Authors: Jennifer Fallon
The arrival of the King's Spymaster was an occasion of note at Lebec Prison although certainly not a welcome one. Although he had no authority here in Lebecâat least not officiallyâhe was the eyes and ears of the King of Glaeba and that made him a man to be cautious of.
Looking down over the grim prison courtyard from the window of his office, the Warden watched his visitor dismounting in the drizzling rain. He chewed on his bottom lip as he tried to fathom the meaning of this most disturbing turn of events.
Am I to be held personally responsible for a botched hanging?
He had expected his report about the failed hanging to cause problemsâan investigation, perhaps, maybe even a reprimand to keep the Caelish Ambassador happyâbut not this.
Not the King's Spymaster on his very doorstepâ¦
Is Hawkes here to demand my resignation? Or worse?
Sweat beaded the Warden's brow. He'd heard rumours of men who'd never been seen again after crossing the King's Spymaster. Just as he'd heard the other, even more disturbing rumours about this common-born son of a whore who'd been appointed spymaster five years agoâat barely twenty-fiveâwhen the previous spymaster, Daly Bridgeman, retired. Everyone thought the king had taken leave of his senses when the announcement was made. Whatever his origins, however he had managed to get himself appointed spymaster, nobody doubted Declan Hawkes's ability to do what was required of him, ruthlessly, efficiently and without any qualms about removing anything or anybody he considered a threat to Glaeba's sovereignty.
The spymaster disappeared from view as he entered the building. Turning away from the rain-misted window, the Warden forced the last of his tea past the lump in his throat, put down the cup with a betraying rattle of china and glanced around his office one last time, just to make certain there was nothing there that might catch the spymaster's eye. The Warden had no idea what might catch the eye of a man like Hawkes, but that was one of the things that made him so dangerous. You just never knew what he was really after.
Although he was expecting it, the knock on his doorâwhen it finally came a few minutes laterâmade him jump. He sat down and then abruptly stood up again, deciding to meet the man eye to eye, rather than be forced to look up at him. Even before he called permission to enter, the door began to open. The Warden had to force himself to resist the urge to mop the nervous sweat from his brow.
“Master Hawkes! What an unexpected pleasure!”
The spymaster eyed him curiously as he closed the door behind him. “I sent a message two days ago saying I was coming to Lebec, Warden. Didn't you receive it?”
Declan Hawkes proved to be even more daunting in person than his reputation suggested. He was taller than the Warden by almost a head, and his damp hair was dark, as were his eyesâ¦eyes that seemed to take in everything with a single glance.
“Well, yesâ¦of courseâ¦”
Hawkes shook off his rain-splattered oilskin cape, shaking the raindrops onto the Warden's rug with little care for the damage he might be doing. “Then my arrival is hardly unexpected, is it?”
The Warden didn't know how to respond and Hawkesâcurse his common-born hideâseemed happy to let the silence drag on for an uncomfortable length of time, waiting for a response.
The Warden cracked first. “Erâ¦won't you have a seat, Master Hawkes?”
Afraid his knees might give way, the Warden sat himself down abruptly as Hawkes lowered his tall frame into the chair opposite the remarkably bare desk. The Warden had been here half the night making sure there wasn't so much as a scrap of paper on the battered leather surface that Hawkes could catch a glimpse of.
“Iâ¦erâ¦I take it you're here about the hanging?”
“And to think, there's a rumour getting about Herino that you're not very bright,” Hawkes replied.
The Warden's eyes narrowed. He might have to put up with the King's Spymaster, but he didn't have to sit here and be insulted by him.
“What do you want, Hawkes? I'm a busy man,” he demanded, dropping all pretence of cordiality.
Hawkes's dark eyes raked the empty desk and then he smiled. “Yes, I can see that. Why did you try to hang him?”
“You tried hanging this prisoner. I was under the impression beheading was the normal method of execution in Lebec.”
“It is,” the Warden agreed. “But my executioner's mother died a couple of weeks back. He's gone back to Herino for her funeral and to sort out the family's affairs. As I didn't want to fall behind, I decided to proceed without him. Beheading is a fairly specialised skill, so we thought we'd hang the prisoners until he got back.”
“You'll want to interview the prisoner, I suppose?” the Warden asked.
