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THE BANDIT KING

I struck to kill.

The flesh, fat-rich and fed on luxury, parted under my blade. I rammed my sword, sworn to the service of Arquitaine’s King, through the heart of that same King.

The alarums were still ringing, but a great silence had descended upon me. Running feet and shouts resounded in the corridor, clash of steel and cries of pain.

Here in the Rose Room, where the King had been at his chai, there was nothing but a rattle. Henri gasped, the death-gurgle I have heard on many another’s lips.

I had killed for him too many times to count. Did he feel surprise that the tool he sharpened had thus turned in his hand?

My throat was dry as sandy Navarrin wastes. My heart pounded, a hare before hounds. Up to this moment it had been merely talk, a conspiracy I had played at catching out, biding my time. Now, with one decisive lunge, I had committed my soul entire to the enterprise.

I gave the blade one last vicious twist, freeing it of the suction of muscle and the scrape of ribs. The thrust had been true, years of daily practice on the drillfield distilled into murder. Henri’s elaborately curled hair fell in disarray, his mouth loose as if he sought to ask a question. He fell before he could give it voice, a bubble of bright blood bursting on his lips, so recently touching a dainty cake. He hit the floor in a sodden, shapeless lump of blue velvet and silk. The muscle of his youth had begun to run to fat, but his bones were broad and carried it well. Until now.

Death rarely grants a man’s frame any dignity.

I crouched easily, a duelist’s move once the duel is done, to watch an enemy’s last gasping moments. The sucking sound of a breath caught in a bloody throat, echoed by so many victims, now visited upon the man who had made me a weapon.

Years of service, striving, suffering. All gone in a single instant. “You should have let me have her,” I whispered. “ You are responsible for this.”

He made no reply, merely thrashed and choked his last. And as d’Orlaans’s Guard burst into the room, after having slaughtered those unfortunate enough to be on duty at Henri’s door, I came up from my crouch and met the first few in a clash of steel and confusion. Everything now depended on secrecy, and speed, and how willing I was to kill.

I suffered no qualms. But they took me anyway—d’Orlaans, the King’s brother, had suspected me, and set his Guard to capture instead of aid me. I had suspected as much, but I had not thought he would place a high premium upon capturing me alive. Pieces of the puzzle fell into place when they unleashed the first jolt of Court sorcery, a spell meant to dizzy and disable an opponent.

Somehow, I had let the King’s brother outplay me. It was hardly the first of my mistakes.

I could have screamed, the cheated howl of a wolf when the lamb is snatched from its teeth. Yet I did not, for the howl would have become a name, and I would not sully her name by speaking it in such a place.

One word, encapsulating the bait for this trap, the lure I had taken unknowing, like any stupid caged falcon at the mercy of its instinct.

Vianne.

I fell into darkness, holding the word behind my lips. The beating they meted out to me was only kisses compared to the agony of failure, the prize snatched from my grasp at the very last moment.

I was doomed.

CHAPTER ONE

Thief, liar, assassin, whore. Tale-bearer, spy, extortionist, confidante, scandal-smoother. A knife in the dark, poison in a cup, a shield and a defense on the battlefield as well as in the glittering whirl of Court. Puppetmaster, spymaster, whoremaster, brutal thug, protocol handler, cat’s-paw, pawn, troublemaker, cutthroat, fiend, pickpocket, swindler, brigand, pirate, kidnapper, alter ego, usurer, false witness…

This, then, is the Left Hand. And more.

The Hand does what must be done to cement the hold of the monarch on the realm, to protect the sovereign we swear fealty to—even at the cost of our own lives. Even at the cost of our honor.

There is only one word never applied to us, only one thing a Hand has never been.

Traitor.

To be the Left Hand is to be the most trusted of a monarch’s subjects, a position of high honor, though very few will know the truth of your face or name. Most of a Hand’s work is done in shadow, and well it should be. The Hand does those necessary things, by blood or by leverage, that a monarch cannot do. According to the secret Archives in the Palais d’Arquitaine, the first of us was Anton di Halier, who created the office in the time of Jeliane di Courcy-Trimestin—the Widowed Queen, history names her—who depended on Halier for her very life during the great wars, both internecine and foreign, of the Blood Years.

Those were winters when wolves both animal and Damarsene hunted in our land, and we have not forgotten. Nor have we forgotten the famine. Thin as the Blood Years, the proverb runs, and always accompanied by the avert-sign to ward off ill-luck.

