“So what, Nona Grey, is X?”
“Seven,” Nona said with supreme confidence. Sister Apple advised confidence when guessing. With sufficient gravitas even the wildest of lies can be made to sound plausible.
Sister Rule slapped Nona’s desk with her yardstick. “If X were the number of pinches of deadwort to be added to a purge potion you would now be very dead.”
“I meant one.” Nona pretended to squint at her slate. “I misread.”
“There are quite a few integers left to try.” Sister Rule’s shadow swallowed Nona as she loomed closer still.
“Four!” Nona split the difference and nodded with finality.
“It’s two thirds.” The novice bell rang out across the convent. “Now get out of my classroom and don’t come back until-”
The rest of Sister Rule’s tirade was lost beneath the scraping of chairs as a dozen Mystic Class novices headed for the door clutching slates, chalk, assorted practice weapons, and the occasional scroll.
Nona hurried down the stairs of the Academia Tower ahead of the crowd. Mathematics filled her with a dread that a handful of flung throwing stars slicing toward her never could. She’d never understood why the equations needed her to solve them. Wouldn’t they be happier left in peace on the pages of dusty books?
Ara caught up with her as she burst out of the main door into the cold bluster of a Corridor wind. “Ruli says she’s got a tub of brandy hidden away in the winery stores.”
“Brandy?” Nona wasn’t sure what that was.
Ara rolled her eyes. “Sister Oak uses it to fortify the wine when she’s making port. It’s very strong. Burns your mouth.”
“Oh.” Nona allowed herself to be steered towards the winery. “That sounds … painful.”
“It’s what lords drink. Abbess Glass has a bottle in her office. Ruli says it’s how she chose her name.” Ara waited for Nona to get it, then rolled her eyes again. “Because she likes a glass or two.”
“Ruli makes up all sorts of nonsense,” Nona said.
Ara didn’t argue with that.
“Should we get Ketti and Jula?” Nona nodded toward the two girls now heading toward the novice cloister.
Ara snorted. “Jula? Drinking? And Ketti’s hopeless at keeping secrets these days. You can’t know how many times she almost told someone about the undercaves. My foot’s sore from kicking her under tables.”
Nona shrugged. Ketti had a boy in the city that she was sweet on and she did seem to tell him everything about everything in the hope of being interesting.
They snuck through the barrel store and into the back of the winery. Ruli met them in the attic where Sister Oak kept all manner of strange equipment, allegedly involved in the process of making Sweet Mercy red, although it all sat beneath a thick layer of dust and grime, and nobody had ever seen it employed. Sister Oak also kept about a million spiders in the attic judging by the veils of cobwebs. Ruli maintained that a very small novice had once become hopelessly fouled in the webs and had been devoured by grey lurker spiders over the course of a seven-day holiday.
Ruli led them to an area sheltered by drying racks. “What do you think?”
Nona stared at the small barrel, about two feet high, with an iron band top and bottom. “I think they’re going to miss that.”
Ruli shook her head. “I do the bookkeeping for Sister Oak these days. And according to the books this barrel doesn’t exist. And I paid for it with money that also doesn’t exist, saved here and there.”
“We can’t drink it!” Nona had tried wine before. Ruli filched it by the cupful during batch testing. A few mouthfuls of Sweet Mercy red had been enough to set Nona’s head spinning, and this stuff was used to make it into something stronger.
“Sure we can.” Ruli nodded as if agreeing with herself. “Not just us three. Dorm party!”
“You deserve something after what you’ve been through, Nona.” Ara pressed her lips into a sympathetic line. “It can be a welcome back party.”
“Try some.” Ruli offered her one of the small iron dippers that Sister Oak used when tasting the wine.
Nona could smell the stuff before she brought the dipper anywhere near her face, a fierce aroma, like shadows and fire tingling in her nose. The scent promised something delicious but dangerous. Ruli and Ara watched her intently as she raised the dipper to her mouth. With the iron rim at her lips and the smell of it burning at the back of her throat, Nona hesitated.
“Go on!” Ruli waved for her to drink.
She took a sip. The liquid seared across her tongue, so strong that she lost hold of the dipper even as she began to splutter and spit.
Three things happened at once. Ara reached with whip crack swiftness to catch the falling dipper. The laugh that Ruli had been holding in check escaped from her with the same explosive force as Nona’s sprayed brandy. And the main doors to the winery juddered noisily open.
“…meeting her here.” Sister Apple’s voice, almost directly beneath them.
“Why not just bring her to the abbess?” Sister Kettle’s voice.
In the attic all three girls froze. Nona struggled not to choke or gasp, the brandy fumes still filling her nose and burning in her throat, tears running down her face. Ruli and Ara exchanged glances. It wasn’t unusual for Kettle and Apple to slip off together to find some privacy, but this was clearly something different.
One of the nuns closed the doors, lifting them on their sagging hinges so they wouldn’t scrape across the cobbles.
“Nobody understands the value of lies better than Abbess Glass,” Sister Apple said, “But there are times when she must be able to answer truthfully to higher authorities that she knows nothing of this or that particular event. At such times she relies on me to do what needs be done without asking her permission or informing her of my actions.”
Ruli was the first to lower herself with painstaking slowness to the attic boards and set one eye to a gap. Ara followed suit. Nona, now mostly recovered from the brandy, shifted her feet to rest on the solidity of the rafters then eased herself down, pressing close against Ara. She held breath and prayed that the planks would still their tongues and not betray her with a squeak or crack.
“So when-” The jolting of the door interrupted Kettle’s question.
Nona pushed alongside Ara and got her eye to a gap between the weathered boards just in time to see an unfamiliar nun entering the winery. The woman seemed almost a ball in her habit, nearly as wide as Sister Rose, but in a more muscular kind of way. She looked to be of an age with Apple, shorter than both sisters, a bulging red-cheeked face, but stern, someone to be reckoned with, Nona thought.
“Sister Pot.” Apple took her hands then released them and turned to make introductions. “Pot, meet Kettle.”
The two nuns exchanged cautious nods. “Sister.”
“Pot’s here to get our help with the Verity poisonings,” Apple said.
Nona heard a slight intake of breath from Ara at her side. Ara had been talking about the murders just a few days before. For her they were a reminder of the life she had left behind when she came to Sweet Mercy. The vicious intrigue and genteel fencing of the aristocracy that unfolded year by year across the marbled floors of grand ballrooms, at society weddings and engagements, celebrations of wealth to which the Sis flocked. One of the victims had been a childhood friend of hers, Jella Abonsis, daughter of the third in line to the Abonsis lordship. All of those to die so far had been aged between fifteen and twenty, four girls and Lord Oversis’s eldest son.
“…five so far.” Sister Pot handed Kettle a scroll covered with tightly written notes. “Poisoned.”
“Symptoms?” Kettle asked, all business.
“Shortness of breath, stomach cramps, internal bleeding. Death reported between six to twelve hours after falling ill.”
“Could be something from the coural family,” Sister Apple said. “Definitely something ingested.”
Pot pursed her lips. “Maybe. But we don’t have five dead tasters to add to the tally.”
Nona had been taught about coural fish earlier in the year. It had been in Shade lessons shortly before the Inquisition moved into the convent. Several subspecies of the fish could be found in the deepest parts of the Marn Sea, dwelling in total darkness, carrying out their lives a thousand fathoms beneath the waves in rocky trenches that divided the seabed. And there they would be allowed stay unmolested, for they were foul tasting and extremely hard to catch, but for the fact that to deter other denizens of the permadark from devouring them the coural fish all secreted poison in small sacs held within their flesh.
When extracted, coural fish poison was tasteless, odourless, and deadly. It was slow acting, but since no antidote existed that wasn’t a problem. In fact a slow acting poison is essential when your target is a member of the upper echelons of the aristocracy and has their food checked by tasters well before consumption.
The only things preventing its widespread use, apart from prohibitive cost, were the fact that cooking rendered it inert, and that the liquid ranged from virulent blue to virulent green in colour, with an oily rainbow sheen, making it hard to disguise in raw food.
“We’re talking about some of the best guarded individuals in the Corridor,” Pot said. “These are homes that a Grey Sister or Noi-Guin assassin would be hard pressed to enter unseen. To then successfully poison a meal intended for one specific target… and to do so five times in as many months… The Oversis boy died in his father’s lords-hall under the same roof as two Academy mages-”
All three women turned toward the main doors as they scraped open. Nona tried to adjust her position to get view of the new arrival but only managed to see her feet. Whoever it was squeaked in surprise on finding themselves face to face with three nuns.
“Novice Ketti. What brings you to the winery?” Sister Apple enquired in the stern voice she used as Mistress Shade during class.
“I… uh…” Ketti’s feet shuffled backwards. “Sorry!”
“Novice!” Apple’s raised voice arrested Ketti’s retreat. “Sister Pot here is a guest at Sweet Mercy. I can’t let such a shameful effort go unchallenged. I taught you to lie myself. Now do it properly. What was your first mistake?”
“You’re doing it again. Hesitation! Hesitation, girl! Now, lie damn it! And if you start with “uh” so help me I will slap the truth out of you.”
“I came to see Sister Oak,” Ketti blurted.
“Too fast. You have to take your time, say it smoothly.”
“Say it smoothly!” Apple demanded.
“I came to see Sister Oak.”
“There. Not so terrible in the end.” Sister Apple waved her away. “Oak’s in the Dome of the Ancestor, praying, I shouldn’t wonder. Now off with you. And next time have a lie ready before you open the door.”
The nuns waited while Ketti closed the doors behind her and ran off. Nona imagined that Ketti had got wind of the brandy theft and come looking for Ruli. Thankfully Sister Apple had larger matters to occupy her than the transgressions of novices.
“We’ll continue this discussion in my laboratory,” Apple said. “Kettle, you can join us when you’ve got the recruit.”
“Yes, Appy.” Kettle mocked a curtsy.
Apple raised brow, face stern. “Don’t be long.”
All three nuns left the building, Apple leading Sister Pot off to the left, Kettle turning right. The doors jolted closed behind them.
