The cavern city of Pelismara has stood for a thousand years. The Great Families of the nobility cling to the myths of their golden age while the city's technology wanes.
When a fever strikes, and the Eminence dies, seventeen-year-old Tagaret is pushed to represent his Family in the competition for Heir to the Throne. To win would give him the power to rescue his mother from his abusive father, and marry the girl he loves.
But the struggle for power distorts everything in this highly stratified society, and the fever is still loose among the inbred, susceptible nobles. Tagaret's sociopathic younger brother, Nekantor, is obsessed with their family's success. Nekantor is willing to exploit Tagaret, his mother, and her new servant Aloran to defeat their opponents.
Can he be stopped? Should he be stopped? And will they recognize themselves after the struggle has changed them?
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Tagaret believed in music the same way he believed in the sky. It was unreachable, invisible, transcendent, and somehow a promise that there had to be more to life than this. Mother had always assured him, when they'd fallen back into that vague, wistful state after the grand concerts were over, that they must be grateful to have been born into the nobility and have their health, too-that no better life could be had in all Varin. With her beside him, he could believe that it was true. But then Father's official appointment as Alixi of Selimna had stolen her away across the surface wilderness, leaving him and his brother behind.
Up there, traveling on the Roads, Mother had seen the sky out her window. She'd told him about it in her very first letter.
Vast, bright, deep-Tagaret, I try, but these words fail to describe its full, terrifying beauty. Somehow, the sight of it changes everything.
He'd shivered over her words and waited to hear more, to hear how everything was different now. A beautiful sight couldn't bring back the days before the decline, before the yearly Announcements that cataloged defects and deaths. If it had eased Mother's tears, it must mean something important . . . but she'd never mentioned it again, and after that the notes of hope disappeared from her letters.
Some experiences could change your entire life. Not necessarily for the better.
With yet another Announcement looming, Tagaret clung to the promise in the music. In the five years since Mother's departure, he'd attended every concert, hoping to feel his heart uplifted. Tonight's piece promised to be unlike anything written before: a controversial new symphony, The Catacomb, described by advance listeners as an experience that would change the image of the Kartunnen artisan caste, change the meaning of music-change everything.
Tagaret looked down at his ticket: thick paper with looping calligraphy in black and gold. He could imagine himself twelve again, and Mother handing it to him, pointing out his seat while she described the music to come in a voice ringing with excitement . . .
"Change everything," he whispered.
He stepped through the doors into the Eminence's grand ballroom, with his three best friends following behind him.
All the finest people were here. Announcements brought out a bigger crowd than musical events. Politicians, gentlemen, and ladies murmured in anticipation, their jewel-colored suits and gowns glittering in the electric light of the chandeliers. Tagaret led his friends into the right-side aisle, feeling the gossip-hungry eyes evaluate his new height, his poise, and his maturity before moving on.
"Fifth row," he said, as the chandeliers dimmed slightly. He handed extra tickets back to Fernar, Gowan, and Reyn.
"Wow," said Fernar. "Right up front-how'd you get such good tickets to an Announcement?"
Tagaret sighed. "They're for the concert, Fernar. My mother's the patron of the concert series."
"Great," said Gowan. "We can look right up at the Speaker of the Cabinet."
Reyn aimed a punch at Gowan's shoulder. "Come on. Tagaret just said, we're here for the music."
"Right," said Tagaret. "Thanks, Reyn." Fernar and Gowan would never quite understand the anxiety he and Reyn felt before Announcements because they hadn't lost parents to leadership positions in the provincial cities.
"Actually, I'm here for young ladies, too," Fernar said, nodding toward the stage. "That's quite a view-let's skim on over there."
Tagaret followed his gaze. A group of girls sparkled near the base of the stage, talking and laughing in a tight cluster. Each was guarded by a man or woman in black silk: members of the Imbati servant caste, marked with the curving forehead tattoos of bodyguards. Jewels inside a wall of coal. The view alone almost pushed Announcements out of his mind, but Tagaret held Fernar back. Someone else had had the same idea: two boys on the opposite side of the stage were pushing toward the group.
"Those boys are Tenth Family," Gowan whispered. "Let's see if they mess this up."
As the boys drew close, the girls' attendant bodyguards shifted subtly, tracking them. Tagaret gulped in sympathy. Surely, they wouldn't be fool enough to speak or touch . . .
A bodyguard moved. In a split second the taller boy dropped, laid out facedown on the floor with the bodyguard pinning one arm behind his back. Girls gasped, and startled members of the crowd pulled back. The bodyguard immediately released his grip and bowed, and the boy's friend helped him to his feet. The downed boy held both hands over his face as he scrambled away.
