There was no sunlight on her ceiling the next morning. Rain beat against Wyrren’s window instead.
Ana came to her room with breakfast, bathed and dressed her. “You have a little less than two hours,” Ana said. “Let’s go over some basics.”
“I have a plan,” Wyrren said. “Don’t bother with the cosmetics today.” Ana agreed and braided Wyrren’s hair instead.
Wyrren picked up another book from her pile of the contents of Sebastian’s desk—a red leather bound tome.
“You can’t be serious. You’re reading now?” Ana asked.
“It’s relaxing,” Wyrren said. “I don’t have all the time in the world, either. I might as well make the most of what free minutes come my way.” She flipped the book open, then cocked her head, confused. “Ana, have you ever heard of someone named Gideon Flynn?”
“Gideon Flynn… I don’t think so. Why?” Ana asked.
“Sebastian has his diary,” Wyrren said. There was a date on the first entry, but it wasn’t a date from the Marlan or the local calendar. “Odd.” She opened the book to flip through its pages.
The book looked to be several hundred pages long, but something strange happened as Wyrren thumbed through it. When she reached the middle of the diary, the pages continued to flip by—text and sketches, little maps, handwriting shifts. But where it should have taken her a few seconds to reach the end, the middle continued on and on without visually progressing. She couldn’t seem to reach the end of the book.
One minute passed. Ana put her eyes at level with the bed’s surface so she could watch the page level fail to rise. Two minutes passed. Then five. “What the hell?” Ana asked. “How long is that thing?”
It must have been over ten minutes by the time Wyrren reached the end. By then her thumb was hurting, as if rug-burned, and only two blank pages existed at the end. “Some sort of enchantment?” Wyrren asked.
“You think?” Ana asked, sarcastic.
Wyrren grabbed a pen and scrawled her name over the last page. Then she turned it. Another page had materialized. “Enchanted it is.” She scanned the last entry: Sebastian’s writing, dated three days prior.
“Well,” Ana said. “If Sebastian’s writing his deepest thoughts and feelings, I think you’ve found out what Edward and Sebastian are up to,” she said. “You’re not going to try to read it all, are you?”
“Don’t be silly. A book this long would take me months,” Wyrren said, and began to turn the pages back, her eyes on the date. She’d arrived in Hael Malstrom a little over three months ago.
“Months,” Ana said, and pulled a face. “It’s only millions of pages long.”
“Probably less.” Wyrren said, without breaking her eyes from the text. “If I can thumb through a thousand pages in five seconds, at… say ten minutes, that would be…” she did a few calculations in her head. “One hundred and twenty thousand pages. A few months. I can get through a thousand pages a day if I’m dedicated, and this book is hand-written.”
“Finally, a use for your crazy reclusive habits,” Ana said.
“Shush,” Wyrren said. She skimmed, then read it aloud.
Four months prior—
I have received word from Duke Chyril Jadis of Renideo that his daughter seeks political asylum in Hael Malstrom. She shall have it. The letter had barely touched my desk before I penned my answer and sent a messenger to Renideo with all haste.
Last I saw Wyrren Jadis she was a young child. I am looking forward to seeing how she has grown.
If she is half the woman I suspect she’s become, and if she’ll have me, perhaps this may lead to something more. My last string of matches have been arranged for the sake of politics; perhaps I might have a choice of my own in her.
“Last string of matches?” Ana asked. “He’s got a secret harem?”
“Hush, Ana,” Wyrren said, though she wondered as well. Sebastian had never been married before. She knew that. Everyone knew that. But there was Sebastian’s handwriting, and the current date, in a book found in Sebastian’s desk. It looked real.
Three months prior—
Wyrren is everything I hoped she would be. Intelligent, magically gifted, compassionate, amazing on a chessboard, able to discuss philosophy and law and every other subject I can think of at length. She has every courtesy that a nobleman’s child would have learned, but completely free of false pretense; polite, but will move straight to the point and speak plainly when needed. I could spend the rest of her life in her company and never be bored, I think.
That said, I do not believe I will make any advances immediately. There is a darkness on her mind. Whatever she is hiding about the events in Marla, they come with their own deep wounds. I didn’t stay to see the details.
There is no rush. She will be safe in Hael Malstrom, and I have all the time in the world.
