The Bone Palace, Chapter 1
Updated: Aug 14, 2019
I am weary of days and hours,
Blown buds of barren flowers,
Desires and dreams and powers And everything but sleep.
Algernon Charles Swinburne—"The Garden of Proserpine"
Love is a many splintered thing
The Sisters of Mercy—"Ribbons"
In the Sepulcher, death smelled like roses.
Sachets of petals and braziers of incense lined the marble halls and scented oil lamps burned throughout the long vault, twining ribbons of rose and jasmine and myrrh through the chill air. Meant to drown the smell of blood and rot that crept from the corpse-racks in the walls, but death couldn't be undone so easily. The raw copper scent of recent violence teased past the sweetness, creeping into Isyllt Iskaldur's sinuses as she studied the dead woman on the slab.
Blue-tinged lips parted slightly, expressionless in death, but the slash across her throat grinned, baring red meat and pale flashes of bone. Barely enough blood in her to settle—some clotted like rust in brass-blonde hair, pasted damp-frizzed tendrils to her cheeks. Lines down her ribs showed where corset stays had pressed into flesh. Her clothing, cut away by competent, uncaring attendants, was shelved in an oubliette of an evidence room upstairs.
Isyllt crossed her arms beneath her breasts and shivered in her long black coat. "Where did you find her?" Her breath trailed away in a shimmering plume; spells of cold etched the stones.
"In the Garden," Khelséa Shar said, "in an alley just after dusk." The police inspector lounged against the wall between corpse-drawers, a short, dark woman in the garish orange coat of the Vigiles Urbani. Frescoed vines and leaves swirled behind her—the builders had tried to make the room cheery, but no amount of paint or plaster could disguise the death that steeped these stones. "She was cold and stiff when we got there."
Isyllt frowned at the dead woman, brushed a finger against a lock of yellow hair. A prostitute, then, most likely. A foreigner too, from the coloring—Vallish like Isyllt, perhaps, or Rosian. Refugees from Ashke Ros crowded tenements and shantytowns in the inner city, and more and more turned to the Garden for work.
Isyllt pressed gently on the woman's jaw and it opened to reveal nearly a full set of tea-stained teeth. Her elbows were still stiff, knees immobile. Rigor had only just begun to fade. "A day dead?"
"That's our guess. It was raining when we found her, and she was soaked, but there were hardly any insects. The alley is visible from the street—she couldn't have lain there all day."
"So dumped. Why call me?" The Garden was the Vigils' jurisdiction, unless the Crown was somehow involved, or the crime was beyond the city police. And while pride insisted that the Vigils' necromancers weren't as well trained as the Arcanostoi or Crown Investigators, Isyllt knew they were perfectly competent. She bent over the white stone table, examining the wound. The knife had nicked bone. The killer was strong and sure-handed—left-handed. "What can I tell you about this that you don't already know?"
"Look at her thighs."
The woman's legs tapered from flaring hips to gently muscled calves and delicate ankles. No spider veins or calluses on her feet—chipped gold paint decorated her toe-nails. Flesh once soft and supple felt closer to wax under Isyllt's careful fingers. Death whispered over her hand, lapped catlike at her skin. The cabochon black diamond on her right hand flickered fitfully, ghostlight sparking in its crystalline depths.
She ran a gentle hand between the woman's thighs, tracing the same path as a dozen customers, a dozen lovers. But this time there was no response, no passion real or feigned. Only stiffening muscles and cold flesh.
No wounds, no bruises. No sign of rape. No violation but that of the blade.
"What am I—" She paused. On the inside of the left leg, near the crease of the groin, she touched a narrow ridge of scar tissue. More than one. She pressed against stiff flesh to get a better look. Old marks, healed and scarred long ago. Teeth marks. She found the same marks on the other leg, some only recently scabbed.
Very sharp teeth. Isyllt knew what such bites felt like.
"Do you think this had anything to do with her death?" She kept looking, but found no fresh wounds.
"Maybe." Khelséa reached into an inside pocket of her coat and pulled out a folded piece of silk. "But this is why I called you."
Isyllt stretched across the dead woman and took the cloth; something small and hard was hidden in its folds. She recognized the shape of a ring before she finished unwrapping it.
A heavy band of gold, skillfully wrought, set with a sapphire the size of a woman's thumbnail. A rampant griffin etched the stone, tiny but detailed. A master's work. A royal work.
