Every mile closer made another nerve flutter in Louis’s gut. There were many, many miles. Pyryevo lay in the far north of Illyrus, inconveniently distant from the nations and cities of the south. Journeying there from his home in Rossellon took Louis a month, guiding his horse, his manservant and his packhorses over the rivers and mountain passes, by lakes like blue glass and through the great conifer forests. They stopped each night in towns or villages, or merely a roadside inn. And each night, Louis retired to his room with a bottle of brandy to help him calm the nerves and doubt and to sleep, eventually.
His manservant Hugo usually gave him the brandy. If the inn had none to buy, Hugo fetched a bottle from one of the packhorses. Long though Louis had been acquainted with Illyrusians, and despite many trips into the country, he had never developed a taste for the local gorvyno, a distilled spirit that looked like water and tasted like wet fire. He brought Rossellois brandy with him.
The final night before they arrived in Pyryevo, Hugo handed him the bottle and spoke as well, “I brought two extra glasses, sir. One for me. One for your dead brother.”
Louis’s chin flew up, his breath hissing. He nearly slammed his door in Hugo’s face.
But Hugo had one large foot braced against the door. “You think wherever your brother is now, he wouldn’t be pleased with what you’ve done so far? All for him? His idea, and you’ve made it real? Win or lose now, it shouldn’t matter to you so much. You’ll have done what you can, for him. Come on. Let me in. You’re not drinking alone tonight whatever you say. And you should watch out with it tonight anyway. We’ll get to Pyryevo tomorrow morning. You’ll need to look proper upright in your saddle.”
Hugo was Albelian. Sometimes his Rossellois language slipped. Sometimes his memory that he owed his employer more respect slipped as well.
But tonight Louis could hardly care less. Tonight, the nerves and doubts were not merely in his stomach but shouts in his head. He threw the door wide and flung himself into to a chair in his small inn room. Nearly all the inns in Illyrus were of timber. Sound carried through the walls.
That didn’t matter. He didn’t need to speak. Since they’d met four years ago, Hugo was one of the few people who had understood. Who accepted. Who never told Louis all he shouldn’t have done.
So that night, Louis drank with Hugo. And eventually fell into bed a touch more calmly than usual.
* * *
Late next morning, arriving at Pyryevo, Louis and Hugo rode directly to the big iron gate of the imperial palace, flanked by red brick-towers topped with white marble griffins. The soldiers guarding the gate wore black tailcoats with purple and silver trim over white pantaloons and black boots, and carried muskets with foot-long bayonets. But they were not threatening. One was grinning. “Louis Perrault! Back again. You’ve made more flashy jewellery for the Empress?” His grin faded. “She’s sick you know. She may not be interested.”
“It isn’t her this time.” Louis smiled moderately. “I’m seeing the Emperor. He’s expecting me.”
The guard feigned shock. “That’s it then! You’ve reached the top!” He grinned again. “All right, pass through. You know where to go. I suppose you’ll ignore the likes of me once you’ve seen him.”
Louis’s smile broadened. “I’ll try to remember to notice you.” He pressed his horse forward, Hugo and the packhorses following him, as the guard laughed.
Inside the gates, fronted by a vast cobbled square, the palace sprawled east and west and back to Lake Pyryevo behind. The architect had given its red-brick facade the pure symmetry of an ancient temple, and then decorated it like wedding bread with columns, courses, cornices, arches, architraves and rondels all in white stone. The roofs were green and steep, the towers topped with spires.
In the big square, a captain was taking three army magicians through exercises. They wore the same uniforms as the gate guards, but like Louis and Hugo—like almost anyone who carried a weapon—these young men had only whips made of crystalline stones at their waists. Right now, they were practising their magician skills rather than whip technique.
Concentrating, one young man rotated two iron cannons on their spots while standing thirty feet away from them. Then he made them both shoot iron balls at each other—no powder, no fuse, no flash of fire—only the young man’s will manipulating the metal they were made of. One gun broke apart at the impact from the other’s ball and the captain in charge laughed and applauded. The other ball missed by an inch and rolled before rumbling to a halt. If the fellow could do that with cannons, he controlled iron.
