Chapter Nineteen

Reminiscences and a Broken Promise 

Jayen arrived promptly at seven forty-five to ferry Seya and Vico to the Halcyon clinic for her checkup the next morning. Vico was prepared to fend off his attempts at flirtation, as he had since that day in the Mediations office—Jayen was nothing if not persistent—but he was in almost constant communication with the security detail at Bretinne. It was…rather disappointing, actually, even though Vico had been the one trying to maintain some distance. He shook his head, exasperated at his own weakness.

Aren grumbled about opening up the clinic just for Seya on a Sunday, but it was half-hearted ire. He was pleased with her progress. “I was sure you’d end up in another fight, being stuck with the two of them,” he said, prodding at her shoulder.

“Jayen and I aren’t together,” Vico said from where he was standing in the doorway, eyes politely averted. “Though I did ask him to look after her yesterday while I was working.”

Aren eyed him curiously. “Not together? Well, I had heard—but then you two kept showing up together… I suppose that makes more sense than the two of you sharing an apartment on Jack Street, of all places. I had wondered about that.”

“Where’s Kaya?” Vico asked, to change the subject before he could ask about it.

“Temple,” Aren said. “Amanarre, over on Brook Street.”

“I thought she was a bit too foreign to be devoted any of our extensive pantheon.”

“They don’t have a god at Amanarre, just a sacred tree spirit. It’s not so much devotion as the fact that we have friends there. And you’re one to talk about looking foreign,” Aren said, favoring his vibrant hair with a meaning eye. It was an uncommon color even here, where Talese immigrant presence was highest in Caldona.

“And you will note that I have not been to a temple since the age of ten,” Vico said.

“Because of Seya.” Aren made a disgusted sound in his throat. “Kaya’s mother is a refugee from the southern Arisi territories, and her father’s from Talesinth, where she grew up, though she’s spent most of her adulthood here. We met in Zinthia. I took my residency there, and she came here with me afterwards to help restart the clinic.”

“Are you almost done?” Seya asked with exaggerated patience.

“Yes, yes. The curse is no longer in such danger of rebounding at simple provocations, but you should still refrain from using your magic—you need to save your energy for the physical healing that remains. I’ve renewed the spellwork for that, but any reckless casting could speed its dissipation. Providing you can remember that very important detail, you should be fine on your own for the next few days. I wouldn’t want your precious bond brother to be kept away from his job being a mouthpiece for the most power-mad man in town.”

“I can hear you out here!” Jayen barked from the waiting room.

No one paid him any mind. Seya gave a sigh of relief. Vico was somewhat less pleased by the pronouncement. He hadn’t missed how restless she was, or how carefully she was maintaining what shields she could manage. Her continued refusal to have anything to do their bond was starting to make him downright anxious. He was afraid she was more upset about his thoughtless prying than she was letting on, though she still had not said anything about it. He was starting to wonder if he ought to be the one bringing it up. Apologize again, perhaps.

“I still want to see her again this afternoon just to be sure, but the risk is negligible at this point,” Aren went on. “As long as she stays away from dangerous magic and violent family members, anyway.” Seya shot him a scowl. “Let’s say four o’clock?”

“That’s good news,” Jayen said as they got in the car. “We have to go back to the Bretinne site. You need to talk to the members of the co-op. Micah says they’re pissed as hell and talking about dissolving the affiliation. Also, apparently the news about the damage got out and there are people out there protesting the Talese magic as dangerous. Those fucking purists, of course.”

“Of course,” Vico muttered, but he wasn’t at all surprised. “Fine. Let’s drop Seya off at my place first.”

“I can walk back on my own,” Seya said. “Just give me the key.”

“No, we’ll take you, it’s barely out of the way,” Vico said. “You might be in danger walking around alone.”

“That’s ridiculous, Vico. I told you Jayen was the target.”

“Most likely because he’s Corin’s son, Seya.”

She shot him a fierce look. “Then I’m good, aren’t I, since I’m not his son.”

“We still don’t know who was behind the assassination attempt. And whether you want to acknowledge the facts—”

“Vico, I swear to all the gods and spirits,” she began.

“—you are considered linked to the Malthusius, so you could end up a target yourself,” he finished.

Seya rolled her eyes and got out of the car.

“Damn it, Seya, get back in the car!” Vico snapped, flinging the passenger door open and climbing out himself.