“Phew.” Ruli rolled onto her back.
“I thought we were done for when Ketti barged in!” Ara got to her feet, brushing dust from her habit. She sipped from the dipper, wincing and twisting up her mouth. “It’s good. Smuggle a jug into the dormitory next six-day night and we can have a party. It’s not as if we haven’t earned it after that nightmare back east. Alata and Leeni will be up for it and we can invite some girls up from Grey dorm.”
Nona said nothing, only followed Ara as she led the way back to the ladder. Nona had never been to a party and found the idea rather daunting. Though she decided she would like to see Ara drink some brandy and let her hair down, and to laugh as they used to back when they were little.
Nona stepped from the last rung of the ladder and was turning toward the door when a soft cough drew her attention to the double row of huge storage barrels.
“What have we here?” Kettle emerged from the shadows. A knowing smile toying with one corner of her mouth. “Nona Grey and Arabella Jotsis emerging from an attic together?” She reached out and plucked a piece of straw from Ara’s golden curls.
Ara opened her mouth as if to reply but no words emerged.
Kettle’s gaze darted to the top of the ladder where Ruli’s foot was edging back into the attic from the first rung. “Three of you? That’s … unusual.” Kettle arched an eyebrow. “Come and join us, Novice Ruli.”
Ruli let her dismay out in a small gasp then climbed down, clearly wondering how Kettle had identified her from a glimpse of one shoe.
“Care to explain, Nona?” Kettle advanced on her and cocked her head in inquiry.
“We were looking for Sister Oak.” It wasn’t a good lie but Nona was pleased that at least she hadn’t hesitated.
“She’s a popular nun today.” Kettle nodded thoughtfully. With hunska swiftness she leaned in disconcertingly close to Nona, her face rising from level with Nona’s throat to level with her hairline, inhaling smoothly through her nose as she straightened. “And why, novice, do you smell of brandy? Are you perhaps a dipsomaniac?”
“A .. a what?”
“A drunkard, Novice Nona. An alcoholic. A lush.” She moved around Nona in a slow circle. “A boozer, a carouser, an inebriate, a debauchee?”
“No, Sister Kettle. At least I don’t think so.”
“Good to hear.” Kettle took hold of Nona’s shoulders and pointed her at the door. “Off you go then.”
“W- What?” Nona couldn’t believe that was the extent of any punishment.
“You’re free. Off with you. Fly away, little novices.” Kettle waved them toward the exit.
Exchanging glances the three girls started toward the daylight.
At the last moment, Kettle’s hand snaked out and caught the back of Ara’s habit. “Not you though, Arabella.”
“Me?” Ara managed not to squeak.
“Yes.” Kettle nodded. “You’re the recruit.”
Nona and Ruli emerged into the blustery wind, blinking against the brightness of the day. Ruli shut the door, setting the catch from the outside. “Let’s find Ketti and Jula!”
“What does she want with Ara?” Nona demanded as they hurried toward the novice cloister.
“Isn’t that obvious?” Ruli rolled her eyes. “Since when do two Grey Sisters let themselves be spied on by novices? They knew we were up there. They came for Ara. She’s the one they need for this poisoning thing.”
“Ara?” asked Nona, dismayed,
“Of course! Who is going to fit better into those balls and feasts than Arabella Jotsis? Her uncle has more land and money than almost any of the lords hosting these affairs. All they need to do is say that she has withdrawn from the convent and is entering society again.”
“But,” said Nona, as they headed in under the cloister arches, “she’ll get poisoned!”
Ruli shrugged. “Have a little faith! It’s not like we haven’t all been poisoned before.”
They sat with Jula and Ketti, huddled beneath the centre oak, waiting for Ara to join them. Jula was outraged that they had been drinking brandy. Ketti was outraged that she hadn’t been involved. Neither of them seemed quite as worried as Nona that Ara was about to be thrust into the midst of a complex game of murder within the inner circles of the Sis.
The bell tolled for the last lesson of the day and still Ara hadn’t returned.
“Come on!” Ketti got to her feet, stretching out her over-long body. “Spirit Class next.”
Ruli and Jula jumped up. Sister Wheel did not take kindly to lateness. Or much else.
Nona came in last to class, still looking over her shoulder for Ara to come sprinting through the main doors to the Dome of the Ancestor.
“Good of you to join us, novice.” Sister Wheel fixed her with a cold and watery stare.
Against expectations Nona was neither required to recite the entire catechism nor to go for an hour of silent prayer beneath the great dome. She just had to endure the tedium of another of Wheel’s lessons with the rest of them.
Sitting at the back of the class beside Ruli Nona had, in the depths of her boredom, a small epiphany. While Sister Wheel droned on, reading line after line of doctrine from the great Book of the Ancestor, it occurred to Nona for the first time that she actually agreed with a great deal of what was being read out. Despite her disdain for the person reading the words, despite that the voice reaching her ears was one that grated across her nerves, the message of unity and continuity had much to recommend it.
Suddenly Nona remembered something Abbess Glass had said to her years before. Nona had been sent to the big house by Sister Wheel and rather than show contrition for her crimes she had used the opportunity to complain about Wheel herself. She had wanted to know why Glass would have someone like Wheel in charge of what the Church must consider the most important lesson taught at the Convent of Sweet Mercy. The Abbess herself would do the job a hundred times better, Nona had opined.
“Sister Wheel’s lessons are a lesson in themselves, novice.” Abbess Glass had smiled and stood up from behind her desk. “Sister Apple teaches you to lie. She teaches you how to sell that lie. Flattery, kindness, and fair words will often do the job. Sister Rule teaches you truths about this world of ours and Sister Pan teaches truths about worlds beyond. Sister Wheel, on the other hand, teaches you truths about yourself, and those are the hardest to learn of them all. If they are to be learned by the heart rather than by the head they cannot be sugared like a lie. If they are to form the foundation of a faith they must be discovered not delivered. Sister Wheel makes you discover revelation. Whether that is her intention or not is of no matter.”
Nona saw Abbess Glass’s point now. Or some of it at least. That woman always hid one thing within another within another. But the fact is that few people are able to see value in the words of someone they truly dislike. Have your own opinions spoken back to you by someone you despise and you will likely begin to find fault.
“… a test on the revelations of Saint Mrak!” The tolling of Bray, the novices’ bell, cut across Sister Wheel.
Nona jolted upright in her chair. A whole lesson had escaped her. “Who’s Saint Mrak?” she hissed at Ruli.
Ruli just shook her head and carried on stuffing her slate into her bag. “Come on!”
Ara came to the dormitory after last bell when the rest of Mystic Class were already in their night gowns. The girls flocked to her. Ara had no enemies, only friends, and Nona didn’t think that state of affairs would be any different had she come to the convent a pauper rather than with the wealth of the Sis behind her.
“A family matter,” Ara repeated for the benefit of the class. “The abbess wanted to speak to me. I’ll be going tomorrow. For a week at least.”
The glance she shot Nona’s way made it clear that this was the fiction she had been told to spin, and that the truth would have to wait.
Ara shed her habit and was in her bed before Sister Scar called from the stairwell for the lanterns to put out. For many of the girls having lights off made little difference. Almost all the marjals, even those with just the smallest touch like Ara, had enough shadow-work to see as well as any cat. Nona, however, had cut her shadow free and lost it years before, leaving her as night-blind as a gerant. She lay on her side, watching the black on black contours of Ara’s hip and shoulder beneath her covers. Waiting.
Nona flinched. “Ara?” she breathed.
A hand reached in and found hers under the covers. “Come on.”
Somehow Ara had slipped unseen from her bed, leaving bundled bedding to mimic her shape, and snuck up on Nona. Ara drew her from the warmth of her bed and pushed an over-habit at her.
Nona allowed herself to be led from the dormitory and down the stairs to the entrance hall. She shivered, barefooted on the cold stone floor. Outside the wind moaned across convent roofs, hunting for any heat to steal. Ara headed past the doors to Grey and Red dormitories, aiming for the exit.
“Can’t you tell me here?” Nona hissed, not wanting to brave the night in just a nightgown and cloak.
Ara shook her head. “The focus will be here soon.” She grinned.
Nona steeled herself against the cold, clenching her body in anticipation. Ara pulled open the main door, and both of them slipped out into the teeth of the wind.
Ara led the way, the night open to her sight. She took Nona behind the scriptorium where the building provided shelter. They huddled down together by a large barrel that collected runoff from the roof.
“Well?” Nona demanded.
“I’m to go back into society to catch whoever’s behind these killings.”
“All by yourself?” Nona asked, horrified.
“No, silly. Kettle and another Grey Sister will watch over us.”
“Us?” Nona felt a moment of hope. If she could go along too no harm would come to Ara.
“There’s another recruit. A boy.”
“Oh.” Of course there would be no place for a peasant girl in the grand balls of the Sis. Nona didn’t know the first thing about dancing or how to comport herself in the company of money. Her visit to Terra Namsis’s house earlier in the year had shown she didn’t even know how to eat a meal beneath such a roof. “It sounds terribly dangerous.” Nona would feel safer watching Ara throw herself at a patrol of armed guards than having her set adrift in a silk dress amid the currents of a Sis party. Against the blade you could see Ara had few equals. But with the Sis the knives were always hidden until the moment they slid between your shoulder blades. “You’re not to eat anything. Or drink anything. And try not to touch anything either.”
Ara sighed. A red glow had touched the convent rooftops though the lands below the Rock of Faith still lay in darkness. “It’s not poison I’m worried about-”
“Well you should be!”
“It’s going back to all … that.” Ara shook her head. “You know what these gatherings are all about for people of our age?”
Nona blinked. “Food?” It’s what she would be thinking about on seeing those great tables groaning beneath silver platters heaped with grapes, beneath roast boar, beneath glazed sturgeon, beneath cakes as elegant as crowns. Her mouth had already started to water. With a start she realised just how easy she would be to poison under such circumstances. “No. What are they all about?”
