Farid’s captors pushed him through the doorway. One moment he was standing in the alley, four hands holding him iron-tight at the shoulders, and the next, he was falling towards a pocked stone floor. He braced for the feel of cold granite against his cheek, the burn as it scraped his skin away, but then he flailed and righted himself. This was a small house – if it was a house and a third of the space was taken by stairs rising up into darkness. The shadows beneath them held a man in dark robes, startled, judging by his posture, a book held against his lap. Then strong hands took Farid again and steered him into the only other room, small and lined with shelves, stinking of foreigners’ ale.
They shoved him against the far wall. He struggled to hear the words being murmured in the other room. The man from the shadows was asking questions – Farid could tell from the tone – but the words were too low for his ears. Just one captor stayed with him now. Farid sneaked a glance: he looked to be about his own age, and just as muscled. It would be a fair fight if it came to that. When his captor leaned over to pull on a length of fresh-smelling rope Farid got up to run, but with a casual movement of his foot the other man tripped him and he skidded against the hard floor. While he was lying there stunned, jaw and arm smarting from the impact, his hands were tied behind him.
‘Why are you doing this?’ He did not expect an answer – from the time they grabbed him in the marketplace there had been no words. But they wanted something, otherwise he would be dead. The man half lifted, half pushed him into a wooden chair, then smiled, not a kind smile, though Farid sensed he could probably manage a semblance of such. He had smooth skin and regular features, not the sort one usually found in the Maze; more the sort you’d find in a comfortable position at a noble estate.
Or the palace. The palace takes the best of us, his father always said: the ones who showed unusual talent. The hardest workers. The strongest, the prettiest.
The palace would not have brought him to a tiny corner of the Maze, though. The palace would have taken him to a guard station in one of its outer walls, or worse, to the cold, dark cells hidden below its soaring towers. He had heard a person would do the unthinkable just to be free of them. Could this man have been in the prison dungeon, done something unthinkable?
Farid looked away, desperate to hide the current of his thoughts.
For months the Blue Shields had been in the Maze, hunting down the slave rebels and escaped prisoners, killing them in the streets and in the warrens where they hid. During this time the larger city had carried on with its usual business of exchanging goods for coin, and Farid with them. He had not considered the Maze and its outlaws his concern. Refugees from the north were a greater problem, crowding the streets and frightening his customers with rumours of deadly storms. He’d cursed them too poor to pay for his fruit and too rich to disappear into the dark corners and alleys of the city and be out of his way.
But now that he was tied to a chair and at the rebels’ mercy, he knew the refugees had been no more than a distraction.
The man laid a callused hand on Farid’s cheek, the way his mother might. Startled, Farid looked back into his tea-coloured eyes.
‘What did you see?’
Farid swallowed. ‘What happened back there? I heard—’ Nothing. He’d heard nothing more than a chorus of gentle moans, drifting like ash on the wind.
‘There was an attack.’ The man from the shadows stood in the doorway, lowering the hood of his red robe to reveal a shock of white-blond hair. Farid’s pretty captor stood and lowered his head in deference.
‘An attack?’ Farid wiggled against his ropes. His hands felt numb. ‘It wasn’t me. I was . . .’ He had been looking down at the street-stones when they grabbed him.
The leader moved forwards, a look of sorrow on his face. ‘You saw them, didn’t you?’
‘Saw them? Who?’ But at last Farid remembered. He had seen a glimmer in the afternoon light, had left his stall and squatted in the street to investigate. Shapes and lines, glimmering not on skin but on stone. He had thought it art, perhaps, or someone’s idea of a joke. ‘The marks.’
‘The marks.’ This time it was the leader’s turn to repeat. ‘What do they mean?’ Farid wiggled against his bonds again, looking from one man to the other. ‘Has the Pattern Master come back?’ Part of him hoped they would not answer.
‘No, this is not the pattern, not as you know it.’ The leader waved to the other man, who knelt to untie the ropes. Farid felt them loosen. ‘I apologise for the manner in which you were taken. Let’s begin again. My name is Adam.’
