Wyrren sat at her sofa with her hands clasped around her mouth and nose, giggling hysterically. She could not make herself stop. The King de Marla’s assassins, here. Here, where they did not use tunnels to move from one place to another. Where they had no threaders to counter the art. Where the sun lit everything, and you could see your target from a distance, and people did not think to look up when they entered a room.
She’d survived her uncle’s abduction, her imprisonment in Vastii, the Kanichende revolt and coup, and her flight here… only to die now?
But eventually she stopped laughing and shook until she was sick.
“We could send to Duke Chyril for a threader,” Ana was saying.
“There and back again is at least a month’s journey,” Saffira replied. “Even by way of portal to and from Astra.”
“True,” Ana said. “Wyrren’s not threatening anything here, though. They may let us have the time.”
“They know you saw them.”
“We can find a threader in Valdenemus, then,” Ana said. “We’re not the only people ever to come out of Marla. They’re rare, but they do exist. There are even more in Attica.”
“I couldn’t trust them, Ana,” Wyrren said. “No one I don’t know.” She’d just end up hiring the men coming after her; no unaffiliated threader would be fool enough to duel a specialist. She should have brought a threader with her. Why hadn’t she brought a threader?
“I know a way to get you out of this alive,” Ana said.
“How?” Wyrren asked.
“Leave Hael Malstrom.” Ana leaned forward and pushed Wyrren’s hair from her face. “We get Sebastian to give us a portal to the other end of the world. We step through, he closes the gate, and we never come back. See if they can track us then.”
Wyrren’s stomach turned. “Leave Sebastian.”
“Sebastian won’t have you, remember?” Ana reminded her.
“With Edward threatening his life.”
“Let Sebastian take care of himself!”
“I won’t abandon him!” Wyrren yelled, abrupt and loud. Wyrren thought back to the fight in the catacombs, to threats of ending Sebastian’s line. Sebastian sobbing in the dark. The malicious grin Edward had sent Sebastian just an hour ago. “I will not leave the people I love! Not now, not ever! Damn what becomes of me for it! I would not leave either of you in Vastii, and I will not leave him now!”
Ana’s lips pressed into a thin line. “Then you’re going to die.”
“I need to the end of the week. Let me try to investigate. When Sebastian announces his engagement, and I see Edward leave, I’ll run to the corners of the world. But not before.”
“What, I tell you not to sleep with every man you see. You don’t listen to me either!”
“This isn’t about how I like to entertain myself!”
“It nearly killed you this time!”
“This is not about me!”
“And if I am willing to gamble my life to ensure Sebastian’s safety, you won’t stop me!” Wyrren caught her breath, saw the hurt look behind her sister’s anger, and softened her tone. “You know what it’s like, having someone change your life. You’ve been there, Ana. You know.”
“I love you more than Sebastian does,” Ana said. She wiped her eyes. Wet mascara smudged her finger black. “I say we need to go.”
“One week, Ana,” Wyrren begged. “I’ll have Sebastian disguise me with magic. I’ll use poison testers. I’ll keep to private rooms.”
“One week,” Ana agreed, but reluctantly. She looked to Saffira. “Do you think we can protect her for a week?”
Saffira looked at the ceiling. “We can try.”
“But we can’t do it alone,” Ana said. “They’re not all threaders. I’d be killed if they were, and Sebastian has amazing bodyguards. Find Sebastian, and tell him what’s happened privately, and ask him for help.” She clasped Wyrren’s arm.
Wyrren nodded. Sebastian hadn’t been told the whole story, and didn’t know what sort of trouble that they were in. She would have to trust that he’d forgive her for lying. “I’ll stay in my room as much as I can in the meanwhile. Tell Sebastian tomorrow that I must see him privately?”
Ana nodded. “As soon as I can corner him.”
* * *
Wyrren woke at dawn as she always did, and stared at sunlight on her ceiling. People in Hael Malstrom took daylight for granted. They understood the value of light in Marla.
Wyrren bathed, but since she wouldn’t be going out, didn’t have Ana dress her. She put on a simple white shift and waited for Ana to arrive with breakfast. Was Sebastian really in the same sort of situation? Surely he had a plan of his own? But what it was, or what he had to fear… that remained a mystery.
