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 Sixty Four

Chapter Twenty Four, Part One

Oakhaven

Rafe sat upon a bench in Belle’s Row, pretending to read a newssheet in the light of a gas lamp turned low for the night. For the past quarter stage, sedans and chairs had deposited visitors to a downstairs apartment four houses from Bryony’s place. Voices, laughter and music drifted out upon tendrils of sickly-sweet smoke from the open doors. The visitors were a mixed bunch; Rafe caught sight of some gentlemen of quality, distinguished by the cut of their coats, as well as the flamboyant costumes of theater folk. A gaggle of giggling women hurried past him, the wide sleeves of their quilted crazy-patterned smocks visible under the cuffs of their coats. One of them still wore greasepaint, another’s eyes were outlined in kohl and glitter.

With all this bustle, it would’ve been easy to slip among the party-goers, to step up to the doorway with a smile for anyone whose eyes he met. A tap on a shoulder, a touch on an arm, and he could’ve slid through the crowd, instead of sitting here feeling exposed.

Yet here he was outside in the cold, reading the same headline over and over again—ANARCHISTS DESTROY COMPRESSOR STATION; PALACE ENRAGED—and not moving, waiting for the person he’d never expected to ask for help. He tried not to think of his shattered reputation, of Bryony in the ungentle custody of the Guarda Royal, of Uncle Leo’s face worn and shocked, of foreign meddlers who’d wormed so deeply into Oakhaven that they could fund the antimachinists and set Rafe up to take the blame for it.

And now Rafe had made the decision to throw himself at the mercy of one who might be as deeply mired in all this muck as anyone else.

Rafe twitched his tense shoulders. He was bruised and sore everywhere. His mouth felt as if it had been stuffed with cotton wool, and his exhausted sleep in the storage container and his subsequent hiding place near the canals had done little to remove his tiredness. His eyes felt as if they had been sandpapered. A passerby hurrying into the party house gave him an oblique look before moving on.

Rafe shook his head, tucked the salvaged newssheet into his coat pocket. Foolish, foolish, to sit here like a crippled scooper. Had he made a daring escape from the palace only to be found lurking like some kind of bedazzled lad outside a party, four doors down from his sister’s?

Get in there fast, Rafe. Move.

He eased himself up, knee joints snapping in protest. Another theater troupe—dancers, he guessed, from the fish net stockings beneath the hems of their short flared red coats—swept past him. Several gave him appraising looks from under impossibly-long lashes.

He tipped his hat, part of the attire he’d bought from a no-questions-asked pawnshop. “Evening, ladies.”

One of them stopped. “Hiya, handsome.” Her plump painted lips pursed into a smile. “Going to Leonard’s?”

Rafe smiled back. “Alas, I have not been invited. I’ve been hanging out here all evening, hoping for a glimpse of some theater notables, but so far everyone is wearing their hats low and their coats close. Can’t see enough to accost my favorite actors, which is probably what they intended.” He hoped he projected enough adoration.

The actress smiled more widely and tugged at her coat to reveal more of the dress underneath, bodice barely holding her bosom in. Her companions tittered from a few feet away.

“Consider yourself invited, handsome. I’m Dulinea Darling, by the way.” Her look was both arch and expectant.

Rafe did a quick mental search of the name. A smalltime star, always a sister or a best friend, never the lead. “Charmed, madam. I’d offer you my arm, but I’ve heard you denounce from the stage such antiquated gestures as unbecoming to the modern liberated era. I meekly admit to not having the least desire to bring your wrath and eloquence down on my head.”

Dulinea’s eyes twinkled. “You are well-versed in the ways of the theater. Most unusual and most amusing. So many of the lovestruck swains have more notion of their idols’ waist sizes than of the parts they play.”

“I confess to having applied myself to the study of the theater. Being made to look ignorant in such company as this—provided I garnered an invitation—is not something I would’ve enjoyed.”

“Who would?” Dulinea held out her arm. “Come, let me offer you my arm, so that we may both get what we want, without appearing the least to compromise our ideals. For you, no doubt, were brought up to be polite to women, and I do not balk at being so bold as to instigate it.”

