Excerpt: Dreaming Death

DD illoChapter 1

Liran Prifata’s dove-gray uniform jacket lay to one side, his shirt tangled with it, pale blotches on the bare dirt. The rain pelted down, and the wind in the picked-over field tore at him. He was chilled to the bone, too numb to fight any longer.

Two of the men grasped his arms, pinning him on his knees like an animal to be slaughtered. The rain softened the ground into a muddy quagmire. Blood mixed with the water dripping from his chest, staining his trousers, all color leached out in the dark. A third man in a dark jacket leaned over him, light glinting off a curved knife as he sliced , and cut again. Liran felt no pain, but the numbness scared him more than being captive. He wanted to scream, cry out for help. His throat wouldn’t answer. His lungs could hardly find the air to breathe, much less cry out.

What are they doing to me?

The man in the dark jacket spoke as he worked, words that meant nothing in Liran’s ears. He’d heard no names, seen nothing unusual about their clothes, no marks on the coach that would help his fellow police identify these men. The men didn’t even hide their faces from him, but they had neither marks nor scars to distinguish them in his mind.

This had to be blood magic. He’d never seen it before, but there was no other name for what they were doing, letting his blood fall onto the earth. The Pedraisi did this in their fields, some ancient fertility right. It was illegal, and forbidden by the temple. God won’t permit this, he told himself. Not here in Noikinos. He will send someone to save me.

His tormenter stepped back and held up a lantern to survey his handiwork. Another man, the fourth one Liran had seen in the coach, came closer. Liran tried to focus on that face, to sear it into his memory, but he couldn’t make out the man’s features, hidden beneath the hat the man wore to stave off the cold rain. A fifth man huddled in the distance, face turned away as if he was ashamed.

Now that he’d bled for them, for their magic, surely they would let him go. They would leave him here, and someone would find him. The farmer would come to find out who had desecrated his wheat field to appease a false god.

The fourth man gestured sharply, and the man with the knife came close again. He made a single sharp movement, the blade slashing across this time, a flash in the darkness.

That hurt. Enough to reach through the numbness, enough to tell Liran it was no shallow cut like the others. He gasped feebly, and then he was falling. He landed on his side in the shorn remains of the field’s wheat. Feet squelched away in the muck.

Darkness gathered in the edges of Liran’s vision. Why me?

Warmth gathered in his soul, belying the dark and cold. He had the sense of a presence like hands resting on his shoulders. An angel had come to take him to the promised heavens.

DividerVictorianBottom1

Chapter 2

Shironne stood on the balcony outside her room, wishing the wind could sweep the night’s tattered images from her mind. The dream haunted her. Down in the city, someone had died.

She clutched her heavy robe about her, grateful for its warmth. Winter had come early to Noikinos. The chilly wind carried up with it the damp and earthy scent of the mews behind the house, the smells of horse and hay and manure.

Dry leaves rattled and sighed in the crisp breeze. The trees planted along the side of the house would cling to them until spring when the softer whisper of new leaves would replace the rusty winter sound. When she’d been able to see, she’d thought the brown leaves unattractive. Now that she was blind, she listened to them instead, their rustle providing a clear demarcation of the edge of her family’s property. Somewhere nearby pennants snapped and chimes tinkled, although she couldn’t tell which neighbor had brought those from the temple to safeguard their home.

The cook spoke with a tradesman in the back courtyard, the clink of metal and glass underlying their voices, and echoing off the stone walls of the back courtyard. Likely the milkman, Shironne decided. The distant noise of carriages and horses spoke of morning traffic—sounds of normalcy.

No one knows yet—no one but me and him. It had been one of those dreams.

At first, she hadn’t known they weren’t her own.

There was a man up at the palace who dreamed of death, deaths that were really happening. He involuntarily spun out those dreams, sharing the victim’s fear and pain with the world. For most who could sense his dreams, that meant little more than a vague sense of fear and an occasional headache.

As in everything else, I have to be the one who’s different.

Colonel Cerradine knew who the dreamer was, this man who inflicted his nightmares on her. The colonel had always refused to tell her anything about him, though, not even his name. Lacking any better label for him, Shironne had settled on the Angel of Death, a nickname the colonel’s personnel seemed to find both apt…and ridiculous.

She rubbed one hand with the other, her right thumb smoothing along the scar that ran across her left palm. The souvenir of a foolish childhood accident, it served as a constant reminder that she too often let curiosity get the better of her.

