Main The Priory of the Orange Tree
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It's an 800+ pages book so it gets quite lengthy in details, which dependingon the reader could be a pro or con. I skimmed through some chapter to get to the point of the story. It leaves you wanting more, there's just something about the romance that developed between a certain pairing that has you thinking about them hours after reading, and that is not even the focus of the story. So yeah, worth the read.
13 May 2021 (15:33)
I read it because all the hype in BookTok. I read a lot but I couldnt get past the 200 page mark... Its just not for me. I didnt get hooked with this one.
23 May 2021 (16:17)
I think it's gonna be one of my favourites. It has almost everything I could ask for: a queen, court drama, warrior magic-using nuns ( I guess that's what you could call them), dragons, pirates, a witch from the woods... Everything is sprinkled with beautiful friendships, even better romance and just a tad of questionable morality. World building is incredible, but with it comes the length of the book. Nearing the end, I wanted to finish reading The priory... and I was scared of doing so. I think of this as something good.
28 June 2021 (00:05)
This book is one of my favorite read this year. It was very overwhelming when you look at how many pages it is...The first 200 pages are...man!you gotta survive it. Because after, that you're in for the ride. The world-building is wonderful. But sometimes I gotta go back to the map to know where the hell I am.hahaha...and the characters...*chef's kiss* Tane should have been given more justice in the book. I really like her. And of course Sabran and Ead...i will not get over these two...i need to know what happens to them leading to the 10 year reunion and not a sunrise more.hehehhe
07 July 2021 (06:40)
Ok.....Im reading this now so I'll come back when I'm done ?
15 July 2021 (01:00)
ALSO BY THE AUTHOR The Bone Season series The Pale Dreamer (novella) The Bone Season The Mime Order The Song Rising On the Merits of Unnaturalness Author’s note The fictional lands of The Priory of the Orange Tree are inspired by events and legends from various parts of the world. None is intended as a faithful representation of any one country or culture at any point in history. Contents Also by the Author Maps I Stories of Old One Two Three Four Five Six Seven Eight Nine Ten Eleven Twelve Thirteen Fourteen Fifteen Sixteen Seventeen Eighteen Nineteen Twenty Twenty-One Twenty-Two II Declare I Dare Not Twenty-Three Twenty-Four Twenty-Five Twenty-Six Twenty-Seven Twenty-Eight Twenty-Nine Thirty Thirty-One Thirty-Two Thirty-Three Thirty-Four Thirty-Five Thirty-Six Thirty-Seven III A Witch to Live Thirty-Eight Thirty-Nine Forty Forty-One Forty-Two Forty-Three Forty-Four Forty-Five Forty-Six Forty-Seven Forty-Eight IV Thine is the Queendom Forty-Nine Fifty Fifty-One Fifty-Two Fifty-Three Fifty-Four Fifty-Five Fifty-Six Fifty-Seven V Here Be Dragons Fifty-Eight Fifty-Nine Sixty Sixty-One Sixty-Two Sixty-Three Sixty-Four Sixty-Five VI The Keys to the Abyss Sixty-Six Sixty-Seven Sixty-Eight Sixty-Nine Seventy Seventy-One Seventy-Two Seventy-Three Seventy-Four Seventy-Five Seventy-Six The Persons of the Tale Glossary Timeline Acknowledgements Note on the Author Also by Samantha Shannon Maps I Stories of Old And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations any more until the thousand years were ended. —Revelation 20.1–3 1 East The stranger came out of the sea like a water ghost, barefoot and wearing the scars of his jou; rney. He walked as if drunk through the haze of mist that clung like spidersilk to Seiiki. The stories of old said water ghosts were doomed to live in silence. That their tongues had shriveled, along with their skin, and that all that dressed their bones was seaweed. That they would lurk in the shallows, waiting to drag the unwary to the heart of the Abyss. Tané had not feared those tales since she was a small child. Now her dagger gleamed before her, its curve like a smile, and she fixed her gaze on the figure in the night. When it called to her, she flinched. The clouds released the moonlight they had hidden. Enough for her to see him as he was. And for him to see her. This was no ghost. It was an outsider. She had seen him, and he could not be unseen. He was sunburned, with hair like straw and a dripping beard. The smugglers must have abandoned him to the water and told him to swim the rest of the way. It was clear that he knew nothing of her language, but she understood enough of his to know that he was asking for help. That he wanted to see the Warlord of Seiiki. Her heart was a fistful of thunder. She dared not speak, for to show she knew his language was to forge a link between them, and to betray herself. To betray the fact that just as she was now a witness to his crime, he was a witness to hers. She should be in seclusion. Safe behind the walls of the South House, ready to rise, purified, for the most important day of her life. Now she was tainted. Soiled beyond redemption. All because she had wanted to immerse herself in the sea once more before Choosing Day. There were rumors that the great Kwiriki would favor those with the mettle to slip out and seek the waves during seclusion. Instead he had sent this nightmare. All her life, she had been too fortunate. This was her punishment. She held the outsider at bay with the dagger. Faced with death, he began to shake. Her mind became a whirlpool of possibilities, each more terrible than the last. If she turned this outsider over to the authorities, she would have to reveal that she had broken seclusion. Choosing Day might not proceed. The honorable Governor of Cape Hisan—this province of Seiiki—would never allow the gods into a place that might be fouled with the red sickness. It could be weeks before the city was pronounced safe, and by then it would have been decided that the stranger arriving had been an ill omen, and that the next generation of apprentices, not hers, must be given the chance to be riders. It would cost her everything. She could not report him. Neither could she abandon him. If he did have the red sickness, letting him roam unchecked would endanger the entire island. There was only one choice. She wrapped a strip of cloth around his face to keep him from breathing out the sickness. Her hands quaked. When it was done, she walked him from the black sand of the beach and up to the city, keeping as close as she dared, her blade pressed to his back. Cape Hisan was a sleepless port. She steered the outsider through its night markets, past shrines whittled from driftwood, under the strings of blue and white lanterns that had been hung up for Choosing Day. Her prisoner stared at it all in silence. The dark obscured his features, but she tapped the flat of her blade on his head, forcing him to lower it. All the while, she kept him as far away from others as she could. She had an idea of how to isolate him. An artificial island clung to the cape. It was called Orisima, and it was something of a curiosity to the locals. The trading post had been constructed to house a handful of merchants and scholars from the Free State of Mentendon. Along with the Lacustrine, who were on the other side of the cape, the Ments alone had been granted permission to continue trading in Seiiki after the island had been closed to the world. Orisima. That was where she would take the outsider. The torchlit bridge to the trading post was guarded by armed sentries. Few Seiikinese had permission to enter, and she was not one of them. The only other way past the fence was the landing gate, which opened once a year to receive goods from the Mentish ships. Tané led the outsider down to the canal. She could not sneak him into Orisima herself, but she knew a woman who could. Someone who would know exactly where in the trading post to hide him. It had been a long time since Niclays Roos had received a visitor. He was rationing himself a little wine—a trickle of his paltry allowance—when the knock came at his door. Wine was one of his few remaining pleasures in the world, and he had been immersed in breathing in its aroma, savoring that golden moment before the first taste. Now an interruption. Of course. With a sigh, he uprooted himself, grumbling at the sudden throb in his ankle. Gout was back once more to vex him. Another knock. “Oh, do shut up,” he muttered. Rain drummed on the roof as he groped for his cane. Plum rain, the Seiikinese called it at this time of the year, when the air hung thick and damp as cloud and fruit swelled on the trees. He limped across the mats, cursing under his breath, and opened the door a fraction of an inch. Standing in the darkness outside was a woman. Dark hair fell to her waist, and she wore a robe patterned with salt flowers. Rain alone could not have made her as wet as she was. “Good evening, learnèd Doctor Roos,” she said. Niclays raised his eyebrows. “I strongly dislike visitors at this hour. Or any hour.” He ought to bow, but he had no reason to impress this stranger. “How do you know my name?” “I was told it.” No further explanation was forthcoming. “I have one of your countrymen with me. He will stay with you tonight, and I will collect him tomorrow at sunset.” “One of my countrymen.” His visitor turned her head a little. A silhouette parted ways with a nearby tree. “Smugglers delivered him to Seiiki,” the woman said. “I will take him to the honored Governor tomorrow.” When the figure came into the light from his house, Niclays turned cold. A golden-haired man, just as drenched as the woman, was standing on his threshold. A man he had never seen in Orisima. Twenty people lived in the trading post. He knew every one of their faces and names. And no Mentish ships would arrive with newcomers until later in the season. Somehow, these two had entered unseen. “No.” Niclays stared. “Saint, woman, are you trying to involve me in a smuggling operation?” He fumbled for the door. “I cannot hide a trespasser. If anyone knew—” “One night.” “One night, a year—our heads will be sliced from our shoulders regardless. Good evening.” As he made to shut the door, the woman jammed her elbow into the gap. “If you do this,” she said, now so close that Niclays could feel her breath, “you will be rewarded with silver. As much of it as you can carry.” Niclays Roos hesitated. Silver was tempting. He had played one too many drunken games of cards with the sentinels and owed them more than he was likely to make in a lifetime. So far, he had stalled their threats with the promise of jewels from the next Mentish shipment, but he knew well that, when it came, there wouldn’t be a single wretched jewel on board. Not for the likes of him. His younger self urged him to accept the proposal, if only for the sake of excitement. Before his older, wiser self could intervene, the woman moved away. “I will return tomorrow night,” she said. “Do not let him be seen.” “Wait,” he hissed after her, furious. “Who are you?” She was already gone. With a glance down the street and a growl of frustration, Niclays dragged the frightened-looking man into his house. This was madness. If his neighbors realized that he was harboring a trespasser, he would be hauled before a very angry Warlord, who was not known for his mercy. Yet here Niclays was. He locked the door. Despite the heat, the newcomer was shivering on the mats. His olive skin was burned across the cheeks, his blue eyes raw from salt. If only to calm himself, Niclays found a blanket he had brought from Mentendon and handed it to the man, who took it without speaking. He was right to look afraid. “Where did you come from?” Niclays asked curtly. “I’m sorry,” his guest whispered. “I don’t understand. Are you speaking Seiikinese?” Inysh. That tongue was one he had not heard in some time. “That,” Niclays answered in it, “was not Seiikinese. That was Mentish. I assumed you were, too.” “No, sir. I am from Ascalon,”came the meek reply. “May I ask your name, since I have you to thank for sheltering me?” Typical Inysh. Courtesy first. “Roos,” Niclays bit out. “Doctor Niclays Roos. Master surgeon. The person whose life you are currently endangering with your presence.” The young man stared at him. “Doctor—” He swallowed. “Doctor Niclays Roos?” “Congratulations, boy. The seawater has not impaired your ears.” His guest drew a shuddering breath. “Doctor Roos,” he said, “this is divine providence. The fact that the Knight of Fellowship has brought me to you, of all people—” “Me.” Niclays frowned. “Have we met?” He strained his memory to his time in Inys, but he was sure he had never clapped eyes on this person. Unless he had been drunk at the time, of course. He had often been drunk in Inys. “No, sir, but a friend told me your name.” The man dabbed his face with his sleeve. “I was