Chapter 1

Vesperian slavers never come this far north. Isedar Matine released the hilt of his sheathed blade and flowed to his feet. The bleached green and yellow of late summer flooded back into his vision as he emerged from the naiya trance. Around him, twelve other pairs of eyes blinked open.

Ava, the eldest of the students entrusted to his care, looked pale and pinched under her short-cropped copper hair. “Isedar? I—I felt something.”

He touched her briefly on the shoulder as he strode past. The forest was still, the sunlight dense. It was only with his other sight that he had seen the approaching figures: thirteen men, armed and intent. Isedar planted himself between the students and the tree line.

“Mount up,” he said. “Return to the school.” This was his second year instructing the Academy of Steel’s junior classes. He knew exactly how young they were. They are not ready for this. He struggled to keep his voice even. “Tell Master Matine there are slavers in these hills.”

Jeren Lauds rose first, sweeping his practice sword up and out in the very motion the group had been drilling earlier that morning. “What about you, Isedar?” The boy's wooden blade did not waver, but his knuckles were white.

“I will follow,” Isedar said, his voice hardening. “Go!”

They had all grown up hearing stories of the barbaric customs of Underside. Training overcame hesitation. Isedar’s will radiated outwards, a palpable force to those conditioned to obey it. The remaining students scrambled to their feet. They made it halfway to the horses before the slavers broke from the trees. The foreigners loosed eerie howls as they charged, sunlight glinting on naked blades.

Isedar shifted uneasily as the company rushed forward. His eyes counted almost two dozen savages. The tremors he had perceived while in trance had not betrayed their true numbers. Somewhere, these men had learned to hide from duelists.

The memory of his father’s voice calmed the blood pounding in his ears. Seek truth and be victorious.

Isedar closed his eyes and quieted his mind. The sheathed naiya at his hip hummed a bright, clear note under his hand. Isedar followed the chime inwards until the ethereal shapes and sounds of his second sight dissolved the blackness behind his eyelids. A moment later, he could again perceive the meadow and surrounding woods, now rendered in a profusion of colorless detail incomprehensible to the normal senses. He might have distinguished each blade of grass, if he wanted, by its tiny warble amid the verdent chorus of its brethren.

His father’s voice stayed close to his ear. The world unveils itself to those who ask with respect and discipline.

Time slowed. Isedar marked each of the raiders' footfalls; their every snorting inhalation. Leisurely, he sank into stance as their jangling chords plowed headlong toward the pure song of his naiya.

* * *

“He killed five of my men!” Alphonse Kochill nearly spit to one side in disgust before thinking better of it. Swallowing resentfully, he concluded instead with a barely more civil, “Your Highness.”

Selunaya Vesperi, Princess of the High House of Midnight, ignored him. Her gray eyes instead studied the knot of people barely visible over his shoulder. Four men of the Southern Sands towered over six pale-faced children, binding their hands with silk rope. The youngest child's head barely came to her captor’s waist. They stood with piteous dignity, visibly drawing strength from the youth opposite them.

His eyes were closed, his spine ramrod straight. The fine-boned features of his face, just past the first flush of manhood, contained the living stillness of fine porcelain. Long, straight black hair fell in a raven sheet down his back. A raider held a naked sword to his neck, poised to strike. The youth ignored him, as if he stood silent in the clearing of his own accord.

“That boy?” Selunaya asked.

The captain grunted. “You should have let us use lethal force.”

“We are here to procure my Sword, Captain. Not to commit murder.”

This time, he did spit. “That bastard duelist slowed the rush and almost half the lot escaped to their horses. You may be here to find a Sword, Your Highness, but the rest of these Northern creatures are mine to sell, as usual.”

