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Authors: Jay Lake

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BOOK: Endurance
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She looked surprised. “You are baker?”

“Not really.” I smiled at her. “I trained for a while, to be a palace chef.” That wasn't even a lie, exactly, though it was only a fraction of the truth.

With a dubious glance at my clothing, the woman nodded. “You need work, maybe we use early morning. You wake before sun?”

I was sorely tempted by her offer, if nothing else to learn the secret of these magnificent rolls. The distractions of food were always of interest, even if unwise at times. And cooking had ever soothed my troubled heart. “Unfortunately, I often do wake early. But I have work enough, though I thank you.” Saying I had work
was
a lie, though not in spirit. I slipped her one of my last silver taels as gross overpayment, decided to trust my quick thoughts and quicker tongue, and, much relieved, stepped into the street to stride firmly toward the Textile Bourse.

*   *   *

Even those few rods of distance were haunted with more memories than I had realized. To this day I am still learning the power of place to summon recollection; back then I had scarcely begun to understand it.

Here I had fought alongside Skinless and the Factor's ghost and most of the pardines to be found in Copper Downs that day. Here my old enemy and older friend Federo had died when the god Choybalsan finally left him. Here Endurance had been birthed from the wild power and passion of the moment. Here was where I had last seen the Dancing Mistress, my dearest friend.

By the time I mounted the steps to the damaged portico fronting the first floor of the three-storey stone facade, the contented peace that the teahouse had brought me was fled as swiftly as mist on the water. I faced the two brawlers in their ill-fitting uniforms, which I did not recognize. One of the dormant regiments? Copper Downs had never been good at armies.

Each was more than a head taller than I, and they had the sort of muscles that scared off would-be footpads just on principle. If this pair didn't know who I was, they would soon learn. A lesson that would profit them little, though I'd be glad of the workout.

“I am Green,” I announced. “Here to meet with the Interim Council.”

Instead of the brutish resistance I'd expected, they both pressed back against the stonework of the building. A quick glance exchanged between the two men served as the drawing of straws. The loser stammered, “You're expected, miss. Ma'am. G-Green.” The winner opened the door and waved me inside.

Expected?
A curious choice of words, under the circumstances.

Within was the same chaos of clerks and desks and stacks of paper that I remembered from the days of summer, though lit by oil lamps in the absence of sunlight from the tall, street-facing windows still boarded over. They moved in a swirling mass orchestrated by the formidable mind of Mr. Nast. The man doubtless directed his minions personally even while asleep in whatever closet he propped himself within to take his rest.

I knew where I was heading. No one seemed inclined to either stop me or lend me aid, so I stalked through the wide room to the stairs with one hand on the hilt of my long knife. The path opened before me as if drawn by the finger of a god, and closed behind me with a murmur. The familiar black and white marble of the steps, mostly covered with more documents in their files and stacks, bore me upward.

Near the top I turned and looked down at several dozen staring faces. I was tempted to bare steel, or simply yell some nonsense at them, for surely they would scatter like chickens before the cook's axe. Instead I satisfied myself with a sharp nod.

Oddly, several of them returned it, and more broke into smiles. I almost felt welcomed.

Upstairs stretched a long, familiar hallway lined with offices and cluttered with even more desks. Here the more senior clerks and functionaries were not so shy about halting in their work to goggle at me, some grinning like cats in a buttery. I tightened my grip on my long knife and stalked with exaggerated deliberation toward the council chamber at the end of the hall. Lily Blades understood violence as theater, and theater as violence. As I approached the stained-glass door illustrating the wonders of felt, Mr. Nast stepped out.

Pale, pinch-faced, severe as any Justiciary Mother, he had changed little. Mr. Nast also betrayed no surprise at my presence in his hallway. “Just on time, you are.”

“I was not summoned.” In a perverse way, I liked this man, but he also brought out the argument in me—which was in all fairness never buried far from the surface.

“As it pleases you to believe.” He bowed. I saw something stiff in the movement, and tried to remember. Had he been shot during last summer's fight outside this building? The crossbow bolts had flown wildly. “Though it may stretch your credulity to hear such from me, I find myself gratified to see you well.”