But every time she woke from one of these dreams, she wondered about him. Who is he? Why does he do this?

The colonel had warned her that pushing to find that answer too soon could be dangerous for her. What he hadn’t told her was why. What harm could there be in meeting someone whose dreams she already shared? After all, those shared dreams, however unpleasant, had given rise to her unusual vocation.

The angel’s dreams gave her a purpose beyond simply finding a husband…or joining the priesthood, as was expected of Larossans who developed powers. When her powers had abruptly manifested when she was twelve, the chance of finding a husband had disappeared. Shironne had to consider other paths, but the priesthood didn’t seem appealing either, selling charms and prayers in the temple wouldn’t suit her temperament at all, she’d insisted. That infuriated her father and shocked the priests who’d more than once come to talk to her mother about it. After all, they asked, what else is a girl child to do with her life?

Shironne was terribly grateful that her mother supported her decision to find another path, and that those dreams had shown her one. Those dreams always meant there was death, and she could do something about them. She could help find murderers.

Thus had begun her strange career with the army.

The man who dreamed often couldn’t remember much about them. She could. That had seemed odd at first. Then she’d grasped that his dreams were like a painting laid before her in her sleep, but the Angel of Death didn’t see them that way. Instead, his mind was the canvas on which they were painted.

She stepped back inside her bedroom, closed the door after her, and drew the curtain shut. Not certain how long she’d stood on the balcony savoring the breeze, she crossed to the mantel and carefully felt the delicate hands of the clock. Her mother had removed the glass bezel, making it possible for Shironne to read the time with her fingers. It was almost eight.

Her bedroom door opened, and Melanna pelted into the room, bare feet slapping against the wooden floor. Melanna’s steps came toward her, her bracelet tinkling, and then her arms clasped about Shironne’s waist in a fierce hug. The top of Melanna’s head almost reached Shironne’s shoulder. Her youngest sister was on her way to being as tall as their mother one day, if not taller.

“I had bad dreams,” Melanna complained, quickly turning her loose.

Shironne set a bare hand atop her sister’s coarse hair—a trait certainly not inherited from their mother. Whenever she touched another person, she could feel more than their emotions. She could actually feel the thoughts buzzing around in their heads like a swarm of bees, sometimes formed into words she could catch, other times not. She found only a vague sense of Melanna’s nightmare, but the girl rarely remembered anything specific from the angel’s dreams. Their mother didn’t either.

Even Shironne’s memories of the dreams were unclear, as if she’d seen everything through a heavy veil. She knew she’d witnessed a murder. It was always murder, even if it didn’t seem that way at first. The faceless victim hadn’t been able to fight back, and his captors—there had been more than one, of that Shironne was sure—had cut his skin. Then they’d let him die. It had been cold and raining, somewhere near the river. A field, perhaps, although she wasn’t sure why she’d drawn that conclusion. But each detail might help the army find a murderer, or murderers in this case, so she needed to report them.

“I have to find my gloves,” she told her sister. “Then we can go down for breakfast.”

“Can we read first?” Melanna asked.

Her youngest sister had acquired a lurid novel from a lending library that was their secret. It wasn’t one her governess, Verinne, would find acceptable. The book was full of Pedraisi witchcraft. It had witches who made stables go up in flames and others who could call birds from the air. Larossans possessed a variety of powers, but those were pure nonsense. Even so, they made for an entertaining tale. The story also had an unlikely romance between the heroine and a handsome young Larossan man who worked in her father’s stables, whom Shironne strongly suspected would turn out to be the missing son of a lord or wealthy landowner.

Melanna did most of the reading, but would spell out the longer words so that Shironne could tell her how to pronounce them. “Not now,” Shironne said. “When Verinne takes her nap you can come to my room.”

Melanna huffed out a dramatic sigh and slipped away from Shironne’s grasp. A second later, Shironne heard her sister bound onto her mattress. Shironne returned to her bed and sat, locating her gloves on the table next to her bed just where she’d left them. While Shironne tugged on the gloves, Melanna continued to jump on the bed, one particularly large bounce telling Shironne her sister had flopped onto her back.

Shironne reached out to the table again and found her focus. Pure quartz, she could trace along the perfect lines within the stone, even through her gloves. She’d used this stone as a focus for some time now and was as familiar with it as she was with her worn clothes. It was still endlessly fascinating. When she concentrated on it all the other sensations that assailed her faded away: the feel of fabric against her skin, the hints of smoke on the air that brushed her face, the lingering traces of the last item she’d touched. She could shut out the constant barrage of others’ emotions and simply follow the emotionless lines of the stone, clearing the clutter from her mind.

