I strip out of my leather jacket and tug the shamshir from its scabbard, gripping tight to strangle the mutinous trembling out of my fingers. Other than sparring with Raz, this is the first real bout I’ve had in years, and I don’t even know the stakes. Not to the death — at least, I can’t imagine so — but as I step forward, blade at the ready, it occurs to me that no one’s actually explicitly said as much.
The crash of an enormous gong makes the air shiver like thunder, and the tall man across the chasm from me hops forward onto the pillar top nearest him. I do the same and land awkwardly, wobbling as I adjust to the stone upthrust’s surface. What I’d taken to be flat tops aren’t perfectly smooth; some are textured, tilted, or even pointed in the middle, as if designed to deliberately trick combatants into losing their footing.
“Lovely,” I grumble, trying to avoid eye contact with the creek that’s just just a hair far below me for comfort. All these stone pillars are practically begging me to concuss myself if I fall.
Mav hisses with worry as I stumble, but then I hear him clapping and shouting encouragement behind me as I find my balance. The dead silence from Raz is more worrisome, but I swear I can feel his eyes boring into me, urging me to recover.
My opponent’s already grabbed one of the chains dangling from the iron grid and he swings forward to meet me, catching me back on my heels. I awkwardly lurch out of the way and sprawl to a nearby pillar, nearly losing the shamshir as I try to heave my splaying limbs back upright.
Just as the lanky man closes in for a second time, I’m able to grab a chain, swinging out of his reach with a heartbeat to spare.
My enemy’s hard on my heels at first, but terror urges me away like a spooked rabbit, widening the distance between us as I try to sort out my whirling thoughts. I need to knock the man off his pillar into the swiftly coursing water below without letting him herd me into a space where the pillars are further apart. His spindly legs can outstretch mine even on my tallest day, and the chains overhead thin out in places, too.
Some of my adversary’s cronies start jeering at me for staying out of reach, sussing things out and moving without striking. I can’t spare focus for much besides my opponent and my balance, but I get the sense Mav is yelling his own insults back, and my opponent’s scarred face curls in a sneer as he puts on a fresh burst of speed.
But it’s all right — I’ve got the knack of this game now, and I understand how each of the pieces are capable of moving. I can see the arena’s pitfalls, and I’m clearheaded enough to see that the man opposite me is tiring. He may be more spindly than hulking, but the effort of holding his body aloft for so long is draining him.
He’s getting aggressive. Sloppy.
Then comes the moment I’ve been longing for — the crux moment that Raz somehow knew would come. The solution emerges from the chaos of a hundred split-second decisions like a trail of fire blazing through the cerulean-cast shadows.
I slash hard at the grey-stubbled thief, and catch him by surprise. The man reels — not enough to knock him off his feet, but enough to buy the few precious moments I need. Mav yells something about a follow-up blow, but I’m already running in the opposite direction, sprinting from pillar top to pillar top over the water toward the cavern’s hewn-rock side.
I hear my opponent recover and come charging after me. Perfect. The breath burns in my chest and suddenly the wall is there before me and I have one chance to pull off the impossible.
I grab a chain and swing out hard toward the wall, the shamshir held out to one side as I support my entire weight on my left hand. The pockmarked stone rises up eagerly beneath my feet — and I regrip, leaping higher on the chain as I rebound, twisting back toward the primal arena.
My oncoming adversary is holding his weapon wrong, thinking me cornered and trying to escape. He’s so unprepared for my sudden reversal of direction that there’s no time for him to compensate.
I kick the man’s blade aside and slam into him with my full weight — and without any chain or rock to catch himself on, he plunges down between the pillars and into the water beneath.
A roar of laughter shakes the cavern, coming from everywhere at once as the gong booms again.
I clumsily untangle myself from the chain and drop back to a pillar near me, then hop across to the flat ground on the other side of the arena. Just in time, too; moments after I land, Mav’s arms are wrapping around me in a bone-crushing hug.
“I knew you could do it!” he shouts in my ear, thumping my back hard enough to rattle my bones. “Dead clever of you to run him down like that…”
“But I didn’t really fight him,” I pant, my hands trembling like aspen leaves now that it’s all over.
