Quartz: a serial novel

In order to save their world, the mages of long ago plunged it into eternal night.

Now rare veins of quartz provide light, heat, and food to a dying world. And Rafael Grenfeld has just learned that the biggest quartz pillar of them all, the legendary Tower of Light, exists. Unfortunately, his informer died before revealing its location and he’s stuck in the hostile totalitarian state of Blackstone.

Desperate to find the Tower of Light for his people, Rafe forms an uneasy alliance with the mysterious and maddening Isabella. They’re not the only ones interested in the quartz. The Shadow, chief of the Blackstone secret police, is also hunting for it. As darkness-loving demons devour souls and dangerous magical artifacts resurface, Rafe must tap into the lost powers of the mages in order to find and secure the quartz—before his world is destroyed by famine and war.

Quartz is a serialized novel that updates on Tuesdays, with Saturdays available for a donation of $5 per episode. Donors will also receive the complete novel as an ebook in a format of their choice once the serial is finished. Thank you for your support!

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Episode Seventy Two

Chapter Twenty Seven, Part Two

Shimmer

Mindful of his role, Rafe meandered the room, stopping to gawk at every exhibit like any tourist. It wasn’t all that difficult to maintain that look of slack-jawed bemusement. Mirados’ entertainment consisted not only of the gravity-defying and tireless acrobats, but miniature horses spreading gem-studded wings and trailing flames from their tips; a castle as tall as Rafe made from gleaming confectionary, with spun sugar towers, fountains of wine and walking sentries made from pastry; and many more besides. Mirados’ guests were about as bizarre as the entertainment with their hair and skin in rainbow hues, moving tattoos on their faces, and multiple piercings. As he stared at each curiosity, more marvelous than the last, Rafe began to tease out the separate threads of ka that wrapped against his skin in sticky spider threads and pinged his nerves with bursts of color. That gold-orange strand created the illusion of flames, an outlining band of pale green kept the fire’s shape. Whorls of pastel colors maintained the open, perfect blooms in the vases.

And all of that energy came from quartz. Plates of quartz hung on the wall, chunks of it studded furniture, still more was set in the floor, and besides all that, there was quartz below, underground where Rafe could only sense it. His feet thrummed with the radiant ka as it flowed into his bones.

This tamed ka was so different from the white heat that assaulted him in the agri-caves. In fact, if he reached out with mental hooks and pulled that greenish-yellow strand there…

One of the marching sentries on the confectionary castle stiffened and toppled off the battlements. Rafe drew back, guiltily, but no one else seemed to have noticed. The ka strand flapped loosely and Rafe clumsily tied it back to the miniature sentry. The pastry man lay on his side, flailing his arms and kicking feebly. He looked a lot like a fellow quartz-sickness sufferer, and none of Rafe’s attempts succeeded in getting the poor chap on his feet. He finally left the exhibit before anyone realized what he had done.

It was highly unlikely that the Renat Key was in the lobby. Rafe joined a party overflowing into the next room, and eavesdropped shamelessly as one of its members—a person of indeterminate gender with a cap of sleek ice-blue hair, silver rings at the corner of enormous slanted eyes and a rail-thin figure—spoke to a companion in a husky voice.

“ … got the last one of Carisa’s moving paintings, damn the man…”

“… I’d love to see it…”

“If we can get into Mirados’ private gallery. He has one of his automatons on duty there and you know what they’re like…”

“Damn right, I do. Can’t bribe, seduce or make ’em drunk!” Both broke out into hiccupping giggles.

Private gallery. That sounded promising.

Beyond the lobby, the rooms were arranged like clearings in a forest and the ways between them meandering dimly-lit paths, with nooks and overlooks. Rafe stepped off the path and through a curtain of lacy vines whose sweet smell lingered on his hands. He stood looking down at a golden-hued waterfall. The liquid at the bottom splashed itself into foam against the inside of a giant shell. Partygoers scooped up in the foam and ate it off their fingers.

Another guest, this one whose only eccentricity was green hair, turned to Rafe. “Flavored foam. Pretty amazing, huh?”

“Oh, well. It is impressive, in a showy way. I was hoping for something more, though…” The ka fueling the waterfall looked tenuous somehow, interlaced in a web of colors so pale they were hardly there. Rafe wondered if the foam was at all filling, or just a tasty illusion. There was no end to the abundance of food, artfully incorporated into the exhibits, but the guests were abnormally thin.

The young man gave Rafe a knowing wink. “Well, there are some very accomplished body performers further in.”

“No, I meant more historically and culturally valuable artifacts.”

“Like, you mean, paintings and such? Oh, Mirados has thousands of them. Keeps them guarded, though I don’t know why he bothers. I’ll show you the way to his galleries, they’re close to where the skins are.” The youth drew Rafe out of the waterfall chamber. The young man’s chatter fall on Rafe’s ears like a prattle of rain.