sure I would perish at sea, but seeing you has brought me back to life. Thank the Saint.” “Your saint has no power here,” Niclays muttered. “Now, what name do you go by?” “Sulyard. Master Triam Sulyard, sir, at your service. I was a squire in the household of Her Majesty, Sabran Berethnet, Queen of Inys.” Niclays gritted his jaw. That name stoked a white-hot wrath in his gut. “A squire.” He sat down. “Did Sabran tire of you, as she tires of all her subjects?” Sulyard bristled. “If you insult my queen, I will—” “What will you do?” Niclays looked at him over the rims of his eyeglasses. “Perhaps I should call you Triam Dullard. Do you have any notion of what they do to outsiders here? Did Sabran send you to die a particularly drawn-out death?” “Her Majesty does not know I am here.” Interesting. Niclays poured him a cup of wine. “Here,” he said grudgingly. “All of it.” Sulyard drank it down. “Now, Master Sulyard, this is important,” Niclays continued. “How many people have seen you?” “They made me swim to the shore. I came to a cove first. The sand was black.” Sulyard was shivering. “A woman found me and led me into this city at knifepoint. She left me alone in a stable . . . then a different woman arrived and bid me follow her. She took me to the sea, and we swam together until we came to a jetty. There was a gate at the end.” “And it was open?” “Yes.” The woman must know one of the sentinels. Must have asked them to leave the landing gate open. Sulyard rubbed his eyes. His time at sea had weathered him, but Niclays could see now that he was only young, perhaps not even twenty. “Doctor Roos,” he said, “I have come here on a mission of the utmost importance. I must speak to the—” “I will have to stop you there, Master Sulyard,” Niclays cut in. “I have no interest in why you are here.” “But—” “Whatever your reasons, you came here to do it without permission from any authority, which is folly. If the Chief Officer finds you and they drag you away for interrogation, I wish to be able to say in all honesty that I have not the faintest idea why you turned up on my doorstep in the middle of the night, thinking you would be welcome in Seiiki.” Sulyard blinked. “Chief Officer?” “The Seiikinese official in charge of this floating scrapyard, though he seems to think of himself as a minor god. Do you know what this place is, at least?” “Orisima, the last Western trading post in the East. Its existence was what gave me the hope that the Warlord might see me.” “I assure you,” Niclays said, “that under no circumstances will Pitosu Nadama receive a trespasser at his court. What he will do, should he get wind of you, is execute you.” Sulyard said nothing. Niclays briefly considered telling his guest that his rescuer planned to come back for him, perhaps to alert the authorities to his presence. He decided against it. Sulyard might panic and try to flee, and there was nowhere for him to run. Tomorrow. He would be gone tomorrow. Just then, Niclays heard voices outside. Footsteps clattered on the wooden steps of the other dwellings. He felt a quiver in his belly. “Hide,” he said, and grasped his cane. Sulyard ducked behind a folding screen. Niclays opened the door with shaking hands. Centuries ago, the First Warlord of Seiiki had signed the Great Edict and closed the island to all but the Lacustrine and the Mentish, to protect its people from the Draconic plague. Even after the plague abated, the separation had endured. Any outsider who arrived without permission would be put to death. As would anyone who abetted them. In the street, there was no sign of the sentinels, but several of his neighbors had gathered. Niclays joined them. “What in the name of Galian is happening?” he asked the cook, who was staring at a point above their heads, mouth wide enough to catch butterflies in it. “I recommend not using that particular facial expression in the future, Harolt. People might think you a halfwit.” “Look, Roos,” the cook breathed. “Look!” “This had better be—” He trailed off when he saw it. An enormous head towered over the fence of Orisima. It belonged to a creature born of jewel and sea. Cloud steamed from its scales—scales of moonstone, so bright they seemed to glow from within. A crust of gemlike droplets glistened on each one. Each eye was a burning star, and each horn was quicksilver, agleam under the pallid moon. The creature flowed with the grace of a ribbon past the bridge and took to the skies, light and quiet as a paper kite. A dragon. Even as it rose over Cape Hisan, others were ascending from the water, leaving a chill mist in their wake. Niclays pressed a hand to the drumbeat in his chest. “Now, what,” he murmured, “are they doing here?” 2 West He was masked, of course. They always were. Only a fool would trespass in the Queen Tower without ensuring his anonymity, and if he had gained access to the Privy Chamber, then this cutthroat was certainly no fool. In the Great Bedchamber beyond, Sabran lay sound asleep. With her hair unbound and her lashes dark against her cheeks, the Queen of Inys would be a picture of repose. Tonight it was Roslain Crest who slept beside her. Both were unaware that a shadow bent on slaughter moved closer by the moment. When Sabran retired, the key to her most private space was left in the possession of one of her Ladies of the Bedchamber. Katryen Withy had it now, and she was in the Horn Gallery. The royal apartments were guarded by the Knights of the Body, but the door to the Great Bedchamber was not always watched. After all, there was only one key. No risk of intrusion. In the Privy Chamber—the last rampart between the royal bed and the outside world—the cutthroat looked over his shoulder. Sir Gules Heath had returned to his post outside, unaware of the threat that had stolen in while he was elsewhere. Unaware of Ead, concealed in the rafters, watching the cutthroat touch the door that would lead him to the queen. In silence, the intruder removed a key from his cloak and slid it into the lock. It turned. For a long time, he was still. Waiting for his chance. This one was far more careful than the others. When Heath gave way to one of his coughing fits, the intruder cracked open the door to the Great Bedchamber. With the other hand, he unsheathed a blade. The same make of blade the others had used. When he moved, so did Ead. She dropped in silence from the beam above him. Her bare feet lit upon the marble. As the cutthroat stepped into the Great Bedchamber, dagger aloft, she covered his mouth and drove her blade between his ribs. The cutthroat bucked. Ead held fast, careful not to let a drop of blood spill on to her. When the body stilled, she lowered it to the floor and lifted his silk-lined visard, the same as all the others had worn. The face beneath was all too young, not quite out of boyhood. Eyes like pondwater stared at the ceiling. He was nobody she recognized. Ead kissed his brow and left him on the marble floor. Almost the moment she moved back into the shadows, she heard a shout for help. Daybreak found her in the palace grounds. Her hair was held in a web of gold thread, studded with emerald. Every morning she kept the same routine. To be predictable was to be safe. First she went to the Master of the Posts, who confirmed he had no letters for her. Then she went to the gates and gazed out at the city of Ascalon, and she imagined that one day she might walk through it, and keep walking until she reached a port and a ship that would take her home to Lasia. Sometimes she would glimpse someone she knew out there, and they would exchange the smallest of nods. Finally, she would go to the Banqueting House to break her fast with Margret, and then, at eight, her duties would begin. Her first today was to trace the Royal Laundress. Ead soon found the woman behind the Great Kitchen, in a recess draped with ivy. A stable hand seemed to be counting the freckles on her neckline with his tongue. “Good morrow to you both,” Ead said. The pair sprang apart with gasps. Wild-eyed, the stable hand bolted like one of his horses. “Mistress Duryan!” The laundress smoothed down her skirts and bobbed a curtsy, flushed to the roots of her hair. “Oh, please don’t tell anyone, mistress, or I shall be ruined.” “You need not curtsy. I am not a lady.” Ead smiled. “I thought it prudent to remind you that you must attend on Her Majesty every day. You have been lax of late.” “Oh, Mistress Duryan, I confess my mind has been elsewhere, but I have been so anxious.” The laundress wrung her callused hands. “The servants have been whispering, mistress. They say a wyverling snatched some livestock from the Lakes not two days ago. A wyverling! Is it not frightening that the servants of the Nameless One are waking?” “Why, you have hit upon the very reason you must be prudent in your work. Those servants of the Nameless One wish Her Majesty gone, for her death would bring their master back into this world,” Ead said. “That is why your role is vital, goodwife. You must not fail to check her sheets each day for poison, and to keep her bedding fresh and sweet.” “Of course, yes. I promise I shall be more attentive to my duties.” “Oh, but you must not promise me. You must promise the Saint.” Ead tilted her head toward the Royal Sanctuary. “Go to him now. Perhaps you could also ask forgiveness for your … indiscretion. Go with your lover and pray for clemency. Make haste!” As the laundress rushed away, Ead smothered a smile. It was almost too easy to fluster the Inysh. The smile soon faded. A wyverling had dared to steal livestock from humans. Though Draconic creatures had been stirring from their long slumbers for years, sightings had remained uncommon—yet the last few months had seen several. It boded ill that the beasts were growing bold enough to hunt in settled areas. Keeping to the shade, Ead took the long way to the royal apartments. She skirted the Royal Library, stepped around one of the white peacocks that roamed the grounds, and entered the cloisters. Ascalon Palace—a climbing triumph of pale limestone—was the largest and oldest of the residences of the House of Berethnet, rulers of the Queendom of Inys. The damage wreaked upon it in the Grief of Ages, when the Draconic Army had mounted its year-long war against humankind, had long since been erased. Each window was fitted with stained glass in all colors of the rainbow. Its grounds were home to a Sanctuary of Virtues, gardens with shaded lawns, and the immense Royal Library with its marble-faced clock tower. It was the only place Sabran would hold court during the summer. An apple tree stood in the middle of the courtyard. Ead stopped at the sight of it, chest aching. Five days since Loth had disappeared from the palace in the dead of night, along with Lord Kitston Glade. Nobody knew where they had gone, or why they had left court without permission. Sabran had worn her disquiet like a cloak, but Ead had kept hers quiet and close. She recalled the smell of woodsmoke at her first Feast of Fellowship, where she had first made the acquaintance of Lord Arteloth Beck. Every autumn, the court would come together to exchange gifts and rejoice in their unity in Virtudom. It was the first time they had seen one another in person, but Loth had told her later that he had long been curious about the new maid of honor. He had heard whispers of an eighteen-year-old Southerner, neither noble nor peasant, freshly converted to the Virtues of Knighthood. Many courtiers had seen the Ambassador to the Ersyr present her to the queen. I bring no jewels or gold to celebrate the New Year, Your Majesty. Instead, I bring you a lady for your Upper Household, Chassar had said. Loyalty is the greatest gift of all. The queen herself had only been twenty. A lady-in-waiting of no noble blood or title was a peculiar gift, but courtesy forced her to accept. It was called the Feast of Fellowship, but fellowship only went so far. Nobody had approached Ead for a dance that night—nobody but Loth. Broad-shouldered, a head taller than she was, with deep black skin and a warm northern inflection. Everyone at court had known his name. Heir to Goldenbirch—the birthplace of the Saint—and close friend to Queen Sabran. Mistress Duryan, he had said, bowing, if you would do me the honor of a dance so I can escape from the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s rather dull conversation, I would be in your debt. In return, I will fetch a flagon of the finest wine in Ascalon, and half will be yours. What say you? She had needed a friend. And a stronger drink. So, even though he was Lord Arteloth Beck, and even though she was a stranger to him, they had danced three pavanes and spent the rest of the night beside the apple tree, drinking and talking under the stars. Before Ead knew it, a friendship had blossomed. Now he was gone, and there was only one explanation. Loth