Thief of War

Thief of War

illustration by dominick saponaro

Arbija will do anything to stop the Erythandran Empire from conquering her homeland. She will take on a new name, a new past, even a new face, all so she can infiltrate the palace and steal the Empire’s more powerful magical artifacts. With these weapons, surely she can defend her people and keep them safe and free. Can she succeed where her sister failed?

This novella was acquired and edited by senior editor Claire Eddy.

The oldest records say Duenne’s University was born from a philosophical debate begun in a wine shop. According to those histories, two elderly scholars disagreed over whether our lives were governed by fate or free will. The argument continued over a half dozen jugs of wine, attracting an ever-larger audience, including the shop’s owner, who kept his establishment open far beyond the usual hour. The following day, others joined the debate, which splintered into smaller groups.

Within a year, twenty scholars had established lectures in philosophy and rational thought. Within a century, the University had erected its own buildings around the same old wine shop, which housed the new offices for the Bursar, the Registrar, and the Senior Masters.

 

I stood before the brick archway that marked the entry into the University Quarter. Narrow stone-paved lanes unraveled before me, like a skein of thread tossed haphazardly over the riverbanks. I was sweating in the thick heat of late summer. All the residents and students had vanished withindoors, and a deep quiet overlaid the district, broken only by a faint trill from the nearby Gallenz River. Ancient houses and lecture halls, built from rust-colored brick and gray stone, hid the river itself from my view, but a rank scent of mud and water hung in the air, as clear as any marker on a map.

My carrier cart had already departed, leaving behind my trunk of clothing and books, as well as myself. My haversack with my personal papers and letters of credit lay at my feet. Of course I had directions from our agent, telling me the best route to my destination, together with the instructions I needed for this next and vital step. But what I remembered the clearest were my sister’s words.

Pretend to trust them, she’d said, and they will believe you. They’ve all turned complacent, living here in the heart of the Empire. Even those from the outer provinces.

I summoned a boy with a wheelbarrow and gave him a few coins to take charge of my trunk. Then I swung my haversack over my shoulder and headed toward the University offices.

 

“Name,” the old woman said. “Family, given.”

After several wrong turns in the maze of streets, and a long climb up the stairs, I had finally gained entrance into the office for the Registrar of Duenne’s University. Pigeonholes stuffed with scrolls lined one entire wall of this cramped office. Shelves lined a second wall, and drawers a third, as if all three hundred years of the University’s records resided here. The air was filled with the scent of paper dust and ink, and the heavy fragrance of spices I could not identify. The Registrar herself bent over an enormous desk, with a massive book open before her, each half as thick as my hand was wide. A row of pens in inkwells stood between us, like so many pieces in a game.

My feet ached and the leather strap of my haversack dug into my shoulder. I wanted to sit, even if that meant the hard stool shoved against the far wall, but from the Registrar’s edged smile, I knew she would not permit such a liberty. So I stood with knees bent and my hands clasped behind my back, as though I stood before my grandmother and the Council of Versterlant.

And so I did, after a fashion. According to the graven plate outside the office, my questioner was Vrou Renata Nef. Every new student presented themselves and their papers to her, confirming their qualifications to study at the University.

“My name is Irene Denk.”

Nef glared at me. Many would have found her expression unnerving.

I waited a moment and smiled. “Denk, Irene.”

Silently, she recorded my name in the volume, where each page was divided by faint vertical dots into a dozen columns. She wrote in square, upright letters, using a pen with a metal nib instead of a brush. Lèna had described the implement, among the welter of other details she poured out from her sickbed. Southerners were very strange, she kept saying. Even when they seemed the most ordinary, they would surprise a person. The implication, that those surprises were almost never pleasant ones, remained unsaid.

“Judging by your given name and your face, you are a resident of the province of Fortezzien, yes?”

I nodded. “City of Veria.”

It was dangerous to offer too many answers, but the opposite also applied: keep too many secrets and you made them curious. Veria was a small city on Fortezzien’s western coast. My grandparents had selected the province and city by scanning maps of the region and consulting a history of its recent past. With the influx of Imperial trade ships, Veria had expanded swiftly in the past ten years, and only a minority protested the Empire’s presence. My province of origin would explain any flaws in my accent, and my Veraenen surname would imply loyalty to the Empire.

Vrou Nef recorded the city name. She added a curious symbol in the next column. It was nothing like the Erythandran letters Lèna and I had memorized as children, when our grandparents had first conceived their plan, nor did it resemble the script of any northern language.

“What do you propose to study here, Irene Denk?” the Registrar asked.

“Philosophy,” I said. Philosophy would lead eventually and naturally to magic. Our plans were indirect by necessity.

“And if you could not? If we denied you?”

I hesitated. Lèna had not mentioned such an odd question. However, my tutors had prepared me for the unexpected, and I had a number of plausible answers in reserve. Some of them were even true.

“History,” I said. “And linguistics.”

Nef studied me with grave eyes. She was far older than I had first estimated. Her coarse black hair overlaid a nest of white, just visible when she tilted her head to meet my gaze. More telling, fine lines etched her dark brown face, and the way she held her body spoke of an inflexibility of habit in mind and action, which I associated with great age and with my grandparents.

“Linguistics,” she said softly.

I nodded.

“And history,” she added. “An excellent choice. With those subjects, you might choose any number of professions. Most first year students are not so perceptive. But then, you are a year or two older than most applicants.”

Five years older. That was the reason our Council had chosen Lèna to make the first attempt. There had been talk about sending me in the guise of a servant, or some other minion, to the palace itself, but my mother insisted I could not pretend the part well enough, and after a long and terrible argument, my grandparents agreed. So, like Lèna, I applied to the University.

Nef wrote History, Linguistics in the next column, followed by another notation in that unknown script.

“We shall need records of your past studies, any letters of recommendation, and whatever certificates you have earned.”

Silently I handed over the sheaf of papers I had guarded through the long journey from Versterlant. Each one represented hours of research, and more hours spent under oil lamps, forging the necessary signatures and seals. The result was a packet that proclaimed me a student of one Michalis Iannou, a tutor in the arts of philosophy and science, and someone qualified to study at university level.

Nef scanned through my documents twice, as though she were memorizing their contents. She then recorded another cryptic notation, followed by a longer comment in Veraenen. I stretched onto my toes and pretended an interest in the strange carving above the doors on the opposite side of the room. Not one of the goddess Lir, which I had expected, nor one of her brother god, Toc. This one was an ugly, squat thing, with a face like an ancient sea monster.

“Denk.”

I jumped at the unfamiliar name, then scowled. Anger covered a multitude of mistakes. (It had at home, where my sister had died. Where family subsumed life.)

Nef laughed softly. “You might be older than the usual first-year student, but you aren’t any wiser. Here, take your papers. Make your payments to the Bursar. His office is on the second floor of this building. You can arrange housing with him, or if you prefer, you may rent rooms wherever you like in the city. You start classes in two weeks.”

She wrote a few lines on a sheet of parchment, then pressed her thumb against the lower left corner, murmuring to herself. The quality of the air changed, I caught a hint of breeze in that windowless room, and a sharp green scent cut through the heavy spices. When she withdrew her thumb, a complicated pattern of copper and black occupied what had been a blank space.

Magic. Even here. And used so casually.

If the Registrar noticed my surprise, she gave no sign of it. She blotted the parchment, then extracted several different packets from a desk drawer and collected them into a neat bundle, which she handed to me. My own records disappeared into a different drawer.

A clear dismissal.

I retreated into the Registrar’s antechamber, where I examined this new set of papers. One packet consisted of maps for the University buildings—lecture halls, laboratories, offices for the various departments, and more. Another listed regulations for students, requirements for degrees, and other useless information. If my plans succeeded, I would gain a position in the palace long before anyone cared about my qualifications for a degree. Oh, but here was useful stuff. Lists of official dormitories, plus advertisements for private lodgings. And last of all, the paper with that extraordinary seal.

