Dust and Light: A Sanctuary Novel

Dust and Light: A Sanctuary Novel

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by Carol Berg
     
 

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National bestselling author Carol Berg returns to the world of her award-winning Flesh and Spirit and Breath and Bone with an all-new tale of magic, mystery, and corruption....

How much must one pay for an hour of youthful folly? The Pureblood Registry accused Lucian de Remeni-Masson of “unseemly involvement with ordinaries,”…  See more details below

Overview

National bestselling author Carol Berg returns to the world of her award-winning Flesh and Spirit and Breath and Bone with an all-new tale of magic, mystery, and corruption....

How much must one pay for an hour of youthful folly? The Pureblood Registry accused Lucian de Remeni-Masson of “unseemly involvement with ordinaries,” which meant only that he spoke with a young woman not of his own kind, allowed her to see his face unmasked, worked a bit of magic for her....After that one mistake, Lucian’s grandsire excised half his magic and savage Harrowers massacred his family. Now the Registry has contracted his art to a common coroner. His extraordinary gift for portraiture is restricted to dead ordinaries—beggars or starvelings hauled from the streets.

But sketching the truth of dead men’s souls brings unforeseen consequences. Sensations not his own. Truths he cannot possibly know and dares not believe. The coroner calls him a cheat and says he is trying to weasel out of a humiliating contract. The Registry will call him mad—and mad sorcerers are very dangerous....

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
07/01/2014
A youthful indiscretion has come back to haunt pureblood Lucian de Remeni-Masson. His contract with the Registry has been canceled, and he is offered a degrading new one with the city coroner, Bastien. With a young sister to support, Lucian has to accept, and Bastien sets him to drawing unidentified corpses in hopes of finding their next of kin (and perhaps a reward). But Lucian's magical talent to paint things as they truly are also gets him involved with a political conspiracy when he and Bastien discover that the royal family's illegitimate offspring are being killed and dumped in the city slums. VERDICT Berg drops readers into her fantasy world, the same one as her Lighthouse duology, without much explication. Luckily the author is talented enough to create a narrative that will pull in even those unfamiliar with the previous books. Lucian has a great character arc; he emerges from a privileged youth who suffered a great personal loss to become someone who's determined to find the truth.
Publishers Weekly
06/23/2014
Berg returns to Sanctuary (most recently depicted in Flesh and Spirit) for this captivating and satisfying fantasy epic, the first of a pair. Lucian de Remeni-Masson, a young pureblood sorcerer and a child of privilege, loses his family and fortune as the Kingdom of Navronne reels from a fratricidal civil war. The action truly takes off once Lucian is forced into the service of Bastien de Caton, the coroner of Palinur, and begins using his magical capabilities to identify the unnamed dead. With an impressive command of language, sure-handed plotting, and perceptive characterizations, Berg traces the arc of Lucian’s arduous quest to solve the murders of several illegitimate royals. Lucian constantly appears on the verge of failure, but Berg deftly displays his psychological development and convincingly paves the way for him to earn his escape through self-knowledge and self-sacrifice. (Aug.)
From the Publisher
Praise for  Carol Berg

“An absolutely gorgeous writer...[who] does incredible worldbuilding.” —C. E. Murphy, author of The Walker Paper series

Praise for Flesh and Spirit and Breath and Bone

“Engrossing.” —Sharon Shinn, National Bestselling Author of Royal Airs

“Altogether superior.” —Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)

“Emotionally intense.” —Publishers Weekly

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781101603093
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
08/05/2014
Series:
A Sanctuary Novel , #1
Sold by:
Penguin Group
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
464
Sales rank:
94,554
File size:
1 MB
Age Range:
18 Years

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Read an Excerpt

BOOKS BY CAROL BERG

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

PART I

CHAPTER 1

YEAR 1291 OF THE ARDRAN PRINCIPALITY

YEAR 214 FROM THE UNIFICATION OF ARDRA, MORIAN, AND EVANORE AS THE KINGDOM OF NAVRONNE

YEAR 1, INTERREGNUM, MOURNING THE DEATH OF GOOD KING EODWARD

EARLY WINTER

Rumors flew into Palinur on a malignant north wind. After seven bloody months, Perryn, Duc of Ardra, Prince of Navronne, had battled his contentious brother Bayard back into the northlands. While frozen roads and rivers locked Bayard in the river county, Perryn was returning triumphant to his royal city. For better or worse, King Eodward’s throne was his. Navronne’s brief war of succession was over.

Perhaps.

My unfocused anxieties felt somehow traitorous to my heritage. The politics of ordinaries shouldn’t touch me, a pureblood sorcerer, gifted by the gods to provide magic to the world. Were they yet living, my parents would berate me for unseemly distraction and my teasing brothers call me soberskull or grimheart. But the war had touched me, and would forever, no matter which prince won the prize.

The frigid air pricked like needles this morning. Another fretful night had left me nervy, as if bowmen stood on the rooftops, arrows nocked and aimed at my back. Ten times in the half quellé from my town house I’d spun around, imagining a pickthief fingering the gold chain about my neck. Now the babbling river of people flowing through the back lane of the Council District had come to a standstill, trapping me between a heavily guarded flock of squalling geese and a rickety tinker’s cart headed for some nobleman’s kitchen.

The blockage did naught for my composure. I’d determined to reach my studio at the Registry Tower early and had foolishly assumed the streets might be less crowded while the morning was yet dark as pitch. But refugees from the northern battles had swarmed into the city ahead of Prince Perryn’s legions. Barons and villeins, freeholders and crofters, monks, practors, and townsmen crammed the streets with wagons and carts, trading their belongings for what provision anyone could offer. What hopes people bore of sustenance in a famine year might be realized only in Palinur—and before the returning troops ravaged the remaining stores.

Fools, all. The new year had not yet turned, and Navronne already lay in the grip of yet another ruinous winter. Market stalls were bare, grain stores heavily guarded. Meat and fish commanded prices akin to rubies.

The poor light—a weedy torch here and a grimy wagon lamp there—scarce penetrated the murk. An escort to carry a lamp and clear my path was a luxury my purse could no longer support, and when my steward had offered to hire a linkboy, I’d refused, unwilling to wait. A poor decision. I was expert at those.

Exasperated, I squeezed past the tinker’s cart, only to end up ankle-deep in a stew of ice and muck, blocked yet again. Two men were pounding each other bloody, surrounded by jeering onlookers.

“Move aside!” Magelight blazed white from my hand, quieting the noise in the lane.

Most folk properly averted their eyes at the sight of my mask and claret-hued cloak and squeezed to the sides of the lane to let me pass. I could properly summon a constable to punish those who did not, but that wasn’t going to speed my progress.

Unfortunately, neither was the uncomfortably direct assertion of my prerogatives. A rag-topped cart crammed with women and children choked the lane ahead, while three men attempted to repair a broken wheel. The families had painted their foreheads with dung to appease whatever god they believed had brought this doom of war and winter on the world.

I considered reversing course altogether, but an alley sheering off to my left looked more promising.

The alley was certainly no garden path. I stepped over piles of unidentifiable refuse, a bloated cat, and a beggar, either sleeping or dead. But the empty quiet was a welcome contrast to the cacophony that rose again behind me. The wind sighed and whistled through the dark slot.

I dimmed my magelight. I needed to conserve power, rid myself of distraction, and focus on my work today. A portrait done the previous afternoon needed repairs before the Master of Archives inspected it.

Lucian . . . see . . .

I would not look back. Would not. The breathy words were naught but wind.

. . . meddling . . . end it . . .

. . . no saving him . . .

I made it halfway to the graying light at the far end of the alley before I whirled about and raised my light again to affirm that the touch on my shoulder and the footsteps—soft as bare feet on green grass—were mere imagining.

At six-and-twenty, I was a man of fit body and intelligent mind, a pureblood sorcerer of honorable bloodlines and with an exceptional magical bent for portraiture. Save for one small failure in discipline five years past, which had borne entirely unsubtle consequences, my conscience was clear. So why did I have this incessant sense of being watched? My eyes insisted that shadows darted away as I rounded corners and that wisps of colored light glimmered in the dark courtyards outside my windows. Only in the last tenday had my fancy added these whisperings just at the farthest limits of hearing. Warnings, but of what, I had no idea.

Not that I believed in them. That would be madness.

The sensations were not magic. Every day of my life was filled with magic. Nor were they ghosts. Were ghosts real, mine would be only three months raised and so numerous I could not mistake them. These oddities had gone on nigh half a year. Reason could explain none of it.

No matter reason or belief, my fears were undeniable. Reason did not always hold sway, and purebloods were not immortal.

Lucian . . . listen . . .

Without looking back, I raced from the alley into the busy boulevard that led uphill to the Tower.

*   *   *

By the time the city bells pealed ninth hour of the morning watch, I was glaring at the sketch propped on my easel. The subject, an overripe girl of fourteen, had come into the Pureblood Registry the previous day for her biennial portrait, which seemed a silly exercise in the face of such world-shaping events as war and disastrous winter. Instead of the pups and roses she wanted as her background setting, my fingers had insisted on drawing wrecked houses and hanged men. The girl’s grandfather Pluvius, Master of the Registry Archives and my own contract master, would most certainly disapprove, so I’d come in early to remove them with an unsatisfactory wash of ink.

Touching my pen to the portrait yet again, I raised the girl’s true image, shaped in my mind at her sitting. A quick comparison to the actuality on the page, and my will released the enchantment waiting in my fingers like liquid fire. A few quick strokes instilled a little more of the spoiled-daughter pout so clear in my mind’s eye. Better. Truth.

Even so mundane an evocation of magic filled me with awe and divine purpose. No matter personal grief or inexplicable megrims, magic held me centered—an inexhaustible source of wonder.

The fire in the grate had left the tower studio stifling. Blotting my fingers, I hurried across the cluttered chamber to the fogged casements and twisted the latch, welcoming a drift of cold air.

Better to be here than down below. My boots were dry. The air was quiet. A small fire blazed in the pocardon, the royal city’s ancient market—thankfully nowhere near the town house where my young sister remained secluded with our devoted servants—but I could not smell it. Here in the chambers of those who administered the lives of pureblood sorcerers, all was as it had ever been: serene, unhurried, and well disciplined, separate from the chaos of ordinaries, as the gods intended.

A bitter draft swooshed through the tower room, riffling fifty loose pages before the door slammed shut again behind a rumpled giant.

“Earth’s Mother, Lucian! I thought I was never going to get here this morning.” Gilles dropped his pen case and sagged onto a stool, puffing and blowing, his cloak muddy and twisted halfway round, his hose ripped, and his mask drooping from the left side of his flushed face. “Some cursed lackwit found a stash of five pigs and let them loose. A thousand beggars were tearing each other apart to get at them.”

