In the game of word links, a large vocabulary was not always an advantage. Words indeed were necessary—the game consisted entirely of words given back and forth, and each response had to connect to the previous one. The good players possessed a quick mind and the ability to recognize patterns. Those who could see the unexpected connections, however, inevitably won.
A simple game with endless strategies and unexpected side-effects.
Therez Zhalina watched Klara's face intently, waiting for her friend to turn the miniature sand glass and start the next round of their game. It was a late summer's afternoon. The two girls sat in a seldom-used parlor, on the third floor of Maester Zhalina's house. The maids had opened the windows, letting in the warm salt breeze from the harbor, less than a mile away, and a hint of pine tang from the hills and mountains that circled the city to the north.
Klara held the sand glass lightly between her fingers, tilting it one way, then another. She appeared bored, but the look did not deceive Therez. She knew Klara's style. Her friend would start with something innocuous, like chair or book. Then, at the crucial moment, she would throw out a word guaranteed to fluster her opponent.
I shall have to use her own strategy upon her first.
"Lir," Klara said, and flipped the glass over.
"Toc," Therez answered at once.
Klara choked. "Therez! That is not fair. You deliberately chose a horrible image."
Though she wanted to laugh at Klara's expression, Therez did not let her attention lapse. "No more horrible than yours, the last round," she said. "Besides, the link is perfect: And Toc plucked out his eyes to make the sun and moon for his sister-goddess, Lir. Come, the round is not over. A word. Give me a word, Klara."
"I'm thinking. I'm thinking. What about—Ah, love-of-the-ocean, the sands have run out. Are you certain this wretched device runs true?"
"The glass came with a guild certificate from the artisan."
"Damp," Klara said grumpily. "Just like everything else in Melnek."
"If the sands were damp, they would run slower not faster." Therez poured a fresh cup of chilled water and stirred in a few spoonfuls of crushed mint. "Here," she said, handing it to her friend. "You sound like a marsh frog—a very thirsty one."
"Oh, thank you." Klara drank down the water. "How delightful to know that my voice is like that of some slithery bog-creature. Do you think the young men will appreciate me more, or less, for that virtue?"
Therez smothered another laugh. "Oh, much more. Think what money you could save them on entertainment. No more fees to musicians when you are about."
"Hah. There speaks a true merchant girl."
"No more a merchant girl than you," Therez said. "Here. We'll play one more round. Unless you're tired of losing."
"Make it a double round," her friend said. "And promise me you'll turn the glass without delay."
"Agreed." Therez reversed the timer. "Duenne."
They each rapped out answers as quickly as the other spoke, the words connecting through all the facets of life in a trade city on the border between Veraene and Károví. Guild. Taxes. Caravan. Freight. Scales. Fish.
"Klara! He's not a fish."
"He looks like one. Come, give me a word or make a challenge."
"Very well. No challenge. My word is shipping."
"Hurt. No, wait. I meant to say winter."
The sands ran out in the silence that followed. Unwilling to meet her friend's gaze, Therez turned the sand glass over in her hands. Its graceful wooden frame, carved from rare blackwood, made a swirling pattern against the luminescent sand, and the artisan had painted fine gold lines along its edges, reminding her of sunlight reflecting off running water.
"When do you go?" Klara said at last.
"That late? I thought it was…"
"Next spring? It was. My father changed his mind."
And he might again, Therez thought. After a long tedious lecture about expenses, Petr Zhalina had agreed that Therez's brother, Ehren, would resume his studies at Duenne's University. After longer discussions and several invitations, he gave permission for Therez to spend a year with their cousin's family, who also lived in the capitol. But so many ifs and maybes lay between now and next summer. Their grandmother's illness. Their father's uncertain health and the state of his business…
"Do you want to play another round?" she said.
Her voice was not as steady as she would have liked, and Klara's eyes narrowed, making them appear like quick, narrow brushstrokes against her dark complexion. But her friend only said, "No. Thank you. May I have another cup of water?"
A welcome deflection, Therez thought, as she poured chilled water for them both into porcelain cups. Her father paid extra to have ice blocks transported from the nearby mountains, and stored in his cellars. Her brother said the ice reminded their father of the far north, and Duszranjo, where he'd once lived. Therez didn't know if that were true. She only knew her father's whims on what he spent and what he saved made little sense to her.
"He must have been so very hungry," she murmured, half to herself. "Starving, for more than one life."
"What was that?" Klara said.
Therez roused herself. "Oh nothing. I was just thinking of….past lives."
"Ah, those." Klara's black eyes glinted with curiosity. "I must have been a marsh frog, at least once. Though marsh frogs seldom care to become humans. What about you?"
Therez shrugged and pretended to study her water cup. But she could sense Klara's attention. Her friend might pretend indifference, but she was watching Therez closely. "Oh, a scholar," she said lightly. "I remember ink stains on my fingers. I had a lover, too. Another scholar. I remember us wandering through a library filled with books about everything in the world. About history and poetry, about Lir and Toc. About…." About magic and Lir's jewels, gifts from the goddess to Erythandran's priests in ancient times, she thought to herself. She had been a scholar more than once, but she didn't want to tell Klara that part.
Klara, however, was smiling thoughtfully. "Scholar," she said softly. "That I can believe. Do you remember how it ended, your time with your lover?"
Which one? Therez thought. The answer was the same for both. In the darkness, running from a man I'd known years and lives before. But who her lover was, or who the other man was, she still did not know.
She turned her head away. "It ended badly. That's all I know. What about you?"
"Ah, mine." Klara smiled pensively. "Mine are little more than vague dreams—shadows in the night, as the poets call them. But this I do remember—how in all of them how I always had friends. It gives me joy to think that."
Some of the ache in Therez's chest eased. "And so it should."
A brisk knock startled them both. Klara arched her eyebrows. "It cannot be your father," she whispered. "He never knocks."
"Klara, do not make a joke, please—"
She broke off as the door opened to a liveried boy. "Mistress Therez," he said. "Your mother would see you at once in her parlor."
Klara immediately stood and shook out the folds of her loose summer gown. "A summons, I see. Then I shall not detain you a single moment." She leaned close and whispered, "We shall continue our talk tomorrow, my scholarly friend."
I should not have told her anything, Therez thought, as she escorted her friend down the stairs. That was the danger of the word linking game. Admit one secret and the rest come spilling out. It had nearly happened when her mother had first mentioned the cousin's invitation. She wanted to cheer or laugh, both of them inappropriate reactions. Both guaranteed to convince her father she ought to stay home. Oh, not that she had any true plans. Just hopes and wishes that a twelve-month at Veraene's capital city would let chance show itself. That she might meet a poet or scholar—anyone who was not a merchant's son.
Or even a merchant's son. As long as he is not like my father, I shall not care.
She parted from Klara at the next landing, and turned into the family's private wing. All the house was quiet, except when Petr Zhalina held meetings or dinners for his colleagues, but the silence here was deeper, and the air lay heavy, thick with the scent of crushed herbs. Therez drew a deep breath, wishing for a cleansing northern wind, then hurried onward to her mother's rooms.
She found her mother surrounded by a handful of servants who were laying out pens and ink bottles, parchment, drying dust, and packets of sealing wax. A tray with cups and two carafes occupied the center of the table.
Isolde Zhalina turned at her daughter's entrance. "There you are, Therez. I'm sorry to have interrupted your visit, but we have much to do. Your father has decided to hold a dinner party next week, and you're to help with the arrangements. I'm sending out the invitations today."
"Next week?" Therez asked. "Why the hurry? Papa said nothing before."
Her mother glanced briefly toward the servants. "Why ever the hurry? Therez, don't ask such questions."
So there were business matters afoot. Therez obediently seated herself at the table and poured herself a cup of tea. She waited until her mother had dismissed the servants before she spoke again.
"What is the matter?" she asked. "Can you tell me now?"
"Business," her mother said, taking her own seat with a heavy sigh. "Your father decided to start contract negotiations early this year. He's anxious. So is Ehren."
