glanced back. “Thrice-cursed tadpole.”
Barris eyed the cup in Tierce’s hand, mystified. “Why didn’t he bring us any?”
“Because we don’t have beautiful faces,” Romeric said with a snort. He grabbed the cider from Tierce and drained half of it before passing it to Barris. “Even with a terrible mask on, admirers find him somehow.”
“Very funny,” Tierce said.“It’s because I’m nice to him.“ Pash, the cook’s son, was often underfoot at the House, but Tierce did his best not to treat him as a pest. The same couldn’t be said of the other two, who alternated between ignoring the younger boy and teasing him relentlessly.
He tried to reclaim the cup, but Barris only smirked and moved it out of his reach. “How kind of you to share, Barbarian,” he taunted. But he’d only just just lifted the cup to drink when something made him sputter and choke. “What in Evod’s black sack is that?” he exclaimed.
Both Romeric and Tierce spun to see where he was looking, in time to watch a capering figure emerge from the crowd, brandishing an enormous, obviously fake sword as he strutted into view. He was wearing a shirt of vivid green, billowing purple trousers, with a multi-colored sash tied around his waist and gaudy paste jewelry around his neck. His leering mask featured an overly long nose — one matched in size by the equally prominent codpiece he wore over his groin. The figure had a short blond wig perched on his head.
“Is that…” Romeric’s eyes widened, “…supposed to be me?”
Tierce’s jaw dropped. Around them, people were laughing at the comic figure and his antics. In Rhemish theater, Jurati were often depicted as foppish clowns, with exaggerated features and boorish mannerisms just like this, so it was a familiar caricature in front of them…if not a comfortable one when you were standing next to an actual Jurati.
“I think it’s Cael,” Barris said, just as dumbfounded. He and Tierce exchanged a glance, unsure of what their friend’s reaction would be, but ready to step in if it became heated.
But Romeric surprised them both. “Huh,” he said. And then, “Is it wrong that I find this incredibly arousing?” They stared at him in disbelief as a wicked smile spread across his face. “Hey, Cael!” he shouted. The masked figure turned to look at him, raising its hands in feigned surprise when he spotted the target of his mockery. He wiggled his hips back and forth, and shook his sword like a rolling pin, making the bystanders laugh even more. It only made Romeric’s grin wider. “It’s too short,” he called out. “And I don’t mean the nose!”
The crowd roared with laughter. Cael paused in his antics, and Tierce didn’t think he imagined the quick glance he shot down at his codpiece. Romeric didn’t stay to see it, though. He turned his back on the scene and walked away, pausing only long enough to reclaim the cup of cider from Barris and drain it.
“I want to dance,” Tierce said somewhile later. Romeric, having dismissed Cael’s attempt at mockery as inconsequential, refused to talk about it further, except to say, “You know, for someone who claims to despise me, he went to much trouble to get my attention.”
They found more cider, played more games, and spent some time watching a puppet show about a trio of Eresti battling a vicious skriek. Now they found themselves near the southern end of the bridge, where a dancing pavilion had been erected. A lively reel filled the air around them, and Tierce could no longer resist its pull.
Romeric just shook his head. “I am not dancing.”
“I bet you would if Calette was there,” Barris said. “Or Cael.”
“Only if he took off that stupid mask.” He flapped his hands at them. “Just go. Have fun. Dance your boots bald. I will find something to eat.”
Tierce didn’t need another push. With Barris on his heels, he headed for the dancing floor, weaving his way through the crowd of watchers to claim a place in the lines forming for the next dance. It was crowded, like everywhere else at the Trienelle, but being pressed close together somehow made all the more fun — people were more worried about not bumping into one another than making sure all the steps were exactly right. The drums kicked up an energetic rhythm, horns and pipes filled in a festive melody, and the dancers whirled apart and spun together and hopped and jumped and sashayed and romped with boisterous abandon.
He wasn’t sure how long he’d been dancing when he first became aware of the girl next to him. She was wearing a fluttery green dress and a mask shaped like a butterfly, covered with beads that shimmered in the color-changing lights. She was making an effort, he realized, to stand beside him, again and again. Often enough that her hand began to feel almost familiar in his own, a sensation that, even damp with sweat from dancing, was not unpleasant. He found himself looking for her when the dance took her away from his side, a whirl of green across the floor, and when their hands touched again, he smiled.
She was at his side again when the next break in the music came, looking up at him with a soft smile on her lips. He opened his mouth to say something. Found he had no idea what he should say.
Her breathy laugh startled him out of a moment of panic. “Yes, I’d love it if you got me something to drink.”
Some words tumbled out of his mouth that he hoped meant, “Yes, of course, I’ll be right back,” and he dashed off into the crowd.
This is all right, he thought, waiting in the long line at the refreshment booth. This was perfectly normal. It’s what he’d decided to do. Meet a girl. Dance with her. Talk with her. Maybe more, depending how things —
A flash of blue to one side caught his attention, nearly shattering his resolve. But it was only one of the other Daenas, not Neda, and his breath wooshed out in relief.
Not that it should matter if it had been her, he reminded himself.
But he was glad it wasn’t.
He was busy making a list of clever things to say to the Butterfly (“What do you think of the decorations?”“Have you tried the games yet?” “You’re a good dancer.” “I really like your mask.”) when a familiar voice piped up beside him. “Tierce! You looked great out there dancing. You must be thirsty. You can have this.”
It was the familiar frog mask, holding out a cup filled to the brim with a deep red punch.
Taken by surprise, Tierce accepted the cup automatically. “Thanks, Pash. It’s not for me, though. It’s for…” He gestured back towards the dancing floor, where the Butterfly in her billowy green dress wiggled her fingers at him from afar.
“That girl?” Pash’s thirteen-year-old voice cracked on the question. “Do you like her?”
“I don’t know,” Tierce said. His thoughts whirled with his own uncertainties. “Maybe. I think she might like me. Are you sure it’s all right if I take this?”
“Yeah, sure.” But there was a slight hesitation before he spoke, and a twist in his voice that sounded like Tierce’s heart had felt the day Neda had kissed him.
The realization hit Tierce like a brick. “Oh, Pash. I’m sorry, I…” He halted, not sure what he could say. He tried to push the cup back into the boy’s hands. “Here. I’ll get another one.”
But Pash took a step back, shaking his head and avoiding the cup. “You keep it. I don’t want it.” Then he turned and fled into the crowd.
Tierce watched him go helplessly. For a moment, he thought about going after him, but a smarter part of him realized that would probably be the worst thing he could do right now. Pash was a good kid, and he liked him…but not the way the boy evidently seemed to like him. Chasing after him now would only make it more embarrassing for him.
Besides…he cast a glance back to where the Butterfly was waiting for him.
He had a quest to complete.
Punch in hand, he returned to the where she stood watching him, a laugh creasing the corners of her mouth.
“What was that all about?” she asked. He shook his head.
“Nothing. Just a friend.” He handed the cup to her, and she took a delicate sip, the punch dyeing her lips an even deeper shade of red.
“Mm, delicious.” She smiled at him sweetly. “Thank you. I’d offer you some but I’m not sure how you’d drink it with that mask.”
“It’s not easy,” he admitted, watching as she traced her finger along the lip of the cup.
“You could take it off.”
She giggled. “Yes. Maybe it’s too forward of me, but I’m very curious to see what you look like underneath that thing.”
“Really?” She nodded, but when he reached for his mask to remove it, she put a lace-gloved hand on his.
“Not here.” Her hand slid from his hand up and around his bare arm. “There are too many people around. Why don’t we go someplace else?”
“S-someplace else?” He almost managed not to stammer. “What — where do you want to go?”
The Butterfly tilted her head to one side and looked up at him. He could just make out the flutter of her lashes behind her mask. “Do you trust me?”
“Then come with me,” she said, tightening her hold on his bicep. “I know somewhere quiet. And private.” She started forward, tugging him along with her.
“It’s not far, I promise.”
“My friends. I should tell…”
She caught her lower lip between her teeth and it was like every thought in his head evaporated.
“…Never mind,” he said. “I’ll find them later.”
Her smile curled in satisfaction.
