Fidelias opened the door of the room and stepped aside, letting in a haze of smoke and incense, the sound of reed pipes, and the low murmur of human sound that drifted through the halls of the brothel like cheap perfume. The cloaked and hooded figure on the other side slipped into the room and drew back her hood. Invidia Aquitaine looked around the room, her expression remote, and while she felt around her for any intrusive furycraftings, Fidelias shut and locked the door.
Lady Invidia nodded to herself in satisfaction, and Fidelias felt her own furycraftings rise up to keep their conversation private. Her voice was low, tense. "What happened? The streets were a madhouse of rumors."
"Kalare's men followed them back to Sir Nedus's manor," Fidelias reported. "Three cutters and an archer. They attacked as Isana dismounted from the carriage."
Invidia looked at the very still form lying on the room's bed. "And?"
"Sir Nedus was killed, along with Serai and the coachmen. The Steadholder was shot."
Invidia's cold, hard gaze flicked to Fidelias. "The assassins?"
"Dead. Sir Nedus killed the cutters, but the archer was well hidden. It took me longer than I thought to find him and kill him."
"And the Steadholder was shot as a result." Invidia crossed the room to the bed, staring down at the pale, unconscious face of Isana of Calderon. "How badly is she wounded?"
"Barring infection, she'll live, even without crafting. She was very lucky. I've removed the arrow and cleaned and dressed the wound." He shrugged. "I can't imagine she'll be very comfortable when she wakes up, though."
Invidia nodded. "We'll have to get her into a bath as soon as possible. Kalare's people won't give up now. Better if she's not an invalid." She frowned. "And I suppose it might engender some feeling of gratitude."
Fidelias arched an eyebrow. "For something she could do herself, once awake?"
Invidia shrugged a shoulder. "For offering her something Gaius did not: safety. She was here at his bidding, I am certain. Whatever has happened, the simple fact that he did not provide her with sufficient protection will weigh heavily against him."
"Against Gaius does not necessarily mean toward you, Your Grace," Fidelias pointed out. "If she is like many holders, she will wish to have nothing to do with any ranking nobility-much less with the wife of the man who orchestrated the attack that nearly destroyed her home and family."
"That wasn't personal," Invidia said.
"For Isana it was," Fidelias said.
She waved a hand and sighed. "I know, I know. When I met her at Kalare's garden party, I thought for a moment that she was about to assault me. I tried to warn them that they were in danger and that Serai's identity might be known. I had thought that they listened. They left quite quickly."
"It might have been a moot point by then," Fidelias said. "In any case, we have to assume that Kalare will have his people looking for her when her body doesn't turn up."
Invidia nodded. "How secure is this location?"
"Not as much as I would like," Fidelias said. "I should have ample warning in the event I need to leave. That's as much as I can realistically expect without moving into the Deeps-or to your manor."
"Definitely not," Invidia said. "Kalare's bloodcrows haunt the Deeps, if your suspicion is correct-and it would be embarrassing for you to be discovered at my husband's manor. And I am sure that there are more than a few people looking for you. If the Cursors are not so rattled as you seem to think, they would make it a point to assume that if you were in town, you might well be in the manor."
Fidelias nodded. "I suggest, Your Grace, that you consider bringing Isana to your manor to stay, if not me."
"She does not care for me, dear spy."
Fidelias half smiled. "I promise you that she cares for me even less."
"I trust you to deal with that," Invidia replied. "I want you to care for her personally until she wakes. Do whatever you must-but make sure she understands her vulnerability before you contact me again." She paused for a moment. "The messages that she has been sending, the company she has kept. Isana has… the sense of a desperate woman about her. Find out why."
"She is unlikely to take me into her confidence," he said in a dry voice.
"If I am right, it might not matter," Invidia said. She drew the hood back over her face. "She is motivated by powerful emotions. I suspect that she believes her family is in danger. To protect them, she might willingly lend me her support."
"Perhaps," Fidelias agreed. "But I do not think that you will find her as forgiving as other players in the game, Your Grace. You and I understand the necessity of allying oneself today with the political opponent of yesterday. But for someone like her, you will always be the wife and helpmate of the man who attempted to destroy her home and kin. That is the way of folk in the country."
"She isn't in the country anymore, Fidelias. She needs to realize that. Impress it upon her if you can. Contact me when you judge her as willing as she is likely to be."
"She's critical to us, dear spy. If she is killed, the lords will understand that Kalare has won the round. If she appears to the Senate under Gaius's oversight, the First Lord will have controlled the situation. She must appear before the Senate, and in my lord husband's colors. Then we will have out-maneuvered Kalare and Gaius alike."
"I understand, Your Grace," Fidelias said. "But I don't know if this victory is possible."
"Now, now, Fidelias. Of course it is possible, if we work hard enough and intelligently enough." She crossed to the door and opened it slowly. "And don't take too long, my spy," she cautioned him. "Time is fleeting."
