“A litter of six lovely fawn rexes,” Sfjona confirmed. “The duchess sold them all: she couldn’t bear the sight of them.”

Chapter 1

“. . . pertaining to the delicate matter of which you have no doubt been apprised by Lady Alymere on the 7th of this month. Her Grace would be much obliged if you would be so kind as to ensure that all parties involved are offered a resolution of a nature as to safeguard their dignity and spare their finer sentiments.” Sfjona Brist carefully enunciated each word inked with dramatic strokes on a pristine sheet of paper.

The letter had been sent at dawn by the secretary of the Duchess of Nymaine to Lady River of Orloth, her new employer. Sfjona placed it back on Lady River’s writing desk, careful not to wrinkle it. The room was silent, freshly painted in emerald tones and steeped in buttery late-afternoon light. The mingled scents of beeswax and fresh blooms laced the air, the latter coming from the live boughs that ran through the walls of the Camelot townhouse to form its bones.

Lady River stood by a tall arched window, eyeing the missive indecisively. “So . . . what do you think?”

Sfjona straightened her shoulders and raised herself to her full height of five feet—one inch of which could be credited to spool heels. “Given the circumstances, I believe you must act swiftly and decisively, my lady.”

Lady River, who was still relatively new to the intricacies of drawing-room politics, deftly folded her crinoline hoops and settled onto a brocade settee in a puff of iridescent blue silk. She was a coltish young woman, who often allowed her long black tresses to cascade freely down her back—at least in private. This audacious breach of propriety, along with her slouching posture and unusual accent, were but a few of the clues that might betray Lady River’s otherworldly origins to observant eyes. Perhaps the most damning piece of evidence, however, was her disconcertingly frank manner of speech.

The lady steepled her hands on her lap and leaned forward, as a gentleman would. “Honestly, that letter was three pages long, and I still have no idea what the duchess wants or what Lady Alymere has to do with it. What am I expected to do here?”

“I presume it concerns Lady Kay of Demetīrr,” Sfjona hedged. As Lady River’s newly appointed secretary and, to the extent that their differences in age and station permitted it, her friend, it behooved Sfjona to guide the young woman on the tortuous path to social respectability and, more importantly, to keep her apprised of any relevant piece of gossip.

“Kay’s wife?” Lady River’s brow furrowed. “She’s not even mentioned in the letter.”

“Oh.” Sfjona lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, her hands tingling from a culpable thrill. “You haven’t heard about . . . last year’s incident?”

Lady River gave a slow shake of her head.

“Last year,” Sfjona began, “during a house party hosted by the duchess at her seaside estate in Nymaine, Lady Kay’s capybara made public advances to the duchess’s.”

“Advances?” Lady River’s fingers moved to form graceful air quotes. “Like, did they . . .”

“In front of all the guests gathered in the breakfast parlor. It is said that the duchess fainted in shock, and it was Lord Tristain who succeeded in separating the sinners by pouring a pitcher of lemonade over them. But it was too late!” Sfjona balled her fists, gripped by the intensity of her own account. “For the vine of indecency had borne fruit!”

Lady River jumped from her seat. “Oh, wow. Nymaine’s capybara popped pups?”

“A litter of six lovely fawn rexes,” Sfjona confirmed. “The duchess sold them all: she couldn’t bear the sight of them.”

“Okay, so now there’s bad blood between the Duchess of Nymaine and Lady Kay,” Lady River surmised, pacing on the thick rug that spanned most of her study. “Let’s circle back to the letter. What, exactly, do I have to do with Kay’s capybara being a registered sex offender?”

Sfjona marked a solemn pause. “I’m afraid that the issue lies with the wedding’s seating arrangements, my lady.”

Lady River slowly dragged both her palms over her face in a rather unsightly display that made it look as if the flesh were melting off her bones. “Ugh . . . kill me now. We’ve changed that plan a hundred times already.”

Not quite. By Sfjona’s mental count, the seating plan had heretofore been updated only thirty-six times—a fairly reasonable figure, considering the stakes at play.

Eleven days hence, on the first day of Knutlugger—marking the beginning of fall and the reaping of crops—Her Ladyship would bind her blood to Hadrian Landevale, the Duke of Caid, keeper of the Round Table seat of Landevale and, more importantly, Sfjona’s former employer. Whispers of the match were on all of Camelot’s lips, and much as polite society reveled in smearing the characters of Lady River and the duke behind closed doors, no one who mattered in the kingdom of Logres would miss the opportunity to attend—and comment on—the single most significant event of the social season.

The stakes were high indeed, and so was the pressure slowly building upon Sfjona’s shoulders. His Grace, who had heretofore employed her as the housekeeper of his country seat of Thunor Hall, had entrusted her to serve the other half of his heart, and she would not fail. There would be nothing but praise for Lady River’s fashion choices or diplomatic skills under Sfjona Brist’s watch.

Which brought them back to the dratted seating plan. Ever since it had been made known that Prince Arthur would be attending the ceremony and ensuing revels, Lady River had been bombarded with letters from ambitious mothers beseeching her to rectify the seating arrangements so that their daughters might bask in the light of the young Prince. Had Lady River consented to satisfy all their demands, the seating plan would have included a table of fifteen guests composed of His Majesty and fourteen daughters of the Table between the ages of sixteen and thirty, all vying for his favor and ready to commit nothing short of murder to secure it.

Sfjona’s shoulders sagged. The plan would have to be drawn anew.

Offering her young employer a commiserating smile, she walked over to the writing desk and seized a blank sheet of paper and a glass quill, which she dipped in a waiting pot of ink. “As you already know, guests ought to be placed in accordance with their order of precedence.” Sfjona drew a circle encompassed in a semicircle to represent the tables. “Being the king’s seneschal,” she went on, “His Grace Pellias of Nymaine is third in the order of precedence. He and his wife must, therefore, sit across from you at the bridal table.”

Lady River leaned over Sfjona’s shoulder to inspect the sketch. “Yes, with Arthur and Lancelot. That’s what we agreed on with Hadrian.”

“The rest of the sitting knights and their wives,” Sfjona continued, “shall occupy a semicircular table facing the bridal table. Therein lies the issue.” She inked a cross mark onto Lady Kay’s designated seat, back to back with the Duchess of Nymaine’s.

Lady River rolled her eyes to the ceiling. “She doesn’t want to sit on the same planet as Lady Kay.”

“Indeed, my lady.” The feuding aristocrats would nonetheless have no choice but to sit together on Thule: travel to Lady River’s home world, the mysterious “other side,” had been strictly regulated for two centuries and remained restricted to a privileged few[JNT1] .

“How self-absorbed are these people? Do they even realize that I actually have other things to do than cater to their whims? I’m already doing balls, horticultural committee meetings, and harpsichord recitals where I clap with the tips of my fingers without making any noise, like you taught me . . .” The veins on Lady River’s temples came alight and glowed like molten silver under her skin as she demonstrated her clapping technique with perfect form. It was a distinctive trait among Thule’s most powerful ichorites: ichor particles, the essence of all life on Thule, flowed in their blood in such dense concentration that even the slightest agitation—a fluttering heartbeat, a rise in body temperature—was enough to ignite their light.

Sfjona had no connection to the almighty bloodlines of the Round Table. Her father was a teacher in Bedrydant, and her mother had been the daughter of a well-to-do grocer. Her blood had never ignited and never would, a fact in which lay the insurmountable physical evidence of her social condition as a commoner. She accepted it as one might accept the fact that one couldn’t grow wings and fly, but unlike others, she felt no rancor toward her betters. Rather, whenever she witnessed Lady River or His Grace’s veins shimmer under the spell of some powerful emotion, she wondered whether the light in their blood truly owed everything to the mysterious properties of ichor or if, perhaps, these beings who loved, raged, and wept quite simply felt more than she did. Sfjona was no stranger to joy and grief, but being a spinster of two and fifty, she harbored no passions to speak of, nothing to stir her blood beyond the reasonable—unless fashion plates counted?

