|Cover art by Larry Rostant|
496 Ab Urbe Condita (1228 Sal Emperaturi)
Three years ago
Death was no stranger in Erisín. The city named for the saint of death and built on the bones of its founders had known its share of suffering, but the pestilence that struck that summer was enough to horrify even the priests of Erishal. The plague had come from the south, borne on a merchant ship that slipped through a lax quarantine. It spread now through the bites of fleas and midges, so that any drone of wings or sudden itch meant terror. Hundreds dead throughout the city, temples and hospitals become mass tombs, and in the slums they dispensed with the proper rites altogether and stacked the infected dead like cordwood.
Not even the palace was safe.
The queen no longer trembled. She lay still now in the wide curtained bed, only the shallow rise and fall of her breast and her fluttering lashes to show that she lived. Sweat soaked her linen shift, matted her long black hair. Brown skin flushed gold with jaundice and the whites of her half-open eyes were yellow and bloodshot.
The room stank of sick sweat and vomit, the cloying sourness of old blood. Shutters and curtains blocked the windows despite the summer heat, and lamps trickled dark malodorous smoke. Meant to keep insects at bay, but it served with men as well. Sane ones, at least.
Kirilos Orfion, spymaster of Selafai and the king's own mage, sank into a chair and wiped his brow with a sodden cloth. A cup of tea sat on the table beside him—long cold, but it eased the ache in his throat, if not the ache in his bones. His hands shook, sloshing brown fluid over the rim. Sunken, shaken, sweating—he must look as though the fever burned in him too.
Boots rang heavy in the hall outside. Mathiros keeping vigil. The king hadn't slept since his wife took ill, save in fitful snatches beside her bed. Kiril had finally sent their son to rest with a whispered spell, but it was all he could do to keep Mathiros from the room. It was all he could do to keep death from the room. He rarely wasted energy on regret and might-have-beens, but now he wished for the healing skill he'd abandoned so many years ago. In his decades of service to the Crown he had known worry and fear and even the sharp edge of panic, but never this sick helplessness.
Kiril felt Isyllt waiting beyond the door as well, tasted her own fatigue and worry. Ten years as master and apprentice and two as lovers had left their magic inextricably twined—even now she reached for him, a soft otherwisetouch, but he drew away, tightening his mind against her. She would only exhaust herself trying to comfort him and that would serve nothing. If he burned himself out here, the city would need all the mages it had left.
The fever might not be the work of spirits as the superstitious claimed, but so much suffering still attracted them. The mirrors in the room were draped with black silk, the windows warded with salt and silver, but even now something skittered over the shutters, larger than an insect. Those mages who weren't tending the sick spent the nights hunting newly fledged demons.
He stood, wincing as his joints creaked, and limped toward the bed. "Lychandra." His voice broke on her name, hoarse and ugly.
Bruised lids opened and golden-brown eyes met his. Lucid now, at least, delirium fled. No wonder people thought the plague demon-born, when victims died bloody and raving.
Her lips cracked as she smiled. "You're as stubborn as Mathiros." Her voice was soft and ragged. "Find someone else to save—it won't be me."
He pressed a cup of willow bark tea to her mouth. She coughed around the swallow and bloody saliva flecked her lips. The physicians had shaken their heads when she first vomited black blood, said she was beyond their skill. She was likely beyond his, too, but he had to try.
Kiril sucked in a deep breath and tried to clear his mind. The magic answered slowly, scraping like broken glass in his veins. A cool draft whipped through the room, fluttering the bed hangings and rattling the shutters. Lychandra sighed as it breathed over her skin, respite from the fever's heat. Kiril laid a hand on her brow and she gasped.
His vision blurred and he saw with otherwise eyes—illness hung on her like a pall, swirled dark and yellow-green as bile inside her. Contagion flared like an asp's hood as his magic lapped over the queen's skin; it had feasted and grown fat in three days, while Kiril had only worn himself dry. His power broke, splintering ice needles inside his chest. He fell to his knees beside the bed, jarring bones even through thick carpets.
Lychandra turned her head and pink saliva dripped onto the sweat-stained pillow. "Kirilos—" Her long brown hand touched his, burning his numb fingers. "No more. You'll only hurt yourself. Please, let me see my husband."
