The Tainted City

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Chapter Two


Kiran straightened on his stool and rolled his shoulders in an attempt to relieve cramped muscles. The sky beyond the high slits of the workroom windows burned crimson with approaching sunset. The labyrinthine chalk lines of his spell diagram had already grown difficult to read; soon further work would be impossible without additional illumination.

He eyed the inert crystal sphere of the magelight perched at the table's end and set his teeth. Thanks to the binding the Alathian Council had cast on him, he could no longer cast even the simplest of spells. He'd grown accustomed to the constant gnawing rasp of the binding against his ikilhia - his soul's fire, the source of his power - but not to the bitter ache of yearning every memory of magic brought.

The charm gleaming beside his slate seemed to mock him, mutely. A burnished vambrace of silver long enough to cover a man's arm from wrist to elbow, the metal was encrusted with gemstones and etched with sigils. Even with his inner senses dulled by the Council's binding, Kiran could feel the vast reservoir of magic bound within, a deep, soundless thrum that shivered his bones. The charm's dizzyingly complex spellwork had allowed the blood mage Simon Levanian to walk through Alathia's supposedly impassable border wards. Not just once, but on multiple occasions, with the Alathians none the wiser.

The Alathian Council had spared Kiran's life on his promise he could decipher Simon's spell and explain how he'd breached their defenses. More, they'd promised if Kiran could provide the knowledge quickly enough, they'd hear a plea for Dev's release from the mines.

Frustration tightened Kiran's throat. He laid a hand on the charm, once more seeing Simon's magic in a dense, fiery scrawl across his inner sight. He was so close now to a full sketch of Simon's pattern, but the last piece was by far the most difficult. How had Simon managed to stabilize the flow of the charm's immense energies without distorting his spell into uselessness? All week, Kiran had sketched diagram upon diagram, struggling to find the solution. Yet his every attempt contained some fatal flaw.

After all he owed Dev, he'd sketch diagrams until his fingers fell off, if that was what it took. But if he wanted light to work after sunset, he'd have to ask Stevannes.

Kiran glanced at the far side of the workroom, where Stevannes sat before another broad table of polished cinnabar wood. The arcanist's auburn head was bent over an array of slender malachite and jasper rods set within a charcoal sigil sketched on the table. Above the rods, the air rippled as if seen through heat haze. Occasional hints of viridian and indigo tinged the shifting air, reminiscent of the way Simon's charm had stained the air with color as it revealed and penetrated the border wards.

Alathia's foremost expert on defensive magic, Stevannes had made it all too clear he bitterly resented any interruptions by the Council's pet blood mage to his own investigation into the breach of Alathia's wards. He had a savagely sharp tongue at the best of times; and today his mood had been black from the start.

Yet success was so nearly within Kiran's grasp. He squared his shoulders, resolving to hold his calm no matter what Stevannes said.

"Pardon the interruption, but -"

A staccato series of raps on the workroom door silenced him mid-sentence. Surely Kiran's guard hadn't come to collect him yet? Usually he was allowed to keep working so long as Stevannes remained, and Stevannes's dedication was so fierce as to be disturbing. He worked hours that would put a blood-bound slave's to shame, and rarely left before midnight.

Stevannes twisted on his stool to aim a swift, vicious glare at Kiran, and flicked a ringed hand at the door. The black lines scribed around the doorframe glowed briefly silver as the workroom's wards released.

The door creaked open to reveal a slender, straight-backed young woman whose blue and gray uniform bore the copper braid of a lieutenant of the Council's Watch.

"First Lieutenant Lenarimanas." Stevannes's glare vanished. He stood and bowed with formal precision. A wash of cerulean shot through the shimmering air above his table. "You've come to remove the blood mage?" He sounded hopeful.

Kiran gripped his slate. "Lena. It's early yet, and I'm so close to completing this pattern. If I could just have a few more hours..."

Lena nodded to him, her brown face grave under its crown of dark braids. "You needn't leave, Kiran. I bring a message for Stevannes from Captain Martennan." She handed a sealed letter to Stevannes and came to peer at the diagram on Kiran's slate. "You've made progress, then? The captain will be pleased to hear it."

