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"Elliott pulls out all the stops in a wildly imaginative narrative that will ring happy bells for fans of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy."—Publisher's Weekly
"Elliott has concocted something very special and original here, with elements to tweak sci-fi and fantasy fans of nearly any stripe, from alt history and steampunk aficionados, to lovers of intrigue, romance, and swashbuckling adventure."—New York Journal of Books
"The concept got me shivering. . . .the characters, the mysteries, the background history, the cultural complexity, were all so intriguing I couldn't stop reading."—Elizabeth Moon
"Fans of steampunk and alternate history will enjoy this heady mix of magic and technology."—The Library Journal
It was a cursed long and struggling walk hauling two heavy carpetbags stuffed with books across the city of Adurnam. That it was night helped only because the darkness hid us. The bitter cold turned our hands to ice even through gloves. A dusting of new snow crunched beneath our boots. My half brother Rory ranged ahead, on the watch for militia patrols.
The prince’s curfew had emptied the streets. In a normal year every intersection would have been lit with a fire in honor of the winter solstice. Inns and taverns would have remained open all night, awash with ale and free oatcakes. But after the riots that had wracked the city, people and businesses had locked their doors and shuttered their windows. It was so quiet I could hear my cousin Beatrice’s breathing as she trudged along beside me with a bag across her shoulders.
“Cat, are we almost there?” she asked.
“I’ll carry both bags,” I offered, even though the one I carried felt like a bag of bricks.
“It’s not the weight. It’s the dark.”
The night was hardest on her. Clouds covered the sky, and we avoided the few main thoroughfares that had gaslight and kept to side streets where it was darkest. With a curfew in force and people fearful they would run out of oil and candles, few night-watch lanterns burned on porches. Both Rory and I could see abnormally well in the dark. That was one of the reasons my family called me Cat instead of Catherine. We led the way, while Bee had the more difficult task: She had to trust us.
Rory loped back. “Patrol coming.”
We shrank into the shadow of an alcove. I set down my bag and slipped my ghost-sword from its loop on my outer skirt. It looked like a black cane, but at night I could twist its hilt and draw a sword. I waited, poised to strike. Rory tensed like a big cat about to spring. Bee sucked in and held a breath. Ahead, a troop of mounted men clattered toward the nearest intersection.
Rory sniffed, then licked his lips. “I hear other people, too. I smell iron and that nasty stuff you call blackpowder.”
In the house nearest us, a shutter shifted as someone inside peeked out. I closed my eyes, tasting the air and listening with senses far sharper than Bee’s. The wind carried the clop of hooves but also a hiss of men whispering, the click of a boot heel on stone, the lick of flame and the sting of burning.
“Stay here,” I whispered, shoving the heavy bag into Rory’s arms. They obeyed.
In the interstices between our world and the spirit world lie threads of magic that bind the worlds together. I drew the threads as shadow around me to conceal myself from ordinary sight. Staying close alongside the buildings, I skulked forward. In the intersection, no one moved, but I heard the jingle of harness grow louder as the soldiers approached. Movement stirred in an alley to my right. A tiny flame flared, lighting the shape of a mustachioed mouth and the gleaming barrel of a gun. After a hissed whisper, the flame was snuffed out.
I stepped back against the wall of the building at the corner just as the first rank of turbaned mage House soldiers rode into view. Sparks flowered. At least ten sharp gunfire reports echoed down the houses. Horses snorted and shied. Two soldiers crumpled forward. One tumbled from his horse. His boot caught in the stirrup, and the panicked horse dragged him sideways. A volley of crossbow bolts loosed by the mounted soldiers clattered against the buildings on either side of the alley. A glass window shattered, and bolts thunked into wood shutters.
“They’re bad shots!” shouted a man from the alley. “We’ve got them, lads! Fire!”
But instead of loud reports, the only sound was a series of deadened clicks.
The mage troop swept forward as a seam of icy white light ripped across the air as if an unseen blade cut through the night to penetrate to daylight behind. A bright, cold fire bubbled out from the rift. The light moved as if pushed, spheres like lamps probing the alley and the stone faces of the buildings to reveal thirty or more men in hiding. The hiding men desperately tried to shoot, but their shiny new rifles simply failed to fire. The presence of an extremely powerful cold mage had killed their combustion.
With my back pressed against the stone, I willed myself to be nothing more than stone, nothing to see except what anyone would expect to see looking at an old, grubby, smoke-stained wall. Even so I dared not move, though I knew cold mages could not see through my concealing threads of shadow. A man dressed not in armor but in flowing robes rode forward from the back of the troop. His was an imposingly dignified figure with his graying black hair plaited into many tiny braids and his black face drawn down in an angry frown. I knew him: He was the mansa, the most powerful cold mage in Four Moons House and therefore its master.
In that knife’s-edge moment before the men in the alley broke and ran, the mansa lifted a hand as he addressed a comment to his companion, a middle-aged blond Celt dressed in the uniform of the prince’s militia. “They are smuggling in rifles despite the ban on new technology. Just as we suspected.”
The temperature dropped so precipitously that my eyes stung and my ears popped as the pressure changed. With a whispering groan, metal strained. Men screamed as the iron stocks of their rifles twisted and, with a sound more terrifying than that of any musket or rifle shot, shattered as easily as if they were glass. Many writhed on the ground, torn and bloodied by the shrapnel. A few staggered away down the alley, trying to escape.
“Capture them all!” shouted the militia captain in a braying tenor.
“I want any who survive,” said the mansa, studying the scene with a brow smoothed by his easy victory.
“You mean to execute them?”
“No. I mean to bind these rebellious plebeians into clientage. They, and their kinfolk, and their descendants will all be bound to serve Four Moons House. To execute them will merely inflame their kinfolk to further rebellion. But if these discontented men drag their households into servitude with them, that will breed resentment among their own kin for their folly in fighting against the natural order and losing what freedom they have. With your permission, of course. They’re your subjects.”
“A wise course of action. That will make the radical agitators think twice.”
Blessed Tanit! His companion was the prince of Tarrant himself, the very man who ruled the principality centered around the city of Adurnam, on the Solent River, in northwestern Europa.
Really, I could think of no man I wanted to meet less than these two. As the soldiers mopped up the scene and the mansa and the prince sat in perfect amity at the center of the intersection, chatting about some man’s thwarted marriage prospects, I edged backward until I felt it safe to remove myself from the wall and hurry back to the alcove where Bee and Rory waited. I shoved in between them, trembling.
“What happened?” Bee whispered. “I heard shots. And then screams.”
“We have to backtrack. The mansa and the prince are with those soldiers.”
“Are they hunting for us? Does the mansa know we escaped?”
“I don’t think so. He said nothing of it. I still think his people won’t discover we’re gone until morning. Give me a moment.” I shut my eyes, the better to envision the map of Adurnam I carried in my head, with its winding streets, secluded alleys, and dangerous warrens.
“You’re shaking,” said Bee, putting an arm around me.
“Men just died. And it was a shock to see the mansa again. By law Four Moons House owns me. He has a legal right to recapture me. And if he catches us, he will find a way to own you, too.”
“I think we should go now while they’re busy eating the wounded and dying,” said Rory.
Bee stiffened. “You imbecile, we don’t eat people—”
“Hush. Rory’s right.” I stroked his arm, because he liked that, and he gave a rumbling sigh. “We need to go while they’re busy mopping up. I’ve got a better route. We’ll creep back to Old Temple and go along the river. We’ll be hard to follow if we cut through the goblin market.”
I slipped my cane back into its loop and picked up the bag. We crept back down the street as quickly as we could, but no scouts rode our way. If anyone inside the shuttered houses noted our passing, they called no alarm. Eventually we relaxed a little.
“Do you think these lawyers and radicals will really take us in?” Bee asked.
“We have to hope they will, Bee. I don’t know where else we can go otherwise.”
“I’m very cold, Cat,” said Rory. “I just want a warm fire and a nap.”
“Are there fires that aren’t warm?” muttered Bee as she strode along. Clearly, fear and anxiety had wound her tight. Even with our greater height and longer strides, Rory and I had trouble keeping up. “Winters that aren’t cold?”
“Men who don’t fall in love with your magnificent beauty at first sight?” I added, knowing she could not resist the bait.
I felt her grin by the way she struck a counterblow. “Why, dearest, I don’t think I’m the one who got fallen in love with at first sight.”
“I don’t need reminding about that!”
“What? Didn’t you like him a little in the end? Aesthetically, he is very handsome, despite the impressively arrogant personality. And you are the one who kissed him, after all.”
Fortunately, the night covered my blush. “I really don’t know what to think about him, Bee. And furthermore, I am not interested in having this conversation right now or possibly ever.”
“Hush! You two are so loud.”
Because Rory was right, we kept walking and stopped talking, but the exchange had restored Bee’s usual bloody-minded cheerfulness. She even dawdled in the long promenade of the goblin market, examining the stalls of knives. By the time the cocks crowed, we had staggered onto Enterprise Road, where all kinds of foreigners, radicals, technologists, and solicitors lived. Unlike in the other districts of Adurnam, every street and even the humblest lanes in this neighborhood were lit by gas lamps. Their glow illuminated the predawn traffic of men and trolls coming out of and going into coffeehouses and unlocking offices. A few cowled goblins hurried away to burrow into their daylight dens. A woman opening up a shop paused to watch Rory saunter past, for he had the kind of self-satisfied grace that attracted the eye, and he knew it and liked it.
“Stop smiling at people! You’ll draw attention to us!” I muttered.
“I see men looking at Bee, and even at you,” he retorted. “Why shouldn’t I get looks, too?”
Fortunately I spotted Fox Close, a lane tucked away between a tavern and a coffeehouse. By the time we turned down the lane and reached the law offices, dawn had come and the gaslights were being shuttered for the day. We halted on the stoop to look up at a newly painted sign. Pin-perfect orange letters shone against a feathery brown backdrop: godwik and clutch.
Who would ever have thought that two dutiful daughters raised in a quiet Kena’ani merchant household would throw themselves on the mercy of trolls and radicals?
“I hope this works,” Bee muttered as we dropped the bags on the steps.
I plied the knocker. As we waited, I untangled my cane where it had gotten caught in a fold in my skirts.
The door opened. A troll stared at us. It was hard to know whether trolls looked more like birds or lizards. They stood tall and lanky on hind legs in a way that made me think of human-sized upright lizards, yet what looked like scales was a covering of tiny feathers. The way this one cocked his head first to one side and then to the other to get a good look at us with each eye also reminded me of a bird. He wore a jacket in the human style, and its drab brown cloth set off a truly spectacular scarlet-blue-and-black crest of feathers that ran from his upper spine to the crown of his head.
“May the day find you at peace,” I said hastily. “My name is Catherine Hassi Barahal. This is my cousin Beatrice. And my brother Roderic. We’re here to see Chartji. The solicitor.”
“You’re that one. Chartji warned me: ‘Let her in quickly shall she come standing at the door.’” He hopped back, startling Rory and Bee. Seeing the two bags and their brass clasps, he bent forward to look more closely first at the clasps and then at my cane as if he could see the sword hidden beneath the magic that concealed it in daylight. “Oo! Things! Shiny things!”
A male voice came from inside.
“Who’s at the door, Caith?” A strikingly attractive man stepped into view, wiping his hands on a grimy cloth. Seeing us, he grinned most enchantingly, as if his day had just become utterly delightful. “Catherine! And your charming cousin Beatrice. And another companion, I see.”
“My brother, Roderic.”
“Well met, indeed! Did you tell them to come in, Caith? Please, step inside at once and close the door.” He nodded at Rory as we hustled in. “I’m Brennan.”
As we walked down the main passage, he explained the young troll Caith’s complicated kinship relationship to the solicitor Chartji. He showed us into what had once been the sitting room. There we found Maester Godwik seated at a desk with pen in hand.
The old troll looked up at once, his vivid black-and-green crest raising and spreading as he saw me. “The Hassi Barahal in her mantle! What an exceptionally pleasant surprise. Let me crow on the rocks at sunrise! And this…the cousin, I presume. And…” He studied Rory, who looked like an ordinary young man with golden, innocent eyes and thick black hair twisted into a single long braid. “Interesting. I’ve not seen one like you before. Well met. Please enter our nest.”
There was one other person in the room, a bespectacled woman sorting among the pieces of a shattered printing press. She looked up, so surprised at Godwik’s words that it was obvious she hadn’t noticed us come in. Yet her smile seemed genuine. “Catherine!”
