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THE Terafin was ill.
In the quiet rise of sweeping halls, beneath the two-story height that gave even the most jaded of visitors pause, servants toiled in silence, spreading rumors behind the backs of carefully positioned hands.
In a manse such as House Terafin upon the Isle, those servants were as educated in their way as new merchants—but they were expected to be a great deal more publicly restrained. The Mistress of the Household staff had been forced to remind them of decorum on more than one occasion, and her perfect demeanor was beginning to fray.
Still, rumor traveled between the boys and girls that ran from the great, open halls to the hidden, secret ones, exchanging the width and breadth of wealth and power for the cramped turns and small windows of narrow stoneways in which servants were meant to move, unseen and unrecognized.
In those stone halls, words were louder, and whispers could easily be heard at a remove. But in those stone halls, none of the ATerafin proper journeyed, save those who had earned their name by literal service to the manse itself. They were not few in number.
And they were worried.
The boys and the girls, as they were often called, did their best both to avoid that worry and to mine it; they were curious, and if that curiosity was a morbid one, it was still theirs.
They were too young to have lived through the last House War.
But not too young to need to make a living; not too young to understand that a House War—if there was one—would leave many of the powerful and notable dead.
“Merry, why don’t you ask Carver if it’s true?” one such girl said to another, her hair peeking between the fringes of the starched cap they all wore.
Merry blushed, looking decidedly unsuited to her name. “What makes you think he’d tell me?”
The girl laughed. “He tells you other things,” she said with a broad wink. “And I know he’s come down to the servants’ hall at all hours when you’re off duty.”
“Well, he shouldn’t be here. Not now. He’s adviser to a member of the House Council.” She spoke in a quiet voice that was one part awkward pride and two parts fear. Because he was important now, and important people didn’t come here.
“He’s always done as he pleases,” her companion shot back.
“And he’s not here for the scenery. Well, not this scenery anyway. I don’t think The Terafin herself could stop him; Jewel ATerafin couldn’t even do that.”
Merry looked down at her hands; they’d balled into fists. She wasn’t a plain girl, but she wasn’t a raving beauty; she had very few illusions. But like many people who had few, she held dear the ones that she did have. Lila touched her arm gently. “Don’t you worry,” she said, relenting a little. “He’s not much one for fancy ladies.”
“I don’t want to get him in trouble.” It was both true and untrue.
A little more of her fear showed, changing the round and generous lines of her face. She pushed strands of dark hair up and into her cap, turning to look over her shoulder. The grand and expensive clocks that needed so much care and cleaning weren’t wasted on the servants; time was a matter of instinct, and hers, here, was drawing to a close.
“It’s not like he cares about trouble,” Lila added, and this time she frowned at the other two girls. “He’s going to keep coming here.
He’s more at home in these halls than he is in the grand ones.”
“He should,” Merry said at last. “He should care.”
“Just ask him, ’kay? We’re all dying to know!” the youngest of the girls said, dipping her face forward until her nose was almost touching Merry’s.
One of the boys slid between them in the narrow hall; Merry shrieked as he pinched her backside. He laughed; they all did.
And if it was nervous laughter, they were giddy enough not to recognize it.
Finch ATerafin stared at hands that were shaking with exhaustion; they lay against the kitchen table, pale palms hidden from the sun’s light. She had thrown the windows wide to let in the sea air; a faint tang of salt dusted lips that were a little too dry.
Morretz had taken the seat opposite her, and it creaked with the full force of his weight. His sleeves spread across the table like her hands, but they were turned out like flightless wings. Gone was the grace and effortless elegance that marked him; he was exhausted.
No, he was more than exhausted, but he had always been such a private, such a distant, man that his expression denied her any open display of concern.
And concern was there. He looked older.
“When did this happen?” Finch asked at last.
He looked up.
Before he could answer—if he intended to—the door slid open with a creak. Ellerson rose in an instant, moving with careful grace to catch the handle before it flew wide.
Teller slipped into the room as Ellerson closed the door. His eyes were dark, and beneath them, pale as bruises, the semicircles that told of sleep’s lack. He glanced at Morretz and then took a seat beside Finch. They huddled at one end of the table as if they were still children.
Ellerson cleared his throat, reminding them tactfully that they were not, in fact, any such thing.
Council members, Finch thought bitterly, did not huddle. She drew herself up to her full height.
But she didn’t let go of Teller’s hand.
“Three days ago,” Morretz said quietly. “She was . . . difficult to wake. Pale. Her pupils were distended.”
Morretz smiled wearily. “If it were poison,” he said quietly, “we would know. She would not now be confined to her quarters. Understand, ATerafin, that she is not ill to the rest of the House.”
Finch decided, wisely, to let that one pass. She had heard rumors, of course; Carver brought them. But she’d listened carefully to these, because they were shorn of his usual cocky glee. She didn’t want to get the serving girls in trouble, and she also didn’t want to destroy one of the best sources of information the den had. “What does the rest of the House think?” she asked, buying time.
“They believe she has retreated to her library to better study the intricacies of sea law.”