They parted ways at the entrance to the skins’ area—skins, Rafe surmised, being those who performed naked. The youth found Rafe’s tastes sadly lacking, but he didn’t try too hard to persuade Rafe to join him.

Rafe strolled through a doorway half-hidden behind a screen of potted trees, and entered another world. A smooth white marble corridor, clear of any clutter or decoration, led to a shiny round metal door. White light shone from recessed squares in the ceiling. Rafe felt the powerful pulse of ka coming from the door.

“No guests allowed.” The being who blocked the corridor to Mirados’ art collection appeared to have been dipped in molten silver and frozen. Blank eyes looked beyond Rafe.

“Ah, I’m sorry to trouble you, sir.” Rafe flashed a smile. “I was hoping to use the facilities quickly, and someone mentioned that there was a privy just back here.”

His charm had no affect on the metallic man. “Turn around, down the stairs to your left, two doors to the right.”

“Couldn’t I nip in there for a little bit?” asked Rafe. “It’s rather urgent.”

The guard made no reply. It apparently went deaf after a basic exchange, and there was no way Rafe could wrestle his way past. Bunches of ka, like bundled cord, lay within it. Rafe wondered which one would turn the automaton off, but any experimentation was just as likely to raise an alarm.

And even if he disabled the automaton, there was the door to deal with. Wires of green ka permeated the metal. Rafe didn’t think the purpose of that bit of magic was to shower visitors with bonbons and songs of welcome.

“Darling, you have to see Mirados’ new paintings. They are simply splendid, divine!” Raman, now thoroughly drunk, staggered in, held up only by the woman on his arm.

Isabella rolled her eyes at Rafe, but her tone was all breathless sweetness. “I would adore it of all things!” She fluttered her lashes at Raman

Isabella, flirting. What next? Was the Mage Renat going to rise up out of the floor, waving a pink wand and save them all the trouble of finding the Keys?

The Earl waved at the metallic guard. “Let us through, old chap.” The automaton stared bleakly at the youth, then stepped aside in one well-oiled motion.

The door opened, its whorls retracting into the walls. Isabella gave Rafe a significant look; he returned it with a bland expression. Somehow, as the couple came up and Rafe turned to head back to the lobby, he managed to trip over Raman. The man staggered impressively, pulling Isabella off-balance.

“Steady there,” Rafe took hold of Raman’s free arm. “Need some help, old fellow? I’m afraid your lovely companion isn’t as strong as she could be.” He grinned at Isabella over Raman’s head.

Raman clutched at the lace ruffles of Rafe’s borrowed finery, and hauled himself upright. Stitches ripped, and Rafe wondered if he could write the mending off as a business expense.

“Th-thank you. Why, it’s the outsider, again. Still. Since you haven’t left, of course. Unless we’re talking about leaving the ball—”

Rafe interrupted before Raman could talk himself into more tortuous syntax. “May I be of assistance, my lord?”

“I do seem to be clumsy tonight, don’t I?” said Raman frankly. “I suppose I could use some help. No hard feelings about stealing the lady?” He peered up into Rafe’s face.

“None at all,” said Rafe smoothly. “I’m glad she found a friend. I was only trying to be kind.”

“Good, because she’s promised to be my special companion, haven’t you, dear?” He patted Isabella’s hand.

Rafe thought about commenting on the implications of special companionship, but Isabella’s bright smile had gotten noticeably brittle and he thought he’d rather not goad her.

“Ah, I need to use the privy,” complained Raman.

Even better. “This way.” Rafe gestured past Metal Man, through the opened doorway.

Episode Seventy One

Chapter Twenty Seven, Part One

Shimmer

Shimmer was a riot of colors, a bouquet of scents, a psychedelic assault on Rafe’s senses. From the moment their transport—a filigreed sleigh floating a foot above the ground and with no discernable means of propulsion—slid in through the opalescent dome surrounding Shimmer, he was staring like a Blackstone drone in an Oakhaven agri-cave. Vast swathes of grass in shades of green, purple and blue stretched in every direction under the warm golden glow of lights set high in the dome. Flowers burst out of every dimple and hollow in wild petal-shedding abandon. Water jetted out of fountains in physically impossible trajectories, danced past gleaming crystalline chimes suspended from posts, splintering rainbows. And off in the distance….

“Look!” Rafe pointed. “Those are horses.”

The animals, in hues of blue, silver and gold, lifted their heads to stare at them out of limpid dark eyes. A soft wind ruffled the feathered wings that lay across their sides.

Rafe jerked back into his seat as chirping balls of light whizzed past his face in a blur of jewel-toned bodies and translucent wings. The light changed, from honey gold to burnt amber to silver starlight in the space of a few moments. Curtains of blue-purple light rippled in the air, obscuring the horses. All around, cunningly-wrought crystalline statues glowed with light—one a tree with its limbs all twisted over itself with the unnerving grace of a contortionist, another of a large feline poised to spring.

