Arrested on accusations of witchcraft and treason, Chant finds himself trapped in a cold, filthy jail cell in a foreign land. With only his advocate, the unhelpful and uninterested Consanza, he quickly finds himself cast as a bargaining chip in a brewing battle between the five rulers of this small, backwards, and petty nation.
Or, at least, that's how he would tell the story.
In truth, Chant has little idea of what is happening outside the walls of his cell, but he must quickly start to unravel the puzzle of his imprisonment before they execute him for his alleged crimes. But Chant is no witch—he is a member of a rare and obscure order of wandering storytellers. With no country to call his home, and no people to claim as his own, all Chant has is his wits and his apprentice, a lad more interested in wooing handsome shepherds than learning the ways of the world.
And yet, he has one great power: his stories in the ears of the rulers determined to prosecute him for betraying a nation he knows next to nothing about. The tales he tells will topple the Queens of Nuryevet and just maybe, save his life.
|Publisher:||Gallery / Saga Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.80(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.40(d)|
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A Conspiracy of Truths
The whole mess began in a courtroom in Vsila, the capital of Nuryevet, where I was being put on trial for something stupid.
“What’s all this about?” I said, not for the first time.
“Charges of witchcraft,” they said; at least, that was what it boiled down to.
“Utterly ridiculous,” I said.
“We got some witnesses,” they said.
“Your witnesses can go fuck themselves,” says I, although not in so many words.
I couldn’t even hear the witnesses from where I was sitting. The guards had stuffed me in an iron cage at one end of this giant fucking hall in the House of Justice, and of course it makes sense to someone to put the witnesses at the other damn end, as far away as possible from the man accused, like I was an afterthought of some kind.
Worst acoustics I’ve ever heard! I kept shouting, “What? Speak up!” and, to one of the guards near me, “Is someone speaking over there? What’s happening now?” and generally making a nuisance of myself until the bored lawyer with whom they had begrudgingly supplied me turned around and shushed me.
Says she, “Can you prove you’re not a blackwitch?” First thing she ever said to me. Can you prove you’re not a blackwitch? And, of course, that was Consanza. That was how I met her. Don’t like her any more now than I did then. Less, probably.
“Can you prove I am?” says I.
“The witness just now said you pointed at her cow and it died.”
I rolled my eyes.
“And the one before that said she heard you talking and felt a chill up her back like the claws of a ghost. She said your familiar is haunting her house now.”
“Noises at night, something crawling across her bed.”
“Tell her,” I said, projecting my voice loud enough to be heard clear at the other end of the damn hall, “tell her that it sounds like some kind of vermin. A cat or a dog would take care of it.”
“Hush. You’re confessing? What was it, a plague of rats?” Still bored, cheeky twit!
“No,” I says to her, “I’m saying that it’s foolish to accuse someone of witchcraft when there are much more reasonable explanations.”
She was shaking her head before I even finished my sentence. “No, she has an icon of Brevo hanging in her kitchen.” Some homely little fireplace god, I suppose, or a saint. I never found out. “And the master of the public house where you were arrested testified too, and he said that the cask of beer he served you from went sour.”
“It was sour to begin with!”
Consanza shrugged at me and turned back to face the rest of the courtroom. “Just don’t make noise or they’ll add ‘disrespect of the court’ to your charges.” She did something horrible with her face for a moment, and then stuck nearly her entire hand in her mouth. “Oh, finally,” she said, and spent the next ten minutes making a thorough examination of the shard of corn husk she’d extracted on one fingernail. Didn’t pay a lick of attention to the proceedings. I tell you!
Still couldn’t hear a damn thing, but I kept my mouth shut. Witchcraft was enough of a hassle; disrespect of the court was something they would actually have evidence for.
I’d never been in a Nuryeven court of law before. Completely dull country, Nuryevet, I’ll tell you that now, not that I need to point it out. Wouldn’t have even bothered passing through, but the kid wheedled me into continuing north. He was a little homesick, I think, and we hadn’t seen a proper winter in years.
Don’t know why I keep picking up apprentices; more trouble than they’re worth, but it’s part of the job, training the next one. I would have preferred another year or two in Ondor-Urt. The heat does a body good, and they have some basic fucking respect for their elders, once you convince them that you’re hale enough (and have teeth enough) to stomach more than goat-urine soup and that vile tea. I still hold they slipped goat urine into the tea, too, even though Pashafi—my Ondoro host—swore up and down that they didn’t.
Nothing but these smelly, muddy gray towns and this dull wilderness in Nuryevet. Not even interesting landscapes, even farther east from here. Just scrubland and rocks and a few halfhearted hills until you reach Vsila and the ocean, and then of course there are those uninspired mountains in the west. Hardly any decent farmland. It’s astounding how superstitious they are, considering there is literally nothing around to jog their imaginations. Even their magic is scanty and twisted, and it only manifests with the blackwitches, common enough to be a problem and to dull the Nuryevens’ sensitivity to the presence of magic, just as a baker’s hands are dulled to heat, but rare enough that no one quite knows how to deal with them, except through rumor, hearsay, and apocrypha—and I assure you, there are rumors aplenty. Stories from the whole region, in this corner of dull, dreary land, are chock full of the creatures. It’s a perverting kind of magic. There aren’t any good blackwitches, you know.
When I was first arrested, I’d overheard some talk of just killing me outright, but I suppose that the circumstances were muddled enough and the paperwork for executions complex and tedious enough that the backcountry civil servants of the Ministry of Order preferred to pass me up the food chain rather than endure that ordeal themselves.
Nuryeven bureaucracy might have been the one key thing that saved my life, come to think of it. They didn’t quite know whether I was a witch, being unable to sense the presence of foul magics, but what they did know was that paperwork could be evaded if you were clever. Put it off long enough, go to twice the effort you would have spent in the first place, and irritants like doing the paperwork eventually become a problem for other, less clever people.
My apologies. I’ve gotten distracted.
I reached out between the bars, as far as I could, and just managed to tap Consanza on her shoulder.
“What?” she grunted.
“I want to be able to hear what they’re accusing me of, at least.”
“What for? Curiosity?”
“So I can defend myself,” I hissed back. My feet and knees ached from standing in that little cage for so long. There was hardly room to turn around, let alone to stretch my bones.
“Defend yourself?” She glanced back at me, eyebrows drawn together. There’s really no expression that would make her face look any prettier. Her nose could fell an entire oak forest, and her eyebrows are on the unruly side, thick and black, with a trail of hair in between.
“I’m allowed to speak in my own defense, aren’t I?”
She just stared at me with that idiot expression on her face.
“It’s not like you’re doing me any good,” I added. “Although I suppose the court would have no choice but to be impressed with your oral hygiene.”
“People accused of witchcraft have never been put on the stand. Isn’t done. Well, except at the end, when you go up to receive your death sentence. Technically, you should be gagged, but the guards in the Grey Ward said you’d been very well behaved.” She turned away again, her long robes swishing against the ground. “Except for being unbelievably rude.”
“I haven’t got a lick of magic in me!” I roared at her. “And even if I had, I’m from Kaskinen! We don’t have blackwitches in Kaskinen. It ain’t in our fucking water, woman—I’m a goddamn Chant!”
“Shut up,” she snapped at me, but the court had fallen silent.
One of the five judges behind the bench sighed heavily, audible now even halfway across the hall. “Scribe, add ‘blatant disrespect of the Sovereign Court in the second degree,’ and ‘obscene profanity in the presence of an acting court official in the first.’?”
“Let’s table the witchcraft charges for a moment and get the new ones out of the way,” creaked the judge on the far end. “It’s nearly lunchtime.”
The panel made some mumbles of agreement and summoned me up before them. Well, that was one thing in my favor. The cage was opened, they clapped chains on me, and Consanza tugged me out by my sleeve, steering me ahead of her towards the bench, across miles and miles of stupid excess courtroom.
They have to have miles of stupid excess courtroom: no real schools of law. Students just sit in court and watch hearing after hearing for years. Has to be plenty of room for them. The particularly keen ones fight for seats in the front-most rows. Consanza did not strike me as one who had been particularly keen.
She gave me a bit of a shove when we made it to the bench, and I made a show of stumbling. The feeble-old-man show again, you see.
“Defendant,” the senior judge said, in a tone that clearly indicated to me that he was already thinking about lunch and no longer cared much about the trial, “we hereby charge you with the following: disrespect of the Sovereign Court in the second degree, one count; obscene profanity in the presence of an acting court official in the first degree, five counts—”
“We’d better add on ‘obstruction of lawful proceedings,’?” said the judge on his right. She blew her nose into a lace-edged handkerchief. “One count, third degree.”
“Obstruction of lawful proceedings in the third degree, one count. All in favor?”
“Aye,” echoed the panel.
“Scribe, if you would.” The senior judge cleared his throat. “Present evidence. Witnesses to the charge of disrespect of the Sovereign Court, please stand.” Every soul in the room stood—the keen students jumped to their feet quickest of all. “Thank you, be seated. Witnesses to the charge of obscene profanity, please stand. Excellent—I think we all heard those vile words,” he added with a wheezy chuckle. “But proceedings must proceed according to precedence, as it were. Be seated. Witnesses to the charge of obstruction of lawful proceedings, please stand. Thank you, be seated. I would call that fairly clear-cut, wouldn’t you?” He looked around at the other judges on the panel, who nodded. “Defense?”
“Nah,” said my lawyer, yawning almost theatrically. “It’s almost lunchtime, after all.”
Another chuckle ran through the panel. One or two of the judges gave her almost benevolent looks. I spluttered for a moment and scrambled for words. “Excuse me! I would like to defend myself!”
“Defense rests,” Consanza said, and grabbed my elbow.
I tugged it away from her. “You horrible woman, if you’re not going to speak in my defense, then why shouldn’t I? You’re dismissed.”
“You can’t dismiss me,” she said.
“You can’t dismiss her,” said the chairman. “She’s your court-appointed defense.”
“She’s shi—She’s no good at her job!”
“This is highly irregular,” the female judge to the chairman’s right said through her handkerchief.
“Listen. I’m an old man, going deaf, eyesight not what it was”—my eyes are still as good as ever they were—“and you’ve shoved me in the back corner, where I can’t hear or see what’s happening to me, and she ignores me. Isn’t she supposed to be defending me? I don’t know how she became an advocate with this kind of attitude.”
“Consanza Priyayat’s credentials are not the matter of this court’s present concerns,” the chairman said.
“Sorry, say again?” I said loudly, just to drive home my point.
The chairman obligingly leaned forward. “We don’t care if you think she shouldn’t be an advocate,” he said loudly.
“Well, fine, fine. You can’t fault me for having an interest in my own fate, though, can you? How is it fair for me to be caged in the back, like I’m not the reason we’re all here today?”
“You’re not the reason we’re here,” said the judge with the kerchief. “It’s hearing day. Happens every month.”
“There are six other people whose cases are also being heard today,” the chairman said, pointing around the room. There were several other cages. The prisoners in them glared at me. “You’re interrupting the proceedings of justice for them as well. Hence your charge of obstruction.”
My surprise was, in fact, genuine. “Well, dear me, what an embarrassing situation.” Consanza, behind me, snorted. “I suppose I’d better apologize to these honorable men and women. I hope they can forgive an ignorant foreigner.” They didn’t look like they would. “If I’d been able to hear what was going on, or if anyone had bothered to explain, I surely wouldn’t have kicked up such a fuss. Truly, I had no idea.”
“The charge of obstruction will stand,” the chairman announced to the court. “We will lighten it from third degree to second for your repentance.”
“The charge of ‘obscene profanity’ ought to stand as well,” said the youngest judge on the end. He still had some color to his hair. “We did all hear him say what he said.”
“So we did, so we did,” said the chairman. “What do we think of ‘blatant disrespect,’ panel?”
My no-good lawyer, primly inspecting the state of her fingernails, said, “Not that I don’t completely agree with the charges, Your Excellencies”—I squawked at her in protest—“but he is a foreigner. And passing senile, as it seems to me.”
“And deaf,” I added sharply. “Mostly deaf.”
Consanza gestured to me. “You see my point, Your Excellencies? He’s an ignorant outlander, and unfortunately, punishment by law isn’t something that can help him with that.”
“Do you suggest we drop the charge of blatant disrespect, advocate?” asked the chairman, clearly dubious.
“Not drop, per se, no,” said Consanza. The chit drew a handkerchief from her pocket and started cleaning the wax from under her fingernail. “I might suggest an alternate charge, however. Brazen impertinence, perhaps. Shall we say . . . third degree?”
“A charge for children!” from the sniffling judge with the handkerchief. “I once presided on a panel that found an eight-year-old guilty of that.”
“And are ignorant foreigners any better than children? Clearly not: my client is incapable of comporting himself appropriately without supervision, thinks rude words are amusing, and would not stop scratching himself before you called us into your presence.” I squawked at her again—I had done no such thing! “As stated by the philosopher Vesas the Walker, the goal of law must not be to punish or oppress those who break its tenets, but to guide them towards enlightenment, wisdom, and righteousness. I would suggest that if the court charges my client with blatant disrespect, we may be punishing him with undue harshness. What will his sentence be for blatant disrespect? Another week in Grey Ward Prison? I ask, Your Excellencies: What will he learn from that? How will it better his soul?
“Charge him instead with brazen impertinence in the third degree: With this charge in hand, the appropriate and traditional sentence is for him to state a formally structured and sincere apology, delivered immediately to the injured parties—yourselves, the students of the court, and his fellow defendants, all conveniently gathered here at once. By this method, this ignorant foreigner, no better than a child, will learn of our customs, our ways, the behavior we expect from an upright and law-revering citizen. Can you expect a child to learn good behavior by locking them in a closet? No! They must be shown the error of their ways and made to correct it, making the necessary amends. Likewise, can you expect a doltish foreigner to acclimate to our way of life without being guided towards the right path?”
I gawped at her, I’m not too proud to tell you, and then, having said her piece, I suppose, that young chit dug around in her pockets and brought out a pipe—plain wood, with a rather large bowl, an oddly crooked stem, and a silver mouthpiece. And I kept gawping at her, and she just stood there in the middle of the floor, packing leaf into the bowl and lighting it with a little flick-match.
I suppose the panel must have been discussing her argument amongst themselves, because the next thing I heard was the senior judge saying, “All in favor of substituting a charge of brazen impertinence, third degree, for the charge of blatant disrespect of the Sovereign Court?”
There were three ayes and a nay—the nay from the creaky judge on the end, the one who had noted that it was nearly lunchtime. The chairman, it seemed, abstained.
“We hereby charge the defendant with brazen impertinence, then, amongst his other crimes,” said the chairman. There was a smattering of applause amongst the students—for the advocate’s argument, I supposed—but it was quelled by the chairman’s hushing wave. “We’ll recess for lunch and resume after the next chime. Consanza Priyayat, when we return, we will sentence your client, but as you already know we’ll be demanding a formal apology. I suggest you take this time to coach him on what he will be expected to say.”
The chit—my advocate—nodded, and everyone started getting up and leaving the room, except for a horde of apprentice advocates who immediately bounded up to Consanza in a flock, hounding her and fluttering around her like nervous butterflies. She pushed her way through the crowd, trailing smoke and students, and two guards came for me. Dragged me back to that little cage again! Stuffed me in it like I was some kind of decorative bird!
Didn’t know if I was going to get lunch, and when my advocate had left, a big crowd of the students left with her. Others stayed behind, eating their lunch out of little boxes they’d hidden under their seats.
I watched them for a while; part of my job, you know, watching. Some of the ones who had left had marked their place by draping a handkerchief across the seat, and it seemed like others had drawn straws and left a friend or two to guard their section. A wiser choice, I thought, since I saw a few sneaks shuffle seat markers around in order to get themselves a place nearer the front, the blackguards.
I entertained myself for the next half hour by alternately taunting the guards and whining at them for a chair, citing my ancient knees. Consanza came back quite suddenly, having shaken her troop of fanatic admirers, or ass-kissers, or whatever they were.
She asked me if I was going to cooperate.
Tricky question. Loaded question. I asked her if she was going to bother to fight my case on any points besides ones she knew she could win.
“None of your business,” she said. I was too appalled to reply. Of course it was my business! I was the one getting sentenced to death, jail time, and formal apologies! Then she said she brought me lunch. She held up two odd bags made of folded paper and said, “This one has a slice of bread. Warden Miloslav will get you a cup of water from the well. And this one has the leftovers of my lunch—half a goat pie and a baked pear. Warden Miloslav will get you a cup of water from the well, and he won’t spit in it on the way back. Guess which one you get if you cooperate, and learn your apology, and promise to the gods that you’ll deliver it to the court in a civilized manner.” I tell you, I was so hopping mad that I couldn’t find anything to say, not a thing. Just spluttered at her, something about the gall, the condescension, the utter cheek.
“It was a good pie,” she said in this blank voice. Clearly didn’t give an iron penny about my pride. “Going to get soggy as it cools. Not a fan of pears, so I can’t speak for its quality, but that’s all they had, and it came with the pie, so there we are.” She shook the two bags at me, just out of reach, not that I would have tried to grab for them. Two weeks in prison and all I had left to me was my pride.
Two weeks in prison. They didn’t bring me half-congealed pies, just salty barley porridge twice a day and a squishy, bruised apple every third day, for health.
It stings me to confess to it, but the thought of meat alone would have been enough to win my good behavior. Thrice-cursed woman! That godforsaken pear just sealed my fate for me, damn her! I had thoughts about that pear that were as lascivious as any thoughts I’ve had about a person, and I tell you, when I was a young man—
Hah, well, I suppose you don’t need to hear about all that. Another time, perhaps.
That godforsaken pear. I’m partial to pears.
I suppose I don’t have to tell you that I gave in, on the condition that I was allowed out of my cage and given a chair (with a cushion!) to sit on while I ate and Consanza coached me. “You’ve got two options,” she said. “Do you have about six hundred marks on your person?”
She gave me an exceedingly patient look. “Money. Do you have any?”
“Give all the judges and the students and the witnesses a nice little gift, purely out of the goodness of your heart, to atone for your brazen impertinence. That would be a very graceful apology, and it would . . . you know. Incline them towards leniency with your other charges.”
I squinted at her. “That sounds like bribery to me.”
“Does it?” she said. “Mere coincidence.”
“Paying everyone in the room to sway their opinion of me sounds like bribery by coincidence?” I said, deeply incredulous.
“It’s a simple gift, merely that and no more. A gesture of regret and atonement. A mark for each of the students, two marks for each of the witnesses, twenty for each of the judges—do you have that kind of money on you?”
“What do you think?” I snapped. Mind you, I looked exactly like a man who had been wandering in the wilderness for a few weeks and then moldering in jail for a few more. I was shabby. I was smelly. I definitely didn’t have six hundred marks on me.
“Some people,” she said crisply, “come to court prepared.”
“Well, I’m evidently not prepared at all. What’s the other damn option?”
“An apology,” she said dully. “A really good one.” I could see she had no faith in me, none whatsoever. She didn’t think I could do such a thing, not well enough to satisfy.
So she explained how. Wasn’t a terribly complicated job, once she got into it; based mostly on Nuryeven philosophies of rhetoric, which were set out, oh, seven or eight hundred years ago by a dozen or so self-congratulatory morons—but then, I’ve never had much patience for that flavor of navel-gazing. It’s not natural, not real people, and my business, as you know, deals in real people, sometimes too real to have actually lived.
Consanza didn’t bring up the issue of bribes again, and I was too distracted and proud to mention it. A hundred marks amongst the judges to apologize for brazen impertinence and to make a pesky little witchcraft charge go away? I wondered later how much it would have taken to brush aside something worse, something I’d actually done.
Consanza fed me some quotes to use in the apology and told me the wording that would garner me at least a little more goodwill from the panel of judges. Said that if I liked, the laws of rhetoric allowed me to start with a brief anecdote to illuminate my point. “And act like you’re sorry,” she said.
Cheeky twit, but by that time I was nose-deep in a pear, flavored with honey and baked in a very thin sheet of flaky pastry, and I couldn’t be much bothered to work up a temper again. In fact, I found myself in the first reasonable state of mind I’d had in weeks. When she was satisfied that I was adequately prepared for my sentencing, I made small talk. Not the inanities most people consider small talk, the weather and so forth, things of no consequence—small talk is a rather different animal in my profession.
There’s a story in anything, if you know what to look for and how to frame it. If you can find the person who needs to hear it. That is my sacred calling—collecting stories and passing them along—but it’s not just myths and tall tales. It’s people, and the way people are.
So I talked with Consanza a little, to find out the way she was. She wasn’t exactly forthcoming. About all I got from her was that her grandparents, all four of them, had traveled to Nuryevet from Arjuneh when they were young—there was a story there, but she gave me that blank, stone-wall look again when I tried to tweak it out of her.
From Arjuneh to Nuryevet. Thousands of miles by land or by sea, from lush, steaming jungle to bleak, stony hills and a bleak, steely sky. She has the look of that land about her, in the strong bones of her face and the rich color of her eyes, the point of her chin, the dark varnished-walnut color of her skin, and her black hair, which she wore in the style that Nuryeven advocates tend to use: tied back in a tail with a plain ribbon.
When the students started trickling back into the courtroom, Warden Miloslav locked me back in the cage—don’t know why, ’cause as soon as the judges filed in and sat down, Miloslav unlocked the cage again and dragged me back out. It was the look of the thing, I guess.
There was some more chatter of formalities when they hove me back up in front of the panel, and the official sentencing—which, as we’d been told, was a demand for an immediate apology. I launched right into it.
“A very long time ago and half the world away, I met a man who had sailed through the Straits of Kel-Badur nineteen times—the very first to ever survive the passage with his ship intact, and he did it eighteen more times after that. An impressive number, to make an outrageous understatement, a number that earned him a near-mythic status amongst his fellow sailors in every port around the Sea of Serpents, for the straits are narrow and treacherous, with tall cliffs on either side and jagged rocks beneath the waves. It takes a sailor with an ironbound stomach to even think of attempting them, even in the calmest weather. And they say there are ghosts in the cliffs. . . .
“This man, called Xing Fe Hua, or Xing Fe the Sailor, or Xing Fe of Map Sut, whose ship was the silver-sailed Nightingale, whose first mate was almost as legendary as he: Faurette, golden-haired and sharp of sword. They made passage through the straits those nineteen times, escaping with their lives by the skin of their teeth and no more.
“I asked him once how he had done this when so many others had perished. It was, he said, because others had tried to defeat the straits, had approached with their own ideas of the nature of danger. They were foolish men and women who thought they could conquer the sea, who expected it to submit to their will if will enough they had. And so, for their hubris, they had been dashed upon the rocks.
