by Cat Rambo

“Allow me to pay for your drink, Lady Kara,” Leksander Oash drawled. “I know Fale has trouble at time with the bills.” Coins rang on the dust-gritted tavern table as the young nobleman stood with an unpleasant smile, staring at the woman a few tables away.

Behind him, his half-brother Alge guffawed, and one of the courtesans with the men tittered, a sound as brittle and false as the gilt bangles adorning her olive-skinned limbs. Her nails were tinted to match the bracelets and her dark eyes were kohl-shaded to give her the appearance of a midnight rendezvous even now at midday. The other courtesan held her fingers over her mouth, making it unclear whether she was amused, shocked, or sympathetic.

Karaluvian Fale knew she’d think of a thousand witty things to say as soon as Leksander and Alge exited through the hanging bead curtain of the inn’s entrance. She stared at her friend and servant Ionna’s sympathetic but speechless face across the table and finally, desperately, erected the public persona that stood her in good stead on these occasions.

“Dear Lord Oash,” she trilled, half-turning, pitching her voice to an annoyingly high pitch and letting her lavender bangs fall over guileless eyes. It was her “thinking of kittens” expression. “How kind of you! It’s so rare to see an Oash paying a bill. Shall I direct my house to take this as a declaration of interest?”

Leksander Oash had been resisting matchmaking for several decades now. His father had sired a fine crop of bastards, such as Alge, and Leksander devoted himself to building a household from them rather than starting a family, Kara was amused rather than offended at the grimace of distaste crossing his face.

“Given the swift workings of the Allanak rumor mill, let me quash that one straight out,” Leksander said with grim satisfaction. “The days Oash marries into Fale, both moons will fall from the sky.”

“See, we have so much in common already,” she said in the most dulcet of tones, so sweet it made her teeth want to leap out of her mouth. She was rewarded with the faintest flush of anger, perhaps embarrassment, on his aquiline face. He turned and left in a clatter of beads, his sibling and women trailing after him.

“Well,” Kara said, looking at the handful of coins on the other table. “At least I’m sure we can pay now. Although I note he neither paid for you nor included a tip. Trust Oash to pinchpurse even on their public insults.”

“He’s getting worse,” Ionna said. “Had Gracchus been here, he wouldn’t have dared. If knowledge is too public about Fale’s lack of coin, will the Highlord allow the House to continue to stand?”

“There’s a good chance he might not,” Kara said, “and remember…it’s Beneficence Gracchus. Now that he’s been elevated in office, we must be less informal with him.” She smiled tightly at her friend. Around them, the clatter and gossip of the Inn, fallen to silence at the Oash’s words, had renewed itself to an even livelier hubbub. “You might do well if you talked to Oash about them hiring you now, rather than wait for later. If they thought you’d be of help in bringing us down, they’d pay you better than I do.”

Ionna touched her fingertips to the back of Kara’s hand with an affectionate look. “Never, Kara. Who plucked me from the streets and taught me to read and write – not to mention how to eat a honeyed cochra! Who created the official position of a Whatsit for me?”

“Well, I had long needed a Whatsit, to remember things for me,” Kara rejoined.

Ionna tilted her head and touched her hair. “Who else was clever enough to dye my hair green so she and I together display the House colors?”

“Is that clever or simply mad?” Kara said.

“A little of both.”

Kara could not help but laugh. “Very well. Run along ahead of me, and make sure that the loaves are taken from the oven in time. My heel is broken and I must walk a little slower, but I will catch up with you at the estate.”

“Very well, m’lady.”

Swirls of fine red dust flowed like water over the cobblestones of the street. An eerie hiss rose from all sides: the sound of the grains sprayed by the wind against the obdurate stone buildings.

The airborne sand tinted distances like mist, but she knew the red robe coming towards her. He was a burly man, broad-shouldered, bristle-bearded, with a scowl that changed into a smile as he saw her.

“Lady Kara,” the Beneficence said, extending an arm. “Walk with me?”

Gracchus Kasix was a stout-shouldered, burly man, with a beard that bristled as fiercely as his temper’s reputation. The red robes of his rank that swirled around him were made of expensive northern silk, and around his neck was a gleam of gold, rare anywhere in Zalanthas. Red dust ran like blood in the folds of his heavy robes.

She fluttered a hand at him before slipping it through his arm. Her voice pitched itself up slightly; she’d found people more likely to take her for a featherhead that way. “Will you walk slowly? I have broken my heel.”

“You are poor at being a noble, Kara,” he said slyly.

“I beg your pardon?”

He arranged her hand on his arm. “I mean that you spare servants where others would not. But I am glad I ran into you. It has been at least two days since I had anyone chattering nonsense in my ear.”

