I wasn’t ready. And if my mother had a headache, it had no bearing on the status of the drawing room door.
The handful of people gathered in the oak-paneled room had the power to order executions, mobilize armies of spies, or start wars. I’d often heard their voices murmuring downstairs late into the night when I was a child, as golden light filtered in through my bedroom window from the drawing room below. Sometimes, when the voices kept me awake, I’d crept to the long balcony at the top of the stairs to listen, pressing my cheek against the cool marble balustrade. I’d only caught occasional words: snippets of espionage and assassination, machinations and stratagems, negotiations and judgments. To my young ears, those words that governed and shaped the Empire had sounded so impenetrably dull they’d soothed me into sleepiness, like a lullaby.
One of my few memories of my father was of him finding me there, half asleep on the balcony floor, and laughing as he scooped me up to carry me back to my room. That talk is not for you and me, little one, he’d said. Leave it to your mother.
But now my mother beckoned me in among them. Jaded old eyes assessed me, some glancing to compare me to La Contessa, as if wondering how we could possibly be related.
The doge himself occupied my favorite chair. Beside my mother sat the marquise of Palova, a white-haired woman who’d once ordered the bloodiest assault of the Three Years’ War, and who was well into her sixth five-year term in one of the elected seats on the Council of Nine. She swirled the wine in her glass, little finger extended to trace her thoughts in the air. Baron Leodra greeted me with a sniff of disdain.
“I suppose she’ll do,” the marquise said.
That was not a reassuring start to the conversation. I swallowed a sudden dryness.
“Do you know Prince Ruven of Vaskandar?” the doge asked.
Whatever I was expecting, it wasn’t that. “Ah…” Was Ruven the general who’d led the Vaskandran invasion of Loreice during the Three Years’ War? No, that was Halven. I tried to remember the names of the seventeen Witch Lords who ruled Vaskandar, but with half the Council staring at me, I could only recall six of them. “No, Your Serenity. Should I?”
My mother’s fingers flicked up from her lap, a creamy envelope tucked between them. “The Vaskandran ambassador has invited you to meet the prince, who is his guest, in an informal gathering at his town house.”
A tired flare of anger warmed my chest. “I was unaware of the invitation.” Because you intercepted my mail.
“I’ve sent your acceptance.” If my mother noticed any edge in my words, she declined to acknowledge it. “We have some concerns about Ruven’s purpose in Raverra. His visit is unusual; our peace with Vaskandar remains an uneasy one, even fifty years after the war, and Ruven’s father is hardly the most cordial of the Witch Lords. This invitation may provide a chance to find out what he’s up to.”
None of this made any sense. My mother knew full well I was no spy. “I don’t understand. You want me to ask him the reason for his visit?”
The marquise of Palova laughed. “He’s already given one. It makes you uniquely suited to speak to him.”
My mother’s mouth quirked. “He claims to be seeking a bride.”
“Oh, no.” I shook my head, stepping back. “You can’t possibly want me to—”
“To attend a harmless social gathering with him?” My mother’s eyes gleamed. “You don’t have to court him, Amalia. Just let him talk, and listen to what he says, and perhaps nudge the conversation in a useful direction.”
“Isn’t there someone else? I have no idea why he invited me. I don’t know the man, and I’ve barely been introduced to the ambassador.” Not to mention everything I knew about Vaskandar came from reading bloody histories of its ruthless expansion across northern Eruvia. Its princes hardly seemed the types to make genteel drawing room conversation.
The doge fixed his glittering eyes on me. “Prince Ruven is the heir of one of the Witch Lords of Vaskandar. They have a rather inflated regard for their own bloodlines, and will only consider marriages with the best families—and those with some history of magical power.” His brows bunched, as if breeding magical potential into royal lines were some annoying and messy habit, like shelling summernuts in bed. “Your father’s line carries the blood of artificers and vivomancers, and your mother’s cousin Ignazio is a minor alchemist. Your pedigree is golden, rich with doges and royalty, and you will inherit your mother’s place on the Council of Nine. There are few in Eruvia he would consider so desirable a match.”
“Which means you have something he wants,” the marquise concluded. “And thus a far better chance of getting useful information out of him.”
Baron Leodra grunted. “I still say Ruven isn’t worth our attention. He’s just a spoiled princeling indulging himself abroad. Surely if he had a more sinister purpose, our intelligence services would already have some hint of it. Or are they not worthy of the faith we place in them?” He stared significantly at La Contessa.
“We have someone in the Vaskandran ambassador’s household.” My mother shook her head. “So far, he’s learned nothing of Prince Ruven’s true purpose in Raverra. But he did discover that Ruven stopped in Ardence on his way here, shortly before the tax trouble began. Apparently he spent some time there, gaining influence with the local nobility, and there is now an entire faction in the Ardentine court pushing for closer relations with Vaskandar.”
