Diane, Duchess Tremontaine, stood alone at the highest window of her great house on the Hill, and surveyed her city.
No one would come to her in this high room. Her husband, William, was now far at sea, sailing on the wings of the Bird Between Worlds. The Kinwiinik would carry him to their land, make of him a seer, for they understood the uses of shadowroot far better than she.
Ixkaab Balam, first daughter of a first daughter of the Kinwiinik, had taught her that—and in return, Diane had very nearly killed her. She had sent her finest swordsman against young Kaab in a public duel to the death: Vincent Applethorpe, Tremontaine’s first sword, who somehow thought he had the right to pick and choose where and how his talents were deployed. A man who had claimed to know the duchess better than she knew herself. Ixkaab Balaam’s friend and teacher.
She had lost her temper—Diane recognized that now—and in doing so had nearly lost them both. But Applethorpe had outmaneuvered her. The girl Kaab had been carried out from the fight hall at Lord and Lady Condell’s party to the Balaam compound, unconscious. No one had seen her since. And Vincent Applethorpe had walked away from the Condell duel, presumably back to the rat’s nest of Riverside, there to sulk and brood on the wrong Diane had done him.
The duchess drummed her fingers on the stone windowsill. She wanted him back in her employ. She was Duchess Tremontaine in her own right, now, and she must have the best of everything, if she wanted to keep her position and advance. A man of controlled, exquisite violence . . . she’d need him against her inevitable enemies. Particularly the Dragon Chancellor, Gregory, Lord Davenant.
She had mortally offended Applethorpe with her demand that he murder Davenant in cold blood before the Condell duel. She would make it up to him, now, Diane thought, and rid herself of Davenant for good, in one stroke. Tremontaine would formally challenge Davenant as one noble to another, with her swordsman as her proxy. Vincent Applethorpe could find no fault with that.
If her swordsman found Gregory Davenant alone, he might with honor challenge, fight, and slay him, all under Tremontaine’s protection. If Davenant providently had a swordsman ready to take the challenge for him, whoever he had would be no match for Vincent Applethorpe, of that she was sure. And then . . . Diane closed her eyes and inhaled the imagined scent of victory . . . either way, Davenant would trouble her no more. His swordsman defeated, he would scuttle off to the country—for this season at least—knowing it was folly to stand against Diane, Duchess Tremontaine. She had friends. She had knowledge. She had a copy of his ledger.
Her breasts pressed against their confines of brocade. She moved her hand to the stone of the windowsill, to cool her wrist, to slow her breathing.
She should not kill Gregory. Probably not. It was too overt, too . . . obvious. She had already tipped the Dragon’s claws. Should the chancellor threaten Tremontaine at any time, the duchess would denounce him to the Council for embezzlement, calling his ruin down upon him. But if the Dragon Chancellor did as he was bid . . . if he voted on her behalf, supported her intents, she would be the merciful lady. Diane chuckled. How he would hate that! Gregory, with his strong, hairy hands, so determined to be top man in any room—look at how he treated his poor chief of staff, Basil Halliday, a man of probity and duty . . . Perhaps she would steal Halliday from Davenant, too, unless the Dragon behaved.
And if not, there was always the sword.
Somewhere, a cat in heat was yowling incessantly. Ixkaab Balam rolled over on her mat. For a moment she thought she was still in the warehouse, awaiting thieves, awaiting a ship to take her home—
Kaab eased herself up onto her elbows. Not the warehouse. Not the warehouse at all. She was surrounded by luxury: finely woven cushions, polished mirrors, carven seat-backs, and the painted walls of her very own room in the Balam compound in the city of Xanamluum.
But it was in the warehouse that her uncle Ahchuleb had told her that their beloved Ixsaabim was dead.
Ash in my mouth, the poem ran; Ash in my mouth when I sought to chew bread.
Kaab’s mouth was all dry and gummy. She reached for a cup of rose-scented water by the bed, and drained it. The cat continued to yowl. Couldn’t someone silence that thing?
Kaab hurled her cup at the door.
“Good,” said Cousin Ixoen, opening the door. “You’re up.”
She held the cat in her arms. The yowling filled the room.
Only it wasn’t a cat; it was Ixsaabim’s newborn infant, red-faced and screaming.
Kaab tried to sound composed. “What’s Peapem doing here?” she asked. “I have no milk for...