"Where was this?" A knot colder than the room drew tight in her stomach.
"Sewn inside her camisole, clumsy new stitches. Her purse was missing."
A royal signet in a dead whore's clothes. Isyllt blew a sharp breath through her nose. "How many know?"
"Only me and my autopsist." Khelséa snorted. "You think I'd wave something like this in front of the constables?"
Isyllt stared at the ring. A woman's ring, but no woman alive had the right to wear it. She looked down at the body. A sliver of blue iris showed beneath half-closed lids, already milky.
"What was her name?"
Not a real name—at least she hoped it wasn't. Not many mothers branded their daughters with a prostitute's name at birth.
Isyllt dipped a finger into the gaping wound, licked off coagulated blood and fluids. Khelséa grimaced theatrically, but the inspector's nerves and stomach were hard to upset.
Cold jellied blood, bittersweet and thin with rainwater. No trace of illness or taint, nothing deadly save for the quantity spilled. The taste coated Isyllt's tongue.
"Forsythia. Are you there?"
No answer, not even a shiver. Her power could raise the corpse off its cold table and dance it around the room, but no ghost lingered to answer her questions. She sighed. "They never stay when you need them to. She might be wherever she was killed, though." She nibbled the last speck of blood from under her fingernail.
Gently she pushed back Forsythia's kohl-smeared eyelids. Rain, she wondered briefly, looking at the ashen streaks, or did you have time for tears?Her reflection stared back from death-pearled eyes. She rested her fingers on the woman's temples, thumbs on her cheekbones; the black leather glove on her left hand was stark against pale skin. The woman's soul was gone, but memories still lingered in her eyes.
Isyllt hoped for the killer's face, but instead she found a sunset. Clouds glowed rose and carnelian as the sun sank behind the ragged rooftops of Oldtown, and a flock of birds etched black silhouettes against the sky. The last thing she saw was those jeweled clouds fading into dusk, then a sudden pressure of hands and darkness. Much too quick for death, even as quick a death as this must have been.
Isyllt sighed and looked away, the colors of memory fading into the white and green of the mortuary. "She was grabbed off the street, somewhere in Oldtown. Maybe the Garden." Death must have come not long afterward; she hoped the woman hadn't suffered much. "What else do you know?"
"Nothing. There was nothing but rain in the alley, and no one saw anything." Khelséa rolled her eyes. "No one ever sees anything." She pushed away from the wall, shaking back her long black braids. "Do you have any magic tricks for me?"
"Nothing flashy." Isyllt turned toward the back of the room, where tables and benches were set up for students and investigators. "Bring me gloves and surgical spirits, please. And a dissection plate."
The inspector opened a cabinet against the wall and removed thin cotton examiner's gloves, a bottle, and a well-scrubbed tin tray. "What are you doing?"
"Testing for contagion. Someone touched this before she did." She sat down, stripping off her left glove. The hand beneath was scarred and claw-curled, corpse-white after two and a half years bandaged or gloved; she was mostly comfortable with only seven working fingers by now. She scrubbed her hands with cold spirits, then wiped down the tray and tugged on the white gloves. The ring was already contaminated, of course, but every little bit helped. It was much easier to test for transference—be it of skin, hair, blood, or energy—with a suspect at hand, but she could also tune the ring to react to the presence of anyone who had handled it recently, and even to seek them out at close range.
Closing her eyes against the bitter sharpness of alcohol fumes, she touched the ring lightly. Tendrils of magic wrapped around the gold, resonated through the stone. Mages used sapphires and other such gems to hold energy—the cut and clarity of this one made it ideal for storing spells.
The taste of the spirits crept over her tongue, stinging her palate as it sharpened the spell. Alcohol, like her magic, was clean of living things, anathema to disease and crawling necrophages. Against its stark sterility, any contagion should shine clear.
Isyllt opened her eyes and leaned back, wrinkling her nose at the mingled stink of spirits and roses and death. Witchlight glimmered and faded in the sapphire's depths. "There. Let's test it."
She stripped off the cotton gloves and touched the ring with her bare hand. The light flared again briefly at the familiar skin, and the spell shivered in her head. She let the essence of the alcohol erase the contamination, and it stilled again.
