Book 6 update: Possibly final beta reader has given me his feedback. Still awaiting cover!
Meanwhile, I’m skipping away from Halci and the War of Memory Cycle for a bit, to draft the start of a different series in a different world. It’s tentatively named ‘Graveborn World’ in my files, but that doesn’t encompass all that it is, so….consider that temporary. One of the continents (though often called ‘the island’) is Temharat — thus the post title here.
See inside: new characters, new troubles! Also, this is sort of a teaser/pre-novel snippet which might get bundled with said novel, so it ends a little abruptly, despite being fairly long. Anyway, enjoy!
Includes: reference to death, reference to pseudo-medical experimentation. Also fancy hats, fan-snapping, mechanical dragonflies, clothing swaps, cats being cats, and oops electrocution.
Description: A Zehuanali Teipatek mission.
It was late afternoon on the second day of the tourney, and Zeha had just about despaired of her mission, when Sera Velitza made her entrance.
“Oh, her,” said Sera Yepakten cuttingly, fanning herself in the sticky stillness. “Velitza Krishalva, a Clocker who’s been making waves in the city’s social circles. I’d hardly expected to see her here. This is supposed to be an exclusive event.”
Among friends, Zeha might have said, An exclusive chance to see idiot Sword knights concuss each other? A week ago, she’d even supposed she might enjoy the sight. She had little enough use for men, and much less for the Sword Order, so a bunch of knights cheerfully attempting to murder each other had seemed like it should be good entertainment.
That had been before the fortress, and the maidservant’s uniform, and the noise and heat and stupidity of the tourney events, and Sera Kayopti’s bright-eyed focus on gossip to the endless delay of the agreed-upon fainting spell. If she never saw another armored meat-head punch the air over the groaning sprawl of his opponent, it would be too soon.
Into that, Sera Velitza was a purple-gowned splash of welcome distraction.
Not being one of the seras and thus not having a fan, Zeha had to cover her smile with her bare hand as she watched the newcomer swan through the crowd. She wore a grand hat with a lot of feathers and a veil that made it impossible for Zeha to see her face, but the slash and splay of her fan as she alternately dismissed approaching men and greeted awaiting women made Zeha like her already.
Too bad she couldn’t break away from Sera Kayopti to eavesdrop on her, instead of lurking here as the various matrons and marriageable daughters gabbled endlessly about men.
“I hope she’s not thinking to cut in,” said a sera. “Plenty of rich boys in the Clocker Cities; she hardly needs to poach from us. Which one was she from? Merchelle?”
“Perhaps she’s drumming up business.”
“What, here? Well, we are nearly west-coast, but you’d think a dedicated Clocker would know better than to try anything in Sword Order territory. Clockers are all terribly tainted, aren’t they? Who would put herself in danger like that?”
This isn’t Sword Order territory, Zeha didn’t say. The matron’s words were true enough in spirit even if not by law. The past few decades had seen the Swords metastasize from monster-slaying foreign mercenaries into government-supported border lords, and all the women around her—minus Sera Kayopti—were trying to marry their daughters into that new power structure.
She and Sera Kayopti, of course, were spying.
Technically, mixing with the locals was against the Sword Order’s rules, but it had been over a generation since the Temharat-based Swords had listened to that edict. The mixed knights on the field and mixed couples in the stands attested to that. The policy simply wasn’t practical; there weren’t nearly enough unaffiliated foreign women living here for all the young knights to have a foreign wife. Nor did the local Sword Order have enough funds to ignore the interest of moneyed native noblewomen. Thus, this meet-market of a tourney: a win for both sides, though arguably a loss for the island.
“We all still need clockworks, whether made by tainted hands or not,” said another sera wryly. “We’re just lucky we have the water mills, so we don’t need to import Curse crystals to power them. Those eastern cities don’t even have that, and use no clockworks at all!”
A massed shudder went through the noblewomen in their skin-covering Motherlands-style gowns and bonnets, their gloves and stockings and veils. Of course they needed clockwork cooling; they refused to wear proper seasonal dress. As for other Clocker innovations—flameless lights, lizardless carriages, machines and weapons and automatons that ran on the crystallized Curse—Zeha had seen many and used a few. Were they worth the risks? Debatable.
“Well, as long as she doesn’t steal any good prospects,” said Sera Yepakten. “Though I don’t see what benefit she’d get from a knight-husband. You could hardly fit a Clocker into local politics, nor ever get one interested in ‘mere business’.”
“They might want her though,” said Sera Kayopti. “As a benefactress if not a wife. Some of them are practically penniless. Like that one on the field now—what was his name? Young Lord Cortellis. Not a lord now, though. I heard he was disowned a few years ago.”
A murmur of disapproval ran through the daughters. Reluctantly, Zeha left off from watching Sera Velitza shoo away men and whisper with women to give the arena a glance.
Two knights faced off: one tall and bulky, the other shorter and rather lean. The shorter one was having a hard time getting inside his opponent’s reach without getting walloped for it—though as Zeha watched, his blade flashed through some kind of slide-and-twist that yanked his opponent’s weapon free. Before he could take advantage, the taller knight bulled into him bodily. They both went down, mailed fists flailing.
“No champion either,” scoffed a daughter. “You’d think the son of a fortress lord would do better.”
“He’s mid-list,” said another. “And very nice, I’m told. Not the worst we could do.”
“A plain knight-errant,” said a matron with a huff. “No position means no point. Too bad his father’s already remarried. Look at her over there, hardly more than a girl!”
Saints alive and dead, I don’t care, thought Zeha, and tracked down the Clocker sera again. There—chitchatting with more city nobility at the edge of the awning where the local knight-lord and tourney sponsor, Ser Ortekis, and his family were sitting. His bodyguards, half of them knights and half the unavowed men-at-arms the Sword Order allowed native men to be, were watching her with varied degrees of suspicion. They must have been informed of her identity.
Mission Two: find out what a Clocker is doing here.
Her Silence Order handlers would definitely want to know. The last thing anyone on Temharat needed was Clockers putting more weapons in Sword hands.
Now if only she could make headway on Mission One: investigate and map Fort Ortekis with an eye to hidden rooms, exclusive meetings, and secrets of all kinds.
She would curse Sera Kayopti’s insatiable lust for gossip, but they were both of the Great Valley lineage. They were already cursed.
Inside, later, was marginally more comfortable than the tourney’s grandstands. The great fans on the ceiling stirred the cooling air slowly; Zeha could just barely feel the currents from the edge of the ballroom. It was spring, but her full-sleeved and skirted uniform was no better for this climate than the women’s petticoated gowns or the knights’ post-tourney doublets and breeches.
At least they’d washed. Fort Ortekis, sited just south of the Fire Mountains, had all the river water that it could desire—and had been built in consultation with the neighboring city, Atepen, over how that water was treated. Apparently some Motherlanders just dumped waste into their rivers and let it wash out to sea.
The drylands’ rivers did not flow to the sea. They flowed through the farmlands and into the ruins of the Great Valley civilization—now the blood jungle and the drowning lake where the revenant goddess lay chained by her Curse. The house manager had worked to convince the visiting seras that this was a respectful fortress, so Zeha now knew far more than she wanted to about bathwater diversion and night-soil collection, but she still thought the Sword Order would happily shit in the rivers if it might draw the Cursed Goddess out to where they could fight her.
That was what they did, after all. The huge tapestries that lined the ballroom walls all showed men in armor slaying dragons, giants, monstrous beasts, and rebel gods from fallen pantheons. Not conquered pantheons; no Motherlander, not even a Sword, would dare call what they did conquest. Just fallen, as if those old gods and powers had simply tripped onto the blade.
“Hush, she’s coming here!” said a sera in a scandalized tone, and Zeha blinked away from the panorama of ancient murders. She stood in Sera Kayopti’s shadow, holding her fan and hat now that they were no longer necessary and trying not to have a facial expression. A veil like the approaching Sera Velitza’s would have done her a world of good.
“Ah, my dears!” Velitza exclaimed in a high, bright voice, heavily Merchellean-accented. It sounded affected to Zeha, but so did so much of the gaiety here. “We’ve not met yet, I fear, though please don’t take affront at my tardiness. There are so many good families to meet, and so much bustle—I can hardly do it in any order.”
“Oh? I noticed you stopped by Ser Ortekis quite early,” said Sera Yepakten. She still held her own fan despite her lurking attendant, apparently so she could snap it open and shut in punctuation.
Velitza’s veiled head tipped slightly. Through the fine weave, Zeha glimpsed native-bronze skin on an unusually narrow face. Mixed? “Of course, sera. He is our host. It would be unacceptable not to introduce myself as soon as possible. But all of you are the flowers of Atepen, my dears. I cannot but wander the garden in bright entrancement.”
Some of the daughters giggled, and Zeha worked to keep her lips flat. She remembered feeling like that at parties once, surrounded by women her age and only loosely bound by duty. Now, avowed and in a relationship, she’d resigned herself to distance.
A sera scoffed. “Pretty words, but if we’re the last group you’ve visited, we cannot help but take offense. Especially—“
“The last, for that I stay with you? Why would that be an offense, sera?”
“Oh, we don’t need your kind,” said another, rather roughly. “Our estate is just fine without clocks and curseworks, thank you.”
Velitza pressed a gloved hand to her chest in mimed shock. Unlike the others, her dress was not structured or corseted, but a loose and flowing affair with vibrant Great Valley-style embroidery over the bright purple textile. Jewels winked within the hearts of the embroidered flowers, though whether true gems or cut glass, Zeha couldn’t tell without a closer look. Despite the lack of shape, it still accentuated her bust, which made Zeha itchingly aware of her right-side falsie. The hem—and a hint of lacy slip—fell just past the tops of her heeled boots, which were definitely Merchellean style: heavy working leather done up fancy with polish.
“Curseworks, my goodness, never,” she said. “I am a member of the Clockwork Rose, yes, but not any of the experimental branches. I much prefer wind-ups, music machines, and other art pieces. But if you’re disinclined, I shan’t bother to show you.”
“Music machines?” a daughter asked before the sera could scoff.
“I’ve not got it in hand—it’s in my luggage. But I do have a wind-up.” She reached beneath her veil, itself a bright purple and thus likely not the mourning veil it resembled. Zeha knew a few female-only Orders used them, and sometimes women who wished to travel anonymously, but this seemed more like an intrigue trick. She plucked out something, then presented it to the group: a bejeweled dragonfly, nearly palm-sized.
“Oh!” said the girl as she and several other daughters leaned closer. “Does it fly?”
“Indeed, though not much.” Gripping its thorax, Velitza turned a key so tiny Zeha almost couldn’t see it. Springs wound up in tiny clocks. She depressed the key into its side, and instantly its wings blurred, lifting it from her palm to hover in the air like an echo of life.
“This is all it can do on its own,” Velitza continued, holding her hands away from it. “But if I wished, I could fill it with an hour’s worth of flight instructions. It could even interact with objects if they were exactly where indicated—otherwise it would merely mime those interactions to empty air. Wind-ups can only act as we instruct them.”
“Pointless frippery,” said Sera Yepakten coolly.
“On the contrary, sera. Wind-ups like this one can accept any instructions created in the proper format—in this case, a thin ribbon punched with holes to tell it how to move and when. Creating such a ribbon is easy to learn, difficult to master—and endlessly educational. How else can one take such control into one’s own hands?”
“It offends the gods,” sniffed another sera. “Like an insulting little facsimile of one of the Volcano Lord’s constructs. Mortals are not meant to have such control, sera—for look what they do with it! Put Cursed crystals into such innocent-seeming things to make them come alive!”
“I have no business with the Curse,” Velitza said tightly.
Zeha couldn’t help the lift of her brows. For a moment, the sera’s accent had seemed to drop, her voice dipping from its high register. But before anyone could react, she continued, “Nor am I here to peddle wares, though I’m happy to show the young seritas my music machine. It and my dragonfly simply help me feel at home when I travel. This is a side-trip, you see. My true destination is the Temeqi hot-springs.”
Is that so? Zeha wondered as the conversation turned to travel, Sera Velitza insinuating herself smoothly among the crowd of mothers. Several of the daughters were still staring raptly at the dragonfly, which hovered as if it was the center of the world. Questions flittered out, about Velitza’s point of origin and her surname—Krishalva, a patronym?—but the sera quickly turned questions back on their querents.
Zeha recognized the technique. Especially in a crowd like this, it was endlessly fruitful to just let people talk, nudging gently toward what one might want to know but otherwise just making encouraging noises. And what the mysterious Clocker wished to know about was…
“That one?” Her white-gloved finger picked out a dancing couple, both men, both older, one in Sword livery and the other in sober Judge’s blacks. The Judge, surprisingly, looked native.
“Ser Aberao and his husband—I’m not sure of that one’s name,” supplied a sera. “Aberao is Knight-Lord of Fort Vernero, near Baustoke City I believe. Usually they rename their forts for themselves, but he’s obviously got no heirs so I suppose he chose not to bother.”
“Why obviously? He can’t adopt?”
“No, no. Swords don’t do that. All about the bloodline with them—which is the point of this affair, yes?” The sera gestured to the tableau of young knights and seritas, some coupled on the dance-floor, some whispering in the shadows, all overseen by stolid elder knights and hawk-eyed seras. “That one chose not to have a wife at all, even for an heir. Married his companion instead. Odd, but honestly sometimes I’d rather have married my Anaxi instead of my husband.”
“Anaxi is ishali though, yes?” nudged another sera. “I’ve never known the Swords to have ishali companions, let alone spouses.”