The documents Sebastian had kept on top of his desk had been useless. By the time Ana arrived in Wyrren’s room with a breakfast cart, Wyrren was desolidifying Sebastian’s desk in chunks, rooting through the drawers, and then using pieces of broken desk to replenish her sand supply. She was developing a headache; an inexact transfer backlashed on its practitioner, and the art was so fussy…
“Keeping busy, I see,” Ana said. “You realize you can kill yourself with the art, don’t you? You could be saving Kartania and those assassins a lot of work.”
“Everyone knows this,” Wyrren said. That’s why she had spent her childhood pursuing advanced math and calculus: to avoid an early death. So far the desk contained several books, a ledger, a wooden box, a drawstring bag full of letters, ink, wax, seals, fountain pens, a pair of small round blue glasses. She set them aside for breakfast, and ate with Ana, who seemed subdued.
Ana told her that Kearn had launched an investigation to find the man that had attacked her. She’d been trying to get to Sebastian, but the man had barricaded himself in his tower, and wasn’t coming out or taking messages. Kartania was more than a little huffy over it. Wyrren listened to Ana’s gossip while eating her chicken and poached egg, and considered. She wasn’t making any progress with Edward staying in her room, either.
After lunch Wyrren returned to the piles she’d collected from Sebastian’s desk. Those letters looked interesting, but perhaps the box could be searched more quickly. It had been beautifully carved and inlaid with mother of pearl.
“If you wrote Sebastian a note, begging him to meet you in your room, this could go faster,” Ana said. “As soon as he accepts letters again. Or maybe I’ll just poke it under his door and waggle it until security carries me off.”
Wyrren tried the lid. Locked. “Meet him in my bedroom? Do you want Kartania to murder me? I’ll write you the note, but it’ll have to be his office.”
Ana nodded. “I bet this is because he caught you smooching Lowar last night.”
“As if the Grand Meister has nothing better to be concerned about.” Wyrren looked down at the lock and used her art to cut the box open. She gasped when she saw what was inside.
“Found something?” Ana asked, and pushed her breakfast aside.
“These are the queen’s jewels,” Wyrren answered. The queen’s crown, emerald leaves and sapphires in twisting golden vines, a matching necklace, ring, and earrings. She had seen them on a portrait of Sebastian’s mother over the northern stairs, but she’d not realized that they were so beautiful.
“Ooooh.” Ana stuck her head over Wyrren’s shoulder. “Oh, he’s already written a note.” She snatched a piece of folded paper nestled in the velvet casing. Then she tapped Wyrren’s shoulder and handed it the square to her. “You need to read this.”
“You need to read this,” Ana repeated.
Wyrren unfolded the note. It had been addressed to her, and the message it contained was short.
‘Perhaps this crown will suit you better than the last.’
Wyrren stared at the gold, the emeralds, the sapphires, at Sebastian’s handwritten note. He was going to make her his queen?
“I’m… going to see if he’s out of his tower yet,” Ana said. She left quickly.
Wyrren touched the gold, let her finger linger over the gold branches, slip over a cluster of emeralds. Sebastian had said she wasn’t a suitable match. He had been considering marrying her? Her? With her lost position and her crippled face and her social clumsiness?
Ana had been right. She was the only person Sebastian saw, outside of work. He had made sure of that.
Wyrren poured through all the letters with a renewed vigor; invitations to parties, thank you notes, breaches in diplomacy, border disputes, negotiations. They contained nothing about Edward. The letters weren’t getting Wyrren anywhere.
“You told Edward that I wouldn’t be attending to the festival tonight?” Wyrren asked Ana when her sister had returned.
“Yes,” Ana said. “He sends his apologies, and offered to help if you needed anything.”
“I see. Thank you.”
But after Ana had left with the letter for Sebastian, Wyrren sent a message. <Edward? Is this a good time?>
<Lady Jadis, for you, it’s always an excellent time. What can I do for you?>
<How are you at illusions?> Wyrren sent.
