Bright Smoke, Cold Fire (Bright Smoke, Cold Fire #1)

A friend of yours?” Justiran’s voice was detached and clipped.

“No,” said Romeo. “But I’ve seen his heart. He’s a good person.”

“Do you know he put a compulsion on you?”

He forced me to, thought Paris, but he couldn’t get the words out.

“Yes,” said Romeo, “but . . .” His voice grew soft and wondering. “He loved Juliet. I’m sure of it.”

Romeo was an idiot. Romeo thought nothing mattered besides who had what kind of pretty feelings about Juliet, and he was going to get them both killed by a necromancer.

And I loved her. Because of that moment, I will always love her.”

He said the words as simply as if he were describing the sun going up and coming down.

“No matter that I live and she is dead,” Romeo went on earnestly. “It is nothing to me. Were she a revenant and ripping the flesh from my bones, I would love her still, and still I would try—”

“Stop it,” said Paris, and then quickly added, “if you want. But I really don’t care about your beautiful feelings.

But they were worth worrying over. Paris didn’t know what sort of irresponsible butterfly soul Romeo might have, that he could just forget his family didn’t want him, but Paris wasn’t—couldn’t—did not have it in him to ignore and despise the family that birthed him.

“I could write a poem for you,” said Romeo. “To make it clear.”

“That wouldn’t help,” Paris said stiffly, wondering how this conversation had gotten out of control.

“A poem of comfort.”

“No.” Paris desperately wished that he had gotten stuck in this situation with somebody who was . . . anyone but Romeo.

Down and deeper, lost into silence,

Beneath the light, beyond the sun—

Alone, O my beloved, where have you gone?

Do you know the history of Viyara?” she asked.

“Blood, blood, blood, and more blood,” said Juliet promptly. “With a little evisceration.”

Runajo snorted. “Do you know about the Ancients?”

“They were very much the same, weren’t they?” said Juliet. “As far as blood goes.

For a while they sat in silence together. Then Juliet said quietly, “Romeo would love this place.”

Runajo thought of Romeo: sweet, enthusiastic, not terribly bright. (Dead.)

“Why?” she asked. “There aren’t any pretty things for him to babble over.”

Juliet gave her a disgruntled look. “Words,” she said. “He loved words.

He was being played with. He was being shown his place. He was being publicly humiliated, but Paris was used to that, and he wasn’t going to stop for anything except death or maiming.

Sooner or later, Vai was going to realize that, and then he would have to make a choice.

I have an idea for that, actually. You two can be the guests, and bring me along as your sacrifice. That way I’ll be in a position to help free the other sacrifices when we make our escape.”

Paris had thought he was used to the horrifying idiocy that came out of Romeo’s mouth, but apparently he was still able to be shocked.

“No,” he said, “that is absolutely—”

Then he realized that Vai was looking at Romeo with a terrifying smile.

“I think I can work with that,” said Vai.

It’s enough,” said Xu. “I’ll call in all my favors.”

“I’ll call in all my favors,” said Vai.

“Tell your favors to stay away from my favors,” said Xu, “or there may be a few more arrests than you want from the evening.”

“Don’t worry,” said Vai. “My people can handle themselves.

Just walking,” he said quickly. “I know it looks odd, but we didn’t come to the Lower City for trouble.”

“We came here for love,” Romeo said earnestly.

“Love,” the subcaptain echoed, sounding faintly amused.

It was like the time when Paris was a child, and he’d accidentally knocked over a pile of expensive dishes waiting for the servants to clean them. The pile had tottered for several moments, but Paris hadn’t been able to grab and steady them, or even flee before the crash gave him away. He’d been too entranced by the oncoming disaster.

It was like that now. Paris knew this was going to end badly, but he couldn’t seem to get his mouth working, and meanwhile Romeo was rambling enthusiastically.

“Yes!” he said. “It’s my friend here—he fell in love with a girl who worked in his family’s kitchen, and she loved him in return, but when his father found out he was furious and had her cast out into the Lower City, and then he lied and forged letters and tried to make him believe she had renounced him. But my friend loved her too dearly and trusted her too deeply, and he discovered the truth, and so we’ve come to find her!”

Paris found that his panic was turning into a peculiar sort of calm. They were doomed. If he was lucky, he would be executed along with Romeo. If not, he would be handed back to Lord Catresou.

