Bright Smoke, Cold Fire

When the mysterious fog of the Ruining crept over the world, the living died and the dead rose. Only the walled city of Viyara was left untouched. The heirs of the city’s most powerful—and warring—families, Mahyanai Romeo and Juliet Catresou, share a love deeper than duty, honor, even life itself. But the magic laid on the Juliet at birth compels her to punish the enemies of her clan—and Romeo has just killed her cousin Tybalt. Which means he must die.

Paris Catresou has always wanted to serve his family by guarding the Juliet. But when his ward tries to escape her fate, magic goes terribly wrong—killing her and leaving Paris bound to Romeo. If he wants to discover the truth of what happened, Paris must delve deep into the city, ally with his worst enemy… and perhaps turn against his own clan.

Mahyanai Runajo only wants to protect her city—but she’s the only one who believes it’s in peril. In her desperate hunt for information, she accidentally pulls Juliet from the mouth of death—and finds herself bound to the bitter, angry girl. Runajo quickly discovers Juliet might be the one person who can help her recover the secret to saving Viyara.

Both pairs will find friendship where they least expect it. Both will find that Viyara holds more secrets and dangers than anyone ever expected. And outside the walls, death is waiting…

Rosamund Hodge’s Bright Smoke, Cold Fire is available September 27th from Balzer + Bray.

 

 

Such Sweet Sorrow

If he does not come soon, she may not have the heart to kill him.

For an hour now, she has sat at the foot of her bed, gripping her sword in its crimson scabbard. Over and over she whispers, I am the sword of the Catresou. I was born to avenge the blood of my people.

But her traitor throat aches and her coward eyes sting. Once upon a time, she believed she was only a sword. Now she fears she is only a girl.

She hopes he will come soon. She hopes he will never come.

The casement swings open.

She stands. Her numb hands draw the sword and let the scabbard drop.

His dark eyes are wide as he climbs through the window, but there is no surprise in them when she greets him with the point of her blade, held to his throat.

He looks strangely small. Just a boy, with messy black hair and a sweet laugh she will never hear again.

Her only love, and now her only hate.

“I see you,” she says, speaking the ancient words for the first time, “and I judge you guilty.”

He sighs, and the corner of his mouth tips up just a little. “I know,” he says, and he kneels and bares his neck.

She can smell the blood on him. He is clean: he took the trouble to bathe before coming here to die. But he spilled the lifeblood of her kin, and she can smell that guilt upon him—she can almost taste it. Her body shakes with the desire to kill him for it.

She wants him to fight. She wants him to beg. To flee, to threaten, or persuade.

Ever since she met him, she has most terribly wanted.

“Look up at me,” she demands, and he does, his gaze as simple and sure as the night she fell in love with him.

“Why did you come?” she whispers. “You knew what I would do. You know what I must do.”

He swallows; she sees the muscles move in his throat, and she thinks of the blood pulsing just below the skin. He is a fragile, perfect balance of breath and heartbeat, skin and bones and blood. A little world entire, most beautifully made—he was her world, and now she is going to destroy him.

“‘Journeys end in lovers meeting.’” She says the words flatly, without tune, but they both remember the sun-drenched afternoon when he sang them to her. “‘Every wise man’s son doth know.’ Why did you come back?

“Because I’m sorry,” he says hoarsely. “Because I know you loved him. You deserve to avenge him.”

Not because it is her duty. Not because vengeance is written on her skin and the spells that wrote it compel her to obey.

Because she loved her cousin. Because he ruffled her hair and comforted her when she was a little child. Because he is dead and cold now, in a vault beneath their house, his arms sliced open as the embalmers do their work.

And yet even he, her most beloved cousin, never wondered if she wanted to avenge or not.

Nobody ever wondered. Nobody until this boy who kneels before her now.

Slowly she kneels so they are eye to eye, and she lays the sword upon the floor.

“I see you.” Her fingertips trace his cheek; her voice is tiny and soft. “I judge you guilty. But you belong to me now. So all your sins are mine.”

She slides her fingers into his dark hair and kisses him, kisses her dearest sin, again and again. Her heart pounds with the desire to kill him, to wreck and ruin and revenge, but she only clutches him closer, kisses more fiercely, and his arms wrap around her as he kisses her back.

She will not be the one who kills him.