“Xing Fe told me he had survived because he knew it was useless to fight against the sea, or to expect that his will could subdue its nature. He said that it was a foolish man indeed who would expect the world to behave according to his own notions.
“And that is what I have done today, Your Excellencies. I have been a foolish man—I expected you to act according to my own principles, and not only have I been met with frustration, but I have also caused frustration, strife, and at the very least, inconvenience to you, to the students of the court, to my fellow defendants—and to them I have caused real injury, too, for my foolishness is the reason their sentencing has been delayed, and it may be the reason it is further delayed. For any man who would have been set at liberty today, it is upon my head if he must spend another night in bondage.
“I attempted passage through these straits with arrogance, and it is only your mercy that has saved my ship from the rocks.
“I spent several years on Xing Fe’s ship, and yet I still forgot this lesson. I profess my deepest apologies to all present, and I beg your forgiveness.”
I bowed deeply to the panel in the style that Consanza had shown me. My back creaked and popped.
“When was the last time you spoke with Xing Fe the Sailor? Xing Fe Hua of the province of Phra Yala?” asked the chief judge.
I tell you now, I committed another great foolishness then—I thought my story had so taken His Honor that . . . Well. You see. I am a vain man. I tell you now, this happened exactly as I tell it, without any embellishment.
“Years ago,” said I. “He sailed west towards the Ammat Archipelago from the Gulf of Dagua and was never heard from again. They say he must have been spirited away, for he disappeared entirely. No one ever saw or heard of him again. Some say he sails the waters of heaven now; some say he lives on in the waters he crossed in life, that in the moments of darkest peril, his spirit has guided ships to safety—”
“Xing Fe Hua the Sailor, of Phra Yala in Map Sut, known pirate, smuggler, spy, murderer?” said the judge.
“Ah . . . I see you have heard of some of his more controversial exploits,” I replied. “If he lives still, I hope he knows how far his fame has spread. It would have delighted him, that you have heard of him so far from his homeland.” So very far—Map Sut is half the world away.
“Heard of him!” the judge laughed. Something about it tickled the hairs on the back of my neck. “I was on the panel that convicted him of murderous intent towards a citizen of the realm, five counts in the third degree, one amongst a laundry list of other crimes, each more lurid and horrific than the last! That was twenty years ago! Heard of him! I was there to hear him scream when we wrapped him in those ridiculous sails and burned him!”
I tell you now, I was struck speechless. It must have been forty years since I had traveled with Xing Fe, and the width of the world and the span of time had long since separated us. It is no easy thing to be confronted with unexpected loss.
So when the judge, seeing my face, asked the nature of my relationship to Xing Fe Hua, I could only say softly, “We were friends.” It had been so long, and a man like Xing Fe is a man no one ever imagines growing old, let alone succumbing to death. I had . . . I had always assumed he’d have stayed just the same, though he had been older than I back then and surely would have passed on by now one way or another.
But men like Xing Fe Hua never really die. They leave behind too much of themselves.
The judge had been speaking. I hadn’t heard him, had been too busy listening to the wretched animal-cry of my heart.
The judge rapped his gavel on the table, which brought me out of it pretty well, so the first thing I heard him say was, “The court hereby passes this case to the Queen of Justice and remands him into the custody of the wardens of Order.”
The courtroom burst into chaos, the students and witnesses in the galleries all shouting at once, and a guard came up on either side of me, took me by the elbows, started dragging me towards the door. I couldn’t see Consanza anywhere, and whenever I tried to turn to look for her, the guards yanked on my arms to pull me forward faster—nearly wrenched my shoulders out, which didn’t help with the confusion and the blur. Everything seemed to be whirling around me, and I kept flinching at the shouts on either side of the aisle, and I must have been stumbling because the guards hauled me to my feet several times before we reached the big wooden doors into the main hall of the courthouse.
They threw me into a little box, smaller than the cage I’d been in earlier and solid-sided like a coffin, and they shoved all my limbs in after me and slammed the door and locked it, and I was confined there in the dark for who knows how long until the box started moving. It was lifted onto something with wheels, and I was rolled off somewhere new, my heart pounding like a rabbit’s in my chest and my breath coming short. I was almost glad of the dark, almost glad to be shut away from the noise and confusion and chaos.
But what had I done? I didn’t know.
Took two days for Consanza to come see me, or for them to let her come. I had been taken immediately from the House of Justice back to the House of Order, yanked from that tiny coffin-box, and dragged down two flights of stairs to a new cell. A more secure cell, I suppose it was, as it didn’t have a window. The ceiling was low, the walls were all stony and plastered over, and the stale air was rank with the smells of filthy humans, damp, rats, piss. And no one would tell me what had happened, though I begged and wheedled and asked to simply be told.
At least the food wasn’t any worse.
But yes, as I said, Consanza came after two days, led in by a guard, who stood by the wall a little way down the corridor and crossed his arms. He didn’t look at me, and I didn’t recognize him, but the light was very poor, even for my eyes. There was a little table, where sometimes a guard would sit and play solitary card games when they were watching this block—watching me. There wasn’t anyone else in the other cells, unless they were bound and gagged.
Consanza entered in a billow and whirl of black robes, and I was glad enough to see someone I knew that I didn’t even think to sneer at her for her dramatics. They say parting makes affections sweeter—and that hawkish unfortunate nose of hers did seem to be softened in my eyes by familiarity and, let’s be honest, relief. She took a chair from the table, set it in front of the door of my cell, and sat in it backwards with her arms crossed over the backrest.
“You really got yourself into it, didn’t you?” she said, and it took all I had not to cry.
“What happened? What did they sentence me with? I don’t know what happened, and no one—no one will tell me what I’ve done.”
She looked at me for a long time, expressionless except for that typical sour look. “Espionage,” she said.
“Espionage!” I squawked. “Against whom? When? What evidence have they? What actions did I ever take? Espionage!”
Well, it was something having to do with my association to Xing Fe Hua, she explained, and went on in legal jargon and unnecessary detail, unknowing that each word was a punch to my heart and my gut.
“At least they’ve been distracted from the witchcraft for now. That’s a good thing.”
“A good thing! A good thing, she says! First a witch, now a spy, and they separate me from legal counsel for days. They lock me up in the dark with only one candle in the whole room! A good thing! When I was a witch, I had light and fresh air and a guard who would speak to me!” They might not have known how to deal with blackwitches, but they had procedures for spies.
“Be quiet,” she snapped. “Just be quiet and stop running your mouth. It is a good thing. It is. If you’d been convicted of witchcraft, you’d be dead by now. They’d have burned you or buried you alive—”
“They have buried me alive!” I shrieked, and flailed my arm at the wall. “They’ve manhandled me down into this hole in the ground! They’ve buried me!”
“Hush!” she snarled. “It’s not my job to hold your hand.”
“Oh, not your job to hold my hand, not your job to hold my hand—what is your job, then? Hmm!” I had leaped from my bench and started pacing back and forth. Four steps to the wall and four steps to the bars. “It’s your job to get me out of here, isn’t it? It’s your job to prove me innocent.”
“That’s what I came here about. It might not be my job anymore.”
“Ahaha! They’re burying me alive!”
“No. They can’t take me off a case once it’s been assigned to me.” She had lowered her voice again; it was calm and level and nigh apathetic. “I might resign, though.”
“You can’t resign!”
“I can, and I might. I haven’t decided yet.”
I sat down on my narrow little bench again and rubbed my hands over my face. “Why? Why, why? You can’t leave me like that,” and I heard my voice come out in a pathetic creak.
“I don’t really appreciate attempts to yank me around by my feelings,” she said. “I can leave you like that if I want to. Anyone else would. A case like yours? No one would keep it for more than a day. No one would take it up after that, after a charge like yours. Ugh.” She passed a hand over her forehead. “Everyone knows that other case. Xing Fe Hua—I was barely more than a child when it happened, and even I remember it.”
“But why? Why? Why!”
“Because it’d be a damn hard job! No—impossible, or nearly impossible. I’d be almost certain to lose, which would spoil my track record and put a smudge on my reputation. And you’d be dead—well, you’re all but dead either way, let’s face it, so that’s not so much of an issue—”
“Not an issue!” I shrieked again. “Not an—Not for you, maybe, but I’m the one that’d be dead!”
“I can’t talk to you when you’re being this emotional.” She stood up, and I thought she was leaving. My heart skipped a beat, but she was only turning the chair around, sitting in it again the right way round, and pulling her pipe and her packet of leaf out of her pockets. “I told you I haven’t decided. I might not resign.” She struck a flick-match and lit the pipe, puffing on it until the embers glowed just right. The stream of fragrant smoke she blew out did much to improve the air quality of the cell—it was an excellent variety of leaf, I could tell. Undoubtedly foreign, probably from Tash, if my nose was right. Besides the underlying richness of the natural leaf, it smelled of vanilla and unusual spices.
I tugged on my beard and rubbed my face again. Forced the plow of my brain into the furrow of thought. “What’s the weight on the other side of the scale?”
She puffed for a long moment. “Well,” she began slowly. “I might win.”
“But it’s a long shot.”
“You got it. A very long shot.” She leaned forward, just enough to tuck the packet of leaf back into its pocket. “Haven’t decided. Won’t decide for a little while, I think. It’s a slow case, espionage.”
“I’m not a spy!”
“That’s neither here nor there, is it? It doesn’t matter if you’re a spy or not; it matters whether they find you guilty or not. It matters whether I win the case.” Another long puff on that pipe. “I might win it,” she added thoughtfully. “But I probably won’t.”
“Are there any advocates better than you?”
“None that would come within twenty ells of this case,” she said in a plume of smoke. “It’s me or nobody.”
“So . . . what, you’d take it for the gamble?” I sulked at her as hard as I could.
“Mmm. Yes. The glory, too, if I won.”
“If we won,” I said.
She looked at me, pitying. “You’re not going to be doing much of the heavy lifting, though, are you? I. If I won. If I won the case for you. I’m not getting paid for this, you know. I am required to advocate pro bono a number of cases per year to stay licensed. And I don’t like not getting paid, but glory is close enough to coin for me. It’s got a good exchange rate.”
“So I can’t say anything, then!” I threw my hands in the air again. “I’m just going to have to twiddle my thumbs and wait for you to decide on your own whether to hold my life in your hands or trample it under your shoes?”
“No? What generosity! You mean, kind advocate, that I get to argue my case to you before you argue it to the court?”
“Essentially.” She lowered the pipe and slouched down in the chair. “It might help if you told me the truth.”
“I have told you the truth!”
“You haven’t told anyone your name.”
I scowled at her. “My name is my own. It’s a . . . religious matter. You wouldn’t tell me your stars if I asked, would you?”
She snorted. “That’s my grandfathers’ religion. They’re the ones who came from Arjuneh, not me. I’m Nuryeven through and through. I don’t know my stars.”
“Young people today!” I said bitterly. “Abandoning the ways of their parents. One day all this will be lost to the world, and it’ll be your fault.”
“Spare me the grumbling, for gods’ sake. You want me to save you. I want to save you! Saving you would be a great mark for my career. It would open a lot of doors. I might even run for office later on, but probably not—too much paperwork for me, not enough glamour.” She took another slow puff on the pipe. “But I have to know who I’m saving, and what the odds are. I don’t like gambling. Well—certainly not on the long odds: I don’t like losing. I don’t like making mistakes. I’m asking you to convince me that arguing your case wouldn’t be a mistake.”
I took a breath. I always hesitate before going into details about what I am—makes people leery. Like telling someone you’re a thief, and they start guarding all their belongings and watching you closely whenever you walk past the silver spoons. But there was nothing for it.
“I said I was a Chant,” I began. “And that means a lot of things. It’s not my name; it’s my title, like . . . Advocate, or Doctor, or Mayor. And it marks me as a master of an order that goes back more than four thousand years.”
THE FIRST TALE:
The Land That Sank Beneath the Waves
A very long time ago and half the world away, there was a vast land in the southern reaches of the Unending Ocean, and it was called Arthwend. In the height of its golden age, before it sank beneath the waves and into the shadows of faint legend, it was an empire that stretched from shore to shore, covering all the land from the lowest bog to the highest peak. That empire was the prize for generations of victories by one tribe over all the others, and that tribe grew and grew, and became more splendid, and built cities made of gold, full of gardens and silk and delicate arts. As they had grown, they had pressed the others back, and back, and back, and one of these tribes fled deep into the marshes, and there they took refuge. There, where no one could touch them, where no one cared to touch them.
(“Sounds lovely,” said Consanza. “So what?” I ignored her. A very rude woman, as I’ve pointed out already.)
The god of that little forgotten marsh tribe was Shuggwa, a shadow god, a trickster god, a god whose gaze you should not draw. Life in the marsh was difficult, and Shuggwa took lives and caused mischief with great merriment. Family members who went out at night were lost in the dark for following spirit lights, or taken in tragic accidents and misfortunes.
They had long had their priests: the Chants—
(“Finally, something beginning to resemble an answer,” she muttered. I still ignored her. One tries to keep oneself solemn. That’s what I learned from my master-Chant and what she learned from hers. Can’t be shoving too much of yourself into a story that isn’t yours. It requires some discipline, distance, humility—do you see?)
—who were the keepers of their genealogies, their histories, their stories, ones who perhaps didn’t draw Shuggwa’s calamitous gaze in the same way as the others, ones who were perhaps the objects of his rare favor. It is said that the Chants could intervene with him, could send him messages through his servant, the bird Ksadir, and that they flouted all the mores and customs of their tribe, baring themselves to the god in an attempt to draw his attention away from the others of their tribe, who covered their heads and spoke softly. The Chants danced and sang and lit great fires at night to draw Shuggwa’s Eye.
(Consanza was glaring at me at this part. I could tell she was bored. Don’t know how she could be! I’ve always wished we knew more about the ancient Chants—but all we know is the stories we’ve remembered, and I suppose that’s the point.)
They painted their boats bright colors, wore metal, wore jewelry, wore bells on their ankles. They laughed and shouted and danced and swore and spat, they spoke loudly and made obscene gestures and ignored all rules of politeness. They wandered naked from time to time.
Perhaps it helped—the empire that had pushed the Chants and their people into the swamps continued to grow, and as it grew, its people became arrogant. They angered their gods, and the sea came rushing across the land, drowning it in the flood. The empire sank beneath the waves. But Shuggwa deigned to warn the Chants, and they and their people climbed into their little marsh boats and floated as the waters rose, and they alone survived. They lashed their hulls together for strength and rowed across the wide sea, while the Chants danced day and night, sang all the songs they knew, recited the histories of their villages and the genealogies, and begged throughout for Shuggwa to keep the waters calm until they reached land.
They made landfall in the Issili Islands, low and sandy. That was four thousand years ago. And the Chants led their people into that fertile place and they flourished. They flourished so they forgot their god’s power—he had little of it there. He faded away and evolved over time until Shuggwa was only Skukua, in the people’s tales a foolish trickster, a fox-god, a bumbler and yet still a clever bumbler, who could get himself out of trouble as well as he could get himself into it, though not always in a way that pleased other people.
The Chants faded with him. Once priests, the keepers of all knowledge, the protectors, the sacred storytellers, as the centuries passed and their services were made redundant by writing, by new gods and new priests, they became wanderers, mendicants. Ones who still ceremonially sink their homeland beneath the waves and walk the earth, remembering. There are things that will never die because the Chants remember them. Your grandfather’s stars, we remember. The heroes of the cold reaches of the north, we remember. From master to apprentice, we pass on the knowledge of what once was, and it lives, and Arthwend never will be truly lost to us.
Consanza had been puffing away all through the story and finally lowered the pipe when I finished. “Look, I didn’t ask for the history of the world here.”
She’d be more grateful for that knowledge if she knew how few people know it these days. Or she wouldn’t. She’s an ungrateful twit. “Well, now you understand what I do.”
“No, I understand what you’re allegedly supposed to do. I understand what men and women four thousand years ago did. You told me nothing about yourself, as usual, and as usual I’m still not convinced I should advocate for you.”
“Fine!” I burst out. “Fine! What do you want from me? I can’t tell you my name without breaking the vows of my order. Do you want to know what homeland I threw into the sea? Kaskinen. How long I’ve been doing this? I was thirteen when I began. I’m seventy-something now, haven’t really been keeping track. Do you want to know where I was before this? Cormerra. And before that? Echaree. And before that was Johe, and Tash, and Xereccio, and Ondor-Urt, and Zobuo, and N’gaka, and before that we were sailing the Sea of Serpents with a merchant vessel from Birrabar. What? What else do you want to know?”
“We? Who is we?”
“My apprentice and I.”
“And where is your apprentice now?”
“We were at an inn in some little town—Syemna, that was the name—when I was arrested on those trumped-up witchcraft charges. He saw me arrested. I don’t know where he is.” Now, she already knew all that, but here’s what really happened: Ylfing and I had been minding our own business, see, and I was trading a story for a meal (it was “The Twelve Tasks of Tyrran”—not one of my favorites, but it gets a good reception), and out of nowhere, a couple city policemen swooped down like giant gray bats out of the maw of Qarrsi the Ravenous, and I was dragged off to the capital and thrown in jail. You see now why I was so mightily surprised about the witchcraft thing?
Anyway, Consanza asked, “Is he safe?”
“How should I know?” says I. “He’s a naive little thing, thinks everyone’s fundamentally kind and good. Not much street smarts; he just traipses along with his arms and his heart open to the world. Zero sense of self-preservation. He’ll be out on the streets by now—we don’t usually carry money, and I wouldn’t let him handle it anyway. Lads his age fritter it away to their friends betting on which pig will fart first. He knows a bit about surviving in the wilderness, seeing as we’ve been stomping through it all the time he’s been apprenticed to me.” And he’s Hrefni besides; he knows a bit about living close to the land. I stood up and began pacing again.
“What do you teach him?”
“The trade; are you dull-witted? Knowledge. How to get more knowledge. But he keeps wanting to write things down. He thinks it would be better that way. Laziness, that’s what I call it.”
“And this knowledge he knows, it’s things that have been lost?”
I tugged at my hair. “Not just that, it’s—stories, people. It’s the way people are in one place or another. I can’t say I much like the way people are here.”
“What does that mean, the way people are?”
“Customs! Manners! Languages! The ten thousand gods of ten thousand nations! The tales they tell their children when they wake from nightmares, the tales they tell their sons and daughters when they send them off to war, the tales a midwife tells a laboring mother, the tales old men tell each other in the twilight of their lives.”
“So you are a spy—sort of.”
“No! I don’t know secrets, I don’t look for—well, all right, sometimes I do look for secrets, but not useful secrets, not anything that could be used badly!”
“You’re a spy.”
“What kind of secrets do you know, then?”
“The mysteries of the Faiss peoples, that whole unfortunate business with the former princess’s dowry in Avaris, the secret words of the dragon cults in Xereccio, the location of four hidden temples in Girenthal—”
“So . . . spy things.”
“Those aren’t spy things! They’re part of history! They’re treasures that could be lost to time—all right, except the princess, but that’s just gossip! It’s not really a secret.”
She puffed silently on her pipe. Clearly she had made up her mind.
“No, look, those are the least of what I know. I know the twelve runes of luck that the Hrefni ward a house with. I know sixteen languages! I know the charms that the Umakh sing when they shoe a milk-white horse. I know how to travel across the great desert, the Sea of Sun, without disturbing the beasts beneath the ground. I know—I know the stars of your grandfathers and I’ve seen the colossal temple wagons rolling through the streets in Arjuneh, all hung with tinsel and wind chimes and silk banners and garlands of flowers.”
“Ignoring the witchcraft, then—”
“It’s not witchcraft! It’s folk custom!”
“Ignoring the witchcraft, you know Umakha husbandry secrets. You know how to travel undisturbed.”
“You’re twisting my words,” I said. I felt a black wave of despair about to break over me. “I only know what others have told me when I asked. It’s not—it’s not practical knowledge.”
“Crossing the Sea of Sun undisturbed by the beasts in the ground sounds practical to me. My grandfather went by ship along the coast when he came from Arjuneh. He says only the tribes in the walking huts can cross the desert safely.” She puffed on her pipe. “Have you seen the beasts?”
I was startled that she asked—I really hadn’t expected her to take an interest in anything I said, and I confess that a tiny part of me was a little pleased. A very tiny part. I thought then that perhaps she wasn’t completely terrible. “Yes, once.”
“What do they look like?”
I shook my head to clear out some of the black fog. “Like . . . half wolf, half panther, but larger, and longer, with feet like paddles for digging in the sand, and luminous eyes, and long muzzles. They have fur, but it’s mangy, and their skin is scaly, and it’s said they drink wells and oases dry to lure their prey deeper into the desert. It is said they can hear your heartbeat through the soles of your feet, so they can find you even if you’re standing as still as stone.”
“Can they really dig up under you without being noticed? And snatch you into the sand?”
“You’d hardly even have time to scream. It’s like seeing a child fall into a deep river. One moment they’re there, and the next—just ripples. Just the sand, disturbed.”
We shared a little shiver of delicious almost-fear, the kind all humans share, the kind that makes children beg to hear a terrifying story over and over, though they know it’ll keep them wide awake and flinching at every noise. “So how do the desert people cross?”
Yes, she wasn’t completely terrible. “They never let their skin touch the sand. If they must walk, they wear sandals like—like snowshoes, you have snowshoes here, I suppose?” She nodded. “Wide, made of layered leather, but as thick as four fingers, and padded on the top and bottom with goat felt. Makes walking arduous. They only use those in the case of direst need. They mostly ride in their huts, which—as your grandfather rightly told you—walk. They look like delicate wooden beetles, and they go scuttling across the dunes in packs, from one oasis to another.”
“Wind and sails, girl! Not all strange things are the source of magic.”
“Here they are,” she said. “In Nuryevet.” And that seemed to be the end of that. She sat back and put her pipe back in her mouth. “See, that is practical knowledge. Do you know how to build any of those walking houses?”
“No. I’m not a craftsman. Why? Is Nuryevet planning to invade Ondor-Urt?” I sneered. Impossible endeavor, even if they cared to—they’d have to go through a minimum of five countries first, not to mention some very thick wilderness, or else cross the mountains and fight their way over the steppe.
“No, but we have merchants. The more knowledge a man has, the less he has to pay for it from other people. But you, with your knowledge—there are people who might pay for that. Then you would have money, and we might be able to begin doing something efficient about your charges.”
“So that thing the other day wasn’t just coincidentally bribery,” I snapped. “I’m innocent! Why should I bribe anyone when I haven’t done anything they’ve accused me of?”
