"You told the assembly that all of Kalarus's assassins had died rather than be captured," Lady Aquitaine murmured as they descended the last steps to the cells beneath Lord Cereus's citadel.
"Yes," Amara said. "I did. But this one we took alive. It is she who attempted to take the life of Steadholder Isana."
"She?" Lady Aquitaine asked, her tone interested. "The others were all men."
"Yes," Amara replied. "She was one of Kalarus's bloodcrows. It is possible that she might know something of his plans. She was high in his councils."
"And therefore loyal to him," Lady Aquitaine mused. "Or at least very much under his control. Do you actually believe she will divulge such information to you?"
"She will," Amara said. "One way or another."
She could feel the pressure of Lady Aquitaine's gaze on the back of her head. "I see," the High Lady murmured. "This shall be interesting."
Amara put a hand on Bernard's shoulder to signal him, and stopped on the cold stone stairway before her. She turned to face Lady Aquitaine. "Your Grace, I ask you to remember that you are here to assist me," she said quietly. "I will do the talking."
The High Lady narrowed her eyes, for a moment. Then she nodded, and Amara resumed her pace.
The "dungeon" of the citadel of Ceres was seldom in use. In fact, it appeared that the chilly place was primarily used for storing foodstuffs. Several crates of cabbages, apples, and tubers had been stacked neatly in the hall outside the only closed and guarded doorway. A legionare wearing a tunic in the brown and grey of the House of Cereus stood outside the door, a naked sword in his hand. "Halt, sir," he said, as Bernard entered the hall. "This area is off-limits."
Amara slipped around Bernard. "Legionare Karus, isn't it?" she asked.
The man came to attention and saluted. "Countess Amara? His Grace said you're to have access to the prisoner."
Amara gestured at Bernard and Lady Aquitaine. "They're with me."
"Yes, Your Excellency." The guard withdrew to the door, drawing the key from his belt. He hesitated for a moment. "Countess. I don't know who that woman is. But... she's hurt pretty bad. She needs a healer."
"I'll take care of that," Amara told him. "Has she tried to speak to you?"
"Good. Leave the keys. I want you to take station at the bottom of the stairs. We're not to be disturbed for any but Lord Cereus or Gaius Sextus himself."
The legionare blinked, then saluted. "Yes, ma'am." He took up his shield by its carrying strap and marched to the bottom of the stairs.
Amara turned the key smoothly in the well-kept lock, and opened the door. It swung on soundless hinges, and Amara frowned.
"Problem?" Bernard whispered.
"I suppose I expected it to clank. And squeak."
"Except for where they locked me up with you."
Bernard's mouth quirked into a small smile, and he pushed the door the rest of the way open and entered the room first. He stopped there for a moment, and Amara saw him stiffen and heard him draw in a sharp breath. He stood stock-still for a moment, until Amara touched his back, and Bernard moved aside.
Rook had not been treated kindly.
Amara stood beside her husband for a moment. The bloodcrow had been chained to the ceiling, the cuffs cutting into her wrists, held so that her feet barely touched the floor. Her broken leg was wholly unable to support her weight. A six-inch-wide circle grooved into the floor had been filled with oil, and dozens of floating wicks surrounded the prisoner with fire, preventing the use of any water furies-which she obviously possessed, if able to change her appearance to double for the student murdered several years before. Her tenuous connection with the earth, as well as a lack of proper leverage, would make the use of earth furies a useless gesture. No living or once-living plants adorned the room, ruling out much use of woodcrafting, and the close quarters would make the use of any firecrafting essentially suicidal. Metalcrafting might be able to weaken the cuffs, but it was something that would take a great deal of time and effort, and Rook would have neither. This deep beneath the surface, wind furies would be of very limited use-a fact not lost on Amara, who never felt comfortable when Cirrus was not readily available.
That left only simple ingenuity as a possible threat to her captors-and no one who had worked long in Kalarus's service would be in short supply. Or at least, would not be under normal circumstances. Rook hung limply in the chains, her good leg trembling in a kind of constant state of collapse, barely able to keep enough weight off her suspended shoulders to keep them from being dislocated. Another day or so and it would happen in any case. Her head hung down, hair fallen around her face. Her breathing came in short, harsh jerks, edged with sounds of basic pain and fear, and what little of her voice Amara heard was dry, ragged.
