At the spider heart of Murne’s radiating streets, the king’s palace overlooked the city, its three wings jutting away from one another in uncomfortable points. The palace had been built in stages, generations apart. Dark granite blocks comprised the oldest part, a warrior’s palace with arrow slits instead of windows: the palace of Thomas Redoubt, the Cold King, who had claimed Antyre for its own country, wresting independence from Itarus with the aid of Haith, secretive god of death and victory.
When the Cold King vanished into the walls of his own palace, leaving only the bodies of his family—wife, son, an unmarried daughter—behind, the claimant to the throne built a new edifice entirely, separate in style and space, leaving a sward between the two palaces. The new king built the antithesis of the Cold King’s haunted granite corridors, a sunlit series of pavilions with wide corridors and wider windows, laid nacre over every upright surface, marble over the floors, and gilt across the ceilings.
The king enjoyed the sunlit views for less than a year after its completion. The ambitious Lord Ixion from the House of Last, made good use of the windows, clambering through, sword in hand, and left the entire royal family gutted, the marble floors awash in blood.
Ixion, though aware that the country was nearly bankrupt, built his own palace, an awkward bridge between the two styles. His was constructed of sensible brick, wood, and lath and plaster; and though the windows were wide, they could be barred and shuttered. A practical man’s palace, and it had served the family well. Six generations and the House of Last still held the throne.
It made it all the more galling that Janus Ixion—current Earl of Last, the king’s nephew, two steps from the throne, and resident of the palace—had been consigned to living quarters in the Cold King’s wing, along with the other undesirables.
Of course, it was more galling still to be waiting on the attention of another undesirable, deposited in a visitor’s salon like a recalcitrant child.
Janus rose from his chair, shivering as the warmth of the leather peeled away from his back. He poked idly at the low-burning fire, and twitched when the door opened behind him, let a quick swirl of cooler air spark the flames higher.
He didn’t turn around. He didn’t need to. Only one man could make free of these rooms: the Itarusine prince ascendant, Ivor Sofia Grigorian.
“My pet, I asked you here to play cards, not act the housekeeper. You should have asked a servant to stoke the fire for you,” Prince Ivor said.
“And shiver while waiting for your man to do what I could do myself?” Janus jabbed at the scant pile of logs, satisfied when one of them crumbled into ash. It was absurd how cold the old wing was; it approached summer outside, but inside it was as if Ivor had brought the cold of the Itarusine Winter Court to Antyre alongside his servitors and guards.
“Ever precipitate,” Ivor said, his tone indulgent as a fond uncle’s. Janus turned to accept the glass of Itarusine brandy the prince handed him, a drink unpopular in any rooms but these, which for the duration of Ivor’s tenure here, were considered to be Itarus.
Janus took a thoughtful sip and reseated himself. The leather chair was still warm, still shaped to his broad shoulders, and welcomed him back. “Cards,” he said.
“Is it so odd?” Ivor said. “We played many such games during your years in the Winter Court.”
Janus frowned into the warm amber depths of the brandy, watched it wave against the clear glass like fire licking ice, and bit back comment. Many such games indeed. Prince Ivor was a true son of the Itarusine court, and nothing was ever as it seemed with him. Sit down to a game with Ivor, and rise poorer in coin; position; and, all too often, life expectancy.
Playing any game at all with Ivor was dangerous, but not playing…well, that was worse. Ivor saved his most inventive schemes for those who thought to escape them. Even now, his dark eyes lingered on Janus, daring him to make his excuses and leave. A perfect brow arched, glossy and dark against his pale skin.
Ivor looked every inch the aristocrat he was, the most-favored prince of Itarus, well dressed, elegant in his silk cravat and lace cuffs, but there was nothing of softness about him. His eyes, mouth, and hands were hard.
When Janus had first arrived in the Winter Court, a Relict rat dumped among the aristocracy, Ivor had unaccountably offered himself as a mentor, teaching Janus the best ways to survive in a court given over to bloody-bladed politics. Later, of course, once Janus had thought more on it, he realized Ivor had seen a useful pawn going to waste, and that his “training exercises” often removed those obstacles in Ivor’s path.
Janus closed his eyes, sought peaceful darkness, then opened them, letting his gaze fall on a dusty frieze: an army in marching ranks with Haith at the rear of the column, His heavy hood obscuring His face.
