Two girls sparred on the lawn green—hair in braids, padded armor on their torsos, heads, arms, and legs until their sex was obscured to the casual observer. They practiced with staves today, flourishing their weapons about their bodies on guard, the clack of stick on stick on the deflection and block. One girl struck, the other dodged. The first rushed suddenly, caught and sent her opponent sprawling to the ground. Some of the other Doppel girls around them whooped.
“Less arm-wagging, more footwork, Halina!” Kartania yelled from the sidelines, where she and a couple of her close friends had planted themselves. “Big Julita, lay off on the charges for a while.”
Julita nodded and helped her opponent up.
“Can I ask you something, Adela?” Kartania asked.
Adela looked up from her embroidery. “Yeah?”
“If I told you that I was sleeping with Drane, what would you do? Hypothetically speaking.”
“And you hypothetically meant it?” Adela asked.
“I’d punch you in the face.” Adela went back to her needlework.
“And if our positions were reversed?”
Kartania scowled. “Jadis wanted me to hit her. She didn’t even try to block me.”
“Yep.” Adela shrugged. “It was a bad move, Kartania. You know Marlans are snakes. Now she looks like a victim, and you’re the crazy Doppel lady who likes to punch unarmed women.”
“She deserved to be hit,” Kartania said.
“This isn’t Doppel, Kartania.”
“In Doppel, we would have asked her why she didn’t fight back like a sane person!” Kartania glared at the next pair to take their place on the field, as if this were their fault.
“Silver-hair from the murder’s coming,” Adela said, and nodded past Kartania.
Kartania spotted the man Adela was speaking of. Kearn Nosland, first in the murder and head of palace security. He was also the man who’d had that talk with Little Julita about assaulting the guard last night. Of all the company he might have picked, he was walking with Edward Lowar, who had shoved his hands deep in the pockets of his long green coat.
Kartania got up. “I’ll be right back,” she told the rest, and went to meet him. “Mr. Nosland?”
“Lady Riese,” Kearn inclined his head slightly. “I’d like to have a word in private, if you don’t mind?”
Kartania glanced at her girls, then beckoned him to follow her off a ways over the green. “Is this about Lady Jadis?” Kartania asked.
“I’m afraid it is,” Kearn replied. “Would you tell me what happened, Lady Riese?”
“If she’d said half of what she did in Doppel, I’d have had her on a field of honor,” Kartania said.
“Lady Riese, you aren’t in Doppel,” Kearn said. “If Lady Jadis has stepped out of line, a word to palace security will suffice. Keeping the peace is my job. And under no condition are you to challenge anyone to a duel while you are here. Do you understand?”
Kartania bit back an urge to argue, but that smarted. What sort of place was this when people couldn’t defend their own honor? Did everyone in Hael Malstrom run off to tattle when someone stepped out of line? “I understand,” she said. “It won’t happen again.”
“Thank you, Lady Riese,” Kearn inclined his head again and excused himself.
Edward Lowar, who stood at a polite distance nearby, coughed into his fist for her attention. Kartania breathed deeply and counted to five in her head. “Yes, Mr. Lowar?”
Lowar stepped forward. “I couldn’t help but hear some of that,” he said, his voice quiet. “May I give some advice?”
“It is your job,” Kartania said, and crossed her arms.
“Don’t tell palace security next time,” Lowar said. “Tell the Grand Meister, or tell me. You know how much is riding on your time here, and if the Grand Meister won’t take action on your behalf, he’s not serious about our agreement. Violence on our part isn’t an option. No one will slight you with impunity, I can promise you that.”
“Yes, Mr. Lowar,” Kartania said.
Lowar smiled. “Think of it as a test for Sebastian del Torlo, Lady Reise. I imagine seeing him put Jadis back in line would be much more satisfying anyway?”
Kartania smiled despite herself. That was a gratifying way to look at her problem. “Thank you.”
“My pleasure, as always.”
When Kartania rejoined her girls, Adela looked up from her embroidery. “What are you going to do about Sebastian?”
“He already told me that Jadis was just a friend,” Kartania said. “I guess we see if he’s lying.”
Frankly, she needed Sebastian. Of the three men her father wanted her to consider, he was the only one who interested her, and she’d not settle for less. She and her father would have a fight to remember if she came home empty handed, which could very well end with her return to Maeranya’s temple permanently: a disowned priestess without any political position or family.
But whether Sebastian was for her or not, she hadn’t come all this distance to meet with a man involved with someone else.
* * *
When she was very young, Wyrren’s nannies would tell her how lucky she was to be alive. Stupid little girls like her were usually left to freeze on the Marlan ice.