Despite the grim circumstance, I had to grin. “Pigs. And yesterday it was geese. And the day before—hmm—your manservant spilled your morning posset on your sleeve?”

Though the Albins, the wealthiest of all pureblood families, provided their son an armed escort party, he arrived most mornings in a similar state. Gilles attracted disorder like beggars attracted fleas. Tripping over his own feet or annoying his hound served as well as riot or ill wind.

I appreciated Gilles. He had mentored me when my first contract brought me to the Registry Archives, and he had taken it with grace when I was given a senior commission of six major portraits only a few years later. Although his uncle was a Registry curator, he had never been offered one.

Our skills meshed well; I worked better with younger men and with elders of both genders, Gilles with middle-aged women and fidgety children. We had even supped together several times over the years when our work kept us late. An ordinary might describe us as friends, though such frivolous relationships were discouraged in pureblood society.

“Surely Prince Perryn’s victory will settle the city,” I said, turning back to the window. “Of the three, he’s said to be Eodward’s truest son, noble in mind and bearing.”

“Bayard’s stubborn, though,” said Gilles, blotting his broad forehead. “And until he’s crushed entire or someone finds Eodward’s will saying which one inherits, Bayard won’t leave off fighting. But even Bayard the Smith couldn’t be a worse sovereign than the Bastard of Evanore or the Harrower priestess, may she writhe in Magrog’s chains for eternity.”

I actually knew very little of Perryn or Bayard or the third royal brother, the bastard prince who ruled the south, but every day of my life I would beg the gods for some fitting end for the vile priestess, Sila Diaglou. She and her fanatical Harrowers believed our ten-year siege of ruinous weather, the rampant plagues, diseases, famine, and war were humankind’s penalty for corrupt living. Harrower mobs had destroyed far too much of worth in their pursuit of purity and repentance, ravaging, burning, slaughtering innocents in the name of their vengeful Powers. . . .

I closed my eyes and summoned discipline. Emotions about the unchangeable past, especially when snarled with ordinaries and their politics, only cluttered a man’s thinking.

My grandsire had been wise to negotiate my first contract with the Registry itself. A historian of rare gifts, he had warned of the upheaval to come at mighty King Eodward’s death. Young and stupid, I had chafed at the limitations of a Registry position. A contract with a town, a hierarch, or a noble family outside Palinur would certainly have fetched better terms—more prestige, wider contacts, a better stipend to fill the family coffers—and surely more interesting work. But youthful folly had already squandered my grandsire’s favor that might have allowed my opinion to be heard.

The Pureblood Registry will endure, no matter the shifting loyalties and upsets of ordinaries, my father had said, trying, as ever, to ease the bitter gulf between my grandsire and me. The world cannot live without pureblood magic, and our survival, as well as our prosperity, is founded on Registry discipline. You’ll flourish there.

Unfortunately, Patronn had not lived long enough to see his own father’s predictions fulfilled. Nor had my grandsire, my mother, my brothers, nor any child or elder of my bloodlines—all of them dead in the ordinaries’ war. Only Juli and I were left.

“I just hope for order in the streets,” I said. “I’ve not taken my sister out in months. Her tutors have stopped coming; gone into hiding, I think. Yet she insists she should be out rebuilding the Verisonné Hospice or designing an enlargement of the Fullers’ Guildhall.”

“Rebuilding? Designing guildhalls? A girl of fifteen?”

“Idiot child. No one’s building anything until times are more settled. And without serving a proper apprenticeship, she’s like to build roofs that will collapse. Though, in truth, it’s not just that. . . .”

I let it go. No need to bemoan my inadequacies as surrogate parent. Juli was immensely gifted, and star-eyed about her magic despite our personal sorrows. But her stubborn nature was going to bring us more grief.

“Oh!” Gilles clapped a hand to his head. “Almost forgot. I met Master Pluvius on the stair. You’re to attend him immediately in the Curators’ Chamber.”

“Great gods, Gilles!” I slammed the casement shut and raked fingers through my hair. Tugging my shirtsleeves straight and adjusting my wrought-gold belt, I eyed the blue velvet pourpoint I’d discarded when I began work, weighing the consequences of further delay against the disrespect of casual dress before my superior. Of course, Master Pluvius himself—forever fussing over me—had recommended I work in shirtsleeves to keep my outer garments clean. But he also held the future of a very important commission in his hand, and he was ferocious about promptness.

“Did he say what this was about?”

“No. Just that you should come immediately.

“Sorry, Lucian!” Gilles’s call drifted after me, as I abandoned the pourpoint with its hundred button loops and raced for the upward stair.

*   *   *

“Lucian de Remeni-Masson, you’ve met Curator Pons-Laterus and Curator Albin, the Overseer of Contracts?”

My stomach knotted as I faced three senior administrators, attired not just in customary pureblood formality, but in their official gowns of black and wine-red stripes. I felt half-naked in undertunic, shirt, belt, and hose. Stupid, stupid, stupid not to take the time to present myself respectably.

Summoning composure, I touched fingertips to forehead and bowed deeply to each. “I do have that privilege, Master Pluvius. Doma Pons. Domé Albin. Pardon my rude attire. My . . . uh . . . current occupations delayed the delivery of your summons.”

I would not lie. Yet neither would I excuse my delay by blaming Gilles, even if his uncle weren’t sitting in front of me.

Guilian de Albin glared down his long straight nose at me. He himself looked like a sculpted idealization of a pureblood—that nose, the raven hair pulled back severely from a noble brow, a thick-muscled body—and he fulfilled every expectation of such a figure. The Albins were not only the wealthiest, but one of the most powerful, and definitely the most traditional, of families. I’d once heard Albin reprimand a fellow curator for allowing the man’s own daughter to address him in public.

And Pons, of all people. She knew the worst of me. Her black eyes, so like the pits of olives, had been pinned to my back every day for nigh on five years. Why was she here?

“Sit, Lucian.” Pluvius, the white-bearded Master of Archives, the robust historian who directed my work, motioned me to a stool in the center of the room facing the U-shaped table. His sober expression told me nothing. Pluvius could dither like a nursemaid and bellow like a guard commander, all in the same hour over the same incident.

Natural apprehension at sudden formal meetings warred with rising hopes. Rumor said my commissioned portraits of the six Registry curators had won high favor. While following the formal style of previous official portraits, I had distinguished each with a more naturalistic background. Every instinct in me said the paintings marked a major step forward in my skills. They were pleasing in balance and form, and the likenesses excellent as well as true.

Though the portraits were not yet hung, Pluvius had quietly set me to preparations for a portrait of my grandsire and hinted a second senior commission might be involved. I’d been working late on preliminary sketches every night for a tenday, reaching deep into power and memory and grief to touch the truth of a man I had known better than any other living person. Without question, the sketches were the best work I’d ever done.

Curator Albin inclined his head in my direction. “Your family’s loss these three months since was a blow to all pureblood society.”

Body and spirit grew rigid. His cool reference shuttered excitement and rising hopes as spilled ink blots a sketch.

“The Remeni have been elite for generations. And the Massoni were already so few. Both bloodlines nearly wiped out in a single night. Dreadful, tragic . . .”

Dreadful? Tragic? The words were entirely, grotesquely insufficient. A sudden overload of work had kept me in the city that night, but I could see it all, as clearly as any image my art could produce. The cool late-summer night in the rolling hills outside Pontia, moonlight bathing our beauteous vineyards, still healthy amid the land’s failure. Music and laughter bursting from the great hall of our family estate, as my grandsire, mother, father, brothers, aunts, uncles, and cousins celebrate my youngest brother’s first contract. Someone—my father? One of my uncles?—would have queried the first hint of smoke that was not candles or hearth fires. And celebration had transformed to panicked horror as they realized the hall was ablaze and the doors barricaded.

Rampaging Harrowers had drowned my family’s dying screams with their nonsensical chants about purity, repentance, and corrupt magic, or so the local magistrate had reported. Gleefully, I’d thought. The leering ordinary had worn a telltale of Harrower orange inside his jupon. Madmen were everywhere these days.

“. . . and of course, it has left you in a difficult position—only six- and-twenty, lacking four years until you can be named Head of Family, yet serving a contract that expires in the spring. You will need a negotiator. Second Registrar Pons-Laterus”—he motioned to the woman beside him—“has graciously taken on that commission.”

My chest near caved. My worst imagining come true.

In the past months I had pursued every remote family connection, hoping to enlist a competent advocate before the Registry appointed a random official to negotiate my next contract. But the war and the dreadful weather had made the great families wary of entanglements. And now, of all of them, the Registry had given me Pons. Goddess Mother . . .

The Second Registrar, a hard, sour woman as gray and blockish as the Tower itself, had served as Registry investigator for the city of Montesard during my years at the university, the years when my indiscretion had brought disgrace upon my family and altered my future.

I exhaled smoothly. Do not let them see. Albin will think you an undisciplined child, as Pons does already.

“I am honored by this most generous gesture,” I said, bowing in Pons’s direction even as my gut churned. “But perhaps . . . Master Pluvius once offered . . .”

“It is entirely inappropriate for your current master to negotiate your next contract,” snapped Albin, who’d had the final say on every pureblood contract for twenty years. “He cannot be objective.”

Yet one could say the same about any Registry-selected negotiator. Pons would be strictly honest, no doubt, but she made no secret of her despite. She believed family influence had unduly mitigated the consequences of my unseemly involvement with ordinaries in Montesard.

“But I’m sure the Second Registrar’s duties demand her undivided attention,” I said. “As my contract does not expire until almost midyear, I’ve other avenues—”

“Alas, not so,” said Albin. “All next year’s contract expirations for Registry positions have been advanced. The stipends already paid will not be reclaimed for the unfulfilled months—an expensive sacrifice on our part. But our attention must be directed toward the new king, affirming our traditional cooperation and prerogatives. Your contract expires at midnight tonight.”

Tonight! I could scarce choke out the necessary response. “Yes, of course, domé, that sounds wise.”

Negotiations without preparation . . . altogether unwise. I needed to study my current contract, gather comparisons from other portraitists, convince the Registry to cede a more appropriate income for my skill level and perhaps shorter hours. Tutelage for Juli came dear and I needed to be available to chaperone her lessons. Then, too, this was likely my last chance to shape my future.

The gods had gifted me in exceptional ways, both with power for magic and with a family that indulged and nurtured my particular talents. My grandsire—our Head of Family—had even been willing to challenge Registry tradition for me, and in a moment’s lapse of discipline I had thrown it all away. I would forever grieve for my grandsire. My determination to cleanse the stain I’d brought to his name had rested in the hope of more serious, substantial service than anniversary portraiture.