Meanwhile, the light in Lady River’s veins had receded as she exhaled the last of her outburst. “I know I have to do all these things to get us accepted into society, but I have exams coming too . . .”

Sfjona bobbed her head in sympathy. Lady River studied medical arts at the Royal College of Medicine here in Camelot—an unusual pursuit for a woman of her rank but which His Grace strongly encouraged. Hence, part of Sfjona’s duties consisted of reconciling the demands of the lady’s daunting class schedule with the countless social obligations befalling her as the future Duchess of Caid.

“I recommend citing the wedding preparations to excuse yourself from the next horticultural committee meeting, my lady,” Sfjona offered.

“Let’s do that, yes.” Lady River gave an apologetic wince. “Sorry for digressing. So, back to seating . . . What if we move the tables away just enough to slip in a . . . a potted plant? Maybe a flower bush, something tall enough that they won’t see each other even if they turn around?”

“Wouldn’t it look quite odd?” Sfjona bit back a chortle at the notion of Lady Kay hidden behind a lone potted plant as an object of public shame.

“How about we switch the Kays with Bedivere and his mother?” Lady River mused.

Every fiber in Sfjona’s body tensed. She pressed her eyelids closed, willing the rush of blood away from her cheeks . . . and understood too late that the fight was lost. The heat had already spread to the tip of her ears.

Lady River’s eyes narrowed with devilish intent. “Bedivere probably won’t mind. He’s such a nice guy . . .” She tilted her head, studying Sfjona’s furious blush. “Not the type to throw a tantrum over a change of seat.”

“Certainly not,” Sfjona conceded in a small voice. Indeed, a kinder, milder—or taller—gentleman than Sir Bedivere she had never met. Sfjona’s rib cage strained against the bones of her stays as her mind drifted back to a glittering ballroom in autumn. She pictured him, dark and handsome, in his black evening suit and pristine boiled shirt; the bold, solid strokes of his body; the broad nose and soft brown eyes. She had danced with him twice. Twice! She, a housekeeper, passed as a lady’s companion in a sumptuous gown lent to her by Lady River that night. When she dared offer her hand to his baise-mains, he’d bent, brushed his lips to her glove, and requested the pleasure of a dance. She’d accepted, making herself tall and assured when, in truth, she felt small and brittle standing in his shade.

Sir Bedivere had taken her spinning around the ballroom and held her much smaller hand in his, unaware that under the snowy silk, her skin was just a little too rough and her nails just a little too short to be those of a well-bred lady. Minutes had stretched like hours, twirling in his arms, absent to her surroundings . . . and then he had bent low, low, he who was as far above her station as the stars were from the ground. Sfjona shivered at the memory of the surreptitious brush of his chin against her hair, the smoky scent of him as he whispered in her ear.

He’d asked her for a third dance.

No gentleman asked for a third dance who did not mean to later call on the lady. Would he have done so? Would Sir Bedivere of Bedrydant have presented himself at His Grace’s doorstep and requested the privilege of speaking to Miss Brist, only to discover the truth of her: a mousey creature clad in a plain wool dress, her strawberry-blond hair covered by an admittedly fashionable dotted-lace cap. Perhaps his gaze would have traveled down to her waist and, there, seen her only treasure: a burnished brass chatelaine that had once belonged to her mother. She couldn’t bear to imagine his confusion, then his anger upon discovering that the object of his pursuit was nothing but a servant.

Around them, a few guests had looked on with avid curiosity. Sfjona’s stomach had sunk in regret as she shook her head and denied him. She couldn’t have let him compromise his reputation like that. Pulled back to the present, she balled her fists against a prickling sensation in her veins, which she recognized as shame.

Once she had managed to collect herself, she pretended to study her sketch and said, “What an excellent solution, my lady. I shall make the necessary arrangements and write to Lady Bedivere’s secretary.” She nodded to herself, her head bobbing like a toy as she folded the thirty-seventh iteration of the seating plan.

A soft rap averted their attention to the study’s doors. Three knocks were all it took for Lady River to whirl around, her eyes widening in delight. Sfjona ducked her head to conceal a smile, knowing that the rest of their conversation would have to wait.

Lady River cleared her throat and delivered a nearly perfect “Twagī en” in Thulish, the product of countless hours of studying the language with a tutor.

The doors opened, revealing a tall gentleman with silvery hair that seemed at odds with his youthful features and vital countenance. His Grace was still in his prime—and, in truth, younger than herself, being only nine and forty—but the Great Blight that had ravaged the land of Caid for twelve years had left its permanent mark on him, robbing his once-blond hair of its color. He whose blood destined him to live for centuries would not have reached his fiftieth year had Lady River not barreled into their lives and toppled them over like skittles the year prior. She had brought her light—and, admittedly, no small amount of chaos—to a man and a land who desperately needed it.

The three of them never broached the series of stupefying events that had taken place last autumn. There was no need to: the snowy locks on His Grace’s temples were the secret that bound them far beyond mere masters and servant. Scandal sheets may write another hundred thousand pages about the fateful events of the last Hweg: they would never know the half of it.

Sfjona curtsied to her former employer. His Grace’s tastefully embroidered waistcoat and dark tailcoat were a familiar sight, but the faint smile at the corners of his lips was a recent development. Once a forbidding man, he had mellowed over the past months, as snow does when spring returns. “Good afternoon, madams. May I briefly intrude on your meeting?”

“Oh, we were done,” Lady River announced with a grin.

Sfjona wondered if the young woman was aware of the way her body turned toward him whenever he entered a room, as a flower would seek the sun. The duke seemed similarly besotted, his usually piercing gray gaze softening as it lingered upon his intended. These daily (often nightly) visits were but a poor substitute for the concubinary bliss he and Lady River had heretofore enjoyed at Thunor Hall . . . until a series of rather prurient pieces published in the Thulish Intelligencer had made it clear that polite society was tired of waiting for His Grace to capitulate to the demands of propriety.

Out of concern for their reputations—and that of Lady Sage, Lady River’s younger sister, whose future marital prospects might find themselves caught and shredded in the relentless spin of the rumor mill—the couple had henceforth elected to live separately until their union had been duly blessed by a druid and witnessed by their peers. A charming townhouse had been leased for Lady River two doors down from Landevale House, where His Grace resided when in Camelot, and so the Duke of Caid was reduced to calling on his beloved no more than once a day, as any respectable suitor ought to.

Sfjona averted her eyes to the silent conversation weaving itself between the lovers and dipped for a low curtsy. “My lady, Your Grace. Shall you be needing my services again today?”

His eyebrows jolted as if he’d forgotten her very presence until now. “No. You may retire, Miss Brist.”

As she made to leave the room, he raised a hand to stop her. “Ah, Miss Brist. I nearly forgot . . .”

She noticed for the first time the envelope in his hand, bearing the crimson seal of the Thulair Express Mail Service, which relied on the airline’s extensive fleet of windcruisers to deliver urgent communications in the four and twenty provinces of Logres and four Meroitic kingdoms “at unsurpassed speed,” according to the advertisements painted on buildings or printed in the Illustrated Camelot Gazette. Being a personage of considerable importance in the kingdom, His Grace received several such envelopes daily despite the exorbitant cost of mailing even a few words through the service.

“It was delivered to Landevale House and brought to me in error,” he explained, handing her the envelope. “I believe this is for you.”

Indeed, as she inspected it, Sfjona’s eyes widened upon reading her name in the filigree frame reserved for the recipient. Dear blood . . . who in the world had gone to the trouble—and the ludicrous expense!—of sending her an express?

Lady River aimed curious, catlike jade eyes at the mysterious dispatch. “Shouldn’t you open it?”

