Kaab considered the woman before her. Diane, Duchess Tremontaine, stood pale and composed in her silk-and-damask drawing room. Only her hands, nervously clutching the damning letter Kaab had just given her, betrayed her.
“Let me be sure I understand your proposal,” Diane said. “You and your people—for I am not fool enough to think that you alone possess the secret of my origins; I’m sure your formidable aunt, at least, does, too—you will bury that knowledge, never to see the light of day. You will swear by your gods to do this. And I in turn will swear by mine that all knowledge of navigation that would enable my people to cross the seas to your land will be equally buried.”
Kaab nodded. She could be patient while the duchess played for time to think. The matter would be decided now; there was no way this woman would let Kaab leave Tremontaine House without her pledge of secrecy. Diane’s need was immediate; what Kaab demanded was trivial to the duchess by comparison. The Xanamwiinik had not been able to navigate yesterday; with Diane’s promise, they would not be able to navigate twenty years from now, either—whereas if Kaab released the duchess’s secret in the morning, by nightfall Duchess Tremontaine would be out on the street.
All Kaab had to do was wait for the duchess to accept the facts, and then make sure she herself got out of Tremontaine House alive. Diane was already poisoning her husband with a merciless hallucinogen to make sure he stayed out of her way. Of course, Diane did not know that Ixkaab knew this, so it did not surprise her when the duchess attempted one last dodge: “And what makes you think that I can influence the Duke Tremontaine in these matters?”
Kaab said, “It is not the duke I am concerned with. Nobody listens to him, as well you know. In fact, his own wife makes secret pledges with the Balam Traders to share profits in chocolate to pay off her debts, and he does not know it. She uses her influence with the Council of Lords to change the import tax laws, and he does not even care. Such a woman, I think, will have no trouble making sure that some raggedy students are not heeded by the Council—and if they take their knowledge to the merchants, well, the Council is the law of the land, and can surely make it very difficult for them to implement such knowledge.”
Was that a blush of pride on the pale duchess’s waxen face? Did she like hearing, just once, just here, in private and alone, that another woman recognized and admired what she had done? It must be tiresome, Kaab thought, to live a life where all your strength came from making sure no one knew that you had any.
Kaab continued: “The Kinwiinik would accept this woman’s pledge, and value it. They would feel safe and secure in partnership with her, and would never find it in their interests to do anything to risk removing her from her present status.”
The duchess lifted her head, as if already smelling victory. She really was a magnificent creature. Kaab had to admit that she found powerful women intoxicating. What was to prevent her, here and now, from taking this bright, pale woman in her arms to seal their bargain with one deep kiss? The duchess had flirted with her at the Swan Ball; perhaps she would be ardent, like the Tullan nobleman’s wife, Citlali—
“Are you distressed, Mistress Balam?”
Too late to hide it. “I am, my lady.” But not too late for riposte. “I was thinking of what happens when lovers betray one another, and covenants are not honored. It can be terrible.”
“I understand.” The Duchess Tremontaine held up the incriminating letter. “Then let us come to an agreement. I shall burn this letter”—quickly, she threw it on the embers in the hearth—“and all memory of what it contains will go up in smoke along with it. And your people, in turn, may be assured that any discoveries in mathematics or astronomy that would enable us to navigate the curves of the earth at any great distance—for you see, Mistress Balam, my husband did indeed tell me of the new research—will be mocked, discredited, scoffed at . . . outside the University. For even you cannot credit me with any influence within those walls!”
The letter was curling at the edges, smoldering, about to break into flame. It didn’t matter; Tess could always make another one, should the duchess be playing with this talk of University. Diane had read the forged letter carefully, and suspected nothing. Kaab’s lover, Tess, too, was in her way a woman of power.
The duchess turned from the hearth with a smile.
“And now, my dear, will you take chocolate?”
Tess the Hand paced her rooms in a small house in Riverside.
The swordsman Vincent Applethorpe, who shared them with her, looked up from the letter he was trying to write to his sister in the country. People in Riverside feared Applethorpe’s sword, but Vincent Applethorpe feared only the pen. Still, if she didn’t hear from him regularly, dear Clem was likely to kick up a fuss. And so he...