Back then she had lived in a set of rooms in the back of the Renideo fortress, and every so often she would be brought out in her best dress and paraded before her father and mother. Wyrren was to be silent unless she was addressed, to speak carefully when she was called to. Her frozen lips often mangled words beyond understanding, and sometimes, when she was alone in her room she would stay up all night practicing speech, trying to get the sounds right.
By day she would play with her toys and listen to the adults and the things they’d said to each other, scandals and inner-palace politics, who was hated, who was admired, suppositions when she might get a normal sibling, why Duke Chyril Jadis insisted on keeping her, what things would be like when Wyrren grew older. They weren’t shy about speaking in front of her. Stupid little girls couldn’t understand gossip.
Wyrren’s mother died just before she turned six. Her mother had been born a princess, and so nobles from far beyond the Renideo duchy had risked the snows to travel to her funeral. Wyrren had to attend, so her nannies had brought her out in her best dress and let her eat breakfast with the nobles. Wyrren’s mouth never fully sealed—at that age she hadn’t yet mastered tricks to keep food from falling out of her mouth while she chewed. The noble’s curiosity and initial interest in her passed as soon as it had come, and they politely ignored her afterward.
When Wyrren’s father excused himself, most in the dining hall accompanied him. Wyrren’s nannies snatched her away from her meal mid-bite. Wyrren remembered yelling and trying to grab the table. She had been hungry.
Young Sebastian del Torlo had been present. He stood. He ordered the nannies to release Wyrren, saw her returned to her breakfast, and told them off for being so horrible to a little girl. The nannies had protested that it was their orders, that little Lady Jadis was simple and not to be there unless needed.
Sebastian knelt down beside Wyrren and studied her, a finger on her chin, turning her head to and fro gently. First he asked how they were sure. Then he asked Wyrren if she wanted to learn a new game.
They played chess all morning and into the afternoon. By the third game Wyrren had memorized the rules. By the fifth, she’d taken a few of Sebastian’s pieces. She remembered her father returning and watching them play, how Sebastian had asked her father for a quiet word and pulled him aside. Wyrren still remembered the first sentence as they walked away—”Your ‘simple’ daughter appears to be exceptionally brilliant, Chyril.”
She was given a governess, a host of tutors, and a proper room the next day. Her father began to visit and talk with her often. Her father’s subjects began to listen to what she said. From distain to respect, from weakness to influence. She never saw her nannies again.
Who wouldn’t love Sebastian after that?
That night their chess game was a quiet one, punctuated only by the clink of the marble pieces against the board. Candles lit the side of Sebastian’s face, the pensive set to his jaw. He stared at the board and hardly looked up.
Wyrren waited until the game neared its conclusion before she spoke. “Sebastian?” she asked. “Are you doing alright?”
Sebastian looked up at her and smiled. “I am fine, Wyrren. A little distracted with all that’s going on at the moment, I’ll admit.” He returned his eyes to the board.
Sebastian always said that he was doing well. For all Wyrren knew, his enemies threatened to ruin and kill him in the catacombs every afternoon. “You haven’t looked like yourself since the chess match with Lowar. I’m sorry that I didn’t see it from the beginning.”
“I would have preferred you not see me lose at all,” Sebastian said. “Looking back on a match like that is hard. I know what I should have done now.”
Stab Lowar with the bishop, Wyrren supposed. “Perhaps you’ve gotten too used to winning? I haven’t seen anyone really challenge you since I arrived.”
“No, I don’t think that’s it,” Sebastian said. His fingers went to a pawn, and moved it forward.
Wyrren looked at the board as well. Sebastian had impeccable defenses, in the game as much as he did real life. She’d always felt like he was holding her at arm’s length from him, and it wearied her. She’d never hurt him. He knew that. So why do it?
She moved her queen to the far side of the board, beside one of Sebastian’s black pawns, and kept a finger on the pieces’ head as she double-checked her strategy. “Sebastian,” she said, “if there was something troubling you… something wrong? You can tell me. You know that I would help you. I owe you more than you know.”
Sebastian smiled. “Don’t worry yourself with my problems, Wyrren. They aren’t anything that I can’t handle.”
“I do worry,” Wyrren said. “You never tell me anything.”
“Well, that’s an outright lie. If there is something I can ask of you, I will not hesitate,” Sebastian corrected her. “It would be a waste of the talent around me if I didn’t. But I’m afraid there’s nothing for you to do, though. I’ll inform you the moment there is.”
Perhaps it was a blessing that Wyrren couldn’t look worried or upset. He smiled. He won. She did not tell him what she had seen that afternoon.