"Now you," she said, holding the ring out to Khelséa. Another shiver and flare at the inspector's touch, and again she let the memory of it vanish. Now the stone should react only to whoever had held it before Forsythia. She found a spare silver chain in the exorcist's kit in her pocket and slid the ring under her shirt. It settled cold against her sternum, warming slowly between cloth and skin.
"Do you need anything else?" Khelséa asked. "You look tired." Her tone changed with that last—a friend's concern instead of a detective's.
Isyllt ran a hand over her face. "I haven't had any sleep." She'd been happier than was healthy when the inspector's message had summoned her into the night—murder was better than being alone after midnight with a dark mood.
Khelséa's raised eyebrow must have worked wonders with guilty criminals.
"It's nothing." When the eyebrow didn't lower, she finally conceded: "The usual thing."
The other woman's lips compressed. "Kiril."
Over the past fifteen years Kiril Orfion had been her mentor, her friend, and briefly her lover; Isyllt was still glad she wasn't the one to say his name. "What else? He's been withdrawn lately, secretive. More than usual," she added to Khelséa's wry snort. Every time she thought she was finished with grief over their broken relationship, something stirred the embers. "I worry."
Sympathy shone in Khelséa's long leonine eyes, but her voice was light. "You need a distraction. A vacation."
Isyllt laughed. "My last vacation ended badly." She flexed her left hand. Two and a half years ago she'd been sent to stir rebellion in the distant port city of Symir. The mission had ended in murder, chaos, and the near-destruction of the city—a success, as far as the Crown was concerned. "Work is distraction enough. I'll go to the Garden next."
"Do you want company? Or backup?"
"No. I'd rather tread lightly. More Vigils will only attract attention."
Khelséa snorted and tugged her orange coat straight. At least her dark skin let her wear the Vigils' distinctive shade well. "What's one more death in Oldtown, after all?"
"Eight for an obol." Their boots echoed in unison as they started for the stairs, leaving the dead woman on her slab.
Outside, the night smelled of cold rain and wet stone, and cobbles glistened under the streetlamps. Isyllt's breath frosted as she sighed—the wet chill of late autumn was still more pleasant than the unnatural dry cold of the vaults.
Inkstone was a quiet neighborhood after midnight, scribes and bureaucrats long safe in bed. Shadows draped the columned facade of the Sepulcher, and the twin bulk of the Justiciary across the plaza. Isyllt felt the unblinking granite stares of the owl-winged gargoyles on the roof as she descended the broad steps. Sentinels of the Otherworld. A carriage waited in the street, the driver half-dozing, horses snorting restlessly.
"Speaking of distractions," Khelséa said with a grin, "I saw your minstrel friend in the Garden tonight. Maybe I should take him in for questioning."
Isyllt snorted. "Is that the only way you can start a conversation with a man?"
"Better than calling them from their tombs." The inspector unlatched the carriage door and held it open. "Let me know what you find. I'm sure it will be interesting."
Isyllt smiled. "This job always is." She pulled herself into the carriage and Khelséa shut the door. The horses' hooves clattered against the cobbles as they carried her across the city.
The driver stopped one street from the Garden and Isyllt climbed down. She pressed a tarnished silver obol into his hand and a whisper of forgetfulness into his mind.
The ring swayed heavy against her chest as she walked. A treat for the gossips and rumormongers, certainly, but she doubted the scandal would grow teeth. The king had been campaigning in the north since spring, and the crown prince had enough to keep him busy without visiting—or murdering—prostitutes. This was likely an old ring stolen or lost, fallen into careless hands.
She just needed to convince herself of that.
Nights in Elysia—or Oldtown, as it was more often called—weren't quiet, especially in the Garden; music spilled from taverns, voices raised in song and anger and drunken confusion. Hooves and carriage wheels clattered against stone and visitors and residents still walked the streets. Some looking for fun, others going home after late shifts. Isyllt remembered the rhythms, though she'd lived elsewhere for fifteen years.
With Forsythia's empty eyes fresh in her mind, she noticed the differences too. More pale faces in the crowds, fair hair flashing beneath caps and scarves. When she listened to the voices instead of letting them wash over her, she heard the curious mix of clipped, heavy words and musical trills that marked Rosian, much more prominent than the usual Assari or Skarrish curses. The smell of cabbage and beets wafted from vendors' carts and drifted from open windows—Cabbage Town was the vulgar name for the refugee neighborhood otherwise known as Little Kiva. Fifteen years ago, the sounds and scents and flavors had been Vallish.
