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The Gantean

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The Gantean

Tales of Blood & Light Book One

Emily June Street

Contents

Dedication

MAP OF LETHEMIA

After the Fall

PART I

1. One

2. Two

3. Three

4. Four

5. Five

6. Six

7. Seven

8. Eight

9. Nine

PART II

10. Ten

11. Eleven

12. Twelve

13. Thirteen

14. Fourteen

15. Fifteen

16. Sixteen

17. Seventeen

PART III

18. Eighteen

19. Nineteen

20. Twenty

21. Twenty-One

22. Twenty-Two

PART IV

23. Twenty-Three

24. Twenty-Four

25. Twenty-Five

26. Twenty-Six

27. Twenty-Seven

28. Twenty-Eight

29. Twenty-Nine

Gantean Glossary

Cast of Characters

Coming Soon

Acknowledgments

About the Author

Also by Luminous Creatures Press

Copyright

For Beth, who read it first

and gave me the courage

to pursue the dream.

After the Fall

Tell[_ me a tale of Gante_], people once said when they heard of my homeland. There are no tales of Gante, I would reply. We did not have tales as the sayantaq did, for making merry, for song and feast. In Gante, our stories were all locked up in secrets. What stories we had were but fragments, the pieces hard to find and fit, the words that formed them only whispers. The Elders said it must be so, to protect our ways, our magic, our Hinge. We were Iksraqtaq—the raw, real people—and our stories were not to be shared with others.

Few people ask for tales of Gante anymore. They no longer recall that I was once Gantean, a barbarian to them. Or maybe they have forgotten their curiosity, as they have forgotten that the Ganteans once stood alone, a people separate from Lethemia.

My son’s tutors say Gante is a barren island, cold and uninhabitable, without merit for cultivation or trade. Destroyed, they say. They speak with the surety of southerners, as if there could be no other truth.

I do not correct them. Silence is a long habit of mine.

I know what Ganteans protected for centuries, what lies fallow, or sleeping, or dead on my cold isle. I was raised to respect silence and secrets both, and old ways stick to me like flakes of snow on wool. I am in no hurry to delve into those secrets. Someday, perhaps. Someday, when my boy is older and he might share the burden on my shoulders. If any of my scattered people still respect Gantean ways, my choices have led me too far from them to ever go back. I have done so much they would frown upon, and keeping my own blood-son bound to me is not the least of my transgressions.

I am sayantaq, cooked like a southerner, through and through. After years living amongst the soft people, I have come to appreciate a welcome embrace and love where I have found it. I have come to love soft things, silken gowns, warm beds, and the tight bond I share with my boy. I want peace. I want an easy life.

“Tell me a tale of Gante.” He is persistent, my boy.

I brush the black locks from his forehead and take him into my lap, though he is too old for it now. His eagerness to know about Gante always brings up the memories I have tried so hard to forget.

I whisper stories, simple and clean. He thinks these are Gantean tales, my bedtime stories about warriors and sea-bears. I have made them up for him, for entertainment, in a style I learned amongst his father’s people, and they have little to tell of Gante at all.

The truth is complicated, rough-edged like unshaped stone. It is uncomfortable, and by this feature you may recognize it.

My tale of Gante is the tale of its end.

PART I

Sayantaq

One

Even though we were well into the moon of birch and berries, and the leaf buds spiked green to answer the returning sunlight, Gante’s ground remained frozen. As always, the island resisted coming back to life after winter. I’d helped Nautien set up her summer tent the day before, and the stakes had refused to go into the ground. I’d had to get three brawny men to help beat them down. The men had laughed when I’d asked for help, calling me “bird-girl,” tugging my long black braids, and making me feel like a child. Everyone treated me as though I still played in the children’s creche, what Ganteans called the tiguat,[_ _]on account of my small size, though I was fully eighteen years of age, and like any woman I marked the men who came home from a hunt with a deer slung over broad shoulders and the ones who willingly hammered stakes for an old woman like Nautien. The clansmen took little notice of me—I wasn’t the kind of woman they wanted: too small, too pale, too slender, too quiet.

Gante’s cold ground sent a chill even through the thick skin of my boots as I walked to the bluffs to begin my weaving. I passed a group of men gathered by the trail to the beach, speaking to each other in urgent voices.

I shifted the net I carried in my arms, careful to avoid dragging the edges on the ground. If I let even a corner drop, the men would chastise me and say I was too small to carry my own burdens.

“Leila,” one of them called.

I stumbled and dragged a piece of net in the dirt, my cheeks flushing.

“What is it?” I asked. A chilling wind blew up the bluffs from the sea.

“A ship,” the fisher-father Returat said. “An Entilan ship.” The wind moaned against Gante’s stark cliffs.

“C—coming here?”

“Warn the women on the bluffs and get back to the camp. There’s enough snow on higher ground to run dogs if you take the northern route inland.”

My net doubled its weight in my arms.

“Go! Now!”

I dropped my net; I couldn’t run with it. An Entilan ship could bode nothing good; over the past two years, Entilan raiders from Lethemia had decimated every remaining community on the island until only our camp remained—we were the only Ganteans left to guard and support our magical Hinge. If we fell, what would happen to the world’s magic? Desperation and fear galvanized my steps.

Four of my fellow net-weavers were gathered atop the bluffs above the shore. Behind them the grey Gantean sky stretched to meet the horizon, empty, the ship not yet in sight from here. The wind whipped my black braid across my neck. The other net-weavers stood around a large trawling net.

“Murlian!” I called.

She lifted her head, her freckled face breaking into a grin until her eyes met mine. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

“Raiders. Entilans,” I gasped.

“Here? Now? It’s too early in the season.”

“The men said they saw a ship.”

“Spirits protect us,” Murlian said, as she and the other women quickly tied off their work.

“They said to take the northern route with the dogs,” I said.

Nautien, the oldest of us and a clan Elder, nodded, her brown eyes wide with concern. “Someone needs to get Seleniq,” she said. “I sent her to put some small nets[_ _]in the beach caches.”

“I’ll go,” I said. “I’ll meet you back at the camp.”

Nautien unsheathed her ulio, a blade hewn from shimmering blackstone, and quickly cut a slice on her arm, dripping a few gem-like drops of blood into the dry earth of the bluffs. Her eyes blurred with the telltale signs of magic—the blood she’d spilled had paid for a scrying spell. The early arrival of the raiders must have distressed her greatly—Ganteans did not waste magic, and every spell was carefully weighed against the bloodcost we’d have to pay to power it.

Nautien commanded foresight, a skill that had given her a place in the ranks of the Elders years ago, and she did not like whatever she had seen as she scryed. She blanched and drew me apart from the others, whispering, “Take great care. Of all the young people remaining, you are the one with the strongest magic. If anything happens to the rest of us, you know what must be done. You must find the Cedna. It will be up to you, Leila.”

“Y—yes,” I stammered, though I could not process the magnitude of what she meant: if she and the other Elders met a bad fate, I would be responsible for our missing Cedna, the woman who was the lifeblood of our magic. She had abandoned Gante for the south years ago, when I was still a babe in the tiguat. The Cedna was not the only islander to have found the warm, accommodating southern mainland preferable to Gante’s cold duties and rules.

“Here.” From a twine around her neck, Nautien removed a carved anbuaq, a ring of seal bone with a round spall of red Hinge crystal lodged in its center. She pressed the anbuaq into my palm, though I did not wish to take it, knowing its significance. “Be careful, Leila. Do what you must.” She looked at me sternly. “Hide or adapt, survive, even if means you must surrender to the raiders. Remember you are Shringar Clan. Do what we do best: flow like water. Take the path you are given. Survive and find the Cedna. The task is yours.” She released me, and I strung her charm on the leather twine I already wore on my neck to hold my tormaquine, the carved bone charm that depicted my spirit animal, an osprey. My hands shook. What had Nautien just seen that would have prompted her to give up her anbuaq and set me such a daunting task?

“Now, go,” Nautien urged.

She pushed me, giving no time to ask why she thought I had any better chance of finding the Cedna than she did.

“I’ll go with you,” Murlian said. “You may need help finding Seleniq.”

“We may have to hide in the caches and wait out the raid,” I breathed to Murlian as we ran. “It might be safer.”

We hurried down to the pebbled beach with silent footsteps. Sparse patches of grass struggled to life along the edges of the trail.

“Can you see the ship?” I asked Murlian, who blocked my view.

“They haven’t rounded the point yet. The waters look rough, though. Maybe…maybe the Cedna’s old protective magic is working?”

I snorted. Our Cedna, before leaving, had made a costly protective enchantment, cast into the waters surrounding our island, which had held southern raiders at bay. After the violence and ruin of the last two years, it was clear that the enchantment had unwound. Only unfailingly optimistic Murlian would imagine it had suddenly come back to life.

Murlian and I scurried to the hidden caches tucked into the beach cliffs, ducking behind the boulder that hid the entrance.

“Seleniq?” Murlian called into the dark cavern, stepping over several sacks made from sealskin. Ganteans hid many treasures in the caches to protect them from Entilan raiders: nets, skins, supplies, and the sacred mushrooms we used in rituals. If they found them, the raiders would sell our precious goods for their own profit on the mainland black market.

“She’s not here.” Murlian tugged me out of the cache, scanning the beach for the missing girl.

A soft cry escaped her lips; the sound turned my belly into writhing eels. The ship had come around the southern jut of the cove and now loomed in the bay, hulking like a predator on the horizon. A tender boat traversed the choppy waters, carrying a full host of Entilan soldiers. They were so close I could see the sigils on their uniforms: a green water serpent twisting on a violet field.

A soldier pointed at us from the stern of the boat. He’d already seen us.

“What should we do?” asked Murlian.

A soldier leapt from the tender boat, wading through the freezing waters to guide the craft to shore.

The beach stretched into the distance, wide and empty, no protection there. The cliffs behind us were too sheer to climb. If we went back into the cache, we’d give away its location and lose the precious goods to the raiders, as well as getting caught. Squashed between the raiders and the cliffs like[_ ]shark[ _]livers between stones, we knew all too well what the Entilans would do if they caught us: kill us or take us.

I took a deep breath. “Run for the trail,” I said. I’d distract the raiders for as long as I could, and maybe they’d miss Murlian as she picked across the open sand. I was as skinny and nimble as a boy; I might be able to outrun the men. Murlian, with her wider hips and heavier body, didn’t have my foot speed.

I took off at a full sprint, running towards the shoreline. The anbuaq Nautien had given me beat heavily against my breastbone as I ran. She would disapprove of my actions. Too risky.

The raiders yelled behind me. I tore down the beach, away from the trail and away from Murlian. Time slowed. My legs pounded the packed sand near the waterline. The strong Gantean wind pushed me at the raiders as though it wanted me caught.

I stole a glance over my shoulder and my heart hiccoughed. Five Entilan soldiers pursued me. The rest closed in on the beach trail, heading after Murlian.

She screamed. Shameful tears welled in my eyes, but the wind snapped them away like a thief. My feet barely left impressions as they flew over the sand. The soldiers called to each other in the southern tongue. Like any Gantean, I knew the language, though I was unpracticed in its use.

“Loop around to cut her off! Trap her against the cliffs!”

My fate loomed, as inescapable as the cliff before me. I darted to the side, but I ran into a different kind of wall, this one covered in the fine wool fabric the southerners favored.

“Got her!” A rough hand circled my wrist and jerked my arm behind me. I kicked down, hard, on the raider’s instep, using the defense tactics we had been taught in the tiguat.

The man only laughed. “It’s a child. A feisty child.” Of course he mistook me for a child. He twisted my other arm behind me. I resisted, but I couldn’t break his strong grip.

One of his companions brandished his sword. “Shall I do it or you?”

“Ah, you can’t kill this one,” my captor said as he bound my wrists behind my back. I fought to twist free of his grip before he finished his knots, but I could not.

“It’s too young. Orders were to take the young ones to the Lady’s slave market.

The other southern men studied me as though I were a wild creature they’d never encountered before.

“So,” my captor bragged, “whoever captures the fewest slaves buys drinks when we return to Queenstown, yes?”

His companions laughed. “But what about kills? Don’t they count for something?”

“The man with the fewest kills has to supervise the slaves aboard ship.”

The men groaned. One of them said, “In that case, I’m headed up that trail to find me some Gantean savages.”

My captor prodded me in the back. “Walk. You understand, savage girl?” I was tempted to try running again, but the tight bind of my arms behind me threw me off balance enough that I knew I would not succeed.

He grabbed my chin. The way he stared into my eyes terrified me.

When I trapped a snow hare and looked into its eyes to offer the prayer for dying before I broke its neck, I recognized the spirit in the animal. I acknowledged the sacrifice it made to feed me. This man did not see the spirit in me. To him, I did not exist at all. I was nothing but an empty, soulless body.

My captor left me in the tender boat with Murlian, who’d already been delivered there. At least they hadn’t killed her, despite the fact that she appeared fully grown. Two young Lethemian men supervised us.

“No talking,” one commanded as I leaned towards my friend.

Another tender boat finished unloading as we waited. So many raiders! How would the clan fend them off? Ganteans had never been warriors. We had enough to manage just surviving on our inhospitable island. As if in response to my thought, the wind gusted again. Our barren shore had no trees; the only visible plant life was the scrappy lyme grass that sprouted in patches near the cliff bottoms. The dull grass blades wavered in the strong wind. Waves lurched the boat.

One of the guards on the shore gestured towards the beach trail. “Head that way,” he called to the new raiders. “We caught some of them by surprise.”

Murlian’s hair had slipped from the braids I’d made last night. I flinched at her bare throat. They had taken her ring-seal tormaquine.

Losing one’s tormaquine augured the worst luck. It amounted to losing one’s soul.

Murlian turned to hide her tears with typical Gantean shame at showing emotion.

I inched closer to her so that our sides pressed together, hoping to offer some comfort. My hands went numb from the bindings as I stared at the shore. Finally the other Entilans emerged on the beach trail, herding several struggling clanspeople before them, including the man who’d warned me of the raid and old Nautien. The Ganteans were forced to stand, bound, before the Entilan captain, who presided over the beach like a god. He either nodded or shook his head, and depending on his gesture, the surrounding soldiers escorted the captive towards the tender boats or into a line against the beach cliffs. The adults, Nautien included, were all sent to the cliff line. My heart thundered against my ribs.

Three young children came to the boat, a boy and two girls. One was Seleniq, who we’d gone to find. She fell into my lap, and there she stayed, too terrified to release her grip on me as she shuddered like a feather on a rough wind.

Murlian sucked in a gasp. I gazed at the awful sorting on the beach. Our friend Merkuur fought his two captors with all his might as they brought him before the captain. My vision blurred and I could not breathe as I waited for the captain’s verdict. When he finally gave a curt nod, Murlian collapsed against me like a sack of stones and I finally exhaled.

The two soldiers herded Merkuur to the boat. His face was a beaten mess, and he swayed almost drunkenly as he stepped into the boat. Merkuur had spent his entire life on the deck of a ship and had the water-legs of a sea creature, so I knew they had hurt him badly.

“Murlian,” he groaned as he tried to move nearer to us.

An Entilan struck him so hard he fell to his knees and the whole boat rocked. Merkuur lifted his eyes dizzily to find Murlian.

The adult Ganteans remained standing against the cliffs, tied and helpless. The captain spoke to his men on the beach, but we could not hear his orders, though we all knew—we’d heard what had been done to other clans on earlier raids. The captain turned and stalked towards the tender boats.

Behind him, his men unsheathed their blades.

They walked down the row of my people, slaying them with expert, efficient motions. The Ganteans fell, every single one quiet and stoic, never making a sound. We were not a people given to emotional outbursts or dramatic ends. Does the deer resist once the wolf has its teeth sunk into its throat? No. It surrenders. It becomes still. Every Gantean had seen that dying moment countless times, had imagined the surrender in our own flesh. None of us on the boat screamed, either, though every flash of southern steel struck me like a physical blow that brought up my stomach.

Shock made my vision fade in and out, but even so, I watched. The fallen clanspeople would want our witness, and just as a raw Gantean would not scream when facing death, she also would not avert her eyes from it. All blood contained the power our Hinge craved. Here on Gante’s hungry soil, no spilled blood was a waste. Though my clanspeople died, Gante drank.

Only afterwards, only after the dark blood pooled on the sand around the fallen bodies, did little Seleniq begin to wail. She was too young to understand that their blood fed the Hinge, that, terrible as the slaughter was, Gante might have demanded it. She was too young to understand the surrender beyond the fear.

Blood and wind pounded in my ears. Waves rolled the boat beneath us, as though Gante thrashed, shark-like, as she fed. Seleniq shoved her face into my skins, holding my sealskin cloak in white-knuckled fists even as her scream persisted.

That child’s wail would forever imprint itself in my memory as the sound of the end—that high, thin shriek that could barely compete with the wind. This wretched bloodletting would feed the Hinge for moons and moons, but what would happen when Gante became hungry again?

The task is yours, Nautien’s voice reminded me. I shivered, and again, my vision blurred, this time with suppressed tears. Nautien’s anbuaq burned against my chest.

Entilans waded back to the boats and took up oars to row us to their main ship. If I rolled over the ship’s edge into the freezing surf, what would they do? As if he could see the intention in my eyes, a guard inserted himself between me and the edge. He yanked the still-crying Seleniq from my lap.

“Shut up! Quiet!”

The girl only screamed louder.

“Quiet!” the soldier yelled again, his fat, nightcrawler fingers digging into Seleniq’s slender shoulders.

“She can’t understand you!” I snapped in Lethemian, thankful that the Elders had made us learn it, though at the time I had resisted along with all the other tiguat children. “She doesn’t know what you’re saying.” Speaking brought me back to life, gave me a focus for my mind.

The Entilan glared at me. “No? Then what use is she?” Seleniq, still mewling, cringed as he lifted her and dangled her over the edge of the boat.

My breath stopped again. Her arms were tied; she couldn’t swim if she fell in the water.

“Stop!” I cried.

The guard dropped her.

Seleniq crashed into the water, and I heard something that sounded like my own voice, screaming.

&Something& important and vital dies inside you when you face the end of your world. My friends’ expressions dulled and closed as the Entilans loaded us onto their ship and down into a dark hold below decks. A frozen, windlashed fear lit their eyes and trembled through their flesh. My uncontrollable scream had been my breaking point, too, the final deadly clamp of the wolf’s jaws on the deer’s neck. The part of myself that took action, that made plans, that believed I could exert control over my life, laid down in my chest and surrendered. The Entilans had turned me liquid and uncertain in a few short, brutal moments. I’d never recapture my easy, confident innocence. Fear, once rooted, never dies.

Why does the deer give up? I had once asked Nautien. Why doesn’t it fight to escape?

It is a kind of natural wisdom, _]she had answered. [_Death comes to everything. The deer knows it is better to flow than fight. It surrenders to death; it turns liquid and dissolves in it. There is less pain that way. This is why we Shringars say ‘flow like water,’ Leila. In this way, we maintain our proper role in the Slow Dance of creation, Sukaibiruq. We adapt.

As my eyes adjusted to the dark of the larger vessel’s hold, I saw little Anarian, only four winters old, curled in a heap on the floor. I gathered her into my lap and wound my hands into her hair, unworking the snarls. She eased her crying as I wove her hair into braids. This was the soothing a Gantean understood: gentle, comforting hands, and silence.

Murlian lifted her head. “What do you think they’ll do with us?”

Merkuur wrapped an arm around her shoulder. His brown eyes flashed with murderous anger as he saw the scratches on Murlian’s neck where the raiders had ripped away her tormaquine. I tucked the two charms I wore at my neck deeper under my sealskin cloak. I must not let the Entilans see that I still had them.

“They’ll take us to the slave market, of course,” Merkuur said.

“Merkuur, did you see—did you see what happened to the others at the main camp?” The question had been eating at me since the horror on the beach. If the others had also been killed—

Merkuur only closed his eyes and shook his head.

I persisted. “That bad?”

“No one escaped,” he finally said.

Now I mimicked him, closing my eyes and blanching. The world had truly shattered beneath my feet. What would become of us now? What would become of Gante? Of our Hinge and the world’s magic?

The task is yours.

The burden of Nautien’s duty weighed on me, but eventually[_ _]exhaustion and fear trumped every concern.

Be like the deer, I told myself. Surrender.

Sometimes that is all you can do.

&Gantean eyes knew only& the natural vistas of sea, sky, and land. Our island was an open tundra dotted by sparse collections of spruce, mosses, lyme grass, and birch. We had boulders rather than buildings, footpaths rather than roads, and stark steep cliffs rather than manmade docks. We lived in wild places that were cold and empty, made habitable only by our diligent efforts and the sacrifices of the animals we used to feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves.

My friends and I had never seen a place such as Queenstown, with tall buildings that cut the sky, chimneys that spouted black smoke, lights that glittered on the street corners even in daytime, and people. So many people! They rushed along the quay and gathered on the docks, wearing colorful, complicated clothes: fabrics threaded so fine I saw no texture in their weave, boots with stitching too small for the eye to see, hats in sculptural shapes that defied gravity. In one glance at the Queenstown docks I saw more people than had numbered in our entire clan.

The guards led us down the gangplank and across the busy quay, where they corralled us in a pen that smelled of musk goats. The early spring sun glared as brightly as the colors here in the south. Despite the heat, we Ganteans huddled together. Close contact eased our fears.

People crowded around the fence. Their vivid clothing nearly overwhelmed their natural features. What dyes had conjured such colors? Everything was rich and shocking, bombarding my eyes. In other circumstances, I might have been enchanted by the new sights, though no raw Gantean would ever have admitted to curiosity about southern ways. Secretly I’d always wanted to see the Lethemian mainland. Ganteans who had traveled and returned brought back stories about the strange sights they’d seen. Those stories had always enchanted me.

Ganteans were not as the Lethemians thought us—insular savages with no understanding of the southern ways. Our Elders kept careful tabs on the political events of the mainland, though they strove to keep us separate and uninvolved. We knew the southerners’ customs and language. We knew they had their own magic, though its practice was limited to those in a special caste, and they did not make proper payment for their power.

The Elders had never said that the southern world contained so many colors and textures and sensory delights, however. Even in my state of shock and despair, the brightness penetrated. It called to me.

The guards untied Anarian from me and made to take her, along with the littlest children, into the center of the corral. I clung to her tightly and would not let her go, even when the man said, “Release the girl! Now, or I’ll make sure you get sent to serve in the Lady’s house, and you won’t like that.”

He smacked my forearms with his stick and hauled Anarian away. Losing the weight of her small body from my arms was more terrible than anything had yet been. I felt empty, bereft. Frozen in terror.

“Gantean traitors, all of them!” cried a man on the corral’s central platform in a carrying voice. “Lady Entila’s representative has right of first refusal; once refused, they go on open auction! Starting bid for youths, eight jhasstone! Young, tractable, make ‘em how you like ‘em. Hardy Gantean stock!”

Anarian was sold first, but the other children were scooped up almost as quickly, leaving me breathless. Everything happened too fast. I had no time for reaction or thought. The Gantean children vanished into the crowd, caught in the current of this river of people.

Next the guards came for Murlian. She grabbed onto Merkuur when they untied her, but the guards tore them apart. Murlian refused to walk, so they dragged her across the ground, sending dust into a cloud around her.

“Murli,” Merkuur rasped, struggling against his own binds. The guards pulled Murlian to her feet, and our eyes met. The auctioneer’s voice droned on as the guards shoved her into the crowd. So many strange sounds battered my ears, I could not translate the rapid fire transactions of the auction. Murlian kept glancing over her shoulder at me, her eyes wide in terror. I could hardly force air into my lungs as the crowd absorbed her. I wanted to scream after her, to make some plan, some way to try to meet, but what was there to say?

The wolf’s teeth clenched so tightly on us. We knew no place but Gante, and this foreign southern world threatened to swallow us whole.

My guard shook me. “Where’s he gone, then, the young man, which way?”

I blinked. Merkuur had disappeared. I shook my head. I would never betray my friend, even if I did know where he’d gone.

Cursing, the guard hauled me towards the auctioneer. Greedy glares surrounded me. The auctioneer pinched at the scant flesh of my cheeks and spanned my wrist with his dry white hand. “Gantean girl child!” he cried, describing me. “Perhaps thirteen years of age? Dark hair, pale skin. Not the usual barbarian trash, this one’s special! Not a single sunspot on her!”

“Stop,” a voice said from behind us. A woman in a purple dress that abraded my eyes looked down at me as if I were a piece of mud stuck on her jeweled slipper. “Lady Entila will take this one.”

Two

Entilan guards marched me along the waterfront. My legs kept moving, though they felt as loose as water beneath me. Nautien’s words rang in my ears: [_survive, adapt, to surrender is a wisdom. _]I shoved down thoughts of Gante and what had happened there. There are moments in life that act as hinges, that turn you from one path onto another, irrevocably. A Shringar clanswoman seeks to follow these changes without resistance. All instincts told me that to fight or struggle or attempt escape would only backfire. Where would I go? I knew nothing of this place.

Surrounded by Entilan guards, I followed the Lady’s liaison, who rode in a sedan chair carried by four slaves. Our busy party received curious looks from the people on the street.

“Welcome to Queenstown!” a man jeered at me as we passed. He smirked when my gaze caught his and then hissed, “Damned barbarians.” Others in the bustle around him glared at me with passing looks of scorn or hatred, but even so I couldn’t stop staring.

Queenstown had too much to see. The harbor moored vessels of every type: narrow boats with sails as sharp as blades; fat trawlers with fishing nets coiled on their sterns; ponderous ships, mastless, with steam spouting into the sky from their stacks; fast cutters; iron-hulled ice-breakers. The promenade bustled, congested with horse and foot traffic. Wealthy people passed in sedan chairs borne by slaves. The tall buildings, most made from wood, a few from stone, oppressed me. Every new and startling thing left me breathless and reeling. How would I find my way in this vast new world?

The road led away from the water, and we climbed a rise with westward vistas. A stone building sprawled over the cliff’s plateau, girded by thick hedges and iron wrought fencing. Countless glass windows and one tower garnished the mansion. We passed through a gate to follow a side path. Here the woman in the purple dress departed and the guards herded me into the building.

A man sat before a hearth, dressed in a plain white robe, warming his hands over the embers of the fire. He looked up as we entered.

“Ah,” he said to the guards. “Only the one today?”

They hauled me closer to the fire. The warmth appealed, as sweat had chilled me. A guard sliced through the back of my sealskin tunic and pushed it down. My hands flew up to cover myself, trembling, but none of the men even glanced at me. The one in the white robes moved quickly, pulling a round, glittering rock from his sleeve. In one sweeping motion, he passed the stone above my bare left shoulder.

Pain lanced my arm.

I bit my cheek to keep from screaming. I did not wish to show my distress to the sayantaq men. Though he had not touched me, it felt as though the southern mage—I presumed he must have been doing magic by the telltale prickle in my hands—twisted a knife in my flesh. I tasted blood as I struggled to move away. The guard behind me pinned my arms.

My shoulder burned and burned, even after the man with the stone put his magic tool away.

A woman entered the antechamber. Her graying hair sat in a fat knot on her neck, and her lips pressed together as she regarded me. “Have you a name?”

“Leila.”

“That is not a Gantean name.”

She spoke the truth; my name was not Gantean, and I had never asked why.

“Here you will be known as Lili,” the woman decided. “A slave shouldn’t have too grand a name. I am Rennet, the keeper of the house. All our slaves and servants work under my charge.”

Rennet dismissed the two guards, stripped me naked, and mopped my burning shoulder with cold water.

“Put this on,” she commanded, handing me a scratchy woolen sack dress that billowed past my feet. Then she cut my waist-length black braids, throwing them in a pile with my sealskins like so much refuse. I burned with shame—the length of a Gantean’s hair expressed strength of spirit—but Rennet had missed the leather twine I wore with the two bone charms on it, a mercy that made up for the loss of my hair.

As I followed Rennet through the stone house, the pain in my shoulder abated into a niggling itch of magic. We exited the building onto a path that led across a rolling meadow covered in white flowers. At last we came to a long, low building at the top of a rise.

“Mr. Tiercel!” Rennet called as we stepped into a wide room lined with bird cages. “We have procured the child you requested.”

A vague irritation flitted across my shocked mind. Like the auctioneer and the Lady’s liaison, Rennet had mistaken me for a child. It wasn’t enough that I had been captured, taken against my will, and forced into servitude. I was still to be treated like a child.

A man stepped through the far doorway, a man unlike any I had seen. This was no rough Gantean hunt-father, no wan southerner. He wore black clothes that shimmered even in the dim light. His hair fell unbound above his shoulders, a single white streak at the temple punctuating the black.

His skin gleamed, pale and smooth. He looked womanish and yet handsome at the same time. Hair slicked with pomade, clothes clean and pressed—everything about him was fresh. Even his boots shone with new polish.

“A girl?” he asked. “But I expected a boy.”

“I was told this was the only child at the auction who didn’t look like a filthy Gantean,” Rennet replied.

The man shrugged. “I never said the child should not look Gantean. I wanted a Gantean.”

“Don’t overstep yourself, Mr. Tiercel.” Rennet glared at him. “I run this household. This girl suffices, and she is all you will get.”

The man’s eyes flashed. “Very well. What is her name, Madame Rennet?”

“Lili. I will leave her in your care. Good day.” With that, the stern keeper departed, leaving me the sole focus of Mr. Tiercel’s fierce attention. I stood frozen before him.

“Well then, Lili.” He approached with graceful steps. “What are your skills?”

“Um…knotwork,” I replied hesitantly, whiplashed by the changes of the past few hours. My senses reeled from too much stimulation; I wanted to close my eyes and plug my ears, to curl in a ball alone somewhere still and quiet. Despite my distress I continued, “Mostly nets, though I sew, too. I can spin thread, twist sinew…” I mimicked the motion with my hands. Of course I didn’t tell him that I had magic.

“And what is your age?”

His calm voice encouraged my honesty. “I have eighteen winters.”

An unaccountably bleak look traversed his face. Then he chuckled. “It seems they mistook you for someone younger.” He scanned me, head to toe. “A common occurrence, no doubt?”

When I gave a short nod, he smiled. “I had a similar problem as a youth. Come, Lili, let me show you what I wish you to do out here. Never fear, it’s nothing too strenuous. You may call me Tiercel. No need for the mister.”

He pushed open a door at the end of a narrow corridor. “This is my room.” His quarters consisted of a single bed, a small desk and chair, and several shelves of books lining the far wall.

Tiercel waved. “I was hoping for a youth I could train to be a manservant, but here you are. We’ll manage until a better situation for you can be found. Rennet has her opinions, but I have some sway with Lady Entila. In the meantime, you’ll keep it clean and tidy for me here. I’ve never been good at that myself. Always knock before you enter.” He indicated the other door in the hall. “You’ll sleep here. It’s nothing much. I asked for a Gantean partly for that reason. I expect you’ve never slept on a mattress, have you?”

“We sleep in hanging beds or on the floor atop furs.”

“Hammocks? She never—” Tiercel broke off. I peered in at the room that was to be my own—a startling idea, privacy. I’d never had it in Gante, though I’d often wished for it.

“Will it do?” Tiercel asked.

I nodded, surprised to be asked.

“Then come see the birds.” He urged me back towards the largest room with the cages. Sconces on the wall had flickered on in the growing dark—magelights. Ganteans said the southerners’ spent their magic on lighting the night, but I had never truly believed such tales. It seemed too wasteful to imagine. I peered up at the sconces, hoping for a closer look, but Tiercel pulled my attention away.

“The raptors are solitary creatures,” he said as he opened a pen. “They do not naturally look for the company of people. I like to introduce new ones to many people. It helps me to train them.” He donned a long glove and coaxed the bird onto his wrist, murmuring to it as if in conversation.

“Do they speak to you?” I blurted, thinking he might be a shaman who could communicate with animals.

He smiled. Tiercel struck me as kinder than the other southerners. Kinder than most Ganteans, too. “In a way.”

“Is it magic? Can you see them in the—the Spirit Layer?” I fumbled for a good way to translate what Ganteans called Yaqi—the layer of magic, the place where the bloodlights were visible. The Spirit Layer was the best I could do.

“The Spirit Layer? Do you mean the Aethers? Amassis, no. I have no magic. When I was tested by the Conservatoire analyst I failed every task.” That same bleak look marred his expression again. “My first son had magic.”

Tiercel’s sadness did not fade as quickly as it had the last time. “My work with the hawks is no more than a knack,” he said. “Here, have her stand on your hand.”

The bird stepped onto my gloved hand.

“There,” said Tiercel. “See how well she settles for you. Now, Lili, you mustn’t play with the birds. They are very delicately trained, and I cannot have you interfering with their learning. You may only handle the birds under my supervision, do you understand?”

I nodded, but sudden exhaustion nearly made my knees buckle.

“Look at you,” Tiercel said with almost avuncular concern. “You’re dead on your feet. Go to bed early. We’ll get you more acquainted with your duties tomorrow.”

&I woke& the following morning with an ache in my stomach. Surely they meant to feed me? Or did I have to fend for myself? I went outside and scanned the rolling meadows, but the only plants I could see were the white, bell-like blooms. Nothing familiar—no moss or saxifrage, no cold onions or mushrooms. I was puzzling over what kind of plants Lethemians might eat when Tiercel came up the path carrying a tray.

“Awake then, Lili?” he said. “Are you hungry?”

My stomach gave an answering growl, and I fell into step behind Tiercel, drawn by the scents wafting from his tray.

“I’ll have to show you where the kitchens are so you can fetch the food from now on,” he said. “It will be one of your tasks.”

The man’s continued kindness startled me after everything I’d been through: the massacre and capture, the humiliating and terrifying auction, the pain inflicted upon me when I’d arrived at the mansion. I had not imagined anyone would look at me the way Tiercel did, with compassion in his odd silver eyes.

He set down his tray on the desk, but I recognized nothing upon it. Several vessels exuded steam. I had the uncomfortable feeling that the food needed tending, and I was expected to do it.

“Pour,” Tiercel prompted, gesturing to one of the steaming vessels.

I had no idea what he meant. “What?”

“Watch. Next time you’ll prepare it.” Tiercel deftly poured liquid and mixed other foodstuffs into it. He picked up a flat white cake. “Try this.”

I took a small bite, warily. Sweetness assaulted my tongue. I would have liked to shove the remaining biscuit into my mouth, but instead I set it back on the tray. I feared I would be forever tainted by rich southern food. In Gante we had been warned about the temptations of these strong flavors, so different from our seal meat and venison and mushrooms. Ganteans said that people who ate southern food never returned to the isle.

“Tell me about those.” Tiercel pointed at my necklace. “I’ve seen such pendants on Ganteans before.”

I assumed he meant the tormaquine, for surely he had never seen an anbuaq like Nautien’s. “No one in Lethemia ever has a tormaq?” He may as well have told me his people did not have hearts, that their blood moved through their bodies of its own accord.

“No,” he said. “What is a tor-mack?”

I debated what to tell him. “My tormaq[_ _]is my guide in the Spirit Layer, in Yaqi.” That seemed safe enough—information that was self-evident to any Gantean. The Elders had always said we must never discuss magic with southerners, but a tormaq was hardly magic.

Tiercel gave me a puzzled look. “Yah-kee? That’s what you Ganteans call the Aethers, isn’t it?”

I nodded, though the Elders’ admonitions pounded in my head: If you are captured, your first duty is to keep our secrets. Do not speak of our magic. The sayantaq will not understand. They will try to seduce our secrets from you in any way they can, but if you are Iksraqtaq, if you are a real, raw Gantean, you will hold your silence.

We called the southerners sayantaq, the cooked, as we called ourselves Iksraqtaq, the raw. Sayantaq used magic carelessly, wastefully, increasing the burden on us and the Hinge. They did not pay for their magic in blood, and it was left to Iksraqtaq to manage the necessary balance. So we had always been told. Ganteans had held themselves apart from the profligate southerners for centuries, ever since they had stolen pieces of our Hinge to manufacture a magic of their own.

Tiercel batted the air. “I’d like to know more about your magic. This is why I wanted to procure a Gantean servant, particularly.”

I recoiled. Was his kindness only a show to woo Gantean secrets from me?

Tiercel did not appear to notice my distress or my silence. “Have you had enough to eat? Take another biscuit. You are far too thin, child.”

I ate another slowly.

“Come,” Tiercel said, rising. “You are expected in the Big House. Madame Rennet will give you a tour. I’ll go over your tasks here when you return.”

&As Rennet& grudgingly walked me through the Big House—aptly named, it was so large I did not think I’d ever learn my way in it—I understood that a slave’s life on the Entila estate was easy. In Gante my daily duties had been much more strenuous. The conveniences of Lethemian life shocked me. Rennet showed me the ductwork system that piped water into the buildings; I did not have to walk to the river and carry it back bucket by bucket. The same was true for firewood—the estate had it delivered, and if I needed to lay a fire, I did not have to collect it myself. Even Rennet’s rules were easier to follow than Gantean ones. As long as I came to meals on time and avoided her notice, she’d happily ignore my existence.

The sudden freedom from constant judgment—over my actions, over how I did my work, over how I performed my duties, felt oddly freeing. In Gante I had lived as though a great, all-seeing gaze tracked my every move, the gaze of the community around me, the gaze of The Elders, the gaze of the very land itself. Here in Lethemia, though enslaved, I had an unexpected freedom: the freedom of being unnoticed and half forgotten, the freedom to be left to my own thoughts and perceptions, which were entirely separate from the people around me. In Gante community was all—you did not let your thoughts stray from prescribed paths. There was only one truth, and it was the truth shared by every Iksraqtaq. Adrift amongst the southerners, I could think whatever I liked; I could form my own impressions without first weighing them against every Gantean rule. I found this unshackling of my mind a foreign and unexpected consequence of my situation, and I did not dislike it.

I began to see why so many Ganteans who left the isle never came back, why our Cedna never returned. It was not only the ease of southern life that was addictive; it was the freedom, too.

When I returned to the mews from the estate tour, Tiercel presented me with a list, written on paper, with my daily chores—simple things like sweeping, giving the birds water, fetching meals from the Big House. I cupped the vellum in my hand, shocked again by southern luxuries. Paper in Gante was rare and precious. Here in the south they treated it as expendable, writing down chores for a slave on it.

I leaned over the sheet, carefully sounding the words in my head. Opportunities for reading in Gante had been scarce. My too-large dress slipped from my shoulder, exposing the slightly tender spot where the southern mage had hurt me when I arrived.

Tiercel glared at my shoulder. “She didn’t!”

I craned my eyes to see what he saw, but I could not.

“Someday Malvyna will go too far,” he said. “I am sorry.”

“For my slavery?” Few Lethemians showed scruples about the practice, as far as I could tell. Even fewer showed the gentleness and kindness that my new master did.

“Slavery is a common state in Lethemia,” Tiercel said. “Even those who do not sell themselves into service with one of the great houses are still bound, vassal to lord, in some fashion. No, I’m sorry for the mark. Magemarks cannot be removed, and they can be used to track you. Such a barbaric practice! I’ve never approved of it.” Tiercel shook his head while I tried harder to see the mark my shoulder. I could just make out dark green edges that prickled my sense of magic. “It infuriates me!” Tiercel went on. “Damned Malvyna—that’s Lady Entila to you, of course. She has no sense when it comes to that blasted island. Hates every single Gantean on principle. You’d best be careful. If you try to run with that mark on your shoulder, she’ll hunt you down.”

&As the days& passed Tiercel showed me nothing but kindness. My hours in his mews passed with ease, though he left me alone day and night at odd hours.

At first, vague plans for an escape crossed my mind, but two thoughts curbed the urges: the magemark that itched on my shoulder and the question of where I would go? I had been tasked to survive and find the Cedna.

You know what must be done, Leila.

Queenstown seemed as good a place as any to start my quest. The Cedna was not on Gante, that much was certain. I had patience. I had time. The Hinge had gorged on the deaths of my clan, and it would lie quiescent for moons and moons, possibly even years, after such a rich satiation. I approached my task like a Shringar, waiting for the currents of my life to pull me whichever way they would. Paths would open; I trusted magic enough to know that much.

I went about my daily tasks, cleaning Tiercel’s rooms during his erratic absences, examining his bookshelves while I dusted. I could have spent the whole day admiring his books and figurines. My fingers loved to smooth the soft, silky coverlet on his bed and the fine jackets in his wardrobe. For a bird-master, he had very fine things.

Lethemia continued to shock me with its wealth and beauty. Everything—from the mageglass wall sconces to the groomed hedges outdoors—was tame and cultivated. Everything contrasted with Gante’s starkness. I missed the wide, cold spaces of my home, the blank tundras, the crisp edges of cliff against water and snow against stone. Those sharp delineations kept Gantean minds clear and purposeful; we never forgot the hunger we served or the higher purpose of our duties. But this new southern world seduced me—the part of me that was my own and free from the strictures of clan and Elders—with its warmth and color. I relished the comfort of silk and ramie. I wanted more than felted tents and homespun goat wool. I wanted more than stoic silence and hard rules. Though I had been forced into Lethemia’s exotic splendor, I wanted more of it. Such sayantaq desires caused me shame.

Already the taint seeped into me.

The Iksraqtaq world had been destroyed; there was nothing left on Gante, no clan or community to which I could return even if I could escape. My only choice, as I saw it, was to learn how to live in this new world, to adapt and survive, as Nautien had directed.

I would not look back. I would go forward blindly on this path. Had Iksraqtaq detachment and pragmatics prompted my choice, or sayantaq weakness?

I could not say.

&One morning& while cleaning Tiercel’s quarters, I succumbed to temptation, leaned my broom against the bookshelf, and pulled down a book from the shelf. I opened the leather cover and ran my finger down the page. It showed a map of Lethemia. Ten noble houses ruled ten provinces. Entila’s province covered the entire north-eastern quadrant of the Lethemian peninsula.

“What are you doing?”

I whirled at the unexpected voice and fumbled the book. A girl stood there—someone I did not know from the Big House, though, by her attire and her haughty demeanor I assumed she must be Lady Malvyna Entila’s only daughter. Though younger than me, already she stood taller. Green eyes blazed in her narrow face.

“You’re Tiercel’s new girl? You don’t[_ look _]Gantean.” Her gaze dropped to the book that I cradled. “And you read? I didn’t think Ganteans knew how.” She spoke derisively rather than kindly.

I shoved the book back onto the shelf and performed the curtsey Tiercel had taken pains to show me for when I encountered a member of the Entila family.

“I’m looking for Tiercel,” the girl said. “Have you seen him?”

I shook my head. I’d seen him shuffling off towards the Big House the evening before, and he had not yet returned.

“How useless. I want to fly my bird.”

I cleared my throat and formed my words carefully. Tiercel had been coaching me to diminish my Gantean accent. “You might find him in the Big House.”

The girl rolled her eyes. “Then he’s occupied. You can unlock the cage for me. Come.” With an imperious gesture she returned to the main room with the birds.

I followed reluctantly. Tiercel had been clear that no one was to handle the birds without his supervision.

“What are you waiting for? I want that one.” She pointed to a particularly temperamental goshawk, a bird that cast evil eyes at me any time I came near it.

“I cannot open the cages. Tiercel says—”

“He’s Mr. Tiercel to you,” the girl admonished. “Open the cage.”

“I do not have the keys. Mr. Tiercel keeps them.”

“Open the cage this instant!” Her voice rose, and she grabbed the front of my dress, taking advantage of her hand’s breadth of greater size.

“Let her go, Ghilene,” Tiercel interrupted from the doorway. I exhaled.

Ghilene Entila dropped me and brushed off her hands as though she’d touched something soiled. “You’re late, Tiercel.”

Tiercel’s brief nod managed to convey irritation at Ghilene’s remark while still fulfilling the requirements of protocol. “Your mother detained me.”

Ghilene frowned. “I want my hawk. Mother says I can show my bird to the Ricknagel girls when they arrive.”

“Very well.” Tiercel turned to me. “Lili, would you mind cleaning the cages of the two birds we take out?”

Tiercel gathered the furnishings they’d need for hawking—gauntlets and jesses and hoods—while I hurried to fetch the hand broom.

Ghilene muttered as I departed, “[_Would you mind? _]Really, Tiercel, as if she has a choice!”

But before they could get their birds out, Rennet arrived. “I need your girl, Mr. Tiercel. We are short-handed for the Ricknagels’ visit. She must come serve in the Big House.”

Three

“When do they arrive?” Tiercel asked Rennet, clanging the bird cage door shut again.

“This afternoon. She must come down to the house as soon as possible.” She spoke of me as though I did not exist.

“I’ll see to it.” Tiercel turned to Ghilene. “There’s no time for birding now, my dear. You’ll have to wait until tomorrow, when the Ricknagel girls are better rested.”

“Oh, blast, Tiercel! I wanted to have my bird with me when they arrive. I hear pet birds are all the rage at court.”

“Doubtful,” Tiercel said. I was amazed by the way he dared to speak to Ghilene so casually. “Think of the mess.”

Ghilene huffed, grabbed her skirts, and flounced from the mews. Rennet followed her.

Tiercel pulled me into the center of the room. “This is a step up for you, Lili, to serve the guests in this way! You must make the most of it. Let me show you better how to walk. Step smaller. Only Gantean women stride. In Lethemian slippers you must mince.”

I wanted to ask about the other Gantean women he had known to form such an opinion, but Tiercel prodded my back and I tried to imitate the walk he preferred.

“That’s it. Now try a curtsey.”

I felt clumsy as I tried to execute the motion.

“Smoother and smaller,” Tiercel advised. “Again.”

He drilled me for nearly an hour, making me practice bows and curtsies and formal words. He explained that the Ricknagels, the guests, were one of the most important families in Lethemia, second only to the Galatiens who were the ruling House of the entire country.

I hurried, anxious and excited, to the Big House. Rennet found me a dress of fine purple wool and little slippers so delicate I did not think they would stay on my feet.

“Has Tiercel covered how to behave? He says you are a good girl, though I can’t countenance it. I expect no trouble, do you understand? You’ll start with the Ricknagel daughters’ chambers. The elder daughter is Lady Stesichore; you say it like this: Ste-si-kor-ree. I’ve put her in the blue bedroom. The younger is Lady Sterling; she’s in the green. You’re to clean for them, make up their beds, and run errands if they ask.”

I nodded. Tiercel had explained that if I proved myself useful and discreet, I might better my situation in the hierarchy of household servants. I also wanted to glimpse more of these highborn Lethemian women. Their lives intrigued me.

I forayed into the blue bedroom, opening the door quietly. A young woman, perhaps four or five winters my senior, sat at a small table covered with boxes and bottles. Yards of vibrant blue silk swept around her in gleaming pleats. The effect dazzled me.

Lady Stesichore’s personal attendant pointed to the other table. “Start there,” she advised me. “Lady Stesichore spilled her tea.”

I attended to the mess, listening to the women converse.

“Have you seen my gloves?” Lady Stesichore asked. “My white ones. I can’t find them anywhere.”

The servant found the gloves in a trunk. The Ricknagel daughter drew them over her hands. She moved so gracefully. Part of me wanted to be her, to wear such fine things, to always be so clean and pretty. At the same time, a strong surge of Iksraqtaq guilt flooded my soul. I knew better than to be seduced by such luxuries when Gantean blood had paid for sayantaq power.

“I told Culan Entila I’d meet him in the mews,” Lady Stesichore said. “He wants to show me some bird.” She wrinkled her nose. “This property is so small and dark.” Stesichore rose and peered into the looking glass.

I continued to wipe the table long after it was clean. I liked the clipped, precise way Lady Stesichore said her words. I wanted to hear more.

“Imagine living in this backwater. Everyone told me I’d find Entila rough and dirty, but I hadn’t thought it would be this bad.”

The two women departed. I shook my head as I began to sweep, trying to picture what the Ricknagel girl’s home must be like if she found this “rough and dirty.”

As I opened the door to proceed to the other daughter’s chamber, voices in the hall brought me up short. I peered out to see Ghilene Entila and a young man I identified as Culan, her older brother, based on Tiercel’s descriptions. They did not much resemble each other. Culan had fleshy limbs, a thick body, and light brown hair that curled, whereas Ghilene was slender, angular, and black-haired.

“I hate this,” Culan Entila complained. “Why does Mother insist? The Ricknagels will never marry their precious Stesichore to me. They’re saving her for Costas Galatien. It’s obvious.”

The siblings moved closer to my door. “They’re here to foist the younger one off on you. Splotch-face,” Ghilene commented.

Culan shuddered. “Ugh. I can’t bear to look at her. I never know whether to stare past her or look at her breasts, because have you noticed? They’re quite ample. Such a waste.”

I leaned forward as Ghilene and Culan passed, hoping to hear more. Ganteans had always said the Lethemians were loose, that they took more than one mate in a lifetime and switched partners at a whim. I wanted to know if these rumors were true.

“The only way anyone could convince me to marry Sterling Ricknagel would be to pay me a mountain of jhass and give me the regency of Ricknagel province. Then I’d consider it, if only she promised to wear a mask—”

The far door closed behind them.

A woman and a girl entered the hall from the other guest room. The girl had a red birthmark that sprawled over the right side of her face. Splotch-face. She must be Sterling Ricknagel, the younger of the two Ricknagel daughters. Her companion was a beautiful woman who drew the eye; she moved with strength and precision, as though she were a knife and the world served as butter to her blade. She made magic prickle in my fingertips.

Sterling Ricknagel looked ready to cry.

“He’s a fool,” snapped her companion. “A childish fool.” She held out a white handkerchief.

Tears overflowed Sterling’s eyes as she snatched the kerchief. “He said only what everyone will say about me at the Brokering, Serafina. Oh gods, I don’t know if I can bear it. I should beg Papa to send me home. I’m not cut out for this.”

Sterling’s companion laughed, a rich, musical sound. “Your father will not coddle such weak-mindedness, Sterling. Now, pull yourself together. They were only words. Words can only hurt you if you let them. You must be bigger than these small-minded fools.” The companion took the disfigured girl’s arm and pulled her out of the hall with broad, powerful steps, as though she could shape anything to her will.

I wished I could move through the world like that. As if it belonged to me. As if I were more than a slave bowing deferentially to her master’s guests.

&After completing& my duties in the Big House, I returned to my humble room in the mews. A light glowed from Tiercel’s chamber. I hurried down the hall to tell him I was retiring for the night, but froze when I heard conversation.

“Who did this to you?” asked a woman’s angry voice beyond the door.

“You must leave off. There is nothing we can do about it.” Tiercel sounded calm and resigned, whereas his companion was clearly agitated.

“Onatos,” the woman snapped. I could not see her without risking exposure, but the voice was familiar. “You never knew me well if you think I will kiss you quietly while you—” Her voice dropped to tones too low to hear for a moment—“magic.”

[Magic! _]Since arriving in Lethemia, I had hoped that by following the traces of magic, I might be led to information about the Cedna. Nautien’s anbuaq still rested heavily on my chest. Not only that, a raw Gantean’s biggest grievance with southerners was that their mages did not pay for their magic. Sayantaq mages[ ]made no sacrifice and left it to Ganteans[ _]to pay the balance. I wanted to know more about their profligate magic.

I retreated from the door just as it swung open. Sterling Ricknagel’s tall, imperious companion strode from Tiercel’s room, moving so briskly that her skirts billowed and brushed my hands. She exuded an aura of power, but she didn’t take any notice of me as she passed.

&Tiercel had said& the Ricknagel family visited the Entilas en route to an occasion called a marriage brokering that was happening in the capital of Lethemia, way down in Galatien Province. Lady Malvyna and Lord Xander Ricknagel, the father of the two young women whose rooms I cleaned, wanted to discuss a marriage between their children before going to the Brokering where such matters became official. The Entila and Ricknagel families intended to travel south to the Brokering together, setting the entire household into a flurry of preparation that doubled my work.

One afternoon as I sorted Tiercel’s laundry, he entered his room brimming with excitement.

“There you are, Lili! Listen, put all that away. We have more important things to do. I did it, Lili! I secured you an excellent position as Lady Ghilene’s handmaiden! You’ll get to go with them to the Brokering in the High City!”

“But I like working here with you—” The last thing I wanted was to be forced into Ghilene Entila’s company.

“But as Ghilene’s handmaiden, you’ll get to see Galantia! It is not to be missed. You cannot stay here working for me forever. I need a boy to train as my servant. You were a spiteful mistake on Rennet’s part. Besides, Ghilene needs a steady, calming influence. You’re perfect. Malvyna has agreed as long as I prepare you for the duty. We have so much to do. Come, come.”

He gestured me towards the main room of the mews. Tiercel could be as commanding as a lord, and I was drawn up into his wake like a piece of flotsam on the sea.

“Now,” he said. “Court dance. It’s complicated, but necessary, so we must start with that. Watch me.” He performed a series of steps that took him through a figure rather like a six-pointed star. “Remember which way to move through the figure, for the woman, always to the right.”

I nodded, wondering why a bird-caretaker knew anything about court dance or felt so sure of his position that he could refer to Lady Entila by name, even if only to me. But Tiercel was a secretive man. I did not feel comfortable asking him private questions.

“Stand there. Now step to the right. Pause. Now step forward.” Following his directions, we stepped our way through the figure. Fortunately, I had a quick mind for patterns and figures—a benefit of my skill as a net-weaver—and following the steps came easily.

“That’s it,” Tiercel said. “You’re getting it. I knew you’d take to this. Now we’ll do it together. Hold your arms out like so.” He demonstrated a stiff, outstretched position, which I did my best to imitate. He startled me by entering the circle of my arms.

“We always maintain this space between our bodies,” he explained. “Some dances are less formal, but I won’t teach you those. If a man ever wants you to dance the Valta, you should refuse. It isn’t a proper dance.”

We moved through the figure as Tiercel counted aloud. Where my hand touched his, my palm tingled, sending burning ripples up my forearm. Startled, I wrenched my hand free and shook it out.

Tiercel paused his counting. “Did you step wrong?”

I shook my head. “My hand felt strange.”

“Hot?” he asked eagerly. “Tingly? By the gods! Can this be? Lili, you have magic? You never told me!”

You never asked.

“I know Ganteans practice magic differently, but surely you knew if you had some skill?”

I nodded.

Tiercel beamed. “My first boy had magic! I did not expect it to surface in him, as these things are passed by blood, and I had shown no talent at all. Of course, you must be careful in Galantia. King Mydon punishes unsanctioned magic harshly, and he does not favor Ganteans.”

“Why should I feel this magic now?” The sensation that moved up my arm distressed me.

“The dance figure is a sigil, a symbol of magic. It stirs up the aetherlight. It’s harmless, but it may make you a sought-after partner in Galantia; it’s considered a pleasure to dance with a magitrix. Come, try again. Don’t worry about the feeling. It will come and go. I have danced with many a magitrix.”

Again, I wondered where and when. I held the required position and the prickling sensation crawled up my arm again.

“There,” Tiercel said. “I feel it now, too, though the power comes from you. How delightful.”

Tiercel finally released me. “I think you’ve got the basics. Now I’ll show you the figure for the Balance. It’s more complicated.”

I frowned. I did not want to dance anymore. The tingling magic unnerved me.

Reading my reluctance, Tiercel explained, “You have a chance, Lili, that’s why I do this. This change in your status from mews girl to handmaiden is a fortuitous one. Handmaidens are trusted confidantes of their mistresses. It’s an honored position. You have a chance to be more, but as long as you act like a Gantean they won’t accept you. Certainly Ghilene won’t. You must learn the dances for the Brokering to fit in, and we have little time. So, practice.”

I practiced. Tiercel put me through the paces as though I were one of his new birds: dancing, posture, comportment, the duties of a handmaiden. My new skills thrilled a part of me, but another part, the raw Gantean part, was ashamed. Any Iksraqtaq feared being taken captive by southerners for just this reason: sayantaq tainted too deeply to ever be washed clean. I did not know how to resist the change. Tiercel’s Lethemian world surrounded me, sucking me in and warming me up, cooking down all the Gantean purity I’d always held with such pride.

&The Ricknagel family& departed suddenly the following evening. After thoroughly cleaning the rooms the daughters had occupied, I returned to the mews to find Tiercel. He often had the household gossip before anyone else.

“What happened?” I asked him as I arrived. He was reading in his room—he lived a strange life, neither servant nor master, with ample leisure time. “I thought the Ricknagels meant to travel to the marriage brokering with the Entilas?”

“Ah.” Tiercel closed his book with a snap and set it aside on his desk. “There was a misunderstanding. Malvyna thought they meant to offer the elder girl, Stesichore, to Culan. But the Ricknagels wanted him to marry the younger one, Sterling. Malvyna was displeased; they were angry. The Ricknagels decided to proceed to Galantia on their own.”

A passing sympathy for the poor younger daughter filled me. In Gante, I had not been considered desirable, either. She had been so miserable after overhearing Culan Entila’s harsh words.

“Lili, I will be busy tonight,” Tiercel interrupted my thoughts. “Malvyna has asked that I attend her. Can you set my room to rights while I am out?”

Later, as Tiercel headed to the Big House dressed in his finest clothing, I wondered, what duty did he perform for her? Why did he go so reluctantly, with such heaviness in his steps? And was he a servant, that he had no choice? His casual use of Lady Entila’s name suggested he was not, and he commanded Ghilene Entila like an equal. The man made no sense.

Beset by curiosity, I tailed him through the white-bells in the meadow and the plush carpets of the house.

Tiercel headed to the tower, Lady Entila’s domain. He moved like a sacrifice dragging himself to the altar, lifting a hand as heavy as stone to knock upon the door to Malvyna’s private chamber.

I tucked myself against a window shrouded by velvet drapes. Lady Malvyna’s door opened, and a slender hand clutched the lapels of Tiercel’s coat, pulling. He stumbled into the room, and the door clicked shut behind him. I scrambled from behind the drapes to press my ear against the door, hoping to hear a clandestine conversation.

That was not at all what I heard. I should have known. No Gantean child past the age of ten winters could have mistaken those sounds. Ganteans had no closed doors behind which to hide when they mated.

I hurried back to the mews with my face flaming in embarrassment that I’d so infringed on Tiercel’s privacy.

&The following morning& I had to swallow my anxieties and go to Ghilene Entila for my first day as her personal servant.

Tiercel brought me to Lady Entila’s chamber, ushering me into the finest room I’d ever seen. Purple tinged everything: the paper on the walls, the chair in the corner, the drapes on the large glass windows, the dense carpet on the floor. Lady Entila herself, statuesque in a chair designed to lend her grandeur, wore an overdress of dark violet over a lavender gown, and amethysts jangled on her wrists. Her fine dark hair tumbled down her back in an elaborate hairstyle that must have taken some poor handmaiden hours to arrange.

Tiercel pinched me to remind me of proper behavior. I bowed.

“Ghilene doesn’t like this,” the Lady said while surveying me coolly.

“Ghilene will listen to her mother.” I had never heard Tiercel sound so severe.

Lady Entila pursed her lips and ignored his tone. “At least the girl doesn’t look Gantean. As you said, no one will ever know. But Ghilene knows, and she’s being difficult.”

Again, Tiercel clipped his words. “When isn’t that girl difficult? Lili is perfect for this job. Ghilene will learn to appreciate what she’s been given.”

The door to the purple room opened. Ghilene Entila scowled as she entered, arms crossed over her chest. I had thought her perhaps two years my junior when I had seen her in the mews, but now, in more formal clothes, with her black hair dressed in imitation of her mother, she seemed older.

“I don’t want that filthy Gantean!” Her first words made me flinch.

“You have no other option, Ghilene,” said her mother. “She is what you get. Your complaints give me a headache.”

Ghilene glared across the room at me. “I won’t have it! What will people think of me with one of them as a servant? She’s practically a savage!”

Lady Entila laughed. “Tiercel says he’s trained her very well, and you cannot tell by looking at her—”

“You can’t wash out where she’s from—”

“That’s enough, Ghilene,” Tiercel intervened. “Lili is your handmaiden. She’s been trained for the job, and you will treat her well.”

“Darling, what will people think of your behavior should they hear you shrieking like this?” added Lady Entila.

Ghilene only tightened her arms over her body, tensing like a cat about to spring. Her angry glance raked first Tiercel and then her mother. “I don’t know why you always do things like this to me! It’s like you want to make my life difficult!” She turned and fled the room.

Lady Entila sighed and tapped her fingers on the arms of her chair. Tiercel maintained a stiff posture and said nothing. Lady Entila caught my gaze. “Well, what are you waiting for, girl? She’s your duty now. Go and take care of her. You must learn to manage her. Go.” She waved dismissively.

As I hurried after Ghilene, anxious excitement blossomed in my stomach. I didn’t have any idea how to handle Ghilene, but I wanted to see the High City.

When the raiders had dragged me from Gante, I had feared what lay beyond the island. Gantean rumors of the south contained nothing but slander. After seeing Queenstown and hearing more from Tiercel and the Ricknagel girls about Lethemian cities, I wanted to see more. The world was a vaster place than I’d ever imagined on Gante.

I knocked tentatively on Ghilene’s door.

“Go away!” Unaccustomed to displays of high emotion, I hesitated. Then, gently, I pushed in the door.

Ghilene lay flat on her stomach, her skirts ballooning around lace-covered legs. She lifted her head, wiping shameless tears from her cheeks. “What are you doing here?”

“Y—your mother sent me.”

“Damn her! I hate her. I hate that Tiercel, too. Who does he think he is, telling me what to do?”

I inched into the room, and Ghilene watched me with wide green eyes, cocking her head as she came to a seated position. “But you don’t really look Gantean at all. You haven’t any freckles, and your hair’s not so thick and bushy.”

My unlikely looks had not gone unremarked in Gante, either. I’d forever been the “bird-girl,” smaller and less robust than the other women. Ghilene rose and circled me. “You’re not as bad as I thought.” One fine-boned hand snaked out and grabbed my wrist. “Listen,” she whispered, yanking me close and searching my eyes. “Promise you won’t tell anyone you’re Gantean. I couldn’t bear it if people at the Brokering knew. Promise. Especially that Ricknagel girl. Stesichore would never stop mocking me. You know why they left so suddenly? Lady Ricknagel insulted Mother at her own table! She said some things—about—well, never mind. I just don’t want to give them any other reasons to scorn me.”

I nodded. “I promise.” I wanted to win her over, though I wondered about the “other reasons” Ghilene mentioned. I could see that her happiness would be my happiness, her upsets my own, for the foreseeable future.

I packed Ghilene’s trunk while she sat in her vanity chair and criticized. I attempted to distract her by asking, “What is this event that brings you to Galantia?”

Ghilene flicked her green-eyed gaze in my direction. “Be gentle with that lace! It’s Lysandrene! The Brokering is a long-standing tradition. When the heir of House Galatien wishes to be wed, the High City hosts three days of festivities. Everyone who isn’t yet married in the Ten Houses takes it as an opportunity to make a match.” She snatched at the clothing I carried past her. “Not that blue cape! I want the white one, with the fur.”

It took me another quarter hour to get her things arranged as she liked, leaving me only a short time to say goodbye to Tiercel. I found him with the birds in the mews.

“I’m leaving for Galantia first thing in the morning.”

Tiercel beamed. “Yes, yes I know! You did it, Lili. Galantia! Look how far you’ve come. Why, I remember the first day I saw you. You were nothing more than a frightened bundle of bones. Now look at you, handmaiden to a scion of the Ten Houses.”

Sayantaq, whispered the Gantean who still lived beneath my skin. So cooked you can never go back.

Yet I could not be angry at Tiercel for changing me. He wanted only to help, to better my circumstances. “Why?” I asked. “Why did you do it?”

“Do what?”

“All this, for me. Why did you train me and help me? Why did you care?”

His face paled and he shut his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, I almost thought they had changed color from grey to dark blue. I blinked.

“I did it because I hope someone, somewhere, has done as much for my daughter. Now, go on, Lili. You need your rest before your travels. Be safe, my girl.”

Four

A breathtaking bridge built from a glistening, glassy material spanned the fast waters of the River Rift that ran north of the High City. On the eve of the Brokering festivities, it bustled with carriages and wagons. I stared over my shoulder at the bridge even after we’d safely crossed. A row of spires anchored shimmering cables that supported the bridge’s weight. It looked like something out of a dream, impossible, cast from starlight or leaded glass in a spectrum of colors: silvery blue, pale green, subdued violet.