“For one thing, because it might save your neck,” she said flatly. “I’ll be the first to admit to my pride, but I’m not stupid. I don’t throw away an advantage just because I find it distasteful.”
“Is this normal?” I said. “Honestly, is it?”
She shrugged. “I guess you could say that.”
“And you don’t care at all? You, an advocate, someone who apparently believes in the rule of law enough to make a career of it—you’ll suggest that your clients bribe the judges as casually as you’ll discuss the weather?”
“I beg your pardon, but whatever gave you the idea that you had leave to be condescending to me?”
“I’m trying to understand how you sleep at night.”
“I sleep content in the knowledge that I’ve done my best to work within an imperfect system to give help to the people who ask for it.”
“Oh, don’t you sound noble and righteous,” I simpered. “And I suppose you never take bribes, then.”
“No,” she said sharply. “Most of the time I don’t.”
“Most of the time.”
She smoked at me in glowering silence. “This part of the conversation is over. You’ve made yourself clear; I won’t bring up that particular solution again.”
“Good. It’s useless. Haven’t paid for anything in ages, knowledge or not. Don’t like carrying coin.”
“Surely you don’t buy your supper with songs and stories?” she said flatly from around the stem of her pipe.
I sniffed at her. These Nuryevens have no imagination whatsoever—the story of the sand beasts of Ondor-Urt seemed to have held her interest for a moment, but perhaps that was just the last faint heritage of Arjuneh in her. The Arjuni are flush with stories, may the gods smile upon them. I used to marvel at the vibrancy of that place, the colors, the warmth, the life—I see now that they’re just balancing out these fucking Nuryevens. “It’s a complicated trade, advocate.”
“So is advocacy.” She paused, then smirked at me. “It’s only about telling the right story in the right way, isn’t it?”
I should have given her more credit. It’s my favorite mistake, one I should have stopped making when I was a young man, but it has only gotten worse as I get older. She’d surprised me with that observation, too, if I’m being completely honest—and I’m always completely honest, which you know if you know me at all. Well, mostly. “Are you going to keep my case, then?”
She sighed. “I’m not convinced you’re not a spy, but I’m not convinced that you are a spy either. This will be a slow one, though, so there’s time still for me to abandon ship if it seems to be turning sour.” She turned her pipe upside down and tapped the ashes out onto the floor, stepping on them to extinguish any remaining embers. Then she began packing it away into the pockets of her robe. “I’ll keep it for the moment, until I get a better feeling about whether I should stay on or look for greener pastures.”
“That isn’t very fair,” I said sharply. “If you were a really good advocate, you’d take it. You’d win it.”
“Maybe anywhere else, old man,” she said in a low voice. “Not in these parts. They’ve already made up their mind about you. I’m not arguing to neutral minds, I’m arguing against ones that have already decided you’re guilty. It’s an uphill battle.”
“Uphill, and you haven’t decided yourself if I’m innocent.”
“Not my job. I haven’t decided if I can talk everyone else into deciding you are.”
“So you might just leave me to the wolves.”
“I might. We’ll see how many more wolves you whistle for when you run your mouth to the Queen of Justice. You’ll talk yourself right into a noose on the gallows. So if she comes, maybe just don’t talk until I get here.”
“Comes? What about a court? Witnesses? A trial?”
“There’s a room upstairs they use for things like this. Spies have friends, and friends help break people out of jail.”
Friends! I only had Ylfing. Probably starving in the streets by now, or dead. Murdered, maybe, killed in a back alley by thugs. Like I told Consanza, he hasn’t got a whit of self-preservation when it comes to people, but it’s not often that a young man or woman feels like sinking their homeland beneath the waves and taking off to see the world. They all talk like they would do it in a heartbeat, but give them the actual opportunity and . . . Well, Ylfing took it. Grabbed it with both hands. It was possibly a youthful lack of foresight on his part rather than any kind of truly steel-keen thirst to see the world.
I didn’t miss him, mind you. Of course I didn’t. Why would I? He’s the bane of my old age! Let me tell you, we have never once walked past a smelly shepherd boy who didn’t instantly turn Ylfing’s head. Every single damn time. Not only that—he once composed a poem about a boy he glimpsed across a street. It doesn’t even matter if they’re cute or not—he’ll glance at these boys and find something completely wonderful and unique about each of them, and then guess who has to listen to him blush and burble about it for the rest of the day? Me. I have to. I’m the one who suffers. Mind you, he does that with every person we meet, but with boys it’s a compulsion and insufferable. So no, I didn’t miss him at all, not even a tiny bit. In fact, I was enjoying the vacation.
“Would it be possible for me to send a letter?” I asked, as Consanza turned away.
“Eh?” she said, turning back. “To whom?”
She shook her head immediately. “No, I’m afraid not. They’d just snap him up for being an accomplice, and I’m not taking on two cases this troublesome.”
“Could you go to the inn we were—”
“Not a chance. They’d just snap me and him up for being accomplices, and unlike some people of my acquaintance, I have no interest in initiating an intimate relationship with a length of sisal rope.”
“But could you ask? Could I ask?”
“You can ask all you want. Petition the Queen of Justice when you see her, if you want. I’m not going to argue for it, though.”
“He’s like family! Aren’t prisoners allowed to contact their families?”
“Prisoners generally are. Spies, generally not. It’s a sensible policy if you think about it.”
“When will she come? The Queen.”
“I haven’t been informed about when your hearing will be. When I find out, I’ll let you know.”
And finally, as she turned away once more: “Will you come back and talk to me?”
“If I have time. You’re not my only client.”
And then she left, her robes billowing behind her, and the cell was cold and cramped again, though the smell of her pipe leaf lingered for an hour or two after.
The Queen of Justice came without warning a day or two later. If Consanza had sent any word of the hearing, it hadn’t reached me. The guards came to unlock my cell, wordlessly, and took me in shackles to the main level of the prison, where I was put in a cage much like the one I had stood in at the courthouse. The Queen of Justice was shown in without fanfare. Not an actual Queen, mind you—the Nuryevens got rid of them long ago, but they kept the titles. The Primes of the realm, their so-called Kings and Queens, are people just like any other citizen, elected to their offices by simple majority.
The Queen of Justice was Zorya Bozimiros Miroslavat Bartostok, a woman ancient by anyone’s standards. She was dressed in deceptively simple and severely cut clothes, but the fabric was rich and fine, the forest-colored cloak over her shoulders lined in thick dark fur, the hem of her skirt densely embroidered with wool yarn nearly the same green-black color as her dress, and glinting here and there with black glass beads. The only jewel she wore was a golden locket on a chain around her throat, and a long string of tiny beads upon which were hooked a pair of half-moon spectacles with gold rims. She was so well-dressed in comparison to all the other people in this country. I remember noticing that. It didn’t really strike me as excessively strange then—she was a Queen, after all, even if she had been elected, and Queens are almost always well turned out, just as peasants almost always look like peasants—I’d seen plenty of those in the backwaters of this backwater. Miserable, the lot of them. Miserable, suspicious, afraid, angry. I’d thought nothing of it at the time, and even standing in front of Zorya Miroslavat, I still thought nothing of it.
Behind her was another woman of middle age who held the door for her, pulled her chair out, took her cloak, and set a bundle of papers bound between two flat boards before her on the table. All in silence. I assumed at the time that she was an aide; I found out later that she was Yunia Antalos Yllonat Csavargo, the Duchess of Justice, Zorya’s second in command.
Zorya Miroslavat was one of those women who seem like they must have shrunk with age. Her fingers were curved and knobbly with arthritis as she pulled loose the knot and set aside the top board of the bundle. She licked her fingertips to page through the first few sheets of the file, and when she finally looked up at me, her eyes were bright and glittering. “So, a spy, are you? And possibly a blackwitch,” she said, her voice surprisingly loud. Annoying habit.
“Not that I know of, madam. Might I know where my advocate is?”
She unhooked her spectacles and shakily slid them onto her nose, looking me over with those sharp little eyes for, I assumed, signs of witchcraft. She seemed in no hurry to reply, and she skimmed through another page of the file before she answered. “I don’t think your advocate will be coming today.”
“That seems . . . unusual. She said she would be here.”
“Hard to be somewhere if you don’t know you’re supposed to be there, isn’t it?”
“Advocate Consanza said that I should keep my mouth shut and let her”—do all the talking sounded suspicious—“state my case for me.”
“I don’t think that will be necessary,” Zorya Miroslavat said with a small smile over the rim of her glasses. “This isn’t a truly formal hearing for you.”
“Even so, I’d rather not speak without my advocate present to advise me. I don’t know anything about your laws or customs.”
“What was her name again?” Zorya Miroslavat asked absently.
“Consanza. Advocate Consanza Priyayat.”
“Mm, yes, I think I’ve heard of her. Bit of a celebrity in the lower courts, isn’t she?” Zorya Miroslavat addressed this to Yunia Antalos, who stood at her shoulder.
“I believe so, ma’am. She’s never lost a case, but I haven’t heard that she takes particularly risky cases either.”
“Heh.” Zorya Miroslavat tapped her finger against the table several times. “She must be a smart one, then. Tactical.”
“The judges seem fond of her,” Yunia said. “I hear she has a certain . . . flair.”
“The students like her too,” I added. “Had a whole flock of them following her around at the trial. You should meet her. Perhaps we could send for her now.”
“If things go well for you, I’m sure my path will cross hers at some point.” Zorya Miroslavat drew herself up. “But back to business. You say you don’t know anything of our laws and customs.”
“Nothing, I’m afraid, but what I’ve seen firsthand.”
“Have you ever visited any part of Nuryevet before?”
“Not even the fringes? One of the outlying villages, perhaps? Passed through the mountains?”
“No, I’ve never even been within a hundred miles of this place. I would prefer not to answer any more questions without my advocate.”
“These aren’t questions. We’re just getting to know each other a little better.” Her voice was silky. We’re just chatting, it said. Nothing to fear. It set my teeth on edge. “Now, I’m told you go by the name . . . Chant?”
“A title, not a name.”
“Advocate Consanza said that when I met with you, I might petition you to allow me to send a letter.”
Zorya Miroslavat looked up from the paperwork. “To whom, Master Chant?”
“My . . . apprentice. He’s like a nephew to me.”
“I see. And why would you be writing to an apprentice?”
“He’s on his own and I haven’t seen him since I was arrested—I only want to tell him what’s happened to me.”
She broke her gaze and returned to shuffling the papers. “No, I can’t allow that at the present time.”
“I understand, given the circumstances and the crimes that I have been accused of, that you may be reluctant to allow me contact with the outside world, particularly anyone who may be on my side. Is there any situation in which you could find it acceptable? Even the shortest message would be—”
“No,” she said briskly.
“Not even, ‘Apprentice, I have been charged by the Nuryeven courts and I am awaiting trial’?”
“Not even that.” Zorya Miroslavat folded her hands on the papers. “If we find you guilty and sentence you, we will send a notification to any family members—and that includes your nephew or apprentice or whatever he is, if that’s who you’d like it sent to. If we find you innocent, well—you’d be free to go and you can tell him yourself. Now. You confessed in court to having a close association with the famous spy Xing Fe Hua, also known as Xing Fe the Sailor, is that right?”
I crossed my arms. “I’d rather not answer any more questions without my advocate’s counsel.”
“Well, you don’t have to answer, but it’s a matter of record already, so that’s fine.”
“As long as I have you here, madam, perhaps you could discuss the quality of your prisons—all the cells seem to have a terrible draft, and the blanket they gave me is full of fleas.”
“Not my problem,” she murmured, examining another sheet of parchment.
“I—I beg your pardon! The keeping of prisons isn’t your problem?”
“No,” she said coolly. “It is not. It is, in fact, in the jurisdiction of my colleague, the Queen of Order. But I will be sure to pass along the fact that there is a man charged with espionage who feels that he has the right to critique her maintenance staff. Now, the witchcraft charge—whatever were you doing to get arrested for that?”
“I would strongly, strongly prefer to answer your questions with counsel from my advocate.”
“Certainly you would. By the way, what brought you to Nuryevet?”
“I would strongly,” I repeated, “prefer to answer in the presence of my advocate.”
There was a sharp knock on the door. Yunia Antalos stepped quickly towards it and yanked it open. There was a young woman on the other side, dressed in a navy-blue three-quarter-length coat and black trousers, both of which had the cut of a uniform. Her face was swathed in a charcoal scarf that covered her nose and mouth, and there was nothing shiny or reflective anywhere on her. Even the slight shine of her fingernails had been buffed off. She pulled the scarf away from her mouth and made a small bow to the aide. “Duchess Yunia Antalos, greetings. I’m a messenger from Her Majesty, Anfisa Vasilos Zofiyat Lisitsin—”
“Yes, we know,” Zorya Miroslavat said. “You’re wearing her colors. Do you think we’re blind?”
“—Queen of Pattern,” the messenger finished. “And I have a writ demanding the release of the accused spy Chant into our custody, citing the right for the Prime of Pattern to question all suspects accused of treason or espionage without obstruction or veto from any source, in accordance with section five of the Nineteenth Modification.” The messenger held out a rolled-up piece of parchment.
Yunia Antalos snatched it out of the messenger’s hand, broke the seal, and skimmed it. “It’s in order, madam,” she said darkly.
The messenger smiled.
“Of course it is,” Zorya Miroslavat snapped. “Anfisa doesn’t cut corners.” Then, to the messenger: “Did you bring guards?”
“I did,” she said. “They’re in the hall.”
“Yunia, clean this up,” Zorya Miroslavat snapped, gesturing at the file of papers, and hauled herself, creaking, to her feet. “Fine,” she said to the messenger. “Take him, then. Vihra Kylliat has already signed him over to you?”
“Take me where?” I asked. None of them answered me, Yunia Antalos being too busy shuffling the papers into order and securing them into their bundle again with a swift knot. The messenger stepped out of the way as Yunia Antalos and Zorya Miroslavat stalked past her, and then she leaned out and beckoned to someone down the hall. “Take me where?” I repeated.
“Somewhere more comfortable than here, I daresay,” the messenger said with a wry smile. “The House of Order doesn’t allow much in the way of creature comforts, does it?”
“No,” I said slowly. “It doesn’t. Who are you?”
“Captain of the Pattern Guard, Vladana Anatoliyos Lyubiyat Ostakolin. Captain Ostakolin to you.”
“And the Queen of Pattern is . . . ?”
“Someone who has an interest in talking to accused spies.” Two women—a pair of Order guards in red-and-white uniforms—came into the room, unlocked my cage, and removed the shackles from my wrists. Captain Ostakolin replaced them with new ones, locked with a key from her own pocket. There were four more blue-and-black-uniformed guards standing just outside the door now. “She’ll make it worth your while if you cooperate,” the Captain said in a low voice. “She may be able to help you, even, if you make yourself helpful in return.” She smiled at the Order guards and gave them a little salute with one hand, pulling the scarf back over her nose and mouth with the other. “Always a pleasure, ladies.”
The escort seemed far less strict than the ones I had enjoyed on the way to and from the courthouse—I wasn’t thrown into any coffins, nor manhandled. Captain Ostakolin led me gently by the elbow, the four guards flanking us before and behind as we navigated the long, twisting hallways, all nearly identical and built of the same dull gray stone as every other building in this damn country. We even left by the main entrance, the ceremonial entrance, rather than the loading dock where they drag prisoners in and out. There was an incongruously well-appointed carriage, lacquered in matte black, with three interlocking crescents painted in dark blue on the side, and two perfectly matched black horses, and wispy fountains of black feathers towering on each corner of the carriage and from the horses’ bridles—another show of wealth and luxury that simply didn’t fit in the Nuryeven landscape. Two of the guards entered the carriage, and Captain Ostakolin handed me in after them. I liked her. She was the pinnacle of graciousness and chivalry. She followed me in after, and the other two guards climbed up, I suppose, to the driver’s seat and the footman’s stand. The inside of the carriage was just as elegant as the outside, with navy-blue velvet cushions on the seat and swirling carving across all the wood trim—it was possibly the most lavish thing I had seen in all of Nuryevet, quite surprising for such an austere and severe people, and I was completely baffled as to why the Captain of the Pattern Guard would be using such a carriage to simply fetch a prisoner.
The Captain was given one bench to herself. I was squeezed in between the two guards, and, bracketed like that, I could feel evidence of several weapons hidden under their coats. Daggers, it felt like. If they had those, they probably had other weapons too.
Captain Ostakolin rapped on the roof of the carriage and it jerked forward. She gave me a beatific smile. “You look confused, Master Chant.”
“I’m just an old man,” I quavered at her. “It’s been so chaotic. . . .”
“Of course it has,” and she fairly brimmed over with sympathy. “The Queen of Order’s a penny-pincher, amongst other things. Well, she has to be; her term of office is only eleven years. And the office of Order doesn’t tend to draw the sort of person who . . . enjoys the little luxuries in life. Military background, most of them, and Vihra Kylliat is no different. Is she, Lupsek?” Above her scarf, her eyes glittered with merriment at the guard on my left.
“Like a rock wall in winter, Captain.”
“Who is the Queen of Pattern, please?” The frail-old-man play seemed to be gaining an audience. “And where am I going?”
“Queen of Pattern, Queen of Secrets, Shadow Queen—you’ve never heard of her? You must be foreign—well. We know you’re foreign. Really foreign, I meant.”
“From half the world away,” I agreed.
“Oh? You speak the language rather well—we thought you were from Enc at first, with that accent.”
“I speak a lot of languages.”
Captain Ostakolin smiled. “I’m sure Her Excellency will be interested to know which ones.”
The carriage came at length to a Tower—a single Tower, perfectly round and rising one or two hundred feet in the air, dotted with arrow slits lower down and glazed windows higher up. There was a single door, so narrow that only one person could pass through it at a time, and on the inside there were slots to hold wooden bars three times as thick as the door itself. When we passed inside, one by one, I saw that there was a tight spiral staircase in the very middle of the Tower, leading both straight up and straight down.
“We have to take you up,” said the Captain. “All the way up. It’s a lot of stairs, even for a strong young lad like Lupsek, but we are to keep you comfortable, so we’ll go at your own pace. Eh, grandfather?”
“Aye, Captain,” I said. I should have seen what they were doing at the time, buttering me up like that, treating me gently so that I would lower my guard. But I was tired, exhausted from being cooped up in the cell, and exhausted from the stony silence from the Ministries of Order and Justice. I remember being simply relieved that I had finally found at least one person with more than a nominal respect for their elders. Completely fell for the lines they were feeding me, ate up the story they handed me without questioning it.
She was right—it was a lot of stairs. We stopped frequently on the way up, and neither the Captain nor her men made the slightest complaint or show of impatience, so I took the opportunity to get a good look at the Tower. The lower floors were open to the stairwell, with no walls between them—they were mostly desks of clerks, it looked like. As we went higher, the stairwell was ringed by a narrow landing and a wall with a number of doors in it. “Training rooms,” Captain Ostakolin said, or, “Confidential storage,” or “Plain confidential.” I was thoroughly winded by the time we reached the top, even with regular and judicious breaks. The final floor was a circular landing with six doors. When the Captain unlocked one of them with a key from the ring on her belt, I saw it was doubled: a thick wooden door on the outside, swinging out, and a barred door behind it, swinging in.
It was, to put it mildly, a great improvement over the cell in the House of Order. It was wedge-shaped, like a piece of pie with a bite or two taken from its point, and it took up an entire sixth of the Tower. There was no stove or brazier, but there were enough people in the Tower, and enough stoves lower down, that the heat rose and made it comfortable enough. And a window! Yes, it was barred, and upon later inspection I found out that it did not open, but the presence of natural light was a blessing. The furnishings were sparse but serviceable, but even so, it was difficult not to be an improvement over my previous lodgings. A bed! A mattress directly on the floor, but a pillow! And no smell of rat shit or mildew; truly the gods had smiled upon me. “Her Excellency will be up soon to speak to you. Make yourself comfortable. Did they feed you lunch at the House of Order?”
“Not today, nor any other day—a stale biscuit at breakfast and a bowl of slop at dinner.”
Her mouth twitched with the slightest sneer. “I’ll ask the steward to send something up before Her Excellency arrives.”
“I thirst, more than anything,” I said, doing my frail voice again.
She gestured to a small urn by the window. “There should be water in the pitcher.”
Truly I felt the gods had smiled upon me.
Soft brown bread, soft white cheese, half a potato and two carrots from a stew, and a bruised apple: a feast fit for kings, as far as I was concerned—no, truly! It was! I scarfed it down so fast I almost choked twice, and a good thing I was so quick, too, for I was mopping up the last of the stew juice with the final morsel of bread when I felt a strange chill come over me. The air felt suddenly dank and foul, though I could smell nothing strange. The little hairs all over my body stood on end, and all my base instincts flinched to awareness and caution, but none of my senses presented evidence for the sudden feeling of dread and danger. Then it faded, and the doors opened, and a woman walked in—a woman who could only be the Queen of Pattern, Anfisa Vasilos Zofiyat Lisitsin. I scrambled to my feet and bowed as well as I knew how—it was a style more traditional in Echaree, which is south of Nuryevet’s southern neighbor, Cormerra. It was close enough, I thought, for a prisoner accused of espionage.
She wasn’t young, but nor was she old, and she clearly had a family inheritance of persistent youth in her face. I can tell you all the details about what she looked like (dark hair, dark almond-shaped eyes; a cat-shaped face, broad in the cheeks and narrow in the chin), but I can’t describe the way she carried herself, the set of her shoulders, the way she filled up the entire room, the way she walked as silent as a shadow, without even the rustle of clothing.
“Chilly in here, isn’t it?” she said to me. “Captain, have a brazier brought up and set in the corridor. If you don’t mind”—to me again—“we’ll leave the outer door open and you’ll get a bit more warmth in here. You can shut it again easily if you’d like privacy.” She smiled, then—dimpled at me, and I was set off balance.
“Thank you, Your Excellency.”
“And a couple chairs, Captain, if you’d be so good.” To me again: “You may call me Anfisa Zofiyat. I daresay that’s formal enough for just the two of us. Please, sit down again if you were comfortable.”
“I’m very confused, madam,” I said. “No one has really explained anything.”
“There’s nothing much to explain, Master Chant. Did you get enough food? I know that Vihra Kylliat is not the best representative of Nuryeven hospitality.” Not that there are any good representatives of it in this damn country.
“Yes, thank you, madam. I was told you . . . wanted information?”
“Oh, there’s no rush,” she said, dimpling again. “You just rest for today. We’ve sent for a clean set of clothes, and the steward will bring up some warm water for you to wash with later tonight.”
