Edward Lowar’s rooms looked like many in the palacia. The hall opened into a common area with tall windows. He had a desk, which had been piled with books, paper, and pens. An end table had been pulled by a stuffed chair at the window, where the curtains had been drawn halfway. A book laid face down on the arm of the chair, and several potted plants had been set around the space. For someone who’d only just arrived here, Lowar seemed to have put some effort into making himself comfortable.
The room stood empty. Was he in the bedroom?
Wyrren eyed the desk, with its papers and books. It was so easy to slip forward, set her chess case down, and ease the drawers open one by one, peaking inside then shutting them again. Pens. A small black book. Notes and scraps of paper written in a careless, fluid hand. She made mental notes of them all.
A door on the far side of the room opened. Wyrren jumped back from the cracked desk drawer. “I wish you’d told me that you wanted to visit, Lady Jadis,” Lowar said. “I might have been ready for you.”
Wyrren clasped both hands behind her back. “It’s…” she began, and her voice died when she spotted the man. He stood dripping in front of an open doorway, the washroom, wearing nothing but a too-small towel about his waist. Long dark hair shone in glistening strands clinging to his chest and shoulders. He had an average frame, but not a bad looking one.
“I. Um.” Wyrren felt her face burning, realized she was staring, turned her gaze to the floor. What the hell was she trying to say? She heard his bare feet walking closer.
Then he’d taken her hand in his and kissed it. His palm was damp, and his hair dripped on her. “A pleasure. Edward Lowar, at your service. What can I do for you, Lady Jadis?”
Wyrren couldn’t look up from the floor. “Perhaps you could get dressed?” she asked, in a very small voice.
He laughed. “Yes. Yes I should,” he said, and started away. Wyrren rose her eyes, just in time for him to throw his towel on the desk chair. Wyrren put her hands over her face, certain that she was bright purple by now. She blushed in shades of violet.
“So what brings you here?” Edward called. Wyrren heard the rustle of cloth, and took a guilty peak through her fingers. No, it wasn’t safe to look yet.
“Um.” Why had she come again? “I… I had hoped that you might be willing to humor me for a chess match?” she asked. “I missed your game with the Grand Meister, and I’m… um… very… enthusiastic. About the game. Yes.”
“Well, that is tempting,” Edward said. “Very tempting. I’ll have to shift some things around, but I think I can accommodate you, Lady Jadis.”
Wyrren took her hands from her face when he’d finished putting on pants. “Do you always walk about your rooms naked?” she asked.
“Only for you.” Edward winked, then pulled his undershirt over his head. He picked up an ivory button-down shirt next. “Do you always introduce yourself to your hosts masked?” He pulled his wet hair through the collar. “Take it off.”
“The mask?” Wyrren asked.
“You’re not going to expect me to wear the proper amount of clothes, then cover up half of your face.” His tone changed, becoming stern and dangerous. “Take the mask off.”
Edward shrugged, then began undressing again.
Wyrren scrambled to get the mask off, her fingers tangling with her hair around the clasp. Several pieces of hair were pulled out of her head, caught in the strap. “There.”
The smile returned to Edward’s face as if it had never left. “Much better,” he said. He left his shirt half buttoned and swung his green coat about himself as he donned it. The hems rippled through the air in a wide arc. “I always find flesh more interesting than porcelain, no matter how lovely it’s been painted. Please, sit. … Is this your chess set?” He rubbed a hand along the side of the case she’d placed on his desk.
Wyrren nodded and sat at the small table. Edward brought the case, put his hands at the latches, and asked, “May I?”
Wyrren brushed his hands away and opened the box in answer.
Every piece in that chess set had been hand-carved by Marlan sculptors. Every piece was a statue with its own face, its own personality in its eyes. One side was made from bone. The other was a dark jade. All were tall and heavy, the back rows taller than Wyrren’s hand.