He nodded, climbing shakily to his feet. Hard to breathe around the pain in his chest. He'd seen this woman a glowing bride, listened to her curse in childbirth. He hadn't thought to stand her deathwatch, too. Pins and needles stung his hand as he opened the door.
The king's face only made it worse—skin ashen, eyes black pits under his brows. Mathiros read defeat in Kiril's expression and let out a sound neither sob nor howl. He shouldered the sorcerer aside as he rushed to his wife.
Isyllt followed the king into the room and stepped into Kiril's arms. She cupped his face in white hands and kissed him, the familiar scent of her hair filling his nose. Her grey eyes were shadowed and dark with worry; he winced from his reflection there. So tired. So old.
"You have to rest," she said. "You'll kill yourself this way."
He would die, sooner or later. Sooner every year. Leave her grieving beside his bed like Mathiros beside Lychandra. He lowered her hands away from his face. She was too young to be a widow—certainly too young to be his. He might have told her so, but he couldn't get enough breath. His chest ached like a bruise.
"Kiril." Mathiros's voice cracked on his name. "Is there nothing— Anything—" Tears soaked his beard, splashed his wife's hand. Kiril wanted to cringe at the pain in his eyes. "You can't do this!"
Whether he spoke to Kiril or Lychandra or Erishal her- self, the sorcerer couldn't say. His palms slicked with cold sweat and Isyllt's hand tightened on his.
Lychandra's eyes sagged and she whispered to her husband. His name turned into a cough and she gagged, turning her head to vomit. Mathiros flinched; the liquid that soaked the side of the bed was watery, clotted with blood dark as soil or tea dregs. Her organs were failing, and no skill or magic could undo the damage now.
The king knotted his fist in the gauzy curtains as if he meant to rip them from the bed. "Kiril, please!"
Kiril closed his eyes. Mathiros hadn't pleaded with him, with anyone, since he was a child. He'd never been able to say no to the boy.
The queen hitched and shuddered, twisting stained linen. Isyllt gasped—she felt it too, the icy presence filling the room. The black diamond rings they both wore began to spark and glow. Kiril's vision darkened. Mathiros screamed his wife's name.
Kiril reached, scraping himself raw, and threw every bit of strength against the shadow. For an instant it balked, mantling over the room. He couldn't breathe, could feel nothing but that black chill.
The ice inside his chest broke and stabbed him through the heart.
His legs folded. The shadow crested over him, crashed down. Mathiros screamed. Isyllt screamed. The floor rushed up to meet him. Old debts come due at last.
The shadow retreated; it would take Kiril with it, and at last he might rest. Isyllt's face lingered behind his eyes—no surprise that death would wear her countenance. But she called his name, invoked it, held him inside his pain-riddled flesh. Over the roar in his ears he heard his king's wailing grief. He might only have imagined Erishal's mocking laughter.
Darkness stole over him, dark and blessed silence.
The bells tolled an hour before dusk, slow and solemn and irrevocable.
In her chambers in the Gallery of Pearls, Savedra Severos sank onto the edge of the bed and pressed her face into her hands. Her eyes ached, though she had no tears—it wasn't her grief, but the weight of it still crushed her. It would crush the whole palace; the queen was well loved.
"I should go to him." Her voice snagged and broke halfway. Maybe it was her grief after all. Lychandra had always been kind to her son's impolitic mistress, more than Savedra could have hoped for. "If he'll see me."
She had been the prince's lover for six months, formally installed in the Gallery for three, but it still felt unreal that she might walk the palace corridors and visit Nikos whenever she wished. Even now. Especially now.
It was almost a relief, if only to leave her room. The windows were shuttered and draped and warded, the air close and cloying with smoke and incense. With no sunlight for days, too many candles had smudged the ceiling and curtains and left the taste of wax and char on her tongue with every breath. The ashes of prayers streaked her shrine, but no saint had answered, not Sarai or Alia or even owl-winged Erishal. Or rather, Erishal had answered, but not as Savedra had begged.
"He'll see you," her mother said, sipping her tea. No amount of death or chaos could shake Nadesda Severos's flawless deportment. It made her seem colder than she was, but it was reassuring. A familiar comfort. "He needs you now more than ever."
Savedra frowned, letting her hands fall. Her hair hung in kinks and tangles around her face and she didn't need a mirror to know how bruised her eyes must be, how dull her complexion. Nothing she could do for it now—it was madness to uncover the mirror with so many demons about, and she'd sent her maids away days ago.
