Evading her parents was hardly necessary anymore, after the effort she’d made in the last few months to be politically useful to her father’s ambitions. At this point, Alduron and Kheethi trusted that if Eleanora was not under their eyes, she was not necessarily in trouble, and in fact might well be networking on House Turombi’s behalf.
Similarly, evading the various servants, hangers-on and bodyguards who formed her family’s ever-changing entourage was not excessively difficult, largely because she was careful not to abuse the privilege. Eleanora never vanished in areas that were not considered safe, and made a point to do so only rarely; so long as she wasn’t habitually absent, they might not even notice amid all the hubbub and social circulation, and likely would not find it necessary to intervene. In a place like the Imperial Museum, particularly at a time when it was closed to the public for the purpose of an aristocratic social event, wriggling out from under their watchful eyes required only some careful maneuvering.
Evading reporters was another matter.
It wasn’t that they didn’t have newspapers in Onkawa, or people who worked for them, but the culture was very different. In Onkawa, her father was not only the Imperial governor, but by tradition the High Chieftain, a position which commanded immense respect even after all these years of Imperial rule—even after almost a century of House Turombi trying to be as Tiraan as it could, often in open defiance of Onkawi customs. Reporters asked him questions—but politely, by appointment, and with an unspoken assurance that whatever article they produced would be tasteful and not reflect badly upon Lord Alduron or his House.
In Tiraas, only the Empress and her son were accorded such deference, and that more out of sensible fear of Theasia’s displeasure than any culture of respect. There were a lot more papers here, making the competition for juicy stories stiffer, and the resident nobles were favorite targets. These journalists were like sharks, and in this city, the Turombis were just another bucket of chum. Her mother and father still hadn’t resigned themselves to this fact, but Eleanora had been busy adapting.
That wretched man with the notebook was still following her as she slipped into the central complex. The museum was jointly administered by the cults of Ryneas and Nemitoth, whose collusion apparently required some moderating presence by the Universal Church, not to mention the offices of the Imperial government which actually owned the place. It had all been planned in advance, resulting in the art and historical wings of the Imperial Museum being physically separate structures, connected by an architectural bridge of sorts containing the entrance halls, various office spaces, and lots of staircases. Due to the general shortage of real estate in Tiraas, the central section was practically a tower, packing as much as it could into a vertical space. Lots, and lots of staircases—winding ones, wrapping around other rooms, connecting oddly-shaped halls that linked with the museum wings on both sides, and generally leading to a profusion of useful little nooks and crannies.
Eleanora was hardly the only one at the party to seek a little privacy; it took some trekking and quite a bit of climbing before she left behind scattered couples and small groups. At this particular event, there was a lot more wheeling and dealing than canoodling going on, but she passed a little of everything before reaching a truly quiet part of the complex. And still the reporter followed.
She rounded a corner, finding the hall empty, and flattened herself against a wall, tugging the locket from inside the neck of her dress. Opening it, she withdrew one of the small leaves neatly stacked within, then snapped it shut before tenderly blowing that one leaf—apparently as fresh as the day it was plucked from the bush, like all the rest—from the tip of her finger.
The sensation was faint, and now familiar—a slight tug at something deep in her being, and then the ghostly image of herself stepped away, and hurried down the hallway at a graceful glide.
A moment later, the reporter rounded the corner after her, and paused. He stood close enough she could have touched him had she wanted, and could smell his cheap cologne though she decidedly didn’t want to, but he ignored her, immediately setting off after the wavering image of herself that vanished down the hall ahead.
She knew, from practicing on her hapless servants, that the image would lead him on a merry chase before disappearing, and would do so out of his sight in a way that left him believing he had simply lost her. Only in the few moments after diverging did it conceal her; anyone observing it would fixate on the image and ignore the real woman left behind. Once they were separated by enough distance, however, she would be as visible as always to whomever she encountered.
