Labyrinth’s Heart – Prologue

This contains an indirect spoiler for The Mask of Mirrors and a faint trace of one for The Liar’s Knot. Read on if you wish!


The world held three kinds of fear. There was the kind too strong to fight; if you were smart you ran, hid until it passed you by. There was the kind you stood up and faced, because if you didn’t then you’d spend your whole life hiding.

And there was the kind you lived with. Because once it seeped into your bones, it never truly went away.

Grey knew he was supposed to enjoy the Festival of Veiled Waters. It was a time of celebration, from the Upper Bank to the Lower, when fog shrouded the city for a solid week, and everyone ran around in masks. There were singers and jugglers and plays about the fall of the Tyrant, and most people looked forward to it all winter.

But the week of unrelenting fog made him feel like someone might step out of it without warning, like he might vanish into it and never be seen again. His grandmother was Kiraly born and wed, but in Grey’s mind she was as crafty as a Varadi spider, her influence and power stretching out like a sticky, entangling web. “We’re safe,” Kolya always said, when Grey shared that thought. “Two years we’ve been here; if she and Dodač were coming after us, they’d have done it by now.”

Kolya didn’t understand how deep the fear ran. He did everything he could to ease it, though, treating every trouble his little brother brought to their door with patient kindness—as when he returned to their Kingfisher lodging house on the first day of Veiled Waters and found Grey spattered with walnut dye, more of it seemingly on his hands than in Leato’s once-golden hair. “When Eret Traementis sees you—” he groaned.

“It’s a disguise!” Grey said, sticking his guilty hands behind his back. “So Leato can with us go around the Lower Bank.”

“I want to see the performing monkeys,” Leato said. “And the peddlers and the puppet shows and drink spiced chocolate and—”

Grey and Kolya couldn’t afford half those things. Although House Traementis had given Kolya steady work, that only covered their lodgings and other necessities, not extravagances. The lift of Kolya’s brow asked, Is it Leato you invited, or his purse?

The tiny shake of Grey’s head answered that question. His friend might be a wealthy Liganti altan—not that he looked very rich or noble, with walnut dye staining head, hands, and half his borrowed clothes—but Grey wasn’t hoping to sail a river of gold tonight.

He wanted someone with him, to chase away the fear brought by the fog. And he didn’t want Kolya to carry that burden all night.

And Kolya nodded. Because even if he didn’t understand, he never questioned. He just protected Grey, against any threat that might come.

With Leato at his side in a spare panel coat and paper mask, Grey could relax and enjoy the flash of bright clothes sweeping through swirls of mysterious fog, the real world seeming like a dream even in the off years when Ažerais’s Wellspring slumbered. Leato wanted to try everything. They feasted on toasted foxnuts, fried honey cakes, roasted crickets that crunched like embers and burned like fire. They shared a cup of spiced chocolate while watching a juggler catch and throw torches that burned away wisps of fog. That polished off, Grey dragged Leato into a Vraszenian dance, all stamps and claps, jostling shoulders and friendly mockery.

“Ugh, we’ve lost Kolya,” Grey said once the dance shook them loose and they sat on the fringes, drinking great gulps of air and sweetened citron water. His brother leaned against a nearby barrel of millet beer, talking to an upriver girl. “Yesterday he met that one—Alinya, Gulinka, something like that—and an hour I had to stand there, listening to them flirt. Badly.”

“Could be entertaining,” Leato mused, laughing when Grey slumped as though he’d been run through by that betrayal. “But that’s a show we can watch any day. Let’s go get our patterns read.”


Grey didn’t even realize how cold and sharp it came out until Leato recoiled. With effort, he eased his voice. “At festivals like this, most likely they are frauds. Better ways there are to spend your money.”

He could see Leato wanting to ask but swallowing it down. “Then what now?”

The bells rang third earth. Grey grimaced and said, “I would not have you in trouble with your family.”

Leato tugged at his dyed hair. “I’ll get a smack from Father no matter what time I get home. Might as well have all the fun I can first.”

He said it so casually, as if a smack were nothing to fear. Pushing back his envy, Grey said, “Coster’s Walk. You will like this, I think.”

The embankment itself was full of slumming cuffs, but a troupe of Stretsko performed sword dances in Horizon Plaza every hour. To get there in time, Grey took back ways, dragging Leato through narrow alleys and across half-hidden bridges.

He went too fast, and the fog was too thick. Near the plaza, someone staggered backward out of an ostretta, directly into him.

“Watch it!” the other snarled, shoving Grey back. The light spilling from inside shone on an older Liganti boy, still in the gawky phase of growth, with straw-colored hair impeccably groomed behind his starred mask.

The boy’s gaze flicked over Grey’s panel coat and dark hair, and his lip bent in a sneer. “Oh, look. I stepped on a gnat.”

Bow and apologize, Kolya always said. It isn’t worth the fight. But it stuck in Grey’s craw, when these cheese-eaters came to his side of the river. “Into me you ran,” he said coldly. “On the Upper Bank are there no manners, that you apologize not?”

“What was that?” The boy cupped one hand to his ear, as two others followed him out of the ostretta. “All I heard was some buzzing.”

Three of them together tipped the odds straight over to bad. When Grey tried to slip past, though, the boy shoved him back. “Where do you think you’re going? Kneel and apologize.”