“It’s about getting married. All of us young Sis know we’re a heartbeat from getting sold off to some other family-”
“Sold off?” Nona had been given away but all the other children in Giljohn’s cage had been bought from their parents. She hadn’t imagined that the Sis would do that to the children born beneath their golden roofs.
“They call it the marriage price, the dowry. It’s lands, or trading rights, or alliances, or sometimes just gifts. But yes, sold off.”
The light of the moon had carved the night into black shadows. Nona could feel the promise of warmth as the focus sped toward them down the Corridor. She loosened her over-habit. “Well, Kettle won’t expect you to get married.” She frowned. “Will she?”
Ara laughed. “No. Ancestor forbid!”
“So, all the young Sis heirs go to these things desperate to find a love-match. Some marriageable prospect their family might approve and who the girl or boy actually likes. Failing that they just want to know what romance feels like before they’re forced into a negotiated wedding.”
Nona nodded. “But none of that’s going to happen to you. You’re still a Bride of the Ancestor, whatever game is played out over the next week.” She tilted her head. “So what are you worried about?”
Ara looked down. The growing moonlight had coloured her red but Nona could swear that her friend was blushing. “Kissing.”
“That’s what they do at these things!” Ara frowned furiously. “I saw it once when Father took me to the ball at Lord Amsis’s estate. I was nine so I stayed at table with Mother, but the older heirs. They danced. And later on, there was kissing.”
“Oh.” Nona frowned too. “Well … how hard can that be?” It was the idea of dancing that had daunted her, but she supposed Ara would have had tutors for that.
“Ketti says some boys are good at it.” Ara bit her lip. “So that means others are bad. I don’t want to be bad at it.”
Nona reached out. “You won’t be! But if it worries you, just don’t do it.” She didn’t like the idea of Ara kissing some boy who hardly knew her. Or dancing with them.
“Kettle says I’ll have to play my part. I have to be believed. And I’m scared, Nona. I don’t want them laughing at me.”
“Laughing?” Nona felt her flaw blades pricking from her skin. She wouldn’t have anyone mock Ara.
“Ketti says Leeni showed her how to do it.” Ara raised her blue eyes to Nona as the focus intensified.
“What?” Heat enfolded Nona, not all of it due to the moon.
“Ketti wanted to practice first and Leeni-”
“Didn’t Alata complain?” The pale, red-haired Leeni and the dark, scarred Alata had been sharing covers since Grey Class.
Ara waved the question away. All around them the Rock of Faith began to creak with the heat of the moon, puddles steaming, roof tiles clicking. With hunska swiftness Ara rose, drawing Nona with her, their bodies aligned, eyes level, inches between their mouths.
“Show me.” Ara took Nona’s hands.
“But I don’t know-”
The sweet softness of Ara’s lips sealed away Nona’s protest.
The full focus of the moon blazed around them, a heat so fierce it melted back ice walls miles high. The heat melted something in Nona too. The brightness closed her eyes. The cool fire of Ara’s tongue stole her words and she held her tight lest she fall.
Nona drew back disoriented, confused to find herself in blind darkness. “Ara?” The kiss still tingled on her lips. “Ara? Are you all right?”
“I’m soaked,” Ara breathed, right in front of her but hidden in the night.
“I…” Nona reached out to find her friend. “Me too.”
Ara shivered. Her over-habit was sodden. “It rained?”
“I think so.” Nona was just as wet. Somehow she had missed a deluge that had even soaked her small clothes. The focus was long gone. “How-?” How could so much time have passed?
“We should get back.” Ara sounded worried. “I don’t know how long we’ve been out here.”
Ara led off slowly, splashing through puddles that were deeper and more numerous than before the focus moon had come.
“Is… Is it always like that?” Nona asked as she followed.
“I hope so!” Ara’s breathless laugh was touched with nerves. “I don’t think so though!”
They reached the dorm and crept inside, shivering, eager to be out of their wet clothes and into a warm bed.
Nobody challenged them and Nona soon lay beneath her covers, her only nightdress hung out to dry beside her, her mind whirling, sure that sleep had no chance of finding her before the dawn bell.
Nona woke with a start to find Ruli shaking her.
“You slept through Bray!”
Nona sat up yawning and had to snatch back the covers to hide her nakedness. All the other novices were half dressed, save for Ara who was still in her nightdress, sitting on the edge of her bed rubbing at her eyes, her golden hair in disarray.
“Breakfast!” Ruli called. As if that were all the motivation to hurry that anyone would ever need.
Nona struggled into her layers and left the room last, hot on Ara’s heels. They reached the refectory to find Kettle waiting outside. She gestured toward Heart Hall with a nod of her head. Ara veered away and, despite the aroma of eggs, bacon, and fresh bread reaching out to claim her, Nona followed.
“Not you.” Kettle caught Nona’s belt rope from behind.
“Is that…” Nona squinted into the shadows beneath Heart Hall’s pillared portico. A tall man stood with his back to the wall, a lean, dark figure. “Regol?”
“The other recruit.” Kettle nodded as Nona turned. “The Sis invite him to all manner of gatherings. Not part of their number but part of the show.” She pointed Nona at the refectory door. “In you go!”
“But I want to help!”
“Ara doesn’t need your help, Nona. She’s a big girl now.” Kettle’s voice became a little more sympathetic. “And where she’s going the likes of you and I can’t follow.”
The rest of Nona’s day passed in a haze. In Academia Class the equations slid over her without leaving a trace. In Sister Pan’s class Nona found the Path for the first time in weeks, took too many steps, and released the power in a blast that shook the tower and left the silver sigils that covered the walls of The Second Room glowing for hours after she left. In Blade Class Sister Tallow reprimanded Nona for her lack of concentration. She set four fellow students against her at once and Nona left all of them groaning on the sand, her mind still circling between the previous night’s kiss and wherever Ara might be now.
In the changing room Nona found her way to her habit blocked by Jula who stood squarely in her path, rubbing her jaw and scowling.
“Jula?” Nona blinked.
“That really hurt!” Jula tried to wiggle her teeth. “What in the hells is up with you, Nona? And where’s Ara got to?”
Nona glanced at Ruli, astonished. Ruli could usually be relied on to keep a secret from Jula for about as long as it took to sprint across the novice cloister. “Scriptorium library, five minutes.”
Jula stood aside and nodded, still moving her jaw experimentally.
Nona came to the scriptorium via the abbess’s house where she had peeked in every window, looking for any signs that Ara might still be at the convent. Neither she nor Kettle had shown themselves all day.
Sister Scar kept her customary seat in the scriptorium’s front table, bent over her table with an illustration brush in hand. She looked up briefly, the scar, which had come after she took her name, twisting her mouth into a snarl, the lantern light reflecting in her blind eye, making something demonic of the milky orb.
Jula and Ruli were already waiting. Jula brushing the dust off some heavy tome, and Ruli spinning a throwing star across her knuckles, a throwing star she would be beaten for filching from the Blade stores if she were found out.
“So,” said Jula, setting down her book with a thud, “what’s up with you today? Did you and Ara fight? And where is she?” Her eyes widened. “Not the sanatorium?”
“What? No!” Nona shook her head. “We didn’t fight.” She remembered the kiss and felt her cheeks colouring. “I don’t know where she is.”
“Trying on dresses, I expect.” Ruli nodded sagely. “They’ll be turning her back into a princess.”
Jula blinked. “You said you didn’t know anything!”
Ruli folded her arms. “I said … oh, actually you’re right. I lied. But Nona was about to tell you anyway.”
“Kettle took her to investigate these Sis murders. The five heirs. She’s being used like a rat to test poisons. They’re putting her and Regol out there to see who takes a shot at them.”
“Regol?” Ruli made a kiss mouth. “I hear he’s dreamy.”
Jula shook her head disapprovingly. “Ketti says that about any male who still has their teeth.”
“So, what are we going to do about it?” Nona asked.
“Do?” Ruli frowned. “Sister Kettle’s on the case. And Sister Apple! They call her The Poisoner for a reason you know! She lives for this kind of thing.”
Nona scowled. “I’m not sitting back and just waiting to see if Ara survives. We need a plan.”
Jula looked thoughtful. She went to the wall of books opposite the door and reached up on tiptoes to touch the base of what might be the fattest book in the whole collection. “Get it down for me, Nona.”
Nona heaved the heavy book down, surprised to find how much taller than Jula she’d become over the last year or two. It weighed more than some of the new recruits to Red Class. Useful as a shield or bludgeon if nothing else… “What is it?”
“Well.” Jula opened the front cover. “The Tree of the Ancestor grows from the taproot up through all those branches to the tiny green leaves that are us, dancing in time’s wind. And you could never find enough books to record it all. But these are the golden branches. Just for our empire, just for the past five or six hundred years. All the Sis. Who begat who, within wedlock and without. Every five years Sister Scar unbinds the whole thing and adds in new pages here and there to include recent births.” She turned over about a quarter of the pages together, then a dozen more, then another. “And … here … is the Abonsis branch. I know Jella Abonsis was poisoned. And … an Oversis boy?”
“Reegan Oversis.” Ruli nodded. “The Oversis own port-rights in Densea. My father has to pay them taxes.”
Nona peered over Jula’s shoulder at the meticulously labelled diagrams of weddings leading to offspring who then married and spawned more Sis of their own, until the generations drifted too far from the central lineage and were cast off into the oblivion of the unrecorded. “It’s the murdered we’re interested in. Why do we care who their grandfathers married?”
“Ah,” said Jula, putting on the same face Sister Rule wore when lecturing a novice. “While it is possible that someone has a devil in their head and is killing these young women – and one young man – for the joy of doing so. It is more likely that they are doing it for some kind of gain. And with the Sis everything is political. You have to look at the impact of each death. Who gains and who loses. Which house is at war with which other.” She patted the book. “If there’s a pattern behind these killings then the key is in here.”
“I should have known as soon as you said to meet in the library.” Ruli sighed, and slumped as if the air had been let out of her. “Couldn’t we solve the case by spying? Climbing up to high windows? Taking hostages? Beating out confessions?”