"Ouch," Reyn muttered. "They'll wish they didn't have to show their faces at school tomorrow."
Gowan snorted. "They've got a lecture coming from their Family Council, too-Tenth Family fools."
Fernar laughed aloud. "Guys, come on, we can do better than that. All we'll do is walk up and past. Our reputation will be brilliant for weeks."
"So long as the Imbati don't humiliate us," said Gowan.
Tagaret gulped a breath, with a glance at Reyn. "We're fine so long as we all behave. Agreed?"
"Agreed," the others said.
What better opportunity would they get? To catch the scent of the girls' hair or their hand oil-maybe even to have one look him in the eye-oh, yes . . .
Tagaret strode to the front, making sure the others stayed close, and turned into the aisle that crossed the base of the stage. All around, the eyes were watching. Fernar liked other boys to see them be so daring; Gowan liked the attention of politicians. Whichever group was looking, they'd win more reputation if they supported each other shoulder to shoulder.
Two of the bodyguards had noticed them now. So had all the girls. One of Tagaret's cousins in the First Family met his gaze and nodded; the other girls whispered with fingers held before their lips. Though his heart raced, Tagaret carefully turned his eyes downward as he drew closer. Imbati escorts didn't permit much attention to their mistress' faces. He quivered, sneaking glances. Mm, the curve of a pale shoulder. A ruby bodice-long amethyst skirts-graceful hands-a sway of dark braids . . . Then his eyes caught on an arresting pair of brown eyes that had been following his movements, and he gazed at the girl's face a moment too long.
An Imbati woman in black skirts flowed smoothly between them.
Mercy-Tagaret swerved off fast before the Imbati could make a move on him. Breathing down the adrenaline, he walked to the stage and looked up at the instruments. Above him was the yojosmei with its priceless wooden frame, and double keyboards of polished stone, where the symphony's composer would soon sit.
Someone else came close and looked up. Not Reyn, Fernar, or Gowan. A girl.
By Sirin and Eyn, why would a girl leave the main group? To see him? Impossible. Surely, she was here for the instruments. But maybe, just maybe, she had come to see him, and liked music, too. He leaned toward her without thinking; she had radiant copper hair and a long emerald-green dress that fell over her curves in a slow caress he wanted to follow with his own fingertips. Thank heavens she wasn't any closer, or he'd have been on the floor by now. Her male Imbati escort had graying hair, and looked powerful enough to throw him all the way to the fifth row. But, if asked politely, might he consent to give his Lady's name?
"Tagaret, well done!" Fernar clapped his shoulder, and he jumped.
Gowan appeared on his other side. "Guys, we've had cabinet members watching us. Now they'll know who you three are." They already knew Gowan; his father was in the cabinet.
"That's great," Tagaret said. But the girl had disappeared, and Reyn now leaned against the stage in her place. "Where did she go? Reyn, did you see her? The girl with the copper hair?"
Reyn pushed his blond curls out of his eyes with a sly smile. "Sure, I saw her. Copper and emeralds, right? Left the pack to follow you?"
"Did she?" That tightened his stomach. He stood on his toes and found her. By the holy Maiden Eyn, she put the other girls to shame. "Look there-at the far corner of the stage."
Fernar frowned. "I think she's Sixth Family."
"Hmph," said Gowan. "Don't bother, Tagaret-Sixth are muckwalkers. Always fraternizing with Lowers, ungrateful for their position in the Race. I don't expect many politicians will be lining up at her father's door."
"How can you say that?" Tagaret protested. "You don't know her."
Reyn took his elbow. "Never mind. Let's go sit down."
Tagaret kept glancing back over his shoulder. The girl was indeed talking to a Lower-a boy wearing a pale gray coat, the mark of the Kartunnen artisan caste. But that couldn't really be muckwalking. Mother had talked to musicians about setting up the concert series . . .
"Look," said Gowan. "It's the Speaker-here he comes."
Tagaret's stomach clenched. He dragged his eyes away from the girl and sidestepped between the brass chairs to his seat. A hush spread through the crowd, and the heavy crystal chandeliers dimmed, leaving Speaker Orn in the spotlight. Orn looked pretty bad tonight, his red face blotchy and exhausted as he lumbered to a microphone at stage center, his Imbati manservant hovering close.
"Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming out tonight. This year has been a prosperous one for the Grobal Race across Varin. The Pelismara Society," Speaker Orn gestured across the assembled crowd, "has had a record number of healthy pregnancies carried to term, with only one additional case of hemophilia, and no further spinal malformations or mental disabilities."