She concentrated on it a moment longer, chasing away the dragging grip of last night’s dream. Then she pulled her attention back. “Are you ready to go down?” she asked her sister.

Melanna promptly clambered off the bed, and together they headed downstairs to the kitchens. It wasn’t proper for them to eat in the kitchen, but they did so anyway, since Cook was nearly a part of the family, having come from their mother’s childhood home with her.

Pausing at the base of the kitchen stairs, Shironne heard the customary oofing sound Cook made when Melanna ran to hug her. Then came the scrape of the bench when Melanna sat down at the table. The room smelled of baking flatbread and spices. Shironne went to join her sister, pulled out the chair at the head of the table, and settled there.

“Is Kirya around?” she asked Cook. Kirya Aldrine was actually an army lieutenant the colonel had placed within their household to assure the family’s safety, but the young woman spent most of her days working as maid for Shironne’s mother and the elder of her sisters, Perrin.

Since Mama was in mourning, her garb wasn’t complicated. Until a year had passed, her tunic, trousers, and petticoats would all be of undyed silk and wool. She didn’t wear any jewelry save for the bracelet that helped Shironne hear where she was. That made Kirya’s assignment as maid easier. Perrin, on the other hand, was to be presented to the elite of Larossan society at the turn of the year in the hope of contracting a brilliant marriage. She got to wear bright colors, the cuffs and hems of her tunics and petticoats heavily embroidered, and Mama had given Perrin the jewelry she no longer wore. Working on Perrin’s wardrobe did keep Kirya busy.

Cook’s worry spun about her at the mention of Kirya. “I think she’s up with your mother. Should I send for her?”

Shironne realized that Cook must think something was wrong. “No. What about Messine?”

Filip Messine, another lieutenant, primarily watched over Shironne. He escorted her to her various assignments for the army. In his false identity here, though, he served as a groom in the mostly empty stable. The Anjir family had limited funds at the moment, so there were only the two old carriage horses there. They could spare Messine for an errand or two.

Cook’s worry faded to relief. “Oh, you want a messenger. I’ll go call him.” She walked to the outside door and called out into the courtyard before returning to her cooking.

A moment later, Shironne heard the door open again, followed by the jangle of bells and Messine’s familiar footsteps. Shironne turned her head that way to hear him better. Although she could sense where the members of their little household were when she concentrated, the various bracelets and bells each wore made it easier for her to locate them.

Messine came closer, clutching his concern tight about him. He was trained not to bother others with his emotions. For Shironne, that made him pleasing company. “Miss Anjir, did you need me?”

“I need to send a message to the colonel,” she explained. “I had a dream. Someone died, and the Angel of Death dreamed it.”

DividerVictorianBottom1

Chapter 3

Hard hands pulled at Mikael Lee’s arm and hauled him to his feet. “Where the hell have you been?”

Mikael blinked up at Kai’s stern features. He concentrated on breathing as the room spun about him. His lungs ached. It felt like someone had jammed a knife in the base of his neck and a spike through his head.

He didn’t dare answer Kai’s question the way that came to mind, but the rumpled bed behind him should have made it obvious. He’d been there all night. He’d been dreaming.

He was at the Hermlin Black, his favored tavern in the Old Town. The clumsily-carved bed with its faded yellow bedding looked familiar. An icon of the Larossans’ True god sat in the corner, the statue’s lap draped with a trio of grains for luck. Mikael had seen that one before. Synen, the inn’s owner, must have dumped him in this room to sleep off his intoxication and keep him away from the other patrons.

Mikael rubbed his aching temples. At least he was alone this time, something to be grateful for. Synen understood that he came to this tavern to get himself drunk, not to find a companion for the night. That was why he ended up here most nights that he dreamed. Since Mikael always promptly paid his bill, Synen took good care of him.

Kai waited, arms folded over his chest, a pillar of inky blackness. Like Mikael, Kai had mixed heritage, part Lucas and part Anvarrid. That wasn’t uncommon, since the two people had formed a close relationship two centuries before when the Anvarrid invaded the country. Most children born between the Six Families and the various Anvarrid houses tended toward the fair appearance usually associated with the former. Kai had come out of the womb looking like an Anvarrid. He was tall with dark hair and dark eyes. His pale skin was the only trait he’d inherited from his Lucas mother, and that only served to make his hair look darker. It was hard not to see him as Khandrasion of the House of Valaren, even though Kai never answered to his full name. Or he never had in Mikael’s presence.

