Moving from poison and treachery to war and witchcraft, Sam Hawke’s Poison Wars continue with Hollow Empire, a fabulous epic fantasy adventure perfect for fans of Robin Hobb and Naomi Novik.
Poison was only the beginning. The deadly siege of Silasta woke the ancient spirits, and now the city-state must find its place in this new world of magic. But people and politics are always treacherous, and it will take all of Jovan and Kalina’s skills as proofer and spy to save their country when witches and assassins turn their sights to domination.
Please enjoy this free excerpt of Hollow Empire, on sale 12/01/2020.
You never get used to poisoning a child.
Dija Oromani arrived in Silasta four months after the siege ended, in that strange period teetering between chaos and routine, when my sister’s health had recovered enough for her to return home but not to work, and the last of the billeted citizens had returned to the lower city. At eleven years old, the youngest daughter of my second cousin, Dija radiated quiet earnestness, with thick glasses over bright clever eyes that reminded me of my uncle, and a cloud of hair like Kalina’s. How easily she had slipped into our household. The Oromani family needed an heir to eventually inherit my Council seat, one young enough to learn the machinations of government and strong enough to withstand the other requirements of my position.
Six months after she arrived, I poisoned her for the first time.
I knew it was too early in her training. In better conditions we would have studied for several years, building a base of knowledge before taking that critical step. But at eleven, almost twelve, she had been five years behind the ideal starting age for proofing. We couldn’t afford to wait years. It was with an anxious heart and shaking hands that I added bloodroot to the ground oku meat in our evening meal, and a long night of doubts and guilt as I sat beside her bed, holding her vomit pail and cooling her sweaty forehead with a wet cloth, murmuring weak comforts. She had recovered, and apologized—apologized!—for failing to detect it. Almost two years had passed since that first night, but I remembered the twisting discomfort in my own stomach. Harming a child was wrong; it was against every deep biological instinct. And yet.
And yet I had poisoned her then, and again, and again. In minuscule quantities, over the two years she had been my apprentice, to build her immunity to some of the most common, but non-lethal, poisons she was likely to encounter. In larger doses, to demonstrate the cues, only learned through experience, that could one day save her life and her charge’s. Occasionally, to surprise or test her. The last I hated the most, but it formed the most critical part of our training.
I had failed Tain once. In his thin face and dulled complexion, his drastically reduced appetite, his swiftness to tire, the reminders of that failure faced me every day. I was determined never to so fail again. But one day, through poison or some other means, I would be gone, and Dija would be the last quiet shield between the Chancellor and those who meant him harm. It was my responsibility to ensure her readiness. Perhaps one day there would be no need to fear a silent attack on Sjona’s ruling family from within or without. Until then, though it tugged at my heart and slow-soured my relationship with Hadrea, I would lace Dija’s morning tea and prepare small, dangerous tablets, and nurse her back to health, and remember that our country, for all its flaws, was worth this. Worth my life. Worth hers.
It had to be.
* * *
The darkened theater was too hot, and the glare from the single focused lamp on the stage left bright smears behind my eyelids when I squeezed my eyes shut.
“Eyes open or you’ll miss it.” A whisper in my left ear.
I kept them closed. “I have a headache.”
Can a grin be audible? I could have sworn I heard one. “Another one? You should see a physic about that, Jov. You might be allergic to something.”
I opened my eyes a crack to scowl at my friend. Even in the darkness of the audience seating the brightness of his teeth revealed the width of his smile. “I am allergic to something,” I muttered. “I’m allergic to this sh—”
“Shh!” I shifted my glare to my other side. Kalina was two seats down, and though it was too dim to read her expression, her tone was severe. “They’ve worked hard and you’re being very rude.”