“And you, a Mahyanai, are helping him?” asked the subcaptain.

“Because I love her as well,” Romeo said earnestly, “and I will see her happy though it breaks my heart in two. Lovely, kind Maretta with eyes like the summer sky at twilight. Have you seen her?”

“No,” said the subcaptain, “but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone so bad at lying, either.”

Romeo looked uncommonly like a bird fluffing itself up for a mating display. “My love is as true as the stars are bright,” he said with terrifying intensity. “So is his.”

The subcaptain’s mouth quirked. “Tiny and flickering and easily clouded over?”

She doesn’t believe you, said Paris silently, so can you stop humiliating us?

There is no shame in love! It shouldn’t have been possible to shout silently, but Romeo managed it.

Lady, may I see your face?”

“I am Catresou,” she says. “I am the most sacred of all the Catresou, even more than my father.”

“Yes,” he says.

“Then why do you even dare to ask?”

“I am going to live and die for you,” he tells her. “I would like to know your face.”

“You will certainly die, at any rate.”

“And for the past three hours I have lived, so my prophecy is true already.”

She does laugh then; and with a twist of fear in her stomach, she realizes that she is going to say yes.

“You cannot tell anyone,” she says.

“How could I dare to boast of it,” he says, “when you have seen my face as well?

Paris?” she said hazily, and that was when Paris whirled to face the wall again, because she was barely clothed, and now that she wasn’t on the verge of dying, that was a lot more embarrassing. And improper. And kind of attractive, which he was really trying not to think about right now.

Please tell me you did something good.”

“No,” Romeo said bleakly. “I did something terrible.”

Wait, Paris said silently. You can’t tell him about that.

Don’t we have to? said Romeo.

We don’t know anything about him! How do we know he won’t sell us out to the City Guard?

He leads a gang, said Romeo. He’s probably not on speaking terms with the Guard. And do we have a choice?

“Does it have anything to do with the marks you have on your hands, which look strangely similar to the marks worn by the Juliet and her Guardian, and the way you stare at each other silently like you’re talking mind to mind?” Vai asked innocently.

Run home and don’t come back. You aren’t going to survive around here.”

Paris felt his spine straighten. “I’m not dead yet,” he said.

“Because I helped you,” said the boy. “But I’m not planning to follow you around the city. And I’d rather not trip over your dead body.”

“Who are you?” Paris demanded.

The boy grinned, all white teeth and sudden glee. “Didn’t you hear? I’m the King of Cats.”

“Stop being so mysterious, Vai,” one of his own men called over his shoulder.

“Also known as Vai the Bloody, Vai the Terrible, Vai the Bloody Terrible, and more importantly, Vai dalr-Ahodin, captain of the Rooks.”

“And King of Cats,” said Paris, who still had no idea what that meant

She had always known she could sacrifice anything. That was still true. But Runajo had excelled in the sacred mathematics. She knew how much blood was in Juliet’s body; she knew the different ways of shedding it, and exactly how much power that would give the city. She could put a price on her life.

Inkaad. Cost and price. The Sisters said that was the heart of the world. That Juliet, in her essence, was no more than blood and breath and bone, and the power to be gained therefrom.

But Juliet had hungered after justice, something infinite and eternal, and that meant she had thought of it. To think of something was to hold it in your mind, and to hold something infinite, you must be in some way infinite yourself.

And that meant there was no appropriate price. To treat Juliet as something bought and sold and bargained for—

That was wrong. That was obscene.

She could not kill this girl who had infinity behind her eyes, and that meant she could not kill anyone, because the capacity to comprehend the infinite lay in all people.

And that meant Viyara and the Sisterhood were built on a lie.

Runajo had lived and been prepared to kill for a lie.

Sounds impossible. I like it. Except it is pretty impossible. You don’t happen to remember anything else extremely useful that you’ve omitted to mention until now?”

“Er,” said Paris.

“That was actually a joke,” said Vai.

“I’m not good at jokes,” said Paris.

So you give up your life and your death for them?” she said. “I thought you believed in justice.”

“I give them up so I may protect.” Juliet’s mouth twitched up. “I thought you believed in prices.”

“I believe you’re stupid,” Runajo said, “if you can for one moment reverence something that treats you so unjustly.”