‘I’m— My name is Farid.’ So this was about something they wanted. He relaxed a little. He knew how to barter and how to bluff.
‘Farid.’ Adam held forth a flask. The old greeting, done with metal rather than skin.
The ropes slid away. Farid brought his hands forwards and rubbed them together before reaching for the flask. He said, ‘I don’t know who you think I am. I sell fruit in the marketplace. Now my week’s haul is left untended.’ He made his voice heavy with disappointment, emphasising he’d already made a sacrifice. That would have to go into whatever deal these men had in mind. As he drank, he studied Adam. His build named him soldier; the robes named him priest. His bright hair spoke of the north, of Yrkmir. Of the enemy.
Adam showed his palms in a gesture of honesty. He knew the ways of Nooria, wherever he had come from. ‘Your fruit is gone, along with every living soul in that marketplace.’
‘What do you mean?’ Farid grabbed the flask with both hands to keep from dropping it. There had been children there, old men, scrawny dogs, every one of them breathing and alive.
‘Those marks destroy all that is or was alive. Once they surround a man he is already dead. But you saw them, and were saved.’
Farid had seen them. He remembered leaving his stall, cautioning the boy who always sat on the barrels not to sneak an apple. He’d known the boy would do it anyway; he did it every time. It didn’t matter. The boy kept good watch for him otherwise, from men and animals alike. Now Farid couldn’t remember his name – he never forgot anything, and yet today, his memory failed him. Gone. Was the boy truly gone? It was impossible. He stood. ‘I want to see.’
Adam pulled a piece of chalk from his robe and crouched. As he drew a white line against the stone Farid snapped, ‘No, not the marks.’ He had seen enough of the marks when the pattern took his mother. ‘I want to see the marketplace.’
‘It will not be a pleasant sight. In any case we can’t let you go – not yet. The Tower will be searching for us.’ Adam said ‘the Tower’ the way most people said ‘Yrkmir’, hushed and wary. But then his hair, so bright, had already been a warning. These men were more than escaped prisoners: they were the worst of them: the very Mogyrks who had fomented rebellion in the first place.
‘But I’m not one of you. I am a citizen of Nooria.’
‘And yet you see the marks.’
‘So you said. What does it matter?’ Farid could not imagine what deal these Mogyrks might propose; he could not imagine why he still lived. It must have been they who attacked the marketplace, they who had killed everyone inside. Muad: he remembered the boy’s name now. Muad.
‘The patterns that lay a ward or an attack cannot be seen once they are set – not by anyone with normal eyes. You are blessed by Mogyrk to see them,’ said Adam, looking up at him from his position on the floor, sure and calm, though Farid towered over him. ‘The marks protect and strengthen those who are holy and hide from those who are not.’
Farid had seen plenty of marks when the pattern ruled Nooria, when his mother had suffered and died, when Helmar had controlled half the city and sent the other half into hiding. ‘I’m not holy. I’m a fruit-seller. My father is coming upriver tomorrow with another load. He’ll be expecting me to meet him.’
Adam continued as if Farid had not spoken, ‘You are Cerani, but He has chosen from Nooria before. It is not for me to say why. You can see the pattern-marks.’
‘Again, what does it matter?’ He wanted to punch the man. ‘What do you want?’
Adam looked up at him with eyes of the clearest blue. ‘You saw those pattern-marks. That means you can also use them.’
Mesema unrolled a map of Nooria, laid it over the table engraved with the whole of Cerana and squinted. Nessaket had warned her that reading would take its toll on her eyesight, but maybe it was only the darkness of the library that made the lines swim under her gaze. The cartodome harboured a surprising number of shadows. She pushed the table towards the only window, where sunlight spilled in through the open screens.
‘Majesty! Please, allow us.’ Willa took one corner of the table and Tarub the other.
‘So you say with every turn of the glass. If it were up to the two of you, I would do nothing but sit in the bath all day until someone thought to take me out of it.’