Tagaret winced. Please, just let them get to the music . . .
"Births were seen across all twelve of the great noble Families, with the strongest growth occurring in the Third and the Eleventh." Speaker Orn stopped for breath, clutching at the stand of the microphone. "News has also been good from the provincial cities. Only a single death in the Peak Society, and two in the Erin Society. None in Vitett, Daronvel, Herketh, or Safe Harbor."
Beside him in the half-dark, Reyn gave an audible sigh of relief.
The Speaker wheezed and cleared his throat. "Selimna saw-" He broke off, coughing.
Tagaret tensed. The Speaker's manservant stepped forward; her usually expressionless face showed concern. Speaker Orn turned as if to speak to her, swayed-and collapsed. The servant cushioned his fall onto the wooden floor of the stage, then held her hand to her Master's forehead. But she didn't actually touch it.
Never touch the fever-fallen. A childhood warning loomed suddenly in Tagaret's head. "Guys," he blurted, "let's get out of-"
Someone shouted, "Kinders fever!"
The room erupted.
Tagaret sprang up and pushed toward the aisle. Reyn fumbled at his arm, so Tagaret grabbed onto him, glancing back in the half-dark to check that Fernar and Gowan were close behind. A vast, gold-glimmering lady blocked their way.
"Lady, excuse me-"
The lady shrieked. "It's in the air! Heile have mercy, it's in the air!"
Kinders fever in the air? Nausea crashed over him. Tagaret forced one shaking hand into his pocket and pressed a handkerchief over his mouth. The Lady wouldn't move and wouldn't shut up. Seeing no bodyguard, he took a risk and pushed by. They managed to reach the aisle, but it was mobbed in seconds. Bodies pressed and bumped. Don't touch-but how could he not touch? Tagaret inched his way along the stone wall, pulling hard on Reyn's hand and praying the other two were back there holding on. People surged chaotically-no forward movement though there should have been an exit just past the next column. Then someone raised the lights, and he saw it.
The door was so completely blocked by desperate people that even three Imbati manservants couldn't force it open.
No, no . . .
Tagaret twisted, searching above the heads for another door. There was one behind them, but it, too, was blocked. He couldn't see Fernar or Gowan. Had they been pulled off in another direction? Trampled, gods forbid? How could he search for them in this chaos?
A narrow gap opened among the shifting bodies, and he glimpsed the girl with the copper hair. She was calm, and she was moving. He leapt into the gap toward her, dragging Reyn behind, and found himself in a narrow space behind her back. The girl held her Imbati escort by the waist while he cut through the panic toward the windows in the opposite wall.
Those windows didn't open, but it hardly mattered. He had to stay behind the girl, just get there. He climbed over tumbled chairs, around a gentleman who had fainted in his seat, over a body. The one constant in the chaos of movement was the girl's beautiful hair, almost close enough to touch.
Reyn's grip never slackened. The windows drew closer ahead. People pressed inward from both sides-keep right behind the girl, don't lose her-
The crowd surged, and Tagaret stumbled onto the hem of the green dress. The girl cried out and fell backward into him. Fragrant sweet copper hair in his face, oh gods, the touch of firm flesh under green velvet, her back against his chest, oh mercy, danger, danger! He tried to shove her back upright, but the escort turned around, dark brows angry beneath his curving tattoo. Tagaret cowered. Reyn screamed. The bodyguard leapt-
Right past them. Tagaret whirled around. A man was charging at them, swinging a brass chair. Tagaret scrambled back but met a wall of people. The bodyguard got one hand to the chair, which swung aside and struck Reyn in the head. Reyn's knees buckled.
"Reyn!" Tagaret shouted. He grasped for him, got a coat sleeve and hauled upward, got one hand under his arm. Reyn's head lolled sideways, and he almost lost his grip. He grabbed again, stumbled-
A crash of glass.
Tagaret looked up. Their attacker was gone, and the bodyguard had just thrust the brass chair through one of the ballroom windows. Before Tagaret's eyes, he pulled it back again-glass rained and shattered on stone-then hurled the whole thing through. He walked over to them, took Reyn's unconscious body easily over one black-silk shoulder, curved his other arm around the girl, and headed out, kicking out broken glass. Reyn's blond head was the last thing to disappear.
He mustn't lose them-
Tagaret ran through the bottleneck crush and popped out into the still air of the night gardens. The panicked crowd dissipated fast: a rush of feet moving outward toward the west wing of the Eminence's Residence, the grounds, and the noble districts beyond. Strong shouts came from farther away in the darkness, and here and there, guards of the Eminence's Cohort appeared, cutting against the flow of fleeing nobles and servants.