Selunaya’s roan mare jinked sideways at the roughness in his voice. With a light press of the hand, Selunaya quieted her again.
Captain Kochill was a
celestin, like her, and a scion of one of Underside’s greatest houses. Hard times and a bitter temper, however, had alienated him from his official military acquaintances. What few courtly instincts he possessed had been further dulled by long association with the bandits he employed. Selunaya had chosen him and his slavers for this task because they were well versed with the areas north of the border, and because no one in Nyron Silmet would miss them.

She scoured his congealed profile. His calculating expression was easy to read. She feigned ignorance.

“If it is as you say, Captain, the escapees will raise the alarm, and soon. Put the little ones in with the rest, and bring the boy to me.”

Without waiting for his reply, she turned and cantered back to the base camp.

* * *

He had surrendered his naiya. Three feet of razor-sharp steel, lightly arched like an undrawn bow. In each of its thousand hammered folds slept a drop of his blood. Without it, he was worse than unarmed: he was blind.

“Drop your sword, duelist,” the hard-faced barbarian of the Southern Sands had ordered. “Or we slit their throats. Slowly.”

Isedar coalesced out of his naiya trance to find five men dead at his feet. He turned toward the bearded raider. The man clamped Ava’s head to his chest with an arm as large as some men’s thighs. He tilted her chin up, baring her throat to his long, bone-handled knife. Ava had fixed her gaze on the sky, but Isedar could see her pulse trembling under her skin.

Behind her, other men held Heidi, Danni, and Rudhard. Kass and Fent stood back to back, their practice blades knocked to their feet, arms outstretched, watching the men who held them at sword point. The others had fled. A corner of Isedar’s knotted heart eased. They would return to the Academy, and his father, Master Matine, would know what to do.

“Drop your weapon,” the barbarian snarled again. His eyes flicked to the ground—to his slain companions—and fear passed through his coarse features. Isedar tensed, feeling perspiration trickle down his back. He was already in stance. A forward roll—a flick of the blade...

At that moment, a drop of blood appeared at Ava’s throat. Ava closed her eyes and whimpered. Her captor responded to her welter of terror by tightening the knife further.

Isedar calculated trajectories, weighing the flavor of their tension. These men were slavers. Their primary goal was profit, not death. The murder of a celestin of the High Houses by any lesser race was a capital offense, even in Underside. But these half-blood lepedus slavers could not be expected to behave with perfect rationality. The barbarian who held Ava—his hand was trembling. The drop of blood turned into a thin stream.

Isedar closed his eyes, and opened them again. Very slowly, he rose out of stance.

Ava’s eyes filled with tears. “No,” she mouthed.

“Drop your weapon,” her captor barked again.

Isedar forced his fingers open, one after another.

In the distance, Fent lunged forward. “Isedar!” he shouted, his voice cracking. “Isedar, don’t!” One of the slavers grabbed him as he flung himself past, and another clubbed him over the head with sickening force. His shouts ceased, abruptly.

Isedar held out his hand as his last finger uncurled from the sword's hilt. His reluctant naiya hovered for a moment against his skin before falling. It hit the bloodied grass with a dull thud as the last echoes of it's music faded.

* * *

Now as he walked, flanked by six of his captors, his gait felt uneven. His left hand brushed against the empty sheath. My father will kill me, Isedar thought. Even in his mind, there was an uncomfortable moment of silence. If I ever see him again.

The raiders he passed—more lepedus and some low-born celestin—eyed him warily as they secured their mounts and loaded boxes of supplies onto small wagons. They were breaking camp, Isedar realized with a sinking feeling. That was bad. The shock of losing his naiya had distorted his perception of time, but the attack had happened at the end of the afternoon. Now, night gathered in the sky above them. In these uneven mountains, the Academy’s hunting parties would have no chance of finding them until dawn.
The slavers had not bound
him, of course. Even without his naiya, they had not dared to touch him. Alas, they had not continued to guard him with swords, held in arms that might grow fatigued. Instead, he walked now with three crossbows pointed at his back.

Isedar did not think a crossbow bolt—or two—would kill him, but without his naiya there was not much point staging a one-man escape. Or attempting a one-man rescue.

