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WE WERE ATTENDING a country fair when the news came.
For a while, a long while, after our final return to Terre d’Ange, life was blissfully uneventful. Having had enough adventures to last me a lifetime, I was grateful for it. Whether in the City or at Montrève, I tended to my studies, immersed in the daily business of living and content to let the affairs of the world pass me by untouched. Phèdre and Joscelin did all they could to allow this respite to endure, sensing there was healing in it for me.
There was, too. As the slow months passed and turned into years, I felt things knotted tight inside me ease. My nightmares grew less and less frequent, and the times of happiness longer.
Still, even Phèdre and Joscelin couldn’t protect me forever.
It was my third summer in Montrève. I had turned fourteen in the spring, though I looked younger, being slow to get my full growth. The Queen’s chirurgeon claimed it was due to the shock of enslavement and what had befallen me in Dars=anga, and mayhap it was so. I only know that I chafed at it. My parents were both tall; or so I am told. I cannot say, having never known my father. If it’s true, it is the only gift of theirs I’d ever wished for.
The fair was held in an open field on the outskirts of the village, alongside the river. It was a small gathering. Montrève was not a large estate, and the village it bordered—which was also called Montrève—was modest in size. But it was a fair, and I was young enough to be excited at the prospect of it.
We made for a merry entourage as we rode forth from the estate: Phèdre, Joscelin, and I, accompanied by her chevalier Ti-Philippe, his companion Hugues, and a few other men-at-arms, all of them clad in the forest-green livery of House Montrève. The Friote clan was already there, tending to our wool-trading interests. The bulk of our wool would be shipped elsewhere for sale, but there were always small landowners looking to buy.
There were other goods available for purchase or trade, too: fabrics and yarns, livestock, produce, spices, and other uninteresting items. Of greater interest, at least to me, were the crafters’ booths, which displayed a fascinating array—leather goods, arms and bits of armor, jewelry, mirrors, mysterious vials of unguents, musical instruments, and intricately carved toys. Not all of them were meant for children, either.
Best of all, there were Tsingani, with horses for sale. Not many—the pick of the lot sold at the great horse fairs in the spring—but a few. We spotted their brightly painted wagons from the road, and I saw Phèdre smile at the sight. There was a time when the Tsingani wouldn’t have been welcome at a small country fair, but a lot has changed since those days. In Montrève, they were always welcome.
There were a few good-natured cheers and shouts of greeting as we arrived, which Phèdre acknowledged with a laughing salute. She was always gracious that way, and well-loved because of it. We tethered our mounts at the picket line and Joscelin gave a few coins to the village lads who hung about to attend them.
Ti-Philippe and the others remained mounted. “I’ll take Hugues and Colin and ride a quick circuit,” he said to Joscelin, who gave a brief nod in reply. “Marcel and the others will cast an eye over the fair proper.”
I hated hearing that sort of thing. It cast a pall over the day’s brightness, knowing it was because of me. Queen Ysandre was insistent that my security was paramount, and a fair brought strangers into the area. They were only being cautious; but still, I hated it.
Joscelin eyed me, noting my expression. “Take heart,” he said wryly. “When you come of age, you’ll be free to take all the risks you like.”
“Four years!” I protested. “It’s forever.”
A corner of his mouth twitched. “You think so?” He tousled my hair lightly. I hated when almost anyone else did it—I didn’t like people touching me—but my heart always gave a secret leap of happiness when Phèdre or Joscelin did. “It won’t seem it, I promise.” He glanced at Phèdre then, and something passed between them; a shared and private understanding.
There are those who laugh at their union, although not many. Not now, after all they have endured together. It’s true, though. ’Tis an unlikely pairing, Kushiel’s Chosen and a Servant of Naamah in love with a Cassiline warrior-priest.
Phèdre was a courtesan, sworn to the service of Blessed Elua’s Companion Naamah, who gave herself to the King of Persis to win Elua’s freedom, and who lay down in the stews of Bhodistan with strangers that he might eat. It is a sacred calling in Terre d’Ange, though it is not one practiced by many peers of the realm. But Phèdre was a Servant of Naamah long before she inherited Delaunay’s title and estate, and although she has not practiced it since Dars=anga, she has never renounced Naamah’s Service.
And Joscelin—Joscelin was a Cassiline Brother when they met, although he left the Brotherhood for her sake. From the age of ten, he was trained to be a warrior-priest, sworn to celibacy. Alone among the Companions, Cassiel claimed no territory in Terre d’Ange and begot no offspring, but remained ever at Blessed Elua’s side. That is the vow of the Cassiline Brotherhood: To protect and serve.
