The Bone Palace

By Megan Lawrence,2014-11-04 17:12
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From Publishers WeeklyStarred Review. In a spectacular freestanding sequel to 2009's The Drowning City, Downum jumps a few years forward to find forensic necromancer Isyllt Iskaldur investigating the death of Forsythia, a young prostitute with stolen royal jewelry sewn into her clothes, in the haunted city of Erisin. As Isyllt follows the trail of death and theft to the sewers and their vampiric inhabitants, Savedra Severos, the crown prince's beautiful transgender mistress, struggles to defeat assassins and unravel plots involving her own uncle and a demonic sorceress mysteriously allied with Isyllt's mentor and former lover, the spymaster Kiril. Finely drawn characters love and betray with enthralling passion and pain, and the taverns and gardens of plague-ridden Erisin and t Published by Orbit on 2010/11/30






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    Soft shoes moved from grass to flagstones withonly the faintest scuff to betray their wearer.

    The man was good; Savedra would have to be better. She knew his path—down the arcade and upthe stairs, to the glass-paned double doors that led to the prince’s suite. Or the other setthat led to the princess’s. And if it were the latter, the little voice that sounded like hermother asked, why did she not merely stand aside and let the deed be done? She would be thereto comfort Nikos in the morning, after all.

    She moved before she had to answer the question, anger and excitement loosening stiff limbs. Onthe other side of the arcade, a soldier moved slower and louder. The assassin spun, bladegleaming, and gave Savedra his back.

    Too easy.

    The impact jolted her arm. The blade slowed on leather, quickened through flesh, then struckbone with a scrape that set her teeth on edge. She braced as the assassin’s weight leaned backagainst her. She might regret being born a man every time she had a gown fitted, but it meantshe was stronger than she looked.

    The killer cursed softly, quiet even in death, and tried to pull free. One gloved hand gropedbackward. Savedra twisted the knife.

    Lanterns bloomed in the shadows to blind her and swords rattled. Then Captain Denaris wasthere, knocking the man’s weapon away, pulling him off Savedra, a soft stream of profanity fitto rust steel hissing from her lips.

    “Alive! Alive, damn it! Why is that so bloody difficult? ”

    To Sarah, Sonya, and Liz, my muses for all things classical,

    and to Steven, for not getting athird-book divorce.

    I am weary of days and hours,

    Blown buds of barren flowers,

    Desires and dreams and powers

    And everything but sleep.

    Algernon Charles Swinburne—“The Garden of Proserpine”

    Love is a many splintered thing

    The Sisters of Mercy—“Ribbons”




    496 Ab Urbe Condita (1228 Sal Emperaturi) Three years ago

    Death was no stranger in Erisín. The city named for the saint of death and built on the bonesof its founders had known its share of suffering, but the pestilence that struck that summerwas enough to horrify even the priests of Erishal. The plague had come from the south, borne ona merchant ship that slipped through a lax quarantine. It spread now through the bites of fleasand midges, so that any drone of wings or sudden itch meant terror. Hundreds dead throughoutthe city, temples and hospitals become mass tombs, and in the slums they dispensed with theproper rites altogether and stacked the infected dead like cordwood.

    Not even the palace was safe.

    The queen no longer trembled. She lay still now in the wide curtained bed, only the shallowrise and fall of her breast and her fluttering lashes to show that she lived. Sweat soaked herlinen shift, matted her long black hair. Brown skin flushed gold with jaundice and the whitesof her half-open eyes were yellow and bloodshot.

    The room stank of sick sweat and vomit, the cloying sourness of old blood. Shutters andcurtains blocked the windows despite the summer heat, and lamps trickled dark malodorous smoke.Meant to keep insects at bay, but it served with men as well. Sane ones, at least.

    Kirilos Orfion, spymaster of Selafai and the king’s own mage, sank into a chair and wiped hisbrow with a sodden cloth. A cup of tea sat on the table beside him—long cold, but it eased theache in his throat, if not the ache in his bones. His hands shook, sloshing brown fluid overthe rim. Sunken, shaken, sweating—he must look as though the fever burned in him too.

