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.
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.”
Everything hurt, but that was all right. She’d earned it. Stretched flat on the ground in the abandoned garden, Neda couldn’t repress a ridiculous grin. Tierce probably thought she was crazy, but she didn’t care. For the first time in her life, she felt like she was doing exactly what she was meant to be doing, and it was glorious. Bruised limbs and aching muscles were a fair price to pay for fulfilling a lifelong dream.
“We should go soon.” Tierce was sitting on a half-broken bench nearby, tying up the bundle that held the wooden swords they’d been practicing with. Unfairly, he looked barely winded after their two-hour workout, and no sweatier than anyone else might in the middle of a hot summer afternoon. Neda, by contrast, felt like someone had sloshed a bucket of rancid water over her.
“I don’t think I can move just yet,” she had to admit. To forestall the inevitable apology, she quickly added, “Thank you for not going easy on me.”
“It’s the same routine your father used to put me through when I was just starting.” He still sounded apologetic but added a word of encouragement. “You’ll get used to it.”
She laughed, remembering. “When you first came to Fleuracy House, you only left your room for lessons and meals. And you never talked. I thought there was something wrong with you.”
He ducked his head and a wavy lock of his dark brown hair flopped over his face. “I was just exhausted all the time.”
Tierce had been barely fifteen years old when he’d come to Corregal, all on his own. He’d spent two weeks haunting the Blade by day and sleeping in the alleys of Landslip before Neda’s father, Sieur Eristan Fleuracy, had found him and took him in to his household as a student. Though clearly grateful for the opportunity he’d been given, it had taken him weeks to settle comfortably into his new surroundings. Once she had gotten to know him a little better, he confided that, as the son of a traveling minstrel, he’d never lived anywhere longer than a month or two at most. It was no wonder it’d taken him time to adjust to living in an actual home.
She rolled over onto her belly and rested her chin on folded hands too look at him. “What’s it like, in Batair?”
“Colder,” he said. “And wetter.”
“That’s not what I mean. What’s it like to live where women can be warriors? Are they different?”
“I don’t know. I never really thought about it.” He seemed to consider the question for a moment and then grinned. “My first teacher was a girl. Her parents were in guard service to the earl of West Tolk, so she thought she knew a thing or two.”
“She was ten. I was twelve. I think she just liked having an excuse to boss someone around.” Neda couldn’t help laughing, and his cheeks reddened with good-humored chagrin. “I don’t think I learned much, but it was a start. I might not be here if it weren’t for her putting a sword in my hands.”
He stood and crossed the garden, bundle in hand, to where a shed slumped against the wall. The garden was oddly shaped, wedged between a rocky slope and sharply angled walls. As far as Neda could tell, it wasn’t attached to any of the surrounding properties—there wasn’t even a proper gate, just a narrow opening blocked by a few wood planks that Tierce had moved aside for them to enter. She had no idea how he’d found the place, but as hidden and forgotten as it was in the midst of the noisy smithies and workshops of the Hammeroad District, there was little chance that their training sessions would be noticed by anyone.
“We can leave these here for next time,” he said, disappearing inside the shed. He was only gone a moment before he emerged again, dusting off his hands.
“Tomorrow?” Neda smiled hopefully, but now it was his turn to laugh.
“I doubt it.” He gave her a wry, appraising look. “If you can move at all tomorrow, I’ll be impressed.”
Neda groaned as she rolled over to her back again, but even the promise of worse pain to come couldn’t dull her happiness. The blue in the sky overhead was starting to deepen in color, a sign that the afternoon was starting to wane. Even in midsummer, night fell early in Corregal, tucked as it was along the gorge of the Cille river. She’d have to get home soon if she was going to wash and change in time for dinner.
“Just tell me it’s worth it,” she said as Tierce extended a hand to help her rise. “Am I any good?”
“You’re the best student I’ve ever had.” He said it with such seriousness that it gave her a moment’s pause before she realized he was teasing her.
She aimed a kick at his shin that he easily avoided. “I’m your only student, you louse!”