Eleven weeks prior—
Wyrren and her two girls have settled into the palacia. I’ve begun to draw Wyrren’s attention to the study of magic in the library. I think that she’ll enjoy it, if our conversations over chess are any indication. I’ve also taken pains to craft some additions to her mental magic spell—her speech impediment embarrasses her; she’ll be able to speak with her mind when I’m done.
It seems my interest in her is not unrequited.
Ten weeks prior—
I should have known that Wyrren would be particularly talented at necromancy. Mordache seem to take to it naturally, but in her case, I suspect that with practice she will have few equals.
A thought passed through Wyrren’s mind today, while we were conversing in the palace hallway. She is lying to me about her circumstances for coming here; they were far worse than she made them appear, it seems.
I have said nothing on the subject to her. Perhaps someday she will come to trust me.
Nine weeks prior—
It is too soon, but I am considering proposing to Wyrren. I don’t think I would be rejected.
Eight weeks prior—
I have taken Nassamituuq’s jewels from the treasury and placed them in my desk. I can’t decide on the wording. As if I’ve never done this before.
Seven weeks prior—
During my meeting with my council, the entire group brought up the subject of my marriage. They had rehearsed this ahead of time, it was clear. Doppel’s High Chancellor Jolcimer has a daughter that is pitched as a good choice, for the sake of my people’s welfare. I can not deny that they do have a point. Doppel is the one country I continue to have problems with. I have not given them an answer. Kartania is not what I had in mind.
Six weeks prior—
The council will not stop. Wyrren, they say, has nothing to offer me. Damn them all.
Five weeks, five days prior—
I have told Wyrren that I can not consider her for a match. It was a difficult conversation, but a necessary one, and did not last long. She only said that she understood and excused herself.
I have never been so glad for her paralyzed face. One can pretend it does not move because she does not will it. I have stopped looking into her mind. I don’t think I want to read its contents after this.
Five weeks, four days prior—
Wyrren came to breakfast wearing a mask today—a painted porcelain half mask covering her mouth. It makes her look as if she is smiling. I can not say how much I hate it.
Wyrren seemed to disappear from Sebastian’s diary for a time. Sebastian wrote nothing about Edward Lowar either, not until the day after they had arrived.
Five days prior—
Kartania Riese has arrived, and my shadow has come with her.
He is still calling himself Edward Lowar, and he is all smiles and jokes. There was no way to deny him a chess match as he challenged me in public, though. He’s back to his taunting, vile self. He brought me to the catacombs for a ‘discussion’. I wish he’d threatened me somewhere he might have gotten caught; I’d love to have him in my dungeons, imprisoned by his own facade.
I wonder if he means it this time, or if he’s just trying to make me jump again.
Fours days prior—
It seems Kartania wants to wear me as jewelry. She is brash, possessive, and jealous. I suppose I shall grow used to it. She is young, and there are worse traits.
Three days prior—
Lowar, the backstabbing, conniving, grinning weasel. He made certain to inform me that Wyrren will be on his arm this week, all the while giving me obscene hints about what he would be doing with her behind closed doors.
I thought she was smarter than that. Can’t she see what he is?! Why doesn’t she know better?! I can’t stand for it. I can’t and I won’t. I’ll get her away from him somehow.
I’ve let it slip into some of the servants’ minds that Edward is stringing along a chain of women. Her gossip of a stepsister will pass the word on; maybe that will make her see sense. No reason to crack a nut with a sledgehammer if it is not needed.
“He called me a gossip!” Ana looked outraged.
“He’s been snooping around in my head,” Wyrren said.
“As a diary confession goes, that’s not that bad,” Ana said. “If you had the ability to look in his head, you’d use it too, and don’t pretend you’re above that sort of thing, either. I’m more concerned about where these other wives went.” She checked the time. “You’d better be getting ready.
“I wonder what he means by calling Lowar ‘his shadow’? He’s still not talking about what the man’s up to.”
“It must be something in his past. They have met before,” Wyrren said. But Ana was right; the appellation was odd. His rival or his enemy, she could see, but a shadow? A shadow seemed very… close.
This was getting her nowhere. “I’ll read more later.” Perhaps she’d start with Sebastian inheriting his father’s position, some sixteen years prior. She hoped Sebastian’s entries went back that far. Perhaps a communal diary was a tradition among Hael Malstrom’s rulers?