    Boots rang heavy in the hall outside. Mathiros keeping vigil. The king hadn’t slept since hiswife took ill, save in fitful snatches beside her bed. Kiril had finally sent their son to restwith a whispered spell, but it was all he could do to keep Mathiros from the room. It was allhe could do to keep death from the room. He rarely wasted energy on regret and might-have-beens, but now he wished for the healing skill he’d abandoned so many years ago. In hisdecades of service to the Crown he had known worry and fear and even the sharp edge of panic,but never this sick helplessness.

    Kiril felt Isyllt waiting beyond the door as well, tasted her own fatigue and worry. Ten yearsas master and apprentice and two as lovers had left their magic inextricably twined—even nowshe reached for him, a soft otherwise touch, but he drew away, tightening his mind against

    her. She would only exhaust herself trying to comfort him and that would serve nothing. If heburned himself out here, the city would need all the mages it had left.

    The fever might not be the work of spirits as the superstitious claimed, but so much sufferingstill attracted them. The mirrors in the room were draped with black silk, the windows wardedwith salt and silver, but even now something skittered over the shutters, larger than aninsect. Those mages who weren’t tending the sick spent the nights hunting newly fledgeddemons.

    He stood, wincing as his joints creaked, and limped toward the bed. “Lychandra.” His voicebroke on her name, hoarse and ugly.

    Bruised lids opened and golden-brown eyes met his. Lucid now, at least, delirium fled. Nowonder people thought the plague demon-born, when victims died bloody and raving.

    Her lips cracked as she smiled. “You’re as stubborn as Mathiros.” Her voice was soft andragged. “Find someone else to save—it won’t be me.”

    He pressed a cup of willow bark tea to her mouth. She coughed around the swallow and bloodysaliva flecked her lips. The physicians had shaken their heads when she first vomited blackblood, said she was beyond their skill. She was likely beyond his, too, but he had to try.

    Kiril sucked in a deep breath and tried to clear his mind. The magic answered slowly, scrapinglike broken glass in his veins. A cool draft whipped through the room, fluttering the bed

    hangings and rattling the shutters. Lychandra sighed as it breathed over her skin, respite fromthe fever’s heat. Kiril laid a hand on her brow and she gasped.

     eyes—illness hung on her like a pall, swirledHis vision blurred and he saw with otherwise

    dark and yellow-green as bile inside her. Contagion flared like an asp’s hood as his magiclapped over the queen’s skin; it had feasted and grown fat in three days, while Kiril had onlyworn himself dry. His power broke, splintering ice needles inside his chest. He fell to hisknees beside the bed, jarring bones even through thick carpets.

    Lychandra turned her head and pink saliva dripped onto the sweat-stained pillow. “Kirilos—”Her long brown hand touched his, burning his numb fingers. “No more. You’ll only hurtyourself. Please, let me see my husband.”

    He nodded, climbing shakily to his feet. Hard to breathe around the pain in his chest. He’dseen this woman a glowing bride, listened to her curse in childbirth. He hadn’t thought tostand her deathwatch, too. Pins and needles stung his hand as he opened the door.

    The king’s face only made it worse—skin ashen, eyes black pits under his brows. Mathiros readdefeat in Kiril’s expression and let out a sound neither sob nor howl. He shouldered thesorcerer aside as he rushed to his wife.

    Isyllt followed the king into the room and stepped into Kiril’s arms. She cupped his face inwhite hands and kissed him, the familiar scent of her hair filling his nose. Her grey eyes wereshadowed and dark with worry; he winced from his reflection there. So tired. So old.

    “You have to rest,” she said. “You’ll kill yourself this way.”