Be something you’re not, Tierce reminded himself every time his nerve started to fail him as they crossed the bridge heading north. He was not the sort of young man who ran off with girls he’d just met — but the Barbarian could be. This is all right, he told himself, thankful for the mask that hid the doubts that wouldn’t leave him alone despite his intentions. It also hid the way he turned to look at every flash of sky-blue fabric that crossed his path. None of them were her, but he knew, deep in his heart, if he were to see Neda at that moment, he wouldn’t have gone on.
At the north end of the bridge, the Old Palace loomed. Once the summer home of ancient kings, the palace had burned hundreds of years before, leaving only the elaborate facade standing, a hollow testament to history. The facade had been lit up for the masquerade, more colorful paper lanterns illuminating the intricately carved cornices and sculpted traceries, and the grand steps that led from the bridge up to the palace’s gateway were crowded with partygoers taking a break from the festivities. But the gate itself remained closed, locked and barred, forbidding entrance to anyone.
The Butterfly led Tierce up the steps, holding his hand as they climbed past other couples and small groups. Nobody paid them any attention. There were pedestals at the top, one on either side of the gate, massive blocks of stone that had once supported heraldic sculptures. They were empty now, except for the decorative bunting strung between them. With a swift glance to either side, as if to ensure no one was watching them, she pulled him into the shadows behind one of the pedestals.
“Can you keep a secret?” She was very close to him — with his back pressed up against the base of the pedestal, there was hardly any room for her between him and the old castle wall. He nodded, not sure he could trust his voice in this situation. With a giggle, she reached up and touched a spot on the pedestal somewhere above his head.
The stone behind him gave way.
He stumbled backward into darkness, only just catching himself in time to keep from tumbling down what, he quickly realized, was a narrow, twisting stairway. She giggled again at his startled gasp, but grabbed hold of his tunic to help him steady himself. When he had his feet under him again, she pushed in after him, shoving him back and down far enough so she could nudge the door shut once again.
“What is this place?” he whispered. The darkness had closed in around them, but instead of being afraid, Tierce felt a sudden thrill, quite separate from the thrill of having a young woman leaning up against you in the dark. This wasn’t just a tryst, it was an adventure.
A small light flared in her palm. The marble-sized mercy cast just enough light to make the beads of her mask glitter when she held it up. “I told you, it’s a secret. Come on.” She wriggled past him — an intense sensation — and started down the stairs. “I think it’s an old guard tunnel. Come on, I want to show you.”
He bumped his head against the ceiling when he followed, and had to go slower after to keep from doing it again. The stairs were steep, and twisted so sharply that he quickly lost site of her light. Relying on his sense of touch to guide him, he tried counting the steps on the way down, but lost track at fifty-something and gave it up. By the time the stairway opened up onto an equally dark and narrow corridor, he figured they must have descended close to river level.
He could just make out the glow of her light up ahead as he emerged from the stair. “Wait!” he hissed out, but she only giggled from afar, and the patter of her shoes on the floor got faster. Resigned and intrigued at the same time, there was nothing he could do but follow after her. One hand on each wall, he negotiated his way down the hall as quickly as he could. His fingers found several doors along the way, the rough wood distinct from the slick stone, and once or twice an open void that must be an alcove, or another passage. He didn’t stop to investigate.
It crossed his mind that Neda would like to see this, but he quickly swatted the thought away. This wasn’t the time to be thinking about her when he was here with…
He realized with an uncomfortable start that he didn’t even know the Butterfly’s name.
“What am I doing?” he muttered to himself. Be something you’re not. Where had that gotten him? Lost in the dark with someone he didn’t know, and no clue where he was going.
He’d been keeping his eye on the Butterfly’s bobbing light up ahead, but just then, it disappeared from view. He froze, staring into the blackness. He hadn’t decided yet whether or not he should panic when she once more popped into view. She waved him after her, then disappeared back through what must be another opening in the passage.
With a ragged sigh, he pulled his mask off with disgust. If he could just catch up with her, he would ask her to take him out of this place. And when he was out, he was going to find Neda and tell her how he felt. That’s all there was to it.
He hurried, as much as he dared, to the spot where she’d disappeared, and found the expected opening there on his right. He’d been right about being down by the river. The cavern where he found himself opened up on the water’s edge, though judging by the density of the shadows it must be under the bridge, or maybe under the palace itself. A hidden boat landing, he guessed, unused for ages. The Butterfly was standing on the far side, where a meager bit of moonlight had managed to find its way through.
“Listen-” he started to say, but another voice cut him off with an angry snarl.
“It’s the wrong-”
Then everything went black.
Here’s some exciting news!
A few months ago, I started posting City of Bridges on Wattpad, a social site for people to share their writing. It’s been doing moderately well there, for an in-progress work, and I promised myself that when I hit 1,000 views I would commission some character art as a celebration.
I hit that mark about two weeks ago (I don’t know exactly what day it was, because it was the same week I started a new job and I was a little brain dead). But when I realized I had, I sent in my order, and here it is!
I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out! Thanks so much to Dezeray (aka @oblivionsdream).
The boat pushed off from the dock right at sundown, the sky to the west still blazing like molten gold. But it was the moon rising in the east that held the attention of the boat’s passengers, a swollen disk of silver rising into the twilit sky, casting its enchantment on this midsummer night.
Gliding with the river’s swift current, the hired boatmen barely had to lift their oars out of the water at all. With experienced hands, they guided the sleek vessel along the curves of the river, maneuvering it neatly under bridges and past glowing beacons that marked a safe course through the crowded waterways.
The Frog sat in the prow of the boat, leaning out over the water, eager for the first glimpse of their downstream destination. Every so often, when it caught a rill of choppy current, the boat dipped down low and water splashed him with its cool fingers, making him laugh.
“Be careful, Pash,” the Princess said from behind him. “Your father will kill me if you fall in.”
He turned his head to grin at her, but of course she couldn’t see him, because of the mask, so he went ahead and stuck out his tongue, too, something he would never have dared at home. Not that she would have cared, but his father would have given him a whack with his biggest spoon if he’d caught him at it. It was just one of the reasons he loved the sculpted paper mask, with its bulging eyes and pink tongue lolling out the side of the too-wide mouth. It had been a birthday present, just two days past. You had to be thirteen to go to the Triennial masquerade, and he’d made it just under the beam. He couldn’t wait to discover all the delightful entertainments the ball had waiting for him.
Despite her words of warning, the Princess looked just as excited as he was. She was dressed in an old-fashioned looking warrior’s outfit, with a sweeping surcoat of blue, tall boots, and bits of armor strapped onto her arms and shoulders. She even had a sword at her side, which was okay for tonight, since she was supposed to be Daena and it wasn’t a real sword anyway. Her mask was an intricate fretwork of gold wire winding over the upper half of her face before spreading out in two wings that wrapped around her head.
“If he falls in, he can just swim the rest of the way,” said the Ghost from further back in the boat. “Like a good little tadpole.
“I’m a frog!” the Frog snapped back, and emphasized his point by hopping, frog-like, where he crouched on the prow. The whole boat rocked forward when he did it, alarming all the passengers, but especially the Ghost, who grabbed at the gunwale with an oath.
“Enough of that!” one of the boatmen called out from the rear. “Everyone stay in their seats, if you please.”
“Come and sit with us, Pash,” the Barbarian offered, sliding to one side on the bench. “There’s room over here.”
If anyone else had asked it of him, he would have refused, but the Barbarian had a strange pull on the Frog that he was only just beginning to understand. He didn’t care much for the mask he was wearing—the leather was shaped like some kind of animal skull, with a crest of spiky feathers and embedded metal thorns instead of teeth. But it was paired with a sleeveless leather tunic that showed off his long, tan arms, lean with muscle from hours practicing with a sword. He succumbed to temptation, and scrambled back to the benches to take the offered seat.
The Ghost was still glowering at him. “Are we going to have to babysit this tadpole all night?” he asked.
“I’m a frog!” he protested again, and sprang to his feet. Or at least, tried to. The Barbarian and the Bull each caught him by a shoulder and forced him back to the bench before he could make the boat rock again.