Late summer brought the annual contract negotiations when merchants settled with the caravan companies and shipping guilds for next year's transportation. Other guilds often set their contracts as well—the silk guilds who provided raw silks, or woven fabrics, or finished goods; the miners' guilds who specialized in marble and granite and gemstones; the sundry smaller guilds and artisans who commissioned merchants to sell their wares. The season's negotiations made for tense conversations at dinner. Still, that did not explain the urgency in her mother's voice.
"Your father is fretting about losing influence," her mother continued. "The City Council didn't invite him to the debate on caravan tolls, and even though they apologized, saying they thought him too ill to attend, I cannot believe the oversight was entirely accidental. Then there are the rumors about higher taxes, talk about closing the border…"
"We heard those rumors last year."
"Yes, but the rumors are louder this year. Much louder. I didn't pay attention at first, but Ehren says he heard the same reports in Duenne. The king is anxious, and because he's anxious, he wants more taxes, more fees, and stricter controls between all Morauvín's cities and Károví. And if the king does close the borders, we shall have to depend on smugglers or forgo our trade across the border. Your father would dislike that, especially after he's invested so much time and money in opening those routes."
She poured herself a cup of black tea from the other carafe and stirred a spoonful of honey. The pale sunlight, filtered through the room's smoky glass, was not kind to her delicate features. Therez could plainly see faint lines crisscrossing her face, and silvery strands glinted from her neatly dressed hair, like frost upon the mountains. Her mother's troubled look was not new, not since her father's illness last spring, but this volubility about taxes and trade was a marked change.
"That's not all, is it?" Therez said softly.
Her mother glanced toward the door. "No," she said in a low voice. "I don't know what you've heard, but Maester Galt has taken charge of the shipping guild, and he's proposing changes to the fee structure. Talk says he's already given the best terms to Maester Friedeck and his son. Your father thinks…" Another beat of hesitation. "We do not know if Ehren can return to the University, or if you can make your visit."
Therez's chest squeezed tight in sudden distress. It took her a moment before she knew she had her voice under control. "Ah, I see. I had had no idea how difficult the year had been."
Her mother shrugged. "We are not in danger of poverty. But you know your father."
"Yes. I do." Therez fell silent. Her tea stood cooling, hardly touched, but she no longer had any desire for its delicate flavor. She had always told herself that her plans might be overturned, but she had not realized how much she had depended on them. Her thoughts flicked back to her word game with Klara. Melnek. Home. Hurt. The sequence was not far off from the truth. If only she could live a year—or even two—away from home, perhaps she could determine if hurt was a necessary part of life.
"May I see the guest list?" she asked.
Her mother handed her a sheet. Therez read through the list of names, written in her father's plain square handwriting. Galt, the head of the shipping guild, of course, and various other guild masters. Maester Gerd Bartos, the current head of the City Council, whose eldest daughter was contracted to marry Galt. A dozen of the most influential merchants and liaisons to the city council, Klara's father among them. The list covered an entire page.
"Papa's invited half of Melnek," she commented.
"Yes. We must extend ourselves more than usual." Her mother called up a brief unconvincing smile. "Though it won't be all work. We shall have music and special dishes and afterwards dancing. You are to pick the musicians yourself."
She took back the list of guests and went through Petr Zhalina's orders for the dinner, which were more exacting than usual—not only whom to invite, but also how many courses to serve, how much to spend on musicians and decorations, how long the dancing would last. It was unnecessary for Therez's mother to emphasize that Petr Zhalina wished to make a good impression. The length and detail of these instructions were evidence enough.
Therez absorbed all these implications for a moment. One dinner could not ruin their business, but clearly any future success would build upon its outcome. Every guild head invited. Every leading merchant—
Then it struck her. "I didn't see Maester Friedeck's name on the list. You might want to add him. Or no? What's wrong?"
The habitual crease between her mother's eyes deepened. "No. When your father heard the news about Maester Galt and Maester Friedeck, they…quarreled."
Therez bit her lip. Suggestions were a delicate matter, even with her mother. "Could you convince Papa to change his mind and invite him? Maester Friedeck, I mean."
Her mother dipped her pen in the inkwell, still frowning. "Why?"
"Because if the rumors are true, Papa will want Maester Friedeck as an ally, not a rival. He could use this evening to win his good will, if not his support. And if the rumors are false, and we snub him, then Papa would needlessly antagonize an important man. You did say this dinner was the key to next year's success."
Isolde Zhalina studied her daughter a moment. "Yes," she said slowly. "I can see why Maester Friedeck should come. But let us have Ehren make the suggestion. That will do better."
She nodded firmly. That too was out of character, Therez thought. A sign that all was not well in this household.
It never was.
Be quiet. It can be.
Still arguing with herself, Therez wrote down the name of a prominent musician. She immediately drew a line through the name, unhappy with her choice. Her pen hovered over the paper. When was the last time her mother had laughed or smiled without care? How had she looked, nearly five-and-twenty years ago, when Petr Zhalina courted her? Had he promised his love and all his heart? Had she, like Lir, laughed with delight? Or was theirs a marriage of gold and politics, even from the beginning?
The scratching of her mother's pen ceased. She was staring at the guest list and frowning harder than before.
"A problem?" Therez asked.
"No. But I always find it hard to pick the right words. Especially for certain guests."
Ah, so the list was not the complete list. Somehow this did not surprise Therez. "Who else is coming?" she asked.
Her mother wrote a line, paused. Her glance flicked up and back down to the parchment before her. "Baron Mann, if he accepts," she said at last. "A few others."
Therez exhaled softly. Baron Josef Mann had recently come from a season at Duenne's Court. Her father must have special plans indeed.
"Paschke," she said. "We must engage Launus Paschke for the evening. With him and his company, we won't need any other musicians."
"Paschke would indeed make a favorable impression," her mother murmured. "I only hope—"
She broke off and frowned again. Therez reminded herself that a failure meant more than disappointment for herself and Ehren. Failure also meant a lecture from Petr Zhalina to his wife, delivered in a soft monotone that would wash all emotion from her mother's face. And he would not drop the matter after one or two days—or even a week, Therez thought. That anyone could endure. But her father would bring up the subject weeks and years later—small pointed reminders of his wife's failings. Strange how a whisper could wound so deep.
It would come out right, Therez told herself. They would dazzle their guests, her father would secure his contracts, and she would see her own plans to fruition. But every detail must be perfect.
By late-afternoon, Therez had planned the wines and most of the decorations. She had written to various artists for advice with the finer details; she had also sent a letter to Launus Paschke, asking to meet and discuss hiring his company. In turn her mother had completed the invitations and given them over to Petr Zhalina's senior runner for delivery.
"We are done for today," her mother told her. "Go and visit your grandmother. I know you want to."
Therez did not wait for her mother to repeat the suggestion. She ran to her rooms to store away her notes, then hurried down the corridor to the lavish suite where her grandmother lived alone. Nadĕžda Zhalina called these rooms her empire, and there she had once ruled with vigor. But in the last year, age and illness had overtaken her—the empire had shrunk to her bedchamber, invaded by nurses and maids and companions. Therez came into the richly ornamented sitting room that formed the outer defenses of that kingdom.
A maid sat there, mending stockings.
"Is she awake, Mina?"
Mina shook her head. "Sleeping, Mistress. Very lightly."
The sleep of very old people. "What about her appetite? Did she eat today?"
"Three bites, Mistress."
Therez glanced through the half-open door. The rooms beyond were dark, but a faint light edged the bedroom door. "I'll just look in, then. I won't wake her."
She glided through a second, smaller sitting room, which was given over to dozens of porcelain figures, through the dressing room, to her grandmother's bedroom door, which she eased open.
Bowls filled with fresh památka cuttings were set about on tables, the pale white blooms like candle flames in the semi-darkness. Her grandmother had carried away a handful of seeds from her old home in faraway Duszranjo, in Károví, decades before. After they arrived in Melnek, and her son purchased this house, she had planted beds of them in their formal gardens, over his protests. Now that she was ill, she had the flowers brought to her. Off in one corner stood a thick crude figure of an gnarled bent woman. Lir, as the crone. She had another name in Károví, in the old days, but the goddess was still the same.