That her parents had stayed in the city, let alone come to visit her in the palace, was testament to either pride or love. Or both, she conceded. There was room for both. And ambition, of course—that the Severoi stayed when other great houses fled the Octagon Court would be marked. Especially now, as the city's horror became the kingdom's grief.
"This is an important time for you and the prince," her father said, leaning over Nadesda's chair. "With Lychandra gone, it will be you he turns to more and more."
Ambition again. Her fists clenched in her already-wrinkled muslin gown. She'd been grateful, at first, that her parents hadn't repudiated her when she became Nikos's mistress. It might have been easier if they had.
She touched the pearls at her throat—the mark of her station. Her fingers tensed against the cool slickness and for an instant she thought of ripping them away, scattering them across the room. "I'll never be queen, Father, not for all your scheming." Her voice was calm when she would rather scream; her mother's child, after all. "Can't you at least feign a little sorrow? Or tact?"
Sevastian's lean brown face creased in a frown. A familiar expression—she'd have the same lines on her brow in ten years. Or sooner. Her mother's smooth olive skin and silken hair were not to be hers.
"I don't have to feign sorrow, Vedra," he said, crossing his arms over his chest. "Lychandra was a good woman, a good queen. She'll be missed. Saints know she made Mathiros bearable. But sorrow doesn't negate practicality. You may not be queen, but consort isn't beyond your reach. There's precedent enough for that."
Savedra pried her fingers from the pearls and touched instead the telltale bulge above them. The joke of her birth, that kept the rank of queen forever from her as surely as politics did. If only that were as easy to rip away as a necklace. "There will be a queen. The betrothal is already set and Lychandra's death won't dissolve it. And even if this foreign princess doesn't make Nikos set me aside, I'll still be nothing more than another pearl. Sorrow doesn't negate practicality."
Nadesda raised a hand when her husband would have spoken. "Enough. This is a time for tact as well as sorrow. Vastian, leave us. I'll help Vedra dress." Her teacup didn't clink against the saucer, but her veils spoke in a dry rasp of lace and netting as she rose.
Her father gave them both a sardonic little bow and retreated to the antechamber. Savedra found a comb on her dresser while her mother opened the wardrobe to inspect her gowns. Sandalwood teeth caught in snarls and she fought the urge to tear them free. The sharp pain in her scalp grounded her.
"Why do you bother, Mother? I won't be queen, and I'll give you no Severos heir or cat's paw bastard. Why keep including me in your schemes?"
Nadesda pulled out Savedra's white mourning dress—a year out of style—and turned, sinking onto the bed next to her daughter. She wore eucalyptus oil to keep insects away, and the sharp minty smell clashed with the more familiar perfume clinging in the folds of her skirts.
"My love for you has nothing to do with the children you can't bear, or the marriages you might make." Her manicured hand closed over Savedra's and she smiled. "I've always been grateful to have a daughter, even if it took us a few years to discover it." The smile fell away. "But my love and loyalty to the house demand I take all of those things into account. As a mother I want you to be happy with your prince, but as archa I have other well-beings to consider too."
Savedra continued combing for a moment, then gave up and twisted her hair into a thick knot at her nape. No one whose opinion she valued would care what she looked like right now. "Just remember, schemes that hurt Nikos will hurt me as well."
"None of us can stop the world from hurting those we love. The best we can do is be there to ease the pain." Her mother draped the white silk across Savedra's lap and went to the bathroom; water gurgled, and she returned with a damp cloth. "So wash your face and go to your prince. You could have made worse choices, even if he is an Alexios."
Savedra couldn't help but smile at the approbation—the strongest an archa of House Severos might ever grant their ancient rival. "Mother, can't you leave us out of your machinations?"
Nadesda rarely frowned, but her beautiful face stilled with sadness. "Even if I could, others won't. I can only promise to spare you any suffering that I can, and to keep you innocent of anything that might compromise you."
Savedra wanted to argue. Wanted to scream. But she was too tired, too empty. More than anything she simply wanted to go to Nikos. Her hands tightened on the washcloth till water dripped onto the dress in her lap. She'd need a new one made, anyway. The palace would be awash in white for a year.
"Thank you," she said at last. Then she began to scrub away the clinging smoke, and the ghosts of tears she hadn't yet shed.