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The outing had been planned on a whim; an afternoon lesson up in the hills, away from the smoke and stink of the city. Antoni hauled himself over the ledge and caught his breath—Saint Mary, he had grown soft—then reached down and instructed the child below to hold fast. When Bartolome’s small hand grasped his, Antoni swung him up onto the rocks by his side. Prince Bartolome landed on his knees with an Oof before scrambling to his feet. He was seven, tall for his age, dark hair pulled back in a queue. The boy looked around with an expectant air, but as he surveyed the area—a flat hilltop covered entirely in black rock, barren of even a single bush or shrub—his anticipation quickly turned to bewilderment. “But, my lord Antoni . . . there’s nothing here.” “No?” Antoni rose, wincing as the muscles in his back twitched in protest. “What is that on your feet?” Bartolome wore a loose white shirt and trousers that fell just past his knees. Attire far less formal than his nurse, the lady Esma, would have liked, but Antoni had insisted on comfort for this outing. Strapped to the prince’s dusty feet were open leather sandals, the kind the fishermen wore. And around their outer edges, black pebbles had stuck fast. Frowning, Bartolome attempted to shake off the stones, lifting one foot, then the other. They did not budge. More loose pebbles rose from the ground, as if coaxed by a sorcerer’s magic, and flew toward the sandals. The child stumbled backward with rising panic, shaking his feet wildly, and soon after fell onto his backside with a yelp. “Stop.” Antoni crouched before the boy. Careful not to laugh. Mindful of a young prince’s dignity. “They’re only magnets. There’s nothing to be afraid of.” “Magnets?” Bartolome bent one leg for closer inspection, bringing his foot an inch from his face. Antoni could not remember a time when he’d been that limber. “Look.” He scooped the pebbles away from one sandal, holding the stones in a closed fist. When he opened his palm, the rocks flung themselves once again at the prince’s foot. Bartolome laughed, then glanced in puzzlement at Antoni’s boots, which the stones had left alone. “Your shoes were cobbled with nails,” Antoni explained, tapping the bottom of the sandal, where the iron nail heads could be seen. He held up a rock the size of a pea. “This is called a leading stone. It’s an explorer’s greatest treasure. We use them to build—” “Compasses! Is that why we’re here? To build compasses? But that’s grand!” Antoni smiled, with amusement and some regret. Such enthusiasm. Such a curious mind. Bartolome would make a fine king someday, but for him, St. John del Mar’s Royal Navigator, it was a pity and a shame. A good apprentice was hard to come by. The thought came to him unbidden, unwelcome: Jonas would have turned thirteen this year. Carefully, Antoni pushed the memories back toward the far recesses of his heart. Every day came easier. Today, he would think of only the living. He said to Bartolome, “We’ll build one when we join the others. But first”—he handed the boy an empty sack pulled from his belt—“let’s gather some stones. The small ones only, as many as you can carry.”
A picnic had been arranged on a meadow at the bottom of the hill. Spread across the grass was a colorful assortment of blankets—reds, golds, oranges—giving the space a festive air. A lemon grove bordered the meadow on three sides, a far more welcoming sight than Javelin Forest, which loomed just beyond the bright green leaves and fragrant fruit. Smoke floated high over a pig turning on a spit while nearby, soldiers in pale green and silver congregated around a game table. The air was filled with laughter and cursing and the tumble of dice across wood. Summer had come to del Mar at last, after a long and stormy spring. Antoni and Bartolome made their way down the hill with a sackful of stones. Neither was surprised to find five-year-old Teodor being scolded by his nurse. Lady Esma wore a dress as blue as the afternoon sky. She was young, her black hair hidden beneath a butterfly wimple, hands planted firmly on her hips. “I won’t have your lady mother see you in an intoxicated state,” she was saying. “There will be no wine for you.” Teodor slunk toward his elder brother and Antoni. Esma rolled her eyes heavenward. Amused, Antoni tossed the sack onto a blanket. “Troubles?” he asked. “Never.” Esma inspected Bartolome with a critical eye. “And how was your adventure? You’ve brought the dirt with you, I