Shironne Anjir's status as a sensitive is both a gift and a curse. Her augmented senses allow her to discover and feel things others can’t, but her talents come with a price: a constant assault of emotions and sensations has left her blind. Determined to use her abilities as best she can, Shironne works tirelessly as an investigator for the Larossan army.
A member of the royal family's guard, Mikael Lee also possesses an overwhelming power—he dreams of the deaths of others, sometimes in vivid, shocking detail, and sometimes in cryptic fragments and half-remembered images.
But then a killer brings a reign of terror to the city, snuffing out his victims with an arcane and deadly blood magic. Only Shironne can sense and interpret Mikael’s dim, dark dreams of the murders. And what they find together will lead them into a nightmare...
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
—Carol Berg, author of the Novels of the Collegia Magica
—RT Book Reviews
Praise for the Novels of the Golden City
Books by J. Kathleen Cheney
Excerpt from The Golden City
About the Author
Liran Prifata’s dove gray uniform jacket lay to one side, his shirt tangled with it, pale blotches on the bare dirt. The rain pelted down, and the wind in the picked-over field tore at him. He was chilled to the bone, too numb to fight any longer.
Two of the men grasped his arms, pinning him on his knees like an animal to be slaughtered. The rain softened the ground into a muddy quagmire. Blood mixed with the water dripping from his chest, staining his trousers, all color leached out in the dark. A third man in a dark jacket leaned over him, light glinting off a curved knife as he sliced and cut again. Liran felt no pain, but the numbness scared him more than being captive. He wanted to scream, cry out for help. His throat wouldn’t answer. His lungs could hardly find the air to breathe, much less cry out.
What are they doing to me?
The man in the dark jacket spoke as he worked, words that meant nothing in Liran’s ears. He’d heard no names, seen nothing unusual about their clothes, no marks on the coach that would help his fellow police identify these men. The men didn’t even hide their faces from him, but they had neither marks nor scars to distinguish them in his mind.
This had to be blood magic. He’d never seen it before, but there was no other name for what they were doing, letting his blood fall onto the earth. The Pedraisi did this in their fields, some ancient fertility rite. It was illegal, and forbidden by the temple. God won’t permit this, he told himself. Not here in Noikinos. He will send someone to save me.
His tormenter stepped back and held up a lantern to survey his handiwork. Another man, the fourth one Liran had seen in the coach, came closer. Liran tried to focus on that face, to sear it into his memory, but he couldn’t make out the man’s features, hidden beneath the hat the man wore to stave off the cold rain. A fifth man huddled in the distance, face turned away as if he was ashamed.
Now that he’d bled for them, for their magic, surely they would let him go. They would leave him there, and someone would find him. The farmer would come to find out who had desecrated his wheat field to appease a false god.
The fourth man gestured sharply, and the man with the knife came close again. He made a single sharp movement, the blade slashing across this time, a flash in the darkness.
That hurt. Enough to reach through the numbness, enough to tell Liran it was no shallow cut like the others. He gasped feebly, and then he was falling. He landed on his side in the shorn remains of the field’s wheat. Feet squelched away in the muck.
Darkness gathered at the edges of Liran’s vision. Why me?
Warmth gathered in his soul, belying the dark and cold. He had the sense of a presence like hands resting on his shoulders. An angel had come to take him to the promised heavens.
Shironne stood on the balcony outside her room, wishing the wind could sweep the night’s tattered images from her mind. The dream haunted her. Down in the city, someone had died.
She clutched her heavy robe about her, grateful for its warmth. Winter had come early to Noikinos. The chilly wind carried up with it the damp and earthy scent of the mews behind the house, the smells of horse and hay and manure.
Dry leaves rattled and sighed in the crisp breeze. The trees planted along the side of the house would cling to them until spring, when the softer whisper of new leaves would replace the rusty winter sound. When she’d been able to see, she’d thought the brown leaves unattractive. Now that she was blind, she listened to them instead, their rustle providing a clear demarcation of the edge of her family’s property. Somewhere nearby pennants snapped and chimes tinkled, although she couldn’t tell which neighbor had brought those from the temple to safeguard his home.
The cook spoke with a tradesman in the back courtyard, the clink of metal and glass underlying their voices and echoing off the yard’s stone walls. Likely the milkman, Shironne decided. The distant noise of carriages and horses spoke of morning traffic—sounds of normalcy.
No one knows yet—no one but me and him. It had been one of those dreams.
At first, she hadn’t known they weren’t her own.
There was a man up at the palace who dreamed of death, deaths that were really happening. He involuntarily spun out those dreams, sharing the victims’ fear and pain with the world. For most who could sense his dreams, that meant little more than a vague sense of fear and an occasional headache.
As in everything else, I have to be the one who’s different.
Colonel Cerradine knew who the dreamer was, this man who inflicted his nightmares on her. The colonel had always refused to tell her anything about him, though, not even his name. Lacking any better label for him, Shironne had settled on the Angel of Death, a nickname the colonel’s personnel seemed to find both apt . . . and ridiculous.
She rubbed one hand with the other, her left thumb smoothing along the scar that ran across her right palm. The souvenir of a foolish childhood accident, it served as a constant reminder that she too often let curiosity get the better of her.
But every time she woke from one of these dreams, she wondered about him. Who is he? Why does he do this?
The colonel had warned her that pushing to find that answer too soon could be dangerous for her. What he hadn’t told her was why. What harm could there be in meeting someone whose dreams she already shared? After all, those shared dreams, however unpleasant, had given rise to her unusual vocation.
The angel’s dreams gave her a purpose beyond simply finding a husband . . . or joining the priesthood, as was expected of Larossans who developed powers. When her powers had abruptly manifested when she was twelve, the chance of finding a husband had disappeared. Shironne had to consider other paths, but the priesthood didn’t seem appealing either; selling charms and prayers in the temple wouldn’t suit her temperament at all, she’d insisted. That infuriated her father and shocked the priests who more than once had come to talk to her mother about it. After all, they asked, what else is a girl child to do with her life?
Shironne was terribly grateful that her mother supported her decision to find another path, and that those dreams had shown her one. Those dreams always meant there was death, and she could do something about that. She could help find murderers.
Thus had begun her strange career with the army.
The man who had the dreams often couldn’t remember much about them. She could. That had seemed odd at first. Then she’d grasped that his dreams were like paintings laid before her in her sleep, but the Angel of Death didn’t see them that way. Instead, his mind was the canvas on which they were painted.
She stepped back inside her bedroom, closed the door after her, and drew the curtain shut. Not certain how long she’d stood on the balcony savoring the breeze, she crossed to the mantel and carefully felt the delicate hands of the clock. Her mother had removed the glass, making it possible for Shironne to read the time with her fingers. It was almost eight.
Her bedroom door opened, and Melanna pelted into the room, bare feet slapping against the wooden floor. Melanna’s steps came toward her, her bracelet tinkling, and then her arms clasped about Shironne’s waist in a fierce hug. The top of Melanna’s head almost reached Shironne’s shoulder. Her youngest sister was on her way to being as tall as their mother one day, if not taller.
“I had bad dreams,” Melanna complained, quickly turning her loose.
Shironne set a bare hand atop her sister’s coarse hair—a trait certainly not inherited from their mother. Whenever she touched another person, she could feel more than their emotions. She could actually feel the thoughts buzzing around in their heads like swarms of bees, sometimes formed into words she could catch, other times not. She found only a vague sense of Melanna’s nightmare, but the girl rarely remembered anything specific from the angel’s dreams. Their mother didn’t either.