Stevannes snorted as he broke the letter's seal. "Progress? Hardly. His spell diagram hasn't changed a whit all week. All he does is dally over his slate and waste my time."

Silence was always the better option with Stevannes, but Kiran couldn't let the remark go unchallenged. Lena might be the closest thing he had to a friend in Alathia, even allowing him to call her by the short form of her family name, but she reported every scrap of information on his work to her superior, Captain Martennan, and through him, the Council.

"Deciphering these last power pathways is more difficult than I'd hoped," Kiran said, carefully mild in tone. "Simon used a technique for them I'm not familiar with."

Stevannes's iron-gray eyes lifted from the letter. "You're a blood mage, same as he was. Either you're stalling, or you're incompetent."

"I'm working as fast as I can," Kiran protested. "You can't fault me for not instantly grasping Simon's methodology. He wasn't my master. His mind follows different paths than Ruslan's. It's not an easy task, to think like him -"

"Easy enough for you, I'd imagine," Stevannes snapped. "All you blood mages think alike, seeking power without the least shred of morality. The Council should never have agreed to this farce of yours. Better to put down a rabid dog before it bites-"

"Stevannes." Lena spoke with cool authority. Though she was only in her mid-twenties and a full decade younger than Stevannes, as Martennan's first lieutenant she outranked even a master arcanist. "You know how important this work is, and you cannot think your insults are helping."

Stevannes's shoulders stiffened. "Why do you defend him? You know what he is."

"I judge men by their actions, not hearsay," Lena said.

"Hearsay!" Stevannes looked incredulous. "He raises power by murdering innocents. Not even he denies it." He jabbed a finger at Kiran. "I saw the report Pevennar and Alyashen wrote after they examined him. Even with his power bound, he still steals life from everything around him. He's not a man, he's a parasite."

"What?" Kiran's slate dropped from nerveless fingers to clatter on the table. Six weeks ago he'd agreed to spend a day being poked and prodded by the healers in the Sanitorium in exchange for a scry-vision to confirm Dev's fair treatment at the mine, but the healers had barely spoken to him. They certainly hadn't mentioned anything like Stevannes's claim.

"Don't pretend you didn't know," Stevannes said. "You may have fooled Lenarimanas with your meek lamb act, but you don't fool me."

Kiran ignored him, looking to Lena. "Is what he says true?"

Lena sighed. "Yes."

Kiran could only stare at Lena, mutely. The dissonant discomfort of the binding heightened until pain clawed along his nerves.

Lena's brows drew together. "Kiran, you're not harming anyone. The power draw is minuscule. Alyashen and Pevennar think it's completely out of your control, like your heart beating. They have a theory it's meant to prevent you from aging."

Kiran put his head in his hands. He'd known the akhelashva ritual Ruslan had performed when Kiran came of age involved more than anchoring the mark-bond that permanently linked their minds and souls. He'd even known Ruslan had created a connection between Kiran's body and ikilhia to allow magical repair of physical injury. But he'd thought that connection internal to himself, and under conscious control.

What else had Ruslan done to him without his knowledge?

"Did they find anything else?" His voice sounded tinny and faint in his own ears.

"Nothing conclusive," Lena said. "The healers say your blood reacts strangely when exposed to the substances they use for healing diagnoses, but they don't know the cause. Pevennar believes that when Ruslan mark-bound you, he altered your body in a variety of subtle ways to make it more congruent with a blood mage's style of magic."

Stevannes issued a derisive grunt. "More congruent with slaughter and torture, you mean. Let me guess," he said to Kiran. "It feels good when you kill someone, doesn't it?"

Power rushing in, sweet and burning, like sunlight after endless dark - Kiran couldn't get enough air. "I don't kill people."

Stevannes's mouth curled, his eyes horribly knowing. "Simon Levanian is dead, isn't he? He tried to use you in a spell, and you destroyed him. And what about the convoy men you killed in the mountains?"