“Because they all think being ishali is like being in an Order,” another scoffed. “Certainly they take the term from Ishal, but they’re not Ishal’s worshipers.”
“Well, they can’t be, since Ishal has vanished.”
A moment of silence passed among the matrons, and Zeha let out the breath she’d held in annoyance. Like the Cursed Goddess, Ishal belonged to pre-First Invasion Temharat—part of the epic love-triangle of lake goddess, volcano god and shifting rainbow dancer. Even though she didn’t follow any of them, she hated to hear them denigrated. It was too sad: one fallen, one lost, and one bereft.
“So…that one?” said Velitza, pointing out another elder knight.
“Ah, Ser Donarte, I think. Yes, Ser Donarte. A recent widower, though by all the Saints he must be nearly seventy. How old are you, my dear?”
“Really, you oughtn’t pitch yourself at the old men. Most of them are more inclined to pluck a young flower anyway, the awful old lizards. There aren’t many unmarried fellows of your age, to be sure, but—“
“I’m not looking for—“
“—some of the new knights have more mature tastes. That blond one there, see? Young Cortellis. Always dancing with the matrons. And the little girls, but that’s not indicative, I’m sure.”
Slightly amused, Zeha slanted her gaze to the dance-floor. The young knight in question was indeed very blond, in the Calastiin near-platinum way—and probably half her age, which made him half Sera Velitza’s age as well. His partner was older than them, her pinned-up hair mostly grey, but he led her through the whirl of the dance like an attentive gentleman.
“Trying to set him up, hm?” said Sera Yepakten, dryly amused. “When Kayopti said he might want to dig her gold, I didn’t think she meant us to encourage it.”
“Certainly not!” exclaimed Sera Kayopti.
“And really, it’s a bad match. So many promising men are just ruined by mother issues.”
“Oh, don’t blame their mothers. I rather think they ruin themselves.”
Through the shadow of her veil, Zeha saw Velitza’s mouth open, then close. A moment later, she inquired, “Cortellis? As in Fort Cortellis?”
“He’s not the lord,” another sera put in, and pointed with her fan. “There, that’s his father, with his new wife. The boy’s been disowned in favor of her sons, and there’s some bad blood.”
“No point in anyone marrying him,” Sera Yepakten put in. “He’ll leave any wife a widow within a few years. That’s the problem with knights-errant. Die on patrol, and if there’s no child yet, no foothold in the Order, there goes your daughter’s status. And her happiness, if she’d found any.”
A low murmur went through the group, women and girls staring out at the men who’d just been punching each other in the dirt. Zeha felt peripherally a sort of pathos in the air—a condensed romanticization. She didn’t understand it. The Sword Order’s local history of dying in battle against things no one had asked them to fight seemed stupid and masochistic. Blood and tears better spent elsewhere.
A twitch of that purple veil caught her attention. She glanced and found herself glanced at in return, the weave unable to hide the glint of light on a seeking eye. Velitza’s mouth seemed to quirk—with solidarity?—and Zeha felt an unwelcome flush rise.
I have a partner, she thought stolidly. Velitza turned and dipped to catch the dragonfly from below, the motion emphasizing the curves of her hips, and Zeha made a concerted effort to tear her gaze away.
“Well,” Velitza said brightly, straightening, “I’m not here for a husband regardless. Now, who’s that one?”
Another elder knight. Resisting the urge to chew her painted lip, Zeha observed as, one by one, the seras named them all.
If not for the Clocker’s suspicious behavior, Zeha would have torn her hair out at her so-called employer. Galvanized by her new audience, Sera Kayopti once again forgot to feign a faint, so it wasn’t until the elder knights and their partners started to yield the floor to the youngsters that she finally confessed herself weary.
“I’ve no girls to herd here,” she told her cronies, “and so I shall turn in at a time that’s right for me. Best of fortune to all of you seritas—and remember, seek love! But if there is no love, seek a nice-looking backside.”
The seras laughed and waved her off, Sera Velitza included, but Zeha noticed how the veiled woman’s gaze followed the departing knight-lords instead. The certainty that had grown in her these past few hours felt solid now. This Clocker was also a spy.
For Merchelle? If there was a conflict between Merchelle and Atepen City, or between Merchelle and Fort Ortekis, she hadn’t heard of it.
For mysterious Clocker purposes? Possible, as the Clockwork Rose was more than just a professional organization these days. Zeha herself liked to tinker with Clocker ciphers, both to keep abreast of the competition and because solving complex problems was fun. She’d even joined a little cipher-by-mail hobbyist society.
But this seemed awfully blunt for them—not to mention without benefit. Spying on a Sword fortress? Swords thought Clockers were dangerously tainted, Clockers thought Swords were laughably backward, and all generally avoided each other.
She caught herself chewing her lip as she escorted Sera Kayopti toward her guest-room. Saints, I need to put something bitter in the cosmetic so I stop doing this. The last thing she needed was for someone to spot the bleached Silence mark on her lower lip.
“We’ll try again tomorrow,” she told her supposed employer grudgingly. “I know you get distracted, but if I’m ever to have a chance to snoop around…”
“Is now not a good time?” said Sera Kayopti mildly.
Zeha frowned at her. “With folk loose in the halls? Not at all. The men-at-arms may be concentrated in the public areas, but guests can catch me too.”
“You mean you hadn’t noticed?”
Alarms clanged in her head. She hated being called out. What had she missed? “Ah…”
“My dear, not all the guests have left the ballroom. Very few, in fact. The knights with lordships, yes, but not even all of their partners. Is your mission not about eavesdropping as much as it is about rummaging through documents?”
Her heart thumped. She’d missed that detail, too distracted by Sera Velitza. “You’re sure?”
“Oh yes. I’m not just a dull old hag, my girl. You don’t normally do parties?”
“It’s not my preference, no. …I’m usually on the climbing and lockpicking side.”
“Not used to watching and being watched, eh? Here’s a tip. Stop adjusting your bosom.”
Zeha’s hand rose automatically toward the pad that reshaped her malformed breast. “I just… It feels…”
“Girl your age, not used to it? You must live in the bloody jungle.”
“I take a lot of missions there,” she said defensively.
Sera Kayopti held up her hands. “Not a criticism, just an observation. And I have indeed been observing, while you, I think, have just been glaring daggers at the men. The first day was full up with fanfare and meet-and-greet, dinner and toasting and dancing and all that rubbish. It would have looked odd if the lords suddenly left—particularly Ser Ortekis. Tonight, though? Tonight most everyone has found a little clique, the boys and girls are considering each other, and the lords may drift off as they like. Which they have. To where, I wonder?”
To where indeed. Zeha had a few spots she wanted to search, but there were too many knight-lords gathered to fit comfortably in Ser Ortekis’ office, the library was too open, and the basement-possibly-dungeon was no place to get caught. Which left the locked chamber she’d noticed behind the—also locked—trophy room, back when the house manager had given the visiting seras the fortress tour.
“I might know,” she said, “but it’s risky. You’re sure all the elder knights left the party?”
“Oh yes, I was watching. I think that new sera was as well. You take care around her, hm? Clockers are a mysterious bunch, and one who won’t take off her veil…”
“There are many reasons a woman might wear a veil,” Zeha said primly. Not quite sure why she was defending Velitza, but feeling compelled.
Kayopti’s brows quirked slightly. “The caution stands.”
I have a partner, she wanted to insist—but that hadn’t kept her eyes under rein. Perhaps spending so much time away from Pemiliti was a bad idea. Then again, living in Mili’s house—stuck under her thumb with nothing to do—had been its own bad idea.
“Yes, sera,” she said instead.
Sera Kayopti patted her arm. “Try to be less sour, too. I can tell you dislike this affair, but think of it less as a bad match for the seritas and more of an extended infiltration. In a few more generations, perhaps we’ll have the Swords bent to our ways. Now, I can take myself to my own room, unless you need anything from it.”
They’d brought luggage, stashed now between the older woman’s bed and the servant’s cot that had been installed for Zeha, but it was just clothes and toiletries. Zeha carried everything she needed on her person, in case the luggage was searched or she needed to escape. If she was ever in a situation where she’d be personally searched, she’d be much more worried about her gravemarks than about a few lockpicks.
“No,” she said, “though if someone asks, I’ve gone to fetch you a late plate from the kitchen.”
“I wouldn’t mind if you actually did that, once you’re done with your snooping.”
Zeha snorted, gave the older woman a mock curtsey and the lamp she’d carried, then turned down the hall that led to the servants’ stairs. She remembered enough from the tour and her maidservant’s errands to sketch a rough map once they were gone. The trophy room and possible secret-meeting-chamber were one floor down, in the rear of the fortress far from both the ground-floor ballroom and the servants’ areas, but it was best to take a back route regardless. There might be men-at-arms still on duty outside the public areas—though she suspected she wouldn’t find any by the room in question, if it was in use.
If so, all she’d have to do was pick a lock and listen.
Expect the unexpected, she told herself as she bustled down the darkened spiral stairs. Her steps were sure and nearly soundless, her eyes undaunted by the blackness—one of the benefits of being graveborn, to balance out the great heaps of detriments. Her avowed membership in the Silence Order only helped.
Following her memory, she found the trophy room without trouble. The halls were quiet, the lamps all doused—this back area clearly insulated from all the goings-on elsewhere. Faint moon-glow from a hallway window showed no men-at-arms lurking in the shadows outside the chamber, no guard-lizards napping at the threshold. She was alone.
A thin slice of light showed beneath the door.
She listened at it for a long moment, breath held and body still. A faint murmur reached her, not clear enough to have been just beyond. The mystery door seemed the only possible source. With a nod of satisfaction, she reached through the pocket-slit of her dress to the bottom of her corset, drew several tools free, and set to work.
All the while, she kept listening. There could be guards at the inner door—and if there were, she hoped to hear them before she sprang the lock. If not, she hoped they’d call out a challenge, or thump over in big metal boots. Anything that would alert her to their presence before she eased open the door and revealed herself.
But no new noise of any kind came, just the sustained murmur from beyond, and when the lock finally clicked and she peeked through, she saw no one lurking in the large room. She waited another long moment, sliding the tools back into their hiding spots, then rose and cautiously crossed the threshold.
One thing that was nice about the Swords’ disdain for other orders and professional associations: they couldn’t source alarms or traps from them. The few homemade traps she’d found in Sword places she’d burgled had been laughably simple, and as she stepped inside and eased the door nearly shut, she could see no changes that cried ‘armed defense’. Just an ostentatious display space walled with Motherlands tapestries and floored with native rugs, furnished with chests and shelves and stands and the occasional salvaged plinth, and populated heavily by taxidermy, suits of armor, and stolen relics. The light came from a single lantern hanging from a hook beside the mystery door.
As much as Zeha wanted to press her ear to that door, putting herself right there was just asking to get caught. She drifted aside instead, scanning the wall into which it was set. Massive piles of stone like this needed their ventilation—and Temharat’s Motherlander-style fortresses were, at under sixty years old, far more architecturally progressive than what she’d heard of their homeland counterparts. She’d seen grated floor-ducts in Sera Kayopti’s room: small but still suitable for eavesdropping. If that really was a secret meeting room, she’d bet that the only place it shared ventilation with was another that was commonly locked.
The left side showed no results—just endless display cases and tapestries. She checked behind and beneath everything she could, pausing occasionally to listen, but the murmur of voices had only dulled, and at last she straightened and dusted herself off.
A glint caught her attention: lantern-light reflecting in the gemstone eye of a temple cat. It had been placed at the back wall beside the head of a broken statue, both of them dust-covered—more stored than displayed. Bitterness rose in her throat. Not enough to rob the Great Valley of its history; this so-called knight-lord had to lock them away some place where they weren’t even cared for. Where only he and his cronies could see them.
Withdrawing her hand into her sleeve, she reached out with it to swipe the dust from the temple cat’s head. At least no money-grubbing adventurer had pried out its faceted eyes.
With the faintest grate of stone on stone, it winked at her.
She jerked back, startled, then caught a laugh before it could escape. “Should’ve expected that,” she whispered to it, inclining her head. “I’ve seen enough of your kind in the jungle, prowling the ruined temples. I thought you needed sunlight, though. Or is that why you haven’t escaped?”
It didn’t move again but she imagined she felt a confirmation. Chewing her lip, she considered the possibility of freeing it—but it had to be at least eighty pounds of stone.
“I’ll think of something,” she told it, then started for the right side.
She’d just stepped onto the central carpet when the outer door swung open.
For an instant, staring at the lantern-bearing figure in the archway, she wanted to scream. Just let out her frustration, ram him down and run away. But it wasn’t that easy, and as she registered his pale hair and youthful features, she recalibrated. This was the Cortellis boy. If the seras were right, then maybe if she swished her hips a bit, or—
Saints alive and dead, I’d rather just whack him with a candlestick.
There was no such thing in reach, but as she attempted to muster up a seductive look, he tilted his head and quirked an odd smile. This close, she could tell he wasn’t full Calastiin—not nearly fey enough, the sharp features she remembered from that crazy nun Sister Astalyn squared and blunted by some other Motherlander bloodline. Still, he wasn’t the big block of meat she was used to seeing from a Sword. He was even shorter than her.
“Dusting, I see,” he said quietly.
She opened her mouth to agree—why not?—but he set a finger to his lips and slipped in, nudging the door almost shut with his boot. A keyring dangled from his other hand, and as he stepped forward he switched his grip to raise a certain key.
Stab me with it? she thought. But as she stepped one way to avoid him, he stepped the other to swing wide of her. Their weird little circle dance ended with him glancing back over his shoulder as he moved to the mystery door.