Tarub giggled as she set the table down under the window, then raised a hand to dispel the dust that danced in the sun like fireflies. Fewer hands cleaned the palace these days. Between the slave rebellion and the pale sickness, Azeem estimated they had lost a third of their workers, but Sarmin had put a hold on the buying and selling of slaves while he focused on a new code for their treatment. Mesema was never sure that words on parchment could truly alter the way of things. She remembered hurrying past under the resentful glares of her father’s Red Hoof captives, the hatred that guided their every word and posture. Even as a child she had understood they wanted to be free. Nessaket’s injury and the kidnapping of Sarmin’s brother Daveed had grown from such a legacy, and she was not certain Sarmin’s code would bring it to any resolution.
Tarub and Willa showed no such concerns. Azeem said their happiness to serve came from being taken as children, that they knew no other life. He too, had once been a slave, and he thought it the way of things. For centuries slaves had kept the empire running and few who lived in it could imagine it any other way. Yet something in her said they must start to do just that.
Tarub broke into her thoughts and pointed out the window, up into the sky. ‘Smoke, Your Majesty!’ Dark plumes rose in the distance, drifting on the air. This had become the sign of unrest in the city as Mogyrk saboteurs took flame to guard posts and temples. Usually it stayed inside the Maze, but this smoke came very near, its ash drifting over the walls of the palace compound.
‘That is the Festival of Meksha,’ said Willa, always the sensible one. ‘What you see are the smoke and ashes from the offerings, Your Majesty.’
‘Oh.’ Mesema had not been to a festival since she left the grass, but the celebration of a volcano-goddess did not appeal. One last glance out of the window, then she turned to her task, pulling five marble pieces from her belt, the kind used by soldiers to mark enemies on the field. One she placed over Beyon’s tomb, once fallen to dust, and then repaired by Sarmin; this represented one of the blood-works Helmar Pattern Master had made to anchor his great spell. He had tricked Beyon into taking his own life and then used his blood to power the symbols hidden there.
She pushed the memory away and put a second piece along the river to the north, at the town of Migido, where Helmar had murdered the inhabitants and set their bodies into his design. Both the tomb and Migido had turned into great wounds, tainted by the death of the Mogyrk god and leaching colour and life from all they touched. Sarmin had healed the tomb, but still the emptiness in Migido crept ever south and east, towards Nooria and the river the Cerani called the Blessing.
The refugees from Migido had a name for it, borrowed from the nomads: the Great Storm.
Mesema took a deep breath. They had some time; the Storm in all its forms still remained distant. She placed a third marker to the northwest. The desert headman Notheen had spoken of a void in the reaches of the desert. That could be where Helmar’s church had been – the church she had seen when first she came here, where she had learned a path through the pattern. Later Grada had killed the true body of the Pattern Master there.
She clicked the last two markers together in her palm. Five: that was always the number of Helmar’s pattern; always groups of five carried out the Pattern Master’s deeds. Five wounds: one healed and four remaining; four mouths to open and release the Storm, and nothing to stop them. In the eastern desert she placed a marker. This was where the Mogyrk god had died, and the scar he had left was larger than any wound made by Helmar. The eastern desert lay harsh and barren between Nooria and its farthest province; those who wished to travel in between sailed from the south rather than braving the sands. The eastern gate, called the Dawn Gate, but more widely known as the Dry Gate, had fallen into disuse and was now sealed.
She had placed four markers so far. The last she held in her palm, a mystery.
Sarmin said the pattern-skill had left him, that when he looked at a thing, the thing was all he saw – not the designs that made it what it was. ‘The pattern is a lie that is also true,’ he had said. Mesema felt she was just on the edge of understanding it. She had told many lies that felt true, such as framing a thought that was just beyond her, or telling a story the way she wished it had truly happened. The story she told herself today was that the Great Storm could be stopped with figures and a map.
‘Your Majesty,’ said Tarub, her eyes cast humbly aside, ‘perhaps Pelar is hungry.’