“It’s all right for you,” I grumbled back. Down on the stage, the lights had expanded to reveal the actor playing my sister, crying far more attractively than any human had a right to at a simulation of Chancellor Caslav’s funeral. Stagehands cunningly hidden from view fanned the actor so her dress caught dramatically in the “breeze,” and the roguish young man cast as Tain—all right, I could admit he was a reasonable likeness—laid a comforting arm around her shoulders. A heavy chord sounded from the small orchestra and the light narrowed in on an ascetic figure who had been lurking behind the glamorous pair. I tried not to bristle. The Jovan character, while ostensibly one of the protagonists of the play, skulked and glared, creeping around the stage, tailing after the luminous pair of Kalina and Tain like some kind of tame but badly socialized animal.
“He’s quite handsome, Uncle,” Dija whispered from beside me. Her gaze looked innocent behind her thick glasses. I couldn’t tell if she was teasing me, or offering serious consolation. Someone on my other side suppressed a small snort or chuckle.
“Maybe you should try wearing those pants, Jov,” Tain suggested. “They’re all the rage now, and they’d really show off your thighs.”
“Shh,” I hissed back. “They’ve worked very hard and you’re being rude, Chancellor.”
He buried a laugh with a hasty cough.
I’d read the script in advance, but the text had not quite conveyed the tone of the play, and I understood now why the Theater-Guilder had been so insistent I see the early showing, before the rest of the city was talking about it. It was going to draw attention to me again, and from the looks of it, reignite speculation about my relationship with Tain. The stage Jovan seemed more poisoner than proofer, whispering worries about traitors and urging Tain to take action against them, and presented more as spy and adviser than friend. After all, my part in the public story could be distilled merely to the most dramatic and violent events. Tain had discovered and owned up to the city’s dark past and secured peace between the rebels and the city citizens; Kalina had uncovered the plot by the Warrior-Guilder, Aven, almost dying to warn us all of her treachery, and Hadrea of course had taken on the powerful water spirit, Os-Woorin, and saved the city from destruction. But me? I had covered up Tain’s poisoning, killed the traitor Marco, and blown off the Council chamber roof to free the trapped Council from the fire. My part was not so easily smoothed into celebrated heroism.
Just when my brief fame—or notoriety—after the siege was starting to fade away, too. I tried not to sigh. This was far from the first production of the siege of Silasta; apparently the residents of this city didn’t mind reliving their own trauma in dramatized form, as there’d been a string of the bloody things. But this one had three times the budget of its most recent competitor, and as the highlight show of the karodee, guaranteed high audience numbers. The international guests currently swelling our population seemed fascinated by our brief civil war and the apparent reemergence of an ancient magic. I hadn’t even been a character in several of the earlier productions but now I could look forward to being the source of scrutiny and fascination once more.
As if she’d heard my thoughts, Varina swiveled round in front of me, an apologetic wince and spread hands conveying her helplessness. The Performers’ Guild contributed to funding the play, but did not control its script or its dramatic choices. The producers could have cast me as the villain and there’d have been no recourse. At least this way I was forewarned.
I shrugged at Varina. Be a good sport about it, Kalina had beseeched me, and lo, here I was, being as sporting as sporting could be.
I squirmed in my seat as the rebel army came onstage, complete with actors under cunningly flexible coverings to portray animal mounts, dancing together to threatening music from the orchestra. Someone in the audience sucked in their breath loudly when the peace negotiator was shot down in alarmingly realistic fashion and collapsed in a spotlight in the center of the stage, halfway between the army and the cleverly designed wall set. I was uncomfortably aware real people had died in this conflict. Chancellor Caslav and my uncle Etan had been the first victims, but no less important had been the hundreds on both sides, caught in an engineered conflict that had claimed their lives. This wasn’t some ancient tale about people who lived long ago. That peace negotiator had worked at the Administrative Guild, just like my sister. Her family probably lived here. How would they feel, seeing this actor lying so still, punctured with crimson for the entertainment of the audience? It was a real thing that happened, not a story.
And yet. Stories are important, Tain had told me when we’d been given the script and the warning. Stories are how we talk about who we are, and who we want to be. We were trying to build something out of the twisted mess of old wounds that were the foundation of this country, and we needed a narrative to carry people on both sides along with it. And I had to admit, if grudgingly, that while it wasn’t fun to experience us all portrayed like fictional characters, the “story” being told was, overall, a fair one.