Jula eyed Ruli sternly then turned her narrow look on Nona. “Slates out. You girls are taking notes while I research.”
Jula worked relentlessly through the vast book, turning page after page, some cracking and yellowed with age, others far more recently added. Ruli turned out to know a ridiculous amount about the ins and outs of the Sis family feuds, who was out to get who, which lord slighted which other recently, whose commercial interests were butting up against who else’s. Nona found herself astonished, and deeply bored, by the breadth of her knowledge. Ruli attributed most of her information to a universal ‘they’ and under normal circumstances Nona would assume the girl was making most of it up on the spot, but with Ara at risk it seemed that Ruli must genuinely have gathered all this stuff as a side effect of her addiction to gossip.
Nona, with little to add to the process, dutifully scratched down what she was told to, fetching fresh slates to cover with webs of relationships. Sis this, Sis that. Her eyes blurred. Her mind wandered despite her determination to focus…
Focus… The focus moon. A rustling sound filled Nona’s ears. Her lips remembered that kiss. Her first kiss ever. And, with a sudden sense of vertigo, she found herself wrapped in whispering silk, a vivid fire-orange swirl following her round as she turned and turned again, seeking something to hold onto in a spinning world.
“Are you alright, mistress?” An older woman in plain blacks and browns took both Nona’s hands.
“I… I had a strange turn.” There seemed to be something wrong with Nona’s voice. It didn’t sound like hers, and the words it spoke were not ones she had given it. “Came over all dizzy.”
“Take a seat, mistress.” The woman sounded concerned. “I’ll loosen that corset.”
Nona sat. “No… No leave it. I’ll just have to get used to the damn thing.”
The woman, dark haired and in her forties, nodded and stepped back. “Well, you look lovely.” She waved and two young girls came into view carrying a tall mirror between them. “See?”
Nona stood. She didn’t recognise the woman in the mirror - tall, sculpted, achingly beautiful, her face painted to accentuate the redness of her lips and the brightness of her eyes. Silver and gems hung about her neck. Jewelled combs tamed her hair into a river of gold.
Ara? Nona’s voice made no sound. How could this be Ara? The dress had somehow turned the hard athleticism of her body into something altogether different. Something that belonged in the world of the Sis, a beauty that should exist on marble floors, beneath crystal chandeliers.
“We should try the green again, with pearls and your hair up.” The dressmaker clapped her hands and more assistants emerged from behind black curtains.
Ara slumped and turned from the mirror, resigned to her fate.
At the back of Ara’s head Nona finally understood. She had experienced this before. Half a year ago Nona had become thread-bound to Sister Kettle during a hasty attempt by Kettle to forge a shadow-link between them. In the initial stages, their connection had been like this, with Nona summoned without conscious decision, becoming an unsensed ghost in Kettle’s mind, just as she was here with Ara.
The kiss. It had been the kiss. That’s why they had both stood so long, lost in each other, unaware of the rain that came and went.
Nona didn’t want to spy on her friend but if she were to help she had to know what was going on. In any case, Nona wasn’t entirely clear how to get back to her own body. She wondered if she were slumped over her slate, snoring. Even now Jula and Ruli could be panicking, dragging her off to Sister Rose at the sanatorium.
Nona sat at the back of Ara’s mind, trying and failing to get the girl’s attention while Ara in turn slid in and out of dresses, each brighter and more complicated than the one before. Nona admired them in the way that she admired flowers. She saw the appeal but found true beauty to be simpler and stronger. She found her heart stirred more by a wide sky than the delicate artistry of an anemone, she found Ara more appealing in the strict functionality of a blade habit than in a work of crinoline and lace worth more than the village Nona was raised in.
“Who could resist you now?” The seamstress stood back with her assistants to admire the latest dress.
Ara shrugged. The garment hung from her in torrents of blue silk and cloth of silver. “It’s good. I’ll take it.”
“No. This one.” Clearly Ara’s patience with the process had come to an end. She headed toward a curtained exit with the seamstress following behind, still babbling about accessories and a possible clash with the Grensis sisters who also favoured blues.
Ara came out into a waiting area lined with plush chairs. Sprawled in one, dressed in a merchant’s finery, Regol was waiting. Kettle sat beside him, alert and ready, in the depths of a clarity trance.
Regol stood smoothly, shedding his ennui like a cloak. “Magnificent! Is this the same girl you went in with, Madam Haute? Surely you swapped the novice with a passing heiress?” He met Ara’s eyes – Nona’s too – and Nona knew what it would be like to meet his gaze without eyes full of midnight. She felt Ara’s heartbeat accelerate and knew that her own must be too. Regol carried a strange kind of magnetism with him, perhaps a touch of marjal empathy. Whatever it was, it made Nona remember how she had watched him in the Caltess, back when he seemed so much older than her, unattainable, the benevolent god of the attic.
“So, Arabella.” Regol offered her his arm. “Are you ready for tonight?”
“No.” Ara shook her head emphatically but took his arm even so. “I’d rather go toe to toe with a Noi-Guin.”
“Nonsense.” Regol grinned and led the way to the door while Sister Kettle passed a good many silver coins to the seamstress. “The Sis won’t know what’s hit them. If you haven’t broken three hearts by midnight I’ll eat a hoola.”
“Three might be ambitious.” Ara released a laugh that Nona had never heard from her before, something silver and tinkling.
Regol inclined his dark head and touched his chest. “You’ll have a head start of one if you dance with any other.”
Nona lifted her own head from the table. “What?”
“Oh, you’re back with us,” Jula said. “Nice of you to re-join the conversation!”
Ruli grinned across at her. “You went out like a light. Couldn’t wake you. And it seemed mean to try too hard. Rough night?”
Nona tried to shake off her disorientation. “It was … complicated.”
Jula and Ruli exchanged a glance.
Nona opened her mouth to speak. The thread-bond felt private. Something she didn’t want to share. Not even with her closest friends. But Ara was heading into danger, so Nona spoke.
“Ara and I are thread-bound. I wasn’t sleeping just now. I was with her. In Verity, I think. Trying on dresses. So if we find anything useful I might be able to let her know.”
“Oh,” said Jula.
“Oh.” Ruli echoed her.
“Let’s get to work then!” Nona sat up straight and readied her chalk.
“There’s no pattern!” Ruli angrily brushed aside half a dozen crowded slates. “None!”
“There’s a pattern.” Jula’s voice was tired, her expression grim and strained. She repositioned the lantern and glanced toward the shuttered window. If they were found to have sneaked back to the library after lights out there would be trouble. “We’ve only been at this a few hours.”
“A few lifetimes, more like.” Ruli slumped dramatically across the table.
Nona picked up some of the discarded slates. She shared her friends’ frustration. If anything her own tolerance for bookwork was even lower than Ruli’s, but Ara’s life could depend on whatever mystery lay hidden in the webs of names and families.
“There are half patterns and quarter patterns,” Jula said. “For example, none of the dead are people that the Tacsis really mind dying.”
“True,” Ruli nodded. “But they don’t gain a lot from it either. They have disputes with the Abonsis … but it’s not a blood-feud or anything.”
“The Tacsis don’t have to be behind every bad thing,” Nona said. Just because Lano Tacsis wanted her dead, and in the worst way, it didn’t put him in the frame for killing Sis lordlings in Verity.
“We just need to be methodical.” Jula turned back to the Oversis chapter. “The boy was killed first. Maybe there’s a clue in the order.”
“Or maybe we should forget about why and ask how?” Ruli raised her head from the table. “Only I’ve no ideas there either.” She let her forehead thump back down.
“Maybe there’s no pattern to find,” Nona said.
“There is a pattern.” Jula enunciated the words through gritted teeth.
“You think it’s some crazy just taking advantage of whatever opportunity presents itself?” Ruli asked.
“Poison seems too calculated for a crazed killer.” Nona shook her head. “But what if the murderer was only interested in one of these five dying? What if the other four were just to hide their motives?”
“Great, so now we need to look at possible individual motivations for any one of our five kills?” Jula threw up her hands.
“We need more information,” Ruli said.
“Nona, can you do that thing again? See what Ara is up to with your super magic quantal spy trick.”
Nona scowled. “It’s a thread-bond and it’s not properly established yet. Probably because it kind of happened by accident.”
Ruli arched a brow. “You two just bumped into each other too hard heading different ways on the stairs? And bam! You can see into her mind?”
Nona looked down, pretending to study the slate she had just picked up. “Something like that.”
Ruli reached over, took the slate from Nona’s hands, turned it the correct way up and returned it to her. “Uh huh.”
“I’ll try. Maybe I’ll see something that will give us a clue.” Nona sat back from table and raised her hands to her head. “In the meantime perhaps instead of looking for a pattern you should look for the odd one out. The murder that is trying to hide among the others.”
Ruli tapped the slate titled ‘Reegan Oversis’. “He’s a boy…”
“Perhaps not that obvious.” Nona trailed off. Her efforts to make contact had started to bear fruit. Flashes of a different place seen through different eyes played through her vision, and her body began to feel distant, as if she no longer commanded it.
Suddenly Nona was dancing. Music filled her ears. Not the choral plainsong of the convent but deep, thick music, a heartbreak of strings, high voiced flutes, an avalanche of sound that stole her breath. Nona had never heard anything like it. And the dancing. She had never danced but Ara stepped with confident grace, her dress of silver and moon-dark sky swirling about her, lagging the twists and turns of her body by a heartbeat. She moved with the music, a formal set of steps, as organised as the weapons katas that Sister Tallow drilled them in. Somehow Ara added something extra though, a passion to equal that of the score.
She had a partner, a blond-haired lordling in a dark velvet jacket, thickset, with gentle hazel eyes that offset the bluntness of his features. From time to time as they parted and re-joined, bowed and twirled, circled and met, Ara’s eyes would flit across to Regol, another element in a larger formation, partnered with a slim dark-eyed girl. The black on brown scars across the girl’s shoulders and back had a pattern to them that put Nona in mind of Alata’s scars - just another reminder of lands lost beneath the ice as humanity squeezed ever-closer together within the narrowing confines of the Corridor.