She will give everything else to her family, to her duty, to the adjuration written on her skin.

But she will not give them this.

 

 

1

The walls that kept out death could drive you mad.

That was the story Runajo had heard, whispered among the other novices: sometimes, when a Sister of Thorn climbed the central tower of the Cloister to inspect the wall of magic that guarded the city, she would go mad and throw herself down. The other novices liked to giggle about it as they sat up late at night in the dormitory, but not one of them ever went up the tower by choice.

Runajo had volunteered for the duty sixteen times.

Some of the novices thought she was already mad. A few probably thought she was brave. Runajo knew she was neither. She just wasn’t fooling herself, like everyone else in the city: she knew they were all dying, no matter what they did.

The daily inspection started at dawn. It took nearly half an hour to climb the narrow stairs of the tower; despite the early-morning chill, Runajo was sweating when she finally reached the top. She flung open the trapdoor, heaved herself up, and collapsed to the white floor. For a few moments, she did nothing but gasp for breath.

The wind stirred against her face. She heard a soft rustle and looked up.

There was no wall around the rim of the tower’s roof; but there were narrow steel posts, and strung between them, cord after cord of scarlet silk, every inch hung with the slender white finger-bones of those who had been sacrificed to give the wall its power. Each skeleton finger was complete, the bones hung with thread so they could flex in the morning breeze.

Memory clutched at her throat: her mother’s fingers, thin and pale as she wasted away with sickness. When Mother died, one of her hands had rested on the coverlet, and Runajo had seen the last color drain from the knobby joints.

A proper daughter would have gazed at her mother’s dead face and wept. All night as she sat vigil, Runajo had stared at the bony, bone-white fingers and felt nothing at all.

Well, she thought, if you didn’t have a stone in place of a heart, you might not do so well up here.

She stood.

If Sisters went mad at the top of the tower, it wasn’t the wall that did it, but the world: so vast, and yet so very small.

Runajo wasn’t scared of heights, but it was still a little dizzying to look down to the red-and-white domes of the Cloister. Down the steep slope to the white buildings and twisting roads of the Upper City that clung to the sides of the vast, rocky spike. Down to the grimy mess of the Lower City that tangled on the ground of the island around the base of the city spire; and the water around their island shimmering silver in the early-morning light.

This was Viyara, the last city left alive in the whole world. It was the whole world.

Because very close to the far shore was a barely visible line in the water: the line where the walls of Viyara—the translucent, dearly bought dome—ended.

And outside the walls was death.

The wind must have been blowing all night, for the white fog of the Ruining had drawn back from the far shore. Runajo could see pale beaches and rocky cliffs. She could see the green of moss and the spreading branches of trees—the Ruining was deadly only to humans. She could even see the peaks of the mountains, rising out of the fog that swirled around their slopes.

On the far shore lay the ruins of Zucra, the city that had once been the bustling gateway to Viyara, when people came on pilgrimages from all around the world. But now it was crumbling and abandoned. Its stone quays were empty, the ships having long ago rotted away as they waited for sailors that would never come.

Something moved in its streets.

It was so tiny that Runajo could barely make it out, but she still saw the sudden scurrying of a tiny, pale figure in the abandoned streets. No. Two figures.

Revenants. The dead that rose and walked again.

Fear slid up her spine like the touch of a cold finger. Her heart pounded, but she refused to let herself look away, so she watched the two tiny figures scramble down the street until they turned a corner and disappeared.

Runajo let out a shaky sigh.

The Ruining was more than the white fog that killed every person it touched. It had changed the nature of death. Even here in Viyara, behind the walls, the dead would rise again within two days, mindless and hungry for the living. And so the bodies had to be cremated first; the furnaces of the Sisters never cooled.

Outside the walls, there was nobody left to burn the dead. In the early years of the Ruining, revenants had crowded the far shore, hungering for the beating hearts inside Viyara. But over the past century they had slowly wandered away. After all, they had a whole world to walk.

That, Runajo believed, was why Sisters sometimes threw themselves down from the tower. Because standing up here, they had to see what everyone pretended wasn’t true: that death had already won. That Viyara’s walls hardly made a difference. They were all going to die.

It didn’t bother Runajo. She couldn’t pretend she was going to live forever, not after the years she spent helplessly watching her parents die. Up here on the tower, staring death in the face, at least she could fight.

