There were certain things that happened every year, as regular as clockwork. In the springtime, farmers planted their crops, the University prepared for its exams, the City’s streets turned to mud, and—far more important than any of that, at least in the steward Duchamp’s mind—Tremontaine held its annual Swan Ball.
Whisper the word “ball” and a noblewoman’s mind fills with thoughts of silk dresses and violin music, rich sauces poured over roast meats and sweets of airy meringue and heavy cream. But to Duchamp, steward of the Tremontaine household, a ball meant one thing: work.
Duchamp was no longer a young man. But the Tremontaine Ball was his responsibility, and always had been. Duchamp had been overseeing the Swan Ball since before the current duchess had even married into the family. He knew exactly what it took to host a successful ball. The duchess relied on him to meticulously oversee the household staff as they fetched and unpacked the family’s traditional swan-shaped decorations from the attics, laundered the drapes and hangings, waxed the floors, polished the silver, and replaced a vast array of candles so that the guests could actually see the result of the Tremontaine family retainers’ labors. But even that was an incomplete list.
Before cleaning the silver, one had to find the silver. There were always a few pieces missing. Spoons in particular had a habit of disappearing into bodices to be sold down in Riverside by ladies’ maids. Just last month, a serving bowl painted with a scene of unnatural congress between a large waterfowl and some maiden of myth had vanished entirely. All for the best, really; the vivid colors of webbed feet on virgin flesh had improved no one’s appetite.
Duchamp remembered when Tremontaine had promptly bought new silver. In Duke William’s father’s day, when Duchamp was an under-footman, the old duke had spent lavishly, and never counted the cost. So his son had inherited his father’s considerable debts along with the obligation to keep up tradition. It was a blessing that the son’s pretty young wife had turned out to have a streak of practicality, even if Duchamp sometimes mourned the days of heedless glamour. Instead, the old steward made do, mixing and matching the family’s various sets of tableware, replacing what was missing with pieces that looked close enough. Surely not so dissimilar that any of the guests would notice.
Maybe he’d put fewer candles in the dining room this year.
And silver wasn’t the only place corners were being cut. No one had been brought in to fix the wobbly leg on the clavier. Just last week, two parlor maids and an undercook had been dismissed—supposedly for minor infractions, but more likely to have fewer servants to keep. At least there’d be no more dismissals until after the ball. They’d have enough trouble preparing for it with the staff as reduced as it was now; any less and there would be no hope of pulling off such a grand event in the style that the City expected.
“Again,” Applethorpe said, beating the side of Kaab’s blade with his own.
Ixkaab Balam retreated to a garde. At least she no longer dropped her weapon when he did that. The secret was a loose grip; if she held on tightly, her own strength worked against her, concentrating the force of the swordmaster’s attempts to disarm her rather than letting it dissipate. Her nature argued against such a tactic. When attacked, she wanted to fight back, to launch forward, not to meekly allow his attack to flow through her.
She extended her arm, pointing the tip of her sword toward Applethorpe, and walked around the circle of their training grounds. It was within the shell of an abandoned building, nothing more than weeds and a few piles of red bricks, completely open to the sky. A pair of matching mutts nosed at a trash heap in one corner. Applethorpe had tried to run them off when they’d first arrived, but animals in Riverside weren’t dissuaded by a loud voice and stomped foot. He had not deigned to threaten them with his sword.
Kaab abruptly feinted north, then south, and then made an earnest strike low and back to the north, below Applethorpe’s ribs and into his soft organs. Or rather, such was her intention; instead Applethorpe parried easily and Kaab tripped on the uneven ground. The muddier of the two dogs barked, a sound that reminded her of mocking laughter.
The blade seemed to have grown heavy as a boulder since this morning; Kaab sighed and dropped her arm. She longed for her obsidian dagger, whose weight was barely noticeable no matter how long she practiced, but Applethorpe had refused to let her use it. “You rely on it too much,” he had said when she’d protested. “What’s the point in practicing with a sword if you’re not going to use it?”
Kaab turned away from him, intending to walk off her frustration. The dog barked again, and she made a sharp, threatening noise in the back of her throat. She didn’t want any witnesses to her humiliation, not...