"The convoy drovers' deaths were an accident - I tried to take only from animals when I cast to divert the avalanche from our convoy! I had to cast - if I hadn't, the slide would have killed hundreds." Yet Kiran couldn't meet Stevannes's gaze. Harken's gentle, weathered face still haunted his dreams, accompanied by the shadowed figures of the drovers Kiran hadn't known.

"So you claim," Stevannes said. "Do you think a handful of feeble excuses for your murders are enough to make us forget who you truly are?"

Kiran flinched. Ever since the Council had spared his life, he'd cherished the hope that one day the Alathians' distrust of him would soften. That they'd stop seeing him as a threat, and allow him the time and materials he'd need to discover some means of dissolving his mark-bond. Yet if Stevannes's attitude was any indication, that day would be years in coming - if it ever did.

"Enough, Stevannes." Lena's voice was colder than he'd ever heard it. "I will not warn you again."

Stevannes drew himself up. "Forgive me, First Lieutenant. I merely wished to clarify the point." He thrust the opened letter at her. "Tell Captain Martennan I will indeed search the Parvyi treatises for -" He stopped, his head tilting.

The floorboards under Kiran's feet shivered. Chalk rolled along the tabletop to fetch up against his slate as the tremor subsided.

Stevannes dropped the letter and knelt to place his hands on the floor. Lena mirrored the movement, frowning. Kiran put his own hand on the table and strained his inner senses, but felt nothing beyond the dissonant throb of the block on his power.

"Another tremor." The disdain had vanished from Stevannes' voice.

"Go," Lena said. "I'll check."

"Be certain." Stevannes stood and left without a backward glance.

"Lena? Another tremor - there've been others?" Kiran hadn't noticed any, but the quake had been so swift and subtle. Locked in concentration on his spell diagram, he might easily have missed it.

Lena approached, close enough he could have counted the smattering of dark freckles that marked her nose and cheeks. She reached for his temples. He shied away.

"What are you -"

"Kiran. This is necessary." She reached again.

Reluctantly, Kiran held his ground. Her hands settled lightly on his skin. A slender thread of power snaked through his head, swift and shining as quicksilver.

"My apologies." Lena stepped back. "I needed to examine your binding."

"You think the tremor was my doing?" The words came out sharper than Kiran had intended, but the notion was so ridiculous. From the moment the Council had bound him, he'd been unable to use his magic for anything but passive reading of charms, living day and night with the constriction of their spell flaying his inner senses raw.

A faint frown creased her forehead. "I do not."

"But others do, and not just Stevannes." Kiran's hands clenched. "Isn't it enough that you keep me bound like this? That I've done everything the Council has asked?"

"The Council is entrusted with the safety of Alathia," Lena said coolly. "Do you truly think their caution with you is unreasonable?"

Kiran didn't answer, his attention caught by Stevannes's still-active spell. The shimmer above the sigil had taken on a sickly gray tinge, mottled by holes with dark, crackling edges. Dread coalesced in Kiran's chest. He pointed at the spell.

"If that represents your border wards...it's Ruslan, isn't it? He's casting against Alathia, and your wards are failing." He'd known this day would come. But so soon - he'd thought Ruslan would need more time to analyze the ward patterns. For all Ruslan's hot temper, he was far too clever to cast against an enemy in haste. He'd waited twenty years to strike down Simon Levanian, until Kiran had unwittingly presented him with the perfect opportunity. Kiran hadn't dared hope for nearly that length of time before Ruslan moved against the Council, but he had thought he'd gained a few seasons' grace.

"Our wards hold." Lena passed a hand over the sigil on Stevannes's table. The gray shimmer vanished. "Stevannes's spell showed...merely a warning." But her eyes slid aside from his, her motions abrupt as she collected Stevannes's carved stone rods.

"You don't deny Ruslan is casting against you." Return him to me, or I will tear down your country stone by stone, Ruslan had said; and the Alathians had refused him.

Lena surveyed him, a sharp line between her brows. "There is no direct evidence of Ruslan's involvement."