"When is it not?" he replied.
Invidia's teeth gleamed white as she smiled from within her hood. Then she slipped out of the room and closed the door behind her.
Fidelias locked the door and sank down into the room's only chair. He ached all the way to his bones, and he was more than a little tired, but he didn't dare let his guard down. Those interested in claiming the reward for him offered by the Crown would certainly be looking for him. But bounty hunters were a secondary concern. Kalare's bloodcrows would be more organized, more formidable, and much more capable trackers. The fact that they had, in fact, seemingly stretched their influence into the Deeps, traditionally the haunt of the Cursors and the criminal underworld of the capital, spoke volumes about how they must have prospered.
Not only did Fidelias have to worry about bounty hunters and rival assassins, but the Steadholder had already proven herself capable of decisive, deadly action. If he went to sleep with her yet wounded and senseless, when she woke she might well prove it again, and he did not care to be on the receiving end of further violence. He had been weary before. He could wait for her to waken.
Beyond that, he was not sure. What Invidia required of him might well be impossible. But she was not the kind to suffer failure lightly. It could be worth as much as his life if Isana of Calderon refused to cooperate.
Fidelias tried not to think about that. He had not survived a lifetime of service in the shadows by allowing his fears and doubts to rule his mind.
So he settled back in his chair, listened to the music and talk and cries of those enjoying the hospitality of the brothel, and waited for the Steadholder to waken, so that he could convince her to help topple the First Lord of Alera on behalf of Lord and Lady Aquitaine.
Killian lifted a shaking hand to his face and leaned his forehead down against his palm. He was silent for a moment, but to Tavi that moment seemed days long. Maybe longer.
Tavi licked his lips and glanced at Fade, apparently asleep on the floor beside Gaius's cot. He wasn't sleeping. Tavi wasn't sure how he knew, but he felt certain that Fade was awake and listening carefully. The First Lord looked little different than when Tavi had last seen him. Gaius still seemed shrunken in upon himself, his face colorless and frail.
Sir Miles, who had been sitting at the replacement desk in one corner of the meditation chamber, methodically reading the messages sent to the First Lord, looked as though someone had kicked him in the stomach.
"I didn't mean for any of that to happen," Tavi said into the silence. "Neither did Max."
"I should hope not," Killian said in a mild voice.
"You…" Miles took a deep breath, clearly struggling to restrain his anger. Then he bared his teeth, and just as clearly lost the struggle. "You idiots!" he shouted. "You stupid, crows-begotten fools! How could you do something like this? What treacherous moron dashed the brains from your witless skulls?" He clenched his hands into fists and opened them again several times, as though strangling baby ducks. "Do you have any idea what you've done?"
Tavi felt his face heat up. "It was an accident."
Miles snarled and slashed his hand at the air. "It was an accident that the two of you left the Citadel when you knew you should stay close at hand? When you knew what was at stake?"
"It was my aunt," Tavi said. "I went to help her. I thought she was in trouble." Tavi felt his eyes blur with frustrated tears, and he scrubbed savagely at them with one sleeve. "And I was right."
"Your aunt," Miles growled, "is one person, Tavi. What you've done may have endangered the whole of Alera."
"I'm not related to the whole of Alera," Tavi shot back. "She's almost my only blood relation. My only family. Do you understand what that means? Do you have any family, Sir Miles?"
There was a heavy silence. Some of the anger faded from the captain's face.
"Not anymore," Miles said, his voice quiet.
Tavi's eyes went back to Fade, who lay in exactly the same position. Tavi thought he could feel a kind of quivering attention in him at Miles's mention of family.
Miles sighed. "But furies, boy. Your actions may have endangered us all. The Realm is only barely holding together. If word of Gaius's condition gets out, it could mean civil war. Attack from our enemies. Death and destruction for thousands."
Tavi physically flinched at the captain's words. "I know," he said. "I know."
"Gentlemen," Killian said, raising his head, "we all know what is at stake. Recriminations are useless to us for the time being. Our duty now is to assess the damage and take whatever steps we can to mitigate it." His blind eyes turned toward Tavi, and his voice took on a faint, but definite edge of frost. "After the crisis is past us, we will have time to consider appropriate consequences for the choices made."
Tavi swallowed. "Yes, sir."
"Damage," Miles spat. "That's a pretty way to phrase it. We don't have a First Lord to appear at the highest profile social functions of the entire Realm. When he doesn't show up, the High Lords are going to start asking questions. They're going to start spreading money around. Sooner or later, someone is going to realize that no one knows where Gaius is."
"At which point," Killian mused, "we can expect them to attempt some sort of action to test the First Lord's authority. Once that is done, with no response from Gaius, an attempt to seize the Crown will only be a question of time."
"Could we find another double?" Miles asked.