Another maid, Lisl, sat in one corner, knitting by the light of a shaded lamp. Therez signaled for her to remain still and tiptoed to her grandmother's side.
Her grandmother lay with her head turned toward the window, snoring softly. She looked old, Therez thought. Old and frail. Her ruddy-brown skin was mottled, and her once-black hair lay scattered thinly over the pillow. Underneath the loose pouches of skin, you could just make out traces of the strong old woman from six months before.
Therez's grandmother stirred. "Therez," she whispered. "Hello, my sweet. Come closer."
Therez touched the old woman's cheek. "Are you well?"
"Dobrud'n. Good and not good, as they say." Thirty years in Veraene had not erased her strong accent. "I was hoping you would visit." She tried to sit up. Her face crumpled and she sank into her pillow again with a muttered curse. "I hate it," she whispered angrily. "I hate sickness and—ah, you didn't come to hear my complaints."
"I came to visit. If you'd rather complain, then I'll listen." Therez gathered her grandmother's hands in hers and gently kissed them. She could feel how light and fragile the bones had become. The surgeons had warned them to expect her grandmother's death within the next few months.
Already her grandmother had closed her eyes again, and her breathing turned soft and raspy, a sound like that of paper sliding over paper. Lisl's knitting needles resumed their regular clicking. Therez gently withdrew her hands, thinking to let her grandmother sleep, when the old woman's eyes fluttered open. "Tell me about the dinner party," she whispered.
Therez suppressed a start of surprise. Of course her grandmother had heard. Probably from Lisl and Mina. "If you already know, Grandmama, what can I tell you?"
Her grandmother laughed softly. "Impertinent child. Tell me what these silly girls don't know. What has your father planned?"
"He's planned everything," Therez said dryly, which provoked another laugh from her grandmother. "But he's left a few choices to me and my mother. We shall have Paschke for our music, if he has no other obligation, and I've written to Mistress Sobek, the theater artist, for advice on the decorations. I can tell you already that there will be flowers and sweet candles, dancing, and three courses of the finest dishes Mama could decide upon."
"And the guests? Who are they?"
"Friends. Neighbors. He's invited nearly all the chief merchants and anyone with a voice in the city council." She hesitated. "He's even invited Baron Mann, if you can believe it."
"Friends," her grandmother said. "Those are not friends. Those are allies, rivals, partners. Sometimes I think your father—Well, never mind what I think. It should be an interesting evening. I wish I could watch. Pity. And with you the chief of everything. So big since last year. Soon you will find a husband."
Not until Duenne, Therez thought, but she only smiled. "I'd rather wait another year, Grandmama. Sixteen or seventeen is old enough."
A brief spasm passed over her grandmother's face. "I was seventeen," she whispered. "Saw your grandfather in his shop in the marketplace. He was young then, quieter, but that day he was laughing. Such a bright smile. Oh, I fell in love so quick, it hurt."
Therez stroked her hands, not liking the quaver in her grandmother's voice. "Maybe we should postpone the dinner party. It's not right. Not with you so…tired."
"Bah. Don't be foolish. I'll see more dinner parties. I dream of them sometimes. Strong dreams, too, and all of them in the same palace. And always in winter, far to the north. About scrubbing, if you can believe it. Floors and walls. Tin plates. Silver plates. Once a platter of gold that I polished until it gleamed like the sun. I did well, they said, for someone so young. I almost told them I knew the work from lives and lives before, but I didn't. I knew they wouldn't like it."
Therez's skin prickled at her grandmother's words. Strong dreams were always life dreams, the scattered memories of previous lives. Even those who dreamed faintly would find their life dreams more vivid as death approached. "Don't talk like that," she said fiercely.
Her grandmother made a tch-tch sound. "Ne. Not to worry, sweet. I only meant that I dreamed sometimes." Another pause while she recovered her breath. "Therez, why is your father holding this dinner party?"
Therez blinked, startled by the question. "Business, my mother said. The autumn contracts." She didn't want to mention the part about Ehren's studies, or her own trip to Duenne. That would only provoke another argument between her grandmother and her father.
But her grandmother was already muttering. "Business. Always business. Money. Contracts. Deals and trade. Sometimes I think your father forgets the famine was thirty years go. Not yesterday."
"It could happen again tomorrow," said a voice from the doorway. "Or have your forgotten how easily wealth turns into poverty?"
Petr Zhalina stood in the doorway, a tall narrow shadow against the gloom. Only a white band showed where his shirt emerged from his dark gray vest and coat. With a wave of his hand, he dismissed Lisl, who vanished into the outer rooms.
Nadĕžda Zhalina opened her eyes; her expression turned wary. "Dobrud'n, my son."
"Good afternoon, my mother."
Her mouth twitched. "Such a diligent son. Have you come to wish me farewell?"
Petr Zhalina lifted his chin. His lips thinned even more, if that were possible, and the angles in his cheeks grew more pronounced. "I came to see about your health. Therez, please leave us."
Therez turned toward the door, but stopped when her grandmother lifted a hand. "Come again this evening, sweet."
"She comes if her duties allow," said her father. "Therez. Go."
Therez hurried out the door. She heard a low murmur from her father and a brusque reply from her grandmother. She paused, wondering what the new argument was about, but both voices quickly sank into whispers.
A shiver passed through her—a reminder of death and the coming winter—and she fled to the brightly lit halls below.
Eight days left, then three, finally none. All the guests had accepted their invitations, including Baron Mann. Paschke had rearranged his schedule at Therez's request. They would bring both plucked and hammer stringed instruments, he told her, as well as a complement of oblique and transverse flutes, and even a water flute, which only a master could play with any success. In the dining room, the steward had arranged flowers made of perfumed silks and gossamers and faille in the latest fashion from Duenne. Therez's mother seemed cautiously pleased.
That afternoon, Therez sat by her grandmother's bedside, watching the old woman's chest rise and fall as she slept. I'm so tired, Nadĕžda Zhalina had whispered. So tired, and yet I cannot sleep. Tell me a story, sweet. One about Duszranjo.
And so Therez had, repeating all the old stories and folktales her grandmother had once told her—about ghost soldiers who haunted the mountain passes, about the famine her grandparents and father had survived, about the near-immortal king who ruled that northern land of Károví. The longer she spoke of long-ago and far-away, the more easily she could forget the whispers and the tensions of now. How her mother would suddenly fall silent and tremble. How her grandmother and father conducted a silent war of determination. How her brother seemed more distant now than when he first left for University.
Her grandmother stirred restlessly. "Him," she murmured. "Always him. He never changes."
She was dreaming again, Therez thought. Were these more life dreams? Or simply the wanderings of an old weary mind?
Outside, muted by thick walls, the bells rang five long peals. Two hours until the dinner party. She ought to go. Gently, she eased her hands from her grandmother's and rose. She'd dismissed Lisl before, telling her to take a free half hour. The girl ought to be back soon…
Her grandmother gave a breathy moan. Therez hovered anxiously. She laid a hand over her grandmother's forehead, which felt clammy to her touch. Her grandmother twitched away and started to mumble in Károvín—something about a palace and a king. The king. The only king.
Leos Dzavek. Now she understood. Of course. He was the one who never changed, not since he'd stolen Lir's jewels from the Emperor, almost four hundred years ago. Emperors and kings had died since then. The empire itself had broken apart. Only Leos Dzavek remained unchanged, wrapped in magic even long after the jewels themselves had vanished.
"So strange," her grandmother whispered. Her shivering grew stronger, in spite of layers of woolen blankets and the abundant fire in the fireplace. Therez chafed her grandmother's hands gently. The soft loose skin felt chilled to her touch.
