During her years in Capria, on the eastern coast, Keshena had attended many overwrought social functions, and thrown a few of her own. The face she had worn then had enjoyed it; with the weight of seventy years and more mistakes between them, she now found it tiring more than anything else. With nothing else to motivate her, she would not have bothered to attend the ball Morrihm was putting on to celebrate their new treaty with Lion’s Reach. She hadn’t been in the city long enough to feel obligated to show a face at public events, and besides, she had never enjoyed the company of the dead.
But Lin had come upon her browsing weaponry in the Basilica, and before she’d left, somehow Keshena had an assignment. In her way, Lin was an expert at inspiring others to do what she wanted them to do, even when the reason was opaque, as in this case.
“Why exactly am I going to this ball, then?”
“It’ll be good for you.”
It must be the first time anyone had ever spoken of Morrihm and good health in the same sentence, she thought. In all her years, she had never been to the Cauldron, which was reason enough as well. The rules changed depending on the family in power, but for the most part, living souls were considered an underclass. Even now, in this relatively progressive time, only one of the council of five was alive.
The hierarchy of mortality was an eternal controversy in Morrihm and elsewhere. Lion’s Reach had a few prominent dead families, but the Kumani did not take recruits from among the blooded, and they weren’t alone. The stereotype about the dead being languid and lazy, Keshena suspected, often had more to do with them being unemployable.
This tolerance of their unliving neighbors was the main issue dividing Lion’s Reach from the cities and communes of the warm south. The dead were “redeemed” on sight in Shiel. Morrihm and Shiel had been warring over it for centuries, and both had built their economies on the slaughter, extended arms of empire up and down their respective coasts. The war had been cold for eighty years now. The Cauldron reaffirmed its standing trade agreements with the Reach, and then threw a party for itself, knowing that the prim Northerners would largely decline to attend. It was five days’ coach journey between the cities when the weather was good, or pay a month’s wages for use of a thread.
Keshena could dress in midafternoon, step through a thread, and still have time to take a coffee in Akir before the ball began at dusk. She picked up a scone there while she was at it. Food that the living could enjoy was hard to come by in Morrihm, unless one had gotten very accustomed to organ meats.
The road to the Cauldron from Akir was short, but Mata’s finery was worth more than the cost of a coach, so she took one. Before the sun had fully set over the desert, the horses pulled her into the shade of the mountains, through the descending switchbacks of a box canyon until the sky was a strangled vein far above. And then it disappeared entirely, and she was taken underground.
In the past, the dead men had played up the inescapable comparisons to the Halls. She’d heard that this avenue was once lined with screaming skulls, or strewn underfoot with corpses. This was a more enlightened age, or perhaps a less dramatic one. The tunnel was dimly lit and grew warmer as she descended, but it did not threaten or shock her. She was not the only traveler alighting at the station outside the gates, and the level of fashion on display among the foreigners – startlingly ruddy beside the locals’ pallor – made her feel secure in her sartorial choices. Mata never opened her eyes, but she gawked in her own subtle ways, feeling a prickle of tension as she passed between the heavily-armed blackguards manning the gate.
Morrihm occupied a massive cavern under the mountain called the Cauldron, but these days the terms were used interchangeably. The mountain had erupted ages ago, or so the stonespeakers claimed, and could erupt again at any time. It was an open question what this would do to the bustling city that had sprung up in its magma chambers, but the dead men would be trapped between fire and fire on that day. Molten rock might burn and bury them, but the sun would tear at their flesh with no less cruelty.
Up close, they weren’t so unsettling to look at. She moved easily through the press of the crowd, enjoying the heat after months in the frozen Citadel. The ball would be held in the fortress at the center of the city, once called the Black Manor. It seemed to have been spruced up for the occasion; she had heard that it was largely abandoned most of the year. It had been more than a century since the Blooded families had ruled from that house. Tyranny was no longer in style. Today’s Blooded sat the council alongside the living, and though it was still nearly impossible to attain any kind of social status while breathing in Morrihm, no one visibly sneered at her or referred to her as “livestock” at any point during her approach. The world had grown subtle, even here. Imperious dramatics were the province of the ancients, of which there would likely be several at this ball. She simultaneously hoped they would be on their worst behavior, and picked through the peerage she had once known, dredging up forms of address just in case. It wouldn’t do to die on the end of a sword because she failed to grant a Duke his due. Much rather watch others do that.