“I should say the same of you, sir.” I bowed in return, then released my weapon's hilt to clasp his hand. “You are brave, and honest, even in the face of impossibility.”

A shadow that might have been regret flickered across his face. “The council meets,” he said. “They expect you.”

“So the trained bear at the door said.”
But why?
No one but Chowdry knew I was returning to the city just now. While I could imagine various treacheries of the old pirate, conspiring with Nast and the council was not among them.

Nast quirked a small smile, then rapped on the door.

“Now what?” shouted someone within.

He pushed through. “The Lady Green is here.”

The Lady Green!?
How in the name of all that was unholy had I received
that
promotion? I followed him into the meeting room.

*   *   *

Three of the five who'd sat within the last time I came calling on this council were dead now. Federo, at my hands. Stefan Mohanda, also at my hands in his guise as the Pater Primus of Blackblood's temple. And Mikkal Hiebert, killed in the fighting I'd brought down upon them all.

The two survivors surely had my role in the recent council successions much on their mind. Roberti Jeschonek, of the sea captains, who had taken over chairmanship of the Interim Council amid the disruption following Federo's death; and Loren Kohlmann of the warehousemen and brokers. They were seated with three other men. None of the new councilors were known to me.

This room was much the same, with its brass lamps, and high narrow windows with more stained glass depicting the husbandry and processing of wool, all surrounding the long table I'd slammed my knife into on my last visit.
That
scar was still visible in the glossy finish of the mahogany.

None of them seemed surprised to see me, either. My heart sank.

Jeschonek rose as if to counterbalance that fall. “Green. Welcome back to the city. I trust your retreat to the High Hills was restful and in good order.”

“And it would be still if someone hadn't dragged me back.” I eyed the new men suspiciously.

“May I introduce Councilor Lampet? He sits for the great families of the Ivory Quarter and the Velviere District.” Lampet was small, dapper, and entirely bald, wearing a suit of silks and wool with a too-precise mustache. I hated him instantly, both for his looks and for the wealth whose interests he represented here. “To his right is Councilor Kohlmann, who you already know.” Thick-bodied and brutal-faced, Kohlmann simply nodded at me.

“Whom,” you twit,
I thought, letting my returning stare remain blank and ungracious.

“On this side of the table is Councilor Ostrakan, of the bankers.” Ostrakan could have walked down any street in this city unnoticed. A talent he shared with some of the most dangerous of the Lily Blades. I marked him out as the greatest action risk in this room of supposedly thoughtful men. I also noted that Jeschonek was giving me a moment between introductions to assess each man.

“Finally we have Councilor Johns, who represents the trading interests. Including those from beyond our shores.”
That
was intriguing. Johns appeared as Petraean as anyone in the room, but his portfolio bespoke foreign influence reaching into Copper Downs.

I nearly laughed at that thought. I
was
foreign influence reaching into Copper Downs, for all that they'd bought and paid to bring me across the sea as the smallest child. And, of course, the Bittern Court here now on my trail.

“We amuse you?” asked Lampet. His voice was as oily as his appearance.

Kohlmann stirred, then clearly thought the better of warning his colleague. I credited the man with sense, but held myself tight, very glad of the roll and kava that now steadied my nerves. “Hardly,” I told him. “You would be surprised what amuses me.”

“No, we would not,” Jeschonek said seriously. He glared at Lampet. “
None
of us.”

“So tell me.” I drew one of my short knives again, laid it down across my previous scar upon the table. I allowed my gaze to pause on Councilor Johns. “What is that woman from Kalimpura's Bittern Court doing here in Copper Downs?”

Johns answered, to no surprise of mine. “She did not come alone.”

I had sudden visions of an invasion of the Street Guild or worse; Kalimpuri enforcers in Copper Downs. This was news that I could wait out, though. No point in showing eagerness to this cage of snakes.

After a moment, Johns spoke as if I'd asked anyway. “The Prince of the City has voyaged to Copper Downs from Kalimpura to grace us with his person, leading an embassy from his people. He has required your presence in attendance upon his mission.”