Even Shironne’s memories of the dreams were unclear, as if she’d seen everything through a heavy veil. She knew she’d witnessed a murder. It was always murder, even if it didn’t seem that way at first. The faceless victim hadn’t been able to fight back, and his captors—there had been more than one; of that Shironne was sure—had cut his skin. Then they’d let him die. It had been cold and raining, somewhere near the river. A field, perhaps, although she wasn’t sure why she’d drawn that conclusion. But each detail might help the army find a murderer, or murderers in this case, so she needed to report them.
“I have to find my gloves,” she told her sister. “Then we can go down for breakfast.”
“Can we read first?” Melanna asked.
Her youngest sister had acquired a lurid novel from a lending library that was their secret. It wasn’t one her governess, Verinne, would find acceptable. The book was full of Pedraisi witchcraft. It had witches who made stables go up in flames and others who could call birds from the air. Larossans possessed a variety of powers, but those were pure nonsense. Even so, they made for an entertaining tale. The story also had an unlikely romance between the heroine and a handsome young Larossan man who worked in her father’s stables, whom Shironne strongly suspected would turn out to be the missing son of a lord or wealthy landowner.
Melanna did most of the reading but would spell out the longer words so that Shironne could tell her how to pronounce them. “Not now,” Shironne said. “When Verinne takes her nap you can come to my room.”
Melanna huffed out a dramatic sigh and slipped away from Shironne’s grasp. A second later, Shironne heard her sister bound onto her mattress. Shironne returned to her bed and sat, locating her gloves on the table next to her bed, just where she’d left them. While Shironne tugged on the gloves, Melanna continued to jump on the bed, one particularly large bounce telling Shironne her sister had flopped onto her back.
Shironne reached out to the table again and found her focus. Pure quartz: she could trace along the perfect lines within the stone, even through her gloves. She’d used this stone as a focus for some time now and was as familiar with it as she was with her worn clothes. It was still endlessly fascinating. When she concentrated on it, all the other sensations that assailed her faded away: the feel of fabric against her skin, the hints of smoke on the air that brushed her face, the lingering traces of the last item she’d touched. She could shut out the constant barrage of others’ emotions and simply follow the emotionless lines of the stone, clearing the clutter from her mind.
She concentrated on it a moment longer, chasing away the dragging grip of last night’s dream. Then she pulled her attention back. “Are you ready to go down?” she asked her sister.
Melanna promptly clambered off the bed, and together they headed downstairs to the kitchen. It wasn’t proper for them to eat in the kitchen, but they did so anyway, since Cook was nearly a part of the family, having come from their mother’s childhood home with her.
Pausing at the base of the kitchen stairs, Shironne heard the customary oofing sound Cook made when Melanna ran to hug her. Then came the scrape of the bench when Melanna sat down at the table. The room smelled of baking flatbread and spices. Shironne went to join her sister pulled out the chair at the head of the table, and settled there.
“Is Kirya around?” she asked Cook. Kirya Aldrine was actually an army lieutenant the colonel had placed within their household to ensure the family’s safety, but the young woman spent most of her days working as maid for Shironne’s mother and her sister Perrin.
Since Mama was in mourning, her garb wasn’t complicated. Until a year had passed, her tunic, trousers, and petticoats would all be of undyed silk and wool. She didn’t wear any jewelry save for the bracelet that helped Shironne hear where she was. That made Kirya’s assignment as maid easier. Perrin, on the other hand, was to be presented to the elite of Larossan society at the turn of the year in the hope of contracting a brilliant marriage. She got to wear bright colors, the cuffs and hems of her tunics and petticoats were heavily embroidered, and Mama had given Perrin the jewelry she no longer wore. Working on Perrin’s wardrobe did keep Kirya busy.
Cook’s worry spun about her at the mention of Kirya. “I think she’s up with your mother. Should I send for her?”
Shironne realized that Cook must think something was wrong. “No. What about Messine?”
Filip Messine, another lieutenant, primarily watched over Shironne. He escorted her to her various assignments for the army. In his false identity here, though, he served as a groom in the mostly empty stable. The Anjir family had limited funds at the moment, so there were only the two old carriage horses there. They could spare Messine for an errand or two.
Cook’s worry faded to relief. “Oh, you want a messenger. I’ll go call him.” She walked to the outside door and called out into the courtyard before returning to her cooking.
A moment later, Shironne heard the door open again, followed by the jangle of bells and Messine’s familiar footsteps. Shironne turned her head that way to hear him better. Although she could sense where the members of their little household were when she concentrated, the various bracelets and bells each wore made it easier for her to locate them.
Messine came closer, clutching his concern tight about him. He was trained not to bother others with his emotions. For Shironne, that made him pleasing company. “Miss Anjir, did you need me?”
“I need to send a message to the colonel,” she explained. “I had a dream. Someone died, and the Angel of Death dreamed it.”
Hard hands pulled at Mikael Lee’s arm and hauled him to his feet. “Where the hell have you been?”
Mikael blinked up at Kai’s stern features. He concentrated on breathing as the room spun about him. His lungs ached. It felt like someone had jammed a knife in the base of his neck and a spike through his head.
He didn’t dare answer Kai’s question the way that came to mind, but the rumpled bed behind him should have made it obvious. He’d been there all night. He’d been dreaming.
He was at the Hermlin Black, his favored tavern in the Old Town. The clumsily carved bed with its faded yellow bedding looked familiar. An icon of the Larossans’ true god sat in the corner, the statue’s lap draped with a trio of grains for luck. Mikael had seen that one before. Synen, the inn’s owner, must have dumped him in this room to sleep off his intoxication and keep him away from the other patrons.
Mikael rubbed his aching temples. At least he was alone this time, something to be grateful for. Synen understood that he came to this tavern to get himself drunk, not to find a companion for the night. That was why he ended up here most nights that he dreamed. Since Mikael always promptly paid his bill, Synen took good care of him.
Kai waited, arms folded over his chest, a pillar of inky blackness. Like Mikael, Kai had mixed heritage, part Lucas and part Anvarrid. That wasn’t uncommon, since the two peoples had formed a close relationship two centuries before, when the Anvarrid invaded the country. Most children born between the Six Families and the various Anvarrid Houses tended toward the fair appearance usually associated with the former. Kai had come out of the womb looking like an Anvarrid. He was tall with dark hair and dark eyes. His pale skin was the only trait he’d inherited from his Lucas mother, and that only served to make his hair look darker. It was hard not to see him as Khandrasion of the House of Valaren, even though Kai never answered to his full name. Or he never had in Mikael’s presence.
Unlike Kai, Mikael had inherited a muddy mess of Lee Family and Vandriyen House bloodlines, with hair slowly darkening over the years from blond to brown, and eyes of a bright shade of blue particular to his father’s ancestors. He’d also inherited his father’s tendency to freckle, but not the man’s height. While most Larossans might consider him of average height, he was short for either a man from the Six Families or an Anvarrid. No one but his father had ever called him Mikoletrion; he simply didn’t look Anvarrid enough.
As Kai towered over him, Mikael took in a shaky breath and in a voice that sounded papery and thin asked, “What time is it?”
“Where are your boots?” Kai snapped in return. He didn’t wait for an answer. His dark eyes flicked toward the room’s bare wooden floor and he swooped down to retrieve something. A second later he jammed Mikael’s boots against his chest. Mikael clenched his jaw to keep from gasping. He managed to grab the boots from Kai and sank back onto the rumpled bedding to put them on, a flare of nausea making him break out into a cold sweat. He hadn’t registered that he’d carried injuries out of his dream until that moment.
Lowering his head to lace his boot hurt, but Mikael did so anyway. While he worked a knot out of the leather laces, Kai towered over him like a dark storm cloud. The sensitives up at the fortress actually referred to Kai that way behind his back.
Still kinder than anything the sensitives say about me, I’ll bet.
“Where’s your overcoat?” Kai asked.
Mikael had his uniform jacket on still, halfway unbuttoned and horribly wrinkled since he’d slept in it. His overcoat was nowhere in sight. “I don’t know,” he answered truthfully. “I’m sure I wore it down here last night.”