Rafe linked his arm through hers. Female flesh, warm and smelling of perfume, makeup and some kind of lightly-spiced liquor, pressed close to him. Dulinea’s eyes were large and green and bright, simultaneously laughing and mocking. They followed the rest of her companions to the broad steps leading up to Leonard’s, past a series of chairs waiting to disgorge their more elegant and less mobile passengers.

“Good even Dulinea, Rosmerta.” A woman called to them from beside a chair.

The women stopped, exclaiming.

“Why, Sable! How long has it been since we last saw you?”

“Are you coming to the party? Firenze will be here.”

“Then she should leave quickly, because he will surely not rest until she agrees to play Princess Padmeria.”

Dulinea dropped Rafe’s arm. She didn’t exactly shoulder her way through the others, but there she was at the front, facing the other somberly-clad woman, one hand resting on her hip, coat falling open to reveal more of her costume. She half-turned her head, as if on stage, so that everyone could hear her.

“Why, Sable,” she cooed. “Has the Marquis given you time off for good behavior?”

Sable Monarique replied coolly, “He lets me out of my cage for two stages every Sixthday and every Girdlesday. It’s a hard life, but someone has to wear Rocquespur’s collection of silk costumes and drink Shimmer tea, Dulinea.”

The other girls tittered. Dulinea’s smile didn’t change, though her eyes became harder. “We can’t all have your good luck, Sable. Not all of us have wealthy patrons vying to buy our freedom with bonbons and trinkets.”

Unlike Dulinea, who stood in the light, glitter sparkling in her hair, showing slashes of red under her coat, Sable was in the shadows. Perhaps she smiled under her hat, but he could make out nothing other than her rich voice.

“We all value different things, Dulinea. Let’s leave it at that.” Sable lifted a gloved hand, a cigar holder between two fingers. “Care for a companionable smoke?”

Dulinea tossed her head. “It’s a filthy habit, Sable. Isn’t it, girls?” She glared so ferociously at the others that they all nodded their heads. “And it’s cold out. Let’s go inside.” She turned on her heel, and the other girls called weak goodbyes to Sable as they, too, turned. “Coming, handsome?”

Rafe shot her a smile. “In a moment. Lighter, ma’am?” He produced one from his pocket and moved closer, so she could see his face in the lights.

Sable’s eyebrows rose. “Thank you, young man.”

Dulinea snorted and went inside, trailed by her friends.

Episode Sixty Three

Chapter Twenty Three, Part Four

Oakhaven

She was not there.

Rafe stood in Bryony’s dark and empty apartment, lingering violence slick against his skin. The door had swung open at a light touch from his hand. The bolt had barely fit into its shattered socket in the door frame. Bryony’s few items of furniture—graceful wicker chairs and round bamboo tables—lay overturned. A coat and scarf pooled together on the floor, papers lay scattered next to them. The other rooms—Bryony’s small neat bedroom and small bathroom—were untouched by the struggle. Rafe tightened his lips against the surge of emotion at the sight of Bryony’s hairbrush on her dresser, a few dark hairs still caught in it.

They’d already come for her, then, and stages ago. Had Wil ordered her arrest even as Rafe fled Roland’s receiving room? He’d circled Bryony’s building for most of a stage, and he was sure there were no watchers now, but his tension ratcheted up yet another notch.

There was nothing else to be gotten here. Ashes lay in Rafe’s mouth as he turned to leave, and paper crunched under his foot. Without thinking, Rafe bent to pick it up, smoothed it out and squinted at the note written on top of a playbill for a production Rafe had never heard of. Scrawled across the illustration of an overheated swooning woman in the arms of a masked cavalier was a note in flourishes, Bryony, darling, are you coming to the party at Leonard’s right after the show? Do say you will since he is your neighbor! The performance was tonight and Rafe recognized the name of the eccentric playwright and director who was, apparently, giving a party on Belle’s Row. He crumpled up the poster. Bryony would attend neither the performance nor the party.

But… he stilled, hand poised to toss the wadded paper onto the floor. He checked the cast list on the poster and nodded to himself. He knew someone who would likely be at that party. Someone who might be willing to help him. For a price.

