Gschnas

Ana cu’Seranta

“Have you a costume yet for the Gschnas, Ana?” Kenne asked.

Ana shrugged. She glanced past Kenne, seated at his paper-strewn desk, to the open door of the Archigos’ reception room, where she could see Archigos Dhosti and three of the a’teni: Joca ca’Sevini of Chivasso, Alain ca’Fountaine of Belcanto, and Colin ca’Cille of An Uaimth. Also in the room was a tall and rather handsome man she didn’t recognize.

All five of them were in the midst of what appeared to be an energetic discussion. “Beida and Watha tell me that they have something put together for me, but they won’t show it to me yet. What about you?”

Kenne shook his head. “Not going. The Archigos has me working here tomorrow evening.” He tapped the nearest pile of paper. “Going through reports from Firenzcia.”

Ana felt a guilty blush creep up her neck from the high collar of her green robes. “I’m sorry,” she said. “If I’d known, I’d have told the Archigos to have you accompany him instead of me.”

Kenne chuckled at that. “Do you think you’re not going to be working? Believe me, you will be, and far more visibly than me. No, I’m quite content with my lot, Ana. Besides, you’re the new celebrity and he has to show you off.”

Her blush heightened and Kenne laughed again. “And before you go apologizing for that, too,” he continued, “let me tell you that I’m not even slightly jealous. I’m happy where I am, where I can pass along any difficult problems to the Archigos or the a’teni.” He must have noticed her gaze drifting, for he glanced over his own shoulder to the open door.

“Envoy Karl ci’Vliomani is with them,” he said.

That made Ana’s eyebrows rise. “The Numetodo?”

Kenne nodded. “For a heretic, he’s on the attractive side, don’t you think? He speaks very well also. I’ve always found the Paeti accent enchanting.” Ana’s eyebrows lifted even higher on her forehead, and Kenne grinned at her. “I’m just telling you what I’m thinking. I’ll wager you’ll feel the same way.”

Ana decided not to answer, but she continued to stare at the man.

“Why is he here?”

“The Archigos asked to see him. I think the Archigos wanted to allay fears that what happened in Brezno would be repeated here. He wanted the envoy to know that not all the a’teni have the same opinion as A’Teni ca’Cellibrecca. Ah, here they come.”

The group was moving toward the door. Ana caught a hint of the envoy’s speech, colored-as Kenne had intimated-with a strong accent and a pleasing, sonorous baritone. The man had a voice any teni at the High Lectern would envy. “. . pleased to have been able to speak to you, Archigos, A’Teni. I would appreciate it, too, Archigos, if you could speak to the Kraljica on my behalf. I would be most grateful for the chance to meet with her and directly address any concerns she might have.”

“Perhaps after the Jubilee is over, Envoy,” the Archigos answered.

The envoy smiled-he had a pleasant smile, one that seemed genuine and guileless. Lines creased around his eyes and the corners of his mouth, well-worn and telling Ana that the expression was one comfortable and familiar for him. She found herself staring at his features, imagining what he might be thinking, trying to visualize him performing the forbidden Numetodo magic or denying the existence of Cenzi. This was the enemy, yet it was far easier to have imagined heretical thoughts being reflected in a twisted, ugly visage, not this. Not this. “Ah, yes,” the envoy said, and his green eyes sparkled in the teni-light from Kenne’s desk lamp. “The Kraljica should have her much-deserved celebration first. After the Jubilee, then-and I’m in your debt, Archigos. I can see myself out. . ”

With that, he turned to go. His gaze swept momentarily to Ana with the movement, and he smiled and nodded faintly to her before he began to walk away.

“Ah, Ana,” Archigos Dhosti said. “I’m glad you’re here. I’d like to introduce you formally to A’Tenis ca’Sevini, ca’Fountaine, and ca’Cille.”

Ana tore her gaze from the envoy, walking briskly down the corridor away from Kenne’s desk. Kenne was smiling at her; she ignored him. “Certainly, Archigos,” she said.

“Look!” Ana pointed and laughed with delight.

Outside the Grande Palais, the shrubbery had been placed upside down, their greenery half-buried in the earth and bare roots curling like gnarled fingers toward the cloudless night sky. Teni-lighted globes were set inside the nest of roots, surrounded by colored glass so that mul-ticolored root-shadows crisscrossed the grounds. The grass had been painted a white that gleamed eerily, as if the moonlight illuminating the city had been poured out on the land, while the fountains set between the wings of the Grande Palais bubbled water that was jet black and opaque. Ornate, brightly-colored birds from the jungles of Namarro and South Hellin, their wings clipped and bound, strutted and preened over the skeletal grass while several well-groomed and jeweled-collared dogs, looking rather startled and uncertain of their fate, were suspended by ebon strings from cables strung between the palace roofs, so it appeared that they were treading air.

It was the festival of Gschnas, when reality was set topsy-turvy and nothing was as it seemed to be.

The Archigos nodded and grinned at Ana’s excitement. “This is the Kraljica’s favorite celebration,” he said. He was seated across from her, but instead of the usual green robes of the teni, he wore the shrouds of a corpse, and his face was hidden behind a porcelain skull mask. The eyes behind the open sockets of the face startled Ana every time she glimpsed them in the dim carriage.

Ana, with the help of Beida and Watha, was dressed as a young male chevaritt, her breasts bound tightly (and rather uncomfortably, she had to admit) under a frilled bashta decorated with medallions, a wooden sword girt to a wide leather belt, and leather boots that reached her knees. Her hair was pulled severely back and braided like one of the Garde Civile, and a floppy cap with a long feather teetered jauntily on her head. “You look quite the handsome creature,” Beida had said, stepping back after they were finished dressing her. “Why, you may have to fend off some of the ca’-and-cu’ women who are looking for a husband.” She’d giggled at the thought.

The carriage stopped, and a footman-dressed, Ana recognized with a start, in the very outfit that the A’Kralj Justi had worn for his official portrait, and with a golden crown encircling his head-opened the door for them. Ana peered around at the fantasy landscape, at the dark fountains and bright grass, at the spidery cracks and fissures that had been painted in the walls of the palais, so that it appeared the building had been shaken and broken in an earthquake and the Grande Palais was a ruin in a lost land.

As she stepped from the carriage, Ana heard sudden discordant and strange music, and saw a trio next to the main doors. The dulcimer player was striking her instrument with the hammer held in her bare feet while she reclined on the ground; the tambour player had set his drum on a stand in front of him and was bouncing three metal balls onto the stretched goatskin while juggling them-and keeping surprisingly good time, Ana had to admit. The man with the sacbut seemed to be playing with the mouthpiece of his device lodged in his nether regions; Ana decided she didn’t want to know how he was producing a sound. She grimaced at the distressing blat of his instrument.

“They’re not very good,” Ana said to the Archigos. His skull face peered up at her.

“The marvel,” he said, “is that they can play at all, isn’t it?” She heard muffled laughter behind his mask.

They handed their invitations to the attendant-wearing a goat’s head and mittens that looked like a goat’s feet-who promptly announced them by reading their names backward-“Callim’ac Itsohd

Sogihcra dna Atnares’uc Ana Inet’o”-impressing Ana with his facility. Inside the ballroom, the ca’-and-cu’ milled in interweaving knots of conversation. For a moment, Ana was overwhelmed at the sight of the upper society of Nessantico in all their grand finery and elaborate costumes. At the far end of the hall, an orchestra was playing-properly this time, though they were seated high above the crowd in the frame of a gigantic crystalline figure, his massive outstretched hands the seats for the musicians, his flesh a carapace of colored glasses, his bones white stone. A thousand candles blazed everywhere in the statue’s frame, and twin fires blazed in the sockets of his skull. Red liquid poured from his open mouth and splashed into a pool in which the giant knelt, as if praying.