The production had split the narrative between the city and the countryfolk. Tain, the earnest young leader, passionate but humble; Kalina, his brilliant, overlooked strategist; and me … well. Me as the suspicious, mistrustful harbinger of doom, lurking and scowling. They contrasted our crisis with a Darfri family who personified the effects of the slow, poisonous oppression our families had inflicted on the estates, and the depths to which working people had been driven to seek justice.
The political commentary was sharp enough that no one could call the play propaganda. They hadn’t crafted it to pander to the Council; the audience would be left in no doubt as to how the rich and powerful had set the pieces in motion that would be used so effectively against us all. But they hadn’t cast us all as villains, either. Still, I burned with remembered shame watching the three of us onstage, floundering as we tried to understand the rebellion, blocked at every turn by faceless, pompous actors playing our fellow Councilors. Literally faceless. Rather than identify individual Councilors, the company had elected to portray most of the old Council as a dozen or so actors dressed alike, faces hidden by blank dark masks, dancing together as a single monolith.
“Listen, at least you got a face,” Tain whispered, as if he’d read my mind, and even I had to grin. Most of the surviving members of that original Council were in this theater, watching, and some of them would be extremely annoyed to find themselves relegated to “dancer-third-from-the-left.” On the other hand, some of them ought to be grateful they’d been absorbed into the monolith rather than had their individual actions scrutinized. I caught Dija watching me and smoothed my face. Resolving to be a better example for my young apprentice, I settled back on the bench, rested my chin in my hands, and tried to watch the play as if I were just an ordinary spectator.
I could acknowledge—in the spirit of good sportsmanship—that while the music was a little obvious and wouldn’t win the composers acclaim, the actors were decent, the dancers good, and the production and props top notch. The tumblers who rolled backward down the ladders during the first attempt at the walls (crafted of stackable light blocks, and assembled with supernatural swiftness in the scene changes) fell so convincingly I was sure they’d be injured, and when one of the Darfri family characters was killed on the walls by the hand of the enormous man playing Marco, the acting Warrior-Guilder, sniffs and stifled sobs could be heard throughout the dark chamber. Sometimes a conversation was eerily accurate (albeit with rather more pirouettes than I remembered) and other times I found myself confused about the sequence of events, even though I’d lived through them. The fake headache had become all too real.
During the fight in the dark tunnels under the city, when miners had dug their way under the walls, the whole theater went pitch black, the only light a weak, bobbing lantern as Tain raced around unseen obstacles across the stage. The harsh clang of metal on metal burst suddenly from behind us, in the back corners of the theater; Dija squeaked with fright and I jumped at the shock of both the noise and the sudden presence of her small, warm hand, clutching at mine. I squeezed it uncertainly. The noise was disorienting and alarming, but the fear and confusion the sounds in the dark evoked did pull me back to that horrible night.
And yet, there was something more bothering me than just the scene on the stage. I looked around surreptitiously, trying to make out the dark shapes at the edges of the seating. Actors and stagehands had made their way past us—or come through some concealed entrance—without me noticing. A familiar prickle of fear crawled down the back of my neck and lodged in my chest at the thought that we had been quietly surrounded, albeit benignly.
If I kept my eyes away from the chaotic lantern on the stage, my vision adjusted and I could make out the distinctive markings on the uniforms of the men and women stationed at both back doors. Tain’s personal guard, nicknamed the blackstripes, were now a permanent feature of his public life. After everything that had happened, it was nonsensical and potentially destabilizing to continue the polite social fiction that Tain wasn’t being protected. But though they were dedicated and alert, I was never able to relax when Tain was in a crowd, and over time my concern had started to be seen by others as paranoia.