We proceeded through a busy district at the river’s edge. “The Bottom City,” Ghilene said, turning away from the sights. “It smells so awful I wonder why the Galatiens permit it to exist?”

We passed run-down shanties made from scavenged materials—metal and rotting wood, mostly—with sometimes only fabric to cover doors and windows. Not even Queenstown had prepared me for such a crowd, and I did not regret being hidden inside the carriage with Ghilene. Beggars reached eager hands as we passed, shouting and waving for notice. I had never seen people so destitute before—in Gante no one was left behind in this way.

Two routes led up to the High City, both equally impressive. A straight stair formed a direct route for pedestrians, while a road for vehicles etched hairpin turns up the steep incline. The road traffic moved slowly as larger carriages negotiated the sharp turns. I studied the view of Galatien Province’s rolling green hills, so different from Entila’s rocky terrain or Gante’s stark tundra. This province was lined with farmlands and dotted with healthy trees and shrubs. When we arrived on the plateau that supported the High City, guards dressed in grey and gold escorted us through a network of streets line with buildings made from a pale white stone to the Crystal Palace itself.

Though I had read descriptions of it in Tiercel’s books, words could not do the sprawling Crystal Palace justice. Its massive walls created a hex-shaped perimeter, girded by six enormous pillars of crystal.

Ghilene pointed at the rose-colored crystal column. “The mages who founded the High City brought the pillars from far away.”

From Gante. Every Gantean knew the troubled history of those pillars. Stolen from Gante by the Lethemians centuries ago, they had created the original rift between Iksraqtaq and sayantaq.

Lady Entila exited her carriage on the arm of her white-cloaked mage while Culan Entila helped his sister from hers. A gilded door unfolded from the Palace walls at our approach.

The guards led us into a spacious receiving atrium. As soon as we entered we[_ _]all bowed deeply out of respect for the presence of the King, though I felt odd giving such honors. In Gante we revered only the Cedna above any other. We had no important lineages or families, and blood relationships meant nothing to us. Iksraqtaq considered blood special only because it fed the Hinge.

Welcoming conversations floated around me, but I paid little attention. Instead I observed the dazzling sights that assaulted me from every direction: long velvet drapes that ran the twenty spans from ceiling to floor, mirrors as big as the fishing nets I once wove, ornate chairs so padded in silk and pillows I could barely discern their shape.

“Be welcome, cousins.”

I peeked up to catch a glimpse of Lethemia’s king. Tiercel had mentioned him more than once during my training. Mydon I Galatien represented the least of the sights here, a man of medium height with thick golden hair worn Lethemian-style, unbound to the shoulders. His facial hair—an unusual feature for a southerner—pointed into a close-trimmed beard and moustache.

He exchanged bows and formalities with Lady Entila and her mage, though neither of the Entilan children stepped forward to participate, so I stayed back, holding up the cumbersome train of Ghilene’s green dress so she could move freely. All through our approach to the Palace she’d fretted about tripping on the thing, telling me exactly how I must manage the fabric. My own simple dress had no such hazards.

“Here are my sons, Prince Costas and Prince Adrastos,” Mydon Galatien announced generally. The elder prince stepped forward to shake Culan Entila’s hand.

As I peeked up at the Galatien sons, an almost physical rope of sensation tugged below my chest[_, _]as though my insides were yanked out through my navel, stolen, like my breath, by the prince in white above me.

“Be welcome.” The prince took Ghilene’s hand, bringing it to his lips. He had bronze skin and equally bronze hair, cut much shorter than southern custom. Unlike his father, the prince screamed for notice: everything about him—his crisp white coat, his fitted breeches, the breadth of his shoulders—served as a trap for my attention. He looked like one of the cast statues we’d passed on the walk up the Palace steps, gleaming, shaped by artistic hands. I’d never seen a man like him. Other Lethemian men, even Tiercel, struck my eyes as effeminate, with their slicked hair and carefully arranged clothes, but Costas Galatien had the strength and presence of a Gantean combined with the glittering allure of more.

He noticed my gaze and smiled with a quick quirk of his mouth even as he guided Ghilene to greet his father. No one else had seen the flash of his notice; that smile was a private thing made only for me. Hurriedly I turned my attention back to Ghilene’s train, shifting it higher as she moved. The tugging sensation in my gut did not stop.

Lady Entila and her retinue were given rooms in the Palace’s eastern wing. Ghilene hurried into her room—causing me to scramble to keep the train away from her feet. She giggled with excitement. “Did you see him? Did you see him? He was just as handsome as everyone says! He kissed my hand!”

“Who?”

“Are you blind? Costas Galatien, of course! The Palace servants should have delivered my things by now. Hurry, find my lavender dress for dinner tonight! And I want to wear my pearls, the pink ones.”

&A table made& from a cross section of a giant tree ran nearly the length of the dining hall, a slice of wonder my mind could hardly grasp. Gantean trees were small and stunted. I wanted to see the forest that had produced such an enormous tree. Had I not manners to remember, I would have stared open-mouthed at everything in the dining hall: the painted ceiling, the gold beams, the glittering glass orbs filled with light that dangled from the ceiling on threads so thin they might as well be floating.

More, said that sayantaq[_ ]voice inside me. _Show me more. Dazzle me. Transport me. Amaze me more.

Mydon Galatien stood at the head of the table and opened his arms. “Let us eat together!”

For each chair situated round the table, a stool had been provided. These stools—for servants like me—were so low that only my head and shoulders would peek above the table. I suppressed a nervous laugh. I would look like a begging dog.

Ghilene settled into her taller seat as I held it for her, and then I lowered myself onto my stool. Prince Costas and his manservant sat across from us. I snatched glances at them to make sure I served the food onto Ghilene’s plate in the correct way. Costas Galatien had the most luminous skin. I wondered if he brushed it with something to make it gleam. I wanted to look closer but I did not dare.

“Lady Ghilene,” Costas said, leaning across the table. “How pretty your dress is. It brings out the lovely color of your eyes.”

Ghilene flushed. Her hands twisted her servlet in her lap. “Thank you,” she said meekly.

Costas gazed at Ghilene as if she were the only person at the table. “What is your age?” he asked.

Did he calculate to convey his interest? Surely Ghilene would take it that way.

“I am fifteen years old,” she replied.

Costas nodded vaguely. “Old enough to marry, then.”

Ghilene stared at him, her green eyes wide. I’d never seen her struck dumb, but apparently the Lethemian prince had a power over her that no one else did.

Costas attended his food for a moment before speaking again. “I practice my martial arts in the morning, before breakfast. Would you like to come observe? Do you enjoy such games?”

“My brother practices,” replied Ghilene with an eager tremble in her voice.

“Bring him, if you wish, and your handmaiden, too.”

Prince Costas’s gaze turned to me, making me feel as conspicuous as a black hare in a drift of new snow. His attention had a snaring effect, drawing in its object like a trap. Ghilene, still flustered, had lost all interest in eating. I hoped she did not notice how closely Costas stared at me. His gaze dropped to my throat, and I had to suppress the urge to cover my neck with my hands. I had been keeping my tormaquine and Nautien’s anbuaq carefully hidden beneath my clothes since coming into Ghilene’s service—if she saw them she’d make me remove them lest they betray my origins. I would as soon remove my own eye, and so I dressed to hide the amulets. Had they slipped out? Did Costas Galatien recognize them for what they were?

He sent a secret ripple of awareness running through my limbs. Such intensity behind his amber eyes! Every time I caught his gaze, my stomach fluttered and my ribcage clamped down on my breath. Why does he study me so? And why does it make me feel so hungry for more?

&The following morning& I tracked the smell of cooking food to the Palace kitchens to prepare a tray of tea and biscuits for Ghilene.

Upon my return she remained buried in the sheets. She did not like to rise early.

“You are to observe the martial arts practice,” I reminded her while handing her a teacup.

Ghilene leaned against the headboard of the bed, pushing her wispy black hair out of her face. “Who practices anything first thing in the morning? Ugh. I won’t bother inviting Culan. He never gets up so early, and he certainly won’t want to spar at this hour.”

“Prince Costas will be waiting for you,” I spoke with just enough prod to get her moving, knowing it would please her to consider the prince. Already I had adopted that trait of servants everywhere: a tendency to manage my mistress’s emotional state to minimize its effects on mine.

Ghilene threw off her blankets. “Do you think he likes me? He didn’t speak to anyone else at the dinner last night, not even his manservant.”

I collected biscuits onto a plate for her. “I do not know your customs in this matter.”

Ghilene sniffed, but did not reply for several moments. “But he did appear far too curious about you. Do you think he knows you’re Gantean?”

I shook my head. “Why would he?” I played it off as though the same thought hadn’t crossed my mind, but my concerns only heightened, knowing that Ghilene had noticed Costas’s scrutiny of me.

Ghilene set her teacup on the ornate bedside table. “You’d better stay quiet around him,” she warned. “I’ll have Mother whip you if you ruin this for me.”

After getting Ghilene into a mint green silk gown, I accompanied her to the arms courtyard, eager to see more of the Palace, though anxious lest I make some mistake that would call attention to me. I did not know how much store to put in Ghilene’s threats.

Upon our arrival at a wide lawn situated on the western side of the Palace, we found Costas Galatien already practicing with another young man. They used two swords each, the weapons flashing in complicated arcs that matched the sharp, precise swivels of their torsos. When Costas spotted us he paused the game and waved, indicating two benches that lined the practice pitch. He bowed and then returned to the match.

Ghilene spread her skirt over the bench. “That’s Jaasir Amar,” she murmured, pointing at Costas’s opponent, a pale, slender man dressed all in black. “I’ve heard he and Costas are great friends. Possibly more.”

“More?”

“Yes, more. Culan says people here whisper that they’re lovers. They’re always in each other’s company. Jaasir’s been a guest at the Palace forever.”

I studied the sparring men. Two men as lovers struck me as unimaginably bizarre, but I made no comment. I had encountered plenty of other odd customs in Lethemia.

“Costas doesn’t strike me as a pillow-biter,” Ghilene went on in a low voice. “In fact I think he’s quite masculine.”

“Does Costas hunt with spears?” I wondered aloud. As soon as I asked, I knew I’d made a mistake. Tiercel would have been disappointed in me. You ask too many questions, he had once reprimanded me. Questions reveal all the things you do not know.

Ghilene gave me a perplexed look, my meaning clearly lost on her. Ganteans described masculine using the phrase “hunting with spears.” Apparently the quality had little to do with spears in Lethemia.

“He uses the butterfly blades, I would think,” Ghilene said. “After all, he’s the one who designed the Martial Forms, and he’s the one who trains the Dragonnaires.”

“What is a Dragonnaire?” Another foolish question, but I couldn’t help my curiosity.

She rolled her eyes at my ignorance. “Prince Costas’s special group of elite soldiers. Be quiet! Someone might hear you asking stupid questions.” She turned towards the action on the pitch.

Jaasir Amar struck in a flurry. Costas tripped as he danced backwards, but he made a deft somersault from the stumble, arriving on his feet in time to parry a finishing blow.

Ghilene did not appear especially interested in the match, but I found it fascinating, yet another sayantaq spectacle. The men’s streamlined motions, with their metal blades flashing in the morning sun, struck me as a marvel. Ganteans played no games like this. The two men circled each other so gracefully they might have been dancing rather than fighting.

More, hissed that sayantaq voice. This world has more. Here you can be more than a bird-girl, more than a quiet, breakable thing. More than a slave.

I finally began to see what Tiercel had intended for me.

Costas and Jaasir had their blades, all four of them, locked together. They pressed into each other. Ghilene stood up to adjust her dress, and Jaasir lost his concentration. Costas took full advantage of the lapse, sweeping his blades free of the lock to pitch Jaasir forward. As Jaasir fell, Costas brought a blade over his back.

“Yield,” Costas demanded.

“Oh, all right.” Jaasir pushed the blade away, looking irritated. “Let’s get some water. I’m still reeling from last night. It’s your fault. Too much akavit too late.”

Costas laughed and helped his opponent to his feet. He gestured in our direction. “We have spectators, Jaasir.” Turning to Ghilene, Costas said, “Lady Ghilene. I’m so glad you came to watch. Have you met Jaasir, Lord Amar? He’s here for the Brokering to seek a wife.”

Jaasir scowled, but Costas smiled wickedly, as though he took pleasure in his friend’s obvious discomfort with this revelation.

Ghilene offered a haughty bow to Jaasir Amar. “Lord Amar.”

“My lady.” The pale man—he couldn’t have been any more than a year or two my senior, surely younger than Costas—slid his hand beneath Ghilene’s, bringing it to his lips. I watched the two of them, suddenly struck by an odd resemblance one would never notice at first glance. Like Ghilene, Jaasir had a diamond-shaped face, with strong cheekbones and a high forehead. Perhaps they were cousins of some kind? Tiercel had told me that those born into the Ten Houses only married within their own caste.

“And who is your handmaiden, Lady Ghilene?” asked Costas, turning to me with his private smile playing on his well-formed lips. Again, he left me breathless.

“This is Lili,” she said. “She’s new, so she hasn’t yet learned not to stare at her betters.”

Costas cut short the bow he had been giving me and offered Ghilene his arm. “Let’s break our fast together. I have arranged food in my private chambers. Do come.”

Ghilene beamed as she and the prince headed back towards the Palace, leaving Jaasir Amar and me on the pitch.

Jaasir paid no attention to me as he stared after Ghilene and Costas with a look of utter loathing. “Fucking Amatos,” he hissed as he strode off in their wake.

I followed to chaperone to Ghilene. Tiercel had trained me well, and he had not minced words about the importance of keeping an eye on the girl. “She’s headstrong,” he had said. “She could get into all kinds of mischief if given a chance. Keep an eye on her for me, won’t you, Lili? She worries me. She is too much her mother’s daughter.”

Costas’s chambers overlooked the sparring pitch from the Palace’s third floor. He had a large hanging garden full of exotic potted plants. I longed to look at them more closely, but instead I hovered in the doorway, hesitant to enter but unwilling to leave Ghilene alone with the two men.

“Sit, sit.” Costas noticed me in the doorway and gestured towards his table. “Come in, Miss Lili.”

After serving Ghilene, I nibbled at a slice of fruit and surveyed Costas’s table with its perfectly white spread, the gold-edged porcelain dishes, the easy food so distanced from its source. So unlike Gante. No wonder they think us barbarians.

I had not been following the conversation.

“Lucky, ha!” Costas snorted. “My parents wished to have it all settled before we even had begun. My father thinks it’s better that way, given the catastrophe of his own Brokering, but he promised that he would uphold the traditions and support my choice. That’s something, I guess.”

Ghilene shifted in her seat, frowning. “What happened at your father’s Brokering?”

Costas’s laughter contained no humor. “Don’t you know? It happened over twenty years ago, but I thought it must still be common gossip. Someone put a love hex on him. Caused all sorts of drama and embarrassment.”

As though to change the subject, he turned to me. I flushed beneath the searing attention of his gaze. “Lili, those things you’re wearing.” Costas pointed at my neck. I scrambled to cover my necklaces, too late. “They’re beautiful, so exotic. I’d love to purchase something like them for my mother. Especially the red one. What is that, a ruby? It’s huge.”

“I—I—” My gaze flashed from Costas to Ghilene and back again. She scowled but gave me no guidance. “I—I made them,” I lied desperately.

“With your own hands? Why, what a talent you have. You should remain here in Galantia after the Brokering with a skill like that! Come, what do you say? Wouldn’t you prefer running your own shop in the High City to service?”

I opened my mouth and closed it again, unable to think of anything to say that wouldn’t either expose my status as a slave, which was apparently not generally known, or my origins. “No,” I ventured.

Ghilene showed no inclination to rescue me from the awkward moment. Her cheeks flamed, but the snapping sparkle in her eyes conveyed anger rather than embarrassment.

Jaasir Amar had not spoken at all. He pushed his food about his plate sullenly, occasionally throwing a glower in Costas’s direction.

Costas rescued the stalled conversation by turning to his friend. “So, what do you think, Jaasir? Will you find a suitable bride from the pickings of the Ten Houses? Have anyone in mind?”

“Costas, you know I don’t.” Jaasir threw his cutlery down on the table and gave up the pretense of eating.

Costas leaned back in his chair, bringing the two front legs off the floor like a boy half his age. When he slammed the chair back down, I jumped in my seat, still upset from Costas’s blistering attention.

Costas’s gaze flashed at my flinch, but he spoke to Ghilene. “What about you, Ghilene? Any young men in your sights?”

Her answer surprised me. “I’d only wish to marry if I found the right husband. Otherwise I’d rather attend the Conservatoire.”

Costas raised his eyebrows. “You wish to be a magitrix, cousin? Have you been tested by the Conservatoire analyst? Do you have the talent?”

“My mother won’t permit me to be tested.

“Interesting,” Costas mused, tipping back his chair again. “And your father? Who is your father, again?”

Jaasir Amar choked on a laugh. Ghilene’s face went from blushing excitement to white horror in the space of a breath. She froze even as Jaasir attempted—half-heartedly, anyone could see—to repress his laughter.

“Lady Entila isn’t married,” mused Jaasir with a nasty glint in his eyes. “She never has been.”

“I don’t know,” Ghilene said woodenly, eyes trained on her plate, knuckles whitening around her servlet. “I don’t know who my father is.”

Silence stretched across the table. I had always heard that the southerners put great store in their relationships of blood, but I had not believed the rumors. As a Gantean, blood relationships meant nothing to me, and I struggled to grasp the depth of Ghilene’s obvious shame.

I opened my mouth to ask why such a thing mattered. Even if it displayed my ignorance, perhaps it would ease Ghilene’s embarrassment.

But Costas cleared his throat and said, “Well, you’re here in Galantia, Ghilene. The Conservatoire is an easy walk away. I can pull strings for you to be tested for magic even if you don’t know your pedigree. What your mother doesn’t know won’t hurt her.” He laughed. I could not tell if he had spoken to ease Ghilene’s distress or to further wound her.

Costas Galatien was a difficult man to read.

&Ghilene slumped& in the vanity chair in front of the looking glass in her room. Thankfully, her upset over breakfast had turned her mind from my necklaces. She studied her reflection somberly. I had not yet begun the braid style I had promised her for the party this evening—Ghilene had quickly learned of my talent for knots and braids and put my hands to good use with her hairstyles.

She sighed. “I hate that Jaasir Amar. He enjoyed my humiliation! And I hate that Costas knows I’m a bastard.” She flung an arm across the vanity table, knocking over all the bottles of scents and lotions I had arranged so carefully when removing them from her traveling cases.

I crouched to collect the vials from the floor. “Is it really such a bad thing, not knowing who your father is? No one knows their blood father on Gante.”

Ghilene’s expression flattened as she clutched the edge of the vanity. “I’m not a savage!” She leapt from the chair and flung a vial of rose attar onto the floor. It smashed, and the scent of rose filled the air. “I’m not a filthy barbarian!” I flinched, as Ghilene went on, “Just because Mother won’t tell me, it doesn’t mean my father isn’t of good blood! She only won’t tell me because she doesn’t want me to be able to enroll at the Conservatoire, which tells me he must have a magical bloodline, so he must be of some consequence—”

I refrained from telling her what I had seen that night with Tiercel. “I only meant—”

“It doesn’t matter.” She pulled herself together, taking her seat in that dainty way she had, flicking her skirts to the side to avoid creasing them. “It doesn’t matter. With Costas, I mean. He can give his sigil to whomever he wants, and the sigil is binding. Bastards have been married by Galatiens before. There’s precedent. Lili, my hair! What are you waiting for? I don’t want to arrive too late to the party.”

&I smoothed& the dark blue silk of my dress flat, arranging the narrow skirt so it lay close against my legs. My reflection stared back from the looking glass; my eyes, fringed with black lashes, took up too much of my face. Murlian used to admire their dark blue color, but I suspected her of flattery. Ganteans did not have blue eyes, and I’d never gotten used to the oddity of them.

I could see the results of Tiercel’s efforts in the looking glass; no one would guess me Gantean. “As cooked as a girl can get,” I muttered at myself in the glass. “Sayantaq fool.”

Yet the Palace, the High City, the Galatien family—their beauty shocked me breathless. I couldn’t help myself from leaning towards it like a moth lured by a glittering warm light.

Ghilene had already gone down to the party with her mother and brother, directing me to follow after I tidied her room—left a disaster after her dressing. She had tried on every gown she had brought before settling on the first one.

Sayantaq as my feelings might be, I wanted to go to the Brokering party. I wanted to see it, to watch the dances Tiercel had taught me, to taste more of the flavorful foods, to stare at the costumes and finery and gold.

I turned from the guest room and hurried down the broad stairs, my blood humming with excitement.

Five

A crowd milled in the ballroom. Ladies wore rich, vibrant colors and jeweled bodices; men favored tight-tailored suits in black or blue or green. Daring gowns represented the fashion; my new attire that I had thought so extravagant back in Queenstown appeared plain by comparison. I did not mind the plainness, as I meant to keep quietly to the sidelines. Ghilene had advised me to avoid “hovering” near her, though no lady would attend a ball without a personal servant to fetch and carry for her.

I skirted the edge of the room, passing Culan Entila, who stood with a girl in a peach gown with a metalwork belt done in gold leaves. We all approached a table laden with tiny cakes stacked on tiers of plates. Culan offered the girl one of his jewelry trinkets—a sign that he wanted to court her, if I recalled what Tiercel had told me about the Brokering. I covered a smile with my hand. The southerners struck me as quite bizarre in their mating practices. All this glitter and shine just to decide who should mate with whom. The Gantean way of the Elders assigning mates seemed much simpler.

I found a quiet seat tucked against the wall from which to absorb the lavish scenery. The walls had been draped in long curtains of gold and grey fabric, and every available surface supported vases filled with large yellow flowers. Glass spheres dangled in the air, lit by magelight that cast a warm glow into the room.

I spotted Costas Galatien. He wore all white, and he still gleamed as if he had been dusted with gold powder. He searched the room, scanning the perimeter, until his gaze landed on Ghilene, who had joined her brother by the food. Costas straightened the lapels of his coat and headed towards the Entilans.

He bowed and spoke to Culan before offering Ghilene his arm. I quelled a momentary stab of envy and chose to view the situation pragmatically: Costas’s attention would put Ghilene in a pleasant mood, saving me distress.

Only Ghilene and Costas danced when the music began. They moved through the star-figure Tiercel had shown me, backs and arms stiff in the preferred posture. Only after the second piece of music began did others join in the dance. Costas had switched partners and now held Stesichore, the elder Ricknagel sister with heavy gold hair who had been so unimpressed with Entila.

By the third number, nearly everyone danced, even the older people. I surveyed the ballroom and found one forlorn creature sitting alone at a table in the shadows. The red birthmark that marred her right cheek likely had something to do with her lack of partner. I remembered how the Entilan siblings had mocked her behind her back: Splotch-Face, they’d called Sterling Ricknagel. The poor girl looked as though people had been saying such names to her face. Misery furrowed her forehead. Sterling’s companion, the one who cut such a striking figure with her hair wrapped in a cowl, strode to Sterling’s empty table with the a young man in tow. The tall handmaiden held the boy’s arm in a grip that brooked no argument, and she delivered the boy to Sterling like an animal for sacrifice.

Sterling shook her head, pale blue eyes wide. The companion gestured towards the dancers. Sterling rose awkwardly and allowed her new partner to guide her to the floor. A flicker of triumph flashed across the tall companion’s face. I smiled, understanding her pride in her success. I didn’t even like Ghilene, but as her handmaiden, I took an interest in her happiness. Clearly Sterling Ricknagel’s handmaiden felt the same way.

“Are you Ghilene Entila’s girl?” someone asked from behind me.

I turned, surprised to find a tall, fair young man in livery, bowing.

“Yes?”

“I have a message for you,” the servant said. Instead of looking at me, his gaze darted over my shoulder and around the room, as if scanning for eavesdroppers or gossipers looking our way. A flower emblem with many slender petals, embroidered in gold, sparkled on the left shoulder of his grey coat. The Galatien sigil.

“Yes?” I repeated.

The servant angled his head to the side, inviting me into a shadowed nook that hid between the wall and a drape. I ducked into the strip of darkness with him, but he did not linger, only pressing a small paper square into my hand and nodding as he moved back towards the center of the festivities.

I peered at the card he’d left in my hand, an envelope of cream-colored paper with a gilded edge. Stepping towards the nearest magelight orb to get enough light for reading, I broke the seal—white wax with gold flakes, pressed with the same flower sigil of House Galatien.

Miss Lili,

***

I wished to speak to you further yesterday over breakfast, but Ghilene interfered, as I imagine she must often do. Won’t you meet me after the party tonight? Can you get away? I have a secret place where we can have all the privacy we might desire. Only send me a sign by the usual method that you can meet, and I will make sure someone brings you there.

***

Yours, CG

CG? I stared at the note, written in a spikey, upright hand without an error on the page. Costas Galatien—who else could it be? But what could he possibly wish to speak of? And what did he mean, the usual method? How did a Lethemian send a clandestine sign to a fellow guest at a party? I shoved the card back into the envelope and tucked them down the front of my dress along with the charms I still wore on my leather twine. I searched through the ballroom to find Costas Galatien. He stood in a group of men and women, one hand resting on Stesichore Ricknagel’s arm in a proprietary way.

[_What did he want? _]My natural curiosity wanted to know so badly I would agreed to his plan in a heartbeat, had I only known how to signal my intent.

I found Ghilene beside a sidebar laden with glasses of sparkling wine; she had not one but two flutes, one clutched in each hand. Tiercel had warned me that Lady Entila permitted Ghilene too many freedoms, including drink. She raised one of the flutes and drained it before setting it back on the table.

“There you are, Lili. I thought you’d been blessedly struck down by a headache and decided not to come.”

With a welcome like this, I hardly wanted to ask her my question, but Ghilene represented my only option. I inched closer to the table, careful to avoid touching Ghilene’s skirts.

“If someone wanted to send a message, secretly, at a party like this, how would it be done?” I brazened, though I half-expected Ghilene to dismiss me just for asking.

Ghilene’s eyes narrowed as she set down another emptied flute. “What kind of message?”

“I—I don’t know. It’s nothing. I overheard a conversation, that’s all.”

Ghilene gripped my arm. “A conversation? What about?”

I had rarely attempted to lie—deceit ran counter to my Gantean sensibilities—but the words came naturally, perhaps because they held a slice of truth. “I heard Stesichore Ricknagel talking about sending a secret message to Costas Galatien, but I did not understand how she meant to do it.”

Ghilene’s brows pulled together into one dark slash. “Stesichore Ricknagel! A secret message to Costas Galatien? Do you mean—why, do you mean by women’s knife? But it’s only the first night! Surely he hasn’t given her a knife yet? No it must be her own.” Ghilene stalked at surprising speed away from the table.

“What’s a women’s knife?” I asked, trailing in the wake of her swishing lavender skirts.

Ghilene faced me, reaching up her lace-edged sleeve. “This.” She pulled out a thin metal blade the length of her hand that looked rather like the tool Tiercel had used to open his letters.

“How is it used to send messages?”

“Oh, it’s easy. Once you have the attention of the one with whom you wish to communicate, you simply slide it into your hand and make certain gestures, depending on what you wish to convey.”

“Like what?” I pressed. “How would you say ‘yes,’ for instance?”

“Why? Did you see Stesichore signaling with her knife already?” Ghilene’s voice rose.

I shook my head. “No, I only wished to understand how the signaling is done. In case I see it in the future.”

“The idea is to do it so delicately no one sees.” Ghilene lifted her right hand. “But look. If I slide it like so, into the palm of my hand, and then turn it outwards, once, with my fingers pointed down, that means yes. If I do a flash with my fingers pointed directly at my body, that means no. What did you see her do?”

“She didn’t do anything. I only heard her speaking. I don’t even know if it had anything to do with a knife.” But I gathered Costas expected me to have such a blade, and apparently he thought I had the knowledge to speak to him with it. Why? “Where do you get such a blade?” I wondered.

“Oh, they are always gifts.” Ghilene flicked her hand, and the little dagger disappeared up her sleeve. “A girl receives them from her brother, or if she has one, her lover or husband. Culan gave me mine when I came of age.”

I frowned. I had no knife to signal Costas my intention. “I see.”

“Where did he go; did you see?” Ghilene asked, scanning the ballroom. “I hope he hasn’t run off with Stesichore.”

The weighty awareness of Costas Galatien had not left me since I first laid eyes upon him. When he stood anywhere near, my internal senses knew his exact location as though a string connected us. I pointed to where he stood beside the musician’s area speaking to the conductor.

Ghilene hurried towards Costas, intent on attracting his notice before the next dancing set began.

I turned back to the tables, searching for the meats and cheeses. None of the serving knives were exactly like the woman’s knife Ghilene had displayed, but I found a small silver utensil amongst the soft cheeses that would serve. I slipped the little thing up my sleeve, practicing the move that Ghilene had shown me until I had it smooth. Then I went in search of a suitable position where Costas Galatien could see me as he danced with Ghilene. The perfect time to signal would be when they danced with Ghilene’s back towards me, as Costas would face me square on and surely not miss the gesture. I stood directly across the dancing floor from the musician’s area and checked both shoulders, just to make certain no one observed me.

Costas turned; I caught his eye. I dropped my gaze to my hands and hurriedly slid the knife into my right palm, flashing it in the signal for “yes.”

Costas gave the slightest inclination of his head, though to anyone observing, it would have only appeared he shifted his focus to Ghilene’s bright face.

&Two more hours passed&, and my eyelids grew heavy. Ghilene and her brother were involved in some sort of game played with a deck of cards and several rocks spread out over the table. When the activity finished, Ghilene glided over to me, her face a curious blend of interest and dismay.

I lifted my head and attempted to clear it. “Are you ready to retire?” I asked.

“What do you suppose it means: you will achieve the true desire of your heart but not the acknowledged one?”

I followed Ghilene towards the ballroom door. “What?”

“The true but not the acknowledged one.” Ghilene gestured for me to gather her cape and headpiece from the coatroom.

We turned to make our way back to the eastern wing.

“That’s what the taroc reader told me,” she added several moments later.

I had been distracted, wondering how to separate myself from Ghilene so that I could be led to whatever secret meeting place Costas Galatien planned.

“I suppose it’s all nonsense, isn’t it? The Vhimsantese invented taroc, and they don’t have any magic. It’s just a game,” Ghilene went on.

“I don’t know taroc.”

“Of course you don’t.” Ghilene sighed. “Oh, damn. I left the nosegay that Adrastos Galatien gave me in the ballroom. So cute—he gave nosegays to all the ladies tonight as his token, even though he’s too young to make an offer. Go and get it for me, Lili. It’s got a yellow chrysanthemum in its center. ”

I hurried back towards the ballroom, relieved to have a proper excuse to separate from Ghilene. Perhaps whatever Costas Galatien wanted wouldn’t take too long, and she’d never have the opportunity to scold me.

Before I reached the ballroom doors, the man who had delivered Costas’s clandestine note fell into step beside me, taking my arm and guiding me straight past the grand room. We headed due west, in the direction of Costas Galatien’s rooms where I had breakfasted with Ghilene the day before.

“This way,” the servant directed. We passed Costas’s rooms and continued towards the end of the hall, where an almost rustic-looking wood door filled the entire abutting wall.

Costas’s servant indicated the door.

“I—I am to enter?” I clarified.

He nodded.

I had to use both hands to turn the large handle, leaning my full weight into the thick door to push it inwards.

My breath caught as I stepped into the room beyond the door. I had never seen anything like it; even the ritual chamber that surrounded the Hinge in Gante could not compare, for though that cavern had colored crystals for walls as well, no light penetrated it, so the colors could not been seen so easily. Here, the opal walls rose around me, sparkling with internal light as well as from magelight sconces that hung from a web-like lattice overhead, suspended on thin strings of the same glassy substance that formed the bridge into the High City. The entire blue crystal room—garden?—glowed.

I paused a few steps into the magical place, staring up at the lattice in utter amazement.

“Quite an accomplishment of magical architecture, Jiri’s Web,” a voice said from my right.

“W—what?”

Costas Galatien emerged from a triangle of shadows between two dwarfed trees that grew in blue ceramic pots.

He pointed overhead. “Jiri’s Web. Made by the mage Jiri Saberian over two hundred years ago. We have him to thank for the advances in magical architecture that allowed the Galantia Bridge to be built, not to mention the invention of the Lethemian court dances.”

I blinked. Costas Galatien, up close, robbed me of words and breath. The garden’s opalescent light enhanced whatever he had done to his skin to make it shimmer, and he looked even more like a cast statue.

“You—you wish me to convey a message to Ghilene?” I asked, pleased I had managed to say the entire question with minimal fumbling.

He stood at less than an arm’s distance. Had I dared, I could have run a finger down his cheek.

“Ghilene Entila? Gods, no. I want to speak to you.”

“M—me?”

Costas circled me, his gaze roving in an examination as close and assessing as the slave auctioneer’s in Queenstown, but where the auctioneer’s gaze had contained only scorn, Costas’s felt more like a touch. A caress, even.

Clearly my imagination needed to be curbed.

“Where did you grow up?” he asked.

I sucked a breath. I hated lying, but I feared Ghilene’s anger and this man’s disapproval more. “In the north,” I replied. “In a remote area.”

“Let me see your women’s knife.”

“What?”

Costas gestured at his own sleeve, a furrow between his shapely brows. “Your blade. Your women’s knife. The one you flashed at me in the ballroom. Let me see it.” He pulled my sleeve to expose the knife I’d taken from the party.

“This is a cheese knife,” he said, grinning. “I thought it looked a little strange.”

Heat flared across my cheeks, and not for the first time, I wished for the darker, thicker skin of a typical Gantean.

“I didn’t know what else to do. I don’t have my own knife.”

“No? Why not? Have you no brothers? No lovers?”

I shook my head. “I knew I needed to signal you, so I found a blade that would serve.”

Costas plucked up the cheese knife and flipped it once, twice, before catching it again by the hilt. He laughed. “You’re resourceful. I like that.”

He flicked the cheese knife through his fingers in a complicated maneuver before slipping it up his own sleeve. “You won’t be needing this anymore,” he said without further explanation. He had moved closer to me, closing the space between us until his breath moved tendrils of my hair. Heat emanated from his body, a heat that drew me like a fire in Gantean winter.

He traced his thumb down the side of my cheek and over my jaw. “Gods,” he whispered. “When I first saw you, I thought I’d been struck by the aetherlumo di fieri.”

“The what?” I echoed in a similar whisper.

“Aetherlumo di fieri. It’s an old Amarian expression.”

“But what is it? What does it mean?”

He laughed, but would not meet my gaze. “You do not know?”

I shook my head.

“How can you not know?”

“Ghilene would hate that I admit it, but I know very little about—about this court life.”

“You’re not jesting. You’ve really never heard of it.”

I flushed. “I’m sorry. I’m—”

He put a finger over my lips. “Hush. Don’t apologize. It’s only that to explain embarrasses me, a little. Your innocence, it flummoxes me. To be struck by the aetherlumo di fieri is another way to say you have been hit by passionate feeling, love at first sight. When I first saw you, I felt as though I knew you. As though we were attached to one another already, here.” Still trailing his finger across my cheek, he placed his other hand in the center of my chest, and that firm touch struck me more forcibly than the softer caress: I had not known an emptiness lived on my chest until his palm filled it.

I exhaled. “I—I felt it, too.”

He slid his top hand to cup the back of my skull and brought his mouth over mine, pinning me against him. The heat that had kept me close to him washed over me, and my body, with a will of its own, melted against his, filling in his angles and gaps. Though startled—completely startled—I did not flinch or shy from his advance. The moment was too thrilling, too sudden and complete, to resist.

When Costas drew away, he kept one hand tangled in my hair, pulling a strand and winding it around his finger.

“Good,” he said—though I could not determine to what he referred.

He loosed my hair and pressed his thumb onto my bottom lip. I remained frozen, for along with his heat, he had some further power over me. His gaze buttoned me to him; I could not move, not when he focused his attention on me so exclusively.

“Aetherlumo di fieri,” he murmured. “The term came from the mages, you know. It means the fire of the aetherlights. I never thought I would feel such a thing. I have no magic. But there is no mistaking it, not even for such a hopelessly mundane creature as I am. Your aetherlight calls to mine.” He wrapped his palm around the anbuaq on my neck. “But this must be our secret. Tell no one, not yet.”

“Secret?”’ I echoed, wincing internally. He would think me a halfwit if I could do nothing more than reflect his own words back to him. I was terribly unprepared for any of this.

“Secrets are my truest luxury. They give me the illusion of privacy in an otherwise public life. You—you will be my precious secret.”

“All right.” I could understand secrets, and I could understand why he might wish to have them.

“It isn’t easy for me to snatch private moments like this, you understand.” He took me by the arm and guided me towards the garden’s heavy door. “Tonight I must meet with my father. Tomorrow. Tomorrow we’ll plan better and dally for longer—yes? There’s so much more I’d like to know.”

I nodded, swayed against my better judgment. “Yes. Tomorrow.”

Costas ushered me out the door. “I’ll send you another message to tell you where and when,” he whispered, catching my face in his hands and forcing my gaze to meet his. “Make sure you open it in private.”

The same servant who had brought me to the garden emerged from the hallway’s shadows. “Can you find your own way back to your room?” he asked. His face remained expressionless, but even so, I sensed a trace of disapproval wafting from him.

“Yes, I can,” I lied. “You needn’t accompany me.”

Six

“I can’t believe you couldn’t find my nosegay.” Ghilene pouted as I unwound her braids from the night before. “I wanted to dry it as a memento.”

I had lied—again—and told her I could not find the bouquet, though I had never made it back to the ballroom to attempt a search. If I kept up this stream of lies, I would confuse myself. I had little facility with the Lethemian art of deceit.

“Shall I put in new braids?” I asked.

“Yes, do. It relaxes me and gives you something to do.”

I selected the boar bristle brush. Hers was finer than Gantean hair, which tended towards a coarseness that prevented tangles and made braiding easy work. Ghilene’s hair was more like mine, silky and soft but prone to snarls. I worked carefully, knowing she would reprimand me if I pulled.

“Do you think he likes me?”

“Who?” I had been immersed in the braiding, which put me in a trance-like state.

“Costas Galatien, of course.” Ghilene lifted her green eyes and met my gaze in the looking glass. “I think he likes me. He picked me for his first dance, did you see?”

Her words, spoken in a confident tone, sent a lance through my stomach. If he had affections for her, what did that mean about the secret meeting he and I had shared? What about the aetherlumo di fieri?

“I saw,” I murmured, continuing to braid. My Gantean sisters had often spoken of Lethemian love, usually in scornful terms. What, did you fall in love like a Lethemian? we used to tease when one of us developed a tendre. We all knew how silly such a feeling was. Only the Elders decided who could mate with whom.

I chided myself as I braided. What, have you fallen in love like a cooked fool? Of course Costas Galatien isn’t for you, not matter how he tries to convince you with fancy words and sayantaq kisses.

“Perhaps Costas doesn’t care if his wife is a bastard,” Ghilene went on, reaching for her largest jewelry box. She rifled through the bracelets and necklaces, moving her head and making my braiding job difficult.

“By the gods!” she screamed, shoving the box away from her and lurching from the seat so that I had to release the strands of her hair. She scrambled away from the vanity, whimpering as she jumped onto the bed.

“What? What is it?” I cried. Had I pulled too hard? Ganteans preferred tight braids that would last, and it would not be the first time I had forgotten to keep my hands soft for her.

“A snake!” she cried, trembling as she tucked both legs beneath her dress. “A—a snake! In my jewel box!”

I raised my brows and leaned over the box. A tiny striped serpent, coiled into a disk no larger than Nautien’s anbuaq, nestled in the corner.

Ghilene squeaked as I reached into the jewel box and gently cupped the creature in my palm.

“Is it a dangerous one?” she quavered.

I lifted the animal to examine it. We did not have snakes on Gante; no cold blooded creature could survive there. “How would I know?”

“Look at the markings!”

“Black with yellow stripes.” The animal roused, unwinding in a graceful flow to wrap itself around my wrist. I held very still.

“Oh my gods! Oh my gods!” shrieked Ghilene, her eyes growing rounder and rounder. She retracted against the headboard. “Kill it! Lili, kill it! Kill it now!” She leapt from the bed and ran into the hall, throwing the chamber door closed behind her.

Ghilene feared the little snake, but it appeared quite harmless to me. I walked onto the sun-porch adjoining Ghilene’s chamber, where cypress trees tickled the railing. The snake did not hesitate—it saw its chance for freedom and unfurled from my arm onto the tree, disappearing into the foliage.

Ghilene did not return to her room, not even for the midday meal delivered on trays at the time the Lethemians called the hour of Amassis. I spent the quiet time straightening the vanity, organizing Ghilene’s cosmetics, making her bed, and brushing down her gowns.

When a knock sounded on the door, I thought it might be Culan come to fetch Ghilene for a walk in the Palace courtyards. He doted on his younger sister and displayed a protective interest in her success at the Brokering. When I opened the door, Costas’s servant stood there, glancing right and left over his shoulders even as he held out an envelope.

“Take it, take it,” he hissed.

I closed my hand around it, and the servant hurried away down the hall.

Before I opened the envelope, I admonished the cooked bit of my soul not to be carried away by Costas’s attention. He and I might have been equal to each other if we were Gantean, but as a handmaiden slave, I had no future with him. Costas knew this as well as I did. I told myself to stuff the damned note under the mattress, but my unruly fingers peeled away the gold-flecked chrysanthemum seal. The note contained only seven words:

Midnight. The opal garden. I’ll be waiting.

I burned the note, fearing Ghilene might find it and recognize the stationary or the handwriting. Costas’s words sent me into a flurry of excited distress. I changed into my plain dark blue dress for the evening festivities and wound my too-short hair into a crown of braids, taking them down more than once to get them just so. Ghilene arrived back as I fitting the last pin into my hair.

“I reported the snake,” she announced. “It could only have gotten in my box by deliberate action. Someone planted it there.”

I blinked in surprise—her theory had not occurred to me. “Who would want to trap a snake in a box?”

“That was an Amarian dwarf adder! The most deadly snake in Lethemia! I suspect Stesichore Ricknagel.”

“Stesichore Ricknagel?” I could not picture the fussy young woman stooping to plant snakes in jewelry boxes. She would have screamed louder than Ghilene at the presence of any sort of animal near her person. She seemed utterly divorced from the natural world—a creation of lace and gold rather than earth and water.

“Yes, Stesichore! She’s jealous of the attention Costas has been giving me, obviously. She’s angling for him.” Ghilene huffed. “Twenty-five years old! Three years older than Costas, and she thinks he’ll want her. When he could have someone like me.”

I understood Ghilene’s point. A younger match would be wiser for a man required to produce an heir.

“But a snake?” It still struck me as unlikely—first, that the Ricknagel girl would have such murderous intentions, second, that if she did, she’d use a snake to achieve them.

Ghilene shrugged. “Stranger things have happened at Brokerings. We act as though the Brokering is a light and joyous thing, but even at King Mydon’s Brokering someone used magic to sway his choice. Marriage to the Galatien heir gives a woman considerable power. Everyone’s watching Costas to see where his attention lands. I always knew if it landed on me I’d need to be careful. The gain is worth the risk. I can manage Stesichore Ricknagel.” Ghilene’s eyes glittered.

I worried, silently, whether the snake, if planted, might have been intended for me as much as for Ghilene. Had someone learned of the secret meeting in the crystal garden?

Ghilene made no further comments about her theories of intrigue, instead creating the usual chaos of garments and shoes and cosmetics as she prepared for the ball. None of her gowns suited; she wanted one in deep purple and her mother had forbidden it as too mature. Her hair was too flat. Which scent appealed the most? We had to open every bottle. Was the kohl lining her eyes too dark? Then she needed her emeralds rather than her amethysts. Finally I had her adorned to her satisfaction in a soft lavender gown with a bodice beaded with hundreds of tiny pearls. She strapped her women’s knife to her arm and pulled a pale lace capelet over her shoulders.

“Maybe tonight I’ll send him a sign,” she said, moving her arm in an arc and allowing the blade to drop into her palm. Without stopping, she circled her hand, flashing the blade at me twice. “That signals my interest in a rendezvous,” she explained. “Do you think it subtle enough?”

I nodded, though I had no grounds on which to judge her motions.

I followed Ghilene to the ballroom, once again carrying the train of her dress.

She reminded me, “Don’t hover around me, Lili. You know how I hate that. Go find some corner to sit in and make yourself scarce. I don’t want you ruining things for me.” Ghilene dove into the crowd. I sought a draped alcove on the edge of the ballroom.

This party appeared even grander than the previous night’s. Gold drapes lined the walls, hiding more alcoves like the one I had chosen. The women’s costumes had grown even more elaborate, though the men still wore their somber dark colors—all except Costas Galatien, in white as usual, glowing like a prize in the center of the room surrounded by fawning guests. Ghilene approached him, curtseying and holding her skirts wide. As she straightened, she performed her practiced signal—I only noticed because I watched for it.

If Costas saw it, he made no response. Instead he turned to Stesichore Ricknagel to escort her to the dance floor for the first set. Ghilene scowled on the sidelines, a look of murderous envy twisting her face as she watched them. If anyone seemed likely to be planting snakes in jewel boxes, it would be Ghilene herself.

From my nook I observed the Lethemians as they drank and flirted. What a lengthy and overblown way to select a mate. What did all this pomp prove? What did dancing and fine manners signify to these women, that it should appeal so much to them? Ganteans prized competence and strength in our men, for they had to show their merit in the form of fresh meat and survival. All this sayantaq glitter was only that. [_Glitter. Insubstantial. _]The dancing continued for a few numbers, and I lost track of both Ghilene and Costas in the whirl.

My partially closed curtain flicked open. Costas slipped into the alcove and pulled the drape fully, closing us into shadows.

“What are you doing all alone here, Lili?”

“Ghilene doesn’t want me hovering,” I answered. “I received your—”

“Don’t speak of it!” he whispered as he sat across from me. “Not even here. Not now.” He tapped his ear as if to indicate someone might be listening. Then he laughed and spoke at full volume. “How thoughtful of you to accede to her demands. I would have thought her so used to being hovered over that she wouldn’t notice.” Costas Galatien took up more space than any man I’d ever met, though he wasn’t large. I’d known plenty of Gantean men with heavier bones and thicker frames. Costas’s sprawl had more to do with attitude than size. He treated space as though it belonged to him, as though the world could be shaped to his desires as easily as a potter molded clay. I pressed into the back of my chair, stirred unwillingly by his intensity.

Costas filled the silence: “I came to offer you my next dance.” He held a hand out to me, palm up, across the small table between the chairs.

“You would not want to dance with a…a handmaiden.” I dropped my voice. “I thought it was supposed to be a secret?” The coiled snake in the jewel box had shown me that Costas’s attention could be dangerous.

“Many handmaidens will dance. There’s nothing improper in it.”

“You should dance with Ghilene. Or Stesichore Ricknagel.”

Costas frowned. “I already did.” His hand remained upturned on the table.

I could not get a full breath. “I’m nothing. I’m no one.”

“Are you refusing me?” He looked as startled at this thought as I was at dancing with him.

“I—is it even allowed?”

“Anything’s allowed when you are with me. I don’t care what they think of it. It’s only a dance. Come.”

Costas laughed. His hand, so still in asking, flashed, catching my wrist. He stood and pulled me to my feet.

“This isn’t a good idea.” I struggled against him as he pushed aside the concealing curtain, but the damage was already done. The entire ballroom’s focus shifted to us.

Costas appeared immune to the attention. “What are you talking about? That dark simple dress makes us a perfect match. Light and dark. No one else matches me so well.”

“I know very little about dancing.”

“Really,” he murmured so only I could hear. “Now that’s interesting. Who doesn’t know about dancing? Who doesn’t carry a women’s knife at a ball? You are quite a mystery, Lili.”

“I don’t want to embarrass you,” I whispered.

“Then don’t embarrass me.”

He dragged me into the dancing crowd, facing me and placing one of my hands on his shoulder.

I recalled the oblong star Tiercel had taught me and managed to step into the figure. “Your note—” I tried again, hoping to give my denial to him in person rather than having to fumble inelegantly with the knife later.

“Hush!” Costas reprimanded, snapping me through the next step rather roughly. I closed my mouth.

The crawling sensation of magic unfurled where our palms met. As always, I had the urge to fling my hand away as the eerie pulse throbbed from my hand to my arm to the center of my body.

“By the gods!” He stared at me, squeezing my hands until they turned white. “You have magic. I can feel it. So many secrets you have, Lili. I want to know them all.”

I made no reply, too embarrassed and upset to think. He looked at me as though I wore no clothes. I flushed. Concentrate on the star, Leila. Yet the ripple of magic grew, until I imagined a thin cord of my own bloodlight twisting around a similar thread from Costas’s, knotting us together as we danced.

Ferocious scrutiny burned the back of my neck. When Costas and I began the star figure facing a different direction, I saw Jaasir Amar at the edge of the dance floor with a tall man dressed in white mage’s robes. Jaasir’s arms tightened over his chest, his dark blue gaze cutting me like a blade. The creases of dismay only left his face when he looked at Costas. He couldn’t disguise his affection for the prince—or his hatred for me.

Did Jaasir Amar recognize that I was Gantean? Or was it only that Costas had danced with me, and Jaasir’s jealousy knew no bounds? But Costas had danced with many people—every dance, a different partner. Why would anyone attach much significance to a mere dance? My hand slid from Costas’s shoulder. He glided through my blunder, swinging me to his opposite side before he let me go. I curtsied as the last notes of the music hovered in the air. Costas escorted me back to the edge of the dancing arena, where he bowed over my hand and departed, leaving me confused and blushing. He approached Ghilene next, and she sent me one deadly glare as they moved off together.

Hot, flushed, and distressed, I hurried back towards my alcove. Dancing with Costas had been a stupid thing to do, if only because it would anger Ghilene, but the man sapped me of all good sense.

Someone tapped my shoulder before I could reach the safety of the alcove. I whirled, identifying the tall man who had stood at Jaasir Amar’s side only moments earlier. He lacked the carefully planned refinement of most of these men of the Ten Houses.

“Hello.” He offered a quick smile and a hand. “I’m Laith.”

“I—I’m Lili.”

He gestured towards the dancing couples behind us. “Care to dance?”

“No, thank you.” I hadn’t recovered yet from my first dance.

He shook an admonishing finger at me. “That’s not wise, you know. You’d generate less suspicion if you would dance with someone else after that…interesting…display. I’m trying to help you. I haven’t as much experience with dancing as most of these dandies, but I’m a mage. It won’t be awful.”

I shook my head. “I really—”

The mage—Laith, he’d called himself—grabbed my arm and pulled me back towards the dance floor.

“It’s not my style to force a woman to do anything she does not wholeheartedly desire, but in this case, I really must insist. I promise I have no designs on you. I’ve been sent by my damned brother.”

“What?” I allowed him to guide me into position. He did not have Costas’s finesse, and because of that, we stumbled awkwardly through the star figure.

“Jaasir Amar—my half-brother. I have the dubious honor of serving as his personal mage. A rather uncomfortable arrangement, if you must know, but we’re learning how to rub along together. He wanted me to tell you—wait, let me get this right, Jaasir has such a knack for a cutting phrase—‘to keep your talons out of Costas Galatien.’ A cordial message from my little brother.”

I stared up at Laith, who stood nearly a full span taller than me.

“Don’t look so worried.” He swung me too forcibly into the turn before we began the figure again. “First of all, I’m not some lecher bent on seducing you. When it comes to aetherlight, like does not attract like. I’ve seen the color of yours, and there’s no way in the hells of Amatos we could ever bind. We’re too alike in color. It would never work, so put your mind at ease. I’m only a messenger. I have no interest in Jaasir’s intrigues, but I feel it my duty to warn you—Jaasir’s a tenacious son of a bitch.” Laith threw back his head and laughed. “Son of a bitch. Gods, I amuse myself.”

“I’m lost, sir.”

Laith released my shoulder and waved. “Forgive me. You wouldn’t understand the joke unless you knew Jaasir’s mother as I do. Suffice it to say, my half-brother likes to get his way, and in this case, he thinks his way is Costas Galatien. He won’t listen to me, though anyone can see it won’t work.”

“You mean that your brother has—has—amorous affections for the prince?” I blurted. Ghilene had mentioned odd rumors.

Again Laith laughed. “Amorous affections! To say the least. I’d call it an unhealthy obsession, myself, though anyone who can see the Aethers knows they won’t suit.”

“See the Aethers?”

“Yes, you know, what a mage does?” Laith made a complicated gesture whose meaning eluded me. “Manipulate the aetherlights?”

I recalled what Tiercel had told me about aetherlight, that it was the same as what we Ganteans called bloodlight. Of course a mage could see that.

“How do the…aetherlights…tell you that your brother and Costas won’t suit?”

Laith produced a half-hearted, secretive smile. I stepped on his foot, and he caught me to prevent a fall. “For the same reason I know you and I won’t suit. It’s all in the nuances of color. Let’s go speak somewhere more practical,” he said. “Neither of us appears suited to dancing while conversing.”

He pulled me back to the alcoves and ducked into a private one, sitting and gesturing to the opposing bench. “Aetherlight controls everything,” he said. “It’s a fact. Jaasir’s aetherlight is mauve. Costas’s is gold. It’s a bad color fit. End of story.”

“Aetherlight.” I said the word to practice it—if I called it bloodlight, I would reveal that I was Gantean.

But Laith took my response as question. He threw both hands up and said, “Aetherlight! Yes, aetherlight! The blood of magic! The color of your soul! Do they teach laymen nothing? Gods!”

“I know what aetherlight is,” I snapped, crossing my arms. “But I don’t understand what bearing it has on—on anything.”

“I can tell you, on no uncertain terms, that you were drawn here, to Galantia, to the Brokering. Wherever you came from, whatever your plans, you were drawn here.”

“I came because of Ghilene Entila—”

“No,” Laith interrupted. “You were drawn here by Costas Galatien like water moving with a current.”

I shook my head. “I don’t understand. Is it wise to say this sort of thing in public?”

Laith flapped a hand in the air. “No one’s listening. I would know. Look, it’s your aetherlight. The heat attracts the chill. I’ve seen it a thousand times. His is warm—the warmest. Yours is very cool. Aetherlight controls everything. You may think an event or an attraction is serendipity, coincidence, pure chance, but it’s not. It’s the aetherlights at work.”

I tilted my head and studied the man before me. Might he be a little unhinged?

“I’m giving you this warning,” Laith went on, “because you seem like an innocent. Your aetherlight wants to bind with Costas’s. There will be some very unhappy people if it does.”

“Bind? Do you mean an ung-aneraq?” I spoke the Gantean word without thinking.

Laith froze across from me, one hand stuck in his dark hair. “By the gods, you’re Gantean? Tell me that word again. Tell me what it means.”

I could have kicked myself. I said nothing.

He lifted his hands in a placating way. “I’m not prejudiced. I couldn’t care less where you’re from. Really. My brother, on the other hand—he has a special hatred for all things Gantean. But I can forget to mention your heritage to him. Tell me what that word means and your secret is safe with me.”

I sighed. “Ung-aneraq. The blood-heart-breath. It is the cord of blood—aetherlight that ties together two who have mated.”

“Ah, yes. It is the same thing we Lethemians call a bind.”

Silence stretched between us. I hated that I had been so foolish as to reveal my secret. Consternation furrowed Laith’s forehead; distress tightened my jaw.

The curtain to the alcove snapped open. Ghilene glared down at me. “What did you think you were doing, dancing with Costas?”

Laith hopped to his feet, bowing. “Lady Ghilene.”

Ghilene turned to him—thank goodness—and lifted her hand. Laith kissed it.

“You’re a mage?” she said, surveying his white attire, thoroughly distracted for the moment.

“The mage Laith, at your service, my lady.”

“Laith?” she cried. “The Laith? Laith Amar? Laith of ‘Laith does what Laith wants” fame?”

The mage lifted his brilliant blue gaze and grinned. “The one and only, my lady. And what Laith wants, at this very moment, is to dance with you.” With a debonair gesture worthy of an experienced rake, he took Ghilene’s arm and guided her from the alcove, casting one glance over his shoulder at me, as though to say, You owe me for saving you [_from her. _]I took a deep breath and rose. I had a prince to meet.

Seven

_A _gold-framed clock presided over the ballroom, set into the wall and wider than the span of my arms. The Lethemian gods representing the hours were rendered on the face in delicate detail, painted with gold and silver leaf that sparkled in the magelight. As the second hand approached the double-faced figure at the top, I slipped from the ballroom.

I now understood—after asking Palace servants a few pointed questions—that the six crystal pillars girding the Palace each supported a garden. These were the crystals that had been taken from Gante long ago, from our Hinge. The red crystal in Nautien’s amulet heated against my chest as I approached Costas’s opal garden at the westernmost point of the Palace.

I moved as silently as a Gantean on the hunt, but the hall was empty—everyone had either retired or remained at the Brokering ball. The garden’s heavy door opened to my turn.

My sense of magic sprang to life. The night before I had been too anxious to notice the prickling that coursed through my limbs, or perhaps I had attributed any magic to Costas Galatien’s presence rather than the crystal garden itself. Now the pale blue walls glowed like a southern mage’s stone, the cool light surging and retreating in a rhythmic beat. The magelight orbs were not illuminated; only the walls cast the intermittent light. I moved deeper into the garden, finding no sign of Costas or anyone else.

White, blue, and violet flowers bloomed everywhere, flashing in the beat of the light. The mageglass lattice screened the midnight sky; the stars glimmered through the gaps in the web like gems scattered on velvet.

My limbs quivered with the chilling pulse of the opal walls. I found the nearest white marble bench and collapsed into it, shivering and closing my eyes against the incessant flashing of the walls and the increasing cold in the air.

“Are you all right?”

My eyes flew open. Costas stood five spans away from me, brightening and fading in the flickering light. He leaned against a white stone pillar that rose from the blue floor.

“The crystal’s magelight does take some getting used to, doesn’t it? Opal’s light is very cold.” He stepped towards me. “That’s why I like it so much.” He offered his hand to help me to my feet. “Close your eyes if it gets to be too much.”

“Why did you send for me?”

Costas laughed. “You have no wiles, Lili. I find that quite refreshing. You aren’t like any woman I’ve ever known.”

“Leila,” I said without thinking. That sayantaq slice of my soul wanted him to use my real name.

“What’s that?” He pulled me into a grove of dwarfed trees near the back of the garden.

“Nothing.”

“No, you said ‘Leila.’ Why?”

I shifted side to side. “Leila. That’s my true name, not Lili. Lili is only what the Entilans chose to call me.”

“Leila. Leila. It suits you. It’s lovely.” He put his hand on my cheek to force our gazes to meet.

I had seen insects stuck for eternity in the amber of Gantean birch trees, and now I knew how they felt mired in the sticky sap. His eyes caught me and pulled me in; I could think of nothing but the kiss we had shared the night before.

He put his mouth over mine as though he had read the thought in my eyes.

“Please—,” I said when he pulled away. I wanted more. His body provided a circle of warmth amidst the cold garden. So warm.

He stroked his thumb over my lips.

“More,” I whispered.

He didn’t need to be asked. I put my hands on his upper arms. As soon as I touched him, I fell into the trance that came over me after knotting nets for hours.

Heat seared my fingers, and the cord I had imagined twinning between us during the dance became a visible, tangible thing made of gold and blue strands. Its steady illumination intensified as we kissed.

He mouthed the bare skin of my neck. “You smell of fir trees and wintergreen,” he said. “I noticed that when I danced with you.” His lips ran over the hollow of my throat, brushing Nautien’s anbuaq. “I wanted to put my face here and inhale you.”

I pushed on him to make space between us. “We shouldn’t do this.” Even I could hear the inconsistent quaver in my voice.

Costas drew up and flicked my tormaquine with his finger. “Why not?”

“We are too different. You are the Prince, and I’m just—”

“Don’t tell me you’re nobody again. I like your difference. I like how easy and quiet you are, like cool, gentle water. You soothe me whenever you are near.”

I thought of the Gantean men, who used to call me bird-girl and mock my shyness. “Men usually wish me to be more forward.”

“I have had enough of forward women to last me a lifetime. I would hazard a guess that they only wish you to be more forward because they lack confidence. You are so delicate, so soft; they don’t know what to make of you. I don’t lack confidence.” He wrapped a finger around a tendril of my hair that had slipped from my braid.

“No, clearly.”

Costas laughed and tugged my hair. “The kitten has teeth! Now, let me hear no more of this nonsense that we are too different. Underneath snobberies,[_ I_] believe we’re all the same. We’re people, no matter our standing in the world. Aetherlight runs through us.”

I nodded, though I could not entirely agree. [_Iksraqtaq _]would always stand apart; the duty of the Hinge weighed on us in ways the sayantaq southerners would never understand. “What is this called?” I asked Costas, pointing to a cluster of white flowers to steer the conversation into shallower waters.

“That’s the glory-of-the-snow.” He plucked one of the tiny blooms, tucking it behind my ear and letting his fingers run along the edge of my jaw. “There’s something so charming about your innocence. You don’t even know the flowers. Your previous suitors have neglected you.”

“We have few flowers in the north,” I explained. In Gante the only bloom I’d ever seen was the purple saxifrage that littered the ground near the Hinge cavern, and that only survived because of the unnatural year-round warmth of that place.

“Do you like it when I touch you?” he asked. His fingertips had not moved from the side of my face.

“Yes.” I could not deny something so obvious, but I could not meet his gaze, either.

His hand shifted to the back of my neck. “You get so still, like a frightened animal. I’ve never met such a shy woman. I admit it throws me, even as it thrills me. I cannot read you.”

I told him the truth, though it might have been better to lie. “It’s just—Ghilene would be angry. I fear what she will do if she finds out about our meetings.”

“Ghilene? Forget about her.”

“She won’t like it—”

“She’ll never know, and if she finds out, will she dare to argue with me?”

I didn’t find his cavalier attitude comforting, but I couldn’t bring myself to explain my situation. Shame—for being Gantean, for being considered both savage and criminal—made me hold my silence. What would he think of me if he knew I was Gantean? I craved his attention too much to risk revealing my secret.

He ran a finger down my throat until it probed Nautien’s anbuaq. “Feel how warm this red stone is,” he murmured. “It has its own heat, like a magestone. It entrances me. I felt your presence, all through the evening, without ever looking for you.” He pressed a palm over his chest. “I felt it here.”

“I know,” I whispered. “When we danced, our aetherlights”—I remembered the Lethemian word—“came together.”

“The stone’s getting warmer,” Costas murmured, still caressing it. “Feel it.” He wrapped my hand over his own on the anbuaq. My head spun from the throbbing walls, the blazing anbuaq, and his warm body.

He ran his fingers into my hair, uncoiling it with a practiced motion. The air thickened as if I had stepped into Yaqi[_, _]and my knees lost their hold on my weight.

As I fell against him, he leaned back into the opal crystal walls, tilting me so we slid down together. I ended up in his lap, my dress belled over us both.

Some small, reasonable Iksraqtaq[_ _]voice inside me resisted, telling me to stop this madness. I pushed into his chest with my palms, though the labor of putting space between us fatigued me. “I can’t,” I murmured half-heartedly.

“Why?” His hands moved over my body, pushing aside clothing, finding skin.

“I’ve never done this before, and—”

“Are you so inexperienced, pretty Leila? How?”

“I’ve never done this,” I repeated stiffly. No Gantean would mate in such uncertain circumstances, with someone the Elders had not given her for the purpose.

“Good. I like knowing you’ll only be mine.” He caught one hand in my hair as the other gathered my skirts around my waist.

His breath tasted faintly of mint leaves. The steady thrum of the crystal’s light had trapped me in its rhythm; whatever connection had risen between Costas and me kept me yoked in the moment.

“Wait!” I said again.

“Why?” he said again. “It’s too late. The aetherlight grips us. I’m no mage, and even I can feel it. Can’t you? It’s all around us.”