The receiving rooms were brightly lit and full of milling guests in the first stages of a complex diplomatic dance. The orchestra at the far end of the hall was tuning up. Keshena kept to the fringes, observing through her eyelids. As always, the canape table served to gather the outcasts and oddballs, those without chaperones or companions to keep them amused. If she were attempting to climb this social scaffold, she wouldn’t be caught dead or alive in that crowd, but Mata was not known here, and could do as she liked. This privilege filled her with quiet joy. There truly was no greater freedom than a mask.
She browsed the offerings spread before her. Most of the hors d’oeuvres were a breath away from raw at best, or actively dripping, but she did find a passable canape topped with some kind of greenery. She reached out, only to find her hand intercepted by the extended hand of another. It was such a laughably cliched move that before she even met the eyes of the man standing next to her she was considering stabbing him through the wrist. Impolite, she reminded herself. The Reach was making her paranoid.
He was taller than Mata – probably not much taller than Den Roth – and clad in the dress regalia of the blackguards. She marked the color in his pale cheeks and the breath he exhaled as she turned up her face to regard him with closed eyes. Living, this one. So the blackguards were still a path to legitimacy for those with heartbeats in Morrihm.
“Pardon me, miss…?”
She took his hand and curtsied. “Mata. Keshena Mata, lately of Lion’s Reach.”
“Welcome to the Cauldron.” His grin took ten years off his face, and he didn’t look as if he had many more to spare. A prickle of nostalgia ran through her as she admired his easy, youthful charm. “I do recommend the canapes. There’s one kitchen in Morrihm that cooks real food, and it’s the best in the world.”
“What would you know about the world, child?” Mata’s gentle smile softened this remark as she took the canape from his hand.
“More than you might suspect, Miss Mata. But I think I’d have much to learn from you.”
Keshena knew the steps of courtly intercourse very well, although it had been years since she’d had occasion to play this game. She let her lips close delicately over the treat. “You have the advantage of us, you know.”
He looked horrified at this misstep. “Oh! I’m so sorry, Miss. Lieutenant Kaedin Calidus, at your service.” A deep bow over her hand.
“A fine family. Their scion, then?”
This only stoked the fire in his cheeks. “So to speak. Their prodigal, perhaps, depending on whom you ask. But I have never heard your family name.”
“Nor will you.” She flashed a dimple at him. “The Kumani are our family, now.”
His expression changed, acquired a sly look and a certain trepidation. “What brings you to Morrihm, then? I understood that the treaty was set in blood.”
“So it is. Not everything we do is of global import. In fact, we would say that the majority of our activities are personal in nature.”
The young man looked confused. “When you say ‘we…'”
“We refer to ourself. Consider us, for tonight, a private citizen.”
“That’s the trouble with the Kumani – they don’t give you forewarning when they change from private citizen to spy. Most working women hang out a lantern.”
Mata raised a delicate eyebrow at this indelicate remark. Kaedin’s cheeks colored again, and he looked as if he wished dearly he could catch the words from the air and swallow them.
“I – oh, I didn’t mean to suggest that – or to compare you to – oh, damn it. Please, Miss, I beg your pardon. I should… go.”
“You insult us, then scurry away? Is that the courage of the blackguards?” She was enjoying needling the boy. He was charming, and well-trained into the bargain, but still a child in this arena. And his blush did such lovely things for his face.
He did know how to answer a challenge, though. At once he offered a thin-fingered hand. “How can I make it up to you, Miss? I will happily throw myself on my sword to cleanse the stain of my foolish tongue from your memory.”
She chuckled and took his arm. “You may dance with us, and talk with us, and presently we will forget.”
“I’ll have to talk fast, then.” He gave her a dazzling grin as he led her onto the ballroom floor, where the orchestra was testing their tuning with a simple pavane. The current council was seated on the dais across the hall, along with the Advisors of Lion’s Reach, and each pair of dancers advanced, greeted the lords and ladies, and retreated again in sequence.
The shifting movements of the crowd around her, their joining and parting, filled Keshena’s head with light and made her slightly disoriented. Mata’s form of vision had its distinct downsides. She gripped Kaedin’s arm, and felt his fingers skim over hers in reassurance. As he stepped into his own line and released her hand to let her take her place, she felt like a leaf in a stream, twirling with each eddy, drawn into a new current each time their hands met again. He carried on a quiet discourse when she was near enough to hear, which at first was simply a litany of the important people in attendance and their relationships to one another. Without prompting, he gently took charge of the conversation, freeing her from the obligation to respond until she had found her rhythm in the dance and could return her attention fully to him. His social skill seemed largely unthinking, a grace and solicitous kindness that could not be taught. When he thinks too much, she thought, he slips up. But then, don’t we all?
