An hour before dawn the Diadachon Garden was fragrant with rain and roses and the tang of wet grass, and bread from the kitchens when the wind shifted just so. Fountains splashed softly and a palace cat sang love songs to a would-be paramour somewhere in the distance. A quiet hour—the staff were either already at their chores or clinging to last scraps of sleep, the nightshift guards trying not to drowse as they waited for their replacements.
Savedra had nearly given up on the assassin.
Her mother's note had arrived this morning, coded in one of the Severoi's many private ciphers: Someone meant to spill Alexioi blood tonight. Nadesda's warnings had never been wrong before, but Savedra's feet were soaked and toes numb, she ached from the cold and from standing motionless for what felt like hours, and she was a hair's breadth from not caring who was murdered if it meant she'd be asleep before sunrise.
The same argument she always had with herself circled in the back of her mind. Nikos had his own people to do this—trained, competent people. The royal guard had decades of experience keeping kings and princes alive, and were successful more often than not. But none of them had the archa of House Severos whispering in their ears.
When the vines twining the wall finally rustled—barely audible over the breeze and falling water—she drew up with a start. Shock burned her cheeks and tingled in the tips of her fingers as her hand closed over her dagger.
Savedra pressed deeper into the shadows of her hiding place in the columned arcade and peered into the garden. The glow of distant lamps glimmered in the fountains, traced the tops of the walls and neatly pruned trees. Even with her eyes adapted to the night, she barely saw the thicker darkness creeping past the trellised walls.
At least it hadn't been a false alarm.
A familiar welter of emotion followed: shock, doubt—what if it was a mistake this time, what if this one were innocent—and then the cold rage that someone dared to threaten those she loved. When a hooded man climbed into the royal gardens in the dead of night, the odds of an innocent assignation were poor.
Soft shoes moved from grass to flagstones with only the faintest scuff to betray their wearer. The man was good; Savedra would have to be better. She knew his path—down the arcade and up the stairs, to the glass-paned double doors that led to the prince's suite. Or the other set that led to the princess's. And if it were the latter, the little voice that sounded like her mother asked, why did she not merely stand aside and let the deed be done? She would be there to comfort Nikos in the morning, after all.
She moved before she had to answer the question, anger and excitement loosening stiff limbs. On the other side of the arcade, a soldier moved slower and louder. The assassin spun, blade gleaming, and gave Savedra his back.
The impact jolted her arm. The blade slowed on leather, quickened through flesh, then struck bone with a scrape that set her teeth on edge. She braced as the assassin's weight leaned back against her. She might regret being born a man every time she had a gown fitted, but it meant she was stronger than she looked.
The killer cursed softly, quiet even in death, and tried to pull free. One gloved hand groped backward. Savedra twisted the knife.
Lanterns bloomed in the shadows to blind her and swords rattled. Then Captain Denaris was there, knocking the man's weapon away, pulling him off Savedra, a soft stream of profanity fit to rust steel hissing from her lips.
"Alive! Alive, damn it! Why is that so bloody difficult?"
"He's no more threat now," Savedra said as the man gurgled and bled onto the stones. The words came out ragged; her chest ached. She wasn't sure how long she'd been holding her breath.
"And no more use."
"I'll find out who sent him." Her vision swam with orange blossoms. She started to rub her watering eyes and stopped just in time.
The captain snorted but didn't argue. It had taken years—and several dead assassins—for her to trust the prince's mistress, but now that she did, she never pried into Savedra's sources.
Savedra turned away from the soon-to-be corpse, reaction setting in now that action had ended. She had only been sick the first time, but she always shook after. Her right hand clenched, blood cooling sticky on her fingers. The raw metallic smell filled her nose and she stumbled to the fountain to wash her hands.