Before the strange figure, the crowd swayed and glittered and preened, their intermingled conversations nearly overwhelming the musicians. They danced in pairs and circles and lines; they gathered around the periphery of the dance floor to talk-and many of them were staring at Ana and the Archigos standing by the door. Ana began to feel intimidated and a bit frightened, sweat beading on her forehead under the powder she wore, but the Archigos took her arm. “Remember,” he whispered to her, “most of them are just as uncertain as you are, maybe more so. They’ve just had more practice hiding it. You are O’Teni cu’Seranta, and you arrived with the Archigos. That puts you above nearly everyone you see.”

“I’m not used to that.” Her voice cracked, barely above a whisper as she leaned toward him, his head only level with her elbows.

Get used to it,” he whispered. “And learn to use it to your advantage. Come. Let’s go down. .”

She linked her hand to his arm. They went down the stairs together, into the whispering sea of faces and costumes.

“O’Teni. .” she heard from a dozen directions as they reached the floor, and she nodded politely to the greetings. A waiter dressed as an ape offered her a glass; she took it and sipped sweetened, chilled wine.

She stayed close to the Archigos, following him as he made his way through the crowds, away from the dancers and into the relative quiet of one of the alcoves.

“Archigos,” she heard a voice call. “I must say that it takes a certain bravery to wear grave shrouds. I would be too afraid to dress that way, thinking that I was tempting fate.”

A trio of shadows detached themselves from near a fireplace along the wall, where cold green flames leaped up from a pool of water set in the hearth-most likely created by another teni-spell. Ana’s eyes widened: in the uncertain light of the water-flames, one of them appeared to be a muscular and bare-breasted woman walking on her hands, but as they approached, she realized that what she’d thought was skin was not flesh at all, but cloth bound tightly to a frame and painted to look realistic, that the “woman’s” head was bewigged and waxen, and that a man’s features peered from just above the frozen skirt, his hands encased in shoes and his feet clad in hosiery that looked like hands. Ana shivered: the sight was not pleasant.

A genuine woman stood next to the man, dressed all in colorful feathers that frothed around her attractive face and accentuated her figure, with equally flamboyant wings sprouting from her back. The third person was an older man, heavier and double-chinned, and wearing a simple peasant’s costume, with his face artfully streaked with black paint that must have been intended to represent dirt.

He was smiling at them, and Ana recognized him suddenly: A’Teni Orlandi ca’Cellibrecca. “And my guess is that this must be O’Teni cu’Seranta,” ca’Cellibrecca said, and Ana realized it was his voice that had spoken a moment ago.

“A’Teni ca’Cellibrecca,” the Archigos said. “I appreciate your concern for me, and I hope that your rags don’t presage a loss of your own fortune. Death, at least, is over and done with. Poverty lingers.”

Ca’Cellibrecca sniffed as the Archigos waved a hand toward Ana. “I suppose I should be giving everyone a formal introduction. A’Teni ca’Cellibrecca, this is indeed O’Teni Ana cu’Seranta.”

Ca’Cellibrecca bowed his head and gave the sign of Cenzi; Ana did the same, bending a bit lower with her bow as etiquette demanded. “I was there when you intervened with the assassin, O’Teni,” ca’Cellibrecca said. “Very impressive, I must say. You’ve been well-Gifted by Cenzi, if all the rumors are true.” His smile seemed as cold and false as the flames in the fireplace. There was a predatory look in his eyes, as if he were a snake looking at a mouse in front of him. Ana found herself wanting to look away, and forced herself to lift her chin and return his smile.

“Rumors tend to become exaggerated with each telling,” she said. “I wouldn’t believe them, A’Teni.”

“Ah, and modest, too,” ca’Cellibrecca said. “I’m pleased to meet you in person at last; the Archigos has sadly kept you away from me, though I know he must have had good reasons to do so. And I forget myself.

O’Teni cu’Seranta, I would like to introduce my daughter, Francesca, and her husband, Estraven, who serves here in Nessantico as U’Teni of the Old Temple on the Isle A’Kralji. No doubt you’ve heard some of his Admonitions, since I know your family occasionally attends services there.” The two bowed and gave the sign-Estraven doing so awk-wardly with his shoe-clad hands; Ana noticed that Francesca favored her husband with an odd look of mingled amusement and disgust.

A clot of people entered the alcove and stood near the fireplace, looking at the watery fire and holding their hands in the leaping, bright flames. Their laughter took Ana’s eyes toward them; one of them, a slim man dressed in the robes of a teni and wearing a simple black domino mask, nodded to her and she looked away again.

“The Kraljica has outdone herself this year,” ca’Cellibrecca was saying. “This is a very impressive Gschnas, one we’ll no doubt remember.

She and the A’Kralj should be making their entrance soon, and I understand the Kraljica’s new portrait is to be unveiled at midnight. Have you seen it yet?”

“I’ve not had that pleasure,” the Archigos told him. “The painter ci’Recroix has insisted that it remained covered until tonight. But I’ve seen other of his works, and they are most impressive-the figures look as if they could walk out of the very canvas.”

“Then I will truly be looking forward to seeing what he has done with our Kraljica. I wonder if she’ll dress again as the Spirit of Nessantico for the ball? That was an impressive costume she wore last year.”

“She has told me that tonight she will be Vucta, the Great Night Herself,” the Archigos answered. “She has had several of our more creative e’teni working with her.”

“I’m certain that she will outdo herself once more,” ca’Cellibrecca responded. He turned back to Ana then, looking her up and down slowly and obviously, as if appraising her. He spoke to the Archigos as he did so. “Have you given any more thought to our last conversation, Archigos?”

“I have given it all the reflection that it required, A’Teni,” the Archigos answered, and that brought ca’Cellibrecca’s gaze back to the dwarf.

“Indeed,” the man said. “Then I’d love to speak further with you. If you’d excuse us? O’Teni cu’Seranta, Francesca. .”

The Archigos nodded to Ana as ca’Cellibrecca ushered him away.

U’Teni Estraven was obviously fuming at ca’Cellibrecca’s disregard of him, his face suffused above the hem of the dress. “Francesca, I really think. .” he began, and stopped as the woman raised her hand.

“Not here, Estraven. Please.” Her tone was imperious and sharp, the u’teni’s mouth snapped shut in response. Francesca favored Ana with a smile. “I apologize, O’Teni,” she said. “If you’ll be so kind as to excuse my husband. So pleased to meet you, and I hope you enjoy the Gschnas tonight. Perhaps we can talk later; I’d love to have a chance to get to know you better. Vatarh has said so much about you.”

“Yes,” Ana said. “Of course, Vajica, U’Teni. Later.”

Francesca smiled, bowed, and gave the sign of Cenzi, her husband doing the same a moment later. Ana returned the gesture. Before the couple had gone four steps, she heard Estraven start in again. “I won’t be treated this way, Francesca. Your vatarh. .”

“They make a pleasant couple, don’t you think?”

