Authors: Django Wexler
“Just as well. It’s been an exhausting day for everyone.” Though if exhaustion had any effect on Janus himself, it didn’t show in his face. “Have a seat.”
Winter settled herself cautiously into the chair opposite Janus, and Augustin glided in with tea.
“I should start out by telling you the same thing I told the captain,” Janus said. “At Ohnlei, the walls quite literally have ears. You should always assume you’re going to be overheard. I’ve brought down some of my own men from Mieran County, men I trust, and so this cottage is probably secure for the moment. You may speak of anything
relating to our mission
He hit the last few words with peculiar emphasis, and his gray eyes drilled into Winter. She took his meaning easily enough.
“Men I trust,” eh?
She supposed that trusting someone not to betray your confidence was one thing, and trusting him with the secret of the Thousand Names—and Winter’s involvement with it—was quite another.
“I . . . understand, sir.” She paused. “What
our mission here?”
“Much the same as it was in Khandar, at some level. The king has appointed me Minister of Justice.”
Winter wasn’t sure how to respond to that, so she decided to play it safe. “Congratulations, sir.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant,” Janus said politely. “But I fear the problem it presents is considerable. The city is close to the boiling point, and getting closer as the king’s health worsens. I am expected to ride herd on it with no time to prepare, and no way to know who among my subordinates may be working for my . . . enemies.”
This last, again, carried more than its surface meaning. As far as Vordanai politics was concerned, Janus was opposed by Duke Orlanko and his allies, but only Winter and a few others knew it went deeper than that. The revelation of the true nature of Jen Alhundt had shown that there were more sinister forces at work. Feor, the Khandarai priestess Winter had rescued from the Redeemer cult, had called them the Black Priests.
“I understand, sir.” Winter sipped her tea thoughtfully. “And I appreciate the difficulty.”
“Accordingly, I’m afraid I will be leaning quite heavily on you and Captain d’Ivoire, at least until the rest of the Colonials arrive.”
Winter thought automatically. And Folsom, Graff, Feor, and the rest. Not to mention the nondescript wooden crates full of steel tablets, engraved with the secrets of centuries. “I’ll help however I can, sir.”
“I’m going to take you up on that,” Janus said, with just a hint of a smile. “I have a task for you.”
Something about his tone made Winter’s skin crawl.
I’m not going to like this, and he knows it.
“A task, sir?”
“One of the primary centers of unrest in the city is the Southside Docks. There’s a . . . society, you might call it, of dockworkers and other menials who have been responsible for an increasing number of violent incidents. They call themselves the Leatherbacks.”
“I see,” Winter said, though she didn’t.
“The Armsmen have attempted to suppress this group, with no success. Much of the Docks is a rat’s warren, difficult to penetrate and search, and the Leatherbacks enjoy the tacit support of the residents. The occasional arrest and, I may say, brutal example has not dampened their ardor. A more subtle approach is required.”
“Infiltration, Lieutenant. We need to know more about this group. Our friends at the Concordat claim to have placed several agents among them, but given the lack of success, we have to assume they are either withholding or
deliberately falsifying the information they pass along. I need someone I can rely on.”
, sir?” Winter almost laughed out loud. “I’m sorry, but do you really think I would be able to blend in with a gang of burly dockworkers?”
“Ah, but I haven’t told you the most interesting part,” Janus said. His half smile returned, and he leaned forward in his chair. The bastard was enjoying this, Winter thought. “The Leatherbacks have an inner circle that appears to be composed entirely of women.”
“What?” At first Winter was occupied trying to picture a band of revolutionary dockworkers taking orders from fishwives in skirts, so it was a moment before the real import of his words struck home. “
Sir, you can’t be serious!”
“You don’t think you can pass as a woman?” Janus said, eyes flicking to the front door, where the guards were waiting. “I understand it’s something you’ve done before.”
“I don’t . . . I mean . . .” Winter paused and sucked in a long breath. “Even if I could . . . pass as female, that doesn’t mean I’ll be able to just waltz in and join up! These women are all Southsiders, aren’t they? I won’t . . . look anything like them, sound like them, or anything!”
“I agree that you are not the spitting image of a fisherman’s daughter,” Janus said, eyes sparkling. “Fortunately, there is another way. In the district adjacent to the University, colorfully known as the Dregs, there is another center of unrest. The students are notorious for preferring talk to action, however, and now and then one of them gets fed up and crosses the river to join the Leatherbacks. I believe you could present yourself as one of these pilgrims quite easily, and it would provide a useful explanation of why you lack friends or connections.”
“But . . .”
Winter couldn’t say what she wanted to say. Not just because of the guards, who didn’t know her secret, but because she had a hard time even putting it into words.