“No, I want to walk. It’ll do me good after being cooped up for days on end. I’ll be fine. It’s not like anyone can sneak up on me. I’ve been looking after myself just fine for the last decade, I think I can manage to walk a few blocks across town on a quiet Sunday morning.”

Vico’s eyes dropped briefly to her gloved hand, but he did not bring up the obvious untruth in her declaration. He did not need to. She set her lips into a grim line and stared right back at him until he looked away. She wasn’t going to relent, he knew. If she had been the type to sit quietly behind walls and wards, letting things happen around her, they would both have had a very different childhoods.

Probably his would have been much shorter.

Maybe if he let her have this small freedom it would calm that restless energy he’d sensed seeping out through her patchy defenses. “At least promise you’ll go straight back and stay there,” he said. “I’ll come pick you up for your appointment.”

“Sure, fine.”

He went after her and grabbed her by her shoulders so she wouldn’t be able to lie. “Promise, Seya.”

“I promise! Fire and water, just go do your damn job already!”

He wasn’t entirely satisfied, but he handed over his key and left.

Seya dragged her feet all the way up the street. Here was a perfect opportunity to get away clean, without the fight she knew would precede a more official parting, and part of her wanted very badly to take it, get as far away as possible before he was finished with his work. But she had promised. She wasn’t sure he wouldn’t come after her, and that would surely disrupt his attempts to keep his place within the Malthusius.

She settled on deliberately taking a somewhat meandering route back, to look over the changes to the town. She had been too distracted looking for dissonant magic to pay much attention to them before. There were plenty of things that had changed, but she was amused to find the sweets shop she had been banned from when she was twelve years old was still in business, and the same grumpy man still sat behind the counter, looking grayer and grumpier than ever. He eyed her suspiciously as she paused in the big front window, but without recognition. Her smile faded as she noted the Malthusius mark shimmering over his door. That was definitely new.

On a whim, she turned up the road in the direction of the apartment building she had lived in with her parents until she was fourteen. The corner grocery she had frequented with her mother and Ian as a child had been renovated and expanded, and the sign wore a different name and logo from the one she remembered. The empty lots where she and Vico and their other friends had played and practiced magic and fought were given over to respectable homes with nice yards and homey resonances. She was beset by a heady mix of nostalgia and regret as she counted each change.

The small park near her old home had been replaced by a war memorial. Her eyes were drawn almost against her will to the granite block inscribed with the names of those killed in the fighting in Starling County. Her mother’s name wouldn’t be on it—anyone involved with the Uprisers would be excluded. The fact that her mother had been killed by them in that very park meant nothing. She was far from the only victim of that prejudice; Seya’s chest ached for all the innocents who’d been killed or reduced to mindless puppets simply for believing in a cause that had been usurped by a monster who had valued his ambitions more than human lives.

The priests would have cleared all the negative resonance from the place before allowing the park to be opened back up, and it had been ten years besides, but Seya still averted her eyes and kept a tight grip on her shields as she passed by. It was some time before she was able to breathe properly again through the onslaught of memories.

Old man Talbot’s apartment complex used to be half a mile up the road from the park. It had been only a couple rungs up the ladder from the slums on the south edge of town when she had lived there as a child, a minor blight on an otherwise reasonably respectable area of the city. She had not been surprised to hear from Vico that it had been demolished after the Talbots’ dissolution, but that did not lessen the impact of seeing a clan compound where her childhood home had been. The name over the gate was Albrecht, the whole street was bathed in the traces of their clan magic, a dense combination of stone and metal and a hint of heavy air, which carried the resonances of the clan bond’s energy out much further than normal. It felt—disagreeable, as if someone had deliberately left out a clause of the spellwork that would have dealt with the polarity reaction of the two elements. Earth and air wasn’t nearly as volatile a combination as fire and water tended to be, but it still grated. She thought it might have been deliberate, part of the overwhelming sense of intimidation that permeated their bond magic. She wasn’t surprised they hadn’t made it official; surely that kind of resonance would bring questions if brought before the Bond Authority.

Seya didn’t linger. The last thing she needed was to get involved in a stupid territorial dispute. She did take a good, long look at the sigil over the name, trying to remember the places where she had seen it displayed. She made a mental note to ask Vico more about them, then remembered it didn’t matter: she wasn’t staying. She picked up her pace a little as she left, thinking more seriously about Vico’s apprehension. She didn’t believe for a minute that she was a target—if whoever was trying to upset Malthusius knew anything about her at all, they’d try to recruit her first, she was sure—but she wanted to put as much distance between herself and that jarring blend of bad memories and ominous resonance as possible.