At the center of the tower’s roof was a round hole, about as wide as Runajo was tall. Out of the hole—rising up from a shaft that plunged deeper than the height of the tower, down into the heart of the Cloister—grew the wall. Here, near the base, it looked like seven columns of tiny, faintly glowing bubbles, pressed together into a ring. Overhead, it became transparent as it spread out in a vast dome that covered the city, the island, and part of the water.

Gently, Runajo leaned forward, taking a breath through her nose. The surface of the wall hummed against her lips, then swirled into her mouth.

It was lighter than water, thicker than air. It hummed and almost sang against her tongue; it had a bright, mineral taste, like the scent of sunlight on clean, hot stone.

There was no hint of bitterness, no discord in the not-quite-song. Which meant there were no cracks forming in this part of the wall. No need for adjustments in the spell-weaving chambers far below. But the wall felt thin and faint in her mouth. When Runajo had first tasted it eight months ago, it had been as hot as noon sunlight beating down on her black hair. Now it was barely warm at all.

Tomorrow was the Great Offering, and not a moment too soon. The wall desperately needed the fresh strength it would gain from another human life.

Runajo should have released the mouthful of magic—it was dangerous; if she breathed it in, she would die—but she hesitated, rolling it over her tongue. This was why she volunteered to inspect the wall, again and again. Because the wall had been the last great magic of the Sisters, before they had lost so much of their knowledge. When she tasted it, she tasted those vanished secrets.

Visions flickered through her mind: complex diagrams and blueprints, memories of the foundations of the city. The images were so clear, every line as sharp as a needle’s point, she felt sure that if she could just remember them, she would know all the secrets of the city.

But she couldn’t keep them in her head. They faded too quickly, though she tried and tried to memorize the patterns. Finally, when her tongue started to feel numb, she leaned forward and opened her lips. The tiny mouthful of magic swirled back into the wall whence it had come.

Runajo had to check each of the streams rising out of the base; she took a few moments to rest and regain the feeling in her mouth before she went on to the next. And the next, and the next.

Each time she waited, trying to read the secrets hidden in the foam. Each time, she couldn’t. And each time, the knot of frustration in her chest drew tighter. They didn’t know how this wall worked. They had the ceremonies to keep weaving it, to check for simple flaws and make small adjustments, but they didn’t understand.

They only knew that to keep the wall standing, they had to offer it human lives. And they knew that the need was increasing: in the beginning, they had only needed to sacrifice every seven years. Now, it was every six months.

Her fingers dug into her palms. They were all dying, and nobody wanted to admit how soon. It was the same sort of cowardice that had made Runajo’s mother spend all of Father’s illness prattling about the things they would do as soon as he was well again. Even at the end, when the tumor in his side had turned into an open wound, Mother still whispered to him that next spring they would sit beneath the flowering trees and she would read him poetry.

For all the years of her father’s illness, and her mother’s illness after, Runajo had been a perfect daughter: silent, obedient, still. She had smiled and agreed with the lies. Her only rebellion had been refusing to hope for either of them.

When Mother finally died, Runajo had joined the Sisters of Thorn the next day, because they were the only ones who resisted death in any way that mattered.

And then she had found that they, too, were sick and unwilling to admit it.

Runajo was done with silent obedience. She refused to watch the whole city fall in her lifetime, without even trying to keep it alive a little longer. Without even knowing why the wall was failing.

And she had a plan. She would take the first step this afternoon, at the Great Offering. It was risky, and it was probably going to get her killed.

But at least she would die fighting.

 

 

2

It seemed like half the city had turned out to watch a single man die.

Runajo, standing in her place with five other novices, thought all the fuss was a bit silly. People died every day. And the Great Offering was no less regular or essential than carting the dead away to be burned, or tending the sewage pipes that pulled waste out of the city. But because it was done only twice a year, surrounded by the songs and dances of the Sisters of Thorn, it was a great festival, and nobody wanted to miss it.

When they had to kill somebody every week to sustain the city walls, maybe then the thrill would fade.

Maybe Runajo would be able to keep it from coming to that.

“You’re looking awfully solemn,” said Sunjai, and Runajo startled.

