Our shorthand for referring to this bit of plot was “apathy bread,” for reasons you’ll see in a moment. It took place at the end of Chapter 17, after the confrontation with Sostira Novrus in the Charterhouse.
We originally wrote it because we felt we needed to show more of how the Illius Praeteri were having a negative effect on Nadežra, and we wanted to give the Rook and the Black Rose a chance to do a romantic little caper together, and we were also trying to give the reader a slight breather after the emotional intensity of the previous few chapters. Ultimately, though, it was too small and unimportant: it connected back to Vargo’s interactions with Arkady (investigating some kids going missing was her original request of him, in exchange for looking into who sold him out at the Talon and Trick), but it didn’t really go anywhere.
In the finished book, its place at the end of Chapter 17 is taken by the stingers arresting and questioning Grey, and the role of “Praeteri activity + Rook and Rose flirtation caper” was filled by the investigation of the sabotage at the prismatium workshop (the failure of the model numinat being added to set that up). Which gives you a sense of what the bar looks like for how much weight we want these subplots to pull: the replacement material greatly enhances the Ordo Apis storyline, the threat posed by the medallions, Grey’s imbalance with the Rook, the work on the river numinat, and more.
But we were sad to lose this, because Ren getting to see Grey be good with small children was, as Alyc put it, meant to “set her ovaries on fire.” (Even more tragically, we wrote another “Rook vs. small child” scene for Labyrinth’s Heart . . . then had to remove the Rook from that scene. Damn it!)
* * *
Floodwatch: Canilun 6
Ren didn’t often venture to the southern end of Nadežra. Floodwatch was essentially a separate village that had been swallowed up by the expansion of the city, and it had a different feel from the neighborhoods she knew: neither Upper Bank nor Lower, for all that it spanned both sides of the river.
Judging by the way the Rook’s hood turned to survey their surroundings as he approached, he didn’t come here much, either. “Interesting choice of meeting spot,” he said once he was within range. “I presume you have a reason.”
Looking at him was unspeakably strange. Even knowing who was wearing the hood, she couldn’t spot anything identifiable in either his face or his voice. Recognition came in the familiar way he settled himself next to her on a crate in the alley, close enough that their arms brushed.
Her memory unhelpfully offered up a vivid recollection of how they’d danced at the Traementis adoption ball. She pushed that down with an effort. No time for that now.
“Yes,” she said, “but before we get to that, I have rather a lot of things to tell you. And one question to ask.”
“I wish I had much to report. Beldipassi’s servants have all vanished, and Nillas Marpremi, the man who hired that actor, was found floating in the Pomcaro Canal. Someone’s making sure not to leave any loose ends I can tug on.” She felt as much as heard his sigh. “What about you?”
“First, the question. You know how well Tess keeps my secrets. Do you trust her with yours as well?”
After a moment’s contemplation, he shook his head. “I would, but… the Rook doesn’t. It’s hard to break the habit of centuries. We wouldn’t have told you if a medallion didn’t hang in the balance.”
Not even to save Grey’s life? That thought chilled her.
But she wasn’t surprised by his refusal. “Speaking of medallions . . .”
He listened intently as she relayed what Vargo had said to Alsius at the Charterhouse, knowing she would overhear. “Alsius is Ghiscolo’s brother,” Ren added. “His dead brother — and they believe Ghiscolo was behind the murder. Their goal is to bring him and the Illius Praeteri down.”
Ren wished she’d arranged this conversation without masks or hoods, so she could read his expression. She couldn’t tell what the Rook was thinking as he said, “How do you know all of this?”
She went to rub one hand over her face, but the Black Rose’s mask was in the way. “To make a long and awkward story shorter and hopefully less embarrassing, I told him who I am.”
The silence that followed stretched long past the point of comfort — but when he spoke, all he said was, “So you’ve reconciled.” Rising, he moved away from her, making a show of checking the street outside their alley.
With the help of more than one bottle. “We have. There’s no denying the things he’s done . . .” Not just to her. To Kolya. Ren swallowed hard and said, “But about his motives, I was wrong. He wants to make this city a better place. And I believe he has no medallion.”
“He doesn’t.” That came quietly enough that she almost didn’t hear it. The Rook’s shoulders eased slightly, and he turned to face her. “People who know how to access their full power can use them to influence people. I’m sure that’s what Ghiscolo did. It can’t make something from nothing; Vargo must want power already, for him to have responded so strongly. But anyone who has a medallion would be immune to that influence.”