She deserves better, Therez thought angrily. My father has money enough to hire any mage-surgeon he pleases. If he pleased. Magic might not save her grandmother's life, but at least a surgeon trained in magic could ease her passage from one life to the next. Her mother had dared once, to make the suggestion, but her father had dismissed it with an abrupt gesture. Magic, he said, was a useless expense.
Her grandmother muttered again. Therez heard her own name amidst a stream of garbled words. She bent over her grandmother. "What is it?" she whispered. "What are you saying?"
"Ei rûf ane gôtter…"
A chill washed over Therez as she recognized those words from history books—I call to the gods—the first words in any invocation of magic, the language of old Erythandra.
I wonder if she heard them from Leos Dzavek himself. I wonder…
"Ei rûf ane gôtter," she whispered. "What comes next, Grandmama?"
No answer. Just a faint wheezing. Therez repeated the words slowly. She'd read so many history books that talked about magic, and more books about languages, but none of them had contained any true spells. All she could remember was that the old tribes of the northern forests and plains had brought their language with them when they migrated south to Duenne, conquering as they rode. Centuries later, the priests of the empire used the same invocation to call upon Lir and Toc, to summon the magic current for their rites.
"Ei rûf ane gôtter," she repeated. "Ei rûf…" Now a few more words came back to her. "Ei rûf ane gôtter. Komen uns Lir unde Toc."
She felt a fluttering in her chest. Was that magic?
She drew a long breath and repeated the words, her thoughts pinned upon each syllable, upon the moment in between.
The air went still and taut. Therez could still hear the fire hissing in its grate, but the noise was muted, as though a veil had dropped between her and the room. She felt a faint breeze against her cheek, smelled the scent of new-mowed grass.
…she knelt on the hard flagstones of the landing, scrubbing the floor with her brush where some fool of a serving girl had dropped a plateful of berries. Those stains might never come out of the mortar, never mind the white stones that showed any dirt at all. Her hands ached. Her knees were stiff and sore. And the cold. You would think a grand palace would be warm, but it was never warm in the north, not even in summer…
It was a life dream—she recognized the intensity at once—and she was part of it. Then her thoughts dipped again into her grandmother's. She saw a vast white staircase curving above and below her, felt the cold hard stones against her knees, and heard…
She heard footsteps ringing off the stairs. Hurriedly she dragged the bucket into the corner and wiped the stones dry. Just in time for the man—he looked like a starving bird with great black eyes, she thought—to round the corner. A young woman dressed in layers of robes followed him. She wore an emerald set in her cheek, a blood-red ruby in her ear. It was the younger prince of Károví and his betrothed. They never notice us, she thought. Invisible is what we are. She liked that.
The young woman paused. Her gaze dropped to the old woman's.
And within her grandmother's thoughts, Therez felt a shock of recognition. I know her.
Therez jerked her head up. Isolde Zhalina stood in the doorway. Her face was hard to read in the dim light, but her stance was rigid, her voice anxious. Behind her flitted the shadow of a maid—Lisl or Mina. "Therez, what are you doing here?" her mother said. "It's late."
Only now did Therez hear the bells ringing—much louder than before. The air in the room had turned chill—the fire had died—and there came to her the scent of cold ashes, overlaid by a stronger, greener scent. An hour had vanished without her knowing it. "I'm sorry," she said. "I forgot about the time. I—"
"Never mind. Dress and come downstairs as soon as you can. I'll talk to your father."
Therez brushed a hand over her grandmother's forehead. In her mind's eye, she could still see the berry-stained flagstones, the wash of pale sunlight over the walls, which were as white as a snow-drift. Then she was running to her own rooms, stumbling because her legs were cramped and stiff. Hurry, hurry, hurry. Do not give my father an excuse for anger.
Four maids waited there, along with her mother's senior maid. As soon as she appeared, Asta called out orders to everyone, including Therez, urging them all through the preparations: The scented bath. The powder applied to Therez's skin and then dusted off. Then the layers of clothes, from the stockings and linen undershift, to the silken gown that fell in pleats from the high ribboned waist. Therez felt more like a puppet than a girl as she obeyed polite requests to tilt her head this way and that, or to hold perfectly, perfectly still while a maid stitched an errant pearl back onto the lace of Therez's overgown. Another maid applied perfume and the merest dab of color to her lips. All the while, her veins buzzed with excitement.
Or was that the magic?
"Nearly ready, Mistress Therez. Margrit, I need— Ah, good, you have them."
Asta plucked a long shimmering ribbon from the hands of a waiting girl. Deftly she wound it through Therez Zhalina's loosely bound hair, while another maid slid the dancing slippers on Therez's feet. The air smelled of lightly spiced perfume, of fresh wildflowers, and a cloud of steam lingered from the bathwater. One of the maids hummed softly as she tidied up.
"Another length of ribbon, Margrit. Eva, set out the pearls."
Asta swiftly fastened the pearls into Therez's hair. "All ready."
Therez stood, ready to run downstairs, but Asta stopped her with a gesture. "Stop," she cried. "Take one look before you go. For good luck."
Therez paused and blinked at the long mirror. At first she saw only a swath of colors—the silken gown the color of ripe apricots, the pale golden lace of her over gown, her long black hair gathered back with ribbons that matched her gown. Pearls glinted in the lamplight when she moved her head. Only when she blinked again did she see herself clearly. A small slim figure, very much like her mother in that, if nothing else. Everything else belonged to her father—her dark eyes, canted above full cheekbones, the same coppery-brown complexion of the borderlands of Veraene and Károví. She felt the brush of cool air against her cheek, though her rooms were warm and close, and a rippling sensation beneath her skin that excited and unsettled her at the same time. Magic, lingering in her blood.
"You look like a shining jewel, Mistress," Asta said softly.
I look like a gift, wrapped and tied with decorations.
But she only murmured a thank-you for the compliment and hurried from her rooms. Immediately, she ran against her brother, who took her hand. "What took you so long?" he said. "He's waiting."
"Is he angry?" she asked
Ehren hesitated. "Anxious."
Which meant he was more than angry.
They sped down the stairs and through the public salles. Streamers bedecked the galleries; the woodwork and tiles gleamed from polishing. Paschke and his musicians stood together in a corner, tuning their strings and to their song pipes. A singer stood apart, eyes closed, doing her breathing exercises. Therez wished she could stop to speak with Paschke, but her brother beckoned impatiently. She tore herself away, hoping that her father did not blame her mother.
Too late. They arrived at the entry hall to find Petr Zhalina standing close to their mother, delivering a swift intent lecture in undertones. Therez could not hear his words, but she saw her mother's blank face, the footman with his gaze averted. She hurried forward ahead of Ehren. "Papa, I'm sorry—"
Her father broke off his lecture. He turned abruptly around to face Therez. She shrank back, but he said nothing more than, "Thank you for your promptness, Therez."
He would say more later, she thought. He always did.
To her relief, the bells began to ring the hour. Ehren went to his father's side. Therez took her position by her mother. A quick touch of fingertip to fingertip brought a brief smile to her mother's face. Then the footman was opening the doors to admit their first guest—old Count Hartl, whose mansion stood opposite theirs. Soon after came an official from the silk guild, followed by Klara's father and mother, along with Klara herself and her several brothers. Klara took Therez's hands in hers and leaned close to whisper, "I have some news to share. It was just decided today, and my father says—"
"Klara," said her mother. "Save your gossip for another time, please."
"Find me later," Therez whispered back.
Isolde Zhalina led these first arrivals into the salon. Over the next half hour, dozens more arrived, and between the many polite greetings, Therez found she could breathe more easily. It would be a good evening, a successful one. Her father would be pleased. There would be no obstacle to Ehren returning to his studies, or her spending the year in Duenne. No whispered accusations to their mother.
"Baron Mann," said the footman.
Baron Mann sauntered into the entry hall. "Maester Zhalina," he said. "Young Ehren." He turned toward Therez, just as she rose from her curtsey. She had a swift impression of jewels and silks and darkly handsome looks. "Maester Zhalina's beautiful daughter. Greetings." He caught hold of her hand and kissed it.