Karl ci’Vliomani

Karl attached himself to a group that was moving in the direction of the alcove into which the Archigos had disappeared with his companion. As Karl laughed and joked with them around the water-fire, he watched the Archigos, who was conversing with A’Teni ca’Cellibrecca, his daughter and her husband. He realized, with a start, that the person with the Archigos was not a young man in a rather too-gaudy outfit, but a somewhat plain-faced woman dressed as a man-and with the realization, he thought he knew who she might be. If she was the cu’Seranta woman, she looked oddly familiar to him as well, though he couldn’t remember where he might have seen her before. Once, she looked over at him, making eye contact, and he nodded back. She glanced quickly away, as if embarrassed at being caught staring at him.

He began moving closer: as the Archigos and ca’Cellibrecca left the group, as Francesca ca’Cellibrecca and her husband also departed, obviously arguing with each other.

“They make a pleasant couple, don’t you think?” he said. “An argument against purely political marriages. And that costume U’Teni ca’Cellibrecca is wearing. .” He tsked loudly, shaking his head.

She turned, startled. He inclined his head to her. He could see puzzlement cross her face at the bow he made, unaccompanied by the customary sign of Cenzi, then her mouth opened in a soft breath and her eyes widened slightly. She took in his costume, her eyes narrowing.

“Envoy ci’Vliomani?”

He laughed. “I’ve been found out,” he answered. “I see I have more of a reputation than I might like. And you have the advantage of me.”

He thought he saw the ghost of a nod, but she didn’t give him her name. She seemed strangely quiet, not like most of the ca’-and’cu’ he’d met, most of whom seemed anxious to dominate every conversation.

“You’ve chosen an odd costume, Envoy,” she said, with a gentle remonstrance underneath the words.

He brushed a hand over the green cloth of his teni’s robes. “I was going for irony. But I suspect I may have succeeded only in achieving poor taste.”

He watched her struggle not to smile, then allow herself to show her amusement. He found himself smiling in return. “Oh, you could have made a worse choice, as I think U’Teni Estraven might tell you,” she answered. There was bright laughter in her voice, and the comment suggested that her opinion of the ca’Cellibrecca family was no higher than his own. He thought she was going to say nothing more, that she wouldn’t ever give her name and confirm his suspicion. Her gaze wandered past him to the other room as the orchestra lurched into a gavotte and dancers filled the floor. She seemed enthralled and terribly uncomfortable all at the same time. He found the combination intriguing.

“I’m O’Teni Ana cu’Seranta,” she told him, and her gaze returned to him. She had eyes the color of long-steeped tea. Her head was tilted slightly, as if she were trying to decide how she should feel about him.

“Just so we’re properly introduced. I saw you the other day, Envoy, when you were at the Archigos’ Temple.”

He realized then why she had seemed familiar. “Ah, the teni who was outside the room when we left, the one with the Archigos’ secretary. So you’re the Archigos’ new protegee, and not just another handsome vajiki and chevaritt.” His smile widened, then he shook his head.

Compared to most of the women at the Gschnas, she was unremarkable and ordinary in appearance, yet Karl found a compelling earnestness about her that made him want to linger. You’ve been too long away. Now what would Kaitlin think, you thinking about her like that? “I owe you both an apology and my gratitude, O’Teni.”

“Apology? Gratitude? I don’t understand, Envoy. We’ve never really met. How is it that you need to either apologize to or thank me?”

Puzzlement crossed her face under the foppish, silly hat.

“It was you who saved the Archigos’ life last week. And it was, unfortunately, a Numetodo who was the would-be assassin. I apologize on behalf of all the Numetodo for that action-we’re not murderers or insurrectionists, no matter what the popular opinion might be. And I owe you my gratitude for intervening: because had you not, I’m afraid I would be in a cell in the Bastida or worse, and not standing here speaking with you.”

Her lips pressed together and her cheeks were touched with a hint of color. “Am I supposed to be flattered by that?”

“Are you?”

“No.” Her answer came quickly and without any leavening. Yes, she’s honest to a fault. In that, she’s much like Kaitlin. Her head tilted a bit further; she crossed her arms, her weight on one leg. “I’d also suspect that it’s no accident that we’re speaking now, and that I really didn’t need to introduce myself. Would I be wrong?”

He thought of a pleasant lie, of coming up with one of a dozen plausible excuses to have initiated the conversation with her, but he decided instead to respond to her with the same honesty. “I was watching A’Teni ca’Cellibrecca and the Archigos,” he told her. “You can imagine how I might find their conversation interesting, or that I would want to know who A’Teni ca’Cellibrecca is having conversations with, given what happened in Brezno a few months ago. And you might also imagine that I pay attention to what happens within Concenzia-and that I would know of you as a result. As to why I would introduce myself to you. .” He rubbed a hand through his hair, his shoulders lifting under the green cloth. “Well, I’m not quite sure that I know the answer to that. It was a whim, truthfully. I saw your face when you were talking to Vajica ca’Cellibrecca, and I thought perhaps. .”

An eyebrow lifted as he hesitated. “You thought perhaps you might use me as a way to get to the Archigos?”

And she has a bite when she wants to. . He spread his hands wide.

“If I admit that, will you at least admire my honesty and keep talking to me?”

“Talking to a Numetodo, even if he is the Envoy of Paeti?” The response was less harsh than it might have been.

“We’re not all monsters who cause milk to sour, eat children, and lace the city wells with poison. Very few of us actually do that.”

The barest hint of a smile touched her lips. “And what do the rest of you do?”

This time, it was his turn to tilt his head and regard her. “We search for explanations.” She said nothing. She waited, silent, as the gavotte ended and another dance began. He reached into his pocket.

“Have you ever been to the hills east of your city?” he asked her. “I’m told that there, embedded high up on the cliffs and days from the sea by even the swiftest boat, you can find seashells made of rock. Here, look. .” He brought his hand from the pocket. In his palm was a closed clam shell, formed in pale gray stone. “We have these in Paeti, too. I brought a few of them with me when I left to remind me of my home.” He pulled out the necklace he wore under the green robes so she could see it. “Our rock-shells have a different shape than those here, but we also find them in the mountains, far from the ocean, and they’re different than the shells in our sea. But look at it. .” He held out the shell to her. “Go on. Take it. Look at it. It’s perfectly formed, little different than what might wash up on the shore. Yet there are no seas in the mountains, and rocks don’t live and breathe and reproduce, as clams do.”

She took the stony shell in her fingers, turning it over in front of her and running her fingertips over the thick ridges of the shell before handing it back to him. “I’ve seen these before,” she said. “The Toustour tells us that the earth is alive and that it pulses with forces. Those forces are the very ones Cenzi used to create the world. In the Final Admonition of the Toustour, it says that the interior of the world is filled with ‘lapidifying juices, wet exhalations, and subterranean vapors.’ All the shapes in rock that mimic life are formed by those.”

“Why?” Karl asked. “Why do these forces make shapes that look natural?”

She blinked at the question, startled. “Why? There’s no ‘why’ necessary, Vajiki. It’s written in the Toustour. One doesn’t question Cenzi’s reasons; one accepts them.”

“I know a learned man-Stenonis, his name is-who lives in Wolhusen, Graubundi. He claims that these shells are incredibly ancient, that they form when shells are buried in the silt and sand of the sea floor, and then more and more layers fall on top of it until they’re buried deeply. He says that the shells are actually dissolved away and what you’re holding is an impression they left behind: like a sculptor’s mold, filled with the minerals dissolved in the water, while the soil and sand compress them so tightly they turn to stone.”