I find it amusing the first Left Hand spent his service under a Queen. Sometimes.

We rode through the Quartier Andienne toward the white block of Arcenne’s Temple glittering on the mountainside: three of my Guard, Adrien di Cinfiliet the bandit of the Shirlstrienne, and I.

And her, silent on my mother’s most docile palfrey, hood drawn up over her dark head, moving like a slender, supple stem.

Hard campaigning, the cat and mouse of catching bandits or criminals, the melee of the battlefield, and the quick danger of Court-sorcery duels—all these I have endured, and I rarely think of fear. Rather, I think only on what must be done, and there is no room for terror. Yet Vianne di Rocancheil et Vintmorecy threatens to stop my idiot heart each time I glimpse her.

A long strand of dark hair had slipped from under her hood, and just the sight of that dark, curling thread made me long to tuck it away, perhaps brush her cheek while I did so. That, of course, led to the urge to take her in my arms. For so long I held myself in abeyance, barely daring even to glance at her. I was still in the habit of stealing sips of her face. That is what starvation will do, make you a thief even when you possess a table of your own.

Arran half-stepped restively, catching my tension. The King’s Guard ride large grays, thoroughbred and battle-trained. Arran had been my companion for three years; he had borne both Vianne and myself away from the danger of the Citté.

She still had little idea how narrow our escape had been.

I could have lost everything. At least once a day, the cold consciousness of the almost-miss caused me to sweat. Another man might have soaked it in liquor or another form of oblivion. I kept it close. It sharpened me.

Muffled hoofbeats echoed against the shuttered houses on either side. This Quartier held the domiciles of merchants and some few petty officials and small nobles, pleasant villas of white stone snuggling against the lesser processional way to the Temple. Late-blooming nisteri showed blood-red in window boxes, their color faded under torch- and witchlight but still enough to warn of autumn’s approach.

Then would come winter, and with it snow, rain, uncertain roads. An army would find it most difficult to assail Arcenne once the season turned.

But before? That was another tale, and one we were faced with now.

I had found her in the bailey with di Cinfiliet earlier that afternoon, pale but composed, stunned by the arrival of ill news. She had afterward told my father and her Cabinet to prepare the city for siege, as di Cinfiliet had arrived bloody and missing half his men, bearing news of impending doom. I had heard the report of her commands from my father, and right annoyed with her action instead of docility he was, too.

Chivalieri en sieurs, I will decide tomorrow morning if I am to risk open war or if I will surrender myself to the Duc and hope for peace. I am loath to risk even a single life… Until I decide, I leave the preparations for this city’s defense to you. I have another duty now. Sieur di Cinfiliet, I will ask you for a few more moments of your time, tonight, in the Temple. Until then, rest and look to your men and horses.

She was far too quiet. I have learned to mistrust such peace. When my d’mselle is so silent and grave, it means she is thinking on a riddle to which the answer is most likely dangerous. My d’mselle is of a quick mind, an understanding as surprising as it is deep; she had never been content to simply be an empty-headed Court dame. Studying Tiberian, hedgewitchery, playing riddlesharp, her influence at Court was used for scholarly pursuits and decorum. Which the Princesse, truth be told, had sorely needed. Henri’s daughter had been that most shallow of royal creatures, a spoiled pet I could not imagine ruling Arquitaine. The King had largely left Princesse Lisele to her own devices, perhaps thinking the Damarsene blood in the wench would make her cowlike and docile as her foreign mother. Henri had often contemplated another marriage while he was still fit enough to sire; Lisele had not known how slender her hold on the title of Heir truly was—nor had she known to be grateful to her mother’s kin for their heavy insistence that she be accorded every honor.

For all that, Vianne had loved her, and still grieved her death.

Something no conspiracy had taken into account, my d’mselle’s fierce loyalty to those she cares for. It was a small mercy, and one with thorns, that her loyalty had included me when it mattered.

She had been so laughably oblivious to my presence at Court. And yet, her wits had kept her free enough to traverse the passages of the Palais, slip past a drunken Guard, and appear at my cell like a demiange of mercy, freeing me from a net my own folly had led me blindly into, seeking a prize I should not have reached for.

The prize that had fallen, all unknowing, into my cupped beggar’s hands.

“A copper for your thinking, m’chri.” My voice, pitched low, surprised even me.