Killian shook his head. "It was little short of a miracle that Antillar was able to impersonate him at all. I know of no other crafter both capable and trustworthy enough. It may be best to make excuses for the First Lord for the remainder of Wintersend and focus on ways to respond to any probes from the High Lords."
"You think we can cow them?" Miles asked.
"I think that they will need time to become certain that they have an opportunity," Killian said. "Our response would be designed to extend that time in order to give the First Lord a chance to recuperate."
Miles grunted. "If the First Lord does not appear at Wintersend-or to the presentation of new Citizens to the Senate and Lords-his reputation may never recover."
"I'm not sure that we can reasonably hope to attain anything better," Killian replied.
"Um," Tavi said. "What about Max?"
Killian arched an eyebrow. "What about him?"
"If we still need him so badly, can't we get him out of holding?" Tavi shook his head. "I mean, we have the First Lord's signet dagger. We could issue an order."
"Impossible," Miles said flatly. "Antillar is accused of the deadly assault and attempted murder of a Citizen-and the son of a High Lord at that, not to mention two other young men who are already being groomed as Knights for Kalare's Legions. Antillar must be held by the civic legion until his trial. Not even Gaius can defy that law."
Tavi chewed on his lip. "Well. What if we… sort of got him out unofficially?"
Miles frowned. "A jailbreak." He scrunched up his nose in thought. "Killian?"
"Lord Antillus has never made Maximus's heritage a secret," Killian answered. "They'll hold him in the Grey Tower."
Miles winced. "Ah."
"What's the Grey Tower?" Tavi asked. "I haven't heard of it."
"It isn't a place one discusses in polite company," Killian replied, his voice tired. "The Tower is meant to be capable of containing any crafter in the Realm-even the First Lord, if necessary-so that not even the High Lords would be beyond the reach of the law. The Lords Council itself crafted the security measures around the Grey Tower."
"What kind of measures?" Tavi asked.
"The same as you might find around the palace, prominent jewelers, or a lord's treasury-only a great deal more potent. It would take several High Lords working in concert to furycraft a way in or out. And the Grey Guard stand watch on the conventional thresholds."
"Who are they?" Tavi asked.
"Some of the finest metalcrafters and swordsmen in the Realm," Miles said. "To get in without furycrafting, we'd have to kill some damned decent men to get Antillar out. And doing so during Wintersend would set half the Realm on our trail. He'd be useless to us."
Tavi frowned. "Bribery?"
Miles shook his head. "The Grey Guard are handpicked specifically because they have enough integrity to resist bribery. Not only that, but the law states that the Crown will pay a bonus of double the amount of any attempted bribe if the guardsman turns in whoever tried it. In the past five hundred years, not one Grey Guardsman has taken a bribe, and only a handful of idiots have attempted to give them one."
"There must be some way in," Tavi said.
"Yes," Killian said. "One can go through furycrafted guardians and wards too powerful to simply overcome, or one can fight his way through the Grey Guard. There are no other ways in or out." He paused for a beat, and said, "That's rather the point in having a prison tower in the first place."
Tavi felt himself flush again. "I only mean that there must be some course of action we could take. He's only there because he saved my life. Brencis was going to murder me."
"That was noble of Maximus."
Killian's voice turned severe. "The unpleasant truth is that the Cursors have little need of nobility. We desire foresight, judgment, and intelligence."
"Then what you're saying," Tavi said, "is that Max should have left me to die."
Miles frowned, but said nothing, watching Killian.
"You both should have brought the information to me first. And you certainly should not have left the Citadel without consulting me."
"But we can't leave him there. Max didn't even-" Tavi began.
Killian shook his head and spoke over him. "Antillar has been taken out of play, Tavi. There is nothing we can do for him."
Tavi scowled down at the floor and folded his arms. "What about my aunt Isana? Are you going to tell me that there's nothing we can do for her, either?"
Killian frowned. "Is there a viable reason for us to divert our very limited current resources to assist her?"
"Yes," Tavi said. "You know as well as I do that the First Lord was using her to divide what he suspected was an alliance of several High Lords. That he appointed her a Steadholder without consulting Lord Rivus in the matter. She has become a symbol of his power. If he has invited her to Wintersend, and something happens to her, it will be one more blow to his power base." Tavi swallowed. "Assuming she isn't dead already."
Killian was quiet for a moment. Then he said, "Normally, you would have a point. But we are now in the unenviable position of choosing which of Gaius's assets to sacrifice."
"She is not an asset," Tavi said, and his voice rang with sudden strength and authority. Miles blinked at him, and even Killian tilted his head quizzically. "She is my aunt," Tavi continued. "My blood. She cared for me after my mother died, and I owe everything in my life to her. Furthermore, she is an Aleran Citizen here at the invitation and in support of the Crown. He owes it to her to provide protection in her hour of need."