Unlike Kai, Mikael had inherited a muddy mess of the two people’s bloodlines, with hair slowly darkening over the years from blond to brown, and eyes of a bright shade of blue particular to his father’s ancestors. He’d also inherited his father’s tendency to freckle, but not the man’s height. And while most Larossans might consider him of average height, he was short for either a man from the Six Families or an Anvarrid. No one but his father had ever called him Mikoletrion; he simply didn’t look Anvarrid enough.

As Kai towered over him, Mikael took in a shaky breath and in a voice that sounded papery and thin, asked, “What time is it?”

“Where are your boots?” Kai snapped in return. He didn’t wait for an answer. His dark eyes flicked toward the room’s bare wooden floor and he swooped down to retrieve something. A second later he jammed Mikael’s boots against his chest. Mikael clenched his jaw to keep from gasping. He managed to grab the boots from Kai and sank back onto the rumpled bedding to put them on, a flare of nausea making him break out into a cold sweat. He hadn’t registered that he’d carried injuries out of his dream until that moment.

Lowering his head to lace his boot hurt, but Mikael did so anyway. While he worked a knot out of the leather laces, Kai towered over him like a dark storm cloud. The sensitives up at the fortress actually referred to Kai that way behind his back.

Still kinder than anything the sensitives say about me, I’ll bet.

“Where’s your overcoat?” Kai asked.

Mikael had his uniform jacket on still, halfway unbuttoned and horribly wrinkled since he’d slept in it. His overcoat was nowhere in sight. “I don’t know,” he answered truthfully. “I’m sure I wore it down here last night.”

Without waiting for further explanation, Kai turned to the room’s other occupant, Elisabet. She’d stood at the open doorway the whole time, a silent presence. Mikael hadn’t actually seen her there, but he’d never questioned her presence, either. He’d known she was somewhere close. As Kai’s primary guard, Elisabet went wherever he went. Or should.

“I’ll go find it,” Kai said,” Stay with him.” Before she could argue, he swept out the narrow door, the skirts of his hooded overcoat swirling dramatically behind him. Drama was one of Kai’s inborn skills.

For a moment, Mikael just breathed. He’d never known why Kai disliked him so intensely, but mornings like this one didn’t help their working relationship. A hand touched his boot and Mikael realized he must have closed his eyes again. He opened them to see Elisabet kneeling before him. She lifted his foot onto her black-clad knee and began lacing his boot for him as if he were a child. “I can do it,” he insisted.

“You’re too slow,” she said in her low, rusty voice. “He’s in a foul mood. It’s not quite ten.”

When is Kai not in a foul mood? Mikael watched Elisabet lace his boot, hoping fervently that Kai didn’t return before she finished.

Elisabet was truly one of the most beautiful women he’d ever seen. High cheekbones hinted at some Anvarrid blood, but otherwise she looked Family born: pale eyes and pale hair, tall and broad-shouldered. Her features were calm and even, her neat braids falling forward as she worked. He caught the faint smell of oil from at least one gun on her person. Dressed in her formal blacks, she was the perfect guard, never letting her emotions get the better of her, never reacting to the vagaries of her charge.

Life is simpler for those who know where they stand in the order of things.

Unlike Mikael, Elisabet knew where she stood. She was Lucas, which meant automatic acceptance among the Lucas Family. He was an outsider, sent to the Lucas elders by the Lee elders four years before in the hope that they could tame his dreams.

She was a first, which meant she oversaw her yeargroup and thus had friends. He was alone, forced by the elders to live up in the palace rather than in the fortress below, because they hadn’t found any way to tame those dreams.

She was a guard. She watched Kai’s back during most of her waking hours, and when other duties forced her away from him, her seconds, Tova and Peder, took over. It was a simple calling. She need only keep her charge alive.

Kai had no business walking away from her. If she was annoyed with him for that, it didn’t show. It said something that she’d let him go alone, both that she felt this tavern was secure at the moment, and that Kai needed to be alone.

She lowered Mikael’s foot to the ground and rose, setting one hand under his arm to help him up again. Too fast. Mikael swayed, and Elisabet laid a hand against his chest to steady him. She drew her hand back with a film of red staining her palm.