Ara danced and Nona danced inside her, joining in with her friend’s awareness of alien sensations. Everything was the same but different. The awkwardness of shoes with heels. The swish and touch of silk. The constriction of the corset reshaping her body. All of it trying to change her, to tame Ara’s fierceness into something more delicate, more pleasing to the eyes around her.
The music died and Ara bowed to her partner. “My thanks, Chalm.”
“I could accompany you to the-”
“Ara! You promised I could introduce you to Lord Pemdersis.” Regol inserted himself smoothly between Ara and Chalm.
The boy’s face tightened in annoyance. Regol was definitely his social inferior by a very considerable margin, but it seemed that his celebrity combined with the weight of a lord’s name was enough to avoid confrontation.
Regol shepherded Ara away from the dance floor and into one of the many open alcoves where older members of the Sis stood in conversation overseeing the activities of the younger generation. Nona took in the view offered by Ara’s glances. Nona might be in a convent library, but she was at the same time attending the first party of her life, and something far grander than a dozen novices in a dorm swigging illicit brandy.
Ara found them some space and Regol leaned in, speaking in a low voice. “Well, you’re certainly the centre of attention. Every eligible bachelor in Verity is looking your way. But sadly all that healthy interest is disguising any unhealthy interest that might be out there. Have you seen anything suspicious?”
Ara laughed. “Everything the Sis do is suspicious. They can’t choose which shoes to wear without intrigue.”
Nona continued watching through Ara’s eyes, looking for signs of danger. She noted that, despite the grandeur of the mansion, no food was on offer, not even drinks. From time to time some of the guests would sip cautiously from jewelled flasks, taken from inner pockets and quickly returned. Nona knew that the richest of these would be sigil marked to neutralise poisons. Such sigils would not counter every toxin but it meant that even if an assassin somehow tainted the contents the chances were small that the owner would die from drinking them.
How then had five young Sis been poisoned? However hard it was to do it at such a gathering it would be considerably easier than within the security of their own homes. But where were the assassins? Nona doubted any of the Sis had the skills required. Though it was true that Lano Tacsis, who had sworn to kill her, had trained with the Noi-Guin and learned many of their arts.
A woman came into view, passing the alcove, another exquisite example of Sis grace, slim and poised, her dress a flow of black and silver, black hair piled atop her head and tamed with silver combs.
“Clera?” Ara breathed the name. Nona knew she must be mistaken, but the woman’s head turned, and there beneath the painted fascination of her face it was Clera Ghomal looking back at them.
Clera didn’t so much as break her stride, but she made the smallest shake of her head, staring furiously in that moment of contact, and the fingers of her left hand made a quick shooing motion.
“That’s Clera.” Ara turned to Regol. “Sherzal’s creature.”
“Where?” Regol asked.
Ara turned back to point but Clera had already gone. “She’s the one! The murderer! She trained at Sweet Mercy with the Poisoner, and since then with the Noi-Guin. It’s her who’s doing this!”
Nona tried to deny it. She tried to make Ara hear her.
“See him?” Regol steered Ara with gentle hands. “In the velvets?”
A young man had just entered the alcove amid a small collection of women. Much about him reminded Nona of Regol. The same lean, dark look, eyes that could be both bitter and sweet. Enough of the predator in him to run a warning thrill though her. But on top of that a kind of beauty. And this boy had whatever Regol had but elevated to new heights. His was a softer type of beauty, though still with hard angles in it. Clearly the magnetism was even more powerful at close range as the women following him seemed helplessly drawn along in his wake.
“Yes, I see him.” Ara kept her voice cool, though Nona thought that in her place she would be a mass of nerves, palms sweaty, heart thumping. “I still think we should be going after Clera though.” She watched the young man a while longer. “Who is he?”
“Jordo Sithsis,” Regol said. “Newly brought to the Verity circuit from his father’s holdings far to the east. Lano Tacsis’s protégé.”
“He seems to be coming our way,” Ara said.
“Of course. I told you that everyone has noticed your arrival. Jordo was always going to catch your scent. Quite the ladies’ man, our Jordo. A new conquest every night.”
Ara met the young man’s gaze as he approached, his eyes a startling green. Something in that look made her tremble. Nona was confused. Ara couldn’t be scared of a boy, surely? The tremble turned into shaking. The shaking into a quake. To Nona it seemed that the roof should be falling, but none of the guests looked even slightly worried…
“Nona! Nona! Wake up!” Someone was shaking her.
Nona raised her head. The left side of her face felt numb. “W- What?”
“You’ve been out for ages. We were worried.”
The room was so dark that Nona could barely see the figures before her. “Jula?”
“Of course!” Jula snorted. “Did you link to Ara? How’s she doing?”
“We got you back because someone just tried the main door,” Ruli hissed. “I think it was Sister Wheel on one of her patrols.”
“Tell me about the Sithsis.” Nona waved away news of Sister Wheel. She would endure whatever punishments came with being caught in the library. Right now Ara was in danger and that was what mattered. “Ara is about to dance with Jordo Sithsis. The heir, I think. He’s new and he’s had contact with a lot of the Sis heiresses.”
“Well, so would a lot of other young lordlings…” Jula sounded puzzled.
“You haven’t seen him,” Nona said. “The women are drawn to him. Like flies to…”
“To a very attractive fly?” Ruli suggested.
“Very.” Nona blushed. “Clera is there too. Or was-”
“Clera!” Ruli sat up straight. “She’s the one! That treacherous-”
Nona shook her head. “I don’t think so. I think she was warning Ara away. Telling her to get out of there.”
“You’re just blind where Clera is concerned,” Ruli said. “You always have been. She sold you down the river. Sold all of us.”
“Just look up this Sithsis boy, will you?” Nona knew Ruli had a point but Clera had helped her too, and she wasn’t a murderer, whatever they said.
Jula hesitated then took the lantern and turned up the wick. “Shield the light from the window, Ruli.” She turned hastily through the pages. “Sithsis… Sithsis… I checked them briefly but they’re not a Verity family. Not even close.”
“Lano Tacsis is hosting him in town.” Nona curled her lip. There was no one in all of empire who wanted her dead more than Lano Tacsis did, but she couldn’t see how any of this could be aimed at her, a former peasant girl now living in a convent.
“Well, if the Sithsis interests align with those of the Tacsis then he had fairly good reason to want Jella Abonsis dead. But nothing major against any of the other victims.”
“Well there’s your answer then,” Nona said. “I need to go back.”
“Wait!” Jula took her arm. “It’s not a very compelling case. If you wrote down all the houses who have bad blood with the houses of at least one of those poisoned … well … it would be a long list.”
“Keep looking then!” Nona drew in a deep, slow breath. “I need to go back and see if I can communicate with her.” She reached out along the thread-bond and slowly the scriptorium’s small, dimly lit library faded away, to be replaced by the dazzle and colour of a great ballroom whose owner Nona had not yet established.
Ara was in the arms of Jordo Sithsis. A moment later she spun away, to the limit of their outstretch hands. He drew her back. Face to face the power of his beauty seemed even to overwhelm the music. Nona knew a moment’s jealousy as the two dancers’ bodies pressed briefly together. For a heartbeat she wanted to be something else, somebody else, not the uncultured peasant girl with the wholly black eyes, not the novice who didn’t even cast a shadow, but someone who would fit among the brightness, and the wealth, and join in the conversation of the Sis, someone who could say something witty, make others laugh with her. She wanted to be the one pressed against that lean body. She wanted to be wanted.
The music trickled away and the dancers paused then bowed to one another. Ara’s eyes scanned the room. Somewhere Sister Kettle would be watching. Somewhere high most likely. Perhaps on the far side of the tall windows above the musicians’ gallery. Sister Pot might be somewhere in the crowd too. A chaperone commissioned to ensure young love stayed within certain limits. Holy Sisters were not infrequently called on for such service. Other Greys might be at work, though without the abbess’s formal permission there would be a limit to the resources that could be brought to bear on the problem.
Nona, still settling into the thread-bond, became aware that Jordo had yet to release Ara’s hand and was, instead, leaning in closer, murmuring something in a surprisingly deep voice. Ara, rather than excusing herself, seemed pinned, held by more than the pressure of his hand on hers. Nona felt the quickening of Ara’s breath as though it were her own.
“…a rose returned to the gardens of the Sis…” Pretty words rumbled from Jordo’s lips but it wasn’t what he was saying that had taken hold of Ara. Nona knew marjal empathy was at work here. She could manage some small measure of it herself but Jordo’s skill outstripped hers, bordering on the compulsion that her friend Zole had exerted on people from time to time.
The boy leaned in as if to kiss Ara. Suddenly the bond between Nona and Ara tightened, drawing Nona deeper into Ara’s flesh, though still unable to get the girl’s attention. Commanded by emotions she didn’t fully understand Nona tried to twist Ara away from the descending lips. Nona managed to wrest control from Ara in her moment of surprise but lacked the fine control necessary for the elegant pirouette away that she had intended. Instead, Ara’s head jerked forward butting Jordo violently in the face.
Both of them staggered back, Ara gabbling shocked apologies, Jordo clutching his mouth and nose.
“I’m so sorry-” Ara half-reached for the youth. “I don’t-”
In an instant Regol was at her side, guiding her from the dance. “Watch yourself, Sithsis!” His tone was light but it carried an undercurrent of menace. “This fruit is not for plucking.” He steered Ara by her elbow toward the nearest alcove. “Did he attack you?”
“No, he…” Ara shook her head, confused. “He just…”
“What were you thinking?” Regol asked.
They came to a halt beside a large stone urn overflowing with flowers of kinds that Nona had never seen grow in forest or field. A small group of older Sis eyed them with disdain from the other side of the alcove.
Regol shook his head. “A stunt like that could set them all against you. You won’t get much investigating done if nobody will dance with you. And if your last partner has a broken nose or missing teeth…”
“I … I think I was controlled.” Ara frowned. She stared at her hands rather than meet the disapproval of the Sis. On the edge of her wrist, just a hairsbreadth from being lost beneath the slit sleeve of her dress, lay a small blue spot. Nona noticed it before Ara did and she tried to call her friend’s attention of it. A stray sequin? A small and lustrous bead come astray from another’s dress in the dancing?