The woman was no threat to anyone. She was doomed, and she knew it. Part of Amara cried out at the woman's plight, but she pushed compassion from her thoughts. Rook was a murderer and worse. A bloody-handed traitor to the Realm.
All the same. Looking at the woman made Amara feel sick.
Amara stepped over the ring of floating candles, walked over to stand before her and said, "Rook. Look at me."
Rook's head twitched. Amara caught the dull shine of the low candlelight on one of the woman's eyes.
"I don't want to make this more unpleasant than it has to be," Amara said in a quiet tone. "I want information. Give it to me, and I'll have your leg seen to. Supply you a cot."
Rook stared and said nothing.
"It won't change what will happen. But there's no reason you have to be uncomfortable until your trial. No reason you should die in fever and agony while you wait."
The captive woman shuddered. Her voice came out in a rasp. "Kill me. Or get out."
Amara folded her arms. "Several thousand legionares are already dead thanks to your master. Thousands more will die in the coming battles. Women, children, the elderly and infirm will also suffer and die. In wars, they always do."
Rook said nothing.
"You attempted to murder Isana of Calderon. A woman whose personal courage, kindness, and integrity I have seen demonstrated more than once. A woman I count my friend. Count Calderon here is her brother. And, of course, I believe you are acquainted with her nephew. With what they have all given in service to the Realm."
Rook breathed in short, strangled rasps, but did not speak.
"You face death for what you have done," Amara said. "I have never been one to believe in spirits bound to earth for their crimes in life. Neither would I wish to have such deeds as yours on my conscience."
No response. Amara frowned. "Rook, if you cooperate with us, it's possible that we can end this war before it destroys us all. It would save thousands of lives. Surely you can see that."
When the spy did not reply, Amara leaned in closer, making eye contact. "If you cooperate, if your help makes the difference, the First Lord may suspend your execution. Your life may not be a pleasant one-but you will live."
Rook drew in a shuddering breath and lifted her head enough to stare at Amara. Tears, absent until then, began to streak down her cheeks. "I can't help you, Countess."
"You can," Amara said. "You must."
Rook ground her teeth in agony. "Don't you see? I can't."
"You will," Amara said.
Rook shook her head, a slight motion of weary despair and closed her eyes.
"I've never tortured anyone," Amara said quietly. "I know the theory. I'd rather resolve this peaceably. But it's up to you. I can go away and come back with a healer. Or I can come back with a knife."
The prisoner said nothing for a long moment. Then she inhaled, licked her lips, and said, "If you heat the knife, it's easier to avoid mistakes. The wound sears shut. You can cause a great deal more pain with far less damage, provided I do not faint."
Amara only stared at Rook for a long, silent moment.
"Go get your knife, Countess," Rook whispered. "The sooner we begin, the sooner it will be over with."
Amara bit her lip and looked at Bernard. He stared at Rook, his face troubled, and shook his head.
"Countess," murmured Lady Aquitaine. "May I speak to you?"
Rook looked up at the sound of her voice, body tensing.
Amara frowned but nodded to Lady Aquitaine, who stood silhouetted in the doorway, and turned to step close to her.
"Thank you," Lady Aquitaine said quietly. "Countess, you are an agent of the Crown. It is your profession, and so you are familiar with many of the same things as the prisoner. You are not, however, personally familiar with Kalarus Brencis, how he operates his holdings and uses his clients and those in his employ."
"If there is something you think I should know, it might be more productive if you told it to me."
Lady Aquitaine's eyes managed to be cold and perfectly restrained at the same time. "She asked you to kill her when you saw her?"
Amara frowned. "Yes. How did you know?"
"I did not," Lady Aquitaine replied. "But it is a position one can understand, given a few key facts."
Amara nodded. "I'm listening."
"First," Lady Aquitaine said, "assume that Kalarus does not trust her any farther than he can kick her, if it comes to that."
Amara frowned. "He has to."
"Because she's operating independently of him most of the time," Amara said. "Her role in the capital had her away from Kalarus for months at a time. She could have betrayed him, and he would never have known about it until long after."
"Precisely," Lady Aquitaine said. "And what might possibly compel her to perfect loyalty despite such opportunity, hmm?"
"I-" Amara began.
"What might compel her to deny potential clemency? To urge you to finish her as quickly as possible? To ask you to kill her outright from the very beginning?"