“And then the water sprites who live under the sea quarry the rock and carry it up into the mountains at night when no one is watching?”

Karl grinned and chuckled. “I must say that was kinder than the reaction I usually get. No, according to Stenonis’ theory, the mountaintops where the rocks are found were once at the bottom of the sea.

Upheavals in the world have raised the land in some places and lowered it in others. And I know your next objection, too: why doesn’t this great cataclysm show up in any of our histories? Stenonis says that the world is untold millions of years old, and these risings and fallings took place long before any people were there to witness them.”

She was already shaking her head. “That’s not possible. Archigos Pellin I studied the Toustour, and he determined that Vucta created the world between ten and twelve thousand years ago. Are you telling me you believe this Stenonis and not the Toustour, which is the sacred word of Cenzi?”

Karl shrugged. “I think there’s an elegance to Stenonis’ theory. I believe much of what we attribute to Cenzi and Vucta and the Moitidi may have more. . natural causes.”

“Like the Ilmodo?” she asked. “Or whatever it is you call it.”

He nodded. “The Scath Cumhacht. I could show you,” he said. “If your mind isn’t sealed shut with what the teni have taught you.”

“I think I’ll decline your invitation, Envoy,” she answered. “I’m not easily duped by the tricks of street magicians. My faith is stronger than that.” She moved away from him, with a backward glance, going to the marble railing that separated the alcove from the main hall. She looked down at the lines of dancers, knotting and unknotting in the intricate patterns of the Cooper’s Dance. When she looked up he was leaning against the rail beside her, and he looked more at her than at the dancers. The corners of her lips were turned up unconsciously, her eyes were wide, and she leaned forward as she stared.

“Would you care to dance, O’Teni?” he asked.

“With a Numetodo?” She glanced at him, but the smile widened.

“What would they say?”

“They would say that you’d chosen a particularly ungraceful partner, but one who at least attacks the movements with energy and enthusiasm. They would say, ‘She must be taking pity on him. .’ ”

Now she did laugh. “Surely it’s not as bad as that?”

“Oh, it’s far, far worse,” he said, and extended his arm to her. “May I demonstrate?”

He thought she’d take his arm, but instead she stepped back. “I’m still not certain of your intentions, Envoy.” He could see the uncertainty still in her face, and he suspected that it was more than his intentions that worried her. She glanced around, as if looking for the Archigos.

“In my country, they say that there is truth in music, that no one can lie while they’re dancing. Ask me your questions out on the floor, and I must tell the truth in response. Think of the information you could bring to the Archigos as a result.”

That brought a faint smile to her lips. “I don’t think the Archigos would care to see one of his o’teni dancing with the Numetodo Envoy.”

“But the Kraljica herself sent me an invitation to this Gschnas. Are you saying she made a mistake?” The young woman shook her head.

As she started to speak, Karl brought his finger to his lips. “No, I won’t listen to any more arguments. Here’s the bargain. I’ll tell the Archigos you were attempting to convert me, and that as a result I now find myself sorely tempted to abandon my heretical ways. That should earn you the Archigos’ gratitude.”

“I’m certain achieving your conversion wouldn’t be that easy.”

“How will you know unless you try, O’Teni? Or is that answer also in the Toustour?”

She looked around again, but the Archigos was nowhere to be seen.

She laughed, if a bit nervously, and laced her arm in his. They went down the steps toward the dancers.

Sergei ca’Rudka

To one side of the hall, a massive apple tree seemed to be growing from the wall, with sparkling juice flowing freely from the ripe apples on its branches into a small rocky pool below. Attendants dressed as squirrels handed out mugs which the attendees could fill from the tree. Sergei shook his head as he was offered a mug, and brushed his hands against the overhanging leaves-the stiff silk was amazingly realistic, and he wondered how long it had taken to sew the thousands of them on the false tree. He glanced up at a large knot in the bole of the tree and nodded: there, he knew, behind a mesh of black fabric, a pair of eyes were carefully watching the Gschnas for any signs of trouble. So far, the evening had been without incident, but with the Kraljica and the A’Kralj about to make their entrance, Sergei preferred to scan the hall himself.

He wore a hawk’s head mask that concealed his silver nose, but otherwise his athletic figure was dressed only in simple black, and though all real weapons were forbidden in the hall, he wore his own sword at his side.

He moved easily through the crowds, who tended to part before him in any case, with a glance at the fierce hawk’s beak and the glittering eyes behind it. He nodded to the ca’-and-cu’ who guessed at his identity with a tight smile under the mask, but he didn’t linger for conversation.

He saw the Archigos and A’Teni ca’Cellibrecca in conversation in one of the private alcoves and moved on. He saw other, more intimate trysts in the shadows of the hall and passed them by also. He had nearly made a circuit of the entire ball when he stopped.

There was something wrong about the man: the manner in which he regarded the crowd; the frayed edges of the jester’s costume that he wore; the fact that his cape didn’t seem to move as freely as it should; the predatory gesture of rubbing his fingertips together as he started to move toward a knot of people in conversation near the kneeling glass statue holding the musicians. Sergei watched the man seem to acciden-tally bump against one of the men there, and apologize profusely before moving away again.

Sergei sidled up behind the jester. “I’m impressed,” he said.

The man turned, startled. He looked as if he were about to run, but Sergei waggled a forefinger in front of the man’s face. The jester stared at it, as if transfixed. “You’ve a very smooth touch,” he told the man

“Chevaritt ca’Nephri never noticed, but I did.”

“What. .” The man stopped, licked his lips. His body was tensed, as if he were about to bolt. “What are you talking about, Vajiki?”

“I’m talking about Chevaritt ca’Nephri’s purse that is now in there,”

Sergei said, pointing to the man’s cape. “And I wouldn’t try to run. Look around you-do you see the three men in hawk masks approaching us?”

The man’s gaze flickered over the crowd, his mouth open. “Yes, I see that you do. If you go quietly, it will be better for you. If you were to make a scene and disturb the revelry, well, I would be very. . irritated. And I would make certain that my irritation was assuaged back in the Bastida.”

The man’s shoulders sagged. “Vajiki, please. . All I wanted was to get a little money for my family. To buy some food. The children. .”

“I’m certain your motives were pure,” Sergei told him softly, almost sympathetically. “But the law is also clear. Take him,” he said to the guards who had come up alongside. “Chevaritt ca’Nephri’s purse is in the lining of his cape-please make certain it’s immediately returned to him-the chevaritt is a good friend of the A’Kralj, after all. You’ll find other purses there as well; hold them until you can locate the owners.”

With that, Sergei turned as the man was escorted quietly from the hall. He allowed himself a small smile as he regarded the hall once again. The orchestra was playing the Cooper’s Dance, one of his favorite of Darkmavis’ songs, and he watched the dancers for a bit. A couple, late onto the floor, caught his eye. One of them was dressed as a fashionable young man but was obviously a woman; the other, dressed as a teni. . his gait, his bearing were familiar. Sergei strolled slowly toward them down one side of the dance floor, watching. The attention they were paying to each other was a more subtle and sensual dance than the one to which they moved. He sniffed once through his silver nose in quiet amusement, realizing who was wearing the teni’s robes.

The man certainly was brazen. He admired that in an enemy.

When the dance ended and the two paused at the edge of the floor, he came up to them.

“Have you been tending to your plant, Envoy?” he asked the teni.

“Has it bloomed for you yet?”