The jade king was a serious, militant man who wore a helm rather than a crown. Beside him stood an elderly grim looking queen: the king’s mother, the type that would run you down if you got in her way. The bone queen was young and smiled, a finger pressed to her lips. A bishop glanced behind him, papers in hand. The rook stood before a stone wall, loading his crossbow. One pawn looked unsure. Another had a beard and a glint of zealotry to his eyes. No expense had been spared, no detail overlooked.
“My father commissioned these for me,” Wyrren said. If she knew her father, her mother’s funeral had only just ended by the time their sculptors had the order.
Edward plucked the lamp off his table and set it beside the board, and he began to pick up the figures and stare at them one by one as Wyrren tried to set up for the game. “These are…” he began, but this time it was his turn to be out of words. “I could live to see the end of time and never grow tired of Marlan craftsmanship.”
Wyrren laughed, but could not smile. She wanted to put on her mask. “Pray instead our craftsmen live forever. Not that I’d wish such a fate on anyone.” She finished setting the board.
Edward pressed his lips together, and for a moment he looked troubled. “There’s no horse.” The knights had been replaced with women. He examined one in white, who held a key in one hand and a drawn knife behind her back.
“We have no horses in Marla,” Wyrren said. “It’s too cold for most overland travel. Assassins fight our wars, so female assassins are used instead. It’s a weakness of the set, I admit, though once familiar with the pieces it’s no trouble.”
He looked across the chessboard. The other white knight was a lovely woman who looked hurt and vulnerable, her dress torn at her shoulder. The jade knights were tall warriors, one holding a hammer, the other a grim, wide woman with dogs at her feet. “You could learn a lot about Marla from this set. What they think is dangerous.”
“Everything is dangerous,” Wyrren replied. “White or black?”
“Let’s let luck decide, shall we?” He asked, and pulled a coin from his pocket. It was one of Doppel’s currency, a sword on one side and a shield on the other.
“Shield,” Wyrren called.
Edward caught it spinning and flipped it over on his arm. The sword’s emblem glimmered under the lamplight. “I’ll have white,” Edward decided.
Wyrren spun the chessboard about and took the militant jade pieces. Edward moved a pawn forward two spaces, then leaned his cheek into the palm of his hand, watching her.
For a time Wyrren kept her eyes on the board. There were only so many beginning combinations in chess. The opening strategy was important, but often just a matter of patterns and previously memorized tactics: advantages and disadvantages to opening moves. She kept her focus on the board. Edward seemed to keep his focus on her instead, his elbow on the table and his chin on his palm.
Seven moves in, Wyrren said, “You play very well,” as she moved her knight. She’d expected that of someone who could beat Sebastian. “Your match with the Grand Meister the day before yesterday, was that your first game with him?”
“It was,” Edward said. “Though I’ve played quite a few like him. He favors a particular defensive subtlety, the Grand Meister. Very passive-aggressive.”
That would be Sebastian, yes, Wyrren thought. “I thought he’d visited Doppel, five years ago?”
“He had,” Edward admitted. “At the time I was a junior member of Jolcimer’s staff. Even if I’d had the time it would have been difficult to have procured a match with a Grand Meister, and I was getting ready for a sea voyage. Besides, Sebastian del Torlo… I don’t think he appreciates my sense of humor.” Edward paused. “Actually, I don’t think he has one.”
“That’s it?” Wyrren asked. “The glare, the stiffness, drawing out your victory like you did… because you made a joke he didn’t appreciate?” ‘Remember what happened the last time we fought near a city?’, Edward had said in the catacombs.
“What can I say?” Edward smirked and offered her a lazy shrug. “Some people just weren’t meant to get along. It’s your move.”
The game progressed. Wyrren lost track of what Edward thought he was doing—many of his moves seemed to make no sense at all. He’d sacrifice his pieces to get into positions that seemed to have little strategic value, waste time and moves going back and forth, dancing in front of her. Wyrren wondered if he was even taking this game seriously, until she was well into the trap that she’d helped him build.