Sfjona turned over the envelope. The sender’s name sent a foreboding chill down her spine. S. Brist, Bogfrog St. 9, Rigsnā, Bedrydant

Seifja. Her sister would have never spent so much money without a good reason. The incipient doubt in her chest ballooned into full-blown fear as Sfjona ripped the paper folds open. Was father gravely ill? Dead, perhaps?

Expresses were billed by the character, and Seifja had done a superb job of cutting costs with a mere eleven letters, nonetheless worth seventy-nine denari and two kantem—nearly four crowns! It was, however, the substance of the message rather than its outrageous price that drew a gasp from Sfjona . . . just before her knees buckled.


Papa in jail. Come at once.

Chapter 2

Sfjona caught herself too late to avoid embarrassment. As her knees momentarily threatened to give way under her, His Grace lunged to support her elbows, thus initiating the most indecorous physical interaction she’d ever experienced with any of her employers. Marginally worse than being helped back to a steady standing position by the Duke of Caid was that the express, which had escaped her hands, now lay on the rug at their feet, its ignominious contents revealed to all present.

Lady River’s mouth formed an astonished O. His Grace’s nostrils flared. Sfjona’s spine and knees had turned wooden; she bent like a cheaply made automaton with the intent of picking up the letter. The duke was faster, going down on one knee to seize it.

“Miss Brist . . .” he said, his somber tone no doubt the prelude to a storm. No knight who sat at the Round Table would tolerate for his personnel to associate with reprobates and . . . convicts.

She knew she should have spoken, offered His Grace some form of apology or reassurance that the message must have been sent in error. She ought to tell him that Eleuterin Brist was a well-respected member of his community, a self-possessed gentleman possessed of a noble, irreproachable, and rigorously unblemished character. Words, however, deserted her.

Her gaze was set on the letter in his hands, the rest of the room a dark blur. Somehow, somewhere in Bedrydant, her father shivered alone, hungry—possibly chained!—in a dark cell. For what crime? Seifja’s succinct cry for help didn’t say. Blood drummed painfully in Sfjona’s ears as she mentally leafed through terrifying possibilities. Theft? Murder? No. Father wasn’t capable of such a thing, not even to defend himself. But what if he had to?

She glanced out the window at the coppery trails slashing across the darkening sky and, behind them, the immense hazy outline of Dumāk—the Mist—and the shattered remnants of Bristlugger—the broken moon. If Father had killed, he’d be condemned to the Mist: immediate death as pathfinders opened a path to the icy planet and precipitated him through its never-ending clouds of unbreathable air. She’d read books, heard the stories: his lungs would freeze first, almost instantly.

She looked away, her stomach sinking. He might have simply gotten into fisticuffs at a tavern—she wanted to laugh at the notion but couldn’t muster even a chuckle. Father was a kind and bookish man, an enthusiastic scholar constitutionally incapable of anger directed at anything other than a poorly written academic tome. And Sfjona doubted that he had ever set foot in a tavern.

“Sfjona,” His Grace intoned, his voice softer than before. “Are you well? Should I call for a tonic?”

Her head snapped up. Never in thirty-five years of service had her first name crossed the duke’s lips. She folded her hands over her stomach. “Oh, no, no. I’m quite— I apologize for this regrettable . . .” should she call it a lapse in manners? An incident? Her mind was a tangled skein in which she couldn’t find the ends of her thoughts.

“You need to go,” Lady River said with a glance at the ormolu clock that stood under a translucent gleist globe on the fireplace mantel. “It’s an eight-hour flight to Bedrydant. If you can catch an evening flight, you’ll be in Rigsnā at night rise.”

The statement shocked Sfjona’s brain back into action as she quickly calculated the price of a third-class ticket to Bedrydant: eye-watering. She mentally scribbled that first item on a list, which soon included the following:

  • Requesting a leave of absence from Lady River: one could assume it had been granted already.
  • Packing her carpetbag and a light trunk, including the jams and hair ornaments she’d meant to bring for Seifja on her next trip.
  • A stop at the bank to withdraw the entirety of her savings as a bill: Father would no doubt need a lawyer. Furthermore, if the charges turned out to be minor, he would be mainpernable and therefore eligible to be released in exchange for the payment of a surety . . . if she could afford it.

“My lady,” Sfjona eventually managed to say, her throat tight. “I may be absent for several days.” During which the wedding preparations would languish unless Lady River immediately hired a replacement. She swallowed a lump of grief lodged in her throat. If the price for Father’s freedom was her position, so be it.

The bride-to-be waved her unspoken concern off. “It’s fine. Take all the time you need to sort this out. I’ll wait for you.”

“But my lady, the seating plan, the rehearsal . . . the napkins!” She couldn’t help the stress she put on the latter: each of the two hundred cloth napkins ought to be embroidered not only with His Grace’s coat of arms but with the guest’s initials as well. Each piece thus produced would then be scrupulously inspected prior to the revels: even the slightest inaccuracy in the lettering would be perceived by the guest as a grave affront to their blood and leave an indelible stain on an event of this magnitude.

“Don’t worry: Sage and I will check them when they arrive,” Lady River decreed.

Sfjona Brist felt the ground open under her feet. Her father was in jail, and His Grace’s wedding was now poised to be a cataclysm. She heard herself squeak, “I believe it would be perfectly admissible to hire a replacement.”

“Out of the question.” The words came from His Grace. “There is no shortage of help available at Landevale House. Your position is not in jeopardy, Miss Brist.”

Perhaps it ought to be. If Lady River refused to replace her, Sfjona would have to free her father from jail and fly back to Camelot in time to check the napkins and oversee the final fitting of her Ladyship’s wedding gown. She snapped her heels together. The sooner she left, the sooner she’d return to avert disaster. “Very well, my lady. May I retire to prepare for my journey?”

Lady River winked. “I’ll have the carriage readied for you.”

“Oh, you are too kind, my lady.” She crossed “omnibus ticket” off her mental plan of action, curtsied to her employers, and bolted out of the room.

Sfjona’s rooms were not situated in the servants’ quarters: Lady River had made it a point of honor that she should dwell in a proper guest suite on the third floor. Somewhat larger than her apartment at Thunor Hall, the suite was composed of a white-paneled bedchamber, a sitting room, and her very own bath chamber featuring a luxurious brass tub. How she had ascended in the world since the day she had first set foot at Thunor Hall, a graceless girl of sixteen dragging a bulging straw suitcase almost as big as she was.

The memory of that sun-dappled day still lingered in her mind, brighter than all others. She’d been fitted with her uniform—a black dress, a starched apron with flounced suspenders, and a matching lace cap—and given a tour of the house by Mrs. Rickett, the late housekeeper. She was a large and rosy woman, whose dark dress and gleaming chatelaine of keys had seemed to Sfjona the attributes of a vengeful deity—when, in truth, the woman had been as kind as one could afford to be when managing an army of fifty servants and thrice as many rooms.

Drawing rooms, parlors, salons: the grand house gave Sfjona the strange impression of being filled with nothing but gold, gleist, and maids like herself until a blond-haired boy of four had sprung from behind a settee in the library and demanded to know her name. Master Aurelius—His Grace’s younger brother—had soon been joined by His Grace, who towered over her even at fourteen. She could picture him again, a boy whose ears and legs were yet too big to fit him properly but who already exhibited the self-possession of one fully aware of his place in the world . . . save for the crimson flush of his cheeks when young Master Aurelius introduced him thus: “This is Hadrian. He no longer wets the bed, but I’m afraid I sometimes still do.”

It was the first and only time she’d ever laughed at His Grace, but the peels of amusement had died in her throat as soon as she registered the look of absolute consternation on Mrs. Rickett’s face.

Sfjona, who had hitherto paid no attention to the vaporous silhouette standing in the library’s doorway, had not known what a lady of the Table was until the Duchess of Caid had glided into the room, touched by the summer light. Only then did she notice that the tall archway framing Her Grace seemed to have been built for the sole purpose of showcasing her to those witnessing her entrance or the way the leaves sprouting from the wood strained toward the duchess, drawn by the sheer pull her quiet power exerted on them.

