The very air was daggers in Kaab’s throat.
Her breath puffed out before her, as if her heart-spirit fled again and again with every exhale. The Tremontaine winter garden was beautiful, at least: The frost-covered, manicured landscape was a fantasy of silvered flora and carefully raked pathways. Bold evergreens were trimmed and shaped into cones, spheres, and even stars, while bushes in various dark greens, vivid golds, and rusty oranges were arranged to catch the eye.
All Kaab’s previous visits with Diane de Tremontaine, since the start of last summer, had been characterized by barbed flirtation and blackmail and sly conversation. She should have been excited, skin tingling for more of the same: double entendre, delicate insinuation, political maneuvering, and excellent chocolate.
But this would be the first time she sat with the duchess with Vincent’s death cradled between them.
Upon the stone terrace ahead, Diane de Tremontaine perched on a cloth-covered bench in layers of ruffled pink skirts, a fur-lined capelet hugging her long neck: She was the garden’s only blooming flower. Three silver braziers burned hot coals, and the thin smoke smelled invitingly spicy.
“Ah, Ixkaab,” Diane called. “You do look as though you’ve emerged from my gardens like a blessing spirit, so silent and dark you are.”
Kaab bowed, though it was hampered somewhat by the thick, Landish winter coat buttoned tight around her. She could not bring herself to flirt back.
As Kaab joined Diane on the bench, a fine chocolate setting was placed upon a portable table by a footman. A tray of fresh treats arrived, and a maid replaced a pillow tucked against the duchess’s side, which Diane explained held an inner leather pouch for stones heated at the hearth. Kaab accepted a pouch for her own use.
The chocolate was rich and hot, all Kaab could ask for, and as she sipped, the duchess slipped the conversation in and around meaningful commentary, eventually offering some finicky legal particulars of their warehouse scheme, with detours toward gossip she apparently thought might intrigue Kaab. For her part, Kaab held patient, listening, refusing to direct the conversation in the hope that the duchess would reveal what she believed to be important. Kaab was uncertain that she could outmaneuver Diane, but surely she could garner useful intelligence.
“You’re quiet,” the duchess said, finally, setting her empty cup on the tray.
Kaab remained so for a longer moment, holding her breath for three counts beneath Diane’s gaze. Ekchuah preserve me as I dive. “I’m thinking about Vincent Applethorpe.”
The duchess said nothing, but raised a cool eyebrow.
“I do not want to play games with you, Duchess, not knowing what is at stake.”
“It has never been a game between us,” came Diane’s gentle answer. The sleek calm of a jaguar. “I never forget the information you have.”
“If I were dead, others would have it, too.” Kaab put her own cup down hard enough that it clattered.
“I don’t want you dead,” the duchess said vehemently.
And then Kaab realized: Sending her and Vincent against each other, the fateful clash that had cost her mentor his life, had been an impulse. A sudden terrible mischief Diane de Tremontaine had not been able to resist.
It left Kaab breathless.
All these weeks trying to lead her people, trying to quash her own impulses, make herself into a mother of the Trade, draw together a web without tripping over recklessness, and here was this grand mistress of the art of politics, this slick spider, giving in to exactly such destructive whims. And Vincent had paid for it. What could possibly...