In the immediate aftermath of the siege everyone had listened, and the Council had been all too eager to have Aven and the mercenaries we had captured questioned, to fund audits of the payments that had supported the rebellion, but as the search dragged on and answers never surfaced, interest in finding out who had backed and incited Aven fizzled out. The longer we went without another strike from our unknown enemy, the more people convinced themselves the threat had passed, or worse, that it had gone no deeper than a corrupt Warrior-Guilder looking to create her own empire. Attention and funding turned to tolerance, to mollification, disinterest, and eventually faint embarrassment. Even staunch allies had taken to suggesting I was making connections where there were none, imagining assassins in the shadows.
But I had heard what Aven had said, and I had seen the numbers and the records and spoken to everyone we knew to be involved. Our country still had an enemy out there, no matter how convenient the Council found it to forget. Karodee, a triumphant celebration of the recovery of our country and its return to stability with Tain at the helm, provided a perfect storm of opportunities for an enemy to reach him to disrupt that.
I set my attention back on the play. At some point Hadrea had appeared, played by a luminous young woman with none of Hadrea’s actual prickly charm. Here she was a poor, passionate Darfri woman who had bravely snuck into the city to try to avert a war, her character something of an amalgam of her and Salvea, with all Hadrea’s bravery and determination merged with her mother’s smooth edges and conciliatory manner. I wondered whether Hadrea would be amused or annoyed at her portrayal. She could still surprise me by laughing when I expected her temper to flare, or the reverse. I glanced automatically down the aisle before remembering she had refused to come, and the twisty ache in my chest stole any semblance of good humor I’d had left.
The onstage rebels broke through the wall and the Silastians retreated across the lake to the upper city, the audience oohing and ahhing over the clever portrayal of Darfri magic, with wispy silks on hidden sticks simulating the wind that had diverted our arrows and hidden the rebels’ movements. But I found myself searching the dark corners of the theater again. I felt unsettled, like the uneasy feeling on waking knowing some dreaded task or event awaited before being awake enough to remember what it was. I didn’t like it.
The feeling persisted through Tain’s onstage poisoning, Kalina’s brave escape from the city under the water gate, and even several of Jovan’s most significant scenes: finding a cure for the poison, confronting the traitor and poisoner, Marco. I barely followed any of it.
“Is something the matter, Uncle?” Dija whispered at last.
“It’s nothing. I just need a little air,” I whispered, and ducking awkwardly I edged to the aisle, grateful we had come in late and were seated near the end of the bench. I leaned against the heavy drapes, my eyes averted from the bright stage, hands squeezing alternately into fists as I counted silently in my head. Shadowy figures moved at the edges of the theater; someone in an alcove near the front was operating a remote pulley system to work the fake catapults on the stage, several musicians were playing instruments at key moments to enhance the atmosphere, and the occasional audience member slipped in or out of their seats, moving slowly in the dark.
When a creepy, echoing windy sound erupted right next to me, I started, one hand flying into my paluma to reach for the concealed pouches there, before I realized there was a young man on a perch above, concealed by the curtain, playing a long, tubular instrument that created the eerie sound of wind. Rather than releasing the tension it only looped it tighter inside me.
And then I saw him. Perhaps he moved, or was caught in a bit of reflected light from the stage, or maybe my restless gaze simply happened on the right place at the right time, but I looked up, and in the shadows of the ceiling, balanced on a support beam in the center back of the room, there he was. A man—or a figure, anyway, but already my brain was filling in the rough shape, barely lit in reflected stage light—crouched above the audience, utterly still. Not moving ropes or directing lights, he might have been part of the structure itself if I hadn’t seen the gleam of brown skin, an unmistakable curl of hair against a cheek. Already the ceiling had fallen into darkness again and there was nothing to see but indistinct blackness.
A cool, hard sensation filled my chest. There was no pleasure in being right. It was him, the man I’d glimpsed following the Chancellor over the past few months, a man with unremarkable features and the studied air of normalcy only a fellow practitioner could identify. Every time I’d seen him he had disappeared before I could point him out to the blackstripes, and I suspected even they thought I was imagining things. But this time he was here, ready to act, and so was I. Staying tight against the curtains, I moved slowly up the aisle, my eyes fixed on the mass of black, trying to find him again. My heart pounded. Of course it could be someone from the production staff. But almost all the people I cared about most in the world were sitting below, clumped together and vulnerable, and I wouldn’t risk their safety for the sake of my pride.