“You’re very kind, madam,” I murmured, bowing my head.
“Not at all, Master Chant, I was merely raised more gently than . . . others of my rank. I have instructed the guards and the Tower staff to treat you as if you were a guest in their homes.” I didn’t have high hopes for this, but then, low expectations are very difficult to disappoint. “I don’t mean to linger long. I only came up to introduce myself and to offer you a formal welcome while you’re under my roof.”
“Thank you, Anfisa Zofiyat. Um. If I am truly a guest with you, I . . . Might I be allowed to send a letter?”
She put her head slightly to one side and considered. “Well, you are still a prisoner of Order, formally accused by Justice, and I only managed to wrangle you away from them on a technicality, so . . .” She got an impish twinkle in her eyes. “I’d be bending the rules a little bit. But then, my whole Ministry is one founded on a little bit of rule bending here and there. Shall we make a deal? You may send a letter if I have your honorable word as a gentleman that you will agree to be pleasant and cooperative. I’ve heard stories about your hearing day, you know.”
I nodded solemnly. Winced a little that she knew about that already. “A time locked up underground has worn off some of my sharper edges, madam.”
“Ooh,” she said, knotting her eyebrows. “They put you in one of those little burrow cells? I’m surprised you haven’t started growing mushrooms from your hair.”
I laughed, surprised. “So am I.”
“Well, I’ll leave you to rest. We’ll get this room warm for you—if there’s anything you need for comfort, there’ll be guards nearby somewhere. Just call out for them. Reasonable requests,” she stressed with a smile. “Let’s not get carried away—a guest has a duty to behave well, just as the host does, don’t they?”
I was given a bucket of piping-hot water, as promised, and a cloth, and a little dish of soft soap, and I scrubbed all over. So much dirt came off me that the water was almost as dark as my own skin by the end. The soap was nothing fancy, the simple kind that the working class uses, but it was another blessed luxury to add to the piles that Anfisa Zofiyat had already heaped upon me—a proper dinner, meat and vegetables and more of that soft brown bread, as warm as it could be after being hauled up dozens of flights of stairs. I asked for a comb and one was given to me, and I cleaned the elflocks out of my hair and beard until they fluffed out in a coarse woolly cloud around my head. And then: a soft bed, clean sheets, a clean blanket, a second pillow. A second one! I have known deprivation before in my life—comes with the territory, you know, sleeping on the ground, taking shelter from the rain under trees or in caves, or not being able to find shelter at all and walking for miles in a cold drizzle. Yes, those times I was deprived, but I was free. Now I felt positively decadent, but I still was not free—there were bars on the windows and the door, and once I had gotten a good meal or two in me and slept as hard as ever I have, I started thinking a little more clearly.
So when Anfisa Zofiyat came to see me the next morning, I asked for my advocate.
“Oh, no,” she said—this was the one time she denied me anything outright, without preamble or negotiation. “No, that’s one thing we can’t have.”
“Ah. Why, if I may ask?”
“I don’t know her.”
“You don’t . . . know her. Is that the only reason?”
“I know everyone who works in this Tower,” she said. The soft-eyed smiling expression had flickered away. Her eyes were steelier now, set solidly against me. “No one comes into this Tower and no thing comes in without my knowledge and permission. Never. I can’t be having that.”
“I would like to communicate with my advocate—and send a letter to my apprentice, but we already spoke of that.”
“Strangers don’t come in here. Zorya Miroslavat and Vihra Kylliat can afford to allow such things, but they’re not Queens of Pattern. It’s different here. No. No strangers.”
“I’m a stranger, though.”
“You’re imprisoned,” she said sharply. “There’s guards in the hall, and we’ve taken precautions. You’re not a threat.”
I found myself taken aback. “Well. No, I’m not. You’re the first one who’s agreed with me there,” I said with a faint laugh. “They all keep telling me I’m a witch, which is honestly news to me.”
“You’re not a witch,” she said, as if she were a doctor giving a diagnosis with a very poor bedside manner. As if she were . . . reassuring me, somehow.
“Yes, I knew that,” I said, “but how did you?”
She shrugged one shoulder. “We tested you. We have ways of recognizing blackwitches, even if they’re new or unusually subtle.”
I’d dreaded that the Nuryevens would try to test me for it. I’d had waking nightmares of being tortured as they tried to make me confess or show magic to save myself. I’d thought of hot pokers, or horrific instruments. . . . But why go to such trouble? The most terrifying imaginings were of a simple, solitary barrel of cold, dark water. “I beg your pardon, you tested me? When?”
“When you arrived, naturally.”
I didn’t know what to make of that.
She rose and paced—towards the window and back again, once. “Never mind this, it’s none of your concern. I hear you know languages?”
“Yes, madam, several,” I said; I tried to keep up with the conversation. I had to be pleasant, no matter how frustrated I was about being cut off from Consanza, no matter how shaken I was about the test that I had somehow passed.
“How many is several?”
“Seventeen fluently, eight well enough to insult someone’s mother, a handful more well enough to buy an inn room and supper.”
“Enca? Cormerran? Echareese?”
“About as well as I speak Nuryeven.”
“Well enough to get by. There’s this odd thing they do with the nouns. I’ve never been able to get my head around it.”
“Fine. What else?”
“What other languages? Several dialects of Ondoro and Urtish, both fluently. Arjuni, Sharingolish, Dveccen, moderately. Hrefni, fluently—”
“We don’t care about the Hrefni. They’re practically on the other side of the world.”
“Ah, I’m . . . surprised you knew about them at all.”
“I have very good intelligence.” Her soft-eyed mask had not slipped back down entirely. She paced back to the window and stared out of it. “Were you in Cormerra?”
“Some months ago, my apprentice and I passed through. On our way here.”
“What did you see there?” Her voice was tight, and a thread of iron ran through it.
“Farms, mostly. Sheep. Forest. We didn’t come anywhere near the cities. Just ugly little mud villages.” I paused. “Primitive things, not like what you have here.”
“Certainly not.” She rolled her shoulders. “Sheep, how many sheep?”
“I didn’t count them.”
“Cormerra is the closest to home and the hardest to read,” she murmured. “They know us on sight. They’re looking for us. They keep patrols on the borders. I get news from sources inside the cities, but I don’t trust them.” She asked me details about my trip through Cormerra, and when that proved mostly fruitless, she said, “Tell me about the Umakh.” Habits, seasonal movements, the significance of eagles . . . Things she knew about, things she had been told but didn’t understand, had no context for. I had to tell the truth about all that, of course—I couldn’t afford to lie. It could have been another test.
At length, we fell silent. I had answered all the questions that I could.
“What does a Queen of Pattern do?” I asked.
She was quiet for a moment. “I was elected to this office to safeguard the secrets of the realm. To hold them in trust. To know everything that’s going on. To be an all-seeing eye, and to use my knowledge for our protection and defense. To see the pattern in the tapestry of fate before anyone else, to advise the other Kings and Queens on matters of state so that we might work together. I protect us from insidious enemies at home and abroad.”
“A powerful place to be,” I said.
“Yes. And no. Secret power—like water. Not immediate power, like Order.”
“You seem to have considered your peers carefully.” There was something here that I thought I could dig up, something interesting to know about her if I could brush away the dirt quietly enough that she didn’t notice me looking for it.
“Part of the job description.”
“Yes—part of the pattern, I suppose.” I tugged my beard. “How do you hear so much?”
“I listen,” she said. She turned away from the window, brushed off her dress, and left without another word.
Anfisa Zofiyat came every day to see me, clothed in deep dusky blue, to ask me questions, and every day she began calm and soft-eyed and smiling, and ended fidgety and brisk. On the third day, she allowed me to write a letter to Ylfing. Brought me a little desk and a fine feather quill and midnight-blue ink. Don’t remember exactly what I wrote, but it took me a good while and a couple sheets of paper. I think I ended with an explanation—that I’d been arrested, imprisoned, charged, put on trial, charged with something else, imprisoned again. . . . Anfisa took the letter herself and tucked it into a pocket of her jacket, promising to send it by her personal messenger to Ylfing, if they could find him.
She began asking me about her peers—what had I heard about them? What had they said about her? What were they planning?
She brought us back to that several times over the course of those few hours we spent together every day—what were they planning? What were they planning? She was sure they must be planning something.
I found out that she would hold her office for life. The other royals were elected for terms of varying length, but Anfisa’s term would last until she chose to retire or, more likely, until she died.
“Is it really more likely that you’ll die before you retire?” I asked thoughtlessly. “How many of the other Kings and Queens of Pattern have died in office?”
She left suddenly at that question.
Belatedly, I began to think. It’s something I never seem to have gotten the knack of.
I asked the guards if I might have some books or reading material to keep myself occupied, particularly histories. They were reasonably accommodating, bringing me stacks of books and taking them away again as I looked for the information—slow going, as reading Nuryeven is much more difficult for me than speaking it, and their printing presses seemed of rather poor quality. Nothing wrong with my eyes, of course, they’re as good as ever they were, but what am I supposed to do if the printers don’t keep their type sharp?
I should have known to stick to tried-and-true methods: I spoke to the guards. I suppose I was turning out to be a prisoner of some significance, as there was always a guard strolling around and around that circular landing outside the door or sitting on a chair, or tending the brazier. I nudged the outer door open and pulled up my own chair.
“What’s your name?” I asked the man there. He was short and stocky, with a thick black beard, not yet touched with silver.
“Steward Ilya Svetozaros,” he answered, not unfriendly. He wore the typical blue coat and charcoal trousers of the Pattern Guard, but the coat he had unbuttoned, due to the cozy warmth of the brazier not ten feet away.
“I’m bored to tears, Steward Ilya Svetozaros,” says I to him.
“And I as well,” says he. “You’re not a very exciting prisoner.”
“Dealt with many exciting prisoners in your time, have you?”
“Some,” he said—these Nuryevens hate communicating new information, don’t they? “I thought you’d at least break the glass and try to squirm out the bars on a rope made from your blankets by now.”
“It’s a hundred feet to the ground! I am a very old man!”
“It’s what I’d try.”
“Have much experience breaking out of cells?”
“Mmm,” he said, and I thought that was going to be all I got from him, but he really must have been as bored as he claimed. “Actually, yes. Part of, ah . . . ongoing training. For the elite guard, you know. The Weavers.”
“I don’t know, in fact. Are you to be promoted?”
“Maybe one day. Hard to say at this point.”
“How did you come to work for Pattern?”
“I applied when I filed my paperwork for adulthood. Started out with the patrol, promoted to the stewards two years ago.”
“And what does a steward in Pattern do?”
“Administration. Guards the Tower. Helps on city work sometimes, if the patrols are short staffed.”
“Doesn’t Order patrol the city?”
“The streets, sure. Pattern keeps an eye on . . . big-picture concerns.” He smirked. “Any fool can arrest a street thief or a murderer. Takes a sharper eye to find evidence against embezzlers, spies, foreign agents.”
“And the elite guard?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know, the country. Abroad. Going places, looking at things, sending letters back. Taking care of inconvenient problems for Her Excellency. Delicate matters.”
“Examining the pattern,” I mused.
“Is that what you’d like to do one day? Be part of the elite?”
“Well . . . The pay is the best anywhere. But you’re away from home a lot, and obviously it’s quite dangerous—and I’m thinking of marrying a couple friends of mine, see.”
I had to pause for a moment there. “Plural friends?”
“Yeah. Good business match, it’d be. We’ve been close since we were kids.”
“Perhaps my Nuryeven isn’t as good as I thought. When you say marry, you mean . . . joining your households together and producing heirs, yes?” It wasn’t that the concept was alien to me. It’s just that I hadn’t expected such an arrangement to be commonplace in Nuryevet—well, no, I’ll be honest. It’s that I hadn’t spent even a blink of time thinking about their practices, and if you’d asked me at that time, I probably would have told you that all Nuryevens lumber along like they’re made of stone, not a drop of hot blood in their bodies and no interest whatsoever in romance, and that they acquire children by filing paperwork in quintuplicate and being assigned one by an advocate.
My new friend Ilya said, “Aye, that’s right. Though I don’t think Anya and Mikket will care to manage it themselves. Heirs are cheap, though, you can scrape together half a dozen of ’em right off the street, so long’s you got flexible standards.”
I shook my head. “Is this a common thing in these parts?”
“Eh? Oh, aye, common enough. I’ve seen marriages with more partners than that.” He pulled his chair to face me fully. “The Umakh only ever have two-partner marriages, did you know that? And it’s not about business. They don’t even seem to care about their assets at all.”
“Well, no, the Umakh marry for love and sex—”
“Is that right? That seems messy—lots of feelings involved if you combine sex and business.”
Ilya had certain opinions, shall we say, which may not have been representative of the general Nuryeven philosophy. Marriage here is a great amalgamation of every kind of legal partnership: they get married when they’re going into business together, they get married when they want to own property jointly, they get married when they’re in love. . . . Some of these arrangements do involve a physical element or the biological production of heirs, as they do elsewhere; some, as Ilya mentioned before, simply involve formally adopting half a dozen heirs off the street; some are a mere legal formality. Like many things in Nuryevet, you can do as you please so long as you’ve got your paperwork in order. I didn’t quite understand all this at the time—it took a while for me to glean the intricacies of it. Or, rather, the lack of intricacy.
At the time, I only asked Ilya if he had a separate lover.
“Not right now,” he said. “I hire a private contractor for that.”
“A prostitute, you mean?”
“No, a contractor. Prostitutes are—well, you’re foreign, you wouldn’t know. We don’t have those here. Prostitutes just stand on the street and don’t have a license or pay taxes, right? They just have sex with whoever in an alley?”
“Ah . . . Some of them. In some places. In other places, they’re . . .” I waved vaguely. “Higher status.”
“Meaning they’re more expensive; they do things besides the act. In some places, they’re priests and priestesses. In some places, they’re popular society figures with property and businesses, patrons of the arts and so forth.”
“Here, you hire one of them like you’d hire a doctor or a tailor or someone to build a house for you—and you wouldn’t grab just anybody off the street for that, would you? They show you their license, and you sign a contract together, and so on. It’s a good system.”
“What about people who don’t have a license?”
“Arrested, of course, just like a doctor practicing without a license would be, or a . . .” He waved his hand, gesturing at me. “What is your trade, anyhow?”
“I travel. I look at things. I remember what I’ve seen. I tell stories about it.”
“Ah, like one of the Weavers.”
“I don’t know what the Weavers do, exactly, but I have a feeling it’s wildly different.” It is.
“It’s what you’re doing for Anfisa Zofiyat—telling her about things so she can plan accordingly.”
“Spies, then. The Weavers are spies?”
“Well . . . That’s a nasty word, ‘spies.’ Sounds sneaky.”
“Do they sneak? You mentioned being disappointed I didn’t try to escape out my window.”
“Well, sure they sneak; they sneak everywhere, but they ain’t sneaky, if you know what I mean. It’s different. They can come up behind you quiet as anything, probably kill you if they feel like it, or pick your pocket, or find out anything about you that they want, but that’s not sneakiness. That’s just . . . Weaver stuff.”
“That’s not what I do. I’m more like a teacher. I tell stories.”
“Aye, then, teach me something.”
Nothing brings me so much joy as a captive audience willing to have their boredom eased, but I was on a mission for information. “Perhaps we could trade stories. An even trade. Nothing comes free,” I said, thinking this would appeal to Nuryeven sensibilities.
“If you like,” he said.
“What are you interested in learning?”
He thought about it, leaning his head back against the wall and looking at the ceiling. “Something strange. Something no one’s seen or heard of before.”
“If no one’s seen or heard of it, then I probably haven’t either.”
“No, not like that—just something most people would never see in their lives, something rare. Something that if you saw it, you’d know you’d been lucky. You ever seen anything like that? Traveling all over like you do?”
I leaned back in my own chair and stroked my beard. “Have you ever been to sea?”
“Nah, not me. Riverboats, that’s about it, and even then I don’t like the tossing.”
THE SECOND TALE:
An Ocean of Peculiar Things
In the middle of the Unending Ocean (I said, improvising something from a ragbag of memories and story fragments, not all of them exclusively mine), waters unknown and uncharted by all but the most adventurous sailors, the waves at night rise in placid and inexorable rolls like great monsters of the deep, their edges limned by the soft light of the strange creatures who glow with their own light, moving like little moons beneath the surface of the sea. The strangeness of the creatures here reflects the strangeness of the whole ocean—there are bizarre currents that run through these waters, places where the water is as warm as a garden pool in summer, and regions where the sea is as still and smooth as glass. It is an ocean of peculiar things.
(“Like what?” said the guard, which was annoying, because I was about to tell him.)
The farther in you sail, the more the water becomes somehow more than water, flowing around the ship like dark oil, and the air becomes more than air. . . . It is a sensation, almost, a strangeness in the air. Sailors call this the ufstora, the touch of the gods, and none of them that I have ever met will consent to go in search of it. There are places, though, where it can be found, in the most remote places of the ocean, as far away from land as it is possible to get anywhere in the world.
But even without the ufstora, the night sky above this sea is extraordinary—a velvet of such richness as I have seen nowhere else in this world, and so deep that it seems like you’re looking into the reflection of the deepest reaches of the ocean. The stars shine above like jewels, glowing with divine light in an infinite cosmos.
(Mind you . . . It’s a sky. A pretty sky, to be sure, but I was fluffing it up a little for him; you know how it goes. Ilya nodded along the whole time and said things like, “Goodness,” and “You don’t say.”)
One of the many exceptional phenomena of the sea is something the sailors have no name for. (This part is absolutely true.) When I first encountered it, I called it ufstora too, but the crew was quick to correct me—this was not a supernatural thing. You see, there is something in the atmosphere here, a mist or a miasma that appears in the sky over certain areas, as unpredictable as the wind or the clouds or the northern lights, and when this mist comes overhead, there is no visible warning—and suddenly the stars explode into brilliant splendor all across the sky, their light scattering and multiplying into ten thousand shards and splinters of fire and color, and the sky behind them appears in an amazing array of hues, arranged in dazzling clouds and streaks, filled with the light from stars never before seen—even the dimmest star becomes as big and bright as a candle flame held at arm’s length. It lasts but a few moments, no longer than it takes for a cloud to pass over the moon. I can call it dazzling, but that is as close to the truth as a sigh is to a hurricane.
But encounters with the nameless brightness or the ufstora are rare. Some have seen them many times. Many die without seeing them once. There are other things here, in this place that is not a place: The odd creatures that swim up from the unknowable depths. The stormfire that comes during a tempest and blazes on the ends of the bowsprits, as steady as anything even while the boat is being tossed to pieces.
(He shuddered at this, and I don’t think he was faking the faintly sickened expression that came across his face.)
Once, many years ago, I crossed the sea in a rowboat tethered to its ship by a long rope.
(He looked further sickened at this. By the way, this was a lie: it wasn’t me who did this, but my own master-Chant, well before I ever became her apprentice. She had a great love of the ocean.)
I wished to study what I could of those eerie maritime occurrences, and riding in the rowboat put the noises of the ship at a distance so I could focus. I would pass the nights half sitting, half lying against the stern, with my feet propped up on the thwart and my right hand hanging over the gunwale, trailing my fingers in the thick, rich water. I remember one night when we were passing through the doldrums, when all the waves stop and the sea goes as still as glass, all soft and sweet, and the smallest ripples of waves just lapping at the hull of my little boat were the only thing that broke the perfect silence. Both moons were shining that night, and the stars, and the only other light was from the Captain’s lamp as she stood at the wheel and whispered wind charms into the sails, just enough to keep them billowing. In those days, they used silk sails when they were doing a Great Crossing, which is the name for the course that takes a ship directly across the middle of the sea. That night I wasn’t sleeping, but I had my head propped up and I watched a pair of moonfish following my little boat, twirling around each other as they swam. Moonfish are small, for ocean fish—their silver bodies are the length of a man’s forearm, and they have delicate trailing fins that glow with a pale green light. You never see them alone. Always and only in pairs. It is said that they mate for life, and that it is bad luck to catch one and not the other.
(That is exactly as my master-Chant told it to me. I myself have never seen moonfish, and I’m too old now to be crossing the ocean in a rowboat anyway.)
I went on in that vein for a little while, but those were the interesting parts. He was an attentive audience, nodded along with everything I said, interested but not pushy. When I finished, I said, “Now it’s your turn.”
“Aye. And what would you like to learn about?”
My heart beat a little faster in my chest, and I hemmed and hawed to cover my nervousness, feigning indecision. “Well,” I said slowly, at long last, “I suppose I’d like to know more about Nuryevet. And you—you seem like a patriot, being a public servant and all, so you’re a good person to tell me about it.”
“I guess,” he said, frowning a little. “And what is it that you want to know about, specifically?”
“Well. Hmm. I suppose I’m most curious about things that are going to affect me personally, to be honest with you—how trials work, how long I can expect to be imprisoned. . . .” I could have gotten that information from Consanza before, if I’d thought to ask. This was all camouflage for the things I really wanted. “Or—well, I suppose I don’t even understand your system of government at all. There are so many Primes,” I quavered, a feeble old man, “I just can’t keep them straight.” All lies, of course. “Maybe you could tell me about them . . . or what their Ministries are concerned with and how they came to be. . . .”
What I actually wanted was gossip and blackmail material, or at least enough of a personal sketch of each of the Queens that I could deduce things about them. I had spoken to two Queens already at that point, and knowing anything about who they were as people would have given me a foothold into turning my fortunes around. If I could give Anfisa Zofiyat what she wanted, then she would begin to like me, and I could use that as leverage.
Ilya shrugged. “All right. It’s not as complicated as all that.”
THE THIRD TALE:
An Introduction to Nuryeven Social Science
About three hundred years ago, there was only one King. His name was Chadvar Chadvaros, and he was awful. He taxed the common folk to poverty and starvation and spent all the money bribing foreign merchants, and he very nearly sold us out to Enc and Cormerra. Long story short, everyone decided that hereditary monarchy was a stupid idea, and they killed him.
“I have an idea,” said someone. “What if we all just pick someone who we think would be good at looking after things around here, and after a while we have the opportunity to pick someone else if the first person starts being terrible?” That sounded like a good idea, so they elected someone smart and tough, Timea Dorotayat. She was the first elected Prime, so they called her the People’s Queen. A bunch of stuff happened, and as it turned out, not every Prime was good at every aspect of ruling—some sole-ruling Primes were great with money, but crap at war. So they started splitting the government into branches so they could pick people who were right for each individual job. First they divided it into Hearth and Field. Hearth concerned everything to do with things inside Nuryevet: law and taxes and so forth; while Field concerned everything outside: diplomacy and war and foreign trade.
