Wyrren’s father liked to say that if you choose to fight, then you must also choose to win. It was advice Wyrren never seemed able to follow.
She sat in an alcove deep within the catacombs of Palacia del Torlo. Her blue silk dress was stained by four drops of blood on the bodice hem, and she could feel her face throb with phantom pain under her mask, though her broken nose had been healed hours before. The dead rabbit in her lap stirred under her hands, and she stroked its fur with enough force to make it lay still. Some women knew how to handle a romantic rival. Her best efforts had left her hiding in the dark.
The ceilings stood eight feet tall, arches between pillars, lit by enchanted hanging lamps that cast shadows in all directions. Granite laid here on the foundation, white limestone on the floors above and at the top of the stairs. When Sebastian had shown her this place, he had told her that living with bodies under their feet had become an unsanitary proposition decades ago, and his grandfather had given the order to have the catacombs exhumed. Shelves that had once held corpses had been sealed with new stone, pock marking the walls in a lighter shade of gray.
They used the space for storage now—crates, old files and papers, holiday decorations, cobwebs, spiders and the occasional rat—but the area had not forgotten its original purpose. An aura of death had seeped into the granite over the centuries, and it made the catacombs the best setting in all the palace for necromancy. Wyrren had quietly claimed her own corner after her tour, sure that no one would mind if she arranged the boxes to make herself a hole. Learning to animate the dead was not pretty at its novice levels.
Her hand brushed the rabbit’s gray fur, felt the ribs penetrating from its side. The rabbit’s ears twitched, and it sniffed at her leg, then settled down and began munching at the fabric of her dress. Wyrren leaned against the wall in the dark and felt the sort of emptiness that followed physical and emotional injury. Maybe if she’d been a better mage or a better chess player, things would have turned out differently. Maybe if she had somehow kept the rights to her inheritance, or if she’d even been able to smile at Sebastian…
Maybe if she could have been someone else.
She had been there for nearly an hour when she heard the catacomb door at the far end of the chamber open and close. Two pairs of feet descended the stairs. Wyrren considered a quiet retreat, but the room would echo and they would notice and ask her what she was doing. It seemed to be the least trouble to pretend she was another crate stacked against the wall. No one else stayed in the catacombs long.
The newcomers spoke as they walked, their words an indistinct mutter in the background. Wyrren listened to the sound of their feet as they came closer. She expected them to search the crates for something put away, but they seemed more interested in arguing, and after a minute Wyrren sat up. That was the voice of Sebastian del Torlo, the man she loved. She strained to make out the words.
Sebastian said, “—cast away ———no place.”
His companion said ‘the point’, then ‘damned either way’. His tone was snide, mocking.
They mumbled again. Wyrren heard more footsteps.
The rabbit in her lap tried to jump from her arms and as she restrained it, it occurred to her that the animal had better ears than she did; why not use it? Wyrren shut her eyes and focused on the animal, her hands around the rabbit’s face. She had seen people die. Death was no stranger—her familiarity made it easier to connect with the bones and body, and when she finished the words became clear.
“—spoken like a fanatic in denial,” the unknown man said. Wyrren heard rats in the walls, insects burrowing in the rotting wood of a crate, the wind of her own breathing, the drumbeat of her heart, the distant thud of footsteps overhead, the scuff of the men’s shoes. “You keep doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results.”
“I’m dedicated,” Sebastian said. “Someday I’ll be rewarded for my efforts, Lowar.”
“You’re losing your mind under your facade,” the first man—Lowar—replied.
“I wouldn’t expect you to understand,” Sebastian said. “You don’t know anything. But by all means, give me an excuse to string you up.”
Lowar laughed. “I can think of a few well-placed words that would have some very interesting people asking some very interesting questions, Grand Meister.”
Sebastian was silent for a moment. “What’s your price this time?”
“Who said anything about a price?”
“You haven’t been listening, have you? I don’t want anything this time. I’m trying to give you a warning,” Lowar said. “This is the end of the Torlo line, Grand Meister. You’re falling to pieces, and soon you won’t be of any use to me.”