Oh, Hel. Heat prickled through Mikael’s body, nausea welling in his empty stomach. He’d bled through his uniform jacket. He could smell it now that he knew it was there. Fortunately, there didn’t seem to be any blood on the yellow bedding.

Elisabet glanced down markedly at her red-stained hand, and her eyes flicked up to meet his.

Mikael shook his head. He didn’t want Kai to know he was actually bleeding. Kai would see it as weakness. “Don’t mention it to him,” he asked of her. “Please.”

One of her gull-wing brows arched upward, but she wiped her hand on her black trouser leg. It wouldn’t show there anymore than it did on his uniform. She gestured for Mikael to precede her out of the room.

He obeyed, walking along the narrow mezzanine above the floor of the tavern and trying to button his jacket and then tighten the sash about his waist. At this hour, the tables below were all empty. That explained why Elisabet thought it was secure; the tavern’s outer doors must be locked.

Mikael made his way down the stone steps, doing his best to move normally. All of this would pass: the tightness in his lungs, the pain in his head and neck, even the blood seeping through his garments. It would be gone in a matter of hours. That was one reason he needed to get back up to the palace. He needed to see his spontaneous injuries for himself.

And change into a clean uniform. That, too.

The main serving room below smelled stale, scents of flat beer, sweat, and spicy food making his stomach heave. Lit with tallow candles—this building predated the piping of gas out to this part of the city—the yellow-plastered walls were marked with soot from the great wrought-iron sconces. Like the majority of buildings in Noikinos, this one was white outside, but brilliantly colored inside, bright tapestries on the walls, red cloths over the old tables, and golden temple pennants bearing the sigil for fortune hanging over the doorways.

Synen was notably absent; the man avoided Kai, having heard enough snide commentary on his tavern from him. Mikael made his way down the stairwell, not touching the rail. It was always a bit sticky. As they reached at the base of the stairs, Kai strode through the swinging doors from the kitchen with a mass of black wool over his arm. He barely spared Mikael a glance, just tossed him the coat as he passed on his way toward the heavy exterior door.

“Wait,” Elisabet ordered.

Kai actually did as he should this time, moving to one side of the doorway. She drew her pistol, unbolted the door, and surveyed the street to make certain the area was still secure. A large unmarked coach waited outside, a driver in royal livery sitting atop the box and a groom on the tail. Since the coach took up most of the narrow street—they were in the Old Town—the morning traffic had to find another way around.

Once satisfied with the safety of the situation, Elisabet had Kai climb into the coach first. Mikael followed, and she entered last, settling on the forward-facing bench next to Kai. Once she shut the door, it was dim inside. The shades were drawn, likely to keep Kai out of strangers’ line of sight. Elisabet sat erect on the bench, pistol across her lap, her eyes closed. She wasn’t here to interact with them; she was listening to the situation outside. The groom riding the coach’s tail surely had a rifle with him, but Elisabet was the one who was ultimately responsible for Kai.

Long ago before the Anvarrid had come, the Six Families had been pacifists, living quietly in their buried fortresses. When the Larossans migrated onto their lands, the Families welcomed them and taught them how to farm in the colder climate. The Anvarrid invasion, a far more brutal introduction, forced the Six Families to change just to survive. Now they served to protect whichever Anvarrid house ruled each province. Here in Lucas Province, that meant the House of Valaren, the king’s household.

Following the Anvarrid invasion of Larossa, assassinations had run rampant as different houses fought for control over the new senate and, thus, the country. Two centuries later, the houses predominantly used other means to seize control, usually legal maneuvering. Instead, the rising strength of the Larossan citizenry—who made up the majority of the country’s population—was now seen as a greater threat to the Anvarrid. A Larossan ‘nationalist’ had taken a shot at the king late in the previous year, evidence that there were those who had anti-Anvarrid sympathies and were daring enough to act on them. Although Kai hadn’t been confirmed as king’s heir yet, as a member of the House of Valaren, he still made an excellent target, and thus was not permitted to leave the palace without at least one guard.

Since Elisabet was only required to watch Kai’s back, not his, Mikael appreciated her earlier show of consideration. He was equally glad that Kai hadn’t seen it; Kai would have taken it the wrong way.

Mikael rubbed at the sore spot on his neck with fingers that tingled. The throbbing in his head had eased some already, and he was breathing better now. “Did they feel the dream at the fortress?”

Kai leaned back against the coach’s leather squabs and folded his arms across his chest. “Of course they did.”