Episode Sixty Two

Chapter Twenty Three, Part Three

Oakhaven

Rafe rose and hobbled past boxes of spare parts, stacked lengths of pipe and barrels of nails and screws to the doorway. To his relief, the door swung open into a short wide stubby thumb of a corridor lit with magelamps. Rafe crossed the concrete floor, and pressed his palm against the metal panel on the opposite wall. He was a Grenfeld, part of a family whose blood had intermingled with that of the royal Bloodoaks for centuries. This had worked before when he’d been so small that he’d had to rise up on tiptoes to do it.

A green light flashed across the panel, paused, beeped. The metal door in front of him slid aside with a contented chirp and Rafe stepped into the Oakhaven Machine Room, a chamber of marble, glass and metal. The core of the Machine stood in the far corner, a column of rippled glass that pulsed and throbbed with a white light, hidden behind wires, gears and pipes. A chill emanated from it, and bile rose into his throat. Rafe clenched his teeth against it, jabbed a button behind him and the door slid shut.

He hurried over to the console in the middle of the room, and rolled a wheeled stool up to it. Roland’s reclining chair, big and comfortable, was upholstered in worn leather and bore the imprint of the king’s body. A metal helmet with wires running from it was suspended above the chair, but Rafe didn’t want to be in such close contact with the Machine. Instead he turned to the console with its displays, dials, switches and buttons, labels all worn and indecipherable, and put his hands into an open compartment, wiggling them into the cool metal gloves that Roland had had him try on so long ago.

The king would regret that moment of avuncular affection. Rafe’s smile was sour, even as doubt niggled at him. Would the Machine recognize him? Might it not turn against him, like a dog whose master was threatened?

Then his fingertips touched sensors, and Rafe gasped as a zing, lemon-sour, orange-hot, bit through his skin and leaped into his nerves. A buzz of white light swelled up in his mind, and he fought it down with a determined Not now! This was not the raw energy that had attacked him at Grenfeld or the other agri-caves, but something that had been both sterilized and sharpened. He tasted that energy, its pressure upon his lips and tongue familiar.

The Machine reminded him of Isabella’s daggers.

And then the white haze coalesced, blinked out, and the Machine focused unseen eyes on Rafe.

He let out his breath slowly. This was not the warm regard of a woman, as Roland always described it, but the sardonic detached gaze of an entirely alien being.

Something—a voice—touched upon his ears lightly, as though a film of some kind separated it from Rafe. An almost inaudible voice, almost a sigh, that prickled all over Rafe’s skin.

Welcome, child of the Blood. What… is… your… will?

Shut all the doors leading to this area. Keep everyone out, thought Rafe.

The voice recoiled as if in shock. You… hear? You… do… It drifted closer, like a circling shark, with the casual curiosity of a predator.

Just do it, thought Rafe, jaw tight against the unsettling combination of citrus smell, energy pricks and the bile in his throat. Somehow, he’d bypassed all of the buttons and dials to connect with the Machine itself and he didn’t relish the experience.

This acquaintance would be short-lived.

As you wish. The voice vanished and Rafe sagged as the pressure of that unwavering attention eased. He started as several switches on a panel clicked one way, indicating locking doors. Great. Safe from Roland’s entry for now, Rafe took his hands out of the gloves, and walked over to the panel which controlled the palace machinery.

Sorry, everyone, he thought, and, with steady clicks, he began switching off power and deactivating machinery. On a display next to the panel, power lines dimmed, moving dots paused. Rafe mentally overlaid the display with his own memory of the palace’s layout. He hesitated, then walked over to the corner and reached through a tangle of metal to lay a hand on the cool glass of the column.

Machine?

Yes…? Faint, but still audible, and no longer shooting nausea-inducing sparks into him.

Can I take that courier wagon there—Rafe nodded to a metal flap behind which waited the small machine that brought Roland his meals and messages—to the outside?