He’d expected more of a reaction, but the man only smiled. “Commandant. As you can see, I’ve discovered a flower all on my own.” He indicated the woman next to him. “O’Teni Ana cu’Seranta, this is

Commandant Sergei ca’Rudka, whose name I’m sure you’ve heard.”

“You flatter me, Envoy ci’Vliomani,” Sergei said, smiling politely.

He bowed and gave the sign of Cenzi to the woman, whose gaze kept moving from one of them to the other. “O’Teni, I don’t believe we’ve formally met, though I certainly know of you. It seems that you’re as much a protector of the Archigos as I am of the Kraljica.”

“The Archigos doesn’t need my protection, I’m afraid,” the o’teni replied. “He’s quite capable on his own.”

Sergei nodded. “I hope your family home has been repaired satisfactorily, O’Teni. An unfortunate accident. It was fortunate no one was seriously injured.”

The polite smile she was wearing froze on her lips. He saw ci’Vliomani glance strangely at her. “Yes, I’m sure Vatarh would agree with you, Commandant.”

“I wouldn’t trouble myself with it much, O’Teni,” Sergei said. “Mistakes will happen; the important thing is to learn from them and to not repeat them.” He glanced from her to ci’Vliomani. “Envoy, I trust you’re not here to make a mistake yourself.”

“I’m here to enjoy myself, Commandant, like everyone else. And to have a chance to glimpse the Kraljica, who invited me.”

“Ah. The Kraljica. I’m certain you know that her time is extremely limited and her schedule for the evening already made. I would hate to have to. . disengage someone who tried to approach her without her express permission.”

“You worry too much, Commandant. I’m certain that O’Teni cu’Seranta would stop me if I attempted anything that would make me look foolish.”

Sergei smiled thinly. “Yet somehow she didn’t stop you from dancing, Vajiki.”

The Numetodo put on a face of exaggerated hurt, placing his hand over his chest. “Commandant, you wound me to the quick. Why, we of the Isle of Paeti are renowned for our grace and form, as I’m sure you know. If I missed a step or two, it was because the musicians don’t know how to play properly.”

“I’m certain that’s the case,” Sergei answered. He bowed and gave the sign of Cenzi once more. “O’Teni, it was a pleasure to meet you.

Now I can understand how both the Archigos and the Kraljica were impressed by you. But if you’ll excuse me, I have duties to which I must attend.”

He bowed once more and left them. Within three steps, his hand had come up to stroke his chin under the hawk’s mask. This would bear watching. Cu’Seranta had already shown herself to be both powerful and erratic, and if the Archigos trusted her, Sergei did not, especially if-as he suspected-she were vulnerable to romance. The Numetodo wouldn’t be above using that to his own advantage. Yes. Sergei would watch. And wait.

Then, at the right time, he would stoop like a hawk and strike.

“Commandant?” One of Renard’s young aides came hurrying up to him. “The Kraljica is asking if everything is ready.”

“Is the painting in place for the presentation?” The boy nodded.

“Then, yes,” Sergei told the page. “You may tell Renard that we’re ready.”

The boy hurried away as Sergei walked unhurriedly to his post near the stairs to the inner apartments. As he reached them, the trumpets blared a fanfare.

Dhosti ca’Millac

It took far too long to disengage himself from ca’Cellibrecca.

They fenced verbally, using the same ancient, hoary arguments and the same weary answers. Dhosti suspected they both could have written down the exchange beforehand and have missed nothing of

import. Ca’Cellibrecca prattled on about the Toustour and the Divolonte and how the Faith must not tolerate dissent, and how the Archigos’ “lenience” was tearing down the foundations on which the Concenzia Faith had been built. Dhosti had stopped listening after the first few sentences, his back aching from standing so long, and ca’Cellibrecca had left with his usual imprecations and thinly veiled threats.

And now he’d come back out to find Ana dancing with ci’Vliomani.

He hoped that ca’Cellibrecca didn’t notice, but he was certain that even if the a’teni failed to see it himself, the news would come to him very quickly. Dhosti frowned and his fingers tightened on the railing of the alcove: the commandant had stopped to speak with Ana and the Numetodo. You can’t be with her all the time, and she must make her own choices. In the end, it is all Cenzi’s Will. He would have to marry her off soon, he decided. That would cure her of any romantic idealism. Like the Kraljica, he knew that marriage could be as potent a weapon as any sword, if carefully arranged, and he suspected that Ana could be an exceedingly potent sword.

Leaning heavily on his walking stick, Dhosti made his way down the stairs, nodding to the ca’-and-cu’ that he passed, exchanging a few words with those he knew by name and face. It took him several minutes to reach the main floor. He could see Ana and ci’Vliomani having an energetic discussion. “Come,” he said to Ana, glancing once sharply at ci’Vliomani. “We should be at the stairs for the Kraljica’s entrance.

Envoy, if you’ll pardon us. .”

Ana glanced back at ci’Vliomani as Dhosti took her arm, but she followed him. They’d just reached the stairs-the commandant nodding to them from the far side-as a fanfare rattled the walls of the room. A flock of white doves exploded from the balconies in a flurry of soft wings as pieces of shredded, bright paper fluttered down in a slow rain. The candles in the Kneeling Man went out, all at once, followed by all the teni-lights around the hall. The only spot of illumination was at the top of the main stairway. There, an apparition stood.

She seemed to be clothed entirely in light: fierce reds and oranges and shimmering bright ultramarine swirled around her in a whirlwind of color, masking all of her body but the face. And the face. . It was the Kraljica, yes, Dhosti knew, but it was the Kraljica transformed. Each strand of her white hair was a sun, and the light seemed to radiate from deep within her. Her eyes blazed.

She lifted her hands, and rays of purest yellow shot from her fingertips. The crowd cooed appreciatively, bursting into applause.

Dhosti could hear the soft murmuring of the teni hidden at the top of the stairs as they chanted, releasing the light display, but that was unheard by the crowd farther back.

Then the lights returned, the musicians began playing once again, and the Kraljica descended the stairs. Her costume glowed, softer now but difficult to look at directly-it was as if she were clothed in the flicker of sight at the edge of an eye: when Dhosti tried to capture an image, it blurred and was gone. Her hair still gleamed, but more softly now, like stars in a night sky. Her eyes glistened like those of a cat caught in firelight.

He took her hands, and they were simply the ancient hands of the Kraljica. He looked at her face, and he saw weariness and deep, eroded lines there. “Kraljica,” he said. “You were magnificent. Your entrance will be the talk of the evening. Nessantico has seen nothing like it. It was as if Vucta walked again on the earth, just as I’ve imagined Her.”

“Your teni did the work,” she told him. “Thank you for sending them to me.” Her voice quavered, so soft that he found himself leaning forward to listen. “Dhosti, I’m so very tired. Tell O’Teni Ana I would like to take her arm and lean on her, if she doesn’t mind.” Then, for a moment, her old voice returned. “Besides, Ana’s accompaniment would send a message to A’Teni ca’Cellibrecca, wouldn’t it?”

Dhosti smiled at that. “Certainly, Kraljica. Ana. .” He gestured to her to come forward. “The Kraljica’s not feeling well,” he whispered to her. “She needs your arm.”

Ana glanced at the Kraljica with concern, bowing her head to give the sign, then moved to the Kraljica’s side. “I’d be honored, Kraljica,”

she said. The young woman’s arm sparked as it contacted the eddies of light wrapping the Kraljica, and Ana grimaced. “The Ilmodo is a bit cold,” she said aloud.