Amara shook her head. "I don't know. I take it you do."
Lady Aquitaine gave Amara a chill little smile. "One more hint. Assume that she believes that she is being watched, by one measure or another. That if she turns against him, Kalarus will learn of it, and that regardless of how far away she is, he will be able to retaliate."
Amara felt her belly twist with nauseated horror as it dawned on her what Lady Aquitaine was speaking about. "He holds a hostage against her loyalty. Someone close to her. If she turns against him, he'll kill the hostage."
Lady Aquitaine inclined her head. "Behold our spy. A young woman. Unwed, I am certain, and without a family able to support or protect her. The hostage must be someone she is willing to die for-willing to face torture and agony for. My guess..."
"He has her child," Amara stated, her voice flat and cold.
Lady Aquitaine arched a brow. "You seem offended."
"Should I not be?" Amara asked. "Should not you?"
"Your own master is little different, Amara," Lady Aquitaine said. "Ask High Lord Atticus. Ask Isana her opinion on his decision to relocate her nephew to the Academy. And did you think he hasn't noticed your relationship with the good Count Bernard? Should your hand turn against him, Amara, do not think for a moment he would not use whatever he could to control you. He's simply more elegant and tasteful than to throw it in your face."
Amara stared steadily back at Lady Aquitaine. Then she said, in a quiet voice, "You are very wrong."
The High Lady's mouth curled into another cool little smile. "You are very young." She shook her head. "It is almost as though we live in two different Realms."
"I appreciate your insight into Kalarus's character-or rather the lack thereof. But what advantage does it give us?"
"The lever Kalarus uses," Lady Aquitaine said, "will serve you just as ably."
Amara's stomach turned in disgust. "No," she said.
Lady Aquitaine turned more fully to Amara. "Countess. Your sensibilities are useless to the rule of a realm. If that woman does not speak to you, your lord will fail to muster the support he needs to defend his capital, and whether or not he lives, his rule will be over. Thousands will die in battle. Food shipments will be delayed, destroyed. Famine. Disease. Tens of thousands will fall to them without ever being touched by a weapon."
"I know that," Amara spat.
"Then if you truly would prevent it, would protect this Realm you claim to serve, then you must set your squeamishness aside and make the difficult choice." Her eyes almost glowed. "That is the price of power, Cursor."
Amara looked away from Lady Aquitaine and stared at the prisoner.
"I'll talk," she said finally, very quietly. "I'll cue you to show yourself to her."
Lady Aquitaine tilted her head to one side and nodded comprehension. "Very well."
Amara turned and went back over to the prisoner. "Rook," she said quietly. "Or should I call you Gaelle?"
"As you would. Both names are stolen."
"Rook will do, then," Amara said.
"Did you forget your knife?" the prisoner said. There was no life to the taunt.
"No knife," Amara said quietly. "Kalarus has abducted two women. You know who they are."
Rook said nothing, but something in the quality of her silence made Amara think that she did.
"I want to know where they have been taken," Amara said. "I want to know what security precautions are around them. I want to know how to free them and escape with them again."
A short breath, the bare specter of a laugh, escaped Rook's lips.
"Are you willing to tell me?" Amara asked.
Rook stared at her in silent scorn.
"I see," Amara said. She beckoned with one hand. "In that case, I'm going to leave."
Lady Aquitaine-and not Lady Aquitaine-stepped into the light of the circle of fire. Her form had changed, growing shorter, stockier, so that the dress she wore fit her badly. Her features had changed, skin and face and hair, to the perfect mirror of Rook's own face and body alike.
Rook's head snapped up. Her tortured face twisted into an expression of horror.
"I'll go for a walk outside," Amara continued in a quiet, remorseless voice. "Out in public. With her. Where everyone in the city might see. Where anyone Kalarus has watching will see us together."
Rook's face writhed between terror and agony, and she stared at Lady Aquitaine as if physically unable to remove her gaze. "No. Oh furies, no. Kill me. Just end it."
"Why?" Amara asked. "Why should I?"
"If I am dead, she will be nothing to him. He might only cast her out." Her voice dissolved into a ragged sob as she began to weep again. "She's only five. Please, she's only a little girl."
Amara took a deep breath. "What is her name, Rook?"