He broke into another grin and pulled her to her feet. His hand was warm and strong in hers, and she could feel the rough places where he’d earned calluses from long hours wielding a sword. I’ll have those someday, too, she thought to herself.
He did not release her hand once she was standing. Instead, his face grew serious again. “Neda, I promise you I’m not going to change my mind about any of this. But I think you should tell your father what we’re doing.”
With that earnest expression on his too-handsome face, Neda almost gave in to him. Almost. She could appreciate his concern. She was uncomfortable keeping such a secret from her parents, especially when there was so much risk involved. But she wasn’t ready to give up her dream yet on the mere hope that her father might understand why she wanted it so badly.
“I’ll think about it.” She pulled her hand free from his and used it to pull the damp hair from the back of her neck. It wasn’t quite a lie—she would think about it, even if she already knew what her decision would be. But Tierce seemed satisfied.
He motioned her toward the hidden entry. “You go first. We probably shouldn’t be seen coming and going together.”
Neda nodded in agreement. It wasn’t just a matter of reputation if they were found out. There were laws in Corregal about women wielding swords. They were both taking a risk. She took a half-step toward the gate before turning back to him. “Thank you, Tierce. You can’t know how much this means to me.”
He started to smile, that sheepish little half-smile that was so adorable, and before she knew what she was doing, she leaned forward and kissed him. Not on the cheek, which might have been all right, but on the mouth. It was so fast that Tierce didn’t even have time to react before she pulled back. She caught only a glimpse of his startled expression as she turned and fled.
She was through the gate and two streets away before she slowed down enough to chide herself. Foolish, she thought. Unkind. She knew how Tierce felt about her. He’d never acted on his infatuation, but she’d felt it. It was unfair to suggest that anything but friendship was possible between them, not while he still lived in her father’s house. Even if she had spent a pleasant daydream or two entertaining the notion of just such a dalliance.
And hadn’t his lips been just as soft as she’d always imagined they would be?
She gave herself a vicious pinch to force the memory from her mind. She had to pinch herself three more times before she reached home. At least one thing was certain, she ruefully reflected as she plodded up the hill toward the House. This was one impulse she couldn’t blame on Evod.
Every Gatehouse was built with one purpose: to impose order on the wild energies that spewed through the empyreal Gate and into the world. Even amid the opulent and unconventional architecture of the Corregal Gatehouse, that sense of order was absolute, apparent in every aspect of its design. in each sharp corner, every measured archway, even the placement of the windows in the high gallery overlooking the assembly hall. For most people, the effect was as comforting as walking into a mother’s embrace.
Jaciel Oura was not one of those people. Her skin prickled whenever she came to the Gatehouse, and her teeth itched. More irritating than painful, she often likened the sensation to having fallen asleep on an anthill. Once, at the urging of a sympathetic cleric, she had tried to overcome the problem by spending more time at the Gatehouse instead of less, and volunteered for a year of service as an acolyte, hoping the constant exposure would inure her to the discomfort. But by the end of the first week, her hair was standing on end all the time, and after a month she was practically sparking whenever anyone so much as touched her. She said goodbye to the Gatehouse soon after, and made it a habit to visit as seldom as possible.
Needless to say, it was not the place she would have chosen for a meeting, but her employer had insisted. And, naturally, her employer was now late.
She took refuge in a window embrasure to wait. The assembly hall, which bridged the river itself, was crowded at this time of day, and no one paid her much attention. She watched the people coming and going, making their petitions at the three alters to the Hands of the Broken God, some silent, some singing, some smiling, some weeping, depending on the need that had brought them here. Priests and priestesses moved among them, providing guidance and support as they might. Twice, she saw them usher ill or injured individuals towards the healer’s sanctuary, when a more intensive ministration was required. Meanwhile, members of the Bell Guard patrolled the periphery, more an honor guard than from any real need to keep the peace.