Eleanora tucked the locket away, smiling smugly, and hurried on, making for a flight of steps and choosing a path to a particular spot she knew. She couldn’t be absent long; if he wasn’t there, this would be a bust, but she was reasonably sure he would be. And that her deception would remain unnoticed, once it had played out. With arcane enchantment so heavily favored among human societies, particularly in urban centers like Tiraas, fae magic was all but unknown and had been since Archpope Sipasian had helped ignite the Enchanter Wars by trying to stamp it out. Thus, it was not commonly planned for. Privately, she wondered how many times she could use this trick before word got around. It had already been worth every doubloon she’d paid that witch, though.
She heard them, and quickened her pace. On the second highest floor of the complex, she abruptly rounded the corner into the little nook where they were, then skidded to a halt, gasping dramatically and affecting an expression of shock.
“Oh! Excuse me!”
The pair leaped apart—or rather, the young woman in the uniform of the museum’s staff hopped away from the prince as if stung. She was Tiraan, with maybe a bit of Stalweiss; at any rate, she was pale enough that her blush looked almost painful. The girl mumbled something to Eleanora, refusing to meet her eyes, then gathered up her skirts and all but ran out.
Eleanora stepped aside, watching her till she rounded the corner onto a staircase that took her down toward the party.
Sharidan, meanwhile, came forward to poke his head out and look up and down the halls, verifying they were alone. Only then did he turn his scowl on her.
“For the last time, Nora, I said I was sorry. I did not mean to interrupt you with that blonde in the theater, and if you had left the signal we agreed on the door to the box obviously I wouldn’t—”
“All right, for the last time, then,” she agreed with a grin. “I’ll consider us even. In fact, how about I make it up to you tonight? I’ve managed to arrange a little something for us at the Cat and Mouse.”
“How little?” he asked skeptically.
“Well, a bit more little than we prefer,” she acknowledged, pointedly patting her own breast. It was a peculiarly comfortable feeling, how he noted the gesture without any lascivious expression. “But still worth sneaking out. Twins, Sharidan.”
The prince rolled his eyes. “Nora, what the hell are we going to do with twins? The whole point of—well, I assume you haven’t suddenly developed a hankering to be in the same room during? What do you plan to do, trade off? Because we both know I don’t mind your seconds, but last I checked—”
That brought him up short. Her grin widened.
“You’re right, it’s a bit more awkward for the two of us. But come on. Twin redheads, Sharidan. Look me in the eye and tell me that’s not worth the trouble.”
He did look her in the eye, and after a momentary pause, a smile stretched across his features to mirror her own.
“Lady Eleanora, I do believe I have been a bad influence on you these last few months.”
“And I will be forever grateful,” she said as solemnly as she could while smirking. “Don’t send the carriage, my mother noticed it prowling the neighborhood last time.”
“Right. Meet you at the Cat, then? Eleven?”
“Eleven o’clock, but let’s link up at the pub on the corner a few blocks north of it—the one with the old fighting pit turned into a sitting area, you remember? We’ll head out from there and throw off any pursuit. I have a new toy; I want to see how long it can make Quentin chase his tail.”
“I think…we may be doing this wrong,” she said idly, blowing smoke. Just tobacco; for the same reason they were careful to indulge sparingly in wine on these outings, she had tried only the tiniest bit of sevenleaf, and absolutely eschewed poppy milk and any alchemicals. They both needed their wits about them to sneak back into their respective homes.
“Nonsense,” he said equally lazily, propping his feet on the balcony rail; he’d tugged the outdoor couch over toward it specifically so he could do that. “This is as old as humanity. It’s called afterglow. You’re supposed to relax and chitchat or cuddle for a bit after sex.”
“Right, that’s what I mean,” she replied, pausing to puff a little cloud at him. He languidly waved it away, but was apparently too mellow to protest; Sharidan did not care for anything that had to be burned and inhaled, even incense. “Traditionally, one chitchats with the person with whom one just had sex.”
“Ah, well. What would be the fun of just doing what all the other sheep do, Nora?”
She chuckled, though it hadn’t really been that funny, and flicked the hand-rolled cigarette over the rail.