At some point during the pavane, she caught Lin’s name being announced at the door. She nudged their path to turn in that direction, and caught a glimpse of the Speaker on a man’s arm, radiant in a bright blue sari that seemed to glow on her dark skin.
“You know her?” murmured her partner.
“Yes,” Keshena answered. “She is our immediate superior, and also our friend.”
“I’ll have to meet her, then. You certainly keep lovely company.”
“Are you interested in nothing but the physical charms of every woman around?” she teased. Kaedin blushed, but kept his head.
“That isn’t at all the breadth of my interests, no… but I suppose it is the depth of them.”
“Oh, well said!” She laughed, throwing back her curls. “Utterly devoid of meaning. You’re good at this, child.”
“I know the steps. I prefer to improvise a little more than they do here, though.” He winked at her, and as they advanced down the line, he began to split the beat, trying a variation on the traditional step. She watched carefully through closed lids, then matched his variation with another, developing the theme. By the time they were face-to-face with the councils again, their experimentation had spread down the line, and the staid pavane was developing a distinctly modern playfulness. She glimpsed a few frowns among the older Blooded along the walls, but the young dead and living alike took the invitation to innovate with a will. Delighted by this twist in her game, Keshena felt the pulse beating hard in her throat, and in the palms of her hands as she pressed close to Kaedin.
“We’ll have to dance somewhere else, then,” she murmured in his ear, “Where you can show me the true extent of your talents.”
His color was high as he turned her around. He squeezed her hand firmly. “If you wish, lady,” he said with a smile. “But beware – the Blooded can hear you.”
As he said it, she suddenly sensed the attention of the dead men around her. He was right – they could hear her heartbeat. A shiver ran through her, but she felt exhilaration too. It had been many years since she had kept much company with drinkers of blood, but in the few decades before the war turned hot she had known a few. She had once amused herself by keeping vague track of the tumultuous social and political movements among the families. What a breathing person could see from the outside had a quality of high drama. The world has grown subtle, she thought again. The families no longer squabbled and struggled quite so obviously or so easily, and the Black Manor was no longer a permanent residence for anyone. It was only at events like this that outsiders were given a glimpse of what they were up to. Keshena drank in all she could see and hear, cataloguing it with a meticulous memory trained over centuries of mimicry. The Kumani were only the latest to pay for this talent.
The pavane was ending. She curtsied to her partner, and he bowed to her, and she let herself be washed away by the drift of the crowd. Time to circulate and listen. Some of the dancers dropped out, moving toward the refreshment table or into the next room to sit down, and those remaining on the floor were joined by new partners. A couples’ dance began, and Keshena slipped around their shifting bodies until she came to Lin’s elbow.
“You look lovely, Miss al-Akir,” she murmured. Lin glanced at her, startled.
“I’m sorry, I don’t think we’ve met.”
Mata smiled. “Ah, but we have.” Her fingers light on Lin’s wrist, she leaned close to whisper, “Mama Keshena Mata, at your service.”
Lin’s hand turned in hers and gripped. “Keshena? Gods, look at you. How do you do this? You look spectacular! Is there something wrong with your eyes?”
“Nothing wrong, no. Our eyes are perfect. And you look perfect yourself.”
Drawn close together in their current position, it would have taken more effort not to join the dance than to obey the current of the crowd, so Keshena slipped her arms around Lin and gently took the lead. Lin laughed.
“Well, I didn’t expect you to put on a new face for this, but I suppose I should have. I’m glad you came.”
“Why did you want us to come, Lin?” It was much easier to converse now than the pavane had made it, and much more private, but still she kept her voice pitched low. The Blooded had excellent senses, and there were always spots in a hall like this one where sound bounced into odd corners. Many such halls were built to produce exactly that effect.
“Well, it’s an important political opportunity. As Ku – as one of us, you’ll want to attend any functions you can that put you in contact with another culture or city. It’s one of the ways we keep an eye on what everyone’s up to. But mostly… I didn’t want to be here alone.”
“We do not blame you for that,” Mata murmured. “But did your husband not come with you? We were sure you were accompanied when you entered.”
“Oh, yes, he’s here. I didn’t expect he’d want to come, but it turns out he’s not a bad dancer.” Lin’s cheeks flushed, and she smiled helplessly as she looked for her escort. Keshena felt a constriction in the pit of her stomach. Troubling. But she did the polite thing, guiding the motion of their dance toward the tall, rather rotund man standing at the edge of the dance floor. As the song tapered off, she drew away from Lin a little and brought them to her husband’s feet. He was holding two glasses of sparkling wine, and offered one to Lin.