And ka flowed through it all. Rafe winced away at its touch, his muscles clenched, but it did not burn or pummel him. The touch of this ka was actually… pleasant. Do the rohkayan process ka somehow? Tame it and make it more manageable?

A shower of sound made Rafe look upwards. White flakes swirled down upon the open carriage, chiming as they fell. His skin tingled cold where they touched, though their taste upon his lips was sweet. Rafe caught one in his palm, feather-like, but it dissolved into nothingness when he poked it with a finger.

Isabella looked at him, white gleaming on her dress. “Welcome to Shimmer, where life is one big theater production. Mirados’ house is up ahead.”

A dark forest spread before them, with lanterns tangled among the trees. As the carriage continued along its way, the branches, thin and flexible, swept out of their way. They had no leaves, just lots of fine silky strands like tresses. They brushed Rafe’s cheek and smelled of rain and perfume.

“This is different,” Isabella noted. One tree-lock crept up coyly to her shoulder; Isabella absently yanked it off and tossed it on the ground.

The trees didn’t try flirting with her again.

“You’ve been here before.”

“My father brought me when I was a child, before he and Mirados had their falling out. Ah… here we are.”

Rafe looked around, expecting a grand edifice, but the carriage stopped in a small stone-paved circle. A narrow crack in a waterfall-clothed hillside was the only place to go.

Rafe hopped down onto the flagstones, and ka pin-pricked up his leg. It felt ticklish. He held out his hand gallantly to Isabella, who took it as she alighted.

“Are you all right?” she asked him.

“Yes.”

Isabella signaled with a finger, and a ka-powered servitor detached itself from the carriage and hovered obsequiously behind her. It looked like a fancy floating table with arms curving over its top. Sable’s flower was cradled in between them.

They walked arm-in-arm through the water-bordered opening. Rafe looked dubiously at it. His senses felt something ponderous and heavy gathering beyond the gap. As Isabella tugged him through, static brushed his hair. The border between outside and inside felt slightly soapy and cool, like walking through a bubble.

When the film finally popped, a thousand fireworks exploded into shrieking color right in front of his eyes.

Rafe stumbled, and only Isabella’s grip on his arm kept him up. Half of those fireworks were just in his head, the colorful trails of a hundred little magics, tangling and kissing and parting with each other. The other half was an assault on his normal senses. Mirados’ vine-colored lobby was filled with flame-dripping birds, acrobats creating archways with their bodies, chairs with their backs spread out in real feathers.

And that was just in the first few feet into the chamber.

“Too much ka,” he whispered to Isabella. “I can’t separate them all!”

Isabella squeezed his hand. “Give it a bit of time to get used to it. You know the scent of what you’re looking for. I’ll find someone to help us get close. Look sharp, here he comes.”

Rafe straightened and hoped that his sickened expression could be mistaken for a look of stunned astonishment.

“Welcome!” The man who strode up to them was broad-chested and black-bearded. A medallion of beaten gold lay on his bare brown chest and his only concession to decency was a loincloth around his hips. The thongs of his leather sandals snaked up his hairy muscular legs. Rafe noted for the first time that their host was not the only one in the room displaying a rather large expanse of naked flesh. “Lady Maerilla, what a pleasure to have such a beauty grace my little gathering.”

Isabella ducked her head and simpered, “Oh, Preceptor, you are too kind! Such a privilege… honor… oh, the sights…!” She trailed off breathlessly and fluttered fake lashes at Mirados, who had already turned to the rose and was crooning over it.

Rafe took the opportunity to whisper in her ear, “Laced that corset too tight, did you?” for which impertinence he was rewarded with a tap of her fan.

“Say, Uncle, where’s that dancer from last time? You know, the one with the chocolates down her…” The youth who interrupted was slender and unsteady on his feet, and he made a gesture towards his chest to indicate which part of the dancer’s anatomy had contained the delicacies.

“My boy, that was last time.”

“But, Uncle, I liked her.” The youth’s voice took on a nasal whine. His hair was purple and slicked back, and his dark-complexioned face sprinkled with glitter, but in tone and attitude, he could’ve been Tristan’s twin. Tristan. A pang through him. Tristan, who could be justly executed under the law for his treason.

“There are other dancers tonight, and more attractions besides. Come, my boy, here is Lady Maerilla all the way from Oakhaven.” Mirados turned his nephew by the shoulder, lights glistening off the youth’s mirrored vest, towards Isabella.

Isabella gave the youth a sultry look from under her lashes, one that she could’ve only learned from Sable. A come-hither look. From Isabella.

He’d have never believed it possible if he hadn’t seen it.

“My nephew, Raman.” Mirados pushed him toward Isabella, and duty done, turned towards Rafe. “First time for you, too, Lord… Oldmine?”