“I suppose Curator Pons and I must finalize a proposal right away and set a contract meeting for this evening,” I said. One did not display emotions, especially such private ones, outside the family.

Curator Albin crossed his arms and sat back in his chair, waiting.

Master Pluvius studied the table in front of his folded hands.

Pons planted her forearms on the table and leaned forward. Plain silver rings gleamed from her thick fingers as she tapped a sheaf of documents. “In truth, Remeni, the Registry has made no offer for your service. As we’ve no time to solicit other offers, I’ve gathered together what open bids for portraitists we have already. Perhaps one of these will suit.”

No offer . . . My mind stuttered and reeled. Of course the Registry wanted me back. My work here had been exemplary. A senior commission while in my first contract. The promise of another with my grandfather’s portrait. Never a reprimand. My every moment since my disgrace had been given to improving both my art and the self-discipline my role in life demanded—to becoming a man worthy of the Remeni name. Master Pluvius had long said I could wrestle out details that made my subjects near step out of the canvas, allowing Registry investigators to identify any pureblood inerrantly.

“I don’t understand.” My voice—properly calm and detached—might have belonged to someone else. “Have I somehow failed in my work or my deportment? Master Pluvius?”

“Certainly not, lad. It’s just . . . unique circumstances. These unsettled times.”

“First Curator Gramphier knows of this?” To invoke my personal connection with the highest-ranking official of the Registry galled, but Gramphier had been my grandsire’s longtime colleague. He had encouraged my Registry contract as a way for me to demonstrate my worth.

Pons settled back in her chair, her face impassive save for the touch of scorn on her thin lips. “Naturally Gramphier knows. But if you wish to let your contract lapse as we solicit new offers for your service, we can halt this right now. You could contact me when your intellect is functioning at some useful level.”

Bitter truth quenched my protests. My service must be sold. Juli and I had no other income. Our Ardran vineyards had frozen two winters running; who knew if they would ever come back? And, along with every person in the world we loved, our family’s treasury had been lost in the Harrower raid. We were nearing the end of the funds my father had provided for my maintenance in Palinur. Juli had brought my last stipend on a visit to the royal city. My work had prevented me from escorting her home in time for our brother’s celebration, else we would have burned alongside the rest of them. I needed a contract, and the curators knew it.

“No, no, Doma Pons. Certainly I’ll hear these bids.”

Pons read through each application in her stack.

A Karish abbot sought a pureblood artist to travel alongside, illustrating prayer cards to enlighten unlettered villagers.

A customs official on the eastern borders needed charts of goods carried through the border station for taxing purposes.

“Your skills at reflecting the inner person would suit this Trimori mine,” she said, tossing out an age-yellowed parchment. “The governor wishes to ferret out troublemakers from felons sent to labor in the pits.”

“A traveling position is out of the question,” I said, “as are those in remote or military outposts. My sister is a maiden of fifteen without other family. I must see to her education.”

And the stipends these offered were pitiful. None would support a pureblood household, much less allow me to accumulate the wherewithal to rebuild our family. These bids had gathered dust in the Registry vaults because they were insults.

Swelling anger threatened my composure. Pureblood sorcerers held the power of magic, the greatest gift of the gods to a troubled world, and they sacrificed a great deal to preserve, nurture, and share that gift. Not even Karish monks lived with more study, rules, and restrictions. Purebloods bound themselves and their grown children into strict service on the assurance that they would be provided the means to maintain the dignity of our calling and to withstand such travails as war and famine.

“Well, then . . .” Frowning, Pons thumbed through the stack and pulled out a yellowed page. “I see only one that might suit. One Bastien de Caton offers a position here in Palinur. He requires line drawings for purposes of identification. Compensation left to negotiation. But it is only a one-year contract. Do you wish to interview the master?”

I leapt at the offer before an angry outburst could disgrace me further.

“No need to interview him.” Identification portraits were exactly what I was doing already. And only a year’s contract. In the interim I could find a better advocate and search more thoroughly. “Palinur suits best. If I’m required to live in, I’ll at least be able to look in on my sister. As long as the contract meets Registry standards.”

Registry contracts were quite strict about personal security, respectful address, comfortable accommodation and sustenance, and permissible penalties for unsatisfactory work. My age left me no standing to disapprove contract terms—only the Registry and the Head of Family, or, in my case, Pons, had a say. But even Pons would not undermine pureblood prerogatives with a poor contract.

“I shall negotiate the best terms possible, given the unsettled times,” said Pons. She dipped a pen and scratched a few notes on the page. “I shall stipulate that you will live in your own home, though this Bastien will, no doubt, insist on appropriate hours. I foresee no difficulties.”

“Come here, Lucian,” said Master Pluvius. Before I could think, I was signing my name where his finger pointed. Curator Albin snatched the paper from under my hand and applied his seal to the bottom. As if the terms were already settled.

Pons rose briskly, her formidable bulk blocking the gray light from the casements behind her. “We shall provide the usual escort party to deliver you to your new master tomorrow . . . if all goes well in the negotiation, of course.”

“Yes, certainly. My gratitude for your consideration, Doma Pons, Domé Albin, Master Pluvius.”

The three curators had already reached the doorway as the necessary politenesses stumbled from my tongue. I felt as if I had been trampled by wild horses.

“Go home, Lucian. Whatever you’re working on will have to be finished by someone else.” Master Pluvius lingered in the doorway. “I’m sorry about all this. Be sure I shall give you good recommendations.”

“I appreciate that, master.”

Yet why would I expect differently? The Registry required every pureblood to sit for a portrait each year until age twelve, every two years until age thirty, and every ten years thereafter. Each small artwork was magically linked to its subject, and our signatures irrevocably bound the artist and the work. The accuracy imposed by our bent ensured that no ordinary could pass for a pureblood, and no pureblood could pass for another. Gilles and I could scarce keep up with the load. How could they not renew my contract?

“Master, why—?” The doorway was empty.

If this Bastien de Caton was a person of influence, his request would never have been left unfulfilled long enough to gather dust. If he represented a town, a market fair, a temple, or another institution, the offer would have borne that name as well as his. And Caton. The man took his name not from a noble seat or reputable family but from some nearby settlement or crossroads so insignificant the name scarce shifted the dust of recollection. He was no one.

I hurried after Pluvius, only to see him vanishing down the stair. “Master,” I called, “who is this Bastien de Caton?”

The old man looked up, the torchlight reflecting a profound sadness that shook me to the marrow. “He’s Palinur’s coroner, Lucian. He’ll use your portraits to identify the dead.”

CHAPTER 2

“Poor ancieno. Is the new contract so awful? Who but Registry clerks would even want an ink dabbler like you? And old Pew-Pons to negotiate”—my sister’s mocking trilled—“the very picking crow who held you to the fire at the university. Now, that was ill luck.”

Juli posed carelessly in our reception room door as we awaited the arrival of my escort on the morning after my dismissal. She was so slight, so deceptively languid. Very like an iron stanchion garlanded with orchids. Her heavy black-brown hair, gleaming with red lights in the lamp glow, spread loose over the indigo silk of her morning gown.

“I’ve not met my master as yet,” I said. “But this is a fine opportunity and something different from anniversary portraits. My art was growing stale in the Tower.”

I’d told Juli none of the wretched details. Our troubles had already changed her. No use making it worse.

My mother had called Juli her angel child, and from eleven years’ distance, eldest to youngest, it had seemed true. When I’d lived at home, Juli was a bright and cheery sprite, playing at her beginner’s magic. Her bent revealed itself early as she built towers and miniature cities that sprawled across our inner courtyards. She smoothed sticks and chipped stones, teasing them into balance and harmony with her magic. She forever challenged my younger brothers to improve on her creations. At ten, in the same year I began work at the Registry, she applied herself seriously to her drawing. Whenever I went home for a visit, she pestered me incessantly to teach her.

All that had changed. In the months since the horror at Pontia, my sister had prisoned herself in steel and brambles, pricking, jabbing, arguing, defying the rules all purebloods accepted gladly as the price of our gifts. She refused to explain herself. Refused to listen to my warnings or pleas or commands. She screamed that I was not her father, mother, or Head of Family. I felt helpless around her.

“Ooh, la! Mother Samele prevent such talents as yours from getting stale! Perhaps another year at university would sharpen you. And this time without your elders to object.”

Juli’s jabs about the university struck home, as she knew they would. I had been a fool in those days, associating with so many ordinaries in such . . . free . . . circumstances. I had been warned that even conversation with ordinaries could seduce an undisciplined man. But indeed I had forgotten myself, my place, and my responsibilities.

Never could I repeat such a failure. My sister had no one else.

“Lace up your gown, Juli, and bind your hair properly, else go back to your own rooms. I don’t know who the Registry will send as escort, but it does our reputation no good for you to appear so . . . untidy.”

“Bind your own hair,” she snapped. “I think I’ll cut mine off today. I hate it.”

“Don’t. Just don’t. Please, serena.” My sister’s hair was supposed to remain uncut, plaited, and wound about her head in the style of a country matron, which indeed looked ridiculous with her tender features. But our family discipline prescribed it, just as it prescribed everything else, from the color and shape of our masks to the particular aspects of our bents that we could practice and the very gods we worshipped. Registry and family protocols shaped every detail of our lives, and investigators noted lapses.

“Four years and I can change the rule to a style you prefer,” I said. “Please, just behave until then.” I could not bear the thought of Pons sending a minder to supervise us until I came to my majority.

Pons had been livid when I was not publicly whipped, censured, or otherwise shamed after Montesard. She desired me to be an example, so that no pureblood family would dare send their progeny into the libertine world of a university again. Perhaps with her promotion to curator, she had influence enough to get what she wanted. She couldn’t know that the price I’d already paid was irredeemable.

For almost thirty years, my father’s father had served King Eodward as Navronne’s Royal Historian, using his magic to read battlefields or borderlands, for delving into ruins or deciphering ancient texts to extract the sweeping truths of war, migration, and civilization. The king had credited my grandsire with helping him grow Navronne into a healthy, prosperous kingdom renowned in the world—one with some chance to withstand this abrupt decline in the weather. I had longed to follow in his footsteps.

By the age of ten years, almost every pureblood youth displayed a pronounced leaning toward one parent’s magical bent or the other’s. Yet my talents had remained balanced between the Masson bent for art and architecture and the Remeni bent for history. Though I showed a deft hand at portraiture, inherited from my Masson mother, my preference had ever been for my Remeni father’s bloodline magic. I relished the study of history.

Dual bents were extremely rare, and usually displayed each as barely functioning. The family would prepare the youth for a modest future—hired work within pureblood society with severely limited use of magic, forbidden to marry or conceive children. Unfortunately, experience warned that two strong bents led inevitably to madness, and the Registry had long insisted that the lesser one be excised. Yet my talents had both manifested as quite robust, and by age sixteen, I still could not say honestly that one exceeded the other. The divine glory of the magic thrilled and satisfied no matter which I invoked. Even my brothers teased that my only madness was excessive adherence to rules.

