Tomorrow is Whitchandlers’ Eve. I can smell the beeswax of the candles in the market waft in as the door rasps open and a soldier steps through. “Customer...,” Loren tells me needlessly.
“Is Magdelena back from lunch?” I ask softly.
I prepare the parchments to take the fae-ink. Our offices are always full of candles, regardless of the time of year. The fae-ink borrows their light and allows me to weave it, taut and malleable, in the air above my pages. Thus light, which I know only as a rumor, becomes something I can shape and feel. I am braiding the smooth shapes of the first line of questions as footsteps approach.
The soldier smells of polished armor and leather. Beneath that he smells of fear. When he shifts his feet, the leather is new and stiff enough to creak. All this tells me he is young. I have faced far too many young soldiers this season. The Grass War grinds on, and the Empire continues to find fresh recruits outside the walls.
“Name,” I ask.
My glamour buzzes around me. At times it makes it difficult to perceive as clearly as I would like, but I recognize its importance. The soldier will see a more professional, intimidating, attractive version of myself sitting at the desk in the actuarial hall. Especially for the new recruits, it often makes all the difference. He tells me his name, and I twist the warm ribbons of ink in the air, followed by his age, village of origin, and next of kin. He is young enough to list only his parents and sister.
“And what kind of policy are you considering today?”
“Don’t know right what,” he mumbles. I had assumed him a provincial. When he speaks, his accent removes all doubt. “They said to come here afore...”
By the heavy breathing beside him, I know he is accompanied by Parrott, one of the king’s recruiters. And by the scent of jasmine over boot leather, I guess that Stock stands at the soldier’s other shoulder, a slight hum just below audibility telling me her glamour is strung as tightly across her features as possible. The two of them have no contract with me, but they know I am the best.
“It’s like I been telling you,” Parrott breaks in, his easy voice implying this is the simplest and most reasonable thing in the world and that he is happy to explain it to the soldier even though he no doubt already has, several times. “You’re gonna get good pay in Comp’ny and you’re gonna send a good size of that back home, like you want. But Ma’am Grey here gets you set up with a policy so in case you get hurt or worse, in case you can’t fight no more, your folks’re still taken care of, see? You said you got family, right?”
A pause, in which I imagine the boy nodding.
“So it might be you serve a couple seasons and go home set up for a farm or what, but maybe not.” Parrott’s tone darkens. “Then your Da don’t get help for the harvest, but they’re all still okay—maybe he hires a couple men—because you were one of them smart enough to get a policy.”
“Blood money, that,” the boy whispers.
I smile and straighten the parchments on the desk in front of me, feeling the coils of magic where I recorded the soldier’s information. “It is insurance,” I say. “It pays out to your next of kin if you are disabled or killed during your service. It does not, however, cover dark enchantments or troll-inflicted damages.”
The recruit’s feet shift, and I know his eyes are darting to where my rock trolls keep vigil at either side of the entrance.
“You don’t gotta worry about that,” Parrott says, a smile sounding in his voice again. “We don’t see action against trolls, and Comp’ny mages keep you warded from any black magics.”
The boy mumbles the inevitable question.
“That depends on the coverage you wish to purchase.” I flip over a fresh parchment and pull fae-ink from its surface, suspending a table of figures in the air between us. Running my fingers down the flex of magic, the pressure of light stitched across ether defines the figures and columns. Candles across my desk, I know, bend their flames toward us. “This column represents the pay-out, what would be sent to your family in the event you were disabled or killed.” I hear a stifled intake of breath. I am sure he has never seen numbers so large. “The other column is the premium—what each policy costs, drawn from your Company pay, each moon.”
“Near half my pay, that!”
Parrott laughs. “Don’t worry. She ain’t done her figuring yet. The less risky, the less you cost.” He speaks to me. “This one’s got some good stuff.”
My glamour, I know, masks expressions of exasperation. Even so, I make an effort not to indulge in an eye-roll. Once I had loved this part of the job, the figuring of percentages and possibilities, calculating possible returns on risk, my fingers whispering over an abacus of taut ether. But that had been before the interminable waste of the Grass War and the long train of young women and men in front of my desk with the trinkets they thought would give them a chance of not becoming food for crows in a field somewhere.
“Take this armor, for instance.” There’s a sound that is probably Stock laying her long-fingered hand against the young recruit’s chest.
“Was my grand-da’s,” the boy offers.
I stand and reach across the desk to touch the breastplate, still warm from Stock’s fingers, and then the shoulder-plates and segmented fingers of the gauntlets. “It is good workmanship,” I say, nodding. “Solid bronze. This would take three crescents off your premium each moon.”
“It’s got wardings on it too,” Parrott offers. “Tell Ma’am Grey about your wizard. They knock down the price for that.”
“Our village mage,” the boy says. “Wove his best warding on me, afore I left. Gave me this amulet.” I hear him pull something from beneath his tunic, and he places a coiled shell attached to a leather thong in my hands.
“I see.” I can feel the tingle of charm on the shell. It is weak folk-magic, barely enough to make an arrow go astray in the thick of battle, but it would not do to let the boy know. Faith in magic is often the strongest kind of magic. “We would take another crescent off because you are warded.” I move back behind my desk and slide a hand over the abacus.