Kiran blinked. "What? But -"

"I cannot say more." Lena turned away. She thrust Simon's charm into the warded copper chest sitting beside Stevannes's neatly ordered stacks of treatises. "Put away your things. You're finished here for today; I'll escort you back to your quarters."

Her clipped tone said he'd learn nothing further. She must have been ordered to keep silence; and while Lena might treat him with calm kindness, she'd never disobey an order.

Kiran's mind raced as he picked up chalk shards with cold, fumbling fingers. No direct evidence...given the cunning Ruslan had displayed against Simon, the Alathians had to realize Ruslan's capacity for subtlety. Yet if Ruslan cast against Alathia, why should he conceal it? The Council would suspect him, regardless. Far better for Ruslan to strike openly, counting on his dark reputation to instill further fear and division within the Council.

It didn't make sense. Yet Kiran couldn't shake the bleak certainty within. His reprieve from his master, brief as it had been, was over.



I knelt amidst bedraggled reeds and thrust my hands into the chill shallows of the stream. Weariness dragged at my eyes and turned my muscles to lead. The sun had long since set; stars spattered the strip of sky visible between the black bulwarks of the cliffs. The peeping of mossfrogs echoed from the seeps, punctuated by clanks and shouted orders from the mine as crews worked to shore up the main tunnel. In the dim silver glow of Talmaddis's magelight, the blood crusted on my hands and forearms was as dark as the grime coating my clothes. Talmaddis stood silent beside me, his shoulders slumped, as I scrubbed gore from my skin.

Jathon's idea had worked. The powder charges I'd eased down the airshaft had blasted through the back side of the cave-in. The shaft wasn't large enough for a man to pass, but it allowed enough good air through to keep the miners who'd survived the initial collapse alive until a crew of mages from the Watch finally showed up.

I'd hoped for another chance to slip away, but Jathon kept me dangling from pitons beside the airshaft to relay messages to the trapped men until the mages managed to create a narrow passageway through the cave-in. The effort of keeping the tunnel stable and the air breathable apparently took all their concentration; they left it to the rest of us to evacuate the injured. I'd spent the rest of the day climbing through rubble under Talmaddis's supervision, seeking those survivors too badly hurt to make their own way out.

I grimaced and scraped harder at my fingers. Talmaddis had given me bloodfreeze and skinseal charms, but even so, I'd lost count of the men who died before I could lever them free.

I'd seen my dead mentor Sethan in every gray, pain-wracked face. Splintered bone gleaming in the pitiless glare of high altitude sun, blood pouring from Sethan's nose and mouth as I screamed curses and shoved at the boulder pinning him...I yanked my hands from the river.

"That scut-man, the one whose crushed leg I had to sever - will he live?" The miner had looked as young as Kiran, somewhere in his late teens. His screams had dwindled into ragged croaks as I'd sawed through the flesh of his pulped leg. Thank Khalmet, he'd fainted before I had to drag him out the crack I'd slithered through to reach him.

"He may." Talmaddis sounded as tired as I felt, though he no longer looked so haggard as he had in the immediate aftermath of the quake. His rings were still black, but he'd sparked the magelight easily enough. I took that as a warning. He might not have the full strength of his magic back yet, but he'd need only a trickle to deal with an untalented man like me. "Captain Jevardanos brought a full supply of herbs and elixirs, and several among his Watch have made extensive study of healing spells. If anyone can save a man from wound fever, they can."

I swiped my hands dry on my pants, uncaring of the grimy cloth. Coal muck I could live with, now I'd consigned the dead men's blood to the river. "If he's not dead by the time they bother with a mere scut-man."

"This isn't Ninavel." Talmaddis's voice gained an edge. "Those worst injured will be treated first, regardless of their status."

"Yeah? If the Watch is so concerned for the injured, how come you're still breathing down my neck instead of helping cast healing spells?" I pointed at the distant lantern-lit bulk of the camp's mess hall, which now served as a makeshift infirmary.

"Because I'm not an idiot." A brief, sardonic smile touched Talmaddis's mouth. "You think I haven't sensed that glowlight charm you've got stuffed down your sock? Admit it: you have some ill-conceived plan to run."