He wants me to . . . to put on a
and walk down the street in broad daylight?
The notion filled her with a sort of instinctive revulsion, born of two years of terror at the thought of being
. To just throw off that mask, after so long . . .
She swallowed hard. “I . . . appreciate the trust, sir. But I’m not sure I could do it.”
“I appreciate that it’s difficult for you. But you would be, after all, only putting on a disguise. Once the current crisis is surmounted, you can simply . . . take it off.”
“I . . .”
“And I hope that
appreciate,” Janus said, leaning forward in his chair, “how important this is. There is no one else I can trust with this. And when I say that the fate of the kingdom may rest on what we do in the next few days or weeks, understand that I am not simply being melodramatic.”
Winter closed her eyes and said nothing. Her throat felt as if it had fused into a solid mass, blocking her breath.
“There’s another thing,” Janus said. “Before we left Khandar, you asked me for a favor. Locating an old friend of yours, I think.”
“Jane.” Winter’s eyes opened. “Have you found her?”
“Not just yet. But I suspect we’re on the right track.”
“She’s alive? She’s not—”
“As far as we know.” He held up a hand. “It may take some time. I just wanted you to know that I hadn’t forgotten the matter.”
Winter stared at the colonel’s face, so apparently guileless, wearing a half smile that never touched his bottomless gray eyes. He would never stoop to anything so straightforward as an obvious quid pro quo, but the implication was clear enough.
he was saying,
what I can do for you, when you think about what you will do for me.
In the end, Winter reflected, not without some bitterness, what choice did she have? She’d saved Janus’ life in Khandar twice over, but in doing so she’d placed herself at his mercy. There was nothing for it but to go along, and hope like hell he knew what he was doing.
“I can . . . try,” Winter said, around the knot in her throat. “I still don’t think they’ll accept me, but if you want me to, I’ll try.”
“That’s all I ask, of course,” Janus murmured.
ne advantage of the palace’s state of premourning was that it was considered normal for the princess not to emerge from her tower for long periods. Overcome with grief, obviously. Or so Raesinia had managed to convince Sothe, in any case. While her maid hurried back to Ohnlei to tell visitors that the princess was feeling unwell, Raesinia was able to walk the city in daylight for the first time in months. Sothe worried about leaving her alone, but as Raesinia pointed out, what could really happen to her?
Besides, she was spending the day in the company of Ben Cooper, and it was hard to imagine anything bad befalling her with him around. Ben was a tall young man with sandy hair, broad shoulders, and a lantern jaw, who looked a bit like a classical depiction of one of the more muscular saints who spent their time smiting the unrighteous. In addition to these physical attributes, nature had blessed him with a sunny, honest disposition and a strong sense of justice, which as far as Raesinia was concerned was about as good as hanging a giant “Kick Me” sign around his neck. Spending too much time around him made her feel intensely guilty, both because she had to lie about who she really was and from the puppy-dog eyes he directed at her whenever he thought she wasn’t looking.
Her other companion was cut from a different cloth. Doctor-Scholar George Sarton looked as though he had been born to skulk under rocks. He was actually nearly as tall as Ben, but he made himself seem short by hunching his shoulders, walking with a strange, crabwise gait, and cringing whenever someone looked directly at him. He spoke with a helpless stammer that
practically invited mockery. It was Ben who had recruited him, of course, recognizing in the miserable-looking medical student a remarkable mind waiting to be put to good use.
Faro completed their party, dressed in his usual gray and black and wearing a rapier as current fashion dictated. Raesinia wondered idly if he knew how to use the thing, or if there was even a blade inside the elegant chased-silver scabbard.
“And you still can’t tell me what we’re going to see?” Raesinia said to Ben.
“Don’t want to prejudice you,” Ben said. “I need to know if you see the same thing I do.”
Raesinia shrugged. Truth be told, she was simply enjoying the freedom from the stuffy corridors of the palace. They were walking across Saint Parfeld Bridge, newest of the many spans over the Vor. It was a bright summer day, and the bridge offered expansive views in both directions, as well as a river breeze that cut through the July heat. Upstream, to Raesinia’s left, she could see the spires of the University loom above its wooded hillsides on the north bank, and the low bulk of Thieves’ Island lurking around a slight bend in the river like a smuggler’s ship. Downstream were the enormous marble-faced arches of the Grand Span, and beyond that the endless fields of warehouses and brick tenements that faced the docks. The river was crowded with traffic in both direction, little water taxis driven by two or four burly oarsmen darting among the big, flat-bottomed cargo boats.