The game turned. Edward became aggressive, just as he had with Sebastian. Wyrren’s jade statues grew sparse, and her king’s last hold did not last long.
Wyrren spent a full minute staring at the board after checkmate, trying to figure out how he had done that. “Brilliant,” she said at last. “That style…”
“Something I came up with a little while ago,” Edward said, and waved a hand dismissively. “It catches most off their guard.”
“You developed it?” Wyrren asked. She’d been sure that Edward couldn’t be older than Sebastian. One thing to learn from a master, but… “I suppose you do nothing but work and play chess, as well.”
“Not on your life.” Edward picked up the pieces and studied them again. “Speaking of, they’ve announced the date of the blinkerbug festival. Have you heard, Lady Jadis?”
“I know of the festival,” Wyrren said.
“It lasts a week. Parties every night, starting the day after tomorrow. You should let me take you.” He smiled and leaned forward. “I promise you’ll have a good time.”
“I’m… I don’t usually like parties,” Wyrren said. Parties meant standing in crowded places with drinks, watching everyone else have a good time, listening to her quiet, slurred voice getting lost in the noise when she tried to converse.
“Perhaps you haven’t had the right partner.” Edward took her hand and kissed it.
Wyrren blushed purple again. It would be an excellent opportunity to figure out what Lowar was up to. It should have been her idea, in fact. “Then I accept.”
* * *
Wyrren played chess with Sebastian that night, as usual. She asked how things were going with Kartania. He smiled and assured her that everything was fine. How was her day?
After her chess match with Sebastian that night, Wyrren kicked her chest of sand several more times, hurt her foot, then recreated the books and the papers that Lowar had had on and in his desk. She took them to her bed and scattered them around her: a file of papers, a small book of blank pages and handwritten notes bound in dark brown leather, a large beige book with worn corners, another black book so pristine it must have been preserved with magic.
She read Lowar’s thoughts on a tax law the Doppel government was considering changing, a speech’s rough draft on the importance of international peace, snippets about public relations with countries other than Hael Malstrom. The beige book contained theorems of the relationship between magic and physics. She picked up the pristine black book, certain this would be her clue, opened it in the middle, and slammed it shut again so fast she crushed the tips of her fingers.
Then she took a guilty peek inside, at sexual illustrations and instructive text, then began to turn the pages, studying each with intense fascination. Some forty pages later she started, realized how much time had passed and shoved the book under her pillow. She had real work to do.
By the time Ana knocked it was past midnight and Wyrren was at her wit’s end.
“So,” Ana said, and stepped into the room, around Wyrren. “How did it go?”
“I have a date,” Wyrren said, locking the door behind Ana. “Edward’s claiming to have never directly interacted with Sebastian before, though. Nothing new from Verrus?”
“Well, there hasn’t been any orders to arrest Lowar or anything. A date, though? For the festival? Not with Edward Lowar. I was going to set you up with someone.”
“It seemed a good opportunity.”
“Lowar’s going to play you like a harp,” Ana said. “Did you find anything in the books?” She shoved them over so she could lie on the bed, her hands beneath her head.
“Nothing useful,” Wyrren admitted. “Nothing that has anything to do with Sebastian. I don’t understand how this fits together, Ana. They knew each other. They knew each other well. If you know someone, then you’ve spent time with them. But Sebastian’s important enough that someone ought to remember something if they had, and neither will admit it.”
“That’s because they were lovers as teenagers,” Ana said, and closed her eyes. “Lowar’s still got evidence, and he’s been blackmailing Sebastian since.”
Wyrren stiffened. “What?” she asked, comparing Ana’s explanation to their fight in the catacombs, then to Edward Lowar’s act that morning.
“Why do you think Sebastian waited so long to get a wife?”
“I… I don’t believe it,” Wyrren said. That changed everything, didn’t it? She’d have to re-examine everything she’d assumed since she’d arrived. “How did you find this out?”