Sunjai just dimpled. She was a plump, pretty girl whose dark braids were always sleek and flawless, coiled around her head. Her gray novice’s robe was immaculate as always, her clasped hands primly tucked into her wide sleeves.

“Worried that Romeo has forgotten you?” she asked.

“No,” said Runajo, glancing to see if Miryo, the novice mistress, was listening.

It was not Runajo’s fault that the idiot son of her mother’s childhood friend had spent years fancying himself in love with her, and had kept sending her poems even after she’d entered the Sisterhood. But Miryo was always looking for an excuse to punish Runajo; she’d jump on even a hint of scandal.

“Then you’ll be glad to hear that everyone says he’s still refusing to look at another girl,” Sunjai went on cheerfully. “Perhaps he’s just spent all this time working on a really special poem.”

Probably that was true. Sunjai was the only other novice from Runajo’s clan, and she seemed to know just as much of the gossip from their kin as she did of the goings-on among the Sisterhood.

“I don’t care what you heard,” said Runajo. “And I don’t care if Romeo lives or dies, let alone loves me. Why don’t you go bother Inyaan? I don’t think anyone’s told her she’s glorious in the last five minutes.”

Sunjai patted her shoulder in fake fondness and then went to whisper in the ear of Inyaan, the novice who was the younger sister of the Exalted himself. Unlike the rest of the novices, who were thrilled at the great occasion, she was staring at the crowd with the same blank disdain she directed at everyone in the Cloister

It wasn’t true that Runajo didn’t care if Romeo lived or died. He’d been the closest thing she ever had to a friend, and he had tried a lot harder to be kind to her than anyone else ever had. But his delusion that she had thrown herself into the Cloister out of grief for her parents and needed to be rescued? Insufferable.

If he wasn’t sending her letters anymore, he had probably found another girl to imagine himself in love with, and that was all for the best. He could write more bad poetry, and Runajo could get on with saving Viyara.

It felt like the whole city was gathered now. The Great Offering was held in the grand court at the center of Viyara. It was, perhaps, the most magnificent place in the Upper City. A broad avenue cut straight into the rising stone slope of the city spire. At the end was a round marble dais—wide enough to hold a hundred men—in which the glowing patterns of the city’s magic shifted and whirled. Above the dais, the gargantuan obsidian face of the god Ihom looked out from the white stone wall, as if the rest of his body was sealed into the city itself. Of the nine gods, he had been the first to die, and so it was before his image that human lives were offered now.

The summer sun was blazing and the air was a sodden weight. Even so, people from the Upper and Lower City thronged the court, chattering, laughing, singing, selling sweetmeats and trinkets. Only the three high houses were allowed to stand before the dais. At the center, of course, was the Exalted—a bored-looking young man who ruled the city on the strength of his supposedly divine blood. All around him stood the rest of the Old Viyaran nobility. They were a tall people, dark skinned wth white-gold hair, all of them resplendent in translucent white silks and gold chains.

To the right was Runajo’s own clan, the Mahyanai. They looked like a reverse of the Old Viyarans: fair skin, black hair, their silk robes a swirl of colors, their wide sashes heavily embroidered. Most of the men wore at their hips curving swords in lacquered black scabbards, while the women’s hair was piled atop their heads, wound about gold or silver headdresses.

At their center stood Lord Ineo, his harsh face solemn. Supposedly he ruled the city in all but name, since the Exalted was too lost in his own pleasures to care. For this, the Mahyanai adored him.

Runajo could never decide if she hated Lord Ineo or not. He was Romeo’s father—and no matter how insufferable Romeo could be sometimes, when she thought of how Lord Ineo ignored him, she could happily spit on the leader of her clan. But when her family petitioned Lord Indeo to drag her out of the Sisterhood, he had declared she had the right to sacrifice herself. He’d set her free.

To the left stood the Catresou in sullen ranks: still, dressed in black, and dead silent. Every one of them was masked, because they did not believe outsiders worthy to see their faces; at the center of the crowd stood Lord Catresou, robed and hooded in black velvet, his face completely covered in a mask of gold and rubies. Beside him—dressed in a simple red gown, her face half covered by an ivory filigree mask—stood the Juliet, the nameless girl who had been ensorcelled into being their mindless attack dog.