The only good thing about having to be here was that her arm was already starting to feel better, as being closer to the gate’s power worked to ease the discomfort of her wound, even without a prayer or ministration. Her leather coat had taken most of the damage from the girl’s small knife, leaving only a shallow, two-inch gash in the flesh of her bicep. She had cleaned and bandaged it herself, and would not have sought healing at the Gatehouse for something so minor. But if she had to be here anyway, at least she was getting some benefit from it.
She saw Taline Sabenay long before the Maestra of Sabenay House saw her. Taline was hard to miss, sweeping up the length of the assembly hall in an ornate gown that probably dated back to the last years of the empire, with her head held high and eyes flashing when “lesser” folk were not quick enough to hurry out of her way. Sabenay was an ancient and prestigious house (if lately reduced in fortune) and Taline was not about about to let anyone forget it.
Bypassing the first of the altars – Sarrel’s was always the most crowded – Taline made her imperious way up the broad stairs to the second altar, which was dedicated to Evod. Because where else would you plan a secret meeting with your hired informer than at the feet the Grey Watcher? Jaciel wondered why the woman insisted at playing games of intrigue when she was so ill-suited for subtlety.
She waited until Taline had lit a candle on the altar, and seated herself on one of the benches surrounding it, before she emerged from her nook to join her. Dressed in a plain brown tunic with her Porter’s badge on the shoulder, she felt invisible next to the grandiosity of Maestra Taline, lost in the shadow of violet silk, rudfled lace, and embroidered trim.
“Well?” Fabric rustled as Maestra Taline moved her skirts aside to make room on the stone seat. She spared no time for civilities. “Tell me about the Jurati.”
“I had four men waylay him on Crosslight Road, just as you asked. He was able to take them down without raising a sweat.” Granted, the men she had hired had been little more than thugs, not skilled swordsmen, but the Jurati was still young, and he’d handled the ambush with remarkable aplomb. Jaciel was not afraid to let her admiration show.
Taline’s face was flushed with barely contained excitement. She had never been an attractive woman, and now, nearing the end of middle age, she eschewed the sort of quiet dignity that was normally expected of women like her. Her clothes were ostentatious, her personality more so. She said what she wanted, the way she wanted, with little regard for the conventions of polite society. There’s no time for such foolishness, she often said, in the face of all I must accomplish. It was this audacious attitude that had attracted Jaciel to her service in the first place, and kept her there despite other opportunities that now and then arose.
“Four men and you,” Taline said, the fight playing out in her imagination. “He’s better than you expected.”
“He is, Maestra. I’d say he has the potential to be one of the best swordsmen in the city.”
“Can we get him away from Fleuracy House?” She had a habit of gnawing on her thumb when thinking, and she did that now, as if worrying the problem with her teeth.
“He was sent to Sieur Eristan, by someone. I don’t know by whom, or why, but I suspect he’d need a good reason to leave.” Jaciel shrugged. “If you offered him enough money, maybe.”
A dark look crossed the Maestra’s face. “If I had that kind of money I would not be in this position in the first place. We’ll have to find some other way to persuade him.”
“But why, Maestra?” Jaciel was used to carrying out odd missions for her mistress, no questions asked. But Taline’s fixation on the Jurati was more than a little odd. “What is one swordsman going to do for you? No matter how good he is?”
“Do not question me on this, Jaciel.” Taline spoke sharply, drawing curious looks from nearby petitioners. She glared back, until the gazes, daunted by her ferocity, turned away again. When she spoke again, she kept her voice low, but it trembled with intensity. “Three days, I lit a candle to Thest and asked to be shown the path to restoring my House’s fortune. Three nights, I dreamt of a drawn sword. The very next day, you came to me with news of this Jurati wonder.” She reached out and grasped Jaciel’s hand. “Don’t you see? He is meant for me. Do not question me on this.”
There was no room in Taline Sabenay for doubt, and though Jaciel could still not see how the Jurati presented any kind of solution, she could not deny the force of her employer’s belief that he would. “No, Maestra, I will not,” she said, choosing to trust in the vision, even if were not her own.