I did. Warm bloodlight submerged me like a rising tide. “Is that how it works?” I breathed. No one had ever told me in Gante. They had never told me mating had this magic in it.

“Only between us, Leila. It only works that way for us. I’m the only one who would suit you this way.” Releasing my hair, he twisted one hand around the twine that held my tormaquine and Nautien’s anbuaq. The leather bit into the back of my neck. He pulled my mouth to his.

We never stopped kissing, not even as he turned me to my back and covered me with his body. He worked so fast; his experienced hands shaped me into the arrangement he wanted.

“Yes?” he whispered, one hot palm sliding up my thigh.

“Yes.” I gave myself up to the raw fury of his bloodlight licking at me with warm tongues of heat. I could put up no further resistance; I didn’t want to, though I remembered the mage Laith’s words: Your aetherlight wants to bind with Costas’s. There will be some very unhappy people if it does.

Costas put his body above mine and pressed my legs apart. I could not distinguish between the burn of the bloodlights from the burn of my flesh as he pushed. I squeezed my hands into his back and bit his shoulder to stifle a cry as he moved inside me. My body strove to be closer, closer to him, as though I needed every exposed bit of our skins to touch.

Coils of bloodlight spun between us: soft, swirling strands of mine, indigo and opal, and strong arrows of his, gold and black. In Yaqi, red aetherlight blossomed from Nautien’s anbuaq in strands like veins, weaving our bloodlights together into a living cord that ran from my chest to his. The lights burst and shattered. Costas bit the leather twine around my neck as he finished, falling over me with a pleasurable weight.

You cannot fight the binds of bloodlight. Like the tides, they pull, and if you stand in their path, they will capture you and draw you out with them to sea.

Once at sea, you have a choice. You can swim or you can drown.

&The crystal walls& no longer pulsed, instead offering only a vibrant, soothing glow. We remained quiet for a long time. Costas held me but did not move from atop me. The magic had not released us yet; I saw the bound cord of our bloodlights still twisting and thickening. Nothing could separate us now but a blackstone blade, the Gantean ulio that was the only tool I knew of that could cut bloodlight.

The cord we had made would be visible to any mage who could see the Aethers. Too late, my common sense returned. What had I done? I thought of the snake in Ghilene’s jewel box, and Ghilene herself, who would be furious if she ever learned what had transpired here tonight. Laith Amar’s warnings ran in my head. The Palace was full of mages, and Costas was no doubt the object of their constant scrutiny.

The pleasant languor fled my body. I sprang up and attempted to rearrange my hair into the semblance of order.

Costas straightened his own clothes, smiling with an uncomfortable sort of satisfaction. I could not meet his gaze.

“Remember,” he said, rising to his feet. “This is our secret. Tell no one. Not yet. There’s a great deal I need to arrange.”

Distress uncurled in the base of my spine. He was Lethemian, sayantaq. He didn’t understand the significance of the cord—the ung-aneraq—we had just made. To him, it was nothing. He could have as many of them as he wanted, he could take lovers at a whim, as all southerners did. I shuddered with revulsion at the thought. To me, the cord meant something else. A lifetime bond of blood and light and breath. Sacred.

Clang! Down in the ballroom, that ornate clock began to strike, signaling the end of the hour of Amatos. [_Clang! _]The distant bell rang in its tower. I caught my breath.

Clang! _]I took one step away from Costas. He lifted an arm to pause me, but I turned and fled towards the door. [_Clang!

“Wait!” he cried. “Where are you going? Leila!” Clang!

I flew down the western wing’s hall. Clang! _]Each ring of the clock bell only increased my panic. [_What had I done? What had I done?

[_Clang! _]The final ring struck just as I arrived on the ground floor. I cast a glance over my shoulder, but Costas had not followed me. A strange emptiness crawled across my neck. I pressed my palm against my throat. The leather that carried my tormaquine and Nautien’s anbuaq was gone. It must have fallen from my neck after Costas had bitten it.

I froze, torn between my urgent need to return for the necklace and my aversion to facing Costas. I gripped my skirts with clammy palms and retraced my steps back to the garden, but the door handle wouldn’t turn for me. My hand shook as I knocked and whispered, “Costas? Costas, please, let me in?”

Eight

I waited. Costas did not answer, and though I tried the door again, I could not force it open. I had no choice but to return to my rooms, though my heart fluttered with panic. [What had I done? _]The loss of my necklace was a bigger disaster than making the ung-aneraq with Costas, but both lapses struck me as unforgivable to a true _Iksraqtaq. I didn’t sleep at all, desperately planning how to get the necklace back.

In the morning Ghilene demanded that I run down to the kitchen to order her a breakfast tray. I detoured to the garden again for my[_ _]necklace, but the door remained locked. My hand had already adopted the habit of clutching the bottom of my throat to fill the void. I had to find it!

[_You know what must be done. _]Nautien’s words pounded in my head. I had been derelict in my Gantean duty. If I ever found the Cedna—and how I would do that, I did not know—I’d need the anbuaq. It contained the spall from the Hinge that would allow me to feed the Hinge and perform the necessary magic when I confronted the Cedna. My clammy hand slid from the garden doorknob. Perhaps Costas had the charms? I could only hope.

Upon my return to Ghilene’s room, I had to set the table on the sun-porch and plump up the cushions on the bench so she could sit. Then she refused to settle, pacing the length of the porch, scowling. I remained standing as well—Lethemian etiquette said I could not sit until she did. I clasped both hands in front of me and painted a calm aspect upon my face.

Ghilene clutched her morning dress and faced me, her dark eyebrows pulling together in that angry line I dreaded. “You danced with Costas Galatien! What were you thinking, you scheming little harlot? How did you even learn to dance? Was it that damned Tiercel? I’ll have words with him when we get home! Teaching a savage Gantean to dance! How typical!”

I remained motionless. “The Prince asked me. I had no choice but to accept.”

“He asked you?”

I came up with an appeasing lie. “He wished me to tell him more about you.”

“Well, next time send him to me directly! If you dare do something like that again, Lili, I swear I’ll—”

A knock sounded on the chamber door. Ghilene and I stared at each other in surprise. The hour was far too early for a summons or message. My relief at the sudden end to Ghilene’s diatribe was tempered by my concern about who might be coming so early. What if Costas’s servant had arrived to bring me another message ore return my necklace? How would I explain?

Ghilene rubbed her face. She still had dark kohl smeared beneath her eyes, as she hadn’t fully washed her face after the night’s activities. She flung her arm towards the doors that opened between the sun-porch and the bedroom. “What are you waiting for, Lili? Answer the door! But tell them I’m not available. It’s too early.” She finally slumped into the bench I had prepared, crossing her arms and staring sullenly over the High City, a skyscape of narrow turrets and white stone facades.

I hurried to the door as the knock sounded again.

Finding Costas’s servant waiting, I winced and prepared to urge his discretion, but he peered over my shoulder as though alert to the risks Ghilene posed. First he shoved a slender box at me and whispered, “This one’s for you, and secret.” Then he offered up an envelope of Costas’s gold-edged stationary, saying in a carrying voice, “A message for Lady Ghilene.” As soon as I took the card he disappeared in his usual silent way. I shoved the slender box up my sleeve.

My hands shook as I carried the envelope back to Ghilene.

“Who was it?” she asked, tearing her gaze from the ramparts of the Conservatoire, the High City’s school of mages, visible at the far eastern end of the city.

“A message, my lady.” I did not say it came from Costas. She might want to know why I recognized his paper and mark.

She snatched the letter from my hands and ripped it open, yanking the card from within. When she dropped the envelope on the ground, I stooped to pick it up.

“It’s from Costas,” she cried as she scanned the message. “Oh—oh! He’s sent me an invitation to tour the Temples and visit the Conservatoire with him today! Oh!” She sprang from her seat and threw the card on the table, forgetting the breakfast she had been so demanding about earlier.

“What shall I wear?” she exclaimed, darting into the bedroom. I followed her slowly, taking care to keep the box stashed safely up my sleeve.

Already Ghilene threw gowns onto the bed in a flurry of purple and green.

“He said he would send his servant to fetch me during the White Lady’s hour. I haven’t much time! What do you think it means, that he asked me? It must be that he wants to see me, what else? Oh! I think I must wear my green ramie—Mother says it flatters my eyes. Hurry, Lili, brush it down, it wrinkles so easily. You can do my hair after. He’s going to walk in public with me—oh—damn!” She froze, one hand cupping her cheek, glaring at me with a look of pure loathing. “Damn, damn.” Her voice had flattened.

“What is it?” I took up the green dress she wanted to wear and hung it so I could brush it smooth.

“What is it? What is it? It’s you! I can’t walk alone on the streets of Galantia with Costas Galatien without a servant. I can’t!” Her voice rose.

To walk out in public without a servant to attend her, with or without Costas, would be considered beyond the pale, according to Tiercel and his many instructions.

“Damned Amatos!” she cursed as she leaned towards me with that angry, intense expression marring her face. “Don’t even speak to him. Just—just stay behind me and keep your head down. I don’t want him to even know you’re there, do you understand?”

I nodded despite the impossibility of her request.

Once I had Ghilene adorned like a gift box wrapped and beribboned for Costas Galatien, I had only a few moments to ready myself. I hurried to the tiny chamber adjoining her room, where I slipped the box from my sleeve and opened it, praying it contained my necklace.

Instead I found a dagger the length of my hand, with a steel blade barely thicker than a finger. A women’s knife. I turned it to examine the ornate pommel, a golden flower—the chrysanthemum sigil of House Galatien—inset at the end with a large, round blue stone that seemed to suck the glow from the magelight sconces. A simple leather holster nestled in the box. I strapped it to my arm and put the women’s knife in place. I’d never been given any kind of gift before, and this beautiful, thoughtful knife only further deepened my tendre for Costas Galatien. The man and his sayantaq world had thoroughly seduced me. Even so, I needed to get my necklace back, as soon as possible.

“Lili!” Ghilene called. “He’ll be here any moment.”

My heart hammered to match the excitement in her voice.

Costas’s servant escorted us to the Palace’s ground floor where Costas awaited us at the exit through the western wing. The route took us directly through a tunnel in the opal crystal pillar, which fairly hummed with magic, like the Hinge back in Gante. Neither Costas nor Ghilene acknowledged the sensation the crystal walls elicited, if they felt it.

We hadn’t walked two steps from the Palace grounds before I understood that one could not blend in when escorted by Costas Galatien in the High City. Not only were we flanked by four bodyguards in Galatien livery, but also a hundred eyes turned towards us the moment we stepped onto Temple Road. Of course Costas cut a recognizable figure with his pale clothes and bronze skin.

Ghilene held his arm, beaming under the attention. People bowed and curtseyed and smiled and saluted; Costas’s personal servant walked right beside him, but I stayed two steps behind Ghilene.

“The Temples of the Amarantines line the road,” Costas explained, loudly, including me in the conversation. “At the far end lies the Temple of Amassis, patron god of Lethemia. Our Galantia temples are the finest. That one we cannot enter, of course.” He pointed to the first temple on our right, a small chapel with a stern blackstone figure guarding the entrance. “That is the Temple of Amatos, and only those who carry the ashes of the dead enter there.”

I glanced at Costas. His voice held an unmistakable tang of derision.[_ ]He waved a careless hand towards the temple. “They say the brothers Amatos and Amassis possessed a drink that kept those who imbibed eternally young. Amatos is said to have stolen it from his brother Amassis. Why then does Amatos guard the dead? There should not _be any dead if he had such a magical elixir! Such nonsense.”

Ganteans had a saying: there is no belief but fear. In a world of ice and predatory bears and two-moon storms, fear governed us. We lived by the rules to survive in harsh conditions, and we died by the rules to keep the world’s magic alive. Fear and death loomed over all our days. Every moon, one Gantean would die for the Hinge. We never knew who might be asked to serve.

Costas’s flippancy unnerved me even as his charm infected me. How different his life had been than mine, to live free of these concerns. We walked on, passing a building with an oval gate.

“This is the Temple of Karenne, our lady of dreams. The acolytes here will read your dreams.” He gave another mocking smile. “And your dreams will foretell good fortune if you give a large donation to the temple.”

Ghilene giggled at his impiety.

“Come,” Costas went on, “Next door they offer you blessings even if you have no jhass.”

Costas insisted we enter the Temple of the White Lady. Six colored glass columns flanked the entry. We paused in the foyer where music wafted on the air. Ghilene darted forward to examine a mural painted on the wall. Costas closed his eyes, half-smiling as he listened to the music.

When his eyes opened again, he caught me staring. His smile distracted me.

Surely if he could smile at me so sweetly he did not mean only to play with me? He must have some plan. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” he murmured, gesturing as if he could catch the music out of the air. He stepped closer and ran the back of his hand along my cheek. “Beautiful.”

I tore my eyes from Costas—hard to do, as once again, I drowned in the amber of his eyes—and glanced over my shoulder, exhaling with relief that Ghilene continued to admire the painting. Costas’s servant, on the other hand, saw all. I hurriedly stepped back while Costas returned to Ghilene’s side.

We proceeded to the Temple of Amassis with its white columns arranged in a symmetrical design, pausing inside to glimpse the vast inner chapel and a newly finished painted ceiling by the famed artist Aranti Marsus. Once again, Lethemian elegance stupefied me. I’d never seen such a realistic painting on such a large scale.

“Lady Ghilene, I want to take you to see the Conservatoire,” Costas said, taking her arm.

“The Conservatoire!” Ghilene cried as we walked back towards the Palace along the Temple Road. “I’ve wanted to see it, badly.”

Costas smiled. “And so you shall.” He pointed to his right, at the final Temple we passed. “Our Galantia Temple of Amarite is known the nation over as the finest, in both acolytes and architecture. Our Galantia mages and magitrixes suffer no shortage of strong Sources for their magic. Perhaps someday you will have cause to make use of the Temple, Lady Ghilene.”

Ghilene actually froze on the street, all her happiness falling from her face in one sudden shift. “Oh,” she murmured. “Oh. I’d only wish to become a magitrix if…”

Costas filled the silence. “If what, Ghilene?”

Ghilene bit her lip and turned towards the Temple of Amarite. I did not quite follow the undercurrent of their conversation. “A magitrix can’t marry,” she said sulkily.

Costas did not reply, though he had to have recognized her hint. He led us east, following the route that took us past the gates of the Palace and two of the crystal pillars, one pink and the other sapphire blue. Surges of magic emanated from them, but again, none of the others showed any notice.

By the time we stood before the Conservatoire, I had developed more than one blister from my southern shoes. The ramparts I had seen from Ghilene’s sun-porch were constructed from the same glassy material as the bridge that led to Galantia.

“I made you an appointment with an analyst,” Costas said to Ghilene.

“What?” She turned to gape at him, looking as young as her years.

“To have your magic tested.”

“But—my mother—I—”

I had never heard Ghilene stammer before.

“You needn’t act on anything the analyst tells you,” Costas explained. “But wouldn’t you like to know if matriculation at the Conservatoire were an option?” He mounted the broad steps that led to the institute’s entrance, hauling Ghilene by the arm. His servant hurried before them to open the door. Not knowing what else to do, I followed.

The entry hall to the school was surprisingly narrow and dark. A tall, gaunt man with eyes like an addict’s approached. He held a stack of papers beneath one arm. “Lady Ghilene Entila?” he asked.

Ghilene shook herself free from Costas and smoothed the front of her dress. “Yes.”

The gaunt man surveyed her. “You submit yourself for analysis?”

“I—yes, yes I do.” Ghilene maintained her poise despite his scrutiny.

“Come with me.” The tall man proceeded deeper into the building after offering a brief bow to acknowledge Costas.

Ghilene glanced back with apprehension. “You’ll—you’ll wait for me?” she asked Costas, again sounding youthful and slightly frightened.

“Of course, my lady. It will be my pleasure.” Costas’s smile could not have put her much at ease; he looked like a satiated cat, indolent and far too pleased with himself.

Ghilene glared a warning at me, as if to emphasize her earlier command: Don’t even speak to him.

After Ghilene disappeared Costas took my arm. His servant, moving with practiced discretion, faded back towards the front entry.

“Come into the library,” Costas murmured, gesturing to two tall double doors. “You’ve never seen anything like it, Leila. It’s the biggest collection of magical texts in the world.”

I didn’t doubt that it would awe me, but I worried what Ghilene would do if she caught us together in there.

So many books! So many paintings and maps in frames on the walls! So many chaises and chairs! The room sprawled. Aisles between the shelves faded into the distance.

Costas, still holding my wrist, drew me down one of the empty aisles and pressed me up against the books. He stole an eager kiss, and a warm rush of energy stirred at the base of my spine, running along the braided cord of bloodlight I now shared with him.

I turned my face away, but he continued to kiss me: my jaw, my neck, the hollow of my throat that missed my necklace. My necklace!

“Wait!” I tried to shift his weight though it pinned me against the shelves. “Last night I lost my—”

Costas laughed. “Wait? But why? There’s no one here to see us. We’re perfectly alone. This was exactly what I hoped for in setting up the test for Ghilene.”

I could not meet the intensity of his gaze. It burned me—quite physically—just as his touch did. I tried again. “Last night I lost my necklace. The one with the bone charms and the red stone? I must find it. Did you—”

“We’ll go back to Opal and search for it later. ”

“Thank you.” His assurance brought me a small measure of relief. He wrapped his hand over mine and held it there.

“Did you get the women’s knife?” he asked.

“Oh, yes!” I pushed up my sleeve to show it to him, strapped on my arm. “It’s beautiful, your Highness, but you—”

“You of all people can call me Costas, Leila.”

I flushed. He leaned into me and stared into my eyes in an unnervingly direct way. “That knife has significance, Leila. It bears my sigil. Can you meet again tonight? After the Brokering festivities. Midnight?”

“To search for my necklace? Yes, yes!”

“We can do…anything you wish…of course, but there are some matters we must discuss—”

“Well, well,” a voice said from the top of the aisle. “Two lovebirds caught kissing in the library. This might be a first for these famed halls. The Conservatoire mages frown upon such behavior, you know. They prefer we keep our amorous activities confined to the Temple of Amarite, where we are assured Sources strong enough for our tastes.” Laith Amar leaned against the edge of the bookshelf, arms crossed over his chest, his expression far darker than the teasing lightness of his tone.

“Laith.” Costas dropped my hand.

No longer dressed in the customary white attire of a mage, but rather in form-fitting black clothes, Laith stalked down the aisle towards us. “Costas,” he replied with a familiarity I did not expect.

Costas did not seem to mind. “Doing research?” he asked the mage.

Laith smirked in reply, a lifted eyebrow his only answer. He paused and stood in the space Costas had put between us, looking first from Costas and then to me. “What brings you here?” Laith asked.

My watery knees almost betrayed me.

“I brought Ghilene Entila to be tested by the analyst. Apparently she has some magic,” Costas replied.

“Ghilene Entila has magic?” Laith appeared startled. “But the Entila bloodline isn’t known for producing mages.”

Costas shrugged. “I danced with her. She has some perceptible amount. I thought it should be measured.”

“Interesting.” Laith turned to me. “You must be waiting for your mistress then, Miss Lili.”

I nodded. My cheeks burned.

Laith’s dark brows furrowed as he examined me. I shrank into the shelf behind me, fearing he could see the twisting cord of bloodlight—aetherlight—connecting me to Costas.

If he saw it, he made no comment, but his face shuttered, and he turned back to Costas. “My brother invited you to spar with him later today.”

“I received the message,” Costas answered stiffly.

Laith slid a book from the shelf beside my head and stepped back. “Personally, I’ve never taken any interest in what anyone else chooses to do with his own body,” he remarked. “I’m a mage, after all. We do not have the luxury of virtue, and I never cared much for the concept, anyway. But people are watching you, Costas. Closely and carefully. I know you know it. Lien-bound mages must obey their masters, and I am not the only one who has been asked to see which way your aetherlight bends.” His words carried no threat, only sympathy. Were they friends, Laith and Costas? That explained Laith’s casual way of addressing the prince.

Costas’s jaw tightened. Laith flipped open the book he held and indicated a passage. “Ah, here is what I was looking for.” He read from the page, “The Gantean magic is under-researched by Conservatoire mages. All that is really known is that they make many rituals by imbibing a tea made from mushrooms, and that they seem to place great weight on blood, though no one knows exactly why. It has also been observed that nearly every Gantean wears a unique bone carving at their throat, and this object carries particular significance to them, though whether a magical significance or not remains to be seen.” Laith snapped the book closed and jabbed a finger at my neck. “You wore two such charms on your neck last night, and one of them gave off a great deal of magical energy. That’s what made me recall this passage in Ronin Entila’s memoirs.”

I sucked a breath of air. Laith had assured me he would not reveal my origins! Why had he betrayed me in front of Costas?

Costas grabbed one of Laith’s shoulders and pulled him away from me. “You’re scaring the girl, Laith,” he said coolly. “Do you mean to tell me she’s Gantean? “ He peered at me with a whole new light in his eyes, curiosity rather than disdain marking his expression. “That makes sense. She’s from the north. The Ganteans have mixed with the general population up there. Lady Entila is pressing for a colony on the island now that it’s empty—”

Laith ducked from Costas’s grasp, tucking his book under his arm as he swept up the aisle. “I imagine there are several people who would wish to know the girl is Gantean,” he said over his shoulder. “I’m sure your father would want very much to know, for instance.” The mage moved in long strides out the library door.

“Did he mean that he is going to tell your father about us?” I asked Costas, my voice wavering. Costas knew I was a member of a race his people despised, and what would Ghilene do if she learned my secret was out?

“Fucking Amatos.” Costas shoved a hand through his hair. “I have to go do damage control. I’ll see you tonight at the Brokering. We’ll meet afterwards, in the garden.”

“Yes,” I whispered. I still hadn’t managed to shift my weight from the bookshelf into my own feet.

Costas left me in the library. The thought of Ghilene’s anger urged me back to the hall. She would blame me for Costas’s departure; I did not doubt it.

After a long quarter-hour, Ghilene glided down the hall, her face beaming. At least the test must have gone well. Her expression fell when she saw that I stood alone.

“Where did Costas go?” she demanded, curling her hands into fists at her sides.

“He was called back to the Palace on some important business,” I hedged. “He asked that I tell you he looked forward to your company tonight at the party.” Yet another lie. What was the sayantaq world doing to me?

Ghilene pursed her lips. “He promised he would wait to hear my results.”

“I think the matter was urgent.”

Ghilene moved towards the Conservatoire door. She wore an odd, unreadable expression on her face. “The tester said I had the makings of a magitrix, but they don’t like to accept students who cannot name both of their parents. In my case they might make an exception, seeing as how Mother is Head of House. If I enroll, I am to study magical architecture.” She sounded both pensive and excited.

I opened the front doors for her, and we stepped out into bright sunlight that fractured through the glassy towers of the building overhead. “Magical architecture?” I asked, hoping to keep her on a pleasing topic.

Ghilene pointed up. “Mageglass,” she said. “Mages build all the mageglass structures, of course. They design them and then call them into existence with their magic.”

I stared upwards at the spiraling glass turrets of the Conservatoire, shocked. I could not fathom the blood-cost of such magic.

“And will you enroll?” I wondered aloud.

She frowned as we stepped into the bustling square beyond the school. “I’d rather be a princess than a magitrix, but I’d rather be a magitrix than the spinster bastard daughter of House Entila. If Prince Costas doesn’t give me his sigil and ask for my hand, I think I will enroll.”

Nine

Ghilene’s _]words echoed in my head as I readied her for the final ball. [_If Prince Costas doesn’t give me his sigil—he had said the women’s knife he’d given me was his sigil. I had not known what he meant when he said it had significance, but Ghilene implied that the sigil was an offer of marriage. Rills of terror and excitement shuddered through my body. I could barely focus on the gown Ghilene had selected, emerald green with a train so long I had to carry it in folds as we descended the stairs to the ballroom. I had to continually rein in my imagination, which soared on flights of fancy about wedding Costas Galatien. Stop it. You could have entirely misread the situation.

We sailed into the ballroom, and Ghilene gestured for me to let her skirts fall. I tied a ribbon around her wrist that allowed her to control the garment as she danced.

Costas cut across the room to join us. “Lady Ghilene.” Flocks of tiny birds fluttered their wings in my stomach, but he ignored me in favor of my mistress.

Ghilene smiled. “The test was successful.”

Costas nodded, though he seemed distracted. “I am glad to hear it. Let me get you some refreshments.” He ushered Ghilene towards the tables that lined the rear of the ballroom. I did not follow, knowing how Ghilene loathed my presence.

Costas and Ghilene took wine flutes and small plates to a table. Costas performed his role well, leaning attentively over Ghilene, laughing when she spoke, responding to her every motion, but he never gave her his genuine attention. He played a role to distract her, nothing more. When he lifted his head and caught my eye, I slipped the new women’s knife from its holster, hoping he would correctly interpret my signal that I need to speak with him. A hand grasped my shoulder. I squeaked and attempted to shove the women’s knife back into its sling, but failed. I met the angry scowl of Jaasir Amar.

“You think I can’t see what you’re up to, fumbling around with that knife?” he hissed, herding me into one of the curtained sitting alcoves. “Flashing it around for everyone to see like a mirror in the sun?” He shoved me into a seat. “There’s an art to the language of the blades, you know.” His voice dripped scorn. “Highborn girls are masters of it by the age of ten.

“W—what?” My hands shook even as I let the women’s knife drop back into my hand. He frightened me.

Jaasir lounged into the alcove’s opposing seat. “You’re an uppity little creature for a filthy Gantean, casting your eyes at the Prince of Lethemia. Oh yes, Laith told me.” Jaasir leaned forward and grasped the neck of my dress, pulling me so that our faces were but a hand’s breadth apart. His dark blue eyes were such a startling color in his pale face—they almost exactly matched my own.

“He doesn’t really want you, you know. He’s toying with you because he can.”

“I—”

“He likes novelties, that’s all. You’re something new. He’ll tire of you when he realizes your manners only go skin-deep. You’ll slip up. You might not look it, but[_ I_] know you’re as savage as the rest of the Ganteans underneath whatever veneer they shined upon you. A pebble is only a diamond to a blind man. Costas will open his eyes soon.”

“I don’t—”

“I give you one more day. Or less. Costas values fine things in every domain. He needs a wife, not a mistress. Have no doubt, I’ll be making sure he won’t look at you twice after tonight.”

“Do you really think he’s likely to give his sigil to a man, Jaasir Amar?” I lashed out like a cornered cat. Laith had told me his brother was obsessed with Costas.

Jaasir dropped me back onto the alcove bench as though I’d burned him. “A good lie draws more believers than a bad truth.” He flicked open the curtain to expose us to full view of the ballroom. “If I tell Mydon Galatien you are a Gantean using unsanctioned magic to lure his son, he’ll believe me.” He stalked away on those ominous words.

The women’s knife shook in my hand. I arranged it back up my sleeve and stood on weak legs. When I looked up Ghilene Entila filled the alcove’s arch.

“I heard what he said to you.” She pushed me back into the alcove and snapped the curtain closed once again. “Have you? Have you used some barbarian magic to attract Costas Galatien?”

I collapsed onto the bench, trembling. “No! Ganteans don’t use magic for such things.” Magic, used to attract a mate? Iksraqtaq would be ashamed of such a notion.

“But you have magic? You never told me that.” Ghilene’s green eyes snapped madly.

“All Ganteans have magic.”

“Damned Amatos!” Ghilene cried, tearing at the alcove curtain so that it wavered on its rod. “I hate you! I hate you!” She whirled and flounced away, leaving me awash in conflicted emotions: concern for whatever she meant to do in her temper, relief at the blessing of her departure.

I surveyed options in my head—the mess deepened with every new player who learned my origins. Could I escape into the streets of Galantia? Though I might be able to disappear into the High City unnoticed, without my necklace and the precious anbuaq, I could not leave. Not to mention Tiercel had warned me that the magemark burned on my shoulder was trackable. Besides, if Costas really meant to marry me, staying right where I stood might be the wisest choice of all.

I stepped from the alcove to be greeted by a dead silence in the ballroom. Costas stood upon the dais with both his parents at his side.

King Mydon took his son’s arm in a formal gesture, lifting it and bringing it straight out in front of him.

Costas wore that masklike expression again, the same one he’d worn for Ghilene earlier. I’d seen his face lit by true feeling, and this man on the dais was a pale copy—he performed a duty, and he did it woodenly.

“My son has decided,” Mydon Galatien announced. “He has offered his sigil. Our Brokering is complete.”

My breath caught. Shock and excitement coursed through my entire body. He meant to marry me? He meant to announce it [_here, _]in front of the entire court? I experienced an impossible blend of horror and relief. Horror at the thought of being part of the sayantaq world so fully, relief that he meant to honor the ung-aneraq we had made. And wouldn’t it be that much easier to get the necklace back and find the Cedna if I was Costas Galatien’s wife? I would have resources I’d never imagined. I stared straight ahead, resurrecting the powers that had died inside me after Gante: I could act. I could choose. I was no longer a piece of flotsam flung across the sea and praying not to drown. I could swim.

I would go to him, and I would shoulder my duty as a Gantean. I could blend these two worlds. I would love him. I would find the Cedna. I would feed the Hinge as Nautien had asked. For so many moons I had felt like a puzzle whose pieces would not match, but now, now, all my parts were coming together. I would not be alone anymore; Costas would help me, even though he was sayantaq, I could talk with him and get him to understand the importance of my duty.

The[_ _]crowd’s attention remained on Costas and his father on the dais. I took two strong steps forward and trained my gaze on them. When Costas saw me, his jaw clenched, and the bloodlight cord tautened between us. I smiled at him, the first full smile that had crossed my face since my arrival in the southern lands. He understood. He had understood what it meant to me as a Gantean to be with him. I hadn’t even had to explain. He knew me. He wanted me.

The crowd parted, and I trembled at the thought of stepping into the space they made.

I would do it. I would become this new person. This powerful person.

“My son will marry Stesichore Ricknagel!” called Mydon Galatien in a carrying voice. Applause and hushed whispers rippled through the audience as my innards liquefied and drained into my feet. I froze where I stood, breathless and drowning in the crowd. My newfound courage fled; my fragile hopes shattered.

Two figures moved past me, one so close her royal blue skirts brushed my legs. Stesichore Ricknagel sailed into the opening the crowd had made, clutching her father’s arm as he guided her forward.

Stesichore and Xander Ricknagel stepped onto the dais together and took positions beside Costas and his father.

Mydon Galatien spoke over the rustling murmurs. “This betrothal solidifies a vital alliance between Houses Galatien and Ricknagel as we continue to resist the Vhimsantese Empire at our eastern border. United, our two families will present a solid wall of defense there. We make this union with great hope for the future of our nation.”

Xander Ricknagel, a tall, broad-shouldered man with cropped greying hair and a square jaw, placed his arm beneath his elder daughter’s and raised it so that they stood in the same stiff position as Costas and his father. Stesichore lifted her head proudly. The feather headpiece she wore wobbled with the motion. Her gold hair, twisted into heavy loops, looked equally precarious.

The two fathers pressed the hands of their offspring together. Xander Rickangel had a voice made for public speaking, clear and potent. “It is my pleasure to offer the hand of my daughter in marriage to the House of Galatien.”

Mydon squeezed Costas and Stesichore’s hands together. “It is my pleasure to accept,” he said. “Let our houses be joined.”

The ballroom exploded with applause and cheers. Costas and Stesichore stepped down from the dais and walked into the crowd, which parted again to let them pass. The couple moved in a practiced, courtly walk, as though they had always belonged with each other. They arrived at the center of the dancing area.

Everyone watched as they danced. Even I observed, though I had been unable to coax my body to move in my shock. What a fool, to think he could have meant me. What had I been thinking? Was I so seduced and misled by a sayantaq man? I blushed furiously as I attempted to gather my wits. I met Jaasir Amar’s smirking gaze. He stood nearby, arms crossed over his chest, his lying mage Laith lurking behind him.

Slowly, sluggishly, life came back to my limbs. I moved towards the safety of an alcove, seeking quiet and privacy. If only I had an ulio, the Gantean blackstone blade used to cut bloodlight, I could cut the ung-aneraq that tied me to Costas. Where could I get the tools of Gantean ritual here in Galantia?

As I picked my way towards the alcove, Sterling Ricknagel’s handmaiden—the tall, imperious one I’d envied in Entila, caught my arm. She wore a long black column dress with golden beads on the sleeves and looked even more impressive than she had when I’d seen her before. Magic rippled from her touch. “Love is more bitter than sweet,” she murmured, squeezing my arm. Then, like a ghost, she melted into the throng of people watching Stesichore and Costas dance.

Before I could settle into the alcove, Costas’s silent servant brushed my side and tucked a note into my palm in one deft maneuver. He, too, faded into the rapt crowd before I could get a word out.

I pulled the curtains of the alcove closed and opened the note, willing my fingers to cease their insipid shaking. What kind of sayantaq fool had I become, mooning over a man this way? I was Gantean; I was Iksraqtaq. No man, mate or otherwise, could define me. Even so, I could not quell my urgency to read the message.

I’m sorry. I can explain. Meet me tonight as planned?

I tucked the note down the front of my bodice and rested my face in my hands. The blade Costas had given me burned against my arm, demanding that I answer him. I did not—

A blast rocked the hall. As the floor pitched, I fell from the alcove bench and tangled in the curtains that Ghilene had abused, ripping them from their moorings to expose the ballroom. Mageglass orbs crashed to the floor in a shattering racket. People dove beneath tables to avoid the falling glass. Shrieks and yells obscured a deeper thrum, a sound like the beating of an enormous heart.

Crack! The white marble dancing floor split in half. Murky water bubbled through the widening crevice. Was it a quake of the earth? We’d had them often in Gante, though never ones so strong.

“Mages! To me!” A deep voice rose above the frenzy. The House Galatien mages—recognizable in their stark white robes—gathered atop the dais with Costas and his family. The lead mage’s heavy brows knit together as he glared at a figure standing near the crack in the floor.

The figure, a woman in black, stretched one arm towards the ceiling. Her other hand gripped Ghilene, who swayed weakly, as though she might fall at any moment.

A plume of water rose from the crack in the ballroom floor.

The Galatien mages on the dais answered with a protective magic of their own, brandishing staff and stones. The sorceress—what else could she be?—flung her arm and sent a lash of her water flying across the room.

Ghilene fell, collapsing to the ground like a bird shot from the sky. I gasped and tried to move towards her.

A scream rattled the remaining mageglass orbs.

The sorceress’s serpentine water engulfed Lady Malvyna Entila, who stood below the dais in her purple finery. The water wrapped her from ankles to neck, and she fell. The magicked water, pulsing like a living creature, pulled Lady Entila down into the chasm that divided the ballroom.

The ground shifted beneath my feet again, sending me lurching towards the crevice in the floor. The ballroom went entirely black, though only for a moment. Colored lights soon spiraled before my eyes in a complex web. My ribcage constricted; the air grew heavy with the telltale feel of Yaqi, though I had done no bloodletting and no magic to get there.

In Yaqi the water that had flooded the ballroom exuded the ghostly vapors of enchantment. All the party guests were limned in their colored bloodlights in a dazzling array. Only the sorceress did not glow. She was a hungry black void that sucked energy from everything. A white, hard jewel roiled in the center of all that shadow, clear and sharp as a cut diamond.

I caught my breath. In one hand, the sorceress grasped a string made from Ghilene’s vivid green bloodlight, the very cord that connected Ghilene to her mother—the bloodlight umbilicus all Ganteans had cut shortly after birth. The witch was using Ghilene to feed her magic! Then I saw what the sorceress held in her other hand: a Gantean ulio. All my attention narrowed to a point.

I wanted that ulio. I had an ung-aneraq that needed cutting, stretching through the hall to bind me, unwanted, to Costas Galatien.

I scrambled around the crevice in the floor and lunged at the sorceress from behind, jarring the blackstone blade from her grip. She whirled, pulling her black shadows around her, obscuring any view of her. I snatched the ulio from the floor and quickly severed the cord that sprang from Ghilene’s bloodlight. Cutting the cord would sabotage whatever strange magic the sorceress had made and hopefully protect me from any retaliation, too, by crumbling the magic entirely.

The sorceress’s black shade recoiled with the cut. As the magic fell to pieces, I was forced from Yaqi in a disorienting thrust that knocked me to my knees. The enchanted water receded, washing into the gaping crack in the floor.

The chaotic ballroom spun with cowering guests and patrolling mages. The sorceress seemed to have vanished, but I found Ghilene on her back, limp as puppet with her strings cut. She shuddered, her skirt quivering around her like a petal in a windstorm.

“Ghilene? Are you all right?” I crawled to her side.

“I’m cold,” she complained, grabbing my hand in uncharacteristic intimacy. “So cold.”

I shivered, too.

“Ghilene, Lili!” Laith Amar rushed to us, concern creasing his face. “I saw what happened,” he said. “I need to see her Aethers. Now. She’ll be suffering from magical drainage.”

He helped me guide Ghilene onto a bench in the nearest alcove. Then he flicked his hand in a complicated gesture, saying, “She was being used for that magic in some foreign manner. She needs to get warm. Go get her a cloak or a blanket.”

I found Ghilene’s Mirkian wool cloak in the coatroom and returned to the alcove. Costas and his family remained sequestered on the dais, surrounded by Galatien mages. The other Brokering guests collected into anxious, murmuring groups. As far as I could tell, only Ghilene and her mother had been injured in the attack.

Laith stood over Ghilene with a blank expression on his face, his hands moving rapidly above her body in slashing, precise gestures. I tucked the cloak around her, but she continued to shiver.

Laith’s eyes flashed back into clarity with such a severe glare that I retracted against the alcove curtains.

“I saw you,” he said to me. “You cut the cord that connected Ghilene to her mother.” He spoke accusingly, as if I had hurt Ghilene.

I frowned. There was nothing hazardous about cutting a bloodcord—Ganteans cut all such connections. “I only cut the cord to undo the magic the sorceress made. She was using it to power her spell.”

“So you know what happened here tonight? You know who she was? Are you working with her?”

“The—the sorceress? All I know is that she attacked Lady Entila using that bloodcord between the Lady and Ghilene.”

Laith watched me with an inscrutable expression. “But you must know—”

“Well, well, look I what I found,” Jaasir Amar pushed into the already-too-crowded alcove from behind me. “A plaything cast aside. An abandoned toy. Did I not warn you? Nothing but a novelty.” Jaasir’s deep blue eyes were as hard and homogenous as lapis. “Laith!” he barked as he drew the curtains behind us. “What are you doing?”

Laith turned to his half-brother. “Lady Ghilene Entila was injured in the attack. I’m healing her.”

“Did you see what happened?” Jaasir asked.

Laith’s gaze flashed to me. “Ghilene’s handmaiden used Gantean magic to fight the attack.”

Jaasir crowded me back against the curtain. “Magic? You used magic?” Disbelief laced his tone.

“I believe the attacker used Gantean magic as well,” Laith remarked. He gestured in a soothing wave over Ghilene’s resting body. She looked calm and peaceful, the only one in our crowded alcove who did.

Jaasir snaked his arm through mine, but faced his brother. I recoiled, but he held me firm. “What? Do you mean to say—was it—was it the Cedna?”

I gasped and resumed my struggle to free myself from Jaasir Amar. For such a slender man, he had a great deal of strength.

Laith nodded. “I have no doubt that it was. I’ve never seen anyone else with such black aetherlight. It had to be her.”

“Amatos!” Jaasir yanked me into the center of the alcove and held my shoulders to face me towards Laith. “Ask her!” he cried at his brother. “Ask the fucking Gantean bitch what she’s done to Costas!” He did not wait for Laith to obey, instead snarling at me, “What is she up to, your damned Cedna? What does she want? What did she do to my father?”

My heart rammed against my ribs. [_The Cedna? The Cedna had been right in front of me, and I hadn’t even known? _]I cursed silently and again tried to shrug away Jaasir’s pinning hands, to no avail.

Laith looked at me almost apologetically. “No one yet has resisted my truth-compulsion. You may as well save us both the trouble and tell me the truth without it. Were you working with the Cedna to make this attack?”

I’d had enough of the Amar brothers. I twisted my arm in a sharp outward jerk and broke free from Jaasir’s grip, shoving through the alcove curtains. Panic drove me towards the ballroom doors. I threw a glance over my shoulder, expecting to see the brothers in hot pursuit, but neither of them followed. Instead they both headed towards the dais and the Galatien family. I dashed into the hallway beyond the ballroom, turned right and then right again, taking the route to the western wing.

The garden. I had to find my necklace and then find the Cedna. She was here, in Galantia. The thought gave me hope, but I had to get the necklace first.

I took the stairs two at a time. The garden’s heavy wooden door did not budge when I turned the handle.

Boots clacked on the stairs at the far side of the hall. Pressed against the garden door, I had nowhere to hide as a figure crested the top of the stairs.

“Leila, are you all right?” Costas ran down the hall to my side. I stared at him breathlessly. In all the shock I had almost forgotten what the magic attack had interrupted.

Costas ran his hand up and down my arm in a soft caress, and despite everything, I did not want him to stop. “You have to get out of here,” he said. “My father’s sent guards searching for you already.”

“For me? W—why?”

“It’s Jaasir.” He pulled me off the garden door. “He’s concocted some convoluted story—”

“I wasn’t involved in the attack!” I cried. “I only tried to help Ghilene—”

“I didn’t think you were! Come, follow me, you have to hide. Jaasir’s gotten it into his head that you did some kind of magic to entice me, and Laith’s saying you were doing magic just now during the attack. It’s a mess. I’ll get it fixed, but while I do, it’s better that you disappear temporarily.”

Costas led me back down the western wing’s stairs and through a corridor to a heavy wooden door. He checked both shoulders before inserting a key into the door’s lock. Then he tugged me into a narrow passage and closed the door behind us.

His dark silhouette loomed as he took both my hands in his. “This passage leads to the tunnel system beneath the High City,” he explained. “Walk down the stairs and turn left at the bottom. Take the next set of stairs up, and you’ll get dropped into the courtyard behind the Temple of Amatos.”

I couldn’t see his face, but his warm hands offered a small comfort against the plaguing chill that had not left me since the attack.

“Leila, I never meant—I know I’ve given you no reason to trust me, but listen.” He squeezed my hands again. “Go to the Pavilions at Orothea’s Playground. I’ll send my men to meet you there; they’ll take you somewhere safe while I sort this out with my father. Yes?” He squeezed harder.

Shock gripped my throat; I could not answer him.

“Leila,” he murmured.

“I—can’t,” I finally managed.

“You must! It isn’t safe for you here. I haven’t had a chance in all this chaos to get one of my loyal men to be with you, but I’ll send one after you, I promise. I’ll take care of you, but you have to do as I say. The Pavilions—they’re gazebos at Galantia’s finest park. You can find them, yes? I can assure you I will have a man there to meet you no later than the dawn.”

“No,” I said again, this time in a stronger voice. “Costas, I need to find my—”

“You don’t understand! You have no choice! My father loathes unsanctioned magic, he imprisons at the least offense, and if he finds out you’re Gantean—suffice it to say I cannot protect you until I can talk him down. You must do as I say, Leila.” He released me.

I put my face into my hands. “My necklace,” I finished my last thought, not knowing what else to do.

Costas cupped my neck. “It will all come out clean, Leila. I promise. I’ll do whatever must be done to have you. Do you understand? Stesichore, the marriage, I had no choice—”

“But—”

“We don’t get to choose, Leila. Our fate is handed to us, and we make do as best we can.” He leaned in and kissed me before pushing me away. “Dawn at the Pavilions. Now hurry. You need to get out of the Palace. Go to the Pavilions.”

He released me and cracked the door, letting in a sliver of light. He checked both ways before slipping out the door and closing it behind him, leaving me alone in the dark.

PART II

Iksraqtaq

Ten

I took several breaths before moving deeper into the tunnel. Even in normal conditions I didn’t like tight, dark spaces—they reminded me too much of the caverns of Gante, where we’d hidden many times from threats of storm or raiders. They reminded me, too, of the Hinge. The hunted feeling that had followed me from the ballroom only made it worse. I had to keep one hand on the wall to convince myself it wasn’t narrowing around me with every step into the dark.

For the moment I’d have to follow Costas’s advice and hide, though the missed opportunity to find my necklace rankled. I needed to get the anbuaq back, especially with the Cedna somewhere nearby.

The tunnel twisted and sloped. My feet stumbled on a stair as I moved blindly into a descent. The wall beneath my hand dampened, and the hem of my skirt grew heavy with water, snagging like a shackle against my ankles.

Finally the stairs ended, though they brought me only to another tunnel, this one smaller than the last, but I did not consider turning back. If Mydon Galatien believed Jaasir’s stories, Costas said I faced severe consequences. I shivered. Imprisonment was a fear worth heeding. It would take away the last remnants of my freedom and impede me with Nautien’s task.

I wished Costas had thought to give me a lantern—the darkness thickened with every step. I had the odd sense of unseen space opening around me.

“Uppf!” I crashed into something warm and squirming.

“Fuckin’ hells!”

I fell, tangled with my obstruction, to the damp floor. After groping blindly in the dark, I came up with a handful of thin hair.

“Lemme go!” The obstacle sounded and felt like a boy, smaller than me for certain.

I released the child and rued again the absence of light. As if the world heard my wish, a vague glow ignited before me—only a small circle, but it illuminated a tanned face topped by a shock of sun-bleached hair.

“Who’n the bloody hells’r you?”

“I—I’m trying to leave the Palace.” I didn’t know what else to say.

The boy’s eyes narrowed above his candle. “You some fine court-type lady?”

I shook my head. “No. I’m trying to escape. I—”

“ ’Scape what?”

I hesitated. “Slavery, for one thing.” This seemed the most sympathetic of my possible answers.

“Ah,” he said knowingly. “All right then. Which way you headed?”

“I—um. I was told this passage led to the Temple of Amatos?”

The boy snorted. “You missed that turn way back.” He flapped one hand at looming darkness behind me. “This one leads to the Bottom City. It’s a much better place to get out the tunnels secretly, if y’ know what I mean.”

He lifted his light and turned, continuing in the direction he’d indicated, towards the Bottom City.

“You comin’?” he asked over his shoulder when I did not move.

I followed the boy up a winding stair, then down a ladder, and through still more passages. I would never have imagined the complicated network of tunnels that ran beneath the High City. The boy found his way with ease, as though he’d traversed this maze many times before.

We ascended one last ladder, a wrought iron construction with rough rungs that scraped my hands. The boy pushed at the ceiling above us, opening a hatch, and offered his hand to help me clamber onto a quiet street. A strong odor—rotting food and refuse—assaulted me. I was no longer in the soft, rich embrace of Lethemian wealth and elegance. This place stank of poverty and distress, and to my shame I missed the comforts of the Palace for an instant. Here no expensive magelights glowed; nothing but stars illuminated this section of the city. We stood in an alley between ramshackle shanties built from rubble.

“W—where are we?”

The boy was dressed in fine clothing, though it had the look of a costume rather than natural attire. He lifted his head. I judged him to have maybe ten or eleven winters, though I always found it difficult to read the ages of Lethemians, whose diverse lives either aged them quickly, for the poor, or slowly, for the rich.

“The alley behind the den strip,” he answered, jutting his chin as if to direct me.

“I am not familiar with the High City,” I explained.

“Ain’t in the High City. This here’s the Bottom City.” He cupped the glowing object that had lit our way in the tunnels in his palm.

I inched towards him. He represented my only source of information for the moment, and I truly didn’t know what to do. A sense of urgency borne from the events at the Brokering had pushed me through the tunnels, but here in the dark slum, everything that had transpired at the Palace—from the moment of my arrival to Costas’s final kiss—seemed like a dream. I cupped my neck with my palm, missing the warmth of Nautien’s anbuaq.

A vague light emanated from the sphere the boy held. It was smaller than his palm, and it glowed with a white light tinged with gold.

“Whaddaya think it means?” he asked me.

“What?”

“The stone, all lit up like this?” he brandished it at me with a querying look on his face.

“I—I don’t know. What is it?”

The boy shrugged. “Some magitrix’s stone.”

“It’s a magestone?”

He nodded and curled his hand around it. “Rock’s gettin’ hot. I don’t think that’s a good thing.” He jerked his head. “I gotta go. Don’t tell nobody you saw me, and I won’t tell nobody I saw you.”

He ran off down the alley.

I snatched up my skirts and ran after him. “Wait!”

He paused but said, “I gotta get this stone back to the guy who wanted it. I ain’t got time. I got a bad feeling the magitrix already knows it’s gone.”

“I need somewhere to hide.” I hated the helpless quiver in my voice. Were I out in some natural landscape, I could have quelled this creeping fear. I knew how to cope with being alone in the wild. The vast, dirty city overwhelmed me. I had no sense of the directions after the time in the tunnels. Only this boy with his stolen stone anchored me in the world.

He snorted. “Me too, lady, me too, but first I gotta get paid for smithin’ this magestone.”

I closed the gap between us and put my hand on his arm. “Let me come with you. If you’re with me it will look less suspicious, right? We’re better off together, because they’ll never suspect we found each other in the tunnels.”

The boy frowned. He tucked the magestone back into his belt bag and shrugged. “All right. It can’t hurt.” He stuck out a hand. “My name’s Lymbok.”

“I’m Leila.”

“You really a slave?” he asked, surveying my dress.

I nodded. “I was.” I matched my steps to his as we proceeded.

“Listen, I gotta stop off at this den—that’s where I meet the mage who wanted the stone. After that, we’ll find a good place to lay low here in the Bottom City. I got places. They ain’t gonna catch me. Mage promised a nice purse for this stone—and he better pay it, ‘cause let me tell you, that was some risky job, what with that big party goin’.”

“You stole the stone at the Brokering?”

Lymbok took a turn down another, broader alley. “Sure. I was hired to do it.”

“What’s a den?” I asked.

“Den, a den. A place where they drop the milk? Don’t you know?”

“Dragon-milk?” I had heard of the drug made from the sap of some eastern tree. Ganteans spoke of it scornfully, as yet another weakness of the sayantaq[_ _]southerners.

“’Course. C’mon and be quiet. Don’t say nothin’ to the mage when we get there, neither. He ain’t that friendly. Better you stay in the front lobby. I didn’t say nothin’ about havin’ a partner. Might make ‘im mad.”

I nodded in silent agreement as Lymbok turned down a wider avenue, less dingy than the previous alleys. Some magelights in lanterns illuminated the street. Despite the late hour a carriage rolled past us, and several shadowy figures walked the curb. Lymbok pushed me up the front steps of a townhouse that had seen better days and knocked on the door.

A window opened in the door. “Yes?” A dainty nose poked through the aperture. I could see little more of the face than its outline.

“Hey Amey,” Lymbok said. “Is that Danei here yet? Said he’d be here after midnight.”

The door opened to reveal a young woman, my age or slightly older, with typical southern features and pale hair. She had a vicious bruise coloring one eye and split lip, visible in the lantern light glowing softly from the room behind her. Her shoulders slumped as though carrying years of burdens. She pointed up a staircase behind her. “Upstairs. He took the second room on the left.”

Lymbok scurried up the stairs. The girl and I faced each other. She did not smile, though I could tell her unhappiness had nothing to do with my presence. “You want to sit in the front room while you wait?” she asked. “There’s only Mr. Danei’s spoon boy in there right now.”

She led me into the room with the lights. Several low sofas lined the walls, and a large table filled the rest of the room, covered in implements I did not recognize.

The girl looked me up and down, taking note of my dress with too much interest. “Do you drop the milk?”

“Me? No, I’m just—I’m just here with Lymbok.”

“Lym usually works alone, and you look pretty fancy for our place, but that Mr. Danei is fancy, too. He plays music. Do you know him?”

I shook my head.

She pointed at a sofa. “Have a seat. Might as well be comfortable while you wait.”

Gingerly, I sat. Once again, I felt as though the world had swept me up in a current I couldn’t resist.

“I’m Amethyst,” the girl said as she moved back towards her post at the front of the den. “Ask if you need anything.”

“Thank you.”

After Amethyst left, I took a better look at the den. The low light could not entirely hide the stains on the upholstery. One sofa was occupied by a shadowy figure, smaller even than Lymbok. A glint flashed as I studied the silhouette. I started in my seat—those eyes studied me with the intensity of a Gantean winter storm.

“H—hello,” I murmured, uncertain how to behave.

Another young boy unfolded from the sofa. Though smaller than Lymbok, he moved with a similar agile grace. I could not see his features well from across the room, but his clothes bagged around his body, a few sizes too large. He checked the door of the parlor before stepping across the room towards me.

As he moved into the circle of light from the lamp on the table beside my sofa, I caught my breath. He was Gantean. I could not mistake his coarse dark hair, streaked with almost purple highlights from the southern sun. It had been cut, which led me to believe he was a slave. Really, what else would he be?

The fierceness in his posture and expression as he studied me showed me that no southern softness tainted him. His tanned skin sprouted freckles where I could see anything in the low light.

I gathered my wits. The boy stared at me, his nearly black eyes like pits of fire in his hollowed face. I put a hand on my chest. “Leila, Iksraqtaq, qargi Shringar,” I whispered, offering the traditional Gantean greeting. The words tasted bittersweet on my tongue; it had been so long since I had spoken in my native language.

The boy exhaled an audible sigh that made him waver like a ghost. He tumbled forward, directly into my lap. By instinct my arms wrapped around him, supporting the small weight of his body.

Sa, sa,” I soothed in Gantean. “Everything will be all right.” The south had made a liar of me; I promised what I could not deliver. A sweet odor wafted from the boy’s body. He nestled into my lap like a child half his age.

“[Anura, anura.” _]The Gantean words fell on me like cold rain. [“Salmik-iks. Veda. Veda.” ]His arms tightened around my waist. He called me [_anura]—an unattached young woman. His other words broke my heart. Help me, please, please.

“What is your name?” I asked in our tongue.

“They call me Miki,” he said, lifting his head but averting his eyes. I wanted to smile, but restrained myself. Ki at the end of a name meant ‘little one.’ I had heard it often enough as a youngster. He might not like Miki, but it suited him. He weighed almost nothing.

A clatter of footsteps echoed from beyond the parlor. Miki flinched as a voice rang through the den.

“Stop the damned thief!”

A fast-moving blur—Lymbok, I could tell by the royal blue tunic—flew past the entrance to the parlor and out the den’s front door. The girl Amethyst nearly fell from her stool when he blew by. The den’s front door swung ajar as Lymbok disappeared beyond it.

“Amatos!” The man who’d yelled glared out the door and turned to Amethyst. “Which way did he go? Didn’t you see?”

Miki slid from my lap and inched into the parlor’s shadows. Moving with characteristic Gantean silence, he searched the pockets of his ragged clothing, withdrawing a small folding blade, the type carried by thieves and pickpockets. Miki’s eyes glittered as he peered around the door frame.

He hid the knife as Amethyst and the man—presumably the one Lymbok had come here to meet—entered the parlor.

“You.” The man had the features of a rich Lethemian: fine wool suit, fastidious grooming, clear skin, and good teeth. His mouth twisted in a grimace as he loomed above me. Miki nearly disappeared as he pressed his back against the wall, giving me a slight, warning shake of his head. “You were with the thief?” the man asked.

I feared to say anything. I had no desire to take on Lymbok’s troubles. The well-dressed man struck me as formidable.

“Where would he go?” the man pressed, closing the distance between us and peering into my face. He reached into his coat pocket and produced a magestone similar to the one Lymbok had stolen—though this one as black as the sorceress’s bloodlight at the Brokering. “I can decipher the truth, you know.” He lifted the magestone.

The entire night had exhausted me, and finding a fellow Gantean slave in a sorry state had been the final straw. As I rose from the sofa I let the dagger Costas had given me drop into my hand.

I faced the man, the small blade held before me. My hands did not even quiver. Heat circled my wrist—heat as warm as Costas’s bloodlight had been when we bound ourselves together. Perhaps the warmth made me brave.

I pointed the dagger at the man. “I don’t want any trouble. I’m leaving now.”

The man froze—I hardly expected him to; I hadn’t thought he’d find my small weapon intimidating. I’d seen what Lethemian mages could do with their powerful stones, and yet he stared at my dagger as though it held the power of life or death over him.

“By the gods,” he whispered. “Where—what—where did you get that knife?”

I blinked down at the women’s knife. It unfurled a magical warmth in tingling bursts not unlike that which assaulted me when I danced.

Before I could show my hesitation, Miki lunged between the mage and me, shoving the man from the room. I had thought, when I held Miki, that his master had starved him. His bones had felt so prominent beneath his clothes, his arms so thin. Yet he hit the mage like a cannonball, forcing him against the stairs, where he fell.

The mage dropped his black stone; it rolled across the hall and under the gap beneath a door.

Miki scrambled up over the shocked mage’s shoulders, balancing on the stairs above. The Gantean boy caught the mage’s golden hair in a fist and brought his knife’s point against his neck. The man appeared too startled to do anything but suck air.

“Make a move,” Miki said in a Gantean-accented hiss. “And I’ll shove it in.”

No one in the room doubted his words. Amethyst whimpered and retreated towards the ajar front door. I moved with her. Miki’s black eyes followed me, and he gave a slight nod, as though he could read my intentions.

“Do you have rope?” I whispered to Amethyst.

“Rope?”

I nodded.

She stared at me.

“Please,” I added.

Casting an anxious glance at Miki and the mage in their frozen tableau on the stairs, Amethyst inched down the hall in the direction the magestone had rolled, passing that door and opening the next.

“Release me, you traitorous little shit,” the mage snarled at Miki, who ignored him and kept his eyes trained on me.

A taut silence spanned the space between Miki and me. The mage’s shallow breaths hummed, but his hands crept along the fabric of his suit, moving towards a pocket that could easily hold another magestone. He meant to magick us, of course[, _]and then what trouble would arise?[ _]I could not afford to reveal any secrets, and Miki needed help.

I leapt forward and added my women’s knife to Miki’s threat, stabbing the tip of the dagger hard enough into the mage’s hand to cut the skin. He froze. I remembered how the mage Laith had flourished his hands so precisely over Ghilene after the sorceress’s attack; a mage, like a Gantean, valued his hands as tools. I had him by his weak spot. My blade kept his hand pinned to his thigh. If he had another magestone in his pocket, he wouldn’t retrieve it on my watch.

The mage jerked. Miki’s switchblade pricked his neck, leaving a single gem of blood.

“Fucking hells!” The mage again tried to break free. I leaned all my weight on my knife, feeling the rough give of sinews beneath the blade. Not so different, a man’s flesh, from any other animal’s.

The man roared, “You fucking bitch!”

I lifted my gaze and met his. Hatred, dismay, and horror spun in angry circles in his green eyes. “That’s my casting hand!”

“Don’t move,” I cautioned him, “and I won’t press any harder.”

“Oh!”

I turned my head to find Amethyst hovering on the first stair, holding out a coiled rope. I snatched the rope, leaving the dagger in the mage’s hand, knowing Miki would manage him. My hands flew, shaping the rope into the loose knot I wanted.

“Turn around,” I told the mage.

“Fuck you,” he replied.

Miki cut more drops of blood into the man’s neck. Amethyst covered her mouth. The mage turned.

When I yanked my knife from his hand, the mage hissed and spasmed in pain. He tried to rise, but Miki clung to his back and sawed deeper on his neck. Blood oozed onto the lapels of his fine coat.

“Hands behind your back,” I commanded.

This time the mage obeyed without resistance—perhaps the blade in his neck had cowed him. I wound my partially knotted rope around his arms and lashed it rapidly around the bannisters of the stairs, tying him fast with knots he would not break.

“I’ll find you and kill you; don’t think I won’t,” the mage threatened.

We ignored him.

“What are you doing?” moaned Amethyst, wringing her hands.

Neither Miki nor I answered. As soon as I fixed the last knot, Miki hopped from his perch above the mage, flicked his knife closed, and jerked his head at the open front door.

I didn’t need to be told; I dashed after him.

A surprisingly strong arm halted me. Amethyst held me back. “What am I supposed to do with him?”

I tried to fling her off unsuccessfully.

“My father!” she cried. “If he finds—a—a client here trussed up like this on my watch, he’ll murder me. If I untie Mr. Danei, he’s likely to murder me, too.”

“Are you coming or not?” hissed Miki from behind us.

Amethyst gripped my arm even harder. I hesitated only half a breath before I caught her wrist and pulled. “Come with us,” I said. No other solution struck me.

Eleven

“You fucking little bastards!” The mage’s shout reverberated behind us, fading quickly into the distance. The rustle of Amethyst’s skirts blended with the shuffle of our footsteps. Ahead of us, Miki darted into an alley. We passed the entrance to the underground tunnels that Lymbok and I had emerged from less than an hour ago. I hurried to catch Miki, wondering if he knew about the network beneath the streets. Miki ran faster, unhindered by cumbersome skirts and fancy shoes that wanted to slip from feet.

Beneath the moonlight I could see that Miki wore ragged attire with a world’s worth of dirt clinging to it. He hadn’t been well cared for; the arms sticking from his frayed sleeves were as bony as I had imagined. His strength came from will more than body.

Amethyst heaved behind me. I slowed, though Miki didn’t, and turned to check on her. She paused, doubled over, to gulp air.

“We have to keep moving,” I said over my shoulder.

“Where are we going?” she expelled.

Miki noticed we had stopped. He returned to us. “I know a place.”

Amethyst frowned. “If we keep going down this road we’ll end up at the western guard tower. That’s not a good idea.”

“Whaddid you numbskulls do?” a voice surprised us from above.

Lymbok crawled down the brick wall that lined our alley, landing lightly on his feet and putting his hands on his hips. “What happened with Danei?”

“We left him tied to the bannister,” Amethyst explained. She broke into unlikely giggles. “Oh, gods. His face! He was so shocked.”

“He’s an ass,” Lymbok added. “But now he’s an angry ass. We gotta hide somewhere real good. He’s got magic, and he’s gonna try to find us as soon as he’s untangled.”

“You know a good place?” Miki demanded, all business.

“Sure.” Lymbok grinned. “I got plenty of hideys down here. Whaddaya think I came an’ found you for? C’mon.”

Lymbok’s unexpected kindness served as glue to bind the rest of us together. Our trust was sudden, immediate, and essential, as so often happened in dire circumstances.

We followed Lymbok on another intricate route through the Bottom City’s alleys. He clearly knew the place better than any of us, taking turns at a run, slipping into narrow passages between buildings, climbing walls, and making use of empty lots as shortcuts between streets.

Finally he slowed behind a leaning building where he lifted a trap door in the ground. It opened into another staircase. I took a deep breath and went down, though again the darkness pressed on me.

As if he could sense my distress, Miki slipped a palm into mine and squeezed, guiding me into Lymbok’s lair. Relief flooded me. I had an Iksraqtaq friend, even if he was just a little boy.

Lymbok lit a candle to ease the darkness. His hiding place was no larger than a[_ _]ballroom alcove, but spacious enough for all of us to stretch our legs and recline against the brick wall. Lymbok produced a blanket and a pillow, which he handed to Amethyst like a gallant.

“Why’d you tie Danei to the bannister?” he asked.

“He tried to attack Leila,” Miki supplied. Of the four of us, his face looked the grimmest.

“Who’re you again?” Lymbok asked.

“Miki.”

“Danei’s slave, his spoon boy, right? I seen you with him at the den before.”

“You know my master?” Miki asked warily.

Lymbok shrugged. “Danei’s hired me to do some smithin’ in the High City more’n once. This was the hardest job though.” He threw the little magestone he’d told me he’d nicked into the air and caught it again in his palm.

“Mages like my father’s place,” Amethyst added. “He gives them a discount.”

“Stingy bastard, that Danei,” Lymbok said. “He agreed to pay me ten gold for the stone, but then he said only five when I arrived with it. I said, no, cuz I ain’t a fool. He wasn’t too happy ‘bout that. I cut it and ran. I don’t like ‘em that say one thing at first and then change it all up on you after the job is done. ‘Specially on a job like this. Sneakin’ around the Palace, stealin’ from a fancy nob magitrix. That’s worth ten jhass or more. But Danei’s gonna be pissed as a caged cat. He wanted the stone, bad.”