* * *
“It doesn’t make sense,” Ana objected. “Are you sure you’re not forgetting something?”
Wyrren paced the edge of the carpet in her stepsister’s bedroom, around and around the small table before the sofa. Verrus sat on the edge of the sofa; Ana lounged on him. A fire burned behind the mesh screen across the room.
“They were arguing. Sebastian was resigned to being blackmailed. Then Lowar told Sebastian that he was going to end his family line instead, that Sebastian was falling apart and wasn’t useful anymore. Sebastian hit Lowar; Lowar blasted Sebastian into a crate. Shattered wood went everywhere; I’m surprised it didn’t stab Sebastian. Then… nothing. You’re sure Sebastian never said a word to the murder, Verrus?”
“Nothing I’ve heard of,” Verrus said.
“It still doesn’t make sense,” Ana repeated. “If Lowar meant to assassinate Sebastian, he wouldn’t have said so. It’s stupid.”
Wyrren turned with the carpet’s corner. “But why didn’t Sebastian call for the murder? Lowar ought to be in a holding cell by now.”
“Maybe it’s a personal matter,” Verrus said. “And he wants to deal with it himself?”
“Because, obviously, you’re only his bodyguard when he’s being Grand Meister,” Wyrren returned, though she supposed that it was possible. “I don’t accept that. Sebastian might have gotten killed.”
“Sebastian has a secret he doesn’t want the murder privy to,” Ana said. “Most people have secrets, you know. If he didn’t call the murder, it’s because he sees keeping them away preferable to his safety.” Ana shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe it’s got to do with his work. You know how important it is to him. Maybe he’s protecting his Kartania venture.”
Wyrren considered that. “I don’t think Doppel would mourn if their official was arrested for attacking the Grand Meister. And Sebastian was far too angry.”
“It’s the best I can do,” Ana said. “You’re right; it doesn’t make sense. Except…”
“Except?” Wyrren repeated.
“Sit down first, the pacing’s making me dizzy,” Ana said. Wyrren chose the high-backed chair, and Ana continued. “What if… what if Sebastian knew you were there? And he’s testing you? To see how far you’d go for him? Hell, he could have gone off with Lowar for a drink afterward, congratulating each other.”
Wyrren, though, considered it. She’d like to believe that. But then she thought of the chess match, the way Edward had drawn out his victory, the look on Sebastian’s face at the handshake, the way he’d held himself. “No,” Wyrren said. “I think something is wrong.”
“Sebastian’s not stupid,” Ana said. “If he was in danger, he’d do something about it.”
“Alone?” Wyrren shook her head. “He needs help.”
“If you don’t like it, then take action. What’s your plan?”
What was her plan? Wyrren hadn’t gotten that far yet.
Ana waited then said, “You’ve talked to Sebastian. He’s not letting you in, right?”
“Not at all,” Wyrren said. “He smiles and says everything is fine.”
“Well, there’s someone else who knows what happened in the catacombs, isn’t there?” Ana pressed. “If you can’t find out from Sebastian… then maybe Lowar can tell you. You can start by figuring out where they’ve met before this. I can check the gossip lines…”
“I can look into the records,” Wyrren said, agreeing at once. She turned to Verrus. “I’d appreciate it if you’d keep quiet about this. Sebastian wanted whatever this is to be a secret. I assume there must be some reason for it.”
“For now,” Verrus said.
Verrus may have had a much different opinion if he’d known what Wyrren had meant by ‘look into the records’, though. Wyrren had forbidden Ana from telling anyone her specialty in the mordache art, or even explaining what the mordache were capable of.
The mordache art came in three very specific branches. Practitioners of the mordache art’s first branch were called crystal mages, and they were the sanitation workers of Marlan cities. They cleaned puddles of spilled magic and helped children recover from misusing their art. It was a much needed position, but had no status.
Threaders made up the vast majority of mordache nobles: the ability to grab and manipulate the strings that wove the soul and body together. It was fast, painful, deadly, and the only counter to the art was a second mordache threader. Wyrren had refused to learn threading, despite her father’s threats and punishments.
Wyrren had a trunk at the foot of her bed. She opened it, revealing white sand.
Sebastian had black appointment book on his desk most days. She started with that. She took the mass of the sand and recreated the book from its imprint on her memory. The technique was called desolidification, the third, last, and most dangerous branch of the mordache art: its practitioners were known for being intelligent, wealthy, and dying young. And while Wyrren’s father had based their economy on the export of gold and gems, he had not acquired these things by mining.
