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IN THE two years that followed, we did nothing but study until I thought I should die of it.

And to make matters worse, Hyacinthe, my one true friend, was no help at all.

"I cannot touch you, Phèdre," he said with regret, shaking his black ringlets. We sat in the Cockerel, an inn which he had made his informal headquarters. "Not in that way. I am Tsingano, and you're an indentured servant. It is vrajna, forbidden, according to the laws of my people."

I opened my mouth to reply, but before I could speak, a giggling young noblewoman detached herself from a party of revelers occupying the long table at the center of the inn. It was the fashion among daring young lords and ladies to gallivant about Night's Doorstep in groups of seven or eight, hoisting tankards and rubbing elbows with poets, players and commoners.

Hyacinthe had become something of a fashion too.

"O Prince of Travellers," she began solemnly, then giggled and cast a glance at her laughing friends, getting the rest of the words out with difficulty. "O...O Prince of Travellers, if I cross your... your palm with gold, will you read the fortune writ in mine?"

At the gleam of a gold coin, Hyacinthe—who had never to my knowledge ventured past Night's Doorstep—put on his best Prince of Travellers manner, rising to give her a graceful bow, his dark eyes mirthful.

"Star of the Evening," he said, at once wheedling and portentious, "I am at your command. For one coin, one answer, as scribed by the Fates upon your fair palm. What would you know, gracious lady?"

Deliberately ignoring me, she arranged her skirts and sat, rather closer to Hyacinthe than was necessary. She gave him her hand with the air of someone bestowing great favor, then whispered, "I wish to know if Rene LaSoeur will take me to wife."

"Hmm." Hyacinthe gazed intently at her palm. She stared at his bowed head. I could see the rapid, shallow breaths she took heaving her bosom, upon which she sported a daringly low decolletage beneath a daringly costly filigree necklace. Across the inn, her friends clustered and watched. The young lords surrounded one of their number, jabbing him with pointed elbows and laughing. He bore it with crossed arms, and a hint of displeasure flared his nostrils. One of the young noblewomen smiled, secretive and self-possessed. It needed no touch of dromonde to answer her question; but Hyacinthe answered without looking, shaking his head. "Fair lady, the answer is no. Nuptials I see, not now, but three years hence, and a chateau with three towers standing, and one that crumbles."

"The Comte de Tour Perdue!" Snatching her hand back, she covered her mouth. Her eyes shone. "Oh, oh!" She reached out then and laid her fingers on his lips. "Oh, my mother will be joyed to hear it. You must tell no one of this. Swear it!"

Quick and graceful, Hyacinthe grasped her silencing fingers in his own and kissed them. "Sovereign lady, I am more discreet than the dead. May you be joyous and prosper."

Fumbling in the purse that hung from her girdle, she passed him another coin. "Thank you, oh, thank you! Remember, not a word!"

He rose to bow again as she hurried back to join her friends, babbling some heady nonsense to disguise her sudden fortune. Hyacinthe sat back down and made her coins disappear, looking pleased with himself.

"Was it true?" I asked him.

"Who knows?" He shrugged. "I saw what I saw. There is more than one chateau with a broken tower. She believes as she wishes."

It was no concern of mine if Hyacinthe sold dreams and half-truths to preening peers, but something else did concern me. "You know, Delaunay has a scroll, by a scholar who travelled with a company of Tsingani and documented their customs. He says it is vrajna for a Tsingano man to attempt the dromonde, Hyacinthe; worse than anything, worse than mingling with a gadje servant. What your mother teaches you is forbidden. And you cannot be a true Tsingano anyway, not with pure D'Angeline blood on one side. Your mother was cast out of the company for that, wasn't she?"

I spoke recklessly, driven to it by my thwarted desires and the annoyance of watching him cater to simpering noblewomen. This time, perhaps, I had gone too far. His eyes flashed, proud and angry.

"You speak where you have no knowledge and no right! My mother is a Princess of the Tsingani, and the gift of dromonde is mine by right of blood! What would your Delaunay's gadje scholar know of that?"

"Enough to know that Tsingani princesses do not take in washing for a living!" I shot back.

Unexpectedly, Hyacinthe laughed. "If he thinks that, then truly, he learned little of the Tsingani. We have survived many centuries in any way we could. Anyway, I earn enough money now that she no longer need wash the clothes of others." He looked soberly at me, shrugging. "Maybe it is a little bit true, what you say. I do not know. When I am old enough, I will seek out my mother's people. But until then, I must trust her words. I know enough of her gift to know I dare not defy it."

"Or you're afraid of Delaunay," I grumbled.

"I am afraid of no one!" He looked so like the boy I had first known, puffing out his slender chest, that I too laughed, and our quarrel was forgotten.

"Hey, Tsingano!"

It was one of the young lordlings, drunk and arrogant. He swaggered up to our table, one hand hovering over the hilt of his rapier. He had cruel eyes, and fine clothes. With a negligent gesture, he tossed his purse on the table. It fell with a heavy clinking sound. "How much for a night with your sister?"

I don't know what either of us would have answered. I was accustomed to venturing into Night's Doorstep well-cloaked, and we sat always in one of the darker corners, away from the hearth; Hyacinthe was known and tolerated with no small affection, and the inn-keep and regular patrons permitted him the small mystery of my visits without prying into my presence.