She smiled lightly as she walked beside him. “I had dispatched her to look out from the southern edge of the city to judge the weather because I was contemplating a trip down to Red Storm to see the sunset over the silt flats.”

He snorted. “A trip to buy smoke, you mean. The Highlord forbid the Fales go without their illegal luxuries.”

“I don’t do that sort of thing.”

“Then you are surely a changeling, Lady Kara, for I have never met a Fale who turned down intoxicants.”

“No,” she said. “But smoke makes you something other than you are, and I would hate to lose myself. Imagine, what if I became someone else, and then I met my old self! We would quarrel over who got to walk with you.” She gave him a look through her lashes.

“I hear Leksander gave you trouble earlier.”

“Oh, was that what that was? I thought he was trying to court me.”

Gracchus snorted out a laugh. The enmity between Fale and Oash had lasted for decades.

“May I come and see you tomorrow, when the sun is down?”

“You are always welcome, you know that,” she said, smiling at him. “We will steal little cakes from the kitchen, and Ionna will bring us mint-water and we will admire the last of the sunset over Allanak.”

“So you will postpone your trip to Red Storm?”

“For you, of course.”

They walked along the sun-laden street in companionable silence. After two blocks, Gracchus cleared his throat.

“I saw your brother this morning, looking very fine in new fighting gear.”

Her foot wavered sideways on the broken heel and her lips thinned before she found a smile. “Is that so. I rarely keep track of the fads he follows.”

Gracchus looked at her sideways, the white of his eye rolling, his jaw set in amusement. “I mention it only because his tailor was trailing him about, importuning that his bill be paid.”

They walked for another few blocks before she said, tightly, angrily, “Sometimes it feels as though you try to catch me out, Lord Kasix.”

He stopped, astonished, caught her hand when she would have hurried onward. “I beg your pardon, Kara, I intended no such thing.” He stared down into her eyes, shaded by pale purple bangs, holding her hands close to his chest, trapped within his own. His voice softened. “Surely you know that, pretty Kara.”

“Is that you speaking, Gracchus, or the newly appointed wielder of Tektolnes’ power?”

“Can’t it be both?” He twined his fingers through hers, looking her in the face.

She extracted her hands nonetheless. “I need to get home. I promised Ionna I would oversee the meal.”

“That seems very domestic for you, Kara. I can see you in the kitchen, singing to the fire and letting all the cakes burn and pots overboil.”

She had practiced that trill of laughter. “But how will I learn to oversee banquets, pageants, and festivals without such training? A Fale must know the ins and outs of producing extravaganzas!”

“Then I will speak to you tomorrow.” At the gate to the Noble’s Quarter, they paused and bowed to each other.

“Tomorrow then,” Gracchus repeated.

“Tomorrow.” She turned and walked away, feeling him watching her. Her ankle ached from the strain of trying to maintain an even pace, but she kept it up until she turned the corner. There she stopped and shed her shoes, relishing the coolness of the pavement underfoot counting on her skirts to conceal her feet until she had made the short way home.

The Fale estate was on the west side of the Quarter. A few ancient hedges lined the gateway, their branches huddled inward as though to protect themselves from the constant wind. Lanterns of purple and green glass hung on either side of the main gate, made of wide slats of thornwood. No one stood at hand to shift the massive weight. The north breeze had slowed, and the sand in it murmured against the dry wood.

Kara entered instead through the smaller servants’ gate and went down the dusty hallway and into the kitchen. She hummed to herself as she went.

Thadeus Fale was there, sitting at the table, hunched over expectantly. At her entrance he looked up. His sun-mottled scalp was ink and wisped with grayish hair like cobwebs, his wrinkled face set in a smile at the sight of her. Ionna had taken the loaves from the oven. They sat in a golden-crusted row, sending out their sweet scent.

“Papa, there is bread and fruit-paste in the cupboard,” Kara said.

His smile turned to a frown. “That’s not what I want!” he snapped. “I want honeycakes and a tandu meat roll with ginka sauce. Wake the cook! I have been calling for her for hours!”

Kara sighed. Steam wafted up underneath her knife as she sliced through the loaf’s crust. Ionna entered, standing in the doorway. “There is no cook, Papa, and you are lucky that I baked this morning,” she said over her shoulder. “Lunaris spent the last of the housekeeping money gambling and the stipend from the Highlord will not come for another three weeks. But I will bake cakes tonight, when it has cooled, and there will be some for you.”

He blinked at her as she spread paste on the bread and handed it to him. He turned his attention to the food in his hands and after another few blinks, began to eat it.

Once Thadeus had been settled with food, Ionna followed Kara into the ballroom. The furniture sat contained in linen sheets to keep it free of red dust, fine and persistent as ash. Ionna and Kara had worked to shroud it a few months earlier, after the ball that the Fales traditionally celebrated their yearly stipend with. Officially it was called the Sand and Pearl Festival, in honor of two Fale ancestors whose story and lineage had been, like so much of the family’s history, extremely complicated.

Kara flopped down on a covered lounge, sending up a dust cloud and a flutter of disturbed insects. “If Leksander pushes further, I have no way of proving his accusations of pennilessness wrong. Not that they’re false in the first place. And I thought I had enough to keep us looking well afloat, up until Lunaris found where I’d hidden it. This time I don’t know how we’re getting out of it.”

Ionna peered down at her employer and friend over the sofa back. The two women were similar in height, but Kara’s hair fell in lavender lengths, while Ionna’s curlier hair rippled in waves of green. Ionna’s eyes seemed to combine the two shades: the right was a brilliant amethyst, the left emerald. “We could dig for treasure in the back garden.”

Kara laid her head back and contemplated the dust-caked molding of the ceiling some twenty feet overhead. The three chandeliers were contained in sacks, and the red dust accumulated in rusty shadows on the yellowed folds.

“We could find you a templar to wed, one who would shower you with gems and housekeeping money.”

Kara’s lips thinned. Two small scorpions, midnight-carapaced, moved over the nearest chandelier’s covering, and she thought she could almost hear the scratching of their legs against the cloth. Colored lights danced across her vision.

“We could…” Ionna started again, but Kara held up a hand, gesturing for silence.

“I’m getting a headache,” she said with weary patience. “Go and bring dampened towels and a basin to my room.”

“Of course, my lady.” Contrition was evident in the Whatsit’s tone. Kara closed her eyes and listened to the slap of Ionna’s bare soles against the marble floor. Kara could hear the howl of the wind outside the high arched windows that overlooked the neglected garden, and the rattle of delivery carts and carriages on the street outside.

As she passed the arched windows overlooking the courtyard there was a clash of weapons and a gleeful shout – Lunaris, showing off for his friends again. She let out a sigh, shielding her eyes from the painful sunlight with the back of her arm.

Her room was located in an otherwise deserted wing considered past repair. Through hard work and patience, Kara had reclaimed it from disrepair, sanding out gouges in the floor where an ancestor had housed her hounds, mending worm-eaten tapestries, and furnishing it with the best pieces scavenged from other rooms where storms had torn away walls or roof.

Settled in her bed, she put her head under her pillows and sighed. What to do? Fale’s precarious financial state would be exposed, creditors would call in their bills, and the house and all its holdings, even sold for ten times their worth, would not be enough to satisfy those debts.

Marrying well had been a traditional means of salvation for Fales in the past, but currently there were not eligible nobles, with the exception of the loathsome Leksander Oash. No sane woman would have her equally loathsome sibling. If only she could marry a Templar! Gracchus liked her well enough, or liked the version she gave him, at any rate.

The door opened and Ionna’s quick steps sounded her arrival. “I have damp towels for you, Lady Kara.”

“Put them beside the bed.”

The bed creaked as Ionna sat down beside her and began to rub Kara’s neck. Groaning, Kara rolled her shoulders and extended her neck, feeling the touch coaxing cramped muscles open, loose.

“Kara, you don’t have to carry the weight of the entire House,” Ionna said.

“But who else will carry it?”

“We’ll run away to Luirs and become entertainers at the Tan Muark tavern, the Silver Wheel. You’ll sing and play the guitar. I’ll pass the hat and badger the stingy until coins fly from their fingers on wings of shame.”

“Would that I could gather coins with my money.”

“Kara, I’m telling you again. You should confide in Gracchus. One of the Highlord’s Beneficences would have enough coin and influence to drive off Oash.”

“One, Gracchus’s friendship with me is half of why I’m a target for the Oash. They can’t stand the thought of a Beneficence without their collar on him. And two, he’d cast me aside quickly if he knew I was penniless. And three…” She fell silent.

“Three?” Ionna prompted.

“Three, I’m never quite sure what Gracchus wants from me.”

“He likes you because you don’t bow and scrape the way the rest of them do. I swear he’d ask you to marry him if he could.”

“Pah. He’s from House Kasix, and Kasix does nothing that is not calculated.”

The next day, the wind was from the south, carrying with it evil intimations of ash, the depleted residue of magic, the spoor of sorcerers. It made the head ache and dried the eyes and lips.

Kara could hear the usual clack of blade on blade well before she rounded the corner to the Fale courtyard and its garden of statuary. Lunaris danced in the center with the captain of the Fale guards, a toad-bodied man who had embraced flab in his declining years and who was showing the effort now of sparring with his charge. Red spots mottled his cheeks, and he was bent over, concentrating on catching his breath, more intent than a night-waker who finds a ghost draining their lungs.

“At least if Lunaris drove him to pitching over, we’d be able to hire a young captain at a lower price,” she thought.

Lunaris smirked at the older man, saluting him with a sweep of the wooden weapon. He turned with a practiced swirl of cape and midnight blue hair.

“Kara, how unpleasant to see you,” he said, and giggled with another smirk.

“Lunaris, where did it all go?”

“All what?” He preened, flicked imaginary dust off his cape.

She eyed his snakeskin and silk outfit in horror. “You spent it on fancy clothes?”

“Of course not,” he said. “I bought a sword from House Salarr as well, but it is not due to be delivered till next Abid.”

His hair glittered with the iridescence of a beetle’s carapace. He was just as hollow, she thought, and bit back tears. He could not help who he was.

When she and Ionna opened up her cupboards, trying to figure out how they would keep her wardrobe up to date, moths fluttered out. Kara could have wept, seeing her hopes for finery fly away on tiny parchment wings, like pamphlets of lost dreams.

She pleaded headache and went to lie down. She lay among the cluster of bright dresses marked with the meandering tracks of moth grubs and sank into misery. The House would fall. Her father would be reduced to begging outside the Traders Inn. Lunaris would no doubt be treated badly by the Oash, which was a mildly cheering thought. She didn’t know what would happen to Ionna, but Kara had no right to hold her servant to her if Ionna would do better elsewhere.

The door creaked as someone opened it. “Beneficence Gracchus is here,” Ionna said.

“Gods and moons.” Kara pressed her hands to her face, trying to wipe away tears. “Bring me a cool cloth and then tell him I will meet him in the garden in a little while.”

The ash-laden wind had died down and sand-colored bats fluttered back and forth in the last of the sun over the Quarter. Gracchus stood peering into an elderly fountain that sporadically slurped out green-colored water, his hands clasped behind his back.

“Are you looking for the ghost?” Kara said.

He turned away from the lily pads mottling the surface to look at her. “What ghost?”

“A servant was supposed to have drowned herself after being spurned by an ancestor, several generations ago. I’ve never seen it, though.” She sighed. “It would be so interesting to see a ghost. Do you think it would appear wearing the House colors, all purple and green?”

He reached out to run the ball of his thumb along her face, as though feeling the drag of moisture there. “Kara, why have you been crying?”

“It has been a long and dreary day,” she said, putting aside her customary prattle for a moment.

“That’s all?” He stepped closer.

She let herself give into the urge to nestle her head along his shoulder. He felt comfortable and solid.

“There were moths,” she said.

She felt the chuckle as much as heard it. “Moths.”

“I won’t have clothes for this season. I’ve spent all my budget.”

He stroked her hair. “What if I said I had confiscated a wagon of Kadian silks – the driver had a pouch of smoke on him – and that you might have your pick of them?”

“Really?” She stepped back to look up at him, resting her palms on his chest. “Truly, Gracchus?”

She thought he would have kissed her then, but instead he released her, stepping back. “Yes, truly, sweet Kara. I have the wagon sent round in the morning, and you shall decide which bolts you want. Take enough to outfit Ionna as well. Not Lunaris, though.”

They both laughed at that, but then Lunaris said from the garden entrance, “Not Lunaris what?”

His color was high and rosy, and there was a slur to his voice, a drag to his eyelids that betrayed he had been drinking.

“Lunaris, go away,” she said, even as Gracchus said, “I may extend favors to your sister, but I will fund no business of yours. Are we clear on that, Lunaris Fale?”

Lunaris stepped forward, tottered, danced with a high stone pillar for balance before he recovered himself and, clutching it, said with a haughty grimace, “As though I would want your funds! I have friends, well-pocketed friends.”

“If you speak of the Oash, you are riding a dangerous horse in that race,” Gracchus said.

“Better the Oash than a corrupt old slug sniffing around a bony rack in hopes of table leavings!” Lunaris pointed at Kara.

“That doesn’t even make sense,” she said. “Lunaris, go to bed before you embarrass yourself.”

“Too late for that,” Gracchus murmured.

Lunaris staggered forward. “You keep your mouth off me!”

Gracchus’s eyebrow twitch, Kara’s involuntary laugh, were all the prompt that Lunaris needed. He swung, and Gracchus ducked below the clumsy blow. Kara gasped. Striking a Beneficence was high treason, even for a noble! She pushed herself in between them, shoved Lunaris down. He staggered back, hitting his head on the bench, and sat.

“Ionna!” Kara shouted.

Ionna appeared at the gateway. “My lady?”

Kara pointed at Lunaris. “Go and call the head of the guard and have him taken away and to bed.”

After Lunaris had been hauled away by the arms by two guards, with Ionna supervising, Gracchus poured the last of the mint water into the goblet at his side and sniffed at the film of ash on its surface.

Trying to regain her equilibrium – what would Gracchus choose to do about Lunaris? – Kara began snipping old roses from the bushes surrounding the fountains.

Gracchus set his goblet down. “This is charmingly domestic again,” he said. “I thought just last month you told me you thought you would become an assassin.”

“I still maintain I would make an excellent one,” she said. “I can move quietly, I have learned to throw a knife…”

Gracchus interjected, looking alarmed. “You have learned to throw a knife? How?”

“Through practice, how else? And Ionna gave me some tips. Look, I will show you.” A knife appeared in her hand and he looked twice as alarmed.

She used the knife to cut a rose from amid a tangle of thorny leaves, then flung the blade overhanded. It landed in the old wooden statue that the Fale children used as a playmate, quivering in the triangular patch that served the dummy as nose. With a grin at Gracchus, she fastened the rose in her hair.

He watched her thoughtfully. “Kara,” he said. “Just when I think I have you figured out, you turn all my notions on their heads.”

She simpered, while her thoughts raced. Perhaps this was the time to reveal herself to Gracchus, to show herself not the chattering socialite he thought her, but a mind as sharp and steeped in Allanak politics as his own.

She opened her mouth to speak, but he spoke first.

“They want me to plan a Festival that will rouse the city spirits.”

The moment had fled. She retrieved her knife and clipped two buds.

He said, “Perhaps you might do some of the helping with the planning?”

She turned to blink at him. “You want me to help?”

“The city’s pockets are deep and as long as there is much to gawk at and games to keep people entertained. You have a genius for that sort of thing.” He laughed. “Remember the party last year where you had the coach races and the party guests pulling them with the mounts inside, sticking their heads out the windows and rolling their eyes at the spectacle? And you can use the Kadian silks to make yourself a new dress for each day of the Festival.”

“Well,” she said, cutting another desiccated rose bud away. “I suppose I could put off becoming an assassin a little longer to help you out.” Her heart sang. New clothing and a Festival to plan! And in the process of spending the City’s money, would anyone notice if a little went astray here and there in order to help Fale keep up appearances?

Within three days, she found herself regretting it, despite the deliveries of food for testing to the Fale kitchens, the tailors working at stitching ornamental banners as well as new outfits for herself and Ionna, the new hired carriage standing ready to take her all over Allanak on her errands. Her mind was awash with details, with lists and schedules and prices.

“Are you sure you’re all right with all this? I would have expected you to put all numbers in the hands of a scribe,” Gracchus said. He looked at her across the table. They sat in the Trader’s Inn, towards the back, listening to the clink of glasses, the hiss of the wind outside. Papers lay scattered across the table.

“I’m all right,” she said. “The weather has been bad for my headaches lately.”

He gave her a sympathetic look. “Should I put away talk of the refreshments for now?”

“No, no,” she said. “The sooner all of this is figured out the sooner we can put it all away, but not till then.”

He shuffled the papers, dry leaves covered with numbered. “Very well. I could understand these figures for pastries, to be dispensed in the Great Bazaar, but what are these bushels of honey candy for?”

“Ah!” She brightened. “I have had a magnificent idea. I have hired wind mages to fly above Meleth’s Circle and throw down candies.”

He eyed her in alarm. “Kara, are you seriously suggesting that I license mages to fly above crowds pelting them?”

“Tossing, not pelting.”

“Kara, I must put my foot down at this. Mages are dangerous and unpredictable, wind mages a hundred times more so.” He frowned.

She eyed him. She knew that he’d always had an unreasonable (or so it seemed to her) fear of magic. But as a Red robed Beneficence, wouldn’t the Highlord’s power protect him?

“Then I suppose you don’t want fire mages and fireworks along Merchant Road,” she sighed.

His face reddened with temper.

“Very well.” She made an airy gesture with her hand. “I will forego the fireworks.” She flashed him a charming smile, trying to extract the same expression from his face.

“And the wind mages,” he said coldly.

She dimpled, still trying to catch a matching spark of amusement in his eyes. “Oh well.”

He relented and took her hand, drawing it through his, fingers closing to shackle hers with fondness.

“Well now, this is a pretty scene,” a voice sneered.

Gracchus did not release her hand as he looked up. “Lord Oash,” he said.

Leksander Oash blocked out the patterned rectangle of light that was the doorway, his retinue behind him. “Another tax levied for your Festival,” he said to Gracchus. “Will you tax the sand from our robes?”

Gracchus stroked his beard. “A sand tax, an amusing conceit.”

“Perhaps you would let your companion pay hers in sand. That sounds to be the only way her House could pay it.” Leksander’s attention was trained like a gimlet on Kara.

Beads clattered as Lunaris entered, sauntered over towards them.

“Leksander,” he said with a studied friendliness.

“Fale,” Leksander said. “Come and drink wine with me.”

Lunaris’s grin was a triumphant puppy trying to pretend it was a jackal. “Very well.”

Kara watched them anxiously. The Oash would use Lunaris somehow, she knew with a sinking heart. He was a danger to the House. What could she do to protect it?

“Smile, pretty Kara,” Gracchus said. “The Festival will lift your spirits and take all your cares away.

“Tell me,” Kara said to the first bard. He was a gray-eyed Northerner, an exile who kept quiet when not playing. “How many times do you need to hear a new song before you can sing it at the Festival?”

“Once,” he said. “I am Tuluki-trained, lady.”

“And do you fear to sing political songs, as some bards do?”

“I would not sing against the Highlord,” he said quickly, but she shook her head.

“Songs against higher-ups, but not so high up as that,” she said. “The Beneficences are not targets.”

He looked unconvinced.

“I have the ear of a Templar,” she said. “At most you’ll spend a night or two in the cell, and I would pay you well for that inconvenience.”

He hesitated. “Play me the song.”

“There are several. Here is the first, called, “The Oash Are A-Hiring.”

Her fingers coaxed a quick melody out of the guitar. He listened and a smile trembled on his lips as the family in the song hired more and more unsuitable servants. He drew in a breath when the song moved from unsuitable to treasonous servants. Dangerous sands to tread. He considered the lady and she looked up and gave him a smile that would have made even the smartest man stupid.

“You promise me you’ll pay well if I’m arrested?” he questioned.

She nodded.

He grinned. “Very well, lady Kara. Teach me your songs.”

Lunaris found Kara in the kitchen, sorting through sacks of lentils to remove pebbles and grit.

“Kara.” He leaned in the door with a creak of leather, a tilted smile. “How is your Festival planning going?”

“What do you want, Lunaris?” She poured several handfuls of lentils into the soup roiling in the fireplace. Sand spoke idly on the wooden shutters and gritted underfoot.

He touched his vest, tugging it down to better fit his figure. “I was thinking that you might need honor guards for the parade.”

“Honor guards.” She sorted an onion from a bag and diced it with neat, precise strokes of the knife she held.

“My friends and I thought that if we were all outfitted suitably, we would be a fine honor guard.”

“I see. A gang of shiny young men and women, marching at the front of the parade.” She sizzled the onion bits in the pan and watched their dance rather than look at him. “And I should spend Gracchus’s money on this because?”

“What do you care? It’s not your money.” He peered into the boiling lentils and wrinkled his nose. “Peasant food,” he said dismissively. “Why not get a few more crates of good stuff sent around here?”

“Because you and your friends ate your way through the last, before I even had a chance to see what was being offered. I am not buying uniforms or more pastries for you and your friends,” she said flatly. She covered the onions with a lid, muffling their heated whispers. “And when your tailor came round this afternoon, I told him the House would not cover your bill.”

His face darkened. “You’ll regret this, Sister Karaluvian.”

After he had gone, she held onto the table for support, breathing.

“This part,” Kara said. “Personally I would accompany with a drummer, were I so bold as to be arranging it.”

The gray-eyed bard nodded. By now he had recruited several others, readying them for the Festival.

New songs were hard to come by – a new one each day was unheard of.

“Lady,” he said slyly. “Who writes these songs, and why does he not come forward to sing them himself?”

Kara put the guitar on which she had been demonstrating the latest down on her lap. She was a seasoned player, the bard noted. Calluses marked her fingers – something few noblewomen would have allowed.

“Someone for whom it would be inappropriate to play in public,” she said dryly.

He looked at her servant, hovering in the doorway behind her. If he had to pick between the two as candidates for author of these ballads, so wry, so pointed, so catchy, he would put his money on Lady Kara.

“Whoever they are, they are very talented,” he said, meeting her eyes.

She rewarded him with a smile.

“Indeed,” she said. “Let us go over that chorus again. It must sound like dancing.”

The day of the Festival the air was clear and bright, soaked with sunlight. The purple silk Kara had selected for her dress was figured with harps and guitars.

“Bold,” Ionna said, looking it over. “That is a Northern print, isn’t it?”

Kara twirled, arms outstretched. “The coffers of Allanak and Gracchus’s festival yielded enough for the finest seamstress in the city.”

“So you think you have skimmed enough off to keep the House afloat?”

“Afloat for at least two seasons!” Kara gloated. “I have padded expenses and taken kickbacks, skimmed and dipped, all in the name of the Highlord.”

“You don’t think Gracchus will say anything if he notices?”

Kara smoothed the silk down over her hips and went to the dresser to get green ribbons to tie through her lavender hair. “Gracchus thinks me too much of a featherhead to be capable of such deviousness.” She tugged at a knotted plait.

Ionna coaxed the tangled hair loose and took up a comb, smoothing Kara’s hair to fall smooth and straight. “Then we don’t need to flee to Luirs,” she said.

Kara smiled at her maid’s face in the mirror. “Not yet, at any rate.”

Outside the Trader’s Inn the archways all along the circle stood swaddled in jade and black bunting, the city’s colors. A small stage had been erected near the Inn. Kara paused long enough to check the banks of vendors, the crispness of the bunting, the assembled bards, the troop of soldiers ready for crowd control. She swept on with Ionna in her wake.

“Where are we going?”

“I’ve directed the parade to assemble in the Merchants’ Quarter and come up Temple Way.

The streets were crowded and cheerful. They made their way through sellers and buyers, peasants come to Allanak for the day, troops of soldier going between the gates and the Beneficents’ Quarter. The parade, gathered just outside the Beneficients’ Gate, was a conglomeration of carts, some bearing celebrities and military figures with their guards, others laden with tableaus of painted clowns and side show freaks: a half-man, half-mantis; a two-headed toddler; a ox-sized albino beetle.

Kara beckoned Gracchus over. He looked nervous but freshly washed and groomed.

“We’re in the second cart, in the place of honor,” she told him. “Go up there.”

He looked around at the collisions of crowds and carts. “This is chaos,” he muttered.

“It will all turn out,” Kara said cheerfully. “Go on the cart. I’ll be along soon.”

Ionna had always known that her employer’s guise as fluffhead was deceptive, but in the next ten minutes she perceived the depth of that deception as Kara re-ordered the wagons, checked the timing, settled two squabbles, and prevented the half-man, half-mantis from eating the toddler. Then, with a squeak of glee, the noblewoman allowed a burly soldier to hand her up to the wagon and the waiting Gracchus.

Kara’s arm flashed up as she waved the first cart forward, and then she clutched at Gracchus’s arm for balance as they lurched forward. The crowds shouted. Kara and Ionna threw honey candies from the baskets in the front of the cart while Gracchus waved benignly at the faces surrounding them in the sunlight. As they neared the Trader’s Inn, the first group of bards began to sing.

“Oh the Oash are a-hiring…”

“What’s that?” Gracchus said to Kara.

She listened intently as the song grew louder. “Ah, that’s a new song that’s been going around about the Oash hiring northern spies.”

Gracchus glanced back. Several carts past, just beginning to come within earshot of the bards, were Leksander and other glowering Oash. Gracchus laughed.

“Ah, you plan a good Festival indeed,” he said, and patted her arm. They rolled onward, and the little stage became visible. When they stopped, Gracchus dismounted, striding towards the stage. Kara watched him go before letting Ioanna help her down off the cart.

“Why are you smiling?” Ioanna asked.

“Because the Oash will find themselves the subject of public entertainment for months to come. My bards have a good score of new – and catchy – songs to entertain the public with.”

Ioanna grinned. “Come on, let’s get some of those tandu sausages.”

But before they could go farther, Leksander Oash interposed himself in their path. He was dressed in crisp white regalia, and the harsh sun danced on the stiff fabric.

“Lady Kara,” he said between gritted teeth. “You have arranged quite a charming Festival.”

She beamed at him. “Indeed, Lord, are you enjoying yourself?”

His eyes narrowed at her innocence.

She kept smiling. “Keep listening to the music, Lord. You will find quite a lot of it new.”

He swore. “I knew that it was all a big-eyed, simpering act! Believe me, Lady Fale, you’ll find yourself regretting this.” He strode off through the crowd. Kara saw him catch at Lunaris and pull the other in his wake.

She turned to Ioanna, smiling. “There’s a couple of songs in there about Lunaris as well.”

They made their way through the crowds. Together, they bought bangles made of green and purple glass and tied green and black feathers in their hair. They had their fortunes told – twice – and bet more than they lost at wrestling pit near the city entrance. They stopped at the booth outside the Temple of the Dragon and bought cold water mixed with fermented fruit juice and meat and cactus bits on skewers, roasted over a pan of charcoal.