“Amassis above,” filled in Amethyst. “He’s going to be furious.”

“I better do some recon tonight,” said Lymbok. “Get out on the streets and find out what’s going on, who he’s got searchin’ and all.”

“He’s injured,” Miki said. “Leila stuck a blade in his hand.” Not to mention Miki had slashed at the man’s throat.

Lymbok whistled. “You stuck a knife in a mage’s hand? You either stupid crazy or all brilliant, I dunno which. He’s gonna be more’n pissed. But he might not be able to use his magic if his hand’s hurt bad enough—that’s a real stroke of luck.

“You all rest up here,” Lymbok advised. “I’m gonna hit the streets and listen in on the rumors, find out if Danei’s on our tail or givin’ up. Whatever you do, don’t leave here. This hole’s safe. No one knows about it but me.”

After Lymbok had departed for the Bottom City streets, Miki, Amethyst, and I tried to rest, unsuccessfully.

Amethyst had grown paler and paler—the initial shock of our flight was wearing off, and I saw her fear writ plainly across her face.

“Perhaps once Danei has left your place you can just go back,” I suggested, feeling guilty for dragging her into our mess.

“I can’t go back. I couldn’t face my father after tonight. I—the truth is—I don’t want to go back. I hated it there—all those addicts, they have no limits when they’re high. No. I’m glad to be gone. I just wish—well, I’d been planning an escape for ages. I never imagined it would go like this.” She settled into the wall and closed her eyes.

Miki watched her. We remained silent for several long moments. He heard the same change in Amethyst’s breathing—the deepening that signaled sleep—and crept closer to me, settling his head into my lap like a child of the tiguat. He was a little old for it, but I did not mind. I let my hands settle in his hair, gently untangling the mess. His locks were just long enough to braid. I unwound a few threads from my dress to tie them off and set to work. Gantean boys know to hold still for braids.

“That man, Danei—he bought you after you were taken from Gante?” I asked.

“His name isn’t really Danei, though he goes by it often out in public,” Miki replied. “He’s a mage named Alessio Rarmont. To me, he wasn’t so bad; he never struck me, he didn’t work me hard. I was his spoon-boy. I had to feed him the dragon-milk when he was too far gone to do it himself. But there were others he treated…horribly.”

I finished one row of Miki’s hair and continued on to the next. As I worked I studied Miki: a solemn little creature, with a face too old for his size.

“You’re too thin. Didn’t he feed you?”

Miki twitched. “I’m not hungry for food.”

An ominous shadow lurked within those words, but I did not press. “Did this mage who bought you mark you?” I asked, thinking with a quiet sort of dread about the Entilan magemark on my own shoulder.

Silence stretched between us, until Miki finally said, “He cut my hair and took my tormaquine.”

I nodded. I understood. I did not want to mention the liability of my own mark, either, lest it cause the others to rue my presence. “How were you taken?” I asked.

“I lived west of the Kaluq lands. I’d gone there to learn my meditation with the old master there, Orasuq.”

My hands paused in their work. I had known immediately that Miki came from the Kaluq clan—I could tell by the colors of his hair and his dark eye. If he had trained with Orasuq, it meant he had learned to shape blackstone. No small talent, that. It meant he had strong magic. It also meant he’d been a slave for years. The Kaluq clan had been thoroughly decimated for at least five years.

“They killed my master Orasuq, but the raiders took my tiguat-sister and me alive. I got sold in Engashta to Rarmont.”

Miki’s tragedy struck me as worse because of the special training that had been taken from him. Ganteans valued blackstone knappers—they were the only ones with magic and craft enough to shape ulio blades.

I finished the last braid and patted his head. “There. Now you look Iksraqtaq again.” Miki smiled and closed his eyes. I did the same.

&Moonlight filtered& into Lymbok’s secret room through the barred hole that opened onto the street like a storm drain. Both Miki and Amethyst remained sleeping. Lymbok had not yet returned from his mission.

My thoughts turned towards the situation I had fled at the Palace. In the mad rush through the underground tunnels, the shock of finding Miki, and then fighting the mage at the dragon-milk den, I’d had no time to consider the predicament that had made me run in the first place. Glad to have the safety of Lymbok’s hiding place, I pondered what Costas had told me—that his father believed me involved in the Brokering attack or scheming to enchant Costas. I had only stopped the sorceress—the Cedna, if Laith Amar was to be believed—out of raw instinct. I shuddered, recalling the sucking void of her bloodlight with that cold diamond in its center. She had used strange magic, but it had been recognizably Gantean. She had used a blackstone ulio and paid for her spells in blood.

I gasped, realizing that I had tucked that very weapon into the secret pocket of my dress after cutting the bloodcord between Ghilene and Malvyna Entila. I pulled the ulio out and dropped Costas’s knife from my sleeve. I held the two blades, one in each hand, and weighed them against each other as Costas’s words ran through my mind: I’ll take care of you, but you have to do as I say. The Pavilions.

Costas expected me to meet his men in the High City, at the Pavilions he’d described. The hilt of the women’s knife, cast gold around the blue stone, felt far heavier than the light ulio made of blackstone and bone. I glanced at sleeping Miki with his fresh braids in neat rows across his head. Freckles splashed his tanned cheeks, and a vague smile hovered around his mouth as he rested.

I squeezed the Lethemian knife in my hand. The ung-aneraq that connected me to Costas remained a palpable thing, like a tightly laced bodice across my chest. He offered both safety and security—or so he promised.

I slid the dagger he had given me back into its holster on my arm and kept the ulio in hand. I would not go to the Pavilions, no matter how much Costas tempted me. I would stay with Miki. We needed each other. I would not yet cut the ung-aneraq, however. I might need it to get back to Costas to find my necklace. Leaving without recovering the anbuaq distressed me, but at least I’d told Costas I’d needed my necklace. I could only hope he’d find it and hold it for me—and with that cord still binding us, he might be motivated to do so. Besides, I couldn’t cut the ung-aneraq. I felt too shaky and unresolved to try even the slightest magic.

“Psst. Psst. Anyone awake in there?” Lymbok’s tanned face came into view through the barred storm drain. He caught my eye. “Open up.”

I opened the trap door, and he scrambled down the steep steps, lighting a candle from his pocket as he settled beside Amethyst. She opened her eyes sleepily.

“What did you learn?” I turned, surprised to find Miki alert.

Lymbok scowled. “Whole High City’s up in a roar ‘bout some attack on the Palace last night at the Brokering party. There’s Galatien Guards patrolling the city, High and Bottom, lookin’ for some Gantean sorceress.”

I shifted uncomfortably.

“Gantean sorceress?” Miki echoed in surprise.

“Yep. They say she attacked at the Brokering party, made a real big mess, and caused some nob lady to disappear right out o’ thin air. Then she disappeared herself. Whole city’s searching for her. They say she was some nob lady’s handmaiden—young woman, maybe sixteen winters, black hair, blue eyes.” He glared at me.

“Leila?” Miki whispered.

“It wasn’t me!” I cried. “I saw the whole attack. It wasn’t me! I only tried to stop her! They blamed me but—”

“Wish you woulda told me straight out,” Lymbok interrupted, clearly annoyed. “I ain’t no snitch but it woulda been nice to know I was helpin’ a wanted criminal, not just some runaway slave.”

“But that’s really all I am. I didn’t do what they accuse me of!”

“Don’t really matter what’s true,” Lymbok said. “What matters is what they believe. Twenty-five gold jhass—that’s what they’re offerin’ for you—would tempt anyone.”

Miki flowed over my legs like silent water to tackle Lymbok and pin him to the rough ground. “If you dare.” He used his legs to control the other boy’s struggles to escape. “If you dare try for that reward, I’ll stick my knife in you.”

“What’s wrong with you!” cried Lymbok, shoving unsuccessfully at Miki. “I ain’t doing nothing! I said I weren’t no snitch. Don’t last long as a fingersmith in Galantia if y’are. Get. Off. Me!”

Miki didn’t budge.

“I don’t understand, Lym,” Amethyst ventured. “I thought you were trying to find out what happened with Mr. Danei?”

Both boys looked up at her.

“Don’t fight,” she urged. “We all have things we’re running from. None of us are perfectly innocent.”

Miki released his hold on Lymbok and subsided onto the floor beside me. Lymbok reached into his costume tunic, pulled out a tortoise-shell comb, and smoothed it through his mussed hair. “Danei ain’t his name, turns out. He’s Alessio Rarmont, and he’s a House Galatien mage, and he’s pretty pissed at us all. Ain’t nobody sayin’ nothing about the stone I stole though. At least, nothing about Rarmont and the stone. Plenty being said about how it was stolen from Lady Sho-mar Ricknagel. But Rarmont’s playin’ tight about his role in it. That only makes things worse—he wants to find me, real bad. And they’re gonna be puttin’ heat on all the fingersmiths in the High City to try an’ figgur who did the job. So, I’m in hot water, too.” Lymbok grinned shakily. “Best thing we could do is get us all outta the city as soon as possible, but how we gonna get out is a whole ‘nother question.”

“There are only two ways out of the city,” Amethyst said. “Out the gates or over the Bottom City walls. Everyone knows that.”

Lymbok smirked. “Well, I know more’n everyone, I guess, ‘cause I know a way out through the Tunnels. ‘Cept we gotta get back down into the Tunnels, and that ain’t gonna be easy. When I say the streets are crawlin’ with Guards, I mean it.”

&We all agreed& we needed to get to the entry point of the Tunnels where Lymbok and I had emerged the night before. We also agreed that venturing anywhere near Amethyst’s father’s den was a bad idea, as Amethyst’s father and the mage, Alessio Rarmont, were likely to be searching for us there.

“We’ll split up,” Amethyst announced. “It’s better that way. Miki and Lymbok, you two go together. Two boys on the Bottom City streets will draw little notice provided you wear filthy clothes.” She wrinkled her nose at Miki’s appropriate attire. “That’s…perfect. I suppose you have something else?” she asked Lymbok.

Lymbok threw his costume tunic on the ground. Beneath he wore a plain brown shirt and thin linen breeches. He unlaced his boots to reveal dirty feet as hardened with callouses as a Gantean’s in summer. “All the other fingersmiths know me,” he muttered. “I gotta figgur a way to disguise my face and hair.”

Lymbok did cut a striking figure, what with his almost white, strawlike hair and his deeply tanned skin. Amethyst tapped her lips with her hand, studying him.

“Just use dust and grime.” Amethyst flung her hands around the small, narrow space in which we’d been trapped for too long. “There’s plenty of it all around.”

Lymbok crawled into a corner and ran his hand over the filthy wall. It came away black. He swiped his cheek and left a black streak. “How’s that?” he asked, breaking into a grin.

“Yes,” cried Amethyst. “You too, Miki.” Amethyst, I began to see, had a managing streak. Not that I minded. We needed management to get out of this predicament.

“You know where to go?” Lymbok asked as he mounted the steps with Miki.

Amethyst nodded.

“We’ll meet up in the Tunnels then. If anything happens, try to get in the Tunnels and head east.”

“East?” Amethyst sounded worried.

Miki pointed to his right. “East. It’s that way.”

I had been disoriented since coming up out of the Tunnels with Lymbok, unable to see the sun from the pall in the air over the city, so Miki’s confidence in the direction shocked me. “How do you—”

“Let’s hurry,” Lymbok said, pushing open the trap door. “The sooner we get outta Galantia, the better. Hush up and come on.”

I followed in Amethyst’s footsteps with my head down, eyes trained on the ground. She walked briskly, as though she had a purpose. I almost ran into her when she stopped abruptly. The boys had gone ahead of us; we stood alone on an unfamiliar street.

“What is it?” I whispered.

Amethyst shook her head. “Trouble. Galatien Guards and a mage.”

I peeked over her shoulder. Bile rose in my throat. I knew that figure in black, though he stood with his back to me: Laith Amar. His inky blue-black hair looked disheveled, and he wore the same clothing as he had at the Brokering. He stood speaking with two men in Guard’s uniforms.

I cowered behind Amethyst. “We should turn,” I whispered. “I can’t pass them. I—”

Amethyst didn’t require convincing. She pushed against me, turned her back to the men, and drove me before her like livestock. I ventured one glance over my shoulder.

The mage Laith faced us, an unreadable expression on his face. He caught my gaze and his frown deepened. He recognized me.

“Don’t look,” hissed Amethyst, prodding my back.

Laith made no move to expose me. Instead, he turned in a graceful sweep and pointed up the avenue away from us.

As soon as we turned the corner, Amethyst began to run, still pushing me along. We skirted a block and returned to the street with the Tunnel entrance. At the opening Amethyst bent to lift the door while I scanned for observers.

There he was again, leaning in a doorway two buildings up, arms crossed over his chest. Alone. At the Brokering he had struck me as a flippant sayantaq creature, even for a southerner, but his expression as he silently watched Amethyst descend into the Tunnels betrayed neither amusement nor satisfaction at catching us.

He inclined his head slightly and flourished a hand, as if to say, Go on. I won’t tell.

I hesitated. The mage lifted his eyebrows, shook his head, and gestured again more urgently. I scrambled after Amethyst, half expecting some burst of southern magic to prevent me.

But nothing happened. The hatch fell closed behind me, Amethyst tugged on my arm, and Lymbok’s voice whispered in the darkness, “You made it.”

Twelve

After a long and occasionally wrong-turning trek through the underground passages, we found the route Lymbok wanted—the narrowest tunnel of them all, so tight that even Miki had to crouch. We spent a nightmarish time crawling through the dark, our way lit only by the wavering light cast by Lymbok’s purloined magestone. I preferred any light to nothing, so I held back my concerns about using the stone. I walked last, behind Amethyst, in our single-file line.

The gaping blackness stretched behind me like a shadow of pursuit. I worried about Laith Amar. I worried about Costas. I worried about Ghilene Entila, who must be in a steaming fury about my defection and ready to set the mages of House Entila tracking my magemark. My concerns weighed on me as though I carried an extra burden through those Tunnels, but I placed one foot before the next like a Gantean walking through a blizzard towards safety.

Lymbok stopped, lifted his glowing magestone, and pushed at the tunnel wall above his head. “Fuckin’ hells. It’s stuck.”

Miki added his efforts to open the overhead hatch to no avail. Finally Amethyst shoved. The hatch sprang open with a shriek of hinges that made me jump.

Lymbok swung himself up and out of the tunnel, as agile as a snow fox. Miki followed with equal aplomb. Amethyst caught the edge of the opening but could not swing her legs as well as the boys. I pushed at her from below and she managed to scramble into the fading daylight. I followed, breathing a sigh of relief.

Above ground we found ourselves in a clearing surrounded by dense trees. I untied my skirt—I had knotted it around my waist for ease—and smoothed it as Lymbok slammed the hatch closed and kicked dirt over it.

Miki sniffed the air like a sled dog in new terrain. “Almost due east of Galantia,” he said.

“How do you know?” The twisty underground passages had completely disoriented me.

“We gotta go southeast through these woods,” Lymbok announced from behind us. “That’s all I know. The road runs south outta the city, but we gotta avoid the road. We stick to the woods on the east side of the road to Anastaia.”

Miki shook his head. “No. We’ll go to Murana.”

“Whaddaya mean, we’ll go to Murana? It’s almost double as far!” cried Lymbok.

“My master had dealings with traders from all over,” Miki explained. “We often went to Murana. It’s bigger than Anastaia. It’s a better place to hide.” He pointed into the forest. “It’s that way.”

Lymbok scowled. “It’s also on the other side of a blasted mountain range.”

Miki turned dark eyes on him. “So?”

“So, if we go there, we gotta climb the mountains! If we go south to Anastaia, it’s a nice walk through southern farmlands, full of coaching inns and places to eat. Flat. Straight. Easy.”

Miki snorted. “Easy? Any who pursue us will think like that, too. If we go into the mountains, they’ll never expect it and never find us.”

Lymbok crossed his arms. “I say we vote. Nobody else gonna want to hike up in the Savalias in springtime. Sometimes the snow doesn’t melt up there ‘til mid-summer. You can see it on a clear day from the High City. I vote the south route.”

“I vote for the mountains.” Miki gazed at me questioningly.

“Mountains,” I said. “The south sounds too obvious.”

Amethyst bit her lip, looking first at Lymbok and then at Miki. “I’ve never been outside the walls of Galantia,” she said. “But I think the mountains sound safer, too. There are some places to get food in the Savalias. My father orders ales for the den from a brewery up there near the village of Rotham.”

“Aw, hells.” Lymbok kicked the dirt again. “You all are crazy.”

I worried the boy would simply leave and continue on his own way—he seemed more capable than the rest of us given his independent life in the High City—but he rolled his eyes and muttered, “I guess there’s somethin’ to be said for safety in numbers. And mountain ales. ‘Sides, how would you all manage without me?”

“Mountains and then Murana,” Miki said firmly, pointing. “We walk that way.”

Making our way through the trees ate the rest of the daylight hours. Though the trees—an unfamiliar type—had slender trunks and branches, they grew close together, and we picked through them slowly. Miki led, and I hurried to get directly behind him. I still wanted to know how he knew which way to go.

“Miki, how do you—”

“Rarmont used to meet a Gantean captain down in Murana sometimes,” Miki murmured, too low for the others to hear. “I never met him, but Rarmont said the Gantean came to Murana every new moon. We can catch up with him there. He’ll know how we can get back to Gante, how we can find others.”

It wrenched my heart to hear him say that. He’d been away from Gante for years—much longer than I. He didn’t know what I had seen—the wholesale slaughter of our last existing community. “There isn’t much of a home left to us on Gante anymore.” I selected my words carefully to avoid upsetting him, but Miki only blinked his coal black eyes as if he didn’t believe me.

“What do you mean?”

“The children and the younger women were sold away as slaves, like you and me. The others—the raiders killed many, maybe all of them. My community was the last one. I heard House Entila plans to recolonize the island.”

Miki’s lips quivered as he absorbed what I said.

To comfort him I added, “We’ll look for this captain. Perhaps he will know better what—what remains in Gante.”

I could tell my bad news weighed on Miki. Who knew how long it would take us to find others? And who knew if they would want to return to Gante’s shores if we found them? I wasn’t sure myself if I wanted to go back. Malvyna Entila’s attempt to colonize would fail—these soft southerners would never adapt to life on Gante. But if no Ganteans returned, what did that mean for the world’s magic? The Hinge had quenched its deep thirst well on that day of the raid when I had left Gante, but someday its needs would rise again. Was it possible that we could maintain it sufficiently from a distance? Obviously the Cedna had found a way to do so, and I meant to ask her about the technique when I found her, though after that attack at the Brokering, the notion of confronting her gave me more anxiety than ever. I clasped the empty space on my neck, cursing inwardly. I needed Nautien’s anbuaq.

Miki pointed us in a new direction shortly before darkfall. “There’s water that way,” he announced. “We can find something to eat there.”

Lymbok groaned. “Good. I’m starvin’.”

Amethyst added, “And I’m parched.”

Eventually we found small stream. Miki sat down at the edge of the creek with his folding knife in hand, watching for fish.

I tugged Lymbok and Amethyst a little distance away to give Miki a quiet space to hunt. I asked, “Do you know what waterway this is? Where is the stream’s source?”

“All the waters come down from higher up in the range,” Lymbok said. “There’s a big lake up there and winter snowfall.”

“And roads?” I wondered. “Are there roads running through the mountains?”

“Just the post-chaise road. All the villages are along it. It ends way up at Rotham. I ain’t never been up there, but I heard about it. Some nob family owns an estate there, but there ain’t other roads.”

All roads leading away from the High City would be closely watched. Would Costas be able to convince his father that I had played no role in the attack? Would he bother trying, now that I had disappeared? More importantly, would he remember that I had lost my necklace and return to the garden to collect it for me? The constricted ung-aneraq chafed on my chest. Did Costas feel it too? I had an ulio now, but I couldn’t cut the cord until I’d retrieved my necklace. The cord would keep me connected to Costas and him connected to me, and I needed that.

&The trees thinned& the higher we climbed. The soil became rockier and drier. We stuck close to the stream, knowing that water represented our paramount need. Amethyst and Lymbok still refused to eat the worms and crickets Miki and I collected with our bare hands to supplement our diet of fish. The Lethemians needed more food; they weren’t accustomed to spare rations.

“Someone should venture down to the road,” Amethyst said. “And get us some real food.”

Miki gestured with his handful of worms. “This is real food. It’ll keep you alive.”

She scowled. “I mean bread, butter, ale. Civilized food.”

“I could try to trap some rabbits or other small creatures,” I offered.

“The road’s nearby,” Amethyst said. “We need better clothes. It’s getting colder.”

No one could argue with that. We agreed that Amethyst and Lymbok would spend the next day on the road until they came to the nearest village, and each of us turned out our pockets for any money we could contribute to the mission. Lymbok had several jhasstones, as did Amethyst, and Miki surprised me with having a few squirreled away as well. Only I had nothing, though the others didn’t chastise me for it.

Miki and I settled in to wait in the woods beyond the road. Lymbok marked the path back to us as he went, bending certain branches so he would find his way.

“How do you know so well where we are and where we are going?” I asked Miki as we leaned against a tree trunk.

“I feel the sun,” he replied.

“Oh!” I knew Miki had magic, but this was rare talent indeed. Miki was a wayfinder born; he could find north better than any compass. He knew his location that way a spider knows to spin its web or a bird where to fly in winter. He could dead reckon by instinct. “I have magic, too,” I said. “I was a knotwoman, a weaver.” Miki would know this meant I could manipulate bloodlight with my hands, like a Lethemian mage. I almost told him about the anbuaq Nautien had entrusted to me, but for the shame I felt for losing it.

Amethyst and Lymbok didn’t return until the following morning, but when they did, they brought not only a basket full of food that could be strapped over the shoulders like a rucksack, but new clothes, something for all of us. I was given a boy’s breeches and a thick wool tunic with long sleeves that hung nearly to my knees. The new clothes would make trekking in the mountains much easier than the tattered ball gown I’d been wearing since we fled Galantia.

On we hiked, sustained by the tack biscuits, nuts, and dried fruit bought—or stolen?—in the village. The terrain, though steep, never became prohibitive, and if we encountered a rock wall too sheer to scramble up safely, we would detour, using Miki’s sun-sense to keep us moving in the right direction. Soon we walked through patches of snow as we reached the summit of the pass.

We stood looking out over a considerable vista. “The descent will be faster,” Miki promised, surveying our tired faces and skinny arms. “We’ll follow the streams.” Fortunately, plentiful streams ran down both sides of the mountains, relieving our need to find water, at least for the moment. We refilled the ale bottles Lymbok and Amethyst had brought from the village with stream water.

Lymbok had grown quieter and quieter the colder our journey had become. As he gazed down into the valley far below us, he frowned and said, “I heard about those grasslands down there.” He pointed to the wide expanse of yellow land stretching endlessly into the distance, unmarked by a single tree or building. “Ain’t nothing in there for leagues and leagues. We don’t wanna get lost in grasslands.”

“We won’t get lost,” Miki said. “I know where I’m headed.”

After a harrowing descent, that took only half as long as the climb—three days—we arrived at the edge of the grass-covered flatlands. The trickle of water we’d followed down the eastern face of the mountain spread into a marshy bog. I worried that the source would dry up entirely the farther we ventured into the grass.

Miki surveyed the landscape, no doubt using his talent to locate us precisely in relation to the city of Murana. As Miki had been to Murana, he now had that location in his blood, and he could find his way there from anywhere.

“We have to risk it,” he said, frowning.

The grass sea went on for days in all directions. Without a distinct stream to follow we would be lost without a source for more food or water, and our tack biscuits and nuts were running thin. I concentrated on trying to disturb the grass as little as possible as I walked. I still feared pursuit, even in this vast wasteland. I had not forgotten the magemark on my shoulder that Tiercel had said could be tracked.

Darkness fell over the grasslands. Lymbok and Amethyst dropped to rest in the grass when the sun disappeared.

“I hate walking,” Amethyst said. “My legs ache. I’m sunburned. I’ll have freckles for years after this.”

Miki gazed into the fading sky and said, “I’ll walk on ahead and see if I can find water or something to eat.”

“I’ll go with you,” I said.

Miki and I walked in the darkness without fear; Miki’s talent logged every change in our position. He needed no eyes to know how to return to where the others rested.

He suddenly dropped to his belly, gesturing for me to do the same as an unexpected splash interrupted the night. Water! We inched forward through the grasses until our hands encountered wet earth. The grasses thinned to reveal a glistening black river beyond.

Miki pinched my arm and put a finger to his lips, his face glowing palely in the moonlight. He pointed up the river.

A vessel slid over the water, made visible by a single lantern lighting a circle at the stern. A rhythmic soft splash cut the quiet night. The boaters must be rowing or poling their vessel.

Lethemian voices drifted to the shore. “How much farther is it to Murana?”

“Not far, not even two leagues along the river, but we aren’t getting through the gorge in this boat. All this wide water suddenly constricts through a narrow cut in a granite face. We’ll have to stop and go around on foot, let the boat go through on its own.”

“I’m sick of these accursed grasses. She must have taken a different route. I always said a northern girl would head north. Should we wake the mage, have him try the tracking spell again? This can’t be right.”

“I wouldn’t bother. If she’s lost in the grasslands, she’s as good as dead. There’s no food in there. It’s leagues of nothing.”

“Amatos, Allian. What did the mage say last time he checked? Costas doesn’t usually send us on such useless missions.” Already their voices faded as the boat drifted downstream.

I shrank back. Costas’s men. If I had to get found by anyone, I would have picked Costas, if asked at the outset. I’d even considered running to him at the Pavilions as he had demanded. He could provide protection, but a life in a cage is no life at all, and given a taste of freedom I was not eager to go back to my slavery, as handmaiden or mistress or whatever it was Costas wanted me to be. On the other hand, I needed my necklace, and that cord of bloodlight pulled between us. Had it been Costas himself on the boat, I would not have hesitated to reveal myself, sayantaq as the urge might be. But he wasn’t there, and his men had a mage with them. Tracking me like prey.

I dug my nails into my palms.

“You’re Iksraqtaq,” I hissed below my breath. “He’s sayantaq.”

Miki’s eyes glittered in the starlight. He cocked his head at me, but said nothing.

I remained as still as a hunted animal in the grasses.

&We followed& the river the next day until boulders rose before us, taller than the walls of the High Palace, stern and steep. Tangled trees found purchase amongst the rocks, revealing the rise of the land. The rock face was too high and sheer to climb without ropes and tools. The river waters passed through a narrow gorge, with the slanted granite walls rising steeply on either bank.

Miki and I stood at the gorge’s edge. I thought of what the men in the boat had said the night before about cutting around to avoid this place. That would take hours and hours, maybe even days.

“The current will be with us,” I said. “If we can keep our heads out of the water we’ll make it.” I spoke with false confidence, since I couldn’t see the end. I waded in. The current tugged at my legs, belying the calm surface of the water. Miki followed.

“Lymbok! Amethyst!” I called. “Will you be all right?”

In answer, Lymbok leapt into the water behind Miki, and Amethyst laughed and called, “I learned to swim in the rapids of the Rift. This is easy.”

We kept our heads up and let the water take hold, hardly needing to swim at all. The water temperature was far warmer than what I was used to from Gante, but still cold enough to chill my skin. The river carried us through the narrow passage, spitting us out to soar before crashing us into a deep pool, nearly a lake. A stone bridge spanned the water in the distance. Beyond the bridge the ramparts of buildings scratched the sky.

We gathered on the shore between two boulders, wet and cold, but out of view of the bridge traffic. “We need a plan before we enter the city,” I said.

“Look,” said Lymbok “We got some money left, enough to get food and rooms at an inn. But it ain’t much; we’ll need more right quick. You got that fancy dagger piece. We could sell it.”

I didn’t want to sell my women’s knife. My arm retracted inadvertently against my side. “The dagger might be recognized.”

Three sets of eyes turned my direction.

“Is it so hot?” Lymbok asked. “Even if it is, I bet it’ll fetch a lot of money. Let’s have a look at it.”

Reluctantly I handed the knife to Miki. “Where did you get this?” he asked.

“It was a gift.”

Lymbok looked over Miki’s shoulder at the blade. “Ha. A gift! I heard that one before. That flower, that’s all gold. You never said you was a fingersmith, Leila.” Though Lymbok didn’t recognize the flower as the sigil of House Galatien, any knowledgeable buyer would. “And that stone is probably worth a fortune.”

“No,” I said. “The knife was a gift, truly. We won’t sell it. It’s too risky.” I removed it from Miki’s grasp.

Lymbok glared at me. “Fine. You gonna steal what we need to get by? Ain’t no fun smithin’ in an unfamiliar city.”

I shook my head. “We’ll find another way.”

“I’ll do it, then,” said Lymbok after a moment. “You all just let me go in first. I gotta scope it out.”

I closed my eyes as Lymbok departed, running through all the many concerns jumbled in my head: Costas, my necklace, my magemark, the men pursuing us, the Cedna.

Miki patted my hand. “Don’t worry, Leila. We’re nearly there.” He pointed at the sky. “And the new moon is coming. We’ll be able to meet the Gantean captain.”

Thirteen

Lymbok returned no more than an hour after passing through Murana’s gates. “This ain’t no good city,” he said, shaking his head. “Orphans and thieves and stray dogs and slaves all over. But I found us a cheap place to stay for the night, and there’s a meal included, and it ain’t worms and buggers and tack biscuits.”

We headed towards the gates, lured by the promise of a real meal. During our journey, only Miki had put on weight; the rest of us had lost it. I missed my monthly cycle, which should have arrived over a sennight ago. This had happened to me more than once in Gante’s lean seasons. My blood would return once I ate better.

Smoke rose from Murana like steam from a geyser, obscuring the tall buildings. Grey muck even tainted the land around the city’s walls.

“There’s a thousand ships that burn coal in the harbor,” explained Lymbok “Everything’s covered in black gunk. You can feel it in your breath. It’s a bad, dirty city. We shoulda gone to Anastaia.”

Murana had none of Galantia’s beauty. The bridge that spanned the river did not resemble the majestic, glittering mage-built one that led to the High City. This one was utilitarian, made from grey stone, low and flat.

It made sense. Murana stood guard for Lethemia. To the south and to the east lay Vhimsantyr, a huge Empire that need only march an army through the Ricknagels’ seat of Shankar and across their fertile hills to fall upon Murana’s eastern bulwarks. But Vhimsantyr left Lethemia—and Gante, for that matter—alone, largely out of fear of magic. The Eastern Empire had none.

The inn Lymbok had found lay only a few blocks from the gates, and we fell into the small rented room with more relief than foxes outrunning the hunt. Amethyst and I took the lone bed while Miki curled into a corner.

Lymbok stood by the door, bouncing on his toes. “I’m going out,” he announced. “You all rest. I’m gonna scope the smithin’ scene.”

Too tired to make any argument against risky behavior, we all simply watched him go.

&“Oranges&!” Lymbok crowed as he burst through the door a while later, dumping fruits from a burlap sack to the bare planks of the floor. “And this here they say is meat that’s gonna last a long while.” He waved sticks of jerky at us. Miki snatched a piece and tore into it with alacrity.

“You made a steal then?” I asked Lymbok.

“Well, turns out it was easy. I went to a market in this big square packed with people, and I found a mark, a real rich lady, her purse right on her hip. She didn’t even notice me, she was lookin’ so hard at some jewelry piece she fancied. And there was a lot o’ jhass in that purse. I even got some left over. ‘Nuf to get this room for another night or two.”

“You have to be careful,” I said as I peeled an orange. “If you get caught—”

“Won’t get caught.” Lymbok went back to his counting. “I never get caught.” He reached into his pocket and withdrew the white magestone that he had stolen from the Brokering.

That stone had been troubling me ever since Galantia. An object imbued with magic could likely be traced. I frowned and wondered if I could use the ulio I had to cut any traceable connections. I didn’t know enough about Lethemian magic to be certain what such a bold action might provoke.

“Why you lookin’ at me like that?” asked Lymbok as he tossed the white stone and caught it again.

“That stone,” I began. “Don’t you think its owner will search for it?”

Lymbok only shrugged. “Gonna take ‘er a while if she do. Tracking magic ain’t easy. Danei assured me o’ that when I agreed to steal it.”

“His name is Rarmont,” Miki added from his corner. “Not Danei.”

“Whatever. He was a mage.” Lymbok pointed the stone in Miki’s direction. “He knew about stuff like tracking magic.”

Amethyst studied the stone with a frown to match mine. “I gathered you had stolen a magestone,” she said. “But that one is smaller than they usually are. I’ve seen enough of them; the mages always like to bring them out when they’re dropping the milk.” She stuck out her hand, demanding to hold it. Lymbok plopped the spherical stone into her palm. “It’s warm and it has its own light inside. Most magestones don’t light up unless a mage does magic with them.”

“That one’s always lit,” Lymbok replied. “It’s been all aglow since I nicked it.”

“Who did you take it from?” demanded Amethyst.

Lymbok would not meet her eyes. “Lady Siomar Ricknagel.”

“Lady Siomar Ricknagel! Lym, are you crazy?”

“Danei—I mean, Rarmont—he said he’d pay me double for the job! And I knew I could do it, even if it was risky! Don’t nobody know the Tunnels like I do. You know there’s three different ways into the Palace through ‘em?”

“Lymbok!” Amethyst’s voice had risen to a frenzied pitch. “Do you know what that stone is?”

Lymbok scrambled to his feet and tried to snatch the stone from Amethyst’s grip. “Give it back!”

Amethyst, taller and larger than the boy, held the stone beyond his reach. “It’s the Moonstone Ophira! Siomar Ricknagel is the guardian of the Moonstone Ophira. Lymbok, how could you!”

“What’s an Ophira?” I wondered.

“It’s a fancy, famous kind of magestone,” said Lymbok unhappily, subsiding from his efforts to wrest the stone from Amethyst.

“They’re much stronger and older than regular magestones!” Amethyst said. “They have something to do with how magic spread throughout the country. I don’t know the details; I’ve only heard the mages at the den murmuring about them. I do know that stealing an Ophira is a very serious matter. There are only six of them in the whole world.” She stared at the stone with a look of dismay.

Lymbok’s hand flashed and retrieved the stone from hers. “Nobody’s gonna find out I got it.” He stuffed it back into his pocket. “You all just gotta keep your traps shut, and everything’ll be fine. I never get caught.”

Lymbok paid for another sennight in our inn with the money he got from his thieving. I had feared that after the scene about the Ophira he would abandon us, but I finally gathered the boy had a deep sense of loyalty born from our shared adversity, not to mention a tendre for Amethyst.

Lymbok returned from his excursions with all kinds of items plucked from pockets: jhass, folding knives, gloves, bottles of perfume, and snacks. He often brought “Amey” a present, something pretty and useless, like a silk ribbon or a scrap of the beaded fabric so popular in Galantia for ball gowns.

Along with the goods, he brought back rumors.

“Everyone’s all excited about the wedding in the capital,” he said on our fifth day in Murana. “That’s the only thing bein’ talked about. Costas Galatien is marrying that Ricknagel daughter in a big ceremony in the High City. All the Ten Houses is sendin’ a person who’s gotta go—got some fancy name—del-e-gate. Damn, but that would be easy pickins. They usually have a parade down the Temple Road for a nob wedding, and it’s the richest smithin’ ever—”

My mind had drifted away after his announcement about Costas’s wedding. The ung-aneraq—which I had been managing to ignore for days—now heated and scratched unbearably inside my chest. I did not like the idea of remaining connected to Costas once he married Stesichore—but how might I get my necklace back from Costas if he had no reason to reunite with me? I covered my face with my hands. I feared I had made a great mistake, fleeing Galantia without the necklace. The weight of Gantean duty pressed on me, and already, I had failed.

“—They all say he’s marryin’ her so that Lord Ricknagel and King Mydon will finally agree what to do about the Eastern Empire,” Lymbok continued as he emptied his pockets. “But that’s a dumb reason to get married, if you ask me.”

I pulled Miki aside while Amethyst and Lymbok sorted his loot. Amethyst always knew which items might be safe to resell on the streets and which were too unusual.

“Miki, have you heard any news about the Gantean captain?” Like Lymbok and Amethyst, Miki went out roaming the streets of Murana every day, though he never returned with anything.

“I’ve been to the harbor every morning since we arrived. Nothing yet,” Miki replied. “But the new moon is tomorrow. It would help if you came with me. The harbor’s big. I may miss him.”

I leaned into the wall. Since we had arrived in Murana, I had been made nauseous by the bad city air and my own anxiety—about Costas and the necklace, the men who pursued me, and a general sense of disconnection that had followed me ever since the Brokering attack in Galantia. It shamed me too much to admit my concerns and weaknesses to Miki.

“All right,” I murmured. “I’ll help you look tomorrow.”

&Miki led& me through the dizzying maze of Murana. I scrambled after him, sick to my stomach but hiding it. Townhouses and tenements towered above us. Their height oppressed me; only thin patches of sky filtered down to the shadowed streets.

We walked in silence until the claustrophobic alleys relented near the harbor gates. We passed a fountain with a figure of a woman holding an urn pouring water. Miki had not lied; Murana had a big harbor. Beyond the gates, huge launches punctuated the shore. Endless docks jutted into the dark water, a vessel in every possible mooring. Fishing trawlers and sloops rocked beside foreign crafts with sharp sails that sliced the indigo sky.

Guards stood at either side of the main gate, ominous in their Galatien colors.

I froze.

Miki returned to my side. “If we want to find the Gantean we have to go into the main harbor. That’s where the news about arriving ships comes in.” He pointed through the guarded gates.

The water and oranges I had consumed earlier rose in my throat. “I—I don’t feel well. I need to sit for a moment.”

Miki scowled but helped me to the edge of the fountain.

“I’m sorry. I know you need my help, Miki. I just—I haven’t been feeling well since we arrived in Murana.”

Miki crossed his arms and glared at me. “Don’t be stupid, Leila. You can tell me.”

I shook my head. “I’m sorry I’m sick.”

Miki rolled his eyes. “You’re not sick. Don’t lie like a sayantaq! It’s obvious you’re iksuruq. You don’t have to hide it from me.”

I stared at him. Iksuruq? He thought I was pregnant? I almost laughed. “That’s ridiculous. I’m not iksuruq. It’s Murana’s bad air. It makes me sick.”

Miki lifted both eyebrows. “I can see it,” he said softly. “I can see it if I touch you.” He put a hand on my arm and let his eyes blur in the trance of a Gantean shaman.

Chilling awareness shivered down my spine. I had known that Miki had such talents, but I had forgotten what that meant. He could see truths in Yaqi that others could not. I wrenched my arm from his grip and whirled, turning away from him as my stomach emptied and my heart pounded.

Miki stood behind me. “We need to find the Gantean ship,” he remarked with typical Gantean distance.

“You go look then.” If I tried to stand I’d only feel worse. “I’ll come when—when I’m ready. I need to catch my breath.”

Miki hesitated. “Wait here at the fountain,” he finally said. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

As Miki hurried through the harbor gate—the guards took only cursory notice of him, as he looked like a hundred other ship’s boys scurrying around the place—I wrapped my arms across my belly.

A pregnancy changed everything. Just this morning I had shakily decided to cut the ung-aneraq I shared with Costas. I’d grown hopeless about its ability to help me regain my necklace, and with the impending marriage to Stesichore Ricknagel, I couldn’t bear the thought of being bound to him while he was bound to her. The wrongness of it made me feel sick all over again, but I couldn’t cut the bind while I carried Costas’s child lest I dislodge that growing life. Ganteans never killed unborn children—to do so was considered the worst of all possible crimes. I shook with horror and surprise both—but beneath all that, one persistent anxiety that had followed me from Galantia died. I no longer had to decide what to do about the ung-aneraq. I had to keep it, and all I felt was relief.

“I want to throw a wish into the fountain,” A woman’s voice carried across the small square. She approached the far side of the fountain. A figure dressed in black followed her, obscured by her height and the volume of her crimson skirts.

I turned away from the couple and hunched my shoulders, once again overset with nausea.

“Do you have a jhass for me?” The woman’s voice rang behind me again.

Her companion answered, “I pay you well enough for your service, you should have jhass of your own.”

“So stingy, Laith!” she cried.

Laith. She’d said Laith[_. _]My dread translated directly into another heave. Blackness tinged the edges of my vision.

It could be a common name, but I knew it wasn’t. That black figure, tall and lean, had struck me as familiar.

“Laith! Laith! What are you—”

He caught my shoulder and pulled me upright. “Fucking serendipity! Every time, I tell you!”

Laith’s companion rustled up behind him. A black veil fell from a tiny black hat to obscure half her face. I caught a glimpse of red lips and one wide brown eye fringed with long lashes before writhing away from the mage.

“Halt.” The command hit me in my legs. Laith had used this compelling voice power unique to Lethemian mages on me once before, at the Brokering.

I tried to make my feet move, but they remained stuck as though cast in bronze.

“What do you want with that creature, Laith?” The woman hovered behind him as he circled me. I could not move any part of my body, not even my head. He stood where I could not escape his gaze.

“I knew you were close, but I had not realized how close.” He said to me softly. “What was it they call you—Lili?”

“She’s filthy,” snapped the woman in crimson. “A filthy little street rat. Give her a jhass if you have one, and leave her—”

Laith brandished a glittering magestone in the woman’s direction. Like me, she froze, her lips open in an expression of shock, her one visible eye peeled wide in an expression of annoyed disbelief.

“My contract Source,” Laith explained to me. “The only one I could hire on such short notice, willing to travel anywhere. But gods, she never stops talking. Highly satisfying to finally shut her up, you can’t imagine. Now. Tell me your real name.”

He used that same compelling voice. The air left my chest and suctioned towards him.

“Leila,” I croaked, hating that I had no resistance to his magic.

Genuine surprise flashed across the mage’s face, and his magic wavered, releasing my limbs. I shook my arm madly to get the women’s knife into my right hand, launching myself at him to catch him by surprise.

He moved faster than I did, with the instinctual response of long training. He caught me and prevented my attack deftly, immobilizing me with his magic again.

“Leila?” Laith said in a strangled tone as he circled me. “Your name is Leila?” He reached for my dagger and gingerly eased it from my frozen grip. “By the gods,” he murmured. “I do believe…” He flipped the small weapon to better examine the hilt and pommel.

He shook his head, frowning as he murmured incantations too low to decipher. He made his magic rapidly, reanimating the other woman.

“Who do you think you are, you bastard mage!” she shrieked. “I’m your Source! You can’t do that to me!”

Laith ignored her and turned his magic on me.

My vision blurred; darkness closed in.

“You can’t just go enchanting me whenever you please,” the woman’s shrill voice continued.

I caught a brief, hazy glimpse of Miki’s face, observing the entire scene from in front of the harbor gates, before awareness left me.

&Laith hovered above me&, his eyes as blue and dark as my own. He held Costas’s dagger, spinning it through one hand. I struggled to a seat, dread rushing to my head like Lethemian wine. Nausea doubled me over again, but not before I took in the well-appointed room with walls papered in a dizzying black and white motif.

Laith appraised me. “How do you feel?”

He had not used the compelling voice, so I did not answer, instead asking, “What happened back there at the fountain? I can’t remember a thing.”

Laith paced towards a desk near the room’s windows. “I brought you to my brother’s townhouse. I’m sorry I compelled you into unconsciousness, but I figured I had no other choice.” He waved the dagger. “This bauble. Do you know what it is?”

“A women’s knife.”

“Indeed. Marked, astonishingly, with the Galatien sigil. You received it from Costas? A very interesting present.”

“I found it,” I lied. “Out in the grasslands above Murana. I thought I might sell it when I got here.”

“Don’t be an idiot. That’s the Galatien sigil wrought in pure gold on the hilt. Amatos, you’re like a child! Don’t bother lying to me. I can feel a lie in my fingertips, Leila. He gave it to you.” Laith tucked the knife into a sheath at his waist as if it belonged there.

I barely had time to inhale before I leaned over the edge of the bed and heaved.

Laith scrambled to my side. “Not on the Vhimsantese carpet!” He marched me to a washroom, shoving a copper basin in my direction, and I threw up into it.

“You’re in a bad way.” Laith said. “I’m almost certain I saw—well, I believe you might be pregnant.” He spoke almost apologetically. “I see such things in the Aethers. Costas, I presume?”

I didn’t answer, but Laith didn’t press.

“Tell me the truth about the knife,” he said instead, sending another forceful compulsion my way.

“Costas gave it to me,” I muttered.

Laith’s compulsion continued to push. “Did he make promises when he gave it to you?”

“Promises?”

Laith blew an annoyed breath from his nostrils. “He gave you a women’s knife with his House sigil on it! At his own Brokering! Don’t you know what that means?”

I shook my head.

Laith guided me back towards the bed. “It means you have a prior claim. It means you could stop this marriage with Stesichore Ricknagel if you wanted. He asked you first. There’s precedent for this. Women’s knives have a long tradition of serving as betrothal agreements between noble families.” He plucked the dagger from his belt. “If I’m not mistaken, this very blade was involved in a precedent case, too.” He peered at the women’s knife as though scrying the waters for the future. “By the gods, I almost believe this jewel in the hilt is—Such synchronicity!” Laith’s voice rose with excitement, and again I wondered if he might not be considered a madman.

“He’s marrying Stesichore Ricknagel,” I said.

Laith snorted, lifted both hands, and expertly balanced his glittering magestone in one palm and the women’s knife in the other. “Costas gave you his sigilled dagger inlaid with a powerful magestone and you think you can ignore it? When you’re carrying his…child?”

“I—I don’t understand. He’s been formally betrothed to Stesichore—”

Laith laughed. “Leila. Leila.” The tender emotion in his voice startled me. “Mydon Galatien wanted Costas to marry Stesichore for political gain. He wanted Xander Ricknagel’s army firmly bound to House Galatien because of the situation with the Vhimsantese Empire. King Mydon doesn’t trust magic. He doesn’t like that there are other forces—forces at work that he cannot control.” Laith paused and looked thoughtful. “But a balance must be kept in the Aethers, and Stesichore Rickangel was not the right choice for Costas.” A distant look shadowed his face.

“Were you with her?” he asked suddenly. “Growing up in Gante? Did she keep you?”

Fatigue dropped me to the bed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Let me go. You let me go in Galantia.”

“I didn’t know who you were then.”

I frowned. What did he mean by that?

Laith resumed his pacing, still clutching magestone and knife. “Where is she? What does she want? Why did she attack at the Brokering?” Every question hit me like a sword thrust of magic.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” I cried helplessly.

Laith stared at me. “Impossible.” He looked at his magestone and then back up at me. “Did you just resist my truth compulsion? That’s impossible.”

“I spoke the truth. I don’t know what you are talking about.”

“I want to know about the Cedna of Gante. I want to know how to find her,” he said.

“The Cedna?” I echoed, utterly confused. “She fled Gante years ago. No one knows where to find her, the Ganteans—and me—least of all.”

Laith blinked. “But you were there with her! At the Brokering during the attack? You must know where she’s gone. You do know she is Lady Entila’s half-sister, I presume? And what did she do with poor Malvyna Entila? It’s really the most fascinating magical conundrum since Eretrus Avarian’s Immaculate Bind. You don’t know, then, what the Cedna did with Lady Entila? Damnation. I truly thought you would.”

“I don’t know anything,” I emphasized, fighting my still-bubbling stomach. “I need to lie down.” I fell onto the pillows without waiting for Laith’s permission.

“So you’re innocent?” Laith asked, though his voice really didn’t have the tone of a question. “Just another girl from Gante named Leila who captured our Prince’s heart?”

I frowned. Put like that—

“Fucking Amatos.” Laith stalked to the bedchamber door. “I need to think. You should rest. Please don’t worry. You’re safe here. I’ll make sure of it.”

I was too sick to do anything but curl into a ball on the bed, clinging to my knees as if they were the lone piece of sea-wrack keeping me adrift in deep waters.

A loud thump woke me. I sprang up from the bed and backed into the wall. A small, shadowy figure crept in my direction.

“Leila?”

“Miki?”

I lurched against the wall as Miki careened into me. Skinny arms wrapped round me. “Miki,” I said again in relief, feeling a sleek seal fur cloak beneath my fingers. “How did you get here?”

He tugged my arm. “We’ve got to go.”

I hesitated. I didn’t like to leave my women’s knife behind. “The mage—he has my dagger.”

“Forget about that sayantaq thing. I found the Gantean captain. He’s waiting for us up the road with a horse and cart. We have to go now.”

Miki led me to the window. He had scaled the side of the townhouse with Gantean rope, cleverly tied on the decorative scrolls and knobs that garnished the windows and eves.

Miki climbed down first, deft as spider. I followed, unnaturally frightened by the height and the precarious appearance of the ropes. I had been a good climber in Gante; I had never been frightened of heights. I knew what had changed—the knowledge that I carried a child.

We fled over the lawn into a broad, clean avenue lined with mansions and gas lamps. Miki helped me into the back of a cart waiting at the curb. I lay on my back and wrapped my hands across my navel as the cart lurched into motion.

Fourteen

Murana’s harbor bustled even in the middle of the night. Stevedores slouched beneath their burdens, their progress along the docks lit by torches. Ships’ boys scampered across decks. The Gantean captain’s vessel stretched sixty or seventy spans, with a tall mast in front and a shorter mizzenmast to the rear—a flexible boat, made for a small crew on unpredictable seas.

Our driver flung his reins over a post at the side of the cobbled road. Miki and I tumbled out from the back of the cart, and Miki ran to the edge of the dock.

Naya.” A Gantean voice cut the night. I searched the ship’s deck for the speaker, whose greeting sounded like home. A dim, bulky shape gestured to us.

“Come aboard,” he said in Lethemian with hardly any trace of accent. I followed Miki up the rope ladder to board the ship, even as another wave of nausea rushed through me. I presumed the man who spoke was the captain—he moved with the silent, silky ease of a Gantean. Even in the midnight darkness I could see his glittering eyes, as uncompromising as black granite.

“Welcome, welcome,” he said in Lethemian. “Our little friend convinced me to send him on a rescue mission. He said you were Iksraqtaq. I am Atanurat, the captain of this ship.”

I stepped forward and bowed my head. “Leila, Iksraqtaq qargi Shringar.”

The cart driver climbed onto the ship’s deck. “Leila!” he exclaimed behind me.

I turned.

“It’s me! Merkuur.” The driver unwrapped his scarf to expose his freckled face and dark skin.

“Merkuur?” I gasped as he grabbed my hand and squeezed it. “But you disappeared,” I slipped into Gantean, thinking of that day moons ago at the slave market in Queenstown.

“I didn’t like the alternative,” he said. “Leila, you are the first! We have found others, but no one from my own community. What happened to Murlian?”

“Someone bought her,” I tried to remember pertinent details. Some images of that traumatic day had been burned into my mind in perfect vivid detail, while others eluded me entirely. “I don’t know,” I said hopelessly. “She was sold in Queenstown.”

“I saw that much.” Merkuur gripped my shoulders and scanned me head to toe. “You look well enough, not like that poor half-starved friend of yours.”

I searched the deck for Miki. He stood beside Lymbok and Amethyst beneath the main mast. I was glad he had returned to get them.

The captain removed his hood. He had obviously Gantean features: heavy black hair, sun-weathered tan skin, slanted eyes. His tight braids fell nearly to his waist. With his strong bones and considerable muscles, he would have sent Gantean girls into giggles every time he passed. Behind him stood another man, a slender, wiry Gantean with shorter hair. He introduced himself. “Pamiuq, Iksraqtaq qargi Tuq.” I guessed Pamiuq older than Merkuur by several winters, but younger than the captain.

The captain, Atanurat, studied me closely, the gleam of his dark eyes softening until I almost thought he must be in a shaman’s trance. His vague expression suddenly cleared. “You’re[_ _]iksuruq.”

“So I have been told,” I acknowledged as a blush washed over my cheeks.

The captain laughed. “We cannot leave you behind then. You’ll bring us luck.” It was true; Ganteans loved pregnant women—we were considered the luckiest omens.

Atanurat’s ship carried cargo bound for a port on the southern continent of Lysandra, and so we would sail there with the dawn. We pulled from the harbor as the sunrise bells rang, and Murana faded into a hazy glimmer in the distance. Being on the sea relieved me; I sloughed off the sayantaq skin that had grown on me during my time on the Lethemian mainland. Merkuur pulled me into his cabin, offering me a seat on a round cushion where I happily sprawled.

“How did you escape in Queenstown?” I asked. “One moment, you were there, and the next, you had disappeared.”

“I noticed a hollow beneath the pier when we came down the gangway. The binds were easy enough to slip, and I shimmied off the back of the pier when the guards were distracted with Murlian. I ran as fast as I could, and I came out at the other end of the port where they dock the smaller merchant ships. I hopped aboard the first one I found, stowed away, and begged the captain to take me on when he found me at sea. He tested me with knots. I passed.” Merkuur smiled.

I had taught him quite a few knots back when we were children.

“It wasn’t much better than being a slave, working the ship,” Merkuur went on. “I didn’t want to leave you and Murlian, but I didn’t see any other way. I met Atanurat in An-Arian, in Lysandra, of all places. He had been away from Gante for over a decade. He was so sayantaq he didn’t know how bad things had gotten on Gante. He didn’t know we’d been so thoroughly beaten.” He shook his head and lowered his eyes. “We went back there, Leila. To Gante. We didn’t find anyone. The ice comes right up over the southern tundra now. We went to the caches at Umaq and took what few goods we found there—skins, blackstone spalls, nets. We didn’t dare try anywhere else, not in that deadly cold. No one could live in that.”

“So we won’t be going back,” I murmured.

Merkuur shook his head. “Something bad has happened up there. It’s as if—as if the whole island is changing. As if the Hinge is eating up the land itself with ice. I sold everything I found at Umaq. Atanurat agreed.” He said this defiantly, as if daring me to call him sayantaq.

I would never chastise him. I had cast off Iksraqtaq rules with shameful ease. A more comfortable life had beckoned, and I had accepted it eagerly. “Merkuur, you don’t have to explain. I have broken our rules, too. I have—”

“So what, I say.” He cut me off, shrugging. “You must adapt; it is your only choice. The world is changing. Gante refused to change along with it, and did it help us at all?” He shoved a hand through his hair, making it stick straight up. He had cut it in the fashion of the Lethemians. “The Elders valued silence and secrecy, but silence cannot protect you when the world crashes into your shores like a tidal wave. You can’t stand against a wave like that. You have to ride it out.”

&I had never seen& Miki so happy as he was aboard Atanurat’s Northern Wind. He scampered over the deck with Lymbok, both of them as eager as puppies. At night Miki came to my hammock and slept beside me.

“Your son talks to me in Yaqi,” he said as we drifted towards sleep. “But I cannot understand him yet.” Miki assumed the baby would be a boy, and the other Ganteans shared this certainty because he had said it would be so.

I spent my days on the ship busy with Gantean tasks: braiding Amethyst’s hair, knotting nets, twisting rope, keeping track of the ship’s stores. How many hours had I spent this way on the Gantean bluffs with busy hands and a calm mind, the wide sea stretching into every vista. The return of familiarity reassured me, though increasingly I rued the loss of my necklace. I still had not told the other Ganteans about what I had been tasked with and what I had lost in the High City. The thought of explaining left me cold with shame.

It took a full sennight to sail south and unload the ship’s cargo. Atanurat’s ship made this passage regularly, carrying Lethemian wine and Lysandrene silk back and forth between the two nations. We stopped at the Vhimsantese port of Vorisipor on the return journey, though Amethyst and I did not leave the ship—women had fewer rights in the Eastern Empire, and Atanurat worried for our safety.

While we waited for the others to return from the Vhimsantese port, I asked Amethyst why she and Lymbok had come with us. I imagined they both would have been happier in the world they knew, in a Lethemian city.

“I never thought I would get out of my father’s den in Galantia,” she explained. “My life there was little more than a slave’s. He worked me hard; he was cruel. I didn’t want to work for another man again. And I have always wanted to see distant places.”

“And Lymbok?” I wondered.

“Lymbok fought the idea of coming, at first, but in the end, I insisted on going, and I don’t think he liked to part from me.” She smiled wryly. “That boy never had any kind of mother.”

When the men returned to the ship, Amethyst cornered Pamiuq, who had displayed a weakness for her more than once. We had both been disappointed to be left on board instead of exploring the foreign port and gathering the news.

“What did you hear in Vorisipor?” she asked.

Pamiuq took a seat cross-legged with us on the deck where I had been teaching Amethyst basic net knotting. He shook his head as he took out his whittling knife and a slender bit of wood. “Nothing good.”

“What do you mean?” Amethyst persisted, moving closer to him.

“Rumors of discontent, mostly. The Eastern Empire believes they have a god-given right to constant expansion, and any Emperor who does not expand the domain is regarded as a failure. They have their eyes on the Lethemian border, and they say Lord Xander Ricknagel has come more than once to parley with the Governor of Vorisipor, but King Mydon refuses to treat with the Empire at all.”

“The Vhimsantese wouldn’t dare attack Lethemia,” Amethyst said. “We have magic.”

Pamiuq scowled at the anbuaq almost finished in his hand, a small fish with a hole in it, almost like a tormaquine. “I wouldn’t be sure of that. They say Mydon Galatien is reluctant to mobilize his mages on a large scale. His reputation makes Lethemia appear weak. It’s Lord Xander Ricknagel who keeps the Empire at bay, and there’s talk that he’s considering concessions that Mydon hasn’t authorized.”

“Do you think there is a risk of war?” Amethyst leaned so close to Pamiuq her new braids brushed his shoulder.

He grinned unexpectedly. “Anything’s possible.” He offered up the anbuaq he had carved in a flat palm, a Gantean gesture I recognized as an overt invitation.

Amethyst giggled as she examined the token of Pamiuq’s regard. “For me?”

Pamiuq said nothing, perhaps not knowing how to interpret her reaction to his gesture. I opened my mouth to explain, but the blushes on both their faces led me to change the subject entirely. “How did you come to sail with Atanurat?” I asked Pamiuq. He never mentioned anything about his Gantean past.

“The usual way. Taken young as a slave by Entilan raiders who sold me in Queenstown. I escaped the master who bought me, and I found work on the ships. I traveled two years working on ships before I met Atanurat—”

“But why didn’t you return to Gante once you’d escaped?” asked Amethyst.

Pamiuq lifted his cool eyes to meet hers. “How could I?” He asked. “I was tainted. I’d lived in the south for years.”

She looked away, clutching the anbuaq he had given her. “I don’t think you’re tainted,” she said, almost too low to hear.

Pamiuq’s story left me melancholy, as thinking of Gante usually did. That sacred life, once abandoned, was impossible to recapture. We were all of us tainted now, according the rules of the Elders.

&We sailed& over the Parting Sea for moons, with only brief stops for loading and unloading. Atanurat’s base of operations was Murana, and so we returned there every new moon to load new cargo. He always had work; he was willing to sail anywhere to make deliveries. No report of bad weather or difficult harbors intimidated him—why would it? After sailing Gante’s treacherous waters, nothing Lethemia’s Parting Sea could throw at him would seem too harsh or dangerous. Lymbok and Miki were as happy as children could be. Both boys benefited from the presence of the Gantean men, who took their roles as mentors seriously. The days rolled one into the next, the only marker of the passing time the increasing size of my body.

I progressed too quickly; Amethyst agreed that I was abnormally large. I grew anxious and went to Merkuur.

“At the next port, I must go ashore,” I told him. “The baby might come early. Look how big I am.” Already my feet had swollen, and my small frame could barely support my round belly.

Merkuur gave me a startled look. “You hardly showed when we took you aboard.”

I stuck my belly out before him. “Look at me. I’m huge. Amethyst says I should see a midwife.”

Our next port of call was Anastaia, the city in southern Galatien Province where Lymbok had originally wanted us to go. Its clean harbor was full of boats powered by sails and oars rather than engines and coal. The aquamarine waters glistened in unseasonable sunlight. In the reckoning of Gantean moons, we approached the end of the thirteen cycles, the dark, storming time of year. Here in Anastaia no storm seemed likely to disrupt the tranquil waters. It might as well have been summer.

My only fear in going ashore was that it would make the magemark on my shoulder easier to track, though after so long, I doubted anyone was still searching. Lymbok and Amethyst had both assured me that tracking magic was notoriously difficult. The Ganteans didn’t know enough about Lethemian magic to offer their opinions, though Atanurat, who’d had some training as shaman in his youth, assured me that to track any bloodlight cord over long distances was near enough to impossible as to pose little threat.

Merkuur, Amethyst, and I went into the city proper to find the lodgings she and I would keep for the remainder of the winter. Merkuur knew his way around Anastaia; we came to a street of fine looking townhouses, each with its own small garden in the front. He walked up to one and rapped on the door. “It’s a rooming house for women,” he explained. “Atanurat gave me jhass to get you set up.”

Merkuur efficiently booked a room for Amethyst and me with the woman who ran the house. She flirted shamelessly with Merkuur, who didn’t seem to mind bantering back for our cause, which was made more difficult by the fact of my pregnancy. He convinced her we would leave after the baby came and cause no trouble, largely by using his natural charm.

He patted both Amethyst and me on the shoulder before departing. “We’ll all come visit you when we get back from Lysandra. It shouldn’t be more than a fortnight.”

I nodded and watched him disappear down the rooming house stairs, my sense of peace fading. Surrounded by Ganteans, I had felt safe in the world, but Merkuur’s leaving left me cold and uncertain.

Amethyst pulled me to our new room. “You should lie down,” she murmured. “I’ll go find out where to get a midwife. You should be examined immediately.”

The old woman Amethyst returned with probed at my large belly, frowning when I explained how far along I was.

“You’re too big,” she said. “And you’re such a tiny thing.” She clucked over me before advising exactly what Amethyst had. “Bed rest. You must try to prolong the pregnancy for as long as possible, else the child will come too early. Don’t spend more than an hour at a time on your feet. Send for me if you have any bleeding, any early pains. If you have the money for it, I’d recommend consulting a healing mage—they can see the aetherlights of both you and your child and diagnose far better than I can, but they are hard to find and costly.”

Since I could do nothing but rest, I knotted a net sack that would sling across my body to hold the baby, losing myself in the soothing practice. I always knotted as fast as I could—if I slowed or thought about what I did, the work would fall apart, and my task seemed the only thing holding me together as I waited restlessly for my time.

Many days passed, but the men did not return. My body grew more uncomfortable. After ten days ashore I worried I had made the wrong choice in leaving the ship. At least there I had enjoyed the sympathetic company of my people and good fresh air. I missed Miki, Merkuur, Pamiuq, and even quiet Atanurat.

My guts twisted; my back ached.

I tried to finish my knotting, but the pain in my back distracted me. When the door opened and Amethyst entered, I gladly put the work down.

“Leila! You look so pale.” She rushed to my side.

“My back hurts. I’m afraid the baby is coming.”

“Now? No! Another sennight, at least! It’s too soon!” She plumped the pillow behind me. “Where does it hurt?”

“All over. My center.” I winced. I fell back, gasping. “It must be beginning.”

Amethyst’s pale blue eyes widened. “I’ll send for the midwife.” She hurried from the room. As the pain faded, I pushed myself to my feet and paced until another one struck. I collapsed forward to rest my elbows on the bed.

I feared Costas’s child would be too large for me. By the time Amethyst returned with the midwife in tow, I panted deliriously, hunched over the bed in whatever awkward position soothed the agony in my center.

Amethyst and the midwife spoke to me, but their words drifted away into my clouds of pain. My world narrowed; Gantean advice counseled that surrendering to the pain of childbirth would lead to death. They said a woman must fight it, must hold against it.

The Lethemian midwife told me how to breathe, but I couldn’t attend. I teetered on the edge of exhaustion. The glittering lights of Yaqi hovered around me. Touch, vision, and sound all merged with each other. A burning ball of light tore through my insides. I screamed. When the worst of the pain finally passed, it began all over again.

I must have fainted or dreamed.