Wyrren picked up a staff she’d readied, a solid piece of wood that Kartania wouldn’t snap easily. Wyrren wore no armor; if Kartania came close, then Wyrren would lose. She picked a simple dress and a pair of Marlan flat-heeled boots, specifically made for walking on ice.
“You’re sure you don’t want a knife?” Ana asked.
“No,” Wyrren said. “I don’t expect to win this, and Kartania isn’t my enemy. To some extent I sympathize with her predicament. I wouldn’t want to come meet a political suitor and find another woman shoving me about.” Of course, Wyrren’s solution would probably be to ask them both to someplace with drinks and get to the bottom of the matter. Kartania must have had her heart set on Sebastian before she’d arrived.
They walked along the main hall, with its tall east-facing windows. Saffira fell in behind them.
They’d reached the main stair when Ana said, “What if Sebastian isn’t really Sebastian? What if someone killed the prince young, took his place with magic, then arranged for his father to die? And Lowar is… say… the son of the imposter’s partner in crime?”
“You’re making this all up again from nothing, Ana,” Wyrren said.
“He writes about having multiple political marriages in his diary. You’re certain that it’s Sebastian’s diary from his desk, in his handwriting, and the man has always been a bachelor. Everyone knows that. This isn’t some repressive country where the people are afraid to talk,” Ana said. “You have an enemy who doesn’t make sense being called a ‘shadow’ following him around. … Hell. What if Lowar is really Sebastian? What if they traded places?”
Wyrren stopped. End of the Torlo line, Lowar had said. Easily done, if there were no true Torlos left. Sebastian no longer being useful. Sebastian falling to pieces. And then there was the very strange fact that Sebastian and Edward, aside from the points where they were exact opposites, were very strangely similar to each other. What if… Ana was right, and the man she knew as Sebastian had only learned chess to fill his role? And if he was an accomplished mind reader as well…
“Not a word more of this,” Wyrren said, then started out again. “You’re still conjecting without evidence.” She paused. They were on the ground floor now. Through the far double doors she’d find her duel waiting for her. “Ana, I want you to go find the oldest servants you can. The people who’ve been here the longest. Find out if there were any changes in Sebastian’s behavior before and after his father’s death, or if he had any childhood personality shifts.”
Ana gave Wyrren a knowing smile, which disappeared a moment later. “But what if Kartania kills you?” she asked.
“Then there will be some very disappointed assassins,” Wyrren shot back. She straightened, grabbed her staff, took a deep breath. Terror was starting to build, like a metal hand squeezing her stomach. What was she thinking, dueling an experienced warrior? This wasn’t supposed to be a fight to the death, but accidents happened.
“One last question,” Ana said. “If… if Sebastian’s really a usurping villain… then what?”
“Then we protect him from his enemy just the same,” Wyrren said. Sebastian obsessed over his job and he had relationship problems, but he was a good ruler who cared for his people. That seemed more important than how he’d gotten himself in this position. “Go.”
Wyrren squared her shoulders and walked outside.
* * *
Kartania watched Jadis approach with her tattooed bodyguard, a staff in her hand, no other weapons, and no armor. “Mages,” Kartania muttered. Rain dripped from her own helm, and she could hear the ‘tink’ of raindrops on the metal. Jadis had picked a thoroughly miserable day for this, hadn’t she?
“She doesn’t even know how to hold her staff,” Adela said. “You’ll teach her a lesson?”
“One she won’t forget in a hurry,” Kartania replied. She didn’t come all the way to Valdenemus to be displaced by a two-faced ex-duchess from assassin-land. Jadis hesitated when she came to the green, then stepped off of the courtyard patio.
“… Kartania?” Adela said, her tone uneasy.
The grass at Jadis’ feet was dying where she walked.
Jadis stopped a few paces away from them—hand tight about her staff, her false mouth curved into a painted smile, her blue eyes staring slack as if she were dead herself.
“Are you ready?” Kartania asked, and stepped forward. She had nothing to fear from dead grass, and Wyrren Jadis didn’t scare her.
Jadis nodded once.
Kearn Nosland had been the one to tell Kartania that there would be no more violence, so it was Kearn that Kartania had asked to officiate their duel. He looked between the women for a moment before he spoke. “I’m here to make sure this duel stays lawful. This is not a fight to the death, nor are you to treat it as such. If I call for you to stop, you will or you will be made to stop. The duel will end when one of you clearly cannot fight any longer. Do you both understand?”