“Oldmill, actually, and gosh, yes, it’s just grand…” Rafe let his eyes stray towards the acrobats in scanty red leotards with fabric cut away from the sides as they changed formation in a shiver of movement and went still again. “Just grand,” he finished lamely, employing the inarticulate eloquence of the young man whose identity he’d assumed for the evening.

Mirados followed Rafe’s gaze. “You will find, young man, that we are a very free and accommodating people. Go on and find a friend, like your young lady companion did.”

Isabella had vanished with Raman, and in the time it took for Rafe to sweep the room for her, Mirados, too, stalked away, the servitor bobbing at his side.

Episode Seventy

Chapter Twenty Six, Part Two

En route to Shimmer

Rafe stared out the window at the Gathering Place, the trading outpost that Shimmer had established outside the dome that encased its valley, and tried not to think about the pale pink jacket and purple trousers Sable had insisted he wear.

She had undoubtedly raided the Marquis’ wardrobe to come up with what Rafe considered to be a sartorial crime of the highest order.

At least there were no patches.

Rocquespur’s train was only one of many at the Gathering Place, but by far the most elegant one. The rest were cargo trains, bringing in loads of quartz from all over this side of the Point and taking away mage-made items. While Shimmer resolutely kept the doors of its dome closed to foreigners and preserved strict neutrality in the affairs of other states, its appetite for quartz was insatiable. Many of the cars Rafe saw were piled high with chunks of rough quartzite: rose, amber, moon, lilac. Workers cursed and called, pushed and loaded crates into warehouses and onto trains under moon lights, the most powerful of the lamps Shimmer exported. The warehouses, more like mansions with their marble facades and slate roofs, formed a graceful crescent around the trains. Behind them rose the brown hills that ringed the Shimmer Valley, haloed by the glow from its dome.

There was even a train from Blackstone, Rafe saw through narrowed eyes, painted red and black, the colors of the revolution. There was no bustle around it, and bored Blackstonians leaned against the soot-flecked paint, picked at their teeth and scuffed their boots.

“Why, Rafe. Such magnificence. You’ll put me to shame.”

Rafe turned and met Isabella’s darkly amused eyes. She stood in the doorway, head tilted to one side, hand upon one outthrust hip.

He stared.

Sable had worked her magic on Isabella. A delicate tiara of curled and knotted gold sparkled in her shining hair, and long moon-colored tendrils swept her cheeks. Golden glitter outlined her eyes and brushed her cheekbones. Her dress was of a frothy gold whose skirts swirled down to past her knees. She looked young and flushed and alluring. This was not the kind of light he was used to seeing Isabella in.

Rafe recovered himself. “Mistress Sable,” he spoke to Sable standing over Isabella’s shoulder. “I salute you for a job well done.”

Isabella snorted as she came into the compartment. “Are you sure you’re the gallant everyone in Oakhaven society keeps fawning over? That’s hardly flattering.” Her skirts swished. Even her walk was different, languid, swaying. She almost seemed to dance, but that might’ve been just the effect of her shoes, delicate golden sandals that strapped halfway up her calves. Her toenails gleamed silver.

“Just making sure you’re still you under all that.” Rafe swept her a bow. “Lady. You get gold and silver, and I get pink?”

“It suits you.” Isabella tapped her cheek with a finger. “But it needs something a bit more. Sable, do we still have that dinner-plate brooch with the egg-sized amethyst in it?”

Sable chuckled at Rafe’s horrified look. “No, thankfully enough for young Grenfeld. She’s teasing.”

“Remarkable,” muttered Rafe. Isabella teasing? “Sable, you’ve done marvels, but are these costumes enough to get us inside? Does Rocquespur have an open invitation into Shimmer itself?”

Isabella grimaced. “No. My family has not been in Shimmer’s good graces for many years. My father, you see.”

Rafe didn’t, but now was not the time to push it. “So, we’re relying on my charm and your looks?”

“And Sable’s horticultural prowess.” Isabella went over to a marble-topped table and took off a domed silver cover. Under it was a tall vase of frosted glass, and in the vase was a cutting of the largest, most flamboyant flower Rafe had ever seen.

“The Monarique Rose,” said Isabella. “Our passport into Shimmer.”

Rafe bent to examine the flower. It was in shades of fiery red that flowed and melted together, overheating to orange and yellow at the center. Gold outlined the edges of each silk-smooth petal.

“Rohkayan Midaros, the Preceptor of Shimmer, is a great collector of botanical rarities. He won’t be able to resist this.”

“And he’s having a party tonight?”

“It’s Shimmer, Rafe. There’s always a party.”

“And we use the chaos to find the Renat Key, break the security around it and slip away with it without anyone the wiser.”

“Something like it, though I’m expecting you to use your rohkayan ability to trace the Key.”

Rafe grimaced. “I take it there is a lot of quartz in Shimmer?”