With the encouragement of my good and generous parents, my grandsire had allowed me to pursue both talents far longer than usual, even including a university education in history. If I maintained my strong discipline and even temper to the end of my studies, he would petition the Registry to allow me to retain both bents.

Fool that I was, I squandered their indulgence, and my grandsire forbade me to pursue my bent for history further. No matter my pleading never again to stray, he had spent one dreadful day laying enchantment on me to ensure it. It had felt as if he had removed a limb and seared its stump with a cautery iron. It had been clear to all that our Head of Family expended his honor and his considerable influence to save me from additional punishment. He had resigned his royal post within the month, and he—my beloved grandsire, the man I honored above every other on this earth—had never spoken to me again.

The charcoal night beyond our glass window had shifted to winter gray. Incipient dawn brought the noise of boots and voices in the outer courtyard.

Giaco, my manservant, arranged the folds of my cloak, fastened the clasp, and passed me my mask. I slipped the bit of maroon silk over the left side of my face, nudging its spelled edges to settle and cling about eye, nose, and ear, until it felt no different from my skin.

The half mask required of every pureblood when going out among ordinaries signaled the magic that lay hidden within us. In company with the wine-red cloak, it ensured no ordinary could ever mistake us—a certain kindness, as the penalties for interfering with a pureblood were quite severe. The mask served warning to us, as well, reminding us of our need to maintain detachment from the ordinary world and focus on our masters’ tasks.

My tasks . . . I’d not even had a chance to read the new contract. A Head of Family usually informed his kinsman of the contract terms before delivering him to a new master. Evidently a Registry negotiator felt no such need. Certainly, Bastien de Caton, Coroner, must have prospered mightily from the war to afford me.

Giaco knelt to dust off my boots, as if that might prevent them from being sullied in the streets . . . or my master’s charnel house. Rumor had it that during last spring’s famine riots and the summer’s sickness, corpses had piled up so high they rotted in the lower streets or were thrown into open pits outside the walls. What would I do in such a place? Deunor’s fire . . .

“Gods’ mercy, Luka. What’s wrong?” Juli’s rosy skin had drained of color.

I swallowed my gorge. “Nothing. All’s well.”

Soflet, both steward and porter, glided across the atrium to admit my escort party. I inhaled and composed the half of my features yet exposed.

But Juli, swift as a hummingbird, slipped in between me and the door. “You’re not going into battle, are you, serving one of these cursed princes in their war? They’re not going to lock you away? You’re coming back?”

For that one moment, the brambles fell away and the steel dissolved to very young flesh.

I clasped her quivering shoulders. “No battles, no princes, no traveling, no war,” I said softly. “Old Pew-Pons assured me I’ll be allowed to live here with you. As the city settles under Prince Perryn, we’ll dredge up your tutors and all will be as before. Speak with Maia and prepare the sealing feast for tonight when I get home. Have Soflet bring up our best vintage, and send Filip to find us meat, no matter the cost. I’ll be bringing home the fee to replenish the Remeni-Masson treasury. Today we begin our family anew.”

Her face froze. She whipped her hands apart, breaking my grip. “Maybe I will; maybe I won’t.”

Domé Remeni-Masson . . .”

The soft-spoken newcomer and his three men, outfitted in black and scarlet and framed by the gilded entry, could not have noted Juli’s sneer or heard her insolence. Indeed, as they introduced themselves and motioned me toward the outer courtyard, my sister composed herself, standing haughty and expressionless as was proper for a pureblood woman. The initiation of a pureblood contract was a most solemn occasion.

*   *   *

By the Mother, it was cold! Bitter wind howled through the streets, disguising splintered shutters, scattered refuse, overturned wagons, and charred stalls with dusty snow.

None could recall such winters as had plagued Navronne these last ten years. Those far older than I shook their heads and murmured of a universe out of balance, of the bowl of the sky slid askew, of angry gods or the lost Danae, mythic beings who once tended Navronne’s fields and forests. Every baker filled his shelves with feast bread at the turn of the seasons, ready for those who would set it out to lure the Danae back to heal the lands of men. No such beings ever showed themselves, of course. The land grew more ill by the season.

My back itched; sighs teased at my ears. I hitched my cloak higher as we trudged down the hill.

No need to worry about risky impressions. My escorts were but Registry servitors. Purebloods with bents too weak to garner contracts were frequently employed as Registry guards, clerks, or messengers—positions where the presence of ordinaries would be unthinkable. It was respectable service. Leander de Corton-Zia and his comrades were likely skilled swordsmen and well trained in defensive magics.

The blizzard seemed to have calmed the city this morning, chasing the panicked refugees under cover. As we left the broad avenues of the upper city and the sprawling, bright-painted Temple District, hurrying down the sweeping turns of the Riie Domitian into the poorer streets, we spied them crowded into abandoned warehouses or huddled around fires in cramped alleyways. Until the war, Palinur had been an orderly place.

I dipped my head into the wind, wishing our family custom mandated a full mask of wool in winter. Better yet if discipline mandated a lock on the thing when one was young and stupid. It had been a sunny afternoon in Montesard when slim, sure fingers had tugged off my mask so that the most astonishing green eyes in creation could look upon my face. Morgan . . .

An aching heat flooded my belly.

In my first year at the university, my youthful eye, craving knowledge of the manly experiences I’d heard whispers of, had fallen on another student who was also reading history. She was a tall young woman of strong opinions and an incomparable eloquence in their defense, of deceptively plain features that took on a deep golden glow when she spoke of the tides of war, conquest, peace, and lawgiving that had made Navronne a model for all kingdoms in the middle continent. Morgan was her name—an ordinary—though the word failed absolutely when applied to her. Against all rule and discipline, I had spoken to her, laughed with her, touched her, and, in time, allowed her to remove my mask . . . kissed her . . . worked magic for her. . . .

“This way, Domé Remeni.” A firm hand on my shoulder dragged me to a halt. Leander, breathless, pointed back to a lane of deserted alehouses where his men waited. I had raced right past my escorts.

I bricked up the bitter memories in the vault where I’d prisoned them. “Thoughtless of me,” I said, and followed him.

The fertile fields and rugged scarps of central Ardra had been occupied for a thousand years, city upon city layered on Palinur’s heights, comprising at least four enclosing walls. The two most recent yet stood. The outermost wall, Caedmon’s Wall, had been built by the great king himself at the unification of Navronne. The innermost, the Elder Wall, had gone up at least five hundred years before that.

Leander halted at an arch of broken bricks. A steep path led down into an ill-favored warren of rickety houses, sheds, stables, and sop-houses grown up between the two standing walls at the lowest end of the city.

“Traversing the hirudo is our best route, domé. Every other way takes us outside the city gates, an hour longer at best, especially in such a wind. Unless you say differently . . .”

He sounded as if he was hoping I would say differently, but a terse message from Pons had told me to report to my new master at eighth hour, and the second quarter bells had already rung. Contracts left no choices. We headed down.

The hirudo was a dangerous, unhealthy place. In constant shadow, forever damp, the unruly settlement festered like an untreated wound, rife with disease and every kind of unsavory activity. Cicerons ruled here.

Cicerons plagued every Navron town and highroad like wandering packs of wild dogs. Skin as dusky as purebloods, bedecked with arm bracelets, earrings, and necklaces of false gold, they bred thieves, smugglers, fortune-tellers, and artists at picking pockets, knife juggling, and sleight of hand. Their knives found human targets, as well, especially any who crossed them. It was hard to tell one of them from another, and when constables ran one band of thieves to ground, they would find another in its place, their quarry long moved on.

We threaded the shadowy labyrinth for half a quellé, dodging diseased cats, racing ragamuffins, and ropes hung with rags. The wheedling gamblers fixed their eyes on their dice cups. The simpering procurer fell silent and looked away. None showed fear or awe. Even the women wore knowing, secretive expressions, and I could not shake the sense that they believed that someday I would walk this path alone and matters might be different.

My escorts kept hands on their swords and raised green magefire around us. In honor of the occasion, my father’s ruby ring hung from my neck on a slender chain. I folded my hand over it, the only object of value we had retrieved from the ashes at Pontia.

Too much to hope that my contract included provision for a daily escort. The Registry came down hard on any who interfered with purebloods, but Registry guards, too, were stretched thin with the city so unsettled. My own sword training was scarce more than dabbling, and I’d spent so much time pursuing the two bents that my stock of common spells, including anything useful in combat, was pitifully thin.

The narrow path arced around a pigless sty at the far end of the hirudo, where the land kicked up sharply. A steep, tortuous ascent, including a last series of some fifty steps half a boot wide and almost vertical, brought us to a narrow slot in Caedmon’s Wall, laced with iron bars. Neither horse nor armored knight nor even a person particularly well fed would be able to squeeze through. We emerged atop a broad plateau.

The prospect astonished me. Beyond a lumpy field of ice-crusted mud, like a phantasm behind the haze of swirling snow, sprawled a walled compound of stone spires, shed roofs, and chimneys. Atop the gatehouse arch, the twinned images of Deunor Lightbringer and his half brother Magrog, Lord of the Underworld, held pause in their never-ending battle for human souls. A necropolis . . . a city of the dead.

Warnings skittered through my skin like spider feet. Not since my days at the university had I ventured so far from the familiar. Was it that disastrous experience had my gut clenching in such dangerous fashion or was it that the air reeked so foully of endings?

We tramped through the snow-pale emptiness as the temple bells from the city heights called eighth hour. In the distance, a party of villeins dug in the frosty ground and loaded handcarts, their shovels crunching in the quiet. Shivering in my fur-lined cloak, I couldn’t imagine what might be worth harvesting so deep in such a winter.

A tarnished brass plate was embedded in the brick above the gateway arch. Etched into it were the words NECROPOLIS CATON. My new master had not taken his name from some scrabbling village or crossroads, but from a burial ground. What kind of man named himself after a graveyard?

Leander rang the gate bell.

Back straight, I composed every expressive aspect of my body with pride. Capatronn, Patronn, may my service and my life bring honor to our family name. Great Deunor, Lord of Fire and Magic, let my gift not falter.

The iron gates swung inward. A pale, willowy young woman in unsullied white robes stood in the arch of light beyond the gatehouse tunnel, arms spread, head bowed, as graceful and still as sculpted marble.

“Welc— Oh!” Her eyes flicked wide as we emerged from the brief blackness. Swallowing her surprise, she averted her gaze and stepped aside.