Denaris followed, boots swishing against wet grass. Lantern light picked out strands of grey in her dark hair, showed the pity in her lean and whittled face. "You could have people to do this for you. You should have them. You'd serve him better—"
Savedra shook her head, the weight of her hair tugging sharp against pins. It was an old argument. "I'm no spymaster. And if I have to do this, better my hands be stained for it." She pulled the hands in question out of icy water and scrubbed them on her skirt.
"Nikos needs a spymaster more than he needs a mistress."
"Isn't here." Cold and implacable as a blade. "And likely won't return."
"And whose fault is that?" Savedra folded her arms tight across her stomach, as if she could stop it churning so easily.
The captain shrugged, mouth twisting eloquently, but didn't speak. Not quite treason, to call the king a fool, but hardly politic either. "Fault or no, it's true. Lord Orfion needs a successor as surely as any king."
"Then let him name one, Kat. I haven't the stomach for it."
Denaris glared, but didn't belabor what they both knew—Orfion had named a successor, and the king had ignored him and chosen his own replacement. And taken that replacement with him to Ashke Ros, leaving Nikos to get by as best he could with lesser agents.
"May I go?" Savedra asked. "I'd like some sleep before sunrise." Not a lie, but no matter how much she wanted rest, she knew none would come this morning.
The captain shook her head, but let the matter drop. "Go. We'll mop up here and search the corpse."
Savedra turned toward the narrow servants' hall that led out of the garden. She had a key to Nikos' rooms, but not the heart to go to him like this. She paused, sodden slippers squelching on the lawn. "What will you tell him?"
"I always tell him when you give us warning. I don't have to tell him you were here."
"Thank you." The smell of blood and roses followed her as she left the garden.
Her footsteps carried through the silent polished halls of the Gallery of Pearls—she was the only pearl in residence. Portraits of long-dead men and women watched disinterestedly from the walls, but the Gallery had stood nearly empty for most of recent history. Supposedly Naomi II had filled every room in the old palace's gallery with her concubines, but since the Azure Palace was built the monarchs had been more restrained. Sometimes councilors brought their mistresses here in the summer, but the other women offered mainly awkward silences and ill-concealed stares around Savedra. At least the portraits didn't whisper.
She didn't bother pulling back the covers, but fell limp across the bed, staring at the shadowed canopy as dawnlight brightened through the curtains, waiting for her nerves to settle and her shaking to still. When they finally did, she rose to bathe and dress and face the rest of the day.
The lawns were still wet hours later and the sky hung dull and heavy, thwarting most morning pursuits or driving them indoors. And so Savedra found herself in the Queen's Solar with Nikos's wife.
When Lychandra Alexios lived, the room had been filled with couches and tables and expensive carpets, a place for comfort and quiet conversation. After she died, the furniture had gone into storage and dust had dulled the tall windows and skylights. Only last year had the king given his son's wife leave to refurnish it.
If he expected her to turn it into anything other than a private practice yard, he never said so. Not that anyone who knew Ashlin would expect otherwise.
Steel rang and echoed as the princess and her sparring partner drove each other back and forth. Breath rasped, and boots scuffed and thumped on stone. Today they used western longswords, straight functional blades without the Selafaïn fondness for curve and ornament. Still beautiful, Savedra supposed, though she preferred her weapons more subtle. Her hand wanted to clench around the memory of a dagger and she adjusted the drape of her forest-green skirts over the bench instead.
Metallic light trickled through the windows, robbing the pink and yellow granite tiles of their warmth. Thick clouds dragged past overhead, pregnant with unshed rain. Savedra regretted the image as soon as it came to her and looked down again. She studied the flash of steel, the fighters' footwork, the play of muscle under sweat-sheened skin—anything but Ashlin's face or waist.
The princess's stomach was lean as ever under her leather vest, she decided after several moments of carefully not looking. The last pregnancy had progressed far enough to show, but that softness was gone now. Muscle corded in Ashlin's arms as she lunged and parried, and sweat darkened her linen shirt and pasted stray wisps of short candle-flame hair to her cheeks and brow. In the light of day Savedra's fears seemed ridiculous—Ashlin could more than handle any assassin.