Kartania bowed to Kearn. She accepted the rules, even if they differed from Doppel’s traditions.
Jadis nodded a second time. “I understand.”
Kartania had chosen a blunted sword, which she pounded against her shield thrice, scattering droplets of rain in all directions. Kearn stepped back and said, “Begin!” and Kartania started forward. She had a snake to crush.
Jadis retreated, walking backwards. More grass with her every step. Kartania’s girls began yelling, cheering Kartania on. Jadis’ bodyguard kept pace with her mistress at a distance, silent.
Kartania scowled, increasing her pace until she broke into a run. Jadis swung her staff around to block Kartania’s sword. Before the sword could reach the staff, though, Kartania’s right foot slipped, and she fell flat on her face. Her shield crushed the sheet of ice that had materialized on the ground between them. A bitter cold emanated from around her, colder than any winter Kartania had ever felt, and it burned her skin. The rain turned to hail.
Jadis moved better on ice than Kartania did. She stomped on Kartania’s sword as Kartania struggled to get to her feet, slipping and pushing against the weight of her armor. A flash of sand fell out of nowhere, and Kartania’s sword snapped.
What was that?!
Kartania abandoned the sword and rolled off the ice, back to the grass two yards to her left, and pushed herself upright there. Jadis stayed in her ice patch, which grew thicker and longer by the second. The ice steamed in the warm Hael Malstrom spring.
Kartania sank into a deep stance, her shield raised against Wyrren, and called for her goddess’ blessing. The air rippled around her and the cold and ice began to retreat, more quickly than it had formed.
Once she could get within striking distance of Jadis, Kartania advanced.
Jadis set her staff in front of her to block. Kartania grabbed her staff and wrenched it, pulling it from the mage’s hands and throwing it behind them. Jadis’ hand went to Kartania’s shield. Another sand-cloud fell.
Kartania balled her fist and hit Jadis across the jaw, then slammed her with her shield. Jadis fell on her back.
Kartania kicked at her. ]Jadis grabbed Kartania’s calf with her bare hands, all dignity and semblance of combat gone. A moment later, there was a terrible pain behind Kartania’s knee, and the leg dropped under her. Jadis must have hidden a dagger in her sleeve.
Kartania, half fallen atop Jadis, pushed herself up, straddled the mage, and started to pummel Jadis with her gloved fist. She heard the snap of bone and the shatter of her second mask. Jadis screamed, shoving against her with what little strength she had. Blood covered her slack mouth and chin. Then Kartania grabbed Wyrren’s throat and squeezed her windpipe next. Someone was yelling at them, and Kartania felt pain in her shoulder. Her right arm stopped responding.
Someone grabbed Kartania and pulled her away. Kartania struggled, yelling and cursing. Jadis’ bodyguard grabbed Jadis and pulled her into her lap. Jadis gasped and coughed, though she looked just as blank and lifeless as when the fight began. An arm laid disembodied on the dead grass between them, and it took Kartania a moment to realize that it was her own.
Then the vivomancers appeared and grabbed the limb, and set about reattaching it to Kartania’s body, while Kartania yelled at them to hurry up, that the fight wasn’t over yet. Her head spun and the grass around her seemed to be covered in blood.
* * *
Wyrren folded her hands and stared at her lap, sitting in front of the crackling fire in Sebastian’s office. “Am I supposed to apologize?” Wyrren asked. Her stockings and dress hung from the mantle while she sat in her slip. This was the third mask Kartania had broken, and despite her state of undress it was the loss of her mask that made her feel naked.
Sebastian sighed, shaking his head, sitting in the chair next to hers, his turned sideways to face her and not the fire. “No. You accepted a challenge to duel, and you did so… you certainly scared everyone with your performance though,” Sebastian said.
“I challenged Kartania. She didn’t challenge me,” Wyrren said. Her loss seemed inevitable. “I admit, I panicked near the end. I don’t like to be held down like that. My plan was to turn the terrain to my advantage.” She knew how to tread ice very well.
Sebastian nodded. “I don’t think that people can fault you for fighting back. I can’t say that the council is going to like this incident, though.”
“The council,” Wyrren repeated. She’d had very little to do with the council; she’d always been a guest and nothing more. “If I had not challenged Kartania, I expect she would have continued hassling me. Kartania has gotten her way, and I survived. I hope that’s enough for her, but it may not change anything.”