His captors took him to the largest structure in the encampment—a round tent of the sort Southern military commanders used in the field. No identifying crest flew from its peak. The guards paused just outside the entrance. They did not look at him as their leader rapped lightly on one of the tent-poles.

“Enter,” called a cool, female voice.

The inside of the tent was sparsely decorated, but the few furnishings—two silken rugs and a low sleeping couch strewn with brocade pillows—were of exquisite craftsmanship. A young woman reclined upon the couch as if it were a throne. She wore a full-skirted velvet gown of a red so dark it was almost black—the traditional color of the High House of Vesper. Against the fabric, her skin was a clear alabaster, her lips a pale, glossy coral. Even in the candlelight, her wide eyes were an iridescent gray, almost silver. Most striking of all was her hair—a rich profusion of pale silk the color of moonlight on snow. A princess of the House of Vesper, Isedar thought with a horrible sense of dawning recognition. The color—witch white, Vesper’s favorite—only appeared in the purest of his female line. A crown would have commanded less authority.

Isedar could not take his eyes off of her. To his chagrin, he found his mouth paper dry.

“Kneel, boy.” The second voice was male, and rough with irritation. Behind the couch stood a thickset celestin with cold black eyes. The princess was so riveting, Isedar realized, that he had not even seen him. Again, he wished for his naiya.

Concentrate, said his father’s voice.A princess, even of Vesper, would not directly command raiders of the Southern Sands. This man must be their captain. Attend him.

Isedar scanned the stranger. The various pieces of his heavy armor were cared for and of obvious quality. Nonetheless, they looked piecemeal, as if they had been assembled from the spoils of many battles. He wore a naiya of his own, sheathed in battered black lacquer. Older than all the bits of armor was a frayed blue cloak, in the color of the House of Kochill.

This puzzle, anyway, Isedar understood. A celestin fallen from the grace of his house, into crime and slavery.

The man’s frown deepened. “Kneel,” he said again.

When Isedar made no move, he gestured the crossbowmen forward.

Isedar slid lightly aside before the cold point could prickle at his back. “I don’t see why,” he said, with a calm he did not feel. “Our Houses are at war. Your lady is no one to whom I hold allegiance.”

The coral lips tilted upwards, and Isedar realized that the princess was younger than he had originally thought—perhaps only a few years older than himself. “It is alright,” she said. “For now.” At a lowering of her eyelids, the crossbowmen retreated.

Isedar felt the princess’s attention slide back to him. “Welcome, duelist,” she said gently. “What is your name?”

His father’s voice spoke clearly, again, in his ear. There is never excuse for discourtesy. Isedar inclined his head. “Isedar Matine, Your Highness.”

“Captain Kochill tells me you slew five of his men.”

He was silent.

“Five of his best men.”

Again, he said nothing.

The Princess tilted her head. “So why, then, did you surrender? You are obviously far more skilled than your attackers were.”

Isedar clasped his hands loosely behind his back. “I was charged by the Master of the Academy of Steel with the safety of his students. If your slavers had not been so nervous that I feared they would accidentally harm their hostages, perhaps they too, would be dead, and we would not be having this conversation.”

At this, Captain Kochill leaned forward, the snarl permanently submerged in his expression rising to the surface.

The Princess held up her hand. “Peace, Alfonse,” she said. Her eyes never left Isedar. “But now your charges are captives. When we return to Underside, they will be sold as slaves. Duelists of the House of Dawn, whatever the state of their training, are coveted as bodyguards—and other things—among the Houses of Night.”

She let the silence stretch between them, more than enough time for his imagination to provide the details. He curbed it, hard. Everyone knew the inhabitants of Underside were barbarians. “Would it not have been kinder,” the Princess continued eventually, “to sacrifice one, or two, to safeguard the others?”

“Their lives are not mine to trade,” Isedar said, eventually. “And we are still several days’ ride from the border. Where there is life, there is hope.”