For an answer, images blazed in Rafe’s brain—movement along a map with the relevant controls interposed upon it—a perspective that nearly turned his brain inside out. Maps, these are all maps, thought Rafe. He’d worked with maps before. Rafe broke contact and stumbled back to the console where he began tapping out his instructions.

When he was mostly sure that he’d not end up dumped into a coal furnace somewhere, Rafe unbolted the little door behind which the wagon waited. The Machine’s attention followed him, tinged with… what? Wistfulness?

“Machine,” he said, out loud.

Yes? Disturbing. He could hear it without touching the gloves or console. Out loud, he said, “Can you keep Roland out for another stage? Please?”

It wasn’t until he’d already folded himself into the trolley, after winding up the mechanism that would provide the necessary push, when he heard it.

Yes.

Rafe leaned back and unhitched the trolley. He whipped his hand in just in time as the trolley, winched tight and drawn up to the top of a peak in the narrow tunnel, plummeted down its track, heading for the palace kitchens.

Rafe jumped off his ride before it came to a stop at the kitchens, and wiggled out into the dark laundry room, still steamy, smelling of harsh soap and wet towels. He stumbled his way between the tubs and out the door, keeping himself small and hunched as he ducked into the kitchen gardens.

Tiers rose from the center of the room, bearing ceramic pots and raised beds. Rafe grabbed a gardening smock from a row of hooks. With that, and “Gregor’s” clothes, he should pass for a palace servant. He rubbed dirt onto his cheeks and hands for good effect, slouched his shoulders, let his face fall into surly lines (Tristan made a good model) and pulled out a few beets.

The smell of earth pierced Rafe with a strong desire to be back at Grenfeld, to be a farmer rather than a framed fugitive, and his thoughts circled from home to family.

With a jolt, he thought, Bryony!

They knew the affection he felt for his sister; they might use her to flush him out into the open. Rafe pressed past walls of fungus, carelessly squishing several delicacies like ladycaps and swirlstars, and towards the one door he’d left unlocked.

It opened to the underground tunnels. Rafe climbed into an empty storage container and waited tensely until machines came to life all around him. One of those, a forklift whose instructions he had reprogrammed, lifted the container up and hummed away. Exhausted and aching, lulled by the movement, Rafe fell into an uneasy fitful doze.

Episode Sixty One

Chapter Twenty Three, Part Two

Oakhaven

Tristan stepped away from his cousin. “Y-you were… to… kill me?’ he asked, eyes wide and hurt.

“It’s all a lie. A scorched lie,” said Rafe, through clenched jaws. Tension made it hard to speak.

“They also found correspondence from the antimachinists, and herbs that are used to manipulate minds,” went in Wil inexorably. “The antimachinists admit to having received funds from a high-placed secret donor, one who went by the name of Cavalier. Their story matched the one revealed in these letters.”

“It’s a setup,” said Rafe, trying not to look guilty or a threat. Keep calm, keep cool. “Why would I go to all the bother of hauling Tris out of that antimachinist hole, if I meant to see him dead?”

The King looked at Rafe as if he were a pebble blocking up his Machine, then turned to his uncle. “Leo?”

Leonius’ head was sunken, chin almost touching his chest. His great voice was shaken and hollow. “He has pressed me most unusually for unfettered access to the Renat Keys in my possession. I don’t know what to say, Your Majesty.”

“Uncle!” It came out pleading, before Rafe could stop himself.

Roland ignored the interruption. “I also understand that Grenfeld’s performance of late has been unsatisfactory. An apparent failure to meet with an informer. Mysterious dealings with a woman of unknown allegiance. Not to mention Ironheart burned down while he was on his mission.” The sneer in his voice made Rafe clench his fists.

“I am forced to consider that there might be some truth to these allegations.” Leonius’ voice came from far away, weighty and slow.

“Yes,” said Tristan, squeaky with astonishment. “Rafe-he made me walk out with him in the Hour of Dead, when we saw the antimachinists that first time. Before we returned to the palace, he took me to a tavern and bought me a drink, to brace me, he said. I felt fuzzy, then. He must have others involved, though! He can’t have been the only one poisoning my food and drink!” He turned his head from side to side, as if conspirators were lurking in the shadows, with “I Did It!” emblazoned on their foreheads.