The other two men faced off against each other. One juggled and hurled small balls of wood and the other shot out shards of glass from a small pile at his side. Fortunately, the magician of wood had a shield. Glass shards struck it and stuck in it while the magician controlling the glass dodged the wooden balls. One ball nearly hit the captain and he ducked with an oath as it shot past his head.
Hugo muttered, “Bloody barbarians.”
Louis threw him a stern look. “Not here. Not ever. Not even under your breath. You keep your oversized opinions to yourself or you risk us everything. Understand?”
“Sir,” Hugo murmured. “Yes, sir.” Yet he shut his mouth for only a moment. “But someone’ll have to clean up that mess,” he observed sourly. “Or some poor woman will walk over all that glass in her slippers and die of an infected cut. D’you suppose they’ll bother?”
“If they don’t,” Louis said drily, “I’ll send you out after dark with a broom to clean it up. How about that?”
Hugo grunted but said no more as they reached the stables for their horses.
The doors of the palace’s side entrance stood as high as two men, paned in glass with a fanlight above. As Louis walked through with Hugo, he felt again the myriad flutters in his gut. After seven long years of work, to arrive here at last was stirring.
* * *
The following morning, Louis knew where to go. A servant guided him nonetheless and ushered him in when they arrived. The room was the reception hall in the apartments of the Emperor’s son and heir, Crown Prince Igor.
Sure enough, Igor’s was the first voice Louis heard on entering the hall. With a cackle of a laugh Igor said, “I always forget how unnatural you look.”
Servants entered behind Louis, carrying a small table and the bundles his packhorse had carried all the way north. Taking time to breathe, Louis inclined his head, gazing at the dais where the Emperor and Crown Prince sat. A third throne stood empty. Louis had been warned in advance, the Empress was too ill with a bad cough to attend.
He didn’t look unnatural exactly. Perhaps his eyes, which were the darkest possible blue, and his excessively pale skin. It was more that he had long given up trying fit in. This hall in the palace was white and gold in equal parts. Gilding on the ceiling, on the deep coving, on the pilasters, the fireplace and the thrones on the dais. But to come before Igor who knew him, Louis had not bothered with court dress. He wore the plain black that made him most comfortable: an unembellished black waistcoat and tailcoat, slim black pants rather than fiddly breeches and stockings, and black boots instead of heeled shoes with buckles. The fair hair on his head was short, without a fashionable mop of curls. And the whip hanging at his waist was strung with onyx chips rather than the glittering, faceted crystal gems favoured by most of the aristocracy.
The Emperor turned his head to his son and sighed. Few people ever knew how to respond to Igor’s rudeness, least of all his father. Louis had two advantages however. The first was an old boyhood acquaintance with Igor. The second was the thing Louis had recently created, which he had come to the court of Illyrus to sell.
His head still tipped, Louis said, “What I have brought you is more unnatural, if you like.”
Igor sat up, his square-cut face eager. The Emperor smiled. “Show us.”
Louis had brought a small collection of weapons far more extraordinary than his whip. In his time, humans liked to think themselves enlightened. They had steam-powered engines, gas-powered lighting, strange experiments with electricity and mechanical innovations for industry. But they still fought and killed each other. The six rival nations of the continent were frequently at war, and Illyrus in the north and the island nation of Kattai to the south controlled great empires abroad. Now, Louis had created something all governments and fighters had desired for centuries—efficient weapons made of the one substance no magician could control.
On the table the Emperor’s servants had carried over for him, Louis unwrapped his bundles, revealing a sword, a dagger and a bow with three arrows. As he lifted and drew the sword from its scabbard, Igor stood from his throne and exhaled slowly. The sword sparkled with a milky translucence in the sunlight falling through the tall windows on one side of the room. Long and lethally sharp as a blade should be, from pommel to tip it was made of rock crystal. But it was tougher even than the old steel swords that had been in use a few centuries before.
Igor ran lightly down the steps and across the parquet to join Louis by the table. He picked up the dagger and examined it before swinging it through the air in broad sweeps. “Truly all crystal? Nothing at all any magician can control?”