They were dressed again, mostly. Trousers and a shirt each, though the shirts were unbuttoned and and neither had put on shoes or coats. They were just lounging on low couches on the balcony outside the suite she had discreetly secured, while the two sisters they’d just been with dozed together in the master bed. Eleanora assumed her hair was a dead giveaway what she’d just been doing, to judge by the state of his, though at least her complexion was too dark to betray the same lingering glow.
It was so odd, and so oddly comfortable, the thing to which she had referred obliquely with her little joke. This, somehow, was more intimate than the actual lovemaking had been; neither of them had much inclination to fall in love or settle down. Sex was about the pleasure and sometimes the thrill of the hunt. Whatever there was between them had none of that element; she knew his tells well enough by now to know that he actually didn’t sneak glances into her cleavage, whereas he was just discreet about it with other women.
A strange thing, but a pleasant one. Back home, all her “friends” had been young noblewomen with whom she socialized out of mutual political interest. She and Sharidan talked about things, though. About politics, yes, but also history, their lives, the art and music and books they enjoyed. About girls and what they did with them and wanted to. And sometimes, about nothing, just sitting in friendly silence. Over the eight months since their first acquaintance, he seemed to have grown to value as much as she did having someone with whom to share these things.
“Are they still going on over there?” he asked idly, breaking her reverie. They didn’t have a great view of the city from this third-floor balcony, due to the size of the neighboring structures, but they were facing a canal and the back of a factory on its other side, which at least gave them some space. It also was open enough to transmit sound—in this case, of a still-agitated crowd barely a block distant. “Gods, don’t these people have jobs in the morning or something?”
“You’re one to talk,” she said without asperity. “I’m surprised the police haven’t intervened, though.”
“Oh, this is a scheduled protest; they’re on private property which they were given permission to use. One of those factories has an open loading lot in front. The owner made a big fuss about how he’d been pressured into it, likely just to keep himself out of trouble with my mother.”
“Well, that would’ve been helpful to know before I planned a little get-together a stone’s throw away,” she commented.
“I wasn’t exactly involved in your planning, remember? Anyhow, I never heard of a Voter meeting going on this long before. It’s gotta be after three. What are they doing over there?”
“Shouting, as far as I can tell. I don’t hear anything being broken.” She glanced over at him. “These people have kept popping up all year, Sharidan. Why hasn’t your mother come down on them?”
“Well, you know how she feels about republican ideas in general,” he said, shrugging. “But cracking down on protest movements just lends them legitimacy. Mother favors a subtler approach this time; she’s the reason all the papers are covering the Sheng civil war in so much detail. People are less likely to want democratic reforms when they get regular updates on a whole country currently being destroyed by them. Still…this kind of rally is an escalation. She might have to get more aggressive.”
They lounged in silence, listening to the sounds of the city, what wasn’t obscured by the hubbub two streets over. Tiraas glistened under its omnipresent fairy lamps with the evidence of a recent shower; the clouds scudded rapidly by overhead, permitting intermittent views of a sky whose stars were obscured by the city’s arcane glow.
“Did your grandfather kill my great-grandfather?”
“Yes, I expect so.”
Eleanora froze. She hadn’t meant to bring that up, and had no idea why she’d asked; the only thing more surprising than that slip on her part was how readily he had answered.
“If you were expecting some great revelation, I’m afraid I can’t help you,” Sharidan added wryly, glancing over at her. “If there was any real evidence, I’m sure it was long since buried or destroyed. By my mother, if not by her father before she even came along. But honestly, I can read the same from history as everyone else. Two men emerged from the Enchanter Wars calling themselves Emperor. Sarsamon Tirasian might have been a puppet of the Church at first, but he did control the actual Silver Throne, and the capital itself, and had the backing of the cults and Houses Aldarasi and Madouri. Tambisi Turombi, though, was an actual warlord who had taken control of all the western provinces, and unlike Sarsamon, actually ruled them. They would have turned the civil war from a dozen feuding states to two large ones and made it drag on another decade. And then, suddenly, one dies of a stroke in his sleep? Coincidences that politically convenient don’t just happen.”
She nodded slowly. He was right; that was nothing more than everyone knew. And he was undoubtedly also right that if Sarsamon had left any evidence of the assassination, it was long gone.