see.” She reached out with a handkerchief to wipe a smudge from his nose. Bartolome dodged the cloth, exclaiming, “We found magnets, Lady! Look.” He held out a handful for her scrutiny. Rough and unpolished, glinting dully in the sun. Teodor poked his head close before drawing away, unimpressed, but Esma was suitably admiring. “And Lord Antoni is going to show me how to make a compass!” “Is that why we’re here?” She glanced over at Antoni, holding his waterskin high over his mouth only to discover there was not a drop left to drink. She laughed. “Stop, Antoni. That is pitiful. I’ll find a cup for you, too. Cider for everyone.” “Thank you, Esma.” With one last warning look aimed at Teodor, she strolled off, calling for a servant. Teodor made sure his nurse was well out of earshot before he kicked at the grass. “I hate cider,” he grumbled. “Why shouldn’t I drink the wine? It’s only grapes, after all.” “Because it will stop your growth.” Antoni repeated the lie told to del Marian children for a thousand years. “And we can’t have a prince who is only three feet tall.” Offended, Teodor glared up at Antoni. “I’m already taller than three feet.” “Oh, yes?” Affectionately, Antoni tousled the boy’s hair. “Never mind, then. Plenty of time for wine when you’re older.” “When?” Always so impatient, this one. “Later.” Bartolome eyed his brother with disfavor. He pointed toward the edge of the meadow. “Master Ruy is tending the horses. Go and be useful.” One injustice after another. It was too much for the king’s second son. “I will not!” Teodor cried. “You can’t order me about. You’re not king yet.” He ran off in the direction opposite the one Lady Esma had taken, sidling around the wine barrels and disappearing from sight. Bartolome watched him go. “He is my burden,” he said with such weary resignation that Antoni had to laugh. His own boy was a year old, only a day younger than the king and queen’s third son, Ulises. What manner of child would Elias be at Bartolome’s age? After Bartolome followed his brother across the meadow, Antoni considered the supplies he had set out earlier on the blanket. A small wooden bowl, squares of sheepskin the size of his thumbnail, a tinful of needles. And now the leading stones. All he needed to show Bartolome how to make a compass was water. A serving girl appeared and offered a drink. Her eyes were red, and the cups on her tray performed a precarious dance, the result of a trembling hand. She could not be more than fifteen or sixteen. A decade younger than he. Antoni thought he knew all the servants in the castle, at least by sight, but she was unfamiliar. He steadied the tray. “What is the matter?” Her gaze was fixed firmly on his boots. “A speck of dust in the eye only, my lord Antoni. May I bring anything else?” A blood-red vintage filled his cup. Not cider. She had brought wine. “Some water, please.” The girl curtsied. Before he could think to ask anything more, she was gone. Troubled, he kept watch as she dispersed drinks among the soldiers. Had one of the men been too free with his hands? Too coarse with his compliments? But no, they barely acknowledged her, grabbing at mugs without looking up from their game, and within moments her tray was empty. Well, there were a thousand reasons for a woman’s tears. He would not try to untangle that riddle today. He caught a glimpse of blue skirts disappearing into the lemon grove. Esma, presumably gone to answer nature’s call, for the trees offered the only measure of privacy in these parts. He had just raised the mug to his lips when he heard the first scream. Seconds passed. A servant was on his knees, clutching his middle as he vomited onto a blanket. Horse Master Ruy convulsed on the ground. The soldiers at their dice game spun in their seats. One broke from the group and ran toward the horse master before stopping dead in his tracks. His eyes bulged; he clutched at his throat, then collapsed facefirst onto the grass and was still. Soldiers and servants fell, one by one, and as the cup tumbled from Antoni’s limp fingers, he saw Bartolome at the far side of the meadow. The prince knelt with his brother in his arms. He was looking directly at Antoni and crying for help. Antoni raced across the meadow. Shock sped his feet, along with a terrible, hideous fear. God blind me. The wine. Teodor was not moving. The screams engulfed him, along with the sad, piercing cry of a warbler. He had nearly reached the boys when he heard the horses in the distance. A mad thundering of hooves. Coming closer.