    He would die, sooner or later. Sooner every year. Leave her grieving beside his bed likeMathiros beside Lychandra. He lowered her hands away from his face. She was too young to be awidow—certainly too young to be his. He might have told her so, but he couldn’t get enoughbreath. His chest ached like a bruise.

    “Kiril.” Mathiros’s voice cracked on his name. “Is there nothing—Anything—” Tears soakedhis beard, splashed his wife’s hand. Kiril wanted to cringe at the pain in his eyes. “Youcan’t do this!”

    Whether he spoke to Kiril or Lychandra or Erishal herself, the sorcerer couldn’t say. Hispalms slicked with cold sweat and Isyllt’s hand tightened on his.

    Lychandra’s eyes sagged and she whispered to her husband. His name turned into a cough and shegagged, turning her head to vomit. Mathiros flinched; the liquid that soaked the side of thebed was watery, clotted with blood dark as soil or tea dregs. Her organs were failing, and noskill or magic could undo the damage now.

    The king knotted his fist in the gauzy curtains as if he meant to rip them from the bed.“Kiril, please!”

    Kiril closed his eyes. Mathiros hadn’t pleaded with him, with anyone, since he was a child.He’d never been able to say no to the boy.

    The queen hitched and shuddered, twisting stained linen. Isyllt gasped—she felt it too, theicy presence filling the room. The black diamond rings they both wore began to spark and glow.Kiril’s vision darkened. Mathiros screamed his wife’s name.

    Kiril reached, scraping himself raw, and threw every bit of strength against the shadow. For aninstant it balked, mantling over the room. He couldn’t breathe, could feel nothing but thatblack chill.

    The ice inside his chest broke and stabbed him through the heart.

    His legs folded. The shadow crested over him, crashed down. Mathiros screamed. Isyllt screamed.The floor rushed up to meet him. Old debts come due at last.

    The shadow retreated; it would take Kiril with it, and at last he might rest. Isyllt’s facelingered behind his eyes—no surprise that death would wear her countenance. But she called hisname, invoked it, held him inside his pain-riddled flesh. Over the roar in his ears he heardhis king’s wailing grief. He might only have imagined Erishal’s mocking laughter.

Darkness stole over him, dark and blessed silence.

    The bells tolled an hour before dusk, slow and solemn and irrevocable.

    In her chambers in the Gallery of Pearls, Savedra Severos sank onto the edge of the bed andpressed her face into her hands. Her eyes ached, though she had no tears—it wasn’t her grief,but the weight of it still crushed her. It would crush the whole palace; the queen was wellloved.

    Had been.

    “I should go to him.” Her voice snagged and broke halfway. Maybe it was her grief after all.Lychandra had always been kind to her son’s impolitic mistress, more than Savedra could havehoped for. “If he’ll see me.”

    She had been the prince’s lover for six months, formally installed in the Gallery for three,but it still felt unreal that she might walk the palace corridors and visit Nikos whenever shewished. Even now. Especially now.

    It was almost a relief, if only to leave her room. The windows were shuttered and draped andwarded, the air close and cloying with smoke and incense. With no sunlight for days, too manycandles had smudged the ceiling and curtains and left the taste of wax and char on her tonguewith every breath. The ashes of prayers streaked her shrine, but no saint had answered, notSarai or Alia or even owl-winged Erishal. Or rather, Erishal had answered, but not as Savedrahad begged.

    “He’ll see you,” her mother said, sipping her tea. No amount of death or chaos could shakeNadesda Severos’ flawless deportment. It made her seem colder than she was, but it wasreassuring. A familiar comfort. “He needs you now more than ever.”

    Savedra frowned, letting her hands fall. Her hair hung in kinks and tangles around her face andshe didn’t need a mirror to know how bruised her eyes must be, how dull her complexion.Nothing she could do for it now—it was madness to uncover the mirror with so many demonsabout, and she’d sent her maids away days ago.