Janus felt obscurely comforted. He might be living one level up in the old wing, surrounded by remnants of an earlier, unmourned age, but at least his rooms had been cleaned properly.
Ivor’s seneschal tapped on the half-open door, ushered another man in; Janus felt his wary lassitude fail him. The blond fop, Edwin Cathcart, Lord Blythe, balked in the doorway at the sight of Janus, equally appalled; and Ivor raised a glass to them both, a wicked smile curling his lips.
Two black-clad servants, directed by the seneschal, followed Blythe in, grunting under the weight of a broad, carved table. The seneschal laid a swath of indigo velvet over it, bowed to Ivor, and ushered the servants out.
Ivor fanned the pasteboards, a gleaming run of painted feather, scale, sea, and flame, a riot of color against the inky velvet, and said, “Now that the players are here, shall we begin?”
A sudden draft made the lamplight flicker, a breeze strong enough that the air coiled into the glass chimneys and battered the flames. Smoke sifted up in spidery trails, adding the sharp scent of burning wicks to a room already hazy with smoke. Janus fought down the undignified tickle in his throat that wanted to turn him red faced and spluttering. Were they not closeted in the old wing of the castle, he would demand a window be opened to let out the smoke, but the arrow slits and tight-mortared stone hadn’t been designed with comfort in mind.
“By the gods, Blythe, isn’t it enough we had to endure Challacombe smoking those foul cigarillos at the table? I thought you too proud to ape a commoner.” Janus laid down his card with a decided snap. The seven of earth, a spray of blood-red roses across a stone floor. His new card was earth again but more suited to the rest of his hand, the jack of earth, a man in a coffin. He filed it beside the jacks of air and fire.
Blythe’s narrow lips tightened around his pipe at being compared to King Aris’s common-born spymaster, but he made no retort, instead folding his hand. Janus believed the man was constitutionally unable to think at all. It made it all the more peculiar that Ivor had invited the young fop to play with them. Unless Blythe had invited himself, the Duchess of Love’s stalking horse, in an attempt to curry favor with Ivor.
Janus washed the crackle of tobacco fumes out of his throat with a swallow of brandy.
“Perhaps he merely hopes to confound us with smoke,” Ivor said. “Maze our vision, and so gain an advantage. He needs some aid at play—surely you agree with that, my pet.” He flashed a quick, saturnine grin at Janus.
Blythe found his tongue and said stiffly, “I wonder you invited me to play at all, if it was only to treat me to insult.” His pipe stem, held between clenched teeth, cracked, and the barrel tipped, shedding sparks and dottle. He slapped quickly at his chest and cravat, leaving tiny singe marks in the fine lace and brocade of his vest.
Janus traded bad temper for a quick and silent snort of amusement. “I wonder myself, but the ways of Itarusine princes are mysterious indeed.”
Though he saw Blythe’s choler rise, a hot flush on thin cheeks above the elaborate knots of his cravat, Janus’s attention was all for Ivor, watching that tiny quirk of a smile, blossomed and gone, and entirely malevolent. It reminded him of a night spent in the Winter Court in an accommodating lady’s boudoir. Janus had raised his gaze from the sweat-damp juncture of Marya’s neck and shoulder, her hands still clawing at his back, and found Ivor watching, sleek, still naked from his turn in Marya’s embrace. He had reached out, rested his hand on Janus’s nape, a warm, possessive touch, even as Janus gave his final attentions to Marya with a shuddering gasp and groan.
The pleasure, Janus knew, wasn’t for watching the act itself but at Janus doing something well.
Seeing the same pleased smile on Ivor’s face over their shared complicity in Blythe’s setdown unsettled his nerves. He felt a ghostly hand touch his skin, the weight of memory. When Ivor was this smug, trouble was sure to follow.
“But three is the ideal number for a game,” Ivor said. He poured Janus another generous measure of brandy; Janus resolved not to drink it.
“If only two are seated,” Ivor continued, “then they must be opponents by default, no matter their inclinations. But three—three allows men to choose alliances as they may.”
“Allows you to work together to lighten my purse, more like,” Blythe muttered. “If you find my smoke, my presence so objectionable, I could think of other places to be, Last. Were I you, and wed to such a tidy handful as Psyke Bellane, I’d find better pursuits than sitting to games with your fellows.