The Cassilines are very good at what they do; but Joscelin, I think, is better.
“What will you, love?” he asked Phèdre, indicating the fair with the sweep of an arm. His steel vambraces glinted in the sun. “Pleasure or the duties of the manor? The Tsingani or the Friotes?”
“Ah, well.” She cocked her head. “We could glance at the fabric stalls on the way to either one. If there’s aught of interest, it won’t last long.”
I groaned inside. I hated looking at fabric.
Although I made no audible sound, Phèdre’s gaze settled on me, dark and unnerving. Her eyes were beautiful, deep and lustrous as forest pools, with a mote of scarlet floating on the left iris, vivid as a rose petal. And she was capable of a look that saw right through one. There were reasons for it.
“All right.” She smiled and beckoned to another of the men-at-arms. “Gilot, will you accompany Imriel to—to the Tsingani horse-fields, is it?”
“Yes, please!” I couldn’t help the grin that stretched my face.
Gilot swept an extravagant bow. “Lady, with a will!”
He was my favorite retainer, after Ti-Philippe and Hugues, who were almost family. He was the youngest—only eighteen, the age of majority I coveted. But he was good with a sword and quick-thinking, which were qualities Joscelin looked for in hiring retainers. I liked him because he treated me as an equal, not a responsibility.
Together we plunged into the fair and began forging a path toward the horse-fields. “They’ve got one of those spotted horses from Aragonia, did you see?” Gilot asked. “I spied it from the road. I wouldn’t mind having one.”
I made a noise of agreement.
“Whip-smart and smooth-gaited, they say.” He shrugged. “Next year, mayhap, if I save my coin!” A stand of leather goods caught his eye. “Ah, hold a moment, will you, Imri? My sword-belt’s worn near enough to snap near the buckle. It was my brother’s anyway. I ought to buy new.”
I loitered at Gilot’s side while he perused the goods available, and the leather-merchant made a great show of exclaiming over my own belt. It was a man’s belt, though it held only a boy’s dagger. “What have you there, little man?” he asked in a jovial, condescending tone. “Boar-hide?”
“No.” I smiled coolly at him. “Rhinoceros.”
He blinked, perplexed. Gilot gave a sidelong glance, nudging me with his elbow. The belt had been a gift from Ras Lijasu, a Prince of Jebe-Barkal. Gilot knew the story behind it. The merchant blinked a few more times. “A rhinoceros, is it? Good for you, little man!”
I turned, recognizing the voice. At an adjacent stall, Katherine Friote beckoned imperiously, shoving up the sleeve of her gown.
“Come here and smell this,” she said.
I went, obedient. Katherine was in the middle of the Friote clan, a year and some months my elder. In the past year, she had begun to . . . change . . . in a fascinating manner. The skinny, bossy girl I had met two summers ago had become a young woman, a head taller than me. She thrust her wrist beneath my nose.
“What do you think?” she asked.
I swallowed hard. She had rubbed a dab of perfumed ointment on her skin, and the scent was strong and cloying, like overblown lilies. Beneath it, faint and elusive, I could smell her own scent, like a sun-warmed meadow.
“I think you smell better without it,” I said honestly.
The perfume-seller made a disgusted sound. I thought Katherine would be annoyed with me, but instead she wore a look of amusement. She bobbed a teasing curtsy in my direction. “Why, thank you, Prince Imriel.”
“You’re welcome.” My face felt unaccountably warm.
“Prince, is it?” The perfume-seller turned his head and spat on the ground. Obviously, he was a stranger to Montrève. “Prince of sheep-dung, I’ll warrant!”
At that moment, Gilot appeared at my side, wearing a sword-belt so new that it creaked over his Montrèvan livery. “Well met, Demoiselle Friote,” he said cheerfully. “Would you care to accompany us to the Tsingani camp? His highness has a fancy to see the spotted horse, and the Comtesse has given us her blessing.”
Now it was Katherine who blushed at Gilot’s chivalrous attention, while the perfume-seller opened and closed his mouth several times, fishlike, then squinted hard at me. I muttered somewhat under my breath about spotted horses, which all of them ignored.
“Shall we?” Gilot asked Katherine, extending his arm and smiling at her. He had a lively, handsome face and brown eyes quick to sparkle with mirth. Still, it irked me to see Katherine dote on him.
We made our way through the stalls, pausing for Gilot to purchase a sweet of candied violets for Katherine. Through the crowd, I caught a glimpse of Phèdre at a cloth-seller’s stall, examining bolts of fabric. The merchant was fawning over her. At her side, Joscelin observed the process with an expression of long tolerance. He stood in the Cassiline at-ease position, arms crossed, hands resting lightly on the hilts of his twin daggers.