Juliet snorted. “The Paths of Light are not a person. They did not decide to cast me out.” Then she looked Runajo in the eyes. “Confess to me and tell no lies. If there were such beauty—you don’t have to believe in it, but if there were—you’d not despise it, would you, though you could never touch it?”

“I could never accept,” said Runajo, “that there was such injustice at the heart of the world.”

“Yes, you do,” said Juliet. “You still agree with your sages, don’t you, that your soul goes out like a candle when you die? You love that beauty you glimpsed as a child, though you don’t believe it will save you.”

“That’s different,” said Runajo. “That was . . . that is just the way of things.”

“It is the way of things that I cannot walk the Paths of Light,” said Juliet, “and yet I count myself more blessed than you, because at least I know they exist.”

I count myself blessed that my family never tried to destroy me, thought Runajo, but she didn’t say anything. She could feel Juliet’s belief, passionate and overflowing, and she couldn’t entirely want that to go away. It seemed to be her only consolation, and soon she would be dead

Stop thinking of her,” Paris snarled, grabbing Romeo’s shoulder and wrenching him back around.

Romeo flinched, his eyes going very wide, and cold horror clutched at Paris. He had ordered Romeo how to think. If it broke his mind—

Then Romeo huffed out a laugh and said, “I can’t. I can’t stop thinking of her.” He smiled. “Your magic isn’t strong enough for that.”

“You have no right,” Paris muttered, relieved and ashamed at once.

He felt Romeo’s flicker of anger at the same moment he saw his mouth tighten.

“She was my wife,” Romeo snapped, and remembered something that Paris had never, ever wanted to see.

The next thing Paris knew, he was three paces away from Romeo, his face burning, palms pressing into his temples. He stared at the cobblestones, trying to imagine them lining his head.

Romeo must have realized what had happened, because he sounded rather strangled when he said, “How—how do we stop it?”

Paris took a slow, deep breath and didn’t meet his eyes. “Imagine a wall,” he said. “Between us.”

There was a short, awkward silence as they both tried. Paris didn’t feel any more overflowing thoughts from Romeo, but that might just be because his own wall was so solidly built. He never wanted to feel any of Romeo’s thoughts again.

He never wanted to look at Romeo again, but he didn’t really have a choice about that. So he raised his head.

That’s a cold-blooded way to view the world,” said Runajo.

“And the way of the Sisters isn’t?”

“Blood is hot when you spill it,” said Runajo, and Juliet laughed suddenly, her head tilting back.

The guard was named Subcaptain Xu, and when Vai brought her into Justiran’s house, Paris couldn’t help flinching, because she was the guard who had questioned him and Romeo after they chased the revenant through the streets.

She raised an eyebrow. “Vai, why am I not surprised that he was involved with you?”

“He might not have been, when you met him,” Vai said cheerfully.

“Why am I not surprised that he ended up involved with you?

The moon is alone, and so am I;

My sleeves are wet with tears.

The morning wore on. And then the afternoon, and so far the only real danger had been from boredom. Romeo must have been feeling the same, because he started reciting poetry to himself—not out loud, but saying it in his head, and Paris couldn’t help hearing it.

Pale flowers like snow have covered the ground, said Romeo in Mahyanai, and waited.

It was a very pointed silence. He didn’t need a word or a look to let Paris know that he was waiting for a response.

You know what comes next, said Romeo.

No, I don’t, said Paris.

Except he did. He could hear the next line in the back of his mind: The year has turned to spring, but the ground is still cold. If he just opened his mouth, the words would flow out in perfect, unaccented Mahyanai.

Yes, you do, said Romeo, sounding gleeful. Because even though Paris had trained for years, somehow Romeo was able to slip past his walls and speak in his head.

Is there a point to this? Paris demanded.

To pass the time, said Romeo. Do you Catresou never play at turning phrases?

I have no idea what that means, said Paris, craning his neck to examine a new clump of people forcing their way into the marketplace.

It’s a game. One of us says a line from a poem, the other says the next. Back and forth.

Sounds like a game for girls, said Paris.

Juliet liked it, Romeo said agreeably.

Juliet liked you, said Paris. I don’t

We don’t believe in nothing,” Runajo said mildly. “We have our own sages. I suppose they would say it’s monyai. It means both ‘dust’ and ‘river.’” She paused, trying to think how to explain it to someone who had not grown up with the words of the sages, or the hundred and eight poems they had saved from the Ruining.