Taline nodded once and withdrew her hand from Jaciel’s. Her attention turned again to the altar before them, with its scores of candles flickering in a subtle draft. “If he will not leave Fleuracy House on his own, we must find some way to have him removed.”
The fading ache in her arm gave Jaciel the answer right away. Leaning towards the other woman, she kept her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “He was with a girl…”
“Where is it we are going, ailenia?” Romeric asked again as he followed Calette up another row of steps. He hadn’t been paying attention. The river was behind them now, with all its cursed, confusing bridges, but the maze of terraced streets that climbed the hillside was no less a puzzle to him.
“It’s not much farther.” She tightened her grip on the fabric of his shirtsleeve. She had latched onto him like that back on Drennan Bridge – not his arm, just the sleeve – and not let go since, fingers twined in the fabric as if she was afraid he’d get away. She led him through the city this way, weaving through the crowds with unexplained urgency. Every so often she’d point to some notable landmark and name it for him, but she never told him where they were going.
The road they traveled now was more stairway than street, broken every few hundred steps by wide terraces that allowed access to side streets and rows of modest shophouses. She stopped now, several steps above him so that their heights were equal. Smitten, he thought, as she stared into his eyes again. Her own were a dusky gray, with drooping eyelids that made her look only half awake, still lost in some dream of the shifting sunlit river. He couldn’t help smiling at the attention, and mirrored her scrutiny with his own, intense and intimate. It made her blush, which made him smile more. Visibly flustered, she turned away and began to climb again.
“What does it mean?” she asked as she led him upward. “Ailenia?” Her tongue tangled on the unfamiliar word.
“It means…’ Romeric hesitated before settling on a suitable translation. “Dear.” A more accurate description would have been woman I plan on bedding very, very soon, but he wasn’t sure how she’d respond to that just yet.
“Ailenia.” She tried the word again, and got the pronunciation right this time. She glimpsed at him over her shoulder, not quite shy. “Ailenia.”
He knew he was grinning ridiculously as he let her pull him along, but he couldn’t help himself. He had not had much opportunity to meet many young women in this new city. Those to whom he’d been introduced were different than girls at home, cloaked in a reserve of propriety that he hadn’t yet figured out how to penetrate. Neda was off limits, of course. Her father had made that clear from the start. If even the hint of a romantic notion came to Sieur Fleuracy’s attention, Romeric would find himself badgeless and with nowhere to go. Barris and Tierce were hampered with the same restriction – not that it had stopped either one of them from falling in love with her. It was amusing, really, watching the pair of them struggle to hide their affections. He suspected they weren’t fooling anyone but each other.
It had been Barris who sent him to the wrong bridge. Whether it was a welcome-to-the-neighborhood joke or some more malicious intent at work, Romeric didn’t know. Either way, he would have to thank him for it later. If it hadn’t been on the wrong Drennan Bridge he never would have met Calette.
From the first moment he first saw her, wedged through the bridge railing so she could stare at the water below, he had been captivated. It wasn’t the sort of thing ordinary girls did, which made her instantly interesting. And then, when he’d finally gotten her attention and she’d looked up at him with those sun-dazzled eyes and soft black hair tumbling around her face, she turned out to be quite pleasing to look at. Plump cheeks, honey-colored skin, rosy lips that kept tempting him to kiss her…
The fact that she was Cael Averre’s sister had nothing to do with his sudden affection. He dismissed that idea the moment it popped into his head. Oh, he had to admit a certain sense of satisfaction at having stuffed the blustering prick’s self-importance back down his own throat the two times they’d met – some people were just asking for it – but aside from Barris’ gloomy predictions of retribution, he’d not given Cael a second thought since the day on the river. No, there was nothing perverse in sudden desire to woo his would-be adversary’s sister. He just liked her. A lot.
Because he was busy falling in love, he wasn’t paying that much attention to where they were going. Which is why, when he stopped abruptly in the middle of the next terrace, it took him a moment to figure out what had jerked his attention away from her.
“Almost there.” Calette yanked on his sleeve. But when he didn’t move again she stopped to look at him. “What’s wrong?”