Wyrren heard the rustle of fabric, the shift of Sebastian’s weight. “Of use to you. Just how deluded have you become, Lowar?”
Lowar laughed. “Why else do you think I’ve let you live like this for so long? I suggest you put your affairs in order, Grand Meister. I’d hate to see Hael Malstrom in a crisis, after all we’ve been through.”
The turn of Sebastian’s shoe, then a loud, dull smack. Lowar stumbled and swore. “If you try anything…” Sebastian said.
Lowar chuckled. “You want to do this here? Really?” he asked. The chuckle became a laugh. “With all the palace over our heads?”
Wyrren heard roaring wind, followed by a crash of wood so loud in her amplified hearing that Wyrren gave a yelp of pain, dropped the rabbit and covered her own ears with her hands. She looked up and saw Sebastian’s body in a broken crate a few yards in front of her, fractured wood scattered liberally around him. Wyrren’s mouth dropped open beneath her mask.
Sebastian raised his head and pushed himself to his feet, fists clenched. Splintered wood fell around him, but he seemed more angry than hurt.
“Remember what happened last time we fought near a city?” Lowar called. “Why don’t you call your crows? I’m sure they’d love to help.”
“I’m going to rip your heart out and feed it to you, Lowar!”
Why wasn’t Sebastian calling his bodyguards?
“I didn’t think so. Pity.” Wyrren heard Lowar’s footsteps walking away. “That’s all for now. Consider yourself warned!”
“You’re not going to win this!” Sebastian yelled back. “When everything’s said and done, there’s going to be one king on the board! And it’s going to be me, do you hear?! Me!”
Lowar mounted the steps at the far end of the catacombs. The door clanged behind him, echoed. The lights rocked, their shadows subtly shifting on the floor. Sebastian collapsed on the nearest crate and buried his face in his hands.
* * *
That morning Wyrren had woken at dawn, laid in bed for a time and stared at the sunlight on her ceiling. She savored its color and glow, the way it streamed and shifted, the dust flecks so clearly illuminated. No one appreciated light like someone who had been raised underground.
She bathed in a claw foot tub enchanted to fill itself on command. She scrubbed her skin with sponges and rubbed herself with expensive oils and soaps. Flocks of birds were carved into the screen that separated her bath from the rest of the room. Sparkling ornaments hung in her windows, shelves and shelves of books lined the walls, rugs covered the floor, silk flowers sprawled in painted vases.
Wyrren Jadis was twenty years old, her hair gold, her eyes blue, her stature tall, her figure too thin for curves, her skin the color of old ice. She never knew what to do with her arms, so she usually stood with her hands clasped unnecessarily tight. In her homeland her coloring marked her as a woman of breeding—she had once been heir to a duchy, and for an afternoon she had been queen of Marla—but here her colorless skin made her an oddity, a foreigner from a land known for assassins and icy wastes, prone to sunburn in the fertile north. And while her features were pleasant when taken on their own, Wyrren had been born with a rare disfigurement: she could not change her expression. Her eyes and mouth hung limp; She tended to stare and could not smile. Her strong, clear voice was a recent development, a spell Sebastian had crafted for her. She’d spent most of her life slurring her words until she’d taken to avoiding social interaction altogether unless it involved writing letters.
When Wyrren had arrived, Sebastian del Torlo, Hael Malstrom’s ruler, had welcomed her. She might have offered him jewels for political asylum, but he had given her and her companions good rooms in his opulent palace, new wardrobes in the local fashions, a generous allowance, a place beside him at his own table at meals, a pledge of protection, access to the palace entire, and a guarantee that Wyrren would be welcome as long as she wished to stay. Wyrren had not dreamed of such generosity. She failed to mention her part in the former King de Marla’s death, or the execution waiting for her should she ever return home.
Every evening she had been invited to his private office with its wood panels and tall windows, and they would play chess and talk of history, politics, magic, mathematics. No crown for Sebastian; he wore a pendant instead, a double-breasted suit instead of a robe, and his throne was a seat amid the high council. He had slanted eyes and high cheekbones, and his long, very straight brown hair was usually tied behind him with a white ribbon. Sebastian’s mother had been a foreigner, brought back from the furthest reaches of the world, and Wyrren always found his features exotic and alluring. There had been times when she could catch him looking at her in his office, at the dinner table, across the room at social gatherings, and he would smile and look elsewhere.