Her eyebrows rose. “I thought the House of Dawn taught death before dishonor?”

Isedar thought of his mother, in her white shroud. Of her hand, inking her goodbyes. “In this I keep my own council,” he said.

“I see." The Princess considered this, her face inscrutable. "We are leaving tonight for the border," she continued. "We have been raiding up and down these hills for the last two weeks, and we have not yet been caught. My Darkworker”—here she gestured toward a man in Vesperian reds and blacks—“is very skilled. It is unlikely that your Academy’s rescue parties will find us before we depart.” Her lips pursed.. “If you had known that, would you have still chosen to yield?”

He closed his eyes, and opened them again. “Yes.”

She watched him for a moment, as if evaluating his answer. Then she leaned forward, and her voice sank, becoming dangerously intent. “Isedar Matine,” she said, “it might interest you to know that I am not here in search of slaves. I am here looking for a Sword. You know what a Sword is, do you not?”

A muscle jumped in his jaw. “You wish a man who will act as your blade, in matters of honor.”

“It is a respected position. Far better than that of a slave. In the lands of Underside, a Sword of the House of Matine is particularly prized.”

It was not hard to follow her logic to its implied conclusion. Isedar shook his head. “The duelists of my house draw their strength from truth, Your Highness. I cannot duel a man when I do not believe my cause is just.”

“You slew those men today with great ease.”

“My thoughts were for the safety of my students.”

“So I offer you a bargain. Become my Sword, and I shall let your charges go.”

Behind her, Isedar heard Alphonse begin to protest, but the Princess held up her hand again, and he fell into a glowering silence.

Isedar drew breath, with difficulty. The air around him was congealing. In a moment, it would be too heavy to breathe. “And if I refuse?”

“Then I will have no further use for you. I will contract with another slaving ring, and continue raiding the border, until I find what I want. In the meantime, Alphonse and his men will depart for Nyron Silmet. You and yours will be sold at the block in the city’s main square in one month’s time.” She caught Isedar’s gaze, and held it. “Two of your charges are young women. Their troubles will start long before they reach their destination.”

Isedar thought of Ava, and the oaths he had sworn to her parents: to guard her body, and protect her honor. In the civilized lands of the Houses of Light, duelists married for the advancement of their families, but not until their they had given the prime years of their skill to worthier causes. This had not stopped Master Matine from contracting brides for his three sons while each was still in the cradle.

“You see?” Selunaya’s smooth voice formed a noose of silk and honey. “Every time you draw your sword in my service, it will be in the name of their safety.”

Isedar swallowed his first, instinctive denial, and let the silence fill up the space around him. Think. Master Matine had played many tactical games with his sons. He had taught them to walk all feasible options to their conclusion, before making a move. The lessons seemed to be of little help, now. If this was a game of strategy, it was one whose rules were unfamiliar to him. He ached for his naiya , and the truth of the other world he could see there.

The princess watched him think. Her eyes flickered over his features, drinking in every nuance. Isedar struggled to ignore her, and keep his expression unreadable.

In uncertainty, focus on what you know.


His students—Ava—were his first concern. They were unarmed, and well guarded. Even if he could somehow reclaim his naiya, Isedar could see no means to guarantee their freedom with violence. The only way he would have even a prayer of securing their safety was by remaining unimprisoned himself.

Isedar studied his decision. Enough. Reason supports it, and honor demands it. But beyond the shield of logic he constructed around his thoughts, a black dread rippled into existence. Isedar spoke before it could touch him.

“I will be your Sword,” he said to the Princess. “But only on one condition.”

Princess Vesperi, her gray eyes beginning to light with triumph, paused. “What is it?”

Determination lent iron to his voice. “My charges are not simply to be let go, to make their way home in the dark. We will take them to the Academy together. When I have seen that they are safe with my own eyes, then I will take the oaths that bind me as your Sword.”