"My Lord," said Petr Zhalina. "We are honored."
Mann smiled blandly. "Indeed."
A dry chuckle caught Therez's attention. A newcomer stood in the doorway, a stocky man of medium height and dark hair, frosted with silver. Therez recognized him immediately—Baron Rudolfus Eckard, once a member of the King's Council. A cool breeze accompanied the Baron's entrance, penetrating the thin silk layers of her dress. She shivered.
Father must have promised the world to lure this man into our house.
Petr Zhalina bowed. "Baron Eckard."
Eckard smiled pleasantly. "Maester Zhalina. Thank you for the kind invitation. You've rescued an old man from a dreary evening alone."
"Liar," Mann said, with evident amusement. "Your house is never empty, Rudolfus. But come, shall we join the others?" He relinquished Therez's hand and gestured toward the next rooms.
"Gladly." Eckard turned toward Ehren Zhalina. "Maester Ehren, would you join us in the salon? I hear you spent last year in Duenne. I'd be grateful for any recent news."
Mann grinned. "He wants a more dignified report than mine."
Baron Eckard mildly observed that they were blocking the entry hall. He and Mann departed with Ehren Zhalina for the salon, with Mann immediately embarking upon a story about recent Court doings. Therez was wondering why an influential Baron would ask Ehren's opinion, when the outer doors opened again, and the footman announced, "Maester Theodr Galt."
Theodr Galt, the newly-elected head of the shipping guild, strode inside. Like Mann, he was dark, but tall and powerfully built, with his long black hair tied into a loose braid, such as the more conservative nobles wore. He wore a suit of wine-red silk, patterned in subtle diamonds. When he moved through the light, the cloth seemed to shimmer and change. He was a rich and influential man, in destined to become even richer and more influential with his new position and his approaching marriage. But for all his advantages, Therez thought he appeared dissatisfied as he made his bows to her father.
"Maester Zhalina. How fares your business?"
"Never so good that I could not wish it better. Perhaps we could discuss matters after dinner."
They exchanged guarded looks, then Petr Zhalina motioned to Therez. "Therez, please escort Maester Galt into the salon. Tell your mother that I shall stay here to greet the last of our guests."
Galt offered his arm to Therez, who laid her hand on his sleeve. He smiled, and covered her hand with his. As soon as he did, a strange prickling ran up Therez's arm and down her spine, and she felt a sudden tightness all along her skin. Within came the sensation of a string drawn to its limit, a barely subdued fury. Without thinking, Therez recoiled from his touch.
"Is something amiss?" Galt asked in a cool voice.
"I—" She gulped down a breath. Her pulse was thrumming in her ears, and she caught a whiff of an intense green scent, as though someone had crushed a handful of grass under her nose. It's just my imagination, she told herself. She managed a weak smile to Galt and her father. "My apologies, Maester Galt. Nothing is wrong, just a moment of faintness. Please, let me escort you inside."
To her relief, the sense of overwhelming tension faded. She escorted Galt through the doors to join the other guests.
The salon was crowded with all of Melnek's richest and most influential families. Merchants and guild masters, City Council members, and minor nobility. A group of older merchants had gathered in one corner; Therez turned in that direction, thinking that Maester Galt would like their company.
With a slight pressure of his hand, Galt steered her between the many guests, toward the center of the room. Several younger couples played word links. Near the musicians, she spotted Klara next to her cousin Lev Bartov. Another, older group of men were talking politics. Rumors of war. More troops sent to northern garrisons in Ournes to quash the faction demanding a separation from Veraene. Talk about closing the border in Morauvín and the next province over, even though that would mean a disruption of trade for Melnek and the other big trade cities. So the rumors were true, she thought. And after her father had worked to establish a new liaison with those Károvín merchants.
"What are you thinking?"
"War," she said.
"An odd subject for a young woman."
She smiled, and felt renewed pressure of his hand over hers.
"Why are you smiling?"
Therez glanced up, then down. His gaze unsettled her. "No reason."
It was going badly. She could think of nothing to say to this man, and she knew she must not displease him. Therez glanced anxiously from side to side, looking for someone Galt might find acceptable. She sighted her brother near the windows, still engaged in conversation with Baron Mann and Baron Eckard. Galt followed the direction of her gaze. An odd expression flickered across his face. "Do you know them? Those men with your brother?"
"We've been introduced," she said cautiously.
He nodded. Taking that as a request to join them, Therez gratefully led him toward the Barons and Ehren.
Baron Mann saw them first and greeted Therez with a smile. "Ah, Mistress Therez. You've already abandoned me for another. Have you come to make amends?" His eyes brightened with interest when Therez gave Galt's name, and his smile took on a curious tension, though his manner was utterly polite as he exchanged greetings.
Therez allowed herself a silent sigh of relief. The musicians had not yet begun their next piece, and she could just hear the word linking game above the general murmur of conversation. Word. Letter. Love letter. Marriage. A predictable sequence, but the players evidently found it amusing. Then she saw Klara emerging from behind the Leffler family. She was heading toward Therez with look of barely suppressed excitement.
Ehren leaned close. "Go and talk with Klara. I'll take care of our guests."
She smiled in thanks and hurried toward her friend. Even before they met, Klara was already speaking swiftly. "You will never guess, Therez. Never, never. My father— Wait, let me recover." She made a show of fanning her face. "So. My news. I am going to Duenne next summer."
"Duenne? Next summer?"
Klara laughed. "Now you sound like my pet mynah. Yes, Duenne. Yes, next summer. My brother is going to University a year early, to study magical jurisprudence, whatever that might be. Willem explained the terms to me a hundred times, but they still make no sense. Anyway, the important thing is that our beloved father believes the connection will help our business. And because he is going, it was merely a question of convincing my mother, who convinced my father I would learn better manners by accompanying Willem to the capital. Of course I did not disabuse either of them of the notion."
"I would not have you any different. But a season together! That means we shall have dances and theater outings…"
"…and visits and shopping. If you consider mucking about those dusty booksellers to be shopping. Now do not glare at me. We shall spend alternate days shopping for books and paints. Visit me tomorrow and we shall start the plans for our triumphs. Speaking of triumphs, who are those other men with your brother?"
"Baron Mann and Baron Eckard."
"Ah. Interesting. Very interesting. And who— Goodness, it's Maester Galt." Though no one stood close enough to overhear, Klara bent close to whisper in Therez's ear. "Did you hear the rumors?"
"No, what happened?"
In a breathless tone, Klara told her. "His marriage contract. Broken off yesterday. The father insisted, even though he shall have to pay oh so many penalties. And you can be sure that Maester Galt will not offer Maester Bartos any advantages in shipping contracts for the City. So it's odd, very odd. No one knows why he did it. Maester Bartos, I mean. And no one has seen Marina Bartos these past three days."
Therez shivered at all the implications. That explained Galt's dissatisfaction, the unnerving tension in his voice and manner. It also explained why Maester Bartos had sent his regrets that morning. She wanted to ask Klara where she'd heard the rumor, but her friend had drawn back.
"Beware," Klara murmured. "They are coming toward us—all of them—even Maester Galt."
"Telling secrets?" Mann said as he approached.
"My Lord teases," Klara said. "We are both too young for secrets."
"Then I shall have to help you both collect more," Mann said with a laughing glance at Therez.
Ehren smiled. Eckard shook his head. Galt was studying Mann with an odd, restrained expression on his face, and Therez wondered what their conversation had been. She wondered even more when the steward announced dinner, and Mann immediately held out his arm to her. She and Klara exchanged a glance.
"Casting about for a better partner?" the Baron murmured.
Her cheeks warmed. "Of course not, my lord."
Mann's answer was a soft laugh. Shaking his head, he escorted Therez to her seat. Her father had decided to rearrange the seating himself, and to her regret, Klara was placed too far away for easy conversation. Instead, she had both Barons across from her, as well as Theodr Galt.
Her father took a seat next to her.