EIGHTEEN YEARS LATER
IN THE SQUARE, just off the harbor, Mercedes heard the cockfight long before she saw it. A crowd of men gathered in a circle. Thirty deep, they occupied nearly the whole of the small plaza, their shouts reverberating off gray stone buildings. All around them was seawater: salty, pungent, and a little bit rotten, mixed with the smell of fish frying and bodies gone too long without a wash. And rising above the din was the distinct, high-pitched crowing of a rooster. Dubious, she turned to the man standing beside her with his arms crossed, his expression darkening as he surveyed the scene before him. “You’re certain we’re in the right place, Commander?” she asked. “He cannot be here.” But even she heard the lack of conviction in her voice. This square, so near to the harbor, was a favorite haunt for pickpockets, charlatans, and travelers lured by cheap lodging and strong drink. They were in an ill-favored part of her cousin’s kingdom, surrounded now by the lowest form of men. Mercedes had known Elias all her life. It was likely they were in exactly the right place. Apparently, Commander Aimon agreed. “Oh?” was his reply. He pulled her aside as a man stumbled out of the throng, cheeks flushed, reeking of spirits. After the inebriate tripped past them, he released her arm. “You are all diplomacy, my lady Mercedes. But let’s not fool ourselves.” With his face the picture of resignation, he added, “Stay close. Follow me.” Commander Aimon forced his way through the crowd. He was a big man wearing the king’s colors and a ferocious scowl; the mass yielded easily. Mercedes kept her head down and her elbows out, absently noting that the oaths and insults thrown their way were in many different languages. These men were Hellespontians and Lunesians and Coronads. A smattering of Caffeesh so far from home. Very few Mondragans, however. They had long since learned the dangers of lingering where they were not welcome. Someone grabbed her arm. A man with very few teeth grinned and sniffed her hair. His breath stank of garlic and rot. She heard “What a pretty piece! Let me—” before her fist came up, sharp with rings, and connected with the underside of his chin. A pained grunt emerged. Her admirer fell back into the throng and was lost. Onlookers laughed and hooted, but no one else tried to touch her. She continued after the commander and, after much shoving, found herself before a small, dusty clearing. Her suspicions were confirmed. It was a cockfight. To the right, a bald man with a stained leather apron held up a rooster, turning it this way and that while a second rough-looking character pointed out scratches and gaps in the feathers. She paid them only a cursory glance, her attention captured entirely by the young man to the left. Elias. Or, formally, Lord Elias. Only child of Lady Antoni and Lord Antoni, the long-departed Royal Navigator for the island kingdom of St. John del Mar. The last surviving son of a powerful noble family knelt in the dirt, a rooster cradled in his arms like a newborn babe. He wore a loose-fitting shirt and dark trousers, both now encrusted with muck and what she suspected was bird blood. His hair, a rich brown lightened by the summer sun, had grown overlong, so that it settled about his shoulders in thick waves, like a woman’s. A battered leather map carrier lay against his back, cylindrical in shape, three feet long. Of his sword, there was no sign. As was usual. Her breath caught. He’d been hurt. A bruise spread across one cheekbone, mottled and yellow. What else? Her inspection was swift: He had all his fingers, his limbs. He moved easily; no obvious injury, then, hidden beneath his clothing. One never knew with Elias, who collected wounds the way she collected secrets and enemies. It was his least endearing quality, this skill he had in making her worry. Who was that man with him? He hovered over Elias with an anxious expression and deep smudges beneath his eyes. Similar in age and vaguely familiar; his identity poked at the very edge of her memory. Whoever he was, he was out of place: well-groomed and dressed in the dark tailored clothing of an upper tradesman. The bird was motionless. A lock of hair fell forward as Elias placed his open mouth over its beak and blew gently. Miraculously, the rooster’s chest expanded. Wings fluttered, then flapped. Cheers and curses erupted from the crowd. As she watched with appalled fascination, Elias lifted his head and spat out several feathers before sharing a grin with his neatly dressed companion. She slid a glance toward Commander Aimon. The poor man rubbed his temple with his fingertips as he always did when trying to ease head pains. She could not help but smile, though it felt wrong, knowing what lay ahead. This morning was not going to end pleasantly. Elias’s bald opponent did not look pleased by the bird’s quick recovery. “Chart maker!” he shouted, his guttural tones and dull features marking him for a Coronad. “You bird swiver! That rooster is dead. I have won!” Elias laughed. “It’s not dead yet, my friend!” he yelled back. He set the bird on the ground, his hands preventing it from taking flight. “Do you forfeit?” The Coronad sneered. “We come here; we see del Marian men, even prettier than their women. With soft hands and flower oil in their hair. What do you know of cockfights, pretty del Marian?” Elias’s grin widened. His answer was to blow the man a kiss. Amid the