Brennan set our bags down in the room as the solicitor Chartji walked in behind him. Because Chartji was female, her scale-like feathers were as drab as Caith’s jacket, and the feathers of her crest were only one color, a bright yellow. She was carrying a bowl of water cupped in one ink-stained three-fingered hand. “I thought you might come! Drink first. That’s the proper way. Then we’ll talk.”
Their manner was so very encouraging that I began to allow myself to hope we had made the right decision to come here. As we passed around the bowl, each taking a sip of water in the traditional Mande custom of welcome, a knock rattled the door. Caith pattered away down the hall. I heard the door open.
After a pause, Caith called out, “Brennan! There’s a rat here who says you’re expecting a messenger. He says a rising light marks the dawn of a new world.”
Brennan said sharply, “Get him in fast and shut the door!”
We all spilled into the hallway, me with my hand on my cane. If the others were armed, I could not see their weapons. I nodded to Rory, and he went partway up the stairs to get the advantage of height. Three armed men surged through the open door and into the entryway like soldiers clearing a path for their captain. I recognized them, for I had met them on the road not ten days earlier. All three were foreigners, and one was actually a woman dressed as a man. She stepped back outside, and a moment later a middle-aged man walked up the steps and came in.
He was tall and imposing, with brawny shoulders, black hair streaked with silver, and the features of a person born of mixed Iberian, West African Mande, and Roman ancestry. In other words, he had a prominent hook nose and a face long and broad and bold enough to carry it off. He wore a shabby wool greatcoat and a faded tricornered hat rather the worse for wear. Although he had the bearing of a man accustomed to wielding weapons, he wore none except the expectation that he was in command.
His gaze fastened immediately on the petite, bespectacled woman even though, of all of us standing in the entryway, she certainly looked the least physically imposing. “Professora Kehinde Nayo Kuti, I presume,” he said.
They eyed each other like dogs trying to decide whether they’ll have to fight over a bone.
“I expected you would send an ambassador to open talks between our organizations,” she said.
“I am my own ambassador. As I must be, in these troubled times.”
Blessed Tanit! I had first met this man on the road, where he had been traveling in the guise of a working man named Big Leon. I could not imagine how I had ever thought him merely a retired soldier no different from any other man who has survived an old war.
“You walked into Adurnam alone except for three soldiers?” Brennan was saying. “With all the mage Houses and every prince in northwestern Europa hunting for you? That seems rash!”
“And irrational,” added Kehinde in a calmer voice. “We could turn you over to the prince of Tarrant for a significant reward.”
In disguise as Big Leon the humble carter’s cousin, he had hidden the crackling strength of his gaze and the coiled power of his presence. No longer. “But you won’t. For you see, I am never alone. The hopes and ambitions of too many people are carried on my back.”
“You’re Camjiata,” I said.
The man born Leonnorios Aemilius Keita had earned the name Camjiata, lion of war, by leading armies to victory. Everyone knew the Iberian Monster believed it was his destiny to unite the fractious principalities, dukedoms, city-states, and backward tribes of Europa into one glorious empire. He had tried once, and he had almost succeeded.
“Of course I am Camjiata. Who else would I be? At last, after the patient work of many years and many hands, I am free.”
Chartji stepped forward, offering the bowl of water.
He doffed his hat and drank it all in one gulp. “And now we have business to do and no time to wait.”
“Did you come looking for me?” asked Bee. I could not tell if she was terrified, or exhilarated, or making ready to punch him in the face, but she had her sketchbook open to a page where she had at some point in the last few months drawn a picture of him standing exactly where he was now, in front of the closed door in the entryway of these law offices. “Did she tell you how to find me? Your wife, I mean? The one who walked the dreams of dragons?”
“Yes. It was the final thing Helene said to me before they killed her. She told me that the eldest daughter of the Hassi Barahal clan would learn to walk the dreams of dragons. Find her, she said, because you will need her, as you have needed me.” He lifted a hand in the classic orator’s gesture used by the Romans in their ancient empire. It was simply impossible not to stare at him if he wanted you to do so, as he did now. “Helene said that the eldest Hassi Barahal daughter would lead me to Tara Bell’s child.”
“B-but I’m Tara Bell’s child,” I choked out, for I felt my heart had lodged in my throat.
“Of course you are. You could be no one else but who you are. So must we all be, even Helene, who knew that the gift of dreaming would be the curse that brought death to her.”
I alone heard Bee whisper, “Death?” as she went pale.
He had gone on. “Even at the end, the gift compelled her to speak. Those were the very last words I ever heard her say. She said, ‘Where the hand of fortune branches, Tara Bell’s child must choose, and the road of war will be washed by the tide.’”
I was not too stunned by these portentous words to miss the way Kehinde glanced at Brennan, or the way he gave a shrug in reply as his gaze flicked toward Bee.
“A fanciful turn of phrase,” said Kehinde to the general, “but as I have a pragmatical turn of mind, can you tell me what you think it means?”
A longcase clock standing beside the coat rack ticked with each swing of its pendulum. A carriage rattled past outside. Camjiata watched until we were all looking at him and waiting for him to speak. He smiled softly, as if our compliance amused him.
“Why, the depths of the words are easily sounded. She meant that Tara Bell’s child will choose a path that will change the course of the war.”
The gazes of seven humans and three trolls left his face and fixed on me.
“Which means you, Catherine Bell Barahal. Because that child is you.”
I am not a young woman who craves attention. Unlike my beloved cousin Beatrice, who is my dearest and most trusted friend in all the world, I make no effort to bring myself to the notice of all and sundry in the most forceful and spectacular way imaginable. I have the sort of character that prefers the shadows where it can bide quietly or, as Bee might say, sneak about without being caught.
So I did not at all like to find myself with every pair of eyes—except of course for my own since that would have been impossible—staring at me. Words usually come easily to me. But I had seen carnage on the streets. I had been awake all night. I really just wanted to close my eyes and sleep.
Instead, I stood for a moment as mute and seared as if I had been struck by lightning. Then I got angry.
“You may believe that because I am Tara Bell’s child that I mean something to you and your schemes and plans. But I came with my cousin to these law offices to get help with our own private legal matters. Not to aid an escaped criminal!”
The door rattled softly at his back. He stepped away as it opened a crack. The woman dressed as a man squeezed in. As everyone relaxed, the general chuckled. His amusement made the air change quality as if holding its breath before the sun—or a storm—breaks through.
“Some call me a criminal, while others call me the Liberator,” he said in the rich Iberian lilt he had not lost despite thirteen years confined on an island prison. “Like you, I came to these law offices on an entirely different matter. I truly did not expect to meet you here, Catherine.” He nodded to acknowledge Bee. “Nor did I expect to meet your cousin, the young woman who walks the path of dreams. Not so soon, and not in Adurnam. And yet, why not here? Why not now? That we meet here and now merely reminds me that destiny directs our paths. We cannot escape what we are.”
“That may be, but we can escape those who try to imprison us.”
“Have I said anything that makes you think I am trying to make you my prisoner?”
“You must forgive me if I don’t seem very trusting right now. For the last two months, I’ve been running from people who want to kill me. My cousin and I just escaped from house arrest. So I don’t see how I can really trust you.”
“If we are both being hunted, doesn’t it make sense for us to become allies?”
“Allies in what?” I demanded. “Isn’t your war over? Didn’t you lose? Weren’t your armies dispersed, and your allies punished? Didn’t your enemies in the Second Alliance march home satisfied with their victory and your imprisonment?”
I wasn’t sure how a man of his infamy would parry such a reckless attack, but he merely smiled drily. “A worthy salvo. It reminds me of the prickly unanswerable questions I would hear from your father Daniel when we were young. The struggle for liberation is never over as long as the old order crushes those who seek freedom. I intend to reform the laws of Europa and free the population from the oppressive rule of princes and cold mages. You could do worse than to join my army, as your mother did.”
“We’re not your soldiers,” I said as I glanced at the woman who stood beside him.
A black-haired foreigner, she wore a man’s jacket and trousers. A falcata, a short sword in the Iberian style, rode low on a belt loop at her left hip. Her eyes had the epicanthic fold of a person whose birth or ancestry rested in the mysterious lands of the Far East, but the most striking thing about her was the ragged two-tined white scar that forked across her right cheek. Was she one of his famous Amazon Corps, as my mother had been?
“Just because my mother was an officer in your army doesn’t mean I am under any obligation to you,” I added.
“You are mistaken if you believe nothing binds me to you.”
Snow poured down my back could not have made me more cold. A horrible premonition seized me, together with a throat-clawing curiosity. I had to know. “What do you mean? You’re not going to claim to be…”
“Oh, la!” Bee pressed the back of a hand to her forehead in a gesture worthy of the cheap sort of theater. “I am overcome by these confrontations and alarums! All these revelations and unexpected meetings are simply too much. If I do not sit down this instant, I shall collapse.” She had perfected a throbbing quaver with which to soften the listening heart, but her voice retained an edge of determination that suggested her collapse would be accompanied by a tantrum no sane person wished to endure. When she grasped my elbow, her grip was like the clamp of a trap. From the cutting look she gave me, I could tell she wanted to have words with me.
The general touched a hand to his heart. “I am at your disposal, Professora Kuti. With you, I assume, is the legendary Brennan Touré Du. Tales of his daring exploits reached even my lonely prison cell. I have been assured your connections are legion, your intellects first-rate, and your commitment to the cause of justice and reason unparalleled.”
Although Kehinde appeared to be nothing more than a petite woman with a quiet demeanor and an enthusiasm for technological puzzles, she met the general look for look. “You will understand that our chief concern is to assure ourselves of your dedication to the cause of justice and reason.”
He nodded. “Alliances can only be formed where trust is assured.”
“Let me then defer to our host, Maester Godwik.”
Godwik raised his feathered crest of black and green. “It is our custom to offer a chance to wash, drink, and eat before any negotiation commences.”
The general laughed. “As I well recall. The first of your kind I ever met were gunrunners. It took a cursed long time to get down to business though we were in the midst of a battle waged over a hill. I would be honored to wash, drink, and eat with you, Maester Godwik.”
All three trolls showed teeth in an expression that mimicked a human smile. Given that they had fearsome teeth bristling in predatory snouts, the effect was more unsettling than reassuring.
“Caith,” said the old troll, “please go join the watch at the corner.”
Caith whistled an answer and went out the front door, accompanied by Brennan and the older foreign soldier. The younger soldier took up guard at the front door. By the way he kept glancing at Bee and then away, it was obvious he was taken with her voluptuous figure and magnificent beauty.
Maester Godwik gestured to Bee, Rory, and me. “We have not yet greeted you properly either, my young friends. Await us in the kitchen, if you will. General, this way.”
Along the right wall were two staircases, one of which ascended to the first floor above us while the other, tucked beneath it, descended to a half basement. Godwik limped down the basement stairs while Chartji went upstairs past Rory. After a glance at Rory, the Amazon followed Godwik downstairs, the general and Kehinde at her heels.
“Look at those knives!” whispered Bee admiringly, still clutching my arm.
The young foreigner had unbuttoned his greatcoat. Beneath, he wore a harness of knives buckled over a quilted jacket of dull twilight blue. A belt strapped around his hips braced a pair of illegal pistols. He had straight black hair not unlike my own, and a brown complexion that resembled Rory’s. The cast of his features, his wide cheekbones and high forehead, gave him the look of a man far from the house where he had been born and none too impressed by the place he found himself now. He met Bee’s bold stare with a challenging one of his own.
“You’re not of Mande or Celtic or even Roman ancestry,” I said. “Where are you from?”
He measured me up and down and without replying looked back to Bee.
She lifted her chin in imperious dismissal of his rudeness. “Rory, bring the bags.”
She tugged me toward the stairs, but when we were halfway down to the basement, alone on the dim stairwell, she yanked me to a halt. “Cat! You were about to ask Camjiata if he was the man who sired you! In front of everyone. Don’t you remember anything we were taught at home?”
“I know! I don’t know what came over me. I forgot myself in the heat of the moment. I just couldn’t help but think that since he knew my parents, he might know who it was.”
“Of course you want to know. But if Rory doesn’t even know who your and his sire is, why would the general?”
“My mother might have told him.”
“Your mother Tara Bell? Do you know the only words I remember her ever saying to us? ‘Tell no one. Not ever.’ I doubt she told him anything, even if she was under his command. Also, you definitely shouldn’t have mentioned we were under house arrest.”