“Nothing,” Louis said. “The crystal itself is melted and formed, forged and tempered.”
Pausing mid-swing, Igor looked at him. “That’s like iron or steel.”
“But no one can do that with crystal. The melting point alone! And forging? No—it’s too brittle.”
“I can do it. I have done it. The evidence is in your hand.” Louis smiled, if only with his lips. “But your highness, please don’t ask me for my formula and processes.”
Igor’s blue eyes narrowed. “How have you proved these weapons?”
“You know from years back, even as a boy I trained as a swordsman. That was no use for combat, but it was an interest that has proved useful in creating these blades. I have tested them for many hours with my manservant. As you can see, they are not so much as scratched. I have also used the bow for hunting and target practice.”
“I remember you as an outstanding archer.”
His eyes on the dagger, Igor breathed, “How?” Then he swung at Louis. Nearly caught off guard, Louis snatched up the sword. He allowed the weapons to jar and beat together more than a dozen times before he brought the point of the sword to Igor’s throat. Igor stopped still, dagger drooping in his hand. “And a fine swordsman,” he said, panting and grinning.
Louis lowered the blade and bowed his head again.
From the dais the Emperor said, “What do you want from us for this secret of tempering and fashioning crystal?”
Here—now—he had reached the climax. Louis summoned up a smile. “Imperial majesty, ever since the first magician appeared centuries ago, the only weapons wielded in combat have been our whips because in all this time, no magician has been able to control crystalline stone. But battle with whips is appallingly bloody and prolonged. With my crystal weapons, I can remedy this for you and for Illyrus. I seek only a contract that will guarantee my future security. For that, I am willing to provide you with whatever products you require.”
“But why Illyrus, when you yourself are Rossellois? Why not take your invention to the King of Rossellon?”
“I offered,” Louis said evenly. “The Chancellor refused me an audience. He said the Rossellois government had no use for me or my invention.”
The Emperor blinked.
Igor was quick enough, if the Emperor wasn’t. “Is it because of your parents?”
“Probably. My estrangement from them is well known at court.”
Igor snorted. “You should go home and make it up.”
Louis was not about to discuss this, especially in front of the Emperor. But he could hardly tell the Crown Prince to mind his own business. He pressed out a smile, cast and cooled in a well-worn mould. “If I resolved my quarrel with my family, the King of Rossellon might become interested in my invention. Is that what you want?”
“No!” the Emperor intervened from his throne.
Louis and Igor both turned.
The Emperor said, “Four centuries ago my ancestor lost his throne and his life in battle. His whole army had their armour crushed into their bodies by a single magician of steel standing on the sidelines. His son fought for thirty years to recover the crown.”
Louis bowed his head while he processed that.
The Emperor cleared his throat. “Still, I am sceptical and not ready to commit to a contract. I should like to see a fuller demonstration, with more weapons. Twenty swords, twenty daggers, twenty polearms, twenty shields and twenty bows, made of different crystals. I shall provide you with the stone, and you will make the weapons and return here to display them. Twenty of my best officers will trial them. If you can pass this test, we shall talk terms. Do you agree?”
It was not a dismissal. Not yet. Louis drew a new breath. “When, your majesty?”
The Emperor pondered. “It is now mid-June. Shall we say late October, before the first heavy snow? Is that enough time?”
“More than enough.”
“Good. And since you are here, you must have heard my brother the Grand Duke is to be married in a fortnight to the Princess of Kattai, to cement our new alliance with that nation. You should stay with us for the celebrations.”
Louis thought about it. A day of ceremony, processions and banqueting. Hundreds of courtiers milling around him, judging and surmising, while he failed at polite conversation. But a cart of the Emperor’s stone would take weeks to travel the thousand odd miles south to his home in Rossellon. He had no excuse to refuse. And in four months’ time he needed the Emperor to be happy with him as well as with his weapons. As his spirit sank, he bowed to the Emperor. “Thank you, majesty. I am honoured.”
Four days later, the Princess of Kattai arrived. She and the members of her retinue stood out around the Illyrusian palace, their hair black, their eyes dark, their skin various shades of brown. For both the men and women their clothes were the same: soft robes like bedgowns with wide sashes or belts.