I glanced behind at the blackstripes. The two on the nearest door weren’t looking in my direction; one had her back half-turned, eyes roaming the audience, while the other seemed to be watching the play, his posture bored and languid. I started toward them, but had only taken a few steps when someone opened the door at the other side of the theater and the dim light leaking in illuminated the ceiling for a moment. My head snapped up and I saw him again, crouching like a statue on a wall, something drawn to his face—a thin stick of some kind—and instinct took over.
“Assassin!” I yelled.
In the temporary quiet, my cry rang out, explosive. The door slapped shut and patrons leapt to their feet, the crowd erupting into chaos in the darkness. Someone screamed. Panicked voices swept the room. On the stage, the performance stopped and someone swung one of the big focused-beam lamps in our direction, so the writhing black mess of bodies disappeared in an explosion of white across my eyes. When it cleared I could no longer make out the figure on the beams above. And from behind, someone strong seized my arms and hauled me backward.
I struggled to turn, to pull free, but no sooner had I yanked one arm loose than a thick forearm was around my neck. Terror filled me. How many were there? I’d been so focused on the person above I hadn’t stopped to think they might have accomplices. My vision was streaked with spots and stripes, obscuring my view of the crowd now struggling to escape their rows, so I could not make out Tain, or Dija, or Lini, or anyone. People were streaming past me, pushing for the exits, too many for the blackstripes to contain. Someone shoved into us and the grip around my neck tightened. Dizziness closed in around my head.
Then, “Uncle Jovan! Let him go!”
“Let him go, by the fortunes! That’s Credo Jovan.”
The pressure around my neck released abruptly, and I half-stepped, half-slid away. It was one of Tain’s blackstripes, the man by the door, who’d had me. Dija pushed her way over, her glasses askew and her eyes frightened, but apparently unhurt. I patted her shoulder weakly as I scanned the room. The high lamps on the walls were stuttering and starting, and though I searched out the interlocking beams on the ceiling, there was no sign anyone had ever been there. Tain appeared a moment later, his hand on my shoulder to steady me as I sagged with relief to see him safe.
“Are you all right? What happened?”
I shook my head and massaged my throat, scanning the crowd, looking for the man whose ordinary face I would surely recognize. Half the theater had already emptied, and those who had stayed were standing, staring, their alarm fading. Most of the half-lit figures were people I knew, and none looked suspicious, merely confused. Hot frustration doused me. “There was someone there. On the beams in the ceiling.”
“What did you see, Credo?” the blackstripe asked politely. Tain’s brows were drawn in concern, and Kalina joined us, breathing heavily.
“Someone was crouched on the beam, there, above the Chancellor,” I said, gesturing to the ceiling. “I saw them put something to their mouth. I thought—” My voice faded. It would be too specific to say they’d had some kind of projectile, perhaps a poison dart like the Marutian one that had killed Chancellor Ardana eighty years ago. Kalina was frowning, following my gaze; she knew what I had suspected of the man who had been watching Tain. I cleared my throat and tried again. “I only saw them for a moment when the light from the door came in.”
“And you got out of your seat?”
“No. I was already in the aisle, I—” Again, I dropped off, not wanting to admit it had only been a feeling that something was wrong. Already the expressions of the people listening were changing, growing skeptical. I cleared my throat. “I was going to go out for some air. I saw movement and noticed the person on the ceiling.”
“It was very dark,” the other blackstripe offered, her voice not quite disbelieving. She stared up at the obviously empty beams. “You might have been mistaken?”
“I suppose,” I said, unable to keep the stiffness from my reply.
The first blackstripe’s expression remained neutral, without judgment. “Sorry for grabbing you, Credo. I heard the cry and you were in the aisle, rushing in, like. Thought you were the threat.”
