“They weren’t,” Clara said with a mirthless laugh. “Dawson would have taken direction from a foreigner as soon as he answered to his own dogs.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Vincen said.


“Nothing. It’s only … you said foreign, my lady. The girl back there was likely a born subject of Antea. There aren’t a great many Timzinae in Camnipol, and they keep to themselves, but they’re still from here.”

“You know what I meant.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She had intended to be quiet then, to let her outrage turn inward and turn to something like resolve. She meant to walk down these streets that were no longer hers with head unbowed, and she meant to do it in silence. So when the words forced themselves from her throat, they had a broken sound, soft and low and unpleasant.

“What’s happened to us? Simeon gone. Dawson gone. What has happened to my kingdom?”

Vincen made a small sound in the back of his throat. As much as she hadn’t planned to speak, she doubly hadn’t hoped for him to answer. His voice was gentle and soft, almost mournful.

“Back at the Fells, there was a dog we had. Good hunter. Good nose. When the King’s Hunt came, he led the pack. Only, one time, the stag gored him. Took him in the belly and hoisted him in the air. We sewed him closed again, gave him time to heal up. He didn’t die, but after that, he ate himself. Started with the paws, just chewing them until they bled. We did everything we could to stop him. Wrapped him in bandages. Put bitter salve on his paws. Kept him in muzzle until his skin could heal. He was still a good hunter, and sweetest dog you could wish for, but he wouldn’t stop chewing himself raw. Sometimes shock does that.”

“And you think that’s what’s happening? The empire’s been hurt so badly that it’s biting itself to death?”

“Yes,” the young man said, and his tone made him sound older.

“And does that make me the tooth or the bitter salve?”

“Muzzle’s my bet, ma’am,” Vincen said. His smile bloomed sly. “Just haven’t figured how to strap it on the bastard yet.”

They passed by Lord Skestinin’s little compound. Its shutters were closed against the winter, and icicles as long as swords hung from the eaves. Jorey and Sabiha—her youngest son and his wife—were following the court for the season, and Skestinin himself spent his time with the fleet in the north. She missed her son, but for the time being it was best that Jorey establish himself without reference to his disgraced parents. She wasn’t so naive as to trust the nobility of their blood to protect Jorey from being beaten in the streets if Geder Palliako’s favor should turn. Not in this new Camnipol.

Beyond the houses and compounds, the Kingspire rose. The stone looked dark against the winter sky, and the flock of pigeons that circled it seemed as insubstantial and grey as the snow through which they flew. Clara stood still, letting the traffic of the street pass her by. Her cheeks felt stiff with the chill.

By the time she reached the builder’s tents, the pies had cooled, but Clara didn’t let it concern her. The ruins had once been a stables and an open market, both burned the night the failed coup began. The charred wooden posts had been cleared away, the ground leveled, and new paving stones and supports were being raised. Piles of white brick stood as thick as two men and tall as three, soft wooden scaffolds clinging to the sides. Men in wool and thick workmen’s leather hauled handcarts filled with lime and reinforcing bars from one place to another. Their talk was rough and uneducated and nothing Clara hadn’t heard a thousand times in the servants’ quarters of her own house. It only took a few moments to find the face she sought.

“Benet! Here you are. I’ve been looking simply everywhere for you.”

“L-Lady Kalliam?” the boy said. Once, he had been a gardener’s assistant and plucked weeds from her flowerbeds. Now his hands were callused and his face pale with brick dust and starvation.

“Your aunt mentioned you’d taken work here, but of course the wages don’t begin until after you’ve done the work, do they? I thought I would just bring you a bit of lunch. You don’t mind, do you?”

The boy’s eyes went as wide as a Southling’s when Vincen put the food onto the stack of bricks at his side.

“I … that’s to say … Thank you, m’lady. You’re too kind.”

“Just trying to keep up with the old household,” Clara said, smiling. “It wasn’t any of your doing that things went the way they did. It seems wrong you should suffer for it. Eat, please. Don’t stand on ceremony, we’re well past that now. And tell me all about this … well, this whatever it is that you’re building.”

The tour was short. Benet was most concerned with the pie and not offending his overseer, but Clara took the general shape. Rooms of brick and floors of paving stone. Thin windows and wide corridors. The stables and the market were gone, and they would never return. What little remained of their bones would become the next layer of ruin upon which the city was built, age after age reaching down like rings in a tree. In place, the new barracks. That’s what they called it. Clara thought better.

That evening, her feet held up to the little iron stove, Clara ate one of the remaining pies and Vincen the other. Abatha Coe—Vincen’s cousin and proprietor of the house—bustled about her chores with a sour expression and the smell of boiled cabbage. The young Firstblood man who’d taken a room on the lower floor near the back came and complained of a leaking window. The Cinnae girl, thin and pale as a sprout, came in from whatever she’d done with her day, took a bowl of the house stew, and retreated to eat in solitude. Clara smoked her little clay pipe and she brooded. Vincen, loyal as a hound, gave her her silence as long as she wanted it, and broke it with her when she was ready.

“That dog,” she said. “The one that had the trouble biting himself. Whatever became of him?”

Vincen opened the stove’s grate and dropped in a knot of pine. The firelight danced over his face. He looked melancholy and beautiful and young. A wholly inappropriate man.

“Not all dogs can be saved, ma’am,” he said.

“No,” she said. “I thought not. Those buildings that Benet and others are toiling at. They aren’t barracks.”

“Looked more like kennels to me,” Vincen agreed, but Clara shook her head.

“No, not kennels,” she said. And then, “Why, do you suppose, is Geder Palliako building prisons?”

Lord Regent Geder Palliako

The stag stood in a clearing, surrounded by the hunting pack. Its eyes were wide with fear, and foam dripped from its lips. The barking and baying almost drowned out the calls of the huntsmen. Beyond the dogs, the men of the hunt sat astride their horses. Snow greyed the leather hunting armor and thick wool cloaks, clinging to the noblest men of Antea like moss on a stone. All eyes were on Geder; he could feel them.

The huntsman who handed him the spear was a Jasuru, bronze scales and sharp black teeth. Geder took the spear in hand, set it. It was heavier than he’d expected it to be. It’s like a joust, he told himself. Just a little practice joust with a stag for the target. I can do this.

He glanced at Aster, and the prince’s gaze encouraged him. Geder forced himself to smile, then leaned forward and charged. His horse ran as smooth as a river under him, and it seemed to him that he didn’t draw nearer the stag so much as the beast grew larger. The impact jarred his arm and wrenched his shoulder. He felt himself rising up out of the saddle, and for a horrified moment, falling into the chaos of dogs and churned snow and blood seemed inevitable. The stag screamed. The spear’s point hadn’t pierced him through, but skidded along the flank. A wide fold of skin and flesh hung down, blood pouring from it. The antlers swung toward Geder, preparing for a counterattack, and the huntsman made his call. A dozen arrows flew, striking the stag in its thick neck, its side, the meat of its leg.

The stag stumbled forward, lost its footing, and fell to its knees. Its breath came solid as smoke. Geder looked down at the black eyes, and there seemed to be an intelligence there. And a hatred. Blood gouted from the animal’s mouth and it lowered its head to the snowy clearing. The cheer rose from the hunters, and Geder lifted his hand, grinning. It hadn’t been an elegant kill, but he hadn’t humiliated himself.

“Who takes honors?” Geder asked as the huntsmen came forward to prepare the corpse for its unmaking.

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