“Fighting’s risky. Being sneaky, using what advantages you have … that’s always better.”
We break apart, and Raz is standing there behind Mav — reserved, and still a little rankled, but proud, too.
He dips his head in a curt nod.
“Well done,” Raz says, and that’s enough.
I nod back, still breathless with triumph, and the three of us turn and head across the pillar-bristled water to meet the waiting thieves.
The man I sent hurtling into the drink chuckles goodnaturedly as he heaves himself up a metal ladder on the far escarpment. The water’s warm — or warm enough, the same as that pond in the forest with the water lilies. We energetically shake hands as I help him up the final step, and suddenly I’m among friends.
“You’re now entitled to call yourself a member of the Thieves Guild,” the willowy man tells me as he shakes water out of his ear, “though I wouldn’t advise you to go around shouting about it.”
He explains how to undo the puzzle lock outside the hollow mausoleum, and I mutter to myself, nodding my thanks as I try to memorize the pattern. Not that I’ll really need it ever again.
“Come back anytime for odd jobs, information, or trade,” my former opponent adds, “but don’t tell anyone else how to get in, or we’ll disembowel you.”
The man smiles cheerily, but I know he’s completely serious.
Mav slings his arm around my shoulders and ushers me through another low tunnel, and we round a corner into a space larger even than Triptyllach Castle’s grand ballroom. The rushing creek feeds a tremendous basin covered with all sorts of motley watercraft, the vessels tightly rigged around a jigsaw assortment of dock floats.
Everywhere I turn my gaze it's greeted by contortionists, fire-spinners, and jugglers, and the smoke of a hundred exotic things on cook-fires makes my stomach snarl with longing. Prodigious seated stone figures line the walls, looming over the smoke-veiled cavern, and I can’t find even the hint of a ceiling among the nighted black overhead.
“Where are we?” I ask, awed.
“Under Koregon. Inside it, really.” Mav’s pale eyes shine with excitement. “Welcome to undiscovered territory.”
“But...” I wave my hand feebly at all the people bustling throughout the floating mini-metropolis. “I mean, it exists, that’s not exactly what I’d call undiscovered.”
Mav shakes his head, more delighted than ever. “Yet you’ll never find it on any official map. The Night Fair was here long before any government, and the kingdoms don’t disturb things because they each get their cut. As I said, undiscovered.” He grins mischievously. “So much the better for scurrilous folk such as we.”
Raz has fallen back to talk to one of the hazing crew, so Mav and I meander along the edge of the rock shoreline as we wait for him. Even though he’s probably seen this same view plenty of times before, Mav gazes out at the festive circumstances with that childlike elation I’m coming to associate with him.
“Isn’t the big world fun?” he marvels, swiveling to look at me.
I raise an eyebrow at him. “In the past few days I’ve almost died jumping off a castle wall into a tree, getting trapped by cannibals, getting run down when sentries nearly found us, a couple times in Riverfall — including when Raz convinced me to jump out of a tower and off a godsdamn cliff.” I shake my head ruefully as I add in all the hours of silently marching from one far-off place to another. “Fun isn’t exactly the word I’d use.”
“Oh, come now,” Mav chides winsomely. “Exciting, then.”
“Fine,” I admit, letting the grin steal across my face. “Technically I suppose you’re right.” My cheeks hurt from how much I’ve smiled since meeting Mav, but it’s impossible not to get caught up in his enthusiastic spirit.
“These are strange and exciting times,” Mav murmurs as he turns to look out over the cavern again. The flickering lights of a hundred torches play pleasantly over his features, and the puckered line of his scarred jaw seems more pronounced than ever. “Strange times to be on strange frontiers.”
Mav makes his way around Koregon so effortlessly that it’s been easy to forget he said he and Raz grew up together. We’ve been on the move since we met, without much real time for proper conversation — or manners on my part, it seems. “So you’re from the Eastern Steppe, too?”
“Reformed farmboy, yes ma'am,” Mav offers with an airy salute and an unfamiliar drawl.
“Seem to be a lot of those knocking about.”