She surfaced from her bleak reminisces some minutes later to realize her detour had brought her close to a temple street—Erienne, seat of a minor but locally popular water god, seated in a natural spring on the southwest corner of the city center. She could see the tall trees that covered the temple grounds from where she stood, and feel the light, cool essence of the spring permeating the air, and the curious weight that heralded the nearness of a spirit of ancient provenance. It was a busy place on a Sunday morning, with families traveling to and from the place bearing offerings or carrying away the heady blessings received from the members of its priesthood. With her defenses still recovering from the curse, the last thing she wanted was to be anywhere near a god’s spiritual resonance. Or possibly get noticed by one. All that power—she gave a shudder and turned herself in the direction of Vico’s apartment, working at her shields as she went. The extended detour had made her strikingly aware of how she’d neglected them, and thankful for Vico’s scrupulous consideration of her current, somewhat defenseless state.

Her progress was slow as she studied the differences in the resonances of the various streets she had missed her first day back. The traffic was also heavy as she passed through the shopping district just off the square, the market and the small cafes and bakeries overflowing on the lazy weekend morning, which slowed her further. Even on her best days, crowds made her nervous of being bumped and jostled, and there was always the threat of accidentally catching people who had enough spiritual sense to really notice her. With her shields so thin and unreliable now, and her sense open to the prospect of dissonance and the danger of being followed, it was even less appealing.

She truly did mean to head back to the apartment, though she had not yet decided what to do once she got there. But she’d only gone a few blocks when she felt a familiar, slightly dissonant aura intruding amongst all the unremarkable, unfamiliar ones, and looked up to see the little pickpocket from the marketplace dart across the road about twenty yards ahead of her. She was partially cloaked in a written ward Seya remembered from her own wayward youth, one which was meant to allow the caster to pass without notice as long as they did not speak, or touch anyone. It had been written with an inexpert hand, and dissipated through use as well, leaving holes in the protection, though Seya still might have missed it if she hadn’t been looking so hard at the faint threads of dissonance around her.

Seya had not been able to use something as weak as a written ward to cover her own presence since she had come into her elemental levels—they tended to dissipate rather too quickly on direct contact with her magic. This was not a problem for a child with normal levels for her age, and the ward, shoddy as it was, seemed to be working well enough for the girl’s purposes. She wove deftly through the crowd, and then with a burst of speed, crashed right into a man leaning over a newspaper dispenser, sorting through a handful of coins to feed into it. He gave an angry exclamation, but the girl vanished into the crowd long before he realized his wallet was missing. His fellow pedestrians went right on by without much notice of the incident. Seya followed at a discreet distance, a frown tugging at her lips.

The girl repeated the performance twice more. By the third time the ward had worn almost to nothing, and when she snatched a woman’s purse, she was unlucky enough to attract the attention of a guard officer as well as her victim. Between the woman and the officer shouting, it wasn’t long before the entire block noticed what was going on. The girl fled, ducking through the cars parked along the road and into an alley.

Seya walked past the ruckus of the chase with an air of unconcern. Of course the girl was nowhere to be seen by the time the officer reached the alley. Seya circled the block, following the faint threads of her presence that remained. It led her several blocks on, into the warehouse district, where she lost the trail amid the heavy protections laid on the huge, blocky buildings that rose up along the streets like the walls of some great, forbidding canyon. She hesitated briefly at the intrusively strong wards and deep shadows, but everything was so quiet and still on the sleepy Sunday morning she had trouble imagining any great threat to be found there, and resumed her search, darting along until she spotted a dark, curly head bobbing into the space between two warehouses. Walking lightly, Seya stepped around industrial debris and avoided the threads of a piece of trashed spellwork that had not been properly unraveled. The girl was crouched in the shadows of a pair of rusty garbage bins, preoccupied by the task of emptying the contents of two wallets and the rather small purse into her pockets.

“Not much of a haul, is it?” Seya commented.

The girl jumped and her hand came up with a hasty defensive spell, which rebounded the second she released it, exactly the same as the one in the marketplace had done. It was an old spell, simple—the sort of thing taught to newly-wakened students as a matter of course; bright and flashy but incapable of causing permanent damage—but the level of power behind it was pretty impressive for a girl her age, even if it was poorly cast.