The Juliet was the pride of the Catresou. They didn’t realize what hypocrites they were, calling the Great Offering a cruel abomination when they were happy to enslave their own children.

Drums had started beating. At the center of the dais, a young Sister prostrated herself before the face of Ihom. The High Priestess knelt behind her with a silver knife; gently, reverently, she kissed each of the girl’s feet and then sliced a shallow line down the sole, from heel to toe.

The girl rose and began to dance, her body twirling and undulating in time to the drums, her bloody footprints spreading across the marble dais. Where her feet touched the marble, light blossomed in the stone, and the glowing patterns bent and shifted toward her. The city was eating up her bloody sacrifice.

The world was made from the blood of gods. The blood of men sustains it now. So said the Sisters of Thorn. Runajo did not believe in the gods, but she didn’t doubt the power of spilled blood.

Nobody in Viyara did.

A low note sounded from a horn. The girl paused, swaying on her feet. Runajo couldn’t help wincing at the trembling line of the girl’s mouth: the volunteers for sacrifice were drugged, but on such a solemn occasion, Sisters were expected to bear all their pain themselves.

The horn sounded again, and then all the people—Sisters, nobles, commoners, even the Catresou—prostrated themselves on the ground. Because this moment was in memory of all they had lost.

The horn sounded again, and they rose. Runajo blinked at the sudden dazzle of light—she had squeezed her eyes shut during the prostration—and when she could see properly again, the young man was being led out to the sacrifice. He was an Old Viyaran this time, which meant he was a volunteer, not one of the condemned criminals that the Catresou dragged out when it was their turn to provide the sacrifice. Golden chains dangled across his bare chest; he swayed slightly under all the drugs.

Runajo thought, If they don’t like my plan, then very soon that could be me.

They’d make me wear more clothes, though.

She wasn’t afraid. Not exactly. But her body felt terribly light and fragile. She was aware of her tiny, rapid heartbeat: the little flutter that kept her among the living and not the dead.

First the young man was brought to the Exalted, who laid hands on him and blessed him; then to Lord Ineo, who bowed gracefully to him; and last of all to Lord Catresou, who remained stiff and expressionless as a marionette as he placed a velvet-wrapped hand on the young man’s shoulder.

Then the Sister escorting the young man turned him around, toward the bloodstained center of the dais where the High Priestess waited. He wobbled on his feet, but gave her huge, dreamy smile. Not every sacrifice died by the hand of the High Priestess herself.

Runajo’s stomach turned uneasily. This wasn’t the first sacrifice she had seen. Before the illness, her parents had taken her every year, starting when she was a little girl who barely understood the pageant unfolding before her.

But six months ago, she’d missed the Great Offering because she was ill and vomiting. This would be the first sacrifice she saw since she’d truly understood what death meant.

The cold emptiness was back in her chest, and her hands clenched into fists, because she couldn’t panic now. She couldn’t.

But as the young man knelt in front of the High Priestess, the feeling rolled over her in waves: a cold, absolute emptiness that left her drifting and hollow, watching the world from what felt like an immeasurable distance. She saw—in flashes—the High Priestess carve the sacred signs into the man’s skin and whisper the sacred words into his ears. But the splendor in front of her didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. She was going to die, and this bright bubble of a world would wink out, and there would be nothing left of her.

Trying to imagine it felt like choking. Her heart pounded—desperately, fleetingly alive.

Nothing. Not even silence. Nothing.

The High Priestess cradled the man’s head. The whole grand court was silent, still and breathless. Her knife flashed.

The man’s lifeblood poured out, the dais flashed with dazzling light, and a great shout went up from the crowd. Horns and flutes and drums and tambourines rang out, proclaiming that they would all live for another six months.

Runajo realized she was trembling. Her nails bit into her palms.

She was alive. Right now—just for now—she was alive. And she had a plan to carry out.

On the dais, several Sisters of Thorn danced around the body in languid movements of stylized grief and reverence. It was their teaching that those who died in sacrifice—or in dueling, or in childbirth—would go to feast with the dead gods, while those who died of sickness or age would serve them, forever less but not cast out into darkness like thieves and murderers and oath-breakers.

Runajo didn’t believe it. Not because of the ancient Mahyanai sages, who said that the gods were a delusion, and that the soul of man was like a candle that guttered in the wind and was gone forever. But because she had seen her mother and father lying dead. She had seen the terrible emptiness in their waxlike faces, and she knew that nothing was left of them in any world.