would never have left court of his own accord—certainly not without telling his sister or asking leave from Sabran. The only explanation was that he had been forced. Both she and Margret had tried to warn him. They had told him that his friendship with Sabran—a friendship struck up in their childhood—would eventually make him a threat to her marriage prospects. That he must be less familiar with her now they were older. Loth had never listened to reason. Ead shook herself out of her reverie. As she left the cloisters, she stood aside for a group of retainers in the service of Lady Igrain Crest, the Duchess of Justice. Her livery badge was embroidered on their tabards. The Sundial Garden drank in the morning light. Its paths were honeyed by the sun, and the roses that trimmed its lawns held a soft blush. It was watched over by the statues of the five Great Queens of the House of Berethnet, which stood on a lintel above the entrance to the nearby Dearn Tower. Sabran usually liked to take walks on days like this, arm in arm with one of her ladies, but today the paths were empty. The queen would be in no mood for a stroll when a corpse had been found so close to her bed. Ead approached the Queen Tower. The woodvines that snaked up it were thick with purple blossom. She ascended the many stairs within and made her way to the royal apartments. Twelve Knights of the Body, clad in gold-plated armor and green cloaks for the summer, flanked the doors to the Privy Chamber. Floriated patterns covered the vambraces, while the Berethnet badge took pride of place on their breastplates. They looked up sharply as Ead approached. “Good morrow,” she said. The moment of caution waned, and they stood aside for a Lady of the Privy Chamber. Ead soon found Lady Katryen Withy, niece to the Duke of Fellowship. At four and twenty, she was the youngest and tallest of the three Ladies of the Bedchamber, possessed of smooth brown skin, full lips, and tightly curling hair of such a deep red it was almost black. “Mistress Duryan,” she said. Like everyone else in the palace, she wore greens and yellows for summer. “Her Majesty is still abed. Did you find the laundress?” “Yes, my lady.” Ead curtsied. “It seems . . . duties to her family have distracted her.” “No duty comes above our service to the crown.” Katryen glanced toward the doors. “There has been another intrusion. This time, the knave was far less of a blunderer. Not only did he reach the Great Bedchamber itself—he had a key to it.” “The Great Bedchamber.” Ead hoped she looked shocked. “Then someone in the Upper Household has betrayed Her Majesty.” Katryen nodded. “We think he came up the Secret Stair. That would have allowed him to avoid most of the Knights of the Body and get straight into the Privy Chamber. And given that the Secret Stair has been sealed since—” She sighed. “The Serjeant Porter has been dismissed for his laxity. From now on, the door to the Great Bedchamber must never be out of sight.” Ead nodded. “What would you have us do today?” “I have a particular task for you. As you know, the Mentish ambassador, Oscarde utt Zeedeur, arrives today. His daughter has been rather slack in her manner of dress of late,” Katryen said, pursing her lips. “Lady Truyde was always neat when she first came to court, but now— why, she had a leaf in her hair at orisons yesterday, and forgot her girdle the day before that.” She took a long look at Ead. “You appear to know how to attire yourself in a manner befitting your position. See to it that Lady Truyde is ready.” “Yes, my lady.” “Oh, and Ead, do not speak of the intrusion. Her Majesty does not wish to sow unease at court.” “Of course.” As she passed the guards a second time, Ead sliced her gaze over the blank slates of their faces. She had long known that someone in the household was letting cutthroats into the palace. Now that someone had given them a key to reach the Queen of Inys while she slept. Ead meant to find out who. The House of Berethnet, like most royal houses, had seen its fair share of premature deaths. Glorian the First had drunk from a poisoned cup of wine. Jillian the Third had ruled for only a year before being stabbed in the heart by one of her own servants. Sabran’s own mother, Rosarian the Fourth, had been slain by a gown laced with basilisk venom. Nobody knew how the garment had entered the Privy Wardrobe, but foul play was suspected. Now the cutthroats were back for the last scion of the House of Berethnet. They inched closer to the queen with every attempt on her life. One had given himself away when he knocked over a bust. Another had been spotted as she stole into the Horn Gallery, and another still had screamed hateful things at the doors of the Queen Tower until the guards had reached him. No connection had been found between the would-be murderers, but Ead was sure they shared the one master. Someone who knew the palace well. Someone who could have stolen the key, made a copy, and put it back in the space of a day. Someone who knew how to open the Secret Stair, which had been locked since the death of Queen Rosarian. If Ead were one of the Ladies of the Bedchamber, a trusted intimate, protecting Sabran would be easier. She had waited for a chance at the position since her arrival in Inys, but she was beginning to accept that it would never be. An untitled convert was not a suitable candidate. Ead found Truyde in the Coffer Chamber, where the maids of honor slept. Twelve beds sat cheek by jowl. Their quarters were more spacious here than they were at any of the other palaces, but uncomfortable for girls who had been born into noble families. The youngest maids of honor were fooling about with pillows, laughing, but they stopped at once when Ead entered. The maid she sought was still abed. Lady Truyde, Marchioness of Zeedeur, was a serious young woman, milk-pale and freckled, with eyes like bone black. She had been sent to Inys at fifteen, two years ago, to learn courtly ways until she inherited the Duchy of Zeedeur from her father. There was a watchfulness about her that put Ead in mind of a sparrow. She could often be found in the Reading Room, halfway up ladders or leafing through books with crumbling pages. “Lady Truyde,” Ead said, and curtsied. “What is it?” the girl answered, sounding bored. Her accent was still thick as curds. “Lady Katryen has asked me to help you dress,” Ead said. “If it please you.” “I am seventeen years old, Mistress Duryan, and possessed of sufficient wit to dress myself.” There was an intake of breath from the other maids. “I’m afraid Lady Katryen thinks otherwise,” Ead said evenly. “Lady Katryen is mistaken.” More gasps. Ead wondered that there was any air left in the room. “Ladies,” she said to the girls, “find a servant and ask for the washbasin to be filled, if you please.” They went. Not with curtsies. She outranked them in the household, but they were noble-born. Truyde gazed at the leadlight for a few moments before rising. She deposited herself on to the stool beside the washbasin. “Forgive me, Mistress Duryan,” she said. “I am ill-humored today. Sleep has eluded me of late.” She folded her hands in her lap. “If Lady Katryen wishes it, you may help me dress.” She did look tired. Ead went to warm some linen beside the fire. Once a servant had brought water, she stood behind Truyde and gathered her abundant curls. Cascading to her waist, they were the true red of madder. Such hair was common in the Free State of Mentendon, which lay across the Swan Strait, but unusual in Inys. Truyde washed her face. Ead scrubbed her hair with creamgrail, then rinsed it clean and combed out every tangle. Throughout it all, the girl said nothing. “Are you well, my lady?” “Quite well.” Truyde twisted the ring on her thumb, revealing the green stain beneath. “Only . . . irritated with the other maids and their gossip. Tell me, Mistress Duryan, have you heard anything of Master Triam Sulyard, who was squire to Sir Marke Birchen?” Ead patted Truyde’s hair with the fire-warmed linen. “Not a great deal,” she said. “Only that he left court in the winter without permission, and that he had gambling debts. Why?” “The other girls talk ceaselessly of his absence, inventing wild stories. I hoped to silence them.” “I am sorry to disappoint you.” Truyde looked up from under auburn lashes. “You were a maid of honor once.” “Yes.” Ead wrung out the linen. “For four years, after Ambassador uq-Ispad brought me to court.” “And then you were promoted. Perhaps Queen Sabran will make me a Lady of the Privy Chamber one day, too,” Truyde mused. “Then I would not have to sleep in this cage.” “All the world is a cage in a young girl’s eyes.” Ead laid a hand on her shoulder. “I will fetch your gown.” Truyde went to sit beside the fire and finger-comb her hair. Ead left her to dry. Outside the room, Lady Oliva Marchyn, Mother of the Maids, was rousing her charges with that crumhorn of a voice. When she saw Ead, she said stiffly, “Mistress Duryan.” She enunciated the name as if it were an affliction. Ead expected that from certain members of the court. After all, she was a Southerner, born outside of Virtudom, and that made the Inysh suspicious. “Lady Oliva,” she said calmly. “Lady Katryen sent me to help dress Lady Truyde. May I have her gown?” “Hm. Follow me.” Oliva led her down another corridor. A spring of gray hair had escaped her coif. “I wish that girl would eat. She’ll wither away like a blossom in winter.” “How long has she had no appetite?” “Since the Feast of Early Spring.” Oliva tossed her a disdainful glance. “Make her look well. Her father will be angry if he thinks the child is being underfed.” “She is not sick?” “I know the signs of sickness, mistress.” Ead smiled a little. “Lovesickness, then?” Oliva pursed her lips. “She is a maid of honor. And I will have no gossip in the Coffer Chamber.” “Your pardon, my lady. It was a jest.” “You are Queen Sabran’s lady-in-waiting, not her fool.” With a sniff, Oliva took the gown from the press and handed it over. Ead curtsied and retreated. Her very soul abhorred that woman. The four years she had spent as a maid of honor had been the most miserable of her life. Even after her public conversion to the Six Virtues, still her loyalty to the House of Berethnet had been questioned. She remembered lying on her hard bed in the Coffer Chamber, footsore, listening to the other girls titter about her Southern accent and speculate on the sort of heresy she must have practiced in the Ersyr. Oliva had never said a word to stop them. In her heart, Ead had known that it would pass, but it had hurt her pride to be ridiculed. When a vacancy had opened in the Privy Chamber, the Mother of the Maids had been only too happy to be rid of her. Ead had gone from dancing for the queen to emptying her washbasins and tidying the royal apartments. She had her own room and a better wage now. In the Coffer Chamber, Truyde was in a fresh shift. Ead helped her into a corset and a summer petticoat, then a black silk gown with puffed sleeves and a lace partlet. A brooch showing the shield of her patron, the Knight of Courage, gleamed over her heart. All children of Virtudom chose their patron knight when they reached the age of twelve. Ead wore one, too. A sheaf of wheat for generosity. She had received hers at her conversion. “Mistress,” Truyde said, “the other maids of honor say you are a heretic.” “I say my orisons at sanctuary,” Ead said, “unlike some of those maids of honor.” Truyde watched her face. “Is Ead Duryan really your name?” she asked suddenly. “It does not sound Ersyri to my ear.” Ead picked up a coil of gold ribbon. “Do you speak Ersyri, then, my lady?” “No, but I have read histories of the country.” “Reading,” Ead said lightly. “A dangerous pastime.” Truyde looked up at her, sharp-eyed. “You mock me.” “By no means. There is great power in stories.” “All stories grow from a seed of truth,” Truyde said. “They are knowledge after figuration.” “Then I trust you will use your knowledge for good.” Ead skimmed her fingers through the red curls. “Since you ask—no, it is not my real name.” “I thought not. What is your real name?” Ead eased back two locks of hair and braided them with the ribbon. “Nobody here has ever heard it.” Truyde raised her eyebrows. “Not even Her Majesty?” “No.” Ead turned the girl to face her. “The Mother of the Maids is concerned for your health. Are you quite sure you are well?” Truyde hesitated. Ead placed a sisterly hand on her arm. “You know a secret of mine. We are bound by a vow of silence. Are you with child, is that it?” Truyde stiffened. “I am not.” “Then what is it?” “It is none of your concern. I have had a delicate stomach, that’s all, since—” “Since Master Sulyard left.” Truyde looked as if she had struck her. “He left in the spring,” Ead said. “Lady Oliva says that you have had little appetite since