“It’s damned frigid,” the Kraljica answered. “My blood has turned to ice. But come, let’s do what we must do so I can get back to my apartments. We need to move on so that Justi can be announced.” With that, the Kraljica gave the nearest onlookers a practiced smile and stepped forward into the crowd, the commandant to her left and Dhosti to her right just behind her.

“Kraljica, what a magnificent Gschnas. .”

“. . the best I’ve ever seen. .”

“. . what a wonderful tribute to your Jubilee. .”

As the Kraljica nodded and smiled and waved to the well-wishers among the ca’-and-cu’ who gathered around her, Dhosti leaned closer to the commandant. “The Kraljica doesn’t look well to me, Sergei. Just these last several days. .”

“I share your concern, Archigos. Renard’s talked to her attendants and nurses; they all say the same.” The commandant’s forehead creased above the hawk’s mask. He didn’t look at the Archigos, but at the crowd of the elite pressing around the Kraljica and Ana. “At her age, one never knows, but this sudden decline. . I’ve wondered about the possibility of poison.”

“Is that possible?”

A shrug. “I don’t know yet. But I will.” The commandant almost smiled at that, an expression that caused Dhosti to shiver as if snow were blowing down his bent spine. “Renard tried to convince her not to come down tonight, to let the A’Kralj represent her, but she refused.”

“That, at least, hasn’t changed,” Dhosti said. He saw A’Teni ca’Cellibrecca moving toward the Kraljica with his daughter and marriage-son in tow. Behind them, the trumpets blew their fanfare

again, and all turned to the stairs to see the A’Kralj make his entrance.

Following his matarh’s lead, he was dressed as a mythological figure from the Toustour: Misfal, the first of the Moitidi breathed into existence by Cenzi. The A’Kralj’s costume was chosen perfectly for his athletic figure: dark, close-fitting leather trousers and vest, a shirt painted with marbled veins, his mirrored mask gleaming and studded with polished stones, and a floor-length cape that, like the Kraljica’s clothing, was alive with silver-and-blue color, as if a waterfall were cascading from him. As he stood there, he rose slowly into the air as white clouds fumed from the floor below him before rolling heavily down the stairs.

The A’Kralj remained suspended, his hands lifted as if in benediction, before he descended slowly to the floor once more.

The applause that greeted his performance was enthusiastic, if carefully less long in duration than that which had greeted the Kraljica.

As the A’Kralj descended the stairs, the Kraljica, as was customary, came forward to greet him, still supporting herself on Ana’s arm. The A’Kralj, at the bottom of the steps, bowed and gave the sign of Cenzi to Dhosti, who returned the gesture, then Dhosti watched the Kraljica grasp her son’s hand, and place his other hand on Ana’s. Her voice was too faint for him to hear as she inclined toward her son, but he assumed that she was introducing Ana to the A’Kralj, and that made Dhosti suspect that the Kraljica’s insistence that Ana help her wasn’t entirely an accident. He wasn’t certain how he felt about that; he knew it certainly wouldn’t please his niece Safina, who had often been mentioned as a possible match for Justi. Safina, though, had already shown that she had not inherited Dhosti’s skill with the Ilmodo; he doubted that Safina would ever rise above her current status as e’teni, and that made her less than a good fit for the A’Kralj.

Justi nodded to his matarh, smiled his polished and perfect smile, and moved away, slicing through the throngs directly toward A’Teni ca’Cellibrecca and his daughter and son-in law, and there he entered into an animated discussion.

“The A’Kralj keeps his own counsel,” Sergei said alongside Dhosti.

“And his own affairs.” Sergei pointed his chin toward Francesca, whose hand lightly drifted down the A’Kralj’s arm. It was the intimacy of the gesture that caught Dhosti’s attention; he noticed that it also caught the attention of Estraven, whose face darkened and scowled above the hem of his costume dress.

“Truly?” Dhosti whispered to Sergei.

The commandant nodded.

“Does the Kraljica know?”

“I think she suspects. But not through me.”

“I thought that was part of your job, to give the Kraljica the information she needs.”

The commandant smiled. “It’s my job to know as much as possible about everything that happens here in the city, Archigos. And it’s my job to give the Kraljica information that requires her action or that would affect her adversely. I know far more than I tell the Kraljica,” he said, and his eyes locked on Dhosti’s. “Far more. But I keep it to myself until the proper time. Or I tell others, who may know better than I when the proper time might be. I trust you take my meaning.”

Dhosti nodded. “I will bear that in mind,” he said.

“I’m sure you will,” Sergei answered. “Especially if the Kraljica or you has a thought toward marrying the church to the state.”

Justi ca’Mazzak

It was the applause that seemed to lift him up, rather than the chants of the teni hidden behind him. The acclaim of the ca’-and- cu’ drowned out their chanting, and he closed his eyes as he spread his hands wide. He stood on warm air, suspended in the ovation. Too soon, though, he was standing on the stairway’s landing once again, and he walked slowly down the stairs toward the crowds.

Very soon, when he came to the ca’-and-cu’ it would be as Kraljiki, and the applause and the attention would be his alone. He would not have to share it with his matarh.

But for the moment he had to smile, had to bow to the dwarf who, without realizing it, was likely in his last days as Archigos; had to reach for Matarh’s hand in supplication: smiling, always smiling, even as he glanced quizzically at the young man-no, it was a young woman, he decided suddenly-who was on the arm of the Kraljica.

The woman was supporting his matarh, he realized suddenly. He almost smiled.

His matarh took his hand in hers. It was cold and trembling, that hand, with skin spotted and wrinkled. She reached for his other hand and placed it over the young woman’s. “Justi,” she said. “This is O’Teni Ana cu’Seranta. . you know, the one who saved the Archigos from the Numetodo assassin.” Her voice quavered, and was so weak he could barely hear it. She looked decidedly old tonight. She looked ill.

“So this is the one I’ve heard so much about,” Justi said. “It’s a delight to meet you, O’Teni.”

She couldn’t give him the full curtsy that etiquette demanded while on the Kraljica’s arm, but she bowed her head, muttering more to the floor than to him. “Thank you, A’Kralj,” she answered. “Your costume. . was quite impressive.”

He nodded quickly, ignoring the nicety. “Matarh, should you be out here? If you’d like to retire, I’d be happy to. .”

“No.” For a moment, her voice had its honed edge and imperiousness. “I’m fine. I am thinking, Justi, that you and O’Teni Ana should dance later.”

“I’m certain we can find the time for that, Matarh,” he answered. So is this the one you’ve chosen, Matarh? he wanted to ask. You could at least have chosen someone less plain. “But if you’ll excuse me for the moment. .”

His matarh’s eyes widened at his brusqueness, but he strode quickly away before she could gather herself to comment. He’d glimpsed Francesca through the crowd, standing next to her vatarh, and he moved toward her. “A’Teni ca’Cellibrecca,” he said, accepting the older man’s bow. “It’s good to see you again, and I must say that the simplicity of your costume is refreshing.” He gestured at his own costume ruefully. “I feel a bit too. . conspicuous.”

“The A’Kralj is always conspicuous,” ca’Cellibrecca answered, “as he should be. And it will be more so in the future.” He stopped, glancing pointedly in the direction of the Kraljica and the Archigos. “You already know my daughter, and her husband. .”