Louis paid them little attention. Outside the hours he spent with Igor, his favourite parts of Pyryevo were not in the grounds of the palace. Such friends as he had were one or two imperial guards; colleagues in the jewelling and metalworking business introduced to him by his elderly partner in the trade; and a few musicians and writers. He was also on good terms with more than a few tavern keepers.
A week before the wedding, however, Igor sent for him one morning. “Come with me to fetch the Princess’s younger sister. She has an audience with my father, but he also asks if you’ll escort her during the wedding. He wondered who would look good beside her and I suggested you.”
Oh, thanks very much, Louis thought. The wedding day would have proved discomforting enough without being on public display. But he said nothing.
Igor said, “Did you know the Empress gave her a title last year?”
“Lady Xueru, the bastard of Kattai—born very publicly years after her mother’s consort died. But there’s an odd culture in Kattai and no one seems to mind anything the Empress has done. Catch me giving any of my wife’s bastards a title.”
Louis refrained from pointing out the mother was Empress in her own right and could probably do as she pleased. He shifted the subject. “When are you going to marry?”
Igor grunted. “Next year. My Empress-to-be is still in her own country and only just of age. It’s tiresome.” He paused, then grinned with a wink. “Well—I need an heir, but otherwise it’s not bad. I don’t lack in the department of pleasure. The word among the wenches is, I have prowess.”
Louis’s steps checked as he cringed inside. If the language was gross the mental image was worse. Not for the first time he thought, Igor should have been his father’s son, rather than himself.
They arrived at the Kattans’ chambers but the Princess informed them her sister was out by the lakeside. She walked with them to the terrace behind her rooms, crossing the chessboard paving to the white marble balustrade. Below, grass stretched away to the lake, scattered with ornamental trees. Louis could see no Kattan lady.
Smiling, the Princess pointed. Near to the lake shore and high up in the topmost branches of an ancient oak tree was an odd blotch of light purple.
The Princess cupped her mouth and shouted easily, like a youth on a sporting field. The blotch moved. A black head turned, the blotch resolved into a woman’s figure as she stood up, and she jumped off her branch.
Louis shouted. Igor gripped his arm, his breath caught, his other hand white knuckled on the balustrade.
Lady Xueru did not fall. She jumped and skipped, by yards, downwards, landing steadily each time on sturdy branches until she reached the ground upright and unbroken. Without pausing she ran lightly over the grass and at the wall of the terrace jumped again, her lilac robe flying, her feet touching the ten-foot wall once, to bounce right over the balustrade and stop, breathing easily. She saluted Igor in Kattan fashion, with a ninety-degree bow and her hands clasped in front.
She was uncommonly beautiful—far more so than her sister—with smooth skin the colour of ginger, long, elegant bones and clear eyes, not brown as Louis would have expected but pure green. She was dressed simply with no gold or silver about her. That was probably sensible if she had planned to climb trees. But her long robe seemed none the worse for the adventure. She had bound her black ponytail with ribbon and added silk flowers at the crown. Poking from her cloth belt was a small, ivory coloured flute which interested Louis.
She did not smile. When she spoke her voice was low and cool. “Good morning, your highness.”
Like musket fire Igor asked, “How did you do that?”
“You have not seen it before? But surely you have heard of it? Light footwork. It is a martial arts skill we practice in Kattai.”
Igor calmed his breath forcibly. “I—Yes, I’ve heard of it. Not in detail. Holy Baiama—I’d never thought¾” He ran a hand through his curled brown hair.
Louis gazed at the tree, nearly a hundred feet high. “Impressive,” he murmured.
Lady Xueru’s face was as still as carved stone, save for her lips. “I am sorry to have alarmed you. I expect it is too unremarkable for Kattans.”
The Princess gave a laugh. “Xueru, at least you weren’t brandishing your whip when you did it. Now, I know you have business with his highness and Mr Perrault. Why not take them inside and offer them some wine.”
Lady Xueru turned to Louis. “You have come to see me? I was told you would, about the wedding day.” Still she hardly looked welcoming.