then.” “You presume too much, Mistress Duryan. Far too much.” Truyde pulled away from her, nostrils flared. “I am Truyde utt Zeedeur, blood of the Vatten, Marchioness of Zeedeur. The mere idea that I would stoop to rutting with some low-born squire—” She turned her back. “Get out of my sight, or I will tell Lady Oliva that you are spreading lies about a maid of honor.” Ead smiled briefly and retreated. She had been at court for too long to be rankled by a child. Oliva watched her leave the corridor. As she stepped into the sunlight, Ead breathed in the smell of fresh-cut grass. One thing was clear. Truyde utt Zeedeur had been secretly intimate with Triam Sulyard—and Ead made it her business to know the secrets of the court. If the Mother willed it, she would know this one, too. 3 East Dawn cracked like a heron’s egg over Seiiki. Pale light prowled into the room. The shutters had been opened for the first time in eight days. Tané gazed at the ceiling with raw eyes. She had been restless all night, hot and cold by turns. She would never wake in this room again. Choosing Day had come. The day she had awaited since she was a child—and risked, like a fool, when she decided to break seclusion. By asking Susa to hide the outsider in Orisima, she had also risked both their lives. Her stomach turned like a watermill. She scooped up her uniform and wash bag, passed the sleeping Ishari, and stole out of the room. The South House stood in the foothills of the Bear’s Jaw, the mountain range that loomed over Cape Hisan. Along with the other three Houses of Learning, it was used to train apprentices for the High Sea Guard. Tané had lived in its halls since she was three. Going outside was like stepping into a kiln. The heat varnished her skin and made her hair feel thicker. Seiiki had a scent to it. The perfume of the heartwood in the trees, unlocked by rain, and the green on every leaf. Usually Tané found it calming, but nothing would comfort her today. The hot springs steamed in the morning haze. Tané shed her sleep robe, stepped into the nearest pool, and scrubbed herself with a handful of bran. In the shade of the plum trees, she dressed in her uniform and combed her long hair to one side of her neck, so the blue dragon could be seen on her tunic. By the time she made her way indoors, there was movement in the rooms. She took a small breakfast of tea and broth. A few apprentices wished her luck as they passed. When the time came, she was first to leave. Outside, the servants waited with horses. In unison, they bowed. As Tané mounted her steed, Ishari rushed from the house, looking flustered, and climbed into her saddle. Tané watched her, a sudden thickness in her throat. She and Ishari had shared a room for six years. After the ceremony, they might never see each other again. They rode to the gate that separated the Houses of Learning from the rest of Cape Hisan, over the bridge and past the stream that ran down from the mountains, joining the apprentices from elsewhere in the district. Tané caught sight of Turosa, her rival, sneering at her from his line. She kept hold of his gaze until he kicked his horse and set off at a gallop toward the city, shadowed by his friends. Tané looked over her shoulder one last time, taking in the lush green hills and the silhouettes of larch trees against the pale blue sky. Then she stitched her gaze to the horizon. It was a slow procession through Cape Hisan. Many citizens had woken early to see the apprentices ride to the temple. They threw salt flowers on to the streets and filled every pathway, craning for a glimpse of those who might soon be god-chosen. Tané tried to concentrate on the warmth of the horse, the clop of its hooves—anything to stop her thinking of the outsider. Susa had agreed to take the Inysh man into Orisima. Of course she had. She would do anything for Tané, just as Tané would do anything for her. As it happened, Susa had once had a liaison with one of the sentinels at the trading post, who was keen to win her back. With the landing gate unlocked, Susa had planned to swim to it with the outsider and deliver him to Orisima’s master surgeon, with the empty promise of silver if he cooperated. The man apparently had gambling debts. If the trespasser did have the red sickness, it would be trapped in Orisima. Once the ceremony was over, Susa would anonymously report him to the Governor of Cape Hisan. The surgeon would be whipped raw when they found the man in his home, but Tané doubted he would be killed—that would risk the alliance with the Free State of Mentendon. If torture loosened his tongue, the trespasser might tell the authorities about the two women who had intervened on the night of his arrival, but he would have little time to plead his case. He would be put to the sword to contain any risk of the red sickness. The thought made Tané look at her hands, where the rash would appear first. She had not touched his skin, but going anywhere near him had been a terrible risk. A moment of true madness. If Susa had caught the red sickness, she would never forgive herself. Susa had risked everything to make sure today was as Tané had always dreamed. Her friend had not questioned her scruples or her sanity. Just agreed that she would help. The gates of the Grand Temple of the Cape were open for the first time in a decade. They were flanked by two colossal statues of dragons, mouths open in eternal roars. Forty horses trotted between them. Once made of wood, the temple had been burned to the ground during the Great Sorrow and later rebuilt with stone. Hundreds of blue-glass lanterns dripped from its eaves, exuding cold light. They looked like fishing floats. Tané dismounted and walked beside Ishari toward the driftwood gateway. Turosa fell into line with them. “May the great Kwiriki smile on you today, Tané,” he said. “What a shame it would be if an apprentice of your standing were to be sent to Feather Island.” “That would be a respectable life,” Tané said as she handed her horse to an ostler. “No doubt you will tell yourself that when you live it.” “Perhaps you will, too, honorable Turosa.” The corner of his mouth twitched before he strode ahead to rejoin his friends from the North House. “He should speak to you with more respect,” Ishari murmured. “Dumu says you score better than him in most combat.” Tané said nothing. Her arms prickled. She was the best in her house, but so was Turosa in his. A fountain carved into the image of the great Kwiriki—the first dragon ever to take a human rider—stood in the outer courtyard of the temple. Salt water poured from his mouth. Tané washed her hands in it and placed a drop on her lips. It tasted clean. “Tané,” Ishari said, “I hope all goes as you desire.” “I hope the same for you.” They all desired the same outcome. “You were last to leave the house.” “I woke late.” Ishari performed her own ablutions. “I thought I heard the screens in our room opening last night. It unsettled me … I could not sleep again for some time. Did you leave the room at all?” “No. Perhaps it was our learnèd teacher.” “Yes, perhaps.” They proceeded to the vast inner courtyard, where the sun brightened the rooftops. A man with a long moustache stood atop the steps with a helm under his arm. His face was tanned and weathered. Clad in armored sleeves and gauntlets, a lightweight cuirass over a coat of darkest blue, and a high-collared surcoat of black velvet and gold-brocaded silk, he was clearly both a person of high rank and a soldier. For a moment, Tané forgot her dread. She was a child again, dreaming of dragons. This man was the honored Sea General of Seiiki. Head of Clan Miduchi, the dynasty of dragonriders—a dynasty united not by blood, but by purpose. Tané meant to have that name. Upon reaching the steps, the apprentices formed two lines, knelt, and pressed their foreheads to the ground. Tané could hear Ishari breathing. Nobody rose. Nobody moved. Scale rasped against stone. Every sinew in her body seemed to tighten. She looked up. There were eight of them. Years she had spent praying before statues of dragons, studying them, and observing them from a distance, but she had never seen them this close. Their size was breathtaking. Most were Seiikinese, with silvery hides and lithe, whiplike forms. Impossibly long bodies held up their splendid heads, and they each had four muscular legs, ending in feet with three claws. Long barbels swirled from their faces and trailed like the lines of kites. The majority were quite young, perhaps four hundred years old, but several carried scars from the Great Sorrow. All were covered with scales and ringed with sucker marks—keepsakes from their quarrels with greatsquid. Two of them possessed a fourth toe. These were dragons from the Empire of the Twelve Lakes. One of them—a male—had wings. Most dragons were wingless and flew by means of an organ on their heads, which scholars had named the crown. The few that did grow wings did so only after at least two thousand years of life. The winged dragon was largest. If Tané had stretched to her full height, she might not even have been able to reach between his snout and his eyes. Though his wings looked fragile as spidersilk, they were strong enough to whip up a typhoon. Tané spied the pouch beneath his chin. Like oysters, dragons could make pearls, one in a lifetime. It never left the pouch. The dragon beside the male, also Lacustrine, was close to his stature. Her scales were a pale, clouded green, like milk jade, her mane the golden-brown of riverweed. “Welcome,” the Sea General said. His voice rang out like the call of a war conch. “Rise,” he said, and they obeyed. “You are here today to be sworn to one of two lives: that of the High Sea Guard, defending Seiiki from sickness and invasion, or a life of learning and prayer on Feather Island. Of the sea guardians, twelve of you will have the honor of becoming dragonriders.” Only twelve. Usually there were more. “As you will know,” the Sea General said, “there have been no hatchings of dragon eggs for the past two centuries. Several dragons have also been taken by the Fleet of the Tiger Eye, which continues its repulsive trade in dragonflesh under the tyranny of the so-called Golden Empress.” Heads bowed. “To bolster our ranks, we are honored to receive these two great warriors from the Empire of the Twelve Lakes. I trust this will herald a closer friendship with our allies to the north.” The Sea General inclined his head toward the two Lacustrine dragons. They would not be quite as accustomed to the sea as Seiikinese dragons, since they preferred to live in rivers and other bodies of freshwater—but dragons from both countries had fought side by side in the Great Sorrow, and they had ancestors in common. Tané sensed Turosa looking at her. If he became a rider, he would say his dragon was the greatest of them all. “Today, you will learn your destinies.” The Sea General took a scroll from his surcoat and unraveled it. “Let us begin.” Tané braced herself. The first apprentice to be called forward was raised to the noble ranks of the High Sea Guard. The Sea General handed her a tunic the color of a summer sky. When she took it, a black Seiikinese dragon huffed smoke, making her startle. The dragon wheezed. Dumusa of the West House also became a sea guardian. The granddaughter of two riders, she was of Southern descent as well as Seiikinese. Tané watched her accept her new uniform, bow to the Sea General, and take her place on his right side. The next apprentice became the first to join the ranks of the scholars. His silk was the deep red of mulberry, and his shoulders trembled as he bowed. Tané sensed tension in the other apprentices, sudden as a rip current. Turosa went to the High Sea Guard, of course. It seemed a lifetime before she heard her own name: “The honorable Tané, of the South House.” Tané stepped forward. The dragons watched her. It was said they could see the deepest secrets of a soul, for human beings were made of water, and all water was theirs. What if they could see what she had done? She concentrated on the placement of her feet. When she stood before the Sea General, he looked at her for what seemed like years. It took all her strength to remain standing. At last, he reached for a blue uniform. Tané breathed out. Tears of relief pricked her eyes. “For your aptitude and dedication,” he said, “you are raised to the noble ranks of the High Sea Guard, and must swear to practice the way of the dragon until you draw your final breath.” He leaned closer. “Your teachers speak very highly of you. It will be a privilege to have you in my guard.” She bowed low. “You honor me, great lord.” The Sea General smiled. Tané joined the four apprentices on his right side in a stupor of bliss, blood rushing like water over pebbles. As the next candidate stepped forward, Turosa whispered