“The Sisters of Thorn will tell you that all things move by the blood of the gods. This is false.” Runajo’s voice was soft, yet it echoed among the shelves and the scrolls. “The sages of our people tell a different story. They say that everything in all the world is made of particles like motes of dust. They spin and cling and part, and we are formed of their patterns.”

Runajo’s throat tightened. She remembered her mother telling her this long ago, before any illness had touched their family. Before she had known what it meant for things to vanish forever.

She drew a breath and went on. “Like a river, the particles are ever-moving, ever-changing; we are the ripples in the river, that vanish in a moment and never return. But while we are here, we are like dust motes caught in the afternoon sunlight, dazzling before we fall into the darkness.

We have to go back,” he said. “We have to tell them what happened...”

“This room is the last place that saw Juliet,” Romeo said stubbornly. “I will lie here until I die.”

“This is the sepulcher,” said Paris. “Do you think the magi will clean around you while you wait to die of thirst? Get up.

What is this?” demanded the High Priestess from the doorway.

So here she was, back in the Hall of Judgment, facing a circle of priestesses.

Again? said Juliet. You do not have the wisest habits.

At least I haven’t died yet, said Runajo.

What they want, of course, isn't what you can give them. What you're selling is the hope you can.

Who’s the boy who thinks he can mess with my men?” he demanded.

“Nobody,” said the boy. “Just the King of Cats.”

The words made the gang draw up short; obviously the title meant something to them, though Paris had never heard it before.

“It’s a very simple situation,” the boy went on. “You can join the Rooks and follow my orders without question. Or you can immediately decide that your territory starts east of here. Screaming as you run is optional.”

Paris suspected that it would be a good time for him to scream and run, but the situation had a sort of awful fascination. The boy was definitely, absolutely mad, and they were both going to be pounded to death, and he couldn’t look away.

“Or you can fight me over it,” said the boy. “Care to wager your gang on a duel?”

The leader hesitated a moment; then he sneered, “So long as you fight fair.”

“Nobody gets anything but what he earns from me

With every line he teaches her, the world grows a little wider. She had never known before how words could sing,how a turn of phrase could unlock a window in her mind.

You dance very well,” she tells him. “But you are my enemy.”

“Lady,” he says, “I am only a poor pilgrim, like those who once walked to this city barefoot and bleeding from the ends of the earth to fulfill their vows.”

She can’t stop the smile from tugging at her mouth. “Your people have always despised the gods, and mine despised Viyara. That is a very poor argument for me to let you live.”

“If you hate the pilgrims who vowed themselves to Viyara,” he says earnestly, “then corrupt me from my purpose, and make me yours.”

“You,” she tells him, “are utterly a fool. You know who I am. Why did you come?”

“Because,” he says, “I know who you are.

“Better than my father, who gave me this sword?”

“Yes,” he says.

The truth is, she feels that she knows him too, and when she looks at him, she feels as if she has a true name.

“Tell me what you know of me,” she says, “that my own father doesn’t.”

He grins, for all the world as if there were not a sword at his neck. “I know you will not instantly strike down an enemy at your window.”

“You did not say, ‘will not eventually,’” she says.

“That part,” he admits, “I have yet to discover.”

And what sort of traitor is she, that she nearly laughs with him so easily? But she pushes away the impulse

You’re right,” Romeo went on, looking at Paris. “I did defile her, the moment I came to her with blood on my hands. I swear to you, I asked her to kill me then, but she was too kind. And now she is destroyed.”

There were tears sliding down his face. Right there at the table, in front of both Paris and Justiran, he was crying like a child.

“I shouldn’t have light in my eyes, I shouldn’t have breath in my mouth. But you’re her kin. You can set it right.”

Paris wanted to flee, or at least cover his face in embarrassment. He had never seen anything like this outburst, and he would have thought it was a bid for pity except that he could feel raw grief rolling off Romeo in waves, and he knew that Romeo sincerely meant every desperate word.

It was so strong, he could hardly think. With a last, violent effort, Paris managed to slam the wall back between them. Then he looked at Romeo and said the very first thing that came into his head.

“You are completely useless. Who cares about your broken heart? We need a plan to bring Lord Catresou to justice.”

Romeo stared at him, as if he couldn’t believe that anyone would still have a grasp of what was important.