My heart jolted. I stood, carefully casual. "No harm in carrying a perfectly legal charm in case I get sent on an errand in the tunnels. I just don't want it stolen off me. I share barracks with criminals, you know."

"Ah." Talmaddis's tone made it clear he didn't buy that for an instant. "Well, consider my presence as an appeal to your better judgment. A clever man like yourself must realize the dangers of venturing outside our protection. Ruslan Khaveirin bears you no love, and you well know the torment a blood mage can inflict."

Yeah, Ruslan was a vengeful, sadistic bastard. Yet Kiran had once said, He thinks of untalented men as tools to be used or cast aside, not enemies worthy of attention. It was Kiran he'd shatter the world to reclaim, not me. With all Ruslan's attention focused on tearing down Alathia's wards, I figured I'd stand a fair chance of surviving a return to Arkennland, so long as I was quiet about it. Hell, I'd probably be safer there than here, if the day's quake was any indication.

"After today, I'm not overly impressed with your protection," I told Talmaddis.

"Even after I saved your life twice? You're a hard man to please," Talmaddis said dryly.

I winced, remembering my fall, and the plummeting pullwheel station. "Right. Uh. Thanks for that."

"You can thank me by refraining from anything foolish." Talmaddis passed his hands over his face. "Especially tonight. I warn you, I won't be in a forgiving mood if I'm roused from my bed to drag you back to camp."

"Don't worry," I told him, truthfully. "I'm not even sure I can make it back to the barracks." Better anyway to wait until the latest crew of mages returned to Tamanath before I tried again for some kalumite, no matter how frustrated the delay left me. Far easier to fox one mage than a horde of them.

"Nevertheless, you'll understand if I insist you hand over that glowlight charm." Talmaddis stuck out a hand.

"You want it, it's yours." Copper wasn't hard to come by, not with half the chipping crews wearing the weak little glowlight and sharpening charms considered legal here. I slapped the charm into his waiting palm. "Trust me, all I want right now is sleep. Stand over my cot all night if you like, so long as you don't wake me 'til the day bell rings."

I moved for the barracks, but Talmaddis gripped my shoulder. "Hold a moment."

A magelight bobbed toward us over the mudflats. As it got closer, the holder proved to be the scar-faced female mage I'd seen before. Mud smeared her uniform and her graying hair was fraying loose from its braid, but her walk remained as rigidly precise as a soldier on a parade ground. She dipped in a perfunctory bow.

"Talmaddis, we've received orders from the Council." She brandished the jeweled gold band of a message charm at him. "Captain Jevardanos and the others are to remain and assist in returning the mine to normal operations, but you and I are to take him" - she jerked her head at me - "back to Tamanath, without delay." She shifted to face me, and rattled off, "Devan na soliin, the Council wishes to review your sentence in the light of your assistance in the rescue effort."

"Oh, for fuck's sake," I snarled. I wasn't so dumb as to believe that little campfire tale. With Ruslan clawing at their door, the Council surely wanted both me and Kiran right to hand. Shaikar take the Council! Planning a getaway from the mine had been tricky enough, but in Tamanath I'd be buried up to my ears in mages and wards. Though in Tamanath I might get to see Kiran. Maybe I could help him, find some way to ensure the Council didn't throw him to Ruslan to save their asses...I squelched the thought. Best thing I could do for Kiran was to escape the Council's clutches so they couldn't use me as leverage anymore.

I rounded on Talmaddis. "Can't I get a few hours sleep before you two spell me off to Tamanath?" I needed a chance to think. My brain felt like cold sludge. My only certainty was that I'd never escape the Watch in the heart of their power.

"Unfortunately, we won't be returning via translocation spell." Talmaddis sounded wearier than ever. "A spell of that magnitude requires far too much power to be cast here. We'll have to travel overland. So yes, I think it wise to get some sleep before leaping on a horse."

I perked up as I recalled the maps I'd seen of Alathia. Tamanath was some ten days' ride from the Cheltman mines, along a road that traveled a maze of sandstone gorges and verdant forest, and passed within a few miles of the border gate at Loras. Maybe I wasn't so screwed as I'd thought. Even mages had to sleep sometime, and where there was sandstone, there was kalumite.