The Princess shook her head. “If I let you go with them unescorted, how do I know that you will return? And if I or my men go with you, how do I know you will not take us hostage in turn?”

He looked at her, steadily. “You have my word. That is why you desire a Sword of the House of Matine, is it not? Because your own duelists' vows cannot be trusted.”

Her lips turned up at one corner. “But the word of a duelist of the House of Dawn is truth.” She closed her eyes, as if testing her own resolve. A moment later she opened them and nodded once, firmly. “Very well, Isedar Matine. But you will take the Sword oath now, not after we return your charges. That is my condition.”

With conscious effort, he unclenched his fingers. “Then I agree, Your Highness. But if you cross me in this—”

“You have my word. We shall return your students to the school together.” At his expression, her smile became even more crooked. “The word of a Vesperi is not worth much, in your eyes, I see.” She inclined her head. “That is no way to begin our relationship. Very well. Make it part of your oath, if you desire. If your students are not safe at home by tomorrow night, you may take my head, to display in your Northern Empress’s collection.” Her smile was mirthless. “That would satisfy your barbaric sense of honor, would it not?”

“Bring me my naiya ,” he said.

The Darkworker, on his right, spoke up. His voice was surprisingly young, for his weathered face. “Princess—”

She cut him off with a wave of her hand. “He will not break his word, Edgar,” she said.

Reluctantly, the Darkworker bowed, and excused himself. A moment later, he returned, carrying Isedar’s blade in hands gloved in writhing shadows. As the blad came into his view, it jumped towards him, pulling at his skin with magnetic force. Edgar felt it too, Isedar knew. The Darkworker’s face folded in around itself in concentration as he fought to bring the sword not towards Isedar, but to Princess Vesperi. All along the edges of the blade a, snapping charge sprang to life, ionizing the air with a menacing crackle. Isedar saw Edgar grit his teeth. Each duelist’s naiya had its own means of discouraging the touch of anyone but its owner. Merely holding the blade gave Edgar pain. Were he not shielded by his own shadows, he would never have been able to pick it up.

At another nod from the Princess, Edgar carefully laid the sword down at her feet. Electricity continued to snap around the it.

“Four celestin may act as a quorum of witnesses,” the Pincess said. “So be it.” Her voice slowed, to give her words their due weight. “I, Princess Selunaya Vesperi, in the name of Vesper, and the High House of Midnight, take this man, Isedar Matine, as my Sword. He will act in my behalf in all matters where honor is resolved in steel, for as long as we both shall live.”

Isedar drew a deep breath as he dropped to one knee. His vision tunneled until he was aware only of his blade, just out of reach, and a numb cold that suffused his every limb. In a voice that sounded as if it came from thousands of miles distant, he repeated the words he had held sacred since he was a child.

“I, Isedar Matine, in the name of Luminae, and the House of Dawn, swear myself as the Sword of this woman, Selunaya Vesperi. In so doing, I vow to act on her behalf in all matters where honor is resolved in steel, for as long as we both shall live.” He took a deep breath, and added his amendment. “I swear this on the condition that she return my captured students safely to their rightful homes at the Academy of Steel. Should she fail in this, my oaths are rendered void, and my blade may seek recompense in her life.”

She did not blink or hesitate. “Rise then, Lord Isedar, and present me with your naiya.

Slowly, he rose to his feet. One step, another. Then he was before her—close enough to touch. She smelled like jasmine, opening silent petals in the summer night. From this distance—from his height, as he looked down at her—her eyes were the color of moonlight on dark water. Slowly, he sank to his knees. As he bent for the sword, he saw a glint of liquid silver in her hand.

“Wait,” she said softly. “First, the chain.”

He almost jerked away. “That is not—” He glared up at her, and lowered his voice so only she could hear. “It is an insult to me that you think it necessary.”