“I know!” I agreed grumpily. “But the radicals already know we’re trying to escape the mages. And since Camjiata knows what you are, he’s surely guessed the mage Houses want you.”
“It doesn’t matter what he would guess. Tell no one.”
“Keep silence,” I echoed, a phrase that had been drilled into us by Bee’s mother and father.
“That would be too much to ask from you, I agree!” she exclaimed, but then she hugged me. “I know you’re tired, Cat. You’ve traveled so far and learned such shocking things, not to mention escaping certain death and saving me from what would have been an exceptionally unpleasant marriage. So babble nonsense, which you do so well, and leave me to negotiate.”
“I can keep silent!”
She laughed, and we clattered down the rest of the steps and along a narrow passageway past an empty bedchamber, a pantry, and a scullery. At the end of the passageway, a half flight of steps led up to a back door. We turned into the kitchen. A cast-iron range was fixed under the stone arch of an old fireplace. Its burning coal soaked the kitchen in heat.
I set my black cane across the big kitchen table. A cutting board and knife sat atop the work-scarred surface next to a heap of parsnips, a bowl of dry oats, a pot of freshly churned butter, and an empty copper roasting pan. Bee set her sketchbook on the corner of the table, then dragged off her hat, gloves, and winter coat and threw them over the back of a chair. She crossed to the long paned window set high in the wall and got up on a stool to look out into the back. Being taller, I could see out the high window without using a stool; the view looked over the backyard, a long, narrow court enclosed by high walls and paved in flagstones. There was a cistern, a pump, a stone bench dusted with snow, and a carriage house abutting the high back wall next to a closed gate. Godwik was leading Camjiata, the Amazon, and Kehinde across the back court to a peculiar little building. It reminded me of a domed nest because it looked as if it had been constructed from feathers and sticks and wreathed with ribbons and wire from which hung mirrors, glass, and bright shiny things. A solitary crow perched on the jutting center post.
Bee sighed gustily, shoulders heaving, as she hopped down. “Oh, Cat! I thought by coming here we would have a chance to rest and decide what to do next at our leisure. Instead, it’s as if we’re caught by a tempest at sea. We’re blown hither and yon without ceasing by the gods’ anger.”
“I don’t think the gods have anything to do with this. I think it’s all these cursed people who won’t leave us alone who are the problem. Why did I think lawyers and radicals would be a safe harbor? Is there anyone we can trust?”
On the ground floor above, footfalls made the floorboards creak. The front door opened and closed, and someone descended the basement stairs. Bee grabbed the knife off the table. I picked up my cane.
“Here you are.” Brennan entered the kitchen with that impossibly friendly smile, which I could not help but return even as I flushed, lowering my cane. An important and glamorous radical who traveled across Europa to foment revolution could not be interested in a callow young female like myself. Even if he was carrying our carpetbags. “What’s in these?” he asked with a laugh.
“Gold bricks,” said Bee, at the same time as I said, “Pig iron.”
“I would have said books, but what do I know?” He set down the bags by the door and indicated the window with a lift of his chin. “No need for knives. Godwik could eat the general if he really wanted to. Even at his age.”
Bee snickered. I clapped a hand over my mouth to stifle a laugh.
Rory sauntered into the kitchen. His slender build made his strength easy to underestimate until he leaped for the kill. “So nice and warm! At last! A nap by a proper fire.”
“I wondered where you’d got to,” I said. “Bee meant you to carry those bags.”
He blinked innocently. “Did she?” He sank down onto the bench, picked up a parsnip, sniffed at it, and with a disdainful grimace set it back down. With a sigh, he stretched the length of the bench in a boneless sprawl whose languor I admired in large part because I knew that at the slightest sign of trouble he could spring up and attack.
The heat was making me sweat, so I shrugged off my coat and draped it over Bee’s. In the backyard only the Amazon was visible, standing beside the closed gate. A clock stood atop the cupboard. Its ticking punctuated the silence as Brennan considered his work-hardened hands.
“I come from the north, as I think you recall, Catherine,” he said, “from a mining village in Celtic Brigantia. A few days’ walk from the village where I grew up, you come to the ice shelf. The ice rises from the land like a cliff. When the sun shines, you can see the ice face from miles away. It blinds because it is so sharp and bright. Professora Kuti and Maester Godwik can tell you all about the color, texture, weight, height, volume, and consistency of ice. But because I grew up so near the ice, among hunters as well as miners, I can tell you that the ice is alive. Not as you and I are alive. It’s not a creature or a person. But it lives, although I couldn’t tell you how or why.”
“A fascinating tale, but what has it to do with us?” I said. Yet I could tell by Bee’s frowning expression that he had caught her interest, although I could not be sure whether it was his story that intrigued her or his looks, his air of worldly experience, and the likelihood he had bested more than one man in more than one nasty fight.
“When I was a small boy, my grandmother told me about a girl who was one of her age-mates. In my grandmother’s youth, the ice reached all the way to Embers Ridge, where we now light the bonfire on Hallows’ Eve. One year at midsummer the girl walked out on the hunt with her older brothers. When they reached the ice, she stood all day as if dazzled. When the sun set, she woke. She told them she had seen visions—dreams—in the face of the ice. They went home to consult with the village djeli and the elders. But what happened was this: The things she saw in the face of the ice came true in the year that followed.”
Bee inhaled sharply.
Brennan’s gaze settled on her. “She married, but birthed no children. For five summers more, she walked north every solstice to the ice and walked home after and told the elders what she had seen. No one spoke a single word outside of the village of what she did. They knew better than to draw attention to a gift which is also a curse. Do you know what happened to her?”
The clock ticked ticked ticked.
“She died on Hallows’ Night,” said Bee in a voice as hard as an oracle’s.
He had the look of a man who has seen things some might call the stuff of nightmares. “The authorities at the prince of Brigantia’s court were told she had drowned. In fact she was torn to pieces on Hallows’ Night in the forecourt of the temple of the hunters Diana Sanen and her son Antlered Kontron. Her severed head was found in the village well.”
He paused. We said nothing. What was there to say?
“She had been pursued and killed by the Wild Hunt. As the Thrice-Praised poet Bran Cof sang, ‘No creature can escape the Hunt, no man outrun its teeth.’”
The clock ticked over the new hour. Its chime so startled me that I flinched.
Brennan paced to the window. The Amazon had wrestled open the heavy bar that secured the back gate. A red-haired man in an old coat slipped inside the yard from the alley behind, and the Amazon went out. As Brennan turned to address us, the red-haired man barred the gate.
“It is well known,” Brennan continued, “that before he took the name Camjiata, Captain Leonnorios Aemilius Keita married Helene Condé Vahalis. She was the daughter of a powerful mage House, although she was a cold mage of only negligible power. But it was rumored she walked the future in oracular dreams. People said the young general’s victories were achieved because he knew how to interpret her dreams to his benefit. Camjiata just implied that you, Beatrice, are one of those young women—and they are always young—who has discovered she walks the path of dreams. It seems obvious the general wants you because he thinks your dreams can give him an advantage in war. Meanwhile, obviously the mansa of Four Moons House wants you to keep you away from the general, since it was the mages and the Romans who defeated Camjiata the first time. Yet it seems to me, if you are such a woman, then mage Houses, princes, Romans, and even escaped generals are not the worst threat you face.”
Brennan looked out the window again, watching as the red-haired man traversed the length of the yard while kicking up the snow that dusted the paving stones.
“Excuse me.” He flashed one of his spectacular smiles and went out. We heard him go up the back steps and open the back door. Gray light gleamed through the paned windows. The peculiar hut glittered as if polished gems lay hidden in its layers. A crow still perched atop the center pole. Brennan intercepted the stranger with a friendly gesture and a smile.
“At least,” said Bee in a low voice, “the awful news was delivered by the handsomest man I’ve ever met.”
“How do you suppose he got the appellation Du? Brennan Touré Du. Du means ‘black-haired.’ Yet he’s enchantingly fair-haired.”
I clucked my tongue to show I was not so susceptible, even though I was. “He’s positively ancient. Over thirty, anyway. That’s even older than your handsome admirer Legate Amadou Barry. Or have you forgotten him?”
She fixed me with the smoldering gaze that caused young men to fall catastrophically in love with her, professors to quake, shopkeepers to hasten forward to serve her, and young women our age to wish they could be like her, so proud and queenly. Then she dabbed away a tear. “Please! Amadou Barry offered me an intolerable insult! As if I had asked for it!”
“You’re not to blame for the proposal Amadou Barry made to you, Bee.”
“I know.” She blushed and looked away as if ashamed. “But before that I told him things I shouldn’t have, because I thought he genuinely loved me. I thought I could trust him.”
I frowned as I leaned on the table, pinning her gaze with my own. “Bee, you were alone and frightened and scared. You did nothing wrong. And I’m sure he was very persuasive. Until that unpleasant moment when he offered to make you his mistress.”
“As if it were the best thing I could ever hope for!” She made stabbing motions with the knife. “This! For him!”
“Sadly, men are the least of our problems right now.” I grabbed Rory’s ankle. “What do you know about Hallows’ Night? Murdered victims? The face of the ice? The Wild Hunt?”
His penetrating gold gaze was as opaque as a cat’s. “I know I’m hungry.”
“Do you not know, or are you not telling?”
“Hallows’ Night? Murders? The face of the ice? I don’t know what those things are.”
Because he looked exactly like a young man, it was easy to forget what he truly was and that he didn’t belong here. “Fair enough. I believe you. What do you know about the Wild Hunt?”
“I eat flesh. The Wild Hunt drinks blood. Even my mother trembles, for when the horn sounds, she would make us all hide. But everyone knows no one can truly hide, not if yours is the scent they pursue. I never saw them in all my life, but I have heard the hunt pass by while I cowered.”
Bee weighed the knife in her left hand as she considered the parsnips. “We thought we need only escape the combined forces of the mage Houses and the local prince. Now I’m warned I was born all unknowingly with a terrible gift of dreaming that will result in my being dismembered.”
“That knife is so sharp I can taste its edge.” Rory rolled up to his feet as Bee glared at the hapless parsnips. “Upset people shouldn’t wave knives around.”
“I didn’t ask you!”
He rubbed his eyes with the back of a wrist, the gesture very like that of a big cat, lazy and graceful and a trifle out of sorts. “They never do ask me, although they ought to,” he said with a contemptuous sniff. He stepped out into the passage.
“It’s just hard to imagine he really is a saber-toothed cat,” whispered Bee.
“I heard that!”
“Then don’t eavesdrop!” Bee called after him.
He padded up the main stairs toward the front entryway.
I went to the door, but the low passageway was empty, so I crossed back to the table. “That was certainly a disturbing story, but you must admit, Bee, we don’t know if it is true. Maybe Brennan was trying to frighten us into cooperating with them.”
She shook her head as she set a parsnip onto the cutting board. “Then he’d do better to ask why he and his comrades first met you while you were traveling in the company of a cold mage, when everyone knows cold mages are the enemies of Camjiata. Maybe he thinks we came here to spy on the radicals for the mage Houses.”
“It would be just as easy to say that Camjiata and the Hassi Barahal house set me to spy on the mages.”
“I wish that’s what Papa and Mama had meant to do with you. Sent you to spy on Four Moons House, I mean. I could forgive them for that.” She pulled a hand over her thick black curls and pulled them back as if to tie them in a tail, a gesture I knew meant she was troubled and nervous. “What I find so puzzling is why the general would walk into the city of Adurnam. He knows the ruling prince here is his sworn enemy. Doesn’t he fear he’ll be recaptured? How does he hope to get out of here without being caught?”
“All I know is the last place we want to be is in the same house as the most wanted man in Europa. Could you put that thing down before you stab me with it?”
She skewered me with a gaze that would have felled stout oxen, had they been unfortunate enough to cross her path. “I am a Hassi Barahal. I never put down the knife!”
I began to smile, but something in the tense way she began slicing the parsnip into even roundels killed my words.
She finally looked up with a crookedly trembling smile. “I don’t want to die like that.”
“Oh, Bee.” I hugged her despite the knife.
In the silence, a lamp hanging from a hook on the wall by the door hissed patiently as it consumed oil. The back door opened. I released her and grabbed my cane. She raised the knife. The red-haired man appeared in the kitchen door, cheeks ruddy from the cold. Seen close, he was younger and better-looking than I had thought, especially when he grinned to greet us.