“Stop provoking him, Romeric,” the Bull said sternly. “Pash can take care of himself at the ball. All we have to do is make sure he gets back in the boat at the end of the night. Right?” Even through the the eyes of his mask, the Frog could feel the weight of the Bull’s gaze weighing on him, full of expectation, and he nodded his head quickly. Of all the older boys’ costumes, he liked the Bull’s the best. The stern countenance of the bull was shaped in deep brown velvet, and the horns set with chips of obsidian that glittered in the silver moonlight. The clothes he’d chosen to go with it were almost ordinary in cut and style, except that they were made of brown velvet, too, and covered with embroidery, a colorful, swirling pattern of vines and flowers that was sumptuous and ornate, a design that drew the eye with its intricate complexity.
“Let’s just all relax,” the Princess said. She reached over and nudged the Ghost in the arm. “Try and have a good time.”
The Ghost rolled his eyes. He hadn’t even bothered to wear a mask. Instead, a slash of black paint crossed his face right at the eyes, looking kind of like a mask, but not really. He was dressed in plain white, without even his usual jewelry for adornment. The Frog wasn’t even sure what he was supposed to be. When he’d asked earlier, he’d only curled his lip in response and said, “Respectable.”
“Is there really going to be a fight tonight?” he asked, turning away from the surly Ghost.
The Bull tilted his horned head slightly. “Who told you that?”
The Frog shrugged, but didn’t say anything. The truth was he’d overheard his father the cook talking about it with one of the housekeepers, who had overheard the boys talking about it a few days beforehand. But you weren’t supposed to gossip about people in the House, no matter what role they served. He wasn’t going to get anyone in trouble for talking.
“There’s not going to be a fight,” the Princess said. “There will be too many people there for anyone to make trouble.” She said it convincingly, but all the same, he saw each of the three older boys furtively reach for their swords, as if checking to see that they were still there. The Frog did not have a sword—he knew a little swordsmanship, but he was too young to carry one of his own. Anyway, he wanted to be a musician, not a swordsman when he grew up. His other birthday present, along with the mask, had been a second-hand viol, and you couldn’t be a great viol player if your hands were callused from wielding a sword. All the same…
“If there is a fight,” he said, lifting his chin up boldly, “then I’ll fight with you.”
“What do you mean, Pash?” The Barbarian pushed his mask up off his face to look at him with a concerned expression. “You can’t be serious.”
“There’s not going to be a fight,” the Princess reiterated. “And if there was, you certainly can’t…”
“You don’t even have a weapon,” the Bull pointed out.
“Doesn’t matter.” The Frog felt a little bullheaded himself just now. “I’m a member of Fleuracy House, too. I have a right to defend the house’s honor. I can use my fists. Or, I don’t know, kick ‘em in the nuts.”
The Ghost burst out with a startled laugh. “You’ve got spirit, tadpole,” he said, and punched him in the shoulder.
The Barbarian smiled at him approvingly. “That’s really brave, Pash. But Neda’s right. Probably nothing is going to happen.”
“But if it does, promise you won’t leave me out of it.” He looked between the four faces surrounding him, saw the others turn, expectantly, to the Bull. The Frog fixed his gaze on him too. “Promise?”
There was a long moment where everyone was quiet, and then the Bull nodded. “All right. Just try not to get yourself killed.”
The Frog beamed under his mask. The Ghost clouted him in the arm again, and then the Barbarian tossed an arm companionably around his shoulders. His face flushed hot and he was even more glad of the mask then he was before. He was just thinking that maybe he wasn’t in such a rush to get to the masquerade after all, when one of the boatmen called out, “Palace Bridge” and, ahead of them on the river, a fantastic panorama of lights and colors hove into view.
They had arrived.
“What do you mean, he’s not coming?” Barris said to the sharp-nosed fox standing next to him.
“He said he hates masks. ‘They smell bad. They make your face sweat.’” Neda lowered the fox mask from her face to show off her unsympathetic impression of Romeric, her words stretched out with ridiculous flourishes in an exaggerated imitation of his Jurati accent. “‘You can-not see properly. You can-not flirt. You can-not fight. Masks are stupid.’” She sniffed in faux disdain, then rolled her eyes.
“Oh, brother,” Barris shook his head and put the leather salamander mask he had been inspecting back on the display stand, between a snarling bear and a fanged wildcat that was uncomfortably familiar, and much too lifelike. “You’d think, knowing him, that he’d jump at the chance to show off.”
“I guess not.” She pointed towards the of the bridge, where Romeric was heading off with a peeved expression on his face. One of the most annoying things about the Jurati newcomer was his incessant cheerfulness, so it was surprising to see him looking so sour. Barris doubted it was all about masks.
“He’s probably just moping because Calette Averre won’t return his letters.”
Neda giggled and linked arms with him, drawing him away from the stall. “It doesn’t matter. He can stay home and mope, and you, Tierce and I can have a great time without him. Where is Tierce anyway?”
“No idea,” he answered without bothering to look around for his friend. It was a rare treat to have Neda to himself for a moment. Better still, walking arm in arm with her, even if it was only as far as the next booth. Out in the sun, her tawny skin glowed golden, and she had her hair, as straight and black as his own, tied up in a pony tail. It bobbed jauntily as they wove their way along the crowded thoroughfare, offering a pleasing view of her slender neck. He pushed that thought away as quickly as it came, though. They were friends, nothing more. Friends who enjoyed a certain closeness that came from having lived in the same house for five years. That was all.
Still. It was nice.
They stopped at a small stand with a fantastic array of feathered masks on display. He reached for one sporting brown plumage and a prominent beak. “Maybe Tierce and I could be hawks,” he said as he held it up in front of himself. “For Fleuracy House.”
“Ugh!” Neda made a face. “You’re so predictable. The point is to be something you’re not.” She grabbed the biggest, most ostentatious mask in the stall, a multi-colored monstrosity with a crest of fluttering peacock plumes, and held it up to him instead. “Perfect!” she laughed.
Enveloped by the gaudy feathers, he suppressed a moment of panic. ”I don’t thinks so.” He pushed it away—and instantly regretted it when he saw her disappointed expression. She gave him an exasperated sigh and dropped the mask back on its stand.
“I’m going to go find Tierce. His father is a performer, so he must know at least a little about showmanship.”
She pivoted on her toes and marched away into the crowd. Barris watched her go, her pony tail swaying back and forth, taunting him for his cowardice.
The new market stalls had gone up on Great Furzon Bridge just this morning, squeezed in between the usual peddlers and produce stands, a riot of color and creativity that made it feel almost like a festival. Young people darted between the usual market-goers, zigzagging from vendor to vendor in a flurry of enthusiasm that not even the oppressive summer heat could dull. The Triennial Masquerade only happened every third year, after all. Even Barris had to admit he was excited about it.
He had not attended the last one. An awkward and isolated fourteen-year-old, he hadn’t felt ready yet to come face to face with his peers—former peers—in such a social situation. He’d stayed in Fleuracy House that night and waited for Neda to come home and tell him all about it. The Palace Bridge decked out with garlands and glowing lights. Costumed youths swirling in a cacophony of games and dancing. The music, the food, the laughter…it all seemed impossibly wonderful, and also terrifying.
He was actually sorry to hear that Romeric didn’t want to go. He’d come to like the high-spirited young blade better than he thought he would. Yes, he was too flamboyant, and often deliberately irritating, but there was something about his reckless attitude that Barris found provocative. At first it had annoyed and angered him, but more and more, especially since that night on Soz Bridge, it felt like a challenge. Romeric did what he liked without worrying what other people thought about it. Shameless, he’d heard the house cook call him. Barris was all too intimate with shame.
While he was trying to figure out how he could persuade Romeric to come to the masquerade anyway, his attention was caught by another display of masks. These were simple ovals of clay, painted with comic faces in shockingly bright colors. He stepped closer, and picked one of the faces at random from the rack. Bloated purple lips, spiky blue eyebrows, cheeks painted with lime-colored hearts. You’re supposed to be something you’re not, Neda had said. Well, this certainly qualified. Taking a deep breath, he slipped it on over his head.