against her ear, “So you and I will face each other in the water trials.” His breath smelled of milk. “Good.” “It will be a pleasure to fight against a warrior of your skill, honorable Turosa,” Tané said calmly. “I see through your mask, village chaff. I see what’s in your heart. It’s the same as what’s in mine. Ambition.” He paused as one of the men was sent to join the other side. “The difference is what I am, and what you are.” Tané glanced at him. “You stand on equal ground with whatever I am, honorable Turosa.” His laughter made her neck prickle. “The honorable Ishari, of the South House,” the Sea General called. Ishari made her slow way up the steps. When she reached him, the Sea General handed her a roll of red silk. “For your aptitude and dedication,” he said, “you are raised to the noble ranks of the scholars, and must swear to devote yourself to the furtherance of knowledge until you draw your final breath.” Though she flinched at the words, Ishari took the parcel of cloth and bowed. “Thank you, great lord,” she murmured. Tané watched her go to the left. Ishari must be distraught. Still, she might yet do well on Feather Island, and she could eventually return to Seiiki as a master teacher. “Pity,” Turosa said. “Wasn’t she your friend?” Tané bit her tongue. The principal apprentice from the East House joined their ranks next. Onren was short and burly, her sun-browned face sprayed with freckles. Thick hair fell to her shoulders, stripped dry by salt water and brittle at the ends. Shellblood darkened her lips. “Tané,” she said, taking the place beside her. “Congratulations.” “And to you, Onren.” They were the only apprentices who rose without fail each dawn to swim, and a kind of friendship had risen from that foundation. Tané had no doubt that Onren had also hearkened to the rumors and stolen out to immerse herself once more before the ceremony. The thought unsettled Tané. Cape Hisan was scalloped with small coves, but fate had made her choose the one the outsider had arrived in. Onren looked down at her blue silk. Like Tané, she was from an impoverished home. “They are marvelous,” she whispered, nodding at the dragons. “I take it you hope to be one of the twelve.” “Aren’t you too small to ride a dragon, little Onren?” Turosa drawled. “You might be able to perch on one’s tail, I suppose.” Onren looked over her shoulder at him. “I thought I heard you talking. Have we met?” When he opened his mouth, she said, “Don’t tell me. You’re plainly a fool, and I have no interest in befriending fools.” Tané hid her smile behind her hair. For once, Turosa closed his mouth. When the last apprentice had accepted his uniform, the two groups turned to face the Sea General. Ishari, whose cheeks were tear-stained, did not look up from the cloth in her arms. “You are children no longer. Your paths are before you.” The Sea General glanced to his right. “Four of the sea guardians have performed above expectations. Turosa, of the North House; Onren, of the East House; Tané, of the South House; and Dumusa, of the West House—turn to face our elders, so they might know your names and faces.” They did. Tané stepped forward with the others and pressed her forehead to the floor again. “Rise,” one of the dragons said. The voice made the ground quake. It was so deep, so low, that Tané hardly understood at first. The four of them obeyed and straightened their backs. The largest Seiikinese dragon lowered his head until he was at eye level with them. A long tongue lashed from between his teeth. With a great push of his legs, he suddenly took flight. The apprentices all threw themselves to the ground, leaving only the Sea General standing. He let out a booming laugh. The milky-green Lacustrine dragon displayed her teeth in a grin. Tané found herself locked in those wild eddies of eyes. The dragon rose with the rest of her kin over the rooftops of the city. Water made flesh. As a mist of divine rain streamed from their scales, soaking the humans below, a Seiikinese male reared up, gathered his breath, and expelled it in a mighty gust of wind. Every bell in the temple rang out in answer. Niclays woke with a dry mouth and a fearsome headache, as he had a thousand times before. He blinked and rubbed a knuckle in the corner of his eye. Bells. That was what had woken him. He had been on this island for years, but never heard a single bell. Niclays grasped his cane and stood, his arm trembling with the effort. It must be an alarm. They were coming for Sulyard, coming to arrest them both. Niclays turned on the spot, desperate. His only chance was to pretend the man had hidden in the house without his knowledge. He peered past the screen. Sulyard was sound asleep, facing the wall. Well, at least he would die in peace. The sun was sweating too much light. Close to the little house where Niclays lived, his assistant, Muste, was sitting under the plum tree with his Seiikinese companion, Panaya. “Muste,” Niclays shouted. “What in the world is that sound?” Muste just waved. Cursing, Niclays jammed on his sandals and picked his way toward Muste and Panaya, trying to ignore the sense that he was walking to his doom. “Good day to you, honorable Panaya,” he said in Seiikinese, bowing. “Learnèd Niclays.” The corners of her eyes crinkled. She wore a light robe, white flowers on blue, the sleeves and collar embroidered in silver. “Did the bells wake you?” “Yes. May I ask what they mean?” “They are ringing for Choosing Day,” she said. “The eldest apprentices at the Houses of Learning have completed their studies, and have been placed into the ranks of the scholars or the High Sea Guard.” Nothing to do with intruders, then. Niclays took out his handkerchief and mopped at his face. “Are you well, Roos?” Muste asked, shading his eyes. “You know how I loathe the summer here.” Niclays stuffed the handkerchief back into his jerkin. “Choosing Day takes place once a year, does it not?” he said to Panaya. “I have never once heard bells.” Not bells, but he had heard the drums. The inebriating sounds of joy and revelry. “Ah,” Panaya said, her smile growing, “but this is a very special Choosing Day.” “It is?” “Do you not know, Roos?” Muste chuckled. “You have been here longer than I have.” “This is not something Niclays would have been told,” Panaya said gently. “You see, Niclays, it was agreed after the Great Sorrow that every fifty years, a number of Seiikinese dragons would take human riders, so we might always be prepared to fight together once again. Those who were chosen for the High Sea Guard this morning have been given this chance, and will now endure the water trials to decide which of them will be dragonriders.” “I see,” Niclays said, interested enough to forget his terror about Sulyard for a moment. “And then they fly their steeds off to fight off pirates and smugglers, I presume.” “Not steeds, Niclays. Dragons are not horses.” “Apologies, honorable lady. A poor choice of word.” Panaya nodded. Her hand strayed to the pendant around her neck, carved into the shape of a dragon. Such a thing would be destroyed in Virtudom, where there was no longer any distinction between the ancient dragons of the East and the younger, fire-breathing wyrms that had once terrorized the world. Both were deemed malevolent. The door to the East had been closed for so long that misunderstanding about its customs had flourished. Niclays had believed it before he had arrived in Orisima. He had been half-convinced, on the eve of his departure from Mentendon, that he was being exiled to a land where people were in thrall to creatures just as wicked as the Nameless One. How frightened he had been that day. All Mentish children knew the story of the Nameless One from the moment they could fathom language. His own dear mother had relished scaring him to tears with her descriptions of the father and overking of all fire-breathing creatures—he who had emerged from the Dreadmount bent on chaos and destruction, only to be grievously wounded by Sir Galian Berethnet before he could subjugate humankind. A thousand years later, the specter of him still lived in all nightmares. Just then, hooves thundered across the bridge into Orisima, jolting Niclays from his musings. Soldiers. His bowels turned to water. They were coming for him—and now the moment was at hand, he found himself light-headed rather than afraid. If today was the day, so be it. It was either this, or death at the hands of the sentinels for his gambling debts. Saint, he prayed, let me not piss myself at the end. The soldiers wore green tunics beneath their coats. Leading them, of course, was the Chief Officer—handsome, ever-so-good-natured Chief Officer, who refused to tell anyone in Orisima his name. He was a foot taller than Niclays and always wore full armor. The Chief Officer dismounted and strode toward the house where Niclays lived. He was surrounded by his sentinels, and one hand rested on the hilt of his sword. “Roos!” A gauntlet-covered fist rapped on the door. “Roos, open this door, or I will break it down!” “There is no need to break anything, honored Chief Officer,” Muste called. “The learnèd Doctor Roos is here.” The Chief Officer turned on his heel. His dark eyes flashed, and he walked toward them. “Roos.” Niclays liked to pretend that nobody had ever addressed him with such contempt, but that would be a lie. “You’re very welcome to call me Niclays, honored Chief Officer,” he said, with all the false cheer he could muster. “We’ve known each other long en—” “Be quiet,” the Chief Officer snapped. Niclays shut his mouth. “My sentinels found the door to the landing gate open last night. A pirate ship was seen nearby. If any of you are hiding trespassers or smuggled goods, speak now, and the dragon may show mercy.” Panaya and Muste said nothing. Niclays, meanwhile, did brief and violent battle with himself. There was nowhere for Sulyard to hide. Was it better to declare what he had done? Before he could decide, the Chief Officer motioned to his sentinels. “Search the houses.” Niclays held his breath. There was a certain bird in Seiiki with a call like a babe beginning to wail. To Niclays, it had become a torturous symbol of his life in Orisima. The whimper that never quite turned into a scream. The wait for a blow that never came. As the sentinels rummaged through his house, that wretched bird took up its cry, and it was all Niclays could hear. When they returned, the sentinels were empty-handed. “Nobody there,” one of them called. It was all Niclays could do to stop himself sinking to his knees. The Chief Officer looked at him for a long time, his face a mask, before he marched to the next street. And the bird kept calling. Hic-hic-hic. 4 West Somewhere in Ascalon Palace, the black hands of a milk-glass clock were creeping toward noon. The Presence Chamber was full for the Mentish visit, as it always was when foreign ambassadors came to Inys. The windows had been thrown open to let in a honeysuckle-scented breeze. It did little to flush out the heat. Brows were glazed with sweat and feather fans waved everywhere, so that it seemed as if the room were full of fluttering birds. Ead stood in the crowd with the other Ladies of the Privy Chamber, Margret Beck on her right. The maids of honor faced them across the carpet. Truyde utt Zeedeur adjusted her carcanet. Why Westerners could not divest themselves of a few layers of clothing in the summer, Ead would never know. Murmurs echoed through the cavernous hall. High above her subjects, Sabran the Ninth watched from her marble throne. The Queen of Inys was the portrait of her mother, and her mother before that, and so on for generations. The resemblance was uncanny. Like her ancestors, she was possessed of black hair and eyes of a lucent green that seemed to fracture in the sunlight. It was said that while her bloodline endured, the Nameless One could never wake from his sleep. Sabran took in her subjects with a detached gaze, lingering on nobody. She was eight and twenty, but her eyes held the wisdom of a much older woman. Today she embodied the wealth of the Queendom of Inys. Her gown was black satin in deference to the Mentish fashion, laid open to the waist to show a stomacher, pale as her skin, glistering with silverwork and seed pearls. A crown of diamonds affirmed her royal blood. Trumpets heralded the coming of the Mentish party. Sabran whispered something to Lady Arbella Glenn, Viscountess Suth, who smiled and laid a liver-spotted hand on hers. The standard-bearers came first. They showed the Silver Swan of Mentendon displayed on a black field, with the True Sword pointed down, between its wings. Next came the servants and the guards, the interpreters and the officials. Finally, Lord Oscarde, Duke of Zeedeur, walked briskly into the chamber, accompanied by the Resident Ambassador to Mentendon. Zeedeur was heavyset, and his