Her face had been like a painting, a perfect oval void of emotion and hemmed by tightly plaited golden hair. She studied Sfjona as one would a new piece of furniture, only to find fault in its marquetry. Just when Sfjona believed her training as a lady’s maid would end before it had even begun, Her Grace spoke: “Each of us is assigned a role in this play, and we have no freedom but that to leave the stage . . . or to see ourselves dismissed from it.” The light had lent an imperceptible smile to her lips as she marked a pause and added, “Pray remember your cues in the future, Miss Brist.”

Soft as the duchess’s voice might have been, it was the harshest reminder Sfjona had ever received of her humble condition. And yet, some years later, it was Her Grace who, finding Sfjona far better read than any lady’s maid had a right to be, had assigned her to assist her aging secretary in menial tasks—the poor woman had worked for the duchy for nigh a century, and her gnarled hands could barely hold a quill anymore.

Day after day, and for nearly two decades, Sfjona had dutifully penned account tables, notes, and invitations under Her Grace’s dictation. Then, one evening, the old secretary had retired to her apartment for the last time and, under the winter-bared boughs of her bed canopy, drawn her last breath. It was the second day of Ludlugger, in the 1839th year after the foundation of Camelot, and Sfjona Brist became the personal secretary of the Duchess of Caid.

She had begun to believe, then, that perhaps one’s fortunes could be improved by a life of service. She was nine and thirty, childless, but not quite beyond all hope of meeting a respectable gentleman and starting a family. Even as the first rumors of inexplicably wilted crops reached Thunor Hall, Sfjona had believed that her future would be bright indeed.

The Great Blight had reached the borders of the duchy later that year, killing the land and, with it, countless insignificant dreams like hers. The fields had grown barren, the woods silent as trees succumbed and starved animals either fled or died. One by one, the villages of Caid’s countryside had become tombs as ichor inexplicably vanished from the soil.

Many servants had left when leaves had begun to fall from the berekor, the eternal tree that supported the ancestral walls of Thunor Hall. There were whispers that the blood of the land was cursed, that the Landevales must have committed some unspeakable sin to deserve such punishment from Myrwin. The duke and the duchess had stood proud as their whole world rotted around them, blind and deaf, it seemed, to the plight of their people.

Through it all, Sfjona had followed her cues and served Her Grace to the very end as if nothing were amiss. On the final long night, she had been penning a response to a girls’ school beseeching funds for their pupils when Her Grace went out for a constitutional with her husband—a rare occurrence. Sfjona had never witnessed any tender word or gesture between them until that day. The old duke held his wife’s hand and pulled her close to him as they treaded the dead lawn together toward a forested hill. There, a stream flowed whose water had once nourished the green grounds. The sight had brought a secret smile to Sfjona’s lips as she spied them through the window of Her Grace’s study. They had never looked younger.

Hours later, Sfjona had awakened to a glorious golden dawn filtering through her curtains. It was the beginning of fall, and spring had come at last, painting Thunor Hall’s grounds in vibrant greens, dotting them with thousands of flowers. The boughs enmeshed in her bedroom walls sported new buds, as did the berekor in the grand hall.

Master Hadrian and Aurelius had been the first to understand, to feel the renewed life calling to their ichor in every fiber of the house. As servants gushed at the miraculous sight, the two young men had run to the hill, their features contorted in anguish. They had followed the trail of fragrant flowers up the stream and found the bodies of their parents lying in each other’s arms by the stream.

All their blood, all the ancient ichor that the land had seen fit to gift them, the duke and duchess had returned to the land in its hour of need. It was the fifth day of Kentlugger, 1842 years after the foundation of Camelot, and Sir Hadrian Landevale became the Duke of Caid.

The passing of her employers meant far more to Sfjona than the mere loss of her position, but there was too much to be done in this fleeting autumnal spring to indulge in grief. His Grace proposed that she remain and serve as Thunor Hall’s housekeeper to oversee the delicate balance of household expenses in those difficult times. Albeit spoken with cool detachment, Sfjona understood the demotion for what it was: the plea of a young man afraid to lose what few familiar faces remained around him. What good would a better position have done her in a kingdom that might sooner or later fall to ruins?

Sfjona had accepted and stood by him as the blight devoured Caid. Eight years of death and famine, of barren fields and sick children. Eight years of watching His Grace return his blood to the land in small increments, as his parents once had. His hair had turned gray, then white at the temples as his light left him, shared with those weakened by the loss of ichor.

There had been less hope in Caid with each new dawn until a terrible judicial error had caused Lady River to be brought to Thule, ferried across the universe . . . from the other side.

Lady River’s capture had soon turned into a state affair involving pathfinders, sitting knights, members of the dreaded Military Intelligence Office, water wolves, a near war with the tribes of Mordred, and . . . possibly ancient gods. Sfjona had never dared to question Lady River on that last point. To all who ventured to ask, Lady River would respond that her father was a human from the other side named Neil Greer, and that was that.

Nevertheless, for two bewildering nights, Sfjona’s whole world had spun off its axis and become an exhilarating race, from her first windcruiser flight to the glimmering ballroom of Lenden Castle, where she had danced with Sir Bedivere. Later that fateful night, a great lightning rod had torn through the skies, ending the decades-long blight and bringing true spring to the land at last.

Now the golden summer carried the promise of bountiful harvests this fall, and everywhere Sfjona went, the lawns had never been greener, the flowers more fragrant. Workers buzzed about in every corner of the duchy of Caid, here repainting the walls of houses in bright pastels, there digging public ponds so that capybaras might sun and swim at their leisure.

Everything had been reborn and changed by the blight except her, it seemed.

Sfjona considered herself in the looking glass as she fastened the large ribbon of her bonnet, a simple straw piece that she had embellished according to the Fashion and Court Elegance Report’s plates. A spray of silk roses topped the brim, serving as a nest for a lovely purple bird, so lifelike that it looked about to fly away.

She frowned at her reflection. She was young enough still to wear flowers, wasn’t she?

Time hadn’t yet left its mark on her, save perhaps for the purple circles under her eyes, owing to the many rests she’d spent poring over the wedding preparations. The remnants of her youth, she knew, were slipping fast through her fingers. She was in her fifth decade, childless, and beyond all hope of meeting a respectable gentleman and starting a family. And—she slowly massaged her temples—Father’s never-ending downcome had now led him to jail.

No . . . nothing had truly changed since that summer so long ago when she’d arrived at Thunor Hall with her suitcase. Sfjona mulled over this depressing conclusion, buttoning a light linen duster over her dress. She tugged at her pink kid gloves—a terribly dear but oh-so-fashionable indulgence—and inspected herself in the mirror. Her petticoats weren’t showing, and her boots gleamed from a scrupulous polish. Perfect.

Her carpetbag was ready and close to bursting, as was her trunk, despite her efforts to restrict her garderobe and personal effects to the strict minimum; the arcane art of packing light simply eluded her. 

The house was aflutter with the rumor of her urgent departure: a pair of footmen rushed to carry her luggage when she opened her door. She trotted after them down the grand staircase that led to the entrance hall, only to be greeted by a small committee composed of His Grace, Lady River, and her sister, Lady Sage. The latter joined Sfjona with a conquering stride as she reached the landing. “What happened? River said you’re leaving in an emergency, but she wouldn’t tell me why. She said it was personal. Are you all right?”

“I am quite well,” she lied as Lady Sage prowled around her trunk and carpetbag like a cat sniffing at a knitting basket. At barely eighteen, she shared her sister’s jade gaze and energetic countenance, but the rest of her bore the ineffaceable signs of a lifetime of hardships and malady. Like His Grace’s, her snowy hair would never recover its former color. Born on the other side to the late Lady Lethe Gaheris of Orloth and a human father, Lady Sage had suffered from a severe form of ichor deficiency. Life on the other side, where ichor was rumored to be nearly absent, had nearly killed the child until Lady River brought her to live on Thule. She was now a vital, rosy-cheeked young woman whose growth had been stunted by her ordeal, standing barely taller than Sfjona.