She could believe Vargo wanted power. Can you imagine what this city might be if everybody just did their fucking job for once? It had been part of a drunken rant, halfway through their afternoon together. But there was a difference between wanting power for one’s own benefit, and wanting it for the sake of others.
Sometimes there was a difference, anyway. Kaius Rex’s poison tended to blur that line.
“I ask not that you trust him with your secrets,” she said. “Only that you trust me to be right about him. I laid his pattern, and now much more of it is clear. He can help us — you — do what the Rook was made for.”
“Fine.” The concession sounded like it came through gritted teeth. “But don’t tell him about the source of Ghiscolo’s power. I don’t want to have to compete against him for the medallions if he decides they sound useful.”
Ren laced her fingers together. “Understood. He might be of use in getting Tricat out of the dream, though. I can tell him I need it back without telling him the whole story. And make sure he isn’t the one who retrieves it.”
“I’m not opposed to making use of Eret Vargo.” The dark humor in his words said Grey wouldn’t be opposed to losing him in Ažerais’s Dream, either. Then his tone lightened. “But you didn’t need to call me to Floodwatch to discuss any of this.”
“True.” Ren hopped to her feet and shot him a cocky smile. “You once invited me to a caper. Tonight, it’s my turn. Would you like to help me do a favor for Arkady Bones?”
Timpaulo Canal, Floodwatch: Canilun 6
The Attravi Home for Indigent Orphans sat on the south side of the Timpaulo Canal. Cranes bolted onto a bridge lifted cargo from scows to the buildings on either side; guild workshops to the north belched soot and stank of urine and the various chemicals used for dying, leatherworking, smelting, and other professions. The workhouse opposite stank of rotting fish and boiled starch — an improvement only in comparison.
But even industry had to sleep sometime. At sixth earth, the only sound was the soft lapping of canal waters, and the only movement came from two shadows slipping over the bridge.
“The children’s dormitory is a loft above the east wing,” Ren said. Vargo had asked for her help toward the end of their drunken afternoon, since his own people had failed to make contact with Arkady’s missing knot-mates. Given the Rose’s popularity, he hoped she might have better luck.
But Ren knew from personal experience that the Rose was nothing to the Rook in the eyes of street children.
How much should she read into the flirtatious bow with which he offered her a boost up the wall? The Rook was like that; everyone knew it. Grey might be less floridly poetic than Ryvček, but his behavior was part of the role. They’d danced at the Traementis adoption ball . . . had it been wishful thinking, seeing her own desire reflected in him?
Focus. This high up, nobody bothered locking or barring windows. She slid one open and eased inside.
The children slept on thick hemp pallets, five to a bed with only thin sheets and each other to stay warm. As the Rook followed her in, Ren drifted down the aisle, wondering how to investigate without waking everyone up.
Then she spied a small form huddled in a corner, sunken eyes catching the scant moonlight.
When the child noticed Ren noticing them, they scrambled toward the ladder down from the loft. They might have made it, if the grubby sock-bunny they clutched hadn’t caught on an exposed nail. A soft ripping sound joined the snores of the sleeping children, followed by a choked sob as the child dithered between escape and abandoning their wounded bunny comrade.
Ren stuttered to a halt, hand outstretched, trying to find words more reassuring than don’t be afraid. In that kid’s place, she wouldn’t have found that reassuring at all.
Luckily, Grey — and surely it was Grey; how often did the Rook spend time with children? — moved before the child could choose flight. Sinking to his knees, he gently freed the ragged bunny from the nail impaling it. “And who is this brave fellow?”
“Ban-ban,” the child whispered, squatting and wrapping their arms around their knees. Ball-tight, they watched the Rook in wary fascination as he prodded the stuffing back in place.
“It’s nice to meet you, Ban-ban.” The Rook addressed the bunny with grave respect. “Who’s your friend?”
No response. Tugging the ragged edges of the wound closed, the Rook sighed. “Ah, if I knew their name, I could ask them for that bracelet of theirs to bandage you up.”
Bunny-quick, the child was up and kneeling at the Rook’s side, knot-bracelet held up like an offering to Quinat.
The boy shot Ren a wary glance as she knelt, but it softened as he took in the appearances of these two strange adults. “Are you . . . the Rook and the Rose?”