Teller heaved a sigh that was altogether too much of a criticism.
“Finch, have you been sleeping?”
“Not much,” she shot back, and then, looking at his face, added meekly, “but probably more than you have. You look awful.”
His annoyance lapsed into a sheepish little smile. “Sorry. You’ve been studying the Menoran trade. I’ve been studying the sea trade. We do some business with the South via the Omaran, and there are—apparently—whole islands in the oceans to the east that have actual cities on them. We take things from the Empire and they give us . . . stuff.”
Ellerson cleared his throat again.
“Pearls,” Teller said grudgingly. “And herbs of some sort. Birds. Really odd things. Not many of our ships go there; there’s apparently some difficulty if you land on the wrong beach.”
Finch frowned. “What kind of difficulty?”
“Losing whole ships without any explanation kind of difficulty.” He shrugged. “We’re not the only House to send expeditions to the East. We’re one of three that have been successful. Where successful means someone has come back.”
Something about the sentence jogged her sluggish memory.
“Weren’t there some sort of piracy accusations leveled against the House?”
He nodded grimly. “We’re still not sure what that’s all about. But we’ve certainly had our difficulties. If it were up to me—”
Morretz raised a hand; light played quirkily along the closed line of his lips, lending his expression the patina of a smile.
“Uh, right. Sorry, Morretz.” He exhaled. “Besides the accusations—House Fennesar, I think, but it also involved Morriset—there have been really strange weather patterns fifty miles from the sea wall. Maybe a hundred.”
“Storms, unseasonal storms. One of the Darias merchants said his ship—and it’s one of the great merchant boats that shouldn’t even be able to float by all accounts—was beached eight miles from our port.”
“I don’t understand.”
“No one does. But he claims to have hit a sandbar. A great, wide, sandbar.”
“But . . .”
“Yes,” Teller said. “It’s in the middle of the ocean. There’s nothing there. No reefs, no nothing. Well, except for sand.”
“And that’s another thing: There were no dolphins. No whales. Almost no fish. Just the sand.” He shrugged. “It’s gone now. It lasted long enough to get the Magi there and back, so we know the captain wasn’t heavily into his cups.”
Morretz nodded. “There is some lively argument in the Council of The Ten in Avantari; it appears that the cost of the magi’s efforts, in this case, is not one that the Council wishes to underwrite.”
Finch snorted. “Is there any situation in which The Ten won’t chip away at Terafin?”
Ellerson raised a white brow.
“I guess not.”
“Terafin has long enjoyed the position of first among the Houses,” the domicis said stiffly. “And if the Kings are not subject to the whims of ambition and greed, the same cannot be said of those that rise to rule The Ten. Not even The Terafin herself is above using such ruses in order to maintain the prominence of her House.”
“Indeed,” Morretz added, unruffled by the rough manners of the two youngest members of the House Council. “And it is therefore entirely believable that she be unavailable at this time.”
“Has Alowan been to see her?”
A bronze brow rose. Finch flushed. “Sorry,” she muttered.
“He has been three times, Finch. It is difficult; to bring him to the library without the notice of the rest of the House requires much subtlety and the use of magic.”
Yours, she thought, but didn’t say it.
“And he hasn’t healed her?”
“Yes,” Morretz said quietly. “He has. Each of the three days. But he deals, he says, with the physical damage caused.”
“And the disease?”
“There is no disease.”
Silence again, uncomfortable now. Sharp.
“Ellerson,” Finch said, without looking up. “Go and get Daine.”
Ellerson bowed. “ATerafin,” he said quietly. She listened as he left her. But he left her in Morretz’ care, and Morretz was a man she trusted almost as much.
“How can there be no disease if she’s ill?”
“We don’t know.”
“But you ruled out poison. And anyway Alowan would know poison.”
“Over a hundred of them,” Morretz agreed genially. His eyes were black. She wondered at that; they were normally a much paler color.
Is this it? she thought, and something tight pinched her stomach. Is this how she dies? Is this how she deserts us? And she hated herself for the pettiness, the fear, of that thought.
“Is it magic?” she asked quietly.
“You must ask Sigurne Mellifas that question,” he said quietly.
“I am trained, and I have some small gift, but magic was not my calling. It was simply my talent.” The words were bitter. She heard the “if only” in them, and she reached out across the table to touch his hand.
He did not withdraw.
Teller said, “There is a plague that has taken hold of some ten of the hundred holdings.”
“Is it—is it like this?”
“We are waiting upon that information now.” Calm reply. Finch didn’t ask who “we” was.
Instead she rose, almost blindly. Fear was thickening her tongue.
“I’ll go,” she told him quietly.
Morretz raised a brow. “Go?”
“Out,” she said, waving a hand toward the open window. “I have . . . duties in the Common.”
“You have duties at the Merchant Authority?”
She nodded grimly. “A desk’s worth of duties, and about ten pounds’ worth of red and blue wax. I’ll go.”
He nodded. “Thank you, ATerafin.” He knew, as well as she, that the visit to the Merchant Authority would hide many a destination. All roads in Averalaan, even those that led from the Isle, met in the Common.