“Where will we find Bastien de Caton?” said Leander. “We have the honor of initiating the fulfillment of his contract with the Pureblood Registry on behalf of the noble family Remeni-Masson.”

The girl dipped her knee and near twisted her head off trying to catch a glimpse of us while keeping her eyes down. “’Crost the yard, sirs . . . lardships. Straight past troughs and slabs and up to the deadhouse.” Her voice grated like steel on slate. “You’ll likely find him inta sargery off right, or round left and out ta the Hollow Ground or the Render. We’re plowin’ bones today.”

Surely such abrasive, awkward diction could not have its origin in one of such ethereal form. And plowing bones . . .

Mired in disgust and disbelief, I’d not gleaned the least idea of where we were to go next. I’d never visited a public necropolis. Fortunately Leander kept a clearer head. He led us briskly across a broad, flagged courtyard toward an imposing stone block of a structure. The deadhouse, the girl had called it—a prometheum more like, a hall where the dead could be tended with proper ceremonies. But what was the Hollow Ground, the Render, or a sargery?

On the other hand, city of the dead was a more accurate term than I’d ever imagined. Men, women, and children of every sort milled about the courtyard—singly or in groups—babbling, wailing, whispering, clinging to one another in gaudy displays of emotion. Indeed, the noise astonished me. Donkeys brayed. Hammers pounded wood here, hollow metal there. Water dripped and sloshed and trickled through stone sluiceways running under our path and around every side, while somewhere inside or beyond the formidable edifice ahead of us a choir chanted Karish plainsong as serene as divine Idrium itself.

The cart road split to either side of us, while we continued across the flagstone court toward the prometheum. Discipline required my eyes be fixed straight ahead, but peripheral sight hinted at merchant stalls nestled to the walls, where hawkers bellowed the virtues of oils and unguents or touted the skills of Ledru the Coffin Maker or Eason the Stonewright. To either side of us, servitors in russet tunics bent over stone tubs or clustered round a few of the stone tables lined in ranks, dealing with their . . . occupants. Younger boys or girls perched on ladders, tending great bonfires that roared and snapped in stone cauldrons, creating pockets of heat despite the ice wind blowing through the close.

“Hold back, slugwit!” yelled a gaunt, grizzled bald man in a stained apron as we neared the wide steps of the prometheum. He waved at someone behind us, where iron cart wheels rattled on the rough paving.

“Sane man don’t drag a deadcart ’crost a processering. Not with magical folk. Cripes!” The willowy girl’s grating mumble preceded her own appearance pelting down a side path and up a ramp to reach the prometheum portico before us. She caught her breath just in time to pose beside the door and wave us under the carved lintel. Her draperies fluttered as might those of fair Erit, goddess of clouds.

The incongruities of the girl’s speech, manner, and appearance—and this noisy maelstrom in a place of the dead—struck me so hard just then that I came near exploding in laughter. By the Mother, Juli was right. I had acted the lightning-struck ox since walking out of the Registry the previous morning. The humiliation of my dismissal was wretched, and being pawned off on a necropolis was not at all the future I’d planned. Indeed, my duties here must surely be vile and demeaning. But I was not afraid. These living seemed no different from crude and noisy ordinaries anywhere. And the dead held no terrors for one of the blood. I believed in neither ghosts nor phantasms, neither demon gatzi nor glowing blue Danae who wandered the wilds and stole ill-behaved pureblood children from their beds.

In much better humor, I marched on as our “processering” swept through the prometheum door.

The thick stone surround silenced the courtyard babble. Trickling water echoed in a profound quiet, and faint strains of the Karish plainchant hung in the rounded vault along with the pungent scent of ysomar, the favored ointment for the dead.

In the way of all edifices built to strike awe in the human heart, the prometheum rotunda was grand. Blazing torches revealed vaulted ceilings, monumental statuary, and larger-than-life murals of gods and angels and human figures of all sorts. Yet the paints that had once shimmered with color were now sorely faded. And the statues were of a crude and common sort, not at all the lifelike renderings pureblood sculptors had produced in the last decades of Eodward’s reign.

A strident whoop and a burst of laughter quickly hushed shattered the shabby solemnity. Two young men, the elder dark-haired and lean, the younger short, soft, and fair, ducked their heads. Though their heads were bowed, hard breathing and smothered spasms bespoke an aborted wrestling match in the shadowed niche just inside the great doors. Until they glanced up at me and their jaws dropped.

Leander peered past the two. “Bastien de Caton?”

Customary respect should have had Coroner Bastien awaiting our arrival under the portico. To greet us inside trod the bounds of propriety—a kind of boasting, demonstrating his mastery of a pureblood. But not even to be waiting here . . . The man must be as brazen as a Ciceron pickthief or as ignorant as a brick to put himself so in jeopardy of legal censure.

The elder of the two—a tall, clear-skinned man with a dark, bold gaze—pointed to a corridor that plunged through the smoke-dulled mural before us.

Beyond the mural, we passed a number of private preparation rooms awaiting the noble dead. My attention remained fixed ahead, where the white-clad cloud goddess had somehow got ahead of us. Again posed in a graceful stillness, she held open a door to a vaulted colonnade.

Leander’s sharp inquiry resulted in a whispered, “Through here and rightward, lordship. Bastien’s ta the Render just now, huntin’ dead murders.”

Yet indeed we had no need to search out this mysterious Render nor discover what huntin dead murders might signify. Winter daylight streamed through the arches to either side of the colonnade, illuminating a thickset man in a heavy wool shirt, leather tunic, and thigh-length boots. He stood square in our path, fists on hips and scowling at us from amid a tangle of sand-colored hair. Fog or steam or smoke, bearing a stench so foul as to leave me unwilling to take another breath, wreathed him as if he were some gatzi lord from Magrog’s netherworld.

“You’re late.” His voice rumbled the stones.

CHAPTER 3

“I told that Registry woman I required promptness.”

My new master rudely stood his ground. No shred of respect before five sorcerers. Indeed, his acid tone likely removed yet another layer of paint from the funereal scenes peeling from the colonnade ceiling.

Leander detached a scroll from his belt and boldly stepped forward into the malodorous fog. “Bastien de Caton, I have the hon—” His announcement dissolved into a choking gag.

The man snatched the scroll from Leander’s hand. “I’d best not find some magical skullduggery has changed the words since the terms were agreed. Heard that’s been done time to time. But I’m the king’s man round Caton, well versed in the law, not an ignorant villein ready to grovel, as you likely think.”

“I—assure—you—” Leander’s retching coughs near made me gag as well.

“So which one of you is bound to me?” Bastien scanned the contract scroll, glancing up just in time to get his answer. Scarlet-cheeked Leander, incapable of speech, waved a finger at me.

Taking shallow breaths, I stepped out from my escorts.

We were of a height, my new master and I, though his shoulders, arms, chest, and thighs were likely twice my bulk, and appeared . . . solid. Quite solid.

My spirit’s momentary elevation was well damped.

“Hmmph.” He grunted and dropped his gaze to the contract again. “Take off the mask.”

By this time, a blur of faces gawked from the side gates through the nasty fog. I’d no time to feel my way with this fellow. Rules were rules. Best stand my ground from the beginning.

“No,” I said. “I cannot. With all respect, Master Bastien.” I inclined my head in his direction and touched my fingertips to my forehead.

His head jerked up and he met my gaze. Gold-brown eyes, keen as a lance point, pierced my own. Any idea that this man was foolish, ignorant, or in any way malleable fled.

His curt nod was very like that of a smith judging the quality of raw iron as he decides how to heat and pound it. And then a grin—not at all a friendly grin, to my mind—spread from one side of his broad, hairy face to the other. He tapped the contract scroll across his wide palm. More than ever, I wished I’d had the opportunity to glimpse its terms.

“So that’s to be the way of it,” he said. “Dismiss your party, Servant Remeni-Masson. Take a deep breath and taste your future. Then we’ll see how you can profit me.”

Matters were not so simple as Bastien’s wish. Dame Fortuna was kind, and Leander was able to throttle the urge to vomit. He politely informed the coroner that there was yet one small matter to deal with before his party could leave. To be precise, the fee.

Bastien snorted. “So the Registry must touch my coin first—take its portion before the sorcerer pockets it and accuses us ordinaries of cheating. Very wise. Keeps things in order. We needs must traipse inside to fetch it, though. Not going to risk dropping a purse into a dead-pit, am I? None of you lot would care to fish it out of a five-year bone stew.”

Brisk as a storm wind, the coroner strode past us into the prometheum, trailing the foul smoke behind him.

Though Leander’s exposed features remained properly uncommunicative, the brow behind his red silk mask rose in wary alarm. My own skill at dual expression was well practiced, yet I did not respond. I didn’t trust myself to confine my opinions behind the mask. Mostly I was anxious to judge the weight of the purse. I’d no hope of a luxurious stipend, but my family’s future depended on a decent one. At my nod, we reversed course and followed.

Bastien’s destination was a low-ceilinged corner chamber, crowded with a writing desk, stools, a scuffed worktable holding a counting board and a wax tablet, and a honeycomb map case filled with rolled parchments. A press gaped open, its shelves neatly ordered with inkhorns, a stack of smaller wax tablets, another of parchment pages, and a few oddments impossible to make out in the dull light.

Leander halted in the doorway. Bastien snapped a loop of keys from his belt and crouched in front of a black iron chest. A snick of the lock, a reach inside, and the coroner sprang to his feet. A gray lump shot across the room toward us.

He barked a laugh when the startled Leander juggled the chinking bag as if it were a burning coal. “Best not spill good coin. We’ll have rats coming out the cracks and corners.” He widened his eyes and lowered his voice, as if spooking children. “Mayhap dead folk’ll come after it, too, hoping to snatch a copper for the Ferryman’s fee.”

Leander tied the bag to his belt.

My master slammed the iron lid and locked his chest. “’Tis exactly the price agreed,” he added as if he’d never been aught but sober. “I’ll not take offense if you count it.”

“That will not be necessary, good Bastien,” said Leander, admirably recovered. “My superiors have deemed you worthy of a pureblood contract. To doubt your honor would cast doubts on their wisdom. With all respect.”

The guardsman swiveled and bowed to me, touching his fingertips to his brow. “Domé Remeni-Masson, it has been my honor to initiate your contract with Bastien de Caton, Coroner of the Twelve Districts of Palinur. May your service do honor to your gods and enrich the lives of your master, your family, and the kingdom of Navronne. With your permission, domé, I shall deposit your share of the year’s fee and your copy of the contract into the safekeeping of your steward.”

He glanced up to see my reaction to this last arrangement. The delay in turning over the stipend was irregular, but I’d no family members present to take charge of it, and I’d not like carrying a purse of gold—a well-stuffed purse, to my relieved sight—around here all day. And to transport a year’s stipend through the hirudo this evening, when I would be alone and bearing no weapon more serious than my eating knife and some minor defensive spells, would be idiocy.