‘He is sleeping.’ If she entered the room her son would know it and never rest until she held him in her arms. She smiled to think of his stubborn nature. He took after Beyon and her father both. Best to leave him in peace. Mesema traced the River Blessing on the map. It began in the mountains, ran past the fields that provided them with fruit and grain and down into the city of Nooria. She frowned, tracing the distance from the caravanserai of Migido to the river. The void had turned Beyon’s tomb to dust; what might it do to Nooria’s precious water?
‘Perhaps the Empire Mother seeks you for a game of Tiles, Majesty,’ said Willa.
Mesema doubted it. Nessaket’s injury had left her in great pain, and bouts of dizziness kept her bedridden much of the time. When she was able to visit Mesema, she carried her grief for Daveed along with her, bringing the shadow of his loss to all corners. Mesema would have done anything to fix the Empire Mother’s pain, but she was powerless as anyone when it came to that. The royal guards and assassins still searched for Austere Adam and his followers, hoping Daveed was in their care, but in truth the babe could be as far away as Yrkmir. Sarmin spoke little of it, but she saw in the shadows of his eyes that it pained him too.
Mesema made a jest, hoping to lighten the mood. ‘You think my work is not ladylike and hope to distract me from it.’
Willa leaned forwards, her expression serious. ‘Everything you do is most ladylike, my Empress. It cannot be otherwise.’
‘Hm.’ Mesema felt a rush of air over her skin and went still, one finger still poised over the blue line on the map. It had been long months since she had seen a message in the wind. The Hidden God did not live in the desert and must travel long miles to give her sight, but she watched and hoped as the breeze became a gust, carrying sand and ashes from Meksha’s fires into the room. The map lifted from the table. For a moment it twisted, caught in the current, then landed on the floor, ashes circling it like bees around a hive. Their movements gained structure and purpose, finally gathering over the western quarter of the mapped city and forming a bright blue circle over the Holies. Then the wind blew again and scattered them to all four corners of the room.
‘Did you see that?’ asked Mesema, scrambling on her knees after the map.
‘Your Majesty! You must let me—’
But Mesema already had it in her hand, seeking the building the pattern had indicated. ‘Here.’ She tapped the depiction of a large rectangular estate up on the Great Plateau. ‘That’s the place. Tarub,’ she said, standing and brushing off her knees, ‘I need servant’s garb and a pouch of water and—’ She thought what normal townsfolk might carry. ‘A veil.’
‘Yes, Your Majesty,’ said Tarub, bowing. ‘But . . . why?’ ‘Because I am going into the city.’
Mesema had known how to exit the palace by the Ways or servants’ halls since the time she and Sarmin had hidden together in his room, but she had never before done it. She did not approach the Elephant Gate and its high teak doors but chose one of plain iron, used by slaves and delivery men, wellguarded nevertheless. She pulled the veil tight over her face as she stepped through. With her other hand she held tight to a bag of soiled linens, but nobody asked her business and she breathed a sigh of relief. A few feet outside the great walls she halted, heart beating fast.
No wife of the emperor was to travel unaccompanied. Her bodyguards and chaperones ensured her safety, chasteness and good behaviour. The women of the palace were never to set feet outside of it, lest they become sullied by the eyes of the common people. By the rules of the court she had already committed a crime. Tarub and Willa had cried and begged her to stay, and wisdom should have made her listen, but the Hidden God had pointed and she would follow.
And yet she paused, thinking of Sarmin. At this moment he was in his throne room, listening to petitions great and small, the lords and generals gathered around him like wolves. To keep their jaws from his flesh he required strength, and he gathered it from knowing she and Pelar were safe. Her absence could be devastating. Like all those born under the Scorpion’s tail she had acted first and thought later. Mesema turned back, but one of the guards at the gate shook his fist at her, saying, ‘Stop lurking, you lazy get!’ and she backed away. If he recognised her, it would be bad for him, for her and for Sarmin. After tossing her bag into a doorway she hurried down the palace road, a gentle slope that later turned into a steep incline approaching the river. The palace stood high above the city, overtopping all but the Tower.