“Wondered where you’d got to! Hello, darlin’. Who’s this?”
He was a brawny man, easily a foot taller than both of them, and built like a barrel, stacked with muscle but softened with fat. His hair was longish by the current standards of Lion’s Reach, straight and falling to his jawline, where it was met by a neatly trimmed black beard. Mata turned up her face to smile at him, as proper comportment required, but found herself obscurely irked by his fumbling courtesy.
Lin began to answer him, but Keshena interrupted, “Mama Mata, at your service.” She curtsied, and Lin moved to take the drink and her man’s arm. “We return your bride to you.”
“Nathaniel Keller, thank’ee, and she’s more’n welcome to dance with whomever she so pleases, so long’s they’re lovely girls. This one’ve your shavora, then?” He leered as he addressed this last to Lin, and Keshena felt a quite un-Mata-like desire to see him fall into the punch bowl.
Lin blushed deeply and began to stammer. “I – ah, well, I don’t – hm. Do you want to dance, Nat?”
“Sure! Miss Mata, if y’don’t mind – ” The broad man passed his cup into Keshena’s hands before she could protest, and swept Lin into the dance. With a frown, Keshena emptied the glass.
She drifted away from the dance floor, into the next room where the lethargic and the weary sat in little groups, talking quietly. The heat of a fire was on the side of her face as she took an armchair near it. With her head down, Mata looked quite deeply asleep, and she wouldn’t be bothered. She could listen and think without much effort put into maintaining her disguise.
This reaction was disconcerting. It wasn’t the environs – the dead men didn’t intimidate her. It wasn’t the game. Dancing with that young man had reawakened some of the enjoyment she had once found in these dalliances, the little flirtations and feigned connections. It was just her kind of thing, actually – no one at these functions expected any of it to be taken at face value, and so she was rarely required to follow through on her off-handed invitations and offers, or anyone else’s. No, the young Calidus’s company had been entirely forgettable, entirely pleasant.
It was Lin. She had not wanted to dance with Lin until their hands closed on one another, and then she had not wanted to stop. It had been so long…
Over near two hundred years of running, Keshena had tried to forget. The Called often found their lives grew blurry after the first century or so. She had always recalled well, until the war, and the five years of occupation after… and then Capria, where everything had gone steadily, inexorably wrong. But the game had still been there, had saved her, preserved what little there might be of Keshena. She had fed the game, nurtured it, by playing it to the hilt, by losing herself in her act and letting go of all else. It was from the other side of that fugue that she now remembered the last time she had felt so suddenly connected.
It was a woman then, too. The men in her life had always been problematic at best, and there had only been a few. Most of the peace and pleasure she had known had come in those fragile moments when her head rested in the hollow of a lady’s shoulder, their hair tangled together, their whispers fervent and incoherent. Surrounded by drinkers of blood, Keshena allowed herself to turn inward toward the softly-lit memory.
No name. Not anymore. She could imagine the lips moving, but the voice had been worn away, along with whatever it had said. But she remembered the girl’s hair, strawberry blonde and a mass of tangles. A little wildling, as lost and lonely as Keshena herself had been, sitting in a bar on the outskirts of Capria. Keshena had gotten them both swiftly, efficiently drunk. She had surrendered the last of her gold to the bartender without a thought. It couldn’t save her, little as it was. If she found some way to go on living, it wouldn’t be because she had seven gold pieces more or less. So she bought a bottle, and shared a couch with the girl, and let their hair mingle together. She sipped from those chapped lips, kissed them raw, and in the cold, salt-tinged morning had woken to a crushing headache that somehow could not touch her sense of serenity. The curve of the girl’s breast was limned with sunlight. She lay in Keshena’s arms, so very fragile. By the time the eaves had taken the sun, she was awake, flying around the room after her clothing, and with the first tide she was gone. A sailor, or about to become one. And Keshena lay still awhile after, feeling the peace and tenderness seep away with the warmth of her body on the cushions. When she laid a hand there, it was cold. Everything was cold.
In the center of the volcano, Keshena shivered, and forced herself to focus on her surroundings again. An actress who breaks character must be punished. An actress who fails to meet her marks must be made to stand upon them through the night, so that she will remember. She remembered. She remembered how to play this game.
“They say he’s coming back. They mean to refurbish the Manor.”
“Won’t the Prince have something to say about that?”
“What can the Prince say? He’s not on the Council anymore.”