Without waiting for further explanation, Kai turned to the room’s other occupant, Elisabet. She’d stood at the open doorway the whole time, a silent presence. Mikael hadn’t actually seen her there, but he’d never questioned her presence either. He’d known she was somewhere close. As Kai’s primary guard, Elisabet went wherever he went. Or should.
“I’ll go find it,” Kai said. “Stay with him.” Before she could argue, he swept out the narrow door, the skirts of his hooded overcoat swirling dramatically behind him. Drama was one of Kai’s inborn skills.
For a moment, Mikael just breathed. He’d never known why Kai disliked him so intensely, but mornings like this one didn’t help their working relationship. A hand touched his boot and Mikael realized he must have closed his eyes again. He opened them to see Elisabet kneeling before him. She lifted his foot onto her black-clad knee and began lacing his boot for him as if he were a child. “I can do it,” he insisted.
“You’re too slow,” she said in her low, rusty voice. “He’s in a foul mood. It’s not quite ten.”
When is Kai not in a foul mood? Mikael watched Elisabet lace his boot, hoping fervently that Kai didn’t return before she finished.
Elisabet was truly one of the most beautiful women he’d ever seen. High cheekbones hinted at some Anvarrid blood, but otherwise she looked Family-born: pale eyes and pale hair, tall and broad shouldered. Her features were calm and even, her neat braids falling forward as she worked. He caught the faint smell of oil from at least one gun on her person. Dressed in her formal blacks, she was the perfect guard, never letting her emotions get the better of her, never reacting to the vagaries of her charge.
Life is simpler for those who know where they stand in the order of things.
Unlike Mikael, Elisabet knew where she stood. She was Lucas, which meant automatic acceptance among the Lucas Family. He was an outsider, sent to the Lucas elders by the Lee elders four years before in the hope that they could tame his dreams.
She was a First, which meant she oversaw her yeargroup and thus had companionship. He was alone, forced by the elders to live up in the palace rather than in the fortress below, because they hadn’t found any way to tame those dreams.
She was a guard. She watched Kai’s back during most of her waking hours, and when other duties forced her away from him, her Seconds, Tova and Peder, took over. It was a simple calling. She need only keep her charge alive.
Kai had no business walking away from her. If she was annoyed with him for that, it didn’t show. It said something that she’d let him go alone—both that she felt this tavern was secure at the moment, and that Kai needed to be alone.
She lowered Mikael’s foot to the ground and rose, setting one hand under his arm to help him up again. Too fast. Mikael swayed, and Elisabet laid a hand against his chest to steady him. She drew her hand back with a film of red staining her palm.
Oh Hel. Heat prickled through Mikael’s body, nausea welling in his empty stomach. He’d bled through his uniform jacket. He could smell it now that he knew it was there. Fortunately, there didn’t seem to be any blood on the yellow bedding.
Elisabet glanced down markedly at her red-stained hand, and her eyes flicked up to meet his.
Mikael shook his head. He didn’t want Kai to know he was actually bleeding. Kai would see it as weakness. “Don’t mention it to him,” he asked of her. “Please.”
One of her gull-wing brows arched upward, but she wiped her hand on her black trouser leg. It wouldn’t show there any more than it did on his uniform. She gestured for Mikael to precede her out of the room.
He obeyed, walking along the narrow mezzanine above the floor of the tavern and trying to button his jacket and then tighten the sash about his waist. At this hour, the tables below were all empty. That explained why Elisabet thought it was secure; the tavern’s outer doors must be locked.
Mikael made his way down the stone steps, doing his best to move normally. All of this would pass: the tightness in his lungs, the pain in his head and neck, even the blood seeping through his garments. It would be gone in a matter of hours. That was one reason he needed to get back up to the palace. He needed to see his spontaneous injuries for himself.
And change into a clean uniform. That too.
The main serving room below smelled stale, scents of flat beer, sweat, and spicy food making his stomach heave. Lit with tallow candles—this building predated the piping of gas out to this part of the city—the yellow plastered walls were marked with soot from the great wrought-iron sconces. Like the majority of buildings in Noikinos, this one was white outside but brilliantly colored inside, with bright tapestries on the walls, red cloths over the old tables, and golden temple pennants bearing the sigil for fortune hanging over the doorways.
Synen was notably absent; the man avoided Kai, having heard enough snide commentary on his tavern from him. Mikael made his way down the stairwell, not touching the rail. It was always a bit sticky. As they reached the base of the stairs, Kai strode through the swinging doors from the kitchen with a mass of black wool over his arm. He barely spared Mikael a glance, just tossed him the coat as he passed on his way toward the heavy exterior door.
“Wait,” Elisabet ordered.
Kai actually did as he should this time, moving to one side of the doorway. She drew her pistol, unbolted the door, and surveyed the street to make certain the area was still secure. A large unmarked coach waited outside, a driver in royal livery sitting atop the box and a groom on the tail. Since the coach took up most of the narrow street—they were in the Old Town—the morning traffic had to find another way around.
Once satisfied with the safety of the situation, Elisabet had Kai climb into the coach first. Mikael followed, and she entered last, settling on the forward-facing bench next to Kai. Once she shut the door, it was dim inside. The shades were drawn, likely to keep Kai out of strangers’ lines of sight. Elisabet sat erect on the bench, pistol across her lap, her eyes closed. She wasn’t here to interact with them; she was listening to the situation outside. The groom riding the coach’s tail surely had a rifle with him, but Elisabet was the one who was ultimately responsible for Kai.
Long ago, before the Anvarrid had come, the Six Families had been pacifists, living quietly in their buried fortresses. When the Larossans migrated onto their lands, the Families welcomed them and taught them how to farm in the colder climate. The Anvarrid invasion, a far more brutal introduction, forced the Six Families to change just to survive. Now they served to protect whichever Anvarrid House ruled each province. Here in Lucas Province, that meant the House of Valaren, the king’s household.
Following the Anvarrid invasion of Larossa, assassinations had run rampant as different Houses fought for control of the new senate and, thus, the country. Two centuries later, the Houses predominantly used other means to seize control, usually legal maneuvering. Instead, the rising strength of the Larossan citizenry—who made up the majority of the country’s population—was now seen as a greater threat to the Anvarrid. A Larossan “nationalist” had taken a shot at the king late in the previous year, evidence that there were those who had anti-Anvarrid sympathies and were daring enough to act on them. Although Kai hadn’t been confirmed as the king’s heir yet, as a member of the House of Valaren he still made an excellent target and thus was not permitted to leave the palace without at least one guard.
Since Elisabet was required to watch only Kai’s back, not his, Mikael appreciated her earlier show of consideration. He was equally glad that Kai hadn’t seen it; Kai would have taken it the wrong way.
Mikael rubbed at the sore spot on his neck with fingers that tingled. The throbbing in his head had eased some already, and he was breathing better now. “Did they feel the dream at the fortress?”
Kai leaned back against the coach’s leather squabs and folded his arms across his chest. “Of course they did.”
Kai hated all of this. Kai disapproved of Mikael’s drinking to mute his dreams. He disapproved of the fact that Mikael had dreams in the first place, and that he inflicted the horror of his dreams on the sensitives—those who could feel another’s emotions—in Kai’s yeargroup. Kai hated coming down into the city to find Mikael and drag him back to the palace, and he made no secret of his low opinion of Mikael’s discipline.
Mikael shifted his heavy overcoat off his lap and onto the bench next to him. Getting himself thoroughly drunk might blur his dreams, further reducing the effect they had on the sensitives, but the hangover afterward never helped his disposition.