The heat surprised her; this was the same sun that hung over the palace, but out here it reflected off the street and walls, bringing a sweat to her skin that soaked her robes. She walked along paths she had long watched from Nessaket’s garden, jostled by petitioners, scribes, tailors and money-counters. All were dressed in fine cloth, and the stones lay white and sparkling in the full day; but she would be walking on, through roads that were not so clean.
When she first arrived in Nooria, the air had smelled like char. Later she learned it had been the Carriers, turning to ash under the patient eyes of Blue Shields. Now as she left the palace compound the stench of rotting vegetables caught her nose and, as she walked further away, a urine-stink caught in her throat.
A marketplace set up along the road brought more welcome scents: roasting meat, incense and cloves. Colourful fabric stretched from stall to stall, protecting customers from the harsh sun and casting a blue and yellow design over the streetstones. Mesema hurried across them as if the pattern chased her still. She recognised the young Tower mage Moreth buying a pastry from an old woman and she prayed to the Hidden God his gaze would not turn her way. To her relief his attention remained on his food; he waved the treat below his nose, smiling, as he turned back to the Tower. The common folk backed away from him, drawing circles with their fingers in the way of Mirra.
The house she sought would be on the other side of the Blessing, so she let her nose lead towards the smell of fish. She had often looked down upon the river, but from above it looked thin, a blue ribbon winding through a dry city. In fact it was wide enough for thirty pole-barges to float abreast, and for its high, arched bridges to hold hundreds of people, some standing still and watching the boats, others hurrying about their business. She took a lower path along the water, following the progress of the nearest barge, watching its poles push deep into the silt, their movements rippling along the Blessing’s surface.
The next bridge loomed over her, an intricate work of red stone and copper, carvings of past emperors decorating each pointed arch. She climbed the steps to cross, dodging out of the way of one white-haired man carrying a sack of rice and another rolling a barrel; he clicked his tongue at her in irritation. Once on the other side she had a choice to climb the nine hundred great steps to the Holies, or to walk around the great rock to the western slope – not visible from the palace, but shown on maps to be a gentle, winding road to the great houses at the top. She had examined her route from the top of the palace before leaving, and she was glad of it, for the map was proving inexact. Now she embarked on a path her eyes had not explored, but upon turning west she saw with relief the carriage-road that led ever upwards towards the better neighbourhoods. This, the map had shown true.
She wondered whether Austere Adam might be in the house at the top of the plateau, hiding Daveed from the palace. Why else would the Hidden God have shown it to her? Nessaket admitted she had underestimated the Mogyrk priest, thinking him no more than a zealot, when in fact he had managed to organise a rebellion right under the noses of the palace guard. Mesema would have to think of a lie that would gain her entry to the great house. Though Austere Adam had great influence, she had fought the Pattern Master and watched Pelar struggle against the pale sickness; he did not frighten her. Sarmin would not think her actions wise; she knew this. Perhaps it was better he did not know.
On the plateau of the Holies she could see only streets and walls, interrupted by the occasional bench or statue. From the palace roof-garden Mesema had seen the graceful mansions and their lush enclosures filled with fruit-trees and jasmine, but at street level she saw only the dead leaves that had been blown over their high walls, dry offerings to the unwelcome. A breeze touched Mesema’s cheek, tugging her southwest, and she found the house, marked by its walls of pink granite gleaming in the sun. Their long expanse spoke of the size of the building within, but still it was not as large as one wing of the palace. She walked along the stone, her fingers running over carved figures of Pomegra. The front gate she had seen, carved of iron and higher even than the walls, but servants would use the back.
The sharp cry of a baby pierced the stone. She stopped and listened, her heart beating in her throat. Perhaps Nessaket might have been able to say whether that was Daveed’s cry; she could not. But she steeled herself and walked to the back gate, which was carved with a filigree pattern in the Fryth style that gave it a light and airy look. There a guard stood lazily sucking on a pipe, and when she approached, he lifted it from his mouth and stared.