Mav’s brow furrows. “Raz? I don’t really think of him as a farmer.” As he gazes into the flickering lights of the cavern, his voice tightens oddly. “He’s rather too commanding for an agrarian life, don’t you think?”
“He told me about the war,” I offer cautiously. Is that what he’s hinting at? “Uh, a little, anyway.”
Mav’s pale eyes widen. “Did he, now.”
My heart shudders. Part of me had been expecting Mav to say that Raz was unhinged, but this serious way he’s regarding me speaks volumes. “That really happened?”
He nods. “He doesn’t talk about what happened to him very much, but if—”
Mav abruptly falls silent, smiling tightly as he catches sight of something over my shoulder. A moment later Raz is standing between us — and though he doesn’t seem to have heard what we were on the verge of saying, I doubt he’d let it show if he had.
“Let’s go,” Raz says curtly, and Mav and I fall in line behind him.
The Paharan men and I hurry across the labyrinth of wooden floats, some sections of the cobbled-together barges infinitely more stable than others. I try to keep half an eye on Raz and Mav so we don’t get separated, but it’s in vain; my gaze flits throughout my fantastical surroundings like an uncaged sparrow.
I’ve only ever seen wan attempts at this sort of chaotic revelry — a few masquerades when I was the countess’s stepdaughter, stolen glimpses of the same in the years after that. Here it’s real, though, not some cheap entertainment for a few short-lived hours of aristocratic thrills.
These acrobats know precisely what they’re doing as they cavort among pedestrians and along slack lines overhead, brushing past with only the faintest whisper of a breeze to evince their presence. I’m glad I thought to hide my purloined money in my boot, because more than once I feel the gentle pressure of unfamiliar fingers probing the inner pocket of my jacket.
Raz and Mav wordlessly stop beside an elegant junker of a sailboat, tendrils of glowing wrack woven brokenly through its mooring lines. I lurk behind them, only too happy to observe in this alien world,
A little girl of maybe nine or ten sits cross-legged on one of the vessel’s faded red bulwarks, whittling with a ludicrously large knife. Her head pops up as Mav gives a trilling whistle. “Mav!”
The girl drops her knife and wood block as Mav climbs aboard to give her a full on-hug, squealing as he picks her up and spins her around. That doesn’t surprise me at all — it’s easy to imagine Mav being at home even among hordes of children — but then she gives Raz a shy hug, too, and I’m stunned to see him smile as he returns the gesture. The genuine emotion is haunting on his bleak features.
“’Lo,” she replies with a bashful smile.
A man’s voice echoes up out of the junker’s central hatch. “Come on down, boys, don’t be shy.”
Mav turns back to me and jerks his head, grinning. I hurry up the short gangway after them, waving a bashful greeting to Chickeree as I follow the two men.
The ship’s exterior is all paneled wood, but as we descend into the belly of the compact sailboat we’re immersed in a gleaming world of brass and glass. I can’t help but murmur admiringly at the sight of the cramped workshop — it’s like Mr. Soames’ alarums and contraptions, or Father’s sparring dummies, only so much more … whirring, clicking devices in every stage of construction, crystal spiders crawling across the mahogany desk as other things I can’t name whir lopsidedly through the air like demented hummingbirds.
Ticking rises from a symphony of sources like the chattering of forest insects during high summer. A row of masks line the wall like sleeping faces of riveted metal, and I momentarily wonder if the eyelids will flip open to reveal staring bronze irises.
A stocky man with grey-streaked hair is planted behind the desk, ringmaster of this circus, metal bits strewn before him like tombstones in the graveyard lost far overhead. A chalkboard looms over the fireplace behind him like a parlor looking-glass, covered in spidery notations and sketches. The man’s face is obscured by a pair of glasses with multiple layers of spectacles, the rims stacked like cards in a deck — but he sets them aside as we approach.
“Rook, this is Khthonia Fern,” Mav tells him. “Khthonia, Rook Chyne, a man who knows all things worth knowing."
“Little bird told me you were coming,” Rook says in a low, gravelly rumble. His hands are immense, and covered with equally immense callouses. Shaking hands with him is like clasping forearms with a massive, gnarled tree, and I’m doubly amazed at the delicacy of his contraptions.