“You seem to have changed though, Wyrren.”
Wyrren raised her gaze to meet Sebastian’s eyes. He had such lovely eyes. “Perhaps,” Wyrren admitted. “In some ways. This isn’t why I asked to meet with you, though.”
“I didn’t think it was. What is this urgent meeting about, anyhow?” Sebastian asked.
“Kearn probably told you one of Ana’s dates attacked her the evening before yesterday?”
“Yes, I received that news. She made a full recovery, though?” he asked.
“She was knifed and poisoned.” Wyrren paused. “Ana said that the man who attacked her was Marlan. He was trying to lead her off somewhere private.”
“Why would a Marlan be trying to do something like that, Wyrren? … And why am I only now hearing this from you?” Sebastian asked. “You should have told me at the dance.”
“Well… I was trying to keep it quiet,” Wyrren admitted. “We didn’t want it getting out in the open. I’d rather the city not know that the new King de Marla would pay for my head. We have a nasty reputation as it is.”
“You need to give me a proper explanation,” Sebastian said.
“You know that they don’t want me coming home,” Wyrren said.
“Sending assassins here though? That’s different.”
Wyrren looked back down at her folded hands. “Things… may have gotten worse in Marla than I’d originally told you,” she admitted. “I’m sorry for deceiving you. Getting away was… a little more important at the time than perfect honesty.”
Sebastian motioned for her to continue.
Wyrren nodded. She had to get to this eventually. “I’m wanted for regicide,” she said. “On three counts, technically, though only the first is true. I’m very talented at getting myself into trouble.”
“So it seems. Can you tell me what happened then, not just the outcome?” he asked.
“That’s something of a story,” Wyrren said, reluctant. Her folded hands clenched each other tight. “You’re very busy…”
“I will make the time Wyrren. Please… you can tell me,” Sebastian said.
She’d been avoiding even thinking about this since she had gotten out of Marla. She wanted to leave it behind her. Instead, it seemed to follow her like a shadow of her own. “You don’t fight wars with armies in Marla,” Wyrren said. “Two years ago, there was an incident in our capital, Vastii. A favorite slave of the king’s raped and killed a diplomat’s daughter from our region. He was found guilty and yet went unpunished. It was the catalyst for a war long coming.
“My father began to find ways to get independent of the king. I don’t know who he sent to Vastii, but things escalated. While I was traveling last year I was kidnapped with Ana and one of my slaves by the king’s men. They brought me to the capital as a hostage.
“I… What happened next is probably my own fault. I didn’t want to cooperate with the king. I was his niece, he wanted to win me to his side of the dispute. He pushed, I pushed back. I found a way to hurt him, and I was caught at treason. He…” Wyrren stopped, held there for a time, then began speaking much more quickly. “Things were bad, Sebastian. The people were starving in the city, there was plague and talk of revolt, and my uncle ignored it all. I… I was raped and tortured for disobedience. I had an ally who talked me into killing my uncle. He said he could steer things differently, and…” She stopped again. Her hands squeezed each other tight. “I don’t want to talk about this, Sebastian.” As Kartania had just discovered, Wyrren didn’t like being held down on the ground.
“I think I understand,” Sebastian said softly. “I wish you hadn’t kept this from me though.”
Wyrren nodded and shivered, holding her arms tight. She couldn’t bring herself to look at Sebastian any longer. “And now there are Marlans here. Probably mordache as well. I… I don’t have a threader, Sebastian. We’re scared.”
“I promised to protect you when you came here. I intend to keep my word,” Sebastian said. He rose from his seat and put his hand on Wyrren’s shoulder. “You don’t have to worry. You will be safe here.”
Wyrren chuckled despite herself. “Have you ever watched a mordache assassin, Sebastian? Ana got lucky. She faced a human, and she has training of her own. The mordache… I’d fall over dead, and you’d never see a thing. I was hoping the illusion last night would keep me safe, but Kartania saw through that after our dance. I don’t know if that will work twice. Unless you have a way to track them down first.” What could he do, make every man in the city press his hand against a plant and see who killed it? The only way to counter a Mordache Threader was with another Threader.
“I have an idea, to track them down. If it works I could have them before the day is out,” Sebastian said. He sounded sure of himself.