Of course nothing happened. It was just a mask, after all. It wasn’t like it was going to transform him into something ridiculous. It wasn’t even going to make anyone look at him funny, not when they were all busy trying on masks of their own. It was only his own fear of drawing attention to himself that made him anxious. Blend in. Don’t get noticed. Don’t do anything that might attract criticism. Those were the rules he’d lived by for the past few years, hoping people might forget who he was. Maybe, he thought to himself, it was time to relax a little.
He laughed at himself, shaking his head as he pulled off the mask. He was reaching to put it back when someone snatched it out of his hands.
“Barris Aderen, what do you think you’re doing?”
The unexpected fury of the words jolted him back. One, two steps. And then, seeing the young woman brandishing the mask at him with a white-knuckled grip, he froze. He knew her immediately. Sindera Vallen. They’d grown up together, had even been friends when they prepared their First Offering together. But it had been almost five years since they’d spoken. She was tall, now, almost as tall as Barris, with long black hair that fell straight down her back and sharp features that were made even sharper by her anger.
“Do you think this is going to make a difference?” Each word was a hot spike she threw at him, blistering in the glare of the noontime sun. She thrust the mask forward, inches from his face. Barris didn’t react. Not visibly, at least. Inside, he felt her anger slice into him, tearing at the few tatters of confidence he had managed to patch together after all this time. Around them, passersby had stopped to watch, their wondering gazes only adding to the uncomfortable pressure building in his chest. “Do you think,” Sindera said, “a stupid, painted mask is going to hide who you are?”
With an abrupt gesture, she threw the mask at his feet. It shattered, fragments of painted clay scattering across the cobblestones. Barris managed not to flinch, which only seemed to inflame her more. “No one wants you there!” she shouted. “No one wants you here!” With impotent rage, she kicked at the shards of porcelain that littered the ground. One skittered sideways. Bounced errantly off the toe of his boot.
“Here, now!” The mask seller bustled out from behind her booth, “Who’s going to pay for that?”
“I will,” Barris said, his teeth clenched tight around the words. “I’ll pay for it.” He dug into the pouch on his belt for coins. “How much—”
“Are you sure you want to take money from an Aderen?” Sindera hissed. “Bridge killer money?”
The merchant had been reaching to accept the offered coins, but now she hesitated. Barris could almost see the gears churning in her head as she ran the calculations. In the end, she snatched the money from his hand, then stepped quickly back. “That’s the only mask an Aderen will get from me.” She gestured at the broken shards on the ground, then retreated quickly to the far side of the booth.
Sindera drew herself up, pushed her black hair back from her sweat-dotted forehead. Managed to reclaim something of the dignity that children of the Great Houses were supposed to uphold. Her eyes still burned with fire when she fixed Barris with them, though. “Don’t go to the masquerade,” she said, her words flush with intensity. “If you know what’s good for you.”
With that, she spun on her heel and stalked away. The crowd split around her, some of them shooting Barris their own hateful looks before following after her. Only when everyone else, with sidelong glances and hushed remarks, began to move along did Barris finally let his shoulders slump.
Do you think a mask will hide who you are?
He moved away from the booth, clay fragments crunching underfoot as he went. There was no crowd blocking his way now, at least. People stayed out of your way, when they didn’t trust you. He slipped through a space between market stalls and found a quiet spot along the bridge’s rail, where a hint of a breeze made it easier to breathe. He forced himself to unclench his fists, palms laid flat on the rail as he looked west. Somewhere there, hidden by the bends and bridges of the river, were the wrecks of once-grand abutments on either shore, all that remained of the Vallen Sun Bridge.
Five years. One-hundred and six lives. One-hundred and seven, if you counted his own father.
Some days, when he was feeling particularly pathetic, he counted himself as the hundred and eighth.
“Barris.” Someone put a hand on his arm and he recoiled from the touch, only recognizing Neda’s voice too late. Had she felt how badly he was shaking? Had she seen what happened? Watched as he was once again humiliated in public? He didn’t look at her. Didn’t want to see disappointment on her face again. Or sympathy.
Tierce slid up on his his other side. Cuffed him lightly on the shoulder but didn’t say anything. He didn’t need to. Just his presence, quiet and dependable, made Barris feel steadier inside.
“Thanks for staying out of it,” he said, his voice still taut.
“I just can’t believe they’re still trying to blame you. It’s not fair.”
“None of it’s fair, Tierce.” His hands wanted to make fists again, but he resisted, palms pressed flat into the smooth granite of the railing. “Sindera has every right to be angry. My father killed her brother. And her aunt and uncle. A whole lot of other people. They all have a right to be angry at someone.”
Neda huffed aloud. This time he looked at her, and she met his gaze with her shrewd, gray eyes. “Who do you get to be angry at, Barris?”
Her words startled him. “I’m not–“
He stopped himself mid-sentence, because he knew it wasn’t true. He was angry. He was always angry. He just never let anyone see it, even himself most of the time. He jerked his gaze away from Neda’s too-knowing expression. Acting on that anger wasn’t going to help anything, was it? It was anger that had ruined everything to begin with—his father’s anger. He wasn’t about to start making the same mistakes. He turned away, put his back to the river and the bridge that wasn’t there. He wasn’t his father. But he’d spent a long time paying the price for his crimes.
“What do you think she meant?” Tierce leaned against the rail beside him, looking back over the marketplace and its myriad of masks on display, the throng of lively youths swirling between them. “That you’ll be sorry if you go to the ball?”
“I…don’t know.” Barris furrowed his brow as he imagined the possibilities. Sindera had a few over-sized cousins, not to mention any number of like-minded friends among the Great Houses that would probably be happy to teach him a lesson. The question was, what form would that lesson take? Not knowing was the worst. It would be better—safer, easier—to heed the warning and just stay home. That’s the choice he usually made.
You’re supposed to be something you’re not.
Neda’s words ran through his mind again, and he looked at her sidelong. She was pretending to be interested in something on the far side of the bridge, but he could feel her attention on him as keenly as the point of a blade. He took a deep breath. Let it out again, and said, in a rush, before he let himself change his mind about it,
“I suppose I’ll have to go and find out.”
Standing in the foyer of Averre House, Romeric Esard listened to the argument going on upstairs and could not repress a smile. The angry words did not drift down the two flights of stairs so much as ricochet, reverberating off the marbled floors and paneled walls, off the life-size statues of bronze and copper and mirrors hung strategically to cast light throughout the vast, imposing entry hall. It was a house designed to amplify the status of the family who lived there. Right now, it only amplified their discord.
Cael’s words were the only ones he could make out distinctly, his anger sharpening his words to a sword’s point. “He’s lewd and treacherous!” “He tried to murder me! Twice!” “He’s nothing but a lecherous Jurati–the only thing he’s interested in is what’s under her skirts!”
He was talking about Romeric. By rights, he had cause to challenge for such insults, though the rules were somewhat squishy for situations like this, when the words were spoken in presumed privacy. And anyway, Romeric was more amused than offended. He’d known what he might expect when he’d set out this morning to keep his appointment with Calette. To be honest, he had been looking forward to it.
Calette, though quieter than her brother, was intractable in the face of his ire. He couldn’t hear what she said, but he imagined her, stubborn and willful, defending his honor, insisting that he be allowed to stay despite Cael’s objections. He imagined her grey eyes flashing, her delicate chin tilted up in defiance, lips pursed and firm. Ahh… He hoped he would have a chance to kiss those lips soon. He imagined that, too. Her mouth softening against his. The sweet taste of her breath as her lips parted. The heat of her body, pressing into his…
A door slammed upstairs, jolting him out of his reverie. There were footsteps on the stairs, hard-heeled boots slamming angrily against the marble, and he knew it must be Cael. He straightened his shoulders and pretended interest in the large portrait hanging in the foyer, a look of mild interest plastered on his face. Cael stopped on the first landing, and Romeric counted in his head to five before turning to meet the expected scowl with a bland smile.
“Is this your sister’s work?” he asked, gesturing at the portrait. It showed a middle-aged man, hair going gray at the temples, in a suit of clothes that was surely two decades out of date.
Cael snorted. “Not hardly.” His eyes never left Romeric, as if he could sear him with his gaze alone. With obvious effort, he forced himself to say, “You can come up.” His lip curled with annoyance. “Calette always gets what she wants.”