She had thought it meant something.
Since Sebastian had confessed that she wasn’t a suitable match five weeks ago, she had worn a mask over the lower half of her paralyzed face: a painted smile to disguise the slack, dull features that nature had given her. And though they still played chess every night, his smiles were no longer directed at her.
Every day Wyrren’s younger stepsister Ana let herself into the room and picked out Wyrren’s clothes: blue satin with a wide, round neck today. Ana dressed her, brushed her hair, filled in Wyrren’s pale eyebrows and eyelashes so they could be seen against her skin. Ana had taste. Ana had style. Ana was a brown-haired beauty, and she knew it.
“You’ll never guess what I heard,” Ana said.
Ana was a gossip.
Yesterday afternoon, Sebastian’s new fiance-to-be had arrived at the palace: an athlete in a white dress with a company of armored women. Whatever news was to be had, it most certainly had something to do with Lady Kartania Reise, and it made Wyrren severely depressed. “Can we skip this today, Ana?”
“No,” Ana said, and continued brushing Wyrren’s hair. “Kearn had to give one of Kartania’s girls a good, long talk about assaulting the palace guard last night. She was walking by one of the men, and he started cat-calling? So she challenged him to a duel, and when he protested, she beat the crap out of him.”
“You’re kidding,” Wyrren said.
“Bethy said so. The Doppel girls are brutes. They ought to be wearing horned helmets and eating turkey legs at every meal.”
Wyrren pictured the encounter for a moment. As much as she didn’t want those women here, she hated boorish behavior more. “I hate to say this, but that girl may have something there.” Of course, it had probably become severely distorted in the retelling.
“Don’t say that. Honorable men are hell to manipulate,” Ana said. “Beyond that… let’s see. There’s a man with Kartania, coming as an escort or something. Apparently he’s one of High Chancellor Jolcimer’s advisers. Lucky man, right? One of him, a dozen women in his charge?”
“A dozen women who will assault anyone caught ogling them?” Wyrren asked.
Ana paused. “Well. It sounded good in theory.”
“Keep going,” Wyrren said, resigning herself to her sister’s stories. “What’s so interesting about this adviser?”
“You should have been at dinner last night,” Ana said. “The adviser—his name is Edward Lowar, if I’m remembering right—walked right up to Sebastian and challenged him to a game of chess.” She finished brushing Wyrren’s hair and helped her put on the mask. “The wager is enormous. Lowar must be putting his life savings on this; all in diamonds, too. And you should have seen the look on Sebastian’s face. I don’t think they like each other.”
“Lowar’s going to lose a fortune,” Wyrren said. “Sebastian only does two things. He works and he plays chess. I don’t know if he’s ever lost to anyone.”
“How about eating?” Ana asked.
“Part of his job.”
“Sleeping? Does he sleep?” Ana grinned.
“Not to my knowledge.”
Ana laughed and stepped away. “There. You can get up now, you’re done.” She leaned close to the mirror and touched up her full lips with scarlet lipstick. “The game’s scheduled at the rear courtyard after lunch. Some of Kartania’s girls had these knowing smirks on their faces when the offer was made, and from what one of them said to the staff, this Lowar’s supposed to be an excellent player. He might stand a chance.”
“Perhaps I’ll play him myself then. He can earn that fortune back from me.”
“Oh, come on. Come with me. It’ll be fun. You like chess.”
“I like keeping my routine, too,” Wyrren said. “After lunch is my necromancy practice.” They headed into the hall together, locking Wyrren’s suite behind them.
“It won’t kill you to skip it for a day.”
“My routine keeps me disciplined.”
“You have enough discipline for four of five normal people,” Ana quipped. “I think you should come. You’d enjoy it. Or are we just avoiding Sebastian now that his lady’s here, hmm?”