“I wish my father could just let it go,” she whispered. “It was a century ago. Everyone involved is dead, the whole world is different…and frankly, the right man won. Sarsamon Tirasian outwitted the Church and his other backers and made himself a true Emperor. Tambisi ruled by force and the threat of it; the Church and the cults would either have made him a puppet, or killed him themselves.”
“Maybe they did,” Sharidan murmured. “Or maybe a third party who saw things the way you do now. I tend to agree with you, Nora; it’s long past mattering.”
“Not to Alduron Turombi,” she said with a heavy sigh. “He’s obsessed with House Tirasian and what might have been. What might have been,” she added bitterly, “is that none of us would have existed because our ancestor would not have succeeded in taking Tiraas, or survived the attempt. Gods, there’s no way for an army to cross the Wyrnrange except at the southernmost point, and no force in the world could have plowed through Viridill. The Sisterhood had already broken the Imperial legions for trying exactly that, and south of them the Enchanter’s Bane was still burning! But no, all he knows is that Tambisi was trying to hold some semblance of the Empire together while Sarsamon was goofing around with adventurers. A stroke of luck is the only reason he’s not Emperor today. It wouldn’t have worked like that, but there is just no telling him so.”
Sharidan looked over at her directly, concern showing on his face for the first time. “Nora… I don’t want to put you on the spot…”
“But will my father move against your mother?” Eleanora shook her head slowly. “I don’t… I don’t want to think so. My father is a cautious and practical man, in his governing. He has to know what a hopeless, suicidal move that would be. But then…he moved us here and left Onkawa in the hands of stewards, all on the urging of some cleric he knew, and I’m not sure what to think. He’s also a prideful man, and he has these impossible dreams… I worry, Sharidan. My father would never attack Theasia under just his own impetus. But if the wrong person whispers the wrong thing in his ear…”
The prince sighed. “It would look bad. Really bad. Enough people assume Sarsamon had Tambisi murdered that for Theasia to use force against Alduron…that could get ugly. We’re a lot more secure on the Throne than Sarsamon was, especially at first, but the Throne itself just isn’t as powerful as it was before the Enchanter Wars. Especially against the Houses, and the Church. If your father gets stupid, my mother will exercise some restraint; she’ll have to. But still…”
“Yes.” Eleanora sighed again. “Still….”
Slowly, he began straightening up. “What if we—”
At the suddenly surging roar of the crowd, they both jerked upright, heads swiveling to look.
“That came from behind us,” Sharidan said unnecessarily.
“Okay,” she said, frowning deeply. “They’ve crossed the bridge into this district. I think it might be time to call it a night.”
“But how?” His eyes were narrowed in concentration. “They do not have permission to rampage through the streets, and the military police are more than capable of containing a mob…”
“Ah, right. You’re right; let’s pack it in.”
They both paused again as the sound surged again.
“Is it my imagination,” she said, slipping her disguise ring back on, “or have they moved into the street outside the Cat and Mouse?”
“If not right outside, close,” he muttered, re-applying his own disguise. They had both been entertained by this evening’s choice, having basically swapped; he was now a dark Onkawi, she an olive-skinned Tiraan. Neither was smiling now. “Hell, this is pretty worrisome. Let’s—”
The balcony door swung open and one of the girls leaned out. “There you are! Come on, there’s trouble.”
“We hear it,” Eleanora said tersely, following her back in. Both the red-haired young women had donned robes, and Eleanora had to resist the temptation not to pat the one who’d beckoned them on the rump; she was (embarrassingly) not certain which was the girl in whose arms she’d spent the last couple of hours. “Is it out front?”
“Yes,” said the other redhead, shutting the door to their suite after having peeked out. “The street’s pretty…you don’t want to go out there. Come on, there’s a tunnel in the basement that leads to the brewery next door. From there we can get to the roof and onto the public house on the other side; it has a fire escape down to street level. Hopefully we’ll be out of range of the mob by then.”
Eleanora frowned at her. “How do you know all that?”
“I know many things, my lady,” she replied, giving her a sly smile. “As you should remember.”
