That morning, I awaited my arrest in Our Lady of a Thousand Fans. I wasn't alone, but it seemed I might as well have been, for the young man in the bed next to me was asleep. He had no particular reason not to be—after all, it wasn't his future upon which fell the shadow of impending arrest—and though I found that I could not look at him, neither did I begrudge him the repose.
It was rather a curious situation in which I'd found myself. Truth be told, I'd considered myself clever enough to avoid such entanglements altogether. Yet the problem with doing foolish things was that it was quite often impossible to tell what was foolish and what wasn't until you'd swum too far out to turn back again. After that point, it was either carry on or drown.
Of course, you were hanged either way if another man stood up to accuse you of doing all manner of things you were relatively sure you hadn't.
And that was the thing about men: They could so easily change their minds, become frightened of what might happen to them, and throw you to the wolves. If you were very, very unlucky, they might even do all three.
At least—if you were more than passably wealthy—you might be able to go out in style.
I was waiting that morning for the footfalls I knew were coming. They were neither the trained, delicate rhythms of Our Lady's skilled professionals nor the uneven steps of sated patrons, but rather those that held all the surety and sharpness of a man of the law. The man who was coming for me was one who did not need to hunt his quarry because he knew very well where it would be. Though my offense was by all accounts a serious one, the way in which it must be handled would demand a touch of finesse. Most political matters did, though it was a philosophy lost on some men.
Despite my assumptions, I couldn't have said quite what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn't the Provost of the city himself, leaning in the doorframe as though he hadn't a care in the world.
There was a large mirror hanging on the wall opposite the bed—for people who liked that sort of thing, I supposed—ornately framed in dark cherrywood. So I saw the scene as it must have appeared to him: the lines forming thin and faint at the corners of my eyes, gray hairs glinting at my temples more obviously than I'd have liked in the late- morning sun. I thought ruefully of how little I deserved those marks of age, and how well I had won them, for a man just past thirty-five years of age. Next to me the young man slept on, his tanned shoulders smooth, his mouth open and vulnerable. I tilted my head, fingers measuring the dark unkempt edges of the beard creeping over my cheeks and under my chin.
I'd not had the time to shave before—and after, it had seemed like something of a trifle. After my betrayal by Erik, many things had seemed a trifle.
"Margrave Royston," said the Provost. "You're a hard man to track down."
"Not particularly," I said.
His nose wrinkled at the smell of burnt cloves that permeated the air, and I could sense how very badly he wished to tell me to stop smoking. His excellent comportment prevented him from doing so; or perhaps it was his keen attention to protocol. Nevertheless, there were those who believed the Esar had made a grievous error in letting a commoner enforce his laws. The Provost was a man of the Charlotte district, center-born and center-bred. The people liked him because he didn't put on airs, and everyone else liked him because he minded his own business—with the exception, of course, of those rare occasions when the noblesse went out of their way to do something exceedingly imprudent or alarming; and then his intervention was required.
There was a bowl carved from black stone on the nightstand, in anticipation of the possibility that the wealthy patrons of Our Lady might need a place to put their cuff links or jewelry. I myself had adopted it as an ashtray, a purpose for which I felt it was peculiarly suited.
"You'd better get dressed," the Provost continued, removing a round, gold watch from his pocket. "There's a ruling to be had."
"So soon?" I didn't know myself whether the surprise in my voice was feigned or genuine. I decided on the third option, which was trousers, and got out of bed. "Dmitri, I must say the efficiency of this nation in condemning a man is simply astounding."
The Provost continued to examine his pocket watch with somewhat forced interest. "Your duties within the Basquiat will be assumed by another, in accordance with the sentencing."
"Sentencing?" I caught a glimpse of myself again in the mirror, hair dark and sleep-wild, half-dressed, white shirt voluminous and untucked, my nose stark and sharp and the new lines tight around my eyes and mouth. I'd lost my cuff links under a mound of ash. I looked exactly as I felt: a man thrown off center.
"Oh. There's no official trial," Dmitri said quickly, casting a glance upward. Finding me more or less decent, he nodded and tucked the watch away into some invisible pocket. "We just thought it might be time for a little, ah, chat."
His attitude confirmed my worst fears.
We stepped outside together, and I looked about at the city I loved.
Our Lady of a Thousand Fans was situated in the heart of Miranda. Most will tell you it's the palace, or even the Basquiat, that's the real center of the city's uppermost district. In truth, it all depends on where you're coming from, or what attracts you most.
You can tell a lot about people by the details they choose to employ when describing Volstov's capital.
If you ask anybody who's anybody, though, they'll tell you that if you wish to get through the city and not end up hopelessly lost, it isn't at the palace or Our Lady that you want to begin. Leaving from the Basquiat is actually easiest, taking the Whitstone Road, which leads in a counterclockwise direction through 'Versity Stretch, past the Rue d'St. Difference and its countless milliners—elaborate hats being very much in fashion this season, the sort with lace veils, wide brims, and feathers—along with all the other shops. The Rue is just on the edge between lower Miranda and upper Charlotte, so once you're past the merchants' quarter you're smack in the middle of Charlotte herself, teeming and fat-voweled and cocky. No one much cares what you do in Charlotte so long as you're not doing it to a friend or member of the family. Once you accustom yourself to Charlotte's indifference, she will adopt you as her son or daughter, so long as you look after yourself and don't stray too close to Mollyedge.
It was a principle that could be applied to any of the three sister districts, for each had its own boundaries, as well as its own consequences for dealing with those who strayed too close to them.
The Provost's hansom had windows, at least, and for that I was thankful. I had the odd idea in my head—pervasive no matter how I tried to distract myself—that this might be the last time I got to examine the city I so loved with such reverent attention. I'd had the same feeling with Erik the last occasion I'd met with him, though at the time I hadn't paid my misgivings much mind.