Her shoulders stiffened. She turned, pushing her hood back a trifle. Her eyes, dark blue as the sky in the last stages of twilight, met mine, and I ached for the pain in her gaze.

“I have much to think upon.” A soft noblewoman’s murmur, accented sharply as the Court women spoke. “An army draws nigh, invasion threatens, and the Duc has outplayed me in this hand.”

Was it bitterness in her tone? I would not blame her.

She must go north and east to the Spire di Chivalier while we hold this city against the approach of di Narborre. From there you may organize an army. My father’s voice, as he stared into his winecup. Above all, you must guard her with your life, m’fils. Or we shall all hang before this is finished.

My own answer barely needed to be spoken, it was so laughably evident. What else could he expect me to say? There is no risk I have not already taken for her, Père. I shall try to convince her.

I did not think I could prevail upon her to leave Arcenne, though the need was dire. She did not wish war before winter. Yet if the Duc d’Orlaans had sent a collection of troops to lay siege to my father’s city and Keep, the situation was graver than even my pessimistic Père had dreamed. That Timrothe d’Orlaans, the false King, was forced to allow Damarsene troops on Arquitaine soil was both balm to my soul and a deadly grievance.

How he must be cursing me, for not having the courtesy to die to ease his plans. And he must be mad, to purchase Damarsene aid within our borders. The dogs of Damar and Hesse both wish to bite at the rich softness of Arquitaine’s vitals, and have since time immemorial.

Vianne’s eyes were darker than usual in the uncertain torchlight. Her lovely face—winged eyebrows, the mouth most often serious and made to be kissed, the high planes of her cheekbones, the glow of her gaze—was thoughtful, a vertical line between her eyebrows. She studied me as if I were a puzzle of Tiberian verbs.

For all her loyalty and her quick wit, Vianne did not understand me at all. Which was a gift of the Blessed, for had she understood she may well have recoiled in disgust.

“We should remove to the Spire di Chivalier.” I sought to sound thoughtful instead of persuasive. “Tis safer, and closer to the lowland provinces declared for you. I like not the thought of you trapped in Arcenne by d’Orlaans’s dogs and foreign troops.”

A shrug, under the cloak. “I will make no decision until the morrow.” She pushed the hood back further, as if irritated at its covering. The single movement forced my idiot heart to leap.

By the Blessed, Vianne, why? “Tomorrow may be too late.”

“Tis in the hands of the gods, Tristan.” Quiet stubbornness lifted her chin slightly, sparked in her eyes, and fair threatened to rob me of breath. “I am fully acquainted with what your father thinks I should do. Do not press his suit.”

I knew enough of her quicksilver moods to let the matter lie, for the moment at least. Humor, then, the kind of banter indulged in at Court. She had a reputation for a sharp, quiet wit; well-earned, too. And a gentle rebuke from her could sting more than the most furious scolding from another, because she so rarely uttered reproof. When she did, twas delivered with such earnest softness that a man might well fling himself into battle to win her approval.

So I attempted humor. “May I press my own suit, then, d’mselle?” I strove for a light tone and failed. It had been easier at Court, when I could not dare to speak to her, lest an enemy or even a gossip remark upon it.

Such a question usually calls forth a disbelieving half-smile that lights her eyes and turns her into one of Alisaar’s maidens, those fair demiange who wait upon the goddess of love and comb her golden, scented hair. Now, however, she simply studied me, her hands on the reins and the line between her eyebrows deepening.

Before us rode my lieutenant Jierre, with a witchfire torch and his sword at the ready, behind us, Tinan di Rocham and Adersahl di Parmecy et Villeroche, both trustworthy men bearing torches glowing with crackling Court sorcery. With them, Adrien di Cinfiliet, the serpent in bandit’s clothing. I would find an account to settle with him sooner or later, if only to make certain he did not seek to advance himself at the expense of my Queen.

“Tristan?” Such uncertainty I had not heard from her since our marriage-night. I wondered, to hear it now. “I have a question I would ask you.”

I nodded, our horses matching pace if not stride. The thoroughbred’s size meant I had to look down at her hood unless she tilted her head back to regard me as she did now, handling the reins with that pretty, useless Court-trained grace. And yet, on her, it looked so natural. “Ask what you will, Vianne. Whence comes this solemnity?”