Rook’s grey eyes find Raz from beneath caterpillar eyebrows. “Hear I shouldn’t be talking to you.”
“Only if you don’t fancy dealing with lawbreakers,” Raz returns quietly.
Rook’s sharp eyes flick between Raz and Mav like he’s studying them before his gaze alights on me. He nods, indicating the Paharan men. “These two I can understand. It’s how you’re mixed in that I don’t quite see.”
“Oh, I’m the worst of the lot,” I tell him gravely, smiling so he knows I’m kidding. “No one really knows who I am — not even me.”
It’s only a bit of foolishness, but Rook nods.
“That’s a dangerous thing, indeed,” he says softly, and I know he isn’t just humoring me. Then he turns his attention back to Raz. “If you’ve shown up empty-handed, I’ll have to count that as a first.”
Raz produces the crystal-and-metal flower from his rucksack and hands it to Rook, who dons his spectacles and examines the thing. The older man’s so instantly engrossed that he picks up a tool from his desk without even looking, muttering to himself as he prods the flower.
“Careful,” Raz warns. “I got a nasty shock off it a few days ago.”
My nose wrinkles painfully. A shock? What the hells is he talking about?
“Were you playing around with it in water?” Rook grunts.
Raz’s eyes find mine, and I know what he’s thinking because his fingers ever-so-slightly flex at the memory. He means that thing that happened in the river, when it buzzed for a moment, and he almost dropped it. “Not playing.”
The older man chuckles quietly. “Well, there ya have it.”
I’m completely baffled, but I can ask about it later. I don’t want to interrupt.
Rook fiddles with something on the side of the device, and all four of us jump in fright as a woman’s tinny voice shrieks to life, cutting through the sailboat workshop’s ticking pandemonium.
“Test, one, two,” the sibilant voice rasps through a rushing sound, like a flood-risen river. “Test, one, two.”
Then the noise falls silent.
The old mechanic prod the thing into speaking again, coaxing the words to life twice more before he removes his spectacles and sits back. The noise is eerily enchanting, and all my hair stands on end each time I hear it.
“So it’s … like your thing, Raz,” I venture carefully in the tense silence that follows Rook’s investigation. “The whispering box.”
To my surprise Rook glares — and it’s not at me but Raz, whose face reddens as he slumps in his chair.
“Don’t tell me you built another one,” Rook sighs, gnarled fingers rubbing his face as though utterly exhausted. “You and the godsdamn radio, kid—”
“How am I supposed to listen for troop movements without ears?” Raz demands, clearly on the defensive. “What’s the alternative, Rook, sit back and wait for things to happen?”
“That’s what most of us have to do, like it or not.” Rook beckons to Raz, who grudgingly retrieves the riveted wooden box from his rucksack, surrendering it to the older man’s scrutiny.
Rook resettles his stacked spectacles on the bridge of his nose and twiddles a few of the lenses, inspecting the box and its glass-covered dials
“I’m sorry, Raz,” I mumble, almost writhing with awkwardness of having gotten him in trouble.
He shakes his head, exhausted. “Not your fault.”
“It’s really—” I fumble for a word to describe it, settling on the underwhelmingly inarticulate: “—amazing.”
Rook chuffs with quiet laughter. “That’s a helluva way to describe something that could get you killed.”
“This tech’s illegal here in the four kingdoms,” Rook tells me as he hands the box back to Raz. “Might be able to sneak it by some of the local constabulary, but any royal guard worth his mettle’s gonna detain you, and then send a report about what he found to his superior. And him to his superior, so on and so forth. Eventually news of that harmless-looking thing you’re carrying’s gonna get to a person who truly understands what it is, what it does — and then you’re really in trouble.”
Outrage burns in my chest. “For what? Listening to barbarians talking into thin air?”
The three men exchange a strange look.
“What aren’t you telling me?” I demand as the hairs on the nape of my neck thrill with warning.
Mav shoots his Raz a genuine glare, the first I’ve seen. “You absolute git, you dragged her into this without explaining anything?”