Then, as if she couldn’t possibly matter to his business, he slotted the key in the lock.
It took all Zeha’s willpower to not just fling herself into the shadows. Instead she eased rightward, getting out of sight of the doorway before he cleared it. As he closed it behind himself, she heard voices rise in argument—with echoes coming from further down the wall.
The vent was behind the taxidermy of a four-horned running lizard. Tucking herself beneath its boldly posed legs, she lowered her ear to the furor. Fortunately they were speaking the Motherlands trade-tongue, not the Swords’ liturgical Tirae.
“…astonishingly drunk, so he gave me the keys and told me to pop in on his behalf.”
That one’s Young Cortellis. He sounded smug and a little drunk himself.
A deeper, angry voice cut in. “You’re not authorized, boy. Tell Aberao that if he can’t be bothered to join us, he won’t be included in the discussion.”
“Oh, I’ll tell him. But! He said I oughtn’t let you bully me, so I want to hear it from the rest of the roster too. Well, Sers? May I be my Lord Aberao’s ears, with a promise to hold my tongue on very serious penalty of death? Or shall I go back and tell him he’s been kicked out of the knitting circle?”
“Don’t push your luck, boy,” said another voice, low and grating.
“Oh, Ser Donarte, good evening! If you’re not aware, I’m a full knight now, and you’re not my father. You can call me Ser Aethan, thank you.”
“If only you could put some of that sharpness into your fighting skills. Get out of here.”
“Another ‘no’ vote! And you, Ser Gormund?”
“You make a mockery of Ser Aberao’s confidence, young ser.”
A sober silence fell. Then Young Cortellis said, “Well. Deciding vote, Ser Ortekis, as this is your fortress. I’ll count all the other scrunched-up faces as a bunch of noes.”
A deep sigh from a large pair of lungs. “Go back to Aberao, Ser Aethan. Tell him direct participation only. And pray tell, how did he manage to drink so much between when I last circulated past him and now? He didn’t even seem tipsy then.”
“I’m sure I can’t say, ser. I’m not his minder. The Judge told me he needs to sleep it off.”
“I see. Well then, Ser Aethan, you are dismissed.”
No more talk, just footsteps. Zeha imagined the bow or salute, the cold looks or snide ones. Then the door clicked shut, and she squinted between the lizard’s forelegs to see the young knight re-lock it. A glance around, a sharp rise and heavy settle of his shoulders, then he made his way to and through the outer door, shaking his head.
In his wake, the voices resumed.
“Blasted Aberao. What does he think he’s doing, sending that brat in his stead?”
“It was probably the boy’s idea. No doubt Aberao’s taken another turn. Been talking about retiring, hasn’t he? Giving up the fortress and going to live in the city?”
“Pathetic. What kind of knight would rather die among peasants than in his fortress?”
“Probably his husband’s idea. And a premature transfer of power wouldn’t be bad.”
“Ha, Rogier, you’d best hope he doesn’t pass the fortress to your son!”
A low sound, half grunt and half growl, was the presumed Elder Cortellis’ reply.
“Not without our approval,” came Ser Ortekis’ smooth voice. “He can only propose candidates; none of them could be ratified until after his death. Still, hopefully he holds on for a while yet. I’ve no complaints with how he runs the northeastern border.”
“Nor I,” said another. “So, just a waiting game. Back to business?”
Zeha did her best to get comfortable as the meeting rolled on. The more they spoke of politics, the more they switched to Tirae, but she still got the gist. And hated it. Foreign-born squatters, they nevertheless spoke of the land as if it was theirs—as if the contracts given by city mayors and territorial governors had transformed this to a part of the Motherlands. Even if they’d had native blood, their Motherlands lineages could not have been rooted here for more than two hundred years, the time of the first trading posts. The drylands nomads, the Great Valley people, the Bird Riders to the south and the Volcano Lord’s servants to the north—their blood had watered this land since before the dawn of time.
To be held in contempt, and spoken of as obstructions to Sword Order operations, was as infuriating as it was unsurprising.
As far as she could tell, their monster-slaying work wasn’t even needed here. The greatest ‘monsters’ on the island were the mad vines and Cursed revenants in the deep jungle. All the rest of their enemies were either lawful defenders like the Volcano Lord’s constructs, or mortal miscreants like the tomb robbers and Verdant Eyes. Even the threat of a new Invasion was handled by the Motherlands’ navy—not a Sword effort. Only the pervasive fear of a revenant uprising kept the Sword Order relevant.
Still, she heard plenty of tidbits to pass on to her handlers. No great moves on the game-board, but it was rare these days that anything earth-shaking happened. Sword numbers rose, then collapsed from some ill-fated jungle expedition; other Orders established bases, gained converts, fought with each other, and were litigated off the island; Clockers debuted new machines, battled laboratory fires from the inevitable explosions, then rebuilt.
And all around them, the Temharatans continued to live this new routine. Some displaced by the First Invasion or the Curse; some where they’d always been. Some keeping the old ways and rites despite the Lady’s demise and Ishal’s disappearance; some joining Orders; some entirely secular now. Some looting and selling relics to rich foreigners; some stealing them and putting them back.
Zeha was contemplating which of the smaller relics to smuggle into their luggage when a low buzz caught her attention. Leaning out slightly, she watched from her hiding spot as a metallic glint slid through the gap of the still-cracked door. It hovered just within the room a moment—that dragonfly!—then cautiously fluttered deeper in.
Well, that’s certainly something. Sera Velitza had said it could only follow the instructions on its ribbon, but there was no way its delicate maneuvering and investigatory dips toward random treasures were coded in. Not unless Sera Velitza had already been in here—and Zeha’d had an eye on her almost the whole day. Not to mention the door had been locked until she, and then Aethan Cortellis, had left it ajar.
What in the world is she doing? she wondered as it zipped in and out of the shadows. Looking for something, obviously, but by the way it only glancingly considered the relics and taxidermies, it didn’t want an object. It focused most of its attention on the walls, fruitlessly tracing the outlines of tapestries and paintings.
Looking for a hidden vault, perhaps? Or…another door?
Closing her eyes, Zeha consulted her inner map. There wouldn’t be another door to the right of the mystery door, where she was; it would only open into the mystery room. The wall behind her and the wall with the outer door both led to hallways. The wall ahead of her, where the dragonfly was currently investigating, divided the trophy room from a storage room that she’d already glanced through. The remaining wall-part—the span to the left of the mystery door—would seem to go into the mystery room as well.
It hadn’t had a vent, though. So she couldn’t confirm that.
She hadn’t seen a door either, but that didn’t mean it didn’t exist—either on this side, or from within the mystery room.
Chewing her lip, she considered her options. She obviously couldn’t burst into the mystery room. She could possibly wait until the knight-lords finished their conference, then pick the lock and look around; she’d been thinking of doing that anyway. If they saw the dragonfly though, they would be on alert.
And there was only one known Clocker in the fortress.
Surely it can hide, she thought. But she could hear its faint buzz even from across the room. What if it couldn’t quiet itself?
What was Sera Velitza looking for?
I should ask her. Get information first, come back once everyone’s asleep. She already knew she could pick the outer lock, and the inner one looked the same. She’d heard enough old-man gossip to nearly put her to sleep, so it was fine to move to a new phase.
Cautiously, with an eye to the mystery door, she crept out of hiding. Dust clung heavily to her maidservant’s dress, and she made a note to sweep the area under the lizard to remove her body-imprint. This place definitely needed proper care.
I’ll get you out of here somehow, she thought in the temple cat’s direction. It was indecent to leave the poor thing to the dust and the dark.
The dragonfly, its tail turned to her, didn’t react as she crept up on it. Either it couldn’t hear or see behind it, or didn’t care about her presence. It was still investigating the wall as she dipped and slipped a hand under it as she’d seen Sera Velitza do. As her fingers clamped on its thorax, its wings stilled, though faint vibration still thrummed through the fine metal bands. There was a tiny key sticking out, and she thumbed it blindly until finally it turned. The vibrations died.
In their wake, she felt the bad-tooth ache of a Cursed crystal.
“Well shit,” she murmured, then bit her tongue hard. The voices behind the door didn’t change, but she didn’t trust that—and didn’t need to be here anymore, anyway. Slippers silent on the dense rugs, she sidled to the outer door, peeked out, then exited and eased it shut.
No one waited outside, the halls dark in all directions. Slowly, she released a sigh.
Then she went looking for Sera Velitza.
It wasn’t a difficult search. The seras’ ballroom gossip had included their opinions on the fortress’s guest accommodations, by which Zeha knew that Sera Velitza was near the women’s wing in a tiny room that had just recently been a servant’s—as she’d been quite the latecomer. Zeha had probably passed it on the way here, and as she retraced her steps toward Sera Kayopti’s room, she eyed the servants’ doors. It would be at the very fringe…
Lamp-light showed beneath a door sandwiched between another servant’s room and a bank of linen closets, the exit to the main hall just a shout away. Zeha leaned close enough to hear a woman’s muffled curses, then steeled herself and knocked.
The voice cut off, then returned much closer to the door. “Yes?”
“Sera Velitza?” Zeha hazarded. She wasn’t sure, but the servants weren’t likely to be burning lamp-oil at this hour.
A pause. “Yes, that is me.”
“Sera, I represent Sera Kayopti. May we talk?”
A longer pause. Then Zeha heard a sigh, and a scrape that she knew quite well. A chair being drawn away from a door. “Certainly. Do come in.”
Zeha frowned. There was something different about Velitza’s accent, though it did sound like her voice. Likewise, being invited in rather than having the door opened for her meant she might be meeting a crossbow—or some exotic Clocker weapon—on the other side.
Still, she braced herself and pushed the door open.
The only weapons that met her were the sera’s eyes, but with the veil discarded, they were enough—like dark daggers. The rest of Velitza’s face was composed, its olive undertone and chiseled cheekbones more evidence she was mixed, but the tumble of her unbound black hair stabbed her with its resemblance to Mili’s. Soft and thick and fragrant…
Bodily though, they were very different, this woman taller than plump little Mili and—in her bed-robe and gloves—fairly svelte, whatever bustier she’d been wearing discarded. Zeha banished her disappointment, nudged the door shut with the hand not behind her back, then curtseyed haphazardly. “I apologize for the intrusion—“
“Do you?” Velitza cut in. “I wonder. You say you represent Kayopti. For what purpose?”
This was why she tried to avoid people-oriented missions. When disarming traps, navigating battered ruins, or identifying hostile flora and constructs, she was one of the Silence’s best. Sent to squeeze information from a pretty woman, though?
There was no point. She drew the dragonfly from behind her back and said, “You’re spying. So am I. Let’s collaborate.”
Velitza’s mouth dropped open.
Then she lunged for it. Zeha let her snatch it away, but avoided the sweep of her other hand, even though it meant backstepping almost to the door. She hated fighting. Velitza didn’t pursue, instead retreating to the narrow bed with its still-packed luggage and something small that gleamed glassily there: a lens? Peripherally Zeha noted there was no window, nor any visible vent—and that, below the edge of Velitza’s bed-robe, she still wore her boots.
“What are you looking for?” she asked quietly. “A place, an object?”
Velitza’s mouth moved, like chewing empty air. Her gaze darted from Zeha to the door she was basically blocking, then back. “I have no idea where you found my wind-up, but—“
“Inside a room that should have been locked, where I didn’t belong either. Sera, I’m sincere. If you’ve some problem with the Swords, my employer and I can sympathize. We don’t want to be tripping over each other if we can find a way to work together.”
“I’m perfectly capable of managing my own business.”
Zeha bit her tongue on a snarky response. If she’d been caught spying, she might behave the same. Thousand hells, I was caught—by that weird young knight. He’d best not tell anyone about me.
Though he hadn’t told the knight-lords’ council, so she felt safe for now.
“Of course,” she said instead, trying to keep a conciliatory tone. “But I think there is only so far that you can go alone. Are you looking for a…hidden room of some sort?”
Velitza narrowed her eyes. “A secret staircase.”
Oh, that’s interesting. “Have you been here before? Or are you following a tip?”
“I’ve been here. A long time ago.”
“Would you tell me about it? Perhaps we can help each other.”
“What’s your interest?” Velitza snapped, but some of the anger had gone out of her, replaced by an edgy bitterness. Likewise, her Merchellean accent had faded to a broader drylands drawl—almost local. “I don’t know you, so you’re not— You weren’t here back then.”
“I’ve never been here before,” Zeha confirmed. “I’m on an intelligence-gathering mission, that’s all. Barring events like this tourney, Fort Ortekis is closed to outsiders. We take our opportunities where we can get them.”
“Who are you with, then? The Gavel? Or the…the weird nuns?”
She tried to imagine a Gavel investigator sneaking around instead of striding up in their official blacks and demanding answers. “The weird nuns, yes. The Silence.”
“So you’re an Order’s dog, even if you’re not a Sword.”
Again, she bit her tongue. She was used to that jab from Mili, among others. Those outside the Orders didn’t understand why she would join one, and those within the Orders rarely understood why she’d chosen the Silence.
Well. Chosen to stay with the Silence.
“We all serve something,” she answered. “In this instance, I serve a group that wants the Swords watched and their authority reduced. Can we agree on that?”
Velitza’s gaze skated away, then back. “Yes.”
“Do you represent anyone?”
She snorted. “Only ghosts.”
“Will you tell me why you’re using Curse crystal?”
Her brows jumped. Then she smiled faintly, eyes hooding in a way that sent an unwanted frisson up Zeha’s spine. “If you tell me how you know.”