laughter, the other man scowled even more. “Bah!” he said before snatching his own bird from his companion and setting it down in the dust. A girl ran to the center of the clearing, barefoot, the tattered red kerchief covering her hair a perfect match to her skirts. The child raised an arm high, counted to three, then brought her hand down with dramatic flourish. Elias and his opponent released their holds on their roosters. The girl jumped aside as the birds flew at each other, feathers thrashing. Commander Aimon’s voice was an irritated rumble. “That boy sounds like a lord and looks like a vagabond.” Mercedes leaned close so that she could be heard above the shouting. “He’s at ease in any setting. Have you noticed? He blends in without effort. I wonder why Ulises doesn’t make use of it.” The commander made a skeptical noise. “Lord Elias isn’t like you, Lady. He isn’t made for intrigue.” “No?” “Look at him.” They watched Elias cheer on his bird. One arm was hooked around his friend’s neck, and they were both jumping up and down and hollering like small boys at the bullfights. “Hmm,” she said. “You see? Everything he thinks and feels is written on his face for the world to see. A dangerous trait for a king’s . . . emissary.” She supposed that was true. Elias in a temper was a rare thing, but it was always memorable, and when he learned of the maps, outrage and insult would be within his rights. Not for the first time, she wished Reyna had not gone to the harbor that day and stumbled upon the map. She wished she herself had not traveled to Lunes and found the other. But what use, wishes? They would do her no good today. Commander Aimon made to signal Elias. She placed a hand on his arm, stopping him. “We might as well wait until he’s finished.” “Must we?” Another quick smile emerged at his aggrieved tone. “He’ll learn why we’re here soon enough,” she said. “And I’ve never seen an actual cockfight, have you?” The commander answered her question with one of his own. “Do you think he can solve it?” She knew Elias was capable. She wondered only if he would be willing. “It concerns him as much as the king.” The commander studied her with dark, kohl-rimmed eyes, a common trait among the men and women of del Mar’s native population in the east. His hair was long and straight, black shot through with gray, and pulled back into a queue. He looked more like a pirate than the commander of the king’s armies. “True,” he acknowledged. “But that was not my question, Lady.” She didn’t answer straightaway, but watched as Elias smoothed the rooster’s feathers and whispered what looked like soothing, encouraging words to it. His hands were beautifully shaped. His fingertips, as always, bore the faintest trace of blue paint. Elias cared little for gloves or for the cleansing potions used by most mapmakers. And why was she standing here admiring his hands? She found herself frowning. “You underestimate him,” she said finally. “He’s smarter than he looks.” The commander turned away and went back to his mutterings, this time something about being damned by faint praise. She let his words wash over her. Someone prodded her in the back so hard she fell forward a step. Slowly, she turned her head and gave the man behind her a gimlet-eyed stare. Fair hair, blue eyes, skin peeling from the sun: almost certainly a Mondragan. “Apologies, miss . . .” His smile turned to puzzlement as he took in her own unusual appearance: black hair, golden skin, but with the green eyes and dreadful freckles that no full-blooded del Marian would ever proudly bear. The man glanced at Commander Aimon and then back at her, and she knew from the stranger’s reaction that she had been recognized. His eyes widened. Prudently, he inched away until he was gone from view. She watched him go. Stupid to feel this way, this terrible, skin-crawling shame, when there was not a thing to be done about it. She could not change the blood flowing through her veins. Half Mondragan, half del Marian. A curse. Turning back to watch the fight, she held herself apart from the crowd, as she always did, and waited.
The opposing bird lay dead on the ground, his master mourning above it. There was laughter and groaning as wagers were paid. As the crowd loosened, the stink of men dispersed into something that was, while not exactly pleasant, at least far more breathable. Elias brushed the feathers from a shirt that had once been white. A futile effort; they merely fluttered about in the air before settling onto a different part of his person. Beside him, Olivier danced a small victorious jig, his rooster clutched under one arm. It was a ridiculous sight, and Elias laughed. He heard “Chart maker!” and looked up in time to see a pouch sailing through the air toward him. He caught it with one hand and held it out to Olivier. “Your winnings.” Olivier took the pouch, unable to hide his relief as he felt the reassuring weight of copper sand dollars and silver double-shells. “You’ll take half? It’s only fair.” Elias refused. “It’s your bird. Give it to your wife, with my compliments.” Elias had just disembarked from the Amaris when he’d caught a glimpse of Olivier, a parchment seller by trade, standing at the back of the crowd with a birdcage in his hand. Elias knew desperation when he saw it. He suspected its reason. Olivier’s daughter suffered from a prolonged illness. Keeping his workshop profitable and paying off the leeches could not be a simple