Wyrren wasn’t sure how to answer that question. “Watching a man lose a fortune isn’t my idea of a good time, Ana. As for Sebastian… I’m not avoiding him, exactly. I’m still expected for our usual game in his office tonight.” Though she dreaded going. What was she going to say to him?
“You don’t have to give up, you know,” Ana said, her voice quieting. “They’re not engaged.”
“Engaged to be engaged,” Wyrren answered.
“It’s a political match. They’ve only just met.”
“It’s a smart move. Hael Malstrom and Doppel have been at odds for decades. Maybe even centuries.” And Kartania Riese had the right connections, the right position, and she could smile: everything Wyrren lacked. Wyrren and Ana turned into the main hallway, which had tall east-facing windows that threw light in golden stripes across the crown molding and violet plush carpet.
“Wyrren,” Ana said, and frowned. “One of the first things we’re taught in courtesan work is that people hardly ever make logical decisions. If Sebastian is convinced that he wants you, he’ll find a way to excuse himself. You could change Sebastian’s mind.”
“He told me weeks ago that I wasn’t a good match.”
“You could change his mind.” Ana stopped and crossed her arms.
“With what?” Wyrren stopped as well and faced her sister. Ana stood in a patch of sunlight, Wyrren in shadow. “He had my interest, and he knew it. I didn’t withhold anything. My assets are my intelligence and my character, and he’s turned me down. There’s nothing more I can offer him.”
“Bullshit. Seduce him.”
The idea was both ridiculous and appalling. “I can’t do that.”
“Besides the part where it would never work?” Not that she’d try it even so, but that was the first thing that came to mind. “Because… because Sebastian made a choice, Ana. He didn’t choose me. I don’t like it, but I can’t love him one minute, then try to control him the next.” She couldn’t bear the thought of being refused again. And who was she, to look for his attention anyway? He was her better, the ruler of a great country, an accomplished mage, a respected leader, with all the power and privilege that came with. She had no right. “It’s time we moved on.”
Ana was in the process of rolling her eyes, and she gave a pained sigh. “Wyrren, I love you,” Ana said, and brushed her sister’s shoulder as she passed. “But sometimes you’re an idiot.”
“And why is that?” Wyrren asked.
“Because you still think that people should make sense.”
* * *
The dining hall had been rearranged, and a young, pretty brunette in a cranberry dress had been given Wyrren’s seat: Lady Kartania Reise, daughter of Doppel’s High Chancellor. Beside her sat eleven women who wore boots instead of heels, their skirts split at the sides showing pants beneath, fur trim at their sleeves instead of lace, hair in braids, braces on their wrists, arms thick with muscles. They talked and laughed louder than the rest of the hall, and Wyrren saw one near the end summon one of the kitchen staff by banging her mug on the table. The head butler, who was passing by, cringed.
“You’re staring,” Ana whispered, and took Wyrren’s arm to lead her to the other end of the table.
On Sebastian’s left sat the seven members of his elite bodyguard, collectively known as ‘the murder’. Their uniforms were black with silver edging, and crow feathers had been sewn into the base of their collars. Kearn Nosland sat on Sebastian’s left, a quiet man with shoulder length silver hair. Like Wyrren, Kearn wore a mask over his mouth except at meals, where he revealed an ugly scar where his cheek had once been sliced to his ear on his left side. As head of the murder, Kearn was not only in charge of palace security, but in an emergency could take control of the city’s law enforcement as well.
Corvin sat beside Kearn. He was a stringy, unhealthy looking man with dark circles under his eyes, his black hair spiked down around his face. He had a narrow jaw, his mouth was set in an eternal scowl, and he always wore an orange scarf, black clothes, and twin bandoliers of knives. As Wyrren recalled, Corvin was a demon of some sort, though she never heard the details, and Corvin had no interest in interacting with her.
Next sat Faril, Ornil, and Undil: elementals and identical triplets with round faces and curly brown hair. One was slow-witted, one was cruel, and the last was a charmer. Like Corvin, Wyrren didn’t speak with them often, and she could not tell them apart.