” Janus sighed, and sipped the brandy more slowly this time. Blythe was an idiot and the comment ?wasn’t worth a reply. His marriage might be a matter of politics instead of passion, but Psyke and he dwelled together respectfully enough. Janus turned his attention back to the pasteboards in his hand, waiting Ivor’s turn.
He felt as if he’d been waiting for Ivor to show his hand all evening.
The prince was more than a simple foreign delegate, more even than the newest Itarusine auditor come to ensure the treaty between their two countries was upheld. Ivor might be a loyal son of Itarus, but his ambitions were bigger than playing warden to the Antyrrian finances; Janus had no evidence of it, but in his bones, he felt Ivor had the same prize in mind as himself: the Antyrrian throne. But their reasons, Janus thought, were utterly at odds. He knew his own: to see Antyre brought out of the stagnation it had been forced into by the Xipos treaty and by King Aris’s neglect.
Ivor’s reasons likely centered around his drive for power.
Ivor smiled, and set down a card of his own, the queen of air, Black-Winged Ani, the goddess of love and vengeance; all Janus’s musings derailed on a sudden wave of pain and anger.
Maledicte had been gone nearly nine months, borne away by Ani’s hatred of cages and Maledicte’s own frustration with being locked away at Janus’s country estate, a treasonous secret.
Janus set a silver coin, the Antyrrian luna, into the center of the small pile, and laid out his cards. Ivor dropped an Itarusine coin onto the cloth, and fanned his cards with a showman’s gesture. A losing hand. One he would have won had he kept the queen of air.
Blythe, annoyed at being ignored, relit his pipe with deliberate emphasis, and said, “I suppose you might shun your wife’s company at that, though. It would be all manner of awkward were you to seek her and find her bed already filled. Aris seems quite taken—”
“Aris is our king,” Janus said. He collected his winnings, the pasteboards, tucking Ani’s card into the rest as if it meant nothing to him at all. “Respect is owed him.”
“Nicely won, my pet,” Ivor said. “When I recall your first attempts at the game, I grow amazed.”
“There is nothing amazing about progress,” Janus said, more shortly than he had meant, but he grew weary of Ivor’s teasing. Instead, he shuffled the cards neatly, dealt them out, noting that Ivor and he had nearly equal piles of coins, even five hands in, while Blythe’s had dwindled.
Blythe dragged his chair closer, scattering ash from his clothes onto the velvet, eager for another hand. Janus eyed him and sighed. “What I find far more remarkable is the failure to improve.”
“Agreed,” Ivor said. The hand played out, but after the second round of bid and show, Ivor put his palm over the pile when Blythe would have added his coin on the third. “Our round, I think, Blythe. If Janus ?doesn’t hold the suite of high fire, collected entirely from your carelessness, he is not the man I thought him.”
“I suppose you would know,” Blythe said.
Janus eyed the cards in his hands, the red wash of flame in all its guises, and tried to ignore Blythe. His temper, sparked by Ivor’s trick with the queen card, was souring by the moment.
Blythe’s tone shifted uglier as Ivor shut him out of the game. “I had heard, after all, that most of your games with Ivor were more intimate than this. Perhaps your wife is not the only one to seek companionship outside her marriage; but at least, if she is indiscreet, she cannot be considered disloyal to the crown.
” Janus sucked in a furious breath but restrained himself. He was a king’s counselor, albeit one in some disgrace, and he had a reputation to uphold. Still, he wanted nothing more than to break his goblet, then use the sharp edge to carve out the man’s endlessly offensive tongue.
“Do you intend to provoke him to a duel, Blythe?” Ivor asked. “Do you believe the duchess’s support allows you to make such insinuations? I warn you, it does not. Should Janus accept the challenge, I will act his second with pleasure.
” Blythe’s hands on the table clenched. There was a brief spurt of panic in his eyes that Janus enjoyed. He had had enough of the lordling’s blatant dislike, and the idea of a duel was sweet. It would be sheer butchery though, no challenge. Edwin Cathcart, Lord Blythe, was a slight young man, prone to talk over action, and even that was clumsy in execution.
From the Trade Paperback edition.