Louis nodded without speaking.
“Wine then,” Igor said. “Most acceptable—so long as I need have no part in any talk of the wedding. The Emperor expects you for your audience at eleven o’clock.”
* * *
At midday, Igor sent for Louis again. Having left the palace by then, Louis answered the summons only on his return towards evening. He knocked, and entered Igor’s bedroom at the call, “Come.”
The furniture in Igor’s chamber was modish, elegantly classical in style. But it was a harsh room dressed in red, dominated by a large four-poster bed with scarlet curtains. In the bed now, a woman lay asleep, her dark hair spread on the pillows. Igor climbed out from beside her dressed only in shirt and waistcoat, the shirt dangling over his thighs. He reached for his silk breeches and pulled them on, buttoning the front carelessly with the shirt hanging half out.
Turning sharply from all that, Louis walked further into the room, toward the windows. He pulled up when he saw the floor. Scattered between bed and window were the shards of a blue and gold tea service. No evidence remained of any single item, but puddles of tea had soaked into the carpet and a short stream of white sugar crystals. Clumps of battered cake blotched the ruins. There was more on the windowsill and above that, two windowpanes were shattered.
“What on earth?” Louis spoke quietly because of the woman, whom he hardly wanted to wake.
Igor rounded the end of the bed, his hands on his hips, surveying the mess with a scowl. “I dropped it.”
“How many times?” Louis didn’t wait for an answer. “And the window?”
Igor grunted. “I threw the tray at it.”
“That Kattan girl.” Igor growled more than grunted. “I sent for you hours ago. That girl told my father Kattai doesn’t want Illyrus to have control of your crystal. Especially me. She had the cold brass nerve to say I couldn’t be trusted with it. Me!”
There was a sofa to one side of the litter on the floor. Louis sat slowly. “How does Kattai even know of it?”
“How do you think? Spies. Not that she said. But every government has spies. You know that. And you offered it to Rossellon before us. Every government on the continent probably knows of it by now.”
“Well, does it really matter to Kattai? I’m only selling the weapons, not my formula. That doesn’t give Illyrus control.”
Igor’s expression hardened. But he altered it again almost immediately to look at Louis oddly. “Of course. But Kattai’s suggesting I’m unstable. Implying you’re not to be trusted either. It’s insulting!”
His voice had risen. In the bed the woman stirred and sat up blearily.
Louis stood, averting his eyes.
To the woman Igor said, “You should go, sweet. Take your things next door to the sitting room and dress, yes? Shut the door.” It wasn’t exactly dismissive. More as though he were talking to a pet cat. A minute later, the door to his sitting room closed.
Louis jerked his head up at a hard buffet on his arm. “Great Sulan,” Igor asserted. “Don’t be a prude. Anyone would think you were a virgin.”
Galled, Louis opened his mouth. Then he closed it. As it happened, he was. But that was no one’s business except his own.
He shook out the arm Igor had thumped. “All right. Kattai doesn’t want me with my crystal in cahoots with Illyrus. That’s the main point. But I don’t much care who insults me so long as your father gives me the contract.”
“Fine.” His face haughty, Igor stretched and tucked in his shirt with a sweep. “I don’t care either.”
“Of course you don’t,” Louis said snidely. “That’s why you smashed a tea set and hurled a silver tray at your window.”
Louis obliged. He had no contract for his weapons, only an agreement from the Emperor to consider them again in four months’ time. And if Louis wanted that contract when the chance came, antagonising the Emperor’s son and heir would not be wise.
Igor inhaled deeply. “I did that hours ago. Now I realise, there’s not a damn thing she can do about it. Who is she even to have an opinion? A young bastard. The pretty Lady Xueru is deluded if she thinks she can turn my father against you. So why should I be concerned?”
Louis wondered about that adjective, pretty. Attractive as the young Kattan lady was, he felt he had detected a fine brain as well. And decisiveness and determination were not traits the gods, the fairies or his forebears had bestowed on the Emperor. But Louis didn’t say so to Igor. Igor would probably heave a tray at his head.
[CHAPTER TWO CONTINUES]