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ALCUIN WAS quiet for the better part of a week afterward.

Whether he and Delaunay spoke of it, I do not know. There are certain things one does not ask, certain privacies we respected. But after several days of silence, I could stand it no longer. I asked Alcuin what it had been like.

We were studying together at the time, facing each other across the great table in Delaunay's library and reading by lamplight. Alcuin, poring over a speculative treatise on the Master of the Straits, marked his place with one finger and looked up at me.

"It was fine," he said quietly. "Messire Bouvarre was pleased. He wishes to see me again when he returns from La Serenissima."

Confounded by his reticence, I cast about for something to keep him talking. "Did he give you anything toward your marque?"

"No." A hint of cynicism, dark and adult, flickered in his eyes. "Not after paying six thousand ducats for the privilege of having me. But he has promised to bring me a string of glass beads upon his return. I understand they do beautiful glasswork in La Serenissima." Closing his book, he added, "I do not think it is Messire Bouvarre's best interest that I make my marque any time soon."

I had seen the desire like a sickness on Vitale Bouvarre's face; I understood. "Why him? Delaunay and Cecilie picked the guests; they knew who would go highest. What does Delaunay want of him?"

"Poison." It was spoken so softly I wasn't sure I'd heard him aright. Alcuin pushed his hair back, frowning slightly. "They are expert in its usage, as well as glasswork, in La Serenissima. The King's brother, Prince Benedicte, is wed to Maria Stregazza, whose family rules the city. And the Stregazza signed an exclusive trade charter with Vitale Bouvarre not four months after Isabel de la Courcel died of poisoning."

"There is no proof of that."

"No." Alcuin shook his head. "If there were proof, one would not suspect the Stregazza. But after Rolande was killed at the Battle of Three Princes, Isabel de la Courcel began positioning members of her own family to assume power, and there was talk of a betrothal between Ysandre and a L'Envers cousin. It ended with her death." He shrugged. "It may be that Prince Benedicte would not condone such a thing; so Delaunay believes. But the Stregazza would, and Benedicte is still second in line to the throne of Terre d'Ange."

"Did Bouvarre tell you anything?"

"He said one could buy anything, for a price, in La Serenissima; even life and death. Nothing more, yet." Alcuin was quiet again for a moment. "Sometimes when I am serving at a gathering and I am there to overhear what Delaunay cannot, I can take my mind away from what my hands are doing and concentrate all of it on listening and remembering. But it was not so easy with Bouvarre to take my mind away as it is when pouring wine," he finished, murmuring.

"He didn't ill-treat you?" I couldn't imagine that it was so; it was not in Alcuin's contract, and Delaunay would have sued for breach if Bouvarre had injured him.

"No. I daresay he was gentle enough." There was distaste in the words. "Phèdre, Naamah lay down with strangers for love of Elua. I would do that and more for him."

I did not need to ask to know that he meant Delaunay, and I did not tell him that each of the Thirteen Houses of the Night Court claims a different cause for the prostitution of Naamah. Instead, I simply asked him, thinking I knew the answer, "Why?"

"You don't know?" Alcuin gave me a funny look. My history was an open book, I supposed, although I found later that he did not know how I had come to Cereus House. "I was born in Trefail, in the Camaelines. One of Prince Rolande's men got me on a village girl, when they were patrolling all that year along the border."

"No small wonder Baudoin managed to be in Camlach," I said, thinking aloud. Alcuin nodded.

"Like Rolande, no? Anyway, my mother's family turned her out. There was gossip; she came near to starving, and word of it reached Rolande. He had my father court-martialed, paid my mother's family a dowry-price and hired a wetnurse, as her milk had failed. There are a few Skaldi living on the edge of Camlach, tribal exiles who've no wish to return to their homeland. That was all he could get."

"Alcuin." It was fascinating, and infuriating. "What does it have to do with Delaunay?"

"I don't know." He shook his head, swinging the ivory curtain of his hair. "Except that he rode with Prince Rolande that year at the Battle of Three Princes, and six years later, when the Skaldi were overrunning the border again, he came back for me. I asked if he was my father, and he laughed, and said no. He said he kept his promises, and sometimes other people's as well. I've been with him ever since."

"You've no wish to see your mother?"

He shuddered. "Delaunay was half a step ahead of the Skaldi. We were four hundred yards out of town when we heard the screaming start. He carried me on his pommel and covered my ears. There was nothing he could do. We could see the smoke rise up behind us all the way down the mountains. I wept for my nurse, but I never knew my mother. And I will never go back there."

I pitied him; and envied him a little, in truth, for my own story was not half so romantic. Escaping down a mountain! It was certainly more exciting than being sold into indenture. "You should ask him again. You have a right to know."

"He has a right not to say." Alcuin got up to put away the book he had been reading, then turned and cocked his head at me. "I don't remember very much of my childhood," he said softly, "but I remember how my nurse would speak to me in Skaldic. She used to tell me that a mighty Prince descended from angels had promised that I would always be taken care of. Delaunay is keeping Rolande de la Courcel's promise."

We talked late into the evening—Delaunay was away at a party that night—and I learned that Alcuin's marque was not a matter of contract, as was mine. Delaunay had moved at whim for years in and out of the royal court and the demimonde, but it was Alcuin who chose to follow, pledging himself to the service of Naamah to discharge a debt that could never be paid. I thought of Guy's story, and the invisible ties that bound us all to Anafiel Delaunay. I thought of Alcuin's story, and wondered what invisible ties bound Delaunay to the long-slain Prince Rolande.

But it was Hyacinthe who came up with the theory.