Her expression did not change. “The Chain of Fealty is a custom of the House of Vesper, Lord Isedar. A formality, only.” Her voice lowered, too. “Do not shame me before my people.”

As she spoke, she bent, and he felt her warm fingertips skim his cheeks on both sides, then his neck, and then they were sliding back, under his hair, raising disconcerting tingles in radiating, electric lines all along his skin. He sucked his breath in as her fingers pressed the ends of the cool chain—a liquid moonlight—together against the base of his neck. Isedar felt them fuse together by some Vesperian magic into a solid stream of silver, and then it was done—so fast he had not had time to protest further.

Biting back his outrage, he reached for his naiya. It jumped into his hand, and a tense knot in his chest immediately unwound itself in relief.

The abrupt sensation of completeness did not quite eclipse the cool trickle of the metal chian around his neck.

As one, Selunaya’s men tensed, their hands moving to their swords.

She alone did not move from where she knelt beside him, his naiya between them. “Present me with your blade, Lord Isedar,” she murmured.

Slowly, he lifted the steel by hilt and shank. It buzzed angrily in his hands, indignant over its mistreatment. Gently, he willed the sword to quiet. There.

“You may kiss the blade,” he said. His voice was rough.

Her eyes searched his, looking for a guarantee of his word. There was a mesmerising quality to the gray of her irises, which he tried not to notice. Light and dark points together, like—

She broke his train of thought by releasing his gaze and carefully lowering her head to the exposed steel. She hesitated for a moment, watching the fog of her breath on the metal. Then, she pressed her lips firmly to the surface.

The lightning that slept in the sword reacted immediately, reaching for her. With effort, Isedar held it in check. He wondered if she knew that in the Northlands it was only during rituals of binding—sword to master, vassal to lord, or man to woman—that a duelist allowed another celestin to touch this piece of his soul, made material.

He need no longer wonder if her expression of tranquility was merely a bluff, he realized. Eager to see at last, he closed his eyes and followed the sword’s hum inside of himself.

Several moments passed as dark was replaced by light, and the tent appeared to him again in the chorusing grays of the naiya plane. The Princess’s guardsmen sprang first into cohesion in his mind—hardened slavers, simple in their equations of fear and desire. Captain Kochill resolved himself next—cold steel and a surly, discontented heat. Then he found Edgar, the Darkworker. His slight note was hidden so cleverly in shadow that had Isedar not known to look for him, he would not have seen him at all. So. That was how they crept up on me, unawares.

The Princess took longer for him to parse into coherence, despite being nearer than any of the others. She was composed of so many jagged spears of sound and shadow that it pained his senses to gaze directly upon her. Her very presence formed a web of influence that bound each slaver to her with fine strands of greed, awe, and fear. He saw the pale cable of loyalty that extended between her, and Edgar, and the line of affection that spun back from him, to her. Heartened, Isedar followed the line back to its source.

Vertigo seized him.

The complex symphony that knelt before him was not a ball of mishappen lances, as he had first assumed. It was a giant spider, large as a man. Eight long legs, their spurs as sharp as daggers, sprouted from a black abdomen crusted with shards of jet and diamond. From the creature’s wasp-like midsection rose not a spider's head, but the pale torso of a lovely young woman. She was naked save for a thick mantle of pale, glowing hair, its tresses framing the visage of the Princess. Her gray eyes were intent upon him, and her perfect, coral lips curled up in a guarded smile.

The smile undid him. Isedar jerked out of the naiya trance, falling backwards from kneeling into a crouch.. He forced his eyes to refocus on the living world. The Princess did not appear to notice the blade tremble beneath her lips as Isedar fought to regain his composure. She remained kneeling a full minute more, in confirmation of their pact, before slowly withdrawing. Her brows quirked at his appalled expression. “It is done,” she said.

He did not move. What are you, Selunaya Vesperi?

Her gentle voice cut through his consternation. “Rise, Lord Isedar.”