“That borders on treason,” the marquise of Palova observed.
The doge steepled his fingers. “Many things Ardence does these days border on treason.”
So this princeling had been stirring up trouble in my second-favorite city. All right, then. Maybe I wanted to know what he was up to after all.
“Fine,” I said. “I’ll go and talk to him. When is this little soiree?”
“Afternoon tea. A Vaskandran tradition.” My mother passed me the invitation. “Next Tuesday.”
“I was going to train with Zaira at the Mews that afternoon.”
“Zaira?” Baron Leodra asked sharply.
“My Falcon,” I said, without thinking.
Baron Leodra scowled his disapproval. “The Empire’s Falcon.”
“Regardless,” the doge cut that line of conversation short, “she can wait.”
Lovely. Now I had to cancel my training, disappoint Marcello, and confirm everything Zaira thought about me, all for the privilege of awkward flirting with a mad tyrant’s son.
My mother looked pleased as a cat licking cream off its whiskers.
Prince Ruven did not appear, at first glance, to be mad.
I had never met a Witch Lord’s son before, but Vaskandar’s rulers had a certain reputation. The Witch Lords had begun as a handful of powerful and universally feared mages in the far north, long before the birth of the Empire. Every thirty or forty years they’d engulfed a new domain in bloody conquest, raising a new Witch Lord to rule over it, until they ran up against the Witchwall Mountains over a hundred years ago.
They’d tried to take Loreice twice, where the mountains gentled to hills on its northern border. The first time, it had still been an independent country, and the king of Loreice had begged Raverra for aid; his country wound up safe, but a client state of the Serene Empire. The second invasion launched the Three Years’ War, fifty years ago. The Witch Lords had left a scarlet-edged impression on my grandparents’ generation with their ruthless cruelty in that war, and even the Vaskandran diplomats and merchants I’d met spoke of them in hushed tones, making the old peasant sign to ward against demons.
I’d heard them called mad often enough that I’d steeled myself for tea with a lunatic.
Prince Ruven, however, greeted his guests with perfect manners, a vision of civility. He cut a genteel figure in his impeccable blond ponytail and high-collared coat of soft black leather. The angular designs of its violet embroidery set off the matching ring of the mage mark in his storm-gray eyes.
The Vaskandran ambassador danced attendance on him like a fawning servant. Perhaps two dozen guests, split between young Raverrans of patrician birth and visiting nobility from other cities of the Empire, milled around the ambassador’s great hall. The architecture was far more austere than the town houses of Raverran nobility, with dark beams and a high, vaulted ceiling. Candles flickered on little round tables set with silver and draped with violet brocade.
I didn’t want to be here. False laughter floated up to the rafters, and the stuttering candles and weak sunlight streaming through the high windows did nothing to appease the gloom of the hall. The place might look nothing like the Raverran drawing rooms I knew, but it was yet another party my mother was making me attend, full of near strangers with whom I had nothing in common.
For this, I’d called off my training at the Mews. I’d gone out to Raptor’s Isle in the morning to try to make up for it, but Marcello was with the colonel and a handful of other senior officers in a meeting, and Zaira refused to see me.
“Lady Amalia Cornaro.” It was the prince himself, his Raverran accented but flawless. “It’s time to sit for tea. Won’t you join me at my table?” He laid his fingertips against my elbow, in diffident guidance.
Time to be charming. What did charming people do? I tried a smile. “I’d be delighted.”
The tables were set for four, but no one else sat at ours. A Raverran lordling veered in our direction, eyeing an empty seat; the Vaskandran ambassador himself graciously directed him elsewhere.
Glancing from this interception to the avid glitter in Ruven’s mage-marked eyes, I had the sudden, gut-tightening feeling this was a trap.
“So.” Ruven laced his fingers together and set his chin on them, staring at me. “You are the unexpected Falconer I’ve heard so much about these past few days. The rule breaker.”
I shifted uncomfortably. My corset stays dug into my lap. “I never intended to become one, I assure you.”
“Ha!” He flashed his teeth in a vulpine smile. “You and I, we are beyond the reach of rules. They are beneath us. Don’t you agree?”
I doubted the doge would. “There are those who would argue law is the foundation on which the Serene Empire stands.”
Ruven chuckled. “Laws. Laws are an armor of words in which fools gird themselves. They provide no more protection than the wind spent to speak them.” A Vaskandran servant arrived with a bone china teapot and began filling our cups. The prince didn’t lean back to give him room. “In Vaskandar, the merest whim of a Witch Lord is greater than law. A Witch Lord wears his domain like a glove; the land itself bows to his will. It is why your Empire has never conquered us.”