Irene Denk, it read. Entrant to studies at Duenne University. Departments of Philosophy, Rational Thought, and Magic.

 

Let me digress. No, let me explain.

Six hundred years ago, the horsemen of Erythandra rode south into Veraene’s plains. They murdered the chief of Duenne. They established themselves as kings over all the surrounding tribes. Theirs are the names for Lir and Toc used by citizens of the Empire, and theirs is the language for magic and government and learning.

My own province of Versterlant has escaped the Empire thus far. We occupy a land too cold and frozen for their attention, and bounded by the richer lands of Austerlant and Immatra. I grew up listening to the roar of the ocean against our shores, the creak of ice-bridges from one island to the next, and each spring, my heart was seized by gladness as I watched the months-long winter blackness splinter into sunlight.

But rumor slowly came north, how the Empire thought to add the northern lands to its treasury. Austerlant and Immatra, with their gold. Us, with our trade in fish and furs and oil. Austerlant has an army, but it cannot compare with the Empire. And we? We have nothing but winter and ice to defend us. And so my family offered my sister first, then me, as a sacrifice to keep our land free. And I, and my sister, had agreed.

To that end, Lèna and I spent our days studying languages and magic. We devoted our nights to practicing spywork. Versterlant’s Council sent an agent to Duenne as well. Afrim Halil owned a sewing shop in one of Duenne’s wealthy districts. Under the name Anzo Weber, he had collected information about the Court and the University for the past ten years. Ours was a long-lived set of plans. We had at least another decade, we thought, until those rumors of war turned into the truth.

Then came Halil’s report, just twelve months ago. The factions in Duenne’s Court had shifted. The Emperor required a victory abroad to prevent defeat at home. Even now, Halil wrote, he negotiates with his ministers to send his armies north within the year.

Lèna had set off at once for Duenne. Her goal was to steal the Emperor’s most powerful weapon, the three magical jewels, which legend said the goddess Lir had bestowed upon the ancient kings of Erythandra. Those same kings and their mage priests had used these jewels to conquer all their enemies and create an Empire. The Emperor would still have his armies, of course, but such a theft would send the Court into turmoil. It might even overturn his reign. I shall be a thief of war, my sister had said.

My sister failed. She died. Now I must try to do what she could not.

 

“My name is Nedda Korbel,” said the first woman.

“Mine is Klera Thaler,” said the other. “And this monster is called Biss.”

Klera bent down to scratch the miniature black-and-white cat at her feet. Biss nipped at her hand, then leaned into the caress, her purr rattling like a steam kettle.

Nedda and Klera had posted an advertisement for a fourth person to share their lodgings. Our agent had strongly suggested I take a single room in the dormitory block, but a brief tour had convinced me otherwise. All the rooms were like closets, with a hundred students in each house. I was certain I would go mad from the chaos within a month. Nedda’s placard, written in neat script, promised generous quarters, low rent, and the quiet of a district outside the University Quarter.

Nedda was the older of the two, a graduate student in her seventh year. She was tall and solidly built, with sharp-cut features and a ruddy-brown complexion. Klera had begun her third year at the University, and was at least two or three years younger than I was. Even before she told me, I knew she was a native of Veraene.

I clasped their hands in turn. “My name is Irene Denk. From the city of Veria in Fortezzien.”

Nedda’s mouth twitched. “What do you study, Irene Denk of Veria in Fortezzien?”

Laughter bubbled underneath her voice. I could not tell if her mockery was friendly or not.

“Philosophy,” I answered evenly. “And rational thought.”

They exchanged glances. Perhaps my reply was more edged than I first supposed.

Klera’s next comment said it was.

“Our friend bites,” she said. “She draws blood.”

“Indeed,” Nedda replied. “But we have begun wrongly. I study juristic. My household consists of nothing but merchants, and they find it useful to have a lawyer in the family. Strangely enough, I do not disagree.”

“Unlike me,” Klera said. “I came here to study economics. Which I do most faithfully, whenever I can spare the hours from my poetry. The third member of our foolish crew is Nedda’s cousin Taavi. He has not returned from his summer apprenticeship, but even when he does, we shall see nothing of him. He is working on his certificate in architecture, and he is sadly behind on fulfilling his adviser’s demands.”

Nedda shrugged. “Taavi will come back when he can. And he pays his share of the rent. Let me show you the room,” she said to me. “You can decide whether it suits.”

With Biss trailing behind us, Nedda and Klera led me on a tour of the lodgings, which occupied the entire floor. There were three bedrooms in all. Nedda and Klera occupied the largest, having divided the room with tall bookshelves. Taavi’s, hardly more than a closet, was tucked in the corner next to theirs, with a tilted desk set opposite the two windows. The last was long and narrow, empty of everything except dust and a broken-down bed. I suspected the building had once belonged to a more prosperous family, because the floors were of fine blue tile, and the ceiling in the common room had once been painted, though its colors were now dimmed by smoke.

Klera and Nedda left me alone in the empty bedroom that might, or might not, become mine. I drifted around its circuit, noting what furniture and other possessions I would need to acquire, until I fetched up by the window, which overlooked a small courtyard. One chicken was pecking in the dirt outside a large coop. A rooster perched on a shed nearby. From a distance came the muffled noises of the immense city, but I had the impression of having found a quiet shelter.

I pressed both hands over my cheeks and closed my eyes. My features had been overlaid with new ones by magic—my hair made thick and springy and my complexion darker—so that I could pass for a native of Fortezzien, but underneath the mask, I could sense my own self, held in waiting.

How would it be, to spend an entire year or longer in these rooms, with these two women? To make them into friends, even when we could be nothing but enemies?

The future does not send us offerings, my mother liked to say.

Only of the past, I thought.

Everyone dreamt of past lives. It was the legacy Toc granted us, in remembrance of his own death and rebirth. We lived, we died, and our souls leapt from flesh to flesh and life to life. But we all of us carried our past in memories that visited us in our sleep.

I, too, had dreamed, but my dreams were scattered and vague. Nothing that offered any clues to the life I lived now.

Biss curled between my legs and settled on my feet, a warm and immovable weight. All at once I wanted nothing more than to unpack my trunk and sleep until the semester commenced. If I must, I can always change to new lodgings, I told myself.

I turned away from the window to find Klera hovering outside the door.

“I like it,” I said. “How much for the first month?”

 

I lie on my back, staring at the ceiling of my new bedroom. Biss crouches at my feet, attacking my toes under the quilt Nedda lent to me. The room is much smaller than my apartment in my family’s household, and much plainer. In the northlands, families decorate their homes with tapestries of dyed wool, depicting the history of our people. The ceilings are either wood, carved into patterns, or they are overlaid with precious stones arranged to reflect the constellations. The walls and ceiling of my room in Duenne are plain white plaster, but I am comfortable enough.

I cannot comprehend my position, not truly. It took me three months to traverse the distance from Hólar in northern Versterlant to the province of Veraene in the heart of the Erythandran Empire. I traveled by ship, by horseback, and finally by caravan. Each day, I was convinced someone would question my papers, my qualifications, but no one had. Léna was right, I thought. Pretend to trust them, and they trust you in return.

But. So. Here I am, no longer Arbija Ismaili of Versterlant, but Irene Denk, a new student of Duenne’s University. The Registrar has approved me. The Bursar confirmed my payments, secured as they are through various banking houses in Ysterien and their representatives in Duenne itself. Through those same representatives, disguised by other connections from Versterlant and Austerlant to Tiralien and then into Fortezzien, I will receive an adequate allowance to establish myself.

All that is left to me is to steal the goddess’s jewels from the Emperor.

 

Vrou Nef and the masters had assigned me three classes: an introduction to philosophy and rational thought, with an emphasis on the classical works, a lecture on Imperial history, and—what unsettled me at first—a practical course on magic.