beard and hair were red, as was the tip of his nose. Unlike his daughter, he had the gray eyes of the Vatten. “Majesty.” He bowed with a flourish. “What an honor it is to be received once more at your court.” “Welcome, Your Grace,” Sabran said. Her voice was pitched low, rich with authority. She held out her hand to Zeedeur, who mounted the steps to kiss her coronation ring. “It lifts our heart to see you in Inys again. Was your journey an easy one?” Ead still found the our jarring. In public, Sabran spoke for both herself and her ancestor, the Saint. “Alas, madam,” Zeedeur said, his expression grim, “we were set upon by a full-grown wyvern in the Downs. My archers felled it, but had it been more alert, there could have been a bloodbath.” Murmurs. Ead observed the looks of shock that swept across the hall. “Again,” Margret muttered to her. “Two wyverns in as many days.” “We are most concerned to hear this,” Sabran said to the ambassador. “Our finest knights-errant will escort you back to Perchling. You will have a safer journey home.” “Thank you, Your Majesty.” “Now, you must desire to see your daughter.” Sabran cut her gaze to the maid in question. “Come forward, child.” Truyde stepped on to the carpet and curtsied. When she rose, her father embraced her. “Daughter.” He took her by the hands, smiling as if his face would break. “You look radiant. And how you’ve grown. Tell me, how is Inys treating you?” “Far better than I deserve, Father,” Truyde said. “And what makes you say that?” “This court is so grand,” she said, indicating the domed ceiling. “Sometimes I feel very small, and very dull, as if even the ceilings are more magnificent than I will ever be.” Riotous laughter filled the chamber. “So witty,” Linora whispered to Ead. “Is she not?” Ead closed her eyes. These people. “Nonsense,” Sabran said to Zeedeur. “Your daughter is well liked at court. She will be a worthy companion to whomsoever her heart chooses.” Truyde dipped her gaze with a smile. At her side, Zeedeur chuckled. “Ah, Your Majesty, I fear Truyde is too free-spirited to be wed just yet, much as I desire a grandchild. I thank you for taking such good care of my daughter.” “No thanks are necessary.” Sabran held the arms of her throne. “We are always pleased to receive our friends in Virtudom at court. However, we are curious as to what brings you from Mentendon now.” “My lord of Zeedeur brings a proposition, Majesty.” It was the Resident Ambassador to Mentendon who spoke. “A proposition we trust will interest you.” “Indeed.” Zeedeur cleared his throat. “His Royal Highness, Aubrecht the Second, High Prince of the Free State of Mentendon, has long admired Your Majesty. He has heard tell of your courage, your beauty, and your stalwart devotion to the Six Virtues. Now his late grand-uncle has been entombed, he craves a firmer alliance between our countries.” “And how does His Royal Highness mean to forge such an alliance?” Sabran asked. “Through marriage, Your Majesty.” Every head turned toward the throne. There was always a period of fragility before a Berethnet sovereign got with child. Theirs was a house of daughters, one daughter for each queen. Their subjects called it proof of their sainthood. It was expected of each Queen of Inys to marry and get with child as soon as possible, lest she die with no true heir. This would be dangerous in any country, since it would pitch the realm into civil war, but according to Inysh belief, the collapse of the House of Berethnet would also cause the Nameless One to rise again and lay waste to the world. Yet Sabran had so far declined every offer of marriage. The queen reclined into her throne, studying Zeedeur. Her face, as ever, betrayed nothing. “My dear Oscarde,” she said. “Flattered as we are, we seem to remember that you are already wed.” The court fell about laughing. Zeedeur had looked nervous, but now he grinned. “Sovereign lady!” he said, chuckling. “It is my master who seeks your hand.” “Pray continue,” Sabran said, with the faintest shadow of a smile. The wyvern was forgotten. Clearly emboldened, Zeedeur took another step forward. “Madam,” he said, “as you know, your ancestor, Queen Sabran the Seventh, was wed to my own distant relation, Haynrick Vatten, who was Steward-in-Waiting to Mentendon while it was under foreign rule. Since the House of Lievelyn ousted the Vatten, however, there has been no formal knit between our countries, except our shared religion.” Sabran listened with a look of indifference that never quite touched on boredom or contempt. “Prince Aubrecht is aware that his late grand-uncle’s suit was declined by Your Majesty… and, ah, also by the Queen Mother”—Zeedeur cleared his throat again—“but my master believes he offers a different sort of companionship. He also believes there would be many advantages to a fresh alliance between Inys and Mentendon. We are the only country with a trading presence in the East, and with Yscalin fallen into sin, he believes an alliance that espouses our faith is vital.” Some murmuring followed this statement. Not long ago, the Kingdom of Yscalin to the south had also been part of Virtudom. Before it had taken the Nameless One as its new god. “The High Prince offers you a token of his affection, if Your Majesty would be gracious enough to receive it,” Zeedeur said. “He has heard of your love for pearls from the Sundance Sea.” He snapped his fingers. A Mentish servant approached the throne, carrying a velvet cushion, and knelt. On the cushion was an oyster, cracked open to reveal an iridescent black pearl, big as a cherry, tinged with green. It shone like folded steel under the sun. “This is the finest dancing pearl in his possession, caught off the coast of Seiiki,” Zeedeur said. “It is worth more than the ship that carried it over the Abyss.” Sabran leaned forward. The servant held the cushion higher. “It is true that we have a fondness for dancing pearls, and a dearth of them,” the queen said, “and we would accept this gladly. But to do so is not an acceptance of this suit.” “Of course, Majesty. A gift from a friend in Virtudom, no more.” “Very well.” Sabran’s gaze flicked to Lady Roslain Crest, Chief Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber, who wore a gown of emerald silk and a partlet of white needle lace. Her brooch showed a pair of goblets, like anyone who took the Knight of Justice as their patron, but hers was gilded, showing that she was the blood of that knight. Roslain made a barely perceptible sign to one of the maids of honor, who hastened to take away the cushion. “Although we are touched by his gift, your master should know of our disdain for the heretical practices of the Seiikinese,” Sabran said. “We desire no parlance with the East.” “Of course,” Zeedeur said. “Even so, our master believes that the origin of the pearl does nothing to dull its beauty.” “Perhaps your master is right.” Sabran settled back into her throne. “We hear His Royal Highness was training to be a sanctarian before he was High Prince of Mentendon. Tell us of his other . . . qualities.” Titters. “Prince Aubrecht is very clever and kind, madam, possessed of great political acumen,” Zeedeur said. “He is four and thirty, with hair of a softer red than mine. He plays the lute beautifully, and dances with great vigor.” “With whom, we wonder?” “Often with his noble sisters, Your Majesty. He has three: Princess Ermuna, Princess Bedona, and Princess Betriese. They are all eager to make your acquaintance.” “Does he pray often?” “Three times a day. He is devoted most of all to the Knight of Generosity, who is his patron.” “Does your prince have any faults, Oscarde?” “Ah, Majesty, we mortals all have faults—except for you, of course. My master’s only flaw is that he tires himself with worry for his people.” Sabran grew serious again. “In that,” she said, “he is already one with us.” Whispers spread through the chamber like fire. “Our soul is touched. We will consider this suit from your master.” A smattering of tentative applause broke out. “Our Virtues Council will make arrangements to further this matter. Before that, however, we would be honored if you and your party would join us for a feast.” Zeedeur swept into another bow. “The honor would be ours, Majesty.” The court undulated with bows and curtsies. Sabran made her way down the steps, followed by her Ladies of the Bedchamber. The maids of honor walked in their wake. Ead knew Sabran would never marry the Red Prince. This was her way. She strung her suitors along like fish on a line, accepting gifts and flattery, but never surrendered her hand. As the courtiers dispersed, Ead left by another door with her fellow chamberers. Lady Linora Payling, blonde and rosy-cheeked, was one of the fourteen children of the Earl and Countess of Payling Hill. Her favorite pastime was dabbling in gossip. Ead found her a thorough vexation. Lady Margret Beck, however, had been her dear friend for a long time now. She had joined the Upper Household three years ago and befriended Ead as quickly as her brother, Loth, who was six years her senior. Ead had soon discovered that she and Margret had the same sense of humor, knew from a look what the other was thinking, and shared the same opinions on most people at court. “We must work fast today,” Margret said. “Sabran will expect us to show our faces at the feast.” Margret looked so much like her brother, with her ebon skin and strong features. It had been a week since Loth had disappeared, and her eyelids were still swollen. “A suit,” Linora said as they walked down the corridor, out of earshot of the rest of the court. “And from Prince Aubrecht! I had thought him far too devout to be wed.” “No prince is too devout to marry the Queen of Inys,” Ead said. “It is she who is too devout to wed.” “But the realm must have a princess.” “Linora,” Margret said tightly, “a little temperance, if you please.” “Well, it must.” “Queen Sabran is not yet thirty. She has plenty of time.” It was clear to Ead that they had not heard about the cutthroat, else Linora would look more serious. Then again, Linora never looked serious. For her, tragedy was merely an occasion for gossip. “I hear the High Prince is rich beyond measure,” she continued, not to be put off. Margret sighed. “And we could take advantage of their trading post in the East. Just imagine—having all the pearls of the Sundance Sea, the finest silver, spices and jewels—” “Queen Sabran scorns the East, as all of us should,” Ead said. “They are wyrm-worshippers.” “Inys won’t have to trade there, silly. We can buy from the Mentish.” It was still a tainted exchange. The Mentish traded with the East, and the East idolized wyrms. “My worry is affinity,” Margret said. “The High Prince was betrothed to the Donmata Marosa for a time. A woman who is now the crown princess of a Draconic realm.” “Oh, that betrothal is long since dissolved. Besides,” Linora said, tossing her hair back, “I doubt he liked her overmuch. He must have been able to tell she had evil in her heart.” At the doors to the Privy Chamber, Ead turned to the other two women. “Ladies,” she said, “I will take care of our duties today. You should go to the feast.” Margret frowned. “Without you?” “One chamberer will not be missed.” Ead smiled. “Go, both of you. Enjoy the banquet.” “The Knight of Generosity bless you, Ead.” Linora was already halfway down the corridor. “You are so good!” As Margret made to follow, Ead caught her by the elbow. “Have you heard anything from Loth?” she murmured. “Nothing yet.” Margret touched her arm. “But something is afoot. The Night Hawk summons me this evening.” Lord Seyton Combe. The spymaster himself. Almost everyone called him the Night Hawk, for he snatched his prey under cover of darkness. Discontents, power-hungry lords, people who flirted too often with the queen—he could make any problem disappear. “Do you think he knows something?” Ead asked quietly. “I suppose we shall find out.” Margret pressed her hand before she went after Linora. When Margret Beck suffered, she suffered alone. She hated to burden anyone else. Even her closest friends. Ead had never meant to be among those friends. When she had first arrived in Inys, she had resolved to keep to herself as much as she could, the better to protect her secret. Yet she had been raised in a close-knit society, and she had soon ached for company and conversation. Jondu, her sister in all but blood, had been by her side almost since she was born, and to be suddenly without her had left Ead bereft. So when the Beck siblings had offered their friendship, she had given in, and could not regret it. She would see Jondu again, when she was finally called home, but she would lose Loth and Margret. Still, if the silence from the Priory was anything to go on, that day would not be soon. The Great Bedchamber at Ascalon Palace was high-ceilinged, with pale