Eventually, after a few more splits, they ended up with the current system: Law, Justice, Order, Pattern, and Commerce—or Coin, as you’ll more often hear. Law obviously makes the laws, Order enforces the law, and Justice interprets it. Coin is pretty self-explanatory, and Pattern is there to see the big picture, to offer wisdom and guidance, and to provide a sense of long-term continuity.
(“Surely Zorya Miroslavat has more life experience? More wisdom? Why would they elect someone as young as Anfisa Zofiyat to Pattern, if it is about those things?” I said. I was bored of all this dull, useless stuff. I wanted some specifics. Something contemporary, something practical.)
Anfisa Zofiyat is as shrewd as they come! (He was quick to assure me.) She has worked in Pattern since she became an adult; there is no one more qualified, no one more discreet.
(“Oh,” I said. “It’s just that Zorya Miroslavat seemed dismissive of her talents and abilities.”)
Well, she has a grudge against Anfisa Zofiyat and the Ministry of Pattern. We know she’s up to all kinds of tiny crimes, and we keep finding them and making her look bad. If we wanted, we could blacken her name at the next Justice election and put her out of a job, and she knows it.
(It was at this point that I began using Ilya’s own tactic: “Goodness,” I said, and “You don’t say,” and little meaningless questions to tweak more information out of him.)
Zorya Miroslavat’s got her favorites, you know. Everyone does. She’s given promotions to a lot of people who shouldn’t have gotten them. She’s taken a few bribes. A few times she’s told her judges what verdict they should give on a case. . . . She words it as a suggestion, and all her correspondence makes it sound like she’s just debating the merits of one hypothetical interpretation of the law or another, but that’s what she’s doing. She really ought to keep her nose out of their work. The judges need to be able to make their own decisions, but she hangs over them, as anxious and fussy as a mother watching her child learn to cut onions.
This is common knowledge if you know the right people, by the way. This isn’t a huge secret. I don’t mind telling you, because I want you to know about the good work Pattern is doing.
Oh, and Zorya got Vihra Kylliat elected as Queen of Order, too. Vihra’s also engaged in a little harmless nepotism in her time. She and Zorya are very close. It makes things difficult for us, whenever the Primes meet for anything, because—well, Vihra and Zorya double up together, and the King of Law dodders along, taking no notice of anything, because he’s nearly too old to even hold his own head up, and the Queen of Coin is equally useless. She’s definitely embezzling funds from the treasury, but we’ve got our eye on her. She hates us too.
There’s other things too, but I can’t tell you about those.
We’re not doing anything wrong, of course. We’re just trying to keep everyone in line so the Pattern stays straight and even. We’re part of the balance of things, and we have to be smart about it. A lot of folk get angry with Pattern because they don’t understand. They think things are bad, but we know that’s just how things are. When you think about it, it’s not as bad as it could be—here, we get to choose who is in charge, we get to choose people to make mistakes on our behalf. Lots of places, they don’t do that. You have to endure whatever you’re given by the fates. King goes mad? You keep him. Queen dies of a cold? I guess you’re out of luck.
When you look at it that way, we’re lucky to live here.
All in all, it was a reasonably productive conversation with Ilya.
Anfisa Zofiyat came every day for at least an hour and asked me everything I knew, and I tried my best to cooperate with her as much as possible. She said that her messenger was out looking for Ylfing, that the journey out took at least a day, and that’s assuming that he hadn’t left the town where we’d parted and traveled elsewhere.
I wrote another letter and sent that one out as well, just in case.
“I’m not a spy,” I assured her over and over again, whenever she asked for information I didn’t have—secrets, blackmail, hidden information, knowledge of the neighboring countries’ weaknesses.
Once, early on, she came to me and was . . . strange. Exceptionally strange. She stood close to me and sniffed me, checked my eyes and under my tongue as if I were a horse she was looking to buy. She watched me eat. She snapped her fingers, and there was an enormous din in the hallway, guards clattering metal on metal and banging things against the stone walls. It startled me out of my wits, and then she and I sat there staring at each other: she, expectant; I, deeply confused. She dropped a colorfully painted wooden ball in my lap, the sort a child might play with.
Another test, I know now. Double-checking whether I was a blackwitch.
I found out, through more story-trades with Ilya, that Anfisa slept in the Tower, rather than going home to her own house. She occupied a locked room in the deepest basement, four levels underground and walled with stone two feet thick. I found out that she served herself from the same food the head steward served everyone, that she washed her own dishes and kept them locked in her room when she wasn’t using them, that she drank from a water barrel that even the newest patrolman used, and that she never touched wine, tobacco, or anything else that had been made especially for her.
I found out, too, that her predecessors, six of them over the course of not quite eighty years, had all been assassinated. Seven rulers before her, one King of Pattern had managed to die of natural causes (or what seemed to be natural causes, at least). Three more rulers before him had been assassinated too.
It didn’t seem to be a very cushy job, to say the least.
Then, one day, after I had been in the Tower for nearly a week, I was looking out my little window and I saw a small squad of red-uniformed guards approaching the Tower door. Order had sent her emissaries.
To fetch me, it turned out. Anfisa had used up her allotted time to question me. She wouldn’t allow the Order guards inside the Tower, of course, but she came up to see me, tense and pale, and she spoke quickly to me, entreating me to remember her kindness, promising that she would send one of her most trusted aides to continue speaking to me, that she might in fact come herself if the situation demanded. Then Captain Ostakolin brought me downstairs and signed me over into the tender mercies of Order.
The days were getting shorter, and though it was already midmorning, the sun was just then beginning to rise.
On the upside, the new cell I was given was not so deep underground. There was, I think, a window somewhere down the hall, because there was a faint glow of natural light from around a corner. I was put in the cell and left to myself.
Consanza arrived within the hour, wrapped up in thick wool now that the weather had begun to turn. She pulled off her gloves—fine leather, I noticed—and stuck her pipe in her mouth before she even said hello.
“So you had a vacation at the Tower of Pattern, eh?” she mumbled from around the stem as she lit her pipe-leaf. “Apparently Anfisa Zofiyat is saying you’re not a blackwitch; I don’t know how you convinced her of that, but let me be the first to offer my most hearty congratulations. Did you know she submitted a memo that suggests the witchcraft charge might be a waste of time? So you have that, at least. Well done. I think we can put that out of our minds for now; no one’s going to pursue that unless they get really desperate. From start to finish, this Pattern business has been an interesting development.”
“Has it?” I asked. I was overcome with despair, regardless of Consanza’s news—back to a cold, cramped cell, back to a hard bench to sleep on and a ratty blanket, back to stale bread and slop for my meals. I was already missing the Tower. As Anfisa had asked, I remembered her fondly, though the news that she officially didn’t believe I was a witch only frustrated me—how enraging it is when people announce something obvious as if it were a breakthrough! “I met the Queen of Justice before the Pattern Guard arrived to take me.”
Consanza crossed her arms and blew out a stream of smoke. “Did you? A social call, was it?”
I shook my head. “She and the Duchess of Justice came. I was taken to a room, they asked me questions, I refused to answer without you—”
“—they refused to send for you. I asked to send a letter. They said no. Anfisa Zofiyat let me, though.”
“So you met her in person, then? Hmm.”
“She came to talk to me every day.” I curled up on my bench and tried to cover up my ankles and my shoulders at the same time.
“And here I assumed she would delegate that task to someone she wanted to punish,” Consanza said dryly. “What did you talk about?”
“She wanted to know—you know, the same things everyone else wants to know.” I was tired, and suddenly it came over me in a wave. “Just get out,” I snapped. “I’m tired of being shuffled around like a pawn in a chess game, and I’m tired of being interrogated all the time. Come back tomorrow, unless you can get me a proper blanket and a messenger to carry another letter to my apprentice.”
“Can’t come tomorrow, I have a hearing—with one of my paying clients, you know. You were only supposed to be a tedious little witchcraft trial, and now this. And just so you know? Anfisa saying that you’re not a blackwitch doesn’t mean that you’re out of danger with that espionage charge, so don’t get your hopes up.”
I thought fondly of the Tower of Pattern.
I asked the guard who brought me my next meal if I could send a letter and was, as I expected, conclusively shut down.
Consanza came again two days later, with a bundle stuffed under her arm. “Here. I asked around about secondhand stores and went all the way up to Bent Street to get this. Smelly, but it should do you.” She unfurled the bundle as she spoke and flung it between the bars. It was an old horse blanket, and it was smelly—stale horse sweat and stale hay—but it wasn’t any worse than the cell itself, so I wrapped it around my shoulders and was grateful for it. “You ready to talk today?”
I nodded silently.
“The Queen of Pattern spoke with you every day, you said?”
“Yes. Wanted to know . . . everything I knew about anything. Intelligence. I didn’t have much. I’m not a Weaver.”
“Did you answer her questions?”
Consanza sighed heavily. “Did you ask to see me?”
“Obviously. I’m not stupid. She wouldn’t let you in. Too much of a security risk—funny, ’cause all I saw of their security at the Tower was a wooden door and a lot of stairs.”
“Mm, yes. All you saw of their security. All you saw.” Consanza waved that away. “But you cooperated with her and ran your mouth—again—without my counsel? I’d be dubious about keeping you on, at this point, but . . . Well, finish telling me about what happened.”
I told her about the comfortable room, the hot meals, the warm bed, the brazier in the hall.
“And in exchange for your cooperation, she sent your letters out with her messengers?”
“But it’s been days—more than a week—and I don’t know where he is now, or if they even found him to give him the letters—”
Consanza snorted. “You’re pretty naive when it comes to that kid, aren’t you?”
“I could be your grandfather, woman! Don’t you disrespect me! I just want to—hmph! I just want him to know where I am, that’s all.”
“She probably didn’t even send the messages out.”
I scowled at her as fiercely as I could manage, bundled up on the bench in a smelly horse blanket. “She liked me,” I said. “She said she’d help me if I helped her, and I did my best, so why wouldn’t she do the same?”
She rolled her eyes massively—it wasn’t a good look for her. “Oh, I don’t know, because she’s a Queen of spies, one of the most cunning women in the country, with dirt on everyone and no qualms about using it, and in the year or so since she was elected has become a famous paranoid who barely leaves the Tower except under heavy guard by her most trusted Weavers and stewards? She probably kept those damn letters and has someone tearing them apart to find a code. You didn’t write anything in code, did you?”
“Of course I didn’t! What have I to say in code? I have nothing to hide! I said, ‘Ylfing, I have been charged with crimes I have not committed, and I am being kept in prison in Vsila until my trials are over. Be very careful of how you talk to people; they’re a very suspicious bunch, and terribly rude to strangers.’?”
“And that’s all?”
“I think so. They were short letters.”
“None of them even left the Tower. I would bet money on it, and you know I don’t gamble on the long odds. Your apprentice is still wholly ignorant of your fate. But back to your case. This is getting a little bit interesting for me.”
I narrowed my eyes. “Interesting? How so?”
“The Queens seem to be having a bit of a spat over who gets to sink her claws into you.” Consanza tapped her fingers on the arm of her chair. “I did some digging and found out what was happening with them during your time in the Tower. First Anfisa Zofiyat pulled that stunt with her Nineteenth Modification right to question traitors and spies—suspected traitors and spies,” she corrected herself, seeing me about to object. “Then the Queen of Justice, Zorya Miroslavat, basically threw a giant fit—that’s the legal term for it, don’t you know—anyway, she threw a fit about Anfisa Zofiyat getting to keep you locked up in the Tower where no one could get to you, and she filed what I think we can technically refer to as an epic fuckload of injunctions and objections and, well, all the legal paperwork tantrums she and her clerks could think of. But the law is the law, and Casimir Vanyos—that’s the King of Law—said that there wasn’t any way to get around it, but then Vihra Kylliat came in on Zorya Miroslavat’s side, obviously, because Order and Justice have always been like this”—she crossed two fingers to show me—“no matter who the Primes are, and Vihra Kylliat and Zorya Miroslavat have been even more like that. They’re like mother and daughter, practically.” This all lined up with what Ilya had told me, and my head spun just imagining the mental acrobatics I would have had to do to follow all this without his explanations. “Anyway, once Vihra Kylliat got involved, Casimir Vanyos had to take it to a formal vote among the Primes, and since Taishineya Tarmos abstains most of the time because she doesn’t give a shit, and the Prime of Law is required to always abstain except in the case of a tie, it was just Pattern against Justice and Order, and Anfisa Zofiyat couldn’t provide enough evidence to show that her questioning of you was turning up information crucial to the safety and prosperity of the nation, so she had to give you up. And that’s that, and here you are.”
“Here I am,” I said, dazed. “Who was the last one you mentioned, the one who abstains by choice?”
“Ah—Taishineya Tarmos Elyat Chechetni.” It took a moment for me to wrap my brain around how all those names could belong to one person. The Nuryevens love bureaucracy, you see, and they’re not terribly creative, so every person’s name goes by the exact same formula—a use name, a patronymic, a matronymic, and a family name. Makes it easier for the advocates to alphabetize their filing cabinets or something, probably. “The Queen of Commerce—you’ll more commonly hear her called Queen of Coin, though. Or the Queen of Gold, Penny Queen, Dragon Queen, Trader Queen. The Thief Queen, too, during tax season. Better than what they call Zorya Miroslavat, worse than what they call Casimir Vanyos.”
“Dare I ask?”
“Casimir’s the Loophole King,” she said, with a slight wry smile. “Or the King of Convenient Precedent. And Zorya is the Rope Queen or Gallows Queen.”
I felt a little sick. “Why does Taishineya Tarmos abstain?”
“Personal preference. Likes to keep her options of allies open, I suppose. Prefers smiling over talking, prefers no one to know where she stands on any given subject. I don’t think you’d like her.”
“How would you know who I’d like?”
“Just a hunch.”
“And all this is interesting to you?”
“Oh, fascinating,” Consanza said calmly. “Imagine the opportunity to argue a case in front of a panel of all five of them. And if the fighting between Pattern and Justice keeps going on like this, and if Order keeps supporting Justice, then it’ll have to go to a panel. There won’t be any choice.” Consanza leaned back in the chair and folded her hands across her stomach. “At this point, it’s looking like I could lose this case horrifically and still walk away covered in roses.”
“I wish you’d be more serious about this,” I snarled. “It’s my life on the line. My freedom, at the very least. I have a religious duty to attend to.”
“So attend to it in prison. Everyone has stories, right?”
She was right. I didn’t care to admit it. “So you’re going to stick around because it’ll be good for your career.”
“Oh, sorry; I was perhaps unclear. No. Your case itself is going to be shit for my career, in all probability. But having a few months of being in the same room as the Primes of the realm, having a few months to kiss ass like I’ve never kissed ass before—if I play my cards right, I could end up with some nice cushy administrative position in Law or Justice and spend the rest of my days peacefully raking in the cash. Probably wouldn’t go for Order; Vihra Kylliat’s a known hard-ass. Coin’s risky—the term of office for the Prime is only five years, so there’s a lot of jumbling up every time someone new comes in. And Pattern’s creepy and impossible to get into, and the Pattern Primes always end up going crazy or getting killed, so their so-called life term is really more like eight years or so, maximum, if they’re lucky. Too much excitement, not enough cush. It’ll be Law or Justice for me—good long terms of office for those Primes: twenty and fifteen, respectively. Nice and sedate. Stable. Not immediately, though—I’ve got another seven or ten years of trial court dramatics in me, but I’m not as young as I used to be, and I’m getting sick of these fucking students following me everywhere, wanting to be mentored or something.”
“Haven’t you ever heard of integrity? In some places, it’s thought to be honorable to advance yourself through your skills and personal honor, rather than this . . . kissing ass, as you so eloquently put it.”
“I’m not interested in doing things the hard way. I’ve never had to do it that way before, and I’m not about to start now.” Lucky for her that she ever had a choice about doing things the hard way or not. “Look on the bright side. I’m probably not going to heave you overboard at this point. Probably—as long as the Primes are this interested in you.” She tapped a finger against her cheek, deep in thought. “Casimir Vanyos is going to stay interested—he has to—as long as those three are at each other’s throats, but Taishineya Tarmos . . . I wonder if we could get her to come down on our side. Are you sure you don’t have anything to bribe her with, if it came to that?”
“Only what’s in here.” I jabbed a finger at my forehead. “It doesn’t seem to be valuable to anyone but me.”
“Hah, so said Vanya the Smith.”
“Vanya the Smith. Vanya Skyforger?”
I shook my head. “Folk hero?”
“Sort of. Aren’t you supposed to know all the stories there are?”
“I never claimed that. I only know a lot of them,” I grumbled. “Only as many as I’ve heard in my whole life, or that my master heard in hers.” I wrapped the horse blanket tighter around my shoulders. “I’d like to hear it. I was starting to think you people didn’t have any stories.”
THE FOURTH TALE:
Vanya the Smith and the Thirty Iron Swans
Right. So. Vanya the Smith was working in his shop one day. Slow day. Slow week. It was the middle of winter, and there wasn’t anyone who wanted to trek all the way through the drifts to get their things repaired or to buy tools. So there’s Vanya, right, amusing himself by practicing some tricky smith things—I don’t know the names of them, I’m not a smith—making little toys out of iron and steel, making pretty weapons and such. He had to keep his forge hot, you see. I think that’s important. Maybe it was a magic forge.
Anyway, so he starts making these animals out of wrought iron. He makes an iron mouse, but it’s not right, so he melts it down and starts over. Makes an iron cat, but it’s not right either. Melts it. Makes an iron dog, melts that, too. He keeps going. Persistent guy, Vanya.
So then he makes an iron swan—a big one, a swan-size one. And when he’s finished, it comes alive and starts flapping, right into his rain barrel, and he jumps back and there it is, floating on the top of the water. Every time it flutters its wings, they chime, because each feather is made of metal.
Well, Vanya thinks this is amazing, so he makes another, and another—I guess he must have had a lot of iron lying around—and basically he fills up his whole yard with these iron swans. Well, what good is an iron swan? thinks Vanya. Not much use to anyone, but he likes them real well, and they’re quiet except for that metally chiming noise they make. He’s a smith, he likes metal, he thinks it’s a nice sound. Anyway, they’re alive and he feels bad about trying to grab one and get it melted down.
So they stick around his smithy for a while—they wander down to the pond and swim around, they make nests out of scrap metal on his roof and stuff, but they don’t cause any trouble, and he goes about his own business.
So eventually there’s a little warm spell, and everyone who needs something from Vanya comes up to see him, and they’re all astonished to see these iron swans sitting around all over the place. “Vanya,” they say, “what are all these swans?”
And Vanya says, “Oh, just things I made. I think they’re pretty.”
So a young man thinks one would be a nice gift for his spouses, and he tries to find out how much Vanya wants for them, but Vanya refuses to sell them, and he insists that they’re of no use to anyone but him. Gods know why. Doesn’t make any sense to make a thing and not sell it to someone who wants to buy it, but that’s how the story is.
So everyone goes away, and they tell all their friends about the iron swans at Vanya’s place, and when the next warm spell comes, an even bigger crowd goes over there, and some people want to buy the swans, but Vanya says no, and all those people go home and complain about it.
Then the Earl of Order in the village hears about the swans, and he doesn’t even wait for the blizzards to stop—he treks out there in the snow and the wind and knocks on Vanya’s door, wants to give him all this coin for one of the swans. Vanya says no, says they’re not worth anything to anyone but him.
So the Earl of Order goes home and he gets all his patrolmen, and they go back out and beat Vanya up and take all the swans.
“Is that it?” I asked, when she was done.
“What do you mean, is that it? Of course that’s it. It’s a good story.”
I put my head in my hands. “Your grandfathers and their fathers and their fathers would be ashamed to know that their descendant had fallen so far.” It occurred to me that Consanza must have grown up very comfortably, considering the vague, dismissive way she’d talked about Vanya’s smithing. Anyone less fortunate would have seen a blacksmith working at some point, but I got the feeling that Consanza never had.
“Well, if you don’t like it, you can just say so. There’s no call to be insulting.”
“Two and a half thousand years of myth and storytelling tradition in Arjuneh and this errant daughter just ran off some little fable like it was town gossip,” I groaned.
Consanza took out her pipe and chomped on the end of it. “That’s just the way it was told to me. You’re being very rude.”
“It’s a story about a man who was too much of an idiot to see that other people valued what he had for some quality that he didn’t even know about.”
“At least you get it.”
“It’s hard not to get it,” I muttered, “when you all but bashed me in the face with the moral of it. Poor Vanya.”
“Well, I can’t just go around changing it to be different or better based on what you think, can I?”
“Are there other stories about Vanya?”
“I suppose so.”
“What’s his pattern? What’s he always do in stories?”
“Makes interesting new stuff, doesn’t think it’s any good, doesn’t let anyone else do anything with it but look. Magical things, things that come alive. He once made a plow, but it turned out to be evil—or he thought it was evil, anyway.”
“And then what?”
“And then someone comes along and says something or does something that should prove to him that he made a good thing, but he’s never convinced.”
“There’s a story like that your grandfather’s father would have told in Arjuneh. ‘Priya, Majnun, and the Wondrous Blue Panther.’?”
“Well, you can keep it to yourself,” she sniffed. “I don’t find myself much in the mood to listen to you right now.”
“Fine. Did you find out about me sending a letter to my apprentice?”
“I didn’t,” she said. “Maybe I’ll do it if I can figure out a better way to ask about it.”
“Look, it wasn’t—” I stopped. Huffed. She was taking it far too personally, and it wasn’t even her story. Not one she’d come up with. What call did she have to get so offended? “Fine. Listen—the purpose of that story was to prove a point to me, yes? To show that maybe I have something the Primes want even if I think that everything I have on offer is worthless to them. You made that point. I got the point. I could teach you how to make the point better, but if that’s the way Nuryevens tell stories, then that’s the way Nuryevens tell stories, and even if it goes against everything I consider best practice, I still don’t have any right to make a judgment call on it. I was . . .” I harrumphed. “It was unfamiliar and it made me miss familiar things.”
“I’m leaving,” Consanza said.
“Will you come again tomorrow?”
“I’ll come again for your next hearing.”
The room was colder after she left, and I was quietly grateful for the horse blanket. The cold seemed like it had made my joints into rocks.
A glimmer of regret dawned in me—I had been too harsh with her after all, and the story really hadn’t been as bad as all that. I had held her to Chant standards, not layman’s standards, because she’d understood about telling stories. Because . . .