Kai hated all of this. Kai disapproved Mikael’s drinking to mute his dreams. He disapproved of the fact that Mikael had dreams in the first place, and that he inflicted the horror of his dreams on the sensitives—those who could feel another’s emotions—in Kai’s yeargroup. Kai hated coming down into the city to find Mikael and drag him back to the palace, and he made no secret of his low opinion of Mikael’s discipline.

Mikael shifted his heavy overcoat off his lap and onto the bench next to him. Getting himself thoroughly drunk might blur his dreams, further reducing the effect it had on the sensitives, but the hangover afterward never helped his disposition.

As the coach began to move through the streets of the Old Town, Mikael lifted the shade with one hand and peered out the window. Most of this part of the city dated back to the days before the Anvarrid, old buildings with simple slanted rooftops, made to shed snow. Many were in questionable repair. The Larossans had favored plainer designs than the fanciful buildings the Anvarrid introduced on their arrival, but these were constructed of the same pale granite seen all over this part of Lucas Province. In some lights the city of Noikinos gleamed pink, at other times white or gold.

Elisabet shifted on the bench, drawing Mikael’s attention back inside the dim coach. She was trying to reach a compromise with her coat; he recognized that movement from personal experience. While on duty, a guard usually stood. The steel plates in a guard’s overcoat made it nearly impossible to sit comfortably—not to mention the knife digging into her back. Usually she carried a rifle while on duty as well, but she’d left it behind at the palace. It would have been ungainly in the coach. But while he didn’t see her pistol in her sash, Mikael had no doubt that every time she left the palace, Elisabet went well armed. He didn’t even have his knife with him.

Mikael preferred the sword himself, a tidy weapon, and the reason he identified as hand to hand. Very few guards chose a rifle as their principal weapon; in close quarters it could become problematic. But Elisabet was an expert marksman—she’d won marksmanship prizes at the summer fairs before—so he didn’t question her choice.

Like both Mikael and Kai, she wore the Lucas uniform, with a high-collared jacket and trousers and vest all in unrelieved black. Swirls of black soutache trim on the sleeves and chest of her jacket marked his rank and assignment, the designs meaningless to most outside the Six Families. Mikael’s rumpled jacket shared one of those of those markings—the swirl for first on the right shoulder, but he had the pattern for Daujom—the king’s private intelligence service—on the left cuff. Elisabet and Kai both had the chest pattern for rifles, compared to Mikael’s hand-to-hand, marking them as among the Lucas Family’s distance shooters.

The one thing none of those trim patterns reflected was that Kai would take off those simple blacks most afternoons, shedding the Lucas side of his bloodline. He would don an Anvarrid over tunic—the ankle-length tunic that the houses favored, usually fitting tight to the waist, but left unsecured below to allow room for the full trousers or skirts worn with them—and become the king’s heir. Kai’s tunics were heavily embroidered in the burgundy-and-brown hawk pattern that belonged to the royal house, the Valarens, making clear that he was the king’s heir, even if not yet approved by the senate.

The coach slowed and then stopped. Mikael glanced out again and saw they were at the edge of the palace grounds, waiting to pass through sentry post at the fence line. After a moment, the coach’s door was pulled open and a sentry stepped up onto the step to peer inside into the gloom.

An older woman, her blond braids were threaded with gray. The trim markings across her chest identified her as a sentry. She leaned into the coach to get a better look at them, her eyes likely slowed by the dimness inside. She nodded once to Elisabet, then surveyed Kai. Like all sentries, she kept her face expressionless, even when she turned her eyes on him. Even if he didn’t recognize her, Mikael suspected she knew exactly who he was.

All the sensitives knew him. Or of him, to be more precise.

Her position, serving at the entry to the palace grounds, meant that she was a sensitive. The treaty required that all sentries controlling access to the royal house would be. That afforded the Lucas Family multiple opportunities to gauge the intentions of visitors. That was what the Six Families had offered the Anvarrid to retain their place in the country following the invasion. They provided protection for the Anvarrid. In return, the Six Families kept their buried fortresses.

The sentry took one last look at Mikael, stepped down, and shut the coach door. The driver started the horses moving, heading around the palace grounds to the back courtyard entrance. As they moved on, Mikael raised the blind slightly to prepare his eyes for the sunlight outside. It might be cool this morning after the rain, but the sky was clear and the sun, bright.

“I’m sure Father will want to talk to you,” Kai said after a moment. His father, Dahar, ran the Daujom, the office out of which they both worked.