“Who taught you magic, kid?” Seya asked, catching her by the sleeve of her shirt. She wanted to have a closer look at the spellwork, but it dissipated as she struggled to maintain her grip on the sputtering, furious child without actually touching her.

“You again! What are you, like, stalking me? Gonna call the guard again?”

“I didn’t call the guard on you the first time. You’re just really bad at this.”

“Sh-shut up!” She swung the purse in her hand at Seya, who caught it easily and deposited it into the trash bin. Her grip on the girl’s sleeve slipped, and she tried to bolt, but Seya managed to grab her by the back of her shirt before she got away.

“I’m not gonna hurt you, I just want to talk,” she said, and then froze in shock as she registered the traces of a coercion wound into the girl’s aura.

“Stop it, leave me alone!” the girl shrieked, swiping ineffectually at her. Her anger and panic stung, but Seya did not let go, instead sinking her sense into the coercion. It was not a bonded coercion, thank the gods, just a block on her ability to use her spiritual magic, but it was laced through with such deliberate malice that it sent Seya straight into a quivering, nauseous rage. She didn’t stop to think, just wound her sense around the threads of it and jerked it out. It burned at her with such intensity she had to let go of the girl to contain it.

“Ow! What are you doing to me!” the girl cried. Realizing she was free, she spun to glare at Seya, and her eyes widened when she saw the remains of the coercion sparking viciously between her hands. Her eyes got wider as she took in the fact that her magic was no longer suppressed. “What—what did you do? What is that?”

“It’s called a coercion,” Seya said, crushing the energy out with an angry gesture. The scars on her left hand ached with the fading resonance of it. “Someone didn’t want you using your magic. Who put it on you?”

The girl eyed her warily, backing away. “You just want to take me to the guard.”

“I’m not taking you to the guard. I sure as hell don’t want them on my back.”

That got her attention. “What are you, one of those recruiters?”

“Recruiters? You mean for a clan? That’s illegal, you’re too young. A kid your age can’t consent to a bond.”

The girl scoffed. “Like it really works that way.”

“Yeah, it’s a messy, screwed up world, but this isn’t the way to get by.”

“What am I supposed to do? No one’s gonna help someone like me.”

The certainty behind her words made Seya’s heart ache. “That’s not true, you know.”

“I do know! Why do you even care, you don’t know me at all!”

“I care because looking at you is like looking at myself. Look, I don’t want to make you do anything, but take it from someone who’s been in a similar situation. It just gets worse from here. If you don’t let someone help you, you’ll never get out of this.” She waved her hand around at the grungy alley.

Tears glittered in the girl’s eyes. “Right, and just who am I supposed to ask?”

Seya sighed. “I may know some people.”

“Like who? Some clan head? Social workers? They didn’t help me before. Why should I trust you, anyway? You know how much trouble I got onto for getting caught the other day? That guy at the market could have afforded to lose his wallet once or twice.”

“That guy would probably have given you everything in his wallet if you had asked,” Seya said.

“Yeah, right!”

Seya shrugged helplessly. “Whatever, all right? Just listen for two more seconds. My name is Seya, and I’m staying at the Windack Apartments on Jack Street if you change your mind. Apartment three twenty-two.”

“And what would you do for me?” Her tone was sarcastic, but there was something tragically hopeful flickering in her aura.

“Feed you and throw you in a bath for starters,” Seya said. “Maybe have a healer look over you.” She remembered Zan giving his card to the guard officer and added, “Set you up at a school. Your magic isn’t bad, you don’t have to be a thief or a delinquent or a runaway or whatever.”

“I don’t have any money for a school.” She was backing way again.

“What’s your name?” Seya asked.

“Why, so you can put out a report on me?”

“No, because I hated being called ‘kid’ when I was a kid.”

“Whatever. Just leave me alone.” She spun around and darted out of the alley.

Seya debated trying to catch her, and decided that would be counter-productive when she was already so spooked. She gave a sigh and made her way back to the apartment feeling deeply unsettled, as if she’d forgotten something important. As she was climbing the steps, it occurred to her that the kid was probably going to get in trouble with whoever had laid that coercion on her when they noticed it was gone. “I’m such a gods damned idiot,” she groaned, and went pounding back down the steps even though it was obviously far too late to go back and find her.

Jayen scowled at the series of trace images glimmering up from the memory charms that were laid out across a table in the entryway of the Bretinne factory. The traces marked the patterns of the energy on the factory grounds as recorded by the first crew mages the day before, and as a way of aiding his investigation, they were spectacularly unhelpful.