Rafe felt oddly detached, like a spectator at a tragic place, watching while his whole life, his name, and his reputation cracked and broke and fell to pieces all around him.

“We will get to the bottom of this,” said Roland. “In the meantime, take Grenfeld to the Citadel.”

The Citadel. Levels of prison blocks, all underground. He could be forgotten there, buried under stone and rock, or meet with an accident. It was easy enough to bribe a guard to look the other way while someone added poison to a prisoner’s lunch.

Wil nodded to his guardsmen. Rafe ducked behind some statuary, pulled out the firecracker and lighter.

“Watch out!” cried Tristan. “He has…”

The lighter snapped, a spark leapt to the top of the fuse, and everyone covered their faces as Rafe lobbed the firecracker into the middle of the room. Sparks rained down. Amidst the cries and orders of “Get him!”, Rafe bulldozed Tristan out of the way and ran through a doorway into the rest of Roland’s private rooms.

Behind him, Roland shouted, “He’ll never get out that way! Send guards outside, under the windows.”

That’s what you think. Rafe had played in the palace as a child, when Roland had been a newly-crowned harassed young king. It was amazing what sorts of things an adventurous child with lots of time in his pocket managed to find.

He wrenched open the door to a closet—even kings needed somewhere to keep their bed linens. The closet was the size of a Blackstone drone’s bedroom—small, without windows, and unlit. The only difference was that it consisted of rows and rows of shelves, and smelled of camphor and lavender. Rafe shut the door behind him and dragged a linen press to block it. A stuffy warm darkness settled over him like a muffler, dampening the shouts outside.

Rafe stumbled over to the far end of the closet, and swept piles of crisp lace-edged pillowcases and sheets off the shelves. His searching fingers found the tarp tacked up for insulation, worked at a corner and pulled it loose from the wall. There was a grate, covering a large disused vent, right behind it and yes, the screws were still loose, just as had left them more than fifteen years ago. Rafe breathed out a sigh of relief. He would’ve looked very foolish trying to unscrew the grate with his pocket knife attachment when the guardsmen burst into the linen closet.

Rafe was no longer as small as he used to be. Two strong tugs brought the shelving out of the wall, and the screws fell to the floor with small tinkles. The door handle rattled, someone hammered and called out as Rafe pulled out the grate. The linen press was not going to hold the determined guardsmen back for much longer. He flung the grate aside with a crash and threw himself feet first into the vent.

His shoulders stuck, and for a panicked moment, he thought he had miscalculated. He squirmed and they slipped in. The vent was a bit larger than the opening, and Rafe slithered on his back, using his hands against the walls to thrust himself forward, feeling his head exposed in this short straight length. Let anyone shoot into the opening, and he’d be dead.

The bend in the pipe came suddenly; Rafe almost pitched down the smooth slope, angled into darkness. Shouts echoed in the hollow metal tube. Rafe pushed himself with his hands, sliding down like an uncertain swimmer slipping into murky waters.

It was not a smooth trip. Ridges and breaks in the vents snagged his clothing, scratched his back. At the bottom, Rafe kicked out a grate, pooled out of the pipe and landed in a heap in one of the palace’s many operations rooms. The room dated later than the now-useless vent.

There was no time to wait for his brains to cease rattling in his skull, or to nurse his bruises. Roland was on his way to hook himself up to the Machine. Rafe had to get there first, before Roland closed down all the doors and underground ways, or sent machines after him.

He’d never thought he’d be hunted in Oakhaven like he had been in Blackstone.

Episode Sixty

Chapter Twenty Three, Part One

Oakhaven

Tristan betrayed us? My son?” whispered Roland, deflating like a punctured balloon. All the color had fled his face, leaving it pale, sagging and old. Rafe had to look away; it was worse than seeing his king stripped naked.

Wil, who had made his report in wooden tones, stared at the wall-hangings above the king’s head. He did not say anything.

“It wasn’t like that,” said Tristan, white-faced himself, trembling like a weak sapling. “It wasn’t like that.”