    That her parents had stayed in the city, let alone come to visit her in the palace, wastestament to either pride or love. Or both, she conceded. There was room for both. Andambition, of course—that the Severoi stayed when other great houses fled the Octagon Courtwould be marked. Especially now, as the city’s horror became the kingdom’s grief.

    “This is an important time for you and the prince,” her father said, leaning over Nadesda’schair. “With Lychandra gone, it will be you he turns to more and more.”

    Ambition again. Her fists clenched in her already-wrinkled muslin gown. She’d been grateful,at first, that her parents hadn’t repudiated her when she became Nikos’s mistress. It mighthave been easier if they had.

    She touched the pearls at her throat—the mark of her station. Her fingers tensed against thecool slickness and for an instant she thought of ripping them away, scattering them across theroom. “I’ll never be queen, Father, not for all your scheming.” Her voice was calm when shewould rather scream; her mother’s child, after all. “Can’t you at least feign a littlesorrow? Or tact?”

    Sevastian’s lean brown face creased in a frown. A familiar expression—she’d have the samelines on her brow in ten years. Or sooner. Her mother’s smooth olive skin and silken hair werenot to be hers.

    “I don’t have to feign sorrow, Vedra,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest.“Lychandra was a good woman, a good queen. She’ll be missed. Saints know she made Mathirosbearable. But sorrow doesn’t negate practicality. You may not be queen, but consort isn’tbeyond your reach. There’s precedent enough for that.”

    Savedra pried her fingers from the pearls and touched instead the telltale bulge above them.The joke of her birth, that kept the rank of queen forever from her as surely as politics did.If only that were as easy to rip away as a necklace. “There will be a queen. The betrothal is

    already set and Lychandra’s death won’t dissolve it. And even if this foreign princessdoesn’t make Nikos set me aside, I’ll still be nothing more than another pearl. Sorrowdoesn’t negate practicality.”

    Nadesda raised a hand when her husband would have spoken. “Enough. This is a time for tact aswell as sorrow. Vastian, leave us. I’ll help Vedra dress.” Her teacup didn’t clink againstthe saucer, but her veils spoke in a dry rasp of lace and netting as she rose.

    Her father gave them both a sardonic little bow and retreated to the antechamber. Savedra founda comb on her dresser while her mother opened the wardrobe to inspect her gowns. Sandalwoodteeth caught in snarls and she fought the urge to tear them free. The sharp pain in her scalpgrounded her.

    “Why do you bother, Mother? I won’t be queen, and I’ll give you no Severos heir or cat’spaw bastard. Why keep including me in your schemes?”

    Nadesda pulled out Savedra’s white mourning dress—a year out of style—and turned, sinkingonto the bed next to her daughter. She wore eucalyptus oil to keep insects away, and the sharpminty smell clashed with the more familiar perfume clinging in the folds of her skirts.

    “My love for you has nothing to do with the children you can’t bear, or the marriages youmight make.” Her manicured hand closed over Savedra’s and she smiled. “I’ve always beengrateful to have a daughter, even if it took us a few years to discover it.” The smile fellaway. “But my love and loyalty to the house demand I take all of those things into account. Asa mother I want you to be happy with your prince, but as archa I have other well-beings toconsider too.”

    Savedra continued combing for a moment, then gave up and twisted her hair into a thick knot ather nape. No one whose opinion she valued would care what she looked like right now. “Justremember, schemes that hurt Nikos will hurt me as well.”

    “None of us can stop the world from hurting those we love. The best we can do is be there toease the pain.” Her mother draped the white silk across Savedra’s lap and went to thebathroom; water gurgled, and she returned with a damp cloth. “So wash your face and go to yourprince. You could have made worse choices, even if he is an Alexios.”

    Savedra couldn’t help but smile at the approbation—the strongest an archa of House Severosmight ever grant their ancient rival. “Mother, can’t you leave us out of your machinations?”

    Nadesda rarely frowned, but her beautiful face stilled with sadness. “Even if I could, otherswon’t. I can only promise to spare you any suffering that I can, and to keep you innocent ofanything that might compromise you.”