“Why eventually? Surely your first task is to find out how Lakesh managed such a trick?”
“After I've eliminated the possibility that it wasn't a trick.”
The Warden smiled at the spymaster with all the condescension he could muster. “Just because you grew up in the slums with the Crasii, Master Hawkes, doesn't mean you have to believe everything you heard down there, you know.”
Declan Hawkes didn't even seem to notice the Warden was insulting him. “I was referring to the possibility that one of your men was bought off by this Caelishman to botch the job, affording him a chance at a second trial.”
“You think he won't get a second trial?”
“I think no man of mine could be corrupted in such a manner.”
“You're probably right,” Hawkes agreed with a perfectly straight face. “I'm sure the professions of hangman and prison guard attract only the most righteous and upstanding sort of characters.”
The Warden bristled at the spymaster's implication. “Even if my men
be corrupted, they'd never allow themselves to be suborned by a Caelishman.”
“You only hire patriots, too, I see.”
This was getting too much. “I don't have to sit here and put up with this!”
“You're right, Warden, you don't,” Hawkes agreed. “So why don't I wait here while you toddle off and find the hangman for me. I'll interview him first. Then I'll talk to the other guards in attendance at the hanging, the prison clerk and the guards Lakesh was dealing with on a daily basis prior to his miraculous escape from certain death.”
“What about the prisoner? I would have thought the logical thing to do would be to speak to him first.”
“Did you?” Hawkes let the question hang, as if he was waiting for the Warden to justify his position.
The Warden pretended not to notice. “I
arrange for you to speak with him first.”
“Given the injuries you claim he sustained in your report, I doubt he's capable of speaking.”
For the first time, Hawkes actually looked surprised. “Recovered how?”
“Other than a few fading bruises,” he replied with a shrug, “the man is completely healed. In fact, by the following morning, he was fine.”
Hawkes leaned forward in his chair, a gesture he managed to make threatening without any effort at all. The Warden wished he knew how Hawkes did that. Given the calibre of the people a man in his position was forced to deal with on a daily basis, it would have been a useful trick to know.
“You failed to mention this extraordinary recovery in your report.”
“I didn't think it was important.”
Hawkes was silent for a disturbingly long time before he replied. “Perhaps I will speak to the prisoner first, after all.”
The Warden smiled in triumph. It was a small but significant victory.
“I'll have you taken to him,” the Warden offered.
And you can damn well interrogate him there,
he added silently. If the King's Spymaster thought he could just march in here and take over his office without so much as a by-your-leave, he had another thing coming.
Disappointingly, Hawkes rose to his feet, as if he didn't even notice the Warden had won this small but significant battle of wills. “I want to see him now.”
“Of course,” the Warden agreed, ringing the small bell on his desk as he rose to his feet.
A moment later the door opened. The guard looked at the Warden questioningly. “Sir?”
“Escort Master Hawkes to the Row. He wants to speak to Kyle Lakesh.”
“Thank you, Warden,” Hawkes replied, heading for the door.
The Warden couldn't resist one last dig. “When you're done with him, perhaps you'd like to join me for tea?”
Hawkes stared at him for a moment and then, inexplicably, he smiled. “For
“It's a civilised custom, among men of breeding,” he pointed out, with only the slightest emphasis on the word
Hawkes bowed with a surprising amount of grace for one born so low. “Thank you, Warden, but I fear I'll have to decline yourâ¦
offer. Once I'm done with this investigation I was planning to catch up with a few old friends while I'm here.”
The Warden smiled. “Then far be it for me to keep you from your boyhood playmates, Master Hawkes. Of course, if you'd like to give me their names, I can check our register. I imagine a great many of your childhood friends finished up incarcerated in here for one crime or another.”
Too lowborn to realise he was being insulted, Hawkes looked amused. “That might well be the case, Warden. Perhaps I should give you their names. There was one girl I was particularly close to when we were childrenâ¦what was her name? Ah, that's right. Arkady Morel. She's married now. Did quite well for herself, they say. Perhaps you know of her?”
His minor victory over this insufferable man suddenly tasted like ashes in his mouth. The Warden paled. “Yes, of course I know of her.”
“Excellent! Then when I'm done here, I'll give you the names of my other friends and you can send word if you find them. I'll be staying at Lebec Palace. With my old friend. Arkady.”