I’d have to show you, she thought, but that definitely couldn’t happen. Still, she nodded slowly, and when Velitza settled onto the edge of the bed and beckoned to her, she went. Through the gap of the woman’s bed-robe, she saw a loose dark trouser-leg tucked into the top of one boot—perhaps her idea of creeping-about clothes.
“Shall we take each other at our words?” Velitza asked as Zeha perched cautiously next to her. Not too close. That was dangerous.
“I’d normally advise against it,” she said wryly. “The Silence doesn’t ban us from lying. But I hate the espionage song-and-dance, so yes please.”
“Then you tell me, first, how you know I have Curse crystal.”
That was easy. “I can feel it,” said Zeha. “Any full-blooded Great Valley native could. Even the tiny chip in your dragonfly isn’t so small that—“
“Don’t think you can brush it off so easily.” Velitza sat forward, and Zeha resisted the urge to lean away—or toward, or look at her mouth, or think about the faint waft of perfume from her loosened hair. Her gaze, at least, was unwelcoming. “Any Great Valley could feel it, but could they identify it? How would they have felt it before? I know about your connection to the Cursed Goddess’s moods, and I also know it doesn’t feel the same. Her spiritual presence and her crystallized blood aren’t the same thing.”
Zeha clenched her teeth on an impolite retort but couldn’t keep her lips from peeling back. Clockers were more tolerable when they didn’t realize the ‘valuable power source’ they had their agents steal from the jungle riverbeds was in fact a coagulated fragment of a murdered goddess. “So you’ve been talking with my kin. Good for you. We—“
“They’re my kin too, even if I don’t have full blood. But I do feel it.” Her eyes narrowed to match Zeha’s. “Very keenly—like you must, if you sensed a sand-grain of a crystal. That means you’re tainted. Like me.”
Not like you, thought Zeha angrily. Clockers get tainted by handling Curse crystal, cutting it, grinding it, using it in their stupid projects. I was tainted in the womb. But she didn’t say that. She just said, “Yes.”
Velitza’s brows jumped, and she felt a flush creep up her neck. “Oh, it’s somewhere embarrassing?” the Clocker probed. “I suppose it must be, for you to be considered a viable spy. If it was obvious, you’d be caught out and killed, wouldn’t you?”
“Where’s yours, then?” Zeha snapped back.
To her surprise, Velitza reached into the neckline of her bed-robe and fumbled around. At the shoulder-area, it seemed—but Zeha was suddenly and uncomfortably reminded of her partial falsie, and how Sera Kayopti had told her to stop messing with it. The urge to adjust herself was almost irresistible.
A snap popped, then another. Then Velitza slid her hand free, gripped her other wrist—and pulled the whole forearm and half the upper arm from the sleeve. Still gloved, the artificial limb twitched slightly as she set it aside, metallic filaments wiggling at the end as if seeking a socket. She bunched her sleeve up until the stump showed: scarred and delicately scaled in turquoise and green.
“There’s Curse crystal in the arm too,” she said clinically. “It wouldn’t work like flesh otherwise, but being in contact with its energies—even through wires—causes visible taint. Not that it matters. I’ve been tainted since childhood, when they took me from my parents to test the effect of crystallized and liquid Curse on different kinds of flesh.”
Zeha opened her mouth and found nothing in it. A moment’s stare at that strange stump, then she tried again: “The Clockers?”
Velitza cut her a dark look. “The Swords. The knight-lord who owned this fortress.”
“No. That’s part of the problem. But now it’s your turn.”
As sick as the thought made her, it was only fair. This accursed one-piece maid’s dress wasn’t helpful, though. Go low, obviously, she told herself. No need to flash the poor woman.
Not that she was thrilled to show her thighs or hips or belly to a stranger, but at least she wouldn’t have to deal with the pity the falsie always drew.
All right, just do it.
She pulled one side of her dress and petticoat up, then lifted the edge of her loose-laced false corset, her other hand holding the rest of the skirts down across her knees. The bands of gravemark started just above her right hip, one branch curving across her belly to the left as if tracing her lower ribs, the other slicing almost straight up to her chest. A few little fingers curled around her flank to trace a lacework on her back, but the main masses were a nasty knot just beneath her right side ribs and—still concealed—a star-like formation splayed across her body’s lumpy, inhibited attempt at a right breast.
Like Velitza’s, they were scaly, blue-green.
Unlike hers, they were puckered and thick, like roots made of lizard skin.
“Oh,” said Velitza in a tone of surprise. Then, as Zeha smoothed her dress down, she said, “What’s your name?”
Zeha paused. She was aware that spies weren’t supposed to say, but: “Zehuanali Teipatek. And you’re Velitza Krishalva. Is that your real name?”
The Clocker’s mouth twisted. “It is. And I suppose it’s one of the reasons I know I don’t have any real enemies here. They would have recognized Krishalva, at least.”
Zeha tilted her head. “It doesn’t ring any bells.”
With a sigh, Velitza slid the end of the artificial arm back up its sleeve. “It wouldn’t, if you weren’t there,” she said as she twisted it back and forth, as if blindly trying to fit a key in a lock. “Must have been almost thirty-five years ago now. I was little—just seven. But I still remember this place, no matter how they’ve redecorated.”
Two years older than me, thought Zeha. And not so different an age from when I was sent to the Silence convent. But where the Silence nuns had protected her, gravemarks and all, this woman clearly hadn’t been treated so well.
“What happened?” she nudged gently.
For a moment, Velitza just stared at nothing. Then the artificial arm caught somehow, the gloved fingers twitching and then flexing naturally, and she said, “My parents. Atepen citizens—him a Tiraksi immigrant, her a Great Valley girl. They had been protesting…something, along with a lot of other citizens. Some Sword misbehavior, I don’t remember what. All I really remember is the crowd of people, chanting and shouting…and then all the armored men on their riding lizards, forcing everyone back.
“We were pushed into a courtyard—my parents and I, and some others. Everyone was frightened. The adults hadn’t expected violence. It was our city! But the Swords grabbed us and dragged us to the fortress. I tried to squirm away, but I couldn’t.
“I don’t know what happened to my parents after that.
“I just know that I was taken inside, and up, and through, and then down a tight little spiral staircase into the cold dark depths, where there were rooms full of tables and tools. Tiny cells. Chains. There was a man in a black robe… I don’t remember his name, but I know he was a necromancer. He lived down there with us—the ones they took. Me and another mixed girl, a native girl and boy, and two Motherlander adults. I suppose they couldn’t find any full Motherlands children.
“He kept us fed, and when the Swords came to watch, he experimented on us with Cursed materials.”
“But the Swords—“ Zeha blurted, then stopped herself. Was she really surprised that a Sword lord might discard his vaunted hatred for the Curse and for necromancy if it might gain him something? Still… “It would have been twenty-five years since the Goddess fell and the Curse began. Didn’t they already know what it did to flesh?”
Velitza smirked at her. “Why would a Sword knight-lord trust natives or necromancers outside of his control, when he could see it with his own eyes? Which he did, and often.” She closed hers for a moment, a spasm crossing her features. Her artificial hand clenched hard enough that some Cursework mechanism clicked a warning within it.
Then she exhaled purposefully. “They weren’t original, no. But they were methodical. They doused one of each group with the Cursed water and made the other live over a pit of it. The Motherlanders were eaten up quickly—the man became a swollen scaled thing, and the woman went foamingly mad. I don’t know if they did any crystal experiments on them.
“The native children were nearly unaffected. I think the only thing that changed was the girl’s nails and fingertips, which went turquoise-colored. No scales even, from water or crystals.
“As for me… I was over the water pit first, and I heard the Goddess singing there. But I didn’t go mad. The other mixed-blood, the one they doused—she did, but it was a happier madness than the Motherlanders. She grew scales and sang along with the voice of the water. I wish I knew what happened to her.
“They switched to crystals with me. Tied one to my palm, wrapped my hand up with it. It became like a lizard’s claw, the skin cracking, twisting…” She stared into nothing, false hand flexing, then continued, “I’m not sure how long it took. It was so painful. The change reached my wrist and then stopped—the furthest the pure emanations could go, I suppose. They took the crystal away, monitored the taint… Decided it wouldn’t spread on its own.
“Cut my hand off then, and started again.”
Mouth dry, Zeha glanced along the Clocker’s artificial arm. That was certainly more than a hand. “How many times did they…?”
“Three. After each time, they’d ‘rest’ me over the water pit. Trying to see if it would have an effect on me since I’d been tainted once. It yielded some data, I suppose. Finally, though, they decided there was no point in continuing.
“They planned to kill me, I know. Like they probably did with the others.
“The necromancer didn’t go through with it. I think he knew his work was pointless—just repeating old tests. He brought me out, one night. Not far. I was delirious, but I remember a few rooms, a hall, a window. A woman with great mechanical bat-wings framed against the dark.
“She took me from him, and we flew away. Eventually she became my mother.”
Silence fell, the sera staring at her artificial hand, Zeha watching her profile. The story was a stone in her gut, a swallowed thing that wanted to weigh her down. She hated the Swords, and was here explicitly to work against them, but even so, she hadn’t expected that.
“She was a Clocker, then?” she dredged up at last.
Velitza lifted her head, a brief smile flickering and fading. “A Clocker, but also a necromancer. They’d been students together, her and…the man. She thinks— Thought the Swords disappeared him, because she never heard from him again. She wouldn’t tell me anything more she might have learned. Told me to let go and forget it all.”
“And now you’re here.”
“Now I’m here. I honored her wishes for a year, but I need to honor myself now. This fortress though… These people…”
Zeha grimaced. She couldn’t imagine how the glitter and flutter and laughter must sting. “Do you remember who held the fortress back then?”
“Lord Gavreil. He’s twelve years dead now.”
Nodding slowly, she racked her brain for anything more. She had no messenger-spirit on this mission, else she could send a query straight to a Silence nun. On her own, she had merely the dim sense that the fort had changed hands much earlier. Some kind of scandal.
Not of this severity, though. The Silence would never let that be forgotten.
“Then…you just want to see it?”
Velitza cut her an icy, almost contemptuous look. “I’m here to break into their secret dungeon and make sure nothing like that is happening again.”
She opened her mouth to say How could it be happening, with all the improvements we’ve made? But the Gavel Order only protected those who could reach it, and the Silence only spied on things it knew about. There were more dark corners on this island than anyone, Saint or otherwise, could hope to illuminate.
It also made her wonder if all the knights’ fortresses had been built to the same plan, with the same secret dungeon.
“Well,” she said, “I think it’s clear where the stairs are. If all you mean to do is look, I can help you. But it might be wiser to lodge a grievance with the Law, if you haven’t already…?”
“Saying what?” Velitza snapped. “That I was hurt by a necromancer whom I can’t identify, under the orders of a lord already dead, among fellow victims whose names I never knew? Where is any proof, if not down there? I don’t even know where the rest of my family is—if any still live. There are no Krishalvas within Atepen now, and I can’t remember my matronym.”
Zeha’s heart twinged. She at least still had her father, even if she hadn’t visited his tiny farm in a while. And there were cousins, and more distant relatives, if only she sought them out. If she was solitary, it was by choice—as Mili so often complained. A tumbleweed of a partner.
“And yet, sneaking into a secret dungeon can’t end well,” she told Velitza. “Or are you going to send your dragonfly?”
The Clocker picked up the glass item Zeha had noted before: a monocle in a thin metal casing, faint blue light playing within the lens. “I can’t see through it terribly well, or else I’d have spotted you. Not the same as being there.”
“Down a tiny staircase, into a dead-end place, in the middle of a fortress full of knights…”
“Drunk knights planning their next conquest, and foolish women selling themselves to climb the Sword ladder. Why would they even want that ladder? Where do they think it goes?”
To security, she might have said. To power. To better prospects for their children, setting them free of the Curse in our blood—the part you can’t feel because your parents freed you. Yet Velitza’s scaled stump testified to the Cursed weight she carried, even if it wasn’t the same.
And Zeha had sought her own alternative freedom. Under the cosmetic, Saint Silence’s mark throbbed on her lower lip.
“I can help you a bit,” she said, already kicking herself for the offer. She hated working with others. Hated being treated like an employee when she hired out, or like a hunting dog when sent by the nuns. Hated being invisible and unheard when men took command, or stuck in the midst of a blade-tongued women’s circle. Hated duo trips—getting close enough to someone to learn she wanted to be a hundred miles away, or too close and too comfortable too fast. She even hated the good time—the bright vistas and lush glades, the murals and temples, the moments of cultural rediscovery and remembrance. Because there was someone else’s shadow there. Someone who might ruin it at any time.
Better to be alone, and keep her treasures to herself.
“A bit?” Velitza echoed doubtfully.
“Picking locks. Standing guard.” She wanted to see the secret dungeon too, but she could do that once Velitza had finished her emotional journey. No point in both of them being stuck down there if someone came in.
“In exchange for what?”
“Come with me and report to the Silence. The Law can’t act on such thin evidence, but Saint Silence collects grievances like yours and uses them to guide her gaze. If anyone can piece together your history, it’s us.”
Velitza stared, and as the silence stretched, Zeha fought not to fidget—nor think about how close they were. Finally, the Clocker said, “It’s true I’m an amateur. I always imagined this, but now that I’m here, it’s…stressful. I’d welcome assistance. But I won’t speak to an Order.”
“You’ve spoken to me.”
“Then you can tell them what I told you. I’ll not walk into another cage.”
Her flinty look told Zeha she’d brook no argument—not now. “Fine,” said Zeha, raising her hands, “but I won’t endanger my own mission. If you get in trouble, you face it on your own.”