His gesturing hand glanced off the servant’s elbow, and a few drops of tea spilled on the tablecloth. A soft gasp sucked between the servant’s teeth.
Quick as a striking viper, Ruven seized the man’s wrist. The teapot crashed to the floor, shattering into leaf-patterned pieces. The servant paled.
“Your Highness,” he whispered, “Forgive me. Please.”
The conversation in the hall paused a brief moment, then resumed. Ruven did not let go of the man’s wrist.
“For instance,” he continued conversationally, his eyes with their violet mage mark still turned on me, “My father is a Furwitch. They call him the Wolf Lord of Kazerath. If this fool spilled at his table, the wolf pack that guards our hall would rip him apart.”
The servant’s hand spasmed as if in pain, and a wild grimace stretched his features, but he made no sound. I half rose from my chair.
Ruven still didn’t release him. “My aunt is a Greenwitch, so she might prefer to impale him with thorns. I, on the other hand, am a Skinwitch. You would call all three of us vivomancers, but in Vaskandar we consider the distinction important. Humans, not animals or plants, are my specialty. So I could melt the bones in his arm, or rot his flesh, or stop his heart—”
I couldn’t bear the naked terror on the servant’s face any longer. I cut my words across Ruven’s like a knife. “But you aren’t in your father’s hall. You are in Raverra.”
A delighted smile lit Ruven’s face. “But you see, it doesn’t matter. Power is power. I am a Skinwitch, and I wear no silly golden bracelet like your tame Falcons do. No one here could stop me from doing whatever I wish. And I am a prince of Vaskandar, beyond the authority of your Council or your doge. They would not dare attempt to seize me over such a trifle as a servant’s life.”
The servant’s lips moved, mouthing please, please, please, over and over again. But no sound came out. Ruven’s grip seemed loose enough, but a trickle of blood ran down the man’s wrist.
I forced myself to ease back into my chair, as if I didn’t care what happened to him. “The graveyards of Eruvia are full of powerful men who thought they could predict what the doge and the Council would or wouldn’t dare.” I shrugged my stiff shoulders. “But that’s irrelevant. You won’t do any of that, because it would be uncouth. A gentleman does not make a scene and ruin a party thrown in his own honor.”
“Ah.” Ruven nodded thoughtfully. “You make a fine point, Lady Amalia.”
He released the servant at last. I glimpsed a red handprint on the man’s wrist before he pulled it into his sleeve. He bowed to the prince and bent to clean up the teapot, as if the threat of death were a normal part of his workday.
Perhaps it was. I resolved never to move to Vaskandar, even if Raverra sank into the sea and the rest of the Empire were on fire.
“So,” I said brightly—anything to draw his attention away from the servant until he could get out of here—“My reading suggests most vivomancers can only affect plants and animals, and even those whose powers work on humans do so only weakly. But you specialize in them?”
“Indeed.” Ruven stretched his spine straight, like a satisfied cat. “What you call vivomancy originated in Vaskandar. We have few other types of mages—perhaps a handful of alchemists and artificers, and no warlocks. But in the magic of life itself, we are stronger than any other land in Eruvia, and we deepen our power with a specialty. Furwitches and Greenwitches feel a connection to lesser forms of life, and often claim that bending their skill upon humans is uncomfortable, or even revolting. But I find working human flesh has certain… advantages.”
Was that a leer? I fought the urge to scoot my chair back a few inches. “So your focus on humans is a choice, or perhaps a calling, rather than an inborn trait like being a storm or fire warlock.”
“Ah, yes, fire warlocks.” Ruven’s eyes narrowed. “I do believe yours is the only one currently alive in Eruvia, you know. Such a lucky catch.”
I didn’t feel lucky. “The Serene Empire is fortunate to have her.”
“Not so fortunate for her, though.” He produced a sigh. “If only she’d been born in my country. We are not so backward as your Empire. Our mage-marked are not slaves. In Vaskandar, we rule.”
“Falcons aren’t slaves. Unless you consider soldiers to be slaves. Raverra gives them orders no differently than it does to the rest of the military. Their Falconers don’t own them, or even outrank them. They stay with their Falcons to protect them.”
Ruven smirked knowingly. “Except you.”
I thought of Zaira, stuck in the Mews because I was here instead of with her. Guilt pinched my middle. I nodded in reluctant acknowledgment. “To the consternation of virtually everyone involved, yes. Except me.”
He ran a finger along the rim of his untouched teacup. “I’m sure you realize this makes you quite a delicious catch yourself.”
I laughed nervously. Another servant placed a tiered tray of cakes on the table, buying me time to swallow my bile and think of a response.