“But you ain’t even asked what Comp’ny he’s signed with!” Parrott crows. “This one’s marching with the Prince’s finest, best trained and lowest casualty rate!”
“I noted the insignia at his breastplate.” I venture a soft sigh, knowing it will not penetrate the glamour. “Coral Company. That would reduce the premium by. . .” I pause, my hand shifting to another parchment, from which I pull updated tables for my fingers to read of company risks calculated just that morning. “A quarter of a crescent.”
There is the briefest pause in Parrott’s breathing. It speaks volumes. Premium reduction on Coral has never dipped so low, which tells him the casualty reports I receive are higher than those bandied about in the taverns or camps. His pause tells me he is only now learning that fact.
He covers his hesitation by clapping the recruit on the shoulder. “Ma’am Grey’s got a bucket of wizards back there,” he exclaims, “and they tell what Comp’ny’s the best. Those louts in Pearl Comp’ny for instance—don’t tell ‘em I said it—but they get the highest rates ‘cause they’re always taking fire what for their captain’s an idiot.” He snorts. “I say that cause he’s my cousin.”
The boy is silent. “Don’t rightly know,” he finally says. “Seems not fit, paying dear for what I might not need. Rather take my chances on fate and the gods.”
Parrott is silent. It is Stock’s turn. “What if you could know for sure?” she asks as though the thought has just occurred to her.
I sigh again. In the past, tastings were a last resort for clients too important or with policies too complex to leave to probability and prediction alone. But as the war goes on, recruiters are pressuring to have as many new soldiers as possible tasted.
He asks what she means.
“A scrying,” Stock whispers. “It tells them what kind of risk you are. If you get a good one, the costs go way down.”
“Da told me not to trust fortune-callers.”
“Your Da was right.” I pull the spectacles of smoked glass from my face and rub my nose. The glamour will have trouble covering that, but it has been a long day. It has been a long year. It has been a long war. “If the tasting is a poor read, you may be uninsurable. And there is an up-front cost.”
I can hear Stock leaning against the young man. “I’ll pay it,” she says.
I turn and ask Loren to summon Magdelena. I can hear the stupid grin and wide eyes in the recruit’s voice when she enters the tasting room. “Holy writ! She can taste my fortune,” he says, his hesitation momentarily forgotten, “and whatever else she wants.”
I hear Parrott cuff him. “She belongs to the god, boy. Show a bit of respect.”
Other firms employ multiple tasters, but Magdelena is the only one Loren and I have used now for years. There had been others, but after I found her and paid for her training, she was so much more skilled than the others that there had been no reason to retain them.
I have not touched her face since she was a child and I was an actuary my first year out of schola. I no longer know what she looks like, these decades later, or how the years have shaped her features, though I hear her and smell her more sharply than anyone else. She is dressed in the simple flowing robe of her profession, which makes her movements muted and soft. From the sound when she turns her head I know that the hair Loren tells me is a strikingly vivid blue is today held back by twin loping braids.
I do not know what such a blue looks like.
“The outcome of the tasting is binding,” I tell the recruit. “You are not compelled to submit to the tasting to purchase a policy. Indeed, depending on the outcome, you may be deemed uninsurable.”
He asks what that means, the uncertainty returning to his voice.
“It means if you get a bad tasting, you can’t buy protection from them or from any one else,” Stock explains. “But if you get a good one, your rates go way down, what for they know you’re a good investment.”
“There is a fee as well,” I say again.
I hear the handful of silver crescents Stock passes to Loren, who waits now with quill, parchment, and his dark ink, which is forever invisible to me because it sits dead on the page and never rises up to be strung along strands of ether.
“Magdelena needs your verbal consent to continue.” When the recruit says nothing, I continue. “Technically, you have already provided it, but you should repeat it again now that you have heard my disclaimer.”
“Say it again,” Stock whispers.
“She can taste my fortune,” he mutters.
Magdelena’s robe hisses as she walks toward him. There is a quick intake of breath from the boy and creak of leather as she presses herself against him, followed by the sound of a kiss. It lasts a long moment before she sinks her sharpened teeth into his lower lip. I hear that clearly too and note the copper scent of blood as she sucks at the wound. He tries to pull away, as most do, but the recruiters hold him and Magdelena keeps her lips against his.
He shudders when her lips pull away from his. Her braids rustle against his neck, and I know she is staring over his shoulder, gripping him like a lover. Loren says that at this point in the tasting Magdelena’s eyes, which are normally as blue as her hair, grow cloudy.
“I taste rosemary,” she says. Her voice is soft and distant with concentration as she tries to name each flavor in the recruit’s blood. “Cardamon. Cloves. Cinnamon. Rye. Cloves. Honeysuckle. Sweetmary. Thyme. Wolfsbane. Cardamon.”
Loren’s pen scratches each word as Magdelena speaks. I stand at his shoulder, holding the list in my mind as it grows.
“Wolfbane. Cloves.” She pauses. “Cloves.”
I wait another moment. “Is that all, Magdelena?”
“What?” the boy asks, his voice wet and muffled. “What’s it mean of me?”
“She tastes your blood,” Parrot explains. “She can taste what’s in it.”