Ara seemed to hear Nona. She froze, then lifted her wrist toward her face. Not a sequin or a bead but a drop of some vivid blue liquid. Not the blue of any sky, the shade reminded Nona of a feather Sister Rule had once shown her. The birds that had owned such feathers no longer flew across Abeth. They had lived warm lives in deep forest, and when the sun waned the ice had swallowed their homes. An iridescent blue, a sad, impossible blue, but here it was even so.
“What is it?” Regol asked, noticing too.
“I don’t know.” Ara sniffed at it.
Nona knew. Though the name she needed lagged behind her understanding, and when at last she spoke the word it fell from Ara’s tongue. “Coural.”
“What?” Regol looked puzzled.
“Coural fish poison.” Ara spoke slowly, her mind on other things.
How are you-
We’re thread-bound. Nona tried to sound apologetic.
We are? How?
I… When we…
“Kissed,” said Ara.
“What?” Regol blinked. “What are you talking about?”
“This.” Ara raised her wrist but kept her voice low. “This is a very rare and very powerful ingestive poison.”
Regol whipped an embroidered handkerchief from his top pocket. Ara caught his arm. “Ingestive means I would have to consume the stuff for it to kill me.”
Regol replaced his handkerchief. “What in all the hells is it doing on your wrist?”
Ara shook her head slowly. “I don’t know.”
It was Jordo. Nona spoke in Ara’s head.
It was. It has to be. Somehow. When I head-butted him.
That was you?
Uh … yes. Nona shrank back from the inevitable “why?” Wait! She had the corner of the answer and hauled on it, trying to bring the whole thing into view. Wait! He was trying to kiss it into you!
Kiss it? So you saved me?
I … uh. I guess so.
But that’s crazy. Ara shook her head. Regol was looking at her, expecting her to say something. That’s crazy. If he had it in his mouth he’d be poisoned too. There’s no antidote to coural … is there?
No. But … maybe … he has some sort of pouch on the roof of his mouth?
He’d need a spout, some kind of tube, Ara replied. But how…
Did he have a gap between his front teeth?
“No,” Ara snorted.
“Ara?” Regol took her arm. “Are you unwell? None of that stuff got in your mouth did it?”
So, a pouch, a tube, and a wax-mouth treatment to stop any leakage being absorbed, Nona said.
“That bastard.” Ara shook free of Regol’s grip. “Jordo Sithsis is the killer. He’s been kissing it into his victims.”
“You’re sure?” Regol looked out across the ballroom looking for the man in question.
“Pretty sure,” Ara said.
“So we should tell that Sister Kettle of yours and get paid,” Regol said. “Well. I can get paid at least. You can get … whatever nuns get.”
“Those too.” Regol smiled that crooked smile of his. “And remember to remember me to Novice Nona.”
“You should tell her yourself,” Ara said primly. “You’ve been talking about her all day.”
Regol frowned. “I mentioned her a couple of times.”
Ara rolled her eyes. “Just tell her how you feel. She might surprise you. Or just put her from your thoughts and let her be a nun.”
How does he feel? Nona asked, amazed.
You’re as bad as he is, Ara replied. Worse even! You don’t know what you want. At least Regol does. He’s just too scared to ask for it. I thought cage fighters were supposed to be brave… He has you up on some kind of pedestal. Maybe it’s the habit.
Nona couldn’t hide her shock. If it had been anyone but Ara saying it she would think it a lie and that they were mocking her.
“So, let’s tell Sister Kettle,” Regol said again.
“We will,” Ara agreed. “But right now we have an angry killer with a mouthful of poison. He’ll use it one someone else before he leaves and I very much doubt that Kettle can do anything to stop him.”
Regol pursed his lips. “I don’t know about that. She seems a very formidable woman…”
“She can get him once he’s outside, sure.” Ara nodded. “But while we’re in here it’s down to me. I have the perfect disguise. I’m one of them.” She raised her arms and looked down at her dress.
“So … what? You’re going to stab him on the dancefloor? I mean, I’ve no objections, but I can think of quite a few lords who will be calling for your blood moments later.”
“I may not have to…” Ara nodded toward the main hall. “He’s coming this way.”
Jordo Sithsis came alone, arms wide, a smile spreading, apparently unharmed by the head-butt. “Are you recovered, Arabella? Are you well? You gave me a fright!” He touched his chin. “And quite a blow.”
“My apologies.” Arabella made a half curtsy. “I had a sudden pain. Perhaps the Trixit is too energetic a dance for one so freshly returned to society.”
Jordo’s smile broadened. Nona felt the boy’s magnetism reaching out like a physical thing, overwhelming common-sense. “Then I will return when the music slows and request the pleasure of your company at a more relaxed tempo.” He offered a short bow and retreated into the sparkling crowd without a word to Regol.
“You’re going to let a murderer wrap his arms around you?” Regol’s outrage built as instead of replying Ara turned and walked away. “Wait up! Where are you going?”
Ara wove a path through lords and lordlings, nodding to this great lady, that great man, exchanging smiles with younger Sis who had once been her infant playmates. Regol stalked after her, fuming silently. She took an archway, a corridor, and moments later they were shivering on a balcony with a view across Verity, a darkness broken by countless points of firelight.
She turned in a swirl of silks to confront Regol. “I’m going to do more than dance with him. I’m going to let him kiss me.”
“That’s insanity! You can’t-”
A dark shape rose beside them, shedding shadows. “Explain yourself, novice.” The customary twinkle had gone from Sister Kettle’s eyes, this was Grey Kettle, all business, all killer.
“Jordo Sithsis is our murderer. He was going to make me his next victim. He has a sac of coural poison in his mouth and kisses it into his targets.”
“We can apprehend him outside, after the ball concludes,” Kettle said.
“But he still has the poison. He’ll just kill someone else with it,” Ara said.
“We can’t act now. Too many lords in the room. And Lord Wensis has the place well guarded.” Kettle glanced at the dome curving away above them. “There are others watching too. I can sense them… Others who are far more dangerous than any Wensis guard.”
“I can turn his own method against him,” Ara said. “If I use wax-mouth too and bond a short needle to my tongue I can pierce the sac. Then all I have to do is make him swallow.”
Kettle shook her head. “Too dangerous.”
“I’m ready.” Ara bunched her fists. “We can’t just let another innocent die. We’re the good ones.”
Kettle’s dark eyes widened at that, and for a moment a ghost of her smile stole across her face. “It’s never that simple, Ara.”
“It is.” Ara met her gaze unwaveringly.
Kettle sighed. “I don’t think you understand how difficult what you’re proposing is. It would require considerable … oral dexterity.”
Ara looked down, her jaw set. “I can do it.”
Kettle sighed again and glanced at Regol who had been standing silently at Ara’s shoulder. “It would require some practice.”
Kettle unrolled two packs from the broad and many pocketed belt beneath her outer habit. Grey Sisters carried a wide variety of equipment into the field. The first pack held many needles, thread, and a tiny tub of flesh-bond. The second held a collection of miniature pots containing various barrier creams, ointments, and waxes, all designed to keep poisons from the skin. The wax-mouth pot contained several doses of a liquid that could be swirled around the mouth and leave the insides coated with a waxy residue that would prevent, or at least reduce, absorption of toxins in the mouth.
“Stick your tongue out, novice.” Kettle leaned in with a small wooden spatula smeared with flesh-bond. She also held the last quarter of a needle that she had cut short using the Ark-steel knife that she had been presented with when she took the Grey.
Ara stuck out her tongue.
“When this is glued in place it’s not going to come off easily. It will be difficult both to find and puncture the poison sac and to avoid scratching Jordo, thereby alerting him to what is happening.”
“We should practice without it first then,” Regol said. “Otherwise I’m going to have a mouth full of blood and ribbons for a tongue before she gets the hang of it.”
Kettle pursed her lips. “Agreed. But hurry. We don’t have all night.”
I should go, Nona said inside Ara’s head as her friend turned to face the tall cage-fighter.
Don’t you dare leave me alone with him!
But … it’s not right. We’re tricking him, Nona said.
Nonsense. It’s you he wants to kiss.
Nona snorted. Faced with the golden Arabella Jotsis, wrapped tight in flowing silks, no boy on Abeth would be wishing for the scruffy night-eyed novice back in the convent.
“Like this?” Ara reached out for Regol.
Regol stepped sharply back. “He will expect to make the first move. In his mind he is overwhelming your defences.”
Ara tilted her head. “Well, make it then.”
Regol frowned, seemingly uneasy when not in charge. “I … uh.”
Ara rolled her eyes. With her consciousness seated behind those eyes Nona felt far less assured. She still couldn’t think that Regol had been interested in talking about her when he had Ara on his arm. It was probably a conversational gambit. A way of getting Ara’s guard down by talking about someone they both knew. That sounded much more likely.
Suddenly Regol was far closer than he should be, leaning in swiftly, one arm reaching across Ara’s back behind her shoulders, supporting her as he leaned forward. His face drew closer still, Nona could smell him now, something of the Caltess still recognisable beneath the lavender water that many of the Sis lordlings wore, something closer to village hut than to palace hall, but more honest.
Regol met Ara’s eyes. Ara frowned and made to kiss him but he shook his head. “Jordo will do this.”
So Ara met his gaze, and although it was her blue eyes locked to the dark intensity of Regol’s it felt to Nona as if it was her that he saw. Regol’s eyes widened in momentary confusion, then with Ara’s hand at his neck, drawing him down, he kissed her.
Ara drew back quickly and wiped her lips. “All done.”
Regol seemed disconcerted. “Do I really talk about Nona that much-”
“No, no, and no.” Kettle came between them, shaking her head. “You can’t just flicker your tongue like a pit viper with hunska blood. In then out and finished. He’ll know in an instant what you’re up to.”