“Pretty girls usually do!” Romeric smiled brightly, genuine this time. He headed for the stairs with a spring in his step, excited that his reunion with Calette was imminent. He took the steps two at a time, but Cael blocked his path at the landing.
“I’m warning you, Jurati cur,” he growled in a low voice. “If you touch her, I’ll kill you.”
Romeric managed not to laugh in his face, but he couldn’t help grinning. The thought of Cael laying a hand on him was ridiculous, as was the idea that he had any say over who his sister could or could not be intimate with.
He leaned close and murmured, “I thought you said she always gets what she wants.” He offered his most lascivious smile, and slid past Cael without waiting for a reaction.
“That color is all wrong.” Calette studied Romeric through half-lowered lids. Her smoky eyelashes batted against her cheeks as she considered. “I’ll get something to wrap you with.”
“You do not like my shirt?” Romeric plucked at the billowy, bright blue fabric. He’d picked it out especially, guessing that, as an artist, she’d appreciate its dramatic character.
“I don’t want anything to distract from your eyes,” she said, rummaging in a trunk on the far side of the room. She pulled out a length of dark, woven fabric and brought it over to him. They were in one of the front rooms of the house, Romeric sitting in a straight-backed chair near a wide window that spilled sunlight over him like a cloak. An easel was set up nearby, and a table crowded with paintbrushes, oils, and jars of pigment. Calette had been serious when she’d said she wanted to paint him.
Across the room, Cael sprawled on upholstered settee, watching like a hawk as Calette settled the wrap around Romeric’s neck and shoulders. Whether he’d been assigned as chaperone or taken the duty on himself wasn’t clear. When Calette bent close to tuck a corner of his collar out of sight, Romeric murmured into her ear, “Does he have to stay?”
She only smile, unperturbed, and put her hand on his chin to position his head. “Have you ever had a portrait painted?”
“Once,” he admitted. “A few years ago.”
“Right after your victory at Warden’s Shore, no doubt,” Cael sneered lazily.
Romeric snapped his head to spit out a retort, but Calette caught his chin firmly with her fingertips and moved it back where she wanted it.
“Don’t move,” she admonished. And then her eyes caught his and held them, and he forgot why he’d wanted to move in the first place. She looked at him so long and so intently, that he began to think she was going to kiss him, right there in front of her brother. At least, that’s what he very much hoped was going to happen. When she broke off the gaze at last, and released her hold on his chin, he breathed a sigh of disappointment.
“Don’t move,” she said again, then took her seat behind the easel.
It turned out that sitting for a portrait was exactly as dull as he remembered it to be, even when the artist was a pretty girl you thought you might be in love with. Calette, her attention fixed entirely on the canvas in front of her, wasn’t even the least bit entertaining. If he tried to start a conversation, she shushed him immediately, and if he moved more than to blink his eyes, she reprimanded him with a sharp command to be still.
At least he could look at her while she painted. That was something. She was every bit as beautiful as he remembered from the day they met. She was wearing a simple linen dress with a paint-spattered smock over it, her black hair tied up in a wispy knot on the top of her head. She kept sticking brushes in her mouth to hold them, and somehow she had gotten a dab of yellow paint on the tip of her nose. She was absolutely wonderful, and only his wayward fantasies of what might come later kept him seated and unmoving for the duration.
It was almost perfect, except for Cael. Romeric could see him over his sister’s shoulder, watching with undisguised menace. While he wasn’t afraid of Cael, he was annoyed by his presence. It was unfair, really, how much he looked like his sister. Cael was taller and sturdier than Calette, but they had the same rounded features and heavy-lidded gray eyes that smoldered with suppressed feeling. Their combined fixed attention for hours on end was almost more than he could bear.
The sun had disappeared from the window by the time Calette finally sat back from the easel. “It’s done,” she said with a breathy sigh. She looked over her canvas with a dreamy smile that made Romeric’s heart throb. “You can move now.”
“I’m not sure I can,” he laughed. “I may be stuck here forever.” He stretched carefully, mindful of the stiffness in his neck and back. “Perhaps we might take a walk, you and I, to loosen up a little?” He smiled. Charming. Hopeful.
“Oh, that’s a nice idea. But I have to clean my brushes.” She stood up and began gathering her paintbrushes. “Cael will show you out.”
“Thank you so much for coming, Romeric. I’m sure we’ll see each other again sometime.”
“Sometime…?” he asked, but she was already gone through the door, leaving him staring after her in bewilderment.
Cael rose form his seat across the room, cackling lowly. “Let’s see what she’s come up with now.” He stepped to the easel to inspect the canvas Calette had left behind. “Oh, perfect.”
“What?” Romeric asked, suddenly suspicious. He pulled the wrap off as he stood and circled around the easel. The canvas there was small, not much more than a hand-span in height, the paint on it still wet and glistening. But what it showed was nothing he could understand. He’d been prepared for something amateurish, and he would have found something to praise regardless how poor a portrait it might have been. But it wasn’t a portrait at all. It was just a swirl of colors on the canvas, yellow and gold, mostly, with hints of brown and orange and green around the edges.
“I don’t understand,” he said, brow furrowed in consternation.
“I think it’s supposed to be your eyes,” Cael said, glancing towards him. Their gazes met briefly, and then Cael did a quick double-take. The look lasted longer this time, and Romeric did not miss the sudden flush of Cael’s cheeks, or the quick intake of breath.
Or the way his own heart sped up in response.
They had never stood so close to one another before, without swords or barrels or Calette between them. For the first time, he saw Cael just as himself, not an obstacle or opponent to overcome. There was no prideful disdain, no angry sneer. Just a young man, as taken aback by a moment of unexpected attraction as Romeric was himself.
He could have kissed Cael then, a kiss that would have been enthusiastically reciprocated. He could tell Cael wanted him to, the tension between them pulling him closer, the subtle parting of his lips. He was probably an excellent kisser, too. Part of him very much wanted to find out.
Instead, he forced himself to turn back to the painting. Said something suitably vague and confused about the abstract muddle of colors Calette had made.
He felt more than saw Cael take a half-step away, the tension between them snapping with an almost palpable recoil. When he spoke again, it was even more snide than usual. “Calette has a unique way of looking at the world,” he said. “It tends to lead her to trouble. Like you. Aren’t you supposed to be leaving?”
Romeric smirked at the gibe, but didn’t respond. It was better this way. He’d tried once before to woo a brother and sister at the same time, and it had ended badly. Better to keep Cael at an arm’s distance. Besides, his enmity only made his pursuit of Calette all the more interesting. Another hurdle to overcome, along with her own perplexing behavior.
Still, he allowed himself a margin of regret as he followed Cael back downstairs. That swordsman’s physique, after all. Not to mention how much fun it would have been to discover what shapes all that bluster and bravado would melt into under the heat of desire. Blessed Aratanne, he said in silent prayer, why do you test me this way?
“Don’t hurry back,” Cael said as he held the door open. His words were terse, his glare hard.
“Tell Calette it was a pleasure to see her. I look forward to spending time in her company again soon.”
Judging by the scornful expression on Cael’s face, he didn’t think the message was likely to be delivered. That was all right. He would make his own opportunity to see her again soon. He left Averre House with a jaunty step, taking perverse cheer in the force with which Cael slammed the door shut behind him. The afternoon hadn’t gone as expected, but no one had tried to kill him either, which made it a fair improvement over the last time he and Calette had met. The next time…well, he would just have to make sure there was a next time.
He stopped in the street and looked up at the house behind him. There, in the window he’d sat beside while posing, he saw the figure of a woman in a white dress. It was Calette, he was sure of it, and when she saw him, she placed a hand up against the glass, as if waving farewell. In response, he bent in grandiose, flourishing bow. He thought—he couldn’t be sure, from this distance—it made her laugh.
Romeric grinned. “Until next time, ailenia,” he said, even though he knew she couldn’t hear him. “Until next time.”
“You boys were out late last night.”
Sieur Eristan did not look up from the letter he was reading, so he missed the apprehensive looks his students shot back and forth across the table after he spoke.