“But I don’t eat all them. Don’t even know all them.”
“They’re like tokens,” Parrott says. “They stand in for other stuff what’s in your blood. Thing about blood is it’s not like your head. It comes from your heart, so it remembers backward and forward.”
Magdelena steps to where I wait with Loren, placing a hand gently on my arm. She is studying the list he has recorded. When she is satisfied with its accuracy, she whispers her approval.
She has done her part. Now it is up to me to interpret the results.
Parrott is basically correct. The words are not code so much as signifiers. As Magdelena has explained it to me, what tasters taste in the blood is like nothing else but evokes the taste of certain herbs or the scent of certain spices. The flavors that stand out most though, that are strongest in the blood, are those associated with the carrier’s final days. The heart remembers its death most clearly, and those flavors are sharpest. Cinnamon is the blood remembering lost love. Wolfsbane is fear. Cloves is violence.
Of course it is not that simple. Teasing out the interpretation often depends on the combination of flavors the taster recites and the order in which they become apparent.
This one, however, is clear enough.
“I’m afraid,” I say, trying to make my voice sympathetic and counting on my taxed glamour to make up for what is becoming a growing callousness toward sentencing young soldiers to death, “that you are uninsurable.”
The soldier is silent. Parrott slaps him on the back, harsh and hard. “Don’t worry, mate. It means you get triple pay!”
“Magdelena, if you please,” I say.
She walks back to the soldier and takes his arm. This time I hear him try to pull away. She lifts his right hand to her mouth and kisses the palm, then flips it over and kisses its back as well. A moment later he begins to scream, and I know a spidery mark of raised flesh is spiraling out from where Magdelena’s lips touched his skin on both sides of his hand.
“The mark saves trouble for other actuaries,” I tell him when his screams have trailed to a whimper, “making it clear you are not to be sold combat insurance.”
“And it drives the ladies wild,” Stock says, wrapping an arm around the boy’s waist. “They get in line to be with a man with the mark.”
I have touched the mark before, felt it on the hands of soldiers who have come to my desk begging that I make an exception to what they had been given, telling me their case will be different; that there has been a mistake. I know it is a jagged, spider-webbing scar the boy will carry with him for the rest of his short life.
“Will there be anything else?” Magdelena asks me.
“No, thank you.”
She leaves, though she pauses before raising the curtain of beads across the opening of her small chamber beyond our main office. I wonder if she is casting a last glance at the soldier, who still stands silent before me, likely staring at his hand. What he sees there is the end of his life, marked out as clearly as the throbbing pain.
“Come,” Stock tells him, tugging at his waist. “I’ll buy you a drink.”
The three of them leave, and I sigh once again. It is already the third mark this week. I have a feeling I will be hearing about this sooner rather than later.
I do not realize how soon. I walk narrow streets back to my apartments at the close of day. There had been more clients, most of whom were accompanied by recruiters, but no one else had requested a tasting. The numbers, however, had been enough to predict their likely futures: brief, violent campaigns in a grinding war that showed no sign of end or ebb.
I keep my hand on the rough back of my troll bodyguard, ignoring the noise of those who push themselves against walls and market stalls on either side to allow us to pass. My walk home, though not far, is a chance to become lost in thought; a chance to let the tireless calculations fade from my mind. I was accosted, once, when I first began working in the recruitment quarter of the city, outside the inner walls. It was before I hired my own bodyguards. It has never happened again.
My apartment is above a chemist’s several streets upward and inward, still outside the inner walls but farther from the smells of the market. The trolls flank me as I unlock the door to steps that rise to my chambers. When the door is opened they grunt and move away with heavy footfalls I feel through the cobblestones. One pauses though, and I turn to it, expectantly.
“Ma’am,” it rumbles, its voice as low as a storm.
I speak its name, the syllables grinding in my mouth like stones. “What is it?”
“Tomorrow,” it says. “Lights.”
Whitchandlers’ Eve. I cannot see the lights that are being prepared throughout the city, though I noticed the press of the streets was greater than normal. The trolls will keep the Eve in their mountain fastnesses as the revelers do tomorrow in the city.
“Of course,” I answer, inclining my head. “Your services will not be required tomorrow.” I try to remember the traditional blessing for the day and fail. “Go in peace.”
His footfalls fade away.
I unlock a second door at the top of the stairs. I have never needed guards here. My windows are barred against thieves, and Loren is the one who takes the crescents we earn to the bankers each evening. This night, however, the air of my chambers is disturbed.
When I enter my sitting room, I freeze.
It is a perception that is part sound and part scent, as most of mine are. I know he is there before he speaks, on the far side of the room, likely in the chair beside the empty fireplace.
“Good evening, Madam Grey.”
His voice is soft and of a tone that indicates he is trying to keep it non-threatening, despite the fact that he is waiting for me in my own home. I recognize the voice immediately, though I have only met him once or twice.
“Captain Throat.” I nod in his direction, but I neither feel nor hear indication of candles in the room or a fire in the grate, which means we are both in darkness. I speak a flame into the lantern beside me, for his benefit. “I did not realize the officers of the King’s Company had resorted to breaking and entering.”