As the coach began to move through the streets of the Old Town, Mikael lifted the shade with one hand and peered out the window. Most of this part of the city dated back to the days before the Anvarrid, old buildings with simple slanted rooftops made to shed snow. Many were in questionable repair. The Larossans had favored plainer designs than the fanciful buildings the Anvarrid introduced on their arrival, but these were constructed of the same pale granite seen all over this part of Lucas Province. In some lights the city of Noikinos gleamed pink, at other times white or gold.
Elisabet shifted on the bench, drawing Mikael’s attention back inside the dim coach. She was trying to reach a compromise with her coat; he recognized that movement from personal experience. While on duty, a guard usually stood. The steel plates in a guard’s overcoat made it nearly impossible to sit comfortably—not to mention the knife digging into her back. Usually she carried a rifle while on duty as well, but she’d left it behind at the palace. It would have been ungainly in the coach. And while he didn’t see her pistol in her sash, Mikael had no doubt that every time she left the palace, Elisabet went well armed. He didn’t even have his knife with him.
Mikael preferred the sword himself, a tidy weapon, and the reason he identified as Hand-to-Hand. Very few guards chose a rifle as their principal weapon; in close quarters it could become problematic. But Elisabet was an expert marksman—she’d won marksmanship prizes at the summer fairs before—so he didn’t question her choice.
Like both Mikael and Kai, she wore the Lucas uniform, with a high-collared jacket and trousers and vest all in unrelieved black. Swirls of black soutache trim on the sleeves and chest of her jacket marked her rank and assignment, the designs meaningless to most outside the Six Families. Mikael’s rumpled jacket shared one of those markings, the swirl for First on the right shoulder, but he had the pattern for Daujom—the king’s private intelligence service—on the left cuff. Elisabet and Kai both had the chest pattern for Rifles, compared to Mikael’s Hand-to-Hand, marking them as among the Lucas Family’s distance shooters.
The one thing none of those trim patterns reflected was that Kai would take off those simple blacks most afternoons, shedding the Lucas side of his bloodline. He would don an Anvarrid over-tunic—the ankle-length tunic that the Houses favored, usually fitting tight to the waist, but left unsecured below to allow room for the full trousers or skirt worn with it—and become the king’s heir. Kai’s tunics were heavily embroidered in the burgundy-and-brown hawk pattern that belonged to the Royal House, the Valarens, making it clear that he was the king’s heir, even if not yet approved by the senate.
The coach slowed and then stopped. Mikael glanced out again and saw that they were at the edge of the palace grounds, waiting to pass through the sentry post at the fence line. After a moment, the coach’s door was pulled open and a sentry stepped up onto the step to peer into the gloom.
She was an older woman, her blond braids threaded with gray. The trim markings across her chest identified her as a sentry. She leaned into the coach to get a better look at them, her eyes likely slowed by the dimness inside. She nodded once to Elisabet, then surveyed Kai. Like all sentries, she kept her face expressionless, even when she turned her eyes on Mikael. Even if he didn’t recognize her, Mikael suspected she knew exactly who he was.
All the sensitives knew him. Or of him, to be more precise.
Her position, serving at the entry to the palace grounds, meant that she was a sensitive. The treaty required that all sentries controlling access to the Royal House would be. That afforded the Lucas Family multiple opportunities to gauge the intentions of visitors. That was what the Six Families had offered the Anvarrid to retain their place in the country following the invasion. They provided protection for the Anvarrid. In return, the Six Families kept their buried fortresses.
The sentry took one last look at Mikael, stepped down, and shut the coach door. The driver started the horses moving, heading around the palace grounds to the back courtyard entrance. As they moved on, Mikael raised the blind slightly to prepare his eyes for the sunlight outside. It might be cool this morning after the rain, but the sky was clear and the sun bright.
“I’m sure Father will want to talk to you,” Kai said after a moment. His father, Dahar, ran the Daujom, the office out of which they both worked.
Mikael dismissed the accusing tone he heard in Kai’s voice. “I’ll clean up first and then go to the office.”
“Good.” Kai turned his head to gaze pensively at the closed shade on his side of the coach, fist held to his mouth. Evidently that conversation was over.
Mikael rubbed his temples, wishing the headache away. He didn’t know what had been bothering Kai of late. He suspected it was some difficulty between father and son, because Kai had recently been making every excuse possible to get out of the office of the Daujom and away from his father. It would be more irritating, Mikael supposed, if Kai actually shirked his duties, but he did get his work done, often staying in the office long after his father had left for the day. Thus far, Mikael hadn’t complained.
As soon as the coach stopped, Elisabet slipped out and waited for Kai. After he stepped down, Mikael climbed out, hitting the buff-colored flagstones with a semblance of normalcy. His breath steamed out in the chilly air. He could put on his overcoat but didn’t want to transfer blood to it, so he just drew in a breath through his nose and did his best to ignore the cold.
The palace rose above them, an ornate creation unsuitable for the climate in which it existed. It harkened back to the palaces the Anvarrid had built in their homeland, a much warmer place from which the Cince had driven them. The pale granite of the palace walls rose in four stories that wrapped about the wide courtyard. Large onion domes capped each corner of the rooftops, and smaller ones sat atop the sentry turrets. Stone railings ran along the flat portions of the rooftops, and there sentries stood on duty, the black of their uniforms stark against the white walls and blue sky. As the palace stood at the highest point in the city, exposed to the cold wind, most of those sentries wore their hoods up at the moment, hiding their faces.
Not that Mikael could tell them apart at a distance. All sentries, male and female, wore identical uniforms. They wore their hair in the same style, braided away from their faces and falling to the middle of their backs. The uniformity was a tactic meant to intimidate, one all of the Six Families employed. But the Lucas Family thrived on conformation and perfection and carried the practice to greater heights than the other Families, perhaps because they guarded the king rather than the master of a province.
Mikael sighed. How many of those sentries did I wake last night?
He stilled his mind, not wanting to agitate the sensitives any further. He cast a glance up at the windows of One Above—the first floor of the palace—and spotted Dahar holding back the heavy black draperies, watching them. Mikael nodded once toward the window. Dahar returned the gesture and disappeared as the drapes fell back in place. He would make his apologies to Dahar later, after he went to his quarters and bathed.
Kai and Elisabet had already disappeared under the white stone of the arcade, so Mikael followed. Inside the palace there was only a single pair of sentries at the doors to contend with—a man and a woman, both years older than him. He wished good thoughts at them, hoping not to annoy them further this morning. Neither looked directly at him.
The back entry hall of the palace wasn’t its most impressive hall—more of an intersection point for the wide stone stairwells coming from the upper floors—but light from a series of stained-glass windows spangled the white marble floor in a rainbow of colors. Like the Larossans, the Anvarrid favored colors, but darker and richer ones, so the walls were hung with tapestries of battle scenes wrought in jewel tones and highlighted with gold threads. The runners in the halls were thick wool and silk, muffling Mikael’s footsteps, and had been created especially for this palace in muted shades of beige and brown so as not to distract from the brilliant tapestries. Delicately crafted iron lanterns hung from chains in the arched stone hallways. They were rarely lit now since gas had been piped in to light the palace, but were retained because of their beauty. In the summer, the outer doors and windows of the palace could be thrown open to allow wind to sweep along the hallways, but in the winter, the abundance of glass made these halls icy.
The opulence of the palace provided a stark contrast to the utter simplicity of the Lucas fortress located far below these halls. There the Lucas Family lived in a domain without sunlight, with endless gray walls and floors, with minimal decoration and painted floorcloths rather than fine carpets. It was a different world down below. And centuries underground had turned the Six Families paler than any of the peoples who surrounded them now. When the Anvarrid conquered Larossa, they had given the Six Families the nickname termites.
Truthfully, Mikael would rather live below instead of in this sparkling palace. Unfortunately, the Lucas elders found his dreams worrisome, and thus he lived up here, on Two Above, the wing of the palace that housed members of the Daujom. Kai and Elisabet had already gone up the stairwell to the left, probably to retrieve Elisabet’s rifle from the armory, so Mikael made his way up behind them.