walls, a marble floor, and a vast canopy bed at its heart. The bolsters and coverlet were brocaded ivory silk, the sheets were finest Mentish linen, and there were two sets of drapes, one light and one heavy, used according to how much light Sabran wanted. A wicker basket waited at the foot of the bed, and the chamberpot was absent from its cupboard. It seemed the Royal Laundress was back to work. The household had been so busy preparing for the Mentish visit that the task of stripping the bed had been postponed. Opening the balcony doors to let out the stuffy heat, Ead removed the sheets and the coverlet and slid her hands over the featherbeds, checking for any blades or bottles of poison that might be stitched inside them. Even without Margret and Linora to assist her, she worked fast. While the maids of honor were at the feast, the Coffer Chamber would be empty. Now was the perfect time to investigate the familiarity she suspected between Truyde utt Zeedeur and Triam Sulyard, the missing squire. It paid to know the affairs of this court, from the kitchens to the throne. Only with absolute knowledge could she protect the queen. Truyde was noble-born, heir to a fortune. There was no reason she should take any great interest in an untitled squire. Yet when Ead had insinuated a connection between her and Sulyard, she had looked startled, like an oakmouse caught with an acorn. Ead knew the scent of a secret. She wore it like a perfume. Once the Great Bedchamber was secure, she left the bed to air and made her way to the Coffer Chamber. Oliva Marchyn would be at the Banqueting House, but she had a spy. Ead crept up the stair and stepped over the threshold. “What ho,” a voice croaked. “Who comes?” She stilled. Nobody else would have heard her, but the spy had keen hearing. “Trespasser. Who is it?” “Wretched fowl,” Ead whispered. A bead of sweat trailed down her spine. She hitched up her skirts and drew a knife from the sheath at her calf. The spy sat on a perch outside the door. As Ead approached him, he tilted his head. “Trespasser,” he repeated, in ominous tones. “Wicked maiden. Out of my palace.” “Listen carefully, sirrah.” Ead showed him the knife, making him ruffle his feathers. “You may think you have the power here, but sooner or later, Her Majesty will be in the mood for pigeon pie. I doubt she would notice if I wrapped you in pastry instead.” In truth, he was a handsome bird. A rainbow mimic. His feathers blurred from blue to green to safflower, and his head was a brash pink. It would be a shame to cook him. “Payment,” he said, with a tap of one claw. This bird had enabled many an illicit meeting when Ead had been a maid of honor. She tucked the knife away, lips pressed together, and reached into the silk purse on her girdle. “Here.” She placed three comfits on his dish. “I will give you the rest if you behave.” He was too busy hammering at the sweets to answer. The Coffer Chamber was never locked. Young ladies were not supposed to have anything to hide. Inside, the drapes were drawn, the fire stanched, the beds made. There was only one place for a clever maid of honor to conceal her secret treasures. Ead lifted the carpet and used her knife to pry up the loose floorboard. Beneath it, in the dust, lay a polished oak box. She lifted it onto her knee. Inside was a collection of items that Oliva would have merrily confiscated. A thick book, etched with the alchemical symbol for gold. A quill and a jar of ink. Scraps of parchment. A pendant carved from wood. And a sheaf of letters, held together with ribbon. Ead unfurled one. From the smudged date, it had been written last summer. The cipher took moments to break. It was a touch more sophisticated than the ones used in most love letters at court, but Ead had been taught to see through code since childhood. For you, the letter said in an untidy hand. I bought it from Albatross Point. Wear it sometimes and think of me. I will write again soon. She picked up another, written on thicker paper. This one was from over a year before. Forgive me if I am too forward, my lady, but I think of nothing but you. Another. My love. Meet me beneath the clock tower after orisons. Without dwelling for too long, she could see that Truyde and Sulyard had been conducting a love affair, and that they had consummated their desire. The usual moonshine on the water. But Ead paused over some of the phrases. Our enterprise will shake the world. This task is our divine calling. Two young people in love could not possibly describe such a passionate affair as a “task” (unless, of course, their lovemaking failed to match their poetry). We must begin to make plans, my love. Ead leafed through pillow talk and riddles until she found a letter dated from early spring, when Sulyard had gone missing. The writing was smeared. Forgive me. I had to leave. In Perchling I spoke to a seafarer, and she made me an offer I could not refuse. I know we planned to go together, and perhaps you will hate me for the rest of our lives, but it is better this way, my sweetheart. You can help where you are, at court. When I send word of my success, convince Queen Sabran to look kindly upon our enterprise. Make her realize the danger. Burn this letter. Let none of them know what we are doing until it is done. They will hail us as legends one day, Truyde. Perchling. The largest port in Inys, and its principal gateway to the mainland. Sulyard had fled on a ship, then. There was something else beneath the floorboard. A thin book, bound in leather. Ead skirted one finger over its title, written in what was unquestionably an Eastern script. Truyde could not have found this book in any Inysh library. Seeking knowledge of the East was heresy. She would get far worse than a scolding if anyone found it. “Somebody coming,” the mimic croaked. A door closed below. Ead hid the book and letters beneath her cloak and returned the box to its nook. Footsteps echoed through the rafters. She fitted the floorboard back into place. On her way past the perch, she emptied the rest of her comfits into the dish. “Not a word,” she whispered to the spy, “or I will turn those lovely feathers into quills.” The mimic chuckled darkly as Ead vaulted through the window. They were lying side by side under the apple tree in the courtyard, as they often did in the high summer. A flagon of wine from the Great Kitchen sat beside them, along with a dish of spiced cheese and fresh bread. Ead was telling him about some prank the maids of honor had played on Lady Oliva Marchyn, and he was laughing so hard his belly ached. She was part poet and part fool when it came to telling stories. The sun had lured out the freckles on her nose. Her black hair fanned across the grass. Past the glare of the sun, he could see the clock tower above them, and the stained-glass windows in the cloisters, and the apples on their branches. All was well. “My lord.” The memory shattered. Loth looked up to see a man with no teeth. The hall of the inn was full of country-dwellers. Somewhere, a lutenist was playing a ballad about the beauty of Queen Sabran. A few days ago, he had been hunting with her. Now he was leagues away, listening to a song that spoke of her as if she were a myth. All he knew was that he was on his way to near-certain death in Yscalin, and that the Dukes Spiritual loathed him enough to have set him on that path. How suddenly a life could crumble. The innkeeper set down a trencher. On it sat two bowls of pottage, rough-cut cheese, and a round of barley bread. “Anything else I can do for you, my lords?” “No,” Loth said. “Thank you.” The innkeeper bowed low. Loth doubted it was every day that he hosted the noble sons of Earls Provincial in his establishment. On the other bench, Lord Kitston Glade, his dear friend, tore into the bread with his teeth. “Oh, for—” He sprayed it out. “Stale as a prayer book. Dare I try the cheese?” Loth sipped his mead, wishing it was cold. “If the food in your province is so vile,” he said, “you should take it up with your lord father.” Kit snorted. “Yes, he does rather enjoy that sort of dullness.” “You ought to be grateful for this meal. I doubt there will be anything better on the ship.” “I know, I know. I’m a soft-fingered noble who sleeps on swansdown, loves too many courtiers, and gluts himself on sweetmeats. Court has ruined me. That’s what Father said when I became a poet, you know.” Kit poked gingerly at the cheese. “Speaking of which, I must write while I’m here—a pastoral, perhaps. Aren’t my people charming?” “Quite,” Loth said. He could not feign light-heartedness today. Kit reached across the table to grasp his shoulder. “Stay with me, Arteloth,” he said. Loth grunted. “Did the driver tell you the name of our captain?” “Harman, I think.” “You don’t mean Harlowe?” Loth shrugged. “Oh, Loth, you must have heard of Gian Harlowe. The pirate! Everyone in Ascalon—” “I am patently not everyone in Ascalon.” Loth rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Please, enlighten me as to what sort of knave is taking us to Yscalin.” “A legendary knave,” Kit said in hushed tones. “Harlowe came to Inys as a boy from far-off shores. He joined the navy at nine and was captain of a ship by the time he turned eighteen—but he bit the hook of piracy, as so many promising young officers do.” He poured more mead into their tankards. “The man has sailed every sea in the world, seas that no cartographer has ever named. By plundering ships, they say he had amassed wealth to rival the Dukes Spiritual by the time he was thirty.” Loth drank yet again. He had the feeling he would need another tankard before they left. “I wonder, then, Kit,” he said, “why this infamous outlaw is taking us to Yscalin.” “He may be the only captain brave enough to make the crossing. He is a man without fear,” Kit replied. “Queen Rosarian favored him, you know.” Sabran’s mother. Loth looked up, interested at last. “Did she?” “She did. They say he was in love with her.” “I hope you are not suggesting that Queen Rosarian was ever unfaithful to Prince Wilstan.” “Arteloth, my surly northern friend—I never said she returned the love,” Kit said equably, “but she liked the man enough to bestow on him the largest ironclad ship in her fleet, which he named the Rose Eternal. Now he calls himself privateer with impunity.” “Ah. Privateer.” Loth managed a slight chuckle. “The most sought-after title in all the world.” “His crew has captured several Yscali ships in the last two years. I doubt they will take kindly to our arrival.” “I imagine the Yscals take kindly to very little nowadays.” They sat in silence for some time. While Kit ate, Loth gazed out of the window. It had happened in the dead of night. Retainers wearing the winged book of Lord Seyton Combe had entered his chambers and ordered him to come with them. Before he knew it, he had been bundled into a coach with Kit—who had also been marched from his lodgings under cover of darkness—and shown a note to explain his circumstances. Lord Arteloth Beck— You and Lord Kitston are now Inysh ambassadors-in-residence to the Draconic Kingdom of Yscalin. The Yscals have been informed you are coming. Make enquiries about the last ambassador, the Duke of Temperance. Observe the court of the Vetalda. Most importantly, find out what they are planning, and if they intend to mount an invasion of Inys. For queen and country. The note had been jerked out of his hands within moments, and presumably carried off to be burned. What Loth could not work out was why. Why he, of all people, was being sent to Yscalin. Inys needed to know what was happening in Cárscaro, but he was no spy. The hound of despair was on his back, but he could not let it buckle him. He was not alone. “Kit,” he said, “forgive me. You have been forced to join me in my exile, and I have been poor company.” “Don’t you dare apologize. I’ve always rather fancied an adventure.” Kit smoothed back his flaxen curls with both hands. “Since you’re finally talking, though, we ought to speak about our . . . situation.” “Don’t. Not now, Kit. It’s done.” “You must not think Queen Sabran ordered your banishment,” Kit said firmly. “I tell you, this was arranged without her knowledge. Combe will have told her you left court of your own free will, and she will have doubts about her spymaster. You must tell her the truth,” he urged. “Write to her. Disclose to her what they have done, and—” “Combe reads every letter before it reaches her.” “Could you not use some cipher?” “No cipher is safe from the Night Hawk. There is a reason why Sabran made him her spymaster.” “Then write to your family. Ask them for their help.” “They will not be granted an audience with Sabran unless they go through Combe. Even if they are,” Loth said, “it will be too late for us by then. We will already be in Cárscaro.” “They should still know where you are.” Kit shook his