Therez suppressed a shiver. Marina Bartos and her mother were to have sat in these two seats. Breathe, she thought. And listen.
Happily, the servers were filling wine glasses and handing out the first course, a dish of aromatic rice balls, flavored with rare spices from Pommersien, in the south of Veraene. The music had started again, but softer, with just the water flute and a descant flute in minor harmonies.
"We were discussing art," Mann said to her father. "Most interesting. Maester Galt here prefers sculptures and painting. What are your preferences, Maester Zhalina?"
Therez's father shrugged. "My time is taken up entirely by my business, alas. I make a poor judge in these matters."
"What about you, Mistress Therez?"
Therez shook her head.
"A quiet, secretive girl," Mann said. "You must tell me later when we dance. Maester Galt, I meant to ask, before we were called to dinner, why such a decided opinion against theater and song?"
Galt flaked his rice, as though picking through various responses. "Perfection," he said, half to himself. "Once your artist carves his flawless statue, nothing can spoil his work. Unlike with theater or song, his patrons do not depend upon such vagaries as the actors' moods, or the lighting, or whether the audience itself might disturb their enjoyment."
Mann's lips parted in a strange smile. "So, you are a collector."
Galt sent him a keen glance. "Call it what you like, my lord. Those are my tastes."
"Tastes are born of our nature," Mann replied. "Myself, I prefer variety and spontaneity. Whereas you like your treasures immutable. Predictable. Controlled."
His voice was pleasant, but Therez detected a tension in the air, and she held her breath. Why was he baiting Galt? Had he heard the rumors about Galt? Did he know something more? In the background, Paschke's water flute played its rippling silvery melody. Galt studied Mann a long moment; however, he said nothing more than, "As my lord wishes."
Mann smiled again—a more predatory one than before—then applied himself to his plate.
"Was my son helpful to you, my lord?" Petr Zhalina said to Baron Eckard.
"Very helpful. He's convinced me that little has changed in Duenne in the past three years."
His tone piqued Therez's curiosity. "How long did you live in Duenne, my lord?"
Her father shot her a swift look, but Eckard smiled pleasantly. "Thirty years, Mistress Therez. Thirty long and interesting years."
"A city of a thousand opportunities," Mann said musingly. "Some worthy. Others…"
"Others we shall not mention," Eckard said with a pointed glance that Therez found intriguing.
"Is that why you left, my lord?" said Galt. "Because you disliked the opportunities there?"
Eckard shook his head. "Opportunities change, Maester Galt. I served Baerne of Angersee until his death. Like any new master, Baerne's grandson wished for new advisors, and so you find me here."
"But what of the old king?" said Lev Bartov, who had remained silent until now. "I heard that he had become most peculiar in his latter days. In fact, I heard—"
He stopped at Eckard's level glance. "Baerne ruled well and long," Eckard said quietly. "More than that I would not hazard saying. Nor should you."
A brief silence followed, after which Petr Zhalina asked Baron Eckard for his opinion on trade matters with Károví. Eckard answered politely, and the conversation turned to more ordinary topics.
Therez picked at her food, half listening to the Baron's views on various treaties, but she hardly tasted the roasted venison with its honey glaze. Her thoughts remained on Eckard and Duenne. A city of opportunity—exactly what she hoped for, though she knew her ideas to be very different from those of an ex-Councilor in the King's Court. Perhaps she could ask him later about the city?
The servants cleared away the last course; the guests proceeded into the larger salle for dancing. Baron Mann claimed Isolde Zhalina's hand for the first dance, while Petr and Ehren Zhalina took Lavena Friedeck and Mina Hess as their partners.
Quite unexpectedly, Therez found herself facing Baron Eckard. "My dear," he said. "Will you honor me?"
Whispers rose and fell around them. Aware of the audience, Therez could do no more than murmur a yes. Eckard led her onto the floor as the music sighed into life. Palm against palm, he stepped to the left, and she to the right. Then he lightly clasped her hand and spun her into the first movement of the dance.
He danced well, was her first surprised thought, as he guided her through the intricate turns and sweeps. He was older than she had guessed, with deep lines etched into his weathered face. Thirty years at Duenne's famous Court. She tried to imagine him as a youth, dancing at the King's balls. She could hardly picture such a scene or such a place.
"You are thinking hard," he observed.
Therez recalled herself with a blush. "My apologies, my lord. I was thinking about Duenne. And the King's Court. And, well, what the city is like."
"Ah, that is right. Your brother mentioned your plans to visit a while. Next summer, no? Have you alerted all the booksellers?"
Therez dropped her gaze. "My Lord teases."
"Not at all. It's rare to find a young woman who reads seriously. Or perhaps I'm being unfair to young women in general. Tell me—what kind of books do you prefer?"
"History. Legends. Poetry."
"Then you must certainly know about Tanja Duhr."
Ehren must have mentioned her love of poetry. But it was true—Tanja Duhr was her favorite poet, and she welcomed the new topic. With Baron Eckard taking the lead, they talked about the woman's poems and how language had changed in the four hundred years since she wrote them. Then, because Duhr had witnessed the empire's final years, they talked about the old Emperor and his many heirs, all executed for treason, except the youngest daughter. About Leos Dzavek coming to Court as a young prince. About his theft of Lir's jewels, the downfall of the empire, and the founding of Károví. About magic and war and times of great change. There were no constraints, no examining every word before she spoke. It was like breathing for the very first time.
All around, the dancers flowed between the beribboned columns, and Paschke's music spun through the air.
"Duhr wrote what she witnessed," Eckard said. "Both the larger events, and those small intimate stories of lovers and grief and trust and betrayal. And we, who come after, are made richer for her works. But then, I believe we all carry a book within our hearts. Our dispositions. Our ambitions. Our secrets. It takes great trust to let another person read that book."
"Have you found such a person?" Therez said.
His mouth curved into a pensive smile. "Yes, I did. We loved. We married. We had children, and then she died. What about you, Mistress Therez? Have you a favorite book?"
He had phrased the question so she could answer either meaning. Even so, she found herself tongue-tied a moment. "I don't know yet, my lord. I enjoy so many different books, but to choose one… I don't know," she repeated.
The dance was drawing to a close. Baron Eckard spun Therez around but before he released her hand, he bent close. "When you do choose a favorite book, if ever you do, remember to choose for friendship above anything else."
He was gone before she could reply. Therez turned, and came face-to-face with Baron Mann.
"Mistress Therez. Will you honor me with the next dance?"
She hesitated, but a glance to one side showed Theodr Galt approaching. "Gladly, my lord."
Mann's mouth tilted into a smile. "A quick-thinking girl. No wonder Maester Galt treasures your company."
So he had seen Galt, too. Therez lowered her gaze, keeping her eyes and mouth under control. Mann liked to flirt. And he liked to provoke other men.
Baron Mann kept up a stream of light compliments throughout the dance. Therez would have found his conversation diverting, except for the look she had noticed on Galt's face when they passed in the dance. Mann had seen it, too, for he made an offhand comment about avid collectors. She wished she could tell Mann's character better, but he was like a book with latches and locks, its ornate cover deceiving. Whomever he did allow to read his pages would find the contents interesting, she suspected.
As she expected, Galt claimed Therez for the third dance. "Mistress," he said.
"I am honored," Therez said with a curtsey.
His hand was warm, his skin as smooth as her father's. He spent his time in counting houses, she thought, or at elegant affairs such as this one.
The dance's first notes floated through the air—a slow-moving traditional dance, where the partners circled each other in wheel patterns. As more couples joined the dance, the smaller patterns joined in a single, larger one. The steps required all her concentration, which gave her an excuse for keeping silent. It was just as well. Galt's dancing was polished and assured, but more constrained than Baron Mann's, and his expression less inviting than Baron Eckard's.
"You father tells me you were your mother's chief assistant in planning this evening," he said unexpectedly.
Therez nodded cautiously.
"Do you often do so?"
She nodded again and felt his fingers press against her shoulder. She glanced up, startled, and caught a brief tight smile on his face. It was not a happy smile.