Breakfast at Fleuracy House was not formal, but Eristan expected the three young men he mentored to arrive promptly each morning, prepared for whatever lessons or duties he might assign for the day. Romeric, still hazy-headed from last night’s misadventure, had barely made it on time this morning. Barris slunk in some time later, with Eristan’s daughter, Neda, right on his heels. She looked ever bit as weary as Romeric felt, making him wonder what she’d been up to while they’d been out.
Surprisingly, Tierce had been the first one at the table. He’d been barely conscious when they’d dumped him on his bed the night before, still mumbling about his “wish cat” and stinking of sour beer and vomit. Romeric had been certain they wouldn’t see him all day, but here he was, washed and groomed and neatly dressed, besides. Discipline had its virtues, he supposed. At least he looked miserable, staring at the plate of food in front of him with an expression that was equal parts queasy and mortified.
The awkward silence at the table dragged out, until Eristan eyed them over the top of his paper, eyebrows creased in critical appraisal.
“Yes, sir,” Barris answered finally, far too late to be at all useful in defusing suspicion.
Eristan surveyed their faces, tallying the bloodshot eyes, pasty cheeks, and generally haggard expressions. When he arrived at the unavoidable conclusion, he pursed his lips, but whether he was disappointed or amused, Romeric really couldn’t tell. He folded his letter neatly and set it next to his plate. “I was surprised when you didn’t come and ask me about the Bell.”
The Bell! After everything that had happened last night, they had completely forgotten the ringing of the Gatehouse Bell. “It was so late,” Romeric said, catching Barris’s eye across the table. “We did not wish to disturb you.”
“I see,” Eristan said. “I appreciate the consideration.” He looked at them expectantly, but no further questions were forthcoming. Frowning faintly, he turned his attention to his meal.
The scraping of utensils on plates was the only sound in the room for several long minutes. Breakfast this morning was the usual: smoked fish, crusty bread, summer-fresh melon and berries. Romeric had no appetite, but he forced himself to swallow a few mouthfuls for appearance’s sake. Barris, too, made an unenthusiastic show of trying to eat, though he was mostly just pushing food around his plate. Tierce didn’t even pretend. He kept his hands in his lap and his gaze down, food untouched in front of him. Romeric eyed him sidelong, wondering how much he actually remembered about the night before.
They had agreed to keep the events of the night to themselves. With no witnesses and only a mangled, nearly unidentifiable corpse as evidence, it seemed unlikely that anyone would believe they’d been attacked by some kind of magical beast in the middle of the city. If it weren’t for the deep scratches on his arm, Romeric wasn’t sure he would believe it himself. “We were all drinking,” he’d pointed out. “If we tell anyone, they only thing they will hear is that we killed a cat.” It was not a reputation any of them wanted to have to live down.
Neda, sitting on Romeric’s right, cleared her plate and took up a second helping for herself. Otherwise, the silence persisted, and Sieur Eristan seemed to grow increasingly irritated. Finally, he set down his fork and knife with an indignant huff.
“It was a wrouke, if anyone is curious,” he said.
Romeric didn’t recognize the word, but clearly Barris and Tierce did, judging by the way their faces drained of color. Neda, too, sat up with a sudden, sharp interest. “What is a wrouke?” he asked, the unfamiliar Rhemish word uncomfortable in his mouth.
“It’s…” Eristan frowned at himself. “I can’t recall the word in Jurati…”
“It’s a spirit,” Neda supplied with enthusiasm. “Summoned through a Gate by a mage, and bound to a host. Usually it’s some kind of animal.”
Romeric’s stomach lurched in a way that had nothing to do with food or hangovers. He understood what Neda and her father were talking about now, and why his friends were both looking so cursedly pale. “Maulath.” he said in a small voice. Literally, grief giver. There were stories about such creatures. Terrible stories. “In Jurat, it is maulith.”
“Maulith,” Eristan repeated, nodding. “Of course. You’re right to be concerned, Romeric,” he added, misreading his unsettled expression. “Wrouke are clever and dangerous, and those that summon them rarely have the skill to control them. That’s what happened last night. The Bell Guard found what was left of the rogue mage, but the beast had escaped into the city. It killed at least two other people, that we’re aware of. I’m glad you three managed to stay out of its path.”
“What happened?” Neda leaned forward, eager to hear the story. “Did they find it?” Romeric was fairly certain he already knew the answer to that question.
Eristan shook his head, looking bemused. “That’s the odd thing. They found its remains early this morning, near Soz Bridge.” He indicated the letter sitting next to him on the table. “It was bound to a cat, apparently, but there wasn’t much left of it.”
“They don’t know who killed it?” Barris asked. His face was twisted into an expression of consternation which would have been comical if Romeric hadn’t been feeling exactly the same thing.
“Not a clue. Which is a shame. I’m sure whoever is responsible would have been rewarded for it.”
Whoever was responsible. Now would be the time to speak up, wouldn’t it? Barris or Tierce would say something, Romeric was certain. Claim this notable deed on their behalf. But neither of them said a word, and neither did he. Self-consciously, he tugged at the cuff of his right sleeve, making sure the long scratches on his forearm were hidden from view. He tried to be furtive about it, but Neda, ever perceptive, saw him do it. Her eyes narrowed in suspicion.
Eristan, who had obviously been expecting a more spirited response from his pupils, glanced between them with exasperation. “I can see any attempts at studying mathematics or philosophy would be wasted today.” He pushed his chair back and rose from the table. “I think we’ll just concentrate on some conditioning exercises. Meet me out in the yard in a quarter hour, boys.”
“Yes, sir,” they chorused. If Eristan noticed the lack of enthusiasm in their responses at the prospect of hours of intense physical exercise, he paid it no mind.
As soon as he was out of the room, Neda made a grab for Romeric’s right arm and pushed up the sleeve, revealing the angry red lines running up to his elbow.
“Is that a cat scratch?” she demanded.
With a deft twist, Romeric extricated his arm from her grip. He fixed a lewd smirk on his face that he didn’t feel at all but hoped was convincing. “I really think she would not like to be called a cat,” he said, adding a sly wink for emphasis.
Neda didn’t like that answer. She scowled and turned to Tierce and Barris. “Well?”
Barris answered by shoving bread into his mouth. When she glared at him, he shrugged as if he had no clue what she was talking about. Tierce wouldn’t even look up at her.
With a wordless sound of frustration, she smacked her hands on the table, hard enough to make the dishes rattle with her fury. She stormed out, leaving the three boys alone in the dining room, each pondering their experience the night before, and what they had just learned about it.
They had agreed to keep the secret out of shame, but now it turned out there was nothing to be ashamed of, after all. They had fought a monstrous beast, a battle more desperate than epic, perhaps, but why stay quiet about it now, when they could be lauded as heroes?
Tierce began to laugh. It was not a particularly exuberant laugh, more of a hopeless snigger. Romeric looked at him, wondering if he was still drunk, or maybe insane. Tierce met his gaze with a glint in his green eyes, and just said one word.
Romeric snorted, and Barris choked on his mouthful of bread, spewing crumbs across the table, which only made Tierce laugh harder. And then they were all laughing, because, really, what else could they do? They laughed long enough and loud enough that Neda came back to give them a dirty look. Romeric understood then why none of them had spoken up when they had the chance. Rewards and acclaim were all well and good, but this bond between them now, a bond formed in blood and steel and secrets, that was something worth much, much more.
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“No one moves them.”
“Explain to me, then, why is it we never go the same way two times? It is because…”
“No one moves the bridges!”
“…everything is always changing!”
“Just because you’re an idiot who can’t…”
“Are you calling me an idiot?”
“…keep a straight line in your head.”
“Fuck your straight lines. There’s nothing straight in this thrice-cursed city.”
“You’re the one who’s fucked…wait. Where’s Tierce?”
Barris and Romeric both stopped dead in their tracks and looked back the way they’d come. They had nearly reached the Crow, the highest of the four bridges moored to the Shinetower Stair. It was the quickest route back to Fleuracy House but precarious, especially in the dark. It was not surprising, this late at night, that the stairway that spiraled up the outer face of the rock spire was deserted except for the two young men and Tierce, who had been right behind them moments ago. Now there was no sign of him.
“Tierce?” Barris called out. Then louder, “Tierce!”