<Impeccable,> Edward replied. <They’re my specialty.>
<Wasn’t vivomancy your specialty?>
<Lady Jadis, I am a man of many talents. Is this a sexual favor? A fetish? I love fetishes. Who would you like me to be?>
<I had a request.> Wyrren returned. <Could you disguise me?>
<Yes, of course. Does this mean you’re coming to the festival after all?>
<On the condition that you fool my sister.>
Ana later told Wyrren that she’d bullied Sebastian’s steward into putting Wyrren down for an appointment the following afternoon. It was the best that she could do, with Sebastian suddenly turning hermit on them both. Wyrren thanked Ana again, but meant to see him sooner. Wyrren knew where Sebastian would be that evening.
Saffira stood outside of Wyrren’s door after dinner, while Ana left to return the plates and trays. Unlike Ana, though, Saffira did what she was told without protest. Wyrren let Edward in when he arrived.
“I don’t even know what to wear,” Wyrren confessed, shutting the door. She still wore her simple thin white underdress. “I’ve always been dressed by servants or Ana. I’ve never tried cosmetics myself… And Ana knows all my dresses. She’ll spot me.”
“Not necessarily,” Edward answered, smirking and eyeing her slip. “I quite like you like this, personally.”
“You’re hilarious,” Wyrren said. “But no, thank you.”
“Here,” Edward said, and went to her wardrobe. He pulled out a plain, every-day sort of affair. “Put this on.”
“Put it on, and we’ll drop into the city before the shops close,” Edward said. “Hurry.”
Five minutes later, Wyrren was a tall peach-skinned woman with an ordinary face and honey-blonde hair, stepping out of a portal mid-city with Edward’s hand in hers. He found a gown of blue velvet and gold satin and bought it for her, along with a blue and yellow sun-and-moon mask. Wyrren didn’t know herself in the mirror. She liked it.
“So, why are we hiding from your sister?” Edward asked on the way to tonight’s party in the town center—a massive courtyard with an elaborate fountain, enchanted colored lights to play off of the water.
“She thinks the men who attacked her may have been political enemies from Marla,” Wyrren admitted. “She’s trying to keep me safe.”
Edward smirked. “Better to get forgiveness than permission?”
“Better not to get caught at all. Don’t use my name, and let me switch partners?” Wyrren asked. She ought to have been terrified. Instead she felt excited, adrenaline rushing through her system. She was never this daring. It felt good. “That should alleviate suspicion.”
“I think I can do that,” Edward replied. He seemed more amused than anything.
She entered the banquet on her own and found herself in a raucous festival, music and blinkerbugs and dancing fountains all around her. There was a table at least a hundred feet long spread with a white tablecloth and platters on platters of food, the sort only a noble would get on a feast day in Marla, here for everyone to enjoy. Wyrren got a plate, and began to load it full. No one recognized her. No one looked back to stare at her face. She felt liberated. She ate with her mask barely pushed above her mouth. A stranger asked her to dance. She took his hand, and let him take her around the dance floor as if she had nothing to lose. Then she asked a new man to dance, and felt a rush of joy when he accepted. She wasn’t Wyrren Jadis anymore. Not tonight.
This must be how Ana felt all the time.
A herald’s voice boomed out over music, laughing, cheering, and conversation, announcing the entrance of the Grand Meister and Lady Kartania Riese of Doppel. Kartania wore a white dress that sparkled in the light, her dark hair loosely curled. Sebastian… he wore that pleasant smile, the one he liked to hide behind. Wyrren watched him from the beverage table, sipping a pink wine. Sebastian passed very close by on his way to a high seat laid out for him in advance. Food was brought to him on carts and silver dishes with domed covers.
In the meantime the partygoers around her discussed sports—of polo and magic games that Wyrren hadn’t yet learned. They talked about musicians, the men playing here, and who should have been hired; the string quartet was traditional, yes, but trumpets were all the rage. They talked about Kartania, how she looked, what they’d heard about her assaulting the Marlan lady (Mordache, Wyrren thought—they were mordache, not Marlan) and apparently every other guard in the palacia, and what was Sebastian del Torlo thinking, going with a Doppel brute on his arm?
She found Edward Lowar and led him out to dance. Edward seemed to think this was an invitation to make a grab for her butt. Wyrren shoved his hand right back. “Behave.”
“Never,” Edward said, and grinned. The man seemed to like being refused more than he liked getting his way. “And after this dance I’ll have to let you go again. When can I sneak you off?”
“After the party,” Wyrren said. “So long as you find a way to get around my sister when you return me to my rooms.” And this time she told herself that she wouldn’t feel so guilty. He was an enemy, trying to use her. Doing the same was only fair, right?