    Savedra wanted to argue. Wanted to scream. But she was too tired, too empty. More than anythingshe simply wanted to go to Nikos. Her hands tightened on the washcloth till water dripped ontothe dress in her lap. She’d need a new one made, anyway. The palace would be awash in whitefor a year.

    “Thank you,” she said at last. Then she began to scrub away the clinging smoke, and theghosts of tears she hadn’t yet shed.


    499 AUC

    In the Sepulcher, death smelled like roses.

    Sachets of petals and braziers of incense lined the marble halls and scented oil lamps burnedthroughout the long vault, twining ribbons of rose and jasmine and myrrh through the chill air.Meant to drown the smell of blood and rot that crept from the corpse-racks in the walls, butdeath couldn’t be undone so easily. The raw copper scent of recent violence teased past thesweetness, creeping into Isyllt Iskaldur’s sinuses as she studied the dead woman on the slab.

    Blue-tinged lips parted slightly, expressionless in death, but the slash across her throatgrinned, baring red meat and pale flashes of bone. Barely enough blood in her to settle—someclotted like rust in brass-blonde hair, pasted damp-frizzed tendrils to her cheeks. Lines downher ribs showed where corset stays had pressed into flesh. Her clothing, cut away by competent,

    uncaring attendants, was shelved in an oubliette of an evidence room upstairs.

    Isyllt crossed her arms beneath her breasts and shivered in her long black coat. “Where didyou find her?” Her breath trailed away in a shimmering plume; spells of cold etched thestones.

    “In the Garden,” Khelséa Shar said, “in an alley just after dusk.” The police inspectorlounged against the wall between corpse-drawers, a short, dark woman in the garish orange coatof the Vigiles Urbani. Frescoed vines and leaves swirled behind her—the builders had tried tomake the room cheery, but no amount of paint or plaster could disguise the death that steepedthese stones. “She was cold and stiff when we got there.”

    Isyllt frowned at the dead woman, brushed a finger against a lock of yellow hair. A prostitute,then, most likely. A foreigner too, from the coloring—Vallish like Isyllt, perhaps, or Rosian.Refugees from Ashke Ros crowded tenements and shantytowns in the inner city, and more and moreturned to the Garden for work.

    Isyllt pressed gently on the woman’s jaw and it opened to reveal nearly a full set of tea-stained teeth. Her elbows were still stiff, knees immobile. Rigor had only just begun to fade.“A day dead?”

    “That’s our guess. It was raining when we found her, and she was soaked, but there werehardly any insects. The alley is visible from the street—she couldn’t have lain there allday.”

    “So dumped. Why call me?” The Garden was the Vigils’ jurisdiction, unless the Crown wassomehow involved, or the crime was beyond the city police. And while pride insisted that theVigils’ necromancers weren’t as well trained as the Arcanostoi or Crown Investigators, Isylltknew they were perfectly competent. She bent over the white stone table, examining the wound.The knife had nicked bone. The killer was strong and sure-handed—left-handed. “What can Itell you about this that you don’t already know?”

    “Look at her thighs.”

    The woman’s legs tapered from flaring hips to gently muscled calves and delicate ankles. Nospider veins or calluses on her feet—chipped gold paint decorated her toenails. Flesh oncesoft and supple felt closer to wax under Isyllt’s careful fingers. Death whispered over herhand, lapped catlike at her skin. The cabochon black diamond on her right hand flickeredfitfully, ghostlight sparking in its crystalline depths.

    She ran a gentle hand between the woman’s thighs, tracing the same path as a dozen customers,a dozen lovers. But this time there was no response, no passion real or feigned. Onlystiffening muscles and cold flesh.

    No wounds, no bruises. No sign of rape. No violation but that of the blade.

    “What am I—” She paused. On the inside of the left leg, near the crease of the groin, shetouched a narrow ridge of scar tissue. More than one. She pressed against stiff flesh to get a

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