Isabella nodded. “How much do you know about the rohkayans?”

“Only that they’re the only ones who could do any magic at all this side of the Point after the Scorching, and they’re secretive bastards, to boot.”

“Accurate, if not diplomatic,” said Sable wryly.

Isabella leaned against a cabinet and crossed her ankles. “Before the Scorching, there were three classes of magic-users…”

“The kayan, the shahkayan and the rohkayan,” said Rafe, “in descending order of power. I read my nursery tales like any other boy.”

“Right. They did magic by manipulating ka, the energy that flows through quartz.” Isabella cocked her head towards Rafe. “The same energy that you are able to detect, though one wonders why no one made sure to have you sent to Shimmer for training.”

“Maybe it has something to do with the whole writhing painfully on the floor in the presence of quartz?” suggested Rafe.

“They wouldn’t take you now,” said Isabella as if he had never spoken. “You’re too old.” She looked speculatively at Rafe. “But it was most fortunate to find you. Your condition will make it so we don’t have to rifle through every drawer in the blasted place.”

“I’m useful!” Rafe wagged his finger at her. “And you called me a thorn and a pest.”

“That, too.” Isabella pushed off from the cabinet. “It’s almost time to present our compliments to the Stationmaster and get into Shimmer. Let me do the talking, Grenfeld.”

“Ahem.” Sable cleared her throat. “Aren’t you forgetting something, Isabella?” She looked pointedly at Isabella’s dress.

Isabella sighed, but nodded. Reluctantly, she reached into hidden slits in her dress, one at a time, and pulled out her twin daggers, still sheathed, one night, one moon. The hair at the back of Rafe’s neck rose at the sight and feel of the dark one.

A sigh of wind, like a whisper, tickled his hearing.

“Shimmer security will sniff out those daggers,” Sable explained to him. “And if they find those, they’ll know that Isabella is a krin-slayer. And if they realize that, then they’ll have a shrewd guess who she is and where she’s from.”

Isabella put her daggers into a case built into the cabinet and locked the doors.

“You’re worried about krin in Shimmer?” Rafe asked quietly.

“There are none in Shimmer.” Isabella abandoned her society girl’s languor for her warrior’s watchful grace. “But there are things almost as bad.” She flicked a smile in Rafe’s direction. “Let’s go.”

“In a moment.” Rafe looked at Sable. “I need to send a letter to a friend in Ironheart.” He nodded out the window. “I saw a cargo train from Ironheart out there. Would you be able to get it out to them before they leave?”

“Of course.”

Isabella arched her eyebrows. “Feeling the need to unburden yourself of guilt, Grenfeld?”

“No.” Rafe pulled the Marquis’ thick lavender-colored stationary towards him. “I’m making sure that finding that Tower of Light doesn’t depend only on us.”

Episode Sixty Nine

Chapter Twenty Six, Part One

En route to Shimmer

Rafe had been on government trains before—both the rundown army trains with the soldiers packed like fish in a barrel, and the Royal Train that Roland never used but was made available to high-ranking functionaries—but never one as sleek and luxuriously-appointed as this one. The rails sang under the well-oiled wheels and the inevitable jolting was more of a soothing rock. The interior was carpeted in a plush purple of an unfortunate shade. Magemade lamps, scalloped semicircles of warm yellow light, illuminated the rooms and corridors, and the furniture was made of real wood, dark and heavily carved.

Isabella and Rafe were currently occupied in taking apart one such piece of furniture to feed the train’s firebox, necessitated by their hurried departure and the fact that the three fugitives dared not stop to resupply.

Rafe looked around the well-appointed guest quarters. “Not a bad mode of travel. Especially for the man who has constantly opposed the building of rail lines through the Outer Fells.”

“Mmm hmm.” Isabella made a noncommittal noise from the inside of the shell of a desk she was dismantling with Rafe’s pocket knife. Or maybe it was a “Shut up already.” It was hard to tell with the two long screws she held between her lips.

A desk leg came loose in Rafe’s hand as Isabella unscrewed. She spat the screws into an ornate silver bowl. “This train,” she said, gesturing, “was the plaything of the previous Marquis. Rocquespur merely inherited it.”

“It belonged to your father, you mean.”

Isabella hesitated. “Yes.”

Rafe cocked his head. “You say ‘the Marquis’, not ‘my father’. You say ‘Rocquespur’, not ‘me’ or ‘I’.”

Isabella twitched her shoulders, as if shrugging off his words. Or the persona of the Marquis. “I may be him, but he is not me.”

“I’m sure it makes sense to you.” Rafe leaned his head back against the closet door, inlaid with shells, bumpy against his scalp. “I’m sure you need to differentiate between your two identities, to keep all your stories straight, if nothing else. But it does seem to me that you’re avoiding personal responsibility.”

Isabella went still, the alert dangerous stillness of a fighter. “What do you mean?”