I mulled over my irritation as we continued walking, kicking at clumps of foot-churned grass. “I wish you wouldn’t say such things,” I said at length. “Not here.”
“What things?” Gilot gave me a perplexed look.
“Prince,” I said. “Highness.”
“Well, but you are.” He scratched his head. “Look, Imri, I know—I mean, I understand, a bit. But you are who you are, and there’s no changing it. Anyway, there’s no call to let some tawdry peddler insult you. I’m not one to let it pass unnoted.”
I shrugged. “I’ve heard worse.”
“You didn’t mind so much when I said it.” Katherine glanced at me under her lashes. The sun brought out golden streaks in her glossy brown hair, and sparkled on tiny crumbs of sugar clinging to her lips.
I looked away. “Please, forget I spoke of it.”
These new feelings Katherine evoked shouldn’t have disturbed me. In Terre d’Ange, the arts of love came to us easily and young; or so it should be. I was different. It wasn’t that I was immune to the promptings of desire—in the past several months, I had grown uncomfortably aware of desire stirring in my flesh. But in the zenana of Dars=anga, death and desire were inextricably linked. I couldn’t think about one without the shadow of the other hanging over it. So at a time when boys my age were conducting fumbling experiments with one another and begging kisses from girls, I kept myself aloof, afraid and untouchable.
Gilot sighed. “Come on, let’s go.”
I forgot my grievances in the Tsingani camp. There were two kumpanias present with three wagons between them. The wagons were drawn in a circle, with their horses tethered at the rear. At the front of the wagons, women tended cooking fires where kettles of stew and pottage simmered. The unwed women wore their hair uncovered and loose and made long eyes at the Tsingani men, and all of them wore galb displaying their wealth, necklaces and earrings strung with gold coins. A few of the men were engaged in haggling with potential buyers, but most of them idled in the center of the circle. Bursts of music issued forth as one or another began to play—fiddle or timbales, accompanied by rhythmic clapping and snatches of song.
It would be a good life, I think, to be one of the Travellers; or at least it would be for a man. It was harder for Tsingani women, who must abide by a stringent code of behavior lest they lose their virtue; their laxta, they called it. If that happened, they were declared anathema.
It is better now than it once was. Much of that is due to Hyacinthe, who is the Master of the Straits and wields a power beyond the mortal ken. I know, for I have seen it; seen wind and wave answer to his command. He was one of them, once—a half-breed Tsingano, born to a woman who lost her virtue through no fault of her own. In the end, they would have had him as their king, but he refused it. Still, he has urged change upon them and many of the Tsingani have eased the strictures they impose on their women. Hyacinthe has reason to be concerned with the lot of women, since it is to Phèdre that he owes his freedom.
I shivered in the warm sunlight, remembering the day she spoke the Name of God and broke the curse that bound him to an immortality of dwindling age on that lonely island. There are some memories so profound they cannot be conveyed in words.
Some of them, for a mercy, are good ones.
Gilot let out a low whistle, breaking my reverie. “Look at him, will you! What a beauty.”
There was an admiring crowd around the spotted horse staked on the outskirts of the circle. I had to own, the horse was a beauty—a powerfully arched neck, strong, straight legs, a smooth back. His coat was a deep red-bay, speckled with white as though, in the middle of summer, he stood amidst a snowstorm. He basked in the adulation of the crowd, tossing his head and stamping his forefeet, almost as though to beat time with the nearby timbales.
“Imriel, Katherine!” Charles Friote detached himself from the throng of admirers and waved us over. He was my age, though to my chagrin, he too had grown in the past year, overtaking me by a head. “Hello, Gilot,” Charles added belatedly, then dropped his voice to a whisper. “He’s not for sale, the Tsingani say. But maybe for Lady Phèdre . . . ?”
I was opening my mouth to reply when the Tsingano holding the spotted horse’s head beckoned to me, calling out. “Hey, rinkeni chavo! Come meet the Salmon!”
It was the spotted horse’s name, I guessed. While Charles squirmed with envy behind me, I moved forward. The Tsingano who had beckoned me grinned, his teeth very white against his brown skin.
“Here, chavo,” he said, pressing something into my palm. “Give him a treat.”