The last two members of the murder were a pair of brothers named Fervius and Verrus. They had been men once, soldiers who were killed in action centuries ago, their memories and personalities summoned and crafted into golems projecting flesh-and-blood human form. Fervius was tall with dark hair, while Verrus had a wide, muscular boxer’s build, his red hair shaved, and a perpetual grin, which widened when he saw Ana come to sit down beside him.
“Morning, sweet thing,” Verrus said.
Ana kissed his cheek and scooted closer to him. Wyrren made a mental note to never let those two sit together again. Ana gossiped and flirted; Verrus mirrored her. Wyrren looked the other direction and spent breakfast pretending not to know either of them. The serving staff brought her a hoppy beer, creamed potatoes, dropped eggs on toast, and thick cuts of bacon, well done.
Every few minutes the Doppel women would shout their conversation, bang their mugs, laugh uproariously. Ana smirked. “Someday, someone’s going to have to learn the meaning of ‘inside voices’.”
Wyrren excused herself from the meal early, and couldn’t help looking at Sebastian on her way out. Sebastian didn’t notice, but Kartania Reise did. Her eyes met Wyrren’s for a moment before Wyrren continued on her way, walking a little faster than usual.
<The chess match is right after lunch…> Ana’s voice sounded in Wyrren’s head.
<I won’t go. Stop asking,> Wyrren answered, and turned into the hall to the library.
The palace library was a multi-story love letter to the written word. As large as the great hall and four stories high, it curved like a shell and took up an entire tower to itself. Three spiral staircases let the patrons onto the second, third, and fourth galleries, where sliding ladders ten feet high allowed patrons access to the top levels. The Grand Meisters of Hael Malstrom loved books so much that their collection contained over a quarter million volumes. Students attending the university across the city often schemed and worked their best connections to be allowed access to the palace. The air smelled like paper, and the desks between the shelves felt like home.
Wyrren spent nearly an hour climbing ladders, books in one arm, her dress’ skirt held in the other. She found books on truename necromancy, truename ice magic, and truename theory, piling them high around a table she’d claimed. By late morning she had two books open, and was busy scratching notes with a squeaky black quill, oblivious to the other patrons until a shadow fell over her light and a woman cleared her throat. “Excuse me, but are you Lady Jadis?”
Wyrren’s quill stopped mid-word, blotting her letter with too much ink, and she looked up into the face of Kartania Reise.
Two other girls accompanied Kartania. The smaller of the two couldn’t be older than fourteen, and she eyed the titles in Wyrren’s pile. The other sported a dark tan, and stood immobile with her arms crossed.
Kartania smiled pleasantly. “My name is Kartania Reise, shieldmaiden of Maeranya,” she introduced herself. “This is big Julita and that’s Thera, our youngest initiate.”
Wyrren felt the urge to protect her books from them. “Lady Wyrren Jadis de Renideo, of Marla,” she said. “Pleased to meet you all.”
“And you.” Without invitation, Kartania drew up a chair and sat down, smiling at Wyrren with her hands folded on the table. “I wanted to meet the guest we’ve heard so much about.”
“I’m… unsure that there is much to tell. I’m very flattered, however,” Wyrren said, even while she reached to contact her sister. <Ana, help me.>
“Is it true that all Marlans are assassins?” Thera asked.
“No,” Wyrren said.
“Are you an assassin?” Thera asked.
“I’m a scholar,” Wyrren said. “A mathematician.”
Thera looked disappointed and scowled. “Math? Really?”
<I’m on my way to the library,> Ana sent. <What’s wrong?>
<Kartania’s cornered me at my desk,> Wyrren replied.
Ana paused. <Please tell me you didn’t just call me out for that.>
<I am not the tactful one,> Wyrren replied.
<I was this close to getting this new serving man in my room!>
“So,” Kartania said. “Why don’t you tell me how you met Sebastian? I’d love to hear more about him.”
<He was so good looking!> Ana continued.
“… Lady Jadis?” Kartania prompted.
Wyrren exhaled. “We… we’re trading partners,” she said. “Hael Malstrom exports food and textiles south, and we ship precious metals and jewels in return. It’s business.”
“So you’re wealthy,” Kartania replied. “What’s your position in Renideo, exactly?”