“You really have a mordache-tracking spell?” Wyrren asked. He was a mind-reader, though. Perhaps that was how he’d manage it. “No, I’m sorry. If you think you can handle this, I’ll be grateful. Ana wants me to stay in my room, but I suspect I might be safer with one of the murder nearby in the meantime.”
“I can’t work on tracking them and keep you with me, though. As much as I hate to suggest something like this. You’ll be safe around a capable mage. Edward Lowar will do, until I’ve captured these assassins.”
“You trust Edward Lowar to keep me safe?” she asked, carefully casual.
“I don’t trust Lowar in the slightest, but he is an exemplary mage. He also seems to have taken a liking to you if the other night was any indication. He will keep you safe,” Sebastian said.
“I’d like to know why, Sebastian. He’s supposedly something of a player, and you know he could sell me to the Marlans for a lot more than the fortune he won from you half a week ago,” Wyrren said. “I’ve been going with him because he asked, and frankly I’m interested in keeping tabs on him and Kartania, but this is different. And didn’t you just meet him a few days ago?”
“I doubt he’s enough of a bastard to simply sell you to the Marlans. I do know that his magic rivals my own, and I wouldn’t say that lightly,” Sebastian said.
“I think anyone who wouldn’t sell a girl they barely knew for a fortune must be a very good man,” Wyrren said, but relented. There was more going on here than she knew, and Sebastian wasn’t going to tell her his secret. She took his hand from her shoulder and held it instead. “Thank you.”
“Of course Wyrren. I want you to have a place here, Wyrren. To have a home here,” Sebastian said.
“Sebastian… I’m going to have to leave after you marry.”
“At the very least then I can make it safe for you to leave,” Sebastian said. His hand held hers tight, though, and his voice betrayed him; he didn’t want Wyrren to leave.
Wyrren shut her eyes and nodded, and let Sebastian’s hand go. She didn’t want to leave, either, but if he went ahead with his plans, there was no way around it. “Thank you,” Wyrren said, and got to her feet.
“Be safe, Wyrren. I’ll let you know once I have them.”
Wyrren nodded, and for a moment she thought about stepping close to him instead of collecting her dress. She hesitated, doing neither. “Sebastian…”
Sebastian kept his eyes on her, his lips pressed together, his eyes sad. He didn’t move away from her either. The fire crackled and popped. Neither were willing to be the first to step away.
Sebastian finally reached for Wyrren, and he pulled her close and wrapped his arms around her. Then he kissed her, as she had kissed him when they’d danced the night before.
Wyrren shut her eyes, enjoying every moment. Her arms went around his shoulders, and she barely breathed. “Why didn’t you do this weeks ago?” she whispered, and rested a hand against his cheek.
“I’m a fool, Wyrren. I’m so sorry,” Sebastian said.
Wyrren brushed Sebastian’s bangs from his eyes and nuzzled her nose against his, enjoying just being there. He kissed her again, his hands on her waist. She could feel his fingers through the thin fabric of her slip.
“Lock the door, Sebastian?” Wyrren whispered.
The door’s lock gave an audible click.
Wyrren unbuttoned his heavy jacket. He had to help, pulling off his heavy gold pendant. “Chair?” she asked.
Sebastian kissed her again. “Or there’s the desk,” he said.
Wyrren glanced across the room, surveyed the enormous desk. Messy, busy. He had plenty of paperwork strewn about, as usual. All important things to finish. “You’re sure?” she asked.
Sebastian waved his hand. Wyrren heard wind, and every paper, letter, and book was swept onto the floor. “Absolutely.”
Wyrren grabbed him by the collar and dragged him there.
* * *
Kartania Riese had a less pleasant meeting—she sat at the end of a long table, half of the Hael Malstrom council sitting around her in the councilor’s building in the heart of the government district. There was even some men in the audience; she recognized the big shaved redhead from Sebastian’s murder in the balcony wings, and resented him for watching.
Kartania explained the afternoon’s events—the challenge, the duel, which had been initiated by Jadis and conducted by Hael Malstrom’s laws, with the proper vivomancers and Kearn Nosland in attendance.
“It really isn’t the point, Lady Riese,” said one councilor, a pear shaped man with big, sloping shoulders and gray sideburns. “Just because it is legal does not mean that it is acceptable behavior for a lady in your position. We understand that you are from a much more… free society, but this can not continue, Lady Riese! We are trying to work with you, and we are very interested in good relations with Doppel, but not at the expense of our dealings with the Renideo Duke. This is not diplomatic.”
