allies punished? Didn’t your enemies in the Second Alliance march home satisfied with their victory and your imprisonment?”

I wasn’t sure how a man of his infamy would parry such a reckless attack, but he merely smiled drily. “A worthy salvo. It reminds me of the prickly unanswerable questions I would hear from your father Daniel when we were young. The struggle for liberation is never over as long as the old order crushes those who seek freedom. I intend to reform the laws of Europa and free the population from the oppressive rule of princes and cold mages. You could do worse than to join my army, as your mother did.”

“We’re not your soldiers,” I said as I glanced at the woman who stood beside him.

A black-haired foreigner, she wore a man’s jacket and trousers. A falcata, a short sword in the Iberian style, rode low on a belt loop at her left hip. Her eyes had the epicanthic fold of a person whose birth or ancestry rested in the mysterious lands of the Far East, but the most striking thing about her was the ragged two-tined white scar that forked across her right cheek. Was she one of his famous Amazon Corps, as my mother had been?

“Just because my mother was an officer in your army doesn’t mean I am under any obligation to you,” I added.

“You are mistaken if you believe nothing binds me to you.”

Snow poured down my back could not have made me more cold. A horrible premonition seized me, together with a throat-clawing curiosity. I had to know. “What do you mean? You’re not going to claim to be…”

“Oh, la!” Bee pressed the back of a hand to her forehead in a gesture worthy of the cheap sort of theater. “I am overcome by these confrontations and alarums! All these revelations and unexpected meetings are simply too much. If I do not sit down this instant, I shall collapse.” She had perfected a throbbing quaver with which to soften the listening heart, but her voice retained an edge of determination that suggested her collapse would be accompanied by a tantrum no sane person wished to endure. When she grasped my elbow, her grip was like the clamp of a trap. From the cutting look she gave me, I could tell she wanted to have words with me.

The general touched a hand to his heart. “I am at your disposal, Professora Kuti. With you, I assume, is the legendary Brennan Toure Du. Tales of his daring exploits reached even my lonely prison cell. I have been assured your connections are legion, your intellects first-rate, and your commitment to the cause of justice and reason unparalleled.”

Although Kehinde appeared to be nothing more than a petite woman with a quiet demeanor and an enthusiasm for technological puzzles, she met the general look for look. “You will understand that our chief concern is to assure ourselves of your dedication to the cause of justice and reason.”

He nodded. “Alliances can only be formed where trust is assured.”

“Let me then defer to our host, Maester Godwik.”

Godwik raised his feathered crest of black and green. “It is our custom to offer a chance to wash, drink, and eat before any negotiation commences.”

The general laughed. “As I well recall. The first of your kind I ever met were gunrunners. It took a cursed long time to get down to business though we were in the midst of a battle waged over a hill. I would be honored to wash, drink, and eat with you, Maester Godwik.”

All three trolls showed teeth in an expression that mimicked a human smile. Given that they had fearsome teeth bristling in predatory snouts, the effect was more unsettling than reassuring.

“Caith,” said the old troll, “please go join the watch at the corner.”

Caith whistled an answer and went out the front door, accompanied by Brennan and the older foreign soldier. The younger soldier took up guard at the front door. By the way he kept glancing at Bee and then away, it was obvious he was taken with her voluptuous figure and magnificent beauty.

Maester Godwik gestured to Bee, Rory, and me. “We have not yet greeted you properly either, my young friends. Await us in the kitchen, if you will. General, this way.”

Along the right wall were two staircases, one of which ascended to the first floor above us while the other, tucked beneath it, descended to a half basement. Godwik limped down the basement stairs while Chartji went upstairs past Rory. After a glance at Rory, the Amazon followed Godwik downstairs, the general and Kehinde at her heels.

“Look at those knives!” whispered Bee admiringly, still clutching my arm.

The young foreigner had unbuttoned his greatcoat. Beneath, he wore a harness of knives buckled over a quilted jacket of dull twilight blue. A belt strapped around his hips braced a pair of illegal pistols. He had straight black hair not unlike my own, and a brown complexion that resembled Rory’s. The cast of his features, his wide cheekbones and high forehead, gave him the look of a man far from the house where he had been born and none too impressed by the place he found himself now. He met Bee’s bold stare with a challenging one of his own.

“You’re not of Mande or Celtic or even Roman ancestry,” I said. “Where are you from?”

He measured me up and down and without replying looked back to Bee.

She lifted her chin in imperious dismissal of his rudeness. “Rory, bring the bags.”

She tugged me toward the stairs, but when we were halfway down to the basement, alone on the dim stairwell, she yanked me to a halt. “Cat! You were about to ask Camjiata if he was the man who sired you! In front of everyone. Don’t you remember anything we were taught at home?”

“I know! I don’t know what came over me. I forgot myself in the heat of the moment. I just couldn’t help but think that since he knew my parents, he might know who it was.”

“Of course you want to know. But if Rory doesn’t even know who your and his sire is, why would the general?”

“My mother might have told him.”

“Your mother Tara Bell? Do you know the only words I remember her ever saying to us? ‘ Tell no one. Not ever. ’ I doubt she told him anything, even if she was under his command. Also, you definitely shouldn’t have mentioned we were under house arrest.”

“I know!” I agreed grumpily. “But the radicals already know we’re trying to escape the mages. And since Camjiata knows what you are, he’s surely guessed the mage Houses want you.”

“It doesn’t matter what he would guess. Tell no one. ”

“ Keep silence,” I echoed, a phrase that had been drilled into us by Bee’s mother and father.

“That would be too much to ask from you, I agree!” she exclaimed, but then she hugged me. “I know you’re tired, Cat. You’ve traveled so far and learned such shocking things, not to mention escaping certain death and saving me from what would have been an exceptionally unpleasant marriage. So babble nonsense, which you do so well, and leave me to negotiate.”

“I can keep silent!”

She laughed, and we clattered down the rest of the steps and along a narrow passageway past an empty bedchamber, a pantry, and a scullery. At the end of the passageway, a half flight of steps led up to a back door. We turned into the kitchen. A cast-iron range was fixed under the stone arch of an old fireplace. Its burning coal soaked the kitchen in heat.

I set my black cane across the big kitchen table. A cutting board and knife sat atop the work-scarred surface next to a heap of parsnips, a bowl of dry oats, a pot of freshly churned butter, and an empty copper roasting pan. Bee set her sketchbook on the corner of the table, then dragged off her hat, gloves, and winter coat and threw them over the back of a chair. She crossed to the long paned window set high in the wall and got up on a stool to look out into the back. Being taller, I could see out the high window without using a stool; the view looked over the backyard, a long, narrow court enclosed by high walls and paved in flagstones. There was a cistern, a pump, a stone bench dusted with snow, and a carriage house abutting the high back wall next to a closed gate. Godwik was leading Camjiata, the Amazon, and Kehinde across the back court to a peculiar little building. It reminded me of a domed nest because it looked as if it had been constructed from feathers and sticks and wreathed with ribbons and wire from which hung mirrors, glass, and bright shiny things. A solitary crow perched on the jutting center post.

Bee sighed gustily, shoulders heaving, as she hopped down. “Oh, Cat! I thought by coming here we would have a chance to rest and decide what to do next at our leisure. Instead, it’s as if we’re caught by a tempest at sea. We’re blown hither and yon without ceasing by the gods’ anger.”

“I don’t think the gods have anything to do with this. I think it’s all these cursed people who won’t leave us alone who are the problem. Why did I think lawyers and radicals would be a safe harbor? Is there anyone we can trust?”

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