They parted again. Sebastian took to the floor with Kartania for a song, then left her to mingle with some of the local lords. One of the councilors that accosted Sebastian had an older, red haired wife who wore a fox pelt around her neck. Wyrren entertained an immature notion of letting the fox raise its head, look around, maybe drink the woman’s amber wine.
The politicians moved on. Sebastian looked around, unoccupied for a moment. Wyrren left her drink, slid through the crowd, and grabbed Sebastian’s arm while she had the chance.
“Come dance with me,” Wyrren said.
Sebastian waved his murder back. “… Wyrren?” he asked, sounding surprised. “What are you doing? Why are you disguised?”
“I’m seducing you,” Wyrren said, and pulled him back to the floor. Sebastian took her hand and put his other on her shoulder-blade. He was such a graceful man.
“You’ve been avoiding me,” Wyrren said.
“You know I’ve been busy, Wyrren.”
“You’ve been locked in your tower all day, and I’m trying not to provoke your future wife,” Wyrren said. “Which is difficult. Why did you refuse me?”
“I didn’t refuse you.”
“Why did you refuse me five weeks ago?”
“I thought we discussed this already. Why would you want to hear my answer over again?” Sebastian asked.
“I believe I said, ‘I understand’ and left,” Wyrren said. “That’s not a discussion. That was a poor attempt to avoid the issue on my part. I should have done better.”
“It’s a matter of politics. I was wrong to simply call you an ill fit. I apologize. Dancing is not the time to discuss this, though.”
Wyrren agreed. She took a mental step back; she had him here for a few minutes, but she didn’t know the best way to use this time. What would Ana do? “You’ll see me tomorrow afternoon? It’s important.”
Sebastian nodded. “Of course. I’ll make sure the time is made for it.”
“Thank you,” she said. “I’ve gotten used to seeing you more often than this, you know. I miss it.”
Sebastian seemed surprised. “You should have told me. I would have given you the time you wanted, Wyrren.”
“I assumed that you knew,” Wyrren said. “I always assume that you know these things. I’ll take the fault for that.” Had she really been that quiet? Did she come off as distant and secretive, too? “I didn’t want to disturb you.”
“You wouldn’t have disturbed me, Wyrren. My obligations are many, but I’m not so trapped that I can’t move them around for something important. Someone important.”
Wyrren pulled her mask onto her hair, looked him in the eyes and kissed him.
Sebastian inhaled sharply, and for a moment Wyrren had her lips against his, his form stiff against her. Then he grabbed her and kissed her hard. Everyone knew the Grand Meister; hundreds of people could see them, but for a long moment she let the kiss linger and enjoyed herself. Nothing else mattered, not right now. Wyrren’s heart raced, and underneath her illusion her white skin had gone purple, but if she could smile… well.
The music played on, couples danced around them. Wyrren touched Sebastian’s cheek, his beautiful hair. “I should go,” she whispered, and put her mask back on over her face. “Tomorrow.”
“Yes… yes, tomorrow.” Sebastian watched her turn and leave.
Wyrren found the beverage table, and clutched a glass of wine with shaking hands. She’d done it. She’d kissed Sebastian. He’d kissed her back.
Ana had been right.
Right now, it seemed more significant than any amount of assassins, conspiracies, or politics. And while telling him she needed protection might have been the smart thing to do, Wyrren regretted nothing. She was safe for now.
Then someone grabbed her mask and yanked it away from behind. “Jadis,” Kartania said. “I thought I smelled a snake.”
Wyrren pressed her hand over her mouth. The partygoers around them had backed away, a small clearing forming around her. Four Doppel girls in party dress flanked Kartania.
“Excuse me?” Wyrren asked, and took a step back.
“There’s no amount of magic that’s going to fix your broken face, Jadis,” Kartania pressed. “What the hell is it that you think you’re doing?”
Wyrren stopped backing up. She glanced at the people around her, then to Kartania’s escort, then to Kartania herself. Sebastian wanted her. She knew that now. If you choose to fight… “I’d like my mask, if you please, Lady Reise.”
Kartania stared at her for a long moment. Then she dropped Wyrren’s mask and crushed it under her boot. “There is your mask, Jadis. That’s your honor, too. You are a snake, Jadis! If this was Doppel, I would be putting you on a spit!”