Warrior princess. Barbarian. One-day queen of Selafai. And by some joke of the saints, Savedra's friend instead of bitter rival. A friend she would kill to protect.
As a friend, she should convince the princess to rest. No one else dared—no one wanted the edge of Ashlin's tongue, especially Nikos. But the last miscarriage had been harder than the princess would admit, and Savedra had been the one to stroke her hair, to clean away the blood and pretend she never saw the tears. For all the years she'd wished to be born a woman in flesh as well as mind, some things she didn't envy.
A footstep in the doorway drew her head up. The grey light wasn't kind to Nikos—his sandalwood skin looked sickly and shadows smudged his eyes. Even his usual flamboyant clothing was subdued to shades of black and emerald. He hadn't been in his rooms when she'd first knocked, far earlier than he normally rose, and Kistos had only shaken his head with the pained look that meant he'd been told not to speak of something. Nikos tried to school his face now, but she caught the tightness at the corners of his mouth. His lips quirked as he watched Ashlin.
He stopped behind Savedra's bench and brushed a quick caress across her shoulder. "Have breakfast with me. I need to talk to you."
Had Denaris told him about the assassin already? Usually she waited till lunch, if the would-be killer was already dead.
Once Savedra might have thought it a point scored, that he came to her and not his wife for counsel, but she had long since given up scorekeeping. Now loyalty and friendship pricked and tugged her with every conflict.
"Alone?" she asked, arching her eyebrows.
Before he answered, the sky opened with a sigh and rain rattled against the windows. The clash of steel died. Out of the corner of her eye, Savedra saw Ashlin frozen in place and scowling, her opponent's sword brushing her belt buckle.
The guard, one of Ashlin's personal retinue, said something joking in Celanoran and stepped back with a bow. She repeated the word, still frowning, and turned away to sheathe her blade. The soldier, well-used to her temper, caught Savedra's eye and quirked an eloquent brow. One corner of her mouth curled wryly in response.
Ashlin crossed the room in long strides, rain-shadows rippling across her flushed skin. From her expression, Savedra guessed she wanted to chide Nikos for costing her the match. But that would mean admitting that he could distract her.
"My Lady," he said with a shallow bow. "As I was just asking Vedra, would you join us for breakfast?"
Her scowl transformed into an entirely different frown as she sniffed herself. "I need a bath more than food."
Savedra thought he would drop the matter now that courtesy was satisfied, but he surprised her. "You can have both in my rooms. I think you'll like to hear this story."
Nikos' suite was in its usual disarray: clothing draped over bed and chairs, tables littered with books and notes and the glitter of whatever cunning or lovely things had caught his eye this decad. The city called him the Peacock Prince—for his sartorial extravagance as well as the company he kept—but Savedra thought him more a magpie. He'd spent so many years studiously not being his father that it had become ingrained. The door that led to Ashlin's adjoining suite was shut—Savedra didn't want to know if she was locking it this decad.
Savedra helped herself to a cup of steaming coffee while servants laid out breakfast. She'd begun tasting his food as a warning to her mother; that habit too had become ingrained. It had its benefits, though—the new Assari empress was freer with trade than her predecessor, but coffee beans were still costly. Water gurgled in the pipes as Ashlin drew herself a bath, drowning the gentler susurrus of the rain.
Then Nikos began to recount his expedition to the royal crypts, and food and bath water and coffee alike cooled untouched.
"Vampires?" Ashlin perched on the edge of a velvet-cushioned chair, one boot still on, the other hanging forgotten in her hand.
Nikos nodded and ran a weary hand through his hair. "They live below the city, in catacombs underneath the sewers."
The boot slipped from the princess's fingers and thumped to the floor. "I thought those were only stories."