Roland seemed too dazed to hear. “My son,” he said, slowly, wonderingly, “feeding information to base traitors—nay, haters of mankind! My son, my heir, the next Machinist, using his knowledge to destroy that which is the heart and blood of this entire city. This entire state.” The words fell like stones.

“Father—” began Tristan.

Roland turned on him, eyes ablaze. He strode over to Tristan and grabbed him by the shoulders. “Tell me it is not true! Tell me that the antimachinists are lying, tell me that my faithful Wil here is false, tell me that you were on some foolish escapade to infiltrate the traitors.” He punctuated each anguished tell me! with a shake of his son’s shoulders.

“I-you’re hurting me, Father,” said Tristan, trying to twist away from the king’s vicious grip.

Roland stared into his son’s eyes, then with a half-sob, half-snarl, thrust Tristan away from him. Tristan staggered back, and only Rafe’s steadying hand kept him from falling.

“Traitorous brat!” spat Roland. “I could wring your neck with my bare hands, and save us all the humiliation of your public execution! That would be a kindness to your mother.” Tristan scrambled back from the gleam in Roland’s eyes.

Rafe put the prince behind him. “Sire, please! He is young, foolish, he made a mistake…”

“You! What have you to do with all this?” Roland glared at Rafe. “Did you lead my son astray?”

Tristan, high-voiced and hysterical, spoke from behind Rafe’s shoulder. “He said not to tell you, he said that it was all right for me to experiment, he said that I could think as my conscience led me…”

An icy hand squeezed Rafe’s heart. For an instant, he was tempted to turn around and smack Tristan hard. Reading antimachinist tracts was one thing, scheming to sabotage public works and kill several citizens into the bargain was entirely another.

“I trusted you!” bellowed Roland. “I trusted you to keep my son straight, and all the while you’ve been feeding him poison…”

“Sire,” broke in Leonius, who had been at the fringes of this highly uncomfortable scene. He wheeled forward. “I’m sure Rafe would not have countenanced such a thing. Rafe understands that young men are curious about dissident opinions. He understands that to know one’s enemy’s position is a good thing. Tristan may have misunderstood how much leeway he could safely take, he must’ve started off as merely curious, only to be drawn in by subtle wiles and arts—possibly drugs were used. I beseech you to consider the folly of youth, Sire!”

Some of Rafe’s tension drained away. Tristan gave an audible sigh. Leonius was defending them, Leonius was a trusted counselor; the king would have to listen.

Roland’s gaze darted from Leonius to Tristan to Rafe, to back again. “I remember being a young man, Leo, and I remember the tricks we got up to. Nonetheless, the worst of our tricks was never on the same level as treason.” His tones were clipped. “We shall see if these two are as misguided and naïve as you paint them. Everything will have to come out at a trial. Even the prince is not above the king’s justice.”

“Of course, Sire. I have had men search their rooms for any evidence of their motives,” said Leonius. “I’m sure that we will find that this was all innocuous curiosity gone horribly wrong. No doubt the antimachinists misrepresented themselves to the prince.”

The rest of Leo’s speech was lost on Rafe. His attention was caught by a  guardsman entering and crossing the room to speak to Wil. The guardsman looked even grimmer than the rest of the men in the room. He held some papers in his hand as if they were rats, his tone and expression were urgent. His gaze kept drifting towards Rafe, and the expression in it was one of loathing.

Prickles went up and down Rafe’s spine. His sense of danger, honed keen in recent months, caused him to shift away from the prince, edge towards the doorway at his back. His hand slid into his pocket, and gripped his lighter.

Wil’s face resembled nothing so much as a stone mask, created by some uninspired sculptor and forever fixed in bland remoteness. He marched over to the King and Leonius. “Permission to speak, Sire.”

“Granted.” The King eyed him. “What have you discovered?”

Rafe noted more guards quietly filling the doorway. Rafe tucked his other hand into his pocket and teased out the firecracker’s cap.