“A Cornaro is no fish to be caught,” I said at last, bringing my cup to my lips to steady my hands. “We are the masters of the fleet.”
The spark in Ruven’s eyes sharpened to a hard gleam. “There is nothing more attractive than power.” His reach for a cake strayed in my direction.
Thud. A heavy, leather-bound book thumped down on the table next to me. “Amalia! What good fortune! I never dreamed I’d meet you here.”
I spun in my seat, choking on my tea. “Domenic?”
There he was, like a miracle: Domenic Bergandon, resplendent in a slashed-sleeve doublet and a dashing swagger, throwing himself into an empty chair at our table with the ease of a man always sure of his welcome. The frizzy coils of his hair and the deep-brown skin he’d inherited from his mother, an Ostan princess, presented a polar opposite to Ruven’s sleek paleness.
“My abject apologies for being late.” Domenic placed his hand over his heart and bowed to Ruven from his seat. “My carriage lost a wheel on the road from Ardence, and I only arrived in Raverra this morning. I almost missed your invitation entirely.”
Ruven glared across the hall at the Vaskandran ambassador, who was caught in conversation with another late guest and hadn’t noticed Domenic’s trespass at the prince’s table. “That would have been a terrible shame,” he said.
“I didn’t know you were visiting Raverra.” I tried to pour all my gratitude into my smile. “This is such a pleasant surprise.”
“I do like to make a well-timed dramatic entrance.” Domenic’s near eyelid twitched half a wink at me. So he’d noticed what was happening, and rescued me on purpose. “But in truth, I didn’t know I was coming either, until the morning I left. The squabbling on the Council of Lords got to be too much for me, and I needed to get away from the pompous old scoundrels.”
“I see you know each other.” Prince Ruven showed his teeth. “I had no idea. I made the viscount’s acquaintance during my visit to his charming city on my way here from Vaskandar.”
Domenic nodded. “We met in the Ducal Library. Did you know Prince Ruven is a scholar?”
“Truly?” I grasped at the subject, eager to talk about anything besides my own eligibility or the various ways one might murder one’s servants. “Have you studied at a university?”
Ruven waved a depreciative hand. “My expertise and interests are limited to practical applications of magic. We do not have universities in Vaskandar. It is a wild land, a beautiful land, where we learn the rough lessons the forests and the mountains teach us. But it does mean I must travel to the Empire to sate my craving for books and learning.”
“Well, we do have one thing in common,” I said. “I am quite fond of books as well, with a particular interest in the magical sciences.”
“You would love our family library in Kazerath, then.” Ruven held my eyes. “I have assembled the finest collection of books on magic in Vaskandar. You must come and visit.”
“Speaking of books Amalia would love…” Domenic drummed his fingers on the volume he’d dropped on our table, grinning. “You’ll never believe what I found in a bookshop in Palova.”
“Oh?” I raised an eyebrow. I wanted to tell him about the Muscati, but Ruven’s presence would spoil the revelation. Better to wait until I had it in hand to show him.
“Volume one of Interactions of Magic!” He spread his hands wide, as if inviting applause.
I frowned, trying to remember. “Didn’t they have volume two in the Ducal Library in Ardence?”
“Indeed! But it kept referring back to volume one, so it didn’t make much sense. Which was a pity, because it laid out some interesting ways to combine seemingly incompatible types of magic, like alchemists and vivomancers working together, but we couldn’t figure it out without all the pieces.”
Ruven leaned forward. “I am interested in this book as well. I have heard of it.”
“But now you have the first volume!” I eyed the book with more appetite than I’d had for the cakes. “Have you had a chance to read it yet?”
“I’ve only perused it a bit. I’m hoping to read it along with the second volume when I eventually return to Ardence.”
“Perhaps I can join you in the Ducal Library on my return trip, then.” Ruven eyed the book. Relief washed over me to have his attention directed elsewhere. “Ardence is a fine city, and merits more of my attention on my way back to my beloved Vaskandar.”
From there, the conversation turned to the merits of the university library versus the Ducal Library. Ruven remained a perfect gentleman, showing no signs of his earlier viciousness. I relaxed enough to nibble a couple of apple cakes and a miniature summernut tart, though I still felt any social occasion that didn’t serve wine was an aberration against the Grace of Bounty.
I managed to avoid Prince Ruven’s attempt to kiss my hand when it was time to leave, giving him a cheery wave instead as I offered my thanks to him and our host.
“It was a pleasure to make your acquaintance at last, my lady.” Ruven placed a hand over his heart, in lieu of a bow. “And I am quite certain we’ll meet again.”
What did he mean, at last? I couldn’t manage more than a perfunctory smile in return.
I felt his violet-ringed eyes on my back as Domenic and I made our way through the milling guests, all the way across the hall.