"It was an arrangement made with an ancient Severos king," Savedra said. That agreement was part of the family histories her mother had taught her. Those not often found in public records. She sipped her coffee and winced at the lukewarm bitterness; if only it tasted as wonderful as it smelled. Nikos refreshed her cup from the carafe before he poured his own. "The vrykoloi agreed to stay in the catacombs and be...discreet."
"Like murdering women in alleys?" Ashlin asked, eyebrows climbing. She brushed sweat-stiffened hair off her forehead absently.
"Of course. It would be indiscreet to kill them on the street, after all."
The princess snorted and tugged off her other boot, letting it fall beside its mate. "What are you going to do?"
Nikos shook his head and stared at his cup. "I don't know. I—" His voice lowered. "I can't let Father find out."
A chill snaked down Savedra's back. Another fine line between discretion and treason. But he was right; Mathiros's wrath was an ugly thing. He vented his grief and bitterness by campaigning in Ashke Ros, fighting the Ordozh raiders who pillaged there. That was madness and folly enough—no one wanted to bring the folly home.
"You'll have to work quickly," Ashlin said, with a soldier's practicality. "The campaigning season is already over."
"Not that quickly." The flavor of Nikos's frown changed. "There's been a delay." He flicked a fingernail against a folded parchment half-buried on the table.
"What now?" said Savedra. The king had promised his council a short campaign when he led troops to aid the Rosians in the spring, but one thing or another had delayed their return since late summer.
That sent Ashlin's eyebrows winging toward her hair. "With the Ordozh?" The raiding horsemen were feared like demons by any country that shared their border, and no one had managed to treat with their warlords in decades.
"They have a new khayan." The foreign word slid smoothly off his tongue—for all his magpie mind, he knew how to pay attention. "An emperor of sorts. Father fought him." His mouth twisted wryly at his father's diplomacy. "This emperor is willing to have peace for a year, but he wants Father to be present for negotiations. The Council will complain, of course, but a treaty with the Ordozh is enough to give them pause. But we still need to find Mother's jewelry soon, and deal with these tomb-robbers."
Ashlin turned, unlacing her vest and peeling off her sweat-stained blouse on the way to the bathroom. She left the door ajar, and Savedra glimpsed the peach-pale curve of her back as Ashlin dropped her shirt. "I want to fight the Ordozh emperor," she called over her shoulder. "Lacking that, I want to see a vampire. Your demons sound much more interesting than ours back home."
Nikos rolled his eyes. "Your desire is my duty, Your Radiance." Splashing drowned Ashlin's retort. She swore in Celanoran, anyway.
One of their rare moments of easygoing humor. Savedra's throat closed. Neither of them tried to shut her out, but they didn't need to. Fate had done that well enough.
She stood, shaking her skirts with a practiced fillip, and poured the rest of her cooling coffee back into the pot.
"Where are you going?" Nikos asked.
She leaned in to kiss his cheek, sliding deftly away when he tried to pull her close. "To visit my mother."
Savedra and Nikos' relationship might not be the most impolitic the Azure Palace had ever seen, but she was hard pressed to think of many others. Their houses had been bitter rivals for decades, ever since Thanos Alexios led the rebellion that overthrew the last of the Severoi kings. Not that Ioris Severos had been what anyone would call a good ruler, but that hardly mattered to the family. The last thing the Alexioi and their allies wanted was a Severos worming her way near the throne, especially the daughter of Nadesda, an archa known for her ruthlessness and wide-flung web of influence. Since Savedra moved into the palace she had narrowly avoided three poisoning attempts. Had she been able to bear Nikos any bastards she would be dead by now, no matter how careful she was or how powerful her mother.
Instead she was hijra; the third sex, in old Sindhaïn—men born in women's bodies, women born as men, and the androgynes who were neither or both. The hijra veiled themselves with ritual and mysticism, keeping mostly to their temple in the Garden. The curious paid to see the faces of their priestesses, and paid more for their prophecies and their bodies. So Savedra's rivals called her freak and whore—never mind that she had never taken the mark of the order—and made cruel jokes where Nikos couldn't hear, but she would never be queen or mother to a usurper, and so wasn't a permanent threat.