“Agreed,” I said. “And this as well.” The same cautions bade me take off my father’s ruby ring and pass it to Leander. I hoped the coroner would view it as pureblood custom and not an insult to his honor.

“Servitor Leander, you have executed your duties with exemplary efficiency, deportment, and wisdom. You are dismissed. Go in peace and safety.” Most especially safety.

A pall of melancholy settled over me as I watched the four purebloods march away. The initiation of a contract should be an occasion of pride and satisfaction. My parents should be with me . . . and my grandsire. Yet how could I wish them to be in this ignoble place, breathing the fumes of decay as this coarse ordinary glared at my back, waiting for me to submit?

But I had no choices. The contract was for only one year. I could do anything for a year.

I spun in place and touched my fingertips to my forehead. “Master, you may show me my duties. . . .”

“Ready to work, eh, Servant Remeni?” Bastien tossed the contract scroll onto the worktable and propped his backside beside it. Wide, hairy hands gripped the table edge as his gaze scraped me raw from my mask to my finest leather boots. “You’re set to abide by this contract? Obliged to? Every detail?”

“Yes.” I would not bow or scrape or address him beyond his rank. Though I would wait for a later time to point out that servant was not a permissible form of address.

“You’ll do what I ask of you the best you can, without arguing or mincing or weaseling around some point of law to avoid it? Just as if I were the king himself?”

“Yes. As long as the task does not violate the terms of the contract.” Registry contracts were very specific about criminal endeavors, excessive risk, or tasks that skirted the bounds of righteous behavior. My stomach shifted uneasily. I wished I’d had the nerve to eat before leaving home.

Bastien settled his back to the wall, gleaming eyes fixed to mine—both of mine. Most ordinaries attended only the naked half of one’s face, as if the eye peering through the mask was false or fey. His own features worked oddly, the exact expression unreadable, obscured by his excess hair. “And you’re forbid to put a hex on me or use your magic in any way, save what I tell you?”

My gut tied itself in a knot. What was he planning that he had to make these things explicit?

“My magic belongs to you alone for the duration of the contract, and I am strictly bound not to spend it without your permission—whether to my own advantage or that of any other person. The contract contains a clause that exempts reasonable spending of magic in defense of myself or my family.” Or it certainly should. That I’d not yet seen the document did naught for my unease. “You’ve been made aware that a pureblood’s reserves of power are not limitless, but must be continually renewed by rest, sleep, food. . . .”

“Oh, aye. I’ve a notion how it works.”

I nodded again. “And, naturally, no . . . hexing . . . of my master is permitted.”

Bastien burst into exuberant laughter, slapping his knees and shaking his head side to side. “Mother Samele’s tits! When I put in that bid five years ago, I’d have laid gold bricks to coffin nails I’d never see a pureblood sorcerer standing here in his silks and satins, ready to do my will—no matter he’s got a broom handle up his ass. Garibald and Constance say you must be the most incompetent spelltwister was ever delivered of woman. But you’re not, are you? You’ve a mot of skill in those hands. I can see that.”

“I’m very— Yes. I certainly—” I stopped. Stupid to get flustered. Of course people would assume me of little worth. Sent to this awful place to fill a five-year-old bid. Goddess Mother!

I sucked in my pride and nodded. “The gods have indeed graced me with a strong bent for portraiture.”

“Soon as you started talking of me owning your magic, you tucked those hands behind you. As if to keep them safe. As if to keep their best work for yourself.” A frown wiped away his glee. “But you can’t do that, neither, can you? No matter that these Registry folk sent you here, where you’d rather not be.”

I tried to ignore the speculation in his tone. “You will always receive my best work.”

“Good to get that straight.” He folded his meaty arms across his chest. “Now take off that mask and say it again. I like to see who’s I’m having a converse with.”

We were alone. I slipped off the bit of silk and tucked it into my belt.

“I am a competent portraitist, Master Bastien. Some judge me better than that.” My voice remained cool and empty; gods reward my parents for insisting on constant practice of personal discipline! “My family’s honor and my own ensure that my contracted master will ever see the best work I can produce.”

“All right, then. Good.” He tilted his head, squinting fiercely. “Why wouldn’t you before? The mask, I mean. Thought we might have to bust fists about that.”

Every day of my life had prepared me to submit to a contracted master, and ninety-nine out of every hundred masters were ordinaries. Even so, pureblood protocols were not common knowledge among them. One could not bristle at every order just because this man was so very common. And fierce. And hard. Gods save me from ever needing to bust fists with him.

“We were not alone before. We are permitted to remove our masks when in the presence of our contracted masters or mistresses, but not when in the presence of . . . others.”

“Other of us ungifted folk, you mean.”

I inclined my head. A gesture left the answer less stark. I’d no wish to demean him or his associates.

“Hmmph. And if I was to say you need it off when performing your duties?”

It would likely be a mistake to remind him that my wearing the mask would proclaim to all that he now had a pureblood bound to his service. He was in no way stupid.

“If such an exemption is written into the contract, then of course removing the mask would be permissible. If not, you may apply to the Registry for such a release.”

“I’ll think on it.” He sprang to his feet. “Come. Let’s see what you can do.”

Bastien rummaged in his book press, then proffered a few worn scraps of parchment and a stick of plummet. “These’ll do for now. We needs must find Garibald. Doubt you can do aught with the folks I was examining when you arrived.”

Parsing this last comment did naught for my belly. Dead-pits, he’d said. Five-year stew. Purebloods were laid in family tombs, but ordinaries buried in old cities like Palinur were oft dug up and their burial ground reused. The remains were boiled to clean the bones. . . .

Banishing that vile imagining, I slipped on my mask, clutched the supplies, and trailed after Bastien. The wild hair left his age uncertain, but he moved like a taut spring and his eye displayed the clarity and ambition of younger men. My inner eye—my bent that could create his true image—would judge him perhaps five years my senior—at most five-and-thirty.

We paused on the prometheum steps, while Bastien shaded his eyes and searched the anthill of a courtyard. “Garibald! Over here!”

The bald, grizzled man who had been directing traffic when I arrived waved a hand. He and a tall scrawny girl in leather breeches—none other than the donkey-voiced cloud goddess, shed of her draperies—were shifting a limp form from a cart onto one of the myriad stone tables. Two dozen tables, at the least, were set out in the courtyard, most of them occupied.

“So many dead on one morning . . .” The words slipped from my lips unbidden. The noble dead brought from fine houses would be carried straight to the quiet preparation rooms inside the prometheum. These would be poor folk delivered by their families to be washed, anointed, and buried according to their preferred customs, or those delivered by the dead-haulers that roamed the city streets and refuse heaps, hoping to earn a citré for each load of corpses.

“In truth, ’tis a quiet day, considering yesterday’s troubles,” said Bastien. “Once this lean winter takes full hold and the wains start rolling in from Prince Perryn’s great battle, we’ll have ’em piled in every corner.”

The bald man and the girl spread a stained sheet over the dead man. As the two headed across the courtyard toward Bastien and me, a snap of the bald man’s fingers set a boy to lighting lamps at the man’s head and feet, while a jerk of his head fended off a fawning, ruddy-cheeked woman clothed in blue pantaloons who was offering him a tray of bottles and jars.

“Garibald’s the sexton,” said Bastien, even as I opened my mouth to voice the question. “He sorts out who gets taken inside, who stays out in the yard, who gets washed, who gets burnt, who gets coins on the eyes, who gets dug up and his bones boiled. That sort of thing.”

“But I thought you—”

“Nay. I’m the king’s law here. I’m needed only if there’s a question about the death. Man comes in with a knife hole in his back. Woman comes in with her neck broke. Or maybe someone’s dug up that oughtn’t be in that burial ground when the sexton’s plowing bones. Garibald and Constance see to the common work. I see to the interesting bits.”

Garibald and the girl arrived at the steps. The sexton cast a disapproving glare my way. “Bought yerself a pot o’ trouble, Coroner.”

The girl crowed in bald delight. “You got ’im!” she said in her ear-itching squawk. “Thought sure they’d twink you out of the deal. Near swallowed my eyes when the gate oped to bloods in all their fineries.” Her faded blue eyes raked me scalp to boot. “This’n’s a prime looker, though his lovely duds’ll look a sight first time he takes on splatter or spew. Mayhap his magic can clean him! And mayhap—”

She inhaled sharply and bent over until her nose was scarce a handspan from my chest. She examined the front of my doublet, her bony cheeks taking fire. “Can you set him to magic us fine garbs, too, Coroner? Pearls, that’s what I’d want. Pearls like what’s on his buttons. And ribbons. I do so yarn for red ribbons. And yourself’d look lordly in purple brocady next time you sit a ’quest.”

Perhaps she thought the mask left me deaf and blind.

Bastien snorted. “I doubt such gifting would be among his magical skills. Remeni, this would be Master Garibald, Sexton de Caton, and his daughter and chief assistant, Mistress Constance. You will heed their commands as you do my own, save when it comes to pearls or brocades or other such frivolous babbling.”

The girl didn’t seem to mind his ferocious glare. The sexton harrumphed in disgust.

“As you say,” I replied, and left it at that. Protocol forbade me offer the two ordinaries honorifics of any kind—even were I so inclined—and discouraged any speech or notice beyond my master’s business, even for a girl. Well, Constance was a woman grown, truly, despite her broomstick figure and lack of manners. Close on, it came clear the bloom in her pale cheeks was more windburn than tender years. Her bony hands, stained and peeling in the cold, looked older than her father’s knobby face.

Anyway, better fewer words than many, lest these hear some trace of my growing distaste for this place. I didn’t like thinking what she meant by splatter or spew.

“Have we mysteries this morning?” asked Bastien. “I want to test him right off.”

“Constable dumped a fellow last night.” Garibald pointed to a corner, well away from the hovering crowds and laborers. “Hard froze. I’ve set him to thaw.”

“Let’s take a look.”

The taciturn sexton waved a dismissive hand my way. “I’m back to work. Magical foolery won’t get these folk out my yard.” He stomped away.

Constance elbowed Bastien as we hiked across the bustling yard. “Ye’re the right king of our dead-city now, sweeting,” she murmured with a giggle. “Da’ll be wanting to get ’isself a sorcerer.”

“This fellow’d best be useful,” grumbled Bastien. “If not, I’ve set my plans back ten years.”

Sweeting? Family confidences? Ordinaries coupled in haphazard ways, as I had learned so hard. Yet, even observing these two so short a time, a match seemed unlikely.

Constance pulled open the door of a weather-worn shed in the corner of the yard beyond the merchant stalls. Smoke and warmth from a small brazier escaped quickly along with a distinct sewer odor as Bastien and the woman carried the body into the daylight.