Talmaddis turned to the scar-faced mage. "We'll leave at dawn. Aiyadaren, please inform the minemaster we'll require three horses and a pack mule; and tell Captain Jevardanos I'd take it as a great favor if he could spare someone to sit watch on the barracks for me until morning. I'd prefer not to trust solely in Dev's collaring charm tonight." He cast a jaundiced glance at me.

"Oh, I'm not going anywhere," I assured him. Not yet. But once we rode out into the wild, I sure as hell didn't mean to let them get me within spitting distance of Tamanath.


"Welcome to Tamanath," Talmaddis announced, in a voice so bright I wanted to hit him. My fists clenched as our carriage passed under a freestanding stone arch patterned by crystalline swirls that reminded me all too well of the wards on Alathia's border gates. Behind us, unadorned black carriages waited in a patient, orderly line to undergo inspections just as thoroughly nosy as those at the border. We'd bypassed the line and gotten waved through after a quick exchange between Talmaddis and an officious young mage. Aiyadaren had slept through the whole thing, propped against the carriage window with her mouth slack and her breathing heavy. She hadn't so much as twitched since we exchanged our horses for the carriage at a guard outpost a mile back.

Shaikar take her, and Talmaddis too. For ten days they'd stuck closer than river leeches, traded off shifts watching me day and night, and worst of all, they'd done something to my snapthroat charm so it strangled me unconscious the moment I got more than ten feet from the one on duty. Bruises still ringed my throat from the last time I'd tried.

Beyond the arch, rolling fields changed over to whitewashed houses half-hidden by trees and neatly trimmed hedges. I slumped in my seat and fixed my gaze on the shining, jagged line of peaks barely visible above the eastern hills. Longing and frustration twisted my heart. The Whitefires had never felt further away.

"No need to look so sour," Talmaddis said. "Tonight, not only do you get to sleep in a real bed, but you'll be spared the pleasure of our company while you do it." He flicked a hand at himself and Aiyadaren with a wry little grin.

"Khalmet's hand, you mean you'll actually let me alone for two heartbeats? You're not worried I'll slink through your border the moment your back's turned?"

"Not from a properly warded room, you won't," Talmaddis said. "Preferably one far from me. You snore like a rock bear."

"You've got me confused with her." I jerked my chin at Aiyadaren, who chose that moment to let out a bench-rattling snore. Talmaddis laughed.

My mouth twitched, despite myself. Aiyadaren's glacial reserve would've fit right in among Jathon's coal haulers - the whole trip, she'd spoken to me only in terse orders - but Talmaddis was different. His dry, easygoing humor seemed completely unfeigned, and he had a repertoire of outrageous campfire stories that rivaled a convoy man's. He'd said he spent some years with the Alathian embassy in Ninavel before ending up as Captain Martennan's second lieutenant. His time in Ninavel might explain both the stories and the lack of a stick up his ass.

Friendly or no, I never forgot he was my jailer - and neither did he, damn him. I scowled out the window as hedges gave way to tidy storefronts with flowers trailing from windowboxes. If I couldn't slip my leash to cross the border, I needed a new plan to get myself free of this mess.

We'd had three more quakes on the journey here. None of them as strong as the one in Cheltman Gorge - the last tremor had been hardly enough to rattle a cup - but I'd seen the grim glances Talmaddis and Aiyadaren exchanged afterward. They were worried.

So was I. If the Alathians got desperate enough, I figured all the Council's sanctimonious talk about refusing to bow to demands from foreign mages was worth less than mule piss. Bargains or no bargains, they'd toss Kiran and me to Ruslan in an eyeblink if they believed the alternative was Ruslan raining magefire down on Tamanath. I thought of Ruslan's cold, cruel smile, and shuddered.

Our carriage turned into a broad square with a central fountain carved of golden stone. Beyond loomed a forbidding gray hulk of a building. No flowers brightened its rows of tall, narrow windows. Instead, the stone surrounding each slit bore the black whorls and spirals of inset wards.