Savedra tried to let the hiss and splash of rain and wet streets drown her thoughts as the carriage bore her to the Octagon Court, but it was no use. Murder and sleeplessness left her maudlin, and the weather didn't help. The grey veil, autumn was called, for the storms that swept down from the mountains; the same name was given to the listlessness and depression that took some people when the light and warmth vanished.
She had the use of Nikos' coach, but it was simpler and quieter to pass the gate and hire one of the dozen that always waited to carry visitors and courtiers to and fro. The ride was short—less than half an hour before the horses stopped under the covered walk of Phoenix House and the driver scrambled to help her out. His quick appreciative glance might well have been as much for her cloak as for her face, but he didn't hesitate over the polite milady . Her bolstered pride earned him a gracious tip, and she nearly laughed at herself.
Eight houses brooded at one another from eight sides of the court, and at the tall bronze statue of Embria Selaphaïs that stood in the center. Severos, Alexios, Konstantin, Aravind, Jsutien, Hadrian, Petreus, and Ctesiphon. Eight houses, eight families, constantly squabbling and backstabbing over land and position and trade, a web of enmities and alliances that shifted every year with deaths and births and marriages. The rain turned all the houses into glowering grey hulks, but windows in only six glowed against the gloom. The Petreoi had retired to their estates in Nemea last month to elect a new archon, and the Ctesiphon house had stood empty since the family's head had plotted against King Nikolaos twenty-eight years ago—the attempt had cost him his life, and his house their archonate and all holdings in the city for thirty years.
The carriage rattled away and Savedra turned back to Phoenix House, her heels tapping on wet flagstones as she climbed the steps. Two guards in black and silver livery bowed and held the door for her, and a maid appeared in the foyer to take her damp cloak.
"Is my mother in?" she asked as she shrugged off heavy velvet folds. Blue silk lining flashed in the lamplight.
"The archa is in the library, milady, with Lord Varis."
"A private conversation?"
The woman shrugged one soft shoulder. "No more than usual."
Meaning that no one had spelled the room to silence, then, and Nadesda wouldn't mind an interruption. "Will you have tea sent up, please, and something to eat?"
"Of course, milady."
The smell of Phoenix House settled over her, the unique blend of stone and polish, wax and oil, the inhabitants' favorite meals and pets and perfumes that time had ingrained into the walls. The scents of the palace were familiar now, and she still remembered those of Evharis, the estate in Arachne where she was born, but they had never been so comforting. Phoenix House had awed her as a child, with its shadows and stillness and secrets, treasure troves in gabled attics; now it was simply home.
The library drapes were pulled against the chill, and firelight and low lamps lit the room, gilding dark wood and silver sconces and warming the deep colors of the carpets and wall hangings. Nadesda and Varis sat near the hearth, a tea tray on a table between them. Nadesda glowed darkly in bronze brocade, regal as a queen in her high-backed chair. Her beauty was undimmed at fifty-three; another reassuring constant in Savedra's life.
"Savedra, darling." Varis stood when she entered and held out a hand.
"Uncle Varis." She hadn't realized until she smiled just how unhappy her morning had been.
He was actually her mother's cousin, but he'd been a familiar and cheering presence as she'd grown up. He'd soothed her adolescent awkwardness with shopping expeditions and visits from his tailors, and taught her to bury the gangly teenaged boy she despised under careful cosmetics and deportment. And, on rare occasions when she'd thought she would go mad, with subtle illusion charms. He had taken her away from the palace on Nikos' wedding night and gotten her thoroughly drunk.
He took her hand, jeweled rings pressing against her skin. His cheeks creased with a smile that always looked like a smirk, no matter how sincere. He resembled none of her closer relatives, being slight and bird-boned, with startling pale eyes and translucent skin. He'd begun losing his hair before she was born, and made up for it by shaving his head; it set off the delicacy of his features. Malachite powder glittered on his eyelids, and he smelled of lime and lilac and white musk when she kissed his cheek.
