Given he’d been stood up, Arthur Chel was in a surprisingly good mood.
Perhaps it had been the charming company of Simone Fenton, the young beauty of the Fenton household, where Arthur had waited more than an hour for her brother Rafe to put in an appearance. Last week, he and Rafe had made plans to spend an afternoon in the Laughing Rabbit for nothing but drinks and dice—Arthur was ruthlessly skilled at dice, especially against such an enthusiastically unfocused opponent as Rafe, who tended to distract himself with winding, delightful speeches. Arthur did not always follow the intricacies of Rafe’s thought process, but he certainly followed the gentle flush that rose in Rafe’s cheeks, the way he grasped at his dark hair as if surprised to find it short. Arthur couldn’t help wanting to chase that flush down Rafe’s neck with his lips, and find the racing pulse with his tongue. He’d been hoping, since sending that note to Rafe about Highcombe two days ago, to have earned the chance.
Simone had hair just like Rafe’s must have been when long.
Arthur thought wistfully of both Fenton siblings as he walked down the wide, winding avenue toward the edge of the Middle City, where the Laughing Rabbit tucked itself between a tailor’s and a chocolate shop he’d never tried. The Fenton chocolate Simone had offered him as they waited for Rafe to appear had been quite decent, the delicate porcelain cups beautifully painted with rows of tiny bluebirds. They’d sipped and chatted, and Arthur was not ashamed that he’d sought information about Rafe from her: Did she know for whom his heart had broken? Why he’d left the University? Questions he’d not quite so bluntly put to Rafe himself. Simone did not know—alas!—details of Rafe’s broken heart, but she confessed her brother had left school to work for none other than William, the Duke Tremontaine.
Arthur relished knowing he and Rafe had both worked for Tremontaine! Though it made him wonder if William himself, the failing mind wed to the elegant, perfect cloud of femininity Arthur cherished, might be the culprit behind Rafe’s heartache.
Turning onto a side lane, protected from the noise of the main streets by tall courtyard walls and the rears of a line of shops, Arthur allowed himself a melodramatic sigh. But more of a smile teased at his mouth than should be there, were he truly upset. No, it all matched too perfectly with the wildly romantic drama he told himself, filled with intrigue and intricately woven relationships. His imagination had often overrun reality when he was a boy, a thing his older brothers and sisters teased him for, and his cousins accused him of pretending this Land to be finer than it was. But Arthur had found his imagination led him toward all sorts of useful information. His family did not appreciate how Arthur easily found ways to befriend nearly anybody, or his particular skill at finding things and people. All because of his imagination! Why, look how quickly he’d found that math student for the duchess, and he’d not even had the student’s proper name to begin with.
A figure approaching Arthur with an angry, determined stride wiped all trace of smile from his face: Ixkaab Balam, thundering toward him with her hand on the hilt of her long Local sword. Her black hair glinted in the slender strip of afternoon sun, and her eyes narrowed dangerously.
Arthur backed up before he could stop himself, knocking his boot heel into the bottom step of a back door.
“Ahtul Chel,” she commanded.
Eyes on her sword hand, he forced a smile, and bowed. “Cousin,” he said, trying to soften her up. Despite his Landish suit and soft hands, she had to appreciate their blood came from the same homeland. And he had done nothing wrong! He did not deserve this . . . whatever this was.
Ixkaab glared at him. In Kindaan she snarled, “You’re going with me.”
He lifted his hands in surrender, responding in Xanamdaan. “I was on my way to the Laughing Rabbit for a bite and a drink—which, lovely Cousin, I think you might need?”
“Don’t flirt with me, little rabbit.” She held to Kindaan, her tone making his name slightly insulting. But she turned and gestured sharply back down the alley, toward the tavern.
They walked side-by-side, Arthur’s mind racing. What did she want? In the few moments before they emerged into the busier front street, he landed on two relevant thoughts: There’d been gossip in his family and amongst his friends in the Cocom family—chief rivals to the Balam here—that Ixkaab and the Balam had more than merely fallen out; also, Ixkaab was Rafe Fenton’s friend, and perhaps she knew where he’d vanished to.
Casually as possible, he said, “I was to meet Rafe, but his family hasn’t seen him in a few days.”
Ixkaab slid him a shining grin, revealing her teeth like a fox.
She must know where Rafe had gone! It relieved him, for Arthur assumed that if Ixkaab knew, Rafe should be safe enough.
The Laughing Rabbit’s doors and shutters were flung...