Hawkes let himself out of the office, leaving the rest of it unsaid.
The Warden slumped down into his seat. Everybody in Lebec knew who Arkady Morel was. Tides, everybody in Glaeba knew it.
Only she wasn't Arkady Morel any longer. These days she was Lady Arkady Desean.
The Duchess of Lebec.
Dinner at Lebec Palace was always an occasion; the exquisite decor, the mouth-watering menu, the faultless service, the sparkling company and the manifest liesâall of it unparalleled in any other stately home in the whole of Glaeba.
The hostess, Lady Desean, the Duchess of LebecâArkady to her closest friends, Doctor Desean to her colleagues at the universityâpresided over the dinner party with the ease and polish of long experience. With her high Glaeban cheekbones, rich dark hair and rare, sapphire-blue eyes, she was the jewel in Lebec's crown, her husband's prize trophy. It was an act, albeit a very good one. The Ice Duchess they called her. Arkady knew that, and didn't care. She was very good at ignoring snide remarks and envious glances.
High society in Glaeba was no place for the faint-hearted.
The twenty diners who had gathered here in the long, high-ceilinged dining room this evening were Stellan's friends, not hers, if “friends” was even the right word. Acquaintances, some of them; business and diplomatic associates, a few more. Others were here because they sought the Duke of Lebec's favour. One or two, like Etienne Sorell, the poet sitting at the centre of the long tableâcharming the rings off old Lady Fardingerâwas here because he could be relied on to provide the riveting conversation for which the Duke of Lebec's dinner parties were so famous.
A few places to Etienne's right sat another regular guest: Lady Tilly Ponting, self-appointed clairvoyant to the rich and famous of Lebec. Larger than life, the Widow Ponting had a taste for bright, outrageous colours and was always good for a laugh. Rich enough to be considered eccentric rather than crazy, she was the sort of person who could fill an awkward silence with something inane and harmless. It made her priceless at a gathering such as this. She'd dyed her hair purple since they'd seen her last, too, and she'd offered to read everyone's Tarot after dessert, which should keep the political discussions to a minimumâa brilliant idea given the volatility of Glaeban politics lately.
Other guests, like the man sitting on Stellan's rightâflirting across the table with her husband's niece, Kylia Debrellâwere here for their own reasons and far more dangerous than Tilly. Arkady eyed him thoughtfully, while nodding absently in agreement with the woman on her right who was expounding loudly about the dire increase in the number of feral Crasii these days and how someone should do something about them. She sipped her wine and studied the young man through the forest of crystal and silverware separating the head from the foot of the table. Her husband's dinner companion must have felt her gaze on him. He glanced up, raised his glass mockingly in her direction, and then returned his attention to Lady Debrell.
Arkady frowned. Jaxyn Aranville. Lebec's Kennel Master. Distant cousin to the Earl of Darra. Scoundrel. Gambler. Troublemaker. Darkly handsome and arrogantly aware of the fact. And Stellan's lover, which made it impossible to be rid of him.
It couldn't last, Arkady knew. They never did. In that, she genuinely felt sorry for her husband. He was a gentle, forgiving man, but he was never going to be content because the one thing he wanted, he could never have.
But he kept looking. In all the wrong people, to Arkady's mind.
Jaxyn was toying with him, Arkady suspected. Young Lord Aranville's most recent lover before Stellan, if one believed the gossips, was a woman more than ten years his senior. If the looks he was giving Kylia Debrell were anything to go by, his next after Stellan Desean might well be a seventeen-year-old virgin. Not that her husband's niece was objecting to his attention, Arkady noted darkly. Perhaps it had been a mistake to seat them so close, although she'd had little option in the matter given Kylia was Stellan's heir, which meant protocol demanded she be seated at her uncle's right hand. This dinner was supposedly in Kylia's honour. The unexpected arrival of Stellan's niece several days ago called for nothing less than a full state dinner to introduce her to society. Still, Arkady had thought a frivolous girl would offer no attraction to a man like Jaxyn Aranville.
Then again, perhaps he'd guessed Arkady's intentions and was flirting with the girl for exactly that reason.
Jaxyn Aranville did things like that. It was how he amused himself.
“Don't you agree, your grace?”