Wyrren’s posture straightened, and she looked pointedly down at the shorter woman. “If you want a duel, Lady Reise,” Wyrren said, “then you will have it. But by Hael Malstrom’s laws, not yours.”
A slow, wide smile began to spread across Kartania’s face. “Then it’s a duel. Tomorrow you’ll get what you deserve, Jadis. I promise.”
“Tomorrow after breakfast,” Wyrren said. “Ten o’clock, outside the palace’s real courtyard. You’ll arrange the mediators. I have things to do.” She bent down and gathered the mask into her hands.
“Done,” Kartania said, and marched away. Her girls gave Wyrren nasty looks as they turned to follow.
Wyrren started to the fountain. Kartania, right now, was the least of her concerns. <Edward?> she asked. <I should leave now. Can you take me to the palace?>
<Of course, Wyrren. Give me a moment and I’ll be about to whisk you away,> Edward replied. One could almost hear the smile in his mental voice.
<I’m next to the fountain,> Wyrren said. <I’m afraid that I’ve botched my disguise.>
<Now how did you manage that?> Edward asked.
<Your charge is a jealous, angry woman, Edward,> Wyrren returned. <… I may have challenged her to a duel.>
<There is no ‘may have challenged’ with Kartania. Wyrren, has any ever told you that you’re magnificent at getting yourself into bad situations?> Edward asked.
<It’s my greatest talent,> Wyrren said. <I’d rather face her than spend the rest of my time here dodging her, though.>
<That’s commendable, if not stupidly noble. You do understand that Kartania will show you no quarter?> Edward asked.
<I’ve specified that it will be by Hael Malstrom’s law,> Wyrren said. <She can’t kill me, and there are vivomancers here. Pain I can handle, if worst should come to worst. Where are you?>
<Coming,> Edward answered. A few seconds later he came around the side of the fountain. “Well, my lady, it was a pleasure to meet you before you died.”
“Stop that,” Wyrren said. She handed him her shattered mask, which he pieced together with magic. He took her arm to escort her once she’d put it over her face, as if it still mattered.
They hadn’t gone five paces before Ana materialized in front of them, a furious smile spread across her face. “Mr. Lowar. Miss. I’ll join you, shall I?” she asked, and grabbed Wyrren’s other arm. “Nice to meet you. I’ll just stay here, shall I?” <If Kartania Riese doesn’t kill you, Wyrren, I will,> Ana growled at her. <What the hell are you doing here?!>
“… Helping?” Wyrren asked aloud.
“I’m going to skin you and wear you like a hat,” Ana replied.
“It’s good to see you, too, Miss Ana,” Edward said.
Edward received a good-night kiss at Wyrren’s door, and a promise of compensation for the dress. Edward waved it away. “I won a fortune from the Grand Meister a few days ago. Buying a beautiful woman a dress is the least of my worries. Good night, Lady Jadis. I’ll have to ravage you tomorrow.”
Once inside Wyrren’s room, Ana made Wyrren stand near the doorway and began checking her room for signs of tampering while they were gone. She emptied a glass of water that Wyrren had by her bedside, looked under the bed, poked at the fire. Wyrren sat down in front of her chess board and began playing a game with herself—her right hand against her left.
“Well, I hope you’re happy,” Ana said. “You’re so stupid sometimes, Wyrren! What were you thinking?! People are out to kill you, and Kartania Riese is a trained fighter! You’re a desolidifier. You can conjure ice and little skeletons! You have the reflexes of… of a blindfolded dog!”
“Thank you,” Wyrren said. Pawn forward. Knight takes pawn. Bishop protects the next pawn. Piece sacrificed, position acquired. The Marlan bone and jade clacked against her board as she moved, almost without thinking. Reflexes and reactions, intuition, decisions. One move led her to another, on to its inevitable conclusion.
“What’s the plan?” Ana asked.
“The plan is that it doesn’t matter if I win or lose,” Wyrren said. “It’s that Sebastian knows that I’m fighting. The rest is immaterial. You’re involved with Verrus, Ana. Tell him to have the murder nearby. A threader will kill the grass if he walks on it; watch for it.”
Then she just had to worry about surviving Kartania.