“My men conducted a thorough search of Lord Rafael Grenfeld’s rooms.” Wil might’ve been an automation for all the expression in his voice. Would his face crack with the strain of moving his lips? “They found coded letters from the Blackstone ambassador, hidden under his mattress. We have long known the cipher, and the letters promise Grenfeld substantial moneys in return for secret information and for his help in fomenting internal troubles in Oakhaven.” Rafe’s heart fought against the bands squeezing it, fluttering and beating at his ribcage as if it would escape. “Specifically, his orders were to remove Prince Tristan somehow—making it look accidental.” All eyes in the room were on Rafe.

Episode Fifty Nine

Chapter Twenty Two, Part Three

Oakhaven

“Rafe, here,” whispered Tristan. He was huddled against the opposite wall.

“Idiot! Why didn’t you run?”

Tristan raised a finger to his lips. “I hear them, Rafe,” he said, in quiet despair. “They’re all around.” Whistles blew high and long. Yells came from inside the house. White light flashed in bursts from the windows.

“They have light bombs,” whispered Tristan. “And pepper ball rounds and grenades, too, I’ll wager.”

Rafe scanned the alley wall. “Here, I’ll help you up. It’s not too high.” He pulled up the shaken prince and boosted him up with little cooperation on Tristan’s part. Tristan wavered on the top for one long moment, then disappeared. A crash signaled his landing.

Rafe took a running start at the wall, using the momentum to clamber up and grip the top before he started to slip. He hung there for a few painful bone-and-tendon stretching moments, then hauled himself up and over.

His landing was only a little less noisy than Tristan’s. This was the scrap iron dealer’s back lot, suitably filled with sheets of rusty iron, knots of lead and copper piping, and coils of barbed wire.

A cranky, rusty voice called out. “Hie! Who’s out there?” The dealer rushed out, brandishing a crowbar in one hand and swinging a lantern in the other. “Guards, guards! People are escaping over the wall!”

Rafe and Tristan ran. They clambered the low wall that separated the dealer’s back space from his neighbor’s. Everyone used these lots for storage, and they had to maneuver around piles of junk and pull away from jagged corners that snagged and tore. Lights flared in their wake. More shouts joined the dealer’s as other shopkeepers, machinists and smiths took up the cries, bringing the watchmen ever closer. Whistles dogged them through back lot after back lot.

“Halt, in the King’s name!” Too close—the guard was too close. Rafe turned sharply and pushed Tristan behind a pile of scrap metal. They crouched.

“I’ll distract him,” murmured Rafe in Tristan’s ear. “You head down to the river, and swim away, if you have to. Just don’t let them see you.” He reached in his pocket for the handy flare.

A pop and a hiss came from behind them, as if someone had just uncorked a celebratory bottle of bubbly.

“Your eyes!” Rafe just managed to shield his face, but Tristan was not so lucky. He caught the full brunt of the light bomb, a white light that stabbed through the eyes and up the brain, and left jagged blazing cracks in one’s vision for moments after.

Tristan, gasping and clutching at his head, was in no condition to move. Rafe, eyes smarting, peeked from behind his arm, and worried one-handed at the flare.

“Hands out, where I can see them. Now!” The voice was authoritative, and recognizable. Rafe put his arm down and saw that they were surrounded. Lights came on all around the lot. He held out his hands in surrender.

The leader jumped down off a large box. He wore a close-fitting combat suit of shifting shadow colors, a helmet and a chest plate. Two pistols lay snug in holsters at his belt. The insignia on his helmet was that of a stylized machine.

One of the Guarda Royal. Wil.

“Come out where I can see you. Both of you.”

Rafe put his arm around Tristan’s trembling shoulders and complied.

Wil’s eyes narrowed in recognition behind his protective goggles. Rafe shrugged ruefully. Wil’s gaze jumped to Tristan and his eyebrows shot up. A long silence stretched, and the other guards shifted, changing grips on their rifles, sensing something amiss.

Wil juxtaposed his body between the bedraggled pair and the rest of his guard. “You, Swanson and Small, stay here. The rest of you spread out and see if we missed anyone.”

A ripple of surprise went from face to face, but the men were well-trained. They left and Wil turned to Rafe. “What the scorching hell are you two doing here?”