Arkady felt, rather than heard, distant thunder rumbling in the backgroundâthe remnant of another spring thunderstormâas she returned her attention to the man on her left. He was a balding man in his late fifties, one of the few people around this table Arkady considered
friend rather than Stellan's. An academic like herself, he was also working to uncover the lost history of Amyrantha, a thankless task that saw them scorned, as often as not, for their efforts. People didn't want to know what lay in the past. Only what the future held.
It's what made Tilly Ponting and her wretched Tarot cards so damned popular at parties.
“Forgive me, Andre. I'm afraid I was miles away.”
“Doctor Fawk was just telling us we should pity the un-indentured Crasii,” Lady Jimison informed her through a mouthful of truffles, sounding quite scandalised by the notion. “I mean, have you been through the slums lately? The city outskirts are fairly crawling with the miserable, fleabitten creatures. They live like animals, copulate anywhere they please, treat the streets like a public toilet. They're disgusting. I say they should all be rounded up and put down.”
“A little drastic, don't you think?” Arkady asked, trying to imagine Lady Jimison ever sullying her dainty satin slippers in the muddy streets of the Lebec City slums. “The Crasii living in our city slumsâand every other city in Glaebaâare desperately poor, have no income, no accommodation or any of the other basic living requirements that indentured Crasii enjoy as a matter of course. They have almost no prospects for employment, and consequently, precious little hope. I know these people, my lady. They deserve our pity, not our enmity.”
Lady Jimison frowned, but whether at her hostess's radical suggestion, or the unsubtle reminder of her common-born background, Arkady couldn't really be sure. She took a perverse pleasure in reminding snobs like Lady Jimison that her duchess had started life in those slums she so despised. And it certainly wasn't fashionable to pity the Crasii. Hadn't been fashionable for quite some time. Not since Harlie Palmerston published his
Theory of Human Advancement
about ten years ago, theorising that the Crasii were a failed offshoot of humanity and living proof of his conjecture that the human race had reached the top of the food chain because of its superior intelligence.
Given the only other explanation about the existence of the Crasii until that point had been the quaint notion that the mythical Tide Lords had blended human and beast magically, to create a slave race to serve them, Palmerston's theory had been welcomed with open arms by the scientific community of Glaeba. If the Ambassador of Caelumâwho sat between Kylia and Etienneâwas to be believed, the theory was well on its way to becoming accepted globally as the first logical and unified theory of human evolution. Of course, the science behind the theory meant little to the Lady Jimisons of this world. Bigots like her were just looking for an excuse to hate the Crasii.
“Frankly, my dear, I think if you spent a little more time being a wife, and a little less time doling out free meals to those mangy beasts in the slums, you'd gain a much better perspective on the matter of the lower races and the proper way to deal with them.”
Lady Jimison's voice was shrill and her comment fell into a momentary lull in the conversation. It was followed by a long awkward silence.
Stellan came to Arkady's rescue. The duke smiled and leaned back in his seat, sipping his wine as he surveyed his guests. “I think my wife's efforts to help those less fortunate than us should be applauded, Lady Jimison. She sets an example we should all aspire to follow, don't you agree?”
Lady Jimison might be a bigot, but she wasn't a fool. She barely even hesitated before nodding apologetically in Arkady's direction and then smiling at Stellan. “Please, your grace, I meant no insult to your lovely wife. You're right of course. She is an example to us all.”
“Well said!” the Caelish Ambassador agreed, his face flushed with a little too much wine for a diplomat to consume wisely. “But aren't you afraid of catching something in the slums, my lady? I mean, they're pitiable creatures to be sure, and they're not veryâ¦clean.”
“Oh, the duchess has lots of experience in the slums,” Jaxyn answered cheerfully before anybody else could say a word. “She's not afraid of catching anything. Besides, Arkady's not really interested in the Crasii, are you, your grace? She just likes to dig up dirty little secrets about the long-lost Tide Lords, and apparently the Crasii know more about them than the rest of us.”
“The Tide Lords? How quaint,” the ambassador remarked. “Have you discovered anything interesting?”
“Like many others in my field. I'm working on the complete history of Glaeba,” Arkady explained, silently wishing there was a way to have Jaxyn's drink laced with some terrible poison so she could watch him die a horrible, ugly death in front of the entire dinner party. “Not the Tide Lords, specifically.”