“As I would have anyway.”
I’m gonna regret this, she thought as she stood and smoothed her dress down. The Clocker wasn’t young, but clearly she clung to a sort of youthful impetuousness, as well as the delusion that facing an old nightmare would let you defeat it. In Zeha’s experience, that just as often turned the screws tighter, the scene repainted with a fresh new coat of remembrance.
“Tomorrow night,” she said. “We’ve messed around enough today.”
That noncommittal sound put her hackles up. So much regret, she thought, resisting the urge to turn and lambaste the Clocker. Velitza wasn’t entirely naive; she had to know what they were both risking. The question was, did she care?
“Tomorrow,” she reiterated. This time, Velitza didn’t even respond.
Never one to take her own advice, Zeha went from the Clocker’s room back to the trophy room. The door was still unlocked, and she winced as she recognized her oversight. If she’d locked herself in, it would have given her a chance to hide before Young Cortellis entered.
Now that meeting hung over her like a sword. Hopefully the knight would be too drink-bludgeoned to remember it in the morning.
She locked it behind her, then crept back to her hiding spot. From the sound of it, the meeting was winding down: mostly laughter, some Tiraen gabble she belatedly translated as bawdy jokes, the clink of glassware. Face cushioned in her arms, dark hair and dress-back turned toward the door, she closed her eyes and just listened.
By the time they all staggered out, she felt stiff as a cadaver. The lock clicked, the last steps faded, and she let another hundred heartbeats pass before she dared to slither out.
The light beneath the mystery door was gone, but that didn’t bother her. In short order, repeating the moves from the outer door, she had it open.
Beyond was another windowless room, full of overstuffed chairs and low tables, drinks cabinets, bookshelves, mounted weapons, and paintings that—despite the lack of light—Zeha was sure were racy. The plush darkness, comfortable now after her long wait, also revealed a rectangular section out-thrust from the room’s near-left corner, with its own door.
She ghosted there, fingers tracing the frame and then the knob, the lock…
And froze as a Law sigil lit up beneath her touch.
“Shit,” she said.
Daylight found her with Sera Kayopti again, managing the older woman’s dress and elaborate looped braids. Having spent her youth in the Silence convent, she wasn’t as familiar with traditional Great Valley styles as she might have liked, but the sera pronounced it: “Good enough. Fortunate to have a hat, hm?”
She put her own hair back in its single simple braid, and shrugged into a new maid’s dress—cramming the dust-thick old one into the bottom of the sera’s luggage. If she had to lurk in that spot again, at least she’d already polished the taxidermy stand clean.
The morning and midday droned on as usual—except, of course, with Sera Velitza now ensconced among the gossipy matrons, her bright green dress making of her a tropical bird among drab doves. She chatted hatless at the awning-shaded table at the outdoor breakfast, veil eschewed in the company of only women.
Zeha tried not to look at her much. Tried not to think how that color matched the scales on her stump, nor how it reminded her of her own marks. Yet no matter how busy she kept among the servants, she couldn’t help sneaking glances—especially at that false arm.
Concealed, of course. Beneath its long glove, it looked entirely natural. Only Cursework could create such perfect mimicry.
Normally, Zeha reviled all uses of the Curse. Whether in liquid form or crystal, it was tangible evidence of the Goddess’s suffering; no one should be exploiting it. Yet Clockers, Verdants and certain Grave Shaper necromancers placed high prices for it, which lured adventurers, tomb robbers and destitute native folk to turn her pain to profit.
She couldn’t blame Velitza for making a working arm of it. If the Goddess’s pain could help someone, perhaps that had value.
The dragonfly and the scrying lens, though, spoke of other experiments, and so Velitza was not innocent. Zeha had spent some time wondering if she could steal the dragonfly from the sera and feed its Curse chip to the temple cat. She’d done that before, to wake them up.
Unfortunately, as long as Sera Kayopti was in public, she couldn’t go sneaking about.
She whispered as much to the sera as she escorted her from breakfast to the tourney-grounds for the first fights of the day. Who was fighting whom and for what, she hardly knew; it was all an interminable blur of riding-lizard jousting, group skirmishes, and duels.
“Well,” murmured Sera Kayopti, “I can hardly go astray when among my delightful new friends. And oh, I believe I’ve forgotten my fan. Fetch it for me, will you?”
She said the last louder, and with a curtsey, Zeha excused herself from the group. She caught Sera Velitza’s head turn toward her, but with veil and hat back on—the seras soon to mingle with the sers in the stands—she couldn’t read an expression.
Still, her spine tingled as she slipped into the quiet of the depopulated fortress.
Men-at-arms dotted the halls, in showy livery and bored expressions. A few raised brows at her, or called greetings or compliments, but she marched like a woman on a mission and none pursued her. Clearly no one had noticed her break-ins, or felt concern over unescorted servants.
Arrogance, she thought. At least it was to her benefit.
The trophy room and its further mysteries would likely be guarded, so she turned the other way, toward Sera Velitza’s room. At this hour, the servants’ area was deserted in favor of the kitchens and laundry, and there wasn’t even a lock on Velitza’s door.
The chamber within was lightless, but that lack let her better feel the faint pulse of Curse crystal in the air. It led her not to the shadowed luggage but to the valise stowed beneath the bed. Her fingers found locks, then coaxed them open.
Within were several dragonflies, the scrying lens, a music box of some sort, various metal ribbons, and other small Clocker oddments all nestled in felted slots. Beneath the lining of the music box’s slot, she found a vial of Curse-chips, their blue-water radiance bathing the room as she drew them free.
Zeha bit her lip. Prudence told her to take just one, for the temple cat’s revival. Justice demanded she liberate them all and return them to the jungle. She’d made such pilgrimages before, to cast chips into waterfalls in lieu of descending to a necropolis. The faithful dead would welcome them, but she just couldn’t trust people—not even sane revenants.
She also dared not alienate Sera Velitza right now. Regretfully, she shook just one into her palm, stowed it in the small pouch tucked down her cleavage, and repacked the valise.
Rescuing the cat would have to wait until the evening.
To Sera Kayopti’s room to fetch a fan, then back to the tourney stands she went, feeling the faint but insistent throb of the chip against her breastbone. Even through the barrier her Silence vows had raised against the Goddess, it still affected her mood, making her sad and angry and hungry all at once.
The crowd was a flutter of fans, a murmur of speculation. Zeha glanced to the field—another group skirmish—then cut her way apologetically through the matrons to her sera’s side. Her stomach twisted to see that bright hat now next to Kayopti’s bland one, but Sera Velitza’s head never turned.
What her eyes did beneath the veil as Zeha handed off the fan, she couldn’t see.
Another interminable wait, punctuated by the clash of arms and the gasps and titters of the crowd. Zeha noticed that the spectators had reorganized themselves: the daughters all dotting the pennant-hung fence like courting doves, the mothers clustered further up the stands to overlook the activity like hawks. As Zeha watched, she saw waiting knights stroll or ride up to the fence in search of feminine tokens. Hands were kissed, handkerchiefs and gloves and ribbons offered, then the young men hustled back to the field to bash at each other.
“Ridiculous, isn’t it?” said Sera Velitza aloud, as if to Zeha’s thought. As the other seras chuckled, she continued, “With luck, one ends up with a husband who only has limb damage. Pity the girl who gave a token to some fellow who gets struck in the head.”
“A token is not a promise,” said another sera primly. “But it can be a dreadful shock to the girls if they take a fancy to one fellow only to see him struck down, yes.”
Another laughed. “Oh, I don’t know. I found that quite charming in my husband. He was a terrible jouster, but he always hauled himself gamely upright. Usually to get knocked right down again. I confess seeing him bested woke a terrible sympathy in my heart. I was beside him all that evening with ice and wine, and we did nothing but talk.”
A sigh fluttered through the crowd. Zeha swallowed her snort.
“No concern for the health of a possible son-in-law?” Sera Velitza nudged.
This ripple of laughter was softer and darker. “Well,” said one sera, “if he’s got a limp, he’s not so quick on the chase, is he? A bad arm, not so strong of a clutch. As long as they enjoy meting violence on each other, I say let them do it.”
Zeha didn’t much trust that reasoning. But it wasn’t her business, so—
“My goodness. Oh, but you’ll have to excuse me,” said Sera Velitza, rising. “I think that pudding disagreed with me. Sera Kayopti, may I borrow your maid, as I’ve not brought one?”
Sera Kayopti flapped her fan. “Of course, of course. I do hope it’s not the pudding. I had two dishes.”
“Perhaps the heat,” offered another. “A dark dress like yours just soaks it in, dear.”
“Perhaps.” Sera Velitza held out her hand and Zeha immediately moved to assist her across the stands and to the steps that led to the fortress. Her fingers tingled from the pulse of the false arm even through the intervening glove.
As they passed the ranks of older knights, several stood in polite offer, but Sera Velitza waved them away. Once on the temporary bridge that led to the battlements, she affected a lean on Zeha that brought her hat-brim against Zeha’s chin. Bright feathers tickled her brow.
“What do you know?” Velitza murmured as their pace slowed.
Concern lanced through Zeha. Did she know about the stolen chip? But surely she wouldn’t be able to feel it through the much greater pulse of her artificial arm. So…an innocent information request? Expecting her to have snooped further?
“The staircase is there,” she murmured, with a dissuading gesture to the watching men-at-arms. No need for their help. “But it has a Law seal, so we need the key. Can’t pick it.”
Velitza staggered to a stop, clutching at her belly, her feathers scraping Zeha’s cheek as she bent slightly. The shudder that went through her must have been stifled rage, but it surely looked like nausea. Zeha had to wave the men off again.
A deep breath beneath the veil, then she straightened slowly. “Well,” she said through her teeth, “I shall have to find the key.”
Memory sparked: an avoidance-dance on pilfered rugs, opposite an odd knight. “Only the knight-lords have them, I think, but one of the lords lent his to a junior knight. Young Cortellis. He might still have it.” She couldn’t recall which knight-lord he had belonged to, or if that fellow had showed up for the tourney today. It wasn’t his father, though. She knew that.
“The very blond one. Calastiin blood, I’m sure.”
“Ah yes, the one who prefers older women?”
Zeha bit down on a Surely not! She’d had to seduce men herself, for various missions. She just had to dose them with hallucinogens once she got them in private, so they couldn’t get handsy with her and discover her falsie—or, Silence forbid, her gravemarks. Velitza just had to keep her gloves on.
“Didn’t look like a brute, at least,” said Velitza, giving her arm a pat. “I can manage him. Now, to the washroom.”
They skirted the concerned men-at-arms, declining an escort, and wended their way to the small but well-appointed women’s bath suite. Couches and tables and mirrors cluttered the antechamber, obviously shifted there recently for the vast influx of female guests. Zeha glanced automatically into the bathing area, but no one was around.
“No other way?” asked Sera Velitza as she checked her face in a mirror.
“Not unless you can take a door off its hinges when the hinges are on the other side. And that would probably trigger the Law seal and alert someone.”
“Mm. I quite likely could knock the door down, but not without fuss. Do you know anything else about Young Cortellis? Or his lord?”
“He’s on the outs with his father. Disowned. Mm…” Zeha squeezed her eyes shut, trying to remember. “His lord might be the one married to the Judge?”
“Well. Can’t seduce the lord, then.”
“If you say. I really can’t help you with a seduction.”
“No?” I’ve found that teaming up on men makes them far more tractable.”
A flush crept up Zeha’s neck. She cleared her throat, then said with self-conscious primness, “No, thank you.”
Sera Velitza laughed softly and pushed away from the mirror. With her veil lifted, her eyes twinkled in the light from the high windows. “Truly, it wouldn’t be that onerous. I’d do most of the flirting. You’d just need to be close—very close—until we got to a room, and then you could check his clothes for keys after I got them off him. If we catch him a few drinks in, he’ll never notice.”
“And what if he’s not a drinker?” The flush hadn’t subsided. Just the thought of being in that situation made her skin prickle with mixed interest and revulsion. “Or doesn’t have the key on him?”
“Well, is he rooming here, or on the field?”
Zeha bit her lip. That, she didn’t know. She’d seen the tents of the knights-errant arrayed across the rocky landscape beyond the tourney-ground when she’d arrived, and now supposed that they must go back there to sleep. To carouse as well, as she hadn’t heard them rousting drunkenly about the fortress after hours. Had only seen Cortellis.
“Perhaps with his lord?” she offered. “They’re housed in the other guest wing.”
“In separate chambers, I hope.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
Sera Velitza exhaled exasperation, then smiled. “Well, I’ll squeeze it out of him. You’re sure you won’t join? I might have to run off rather quickly afterward, and I’d hate to miss you. You’ve been…interesting.”
Sera, this is not the way to flirt with me, she thought as she pasted on a smile of her own. Even if she hadn’t had Mili to think about, she could taste the manipulation—not to mention the Curse chip beating like a tiny heart against her chest.
“Perhaps we’ll cross paths again,” she answered. “Without knights in the way.”
“Mm, there’s a thought.”
Just go! Exit! her nerves shouted.
Alas, her role demanded she escort the sera back. So she simply waited, still wearing that faint false servant’s smile, until Velitza gave a huff of concession and took her arm again.
Out they went, to rejoin the gossiping hawks.
In her servant’s position, Zeha could listen but not comment, which was just as well. She already knew Sera Velitza wouldn’t be cautioned—not when Young Cortellis got thrashed out of the competition in his third duel and limped back to the lower stands to sit the rest out. To everyone’s surprise but hers, Sera Velitza rose, professed an interest in speaking to him, then swanned down the steps with her fan flicking idly—a cat’s tail of premeditated predation.