“Conducting our own investigations,” said Rafe, promptly, the lie in his head running just a few words ahead of his lips. “We, er, wanted to see if we could shed some light on this antimachinist business, and when we saw the raid, we thought we’d get a closer look.”

“A closer look? At a raid, with bullets and bombs going every which way?” Wil looked both amazed and exasperated. Rafe didn’t blame him. “That’s a feckless boy’s prank, Rafe! Not to mention that you put your young companion’s life in jeopardy.”

Rafe winced. It did make him look the fool, but if it kept Roland from finding out about Tristan’s role in the antimachinist movement, he’d take whatever punishment his superiors meted out to him.

“Here.” Wil pulled out a damp linen cloth from a pouch at his belt. An aroma of herbs filled the air. “Put that against your eyes. It will help with the light sickness.” Tristan was still having trouble controlling his limbs, so Rafe tied the linen around his head, covering his eyes. Tristan pulled his knees up to his chest and pressed his face into his kneecaps.

“Stay here, you two,” said Wil. “When we’re sure that there is no one around to identify you or pose any danger, we’ll come back to take you to the palace. You’ll have to explain yourselves to the king, and I suggest you’d better work at presenting your story in more reasonable terms. What a scorched mess, Rafe! I’d have never thought—” He broke off, shook his head. Then he called to Swanson and Small to keep guard, and left.

After a while, Tristan said in a small voice. “I’m sorry, Rafe.”

Rafe laid a hand briefly on his cousin’s head. “Yes, it’s a thrice-fouled and plagued mess you’re in, but we may yet get you out of it.” Even if Wil forevermore thinks I’m an irresponsible idiot who nearly got the heir to the throne killed. That, more than anything else, stung.

Wil returned with the all-clear, and Rafe cupped a hand under Tristan’s elbow and helped him up. Tristan tossed away his blindfold. Surrounded by palace guards, they were hurried through an empty shop—Rafe thought it was a chain worker’s, though it had been kept dark to make it harder to see the prince—and out into a side street, guarded at both ends. A double chair waited, with four bearers to carry it. A guardsman stood holding aloft a shaded magelight, cold green light puddling into the street.

“Get in, and quickly,” said Wil, slapping his thigh with his gloves in uncharacteristic nervousness.

A guardsman came down the alley, struggling with a smaller figure that writhed and tried to claw his face. “Found another one, Captain!”

“Take him away. Put him with the other prisoners,” called Wil. “Don’t come down here.”

The prisoner, with one last heroic effort, kicked at the inside of the guardsman’s leg. The man cried out, and his captive twisted out of his hold. Everyone moved at once, but they were too slow, as if they were moving through honey.

Mahali, tear-stained, angry and disheveled, burst into the small globe of light. “You brainwashed ass-licking lackeys! Have you no idea how you’re being used and manipulated and…” Her gaze fell on Tristan, and her mouth dropped open. Wil and Rafe both stepped forward to shield Tristan, but it was too late. Mahali had recognized him.

“You! Traitor! Tris! How could you? I-we trusted you!” Mahali looked dazed and shocked, suddenly small and vulnerable, undone by this as nothing else had managed to do. She barely noticed when a guardsman grabbed her shoulders.

Wil started. “Tristan? What’s all this about?”

Mahali burst out, “I don’t know what honeyed words he’s spoken, but he’s no better than us. No, he’s worse, a twice-turncoat! He betrayed you to us, and when the going was rough, he betrayed us to you.”

Tristan looked sick, greenish and swaying in the ghostly light. “It isn’t… isn’t…” Rafe grabbed him to keep from collapsing.

Wil looked as though he’d swallowed one of his own stinging gas rounds. “This is between you and your father, Tristan. Save your words and your breath. Take them both to the palace under a doubled escort.”

Tristan made a noise that was a moan, started to move. Rafe whispered fiercely in his ear, “Just do as he says.”

Mahali said, “Tristan… father… palace? You’re the Prince?” Her eyes widened. Then she started to laugh, wild hysterical laughter, gusts of it that slapped their faces and echoed in Rafe’s ears, long after the chair had whisked them from the side street where the heir to the crown had been unmasked as a traitor.