Her parents settled in Oldtown when she was seven, fleeing civil war in Vallorn. Not quite the slums, but as much as refugees could afford. When plague killed them four years later, Isyllt had drifted into the tenements and rookeries of Birthgrave, where an obol would buy you more than eight murders on any given night and orange-coats vanished at sundown. The majority of bodies dragged from the southern river gate came from Birthgrave. After surviving nearly five years there, she'd hardly balked at necromancy and the "good service" of a Crown Investigator.
Climbing roses covered the Garden's crumbling walls, worming into moss-eaten mortar. The scent of the last autumn blossoms reminded her of the Sepulcher, but it was better than the usual street stink. Light glowed through windows and leaked under doors; lamps burned on street corners. Since the Rose Council formed over a century ago, the Garden had been a safe haven for those who lived and worked within its walls. It was safer to be a whore in a Garden brothel than a shopkeeper in Harrowgate. Most nights, anyway. The flowers here had thorns, if customers presumed too far.
The reek of death hit her when she turned the corner onto the Street of Thistles. Not a real smell, not blood and bowel, but a tingle of otherwisesenses, a chill down her back. But not as strong as it would have been if someone had died here.
News had spread; the street was too quiet for the hour. Isyllt followed the unscent to a narrow alley cordoned by orange ribbons. Her skin crawled as she faced the dark mouth. The night weighed inside her head: violence, death, and more.
Intention. Plans, cold and cruel. Isyllt's ring chilled.
She walked into the shadow of the alley, boots splashing in puddles, coatskirts slapping around her ankles. The air smelled of wet stone, and even her mage-trained eyes saw nothing but black. Still no trace of the woman's ghost. Usually the young and violently killed were more likely to linger. Saints knew Birthgrave was crawling with specters, more than the exorcists could ever lay.
She worked her tongue against the roof of her mouth, recalling the taste of Forsythia's blood. She whispered a word, not quite hoping for a response.
Nothing. Wherever the woman had bled out, it wasn't here.
Isyllt let out an annoyed breath and turned around. And froze. Beyond the alley mouth stretched a familiar skyline. Sunset colors were long faded, only the stain of streetlamps against the low clouds to outline the buildings, but the angles were the same. Forsythia had stood here when she was kidnapped, and been returned after death.
At least the murderer was tidy.
A soft footstep scraped the stones behind her, followed by a quick intake of breath. "Come out," Isyllt called as she spun. Witchlight licked her fingers, curled into a ball and hovered over her palm. Eerie opalescent light rose along the walls.
Another hesitant footstep, but the lurker didn't bolt. "Come out," she said again. "I won't hurt you."
Several heartbeats later, a girl stepped around the corner. Twelve or thirteen, Isyllt guessed, skinny and tousled. Her eyes widened as she saw the spellfire. "Sorcerer." Her voice fluttered like a ragged-winged sparrow as she dipped a curtsy. She looked closer at Isyllt's black ring, and her eyes widened more. "Necromancer."
So much for not attracting attention; she should have worn another glove. "What's your name?"
Isyllt's lips twisted. The girl was too young to work the Garden—some mothers were willing to brand their daughters. "You should be careful where you lurk, Dahlia, or we might be picking up your petals in another few hours."
The girl blanched, iridescent shadows rippling over her face as she ducked her head. "Do you know who did it?"
"Not yet. Did you know Forsythia?"
"Who else knew her well?"
Thin shoulders rose in a shrug. "Mekaran knows her. Mekaran knows everyone."
Isyllt gestured toward the street. "Let's go."
The Briar Patch lay just a few blocks down the Street of Thistles. A popular tavern, and open for at least another hour, but tonight lanterns dripped honeyed light onto empty tables. The clientele, never fond of Vigils, must have scattered when the constables came questioning. Now the sole musician played only for himself, a softer tune than boisterous Garden crowds usually asked for. Isyllt smiled.
"Go find Mekaran," she told Dahlia, closing the door behind them. The cold night breeze cut through smoky spice-thick air. As the girl scurried for the kitchen, Isyllt turned toward the minstrel sitting on the dais.
His head was bowed over his kithara, but he watched her approach through dark lashes, fingers caressing strings and rich polished rosewood. Small hands for a musician, but clever. A smile creased one corner of his neat beard.
She pulled a coin from her pocket and dropped it in his bowl. Metal rang against wood.