“Cut it out, Lara,” the other sister ordered. “She loves that game. I’m the one you were with.”
“I was hoping we’d have time to swap, but…here we are,” Lara said resignedly. “Bring up the rear, Sara; I don’t think they’ll break in here, but I have the oddest impression that crowd is looking for something.”
Sharidan and Eleanora exchanged a loaded look. Theoretically, nobody here but the two of them knew their proper identities. But the two pretty young women they were now with were suddenly acting a lot more canny than their giggly personalities of a few hours before, and after all… A crowd of angry pro-democracy activists had a built-in reason for wanting to get their hands on the heir to the Silver Throne.
They followed Lara out into the hall, Sara coming behind them. Eleanora leaned close to Sharidan and murmured, “As you were saying…coincidences that convenient?”
He glanced at her sidelong and nodded once, then shifted his eyes momentarily without moving his head. She followed his glance; at the end of the hall was an open window. A third-floor window…but right through it, barely visible, the edge of an iron railing attached to a fire escape.
An alarming roar sounded from outside; Lara and Sara both froze in their tracks, turning to stare in that direction. The opposite direction, as fate determined, from the open window.
Sharidan grabbed Eleanora’s hand, and without pausing to think, they were both running. Behind them the girls shouted; she deliberately fell back so he could get out first. That they were friends and their families enemies both fell from consideration against the fact that his life was simply more valuable than hers. Without him, the best case scenario for the Empire was a drawn-out succession crisis.
The prince was nimble, more so than she; he literally dived through the window, while she had to clamber. She paused to slam the window shut after herself, though, and then they were racing down the metal stairs.
The fire escape only took them down another floor; from there, they had to jump to the ground in the alley. Eleanora panted, slumping against the damp brick wall. She had never actually run before in her life. It was probably worse for being barefoot; she had no frame of reference. Gods, the pavement must be filthy…
“Come on,” Sharidan said insistently, grabbing her hand and tugging. “Back this way.”
“That’s the canal!”
“Yes, and the buildings don’t come right to the edge of it; we can get around behind.”
“And go where?”
“The other way from the brewery. Did you also get the vibe that…”
“Yes,” she said, already following him onto a narrow ledge behind the next building over, only a waist-high wall separating them from a drop to the water far below. “They were like two completely different women all of a sudden.”
“Where’d you find those girls?”
“Later,” she said tersely. “Where are we going?”
They both froze at another roar from the crowd, then began moving again. The noise was concentrated back in front of the Cat and Mouse.
“There’s a place we can go, not far from here,” Sharidan said grimly. “Quentin and his people will be tracking us already, despite your little gimmick. They’ll find us before long. We’re going to claim sanctuary till then; I know an Izarite temple in this district. A very small one, which is not obviously a temple from outside, so people tend not to notice.”
“Izarites?” she said skeptically. “I’d prefer to find some Silver Legionnaires…”
“Beggars and choosers, Nora,” he said. Though he still kept a grip on her hand, he looked only ahead, tugging her along without meeting her gaze. “More to the point, someone works there who can be…well, I don’t know about trusted, but he’ll protect us, at least. Bishop Darnay keeps his office and personal residence there.”
“What? Doesn’t the Bishop work at the Grand Cathedral?”
“Yes, and the central Temple of Izara, but his personal office is here. This is one of the quasi-secrets my mother made sure I knew in case of emergencies like this; a Bishop will protect the Crown Prince, regardless of politics, and I’ve never heard of the Izarites having a quarrel with anyone. Even anyone as difficult as my mother. Their religion requires them to minister to whoever’s in need; they tend to tuck their higher-ranking people away in private little crannies, because they only get any work done if they stay relatively isolated. Quentin knows I know this; he’ll check there.”
“Izarite Bishop,” she said, frowning. “My father knows him.”
“Well, good,” Sharidan said curtly, pausing to peer around the next corner before leading her across the open space to the back of the building beyond. “Izarites keep their heads down, politically speaking, so I don’t know much about Justinian Darnay, but I guess we’re both about to.”