The only answer was his own echo.
“Not good,” said Romeric. They shot down the stairs together, retracing their route, hoping they’d find him around each curve, only to get increasingly anxious when he failed to appear.
Romeric reached the next landing first, and he darted out onto the narrow span of the Bridge of Mercies to see if their inebriated friend had wandered that way by mistake. Barris continued down, his jaw clenched tight. The thin rope that ran along the edge of the uneven steps didn’t offer much protection, especially for anyone who had been drinking heavily. All it would take was one misstep and…Barris tried to push the thought from his mind, but couldn’t. It would be his fault if anything had happened to Tierce. He knew he’d had too much to drink, and he should have been paying more attention.
Another turn of the stairs around the spire brought Soz Bridge into view below. It stretched southward across the Cille, lined with archaic statuary and oil-burning torches that someone in the Soz-Yamae family still paid to have lit nightly. At first glance, Barris thought it was empty. But then a flash of movement towards the middle of the bridge caught his eye. He paused to look more closely, and a wave of relief rushed over him as he recognized Tierce wobbling unsteadily away from the tower.
“I see him!” he shouted up for Romeric before continuing his rush down the stairs. The steps wrapped twice more around the spire before he reached the bridge’s landing. By that time, Tierce had nearly reached the far end, where a picturesque arch marked the bridge’s terminus. He had stopped, though, and was leaning against the waist-high railing. No, not leaning–he was trying to climb over!
“Tierce!” Barris broke into a run. By the time he was close enough for the other boy to hear him over the dull roar of the river below, Tierce had managed to sling one leg up onto the railing and was scrambling for purchase to haul the rest of himself up after.
“Tierce,” he yelled again, this time close enough that his shout startled him. He slid from his precarious perch to land on the bridge in a heap. Barris skidded to a stop near him and exclaimed, “What by Sarrel’s twisted tit are you doing?”
It was an indicator of how drunk Tierce was that he didn’t take offense at the obscenity. His startled expression shifted into a smile as he recognized Barris. “I’m fol’wing th’ zwishka!” he answered, and then broke into giggles at his own unintelligible statement. “No, no! Not the zwishka.” With great care, he enunciated the words again. “The zwishka!”
“Great,” Barris exhaled. Five minutes ago, he was had been drunk enough himself that he would have found Tierce’s nonsense amusing. But the sheer panic of Tierce’s disappearance, and the fear he might have plunged to his death off the twisting stair tower, had burned away the remnants of his own inebriation. Now, he simply dreaded the prospect of hauling his drunken friend home.
Romeric caught up with them just then, panting. “Everything is fine?” he huffed. “Tierce, you all right?”
Tierce was struggling to rise, and Barris leaned over to give him a hand. The smell of beer and puke was disgusting, but he managed to get his friend upright. “I’m chasing the zwishka.” He giggled again and swayed precariously on his feet.
“What the fuck is a zwishka?” Romeric asked.
“I don’t know. Help me with him. I don’t think we want to try Shinetower again.”
“Oh, feh! He stinks!”
“Tell me about it.” With one of them on each arm, they managed to get their friend pointed towards the southern end of the bridge. “Time to go home, Tierce.”
“Don’t wanna go home. Gotta get a wish!” With an unexpected twist, he freed himself of their grasp and started to run. Sort of. It was really more of a fast shuffle, but at least he was as headed in the right direction. Swaying and unsteady, he made it all the way to the archway at the end of the bridge before he careened over an unseen flight of steps and sprawled face first into the plaza beyond.
Romeric let out of string of Jurati curses as they watched him fall, and Barris groaned in exasperation. “We’re going to laugh about this tomorrow,” he said, trying very hard to believe it.
“After I punch him in the face,” Romeric grumbled. They smirked at one another in companionable solidarity, then went to pick up their friend.
By the time they reached him, Tierce had managed to roll over and was grinning like a fool. He pointed up at the arch that was behind them now and said, quite clearly, “Wish cat!”
“Wish cat? Is that what you—“
A frightful screech cut off the rest of what Barris was about to say, and the next instant something large and heavy landed on his back. Tierce’s eyes went wide and he heard Romeric shout something, but mostly he was only aware of the spitting, hissing beast that was now on top of him. He dropped under the weight of its impact, knees hitting hard against the stone pavement. Claws, needle-sharp, dug through the fabric of his shirt and he flailed with his arms to try and dislodge whatever it was.
Then, just as fast as it had pounced, it launched itself into the air again.
Romeric moved fast, his sword out, putting himself between the thing and his two friends as it came down in the middle of the plaza. It was a cat, Barris could see as he choked in a breath. But a cat that was the size of a large dog, and glowing. Dusky red light glinted through its bristling fur, shooting sparks and flashes of fire when it moved. Teeth bared, back arched, it whirled to face them with another wild, angry scream.
“I don’t think it likes you,” Tierce said, looking up at Barris in a daze.
The cat charged. Romeric swung his blade in a smooth arc to intercept it, but at the last second the cat…flickered. One moment it was there, and then, with a shimmer of light, it was somewhere else. The sword swished through nothing but a rainbow afterimage.
“Get up.” Barris grabbed Tierce and hauled him up. His back stung and his knees were throbbing, but he didn’t have time to worry about that now. As Tierce teetered to his feet, Barris shoved him back towards the arch, one hand on his arm to keep him steady. With his other, he drew his own sword from its scabbard.
Meanwhile, Romeric pivoted to face the cat again, which had reappeared on the opposite side of the plaza. It crouched, tail lashing. Its low growl threaded the air. Romeric didn’t wait for it to pounce this time, but dove towards it, his sword a flash of steel as he closed in to strike. For an instant, it looked like he was going to succeed, but at the last moment the cat sprang to the right, lithely avoiding the blade. Then, with an almost lazy, sideways swipe of its paw, it raked its claws along his right arm. Romeric cried out in pain and dropped his sword.
As the weapon clattered to the pavement, the cat’s cinder-spark eyes fixed on Tierce from across the plaza, and it began to stalk.
Barris was still standing between it and his friend, and he raised his sword defensively. The cat hissed and flexed a paw, extending stiletto-thin claws of glittering crimson. He could swear the thing was bigger now than it had been just a few moments before—waist-high at least, sleek and strong and vicious. He gripped the hilt tightly with both hands and braced for the assault.
“Watch out!” Tierce shouted as he pushed Barris from behind. He staggered sideways just as the cat lashed out and his sword swung wide. But the cat missed, too, and it yowled in frustration, even as it gathered itself to attack once again. Only when he was face to face the the cat himself did Tierce realize his mistake. He backed away in a hurry. Two, three steps…and then he tripped over the low steps under the arch and crashed once more to the ground. The cat sprang, claws outstretched, a feral howl pouring from its throat.
“Tierce!” Romeric shouted, too far to do anything but watch in horror.
Barris didn’t think. With all the force he could muster, he thrust his sword at the beast as it swept past. The blade plunged deep into its middle. The shock of the blow pounded up the length of his arms and hammered the cat, screaming, to the ground. Color blazed through its fur, red flaring into green and gold and violet, coiling together with otherworldly radiance. The creature’s writhing yanked the sword from Barris’ hands and he stumbled back, clear of its thrashing claws. It didn’t stay down long. In mere seconds, it staggered back to its feet and lunged once again for Tierce.
Tierce yelped in fear and tried, awkwardly, to scramble away. Frantic, Barris threw himself after the glowing cat and grabbed hold of the only thing he could reach—its tail. He wrenched it as hard as he could, the memory of the cat’s claws gauging into his back fueling his effort. Hauled it back. Managed to drag it to a stop just inches shy of where Tierce lay. “Move, Tierce!” he hollered. “Romeric, help!”
The cat howled, claws rasping on stone as it struggled to pull itself loose. It was faltering, though. The wound he’d given it had weakened it. The wild colors rippling through its fur seemed more intense by the second. Tierce, roused to near sensibility by Barris’s shout, raised his feet and pummeled the cat in the face with his heels. That cat jerked its head back. Let out a half-strangled wail.
And then, bless the Hands, Romeric was beside Tierce. With his sword in his left hand, he brought the blade up in a swift, sharp stroke. The silver-engraved blade sliced across the cat’s exposed throat.