“Well now, what is that about?” murmured Sera Kayopti to Sera Yepakten as the whole rank of elder matrons looked on.
Sera Yepakten snorted indelicately. “She’s taking your advice, of course. And may she enjoy it. The boy’s got no future, but I daresay she has no need of a man’s contribution beside the physical, and he’ll be far fresher than those louts still scuffling in the dust.”
“Keeps the marriageable girls from an unwise match as well,” murmured another.
“Indeed. He’s got a nice face. Can’t let them be snared by that.”
Zeha wasn’t accustomed to pitying men, but she couldn’t help it.
From afar, it was difficult to guess what was being said. She couldn’t see Sera Velitza’s face, and her shadow eclipsed his expression more often than not. Still she saw when his polite smile spread into a grin, and the way he pressed his hand to his breastplate. There was a gesture toward the field of tents, then another toward the fortress, then a questioning hoist of his helmet—as if to ask whether she liked it.
“’Keep it on during sex’,” a matron supplied in an undertone, to the titters of the others.
Zeha cursed herself and tore her gaze away. Why in the world was she staring as if jealous? She’d bowed out of Velitza’s plan, and she didn’t care one whit about the knight. Even if she had, she wouldn’t warn him. Velitza’s quest wouldn’t hurt anything but his pride.
This wasn’t even his fortress.
Focus on your own mission. And how to smuggle that cat out. Even if I animate it, will it listen to me? She’d encountered a few among jungle-choked ruins, but they’d all been sun-sated and felinely unhelpful. She didn’t know if this one would stick with her or not. If it ran off and was spotted, it could draw scrutiny to the trophy room and the mystery chamber beyond.
Thus, we plan for contingencies.
Men-at-arms, cat-recalcitrance, tripping over Velitza or the knight, the lords holding another meeting, being spotted, escape routes…
She closed her eyes and focused on brainstorming.
The tourney adjourned at midday for cold drinks, shaved ice and shade. Zeha escorted Sera Kayopti across a bridge with other seras and seritas, aware without looking that Velitza was walking on Knight Cortellis’ arm—because the seras wouldn’t stop talking about it.
“I’d wanted to ask her how Clockers make ice in this climate,” a sera pouted as the fluttering crowd paused outside the fortress entry. On a different pedestrian bridge, Velitza’s green dress and Cortellis’ bright armor passed from sun into shadow and disappeared.
“Well, nothing to do but benefit from it,” said Sera Yepakten, then turned a sharp look to her daughter, who was staring at another armored figure on the far bridge. All of the girls were back with their mothers, where they would remain until the evening’s dance. More than a few seemed to envy Velitza’s autonomy. “Ices, my girl,” she added briskly. “When do you get those back home, hm?”
“Yes, Mama,” said Serita Yepakten meekly.
The women’s parlor wasn’t quite as haphazard as the washroom, though most of the furnishings had clearly come from a men’s parlor—the fabrics dark and hard-wearing and very Motherlands-style. Thujaan, Zeha thought, which would suit Ser Ortekis’ origin; he spoke the trade-tongue with a decidedly Thujaasi accent. She had to wonder how recently he’d immigrated, as most island-born Swords’ accents sounded like Tirae.
Typical of their Order. Home-grown fortress lords might be tempted to admit full-native knights into their ranks. Transplanted ones would never go against their leadership, even distant.
The lord who had persecuted Velitza, her parents and the other victims would have been a transplant as well. What had happened to him after his ouster? She doubted he’d been publicly punished; the Swords never turned their own over to the Gavel Order if they could avoid it. Most likely he’d been quietly ordered back to the Motherlands and replaced.
So it wasn’t impossible that the experiments were still going on…
Stop it. Not my mission.
But if Saint Silence knew about it, it would definitely become my mission.
And if I report back about it and say I didn’t investigate…
Well, I don’t have to mention it. She’s refused to speak to us, after all.
Kayopti will definitely mention Velitza in her report, though. And I can only massage the truth so much. So…
Those poor people. Even the Motherlanders. If it really is still happening…
She glanced up from her spot behind Sera Kayopti’s chaise lounge. The girls were clustered around tables of iced drinks and sweets, debating the merits and flaws of the young men they’d been watching. Most of their mothers meanwhile were stretched out, fanning themselves or being fanned and looking slightly melted. The other maidservants fetched drinks and cushions and removed shoes or loosened bodices as required.
Sera Velitza was not in attendance.
Concern crept up Zeha’s spine. She can’t be trying for the keys now. Wasn’t she planning to get him drunk at dinner? And even if she does get him, there are men-at-arms everywhere right now. They won’t let her go to that wing.
Then again, she hadn’t seemed like a patient person.
Calm, she cautioned. Maybe she’s just in the washroom.
That excuse seemed ridiculous even to her.
She chewed her lip a moment, caught herself at the taste of cosmetic, then made a decision. Leaning down, she murmured to Sera Kayopti, “There might be a situation. I should investigate. If you please, can you beg off for a nap?”
Sera Kayopti swiveled a look at her, the wrinkles deepening around her dark eyes. Zeha couldn’t tell if it was annoyance or amusement, but after a moment she sighed and propped herself up on her chaise lounge. “My dear sisters-at-arms,” she proclaimed, “I regret that I must yield this battlefield to you. Not that I’ve my own daughter to scuffle with yours, but I’ve been enjoying all our slung barbs. Yet I feel the heat’s gotten to me. I’ll need a proper rest or I’ll miss the whole evening, I’m sure. Don’t miss me too much, darlings.”
A ripple of sympathies and farewells ran through the gathering as Zeha helped Sera Kayopti to her feet. The older woman made a show of hobbling out. Once past the door and free from view, she straightened—though not entirely, and Zeha registered with some surprise that her weariness wasn’t feigned.
“Don’t make that face, girl,” said Kayopti as they eased toward the guest wing. “Not everyone spends their free time prancing through the jungle, fighting bloodvines and rediscovering lost temples. Some of us stay indoors all day long and have lost our endurance for this sort of thing. Bless the sky that it’s not summer.”
“This is a tedious sort of event too,” Zeha supplied. “I can understand—“
“Oh no, no, I delight in this sort of thing. In winter, though. These should definitely be done at the edge of winter.”
“Well, I’ll just see what cooling things I can find for you while you rest in your room, hm?”
Sera Kayopti laughed softly and patted her arm.
She deposited her handler in bed, adjusted the curtains, then slipped into the empty hall. The question now was, where had Sera Velitza and her prey ended up?
Not in a knight’s tent. They’d come inside, so she had to assume they were still here. Not in Sera Velitza’s tiny room, surely…
Perhaps in the other knight-lord’s suite, then. What was his name? Ser Aberao?
She tried to remember if she’d seen him and his husband the Judge today. Not that she’d been looking, but they were a notable pair. They would have been seated with the rest of the elder knights and lords if so. Had the seras commented on their absence? She hadn’t been paying attention.
She thought to ask Kayopti—but no, the older woman needed her rest, and it was her only lead anyhow. She would seek out Ser Aberao.
Men-at-arms proliferated in the fortress’s central corridors, barring access to the upper floors—which included the trophy room. They did not bar her from the knight-guests’ wing, though; all she needed to do was curtsey and mention a message for Ser Aberao, and the men-at-arms stationed there gave her directions and a cheerful caution about the men’s baths.
Zeha had absolutely no interest in getting accosted by wet, naked men, so her thanks were sincere as she slipped through to follow the trail.
Ser Aberao’s suite was on the far side of the wing. The eastward windows glared at her from the end of each hall, their light dimmed by indirectness but no less sharp; the air was still and warmer than in the women’s wing, which had yet to see much sun. Not terribly comfortable, but quiet with the young knights presumably in the baths and the elders likely in some parlor with their own cold drinks. She felt nearly—
An armored figure passed between her and the windows, halting her. It moved straight down a cross-corridor, but she stood a moment longer in its wake, waiting for her pulse to slow.
Silly. I’m permitted here, and not doing anything wrong.
Saints, I hate these kinds of missions.
A knotted scarf of Ser Aberao’s colors, green and silver, hung from the lantern-hook beside his door. Zeha listened a moment at the keyhole, but heard nothing, and while a scan of the hallway showed her several other doors, she wasn’t sure which if any belonged to this suite.
I should go listen at the others first.
But what if I hear—
Well then, I’ll know.
Yet there was no sound to catch behind any of them, and the one furthest down the hall—unlocked—opened into an empty guestroom, the bed-frame bare. The middle door was locked from within, no keyhole on the hall side.
Then where are they? Certainly not in the knight-lord’s own chambers…right?
Reluctantly, she knocked.
A faint noise, then silence. As it lengthened, she raised her hand again, wrestling with whether to knock or leave—then caught the soft tread of slippers behind the door. The latch clicked and the door eased open just enough for a man to peer through.
The Judge, she knew instantly—not just because she’d seen him. She hadn’t gotten close enough to tell his chiseled features and beetled brows from any other older native man, but the cool weight of his dark gaze felt like a chain being draped across her shoulders. The black robe of the Gavel Order was almost redundant.
“Yes?” he said in heavily accented trade-tongue, then blinked and switched to Great Valley. “What do you need, miss?”
Zeha curtseyed automatically. “I apologize for the disruption, Your Honor. My mistress was seeking young Ser Cortellis, whom she understands to be part of Ser Aberao’s entourage…”
“In a way, yes.” The Judge frowned. “He’d best not be giving any of the seritas the wrong idea. We’ve discussed this. He agreed that until he’s established himself independently, he must not make any romantic overtures.”
“He’s not independent? But surely he’s of age,” said Zeha. “He’s been knighted.”
The Judge waved that off. “Knighthood does not confer maturity. He doesn’t wish to stay in our garrison, but in my opinion he’s still too young and erratic to be on his own. We’re— Well, nevermind. Private business.”
Zeha nodded. “Forgive me, Your Honor, but do you know where he is?”
“I’ve not seen him since this morning, when he came to check on us.”
“He’s not rooming with you?”
“Indeed not. Independence, you see? He’s out with the rest of the knights-errant.”
Except they’re apparently in the baths, and he escorted Velitza inside where she was definitely planning to seduce him, and— She suddenly remembered the armored figure slipping off down the cross-hall. Had that been him? What had happened to Velitza?
“If he wasn’t,” she blurted, “is there somewhere else he’d be? Here in this guest wing?”
The Judge’s brows rose over narrowing eyes. “What is your interest? Honestly now.”
The Silence mark twinged on her lip. The Judge hadn’t laid down any overt Law magic, but telling her to be honest was warning enough for her Saint. “He went off with an acquaintance of mine,” she stated carefully, “and I’m concerned it was a bad idea.”
His expression was, briefly, the perfect image of a headache. Then he exhaled and tapped his chin. “I wouldn’t put it past him to borrow an open room for an assignation. There was another knight-lord who sent an apology, but I’m not sure where his suite was meant to be. I’ve not wandered. Bekem is—“ He cut himself off, then continued, “There won’t be colors by the door, whichever it is. I expect to hear it if you can’t find him.”
“Your Honor,” she agreed with a curtsey.
“And if you do find him, tell him we expect to see him immediately!”
Another curtsey, already backing away. The Judge let her, though she felt his eye on her as she turned up the hall she’d just come down. This was a cul-de-sac of rooms, the opposite suite showing a red-and-gold knot. Nothing more to find here.
The hall that armored figure had come from…
Anxiety tightened her chest and quickened her stride. She hooked around that corner, glad there were no sentries within the wing. The last thing she wanted was to explain her concerns—because then she’d have to think about them.
He didn’t seem dangerous. No one talked about him like that. But he’s still a knight, and who in all the thousand acknowledged hells would trust a knight to not get violent?
And then just walk off…
One side of this hall was a suite with a gold-and-violet knot. The other suite was unmarked.
Breath catching in her throat, Zeha ghosted to the door. No sound greeted her straining ears, but her hand on the latch found it unlocked.
Carefully she eased inside. The sitting room lay in dimness, the curtains drawn across the tall windows, but it was impossible to miss the feathered hat cast negligently onto the couch, the glove dropped before the closed bedroom door.
Her head swam. Forcing herself forward, she shoved that door open.
There was a body on the bed. Spread-eagled, pale in the shadows—
“Hey!” croaked a shout-roughened voice, one arm yanking at the fancy scarf that bound it. “Hey, whoever’s there, help me!”
She blinked, slowly processing the lack of corpse and the presence of probably-naked man; the familiar green dress draped across his hips made that detail unclear. Her first coherent thought was, Velitza brought four scarves? Because clearly she had: the knight was trussed to all four bedposts. But nothing else made sense, because there was Velitza’s fan and slip and…
“Hey, please? I’d really appreciate the help, especially if you don’t tell anyone. …Hello?”
It was definitely him. And there were his boots and his sword, but nothing else.
She turned around.
“Hey!” he yelped. “No, wait! Help help help help help!”
One foot across the threshold, she stopped. She wanted to run after Velitza, well aware now of what she was trying to do—but he sounded like a crying puppy. She was far behind the Clocker anyway. Loosing one of his hands wouldn’t set her back much further.
“Thanks,” he said breathlessly as she moved to a bedpost. “I was worried it’d be one of my asshole comrades. Never live that down. Did you see her? She ran off in my armor! Not the first time I’ve been rolled, but the first time for that! I mean, why?”
Zeha dug her nails into the knot, grimacing. Velitza had tied it tight, and the knight’s yanking hadn’t helped. She might need to show her knife. “Couldn’t guess.”