Once he reached his quarters, Mikael fished out his key. It was, thankfully, still in his jacket pocket. The room wasn’t large, but it gave him privacy he wouldn’t have had in the fortress below.
As a child in Lee Province, he’d regularly moved between his grandfather’s wing in the Vandriyen Palace and the Lee fortress beneath it, his mother’s world. With most yeargroups housing between twenty and thirty members, the children’s barracks there were crowded, always full of noise and activity. By comparison, the palace seemed stifled and formal, quiet and dull. He missed the bustle of being in a yeargroup, but he would never have been able to hide the truth of his dreams from them for long.
After dumping his overcoat on the end of his bed, Mikael went to the window and drew back the heavy draperies to let in some light. From the chest at the end of his bed, he grabbed one of the old stained towels he kept for just this purpose and set it next to the basin on his table. He stripped off his jacket first, folding it so the laundry wouldn’t notice the blood across the front panels. His shirt was blotched with drying blood, though, undoubtedly ruined. Mikael pulled it off over his head and rolled it up. He’d send that down to the quartermasters later to be cut up for scrap. Using the icy water left in the basin, he took the towel and gingerly patted his chest clear of blood.
After one of his dreams, he would often wake with injuries that mimicked the victim’s. Most of the time they were restricted to bruises, but his false injuries sometimes bled through the skin, as if he were sweating blood. It happened only when a dream was particularly frightening or urgent, or when he felt a closer tie to the victim. Last night’s dream had been one of those.
When he looked directly downward, he could see a wide band of bruising across the lower part of his rib cage, also oozing blood in a few places. The skin had broken in several spots when Kai hit him in the chest with his boots. But when it came to the injuries running across his collarbones, he couldn’t see what lay beneath his chin.
He grabbed his shaving mirror with one hand and held it at arm’s length, trying to understand what he saw. Left in a string of reddish purple bruises was lettering, running from the end of one collarbone to the other. Someone had carved a message into the victim’s flesh, a message now reflected on Mikael’s skin. But the markings were already fading. It had been too many hours since his dream.
Left alone, he would have slept on until the false injuries healed completely. He’d slept more than a full day after one of his dreams before, so there was value to Kai waking him and dragging him back to the palace, even if Kai didn’t know that. This way Mikael got to see the injuries before they faded away.
He turned his head and angled the mirror to peer at the spot on his neck where it felt like he’d been jabbed by a knife. The tiny wound there was still tender to the touch. That transferred injury hadn’t bled, which made him suspect the victim’s injury might have come from some manner of poison. That might explain the alternating numbness and tingling of his limbs too, and the tightness in his lungs that made him feel fifty instead of twenty-three. A dart? Perhaps an injection?
He’d known it was murder before, without any doubt, given the ritualistic cuts made across his chest. But if there was poison involved, that indicated careful planning. A memory surfaced, no more than a flash, of someone watching as the victim died.
He went to his writing desk and pulled out his journal and ink, angled the mirror this way and that, and tried to record what was left of the unknown word across his chest.
The letters looked foreign—Pedraisi. Having grown up in one of the provinces that bordered the country of Pedrossa, he was familiar with the appearance of their alphabet, even if he didn’t read the language. He could speak a few words of it, but that was all. Many Larossans had blood ties back to Pedrossa, though, since both their peoples had come here centuries ago from the same part of the world. There were people in this city who could read and write that language, but also those who traded across the border or had old family ties. The city had its share of Pedraisi immigrants as well, blending in among the Larossans.
Mikael blew on the ink to dry it and then angled the mirror to look at the word again. What does it mean?
It had to be blood magic, sacrifice to a foreign god, asking for . . . something. Although blood magic was illegal in Larossa, it was still practiced. Some Larossans secretly begged favors of the old gods, even while being faithful to their true god. Most of the time it was harmless. A prick of a finger to cause a man to fall in love, or cutting the thumb to dab blood on a pennant meant to bring success in business. Or luck in cards, tiles, or any of a hundred other endeavors. There were a multitude of tiny ways that blood magic still appeared in day-to-day life among the Larossans, only most saw no harm in those small actions, no disloyalty to their true god.
Ending someone’s life in this way, however, clearly crossed the line. Murder, even in the name of religion, was as unacceptable to the Pedraisi government as it was to the Larossan one.
Mikael couldn’t begin to guess what those letters were meant to convey. He hoped that in time his memory would supply more, enough details to make sense of the fragments of the dream he could recall.
He always did his best to keep an open mind when he considered his dreamed murders. Sometimes something that seemed clear turned out to be completely wrong. Even so, if he could figure out what that word was, that might tell him who’d killed whom, and why.
“So Shironne says we’re looking for a man’s body,” Cerradine summed up Messine’s words. “Near the river.” They walked along the hallway toward his office in the army’s Administration Building, his heels loud on the hard marble floors.
All of the buildings in this area of Noikinos were comparatively new, as the entire Seychas District—including Army Square—had been built where an old slum had been razed before Cerradine was born. As befitted the rising importance of the Larossan army at the time, the buildings surrounding Army Square were fine, with marble-floored hallways and wood paneling on the walls. Paintings of past generals gathered dust in niches along the walls, some festooned with aged pennants, their tips stained with those generals’ blood.
“In a field,” Messine said. “She didn’t know what sort of crop, but she thought it had already been harvested.” Still wearing the livery he wore in his false position at the Anjir household, the young lieutenant shook his head.
Although the young man had been working at the Anjir household for months now, it always surprised Cerradine to see him dressed as a servant, in that simple brown tunic and black trousers. He was accustomed to seeing his personnel—Cerradine’s children, as the general often called them, only halfway in jest—in the blue and brown uniform of the army. Messine had volunteered to take the post, though, and had been diligent in watching over Shironne.
The young man followed Cerradine into his office at the end of the hall, a brown box of a room with wood paneling, a wood desk, and wooden chairs. The only brightness came from a framed map of the country hanging on one of the walls. Messine waited patiently as Cerradine puffed out his cheeks, contemplating Shironne’s information again. It wasn’t much to go on.
The Laksitya River curved along the city’s edge for miles, and for miles in either direction from that, much of the land was cultivated. He wasn’t a farmer, but he couldn’t imagine any crops would still be in the fields, not with winter coming on. The hints of the body’s location they had were nearly useless. And the death might not concern the army anyway. The location she’d described, however vaguely, suggested that when the body was found, the investigation would fall under the jurisdiction of the local police.
That had been a thorn in his side for years now. The army served the Anvarrid government of the country, not the local municipal government, a wholly Larossan body that controlled the day-to-day functions of the city. The local police, however, were notoriously corrupt, a condition on which the current police commissioner and the city’s council turned a blind eye. Anyone who wanted a crime hidden, even a murder that smacked of blood magic, as Shironne’s description hinted, need only pay off the correct officials to have a case disappear. As head of the army’s intelligence and investigations office, Cerradine had made a point of wresting every case away from the local police that he could.
Cerradine turned back to young Messine. “Would you go down to the morgue and bring Kassannan back? And tell Aldassa to come talk to me.”
“Yes, sir,” Messine said sharply, and ducked out of the office.
Cerradine sat in one of the chairs in front of the desk and stretched out his long legs. He didn’t want to waste his resources chasing a crime they couldn’t even prove had happened. The office’s personnel were already stretched thin. A number of them were currently off investigating the disappearance of one of their compatriots near the Pedraisi border, in Andersen Province.
Even so, while people were murdered in this city every day, only a select few deaths played out in Mikael Lee’s dreams. There had to be some significance to that fact; there always was. And Shironne Anjir was always dragged into them.