At that I did laugh, long and loud. The five of them stared, variously puzzled, bemused, or alarmed.

Finally I asked them: “You do not understand anything of Kalimpuri politics, do you?”

“We understand a delegation,” Jeschonek said. “With monied traders, men under arms, female assassins, and coastal pirates in the Prince's train. Someone has gone to a great deal of trouble to seek you out.”

I was struck by his mention of female assassins. Had some of the Lily Blades sailed across the Storm Sea in the company of the Bittern Court woman and her fellow conspirators? That seemed almost inconceivable, unless a person of great will had bound them together.
Not
the Prince of the City, a pretty fop meant to distract the foreigners, who could not likely command a pair of buttery maids. At least not beyond his bedchamber.

Was this what had worried the ghost Erio? An assortment of thugs and figureheads from over the sea would hardly be a threat to anyone in Copper Downs but me. I could not imagine the ghost urging me down from the High Hills for this.

Later, I was to wish mightily I had possessed a greater imagination in the moment.

“What do you plan to do about this inconvenient embassy?” I asked.

“Appoint you to answer them,” Jeschonek replied flatly. Lampet seemed pained, while Johns appeared thoughtful. The other two kept their own counsel behind calmer faces.

“I am out of the business of managing the affairs of cities. Especially this one.” I touched my belly. “With child, tired, and young, I hardly qualify.”

“Few here speak Seliu,” Johns answered. “And fewer of them do we trust.”

“If you trust
me
, you are twice a fool.” I picked up my weapon.

“It is too late not to trust you.” Kohlmann's voice grated low. “You have already overset the affairs of Copper Downs, and brought us a new god in the bargain.”

Twice,
I thought.
I have overset your affairs twice.
Few enough knew the truth of my assassination of the Duke when I was but a girl. That news certainly had no need to spread now.

“Trust whom you will. I am not your lackey.” I grinned without humor. “Perhaps you should send one of the other women on your council.”

Kohlmann bored on. I had not marked the councilor to be the power in the room, but this business clearly stirred some passion within him. “They seek you regardless. You may as well respond in our name. I will accompany you as surety.”

“You could not stand against a Blade Mother.” My voice was flat. “If this embassy would claim our lives, we are already forfeit. So I do not see what further protection you might offer.”

“The protection of legitimacy. And witness. You they might seek to capture as one of their own gone astray, but such an assemblage of envoys should consider thoughtfully before striking down a councilor of Copper Downs.”

“These are people with a
ship
,” I told him, as if he were simple. “If they are hunting me, as you think, then all they need do is lay chains on me and sail away. Who would care then what corpses lay cooling in their wake?” After a moment, I added thoughtfully, “At least, that's how I'd do it.”

Kohlmann blinked twice. I was fairly certain that constituted an outburst, coming from him. “They have too much of their trade and good name invested in this embassy. The Prince of the City would not cross the Storm Sea on some petty raid.”

He had the truth of that. The Prince had far too many receptions to attend. “Fair enough. You've seen farther into this than I. But you
are
coming with me.”

“When?” Kohlmann asked.

Just for the sake of twitting him, I replied, “I will meet you here on the morrow, an hour past dawn.” With a sharp nod, I bid them good day and saw myself out. Nast, in the hallway beyond, gave me an almost genuine smile and pressed something into my hand.

“Sir?” I asked quietly. This man and I had our differences, but we'd always shared respect. Unlike some people I knew, he'd be unlikely to shove stinging nettles or a bag of scorpions upon me.

“You are back in Copper Downs, without patronage,” Nast said in that thin, pinched voice. “The clerks have collected a purse to ensure you may live decently.”

He was right, so far as it went. My bonds were still held by Nast on my behalf, but they were hardly spending money. I could buy passage across the sea, but not pay for a basket of rolls with them. I allowed my doubt to sharpen my tone. “Is this your way of reducing the terror that I will doubtless once more wreak upon your city, or do your people actually care so for me?”

BOOK: Endurance
2.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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