"So what do we know about Prince Rolande's first betrothed?" he asked rhetorically, sitting in the Cockerel with his boots propped on the table and waving a drumstick. I had helped him arrange a liaison between a married noblewoman and a handsome player, and he had splurged on spitted capon and tankards of ale for the both of us. "Other than the fact that she broke her neck in a hunting accident. We know that Anafiel Delaunay was alleged to have written the lyrics to a song which suggested Isabel L'Envers was to blame. Although he never confessed to it, we know that his poetry was thereafter proscribed, which suggests that someone in the royal court believed it was true, with evidence sufficient to convince the King. And we know that Delaunay was not banished, which suggests that someone else protected him, and had the grounds to do so. Some years later, he makes a point of honoring the promise of Prince Rolande, which suggests there was a debt between them. Where does it begin? With the Prince's betrothed. So who was she?"

Sometimes I despaired of the fact that Hyacinthe was better at what I was trained to do than I myself.

"Edmeée, Edmeée de Rocaille, daughter of the Comte de Rocaille, who is lord of one of the largest holdings in Siovale. There is a small university there, where the Kindred of Shemhazai study the sciences." I shrugged and took a sip of ale. "He donated his library, which is famous."

Hyacinthe tore at the drumstick with his white teeth, smearing grease on his chin. "Did he have sons?"

"I don't know." I stared at him. "You think Delaunay is her brother?"

"Why not?" He gnawed his capon to the bone and quaffed ale. "If he wrote the lyric—and if he would not confess, I have never heard he denied it—he had a powerful interest in discrediting her murderess. And if he wasn't her brother, maybe he was something else."

"Like what?" I eyed him suspiciously over the rim of my tankard. He set down his own mug, lowered his feet and leaned forward, a conspiratorial gleam in his gaze.

"Her lover." Seeing me form an incredulous response, he raised a finger. "No, wait, Phèdre. Maybe he loved her, and lost her to the heir to the throne, but loved her nonetheless. And when she meets a tragic end, he goes to the City in search of justice and finds only conspiracy—and within a year, the Prince weds another. A gentle-born country lad with a quick tongue and an absolute ignorance of politics, he dares all and makes an enemy of the Princess Consort, but wins an advocate in the Prince, whose sense of honor leads him to protect the rash young poet. What do you think?"

"I think you spend too much time among players and dramatists," I said, but I had to wonder. The first threads of the tangle did appear to surface with the death of Prince Rolande's betrothed. "Anyway, Delaunay studied at the University in Tiberium. He didn't exactly come straight from the provinces."

"Ah, well." Hyacinthe drank again and wiped the foam from his lip. "Pedants and demagogues. What can one learn from them?"

At that, I had to laugh; as clever as he was, Hyacinthe retained the prejudices of the streets. "A lot. Tell me, though; have you looked with the dromonde?"

"You know I haven't." His look grew serious. "You remember what my mother said? I will guess for you, Phèdre, where you are too close to the matter to see it aright, but I will not use my gift to hasten the coming of that day."

"You would mince words with Fate," I grumbled.

"So?" He grinned. "I am Tsingani. But they are good theories, no?"

Reluctantly, I admitted that they were, and we talked then of other things until Guy's face shone pale outside the window of the Cockerel, calling in the marque of my debt and beckoning me homeward.

It was not long after this conversation that two occurrences of note took place, though to be sure, one was notable only to me. The first, which was of note to the realm at large, was that the Cruarch of Alba paid a visit to the D'Angeline court. That is how their leader is styled among the Cruithne; in common parlance, of course, we called him the Pictish King, as the Caerdicci scholars had named him. The event was worthy of discussion, for it was a rarity that the Master of the Straits would allow such a crossing to take place.

For as long as anyone can remember, the Master of the Straits has ruled the Three Sisters, those tiny islands that lie off the coast of Azzalle, and by Blessed Elua's truth, I swear it is true what they say: the winds and the waters obey his command. You may believe it or not as you choose, but I have since seen it for myself and know it is so. It has afforded us great protection from the longboats of the Skaldi, but it has also kept us from alliance or trade with the Cruithne, whose land is rich in lead and iron ore. Why the Master of the Straits had allowed this embassy to land, no one knew; but land it had, and there were Picts to be dealt with. It caused considerable stir in our household. There were very few D'Angelines to be found who spoke Cruithne, and Delaunay had been summoned to attend the royal audience as translator.

I am ashamed to say that I paid less heed to this event than I should have done, for the other occurrence of note occupied my mind. Cecilie Laveau-Perrin had declared to Delaunay that she had no more to teach me. What I had left to learn, she said, was beyond her scope; it would be best taught me by an adept of Valerian House.

While Delaunay was skeptical, he was forced to admit that his knowl-edge of the arts of algolagnia were as purely academic as Cecilie's. An instructional visit was arranged for me with the Second of Valerian House. The King's summons to Delaunay came after the arrangements were made, and I think he would have cancelled them had his attention not been elsewhere. But his mind was wholly on the upcoming audience, and he did not.

So it fell out that Alcuin, who was nigh as fluent as Delaunay, was to accompany him and transcribe the conversation. The royal coach came for them both, while I would be escorted by Delaunay's driver to Valerian House. If I had known what would one day come to pass, I would have begged to attend, for I was as fluent as Alcuin and wrote a fairer hand. It would have been of no small merit to have met the Cruarch of Alba and his heir—his sister-son and not his son, as the Pictish rule of descent is matrilineal, a fact which would also affect my life in ways I could not imagine.

But we are not granted such foreknowledge, and I, who tired of the yearning in my blood that ever grew unassuaged, was glad enough with my end of the bargain. A barbarian king is a fascinating thing, to be sure, but I was an anguissette condemned to the dull torment of virginity. I went to Valerian House.


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