“Like a growing number of our colleagues, Ambassador, we believe the Cataclysm that laid waste to the lost nations of Kordia and Fyrenne were not accidental,” Andre clarified, coming to her defence. “The destruction seems far too specific to have been an accident of nature. Given the long oral history the Crasii have and that it predates our own written history by several thousand years, our hope is there is a clue to what really happened buried somewhere in their lore.”
“But your theory is rather controversial, isn't it?” another voice added. “I mean, there's no real proof Kordia ever actually existed, is there?”
Arkady looked down the table to see who had spoken and sighed. Joal Dekerman. An old friend of Stellan's. One of the Herino Dekermans; moneyed, bored and jaded. He'd moved to Lebec with his equally bored and jaded wife about eighteen months ago to take up the role of Prefect. It was an honorary title. The Duke of Lebec was the real power in this prefecture and everyone knew it. But as the official representative of the crown, the title gave Dekerman social standing and the right to be heard, even if nobody was particularly interested in what he had to say.
“The idea that some almighty power brought down an apocalypse on Amyrantha,” the Prefect sniffed, “is not only mildly offensive, it's absurd.”
“But if we're right, someday we might be able to determine what really happened during the Cataclysm,” Andre Fawk pointed out. “We may even be able to prevent it happening again.”
Joal Dekerman studied Arkady curiously for a moment and then asked, “Do you think it was the Tide Lords?”
Arkady couldn't help but smile. “I deal in facts, Prefect Dekerman, not flights of fancy.”
He smiled and raised his glass in her direction. “Then perhaps I have misjudged you, your grace. Please, forgive my ignorance.”
In the brief silence that followed Dekerman's apology, Tilly Ponting clapped her hands loudly and announced, “Well, darlingsâ¦I can't tell if the Tide Lords caused the Cataclysm, and I can't tell a Crasii from a Scard, but I can certainly tell you what the future holds! Who's for having their Tarot read?”
With a relieved laugh, half a dozen of the diners indicated their willingness to have Tilly tell their fortunes and the conversation moved to much less dangerous ground as the more enthusiastic guests rose to their feet.
Arkady thought, idly moving her truffles and the rich cream in which they were smothered around her plate without actually eating them. She wasn't fond of truffles but they were a delicacy and expensive so, of course, they were a must for any meal served in the palace.
You're worth every one of those diamonds you're wearing.
This was the reasonâpurple hair and allâthat Tilly Ponting graced so many tables in Lebec Palace. She could always be relied upon to shift the discussion back to something inoffensive.
At the other end of the table, Stellan smiled at her before turning back to his discussion with Jaxyn Aranville, who was looking decidedly smug. Arkady felt an unreasonable surge of hatred for the young man and the danger he represented, knowing full well there was nothing she could do about it.
But for the time being, the danger was past and Arkady was able to resume her perfectly proper smile as she presided over her perfect table, in her perfect palace with her perfect husband smiling at her fondly. She was the envy of every woman present, she knew, because the Duchess of Lebecâto outsiders at leastâappeared to have a perfectly wonderful life.
A little later, when everybody had moved into the library to allow Tilly her chance to play fortune teller, Arkady followed her guests, having ordered supper to be served in another hour. She took a seat by the window and watched the fun. Surrounded by her admiring audience, Tilly was breathlessly informing a totally credulous Kylia Debrell that she would definitely marry a tall, dark and handsome stranger whom she would meet some time in the next five years.
There's a safe prediction,
given Kylia will undoubtedly be married off to some Glaeban lordling by the time she's eighteen.
“I'm sorry about what Jaxyn said at dinner.”
Arkady glanced over her shoulder to find her husband had come up behind her. Stellan Desean was only a little taller than Arkady, but he was a trim, attractive man, his caramel-coloured skin and dark, Glaeban eyes typical of his race and his class. They were a handsome people, the Glaebans; cultured, civilised, advancedâ¦Not like the Caelum with their fondness for blood sports, or the Torlenians with their rigid morals, or even the Senestrans with their secretive religious rites. Arkady had only met a few people from places farther afield, so she couldn't comment on their character, but she knew her own people well enough. Stellan was one of their scions; the Deseans one of the True Families. His bloodline was precious.