“The padding too. I thought this was just…”
His words dried up. Zeha fought not to roll her eyes. He’d certainly thought something, having let her do this. There was no scent of knockout powder or other sign of duress.
“Hey, is she all right?”
That paused her, and she glanced sidelong to meet his unguarded gaze. “You know her,” he stated. “I saw you talking. She’s been a mystery since she arrived, and she was flirty—well, more than flirty… Well, obviously. But as soon as she tied the knots, she flipped like a coin. Absolutely serious, wouldn’t say a thing. And she has a metal arm!”
His tone, somewhere between admiration and concern, was all that kept her from quitting the knot and smothering him. As it was, she’d lost patience. “If you actually care, then keep this to yourself,” she said as she reached into her dress to draw out the sharp, flexible metal strip that was her hidden knife.
“Oh, absolutely,” he said as she sawed through the fabric. “Nobody needs to hear it. But uh, could you tell her I need my armor back? It’s my only set, and it’s expensive.”
“All right, well—“
The scarf parted. She dropped the knife next to him and pushed off from the bed, sure that this had been a terrible idea. All of it, since she’d first arrived to Fort Ortekis.
“Thanks!” he called as she quick-marched from the room.
She made it to the cross-hall before stopping to think. Velitza could only have one destination right now. Cortellis’ armor could probably get her past the men-at-arms, but there was no guarantee—and Zeha had no such disguise. The servants’ stairs could only get her so far.
Thousand hells, she thought, and headed that way anyhow. She could at least get eyes on the trophy room and try to figure out what had happened.
The two wings were perfect mirrors of each other. She ducked down the hall and into the menservants’ area, walking quickly and hoping her confidence would keep anyone from stopping her. Her maidservant’s dress didn’t quite match the fortress staff’s, but it was close enough, and she was fairly sure there were new maids here specifically to tend the female guests.
Next time we want a spy, we should actually get one on the payroll, she thought as she took the spiral stairs upward. Then again, she had no real job to do and no superior beside Sera Kayopti. A proper employee wouldn’t have her freedom.
Through the menservants’ area again, quietly blessing the time of day. They all seemed to be away, perhaps assisting in the men’s baths or setting up for the next meal. Or advising the fortress lord; the quarters were larger on this floor, for higher-ranking servants. The top floor, the fourth, would be dedicated entirely to the lord and his family.
At the exit door, she peered through cautiously and saw the back of a strolling man-at-arms. Her heart lurched, then settled. Saints, what if I’m wrong and she just…
What? Stole Cortellis’ armor and joined the tourney? No, there was only one answer.
She’d only been up here once in daytime, and that on the guided tour. She wasn’t sure where all the posts were, so waited irritably as the man-at-arms sauntered along. Roving patrol, or heading back from the toilet? She didn’t see a partner.
Finally he turned a corner and she dared to slip out and creep onward. There was no brazening this trek, but the rugs softened her footfalls and light came only dimly down the hallways. If she’d had her chameleon-skin cloak…
There was no point in wishing. Cautiously, she picked her way through the interior until at last she reached a mirror-familiar corner. Crouching low, she peeked around it.
There was the trophy room door, closed and seemingly unguarded.
Her mouth dried. That wasn’t right.
Walking toward it felt like pacing a tightrope. If someone turned either corner, they couldn’t help but see her. If she’d misjudged this…
But as she came closer, she saw that the small rug in front of the door was bunched untidily against it, and felt a sinking sensation in her gut. Someone had been dragged.
The door was locked.
“Of course it is,” she muttered as she slipped her lockpicks out. “She has the key, and she’s not dumb enough to just leave it open for someone to intrude.”
Velitza’s persuasion technique became evident once Zeha opened the door. She hadn’t bothered to drag the sentries far; they both lay sprawled on the rug just inside. Kneeling, Zeha could smell the herbal knockout concoction the Clocker had applied to their upper lips. There was also a faint tang like lightning, which might explain how she’d gotten them down to start. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d seen a Clocker zap someone off their feet.
But the presence of sentries meant it was only a matter of time before someone came to check in with or replace them. Finding the door locked might mean they went looking for the missing men elsewhere—or went straight to the fortress lord.
“I hate this,” Zeha muttered as she re-locked the door in her wake.
In contrast, the door to the mystery room stood boldly open. Zeha started for it—then detoured, recognizing that this might be the last time she could come in here.
The gem-eyed temple cat was waiting right where she’d left it. “Accept this as my offering,” she murmured as she tapped the Curse chip from its little pouch and slid it between the stone teeth. “I don’t expect you to help me, but if you’d like to, it would be appreciated.”
The small mouth closed, the light from the chip vanishing—to be reborn in the cat’s eyes, the turquoise glow of the Goddess’s blood transmuted into ruby beams. She backed up as the cat arched in a luxuriant stretch, its only sound the faint sough of shifting sand.
“If you’d rather, I’ll unlock the door,” she said, but the cat jumped down from its plinth to rub against her shin—like being sandpapered—then sauntered for the mystery room.
“Certainly I appreciate the company,” she told it, and followed.
Within, the cat’s red eyes illuminated more than she’d seen before. She wished she could have grabbed some books and papers, but the corner door was also standing open, a narrow staircase revealed, and there was nothing to do but go down it. The cat preceded, its eye-lights casting crimson smears down the dark stone spiral.
Down and down and down—three floors at least, into the dungeon level or more probably below it. Zeha was contemplating her recommended revisions to the Silence’s maps when she caught the sound of sobs from below.
One voice. Female. She reached for the sympathetic softness Mili so often told her she lacked, and found mostly frustration. There was a reason she wasn’t sent on delicate missions.
Light glowed around the last turn of the stairs, leading her into an antechamber of empty doorways and featureless plastered walls. A lantern set on the floor illuminated the armored figure that had to be Velitza, on her knees and bent double with arms wrapped around her middle. A clockwork dragonfly clung to her shoulder, motionless; the keys lay discarded nearby.
Cautiously, Zeha followed the cat’s tap-tapping steps forward. If there had been any odor in this place, it was gone now, and the stone floor was dusty but stainless. Velitza’s unsteady bootprints traced her path in and out of each side-room and to the chambers beyond. All Zeha could see as she drifted to her side was more plaster, more empty arches, more barren space.
Curled in on herself, Velitza didn’t respond to Zeha’s soft call, nor to the hand she set on her dragonfly-free shoulder. She was wearing Cortellis’ helmet, which with her cloud of hair must have been like weeping in a jungle.
Biting her lip, Zeha looked back up the stairs, then after the cat as it prowled deeper into the secret dungeon. Another glance for Velitza, then she yielded to duty and followed it.
Was it truly what Velitza had described? She could imagine the Cursed water-pits, the tiny cells, the amputation tables—but all that remained was the space, smoothed and filled and whitewashed and sealed away. No evidence, no residue, no perceivable ghosts.
Whatever crimes had been done here, the Swords had erased them.
A tremor went through her. She’d already hated the Swords; their view of people like her, born to dead mothers, made them automatic enemies. But she’d thought them mere brutes—an immediate danger, not an insidious one. And the Law seal… It was possible that whichever Judge or clerk had placed it hadn’t known about the dungeon, but also possible that they had. Were there files on the subject in some nearby court? Saint Judgment was widely considered to be incorruptible, but that purity did not automatically extend to her faithful.
She had to report this. She didn’t love the Silence Order, but she trusted its priorities. Despite her gravemarks and Velitza’s lack of them, she was the one with both arms.
Swallowing, she tasted salt, and dashed her sleeve across her eyes. The temple cat was already padding back to her, clearly bored with its surroundings. “Well, it was your choice to come with me,” she told it, wincing at the croak in her voice. “Let’s get her out of here.”
The cat bobbed its head in understanding.
Velitza didn’t look up at her approach, though her sobs had ended. Zeha stooped to pick up the keys and lantern, then considered her bent head.
“Come to the Silence,” she offered again. “We might be able to do something.”
Velitza shook her head mutely, then struggled to get her feet under her. Zeha hooked the other woman’s arm, and together they got her upright, her head still sagging within the helm.
“Then let’s get you out of here and back into your clothes, at least,” Zeha told her, turning her stair-ward. “I hope you have another outfit. You left everything with that boy. He said he won’t tattle, but I trust that about as far as I can throw a llama. —Shit, I should at least have grabbed your slip while I was there, I’m sorry.”
Velitza said nothing, but when Zeha tugged her arm, she went. Ascending the stairs was far worse than the descent, as any time Zeha let go, Velitza stopped in her tracks. The cat didn’t help, darting up and down the steps like a hyperactive hyper-heavy kitten. The first time it knocked against her shins, she nearly fell over, and spent the next floor or so cursing its flirty tail.
It led the way out the open door without qualm, so she didn’t hesitate either, heading lantern-first through the mystery room and then into the trophy room. The sentries lay where they’d been dropped, one now snoring faintly.
She took and released a deep breath. If their luck held, they could sneak to the maidservants’ side, down those stairs, and straight to Velitza’s room. Get her out of that armor and deposit it somewhere to be found by a proper servant.
Then it was Cortellis’ problem.
“I’m going to lock the doors,” she told Velitza. “If we see anyone, I’ll just walk behind you like an attendant, and hopefully no one will ask questions.”
Velitza said nothing.
I hope I don’t have to drag her along, she thought as she hustled back to the secret door. Turning the key in the lock made the Law seal light up on the dark metal. She wondered suddenly if all these secrets were already known and resolved—a thirty-five-year mystery not really a mystery at all, even to the Silence. Already dealt with so long ago that no one had bothered mentioning it.
Well, even if so, Velitza’s testimony will add more to the records. The nuns might yet praise me. Won’t that be a nice change.
Something crunched in the trophy room—a brief wooden splintering sound. Her hackles sprang up. In a moment she was through the mystery door, but the trophy room door stood open and Velitza—and the cat—were already gone.
A scream of frustration bubbled up her throat. She swallowed it hard. Get out, lock the inner door, get away from the room and the restricted zone. Figure it out from there.
This she proceeded to do, brisk and businesslike, the keys finding their home in a pocket of her dress once she’d closed the outer door with its splintered frame. No sign of Velitza or the cat in the hall. She didn’t know if the Clocker had calculated the shifts or if they were all just lucky, for there continued to be no outcry as she cut through the back halls and into the safety of the maidservants’ space. She did nearly collide with a maid there, taking a corner too quickly by the stairs, but the young woman merely squawked and tucked out of her way, and she continued at her ferocious clip. Hopefully that one would think no more of it.
Down the stairs—
She looked up. If she’d been Velitza, devastated and in pain and left without answers, she wouldn’t just go back to her room and prepare to escape. There was one person in this fortress who might yet know the fates of the former prisoners. At this time of day, he could be anywhere—but he would have a study, and records of some sort. Velitza might not have the keys, but unless she came up against another Law seal, she could clearly let herself in.
It was a coin-flip, but a safe one. A Velitza down in her room probably wouldn’t cause trouble even if left alone, while a Velitza upstairs…
Cursing, she ignored the ache of her legs and headed upward.
The servants’ room on the top floor was little more than a supply closet. Peeking through the door showed her a lavishly appointed bathing room—currently empty, as were Sera Ortekis’ private chambers beyond. Out the sera’s door put her on a short horseshoe-shaped balcony overlooking the grand staircase.
Coming up that staircase in scuffed boots, a swordbelt, a lacy slip and a frustrated expression was Aethan Cortellis. Two men-at-arms trailed him with visibly diminishing enthusiasm, halting midway up the stairs even as he reached the top and stormed along the balcony toward the knight-lord’s side of the floor.
“Ser!” she called sharply, without thinking. Cortellis slowed, glancing toward her—as did the men-at-arms. She forced herself forward in her best facsimile of a head maid’s stride, catching one edge of her skirt up in a half-curtsey.
“Ser,” she said quietly but rapidly as she neared him, “you can’t be out like this. I promise I’ll make sure she returns your gear, but—“
“Nice promise, but I just saw her march up here in it,” he hissed back. His pale eyes reflected her lantern’s light like coins. “She forgot all this though, so I thought I’d bring it to her. Get the trade done right.” He nodded to the pile of clothes draped over his arm, hat included; his free hand rested on the hilt of his sword. “Anyway, not the first time I’ve worn a dress.”
She had no energy for this. “You saw her?”
“Yes. Following a bird or something.”
“A—“ The dragonfly. Velitza probably had the spy-lens in her eye under the helmet. It was the best explanation for how she snuck around so successfully. “Look, ser, I will sort this out, but you and your sword won’t help. I need you to go back downstairs and…and not be involved.”
He stared at her, lips slowly quirking upward. She felt abominably aware of both his proximity and the eyes of the sentries still upon them. “I noticed I’m also missing a set of keys,” he said at last. “I need them. They’re not actually mine.”
She pulled them from her pocket and thrust them at him, forcing him to release his sword. “Deal?”
“The armor. Tell her—“
“Yes, I know. Now will you please go?”
His eyes crinkled at the corners. “This has been fun. Some day, I’d like to know what in the hells it was about.” With that, he turned in a swirl of slip-skirt and strode back across the balcony, toward the trepidatious sentries.
Zeha didn’t wait to see what happened. She just walked—decorously, seriously—out of sight of the stairs and deeper into the knight-lord’s territory. Stained glass panels cast rainbowed light in her path, the time still approximately midday. All of this idiocy had happened so fast.
Past an empty sitting room with great mountain-facing windows. Past a set of double-doors that likely led into the lord’s bedchamber-suite. Voices reached her thinly, and she followed them around a corner to where worried silhouettes clustered before another door.