It was nothing, I told myself. Everyone knew magic was connected with history and philosophy. No doubt the assignment fulfilled a University requirement for the department, and while Arbija Ismailihad studied magic since she was four, Irene Denk was a raw novice in the subject. In the end, this introductory course would gain me the necessary credentials for higher study, and speed me along my path to service in Duenne’s palace.

I spent the next two weeks preparing for my classes and my role as student. Klera showed me the booksellers’ shops where I could buy secondhand copies of the titles on my syllabus. She also pointed out the best noodle shops, the cheapest taverns, and even where the moneylenders kept their offices. Nedda offered advice on which laundry provided the best service for the fewest coins. Taavi the cousin wrote once to say he would most likely return the day before lectures began. Nedda scowled when she reported this news.

With only three classes for the semester, I soon acquired what I needed. The rest of the days I spent outfitting my room with better furniture, and exploring the streets between the lodging house and the University District. I was tempted to seek out our agent in the city, but I suppressed the urge. Versterlant’s Council had been quite clear on that subject. I must act alone, except in the direst emergency. That way, if I failed, I would not betray Afrim Halil as well.

On the first day of classes, I collected my books, my pens and ink bottle, and my folder of writing paper, then set off for the ancient hall where a docent would instruct us in basic magic.

Ten students had already claimed seats around the long battered table. More poured through the doors behind me, all of them chattering excitedly. I took my place with the others and occupied myself arranging my pens and papers.

A young woman to my left leaned close. “You won’t need to take notes today.”

“Why not?”

“My cousin told me. On the first day, the docent always—Ah, here she is.”

An elderly woman had entered the room. The docent, obviously. She took her place at the head of the table and gazed around the room. I could read nothing from her expression, but I suspected her chief emotion was boredom.

“Attention!” she said.

She rapped her knuckles on the table. At once, the air around me drew tight and the thick scent of pine and crushed grass filled the hall. The din of voices faded under a cloak of magic. Our docent surveyed us calmly until the conversations all stopped in truth, then with a single word, she released the magical current, leaving only an echo of our voices, and one soft exhalation from my neighbor.

An Ysterien. That surprised me. I had expected another Veraenen, like Vrou Nef and the Bursar. This woman’s pale brown face was a mass of wrinkles. Her eyes were light gray, the color of faded ink. Two brushstrokes marked her eyebrows.

“Excellent,” she said. “You demonstrate the willingness to listen, which is often more than I hope for. Now to judge what skills and latent talents you possess. Do not be alarmed. I shall not expect much from you.”

A murmur of protest rippled through my classmates.

Our docent smiled indulgently. “Listen, my children. If you obey my instructions and practice discipline, this is what you might expect to achieve on your own. Close your eyes. Choose one object that commands your attention. A button. A scratch not yet healed. A necessity you cannot deny.”

Ei rûf ane gôtter, ane Lir unde Toc. Ei rûfe ane zauberei . . .

The language she used was ancient Erythandran, but the invocation’s meaning was as clear to me as my own mother tongue. I resisted a moment, but the strength of our docent’s magic vanquished all my defenses, and in the end, I let myself succumb. The rattle of pens, the hum of voices fell away. As from a distance came the recollection of my grandmother’s dusky brown face, tucked and folded into lines of great age, reciting the same words . . .

The dusty dreary hall vanished. I crouched upon a rim of nothing, along with all my fellow students, surrounded by a black void. Bright dots streamed overhead, like stars in a midnight sky—souls in flight to their next lives. Below me spun a multitude of worlds.

Anderswar, the Veraenen called it. The void between worlds. The magical plane.

A soul opposite me winked into nothing. Then another. The young woman to my left gasped. She reached out and clasped my hand. The next moment, her body contracted to a pinpoint of light and she vanished. I reached out to where she had been, only to find myself enveloped by an irresistible warmth. It probed my heart, my mind, a brief, almost apologetic examination, before it released me and I was falling, falling, falling back to the ordinary world.

 

There was a time before the first history written, before the first story told, when humankind and the worlds did not exist. There was only the void, Nil, and her lover, Nothing. Between them, they gave birth to our goddess Lir, then Toc, her brother.

For a thousand thousand years, Lir and Toc lived in the void—alone, because Nil and Nothing had no voice or substance. And for a thousand thousand years, it was enough.

But it came to pass that Lir despaired of the darkness. We are gods of mists and shadows, she said to Toc, and it was clear to him that though she loved their mother, Nil, Lir yearned for something brighter than this constant gloom.

And because he loved his sister, Toc plucked out his eyes—one for the burning sun, one for the cold bright moon—and set them in the skies. Lir found her brother, sitting blind to the glory he had created, his face wet with blood. She wept. She wept and her tears spangled the night sky with stars.

You are the elixir of my joy, Toc said to his sister. With you I am immortal.

And so they joined together in a season of love, on that mountain called the Mantharah, and from their love were born all the worlds, magical and ordinary, and all the creatures that inhabited them. Among these were three jewels, which Lir gifted to humankind.

Or so the legends claim.

 

By the time I exited my second lecture, the bells rang the first of the evening hours, and the sun was slanting behind the lecture halls in the University Quarter. I sweltered inside my woolen trousers and tunic, and wished briefly that my grandparents had chosen a northern province for my spy’s identity. Weary and sweating, I trudged back the long mile to my lodgings. Along the way, I bought a lamb pie from a cart, though I had little appetite. At least I had the promise of a cool bath to revive me.

Klera met me at the entrance to the building. “Irene.” Her voice was breathless, and she had an air of innocence and contrition that exactly resembled the one my youngest brother wore whenever he planned mischief. “I forgot to tell you yesterday,” she said. “We . . . we had planned a celebration tonight.”

Now I heard the roar of voices from above.

“What kind of celebration?” I said. “And where is Nedda?”

“Nedda comes later,” Klera said. “She has a meeting with her adviser to discuss her thesis. But this is our tradition—one celebration before the semester consumes us. Do you mind? Ah, you do. I’m sorry. I will chase them out within an hour. Sooner. I promise. But it would be a shame if you did not try a bowl of noodles first. Ach, what is that smell? I should have guessed. One of Elfri’s meat pies. Let me take that.”

As she chattered on, she abstracted the meat pie and my haversack from my hands. She soon had me up the stairs and settled in the corner of our elderly couch, with a bowl of spiced lamb and egg noodles. Several dozen students occupied every chair and most of the floor in our common room, all of them drinking and eating and gossiping. Biss had vanished, of course.

“Taavi,” Klera called out. “Come. Talk to our new friend.”

Nedda’s dilatory cousin had finally arrived. To me he was simply another stranger, in a city with tens of thousands of strangers. I stabbed my fork into my noodles and began to eat steadily, hoping Taavi did not hear Klera above the noise.

The gods evidently decided to ignore my silent prayer, because a moment later, a young man dressed in a shirt and trousers of blue cotton dropped easily to the floor in front of me.

“Taavi, this is Irene. From Fortezzien. Irene . . .”

The young man held out a hand. “I am Taavi Matlik. You may disregard my presence, if it pleases you. I am merely a student of architecture. Not a very successful one, according to my professors.”

I regarded him with a frown. It was hard to tell his age. He was sharp-featured like his cousin Nedda, with a complexion of dusky brown and long black hair caught back in a ribbon. His eyes were so dark, they were almost black.

“Should I agree with them, your professors?” I asked.

“Only if it pleases you.”

Taavi offered me a brilliant smile, like the skip and dance of sunlight over snow. My heart contracted painfully, swift and unexpected. It took me several moments to recover myself.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I had a difficult day.”

“So I see.” He studied me with a more serious expression. “Beginnings can be difficult. I’m sorry if I made this one more so.”

I shook my head. To my relief, he did not bother me with more conversation. He and Klera nattered on about Taavi’s work in the old duchy of Valentain, assisting the master architect in designing a new wing for the duke’s household. I listened a while; then, when Nedda arrived at last, I retired into my solitary room.