A smile crept up Ana’s face, until she grinned from ear to ear. “I made it up.”
“Just now, in fact.”
Wyrren grabbed one of the pillows and began bludgeoning her sister with every ounce of strength she had. Her very best just sent Ana rolling with peals of laughter, which turned into curses when she fell on the beige hardback. “Your books are trying to kill me, Wyrren.”
“It serves you right, making up things like that!” Wyrren said, realized that she’d uncovered the sex book, and hastily replaced the pillow before her sister could spot it. “Don’t do that to me, Ana!”
“Hey, it fit! It could be true.” Ana started giggling again.
“You are the antithesis of scientific method.” Wyrren began gathering up the books. “We’re looking for facts, not making up wild theories.”
“It could be true.” Ana grinned, then frowned and wrinkled her nose. “Wyrren, do you have any idea what you’re getting yourself into?”
“No.” Wyrren crossed her arms. “Social skills are not my forte.”
“And you probably don’t want to have sex with him.”
“Does that actually ever get you anywhere? What do you say? ‘Now that we’ve made love, please divulge your secrets’?”
“You would make the world’s worst courtesan,” Ana said. “But that’s not important. You need to get information, and I need to make sure you don’t do something stupid in the first ten minutes.”
Ana moved to sit on Wyrren’s pillow, the one Wyrren had hidden Lowar’s black book under. “So. This is your angle. You’re going to go to the parties on Edward Lowar’s arm… and not try to learn anything.”
“What?” Wyrren asked.
“Just… date the man,” Ana said. “You’re as subtle as an airborne brick. If you start trying, everyone will know what you’re really after. Talk to him. Drink. Flirt. Imagine marrying him and having those twenty kids you won’t shut up about.”
“But… how am I going to help Sebastian if I don’t try?” Wyrren asked.
Ana grinned so wide she squinted. “That’s the great part. How many people see Sebastian every day, Wyrren?”
“The council, the murder, his secretaries, his chef, his steward,” Wyrren began listing them off on her fingers. “His valet, his personal servants…”
“No, actually. No they don’t. Sebastian does two things, remember? He works—usually in his office, behind closed doors—and he plays chess. Sleeping is debatable. You are the only person in the entire palace that gets to see and actually interact with Sebastian every day. He’s made sure that he gets to see you every day. He likes you. I’ve told you he likes you dozens of times. Why do you think Kartania is so jealous? You have what she wants!”
Wyrren let the idea sink in.
“Now. Let’s revisit Edward Lowar. Lowar wants to hurt Sebastian del Torlo. He’s got a reputation for being a hedonist and a womanizer. He’s not terribly handsome, but he’s not bad looking either, not to mention that now he has a fortune on him and everyone knows it. He could get almost any girl he wants. Do you really think that he wants to date a disfigured woman because of her great personality?” Ana crossed her arms and shrugged.
“Thank you, Ana.” Wyrren slouched a little more.
“I’m saying that if you remain clueless, he will try to use you. Your friendship with the Grand Meister gives you position, and he will want to manipulate you for it. That is how you’ll find out what he’s up to. Stay with him and play dumb. You can play dumb… right?”
* * *
Wyrren met Edward Lowar at her door wearing a black and red dress with a wide triangular neckline, a party mask over her face and a silk rose in her hair. Edward smiled when she took his arm. “You look lovely, Lady Jadis.”
“You’re not going to make me take the mask off this time?” Wyrren asked.
In answer, Edward used his other hand to reach into his coat pocket and pull out a man’s black domino mask. He slipped it over face and hair with one hand. “Not tonight.”
In the center of the capital stood an ancient, solitary redwood tree. A courtyard had been built around it, a park and garden around the courtyard, and it was there the first big party of the festival week was to be held, starting at dusk, when the insects filled the air above their heads. An orchestra played at one end, refreshments stood at the edge of the gardens, couples danced under lines of paper lanterns. Men and women smiled under their masks, toasted their friends, talked in clusters.