Rafe kept his posture casual, legs stretched out across the carpet. He laced his fingers over his stomach. “You worked with sleazy opportunists like Verney. Opposed a dozen legislations that would’ve been good for our people.” He ticked them off on his fingers. “Voted to take over Ironheart, for Sel’s sake.” He could no longer keep his anger hidden. “What were you thinking?”

Her dark eyes sparkled, but her voice remained cool. “Everything I did was to ensure the safety of Oakhaven from the krin. That’s the whole reason the title of Marquis of Rocquespur even exists. The sole reason why we have the five votes in the Assembly. Build a railway into the Outer Fells? Open up a mine in the middle of nowhere? Faugh! Have you any idea how many people would’ve been claimed by the krin? If that scheme had gone through, I’d still have been camped out there, clearing out the Soul Eaters!”

“And what about Ironheart?”

She gave him a look of astonishment. “You were there. You saw how badly it had been hit.”

“They’d have gotten back on their feet.”

“Eventually. How many would the krin have gotten, though, before then?”

“You gave them no chance. They were our allies, not children. Not a client state.”

“They are vulnerable,” she lashed back. “What use is liberty when you’re dead? Or worse, krin-possessed?”

“You sound like Blackstone.”

“And you sound like a spoilt little armchair political theorist who has never been cold and hungry and in the dark.”

Rafe scoffed. “I was in the military. I fought against Blackstone in the last war. Where were you then? Oh, I forget. In the convent, stitching samplers.”

“Do not mock me.” Isabella rose up on her knees, like an eruption, then forced herself to subside. She rocked back on her heels. “You have no idea of what I did at the convent and no idea of my training and…” Pink suffused her cheeks and she pressed her lips together. “You are a thorn and a pest, Grenfeld,” she said without heat.

“Funny. I’ve often thought the same about you and Rocquespur,” he drawled out. His mouth crooked. “I do have one burning question. Actually two.”

“Oh?” She raised her eyebrow, wary, defensive. He’d actually unsettled her, but he didn’t really know what to do with an off-balance Isabella. The air crackled with tension, but if they were to work together—and they had a job to do that was bigger than both them—they needed to diffuse that.

“You were keeping Pyotr in that warehouse, weren’t you?”

Isabella nodded, slowly. “Yes. I had him smuggled out of Blackstone. He’s the one who told me about the Key in Ironheart. The Ironheart man who was murdered, your friend’s grandfather, was also Pyotr’s brother. Verney”—and her voice was flat and hard—“was supposed to keep the lights on in that warehouse. His miserliness cost Pyotr his life. Karzov may have sent those krin specifically for him. I looked for them, but they were gone. Krin in Oakhaven itself!” Her nostrils flared as if it were a personal insult.

Rafe said nothing. He couldn’t say anything that would make Pyotr’s death be all right for either of them,

“What’s your next question, then?”

“Next… how’d you do it? How’d you fool everyone for the last eight years into believing that you were a….” He paused, trying to say it politely.

“A rather nasty old man with repulsive habits?” Isabella’s smile was lopsided. “There was a reason for all those wigs, and the makeup, and the awful clothes, and the garish jewelry.”

“And snuff.” Rafe tried to see Rocquespur’s features on Isabella.

“Don’t bother. Sable’s very good at what she does.”

“One last question, for now. Why…,” Rafe let a note of petulance creep into his voice. “Why’d you go and vote against my receiving the Assembly’s Medal of Valor all those years ago, anyway?”

She raised an eyebrow. “You already had several other medals. I thought being over-decorated would go to your head.”

“Of course. I suppose I should thank you for keeping my pride in check. Uncle Leo was rather livid about it.” A pang went through Rafe. Uncle Leo. The king. Wil and the rest of his friends, men he’d worked with, served his country with.

They all thought he was a traitor.

Isabella placed her fingertips on the back of his hand. “It’s thankless work, keeping everyone safe from the krin. There are no medals, no recognition and no glory.” Her eyes met his directly, but there was sympathy in her voice and touch.

Rafe turned over one of his hands and clasped hers, palm to palm. Her hand was dry and cool. “And Bryony?”

Isabella shook her head. “Rocquespur’s a traitor now. He cannot help you. He can’t ever return home again.” She exhaled. “I’ve gambled everything on this Tower of Light. Thrown away the Rocquespur influence for it.”

He squeezed her hand before withdrawing his own. “We’ll find it and it’ll light up the sky. And then…”

“Then?”

“Then, I’ll find Bryony.”

Episode Sixty Eight

I apologize for how long it’s been since the last update of Quartz. We bought a house, moved, and life got really busy over the summer.  And, yikes! I didn’t realize what a cliffhanger the last episode finished on!

To make it up to you, I’m going to be putting out two episodes a week, Tuesday and Friday, until I run out of book. Enjoy!