In the silence and blackness of that place below awareness, not Yaqi, and not in the physical world, either, in the layer of dreams and visions, a woman leaned over me. She had a bone face, husk-dry hair, and a glittering crystal body that shimmered in all the colors of the Hinge: black, emerald, sapphire, rose pink, moonstone pale, and cool opal. The Skeleton Woman who lived inside the Hinge. [Give them to me. Give them to me, _]she chanted. _I hunger. Feed me.

“Not yet.” I pleaded with the last of my strength. They are mine. You cannot have them yet.

The woman melted and changed before me, turning into the blackstone flow of the sorceress at the Brokering, dragging me down into a pool of pure dark.

Fifteen

“Is she with us?” Lethemian words, a woman’s voice.

I forced my eyes open.

“Yes!” cried Amethyst. “She’s opened her eyes.”

I struggled into the stark clarity of Ijiq[_. _]“Baby,” I mumbled, helpless and confused.

“Leila, it’s not just a baby,” replied Amethyst, grinning.

“Miss.” The midwife leaned over me. “You have two, and they came early. They are very small and delicate. Be careful these first few sennights. No visitors. Keep a perfectly clean space and remain in your room. The babies may take only your own milk. Eat well to keep up your strength. Come, will you hold them?”

Amethyst placed a small bundle into each of my arms. They were so tiny, hardly larger than puppies.

“At first I thought the boy must be stuck, he took so long in coming,” said Amethyst. “But you finally pushed him out. Then Midwife Mirea said you had a second baby coming!”

“What day is it?” I asked blearily.

“The seventeenth day of Amatos,” said Amethyst. “You were in labor for nearly two days!”

My children were beautiful. Certainly every mother felt so of her own child, even a Gantean mother, who showed no outward preference for her own blood. But my babies were as smooth and glowing as water-washed gems, not raw and red like so many newborns. I pushed back their swaddling; no one could tell them apart by their faces alone. I called my firstborn Tiriq after the mythical Gantean boy who traveled down from the stars and shaped the earth. I called my girl Tianiq, Tiriq’s sister who cried the oceans.

“Are you sure they should have such names?” asked the midwife when I told her my choices. “They sound barbarian.”

“I am Gantean. They will have names of my people.”

&I had known& babies enough in Gante, and babies born too soon were needy, and twins, ill omened, yet my two remained as serene and calm as drifts of snow; they slept readily and often, feeding and thriving. Amethyst and I could not get enough of staring at them.

“Truly,” said Amethyst one afternoon two sennights after the birth, “I have never seen more beautiful babies. Their skin glows!”

“They get that from their father.” I ignored her shy, furtive look. Perhaps sensing my discomfort, she didn’t ask the obvious question.

“They’re so easy,” she added as she rocked Tiriq. “Such happy babies. I thought little ones just cried all the time.”

All children are the children of the clan in Gante, and no mother holds her child as her own once it leaves her body. I loved my twins like a sayantaq mother—possessively and thoroughly. I would never be able to give them up. I carried vague fears about the men’s return—would they ask me to perform the ritual slicing of the bloodlight cords that connected me to the babies? I could not bear the thought.

The men finally arrived in Anastaia to find two happy women and two gurgling babies, none of us interested in worldly news. Merkuur, Pamiuq, and Miki came to the rooming house. I handed one sleeping babe to Miki and the other to Pamiuq as they settled into my little room’s available seating.

Merkuur immediately turned the conversation to pressing concerns. “Tension with the Vhimsantyr Empire escalates. It will make even our limited trade there soon impossible. We hear rumors of trouble closer to home. They say Princess Stesichore is unhappy in her marriage to Costas Galatien. She has left Galantia.”

“Those troubles are far away,” I said. Even when I admired the bronze glowing skin of my children, I avoided thinking of Costas. He was a gap in my memory, a void I glazed over because of the discomfort it caused. I had grown accustomed to the incessant awareness of the ung-aneraq; most of the time I could ignore it.

Amethyst reached across Pamiuq’s lap and smoothed her fingers over Tianiq’s soft cheek. “Isn’t it amazing,” she said, “how clear everything is, how simple, when one has babies to care for? War and politics seem like petty games of men when there are children to raise.”

Merkuur glowered at us both as if we had lost our minds. “My point is that I’m not sure it remains safe here in Anastaia. If the trouble were only between Vhimsantyr and Lethemia, I would not worry, but there is talk about a breach between the Ricknagel and Galatien Houses, a brewing civil war.”

“We can’t leave yet,” Amethyst argued. “The midwife said the twins would be very delicate at first. They aren’t to be taken out and about. You needn’t feel so obliged for our care. I can get work to help support myself.”

Merkuur and Pamiuq both stiffened their backs. She couldn’t know she had offended them, as Gantean men, to say such a thing.

Pamiuq attempted to explain, “You are one of us now, Amethyst.” He pointed at the fish charm she wore at her neck. “As one of our clan, you will be looked after. Your work is caring for these babies with Leila. You are the milk-mothers. We are the fish-fathers.”

Amethyst still looked perplexed, but she did not argue further.

Merkuur arranged for us to stay at the rooming house until the twins were stronger. Miki refused to return to Northern Wind with the men. “I want to stay here and watch Leila call the twins’ tormaqs,” he said.

“You will call their tormaqs so soon?” Merkuur asked in surprise. He knew I could do the magic ritual, I had done it often for the children of our clan, but in Gante the tormaq ritual was normally performed three or four moons after birth.

“I hadn’t planned to—”

“You must,” Miki insisted. “They need them. It’s important.” His face wore a frantic cast, a desperate look that made me wonder if he had other special magical talents than wayfinding. Foresight, perhaps?

“Then I can,” I said to sooth him, though my stomach twisted with dread. When I performed the tormaq ritual, I would come right up against choices I did not want to face: whether to cut the bloodcords that connected my children to me, whether to ung-aneraq that connected me to Costas.

Merkuur returned to the ship, taking Miki with him despite the boy’s protests—Merkuur knew the ritual to cut a mother’s bloodcord was a matter best left to women alone.

I sat with the babies on the bed in the rented room to begin the ritual. It had been so long since I had worked with my magic—not since those few desperate moments at the Brokering. I wished again for Nautien’s anbuaq—the spall of red crystal that it contained would have made it possible for me to feed the Hinge after my magic. Without it, I could only offer my blood to the Lethemian ground and hope it had some effect, but my children needed tormaqs. These spirits would protect them in the Layers where I could not. I collected the necessary blood by cutting my wrist with the ulio I had stolen at the Brokering.

Blood-letting opens the portals between layers, and I moved into Yaqi with surprising ease. The twins’ bloodlights glowed fiercely, one an orb of bright gold, the other silver. Twisted ropes of light connected me to them, the bloodlight umbilici that should be severed according to Gantean traditions. I would not cut them, though I expected to be scolded by the other Ganteans. Even so, I could not do it. They needed me, and they did not have a large clan with a full tiguat to look after them.

The gold and blue ung-aneraq stretched into a disappearing horizon, the living energy of the connection I had made to Costas Galatien. My ulio hand stuttered. I could slice that cord so easily, yet I did not do it, could not do it. I told myself it was because of the necklace and my need to find it again, but I knew that for a sayantaq lie.

The glittering lights suddenly pulsed in rhythm to a high, shrill note. Something was wrong. Yaqi spit me out like a bitter morsel. The ritual had not worked. I coughed and coughed, breathless with dismay. I had not seen any tormaqs for my children. What did it mean? Were they not Iksraqtaq?

A cold, hard knot of fear twisted in my stomach. With the wood and whittling knife Amethyst had brought for me to make the tormaquines, I carved only little wooden charms strung on twine showing the Gantean runes for Tiriq and Tianiq, a seven-pointed star and a nine-pointed one. They would have only these, instead of tormaquines.

&When Merkuur returned& to the rooming house again, he brought grim news that Amethyst and I had not heard because we spent all our time sequestered with the babies. “Stesichore Ricknagel is dead. Xander Ricknagel marches upon Murana, accusing Costas Galatien of the assassination.”

“Costas?” I said in disbelief, sitting upright and jostling Tianiq at my breast. She began to cry. “Why would he…” I trailed off, embarrassed by my unthinking outburst.

“Rumor says that Prince Costas wed Stesichore only at his father’s command,” Merkuur said. “By all accounts he and Stesichore Ricknagel made a loveless match. And perhaps even worse, they say one of House Ricknagel’s magic stones was stolen at the Brokering. Xander Ricknagel has accused Costas Galatien of being both a murderer and a thief.”

Amethyst blanched and squeezed my hand. She must be thinking of Lymbok and his purloined stone, too. “How could they know who stole the Ophira?”

Merkuur gave her an odd look but said only, “Anastaia is threatened. If Murana falls to Xander Ricknagel, he will almost certainly attack here next. King Mydon hasn’t acted to protect either city yet.”

“Why has he done nothing?” I wondered. “Doesn’t the High City depend on the Galatien ports?”

Merkuur shrugged. “All I know is that if he does not act soon, it will be too late to hold Murana from Xander Ricknagel. If Murana falls, we must all leave Anastaia, for the war will come here.”

“Where would we go?” asked Amethyst.

“Anywhere out of the likely path of this war. You must be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.” Merkuur spoke in a voice that brooked no argument.

&The urgent message& came in the form of Miki, dashing up the rooming house stairs breathlessly. “Murana has fallen. Atanurat says you must come now. He wants to get out of the port as soon as possible.”

We had packed most of our few possessions in preparation for this news. I slipped the carrier I had knotted around my neck and took Tiriq in it, while Amethyst tied Tianiq in her shawl.

We picked our way across the city to the harbor. The air carried a distinct buzz of tension, as though the denizens of Anastaia knew danger moved in their direction. Atanurat, Merkuur, and Pamiuq conferred for ages about where we should head while we sat on the deck.

Finally Atanurat announced, “We’ll sail west to Orioneport.”

Amethyst handed him Tianiq, excusing herself to speak to Pamiuq. Atanurat held my daughter gently, as though she might break in his big hands. He lifted the substitute tormaquine I had tied around her ankle, a nine-pointed star.

His brows drew together. “Is this meant to be a tormaquine?”

I pointed up at the clear sky overhead. “For their names,” I explained.

“Of course. Tiriq and Tianiq.” The Gantean tale of the mythical twins involved the formation of two horizon stars. He understood the significance.

Atanurat shifted Tianiq to his hip. “You and the twins will share my cabin. It is the most comfortable place for you. Come.”

Atanurat helped me string up another hanging bed beside his own. Sitting cross-legged, I tucked Tianiq up the nursing cloak Amethyst had found for me. I gestured to Atanurat, who had been watching silently with his Gantean eyes, the irises nearly as dark as the pupils.

“Can you help me lift Tiriq into my other arm?”

He picked up Tiriq, who gave a gleeful coo and grasped Atanurat’s braids with wavering hands. Atanurat smiled and tucked Tiriq beneath my cloak. Atanurat still knelt before me, a single hand lingering on my thigh. At first I had the startled thought that he stared at my breasts. Then I noticed the telltale blur of his pupils.

“What did you see?” I asked when his eyes came back into focus.

“They remain bound to you.”

I nodded. I did not want to explain my reluctance to cut the bloodcords. Not to such a Gantean face as Atanurat’s.

He continued, “And you have an ung-aneraq connected to someone far away. The father?”

I cleared my throat. “They have so few of us to watch over them. They need me. I know what the Elders would say about such cords, but I will not cut them.” I couldn’t explain it, but even the ung-aneraq that bound me to Costas gave me strength.

Tianiq fussed beneath my cloak. I guided her out with my right arm. Atanurat took her as if he had acted the milk-father a hundred times in the past. She batted his black tresses, giggling. Her eyes had started out blue like my own and Tiriq’s, but already they were changing, taking on edges of gold. She would have the same amber eyes as her father.

Atanurat kissed Tianiq’s cheek. She never let go of his hair, but he didn’t pry her fingers away. “The Elders never anticipated we would find ourselves in such a world,” he said as he played with Tianiq. “They faced difficult times. The customs they held onto so fiercely were like water in a vessel. Any small crack in the vessel would leak the customs out, in a slow stream, yes, but eventually, all of them would be lost. They saw their world slipping away. They clung to traditions desperately because of it.”

“And their vision was true,” I said sadly.

“No,” Atanurat replied, but he didn’t explain.

“But Gante is lost.” I laid Tiriq on the ground. Atanurat put Tianiq down beside him, and the twins wiggled until their arms draped over each other. They would only sleep if they touched each other.

“We who are left will decide which customs to honor and which to let wash away like so much water,” Atanurat said. “If we keep the children of our blood strung to us, that is our choice. The missing Cedna brought us the choices they would not give her.”

“She wanted to change the old ways?” Few Ganteans were ever willing to speak of the Cedna.

“She was half-Lethemian, you know. Ronin Entila was her father, and because of this, she was not raised like any normal Gantean. Her mother served as Cedna before her, and when her mother named her as the successor, there was a great outcry against it. The Elders believed they had both been tainted by sayantaq ways.”

I nodded.

“They hated her, and she hated them back. They used her hard in her youth. Those were desperate times for Gante and for the Hinge, not easy for any of us. She had a child, out of wedlock, fathered by an unknown Lethemian man. She wanted to keep it as her own. This happens to many mothers, especially with the first child.”

“No one ever spoke of her in my clan,” I said. “I didn’t know she had a child.”

“She was so heartbroken when they took her baby away. I understand, you see? I understand why you have kept your babies strung to you. I will not judge it. I questioned the traditions, too. Do you know I left Gante at the Elders’ command, originally? I left to search for her.”

“For the Cedna?”

“After she left. After they took the baby from her. They sent me out to bring her back.”

“You never found her?”

He sighed heavily. “I did not search well, truth be told. The Cedna—she did not want to be found, and I—I discovered I didn’t wish to go back to Gante.” He paused. “The sayantaq[_ _]world seduced me. I chose it. That makes all the difference.”

We had always been discouraged from leaving Gante by the Elders, because who wouldn’t choose the ease of southern life? They kept us bound to the island because they feared we would leave when presented with an alternative. So often we proved them right.

“Are you ashamed?” Atanurat asked into the silence. “Of choosing to keep them bound to you?”

I had no answer. The silence in Atanurat’s cabin stretched as Atanurat waited, his question palpable in the air.

“I have no choice,” I managed to whisper. “They need me.” It was easier to believe I had no option.

“You always have choices. If nothing else, coming south gives us choices. Thousands upon thousands of choices, so many it overwhelms.” He rose. “You are still young. You’ll understand soon enough.” He smoothed escaped hairs down into my braids, his touch an absolution.

Sixteen

Northern[_ Wind_] docked in the city of Orioneport, in Province Amar, to take on cargo. Later we all walked on the bluffs above the harbor where austringing men flew their birds over the water, reminding me of Tiercel in Entila. I recalled that he came from Amar, and I missed him. I returned early to the ship. The babies tired easily, and so did I.

Merkuur and the others had yet to return from the city even at darkfall. Only Atanurat had been left to man the Northern Wind.

I nested the twins together in their hanging bed. I had only once tried to make them sleep apart, and I had lost a full night’s sleep from their cries. Atanurat came into the cramped cabin as I picked up a needle to work on the twins’ new tunics. He said nothing, so I bent over my work.

I couldn’t concentrate with him in the room. This surprised me. Normally, I barely noticed when he came and went, so quiet were his movements, so still his presence. I attributed this to his shaman’s training, for such men learn early to move in the world leaving few traces.

Twice Atanurat bumped into me as he attempted to restring his hanging bed so that it would be closer to the tiny one I had put up for the twins.

“Would you like some help?” I asked.

He nodded. I took one end of the hammock to the eyebolt on the far wall of the cabin. With a few loops of the cord, I made it fast, drawing the end taut.

“Have you made young?” I asked. Most Gantean men enjoyed their fathering role, but Atanurat had grown unusually attached to the twins. Perhaps he pined for his own, if men did such a thing? I tried to imagine Costas pining for the twins and failed.

Atanurat gave me a pained look. “Not that I am aware of.”

Now that I had my own babies, I could not fathom the stoicism of Gantean mothers, who never held their own child in their arms, who might never nurse the life they had tended so carefully in their bodies. If my children were taken from me, I would go[_ mad_] with rage and despair. I could not understand having children and not knowing of their existence, either. I bit my lip, thinking of Costas again. He might not pine, but he could certainly rage.

“If you did have children, would you want to know they were yours?” I asked to see what Atanurat thought of the Gantean tiguat, which denied all parents from knowing the children of their bodies.

He pushed the twins in their hammock. “It makes no difference to me whose blood your children carry.” He ran his fingers through the straggly mess of his braids, accidentally bumping the twins with his arm. “Sorry!”

I drew him to a seat on the floor beside me. “You’re a mess,” I said. “Your braids are unraveling.”

He patted at the braids. “They get messed when the winds are up.”

“My braids won’t.” I had already begun to loosen the twine from his hair. He wore a simple style most men favored for ease. I’d give him something much more intricate. His gleaming hair, when unbound, fell past his waist.

I had to stand up to start the braids fresh, weaving from the crown of his head in a braid of nine. I wound it tight and gathered the next section of hair to start the next piece.

“Were you damaged by the man, making the twins?” he asked.

“Damaged?” I said. “Do you mean my body? The birth was difficult, but the midwife said I might still be able to bear more children.” He did not ask his question about the birth, but I chose to answer as if he had.

“I don’t know what I mean.” Atanurat sighed. “I have seen enough of what has happened to the Gantean women forced into slavery here. My Gantean shaman master always said if the women of a clan were mistreated, it bespoke illness in the land itself, an unmet hunger of the Hinge. Gantean women have not been treated well in Lethemia. I wonder what it means for magic. What it means for the Cedna.”

I shivered. Now was the time for me to tell the task Nautien had given me, but I could not form the words. Not when I had lost the precious anbuaq.

“She still feeds the Hinge,” I said. “Because magic still works, mostly.” Yet I there had been no tormaqs for the twins, and I wondered if the Hinge was beginning to falter with no other Ganteans caring for it. Was one woman’s blood—however powerful—enough?

“Ganteans always thought we occupied such a special position in the world,” Atanurat mused, almost to himself. “We were the caretakers of a precious power, but sometimes—sometimes I have wondered how important our rituals really were? Look around you, here, in the sayantaq world? These mages pay no blood for their power, and yet they seem to have so much more power than we did.”

“The Elders said that was why we had to pay,” I reminded him. “Because they did not.”

He held my gaze. “I left Gante in anger. I felt used by the Elders. Used for the magic I had, used for my blood, just as the Cedna did. The Elders mistreated the Cedna, no matter what they said about her reasons for leaving. I saw, you understand. I saw that divide as it happened. At some point, there could be no reconciliation. They thought I would bring her home again, after she left. They thought our friendship could coerce her, which shows how little they knew. She never considered me a friend. I knew, setting out, that even if I found her, she would not return with me. I gave up before I even began. I got lost in the Lethemian world. Everything was so big, so bright, so different. I lay with many women. I indulged in all the southern pleasures. I let my tormaquine be stolen one night, too drunk to notice the thieves who cut it from my throat. I am so sayantaq I can never go back.

“I wasn’t forced away or enslaved. But how easy it has been to forget. I didn’t know how to resist this.” He waved. “I didn’t want to be reminded of what I had left. Through the years, I saw signs: Gantean women tied at throat and wrist, sold like cattle. Beaten, branded, and broken. I saw Gantean eyes looking out from Lethemian faces. I tried not to think about the matings that had made such children. I saw few of our men, and those I did were so defeated they could not meet my eyes. Before, they would have called me sayantaq; they would have been the ones judging me. Now I could see they were far more cooked than I. They had lost everything, even their pride. I still had that, because I chose what I became.”

I gripped his arm and tried to comfort him with a firm squeeze, a small support against his heavy words. My heart hammered against my ribs. He so closely echoed my own feelings—I had abandoned the Gantean duty I had been given. I closed my eyes. How could I get that anbuaq back? How could I find the Cedna? I did not know the first place to begin. I felt as lost as jetsam on a thrashing sea.

“I thought Gante was gone entirely,” Atanurat went on, “Crushed. But look at you, Leila, with your beautiful Gantean children who need a father for their tiguat. I wish I were more suitable for the job.” He fell silent, staring at his hands.

An urge to reassure him—and myself—filled me. “You have done more than you ever needed. Don’t let us trouble you. We can sleep elsewhere.” I faltered, feeling guilty for having brought this all upon him. We must have been like a bad breeze, sweeping into his cabin stinking of new milk and obligation, unearthing a past better left buried.

“No!” He sat up. “That’s not what I meant. Stay. I just want—I want to be right for you, for these children, but I’m not sure how.”

My hands loosened on his hair. I grasped his hints. He would never say it outright; no Gantean would. He thought he was too old and too broken. I saw what he wanted; he sought a way to recapture a purer past by forming a new beginning.

But I could not feel for Atanurat that way, not because he did not deserve my affection, and not because I did not believe him worthy. An ung-aneraq—a bond of blood and breath—already bound me. I was tangled up with Costas Galatien whether I liked it or not. At the moment, the cord between us felt like a shackle.

I hated the disappointment in Atanurat’s silence.

“Let me finish your hair,” I said, ignoring the fraught emotions in favor of busyness.

But his strong fingers prevented me. Gently but firmly Atanurat pulled me towards him, so that he nearly held me on his lap. He let one hand continue up over the curve of my shoulder, down across the ridge of my collarbone, and into the hollow of my throat. As if he had studied where my tormaquine should have rested, had I still possessed it. He understood all I had lost. He had lost more.

He took my chilled fingertips into his rough hands to warm them. I put my cheek against his chest. We sat like that for a long time; he did nothing but stroke my hair, yet his touch was an act of worship: soft and quiet and devoted. He kissed me only once, on the top of my head, as softly as solace.

&On our eighth& day at sea after leaving Orioneport, the winds whipped into a full storm in a matter of moments. A huge [_thwap _]rocked the ship as though we’d hit something.

Shouts echoed from the decks, but the words were lost on the wind. I tucked Tiriq into his tiny sealskin cloak and his woolen blanket, did the same for Tianiq, and arranged them both in the carrier I had woven in Anastaia.

The boat veered wildly, flinging me into the wall of my cabin. Another vicious thwap rang ominously through the air. It sounded like breaking wood.

“Leila!” Miki’s voice broke through the rising roar of sleet and wind. I staggered towards the cabin door. Another furious heave rocked the boat, launching me into the narrow hall. I fell; only fast reflexes let me clutch my babies with one hand and catch myself with the other. The babies screamed. I had barely made it to my feet when the ship lurched again. I fell and crawled towards the steps that led to the deck.

“Leila!” Miki grabbed my arms to help me through the hatch. “We’re damaged. The hull is leaking. Something hit us, from underwater. As soon as the winds die down, Merkuur wants us to take the escape boats.”

“What if the winds don’t die down?” I screamed back at him.

“Storms like this are unheard of in the Parting Sea. It’s the calmest sea in the world! And it’s nearly summer! It’s a freak storm. It’ll be short.”

I shuddered.

“Stay here,” Miki said, leaving me at the top of the stairs to the deck. “When it starts to die down, come up, and we’ll go.”

I leaned against the steep stairs, listening to the shriek of the wind. Tiriq and Tianiq exhausted themselves with their cries. I stroked their wisps of black hair, trying to soothe them, but their wails only intensified.

Like the ship beneath me, the world lurched. Bright bloodlights[_ ]encroached on the edges of my vision. This sudden shift had happened to me once before, in the ballroom in Galantia, when the Cedna’s magic had dissolved the divisions of the Layers almost completely. [_What was happening now?]

I ran onto the deck. Plunged into Yaqi, I saw the truth of the storm. Birds cast from black bloodlight beat the air into gale winds with their massive wings. Waves roiled and smacked against the hull without rhythm, a chaos of water. Below the surface a vast tentacled creature glistened like blackstone, a white bloodlight diamond in its center. I’d seen that black bloodlight with its diamond heart before, at the Brokering. The Cedna. _]The creature threw out an arm, pushing at [_Northern Wind’s hull as though batting a child’s toy. The huge beast appeared endless in the lashing sea.

The wind howled again.

No, the howl came from the creature, breaching the surface to keen, bandying the ship like forgotten jetsam. The beast opened its wet jaws to sound its gruesome call again. Molten blackstone flowed from its mouth.

I stood frozen in horror. The creature snapped its head in my direction.

I tried to pull back from the ship’s edge, too late. A black tentacle flew at me, snaked down the front of my baby net, and plucked a precious orb. I beat at the tentacle with my hands, but they could not touch the bloodlight; they passed directly through it. A second gleaming tentacle rose above the golden ball of bloodlight snared in the creature’s grip.

I screamed. It had Tianiq, but I couldn’t touch the thing. I could do nothing to stop it! All over again, I felt that wretched powerlessness that had first struck me when the Entilans had cut my hair and branded me. The world spun around me, and nothing I did could slow it or shift its course.

Even so I tried. I groped for the black tentacles, though my hands passed through them as though they were ghosts or just light from a lantern. Next I tried to reach the golden light that I knew was Tianiq, but the creature lifted her too far above me.

A tentacle transformed into a blackstone edge that looked like an ulio. The appendage slashed once, almost gently, severing the bloodlight umbilicus that connected me to Tianiq’s golden orb. A ripple of bright light obscured my vision.

I was[_ _]thrown to the far side of the ship, screaming.

“Tianiq!” I cast about wildly, searching for her. Her absence gouged me as though the beast had cut into my flesh. Panic welled, overflowed. Where was she?

A fast, moving blur yanked me back from the gunwale’s ropes and flew past me. Atanurat’s strong body arrowed into the raging waters below. For the first time in my life, I sobbed, heedless of Miki speaking beside me, his voice nearly drowned by my cries and the wailing wind.

“He’s got her!” Miki yelled. “He’s got her.” I kept sobbing as stronger arms than Miki’s brought me to my feet.

“I sent Pamiuq to get them in an escape boat.” Merkuur said. “Atanurat can hold his own in the water. He’s a strong swimmer. He’s got your girl. He’s got Tianiq.”

Rain sheeted down. I couldn’t stop crying. Merkuur pulled me up by the armpits and shook me. “Pull yourself together! We have to leave. Wind’s going down. If we don’t leave now, we go down with her.”

“But—but—Tianiq,” I cried. The horrible slice of the blackstone tentacle replayed again and again in my head. Where I once had a visceral awareness of my daughter, there was now empty space. She was gone.

Merkuur pushed me towards the escape[_ _]boats arranged on the deck.

“I told you, Atanurat’s got her. Pamiuq and Lymbok are getting Atanurat into their boat now. That means you or I have to go with Amethyst and get out of here. Amethyst doesn’t know how to row.”

“Tianiq!” I said again, utterly disoriented. I couldn’t move past what had happened in Yaqi. The severed cord that had connected me to my daughter dangled in my mind, a dead, lifeless tendril.

“You take Amethyst,” Miki told Merkuur. “I’ll help Leila. We’ll catch up.”

Merkuur pushed an escape boat to the ship’s edge, where Amethyst stood, quivering. He helped her in and lowered the boat, climbing in himself at the last moment. Miki set the mooring loose for them. I huddled next to the last boat, barely able to think. I had lost Tianiq.

“Leila, we have to go. We’ll meet up with them back on shore. We’ll go get Tianiq.”

I settled into the escape boat, hugging Tiriq against me. He mewled softly, too tired to scream. Miki eased the ropes down, front and back. We lurched as we hit the water. I took up one of the oars and shoved away from the doomed Northern Wind.

Miki set our course as we frantically paddled away from the wreck. The sea had fallen eerily calm moments after we hit the water, but we could not see any of the others on the flat waters, as if the uncanny storm had washed them away.

“Miki,” I said, my voice trembling in shock, “Where is everyone?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I set the course just how they said.”

Our oars splashed, breaking the ocean’s new stillness.

“That was no natural storm,” Miki said, frowning as he looked up at the cloudless sky.

I shook my head. “The Layers opened. Miki, there was a creature, a horrible, tentacled thing. It took Tianiq right from my arms! I didn’t drop her! She—” I could not bring myself to say what the creature had done, severing me from Tianiq. Miki would not understand. He would have told me to cut the cord long ago.

“A creature?” asked Miki. “What kind of creature? I didn’t see one.”

I shuddered and cradled Tiriq close, resting my oar on my lap. “It was the Cedna, Miki. Only the Cedna could command such blackstone magic. She—wanted Tianiq.” I recalled, vaguely, the vision that had visited me during childbirth. The Skeleton Woman made of the Hinge’s crystals had wanted my children even then. Why? To feed the Hinge? Why them?

“Why would the Cedna want Tianiq?” Miki echoed my own thoughts. “And why would she call such vicious storm against us?”

“I don’t know. Miki, did you see, for certain, that Atanurat got her? That she didn’t fall in or—or drown?” Tears threatened to overwhelm me again. Was all this some kind of punishment cast down upon me for failing to do what Nautien had asked of me? Distress coursed through my body, colder than the air starting to creep under my skins with the darkening sky.

“He got her,” Miki assured me.

Tiriq whimpered forlornly beneath my cloak, but I couldn’t comfort him because I needed to row with Miki. I couldn’t comfort myself, either.

We paddled into the darkness, watching the moon’s face begin to glow. The tiny slivers of its light refracted off the water, making tempting paths to follow.

Seventeen

“Miki! Do you see that?” I pointed towards a black shape on the horizon, clipping along much faster than we could. Hope and dread filled me in equal parts. The approaching ship might represent our rescue or further peril. The vessel materialized in the haze, square-rigged, as black as a raven. From its slowing pace, I guessed we’d been seen.

“I can’t read the name.” I squinted across the sparkling sea.

“It’s the royal emblem.” Miki gestured at the flag on the main mast: a golden flower on a grey field, the sigil of House Galatien. My heart veered away from hope and back towards dread.

But what choice did we have? A night on the waters had convinced us that Merkuur’s directions towards nearby land had gone awry. Miki could only use his sunwalking skill to get to places he’d been, and all his known destinations were too far away for rowing. We took up our oars and paddled towards the black ship.

As we approached, I deciphered the fancy lettering on the boat’s hull: Lady Tourmaline. A pale face peeked over the gunwale.

“Our ship was destroyed in yesterday’s storm,” I called in my best unaccented Lethemian. “Can you help us?”

The boy on deck said nothing.

“Get the ladder down!” another voice called. The boy scurried to the rail.

Hands clutched the gunwale. A man leaned over the edge to look down upon us. “By the gods,” he said. “The damned mage was right. I thought he’d lost his mind.”

“Sir, we were shipwrecked in the storm and forced to take escape boats,” I explained.

“I am Kercheve, and I am the captain here. Name your downed ship.”

Northern Wind, a trade vessel out of Anastaia.” My throat hurt from dryness.

The man waved us towards the ladder. Miki scrambled up while I held onto the bottom. I ascended slowly, careful of Tiriq in the net bag around my shoulders. I repressed a lurch of worry about Tianiq and focused on the moment.

“Where’s the rest of your crew?” the slender captain demanded once we stood upon his deck. He wore plain grey garb similar to that worn by Costas’s manservant in Galantia.

“We got separated. The storm was so violent and sudden that we got blown off course. Have you seen no others like us in small boats?” My voice shook. Tianiq and the others were safe; they[_ had_] to be.

“No, but we felt the storm. I’m traveling with a mage who believes it was a spell-cast thing.”

The man and I exchanged wary looks. I did not like that he had a mage with him.

His brown hair was cropped short and stuck out from his head in spikes. He looked no older than me, but he carried himself with the trained grace of a warrior. He stared at Tiriq curled against me in the sack.

“Is that a baby? Amatos!” The man gestured to the ship’s boy who hovered behind him. “Take the child.”

I wrapped an arm around Tiriq. “No. He stays with me.”

The man, Kercheve, scowled, but didn’t push the point. He jerked his head at Miki. “You know your way around a ship, boy?”

Miki nodded, his eyes narrow and suspicious. Kercheve gestured towards the other boy. “Then we can find you something to do. You.” He pointed at me. “Follow me.”

He led me to a lushly furnished cabin below the decks. I did not like being separated from Miki. I tried to keep calm by stroking Tiriq’s silky hair, but I missed Tianiq’s head beside his, and so I only felt worse.

Built-in divans lined the walls of the cabin. Another man, this one wearing the white robes of a lien-bound mage, sat on one of the benches.

I clutched Tiriq closer.

The mage rose, eyebrows lifted. “Oh, well done, Allian,” he said to the captain. “You found her.”

Kercheve gestured to the benches. “Have a seat, my lady.”

His courtesy surprised me. I moved gingerly into the cabin, wishing I could return to Miki.

Both men scrutinized Tiriq in my arms as I approached. Kercheve snapped his fingers and pointed at Tiriq. The mage rose, arms outstretched as though to take him.

“I lost my daughter in the storm. You cannot have my son.” Why did my words always waver whenever I needed them to be the firmest?

“We’d like to examine both you and the child,” Kercheve said. “With your permission, of course.”

“We require no examination.” That came out with more resolve.

The mage moved quickly, flourishing his fist through the motions of Lethemian magic. That horrible magical stillness crawled up my limbs—he used his power to hold me in place like a trapped animal. The magical languor prevented any motion but breath. The mage extracted Tiriq from my stiffened arms.

I could not even speak. I watched helplessly as the mage set Tiriq on the nearby desk and cast more magic over him. Had I the ability, I would have screamed, or cried, or both. Kercheve hurried to the man’s side.

The mage, bleary in trance, murmured, “Yes. Yes, by the gods”

Kercheve swept down over Tiriq and lifted him from the table. The fact that he held my boy gently, almost delicately, comforted me only a little.

I almost managed to break through the silencing grip of the mage’s magic when Kercheve left the cabin with Tiriq, but even as I opened my mouth to scream, no sound emerged. I gave up the struggle and waited for the moment when his magic released, ready to take advantage of any opportunity.

“We know who you are,” the mage said, giving me another assessing look. “We’ve been tracking you.” He indicated the center of my chest. “It’s a tedious task, and draining.”

A shiver of concern prickled along my spine, an itch I could not scratch.

The mage circled me, once, twice, never releasing me from the spell that held me inert. “Prince Costas has been looking for you everywhere,” he added. “And he isn’t the only one. Mydon Galatien gave orders for you to be killed on sight. Thank the gods Allian and I found you first, though it was inevitable. Mydon Galatien has no sense when it comes to his mages. None of his could have tracked you so quickly. I’m Jerram Oruscani. Perhaps you’ve heard of me?”

His question could not have been sincere, since he knew very well I currently lacked the power of speech.

Kercheve returned, asking the mage, “Have you aether-sent to Costas yet?”

The mage shook his head, cupping his yellow magestone in hand. “I have a bad instinct about this. I don’t think we should tell him we found her. She’s bound to drive the wedge further between Costas and his father. We cannot afford their discord, not with Xander Ricknagel mobilizing his army in the east. Better we never take her to Galantia at all.”

Kercheve frowned and crossed his arms over his chest. “Costas ordered us to return her immediately.”

“Can we restrain her in some fashion other than magic? It will tax me less, and I hate to waste aetherlight when I am so far from a Source. Tracking is draining work. I’m nearly tapped.” I did not understand the mage’s words.

Kercheve turned to a trunk pushed against the far wall of the cabin and removed a coil of rope. I could do nothing as he tied my wrists. He met my gaze with cool grey eyes that gave away nothing. “There,” he said, turning back to Oruscani. “She’s secure. You can release her.” He bowed to me. “I’m sorry, my lady. This is only a temporary situation.” He glanced over at the mage with a look of subtle distaste. “The message, Oruscani. We must alert Costas that we have her.”

“I don’t think—”

“Where d—d—id you take my son?” I stammered as the air of magic finally softened around me, turning my blood from frozen ice to cold sludge.

“I put him in my cabin,” Kercheve said, offering yet another bow. “Please, my lady. Call me Allian.” He pulled up his left sleeve and exposed the inside of his right forearm, showing a magemark not unlike the one on my shoulder, except this one depicted the Galatien flower sigil circled by a serpent. “That is the mark of a Dragonnaire, Costas’s elite cohort,” he explained. “I am Costas’s man, blood and breath. You need have no fear that I will harm Costas’s son.”

I gasped. Now I understood what the mage had seen when he examined Tiriq. Equal parts relief and upset coursed through me. They would not hurt Costas’s child—of that I was sure—but neither would they let him go. My mind raced as I tried to strategize a way to escape, but aboard the ship, my only weapon would be patience.

“An aether-sending, Oruscani,” Allian Kercheve barked. “Now—we have no time to wait. Costas needs to know.”

Oruscani grunted. “Fine, though I think it unwise.”

What would Costas ask them to do with me?[_ _]Oruscani busied himself with his magical communication while Kercheve moved to the desk and picked up a stylus and paper.

I could not predict the emotional tenor of Costas’s reaction at all. I did not know him well enough, but I feared what he might do.

I stared down at my bound hands. With a small, surreptitious wriggle, I managed to pull free the Cedna’s ulio that I kept in my pocket.

I could not hesitate. I inched carefully towards Oruscani, focusing all my attention on my target: a spot on the mage’s white flowing robe, below where I imagined his ribs were located.

Allian Kercheve flashed in my side vision, leaping impossibly across the desk. Before I could shove my knife into the mage’s side, my shoulders wrenched against sudden resistance.

Kercheve knocked the ulio from my bound hands using two short blades that he wielded with expert control. “Lift your hands,” he snapped. “You would have deserved it had you lost a finger. Now, sit down.” He pointed towards the benches along the wall with one of his blades.

Oruscani lurched around Kercheve and hissed, “You little barbarian bitch! Did you just try to stab me?”

Oruscani reached for me. Kercheve put his hand on the mage’s arm and said in a voice of steel, “The aether-sending, Oruscani. Do it now! I’ll manage the girl.”

Oruscani did not obey Kercheve’s command, instead glaring down at me with black anger shading his face.

I sat like a chastised child before them. Sudden pain bit into me so deeply that I screamed; I could not help myself. I fell forward to the floor. Oruscani stood above me, waving his damned magestone as though snapping a whip. Strikes flared down my back, searing and burning as deeply as any real lash. I bit the inside of my cheeks until they bled.

Kercheve turned on the mage with his double blades, but Oruscani flicked his stone almost nonchalantly and froze him where he stood.

Oruscani took me by the hair and hauled me up from the floor, a look of demented rage twisting his face. He pulled so hard I thought my neck would break as he bent my head back. “No one attacks a mage and gets away with it,” he seethed.

As my vision began to darken, the pressure on my head lifted. Oruscani tumbled forward and crashed into me with all his weight.

Liquid rained over me; for a confused moment I thought he had doused me with warmed wine.

I grabbed hold of the bench behind me and squirmed free of his bulk. He made a fleshy, gurgling sound that chilled my blood.

I stared down at myself. Hot crimson coated my body. Blood drizzled down in rivulets on my arms.

Oruscani lay face down, his life seeping into the carpet around him. I nearly screamed again. I looked around frantically, expecting to find Kercheve cleaning one of his knives, though I could not fathom why he would kill his own ally.

Instead, before me stood Miki. He clutched the Cedna’s ulio in his right hand, but his eyes were as vacant as an addict’s. He dropped the knife as he crumpled to his knees.

I followed him down, making soothing murmurs in the universal tongue of mothers. Though he allowed me to hold him, his body shook like a captured wolf pup, too small to strike out, too terrorized to relax. I held him close, sliding my hands over his shivering shoulders. He had gone slack against me.

I looked up. Kercheve, unfrozen, tucked his blades into his sleeves and bent to heave Oruscani onto his back. “Lord Amassis above,” he said. “What a fucking mess.” He strode to the chamber door. “What in the damned hells of Amatos am I going to say to Costas about this? His most powerful mage, murdered on his own ship? I disliked Oruscani, I’ll admit, he had all the typical annoying foibles of a mage, but fucking hells!” He called into the hall for some of his men, snapped the door closed, and then faced us.

Miki hissed, baring his teeth like a wild animal. I put my hand on his shoulder, ignoring Kercheve.

“Miki, go find Tiriq,” I urged. “Bring him back to me.” Miki raced towards the door. Kercheve grabbed him. Miki twisted free, only to be caught again by Kercheve’s second hand. The man was fast.

“Please,” I begged. “Tiriq’s too young to be apart from me.”

Kercheve stared at me. “If you think I’m going to let this dangerous creature run around my ship freely, you’ll need to think again.” He steered Miki towards a chair bolted down to the ship’s floor and shoved him into a seat.

Two more men, both clad in Galatien uniforms I recognized from my time in the High City, came into the cabin.

“Tie up this murderous little urchin,” Kercheve said to his men, still clutching Miki’s shoulder, “and put him in the brig. Then we’ve got to deal with the mage’s body.”

The two men hurried to obey his orders.

“Miki’s my brother,” I said, hoping to help exonerate him. It wasn’t exactly a lie, though Ganteans did not generally refer to those outside their own tiguat as siblings. “He was only protecting me from the mage, and I—”

Kercheve frowned at me and pointed at my shoulder. “You’re bleeding. We need to get you cleaned up. Amatos, Costas is going to flay me for all this.” He grasped my arm. “Come lie down, my lady, and let me see what Oruscani did to you.”

As he pulled me to the divans lining the cabin, his men dragged Miki away. The boy had fallen into an ominous silence—showing once again that he had not abandoned the stoic Gantean manners as thoroughly as I had.

“Please, you must understand, my brother—”

“I’ll deal with him as fairly as I can, my lady,” Kercheve said stiffly. “I’m sure Costas wouldn’t want me to upset you, but the boy killed a mage. There will be consequences.”

Sayantaq tears pricked my eyes. “What about my son? Tiriq? Please, bring him back.” I dared to beg because as he examined my stinging wounds, Kercheve displayed both gentleness and a little compassion. He also struck me as loyal to Costas. I debated whether to ask him to search for Tianiq and the others, but if what Miki said was true, and Atanurat had managed her rescue, I feared seeking them out would only endanger them. Tianiq was with Atanurat. I had to trust him to see her safe. The void where her bloodcord had been ached inside me.

“If I bring him back, there must be no more of this nonsense, you understand? I’m keeping the boy in the brig, and you in here. You can have your son, but if you disobey any order, he goes.”

I nodded. At this point, I would have agreed to almost anything.

Allian turned to a drawer in the desk and handed me a clean swathe of linen. “Wrap this around your wounds. I’ll see if I can find you fresh clothing.”

Another sailor in Galatien livery came to the cabin carrying Tiriq, who squalled furiously until placed in my arms. I was too shaken to be anything but thankful that he had been returned to me.

&The port city& of Hemicylix overflowed with squat warehouses and mud; travelers hurried to and fro, watching the ground to avoid the sinkholes and muck. Of all the cities I had yet seen on the Lethemian peninsula, this one was the least impressive. Everything was brown and dull and dirty, even the water in the port. Allian Kercheve kept us surrounded by his men as he herded us through the crowded, muddy streets. Miki was allowed to walk beside me, but he remained bound at the wrists and scowling. Other than the binds, he had not been treated roughly, though I worried he might rebel, to dire consequences, at any moment.

I carried Tiriq on my front in the battered net sack I had woven in Anastaia. Allian had procured a new dress for me, so once again I was clad in Lethemian clothes rather than the Gantean skins I had taken to wearing again on Northern Wind. My boy watched everything carefully, clinging to me with hands like little vises. His first moons had been so fraught with disaster; I worried all this change and distress might take a toll on him that I would not recognize until much later, particularly being separated from Tianiq. I planted a kiss on the soft wisps of his black hair. “We’ll find her soon,” I murmured. “Soon.”

We waited outside an official sort of building while Allian went in to make arrangements for our next leg of travel—this one overland. The six guards formed a protective circle around us. Allian had likely warned them that Miki would try to make an escape at any opportunity.

“Where are we going, do you know?” muttered Miki as we waited. I had not ever explained to him that Tiriq was the Lethemian prince’s son. I’d feared his Gantean judgments. I did not know what to say now.

“I expect to Galantia, the High City.”

Some of the guards surrounding us frowned at our conversation, and Miki slipped into Gantean so they would not understand. “I want to find the others.”

“So do I, but I don’t see any way to escape. We aren’t free to—”

“We’re as free as we make ourselves.” He stared at me with his fathomless black eyes.

I sighed. Merkuur and Atanurat would know how to help Miki with the mental consequences of having killed better than I could. It must weight on him, but he would never show it. We needed to find our people. But how?

“We’ll find the others,” I hedged, glancing nervously at the guards. “Somehow. If you have a chance, Miki, you must take it. Even without me.” I would have a hard time making any kind of escape with Tiriq.

Miki did not reply, and his expression remained inscrutable.

When Kercheve exited the building, I asked to speak with him. Our status had been unclear since he had captured or rescued us.

“Mr. Kercheve, Miki and I need to find the rest of my family. We were shipwrecked in that storm; there were others who made it away on escape boats. There is no reason for us to remain with you.” Weak words, despite my determination to be firm.

Kercheve only snorted. “Absolutely not. That boy killed a mage; he isn’t going anywhere, and my orders are to take you to the High City.”

The only comfort I could take, as Allian loaded Miki, Tiriq, and me into a carriage bound for Galantia, was that I might at last have the opportunity to retrieve my necklace and Nautien’s anbuaq. And that would be no small relief.

Kercheve let us open the shuttered windows on the carriage. Three men rode on horseback on my side of the carriage, while Kercheve rode behind. From the conversations of the men, I gathered that Anastaia had fallen to Xander Ricknagel, just as Merkuur had predicted it would. Apparently Galantia was well protected by a magical barrier cast by House Galatien’s mages, and the war had reached a plateau. One of the men mentioned that Jaasir Amar had recently pledged his support to the Galatiens, which they all seemed to hope would advance the Galatien cause.

Miki sat, silent and morose, throughout the long three days of the journey. Fury and dismay pulsed from him in waves. I did not press him to speak—Gantean to the core, Miki would not wish to share his miseries, but I imagined being tied and trapped reminded him all too much of his days as Alessio Rarmont’s slave.

Tiriq fussed and cried, yanking on my hair and seething. I accounted his behavior to missing Tianiq. Prior to the disaster, my children had slept every night of their lives entangled with each other, like puppies drawing warmth from each other. Their separation hurt me as much as my own from Tianiq.

Tiriq refused to rest. He insisted that I hold him, or nurse him, or speak to him. As soon as I put him down on the carriage seat at my side, he wailed and screamed. I kept him in my lap, hour after hour, soothing him in Gantean words, making up a nonsense story about a Shringar King and a Tuq bride who fell in love despite the Elder’s demand that they each marry another.

“Sayantaq lies,” Miki snapped when I finished. “What are you telling him that for? That story’s more Lethemian than Gantean.”

I fell silent and cradled Tiriq against my chest. My story had done its work. He finally slept.

“Why would I tell him a Gantean story?” I whispered. “They are all tragedies, and in the end, everyone always dies.” Better, I thought, to blend the two worlds for a boy born of both them. My Tiriq was a sensitive creature. The harsh life of Gante would not have suited him.

But Miki scowled and spoke a Gantean burial saying, “Ta tu niruk ta Kina-Hinge. Nik nibi.”

All the dead feed the Hinge. Do not grieve them.

&“The situation& in Galantia is not ideal,” Allian announced, leaning through the carriage window. Our caravan had paused on the road not far from the High City’s southern gate. “Costas and his father had some kind of disagreement, and none of us Dragonnaires are especially welcome in the High City at the moment. Costas has gone to Entila to mobilize his forces there. Mydon and Jhalassa Galatien are both ill. My plan is to sneak you into Galantia and get you situated without anyone being the wiser. Mydon, particularly, must not learn you are there, you understand? If we do get caught, whatever you do, my lady, don’t tell anyone the boy is Costas’s son.”

“I—is this a wise idea?” I asked. “Going into Galantia. I heard that Mydon Galatien put a price on my head.”

Allian frowned. “The High City is well guarded against attack by an army or magic. In light of the war, it’s the best place for you in spite of Mydon. It’s where Costas wants you to be. You’ll just have to be careful and remain hidden where I put you.”

I did not like this turn of events. As the carriage rolled back into motion, bringing us closer to the gates, I felt rather like I had those first days in Queenstown after being taken by the raiders—lost to myself, too confused to act.

PART III

The Return

Eighteen

We entered Galantia through an underground passage, though this tunnel was better kept than the one I had used to flee the Brokering. It had a higher ceiling and a dry floor. Allian informed me that Costas’s Dragonnaires used the route for clandestine comings and goings, especially as Galantia braced for battle with House Ricknagel.

“Are you sure the High City is the best place for us?” We’d be beneath Mydon Galatien’s very nose in the capital.

“Costas ordered me to take you there if I found you.” Allian was losing his patience with my questions, and he also seemed unable to form a thought without direction from Costas.

I wasn’t ready to give up yet. Tiriq’s safety might depend on my resistance. “If Mydon Galatien still believes me involved in the Brokering attack—”

“King Mydon barely knows his own name,” Allian snapped. “He’s not going to find you. I’ll make sure of that.”

“What do you mean, he barely knows his own name?”

Allian paused in the tunnel and turned. “I told you, both King Mydon and his wife have been struck ill. Something to do with that old love enchantment, the one that they could not lift after their Brokering. Apparently the old magic is degrading. Mydon isn’t even rational.” Allian pulled on his eyebrows, looking harried. “It’s a fucking travesty that he’s sent Costas to Entila. Even in his prime Mydon never had a head for strategy. We need Costas here in Galantia, obviously.” Allian gave me a sheepish look. “You do know the marriage between Costas and Stesichore Ricknagel went badly? Lord Ricknagel accused Costas of her assassination; that’s what started the war.”

“Is it true?” I blurted.

“No! Gods no! She left Costas! She died after she left the High Court. She had already returned to her family manse at Lake Tashriga! Xander Ricknagel used her death—it could have been an illness, food poisoning, Amassis knows—as an excuse to launch attacks on Murana and Anastaia. He’s been plotting for years—the real conflict is about our foreign policy with the Vhimsantese. Rickangel has no proof of Costas’s involvement. None! How could you think Costas might do such a thing?” Allian looked truly aghast. He laid a hand on my arm. “Come, my lady, we must proceed quietly now. This tunnel will take us to the outlet behind the Dragonnaire garrison northeast of the Palace. From there we’ll head due east across the city. Costas has a townhouse near the Conservatoire, where he’s kept … others he wished secret … before.”

Miki followed, silent, with hands still bound. Allian had assigned two of his men to escort Miki and left the other four outside the city gates. The courtly dress and concealing veil—“to hide your face”—that Allian had given me to wear hampered any quick movements, and Tiriq in my arms hindered any hope of easy escape. The passageway’s magelight lanterns illuminated the path with a cool blue gleam.

At last Allian climbed a short ladder to a heavy hatch door and pushed it open.

“Name, rank, and business?” barked a guard through the aperture. One of Miki’s guards restrained me.

“Damn it,” hissed Allian. “It’s Allian Kercheve,” he called through the hatch. “Dragonnaire lieutenant.”

The sentry peered down through the hatch. “The Dragonnaires have no command here. You’ve been put on reserve duty, those of you who didn’t head north with the Prince.”

Allian blew a sharp exhalation through his nostrils. He crossed his arms in a menacing gesture as I shrank backwards into the guard. The sentry had not noticed us yet.

“You don’t really want to get into it with me,” Allian said lightly up through the hatch. “Do you even Draw the Forms, man?” He raked a critical gaze over the pudgy sentry. “You haven’t a chance.”

The sentry flushed. “Are you threatening me, Kercheve?”

“No. I’m challenging you. Come down here and face me.”

The sentry scrambled down the ladder, radiating anger. His eyes widened when he saw not only me with my babe in arms, but the other two guards and Miki lurking in the tunnel.

I reached a trembling hand to pull my veil lower. Cold sweat erupted over my flesh.

Allian moved like a flash of lightning, drawing his blades from his sleeves and dropping into a graceful crouch. Miki’s entire body tightened beside me, whether from anticipation and interest in the fight or for some other reason, I could not say.

The sentry reacted to Allian slowly, fumbling to bring out his single, heavier weapon from his scabbard.

Allian took two fast steps to the right, swiveled his hips while circling his blades, and snapped the handle of his left blade atop the sentry’s head.

The sentry fell to the ground like a rag doll.

Allian grinned, flipped his two blades in the air, and caught them again. With a flourish, he shoved the blades back up his sleeves and looked down at the fallen man. “Thirteenth Form,” he said to his men, rolling his eyes. “Textbook moves. Mydon’s men have no training.” Allian gestured up the ladder. “Hurry, let’s go.”

The hatch opened onto a small square protected on all four side by walls. A single door opened onto the street beyond. Allian paused at the door and checked the road.

“All clear,” he said, as though Miki, Tiriq, the guards, and I comprised a regiment.

He led us on a labyrinthine route that finally arrived at a sprawling townhouse with a blue tile roof that glowed in the late afternoon sun. Allian unlocked the front door and looked enquiringly over his shoulder. “Come inside,” he urged. “We’ve made it.”

His words must have signaled to his men that they could drop their wariness. As I stepped up the townhouse stairs, Tiriq woke and let out a fierce howl. Everyone startled and faced me.

Miki needed no further cue. Faster even than Allian, he twisted and darted back out the townhouse’s wrought iron gate. He must have unwound his bindings, because he pumped his arms as he ran, disappearing around the corner.

The two guards stood, caught flat-footed.

“What are you doing!” cried Allian. “Damnation, go and catch the urchin!”

The guards whirled out the gate in pursuit—too late. Tiriq fell quiet and sucked on his thumb.

“Aren’t you going to try, too?” Allian said sullenly, glowering as though I’d enabled Miki’s escape. He grabbed my shoulder and pushed me over the townhouse threshold.

“How far would I get with a baby in my arms?”

“Not far, so you may as well not try it.” Allian gestured at two black loveseats in the middle of the front room. “You’ll be comfortable here, but you cannot leave these quarters. I have no idea when Costas will be allowed to return. It’s not ideal, but truly, this must be the safest place for you.” His gaze wandered over Tiriq. “And the baby. You must realize that Costas only wants what’s best for you, my lady. All this resistance does not become you.”

I slumped into a seat and lifted Tiriq from his carrier. “You don’t understand,” I murmured. “I need to find my friends, the people I was sailing with, before the shipwreck—it’s vital that I find them.” I fell short of telling him about Tianiq. I didn’t trust Kercheve, and I didn’t necessarily want him knowing that Costas had another offspring somewhere out in the world. It was bad enough he knew about Tiriq.

Allian paced. “When Costas returns to Galantia we can sort out these other problems, but for now, you must remain here in secret.” His voice softened. “Your absence pained him. Greatly. And to think he didn’t even know he had a son!” He gave me a reproachful look.

Loud footfalls rushed the townhouse entrance. Allian’s two guards arrived, heaving. Without Miki.

“Where’s the boy?” Allian demanded.

The first guard shook his head. “He got away from us, Lieutenant. Crafty little mite. We lost him at the Conservatoire Square. Vanished like thin air, he did.”

“Hells of Amatos,” grumbled Allian. “Well, there’s little we can do about it, now. You two will remain here with Lady Leila. I’ll return with reinforcements shortly.”

&The two guards& did not introduce themselves. I sat in the front room, while they stood at attention at the door. I nursed Tiriq and they averted their eyes as though I’d done something shameful.

“I could use something to eat and drink,” I announced, not sure how to go about feeding myself.

The guard who had explained what happened to Miki nodded to his companion in unspoken agreement. The second guard departed, I hoped to bring food.

I was given a tray with wine and a tin of crackers, the kind of food that might have been kept in a little used pantry. As I ate, I considered Miki’s escape. Would he seek Atanurat and the others straight away? How would he even begin to search for them? I trusted Atanurat, Pamiuq, and Merkuur to have enough boat skill to get Tianiq, Lymbok, and Amethyst to shore. My breaths shortened as I worried over their fate, but I tried to conceal my distress from the too-sharp eyes of the guards. I gulped the wine. He’s got her, I told myself for the thousandth time. [_Atanurat’s got her. She’s safer than you and Tiriq, most likely. _]Atanurat was enough of a Gantean man to keep her safe, and enough of a Lethemian one to care for her as if she were his blood-daughter. I had to keep this in mind, lest I begin to howl my frustration like a madwoman. I prayed that Miki would be safe and find them quickly.

Allian burst into the parlor like a bad breeze. “I brought you more clothing.” He carefully laid an armload of silk dresses over the back of a chair. “I think it only fair to let you know, I’ve stationed Dragonnaires all around this house. For your protection and your security.”

“I see.” I understood he was warning me not to attempt escape.

“It’s a shame your brother ran off,” Kercheve went on, standing at attention and clasping his hands behind his back. “I secured a writ from the Justice Council exonerating him from the murder of Oruscani. It was ruled self-defense. I had high hopes for the boy. I planned to get him in training. We start the boys who will be Dragonnaires young.”

“Does that mean he is not a fugitive to the law?” I hoped.

“Technically, yes. We won’t pursue him, but I hardly like his chances on the streets of the High City alone. It’s not an easy place to be without money or friends.” He smiled wryly. “I know. I was an orphan beggar here before I met Costas. He gets most of his Dragonnaires from the streets. Maybe we’ll recruit your brother yet. Now, Lady Leila, you must agree to do nothing rash while you’re here. Remain in the house until Costas arrives to take care of you, do you understand? The High City is protected, but if you were to flee and suffer capture by Ricknagel’s troops, I hate to think what bargaining power Costas’s son would give Lord Ricknagel.”

“Will Lord Ricknagel attack Galantia?” I worried.

Allian huffed in frustration. “Fortunately, Costas mobilized the Galatien mages—though his father didn’t want him to. They’ve put a magical barrier in place all around the High City—and that holds Ricknagel’s troops at bay. Ricknagel commands little magical power, so it’s unlikely he can bring down the barrier. Even so, Ricknagel’s army is amassed at the feet of the Savalia Mountains. If he did manage to get that barrier down, he’d sack Galantia in a heartbeat. Ricknagel’s all business—he wouldn’t hesitate.”

I blanched, worried more for Tiriq than myself. “But he has no mages?” My voice quavered.

“Officially, House Ricknagel can hold only three lien-bound mages at a time, and the Galatiens limit the type of mage offered to them.” He hesitated. “But … I’ve heard rumors.”

“What rumors? Mr. Kercheve, if you think the High City is unsafe, you must let me and my son leave here!”

He appeared disgruntled. “It isn’t for me—or you—to decide, my lady. Costas will see to your care as soon as he returns from Entila. And please, call me Allian.”

“What rumors?” I demanded.

“We had astonishing reports from the naval battles in Murana and Anastaia. Reports of unsanctioned magic, of storms that smashed the Galatien fleets in harbor, fey storms that came unexpectedly and dissipated as soon as they achieved destruction. Like the one that shipwrecked you. No Lethemian battlemage has magic like that.”

I stared at Allian, completely dumbstruck for several long moments. “Storms?” I finally managed. I had lost my Tianiq in that storm—the Cedna’s storm. “The Cedna of Gante has such powers,” I blurted. “The Cedna of Gante can call a storm from the sea.”

“Gods in Amaranth! Really?” Allian resumed his pacing. “But why would a Gantean be allied with Xander Ricknagel?”

“Perhaps shared animosity for House Galatien unites them,” I mused aloud, though I couldn’t think of any reason the Cedna might have—beyond the general Gantean disdain for the ruling Lethemians—for particularly disliking House Galatien. Maybe that was enough.

Allian stared at me, shaking his head. “She’s powerful, this Cedna? Her magic?”

I almost laughed, except the situation was too dire for even wry humor. “Far more powerful than any of your mages.”

Allian winced. “Hells of Amatos. I need to find a mage and make an aether-sending to Costas. Immediately.” He bowed and departed, leaving me alone with my son, but surrounded by Dragonnaire guards.

Nineteen

There I was, in the High City, less than a league’s walk from the Palace. Was my necklace still sitting on the opalescent ground of the pillar garden where I had lost it—and so much more—or had Costas gone back to retrieve it? Even if I somehow recovered the necklace, which at the moment seemed an unlikely proposition, where would I find the Cedna? Twice I’d been within reach of her. Twice I’d failed to execute the task Nautien had entrusted to me. [_What kind of Gantean was I? _]Self-loathing kept me awake, night after night.

Despite the lush bed with its down-filled mattress, Tiriq could not rest beside me. I attributed his distress to his missing sister. How I worried over her—did she thrash and fuss this way as well, wherever she was with Atanurat and the others? Would Amethyst take my Tianiq in her arms to offer her a milk-mother’s comfort? Would they find a way to feed her without my breasts? Would Miki find the others and tell them how I could be found? Did I deserve any rescue?

No wonder I could get no rest. Guilt and unanswerable questions plagued my every thought.

I waited for Costas’s return like a prisoner for a sentence. One afternoon melancholy bells rang out over the City. I sat in the front parlor, playing on the thick carpet with Tiriq. He had begun to gain greater skill in moving on his own, able to roll from back to belly and then push himself up, looking around the finely furnished world of his father’s secret house with quiet curiosity.

The bells’ chiming went on and on.

“What is it?” I finally asked the guard stationed on the parlor door. They never left me alone, the Dragonnaires. Even at night, sentries lurked at the bedroom door and below the window. I knew, because I’d looked, trying to assess if I could manage a climb from the third floor with Tiriq in his carrier.

The Dragonnaire bowed stiffly. “Queen Jhalassa passed on this morning, my lady. The bells of Amatos ring for her.”

“She’s dead?”

“Yes, and the king’s health is said to be precarious. His wife’s death has sent him into a downward spiral. One can only hope Prince Costas arrives back here soon.”

The ung-aneraq that stretched between Costas and me still felt as vital as living flesh. This morning I had risen with it a hot, scratching presence inside my body. I knew, but did not say, that Costas must have arrived already.

I plucked Tiriq from the ground and nuzzled my face into his neck, inhaling his fresh, perfect scent. How would his father react to him? I did not have enough experience with Costas to know. My headlong rush into Costas’s arms that evening in the opal garden now struck me as beyond foolish. What a rash idiot I had been! Had Costas considered that mating led to children, and that children posed a responsibility to their fathers? I certainly had not, not then.

A cloud of confusion had shaded my life since that terrible spring day in Gante. My life on the island had been simple—the rules as sharp and clear as glass. This sayantaq life had no such structure, no straight lines to follow, no edges.

The ung-aneraq chafed. I was torn in two directions. Despite my fear of him, I wanted to see Costas again. He could so easily relieve many of my anxieties; he might reunite me with Nautien’s amulet. I hoped that he would look after Tiriq with a sayantaq father’s care, and that he could help me find Tianiq.

“Tianiq,” I whispered against Tiriq’s bronze skin, so like his father’s. I carried the memory of my girl like a precious jewel in the box of my heart, despite the fact that our bloodcord had been severed. The Iksraqtaq chunk of my soul did not mind giving her up, but the sayantaq part wanted her back and would give up anything but Tiriq to find her.

The parlor door flew open, surprising both me and my Dragonnaire guard, who dropped into a fighter’s crouch on instinct.

“Out,” Costas snapped, waving at the guard. “I want privacy.”

“Your Highness.” The guard’s eyes widened as he moved to obey, bowing, and closing the door behind him.

“Tiriq. That’s an unusual name,” Costas said. His gaze ran over me with flaying intensity. In two strides he stood at my side. He pushed the black hair from Tiriq’s eyes and examined his face, frowning all the while.

Tiriq screeched and leaned precariously in my grip, batting at Costas’s face. “Ti-ti-a-ni!” he cried in the warning pitches of a frenzy.

“Tiriq, no!” He grabbed Costas’s jacket in both hands and nearly tumbled from my grasp as he continued to scream.

“What is wrong with him?” Costas demanded. “Is it permanent?”

“Ti-ti,” Tiriq whimpered, reaching towards Costas even as I shifted us away. I was flummoxed. Tiriq had never given such a display before. I hadn’t even known he could nearly form words.

“It’s—”

“Prince Costas! Prince Costas!” A shout rang out beyond the door.

Costas whirled, scowling, and stalked over to open the door again. “Did I not just ask for some privacy?”

My Galatien Guard bowed. Another man in Galatien livery, breathing hard, stood beside him. “An urgent report,” the newcomer said. “It’s your father. He—he’s passed, Your Majesty.” The messenger gave Costas the address of the king and could not lift his gaze from the fine carpet.