“Throde.” He clears his throat as though embarrassed. “It is General now. It has been a while.” He waits for a moment, but if he expects my expression to thaw he is disappointed. “I need to speak to you privately and in some haste. This seemed best.”
“And the best means of intimidation?”
There is a sound of movement, perhaps a raising of arms. “I have no weapon. I trust you are competent to protect yourself in your own home. I assure you, I am here only to talk.”
He is correct about protection. There are security spells in place, if he has not disarmed them. By a certain calculation, his coming here is a gesture of submission, of putting himself in my power. Added another way though, it is a show of force, illustrating he has the skill to break into my apartments without apparent help or armament.
“Fine. General. The day has been long. I hope you will not mind if I take a few moments to wipe off the dust of the market. Would you like me to have a servant bring something to eat?”
There is another soft sound of movement. It must have been the shaking of his head, because he remembers himself a moment later and adds, “No, thank you. Take all the time you need. But I would prefer if no one knew I was here.”
I nod and move past him into my bedchamber. I have a substantial toilet there, and I take a moment to check my glamour, running fingers along where it hovers above my features. It is wearing thin, as is usual from a long day, and I speak a few words to tighten it. Then I square my shoulders and walk back into the sitting room.
His voice becomes brisk. “I will not keep you long. I know you appreciate a simple and direct approach.” He pauses for a moment. “Do you know what they will do to the young soldier you marked for death today?”
I arch an eyebrow. “I assume his commanding officer will recognize the mark and put him on the front lines. He will have a brief but glorious career.”
“He will be fodder.” Throde’s voice darkens. “It is circular, Madam Grey. You must see that. Your tasters predict death, and then the captains act on that. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
“Time is circular, General.” This is an old puzzle, one I have heard several times before and one I have long since ceased considering. My job is not to ponder metaphysical implications of cause and effect but rather to calculate odds and percentages. The tasting is a particularly effective means of doing so. “So is money. Numbers running around in a circle. The circle of the lives and deaths of the king’s soldiers seems of little concern to him.” I do not bother to hide the bitterness in my voice.
Throde shifts in his seat. “That depends on the size of the circle. Our sources say this is the third mark that has left your offices this week. It is the twelfth this moon. Other actuaries have seen a similar rise.”
I laugh. “This has been attempted before, General. It is no secret the king wishes to forecast the results of his campaigns using tastings. Obviously he has the data he needs. What is this to me? Let us each do our work, and I will leave you to ponder its implications.”
I can feel a hum from across the chamber and decide Throde is wearing a glamour as well, likely something making him appear a warrior with wise eyes and craggy face. I wonder if it occurs to him how useless it is here.
“You are right.” His voice carries a hint of amusement. “I have been arguing this to the king for years. A quagmire of calculations and predictions. You base your calculations on the attrition rates of the companies, and the king tries to forecast outcomes of battles based on your calculations. The only true foreknowledge is from the tasting, but the knowledge it brings is so ambiguous it is almost worse than useless.”
I clear my throat. “General. I have heard this all before. As lovely as it is to have my home invaded and my evening leisure disturbed, I am still at a loss as to what this has to do with me and my profession.”
“I apologize. Of course you know all the details.” He sighs. “This background is simply the context for the king’s latest... endeavor.”
I arch my eyebrow again. I can do that very well in actuality, but my glamour, I know, makes it infinitely more expressive. “Endeavor, General?”
“Plan. Stratagem.” He is obviously uncomfortable, which means he has gotten to the crux of why he is here. I hear him shift again. “He wants to put tasting to the test. He plans to mount a massive three-pronged offensive into the Brittle Terrain. He will place each of his three sons in command of one of three armies, the Crown Prince, the Duke, and the Earl, and he wants you to conduct a tasting for each before he embarks.”
“Is the king an imbecile?” I am outraged enough to stand. “Tasting gives the fate of a single soldier, not a campaign!”
“I understand that, Madame Gray. Which is why I need your assistance. The king is adamant when he has convinced himself of a certain course of action. And it falls to his advisors, in this case myself as the commanding officer of his Company, to see that his enthusiasm is put to the most constructive end possible.”
I cross my arms, waiting.
“I would ask you,” he continues, “as a noted member of your profession, to explain to him what you and I both understand to be the error in his thinking, but unfortunately I believe that would be of no use. I have tried, several times. What I would greatly prefer is that you would instead simply perform the tasting.”
He stands as well and takes a step toward me. “The king’s military strategy is flawed. He realizes this at some level, but he is proud. I pushed too hard arguing against him, and he must have a pretense to change his mind while saving face. A tasting would give him one.”
I close my eyes.
“The Crown Prince and the Duke are leading what the king has ordered to be the north and south arms of a pincer movement to enclose the Brittle Terrain. The Earl’s army is meant to be a feint. But the King has forgotten how the Brittle Terrain swallows men. The Prince’s army and the Duke’s will both be winnowed to nothing before they even reach the enemy positions. The Earl’s feint must be the true push instead.” He pauses. “I want you to do the tasting for all three princes. You must foretell violent death for the Crown Prince and the Duke but not for the Earl.”
“You want me to lie.”