The cat didn’t bleed, so much as shatter.
Everything in the plaza did too.
It was the opposite of an explosion. Light. Color. Sound. Breath. Thought. Sucked in. Taken some other place where everything was one thing and so nothing actually existed. Barris felt, because all he could do was feel. What he felt was boundless. Chaotic. Energy, clotted with imperfection. Threading through it, the thin pulse of awareness. It—whatever it was—consumed him and became him and disgorged him all at once.
And then it was over. It might have lasted an eternity or the blink of an eye, Barris was never really sure. Only that when he could breathe again, see again, think again, he and his two friends were staring at one another over a shapeless pile of bones and fur that might once have been a cat.
Romeric, breathing heavily, injured right arm tucked against his belly, gestured with his sword at the corpse. Opened his mouth like he wanted to say something, but then closed it again with a frustrated grimace. Barris understood. There were no words to explain anything that had just happened. Not yet, at least. He climbed shakily to his feet. Pushed aside any thought except the need to get home.
It was Tierce who broke the silence, finally, after Barris and Romeric had helped him get to his feet once again. He frowned down at what was left of the cat, his eyebrows knotted together in dismay. His forlorn whisper seemed loud in that heavy silence.
“I never got my wish.”
They were drunk when they stumbled out of the Point. A bad way to start an adventure, Tierce would later reflect. But on the other hand, if they’d been completely sober, there might not have been an adventure at all.
“I can’t believe you’re really going to see her again,” Barris said as the door swung shut on the noisy tavern behind them. It was a warm evening with no need for coats or coverings as the trio headed across the Bridge of Blades. The bridge was dark, but they were armed and had drunk just enough to be unconcerned about potential dangers. They moved unhurriedly, relaxed and easy in each other’s company.
“Why not?” Romeric flashed a smile at his friends. It was the same, not-quite-decent smile he’d had when he described the encounter with his “ailenia” earlier in the evening. “I think she likes me.”
“Her brother is gonna kill you when he finds out,” Tierce said. Of the three, he’d had the most to drink. Or at least, he had the least experience handling it. His words felt thick in his mouth, and he had to concentrate to make sure they came out in the right order. Talking and walking at the same time were proving to be a particular challenge, though he was sure he could compensate if he just spoke louder.
“Cael?” Romeric dismissed the notion with a snort, but the others were not convinced. Barris shot him a dour look.
“Besides Cael,” he said. “Her parents will never approve. Even if you have money, they’re never going to let her marry a foreigner.”
Romeric’s laugh was sharp and shameless. “Marry? Who said anything about marry? I just think she’s pretty.” He thumped Barris in the arm, Barris pushed him back, and then they shoved each other back and forth in a brief contest that was gloriously inconclusive.
It’s why he’d gone to the tavern in the first place, because he was so confused and frustrated by what had happened in the garden that he couldn’t even think about going home. The others had found him there later and joined him in drowning his sorrows without needing to ask what they were. Which was just as well because how could ever tell them about what had happened?
Head spinning, heart aching, Tierce swayed on his feet in middle of the Bridge of Blades, unable to stop the maelstrom of conflicting emotions that assaulted him. For the first time since he came to Corregal, he wished that he’d never met Sieur Eristan, because then he never would have met his beautiful daughter, who never would be, never could be, his. He wished he’d never come to Corregal at all.
“Tierce?” The other two had stopped their scuffling long enough to notice his apparent distress. Barris peered at him with concern. “Are you all right?”
“I think he is going to be sick,” said Romeric.
Tierce opened his mouth, but whether he was actually going to be sick, or whether he was going to disgorge some heartbroken confession to his friends, he was never sure because, at that moment, there was a sound. A great, reverberating peal that rose out of the darkness upriver and echoed off the sides of the gorge, splintering the quiet of the night.
The Gatehouse bell.
Whatever thoughts they had in their heads disappeared in an instant, and the three boys craned their heads simultaneously toward the source of the sound.
“D’you think it’s a skreik?” Tierce asked in a low, worried voice.
Romeric shook his head. “In the city? It is too well protected.”
Barris only listened, counting silently as the bell rang out twice more and then fell silent. “Three chimes,” he said as the last of the echoes died away. “It’s just a warning. Not a summons.”
“Warning for what?” It was Romeric who asked, but they were all wondering the same thing, staring upriver in the darkness to where the Gatehouse lay. Every Gatehouse ever built had a bell hung over the doorway, used to alert locals in times of crisis. Even in cities as great as Corregal, warded by means both magic and military, the sound of the bell sent a shiver through the stoutest hearts. There were plenty of ordinary dangers in the world, but when the Gatehouse bell spoke…that meant something worse.
“Come on,” Barris said, finally, gesturing them onward. “Sieur Eristan probably knows. Let’s get home.”
It was late enough at night that the streets and bridges of the city were mostly deserted. As the trio hurried toward Fleuracy House, they only passed a few people, usually in groups of three or more and usually in just as much a hurry as they were. Once, they crossed paths with a Black Shield patrol but got nothing worse than warning looks from the officers before going on their way. Bridge abutments, terraced landings, and the difficult geography of the riverside city made it impossible to take a direct route anywhere. They had to cross the river multiple times to get home, and the quickest route was via Shinetower Stair.
Shinetower was a massive spire of rock that jutted out from the cliff at the point where the Cille River met the Aris. Four bridges were anchored in the spire, each at a different height and splayed at odd angles across the rivers, and a slender watchtower perched upon its peak. Carved into the face of the rock, a stairway spiraled down the spire’s length, connecting the tower, the bridges, and an ancient boat dock at its base. Steep, uneven steps, with nothing but a rope to protect against a fall, made the twisting stair a difficult path to take on the best of days. But it was the fastest, and for the three inebriated young men in a hurry to get home, it was the best.
Tierce tried to keep up with his friends, but the higher they climbed, the dizzier he got and the slower his steps became. They didn’t notice when he fell behind or when, overcome by a wave of sudden nausea, he finally stopped. Catching his shoulder against the wall of the tower, he tried to steady himself. He knew he was going to vomit, but he refused to do it there on the stairs. He might be drunk, but he was not disgusting. He remembered passing a bridge landing just a short distance back, and quickly (as quickly as he could), he headed back down, one hand pressed against his mouth to delay the inevitable. Somehow, he managed to keep his feet under him as he went, and in a few short turns he found the wide platform that led the way onto Soz Bridge.
The breeze coming over the river was invigorating, but not enough to stop his rebellious stomach. Clutching the bridge rail, he leaned out and spewed the contents of his stomach into the river below.
When he was empty, he slid to the ground, propped listlessly against the railing as he tried to recover his breath.
That’s when he saw the cat. It was sitting on the railing on the opposite side of the bridge. It was a bit larger than most cats, but it was treating him with the same disregard with which most cats treated the world. There was nothing unusual in that. There were plenty of cats in Corregal. What was unusual was that it was glowing. Red, shimmering light dusted the creature’s black fur, and it flickered and sparked whenever it moved.
“Cats don’t glow,” Tierce mumbled in drunken confusion.
“Maybe I am not a real cat.”
Tierce blinked. The cat blinked back at him with eyes that shone with eerie reflections.
“Did you just…” He stopped himself. Shook his head to try and clear it. “I’m not having a conversation with a cat.”
“That would be ridiculous,” the cat agreed. It stood and stretched itself down to the toes, a lithe and languorous movement that ruffled its sleek fur and caused its glowing red light to shift in color, from red to blue to green and back to red again. As it settled back into place, it seemed somehow bigger in size.
“I am so drunk,” Tierce said. He wondered what had happened to his friends. Surely, they hadn’t left him to wander the city in this condition. He rubbed a hand over his eyes, hoping it would make a difference, but the cat was still sitting there when he was done. Still glowing.
“If you’re not a cat,” he asked it, “what are you?”
“I’m exactly what you wish,” the cat said with a swish of its tail. “And you are wasting time.” It took a few light-footed steps along the railing, away from the entrance to Shinetower. Then it paused to look back at Tierce. “Are you coming?”
Artwork credit: Lucy Womack (by commission)