"Slow night?" she asked as the song finished.
"Police are bad for business."
"So is murder."
He leaned down and kissed her. "Murder is your business. You're cold." He packed the instrument carefully and stepped off the stage. One arm snaked around her waist and pulled her close. Isyllt let herself lean into his warmth for a moment, inhaling the smoky herbal scent of his hair.
"But why this murder?" he asked. "Wasn't it just a slasher?" Dark eyes met hers—earnest, honest eyes.
Isyllt chuckled. "What do you know, Ciaran? Don't make me torture you."
"I thought you were working."
The kitchen door swung open and Isyllt disengaged herself. Dahlia emerged, followed by a tall man wearing an apron over the remains of brightly colored drag. He wiped flour off his hands and nodded a circumspect greeting.
Isyllt knew Mekaran Narkissos by reputation, though they'd never been introduced. He'd been Daffodil once, before he retired to run the tavern. Now he sang in flamboyant peacock shows, and fed and housed the Garden's denizens.
"I'm Mekaran. And you..." Shrewd eyes studied Isyllt, and she could all but see him marking things off a list—white skin, black diamond, ruined hand. "You must be the Lady Iskaldur. You're here with the marigolds." The street slang for the orange-coated police was even less flattering when spoken by a former prostitute.
Isyllt fought a grimace; she should have spent more time studying illusion. "I'm not here at all, actually. But I would like to talk to you."
Mekaran nodded slowly and gestured to a booth. "Sit down. Dahlia, bring us tea, please." He glanced at Isyllt again. "And something to eat." The girl bobbed her head and hurried toward the kitchen.
Isyllt raised an eyebrow. "Sheltering the girl?" She shed her coat and slid into the booth, resisting the urge to prop her elbows on the worn wooden table. She doubted she'd see her bed before dawn. Ciaran sat beside her, his thigh a line of warmth against hers.
Mekaran snorted, a silver ring in his nostril flashing. "Shelter a whore's child? But yes, there are some things she doesn't need to hear about."
Isyllt met his dark grey eyes, still lined with kohl and glittering powder. "Things like slashers, or things like Forsythia's clientele? The ones with sharp teeth."
Mekaran cocked his head, birdlike. His hair was plumage, short and tousled and washed with pink and orange dyes that caught the light in sunset shades. No pretty cagebird, not with his height and muscle and weight of bone—more like an Assari terror bird.
"Not clients." He leaned forward. "Forsythia didn't bleed for money. But she had...a lover." His mouth twisted on the word.
Isyllt raised an eyebrow. "The jealous sort?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. She didn't bring him round to meet her friends. She never would have told me, but I saw the marks one day in the bath." Dark eyebrows rose. "Is that why the Crown is interested in a whore's death?"
Isyllt lifted a cautionary finger. "The Crown isn't interested." She thought for a heartbeat, then unbuttoned the high collar of her blouse. "I have a more personal curiosity." She tugged the cloth aside to reveal a double crescent of white scar tissue where her left shoulder met her neck. You could never escape gossip, but sometimes you could misdirect it. When the innkeeper's eyes had widened and narrowed again, she redid the buttons. "Did she say this lover's name?"
"No." Mekaran picked at a notch in the table with one painted nail. "But...Syth had been nervous for the past decad. Jumping at shadows. She took fewer clients, stayed in more often. She never told me why." He looked down at his broad, olive-skinned hands. "I didn't see her last night, or today. She might have been on her way here—"
He fell silent as Dahlia returned from the kitchen, a tray carefully balanced in both hands. In better light, Isyllt saw the girl's worn and patched clothes, her peeling shoes and tattered stockings. Not starvation-thin, but whittled lean and lanky. As she drew closer, the smell of black tea and honey made Isyllt's stomach rumble.
Ciaran raised heavy brows at the sound. "You should take better care of yourself, or you'll end up on the other side of the mirror yourself." He poked her ribs where they jutted under her shirt. His fingers trailed down to the sharp angle of her hip and lingered there.
Isyllt devoured three nut and honey pastries; after the second she couldn't taste the dead woman's blood any longer. Black peppered tea burned some of the death-chill from her flesh, eased the fatigue dragging at her eyes. Mekaran watched her eat and smiled when the plate was clean.
"Is there anything else you need tonight? I'll listen around here."
"Did you know Forsythia's name?"
