Poisoned Blade (Court of Fives #2)


by Kate Elliott

1

No one must suspect what I plan to do tonight. I should stay in my bed, content with the place I’ve earned for myself as an adversary in Garon Stable. I should.

But I don’t.

In darkness I swing my legs off my cot. My toes brush the stiff straps of my leather sandals, which I remember to shake out in case a scorpion has decided to rest there. Nothing stirs that I can hear, and it is too dark to see. I have to go now before it’s too late.

After lacing up my sandals I creep to the end of the cot. A cedar chest stores the few garments and necessities I possess. I finger through the folded cloth and gather up my formal parade livery, roll up the garments, and tie the bundle atop my head beneath a headscarf.

The canvas curtains that divide the barracks into eight cubicles scrape the floor as I push past them. I wait, alert for any sound from one of the other four women who live here. They are adversaries too, competitors who run the Fives, the most popular game in the land of Efea. Running the Fives used to be all I dreamed about. Now that I have what I’ve always wanted, I should be ecstatic.

“Jes?” Mis whispers from the next cubicle. “Is that you?”

When I run the game of Fives, one of my strengths is that I know how to act decisively with a strategy already in my head.

“Just have to go to the latrine,” I whisper back, hoping she doesn’t hear the tremor of emotion in my voice.

She speaks the words I know she was desperate to say all evening at our victory feast, but was too kind to say in front of everyone else.

“What will happen to Lord Kalliarkos now that you’ve defeated him on the Fives court?”

“What happens on the other side of the wall in Garon Palace has nothing to do with adversaries like us.” The lie pours like tar from my lips.

“I’m sorry. I know you really liked him. The attention of a handsome and friendly highborn boy must seem irresistible. But after a while you’ll see it’s better to stay as far away from Patron lords as possible. Even him.”

A stone of foreboding lodges in my throat. I can barely force words past it. “I know.”

I hear her roll over on her cot and yawn. “May you have a quiet rest, Jes. If you can sleep after all the glory you won with your victory today.”

She says nothing more, and I steady my breathing, trying to calm the restlessness that plagues me, but it twists in my gut like shame and dread. If I don’t do this while I still have the chance, I’ll never be ready to move forward into the new life I’ve earned for myself.

Outside, a sliver of moon illuminates the stable yard, where adversaries hone their skills and fledgling trainees hope to become good enough to compete in the game of Fives. Here in Garon Stable everyone sleeps, but from over the wall drift the sounds of revelry and laughter as the highborn celebrate my unexpected victory, which has brought prestige and profit to Garon Palace. My victory also destroyed the dreams of Lord Kalliarkos even though that was never what I intended.

I don’t expect him to forgive me. I just need to make him understand that I didn’t have a choice. I can’t bear to think of him leaving, maybe forever, if my last memory of him will be the terrible look of betrayal on his face, so similar to the expression my mother had when my father left her.

I creep into the bathhouse, where I probe my way into the outer changing room and past a curtain into the washroom. By patting a hand along the wall I find shelves and grab a folded towel to grip in my teeth. Although I could easily climb the wall, the keen-eyed sentries who patrol its top would catch me, and of course I would be turned away at the palace gate if I tried to walk in directly.

However, the two compounds—the palace and its Fives stable—do join in one place. They share the waters of a soaking pool because it is so expensive and time-consuming to heat.

I sink until the warm water reaches my neck, then edge into an underwater tunnel. By tipping my head back I get just enough room to breathe as my forehead and nose scrape the stone ceiling.

The wall between stable and palace measures five paces wide, because the palace is also a fortification. As soon as I pass into the pool on the palace side I stand up. No scrap of light illuminates the chamber, and I slosh a little, trying to get my bearings. On the palace grounds the victory party roisters along. Voices are raised in a famous song about the bird-haunted ships that brought the first Patron king from the broken empire of Saro to the fertile land of Efea that gratefully awaited his rule.

After I climb out of the pool I use the towel to dry myself, untie the garments from my head, then pull on my parade uniform and rebind my coiled hair under my headscarf, which now has slightly damp ends. A girl who looks like me would never walk the grounds of Garon Palace, but from a distance, at night, people may mistake me for a palace servant because of my clothes. All I lack is a mask to conceal my face, but I’m pretty sure the servants of Garon Palace don’t wear masks inside the walls.

Easing through the last curtain takes all my courage. I immediately hide behind a statue of Lady Hayiyin, Mistress of the Sea, on the bathhouse porch, pressing my body against the smooth carving of the long straight hair that falls from the goddess’s head all the way to her feet. Through dry lips I mouth a prayer asking for her aid to not be caught, just as sailors might plead to come ashore safely through a storm-tossed sea.

As I reach my place of calm focus I risk peeking out from behind the statue to examine my surroundings. To my right a walkway leads through a strip of garden toward a huge pavilion lit by a hundred or more lanterns and filled with a chattering crowd of highborn and exceedingly well-dressed Patrons. To my left benches shade away under a spacious arbor laced with the night-blooming jasmine for which I am named. For two breaths I inhale its intoxicating scent.

Then, to my horror, I realize two people stand entwined in the depths of the shadows beneath the arbor. By the cut of their clothing I can guess that one is a woman and the other a man. Whispered endearments float on the breeze, snatches of words catching at my ears.

“… of course no one suspects, beloved.” I hear the woman’s voice clearly. “I’ve made sure of it. Beyond anything else, no word of our meetings must reach Esladas. His honor means more to him than anything.”

“More than you and your exalted rank? Have you not snared your new husband’s simple affections with your sophistication and wit so that he will indulge all your wishes?”

“Why should I care if he indulges me at all as long as he obeys? It is an arranged marriage far beneath what is due to me.” The woman’s sneering tone sears my heart. This must be my father’s new wife, Lady Menoë. “It is bad enough I have to bear his child to satisfy Uncle Gargaron. I will do my duty so they won’t get suspicious. But I am not going to pretend I care about the affection of a rustic provincial risen far above his ordained place.”