“Salvete,” he said as he edged around the chamber, sticking close to the wide cupboard with pots, pans, and unchipped crockery set in neat display on its open shelves. One might almost think him leery of coming too close, although I could not fathom what might disturb him about two perfectly well-mannered young women, even if one was grasping a large kitchen knife and the other what must appear to be a polished black cane, the kind of ridiculous accessory carried by young men of wealth who were more concerned with fashion than utility.
“Peace to you,” said Bee. “Are you with the general?”
He reached the stove and held his gloved hands over it with a grateful sigh. “Whew! I just can’t get used to this cursed cold.”
“You’re not from the north?” Bee asked.
He looked pointedly at her knife. She set to work on another parsnip.
“I was born northwest of here, in fact. But I’ve been living as a maku in the city of Expedition for the last ten years. I’m Drake, by the way. James Drake.”
“I am Beatrice Hassi Barahal,” Bee said with her best queenly grandeur, “and this is my best beloved cousin”—she hesitated—“Catherine Bell Barahal.”
He offered a formal bowing courtesy, gaze shifting from her to me and back again. His eyes were so blue they were like a sizzle of bright hot light. “I must always be at the service of such remarkably pretty young women.”
Self-consciously, I smoothed my hands over the waist of my rumpled jacket and my well-worn and somewhat grimy riding skirt. I wasn’t used to such brazen compliments.
Bee’s stony demeanor cracked, and she responded with a smile that made his eyes widen. “But you must tell us more,” she said. “Expedition is in the Amerikes. How exotic!”
“Between North and South Amerike in the Sea of Antilles, to be exact, where the Taino and their fire mages rule. The winters aren’t cold there. Not like here, where cold mages rule beside princes and every soul lives under the shadow of the ice.” His fine blue gaze skimmed the length of my cane. “I can’t figure how a girl like you would be carrying cold steel. You’re not a cold mage.”
“Are you one?” I demanded.
He chuckled. “I don’t bite, so no need to guard against me.” His words were accented with the musicality of a western Celtic dialect overlaid with flat vowels that hinted at foreign lands.
Despite his pleasing grin, I burned with an acrid, suspicious question. “How do you know this is cold steel?”
“Maybe someone told me.” His chuckle suggested he would say nothing more.
“You didn’t answer my question,” said Bee. “Are you with the general?”
Drake glanced out the window. “Ask him yourself, for here he comes.”
Camjiata and Kehinde crossed the yard to the back door. I did not see Godwik or Brennan. Upstairs a door closed, and footsteps paced the length of the house. I heard the professora speaking to the general as they came down the passage.
“—But the airship was destroyed. It is certain a cold mage devised the sabotage.”
“So I was informed yesterday when I entered the city,” the general replied. “A shame. It would have made for a spectacular departure from Adurnam.”
“To think of destroying such a remarkable and beautiful object, both in design and concept! A new means of crossing the ocean between Europa and the Amerikes! Such antipathy toward invention and technology lies beyond my understanding. Such people ought not to hold power over the lives of others. But without the airship, how will you cross the ocean?”
They came into the kitchen, Kehinde blowing on bare hands to warm them.
“I’ve already set a new plan in motion,” Camjiata said as he walked to the table. He picked up Bee’s sketchbook before she or I realized he meant to so brazenly invade her private things.
“Unexpected,” he said as he flipped through the pages, many of which bore sketches of good-looking young men. “Yet as a way to record hopes and dreams, it’s quite as useful as words.”
Bee looked first as if all blood had drained from her face. Then she flushed in an exceedingly dangerous way that only ever presaged her rare but explosive blasts of volcanic temper. Just before she blew, Rory glided back into the room exactly as if he’d felt a warning rumble. He slipped up next to her and draped an arm over her shoulders in a way that made it look as though he were both soothing her and stopping her from stabbing the general.
Without looking up, Camjiata spoke in a coolly amused voice that made me think he knew exactly the effect his intrusion into her sketchbook was having on her. “Patience, and I’ll explain. The women who walk the dreams of dragons walk the path of dreams each in a unique way. Helene heard words of tangled poetry. I learned to unravel her words to reveal meetings and crossing points yet to come. For you see, she who can read the book of the future can wield her knowledge of the future as a kind of sword, one with an edge sharper even than cold steel.”
“Such a gift is a curse,” I said hoarsely.
He studied the page that contained the sketch of him standing in the entryway. Bee had drawn it days, or weeks, or months ago. “Maybe it is. But the women who walk the path of dreams have no choice about what they are. Do you know how my beloved wife died?” He turned another page. His brows furrowed as he considered lines that seemed to depict nothing more than a bench set against a wall under a flowering vine.
“On Hallows’ Night dismembered?” Bee choked out.
Rory tightened his arm around her.
The general glanced at her, and then at me, and last at James Drake, who had gone back to warming his hands over the stove. He lifted his chin. “Go on, James.”
Drake’s lips curled down. For an instant I thought he was going to refuse a direct order, but instead he left the kitchen and went upstairs.
Camjiata smiled at a charming sketch of fanciful clock-faced owl. He closed the book and straightened, his gaze like a spear piercing Bee. “Helene had gone to visit her family. She was a cold mage out of Crescent House, far in the north. I did not go with her. I had administrative duties that needed my attention, a legal code to shepherd into the world. We were both taken by surprise, I suppose, or perhaps we had begun to think we could not be taken by surprise because she walked the path of dreams. On that Hallows’ Night, a storm demolished Crescent House’s entire estate. All that was left in the morning were splinters, shattered stones, and faceless corpses. The main hall lay untouched but sheathed as in a glove of unmelting ice. As for Helene, her body was left on the steps of the main hall. Her limbs had been torn off. And she was decapitated. Her head was found at the bottom of a well that went dry that very night.”
I shuddered. Outside, blown bits of icy snow pattered against the thick glass in a rising wind.
“What do you want?” whispered Bee.
“What matters,” said Camjiata, “is what you want, Beatrice.”
It wasn’t just fear that was making me feel cold. It was actually getting colder. The cozy glamour of the fire wavered. The red glow began to shrink, and pieces of coal to settle. The fire flickered and all at once gave a weary gasp of defeat. Ash puffed and sank.
Rory sniffed. “That’s magic,” he said.
“Oh, no,” whispered Bee.
Only the presence of a powerful cold mage could suck the life out of a fire from a distance. As on an inhaled breath, the house tensed to silence, as if waiting. The ghostly hilt of my sword stung like nettles against my skin as cold magic whispered down its hidden blade. A preemptory knock rapped so loudly on the front door that the walls vibrated.
Kehinde stepped to the kitchen door and looked into the passageway. “Come with me, General. We have a bolt-hole.”
“Grab your coat and mine, and go out the back with Rory,” I said to Bee, for she was the one the cold mages wanted. “We’ll meet at that inn where we slept before.”
Camjiata paused at the threshold, so unruffled by this emergency I admired his calm. “What do you mean to do against cold mages? For I recognize their touch.”
I pushed past him and headed for the stairs. “I’m Tara Bell’s child, aren’t I? The Amazon’s daughter. I have a sword, so I mean to fight them.”
I found James Drake at the front door instead of the nameless young foreigner. Drake’s lips were tilted up in a funny kind of smile, giving him the look of a man who is expecting a gift or a slap. He set a gloved hand on the latch but snatched it back.
“It’s like ice!” he hissed.
My sword’s hilt waxed cold against my palm. Had the cold mages found us missing and already tracked us down? Or had they discovered Camjiata was in Adurnam and come for him?
“Stand back.” Gritting his teeth against the latch’s cold burn, Drake opened the front door.
Seen past him, a man stood on the stoop, cane in hand.
“These are the offices of Godwik and Clutch, lawyers,” said Drake, as though to a simpleton. “Callers are admitted only by appointment.”
“Isn’t it redundant to inform me that these are the offices of Godwik and Clutch, lawyers,” said the man with the cane, “when the sign out front informs me both in word and in picture of that very fact? Naturally I do have an appointment with the solicitor named Chartji. Otherwise you can be sure I would not have ventured into a neighborhood like this one for legal aid.”
Some men have the unfortunate propensity to look exceptionally well in the clothing they wear, and the effect must therefore be amplified when they dress with full attention to the most fashionable styles, the best tailors, and the most expensive fabric. In fact, he wore a greatcoat of an exceedingly fine cut, magnificently adorned by five layered shoulder capes rather than the practical one or the fashionable three. Its wool was dyed with patterned lines and sigils that reminded me of the clothing the hunters of his village wore when out in the bush. Altogether, the coat was one worn to be noticed and admired.
It was also unbuttoned, as if the ferocious cold did not bother him at all. Beneath he wore a dash jacket tailored to flatter a well-built, slender frame and falling in loose cutaway folds from hips to knees. The fabric’s violently bright red-and-gold chain pattern made me blink. How any man could wear cloth that staggeringly vivid and not look ridiculous I could not fathom. Yet there he was, him and his annoyingly handsome face. I should have known.
“My very question,” said Drake with a cutting smile. “What is a cold mage doing in this neighborhood? A mage of your ilk must despise the scalding technology of combustion. He must regard with contempt the clever contraptions and schemes made by trolls and goblins in their busy workshops. Which rise all around you, in all their industrious vigor.”
I expected sparks to fly. The two men, as they say, stared daggers.
“So polite of you to inform me of what I must despise.” The man on the stoop examined Drake as he might a man who has the bad taste to dress in provincial fashion when venturing into the city. “But unnecessary, since I’ve found I can make such judgments for myself.”
Drake’s free hand curled into a fist. A tremor kissed the air, expanding like the unseen pressure of a hand or an invisible dragon’s sigh. I tasted smoke. A ripple swirled as shimmering heat across the threshold.
“Stop that!” The cold mage raised a hand as if brushing away a fluttering moth. The pressure and heat ceased so abruptly I coughed.
He looked past Drake and saw me. Wincing back as if he’d been struck, he lost his footing and staggered down a step before catching himself. His surprise gave me hope. Maybe Four Moons House and the mansa had not yet tracked us down.
He jumped back up to the door, his gaze fixed on me the way a hammer seeks a nail.
The cold magic pulsing from him coursed down my sword’s hidden blade. If I twisted my draw just right, I could pull a blade into this world out of the spirit world where it currently resided. Not that cold steel would avail me much against Andevai Diarisso Haranwy, the very cold mage who had destroyed the famous airship. I was surprised the incognito guards Camjiata had posted on the lane had not raised the alarm, but then again, you could not identify a cold mage by looks. He might be any particularly well-dressed young man born to a family of high status and notable wealth. They could not have known he’d been born to neither but risen to both.
“You’ll have to return another time, Magister.” Drake started to close the door.
The man I was obliged to call my husband thrust out an arm and, with the tip of his cane, halted the door’s swing. He pushed inside, closed the door, and on the entry mat paused to stamp snow off his polished boots and tap the dusting of snow off his hat.
“I have an appointment with the solicitor Chartji,” he said as he set hat, cane, and gloves on a side table. “You cannot deny me entrance.”
With his lips pressed together and his dark gaze mocking, he surveyed Drake with the disdain that came so easily to him. Drake’s clothes were indeed undistinguished, although practical and sturdy, but in any other company a man with Drake’s striking eyes and attractive face might expect his looks and smile to render his clothing invisible. In this company, he just looked drab.
As the gazes of the two men met, Drake’s blue eyes seemed to blaze. My lips stung as with the bite of a kiln’s heat. My lungs felt choked by unseen smoke and ash. My skin crawled as if licked by invisible tongues of fire. I gasped, sure the air was about to burst into flame.
A chill descended as decisively as a curtain falls at the end of an act. The burning taste of fire was utterly extinguished. Ice brushed my lips like a cold kiss, but it was only sensation, not actual frozen water.
Andevai uncurled a fisted hand as if he were carefully releasing a captured bird. “You’re strong, but not nearly strong enough.” He spoke in a bitingly arrogant tone whose sheer cool vainglory would have been sufficient to bestir a herd of calmly grazing elephants into a maddened, city-flattening stampede. “It’s a bit dangerous, don’t you think? Playing with fire?”
Drake’s grin popped, but he looked furious, not amused. He took a step toward me. With narrowed eyes, Andevai placed himself between me and Drake. Then he met my wary gaze.
I had last seen him two days before. He had not changed. His hair was cut close against his black head, and his beard and mustache were trimmed very short and with absolute perfection, no doubt to encourage young women to look at him. The less said about his beautiful brown eyes, the better. Especially when I recalled the unkind and even cruel things he had said to me when we had first been thrown together, when he had dragged me against my will from the only home I had ever known.
His voice was soft now, emotion tightly controlled. “I suppose your presence here means you have managed yet another escape, Catherine.”
“I can’t tell you anything. Your allegiance lies with Four Moons House.”
He regarded me coolly enough that I felt obliged to admire his composure, considering the things he had said at our last meeting.
“Considering the things that were said at our last meeting,” he said, as if his thoughts aligned with mine, “it may surprise you to hear that my arrival here has nothing to do with you.”
“Considering the things that were said!” I muttered, for it was hard to know what to say to a man when, the last time you saw him, you had shared a potent kiss. But I found words. “Every mage House has advocates trained in the law who can argue cases in the law courts. What use can you possibly have for Chartji’s services?”
“A question I might ask you.”
“You might, but my answer would be the same as yours.”
He flashed a smile of such astounding sweetness and humor—as if he appreciated my wit!—that it would have been easier for me if my heart had simply stopped and I had dropped dead. I had not known the man could smile like that.
His smile vanished and he said in a serious tone, “Perhaps you’d best sit down, Catherine. Are you going to faint?”
“I never faint,” I said hoarsely. “I’m just tired from all the escaping my cousin and I have had to do.”
“You never answered her question, Magister.” The spark in Drake’s tone made my neck tingle as with a warning. “Why on Earth would a magister visit the offices of an ordinary solicitor who is also a troll? Have you lost something you want back?”
It was clearly a wild guess, but Andevai swung around as fast as if he’d been ridiculed. When his gaze met Drake’s, such a flare of mutual dislike flashed between them that it felt as if all the air had been sucked from the entryway. The history of the world begins in ice, and it will end in ice. So sing the Celtic bards and Mande djeliw of the north. The Roman historians, on the other hand, claimed that fire will consume us in the end.
Ice, or fire? As the two men faced down, I had a sudden and terrible premonition I was about to find out.
A trill, like speech, slid down from the stairs to interrupt the end of the world. Chartji descended from the first floor with the odd hitching walk typical of her kind. She reached the entry and stuck out a hand in the manner of the radicals. “Magister. Here you are.”
Andevai shrugged as if letting anger roll off him. Then he turned, taking her hand in his without the least sign that he, the scion of an influential and wealthy mage House, found this style of greeting plebeian. “My thanks for remembering our earlier meeting and agreeing to my request for an appointment.”
She was taller than he was, with the wide-set eyes and feathered ruff typical of trolls. When she opened her snout in imitation of a smile, her sharp teeth certainly presented a threat, but her greeting was pleasant enough and her speech so human that its precision sounded peculiar.
“Well met, Magister. I admit, I was not sure you would venture to this district, where lies so much technology to disturb you. I am pleased you did so. If you will follow me to my office, we can discuss your business.”
Drake said, “What business might that be?”
She bared teeth at Drake, bobbed her head at me, and gestured to Andevai. “We guarantee privacy for all who seek our services.” Opening the nearest door, she indicated he should precede her into the office.
He hesitated. “Will you be here afterward, Catherine?” he said in a low voice.
This was one answer I could honestly give. “Until Four Moons House gives up all attempt to claim my cousin Beatrice, I can have nothing to do with any mage House or magister.”
He stiffened. “Of course. I admire you for standing loyal to your family above all.”
He sketched an ambivalent gesture, halfway between greeting and leaving, before he crossed into the office. Chartji shut the door behind them. With my exceptionally good hearing, I heard the rustle of curtains being dragged open inside.
“How do you know this arrogant cold mage?” asked Drake.
“The tale is quite a labyrinth of intrigue,” I said, wishing he would leave me alone so I could eavesdrop.
“Phoenician spies must be quite at home with labyrinths of intrigue.” Yet he smiled to take the sting out of the words.
When in doubt, we’d been taught to distract through misdirection. “We call ourselves Kena’ani, not Phoenician. Phoenician is a Greek word, and it’s the one the Romans called us.”
He chuckled. “I’ll remember that, Maestressa. I make it a point never to trust a cold mage. I hope you don’t think it might be possible to do so.” His eyes had the strange quality of seeming vivid in the dim entryway. He watched me, waiting for an answer.
I did not want to speak, but I kept wondering if Camjiata’s armed attendants might decide to attack Andevai. “I’m very sure the cold mage doesn’t know the general is here. I don’t know what his business is, but it’s not about Camjiata.”
“Your insight interests me, Maestressa,” he said with a smile meant to flatter, and indeed I blushed, because I was not accustomed to flattery. “Nevertheless, I’ll need to go report the cold mage’s arrival.”
He went downstairs.
I sidled to the office door and leaned against it. First I tightly furled my senses, blocking out sounds, sights, and smells around me. Then I reached to the threads of magic that permeate all things, the insubstantial threads that can’t be seen or touched in any common way. My awareness crept on those threads into the office.
Andevai was talking. “…If the principle of rei vindicatio were turned on its head. What if people bound by clientage could say they want to reclaim ownership of themselves? Is it possible?”
“Rei vindicatio means to take possession of something you already own. Such a ruling would turn on the legal status of those people bound by clientage.” Chartji spoke in her eerily perfect diction and accent. “Is clientage legally equivalent to slavery? If they do not possess their own persons in any legal way, then there is nothing to reclaim. Unless the law declares slavery to be illegal, as the law does among my people. So it is difficult for me to say if it is possible here. I will need to make a thorough examination of the law codes and the rulings of jurists. I will need to interview bards and djeliw, because they keep the oldest laws in their memories. I know of no such case being brought before the princely court in the principality of Tarrant. In Expedition, the law is handled quite differently. Just a moment…”
I was straining so hard to hear that when the door exhaled away from my face I stumbled forward into the office. The way the troll pulled back her muzzle was not unfriendly, but it was distinctly unnerving to stare down those predator’s teeth. The crest of yellow feathers raised.
“When I assure people that I offer private meetings, I must be able to fulfill that promise.”
I am sure my face turned as scarlet as if I had been painted. “My apologies.”
Andevai was seated on a settee by the desk. “You may as well let her stay, solicitor. There’s something she needs to hear.”
“I thought you said this appointment had nothing to do with me,” I retorted.
Chartji shut the door. Because I was not about to join Andevai on the settee, I remained standing. Chartji waited beside me. Fox Close lay quiet but for the noise of a coal man shoveling coke into the coal chute and the rumble of a wheelbarrow being pushed along the lane.
“Your chin is bruised,” Andevai said, touching his own chin.
I clasped my hands behind my back. “It was slammed into the floor when you fought that cold magic duel in the factory.” I did not add: against your own master, the mansa, to stop him from killing me.
“Ah.” He seemed stymied and uncomfortable. “My apologies.”
“Since you saved my life, I’m sure you need not apologize.”
With a wince as at a sour taste, he firmly said nothing and looked at me as if daring me to talk. Silence swelled like a bubble expanding to fill the chamber. I looked around. One wall was lined with bookshelves stuffed full of leather-bound volumes shelved in a hodgepodge, some upright and some lying flat. An elaborate map of the world, printed on fabric and tacked up askew, covered part of another wall. The troll’s desk looked like a bird’s nest in the way books, papers, nibs, and a number of odd-looking notched sticks were woven together into a mess that made my hands itch to tidy up. Most strangely, the fire was still burning.
Andevai rose. “Obviously you are wondering why I am here, Catherine. The main reason is business of my own, as I said, none of your concern.”
“Rei vindicatio is none of my concern? When you arrived at my aunt and uncle’s house two months ago, you invoked rei vindicatio to reclaim ownership of the eldest Hassi Barahal daughter. Four Moons House had forced the Barahals to sign a contract giving that daughter to the mages, but she had been allowed to remain in the possession of her family all the while she was growing up because the mages were worried that the presence in the mage House of a girl who walked the dreams of dragons might be dangerous. Isn’t that correct?”
“Why ask me the question when you already know the answer?”
“Just to hear you say it.” I was shocked at how snide my tone was, but I could not control the surging tide of my emotions: He had thought he had to kill me, yet he had saved my life; I had escaped him and then kissed him. I could not make sense of him.
His lips thinned. I knew some cutting retort was coming. He had a habit of trying to cover his emotions with expressions of scorn. “Yes, I invoked rei vindicatio. But I married the wrong woman, didn’t I? Instead of marrying your cousin, I married you.”
His gaze was too sharp. I decided I would rather look at the ceiling, which was painted blue and flecked with curiously vibrant representations of clouds.
He went on, his voice clipped. “So I have asked Solicitor Chartji if she knows of any legal way to undo the chain of binding which was sealed on our marriage.”
His comment shocked me back to earth. “There is no way to undo a magical chain. No way, short of death.” The word stung like a mouthful of salt.
“So we are told. But that does not mean it has never been undone before. Or cannot be undone by other means.”
“Such a matter lies a very long way out of my field of expertise,” said Chartji. “However, it would be interesting to look into as a legal technicality. I can promise nothing. Nor can I figure in what manner of legal court you could adjudicate such a case. However, I can investigate and report back on what I find, if that is what you want.”
“Do you want to be released from our marriage, Catherine?” His stare challenged me.
“May I speak bluntly?” I asked.
“When did you ever not?”
“You’d be surprised how many times I bit my tongue!”
“If you’d done so, I would think I would have seen more blood.”
“One drop was enough,” I said.
With an intake of breath, he stiffened, looking like a man who has no idea how he came to be standing in a place so far beneath his consequence. “There is no answer to that.”
How was it he kept putting me on the defensive? “You misunderstand me. All I meant was, are you willing to hear what I have to say in front of another person?”
Chartji’s crest rose slightly.
“I do not fear her censure, if that is what you think. Anything said here won’t be repeated.”
“I was trying to be thoughtful,” I said. “I meant only to spare your feelings.”
“Please do not begin concerning yourself about my feelings now.”
“Was there a time before this I would have had some reason to be concerned for your feelings? Perhaps after I was forced to marry you and you treated me with cruelty instead of kindness? Or perhaps when I was running for my life after you were commanded to kill me?”
The troll’s faint whistle shivered the air. I fisted my hands, waiting for Andevai to cut me down to size.
He shut his eyes, then opened them to look right at me, his voice tight and his tone rigidly formal. “I regret the high-handed way I behaved toward you on that journey almost as much as I regret not immediately rejecting the mansa’s command to kill you. But my regrets do not change the past. So say what you must, Catherine. I am not afraid to hear it.”
My heart was hammering so hard I was dizzy. I brushed the back of a hand across my forehead and took a breath to steady myself. “You belong to Four Moons House. Legally, you belong to them. You had to marry me because you were ordered to do it. Once I was forced to marry you, I belonged to them, too, through the djeli’s binding that contracted me to you. You knew that’s what would happen. So in a way I think it was an attempt at kindness for you to think that you and I—that you thought I was—” Heat seared my cheeks. I could not go on.
“Acquit me of kindness, Catherine. I meant what I said.”
I certainly could not forget what he had said: “When I saw you coming down the stairs that evening, it was as if I were seeing the other half of my soul descending to greet me.”
I gulped in air and got words past an obstruction. “Even if you believe that now, to Four Moons House I will never be anything except the mistake you made that lost them the person they wanted. The burden of protecting me from their indifference and spite will eventually wear away whatever affection you may currently believe you hold for me.”
“I wish you would speak for yourself, Catherine, and stop telling me what I do and do not believe and how I will and will not act.”
“Then I’ll speak for myself.” Because my hands were shaking, I clasped them together again. “I can’t live in Four Moons House as an unwanted creature whom everyone will scorn. And I know you said I could live in your family’s village, but I wouldn’t know how to live there. I’d be so out of place. Above all else, I know better than to chance what may happen tomorrow on a transitory passion felt today.”
I had to stop.
He said nothing. Yes, he was physically handsome, and attractive in some other intangible way. After those first disastrous days, he had made an effort to help me. His kiss had certainly pleased me in a most startling manner. But I did not love him. How could I? I didn’t even know him. And whatever he might think, he did not truly know me. He only believed he did.
“I am sure it is to your credit that you tried to soften the blow,” I went on.
“Soften the blow?” His eyes flared.
Had I been wiser, I would have stopped, because the fire in the hearth flickered.
No one had ever accused me of being wise.
“You were commanded to marry a woman against both your own will and hers. So you concocted a honeyed fable in your heart to make an unpleasant duty palatable. Just as you weave illusions out of light, you wove an illusion about us. One soul cleaved into two halves and then like destiny reunited—”
The fire whuffed out with a puff of ash. A glimmer of ice crackled across the heavy iron circulating stove.
“Are you quite through insulting me?” he demanded.
Chartji’s crest was fully raised. I felt she was making ready to act precipitously in case someone lost his temper and brought down the house.
“It’s not meant as an insult!”
“Implying I don’t know my own mind is not an insult?” His jaw was clenched, his eyes had narrowed, and I heard a whispery groan of iron under strain. Yes. He was very angry.
“That’s not how I meant it. You didn’t kill me when you had the chance. You aided me when you could. You defied the mansa by telling him you would stop anyone who tried to kill me. So I thank you for that. But Bee and I have our own problems. A husband is one complication too many.” My hands were squeezed so tightly my shoulders ached. I untangled my fingers and separated my hands. “I’ll make no objection if a way can be found to dissolve the marriage. Let you go your way, and me mine. It’s for the best.”
“So be it.” His gaze flashed up, and if there was a murderous piercing spear in those fine brown eyes I am sure he did not mean it literally. Perhaps he was finally reconsidering the wisdom of believing he had fallen in love at first sight. People could convince themselves of anything.
“Will that be all, then?” Chartji said to me.
“Yes.” I was barely able to croak out the word. Over here, it seemed terribly hot, although the rest of the chamber shivered with cold.
“If you will.” She indicated the door. “The magister and I aren’t finished.”
I let her usher me out, and as I turned back to see if Andevai had watched me go, she closed the door in my face.
Let him go his way, and me mine. Our lives led down different paths. I was well rid of him and the way he was contemptuous one moment, a proud cold mage from the top of his well-groomed head to the tips of his gloriously polished boots, and then the next might be mistaken for a staidly polite and provincially traditional—if unusually good-looking—village lad who was trying too hard to fit into a world where he was not welcome but could not be turned away.
Impatient with these niggling thoughts which like bad-mannered visitors simply would not leave, I ran downstairs. That idiot Bee had not left, although she had put on her coat. Seeing me, she opened her mouth, perhaps to comment on the way my eyes were red from unshed tears or that I had been parading around in my unkempt bodice and skirts like an overworked scullery maid. Then she closed her mouth and instead handed me my riding jacket. Rory was lounging by the fire as might a cat sunning itself on a rock.
We were not alone.
Kehinde sat in a chair opposite Bee, holding a parsnip. Brennan leaned against the wall beside the door, so perfectly at ease it took a moment to realize how quickly he could block the door. The contrast between them was striking. He was muscular, blond, and white-skinned, with the look of a man used to waiting until he had to explode into action. Small-framed, she was fidgety, touching each unsliced parsnip as if her hands needed something to do while her mind worked; her skin was black, and she wore her long black hair in locks.
“We need to talk.” She pushed her spectacles up the bridge of her nose.
“I didn’t say anything to him about the general being here!”
“Sit, please.” Kehinde spoke without force or anger. I sank onto the bench, all energy drained. “Why did you come? To seek our help to return to the Hassi Barahal motherhouse in Gadir?”
“No,” said Bee, with a glance at me. I let her talk. “We’re not returning there.”
“Why not? They are your community. What are we, if we have no community and no family?”
“‘We’ are left to fend for ourselves,” said Bee. “Let me just say that our family betrayed us and we no longer trust them. We hoped to find refuge with radicals. We thought you of all people would understand why we don’t want to be bound into clientage, practically legal slavery, to a mage House or a prince’s court…or some patrician household from Rome.” Her voice fell to a whisper, but she recovered. “We can be useful to the cause. We are not without skills.”
“The Hassi Barahal house is known to be employed in the business of selling information,” said Kehinde. “You might be spying on us. After all, after you came, the cold mage arrived.”
I was getting annoyed. “Turn that around! Why would Chartji make an appointment for a cold mage to come to your office at the same time the most wanted man in Europe is to be here?”
Brennan laughed. “An unfortunate case of bad timing, and close calls. Rather exciting, don’t you think?”
“For you it will always be a game, Du,” said Kehinde, measuring him with a frown. “The more you skate onto the thin ice, as you say here in the north, the better you like it.”
He shook his head, watching her closely. “Oh, no, Professora, you know it is not a game to me. Risks must be taken if we mean to get what we want.” He flashed his enchanting smile at Bee, and then at me. “I think the girls are a risk worth taking.”
“Maybe we’re the ones who should be asking if we can trust you,” said Bee. “Like Cat said, you’re the ones meeting with the general. And the cold mage!”
“She’s got us at knife’s point there,” said Brennan, still looking amused.
Bee’s brow furrowed and her gaze darkened as if storm clouds had swept down. We were in for a blow. “It’s easy for you to laugh. You’re a man. Maybe you’re entirely legally free, or maybe your northern village is entangled in some kind of clientage to a mage House. I don’t know. But you, Professora, surely you as a legal scholar will understand our situation. Even though my cousin and I are twenty and legally adults, the Hassi Barahal elders in Gadir can dispose of us however they wish simply because we are female and unmarried.” She flashed me a glance to remind me to keep my mouth closed about the unfortunate fact that I was already married. As if I wanted to brag about it! “So you can see that radicals who speak of overturning an oppressive legal code might interest us.”
“I understand perfectly.” Kehinde glanced at Brennan. To my surprise, he looked away, biting his lower lip. She toyed with the ends of several of her locks. “We dispute the arbitrary distribution of power and wealth, which is claimed as the natural order, but which is in fact not natural at all but rather artificially created and sustained by ancient privileges. Of which marriage is one. Yet we still have a problem. It appears you are being pursued by the same mage Houses and princes who wish to capture the general. Until Camjiata leaves Adurnam, you cannot stay here.”
“You’re turning us away,” said Bee wearily.
“Not at all. I have been formulating an idea that our organization might have a use for two young women trained by the Hassi Barahal clan. Godwik agrees with me. Indeed, Maester Godwik finds you to be of the greatest interest. I consider his judgments to be based on sound reason.”
“Unlike mine,” murmured Brennan.
She did not by so much as a flicker of the eye indicate she had heard this. “It was odd to hear the general say his wife had had a vision that he would meet a Hassi Barahal daughter who, as he declaimed so poetically, will walk the path of dreams. And then of course there was the oracle about Tara Bell’s child. Such oracles being clouded and obscure exactly so that any outcome can be acclaimed as the prophetic one.”
“I wouldn’t discount such words,” said Brennan. “But I am no city-raised sophisticate. I’m just a miner’s son who has seen too much death.”
“When people die in troubling and violent ways, we seek a story to explain it, however far-fetched.” She raised a hand to forestall Brennan’s retort. “That forces exist in the world which we cannot account for is manifestly true. Through observation and experience, scholars seek to describe the natural world and plumb its depths. I have for years been in correspondence with a well-regarded scholar who lives in Adurnam. I have now had the chance to speak with him in person, and I find him every bit as impressive as his letters indicated. He will shelter you until such time as it is safe for you to join us. You must ask to share a shot of whiskey with Bran Cof—”
“Everyone knows the poet Bran Cof is long dead,” said Bee. “If you can call that death, when your head is stuck on a pedestal and everyone is waiting for you to speak.”
“I like that whiskey stuff!” said Rory, sitting up.
Kehinde eyed him as if trying to decide whether his insouciance was an act that disguised a razor-sharp mind and will, or if he was exactly as he seemed. “The name is a code to show you are part of our organization.”
“Wait,” I said. “Why Bran Cof? Where do you mean to send us?”
“There is an academy in Adurnam. Its headmaster will shelter you.”
Bee slanted a glance at me, and I scratched my left ear, and Rory stood to stretch with an exaggerated yawn, because he understood we were speaking with gestures, warning each other and him. Bee and I had attended the academy for over two years. We knew the headmaster well. We had trusted him. When Bee had stayed behind in Adurnam after her parents and family fled on a ship bound for Gadir, she had gone to him for shelter. And he had turned her over to the custody of Amadou Barry, whose home had been a gilded cage that dazzled Bee until the legate made his insulting proposal, offering to make Bee his mistress. But Kehinde and Brennan didn’t need to know any of that.
I took a step back to leave the stage to Bee. With her black curls, rosy lips, and big brown eyes, she looked entirely adorable and innocent and trusting. “It is so generous of you to take an interest in us. But you know the risks we face. The factions hunting us. Why help us?”
Kehinde extended a hand, and to my shock Bee handed her the knife. The professor used the tip to investigate the ranks of sliced parsnips. “It is quite remarkable how evenly they are each sliced, as if each cut were measured beforehand by something other than your eye. Unless you find an isolated barbaric village, perhaps in the wilds of Brigantia”—she glanced at Brennan—“you must see you have entered the conflict whether you wish to or not. If it is true your dreams reflect a cryptic vision of the future—and I assure you I will need evidence—then you will never be let alone. Never. I am no different than anyone. I can think of ways to employ your gift to benefit the cause I cherish. But I will only ever approach you as a partner, and you will be free to leave our association at any time. It is your decision.” She set down the knife.
“What about your alliance with the general?” I asked.
Brennan smiled wryly. “Harsh conditions make for odd bedfellows. Our organization has its own reasons for considering an alliance with the general.”
I nodded. “That makes sense. He’s a soldier. You’re only radicals. He must be better able to fend off princes and mages than you are.”
“You will have to decide whether swords and rifles, or words and ideas, are more likely to win the day,” said Kehinde.
“I’m all for swords and rifles,” I said.
“Do not discount the power of words and ideas,” she said with a smile I dearly wished I could trust. “Their touch seems soft at first, but you’ll find it can be lasting.”
“Well, then,” said Bee. “We’ll take you up on your offer. We’ll leave right away.”
Rory collected the two bags as I pulled on my riding jacket, coat, and gloves.
“I’ll arrange for someone to escort you across the city who knows the backstreets to keep you out of sight of the militia,” said Brennan. “And may I ask, what is in the bags?”
My father’s journals, our sewing baskets, some clothes and diverse small necessities. What coin we had was sewn into Bee’s gown, with a few coins tucked into my sleeve. He had such a charming smile, but I hardened my heart against confiding even such innocuous information.
“Our things,” I said.
Kehinde rose. “I’ll come to the academy when it is safe for you to return. It would be best to go out the front so it looks as if you came for an appointment and left. If you’ll excuse me, I must prepare for my negotiations with the general.” She shook hands with Bee and me.
“Rory,” I said.
He stared at me with those golden, innocent eyes. “What am I supposed to do?”
“Shake hands. It’s the custom, among radicals.”
He set down the bags and shook hands with Kehinde. She left.
With a lazy grin, Rory gripped Brennan’s hand a bit too hard and a bit too long. I felt a shift in the temper of the air as Brennan took his measure, like coiling up rope in readiness to snap it out.
Bee said, “Rory, stop that.”
With a put-upon sigh, he let go, leaving Brennan to shake our hands.
He leaned toward me—too close, for I flushed—and murmured, “Is he really your brother?”
After all, I just could not resist. I daringly drifted close enough for my lips to brush the tips of his hair as I whispered, “What confuses you is he’s really a saber-toothed cat who followed me home from the spirit world.”
I expected him to laugh, but instead he pulled back and gave first a very searching look at Rory and then, less comfortably, a long and intent look at me.
“Well,” he said, ambivalently, and with his forehead creased thoughtfully, he went out.
“That was naughty.” Bee shut the door so we could have privacy. “Are you smitten?”
“Men like that don’t look at girls like me.”
“I think he likes the professora. It’s almost tempting, isn’t it, to join the cause just to fight near him. Or it would be, if we didn’t now know they are in league with the headmaster! Who handed me over to Amadou Barry. Who is a Roman legate. And the Romans are allied with the mage Houses against Camjiata. Who has come to this house to negotiate with the radicals. It doesn’t even make sense!”
Rory circled back to the stove. “Are we going back out into that awful cold? I’m starving.”
“So am I,” I said, “but we’ve got to go.”
“Camjiata knows something about walking the dreams of dragons,” mused Bee. “Maybe we should ally ourselves with him.”
“An alliance with him comes with a price.”
“I think he says what he means,” said Rory, “and means what he says.”
“Yes, and so does any lunatic.” Bee stirred the parsnip slices with the knife. “Alas, all I see right now in my future is dismemberment.”
I crossed to embrace her. “I’ll never let the Wild Hunt take you, Bee. Never!”
She sniffled, and put down the knife to hug me. “I love you, too, Cat.”
I released her. “There is another choice. I don’t know where my mother came from, so there’s no use seeking her kin. But Rory and I have a common sire. Someone Tara and Daniel encountered when they were part of the First Baltic Ice Expedition. The expedition was lost, and the survivors were only found months later. It’s certain that’s when she got pregnant. My sire must be a creature of the spirit world. How else could he impregnate both a human woman from this world and a saber-toothed cat from the spirit world?”
Bee grimaced. “I don’t like the way this conversation is going.”
I smirked. “Oh, come now, Bee. Nothing we saw in anatomy class ever made you blush.”
“That’s not what I meant, although now that you mention it, how could that be managed? Gracious Melqart, Cat. What an unseemly shade of red you’ve turned!”
“I’m going to pour a handful of salt in your porridge for a month, you monster. Don’t distract me. The coachman and footman who conveyed Andevai and me from Adurnam to Four Moons House were not…human. The footman was an eru. She addressed me as Cousin before I ever had any idea that Daniel Hassi Barahal was not the male who sired me. I have kinfolk in the spirit world. My kin are obliged to aid me. Isn’t that right, Rory?”
For an instant, his upper lip began to curl back, and I thought he was going to snarl. He spoke instead. “As I am bound, so must those bound to me as kin come to my aid. That is the law.”
“Cat, you think you can call your sire once you are in the spirit world.” Bee’s smile had a frightening effect on me: a tingling rush through my body that made me boldly wish to engage in a reckless act. Perhaps being exhausted and feeling cornered made us more reckless than usual. “If he is anything like Rory, he can cross back into this world in the shape of a man. That would bring a new piece into the conflict no one expects. How do we get to the spirit world?”
“When my blood was shed on a crossing stone, I crossed from this world into the spirit world. Once in the spirit world, I crossed back through a different gate. The hunters of Andevai’s village crossed likewise, so I was told. How would you get back, Rory, if you wanted to go?”
“My existence was very boring before you came, Cat. I lazed about, hunted a bit, sunned myself, ate, slept, and rested. I never had any fun. I don’t want to go back, and neither should you.”
“Oh, Rory.” I went to the door and put an arm around him. “You’ve asked for nothing. You’re the best brother I could ever have. But our situation here is impossible. We can’t keep running. You don’t have to come with us. We’ll give you money and you can wait with the bags at an inn. We’ll come back, I promise.”
Because he tended to laze about and look as sleek and indolent as any healthy cat, it was easy to forget he was a dangerous predator. He shook off my arm in a way that made Bee grab the knife as if she thought she might have to defend me.
His voice reverberated like the warning clangor of a bell. “Beware what you call, lest you be devoured by a creature hungrier than you. To drink from the fountain of mortal blood is to drink the essence of power. Every step in the spirit world is a perilous step.”
I did not fear him. He was my brother. I grabbed his hand. “What choice do we have?”
He seemed to get smaller, as if his fur were flattening. “It’s a bad idea.”
“To bring the knife, or not to bring the knife,” said Bee, “that is my question.” She set a denarius on the table before tucking the knife in her coat. “Where do we go?”
I said, “To the plinth that marks the foundation stone of the first Adurni settlement. Where two ancient paths met, according to the history of the founding of Adurnam. If any place in this city opens on a crossing into the spirit world, that must be it.”
“I don’t know, Cat. That part of town is filled with taverns, dogfights, and fatheaded young guildsmen seeking any excuse for a duel.”
“That sounds promising!” said Rory with a cocky grin that made me think he’d already forgotten his frightening words and our bad idea.
I fastened my cane to its loop and buttoned my coat as Rory picked up the bags. A saber-toothed cat, cold steel, and dreams that revealed the future. That would have to be enough. As we headed up the stairs, Bee began to hum under her breath the famous aria “When He Is Laid in Earth” from the recently staged opera The Dido and Aeneas, in which the queen of Qart Hadast, after defeating the Roman prince who sought to subdue her rule through marriage, presides over his funeral procession.
The Amazon waited in the entryway, shoulders against the door and arms crossed. “So here yee is,” she remarked in an odd accent. “Already, the general know yee lot shall leave.”
But instead of blocking our path, she opened the door. A blast of wintry air swirled in, numbing my face and chilling my heart. The history of the world begins in ice, and it will end in ice. So sing the Celtic bards and Mande djeliw of the north whose words tell us where we came from and what ties and obligations bind us. Here, we dare not forget the vast ice sheets and massive glaciers that cover the northern reaches of Europe. In the old tales, the ice is called the abode of the ancestors. Brennan hadn’t mentioned the phrase in his story of gruesome death, but Daniel Hassi Barahal had written it in his journals. I steeled myself, for wasn’t I seeking my ancestors?
The winter wind stirred the hem of the Amazon’s knee-length jacket. She wore a soldier’s boots, kept polished not to a fashionable mirror gleam but with an attention to cleanliness and wear, so they would last longer and support her when she hit rough ground.
“If yee wait with the door open, then the cold air come in. Make up yee mind. Go, or stay.”
“You’re not going to try to stop us?” Bee asked.
“They who fight with the general, fight of they own will. One thing I shall tell yee before yee walk. If ever any of yeen wish to contact the general, go to the tavern called Buffalo and Lion, in the district called Old Temple. Yee shall say the words ‘Helene sent me.’ We shall see yee again.”
“Our thanks.” Bee touched gloved fingers to her chest like a great lady of the theater about to make an exit. “And yet, farewell.”
She swept out the door and down the steps. Rory took in a breath as if scenting for danger, then followed, swinging the bags as if they weighed nothing. I could not stop myself from looking toward the closed door of Chartji’s office. Whatever went on there between the lawyer and Andevai was no longer my business. I had to leave that part of my life behind.
Yet I hesitated on the threshold. The clamor of the city assaulted me with the noise of rattling carts, ringing handbells, market-folk calling out their wares, and men crying the morning’s news: The Northgate poet begins fourth day of hunger strike on the prince’s steps! For a moment, I reveled in the sweet familiar sounds, the ones I had grown up with.
Then, out of nowhere and with no warning, a clangor shook me down to my boots. The sister bells, Brigantia and Faro by the river, rang to life with their alarm: Fire! Fire! Call the watch!
Doors opened all along Fox Close and people crowded onto their front steps, their breath like white mist in the air as they looked into the sky for the origin of the trouble.
“The war begin,” said the Amazon. “But the princes and the mages don’ know. Not yet. So, gal. Go, or stay?”
“Cat?” Bee’s plaintive voice called from the street. In the house, I heard footsteps, people moving toward doors that were about to be opened.
“I’m going,” I said. And I went.
“A good morning to you, Maestressas and Maester.” A young man with dusty blond hair and a freckled white face stood beside an empty coal cart. “Is all well with you?”
“I have no trouble, thanks to my power as a woman,” I replied in the traditional way, and received a scathing look from Bee for my pains. “And you, Maester? Is all well with your family?”
“We have peace, thanks to my mother who raised me,” he said with a grin. “Though I wonder at the bells. I hope the fire’s not around here.”
He looked down Fox Close toward Enterprise Road. With the bells tolling the alarm, the streets of Adurnam had turned, like the snowmelt-fed streams of late spring, into foaming rivers full with a raging flow of people hurrying to get somewhere else. I didn’t relish making our way halfway across Adurnam in this tumult.
“Are you from this district?” I asked.
He made a flourish with his cap. “That I am. And my ancestors before me. Eurig is my name. Brennan Du asked me to get you across the city.”
I exchanged a glance with Bee. We would have to lose him, but not too soon. A shame, for he seemed nice enough. “Our thanks. We can’t give our names. My apologies.”
“I understand. This way.”
He picked up the handles of the cart and began pushing not toward Enterprise Road but deeper into the narrow lane of Fox Close. We walked alongside as he talked. “We’ll take Ticking Lane through the Lower Warrens. They’re perfectly safe despite the name. Most of the old buildings here have been knocked down and rebuilt. And there’s gaslight everywhere in this district. We used to be nothing more than a fishing village. Now we’re quite the most modern district in Adurnam, thanks to the trolls and the radicals.”
“How did you become a radical?” Bee asked.
“As the Northgate poet says, it’s no crime to think men have natural rights that ought not to be trampled on by ancient privileges.”
“Just men? Or women, too?” asked Bee with her most dangerously pretty smile.
He blinked, taken aback by this thrust. “Nature has suited women for a different role than that given to men.”
“Like Professora Kuti?” Bee demanded.
“Cat!” Rory nudged me with a bag. “I smell a lot of horses nearby.”
Angry shouts of protest rang from Enterprise Road: “The dogs are come to bite us with their teeth of steel.” “We need step aside for no man!” “Which will it be, lads? Freedom or fetters?”
A whip cracked. A man screamed. A column of mounted soldiers swept into sight around the corner where Fox Close met Enterprise Road. About half wore tabards marked with the four moons of full, half, crescent, and new: turbaned mage House troops, leading a spare horse. The rest wore the uniforms of the Tarrant militia except for a half dozen in red-and-gold hip-length capes, the mark of Rome’s ambassadorial cavalry. Pedestrians stumbled back to the stoops and railings.
“Keep walking,” said Eurig. “Don’t look back.”
“Eurig,” I said, “did the ancient village here have a crossroads?”
“What? The Fiddler’s Stone down by Old Cross Gate? The fishermen would bring their catch up from the shore and trade it to the folk who came over from the Roman camp. That was a long time ago.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Let’s move faster. Just don’t run.”
I looked back. The soldiers pulled up in front of the law offices of Godwik and Clutch. A man wearing a Roman cape dismounted just as the door opened and Andevai appeared on the steps. The rigid set of his shoulders betrayed his annoyance, and made me think he really had come to consult with Chartji on a matter so private he hadn’t told the mansa. From the steps, as if drawn by my foolish stare, Andevai looked our way down Fox Close. I saw him see me.
Quite deliberately, he strode down the steps, mounted, and turned toward Enterprise Road.
“He’s leading them away from us!” I said.
“Just keep walking,” said Eurig.
“Cat!” Bee was breathless. “Didn’t you recognize him?”
“Andevai? Of course I recognized—”
“It was Amadou Barry, with the Roman guard.”
Eurig turned his cart into a lane lined with craftsmen’s shops. Behind one window, clockwork toy horses and dogs clattered along a display counter. Behind another, four women sat at a table, filing and polishing tiny gears.
Rory, lagging behind, ran to catch up. “They’re coming back. That Lord Marius is with them now. He must have told them to turn around.”
Eurig whistled shrilly. Five shops down, a burly man wearing an apron streaked with grease stepped out onto the lane. He nodded, and we hurried past him into a large room where persons bent over an alembic from whose unstoppered rim rose a misty thread. An acrid smell made my eyes water. Rory sneezed. From behind a curtain came the sound of hollow clapping.
“Up on the roof and over to the troll nest,” said the aproned man. “They’re all out at the steamworks, and I’ve got their permission. I’ll put your cart out back. Lads, get your masks on.”
“What’s that awful smell?” Bee asked.
“A scent to keep the prince’s hounds at bay, Maestressa,” he said. “You won’t be able to come back down, but they won’t be able to come in.” He dragged aside the curtain to reveal stairs.
A handbell rang three times. We climbed the stairs to the first floor in pace to the odd clapping noise. Workbenches filled the first-floor chamber, strewn with glass pipes, gleaming gears, and a discarded tartan cap. A dozen workers were grumbling as they reached under their benches for cloth masks. Scars mottled their ashen faces. The second floor was crammed with crates, and the third with neat rows of cots. A stair-step ladder led to a long, low attic with a dormer window and more cots.
I pressed a hand over my nose. My eyes were really beginning to sting.
Rory was staggering. “Poison!” he choked out.
“Move,” said Eurig. “The fumes will kill us.”
I pulled down the latch and opened the window. The winter air hit like a blast. A crow sat on the peak of the roof opposite. I was so sure it was watching me that I could not move.
Bee pushed past me and out the window. Shaking myself, I followed. We chivvied to the right around the chimneys and out of sight of the lane. Across a warren of roofs, it was possible to see the river embankments and docks crowded with vessels. A massive flock of crows wheeled in the sky.
“Look!” Bee’s fingers tightened painfully on my arm.
A fire blazed on the wide pewter expanse of the Solent River.
Greasy smoke billowed. Ripples of heat rolled upward against a dawn sky made dank and low by clouds. A hulk anchored beyond the docks was burning with fiery abandon.