“I want you to give the king the reason he needs to change his strategy. You know the foretelling would be meaningless for this decision anyway. But if the king hears death foretold for his two eldest sons, he will scale back their offensives and devote those forces to the Earl. The Earl’s army must have the greater numbers if this final offensive is to succeed.”
“You want me to lie. To the king.”
“Will you do it?” His voice becomes wry, and for a moment I almost sympathize with him. “You do not look as though you will.”
“Get out. I don’t care about the king, and I don’t care about his endless, pointless war. But if you understand anything of my profession you can understand why I want you to leave. Immediately.”
“Gray, we have a chance to end this war with a single campaign. I spared you the details, but trust me when I tell you this could end the Grass War. Surely you care something about those men and women for whom you spend your days calculating mortality?”
He takes a long, slow breath. “I can’t simply leave here and find someone else to do this thing. I played my hand when I told you. I chose to trust you.”
“Then you are an idiot. And a bigger idiot if you think you can threaten me.”
“Not you.” The breath has turned into a sigh. Suddenly he sounds very tired. “I know I cannot threaten you. But your taster. Magdelena, I believe. She was picked up today outside one of the taverns frequented by my officers. Apparently she had propositioned one of the men. Told him she could provide a tasting with something other than blood, if you understand me.”
From his voice I know he is within reach. I slap him, and I am satisfied by how well my hand connects with the side of his face. The sound is nearly identical to Parrott’s gloved hand slapping the armor of a new recruit.
“Gods’ members, Gray!” he bellows. “It’s what’s written on her charges, not what actually happened. This is called blackmail.”
“You are filth.”
“Yes,” he says, rubbing his jaw, a sound in the darkness like a brush on stone. “Tell that to those who will not be marching to war next summer if we accomplish this thing. Tell it to their mothers and fathers. Tell it to their children.”
“Tell it to the king,” I hiss. “This is his war.”
He grips my arm, hard enough that for a moment I think he means to strike me back. Instead he waits for a long minute. “I am doing the best with what I have, Gray,” he finally says. “It is easy to be idealistic if you live with only numbers.”
I pull away, suddenly angry with myself and furious with him for making me feel that way. “If you or any of your men have touched Magdelena...”
“She is perfectly safe.”
“Perfectly safe but terrified and humiliated.” I think of her in a cell and shudder. I remember her as a child when I was little more than one myself. I remember when she first found her way to my office. “I will do it. But you have to promise me protections.”
“You will be there at each tasting so I can personally explain to the king what a coward you are if this fails. And you pay me enough that Magdelena and I can retire to a villa within the inner walls when this fiasco is finished.”
“And you...” I pause. I realize what I am doing, what door this is opening. Once the foretelling has been perverted, there is no going back. What if the campaign fails? How soon would Throde come knocking again asking for additional manipulation, additional lies? How would any of the tasters or actuaries in the city remain safe? I am compromising our entire profession. “Afterward. When it is done. Wait a moon. Then have me killed.”
“What?” He releases my arm.
“Promise me, Throde. Because if I do this, I am compromising everything. Promise me that I will not live to see the consequences.” I hear his breathing again, shallow now and pensive, as though coming from beneath a knitted brow. “Promise me,” I say again, “or I will not do this thing.”
“You want me to kill you?”
“I don’t care by whose hand the deed is done. But if you understand my work, you will understand I cannot live to see it broken like this. And any that come after, any that perhaps realize what has happened, will know that there is only one outcome for an actuary who betrays her numbers.”
He sounds truthful. He sounds as if the words carry the weight of his honor.
But there is only one way to know for sure.
Throde has a carriage take me to the prison where they have placed Magdelena. The smells there are strong, mildew and unwashed bodies, blood and urine and despair. There is a whole warren in the prison devoted to those the king or his soldiers have accused of prostitution. I wonder how many of them are being held for reasons similar to those that compel me here; how many have been brought by lies or oppression or extortion. The prisoners shriek at me through their bars as a guard leads me down a corridor to Magdelena’s cell.
She flings herself against me when the door is opened, something she has not done since we were both young. For that, I almost forgive Throde and even the king his stubborn madness.
“I did nothing,” she says, her voice breaking where her face is pressed against my shoulder. “I was walking home and they stopped me and brought me here.”
“I know.” I touch her hair. “I know.”
The carriage takes us back to my apartment. I will not send her home tonight. I will not let her be parted from me again, not now, not ever, until this deed is done. I will explain our course of action in the morning, when we are both clean, when this night is a dark memory behind us, over a breakfast of the tiny fish she loves on dark rye toast. We will map out this cartography of lies together. I believe she will trust me.
But first I must know whether Throde promised true.
“Magdelena,” I tell her. “There is something I need.”
She no longer trembles, and she has washed her face of tears. The smell of the prison is no longer on her.
“You must trust me. I would not ask this if it was not necessary.”
She nods, her hair a sigh against the back of her neck.
“You must taste me.”
I hear confusion in her silence.
“You must do it now, Magdelena,” I press on, before I have a chance to convince myself this is a mistake, that there is nothing for us but to leave the city and lose ourselves in the war-ravaged plains beyond. “I can explain in the morning, but now I must know.”
“What’s wrong?” she asks, her voice small and warm in the dark. “This has to do with me, doesn’t it? About why they brought me there? What do they want?”