As he did so, something clicked—the vision, the raids, and her words, all at once. Isedar’s frown deepened. “My title,” he said. “You knew. All along, you knew.”

She smiled sweetly. He had seen her truly; now he knew that smile for what it was. “That you are the son of the Master of the Academy of Steel? The best-prized son of a famous man, rumored to surpass even his father in his genius?”

Isedar felt his jaw lock. “In this,” he managed, “you are certain to be disappointed.”

Princess Selunaya cocked her head. “Even grossly exaggerated rumors are born of some kernel of truth. You did not think I would risk my life here on the border for any duelist of the House of Matine, did you?”

Isedar did not miss the abrupt darkening of Captain Kochill’s face. Ah; so capturing a ranked duelist of the House of Dawn had not been in his plans. Isedar had been justified in his surprise, to find raiders so far north.

“The reputation of your House,” Isedar grit out, “is not, in your case, unmerited.”

Selunaya laughed. “Why Lord Isedar, am I supposed to take offense? I am a Daughter of Vesper. This is how Our Father made us.”

“Deceptive.” That was one word. The Luminean histories used many others besides when describing the people of Underside. Vengeful. Heartless. Seductive. Dangerous.

“Just so.” Her smile vibrated with practiced complacency. “Though you, my Sword, are quite a mystery as well. With your opinion on death, and dishonor... how did you ever manage seventeen years in the bosom of House Matine? Surely today was not your first such test.”

His hand was at his hilt without conscious thought.

She held up a hand before he could draw his sword. “Peace. I meant no insult.” Her smile deepened. “Curiosity is another vice of Vesperians, you know.”

His voice was hard. “So is oathbreaking.”

“Ah.” She replaced her playful expression with a more solemn one, though her eyes still danced. “Don’t worry. I haven’t forgotten my word to you, or the consequences of misplacing it.”

She gestured the stony-faced Captain forth. “Alphonse, take us to the captives.”

* * *

Isedar’s students were being held in a retrofitted military transport. Two doors, one of metal bars and one of wood, blocked the prisoners' escape. The clever Vesperian construction meant that only one horse—not even a celestin greathorse but the more common farm variety—was needed to draw it along. At Selunaya’s nod, the Kochill Captain drew forth the key, and unlocked the door.

Selunaya held out her hand, palm up, to Isedar. Reluctantly, he held out his arm so she could place slim fingers in the crook of his elbow. Even through the fabric of his clothes, an unwelcome shiver spiraled outwards through his skin from the point of contact. In the wake of his vision, he could easily imagine black spider legs dexterously securing them together with near-invisible strands of web. Pointedly, he looked away.

She floated up the portable steps beside him, and into the vehicle.

Once inside, Isedar pulled his arm free. He felt ill. His six students shared the tiny room with almost a dozen other children—celestin, mortae, and lepedus alike. They lay in stacks like cordwood on narrow wooden shelves, some slumped in drugged torpor, others curled into tight, crying balls. All turned their faces away from the light that stabbed through the open door.

“It’s alright,” Isedar said, suffusing the place with as much tranquility as he could muster. “I’m here.”

Ava shot to her feet, jostling her neighbors. Her voice rose in a shriek. “Isedar!”

He caught her by her arms, before she could fling herself into him. “Remember yourself,” he said sharply. Tears made wet tracks down her pale face.

Shakily, she pulled back, and stood straight.

He felt the ghost of a smile touch his lips. “Better,” he allowed. “The others will look to you for guidance. Heidi. Danni. Rudhard. Kass. Fent. Come. It is time to return home.”

Slowly, the six students crowded up to him, Kass supporting his near-unconscious brother.

“They drugged him,” Kass said shakily.

“It will wear off,” Isedar said.

The other children, not his, stared at them longingly, but the sound of a raised voice drew his attention back towards the door.

“—wasn’t in our deal,” the Kochill Captain growled.

“I will pay you for the six duelists,” Selunaya replied, her voice cold.