“She ran off on her own!” Raz tries to dodge the punch Mav aims at his shoulder, but the pale-eyed man is too quick. “And I was waiting for the right opportunity!”
“Right opportunity for what?” I hiss, not sure whether to be furious or terrified out of my mind. “What haven’t you told me?”
“Let me,” Rook interjects, and the Paharan men settle back, glowering at each other like sullen children.
The old man replaces his spectacles on the desk with a shaky hand, and glances toward the trapdoor leading upward. He whistles — a peculiar, trilling pattern — and a moment later the tension in his sturdy frame eases as an answering whistle sounds from overhead, and the trapdoor thuds shut.
Ah. Chickeree — she’s his lookout.
Rook turns in his chair, reaching for a slender bundle of dowels that hang from the top of the chalkboard behind him, beneath a thick roll of layered parchments. It takes him a moment’s fumbling to find the one he’s looking for, but then he draws down a map, unfurling it like one of Countess Myre’s governesses.
I squint at the map until I recognize it from tonight’s wanderings. “It’s Koregon — the upper part of the island, anyway.”
“Very good.” Rook reaches up again and pulls down a second dowel, revealing an even more familiar map.
I shrug, bemused. Does he think I’m touched in the head? “Char. The four kingdoms. So?”
“Vana, Khet, Pahara, and Samunder,” Rook agrees, pointing out each one with a crooked forefinger. He traces the hatchmarked, barren region that marks everything past the Barrier Mountains. “And these?”
“The Wastes.” I scowl at Raz. “Sorry — did we come here for a geography lesson?”
“The Wastes. Home to barbarian hordes.” Rook reaches up again and finds a third dowl, one that’s tucked so far up under the others that he struggles to even extract it. He hesitates a moment, his gaze meeting mine. “What I’m about to show you could cost all of us our lives. Do you understand that?”
I nod — but his countenance darkens, and he jerks his chin toward the deck overhead, his voice stern with anger.
“I’m serious. That little girl up there, her life depends on you never betraying us for what I’m about to show you. Do you swear?”
“Rook, she understands,” Raz puts in gruffly. “I know Khthonia well enough… Even if I messed things up, I know she’s ready to hear the truth.”
He glances at me, and as his shadow-dark eyes find mine, there’s so much sorrow buried within that everything inside me aches.
Mav’s tone must defuse Rook, because he nods now, his movement stuttering with the force of his emotions, and draws down the third piece of parchment.
That it’s a map is clear from the illustration’s similarity to the previous two things Rook’s shown me — but the picture is so nonsensical that my mind can’t make sense of it.
Instead of four kingdoms clustered around a central sea, this shows several huge landmasses divided by a number of oceans.
What the hells is this?
“She really doesn’t know?” I hear Rook mutter.
“Give her a minute,” Raz answers softly. “She’ll work it out.”
Almost before the words are out of his mouth, I spot the cluster of etched lines in the upper left corner of the map. It’s the four kingdoms of Char— their same shape, anyway — but they’re so small, set into the side of one of the larger landmasses like a jeweled stud.
I hear myself gasping, but I can’t think through the sudden tattoo of my pulse in my ears.
Rook sweeps his hand over the territory to the right of everything I recognize, the land-that-shouldn’t-be. His fingertips hover over smaller blobs within the big one. “These are the other countries of our continent, Valukar: East and West Cerendin, Tescher Noa, Berynia, Ankarra, Hittarra, and so on and so forth...”
Breath comes only shallowly. The barbarians aren’t at the fringe of the world … we are.
“But the gatehouses,” I manage through lips as cold as frostbite.
Somewhere in the glittering menagerie beside me, the dark blob of Raz shakes his head. “They don’t keep anything out, Khthonia. They just keep us in.”
“I’m so sorry,” Mav says softly, but his words aren’t consolation enough. The crystalline flower is damning. Everything in me wants to deny it, but I know they’re telling the truth.
I know it because of Father. Because he was simply a gatehouse captain and then one day he wasn’t. He became King Johannes’s swordmaster so suddenly — why?
What did Father see?
I reach up over my shoulder and slowly tug my curved blade from its scabbard. Everything feels slow, like I’m swimming in honey — but the spark of worry in Rook’s grey eyes fades as I hold the sword out to him.