She has this way about her, the same gift as Ylfing but backwards. Ylfing looks at anyone and sees the best thing about them, sees their kindness, their loves, whatever little whisper of divine grace they have within them. Consanza sees . . . not the worst thing, I don’t think, but the wretched parts, the petty parts, the little jealousies and grudges. She’s more like me than Ylfing is—more like me than I would admit to just anyone. I think that’s why we clash as we do. We see a mirror of ourselves in each other, and neither of us can come up with a story about ourselves to disguise it. It’s uncomfortable and upsetting to have yourself stripped naked down to the bedrock of your soul with one hard glance from someone as unsympathetic as yourself.
Ylfing embraces the whole world, loves unreservedly, gives his entire heart away with the blind faith that he’ll get something equal in return. Consanza and I give nothing of ourselves away, and yet . . . as much as I annoy her, and as much as she annoys me, neither of us has quite concluded that there’s nothing in humanity worth redeeming. She’s an advocate, after all. It’s right there in the title: she speaks for people who cannot speak for themselves. She tells their stories to save their necks, or their souls, or however you want to look at it.
And so do I.
I know exactly why I can’t bring myself to be kind to her. I have no illusions about that: to find her likable, I’d have to find myself likable, and I know I’m not, and I don’t care to make myself so.
As it happened, Consanza came again before the hearing. To tell me, in fact, that she didn’t know when the hearing would be.
“Order and Justice are pushing to try you as soon as possible, but Anfisa Zofiyat is claiming previous engagements, and Casimir Vanyos isn’t always available. It’s quite hard to get all five Primes together in one room at the same time. It’s rare that they need the whole panel in person for something like this. But there you are,” she said. “It just keeps getting more and more interesting, doesn’t it?”
“If I even live that long!” My teeth were chattering that day. The dull chill of autumn had dipped into the first bite of winter the night before. “Can’t you do something about this?”
“No,” she said flatly. “What do you expect me to do?”
“Anything! More blankets, a fire. Do they want me to die here?”
“Oh please, it’s not that bad.”
Our breath clouded faintly in the air between us. I glared at her. She had a cloak and her woolen robes.
“They’ll light fires when it gets properly cold,” she said.
“In Pattern they gave me a fire! Can’t you have me sent back there?”
“I’m not going to intentionally ruin my chances with Justice by doing something so foolish!”
“Then take a message to Anfisa Zofiyat. Ask her to come see me, and tell her I’ve thought of something she must know, and when she’s here, I’ll ask her to do something about—”
“I’ll do nothing of the sort. Do you want to see me arrested for illegal collusion? Please!”
Needless to say, that visit didn’t go well. Consanza stormed out again not too much longer after that.
They would have heated the cell blocks a little, eventually, just enough to keep it above freezing, but the Nuryevens have a higher tolerance for cold than I do, and I thought I might die of exposure even before they thought about putting on their mittens.
I wrapped the blanket around me as well as I could and forced my aching bones to work and move me around my little cell until the blood started pumping. I devised, finally, a cunning plan. It wasn’t quite witchcraft, but it was as close as I had available to me.
Eventually, the guard walked past. I had seen him earlier when he came on shift. He had a tendency to keep moving through his patrol and to make rude comments to me whenever he looked into my cell.
Sure enough, he walked by, looked in, and saw me shivering in the middle of the cell with my blanket around my shoulders.
“You freeze to death yet, grandfather?” he said.
I leaped forward, thrust my arms between the bars, and seized him by the front of his tunic. I began in a snarl: “A very long time ago and half the world away—”
THE FIFTH TALE:
Death Under a Blue Heaven
—I was walking through a familiar market in the smallest hours of the night when Death came upon me.
I had met Death before. She and I were old friends, and I had been fleeing her ever since. I spoke to her that night, and she told me six secrets, holding me close just as I am holding you now, staring into my soul with her frost-rimed eyes, her breath rattling in her chest. These secrets bound me into silence until I completed a task for her, and I knew there is only one task Death ever asks for.
But all she commanded me to do was to warn my friend that she was going to come for him in his home in three days, that she would come for him when he walked next under a blue heaven, and that she would come in the form of something long and brown and slithery.
She released me. I ran from her. I fled like a child. I went to my friend’s house as she had ordered me. I told my friend everything that had happened. The front of my tunic was stained and smudged with grave dirt, and when I breathed, I felt a rattling in my chest just the same as hers.
My friend went pale. His hands shook, his knees knocked. He asked for my advice. I told him three things: that he must never travel by daylight, for if the heavens were not blue, then she could not come to him. I told him to wear thick boots, to protect against snakes. And that he should leave the city immediately, for if he wasn’t at home, then her prophecy would come to naught.
My friend left that very night, vowing to travel only in darkness.
And yet he died three days later—he had gone to the house of his father, where he had grown up, his first home. He had worn thick, new, heavy boots that weighed him down, made him slow. He had left the house in the twilight to visit a wine merchant, and on his way home, he took a shortcut through an alley and passed under a blue awning, where a pair of thieves set upon him and throttled him with a hempen rope.
I ask you: Did I kill my friend?
Now, the only reason I got all that out was because the guard froze in terror at the first words I spoke, and I could see, Oh gods, a blackwitch, in his eyes, as clear as words on a page. He’d probably never had a prisoner attack him like this before, and I talked quick before he could figure out what to do, and by that point I’d gotten him all tangled up in it. As soon as I finished, he squirmed free and scrambled out of reach, wide-eyed. He made a gesture of warding at me. I retreated a step too and looked coolly at him.
“You saw Death?” he asked.
Blackwitch, I saw in his eyes again. “No,” I said, innocent. “It was just a story. Did you like it?”
“Gods, no.” He shook himself and straightened his clothing. “I should have you beaten for assaulting me.”
“I just wanted to get your attention. You guards won’t speak to me when I ask you questions. Didn’t do any harm, now, did I?” A little smarmy, perhaps, but he was a thoroughly smarmed lad himself, so he should be able to take it as well as give it.
“I’m going to report this to the warden,” he said, pointing at me for emphasis. “You’ll be punished.”
“I seem to have frightened you.”
“I’m not frightened!”
“Eerie stories aren’t to everyone’s taste, I suppose.”
“I’m not afraid.”
“Do you know any?”
“Oh,” I said, feigning great disappointment. “Well, of course, since they’re not to your taste, why would you remember any? What about other ones? Do you know any about Vanya the Smith? My advocate told me a rather good one about some iron swans.”
“No,” he said again, more firmly.
I sat down on my bench and huddled into my horse blanket. “I’m sorry for startling you,” I said, with the greatest of all possible sincerity. “It’d be a lot of paperwork for you, probably, to report such a silly thing I did. I was bored, is all. I won’t do it again if you accept my apology.”
The mention of paperwork set his resolve off balance. “Fine,” he muttered. “It’s fine. But don’t do it again.”
“Actually, I was wondering . . . What’s your job like? I see you walking around the halls, and I thought it must be very boring for you, same as it is for me.”
“It’s a job.”
“Not a very exciting one, though, eh?”
He shifted from foot to foot. “No.”
“Hmm. Shame. It’s not exactly a thrill to sit in here in the cold by myself all day either. I’m an old man, you know. How do you keep yourself entertained? Besides shooting terribly clever verbal jabs at elderly prisoners, that is,” I added with a wry smile.
“Why do you want to know?” he asked.
I sighed. “Just making conversation. I like getting to know the people around me. When I was at the Tower of Pattern, I was guarded by—by none other than a Weaver.”
Aha, there—that got him. You can always see it. It’s in the way they suddenly seem to take notice of you even if they were already looking right at you. “No, you weren’t.”
“I was,” I assured him. “And whatever you’ve heard about them . . . That’s not even half of it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well . . . If you really want to know . . . Do you really want to know?”
Yes, said his face, and Absolutely not.
“If you bring me a cloak or another blanket, I’ll tell you anything you want to know about them.”
His face clouded with anger. “No,” he snapped. “I’m not allowed to give you anything, even if I wanted to.” He stomped off.
After fifteen minutes or so had passed, he returned with a bundle in his arms. “You really have things to say about the Weavers in Pattern?”
“I do, lad.” I eyed the fabric—dull, dusty, faded stripes of burnt orange and red. He shook it out and wedged it through the bars, tossing it into my lap. I huddled into it. I licked my lips. I looked shiftily up and down the corridor, and I gestured him to step closer. “Do you know, they’re all marked?”
“The tattoo? Yes, I know. Everyone does.” His face pinched. “If you don’t have anything useful to say, you’ll have to give it back.”
I hadn’t noticed tattoos on any of the guards, but they’d kept themselves covered to the wrist, to the ears, to the toes. “No, besides that—a hidden mark. I saw it with my own eyes.” He wrapped his hands around the bars, and I pitched my voice even quieter. “A ring of runes—magical protection against evil and a charm for invisibility. That’s how they move so quietly.”
He nodded slowly. “And the beast shapes? Did you see any of those?”
The what now? “I saw . . . a few animals around the Tower. I thought nothing of them. Were they . . . ?”
“Weavers,” he whispered. “They can change into cats and birds.”
I shivered dramatically. “A raven perched on my windowsill the entire time—they must have been spying on me. Thank goodness Order came to take me away.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever. Give the blanket back. I told them you wouldn’t have anything useful to say.” He reached through the bars, trying to catch the corner of the fabric between his fingers, but I pulled away.
“That’s not all!” I cried. “I have more!” I could feel my blood thawing a little, and I knew it’d feel even colder if he took the blanket back now. “It’s worse than—than rings and shape-changers. It’s so much worse than that. There’s . . .” I dropped my voice down to the barest whisper. “There’s a blackwitch in the Tower of Pattern. Right at the very top, where no one goes but the Queen of Pattern. You know she’s odd?”
He was pressed bodily up against the bars now, holding on to them with both hands. His eyes had gone wide. My little fishhooks had pulled him as close as he could get without coming into the cell itself. “A blackwitch?” he whispered. “In Pattern?”
“That’s why she’s odd. Because she keeps him prisoner. I heard him sobbing in the night—his cell was right above mine.”
“What is she keeping it for?”
“Hidden secrets. Charms against poison or violent death. I heard one of the Pattern stewards say that she makes him scry for her, that he can see you wherever you are, hear whatever you’re saying . . . even listen in on your thoughts. She’s got him all bound up in iron chains, but the evil magic seeps out, like water under a door. Soaks into your skin, like, and gives you nightmares and dark thoughts—that’s why Anfisa Zofiyat has gone so odd in the last year. That’s when she started visiting the blackwitch in the Tower. They have all sorts of magical protections around the Tower too. If one hundred Order guards approached with the intent to attack, a field of fire would spring up under their feet and burn them where they stood. Burn them to ash. Boil the air right out of their lungs. You’d be dead before you hit the ground, but your body would keep screaming—that’s what it’d sound like to anyone watching. But it’d just be the white-hot air rushing out of your dead mouth.” I leaned in. “Remember this. Don’t attack the Tower unless you feel like dying that day.”
There are times to run your mouth and make up anything that flits into your fool head, and there are times to use some judgment and prudence. Saying the words “a blackwitch in Pattern” was a deeply unfortunate move on my part, as it turned out.
“Who else have you told this to?” he hissed.
“No one! I told you, child, I’ve been trying to get the guards to pay attention to me. You’re the first one who let me speak long enough to get to the warning. The story was just to catch your attention, see? To tell you that I’ve faced down Death herself.” I emphasized the her. “To warn you, to save you if I can. To be honest,” I lied, “I really am so thankful that Order came to collect me when they did. That woman would have started torturing me in a few days.” I let my eyes fill with tears. “Thank you, lad. Thank the others for me, the ones who were there especially. You saved me from a fate worse than death. Praise be to Order and the noble men and women who uphold it.”
“Long live the Queen,” he breathed.
“Long live the Queen,” I echoed. I kept my blanket.
The guard gave me a significant look the first time he passed me the next day. The second time he passed, he paused, then stepped up to the bars and gestured to me. “Is there anything else you could tell me about what’s in the Tower of Pattern?” he whispered.
“Ohh,” I said. “I . . . maybe.” I shivered theatrically. “It depends. What do you want to know?”
“We know that woman is up to something,” he hissed, glancing around. “Yesterday my supervisor sent me back with the blanket to see if you really did have anything to say. And then she passed on what you said to her supervisor, and they passed it on to theirs. And . . . and so on. And now some very important people want to know what you know.”
I smelled an opportunity to win myself a few more creature comforts. “Lad. Lad, listen to me. It’s terribly important. I can’t remember all that happened to me when I was in that . . . that horrible place. I think the blackwitch enchanted me—but please, I know that if I could just get warm, I could work up the energy to fight it off. It comes over me like a sickness. . . .” I paused and gasped for breath. “It squeezes its shadowy fingers around my heart . . . I can feel it coming now. Ach, save yourself, child, save yourself. Or else bring me a fire, or some soup. . . . I fear the sickness may spread!” I clutched at my throat and wheezed for dramatic effect.
The guard looked conflicted. I could see the war happening in his face—he knew I was probably hamming it up for personal gain, but his superstition was nearly as strong. . . . If I was telling the truth about the blackwitch, it was entirely possible—nay, probable—that I had been tainted by dark magic, and it was therefore probable—nay, likely!—that I was suffering for it.
“Fine,” he mumbled, gesturing away the evil, almost unconsciously. “Will you die before I get back?”
“I can hold it off that long,” I wheezed. “If you hurry.”
I ended up with a brazier set just out of arm’s reach, piled with wood—not slabs or logs, but pathetic skinny sticks and straggly, twisted, dried bushes. It wasn’t a slight at me; Nuryevet is notoriously poor in wood, and so they conserve every bit of it they do have for building and toolmaking, and to keep warm they burn sticks and twigs, scrub and bushes, grass or straw twisted tight into hard little logs, or dried dung. Or coal, if there is enough ventilation. It had been no different in Pattern.
The young guard brought me another blanket as well, a decent one. I pulled the bench closer to the radiant heat of the fire and folded the horse blanket to use as a seat cushion. I tucked yesterday’s blanket over and around my legs, and hugged the newer one around my shoulders. Proper warmth, what relief!
“Ahhh, yes, I can feel the shadow balking already. I’ll be able to fight it off today, I think. As long as I have a fire.”
“Sure, good,” said the guard, clearly uncomfortable. “But you’d better give me something really good about Pattern—the Captain wasn’t too pleased at all this extravagance for one prisoner.”
I was, at this point, prepared to burble anything they wanted. “Lad, I can give you dozens of things. Let me think—I must sift through my memories, unlock the ones that were locked away to me. . . . I heard too many secrets in that dreadful place, child. Too many secrets. Bloody ones. It’d turn your stomach inside out to hear them, scorch your ears right off. . . . All the Pattern Guards are ensorcelled into absolute loyalty to Anfisa Zofiyat, so there’s no way to get them to betray her unless you find the way to break the spell. The blackwitch, you know. And if anyone gets past that ring of fire to attack the Tower, a huge thicket of briars will spring up from the ground, briars with thorns a foot long and as sharp as daggers, growing all around the Tower as tall as two men standing one atop the other’s shoulders.”
The guard nodded. “What about—what about other things? Things about the other Primes?”
“Ohh,” I moaned, clutching my head. “It pains me to think about it—I must have heard something dreadful that that woman and her blackwitch don’t want me to remember. Aaarghh . . .”
“What? What is it?”
“It’s about . . . What do I see?” I grasped at the empty air before me, my eyes shut tight. “A book of some kind . . . There’s something written in it. . . .”
“Yes? Go on.”
“I—It’s—! No, I can’t. It’s vanished for now. It was something terribly important. Whatever it is, I know it will shock you. I will fight for it, lad, I promise you that.”
He settled back on his heels, clearly a little disappointed. “Well, I’ll tell them about the other things you said.”
“Good, yes. Do that, lad. Warn them . . .”
“The Queen of Order will appreciate your cooperation.”
“And I appreciate the help in fighting off the cold shadow that foul sorcerer cast upon me.” I nodded towards the brazier. “Long live the Queen.”
“Long live the Queen,” he said, and I saw a slight smile quirk the corner of his mouth.
That night I got a small roll of bread with my slop.
The young guard had a new assignment. His patrol had been shortened, I suppose—he now walked up and down just one corridor. I think they brought in another prisoner or two, because the smell got worse and I heard noises of protest down the hall.
I didn’t think much of them. I was coming up with stories to tell the guard about what had happened in the Tower.
I told him a little more that day—something offhand about how I thought Anfisa Zofiyat might have some kind of protective charm that she wore about her person, something about her paranoia against poison and assassination.
“Have they all been like that?” I asked the guard. “The Primes of Pattern. I ask because . . . well, who knows how long that blackwitch has been imprisoned there.”
“As long as I can remember. They’re not always as odd as Anfisa Zofiyat. Most of them just go a bit strange in the head, but usually it takes years.”
“Mmm. That’s what comes of knowing too many secrets,” I grumbled. “And of locking up a blackwitch, of course.”
“You’re making a good impression on the Queen of Order, all this information,” the guard whispered. “We both are—we could really . . . help each other out, if you think about it.”
“Oh . . . Could we?” I said guilelessly. “How d’you reckon that?” It had occurred to me at some point that I could win a few considerations more significant than blankets, bread, and braziers. In the dark moments of the night when despair came upon me, I thought to myself, What’s Consanza really going to do to help you? I thought, Help comes to the man who helps himself. I don’t remember exactly when I decided to set my sights higher; I think it must have been a gradual thing, like the turning of the tide.
He edged closer to the bars. “I know you’re keeping something big back from me. Maybe you haven’t remembered it yet, maybe you’re just drawing all this out. . . . I know you have something important, though. There might be other guards asking about it, especially tomorrow. I won’t be here tomorrow.”
He nodded. “So if you remember anything . . . don’t tell the others. Actually, if . . .” He took a deep breath. “If you tell them I’m the only one you’ll talk to, I’ll bring you . . . another blanket?”
“Oh, I don’t know. . . . Sometimes I just burst out with things. You must have heard about my behavior when I was in court a few weeks ago. . . .”
“Another blanket and . . . and I’ll bring you some of the food they feed me and the other guards. Bread, meat. Nothing fancy—it’s just horsemeat, leaner than leather, but it’s better than the trash they serve you prisoners.”
I considered it. “Cheese? Fruit? Cleaner water?”
He winced. “Sure, I can try.”
“I suppose I can try not to talk to the other guards. It’ll be difficult, though, seeing as how I’m such an old man and my eyes are so weak, and seeing how all you young pups look the same in those garish uniforms. . . .”
“Fine. I promise I will bring you food.”
“And a blanket.”
“And a blanket, yes.”
“And . . . is there any way you could send a letter for me?”
At that, he looked troubled. “That I don’t think I can do.”
“We leave our uniforms here when our shifts end, and we’re patted down by the other shift before we go out. Anything—anything we have in our pockets is looked at.”
“Couldn’t you say it’s a letter from your sweetheart?”
“Everyone knows I don’t have a sweetheart. I’ve never been interested in . . . any of that.” He made a face. “Men or women. Not for me. Everyone knows that.”
“What if I gave you a short message and you wrote it down later, after you’ve left?”
“Can’t write or read.”
“What? Were you raised in the country? You don’t have a country accent.”
“No, here in Vsila. Born and raised.”
“Aren’t there schools in the city?” I thought back to the astonishing amount of seemingly at least semi-educated people I’d seen or heard alluded to while I was here: the students in the courtroom, everyone who had to carry a license to practice their craft, the amount of bureaucracy and paperwork in every aspect of their lives. . . .
“There are schools everywhere. It’s the law,” said the guard. I hadn’t seen any during the few brief weeks of liberty I’d had in Nuryevet; I thought perhaps I had simply overlooked them. “But a blackwitch cursed me cross-eyed when I was a baby. So I can’t read.”
“What do you mean?”
“When I look at something written down, the letters get all mixed up and it’s hard to focus on them. Sometimes they sort of squirm around. My parents tried all sorts of cures.”
“And you think it’s because a witch cursed you?”
“What else could it be? Anyway, it doesn’t bother me any. Must bother you right now, though.”
I sighed. “Could you memorize a message and have someone else write it down?”
“I’m not getting someone else involved in this!” he hissed.
I gave up. There was no way to make this avenue work. “What’s your name, anyway?”
“Vasili Ansonsos Lienityat Negutesco.”
“And what do I call you?”
“Vasili Lienityat. Or . . . just Vasili, I guess. You only have the one name?”
“These days, yes.”
“You used to have more?”
I nodded, closing my eyes and leaning back against the wall.
“Did a blackwitch take them?” Vasili asked, very serious.
“No, I gave them away.”
“As a sign of devotion to my calling. A sacrifice.” I thought of something. “A question I’ve been wondering about, child: The Queen of Coin—Taishineya Tarmos, isn’t it?”
“She uses her patronymic instead of her matronymic—but the other Queens use their matronymics, and so do you, and the King of Law uses his patronymic. Isn’t that right?” In most places, there’s some kind of system, but the Nuryevens seemed entirely random.
“So why does she do that?”
“Her father was more well-known than her mother, I guess. Or she likes the sound better.”
These Nuryevens. No sense of drama.
For my hearing, I was transported to the House of Law in one of those small coffin boxes. I was beginning to develop an almost sickening aversion to them, and I spent the ride with my hands and eyes clenched tight, breathing carefully to keep from gagging and panicking in the close, confined space.
I heard us pass through a noisy crowd of people, heard the two huge doors groan open. The clamor of the crowd surged forward, but there were guards yelling at them to stay back, and then the doors swung closed again and silence fell.
When the guards opened my box, I stumbled out and found myself caught in Consanza’s arms. “You stink,” she said, blunt as ever.
“Trim your nose hair,” I gasped, trying not to heave up the meager breakfast I’d eaten.
She just scowled at me and led me forward.
It was the same cavernous courtroom we’d used before—or one similar enough that I couldn’t tell the difference, which wouldn’t be surprising. They don’t care to make their buildings terribly distinctive here. The only thing different was that it was almost completely empty: just us, the Primes, and a small flock of attendants, assistants, and scribes.
Rather than sitting in a row behind the table on the dais, the Primes had taken chairs on the same level of the floor as I now stood, in the middle of the wide-open space in the center of the room, surrounded on three sides by benches where the students and witnesses had been sitting the last time I was here. The tall windows behind the dais streamed watery, wintry light into the room—in other places, there might have been tapestries hung on the walls, or murals painted on the high, vaulted ceiling. Here, there was almost nothing. Long green woolen curtains, the color of Justice, framed the windows, and the wooden doors were carved in a simple repeating pattern and fitted with shiny brass bands.