Chapter Twenty Five

Oakhaven

Leonius Grenfeld sat still and quiet in the king’s Council Chamber, head bowed, while damage reports flowed to him in an endless stream. The mage lights were off, and the only illumination came from portable gas lights, their orange glow small and sullen. Roland, enraged at having been locked out earlier, was down in the Machine Room coaxing the low-functioning Primary to deploy its diggers and haulers, and keep the city running. Tristan had been confined to his room. Dewfleur, the First Minister, had had a nervous attack, and Mercersmith, Minister of Internal Affairs, had quietly melted away without Rocquespur to guide him.

That left Leo as the highest-ranking government official in charge.

And he could only sit here while a hoarse runner from the largest Oakhaven agri-caves, not far from the city, brought the worst news of all. Seismic activity had cracked several of the quartz columns and destroyed many caverns, including a roof fall that had blocked off the main cavern.

Seismic activity that Leo had caused when he attempted to activate the mage defenses in the Assembly building with the Renat Keys.

Leo clenched his bandaged hands, then hissed at the pain and opened them up again.

“Sir.”

Leo raised his head slowly, as if it were a block of stone and he didn’t quite know how it had gotten on his neck in the first place. His vision blurred and he blinked furiously before the visage of Captain Wilem Strongtree of the Guarda Royal swam into focus.

“Sir. The king asked me to report back to you. We watched the Marquis of Rocquespur’s house and saw the young silver-haired woman leave it in a secretive manner. We tracked her to the train station.”

“But she got away.”

“On the Marquis’ private train, with the actress and courtesan Sable Monarique.” The young captain paused. “Rafael Grenfeld was with them.”

Leo could not help his wince. The captain stared straight ahead at the plaster decorations in the wall, withdrawn behind his mask of cold duty.

He’d been a friend of Rafe’s.

Rafe who was a traitor to the Crown and his country. Rafe who had stolen the Renat Keys from him as he lay helpless in the basement of the Assembly building.

At least his nephew had not left him to die down there. A bitter laugh bubbled out through Leo’s lips, a small choked sound.

“Sir?” The captain shifted his gaze downward.

Leo straightened his shoulders. “And Rocquespur? Have you searched his house? Arrested him?”

“No, sir. The Marquis was not in his house. We’re searching his other properties in the city, but the list is extensive.”

Leo made a dismissive gesture. “Then he was probably already on that train that got away. What about Verney? My clerks found enough discrepancies in the records to be certain he’s not been entirely honest in his dealings.”

“Commander Risewater has had men posted around his house.”

Leo nodded once, sharply. “Arrest him. We have enough on him to send him to the Citadel for a very long time, if not the hangman. He’ll tell us all he knows about Rocquespur’s business in return for a lighter sentence. Squeeze him until he sings, Captain.” He felt old, but there was grim hard weight in his chest, as if his heart had turned to stone. His brain sharpened into focus.

“Seize Rocquespur’s domestic assets. I will make sure that our allied states know how strongly we want our extradition treaties honored. And, send messages to our generals. They are to attend me at once.”

“Sir?’ Astonishment cracked the man’s weary emotionless façade.

“It becomes even more important to secure Ironheart quickly and hold our borders against Blackstone.” And send an expeditionary force into the Barrens. No one except Oakhaven is getting that thrice-scorched Tower of Light. Leo’s mouth twisted.

Fire leapt into the captain’s eyes. Not hope, not confidence, but something more desperate and more vengeful.

If Oakhaven fell, then she would crush her enemies beneath her as she did so.

Episode Sixty Seven

Chapter Twenty Four, Part Four

Oakhaven

The hiss of steam and blast of whistle startled Rafe awake. He tried to stand and hit his head on the ceiling. When the worms of light stopped crawling in front of him, he realized he was alone. The chair was still. Sable Monarique was gone.

He touched the lumps in his pockets. The Keys were still there.

The noises from outside, though, indicated activity. The thud of boxes, the indistinct shouts of men. A far-off whistle tooted—ferry or train?. The floor rattled and a roar engulfed all other noise. Metal squealed as brakes were applied. A train, then. Rafe gingerly lifted a corner of the curtain and peeked out. There was not much to see besides a barricade of boxes, but the several-storey cavern with its overhead lightsand iron galleries was the Oakhaven train station. So far, Sable seemed to be keeping her promises.

But where was she?

Sable didn’t show, but her two chair-bearers did. They hoisted the sedan onto their shoulders with rather more vigor then they ought to have, considering that it was occupied, and brought it out from the concealing embrace of the boxes. Rafe planted his hands on the sides to steady himself as he tried to pretend he was a feather.

“You there! What do you have? Has it been inspected and cleared?” The tone of the voice was fussy and puffed up with self-importance.

One of the chair-bearers rumbled apologetically, “It’s Mistress Monarique’s chair, sir. She won’t travel without it. Public chairs give her a headache. Ain’t made right.”