He frowned. "No," he said slowly. "She was a refugee, I think. She didn't like to talk about the past."
An omission, if not a lie, but Isyllt didn't feel like bullying him. She licked honey off her fingers. "If you hear anything at all"—she included Dahlia with a glance—"come to me, not the Vigils. Quietly." She counted out coins, several times the price of tea and cakes; she'd need to start a new expense tally when she got home.
Mekaran nodded, unasked questions in his eyes. "You should come here more often—as a friend of Ciaran's, at least. The Crown ought to keep its agents better fed." He gathered Dahlia—and the money—and steered the girl back to the kitchens.
Ciaran's hand slipped round Isyllt's waist again. "You're still cold. Come to my room and warm up." His voice was smoke and wine, rich and dark. She shivered.
"Not tonight," she said with a smile. "I'm working." She took a last sip of tea, spices burning the roof of her mouth.
His brow creased in a frown. "You're not going underground alone?" He'd known her for nearly sixteen years, and knew the sort of stupid things she was likely to do.
"Not now," she promised. She bumped his hip until he moved aside. With a sigh she collected her coat, leather heavy in her arms. "First I pay a visit to the palace."
The fastest way to the new palace was past the old. Nearly everyone was willing to sacrifice time to avoid it, but Isyllt tipped the coachman well enough to overcome his misgivings. She drew the curtains back in the cab as they passed. The night was already morbid; what was a little more gloom?
A wall had been built decades ago to contain the ruin—thick grey stone, tall and topped with warded iron—but the towers and domes were visible above it. White sandstone shone soft and ghostly in the cloud-tattered moonlight. By day the grime and decay of centuries were visible, but the night washed it clean as bones. The horses didn't care about the view. Already they sped into a bone-jarring canter. Over the creak and rattle of wheels and springs Isyllt heard the driver curse.
By Isyllt's standards it was a mild night. The breeze over the ruin only made her nape prickle and her ring itch. On bad days proximity to the palace would set a mage to retching, or leave their head throbbing for hours. And that was after decades of wind and sun and clean rain to ease the taint—she couldn't imagine what it must have been like two centuries ago.
No one was entirely certain what had happened in the original palace. Everyone who had been in the throne room died—instantly, some legends told it, others slowly and terribly, but either theory was only conjecture. That they died was certainly true, and nearly everyone else in the palace as well, save those lucky few who escaped the maelstrom of furious magic and summoned spirits. Over the decades, the story had been built and layered and embossed to a tragedy worthy of a thousand stages.
The events leading up to the disaster were well-documented, or as well as two-hundred-year-old sources could be trusted. Tsetsilya Konstantin, cousin and purported lover of the crown prince, died from a fall down a flight of tower stairs. The prince, Ioanis Korinthes, fled the palace that night in a rage and returned several days later, no less wrathful and with a handful of sorcerers at his back. Who exactly might have pushed Tsetsilya—if pushed she was—and what words were spoken between Ioanis and his father, Demos II, could only be speculated. Ioanis's involvement with a proscribed sect of spirit worshipers was also speculation.
However it came to pass, the barriers between the mortal world and the reflected world were ripped violently asunder, and a vortex of magic and hungry spirits emerged. Incursions into the palace days later found bodies charred, eviscerated, flayed, sucked to empty husks, and deliquescing in foul puddles. Intact corpses had already been possessed, as well as any survivors who hadn't escaped quickly enough.
All the mages in the Arcanost couldn't undo the damage, nor salvage the palace, though they held the city together through the terror. Demons prowled the streets even by daylight, and untrained mages and mediums went mad or catatonic. Magic fouled the air and water, and those too close to the epicenter contracted bizarre maladies. The once wealthy neighborhoods around the palace were deserted in weeks, never to regain their glory. House Korinthes never reclaimed the throne, and lost the rest of its power within a generation. Isola Alexios, a general at the time of the Hecatomb, had used the unrest to ease her way to power, and her family to the Octagon Court.
The city was never the same, but at least it went on, and learned to thrive all over again.
They turned off Desolation Circle, and Isyllt pulled the curtain shut. History was good for perspective—after a disaster like the Hecatomb, a dead prostitute and stolen ring and her own heartache hardly seemed so much.
The new palace, called the Azure Palace for its blue domes, was everything the old palace was not—colorful, sprawling, lush with gardens and orchards. Removed from the decay at the city's heart.