Uncertainly, he looked around, trying to discern what had made him so suddenly wary. But the terrace was quiet, with only the tinkling of the fountain to interrupt the peaceful…
“There are no people,” he realized. Though two major side streets intersected with the stair-road here, and a number of prosperous looking shops faced the square, there was not a single person in sight – not even a peddler, or a beggar, or a distant passerby. No one.
Calette frowned, looking more confused than worried. Impatient, she pulled on his arm again, but he brushed off her hold and reached for the sword at his hip.
“You should run.”
She opened her mouth to protest, even as the swordmen he was expecting stepped out of their hiding places across the square. “Run!”
This time, she listened. With a look of fear settling over her lovely features, she dashed past him, back the way they’d come.
Smart girl, he thought. At least they knew there were people back that way. He pulled his sword from its scabbard and turned to face the pair of assailants who were coming at him quickly now. He felt his heart quicken in anticipation as they showed their own weapons. But he wasn’t afraid. Not for himself, at any rate.
After all, he’d fought at Warden’s Shore.
The first one to come at him was the biggest, dressed in roughspun clothes with a scarf tied over the lower part of his face to hide his features. His sword was just as rough, big but with no finesse to it’s lines, and probably no strength in its forging. But it could kill him just as dead if given the opportunity. His attack came fast, sword heaving over the shoulder in a downward arc that Romeric flicked away with his own blade as he dodged out of reach.
Rather than follow up with an attack of his own, he let the man’s momentum carry him past, then darted around to confront the second attacker coming up behind. This one was dressed much the same as the first, but with a full mask covering his face. Romeric didn’t need to see his face to tell he was surprised to find himself embattled so quickly. His sword, prettier than the first man’s, jerked up in surprise, just as Romeric had expected. With a neat twist of his own blade, he knocked the weapon from the assailants hand and followed it up with a jab that pierced the man just below the ribcage – not deep, but enough to take him out of this particular skirmish.
Romeric slid past him as he fell, turning on the ball of his foot to face the first attacker once again, just as he heard a cry of dismay from Calette. With a glance in that direction he confirmed what he had expected – a third assailant had come up the stair behind them. Calette flailed against him, but could nothing to help her until he’d dealt with his own opponent.
The big man came at him, more cautiously this time, but with no less energy behind his blows. Romeric’s slender Arrenal blade was surprisingly resilient against the broad gash of steel that was his opponent’s sword – but that’s why you paid so much for a weapon like his. He knew he was better armed, and after the first flurry of exchanged blows, he knew he was the better swordsman. All the same, there was no playfulness in his defense this time, not like when he had dueled on the Bridge. Each time he swung his sword it was in deadly earnest. Twice, he cut the man with the edge of his blade, once on the arm, once on the face, while keeping himself clear of the reciprocating blows. The third time his sword connected with flesh, it was a deep thrust into the man’s shoulder that made him jump back with shout of pain. Romeric wrenched his sword free and swung low as the big man’s sword clanged to the ground. A slice across the hamstring sent him toppling to the ground.
Romeric did not watch him fall, but whipped around to find Calette.
There were three swordsmen blocking the way down the stairs now – no, two men, swords at the ready, and a woman who had Calette in her grasp. Calette, her dark hair in even greater disarray then it had been, looked more perturbed than dismayed.
He paused, not sure if rushing forward would endanger her more than she already was.
“Interesting,” the woman said, and gestured for the two men to move forward. “That was even better than I exp- Ah!”
With a sharp cry, the woman jerked away from Calette who – somehow, Romeric saw – had a knife in her hand. A knife she’d just plunged into the arm of her captor.
The two swordsmen paused, and in their moment of confusion Romeric charged forward. He swung his sword at the head of one, and kicked at the kneecap of the other. The sword missed, but a satisfying crunch resulted when his foot connected with the kneecap. He did not pause to gloat, just caught up Calette’s hand and ran.