“They want everything,” I say. “But I must know whether they will take it.” I stand, trying to keep my lips from trembling. It is not in anticipation of the pain. It is the fear of the truth that sleeps in my own blood, safe and unknowable, being brought to light on her tongue. “Now, Magdelena, if you please.”
I feel her approach. “Your glamour,” she whispers. “You must take it down.”
I have forgotten it. It still buzzes about my face, crude and strained in the lamplight, I am sure. I reach for my ears and make the half-sign, half-whisper that evaporates it. I feel the lines of my face rewrite themselves in the dark. I am old.
Her hands are on my neck, and the heat of her face is against mine. She is without glamour, a softness in the dark smelling of my own soap but underneath it the scent of her that I have tried for years to name, an unidentifiable reality I have tried to label in the same way the tasters name the flavors of the blood. We have not been so close in years, and in a moment I will have a word for it and I will know what it means.
Then her lips are on mine. I keep my hands on her waist, knowing what is coming and willing myself not to pull away and not to push closer. In an instant there will be pain, and then knowledge, but now I will myself to be only in this moment, with her against me and with her lips at my own.
She holds me there, so long I think perhaps she has changed her mind and will disobey, and then her lips part.
It should not hurt so badly. Her teeth are small and sharp. They do not dig or tear, but they go deep. My hands spasm at her back and she pulls herself against me.
When it is done I feel drained, as if she has drunk her fill of my blood and not just the mouthful it takes to paint the flavors on her tongue.
“Clover and sage,” she whispers. “Chamomile. Honey. Cinnamon.”
Blood runs down my chin as I listen.
“Sage. Thyme.” She stops.
“Cardamon.” Her voice is heavy. “Wolfsbane. Cloves.”
I nod, silently, beside her in the close darkness of my chambers that I know is not darkness to her, and I wonder perhaps for the thousandth time about the color of her hair, skin, and eyes. I had never wondered so sharply about colors before meeting her.
She is still holding me, as she held the soldier.
“What does it mean?” she finally whispers.
I can see the abacus in my mind’s eye, heavy with spirals of fae-ink, balancing the lives of a million soldiers. I place my own calculations upon it, sliding counters back and forth.
Cardamon. Wolfsbane. Cloves.
The blood never lies.
“It means a man will keep his word,” I tell her. My lip burns. “And it means I will keep mine.”
I straighten, and I can feel the question in the air between us. Her face remains a mystery, one I may never again have the chance to explore. Slowly, I touch her cheek. She does not pull away, and my fingers find her eyelids, the line of her nose, and her lips.
“What do I look like?” she asks, smiling.
I am silent, trying to find my breath. “Tomorrow,” I finally say. “I will explain everything tomorrow. If you are willing, we will lie to a king and perhaps bring an end to the war.”
“Will you be there?”
“Then I am willing.” She has not released me, and now she places her head again on my shoulder, looking beyond me. Perhaps she is staring toward the future she has read in my blood. After a moment she stirs.
“Outside,” she whispers.
She pulls away but takes my hand, leading me toward the windows of my chamber. They are wide and draped against the night. Once a visitor asked me why a blind woman needed such large windows. It was a foolish question. The sighted do not know the kiss of sunlight on skin as sharply as we do.
“The lights,” Magdelena says, sounding for a moment like a child as she pulls the curtains aside. “They are preparing for Whitchandlers’ Eve.”
We stand there, hand in hand, facing what I know is a view across one of the larger market squares in the lower city.
“What do you see, Magdelena?”
“Thousands of candles. Hundreds of thousands. I have never seen it from above before. It is beautiful.”
“What does it look like?” I have seen her face again, with my hands. I have held her against me. I need see nothing else again.
“The universe,” she says. “It looks like the universe out there beneath us.”
Her hand tightens around mine. My universe is dark, but in this moment her hand is as warm in mine as the strands of ether my fae-ink rests upon each day. What others call brightness I know only as warmth or touch. I wonder whether the morning will bring more of this light or only a new darkness.
Passing through the inner walls, it is as though cloying veils are lifted from my face. I had worn them, half-suffocated, my entire life and never known. The smell of sweat, dust, smoke, and the sharp tang of rot from the market fade as Throde’s carriage takes us farther up into the city through the towering walls. The air carries the scent of blossoms from the orchards that line the city’s upper slopes.
The carriage came from us at dawn. I had explained everything to Magdelena before it arrived, lacing my glamour across my features with practiced finger-strokes.
Her voice was hedged with caution. “Will it work?”
“I don’t know.” I did not tell her the agreement I had made with Throde; only our part to play this day. “We must do this, though, if it will help end the war.” I paused. “But it does not have to be you. There are other tasters I could recruit for this charade.”
“No.” She put her hand over mine. “I will go with you.”
Now her arm remains on mine as the carriage rises through the city. After what seems like most of the morning, it stops in an echoing space filled with jasmine and the sound of running water. I hear gates close behind us, barely a whisper of well-oiled iron, and the lack of a breeze tells me we are within a courtyard.
Magdelena’s grip tightens. “The palace. It is beautiful.”
“This way, Madams,” Throde greets us, his voice coming from just ahead.