‘Please sir, blessings of the afternoon. I am looking for work. I was told to talk to the lord’s steward.’
The guard stood up straight, then brushed his moustache with a finger. ‘What kind of work?’
The lies came easily now she saw how embarrassed he looked. ‘I was nursemaid to the Lord Khouraf’s babe, but it died, and they left the city in grief.’ The part about Lord Khouraf’s babe dying was true – she had heard the story at court. She stepped forwards, an earnest expression on her face. ‘If I don’t find another position soon, I—’
‘Hold on, hold on,’ he grumbled, turning to the kitchen door. ‘I thought you smelled like a lady, is all.’ He left her at the gate and she lifted a wrist to her nose. Jasmine and musk. Stupid. Servants could never afford such a scent.
He remained in the house for some time as she waited in the quiet courtyard. Leggy roses grew against the wall, mostly neglected, but a lemon tree had been planted in a large pot and it gave off a fresh scent when the wind passed over. Beneath it sheltered a bench, and Mesema imagined the house’s women sitting there, taking the morning air.
The guard returned and two men with him, rougher-looking, and big. ‘This her?’ said one.
‘That’s her,’ said the guard without looking her way. His shoulders were hunched, like a beaten dog. Danger. She backed away towards the road.
‘You asking questions?’ The one to her right towered over her. He looked Cerani, but his eyes were blue.
‘I was asking for work. If there is no work then I will leave.’ She held her shoulders straight, refusing to be afraid.
‘Who told you there was work for a nursemaid?’
‘I heard . . . people were talking . . .’ She began to see the problems with her story.
‘People at the church.’ She thought that would be enough to quiet them, but instead, they took more interest, stepping closer with new light in their eyes.
She swallowed, hoping her answer would hit the mark. ‘The church of the One God, the God of Everyone and Everything . . .’ She recited what Eldra had told her, but the first man shook his head.
‘She’s one of those pretties, trained to spy. This is how they do it, Jafar.’
Jafar took her right hand and turned it, examining the nails. ‘She is no servant, it’s true.’ Then he dug his fingers into her elbow. ‘You’ll come inside and tell us who sent you.’
‘I’m just a nursemaid,’ she insisted, digging in her heels. If they took her inside she did not think she would come out. Pelar’s face flashed through her mind. It occurred to her that she might not see him again, and she felt as if she had swallowed all the emptiness in the world.
‘You’re—’ The man’s word ended in a wet sound.
Mesema felt a warm spray like summer rain on her shoulder but this was the desert, and there was no rain. She turned, and the blood gushing from his neck hit her in the face.
‘What—?’ Jafar drew his sword and slashed at someone behind her.
Mesema had never been in a fight, but she had been in a war; she knew getting out of the way of a sword was more important than understanding why it was there. She dashed behind the lemon tree and now she saw it was Grada standing under the arch of the open gate, holding her twisted Knife while Jafar advanced upon her. He thrust and she ducked, spun and came up inside his guard, putting her Knife to his neck. They stood nose to nose and her dark eyes locked upon his. The cold expression on Grada’s face turned Mesema’s stomach to ice.
Jafar’s sword clattered against the flagstones when he dropped it.
‘Tell me about the child,’ Grada hissed. ‘Die, filth,’ he said, ‘or else kill me.’
Grada was about to ask another question when her gaze flicked Mesema’s way. At that moment Mesema felt the fabric press against the back of her shoulders and the cold of a blade against her neck. She had forgotten the first guard. ‘Let Jafar go,’ he said, ‘and I will not kill your little spy.’ He was not so awkward as she had believed, holding his dagger firmly where it would do the most damage. She stopped breathing.
‘She is not my spy,’ said Grada, but nevertheless she stepped away from Jafar. Mesema saw something flash in Grada’s hand just as her foot went out, connecting with Jafar’s stomach. The blade touching Mesema’s skin fell away and she heard a rattle as something hit the wall to her left.