Without bothering to light a lamp, I felt my way through the dark to my bed, where Biss was nesting among the blankets. She protested, but gave way with a perfunctory hiss, then settled once more, her purrs vibrating against my ribs. Outside, the celebration continued, muffled by the plaster walls and thick wooden door.

How odd. How . . . unexpected. Oh, I knew the taste and touch of plain desire—that alone did not trouble me—but I had never been so susceptible to beauty before. If I were back in Versterlant, I would know exactly what to do, the words to speak, to invite him into my bed. We would make our intentions and expectations clear. Only what did I intend? A night of pleasure? A season of love and delight?

It does not matter what I want. I came to Duenne for my people, not my own desires.

 

“Who assigned you to my class?”

The ancient instructor appeared far less ancient, here in the nest of papers and scrolls and vials that made up her private office. I sat opposite her, in an unsteady chair surely calculated to rob me of any confidence.

“Vrou Nef and the Masters,” I replied. “They said—”

“Shut up.”

Startled, I expelled the rest of my answer in a soundless breath.

My instructor grinned at me. “Good. You are not entirely without a sense of self-preservation. My sweet young idiot, you clearly do not need an introduction to magic. You know it—well enough I nearly called a halt that first session. You have a lovely signature,” she said in softer tones. “A flower unfolding. I wish I knew its name.”

Starflowers, I thought. I knew my own magical imprint. But I did not say that out loud. Starflowers bloomed in the far north at midsummer, scattered thickly over the gray-green tundra, like a reflection of the stars overhead. The signature alone would not betray me, but my reaction might.

My tutors had prepared me for this eventuality, however.

“I have read books, Vrou,” I said.

She gave sharp laugh. “No doubt. You all do, you insatiable creatures. I am only surprised you do not annihilate yourselves from curiosity. To that end, I have re-assigned you to a more advanced course. You will report to Vrou Miskova and Hêr Grivas next week with a paper outlining the history of the Erythandran language as it relates to magical conjuration. Yes, I know you have begun a philosophy course as well. Do you think we are all blind and ignorant? No, do not answer. I fear to learn how honest you might prove.”

 

She dismissed me from the day’s instruction, saying I would only distract the other students. It was a kindness, however little she realized it. I retreated to the nearest public square, and sat with my head resting on both hands. With the next set of classes underway, quiet had settled over the courtyard, leaving only the chirp and warble of doves as they chased down crumbs and seeds.

Grivas was a Fortezzien name. I had studied the language for a decade. I had memorized every detail of its history. I had absorbed its hatreds and its passions and every other conceivable detail from our agents. And yet . . . this was my second true test. A false word, a mistaken pronunciation, and I would betray myself and my people.

Nonsense. Your parents chose you because of your skill with languages.

And yet, they had done the same with my sister, and she had died.

“Irene.”

A shadow dropped over me. I jerked my head up to see Taavi Matlik hovering nearby. He had a haversack slung over one shoulder, and a flat leather case tucked under his arm. The noonday sun cast shadows over his face.

“Are you ill?” he said. “You sat down so suddenly . . .”

I shook my head. “Only tired. Thank you.”

The shadows around his mouth deepened into a smile. “You were weary last night as well. Perhaps it’s Duenne’s water. I’ve heard the pipes in our building are several centuries old—Ow!” He leaped backward and rubbed his shin where I had punched him.

“You babble too much,” I said. “And I dislike teasing.”

He tilted his head. “So I noticed. You are short but powerful, and I am a delicate artist. But, Irene,” and his voice dropped to a quieter tone, “what is wrong? You look as though you met a disaster.”

Oh, but he was a perceptive young man. I would have to guard my tongue with this one.

“I’m anxious about my studies,” I said. “My magic docent gave me a difficult assignment. What about you? Why are you here? Nedda told me you had no more lectures.”

He shrugged. “Nothing but my thesis and an architectural project, that’s true. But my adviser gave me a punishment assignment for my late return to the University. I am to map the streets around the University Quarter, and describe every variation of style to be found here. I show little respect for the classical forms, though that was to be expected, my being from the outer provinces, you understand.”

My mouth quirked into a wry smile against my will.

Taavi smiled back. “Do not tell my adviser, but I like these punishments. Last year I mapped all the audience halls in the royal palace, and how they connected to the private interview chambers and residential wings, and even the so-called secret passageways. It taught me a great deal about how a gifted architect designs such a complicated building, and keeping the necessary balance between its public functions and its private ones.”

Secret passageways. It was an unhoped-for clue.

Too soon, I told myself. But I tucked the detail into my memory to explore later.

“Do you know the University Library?” I asked.

Taavi broke off a description of the palace’s guest wing. “I do. Ah, I forgot. You have your assignment. Magic, wasn’t it? Let me take you there and introduce you to the librarians.”

We bought packets of ground lamb wrapped in pastry from a cart, then headed east along a winding boulevard. Duenne’s University had six libraries, he told me, one each for the original six departments. The library for philosophy and magic, newly rebuilt in the last century, had moved from its original location near the University offices, and now stood outside the second ring of city walls, between the palace and the southernmost loop of the Gallenz River.

He also told me more about himself and his first weeks at the University. Nedda had rescued him from despair. She had intercepted him after his first day of lectures, stuffed him with food, and assured him he would feel less a stranger before the year ended.

“She was right,” Taavi said. “I tried to thank her, but she said our uncle did the same for her, so she had to repay the favor.”

She was a cousin of a second cousin, he added. His family had moved north to Ournes several generations ago. Ournes was a recent acquisition by the Empire. I had read reports of that brief war—most talked about a peaceful transition, but Taavi’s dry tone piqued my curiosity. Before I could ask what he thought about the Empire’s governance, before I could tell myself that asking itself was imprudent, he turned the conversation to me and my professors.

We reached the library by the next hour bell. The buildings in this quarter were square squat structures rising three and four stories, with slanted roofs of dark red tile. From the outside, the library appeared to be a mound of dull gray stone.

“How . . . ugly,” I said.

Taavi laughed. “You are an honest young woman. Come, do not give up on our library so quickly. The inside is very different.”

The main entrance had a pair of copper doors at least ten feet high, with enormous hinges set into the stone walls, and two iron handles fashioned in the shape of serpents. Taavi ignored those doors and brought me to a smaller entrance around the corner. We passed through a low dark passage, into an octagonal entry hall.

Oh. My. Yes.

The entryway rose up three stories, lit by sunlight pouring through stained windows in the dome overhead. Next came an ornate balcony painted in gold leaf that circled the entire space, and below that a series of painted panels, showing the history of ancient Veraene and the empire that had subsumed it. A lovely, terrible sight.

“I told you,” my companion said in a low, laughing voice.

His whispered comment echoed from the walls and ceiling. I smothered a giggle, which seemed to surprise Taavi more than the library had surprised me. “I have been justly served,” he murmured.

Again I felt a tug of desire. Beauty was one thing. Humor was far more seductive.

“You promised to introduce me to the librarians,” I said quickly.

My voice crashed against the stone walls. I winced. Taavi shook his head. He was smiling, but it was a perfunctory smile, with none of the laughter from before. He beckoned toward an arched doorway marked Historical Documents.

But as I turned to follow, echoes from another voice rippled through the hall. I paused and glanced toward the enormous entry doors. Two men stood there, talking in low tones. One I guessed to be a clerk. He wore plain brown robes without any sleeves, and he carried a writing case tucked under one arm. The other man was a different matter entirely. Rich. Possibly even a courtier, though I wondered why a courtier would visit a University library. He was dressed in a dark blue coat with full sleeves. His face was dark and lean, his features cut in slanted lines. Jewels glittered from his cheek and ear. I listened more closely and heard a distinct accent.

Not a student. A noble. And not a citizen of Veraene.

The stranger glanced in my direction. I dropped my gaze and hurried after Taavi.