He wore black, which meant he must have come from the Arcanost—sober colors were his only concession to Archlight's dour ideas on fashion. Nothing else about the sculpture of layered velvet and leather that was his coat was reserved. Not that combining chartreuse and fuchsia was the worst of his scandals by far.
"You look tired, my dear," he said as Savedra bent to kiss her mother. "Is that Alexios pet of yours keeping you up?"
"I keep him up, Uncle. I wouldn't be much of a mistress if I didn't."
"Did you ever try that Iskari massage oil I recommended? I've had—"
"Varis." Nadesda's quiet reproving tone had worked on children and archons for thirty years. "Pretend for a moment that you have the decency not to corrupt my children. Or at least the tact not to do it while I'm in the room."
"You know I was never any good at acting, Desda. A pity too—imagine Uncle Tselios's reaction if I'd run off and joined the Orpheum Rhodon."
"Hah!" Nadesda's bright laugh was one of the rare unschooled expressions that no one outside of House Severos had ever seen. Garnets and marcasites glittered as she shook her head. "Too bad you never did. We didn't outrage the old bastard nearly enough before he died."
"Maybe it's not too late. I could find a necromancer to summon him back."
Nadesda reached for her teacup and stopped when she realized it was empty. "Sit down, Vedra. What's the matter?"
Savedra drew up a chair and sat, envying as always her mother's perfect posture. She ought to wear more corsets. "Can't you guess?"
One eyebrow rose. "Something to do with the note I sent you?"
With perfect timing, a diffident knock fell on the door and a maid slipped in with a new tea tray. While she laid out the dishes, Savedra wondered if she ought to talk to her mother in private. Varis disdained politics, being more concerned with debauchery and thaumaturgy, but she didn't precisely trust any member of her family with secrets. But, she decided, this was safe enough as far as intrigues went. He already knew about her arrangement with Nadesda.
When the maid had left and everyone had fresh tea—and Savedra had devoured a scone with undignified haste—Varis snapped his fingers. The orange padparadscha sapphire on his right hand sparkled with the motion and a hush filled the room like water, drowning the hiss of rain and crackle of the fire. Theatrics, for all he pretended not to be an actor. Any Severos could invoke the silence—the spell was bound into a marble ornament on the hearth—but there was no point in wasting a mage if you had one at hand.
After the silence deepened and scone and tea settled warm in her stomach, Savedra set her cup down. "Who sent the assassin, Mother?"
Varis's eyebrows climbed. Nadesda cocked her head, tendrils of steam drifting around her face. "Who has the most to gain from the princess's death?"
Savedra snorted. "We do, of course."
One manicured nail clicked against her teacup. "Ah, but that's not true, is it?"
"Can't we skip the lessons?" But Nadesda only waited expectantly. "Fine. Even if Ashlin died and Nikos married me, I would never be queen or produce an heir. The best we could hope for would be another Severos adopted, and the other houses would fight that with all their breath." Her forehead creased as she contemplated it more. "But other houses have marriageable daughters." Real daughters, she didn't say. Murder left her bitter as well as maudlin. "Daughters already slighted by Mathiros's choice of a foreign bride for his son." She tapped thumb against fingers as she counted the daughters in question. "Ginevra Jsutien, Radha Aravind, and Althaia Hadrian being the most obvious of those."
"Your first example was the best," Nadesda said. "Ginevra Jsutien was the favorite of at least four houses, and her aunt knew it. Of course, I'm sure Thea is much too clever to involve herself with assassins, or to leave any links behind if she did."
"Thea." Savedra shook her head. "That silver-tongued bitch." She couldn't stop the thread of admiration that crept into the words. "She went to the theater with Nikos just the other day. And she's attending the boating party at the palace on Polyhymnis."