They had just walked through the Exchange, where the day’s business was beginning to heat up. Ahead of them was Newtown, a perfectly regular grid of paved streets and imposing four-story brick cubes, whose original Rationalist design was now barely visible under the accumulated debris and damage of nearly a century of habitation. The broad, easy-to-traverse streets had been turned into a maze by a profusion of vendors, spontaneous outdoor cafés, and simple accumulations of trash. Something as simple as a stuck wagon could start the process—leave one in the street, and before the week was out, someone would be using it as a platform to sell oranges, while another enterprising merchant put up a cloth lean-to from the side to start a fortune-telling business and a poor mother tried to raise two children underneath. The looming facades of the apartment buildings were pitted and torn, half the facing bricks looted for building material or washed out in the rain, and plastered over with posters, notices, and painted slogans.
“This place gives me the creeps,” said Faro. “It’s the grid. It makes me feel like everyone has set up shop in a graveyard.”
“It’s l . . . l . . . logical,” Sarton said. He was nearly always referred to as “Sarton” or “the doctor,” but never “George.” “Or it ought to be, if it were p . . . p . . . properly organized.”
“Come on,” Ben said. He led the way down the granite steps at the Newtown end of the bridge and into the chaotic swirl of traffic.
The first to accost them were the sellers of papers, pamphlets, and other ephemeral publications. These were mostly boys of eight or nine, who rushed about in enormous flocks toward whoever looked as though they had money and knew how to read. Densely printed sheets of newsprint, folded and emblazoned in one corner with a little caricature of the author for easy identification, could be had for a penny.
Raesinia passed by the Weeping Man, the Shouting Man, and the Kneeling Man, but much to Faro’s annoyance she stopped and bought a copy of the Blacksmith’s latest and one from the Hanged Man, who was always good for a laugh. The sight of her purse brought a new flood of pamphleteers, all shouting at the top of their lungs about the superiority of their product. She doubted any of the ragged street children could read what they were carrying, but it was a moot point, because she couldn’t understand any of them in the cacophony.
Ben bought a couple of papers that were written by friends of his, and Sarton took a pamphlet full of new woodcuts of interesting vivisections. Faro, meanwhile, swatted any of the youngsters who got close to him, which provoked a whole gang of them to start tugging his clothes and trying to pinch him. They only veered off when some sharp-eyed scout spotted a two-horse coach coming over the bridge, and the others ran after him like a wheeling flock of starlings.
“Newspapers,” Faro said bitterly. “Why they bother to print them is beyond me. Does anyone actually read the things?”
“You ought to be kinder,” Ben said. “Most of them are on our side, after all.”
“So they claim. I think they’re just a pack of cowards.”
Raesinia opened the Hanged Man’s paper. A quarter of the sheet was a woodcut cartoon, entitled “Life at Ohnlei.” On one side a Hamveltai doctor—recognizable as such by a ridiculously tiny short-brimmed hat—worked on a crowned, bedridden figure amid flying sprays of blood. At a table in the
foreground was the instantly identifiable Duke Orlanko, short and round with huge spectacles, sitting in front of a plate of tiny, starved corpses with protruding ribs. He had one of them on his fork, inspecting it distastefully. Beside him stood Rackhil Grieg, angular and vulpine, with the caption
HAVE TWO, YO
UR GRACE. THEY’RE SO
In the background a rotund Borelgai with a fat drunkard’s nose and a bristly beard had his pants around his ankles and was having his way with a weeping young woman in a circlet, who Raesinia supposed was meant to represent herself. It was not, she thought, a very good likeness. She passed the paper to Ben without comment, and he showed it to Faro.
“I’m not sure I’d call that cowardice,” Ben said.
“It’s easy enough to talk big when you’re hiding in some basement and paying kids to sell this drivel in the streets,” Faro said. “That’s the kind of person who takes one smart step to the rear when the time comes to actually
“Orlanko has sent publishers to the Vendre before,” Ben said.
“When one of them does something so stupid he can’t pretend to ignore it,” Faro said. “The Last Duke is no fool. The easiest way to get people to pay attention to someone is to lock him up.”
Raesinia reflected. Orlanko was no fool.
He only drags people off to the Vendre to make a statement.
If one of these papers made him angry, there would just be an . . . accident. Late night, wet bricks, another body floating in the river. Or else—and this was the possibility that gnawed at her—a man would go out for a walk and never come back. He’d end up in the Vendre, all right, but not in a tower cell where anybody would ever see him again. The dungeons under Vordan’s most notorious prison were rumored to be both noisome and extensive. The thought of Concordat thugs in black leather cloaks turning up at the Blue Mask and dragging them away—dragging Cora away—made it hard for Raesinia to affect Ben’s casual confidence, or Faro’s studied nonchalance.
“Ben,” she said, interrupting their argument, “what was it you wanted us to see?”
“Oh! This way.” He pointed. “I only hope they’re in the same place.”