“We are,” Ren said as the Rook tied the knot bracelet around the torn bunny. “Can you help us, Tsapo? We’re friends of Arkady Bones, and she’s worried that kids aren’t happy here.”
He nodded so hard Ren half-feared he’d shake himself bald. He pointed to the nearest pallet, his whisper growing louder as excitement replaced fear. “Can you help Leplin? I keep telling ‘m to stop eating, but he en’t listening.”
“Stop eating what?” The Rook shot a glance at Ren. Vargo suspected Praeteri influence, but was it drugged food instead?
“The bread. I snitch mussels out of the bin instead. Safer.”
Ren turned at a sound behind her, and saw one of the kids had rolled over on their pallet. An older Vraszenian girl, whose braids hadn’t been tended in far too long — but instead of sitting up or crying out, she just lay there, staring at them with dull incuriosity.
“Go back to sleep,” Tsapo whispered, and the girl obediently closed her eyes. A chill ran down Ren’s back as Tsapo added, “They’re all like that. ‘Cept me.”
She stood. “Is the bread made here? Can you show us?”
Tsapo fretted a moment with Ban-Ban before stuffing it into his shirt. He vanished down the ladder’s hole; when they followed, he took the Rook by one hand and Ren by the other, tugging them toward the stairs. “They keep the extras in the kitchen bins. Anybody could sneak down and steal more, but they don’t. That’s how I knew it weren’t right.”
Ren could well believe that. Claiming any bit of food that wasn’t already in someone else’s mouth was how you survived on the street.
But so was leaving when you knew something was dangerous. “Why did you stay?”
“Leplin wouldn’t leave if it was me, so I en’t leaving him,” Tsapo said, and for a moment she saw herself in his face. And Tess. And Sedge.
“Nor will we,” she promised.
The ground floor kitchen was dark and deserted, but only for a moment. Light bloomed as Ren and the Rook uncovered their lightstones at the same time. In that glow, she saw a hint of a grin. With another bow, he covered his and gestured for her to lead the way.
The bin held over a dozen rolls going stale. Ren picked one up with a gloved hand and turned it over — and froze when she saw the shape stamped into the top of it.
A crude image, since it had been pressed into bread; the effect wouldn’t last for long. Feed it to the kids while it was fresh, though . . .
“What is it?” the Rook murmured. She tilted the roll and showed him: a Sessat numinat, with a blank little ball of hard dough as the focus.
All traces of flirtation fell away. “Caerulet?”
“Attravi mostly administers charters for Fintenus and Cleoter. But Chiozzan Attravi is a member of the Praeteri.”
It didn’t take much searching to find the stamp used on the bread. It came in two pieces, only active once assembled. “Where does the baker sleep?” the Rook asked.
That note in his voice was all too familiar. As Tsapo pointed at a door beyond the ovens, Ren put one hand on the Rook’s arm. She murmured, “The kids will take the punishment for anything we do.”
The muscles under her hand tensed. Not because he disagreed, though; when he spoke again, a different color threaded through his words, a grim weariness that surprised her. “You’re right. But how do we get them out without attracting notice? And where do we put them?”
Tsapo had taken Ban-Ban out and was examining the Rook’s bandaging job. Studying him, Ren said, “Arkady. Might take a few days, but if we told her what we’ve found –”
“You really do know Arkady?” Tsapo’s eyes were as wide as Corillis at full phase.
Chuckling, Ren said, “The biggest knot-boss in the Shambles? Arkady’s one of our strongest allies.” She tapped the bracelet around Ban-Ban’s middle. “I know you don’t want to leave Leplin, but can you go tell her what’s happening?”
Tsapo nodded. No need to go out the way they came in; Ren unbarred the outer door. When she glanced back, she saw the Rook pocketing half the stamp. “They’ll replace it,” he said, “but that will slow them down for a while.”
She lowered her voice so Tsapo wouldn’t hear. “And I can approach Fulvet. I don’t think he would have granted this charter if he understood what was going on.” Maybe the Black Rose could pay Scaperto another surprise visit. She wasn’t sure she wanted to approach him as Renata just yet — not when Sostira’s accusation had raised so many questions.
Finding a length of stained muslin, the Rook filled it with the remaining bread and tied it in a makeshift bag. “And I’ll approach Mede Attravi and see how complacent he feels when I make him choke on his sins.”