Anfisa Zofiyat was off to one side of the semicircle, flanked by no fewer than six of her guards. I recognized Zorya Miroslavat sitting opposite her, with the Duchess of Justice, Yunia Antalos, standing behind her.
Next to Zorya was a woman I had not seen before, but who could only be Vihra Kylliat, Queen of Order. She was a large woman; not fat, not at all, but large with strength. She had wide shoulders, thick arms—or arm, rather, as I saw that her left was amputated just above the elbow, as was her left leg, just below the knee, yet she wore cunningly made prosthetics of some pale-colored metal, undecorated and unadorned, and she had an equally plain walking stick leaned up against the armrest of her chair. She was somewhere in her late forties or early fifties, at my best guess—besides the white scar across her right cheek, she had lines on her face that suggested tension or anger, and she had touches of gray to her dark hair, which was cropped quite close to her head. A saber hung from her belt, and her right hand was gloved in white; her short coat and trousers were of a deep burgundy red, several shades darker than the crisp scarlet-and-white uniforms of Order. She sat quite still, without any attendants, without speaking, without moving. The red of Order stands out in any room, and on any street—the Nuryevens favor duller, drabber colors for superstition’s sake: blackwitches can’t tolerate the sight or touch of color. It’s Order’s little show of bravado, you see: Look how brave we are. We have nothing to fear.
The King of Law, Casimir Vanyos, sat in the center of the curve, midway between Anfisa and her opponents. He was a very elderly man, slow moving, and he had two young clerks with him who each held a stack of books and files. Casimir Vanyos himself wore ceremonial robes of dusty sky blue trimmed with bands of gold braid, which would have been very imposing on anyone else. On his gaunt, hunched frame, the fabric hung like a potato sack on a scarecrow and made him look small and, frankly, ridiculous.
Finally, separated from all the rest and seated on the far left, was the last Queen, Taishineya Tarmos, bedecked from head to toe in vivid purples and sparkling gems, a display of wealth that struck me as entirely alien in this country—hell, her finery would have been remarkable even in the noble courts of the Arasti merchant-princes or the guildhalls of Edness. Her sleek black hair was curled upon her shoulders (artificially, I presumed, for the Nuryevens tend towards silky, straight dark hair), and jewels hung glittering at her ears, around her throat and wrists, and across her forehead, and glimmered from hidden folds of her gown, which was embroidered all over with a quatrefoil pattern and tiny seed pearls. She was the only one looking at me, and she was looking with undisguised curiosity.
It took a few moments for the court to get settled—Casimir Vanyos needed a table for the files in front of him, and Consanza saw to it that both she and I got a chair apiece and a table to share for ourselves. In all this last-minute shuffling, the Queen of Coin, Taishineya Tarmos, rose from her seat and floated over to us. She moved as if she were as light as air, though I imagine, considering the amount of heavy fabric and rocks hanging on her, that the weight she carried was substantial.
She was quite young—younger than I had expected for a Prime, compared to the others; even Anfisa Zofiyat, the next youngest, was on the ambiguous side of early middle age. Taishineya Tarmos had a deliberate, affected tilt to her head and the arrangement of her hands, and there was the distinct air that she was mimicking something stylish. “Good morning, Master Chant,” she said to me. “What a pleasure to meet you. I must say, I’ve already heard all about you.”
“At your service, madam,” I said, with a short bow—as much as I could manage with my cold-cramped joints, my brain rattled out of my skull by the movements of the wagon on the cobblestones when it transported me, and my stomach half turned inside out. “I hope that my name will be cleared so I can get out of your hair forever.”
“Oh, not at all! Even if we do clear you, you mustn’t go running off right away, never to be seen again! No, no—everyone is terribly fascinated with you right now, you know,” she said with a secretive, impish grin, as if letting me in on some scandalous secret. “We just can’t stop talking about you.”
“I profess myself flattered, madam.”
The Queen of Order rapped her walking stick on the floor, once, and the sound rang out through the room like a firework blast. “Taishineya, are you quite finished chatting with the accused?”
Taishineya Tarmos smiled sweetly at her. “I suppose you all want to get along with your silly old trial. Dear me, I seem to have gotten in the way again.” She retreated to her chair, her silk brocade skirts swishing along the floor. Her clothes were flavored in the Echareese style, and I fancied that perhaps she had an Echareese tailor with opinions on how to cut the Nuryeven fashions with a little more style and flair.
The King of Law held a page at arm’s length and peered at it, then at me. Consanza ushered me to the chair next to her, and as I sat, she rose. She cleared her throat and smiled sweetly at the panel of the Primes.
“Your Excellencies, it is my honor to appear before you as the advocate for the accused, Master Chant of Kaskinen. Before we get started, I just wanted to take a moment to say what a great privilege it is that I should be here today. You see, ever since I was a little girl . . .”
I could feel already that it was going to be a very long day.
The next day Consanza swept up to my cell in a billow of robes and gestured sharply for me to pay attention. “I’ve had an idea,” she announced as I extricated myself from my nest of blankets and put down the book I was reading—Vasili’s latest gift for the services and information I provided him.
“Wasn’t expecting to see you so soon,” I muttered.
“What’s all this?” Consanza waved at the blankets, the brazier, the book.
“You haven’t done anything to make my life any easier, so I . . .” I stretched, luxuriating in the heat from the fire. “I took some initiative.”
“Huh. Well done. How?”
“Vanya the Smith.”
“You found you had something of value?”
“I found I could create things of value,” I corrected. “Please, have a seat. Would you like a blanket?”
“No, thank you. I’ve had an idea.”
“Is that right?” I asked flatly. “Regale me.”
“Have you met Taishineya Tarmos yet? Besides yesterday, I mean. She hasn’t come to visit you, has she?”
“No, she hasn’t. Neither have those other two—Casimir Vanyos and Vihra Kylliat.”
“We can change that,” she muttered.
“Change? Are you trying to get Taishineya Tarmos to come see me?” I shook my head, laughing. “Ladies like her don’t come to prisons.”
“Ladies like her get their hands dirty if there’s a good reason to, and we’re going to come up with a good reason for her to.”
“And that’s going to help send a letter to my apprentice?”
Consanza huffed. “I wish you’d look at the big picture. Anfisa Zofiyat likes you, right? That’s what it sounded like.”
“Sure, I suppose she might. She thinks I could be useful, anyway. And now so does—”
But she interrupted. “And Taishineya Tarmos came to talk to you at the hearing—she was interested in you. She thinks you’re fashionable.” Consanza crossed her arms and paced back and forth in front of my cell. “I thought it was strange. I’ve been asking around—everyone knows about your trial, of course. But Tarmos’s circle is agog. They love drama and scandals, and you’re . . . hah! You’re an infinite well of those, aren’t you?”
I did not dignify this with a response.
“I have an idea,” Consanza said. “But it’s not a very good one. It involves you being charming and cooperative, so obviously I feel like it’s a long shot, but . . . I think you could do that if you saw that it was in your best interest, don’t you?”
I did not respond to this, either. I primly smoothed my blanket over my legs and folded my hands in my lap and waited for Consanza to reveal her great plan, or not, as it suited her. I didn’t want her to know that I cared even a whit.
I could lie to her, but I can’t lie to you: I cared very much.
“Have you found out anything about Taishineya Tarmos yet?” she asked casually.
Consanza nodded and sat herself down on the chair. She packed and lit her pipe and puffed a few times to get the embers going. The silence stretched and stretched.
At last she sat back, lowered her pipe. Smoke trickled out of her mouth as she spoke and a fragrant, spicy scent, different from before, filled the space. “Taishineya Tarmos Elyat Chechetni. Born to Tarmo Yuliat and Elya Borisos, the former a merchant, the latter an actress in her youth and, later, a particularly shrewd investor. Taishineya grew up surrounded by luxury and the cream of society. She ran for the office of Coin during the last election on, I am told, a dare from a friend. I am not sure if this is true—no one knows which friend it was. There don’t seem to be any primary sources. So that’s probably apocryphal. Regardless, she doesn’t take the office seriously—she thinks it’s an excuse to throw fancy parties and wear pretty dresses and have people kissing her ass and telling her how important she is. Which, mind you, isn’t irregular for a Prime of Coin. It’s practically required, at this point.” She sighed heavily and paused for another puff. “And,” she continued darkly, “we all see the results, come tax season.”
“Not surprised. Earrings like those don’t pay for themselves.”
Consanza pointed her pipe at me. “Exactly.” She gave me a rather funny look then. “You like knowing things about places, and why they are the way they are.”
“What do you think of Nuryevet so far?” she asked conversationally, as if I were some visitor on a jaunt through for my own amusement.
“Is that supposed to be a joke?”
She shrugged, blew smoke. “Yes and no.”
“Let’s put it this way. Out of all the places I’ve ever been, I’d rather go back to the day that I was dying of thirst, wandering in the dunes of the Sea of Sun, than spend another day here. I’d rather camp for a month in the Ebbshore swamp. I’d rather—”
“I get it,” she said.
“—be obliged to accept a dinner invitation to the Mouse and Millstone Tavern in Llanrwsteg—”
“I get it.”
“—even though I swore I’d cut off my own hand if I ever again came within a mile of it. In short, it’s a miserable wretch of a place, and I can’t believe anyone actually likes living here.”
“It takes money to leave,” Consanza said, and I remembered that her grandparents had done just that, had left Arjuneh. “And it’s not so bad. As long as you work with the system, you can use it to your advantage.”
“Until tax season,” I said. “When they scrape a bit here and a bit there until they’ve scraped every bit of meat off your bones. And you’re implying that’s why Nuryevet is this way? With this sulking desolation as far as the eye can see?” I wasn’t unconvinced, but she wasn’t going out of her way to persuade me one way or another. I suppose that was too much like advocacy. Too much like real work, and I’ve told you before how much Consanza abhorred that.
“Everything, all of it—it’s all tangled up together. A few generations ago, having many spouses wasn’t so common—people would have one or two, occasionally three. But taxes kept going up, and it makes more sense to bring in a fourth source of income, or a fifth, to share the burden. But people are poor even so. Taishineya Tarmos’s sort never stop making pretty promises and offering beautiful misty dreams, so they keep getting elected. And every election cycle, everybody sinks a little deeper into the mire.” She blew a long stream of smoke. “Do you know how many lawyers there are per capita in Nuryevet? One in twenty. Five percent of the population. Because we have this—this fear. In our bones, we have fear. Fear of not having quite enough to get by, fear of having that little bit taken from us. By the tax collectors, by the raiders who come over the mountains every spring, by the Enca and the Cormerrans. And when people are afraid . . .”
“They want to protect themselves,” I said, and a glimmer of understanding began to dawn. “So—courts, and lawyers.” And laws against witchcraft, and a wild suspicion of foreigners.
I studied her. “Do you think you’re lucky to live here?”
“I beg your fucking pardon?”
“Do you?” That steward in Pattern had thought so.
She shrugged. “At least we get to choose.” That’s what he had said too. “I don’t know if that’s luck. We all complain, and every tax season there’s always a bit of fuss, always a few people who decide they can’t stand it anymore. Keeps me and my colleagues busy for a month or two.”
I snorted. “Goodness, people upset around tax season. I’ve sure never heard that one before.”
She gestured at me with her pipe again. “See? Exactly. It’s normal.”
“And this has something to do with your brilliant idea?”
“In a way. Sometimes you need to understand a place before you can understand a person, don’t you? Before you can understand where they fit.”
I nodded. “Context. Yes.”
“Our jobs really are surprisingly similar.” Consanza sat back. “Taishineya Tarmos! She wants to be important, and so she’s probably fairly easy to lead. She already thinks you’re fashionable, so if we can get the two of you alone for a little while, you can convince her that you’re not just fashionable, you’re an investment. She wants power? Give it to her. Tell her a story. And get yourself a promise that in return she’ll support having you exonerated and released. If we can count on her and on Anfisa Zofiyat . . .” Consanza gave me a significant look over the stem of her pipe.
Then there’d be a tie. Coin and Pattern against Order and Justice.
Then it’d come down to the King of Law and his vote.
“Do you know as much about Casimir Vanyos?”
“I am an advocate,” Consanza said, smoke pluming and curling around her. “But it may interest you to know that I happened to work in the Law offices when I was a student. Reporting to the Prime and the Second—Casimir Vanyos and Rostik Palos.”
“You’ve met him—Casimir Vanyos?”
“You know him?”
She shrugged artfully, but I could tell how pleased she was to reveal this by the way she hid a smile with another puff from her pipe. “He’s always seemed fond of me.”
I let out my breath. A glimmer of hope, though it was a tiny, distant glimmer, a single candle on a windowsill miles away, across a river on a cold, dark night. “I can do it,” I said.
“You think so?”
I dropped my eyes so I wouldn’t accidentally glare at her—even if it was an unlikely plan, I didn’t want to discourage her from, perhaps, coming up with other, better plans in the future. “And the letters to my apprentice?”
“Does it matter so much if I’m going to get you out?”
“Don’t jinx it!” I said sharply. So much for my efforts to be polite to her. I’m not even that superstitious, but—bah. This is what comes of being around everyone else’s superstitions for so many decades.
Consanza scowled at me. “Look, just focus on the task at hand, would you? She’s the Queen of Commerce, Chant. Do you know what commerce means?”
“Of course I do,” I snapped. “Merchants! Shops, ships, sailors. Trade.”
“Yes, yes. And the royal mint, and the post office.”
“Ah.” My building irritation was quenched, as surely as a red-hot steel swan dipped into a bucket of oil.
“And as a Prime, she can wander in and out of prisons whenever she wants without subjecting herself to needless searches.”
“Do you get searched?”
“Of course. I could be smuggling weapons to you.”
“Why can’t you just memorize a message for me and send it?”
She gave me a look, half-pitying, half-irritated. “I’m not going to be complicit in anything illegal,” she said crisply. “I’ll scheme with you about how to curry favor and win your case, but that’s my limit. Do you know what would happen if I got caught sneaking messages out for you?” She narrowed her eyes at me. “That said, they don’t mind me bringing in ink and parchment to take notes on your case,” she added, and drew the items out of her pockets. “These don’t come free.”
I rolled my eyes. “Of course not. What do you want for them?”
“You’re going to do me a favor sometime. Before you leave, after I get you out.” Apparently she didn’t care about jinxes. I remember thinking that I wasn’t even sure whether she truly cared about blackwitches. “Don’t make that face. I have a good feeling.”
She was smiling now, her eyes glittering with the twinkle of her plot—it did help her. She looked much nicer now than when I had first met her, and perhaps that was because her expression was more pleasant, and perhaps it was because she wasn’t quite as contemptible as she had been. “Fine,” I said. “I’ll owe you a favor when you get me out.”
She handed the parchment and ink through the bars, and I hid them under the fold of a blanket. She gave me a metal dip pen too—they have no shortage of metal in Nuryevet. “It’s a shame, but I don’t think we have a hope of making headway with Vihra Kylliat. She’s not likely to fall for any games.”
“I’ll handle her,” I said. “I’ve got my own swans in the fire.” She gave me one of those long, cool looks that said she clearly didn’t think I was competent enough to buckle my own belt, let alone execute some complicated maneuvers such as these. I sniffed at her. “You handle Coin, I’ll see what I can do with Order. Come back in two days, and I’ll tell you if I’ve done it. If I fail, you have leave to smirk all you like at me.”
“If you say so,” she muttered from around the stem of her pipe. “But remember what I said—don’t play games with Vihra Kylliat. She won’t take it well.” She paused. “Well, none of them would take it well, but I doubt you have anything Kylliat wants, so . . . Mind your tongue.”
“Mind your own tongue, young lady!” She snorted and left, with a final slow, appraising look at the blankets and the brazier. Vasili wasn’t on duty tonight, but the other guards had been instructed about the special considerations I was to receive, and while they didn’t bother me, neither did they bring me lumps of the hard, nutty orange cheese that Vasili seemed partial to, or handfuls of dried fruit, or an extra piece of bread with my dinner.
I scrambled out of the blankets and gestured Vasili over as soon as I saw him the next morning, and I set into motion the first grand misstep of the path that eventually brought me to you. “Is Vihra Kylliat here?” says I.
“In—in the building?” says young Vasili.
“Yes, in the building.”
“Well, this is the House of Order. . . . Her offices are in another wing, though.”
“I need to speak to her.”
“I need to speak to the Queen of Order!”
“About what?” he demanded.
“Vasili, child, listen to me. I’ve remembered something that happened to me in the Tower—or most of it. And the Queen of Order must know immediately—she’s responsible for the guards, right?”
“Well . . . yes.”
“And the army?”
“What is this about?” Vasili’s eyes were getting wider.
I seized him by the forearm. “Please. Go fetch her, ask her to come here or to have me brought to her.”
“Fine, fine.” He eyed the pile of blankets on the bench in the corner. “Can you at least neaten that up? She hates mess, and I don’t know whether she’s going to come down here or have you brought to her.”
“Tell her . . .” I paused. “Tell her I wouldn’t want to inconvenience her—tell her I see it must be difficult for her to get around. You know, with her leg.”
“I am not telling her that.”
“You’re not telling her anything you said, you’re only telling her what I said.”
“She’ll come all the way down here just to punch you in the face,” Vasili whispered between the bars. “You’ve never seen her move. She was a general, you know! She trained in seventy different kinds of weapons. She even traveled to Xereccio to learn from their masters.”
“She lost her arm and leg in battle?”
“Arm, yes. Leg was an accident—injured and took fever or something while she was abroad.” Bless little Vasili for being so easily incited to running his mouth. “Look, you don’t understand. Everyone thinks that her leg slows her down—at first. I’ve heard stories from the other guards. Every couple years someone new does something like open a door for her, thinking he was being nice, right? And she walks him right outside and makes him spar with her until he’s collapsed on the ground, shaking and throwing up and pissing himself. She’s terrifying, and I’m not telling her you said anything about her leg. You’re just a prisoner. She can have you flogged, you know, that’s her right, just like it was Anfisa Zofiyat’s right to take you for private questioning. Do you want to be flogged? A man your age, you’ll probably die, and none of the Primes will care at all, and neither will your advocate. And whoever you wanted to send a letter to will never see you again.”
I ground my teeth. “Fine.”
“There’s just things you shouldn’t say to people,” Vasili added. Beating a dead horse.
“You’re wasting time, kid, get out of here! Go tell her I want an audience with her.”
Vasili gave me one final reproachful look and loped down the corridor.
I shook out my blankets and folded them up as neatly as I could, hid the ink and parchment in a new place, and waited.
After fifteen minutes, I heard footsteps, one set of which was almost certainly Vihra Kylliat’s—every other step was a metallic ring of her artificed leg against the stone.
She came suddenly around the corner and stopped just out of arm’s reach of my cell. “Vasili Lienityat said you begged an audience. Said you’d be happy to walk up to my offices, but I don’t think it’s wise to let spies out of their cages for flippant little reasons whenever they ask.”
“Thank you for coming down,” I said, rising and bowing slightly.
“Vasili says you’ve been cooperating with his questioning. You’ve provided us with a lot of interesting information already.”
Ah, good, I thought. Everything I’ve said has reached her. Good! “He said . . .” What would make little Vasili look good? I wondered. “He convinced me it’d be in my best interests to be honest.”
“A generally wise course of action,” Vihra Kylliat said dryly. “And what is this great new epiphany you’ve had about the Tower?”
“Actually, Your Excellency, it’s not about the Tower specifically.” I paused—builds tension. “Not directly. It’s about some of the guards and soldiers who answer to you.”
“Go on,” she said, nearly expressionless. I couldn’t read her. She was a rock wall and I was patting around in the dark to find a chink, taking gambles. But I was not without clues. . . . Anfisa Zofiyat had given me some, Consanza and Vasili had given me others, and I’d seen some with my own eyes during the trial. I’d seen the cold, steady glare Vihra leveled at Anfisa.
The Queen of Pattern, Consanza had told me, had dirt on everyone. And everyone, as I know myself from my years of wandering, everyone has something to hide. Either Anfisa had Vihra’s secret in the palm of her hand or she didn’t. Either way, what Vihra had was fear. I can use fear, mold it like clay, direct its course like a river bound in dams and dikes.
I just needed to find an angle. Spies, then. Spies, and witches.
“I saw a ledger,” I said, taking a guess. “When I was in the Tower—lists of wardens of Order who are taking bribes from Pattern. People who are betraying you for real. Actual traitors, not just this unfortunate misunderstanding I’ve gotten myself caught up in.”
“Have you any proof?” she growled. Not a moment of hesitation.
“Well . . . only my word.” Which wasn’t that valuable in and of itself, and Vihra Kylliat didn’t think so either.
“The word of a prisoner.”
“A prisoner who has seen some of what the Weavers do in there. Some of them are traveling to other lands, to find texts of magic that they can use to strengthen Pattern even further against the other Primes.” I took a deep breath and another guess. “You know Anfisa Zofiyat thirsts for power. She’s taken up one of the most powerful Ministries. Spies. Weavers. Assassins. Assassins with a blackwitch to back them. Do you think she’s going to stop at being just one of the Primes, if she has the tools available to her to further the reach of her power? If she has an army hidden in darkness, spelled to be unwaveringly loyal to her? If she has your army in her pocket?”
“And you tell us this because . . . ?”
“Because I just want to go home.” I let my voice crack a little. “Because I’m innocent and I want to go home. Because people are going to die if she moves before you can oust the traitors from your ranks and take essential pawns away from her.”
She narrowed her eyes at me. “I don’t believe you. I don’t believe anything about you. I don’t believe you are who you say you are, or that you do what you say you do. You’re a fraud, an imposter, and I don’t know what your game is. I don’t think you’ll ever let on what it really is.”
Somehow, the gods smiled upon me and allowed me to hold my tongue. I was playing games with her, and as Consanza had predicted, she was having none of it.
Vihra Kylliat pulled up the chair that Consanza always used and sat down. Her metal limb clinked as she crossed her legs. “They say you’re a storyteller, amongst a laundry list of much more ridiculous and unlikely professions. Is that what you are?”
“And a scholar, sort of,” I said.
“What do you study?”
“I go to places and I talk to people, and they tell me about the great deeds of their ancestors. Their heroes, ones who fell in battle for honor, for glory. They tell me how they lived, how they ruled, how they died.”
“I suppose a historian is a variety of storyteller,” she said. Her tones were still flat and unimpressed.
“Yes,” I said. “And history is cyclical, you know. Which is why I was so alarmed to find these things out about Anfisa Zofiyat—it’s because I’ve seen it before.”