“But his daughter – ”
“He doesn’t rule his daughter. He thinks he does, but…”
The soft intrigues around her gave her comfort. Polite, formal betrayal, murder by letter and signature – it was all so very old-fashioned. But the Blooded always were. Their memories were even longer than hers, and less clouded. The dead could never lose the things that chased them, except by submitting to torpor.
At least I can run. For how much longer?
Keshena returned from the side room in a bit more control of herself. Some interminable ceremony was going on, and she wove through the sussurating edges of the crowd until she came to Lin’s elbow. The girl jumped at her touch, then smiled and squeezed her arm.
“Oh good, there you are. I was a little worried.”
Mata put her chin on Lin’s shoulder to murmur into her ear. “What were you worried would happen to us?”
“Here? Anything.” Keshena felt the dark skin under her chin prickle with Lin’s shiver. The bright black eye flashed. “I don’t like vampires.”
“They don’t like that word, or so we’ve heard.”
Lin curled her lip. “Who cares?”
“Those whose city you now trespass in, dearheart, at their pleasure.”
The Speaker took a deep breath and squeezed Keshena’s wrist again. “You’re right. I need to be professional here. It’s just… not my favorite environment.”
Mata raised her head and looked around for the girl’s barrel-shaped escort. “Should your husband not be providing moral support?”
“Oh, he’s got some actual business to do while he’s here… he runs a shop in the Reach and he trades a lot with the Blooded.” Lin nodded at one of the corners of the room, and Keshena glimpsed the big man in friendly conversation with a short, pale woman. Her green eyes had pupils narrow as a cat’s, but that was the only indication of her condition. Not many of the Blooded now bothered to make themselves up or feign a beating heart in their own city, but this one was.
“What does he trade? Is there much market for offal in the Citadel?”
“Ugh, no. Mostly furniture and clothing. He’s been talking about finding the maker of this interesting clockwork tinderbox he found in a shop here, so I guess that one knows something about it. She’s the leader of one of the Families – or, no, the daughter of the leader. I can’t keep them straight anymore; the bloodlines have been scrambled for centuries.”
“Do you not fear for him?” Mata idly scrutinized the Blooded woman through closed lids, admiring her dress.
“Oh, no, he’s dealt with them before. That one sells him some liquor she makes that’ll knock you on your backside in a swallow.” But Lin’s arm under her hand was cold, and there was worry in her eye.
“Is that so? We shall have to sample it ourself.”
As the ceremony ended, medallions and trophies apportioned to the pertinent parties and all the proper peerage dispensed, Lin turned toward her and they drifted toward the edge of the gathering. “Why do you talk like that in this face? The royal ‘we’?” she teased.
Mata smiled. “We try to acknowledge the entirety of ourself, the multiplicity, while conceding that we remain one self.”
“There are a thousand lives in your head, aren’t there? How do you keep it all straight?” Lin took a settee, and Mata sat beside her. Without thinking, she slipped her arm around the Speaker’s waist to keep them close, and Lin leaned comfortably against her shoulder.
“How could we not, would be our question. Do you often confuse one memory with another?”
“Yes, all the time.” Lin gave her an impish look. “My memory is terrible.”
“That must be why you keep such exquisite notes.”
“Nat taught me that. I started out as his lab assistant, a few years ago.”
The big man was still in view – hard to miss, as he stood a full head above most of the Blooded – now chatting with the green-eyed woman and a few young men whose arms she held with proprietary claws. “Is it so? And what was that word he used to refer to us, earlier? Shavera?”
“Shavora.” Lin’s cheeks flushed a little, her eye sparkling as she glanced at Keshena. “It’s, ah… well, it’s his word for when women are… um, more friendly than normal?”
She could not help but raise a brow. “Is that so rare in the Reach?”
“Y-ess… well, no, I don’t know really. People don’t really talk about that in public!” The Speaker colored more deeply, and seemed suddenly over-conscious of their arms around one another.
“They do seem to keep themselves well-insulated,” Mata murmured. She turned her head, auburn curls tumbling over Lin’s shoulder as she spoke into her ear. “So you keep company with women at times, with your husband’s assent? You don’t bring him along, I hope.”
Lin fell to stammering again, and Keshena relented, giving her a gentle squeeze. “Never mind. This is not the place.” She turned her attention to the shifting throng, and felt the tension between them ease. It was a strange thing – the fear and uncertainty she carried melted in the face of Lin’s own insecurity. When we need to be strong for another, we can be strong, she thought. But to defend oneself… always more difficult.
Still… The little woman against her side was warm, and in time talked of the treaty and the deals being done on the dance floor, and Keshena felt steady in this city of the dead. Still… something nostalgic about this. A dance I know, anyway. And I know how it ends.