It was a bit of dried apple; the end of last autumn’s stores. I held my hand out flat. The Salmon eyed me, lordly and considering, then bent his head to accept the tidbit, his lips velvety against my palm. I began to think about what a glory it would be to ride him—to own him—and wondered if perhaps the Tsingani might sell him to Phèdre after all. I could repay her for him. There were monies that were mine to spend, held in trust for me; the proceeds of estates I had never seen, nor cared to.
“A gadjo pearl, with black hair and eyes like the deep sea,” the Tsingano horse-trader murmured.
I jerked back, startling the horse.
“Peace, chavo.” The Tsingano raised one hand, palm outward. His dark eyes were calm and amused. “We remember, that is all. Does it trouble you?”
It was the second question of the day I had no chance to answer. On the far side of the field, familiar shouts arose—the battle-call of House Montrève, giving an alarm. I turned to see a single rider departing from the road to race hell-for-leather toward the fair. Whatever his intentions, the sight didn’t bode well. I was abruptly aware that I had only Gilot for protection.
Ti-Philippe and his men were on a course to intercept the rider, but they were too far away. The rider would reach us first. Gilot swore and drew his sword. In three swift steps, he reached me, grabbing my arm and yanking me behind him. Katherine and Charles were round-eyed with fearful awe. The spotted stallion reared against his tether, trumpeting, while his Tsingano owner sought to soothe him.
In the midst of the fair, pandemonium broke loose. A handful of villagers sought to rally to our aid, seizing weapons from the arms-sellers’ stalls. Protesting merchants blocked their way, grabbing at their purloined goods. Here and there was a struggling knot where one of Montrève’s retainers sought to shove a path through the throng.
I watched the rider loom nearer and drew my dagger, flipping it to hold it by its point. At fifteen paces or less, my aim was good. In front of me, Gilot maintained a defensive stance, legs planted, sword tight in his fist. A muscle in his jaw trembled. Katherine’s fingers dug into my left forearm. I pried them loose, shoving her toward Charles.
“Take care of her,” I said, the words coming harshly. He nodded, his face pale, brown hair flopping over his brow.
A single voice, raised, called my name. “Imriel!”
I raised mine in reply, and though it cracked, it carried. “Joscelin, here!”
There; bursting free of the crowd. He came at a dead run, crossing the horse-fields to the Tsingani camp, passing Gilot. The rider thundered toward us, Ti-Philippe and the others following hard behind, a few seconds too late.
His sword sang as he reached over his shoulder and drew it; a high, keening note. Tradition holds that Cassiline Brothers draw their swords only to kill. When it came to my defense, Joscelin observed no such niceties.
“Stand down or die!” he called to the rider, angling his sword across his body in a two-handed grip.
The rider drew rein, hard, turning his lathered, hard-ridden mount. Froth flew from its bit. A hafted pennant, now visible, fluttered from a hilt mounted on the pommel of his saddle—a square of rich blue with a diagonal bar of silver.
“Queen’s Courier!” he shouted. “In the name of Queen Ysandre, hold your hand!”
Joscelin did not shift, his voice remaining taut. “Stand down, man!”
In that moment, it seemed everyone else converged. Ti-Philippe, Hugues, and Colin arrived in a thunderous flurry of hoofbeats, blocking the rider’s retreat. Tsingani armed with light hunting bows emerged from the circle of wagons. Villagers armed with sticks, cudgels, and appropriated swords ran into the field.
She stepped lightly past me, touching my shoulder briefly in passing. At her appearance, everyone grew quiet. She wore a gown of vibrant blue, the color of the summer sky; the color of Joscelin’s eyes. It was trimmed with gold embroidery, a handspan deep, and a caul of gold mesh bound her dark, shining hair.
“Queen’s Courier?” she asked, frowning slightly. Joscelin adjusted his stance, angling his sword to protect her. “What news is so urgent?”
The rider dropped his reins. His mount lowered its head, blowing hard, its nostrils flaring. “My lady Phèdre nó Delaunay de Montrève?”
“Yes.” She regarded him calmly.
He raised his hands, showing them to be empty. “I bear an urgent dispatch from the Queen,” he said. Reaching slowly into a pouch slung over the crupper of his saddle, he drew forth a sealed missive. “Here.”
Joscelin took it from his grasp, examined it, then handed it to Phèdre. It was a slim envelope, sealed with the swan insignia of House Courcel. She cracked the wax seal and read the single sheet of parchment within. I watched the frown lines reemerge beween her graceful brows. “The Queen requires our presence in the City of Elua,” she said. “There is a situation.”
“What is it?” Joscelin asked brusquely.
Phèdre handed him the missive, but it was on me that her gaze settled, pitying and grave. “It is Melisande,” she said gently. “It seems she has vanished.”