She has a perfect right to be solemn; that quick understanding and loyalty will make her old before her time. Give her some small merriment, even if tis only that small laugh that sounds like weeping.

The street was dim with twilight; we would turn onto the greater processional way and start up toward the Temple soon. We had not come this way on our marriage-day, but I felt the same sharp pang I had then. A lance through the heart would hurt less.

Vianne pushed her hood fully back with a quick impatient movement. It fell free, braids in the style of di Rocancheil framing her face. I knew what it was to tangle my fingers in that hair, to taste her mouth; I knew what it was to sleep beside her. Now that I knew, was it worth the price I’d paid?

“Tell me what happened. After you left me, in the Palais. Retrace your steps.”

My heart knocked against my ribs, settled back pounding. I tasted copper, but my face did not change, schooled to indifference. “I like not to think on it.” Do not ask me. It will not do you any good.

“Please. For me.” Pleading, delicate, and careful, as if she expected sharp refusal.

By the Blessed, why inquire now? But I sought to sound merely weary. “For you, then. I left you in the passage and reached the Rose Room in time to see Henri dying. His pettite-cakes had been poisoned. As his soul left, the Duc’s guard burst into the room. I killed six of them before I was taken to that charming cell, where they beat me until the Duc paid me the honor of a visit. Then, I was left to contemplate my eventual beheading at the Bastillion until I heard your sweet voice through the bars.” There, does that satisfy you? I heard my own harshness, bitter as the lie.

The sharpest sword, di Halier once wrote after his Queen took him to task over some trifle, is directed at one’s own soul. Yet what is murder, or worse, if it keeps Arquitaine safe?

And yet. So easily, she reminded me of the man I should have been, instead of the one I was. When di Halier spoke of “Arquitaine,” twas easy to see he sometimes merely meant the woman who embodied, for him, the country’s rule.

Had Jeliane embodied far more to him, as my own Queen did to me?

Vianne examined my face as if I were a scroll or a dispatch. My heart mimicked a cobblestone caught in my windpipe. Do not ask more. Let the matter remain there.

“Nothing else?” Her eyes glittered, and she pulled her hood up with an expert movement of her fingers to settle the material just so over her beautiful bowed head. “Tis important, Tristan.”

You have no idea how important it is. “Why? Is there a question of my movements? You are perhaps believing the Duc when he accuses me of regicide?” It fair threatened to choke me. The truth will do so, when one least expects it. Di Halier never warned of that.

She hesitated. “I simply… There is so much I do not understand of this, and I would understand all.”

What more do you need to understand, m’chri? The King is dead, you are the Queen, I am the traitor who will keep you safe. If I must lie, and kill, and do the worst a man can do, I will.

I already have.

She said nothing else, her head bowed and her shoulders moving slightly.

We turned onto the processional way, hooves clopping on paving stones. Arcenne rose around us, the white stone quarried from the mountains the province is famous for glowing eggshell-delicate. There is very little as beautiful as my native city at dusk, as she gathers the last rays of the Sun’s beneficence. Even the sinks and fleshpots of the Quartier Gieron are well-scrubbed, and the spires of the Keep above rival the peaks themselves for grace. Arcenne is cleaner than the Citté, more tantalizing than Orlaans, and smells far better than, say, Marrseize. In spring, the orchards are a froth of paleness on her white shoulders, and she is a lady of freshness and grace.

Another held my heart now, but a man never forgets his first. No matter how far he rides, his birthplace will always be at his shoulder.

“Vianne?” Her name, uttered so many times in the privacy of my room or the secret corridors of my brain. For so long I had kept it a secret pleasure, a fruit to be indulged in late at night.

She did not answer, but a slight movement told me she had tilted her head, the better to catch my words.

“I would have you know only this.” I paused as Arran’s ears flicked, noting some sound I could not. When they returned to pointing forward, I continued. “All I have done is for your safety. If you should find yourself in doubt—any doubt, for any reason—simply remember that.”

The declaration earned me a startled glance. More tears, glimmering on her cheeks? In the uncertain light I could not be sure. “You were the King’s Left Hand.” Softly.

As if she thought I needed reminding.

“Now I am yours.” Even before Henri died choking on his own blood, I was yours.

I was left with a suspicion of my own to keep me company on the remainder of our short journey. There was no reason for her to ask unless she thought something amiss. Which was not comforting. Nor was the thought that followed in its wake.

I did what I wished to do. It was worth the price.