I stare at him. “Why don’t you need to use your … fiddly … glasses-thingey there?”
“Because that is a standard-issue weapon of the Hittarran Armed Forces,” Rook answers calmly. He rummages through a stack of books beside him and tugs one out of its place, opening it to a page that bears a perfect copy of my own weapon. “A cintarque.” He squints at the notes accompanying the sketch. “At least, I believe that’s the pronunciation.”
For some reason, that’s what hits me hardest of all this. Knowing that all those stories I’d dreamed up for so many years about the blade’s origins were childish nonsense, that the real answers had been so close but utterly beyond reach.
All my life … all of us. We’ve been lied to.
The voice that comes roiling out of my throat is an animal snarl: “How can people not know this?”
“They did, long ago. Then most chose to forget.” Raz’s voice is hollow, and he glares black fire at the floor of Rook’s workshop. “All it takes is a few generations to lose the truth.”
“N-No,” I spit angrily as I shove the scimitar — the cintarque — back into its scabbard. Now that the truth is bare before me, I don’t want to believe it. “No one could have the power to do this — t-to lie like that—”
“You know just as well as we who closed the borders hundreds of years ago,” Rook adds calmly.
I see her graven face in an instant — the paintings of her, the thousand shrines and offerings I’ve seen dedicated to her name. Her golden hair, her perfect beauty and perfect words. Her graceful hands uplifted as she turned the dead gyrfalcon into a living dove, working the resurrection miracle that united enemy armies.
Protector. Defender. Mother.
Aerona the Untarnished.
“Why?” I croak, overwhelmed by the enormity of what they’re telling me. “Why would she do that? What could she possibly have to gain?”
“Power,” Raz says, his voice clarion amid the soft ticking of Rook’s contraptions.
“But she was keeping us safe — all the st-stories—”
“She wrote her legacy in all of our blood,” Rook says, his powerful voice as shaky as I feel, “and the First Kings kept her secret, because it kept them powerful, just as their children lied because it kept them powerful in their time.”
Raz makes a noise of disgust, and Mav pats his shoulder reassuringly. At least I’m not the only one too bent about this to keep control of their emotions.
The sour tang of bile creeps across my tongue. “The secret’s too big — someone would know, would say something, even after she died. Four people couldn’t trick everyone in the four kingdoms like that, pretending an entire world wasn’t out there.”
“The royals didn’t need to trick everyone, just enough people to help,” Mav says with a grim smile. “Plenty in this world would sell their soul for a nicer life than their neighbor’s. Information is power, Khthonia, and power grants the ability to control the information. It’s a bloody circle — and she knew that.”
My head twitches to and fro in instinctive revulsion. “Someone would rebel … they’d come to their senses … It’s been four centuries, someone must’ve—”
“Who would you believe — four centuries of kings or the word of a traitor?” Raz asks with a grim smile. “If you’re a traitor, Khthonia, no one owes you a trial. No one even calls it murder when they kill you.”
My gorge heaves sickeningly. Traitors… I haven’t heard of it happening often, but it’s a given fact that swift execution is the only recourse for such a betrayal. It’s what I’ve been terrified of ever since the night I attacked Daschen, when I left the castle — even if I haven’t been brave enough to name it to myself until now.
The few incidents I remember involving traitors swirl through my howling thoughts. A would-be assassin when Daschen and his brother, Prince Dagfinn, were younger. The man’s body had hung on the outer wall beside Aerona's statue for a week. And before that, when I was young — a deserter at the border.
Icy horror pours through my veins in a sudden cataract. That was just before Father’s promotion. Before we left for Triptyllach Castle.
“But that means anyone accused of being a traitor could just be…” I can’t even finish the sentence; the thought is too horrific. Too impossible.
An entirely new horror crests into my mind like a bloody dawn, and my skin crawls. “Daschen...”
Raz stares at the floor of Rook’s workshop, studying the floorboards again as he answers me. “He might not know yet.”
“But that’s what you were at the castle to find out: if King Johannes had told him or Dagfinn the truth.”