“You tricked us,” he said, stepping closer to her, where she stood in the doorway. “I lost five of my best men taking him down. I never would have taken this deal if I knew you were after House Matine’s most promising Sword..”

“Which is why I did not mention it. I will compensate you for whatever you think fair.”

“That’s not enough,” Alphonse snarled. “Gold won’t bring my men back.”

“What would you like me to do?”

“I have half a mind to lock you in here and sell you myself.”

Selunaya laughed—a hard, amused sound. “You think you can make a Princess of Vesper disappear? You overreach yourself.”

“You were foolish enough to come with only one retainer. I know your family doesn’t know you’re gone. I can color your hair. Yes—you’ll look quite different by the time I’m done with you.”

Selunaya had not moved. Even from behind, Isedar could hear the scorn in her voice. “Your men love their pay more than they love you, Captain Kochill. Do not test their loyalty.”

“Their loyalty is mine enough, Vesperi bitch,” he growled. Then he sprang forward to knock her into the cell, and slam the door.

Isedar leaped for the entrance, but he knew he could not draw his naiya in this confined space. He hoped to reach the bars before—

But Selunaya was moving too. With a lithe twist neither man expected, she spun and ducked gracefully under the Captain’s arm. Isedar had just enough time to see a glint of steel in her pale hand before she came full up against Alfonse’s body. Red velvet skirts swirled high, engulfing his steel-clad calves, thighs, hips—and then one white hand cupped the Captain’s cheek as the other descended towards his neck in a savage, downward stab. Alfonse slumped to the ramp, then rolled heavily off, his shocked hands clutching at the hilt of the ruby and silver stiletto that now protruded from his neck. Isedar heard him make a hoarse, wet gurgling sound.

“I would not remove that, if I were you,” Selunaya said conversationally as she descended the ramp and stepped over his body. “If you leave it in, you may have a few moments to commit your soul to Vesper.”

Outside the transport, the lepedus and celestin slavers stilled in their tracks, and stared.

Selunaya turned, and caught Isedar’s eye. A moment later, he was before her, on the grass outside the wagon. Her hand lightly touched his shoulder and he fell into stance.

She looked at Isedar but pitched her voice to carry. “Alphonse mentioned to me that none of his men could have taken you if they had not held your students hostage. All of those children are currently safe in the transport behind us. Is that not true, Lord Isedar?”

“It is, Your Highness.”

Selunaya stepped back. The slaver captain had, unwisely, withdrawn the blade. Blood vomited with heartbeat-regularity from the gash in his throat to the earth at her feet. The wine red of her gown, Isedar realized—the signature color of Vesper—was so close to the shade of fresh blood that the stains of it were indistinguishable in the velvet.

“So you may try your luck now, if you believe your late Captain prone to overestimating his opponents' abilities,” Selunaya cast out to the gathered knot of slavers. “Or you may return to Nyron Silmet and receive payment as planned from my steward.” Her chin rose. Isedar did not have to be in his naiya trance to visualize how the ethereal strands of silk that snared the camp tightened unto choking, stilling all the men in her web. “The choice is yours.”

* * *

“I have never held slavery in particularly high esteem.” Selunaya's face bore an expression of mild distaste as she surveyed the children inside the wagon.

Isedar flicked his blade in ritual cleansing, droplets of blood spinning into the dark. Some of the slavers had chosen to fight. Others had run. Edgar was cleaning up the last of the bodies, his darkwork gently interring them in the silent earth.

The Princess turned her head to look at him, her expression unreadable. “It seems we shall be returning more than just your six students to your father’s house,” she said.

Isedar sheathed his naiya. It was not hard to guess what she was thinking. He did not look at his students, not even at Ava, as he took her hand, and bowed. “My father will not detain you, and I will return with you to Nyron Silmet,” he said gravely. “I gave you my word.”

She bowed her head. “Very well. I am in your hands, Isedar Matine.”