A minute later Wyrren had Sebastian’s private notes in hand.
* * *
The next morning, Wyrren woke at dawn to sunshine on the ceiling. She turned over and hugged her pillow. Ana let herself in the room, poured her bath, picked out Wyrren’s clothes, brushed Wyrren’s hair and applied her makeup. Wyrren tried to stay awake.
Neither of them could find any information at all. Not Bethy’s gossip channel or Verrus’ mention to the rest of the murder, nor had any book or file that Wyrren recreated from the recent piles on top of Sebastian’s desk. Ana’s gossip only helped to put Edward Lowar even farther away from Hael Malstrom. He was a mage, yes, but an Attican mage who’d immigrated to Doppel to start his political career. He’d served his high chancellor well, and the only talk worth mentioning spoke of a loud personality and a bent toward hedonism in his free time. No one could say they’d remembered Sebastian meeting him five years ago during his only trip to Doppel. One of the Doppel girls had even said that they were fairly sure that Lowar had been on a ship halfway across the Rikewell Sea at the time.
Wyrren and Ana went to breakfast. The Doppel girls still called for refills by pounding on the table. Wyrren sent a mental message for her bodyguard Saffira to meet her after the meal, and picked at her eggs, hash sodden with egg yolk and thick, chewy warm bread.
Wyrren was halfway to the library when she saw a shadow immediately behind her and started. Saffira, who’d fallen into step with her, gave no indication that she had noticed.
Wyrren had had plenty of bodyguards over the years: Rylan, the honorable young man with orange hair and a heroic death wish; Dacha, an enormously overweight threader who liked to make self-deprecating fat jokes; Ermyn, who had gotten her sipping northern beers when she was fourteen and with whom she had formed a secret smuggling ring; Tars with his big belly and missing teeth, who had once invited the eleven-year-old Wyrren to a chess match and confronted her with five rows of black pawns on his end against Wyrren’s back row—“The peasantry is revolting, m’lady”.
Saffira was odder than all of them combined.
She was a tall woman, even taller than Wyrren, about forty years old, and would have been as slender if her dark skin didn’t cover lines of sinewy muscles. Her jaw was strong, her ears pierced with loops and loops of golden earrings. Dozens of beaded necklaces hung about her neck and her face had been tattooed with black lines, dots, and swirls. Now that they were in a warmer climate Saffira had taken to wearing long, thin, brightly colored dresses. She rarely spoke, never seemed to pay attention to anything, and she loved her knives like little children.
She was certainly a warrior woman, Wyrren decided, looking her bodyguard over, but she wasn’t going to fit in with the boisterous shieldmaidens. Still, Saffira seemed to be Wyrren’s best option. “I have something I’d like you to do,” Wyrren said, checking the halls to ensure their privacy. “I overheard Edward Lowar threatening Sebastian yesterday. I want you to start sparring with the Doppel girls. Watch Edward as much as they’ll let you. See if Kartania is part of this.”
Saffira nodded once.
“You can go.”
Wyrren shook her head at Saffira’s back. There was something with that woman that unnerved her. If she didn’t know better, she’d think Saffira was less human than Sebastian’s murder.
She spent the late morning across town, attending a university class on differential geometry. Lunch she took with Ana in her room. Afterward she went to the gardens to see if the head gardener had a body for her necromancy practice. She came away with a half decomposed bird, stiff as a board, its neck suspended perpendicular to its body. When Wyrren walked on the grass to claim it, the bird’s feathers began to brighten and the grass under Wyrren’s feet drooped. Wyrren returned to the palace and headed for the favorable conditions of the catacombs.
“Jadis!” Kartania’s strident voice echoed well off the palace walls.
Wyrren stopped a few paces shy of the catacombs door. So close.
Kartania closed the distance at a march, the clip of her boots distinctive on the marble tile, then dull on the plush carpet. “Just what the hell do you think you’re doing, Jadis?!”
Wyrren turned, cradling the bird to her chest. “Magic practice?”
“Don’t be cute,” Kartania snapped. Her hair had been pulled back tight, with strands of hair escaped here and there. She wore padded armor and her face was flushed. “Why is your woman trying to cozy up with mine? You’re spying on me?”
“Saffira?” Guilty as charged, for all the wrong reasons.
“Yes, Saffira. Your tattooed giant. I want her gone, Jadis.”
“Saffira… she spars with everyone,” Wyrren said. “The guard, the murder… I’m sure she wasn’t intending any harm.”
“No harm. Right. I’m sure.” Kartania said. “So it won’t be any harm at all, then, if you would be so kind as to tell her to stay the hell away from our training sessions. I’ll stay on my side of the palace, and you’ll keep to yours.”