Killian half smiled. "Even at the expense of the rest of the Realm?"
Tavi took a deep breath through his nose. Then he said, "Maestro. If the First Lord and we his retainers are no longer capable of protecting the people of the Realm from harm, then perhaps we should not be here at all."
Miles growled, "Tavi. That's treason."
Tavi lifted his chin and faced Miles. "It isn't treason, Sir Miles. It's the truth. It isn't a pretty truth, or a happy truth, or a comfortable truth. It simply is." He stared at Miles's eyes levelly. "I'm with the First Lord, Sir Miles. He is my patron, and I will support him regardless of what happens. But if we aren't living up to the obligations of the office of First Lord, then how can we pretend to be justified in holding its power?"
Killian sat perfectly still for a long moment. Then he said, quietly, "Tavi, you are morally correct. Ethically correct. But to best serve the First Lord we must make a difficult choice. No matter how horrible it seems." Killian let Tavi absorb the words for a moment, then turned his head vaguely toward Miles in search of support. "Captain?"
Miles had fallen silent, and now stood leaning against the wall, studying Tavi with his lips pursed. His thumb rapped a quiet rhythm on the hilt of his sword.
Tavi met the old soldier's eyes and did not look away.
Miles took a deep breath, and said, "Killian. The boy is right. Our duty in this hour is to perform as the First Lord would wish us to-not to safeguard his political interests. Gaius would never abandon Isana after asking her here. We therefore owe it both to the First Lord and to the Steadholder to protect her."
Killian's lips shook a little as he pressed them together. "Miles," he said, a gentle plea in his tone.
"It's what Gaius would want us to do," Miles said, unmoved. "Some things are important, Killian. Some things cannot be abandoned without destroying what have we and our forebears have worked all our lives to build."
"We cannot base our decision on passion," Killian said, his voice suddenly raw. "Too much depends upon us."
Tavi lifted his head suddenly, staring at Killian as comprehension dawned. Then he said, "You were his friend. You were friends with Sir Nedus."
Killian answered quietly, his voice smooth, precise, and steady. "We served our Legion terms together. We entered the service of the Royal Guard together. He was my friend for sixty-four years." Killian's voice did not change as tears slid down from his sightless eyes. "I knew that she was coming to the capital, and that given our circumstances that she might not be secure in the palace. Nedus was protecting your aunt because I trusted him. I asked him to. He died because I put him in harm's way. And all of that changes nothing about our duty."
Tavi stared at him. "You knew my aunt was here? That she might be in danger?"
"Which is why I made sure Nedus knew to offer his hospitality," Killian said, his voice suddenly brittle and sharp. "She was supposed to stay in his manor until this situation settled. She would have been as safe there as anywhere. I cannot imagine what drove her to leave the manor-or why Nedus permitted it. He must have been trying to contact me, but…" He shook his head. "I didn't grasp what was happening. I didn't see."
"What if he had good reason to take the chance?" Tavi asked quietly. "Something he judged to be worth the risk?"
Killian shook his head and didn't answer.
"The boy is right," Miles said. "He was a Royal Guard in his own day and was never a fool. He was my patriserus of the blade. Rari's too. He knew better than anyone the risks in exposing the Steadholder. If he did so, he did it only because it was a necessity."
"Don't you think I know that?" Killian said quietly. "If I allow this to distract our focus, we may lose all of Alera. And if I ignore Nedus's sacrifice, it may mean that we are exposed to some unforeseen threat he was desperate to warn us about. I must choose. And I must not let my feelings, however strong, dictate that choice. Too much is at stake."
Tavi stared at Killian and suddenly perceived not the razor intellect and deadly calm of the Cursor Legate, but the deep and bitter grief of an old man struggling to hold himself together in the face of an overwhelming storm of anxiety, uncertainty, and loss. Killian was not a young man. The future of literally the entire Realm rested on his slender shoulders, and he had found them more brittle than strong beneath so heavy a burden. His fight to retain his control, to rely upon pure intellect to guide his choices, was his only defense against the storm of danger and duty that demanded that he act-and which instead held him pinned and motionless.
And Tavi suddenly understood what might tip that balance. He hated himself for thinking of the words. He hated himself for even considering saying them. He hated himself for drawing the breath that would carry them to the wounded, bleeding soul within the old man.
But it was the only way he could help Aunt Isana.
"Then the question is whether or not you trust Sir Nedus's judgment. If you do, and if we leave the Steadholder to her fate," Tavi said quietly, "then he will have died for nothing."
Killian bent his head sharply, as though to stare at a dagger suddenly buried in his guts.
Tavi forced himself to watch the old man's pain. The pain he'd driven hard into Killian in his moment of weakness. The pain he knew would compel Killian to act. There was another silence, and Tavi felt suddenly sick with an anger directed nowhere but at himself.