Mikael dismissed the accusing tone he heard in Kai’s voice. “I’ll clean up first and then go to the office.”

“Good.” Kai turned his head to gaze pensively at the closed shade on his side of the coach, fist held to his mouth. Evidently that conversation was over.

Mikael rubbed his temples, wishing the headache away. He didn’t know what had been bothering Kai of late. He suspected it was some difficulty between father and son, because Kai had recently been making every excuse possible to get out of the office of the Daujom and away from his father. It would be more irritating, Mikael supposed, if Kai actually shirked his duties, but he did get his work done, often staying in the office long after his father had left for the day. Thus far, Mikael hadn’t complained.

As soon as the coach stopped, Elisabet slipped out and waited for Kai. After he stepped down, Mikael climbed out, hitting the buff colored flagstones with a semblance of normalcy. His breath steamed out in the chilly air. He could put on his overcoat, but didn’t want to transfer blood to it, so he just drew in a breath through his nose and did his best to ignore the cold.

The palace rose above them, an ornate creation unsuitable for the climate in which it existed. It harkened back to the palaces the Anvarrid had built in their homeland, a much warmer place from which the Han had driven them forth. The pale granite of the palace walls rose in four stories that wrapped about the wide courtyard. Large onion domes capped each corner of the rooftops, and smaller ones sat atop the sentry turrets. Stone railings ran along the flat portions of the rooftops, and there sentries stood on duty, the black of their uniforms stark against the white walls and blue sky. As the palace stood at the highest point in the city, exposed to the cold wind, most of those sentries wore their hoods up at the moment, hiding their faces.

Not that Mikael could them apart at a distance. Each sentry, male or female, wore identical uniforms. They wore their hair in the same style, braided away from their faces and falling to the middle of their backs. The uniformity was a tactic meant to intimidate, one all of the Six Families employed. But the Lucas Family thrived on conformation and perfection, and carried the practice to greater heights than the other families, perhaps because they guarded the king rather than the master of a province.

Mikael sighed. How many of those sentries did I wake last night?

He stilled his mind, not wanting to agitate the sensitives any further. He cast a glance up at the second floor windows and spotted Dahar holding back the heavy black draperies, watching them. Mikael nodded once toward the window. Dahar returned the gesture and disappeared as the drapes fell back in place. He would make his apologies to Dahar later, after he went to his quarters and bathed.

Kai and Elisabet had already disappeared under the white stone of the arcade, so Mikael followed. Once inside the palace there was only a single pair of sentries at the doors to contend with—a man and a woman, both years older than him. He wished good thoughts at them, hoping not to annoy them further this morning. Neither looked directly at him.

The back entry hall of the palace wasn’t its most impressive hall— more of an intersection point for the wide stone stairwells coming from the upper floors—but light from a series of stained glass windows spangled the white marble floor in a rainbow of colors. Like the Larossans, the Anvarrid favored colors, but darker and richer ones, so the walls were hung with tapestries of battle scenes wrought in jewel tones and highlighted with gold threads. The runners in the halls were thick wool and silk, muffling Mikael’s footsteps, created especially for this palace in muted shades of beige and brown so as not to distract from the brilliant tapestries. Delicately crafted iron lanterns hung from chains in the arched stone hallways. They were rarely lit now since gas had been piped in to light the palace, but were retained because of their beauty. In the summer, the outer doors and windows of the palace could be thrown open to allow wind to sweep along the hallways, but in the winter, the abundance of glass made these halls icy.

The opulence of the palace provided a stark contrast to the utter simplicity of the Lucas fortress located far below these halls. There the Lucas Family lived in a domain without sunlight, with endless gray walls and floors, with minimal decoration, and painted floor cloths rather than fine carpets. It was a different world down below. And centuries underground had turned the Six Families paler than any of the peoples who surrounded them now. When the Anvarrid conquered Larossa, they had given the Six Families the nickname termites.

Truthfully, Mikael would rather live below instead of in this sparkling palace. Unfortunately, the Lucas elders found his dreams worrisome, and thus he lived up here, on the second floor of the wing of the palace that housed members of the Daujom. Kai and Elisabet had already gone up the stairwell to the left, probably to retrieve Elisabet’s rifle from the armory, so Mikael made his way up behind them.

Once he reached his quarters, Mikael fished out his key. It was, thankfully, still in his jacket pocket. The room wasn’t large but it gave him privacy which he wouldn’t have had in the fortress below.