He’d been a bulky fellow, and no beggar. The cloak that covered the most of him was scuffed and muddy, but of good, thick wool lined with dark fur.

“No blood.” Constance hunched over the dead man, examining the back of his head, cloak, and legs, and pawing at his collar. “No rips in ’is clothes. No bumps or blusies.”

With naught but a nod between them, Bastien and Constance rolled the man onto his back. They unfastened the cloak and tugged the shirt and scarf away from his neck.

Still no blood or obvious wounding. But someone had tied a linen bandage over his eyes. Most Navrons believed the soul resided in the eyes. The priests of the Elder Gods said the soul could escape this world only through earth or fire, impossible if it was lost to the air before the body was buried or burnt.

I wasn’t so sure about souls or their exact location. My own essence seemed scattered in bits and pieces, sometimes floating free, most times bound to other people. For certain a piece of it had died in the fire at Pontia. And another had been stolen by a passionate voice, green eyes, and cool fingers. Some days I couldn’t seem to locate much of it at all . . . save when I used magic.

Though most purebloods claimed magic had its source just behind the eyes, my own bent seemed to originate just below my breastbone, flowing upward like hot wine through my chest, around back and shoulders, and down my arms. Magic was surely a part of the soul as well.

“What’s his story?” Bastien squatted across from Constance, watching her bony hands skim expertly through the folds of the dead man’s cloak, shirt, doublet, and braies. They came up empty.

“Constable said he were found in a nasty little hidey off Doane’s Alley in the Stonemasons’ District.” She yanked off the man’s gloves. He wore no rings or bracelets, and his shirt cuffs were worn and filthy. “Wouldn’t ha’ been found yet if a stonecutter hadn’t spied someone live in there with this’n, a body what run off soon as he heard the cutter yell. None knew the dead ’un in the streets roundabout. But ’tis not so likely he just froze dead with such a delectable cloak on him.”

“He’s lost his weapons,” I offered. The empty scabbard and sheath at his belt were old-style and plain, but well oiled. “Dropped or stolen?”

“Aye. His purse, too,” said Bastien, fingering a silver cord dangling empty from the man’s waist. Cut, certainly. “But he still has cloak and boots. No family blazon, lest he’d one on his purse, sword, or dagger.”

The coroner took up the man’s hands, examining back and palm, and each thick finger and its fingernail. He yanked open the man’s mouth, pulled out his tongue, and sniffed at it. “No signs of poison, though none could say how long he’s been dead in this cold. There’s recent scrapes on his knuckles, so he’d been in a bit of a fight, but for certain he was no stonemason. Never saw one didn’t have calluses or scars on his hands. And he’s too well dressed. Hey, Constance! Cloak’s too big for you. It’d take a full-size man to fill it up.”

Constance jerked her hand away where she’d been fondling the thick fur. “None gets the cloak till we find who he is. You know Da’s rules. Have you told your sorcerer the rules?”

“Ah, pureblood’s got finer than this.” Bastien paused his examination long enough to glance up at me, jerking his head at the materials in my hands. “So draw him, servant. I paid five years’ living for you. Folk pay well to know how their kinsmen die, who did the deed, and where they’re laid. Folk pay to know their enemies are dead, or their neighbor’s farm has no man to work it anymore. Nobles pay decent. Merchants pay better. And if they learn the news before rot sets in, they pay more. King pays me, too. A fee to find out who’s been murdered, and extra if I point his magistrates at the villain what did it. I’ve tried sketchers before, but I learned right off that none are good enough that a man could recognize his own mother. But pureblood drawings are said to be the same as truth. Show me truth.”

So much about this—their crude handling of the dead man, Bastien’s venality—appalled me. Yet the questions, the mystery, were fascinating. I picked up a broken roof tile and sat cross-legged where I wouldn’t shadow the dead man’s face. Spreading one of Bastien’s scraps of parchment on the slate, I laid down a few lines with the gray plummet—appropriate for the gray-blue skin. The fellow was a decade older than Bastien, perhaps five-and-forty. And he was not half so fit. His chin was soft, his nose pitted—swollen and red I’d guess, before death and frost had sapped his color. A sinner’s nose, folk called it.

Constance pulled the bandage from the dead man’s eyes. Small eyes, close set and slightly askew. I sketched quickly, smudging the plummet to mime the dark patches beneath his eyes, and again to shape the heavy brow. A scribble mimed the old scar on one temple. The image took shape, adequate for common sketching, but for the rest . . .

My hand paused. In the usual way, I would speak with my subject, triggering my inner sight through his voice or some meeting of the eye. Or it might be the way the person laughed or carried herself that sparked my magic. But this man had no voice, no spark, and I had no lifetime’s trove of memory to plumb, as when I sketched my dead grandsire. That left only touch.

Goddess Mother, he was cold. My left fore- and middle fingers traced the slack line of his jaw, the thick shelf of his brow, the cheekbone buried deep under frost-hard flesh, the cool, spongy lips. Disgusting.

Swallowing hard, I shoved aside thought and opened that place behind my breastbone where neither reason nor logic, happiness nor horror held sway. Enchantment surged from that dark reservoir in all its glory, infusing the lines, shapes, and textures my left hand explored and creating an image inside me. The erupting fire flowed through bone and sinew into my right hand, building in power until the stick of plummet trembled.

When my chest felt like to burst, I released the pent magic and began to refine my crude sketch. Sound and sensation fell away. There was naught but the image shimmering inside and the enchantment flowing through my hand. . . .

After a time I sat back and assessed the work. Plummet was much too limited. Its marks were faint and its line unvarying. Ink was far more versatile, flowing from brushes or pens of every possible dimension. Yet indeed the man looking back from the page was the man before me. A touch released a bit of magic to plump his lips and reveal the tip of that horrid tongue between them. Another gave a fullness to his cheeks and sagging jowls. Yet another brightened the death-dulled eyes, narrowed the lids, and installed a few fine creases at their corners. He had a habit of squinting. A bit more flare to the sinner’s nose. Dissipated.

As I used my bent to ensure the drawing matched the true image in my mind, Bastien knelt watching, hands stilled, attention unwavering. When the work was as complete as I could make it without ink or brush, I passed him the page.

He studied it intently.

Sat back on his heels.

Said nothing. His eyes remained fixed on the scrap a very long time.

“Plummet is convenient, but much too limiting,” I said, unable to wait longer. “I can render it more accurately with pen and ink. A thin wash of color works even better. It is a likeness. But I can’t make it speak, if that’s what you want.”

His moment’s glance near stripped me bare. But he turned away to Constance. “Fetch a runner, girl. I want him to show this to whatever whores ply that alley of a midnight or have a crib nearby, even if they work different streets. Find especially any known for hard play. And send Pleury to fetch the barber. The fellow’s mostly thawed. We need to take a look inside before he warms up too much more.”

Whores? The barber . . . the sargery . . . Great Deunor, a barber-surgeon was going to cut into the dead man’s body? My mouth worked in speechless protest.

“Should I bind his eyes back now?” Constance waggled the bandage.

“I’d say yes,” said Bastien softly, shaking his head and staring at the portrait, “but I doubt there’s need. I think his soul has already been snatched out of him.”

CHAPTER 4

His name was Valdo de Seti. We knew it before the midday bells rang. Bastien’s runners identified him using the portrait I’d made—and whatever had sparked Bastien’s whim to seek out low women.

De Seti was the chief steward of the draymen’s guild and, indeed, his favored harlot had a den off Doane’s Alley. He himself lived in the Wainwrights’ District with a wife and one of three sons—a boy of eleven years. The two elder were off fighting for Prince Perryn.

Chortling in glee as his runners delivered their reports, Bastien issued a summons to both wife and whore, as well as the son, the constable, the stonemason who had discovered the body, four other neighbors, and Valdo’s two fellow stewards in the guild. They were to attend him in his judgment chamber no later than fourth hour past midday. The ’quest Constance had mentioned was an inquest—the coroner’s official inquiry into the circumstances of a suspicious death.

As we awaited the witnesses, Constance stripped and washed de Seti in one of the troughs in the courtyard. Then two of Garibald’s workmen laid him in a chamber just inside the prometheum doors. It was a barren little cell, its four walls thick with layers of limewash. Easy to see why. The bier, the floor, the small wheeled table, and the pile of wadded linens in the corner were splattered with a disgusting panoply of morbid stains. This was where they cut them.

I pressed my back to the wall beside the door, as far as I could get from the bier.

“You’re a putrid shade of green, servant,” said Bastien. “You do know purebloods shit and die and stink like the rest of us?”

“You can’t just slice into a man’s body,” I said. “The Elder Gods forbid it. How do you know—?”

If the soul could escape through uncovered eyes, how could it not find its way out through an incision? My fist pressed on the tail of my breastbone, where my magic lurked. To be lost in this world, unable to participate in either this life or whatever awaits us beyond, must surely be a horror worse than Magrog’s netherworld of fire and ice.

Bastien stepped aside as a scolding Constance and two boys hauled in jars of water and a stack of battered tin basins, setting them beside the table.

“Law gives me the right when there’s a question,” he said when the storm of noise had passed. “The duty, even. But if it eases your mind, I’ve had the Mother’s high priestess sanctify this room. She laid pureblood magic and temple blessings about it, and said the souls can’t escape if we close the door and turn all the vessels upside down before we open it again.” He leaned close and dropped his voice. “Besides, I have ’em sewed up after.”

He chuckled and laid a genial boot into a slack-jawed boy who was peering in from the atrium to gawk at me.

Bastien had not eased my mind in the least. Nor was I soothed when a slight, unshaven man, carrying a tattered leather case, appeared in the doorway. His dark hair was a greasy tangle, his eyes burnt-out hollows. “Heard you’ve work for me.”

“Ah, Bek! I want this done quick. He’s no wounds we can see, but someone’s cut off his purse and snatched his weapons. . . .” Bastien reeled off the sum of his observations and all we had learned of Valdo de Seti. “Just need to make sure we’re not missing something obvious before the widow arrives. Though she’s not pounced on us wailing, as some do. I’ve a notion this Valdo was not a likable man.”

The surgeon’s shoulders drooped. “So, the body’s claimed, then. Too bad.”

His voice was low and surprisingly clear, considering the reek of spirits about him and his unsteady gait as he crossed to the table. He set his case on the wheeled table and opened it. His hands shook as if he suffered a palsy.

Bastien slapped the man’s back. “Soon as wounded come in from these quarreling princes’ battle, we’ll doubtless have a Moriangi or five mixed in by mistake. Mayhap even a Hansker mercenary. You can slice mongrels to pieces as your heart desires. Some folk say Hansker have no balls. Some say they’ve three balls, but no heart. Do you think that’s so?”