“Your Grand Meister has not been quite diplomatic, either,” Kartania observed. “He kissed her in front of half the county last night! I trust you didn’t call me here so you could scorn me in person?” What did it take to please these people?!
“No one wants that,” the councilor said. “And we can promise you, the Grand Meister has every intention of making amends with you before your engagement is announced at the end of the week. Starting with his most heartfelt apologies, and the immediate removal of Lady Jadis from the palace. Now, in return, I trust that you and your girls will conduct yourself in ways better befitting a noblewoman of our culture?”
If it would get rid of Jadis? “Absolutely,” Kartania replied. “We’ll be perfect simpering babes.”
The councilor frowned. “I don’t appreciate being mocked, Lady Riese. We’re asking you to be polite. There is a difference.”
Kartania made herself smile. She hated this country more every day. “Of course,” Kartania said. “I meant to disrespect. Sebastian will confirm all this, of course?”
“You have our word.”
* * *
Afterward, Wyrren put her chin on his shoulder and held him tight, and started laughing into his skin, nuzzling and nipping at him. “You’ve sullied your office, you know.”
Sebastian laughed and put an arm around her, staring up at the ceiling. “I couldn’t be happier about it.”
Wyrren started kissing his neck. “When Kartania went after me the first time, she got me so mad… I told her we did this every day during our chess hour.”
“I’d never get any work done, were that true,” Sebastian said. “I had wondered what you’d said to make her hit you.”
“That wasn’t my brightest moment,” Wyrren said, and paused, looking at him. “… I heard you and Lowar fighting, after your match. In the catacombs.”
“You heard us fighting… why were you in the catacombs?”
“It’s the best place in the palacia for necromancy practice,” Wyrren said. “Don’t change the subject. Tell me what’s going on.”
“Wyrren… you weren’t meant to hear any of that. It’s a dispute between Lowar and myself that’s been going on for a long time,” Sebastian said.
“A dispute? Ana and I have an ongoing dispute. About whether her sleeping with half the palace is acceptable. Threatening to kill you and orphan Hael Malstrom is not a ‘dispute’.”
Sebastian sighed. “If you give me some time Wyrren I’ll explain everything to you. Just not now.”
“Really. You have something pressing to do?” Wyrren asked.
“I do need to track down the men hunting you,” Sebastian reminded her.
Oh. That. Wyrren stopped asking questions, then turned his head and kissed his lips. “I suppose,” she agreed, and sat up. Her slip and underclothes were on the floor, mixed up with his scattered papers and books. An inkpot had made a puddle, staining a swath of documents.
“I won’t leave you in the dark forever, I promise,” Sebastian said.
Wyrren slid off of his desk. “I will ask again,” Wyrren said, dressing. “You’re sure I should go with Edward tonight?”
“Yes. He’ll keep you safe,” Sebastian said.
This seemed to be getting stranger by the hour—Edward wanted to kill him, but Sebastian trusted him completely in this? Wyrren puzzled over it as she slid her wet dress over her head.
Before she left, though, she paused and squeezed Sebastian’s hand. “This… This isn’t going to be… We’re not finished, right?”
“No, we aren’t finished. You just have to give me time to work everything into its place,” Sebastian said.
Wyrren nodded. “I’ll contact Edward. Good luck, Sebastian.”
She unlocked his office, hoping desperately that that office had been sound-proofed. She sent a message to Lowar, telling him that she still wanted to go to the festival, then to Ana to pick out her clothes.
When she arrived at her suite, Ana locked the door behind Wyrren and propelled her to the bathtub. “You remember what you asked me to do, before the duel?”
It took Wyrren a moment to recall—Ana’s latest theory about Sebastian’s big secret. “Yes?” Hot water began to fill the tub, and Wyrren began to strip the filthy wet clothes she had worn there. She hoped Ana wouldn’t notice her new bruises; that desk had not been comfortable.
“So… I went and found the oldest people still working at the palace? Servants, cooks, that sort of thing, and I asked them about Prince Sebastian? Wyrren, he was entirely different. I mean, Sebastian was… a carefree slut-boy. His father Gabriel kept having to stifle all these would-be scandals. Then suddenly, daddy dies and Prince Sebastian gets suddenly mature and responsible and… different.
“Your Sebastian del Torlo is a fake.”