They were halfway to the river before he let them slow, both of them panting as he became aware that the wary looks he and his sword were getting from the now-plentiful afternoon crowd of passersby. Huffing, he slid it back into its scabbard before anyone thought to make a scene. Calette’s knife had already disappeared. Women, he remembered, were not allowed to carry blades in Corregal.
“Are you all right?” he asked, trying to catch his breath. His heart was still racing from the brief exertion, and now that the threat was receding – there was no sign of pursuit – he allowed himself to feel the thrill of battle just past. He’d been good, and he knew it. Four against one, if you didn’t count the woman, and they hadn’t come close to touching him with their weapons. He beamed with exhilaration.
Calette raked her hands through her hair, trying to smooth it. “I’m fine,” she said, with a dissatisfied frown. “But I didn’t get my paint.”
“I was going to… Never mind.” She exhaled a lengthy sigh, and looked up into his eyes again, almost plaintive in her study of him. “You’ll just have to come to the house.”
“Ailenia, I would be happy to come and visit you whenever you ask it, but -”
“Don’t worry, I won’t tell Cael you almost got me killed.”
Startled, Romeric blinked. “They weren’t… I mean, they couldn’t have been…why do you think they were after me?”
She tapped the badge of House Averre pinned to her shoulder, which depicted a golden coin ablaze with sun-like rays. “Nobody would attack Averre House anonymously. Anyone stupid enough to come after me would want my father to know who did it. But those men didn’t have any badges at all, and it was too organized to have been a random robbery. That means they had to be after you for some reason.”
Romeric cursed himself inwardly. He had totally overlooked the missing badges in the midst of the fight. It was such a peculiar Corregal custom, this badge-wearing. He’d barely even noticed Calette’s badge (her lips were so much more worthy of his attention). Now he realized for the first time that the badge for Fleuracy House that he himself wore made him immediately identifiable to anyone who saw him. The thought was more than a little unnerving.
Shouts sounded from further up the road.
“Shields!” Calette murmured, then quickened her pace. “They’ll have found those men you stabbed. Best get as far away as we can.”
Hurrying to keep up with her, Romeric cast a wary glance over his shoulder. “We were attacked. They wouldn’t arrest me for defending–”
“Oh, yes they would! It’s the only way to stop the Houses from warring against one another, by arresting everyone involved in a swordfight. If you’re not on the Blade, and you injure someone with a sword, you’ll spend time in Blackbridge.”
The foot of the stair-road deposited them onto a wide thoroughfare that ran parallel to the river Aris. The road was crowded with people going in every direction, and Romeric stopped, not sure which direction to go. He turned to Calette, only to find her backing away from him. “Come to the house tomorrow,” she told him. “No! The next day. That will give me time to find the right colors.”
“Colors for what?”
A smile fluttered across Calette’s face, the first she’d actually shown him since they met, and he felt his heart lurch in response. At that moment, she could have told him to fly across the river and he would have attempted it.
“I’m going to paint you!” she laughed, her grey eyes sparkling like the river. And then she was gone, darting between one passerby and the next before he even had time to react.
He tried to follow, calling out her name, “Calette!” But he couldn’t get through the crowd quickly enough to see which way she had gone. He ignored the aggrieved looks he earned as he shoved people out of his way, and called out again. “Ailena!”
But it was useless. He couldn’t see her anywhere, and he could not begin to guess which direction. It doesn’t matter, he consoled himself. You’ll see her again soon. Two days was not so long to wait to see the woman you were in love with. Assuming he could find his way to Averre House.
And then he swore, and smacked himself in the the forehead with the heel of his hand. The bridge! She had said she would show him where the right Drennan Bridge was, so he could deliver the parcel Sieur Fleuracy had entrusted to him. But now she was gone, and he still had no idea where he was supposed to go. He wasn’t even sure he could find his way back home from here.
Grumbling at himself and at this thrice-cursed maze of a city, he straightened his tunic and adjusted the weight of his sword belt around his hips. Then, picking a direction at random, he headed off to lose himself once again in the City of Bridges.