The guards wasted no time when a disheveled sorcerer knocked at the door on the wrong side of morning, but escorted Isyllt inside. The prince's page, a boy about Dahlia's age who stared at her as if she might sprout wings and snatch him through the closest mirror, led her to a book- and map-lined study and ran to fetch his master.
Isyllt draped her coat over a chair and sank onto the soft upholstery with a weary sigh. Her eyes and neck ached, and she felt the cold and damp more keenly in her left hand. Her hair slipped free of its pins, trailing dark strands over her shoulders. She stared at the toes of her boots, wincing at the muddy prints she left on the expensive Iskari carpet. The air leaking through the shutters smelled of rain and roses and conjured the taste of blood into her mouth once more. She grimaced—death and decay might be her specialty, but she didn't always like to be reminded.
A few moments later she heard footsteps and the door opened. She caught a glimpse of the page's wide dark eyes peering around the corner, and then the crown prince of Selafai entered the room, a tea tray balanced on one hand.
Isyllt rose and bowed, the ring bouncing against her chest as she straightened; the spell was quiescent. Nikos Alexios came to her barefoot, wearing a hastily tied brocade robe over loose silk pajama trousers. Sleep still tousled his black curls and stubble darkened his jaw. He blinked at her, disconcertment comical on his handsome face—no one wanted to be awakened before dawn by a necromancer.
He shoved papers across the polished mahogany desk and set down the tray. "Lady Iskaldur. To what do I owe this unexpected visit?" He sat, and she followed suit.
She had known the prince for years, since she first became apprenticed to the king's own sorcerer and spymaster; they were nearly of an age. Though never close, he greeted her at balls and social functions, and she and Kiril had dined with Nikos and his mistress—and later with his wife—from time to time. He looked so much like his dead mother, from his brown Archipelagan skin to his long-lashed golden brown eyes. Those eyes were wary as he regarded her now.
She took the cup of tea he offered, letting it warm her hands. An unlooked-for honor, to be served by the prince, but she knew it was nothing but habit, his ongoing efforts to be nothing like his father. His pleasantness and approachability weren't a lie, precisely, but he did nothing without reason.
"I'm afraid I need to ask your whereabouts last night, and earlier this evening."
He paused in the midst of spooning honey into his tea, then relaxed a little when she smiled. "Last night I was at the Orpheum Tharymis with Thea Jsutien and her husband. The Rain Queen is worth seeing, by the way, though their tenor was only adequate. Tonight I stayed in, hiding from my lovely harpy of a wife." He made a wry face as he wiped up a stray drop of honey, and the gold marriage ring in his left nostril flashed. "Kistos saw me, and my guards, but of course they'd lie for me." He offered her a smile in return. "Why? What might I have been doing?"
"Murdering a woman in the Garden."
He leaned back in his chair. "Why me?"
She set down her untasted tea and pulled the chain from beneath her shirt. "Not you in particular—anyone who could have put their hands on this."
He sucked in a breath as gold and sapphire glittered in the light. A nearly identical ring sat on his right hand. "That was my mother's."
Just the answer she'd feared. "You're sure?" She held it out. "It couldn't be some older ring that was lost?"
The spell tingled in her head as he touched the band, so faint she barely felt it. Nothing like its reaction to her or Khelséa. But if it was his mother's ring, he might have touched it a hundred times.
He ran a finger along the gold; he had his mother's long sandalwood hands. Many still felt the queen's loss keenly after three years, but Isyllt suspected her grief was more selfish than most.
"I'm sure," Nikos said. "This should be in her tomb."
Isyllt's aching eyes sagged shut. "Shall we go and pay our respects, Your Highness?"
She finished her cooling tea while the prince dressed, but all she tasted was bitterness and blood. Tomb robbers. The queen's tomb. Hadn't Lychandra's death been painful enough, that they were forced to relive it now? Kiril might never have set her aside if not for that day. He would still be at the king's side, at least, if not hers.
What would Kiril do when he learned of this? She could only thank the saints that Mathiros was in Ashke Ros and not here to receive the news. He was too sensitive to any mention of his wife—the desecration of her crypt would drive him into a rage.
Dawn bruised the eastern sky as they crossed the grounds and the palace came alive around them, servants starting their day and guard shifts changing. Today was an owl day, at least, auspicious for piety and offerings to the dead. Though most people preferred to save their piety for well after daybreak. Nikos fidgeted with his embroidered sleeves, finally shoving his hands into his coat pockets.