Our pathway into the palace is a maze of flights of stairs and long corridors. Everywhere around us, candles and lanterns blaze. I can feel their soft heat against the chill of the stone walls and wooden floors. Within the palace, it seems, Whitchandlers’ Eve is celebrated even more elaborately than in the streets below. It speaks to the importance the king has placed on this tasting that he has not delayed it, even for the holiday. Though I wonder if he notes or cares the significance: each candle represents the soul of a child killed in the Chandlers’ War, twelve generations ago. Few recall the grim origins of the holiday now, though the king could likely triple the number of flames in his palace and still not have enough to commemorate his own war, this war.
We seem to be always ascending. I smell sandalwood and the polish of lacquered furniture over the spiced beeswax of candles. After a winding passage long enough that my legs begin to ache, Throde leaves us in an antechamber without daylight—windowless. Here the air is thick with scented oil from lamps so numerous even Magdelena notices the warmth.
Then we are brought before the king.
I do not see dizzying vistas beyond castle windows or a swirling array of courtly splendor. But I feel the buzz of dozens of glamours tightly stitched against features of courtesans and chamberlains and captains. I feel the expanse of air beyond open windows, and I realize we are high enough that the wind brings smells from beyond the city: clean and tinged with a hint of smoke and grass.
“Your Majesty and my Lords,” Throde intones from beside us, “the Madams Grey and Magdelena, actuary and taster of Grey and Chambers.”
“She is blind,” a voice says, cutting across a background of whispered movement. “Like Lady Fate.” The voice barks a laugh, not entirely unpleasant. “How fitting.”
It is surely the king. I curtsey in the direction of the voice, bringing my long grey gown off my knees, and I feel Magdelena do the same beside me.
“How long have you plied your trade, Lady Grey?” the king asks.
He is too far away for me to tell whether he wears a glamour. Perhaps a king does not need one. “Thirteen years, your Majesty.”
“They tell me you are the best.”
I incline my head. “I am privileged to work with the most skilled taster in the city, your Majesty.”
It is hard for me to build a picture of him in my mind from his voice. It seems strong but also wry, as though used to finding double meanings in the speech of all around him, including his own. I try to link it to the voices of the hundreds of soldiers I have faced across my table as the voice that commands them all.
I fail. It is just a voice.
“A taster. A tasting. My sons!” the king barks. “Do you fancy that any of them look tasty?” He laughs again. “You need not answer that.” He pauses, and I hear more movement around us. It is hard to tell, but I assume that three figures are moving to the center of the room. “My eldest, Crown Prince Aiden. My bravest, Duke Auguste. And my wisest, Earl Caye. Shall I describe them to you?”
“If your Majesty desires.”
He does not. But as he speaks, I hear something that is perhaps lost on the others. The king is frightened. He is sending his sons off to a war that has devoured the lives of his subjects, and now, like any father, he is grasping at something that might provide him reassurance of their success. For a moment I pity him, and then I recall it is at his command that so many mothers and fathers have before him felt this same helplessness.
I remind myself that in his desire for certainty lies our opportunity to end this.
But suddenly there is an unforeseen complication.
“I want them tasted blind,” the king says. “They know their orders. I know their orders. My court does not.” He is pacing, the footfalls of a tall man. “But Madams Grey and Magdelena do not. I want no outside knowledge tainting the forecast. You know not which of my sons is which, and no one will betray this to you now.” Another barked laugh, this one sounding forced. “On pain of death.”
It is the Earl who must succeed, Throde has insisted. It is his feint that must be strengthened and made the true offensive. I am to lie and doom the Prince and the Duke to death, deaths of violence. On the streets below, such a forecast would have little effect but to alter the insurance rates of particular contingents and perhaps the placement in the ranks of a single individual. It would never be enough to change the course of a war. But here, in the hands of an anxious king, such lies will have consequence.
I hear Throde’s quick intake of breath and recognize that he has not foreseen this complication.
The first of the king’s sons steps forward, and without hesitation Magdelena goes through the tasting. Her movements, her sounds, make me feel as though we are again in our offices, and I focus on that and not the rising panic in my stomach.
There are murmurs throughout the room as she begins calling out the names of spices. I make a show of recording them in elaborate script with fae-ink over the parchment I have spread on the floor before me. It is awkward, but the spectacle must be impressive, a long lattice of ink drawing light from the dozens of candles burning around the chamber.
It is all a ruse. There are no calculations or recordings to perform.
Eventually she falls silent.
“Is that all, Magdelena?” I ask, my fingers flexing the chains of script before me.
“Yes,” she whispers.
“Well?” the king barks, uncertainty coiled beneath his bravado. “What does it mean?”
The man she has tasted smells heavily of actual spices and of drink. Magdelena’s tasting makes it appear this man will die from illness of the liver, though no one in this room could know that but me. I trace the ink I have woven with my fingers, pondering.
I have very little to go on, but it will have to be enough.
The words are ashes in my mouth. My first professional lie. The bitterness of betraying my trade helps, because it looks as though my hesitancy comes from the magnitude of what I must say.
“Violent death, your Majesty.”
There are gasps, but I hear Throde behind me exhale a low even breath, and I know I have guessed correctly.