Lady Sage reminded her in so many lovely and heartbreaking ways of her dearest Seifja, who awaited her in Bedrydant.

“We couldn’t let you leave without a few quest items,” Lady Sage said at last, handing Sfjona a blue embroidered silk pouch that appeared to be filled with small rectangular objects. She unlaced it, her eyebrows slowly rising as she perused the contents. Dearest blood. There were dozens of them, coming in an assortment of bright colors: pink, gold, green . . . Some were as small as a whistle, others the size of a calling card, wrapped in bold-red glossy paper. Sweet confections from the other side. Exquisite. Forbidden. Priceless.

Sfjona took short, harried breaths. “Oh, my lady, this is—I cannot accept . . .” Oh, but she would. She grieved at the thought of letting go of even a single piece of this treasure.

“They’re Kit Kat from Japan,” Lady Sage supplied in a tone of confidence—no doubt a prestigious store on the other side. “They’re really good. And you wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve solved my problems”—her small mouth formed a wicked grin as she extracted one such Kit Kat and wiggled it—“by giving the right bribe to the right person.”

Sfjona bit back a gasp.

His Grace, who had leaned forward to take stock of the pouch’s contents, narrowed his eyes at Lady Sage. “And who exactly, might one ask, have you been bribing with these?”

“Let’s not have that conversation right now,” Lady River interjected, stepping to shield her sister from His Grace’s inquisitive stare. Her genial expression turned into puzzlement as she inspected the bag, pointing at a small black tube partially concealed under the candy. “What’s this?”

Lady Sage nodded to herself. “Self-defense, since she’ll be traveling alone.”

Sfjona seized the mysterious canister. It was cool to the touch, made of metal, and quite similar to those small portable telescopes gentlemen carried during their travels. She turned it over in her hand and felt liquid sloshing inside. A bottle, then. Her confusion grew upon noticing a series of mystifying inscriptions in minuscule print on the side of the device. Sfjona squinted at the words “definitive counterattack,” “powerful and non-lethal formula,” and . . . “Efficiently repels bears”? “My lady, I do not believe I have ever heard of a bear traveling on a windcruiser.”

Lady River snatched the tube from Sfjona’s hands, her eyes fluttering wide. “Sage, what the f— I mean, Where did you even get pepper spray?”

Sfjona’s gaze shuttled back and forth between the sisters. Pepper spray?

“I got it from Mordred. He traded it to me for some of my Japanese Kit Kats.” The young woman’s usually confident expression faltered as she faced her sister’s shocked expression and the indignant flare of His Grace’s nostrils.

Lady River and her intended both spoke at the same time.

“He what?”

“Young lady, have you been having private encounters with King Mordred?”

Sfjona clasped her hands over her mouth, praying that the maids wouldn’t overhear this budding scandal. King Mordred, who had recently claimed his seat at the Round Table, was notorious for his efforts to legalize the import and distribution of recreational goods from the other side—with the help of his subjects, a disreputable horde known as the Children of Mordred. The Table had recently voted to allow the Children to develop this new and profitable trade but certainly not to allow a—barely—respectable knight to conduct such indecorous business with a daughter of the Table.

“Look, I took it just in case . . . because I don’t wield ichor like you.” Lady Sage’s sulky defense instantly doused her elder sister’s outrage, dissolving their squabble into flustered silence. His Grace stepped back, electing to forgo a lecture on inconsequence, promiscuity, and the illegal trade of otherworldly confectioneries. Although he did not always know how to handle the whimsical and, at times, willful Lady Sage, the duke redeemed himself by his ability to choose his battles wisely.

They don’t always understand what it’s like.

The words, spoken months ago in confidence by Lady Sage, bubbled up to the surface of Sfjona’s memories. As loving and supportive as Lady River might be, it was easy for her to forget that lesser ichorites—like Lady Sage or Sfjona herself—experienced the world far differently than she did. Lady River and His Grace perceived the land—and even, to an extent, the people—as a primordial matter to be bent to their will. Heeding the powerful pull of ichor in their veins, rivers rose from their beds, trees grew taller, rocks could turn to dust or molten dough. There was, indeed, very little to fear in a reality that could be reshaped to suit one’s fancy.

Lady Sage and Sfjona, on the other hand, possessed nothing but their hands and wits to make that same journey through life. Their world was full of frightening and unyielding forces, made of too many top shelves and too few stools. Their world was big and unkind, and they were, literally and figuratively, small.

For this reason, and since their first meeting, Sfjona had felt a sense of kinship with the young woman. Lady Sage’s concerns were perfectly warranted: a woman traveling unaccompanied at night might fall prey to all manner of rogues and malefactors on her way. She cleared her voice softly to break the standoff. “What a generous gift, my lady. May I ask how it is used?”

Lady River blinked in astonishment, her fingers curling around the bottle. “I’m honestly not sure this is a good idea.”

“Sfjona,” His Grace said, his voice stern. “You have my word, as a knight and a gentleman, that you shall be safe during your journey.”

Sfjona curtsied and murmured a heartfelt reply. “I am immensely grateful for your protection, Your Grace.” Her gaze, however, remained set on the bottle.

Defeated, Lady River relinquished the device to her sister, whose lips quirked victoriously.

“Observe.” Lady Sage slid her thumb under the bottle cap and deftly flicked it open. “It’s a flip top. Once it’s open, you just aim, press here, and psssshhh—”

“Woah, easy.” Lady River’s hand darted out to stop her.

Lady Sage closed the bottle cap. “I wasn’t going to. I was just showing her.”

Sfjona surveyed the mysterious weapon with inquietude. How powerful was it that even Lady River herself seemed afraid of it? “Would pepper oil then come out?”

“It’s more like concentrated pepper extract. Think the juice of a thousand hot peppers in your face.”

Dear blood. Enough pepper to kill a whole bear.

“Take it,” Lady Sage insisted, placing the bottle in Sfjona’s hand and closing her gloved fingers around it.

Sfjona nodded solemnly, kneeling to place the pouch full of candy and pepper spray in her carpetbag. She wouldn’t use it. In truth, she would not even dare to touch it again.

His Grace, who had heretofore stood at a cautious distance from the proceedings, stepped forward as Sfjona rose, bag in hand. “Brugnus shall accompany you on your journey. You may rely on his protection and discretion.”

Sfjona glanced across the hall at the duke’s first footman, a stalwart man of some sixty years who had, in his youth, served in the king’s navy and fought pirates and smugglers along the southern coast. Brugnus had been awarded for his service the crown’s Sea Gallantry Medal, which he proudly wore over his blue livery despite the strict rules governing servants’ attire. Then again, not even His Grace would have dared to contradict the vestiary choices of a man who, by his own account, had once killed a smuggler by such vigorous application of his thumbs to the man’s ocular globes that the latter “popped like ripe grapes, they did!”

Sfjona cast an uncertain glance at Brugnus’s solemn expression and battered features, at odds with the white wig he powdered with great care after every rest. Would she truly feel safer in his company? What if he ran into a smuggler and decided to fight him? She thought of Lady Sage’s bottle of bear-killing spray in her bag. If worse came to worse . . . Inhaling sharply, she bowed to the duke. “I am immensely grateful, Your Grace.”

The duke studied her through speculative silver eyes. “You are not without allies, Miss Brist. Should the situation reveal itself more challenging than expected, you may count on my support and that of the seat of Bedrydant in this delicate matter.”

The seat. 