Across the table, Rena, who possessed the highest spiritual levels on his crew, shook her head. “Sorry, boss, but I’m not reading anything that might say who could’ve done this. Maybe I should go have another look outside?”

Jayen waved her out the door. Micah looked up from his examination of the fire charms. They were all of different makes and brands, most of them obvious defects, probably pilfered from the discard piles at various charm manufactories for the purpose. A few had been deliberately broken, and to those, they paid particular attention, but found no aural traces on them. Whoever had handled them knew what they were doing. Vico had managed to confirm that they could not have been there before the traces Lejan had taken, and Jayen had sent a few of his crew out to canvass the area, though he did not hold much hope they’d find anyone willing or able to tell them anything useful.

Cheritt had headed straight for him on his arrival, demanding to know in loud, angry tones how anyone had managed to get past the security measures, before Vico drew her and the other Bretinne folk to the offices overlooking the factory floor to discuss the issue.

Jayen would have liked too know that himself. There had been evidence of dissipation in the spellwork when he went over the wards the night before. Madderly had made traces to determine just how long they had been neglected, and he was waiting for her to finish analyzing them. A list of everyone who had been on duty the last six days was sitting on the table next to the file he’d started on the incident, but so far all he had were a great number of facts and no real evidence to point him in a clear direction.

And he was seeing those strange flashes out of the corner of his eye again. They had gone away after a few hours the last time, but he felt like they were encroaching more on his vision now. Not obstructing it, exactly, he could still see perfectly well. The bright edges to everything were just distracting. Damn it, he hated going to the healers. He rubbed at his eyes and grumbled to himself, “What the hell is going on around here?”

“Sabotage,” Micah said.

“Thank you for that sterling observation, Micah, but I meant how did they manage without leaving any traces at all, and why?”

“I don’t know how they did it, but the why seems pretty clear. They wanted to disrupt the affiliation in an effort to hit us financially.”

“Yes, but why? Why the sneaking around? Doing it this way won’t give them any advantages. They’d lose everything to us if it came out. “

“They don’t think they will be found out, obviously. So we’ll take them for everything when we get them anyway. You’re worrying too much about this.”

“We’re going to lose a lot of money and the affiliation, which isn’t going to make us look good to any future allies. Of course I’m worried,” Jayen said. “What part of this doesn’t worry you?”

Micah was saved having to answer that by the Bretinne people filing down the stairs from the office and through the foyer on their way out. Cheritt was still angry, storming out ahead of the other four, refusing to even glance at Jayen. Vico trailed behind them, murmuring polite assurances in Talese. He saw them out the gate and through the group of protestors, then came back inside, flopping down in one of the empty chairs around the impromptu work station.

“Well?” Jayen asked.

“Well, it depends on what Corin is willing to offer them now,” Vico said. “They have demands. There’s going to be a meeting tomorrow. Cheritt is ready to burn everything down, but the others talked her into one more day of negotiations.” He scrubbed a hand over his face in frustration.

“Just so you know, Marten is talking about throwing you out of Mediations if they bail on us,” Micah said without looking up from his work.

“Yes, because it’s absolutely my fault the water line was sabotaged,” Vico said, sitting up and flinging his arms out in a wide, sarcastic shrug. “Obviously I should have been out here every night protecting the Malthusius interests personally.”

“That’s not going to happen,” Jayen said. “And even if it does—”

“If you tell me I can come back to the security department again I’m going to drag you into the circle myself.”

“Is that all it would take? You can come back to the security department, Vico.”

Vico gave an exasperated sigh. “I should have known you’d take that the wrong way.”

“And now you owe me a duel,” Jayen said.

“Is that what you want? Three rounds in the circle?” He wasn’t looking at Jayen. His eyes drifted over to the traces and he stood to study them closer.

“You know that’s not what I want,” Jayen said. “But I’m willing to settle for three rounds of your undivided attention. For now.”

“While I kick your ass in front of your crew?” The idea gave Jayen a bit of a jolt. There was a reason he didn’t fight with Vico in public, even for practice. He couldn’t ask Vico to hold back just to protect Jayen’s reputation in front of his clan, and Jayen’s own pride wouldn’t have wanted him to either, even if it looked bad when he lost against someone with elemental levels so much lower than his. It didn’t matter whether people though he was losing honestly, or holding back out of affection, or that between Vico’s higher spiritual levels and clear-headed tactical approach they were a fairly even match, or that they had been dueling each other for fifteen years—long enough that they didn’t even see it as a competition anymore. It was just a matter of who broke concentration first, or who ran their charms out of energy sooner.