 

I am tempted to seduce Taavi Matlik. I will not, however beautiful he might be. He has already confessed he knows little except the most public details of the palace. Besides, I cannot seduce a man against his will, and Taavi does not desire me. I am too short, too squat, my nature too sharp-edged. And I refuse to compel anyone with magic, even for my people’s cause.

So I attend my lectures. I spend the remaining daylight hours in the library for magical and philosophical studies, researching ancient scrolls that relate to my assigned report, but using that excuse to explore other floorsand other wings. I even gain entrance into the storerooms where they keep the oldest and rarest documents from Veraene’s first kings and mages, before the Erythandran tribes invaded the land.

Once or twice, I encounter the foreign nobleman. His name is Leos Dzavek, the librarians tell me. He is a prince of Károví. He and his older brother arrived a month ago to attend Duenne’s Court. Theirs is an influential family, indirectly connected to the line of past kings.

Károví. I know its history without consulting any records. It had once been an independent kingdom, with a history extending six hundred years into the past. Three generations ago, its king, perhaps the grandfather or great-grandfather of these princes, had yielded to the Empire after a century of bloody warfare.

Prince Leos Dzavek. I will remember that name.

 

Before the week was over, I had completed my paper and written out two fair copies for Vrou Miskova and Hêr Grivas. In many ways, I had found this assignment a greater challenge than any my tutors at home had set before me. I wanted to prove myself ready for the second practical, but I did not want to betray too much knowledge.

Word came back within a few days. They had no complaints about the paper itself, but each insisted on a private interview before they would approve my promotion to the next class.

“You say you read books,” Miskova said.

I shrugged. “I like to study, to learn.”

“Evidently.” She scribbled a few notes on my paper,then handed it back to me. “Good enough. You understand the elements. Unless my colleague objects, I will see you at next week’s practical.”

Grivas did not object, precisely, but his opinion of my work was low. “Miserable syntax. Weak logic. Yes, you have a grasp of the subject matter, but . . .”

He frowned at my essay. He was as old as my grandparents. His plum-dark complexion had acquired a silvery dusting over the years, and his hair had thinned to a snowy web over his skull. I hated to be misjudged. But my goal was exactly that, after all—to convince my instructors to advance me, without provoking any suspicion.

“You neglected to mention any magical languages outside Veraene and Erythandra,” he said at last. “However, I won’t fault you for that. Besides,” he added in an undertone, “it’s best if we adhere to tradition. Consider yourself promoted. You know where the secondary practical meets? Good.”

It was only later, when I had collected a stack of books from the library and retired to my room, that I considered the possible implications of his words. Had he meant to give me a signal that he,too,was dissatisfied with the Empire’s rule? Or simply a warning, from one citizen to another of a conquered land?

If I succeed—if I steal the jewels—I might bring trouble to him and his family.

That was not my concern, I told myself as I lay awake that night, staring out the window to the star-speckled skies of autumn.

 

In our earliest lessons, our tutors lectured us endlessly about the element of the unexpected, and how it could disrupt even the most meticulous plan. Spies? Lèna had asked, thinking of those who made it their business to watch newly arrived foreigners. Traitors? I said. Versterlant had a history of wars between households, or even within a single family as each faction battled for control.

Nothing so grand, our tutors said. You might fail for the stupidest reason. Simply because a mule took fright and spilled its master’s cartload, making you late for an appointment. Remember, however, that the unexpected can do you favors as well, though you might not recognize it at the time.

For Lèna, it was a palace guard who had argued with her captain, and was ordered off-duty. She had crossed through a corridor meant to be empty, had sighted Lèna and called the alarm. There were no favors in that. Lèna panicked and fled into the magical plane. She acted too quickly, too precipitously. Though she made the crossing home to Versterlant, she took a mortal fever from an excess of magic.

My own case was much more mundane. I took sick with the same infection that half my classmates had contracted. My eyes itched. An ache lurked at the base of my skull. I abandoned my lecture in rational thought halfway through and stumbled back to my rooms. My last memory of that day was falling into bed and dislodging an irritated Biss.

I could recall little of the next few days, and what memories I did retain were patchy and unreliable. A few things were clear. Sweating. Oh dear gods, the sweating. The sense that my body was broken, or else why would I ache so much? Nedda’s blurred face close to mine and the light pressure of her fingertips at my throat. A muttered conversation between her and someone else. Klera? A stranger? Whoever it was inserted a long-necked beaker between my teeth, then pinched my nose shut until I swallowed the noxious contents.

A deep and all-encompassing slumber followed, without any hint of dreams from this life or the past. It was such a relief, to forget myself, to let slip all responsibility, and dip deep into the shadows of nothing.

Then one day I woke. Truly woke. I drew a long breath and opened my eyes with no ill effect. Someone had closed the shutters, leaving the room in shadows except for a few bars of yellow sunlight leaking through the slats. Taavi sat in an old wooden chair, which I recognized as Klera’s. He was drawing in his sketchbook by the light of a shaded lamp, while Biss observed from her perch on the chair’s arm. When I stirred, she leapt onto the bed and padded toward me to sniff my nose.

Taavi glanced up from his sketchbook. “Ah, you live.”

“I do?” I whispered. “But which life, and when?”

Klera would have summoned a new healer at my words. Nedda would have frowned.

Taavi merely smiled. “That is a question for a philosophical student, not an architect,” he said. He set his sketchbook on the floor and unfolded himself from the chair. “Time for a new dose of your medicine.”

I shook my head. A mistake. Pain lanced through my skull, and my guts clenched. I flung myself over the side of the bed and retched. Biss vaulted away. Taavi moved swiftly to intervene. He caught me before I tumbled from bed and dragged a bucket under my mouth. He held me fast by both shoulders until I was done spewing, then eased me back into the bed and wiped my face with a wet towel. I was sweating and shivering and too weak to resist. But when he tried to hold a mug to my lips, I batted his hand away.

“It’s medicine, Irene. It will stop the headache.”

“Useless, then,” I muttered.

He laughed softly. “It’s not. You only need a new dose. Come. Do not fight me. I am still afraid from the last time.”

I scowled. “You are laughing at me.”

“No.” His smile faded. “No, not at you. I’m laughing at myself, and very awkwardly, too. Please, Irene. The healer says you must drink all of this.”

He held the mug to my lips. With a few spills, I managed to drink the entire dose. My stomach gave one lurch, then relief washed through my body, and I collapsed back onto my pillow.

Taavi smoothed the blankets around me. “Better?”

“Better,” I admitted. “Where are Nedda and Klera?”

“Library. Colloquium. We took turns watching over you. In case you were not aware, you had a dangerous fever. But Nedda called in a healer she trusts, and that healer prescribed the necessary potions. Nedda says you can repay her next week. If you die, however, she will never forgive you.”

Now I did laugh, though it was more like a painful wheeze. “Fair enough. What about you? What of your punishment?”

“Ah, my punishment.” He grinned at me with too much obvious delight. “In recognition of the two or three dozen drawings I completed to her satisfaction, my adviser has granted me a stay of execution. If you do not recover by next week, however, I shall have to abandon you to Biss’s care.”

As if at his command, Biss leapt back onto the bed. She marched over my stomach and took up a stance next to my pillow, regarding me with her great golden eyes.

“If I died, she would eat me,” I whispered.

“Possibly. Therefore, you must live.”

“Faulty logic. What were you sketching?”

“Oh. That.” His cheeks flushed dark. “Well . . . I was sketching you.”

My heart gave a ping of misgiving at his words.

“Show me,” I said softly. “Please.”

With some reluctance, Taavi retrieved his sketchbook from the floor and offered it to me.

The book had opened naturally to the last page with any sketches. I went still the moment I saw the first portrait. The ordinary details meant nothing—he had sketched me while sleeping, with my eyes closed, my braids spread over the pillow, and my head tilted to one side. To me, however, the portrait was both strange and familiar. Those . . . those were not my true features. My cheeks were too round and my lips too full, not to mention all the other details that proclaimed an ancestry far different from Versterlant’s northern tribes. But there was something about the way he emphasized the lines of my face, the way my outstretched hand curled around, and any number of small details that said: Yes, this is who I am.