“Among other things,” Raz admits stiffly.
After everything that happened the night of Daschen’s birthday ball, I know I shouldn’t care, but the idea that he wasn’t keeping that biggest of all secrets. I could forgive myself for loving a simpleton, but how could I absolve myself for loving someone who not only knew about this, but was part of it?
Mav leans toward me, a shred of his old spunkiness flickering in his tone. “You were close to his royal fancy-pants-ness, weren’t you, Khthonia? D’you reckon he’s in on the secret?”
I shake my head and laugh weakly, still almost too overwhelmed to speak. “His father didn’t even trust him enough to tell him he was being married off to Princess Embla.” My hands are trembling, and my lips are still deathly numb. “Maybe Prince Dagfinn knows, though … I’ve never so much as run into him before, I couldn’t say.”
“He’d tell his true heir, that makes sense enough,” Rook says quietly, and Raz nods.
“Mr. Soames … he’s a royal advisor.” My heartbeat shudders to think of him, but now that the idea’s occurred to me, I’m sure of it. “He knows. He must — that’s why he’s been traveling with Daschen. To control him and how much he knows.”
Rook nods, and with a gentle tug on the three dowels, the trio of illustrations coil back into the overhead roll, safely anonymous once more. He fixes me in his stern gaze as he reassures himself The Map, the only one that really matters, is hidden. “You’re handling this incredibly well, given the circumstances.”
Mav nudges my knee with his own. “You all right?”
If Mr. Soames knew… I nod, trying to gather the tattered scraps of my composure as Rook turns his attention back to the diamondine flower and the brass lens. “So you believe Princess Embla’s kidnapper came from somewhere beyond the four kingdoms?”
To my astonishment, Raz shakes his head. “They’d’ve just taken her out over the Barrier Mountains.”
I part my lips to retort that that’s impossible, the mountains are impassable — and then I remember this whole new world I’ve woken to find. Whoever’s out there, these other kingdoms, they’re not the backward ones. They must not even care that we exist — that’s what Raz was trying to tell me that morning in the forest. That they haven’t bothered us because we have nothing to offer them.
“I’ve heard rumors about these things, but I’ve never seen one myself,” Rook says slowly, measuring his words as he touches the flower with a calloused fingertip. “It’s called an echophone — it’s a device for both capturing and playing back sound.”
“How’s it different from a radio?” Mav asks — and I’m relieved to not be the only ignorant one for a moment.
The radio merely receives a sonic signal — that is, sound,” the grizzled man explains, “while this can store that same signal for later. The sonic signature itself is engraved on the crystal cylinder here, and the speaker’s this brass bit at the bottom. And … it seems kryoplasmically powered — that’s this gem in the center,” he finishes with a knowing glance at Raz and Mav.
Even though I don’t understand most of what Rook’s saying, my stomach gives another unpleasant lurch, threatening to make me dry-heave. “You all look terrified.”
“It’s more than just what this can do, I suspect, if we’re all on the same trail of thought,” Mav explains. He glances at Raz and Rook, but neither of them interrupt — too lost to their own worried thoughts, judging from both of their expressions. “It’s what this thing — this technology or tech — represents. It’s more advanced than anything in the world outside of Char.”
My heart slams sickeningly. “So why the hells would it be here, someplace so backward no one cares about it?”
“Exactly,” Raz says quietly.
“If that’s not bad enough, it bears signs of mass production,” Rook adds. “Imagine thousands of these. Hundreds of thousands.” He turns the flower over its hand; the diamondine stigma glitters like a dagger in the golden light. “Someone is listening — or planning to — on a massive scale.”
“One of the four kingdoms is working with the outside world.” Raz’s dark eyes glitter with warning. “And whoever they’re working with out there is making advances on an unprecedented scale.”
“Everyone who’s not standing with them is going to suffer,” Rook mutters darkly as he tugs a grimy kerchief from his pocket to mop his sweat-beaded brow.