Sfjona’s chest tightened in horror. Sir Bedivere sat at the Table in his father’s stead. It was common for aging knights to relinquish the duties of the seat to their heir apparent, and rumor had it that a life of excess had taken its toll on Sir Bedivere’s father, the Earl of Bedrydant. As the honorary keeper of the seat, Sir Bedivere had the power to pardon any convict in his province. To make matters worse, he and His Grace had been to school together and were close friends. Of course, the duke would think of . . .

“Your Grace, I beg you not to inconvenience Sir Bedivere with this trivial matter,” Sfjona said. She would expire from shame if he, of all knights, interceded in her father’s favor.

“I understand,” the duke replied, in a tone that suggested that he, in fact, did not and would act as he pleased.

“I shall solve the matter promptly and return to perform my duties, Your Grace,” Sfjona announced, puffing up her chest for good measure.

And if not, she alone would decide whether to throw herself at Sir Bedivere’s feet and beg for her father’s release.

Chapter 3

“Lots of wind tonight, miss,” Brugnus noted somberly, eyeing the purple sky out the carriage window.

They had left the last houses of Camelot behind half an hour ago. The gold and coral streaks stretching along the horizon were thinning and breaking, as if crushed by the heavy outline of Dumāk. Sfjona jumped as night seemed to fall suddenly, plunging the comfortable interior of the carriage in darkness. She pressed her cheek to the window to look up at the humongous form engulfing them in its shade. A windcruiser silently glided above them toward the aeroport, low enough that she could make out the shape of the long oblong air balloon and, underneath, the gondola where passengers dwelled, studded with glowing arch windows.

Her toes curled inside her boots; it was only the second time she would fly. While Thulair spared no expense to advertise the luxury and safety of its fleet in the press—only two crashes in twenty years and no recorded fatalities—some physicians postulated that members of the gentler sex and capybaras ought to eschew air travel, for their constitutions were too fragile to withstand the rigors of high altitudes and the aircraft’s vertiginous speed. An empty windcruiser could reach a dizzying eighty leagues per hour—twice the speed of even the fastest unicorn.

The risks were deemed such that ladies of means could purchase elastic stays specifically designed to allow for air travel. Sfjona, who had neither the time nor the means to linger in the aeroport’s all-too-tempting stores, would content herself with linen stays, which had been sufficient to ensure her survival in the past.

“Right on time, miss,” Brugnus announced, glancing at his pocket watch as the road winded to reveal the cast-iron and stained-glass archways of the aeroport. More carriages approached, some jostling omnibuses packed full of travelers, others the sort of sleek and brass-trimmed conveyance she and Brugnus rode in. They came to a stop at some distance from the aeroport’s main entrance, a soaring archway atop which rested Thulair’s emblem, sculpted in gleist. The ichor forever trapped inside the translucent material shone bright, steeping the night with a blue haze.

Sfjona did not remember seeing the emblem the last time she had landed in Camelot. No doubt its installation owed to the end of the blight: the use of gleist, which had for a long time been restricted in an effort to save ichor, was again freely permitted in all the kingdom . . . and Lord Sigwarides, Thulair’s proprietor, was known for his ostentatious tastes.

“Very well,” she told Brugnus. “We have but twenty minutes until the next flight to Rigsnā departs. Shall we proceed?”

One of the young footmen who rode on the rear platform jumped down to open the door for her while Brugnus made a show of helping her out as if she were the queen herself, going so far as to carry her carpetbag for her.

“This way, miss.” He flourished his free hand to the dark silhouette of a windcruiser moored on the airfield, his back ramrod straight.

She paused and looked back at the station building. “Oh, but I must purchase a ticket first.”

“His Grace has made the necessary arrangements already, miss.”

The fine hair on her nape rose on end. “Arrangements?”

Rather than expounding, Brugnus hailed a pair of ground footmen wearing Thulair’s red-and-black livery. They paused in their tracks, only to rush to Sfjona’s side upon noticing Lady River’s arms on the side of the carriage. Besmirched as it may have been by recent events, the name of Gaheris of Orloth still commanded, it seemed, the utmost respect among Thulair’s personnel.

Brugnus handed the oldest of the two men a folded parchment bearing the Duke of Caid’s seal. “Miss Brist is to board on the forty-three o’clock to Rigsnā and be offered His Grace’s usual set of accommodations.

There was no questioning the origin of the letter: faint threads of ichor still sparkled in the golden wax seal, signaling to all that the duke had applied it himself. Sfjona stood pink-faced before the two footmen, torn between gratitude and shame. Brugnus’s curt instructions meant that she would travel in first class, in an aerial suite—as was, indeed, “usual” for His Grace. Generous as it might be, the gift felt like a violation of the order between masters and servants. She became acutely aware of her plain travel coat and the hand-crafted bird bobbing atop her bonnet, battered by gusts of wind.

The footman returned the letter to Brugnus and appraised her with an air of vague suspicion. A servant always recognized another. “Pray follow us, miss,” he said at last, motioning for his colleague to seize her trunk while he took her carpetbag from Brugnus.

A flurry of outrageous headlines flashed in Sfjona’s mind as she trotted after the two men across the airfield. What if they believed her a fraud? What if the Intelligencer got wind of a rumor that His Grace has commandeered a suite for a woman of questionable pedigree who was not his fiancée? The bird quivered furiously on her head, as if to warn her of impending doom as they approached the looming flank of the moored windcruiser.

A long emerald carpet lined with brass stanchions marked the way to the airstair reserved for first-class passengers. Sfjona soon found herself surrounded by opulent silk dresses and the effluxes of the rarest perfumes as a distinguished crowd vied to board the airship.

Brugnus made a path for her, holding His Grace’s letter high, as he would a torch. “Pray make way in the name of His Grace, the Duke of Caid.”

A dozen pairs of eyes turned to her at once, dissecting every thread of her, from the tip of her boots to the bird still on her head. Heat rushed to her cheeks as a stout lady narrowed her eyes at her. She wore a turquoise gown embroidered with the most exquisite cascade of pink flowers—Sfjona recognized it as a model seen in the Thulish Woman’s Domestic Magazine. The woman’s steely gaze lingered on her bonnet. She sniffed, pursed her lips, and eventually looked down at her capybara, which sat placidly half-concealed by the draping of her skirts. “How novel. We ought to find one such headpiece for you, Pudding.”

Someone in the assembly tittered.

Sfjona was used to a certain degree of invisibility, not to such public humiliation. A buzz in her ears dimmed the sounds of the airfield around her. Her knees buckled as she performed the deeply ingrained habit of curtsying to her betters—in apology for what, she did not know. As soon as she had risen, she hurried to the airstair, her skin scalded by the gazes clinging to her.

“Miss Brist?”

Laced with a hint of astonishment, the words were spoken by a familiar voice. Deep, rich—a voice she hadn’t heard addressing her since the fateful night of the Hweg. Sfjona turned around with some effort, feeling her chemise grow damp from a cold sweat. She found herself facing a double-breasted coat made from lustrous brown wool, at which juncture her gaze traveled upward, and upward, until she had to crane her neck for his cravat to enter her field of vision. He was kind enough to look down at her, allowing their gazes to meet at last.

Sfjona knew herself to be flaming red, but she was too absorbed in her contemplation of Sir Natameus Bedivere of Bedrydant to regain any sort of composure. He wasn’t handsome in the sort of sleek, suave way of fashion plates or even men like His Grace’s younger brother. Everything about him, however, seemed to have been perfectly weighed and measured to paint a picture of gentle strength. The nose that should have been a bit too broad was ideally matched to his powerful jaw, and his eyes . . . they were assuredly just the right size, hemmed with unexpectedly long, feminine lashes that made them impossible to overlook, even tucked under thick, dark eyebrows.

And, dear blood, the man was as tall as a mountain. Owing to complex calculations involving the sun’s angle of elevation and outlandish maneuvers to discreetly measure Sir Bedivere’s shadow during a chance encounter in Camelot, Lady Sage speculated that he culminated at precisely seven feet. What did she look like to him, Sfjona wondered, she who barely reached his breast with the assistance of a pair of heels and a faux bird.