That he could know me so well, in spite of my disguise—I shivered as a rabbit might, when the fox tracks it to its lair. At the same time, I knew that no one else, not my sister or my parents or anyone else from Versterlant, had ever troubled themselves to sketch my true nature. Even when I had no disguise.

Taavi stirred. “I am sorry. I should have asked permission first.”

“You should have,” I said softly. “But I forgive you. No doubt you had little else to occupy your time. May I see the rest of your drawings?”

When he nodded, I leafed back through the book. I wanted to see if he had sketched others, as he had sketched my likeness.

Before me came portraits of Nedda and Klera and other students. I smiled at the doodles of Biss at play with a length of string, Biss curled into a ball with one paw over her eyes, a very fierce Biss attacking Klera’s hand, and an equally cautious Biss exchanging nose sniffs with the landlord’s hound. The tension eased from my chest. He sketched everyone—not just me.

Next came six pages with detailed drawings of the city, many of them concentrated around the Gallenz River. These must be part of his punishment exercises, I guessed, and they showed districts I had not yet explored. Even to my untutored eye, I could see the buildings were of a much older style. Far older than their neighbors. One especially drew my attention, with a chimney stack, decorated with embellishments at each corner, and more decorations along the flat roof.

“What is that building?” I asked.

“The guest house of Hêr Barone Duerre. He was a trusted adviser at court three hundred years ago, in the period we sometimes call Royal, and sometimes Imperial. He was offered the title of Royal Governor, and a grander household, which he took, though he retained this building for guests.”

Taavi had captured the spirit of the building with his pen strokes, the strong bones of its structure and the flat roof that was like a frown, relieved by the whimsical carvings along the gutters and beside the upper windows. The sketch was clearly incomplete—a few faint lines gave the impression of sky and clouds and the horizon—but I could see where he had begun to fill in the details around the windows.

“It is like my grandfather,” I said. “He can be very grim, except when he smiles.”

“You are the first person to say such a thing,” Taavi said. “My teachers accuse me of being fanciful. Your grandfather must be a very strong-minded man.”

I shook my head, unwilling to discuss my grandfather, who ruled our household and the Council of Versterlant, second only to my grandmother.

Toward the middle of the book, I came to a series of sketches of the palace—a dozen or more—showing the gates and grounds and towers from all directions. The prize, however, was a detailed map that spread over six pages. It gave the layout of the first and second floors, including the kitchens and stables, the public audience halls and the private interview chambers scattered throughout. What captured my attention were faint lines drawn outside the regular walls. Some paralleled the public corridors; some took contrary paths between and around the interview chambers. Only a few, and only on the ground floor. These were not the servants’ corridors, which he had clearly marked as such. My pulse gave a leap as I realized what they must be.

Secret passageways. He had mentioned them before.

“You had no trouble entering the palace?” I asked.

I noticed the tick of hesitation before he answered.

“All the public halls are open for visitors. It’s the residential wings and offices that are guarded more closely. My adviser and the University acquired a temporary pass for me.”

I deliberated a moment, then took a chance.

“And the secret passageways? You told me about them once. Or—no, the guards would surely not let you explore there.”

Another hesitation. “No, they would not. I have a friend who is a runner. He . . . to be honest, he owed me a favor or two, and I persuaded him to show me the passageways. It was wrong of me, but I wanted to make my map complete. My friend showed me one secret door near the kitchens, and I mapped as much as I could before his sense of honor insisted we stop. Not very much, as you can see.”

I did see, and more than he guessed. There were flourishes on every page where he had mapped a secret passageway. I studied them closely, memorizing the patterns and within them the sequences of letter shapes. It would be easy enough to decipher them from books in the library. When Taavi extracted the sketchbook from my hands, I did not protest. Little did he know that my training had included memorization. I would not forget those mysterious flourishes, or the passageways they represented, until I died.

 

I spent the chief part of the next three days in deep slumber. When I woke on the fourth day, I learned that Taavi and Klera had set out for lectures and the library at an early hour. Nedda herself watched over me until noon. She dosed me with a new potion, then nagged me until I had consumed an entire bowl of broth.

“I must go before the next hour bell,” she said. “I would rather not, but my adviser is yammering for a conference.”

I hid my excitement with a yawn. “Go. I will not die, you know. Besides, Taavi comes back soon, doesn’t he?”

“Not for two or three hours.” She paused, clearly disliking the idea of abandoning me. “Do you promise to sleep?”

“I do. Yes, yes, yes, oh mother of us all.”

Nedda laughed. “She bites. And I deserved it. Very well. I leave you to Queen Biss.”

She took away the bowl and spoon. I closed my eyes and pretended to doze until our apartment door shut and the lock turned over. Even then I counted up to a hundred, just in case Nedda returned unexpectedly for some forgotten item. Only when I was certain did I stagger from bed.

My bones ached. I had to clutch the door frame to keep myself upright. I was not so strong as I had believed.

You could wait. You could try this experiment another day.

Except we had only a year—maybe less—before the Emperor and his soldiers marched north.

I dragged my trunk from the closet and dug through its contents until my fingers closed around a small leather box. Inside the box were trinkets—small cheap bracelets, cloak pins, and a dozen ribbons. The jewelry was nothing. The ribbons . . . Though I had spent a decade studying magic, my grandmother and mother had spent decades longer. They had used their skills to imbue their magic into the cloth.

This is our gift to you, my grandmother had said. Then, with a rare gentleness, she had laid her palm against my cheek. For you, for you alone. Do not forget it.

I took a faded green ribbon and wrapped its length around my hands. Its rough texture reminded me of my grandmother, lending a different kind of strength to my purpose.

I recited the words to unleash the spell: Ei rûf ane gôtter, ei rûf ane zauberei . . .

The fresh green scent of magic filled the room. It reminded me of the ocean tang in summer, the fragrance of wildflowers and tundra underfoot. Home. The desire to return at once was so intense, I nearly wept. There would be time enough later, I told myself,and quashed my homesickness.

The ribbon did its work quickly. The last traces of fever cleared from my brain, and strength flooded my body. The gift was temporary—my strength would last four or five hours at the most—but it would be enough for my purposes.

I washed my face and dressed in a fresh shirt and trousers. Then I collected my writing case with its pens, ink, and scrap paper, and packed those in my haversack. There was the risk that Taavi might return early, but I had my excuses ready. He knew I was anxious about my studies. He would believe me when I said I only wanted to consult with my teachers.

I skimmed down the stairs. At this hour, our lodging house was empty, our neighbors at lectures or working in the city. I slipped through the outer door, locked that, and soon joined the anonymous crowds in the nearest boulevard. The day was clear, the air crisp enough for an autumn day in Versterlant, or early winter in Duenne. I hurried along, past the cook shops and booksellers, the chandlers and butchers and the occasional temple dedicated to Lir and Toc. Something in my grandmother’s magic must have sharpened my sight, as well as lent me strength, because the city appeared much more vivid this day. I wondered, would I see this city any differently, were I truly a student and not a spy?

A philosophical question worthy of my instructors. And dangerous to my resolve. Perhaps I could answer that later, once I returned home to Versterlant and laid this burden of theft aside.

Inside the library, I headed first into the philosophy wing and to my usual desk, in case anyone noticed my presence. I scanned the shelves of books a few moments. Then, when I was certain no one watched, I circled back to the history and linguistics books. A few key dictionaries were all I needed—those concerned with the dialect and script of Ournes. With these, I returned to my desk and set to work.

At first I found the problem almost too trivial. Taavi had not attempted any complicated cipher, and it required less than half an hour to decipher the first flourish into a series of straightforward instructions for locating the secret door, which stone to press, and the words to recite. He gave a second set of spells to light the lamps inside the passage. If the rest were as simple, I could decipher the whole within an hour.