The moustached guard crumpled behind her. Blood soaked his shirt and her robes.
Jafar doubled over as if in pain, but really his hand sought the sword he had dropped. Grada stepped on it and brought her knee into his face. Another moment, and she was crouching over him, the Knife against his neck once more. ‘What does he look like?’ she asked.
‘Who?’ Jafar was disoriented now, frightened and humiliated.
Mesema watched, frozen in place. ‘The baby you’re hiding.’
Jafar looked puzzled, and he moved his lips a few times before answering. ‘Some ugly get from the north. Don’t—’ Then he jerked, and gasped.
Grada’s Knife had pierced his heart, but Mesema had not even seen her move.
Grada stood, wiping the blood from her twisted blade, and examined the house. ‘They have no windows facing the courtyard – probably to give their women privacy. Good for us.’ Grada sounded distant.
Mesema had seen much death during the Red Hoof War, even the clouded eyes of her own brother, and yet she could not move. Grada removed her knife-belt and drew off her grey robe, revealing a tunic and leggings beneath. ‘You’re covered in blood. Wash your face and sandals at the pump, then wear this.’ She paused. ‘Your Majesty.’
Mesema looked around for a water-pump, found it against the house and approached on shaking legs. Numbly she worked the handle and splashed water over her face and feet. ‘You killed them,’ she said, pulling on the grey robe.
‘They laid hands upon my empress.’ Grada’s gaze shifted from the house door to the gate as she replaced her belt.
Mesema frowned. The man who had come outside with Jafar had not touched her, but she decided to say nothing about that. ‘Hurry. We’ve taken too long.’ Grada retrieved the dagger she’d thrown at the moustached guard, who was now lying in a corner among some leaves, and walked out through the gate. ‘But there’s something here. I saw—’ In the map room she had seen blue in a shaft of sunlight, but perhaps it had been only her ring, caught in a beam from the window – a trick of the eye. Not a message from the Hidden God; nothing more than an excuse to leave the palace, to feel important. ‘Daveed is not here.’ She wiped at a tear.
‘I was fairly certain he was not.’ Grada walked at a fast clip. ‘News of this will spread quickly among the Mogyrk rebels. A nursemaid comes calling and soon three guards are lying dead. If Daveed was anywhere near—’
‘—he won’t be any longer.’ Mesema made fists so tight her fingernails cut into the flesh of her palms. Stupid, stupid. And yet for a trick of the eye it had guided her true. Those men had been of Mogyrk.
‘You should leave such things to me, Your Majesty.’ Grada’s voice betrayed some impatience. A carriage passed them by, one bejewelled hand holding open the curtain, and Mesema pulled her scarf tight. Her wheaten hair could yet betray her to a courtier.
‘That house is important.’ It had to be, else those deaths were for nothing.
‘I have been watching it for some time. Lord Nessen’s lands are on the northern border, and he has sympathy for the Fryth.’ Grada chose the steep stairs over the gentle road, and Mesema followed in her wake, picking a careful descent, looking in vain for handholds. ‘He’s not in Nooria, but I think he soon will be. They have received several deliveries of food, as if they expect a large company.’
The sun was beginning to set. How long had she been out in the city? ‘I was going to pretend to be a servant, since you cannot do such a thing,’ Mesema said. ‘They are prejudiced against your kind.’ Untouchable, Sarmin had called her. It was in her eyes.
‘I am not the only spy the emperor commands, heaven bless him.’
‘I have made your work more difficult.’ Something compelled Mesema to continue talking, to wrap words around her actions until they came up clean. She had run out into the city, impulsive and arrogant, thinking to save Daveed with a map and blue light. Now men had paid for it with their lives.
Grada glanced over her shoulder and offered spare words of comfort. ‘They will be forced to play their hand sooner now, and that may help us.’
‘Their hand? Is there another Mogyrk conspiracy?’ So focused had she been on Daveed that she had never thought there might be more at risk: another mistake she had made.