Costas’s face hardened. He covered his eyes with one hand, as though to hide the stricken, fearful glint in them.

“Where’s Adrastos?” he whispered.

“Your brother is safe at the Palace, under guard, Your Majesty,” the messenger said.

Costas’s hand dropped from his face, and our gazes caught. I’d never seen a person in more need of comfort. I settled Tiriq on my hip and hurried to Costas’s side. I lifted his fallen hand and squeezed.

“I’ll return as soon as I can,” he murmured. “Tonight, at the latest. Leila, don’t—”

He broke off and retracted his hand from my grip.

Tiriq leaned quietly against my side now, twining his hands around my braids in his favorite pastime of pulling my hair.

Costas gave him a soft smile. “He’s like me,” he said, brushing a hand over Tiriq’s cheek.

“Your Majesty,” the messenger said with tugging urgency. “The Council awaits your presence at the Palace.”

Costas gave a curt bow, sighed, and departed.

&I sat& up in the townhouse parlor for hours, my insides twisting with anticipation. Night fell, but still Costas did not come. I finally fell asleep—a deep, restful sleep the likes of which I had not enjoyed since leaving Gante—with Tiriq in my arms.

The sorrowful Bells of Amatos woke me in the morning, ringing out the announcement of Mydon Galatien’s death. On and on, they tolled, longer and sadder than their song for Jhalassa.

I rose, gathered still-groggy Tiriq up from the divan, and opened the parlor door. A new guard stood at attention beyond it, of course. Even with Costas’s return, I would not lose these shadows.

“I’m going to the kitchen to break my fast,” I told him.

He nodded and dogged my steps along the hall.

Voices rang out from the kitchen where two guards sat eating their own morning meal.

“Costas has ordered that the mages strengthen the barrier further to give him time to gather his troops and solidify his alliances,” the first was saying. “Houses Powdin and Powdon are sending us additional troops, and Amar’s navy prepares to battle Ricknagel in the Parting Sea.”

My presence didn’t halt the conversation. “One doesn’t like to speak ill of the dead, but at least Costas is taking more action to protect Galantia than Mydon did,” he said.

The guards kept the kitchen stocked with fresh food, Lethemian fruits and the clotted cream that was my favorite breakfast. I doled out portions for myself and Tiriq as the men continued their talk.

“The entire High City is going on a rationing plan. With magical barriers in place all around us, Galantia will be cut off from overland trade routes. Galantia will depend entirely on the sea and the waterways for rations once our supplies run low.”

This last piece of news made me nervous. No one’s navy ruled the seas, and Allian’s rumors had said the Cedna was allied with Xander Ricknagel. I knew too well the power she commanded over the waters.

As if noticing me for the first time, a guard at the kitchen table rose and held out an envelope. “My lady, a missive for you from the king.”

I took the note with a quivering hand, boosted Tiriq on my hip, and hurried up to my bedroom to read.

Leila-

I wished I could have stayed longer with you yesterday, and even more I wished to have returned to you in the night. How have things between us become so twisted? I cannot tell you how many nights I have lain awake tallying my errors. I own I did not act well towards you at my Brokering, though my actions were no fault of my own, as I explained. You have not acted well by me either—I can only assume, after all this time, with no word, and you bearing my son, that you have stayed away deliberately. Leila, you must return to me. The boy changes everything.

My parents will be interred together in the Temple of Amatos at the hour of Galatien today. I wish you there, for my own comfort, but you must come only in secret. Though I have nearly established my Dragonnaires sufficiently at the Palace and molded my father’s council to my desires, it is not safe for you and Tiriq there yet. Soon I will bring you and Tiriq to the Palace. Do not fear. The Council will fall in line with me once they recover from the shock of Father’s death. I beg of you patience.

In the meantime, four of my Dragonnaires will escort you this afternoon to the Temple of Amatos to observe the ceremony. Do not be difficult with them. They follow my orders alone.

Yours,

CG

What was I to make of such a letter? Behind the polite, gracious words, a leashed anger seethed. I threw the paper on the small writing desk in the bedroom and stared out the window. Tiriq lay asleep on the bed. Not for the first time, I considered the drop from the window.

&The Dragonnaires& and I walked to the Temple of Amatos behind a group of students from the Conservatoire, all in their stark white mages’ robes. For anonymity I wore a veil, one of the ones Allian had brought, though I wore my hair unbound beneath it in the fashion of Gantean ritual. I did not know what to expect from a Lethemian ceremony for the dead. Our practice in Gante was very specific, and involved both magic and blood.

Along with the rest of the crowd I trampled chrysanthemum blossoms that had been strewn everywhere on the Temple Road. Tiriq rode Gantean-style, strapped to my back, with a wide strip of fabric from another veil.

Costas stood at the entry to the Temple beside a marble statue of the god. He held his brother’s hand. Young Adrastos’s face looked tear-streaked, but Costas appeared composed, though stern. His eyes held a fire I had never seen there before.

A priest gave a short speech, while six masked figures in black robes emerged from the Temple and lifted the large urn at that contained the royal couple’s ashes. Lethemians burned their dead. I wondered why, those centuries ago when the pillars had been taken from Gante, the knowledge of the need to offer blood in exchange for magic had failed to travel with them? Burning the dead struck me as a terrible waste when I could feel the hungry pulse of the six crystal pillars so nearby. What a different world we would live in if the sayantaq had learned to observe this most basic principle of magic: all magic stoked an insatiable hunger, and that the food it craved was bloodlight.

My gaze found Costas; he stared back at me fiercely. Temple acolytes threw more yellow petals everywhere.

The door to the Temple of Amatos slammed closed behind the acolytes and the urn. I shivered; Tiriq cooed from my back.

One thing was clear to me from observing this perfunctory ceremony. The Lethemians knew or cared little for making payments for their magic. What the Elders had always said of them was true. That meant the task that Nautien had given me so long ago was all the more important. I had to find my necklace, and I had to find the Cedna. Sooner, rather than later.

The afternoon had spun into dusk, and the crowd on the Temple Way dispersed. Many people carried a lit candle as they departed, for the Lethemians honored their deceased king by burning neither gas nor magelight for the night after his funeral. Tiriq had fallen asleep in his sling on my back.

My Dragonnaire guards made no move to return to the townhouse. They stood in formation around me, in such an obviously soldierly manner that I worried someone would wonder who it was that needed such an entourage.

Costas, flanked by a mage in white and his young brother, followed by his own cohort of four Dragonnaires, stepped down the Temple stairs and headed towards me. As he closed in on, I could almost feel the world narrowing around me, too.

“Come,” he said to my Dragonnaire guards. “We’ll all proceed to the Palace.”

Twenty

We passed beneath the opal pillar, which thrummed with magic more furiously than ever, and the mage and Adrastos Galatien departed. After walking through the Palace’s western gate, we began shedding the Dragonnaires, too, until Costas and I stood alone at the bottom of the western wing’s staircase. Candles glowed in alcoves, and Costas plucked one free and used his free hand to guide me onwards.

He hurried through corridors until we came to another staircase—one I had not seen in my brief time at the Palace before. “I’ve arranged rooms and a nurse for Tiriq,” he said as we climbed the stairs.

“He doesn’t need a nurse,” I said. “He has me.”

“I was told Ganteans had no such maternal sentiment,” Costas said as he gestured to a door in the hall. I opened it. “And while I’m glad you’ve rejected that unnatural habit of your people, you must understand that a royal child, bastard or no, requires a nurse. Not to mention bodyguards. He must be protected and cared for.”

I liked the sound of that. I nodded. Perhaps if Tiriq could be settled for the night I would have the opportunity to ask Costas about my necklace, amongst other matters.

As we stepped through the door, Costas nodded at two Dragonnaires who stood posted on the entry. “Felix, Marq,” he said. “This is my son.” He lifted Tiriq from the makeshift carrier I had made and displayed him, proudly, to the Dragonnaires.

“Myriah Lentian will serve as Tiriq’s nurse. She was my brother’s nurse when he was young.” I gathered that he spoke to reassure me. Costas handed my boy to a woman in a grey dress who emerged from the room’s shadows. She smiled as she wrapped Tiriq in her arms. A purely sayantaq jealousy lurched through me when Tiriq opened his eyes and smiled back.

“What a handsome boy,” the nurse murmured. “A perfect boy. Why, look at him. He’s the image of his father.”

Costas appeared to grow an inch taller—not that the man needed to take up more space. He took my arm and nodded to this collection of people he had gathered to look after his son. “We will return for him in the morning,” he said.

He drew me from the room, and I cast one look over my shoulder. I knew I should not fret, but I had never been separated from Tiriq. The nurse stood, rocking him in her arms. He gurgled happily, and I felt foolish. Had we been in Gante, I might have given him up to another woman’s care long ago. I could not cry like a sayantaq fool.

I followed in Costas’s wake farther down the hall. As if he could read the misery in my silence, he curled his arm over my shoulder and pulled me against his side. “The boy will be fine, Leila,” he said. “Look, we’ll only be two doors down from him.” He pushed through a heavy, ancient-looking door twice the size of all the others in the hall. “Here we are. The black star pillar garden.”

Where the opal garden had been all lightness and easy bliss, this one, dark and glittering with an ominous sparkle, succored the aching residue of death. I understood why he wanted to come here. I even understood what he wanted of me. Some slight comprehension of sayantaq death rituals dawned on me. Where Ganteans would release the blood of the dead to appease the Hinge and mourn the dead, the Lethemians came together in the mating act. How that served to redress the balance—what we Ganteans called tunixajiq—I could not say.

The garden’s black walls beat like a heart.

The heavy door fell closed behind us. Costas edged his fingers down the front of my dress, pulling. Gung, gung, gung. My own heart pulsed against his fingers, matching the steady toll of the garden walls.

My hands acted of their own accord, wrapping around Costas’s back, finding the edges of his hair, the skin of his neck, the collar of his shirt.

“Now,” he whispered, a dark desperation in his voice. Was it loneliness? Fear? Emotions were not my strong suit—I’d grown up learning only how to hide them. “Do not deny me. I can’t be alone tonight. Don’t ask it of me. I have already lost too much. I cannot lose you, too, Leila.”

“Yes,” I breathed, “Yes.” He had no release but this. This was how the Lethemians took the edge off the Hinge’s demands. I did not understand it, but I felt the magic of it.

He pushed my dress from my shoulders. “I’ve never liked this place,” Costas said. “But it so perfectly shows the outward tenor of my feelings tonight.” His hands paused on the ridges of thickened skin from Oruscani’s magic lash.

“Gods!” he said. “What happened? Who did this to you?”

“Does it matter?”

“Tell me. Who did this? How?”

“It is nothing. My brother already sliced the culprit’s throat.”

“Your brother? That murderous boy Allian told me about? The one who killed my mage, Oruscani?”

I pulled back so he could not feel the freshly healed wounds. “Oruscani gave me the lashing. Miki only sought to stop him from hurting me.”

“As any brother would,” Costas said, drawing me close again. “I wish I could meet him, your brother. Allian said he ran off.”

“We didn’t know what Allian meant to do to him for killing the mage. Nor what he planned for me and Tiriq, either. We felt like prisoners.”

Costas held me almost tenderly. “None of my men would ever hurt you, Leila. They guard you only to keep you safe. You will never suffer again.”

I doubted this promise, but I did not doubt the sincerity of his kisses.

Like the opal garden, this one had no ceiling. A sickle moon gleamed down on us like a mageglass knife. Costas took me, gently at first, as though he feared breaking me. Soon we lost ourselves in a silent frenzy of need as dark as the night sky.

Our ung-aneraq swelled with bloodlight in a thick, throbbing magic.

Afterwards a languor fell over us both. The black garden walls hummed us into an oblivion we both needed.

Traces of dawn left sunlit gashes across the gleaming black floor of the garden. I lay tangled in my own clothing and Costas’s. He curled around me, his face nestled in my hair. His body radiated warmth, so I pressed back into him instead of rising.

My movement woke him. “Leila?” He turned me to face him and caught my wrists. “You never came,” he said in a deadly flat voice. All magic and tenderness had fled with the dawn. “You never came to the Pavilions as I told you to. Gods! The anxiety you gave me! I worried.” He said this as if I had burdened him greatly. So this would be our accounting: he would reprimand me; I would explain myself. “I thought you were different from all these other women at court,” he said, almost petulantly. “I thought you cared for me—the man, not the image. Jaasir warned me you were as cold as any Gantean, but I didn’t believe him. Yet you never came, you stayed away. Why?”

My entire life had been about the cold denial of needs. Ganteans learned to need as little as possible; satisfactions were so unlikely. We did not expect ease or pleasure or love. Flow like water, my clan’s motto had gone. [_Need nothing, hold nothing. You will suffer less. _]So much of our lives were shaped around the prevention of suffering, whereas here in Lethemia, they actively pursued pleasure. Two different worlds.

How to make him understand? “You were getting married, Costas. I did not wish to watch it, nor to be an anchor upon the bind you would make with her. She was the right kind of bride for you. I thought I would be safer on my own. I was wanted and hunted—by your father, by the Entila family. It was better that I disappear.”

“But not forever!” he expelled with a sharp breath. “I meant to help you hide, somewhere safe! And you never told me about my own son! I can’t—I can’t even express how furious I was when Allian told me—”

“Not only a son,” I interrupted.

He finished lacing his breeches and pushed his hair out of his eyes. “What do you mean?”

“There were two. Tiriq and Tianiq.”

He grabbed my wrists again, pulling me to my feet. Bruises bloomed beneath his fierce grip. “Damned Amatos! There were two children? Twins?”

I nodded and repeated their names. “Tiriq and Tianiq.” I liked to say Tianiq’s name. It brought her closer to my heart.

“Where in the name of Amassis is the other one?” Costas cried, releasing me.

Shameful tears again filled my eyes. “I lost her when our ship sank.”

“What! What ship? What do you mean, lost? How do you lose a child? You mean she died?” He grabbed me again and shook me.

I took a deep breath. “No, she’s not dead. We were caught in a storm in the Parting Sea. One of the men got her on an escape boat—but we were separated—”

“Gods.” He let me go and sank onto a nearby stone bench, resting his head in his hands. “Gods. It’s too much. I can’t—I can’t absorb it. My coronation is in four hours.”

“You don’t have to do anything,” I soothed, sitting down beside him. “I hadn’t planned to tell you about her at all.”

“You were never planning to tell me about my own child?” He flew off the seat, pacing.

“I didn’t know how.” I let my hands fall onto my bare legs. He stared at me.

“What are we going to do?” he said, alarm written on his face. “We aren’t married. My son isn’t legitimate. Galatiens don’t have bastards. They never have. They cause too much trouble.”

“Bastard?” The Lethemian word had no translation in Gantean, but even so I knew what it meant; the southerners scorned children born outside of the marriage bond. But Costas and I were strung together by the deepest bond that could connect two people—the ung-aneraq. Surely that counted for something in this reckoning?

“Not once,” Costas bit out. “Not once in history. If a Galatien sired a bastard, it was cast out before it was ever born. I will not be the first. If you had come to the Pavilions as I directed this never would have happened. Dammit!” He paced the garden in quick, angry strides.

Was he threatening the children?[_ _]I crossed my arms over my waist as though I still carried them within my body and could protect them. “Ganteans don’t murder their children,” I said stiffly. “Not even when they are but specks in the womb.”

Costas shoved his hands through his hair, frowning and distant. In that moment I actually feared him—not for myself, but for Tiriq. I scrambled to my feet and turned for the garden door. I needed to get back to my boy.

In half a heartbeat Costas had me by the shoulders, wrapped in an embrace that brooked no argument. One arm held me firm while he smoothed my tangled hair with the other. “Be still,” he murmured. “Just—just wait, Leila. You can’t go haring off every time you get frightened. Let me think, love.”

My upset rose, bile in my throat. Only for Tiriq’s sake could I speak. For the first time since the shipwreck, I was glad Tianiq was not with me. She was safer with Atanurat. “I won’t let you hurt him.”

Costas continued to stroke my hair, my cheek, my jaw, my throat. “I have no intention of hurting him. There’s only one solution, Leila. We must marry—as soon as possible. There isn’t any other choice, my love,” he whispered. “I will not murder children already born, but I will have no bastards, either. It is the only solution. Come. Come to me again.” He pulled me back into the garden, using his strength to ease me to my knees.

“We cannot go on like this,” I said. “We’ll make a ruin of each other.”

Costas laughed. “As though we haven’t already?” He remained behind me, one arm pinning me in place as he pushed our clothing out of the way. He took me again, urgently, no longer afraid of hurting me. He kept me kneeling, flayed open, helpless to the cords that bound us together.

My body would betray me a thousand times for him.

He only let me go when I pleaded that I needed to check on Tiriq. I raced back down the hall to the room where we had left him the night before. I found him ensconced in the nurse’s arms, but fussing. No doubt he wanted to eat.

“My lady,” she said, standing and handing him to me.

“Did he cry all night?” Since losing Tianiq, Tiriq had never slept well.

She hesitated before speaking. “He isn’t the most restful baby I’ve ever nursed.”

I snugged Tiriq closer against me, stroking his head. I murmured to him in Gantean, “You miss her, I know. We both miss her, and wherever she is, she misses us. But she has Amethyst and Pamiuq and Lymbok to look after her. She has Atanurat to keep her safe. We’ll get her back, Sweet Star. We’ll get her back. They’ll take the best care of her.” In some ways Tianiq was safer than Tiriq. Here in the Palace we were surrounded by politics—Costas said he would marry me, and this would certainly make Tiriq’s position more secure, but what of the councilors who had agreed with Mydon that I was a sorceress, who believed I had bewitched Costas at the Brokering? They would not accept me—or my son—so easily.

The nurse bowed and took her leave, but the Dragonnaires remained in position around the nursery door.

I sat with Tiriq on a window seat that overlooked green gardens with a hedge maze and let him nurse, murmuring to him in Gantean all the while.

Footsteps woke me from my reverie.

“You make quite a picture.” Costas stood before me, wearing a stiff cloak that fell past his ankles and must have weighed at least as much as I did. He held a bundle that looked like a gilded cloud. “I know I look ridiculous. I do not intend to suffer alone.”

He threw the bundle onto the window seat beside me. A gown unfolded, the shoulders and hem stiff with gold embroidery. It was as fine a gown as anything I’d ever put on Ghilene Entila.

“Are you sure this is wise, Costas?”

He ignored my question. “And these are for Tiriq.”

How like Costas to consider Tiriq’s costume before he had even asked to hold him. I offered Tiriq, sleepy and content after feeding, to his father. Costas held him at an arm’s length, awkwardly.

“My son,” he said as they studied each other. Tiriq wore a solemn expression, as though he felt the edge of his father’s regard. “They say the first and last duty of a Lethemian king is to make an heir. I seem to have managed the task before I even began. What does his name mean?”

“In Gantean ritual Tiriq is the boy who made the world.”

“A Gantean name. I like it.” Of course he would. Costas liked to push against the grain. “And the girl’s name again?” He let Tiriq settle into the crook of his forearm. Ever happy with sparkling things, Tiriq played with the gold chain on Costas’s chest.

“Tianiq.” I slid my hands over my throat where my tormaquine and the anbuaq used to sit. “She was knocked from my arms, Costas. One of the men rescued her, but we got separated.” The memory struck viciously. “We have to search for her. They must have made it to land. We have to find her. We—”

“Tianiq? And what does that mean?” He bypassed the building frenzy of my emotion with his question.

I drew a shaky breath. “Tiriq’s sister. In the Gantean myth she cried the oceans when Tiriq left her.”

He passed Tiriq back to me. “We’ll send messengers throughout Lethemia as soon as the roads are open to travel. We’ll find her; never fear. We will have a naming ceremony for the two of them as soon as she is returned to us. You say one of the crew of the ship has her?”

“Atanurat, yes.”

“This sailor, he will keep her safe?”

“He loves her like his own.”

Costas stared at me. “Why does he love her like that?”

My mouth opened, but his obvious anger stymied my words.

“Why, Leila? Why should he love our daughter as though she were his own?”

“He’s Gantean! We—we care for all children like that. That is our way.”

“Who is he?” He took me by the shoulders and dug in his fingers. Tiriq whimpered. “Do you … care … for him, too?”

I remembered Atanurat’s hands, his soft, gentle touches, and the single chaste kiss he had left on my hair.

“I—”

“You’ll forget about him, whoever he is. Do you understand? You belong to me.” He shook his head in fury. “Put on your gown,” he commanded as he hoisted the dress from the window seat.

“I don’t think—”

“Now!”

My flesh shivered beneath his gaze as I placed Tiriq on the bed and removed my clothing to don the heavy gown. Still doubting his decision to put me in such attire, I turned away from Costas to let him lace it.

I wanted to explain that Ganteans mated for life, that I would never betray him in the way he suspected, but his anger prevented me. But couldn’t he feel the tight bind of the ung-aneraq? Didn’t he know what it meant?

With a quick, hard pull, he cinched the gown closed. “You wear it better than Stesichore did.” With those words he stalked from the room. The embroidered fabric so weighed me down that I could barely move. What was he thinking, forcing this inappropriate costume on me? I wore it better than Stesichore? It had been hers?

Flaunting me in Costas’s recently deceased bride’s gown before the scions of the Ten Houses was madness. I hoped Costas wouldn’t do anything else so rash. Obviously the pressure of his new position was taking its toll on him.

&Not knowing& what else to do with myself, I dressed Tiriq in his ridiculous costume and descended into the public areas of the Palace. The two Dragonnaires shadowed us to the ballroom.

Cream-colored stone inlaid with a yellow marble chrysanthemum had replaced the floor destroyed during the Brokering attack. Servants scurried, arranging chairs and unrolling a swathe of white velvet from the entry to the center of the room.

Several strong men bore an enormous rock into the hall: the famed Lethemian throne, a single giant geode cut into a rough and ancient seat. The core blazed with vibrant red crystal. I gasped. It looked very much like the red crystal wall of the Hinge from which Nautien’s anbuaq spall had been taken. Had the Crystal throne been robbed from Gante just like the vast Palace pillars? And how had I forgotten to ask Costas about my necklace? The man made me lose my wits.

The business of servants and courtiers flowed around me. Some of the people gave me strange looks—I assumed on account of the dress I wore—but most ignored me until young Adrastos Galatien, a paler copy of his older brother, scuffled up to me. Like Costas, he wore a great deal of gold. “Costas told me to keep you company,” he said, staring at the floor.

“Oh! Why, thank you. I’m Leila.” I shifted Tiriq on my hip. “This is Tiriq.”

He nodded. “I know. Costas tells me everything.”

I frowned. I hoped very much he had not. Some matters were not fit for young ears. “What happens at the coronation?” I wondered aloud to fill the silence.

“First the Magarch puts the actual crown on Costas’s head. Then we all have to dance. It’s part of the ceremony. All the delegates from the Ten Houses dance the Ballo. It’s the traditional way of showing support for the new king. The Ballo is thought to be the most magical of the dances, because it follows the six-point star figure.”

I vaguely recalled learning to dance from Tiercel in Entila, but the steps themselves had not stuck. “Will I have to dance?” I asked, worry tingeing my voice.

“Of course.”

“I fear I don’t know the steps very well.”

“I’ll show you,” Adrastos replied. ‘It’s easy, nothing like my brother’s Forms. The Ballo is only six steps.”

I submitted to Adrastos Galatien’s dancing instruction, which was much more particular than Tiercel’s guidance had been in Queenstown. My feet barely remembered the movements, and Adrastos wasn’t impressed. He howled and clutched his hair at the mistakes I made, stopping me repeatedly to trace the proper lines I was to follow on the floor.

“Again!” he cried.

“Gen!” Tiriq squawked at him, waving his arms in glee. Tiriq loved getting jostled about as I struggled through the motions, made that much more awkward by my having to carry him.

Adrastos paused us again. “No, no!”

Tiriq echoed him: “Nehneh!”

“Make the steps like this.” Adrastos waved his hand in the star shape over the ground.

“Maki es tos iss!” said Tiriq.

“It’s a star figure,” said Adrastos.

“Sa sta figa!” Tiriq roared.

I dissolved into giggles and stopped. It was impossible to dance with a baby in one’s arms. Tiriq yanked happily at tendrils from my braids, which I’d pinned up in a circle around my head.

“You have a good eye for the steps, Prince Adrastos.” An incisive voice cut through my amusement.

Adrastos looked up at the speaker. “Welcome, Lord Jaasir,” he said. I attempted to melt into the ballroom’s edges. The Amarian lord hadn’t changed at all; he still wore black and looked as if he had never spent a day in the sun.

A second black-clad shadow lurked behind Jaasir, spinning his mage’s staff in front of him. I flinched. I didn’t doubt that Laith Amar would be angry that I had escaped him in Murana. I hugged Tiriq close.

Jaasir turned to Adrastos. “You should demand more discipline of your students, or they will never learn to respect you.[_ I_] trained in the courtly dances with Hiotiko himself. I was not allowed to laugh if I missed the steps.” He studied me, scowling. “Laith!” he barked. “Let me borrow your staff.” Jaasir reached without looking at his brother.

Laith gave him a dirty look and pulled his staff closer to his own body. Adrastos and I stared as Jaasir tried to grapple the staff from Laith’s grip. Jaasir won and took up the stick, whereupon he used it to smack my ankles.

“Sluggish feet!” he snapped. “You move too slow for civilized dance. I guess it figures, since you were nearly raised by wolves.” He struck my leg hard enough to almost knock me over.

Adrastos flew at Jaasir, ripping the staff from his grip. Jaasir had a moment of appalled surprise, and then his face darkened. He raised a fist, but Laith’s laughter made him freeze.

Laith held out his hand to Adrastos. “My staff, if you please, young prince.”

Adrastos returned it. “Don’t hurt my sister-in-law with it.”

“Your sister-in-law?” Laith replied. “Amassis, who knew? Never fear, I wouldn’t dream of using an instrument of magic as a dance-master’s stick.”

Jaasir snapped at Laith, “Enough with you! Learn some respect!”

“I might if you would, little brother,” Laith said lazily, waving his staff at the Amarian lord. “It’s improper to touch a mage’s staff.”

Jaasir stormed from the ballroom, his boots rapping on the stone floor.

“Are you all right, Leila?” Laith took my hand, pressing the back of it lightly to his lips as though he kissed hands all the time. I nodded, but already my palms sweated.

“My poor brother had a traumatic experience with his dancing master. I fear he was quite abused. Dancing makes him edgy.”

“I see,” I eked out, pulling my hand from Laith’s probing fingers.

“Is he really your brother?” Adrastos asked Laith.

“Indeed, he is. Before Onatos Amar ever wed Jaasir’s mother, Lady Daria, he got a child on an acolyte of Amarite—my mother. The Temple threw her out when she fell pregnant, of course.” He sighed. “The Temple makes more orphans than our wars with such rigid policies about bearing children.”

“You angered your brother,” Adrastos stated.

“It’s nothing new, I assure you. Do you never anger yours?”

“I strive to please him.”

“Perhaps your brother gives you more reason to please him than mine.”

Adrastos cocked his head. “Do you know how to dance as well as your brother?”

“I can hold my own, dancing. I was never taught by Hiotiko, though.”

Laith frowned at Tiriq, who beamed back at him with his most precious baby look. He turned to me. “Last time I saw you, I discerned you were pregnant. But I swore I saw two. May I?” Laith gestured towards Tiriq with a questioning expression.

“What do you mean to do?” The fact that he had seen two frightened me. Neither Miki nor Atanurat, who had all the skill of Gantean shamans, had such clear sight of Yaqi. Laith was a dangerous and powerful mage.

“I only wish to See his Aethers,” Laith said. “I mean no harm, of course.”

I nodded reluctantly and allowed Laith to place his palm over Tiriq’s forearm. Tiriq settled, wearing a curious, blank expression that made him resemble Laith in his trance.

“What an unusual aetherlight he has,” Laith murmured as he reanimated. “Quite clearly a Galatien—the family has a characteristic light signature.” Laith paused, his brows furrowing. “Costas knows, of course?”

I scanned for eavesdroppers. I did not like to have this private discussion in such a public place. Laith, sensing my caution, pulled me towards the ballroom alcoves. Adrastos hesitated, as though torn between giving us privacy and protecting me. He fell into step with the two Dragonnaires, who seemed to know the perfect number of paces to keep between us to provide both privacy and protection. No doubt they had a great deal of experience in the role of bodyguards.

“Costas knows—” I began as Laith frowned at the men shadowing us before drawing the alcove’s curtain.

“So he’ll marry you as soon as possible,” Laith urged.

“That was his suggestion, but—”

“In our youth Costas and I were friends, of a sort. He will be an honorable husband. I approve.”

It almost sounded as though he believed his approval necessary or important. I gave him a perplexed look. “While I’m grateful for your approval, I’m not sure the marriage is the right thing to do—”

“I doubt your opinions will have much bearing on the matter. Galatiens don’t do bastards. They cause too many problems. There’s never been a single one. Unlike our—unlike the Amars, that is. Galatiens carry heavier burdens than other families. It comes with the responsibility of ruling. Costas will not shirk his responsibility to his children. Not like some fathers.”

“What about the Ricknagels?” I wondered. From what little I had seen of the man, and from what I could glean of his actions, Xander Ricknagel took his honor seriously, too. How would he feel about Costas marrying me so quickly after Stesichore’s death?

“What about them?” Laith asked absently.

My question changed even as I thought it. “Can Xander Ricknagel shoulder the responsibility of ruling?”

Laith’s attention snapped in full focus. “Interesting you bring him up. I have no doubt Xander Ricknagel would make a strong king. He is a shrewd leader, experienced and successful. His rapid rise to prosperity following his father’s flagrant excesses shows that he knows what he is about. Even so, House Amar cannot support him. Not with his latest choice of ally.”

“His ally?”

“The Cedna of Gante, of course.” Laith’s too-perceptive gaze raked me. “My brother has quite a vendetta against her. He will not rest until he sees that woman’s head on the Alcazar’s ramparts.” Laith snapped his mouth closed and herded me out of the alcove to the rows of empty chairs at the back of the ballroom. “We’ll sit together,” he announced. “I shouldn’t like another mage to get a glimpse of your boy’s aetherlight.”

“Tiriq,” I muttered. “His name is Tiriq.”

“And the other?” Laith lifted one eyebrow.

I stared at him. “H—how did you know there was another?”

“When I saw that you were pregnant, I saw two separate aetherlights growing. I don’t make mistakes about such matters. What happened? Did she die?”

“Her name is Tianiq. She isn’t dead.”

“Yet you cut her from you like a Gantean, but not the boy?”

“It is the Gantean way,” I said stiffly. “And she is safe with Ganteans.” Then my throat closed and I could say no more.

The hall filled. Laith—who had proved to have a sensitive eye—took notice of my distress and changed the topic. “Traditionally a representative from each of the Ten Houses would attend the coronation to show support for the new king, but with the war, Costas will be lucky to get delegates from half of the families. Ricknagel, Talata, and Shiree certainly won’t be coming. And will you look at that! I hardly thought she would be Entila’s representative. For a while, I felt sorry for the girl, or I would have, if she weren’t such an insufferable little wretch. When I heard she’d matriculated at the Conservatoire, I made a point to look out for her. A novice magitrix’s life isn’t easy, especially not for a girl raised in the privileged milieu of the Ten Houses. I tried to like her, but she’s a conniving little schemer. Take care, by the way. She’s bound to give you trouble. She fancies herself Costas’s pet these days.”

Ghilene Entila stepped through the hall wearing rich purple—a color she’d always begged to wear but never been allowed. She carried a magestone in her left hand, bright green and nearly twice as large as the one Lymbok had stolen from the Brokering. I hadn’t seen Ghilene since the night I had fled the Palace, and I had thought of her very little in the intervening moons. I’d never missed her as I missed Tianiq, Miki, Amethyst, Lymbok, Merkuur, and Atanurat.

Ghilene took a seat beside Adrastos Galatien in the front row of seats. Laith watched her with a look of distaste. “Money can buy you anything, even a certificate from the Conservatoire, these days.” He snorted. “Barely half a year studying, and she’s got a magestone the size of her head.”

“She’s already a magitrix?”

Laith grimaced. “Can you believe it? Bribes—big ones, that’s the only explanation. Happens often with those with magical blood from the Ten Houses. Their families pay for a fast advancement.” He jutted his chin at Ghilene. “Look at her, fondling that stone like a novice acolyte. I hear she thinks she’s some kind of phenomenon, all because Costas showed an interest in her studies. I don’t care how talented you are, magic takes training, and half a year is not enough. Why, she’s barely of age; she can’t have more than sixteen summers. I trained for seven years. Costas only took an interest in her training for political reasons, to ensure alliances with Entila in this situation with the Ricknagels.”

A harpist strummed a few notes on her instrument, and silence fell. An entourage of Galatien mages in white robes entered, one carrying the crown, a thin circlet of gold adorned with a single cast gold flower. It looked ancient, as if it would crumble at a glance.

Like an Entilan ship cresting the Gantean horizon, Costas sailed down the white velvet path. Dried blossoms strewn by the spectators crunched beneath his feet. He paused a few paces from the throne, where a mage removed the heavy golden cloak so that Costas could sit. Another mage placed the crown upon Costas’s head.

Costas’s face shifted, lines deepening, edges emerging.

The Magarch, Lethemia’s most powerful man of magic, identified by the golden embroidery on his white hems, raised his staff. “By the power vested in me by your father, King Mydon I Galatien, I ask you, Costas Alexandros Galatien, dutiful son, blood of Amassis and Orothea: Will you rule this land and serve the people of Lethemia with your life?”

“With my life,” echoed Costas.

The lead mage nodded approvingly. “The Galatien House rules Lethemia for all. Let your light preserve the union of the provinces in these troubled times.” He turned away from Costas and addressed the row of nobles. “Come, Lethemians, bow before your king, who has pledged his life for you. Costas I Galatien.” The Magarch beckoned the delegates from the Ten Houses. They knelt before Costas until he raised each one with a kiss upon the cheek.

The harpist began a song, her voice floating above the murmur of speaking voices as people rose from heir seats and mingled. Laith and I wandered to a table with beverages.

“Will you take none?” he asked, as he took a generous sip of wine. “You’re missing out. They’ve brought out the best. You won’t find such wine anywhere else in Galantia these days, with the embargoes and rationing.” He held his glass up. “To our new king.”

Couples began to form for the ceremonial dance.

Laith asked, “Would you like to dance the Ballo with me?”

“I have Tiriq. I can’t dance with a baby.”

“Why not? The Ballo requires very little actual contact between partners,” he said with a grin. “And why can’t babies be the new court accessory?” He chuckled. “Pet birds are so passé.”

I let him pull me to the floor. Costas glowered at us as we began the steps to the music. I assumed we looked quite ridiculous with Tiriq bouncing happily on my hip and Laith’s swinging staff between us.

“I beg your pardon, Laith.” Costas approached. “I really must ask for this dance myself.”

Laith acceded with his wry smile, bowing.

“Why were you dancing with Laith Amar?” he demanded. “You should have waited for me.” He cast an annoyed glance at Tiriq as we faced each other and stepped through the six-pointed star Adrastos had shown me.

The glares of mages and courtiers burned my skin. Most of Costas’s advisors, I gathered, were not pleased with my presence here. “I didn’t think we should be so public,” I whispered. “You are already suspected by some of plotting Stesichore’s death. I think your advisors do not like or trust me. I thought it better to hang back and not draw attention.” I didn’t mention the added foolishness of him forcing me to wear Stesichore Ricknagel’s own gown, adding insult to injury for any who sympathized with House Rickangel.

“My advisors will do as I direct them to do. If I marry you, they will accept you.”

I shook my head. “Your father’s supporters will not accept me so readily. They believe I enchanted you. They saw me at the Brokering. They knew your father did not trust me.”

“Amatos! I don’t give a damn what they think! I’m the king now.”

“But look at your situation! Half of your country is rebelling. Now is not the time for a reckless move.” [_Someone _]needed to tell him to be sensible.

“And what about Tiriq?” he hissed even as he gently coaxed a hand through Tiriq’s black curls. “My son! Do you suggest I just ignore the blood of my body? I need my heir. We must marry for him as soon as possible.”

I recognized my own anxiety for what it was—fear of the hugeness of what he proposed. He meant to make me the Queen of Lethemia. How could little Leila the bird-girl from Gante be Queen of anything, much less a country? My heart thundered against my ribs.

“It’s what’s best for Tiriq. And Tianiq,” Costas urged. “You want them to be safe, don’t you?”

“Of course.”

“Then get the baby put to bed with his nurse and guards. My council will meet in the Council Hall momentarily. Join me there as soon as you can.”

Twenty-One

Costas’s council had gathered by the time I arrived. He sat flanked by the Magarch and, I was dismayed to see, Ghilene Entila. Jaasir and Laith lurked off to the right, beside two more mages in white robes. Jaasir gave me a poisonous look as I moved past the long table. Several other men dressed in Galatien military uniforms completed the picture, including Allian Kercheve.

“I’m surprised to see you here!” said Allian. He patted my hand in a brotherly fashion as I took the seat beside him. How odd that I found his presence comforting.

“Where have you been?” I knew he had gone to Entila, but I hadn’t seen him since Costas returned.

“I rode to our troops at the base of the Savalias and went down past the barrier on reconnaissance.”

“And Ricknagel’s forces? Did you see them?”

“Fewer than expected. It will be a routing if we strike early and hard.” Allian’s confidence reassured me. My concerns centered on Galantia’s safety, and I hoped Atanurat, Tianiq, and the others had made it someplace safe and far from the war.

The Magarch clapped his hands for our attention. “Let us convene. General Ornichon, can you give us a briefing?”

One of the uniformed soldiers stood. “The barrier holds. Our troops are amassed behind it. We are twenty thousand strong now that the legions from Amar have arrived.” He nodded towards Laith and Jaasir Amar. “Ricknagel has twelve thousand troops camped between the barrier and the Eastern Savalias at our best count.”

Costas leaned back in his seat. “Allian, what did you hear from Powdin’s fleet in the Parting Sea?”

“The bulk of Ricknagel’s fleet remains in Anastaia. They send scouting boats past our coast regularly to observe our activities, though we have only the few Powdin vessels harbored there. We’ve been successful in individual kills of the scouts, but if we are to win at sea, we must mobilize the entirety of Amar and Entila’s fleets. The Galatien ships were decimated after the strange attacks on Murana and Anastaia.”

“Jaasir?” Costas asked. “Your fleet?”

“They’re waiting for orders in Orioneport.”

“What news of Talata?” Costas asked the Magarch, ticking off his enemies.

“Cavan Talata has increased numbers in his garrisons along the Rift River, but no activity suggests an imminent attack. He’s cool-headed, and he has no real argument with you. We’ve got an eye on the situation.”

Costas nodded. “Here is our plan then: we launch our attacks by sea and land at once. The sooner, the better. They will expect us to be disorganized after my father’s death. We’ll hit them, fast and hard; we can surround Ricknagel in eastern Galanth. He’ll be stuck between the barrier and the Savalias with nowhere to go when we reclaim Anastaia by sea. Allian, your ship?”

“Ready and waiting in Hemicylix. I’ll need a mage to replace Oruscani.”

Costas nodded. “You’ll have one.”

“I never liked Oruscani, the big blowhard,” Laith muttered from his end of the table. His brother quelled him with a look.

Costas snapped his fingers. “Magarch, an aether-sending, if you would, to the Amarian battlemage in Orioneport. Inform him of the Tourmaline’s imminent arrival. You are dismissed, Allian.”

Allian gave a brief bow before departing the table. The Magarch leaned over his magestone to execute Costas’s order. Laith and Jaasir bent their heads together.

“What about the Cedna of Gante and her magic, your Majesty?” Laith’s words created a murmur around the table. “The Galatien fleet did not suffer defeat at Anastaia by skill alone. Ricknagel enlisted magical help. That could be used against us again.”

“I have heard the rumors that Ricknagel and the Cedna are working together, but why would the Gantean Cedna involve herself in Ricknagel’s battles? What could a Gantean gain from that alliance?” Costas looked perplexed.

“I can’t speak to her motivations, but she’s working with him,” Laith persisted. “Given the nature of these storms, I do not doubt it. Who but the Ganteans use such bizarre magic?”

Jaasir said, “If they are to face down the Cedna, my ships need more magical support. They say she is very strong. Look what she managed at the Brokering.”

I trembled, thinking of the beast-woman cast from molten blackstone that had stolen my Tianiq.

“Not everyone is convinced that the Cedna of Gante orchestrated the Brokering attack.” The Magarch sent a grim look my way, as though to imply I was the attacker.

To my surprise, Laith came to my defense. “I was there, Magarch. I saw her, and it was the Cedna. You forget that the woman once lived in my father’s house. I’ve seen her before. I did not mistake her aetherlight.”

Costas said, “There is no doubt in my mind that the Brokering sorceress was the Cedna. It could be no other. Even so, the Cedna is only one woman. There must be a way to disarm her, to inhibit her magical abilities. I will appoint a coterie of mages to deal with her. The ships sent for the naval strike will receive a proper contingent of Galatien mages. Magarch, will you see to the assignments? The strike should be as soon as possible. Guards, you are dismissed to await my command. Mages, remain.”

Jaasir stayed firmly in his seat. Costas did not make him go. So far I’d been completely ignored. Costas looked over his group: Vatsar the Magarch, Laith, Jaasir, Ghilene Entila, and the two other Galatien mages. His gaze skimmed over me and settled on Laith. “Laith, do you know anything about the Cedna and her magic?”

“Some. She did, after all, once live with my father.”

“I also have an interest in the Cedna,” Ghilene chimed in. She had refused to look at me all through the meeting. “It is widely believed that she killed my mother at the Brokering attack a year ago.”

“Yes, of course,” Costas said. “I want Laith, Ghilene, and Leila to work on the battle against the Cedna together.”

Ghilene finally looked at me, her eyes narrowing to poisonous slits, but she said nothing.

“We need a plan by tomorrow afternoon at the latest. My father’s library contains records of the Cedna’s attack at my Brokering,” Costas went on. “You will be able to find more information about the Cedna there than anywhere else.” He gave me a significant look as he spoke privately in my direction. “I’m sure you have your own thoughts on Gantean magic, Leila. I will need you to bring a report of the coterie’s progress to my chamber at darkfall.”

“But, my lord, ” the Magarch said.

“Magarch, do you know anything about Gantean magic?” Costas cut him off.

“The mage Laith is bound to House Amar, my lord—”

“What of it? House Amar wants to defeat the Cedna as much or more than I do. Is this not so, Jaasir?”

Jaasir, against all odds, broke into a genuine smile. “Yes, Costas,” he said softly. Jaasir never spoke in such dulcet tones. “Let me join the coterie with this project.” Laith had understated matters when describing his brother’s obsession with the Cedna, not to mention his obsession with Costas.

“Do as you like,” Costas said. “Vatsar, I’ll need you for aether-sendings. Remain with me.”

&Lamps glowed& from the ceiling of Mydon Galatien’s library, and books covered all four walls. The librarian removed several thick folios from a cabinet. None of the others moved to take the folios, so I did.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Those are the transcripts from the Inquisition after that terrible day. King Mydon and the Magarch ran it. I took the words down myself,” the man said.

“Have you anything else relating to the Cedna of Gante?” I asked.

“Oh, certainly, certainly. Why, they wrote a song about her, quite popular a while back. I’ll have the lyrics down somewhere. The High Court tried her, oh, maybe twenty years ago; there will be court transcripts of the proceedings. I’ll hurry over to fetch them from the main library straight away.”

“Thank you,” I said again.

Laith took the top folio from me. “We’ll start with this, I suppose,” he said, pulling a cushioned seat away from the wall and flopping into it. “Shall I read it aloud?”

“That will be a waste of time,” said Ghilene. “We were all there. Anyone could see our mages could do little more than cast a barrier around the royal family.” She directed a green-eyed glare at me. “I had so hoped you’d disappeared for good, Lili,” she spat. “But since you’re here, make yourself useful. I’m thirsty. Go and fetch us something to drink.”

I froze. Did Ghilene think she still owned me? The Entilan magemark remained on my shoulder, but I had not considered it in moons. I frowned. “I’m here to help decide what to do about the Cedna. I have knowledge no one else has, being Gantean. You might say I’m the most important member of this coterie.”

Ghilene huffed and crossed her arms.

Laith rolled his eyes. “You don’t remember anything about the attack,” he said to Ghilene. “You’re lucky to be alive. The Cedna drained you to within an inch of your life. If it weren’t for Leila and me, you wouldn’t be here.”

“Who’s Leila?” Jaasir’s voice came out as sharp as a blade.

“I am,” I murmured.

Both Ghilene and Jaasir stared at me. The similarity of their bone structure struck me again. “Leila?” Jaasir spat. “Your name’s Leila? But that’s an Amarian name.” He sounded affronted.

“I plan to prosecute you as a runaway, no matter what name you call yourself,” Ghilene bit out.

Laith chuckled as he flipped through the folio papers. “Good luck with that,” he said. “Leila has … ah … the protection of the king. In case you hadn’t noticed.”

Ghilene sprang from her seat, twisting her purple dress in her fists. “She was my handmaiden! Mine! And she just disappeared! I have every right—”

“To shut up,” Laith said.

“I can’t believe you let a filthy Gantean serve as your handmaiden,” Jaasir remarked. Laith pulled at the front lock of his hair with a long-suffering look.

“I didn’t want her! My mother and Tier—my mother made me.” Ghilene took the seat beside Jaasir.

Jaasir glared at me.

If I didn’t speak up we’d never accomplish anything. I stood and took a deep breath. “I am no longer a slave of House Entila,” I said clearly, hoping my newfound status as Costas’s fiancée made what I said true. “And it is my belief that my enforced servitude was illegal all along. I don’t obey commands, and I don’t fetch food for others. We’ve been given a difficult task. Tracking and managing the Cedna is no small problem. I suggest we focus on the matter at hand.”

Jaasir bit out, “Just because Costas has some silly fancy—”

“Excuse me, children,” Laith interrupted. “As Leila pointed out, we’re supposed to be planning how to defeat the most powerful magitrix in living memory, and we’ve got only one night to figure out how. This might be an opportune moment to apply the old ‘let bygones be bygones’ adage, no?”

Ghilene and Jaasir continued to train matched gazes of loathing upon me.

“Interesting you’ve returned now that Stesichore’s dead,” Jaasir remarked. “Bold of you.” He narrowed his eyes. “Mydon believed you worked with the Cedna on the Brokering attack. How do we know he wasn’t correct?

“She had no part in the attack,” Laith said wearily. “I saw everything. Without Leila, Ghilene could have vanished like Malvyna Entila or worse. Leila broke the Cedna’s magic. Costas knows she’s Gantean, that’s why he sent her to help us. Now, can we please focus?” He waved the folio.

Ghilene tightened her hands into fists in her lap. Jaasir hissed. I glared at them both.

Laith held up a hand. “From what I saw at the Brokering attack, the Cedna used the aetherlight of others to power her magic, to affect the waters below the High City—that’s the only explanation for how she called those waters into the Palace itself.”

I shook my head. “Not aetherlight. Blood. She used blood to feed the magic. All Gantean magic uses blood as its source. She used her own and Ghilene’s.”

Laith’s face froze in an expression of surprised understanding. “Blood. Blood. By the gods. How…crude.”

“That’s why she cut Ghilene’s arm at the Brokering,” I explained.

“Savage,” Jaasir said.

Laith waved off his brother’s useless commentary. “Do you know how she did it? Commanding the water, I mean. It’s obvious that’s the same power she used to destroy the Galatien fleet in Murana and Anastaia.”

I thought of the storm that had wrecked Northern Wind and taken Tianiq from me. A surge of anger rose from my gut. More important to me than how was why had she done it? Had she known we were Gantean, and been angry that I had not performed the usual ritual to cut the bloodcord? It made no sense.

I spoke haltingly. “Her bloodlight—or aetherlight, rather—she can shape it into a creature, some horror of the deeps. I became caught in one of her storms. She broke our ship, but she wasn’t even trying to defeat us. We were only in the way. She snatched my daughter from my arms.”

“Gods,” whispered Laith. “Has she gone mad?”

“You have a daughter?” Jaasir asked.

Ghilene only tried to assassinate me with her eyes. I hesitated to continue. I knew one of the powers the Cedna inherited as part of her role was control over the seas, but I did not have any idea how she did it. The rituals of the Cedna were secrets closely guarded by the Elders.

“But how do you fight this?” Jaasir said. I worried how both he and Ghilene would react when they learned who had fathered my children. The expressions on their faces told me they already suspected. “How do you fight such strange magic? Aetherlight shaped into a sea-monster? Aetherlight riling the ocean to cause a massive storm? Who ever heard of such powers?”

I knew well how we must fight the Cedna and her magic. I’d known for moons what must be done, and I’d known at some point this winding path would open before me. Nautien had seen it on the bluffs long ago. She’d given me the anbuaq for just this reason.[_ _]I needed that necklace.

“Tunixajiq,” I whispered.

“What?” asked Laith.

“Tunixajiq. It is the Gantean word for the balance, the sacrifice.”

“Sacrifice,” Laith murmured. “I presume you mean we must make one.”

I shivered, thinking of the Cedna’s blackstone light that was no light at all, that molten flow morphing from sea-beast to woman and back again. I had revealed to sayantaq southerners what no Iksraqtaq would ever speak. What did that make me?

“Do you mean we need to cut up a squirrel and read its entrails or something?” Jaasir asked. “Gods, we should have known it would be something gross and barbaric and useless.”

His insult had no sting. I said, “No animal blood will do. There is only one way to defeat her.”

“The Cedna must die.” Laith’s quick cunning surprised me.

I nodded. Every Cedna must die—that was, after all, her ultimate purpose. Yes, she must die, but it wouldn’t be easy to achieve[_. _]The Gantean Elders had wanted to make tunixajiq with this particular Cedna for years—but not just any kind of death would serve, not if we wanted to maintain the delicate balance of the Hinge’s magic. If we killed without the proper ritual, the Hinge might collapse. The Hinge required the Cedna. They could not exist without each other. In order to kill the Cedna properly, her blood had to flow directly into the Hinge. For this purpose had Nautien given me her anbuaq. The charm contained a sphere of Hinge crystal, onto which the Cedna’s blood must be poured, ideally as close to the actual Hinge as possible, though some believed the anbuaqs with Hinge crystal in them held enough power that the ritual would succeed wherever it was done. No one had ever tested this supposition though. To protect the Hinge’s magic, the ritual needed to happen on Gante, ideally at the Hinge itself.

“There’s a place in Gante—” I stopped, treading the border of the secret I did not wish to reveal. Even Atanurat would have agreed that we could not speak of the Hinge to the southerners. Too much power rested there; they had once stolen that power, but they had forgotten the source, and it would be a foolish Gantean who reminded them. “To kill her, we’d have to get the Cedna to Gante. There’s a manner in which she must die. It’s very important.”

“You’re saying we have to kill the Cedna in a special Gantean fashion?” Laith surmised.

“Yes, in a special fashion, in a special place.”

“And then?”

I couldn’t explain the rest; they’d rebel. They did not share my Gantean sensibilities. A bloodletting would be required, and someone would have to become the next Cedna in her place. Who would want such a burden? I dreaded that Nautien had meant it to be carried by me.

“You mean a place in Gante,” finished Ghilene, finally releasing her animosity enough to contribute to our task.

“So all we need to do is lure the Cedna to Gante and kill her in the right place, and she’ll be defeated?” Jaasir summarized. “This sounds like the beginnings of a plan.”

“She’ll resist going to Gante. She’ll know why we want to bring her there. She’s been avoiding Gante for decades for this reason,” I said.

Ghilene leaned forward, looking excited. “But she doesn’t know that we have a Gantean on our side to tell us how to do this sort of magic. She won’t expect Lethemians to bring her to Gante, will she?”

My heart plummeted. The moral complexities of the situation nearly overwhelmed me. I longed for Atanurat, who could help me sort out the whole tangled knot. After a moment’s reflection, I realized I had said too much. Only Iksraqtaq should handle the issue of the Cedna. I bit my lip, and tears welled in my eyes.

Laith mused, “We need to give the Cedna a reason to want to go to Gante. Then we can get her away from the naval battle entirely.”

They exchanged ideas for getting the Cedna to Gante for the rest of the afternoon, bandying strategies and plots and ploys. I barely listened as my stomach burbled with acidic anxiety. Some part of me, the raw Iksraqtaq part, had always known it would come to this. I had avoided it as long as I could, but my foreseen fate now loomed in front of me.

&The slate grey& floors of Costas’s salon appeared too plain, though the furnishings sparkled with gold leaf and the upholstery fabrics looked lush and soft. I pulled my silk wrap around my shoulders while I waited.

“I leave tomorrow before sunrise.” I hadn’t heard Costas enter. He walked on bare feet to the enclave of furnishings that did nothing to make his hall feel less cavernous. He had changed his gold clothing for his usual white. “How will the coterie deal with the Cedna?”

“The plan is to lure her away from the battle in the Parting Sea. Jaasir will join the Amarian fleet to pursue her. I believe he plans to leave immediately. After he captures her, we will dispose of her in the Gantean way.”

“How do they intend to capture her?”

This part of the plan remained undecided. What bait could Jaasir offer the Cedna that she would take? I had given no suggestions. I knew my part. I saw my path clearly, and I trusted that the way would open, as Nautien had seen.

“They debated, but came to no conclusions before I left. Costas, do you remember the necklace I lost—”

Costas cut me off. “What do you think of them, Jaasir and Laith Amar? Most caution me against them. They say they are not to be trusted, especially not Laith.”

“To me, Jaasir seems the more dangerous.”

“But I know him. I know he wants the Cedna’s end more than he values his own life. She brought disgrace and shame to his family. If Jaasir wants to hunt down the Cedna, hunt her down he will.”

“Laith shares his aim—”

“No. There is your mistake. Laith does what Laith wants, but what Laith wants is never so clear. Laith is not so bloodthirsty as Jaasir. The stupidest thing my father ever did was neglecting to claim Laith Amar’s lien. He’s the most talented mage I’ve ever seen. Do you know, he pulled me aside this afternoon and gave me a lecture? He seems most insistent that I marry you.”

Costas slid around the curve of the chaise and sat down beside me. “As if I hadn’t come to that conclusion myself already. Even so, I find his interest in you perplexing.” He pulled the pair of boots from beside the divan and slid his feet into them. “Are you ready?”

“Ready for what?”

“Our wedding, of course. If I’m leaving for the front tomorrow, we must be married now. I mean to have Tiriq declared my heir before I leave, and I cannot do that until we are wed.”

“Now?” My heart stuttered with surprise. “I expected it would happen later, after some planning—”

“You are going to be my wife,” Costas went on. “But I must make one thing very clear. There will be no more running away. You can no longer hide with your Gantean friends.” Atanurat’s unspoken name rang between us. Costas tapped his lips with his index finger. A muscle flashed in his jaw.

“But Tianiq—”

“Have no doubt I will find her as soon as this damned battle with Xander Ricknagel is settled.”

“Costas, are you sure this is the right thing to do?”

He grabbed me, his face twisting with sudden anger. “Why don’t you want me? You’re always willing when we are together,” he said. “What changes afterwards? Why won’t you love me like I love you?”

I answered stiffly, shocked by his passion. “I am not used to this Lethemian way of loving. In Gante mates are separate as much as they are together.” I was like a moon orbiting his planet in a long ellipse, attached only by that ung-aneraq. When I came near him, gravity pulled through the irresistible bind. When I went far from him, I felt cold and clear and free.

He stroked my hair.

I whispered. “You can’t own a person. Everyone has a place inside that no one can touch.”

His hands tightened in my hair. “But I want everything,” he whispered. “I want all of you.”

&The wedding flashed& by me in a blur. Only a few witnesses attended: Laith Amar, a couple of Costas’s Dragonnaires, and a priest of Amassis who presided over the short ceremony held in a salon on the Palace’s first floor. I echoed the vows the priest demanded and stood in a daze while my son—dressed in the elaborate costume Costas had brought earlier—was declared the heir to the Lethemian throne.

Laith was the only one to smile and offer congratulations after the fact. My legs trembled with shock; I could hardly stay caught up with Costas as he led me up the stairs back to his private room. My husband had few words for me until he brought me to his bed, and then he wanted touch more than talk.

A brisk knock woke us the following morning. Costas sat up. “Enter,” he called. His manservant hurried into the room. “It is time already?” Costas asked.

“Time and past,” the man said. “Forgive me, I did not mean to intrude, but we depart in an hour.”

“Gods, I’m still exhausted!” groaned Costas. He shook his legs out. “Mauros, we are going to need to give my Leila a handmaiden of her own,” Costas said as he struggled into his clothing. “And a manservant for our son. Can you recommend anyone?”

“Now? We’re late, your Majesty, can’t it wait?” I had noticed Costas’s Dragonnaires had a tendency to speak to him less formally than others, perhaps as a mark of the bond between them.

Costas sighed. “I want her set up nicely in the Palace as soon as possible.”

“I haven’t time to send to the servants’ quarters and interview anyone. Can’t you leave it in the Magarch’s hands?”

“Vatsar’s coming with us. Ghilene Entila will stay here as the head Palace magitrix to mind the High City barrier. It’s already arranged.”

I grabbed my dress from the floor and wriggled into it.

Costas turned to me and put both hands on my shoulders. “Will you be all right as you are?” he asked, leaning into me. “Without a handmaiden?”

“Of course.” He had to know I’d never had a servant in my life. Could he not imagine the enormity of what I faced as his Queen? My entire world had burgeoned beyond my own grasp.

“Take good care of my son. He is the heir now,” Costas said, as if I needed reminding. He kissed me firmly before turning away.

I opened my mouth to voice my reservations about staying in the Palace with Ghilene Entila in charge, but Costas had already raced from the room.

Twenty-Two

Perhaps I had been mistaken to worry about being left with Ghilene Entila. She made as much effort to avoid me as I did her.

The Palace remained quiet, and though a war raged somewhere on the plains beyond the High City, we felt no impact from it. A steady rain kept Tiriq and me confined indoors. Costas had been gone for five days when a sharp rap interrupted Tiriq’s afternoon nap. I leapt to my feet in surprise; Adrastos Galatien was the only visitor I ever had, and he had left from his usual visit to admire his nephew less than an hour ago.

Four Galatien Guards surged into the room in formation, two on each side. Ghilene moved into the space they made, her simple white dress without adornment—the garb of a lien-bound magitrix—brushing against the soldiers’ legs. She brandished her magestone in a rapid sweep, and her magic hit me where I stood, locking my legs into place so that I could not move. Tiriq screamed from the sofa.

Ghilene’s magic was nothing like Laith Amar’s. Laith seduced his victims into compliance with an expert and subtle finesse; Ghilene’s spell felt barely controlled as it lumbered through my flesh. Pain rippled from my feet to my waist.

As if my thinking of him had summoned him, Laith sidled into the salon behind Ghilene, also in mage’s white, frowning at the enormous green magestone she continued to hold in an outstretched arm.

“Where’s the child?” Ghilene demanded.

I made no reply. I couldn’t breathe.

Laith pulled out his own magestone and performed his own spell. I managed a gasping breath.

Laith stepped around Ghilene to approach me. “Elementary motion control,” he said flatly. “You must account for the subject’s breath, or you risk suffocating them.”

“Are you addressing me?” Ghilene demanded as she faced him.

“Of course I’m addressing you. Do you know nothing? You could have killed her in a matter of moments.”

Ghilene’s green eyes snapped with mounting rage that I recognized from my days as her handmaiden. Though thankful Laith had returned my breath, I worried what Ghilene would do next. The guards remained at attention behind her.

The pain that kept my legs motionless shifted from a hot burn to a tingling cold.

Ghilene turned towards the guards behind her. “Fetch the child,” she commanded. “I can hear it squalling.”

“What are you doing?” I demanded, despite the agony speaking inflicted upon my legs. Her spell must have been intended to keep me quiet as well as still, but I found I could work my will around it. She was not as strong as Laith, not even close, but I still could not force my head to turn to watch what the guard did to Tiriq. I could do nothing as my boy’s cries intensified.

“Can you shut it up? I can’t stand that incessant racket,” Ghilene said.

“What are you doing with him?” I directed my words at Laith, hoping for his sympathy.

“King’s orders,” Ghilene said coolly. “I’m to take the child to an undisclosed location and place you under magical confinement here in your rooms.” The guard who held Tiriq moved into my line of vision. Ghilene pulled my son too roughly from his arms. She shook him, hissing, “Quiet!”

While Ghilene was distracted, Laith caught my desperate glance and gave a slight nod that I could not interpret.

“You can’t take Tiriq.” My voice rose to a pitch of hysteria. “C—Costas told me to take care of him,” I added. “He wouldn’t have commanded this.”

Tiriq fussed in Ghilene’s arms, batting at her shoulder. Ghilene examined him from head to toe before turning the hard green gems of her eyes upon me. “You devious little harlot. A bastard Galatien! Why, you’re a veritable whore, Lili! At the Brokering, no less?” She headed towards the door, saying to Laith as she passed, “I’ll put the enchantment on the room. You can deal with her.”

“No! Don’t! Don’t do this!” I cried. “You can’t do this!”

Ghilene departed with Tiriq wailing in her arms, the four Guards stepping into line behind her.

I screamed. The only thing that kept me upright was the magical compulsion that continued to writhe in my legs. “Do something!” I cried at Laith.

But Laith only watched the chamber door close with a scowl on his face. “I truly dislike her,” he said, more to himself than me. “You’d think she wasn’t illegitimate herself, the way she talks.” He shook his head. “Too much privilege and not enough practice. Always a bad combination.”

“Can you release me from this spell?” I begged, pointing at my legs. “I must go after her. I must get Tiriq.”

Laith’s face twisted, but he made no move to honor my request. “The trouble is, I have no authority to counteract her orders. They come from Costas directly. Though had he bothered to ask me, I would have advised against giving the responsibility of securing the baby to Ghilene Entila, of all people. I can only assume he thought her a good choice for the task because she’s female, though a less nurturing creature I cannot imagine.” He sighed. “There are days when I truly would prefer to wash my hands of the court entirely and live like a recluse on a mountain somewhere. People are such fools.”

The door to the salon burst open and a fireball of frenzied fury took Laith down before the mage could react. I screamed again, still locked in place from the hips down. I barely had time to identify Miki—my Miki, Gantean Miki—in the tumbling bundle of rags wrangling Laith Amar to the ground. A blade flashed, and a bright spurt of blood splattered the grey silk of my skirt.

“Damnation!” Laith shouted. “That’s my casting arm!” Laith managed to toss Miki into a heap on the floor, flicking his magestone to fix Miki in place. He then used the stone to make small spirals above his own arm. His left sleeve hung in two pieces, and a long red slash ran from forearm to shoulder.

Miki heaved and groaned, but remained pinned to the ground as though held by invisible shackles, just like me.

“I’m sorry,” Laith said. “I’m normally far smoother with freezing compulsions. You caught me by surprise. Serves you right for this.” He jerked his chin at his bloody arm. “Now, who the hell are you, kid?”

Miki gave him a defiant glare from his prone position.

“He’s my brother. From Gante,” I explained. I had a whole host of questions I wanted to ask Miki, but not with Laith present.

Laith’s gaze snapped onto me, bright and hard with meaning I could not grasp. “Your brother? Indeed? I do not see the resemblance.”

“Ganteans do not make such reckonings by blood,” I bit out. “Laith Amar, I am the Queen of Lethemia. Release me and my brother from this vile magic at once!”

“Oh, well done, my dear,” Laith said, “Finally showing some spark, aren’t you? Honestly, I’ve worried over you for hours, and I’m not prone to worrying. You’re such a soft little thing in a nasty place like the High Court. A snail without a shell. I’m glad to see you putting up a fight of any kind, I truly am. Now, what I’d really like to do is let the three of us sit down and have a talk. Comfortably,” he emphasized. “I need to be able to trust that when I do, neither of you will try to kill me. Especially you, kid.” He scowled at Miki.