Then I called up the second flourish from memory.

Its pattern resembled the first, but only superficially. Taavi had encoded complete sentences, to be sure, but the phrases for opening the doors and lighting the lamps were nonsense to anyone trained in magic. Poetical nonsense, but useless for my purposes. With deep misgivings, I sorted through the other flourishes in my memory house, and compared them to these first two.

Useless.

I closed my eyes and pressed my fingers against my forehead. And thought.

One golden coin from a stash of counterfeits. A bitter disappointment, but to be sure, I would have suspected a trap if his drawing had yielded a perfect plan for my mission. No, more likely, Taavi Matlik had discovered one set of keys to the secret passageways, and disguised it with these nonsense flourishes.

I packed my writing case and replaced all the books on their proper shelves. The few notes I had scribbled down, I destroyed in the nearest fireplace. Outside the library, I paused again to drink in the fresh cold air.

The hour bells rang twice. Doors all over the University Quarter crashed open and a stream of students flowed past. Many of them were my classmates from the practical. It was like watching a flood of young foxes, clad in thick winter pelts. They were young, young and serious. I had observed them enough to knowthatthey were talented as well. The Empire would have an army of strong mages in its future.

My friends, my enemies.

On impulse I glanced north and east, in the direction I had not permitted myself to acknowledge these past three months. To Duenne’s Imperial palace.

Our agent had described its grounds—how many acres it covered, the height of its walls, the number of guards at each gate, and when the watch changed. What neither my sister nor Afrim Halil could convey was how its towers rose up like mountains. This. This was nothing like our Council Hall, built of gray stone. This was a city within a city, two or more miles in circumference, its golden towers spiraling upward against the late autumn sky.

It was too soon, Léna had whispered. I knew it, but I could not resist.

Why not? I had asked.

I remembered her words, as if Vrou Nef had inscribed them on my brain with her metal nib.

I had to. I saw a parade—a prince of Morennioù and his guard. They’d been taken prisoner when they attempted to rise against the Imperial Navy. And I thought, if they could not break free, not with an ocean between them and the Empire, then we would have no chance at all without the jewels.

Complaints and arguments yammered at me as I headed east. I ignored them. Once I reached the innermost city walls, mostly ruins, which marked the oldest parts of Duenne, I circled north to the bridge leading into the city’s original boundaries.

Well away from the public square that bordered the palace grounds, I ducked into an empty lane which fed into an equally empty courtyard. By now my grandmother’s magic had taken hold and I felt invincible. I summoned the spells to transform my face. I was no longer a young woman from Fortezzien, but a Veraenen, an old woman with iron-gray hair and a face creased and furrowed by starvation. I stuffed my haversack behind a trash barrel and tossed my outer cloak over it. To complete my disguise, I rubbed dirt into my skin and cast a glamour of ugliness and stains over my clothes.

Now I was dirty and poor. Invisible.

I wanted a few more moments to sink deeper into my character. Old, I am old and hungry and desperate. I expect nothing except blows and curses. All my movements are slow and cautious, and I flinch at every loud noise.

Yes. That was me, at least for an hour or two.

With my new disguise, I ventured into the streets once more. A passerby pressed a coin into my hand and directed me to the side entrance for commoners. There, the guards asked my business. I told them I wanted work, any work at all, in the kitchens or cleaning out slop buckets. The older of the two winced in sympathy. “Come inside, mother,” he said. “I know the cook. You can warm yourself by the fire, have a morsel of bread or stew.”

His hand was warm, his smile kind.

Regret can be your worst enemy, my grandmother told me before I departed. Now I truly understood her words. I told myself I meant no harm to this man. Out loud, I thanked the guard and headed in the direction he pointed.

At the next intersection, I glanced around to make certain no one observed me, then ducked into a side corridor. Taavi had mapped this section of the palace thoroughly in his sketches. To the right lay the palace kitchens. To the left stood a series of chambers used for interviews with lesser diplomats. I glanced around and saw no one. Within moments I had located the stones Taavi had described in his first flourish and recited the words.

Ei rûf ane gôtter. Komen uns der zauberei . . .

A strong, acrid scent bloomed in the air. Old, old magic was at work. I heard a groaning deep with the walls. I was certain a guard would pass by any moment and arrest me. But then the walls slid open, revealing the dark passage behind. I leapt through the opening just as the doors were easing shut again.

Darkness washed over me, blacker than the darkest of Versterlant’s nights. My pulse jumped in panic and excitement. For a moment, I almost believed I had made the leap into the magical void, except no souls streamed by overhead. I closed my eyes and sucked in my breath. The passage smelled of dank wet stone, of moss, and of the human world.

At least this much of Taavi’s information was true. Now to attempt the next step.

I recited the spells for igniting the lamps. The scent of magic filled the air, green and sharp, and a faint illumination blossomed in the dark, like pale green candlelight, picking out the bricks in the wall, the dust motes circling around me, and a spider’s web fluttering overhead. Tunnels led off to my left and right. More lamps winked to life in the distance.

I swallowed a breath and considered my options.

According to Taavi’s sketches, the tunnel on my right led toward the kitchens and servant quarters. To my left, it would take me toward a quarter filled with interview halls. Neither led into the Treasury Wing, where the jewels were locked away, but I only intended this visit as an experiment. I hesitated less than a moment before I headed left.

The corridor continued in a straight line for a hundred paces. Then came a set of three steps, a sharp corner, and three more steps. Here the passage widened, with narrow tunnels leading off to the side every dozen or so steps. Most of them ended in anonymous brick walls. Others branched off in seemingly random directions. My progress was slow as I stopped frequently to compare Taavi’s maps to what I saw, and more important, as I engraved on my memory which turnings I had taken. So far, I had discovered nothing useful, but the mere act of doing, not waiting or hiding, urged me onward.

I came at last to a square stone room, with another stairwell leading upward. Taavi’s map did not extend this far, but I had a strong impression that the jewels lay in this direction. East. East and south. If I closed my eyes, I could see the shape of the palace unfolding around me. I only needed to proceed directly along this corridor to find the Treasury Wing . . .

Bells rang the hour, faint vibrations that penetrated even these thick stone walls. I counted three. Less than an hour before Taavi returned to our lodgings. I could explain my absence, but it would go easier if I were already in my bed, or at least climbing the stairs.

I retraced my steps to that original entryway where I spoke the first set of words to extinguish the lamps, followed by the spell to open the door itself.

Nothing happened.

A simple mistake, I told myself. I had used the wrong cadence, mispronounced a syllable. I repeated the words, taking care to focus all my attention on that moment between breath and breath, what my teachers called the balance point of magic. Again, nothing.

I sank to the floor and rested my head in both hands to think.

I had missed a turn, I told myself. I only needed to retrace my steps to the previous intersection and examine each direction. My memory house had never failed me before. It would not fail me now.

Unless you missed more than one. Unless Taavi lied completely with his maps.

Tears of fright blurred my vision. I swiped them away. My training held and the terror receded. Silently I rolled onto my hands and knees to stand.

It was then I noticed a faint gray rectangle at the bottom edge of the wall. I crouched low to the floor and tentatively explored this discovery with my fingertips. What I found was a gap in the wall, the length and breadth of my hand, where someone had evidently removed a brick. An ornate grate, fixed to the outer side of an opening, blocked most of the view, but I could make out a small room, set half a story lower than my secret corridor, and illuminated with a single branch of candles. To my eye, the furnishings were sumptuous—carved benches, a single enormous couch, brightly colored tapestries, and the candle fixtures of gleaming silver and gold—but I suspected this was an interview room for lesser diplomats.

Even as I watched, the door swung open. I froze, certain I would betray myself if I stirred. Two men entered, speaking to each other in low hurried voices. Courtiers—very wealthy ones, judging by the many costly gems they wore. Foreign ones, because though I could not make out the words themselves, the cadence was that of a northern tongue. I could almost understand a word here and there . . .