The High Priestess turned to the waiting ranks of the Sisters and beckoned.

It was time.

Seven of them walked forward: the newest of the novices, who had been with the Sisters only a year and never taken part in any solemn sacrifice before.

The ceremony was simple. They would kneel before the High Priestess, take the knife from her hands, and slice a single cut into their forearms. Their blood would mix with the blood of the sacrifice, signifying their willingness to pour out their lives serving the gods and protecting Viyara through magic that could only be bought in blood.

Inyaan went first, her face a haughty mask. But when she fell to her knees before the High Priestess and took the knife, her hands were shaking. Perhaps she was realizing that even the sister of the Exalted would someday die.

Sunjai went second, and kept her dimples all the way through, but that was hardly surprising. If she had any understanding of her own mortality, Runajo had never seen it.

Then it was Runajo’s turn.

She walked forward, but it almost felt like floating. Her arms and legs were cold and numb.

This was the moment. This was the choice. If she carried out the ceremony correctly, it would be her first initiation. There would be seven more years before she became a full Sister.

She couldn’t bear waiting that long. To be silently obedient one day longer.

Her fingers wrapped around the handle of the knife. She looked at the blood, at the dead man’s gaping wound, at the crowd and the city, the far-off mountains already ruled by death and the blue sky above them.

She raised her left hand. She didn’t make the simple slice she was supposed to; she carved the circle of binding as she spoke the oath she was not meant to swear for another seven years: “By Ihom’s breath and Amat’s silence, I bind myself to the fate of thorns.”

It was a sacred and irrevocable vow. It was blasphemy to speak it before the High Priestess had declared her worthy. And Runajo had just done so in front of all of Viyara.

In the silence that followed, she thought, I hope they at least wait for my trial before they sacrifice me.

 

3

At last his father was going to come watch him duel.

Paris was in the practice yard before dawn, his arms burning as he ran through the parry he always stumbled on.

He knew he should still be sleeping. Weeks ago, he’d made a plan for this day, and it had included a sensible amount of sleep the night before, and only a brief warm-up in the morning, so that he would be in optimal condition to display his skills.

But no matter how carefully still he’d lain in bed, he couldn’t manage to sleep for more than a few minutes at a time. He kept thinking of what exactly he would say to his father after he lost. He had worked out his speech weeks ago—had written it down, even, and then promptly burned the paper—but he couldn’t stop repeating it to himself, and wondering if there was a better way to say it.

It was a relief to give up on sleeping, get out of bed, and run down to the practice yard. He knew how Master Trelouno would attack: he would use all the techniques that Paris was worst at countering. That was how they trained every day, and the fact that Paris’s father was coming to inspect his progress would not make Master Trelouno go easy on him.

His rapier was shaking. With a gasp, Paris lowered the sword and staggered over to one of the benches at the edge of the practice yard.

The sun had just started to rise; light streaked the sky, though it hadn’t yet broken over the walls of the Academy. From outside, he could hear the clattering steps of a City Guard patrol—and there was the low note of a gong: they were bringing up bodies from the Lower City.

Paris grimaced and made the sign against defilement. The Guard was coming straight through the center of the Catresou compound, because they wanted to remind them what happened to people who defied the Viyaran laws about the proper disposal of dead bodies. Because they thought—like everyone else in the city—that the Catresou were only one step away from criminals who stole corpses and boiled them down to sell the bones on the black market.

As the sweat dried on his skin, he started to shiver in the early-morning chill. With a sigh, he stood and walked stiffly down the marble corridors to the mess room, where a few other students were already eating corn cakes and tea. Like Paris, they wore the uniform of the Academy: dark trousers, white shirt, and a red doublet, with a half face mask of plain cloth.

He sat by himself, as always. For once the solitude didn’t hurt: he needed to be alone, so he could go over the speech he would make after he lost the duel.

Everybody knew Paris was going to lose, because Master Trelouno always made the final exam as difficult as he could, and Paris was—as Master Trelouno liked to say—“perfectly adequate.”

No less, but no more.

So Paris was going to lose this duel, just like he would lose his official duel against Tybalt in two weeks. He would never be the Juliet’s Guardian.