Over the last four years, Shironne had regularly picked up on Mikael’s dreams, even though he shouldn’t have bothered anyone at that distance. Shironne was a profound sensitive, though, possibly the strongest of her generation. Beyond the normal ability to sense others’ emotions, she could read information by touch, a very rare power. So while a medical examiner could tell him information about a man’s death, Shironne could touch the dead man’s mind. She could even pick out thoughts or memories, so long as the man in question hadn’t been dead too long.
The true question, though, wasn’t why Shironne was intercepting Mikael’s dreams. It was why she’d become a touch-sensitive at all.
Most people looked at Shironne and saw an average Larossan girl. She was small and brown, like most Larossans. She dressed as a Larossan and lived in a Larossan household, but Cerradine knew Madam Anjir’s secret. Shironne’s mother was the child of an affair between a wealthy Larossan businessman’s wife and the previous king, Khorasion of the House of Valaren. Madam Anjir was thus half-Anvarrid and a member of the Royal House, even if she chose not to acknowledge that fact. And she was a sensitive, but not a particularly strong one. Shironne’s youngest sister, Melanna, also showed signs of developing into a sensitive, although she was nothing special in that way either.
So why Shironne? Why had she suddenly developed a power so crippling that she’d come close to starvation because she couldn’t tolerate the impurities in food on her tongue? She’d been unable to don clothing at first, and even now kept her garments to a handful of well-worn items to which she’d become accustomed. Over the four years since her powers had first emerged, she’d learned to compensate for them. She’d slowly become accustomed to touching things again, although, when possible, she preferred to have the minimal barrier that wearing gloves provided. She was, as far as Cerradine knew, the only touch-sensitive alive . . . or at least the only one who had survived to adulthood.
That the Royal House had any sensitives in it at all was a result of centuries of intermarriage between the Anvarrid and the Six Families. That was how Shironne had inherited the few drops of Lucas blood that ran in her veins. But none of the Lucas children had her profound powers. And although many shared the emotions in Mikael’s dreams—fear, helplessness, and anger—Shironne came out of those dreams with details. Details that Mikael himself often didn’t recall.
Deborah, the Lucas Family’s Head Infirmarian and his own foster sister, claimed that Mikael’s dreams were a gift that ran in his father’s bloodline, the House of Vandriyen. The Lucas Family had extensive records of the talents of different Anvarrid Houses, and over the last few years, Deborah had become an expert on those as she hunted for a way to tame Mikael’s dreams . . . and to figure out the puzzle that Shironne Anjir presented.
Aldassa peered around the corner of the office door. “Orders, sir?”
Lieutenant David Aldassa was one of the many workers in this office whom Cerradine had managed to snag for the army before the Daujom could hire him. When half-Larossan children raised by the Lucas Family finished their three mandatory years of service as sentries, they usually left the fortress. Joining the army was an appealing option for them. Since they’d been raised to military discipline, they often advanced through the ranks quickly. Cerradine had even won grudging permission to hire young women, a saving grace for many of them, who would not have fared well when dumped into the Larossan populace without any family. Most knew little of Larossan culture, religion, or society. Most didn’t even know how to find a place to live, clothing to wear, or food to eat.
Not having had such an opportunity himself when he’d come out of the Lucas Family, Cerradine had never regretted acting as an advocate for those young men and women. And David Aldassa had the best organizational skills of anyone Cerradine had hired for his office. He rarely forgot anything and always seemed to have the information needed in every crisis. “Go see if you can borrow a few squads to comb up and down the banks of the river.”
“Body, male, unknown name, possibly blood magic?” Aldassa asked, proving that he already knew about Shironne’s dream.
“That’s the one,” Cerradine told him.
Aldassa nodded once. “Right away, sir.”
The young lieutenant had no sooner disappeared from the office doorway than Captain Kassannan appeared, looking like he might be Aldassa’s older, and larger, brother. “Colonel?”
Like Cerradine and Aldassa, Kassannan was taller than most Larossans, a facet of their shared Anvarrid heritage. Kassannan showed more of his Larossan blood, though, with darker skin and a heavier build. Cerradine took after his late father. He’d inherited the man’s height and leanness. Unfortunately, his father had passed on his prematurely white hair as well. Cerradine was only forty-four, but people often thought him far older on first sight. At thirty-six, Kassannan had not a single strand of gray in his hair.
“Sorry for dragging you up here, Aron,” Cerradine said, “but I wanted to ask if your friend still worked at the city’s morgue.” Kassannan was a field surgeon, but he served as the army hospital’s medical examiner, shut away in the hospital’s basement morgue. He worked with Shironne more than anyone else did currently, so he would better grasp the meaning of the details she’d provided.
“Harinen? He does,” Kassannan said. “Do we need his help?”
“Did Filip tell you about the latest dream?”
Kassannan nodded quickly. “On the walk over.”
“Can your friend let us know if the man shows up there?”
Kassannan’s mouth drew to one side as he seemed to consider making a macabre joke. He apparently thought better of it. “I can go down and talk to him. He should be there if I go now.”
Cerradine was grateful for the captain’s willingness to get involved in things that weren’t his affair either. “If you will.”
• • •
It was nearly noon by the time Mikael reached the office of the Daujom on One Above. When he unlocked the door, he found no one within. Dahar must have gone off to seek his lunch. Mikael locked the door behind him and went to sit on the edge of his desk, letting loose a sigh of relief. He didn’t have to worry about his loud emotions bothering the sensitives when he was doing something as unexciting as reading files. He unhooked the high collar of his uniform jacket and contemplated the piles of paper on his desk.
Across the entryway from his own, Kai’s desk was completely cleared, everything neatly tucked away where it belonged. Mikael’s desk was a mess by comparison, even though nothing secret lay in view. This office was the public face of the Daujom, the place where Anvarrid House members filed complaints against one another, or railed at the Lucas Family for some imagined slight, so Mikael and Kai had to be prepared to deal with outsiders on short notice. Thinking of that, Mikael hooked the collar of his uniform jacket again. He needed to look official.
Dahar also had a desk at the far end of the office, a monstrosity carved of mahogany that rested near the black-draped windows. He rarely sat at it, though, preferring to pace the black and gray patterned floorcloths that separated the three desks. Over the years, Dahar had done his best to make this office into an extension of the fortress below, stripping away the bright colors, soft carpets, and wall hangings.
He’s doing his best to make me into a secretary. Sighing, Mikael plucked the paperweight off the largest pile and lifted the top folder. Even though paperwork wasn’t his favorite occupation, he’d become reasonably proficient at it.
He settled behind the desk and read through a series of letters copied from House Hedraya, already deciphered by the back office. Nothing there was particularly striking, although Lord Hedraya did plan to block the vote on Kai’s confirmation as the king’s heir in the spring. Instead of outright battles or assassinations, that was how the Anvarrid Houses fought now—machinations in the senate. Mikael made a note of the letter’s contents and cited the source, then set that file aside to have the back office tuck it away. Everyone expected Lord Hedraya to attempt that, so the information wasn’t surprising. And as Kai’s confirmation was months away, it didn’t pose an immediate concern.
That was the Daujom’s primary function, to keep the king abreast of what happened in the various Anvarrid Houses. Many of the Daujom’s workers were of Larossan descent, placed as servants where they could gather information on members of the senate. Others worked in the back office, sorting through every scrap of mail sent out by those households. It would be read, deciphered if necessary, copied if pertinent, and then usually sent on its way. But the personnel in the back office of the Daujom forwarded anything they thought might warrant attention to Mikael and Kai to determine if it should be brought to Dahar’s attention and, thus, the king’s.