"You talked more with Baron Eckard," he observed.
So that was the difficulty. "We talked of Duenne. I hope to visit next summer."
"I'm surprised your father would allow you to travel so far alone."
I don't know if he will, she thought, but she had no wish to talk about her father.
"You like books I heard," Galt said after a moment. "Do you have a preference in authors, or are you simply an enthusiast?"
"I…I find it hard to say which."
"Because you are young? Or because you do not trust your opinion?"
Because I do not trust you, she thought. Galt seemed to catch something from her expression, because he did not repeat the question. With a firm hand, he spun her through the couples in a breathless rush. When they reached the farther side, he brought her to an abrupt halt and held her close. For a heartbeat, it was as though they were alone in the hall. His scent made her think of winter fires. Against her will, she felt the first stirrings of attraction.
"You see," he said softly, "I can dance as well as any Baron."
And then they rejoined the dance as though nothing had happened, only Therez found it difficult to follow his lead or answer his questions. Her pulse beat too hard and too fast. So did his, but whether in attraction or anger, she could not tell. That she could not tell bothered her nearly as much as Galt himself. What had happened between him and Marina Bartos? No, she didn't want to know. She only wanted the dance to end so she might get away from him and his jealousies and his strange intent gaze.
To her relief, Lev Bartov danced with her next. They chatted about markets and trade and the weather, and he asked her opinion of music. After Lev came an interlude of song. The dancers paused while Paschke's lead soloist performed an old ballad, accompanied only by a drummer, softly keeping time. Therez noted how Baron Eckard smiled, and how Baron Mann himself appeared different, so entirely absorbed in the music. A secretive, misleading book, indeed.
When the dancing resumed, Therez partnered first with Willem Leffler, then Klara's brother Willem. Therez half expected Galt to approach her again, but he had disappeared, apparently. She saw him much later, walking with her father from another room. Both looked pleased. That could only mean they had reached some key agreement. Perhaps even the shipping contracts…
I am a merchant's daughter after all, she thought, and laughed to herself.
Well after midnight, the guests began to take their leave. Eckard, one of the first to depart, spoke graciously to her parents and her brother. Pausing by Therez, he took her hand and bowed low. "Pleasant reading," he murmured.
Mann followed shortly after, offering pretty compliments to Therez and her mother and the promise of a visit to her father. Once he had left, the other departures came faster, and Therez's attention was consumed by the exchange of compliments and the final good-byes.
The last person to go was Theodr Galt, who lifted Therez's hand to his lips. "Mistress. A delight to make your acquaintance. I look forward to our next encounter."
His lips were warm, and he held her hand longer than absolutely necessary. She felt a tremor run through her, and a lingering frisson of magic. Danger, said her instincts. Whatever this man gives, comes at a price. It was with relief she saw him turn to her mother and father.
At last the hall was empty. Therez breathed a tired sigh and wished her parents and brother good-night, but when she turned toward the stairs, her father raised a hand. "Therez, come with me. I have something to discuss."
Therez exchanged a surprised look with Ehren. Her mother shook her head. A warning? Had something gone amiss? But there was no time for questions. Her father gestured impatiently for her to follow him. Just as she passed through the salon doors, she glimpsed Ehren leaning down to listen to something their mother said.
Petr Zhalina led the way back through the parlors and the dancing salle, and into the wing where he kept his offices. At his private study, he unlocked the doors and motioned for her to go inside. With growing apprehension, she took the seat in front of her father's desk. The scent of roses and violets drifted through a partially open window. Fainter still a whiff of památka flowers.
Her father set the lamp on a high shelf, where its light reflected from the dark windows, and from the large sand glass that occupied one corner of the room. He took a seat behind his desk. He was about to give her bad news, she could tell. The autumn contracts in suspense. Ehren's return to University delayed, and her trip to Duenne canceled. But she had thought he looked so pleased earlier, when he and Theodr Galt had reentered the dance salle.
Her father ran a hand over his eyes. He did look tired, with shadows beneath his eyes, as though he had not fully recovered from his illness last spring. Then with a shake of his head, he reached for pen and paper. His hands, long and slender like Ehren's, moved with swift assurance as he dipped the pen into the ink, tapped away the excess, and wrote. Therez saw the name Theodr Galt written in small square letters.
"I've come to a decision," he said. "You remember the talk we had last winter."
She nodded. Petr Zhalina had summoned his daughter into his office to discuss marriage, or rather, to deliver a dry summary of his expectations and her obligations. Even so, he had explicitly said that such duties would come after she turned seventeen.
"I'm pleased to say that the opportunities I foresaw have arrived, and sooner than I calculated. I've made my choice for your husband, Therez. Theodr Galt. Tomorrow we negotiate the terms and sign the papers."
Reaction was swift and unthinking. "But Papa, you said—"
Her father struck a line through Galt's name. "You dislike my choice?"
"I…I don't know him well enough to like or dislike."
He waved a hand to one side. "You will. You have no reason not to."
Point decided, no argument said his tone. Therez let her breath trickle out. "I expected to spend the next year in Duenne. You surprised me."
"Galt surprised me, to be blunt. He said he didn't need to mourn the loss of his former marriage prospects. The girl had disappointed him. So had the father. But their foolishness didn't erase his need for a wife to manage his social obligations, and you impressed him this evening." Her father wrote out Galt's name again, then a series of numbers after it. Habit? Or did those numbers have a significance?
He blotted the paper neatly—a methodical gesture. "You are young, I told him. He argued that you turned sixteen next month—not an uncommon age for marriage in some parts. You might continue your education in his household if necessary. He offered generous terms." That last was said almost as an afterthought.
He sold me. Theodr Galt named a price and he agreed.
Mann's comment about avid collectors went through her mind. Her skin went cold and she had to suppress a shudder. What did Mann know about Galt? Or had he simply guessed at the man's nature? "What about—" She stopped herself before she mentioned the rumors. Her father would not pay any attention to them. Instead, she asked, "What did Grandmama say?"
At that, her father looked away, but only for a moment. "Your grandmother has no say in this matter. Come, Therez. Fortunes are directed and planned for. They are not found like a treasure by the roadside. I will not argue the point. Tomorrow I hold the formal interview and we sign the contracts."
"The shipping contracts?" she said impetuously.
Spots of color appeared on her father's cheeks. "Do not be stupid, Therez. We are signing all the necessary contracts that touch upon this family. More you need not discuss."
But I am not an entry in your ledger. I am not a crate of stone or wood, to be signed for and delivered.
Therez held her hands tightly together, willing her pulse to slow, her face to remain a blank. Her father was watching her closely, his gaze bright and rapt. He would lock her in her rooms tomorrow if she did not show a proper gratitude. He had done it before.
"What did Baron Eckard discuss with you?" he said. "Look at me when you answer, Therez."
She met his gaze steadily. "Books."
Petr Zhalina frowned. "What kind of books?"
A pause. "History books."
"Interesting." He looked thoughtful. "Did he show you any attentions? No, never mind. His days of influence are past." He released a sigh. "You may go, Therez. If you like, you might want to talk with your mother. I told her to expect you."
Dismissed. Therez hesitated, but her father appeared fully absorbed in writing columns of numbers. Still, he was observant, she knew from experience. She rose and curtseyed, as an obedient daughter should, and though it took all her effort, she kept her expression fixed in a pleasant smile. Turn around, she thought. Leave the room. Do not lose control.
She walked steadily through the business wing, back through the public dining room, where the chambermaids were still at work. The steward greeted Therez in passing. She answered automatically, she hardly knew what, and kept on walking until she reached the stairs.
She stopped and leaned heavily against the newel post, forehead resting on the smooth wood. Tomorrow. Marriage next week or next month. It all depended on the contract her father signed. Her stomach lurched at the thought.