As a child in Lee Province, he’d regularly moved between his grandfather’s wing in the Vandriyen Palace and the Lee fortress beneath it, his mother’s world. With most yeargroups housing between twenty and thirty members, the children’s barracks there were crowded, always full of noise and activity. By comparison, the palace seemed stifled and formal, quiet and dull. He missed the bustle of being in a yeargroup, but he would never have been able to hide the truth of his dreams from them for long.

After dumping his overcoat on the end of his bed, Mikael went to the window and drew back the heavy draperies to let in some light. From the chest at the end of his bed, he grabbed one of the old stained towels he kept for just this purpose and set it next to the basin on his table. He stripped off his jacket first, folding it so the laundry wouldn’t notice the blood across the front panels. His shirt was blotched with drying blood, though, undoubtedly ruined. Mikael pulled it off over his head and rolled it up. He’d send that down to the quartermasters later to be cut up for scrap. Using the icy water left in the basin, he took the towel and gingerly patted his chest clear of blood.

After one of his dreams, he would often wake with injuries that mimicked the victim’s. Most of the time they were restricted to bruises, but his false injuries sometimes bled through the skin as if he were sweating blood. It only happened when a dream was particularly frightening or urgent, or when he felt a closer tie to the victim. Last night’s dream had been one of those.

When he looked directly downward, he could see a wide band of bruising across the lower part of his ribcage, also oozing blood in a few places. The skin had broken in several spots when Kai hit him in the chest with his boots. But when it came to the injuries running across his collarbones, he couldn’t see what lay beneath his chin.

He grabbed his shaving mirror with one hand and held it at arm’s length, trying to understand what he saw. Left in a string a reddish-purple bruises was lettering, running from the end of one collarbone to the other. Someone had carved a message into the victim’s flesh, a message now reflected on Mikael’s skin. But the markings were already fading. It had been too many hours since his dream.

Left alone, he would have slept on until the false injuries healed completely. He’d slept more than a full day after one of his dreams before, so there was value to Kai waking him and dragging him back to the palace, even if Kai didn’t know that. This way Mikael got to see the injuries before they faded away.

He turned his head and angled the mirror to peer at the spot on his neck that felt like he’d been jabbed by a knife. The tiny wound there was still tender to the touch. That transferred injury hadn’t bled, which made him suspect the victim’s injury might have come from some manner of poison. That might explain the alternating numbness and tingling of his limbs, too, and the tightness in his lungs that made him feel fifty instead of twenty-three. A dart? Perhaps an injection?

He’d known it was murder before, without any doubt, given the ritualistic cuts made across his chest. But if there was poison involved, that indicated careful planning. A memory surfaced, no more than a flash, of someone watching as the victim died.

He went to his writing desk and pulled out his journal and ink, angled the mirror this way and that, and tried to record what was left of the unknown word across his chest.

The letters looked foreign—Pedraisi. Having grown up in one of the provinces that bordered the country of Pedrossa, he was familiar with the appearance of their alphabet, even if he didn’t read the language. He could speak a few words of it, but that was all. Many Larossans had blood ties back to Pedrossa, though, since both their peoples had come here centuries ago from the same part of the world. There were people in this city who could read and write that language, but also those who traded across the border, or had old family ties. The city had its share of Pedraisi immigrants as well, blending in among the Larossans.

Mikael blew on the ink to dry it and then angled the mirror to look at the word again. What does it mean?

It had to be blood magic, sacrifice to a foreign god, asking for…something. While blood magic was illegal in Larossa, it was still practiced. Some Larossans secretly begged favors of the old gods, even while being faithful to their True god. Most of the time it was harmless. A prick of a finger to cause a man to fall in love, or cutting the thumb to dab blood on a pennant meant to bring success in business. Or luck in cards, tiles, or any of a hundred other endeavors. There were a multitude of tiny ways that blood magic still appeared in day to day life among the Larossans, only most saw no harm in those small actions, no disloyalty to their True god.

Ending someone’s life in this way, however, clearly crossed the line. Murder, even in the name of religion, was as unacceptable to the Pedraisi government as it was the Larossan one.

Mikael couldn’t begin to guess what those letters were meant to convey. He hoped that in time his memory would supply more, enough details to make sense of the fragments of the dream he could recall.

He always did his best to keep an open mind when he considered his murders. Sometimes something that seemed clear turned out to be completely wrong. Even so, if he could figure out what that word was, that might tell him who’d killed whom, and why.