“I’m sorry, Lady Jadis, is there something wrong?” Kartania asked, her lips pressed into a long, thin line. “Because I can be much worse if there is.”
Yes, she could break Wyrren’s nose. And then the vivomancers would have to set it again. Wyrren fought with herself a moment longer, then realized that even if she refused, Saffira would never be left alone to gather information on Edward Lowar. “I’ll ask her to keep her distance.”
“Do it now.”
Wyrren sent a mental message to Saffira. “Done.”
“Thank you,” Kartania said, turned, then turned back and gave Wyrren a bewildered look. “…Why are you carrying a dead bird?”
* * *
“So, let me get this straight,” Ana said, lounging on her bed, fingers laced together beneath her head. “You want me to go ‘happen’ to bump into Edward Lowar, flirt shamelessly with him, maybe spend the blinkerbug festival on his arm… so that I can pump him for information and figure out how he’s planning to hurt Sebastian.” Ana stopped, gave her words a dramatic pause, let them sink in for flavor. “You know. That sounds a lot like courtesan work. I thought I was supposed to stay away from courtesan work. I thought it was bad for me.”
Wyrren wondered why she thought she might get through this with her pride intact. “I’m sorry for antagonizing you.”
“What was that? I couldn’t quite hear you.” Ana put a hand to her ear.
“I apologize. For forbidding you from sleeping with every man who laid eyes on you. I was wrong.” Wyrren wondered if all little sisters were so aggravating. “Have all the self-indulgent, relationship crippling casual sex you like.”
Ana brightened and sat up. “Why, of course I’ll help save Hael Malstrom with my good looks, Wyrren!” She kissed Wyrren’s cheek. “Give me a couple of hours. I’ll have him eating out of my hand by dinner time.”
Wyrren put the dead bird in the chest of sand at the foot of her bed. Then she put her foot on the chest and kicked it, slamming it into the baseboard. She never got around to necromancy practice. She felt lost and disjointed; her daily routine fell to pieces.
When Wyrren came to dinner, she took her place beside Ana expecting some fantastical story. Instead Ana loaded up her plate and didn’t look at her.
“What happened?” Wyrren asked softly, and fumbled with the clasp of her half-mask. Lowar hadn’t hurt her, had he?
Ana took Wyrren’s mask off and set it aside. She pushed the food around her plate before answering. <He played me.>
<What?> What did that even mean?
<I don’t know what happened!> Ana returned, stabbing her dinner. <I thought everything was going fine! It was just like any job! And then… I don’t know. He turned it all around and dismissed me. Wyrren, he must have known what I was up to. I don’t know how. It’s never happened before. I’m damn good at this.>
Wyrren had never seen Ana fail so quickly, in fact. She put her own fork down. <So… what do we do now, then?> She had two girls, and both of them hadn’t been able to get near Edward Lowar. What else could she do? Bribe the cleaning staff? Hide dead things in their rooms to spy on them? Lowar was an established mage, and Wyrren was barely a novice; there was a good chance he’d sense her necromancy now that he wasn’t busy threatening Sebastian with regicide.
<We could give up.>
<Absolutely not,> Wyrren returned.
<Oh, I know you wouldn’t. I just wanted to see you get all puffed up,> Ana said. She shook her head. <You aren’t going to like this, but I don’t see a choice. You’re going to need to get involved yourself.>
<Me?> Wyrren said. <I’m not… what can I do? I don’t have your charisma. I can’t manipulate anyone. I’m not a warrior like Saffira. I’m not even a real mage!>
<You play chess, don’t you?>
Wyrren ate dinner. Sebastian smiled when they played that night, as pleasant as ever. Wyrren read before bed and woke with the sunrise. The routine resumed its usual pace.
After breakfast, Wyrren packed her own chess set and started for the guest wing on the other side of the palace. The servants were collecting laundry in that hall; one of them told Wyrren where she could find Edward Lowar’s room. Wyrren stood in front of the door and gathered her courage for a time before she knocked.
Wyrren waited for a man in a long green coat; instead an older woman in the palace servant’s uniform answered and offered her a quick curtsy. “Lady Jadis. I beg your pardon, I was asked to see who was at the door. Would you wait?”
Wyrren nodded. The door shut again.
The servant reappeared a minute later, a basket of linens in her hands. “Mr. Lowar says you may enter,” she said, and held the door open for Wyrren with her hip.
Wyrren’s grip tightened on her chess case, and she stepped past the maid and into Edward Lowar’s room.