In the end I didn't blame Erik. Volstov was accepting of such dalliances, while Arlemagne took the opposite approach. And Erik was an Arlemagne prince. He was under edict, and he did no credit to his royal family nor to the time-honored tradition of diplomacy for which Arlemagne was famous. On top of all that, we hadn't exactly been careful—a fact for which I blamed myself—making eyes at one another in broad daylight, in the streets, in the middle of the Basquiat. My only surprise was that no one had noticed us sooner.
If I were being ruthless in my honesty, I would admit that it was not the only surprise I had felt over the matter, but I had told myself it was pointless to wrestle with such thoughts beyond what good they could do me. Arlemagne had no understanding of Talents: a magician's particular aptitude within a given field. The same man who could pull a stream from its bed could not create enough heat to boil water unless he did it the same as the rest of us, with a stove, or by building a fire with his own two hands.
Likewise, a man whose skills lay chiefly with combustion would have to rely on his own considerable charm, rather than his Talent, to seduce any sort of prince.
Erik had capitalized on the ignorance of his countrymen and saved himself a great deal of grief in doing so. Really, it should not have surprised me. He was boundlessly clever; one almost wanted to admire him.
Now, in the absence of what regret I'd not yet allowed myself to feel, I felt an overwhelming sense of loss concerning Thremedon City herself, her twisting uneven skyline and its gentle sloping toward the sea.
We jostled around a corner, the Provost staring at his watch with the keen interest of a man determined not to be late or one who was extremely uncomfortable with the situation at hand. From the fervor he was devoting to the task, I had to assume that, wherever we were heading, it was certain to be a room full of self-important men, waiting to decide my fate. I normally had nothing against self-importance, but the idea that, at this moment, someone could be settling a sentence upon my head was both disquieting and invasive, as though the private events of my life had all too quickly become public.
I might have considered this fact before involving myself with Arlemagne's heir, but I have always been much cleverer in retrospect.
There were certain freedoms allowed to men of the Basquiat—men of privilege and wealth. I wondered if this would help my case. But there were some limits to that freedom for which one couldn't be pardoned. I'd never been at the center of an international incident before. On the periphery, perhaps—skirting around the edges like the proper young madames keen on avoiding puddles in the street—but this time was different. Displease the wrong people, and even your connections can't save you. Displease the wrong country, and—well, I would find out shortly.
I refused to blame Erik. Panic was a natural reaction; it could make you stupid, selfish. I'd seen it often enough. It was a rare man who had the natural proclivity to do the right thing when the wrong one might save him a share in the punishment or blame. Erik had been young. In his place and at that age, I might well have done the same.
This was a lie—I knew even as I thought it—but it was a lie that gave me some comfort.
Our carriage halted in front of the Esar's palace: a long, low-ceilinged building of cream and gold. The Provost got out before me and held the carriage door, so I knew that things couldn't be so dire as all that. Still, it was with a sense of slow, settling disaster that I stepped onto the Palace Walk.
For the first time in a long while I felt utterly powerless to shape my surroundings.
"It's this way," said the Provost. He tapped me once on the shoulder, then took the lead. I followed him, for I could go no other way.
The only reason we got punished the way we did was 'cause th'Esar was spitting mad for too many reasons that had nothing to do with me and what I'd done. All of a sudden and out of nowhere, we were getting slapped with a ruler on the wrist, only there was a whole lot more of a ruckus about it, and it was th'Esar himself instead of some prissy-pants schoolma'am doing the slapping. I mean, we were all called in—me and the rest of the boys—and lined up on these uncomfortable chairs that smelled of old velvet and dust, and made to wait in this place Balfour (his voice reminding us he'd been raised with all the privileges of a thoroughbred bitch) said was Punishment's Antechamber. And even I had to admit it: That seemed about right. Nobody said anything to us, just gave us a couple of dark looks before making us wait, no doubt so we could think long and hard about what we'd done. They were scowling at me in particular, seeing as how I'd been the one to do it, and everyone knew.
I wasn't sorry. None of the boys were, either—I could see it in the way they were scowling right back. Th'Esar was just pissed and looking for someone to blame it all on. Because we were having enough trouble with Arlemagne without all this on top of the rest, Ghislain'd said, and Adamo'd just shook his head like maybe he wished he'd been a part of it and maybe he was real glad he hadn't been, and maybe it didn't matter either way since he was called in for it with the rest of us.
The thing was, I didn't know she was married.
She wasn't so fine and so sweet-curved as I couldn't've found somebody else—and better—to tickle that night. But she was married to a diplomat, which was what made it so bad, so when I tried to pay her like she was a common whore, she got wild as a wet cat on me, screaming and throwing things and breaking vases. I thought she was a whore, the way she'd tarted herself up, but apparently that was just an Arlemagne's way: powder on everything and too many undergarments, the kind of teasing frippery you only see in Our Lady and which I normally don't have time for. Her breasts were incredible, though—big and round and soft and warm—and I spent a lot of time letting her know how incredible I thought they were. Even if I did think it was a commercial exchange, she might've been grateful instead of screaming rape all over, like that's what you can do if you're a woman when things go sour and you feel a slight.
She called me all kinds of things in her raw-edged Arlemagne voice, all kinds of incredible things I passed on afterward to Magoughin, who collected that kind of talk. But then all of a sudden there was a diplomat with some ridiculous mustache knocking down our door like he was going to kill us, and I almost had my knife in him, all the boys laughing and whooping it up, when Adamo got his arms round me and dragged me off, both of us cursing up a storm.