“Isn’t that a prison ship, Cat? All those people chained in the holds must be trapped.”
Rory crawled into sight, wheezing. Eurig slouched after, dragging the bags.
Upriver, a sloop flying the prince of Tarrant’s ensign flowed into view. The deck was covered with uniformed men, some in clusters around the guns, others with swords, pikes, and crossbows ready to board.
Eurig shaded his eyes. “They mean to sink the hulk. Follow me.”
Bee released my hand. “They’ll let the prisoners burn? Or drown?”
He cast her a disgusted look. “Of course they will. That’s the plague ship.”
“A plague ship?” I stared at him. “What plague?”
“The salt plague.”
“The salt plague never left West Africa. It can’t cross water or survive the desert.”
He laughed in a coarse way that made me blush with shame. “Of course it can cross water. In a ship. That’s how our noble prince keeps agitators in line. There’s a cage of salters on that hulk. A political prisoner gets put in that cage, and he will get bit. The plague will infest his blood, and he will become a salter just like the others. He’ll crave salt and blood as his mind and body rot.”
Bee’s fingers closed over my forearm, grip tightening as Eurig took a step closer.
By the tension in his shoulders and the cant of his head, he meant us to feel intimidated. “My sweet lasses, there is no cure for the salt plague. And every person who is bit gets infested and becomes a salter in their turn. It would be better to be dead. So don’t wonder why we send those salters to rest at the bottom of the tide where they can’t bite us. Scarred Hades! Get down!”
A corner of Ticking Lane was visible between two chimneys. Horsemen rode past. We ducked, then crawled to where a sloped plank gave access to a higher roof. We climbed up, but once there, Rory vomited a vile spew that, horribly, had the slimy remains of feathers in it.
“Just…need…moment…rest,” he murmured, sinking to hands and knees.
“You’re turning green,” said Bee as I covered my mouth and nose with a hand. “You scout ahead. I’ll stay with Rory and the bags.”
Wincing with distaste, Eurig was eager to lead the way over the uneven rooftop with its chimney pots, then up steps to a wide ledge boasting a decorative wrought-iron bench, as if people sat up here. We looked over the rebuilt warrens. Trolls in pairs and threes, never singly, hurried through interconnected lanes and alleys, intermixed with men and women carrying goods on their heads or backs. One of the trolls cocked its feather-crested head, spotting us but moving on. Two bright-plumaged trolls leaned out an attic window several houses down, looking toward the conflagration. A woman hanging out washing had paused to stare at the disaster out on the water.
A voice from an unseen watcher cried out: “Militia in the warrens! Bloody Romans, too. And mage House soldiers! Quick, lads, stow the rifles.”
“Get down!” snapped Eurig. “Anyone might see you.”
I stepped behind a chimney as he tugged open a trapdoor. We descended steep steps through an attic crammed with crates, baskets, and sealed ceramic jars. The floor below had no walls, only support pillars. Mirrors fragmented me into a hundred pieces: etched mirrors, hand mirrors, bronze mirrors, mercury mirrors, all hanging from the beams or propped on racks or braced on stands. Among them, displayed on a maze of shelving, lay gleaming objects of every shape and size: polished gold bracelets, bowls of metal gears, glass pipettes sealed over liquid mercury, steel blades, a flintlock rifle recently oiled. The shadow threads that bind the world seemed to have caught in the maze, tangling through my head. A discordant melody echoed faintly through the maze, the disharmony making my temples pound.
I rubbed my aching eyes. “What is this place? A thieves’ den?”
“Careful where you step! Trolls are the most amiable creatures imaginable. Unless you take or break something that belongs to them. Come on.”
We ducked under mirrors, sidestepped a column of pewter candlesticks, and traversed a labyrinth woven of wire. The path doubled back, dead-ended, and once rewound us back the way we had come. The mirrored reflections made my vision throb. I feared that if I brushed anything, the entire collection would crash down. Dizzied, I leaned on the banister as I descended.
The second floor had three doors standing open to bedchambers. We had reached the first-floor landing when a thunder of hooves rattled the entryway on the ground floor below us.
A shout: “That roof, there. Yes, this building. I saw someone up there, my lord.”
“The door is locked, my lord captain.”
“Break it down.”
“Camlodus’s Balls! It’s the militia.” Eurig turned. “Go up and hide. I’ll divert them.”
I knew better than to argue. I raced upstairs just as the front door was smashed open and soldiers exploded into the house. The maze seemed a bad bet for hiding, so I bolted into one of the second-floor bedchambers. The room looked as though a whirlwind had hit it, clothing scattered in heaps across six high square frames with mattresses, which looked like more like nests than beds. The bright patterned fabrics gave the beds a patchwork feel: here a gold-and-green floral extravagance that might have been a barrister’s robe suitable for law court, there a ruffed dash jacket sewn out of a cotton printed with orange bars, blue scallops, and elongated rose-colored spectacles winged with peacock feathers whose eyes watched me.
“Stop!” cried a martial voice.
On the landing below, Eurig replied, “Here, now, my lord captain, Your Mightiness. What gives you leave to come barging in here?”
“I might ask what gives you leave to speak so disrespectfully to a man who holds both kinship to the prince, and a sword,” said a stentorian tenor. I recognized the voice of Lord Marius, whom I had first met at a ruined fort on a hill northeast of Adurnam, not more than a week before. Then, laughter had lightened his voice. Now, he blared.
“The prince of Tarrant?” retorted Eurig. “The man whose honor drains away drop by drop each day the Northgate poet refuses to eat? Our voices will be heard.”
“In the law courts, at least. What brings you to an empty troll’s nest?”
“They’re partners in a consortium with my employer.”
“I do believe you are lying. Are you angling for a ride on the plague ship, man?”
“Do you mean the one that’s sinking right now? So will injustice founder.”
“Arrest him,” said Lord Marius. “Search the premises.”
Threads of magic are woven through every part of the world because our world and the spirit world that lies athwart our own are intertwined. As footfalls approached the door, I drew the house’s shadows around me like a cloak and hid myself. Two men walked into the chamber. One was Lord Marius, a tall, lean Celt with a thick mustache, a clean-shaven chin, and short hair stiffened into lime-whitened spikes. His gaze swept the chamber with a smile of amusement brushing his lips, as Bee’s pencil might coax into life the humor of a man who prefers to laugh. He did not see me.
With him walked his brother by marriage, the young Roman legate Amadou Barry, whose father was both Roman patrician and West African prince and whose mother had been born into a noble Malian lineage. His Roman ambassadorial cape and the cut of his old-fashioned uniform certainly flattered him, although he had a frown on his handsome face.
“I admire his bravado,” Lord Marius was saying. “But I’ll have to have him fined for disrespect. I can’t challenge a laborer to a duel.”
“You Celts argue too much over fine points of honor. This seems like a chase after a wild goose, as you say up here in the north.” His gaze flowed right past me as he scanned the room. “Jupiter Magnus! Have you ever seen such a mess?”
Lord Marius had a hearty laugh. “Perhaps it merely belongs to a mind whose idea of tidiness isn’t the same as ours. It’s no worse than your sister’s dressing room.”
Amadou Barry halted three steps into the room. I eased back to the bed on which lay the peacock jacket. “Sissy was ever so. I’m amazed by the resourcefulness of those two girls.”
“Everyone has underestimated them, that is sure. Not least you, Amadou. Were you just that sure she would accept the—ah—position as your mistress?”
“I am a prince and a legate. Her family is impoverished and not respectable. She can’t ever hope to receive a better offer.”
Excerpted from Cold Fire by Elliott, Kate Copyright © 2011 by Elliott, Kate. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted May 4, 2012
The beginning of the book dragged a bit...and was a tad confusing. But once it got going everything fell into place. The twist and turns keep you turning the page...and the little hints of romance were so nice. Vai and Cat's little dance was so enjoyable. I was giggling like a school girl. Vai is a great character. I look forward to how he will get out of his current situation.
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Posted March 13, 2012
Cold Fire" is first of all a cinematic read. I was delighted by the visual imagery Kate Elliot was able to invoke. What a unique author I found her to be in this particular area. It was if I could see her characters in clothing with their weaponry in their settings, vividly. It's a rare thing to experience such a talent. This is not only a good book, it's really fun to read. Kate Elliot is a stand out writer in this genre, in my opinion!
World-building and the time symbols here were so interesting. I often get lost in such genre when they aren't well configured, and it's easy for me to get bored when that happens. This book easily held my avid attention. Not only that, but I was smiling all the way with the way things were interwoven...worlds and human access to magical forces, Romanic calendar, Creole~Caribbean flavor, a post tramatic induced Iceage, steampunkish influence, and more. I just loved it! I didn't want to stop reading it.
Ms Elliot's characters are believable and beautiful "visually," which I can't emphasize enough. It was easy to fall in love with Cat's dark and dangerous ex-husband, too. He's just irresistible! And, Cat is the consummate strong heroine. She's a force to be reckoned with, but she's also womanly and caring on other counts. It's hard not to make her a favorite.
My readers often ask if a 2nd book in a trilogy can be read alone, or if one needs to read the original book first. I didn't read the first book. I found this one to be easily self contained with good references to the 1st book. That didn't stop me from wanting to read the other one, however. I will absolutely want to buy the 3rd book, too!
This is an author all ages over 12 would thoroughly enjoy reading. A book most satisfying in the genre. I can only highly recommend it. It's not hardcore fantasy/syfy. Another really great YA to Adult Crossover Fiction.
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Posted October 1, 2011
I realy liked this book. I tore through it in record time for me and i cant wait for more! It was such vivid imagery and I couldnt help rooting for Vai.
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Posted January 23, 2014
I loved the first Cold book but reading the 2nd one has been a bit nerve wracking. Characters brought back, everyone meeting in one place, fighting, running through corridors and in the end.......I'm lost. I would like to see one of the many ongoing plots solved just to feel like someone was successful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 15, 2013
Posted August 16, 2013
Posted August 3, 2013
Book is a bit long winded and sometimes repeats itself (guess it has to do this in case you forget parts.) That being said this is a very interesting read and will keep you reading past several midnights. Plan to buy the third and last book because I have no idea where all this mayhem will end up.....only the next book will reveal!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 2, 2013
This was the second book in one of the best trilogies that I have read in a while. The story of this strong woman coming to terms with who she is and charting her own course despite the obstacles made this and the other two books difficult to set aside. So glad that I can speed read!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 22, 2013
I loved this book, as well as the other two in the series. They are all very original, with well-defined characters with plenty of flaws, but ultimately heroic. There is something for everyone in this book with a little romance, a few zombies, some battles, lots of fantasy, and even some sports. I recommend this book without reservation.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 12, 2013
I could not put down the first book in this series. So I had to read the second. It was still a fun read, but it took a little longer to get through. What I liked most is that all of the same characters appear from the first book and Cat finally makes her decision about Vai!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 12, 2013
Posted July 10, 2013
This book moved faster than the first one. Cat has developed well without a total loss of naievety, but still has room to grow in the third book.
There was enough adventure and fewer history lessons than the first book.
Posted June 8, 2013
This book started off slow again but at least this time i knew the characters.
I was happy that Vai and Cat finally got together only to find them ripped
apart again can't wait to see how Vai escapes.
Posted June 7, 2013
I couldn't put this book down. I keep waiting for the romance to blossom and the war all at the same time. Such a gripping story. Can not wait for Cold Steel to come out! Magic, love, fighting, etc this book has it all!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 24, 2013
Cold Fire was much worse than the first book, so disappointing in fact that I didn't bother finishing it. There was a complete 180 degree turn in character from the Cat in cold magic. If you were expecting to find the strong independent and fearless Cat again you will be crushed to find she has become immature and anxious making hormonal decisions bereft of the intellect she once possessed.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 17, 2013
I absolutely loved the first book of this series and waited for cold fire for so long that when I read it I felt a little disappointed. This second book lost the charm of the first one, albeit it was more "epic" than the first. Maybe it was because the second book had much more characters than the first and there were a lot of twits and turns I was blind sided by(which is no really a bad thing in retrospect..). Maybe I felt like Cat was more helpless here than the first, or maybe I'm just frustrated the third book is taking FOREVER like this did!!!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 1, 2012
Posted March 2, 2012
I really enjoyed this book. It's an interesting fantasy world that has been created in this series. I look forward to Cold Steel!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 18, 2013
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Posted October 15, 2011
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