“Yes, of course. Vajica, U’Teni, how are the two of you this evening?” He could not quite keep the amusement from his face at the sight of Francesca’s husband, whose already-rouged cheeks flared even more over the edge of the ridiculous costume he wore-that he knew Francesca had chosen for Estraven; she’d laughed about it the last time she and Justi were together. Justi wondered how much the man knew or suspected-not that it mattered. Ca’Cellibrecca had already promised that the marriage would be annulled as soon as he was Archigos, and that U’Teni Estraven would be placated with another wife-Allesandra, the daughter of the Hirzg of Firenzcia, had been mentioned. Justi took Francesca’s hand. “You shame the other women here, Vajica,” he said to her. “They have no chance of competing.” Her gaze stayed on him as she smiled.

“You honor me, A’Kralj,” she murmured.

“A’Kralj,” A’Teni ca’Cellibrecca said, “we must talk later. I have some news I would like to relate to you. Perhaps after the unveiling of the Kraljica’s portrait?”

Justi smiled at that. After the unveiling, there may be no need for words.

“I would be pleased to do so, A’Teni.” He glanced upward, where a star seemed to be descending from the ceiling, in a new fanfare of krumhorns and trumpets. A space was cleared beneath the lowering brilliance, and servants hurried forward with chairs. Justi could see the Archigos and his matarh being seated, and one of Renard’s aides was moving earnestly in his direction. “If you’ll excuse me, A’Teni. It is the duty of the A’Kralj to be submissively at the Kraljica’s side at these moments, I’m afraid.”

Ca’Cellibrecca bowed slightly, and Justi released Francesca’s hand, squeezing it gently beforehand so that she smiled. He moved quickly to the center of the hall, where the star pulsed and radiated, so bright that he had to shade his eyes. Renard, standing next to O’Teni cu’Seranta just behind the high back of the Kraljica’s chair, gestured to the empty chair to the right, its back just slightly lower than either that of the Kraljica or the Archigos. The star sent harsh shadows dancing madly behind the spectators. As Justi slid into his seat, the star flared in the colors of Nessantico’s standard: alternating blue and gold. Then it went dark, and the crowd gasped, blinking and trying to adjust their sight to what seemed to be sudden night. Justi closed his own eyes, purple-and-yellow afterimages chasing themselves behind his eyelids. When he opened them again, a tall rectangle draped in black cloth stood before them, caught in a white glow from teni-lit lamps set near it.

“Where’s that damned painter?” Justi heard Renard whisper harshly behind his seat. “He’s supposed to be here. .” He heard an attendant patter off. Justi smiled inwardly. The crowd was beginning to mutter restlessly as the draped painting remained unrevealed. “Matarh,” Justi said, leaning over to her. “I think Vajiki ci’Recroix suffers from a sudden modesty regarding his painting skills. Perhaps O’Teni cu’Seranta might take his duties. .” He glanced at the young woman and smiled.

“Yes. Ana, if you would. .”

The O’Teni bowed. He heard her take a deep, nervous breath as she moved around the chairs and out into the glare. She went to the draped painting, made a deep bow with the sign of Cenzi to the seated trio, then pulled the silken cloth from the painting.

The room was a large, massed inhalation. Even Justi found himself drawing in breath. The painting. .

It was magnificent. There was no other word for it. Ci’Recroix’s

brush had snared the Kraljica as if in the midst of turning toward the viewer. The figure seated on the Sun Throne was captured larger than life-size. The lighting was chiaroscuro, her features illuminated from the side, each hair on her head and each fold in her face visible. The mouth was slightly open and one hand was lifting from her lap, as if she were beckoning to someone and about to speak to them.

The painting seemed almost to writhe in place, so lifelike and realistic that Justi could almost believe his matarh could step from the frame of the picture and onto the tiles of the hall.

The applause began as a smattering, then quickly became a tidal wave of appreciation that swept over the hall, deafening and tremendous. People pressed forward to see better. .

And the Kraljica, next to Justi, gave a strangled cry. He looked over to see her fall.

Ana cu’Seranta

“Matarh, I think Vajiki ci’Recroix suffers from a sudden modesty regarding his painting skills. Perhaps o’Teni cu’Seranta

might take his duties. .” The A’Kralj glanced over the back of his chair toward her and smiled. It was a polished, artificial smile, and it held no warmth. Ana found herself recoiling from it.

Yes. Ana, if you would,” she heard the Kraljica say, and she wanted to refuse but then the Archigos nodded, his gaze solemn, and she forced herself to bow in agreement. She could feel the stares of the crowd on her as she moved into the brilliant pool of light around the painting. Her breath was caught high in her throat; she thought she might faint, but she forced herself to take a deep, long breath. She saw Envoy ci’Vliomani standing well behind the Kraljica, Archigos, and A’Kralj, at the railing of the half-landing at the edge of the hall. He lifted a hand to her, shaking his head. She wondered at that as she performed the deep curtsy that etiquette required. She put her hand on the soft cloth that draped the canvas.

She tugged, and the shroud fell away like a dark cloud. Ana gasped.

She would have sworn that she saw the image underneath shift in that instant, as if the figure had been startled at the sudden movement, that its eyes stared at her own for an instant before turning away to look at the three people seated before it.

She heard the crowd gasp at the same time. . and she felt. . she felt. .

Ana wasn’t sure what it was. The sense was like a winter river rushing through her as she stood there next to the painting, a river that flowed from the Kraljica in her chair toward the painting itself, a cold so intense that it burned, and the invisible waters were loud with a wail that was the voice of the Kraljica herself.

Ana saw the Kraljica start to rise in her chair, her face distraught and terrified, then just as suddenly she crumpled and fell forward. Her head made a terrible hollow sound as it struck the tiles. Her dress, still alive with teni-illumination, pooled around her.

For a moment, everything was frozen in tableau. Ana could see them all: The A’Kralj, motionless except for his head turned toward his matarh; the Archigos lurching forward in his chair, his stubby feet dangling; Renard, behind the Kraljica’s chair, his hand reaching helplessly and far too late for her; the commandant’s face stern and terrifying, glaring at the crowd as if searching for someone; Envoy ci’Vliomani, at the rear of the crowd, turning away. Then everything moved again. Renard shoved the throne-chair aside and rushed toward the Kraljica as the A’Kralj slid to his knees beside her; the Archigos pushed away from his seat, a chant on his lips; the commandant drew his sword as the crowd pushed inward; Karl ci’Vliomani vanished in the sea of movement.

Ana rushed away from the painting herself to huddle next to the Kraljica.

“Back!” she heard the commandant shout. “Everyone move back!”

But they were still pressing forward, drawn by the commotion, and the Archigos lifted his hand, still chanting. She felt the ripple of power flow outward from him, a shimmering of air that pushed past her without touching but then hardened into a wall that shoved back at the crowd, holding them.

The A’Kralj had lifted his matarh in his arms; Ana could see her breathing, gasping as he pushed himself up, and she felt relief- she isn’t dead. “Renard!” the A’Kralj shouted. “Call for the healer. Bring him to the Kraljica’s rooms. Now!” Renard bowed and hurried off.

“Archigos. .”

“I will clear the way,” the Archigos said, and Ana felt the invisible wall shift. A path began to open before them. She could hear the commandant shouting orders to his staff, and the crowd roar was deafening.

“Ana, come with us.”