All these things I thought at a flash, and on their heels came pleasure and pride that this lordling's gaze had penetrated the shadows and come to rest on me with desire. And hard upon that thought came a swell of excitement, at the very prospect of selling myself from under Delaunay's nose and going with this stranger, whose blade-ready hands and careless offer promised the kind of hard usage I craved.

In the space of a breath, I thought these things and saw Hyacinthe eyeing the heavy purse.

And then Delaunay's man Guy was there.

"You cannot afford her virgin-price, my friend." His seldom-used voice was as mild as ever, but the point of his poniard rested below the lordling's chin and I caught glimpse of a second dagger poised at belly level. I had not even seen him enter the inn. The lordling stood with upraised chin and glaring eyes, pricked by steel into humiliating attentiveness. "Go now, and rejoin your companions."

The calm voice and cold steel were more convincing than brawn and volume could ever have been. I watched the lordling swallow, all arrogance leaving him. He turned without a word and retraced his steps. Guy sheathed his dagger without comment.

"We will leave now," he said to me, pulling up the hood of my cloak and fastening it under my chin. I went obediently, able to spare only a quick wave of farewell in Hyacinthe's direction as Guy shepherded me out of the crowded inn. Hyacinthe, who was used from our earliest acquaintance to abrupt and forceful departures on my part, took it with aplomb.

For me, it was a long coach ride home. I huddled silent in my cloak, until finally Guy began to speak. "It is not always for us to choose." It was dark in the carriage, and I could not see his face, only hear his flat voice. "My parents gave me to be reared by the Cassiline Brotherhood when I was but a babe, Phèdre; and the Brotherhood cast me out when I was fourteen and broke my oath with a farmer's daughter. I made my way to the City and fell into a life of crime. Though I was good at it, I despised myself, and wished to die. One day when I thought I could fall no lower, I took a commission from an agent of someone very powerful to assassinate a nobleman on his way home from a party."

"Delaunay?" I gasped, astonished. Guy ignored the interruption.

"I resolved to succeed or die, but the nobleman disarmed me. I waited for the killing blow, but he asked me instead, 'My friend, you fight like one trained by the Cassiline Brotherhood; how is it then that you come to be engaged in this least fraternal of acts?' And upon his query, I began to weep."

I waited for more, but Guy fell silent a long while. There was no sound but the clopping hooves of the horses and the coachman's tuneless whistle.

"We do not choose our debts," he said at length. "But indebted we are, both of us, to Anafiel Delaunay. Do not seek to betray him. Your debt may be discharged one day, but mine is unto the death, Phèdre."

The night was chilly and his words struck cold into my bones. I shivered in my thick cloak and thought about what he had said, wondering at the power in Delaunay to reach even a heart hardened by crime and despair.

But if Guy was Delaunay's man unto death, he was not what I was: his pupil. The words of his speech—the most he'd ever spoken in my presence—fell into place in the vast puzzle in my mind, forming one important question.

"Who wanted Delaunay dead?"

In the darkness of the coach, I could feel him glance at me. "Isabel de la Courcel," came the flat reply. "The Princess Consort."

The incident remained in my mind for it was the first of its kind, and the last, for that matter. In all the time I knew him, Guy never spoke again of his history nor our mutual debt to Delaunay. And yet his words had the effect he desired, for never did I attempt to betray my bond-debt.

Delaunay's past and his long-standing enmity with the Princess Consort remained the central enigma in my life. For all that she was some seven years in the grave, as I well knew, their feud lived on where it touched on the strands of intelligence Delaunay gathered. To what end, I knew not, and spent long hours in fruitless speculation with Hyacinthe and Alcuin alike; for Alcuin was as fascinated as I with the mystery of Anafiel Delaunay, if not more so.

Indeed, as Alcuin grew from boy to youth, steeped in the teaching of Cecilie Laveau-Perrin, I witnessed the nature of his regard for Delaunay change. The spontaneous affection that had been so charming in him as a child gave way to a different kind of adoration, at once tender and cunning.

I envied him the luxury of this slow epiphany, and knew alarm at Delaunay's response, a careful distancing that spoke volumes. I don't think even Delaunay himself was aware of it; but I was.

It was some few weeks prior to Alcuin's sixteenth birthday that the Allies of Camlach won a great victory over Skaldic raiders. Led by the young Duc Isidore d'Aiglemort, the peerage of Camlach joined forces and succeeded in pushing the Skaldi clear back from the mountains and well into their own territory.

And at their side rode Prince Baudoin de Trevalion and his Glory-Seekers.

The Duc d'Aiglemort, it seemed, had received intelligence that the Skaldi were prepared to launch a concerted attack on the three Great Passes of the Camaeline Range. No one denied his wisdom in calling Camlach to arms under his banner...but at Delaunay's gatherings and in the dark corners of Night's Doorstep, I heard whispers about the happy coincidence that had Baudoin de Trevalion and the wild brigade of his personal guard visiting Aiglemort at the time.

Still, it was a great victory, the greatest gain of territory since the Battle of the Three Princes, and the King would have been a fool to have denied Camlach a royal triumph...or to have failed to acknowledge Prince Baudoin's part in the battle. One thing Ganelon de la Courcel was not was a fool.

As it happened, the triumph fell upon the eve of Alcuin's birthday and the processional route fell along the way of Cecilie's townhouse. Taking the convergence for an omen, she threw a fête and threw her house open, almost as in days of old.

Only this time, we were all invited.


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