He looked up to find Miles staring at him, something hard in the captain's eyes. But he never stirred and did not speak, letting his silence stand substitute for his support.
"I don't know how we can help her," Killian said at last, his voice a croak. "Not with only the three of us."
"Give me Ehren and Gaelle," Tavi said at once. "Free them of their final exercise. Let them investigate and see what they can find. They don't have to know anything about Gaius. Isana is my aunt, after all. Everyone knows that already. It would be natural for me to ask for their help in finding her. And… I might be able to ask Lady Placida as well. She's one of the leaders in the Dianic League. The League has a vested interest in keeping my aunt safe. They might be willing to expend some effort to locate her."
Killian's shaggy white brows knitted together. "You know that she may already be dead."
Tavi inhaled slowly. His tactics, the topic of the discussion, and the horrible images running through his head were terrifying. But he kept his breathing steady, and spoke of nightmarish scenarios in a calm, reasoned tone, as if discussing theoretical situations in a classroom. "Logically, it is likely that she is alive," he said. "If the cutters we saw wanted her dead, they would have found her body next to Sir Nedus's and Serai's. But she was taken from the scene. I think someone hopes to make use of her somehow, rather than removing her entirely."
"Such as?" the old Cursor asked.
"Asking for her support and allegiance, perhaps," Tavi said. "Hoping to gain the support of a very visible symbol if possible, rather than simply destroying it."
"In your estimation, will she do so?" Miles asked.
Tavi licked his lips, thinking through his answer as carefully as he possibly could. "She has little love for Gaius," he said. "But even less for those who arranged the Marat attack on the Calderon Valley. She'd rather gouge out her own eyes than stand with someone like that."
Killian exhaled slowly. "Very well, Tavi. Ask Ehren and Gaelle to help you, but do not tell them it is my desire that they do so, and reveal nothing further to them of the situation. Contact Lady Placida to request her help-though I wouldn't expect her to be terribly eager to assist you. By delivering a message from Gaius to her in public, you have tacitly claimed that Lord and Lady Placida are loyalists."
"Are they not loyal?" Tavi asked.
"They are not interested in choosing sides," Killian replied. "But you may have forced them to do it. In my judgment, they will not be appreciative of your actions. Walk carefully when you see them."
Miles grunted. "Maestro, I have some contacts in town. Retired Legion, mostly. There are two or three men who I could ask to look into I Sana's disappearance. I'd like to contact them at once."
Killian nodded, and Miles pushed off the wall and headed for the door. He paused beside Tavi and glanced at the young man. "Tavi. What I said earlier…"
"Was completely justified, sir," Tavi said quietly.
Miles regarded the boy for a moment more, then the pain in Killian's features. "Maybe it wasn't enough."
The captain gave Tavi a stiff, formal nod and strode from the room, his boots thudding in a swift, angry cadence.
He left Tavi with Killian, Fade, and the unconscious Gaius.
They sat in silence for a moment. Gaius's breathing sounded steadier and deeper to Tavi, but it could have been his imagination. Fade stirred and sat up, blinking owlishly at Tavi.
"With the captain gone," Killian said, "I'll have to handle the First Lord's mail. I know you want to move immediately, Tavi, but I'll need you to read it to me before you go. It's on the desk."
"All right," Tavi said, rising and forcing himself not to give voice to an impatient sigh. He paced to the desk, sat on the chair, and took up a stack of about a dozen envelopes of various sizes, and one long, leather tube. He opened the first letter and scanned over it. "From Senator Parmus, informing the Crown of the status of the roads in-"
"Skip that one for now," Killian said quietly.
Tavi put that letter down and went to the next. "An invitation from Lady Riva to attend her yearly farewell gathering in-"
He opened the next letter. "From Lord Phrygius, bidding the First Lord a merry Wintersend in his absence, which is due to military considerations."
"Details?" Killian asked. "Tactical intelligence?"
"Nothing specific, sir."
Tavi went through several more routine letters such as those, until he came to the last one, in the leather scroll tube. He picked it up, and the case felt peculiar against his hand, sending a slow shiver up his spine. He frowned at the peculiar leather, then suddenly understood the source of his discomfort.
It was made from human skin.
Tavi swallowed and opened the tube. The cap made an ugly, quavering scraping sound against the substance of the tube. Tavi gingerly drew out a sheet of leather parchment, trying not to touch the case any more than he absolutely had to do so.
The parchment, covered in large, heavy letters, was also made from thin-scraped human skin. Tavi swallowed uncomfortably, and read over the message.
"From Ambassador Varg," he read. "And in the Ambassador's own hand, it says."
Killian's heavy white brows furrowed. "Oh?"
"It advises the First Lord that the Canim courier ship has arrived with the change of his honor guard and will depart the capital to sail down the Gaul in two days."
Killian thumped his forefinger against his chin. "Interesting."
"It is?" Tavi asked.