“I’m…” Wyrren couldn’t think of how to respond, and faltered. What would be the best way to make them go away?
Big Julita answered. “She’s the duke’s heir. ‘de Renideo’ means Renideo is her birthright. Mordache naming conventions.”
“So why come here?” Kartania asked.
Wyrren looked over Kartania’s shoulder, but didn’t see her sister. She had a terrible premonition concerning how this was going to end. “Lady Reise… I’m just here to study magic. That’s all.” She shifted her chair back to leave, but Big Julita stepped behind her, pinning her in place.
“You’re lying to me,” Kartania said. “Because I know you see the Grand Meister privately every day. You’ve been in his office every evening for months now. I want to know what you’re doing in there.”
Kartania leaned forward, elbows on the table, her eyes hard, her lips pressed. Wyrren stared at the jealousy on the face of the woman who was about to get everything Wyrren wanted.
A fury Wyrren didn’t know she carried surged forward. She pushed the table, its feet scraping against the wood floor, and stood. “If you want to know, we make wild love on his desk every night,” Wyrren said. “He can’t get enough of it. It’s hell on my dresses, but he always buys me more anyway, so I can’t complain. I don’t know if he gets any work done in there at all.”
Kartania’s fist smashed into the side of Wyrren’s cheek so hard that Wyrren found herself curled on the floor, pieces of her broken mask scattered around her and her hands clasped around her nose. Her hands were warm and sticky, her own voice vocalizing on its own.
Then there were other people around her. A man touched Wyrren’s shoulder and said, “Stay still, I know vivomancy,” and began to heal her. When he’d finished, members of the palace guard offered to help her to her feet. Wyrren protested. She’d do it herself in a bit, she was fine, everything was fine, please go.
Ana waited behind the crowd. Her eyes went from Wyrren to the blood the servants were cleaning on the floor. “What did you do?!” Ana hissed.
“I… I didn’t…”
Wyrren looked down. Several drops of blood marred the hem and bodice of her lovely blue silk dress. Sebastian had given her that dress.
Ana had a handkerchief out a moment later and dabbed Wyrren’s chin. “You did something stupid again, didn’t you?” Ana asked.
“I… did something stupid,” Wyrren agreed. “Again.”
“Why do you do that?!”
Wyrren didn’t know. She did this every time.
Ana escorted Wyrren back to her room, where Wyrren scrubbed her face of blood and cosmetics until she was a ghost in the vanity mirror. Her nose throbbed and Wyrren prodded it, wondering if it had been healed as well as it could have, then buried her face in her hands.
Ana put her hands on Wyrren’s shoulders. “Come on. Lay down.” Wyrren let her sister guide her, and stared at the sunlight on the ceiling.
“I told Kartania that I was sleeping with Sebastian,” Wyrren said. “In his office. She’ll probably repeat that to him.” She was horrified. Sweet, proper Sebastian, who’d never so much as touched her. She’d never get another chess match after this. He’d probably ask her to leave. “Why do I keep doing this?”
“Picking stupid fights you can’t win?” Ana brought Wyrren three books from her bookcase and piled them at her bedside. “Do you want the comforting answer or the real answer?”
“Will I like the real answer?” Wyrren asked.
Wyrren didn’t ask for either.
“You stay here and read,” Ana said. “I’m going to get lunch. And don’t worry about it, Wyrren. Kartania is in more trouble than you are, I promise you.”
Wyrren picked at her lunch tray when it arrived. Ana slipped out, giving Wyrren her privacy, and Wyrren had time to think. How stupid was she? Trying to make an enemy out of Kartania Riese? In what world would that be a good idea?
She stared around the room: her tall sunny windows, the vanity desk, the porcelain washtub with the clawed feet, the wooden screen and its carved flowers and birds, the small black table where she beat Ana at chess and Ana slaughtered her at cards. Fight or no fight, there was no way that she was going to be allowed to stay here, once Kartania was queen of Hael Malstrom.
She had laid there for nearly an hour when she heard her sister’s voice in her head. <Wyrren?>
Wyrren turned over. <Not now, Ana.>
<You’ve got to get out here and see this chess match,> Ana replied.