They walked along the grid, two streets down and one street over. Ben gently guided Sarton whenever they made a turn, since the medical student had become absorbed in his new reading material. Finally, they reached a place where two large streets crossed and made a little square, in the center of which a flat-bedded wagon had been parked to make an impromptu stage. It was
surrounded by a crowd, mostly Newtowners in their ragged cotton trousers and coarse brown linen. There was a man on the stage in a black evening coat and three-cornered hat, cutting a dashing if somewhat antiquated figure. The people in the front rank of the crowd were shouting something at him, but Raesinia couldn’t make it out from her position at the rear.
“So, what are we looking at?” said Faro.
Ben pointed. A sign on the edge of the stage read
BARON DE BORN
AIS’ POTENT CURE-ALL
, followed by a lot of smaller type listing the many afflictions this product was supposed to address. Faro followed Ben’s gaze and rolled his eyes.
“Something wrong with you that you haven’t told us about?” Faro said. “I think you might as well drink bathwater and call it a magic potion.”
“Forget the potion,” Ben said. “Listen to the sales pitch.”
“It doesn’t look like anything much so far,” Faro said. “I hope you aren’t suggesting we invest in this fellow. No offense, old buddy, but you should leave the market games to Cora—”
A murmur rippled through the crowd, followed by a respectful silence as the man on the stage—presumably de Bornais—began to speak. This in itself was odd, since in Raesinia’s experience it was not in the nature of a crowd of Vordanai to listen quietly to anyone who wasn’t actually a priest. De Bornais’ presentation seemed to be pandering of a quite ordinary sort, which made it hard to explain the rapt attention.
“Ben . . . ,” she said.
“Wait,” Ben said. “This isn’t it, not yet.”
“—how many of you are sick?” de Bornais said. There was a wave of muttering from the crowd. “How many of you are afflicted? How many of you have the doctors given up on? How many of you can’t afford to even visit the damned bloodsuckers?”
This last drew a louder rumble than the others, and de Bornais went with the theme. “I’m taking an awful risk coming here, ladies and gentlemen. They don’t want you to hear about this, oh no. All those Borel cutters and the fancy robes up at the University”—he mimed a swishing, effeminate gait—“they would just about shit their britches if they heard about me. Might want to shut me up, I wouldn’t wonder. Because what I have here . . .” He paused, smiled, revealing a glittering gold tooth. “But I don’t expect you to take
word for it.”
The crowd let out a collective sigh. De Bornais bowed and stepped aside as
another man climbed up from behind the stage. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with a shock of wild black hair and an enormous bristling beard. He was dressed in leather trousers and a vest that hung open to the waist, making it obvious that he was well muscled and apparently in rude health.
“My name,” he said, “is Danton Aurenne. And I was not always the man you see before you.”
Raesinia blinked. He had a fine, carrying voice, but it was more than that. It cracked like a whip across the crowd,
attention, locking every eye to his face.
He spoke at some length, starting with his childhood on the streets of Newtown, his mother’s struggles, and his diseased and generally malformed state at young adulthood, with particular attention paid to the more horrifying symptoms. From there he recounted his near starvation, unfit for one job after another, finally washing up in a church hostel for the dying. Where, of course, he met de Bornais, and his amazing tonic—
It was an absurd story. Ridiculous. It wasn’t even a masterpiece of the spoken word; it sounded as though it had been written by someone with only a middling command of Vordanai and very little imagination. And yet—and yet—
The words didn’t seem to
. The rolling power of that voice put the audience into a trance by the force of its delivery alone. Every man, woman, and child in the crowd was rapt. Raesinia found that she could barely even remember what had been said, moments after he’d said it. All that mattered was the plight of poor Danton, and his rescue by the astonishing philanthropy of the brilliant de Bornais, and the fact that she was being invited,
to purchase a vial of this miracle elixir at the incredible price of only one eagle and fifty pence. It was practically giving away the secrets of life, which only showed you the kind of person de Bornais was.
She felt something inside her twitch. The binding perked up, very slightly, one predator raising an eyebrow at the sight of another stalking quietly across the plains.
“Good, isn’t he?” said Ben, grinning.
“God Almighty.” Faro shook his head, as though he felt drunk. “What the
“He’s got his symptoms all m . . . m . . . mixed up,” said Sarton. He’d looked up from his pamphlet only when Danton started talking. “And I wouldn’t be surprised if he had an early case of the red wind. In childhood—”
Ben cut him off. “You see why I brought you here, right?”
“Just because the man can sell snake oil,” Faro said, shaking off the effects, “doesn’t mean he’s going to be any use to
Raesinia shook her head. She was still watching the stage, where de Bornais had reappeared with a crate full of glass vials. Coins were flying out of the crowd and landing on the stage with a noise like hail.