Or, often as not, who decided they were done playing around and wanted to drag the other off for an entirely different variety of exertion. Which was what Jayen was thinking about as he cast an unsubtly appreciative eye over Vico’s slim profile as he stood to move closer to the table. “You talk like winning is foreordained,” Jayen said. “Maybe we should make a wager on the outcome.” He lowered his voice and leaned toward Vico. “I can think of a few things I’d like from you.”

Vico regarded him with a dry smile. “I’m sure.”

Micah cleared his throat loudly. Jayen shot him an impatient look. He been so hopeful after that almost flirtatious interlude from the Mediations office three days before, but Vico kept sidestepping his overtures. Jayen didn’t like the deliberate distance he was keeping between them now.

“Has there been any progress?” Vico asked, waving at the traces. “I’m not seeing anything new here.”

“Nothing,” Jayen said. “It’s downright bizarre how well they’ve obscured the traces. First crew is supposed to look them over cooperatively tonight after we’re done clearing the site, see if they can’t uncover something useful.” He moved a little closer to Vico and looked over the traces again. Someone had marked out the lines of the spiritual energy for him, since he had trouble discerning them on his own. They had done a good job of it this time; much clearer than usual, even with the strange brightness flickering through them. It seemed stronger when he focused on the lines of the trace. He squinted, frowning when they didn’t go away. From the corner of his eye he caught the sharp look Vico shot him.

“It could be self-sabotage,” Micah said. “Cheritt was never happy with all this.”

“I don’t think she’d go so far as to sabotage anything,” Vico said. “For all her sharp tongue and argumentative personality, she wouldn’t risk losing her farm playing games. She knows that breaking the affiliation would cause us all the trouble she could hope for. She’s just angry now, I think mostly for letting the others talk her into this. No, if you’re stuck for a lead, I think you should start with Miredes.”

“Miredes? Do you have a particular reason for that?” Micah asked.

“Only that he’s been linked to those idiots out at the gates right now,” Vico said. “I had a good look over them while I was seeing the Bretinne people out, and I recognized a couple of faces from the trouble we had with him last week. Let me look over the files from your investigation, see if we can’t dig up something concrete.”

“All right, after we’ve wrapped up here,” Jayen said.

“Rena is pinging me,” Micah said. “She wants the barrier traces. I’ll be right back.” He deactivated two of the memory charms and carried them outside, leaving Jayen and Vico only the traces from the water line to look at. Jayen shifted closer, until their shoulders were brushing together.

Vico gave him a cool look. “You could make the image larger if it’s that hard to see.”

“But then I wouldn’t have an excuse to get this close, would I?” Jayen said.

Vico elbowed him in the ribs. “You’re impinging on my auric space,” he said. “Very rude.”

“But you aren’t moving away, are you?”

“Why would I give ground to the opposition when there’s no tactical advantage? You ought to know me better than that, Young Master.”

Jayen grimaced. “Don’t call me that.”

“It is literally your title.”

“Yeah, but I don’t want to hear it out of your mouth,” Jayen said. It reminded him uncomfortably that if the Sancerre still existed as a clan, Vico would likely have inherited the same title. Jayen wondered, not for the first time, what it would have been like to have known him as someone of equal status. From what he knew of the Sancerre, he was sure they still would have started as enemies, but their rivalry would probably have been much more vicious. They were already a fair enough match in the circle, but Jayen suspected that with the weight of the Sancerre bond to elevate his levels and the full resources of a clan at his back, Vico would have been a formidable opponent outside it too. It wasn’t an easy thought, not when Jayen remembered some of the crap he had pulled as an arrogant young heir himself. He didn’t have any trouble picturing Vico as a coldblooded, calculating tactician, steadily chipping away at Malthusius’ primacy over the town. Hell, he’d probably be running the Sancerre himself by now.

There would certainly have been no chance at all of Vico standing next to him now, eyes the color of frosted moss flicking over his face with that provocative sidelong look he did so well, the corner of his lips tugging up in a faint, soft smile that he schooled away almost immediately. His eyes did drift back to the trace image, his expression settling back into seriousness, but he didn’t move away, and the silence that fell felt almost… companionable. Jayen let himself pretend, for just a moment, that they were working together as if the last year had not happened.