Killian rubbed at his chin. "Because it is absolutely not interesting. It is an entirely routine notification."
Tavi began to follow the Maestro's line of thought. "And if it is entirely routine," he said, "then why is it in the Ambassador's own hand?"
"Precisely," Killian said. "The Canim courier passes back and forth every two months or so. The Ambassador is permitted six guards at any one time, and four replacements are brought with every ship, so that no two guards spend more than four months on duty here. It is a common enough sight." He waved vaguely at his blind eyes. "Or so I am told."
Tavi frowned. Then he said, "Maestro, when I took that message to the Ambassador, he made it a point to tell me that he was having problems with rats. He… well indirectly pointed me at a hidden doorway, and I found an entry to the Deeps in the Black Hall."
Killian's frown darkened. "They found it, then."
"It was always there?" Tavi asked.
"Obviously," Killian said. "Gaius Tertius, I believe, made sure a way in was available to us, in the event that we needed to force entry. But I thought it undiscovered."
"Why would Varg take the time to tell us that he knew about it?" Tavi asked.
Killian mused for a moment and then said, "Honestly, I don't know. I can't think of any reason but for spite, to show us that he had not been deceived. But our knowledge of his knowledge could only have reduced any advantage he gained from knowing about the door-and it isn't like Varg to give away an advantage."
"I went down the passage a little," Tavi said. "I heard Varg's second, Sarl, speaking with an Aleran."
Killian's head tilted. "Indeed. What did they say?"
Tavi thought about it for a moment, then repeated the conversation.
"How nonspecific," Killian murmured.
"I know," Tavi said. "I'm sorry I didn't bring this to you at once, sir. I was scared when I left and I hadn't slept and…"
"Relax, Tavi. No one can go on forever without rest. Young men your age seem to need more than most." The old Cursor blew out a breath. "I suppose it's true for all of us. It bears thinking on, later, when there is less urgent business at hand," he said. "Is there any more mail?"
"No, sir. That's all."
"Very well. Then be about your assignment."
Tavi rose. "Yes, sir." He started for the door and paused. "Maestro?"
"Mmm?" Killian asked.
"Sir… do you know who the captain meant when he said that Nedus had also trained 'Ran'?"
Tavi saw Fade's attention snap toward him in the corner of his vision, but he didn't look at the slave.
"Araris Valerian," Killian replied. "His older brother."
"There was bad blood between them?" Tavi asked.
Killian's expression flickered with irritation, but his answer was in a patient voice. "They had a falling-out. They hadn't recovered from it when Araris was killed at First Calderon, with the Princeps."
"What kind of falling-out?" Tavi asked.
"The famous duel of Araris Valerian and Aldrick ex Gladius," Killian replied. "Originally, you see, Miles was to duel Aldrick over…" He waved a hand. "I forget. Some kind of disagreement over a woman. But on the way to the duel, Miles slipped and fell into the street into the path of a water wagon. It ran over his leg and shattered his knee so badly that not even watercrafters could make it entirely whole again. Araris, as Miles's second, fought the duel in his place."
"And that came between them?" Tavi asked. "Why?"
"Miles accused Araris of pushing him in front of the wagon," Killian said. "Said he did it out of a desire to protect him."
Tavi watched Fade in the corner of his eye, but the slave had gone completely still. "Is it true?"
"Had they faced one another, Aldrick would have killed Miles," Killian stated. There was no doubt whatsoever in his tone. "Miles was very young, then, not even fully grown, and Aldrick was-is-a terror with a blade."
"Did Araris really push Captain Miles?" Tavi asked.
"I doubt anyone will ever know the truth of it. But Miles was wounded too badly to accompany the Princeps and his Legion to the Battle of the Seven Hills. He was on the way to the Calderon Valley to rejoin the Princeps when the Marat attacked and began the First Battle of Calderon. Araris died beside the Princeps. Miles and his brother never saw one another again. Never had the chance to reconcile. I suggest you avoid the topic."
Tavi turned to look at Fade.
The slave averted his eyes, and Tavi could not read the man's marred features. "I see," he said quietly. "Thank you, Maestro."
Killian lifted a hand, cutting Tavi off. "Enough," the old man murmured. "Be about your duties."
"Yes, sir," Tavi said, and retreated from the meditation chamber to seek out Ehren and Gaelic.
"Do you have any idea what time it is?" Ehren mumbled. "And we have a history examination at third bell." He turned his back, resettled himself onto his pillow, and mumbled, "Come back after the exam."
Tavi glanced across the cot at Gaelle, then the two of them reached down and hauled Ehren bodily up out of bed. The skinny boy let out a yelp as they dragged him toward the door of his dorm room. On the way, Tavi scooped up a pair of trousers, stockings, and boots, neatly laid out in preparation for the morning.
"Quiet," he said to Ehren. "Come on. We don't want the night watchman to come looking for us."