Grada quickened her pace without answering, almost skipping down the endless stairs, and Mesema had to hurry to keep up. She was no longer that girl who had run across the plains without tiring; now her lungs burned in her chest. ‘I will tell the emperor about this myself, may the gods bless him.’
‘It would be as well that you do, for I do not bother his Majesty with unimportant news.’
Mesema’s errand had not felt trivial. Anger flashed over her, renewing her pride. ‘You cannot speak to me this way. I am your empress.’
Grada touched the Knife at her side. ‘In the city I am in control, so that I may keep you alive. In the palace you may do as you like.’ She had the right of it; the emperor’s Knife was not just any member of the Grey Service. She could make decisions of life or death over any royal person, including Sarmin himelf. Grada served the empire, and in the way she saw fit. It was all in that ugly weapon.
They descended the rest of the way in silence, Mesema praying her legs did not give out on her.
At the bottom of the hill Grada stopped and listened, giving Mesema a chance to catch her breath. ‘There are rebels fighting around the edges of the Maze,’ she said. ‘We will take a different path.’
Mesema could hear nothing but she followed Grada without a word, holding tightly to her veil. She had not realised the Maze was so close. They took a circular path to the bridge she had crossed before, where the crowds had thinned and a man dressed all in black pushed a broom over the stones. By the time they passed through the covered market the sun had settled beyond the river and vendors were packing up their stalls. They turned onto the broad avenue leading past the Tower and Mesema recalled the beginning of her day and the sense of rightness she had carried: it seemed distant. A man approached, stumbling, smelling of alcohol, and Grada put herself between him and Mesema until he had disappeared around the next corner.
‘Thank you,’ she said, but Grada did not reply.
In the evening those who had failed to gain an audience filled the streets around the palace. Every sunset they could be seen from the roof, some well-dressed and moving with angry impatience, others in rags, stumbling. Occasionally a carriage, moving fast, entered the street and forced everyone to scatter, or a merchant’s cart would move through, offering fruit or drink to the petitioners.
Mesema and Grada moved against the flow, coming towards the palace instead of leaving it. Then Grada took her arm and pulled her into the shadow of a doorway. ‘Soldiers,’ she said. ‘Best they don’t see you.’
At first Mesema could see only a disturbance, walkers and carts flowing to either side like water around a great stone, but as the group drew close she recognised the squad of Blue Shields, approaching the palace with brisk steps. They looked straight ahead, hands curled around the hilts of their swords. As a child in wartime Mesema had become accustomed to judging what sort of news a person had by their bearing. Stiff and nervous, these soldiers had come to report something bad. The two women waited for them to pass, and then a while longer, before following in their wake.
‘What do you think happened?’ Mesema looked up at Grada’s expressionless face. ‘Is it about Daveed?’
‘Probably not,’ said Grada, her fingers straying to the hilt of her Knife.
Mesema had seen enough of the Knife for one day. ‘Let’s keep moving.’
At the courtyard Grada held Mesema back while she checked for soldiers and guards, then waved her through. ‘Use the servants’ entrance,’ she said. ‘Go and change.’
‘We’re in the palace now,’ Mesema said with some relief. ‘You cannot tell me what to do.’ Nevertheless she went in by the servants’ entrance and took the circuitous route to the women’s wing. The guards looked at her grey robes with curiosity as they opened the doors. She ignored them as she passed through.
The new women’s wing was white and spare, as plain as a Rider’s longhouse, except for the mosaic of Mirra set into the floor. The peaceful room brought her calm and she smiled at the concubines who sat around the Great Room, embroidering their shawls.
Tarub, waiting by the mirror, jumped up when she entered her bedchamber. ‘Your Majesty! I was so worried—’
‘Quickly,’ said Mesema, casting aside the assassin’s robe. ‘I must stand with my husband the emperor in the throne room.’
Excerpted from The Tower Broken by Mazarkis Williams. Copyright © 2014 by Mazarkis Williams.
First published in Great Britain in 2014 by Jo Fletcher Books, an imprint of Quercus, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
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