It took several moments before she could recover herself enough to climb the stairs. Numb, she passed through the familiar rooms where her mother entertained. A small parlor. A gallery decorated with paintings and other artwork. A library with rare first editions. It was a rich man's house, built from luck and skill and determination. Her father had come to Veraene from Károví with nothing more than a cargo of rich furs, which he traded for shipments of marble, which he then turned into his first profit in gold. Therez thought she had understood him, had admired him for his intelligence and fortitude, even if she feared his temper.
It was quiet in the family's private wing. No voices disturbed the hush; no shadows except hers moved across the walls. Therez came to her mother's suite. Lamplight edged the door. Isolde Zhalina waited, as ordered, for Therez to visit and discuss the news.
What advice could I ask her? How to hide your thoughts? How to breathe without giving offense?
How to be a prisoner, not a wife and partner.
No, no, no. No, I cannot give up yet.
She turned away from her mother's door and passed onward to her brother's door. Ehren was awake, too, apparently, because she heard the soft notes of his flute. He had long ago given up regular lessons, but now he was practicing, which he did whenever he wanted to soothe his nerves.
She knocked. Almost immediately the flute went silent. Ehren opened the door. "Therez." He looked wary, she thought. But not surprised.
"Ehren, do you—do you have time for me? I have a problem."
He stood aside. "Of course. Come in."
As she entered his study, she realized she had not visited her brother's rooms since he came home from University. Her distracted gaze took in the shelves overflowing with books, the letters on his desk, neatly stacked and waiting for his attention. One of the letters, addressed to Ehren, carried the device for Count Beckl's house. Another envelope in a more ornate hand, with a name she didn't recognize. More signs that her brother had changed without her noticing.
"Therez, what's wrong?"
Therez opened her mouth, closed it. It took another moment before she could frame the sentence. "Father told me I would be married. He's negotiating my betrothal."
Ehren nodded. "Mother told me. You must have been surprised."
She thought her voice would shake. Instead, she found herself saying calmly, "It's too sudden, Ehren. Far too sudden."
Again that wary look. "You mean the business with Maester Bartos."
"Of course I mean that. Don't you think it strange that Maester Bartos broke off the marriage? He must have had a reason. And besides—" Her voice had scaled upward. She broke off and tried again. "I've heard rumors. Nothing definite, but nothing good. And no one has seen Marina Bartos for three days. I want to know what happened to her."
But Ehren was shaking his head. "Gossip. That's all you've heard, Therez. There is nothing wrong with Marina Bartos except an attack of the vapors. Galt counts himself lucky to have discovered the truth about her character before their marriage took place."
"You heard from him, but not from her family."
"I don't need to. Theodr Galt is a respectable man. He wants a suitable wife to handle his social affairs, not someone who takes to their bed at the least contradiction or correction. And he's not the only lucky person. You are, too. With Galt as your husband, you will have money and status, everything you could want."
And you and Papa will have favorable terms on the shipping contracts.
She ought to nod obediently. Ought not to protest. It was, after all, what all the good families expected of their children. But Galt frightened her. It was how his lips paled when he saw her dancing with Mann. It was his tone, when he did not like her replies, and the look on his face when he took possession of her hand. The fury she sensed running just beneath the surface. Magic had made it plain to her, but once detected she thought it obvious to anyone. The rumors only confirmed what she already knew. Theodr Galt was a cruel man.
Ehren took her hands in his and smiled. "Therez, you're just reacting to the surprise. I'll attend Father's meeting with Galt tomorrow. I promise to look out for you."
Hope, quickly followed by doubt. "What if you find he was at fault with Marina Bartos?"
"I told you. Those stories are just rumors."
"But what if those rumors are true?"
Her brother made an exasperated noise. "I tell you they aren't. Besides, Papa wants to expand the business, and with the trade embargoes, Maester Galt can help us with new routes."
"Us? Aren't you going back to University?"
He hesitated. "I don't know."
So our father has snared us both.
Slowly she nodded. "I understand."
"You do?" Ehren gazed at her anxiously.
"I understand perfectly."
Still he hesitated. "You sound…" He paused. "Empty."
She smiled. "I'm just tired, Ehren. I think I'll go to my rooms. Thank you."
In her own rooms, a maid had waited up for her. Therez dismissed her, saying she would undress herself. A grateful look flashed across the maid's face. She dropped into a curtsey and left Therez to her solitude.
Therez extinguished the lamps in her outer rooms on by one. Methodical—that was the key to self-control. She proceeded into her bedchamber where a single lamp burned. She took off her dress and laid it carefully over a chair. Next came her stockings and her jewelry and undergown. Dressed in her shift, she removed the pearls from her hair and unbound her long braid.
Tomorrow Galt and my father will negotiate the terms and sign the papers, she thought, brushing out her hair. They might even announce the betrothal in public.
Therez shivered. She had the sudden vivid image how Theodr Galt had looked, clasping her hand, when he said good-night. But now all perspective had changed. She was shrinking, her figure dwindling to the size of a gem, which he picked up and gazed at with satisfaction, before placing her in a box and turning the key.
I can't marry him. I can't. I'll end up just like my mother.
But what could she do? Her father and brother did not care. Her mother had no influence. And her grandmother was dying—whether in a week or a month. She could not help Therez. No one in her family would do what Maester Bartos had done for his daughter.
Therez stood and moved swiftly to her dressing room. She flung open her wardrobe, pushed aside the dresses and gowns, and reaching into the back, pulled out a riding skirt. It was plain and dark, made of sturdy wool. An armful of warmer tunics and shirts came next, then a pair of low boots. Knitted stockings and underlinens came next. From the linens chest, she dug out three thick blankets.
Money. I need money.
She gathered up the clothes and blankets, carried them into her bedroom, and tossed them onto her bed. Then she pulled out a small locked box from another closet. She unlocked the box and poured out a heap of coins. Twenty gold deniers. Fifty-odd silver deniers. Was it enough?
Her strength unexpectedly left her. She sank to the floor, dizzy. "Where am I going?" she whispered. "Where can I go?"
She stared around her bedroom. What could a privileged girl do outside her household? Outside marriage? She knew sewing and embroidery. Beyond that, she was accomplished in writing and sums.
Her heart beat faster. Writing. Yes. A thousand opportunities exist in Duenne. Both Barons had said that. And she could write. She knew about trade and business. With that kind of training she could…
"I can go to Duenne just as I planned," she said out loud. Not exactly. She would have to earn her keep—as a scribe perhaps, or an assistant to a merchant. That would be far better, she thought. Then she could make her life as she wished.
Working swiftly, she changed into the plainest of her traveling clothes. She located a bag for her belongings and packed her clothes and blankets. After a moment's thought, she added a knife her brother had given her years before, then a handful of bracelets and necklaces. The jewelry she could keep hidden, then sell once she reached Duenne. But no silk stockings or skirts. Nothing fine or obviously expensive. She must not call attention to herself.
She looked at her shelves, which were crowded with books—poetry books, volumes of essays, texts on history. One shelf alone held her old lessons books, with notes scrawled in their margins. If only she could take one—just one book for her exile.
The quarter hour chimes sounded, followed by two gongs from the hour bell. No time to choose, she could buy more once she reached Duenne. Quickly, she stuffed her money into a leather purse. She paused, thinking of robbers, then removed her money, divided it into three heaps. One share went into her boots. She wrapped a second portion in a handkerchief and tucked it into her shirt. A third went into the bottom of her bag along with her jewelry. She slung the bag over her shoulder, and with a last survey of her room, she left.
Outside, the corridor was still and dark. She glanced down the hall, toward her grandmother's suite. But there could be no visit nor farewells, even silent ones—not if she wished to avoid notice.
Good-bye, she thought. I love you. Remember me.
She glided through the hallway and down the stairs, finding her way by touch. When she rounded the last turn and came into the silent entry hall, she hesitated. Ten more steps to the door. It took her several long moments before she could bring herself to take the first of those ten.
I will never see this house again. I will never see Klara or Ehren. Or my grandmother.
She drew a long breath. Her pulse was beating fast and hard, but her hands were steady as she unbarred the doors. A cool breeze blew against her face as she stepped outside. §