head. “Saint, I’m beginning to think you want to leave.” “If the Dukes Spiritual believe I am the best person to find out what has transpired in Yscalin, then perhaps I am.” “Oh, come, Loth. You know why this is happening. Everyone tried to warn you.” Loth waited, brow furrowed. With a sigh, Kit drained his tankard and leaned in closer. “Queen Sabran is not yet married,” he murmured. Loth tensed. “If the Dukes Spiritual favor a foreign match for her, your presence at her side . . . well, it complicates things.” “You know Sab and I have never—” “What I know is less important than what the world sees,” Kit said. “Allow me to indulge in a little allegory. Art. Art is not one great act of creation, but many small ones. When you read one of my poems, you fail to see the weeks of careful work it took me to build it—the thinking, the scratched-out words, the pages I burned in disgust. All you see, in the end, is what I want you to see. Such is politics.” Loth puckered his brow. “To ensure an heir, the Dukes Spiritual must paint a certain picture of the Inysh court and its eligible queen,” Kit said. “If they believed your intimacy with Queen Sabran would spoil that picture—dissuade foreign suitors—it would explain why they chose you for this particular diplomatic mission. They needed you gone, so they . . . painted you out.” Another silence fell. Loth clasped his ring-laden fingers and set his brow against them. He was such a fool. “Now, if my feeling is correct, the good news is that we may be allowed to sneak back to court once Queen Sabran is married,” Kit said. “I say we weather the next few weeks, find poor old Prince Wilstan if we can possibly manage it, then return to Inys by whatever means needful. Combe will not stop us. Not once he has what he wants.” “You forget that if we return, we will be able to expose his scheming to Sabran. He would have considered that. We will not get near the palace gates.” “We will write to His Grace beforehand. Make him some offer. Our silence in exchange for him leaving us in peace.” “I cannot be silent about this,” Loth bit out. “Sab must know if her Virtues Council machinates behind her back. Combe knows I will tell her. Trust me, Kit—he means for us to be in Cárscaro for good. His eyes in the most dangerous court in the West.” “Damn him. We will find a way home,” Kit said. “Does the Saint not promise that all of us will?” Loth drained his tankard. “You can be very wise, my friend.” With a sigh, he added, “I can only imagine how Margret must feel at this moment. She may have to inherit Goldenbirch.” “Meg must not burden that brilliant mind of hers. Goldenbirch will not need her as heir, because we will be back in Inys before you know it. This mission may not seem survivable,” Kit said, back to his jocular self, “but you never know. We may return from it as princes of the world.” “I never thought you would have more faith than I do.” Loth took in a deep breath through his nose. “Let us rouse the driver. We have tarried here for long enough.” 5 East The new soldiers of the High Sea Guard had been allowed to spend their last hours in Cape Hisan in whatever way they chose. Most of them had gone to bid farewell to friends. At the ninth hour of night, they would set off by palanquin to the capital. The scholars had already left on the ship to Feather Island. Ishari had not stood on deck with the others to watch Seiiki disappear. They had been close for years. Tané had nursed Ishari through a fever that had almost killed her. Ishari had been like a sister when Tané first bled, showing her how to make plugs out of paper. Now they might never see each other again. If only Ishari had studied harder—given more of herself to her training—they could have been riders together. For now, Tané had to turn her mind toward another friend. She kept her head down as she wove through the clamor of Cape Hisan, where dancers and drummers were out to celebrate Choosing Day. Children skipped past, laughing, painted kites flying above them. The streets heaved with people. They mopped at their faces with flat-woven linen. As Tané dodged merchants peddling trinkets, she breathed in the spice of incense, the scent of rain on sweat on skin, and the waft of sea-fresh fish. She listened to the tinsmiths and traders calling out and the gasps of delight as a tiny yellow bird warbled a song. This might be the last time she walked in Cape Hisan, the only city she had ever known. It had always been a risk to come here. The city was a dangerous place, where apprentices might be tempted to act in ways that would corrupt them. There were brothels and taverns, card games and cockfights, recruiters sent to press them into piracy. Tané had often wondered if the Houses of Learning had been built so close to all this as a test of will. When she reached the inn, she let out her breath. There were no sentinels. “Excuse me,” she called through the bars. A tiny girl came to the gate. When she saw Tané, and the blue tunic of the High Sea Guard, the child knelt at once and set her forehead between her hands. “I am looking for the honorable Susa,” Tané said gently. “Would you fetch her for me?” The girl scurried back into the inn. Nobody had ever bowed to Tané that way. She had been born in the impoverished village of Ampiki, on the southern tip of Seiiki, to a family of fisherfolk. One crisp winter day, a fire had sparked in the nearby forest and swallowed almost every house. Tané had no memory of her parents. She had only avoided sharing their death because she had chased a butterfly out of the house, to the sea. Most foundlings and orphans washed up in the land army, but the butterfly had been interpreted by a holy woman as intervention from the gods, and it was decided that Tané must be trained as a rider. Susa came to the gate in a robe of white silk, richly broidered. Her hair poured loose over her shoulders. “Tané.” She slid the gate aside. “We must speak.” Tané recognized the notch in her brow. They slipped into the alley beside the house, where Susa opened her umbrella and held it over them both. “He is gone.” Tané wet her lips. “The outsider?” “Yes.” Susa looked nervous. She was never nervous. “There was gossip in the market earlier. A pirate ship was sighted off the coast of Cape Hisan. The sentinels looked all over the city for smuggled freight, but when they left, they had found nothing.” “They searched in Orisima,” Tané realized, and Susa nodded. “Did they find the outsider?” “No. But there is nowhere to hide there.” Susa glanced toward the street, her eyes reflecting its lanternlight. “He must have escaped while the sentinels were distracted.” “No one could cross the bridge without the sentinels noticing. He must still be there.” “The man must be half ghost if he can hide himself so well.” Susa tightened her grip on the umbrella. “Tané, do you think we should still tell the honored Governor about him?” Tané had been asking herself the same question ever since the ceremony. “I told Roos we would collect him, but . . . perhaps if he stays hidden in Orisima, he will be able to avoid the sword and slip away on the next ship back to Mentendon,” Susa went on. “They might mistake him for a legal settler. He was no older than us, Tané, and perhaps not here by choice. I have no desire to condemn him to death.” “Then let us not. Let him make his own way.” “What of the red sickness?” “He had none of the signs. And if he is still in Orisima—and I cannot think it otherwise—the sickness cannot go far.” Tané spoke quietly. “Further association with him is too much of a risk, Susa. You took him somewhere safe. What happens now is up to him.” “But if they find him, will he not tell them about us?” Susa whispered. “Who would believe him?” Susa took a deep breath, and her shoulders dropped. She looked Tané up and down. “It seems all of the risk was worthwhile.” Her smile made her eyes sparkle. “Was Choosing Day everything you imagined?” The need to talk had been welling up for hours. “And more. The dragons were so beautiful,” Tané said. “Did you see them?” “No. I was asleep,” Susa admitted. She must have been awake all night. “How many riders will there be this year?” “Twelve. The honored Unceasing Emperor has sent two great warriors to raise our numbers.” “I have never seen a Lacustrine dragon. Are they very different to ours?” “They have thicker bodies, and one more toe. It would be a privilege to ride with any of them.” Tané pressed closer under the umbrella. “I must be a rider, Susa. I feel guilty for wanting so much when I have already received so many blessings, but—” “It has been your dream since you were a child. You have ambition, Tané. Never apologize for that.” Susa paused. “Are you afraid?” “Of course.” “Good. Fear will make you fight. Don’t let a little shit like Turosa get the better of you, whoever his mother is.” Tané gave her a scolding look, but smiled. “Now, you must hurry. Remember, no matter how far from Cape Hisan you fly, I will always be your friend.” “And I yours.” The gate to the inn slid open, making them both start. “Susa,” the girl called. “You need to come inside now.” Susa glanced toward the house. “I must go.” She looked back at Tané, hesitated. “Will they let me write to you?” “They must.” Tané had never known any commoner to maintain a friendship with a sea guardian, but she prayed they would be the exception. “Please, Susa, be careful.” “Always.” Her smile quivered. “You won’t miss me so much. When you soar above the clouds, we will all seem very small down here.” “Wherever I am,” Tané said, “I am with you.” Susa had risked everything for a dream that was not hers. That sort of friendship was something not found more than once in a lifetime. Some might not find it at all. The space between them was fraught with memory, and their faces were no longer damp only from rain. Perhaps Tané would return to Cape Hisan to guard the eastern coast, or perhaps Susa could visit her, but for once in her life, nothing was certain. Their paths were about to pull apart, and unless the dragon willed it, they might never meet again. “If anything happens—if anyone names you in relation to the outsider—come with all speed to Ginura,” Tané said softly. “Come and find me, Susa. I will always keep you safe.” In a cramped excuse for a workroom in Orisima, a lantern guttered as Niclays Roos held a phial into its light. The stained label read KIDNEY ORE. It was all he could do to keep Sulyard from his mind, but the surest way to manage it was to lose himself in his great work. Not that he was getting much work done, great or otherwise. He was perilously low on ingredients, and his alchemical equipment was as old as he was, but he wanted one more stab at this before he wrote yet again for supplies. The Governor of Cape Hisan was sympathetic, but often checked in his generosity by the Warlord, who seemed to know everything that happened in Seiiki. The Warlord was almost mythical. His family had taken power after the imperial House of Noziken had been destroyed in the Great Sorrow. All Niclays really knew about the man was that he lived in a castle in Ginura. Every year, the Viceroy of Orisima would be taken there in a locked palanquin to pay tribute, offer gifts from Mentendon, and receive gifts in return. Niclays was the only person in the trading post who had never been invited to join her on the journey. His fellow Ments were civil to his face, but unlike the rest of them, he was here because he was in exile. The fact that none of them knew why did not endear them to him. Sometimes he wanted to unmask himself, just to see their faces. To tell them that he was the alchemist who had convinced the young Queen of Inys that he could brew her an elixir of life, removing any need for marriage or an heir. That he was the wastrel who had used Berethnet money to prop up years of guesswork, experiments, and debauchery. How horrified they would be. How scandalized by his dearth of virtue. They would have no idea that even when he had made his way to Inys ten years ago, a walking tinderbox of pain and anger, he had remained faithful, in some hidden chamber of his heart, to the tenets of alchemy. Distillation, Ceration, Sublimation—these were the only deities that he would ever praise. They would have no idea that while he had sweated at the crucible, certain he could discover a way to set a body in the prime of its youth, he had also been trying to melt the knife of grief that had been buried in his side. A knife that had finally led him away from the crucible, back to the comfort and oblivion of wine. He had not succeeded in either venture. And for that, Sabran Berethnet had made him pay. Not with his life. Leovart had told him he ought to be grateful for that so-called kindness from Her Enmity. No, Sabran had not taken his head—but she had taken everything else. Now he was trapped on the edge