"Ah! The Arcanum, at last." Talmaddis leaned to look out the window with the eager relief of a man delighted to see home. He elbowed Aiyadaren, who twitched and straightened mid-snore. Her stern face softened when she caught sight of our destination.

I eyed the Arcanum with a lot less cheer as our carriage pulled up to the arched entryway. Talmaddis had told me it served as both a military barracks for the mages on active duty in the seven Watch companies, and a scholars' institution for those charged with maintaining Alathia's defensive magic.

A single mage waited to one side of the heavy wooden doors. Instead of holding himself piton-straight, he slouched against the wall with his thumbs hooked in his belt. His face was hidden in shadow, but the braided silver cord signifying a Watch captain encircled the gold seal of the Council on his uniformed chest.

I recognized that deceptively casual stance. Our greeter was Captain Martennan of the Seventh Watch, who'd first arrested Kiran and me. Not that I remembered it, having been unconscious at the time. I'd had my fill of Martennan in the days afterward. He played the sympathetic advisor, but I'd seen the cool calculation lurking behind his show of good humor. I'd bet a thousand kenets he'd been the one to suggest me as the Council's lever to make sure Kiran did whatever they asked.

Talmaddis bounded out of the carriage the moment it stopped. He bowed, hands crossed over his chest, as Martennan emerged from the archway. Martennan's dark hair was longer than I'd last seen it, standing up in soft spikes instead of cropped close to his head in typical Alathian style, but the bright smile on his round face was as irritatingly cheerful as I remembered.

Martennan made a bow of his own and pulled Talmaddis into a brief, laughing embrace, saying something I couldn't hear.

"Out. Now." Impatience tinged Aiyadaren's voice. No doubt she couldn't wait to wash her hands of me.

"I'm going," I muttered, and climbed out into the courtyard, Aiyadaren close on my heels.

Martennan turned to me, all warm courtesy. "Dev. I'm delighted to see you safely back in Tamanath. I hear we've many lives to thank you for."

He spoke with a drawling accent far different than the usual clipped speech of city Alathians; I'd learned in the mines the drawl was common to those born in the rugged hills lining Alathia's distant coast. As ever, the sharp intelligence in his black eyes set my stomach jumping. If the Alathians meant a word of all this gratitude, they'd be aiming it at Jathon, not me. Jathon's idea had saved those men; I'd only been the pack mule.

"You want to thank me, Martennan? Then let me talk to Kiran." Let me make sure he's not so naive as to trust you, I added silently. Last I'd seen, Kiran had been lapping up Martennan's helpful act.

"Of course," Martennan said. "I've arranged for you to stay with Kiran while the Council reviews your case." His smile brightened. "Kiran's quite eager to see you. I'll take you straight to him."

Easy as that, huh? My nerves buzzed all the louder.

Martennan stepped in close, ignoring my flinch, and ran a finger over my snapthroat charm. He glanced at Talmaddis and Aiyadaren. "Clever work. But, here..." The metal tingled against my skin. "He's in my charge, now. Go on, you two - get some rest. I'll hear your reports later."

He urged me toward the carriage, not even waiting for Talmaddis and Aiyadaren to finish their bows. Before I could climb in, the Arcanum door thudded open and a young mage scampered out.

"Captain Martennan, wait!" She waved a folded square of paper as she panted up to us. I caught a glimpse of a thick wax seal marked with a familiar design of interlocking circles.

My gut went cold. A missive from the Council? This couldn't mean anything good.

Martennan broke the seal and scanned the paper's contents. His eyes widened before his expression smoothed back into its usual cheerful mask. The cold hole in my gut grew larger.

Martennan balanced the letter on his flattened palm. His rings flared silver, and the letter vanished in a rush of pale flame.

Damn. No chance of sneaking a look. "Show-off," I muttered.

The flame winked out, leaving not even ash behind. Martennan let his hand fall. "Thank you, adept. Tell Councilor Varellian I shall call upon her within the hour."