He removed his hat, revealing glossy brown waves combed in an unassuming style. The corner of his eyes crinkled in the most appealing way as he smiled. “What a pleasant surprise. Are you perchance traveling to Bedrydant?”

Reality rushed back to her. If Father had committed some great crime, Sir Bedivere would inevitably learn of it soon enough. Should she lie nonetheless, to protect their reputation—and retain Sir Bedivere’s regard—just a little while longer? The evening flight would make several stops, first in Aballen, the capital of Caid, and then after Rigsnā, in Cambenet and Lydon. She could have pretended that she would disembark elsewhere, but she heard herself say, “I am, sir. My family lives in Rigsnā.”

Sir Bedivere nodded to this. “Indeed, Hadr— the Duke of Caid has mentioned it to me.”

Had he? Why would His Grace share such trivial information about his former housekeeper with Sir Bedivere?

“Your father is a brilliant linguist, I believe?” he inquired, shielding her from the flow of passengers climbing up the airstair.

The heat that had been slowly washing away from her cheeks returned with a vengeance, turning her ears into branding irons. Not this. Could Sir Bedivere possibly have heard of . . . the piece? Thirty-eight years ago, the last official publication in Father’s academic career had cost their family everything. By Lailoken, let her be spared the indignity of Sir Bedivere having heard of that particular treatise. She cleared her throat repeatedly. “Oh, he used to dabble in the subject in his youth, but his interests have since shifted to tutoring.”

“An excellent choice,” Sir Bedivere concurred. “Far too many promising boys find their talents wasted for want of a proper education.” When the last capybara had been coerced aboard by Thulair’s personnel, he motioned to the airstair. “Shall we?”

“Yes, of course.”

The bottleneck formed by the narrow staircase expanded into the bright and spacious promenade of the windcruiser, where children ran in delight and urged their parents to commandeer a suitable window through which to gaze upon the starlit night. Sfjona glanced over her shoulder to discover that Brugnus now stood a few paces behind her, presumably to allow her some privacy. The two Thulair footmen were nowhere in sight: they must have carried her luggage to the aerial suite she was to occupy.

Sir Bedivere entrusted his hat to the care of a young russet-haired man whom she understood to be his valet and offered Sfjona his arm in a silent invitation to traipse the promenade. Her heart drummed furiously against her ribs as she tentatively set her hand in the warm crook of his elbow. The position suited neither of them for she had to reach much higher than she normally would, and he, in turn, was forced to keep his arm only half-folded in a decidedly unusual manner. She wouldn’t, however, have traded this brief contact for all the blood in the land.

They walked in comfortable silence, with Sfjona quietly committing to memory the mossy, smoky fragrance of him, until he said, “I, too, have been called home to tend to family matters.”

She looked up at his serene profile. Would it be rude to inquire any further? “Oh. I pray that His Lordship and Her Ladyship are well.”

“They are, presumably.” He ducked his head with the hint of a smile. “I’m afraid my mother is always quite succinct in her missives.”

“So was my sister,” Sfjona admitted shyly.

Sir Bedivere guided their steps to one of the promenade’s tall arched windows. There, his sheer size, combined with the prestige of his station, prompted a few youths to scamper away and free the space for him. Sfjona was aware that he made every effort to appear inoffensive and amenable to those around him, but he nevertheless was a formidable presence to all who stood in his shade. He invited Sfjona to lean against a velvet pad topping the brass railing, designed so that ladies might comfortably rest their forearms as they enjoyed the spectacular view offered by the windows.

His gaze set on the glittering airfield, he said, “Mother loves to remind me that ‘for every word we send, Sigwarides pockets a fortune.’ Thulair Expresses are the only matter in which she professes such strict frugality.”

Sfjona nodded in assent. “They are terribly dear, indeed.”

He gave a soft chuckle, and when she looked up, the faintest golden glow of amusement sparkled in his irises. “While my mother loathes Fāris with a passion, she is, I’m afraid, quite fond of his services, no matter how dear.”

The admission came to her as a shock from so dignified a knight as Sir Bedivere. Yet it also touched her in its candor. In the span of a bemused blink and one unsteady heartbeat, he ceased to be an unapproachable aristocrat who might, if worse came to worse, hold her father’s fate in his hands. In that moment, Sir Bedivere was simply a man, who had friends whom he called by their first name: to him, His Grace was merely Hadrian, and Lord Sigwarides, one of the richest men on Thule, was Fāris.

And his mother, the Countess of Bedrydant, detested the latter, even though he was known to all as a jovial, sprightly, and generally popular public figure. The small part of Sfjona who had never been able to resist a dramatic slice of gossip was electrified by this puzzling revelation. Around them, the low hum of ichor engines and the tinkle of chandeliers signaled the ship’s imminent departure. Against her better judgment, she lowered her voice and leaned closer to Sir Bedivere. “Has he done something to offend your mother?”

He bent slightly to answer in the same tone of confidence. “Perhaps you already know that he and I attended school together.” She did. His Grace has spent his formative years at the Thulagōga, Logres’s most prestigious military school. There, he’d developed a close friendship with Sir Bedivere, Lord Sigwarides, and Mr. Eliud Wolk. The latter, now the head of the powerful Pathfinder Office, had gravitated away from the group over time, until a recent feud with His Grace had, Sfjona feared, broken ties between the two men for good.

“Even as a schoolboy, Fāris was already possessed of an indomitable entrepreneurial spirit,” Sir Bedivere went on, a faint smile lingering on his full lips as clanking sounds outside signaled the release of the windcruiser’s moorings. “And because I was younger than him by a year and quite admirative of his intellect, he often made me a partner in his revolutionary business ventures.”

Sfjona listened, transfixed by the gentle cadence of his voice, the warmth of him, standing so close to her. She barely noticed the ship moving until the airfield shrank away, then dissolved into the night.

“Many such a venture met with commercial failure and ultimately led us to the headmaster’s office. The Frog Olympics, for example, for which a great number of tickets had been sold, resulted in the accidental release of a hundred highly trained batrachians in the dining hall.”

Caught off guard, Sfjona crushed her hand to her mouth to stifle a laugh. Undaunted, Sir Bedivere went on. “Equally brazen were the logistics of our catering service, which involved illicit access to the school larder through a window no larger than an arrow slit—I was to serve as Fāris’s ladder for this purpose. There, he would procure cheese and pastries that he would sell to hungry dormmates for a substantial profit. I carried the basket while he negotiated prices.”

Sfjona’s shoulders were now shaking from silent hilarity, and she feared someone might notice her undignified behavior. Fortunately, all were preoccupied with the majestic sight of Dumāk and Bristlugger rising above a sea of clouds. The exultations of spellbound passengers successfully drowned the hiccups escaping her.

“We were both birched when the catering scheme was denounced to the headmaster by a disgruntled patron. It was, I believe, the first time Mother ever heard of Fāris: parents were notified in writing by the school of such grave transgressions.”

Sfjona’s laughter died at the thought of the kind boy he must have been receiving even a single blow. “She must have held him responsible for your misfortune,” she surmised.

He nodded. “Yes, and the protection scheme that he launched next did little to ingratiate him in her eyes.”

“Protection . . . scheme?”

“His Grace was to be our first client. Being the heir to a dukedom, he had, upon his arrival at the Thulagōga, been immediately challenged to a duel by older students. Fāris offered him my protection, arguing that despite my young age—I was but eleven at the time—I already stood taller than boys several years my senior.”

She bit back a gasp. “He involved you in a duel?”

“Fisticuffs interspersed with inept attempts at offensive ichor arts,” Sir Bedivere clarified, perhaps in a bid to mollify her.