The official snorted. “Well, having to deal with her and all her baggage gives me a headache. Put that down and let’s have a looksee, shall we?”

The chair was put down rather ungently, but then it was supposed to be empty.

Rafe sank deeper into the seat in a futile attempt to make himself disappear, or blend into the seat. He hoped the official was blind, or at least very near-sighted, but his luck didn’t seem to be running that way recently.

“What seems to be the problem, Officer?” Sable’s voice was like golden honey. “Surely there is no trouble over me taking my chair aboard my private train?”

Rocquespur’s private train, more like. Rocquespur’s attachment to her must be great for her to speak so.

“Well, no, ma’am. It’s just that I have to inspect and clear everything…”

“But of course, Officer, and I have been making sure all my servants are doing their best to assist you and your people.” Sable was slightly breathless; Rafe could just imagine the adoring megalamp look she was bestowing upon that hapless bureaucrat. “In fact, one of your people just looked over the chair, did an exhaustive search, even going so far as to move all the cushions in case a fugitive were hiding underneath. How absurd, really, since I was just in there not too long ago. In fact, here’s the-oh!” Sable drew in an exaggerated breath. Rafe was hard-pressed not to snort. She had probably put her finger against her rounded lips, to better show them off. “The stamp must have fallen off! It can’t be too far away, Officer. I’ll send someone to look for it.”

“Oh, well, there’s no need, ma’am. Why don’t I just…?”

“Oh, but there is, Officer! I’ve already paid my duties on this item and Rocquespur will be so angry with me if I have to present him with another bill! I don’t know, but money just slips through my hands, and I’ve already outrun the banker this month.” Sable’s voice drifted away. “Come, let’s look together.” She probably had the official clutched by the arm.

“Ah, ma’am there is no need. Here, why don’t I give you a new stamp right now, and you can be off?”

“Truly?” Sable sounded as if she couldn’t believe that such a paragon of kindness as the customs officer existed.

“Truly.” Paper ripped. “See, here is your stamp.”

“Oh, thank you!”

The chair moved again. The bearers took wide steps from platform to train and set it down in a cargo compartment. They left without a word, leaving the door open.

Police whistles echoed in the station. Wil’s voice, magnified through a loudspeaker, spoke, “The station is closed. No trains are allowed to leave until checked. Shut down your engines.”

Rafe scrambled from the chair and yelled at Sable, still on the platform. “Hurry up! Get on board!” She nodded, ran down to the engine, and swung on board.

The train let out a whistle and began to move. Rafe started to slide the door shut, then paused. Isabella raced down the platform, followed by five members of the Guarda Royal in chest plates and helmets, scattering porters and dodging baggage. Before he knew what he was doing, Rafe reached out and yelled to her, “Here! Grab my hand!”

Isabella veered sharply and ran at him. Her hand found his and he grabbed it hard even as the train hooted and picked up speed. She had to run fast to keep up. Wil shouted, words booming and indistinct. One of the Guarda Royal whipped out his handgun and took aim.

“Hold on!” Rafe held on to the door frame with his other hand, braced himself and pulled Isabella onto the train. Bullets whizzed over their heads as they tumbled together in a heap on the floor.

Rafe sat up. The station grew blurred, but the last thing Rafe saw was Wil’s face as he ran up, still holding the loudspeaker. Their eyes met for one hard moment, then darkness flashed by—a tunnel. The train charged into the open air. Buildings whizzed by, obscured in the cloud of steam, and all the commotion of the station was scraped away by the rasp of train wheels on tracks.

Isabella got to her feet. “They tracked me. They must’ve been watching the house. They got clever and I got stupid.” She said it matter-of-factly, and not to Rafe, but to Sable who’d come in, a frown between her eyebrows.

“You’re welcome,” murmured Rafe, rubbing his shoulder. “I don’t think it’s dislocated, thanks for asking.”

Isabella didn’t deign to reply. She strode out of the cargo compartment with Sable.

Rafe stared for a moment at Oakhaven flying past, wind whistling through the open door. “I think,” he remarked to the chill night air, “it might be more peaceful in this compartment.”

Then he wrestled the door shut, threw the bolts, and went after the women.

He caught up with them in the dining car, carpeted in plush purple velvet with heavy gold draperies. Two tables draped in white linens and chairs carved out of ebony wood stood on either side.

He stopped Isabella with a hand on her arm. She turned to face him; her moon dagger appeared into her hand as if from nowhere.

“The truth now, if you please, Isabella,” said Rafe. “Have you been working with Rocquespur all this time? And why did she put on the song and dance about not believing in the Tower of Light?” He nodded toward Sable, who stood back, arms crossed, watching with head-tilted interest.

Isabella gave an odd little laugh. “Oh, Rafe. I’m not working with Rocquespur. Or for him or even against him.” She moved his hand off her arm with a strange gentleness.

“I am Rocquespur.”