Then one man swung around and I recognized Prince Leos Dzavek.

“The Emperor will not allow it,” he said quite clearly to his companion in Károvín.

The other gestured toward the open door. Leos Dzavek shrugged, as if he did not care who overheard them. His companion, however, eased the door shut and glanced around the room. His gaze slid toward my spy hole. I closed my eyes and held still, telling myself he could not see my dark face through the grate.

“Do you think he spies on us?” Leos said. His tone struck me as odd, curiously light and brittle.

“He spies on everyone,” the other man said.

Their voices were alike, both with dark overtones and the rounded vowels used by nobles. Cautiously, I opened my eyes. The second man was making a circuit of the room, poking at the tapestries and fussing with the pillows on the couch. But his manner was distracted, and he soon gave up his useless search and sat down. Now I had an excellent view of his face. I knew at once that this man had to be Leos Dzavek's brother. They both had the same expressive eyes, the slant of cheekbone that gave the impression of their faces having been hastily sketched by a master hand. This second man seemed a few years older than Leos, no more. His mouth was softer and fuller, with a quirk at the ends, as though he would laugh more easily, but I thought him weak. An unfair judgment, perhaps.

“Are you satisfied that we are private, Andreas?” Leos said.

“Yes. No. At least we are rid of that damned steward.”

“Temporarily.”

Both grinned, strange unsettling grins that made me think of hungry wolves. I had the strong impression neither loved the other.

“So speak,” Leos said. “Why do you think the Emperor would grant your petition?”

Andreas made a fluid gesture with one hand. Gems glittered from his wrist and fingers. Like Leos Dzavek, he also wore jewels set in both cheeks. A sign of rank? Or merely the fashion of the Károvín Court?

“He won’t. Not at first. But we might make concessions—”

“No. We cannot cede Duszranjo—”

“Not that.” Andreas ran his tongue over his lips. “We mustn’t cede land, I agree, but there are other concessions we might make without shame.”

He went on with a complicated explanation of what the Emperor might or might not agree to. All of them revolved around Károví agreeing to tributes in return for keeping a measure of autonomy. Or rather, House Dzavek retaining such authority. He was utterly transparent. I wondered that the Emperor tolerated him. I wondered that his brother did.

Apparently his brother was not as much of an idiot. “You are a fool, Andreas. The Emperor wants the northlands, and he will take them. As for Károví, he spent too much gold and too many lives to give us up.”

“How do you know? This new war will distract him. It does already. And it’s much more possible than your own plan about the jewels.”

I drew a sharp breath.

Leos Dzavek turned slowly toward the spy hole.

I did not wait for more. I scrambled to my feet, not caring how much noise I made, and fled back through the corridors to the panel where I had first entered the secret passageway. My blessed memory did not fail me, even in my panic. I recited the words to open the secret panel and escaped into the public corridor. Empty, but in the distance I heard footsteps. It took all my will not to gallop away toward the nearest exit. Do not run, I told myself. I am an old woman, an old Veraenen woman. I begged a morsel from the kitchens. No one will remember me.

My pulse hammering at my temples, I shuffled slowly to the nearest exit. Luck continued to favor me. A new pair of guards flanked the doorway. Neither of them acknowledged my presence. I continued my slow pace down the side street, around the corner, until I regained the same empty courtyard where I had stowed my cloak and haversack.

Ei rûf ane gôtter . . .

I recited the spell to undo my latest mask. I had practiced this spell a hundred times or more under my tutors’ direction. This time, whether because of my grandmother’s added magic or the panic I felt, my bones ached, and I could feel my flesh and skin melting, crawling from one shape to another. My throat squeezed shut, and I was convinced I had lost myself and my face.

I am me, myself. Arbija. The rest does not matter.

Three miles lay between me and my lodgings. Already I sensed exhaustion nibbling at the edge of my awareness. Working swiftly, I retrieved my cloak and haversack and erased all evidence of my magical working. The half hour bell rang, startling me with its shrill tones. I am not too late, I told myself. Not yet. Taavi might have discovered my absence, but he would only know I had disobeyed the healer’s orders. Besides, I had my excuses ready. I was muttering those same excuses to myself as I set off at a jog for the nearest avenue . . .

. . . only to run directly against Taavi Matlik.

I staggered backward. Taavi caught me by the shoulders. “Irene.”

“How . . .”

How did you find me? Why did you find me?

“. . . you lied to Nedda . . .”

My pulse leaped quick and sharp at those words. I would have staked all my lives that Nedda Korbel never suspected me. Only when the yammering in my skull subsided did I comprehend what Taavi was saying.

“. . . idiot. You might have died. Three already have because they thought themselves well.” His voice scaled up to an almost shout, then dropped into a hoarse whisper. “I saw you leave the university library. I followed you toward the palace, but then you vanished like smoke. What were you doing?”

Making the same mistake my sister did.

I let my legs collapse beneath me. Taavi caught me and folded me into his arms. He was much taller than my first impression. No doubt because he was always curled up in chairs like Biss. He wore no cloak, not him. He was like me with his northern blood, and there was but a single layer of cloth between my lips and his skin. I drank in his scent, that wondrous clean invigorating scent of soap and herbs and wool. And, oh, I felt a stirring of desire, too, for this whimsical and beautiful young man.

I pulled myself away, though it felt like tearing skin from an open wound.

“I’m sorry,” I said harshly. “I was bored—bored with sitting and staring at my four blank walls for days and nights. I thought . . . If nothing else, I thought I could visit the library and read a few books. Perhaps you do not understand that. I would not expect it, after all.”

I kept my gaze cast downward. I could not see his expression, but I could judge his reaction by other, less overt signals. His grip on my shoulders loosened. I felt the graze of his fingers down my arm, the puff of warm breath that stirred my hair, and the awkward way he shifted a step or two back.

“You frightened me,” he said softly.

“I know. I’m sorry. I meant to tell Nedda, but I didn’t want to spend half the day arguing. I only meant to walk a bit, Taavi.” And then, because pity was a valuable tool, I let my shoulders slump. “Could you help me back to our rooms? I am so very tired.”

Wordlessly, he took my haversack from my shoulder and wrapped an arm around me. He had to bend low at first to avoid clasping my breasts by mistake. I wanted to laugh. And truth be told, I wanted him, which brought a shock of much-needed misery. We were a mismatched pair in so many ways.

“I can hold onto you,” I said. “Or you can leave me to follow.”

He gave a painful laugh. “Never. Take hold as you must.”

Ours was a slow, shambling progress from the palace district, around the several bends of the Gallenz River, past the University district and into our own quiet neighborhood. It took longer than absolutely necessary, because Taavi chose the winding back streets instead of the most direct avenues, but for that I was grateful. My grandmother’s magic had faded into nothing long before we reached our lodgings, and I did not have the freedom or the strength to renew it.

Home. Eventually.

Taavi propped me against the wall, as if I were a walking staff, and unlocked the door. I shuffled into the foyer myself and paused again. I tilted my head back and regarded the two flights of stairs winding upward.

“Shall I carry you?” he asked.

“No. Thank you.”

It took a full measure of stubbornness and more. However, I gained the second floor on my own. Taavi lingered at the doorway, but by the time I turned my key in the lock, he had vanished into the streets. The lodgings were empty, which was a blessing. I lurched through the common room to my own bedchamber,where a small black-and-white cat slumbered in my sheets.

“Go,” I said to Biss.

Biss must have recognized the tone of command because she fled at once. I fell down and dragged the quilt over my shoulders. My last memory was that of a cat’s rumbling purr against my back.

6 comments
Johanes Van
2. Johanes Van
A beautiful story with such imagery
Johanes Van
3. Jennifer R
Awwwwww! This is so romantic! I really felt her conflict in this one. Awwwwww!
Mimi Epstein
9. hummingrose
Beautifully written. I enjoyed this very much.
Johanes Van
10. AMIR HOSSEIN
I'll translate it into persian .
SUCH A NICE THING

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