“I want my son,” I said. “That’s all I care about.”

Laith sighed. “That’s a problem—one of the several we could talk about quietly, sitting comfortably on the divan.” He pointed at the sofa.

“Yes, yes, we’ll sit and talk,” I cried, growing desperate.

Despite his bleeding arm, Laith moved like lightning, flashing his stone in Miki’s direction and then mine. The pain in my legs evaporated in an instant, but the effect was so shocking and sudden that I fell onto my hands and knees.

“I need a better word than bastard to describe Ghilene Entila,” Laith said. “It puts the rest of us bastards to shame.” He helped me to my feet and then to the sofa. I collapsed into it, wishing I could sink so far into the downy filling that I disappeared. Miki remained on the floor.

“What about my brother?” I demanded. “Take the spell off him, too.”

Laith waved his stone lazily, and Miki lurched onto his knees. “Remain where you are,” Laith said to Miki as the boy made to rise to his feet. Laith lifted his magestone warningly, and Miki obeyed.

“Now,” Laith said. “I imagine we can come to some sort of mutually beneficial arrangement. You.” Laith pointed at Miki. “Can I trust you to sit quietly over there while Leila and I discuss the current—ah—unfortunate circumstances?”

Miki threw a blade-edged gaze at the mage. Laith lifted his eyebrows and turned away from him.

“What do you want?” I snarled. Every moment we wasted was a moment I was apart from Tiriq.

“Let’s take a few steps back,” Laith began. “My brother has gone to the Amarian fleet in the Parting Sea to find the Cedna as planned. I received an aether-sending this morning from the battlemage with the fleet that she’s taken Jaasir captive. I need your help to get him back and deal with the Gantean sorceress. I suspect you know far more about the Cedna than you told us before.” His voice was as smooth as silk, inviting me to confide. Magic touched his words.

“I already told you!” I resisted. “We have to lure her to Gante and kill her in a special place.”

“Jaasir was definitely hell-bent on killing her. I want you to tell me where to take her and what to do, because I’m going after him”

“I can’t,” I nearly screamed. “I can’t!”

Laith shook his head. “That isn’t the answer I want to hear, Leila.” He said my name with a bitter inflection. “Look, I can’t help you unless you help me. Costas left Ghilene Entila in charge of Tiriq, and I haven’t much choice but to go along with her on the surface of things, because she has the backing of every Dragonnaire on the premises. They don’t go against Costas’s orders. If you tell me what to do about the Cedna, I’ll see what I can do about your son. It’s a big risk, you understand.”

“Costas never would have given those orders,” I stormed. “Never. Ghilene’s lying. She’s a horrible, spiteful creature. She’s lying so she can take my son away from me.”

Laith looked thoughtful. “Well, that’s an interesting theory. I’ll think I’ll ask to see the written proof of Costas’s orders. Excellent idea.”

“Let’s do it now!” I cried. “Who knows what she might do to Tiriq!”

Laith shook his head. “I’ve got a brother to rescue, too. I need to know how to kill the Cedna. Tell me, and then I’ll go explore this conundrum about your Tiriq.”

“Sayantaq,” Miki hissed at Laith from his corner, his dark eyes narrowed to sharp slits. “Don’t tell him anything, Leila.”

I stared at Miki. All the Elders of Gante judged me through his eyes, but what could I do? If explaining what I knew about how to properly kill the Cedna was the price of Tiriq’s rescue, I had no choice.

“Please,” I begged Laith. “I’ll do what needs to be done about the Cedna. I promise. I’ll help you find her and your brother. I’ll do the deed in the proper way, but I can’t tell you where to take her; I can’t tell you how. It’s—it’s a Gantean matter.” Laith was not Iksraqtaq. He would not understand and he could not perform the ritual.

Laith frowned. “What a mess.” At first I thought he spoke of his bloody arm, for he brought it across his lap and stared at it, but he continued, “I don’t understand what Costas sees in Ghilene Entila. Her talent is untrained; she lacks control and discipline, but he made her one of the lynchkeys to the barrier, anyway.” He shook his head. “I thought Costas a better judge of character than that.” He cupped his magestone in his right palm, closed his eyes, and made a few finger motions with his left hand. Then he brought the magestone over the cut in his arm and ran it back and forth. Before my eyes the wound began to knit itself back together. I’d never imagined magic could do such a thing.

“There,” Laith said as he came out of his trance. “It’s nearly done me in, but hopefully the scarring won’t be too bad.”

“Done you in?” I echoed. The wound wasn’t that[_ _]bad.

“The magic,” he said, tucking his magestone away. “Healing’s costly work.” He spoke more to himself than me. “In the Aethers you can barely tell the difference between blood and aetherlight.” He brought himself back to the moment, snapping his eyes open to study me. “I’m more drained than I thought. I’d better get myself to the Temple to rejuice.” He stood. “I’ll find out what she’s done with your son and whether she has proof of the orders. I’ll see if I can get in touch with Costas, too. It seems wrong to separate a mother and child this way.” He sighed and stood. “I’ll be back shortly. You can’t leave this room. Ghilene’s spelled you in.”

I shook my head, sick at heart as he departed.

&“Miki&, what are you doing here?” I cried as soon as Laith left. “How did you find me?”

“I’ve been trying to find a way to get to you for days and days,” he said. “I didn’t go far after I ran off. I hung out around the townhouse while you were there, but I couldn’t find a secret way in. That place was guarded from top to bottom, but here, at the Palace, there’s more ways in. I got in through a tunnel that runs from the Temple of Amatos into the western wing. Lymbok told me about it back on the Wind. I figured out where your rooms were, and this afternoon I was just waiting until all those people left before I came in, but I heard you screaming, so I came early.”

“Thank you, Miki, though I don’t think Laith Amar really meant me any harm. I thought you’d gone to find the others, Tianiq, and Merkuur, and Atanurat. Lymbok and Amethyst.”

“How was I supposed to do that? I’ve got no money and no idea where they might be. I’ve been following you and getting to know the High City.” He looked around the sumptuous chamber I’d been given in the northern hall of the Palace. “Nice digs. I heard you were the new queen. Is that true? Do you have any food? I’m half-starved.”

I tried to open the door, but it repelled me like the wrong end of a lodestone.

“You try,” I said.

Miki opened the door with ease. Apparently only I was affected by Ghilene’s confinement spell.

“I expect you can get some food down in the Palace kitchens. Tell them you serve the queen. And Miki—see if you can find Tiriq. Or at least find out where he’s being kept.”

Having Miki on Tiriq’s trail gave me confidence, but that good feeling waned as hours passed and he did not return. It was after dark before he came back.

“Well?” I asked. I’d been desperately pacing the room.

“Tiriq’s still in the Palace,” Miki said. “But he’s being sent to Entila. They’ve got the room he’s in rigged with magic. I can’t get in.”

“Did you see him?” I croaked. I’d never shown Miki my tears, but alone, I’d been crying for hours.

“Couldn’t get in, like I said. It was all magicked up in green sticky bloodlight.”

“Did you—did you hear anything else? About the war? About the Cedna?”

“I managed to sneak into an alcove near where some mages were talking. They haven’t had word about how the battle in the Savalias progresses. That mage Laith said that the Cedna completely destroyed Amar’s fleet, so now none of the Galatien allies except Entila have any sea power, and they won’t send more ships until the Cedna is dead.”

I frowned. “What’s wrong with her, do you think, Miki? Has she gone mad? What possible gain does she see in working for Xander Ricknagel?”

Miki shrugged and headed towards the hall. “She’s gone sayantaq. Who can know why her mind turns the way it does. She’s cooked.” He tapped his temple in the Gantean gesture to indicate madness. I hugged myself, wishing I had Tiriq to hold.

I made a bed on the floor with some of my extravagant bedding for Miki, but I could barely rest that night. Nightmares plagued my sleep. Visions of my children haunted me: Tiriq had grown as tall as his father. He held a green magestone as if doing Lethemian magic. Tianiq, eyes filled with a wild amber flame, soared through the air by some unknown means of flight.

Do you remember me, the mother of your blood? I asked them in the dream. They stared at me, no recognition on their faces.

Early the following morning steps from the hall woke me. The door to my salon sprang open as if no magic had ever sealed it. Laith strode in, closing the door with a swish of his staff. Miki gave the mage a dirty look, but obeyed his request for privacy, no doubt keeping fierce guard on my door from the hall.

I stared at Laith dumbly after Miki left.

“How are you?” he said as if we were on congenial terms. He sat beside me and pulled at a pocket in his cloak. “This belongs to you.”

He held out a silk bag. I took it from him, unwinding the knot that held it closed. I pulled out my necklace, complete with tormaquine and anbuaq, shocked. How had Laith gotten a hold of it? I tried to wind it around my neck but I couldn’t tie it; my hands shook too much.

Laith offered to knot the twine for me. “I am sorry I didn’t it bring it to you straight away,” he added. “I didn’t realize it might be important to you.”

I stared at him. “How did you get it in the first place? I lost it at Costas’s Brokering.”

“Costas gave it to me. He asked me to try to find you after you disappeared—he asked every mage he trusted to try to track you by that heartstring, you know. I asked for one of your possessions to help me—tracking is tricky work, and sometimes a personal object helps. He gave me that. It had a fair amount of magical energy, too.” He nodded at the necklace. “Jaasir found out I was tracking you for Costas and nearly had an apoplexy, so I had to do it in secret after that. I couldn’t track you overtly, but I had my own reasons for wishing to locate you.”

“Your own reasons?” As usual, speaking with Laith was like speaking with a riddler. I wrapped the necklace, secure around my neck, with one hand. Though the thought was utterly irrational, having my tormaquine again gave me the tiniest spark of hope that I might yet be reunited with both of my children. It made me feel myself again, after moons of being lost. It was a great relief to have the anbuaq.

“I have news,” Laith said, switching his topic with whiplashing speed. “Obviously, with Amar’s naval defeat, Costas did not recapture Anastaia, but he’s gained ground for the mage’s barrier on land; he’s steadily pushing Ricknagel back towards his own province.”

“Did you contact Costas? To ask about Tiriq? To get him returned to me? He told me before he left to take care of him! It makes no sense! Why would Costas order such a thing? Did you speak with him directly?”

Laith frowned and glanced out the window. His eyes tracked raindrops down to a puddle on the lawn. “The battlemages won’t permit aether-sendings to come through that aren’t related to the battle itself. It’s a real pain in the ass. If they had one of my network stones, it wouldn’t be such a problem—”

“So you weren’t able to reach Costas? But I know he would tell you—”

Laith lifted his hand to cut me off. “I reached him. He won’t relent. He confessed that he believed you’d flee with your son, so he wants you separated. He’s using the child to keep you here. Typical.” He paused, tapping his lip with his index finger. He finally dragged his eyes from the raindrops on the glass pane. “I have this theory about you,” he murmured. “Once I found out your name it all came together. You’re my sister.”

My gaze snapped up to meet his. “[_What?” _]Once again, Laith Amar’s wild imaginings had gotten the better of his fanciful mind. I sighed, wishing he weren’t so distractible.

“It seems wrong to me,” Laith went on. “A brother who colludes in imprisoning his own sister is as wrong as a brother who purchases his own blood for service.”

“Why should blood make any difference? Isn’t it wrong to purchase anyone?” I began to see why our Elders discouraged a focus on blood and forbade us from making ung-aneraqs with those we loved. It fogged our understanding and biased our perceptions of justice. As they always said, blood was viscous and sticky.

“If blood makes no difference, why are you so unhappy to be parted from your son?” Laith challenged.

“A baby needs a mother! I am his. I would feel the same if he had been handed to me as a babe from some other woman and I had nursed and cared for him through his infancy,” I lied. I had become attached to Tiriq in a sayantaq way, a way that never would have been permitted in Gante. If the bloodcord between us had been cut according to Gantean tradition, I would not be pining for Tiriq so unbearably. That truth was painfully clear. Tianiq had been cut from me, and though I worried for her, her absence did not stab me with nearly the same intensity.

“I always knew I had a sister. I used to dream about you.”

I snorted. “You are not my brother.”

Laith persisted, “My father promised me a sister when I was a boy. He said she would be called Leila. Laith and Leila. He said we’d be a matched set. I recall the day I saw that the Cedna carried you.”

My hands grew clammy. I stuffed them into the crooks of my elbows. [_“What? _]You think—you think [_the Cedna _]is my blood-mother?”

“Even as a child I had an uncommonly good eye for the aetherlight. I remember the baby’s light. Indigo and opal. Just like yours.”

“Ganteans do not permit connections of blood. We cut them,” I snapped, even as a chilling sweat trickled down my spine.

Laith crossed his arms in a mirror image of me and frowned. “So you do not know who your true parents are?”

I shook my head. “And it doesn’t matter. What would it change? I am still here; my children are still apart from me.”

“If you were a daughter of Onatos Amar and the Cedna of Gante, you’d receive better support from the Ten Houses when your marriage to Costas is announced. He only hasn’t made the marriage public yet because he knows they’ll resist him. If we can prove you are the daughter of Onatos Amar—”

“I don’t care about that!” I sprang up from the seat and spun to face him. “All I want is my son. If you cannot bring him to me, leave.” I waved at the door.

He ignored me. “Laith and Leila. They have a nice ring to them, don’t they? Matched names for his matched bastard children. He planned everything; Onatos was that kind of man.”

He smiled at me from the window seat as I paced. “I remember the Cedna well from those days at the Alcazar. What a woman! Tall, slender as a blade, sun-kissed skin, that auburn hair braided into a thousand snakes on her head.”

I paused and listened. Ganteans had been willing to speak of the woman. I remembered the few times I had seen her in the flesh—in Entila with Sterling Ricknagel, and a few brief moments at the Brokering before the attack. She had indeed been striking, sharp and vivid as a blackstone edge.

“Her eyes were green like new grass. She seemed beautiful to me, beautiful and terrifying and as imperious as a goddess. She moved—she moved as though she owned the world. She cut the world as a knife cuts flesh. My father—Onatos—brought her back from the High Court,” Laith continued. “She had gotten into trouble and Mydon Galatien placed her under house arrest. My father volunteered to be her jailer.

“She used to let me watch while she chiseled blackstone in a courtyard of the Alcazar. She was obsessed with blackstone, spent hours knapping at it like a common craftsman. Her arms were covered in scars.” He gestured at his forearms.

“They loved each other?” I asked, momentarily distracted by his story.

“I say my father loved the Cedna. Everyone who saw her must have loved her a little. I don’t think she ever loved anything. She was as slippery and dark as the blackstone she cut. Her passions, I think, were fiercer than love.”

“What happened, then?” I asked. “Doesn’t Jaasir say she kidnapped him?”

“She left, suddenly and mysteriously. I told my father I had seen you inside her body, that she carried a baby. He was devastated. He set out to find you. He said he’d bring you back for me. Those were the last words he spoke to me: ‘I’ll bring her back for you, Laith.’ He meant you, of course.”

I thought of the haunting dream I’d had of my children. A bloodcord could cut like a wire.

Laith stood up, looking sheepish at how much he’d told me. “Do you still wish for me to leave?”

He waited, but when I said nothing more, he heeded my earlier request. I checked the door after he left, but he hadn’t removed the magical seal.

I hoped for Costas’s quick return. Only his arrival could reunite me with Tiriq—if I could only speak with my new husband, I knew I could reassure him that the best place for our son was with me. In the meantime, Miki, who crept through the Palace halls like some kind of specter, served as my connection to the world outside my room.

“Is there any news of Jaasir Amar?” I asked Miki one evening as we sat together on the seat by the picture window of my room. He had proved adept at listening at important doors. The Palace staff had accepted him as my servant; no one who recognized him remained here, as Allian and most of Costas’s Dragonnaires were on the war front. “Last I heard the Cedna had captured him in the battle in the Parting Sea, yes?”

“Lord Jaasir’s vessel disappeared as he pursued the Cedna; everyone says she’s captured him using magic,” Miki explained. “But I don’t think anyone really knows what happened to him.”

That situation worried me. A captive can get close enough to his captor to kill her, and Jaasir wanted the Cedna dead, badly. He was a dangerous creature, and unlikely to heed my warnings about the importance of killing her in the Gantean way.

“Most people think she’s killed him,” Miki added. “That mage Laith has some secret means of communicating with him, but he has had no messages in days.”

I did not voice my concerns, but I grew increasingly desperate. If Jaasir killed the Cedna without ritual, what would happen to the world’s magic? The Elders had always said the whole system depended upon on her. She was the fulcrum upon which the Hinge moved. Killing the Cedna was no task for sayantaq hands. I pushed aside the burden of the Cedna and raked Miki for more information. “What about Tiriq? What have you heard?”

Miki shook his head and wriggled to his feet “I’m afraid—I think they’ve sent him north, Leila. I don’t know for sure, but I haven’t heard him crying behind his door since yesterday.

Panic surged through my blood. I sprang up from the window seat and caught Miki by the shoulders. I’d had enough.

“Miki, we have to find a way to get me free of this room. I must go after him. I have to find Tiriq.”

PART IV

The Reckoning

Twenty-Three

A wailing siren rent the night.

“Miki! What’s that noise?” I almost believed it had to do with my recent declaration to escape. Could the magic sense my very thoughts?

He frowned. “Alarms are supposed to blare if the barrier around the High City is breeched.”

“Tiriq,” I whispered. No one but Ghilene Entila knew where he was. Was he safe? My heart hammered my ribs.

Miki shook his head. “We have to figure out a way to get you out of here.” He studied the door and surrounding wall as though he might somehow deconstruct Ghilene Entila’s confining spell.

Miki rummaged through his pockets and pulled out the Cedna’s ulio. Its blade glimmered in the candle’s flame. “I have this.”

I gasped. “Where did you get that?” We could cut through Ghilene’s magic with the blackstone blade.

“You had it on the ship, remember? I used it to kill that mage.”

“You’ve had it all this time?”

Miki shrugged, handing over the blade. “Of course.”

My hands trembled as I took the blade. It was just what I needed. I used the fine edge to cut a narrow line up my wrist. I held the cut, where little drops of bright blood welled, up against Nautien’s anbuaq, letting the red jewels drip onto the crystal lodged in the bone.

My physical surroundings slid away; bloodlight spun around me. The room appeared hazy and small in Yaqi[_, _]distorted so that shimmering green walls pressed against my two-tone blue bloodlight. No matter how I moved, the walls melded with me. Ghilene’s magic held me locked in nets of bloodlight with trip cords waiting to be pulled. When I cut into the strings of her spell, she would be alerted.

I risked it. Tiriq needed me. The enchantment’s green light snapped and sparked as I sliced through it. Tendrils of light tumbled around me like serpents falling from the sky.

Movement in the distance—always difficult to assess in Yaqi—paused me. A bright figure cast from a blue bloodlight so pale it almost looked white approached. Not a single twisting ligature connected his light to any other; the man was as unfettered as a Gantean, and yet I knew immediately he was a Lethemian.

I was ripped up from the airless silence of Yaqi. “What in the name of Amassis are you doing?” hissed Laith.

“Let me go!”

“Are you crazy?” Laith lifted his magestone—the glittery one that shifted its color with every movement—and swiped the air, still holding my wrist with his other hand. “What did you do? Ghilene will be here in moments. You utterly demolished her magic—Damnation! Why didn’t you wait for me?”

“Wait for you?”

Laith rolled his eyes. “You’re my sister, remember? I wouldn’t leave you to Ricknagel’s mercy.” He thrust a bundle at me. “Take this. You’ll need it later.”

The siren continued to scream into the night. Laith jerked his head. “Follow me.”

“Tiriq—”

“He’s been sent north,” Laith bit out. “We’ll head north, too, if you haven’t sprung Ghilene Entila on us.” Miki and I followed the long-legged mage through the Palace. He brought us up a staircase and down a forgotten hall. “Hurry. We need to get out of the Palace immediately. Ricknagel’s battlemage Taz Ballestos has infiltrated the city with a cohort of his men. Only the gods know how he got through the magical wards.”

We tore down three more flights of stairs until we arrived in some kind of basement area with poor lighting. Laith spoke a soft word, and his magestone began to glow.

He peered at the door before us. “Locked, of course,” he muttered, thrusting his magestone into Miki’s hands. “Hold this.”

Miki took the stone as if it might burn him. Laith fumbled in his cloak to withdraw two flat strips of metal. He eyed the lock and beckoned Miki to hold the glowing magestone closer.

Laith slid the metal into the lock. “Amatos be damned!” he whispered as he jiggled the pick.

As he eased the second pick into the lock, he closed his eyes and froze except for the tiniest of shifts with his hands. I held my breath. Laith’s eyes flew open. With a single deft twist, he turned the bottom pick. The lock gave a satisfying click. He handed me his picks. I raised my eyebrows and made a mental note to ask him where he learned such a skill at a more opportune time.

Laith retrieved his magestone from Miki, holding it ready as he pushed the door. The croak of hinges sounded terribly loud now that the siren had finally ceased.

We slid into the shadows beyond the door, sucked into the passage on a damp inhalation. The tunnel wound through rock, leading us away from the Palace.

“This will take us out of the city?” I asked, remembering that Lymbok had led us through this network before.

“The tunnels connect to only two places beyond the city,” Laith explained in a hushed voice. “One takes you beyond the eastern walls, the other beyond the western walls. We’re going west.”

“West? Why?” Miki demanded.

“Because Ricknagel’s troops are camped in the east. And because the eastern hatch always sticks.”

“How do you know the way down here?” I asked as Laith led us through several quick, dizzying tunnel turns. Though only his magestone, shining a small circle around us, lit our way, he moved expertly, with confident knowledge of the environs.

“I grew up in Galantia, mostly. I spent hours down here, learning the intricacies of the tunnels. It’s a great pastime of thieves and street children.”

“But you weren’t a street child—”

“I may as well have been. Now, hush, we’re going above ground.” Laith pushed at an overhead hatch I would never have seen had I been walking the tunnels alone. Moonlight cut through the opening as he crawled out. He reached a long arm down to help first Miki and then me through the hatch. The Bottom City’s wall stood just a few spans behind us. Unlike the eastern exit of the tunnels, this western one dropped us only just beyond the city. I shivered. The sound of rushing water assaulted my ears.

“Keep the river on your right,” Laith said, pointing at a wide, dark expanse that glittered and roiled in the moonlight: the Rift River that ran north of the High City.

We hadn’t gone but ten paces when the High City’s siren wailed again. I froze.

Laith jolted me. “What are you doing?” he hissed. “You can bet that’s on our account. Ghilene must have discovered you’ve escaped. Don’t stop, move!”

I had never felt so small and exposed as I did picking along the roaring river beneath the stern facade of Galantia’s walls. We could light no torch, but I caught the iridescent sheen of Miki’s sealskin cloak in front of me, reflecting the moon’s silver.

“Ghilene won’t know which direction we fled,” Laith said. “Hemicylix won’t be her first guess.”

Miki and I made no reply. We were not so naive as to speak under the shadow of the city’s walls. I searched the horizon, hoping for trees, but the landscape showed only the bulk of gently rolling hills. We were in farmlands, soft country.

We passed and ignored a small hamlet as we walked through the night. Rather than the open road, we followed the river’s edge where the brush receded. Miki and I didn’t care if we never saw a city again, but Laith had other ideas.

“We’ll stop for rest and food in the next town,” he announced when dawn spread wings of light over us.

“Stop?” argued Miki. “We’ve hardly left the city yet.” He turned to frown at us as he continued to walk, backwards. His trousers were too short. He had gained at least another finger’s breadth in height since we’d met.

There would be little protection for three wanted people in the farms and townships surrounding the High City.

“It’s time for disguises,” Laith said. “We’re as noticeable as falcons amongst fowl.”

“Disguises?” I asked. “We haven’t got any!”

“Of course we do.” Laith beckoned Miki and me to follow him into a clearing within the shrubs. He removed his pack and withdrew his magestone, offering up a magelight that shone as softly as stars. He unloaded several bundles from his pack, revealing a pair of heavy steel shears.

“Come on then,” he jerked his head.

“What are those for?” I asked nervously.

“What do you think? To cut your hair!”

“No!” Miki and I cried together.

Laith cocked his head. I grabbed Miki’s wrist and pulled him back, thinking Laith would insist.

“Did I say something wrong?” Laith queried.

“Your hair expresses the strength of your spirit,” I explained. “Iksraqtaq do not cut our hair.” I forgot that Laith wouldn’t know the Gantean word.

But he seemed to understand. “Oh. Shouldn’t your hair be much longer then?” He eyed my braids, which barely hung past my shoulders, and Miki’s, only grazing his chin.

“Slavers cut our hair when we were taken,” I said. “A haircut will not disguise me, anyway. We cannot go amongst people, Laith.”

He scooped up another parcel. “I actually got the idea from Jaasir,” he said, shaking out a long black square of fabric. “You shall be a Sulphidite, though they usually have shorn hair. Miki can be my manservant-in-training.”

“And who are you to be then?”

“Shhhh!” Laith gave me his most winning smile. “I will play an Amarian merchant. In our plot, I’m rich, because I have just purchased you at the market in Galantia.”

“I didn’t know Galantia had a slave market.”

“Oh, it’s a discreet, specialized sort of market. The Galatien Family wouldn’t like word of it to get out, publically. They don’t like to be seen as purveyors of human chattel. Even so, buying a Sulphidite in Galantia is a likely story.”

“What are Sulphidites?”

“Lysandrene priestesses. They sell themselves into servitude in order to raise money for the sect. They are quite popular here as household servants. My stepmother Daria—that’s Jaasir’s mother—had only Sulphidites as her servants. She must have owned at least twenty of them.” Laith held out the black garment to me. “The main advantage of posing as a Sulphidite is that they wear these.”

I took the smock. It resembled a small tent. “I don’t understand,” I admitted.

Laith took the shapeless thing and untied several ribbons. With a casual sweep, he launched the sheet over my head.

“I can’t see!”

“Just wait,” he said, twisting it around. “There.”

A tiny window opened before my eyes. Laith tightened the laces around the eyeholes, then around billowing sleeves, and finally, around the skirt. I frowned as I tried a few movements. The lacings prevented me from taking more than mincing steps. “I feel like a hobbled horse.”

“That’s the general idea of the thing,” Laith said wryly. “But at least you are covered with good cause. Miki!” He beckoned the boy close.

“In Herefork, the next village along the road, there’s a large inn. Run ahead and book us rooms. We won’t be far behind.” Laith surveyed Miki’s attire and gave a quick jerk of his head. “You’ll do. Ghilene Entila won’t be sending a search party out for you, anyway. Likely she doesn’t even know you exist.” Laith pulled a sack of jhass from his pocket. “It’s enough to pay for rooms, rent us horses, and get you a bite to eat, too.”

Miki swiped the sack and disappeared into the darkness, showing a shocking amount of trust in the mage.

Laith attired himself in a red tunic and a belt made of thick gold links that sat low over his hips. I’d only ever seen him in the stark white of a mage or the unrelenting black robes of House Amar. “Is that your disguise?”

“My name will be Omer el-Esan.” Laith arranged his belt. “We’ll stay off the road until we have to enter Herefork. You should know that most Sulphidites are quite silent. Best if you speak as little as possible.” He pulled out a magestone—a different one than his usual. This one was made from solid, opaque turquoise.

“Omer el-Esan is a mage?” I guessed.

“Omer is definitely a mage. A free mage, an imagus, not lien-bound to any House.”

&Laith& and I approached Herefork the following afternoon.

“I’ll go down first,” Laith said. We stood secluded in a stand of trees that stretched from the road to the river on an uphill incline.

“It’s clear, at least for now,” he called as he descended. I picked through the trees to his side. “Ready?”

The road was soft from past rains. It seemed odd and ominous that we had not encountered any refugees from Galantia yet. I wondered what had actually occurred in Galantia to set off the alarm, and if the High City had indeed been attacked.

Herefork, a small community, had no gate. Before we entered the village proper, Laith stepped off the road and performed a magical gesture. His face transformed. Before, he had been Laith, a tall, handsome black-haired man with sharp, clear features. A different figure entirely appeared before me. This man had more winters, and he wore his lighter hair flowing over his shoulders. His nose hooked under, and his waist had thickened.

“Will that transformation last?” I asked. Again, Lethemian magic awed me. How did his work in the Aethers effect what I saw so completely?

“I can remove it when we’re in private, and that will help conserve my aetherlight until Hemicylix,” Laith answered. “But it will not last forever. Disguising myself is more draining than most magic. Don’t worry. I expect I can hold it until we get to Hemicylix.”

I followed Laith into the village. He strode up the main road without hesitation to the single busy inn in the village square.

“Welcome!” the innkeeper called. “Did you arrange for rooms ahead of your visit?” He bent to pick up a crate from the floor. “There’s nothing available otherwise. Due to the war, you see.”

“My boy should have checked-in already. Eleven, twelve years old?” Laith indicated Miki’s height with a wave.

“Oh sure. Good boy, that one. I’ve got you set up nicely. Top floor. Your own bath. How long will you be staying?”

“Only tonight. We’ll depart at dawn.”

Laith stayed out late in Herefork that night. Miki fell asleep almost immediately, but I proved too anxious to rest. The hinge of the door creaked, and I sat up in alarm, tossing the covers off and snatching the ulio from the rucksack.

“Leila?” Laith’s voice sounded thick.

“Laith, I almost stabbed you! You scared me!”

“Sorry,” he said and promptly tumbled to the floor in a disjointed heap.

“Laith!” I inched over to him. “Are you all right? What happened to you?”

He laughed. “I’m jusht drunk. Drunk as a skunk!”

“Is that…wise?”

“Wise, no. Necesshary, yes.”

I tried to get him into the bed with Miki. Trying to shift tall Laith was similar to gathering up an armload of too many logs. His body had too many points and angles and his limbs got in the way. He fell back to the floor.

“Don’t you want to go to bed?”

“Bed? No. It is so cold. You can’t imagine, sister, the horrors of a cold bed.”

I rolled my eyes. What did Laith Amar know of the cold? “The cold keeps you clear,” I said sternly, echoing a Gantean proverb. “You could use a bit of clarity.”

With a snort he dropped to sleep on the floor. I covered him with his cloak and left him to it.

Dawn came and went, but still Laith slept. Miki paced, restless and eager to depart.

I readied our packs, worrying about Tiriq as I prepared. Where had Ghilene sent him? Who cared for him? Had the nurse gone with him? When Laith still did not rise, I sent Miki to the stables to check on the rented beasts Laith had arranged the day before. I bent over the mage and debated kicking him awake. We didn’t have time for this.

“Laith!” I gave him a brisk shake. “It’s time to go.”

He cracked open a bleary eye without moving. Awareness slid over his face like moonlight over water. He sat up, but then clutched his head and eased back down.

“Amassis preserve me,” he groaned. “The sun is bright!”

“Laith, we meant to be on the road an hour ago.”

Miki crept back into the room, carrying a tray with morning tea. Laith sat up again, this time more carefully, and took a cup, sniffing it with a frown.

“The horses are ready,” Miki announced.

Laith groaned as he gulped tea.

I thrust his rucksack at him. “Let’s go.”

Now that we wore disguises, we could travel by day. Laith preferred to brazen through our passage, using magic to make up the difference if our pretense failed. That day, it mattered not what story we used; we met no one. Rains threatened but never broke through the soggy skies. Miki was silent, Laith, in his disguised face, sullen, and I did not have the will to examine my own contribution to our glum parade.

We arrived at our next inn tired and edgy. Miki pulled me aside for a private conversation. “You’re sure we’re doing the right thing?” he asked.

“What do you mean?”

“All this.” He waved to encompass Laith and the inn. “There are rumors that a mage betrayed Costas and brought down the magical wards on the High City to allow Ricknagel’s battlemage into Galantia. I heard about it in Herefork before you arrived.”

“You think it was Laith?” I did not believe it.

Miki shrugged. “He was awfully prepared to flee. I don’t trust him. Today he told me he means to take a ship when we reach Hemicylix to search for the Cedna and his brother.”

“What?” Laith had not confided this aspect of his plan to me. He had hinted that he meant to help me find Tiriq. If he wanted to rescue Jaasir and deal with the Cedna, he’d have to help me find my son first.

“It’s not what the Elders would have done.” Miki went on. “Allowing a sayantaq mage to—to manage the Cedna. They’d have wanted it to be Ganteans.” He drew his brows together.

“I don’t know what the Elders would have done, Miki, but I do know the Cedna cannot die without the ritual, and it’s my responsibility to do it. You needn’t worry. I’ll manage that part.” I patted Nautien’s anbuaq on my neck, beneath the smock Laith had made me wear. “I have a Hinge crystal.”

“I saw it, back at the Palace.” Miki stared at me with dark, empty eyes. “But are you prepared, even for the sacrifice, Leila?”

“I’ll do what I must.” But my hand had begun to shake over the anbuaq. I snapped it back down to my side.

“I wish there were an Elder here, to tell us we are doing the right thing,” Miki fretted.

“There won’t be anyone to tell us that ever again,” I muttered as Laith approached. “You can think of it as freedom. The freedom to choose for yourself.”

Twenty-Four

Two forces pulled on me: the urgent need to find Tiriq and the weighty responsibility of finding the Cedna. I could not choose—Iksraqtaq duty perfectly balanced my sayantaq mother’s love. Longing for Tiriq paralyzed me. I wanted to beg Laith to help me find him by tracking the bloodcord that still connected us, but I feared his reply to such a request.

The final day on the road to Hemicylix dragged. Miki rode silently, lost in his own thoughts. Laith had managed to stay sober the previous night, due in large part to my timely extraction of him from the inn’s bar, so we set out early. The man who claimed to be my brother did not look well. He was too pale, and he had not spoken a word all morning.

At midday the sounds of hooves pounded behind us. We retreated to the side of the road.

“Damned Amatos, whoever it is, they’re riding hard,” Laith remarked as he drew his turquoise magestone. “I wish we could have made it to Hemicylix before meeting anyone. Pull back. Turn and face east, as though we’re traveling that way on the road. With any luck they won’t have been tracking us. I think I would have felt it.”

Laith’s words did not reassure me, but I led my horse off the road and turned to face east. Miki followed a couple of paces behind.

The oncoming horses raised a cloud of dust that obscured them. Laith saw them first. “They’re Galatien Guards,” he called tersely.

The five riders drew up when they saw Laith. He spoke first. “You might trample travelers, rampaging down a road like that. Is something amiss?”

The leader of the guards spoke. “A mage, are you?” He gave a long look at the magestone in Laith’s hand. “Didn’t your master call you to war?”

“I am my own master,” Laith said. “Imagus Omer el-Esan, of Amar.”

I surveyed the other four guards waiting behind their leader, taut as bowstrings.

“I wouldn’t rush to the High City, if that’s where you’re headed,” the leader told Laith. “The war’s taken a strange turn. You’ll see more riders headed west on the road today. There’s utter chaos in Galantia. Galatien loyalists are making a full retreat to Hemicylix. Ricknagel’s army infiltrated Galantia a few days ago.” He waved to his men; they braced to spur their mounts. “Amassis be with you.”

“Likewise.” Laith, in his unfamiliar face, watched the soldiers tear down the road. I exhaled. I’d worried the soldiers had been sent by Ghilene to hunt us down.

“They were Dragonnaires,” I murmured. “Costas’s men. I saw the magemarks on their arms.”

“I know,” Laith said. “I’m lucky I’m disguised; they would have recognized me otherwise. But all the Dragonnaires went with Costas to the Savalia front. Why would they have returned to Galantia?” Laith pursed his lips. “At least we know Ghilene Entila didn’t send them after us.”

“Xander Ricknagel—could he have defeated Costas?” I asked, thinking through the implications even as my gut rebelled against the notion. “So even Costas’s men from the Savalias are retreating?”

“But the barrier!” exclaimed Laith as we continued down the road to Hemicylix. “How could Ricknagel break through the mage’s barrier on the Savalia front? It’s not possible. Only Ghilene and the Magarch had all the lynchkeys to remove it, and nearly all the Galatien mages contributed to it. Ricknagel didn’t have the magical strength to wear it down. His only battlemage is Taz Ballestos, who was dealing with the barrier in the High City, and by all accounts the Cedna has disappeared like smoke.”

“What’s a lynchkey?” I couldn’t help my question, even though Laith wore an exasperated expression. He had mentioned last night as I dragged him from the inn’s bar that I especially annoyed him with all my “pesky questions.”

“It’s a kind of sigil. In a spell made by many mages it gives control to one or two of them, protecting the work from its many makers. It’s meant to prevent betrayal.” He frowned, his disguised face unfamiliar with his doubt. “Damned Amatos,” he hissed a moment later. “It had to be Ghilene. It’s the only explanation. The little bitch betrayed Costas.”

More hoof-falls approached. Again we pulled to the roadside and watched as another troop of Galatien soldiers, this one larger, flew by us. They didn’t even stop to speak.

Another hour brought us another troop, in a similarly rattled condition. Laith hailed their leader. “What’s happened?”

“Amassis himself probably doesn’t know,” the sergeant said. “Everything went to pieces on the Savalia front. The mage’s barrier was there one moment and gone the next. We were forced to retreat to Galantia, but when we got there, Ricknagel’s army had already taken the city—they were waiting for us. No one knows what’s going on. We’ve been directed to Hemicylix to regroup. That is, if Hemicylix hasn’t been taken, too.”

“How?” Laith asked, sounding like an innocent citizen only curious about the progression of the war. “How could such a thing happen?”

“Treachery, that’s what,” the soldier said. “Someone’s betrayed King Costas. They say that Amarian bastard mage escaped not three days hence. That’s just the right timing. I hear he was a right powerful mage.”

“Amarian bastard mage,” Laith echoed. “Do you mean Laith Amar?”

“That’s the one,” the man said. “He’s gone missing.” The guard reined up on his mount and urged the horse into motion. “Good luck,” he called as his whole troop proceeded down the road.

Laith rode silently as we continued at our plodding pace. He looked, if possible, even paler, even more drawn. I considered suggesting a rest, but Laith’s determined expression kept me quiet. By evening, the lights of Hemicylix glowed in the distance. One last party came upon us. They too rode hard, but these soldiers wore the blue uniforms of House Ricknagel. They rode in formation: organized, clean, and disciplined.

“Who are you?” the captain asked curtly, looking us over.

“I am Imagus Omer el-Esan, traveling to take ship in Hemicylix.”

“Have you seen any soldiers on the road today?”

“In patches,” Laith answered warily. “Stragglers, mostly. Nothing like what you’ve got here.” Laith indicated the carefully arranged riders, four to a row and ranked behind their leader in a line extending beyond our vision.

The leader shrugged and frowned at Laith. “You had better ride with us. The road will be unpredictable if there are Galatien soldiers upon it.”

A veiled threat lurked behind the man’s words, and I didn’t like to be absorbed by his troop. Even so, barring action from Laith, I could do nothing. Laith rode beside the captain while Miki and I joined the row behind.

My garment concealed my face, but I still felt the men were too close around me. I cringed behind my shroud, hating the prickle of their stares upon me, the only female in their midst.

We found the gates of Hemicylix barred upon our arrival. The gatekeepers would not open for the Ricknagel soldiers.

“Disobey at your own peril!” warned the captain to the gatekeepers. “This time tomorrow, King Xander Ricknagel will rule, and the lot of you will be traitors. He’s captured Costas Galatien. I’ll give you one more chance to open these gates. You don’t have the numbers to defend yourselves when the rest of my regiment arrives.”

I barely repressed a cry. Had Costas truly been captured by Ricknagel?

The gates opened to the Ricknagel troop after the captain’s threats. We rode briskly through the gaslit streets. To my surprise, the Ricknagel captain let us go after a furtive conversation with Laith. I suspected Laith used magic to decrease the man’s interest in us.

Laith selected a waterside inn as close to the harbor as possible. He wanted us to leave first thing in the morning. People had flocked to the inn’s common room, most of them seeking passage on any available vessel.

“Go on up to the room,” Laith told me. “I’ll be back in an hour or two. I have to visit the Temple.”

“What temple?” I asked.

“The Temple of Amarite, of course. I’m almost tapped. I need to rejuice.”

“I hardly think right now is the best time.” I didn’t like Laith leaving us in this unfamiliar place when chaos seemed to lurk on every horizon.

He insisted, “My aetherlight is sucked dry. I have to do this. It’s not that I want to. Though I can’t say that I mind. It’s been too long since I had a woman.”

“Do you mean you have to—to lie with a woman to keep being able to do magic?” I had gathered that the Temple of Amarite existed to service mages, but I had not understood the details.

“Of course. Binding-magixe—don’t Ganteans use it? How else can you pay for magic and rebalance the aetherlight? I really shouldn’t wait any longer. I never let myself get this low.”

As he departed, I reflected on his implications. Did he mean he used mating rather than blood to pay for his spellwork? How?

&As Miki& and I ascended the inn stairs we ran into a familiar figure. “Allian!” I gasped without thinking.

“Who’s that?” he said, wary as he turned.

I grabbed Costas’s man by the arm and dragged him to our rented chamber.

“My lady! You made it out of the High City,” he said. “Thank Amassis! I hear it’s a mess there, that one of the mages betrayed Costas.” His voice deepened with anger.

“We got out very quickly,” I said. “I didn’t see any actual fighting. The mage Laith is with me,” I added.

“Laith Amar?”

I read Allian’s look, remembering what the second group of soldiers had said. “They are saying he betrayed Costas, but I know he didn’t. We left Galantia three days ago. I’ve been with him constantly. Besides, only Ghilene Entila and the Magarch knew all the lynchkeys to the barrier’s magic.” I repeated what Laith had told me.

“Ghilene Entila,” Allian fumed. “I never trusted that girl. I told Costas a hundred times but he just wouldn’t listen—”

“I heard that Costas has been captured,” I interrupted. A horrible thought struck me. If Ghilene had betrayed Costas, what had she done with Tiriq?

What?” Allian’s face blanched. He had not heard the news then.

“A troop of Xander Ricknagel’s soldiers escorted us into the city. They didn’t know who we were,” I said to his aghast face. “They said Xander Ricknagel captured Costas.”

“Where? How?” Allian’s shock deflated him as he melted into the room’s lone chair.

Miki brought Allian a glass of water from the pitcher on the table by the bed. Allian blinked at him, momentarily flummoxed. “You,” he said, staring at Miki. “What hole did you crawl out of?”

Miki said nothing. My head spun with my own distress.

“I haven’t got any details,” I told Allian. “But I need to find out where Ghilene Entila sent my son. Do you know?”

“Amatos!” Allian ignored my urgent question as he pondered my news. “Hemicylix is going over to Ricknagel, too, aren’t they? We’ve got to get out of here!”

Laith threw open the door, wearing his true, undisguised face. He carried a flagon of spirits—akavit, by the smell of it—in one hand. He groped madly in his pocket—no doubt for his magestone—when he caught sight of Allian.

“Wait!” I screeched, putting myself between the men.

Laith stopped, but eyed Allian warily as he took a swig of his akavit. His appetitive habits annoyed me, and I wished for once he’d opted not to drink as soon as we arrived at an inn.

“Kercheve,” Laith said. “I hardly expected to find you here. Weren’t you with my brother down in the Parting Sea?”

Allian nodded. “I’ve been traveling north in search of your brother. Costas’s orders.” His face darkened. “But now…”

Laith sat heavily on the nearest bed. “Everything’s going to hell.”

“You’re drunk,” Allian said, sniffing.

“Ghilene Entila had to be the one,” Laith said, ignoring Allian. “It was never the Magarch—Vatsar wouldn’t betray the Galatiens, so it had to be her. She brought down the barriers, the one in the Savalias and the one around the High City. It’s the only explanation.”

“Have you got Adrastos Galatien?” Allian demanded, his face creasing with concern. He peered at Miki in the corner as if he might be Costas’s brother in disguise.

Laith shook his head slowly. “Adrastos Galatien. Hells of Amatos. No.”

“Fuck,” said Allian. “Does that mean Xander Ricknagel has him? As far as Xander knows, he’s the damned Galatien heir. I doubt Ricknagel knows about the baby.”

“I have no idea,” Laith said. “But we don’t have Costas’s son, either. Costas acknowledged the baby before leaving for the Savalias, but he trusted Tiriq’s care to Ghilene Entila, of all people. She sent Tiriq north under guard a few days before the High City fell.”

“With whom?” I cried. Laith knew more than he had told me about what had happened to Tiriq.

“It was a suitable entourage. Several Dragonnaires, a nanny, a wet nurse, servants. I checked,” Laith said as though to reassure me.

“Suitable entourage!” I cried. “Ghilene Entila’s betrayed Costas to the Ricknagels, and you expect me to believe she had my son’s best interest in mind when she sent him away? Where did she send him? We must go to him, now!” I poked the center of my chest. “I have a cord, here, a bloodlight cord connecting me to Tiriq.” I turned a hard gaze on Laith. “You could track him by it.”

Laith grimaced. “Tracking’s the fussiest magic there is, especially across great distances.”

“You tracked me. So did the mage Oruscani.”

“It’s unpleasant work. I’d have to hire a contract Source to come with us, and it would take forever. It’s a strategy to use when all other methods have failed. Besides, I need to find my brother and the Cedna.”

“But Tiriq—”

“Listen, Xander Ricknagel is a man of honor, if nothing else.” Allian attempted to interject some calmness into our growing tension. “He won’t harm either child, Adrastos or Tiriq, even if they are his captives. He’s not the type to hurt a child; it would go against everything I know about the man. It’s Costas I’m worried about. Ricknagel has every reason to kill Costas. He believes Costas had his daughter murdered.”

Laith paused—he had been running his fingers through his hair. “Yes, and who did kill Stesichore Ricknagel if it wasn’t Costas?”

Allian scowled. “It wasn’t Costas! He’d never harm a woman. Stesichore was at her own family’s manse up at Lake Tashriga. No one knows the exact circumstances of her death. It might not have been an assassination at all. It could have been an illness.”

Laith made no reply, only raising his eyebrows in disbelief.

Allian moved towards the door. “I’ll get back to my ship,” he said. “Meet me at the punt dock in an hour. We all need to get out of Hemicylix before Ricknagel’s men sequester the city.”

I nodded, taking the offer. Allian had a ship, a means of transportation, which we desperately needed. “We’ll see you shortly.”

Laith still said nothing.

After Kercheve departed I turned to Laith to pick my bone with him. His eyes were open, though still slightly bleary from drink.

“Do you know where they’ve taken Tiriq?” I demanded.

“I’m almost certain she sent him north to Engashta.”

“Engashta? Why there?”

“I don’t know. That’s only what I heard. I don’t even know if it’s true.”

“I have to go north then,” I announced.

Laith tried to stand, but wobbled on his feet. “One step at a time, sister mine. First we have to get safely out of Hemicylix.”

He stumbled as he moved towards the flagon of akavit he’d set on the table.

“I wish you wouldn’t drink so much,” I blurted. “What if you need to do magic?”

“I can do magic drunk. Truth is, half the time I do it better, drunk.”

I threw up my hands. “Fine. Do whatever you want. You always do, anyway.” I remained annoyed at him for not telling me about Tiriq and not agreeing to track him.

“Laith does what Laith wants,” he chanted. “So goes the saying. Except it’s not true at all,” he added darkly. “I’ve been stuck doing exactly what I don’t want for sidereals.”

“What do you mean?”

“Nothing,” Laith murmured. “But Laith does what Laith wants, my ass. I’m a lien-bound mage. I do what I’m told. My brother is my keeper.”

Laith and I were a matched set, just as our purported father intended. Some people, like Miki, had a core of blackstone running through them, a hardness, a sharpness, an unchanging edge of principle that kept their actions strict to their choosing. Laith and I were like water; we filled whatever circumstances held us.

&Allian rowed& us out to the[_ Lady_] Tourmaline. I almost lost my footing on the ladder as I boarded the large ship.

“Careful!” Laith said sharply behind me. “You’ll knock us all down.”

I gratefully took Allian’s hand at the top of the climb. A few moments later Miki shimmied up a rope and called down a heading as if he were a ship’s boy on Northern Wind.

“How does he know where we should go?” Allian asked. “I don’t even know where we should go.”

“He knows I need to go to Engashta.” I pulled Allian towards the ship’s office. “I need to find my son.”

Allian bowed courteously. “My lady, my duty lies with Costas. The Tourmaline will seek him.”

“Costas would want you to find his son—”

“I understand that you are Costas’s wife now,” Allian said. “But even so, I serve him first.”

“We have to find him!” I snapped.

Allian thought I spoke of Costas, not Tiriq. He ushered me into ship’s office with a gesture. “When he sent us seeking you when you went missing, he was distraught. I’ve never seen him like that. I knew then that he loved you. We’ll find him, I promise, my lady. I am sworn to him, blood and breath. You can count on me.”

Memory prodded insistently with his words. His voice! I’d heard it that night with Miki in the grasslands beyond the Savalias. “I saw you!” I murmured. “Or heard you. You were on the river in the grasslands north of Murana, searching for me with a mage. You passed during the night, and you were talking. I hid in the grasses!”

“What?” Allian yelped. “Why didn’t you come out? We would have helped you. We were sent to find you!”

“I didn’t want help. I was running away.”

That drew Allian up short. He frowned. “You were trying to get away from Costas?”

I didn’t say anything, suddenly realizing my error. If Allian wasn’t on my side, he wouldn’t help me find Tiriq.

Laith cut the tension, striding into the office. “Where is it you propose to go, Kercheve?”

Allian turned to the table littered with charts held down by glass weights.

“We need to go to Engashta,” I insisted.

Allian shook his head. “Costas first. I want to go to Orioneport to see what I can discover about how Costas was taken.”

Laith glared at Allian. “Orioneport? Why Orioneport?”

“Gods in Amaranth, Laith. You know why. The Amarian coterie is the most likely to have information. Amarian mages have their tentacles everywhere.”

“Don’t waste your time sailing to Orioneport. I can find out what the Amarian coterie knows from here,” Laith said.

Allian lifted his eyebrows. “How?”

Laith grinned. “None of your damned business. Give me an hour or two.”

Allian nodded curtly and left the ship’s office. Laith’s answer had annoyed him.

“What about the Cedna and Jaasir?” I asked Laith after Allian departed. Laith wanted to search for his brother above all else.

“I’ll check for any reports about them, too, when I search the Amarian coterie’s messages.”

“What was that all about with Allian?”

“Let’s just say Allian would love to learn how Amar’s coterie communicates. We always have information first, but no one knows how we do it.”

“And?”

“And what?” Laith pulled his magestone—the glittery one—from his pocket.

“Are you going to tell me how you do it? Since I’m your sister?” Laith was susceptible to this argument.

“It’s meant to be an Amarian secret, but I suppose you’re as Amarian as I am. I created a magestone, a special one that can store information. Our mages know how to access it remotely and store their messages in it. It’s like an aether-sending, but it can be saved until a person is ready to listen.”

“But why do you help Allian? I know you want to go after the Cedna and your brother. You could avoid this whole mess with Costas. If Ricknagel wins, wouldn’t it be better for you and your House if you had? It might be better for you if you were not perceived as close to Costas—”

“Amatos, Leila! What kind of man do you think I am? Your son, Costas’s son, is my nephew. I can hardly abandon him to Ricknagel’s plans. House Amar is about as tangled with House Galatien as it’s possible to get at this point. I’m fully invested in Costas’s ultimate victory. I see what Ghilene Entila was up to now, of course,” he added.

“What do you mean?”

“With your Tiriq. I don’t think she wanted to harm the child at all, she only wanted to control the Galatien heir. Having the boy under her power gave her assurance if Ricknagel did not succeed, a bargaining tool. She’s a crafty little schemer for being so young. Gods, she grates on me almost as much as Jaasir does.”

He lifted his magestone and gestured it through several complex motions. “Quiet now. This is a tricky bit of magic.”

Twenty-Five

Laith moved his magestone through hand sigils, occasionally murmuring a few words. He was in a full trance, eyes clouded with bloodlight like a shaman’s. I still didn’t understand the precise mechanics of Lethemian magic.

“Damnation!” he exclaimed. I looked up from where I sat on one of the cabin’s benches. Laith’s eyes had cleared, and his scowl made him look like a much older man.

“Did something go wrong?”

He shook his head. “Just a spot of trouble with the untagged messages,” he muttered. “But I should be able to—” he waved his magestone and descended back into trance.

“Fucking Amatos!” he burst out a moment later.

“More trouble?”

“Well, at least I’ve got something,” he said. “But there’s another one in there that I can’t reach. Damn, damn, damn! One message said Xander Ricknagel had taken Costas during the battle at the Savalias—nothing we don’t know already—and Ricknagel’s disappeared as surely as Jaasir.” He paused. “Would you have a look at this?”

“But I don’t know anything about Lethemian magic.”

“Something you said about Gantean magic might prove useful here. Look, my magestone stores the messages from the other mages,” Laith explained. “Aether-sendings normally pass through the channel and dissipate, as in a conversation. You can only remember them if you’ve heard them in real time. The only record is in the receiver’s mind. But my stone preserves the sending so you can draw it up, one time, much later, like a letter that can only be read once. So the sendings need to be stored somewhere; they have to stick. I made a trap for them in the Aethers, a net, you might call it. I can get into the net with some tricky spellwork; there are pouches where the sendings are trapped based on the tags attached by the mages who send them. The tags allow me to retrieve the messages from the net, but I’m having an unforeseen problem.” He looked both concerned and sheepish.

“What’s that?” Now that I knew we were dealing with a net, I wanted to see it.

“Some of the aether-sendings aren’t tagged. There’s no way to get them out, because I have no way to summon them. They’re stuck in there. I didn’t think it through when I made the net.”

“You can’t get to the untagged messages?” I clarified. “How do you get the tagged ones out?”

“Each tag is a word linked to a spell. I just say the word while doing the corresponding hand sigil.” He sighed. “If you asked any mage, they’d say this whole operation was a stroke of genius. No one could have done any of this but me. I can’t believe I forgot to make a sigil for the untagged Sendings.” He flushed. “I’m a fucking idiot. I don’t know how to get the uncoded messages out of the cache. I can’t open it. It’s like the aetherlight netting needs to be cut.”

“You think I[_ _]can get in?”

“Ganteans have a way to cut aetherlight, don’t they?”

I stared at him. I had the Cedna’s ulio at my waist. “Yes,” I said. “I have a blackstone blade. They serve that purpose—cutting bloodlight—in Gantean magic.”

Laith grinned. “Magical serendipity,” he crowed. “I swear to Amassis, it works every time!” He gestured me to his side.

Laith opened the way into Yaqi—the Aethers—with his magic, pulling me under in a dizzying, sudden lurch so different from Gantean blood-letting. To make his net, Laith had woven bloodlight into an intricate pattern, nets within nets, so fine I could hardly see the gaps. I recognized which caches contained coded information; glowing sigils coiled in the nets, guarding the messages within. I actually had to take the netting up in my hands; it was as cumbersome as any of the huge trawling nets I’d made in Gante. I turned it, searching for the unmarked cache. When I finally found the blank pocket, I used my ulio to slice it open. Three spheres of jelly-like bloodlight slid free.

I prodded one of the spheres with my ulio. The blackstone edge parted the gleaming lining, and the sphere dissolved.

“Laith!” An voice cut the air, distorted, but recognizably Jaasir’s.

[_“Laith, Father’s not with her. She’s alone. She’s taken me captive, but she didn’t take my stone, the one you gave me for aether-sendings. But it’s hard—” _]Jaasir’s voice cut off. I waited to see if the message continued. Nothing.

I cut the next sphere. The substance parted as easily as seal fat.

Jaasir again: “We’re sailing north. I don’t know where, but we’re well past Talat City. I can see land to the east. Perhaps she’s going to Gante? The ship’s called Firebrand. It moves fast, abnormally fast. What should I do? Laith, make me an aether-sending. Tell me what to do.” At the end, Jaasir’s voice grew plaintive, displaying true fear. In the thick, slow reality of Yaqi, his distress felt distant and untouchable.

I cut the third sphere, an ivory-colored one. The female voice that emanated from it sounded as desperate as Jaasir’s.

“This is Saira Jawahir. I’m in Talata along the direct road between Galantia and Engashta. A full regiment of soldiers marched through the village, flying the colors of Ricknagel and Talata. I heard—” The magitrix paused. “It’s difficult! The whole place is crawling with Ricknagel soldiers. They have a captive. They don’t want us to know, but rumor says it’s the king, that it’s Costas Galatien himself! I heard that their destination is Engashta.” A loud noise disturbed her. “Amassis!” she cried.

No message-orbs remained.

Laith spoke as we came out of the trance. “I should have checked this earlier, but I was so distracted with everything going on at the Palace, trying to figure out what Ghilene was up to, trying to figure out what to do about you and Tiriq. Damnation. If the Cedna killed Jaasir I’ll kill her myself.”

Though the Amarian brothers showed little affection on the surface, I had heard the pleading dependence in Jaasir’s voice in those messages. Laith’s agitation told me he wanted to go to his brother immediately.

“You can’t kill her,” I said. “She must be killed in a Gantean ritual, I’ve told you. It’s vital.”

“It was only an expression, Leila. I understand; you’ve told me now several times how vital it is.”

“Do you think Saira Jawahir’s information can be trusted?” I asked to break the tension between us.

“She went to great lengths to send it, and Saira has a calm head. She isn’t prone to exaggeration. We should tell Kercheve that she believed Costas was being taken to Engashta.”

“What about Jaasir?” I asked.

Laith pulled on his eyebrows as he thought. “Kercheve will certainly want to go to Engashta. That’s the same path Jaasir took. Maybe we can find news of both Firebrand and Costas there. We may as well head north with Kercheve—it’s free transport in the direction we both wish to go. Though I swear, if he asks me to track Costas Galatien via that heartstring of yours, I’m going to hit the roof.”

“What’s so bad about tracking?” He made it sound deeply distasteful.

“Ugh. The drainage. It makes a mage sicker than you can imagine. It’s the kind of magic that isn’t worth the cost of doing it. Better to search using mundane methods; they work as well without the cost to the mage. Everyone always thinks magic can accomplish anything, but it has limits. Mages have limits.”

“You tracked me to Murana. You said so.”

Laith lifted his brows. “I had a little assistance. That little trinket, that charm you wear, it has some kind of special connection to you. Made it much easier. I’ve no notion why. I assumed it was some kind of Gantean magic. Useful. I’d love to learn more about it. Later. But I haven’t got one of those for Costas or your son.”

I covered my necklace with my hand, wishing I had the star-charm I’d made for Tiriq. “I have to get Tiriq,” I said, feeling the lack of him more than ever. “I can’t bear this.” I collapsed onto the bench again.

Laith watched me with an almost wistful look on his face.

“What is it?” I asked. “Why do you look that way?”

“He would have loved you so much,” Laith said softly. “Our father. He would have been so proud of you.”

I blinked. I had never even thought of him, the man Laith believed was my blood father. Onatos.[_ _]That name stuck in my head. I’d heard it somewhere long ago. Spoken angrily, in a woman’s voice.

“You look so much like him, it’s uncanny,” Laith interrupted my reverie. “When I knew him, he was hardly older than you.”

“You miss him?”

“Like Amatos missed Chintara.” I did not catch the reference.

&I watched& the water flowing in the ship’s wake and gathered my thoughts. Laith would pursue the Cedna north. I trusted him not to act rashly without Gantean guidance. Allian would search for Costas in Engashta, the most likely location to find Tiriq as well.

Both missions pulled on me, forcing a reckoning between my Gantean duty and my heart’s need. Vanquishing the Cedna required a ritual that inspired fear and ambivalence. I tried to think of the Gantean task as destroying the greatest traitor my people had ever known, a traitor who had attempted to kill my own daughter. Even so, I could not deny that I also contemplated sacrificing my own blood-mother. That thought was sayantaq; she had never been a mother of any kind to me. The bloodcord that had bound us was long since severed, yet bearing the responsibility of her death haunted me.

I knew what I had to do, but I did not wish to do it.

The Cedna, Atanurat had told me, had wanted to keep her daughter bloodbound. The Elders had taken the baby away from her, driving her to leave Gante. Though I loathed what she had done—abandoning the Ganteans, leaving us to face the dwindling magic whose care had been her duty—I could understand her action. Ghilene had taken my child and it was nearly driving me mad. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I could think only of Tiriq and Tianiq. Had the Cedna felt this, too? The heart-stopping loss, the constant terror that her child might die?

But then why had she done the same to me? Why had she cut Tianiq from me, when she’d hated the Ganteans doing that very thing to her?

I wanted to speak with Atanurat. He would know what to do. I tried to imagine what he would suggest. The Hinge must be protected at any cost. That Gantean truth superseded all others. The Hinge, the Ganteans’ most vital responsibility, could not be ignored. Not if we wanted to maintain magic in the world as we knew it.

If The Cedna died without her ritual, the Hinge would crumble. My choice was no choice at all if I was truly Iksraqtaq. How heavy that choice was, knowing that when one Cedna was sacrificed, another had to assume her place.

Every Cedna knew her own end. She was[_ _]tunixajiq. The Cedna maintained the balance with her blood.

Just when I’d mustered my commitment to go with Laith after the Cedna, Allian surprised me, stepping to my side. “Laith told me what he learned. Engashta, as you said. It’s the last place I want to go—ruled by three Houses, and all of them allied to Ricknagel. It’s unlike Xander Ricknagel to be so far from his own turf. I’ve been racking my mind. Why Engashta? Why not Ricknagel Province, his home, where he is loved beyond all measure by his people?”

I frowned and wondered the same.

Allian continued, “I’m afraid it means that House Talata and House Ricknagel have a deeper alliance than we imagined. Laith says he must find his brother, that he will continue north after Engashta.”

“I know.”

“And I will go in search of Costas.” Allian’s voice took a testing edge. “What do you propose to do?”

The world hinged on my answer.

“Tiriq—”

“You can bet that as soon as I’ve got Costas, the first thing we’ll do is locate his son.” Allian said. “But you can’t go running off to find him on your own. It’s far too dangerous. Costas would never forgive me.”

“Isn’t that what you intend to do? Go after Costas on your own?”

Allian rolled his eyes. “I’m a spy and a soldier. It’s what we do. You’re a woman. A wife. A mother.”

“And mothers protect their children. That’s what[_ we_] do.” My raw Iksraqtaq intentions shattered at the mere thought of Tiriq. He needed me. My boy trumped any duty, Iksraqtaq or otherwise. The only true safety I could find for Tiriq was under the protection of his blood-father, my husband, who required rescue.

“Do you even love him?” Allian blurted. He seemed affronted that I debated, that I was torn between two duties. He had no idea.

Love was a luxury Ganteans did not allow. I had not been brought up to believe that love fell out of the sky like summer rain, unexpectedly. I had not been brought up to consider love at all. Costas was my mate, my husband. We were bound to each other by blood and breath, by the ung-aneraq, more than by any silly emotion. I wanted Costas returned to safety so he could protect our boy and search for our girl. Love paled in comparison to what I needed from him. If Costas and I loved, ours was not the gentle love of summer rain. What lived between us was more akin to fire: as dangerous as it was useful.

The duty of the Cedna’s downfall rested on me like a weighty blanket of snow after a storm, but that ung-aneraq bound Costas to me, drawn so tight and thin it cut like a rapier. Costas would lead me to Tiriq; that I knew with the certainty of a mother’s intuition.

“Can I help find Costas? And then Tiriq?” I asked Allian.

Allian loosened his jaw. “You’ll come with me to Engashta?”

“To Engashta,” I murmured. So I had chosen, for Tiriq, for Costas, for myself.

&I stood at the gunwale&, searching the night sky for the silver glow of Tiriq’s namesake, reaching for the only piece of him that I could touch.

“Stargazing again?” Laith asked as he sidled to my side.

“My daughter, Tianiq, is named for that star, there.” I pointed at a bright amber dot on the horizon.

“Tianiq! Such a beautiful name. I forget sometimes that you had two,” mused Laith.

“I never forget.”

“Do you think you can find her, too?”

“I must.”

“She is safe?”

“She is with her Gantean fathers,” I spoke as though I knew, but I had no sense of Tianiq since the bloodcord between us had been cut. She was lost in the world as though I’d never been her mother. “She will be raised in the Gantean way. She is safer than Tiriq.”