“That’s understandable,” I said. As the alarm died down, more and more of the remaining people were peering curiously at our little huddle. The show manager, in obvious distress about the ruin of her opening night, was in close conversation with Varina, who kept trying to make eye contact with me. “It was so dark in here, it’s perfect conditions for an assassin.”
Tain squeezed my shoulder. “Are you sure you’re all right? You don’t look—”
“I’m fine,” I snapped. “I’m not seeing things, if that’s what you’re—”
“Jov,” he interrupted gently. “I just meant, is your neck all right? My man half-choked you there. I didn’t doubt you saw something.” He glanced around. “Not sure we can do much about it now, though.”
If there had been anyone trying to get to him, they were gone now, and even my certainty was slipping. What if it had been a member of the theater staff, up there for some innocent purpose and holding a pen or a straw or a stick of janjan in their mouth, who had simply panicked when I’d cried out?
Most patrons seemed to be regarding the incident as a false alarm, their initial panic fading to be replaced by whispers and condescending looks in my direction. My face grew hot.
“If the Chancellor’s guard check our audience carefully, may we continue the performance?” the show manager asked. Tain hesitated and looked at me, and other heads swiveled in my direction. I had to shrug. An assassin who had waited for us in a dark theater would be unlikely to try again once we were on alert. I couldn’t think of a reason why the play could not go on, other than the obvious reason that I did not want to keep watching it.
“You don’t have to stay,” Kalina said quietly as people began filing back to the benches, and the actors, with nervous looks and some muttering, took their positions again. Kalina’s onstage counterpart, having undertaken a brave and desperate journey to bring word to our army, had uncovered the Warrior-Guilder’s betrayal and was about to be chased down. I had ruined one of the most dramatic moments in the story. “I can keep an eye on things here, and the blackstripes will be patrolling.”
It was tempting. If it had felt strange and wrong watching actors “die” in the earlier battle scenes, it would be nothing to the unpleasantness of watching a reenactment of my sister’s near-death at Aven’s hands. But if I left now it would only make the whole thing look more like a stunt. And I’d be even worse stewing outside, wondering if I’d missed something in there. At least this way I could keep eyes on Tain, Dija, and Kalina. I took my seat again.
This time, the lanterns stayed lit at the edges of the room, and the blackstripes patrolled, alert. One part worried, one part embarrassed, I sat through the remainder of the play in a familiar internal storm of self-recrimination, counting squeezes of my hands to keep the anxious dread at bay, hardly following the events unfolding onstage. So focused was I on staying calm and not jumping at every movement in my peripheral vision, I barely took in the impressive choreography of the battle at the lake, the cunning use of color and light to suggest water. I watched Tain’s grand plea for peace, and numbly noted the cleverness of the production when, just as the battle seemed to be over, the real Os-Woorin emerged, a fluid and strange shape created by acrobats balancing on each other’s shoulders underneath a semi-diaphanous fabric shroud. It shouldn’t have worked but it did; something in the combination of grace and unnaturalness of the thing genuinely recalled the weird and awesome sight of an ancient spirit. I missed Hadrea all over again when her onstage counterpart fought the spirit and felt a bone-deep relief when at last it was over.
I stood with everyone else, politely applauding, counting the moments until I could flee. Varina, in the row below us, turned around. “I know the cast were keen to meet you three,” she said over the applause and the general hubbub. “But if you slip out before the manager gets up here, I’ll make your apologies.” Technically she was addressing the three of us, but her gaze was on me.
“I’m feeling a bit unwell, Uncle Jovan,” Dija said, in a clear, carrying voice. “Would you mind if we went straight home?”
Kalina gave my apprentice a very soft look. Affection and gratitude swamped me, tinged with guilt that she’d already had to learn how to handle me.
“I’ll tell them you had to take her home,” Tain said easily, understanding me immediately and regarding us without judgment. “I hope you feel better soon, Dee,” he added gravely, and she bobbed her head in thanks.