Ehren subsided and began to stagger along with them, keeping pace, until after several dozen paces he blinked, and murmured, "What's going on?"
"Tell you in a minute," Tavi said. He and Gaelle steered Ehren toward the overgrown area of the campus where Killian's supposed classroom was located. Tavi snagged the key to its door from beneath a nearby stone, unlocked it, and the three young people hurried inside.
Once there, Tavi made sure the shades were drawn tight closed, and murmured, "AH right," to Gaelle, who coaxed the flame of a furylamp to dim life.
Ehren gave Gaelle a self-conscious glance, reached for his clothing, and started jerking it on with considerable haste, even though his nightshirt came to well below his knees. "We're going to get in trouble," he said. "Tavi, what are you doing?"
"I need your help," he said quietly.
"Can't it wait?" Ehren asked.
Tavi shook his head, and Gaelle suddenly frowned at him. "Tavi," she murmured. "What's wrong? You look awful."
At that, Ehren frowned and studied him as well. "Tavi? Are you all right?"
"I am," Tavi replied. He took a deep breath. "My aunt isn't. She came to the capital for the presentation at the conclusion of Wintersend. Her party was attacked. Her companion and her armsmen were murdered. She's been taken."
Gaelle drew in a quick breath. "Oh, furies, Tavi, that's horrible."
Ehren pushed his fingers idly through his tangled hair. "Crows."
"She's in danger," Tavi said quietly. "I have to find her. I need your help."
Ehren snorted. "Our help? Tavi, be reasonable. I'm sure the civic Legion is looking for her already. And the Crown is going to turn the Realm upside down and shake it until she falls out. Gaius can't afford to let something happen to Steadholder Isana."
Gaelle frowned. "Ehren's right, Tavi. I mean, I'm your friend, and I want to do whatever I can to help you, but there are going to be much more capable people handling your aunt's disappearance."
"No," Tavi said quietly. "There aren't. At least, I don't think anyone with a real chance of success is going to look for her."
Ehren's expression became uncertain. "Tavi? What do you mean?"
Tavi took a deep breath. Then he said, "Look. I'm not supposed to tell you about this. But the Crown is, for the moment, extremely limited in what it can do to help."
"What does that mean?" Gaelle asked.
"I can't share specifics," Tavi said. "Suffice to say that the Crown isn't going to be turning anyone upside down looking for my aunt."
Gaelle blinked in slow surprise. "What about the Cursors? Surely they will be able to help?"
Tavi shook his head. "No. There…" He grimaced. "I can't tell you any more. I'm sorry. The only help my aunt is going to get is whatever I can bring to her myself."
Ehren frowned. "Tavi, don't you trust us?"
"It isn't that," Tavi said. "Because I do."
Gaelle stared at him, then mused, aloud, "Which means you are under orders not to speak to us about it."
Ehren nodded thoughtfully. "And the only one who could give you an order like that is Maestro Killian."
"Or the First Lord," Gaelle murmured. "Which means…" Her face went a little pale.
Ehren swallowed. "Which means that something very serious is happening-something serious enough to divert the entire resources of the Cursors and the Crown elsewhere. And that whoever gave him the order is afraid of treachery from within the Citadel, because even we aren't getting the whole story."
Gaelle nodded slowly. "And as students newly introduced to matters of intelligence, we present less risk to security matters." She frowned at Tavi. "Has something happened to the First Lord?"
Tavi used every ounce of experience he'd gained growing up with a powerfully sensitive watercrafter watching over him to keep any kind of expression from his face or voice as he answered. "I can't tell you anything more than I have."
"But if we do this," Gaelle said, "we will be in danger."
"Probably," Tavi said quietly.
Ehren shivered. "I would have thought you'd ask Max first," he said. "Why isn't he here?"
"I'm not sure where he is," Tavi said. "But as soon as I see him, I'm going to ask him, too."
Ehren frowned and glanced down at the floor. "Tavi, we have examinations for two more days-and we still have to complete our final exercises for Killian. There's no way I can do that and an investigation, too."
"I know," Tavi said. "I'm asking for a lot-from both of you. Please believe me when I say that I wouldn't do it if I wasn't desperate. We've got to find my aunt-both for her own sake and to help the Crown."
"But…" Ehren sighed. "History."
"I think we can get the Academy to give us special consideration later," Tavi said. "But I can't promise you anything, Ehren. I'm sorry."
"My admittance to the Academy was conditional. If I fail any courses, they're going to send me back home," Ehren said.
Tavi shook his head. "You've been training as a Cursor, Ehren. The Crown won't let them send you away if you were pulled away from your studies by duty."
Gaelle arched her brows. "But is this duty, Tavi?"
"It is," Tavi said.
"How do we know that?" Gaelle asked.
"You'll just have to trust me." Tavi gazed at her steadily.