As if in answer to that thought, a key rattled in the office door. Mikael glanced up in time to see Dahar letting himself in, a scowl on his face. Dahar had the tall, lean build common among the Anvarrid. He had dark hair worn short, olive skin, and bright green eyes that left little doubt as to his heritage, but as often happened with younger sons of Anvarrid rulers, he’d been passed off to the Lucas Family to raise. When Dahar’s elder brother became king, he’d asked Dahar to come live in the Royal House’s wing of the palace. Even so, Dahar persisted in wearing blacks—the uniform of the Lucas Family—just as Mikael did. If that offended the king, the man had never said so.
Dahar favored Mikael with a narrow-eyed gaze. “You dreamed last night.”
No point denying that; Dahar had likely had bad dreams. “Yes, sir.”
“Do you remember anything?”
“Not much, sir. I’m sure I’ll hear when the body is found, though.” He had a standing arrangement of a financial nature with one of the newspaper writers down in the city. The man sent word as soon as he learned of any curious murders. That had saved Mikael a good deal of legwork in the past.
Dahar strode over to Mikael’s desk, picked up his paperweight, and stared at the river stone as if he’d never seen it before. “I’ve already received word from Jon that they’re keeping an eye out for the body.”
Jon would be Colonel Jon Cerradine, the head of the army’s investigations branch. That he’d already sent out feelers about the death meant that the army’s pet sensitive had picked up enough detail from the dream for them to know where to look. Mikael sat up straighter. “Should I go down and see them?”
His duties with the Daujom did not include investigating crimes against Larossan citizens. The Daujom’s investigative jurisdiction extended only to crimes involving the Six Families or the Anvarrid Houses. But the army often collaborated with the Daujom because Cerradine and Dahar were old friends.
The Lucas Family, as part of their treaty, took in orphaned children of half-Anvarrid birth. It was a relic of the invasion, after which hundreds of children born of rape were abandoned either in temples or on the streets. Larossan women still took advantage of it on occasion, claiming that an unwanted child had been fathered by an Anvarrid master. Therefore, a handful of children were left at the gates to the palace grounds every year. Jon Cerradine had been one of those children, born to a housemaid in the home of the current Lord Hedraya’s father. When that housemaid died, her six-year-old son was handed over to the Lucas Family like an unwanted puppy. He’d thrived there, though, and had become best friends with another boy thrust into the same yeargroup—Dahar.
Dahar sighed. “Put it off until we know more, Mikael.”
Dahar set down the paperweight and paced the area between Mikael’s desk and Kai’s. That meant he had more to say, but Mikael didn’t know how long it would take him to get around to it. He returned to his paperwork, peering at the file on Hedraya once more.
“Has Kai said something to you?” Dahar asked abruptly.
Mikael paused in the midst of closing up the file. “No, sir. Kai doesn’t confide in me.”
“Something has gotten under his skin.” Dahar scowled.
When is that not the case? “Perhaps you might ask Elder Deborah,” Mikael suggested. “He’s more likely to talk to his aunt than me.”
Dahar shook his head. “I talked to her this morning.”
He’d likely yelled at her. The two of them didn’t rub along well, mostly because Dahar had been married to Deborah’s sister. Deborah was Mikael’s sponsor, though, the adult who’d taken responsibility for him when he’d first been sent to the Lucas Family by the Lee elders. Even though he was an adult and no longer required a sponsor, he still went to talk with her regularly. He respected her, even if he didn’t always agree with her. Not only did she and Dahar argue over Dahar’s children; since Dahar was Mikael’s employer, they often fought over him as well, like two well-intentioned dogs with a bone.
Mikael sighed inwardly but did his best to swallow his resignation. Dahar would feel it. He was a sensitive, although not a very strong one. “I can’t imagine whom you could ask, then, sir. Perhaps Rachel?”
Kai had two younger sisters, but they moved in very different circles than he did. Rachel, like Kai, lived among the Lucas Family in the fortress below. She was an engineer, though, which meant she spent all her time in the deepest depths of the fortress—Deep Below—and usually slept during the day. She was Mikael’s age, and although he didn’t know her well, he found her likable. Sera was a different story. Eighteen or so, Sera was difficult and angry and got along so poorly with her father that he’d sent her to a cousin in Halvdan Province to foster.
“I don’t think Kai sees Rachel much.” Dahar stalked away to the far end of the office, where the windows overlooked the courtyard at the back of the palace.
A knock came at the door, distracting Mikael from the letter in his hands. Glancing at Dahar for permission, Mikael went to the door and opened it. A young girl, a fifteen- or a sixteen-year-old, stood in the hallway, a slip of paper in her hand. Her uniform, similar in cut to his own but brown and without trim, identified her as a child. As she was assigned to runner duty, she was allowed to speak to him, although only in the course of her duties. She peered up at him with a properly expressionless face. “Mr. Lee?”
He nodded, and she handed him the paper. She inclined her head and jogged away to resume her post at the end of the hall, braids bobbing behind her.
The paper had his name on the outside in Deborah’s tidy hand. As he’d guessed, a reminder for him to stop by the infirmary to speak with her before she got off duty. She always had him check in with her after one of his dreams. He only hoped she didn’t ask too many pointed questions this time. He sighed, tucked the note in his jacket pocket, and headed back to his files.
“You left the door unlocked again,” a voice said from behind him. Kai had come in so quietly that Mikael hadn’t noticed him.
“Yes, I did,” he admitted.
“You’re supposed to keep it locked.”
With himself and Dahar in the office, as well as a dozen sentries in the hallway, it was unlikely that a stranger could creep into the office unnoticed. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Kai, leave it alone,” Dahar snapped.
Kai raised one dark eyebrow. Mikael didn’t need to be a sensitive to know another argument was brewing between them. He hated getting caught up in the Valarens’ fights. They always wanted him to take sides.
As such, it seemed a good time to go down to the mess, get something to eat, and make his requested visit to the infirmary. Mikael asked for Dahar’s permission and then headed for the door, under Kai’s baleful glare.
Just inside the doorway, Elisabet silently stepped to one side to let him pass. She held her precious rifle in one hand now. Mikael thought a frown fleeted across her cool, perfect features, but she turned her attention back to watching the office as if she’d never seen him at all.
Mikael trotted down the wide stairwell that led from the first floor of the palace to the fortress below it. He paused at the halfway point, where the steps changed. At that point the white marble treads set in place by the Anvarrid gave way to the gray stone laid centuries before that by the Founders. He leaned down, touched the ancient stone, then brought his fingers to his lips, his unspoken oath of fealty as he entered the sovereign territory of the Lucas Family.
When he reached the bottom of the grand stair, he stopped at the landing to sign the log at the main doors, large wooden ones ornately carved around the edges with the geometric patterns the Lucas Family favored. In the flickering light of the lamps, Mikael smiled at the two sentries on duty, not wanting to intrude unpleasantly on their emotions. “Good morning to you both.”
The younger he didn’t know. Probably no older than an eighteen, she regarded him with skepticism, which told him she was the sensitive of the pair. Her pale eyes flickered over his uniform, taking in his trim markings. Then her eyes lifted to gaze at his face as she tried to judge his intentions. Mikael kept his thoughts mild and pleasant, but her nose wrinkled anyway, prompting him to reflect that her lack of control must be the reason she was down here instead of serving on the sentry line. If she couldn’t hide her reactions better, she wouldn’t ever be allowed aboveground.
“You’re Mr. Lee,” she said, making no effort to mask her distaste.
No, she definitely wasn’t going to be allowed up into the palace anytime soon. Despite his broadcasting, Mikael did have his emotions under control most of the time. He knew better than to push them off onto others. And if this sentry couldn’t handle him on a good day, she would find the disordered minds beyond the fortress walls unbearable. He didn’t comment on that, though. He turned to the other sentry, Tobias, a man who saw him often enough not to question his existence. “I’m going to the mess.”