The woman suddenly sagged in the chains, wracked with broken, harsh sobs. "Masha," she grated. "Masha."
She pressed closer, seizing Rook by the hair and forcing her to lift her face, though the woman's eyes were now swollen, mostly closed. "Where is the child?"
"Kalare," sobbed the spy. "He keeps her next to his chambers. To remind me what he can do."
Amara steeled herself not to falter, and her voice rang on the stone walls. "Is that where they've taken the prisoners?"
Rook shook her head, but the gesture was a feeble one, an obvious lie. "No," she whispered. "No, no, no."
Amara held the spy's eyes and willed resolve into her own. "Do you know where they are? Do you know how I can get to them?"
Silence fell, but for Rook's broken sounds of grief and pain. "Yes," she said, finally. "I know. But I can't tell you. If you rescue them, he'll kill her." She shuddered. "Countess, please, it's her only chance. Kill me here. I can't fail her."
Amara released Rook's hair and stepped back from the prisoner. She felt sick. "Bernard," she said quietly, nodding at a bucket in the corner. "Give her some water."
The Count did, his expression remote and deeply troubled. Rook made no sign that she noticed him, until he had actually lifted her head and used a ladle to pour some water between her lips. Then she drank with the mindless, miserable need of a caged beast.
Amara wiped the hand she'd touched the spy with upon her skirts, rubbing hard. Then she stepped outside and got the keys to the woman's shackles from the legionare on guard. As she stepped back into the cell, Lady Aquitaine touched her arm, her features returned to normal, her expression one of displeasure. "What do you think you are doing?"
Amara stopped in her tracks and met the High Lady's cold gaze in a sudden flash of confidence and steel-hard certainty.
Lady Aquitaine's eyebrows rose, startled. "What are you doing, girl?"
"I'm showing you the difference, Your Grace," she said. "Between my Realm. And yours."
Then she went to Rook and removed the shackles. Bernard caught the spy before she could collapse to the floor. Amara turned and summoned the legionare, then sent him to fetch a healer's tub and water to fill it.
Rook sat leaning weakly against Bernard's support. The spy stared up at Amara, expression mystified. "I don't understand," she said. "Why?"
"Because you're coming with us," Amara said quietly, and her voice sounded like a stranger's to her ear, certain and powerful. "We're going to Kalare. We're going to find them. We're going to find Lady Placidus and Atticus's daughter and your Masha. And we're going to take all of them away from that murderous slive."
Bernard shot a glance up at her, hazel eyes suddenly bright and somehow wolfish, glowing with a fierce and silent pride.
Rook only stared at her, as though she was a madwoman. "N-no... why would you... is this a trick?"
Amara knelt and took Rook's hand between hers, meeting her eyes. "I swear to you, Rook, by my honor that if you help us, I will do everything in my power to take your daughter safe away from him. I swear to you that I will lay down my own life before I let hers be lost."
Rook stared at her in silent shock.
Without ever looking away from the prisoner's eyes, Amara pressed her dagger into the spy's grasp, and lifted it so that Rook held the blade against Amara's throat. Then she dropped her hands slowly away from the weapon.
Bernard let out a short, sharp hiss, and she felt him tense. Then abruptly he relaxed again. She saw him nod at her out of the corner of her eye. Trusting her.
"I have given you my word," she said quietly to Rook. "If you do not believe me, take my life. If you wish to continue your service to your lord, take my life. Or come with me and help me take your daughter back."
"Why?" Rook demanded in a whisper. "Why would you do this?"
"Because it is right."
There was an endless, silent moment.
Amara faced Rook, calm and steady.
Then Amara's knife clattered to the stones. Rook let out a sob and collapsed against Amara, who caught her and supported her weight.
"Yes," Rook whispered. "I'll tell you anything. Do anything. Save her."
Amara nodded, lifting her eyes to Bernard. He laid his hand on Amara's hair for a moment, fingers warm and gentle. He smiled, and she felt her own smile rise to answer his.
"Your Grace," Amara said after a moment, looking up, "we need to depart at once. The guard should be bringing a healing tub. Could you please see to Rook's injury?"
Lady Aquitaine stared down at the three on the floor, her head tilted to one side, frowning as if faced with a mystifying silent theater performed by lunatics. "Of course, Countess," she said after a moment, her voice distant. "I am always glad to serve the Realm."