“What is this?” she demanded at the collected menservants. All but one were native, and that one—tall, spare, grey-haired—she recognized as the house manager from the tour. He didn’t seem to recognize her, which was welcome.
“None of your business, I’m sure,” he said coldly.
“A strange person in armor marched in and demanded to see the lord! And there was a temple cat!” blurted a manservant, then clammed up under the manager’s scowl.
“That would be my employer,” Zeha jumped in. The cat’s presence explained why none of the native men were keen on intruding, but she doubted the manager had enough respect to hold off for long. Not with the shouting she could hear even through the heavy woodwork. “A bit overwrought, I’m afraid. With your permission, I shall collect that one and be off.”
The house manager’s lip curled. “I cannot give permission. My lord ordered us out. Until he calls—“
“You have a duty to him. I respect that. And I have a duty to my employer. From the sound of it, someone will be called for soon, but it will be to no one’s benefit to let it get that far. Is the door locked? You can tell your lord that I forced past you.”
As the house manager scoffed, another man said, “It’s not locked.”
“Good.” Zeha lunged for the door, holding the lantern like a shield to ward off their hands. Someone snatched it from her grip, someone else grazed her braid—
Then she was through, the servants a tangle of limbs in her wake. She kicked the door shut on them, hoping beyond hope that the lord’s injunction would keep them back. If she’d been them, she’d scatter off to work and say she’d heard nothing.
She crossed the small room beyond—all leather chairs and pipesmoke residue and light leaking through shuttered windows—to the far door through which the shouts came. It wasn’t locked either. What am I doing? screamed her nerves even as she thrust it open.
Neither human occupant of the office beyond turned to look at her, too locked in their stand-off. The temple cat on the windowsill glanced over, then returned its ruby gaze to the two: armored Velitza halfway around the desk to confront Ser Ortekis, who’d just pulled down the sword from its display-spot on the wall.
“What is this?” Zeha snapped, if only to pause them.
“Call my guards,” Ser Ortekis growled, not looking at her—obviously mistaking her for a real maid. “This fool is bound for the dungeon.”
“Which dungeon?” Velitza snarled back. Even with the faceplate down, Zeha knew her teeth must be bared, her eyes gleaming like chipped obsidian. “I’ve already seen the secret one. How many people have you murdered down there, then whitewashed over afterward?”
“I’ve told you, that was neither my business nor my problem! Address your complaints to the Gavel Order—you’ll be seeing them soon enough.” The blade gleamed as he unsheathed it, Berenite sigils kindling along its length. A monster-slaying sword. “Provided you yield, that is.”
“Your fortress was nearly my tomb, and I will haunt it as I wish! All you Swords are the same! If you weren’t complicit in that, you are in something else!”
“Wench,” said Ser Ortekis levelly, angling out from behind the desk, “you have no hold over me. I can’t fathom why you would throw yourself away like this, but I don’t much care either. Kneel and yield.” His gaze flicked to Zeha, then back to his enemy, but he cast to her: “Maid, what did I tell you? Get the guards!”
A glance from him to seething Velitza, to the dragonfly circling behind the man, to the temple cat still carelessly observing, told her this would not be defused. Zeha took a slow step back, gripped the office door, and eased it shut.
A key sat in the lock. She turned it.
Now what? shrieked her disregarded caution. We’re trapped!
No. Never trapped while there was a window. But Velitza…
“For crimes against the people of this land and of your own kind, I condemn you,” the visored Clocker spat. “You may cage the truth, file it away, paint over it, but it cannot be erased. I remember. I will not be silenced.”
Zeha’s lips twitched. Ah, I think she misconstrues my Order.
Ser Ortekis’ stormcloud face clenched tighter. “You will not, eh? Saint of Slayers, spare me the self-righteous indignation of every little offended trollop. And whose blasted armor is that? I’ll have him whipped for—“
Velitza’s hand flicked and the dragonfly darted in, a whirring dagger toward the knight-lord’s neck. He lurched aside, half-turning, blade shifting out of line with Velitza—and then back in as she lunged for him.
No! thought Zeha, reaching for Velitza’s armored back even though she knew she couldn’t stop her. It might not be a killing blow, but—
The dragonfly struck the knight-lord’s neck, staggering him just enough that his blade shrieked across Velitza’s breastplate as she shoved inside his range. The desk gave him no way to retreat. He rammed the basket hilt into the jaw of her helmet, but it didn’t stop her from latching both hands on his sword-arm.
Turquoise lightning crackled out from the gaps in her gauntlet and the joints of the dragonfly’s limbs. The knight-lord jerked, spine locking, face rictused as electricity danced through him. The sizzle and stink of burning hair filled the room.
Zeha jerked back, feeling the sting of static fade as she took her distance. She watched as the Clocker kicked the man’s feet out from under him then eased him down as if she’d done this many times. Once the lightning ebbed, he lay limp as a corpse.
But breathing. She saw that and remembered how to breathe herself.
“Shit, woman,” she hissed, “are you trying to ruin yourself? They know who you are.”
Staring down at her victim, she said simply, “Not in the armor.”
“Even in it. Who else throws lightning and dragonflies around?”
“He won’t remember. I’ve tested it.”
Like they tested the Curse material on you? she didn’t say. Locked in this room, she didn’t need to make another enemy. Instead she turned to eye the furnishings. A bookshelf stood beside the door, and with a growl she moved to upend it.
“Can you climb?” she cast at Velitza’s still figure. Muffled shouts greeted the bookshelf’s crash: doubtless the menservants. The sentries would be on alert soon, if they weren’t already.
Velitza said nothing.
Why did I do this, what’s wrong with me, why must I be swayed by every lovely angry face? “Woman!” she snapped, moving close to Velitza but not daring to touch her. “You’ve fucked up my mission as well as yours, so for saints’ sake at least listen to me. This can’t be brushed off. We both need to get out and away from here.”
“You said you wouldn’t help.”
She couldn’t tell if the Clocker sounded injured by that or just dazed. Saints preserve me. “Yes, well, I can’t control myself sometimes. Clearly neither can you. Now: can you climb?”
“Yes…of course. Why?”
Zeha bustled past, peripherally noting the drifts of papers and books she wouldn’t be able to steal. All of this intelligence… Thankfully the window was a wide one. She sprang the latch, swung the panes open, and stared down at the yard below.
It was a four-story drop, no wings beneath them nor any outbuildings. All of the latter were against the curtain wall, cluttering it so thickly with stables and storage and workshops that she couldn’t see any sign of a gate.
There had to be some. The main southern gate couldn’t be the only one. But they were on the eastern side, not the western with its bridges to the tourney grounds, and she’d never had a chance to reconnoiter the yard or outer wall.
At least there are barely any sentries, she thought as she hoisted one hip onto the sill and gripped the outer window-frame. With no current threats from the mountains, most of the men-at-arms seemed to be assigned to watch the guests; only a few stood along the shaded parapet, staring out at the dry hills beyond.
“Come on, we need to climb down,” she called to Velitza. “Get you out of here.”
“You should’ve thought of that before you electrocuted the fortress lord!”
Toeing off her slippers, she watched them fall to earth, then twisted on the sill to brace her bare feet against the stones. Their heat stung even through her calluses, but she’d weathered worse. These sorts of stone-block constructions were easy.
She’d just swung out when a shape sprang past her into thin air. Swallowing her yelp, she glanced down to see the temple cat land as lightly as any feline.
“Show-off,” she muttered, and started down.
About halfway, she found herself wishing for a trellis or even the jungle’s blasted bloodvines. Her grips were secure, but her body wasn’t as happy with free-climbing as it used to be, and the occasional patter of mortar fragments from above—as Velitza wedged her artificial hand into another gap to widen a grip—didn’t help. She kept checking the curtain wall, but the sentries stood like bored statues and the noise from above was still just muffled banging.
Finally the ground was in reach. She dropped—then dropped further as her right knee gave way, choking on a curse. Pain radiated from the joint in all-too-familiar waves.
A few breaths, a steeling of will, a grip on the wall, and she was upright. The temple cat sat just out of reach, her slippers in its mouth.
“What now?” she asked it, already dreading the answer.
It turned, stone tail flicking, ruby eyes glinting in the fortress-shadowed light.
“I think it wants us to follow,” she muttered as Velitza dropped down beside her. The Clocker just nodded; her breath sounded labored within the helm, the dragonfly glued to her artificial arm.
In silence, they crossed the bare space to the clustered outbuildings, following the accursed cat. Gravel bit at Zeha’s feet, but she gripped hard at her nerves and pretended not to feel it, telling herself that it wouldn’t be unusual for a knight and a maid to be sneaking around together. Now that they were off the fortress wall, they were safe until the alarm went out.
“My things,” started Velitza.
“I’ll send Sera Kayopti a message,” Zeha grated. “She’ll get them.”
“You shouldn’t have intruded.”
“Saints only know why I did.”
But that wasn’t true. She knew perfectly well. Velitza didn’t deserve to suffer for her anger—even if it had found the wrong target. She’d felt that anger too, and had just been lucky to never be in a position to succumb to it. In this era, with Temharat bound more and more tightly by Order rules and agents, it wasn’t productive to fight like that. No matter how righteous it felt.
Mili would call her an apologist. A Silence partisan, a partner in her own oppression. But what could any of them do, with the governors and city councils clamoring for Motherlands business and the Great Valley people all desperate to escape the Curse? Not everyone could have Mili’s fortitude, to weather the tides of the Cursed Goddess’s moods with such equanimity.
Zeha certainly hadn’t learned the trick of it. Only Saint Silence kept her sane when those times came.
The yard and shops weren’t lifeless, the clang of hammers and call of stablehands echoing from the shadows. Zeha wished she had a hat to hide her face. They needed to find an exit, then head south to Atepen City.
A flicker of green caught her eye, up on the curtain wall.
She glanced there and froze, confusion locking her thoughts. A figure in a green dress and broad veiled hat was gliding along the battlement as if touring, fan in one hand and bulging valise in the other. As she stared, the figure dipped a slight curtsey to a sentry, who touched the brow of his helmet in return.
Behind her, Velitza hissed, “That’s my dress!”
And you’re wearing his armor, Zeha thought with a mental sigh.
But what in the world did he think he was doing? Veiled stroll arrested, he stood as if chatting with the sentry, fan flicking open and shut like a gambler’s anxious tell. From the angle of his pose, she thought he could see the two of them.
And the cat was headed in that direction.
“Pick up the pace,” she told Velitza, and doubled her stride despite the complaints of knee and feet. With the veiled figure distracting the sentry, there was no need for subtlety. They followed the cat around an empty smithy, past a stack of pallets and crates—then down a narrow corridor Zeha might never have seen, half-blocked by old building materials. At the end was an even narrower postern gate. Sentry and distraction stood almost directly above it.
“…never far from my belongings,” came an arch alto voice. “After all, the room they gave me doesn’t even have a lock. Anyone could have gone in and rummaged around.”
“I certainly understand that, sera,” said the guard. “Still, you oughtn’t be wandering here. It’s much more interesting inside the fortress, I’m sure.”
“Right now? Everyone is taking their midday rest, but I’m not at all tired.”
The temple cat dropped Zeha’s slippers, bunched its hindquarters and leapt atop a stack of old boards. From there, it jumped to the roof of the smithy and immediately to the wall’s walkway, its stone paws making a great deliberate clatter. As the sentry whirled in alarm, the cat gave a great mad yowl, then tore past him northward.
“What the— Oh my, what was that?” came the unsteady alto.
“I… Excuse me, sera.”
Booted feet rushed away. A moment later, a veiled face peeked over the wall.
“Ah, good,” came the knight’s voice in its usual octave. “Here, catch this then get in the damn gate. And leave the armor!” He swung the valise over the edge and dropped it.
Velitza lunged for it, cursing as she just barely managed. “Where’s the rest?”
“Where you left it. I couldn’t carry everything out. Too suspicious.”
“Sera Kayopti will get it,” Zeha repeated.
The Clocker scowled up at the veiled knight. “Now the dress.”
“I’m trying to double for you. How else am I supposed to make my escape? Unless you want me down there changing with you.”
“Then I’ll walk the dress back to your room.”
“The hat, then.”
“I rather like it. I think it’s mine now.”
“How? Why?” Zeha asked before they could start fighting.
The veil tipped her way, then he sighed. “I figured something like that would happen, window and all. I’ve escaped through them before. And I’ll side with distressed women any day. Now get moving. Your, ah, cat’s jumped off the wall.”
The veiled knight withdrew, and Zeha grabbed her slippers and hustled to the postern gate. It was locked, but a few clicks of her picks and they were inside its tiny room, the only light coming through the viewing slit in the far door.
Working mostly by feel, they got Velitza out of the armor and dredged the purple dress from the valise. No slip—and Zeha did her best not to think about that as she helped the Clocker wiggle into the dress in the close semi-darkness, Velitza’s hair a sweat-coiled mass against her cheek. As she smoothed it across Velitza’s hips, the Clocker’s hands—real and artificial—clamped on her arms like mismatched vises.
She stilled, feeling the shudders that ran through the other woman’s body. No words seemed sufficient. If it had been Mili, she would have hugged her hard—but it wasn’t.
Finally, Velitza drew in a shaky breath. “You said the Silence will give me justice?”
She couldn’t lie. “The Silence will take what you tell them and use it against the Swords. They might not ever let you know what’s come of it, but at least they’ll preserve your memory.”
“I suppose that must be enough. For now.”
In the light-slashed darkness, Zeha nodded.
Then she led Velitza to the outer door, into daylight and the dusty path to Atepen City.