“I could walk her home if you like, Credo?” Tain’s page, Erel, a few years older than Dija, had appeared at the end of our row with the kind of beaming smile and helpful attitude that had propelled him from messenger to Tain’s personal page. I tried not to glare at him.
“That’s fine, thanks, Erel. I’ve got a lot to do at home anyway.”
“It’s no trouble at all, Credo.”
I started to answer, but Tain interrupted with a tap on my shoulder and a whisper. “Looks like Bradomir didn’t appreciate being faceless, eh?” He gestured below and to the right, where Credo Bradomir, in contrast to everyone else, had not stood to applaud.
I shrugged. “I guess they already had enough villains for the narrative.” Bradomir had resigned his Council seat under considerable pressure in the aftermath of the siege and revelations about the extent of his role in the abuses at his estates. Though his family still held considerable wealth and power, their honor and social standing—Bradomir’s particularly—had diminished as a result. “I’m surprised he even came.”
“Gotta keep up appearances,” Tain muttered. “Speaking of those, you’d better head out before we get caught.”
Dija took my hand and started to lead me out just as the show manager called out, “Honored Chancellor!” and I hurriedly followed. Kalina, whose energy levels had not increased with her public profile, joined us without a word. But we’d only taken a few steps when a woman’s voice, raised in alarm, cut through the chatter of the crowd.
I glanced back. Credola Karista, Bradomir’s niece and replacement on the Council, was shaking his shoulder, urgent. “Uncle!”
Only then did I register his slumped posture, the tilt of his head. Warmth drained out of my body as if we’d just stepped out into a cold wind. Bradomir wasn’t standing, not because he was an angry old man, refusing to show appreciation for a show he had not enjoyed. He wasn’t standing because he couldn’t.
“Call a physic!” the elderly woman on his other side cried. Varina turned from her conversation with the theater manager, the bright beads in her hair swinging as she spun about and stared up. I sometimes forgot she was a Leka—our relationship had somewhat surprisingly evolved into mutual respect, even friendship—but in that moment her resemblance to Bradomir was vivid.
“I think it’s his heart,” Karista moaned. She took Bradomir’s cheeks in her hands and stared into his face. “Uncle. Uncle.”
I half-turned away, not wanting to gawk, as a physic in the audience pushed his way through the crowd. If Bradomir’s heart had given way, I could say I was neither surprised, given his overindulgent lifestyle and general ill health, nor saddened. But I did not want to intrude on the legitimacy of his family’s grief, either. Before I could make my polite escape, though, Karista’s eyes locked on mine as if she’d sought me specifically out of the crowd, and their hostility took me aback. She didn’t like me, had never liked me—as peers at school, my particular oddities and compulsions had been a cause of much mockery from her—but this was a look of unabashed hatred and fury.
Uncomfortable, I tried to convey sympathy in my expression. Whatever my feelings about her uncle or her personally, I knew the devastation of the unexpected loss of a mentor. Two years on, I still felt Etan’s absence every day as I floundered around my attempts to be a good teacher for Dija, and despite Bradomir’s public withdrawal, rumor had it that Karista still leaned heavily on her uncle’s advice in managing Leka interests.
Her glare only intensified, and unpleasant understanding struck me as I turned away. Her look was an accusation. Just like the Ash family after Credola Nara died, as if my ill will had contributed to her heart failure. Irritation replaced my initial sympathetic urge. Disliking Bradomir or Nara couldn’t cause their deaths or they’d have died a long time earlier, and not just because of me.
But the thought did occur to me, as I slipped from the theater with my sister and ward, that the assassin I had been so sure I had seen targeting Tain could just as easily have reached Bradomir, seated only a row in front of the Chancellor.
Other families’ poisonings weren’t my business, I told myself firmly. My job was to protect the Chancellor, not to usurp the significant protections the other Councilors employed. If Bradomir had made an enemy, that was not unexpected and absolutely not my problem.
Copyright © Sam Hawke 2020
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