thing. Everyone knew these fights were a quick way to make money. Or lose it. “You’re certain?” Olivier asked. “Yes, take it. I can’t afford to lose your services. I don’t care for the way Master Hernan prepares his sheepskin.” Olivier tucked the pouch away, then knelt to place the bird in its cage. “I’m grateful that you happened by, Lord Elias, and that you know so much about gamecocks.” He eyed Elias curiously. “How do you know so much? It’s an odd talent for a geographer.” “Most of my talents are considered odd. Or worse.” Olivier laughed. He shut the cage with a snap and, with final thanks, hurried off, the rooster swinging in the cage by his side. Elias hitched his map carrier higher on his shoulder and glanced up, still smiling. Cortes was the capital city of St. John del Mar. An ancient settlement built on a hill with a round, walled castle at the very top and the parishes, or neighborhoods, spilling downward on slanted streets. The castle was his home. He had not seen it in months. In his mind, he ticked off all he would do as soon as he reached the tower. First he would bathe, then eat. He would find out if Mercedes was on island, report to Lord Silva, deliver his maps to Madame Vega. Ulises would be in some council meeting or another at this hour of day, but he could visit his mother and the rest of— He felt her before he saw her, absently touching the back of his neck, then turning fully when he glimpsed pale green silk at the edge of his vision. Mercedes. She stood among dust and abandoned feathers, watching him. Dark hair coiled over her ears like ram horns. A belt made of pearls, looped around a slender waist. A silver circlet above her brow. Her eyes, the green of the sea before a storm. Unfortunately, he also saw Commander Aimon, who hovered behind her like some enormous dour shadow. With dark humor, Elias looked down at the feathers stuck to his shirt. He saw the caged rooster disappear around a corner. Well. They had seen him do worse. “Your ship is a month late, Elias,” Mercedes said when he walked up to them. She pronounced his name the del Marian way, EE-lee-us, and she was soft-spoken. Frequently, it lulled strangers into thinking she possessed a sweet nature. “What happened to your face?” “Mercedes.” He kissed her on one cheek and the next, a ritual practiced on both women and men after a long absence. Most men, he amended after another glance at Aimon. There would be no kisses exchanged with the commander, today or any day. “It couldn’t be helped. Did you worry for me?” “I prayed for you, if that is what you’re asking.” He laughed. “It’s not.” He had missed this, this type of conversation, or whatever it was they shared. He had missed her. Looking over her shoulder, he said, “Commander, I’ve just come off the ship. I haven’t had time yet to cause you grief.” “Don’t disregard your talents so quickly.” Commander Aimon reached out and plucked a feather from Elias’s shirt. He held it up, unsmiling. “And so. You’ve taken up cockfighting for charity?” They had heard his exchange with Olivier. Elias shrugged. “It’s true. What are you both doing here? Are you lost?” The commander’s answer was to bring his fingers to his lips in a sharp, piercing whistle. Elias nearly jumped from his skin. From a side street, three soldiers on horseback appeared and cantered toward them, scattering what was left of the crowd. Like Mercedes and the commander, they wore royal green and silver. Each led a riderless horse. One of them was Pythagoras. Not a coincidence, then. They had come looking for him, if his horse was here. Elias had been away for months with little news of home. Sharply, he asked, “What’s happened? My family—?” “Is well, everyone is well.” Mercedes’s hand on his chest was fleeting, but enough to assure him the worst hadn’t occurred in his absence. “Ulises would like a word.” Relief turned into puzzlement. That was all? The king would like a word? He was distracted for a short time by Pythagoras, who nudged his ear in greeting. “Fine. I’ll get out of these rags and—” “No time for that.” Commander Aimon was already on his horse. “The Amaris was spotted on the horizon hours ago. The king has waited long enough.” Elias looked from the commander to Mercedes. They had been watching for him. Why? There was nothing unusual about a ship arriving late. A month’s delay was later than he would have liked, but it should not have caused too much concern. He thought about that as he helped Mercedes onto her horse. Light green skirts spread about a white mare. Keeping one hand wrapped around her ankle, he asked quietly, “Since when is a watch put out on my ship?” “There wasn’t.” “No? Since when am I met at the docks with personal escort? What aren’t you telling me, Mercedes?” Once, they had been close. When they were children, it had been simple to know how she’d felt and what she’d thought. She’d worn her heart on her sleeve for friend and foe to see. Mostly foe. But that was then. In the years since, Mercedes had become very good at hiding her thoughts, even from him. She looked at him. Beautiful green eyes. Giving away nothing. “I’m not trying to be mysterious,” she said. “It’s simpler just to show you. Will you come? And let go.” He stepped away before she could kick him. She rode off with Commander Aimon and his men, and Elias was left with no choice but to follow—up toward the castle, up toward his king—at a complete loss, and with a very bad feeling.