With gray hair showing in his braids, Tobias might be the younger sentry’s grandfather. He opened the main door and stepped aside. “Don’t forget to check in with Elder Deborah.”
Mikael shook his head as he passed. Everyone knew Deborah expected him. As the door closed behind him, he heard Tobias admonishing the young sentry to control herself.
After walking down a long hallway with bare stone walls, Mikael stopped at the inner door and laid one hand on the archway, this time assuring the fortress itself of his good intentions. Already warned by his first touch on the stair that he was coming, the fortress didn’t react to him, not in any way that he could tell. Sensitives could feel the fortress welcoming them, but the onset of his dreams when he was a thirteen had erased whatever nascent sensitivity he’d once possessed. To him this was merely a stone archway. He walked through the arch to where the hallway emptied out into the commons under the glow of the fortress’ unnatural light.
Here the walls and floors were worn smooth by the passage of thousands of feet and the touch of as many hands. It was a place of grayness—the walls, the floors. This far underground there was no sky, no stars at night. There was no weather to trouble them, and even in the coldest winter, the temperatures inside the fortress were bearable. That was, after all, the reason the Founders had built this place. When Father Winter returned to take back these lands, and glaciers scoured away all those living on the surface, the Six Families would be safe underground.
But Mikael missed the brighter colors, the blues and reds he’d known as a child in the Lee fortress. Here murals of geometric patterns were painted only in grays and black and white. The patterns were meant solely to calm, giving unruly minds a focus on which to concentrate. They told the viewer nothing of the purpose of any space, nor the direction to go to find anything. It was a tactic intended to confuse intruders. Family children memorized the layout early so that even if the fortress chose to let its lights go dark—as it did periodically—they would be able to make their way to a safe spot. Chevrons set at waist height on all the hallway walls directed them which way to go, even in complete darkness.
The commons was easy to find, though, not far past the entry. One of the great rooms of One Down, the commons was larger than most squares in the city of Noikinos and served a similar function. The mess operated out of the side farthest from the entry archway, the smells of bread and soup carrying on the air today. Groups scattered about the commons ate together and conversed in quiet voices. A yeargroup of twenty or so children in brown uniforms—eights or nines, Mikael guessed—turned to watch him walk along the wall. Their sponsor snapped his fingers, and they all turned away, although one child turned back to peek furtively at Mikael again.
As Mikael headed toward the mess, a pair of young women walked in the opposite direction, heading toward the main hallway to go downstairs to the residential levels. Judging by their sweat-dampened shirts and unbuttoned vests, they’d recently come up from the sparring floor on Six Down. Once sentries were off duty, full uniform wasn’t required inside the fortress. Unfortunately, the same wasn’t true for Mikael, since he lived in the palace above.
One of the young women smiled at him and appraised him with heavy-lidded eyes, while the other tsked under her breath. Mikael smiled back at the first, who sidled closer and stopped him with a hand on his arm.
Jannika was exactly the person he needed at the moment. They’d parted ways amicably enough, but she’d been avoiding him for months, likely because she’d dropped him for one of the men in the twenty-fives—Elisabet’s yeargroup. That relationship must have ended, though, if she’d stopped to make conversation with him.
“Mikael, I haven’t seen you in a long time,” she observed, a winsome smile on her full lips.
Her friend stopped a few feet away, one tapping foot signaling her impatience. Iselin, Mikael recalled, Jannika’s yearmate and closest friend. Iselin was one of the strong sensitives and thus inclined to dislike him, especially on the day after one of his dreams. He nodded politely to her and turned back to the woman before him. He looked down to meet her eyes—one of Jannika’s many attractions was that she was actually shorter than him.
“Would you have time to chat this evening?” Mikael asked.
Jannika was a weak sensitive and thus found him interesting. He was easy for her to sense. The sensitives with very little talent were always the ones who tolerated him best. “I’m heading to bed,” she told him, fingering the First trim on his sleeve. “But maybe tomorrow? I’ve got early duty on Three Above, so after that?”
For the Six Families, the world was defined by where they were in the palace . . . or the fortress below it, often simply called Above and Below. Certainly, Mikael could wait until after Jannika’s duty shift to ask what he wanted about Kai. “I’ll see you then.”
Jannika walked away with only one glance over her shoulder and rejoined her friend. Mikael watched her swaying hips as they headed on toward the main stairwell, thinking the day suddenly had much more promise. He doubted she wanted anything serious of him—certainly not a contract—but it was pleasant to be chased for a change.
A low whistle sounded nearby, though, a sure sign he’d irritated someone. The Family was taught young to control their emotions, especially in the presence of children. Whistling served as a polite notice that someone’s feelings were running questionably high. Mikael heard it more frequently than most.
He breathed in slowly. His reaction to Jannika probably hadn’t been inappropriate for the younger children seated across the commons to share. Well, he hoped not. Then again, it wouldn’t have been anything they hadn’t sensed before. By eight or nine, young sensitives had been exposed to almost every emotion that existed. It was more a matter of controlling the intensity and duration of that exposure. So Mikael concentrated on thinking nothing, feeling nothing.
After a moment he opened his eyes and, ignoring the whispering voices in the commons, went to the mess counter to pick up lunch.
• • •
The infirmary on One Down was near the center of the fortress, so it took a few minutes for Mikael to reach it, as he carefully carried the mess tray along the featureless halls. It was a path he’d memorized long before. A few people spoke to him in passing, but most went by in silence, intent on their own business.
One of the brightest areas in the fortress, the infirmary usually held a few patients, even on the slow days. As he entered with his tray in his hands, Mikael nodded to the infirmarian on duty, Jakob. Wearing informal blacks, Jakob sat next to one of the beds, working with a girl in brown trousers and a baggy sweater. He carefully wrapped the child’s ankle under the watchful eyes of one of her yeargroup’s sponsors. The sponsor glanced up, nodded once to Mikael, and turned back to his charge.
Mikael walked through the main ward, carefully keeping his thoughts cheerful. Past the neat rows of empty beds, there were a series of narrow hallways where the infirmarians had their offices and rooms for private examinations. Even though she was Head Infirmarian, Deborah’s office was a small room with books and periodicals stacked on every horizontal surface. Three sturdy wooden chairs crowded about her battered desk, which, at the moment, would serve as an impromptu mess table as well. Mikael often took his meals in her office, worried that Deborah might forget to eat if he didn’t.
Deborah’s black uniform jacket hung from the back of her chair, the long-skirted formal one she wore when volunteering down at the City Hospital. She must have gone out first thing in the morning. She always returned from such endeavors exhausted, but Mikael knew it gave her a chance to keep in touch with physicians outside the fortress. Her jacket’s presence meant she was somewhere nearby, but there was no telling when she would get back to her office. Mikael checked his watch and, noting the time, started to eat. After consuming about half of the soup he’d brought for himself, he set down his bowl, fingered his right shoulder, and grimaced. His skin still felt tender.
Deborah stepped into the office just then and caught the expression on his face. “Are you all right, dear?”
“I’m fine, ma’am,” he lied. She wasn’t a sensitive, so she wouldn’t know.
She settled across from him and uncovered the bowl of soup he’d brought for her. She wore her blond hair in a single braid, one of the advantages of being past the years of compulsory sentry duty: she didn’t have to wear her hair in the required pattern of braids any longer. One of the first things Mikael had done after completing his three years was cut off his hair. Since then he’d worn it in the short crop most Anvarrid men currently favored.
“I was down at the City Hospital this morning and spoke with some of the doctors,” she told him, stopping to blow on a spoonful of soup. “None of them heard of any unusual deaths last night.”
“It may be days before we hear anything,” Mikael said with a shrug. His relationship to the dreams often took weeks, or even months, to become clear. The worst of them he dreamed over and over, nightmares returning sporadically until he found the victim’s killer. Even a decade later, he still dreamed of his father’s death on occasion.