“Why will that matter?” Ara asked, running her tongue over her teeth. She seemed to have enjoyed kissing Regol far less than Nona had.
“Well, he’ll just spit the poison out for starters,” Regol said.
Sister Kettle nodded. “Do it again, novice, and play the role. Let Jordo think he has killed you.” She stepped back and waved them together.
Ara shrugged then returned her arms to Regol’s sides. “No quick in and out. Let him think he’s finished me off. Got it.” She pursed her lips. “Ready.”
Regol shook his head, trying not to smile. “Nuns…” He bent in and brushed her lips softly with his before deepening the kiss.
Ara leaned into it, open mouthed, giving herself over to the process. Nona found herself remembering the kiss that had thread-bound them, a kiss that had all but been stolen from her memory by the magics unleashed. She found herself a trespasser, guilty of the worst intrusion, but Ara wouldn’t let her go. Worse still, caught between the two parties, she wasn’t sure which side of the equation she wanted to be on.
The kiss continued. Nona found herself more involved with the actual act than either Ara or Regol who both seemed to be viewing it as necessary but not particularly welcome work. The lack of chemistry between the pair both pleased and surprised her. Ara seemed particularly uncomfortable, but she kept at it a little longer before finding her target and then pulling slowly away.
“Better?” Ara asked.
“Better.” Regol nodded. “But best if you don’t wipe your mouth immediately after each time. Try to pretend you enjoyed it.”
“Sorry!” Ara lowered her hand quickly.
Regol grinned and shook his head. “Don’t look so mortified. I know I’m not everybody's type.”
Ara grinned back. “Let’s try it again. With a needle.”
It took three more tries before Ara was happy that she could both kiss convincingly and pierce the poison sac. Regol seemed to enjoy it more each time, and Nona did too, which left her conflicted and confused.
Kettle felt sure that Jordo must have the poison sac secured to the roof of his mouth. “Anywhere else would potentially show and also be vulnerable to knocks and bumps.”
“And head butts,” Regol muttered.
“The important thing,” stressed Kettle, “is not to swallow. Do not swallow! But let him suspect nothing. You will need to wash your mouth out as soon as feasible. He will try not to swallow either and will want to wash his mouth too. But if he thinks all the poison has been squirted into you through the spout then he will be less guarded and a lethal dose may still leak down his throat.”
Ara nodded, serious and focused. Nona could tell she was scared. But however scared Ara was, Nona was ten times as frightened for her friend.
Nona risked a return to her body and the dimness of the scriptorium library. She raised her head from the desk to find Jula and Ruli studying mounds of slates.
“Anything yet?” she asked, a little unsteady in her speech, her own body seeming strange to her after just hours sharing Ara’s.
“Nothing.” Jula put down her slate with nearly enough force to break it in half. “I think we’re missing something important here. That, or these five people really were killed on senseless whims. Or Jordo Sithsis is not the killer-”
“He is,” said Nona with conviction.
“Well, even if he isn’t then we have nothing. There are no links between the five dead that could not easily be the products of a random selection.”
Ruli had been staring silently at her slate since Nona raised her head. Now she looked up, puzzled. “What if the killings are random but not senseless?”
“How would murdering whoever crosses your path not be senseless?” Jula snapped.
Ruli shrugged and set her slate down. “Maybe the murderer just wanted an investigation.”
“Why would anyone want that?” Jula’s irritation faded.
“To get Grey Sisters to wherever it is that Kettle and Ara are,” Ruli said.
The idea that Kettle and the other Grey could be the intended targets all along had never occurred to Nona. She pulsed the information along her thread-bond to Kettle, knowing that the late night message would come as quite a surprise.
“I have to get back!” She slammed her head into her arms and closed her eyes. Kettle might be a deadly operative but Nona still worried about her safety.
Ruli harrumphed. “So off she goes again. How come Nona gets to go to a lavish party and we get to strain our eyes reading about the high and mighty that she’s dancing with?”
“You’re better off reading, young novice,” Jula said, injecting an echo of Sister Wheel into her pronouncement. “The ways of the worldly are a stain on the Ancestor’s perfection.”
“I think Nona should…” Ruli trailed off. “Wait. You’re still here, aren’t you?”
Nona rolled her head and cracked open an eye. “Maybe…”
“Now that’s just dishonest. You’d make an excellent Grey Sister like that!” Ruli scowled.
“Sorry. It just wasn’t so easy this time.” Nona closed her eyes again. “I think I was trying too hard.”
“I read that it helps if you think about when you made the bond,” Jula said.
“Is there anything you haven’t read about?” Ruli asked.
But if Jula had answer Nona didn’t hear it. The memory of a kiss beneath the focus moon had already drawn her back to Ara.
The music drifting from the great ballroom had taken on a slower and more intimate tone. The hour had grown late and the moon’s focus would soon pass over. Outside in the courtyard carriages stood in dark lines, waiting to take the Sis back to their mansions. The horses nickered gently between the stays, and somewhere in the night a black-lark began to sing out its heart in liquid notes thick with tragic beauty.
“Ruli thinks… I mean, I think it might be that the killer is trying to draw out Grey Sisters. You might be the target, Kettle,” Ara repeated the warning Nona had given her on arrival.
“Time to go back.” Regol reached for Ara’s hand.
“Ruli thinks?” Kettle arched a brow. “Perhaps she does. In any event, I will be watching you. And I will guard myself too.” Kettle remained on the balcony as they walked away.
“What message do you want me to take to Nona?” Ara asked as they approached the ballroom.
Ara! What- I mean- Shut up! Nona shouted.
“I…” Regol seemed taken aback, shy even. Most un-Regol-like. “I don’t know what to say to her when we’re face to face, so why should a message be any easier?” He sighed. “There’s just … it’s this thing she has… I’m not saying it very well, but there’s this…”
“Spark.” Ara winced as she poked the inside of her top lip with the needle fixed to her tongue.
“Yes! Spark! That’s the word. Like she could catch fire at any time. Like she could do anything. You know? I … well … she’s got it and it pulls you in.”
The doors loomed before them and the music grew louder as two doormen opened the way. Beyond them the glittering throng awaited.
“It does.” Ara released Regol’s hand and went on ahead of him.
It took just a few minutes for Jordo Sithsis to come from the dancefloor weaving through the onlookers to present himself to Ara once more. He offered his arm with a flourish. “I believe, Arabella, that they are playing our song.” Once more his marjal compulsion wrapped her, a blanket of warmth that made accepting seem so easy. Ara’s fears dissipated like mists before the sun.
Remember what you have to do, Nona prompted, though she too felt the strength of the boy’s magnetism.
Ara took Jordo’s arm and allowed herself to be swept away into the slow swirl of couples, each of them an island of two, bound by the softness of the music. She said nothing, perhaps worried that she might spike herself with the short piece of sharp steel bonded to the tip of her tongue. Instead she slid her arms about him as he in turn took hold of her corseted waist.
Nona watched from Ara’s eyes, trying not to let the hypnotic beauty of her partner draw her in. It seemed madness for Regol to claim that she, Nona, had some similar attraction that worked only on him. She studied the dancers as much as she studied Jordo. He might have accomplices in the crowd, and although Ara only had two eyes, she was better served by two minds considering what they showed.
The dance still had steps, but they seemed less formal, more open to iteration and to flourish. Somehow the dozens of couples navigating the patterned floor managed to pass each other without collision, an intersection of many songs all sung to the same tune. Ara’s mouth was dried out by nerves, and felt unpleasantly waxy thanks to the barrier solution she had swilled around it, but she danced well all the same.
Jordo drew Ara closer, murmuring something about the blueness of her eyes. It seemed to Nona a terrible crime to lie with one’s body, to hide murder within an act of affection. The quick violence of a fight was something she understood very well, but this slow falsehood, this spider web of deception using all the tools of love and lust … it hurt her heart and left her feeling sad. Nona decided, as Jordo whispered sweet and ticklish nothings into Ara’s ear, that she lacked the steel to take the Grey and become a Sister of Discretion. Although she had secrets and told lies, they had never come easily to her, and always left a bitter taste.
“…want to kiss you…” Jordo murmured, and he leaned into do just that, wrapping Ara in the cage of his arms and tightening his compulsion about her will. Contrary to Regol’s claim he didn’t pause to look into Ara’s eyes. Perhaps the boy was not sufficiently soulless to meet the gaze of his victim so close to the act of murder.
Ara surrendered to Jordo’s advance just as she had practiced with Regol. Nona could feel the tension in Ara’s body. This wasn’t anything like being with Regol, who they both liked. Despite his looks Jordo was a loathsome creature, and allowing him to even touch her, let alone share the intimacy of a kiss, was making Ara want to squirm in revulsion.
Careful! Nona advised uselessly as Jordo’s mouth met Ara’s. She was thankful that Ara was in charge, exercising her restraint. If it had been Nona then Jordo would be staggering back already, his throat and belly opened by her flaw-blades and damn the consequences.
Ara shielded her needle behind her teeth and let Jordo invade. Sister Tallow had taught them the advantage of a tactical retreat, allowing the enemy to overextend. There was no sign that Jordo had filled Ara’s mouth with poison yet. He would probably wait until the very end of his last kiss so as to minimise the amount that he received. But as the liquid was small in volume, tasteless, and at body temperature, it would be very hard to notice even when someone was looking for it.
A cold certainty seized Nona, a terrifying thought that lunged up from the darkness of her mind and sunk its teeth deep.
It’s not about Kettle at all! It’s you, Ara! It’s all about you. He killed all those others to get you here! Nona knew she was right. Who else would the convent send to such a place?
Me? Why would someone want to kill me?
Earlier than perhaps she should Ara darted her tongue forward, hunska swift, and tore a line that would score the roof of Jordo’s mouth if nothing stopped it. She felt some kind of tugging, as if the needle had snagged in flesh, or the skin of a poison sac.
Maintaining her firm resolve not to swallow Ara withdrew from the kiss without warning, robbing Jordo of the chance to deliver his poison. “My apologies,” Ara said, “I feel terribly unwell.” She turned to go.