“I’m not familiar with all the local dances,” Wyrren admitted.
“I can’t say I am, either,” Edward said. “We’ll just have to improvise, if it comes to that.” He smiled and squeezed her hand. “No need to be nervous.”
“I’m not nervous,” Wyrren replied, but had Edward not had her arm, she’d be clutching her hands together tight.
Edward raised his eyebrows. “Let’s get you some champagne, I think.”
Wyrren watched for Sebastian and Kartania as she entered the party proper, and had to slip her mask around her shoulders to drink from her fluted glass. She caught sight of Ana in a burgundy gown, laughing and talking to a new audience. Verrus’ tall brother Fervius had brought a book to the proceedings, of all things. Wyrren recognized a few men from her mathematics class at the university, and they offered her a polite wave. She danced with Edward, stopped to say hello to another classmate, who introduced her to his wife. More dances—three, then four. She noticed Saffira in a sleek gown the color of fire, her arm around Kearn’s. The stars came out, muted by party lamps. Edward fetched her another glass of champagne.
She spotted Sebastian and Kartania at the top of a wrought iron stair. Several blinkerbugs had settled in Sebastian’s long hair, and he carried his champagne glass at an angle, almost to the point of spilling. Kartania flipped her hair and glanced sideways at Sebastian. He didn’t seem to be paying attention to his date. That was interesting.
“Lady Jadis?” Edward asked mildly.
Wyrren drank the rest of her champagne in a gulp, then coughed into a fist. “My apologies. Another dance?”
Edward smiled and took her hand. Wyrren caught sight of a busty Doppel girl giving her a dirty look as Edward spun her around, then held her unnecessarily close. He smelled like soap and spice and old paper, and despite whatever she had with Sebastian, it made her heart race and her skin tingle. <Ana, I can’t do this.>
<He’s good looking, he’s a chess player, a politician, and a mage, just like Sebastian del Torlo. Hell, he’s even about the same age. Drink more.>
An hour later, when the crowd had begun to thin and the orchestra retired, Edward put his hand on her arm. “Come. We’ll find a place out of the way.”
“What are you up to?” Wyrren asked, and set her glass down on the edge of a table. After all that champagne, she found her mind comfortably blurred. She no longer thought about little things, like how she ought to be standing or where to put her arms.
“Absolutely no good,” Edward said, and grinned at her in a way that made Wyrren want to grab him and retreat in the same moment.
He took her through a garden arch, along a brick path to a stone bench in a hedge’s enclave. Blinkerbugs flickered around them, climbed into the hedge’s leaves and branches. Edward sat, catching Wyrren’s waist and pulling her on his lap. “And now I have you all to myself.”
Part of her desperately wanted to hold him close, her loyalty to Sebastian yelled at her to draw away, that she was enjoying this too much, that it was too real. Champagne coated everything, blurring the lines, but it was the way he smelled and a strange familiarity about him that decided the matter, and she kissed his jaw and bit at his ear and gathered her skirt to straddle him.
Edward slid a hand below her waist. Wyrren pulled his mask away and tossed it into a bush. While she could not move her lips, she could bite and make use of her tongue. She held his head in both hands, his long hair in her fingers, her tongue in his mouth, his throat making small, pleased sounds as she kissed him, and louder when she dug her nails into his shoulders. His fingers dug into the fabric of her skirt, pressing her into his lap, while his other hand crept up her leg. Her hair, which had been put up pins, came loose and draped around her face.
A man cleared his throat behind her. Wyrren froze, her sense of space returning with a start, then turned to see who’d caught them.
Sebastian del Torlo stood on the brick path, his gloved fist to his mouth. Wyrren pulled herself out of Edward’s lap so fast she fell off the bench, her face growing hot. “Sebastian,” she said. Her skirt was above her knee; she yanked it back down to her ankles. The grass she’d landed on began dying.