"If the princess goes with them," said Varis, "tell her not to stand too close to the rail."
"What will you do?" Nadesda asked.
Savedra shrugged, not quite keeping the anger from the gesture. "The same thing I always do. Wait. Watch. Stop them." Ever and always, the unceasing vigilance—tasting food, staring at shadows, studying every gift and visitor who came too close. It wasn't what she'd imagined when she and Nikos had exchanged their first too-long glance across a crowded room nearly five years ago. "I should have been a whore after all."
She only saw it because she was looking: the tightening around Nadesda's eyes, the heartbeat-quick compression of painted lips. A mother's pain beneath an archa's poise.
Varis's response was less controlled—his jaw clenched, and his pale eyes darkened with anger—but gone just as quickly. "Of course you shouldn't have," he said, voice carefully light. "That would be boring." He tugged at his high sculpted collar. "Never let them forget you."
Tea dragged into lunch, and then an hour spent gossiping about court and family, until Nadesda excused herself for an appointment and Varis became distracted by a conversation with the gardener about western herblore. Savedra took her chance to slip out quietly and return to the library. The assassin was only half her reason for visiting.
Many volumes of Severos history weren't stored in Phoenix House, but secreted in vaults in remote properties or in the family library at Evharis. She wished she had those at hand, but there was no subtle way to visit them. For now the Phoenix Codex would have to satisfy her curiosity about the vrykoloi.
So of course it didn't. An hour passed as she turned page after page with careful gloved fingers, squinting at the cramped scholarly hand. The book spoke in detail of the reign of Darius II Severos, including his dealings—in circumspect, politic language—with the vrykoloi, but of the vampires themselves she found little besides footnotes: Sovay's Mathematics and Thaumaturgy, Anektra's Principia Demonica, a monograph about blood magic by a Phaedra Severos published in 463. She pulled the Anektra off the shelf, risking a sprained wrist, but the handspan-thick volume was too daunting to open.
"Don't tell me you've finally decided to study magic."
Savedra started, cracking her elbow on the table and cursing. The silence on the room had faded, but Varis could still come and go unheard.
"It would make an old degenerate so proud."
She snorted. This was a conversation they'd had a dozen times. The only way Varis had ever tried to shape her life was by encouraging her to take up sorcery, to test the fabled mysticism of the hijra. It was, to her knowledge, the only way she'd ever disappointed him; she had neither the desire nor aptitude for magic, and even less desire to remind people of the marks she didn't wear.
"Not today, Uncle." She shut the Phoenix Codex with a soft whump and stripped off the library's cotton gloves.
Beneath his paints and powders, Varis looked tired. The skin around his eyes was delicate as crepe, the lines there deeper when he smiled. He had been gone from the city for much of the past year, and distant and withdrawn about his trips. Scandal was his specialty, but secrets ran in their blood.
"What do you know about vampires?" she asked, thinking of secrets.
He stilled for an instant, then plucked imaginary lint off one sleeve. "Not much, I'm afraid. Why the interest?"
Savedra smiled, carefully bright. "Some of the courtiers have started reading those awful penny dreadfuls. I hoped I could find something in here to impress them with."
"Ah. Sadly, no. No one knows much about the vrykoloi, except perhaps a few who know better than to speak of it. A proper treatise or examination would make the Arcanost scholars' teeth ache with envy, but none of them have the guts to go underground." He waved one perfectly manicured black-nailed hand. "No one likes to get their hands dirty anymore."
"Pity." Savedra rose, shaking out her skirts, and reshelved the books. "I'll have to settle for knowing looks and sly silences, I suppose."
"Clever girl." He tugged his collar straight again. "And now that your mother is gone, you can tell me about that massage oil."
Savedra laughed and let herself be distracted, but a warning chill had settled in her stomach. That he lied only stung a little—she was used to her family—but that he lied now unnerved her.
What did he know about vampires?