She followed the Archigos, going ahead of the A’Kralj. They moved

quickly from the hall, out a side door and across a corridor to another door. Servants scurried ahead of them. The door opened into a staircase and they went up a quick two flights, and Ana found herself finally in the corridors of the Kraljica’s private apartment. More servants appeared, opening the doors and ushering them into the Kraljica’s bedchamber, where the A’Kralj laid the Kraljica down on her bed. “Matarh,” he said, “can you hear me?”

A faint nod. The Kraljica’s eyes flickered open, showing mostly the whites of her eyes traced with red veins. “I felt. . my heart was tearing out of me. . my head splitting. .” Her voice was a husk, barely audible. “So tired. .”

“Where’s that healer?” the A’Kralj said, his voice loud and his face flushed. He went to the door. “Renard!” he shouted.

“A’Kralj,” the Archigos said. His voice was weary and trembling, but Justi spun around, his eyes blazing. “The commandant will need you downstairs, to reassure the guests.”

The A’Kralj glanced at the bed. “If my matarh is in danger. .”

“She’s resting now,” the Archigos said, soothingly. “You have your duty to perform. The ca’-and-cu’ will be in an uproar, and they need your leadership at this moment. Your matarh needs it.”

Ana saw the A’Kralj’s lips press together. The flush in his face lessened, though his gaze stayed on the bed. “Yes,” he said. “But. .”

“Let me care for her,” the Archigos said. “We will handle this.

There’s nothing you can do here, but downstairs there is. The commandant will need orders from you as the A’Kralj-and as the acting Kraljiki for as long as the Kraljica remains incapacitated. I will send for you immediately if there is any change here.”

The A’Kralj nodded. He rushed out the door. The Archigos looked at the servants who were in the room, getting bedding, pouring water, uncovering the banked fire in the hearth. An e’teni on the palais staff chanted to put light in a lamp; another started the blades of a fan cir-culating to move the stale air. “Leave us,” the Archigos said to all of them. “Now.” They bowed and hurried from the room, closing the door behind them.

The Archigos was staring down at the still figure on the bed, at the frail chest rising and falling shallowly.

“Archigos,” Ana said. The man glanced over at her, and the severe look in his eyes frightened her. “When the painting was uncovered, I felt something. .”

“We don’t have time for this,” the Archigos told her. “Renard might come here, or the A’Kralj might return. Come here, Ana. Stand by the bed.”

She knew what he wanted of her. “Archigos, I shouldn’t. . The Divolonte. .”

“I rule Concenzia, child, and I know what the Divolonte says and

I know it was written by the a’teni and not by Cenzi Himself. I also believe that Cenzi does not gift people needlessly. Now-do what you can for her, and do it quickly. Go on; we’re alone here.”

Ana approached the bed. She looked down at the Kraljica, so pale in her resplendent costume. She seemed nearly dead already, her breath so shallow that it barely touched her chest, her cheeks hollow and sunken.

“You know what to do,” the Archigos said. “Pray to Cenzi, Ana.”

She did. She took a long, shuddering breath. She closed her eyes and took one of the Kraljica’s hands in her own. The chant came to her, unbidden, rising from the place that she thought of as the core of her belief, far inside her. Her lips moved with the words that shaped the power that emerged with them, the Ilmodo. Her hands lifted from the Kraljica’s, molding the growing power. She formed the Ilmodo so that it could coil from her heart into her hands, and from there into the Kraljica. It was warm, this power, like a liquid sun, and when it touched the old woman on the bed, Ana found herself caught in the Kraljica’s mind, also. She could hear her, crying and weeping in an interior darkness. She let more of the Ilmodo rush from her so that it entered the Kraljica. .

. . but this was not as it was before. Then, the Ilmodo had filled Ana’s matarh as if she had been a empty vessel, moving through her like blood. The cup of her matarh’s body had held the Ilmodo like a goblet, and it had strengthened her.

But that didn’t happen with the Kraljica. The Ilmodo moved into her and out again as if she were a bowl with a hole bored through the bottom, and Ana could feel the Kraljica’s life force rushing through that same hole, draining away from her. The flow was compelling; Ana found herself falling with it, unbidden, caught in the white-foamed rush that went into and through the Kraljica-and she knew where it was taking her even as she fought to hold herself back. The Ilmodo was being torn from her, away and down, down to the hall far below where the painting stood. The spell within the painting sucked greedily at her, clawed at her, ripped the Ilmodo’s energy away. She fought against the incantation, pulling herself back and concentrating on the Kraljica, on the connection that bound her to the painting. She struggled to control the Ilmodo, to use it to close the rent in the Kraljica’s spirit and seal it off. The resistance was terrible; it was as if she were physically struggling with someone, someone easily as strong as her and bent on taking her down.

Ana gasped. She felt as if she were shouting her chant into a gale, but for a moment she felt that she was winning. Her Ilmodo brightened, and she could hear the Kraljica’s voice- I’m here, Ana. . I feel you. .

— but then she was tossed aside before she could reach for that voice.

Tossed aside and out.

She was back in the room, holding the Kraljica’s hand. Her hair was damp with perspiration; she was breathing as heavily as if she’d run here from the Archigos’ Temple. She could feel the weariness gathering, the payment for her spell.

“Archigos. .”

“I know,” he said. “I felt it. The Ilmodo moving.”

Ana nodded. “The Kraljica. . It’s the painting that’s killing her. I think this ci’Recroix somehow. .” She didn’t finish the thought as the Archigos nodded.

“I suspect we’ll find that Vajiki ci’Recroix has left the city in a hurry,” he said.

“I should have known, Archigos,” Ana said. She forced herself to stay awake against the compulsion to give in to the exhaustion. “When we were here last, I looked at the painting. I thought I felt something like a teni-spell then within it, but I thought it was how the painter made his figures so true. I thought it was something he did unconsciously, without even knowing he was doing it, like I did with healing headaches as a child. I should have told you. If I had, perhaps. .” She stopped, her hand over her mouth. “I’ve slowed it, but I don’t think I can heal her. There must be someone else, some other way. .”

“I doubt it,” the Archigos answered. He stirred and started toward the door, the graveclothes he wore fluttering as he moved. “I’ll call the commandant and have him take the painting and bring it here. If we burn it, perhaps. .”

“No!” Ana interrupted. She panted from the effort of the shout, the weariness calling to her to succumb. “She’s bound to the painting.

If you destroy the painting, you destroy her.”

“You’re certain of that, Ana?”

Ana shook her head. Her breath wheezed from her lungs. “I can’t be certain. But I felt the connection. Too much of the Kraljica is already there, captured. Sever the bond between her and the painting, and she will have nothing left.”

The room was darkening around the Archigos. Ana saw him as if he were standing at the end of a long tunnel, outlined in aching light.

“All I could do was lessen the draining from the Kraljica to the spell in the painting,” she continued, “but I couldn’t close it completely. Even if I could, I think we need to keep the connection open so that perhaps we could bring her back.” The explanation took all of her breath. “It’s like she’s bleeding from a wound, Archigos, only inside.”

Ana moved her gaze from the Archigos back to the Kraljica; the turning of her head made her nauseous and disoriented: like a child who’d been twirling around and around, then suddenly stops. The

room tilted and she staggered. “Ana!” she heard the Archigos call as she clutched at a post of the Kraljica’s bed, but his voice seemed to come from somewhere far outside, and now the room was spinning in earthquake madness and the fire in the hearth erupted from its bed, and the heat and the flames and the sound bore her down and carried her away.

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