“Wait.” Jordo gripped her arm far harder than decorum allowed. His handsome face held a hint of ugliness.
He’s Lano Tacsis’s creature, Nona said. They drew you here to hurt me. This is revenge for his father. The torture he promised me! Miles away Nona’s body shuddered. He said he would cut pieces off me. And what was Ara if not a piece of her heart?
“One more kiss.” Jordo pulled Ara toward him. Neither of them moving to the music, rocks in the stream of dancers. Jordo’s face had a certain stiffness to it now.
He’s not swallowing, Nona said, panicked not for herself but for Ara.
Regol will be in trouble too, Ara said. They’ll know about you two.
Us two? What us two? There’s no us two! But even as she protested Nona knew there was something there and that they would kill him, Regol with his outward charm and inward nerves, his violence and his vulnerability. And she knew also that she could not allow it.
You need to spit out any poison, Nona said.
Not until he swallows! Ara insisted.
Jordo leaned in for a second kiss, both hands securing Ara, his strength greater than hers. Nona supposed that it was some childhood instinct paralysing Ara, the decorum of the Sis, the fear of scandal, of bringing shame to one’s house. Nona had no such qualms. She took control of Ara’s leg and drove her knee into Jordo’s groin. Hard.
Jordo staggered back, making faint gasping sounds as the sudden pain overwhelmed his voice. Nona was pleased to note that, at the end of his first long intake of breath, he swallowed.
Go! Find Regol and get out of here! Run!
Jordo collapsed to his knees, both hands between his legs, then keeled over to the side. The sight galvanised Ara into action. She stepped over him and spat out mouthful of faintly blue-tinged saliva before hurrying away through the throng of dancers. All around Jordo the Sis were coming to a halt, the awareness that something was wrong spreading out in a radiating pattern. Ara moved faster though, and within moments had snagged Regol’s arm.
“It’s done. We need to leave. Fast!”
Regol frowned. “I thought this poison took days? Rushing out is going to look suspicious.” Though, to his credit he was already moving even as he protested.
“I had to knee him. And Nona thinks we’re the targets, you and me.”
“Why?” They were leaving the ballroom now, the doormen offering short bows as they closed the doors behind them.
“It’s the Tacsis, trying to hurt her and-”
“Wait. What? Nona told you this? And you’re telling me only now?”
“It was news to me.” Ara hurriedly led the way along a long gallery that Nona assumed led back to the main entrance.
“Is Nona here?” Regol sounded puzzled. “Watching us with Sister Kettle?”
“Uh … something like that.” Ara glanced over her shoulder. A group of dark-clad men had entered the gallery and were closing on them at speed. “We need to run.”
But a side door opened ahead of them as she spoke. More of what Nona suspected to be Lano Tacsis’s personal guard began to boil out into the gallery, similarly black clad and without house insignia. Knife blades caught the lamplight. The first two out were huge, gerant half-bloods at least, over seven foot and thick with muscle.
“We’re going to have to fight them,” Ara said.
“With what? Harsh language?”
“Well, I do have a sharp tongue…” Ara reached up to her mouth and tugged the needle point free.
Regol came to a halt and raised his fists. Nona knew he would make good account of himself even unarmed. But the guards closing on them from both sides looked well trained.
“Lano won’t get away with this!” Ara raised her voice for the advancing guards. “Not under someone else’s roof. There will be all hells to pay!”
Nona wondered where the guards of whoever owned this mansion were. She settled down into the back of Ara’s mind, knowing her friend to be a deadly warrior. Against a dozen normal guards Ara would likely prevail, even unarmed and facing knives. But the quality of these enemies had yet to be revealed.
They came on together in a silent rush from both sides. Regol fell into a crouch and swept the legs from two men. Ara kicked off the chest of one guard, rising to drive her other foot into the face of a guard advancing behind her.
In the next heartbeat both Ara and Regol were amongst their foe. Ara steered one guard into another with an arm lock, she elbowed a hard-eyed woman in the throat, felled another man with a shattering kick to the knee. Some of the enemy had hunksa blood but Ara’s speed still left them flatfooted. She twisted a knife away from the hand of a guard whose wrist she had just broken and threw it at a bearded gerant pushing his way toward her. It took him in the eye. Another blade scored a hot line down her arm, slicing through her dress as she twisted away.
Regol had two knives now and used them to climb a gerant before diving into the midst of more enemy. His body was covered in blood but whether any of it was his Nona couldn’t tell.
Still more guards joined the fray. Nona had no idea how Lano Tacsis could get so many of his own forces on site or what excuse he would offer the emperor for the carnage but right now the important thing was for Ara and Regol to survive. Ara was deadly and capable but she still had to graduate Mystic Class and then Holy Class before she could take the blade test and become a Red Sister. However she twisted and turned it would only be a matter of time before one of those knives, thrusting at her from all angles, sank hilt-deep into her flesh.
Walk the Path. It’s the only way, Nona shouted.
Can’t. Ara fought in a serenity trance but she was too hard pressed to find the extra tranquillity she needed to find the Path. Every fibre of her was stretched to the limit navigating a sea of bodies without letting any of the flickering knife blades reach her through the thinness of her dress.
Let me do it for you!
Ara made no answer but Nona felt her fear. Neither of them knew how it would work, who would have to own the power that Nona brought back from the Path. All Nona knew was that in a dozen more heartbeats both Regol and Ara would be dead despite the carnage they were working among their enemies.
Nona didn’t need serenity to find the Path. She didn’t need a period of quiet contemplation. Not even a few deep breaths. All she needed was to be incandescent with fury. Another blade sliced across Ara’s ribs and Nona was there, hurtling down the Path so fast it felt like flying.
Nona’s rage kept her running but though she wanted to take so much energy that she could level the mansion and turn everyone in it to burning husks, she knew neither she nor Ara could own such power. With a curse she flung herself clear after just a few steps, tumbling from the flexing twists of the Path into a darkness that should lead back to Ara.
“Nona! What the h-”
Jula stumbled away, her arms across her face. Four steps brought her shoulders jolting up against the shelves. The light blasting from Nona’s skin threw Ruli’s shadow jet black against the rows of brilliantly illuminated books as she too fell back in dismay. Within a few more moments the spine of every book would begin to smoulder. From the library’s high window, glazed with a single sheet of precious glass, a beam of white light lanced up into the night sky.
“No!” Nona howled. “Not here!”
With the raw power of the Path jolting through her she tried to focus on the kiss that now seemed so far away, so long ago. She saw two worlds, one laid across the other, the incandescent library and the blood-soaked gallery where Ara and Regol battled for their lives.
Nona reached for Ara and suddenly two became one. Ara gasped and stiffened. A knife caught her in the belly, another between the shoulder-blades. She straightened, her flesh beginning to glow with a pinkish-golden light. Neither weapon had pierced her skin despite the murderous intent behind them. The Path’s armour wrapped her.
Ara pushed her energy into speed and moved through the Tacsis assassins as though they were standing still. The light flooding from her lit up her foes, exposing the frozen horror on faces trapped in the moment. Those in her way fell apart as if they were rotten meat, barely strong enough to hold themselves up.
Regol, in the depths of full-blood hunska speed, managed to turn slowly and stare in shock as Ara came to his aid. She drove a foot through the nearest of his assailants, as if the man were no more than a pile of snow. A punch sent shockwaves rippling through the flesh of the next attacker, breaking bones everywhere it travelled.
“Follow!” Ara turned, dashing a descending knife aside with sufficient force to shatter the blade.
She led the way along the gallery, littering corpses in her wake. Regol followed, delivering punches and kicks to any left standing. They were through the doors at the far end and into the grand entrance hall almost before the bodies of those Ara had killed first had time to hit the ground.
In a dark square a quarter mile from the mansion Ara and Regol stood panting, a light rain gusting around them. Ara still had a faint glow about her. Both of them were sticky with blood. The dress that Nona had so admired hung in ribbons now, tugged at by the wind, exposing faintly luminous flesh beneath.
“That.” Regol hauled in a deep breath. “Was incredible!”
Ara tilted her head in acknowledgement. “It is important, when killing a novice, to ensure you bring a force of sufficient size.”
“Seriously…” Regol nodded. “Can you all do that?”
Ara shook her head and unstuck some of her hair where blood had fixed it to her cheek. “I had help,” she said. “From Nona.”
“From Nona?” Regol’s eyes widened.
“That’s right.” Ara nodded. “We have a bond, Nona and I.”
There was something in the way she said it to him, something Nona caught in the tone of her voice. A challenge? A warning? Was Ara protecting her?
Regol seemed about to say something but Sister Kettle came running toward them as he opened his mouth. There was blood on the knife in her hand and her habit was torn in several places, making it clear that she too had been in a fight.
“You know this was supposed to be a Grey operation? A subtle hunt for clues. In and out without anyone knowing we’d been here at all?” She stood looking at the blood-soaked pair before her. “And now we have a gallery of Wensis Hall that looks like a slaughterhouse … that’s been raided by Durns … then set on fire!”
“We didn’t start any fires!” Ara protested.
“I guess those candlesticks pushed themselves onto the tapestries then?” Kettle shook her head. “It was supposed to be one kiss!”
It was my fault… Nona pulsed the thought along the thread-bond she shared with Kettle. I was just trying to save Ara.
“I don’t know how many dead you left. Thank the Ancestor no Sis died!” Kettle looked from Ara to Regol.
“Well, one will. In a couple of days,” Ara said. “But he deserves it.”
It’s my fault, Nona repeated. All of it. Lano Tacsis was trying to draw Ara out. She was the target all along. Joeli must have told him how much it would hurt me if she were to die.
Kettle put her head down, sucked in a deep breath, and sighed it out. “We’ll go back to the convent and face the music. What’s done is done, I suppose.” She wiped her knife clean on a fold of her habit. Abbess Glass will just have to factor it into her equations. X is Nona Grey. And nobody knows what that is. She sighed again and made a smile. “And it’s not like I don’t know how much trouble one little kiss can lead to…”