<I’m really not in the—>
<I know! I know. But Sebastian’s losing.>
Wyrren sat up. < … What?>
<Get down here!>
Wyrren sat still for a moment and tried to imagine a world where such things were possible. She had lost over a hundred games to Sebastian; it didn’t seem to matter that she had played since she was a small child, the books she’d read, the theories she’d memorized, the new strategies she’d planned.
She grabbed her spare mask and ran. She had to see this.
She caught glimpses of the game through windows on the way—a good sized crowd had formed around the table and the two players, and Wyrren wasn’t sure if she’d be able to see anything through the people. There was also Kartania to consider; the woman was probably in the audience. Wyrren opted for a second floor balcony that overlooked the courtyard instead, and joined the smaller crowd there.
A few people had thought to bring little binoculars and opera glasses. Wyrren recognized an older lady with kinky brown curls and made a deal; Wyrren would explain the moves in exchange for a share in her brass binoculars. The two ended up leaning on the rail together, one eye pressed against a lens each. Sometimes dignity had to be discarded when chess was at stake.
Wyrren had arrived in the last quarter of the game. Sebastian always played black when he could help it, preferring a subtle, defensive style. Edward Lowar—who Wyrren could only see from the back—had taken a stand in the center of the board. He was an aggressive player who sacrificed what he needed to and kept Sebastian stumbling back, scrambling for a foothold.
Ten minutes after Wyrren had arrived, she saw a clear black checkmate. “That’s it. The Grand Meister can’t stop him now—Lowar’s about to win.”
But when it was Lowar’s turn, he removed the last black rook instead. Then he took a pawn on his next turn.
“Why is he doing that?” the lady asked.
Wyrren raised her head and studied Lowar’s relaxed, nonchalant posture, then the tension in Sebastian’s hands. “He’s… well, he’s gloating,” Wyrren said. Lowar took another of Sebastian’s isolated pieces.
“Gloating?” the lady asked.
“Lowar’s going to win. They both understand that,” Wyrren said. “Lowar’s drawing it out. Rubbing the Grand Meister’s nose in it.” In Sebastian’s own courtyard, no less. That man had gall. He was also risking his potential victory, if Sebastian could only turn things around. He didn’t.
The game ended with black in checkmate; Wyrren breathed better once Lowar finally said the words. Sebastian offered the curtest handshake Wyrren had ever seen. Kartania stepped out of the crowd and clasped Sebastian’s arm. Applause was polite, but without enthusiasm.
Ana found her after the game, with Verrus from the murder in tow. Verrus handed Wyrren a dead rabbit: a gift from the gardener, who’d wondered why she’d not come by today. Wyrren said her thanks and escaped when she could. Down to the first floor, sneaking past the crowd discussing the Grand Meister’s match, and into the catacombs, where Lowar threatened Sebastian in the dark.
* * *
After his fight with Lowar, Sebastian slouched on the edge of crate, his head between his knees. Bangs fell in his eyes, his hands clutched at his hair, and he gasped between his sobs.
Wyrren felt like a voyeur, even as she fantasized about making herself known. She’d go to him, put her arms around him, feel him squeeze her arm… but her fantasy wouldn’t stretch any further than that, and in her mind’s eye he pushed her away and asked what she was doing. Sebastian wouldn’t accept her help. He didn’t want her.
Sebastian stood after a time. He brushed himself off, tied his hair with his ribbon. At a gesture the dirt, cobwebs, and wrinkles disappeared from his clothes. His expression regained his usual composure. He waved a hand, opened a glowing red doorway in the air, stepped through and vanished. The portal closed a moment after.
Wyrren walked to the crate that Sebastian had been thrown into. Shafts of wood stuck out, and an enormous vase inside had shattered. Wyrren touched the broken glass, and her fingers came away sticky. The dim light made the smear look like a rust with a black center.
“What have you gotten yourself into, Sebastian?” Wyrren whispered. What could he possibly have gotten involved in that he couldn’t handle, with all his money and power? And who would protect him, if he would not protect himself?
She always picked the wrong fights.