Grey’s heart drummed faster. He should have known better than to enjoy Veiled Waters. His grandmother wasn’t the only threat hiding in the fog. And his brother—older, bigger—wasn’t there.

“If anyone apologizes, it should be you.” Leato stepped up to Grey’s side, sounding every bit like the cuff he was.

The other boy only laughed. “A second one! Gnats always come in swarms. Shall we swat them?”

Pulling off his mask, Leato said, “Mezzan Indestor. It’s me, Leato Traementis.”

Grey’s blood congealed in his veins. He knew that name. House Indestor held the Cinquerat’s military seat: the foot inside the boot that kicked Vraszenians to the ground.

The flicker of surprise said Mezzan recognized Leato. But all too soon, the boy’s sneer returned. “Dirty hair, dirty skin—no, you look like just another gnat. Don’t you know it’s illegal to impersonate nobility? I could take you to the Aerie right now. Wouldn’t even have to bother Eret Traementis with this crime against his name.” He grinned at his friends. “Assuming old Gianco could be dragged from the gambling tables long enough to care.”

Grey recognized Leato’s flinch all too well, the hurt of a bruise that never went away. Seeing it in his friend balled his hands into fists. “Leave him alone!”

Mezzan ignored him. Clamping one hand on Leato’s shoulder in a gesture that looked friendly but bent Leato with pain, he said, “You should be more careful, Traementis. Don’t want to court disease, keeping vermin around—your family’s had enough bad luck already.”

Bad luck. Words Grey had heard over and over again, for as long as he could remember, until they stuck like a splinter under scarred skin. The fear that his grandmother was right: that he was a curse, that he brought ill luck to everyone around him.

Snarling, Grey charged head-first into Mezzan’s stomach, ramming him against the wall. Leato tried to follow, but one of the other boys got him in a lock, pinning his arms. The third grabbed Grey—or tried to. Grey was weedy and fast and he didn’t care if it hurt when he squirmed free, not if it meant he could plant his muddy shoe in Mezzan’s pearls.

The third boy cursed. And unlike the others, he wore a sword.

Run, a voice in Grey’s head said: Kolya, or his common sense. They sounded a lot alike.

But that would leave Leato at their mercy. Leato, who had stepped up to defend him like a brother.

As Mezzan curled on the ground, hands cupping his crotch, the third boy drew his blade and lunged. Grey retreated, skidding on the muddy cobblestones. Then again. But there was no room to keep withdrawing; he hit a stack of crates, rattling with empty bottles. Grinning, the boy circled his point in the air. “I think I’ll carve a piece off you, to teach you a lesson.”

Grey shucked out of his panel coat while the other boy was talking. When the lunge came, he whirled the cloth like a Ghusai veil-dancer to snag the sword.

It took the boy by surprise, yanking the weapon free of his grip. As it clattered to the ground, Grey thought, grab it—but this was Nadežra. Here, the likes of him wasn’t allowed a sword.

No laws against kicking it away, though. But before he could, a loop of rope fell, caught the boy around the middle, and hoisted him into the air.

Like a counterweight on a crane, a mass of fluttering black dropped into the street. Silver flashed, followed by two sharp smacks and two cries of pain. Leato stumbled free of his captor—then fell on his ass when he saw his rescuer. “Oh shit,” he whispered.

Leaping forward, Grey planted himself in front of his friend, glaring up a length of steel into shadows without a face.

The Rook.

He felt none of the awe he’d heard in the voices of other kids on the street. Until he came to Nadežra, Grey hadn’t even heard of the Rook. The outlaw wasn’t a campfire tale, not like Constant Ivan and Clever Natalya.

But one thing he’d learned in the last two years: the Rook hated the nobility.

“Leave him alone,” Grey said, flapping a hand behind his back. A futile gesture; Leato wouldn’t run any more than Grey had.

“What do you think I’d do to him, little gutter cat? I came fishing for carp, not guppies.” Stepping back, the Rook used the flat of his blade to herd the three larger boys into a clump. “The worst I might do is toss him into the river to grow some more. They don’t all turn out poisoned.” The glance the Rook gave Leato made Grey shiver.

Leato scrambled to his feet. “If you must do something to me, so be it. But let my friend go first.”

“Such a pair you make,” the Rook mused, eyeing them. “Almost a matched set—mismatched as you are.”

“Better with a mismatched friend to stand than alone.” Grey waited, tense and ready. Some fears you ran from, and some you faced. The Rook didn’t scare him half so much as his grandmother, or his own cursed fate.

A smile glimmered inside that depthless hood. “You’ve got courage…but a lamentable lack of skill. With a proper teacher, you might do well.”

Leato made a sudden, thoughtful noise. When Grey risked a glance, Leato whispered, “My teacher could train you. There’s nobody better than Oksana Ryvček.”

The Rook’s barked laugh startled them both. “You, young Traementis, should watch what promises you make for other people. Now off with you both, before more trouble finds you.”

With a flick of his blade, the Rook tossed Grey’s panel coat back to him, only a little sliced by the Liganti boy’s sword. Slinging a brotherly arm over his shoulders, Leato pulled him toward the light and sound of the plaza. In an awed whisper, he said, “What a night! I can’t believe I survived the Rook!”

“Nor I,” Grey said absently. His attention was all directed behind, at a figure shrouded in mystery, dragging three noble bullies to justice.