Far from achieving its intended effect, the casual remark chilled her to the bone. Ichor arts, which were taught to Thule’s most powerful bloodlines, involved the manipulation of the ichor woven into the intimate fibers of any living being or inert material for the purpose of transforming them. A cool stream might be turned into a block of ice, unseen particles of air heated to a raging inferno. Sand and stones could be shaped into defensive structures or weapons, and the very flesh of another ichorite could be intimately broken apart for the purpose of healing or killing. “What a dreadful notion. Did His Grace accept the offer?”

Sir Bedivere nodded. “He paid a denaro and two honey cakes for my services.”

“Oh, dear blood.” Would she ever be able to look at the duke in the same fashion after this momentous reveal? He, so noble and brave in the face of certain death, had once bribed an innocent child into fighting his battles for him? The bird nested atop her bonnet moved along with the sorrowful shake of her head. She sighed, willing her proverbial—and literal—feathers to settle. Perhaps virtuous blood was simply earned through life’s trials. “What happened? How did you survive?”

A peal of quiet laughter rumbled through his chest. “Barely. Fāris had greatly exaggerated my fighting skills in his effort to market them. I was squarely beaten by my adversaries, left black and blue—and so was His Grace. It was, I suppose, a learning and humbling experience for both of us. By the time she received the school’s report on the incident, my mother was fully convinced that Fāris exerted a nefarious influence on me.”

Sjfona’s chest heaved in silent consternation, crushing her lungs against the immovable wall of her stays. Perhaps she should consider elastic travel stays after all. “I must say that I understand Her Ladyship’s concerns, sir.”

“Pray do not judge Fāris too harshly. It is to his credit that he came to visit us in the nursing quarters and refunded Hadrian’s investment,” Sir Bedivere concluded with his usual benevolence.

“Bedivere. Will you join us for supper?”

Sfjona and Sir Bedivere turned together toward the source of the masculine voice. She recognized the austere mien and silvery-blond hair of Lord Agravaine of Cambenet, a sitting knight and, to the best of her knowledge, once a close friend to His Grace’s late father. He stood amid a group of ladies and gentlemen whose effortlessly elegant habiliments spoke of privileged blood.

She stood behind Sir Bedivere, willing herself invisible as he exchanged courteous greetings with Lord and Lady Agravaine. Her Ladyship, a dark woman of some 120 years, wore a resplendent evening toilette of gold-and-lilac-shot silk and had a queenly bearing. Directing her gaze at Sfjona, she inquired, “And who, might one ask, is your charming company, Sir Bedivere?”

Sfjona’s pulse quickened when he stepped aside and flourished his hand at her. “My lady, may I present to you Miss Brist, the personal secretary of Lady River of Orloth?”

She dipped for a curtsy, careful to bow and rise just slow enough to show Lady Agravaine the reverence owed to her rank. When she dared to peer up from under her lashes, she could detect no disdain in the lady’s patient gaze, merely a sense of curiosity, as if she belonged to some heretofore unknown species.

It was Sir Bedivere who broke this uncomfortable perusal when he asked, “May we expect the pleasure of your company for supper, Miss Brist?”

Sfjona’s mouth went dry. Lord Agravaine set his sharp golden eyes on her and gave a barely detectable sniff.

Pray remember your cues in the future, Miss Brist.

The dress she wore under her travel coat was a simple wool frock paired with dark petticoats made to withstand the dust of travel. She darted a look at the scintillating gleist chandeliers peeking through the open door of the first-class dining salon. She would make a shameful spectacle of herself if she dared to accept Sir Bedivere’s invitation.

There was an ache in her jaw, a dull pain that shot all the way down to her heart as she reluctantly said, “Oh, I’m afraid I feel quite faint from the ship’s speed and must retire for the evening, my lord.”

She did not miss Lord Agravaine’s approving expression as she spoke those words . . . nor the fleeting furrow creasing Sir Bedivere’s brow. He regained his composure at once, as if the mark of disappointment had been but an illusion. “I must then bid you a pleasant rest, Miss Brist.”

She knew then, as he bent from his formidable height to bow to her, what he would do next. The lights of Lenden Castle’s ballroom were but a memory, but for an instant, it seemed to Sfjona that the windcruiser’s promenade was a bright whirl of colors. She raised a trembling hand, which he took in his with great care. It was not done for a gentleman to effectively make contact with a woman’s hand upon offering to kiss it. He must, in fact, maintain his mouth at least half an inch from the proffered hand so as not to incommode the object of his attentions.

For the second time in her life, Sfjona felt the warmth of his lips upon her glove, lingering even as he rose again and whispered, “Your light shall be missed.”

Sfjona could barely remember how she had made it back to her cabin. After Sir Bedivere’s hand kiss, her legs had been so unsteady, and her composure so frayed that Lady Agravaine had begun to believe in truth that the effects of the flight might be putting Sfjona’s health at risk. In an unexpected display of compassion, she had ordered a footman to prepare a tonic and carry it to Sfjona’s suite.

“Stateroom number three, miss,” Brugnus announced with a flourish of his hand as he opened the door for her.

 Steeped in the scent of wood and beeswax, the lavish interior thus revealed came as a haven. She’d spent her first windcruiser in one such suite, tending to Lady River under His Grace’s instructions. The gilded paneling and blue damask walls were quite similar, and so was the furniture: a canopy bed and dressing table facing a sitting area composed of a pair of armchairs as well as a table and chairs. White blooms overflowed from a vase on a console, permeating the air with their sweet scent.

Her carpetbag and trunk awaited by the wardrobe, the latter shining softly from what she recognized as a thorough polish. Moments later, a young footman brought on a silver tray a steaming cup of wine laced with soinujā, a species of nut cultivated in the Meroitic kingdoms, whose core contained a highly invigorating substance—likely to cause a state of prolonged euphoria if consumed immoderately.

She accepted the delicately chiseled cup and took a slow sip, her gaze set on the large window offering travelers an unsurpassed view of the skies. She exhaled slowly, allowing the wine to loosen her knotted muscles as the windcruiser sailed across a dark sea of clouds. Would Sir Bedivere, too, stand by a similar window and contemplate their all-too-brief encounter? And how would he react if he somehow learned that her father had been arrested?

Brugnus cleared his throat. “Shall I give instructions for your dinner to be served, miss?”

“It won’t be necessary. Thank you.” Her gaze fell to her carpetbag. The silk pouch containing Lady Sage’s treasure sat atop her possessions, temptingly full. She unlaced it and retrieved two pieces, wrapped in a glossy pink wrapper printed with strawberries.

“I believe that we all deserve some reward for our pains.” She sighed, offering one of the Kit Kats to Brugnus, who accepted the proffered delicacy with a bow.

His usually sure hands shook slightly as he considered the candy, tracing the inscriptions on the wrapping with a gloved finger. “Is this their writing, miss?”

Sfjona nodded. Only a few words, written in the Latin script of Albijaxto—English— were understandable to her. The rest were whimsical strokes, fascinating in their opaque mystery.

“Confounds the mind . . .” Brugnus drawled, chewing on his Kit Kat.

“Doesn’t it? But they are perfectly safe to eat.”

He gave a martial nod. “Had to eat a dead man’s liver once. ’Tisn’t candy that’ll fall me, even if it came from hell itself. Ring for me if you need anything, miss. Safe rest.”

“Safe rest, Brugnus.”

Sfjona did not move for a very long time after he had left, lost in her contemplation of the Erkabonā, the heavenly river where stars flowed for eternity in the night sky. Thule’s long night had fallen, and the sun wouldn’t rise for another thirty hours. She eventually unwrapped the strawberry-flavored treat—a wafer coated in a delectable pink icing, which, in truth, tasted nothing like strawberries as she knew them. She took small bites, allowing the icing to slowly melt on her tongue and soothe her overwrought senses. If all went well, she would land in the capital of Bedrydant at fifty-one o’clock, which would give her the whole wake to find Seijfa and Father.

What calamity awaited there, she had not the first notion.

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