“What if we consider the latest advances in Char, things that’ve made it easier to live?” Mav suggests, perking up. “If we can figure out which of the four kingdoms the tech leak is starting from, either by ruling them in or out — so to speak, I mean…”
I scour my brain for all the major changes that’ve happened in Vana since I was a child. “We got indoor plumbing when I was little. The alarums a few years ago — they work like clocks, but we only got them because we were in the castle.” My mind blazes with the memory: “Those lights in the castle during the ball!”
Raz holds up the flower. “All of that tech is centuries behind this. I mean, it’s nowhere near what’s available in Cerendin or Tescher Noa or most other countries — but it makes that sort of thing look backward by comparison, too.”
Cerendin — didn’t Rook point out two countries with that name? I try not to look entirely lost, but Mav pats me on the shoulder. “It’s alright, just take it in slowly.”
I laugh wearily. “There isn’t time. I’m already hundreds of years behind.”
“Compared to this thing, we all are.” Rook holds up the crystal flower — echophone — and twists open the brass base to reveal a glowing emerald crystal inside a glass sphere, nestled in a rat’s nest of twisted metal and flexible black material.
Raz sits forward, eyes narrowed. “How does it work?”
“This is what it’s using for a battery, or stored power source,” Rook explains patiently, indicating the glowing crystal. “Holds kryoplasmic force — kryoplasma — for running the device. The power crystal lets off a certain amount of that energy for a certain amount of time, and the energy flows from the battery to the device through these insulated wires. It’s a subtle system, incredibly refined … regulates the energy decay, which was always a problem with these sorts of inventions. That and the pressure chambers — though this thing’s designers seem to’ve found their way around that particular problem.”
“If you know so much about them, why don’t you know where they’re coming from?” I ask Rook.
He screws the echophone back together and nestles it into its wooden box before passing it to Raz. “My information came from a joint Valukarran conference several years back — and it was theoretical. Or so I was told.” He jerks his chin to the deck overhead again. “With Chickeree to look after, I haven’t exactly gone digging.”
“Might be a good thing for both your sakes that you didn’t,” Mav puts in darkly.
“What about this?” Raz asks as he hands Rook the lens. “This lens is an entirely different design — and without having a lead to follow for either of these objects—”
Rook’s eyes widen as he scrutinizes the metal-wrapped glass. “I may not have much information about the echophone, but this I can tell you something about.” His words flow swiftly with excitement: “Heard something a few years back about Kheti agricultural equipment powered by sunlight — it was meant to help out in the farmlands. This looks like some of the specs I ran across back then.”
“A Kheti device and a Kheti princess — that can’t be a coincidence,” I mutter, and Raz nods. “What happened to the project?”
“I’d imagine it failed. That said, I don’t have the most reliable contacts in Khet.” Rook sits back slowly, mopping more sweat from his brow. “You want to hear the damndest part?” He doesn’t bother waiting for us to answer: “That right there is the second one of these things I’ve come across in the last few days.”
Even the ticking devices in Rook’s workshop seem to fall silent as we stare at him, stunned.
“Tinker a few slips down brought one by yesterday afternoon, said a Samundran girl with flame-red hair traded it to him for some supplies. There were a group of older men with her, too — ice sheet dwellers, by the look of it. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but I ran into him just this morning, and he said he’s seen her lurking around here, like she was waiting for someone.”
“I heard about a ship arriving from the south two mornings back,” Mav says quickly to Raz. “We thought they were traders, but… Khet, Samunder, ice.”
“Stone Islands.” They’re on their feet in a heartbeat, and Raz looks to me. “It is more than a simple ransom they’re after, then — and the kidnappers knew whoever was following them would be coming here for information.”
“The redheaded girl — I’ve seen her, too,” I blurt out as I remember Mr. Soames’ questions in Mr. Cade’s office. Suddenly everyone’s staring at me, but I force myself to explain quickly: “I mean, I think I have. In Triptyllach Castle, the night Princess Embla was taken. She was asking about how to get to the pantry, and then all the cooking staff were being questioned separately by Mr. Soames the next day — and he got very interested when I said I’d seen her. She must be the kidnapper, or at least one of them.”
“D you think you’d recognize the woman if you saw her again?” Raz asks, his dark eyes dancing with such intensity that for the first time since I saw that bloody map, hope sparks in me like a firestone.