Some folk believe burying a live cat at the full moon will cure their crabs.” The surgeon picked a short saw blade from his case and set its tip just below de Seti’s throat before glancing over his shoulder at Bastien. “You’ve a good enough mind to know—”

He lowered his blade and fixed his sooty gaze on me. “What have we here?”

Gray threaded the surgeon’s hair, and creases seamed a narrow face neither so old as I expected, nor so degenerate. Yet my blood curdled at a man who spent his days cutting flesh—living or dead—much less one who took pleasure in it.

“I’ve bought me a luck charm,” said Bastien, grinning. “Better days coming to Caton.”

“If you think a sorcerer can raise the dead to life again or squeeze out where their gold’s hid, I’ve a few bits of anatomical learning to share with you.” The surgeon’s quiet speech dripped irony.

“Ah, Bek, when you’re done here I’ll give you a sight of what the fellow can do. Mayhap you’ll rethink your tawdry bits of learning. Or pay me to have him redraw that anatomical map you carry about.”

They spoke as if I were a dead man or one of the statues in the prometheum rotunda.

It had been the same in Montesard. Pureblood discipline had forbidden me to break silence to exchange ideas with my tutors or fellow students, which sorely hampered my learning. Once the strangeness of my presence wore off, the others talked in just such fashion, which made matters even worse. But one day in our tutorial session, Morgan, she of the green eyes, had wondered aloud whether those who refused to speak in session might be required to write out their opinions, arguments, and questions. The tutor could read them aloud so that all might benefit from a new perspective. And so we had done. The others yet spoke as if I weren’t there, but they spoke of me by name. Lucian believes . . . Lucian wonders . . . It had worked exceedingly well.

Cheating, Investigator Pons had called it. Compromise of your position in life. Unvirtuous engagement with ordinaries . . .

“Just don’t share your opinions with him, bone-cutter,” said Bastien. “Nor your ale nor your vermin nor your secret vices. Don’t even look at him. I don’t want Registry lackwits finding an excuse to snatch him back. Not only did his little sketch identify our corpse to the folk who knew him, it told me where to look; Valdo de Seti yearned for nasty pleasure.”

The surgeon snorted, wiped his brow on his sleeve, and turned back to his morbid work. His hands stopped their trembling as he began. Mine did not.

I bolted. Outside the surgery, I poked the plump youth dozing on the bench—Pleury, Bastien’s runner, the lad who’d found the whore. “Clean drinking water?”

Though loath to ingest anything in such a place, my stomach was going to grind itself to pulp if I didn’t get something inside it.

“Great lordly sorcerer . . .” The fair-skinned youth with an affliction of pustules on his cheeks dropped to one knee, near yanked his forelock from his scalp, and bent his back until his chin grazed the floor, as if I were some combination of god, noble, and demon gatzé all in one. The dramatic effect was entirely spoiled when he passed wind with the timbre of a royal trumpet.

With a distressed moan, he prostrated himself completely.

A ghostly memory of my younger brothers and certain secret “jousting tournaments” twitched my lips. “Clean water?” I said evenly.

“Fonts, troughs. Comes straight from the wellsprings. So Garibald says.”

“Good. All right, then.” Relieved, I escaped to the small font I had seen in a bay near the royal preparation room. A tin cup sat on a waist-high shelf beside the little font.

Palinur’s wellsprings were a source of wonder. The intricate system of ducts and pipes that brought the highland water into the city had been installed by my clever ancestors, invaders from the Aurellian Empire. Aurellians had overrun the lands of Ardra, Morian, and Evanore centuries past, only to discover that their minor magical talents took fire with power here. They had called Navronne the Heart of the World.

The fonts and ducts had endured far longer than the conquest. Even Aurellian magic could not stave off the crumbling decadence of the empire itself, or hold its expansive territory against the heirs of mighty Caedmon, King of Ardra. Caedmon had united three ever-warring provinces and created Navronne.

Three hundred Aurellian families swore allegiance to Caedmon and his heirs in return for freedom to pursue their magic as they saw best in service to Navronne. They called themselves the Registry. Their negotiations ensured that pureblood contracts, breeding rules, and protocols would be enforced by the Crown. When Caedmon’s great-great-grandson Eodward drove the last Aurellian legions out, the Registry, including my own ancestors, had remained.

The cool water soothed my churning belly. I rinsed the cup, returned it to the little shelf, and sagged against the wall. Both passage and bay were deserted. The prometheum was quiet, the trickle of the font soothing. Sleep had eluded me the previous night. My eyelids drifted shut. . . .

“Still squeamish?”

I startled, whacking my elbow on the protruding shelf. Though a big man, Bastien had crept up on me without a sound.

“I’ve no skills to aid such activities,” I said, wincing as I rubbed my elbow. “I could use the time to reproduce de Seti’s portrait in ink. If you have archives . . .”

“There’s other tasks more pressing. Anywise, you don’t have the original to copy. Come along.”

“I don’t need it. The true image remains with me for a while.”

He paused mid-departure. “You can draw it again exactly, without the face in front of you?”

“Yes.”

“As many times as I might want?”

Prideful fool. I oughtn’t have mentioned it. Copying was a tedious chore. Pureblood families often requested ten or twenty copies of their son’s or daughter’s anniversary portraits to pass around to families who might provide suitable marriage partners.

Bastien waited, his brows raised high enough to take flight on their own. He had shown himself most perceptive, and I had pledged my family’s honor to this contract. Besides, I’d never been a good liar.

“Yes. But for three days at most. After that, I would need to retrieve the true image by touching the original portrait. I could then copy it or determine if anyone had tampered with it.”

“Hmmph. Useful.” His not-quite-a-smirk was immensely irritating. “But not now. Constance sent word we’ve another mystery.”

Shuffling off annoyance, I clutched my parchment scraps and plummet and followed him into the courtyard.

Our new mystery was a girl child of eight or ten summers. Her tunic and leggings were little more than sacking. Her dark hair was chopped off short. Though disease and harsh winter hit the poorer ordinaries very hard, she looked neither wasted nor ill. Had it not been for the scrapes and black streaks on cheeks and brow and the mud all over—from tumbling into the ditch where she was found, so Constance surmised—and her unnatural pallor, one might have thought her a healthy child, asleep.

“She were found in the hirudo ditch next the piggery,” said Constance, scratching her ear vigorously as if a bug had flown into it, “but none claimed to know her. Demetreo, the headman, swore it so when he had her brought here, with his honorable complinations to the coroner. Not that we’d believe a Ciceron’s barbling any more’n a frog’s spit. But she don’t have the visible of a hirudo kind, no matter her garb.”

“Aye, look at her hands,” said Bastien, brushing dirt away. “No hirudo child.”

Her fingernails were broken, with a thin rime of dirt underneath, but her hands were smooth and plump. And when the coroner pulled the tunic away from her neck, he grunted and spat. “No mystery as to her dying, neither.”

Blue-gray bruises around her neck showed the very spread of the fingers that had strangled the life out of her. Bastien glanced up at me. “You’ve no magic can tell us whose hands made these marks, do you?”

I shook my head. Not even a bent for history, fully practiced instead of a lifeless stump between my eyes, could pull such a revelation out of the air.

“Then bestir yourself, pureblood. We’re like to get no bounty from her family, but catching a dastard who’s murdered without provocation tots up a decent fee.”

Revulsion left me incapable of speech. The slim, pale neck could have been Juli’s but a few years ago, or the innocent flesh of my young cousins who died screaming in the fire at Pontia. I already hated this place, this life, this despicable world of ordinaries.

Dispensing with preliminary sketches, my left hand traced her cold cheeks, her violated neck, smooth hands, and ragged hair. Then I reached deep into my bent. . . .

The bawling, clattering business of the city of the dead faded. War and winter vanished. Past horror, present anger, and anxiety about the future fell away. My senses were aflame with magic that seared a river of fire through bone and sinew, engraving the image of the murdered child upon my spirit and pouring through my fingers onto a flimsy scrap of animal skin.

Other images intruded. Bare white bones. Sinuous threads of silver. A heaving grayness streaked with moonlight. Odd. Cursing distraction, I shrugged them off and plunged deeper.

Time lost shape, but at some point well in, an urgency forced its way into my awareness, and a blur swept between my eyes and the page like some great insect.

I growled and shooed it away. I was not yet done. There was so much to convey.

“Remeni!” At the brittle utterance of my name, someone yanked the page from under my hand. The loss of connection doused my frenzy like cold rain down my neck.

“Give it back! It’s not done.” My right hand shook with pent urgency. I squeezed my eyes shut as if I could hold on to the vanishing lines and curves. But lacking a knot of completion, I could not hold on to the true image even for a few moments. Without touching the page, I was blind to my creation.

“We’ve guests arriving.”

Coroner Bastien crouched beside me, though he sounded as if he were at the bottom of a well. The yard was as quiet as the stone halls of the prometheum. Constance stood on the far side of the bier, holding her cloud-goddess cloak spread wide as a tent, as if to shield Bastien and me from the wind. Her pale eyes had grown to near half her thin face.

I shook my head to clear it. “I should finish it now,” I snapped. “Details come sharper on the first connection. What’s wrong?”

“Naught, I trust,” spat Bastien, mouth twisted into a sneer. “But you’re going to work inside the prometheum from now on. You attract far too much interest.” He snatched the stick of plummet away. “We’ll speak of it later. For now you stay with me.”

The portrait wasn’t right. But without examining it, I’d no idea why. The image burning inside me would not manifest without my hand in contact with the page. In the main, I was pleased not to be constantly plagued with all the faces I’d drawn, but an unfinished work irritated like grit in a raw wound.

Constance bawled for a yard boy to bring a sheet. As they covered the child and carried her away, Bastien’s expression, only half-masked by his unruly hair, was entirely grim.

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
Praise for  Carol Berg

“An absolutely gorgeous writer...[who] does incredible worldbuilding.” —C. E. Murphy, author of The Walker Paper series

Praise for Flesh and Spirit and Breath and Bone

“Engrossing.” —Sharon Shinn, National Bestselling Author of Royal Airs

“Altogether superior.” —Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)

“Emotionally intense.” —Publishers Weekly

Meet the Author

Carol Berg is the national bestselling author of multiple fantasy novels, including Breath and Bone, Flesh and Spirit, The Daemon Prism, The Soul Mirror, and The Spirit Lens. She is a former software engineer. She lives in Colorado with her family.

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Dust and Light: A Sanctuary Novel 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I hadn't read the Lighthouse duology before I read this. Now that I have I think the explanations of pure blood society and the world in general were better here. That said, after this one I promptly devoured the Lighthouse books and was just as engrossed. I look forward to the next one!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago