The royal family had gathered for dinner in their private hall at the Spring Palace, a rare event that included all the children and the full contingent of royal spouses, but Lin had no interest in the dinner or the formalities. After the last bite of dessert, she excused herself with a quiet, unenthusiastic bow to her father, the Dynast—who dismissed her from the far end of the room with a bored, dyspeptic frown—and hurried toward her private suite located at the top of Crippled Heron Tower.

Her maid made a perfunctory attempt to follow, but, as she was certainly a spy for some other member of the royal family, Lin dismissed her with a frown much like her father’s. When the maid again attempted to accompany her, Lin spun and snapped: “I have work to do!” It was sufficient to drive her away.

The summer was growing late, and the sun set earlier each day. As Lin pressed through the maze of ever-more-empty corridors and climbed the tedious flights of stairs to the tower’s highest level, she reminded herself that she had chosen these remote rooms for reasons.

If they had nothing else to recommend them, her quarters were situated as far as possible from the Dynast’s wing, which meant that they were also far from the eight other heirs and all their mothers. As the ninth heir in the current order of succession, and the only one lacking a mother at court, she had no realistic hope of ever sitting on the throne, and being physically removed from those who possessed such hopes allowed her to ignore, mostly, their petty political intrigues while she pursued her own long-term projects.

She reached the top of the stairs without breaking a sweat. Guardsman Ochs, her usual evening sentry, stood at attention outside her door—for her own safety, of course, since it was dangerous to be the Dynast’s heir—and opened it wordlessly as she approached. He was very large and imposing, and she supposed that gave an impression of safety, but he was not very bright, and if she were choosing her own guards—which she was not currently permitted to do—she would select them for intelligence instead.

He bowed stiffly and closed the door behind her.

She slid the iron bolt into place, and her shoulders unknotted, just a little, for the first time since she’d left these rooms in the morning. Her pet monkey spider, Snub, rattled his cage in greeting, but she was too lost in thought to attend to him immediately.

Servants had entered while she was gone, to bring fresh water and linens and to bank a fire in the hearth. The extra warmth was needed in all seasons. The walls at the top of Crippled Heron Tower were a filigree of stonework, and the breeze was constant. The heavy curtains were already pulled aside for her. At this height, the evening sun was unobstructed by any other rooflines or treetops, and she loved the way radiance poured through the windows.

The sun hasn’t set yet. I still have time.

Couches and cushions for guests, which she seldom entertained, were shoved to the walls, creating space in the middle for the massive sandalwood table—which still had a smooth, creamy fragrance after all these years—where she worked. She circled the table slowly, like a hawk spiraling in the sky, and studied the model temple complex that she was building out of bleached white hummingbird bones.

The temple covered the table, which had been acquired from an executed general. Lin pretended it was a gift from her father—both the table and the execution (the general was a gross provincial man who, in addition to peculation and a host of other crimes, had wanted to marry her to cement his place at court)—even though the Dynast scarcely acknowledged her existence in public. In truth, she had been forced to spend a significant part of her comparatively stingy yearly allowance to bribe palace guards to acquire and bring her the table. She assumed they had asked her father for permission first. Either way, she had learned that sometimes, through will and determination, you could take one truth and turn it into another.

Muffled voices came through the door. Someone was speaking urgently with Guardsman Ochs, which was conspicuously uncommon. Lin refused to be distracted.  

The model buildings spread before her were an architecture of her own design, based on the mythical Temple of the Dyness of the Golden Lake, informed by the treatises of the Three Wise Builders, and constructed with advice from senior members of the Royal Council of Engineers and the Court Geomancer. Her explanation—that she was considering retirement to a convent, if the Dynast could be persuaded, and that she wished to study the construction of temples in order to pursue that work there—reassured everyone and made them more willing to assist her. An heir without ambitions at court was less likely to be dangerous, intentionally or accidentally.

She paused opposite the western window, while the light spread like diaphanous lace across the table, and searched her model for flaws.

On a jade hill above the water, rendered in swirling blue glass, a pagoda made of bones rose in nine meticulous tiers, the lines of each ascending rooftop more opulent than the last. The pagoda was surrounded by eight pavilions, which represented the cultures and architectural traditions of the eight regions of her father’s vast empire. Extensive gardens and orchards, filled with tiny plants shaped from bone, twisted throughout the structures. On a cramped, heart-shaped island, opposite the pagoda, was a small open-sided tea pavilion; the ninth, representing the throne. Lin had paid the royal jeweler to carve a miniature pot and cups from hummingbird bones. With a magnifying glass, custom made by the royal astronomer’s own lensmaker, she could even see the royal crest carved on each piece.

Alas, her domain had no subjects. She did not know yet if that would change, but she did not think it likely.

Her building materials were sorted by type into black jade bowls that lined the edge of the table. Tiny white ribs, smaller than the curve of her littlest finger, filled one bowl; they were perfect for building the arched gates in the orchard walls. Delicate bone-rings plucked from eye sockets rested in another; those she used like hooks for stringing curtains made of iridescent feathers. Hollow, straw-like wing and arm bones provided wallposts and screens. A bowl of larger, flat keelbones were used for tiling the roofs. A variety of skulls spilled over the tops of several bowls—the short spike of the wasp hummingbird, the graceful arc of the ruby, the hammer-like knob of the woodpecker hummingbird. Not as many uses for those, although they served well as a tumble of boulders in the meditation garden at the center of the temple complex.

When she first began this project, she had employed hunters to capture hundreds of breeding pairs of hummingbirds from every corner of the realm and send them back to the capital. Workmen had constructed a huge aviary complex adjacent to the summer garden, so the birds could multiply and provide enough bones to meet her need. Now a small palace of cages sprawled across many acres, filled with countless flowers and thousands of darting gem-like birds. It had become one of the royal attractions, frequently visited by nobles and foreign dignitaries, who marveled at their variety and beauty.

Lin loved the bones more than the living creatures. Hummingbird wings connected to their sternums in a ball-and-socket joint that was nearly unique among birds. She used the joints as hinges for the swinging shutters of her temple windows. No one—no one—had ever done anything like that before. The royal architects assured her.

A commotion rose to her window from the courtyard below.

She ignored it.

This project was so near its end. To lengthen her pleasure over the past few months, Lin had permitted herself to add just one new detail to the model each evening. Finding no flaws in her work, she circled the table again, searching for today’s essential addition.

She paused before a bowl overflowing with bones so small and thin they looked like pale white hairs. Like most birds, hummingbirds possessed tongue bones, forked at the end like divining rods. They were small and hollow, and could bend in any direction; perhaps the most flexible bones that had ever existed in any creature. She had been saving these throughout her project, waiting for the perfect moment to use them.

Tonight was the night, she decided.

But how?

Snub shook his wooden cage with eight hairy legs, demanding attention. Far off in the palace, a bell rang. The rattle of spears mixed with angry shouts echoed off the walls of nearby towers. Soldiers... doing something, she guessed.

She didn’t have time to think about it.

It was nearing the moment of sunset. She used tweezers to sort and then select the smallest, most delicate tongue bone from the bowl.

The sun touched the sharp edge of the distant snow-capped mountains and cracked like an egg, spilling the day’s last light over the pan of the sky. It flowed through the open window and flooded Lin’s temple, turning it into pale, translucent gold. With her free hand, she pressed a needle into the wood to create a hole just outside the main gate to the temple. She pushed so hard that the round end punctured her thumb. A single drop of blood bloomed on her pale skin. She rubbed it absent-mindedly against her lips to stanch the flow and lowered the tongue-bone into the needle-hole.

A bone-white lily blossom.

Perfect.

The light changed from gold to crimson while she sucked the blood on her thumb. Her temple was complete. She knew it would never be more perfect than it was at this moment, no matter what she added.

Snub shook his cage again. In the wild, monkey spiders were carrion eaters. Against all advice from the royal zookeepers, concerned because of the creature’s poisonous spit, Lin had originally acquired Snub to clean her hummingbird carcasses. He had done wonderfully when he was newly born and barely big enough to fill the palm of her hand. But he grew quickly, until he was the size of an infant, and he soon proved useless to the task, devouring the birds, bones and all. She kept him anyway and hand-fed him other things until he became accustomed to her, even affectionate.

Snub spurted a blob of web through the bars.

Monkey spiders could smell blood in the air from great distances, though Lin doubted the one drop on her thumb could excite him this much. She had opened her mouth to sing one of the lullabies that usually soothed him when frantic knocking sounded at her door—the pounding of a small fist, not the heavy knuckles of Ochs.

She stood. Despite the unexpected sound at an unexpected hour, she found herself serene and tranquil. She paused long enough to don her informal robes, tying the silk belt as she walked to the door. The bolt screeched as she unlocked it.

Hanah, one of the serving girls from the kitchen and Lin’s personal spy, stood there in her apron, wringing her hands and glancing over her shoulder. There was no sign of Ochs or any other guard. Lin had never seen her door unguarded before.

“What is it?” she asked.

Hanah stared at the floor. She took a calming breath, but she couldn’t stop wringing her hands. “Your Highness, I’m very sorry to report...” Her voice trailed off.

“Out with it.”

“The Dynast, your father, he’s dead.”

Kuikin’s life had culminated in this one perfect moment, and he was not about to let anything spoil it.

He was seated by a small table in a large pit full of silk cushions at The Magpie on the Plum Branch, one of the capital’s most exclusive wine rooms, an establishment elevated so far above his birth or purse that he had never aspired to walk through its doors. Yet here he was. A beautiful young hostess who called herself Jasmine—most likely because she had bathed in the fragrance—sat beside him and smiled, making him feel attractive, which, considering his pox-scarred face, was almost an act of high mancy all its own. Even if she thought, erroneously, that he was a visiting dignitary from some foreign power.

His colleague Vertir, seated beside another hostess, was relating a highly exaggerated account of his escape from the Brotherhood of Catfish Herders during the Sump River Rebellion, one that emphasized its most ridiculous aspects while downplaying the life-threatening perils and eliding the political elements entirely. Vertir had been a soldier in his previous profession, back while Kuikin was still trying unsuccessfully to be a scholar, and he had a much richer and more entertaining repertoire of stories. Kuikin had heard this particular tale before, but by the time Vertir described the fight in the scum pond, where he had tried to use fish as cudgels while the agitated creatures panicked and attacked everyone, tears were streaming down Kuikin’s face. Jasmine pressed pleasantly against him and also laughed.

And he was being paid to do all of this!

He quickly dried his eyes on his sleeve, so he could keep his attention focused on the real reason they were here. Master Hang, the elderly Notary for Buildings, one of the highest positions in the royal bureaucracy, was seated across the room in a similar silk-cushioned pit, where he was surrounded by half a dozen of his own men and twice as many hostesses. They had been there for hours, getting progressively drunker as they celebrated the commencement of a major housing project in the Frog Hill District.

A new project meant many official fees and unofficial bribes, the latter no doubt the source of funds for this evening’s celebration. Kuikin and Vertir’s boss, the Notary General, was also Hang’s boss.

“I have enough to hang Hang, if that’s all I wanted to do,” the Notary General had told them a fortnight ago in another wine room on the outskirts of the capital, a place far dingier and much less fragrant than this one, where the only hostess was an ancient crone renowned for her discretion. “He should be collecting huge bribes, but he tells me he isn’t. Builders insist they’re paying huge bribes, but none of their money reaches me. So one of them is lying. I believe the problem is in Hang’s office, among his men. What I need is an outside assessment. If they’re not collecting enough money, that’s simple—I can eliminate all of them and—” he paused to raise his eyebrows “—rebuild the office from the foundation up.”

Kuikin chortled at that, because he could tell the Notary General intended a pun. Rebuild the Building office. A weak effort, but Kuikin was not above appealing to his master’s vanity. That required a light touch and the right sense of balance. A subdued chortle acknowledged the effort when laughter would have seemed sycophantic.

“However, if one of Hang’s subordinates is skimming money, I can’t figure out which one it is,” the Notary General said. “He may be so good that even Hang doesn’t know. This strikes me as the most likely possibility. I need you to find out who he is and tell me everything you can learn about him.”

“And then what?” asked Vertir.

Most of Kuikin and Vertir’s work for the Notary General concluded with someone’s unfortunate, usually “accidental” death. But the two of them seldom operated in the capital, and this mission might require more circumspection.

“If one of his subordinates is skimming money, then I will either make him an example or promote him to replace old Hang,” the Notary General said. “Find him. Evaluate him. Make a recommendation.”

So that’s what they were doing, posing as two foreigners who had come to the capital to make a huge investment in building projects. They’d been investigating Hang’s staff and developing their false story for two weeks while slowly circling upward through the bureaucracy. Tonight’s venture gave them a chance to observe Hang’s inner circle and perhaps make informal contact.

Jasmine whispered in Kuikin’s ear, asking him to buy another bottle of wine. He sent her for it even though he had stopped drinking for the evening. Vertir never drank alcohol at all, or touched any other intoxicating, mind-altering substance, and with a partial bottle still on the table, they scarcely needed more. But frequent purchases were the rent they paid for occupying seats, and it added convincing detail to have bottles lined up on the table.

Vertir said something to his own hostess, River, and she followed Jasmine away. Then he slid close enough to Kuikin to speak without being overheard. He glanced over at Hang’s group. One of the assistant notaries was standing on the table, singing a popular bawdy song about a woman beekeeper and all the times she got stung. Perhaps a bit inelegant for this venue, but the other patrons watched and laughed. Some sang along. “So what do you think?” Vertir asked.

Kuikin sighed. “That we should drag out this investigation and enjoy it as long as possible.”

“He is no man to play the fool with,” Vertir said. A frown shadowed his face. No need to ever say who “he” was. The Notary General was only he in their life who mattered.

“Not to play the fool,” Kuikin replied. “To make ourselves more valuable.” He leaned forward. “Think about it. We’ve proved our worth time and again, in every remote shithole of the empire, risking our necks, and for what? The land is at peace, thanks in part to all our work. We deserve a chance to live it up in the capital.”

“I hate the capital.” Vertir’s head turned toward the doors as he spoke, as if he were half expecting a sudden attack; he was always like that, but cities made it worse.

Vertir’s displeasure worried Kuikin more than the Notary General’s—he had never had a better or more trustworthy partner, nor one who had saved his life even once, much less several times—and he had no desire at all to make him unhappy. He was about to open his mouth to explain that Hang’s son-in-law was definitely skimming the bribes and should probably be promoted, when the door slammed opened.

Kuikin jumped in his seat, but Vertir registered no reaction at all beyond a sort of lazy awareness. Several fully armored guards entered the room—the Notary General’s men, grim and anxious. They looked past Kuikin and Vertir, not recognizing them—nor should they have—to find Hang and his associates. The lead guardsman, a severe man with a beard so pointed it might well have been a weapon, marched over to the pit, where the assistant notary was still singing. When he saw the guard, he fell over backward, caught by friends and hostesses. Everyone laughed uproariously, except the guard, who was still trying to get Hang’s attention.

“Be right back,” said Vertir, and he slipped out of their pit to eavesdrop on the conversation.

Kuikin saw Jasmine and waved her to his side. “Find out why those men are here and I’ll double what I’ve paid so far tonight.”

She nodded and slipped away.

The guard whispered frantically to old Hang. His assistants leaned in to listen. Vertir had an arm around one man’s shoulders, nodding attentively, as if he were part of the group. He always seemed to get away with those kinds of bold ploys, but Kuikin preferred his own methods of gathering information. As Jasmine spoke to the guards at the door, offering them his fresh bottle of wine, he peered into the one still at his table. Was it half full or half empty?

Hang and his men followed the guards out the door while Vertir slid back into the pillows. “I told them I was an assistant Notary for Produce.”

“You don’t look like a notary.”

“No one was looking at me.”

“You’ve ruined our patiently crafted identity as foreign investors.”

“I’ll tell them I was a foreign investor who lied about being an assistant Notary for Produce because I was looking for inside information.”

“Hmm.” Kuikin conceded the plausibility of that. “What did you find out?”

“Not much. Only that they are to report to the Notary General’s palace immediately. When I said I was an assistant notary, the captain said that I should fetch my boss and bring him and all our staff along to the palace too.”

“My happiness is over.” Kuikin lifted the remaining bottle of wine and emptied it in one long gulping swallow. When he was done, he wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “There are no notary emergencies for buildings after dark.”

“And fewer still for produce,” Vertir said. “So there must be some kind of political crisis.” He paused thoughtfully. “What’s the worst thing it could be?”

Kuikin’s mind whirled. It wasn’t a rhetorical question. Part of their job was to figure out the worst possible situation, and then, if necessary, take steps to prevent it.

Jasmine returned, her face pale and absent any hint of the pleasant gaiety she demonstrated just moments before. “This one is very sorry to report that she was able to discover only the most ridiculous of rumors from that group of uncouth men who disturbed our humble establishment.”

Kuikin looked at Vertir, but Vertir shrugged. No one told any rumors to Hang.

Kuikin took gentle hold of Jasmine’s wrist and pulled her into the seat beside him. “What did they tell you?”

“They told me to go home to my family and hide.”

“No, the rumors,” he said, so forcefully that she flinched. “What were the rumors?”

She lowered her gaze. “His Imperial Majesty, the Dynast, is dead.”

Kuikin glanced at Vertir. The Dynast dying was pretty much the definition of the worst thing it could be.

Lin stood in her doorway, facing the kitchen girl. She went very still for a moment as the news soaked in.

My father is dead.

She had always known this day would come, but this was not how she had expected it to arrive. It was a very bad augur for her survivability that a lowly servant girl from the kitchens had been the one to come inform her of her father’s death. A servant girl that she paid to spy for her at that, and one whose services Lin could acquire only because the girl was so far down the ranks of importance no one else would waste coin on her services. No wonder she was wringing her hands—she had probably never been this far outside the kitchens without an escort.

“Come in,” she said. As soon as Hanah stepped inside, she bolted the door. “Are you certain?”

Hanah nodded. “I saw it happen. After dinner, he was eating ginger ice. And then he just...” Her voice shook.

“I see.”

Ginger ice. Servants carried ice down from the mountains, packed in insulated barrels, for him. The ginger was grown in the royal gardens, carefully bred to his own demanding tastes. It was her father’s favorite treat, saved exclusively for him. She remembered sitting on his lap once when she was about four years old, while he fed a bowl to her spoon by spoon, laughing the whole time. One of her earliest memories. Ten years later, at another meal, she was seated at the far end of the room from her father, beside the general with the sandalwood map table, to—as her maid had patiently explained to her—dangle the possibility of an arranged marriage; the Dynast had stopped by to speak with them, and when he saw all the uneaten food on her plate he told her that ginger ice always aided his digestion.

Those were the two most personal interactions she’d ever had with her father.

He had been neither that old nor terribly infirm. It didn’t seem possible that he could be dead. But the absence of Ochs was all the proof she needed. No doubt he had run off to help one of her sisters, probably the infant Jun, leaving Lin completely unprotected.

I will have to protect myself.

Lin went to her desk and retrieved a heavy coin purse. She removed a golden dragon and handed it to Hanah. “For your loyalty in coming to me.”

Hanah stared at the coin in wonder for a moment, then slipped it into a pocket in her sleeve. A single dragon was probably worth all her family’s property. It might even buy back her indenture. “Thank you, Your Highness.”

Lin jingled the heavy bag. “You brought me news at great risk. You have no further obligation. But I would like you to stay with me and carry this for me. Will you do that?” She offered her the purse full of gold.

The girl took it in trembling hands and stuffed into her apron pocket, covering it with a dirty rag. She swallowed hard and continued to stare at the floor. “How may I serve?”

“How long do you think it will be until they come for me?”

“Perhaps not until the middle of the night,” the girl said.

“That long?”

“Half the staff is trying to hide the fact that the Dynast is dead by telling everyone he’s sick. I think they’re afraid we’ll be blamed, because he died just after eating dinner. But the Mistress of Spoons spies for the Notary General, and she ran off to tell him immediately. As soon as she was gone, others rushed to tell their own spymasters. Fighting broke out in the Dragon Pavilion. That’s when I was able to slip away in the confusion.”

“You did well.” Lin paced around her room, taking stock of her resources.

“Do you want to go see him?” Hanah asked.

“What?”

“Your father. To pay your respects and ask the blessing of his spirit?”

“No, he’s dead. His spirit can’t help me at the moment. If we’re still alive tomorrow—or whenever the succession crisis is over—we’ll go pay our respects then.”

Hanah’s mouth fell open in apparent shock. But she was a country girl, and Lin understood that respect for one’s parents was almost the entirety of their religion. Hanah would have gone to her own father’s deathbed no matter the cost or danger, even though he was the one who had sold her indenture.

Why will they come for me?” she asked.

“To bring you official word of the Dynast’s death,” Hanah said.

“No, they will come to kill me,” she said. Hanah’s lack of reaction indicated she knew as much but was too reluctant to speak of assassination to a member of the royal family. “You must always be honest with me, and I shall always be honest with you. Can you do that?”

A small nod, eyes still lowered. They were both lying, but it was a start.

“I am of little use as a hostage, since I have no family in court,” Lin said. “Perhaps, if the succession is finished quick enough, I may be kept alive for a royal marriage, as a means to secure a relationship with an ally. But only a minor ally, one with hope of access to the throne but no chance for ascent. Do you understand?”

Hanah hesitated. “That makes sense.”

Good. She wasn’t a total blockhead. She must have had her own worth calculated just as coldly before being sold into servitude. Lin knew, from years of talking to the staff, that while the country-born servants often arrived without much education, they could be deviously clever, which they hid behind a wall of reticence and feigned ignorance. She hoped she had chosen her own spy well.

Only one way to find out. “Why does it make sense? Speak freely.”

“Your oldest brother has children of his own and will want to eliminate every other person with a claim to the crown. Your oldest sister is married to the field marshal of the armies. If your brother were dead, then she could rule hand-in-hand with her husband. But they have no children yet, so she will have to kill all the other possible heirs to prevent any challenge to their rule. Both will have reason to want you dead because you have no family, and so there is no one to hold hostage to make you compliant to their wishes. Your other sisters have lesser claims to the throne and fewer resources than those two, so they will need allies. Like you.”

While Hanah spoke, the sun sank behind the mountains and the room settled into gloomy twilight. Snub grew restless in his cage, swinging it recklessly. Lin reached her fingers through the bars and scratched his chin. Bubbles formed at his mouth. She was careful not to let any drip onto her fingers. It was a powerful acid, and it had been a while since he’d eaten, which tended to concentrate it.

“So I can expect at least two assassins, and, possibly, if I survive those, one or more emissaries,” she said, lifting Snub’s cage from its hook. “We must retreat to someplace safe while my brother and sisters fight among themselves.”

“We?” asked the girl.

“If I am still alive in the morning, I shall have you promoted from the kitchen to be my personal maid.”

“Thank you, Highness.” Her voice trembled, and her eyes dropped even lower, if that were possible.

Lin paused one last time to look at her temple. This might be the last time she ever saw it; both its destruction and hers seemed equally probable. At least she had finished it first.

On the off-chance she might survive the night, she reached into one of the jade bowls and grabbed the elegantly shaped skull of a Royal Purple hummingbird. She slipped it into her pocket as a memento. Almost a decade of her life had been devoted to this project, since she first asked for hummingbirds for her fourteenth birthday, and now this skull was the only thing she had to show for it.

She grabbed Snub’s cage from its hook, went to the door, and slid back the bolt.

Ochs stood in the hall, his face red from running, chest heaving from exertion. His heavy knuckles were poised to knock, and he looked startled. Had Jun’s mother sent him back to warn her or kill her? “Your Highness,” he said. “There’s some bad news. I’m here to escort you to a safer location.”

Hanah stepped into the doorway behind Lin. Ochs’ small, dull eyes narrowed at the presence of an unapproved servant, and his hand went to the hilt of his sword.

Lin flicked open the latch on Snub’s cage and said, “Bird!”

The monkey spider launched itself at Ochs, landing on his chestplate and scrambling up to his face. Ochs tried to pull him off, but Snub wrapped his hairy legs around the big soldier’s head and spit acid in his eyes. Ochs screamed and crashed backward into the wall, then the floor, rolling and thrashing, screaming as the skin melted off his skull.

The poison worked swiftly. Thrashing faded to twitching. One leg kicked weakly, as if he were still trying to run away.

Within seconds, Snub had eaten his nose and half his cheek down to the bone. But there was no time to let her pet feast.

“Cage,” Lin said, setting it on the floor.

Snub had Ochs’ lips in his mouth. He twisted and chewed until he tore them loose, then crawled down the guard’s body, leaving a scarlet trail, and skittered back to his perch. Lin latched the door shut and lifted the cage.

Ochs’s face was a mix of acid-blackened flesh, white bone, and smears of red blood. As they stepped around his body, Hanah gulped and said, “You think he was sent to kill you?”

“I don’t know,” Lin admitted.

Hanah stayed pressed to the wall opposite Snub’s cage as they descended the tower. Clashing swords and frightened shouts echoed up the stairwell from just two floors below, directly in the path Lin had intended to take.

She thought she had a small chance of surviving if she could escape the palace quickly, but that seemed less likely with each passing moment. “This way,” she said, and ducked onto another floor without waiting to see if Hanah had followed.

Kuikin glanced around the wine room to make sure that no one else had overheard Jasmine’s news. River glided in their direction, wearing a big false smile, but Vertir quickly waved her away.

“Did anyone else besides you hear these ridiculous rumors?” Kuikin asked.

“No, I was the only one.”

“Did you share the news with anyone else?”

“I came directly to you.”

She kept her eyes lowered the whole time, as one was supposed to do when speaking of the Dynast or the dead. Kuikin reflected that the shared custom existed because both were beyond the reach of ordinary people yet infinitely capable of harming them.

“You must stay with us a moment, while we talk,” Kuikin told her. “I will pay you as soon as we’re done.”

“The Dynast dying explains the summons,” Vertir said in a lowered voice. He did not look at the ground, but then he wasn’t superstitious and had faced the dead and even the undead on several occasions and come away unharmed. “We should check in with the Notary General and see what he wants us to do.”

“We should do something first and then check in with him,” Kuikin said. “This is an opportunity.”

“How so?”

“No heir has been named officially, so it’s unlikely to be a peaceful transition.”

“You think?” Vertir asked. “I mean, there are only armed guards in the streets, gathering all the notaries. How long before there’s open fighting?”

“If it hasn’t started already.” The government would grind to a stop without the notaries, so their boss was making a play to protect his own power. Kuikin didn’t blame him—the unexpected death of a Dynast often led to the more predictable death of all his ministers. And sometimes their spies. But if he and Vertir acted quickly to secure some other prize for the Notary General, it could assist his situation and improve their own position. “And that’s our opportunity. There are eight possible heirs, one dyn and seven dynesses.”

“Nine,” corrected Vertir. “The dynast has a new infant daughter.”

“She must be less than a year old.”

“A few months old. Rumor has it her mother is ruthless and ambitious. She’s been hiring her own soldiers and would love to be regent.”

“Nine heirs then. At the top is the Dyn Wang. The dynast’s son by a concubine, but the oldest of his children. And the only male.”

“Because he saw to it that every other son was murdered,” murmured Vertir.

“He’s smart, dangerous, and highly motivated. He’s also the Chancellor—already the second most powerful person in the empire. He oversees the imperial bureaucracy and works closely with—” He edited out “our boss” since Jasmine was sitting there. “—the Notary General. That puts him in the strongest position.”

Vertir shook his head. “Dyn Wang is unpopular and only has the military support of his personal guard.”

“He’s in charge of the capital police force.”

“Technically. But the police draw so many recruits and leaders from the army, they might as well be a branch of the army. They’ll support whoever the army supports.”

Kuikin mulled this.

“Dyness Fan is the daughter of the Dynast’s first and only official wife,” Vertir said, “and she’s married to Field Marshal Chu. The soldiers are fiercely loyal to Chu ever since he put down the Sorcerer’s Uprising and stopped the border incursions by the Bey of Desmeé. And he is old friends with the Notary General.”

“So Fan’s a contender,” Kuikin said. Jasmine shifted uncomfortably and glanced exasperatedly at him. “Stay just a moment longer,” he told her. “I want you to leave with something more than rumors.” In truth, he wanted her to leave with the right rumors. He turned back to Vertir. “The Dyness Ying could also make a play for the throne. Her husband is Baron of the Fire Mountain district.”

Vertir responded with a slight shrug.

Maybe he was right. The district wasn’t as important as it used to be. “That’s a fair assessment,” Kuikin admitted. “But at least she’s too clever to get caught between her brother and sister.”

“She may not have a choice; she’s staying in the palace right now.” Vertir narrowed his eyes in disapproval as he registered Kuikin’s surprise. “You really should talk to more soldiers. All nine heirs are here in the city.”

Kuikin didn’t know that. He’d been too focused on Hang. “I count on you to talk to soldiers for me.” His voice was more petulant than he intended.

Vertir took no notice. “All of them here at once, and the Dynast dies? It seems like too much of a coincidence to be a coincidence.”

Kuikin agreed. “There will be blood for sure. Wang and Fan can look after themselves, but the other dynesses could be valuable as allies or bargaining chips for our master. We should try to gather up one or more and take them to him.”

Vertir laughed wryly. “Like tokens at a carnival! Why not collect the whole set?”

“That’s exactly what we should do,” Kuikin said.

Lin, hurrying through the private quarters of the palace with Hanah at her heel, was halfway across the Hall of the Red Moon when the first assassin found them.

He entered the grand doorway at the opposite end of the hall and slowed when he saw them. Blood dripped from the knife in his hand. He lowered it discreetly to his side.

Lin glanced at her cage. Snub had finished eating Ochs’s lips and was grooming himself. The sleepy purr in his throat meant that he was useless for a second attack, even if his venom sacs hadn’t been depleted.

“Dyness?” the assassin said, spoken more like a question than a formal address. He lifted his free hand and beckoned her. His fingertips were red with blood. “Come with me.”

Lin didn’t recognize him and decided to bet her life that he didn’t recognize her. She pointed toward the stairs she’d just descended. “Her quarters are that way, but she’s not there.”

The assassin approached them. Lin studied him carefully, wondering who he served. His livery bore the colors of the Field Marshal’s guard, earth brown with aqua blues—”shit and tears” she had heard one of her own guards describe it once—but that could mean anything. Though her oldest sister’s husband was brazen enough to send his own men to do murder, her brother Wang often used deception. And a third party would like nothing better than to see them fighting with each other. The killer could be working for anyone.

“Where’s the dyness?” he said. The knife was no longer hidden.

“We were sent to her room to leave this gift,” Lin said, raising Snub’s cage toward the assassin’s face. Her fingers were poised to flick open the latch, but only as a last resort. “However, the guardsmen there said she had already left for Dyness Jun’s quarters. They wouldn’t let us inside. Now we’re off to get further instructions.”

Worry flashed across the man’s face, and, without a word of thank you, he sprinted for the stairwell.

Lin continued across the Hall, with its elaborately patterned maroon and white marble floor. Hanah hurried to catch up with her.

“He thought you were a royal servant,” she whispered.

“There are advantages to being the daughter no one knows,” Lin said. “Now, hurry. We must knock on two doors before we leave.”

The first was a thick door in the Tower of the Phoenix.

Lin tapped lightly and the peephole slid open to reveal a pair of pale eyes.

“Dyness,” said the voice on the other side. The Apprentice Master of Ritual. “I can’t let you in.” He sounded genuinely regretful. The peephole slid shut again.

Lin tapped a second time. “I don’t want in,” she said, loud enough that she hoped he heard through the barrier. “Tell your master that when the sun rises he can find me where the Spring Dyn sought shelter from the Lords of Wind.”

The peephole opened and the eyes returned. “I am listening.”

“Do you have an old robe or coat?”

There was a pause. “Yes.”

“I need it.”

The face disappeared and a moment later, a wad of fabric was shoved through the hole, which she pulled free.

“Is there anything else?” the apprentice asked.

“Just tell him the message,” Lin replied.

The peephole slammed shut. Lin shucked off her own silk robe, which was too fine to hide her identity from anyone smarter than the first assassin, and slipped into the apprentice’s ragged coat, transferring the hummingbird skull from one set of pockets to the other. Then she knelt and wrapped Snub’s cage in the better fabric, tying it off like a hastily prepared bag of valued possessions, which, in a way, she supposed it was.

“Listen closely,” Lin said to Hanah. “I can’t have you trailing ten feet behind me and avoiding this cage. Snub will do you no harm. With his cage wrapped, he may even fall asleep.”

Hanah stared at the floor and nodded.

“We must walk close together, with you in front of me. In the dark, anyone who sees us will mistake us for panicked servants.”

Hanah nodded again. She was terrified enough for both of them but holding together despite that. Lin approved. She picked up the bundled cage, hoisting it like a bag of laundry.

“Lead us through the Courtyards of the Three Sisters to the Sun Gate.”

“Yes, Highness.”

Lin grabbed her by the collar. “If you call me ‘Highness’ again, you’ll get us both killed. I’d rather kill you first. Do you understand?”

“Yes, h... yes.”

They had just descended the steps into the first courtyard, near the fountains, when pounding footsteps made Hanah freeze. A group of soldiers appeared as shadows from the middle courtyard, running toward them.

Hanah dodged out of their path. Lin cowered behind her.

“Go to your quarters, stay in your quarters,” the captain shouted. Lin recognized him, and he would surely recognize her if he looked closely. The soldiers ran past, into the palace, all but the captain, who paused before them.

“Servants must go to their quarters,” he repeated. He glanced once at Hanah but was busy scanning the palace walls for archers. “I won’t be responsible for your safety if you’re not in your quarters.”

“We’re on our way there now,” Hanah said.

“Well, you can’t go that way. It’s—” Words failed him. He grabbed Hanah by the arm and spun her around. “You need to go around through the West Tower.”

Lin was ready to argue, but Hanah grabbed her hand. “We can take the servant passages. Thank you, captain.”

“That’s a long way back,” he said as he ran to catch up to his men. “Be careful!”

Lin was grateful; the tattered coat had rendered her almost invisible.

With Hanah leading the way, they ran up the stairs and retraced their original route. Shouting and crashing chased their heels. Hanah ran until they reached the Hall of the Red Moon, where she paused, gasping.

The half-moon had risen and light came through the tall windows, casting a cool glow across the sandstone floors. The body of the assassin they’d encountered moments ago was sprawled in the middle of the floor, his blood ruining the exquisite maroon pattern.

“Keep moving!” Lin whispered to Hanah, and gave her a shove. Slash marks covered the assassin’s arms and shoulder. A broken spear was thrust through his ribs. His head rested cantways to his body—it had been nearly chopped off.

Lin gazed into his dead, accusing eyes as she stepped around him but found no answers, either to who had sent him or who had killed him. The soles of her slippers were sticky and she glanced down belatedly to avoid tracking through more blood.

That was what saved her from the second assassination attempt.

Small round crimson prints, in groups of six, like domino dots, emerged from the spreading pool beneath the killer and marked a clear path toward her room.

“Blood ants!”

“What?” Hanah asked, her voice rising sharply.

“Some fucking vivimancer sent blood ants after me.”

Kuikin paused for a moment to think. Even though he and Vertir had decided to rescue any of the dynesses they could find, they couldn’t go after them all at once.

“May this one leave now?” Jasmine asked, eyes still lowered.

“Just a moment longer,” Kuikin said. The wine house had swirled back to life around them, with music, singing, and laughter. No one seemed overly concerned about the sudden departure of Master Hang, but if Jasmine said anything to anyone before he and Vertir got a head start, they could be trampled.

“So what’s our plan?” Vertir asked.

“Ying and the next two dynesses, Lei and Tai, have husbands with guards and estates they can retreat to,” Kuikin said, quickly and quietly. “That leaves the two younger ones, Bo and Zheng, still living in the palace with their mothers.”

“Don’t forget the infant.”

“So that’s three still at the palace.”

“Four. The orphan will be there too.”

“The motherless dyness?” Everything Kuikin knew about the orphan dyness would fill less than a page in an official report. No one knew her mother, but it was clear that she had been neither the wife nor concubine of the Dynast. She had left the baby on the palace doorstep with an intimate token that could only have been a gift from the Dynast, then disappeared. The Dynast had declared the girl one of his heirs, perhaps as a gesture of love for her mother, but in so doing he may have caused her more harm than good. His acknowledgement gave her the weakest claim to the throne. Without support, her life was likely to be short and never wholly her own. And of no advantage to them. “She has no family, no allies.”

“Sounds like she could use some help,” Vertir said.

“Sounds like she’s already dead,” Kuikin grumbled. “Do you want to rescue every stray cat in the city while we’re at it?”

Vertir stared at him quietly, which was damned unnerving.

Kuikin waved his free hand, like a schoolmaster erasing a chalkboard, trying to take back his last comment. “So if there is fighting in the palace, where will they go?”

“There will definitely be fighting in the palace,” Vertir said. “The entire family was present for a royal dinner tonight.”

“Let me guess—soliders told you.”

“They wanted extra guards in the palace.”

Kuikin frowned. “You could have started with that information.”

“I knew you would get there soon enough, and you like our plans better when you’ve talked them through yourself. Either way, the palace is where we should start.”

That was fair, but it still stung. “I don’t have a better suggestion,” he conceded.

Vertir nodded. They were in agreement.

Kuikin pulled out his purse and shook loose a small pile of coins, which he then divided in half. “This is for the wine,” he said, dropping the first pile into Jasmine’s free hand. Then he placed the rest in her other hand. “And this is for you and River. Now go and tell everyone that the Dynast is dead. There’s going to be terrible fighting. They should find someplace safe to hide until the succession is decided. Tell everyone.”

She jumped out of the pit and ran to River, blurting out everything in a voice so loud that it stopped the nearby revelry. Kuikin and Vertir were already walking out the door.

“Creating chaos again?” Vertir murmured.

Kuikin shrugged as they stepped outside into the cool night air. “Chaos is interesting. More chaos means more opportunities.”

The door burst open behind them. Patrons and staff fled in every direction, shouting the news. Jasmine led the charge, still carrying the coins intended to pay for the wine. Kuikin admired that kind of initiative.

“Let’s get to the palace ahead of your opportunities,” Vertir said.

Lin stared at the tiny trails of crimson prints and tried to figure out how long she had before the blood ants found her.

As she was searching for some way to disguise her scent, a fist-sized ant struggled out from beneath the assassin’s body. Long angular legs scrambled for purchase while its feelers waved wildly in Lin’s direction. She screamed and stomped its bulging abdomen—thick, yellowish fluid squirted out from under her grinding heel. The mandibles twitched, still trying to bite her even as its life faded.

“What was that?” Hanah whispered, eyes wide.

“Blood ant,” Lin said. “It must have just molted—the shell wasn’t very hard.” This reeked of her brother, Dyn Wang—the only one with the necessary resources. Blood ants were incredibly expensive, since they had to be specially bred for each target. “They’ve been scented for me, so they won’t bite you. But the others will follow my trail until they find me. When the trail dead-ends in my room, they’ll back-track and—”

“More!” Hanah cried.

Three ants skittered through the doorway toward her, the clicks of their chitinous feet sending tiny echoes across the tile. Each ant carried enough poison to paralyze an adult with a single bite. Two bites would slow the target’s breathing until they slipped into a coma. In the wild, a blood ant would paralyze its prey then fetch the queen to lay her eggs inside the warm and living nest. But those used for assassination had stronger poison and a different master.

Lin’s skin crawled. Blood ants were usually sent during the night, to catch their prey sleeping. She wasn’t in bed asleep, no one was tonight, so this had an air of desperation, of being rushed. But someone had clearly been planning to murder her for a long time.

She dropped Snub and jumped onto the assassin’s chest, hoping his odor would disguise her own. She took the broken end of the spear in both hands and yanked it from his ribs. The three monstrous ants circled in her footsteps and crawled over Snub’s rattling cage. He hissed and tried to get out.

The ants caught her scent and rushed the assassin’s corpse.

With a quick thrust she slashed open the second ant in a spray of fluids, then whacked the other two aside.

They rolled back onto their feet and came at her together.

Hanah shrunk against the wall, eyes wide. “Distract them,” Lin commanded. She knocked them aside again with the spear point, but it gave her only a few seconds reprieve.

The servant girl acted instantly, dashing over to kick one like a ball. It flew across the room and bounced off a decorative screen.

Lin jabbed at the last blood ant and missed. It climbed up her robes and skittered toward her face. She flung the spear down and grabbed the ant at the joint between its head and thorax.

The ant squirmed in her hands, mandibles straining to pinch her. It was the only impulse the creature had, and proximity to her warm skin made it frantic. It twisted and flipped in her grip, scratching at her wrists, seeking any purchase that would give it leverage.

Her hands were slick with sweat. The ant started to wiggle loose. Tiny drops of venom formed on the tips of its mandibles and dripped onto her forearm, which instantly went numb.

She wrenched with all her might. The head popped off and rolled across the floor.

The last ant dragged itself across the floor on two legs, smearing the killer’s blood and its own milky abdominal fluids in its wake. Its mandibles pinched at her desperately. Hanah lifted the broken spear and smashed the shattered butt onto the creature’s head, over and over until it stopped moving. Then she dropped the weapon, letting it clatter to the floor.

“So...” Hanah said. “What exactly are ‘blood ants’?”

“A waste of gold and years,” Lin said, stepping down from the assassin’s body and turning to wipe the soles of her slippers on him. She couldn’t begin to calculate the cost of this assassination attempt, nor the length of time it had been planned. To be used this way, blood ants had to be raised from the moment they were hatched and then starved and fed on only the blood of their intended victim. If someone was investing that much time and resources into killing her, and she was the last in line for the throne, then her sisters were in serious trouble. “If we survive the night, remind me to find out who was in charge of my menstrual rags.”

“Yes, Hi—”

Lin glared at Hanah, who snapped her mouth shut. She picked up Snub’s cage and ignored his agitated struggling. “Now lead the way back to the kitchens by the Sun Gate.”

“This way,” Hanah said.

The servants were all hiding or had fled. Their halls, though narrow, were empty and showed no evidence of bloodshed. It would have been smarter to come this way first, but the thought had never occurred to her. It made her wonder what else she was overlooking. She nearly tripped with the sudden realization: perhaps her model of the temple had not included enough room for the servants. She might need to redesign the whole thing from scratch.

When they reached the kitchens, Lin passed Hanah and proceeded to the storeroom where the rice-counter girl had her bed.

The door was cracked. A dirty face peered out from the darkness.

“Where’s your master?” Lin asked.

“I don’t know. She told me to wait here.”

“When your master returns, tell her that the orphan dyness may be found where the Spring Dyn sought shelter from the Lords of Wind. Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

“Repeat it for me.”

“The orphan dies in the spring wind—”

“No. Listen closely.” She made the rice counter girl repeat the message until she could say it word for stuttering word.

“If you want to get a message to Mistress Spoon,” Hanah offered, referring to the master of the kitchens, “I could deliver it.”

“Don’t disappoint me now, you’ve been doing so well,” Lin said, leading her away toward the formal dining rooms. “The rice girl provides rice to Mistress Spoon, but she reports to the Holder of the Keys.” Rice was collected as taxes from the peasants. The Holder of the Keys was the royal treasurer.

Hanah nodded. She was not someone who would need instruction twice. “Why are you leaving messages?”

“Will your family be worried about you?”

“Yes.”

“Then we must send a message to them as soon as possible. I have a few friends here who will be worried about me too.”

Hanah stared at her, and Lin felt as if she’d been caught in a lie. She took a deep breath.

“Tomorrow morning, I’ll need someone with sufficient status to negotiate my surrender to one of the survivors of tonight’s succession struggle. If I tell just one person, they can betray me to whomever they’re allied with. But if I tell two—especially two who oppose each other, like the Master of Ritual and the Holder of Keys—then I’ll have a chance to survive.”

There. The raw truth.

Hanah nodded. “So where do we go now?”

“To the place where the Spring Dyn sought shelter from the Lords of Wind.”

They entered the Dynast’s breakfast room, where she pushed a pressure plate on the wall and slid back a hidden door. Cool air flowed up the stairs, carrying a rush of smoke.

“They’ve set fires,” Lin said, drawing cloth across her face. “Probably with fire ants. We’d better hurry.”

The sharp fragrance of smoke stung Kuikin’s nose as he followed Vertir toward the palace. The city always smelled like smoke, but it was worse tonight, and voices pierced the air, louder and shriller than usual. Their route corkscrewed through dark, narrow alleys that were deliberately maze-like to slow the progress of any attacking force. Walls closed in around them, and Kuikin paid more attention to dodging the restless cockroaches, some as large as his own shoes, than he did to his partner.

When he looked up again, the alley opened into a broad avenue and Vertir was gone. Kuikin rushed into the street, slamming into an ostrich that reared back, wings spread, and lunged at his face. Vertir grabbed his sleeve and dragged him out of the way.

The royal boulevard was filled with ostrich carts and pedestrians—servants’ families fleeing the palace district. Wooden wheels clattered, birds screamed, people shouted. One cart was stacked with a whole household’s goods and two old women on either side to steady the piles. A carpet fell off the back and unrolled to Kuikin’s feet. When the grandmother turned to grab it, a tower of dishes toppled over and shattered on the ground. She hurried back to steady her remaining piles, and the cart continued on, leaving both the rug and broken dishes behind. The next cart carried nothing but frightened children, trailed by anxious parents.

“You wanted opportunities,” Vertir said. “Here are your opportunities.”

“Let’s go,” Kuikin growled, pushing on without him, only to become tangled in a mob of people headed the other direction.

Vertir rescued him and cleared a path through. Close to the palace, the streets grew weirdly quiet and empty. The walled estates on either side of the road were shuttered and dark all the way to the canal. Kuikin started for the bridge, but Vertir grabbed his sleeve again and dragged him into the shadow of an arched doorway.

A moment later, a group of soldiers appeared around a corner, dozens of them, running from the palace. They wore plain uniforms with no insignia or livery. As soon as they passed, Kuikin leaned out toward the street. Once again, Vertir yanked him back into the shadows. A group of stragglers came, dragging wounded comrades between them. When they had gone, Vertir led the way and Kuikin followed.

The smoke was eye-wateringly thick beneath the looming shadow of the palace. The Ruby Tower, which housed the concubines and several of the dynesses, was burning out of control. As they watched, the top of Crippled Heron Tower burst into flame, blazing like a candelabra in the night. Halfway down the street, at the main gate, soldiers in at least three different uniforms battled one another. Swords clashed against shields and mixed with angry shouts.

“That looks like the quickest way inside,” Kuikin said and started toward the fighting.

“Does it?” asked Vertir, grabbing his sleeve for at least the third time. He pointed to a length of tapestry that dangled over the wall, reaching halfway to the ground.

Kuikin shuddered at the thought of pulling his own weight upward, hand over hand, like some common laborer, but this did seem more likely to be successful than navigating an armed skirmish. “Give me a boost up?”       

“Sur—”

In mid-word, Vertir held up a hand for silence, turned his head, and then dashed down an alley. Kuikin raced after him, shouting in frustration. “We don’t have time for this!”

Whatever this turned out to be.

At the end of the alley, a group of three men confronted two young women—servants fleeing the palace, to judge from their clothes. The men were dressed like common thieves, but their neat haircuts and conspicuous size marked them as royal guards. The largest one gripped the woman in the apron by the hair, holding her at arm’s length while she cursed and struggled to break free. Her companion was sprawled on the ground, arms wrapped around a large bundle. The other two guards were drawing their swords.

Kuikin paused, looked closer.

Her beautiful companion, in the fine, bloodied slippers. With the bundle wrapped in embroidered silk.

Something’s not right here.

Before he could figure it out, Vertir had already dropped the big man. It happened too fast for Kuikin to follow, although he recognized the snap of broken bones and the peculiar sound a skull makes as it’s being concussed. The serving woman staggered free as Vertir faced the other two guards.

“You could always just walk away,” he suggested, holding up his empty hands.

“We’re the ones with the swords,” one said.

Not for long, thought Kuikin.

The two guards exchanged a nod, then raised their weapons and made to flank Vertir, who stepped inside the reach of one before he could swing his blade. Within the space of a blur the guard was slamming into a wall. The other man rushed to attack, and all Kuikin saw was his head snap back before he fell down lifeless.

Vertir stood there with a sword in either hand. He jammed the first blade into a crack between two stones and snapped it in half, then did the same with the other and tossed the hilts aside before offering to help the woman in the ragged coat to her feet. The woman in the apron hovered nearby, giving every appearance of being ready to leap to her defense.

After a moment’s hesitation, the woman on the ground accepted Vertir’s hand and allowed him to pull her upright.

“I would tell you that it’s not safe out here tonight, but you already know that,” Vertir said. “Do you have somewhere to go?”

“I am told there is refuge to be found at the Temple of the Broken Swords,” she replied, crisp and precise, looking pointedly at the weapons that Vertir had just tossed aside.

He raised an eyebrow.

The hackles rose on Kuikin’s neck. Only former soldiers could claim refuge at the Temple of the Broken Swords. Kuikin didn’t take this woman for a soldier, and neither did Vertir.

“You do not recommend going there?” she said as she retrieved her bundle and clutched it close to her chest.

Vertir shook his head. “I make no recommendation. If that’s where you want to go, follow the big street down to the canal and turn west through the district gate. You’ll see it at the end of the vista. Good luck to you.”

“Good luck to you as well,” the young woman replied.

Kuikin studied their reactions. The beautiful woman had absolute command of her expressions, and it was impossible to determine if she was relieved or worried or puzzled. Meanwhile, the other woman glanced from Vertir to the fallen guards to her companion, but every time she glanced at her companion, her eyes flashed downward.

One of the soldiers stirred. Vertir paused just long enough to kick him in the head. “Now we find our way in,” he said, leading the way again. “No more stray cats tonight, I promise.”

It was Kuikin’s turn to grab Vertir’s sleeve. “Change of plan. I think we should escort this young lady and her companion to the Temple of the Broken Swords.”

Lin did not like the ugly pox-scarred man with the intense gaze, but she was glad for the protection of the other one, a former soldier if she was not mistaken, particularly after he easily dissuaded at least two more small groups of roving thieves from attacking them. The thieves weren’t as dangerous as the three palace guards who had been sent to kill her, but no matter who killed her, dead was dead.

The ugly one introduced himself as Kuikin, carefully omitting his surname, as commoners did when announced to royalty. He introduced the soldier as Vertir. He did not ask their names, and she did not offer. She refused their help with her bundle and hugged it to her chest as they walked. Although she could feel the weight of Snub napping fitfully again inside, she still felt safer with her hand near the cage’s latch.

“Thank you for helping us,” Lin said to Vertir, but he just shrugged, as if he had as much need of gratitude as he did of weapons.

“As the ancients remind us,” Kuikin said, “if you want happiness for a moment, pursue your own goals, but if you want happiness for a lifetime, help others.”

“Are you happy tonight?” she asked him.

He lowered his gaze. “Truly, no one is happy tonight. All we can do is hope for a better day tomorrow.”

He spoke like a man who always tried to say the right things, possibly for the wrong reasons. The Court bureaucracy was full of similarly obsequious louts. She detested them as a class, but this one didn’t quite strike her as a typical bureaucrat.

They crossed a neighborhood of smaller shops and homes, all restricted by law to one story in height so that they could not overtop the walls of the palace, and passed through an arched gateway into an older quarter of more run-down buildings that ricketed their way upward two and three stories. Most of the ground floor windows had been hastily boarded up, but eyes peered out from the recesses of upper levels. These were the homes of people with nowhere else to go and nothing to do but wait. All these buildings should be torn down, Lin thought, and rebuilt with more elegant proportions and better materials.

The Temple of Broken Swords emerged suddenly from this dark mob of structures. It looked like a half-abandoned fortress, with ancient weatherbeaten walls half a mile long and fifteen feet high, topped by jagged shards of broken glass and glazed pottery that captured and reflected the moonlight. A guard tower at the corner stood twice as high as the wall, but missing stones and cracks indicated its disrepair.

Not quite what Lin had envisioned or expected.

Vertir led them to a blocky gatehouse. A pair of life-sized statues carved from red sandstone, their features eroded smooth with time, guarded either side of the entrance. One held a large spear and the other a tipped cornucopia of stone in which someone had left dried flowers.

Hanah, who had stayed close to Lin’s hip, leaned in to whisper. “Who are they?”

The one called Kuikin overheard her question and turned to reply before Lin could answer. “The Goddess of War and the God of Medicine,” he said, nodding at the statues. “The temple is a place for retired veterans, especially those who have been injured. They come here to be healed. Some stay as monks or nuns to help others.”

Hanah wrinkled her brow in a frown. Not the they she had been asking about.

“Thank you again for bringing us safely here,” Lin said to the two men. “Hanah, can you give each of them a token of our appreciation before they continue their own important journey, which we regret interrupting.”

Phrased like a question, but spoken like a command. The one named Kuikin definitely noticed the distinction, to judge from his quickly suppressed half-smile.

Hanah froze, confused, then her hands dived into her apron, and came forth with two gold coins, which she held out in offering to each of the men.

Vertir raised an eyebrow but made no move to accept. Kuikin stepped forward, not to take the coins but to shield them from the view of anyone in the street. “Thank you, but we cannot accept your gift,” he said, with eyes lowered. “You may yet need it more than we do. Please put it away before it attracts unwanted attention.”

Hanah looked to Lin, who nodded her assent.

“It is a dangerous night,” Kuikin said. “Please allow us to see you safely inside these walls.” Vertir moved toward the door, but Kuikin held out a hand to stop him. “Let us wait for permission.”

Whoever this Kuikin was, he clearly seemed to recognize her, but he was not on her payroll, and in her experience that meant no good. She gave the cage a gentle shake to wake Snub in case she should need him.

“Hanah,” she said. “We do not wish to trouble these gentlemen any further on our behalf. Please summon the monks so that we may go inside.”

Hanah pounded on the door and called for it to be opened. A shadow passed across the inside of the door’s eye, but there was no answering voice, no sliding of bolts. After a few moments, she gave up and looked to Lin for instruction.

“Try again,” she said, and Hanah tried again, but with the same results.

Kuikin cleared his throat. “It is said that the Spring Dyn sought shelter here from the Lords of Wind when they killed his father and destroyed the palace. But of course he had been a soldier, serving in the southern marshes.”

Lin gritted her teeth. She did not understand why this ugly man was talking to her, did not comprehend why he thought it was important to tell her this.

And then she did.

She was not, and had never been, a soldier. Nor did she have a second plan. It had always been refuge here or nothing. Panic surged through her as she looked around her, expecting to find some alternative at hand.

“I am confident we can find a solution to this problem,” Kuikin assured her, eyes lowered.

“Your confidence is appreciated, but your solution would be more welcome.”

“Vertir?” he said, looking to his companion. “If you please.”

Vertir’s face registered open doubt, but he shrugged and stepped to the side of the door. The dried flowers were swept from the cornucopia with a single efficient gesture, then he thrust his hand inside, elbow deep.

On the other side of the wall, a bell rang.

“This is a temple for warriors,” a voice replied instantly. They had been watching her the whole time and refused to answer the door. If she wasn’t afraid of being left out on the street, she would have been furious. “Only warriors and their guests may enter after dark.”

“I served in the Barbarian Legion under General Kan,” Vertir called back. “The seventh cohort.”

A pause. “What is the sigil of the sixth cohort?”

“Moon over mountain, blue over green.”

Another pause. “This is a temple of healing.” Apparently Vertir had provided a satisfactory answer; Lin heard a change in the quality of the voice above them—it was less defensive now. “Only those who seek peace may enter, day or night.”

“May your gardens be a shield, providing peace until the dawn,” Vertir replied.

It had the cadence of a ritual answer, properly spoken. A heavy bar scraped back and the door creaked open. A monk emerged. His head was shaved, but stubble covered his chin. He wore the knee-length amber robes of his order. Lin had read that the color symbolized how their traditions were preserved unchanged over time, like insects trapped in resin. His right leg had been replaced with a peg made from the horn of a mammoth stag beetle.

“The seventh cohort protected our right flank against the army of Desmeé at the Battle of the Blue Crows,” the monk said. “Not one man in fifteen was left alive in that cohort.”

“It was your left flank,” Vertir answered. “That’s why you still have your left leg. And it was not one man in twenty.”

The monk nodded. “Welcome, friend. Have you brought a gift?”

Vertir spread his empty hands and looked to Kuikin, whose face registered a sense of alarm that did not comfort Lin in the slightest. “Hanah,” she said.

As Hanah reached into her apron pocket, Vertir waved her off. “Bringing money to the gate would be an insult to the temple. Flowers, fruit, a small piece of art...”

Kuikin fidgeted, as though looking up and down the street for a garden to raid. He seemed on the point of gathering up the dried flowers Vertir had just dumped on the ground.

“I’m sorry,” the monk said. “But if you have not brought a gift, the night gate is barred.”

“Wait a moment,” Kuikin said, patting his robes as if he expected to discover a rosebush.

Vertir frowned at him and bowed to the monk. “We understand and honor your—”

“Perhaps this will serve.” Lin reached into her pocket and produced the hummingbird skull. Her memento.

The monk held out his hands, right hand cupped formally inside the left.

It was the only thing she had to remember her hummingbird temple with, and she hesitated a moment before placing it in his palm.

He examined it closely. “A Royal Purple?”

“Yes,” she replied, acknowledging his answer with a small dip of her chin. She was impressed.

“It can be ground into a powder and used in the treatment of seizures. We thank you for your generosity.” He tucked it into his pocket and turned to Vertir. “Your gift is accepted. You and your guests may spend the night here. Names?”

Lin opened her mouth to provide one, but Vertir looked first to Kuikin, who replied with a small shake of his head.

“None for now,” Vertir said. “And if anyone asks at the gate later, it is better to say that no one is here.”

Any lingering amusement faded from the monk’s lips as he waved them inside. “Come inside quickly. It’s a foul night.”

“But you and I have been through worse,” Vertir replied.

The monk nodded. Lin wondered again who this Vertir was and how he’d come to find her in the street.

Kuikin entered the temple first, imitating the manner of the Court bureaucrats, head high, hands folded in his sleeves. She supposed it was as close to royal protocol as could be managed under the circumstances, and if her heart did not warm toward him, her sense of appreciation did. She gestured Hanah ahead and then followed her. Vertir and the monk closed and bolted the gate behind them.

“Come this way to our guest quarters,” the monk said, gesturing toward the buildings along the wall. “We’ll give you something to drink and a place to rest the night.”

A glass of wine and a warm bed sounded wonderful to Lin at the moment, but Vertir shook his head.

“If it is acceptable to you, we’ll stay at the Middle Pavilion until dawn. For the purpose of meditation,” he said.

“That is acceptable,” the monk said.

“I would also like to request the lighting of the outer ring.”

That gave the monk pause, and he tried to study Lin carefully out of the sides of his eyes. This Kuikin fellow had figured out her identity already. Perhaps the monk had too. “I assure you all, you are safe within these walls,” he said.

Vertir bowed. “Surely a fellow soldier knows that being safe is not the same as feeling safe. You will be doing me a favor tonight by lighting the outer ring.”

The monk sighed. “As a favor then, for the Battle of the Blue Crows and our fallen comrades.”

Vertir bowed again. “I will be at peace tonight, trusting my fellow soldiers to guard the wall.”

“And in the morning?” asked the monk.

“We will see what the morning brings.”

The monk withdrew to the gatehouse, and Vertir led their small party over a stone bridge and through a fragrant orchard. They crossed a wide empty field, filled with a carpet of clover and other low-growing wildflowers, to a pavilion set in the exact middle of the temple grounds. Vertir took her free arm without permission, as if she were some aging aunty, and assisted her up the steps. When they reached the center of the large structure, he folded his hands behind his back and withdrew to a respectful distance.

“Many soldiers find it hard to be at peace after war,” he explained. “Jumping at every sudden movement, lashing out at every shadow. The same thing can happen to anyone after they’ve been attacked. The Middle Pavilion is a place of safety, used for meditation. No one can approach, except by crossing open spaces. The roof is low and broad, and the pavilion is situated so that no arrow can reach beneath its shelter from any wall or hidden vantage. It is a place where wounded spirits may come to feel safe again and heal.”

“What he means to say,” Kuikin explained, eyes lowered, “is that no assassins can take us by surprise here.”

“I understood perfectly well what he was saying,” Lin replied. “Do not ever condescend to me again. I will ask if something is unclear.”

Kuikin winced. “Of course.”

Vertir laughed, entirely inappropriately, at his companion’s discomfort. She approved. Outside, at the edge of the field, a lantern brightened into being. One by one, they winked on around the perimeter of the temple grounds, creating a ring of light along the edges of the orchards and gardens that surrounded the pavilion. In the shadows beyond, the dim shapes of workshops, barracks, and other buildings huddled against the walls.

“And the lanterns mean that we’ll be able to see anyone approach, even in the dark, but they won’t be able to see us,” she said.

Vertir nodded. “That is correct.”

“Who are you loyal to, Master Vertir?”

He stared at her directly and paused thoughtfully, but before he could answer, Kuikin replied, eyes lowered. “Our loyalty is to the rule of heaven.”

She laughed, also inappropriately. Always saying the right thing. But this time she suspected that he meant it. “Are we truly safe here?” she asked, her voice low, sounding more shaken than she intended to reveal.

“Yes, for tonight,” Kuikin said.

“No,” Vertir said softly. “No one is truly safe as long as we are breathing.”

Kuikin opened his mouth, as if to argue... and then simply shrugged.

“At least we are still breathing,” Lin replied. She looked to Hanah, who swallowed and bowed her head. Then she put down Snub’s cage and shook her hand to force feeling back into her fingers.

Inside the silk bundle, Snub rattled his cage and hissed. Kuikin leapt back. Vertir narrowed his eyes. “What’s that?”

“Let me introduce you to Snub,” Lin replied, bending down to untie the cloth cover.

“Perhaps you could introduce yourself first,” Vertir suggested.

Lin looked up, but Kuikin was vigorously shaking his head and stepping between them.

“Let’s leave it until morning,” he said.

“Are you sure?” Vertir asked. Glancing over his companion’s shoulder at Lin, as if he might see something that he’d previously missed.

“I’m sure.”

Vertir seemed to accept this with no further argument. Lin thought that she might trust him. At least she didn’t actively distrust him. And he trusted this Kuikin fellow completely.

“I suspect many things will be clear in the morning,” she said. Such as, who had survived in the palace, and whether it was one of the siblings who wanted her dead or one who would find her useful alive. “You gentlemen have brought us this far, and we are grateful. If you want to leave now, it might be safer for you. This would be the time, and I will say nothing to stop you, nor tell anyone what you have done.”

Without looking at each other, they both replied, “We’ll stay.”

Kuikin stretched out at one end of the pavilion and stared glumly at the roof. The two women napped fitfully side by side at the very center of the space, next to the cage holding that creepy giant spider that looked big enough to kill a man, while Vertir, who seldom slept, made constant rounds of the garden, even though no one had come to bother them, not even one of the monks.

An hour or so before dawn, the sky lightened in the east, outlining the temple’s decaying battlements. Birds blossomed into song and flitted restlessly throughout the garden. Kuikin capitulated to insomnia, rose, and went to sit on the wide steps. With any luck, there would be an assassin on the wall to put an arrow through his heart.

He might be presenting a brave face, but this was, without question, the worst night of his life. He had been in denial about it, had refused to even hear her name spoken, but there was no doubt in his mind: they had rescued the orphan dyness. Nine heirs to the throne, and they had found the only one with no money, no family, and no connections. No way to reward them, and no one to reward them for her. The worthless one. Whoever won the battle of succession at the palace would almost certainly want her dead.

The Notary General will be disappointed in us.

He and Vertir had gambled and lost.

There was a children’s game called Pips, played with nine-sided dice, numbered in ascending order on each face. They were used in various combinations to teach addition and multiplication, and then rolled randomly as a form of testing. Kuikin had never excelled at that game compared to other children in his village, but he got much better when he went to the university and discovered a version played for money on beery tabletops in noisy taverns. There, it was called Luck of the Gods. Nine dice for the nine gods. Competitors rolled all nine dice and the highest total won. If the totals were equal, then whoever had the lowest pip lost. So you never wanted to roll ones. With one exception—theoretically, nine of anything beat a higher number, and if you rolled nine ones it beat everything else.

He forgot the exact math, but the odds of rolling nine of anything were nearly one in four hundred million. In all of Kuikin’s dicing, the closest he had ever seen was eight fours. He remembered that night well, because four was considered an unlucky number, a symbol of death, but eight was the number associated with prosperity. He and his fellow students had stopped gambling for the night to argue, philosophically, whether the fours or the eight determined the luck of that particular roll. They all passed out drunk before reaching a consensus.

Tonight he felt like they had rolled the dice and turned up eight fours.

If only he had admitted it earlier. When they arrived last night, as Vertir led the way to the pavilion, Kuikin had held back and asked the monk to send word to the Notary General that they had a prize for him. Oh, well, it had been the right decision at the time.

“If you and your friend had not come by, my companion and I would be dead.”

Kuikin startled at the young woman’s voice—the orphan dyness had risen and stood by him. “A roll of the dice,” he replied, not bothering to hide the exhaustion in his voice.

“But your choice to accompany us here and your aid in securing our entry were not. Chance played a part, but so did intention.”

He nodded acquiescence to her point, and she sat down beside him as though they were just two weary refugees from last night’s fighting and not royalty and commoner, a gesture that created an unexpected upwelling of sadness in him.

Something small and bright buzzed in front of her face then zipped away. “There are so many hummingbirds here,” she said.

“They escape from the Dyn’s Palace of the Birds,” he explained. “The city is filled with them, but they come here because of the gardens and the quiet. People call this the Hummingbird Temple now.” She seemed thoughtful, almost too quiet, so he added. “People say the Dyn scattered ten thousand jewels across the city and they love him for it. Loved.”

She laughed heartily, and he had no idea why, nor could he ask. But as she studied the falling towers in the dawn light, the joy trickled out of her face. “This temple is more dilapidated than I expected,” she said.

“It’s been a long time since it received any royal funds,” Kuikin explained, and she looked so... disappointed that he couldn’t help blurting out, “I know the Notary of Buildings. Well, the future Notary of Buildings.” Probably. If the Notary General accepted his recommendation to promote the son-in-law. “Perhaps he could pay for repairs here as a public service.” At his personal expense, of course, to teach him the error of accepting bribes without sharing the wealth upward. The Notary General would like that suggestion.

Her lips thinned and her delicate brow furrowed, and he regretted saying anything. Sleeplessness and melancholy were two old friends who always encouraged him to feel awful and make bad choices. Under the circumstances, it was cruel to speak to her of the future. She was probably going to be dead before the end of the day. If anyone turned out to be very displeased that she had survived this long, he and Vertir could end up dead too.

A single woman crossed the wide field bearing a tray with a steaming teapot and four cups. The senior abbess, to judge from her faded robe and the colors on her belt.

“Thank all the gods,” the dyness said, spying the teapot.

“Any news from the palace or the city?” Kuikin asked as the grey-haired veteran bowed and placed the tray on the bottom step.

When she looked up, the scar across her scalp gleamed pale in the dawn. “The fires are mostly out and the city has grown quiet. Your companion is meeting with a large group of officials at the gate. They are discussing how many of them should be permitted to enter.”

“Good,” said Kuikin—thinking that a large group was not a good sign at all, because it meant that someone had won last night—at the exact same moment that the dyness also said, “Good.”

She sounded no more pleased than he did.

The abbess bowed and withdrew, and the dyness hurried down the steps to pour a cup of tea. Carefully, without trying to offend her, Kuikin placed his hand over the cup.

“Your Highness,” he said, eyes bent determinedly toward the ground. It was the first time he had used the formal address.

“Yes?”

“You do not have a royal taster here. While I do not suspect the monks of any harm, we cannot be too careful until you are returned safely to the palace. I should drink the tea before you.” And if it’s poisoned, that solves all my worries.

“I shall risk it,” she said. “If I don’t have tea immediately, I might as well be dead.”

As she raised the cup to her lips, he poured some for himself. The tea had a bright, energizing fragrance with just a hint of citrus. He took a sip. It was very good tea, especially if it was going to be his last. The kitchen girl joined them. Kuikin poured her a cup of tea as well and they all looked silently at the dawn. The air smelled of soot. In the distance, smoke spiraled upward from the ruined peak of Crippled Heron Tower, giving it the appearance of a snuffed candle.

The dyness sighed. “Hanah?”

“Yes, h... yes?”

“You may call me ‘Highness’ again,” she said. “If you wish, you may also take the coins I have given you and withdraw before anyone notices. You should be well established for the rest of your life.”

So, thought Kuikin, the dyness had no illusions about her fate. It was the same offer to leave that she had given him and Vertir the night before.

The kitchen girl sniffed disdainfully. “I’ll stay, Your Highness.”

Vertir crossed the field at a brisk pace, leading two men and a woman in formal court robes. The Notary General, the Master of Ritual, and the Holder of Keys. Three of the Dynast’s Five Fingers. A quorum.

The dyness returned her cup to the tray and stood, like a prisoner awaiting judgment. Kuikin stood beside her.

The three paused at the bottom of the steps—just long enough for the Notary General to grace Kuikin with a deep, unhappy frown—then got down on their knees and bowed. Vertir stood at attention like a guard. Kuikin wasn’t sure what to make of that, especially when none of them spoke. He had never been invited to the palace and was unclear on the court protocols.

“Please tell me which of my brothers and sisters are dead,” the dyness said at last.

The Notary General replied without looking up. “All of them... your majesty.”

Kuikin felt as though his own legs had been kicked out from under him. He staggered to the ground and kneeled, touching his head to the clover.

“We await your instructions,” the Notary General said.

The Dynast’s hand came to rest on Kuikin’s shoulder, and when she spoke, it was calmly and with authority. “Rise, and summon the Notary of Buildings, ” she said. “I have work to do.”

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C.C. Finlay has published five books and dozens of stories. He's been a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards, and his work has been translated into sixteen languages. For the past five years, he's been the editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. His most recent appearance in Beneath Ceaseless Skies was all the way back in BCS #3 and #4 with a story he co-wrote with his wife, novelist Rae Carson.