The second man smells like the first, and his heavy footfalls are those of his father. The tasting indicates death of old age. It is the king’s eldest then, I suppose, and he will have a long life and reign.
I close my eyes and bow my head, trusting my glamour to transform this gesture of despair into one of stately grace.
“Violent death, your Majesty.”
Again, shock ripples through the surrounding court.
Now the third. A breeze has picked up, and I strain to catch some distinguishing scent to confirm whether I have failed in identifying them. Magdelena lists the tastes of battle and violent death.
The wind shifts slightly, and I smell the scent of ink, of parchment, of days spent like my own, bent over documents and annotations. It is the Earl then, a man who has spent his life with books.
A final lie, as I add his name beside my own to the list of the damned: “A long life, your Majesty. Peaceful death in sleep.”
The Earl lets out a long, relieved breath, soft enough for only me to hear. It is more painful than any words of the king.
“You are sure?” The king paces closer. I hear his words coming through the wide lattice of ink upon which I have woven my deceits. His voice is that of a man who has had two-thirds of his future torn away from him.
“Yes, your Majesty.”
The lying is coming more easily now.
“Such a cost,” he mutters. “Such a price for victory.” I hear him reach a decision in his voice, like a door closing somewhere deep inside. “You all bear witness here to what has been spoken. This knowledge will not be carried outside the walls.” His voice darkens. “Otherwise you will find your sons and daughters marching on the front lines of my armies, as I have offered my own sons.”
There are murmurs across the room, and the king steps closer. He calls for Throde and speaks low.
“This will no doubt require a change of strategy, General.” His voice has grown tired. “But this knowledge, my sons’ futures, remains here. I am sorry, Madams.” Now his voice rises. “Guards, kill them.”
For a moment there is absolute silence.
“Here, Majesty?” Throde’s voice cuts in, harsh with incredulous anger. “Let me take them to the oubliette. I will hold them there until this thing is done.”
“The court has just watched my sons as good as murdered by my own hand!” the king shouts. “Such is the cost of victory. Do it now. Do it here. Their blood will be on all our hands.”
What pity and turmoil I held for a moment withers inside me. It is no matter to me whether I die; that is already decided. But Magdelena—
The guards grab her and her words are cut off, as though by a hand clamped over her mouth. I act almost without thought, casting my vial of fae-ink to the flagstones, where I hear it shatter. I pull up the ink, through my fingers, shaping numbers in a net around me thicker and larger than I have twisted before, cords that draw the light of every candle and lantern in the room until I stand with Magdelena inside a web of brilliance. My numbers have always protected me; they have been the means by which I hid myself from the true cost of war, reducing it to sums upon an abacus. It is fitting they shield us now, when I am forced to face at last the price of loss.
“What is this?” the king demands.
“The tally, your Majesty,” I tell him. “The total dead by your hand. If you will add our lives to it today, you should know where it stands.”
I add the subtotals and casualty reports I hold in my head, fingers flying. I make the numbers large and looping, sweeping ribbons of light. I am home here, inside these figures. But I have never before laid them all out, the total summations of my years calculating a war in price of lives. I pour myself into it, threading all the light from the room.
I know the whole network must be vibrant now, shining with light from all the candles lit for Whitchandlers’ Eve.
I knot the final total in the air before me. “This is yours, your Majesty. Your total dead.” I twist the ether tighter. “Your cost.”
There is silence. Perhaps he has not seen, perhaps no one here has seen before, the magnitude of this war made so clearly manifest: the emptiness of the palace corridors through which we passed, the long streams of men and women leaving the city never to return, the orchards heavy with fruit left unpicked and grain unharvested in the fields from lack of hands for the labor.
The thick silence is finally broken by the scrape of a dagger from its sheath behind me, then a scream rising beside me. I recognize the timbre of pain in that scream. Someone has been touched with the burning spread of a mark upon the skin. Magdelena has kissed the hand of the guard who is holding her mouth. When it is free she shouts my name, and I realize the dagger I heard is meant for me.
I release the ether. The lattice collapses, unleashing the light it held into all the corners of the room with a flash that I can feel against my face and hands. The courtiers and the king, hopefully the guards as well, will be momentarily blinded.
Magdelena is near. Within the web of ink, she was shielded from the brunt of the glare and now grasps my hand. She leads me through a swirling darkness punctuated by the sound of bodies moving, by cries and curses and confusion. Their blindness will pass in only a moment.
We are stopped at the entrance to the chamber.
“Down the stairs,” a low voice says. “Left through the corridor at the second landing. It will take you to my chambers. You can hide there.”
It is Throde. He touches my arm.
“You have my word, Grey. I will keep it. But not here and not like this.”
“Did it work?”
“I hope so. Now go.”
It is enough. It will have to be. I feel drained now, as I did after Magdelena tasted me, as though the fae-ink I spilled across the air in the chamber behind me had been my blood. The numbers are finished. The tallies have all been added and balanced.
It is done. I have calculated the cost, and now I am ready for whatever comes next.
Magdelena drags me through the empty corridors of the palace. The universe has collapsed again to the shape of her hand in mine, to this single bright equation, and I hold it and let it carry me forward into the darkness.