“Is that right,” says she. Patting around in the dark for a chink in the wall, I thought I felt a breeze on my fingertips and narrowed my focus entirely to that. I didn’t know what it was, but all my instincts said follow that.
“Yes,” says I. “I study these things, and then I tell the stories to other people, so that maybe we can learn from the mistakes of those who went before us. And, ah, this situation, this whole situation, it’s familiar. You’re like characters in a play and you don’t even know it. You don’t even know that you’re following your lines as if you’d learned them by heart.” She was quite still, and she made no move to respond, so I continued. “Anfisa Zofiyat, well, she’s the Grand Dowager Duchess Banh Seu. Zorya Miroslavat is almost the Empress-Mother Sen Hai Soh, the Flower in the River. And you—you’re the Honorable Lady Ger Zha, the General of Jade and Iron. You’re exactly her.”
“These names are unfamiliar to me.” But she had that look in her eyes, you know, the same as Vasili. She’d been looking right at me, and then she’d noticed me.
I stifled a smile and leaned forward.
THE SIXTH TALE:
The General of Jade and Iron
A long time ago and half the world away, Jou Xi (the King of the World, Earthly Son of the Glorious Sun-Tiger, Reflected Brilliance of the Mirror of Heaven and, the most mundane and relevant of his titles, the Emperor of Genzhu) died of river-fever in the heat of summer and well before his time, and the land fell into chaos. This is part of the natural life cycle of an empire, and we should never be surprised by it. There were three primary factions in the struggle that followed.
The Flowers: those who were loyal to the throne and who backed Jou Xi’s son, the Eminent Prince Te Suon Csi. The Eminent Prince was nine, so support for his rule was understood to be support for a regency by his mother, Sen Hai Soh, the Flower in the River. This faction consisted of a number of the less powerful nobles and almost all of the army (led by the General of Jade and Iron herself, the Honorable Lady Ger Zha). The Flowers represented dynastic continuity, stability, tradition. These are always popular concepts. At least, they’re popular with the people who’ve already gotten most of what they want out of life.
(Vihra snorted here and half-smiled, and nodded very slightly.)
Most of the resistance against the Flowers originated with a fundamental prejudice against Sen Hai Soh herself, and an outrage at the idea that someone such as she would wield power and influence for so long—ten years until the Eminent Prince attained his majority. You see, she was not a native daughter of Genzhu, but had been born and raised in the courts of Map Sut, just downriver. She was a close relation of the former ruling family of that nation, whose dynasty had been broken by Genzhu’s expansion and conquest two generations previously, and she had been married to Jou Xi in a vain attempt to strengthen the ties between the empire and its most troublesome province, inconveniently located immediately south on the Ganmu, their shared river and Genzhu’s only easy route to a warm-water port.
And so there was a certain irreverence for the foreigner-Empress, a certain outright disdain. Map Sut was generally regarded as less civilized, less cultured, less educated, simply less in general. Comments like “all shit flows downstream” were so prevalent as to be proverbs.
Thus, the opposition:
First, the Tiger’s-Claws, headed by the Grand Dowager Duchess Banh Seu, Jou Xi’s younger sister, a legitimate claimant to the imperial throne. She made no secret of the fact that she wanted power, and she was fully prepared to use whatever means necessary to secure the throne for herself, including sorcery. Now, fortunately for the world as we know it, Genzhun magic is difficult, intricate, and not terribly powerful. It is practiced by court magicians, scholar-priests of a sort, whose primary duties are the calculation of the movement of the heavens in order to determine which dates and directions are particularly auspicious. However . . . Some of them, the very great ones, have the power to summon demons. Banh Seu was popular amongst the more powerful nobles in the court, and she had the support of nearly all the court magicians, not to mention that of the general populace, who rankled at the idea of being ruled by the foreigner-Empress and her half-breed son.
And finally, the Iron Knives, a faction of merchants and their mercenaries, supported by an underground web of peasantry, interested more in using the chaos as an opportunity to claw their way up from their current positions than any more specific ambitions. They had a few powerful names in their group, men and women who could have stood a chance of taking the throne for themselves if they’d wanted to, but none of them seemed truly fixed on it, and none was personable or charismatic enough to draw the sole support of the faction. History remembers them as a force for chaos more than anything else, an unpredictable element. The whole affair could have been ended without a sea of blood if it hadn’t been for the Iron Knives.
That bright, humid summer was a dark and difficult time for Genzhu. It was a time of dishonor, broken loyalties, shattered promises. And wading through this mess was Ger Zha, the General of Jade and Iron. She was a woman of irreproachable honor and courage, a tiger on the battlefield and a gracious and upstanding diplomat at court. She backed the Flowers because she was loyal to the empire above all else, and because the Empress-Mother and the Eminent Prince were the empire. She could have supported Banh Seu—the Grand Dowager Duchess may well have been the better choice of ruler, when compared with a nine-year-old boy and his mother, both unfamiliar in the arts of war and nearly ignorant in matters of statecraft. But they, not the Dowager Duchess, were the empire, and Ger Zha had sworn herself to its service.
I don’t think there was ever a question of who she would fight for. I don’t believe she would have had even a moment’s hesitation. And when her opponents were, first, a bloodthirsty woman who would have the Black Hand Demon summoned to eat the hearts of the Iron Knives’ children, or the Yellow Tongue Demon to lick gruesome disease into any unwarded Flower, and second, a cadre of self-interested, greedy, grasping merchants—no, there was never a question of it. She had been laying down her life for the empire for forty years at that point, and the only reason she failed in the end was because she thought that the Tiger’s-Claws and the Iron Knives would see sense, would . . . I don’t know, brush the debris from their minds and hearts and find an essential core of honor they’d forgotten they’d had. I think she believed everyone was essentially capable of honor.
That’s why she died, and that’s why the Eminent Prince was murdered, and the Empress-Mother tied with silk ropes to heavy stones and thrown into the river alive. The Grand Dowager Duchess Banh Seu won the day, in the end. Such are the ways of empires.
Vihra Kylliat watched me as I spoke, a lioness lying stone-still in the grass. I think it was the bit about the demons, to be honest. The suggestion of magic as political warfare.
Now, what I had heard of blackwitches at that time was mostly foolish stuff. You know, ascribing to them responsibility for all sorts of little inconveniences, like Vasili’s odd experience with reading, or a keg of beer going sour, or a house plagued with vermin. And more magical but still foolish things—blackwitches stealing the color from your eyes, or your name from the world. . . .
But there are other stories. I hesitate to tell them now, and if that makes me no better than the Nuryevens, so be it. These folk are loath to speak of the blackwitches’ specific evils too often, for fear of calling down those misfortunes on their heads, just as the people my ancestor-Chants protected were loath to draw the Eye of the trickster god Shuggwa.
Found out later how much this little snip of story had worked on her. They’re like boots, stories. Some fit you just right, some keep your toes warm in the winter, and some of ’em rub at you until you’re sore and blistered. I’d tucked a burr into her shirt with that one, and it itched and rubbed at her until she was raw.
Consanza came early the next morning. “Right, grandfather, I left it to you—did you manage it?”
“Yes. I told her Anfisa Zofiyat is paying off some of the wardens of Order.”
She went very still. “Chant. Is that true?”
I shrugged. “No idea.”
“Chant!” she cried. “If Anfisa Zofiyat finds out you said something like that, you can say good-bye to her support in the trial!” She looked like she would have strangled me herself if the cell bars hadn’t been in the way.
“Please,” I scoffed. “She won’t find out. It’s all just jabber, it’s nothing they’ll talk about specifically. Order just wants an excuse to give Pattern some trouble. I’ve seen it all before,” I said airily. “Vihra Kylliat wants to put Anfisa Zofiyat in her place. She’d do that whether or not I was here. You don’t get it, Consanza, she was hungry for it. It’s not just professional irritation, it’s deeper than that. Personal. So what if I told her that there’s bribes being passed around? When in the history of the world haven’t bribes happened?”
Consanza pinched the bridge of her nose for a moment. “What’s done is done,” she said. “It might be true. I suppose she’ll need to find only one traitor to be convinced.”
“See? Exactly as I thought. Have you handled Taishineya Tarmos?”
“I sent her a letter this morning. As you say, it was just jabber, but I didn’t put my neck on the line with egregious, provable lies. Now we sit quiet and see if she comes through.”
“She likes fashionable things, doesn’t she? What’s fashionable now, besides me?”
“Fucked if I know,” said Consanza, which didn’t surprise me in the slightest.
“I don’t know anything about Nuryeven fashion,” I grumbled. I could have told her all about fashion in Kaskinen, if she didn’t mind the information being sixty years out of date. And I could have gone on for days about Map Sut and their astounding hats. Lovely place, Map Sut. Best pair of shoes I ever owned were given to me there. They were a comfy pair of turn-toe boots, made just for me, made for walking and tromping all over this world. Would have lasted me ten, twenty years, those boots, but they were stolen by some urchins not two weeks later. I have long held the loss of those boots close to my heart, and in their memory I have complained about the urchins at any possible opportunity. It’s not often that you come across a pair of boots that good. They were perfect, and they had looked rather dapper as well, with that saucy little pointed toe turned up. And watertight! It was a shame, that’s all it was.
“I honestly pay no heed to such things,” Consanza said. “My household is very practical. If any of my daughters were going to make a career for herself out of knowing everyone in the city and giggling like a tinkling bell . . . Well, I guess I wouldn’t stop her, but I’d wish only that she’d go about it better than Taishineya Tarmos. The thing can be done without being an obnoxious twit, you know?”
“If she’s so obnoxious, is she really worth all this trouble? With the headway I’ve made with Vihra Kylliat . . .”
“I don’t like gambling,” Consanza snapped. “Take every advantage you can. And don’t underestimate Tarmos. She’s not incompetent, she’s just selfish and irritating. She wraps herself up in silly ribbons and jewels and scandalous gowns, but she’s just as calculating as the rest of them.”
I say a lot of things about Consanza, it is true, but whatever she said to the Queen of Coin was effective: Taishineya Tarmos, quaintly, sent along a calling card the day before she stopped by. By the time it got to my cell, it had been handled by fifteen or twenty different wardens, and it had a sad thumbprint of grime on one corner of the beautiful, thick, wood-pulp paper (very expensive in these parts, even without the narrow line of gold leaf running about the edges).
Her footmen arrived before she did, laying out a small knee-high table, a rug, a cushioned stool, and for some reason a silver dish full of water. They heaped more fuel onto my brazier, set a kettle on the fire, and laid out a modest tea service alongside a porcelain dish of honeyed apricots stuffed with spiced chopped nuts.
It was a simple picnic for a Queen, but to my eyes it looked like the grandest feast I had seen in years. My mouth watered to look at those glistening, honeyed apricots.
The footmen, in frustration and disgust, also swept the room and sprayed thick perfume up and down the hall in an attempt to dampen the unpleasant smells of the ward. By the time Taishineya Tarmos came and settled herself on her stool, with some kind of tiny fluffy animal lapping out of the water dish by her feet, I couldn’t smell anything at all, let alone differentiate between the perfume she was wearing and the one that had been so liberally splashed around. I will probably never escape that smell. It will haunt me to the end of my days.
“Good afternoon, Master Chant,” she said. She plucked a juicy piece of candied apricot off the plate and ate it in one bite. “Your advocate sent me a letter, all about you and your tragic situation. I really had no idea. She’s rather clever for what she is, isn’t she?”
“You mean for an advocate?”
Taishineya giggled. “Oh, you. You remind me of my own grandfather.”
“I apologize, madam, I truly didn’t understand what you meant.”
“Oh—for a foreigner, of course!” She giggled again.
“My impression is that her father and mother were born and raised here, as was she.”
The Queen ducked her head and smiled. “Well, of course, you’re a foreigner too. I suppose I shouldn’t expect you to understand what I mean.” She ate another apricot. Didn’t offer me any. I decided then that I didn’t like her.
The fluffy animal at her feet was staring hard at me. I ignored it.
“Anyway,” Taishineya Tarmos said, “goodness me, I’ve heard so much about you. I seem to hear new things every day! Your advocate told me quite a lot. It seems I’ve been rather left out of the loop!”
“Well, when your advocate wrote to me, I wasn’t feeling particularly inspired to vote one way or another—espionage charges are exciting to hear about, but the trials are so boring to listen to. Most of politics is boring,” she added in a confidential whisper.
“Is it? Then certainly you would have had matters more interesting to attend to besides running for office.”
“No, indeed! Because now everyone carries a little handful of my portraits in their pockets! Such a thrill.” She fished out a heavily embroidered and beaded velvet purse from a pocket in her skirt and tipped out a few gold and silver coins. She held one up close enough for me to see. “It’s a rather good likeness, wouldn’t you say?” Her lacquered fingernails shone like jewels.
“Yes, it seems to be.”
“But you must look at it properly. Let me turn in profile for you so you can see what a really good likeness it is.” And she did just that, glancing at me expectantly out of the corner of her eye.
“Being imprinted in gold could not possibly increase your beauty,” I said obligingly. She had a rather weak chin, I thought, and if she kept eating candied apricots at that rate, she might have a second one before too long.
But she was clearly delighted with the compliment, and she poured her riches back into her purse and vanished it amongst her skirts again—all shades of lavender, with an oddly styled vest or doublet in rich royal purple, as heavily beaded as her coin purse had been. “So . . . I’m not the only one who has been sneaking in to see you, am I?” she said, scrunching up her nose in a way that I expect she thought was endearing. I didn’t like it. And I didn’t trust her. There was something about this giggling doll that didn’t ring quite true.
“I’ve only spoken to my advocate. . . . I don’t think anyone’s snuck in to see me. I don’t get visitors.”
She laughed. It was clearly practiced and perhaps intended to sound like tinkling bells. It sounded like a five-year-old. “No, the other Primes. Apparently I’m late to the party.” And, mercurial, the tinkling laughter shifted into a little moue. “Unfashionably late.”
Her expression set me on edge. If she was revealing that tiny amount of displeasure, it meant there was a hundred times more of it lurking beneath the surface. “I wouldn’t say that, madam. Casimir Vanyos hasn’t been to see me yet.”
“Oh, old Casimir.” She waved that off with an airy gesture. “He just sits in the House of Law with his books and his little clerks. He’s an old grump, takes no notice of society.”
“And the other Queens do?”
“They should.” She smoothed her skirts over her knees and folded her hands primly. “It’s important to know what the people want.”
“Do you spend much time socializing with the people?”
“Of course! All the time!”
“Oh, parties. I get invited to all of them now I’m Queen. It keeps me quite busy!” She bestowed another glimmering smile on me. “I canceled a lunch date to come see you, you know.”
“I’m flattered,” I muttered.
“Oh, shy man!” She popped another apricot into her mouth, and then picked up a second and offered it to the little fluffy thing. The fluffy thing scarfed it down. I clenched my jaw.
“Just parties, then?”
“Oh, no, of course not. Also lunches, suppers, picnics, hunts, carriage rides, holidays in the country . . .”
“What about everyone else? The people who aren’t invited?”
“The poor, you mean?” Another tinkling laugh. “I don’t think they have enough time to care about politics. I understand that—I barely have enough time for it myself! But never mind all this. There’s something that I have been dying to ask you.”
She scooted her stool closer and leaned forward, her face a little more serious. “Am I going to win the election next year?”
“The Commerce election!”
“How should I know?”
“Because you’re a fortune-teller or a prophet of some kind! Aren’t you? Weren’t you up for witchcraft charges before they went after you for treason?”
I was completely speechless.
“Here, do you need to read my palm?” She drew back her cuff and began extending her hand, but paused and glanced at my own hands, which were filthy and calloused, the nails chewed short. “Or something else to scry with, maybe?”
“I don’t read the future.”
“Because I’m not a blackwitch.” That wasn’t the only reason—as I said before, I don’t have a lick of magic in me.
She furrowed her brows at me. “What does that have to do with anything? They’ve been saying you know things, and what I want to know is whether I’m going to win.” She put her hands back in her lap, clenched into fists.
“Who’s been saying that? What do they think I know?”
“Oh, everyone. It’s practically common knowledge at this point. You know how news spreads. Someone talks about the blackwitch on trial; someone argues that you’re not a blackwitch; someone else points out that blackwitch or no, you seem to know a lot of things, so you certainly must be a spy. Someone else gets huffy that there’s no crime in knowing things. Then it turns into a jolly argument about whether you’re a spy or an oracle, and I’ve decided to come find out for myself.” She twinkled at me. “So. Which is it?”
“But I don’t have the gift for it,” I blurted before I could think better of it. Then I heard what I said. I had no doubt that someone would take that as me confessing to espionage—do you see? Offered the choice between being a spy or an oracle, I deny the latter, so therefore . . .
Iron swans, whispered a desperate voice in my head. Taishineya’s expression had turned frosty.
I scrambled to regain my footing. “I mean—not for just foreseeing the future willy-nilly whenever I choose to. It’s more difficult than that. It requires . . . persuading the spirits to help me.” Her expression eased slightly, and I seized upon an opportunity. “And it requires assistance.”
“What kind of assistance?” she asked, suspicious.
“Well, my apprentice knows what to do. . . . If he were here, if we had the materials, I could certainly try to peer through the veil. I’m certain I could foresee what you need to do to win.”
“Then let’s summon him here now!”
“Well, that’s the problem. I don’t know where he is. When I was arrested for that silly witchcraft charge, I was dragged off before I could speak to him or communicate where we should meet. I may have lost him forever. . . .”
“Couldn’t you have asked Anfisa Zofiyat to look for him?”
I gave her a wry look. “I did, madam. I wrote letters, but she kept them for herself. She thought they had a code in them. She’s one of the people who has decided I’m a spy, not an oracle.”
“Hmph. She’s crazy,” Taishineya Tarmos said sharply. There was a hint of an edge behind the giggling doll after all. “Someone’s going to kill her one of these days—she’s the worst of them. She thinks she knows things about—about people. Everyone.” She was nervous—more nervous than Vihra, and less well-equipped to handle it.
“She certainly seems like she’s been swept away by paranoia.”
“Swept away . . . What a delightful way to put it.” She picked up the fluffy animal—was it a dog? It looked more like a round puff of golden cotton than a dog. She set it on her lap and stroked it. Fed it an apricot, put another in her own mouth. “She’s not the only one who has people.”
“People like the Weavers, you mean?”
“The Weavers ought to be shut down, the whole institution. And they should all be called home and executed. They’re interfering little pests,” she hissed. “They stick their noses in where they’re not wanted, at home and abroad, and they . . . make things difficult for me.”
“Difficulties that must be unwelcome, if you’re looking to get reelected next year.”
“To say the least.” She smiled again, but it was strained. “But I have men and women who are used to travel—give me a message and write down the last place you saw your apprentice, and what he looks like, and the most likely places he would have gone, and his name, and I’ll have my scribes copy it out. I’ll send five people looking for him. And when he comes, you’ll tell me how to—” She jolted to a stop. There was a vicious light in her eyes, and I was sure that if she’d continued, she would have said something like you’ll tell me how to destroy the others.
“I’ll tell you the path to take towards victory, I promise,” I said, trying to sound soothing. I pulled out a folded, unsealed piece of parchment from under my blankets. “As for the letter, I’ve already written one, if you wouldn’t mind taking it today.”
“Oh! How cunning of you. And the directions?”
“If you give me a moment . . .”
She nodded, waved airily. Her invisible mask was back in place, her persona as firmly affixed as Nerissineya’s birthmark. She turned to devote her full attention to the candied apricots, and I pulled back the blankets and found another scrap of parchment, the ink, and the pen, and I lowered myself slowly and creakingly to the floor—there was no desk, so it was the only thing to write on. Seeing this, Taishineya dropped the folded parchment I had handed her and wiped her hand hurriedly on her skirts.
I narrated aloud as I wrote the directions, though I imagined that she probably wouldn’t remember or care. “His name is Ylfing. He’s a youth, in his seventeenth or eighteenth year, as near as I can guess. He’s of the Hrefni people, who live far to the west off the coast of Genzhu’s north flank, past four mountain ranges and the Amariyani Sea. He’s tall and strong—I make him carry all our things. Middly brown hair, like dead grass. Very pale skin, the Hrefni have, much paler than I am, but not so pale as—well, have you ever seen a Norlander or a Vint? Most of them have skin the color of white shelf mushrooms, the ones that grow on trees in the summer. The Hrefni are a little browner, but not much—like very milky tea. And he has blue eyes, the color of shadowed snow. He’s going to stand out in a crowd, is the point I’m trying to make here.” I wrote all this down as I said it. “I last saw him outside the house of a man who had given us lodging for the last few days—I don’t remember his name, but this was near . . . Uzlovaya, I think, was the name of the big town. The village was Cayie. I was down the road from the man’s house when I was arrested—I was only telling stories to some people in exchange for bread. We were going to move along in the next day or two, because Ylfing had been paying for our lodging with chores, but the man was running out of things he needed done and wanted money instead. We hardly ever use money. I guess he would have had to leave, unless the man has let him stay on.” I folded up the description and directions and held it out to her. She looked at it with open distaste and took it from me by pinching one corner between two fingernails. One of the footmen whisked it away instantly.
“And in return, you promise you’ll scry?”
“I can promise to try,” I said, and that was true. I knew a score of different techniques for telling the future. Some of them even worked—sort of, and for other people. Kaskinen doesn’t have that magic. I didn’t know if Ylfing had it either, but I didn’t think so—if he were any good at that, he would have told me. It’s the Hrefni way.
“I don’t know that I should do you a service in exchange for the possibility of payment. Perhaps that works wherever you’re from, but it’s not how things are done here.”
I rubbed my hands over my face and combed out my beard with my fingers. “Then I can give you advice now, as a down payment, and scry later.”
“I’ve had advice from dozens of people. I hired people to give me advice.” There was that petulant little moue again, but I saw another glimpse of that edge of steel behind it.
“I will wager you haven’t had this advice before.”
Another airy wave. “All right, go on.”
“What story are you telling?”
She tilted her head. “What?”
I repeated myself.
“I’m not telling any story.” It was fascinating, what she was like when she forgot to perform her little act. Her voice dropped to a more natural register; her posture shifted so, so slightly, transforming her from a lovely, delicate flower to a person with strength in her spine and a beating heart.
“Of course you are. You’re in the public eye—your actions tell a story about you. They tell a story about a woman who is concerned with appearances. With seeming, I think, rather than being.”
“There’s no difference.” She laughed, the false tinkling laugh from before. “This is rather funny advice so far.”
“A very long time ago, and half the world away . . .”
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