Gaelle and Ehren traded a long look, then Gaelle said, "Well, of course we'll help you, Tavi." She took a shaking breath. "You're our friend. And you are right about your aunt's importance to the Crown." She grimaced. "I wasn't exactly having a good time with my assignment for Killian in any case."
"Oh, dear." Ehren sighed. "Yes, of course we'll help."
"Thank you," Tavi told them. He smiled a little. "If you like, I'll even help you with your assignments for the Maestro. We'll make it our own little secret."
Ehren let out a wry laugh. "I can hardly imagine where that could lead," he said. He finished lacing his boots. "So, tell us whatever you can about the attack on your aunt."
Tavi told them about the visit to Lord Kalare's garden party and what they had learned there and after, omitting any mention of Max or Brencis and his cronies from the tale.
"It would appear," Ehren said, "that Kalare dispatched these cutters who killed your aunt's entourage."
"It seems a rather glaringly obvious conclusion," Gaelle replied. "It may have been a deliberately planted encounter for Tavi's benefit."
"It hardly matters," Tavi said. "The men who took her wouldn't bring her back to Kalare's property in any case. He'd be protecting himself from any association with the murders and kidnaping."
"True," Ehren said. He glanced at Gaelle. "The staff of Kalare's household may have seen something. And odds are very good the house's chef employed the services of caterers for some of the food. They might also have seen something without realizing it."
Gaelle nodded. "There were any number of people on the streets nearby. We could knock on doors, speak to people still there. There are bound to be rumors flying about, too. One never knows when they might be useful. Which do you prefer?"
"Streets," Ehren said.
Gaelle nodded. "Then I will approach Kalare's staff and the caterers."
"If she's been taken," Tavi said, "they might be preparing to leave with her. I'll take the riverfront and check in with the dockmaster and the causeway wardens to make sure they know to keep an eye out." He half smiled. "Listen to us. We sound almost like Cursors."
"Amazing," Gaelle said, mouth curving into a small smile.
The three young people looked around at one another, and Tavi could feel the quivering nervousness in his own belly reflected in his friends' eyes.
"Be careful," he said quietly. "Don't take any chances, and run at the first sign of trouble."
Ehren swallowed and nodded. Gaelle rested her hand briefly on his.
"All right," Tavi said. "Let's go. We should leave separately."
Gaelle nodded and doused the light of the furylamp. They waited until their eyes had adjusted to the low light, then she slipped out of the classroom. A few moments later, Ehren breathed, "Good luck, Tavi," and vanished into the late-night darkness himself.
Tavi crouched in the darkness with his eyes closed, and suddenly felt very small and very afraid. He had just asked his friends to help him. If they were harmed, it would be his fault. Max now languished in the Grey Tower, a prisoner because he had tried to help Tavi. That, too, was his fault. And no matter what he told himself, he felt responsible for what had happened to Aunt Isana as well. If he had not become involved in the matters leading up to the Second Battle of Calderon, the First Lord might never have seen an opportunity to use her by appointing her a Steadholder.
Of course, if he hadn't gotten involved, his aunt might well be dead, too, along with everyone else in the Calderon Valley. But even so, he couldn't keep the heavy, ugly pressure of guilt from weighing on him.
If only Max hadn't been taken, Tavi thought. If only Gaius could waken. Direct orders from the First Lord could galvanize the Civic Legion to furious action, dispatch the Crown Legion to help search, call in favors owed by Lords, High Lords, and Senators alike, and generally change the entire situation.
But Gaius was unable to take action. Max was locked away behind the heaviest security in the Realm, furycraftings that no one could overcome…
Unless there was someone who could.
Tavi jerked his head upright in sudden, astonished realization. There was indeed someone capable of circumventing the kinds of security craftings that kept Max locked away in the Grey Tower. Someone who had, without using craftings of his own, managed to outmaneuver, circumvent, or render impotent the furycraftings that protected the businesses of jewelers, goldsmiths, and more humble bakeries and smithies alike.
And if the those furycraftings had been so effortlessly overcome, then perhaps he might be able to enter the Grey Tower as well. If someone could reach Max and withdraw him quietly from his prison, the guards might remain ignorant for time enough to enable Max to return to the Citadel and resume the role of Gaius Sextus. And then there would indeed be a First Lord able to have the city turned upside down in order to recover Aunt Isana from her captors.
Which meant that Tavi's next move was obvious.
He had to find and catch the Black Cat.
This was no mere exercise, upon which hung nothing more than his final grade. Tavi had to convince the thief to help him enter the Grey Tower and liberate his friend Max. And soon. Every moment that the stars wheeled overhead was a moment in which whoever had his aunt might dispose of her.
Tavi narrowed his eyes in thought, then rose from the floor, left the classroom, and locked the door behind him. He returned the key to its resting place, and hurried with silent, determined paces into the night.