“But you miss her.” Laith’s voice softened. He squeezed my shoulders.

“As I miss my boy.”

“I assume you will not come with me in search of Jaasir and the Cedna just yet?”

I shook my head. “Not yet. I must find Tiriq first.”

“You know that this means we will part in two days.”

I grabbed his arm. “Remember, Laith. You cannot kill the Cedna. You must capture her and wait for me. It must be done correctly, in the Gantean way. If you cannot find me, if something happens to me, search for a Gantean man named Atanurat. I expect he can be found in a coastal town along the Parting Sea. He will know what to do. Promise me. Do not kill her until one of us can arrange it. Laith—” I hesitated.

“Yes?”

“My Tianiq. She’s with this man, Atanurat. If anything happens to me, will you find her? Will you make certain she is all right?”

“Someday you’ll explain this better,” he said, but he nodded in agreement with me.

“Promise me?” I held his blue-eyed gaze.

“I promise,” he said in the most solemn tone I’d ever heard leaving his lips.

“Thank you, Laith.”

“You’re my sister. You don’t need to thank me.”

After Laith left I continued to study the two opposing stars on the horizon. My Gantean guilt for shirking my duty almost equally balanced the desperate joy of the thought of finding Tiriq.

This was why we Iksraqtaq cut our bloodcords and our ung-aneraqs: to perform our duties without conflict, to be unfettered.

Twenty-Six

The deep crevice of a bay divided Engashta City’s opposing shores like a wedge cleaving stone. The houses, which pressed right up to the pea-soup water, were painted in a smooth, gleaming cream color and trimmed in gold and silver. They reminded me of the porcelain tea cups used at the Palace—delicate, pretty, and rich. More than Murana or Queenstown, Engashta oozed a wealth almost on par with the High City, though an underlying strain hinted at the tense relations amongst the four Houses that ruled the city: Entila, Gaart, Shiree, and Talata. Ruled by all, the city belonged to none.

A cooler wind blew down from the north, pushing the morning fog from Entila’s broad bay.

Laith came to my cabin on the Tourmaline the morning after our arrival in the deep-water bay and handed me a jewel-box. “So I can aether-send to you,” he told me as he pressed it into my palms.

“What do you mean?” I peeled the soft lid back. The box held a small opal set on a silver ring, the stone no bigger than a fingernail, round and milky as a pearl.

“It’s like my magestone. I can make sendings to it, and you can draw them out. Be careful. There’s no security on it other than the lynchkey that you use to access it.”

“And what’s that?”

He leaned in close. “The Lethemian sigil for the star that shares your daughter’s name.” He traced a shape across the back of my hand. “You must learn it.” He traced it again. I watched the motion of his hand.

“Again.” I closed my eyes and pictured the shape of what he drew: a star comprised of nine points. Just like the Gantean symbol I’d carved for her.

Laith explained, “You want to try to get it as regular as you can. If it’s too sloppy, it won’t work.”

“Let me try.” I took up his hand and traced the shape.

“Good. Now you can know what becomes of your brothers.”

“Laith, you mustn’t kill her, no matter what she may have done to Jaasir,” I warned yet again. “When you find them, aether-send to tell me where you are. I’m coming after you as soon as we’ve got Costas free and Tiriq safe. Wait for me.”

“I heard you the first ten times, Leila, and I’ll wait as long as I can, but I’ve no idea if I can even keep her captive, much less fight her magic.”

&Days after Laith& had departed on a ship heading north, Allian and I meandered up the broad quay that ran the length of Engashta’s southwestern harbor. Laith’s messages had pointed us towards Engashta, but here in the city, Costas’s trail went cold. The denizens of the city were either uninformed or uninterested. I had spent two days searching the western market with Miki, scouting, eavesdropping, and making leading small talk with the shopkeepers. People discussed the war, but they spoke of their nephews who’d been called to service or their suffering businesses. No one declared a favorite for High King, not when Costas and Xander Ricknagel had both disappeared as surely as the sun beneath the horizon. Would the Warrior or the Flower rise up in the east tomorrow? No one could say, and no one wanted to express support for the wrong choice. The Engashtans held their tongues, at least in these dangerous times.

After days without success, desperation for information had brought Allian and me to the sketchy footbridge that spanned the river and led to the east side of the city.

“I suppose we must cross.” Allian gestured to the skinny thing.

I frowned. “We’re safer asking questions here on the west side.” But we would cross, inevitably. Costas, if he had truly been brought to Engashta, would be found on the eastern side. The Ricknagel soldiers were stationed there.

“We can ask questions all we want,” Allian argued. “There are no answers here.”

Any misfired questions could get us into serious trouble on the east side. We had heard talk of pressing the poor for service into Ricknagel’s army, and the wariness we encountered told us people feared to speak against Ricknagel.

“If we go, we’d better look the part,” I said. “Everyone has said the eastern side is for those with wealth.”

“We’ll stop at the first shop we see,” Allian promised. “I have jhass enough to outfit us.”

Like the famous bridge that led into Galantia, Engashta’s footbridge was mage-crafted, impossibly narrow and insubstantial to eyes accustomed to the limits of natural physics. The mageglass twisted into rope-like trusses that appeared more fragile than they were. Even so, every time we took a step, the whole structure swayed.

Allian walked so slowly that I assumed he struggled with the vertigo, too. Surely the tenuous bridge discouraged many people from crossing. By the time my feet arrived on solid ground on the east side and I exhaled, I vowed not to traverse it again, even if it meant swimming back to the Tourmaline in the western harbor.

“We’ll go back by the sky carriages,” Allian said as he looked over his shoulder at what we had crossed. “They’ll let us once we are dressed better.” The other transit between the two sides of the city involved a costly trek over the water in mageglass carriages suspended from cables. When we had presented ourselves at the sky carriage station, the conductor had refused us passage based on our shabby attire.

We left the shore and headed into the eastern quarter, following a tree-lined path that broadened into a carriage road and then a bustling avenue. Pedestrians and carriages whizzed by at the speed of commerce. We easily found a shop with fancy robes in the window.

“I’m looking for a new tunic,” announced Allian to the shopkeeper’s inquiring look. “Blue, if you have it.”

“Certainly, certainly.” The tailor bowed, a more pleasant look on his face having heard Allian’s cultivated voice. Engashtans, I’d learned these past days, were inveterate snobs. “I have a few ready-made; I could fit one to you?” He pushed through his racks, gesturing for Allian to remove his battered shirt. The tailor found a tunic, laced Allian in, and pinned up the excess fabric.

“Where have you come from, sir?”

“The south.”

“Did you encounter the war as you traveled?” the little man asked.

“In Hemicylix, a bit.” Allian appraised the situation and took a risk, since the tailor seemed talkative. “They say Costas Galatien has been taken.”

“So they do, so they do.” The tailor turned Allian so he could reach the back side of the hem.

I sighed. We never got any response when we delivered the news of Costas’s capture. The tailor continued his pinning silently. I pretended interest in a rack of beaded capelets.

“Now, young man, just let me take this up to my workshop. It won’t be long. Look around at my samples. Maybe you want something else? A better dress for your handmaiden?” The tailor frowned at my Sulphidite garb—I still wore it as a form of protection—as he departed.

“Trusting, isn’t he?” Allian whispered. Despite his now-bare chest, his long leather gloves still covered the magemark he had on his left arm—the one every Dragonnaire received upon induction into the order. “Leaving us unsupervised.”

“Look at this!” I picked up a long, elegant cloak, peacock blue, embellished with intricate gold embroidery. I’d never seen anything like it. “Is it for a man?”

“Absolutely, and most appropriate.” A voice called from behind us. A fat man struggled through the entrance preceded by a tiny child. His gaze locked on Allian’s bare—and one could hardly help but notice, well-muscled—chest.

The child, a genderless creature, had its hair cut around its head in the shape of a mushroom. I returned the child’s bow, keeping up the image of a handmaiden.

“Good day.” The newcomer wore a friendly smile, and a waistcoat stretched across his belly, straining the buttons. He could not hide his obvious interest in Allian. “That cloak is from Vhimsantyr. It does require a lean man. I bought it for my niece’s husband upon their wedding. As it turns out, he’s an absolute brick, far too large for the garment. It wouldn’t do at all. The tailor offered to sell it for me. I’ve no use for it, myself. It wouldn’t fit the likes of me, either.”

I caught a manic giggle at the top of my throat. Finally we had found someone willing to talk!

“Try it on, try it!” the man urged Allian as he plucked the cloak from my hands and dropped it over Allian’s shoulders. “You do look quite majestic. It would be perfect for the masque. You could go as a Vhimsantese emperor.”

Allian and I stared at the man blankly.

“You are going, aren’t you?” he asked eagerly. “Why else would you be here? This place specializes in costumes.” I glanced nervously down at the servant child, who offered no reaction.

“I’m just getting a new tunic,” Allian said.

“You don’t know about the masque tonight? But you simply must go as a Vhimsantese emperor! You look the part! All you’d need is that cloak and to paint the sigils of a god-born on your cheeks. It works all the better because your girl can still wear a veil as your attendant. She’s a Sulphidite, I assume?” He gave Allian an assessing look. “I’ve heard Sulphidites are quite expensive.”

Allian gave a noncommittal grunt and tried to peel the cloak from his shoulders.

“No, no!” cried the man. “Keep it on!” He tapped his servant’s shoulder. “See what’s over there for a navel-dancer.” The little one snapped to attention and scurried to a rack of clothing in the far corner.

“I didn’t introduce myself. I am Sir Kiril Engashta, as my cousin the duke would have me styled.” He offered a pudgy hand to Allian. “I really was so taken in by you in that cloak.”

Allian took Kiril Engashta’s hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. I am ah… Allian—Allian Ker-Kersin. Of Amar.” I glared at Allian and wished he were as smooth with deception as Laith.

“You’re far from home. I wouldn’t have placed you as Amarian. Kersin. Kersin. I don’t know that name. What brings you to Engashta?”

Allian cleared his throat. “Oh, my business has me traveling all over. I don’t often get all the way up here—”

“What business are you in?” Kiril interrupted.

Allian flushed. “Ah, import-export, sir.”

“Very good, very good!” Kiril exclaimed. “I dabble in that myself from time to time. I have friends in Vhimsantyr, so I do my share of ferrying unusual items back from there. It can be so hard to get eastern items these days with the tight control of the border. You are staying with friends in the city?”

“I have a ship. I sleep there with my crew.” Allian’s men had been scouring the city with as little success as we had had.

“Now, a ship is no place to sleep! Leave your crew to manage the boat and do come along with me to my place, Kersin. Or can I call you Allian? I prefer a less formal address, don’t you? There’s plenty of room at my place. The masque begins at the hour of Amarite, and you simply must attend as my guest. What have we then?” The little serving child stood before Kiril, burdened with reams of silky fabrics.

The fat man took up two pieces from the pile and held them up. “This one seems a trifle large.” He cast the garment aside and drew up another.

“This is wonderful,” Kiril exclaimed. “I have just the baubles to go with it.”

“Sir,” Allian said in a strangled voice. “She is a Sulphidite. She cannot wear such garb.”

“Oh, nonsense. Maybe if she were in Lysandra, but no one cares here. You’ll love the masque. It’s the most important event Engashta’s ever hosted! I hear Xander Ricknagel let his daughter plan it, which is why it’s a masque.” He gave us a significant look. “She’s disfigured, you know, Lady Sterling.” He leaned in close to us. “The masque is for her betrothal. Xander Ricknagel has promised Lady Sterling to Erich Talata. I hear Ricknagel does not approve of Brokerings, which is understandable. Look what happened to his poor Stesichore.”

Both Allian and I had sprung to full alert at the mention of Ricknagel’s name.

“Lord Ricknagel’s here?” Allian probed. “In Engashta?” I winced as Allian forgot to title Ricknagel king. Obviously this Kiril was a Ricknagel supporter.

“Of course he is! Lady Sterling arrived shortly after him. Tirienne Talata and her son Erich are here as well. They’ll all be at the masque.”

“Forgive me,” Allian said. “I was under the impression that Ricknagel led a war. What is he doing attending masques?”

“You didn’t hear, my boy?” Kiril thrust the bits of clothing he had selected for me into my arms and clapped Allian’s back. “The war’s done. The betrothal’s a celebration! Ricknagel’s won! It’ll be a new era in Lethemia, a Ricknagel era. Such eras tend to be short-lived, of course, but I’ve high hopes for Xander. He’s a strong man with good character.”

“Is Costas dead then?” Allian’s face paled, but his voice remained steady. I could have kicked him for using Costas’s first name so casually.

“Dead? Why, I couldn’t say. I never had a problem with him, of course, but if what they say is true, he murdered his wife! What else could Xander do for the love of his daughter? Xander’s skilled. A bit harsh, a bit rigid, to be sure, but I hear he’s throwing us a fine party.”

I wrinkled my forehead beneath my shroud. What sort of king threw a masquerade ball before he even had the country secured from the war he’d waged upon it?

The tailor returned with Allian’s new tunic.

“So you’ll come to the masque?” Kiril asked as Allian paid for the item and donned it. “I’ll not have no for an answer.”

Allian and I exchanged a quick glance. We both knew the masque would be our best hope of gathering more information. People who knew Costas’s fate would be there. Xander Ricknagel himself would be there.

Allian took the offer. “We’ll come, but I must go back to my ship. I’ll bring my young manservant with me, if you do not mind?” I silently thanked Allian for remembering Miki. He had mentioned when planning our scouting missions that he thought Miki might be the most useful of all of us for gathering information because “people will say things in front of children that they won’t before adults.” This had seemed to reconcile Allian to Miki, at least for the moment. He had said nothing of Oruscani, at any rate, though I had feared the Dragonnaire might hold that death against Miki.

“Why, of course, go fetch him and bring him,” Kiril Engashta said. “I’ll send my servant with you to show you the way back.”

With Kiril Engashta’s servant child as our guide and Allian’s new clothes, we had no trouble getting a spot on the sky carriages to cross back to the western harbor. As we stepped down from the mageglass box, I yanked Allian out of range of the servant and muttered, “Are you certain this is wise? This man is a stranger. Why would he invite us into his home? I don’t trust him.”

“This is our only chance to enter Ricknagel’s sphere,” Allian replied. “We must take it.”

I frowned, though I knew he was right.

“He’s a fat dilettante,” Allian said scornfully as we hurried towards the harbor, the child a few steps behind. “And by all appearances, he’s mostly interested in getting in my breeches, the lech. Don’t you think if it came to it, I would win any fight between us? I won’t let him hurt you. Do not fear.”

Despite his words, I worried. Physical violence was not the only way to hurt a person.

By the time we reached the steps to Kiril Engashta’s townhouse, even Miki looked exhausted. A servant awaited us in the hall to take our cloaks.

Kiril called down the stairs, “You made it! Come in, come in. We’ve so much to do in such a short time!” Kiril gestured us deeper into his house. “I’ve spent the afternoon sorting out costumes for you. I do hope you like them. Here now, follow the maids upstairs. They’ll show you what I have arranged.”

Kiril’s house passed by in a blur as we were hurried to the upstairs rooms. The maids showed us in and then departed, leaving Allian and Miki in one and me in the neighboring one. I wondered briefly what reason Kiril made for Allian having two servants.

Miki flew through the door, brandishing a fluffy white thing. He snorted and threw it on the bed. “This is ridiculous.”

“Is that your costume?” I stifled a smile. “Just put it on. We need you to come to the masque. You’ll be another set of ears, and Allian’s right. People speak more freely around children.”

“It looks like something Costas would wear,” he complained.

“It could be worse,” I said. “Look at mine.”

As Miki trudged behind the dressing screen with his armful of clothing, I sighed and donned my scant costume, a long skirt and a brief corset-like top made from metal that dug horribly into my ribcage. Apparently eastern dancers suffered great discomfort in the name of their art. I would suffer, too, if it meant I moved a step closer to finding Costas and Tiriq.

“Come, come, you all!” Kiril called from the hall. “We’re already fashionably late!”

Twenty-Seven

Tiny magelight lanterns in every color lined the walkway leading to the Duke of Engashta’s mansion. Dusk had fallen; only the lanterns lit our way. Servants welcomed us into a spacious hall with polished wood floors, a small dais at one end, and a wall made of mirrors.

“Kiril, you’re late, as usual!” called a tall, barrel-chested man. Lord Kiril, despite a black-feathered mask upon his face, was easily recognized with his rotund belly and his impish servant skipping at his heels.

“Did you bring guests?” the man who greeted Kiril inquired.

“My new friends. Cousin, meet Allian Kersin of Amar. Doesn’t he look fine dressed an Eastern Emperor?”

The barrel-chested man gave a shallow smile. “Well met, Mr. Kersin.” He offered a courteous hand to Allian, and we entered the bustling party.

Kiril made introductions that did not stick in my head. Allian was swarmed by Kiril’s many friends, so I headed off to acquire flutes of akavit, the favored drink of Lethemians.

I towed Miki with me. “If you can,” I whispered, “go explore the house. See whatever you can of Xander Ricknagel’s accommodations. Perhaps you can find correspondence, something that might lead us to Costas or Tiriq. If you get caught you can pretend you got lost.”

Miki nodded and slipped away. I returned to Allian and Kiril Engashta with the akavit.

“Excuse me.” Kiril gestured to the ballroom’s entrance. “I must go greet Xander Ricknagel.” He did not invite us to join him, no doubt considering us too insignificant to greet Lord Ricknagel—or King Ricknagel, if you asked Kiril.

Ricknagel was buried beneath a blue silk cape, and his mask obscured most of his face, revealing only his bold, square jaw and solid neck. He carried a fierce-looking spear like a sceptre or a staff.

Allian gave a sharp intake of air and muttered, “Ricknagel is dressed as another Vhimsantese Emperor! That’s damned bold, considering Mydon Galatien suspected he was treaty with the east in secret.” He leaned close to me. “This is our best chance to learn of Costas’s whereabouts. We must not waste it.”

I nodded. “And Ricknagel is the best mark for accurate information.”

Xander Ricknagel had seen us; amusement flashed on his mouth as he recognized Allian’s costume, but greeting important people kept him too busy to pay us more than an ironic bow. Eventually Ricknagel ascended the dais with a tall woman dressed in grey and a young man with a face better suited to an artist’s masterpiece than real life.

A commotion preceded a young woman across the ballroom floor. Gold ribbons and pale curls cascaded from her head, and she clasped, white-knuckled, a gold and blue fan. I recognized her even with the mask: Sterling Ricknagel. Ghilene and her brother had nicknamed her Splotch-face because of the birthmark on her cheek. Her golden mask hid the mark, but her hair was distinctive.

Xander Ricknagel announced the betrothal between his daughter and Erich Talata, the beautiful young man on the dais, in an almost hurried manner. Erich Talata and Sterling Ricknagel held hands in front of us, officially engaged in a ceremony that replicated the one between Costas and Stesichore Ricknagel at the Brokering.

The party resumed. Allian struck up a conversation with a gentleman dressed all in black.

“Which is your home province?” asked the man in black.

“Amar,” replied Allian. He shifted guiltily—he was nearly as bad a liar as I.

“But Amar was allied with House Galatien.”

“The Galatiens are defeated,” Allian said, hastily trying to steer the conversation. “Ricknagel is King. We all adapt. What do you think of Xander Ricknagel?”

“He’s a strong leader.” The man lowered his voice.

“Have you heard any news of what befell Costas Galatien?” Allian asked, unable to control the tension in his face. “Is he dead or captured?”

“Are you a fool? This is hardly the place for such talk. Watch what you say.”

Allian clenched his jaw and waited a moment before saying, “I beg your pardon, sir. I spoke idly. I meant nothing by it.”

“I know that, and you know that, but other ears will not. Take care.” The man swirled his black cloak and walked away from us.

“Amatos be damned!” Allian whispered. “He feared to talk. There must be something he and others know. No one’s willing to talk. Gods, what if he’s dead?” Allian gave me a stricken look. Miki had told me that Costas had picked all his Dragonnaires up from the streets of the High City when they were children, so Allian’s loyalty came as no surprise. Costas had trained him, pushed him, and demanded that the street boy reach further than he had ever dreamed. Like a sculptor, Costas had seen the grain in him and made it shine. I could see how it was. The Dragonnaires’ loyalties ran as deep as blood ties.

“He’s alive. I can still feel him,” I said. The living heat of our ung-aneraq remained taut and vital. Had I the training, I might have been able to follow the cord itself like a Lethemian mage to track him.

“Then we’ve got to find him,” Allian said. “Where’s Miki?”

“I sent him to search the house.”

“I thought he could dance with the Ricknagel girl, Sterling. She looks so forlorn, standing alone.” He pointed her out, surreptitiously. “I think her betrothed has abandoned her. A sad, lonely girl might just make a revealing confession to a friendly boy. Too bad Miki’s so much shorter than she is.”

Couples were forming throughout the room as the musicians tuned their instruments.

“I’ll get him to do it when he returns.”

Allian looked across the room at Xander Ricknagel where he stood, not far from the dais. “There’s one man here who surely knows where Costas is being held. If only we could—”

“I’m going to try to speak with him,” I announced. He wouldn’t know me. I’d been only a servant at the Brokering, beneath his notice.

“Be careful,” Allian murmured as I set off in Ricknagel’s direction.

I bumped Xander Ricknagel gracelessly but purposefully, grabbing his arm to prevent my fall.

He laughed. “I do believe it’s my rival emperor’s own navel-dancer,” he said, helping to right me.

I played along. “Oh yes, you are the other emperor.”

“Tell your master I’ll steal his navel-dancer if he’s not careful.”

I pulled my arm from Ricknagel’s grasp. Was he flirting with me? He gestured to the dance floor in invitation.

I blinked in horror—I couldn’t dance with him. He’d feel my magic! I blushed and stammered a vague refusal as I retreated with hurried steps back to Allian’s side. That had not gone well. I should have known better.

“Anything?” Allian asked.

I shook my head, feeling like a complete fool.

Allian groaned.

“Have you seen Miki?” I asked.

“Over there.” Allian jerked his head towards the ballroom entrance. Miki stood in the doorway, scanning the room with an anxious expression frozen on his face. I hurried through the crowd towards him.

“Miki! What is it?”

“I found him.”

“C—Costas?” I couldn’t believe it. He was here in the mansion?

Miki grabbed my wrist, tugging me out of the ballroom. He guided me up a flight of stairs and through a hallway where dense red velvet crept up the walls and lined the floors. The jangling anklets Kiril Engashta had lent me for my costume rubbed on my thin nerves.

“I picked the lock with hairpins,” Miki said.

“You know how to pick a lock? Where did you get hairpins?”

“Laith showed me how to pick, and I begged the hairpins off a handmaiden.”

We approached a door, slightly open.

“I don’t think he can see us or hear us. They’ve got him magicked up so that I don’t know how we’ll get him out,” Miki explained.

We checked the hall and then slipped beyond the door, letting it latch behind us. A figure sat utterly motionless in a cushioned chair at the far side of the dim room. He faced us, sitting trapped within some kind of glass box. Mageglass. The night sky shimmered through windows behind him.

I stepped across the deep carpet to get a better look. Yes, the dark shadow behind the glass was definitely Costas. “Is he enchanted?” I asked, breathless with fear and hope.

“He doesn’t move, not at all. It’s unnatural.” Miki lit the candelabrum that stood on a table by the door. “I think the glass itself is enchanted, too.”

Miki approached the mageglass box with the light. My ankle bells rang like weeping as I moved around the mageglass to examine it.

I turned to Costas. A taut thrum on the ung-aneraq told me he could see me, but he remained as if cut from ice, staring without moving even an eyelid.

I rapped my fingers on the greenish glass. I didn’t understand how the Lethemian mages made mageglass, but it seemed like hardened bloodlight.

“Costas?” I murmured. His body remained paralyzed. I had once seen a man in Gante who had fallen while climbing an ice face and smashed his spine. Only his eyes could move as he lay dying, and they had expressed only terror. Costas’s amber eyes glowed similarly in the light from Miki’s candle.

What if they had damaged Costas irreparably? I was glad the light could catch no more than a glint from his eyes. I didn’t want to see what they reflected.

“Miki.” I beckoned him to my side. “I’m going to try to get him out.” I had the Cedna’s ulio stashed in the waist of my costume. I pulled it free and carefully recut my arm on the same line as the last time I had entered Yaqi.

Time stretched as I slowly spun down into the world of bloodlights.

As Yaqi[_ _]materialized in glittering splendor around me, I gasped. A thousand threads had been pulled from Costas’s own gold and black bloodlight, each knotted around a lattice to form a cage entrapping him. He sat, a spider caught hopelessly in his own web, the cords of bloodlight drawn so tightly that he could not move. The thickest cord of all, the one that stretched the short distance between us, our ung-aneraq, remained untouched. It pulsed thickly, almost as though it kept him alive.

“He’s laced in an enchantment like a fly in spider’s silk, and his own bloodlight is the web.” I reported slowly to Miki—it was difficult to talk while in the trance of magic. “It’s going to be a long, delicate task to get him out. I cannot use the ulio. Too much of his bloodlight is involved.” My hands itched to begin. “I think I can unknot it, Miki, but you have to stand guard. Can the door be locked from within?”

As Miki scurried to check the door, I considered the job ahead of me. My hands knew knotting. By necessity, they also knew unknotting. The making goes easier than the unmaking—so old Nautien, who’d taught me to weave, had been fond of saying, especially when things had gone awry in my net. Her words had been a jest and truth of magic, too. The Lethemian mages exploited this rule; what a mage sowed with a few twists of a magestone could only be undone with slow, painstaking unknotting.

“It’s got a bolt,” Miki announced from the doorway. “I’ve locked it. We’ll hear if anyone approaches.”

“I’m going to begin. I’ll go as fast as I can.” It had to be an agony for Costas to have his bloodlight stretched and pulled. I worried also that someone—the mage who made this web, perhaps—would come to check on him, or worse, feel my unraveling of the spell.

As I reached into it, Costas burning bloodlight hit me like a fever. Bloodlight was as tender as flesh. It distressed me to see his so mishandled. Freeing him would only be the first challenge ahead. How would he heal from such abuse?

Yaqi’s signature airlessness clamped down on my lungs. Though only a phantasm of the mind, the tight, breathless pain in my chest tricked me into thinking I could not inhale. I unwound at least a hundred knots before I had to come up for air. Two more such cycles passed; I’d made a dent in the trappings when something tore me roughly up from my trance.

I slammed into the mageglass wall that separated me from Costas. The mageglass didn’t shiver with a single crack, but my body screamed at the impact. I crumpled to the floor. Miki huddled in a posture similar to mine, but he struggled to his feet and launched himself at the figure towering over us.

Ricknagel was a big man, muscular and hard, a veteran warrior. The flick of his arms was almost casual as he threw Miki against the wall again. Miki squeaked like an injured puppy and this time stayed curled on the floor.

Xander Ricknagel walked to the wall, lighting a sconce that better illuminated the room. “Two children,” he said. “Is that all Costas Galatien has left to defend him? Children who don’t know any better?” He turned a cold blue gaze on me, his mask abandoned. His face was sterner than I would have expected after his flirtation in the ballroom, lined and grim. He did not acknowledge that we had spoken earlier, that he’d gazed at me then like I was a bit more than a child.

“We—we were here for the party,” I faltered hopelessly. “We got lost.”

“You didn’t seem lost when I found you. More like you were in a trance. Like you were seeing the Aethers. Doing spellwork. Trying to free him.”

Ricknagel loomed. My body ached where it had struck the mageglass. He yanked my green costume veil forcibly from my face, catching a stray wisp of hair in the action. I yelped in surprise and pushed myself against the glass.

Ricknagel twisted my head to the right. My neck bones popped, but the crack offered relief from the tension that had gathered as I unwound knots.

It felt so good, I sighed.

“Amatos be damned!” He dropped me as if I were made of hot coals. “I remember you. From the Brokering. Are you the one he turned to after my daughter? I know he likes to hurt his women. My daughter told me what he did to her.”

“Hurt his women?” I echoed in confusion.

“He was cruel to my Stesichore; she told me all about his deviant ways.” He pointed towards where Miki lay. “Get up and step aside.”

Taking the opening, I darted to Miki’s side. “Are you all right?” I whispered to him in Gantean.

Miki nodded and squeezed my hand. Ricknagel leaned into the mageglass box to study Costas.

Door hinges creaked. A new voice cut the tension in the room. “Hello?”

“Allian?” I squeaked as he stepped into the chamber. His eyes widened as he saw Ricknagel and Costas, side by side but for the mageglass separating them.

Allian crossed the room in two long strides. “Costas,” Allian said as he stared through the glass.

“Galatien,” finished Ricknagel. “My captive.”

Allian faced the larger man, his back as straight as a sword. “I shall fight you for him.”

Ricknagel huffed in amusement. “I’ve no intention of giving him up. I didn’t take him to sell him. Even so, you’d do better to offer me gold. I have no inclination to fight. Nice costume, by the way.”

“You mistake me,” Allian said. “I wasn’t making an offer.” He swiped his fine embroidered cloak from his shoulders, dropped it, and shook the sleeves of his tunic. He stuck one hand up each sleeve, giving a curtailed bow to the usurper king. His gaze never left Ricknagel’s face.

Recognition dawned as Ricknagel observed Allian’s ritualized gestures. “A Dragonnaire! Someone finally came. I had begun to doubt the renown of Costas’s special legion. Give me your name.”

“I have no name,” Allian spoke the words formally. “I am his, blood and breath.”

Ricknagel nodded. “The damned girl over there is yours, is she?” He scowled as he shrugged his own cloak to the floor. “Amatos, what a fool I am.” He stalked towards the door.

In a flash, he whirled and grabbed the spear that he had carried at the party, which was leaning against the wall beside the door. In the instant that Ricknagel sprang, Allian moved, whipping his hands from his sleeves, his matched butterfly blades flashing free. Both men dropped into crouches, circling. Allian’s face remained impassive, but on Ricknagel’s I read fury and determination.

I pulled Miki into the corner. He tapped urgently on my shoulder and pointed across the room. “Leila, look.”

A white cradle had been pushed against the wall beneath the far window. I suppressed a cry.

Miki’s eyes narrowed to slits as he watched the fight. We could not cross the room lest we interfere with Allian’s success. He and Ricknagel fought in the Lethemian style, with regimented, precise forms, following rules. Allian moved with practiced grace, his hips swiveling in methodical patterns, his blades carving circles around him. He caught Ricknagel’s spear between the butterfly swords and began a slow, inexorable slide towards the other man’s hands. Ricknagel pushed him off.

I could barely breathe. I needed to get to that cradle. TiriqTiriqTiriq—I could think of nothing but my boy. Yet I could not reach him. My heart raced and raced.

Ricknagel had power, but Allian’s calm method wore down the bigger man. After seven or eight tries, Allian finally managed to slide all the way down the spear with his blades. The weapon burst from Ricknagel’s grip. A flash of red showed him blooded. Even so, he did not yield. Allian flew at Ricknagel, swords glittering in a deadly rush.

Ricknagel fell with a dull thump that echoed throughout the room.

“Leila!” Allian turned from Ricknagel’s fallen body without so much as a pause. “Can we get him out? Do you know what they’ve done to him?”

Miki crept with me from the shadows. I pushed him towards the cradle—he didn’t need to be told what to do. He bent and retrieved my fallen ulio on his way to Tiriq.

“I’m working on it, but I need time. How did you find us?”

Miki lifted my boy—my sweet boy—into his arms. Relief almost made my legs buckle.

“I decided to do my own search of the house. Look, do what you have to do as quickly as you can. Ricknagel should be out for a good while, but eventually he’ll wake.” He looked around the room. “Is there any rope? I could tie him.”

“He’s not dead?” Hadn’t I just seen Allian cleave the man’s face in two?

“The back edge of the blades are blunted,” Allian explained. “Ricknagel must see a full trial for his treasons. If I were to kill him now, there would be only another assassination to tally in this conflict. Costas likes to do everything by the books.”

As much as I wanted to go to Tiriq, Costas needed me more. I heard my boy’s happy gurgles as Miki bounced him in his arms, and that had to suffice to calm me. I had to continue my unraveling, and I needed all my wits to do it.

I hurried, my fingers burning from the labor of unknotting. Suddenly, Costas’s bloodlight swelled and amber sparks exploded in my face. I screamed.

Thrust from Yaqi again, I met Allian’s blue eyes. They looked wrong. His lips parted on a weak exhale as dark liquid seeped from the corner of his mouth.

“Allian!” I shrieked as he fell into me. Then I looked down.

A full span of spear emerged from the center of his body.

A shadow followed me as I lowered Allian to the ground, moving as though trapped in syrup. I stared up in shock. Miki clung to Xander Ricknagel’s shoulders as together they melted slowly to the floor. The boy had one hand laced in the big man’s peppered hair, the other gripping the hilt of the ulio.

Miki had thrust the blackstone blade so deep in Ricknagel’s neck that I could see only a flash of white bone hilt and Miki’s bloody fingers.

Ricknagel’s eyes were large and still. Miki’s mouth was set and grim.

“Miki?” My voice quavered. “Where’s Tiriq?”

“In the cradle.” Miki yanked the ulio from Ricknagel’s neck, sending a gush of blood cascading everywhere. He clambered from Ricknagel’s back as the man slumped into a gurgling heap beside Allian. Ricknagel’s large hands weakly groped at his throat, trying to stem the waterfall of blood to no avail. His eyes darted. I looked away.

“Get Costas out,” Miki said in a flat voice as he leaned over Allian, checking both his pulse and breath before shaking his head. “I’ll get Tiriq and we can get out of here.”

Tiriq, Tiriq, Tiriq. My son’s name echoed in my head as I went back under Yaqi’s scrim to unravel the enchantment with shaking hands. Costas’s bloodlight stormed in pulses of orange, gold, and black, growing more chaotic with each unstringing. I held onto my breath the way I wanted to hold Tiriq: fiercely, possessively, greedily.

Reach, pinch, pull, pinch, untwist. I moved like one of Lethemia’s magic engines, my body rising and falling in a choreography of five actions. At last, I found myself gripping the last strand of the web, reaching, pinching, pulling, pinching—

An eruption of gold bloodlight sent me flying backwards, warming me from the inside out[_. _]The room reeked of copper and blood. Miki stood beside me with Tiriq fussing in his arms.

“It’s done,” I said. Within the mageglass box, Costas stood, finally free of the binding enchantment. He made to take a step, but he stumbled. As he caught himself on the mageglass, it cracked. The crack grew, radiating from its source, branching and growing like a living thing. I pulled Miki and Tiriq away from the glass as it shattered outwards in a savage rain of shards. When we dared to stand again my arms bled from a thousand tiny nicks. I extracted Tiriq from Miki and clutched him against my chest, feeling his fast heart beat against mine. A wave of calmness flooded over me. I had him. I could face anything to get us free of this. Tiriq murmured a soft, contented sound that was completely incongruous with everything that had just transpired. He fit against me like a puzzle piece, tight and close and safe.

Costas knelt beside Allian.

“He’s dead,” I said. I glanced at Ricknagel, who no longer gurgled. “Ricknagel, too.”

“What are you doing here?” Costas asked.

“I came with Allian to find you.” The current danger of our situation suddenly hit me like a falling boulder. Miki and I were soaked in blood and dusted with shattered mageglass. Everyone outside this room supported Xander Ricknagel. How would we escape?

Costas hissed, “By Amatos, you were meant to stay in Galantia.” He glanced up at me and his face hardened. “You madwoman. You didn’t bring our son here! How could you?” Accusation laced his words.

Miki stepped between us. “Don’t speak to her like that. She came to get you. She didn’t have to. Maybe she didn’t even want to! But she came. It was that Ghilene Entila who sent Tiriq here. She betrayed you to Xander Ricknagel and handed him your son! We came to rescue you both.”

Costas glared at Miki, but the boy only took one step closer to him. “You’d better treat her well,” he demanded. “I’ve killed a king once. I can do it again.”

Miki had a smear of blood across one cheek; his white dress clothes were splattered with red, rusting in the soft light. He held Costas’s gaze unabashedly as he brought up the bloody ulio and drew it suggestively above his throat.

His eyes glowed ferally.

Costas, lightning quick, caught Miki’s wrist and squeezed. Weak as he may have been from his imprisonment, Costas still managed one rapid twist that sent the knife crashing to the floor. Costas gave the weapon a scornful look and left it where it lay. He stalked to the door to peer into the hall. Miki snatched the ulio and stuffed it back into his belt.

Costas strode back into the room and wrestled our son from my arms. The unraveling had left me exhausted; I could not resist him. Tiriq began to squall and shriek, reaching for me.

“Costas—”

“Where are we?” he interrupted as he pressed Tiriq’s head against his chest in a motion that would have endeared me to him at any other time. He appeared utterly dazed.

“The Duke of Engashta’s mansion. There’s a party happening in the ballroom,” I explained. “We must be careful to avoid any notice.”

“That gods-damned Entilan bitch. She’ll pay for this. The traitor! Fucking betraying magitrix! Where is she?”

“You can deal with Ghilene later.” I was none too pleased with her myself. “We need to get out of here without attracting attention.” Though I longed to take Tiriq back, he rested safe enough with Costas, so I turned and plucked up Allian’s cloak.

I swept it over Costa’s shoulders, drawing the hood to cover his distinctive hair. Miki and I were too bloody for a disguise.

Costas pushed Tiriq back into my arms and bent over Allian’s fallen form, searching the ground until he found the Dragonnaire’s butterfly blades. He unstrapped the forearm holsters from Allian’s lifeless arms and put on the blades himself. Then he rose and held his arms out again for Tiriq.

“I’ll have to risk sneaking out with Tiriq,” he said. “You and Miki can go out a window. You can’t be seen with all that blood covering you. How do we get out of Engashta? Allian must have had a plan.”

“We have Allian’s ship in the western harbor.”

Costas tucked Tiriq into his tunic. I took the long veil that still hung, torn, from my head, and used it to strap Tiriq to Costas. My heart wrenched, but Tiriq was better off with Costas than me during the escape. Costas could fight.

“The western harbor. Damn. We’ll have to take the footbridge across the river,” Costas muttered. “The sky carriages will be crawling with Ricknagel’s men.” He closed his eyes. “We’ll meet at the footbridge. You know how to get there?”

“Y—yes.” I grabbed Miki’s hand, pulling him away from Costas and Tiriq, though I could almost hear the screaming tension of the cords that connected us all in Yaqi.

As Costas departed down the red hallway, Miki and I turned to the windows.

Miki shed his boots. Covering his hand with the leather, he used the thick end of the ulio hilt to smash out the window. I delicately cleared the jagged glass from the opening.

“I’ll go first,” I ventured.

After I had inched out the window to hang by my fingers from the sill, I gingerly eased into empty space. I searched the darkness for a foothold, but I found nothing.

“Just let go,” advised Miki from above. “There’s a roof to land on only a few spans below you. It’s some kind of gable or alcove.”

I muttered a prayer to the spirits and let go of the windowsill. The roof smacked my feet, but I managed to keep them, even on the slant. Miki’s eyes glinted above me.

He exited the window with aplomb, landing neatly beside me, crouched like a snowcat.

I peered over the edge of our perch. “Still two floors up. Too far to jump.” A single lantern shone below us, illuminating a circle of grass and the edge of an iron fence. “Much too far to jump.”

“I’ll go first this time,” Miki volunteered, swinging his legs from the platform. He dangled for a moment. “There’s a ledge here. I’m going to put my weight on it.”

He shuffled away from me, his hands groping the gable’s edge. “Oh!”

“What?”

“There’s a turret or tower over there. It sticks out and makes a nice angle with this wall. If we can get over to it, we can wedge in the angle and climb down. At least I think we can,” he said.

“How far does your ledge run?”

“I can’t go on it farther than I can hold this gable roof. Too narrow.” Miki paused. I discerned his silhouette, reaching. My jaw dropped as he somehow swung gracefully out into empty air and launched towards the turret. He [_flew. _]He would have no recourse but to crash into the opposing wall and slide down the house like a crushed fruit.

But he stuck, his arms and legs pressed into the corner between turret and wall. I slithered to the flat edge of the platform and stared at his route in horror. He had swung from a thin bar of iron—a flagstaff—that stuck out from the house.

Miki was used to swinging through rigging on Northern Wind. I was not.

“Oh no,” I whispered. Yet what choice did I have but to try? While Miki shimmied down the crevice between turret and wall like a crab. I followed his path along the ledge and gripped the flagstaff. Don’t think, just do. Flow like water. I jumped and swung. Then I let go the flagstaff. The moment of airborne freedom delighted me as much as it terrified me.

I brought my arms over my head and grabbed at the turret wall as I struck it. The thrum of impact seared up my arms, but I pressed into the crevice with all my might. It was not so different from climbing down an ice crevasse, and gravity was on my side. Miki released his breath as I alighted on the grass beside him.

We ran.

Twenty-Eight

Miki and I arrived at the Engashta footbridge before Costas and Tiriq. My pulse thundered in my ears as I attempted to calm myself. Our exit from the party had been harrowing, but it might have been preferable to the deception Costas had been forced to attempt. What if he ran into Kiril Engashta, or anyone who might recognize him? I could only hope Costas understood the gravity of the danger and would act accordingly. The fact that he had collected Allian’s blades comforted me, but how well could he use them with Tiriq tied to his side?

Fog collected over the river mouth in thick clumps. Miki and I huddled, waiting. No magelights lit the bridge, and the mist obscured the moon.

Strange sounds fractured the stillness. Was that the soft crunch of footsteps? Miki pulled out the ulio.

A cry rent the night. “Tiriq!” I plunged recklessly into the fog. Costas and I almost ran each other down.

“Is he all right?” I spoke too loudly, but I could not help myself. I ached to hold Tiriq.

“He’s fine, no thanks to you,” Costas said.

I did not acknowledge his petty remark; I understood that my saving him gnawed at his mind. Lethemian men were proud that way; he didn’t like to require assistance, and certainly not from his woman. He’d have to learn to trust me better. We were married now, after all.

I murmured, “The bridge is a treacherous walk. We must be very careful. If we get separated, make for the western harbor where Lady Tourmaline is docked. The sooner we leave Engashta, the better. Give me Tiriq now.” I held out my arms, unable to endure another second without touching my boy.

“He comes with me.” Costas curled his arms protectively around Tiriq, who remained mostly shrouded by Allian’s Vhimsantese cloak.

“I’ve crossed this bridge before. He’s better off with me,” I argued.

“I do not wish to have to tell you no again,” Costas hissed.

“Then give him to me!” I’d had enough of coddling his pride.

Costas stepped out onto the footbridge. Never in my life had I been faced with such an urge to violence. My hands itched to clobber Costas, to slap him and tear at his hair and clothes. To scream and wail. Only long years of Gantean restraint kept my shrieks in my throat.

“He’s walking too fast,” Miki griped as he followed Costas onto the footbridge. “He’s making the whole bridge sway.”

“Costas!” I called. “We must go slowly! The bridge moves with every step.”

To my relief Costas slowed. I had expected him to ignore me out of pure spite. Halfway across the bridge a slap of wind shook us in a violent surge. I fell to my knees but managed to grip a spindly string of mageglass. Had I held Tiriq, I might not have caught myself. I peered into the mist ahead of me, trying to see how Costas and Miki fared. I could see nothing.

I crawled forward, too frightened by the gusting wind to return to my feet.

I counted the glassy struts of the bridge as I crawled, to avoid awareness of the material’s transparency. The river below was so far down that I couldn’t see it, mist or no.

I froze when I saw two small hands clutching the side of the bridge and turning white with effort.

“Miki!” I flattened onto my belly and stuck my head through the mageglass strands. Miki looked up at me with utter terror in his dark eyes. The mist curled around him like a shroud; I could see little more than his narrow face, though I knew his body swung in the empty air below.

“Hang on.”

His breath came in shallow gulps. I wriggled farther between the mageglass strands, wedging my shoulders against them. Then I reached for Miki’s breeches, hoping to support some of his weight so he could swing back onto the bridge. I caught the waistband but the fragile costume ripped beneath my hand.

A small, frightened sound escaped Miki’s mouth.

“Almost got you,” I reassured him. I leaned out as far as I dared, snaked my arm around Miki’s skinny waist, and hauled.

Miki expertly read my assistance and moved with me, flinging his legs to make purchase on the bridge. He grunted and hooked his knee around a vertical support. I released him and squeezed out from the gap. Miki rested face down, arms flung wide and flat. I waited while he gathered himself.

He said nothing as he pushed onto his hands and knees. Together we crawled the remaining length of the bridge.

In my fear for Miki, I had forgotten to wonder if Costas and Tiriq had made it all the way across, and my lack of concern shamed me. Costas paced along the bluffs, watching us complete our crawl.

“What are you doing? Why are you crawling?” he asked, scowling down at us.

Miki continued without offering an answer. Only once he had all four limbs on solid earth did he rise to his feet and brush himself off.

“The wind,” I said. “It began gusting.”

Costas turned away without offering to help me to my feet.

I hurried after my angry husband into the darkness.

&Two ship’s& boys on Tourmaline’s decks greeted us, showing surprise that we returned with a bedraggled stranger rather than their captain. I left it to Miki to do the explaining.

“I’ll take Tiriq.” I turned to Costas. “There’s a large cabin at the far end of the deck.”

He looked drawn and fatigued, as though he might drop at any moment. “Tiriq can sleep with me.”

I glared at him. “He needs to eat. He’ll cry all night if he doesn’t.” Who knew the last time he had nursed? Despite my explanation, Costas headed towards the cabin with our son. I let him go. Maybe Tiriq could offer him the comfort I could not.

The Tourmaline had been prepped and ready, waiting to sail at a moment’s notice on Allian’s orders. And yet I did not know where to tell the crew to sail.

I knew my next task, though I dreaded it: to find Laith and help him with the Cedna. He’d headed to Queenstown out of Engashta. I still needed to see Costas and Tiriq to safety, and I could not risk bringing Tiriq anywhere near the Gantean sorceress, not after what she had done to Tianiq. Where would Costas and Tiriq be safe? Costas would know once he’d rested and his mood improved. In the meantime, I directed the ship west, offshore. We had a good wind, and few would think to follow us west into nothing.

I retreated to the cabin, changed my clothes, and wiped my body clean with a wet cloth, though I still felt tainted by Xander Ricknagel and Allian’s blood.

Costas lay collapsed and asleep on the cabin’s bed, with Tiriq tucked in the crook of his arm. Tiriq sat up, wide-awake and sucking on the drawstring of Allian’s cloak.

He chirped at me, dropped the string, and reached out his arms.

I gently drew him from his nook. He held me with a strong grip, clutching my neck, nuzzling my chest. An expansive peace came over me as Tiriq softened into my body. I sat down on the cabin bunk, letting my hand fall lightly upon Costas’s shoulder. I had done so much magic earlier that I sank effortlessly into Yaqi, drawn by my connection to Costas.

Costas’s bloodlight had constricted within him, coiling like a snake in a lair. The enchantment had thoroughly taxed him, and sleep was the only cure. I rested at his side with Tiriq in my arms and let myself have the same solace.

&When I woke& Tiriq slept nestled between Costas and me, his mouth open, his breath smooth and content.

Above the small black dome of Tiriq’s head, Costas’s face had relaxed its hard-held lines. He curled around his son like a tongue around a secret, protective and close. I barely breathed into the stillness, feeling the cords that ran amongst the three of us, strong and unbreakable.

Tiriq lifted his head and pawed at me. How many mornings had he awakened while we had been separated, seeking me, only to be denied the reward of my comfort?

Costas blinked; our gazes met. We did not move. We did not have the words to begin all that needed saying. He stroked my hair from my face, running light fingertips over my cheeks. I closed my eyes and let him.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ve been out of my head.”

“I know.”

He pulled me closer so that our arms entwined above our son.

Alone in this quiet place, we three were nearly perfect. Only Tianiq’s absence left a void in our completion.

Silence wrapped around us like a soothing blanket. I feared that if we spoke again, the enfolding ease would disappear. I wanted us to be like this forever, calm and soft, held safe in the dark womb of the ship’s cabin.

But we had no unchanging forever in our future.

I had a duty I could not shirk.

Twenty-Nine

Costas rested only a few more moments in the bed before rising and shaking himself out like a dog after a swim. “Where is the ship headed?” he demanded as he leaned into the cabin’s lone looking glass to comb his fingers through his hair.

I continued to stroke Tiriq’s head, still lost in my imagined haven. “We directed them to sail west. We didn’t know where it would be safe for us to make harbor.”

Costas turned away from the mirror. “Xander Ricknagel is dead. It will be safe in any province that supported House Galatien during the conflict. Amphicylix is the nearest friendly harbor, and only a day’s good sailing away.” He stood, gave me a cryptic nod, and stalked from the cabin. It would be a long time until we recaptured that brief shared tenderness again. I sighed and let Tiriq pull at my neckline, though my milk had nearly dried after so many days apart from him. Nursing him would be a joy I sorely needed.

As we pulled into the broad, deep harbor that opened between Amphicylix and Hemicylix, the opal ring Laith had given me flared with heat and light. Laith’s news must be important if he risked an aether-sending—I had not heard anything from him since we parted ways. He would have called his timing magically serendipitous. I glanced around to ensure privacy while I listened to my brother’s message. Costas stood on the far side of the deck, Tiriq in his arms, watching the approaching skyline of the twin cities.

Costas had rarely let Tiriq out of his sight since we’d set sail. With no mage aboard, he’d had no means to get a message to anyone on land, but he’d used the quiet time as we traveled south to plan, holding Tiriq in his lap the whole time. I had never realized the military bent of my husband’s mind. He spent long hours hunched over maps and papers, murmuring to himself as he planned how to retake the High City from Ricknagel’s army—if they even still occupied it. Costas knew he’d step ashore to chaos. The usurper was dead, but Costas, by disappearing in the wake of that confusion, had left Lethemia essentially leaderless. The people of the country did not know that Costas still lived. It would be work to reclaim his country. Though he had no idea what awaited him in Galantia, he strategized for every eventuality. His thoughts never rested; they creased lines into his forehead as he paced the deck with Tiriq.

As soon as we arrived in harbor, Costas sent two crewmen ashore to hire a wet nurse—at an exorbitant price—for Tiriq. Earlier I had claimed my own milk had dried up during our separation, and my husband had not questioned the lie.

I dreaded what I must do. No matter what plan Costas devised for re-establishing his power, he would guard Tiriq more carefully than his most precious possession—I knew that in my bones. Tiriq was better off with him, much as I hated the idea of being apart from my boy again. I watched them. Tiriq patted at Costas’ hair. Costas grabbed his probing hand and kissed it.

I sighed and dropped my gaze to the small ring on my right hand. An aura of heat radiated from it, nagging me to listen to the waiting Sending. Costas was well occupied getting ready to disembark, so I traced the sigil for Tianiq’s star above the ring.

Laith’s message seared into my head: Come as fast as you can to Queenstown. I have no idea how long she’ll stay here, and if she leaves, I must leave with her. I’m waiting for you at the only inn on Varesa Street.

I walked the deck of Lady Tourmaline long[_ ]after[ _]Costas and Tiriq retreated to the cabin to prepare to go ashore before sundown as Costas had commanded.

I could find a vessel to take me north here. The twin cities’ harbors were large and full of ships. But I knew I had to sneak away—I could not face Tiriq and manage to leave him. How did the Gantean mothers do it? How did they let go of their own flesh and blood, never to know them again?

Gantean mothers never held their own children. After birth the midwives took them away to sever their bloodlight cords as soon as possible. With that severing, a Gantean mother’s emotions melted away like snow in summer. Hadn’t I felt it when the Cedna had cut Tianiq from me? The sudden lack? The long ache of Tianiq’s absence hit me anew, but I could not let anything stop me from finishing my task.

I slipped into the ship’s office and collected a bag of jhass from Allian’s box, tying it against my body beneath my clothes. I had borrowed a black crew uniform from the storage on Lady Tourmaline—sturdy trousers rolled to my calves and a lightweight tunic that left my arms free to move. I needed this freedom as I swung over the gunwale and descended the rope I’d rigged.

I schooled myself with Gantean expressions as I left. The cold keeps you clear, I said silently as I sank my body into the southern waters of the harbor. Flow like water.

If I had waited another moment, Costas would have prevented me. If I had stopped to kiss my son goodbye, Tiriq would have fixed me in place as surely as a nail fastens wood. So I slipped into the waters without saying goodbye, without argument, without acknowledging any of the ties that anchored me in the sayantaq world. I swam across the broad harbor into the darkening evening.

I did not even leave a note.

A Gantean’s duty trumps everything: love, safety, desire, need. I had known ever since Nautien had given me her anbuaq that I had been selected for this sacrifice. Tunixajiq. The balance must be paid. Individual needs paled beside this requirement. Clear, clear, I chanted to the rhythm of my strokes. Cold, cold, my skin replied against the water’s touch.

Sacrifice was never meant to be comfortable.

&After arriving onshore in Amphicylix&, I took passage north again on a small ship known for its speed. The vessel made the trip direct; I stepped into the chaos of Queenstown only a day after I’d left Costas and Tiriq. As I hurried down the Queenstown quay that teemed with the bright colors and textures of Lethemian life, I recalled that first breathless sight I’d had of the southern lands when I had stepped from the Entilan slaver. How had this world seduced me so easily?

I nearly turned back then. The thought of Tiriq’s lonely cries haunted me. He would miss me so much. If I never made it back, he’d never know why I had left him. He’d be sayantaq. The bloodlight cords pulled and pulled.

Don’t think of them, I told myself. Think of what you must do. No one else can shoulder this duty. No one else has the anbuaq. And what does Laith Amar know of Gantean sacrifice?

I patted at the thigh of my trousers where the Cedna’s ulio sat as I wove through the maze of Queenstown’s streets, looking for the one Laith had named. I’d asked for the blade back from Miki, and he had nodded knowingly. Only he would know where I had gone.

A northern chill laced the air. I had one chance to do what must be done.

&“Just in time&!” Laith threw open the door to his inn room. Typically extravagant, he’d rented the entire top suite. “We should go down to the harbor immediately,” he said. “I’ve been worried she would depart before you arrived.”

I nodded. The sooner I finished this dark task, the better.

I followed Laith down the long pier. Dusk had fallen, shadowing everything. Laith lit the way with his magestone, his face impassive, unreadable.

Firebrand!” I exclaimed as Laith pulled up short. I’d been carefully reading the names of each ship we passed.

Firebrand was a perfect ship: slender, light, and graceful. Laith drew his magestone through the air in three swift arcs.

His magic spiraled into the night. “She knows we’re here,” he murmured. “Come, there’s no use delaying.” He pulled me down the dock until we stood in the Firebrand’s shadow.

“Is that you, Cedna?” he called up the steep face of the ship. “I can feel you there.”

“It is I,” a low voice said from the ship’s deck. “I suppose you want your brother, Laith Amar.”

I stared up at the ship, trying to get a look at her, but the black fold of the night concealed the ship’s deck. My mother. I sought inside myself, looking for any hint of that bind, that unavoidable, desperate, and delightful tug that I shared with Tiriq. I felt nothing. She and I were completely severed from each other, Gantean to the core. Like Tianiq and me.

Free, Iksraqtaq would say. Lost, sayantaq would think.

“May we come aboard, my lady?” Laith requested.

Wood striking wood rattled the air. Laith directed his magelight towards the racket. She had thrown down a rope ladder with wooden rungs.

“Do you need light?” she asked from above. Her voice meant nothing to me, but it was a rich, alluring voice all the same. I’d expected the pride in it—she was the Cedna, after all—but not the grief. Sorrow, the kind of deep sorrow that has no cure, tainted every word. Perhaps she anticipated our ritual. Perhaps she’d only been waiting for a Gantean to come for her. Perhaps she wished for an end.

“We’ll manage,” Laith replied as he ascended the flimsy ladder.

He spoke with the Cedna in low tones that I could not hear as he approached the gunwale. I grabbed the ladder and began my own climb so I could listen.

“I will give you your brother,” the Cedna was saying. Her voice put up no contention; she leaked an incurable sadness that pressed around us, a black burden, as though the night sky had suddenly failed to support itself and leaned now upon our shoulders.

“I would not have settled for anything else,” Laith said, apparently untouched by her despair.

I hauled myself up to the deck. “That—that is not all we require. I am Gantean.” She would know what I meant by those words.

I faced her now, my mother. We had played games as children in Gante, trying to guess our blood-mothers based on appearance, but I would never have guessed her mine. We shared no similarity of face or form. When I’d seen her before, in the stone mansion of House Entila, she had strode at Sterling Ricknagel’s side as though she owned the world, full of unusual strength. Later, she’d argued with my friend Tiercel. Onatos, she’d called him. The sky grew heavier.

Laith had told me his father—Onatos Amar—had loved the Cedna so much he’d disappeared searching for her. My mind spun.

Laith’s magestone only cast a circle of dim blue light, but within it the Cedna’s hair glittered like fire, auburn laced with gold. Her face had strong bones, forcing the overlying skin into angles sharper than it desired.

She stared at me.

I stared at her.

She lifted one hand. Hers was a Gantean hand, broad and sinewy, with long fingers that valued strength over grace. The skin that stretched from her fingers to her elbows was covered with scars, long cuts made by countless ulios, tiny cuts made from the blackstone she sculpted.

I firmed my resolve. I was Iksraqtaq. I would see my duty done, despite the dread that unfurled in a shaking wave through my body. I tightened my grip on the ulio at my waist. One fingertip touched the blade and bled. I grasped Nautien’s anbuaq with my other hand.

Even the sharp hiss of her devastated breath, saturated with pain and recognition when she saw me, would not prevent me.

I would see this through.

I was Gantean.

Gantean Glossary

anbuaq: a magicked charm or amulet

***

anura: a young or small female

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[*bloodlight: *]the energy in any living thing, visible in a magical trance and in Yaqi, the spirit layer.

***

The Cedna: the Gantean embodiment of the goddess, the figurehead of the Gantean culture. A powerful sorceress

***

The Hinge: A Gantean magical construct

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Ijiq: physical reality, the shared world of perception

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Ikniq: The Fire Clan, one of four Gantean communities, they live in the island’s northwestern region.

***

Iksraqtaq: The raw, pure people. The Ganteans’ name for themselves.

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iksuruq: preganant or overly well-fed, full

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Kaluq: The Stone Clan, one of four Gantean communities. They live in the island’s eastern regions.

***

naya: welcome, the Gantean greeting

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sayantaq: cooked, used to describe outsiders to the Gantean culture, or those who have been tainted by outside influences.

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Shringar: The Water Clan, one of four Gantean clans, they live in the southern regions of the island.

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Sukaibiruq: The Slow Dance, Gantean cosmology

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tiguat: the Gantean crèche, a community of children

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tormaq: a totem

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tormaquine: a bone carving worn as jewelry, depicting one’s tormaq

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tunixajiq: “The Balance,” the payment that must be made for magic. Sacrifice.

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Tuq: The Wind Clan, one of four Gantean clans who live on the island’s western coasts.

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ulio: a curved blade made from blackstone with a bone hilt. Used for ritual.

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[*ung-aneraq: *]the blood-heart-breath. A cord of bloodlight that connects two people who have mated.

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uvliaq: a star that sits low on the horizon

***

Yaqi: The Spirit Layer, the domain of magic

Cast of Characters

Ganteans

[*Leila: *]the narrator, a young knotwoman of the Shringar Clan

Murlian: Leila’s friend

Merkuur: a young man enamored of Murlian

Nautien: a Shringar Elder

The Cedna: the errant sorcerer-goddess of Gante

Atanurat: a sayantaq exile

Pamiuq: a Gantean man and escaped slave

Mikien: a child slave taken from Gante and sold in Lethemia

***

Lethemians by House

***

House Entila

Malvyna Entila: Head of House, unmarried

Culan Entila: Malvyna’s son

Ghilene Entila: Malvyna’s daughter

Tiercel: the austringer

Ronin Entila: deceased, Lady Malvyna’s adventuring father

***

House Galatien

Mydon I Galatien: Head of House, King of Lethemia

Jhalassa Galatien: his wife, the queen

Costas Galatien: the eldest son and heir

Adrastos Galatien: the younger son

Allian Kercheve: a Dragonnaire serving Costas

[*Oruscani: *]a lien-bound mage

[*Vatsar: *]the Royal Magarch

***

House Ricknagel

[*Xander Ricknagel: *]Head of House

[*Jenesis Ricknagel: *]Xander’s wife

[*Stesichore Ricknagel: *]elder daughter of the House

[*Sterling Rickngael: *]younger daughter of the House

Serafina: Sterling Ricknagel’s handmaiden

***

House Amar

Jaasir Amar: the young Head of House

Laith Amar: Jaasir’s personal mage

Onatos Amar: the Head of House Amar who vanished years ago, Jaasir’s father

***

Miscellany

Mr. Danei: A mysterious musician and mage

Amethyst: a denizen of the High City

Lymbok: a thief

Kiril Engashta: cousin to a duke

Coming Soon

The Cedna

Tales of Blood & Light: Book Two

From each generation of Ganteans, an Ikniq girl child was called to serve a sacred duty to pay the balance that kept magic alive.

But this Cedna wanted to be more than a sacrifice.

Acknowledgments

This book has had such a long and convoluted life. I still have the original handwritten draft of it that I began when I was twelve after reading Mary Stewart’s [The Wicked Day. _]Close readers may still see some traces of that influence despite the thousands of revisions and changes _The Gantean has seen over the past twenty-five years.

This book would never have been allowed out of my secret, own-eyes-only files were it not for the unflagging support of Beth Deitchman. She was my first reader, and she has unflinchingly reread draft after draft to help me muddle through the changes. Credit her with any competent grammar you have just read. Blame me for the errors.

My husband, Brady Wedman, encouraged me to work on The Gantean again some seven years ago after it had languished for the better part of a decade. He continually gives me ample time and space to write, and this is a superlative gift.

Christine Kam-Lynch was my second reader, and she, too, waded through multiple versions of the story and provided global feedback and motivation at critical impasses.

Harrison Aye, Tony Caruso, Tamara Shoemaker, Nancy Street, and Angela Tsu all gave insightful feedback and advice at various stages. This book needed a great deal of help, and I am amazed at the power of the Interwebs in connecting me with such talented readers and writers.

About the Author

Emily June Street is the author of three novels: Velo Races, Secret Room, and [_The Gantean. _]Her shorter works have been featured in several collections of short stories. She has degrees in psychology and library science, but she divides her time between teaching Pilates and exploring alternative worlds in writing. She founded Luminous Creatures Press with Beth Deitchman in 2013. Look for more installments in the Tales of Blood & Light series coming in 2015 and 2016.

  • @EmilyJuneStreet
  • emily.street.378

https://emilyjunestreet.wordpress.com/

[email protected]

Also by Luminous Creatures Press

Mary Bennet and the Bloomsbury Coven

By Beth Deitchman

***

Margaret Dashwood and the Enchanted Atlas

By Beth Deitchman

***

Velo Races

By Emily June Street

***

Secret Room

By Emily June Street

***

Five Hundred Words of Magic

A Flash Fiction Anthology

***

The Painted Dog and Other Stories

By Beth Deitchman & Emily June Street

***

Ungodly Hungers

By Beth Deitchman & Emily June Street

Published by

Luminous Creatures Press

Copyright © 2015

by Emily June Street

All rights reserved

***

No part of this book may be reproduced or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission.

Cover Credit: SelfPubBookCovers.com/Ravenborn

Map by Jeremy Jensen and Emily June Street

For information:

[email protected]

http://luminouscreaturespress.com


The Gantean

After she is violently kidnapped from her stark existence on the cold island of Gante, Leila must learn to survive in a southern culture her native people hate. She has no choice but to adapt to a foreign new world. In this lush, intricate society, exotic temptations greet her at every turn, including a dangerous love affair with a man she never should have known. When civil war threatens, Leila is forced to choose between southern love and northern rituals. But at what price? Her choice may have widespread consequences even she cannot predict.

  • ISBN: 9781310992643
  • Author: Luminous Creatures Press
  • Published: 2016-06-26 02:05:30
  • Words: 104965
The Gantean The Gantean