Calette knelt at the midpoint of the bridge beside the rail, heedless of her rumpled silk skirts and the braids that had come loose from their silver pins. Twisted awkwardly, she could maneuver both head and shoulders between the carved posts. Occasional passersby cast odd looks her way, she didn’t notice. She was lost in the sun-dappled waters of the river Aris.
Long ago, the posts of the balustrade had been carved to resemble notable members of the House that had built the bridge. You could see hints of faces here and there – a sharp nose, a dimpled chin, a mouth twisted into an ingratiating smile. The rest worn into obscurity by time and weather. No one remembered who they were anymore. Calette, when she was little, had made up names for them, and tried to guess how each one was related to the next. But even those apocryphal identities were lost to them now.
She had chosen this sparsely traveled bridge for her quest because she knew there would be few travelers to disturb her. There were more convenient bridges along the Aris, and more picaresque ones too. Only those who were lost would come this way, or those on quests of their own. She would be left alone. That, and the spaces in the balustrade that were just wide enough room for a slender, sixteen-year-old girl to lean through if she sought an unimpeded view of the river below.
Illumination was the purpose of her quest.
The river was full of the light. With the sun high overhead and the summer sky nearly white with heat, the luminous current was an ever-changing panorama that Calette sought to memorize. It wasn’t, she realized, something most people paid attention to. The structure of light. The way it moved upon the water – or through the water. Transparent one moment, opaque the next. She wanted to learn it, to remember it, so she could paint it.
As she stared into the river, she kept her eyes open, not even blinking. To close her eyes even for an instant would separate her from the light she sought to know. So she let herself become mesmerized by its movement, let it fill her awareness until she forgot everything but the light. Adrift in shifting patterns of light and dark, she even forgot about her body in its awkward perch on the bridge. Dissolving, she thought. Soon, she herself would be nothing but light…
“Your pardon? This is the Drennan Bridge?”
The richly accented voice splintered Calette’s concentration. She dragged her gaze away from the water to squint at the young man crouched beside her. Sparkling.
“What?” The sparkles were disconcerting. Feeling strange and disconnected, she wondered briefly if he were real, or some dream sent to her by Thest.
“I said, ‘can you help me’.” The apparition smiled at her. Judging by bemused expression on his face, he had been there for some time, trying to get her attention. “What did you see in the river that was so fascinating?”
She pressed her fingertips against her eyelids, awareness gradually trickling back through her senses. “Nothing. Everything.” The sensation of being permeated with light dissipated. When she looked at him again, the spots of light in her vision were mostly gone. The only sparkles left were those from the gems in his ears, winking at her through the blond curls. “I know who you are,” she realized suddenly.
He seemed surprised, and something subtle in him shifted. “I did not realize I was famous already,” he said. His casual expression masked an inner tension, more felt than seen.
“On the boat,” she told him, disappointed that he wasn’t some dream or vision after all. She squirmed to free herself from between the posts. One of them grabbed at her hair with a carved elbow as she wriggled past, pulling lose the last silver pin. It dropped away, one last fluttering sparkle before it disappeared into the river. Sighing, she untangled her feet from her skirts, smoothed the subtle violet silk, stood. “When you knocked Cael into the river.”
He laughed and rose to stand beside her, wariness gone in an instant. “Oh, that! You were in the boat? I am surprised I did not notice you. I almost always notice the pretty girls. You will have to excuse me for being too distracted just then.”
She feigned a smile, but paid little heed to his unsubtle flattery. Her mind was filled with light, still, even if her eyes weren’t, and she wanted to remember it. More to the point, how could she capture the effect in paint? She could see the hues she would need in her head, but how to ask the pigment-maker for them? She was fairly certain there was no pigment named “glint” or “glimmer.”
“So…you are a friend of Cael’s?”
“Not exactly.” Perhaps she was approaching it wrong. Maybe it had more to do with the colors one left off the canvas instead of the ones you put on.She caught at one of the fallen braids, tugged at it absently.
“Good. I hope that means you and I can be friends.”