Crickets chirped in the garden as they followed the mossy flagstone path to the temple, and trees and banners rustled in the breeze. The air held the fragrance of the season's last blossoms; soon the cold rain of autumn would turn sharp and bitter and give way to frost.
The domed temple rose over the trees, white marble ethereal in the grey light. The same Sindhaïn architecture as the dead palace, and the comparison made her shiver—maybe she shouldn't have ridden past it after all. The temple doors stood always open, symbolic sanctuary and hospitality, but in truth every inch of the place was warded, and the comings and goings of the pious carefully watched. Old magic sighed in Isyllt's ears as she crossed the tiled threshold.
Colored glass lanterns hung from the vaulted ceiling, scattering prisms of blue and green across the walls. An acolyte bowed to Nikos as the prince paused to collect a dish of incense and a lamp.
A hundred broad stairs led down into the catacombs, worn shallow from a century and a half of feet. Frescoes watched with stony eyes, saints and spirits and long-dead kings, darkened by passing hands.
The air chilled as Isyllt and Nikos descended, thickened with dust and incense. Their footsteps echoed down the passageway no matter how lightly they tried to tread. Witchlights burned at intervals, set into recesses in the walls. The shadows they cast were eerier than darkness might have been.
They passed sealed doors and open ones, shelves of sarcophagi set into the walls. Kings and queens so old Isyllt didn't know their names. Many were empty, the intended occupants long turned to dust beneath the old palace, but a few coffins had been salvaged and relocated. Such catacombs riddled Erisín, though the tombs outside the palace were smaller, plainer affairs, and the temples closed their crypts except on holy days.
Some newer coffins were made of glass, to show off the preservation spells cast on their occupants. A flashy macabre custom, but it kept second-rate necromancers in business. Isyllt studied the dusty glass with amusement; Nikos kept his eyes on the hall ahead.
Finally they came to the Alexios family crypt and Nikos pulled out an iron key from a cord around his neck. The lock clicked and the heavy door opened soundlessly into darkness. Nikos paused to light his lamp, but Isyllt had already summoned witchlight. The pale glow sent their shadows crawling across the floor and up the walls, but did nothing to dispel the cold.
These sarcophagi were all stone—the Alexioi tended to conservatism. Nikos' mother, the newest death, rested on a marble plinth in the center of the room. The likeness carved upon the stone lid was very good. Lychandra hadn't worn that look of peace when she died, but by the time the body had been prepared she was serene. Isyllt had cleaned the queen's corpse herself and cast the first of the preservation spells while Kiril recovered.
A smell distracted her from memories, the sharp scent of lightning. "Someone's been here. It reeks of magic."
Nikos sniffed and stifled a sneeze at the dust. He set aside his lamp and incense and crouched beside the chests piled around the plinth to inspect the locks. "Broken." He made a face as though he wanted to spit. "Kistos could do a better job with a hair pin." He stared down at the velvet-lined bottom of a gilded box. "All her jewels..."
"They weren't given as alms?"
He shook his head wearily. "Father couldn't bear the thought of seeing them again on some other woman's breast. How did thieves get in here?"
Isyllt laid a hand on the door and frowned. "The spell may have been tampered with. It wouldn't be hard, for a witch worth her salt and silver." There—a faint discord in the gentle hum of the spell. "Someone broke and reset it." She turned toward the sarcophagus, trailed her fingers over the dead queen's face. "This one is intact." She couldn't stop the upswell of pride; they'd be hard pressed to undo Kiril's work. Even weakened as he had been after the plague, he was still the most powerful sorcerer in Erisín.
Nikos sighed, relief on his face. At least his mother's body had been spared. And the city might be spared the sight of the thieves' entrails hung from the city walls, when Mathiros found out about this.
"How did they get in and out of the catacombs to begin with?" the prince said. "I'd like to think the priests would have noticed someone so burdened with stolen goods."
"They might have found a way in from the city's tombs, though that would mean a lot of digging and crawling in the dark—" Her nostrils flared again. Dust, magic, the fragrant sandalwood Nikos had brought. And under that, something musky, bittersweet, like anise and autumn leaves. Like snakes. Isyllt's brow creased in a frown. "Do you smell that?"
Nikos moved closer, inhaling sharply. "What is it?"