The little mage bowed so deeply her knot of braids brushed the flagstones before she dashed back into the Arcanum. After a brief, low-voiced exchange with the driver, Martennan herded me into the carriage and settled himself on the seat opposite.

"Want to share what that was about?" I asked Martennan, as we rattled off.

He slanted me an amused glance. "No. Though I have another letter I'd like to share with you." He pulled another folded paper, this one unsealed, from within the front flap of his uniform and offered it to me.

I took it warily. But when I opened the letter, my heart leaped. Cara's bold handwriting sprawled over the page.

To Captain Martennan of the Seventh Watch:

You said you owed me a debt for warning you of Simon Levanian. If you've any shred of honor, you'll see Dev gets this letter. He's the one you truly owe, and he deserves news of home.

A brief blank space, and then:

Dev, you needn't worry for me - I'm safe and sound in Ninavel. I'm writing this from the Blackstrike, listening to a bunch of drunk Varkevians try and outdo each other on tabis drums. They're not very good. Reminds me of that stonemason two years back who thought it'd be fun to learn to play a shrike whistle while crossing the Whitefires. Thank Khalmet old Nuli saved our ears by tossing the damn thing off a cliff.

Yeah, I remembered that trip. This truly was from Cara, then, and not some trick of Martennan's. She must've sent it by one of the hard-riding merchant house couriers that traveled the Whitefire route in summer.

I looked up your cousin. She and the kids are all fine. The oldest is growing fast. Your cousin thinks she might be ready to apprentice out by the end of the season. I'll give them what coin I can, in your stead.

So Red Dal's den minder Liana thought Melly would reach her Change by summer's end. I'd known her time was running out, but the confirmation still hit like a fist to the gut. Six weeks, maybe less, until Red Dal sold Melly off to men who'd force taphtha down her throat until she was nothing more than a compliant, empty-eyed jenny, her mind gone forever.

Speaking of, I'd thought to find your drover friend, the one you'd said might buy your Whitefire maps, but he hasn't yet returned from his convoy job. I tried to talk with his boss, but he's apparently too busy a man to see a simple outrider like me. I'll check with some of your other streetside friends, see if they're interested.

Oh, shit. I struggled to keep my face blank, my breathing even. Cara hadn't found Pello, the shadow man who might've arranged Melly's freedom in exchange for the full tale of Simon Levanian's destruction. She'd tried to go direct to Lord Sechaveh, the ruler of Ninavel and the man Pello claimed as master. But without Pello to smooth the way, she'd likely been turned away by guardsmen who knew nothing of Sechaveh's interest in our convoy trip.

Now in desperation she meant to try and find someone in the employ of one of Ninavel's streetside ganglords to act as a shadow broker. Ganglords dealt in information same as any other commodity. But while a ganglord would gladly sell Cara's tale to Sechaveh, they'd also sell her out to Ruslan for the chance of profit on the side.

I miss you, Dev. Remember what you said to me after I fixed up your head in Kost? I feel the same. So keep your head down, and don't do anything stupid. Things'll come right in the end.

A lump in my throat joined the lead weight in my stomach. I won't ever abandon you again, I'd said, while her fingers traced lazy circles on my skin. And then, we'd -

No. If I thought too long on that one glorious night, I'd crack like hammerstruck granite. Instead I meticulously refolded the letter, aware of Martennan's gaze on me. He was too clever not to realize Cara's talk of cousins and drovers held a deeper meaning. I just prayed he knew too little of my past to understand it.

"Can I keep this?" I asked. Thank Khalmet, my voice came out steady.

"By all means," Martennan said. "You have a good friend in Cara. It should set your mind at ease to know she's looking after your interests in Ninavel."

Damn his eyes, he'd seen my dismay, despite my attempt to cover it. I shrugged, carefully noncommittal. "I'd feel better yet if I could join her there." A truth that was no secret.

Martennan was the very picture of sympathy. "You may yet. The Council will need some weeks to review your case, but when they finish, the outcome may be a happy one. It's hard to wait, I know, but give it time."

"Right." I didn't even try to keep the sarcasm from my tone. A happy outcome, sure - but for whom? And time was one thing I didn't have.