When they came into the Traders’ Inn, they sat on either side of Gracchus and pestered him with questions, bantering back and forth, a conversation light and free of information as froth.

“Kara!” Lunaris, in the doorway, midnight blue hair a mirror of Kara’s cut. His clothing was a little less for the wear – it looked as though he might have been rolled, to tell the truth.

“Oh dear,” she said.

Gracchus followed her gaze. “Don’t worry,” he said. His hand clamped over his wrist, holding it to the table so she could not rise. He signaled, and two soldiers near the front of the Inn stepped towards Lunaris.

“Lunaris Fale, you are arrested for high treason,” Gracchus pronounced. He gestured at the soldiers. “Take him away to the jail.”

Leksander, in the doorway, gaped as the young Fale was dragged past him. Gathering his composure, he advanced on Grachhus with a swagger.

“What are the charges?”

“The spreading of seditious songs and chants. I believe you were the first to press for me to discover the perpetrator, Lord Oash.”

“How can you think he was the origin of the songs? Some of them were about him! It was his sister!”

Gracchus shook his head sorrowfully. “A cleverer subterfuge than one might expect from a Fale, to be true. Do you really expect the gentle Lady to have come up with such savage wit?” He gave Kara a fond smile.

Kara looked in bewilderment between them. She was pinned by Gracchus’ hand. Lunaris was gone, dragged out the door.

Leksander’s gaze fell on Kara. She expected him to say something but then, with a twist of his lips, he stepped forward, took her free hand, and pressed a kiss atop it. Gracchus’s grip tightened to the point of pain.

“In a different world, lady, I would have enjoyed understanding you better.”

A soldier entered and whispered to Gracchus.

“Ah,” Gracchus said. “It seems the young lord has implicated you in treason against the High Lord, Lord Oash.”

Leksandr released Kara’s hand, stepped back, saluted her. “I would have expected nothing less, Beneficence.”

He was not dragged out like Lunaris, but left paced by his guards.

Kara stared at Gracchus.

“You need not look so surprised, Lady Kara,” Gracchus said. “Someone had to shoulder the blame for the songs, given how much fuss the Oash were making. And now he will no longer drain your household, and what you have embezzled will keep Fale flying high and pretty for another year.”

Kara felt limp and drained, as though she might blow away in the heat and sun. “You knew…”

“I thought you would probably use the Festival to your advantage, as I would have in your case,” Gracchus said. “Paying a bard to write songs about your adversaries, knowing that all the crowd would be out and listening, ready to pass them on – another clever ploy.”

His fingers on her wrists were like steel. “We will work together well, you and I, now that the pretenses are over.”

“Lady Kara, your father is ailing, and asks that you take him back to the estate.” Ioanna was beside her, her eyes on Gracchus’s hands.

The Beneficence released her. “There will be a quick trial and tonight’s arena match will be finished with the death of the traitors. I will see how they fare against each other, I think.”

Lunarius would go first, Kara knew. And then Leksander standing between the high sandstone walls, wind blowing across the sawdust of the floor. Would he face his death well, knowing that the crowds were watching him? The thought of that straight-backed figure, falling among the arena sand while vendors called out, selling souvenirs and cactus-beer, stiffened her own spine. “I must tend to my father. I will speak with you again soon, Lord.”

“Very well,” Gracchus said. His eyes were hooded, his smile satisfied. “I will go and enjoy my Festival a little more. I will call on you soon, Lady Kara.”

Walking down the length of Merchant’s Road, one of them on either side of the slow-moving Thadeus Fale, Ionna said, “The offer to flee to Luirs is still open, you know.”

Kara glanced over. “Not yet,” she said. She thought of Lunarius, no longer dragging down the house, of life without watching out for Leksander Oash.

“He didn’t realize I wrote the songs,” she said to Ionna. “He thinks I paid a bard to do it. I think I am still a little cleverer than he thinks, after all. There will be grievance paid for Lunarius.”

She touched the knife at her side, the sheath woven into the fine silk. She thought of things that a noble could do that might be questioned in a commoner. Gracchus had laughed at the idea that she might be an assassin. True, she had underestimated him and how much he understood of her situation. She had thought herself much cleverer than she had been.

But what really made a woman clever was learning. Learning to play to her adversary’s blind spots and perhaps even use them against him. Learning how to use the power void that Leksander would leave.

There were still many things a clever woman might do, before running off to play guitar with the Tan Muark. She rubbed her bruised wrists. At home, Ioanna would wrap them with cool cloths, and Kara would go over the festival accounts to be paid one last time, to wring out the last drops of graft. She wasn’t done with Allanak, or Gracchus, quite yet.
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Copyright 2011 Cat Rambo