That was all right. The Juliet was much, much more important to the Catresou than Paris would ever be. The spells laid upon her since birth let her sense anyone who had shed their clan’s blood and compelled her to avenge it. And the Accords drawn up between the Old Viyarans and the other two high houses gave her the right to exact that vengeance.

But she was more than their protector, or their guarantee of respect in a hostile city. She was their justice. While she lived, and carried a sword, they were free. She deserved to have the very best to guard and guide and treasure her.

But Paris didn’t want to be forced into the City Guard the way the other Academy failures were. He’d seen it happen to other boys. Some came home with broken ribs, flinching at every sudden noise. Some renounced the Catresou entirely, and bought an easy life by losing all chance to walk the Paths of Light after death.

Paris couldn’t bear either of those fates. But the only person who could save him was his father.

His speech had to be perfect.

Father, he thought. But no, that might sound impertinent. My lord Father. We both know I will never be Guardian.

Did that sound too defeatist? He knew his lack of ambition was a disappointment, but he would have just lost a duel. Father would not be in the mood for false bravado.

But it would dishonor our family if your only son was sent to the City Guard. You see that I have some skill with the sword. And Master Idraldi can tell you that I have read all the lore and history recorded about all the Juliets who ever lived. Surely it would be most honorable to our family—and most useful to our clan—if I were made Tybalt’s assistant. I could help him care for the Juliet. I could be useful.

I could be useful.

Possibly he should mention that there was precedent? The Juliet had once had an entire entourage: only one Guardian, but up to seven other men to fight beside her as she dealt out justice to all who shed Catresou blood.

But that was generations ago, before the Ruining and the flight to Viyara. Father had never cared much for tradition.

The city bells started tolling. It was time.

Paris didn’t run back to the practice yard. There were rules against running in the halls, and he wanted another moment to go over the plan in his head.

It was going to work. However disappointed his father was in Paris, he cared about the honor of their family, and it was shameful to send a son to the City Guard. Making him assistant to the Juliet’s Guardian was the perfect solution.

Paris realized he was nearly running, and he forced himself to slow down before he walked into the practice yard.

Master Trelouno was already there, wearing his customary black and the steel mask that stopped right at his nose so that his drooping red mustache and goatee would be visible.

Next to him stood Paris’s father.

Lutreo Mavarinn Catresou was one of the five lords of the Catresou; he wore the sleeveless red cloak of state at all times, along with his elaborate mask of black velvet and silver filigree. Paris had seen his bare face perhaps five times; going barefaced was a gesture of equality or affection, and his father held very few people in either.

Paris’s heart thudded as if he were already fighting, but he drew his rapier and saluted smoothly. “My lord Father.”

His father and Master Trelouno exchanged a look.

Something was wrong. Paris could feel it, and he tried desperately to think what he could possibly have done. He wasn’t late; the duel was supposed to be at the quarter bell, and it hadn’t rung yet. He knew he had saluted correctly, and he knew that here in the practice yard it was correct to salute.

What had he done?

They were looking at him now. They seemed to be waiting.

He took a step forward. “I am very honored—my lord Father—to show you what I have learned—”

He snapped his mouth shut. The words were so inane, he wanted to cringe. He was supposed to be saying something else. He was supposed to be doing something else, and he would happily do anything if they would just tell him

His father heaved a deep sigh. “That won’t be necessary.”

“Oh,” said Paris.

For one dazed moment, he didn’t feel anything. It was like the time he had bungled a lunge particularly badly and smacked his forehead against the hilt of Master Trelouno’s rapier. Everything felt numb and ringing.

The next moment, he realized that he was less than a pace away from his father, saying, “You cannot mean to withdraw me from the competition. It would be the worst possible disgrace for our family, and yes, I am perfectly aware it is a foregone conclusion that I will not defeat Tybalt, but if you would just let me explain—”

“Tybalt is dead,” said his father.

Paris blinked. “What?” he said.

“Don’t leave your mouth hanging open, boy,” his father said impatiently. “Tybalt was killed last night in a duel with some Mahyanai boy. You’re going to be the Juliet’s Guardian.” He looked Paris up and down. “In two days, may the gods help you.”

Excerpted from Bright Smoke, Cold Fire © Rosamund Hodge, 2016

0 Comments

Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!