“Yes,” Sebastian said. “Hello, Wyrren… I’d come to see how you were enjoying the festival. I apologize for interrupting.”
She caught the look on Edward’s face; he wore a gleeful, malicious smile as if to an enemy.
“I suppose the party is over?” Wyrren asked Sebastian. She picked up her mask.
“Just about,” Sebastian said. “The last guests are leaving and things are being cleaned.”
“Ah. I see.” Wyrren got to her feet and stepped away from Edward. As if that would help now. “Did you have a good time?”
“Not quite the time that you seem to have had,” Sebastian said. “I’ll be off, then. Goodnight, Wyrren.”
“Goodnight, Sebastian,” Wyrren said, and her heart sank as he walked away. Why did he have to catch them? Why couldn’t it have been anyone else? Her shoulders slumped.
“Something wrong?” Edward asked, and stood behind her. He kissed her neck again, but this time Wyrren stiffened and pulled away.
“The Grand Meister is my host,” Wyrren said quietly, “as well as my friend. You seem to antagonize him… and that was unkind. I’m sorry. I’m not used to this.”
“Is there a reason I shouldn’t be kissing you?” Edward asked.
“No,” Wyrren admitted, but was no less humiliated for that. “I should return to my rooms.”
“If you like. May I take you back?” Edward offered his arm. Wyrren put her arm on his. The heart-pounding shivers that she’d felt before Sebastian had caught them didn’t return.
Wyrren arrived at her room to find her bedroom door wide open. Saffira met them inside. “Ana’s been hurt,” she said.
“What happened?” Wyrren released Edward’s arm and dashed inside. There was Ana, laid out on her bed. Her beautiful burgundy gown had been torn around the midsection and stained with blood, but Wyrren saw no wound. “A vivomancer healed her?” Wyrren asked.
“I used a potion,” Saffira replied. “She has been poisoned as well, but she is stable.”
“If I may?” Edward said, and pushed past them both. He put his hand on Ana’s. His fingers began to glow green.
Ten seconds later, Ana stirred. Edward let her go.
Wyrren grabbed Ana’s hand and held it tight. “Tell me what happened, Saffira.”
“She screamed. I ran to her.”
Why did Wyrren assume Saffira would be helpful? “Ana?”
“I’m alive,” Ana said, but didn’t try to get up. “We’re safe?”
“I picked a bad date. A man tried to knife me down an alley.”
“What did he look like?” Edward asked.
“Hell if I know. He was wearing a mask,” Ana said. “Like everyone else in this city.”
“We’ll have to report this to Kearn,” Wyrren said. “Mr. Lowar… thank you for your help, but I need to see to my sister now.”
“I understand. If anything happens, call me, Lady Jadis. I’ll be at your door in a moment.”
Wyrren thanked him again, escorted him out and locked the door, then returned to Ana’s bed. Strange, that Edward would be so good at vivomancy. That was Sebastian’s specialty as well.
“You flirted with the wrong man?” Wyrren asked.
“It’s more than that,” Ana said, more frank now that they were alone. “We were talking, he was joking around and… he said ‘glowing rivers’. He didn’t even think about it, moved right on… I feigned a distraction, tried to turn back, and he realized he’d made a mistake.”
Wyrren stared at the far wall. ‘Glowing rivers’ was a Marlan curse: holy hells and all its glowing rivers.
“He got me with the knife’s tip; I screamed my head off, people came running, Saffira shoved a potion in my throat and carried me off. I fell unconscious partway here. I can give you a list of poisons he might have used, if you want.”
“He was trying to make you disappear,” Wyrren said.
Ana nodded. “Yes. He was good at it, too.”
Wyrren looked for any explanation but the obvious one. It wouldn’t come. Unlike the mystery between Sebastian del Torlo and Edward Lowar, this answer was very obvious.
“Marlan assassins,” she said.
They’d come for her after all.