The young Jurati – she couldn’t remember if she’d ever heard his name – was not distracted now. Somehow, he had ended up closer to her, though she would swear that he hadn’t moved at all. So close she could taste the spice of his last meal on his breath. So close that she could see the each of the hairs in the golden down that lined his chin. And on his chest, too, where his open-necked shirt revealed far more than any proper Corregan would dream of. So close that when the light caught his eyes…
She caught her breath in her throat. Those eyes. Standing there on the bridge, the same light danced across his hazel eyes that had danced across the surface of the water. No one in Evreme had eyes so light, so it had never occurred to her to look in such a place for the colors she was seeking. But here it was in front of her, the very a palette she was seeking, in the eyes of a foreigner. Who was she to deny that the hands of the Broken God might sometimes reach out to those in need?
When she spoke, she had to keep her voice low to control the shaking. “What is it you want?”
“Only to spend some time in your company—”
She threw up a hand, pressed her fingers against his lips to silence him. “No, no. Why did you stop here. To speak to me now?” She lowered her hand again, but kept her eyes locked on his, light-touched, studying them with the same intensity as she had watched the water.
Somehow, he managed to look both canny and abashed at the same time when he told her. “I need of directions. This city …” He waved a hand, encompassing the entire maze of bridges and terraced streets that made up Corregal. “All these bridges. I admit I am lost. I must have crossed this bridge a twelve times before I decided I must ask for help.”
There were one hundred and twenty-seven bridges, crossing the two rivers. Even Calette, having lived here her whole life, could not claim to know the city’s every turning. It did not surprise her that someone so new here would lose his way. She allowed a little sympathy to share her awe at her discovery. “Where are you supposed to be?”
“Drennan Bridge?” He pulled a small, cloth-wrapped packet from his belt, and a slip of paper that he held out to her. “Sieur Eristan asked me to deliver this.”
She glanced briefly at the writing on the paper, then back up into his remarkable hazel eyes once again. “This is Drennan Bridge,” she told him, “but it’s the wrong Drennan Bridge.”
“The wrong…” With a groan, the young foreigner slumped against the railing. “Are you telling me there are two Drennan Bridges in this thrice-cursed city?”
“Three, actually.” Calette nibbled on the end of her braid, seeing an opportunity in his consternation. “It’s a… quirk. The one you want is over the Cille.” The story of the Drennan ones was a long one, several generations in the making, but she didn’t think he was interested in the details just now. He had come a long way out of his way to reach this Drennan Bridge, coming from Sieur Eristan’s House. She wondered who had given him his directions. Or if, indeed, some otherworldy hand had reached out to lead him to her. “I can take you there…” she said, saw his expression brighten in response. “But you have to come with me somewhere first.”
His smile deepened. “You’re not going to lead me off to seduce me, are you?”
She felt herself blush. Belatedly, she realized she had given him entirely the wrong impression, gazing so intently into his eyes. He was Jurati, for goodness sake! The islanders’ worship of the heretical Fourth Hand gave dispensation for all manner of licentious behavior, her father said. This one, bold enough to wear Aratanne’s symbol on a chain around his neck, probably thought she was besotted with him.
“It’s not safe.” She blurted out the first excuse she could think of to explain herself. His eyebrow quirked a question. “Where we’re going. It’s not safe. You have a sword. For protection.”
“Ah,” he said, one hand automatically moving to the hilt at his waist. He smiled still. “So I do. And I would be happy to escort you wherever it is you need to go, ailenia. But perhaps you will do one small favor for me first?”
She hesitated. He was probably jesting about the seduction, but the truth was she was desperate for the light he carried in his eyes she wasn’t sure she wouldn’t give in to his advances, if he made any.
The Jurati chuckled then, seeing her unease. His eyes shined with good-natured charm. “Your name, ailenia. That’s all I ask. Your name.”
“Oh!” she said, feeling a surge of relief, and after that a surprising tinge of regret. All he wanted was her name. That seemed a fair trade for what she hoped to get. So she gave it to him.
To be continued…
Edited Oct 21 2012: Stylistic changes mostly. But also changed the name of the POV char.