conspiracy

City of Whispers - Chapter 2

By all measures, Myron Wreath has proven to be a moderate and even-tempered man. Aware of his powers' bounds, he has rarely, if ever, strayed into dangerous waters. In his twenty-two year reign, he has done much to preserve the traditions and state of the nation, and despite his efforts having a negligent effect on decreasing belief in the Eidola, he has done well in improving the commercial state of Oedija…

I find that few, if any, are opposed to his continued reign for many years to come.

- A Modern Account of the Wreaths; by Acadian Helene, Master Historian; 1170 SLP

In the turns after the shell horns blew, I flitted through the streets, dredging up every contact I knew. Some of the lights from the festival still glowed, but many had been extinguished. People had fled to their homes, waiting to see what would come in the wake of the Despot's death. 

I could not have slept had I tried. I didn't know what was behind Myron's death, or what it meant. But this represented change, more change than Oedija had seen in a century, and I needed to follow the threads.

Most of my contacts were missing, but a few were still around. I squeezed them for information, shelling out copper cullets and nickel magnes for whispers, and clung to their every word.

All agreed that the Despot had died within the Laurel Palace itself. His manner of death, however, was disputed. Some speculated it had been assassination. Others suspected a natural death. Considering I had seen Myron Wreath alive and well earlier that evening, I guessed the former more likely. 

But who would want the Despot dead? The Despot had been well-liked and inoffensive. He'd been seen as strong, but had done little to provoke either a foreign power or the true rulers of Oedija. The Conclave had always seemed content with ruling from the Laurel Palace's shadow.

But maybe the reasons were more personal than that. Myron's daughter, Asileia Wreath, had just returned from her governance of the Peninsula, the most northern lands within Oedijan territory. And from the whispers I heard that night, her rule had been exactly as Xaron expected: autocratic and brutal. She was said to have founded her own sect of the Eidolan religion centered around herself, and to execute oracles who had not acknowledged her supremacy. Had it become so embarrassing for the Conclave that they recalled her? Or had Myron done so himself? Either way, Asileia did not lack for ambition, nor the will to achieve what she desired. Perhaps, if she truly wanted the Evergreen Wreath, she would not blanch at murdering her own father.

Of foreign insurgency, Avvad was the most likely suspect. The Avvadin Imperium, led by a priest-king known as the Kahin-Shah, was ever in a state of war and expansion. Their focus had been on their southern neighbors for the last several decades, but it was only a matter of time before they turned their attention northward. Whispers told of increased activity around the Valemish temples, the seed of Avvad's religion in Oedija, which had grown to include nearly a fourth of the population. It might not mean anything; adherents might be particularly inclined to seek comfort during trying times. But why now, after all these years, would they strike? Perhaps they, too, suffered the drought, and needed war to distract and cull the hungry and desperate.

Gray twilight edged into the sky by the time I let off my search. Though I needed rest, I only stopped in order to reconvene with Xaron and Nomusa, who I assumed had left to dredge up whispers of their own. I'd bolted from Canopy without waiting for them, fire already coursing through my veins. I hoped that between the three of us, we could find a clear path forward.

Weary as my body was, my mind still turned. Inside me burned a thrill that I had not felt in a long time, reminding me why I'd first become a Finch.

I slowly ascended the eleven circles of our derelict tower to Canopy. Reaching the door, I turned the handle. It was unlocked. Hesitating, I cracked it open and peered inside. A single pyr lamp lit the shadowed room. It was just enough to detect the silhouette sitting in a chair, a goblet held in its hand. Only when I saw the gleam of the figure's golden hair did I let out my breath.

Entering, I latched the door behind me and crossed the room. "Linos. What are you doing here? And don't tell me you've tapped our festival wine."

The boy glanced up from the chair with a grin, then took another drink from his goblet. "Nomusa let me in and told me to make myself comfortable, so blame her. What, you think this is my first taste? Please, Sasa. You're not Pata. You know what I am."

"A scoundrel? I've known that since you were born." I held out my hand. "Give it here. You'll do whatever you please on the streets, but here, you don't drink."

My younger brother slowly gave over the goblet, his sneering smile telling me what he thought of my rules. As I took it, I glimpsed his hand in the pyr light. His knuckles were red and scraped. I quickly turned away and set down the goblet. My hand had begun shaking so that I thought it would spill.

When I had control of myself again, I turned back. Studying his face closer, I saw purple bruises beginning to form along his jaw. 

"You've been fighting again."

His smile slipped away. "Someone was ruining our festival fun. I took care of it."

"And what about when someone takes care of you?"

Linos snorted and turned to the bay window. "That won't happen."

I looked him up and down. His clothes were dirty and torn. It might have been excused when he was eight-years-old, but at fifteen, he should have been past this.

"Why did you come here, Linos? You should go home, clean up, put on a change of clothes. You reek, you know that?"

"And let Mother harp on me? I'd rather not. Besides, can't I visit my sister?"

"I don't like seeing you like this. You know that."

"Why? Because you think you can protect me?" His eyes were bright with drink. "You should know better by now. I don't need anyone's protection."

I didn't try arguing. Quarreling with Linos had never worked. "At least eat something. Knowing you, you've had nothing but wine all day."

"You're getting as sour as Mother. I didn't come here for a free meal, Sasa. I came on business. Or don't you want to know about the smuggler's markets?"

"I'm done with smugglers for the moment. Something else has my attention."

Linos raised an eyebrow. "And what's that?"

I hesitated. The last thing I wanted was not to trust my brother. He was the only member of my family whom I saw on a regular basis, and we even worked together on occasion, though I cringed at how he learned his information. But he was neither wise nor reliable. If there was someone behind the Despot's disappearance and they caught wind of my hunt, it could put the whole venture at risk. 

I found myself speaking regardless. "I'm trying to figure out what happened to Myron Wreath last night."

He stared at me for a moment, then a slow grin spread across his face. "You can't be serious."

I gave him a flat stare. "As serious as ever."

His smile faltered. "Sasa, this is crazy even for you."

"How? I'm a Finch. Parsing fact from rumor is what I do best."

"But not something like this. This is way beyond you."

I felt my temper rising. "You think I should abandon it."

"Of course!"

Something in his voice cooled my anger. There was real concern there, as well as something else. I searched my younger brother's face. What could possibly cause him to worry? I didn't know he was capable of it.

As quickly as it had come, it was gone. Linos rose with a smile, not meeting my eyes. "If you want to waste your time, far be it from me to stop you. Just let me know if you want to hear about the Valemish arks — I hear the contraband inside them is fascinating."

"Don't get in any more fights," I said to his back.

He flashed me one last smile over his shoulder, then slipped out of the door.

Locking it behind him, I walked to the bay window and stared out over the palely lit cityscape. Did Linos know something that I didn't? I wondered if I should have pressed him for it. But pressure rarely worked with Linos; that he preferred living on the streets like a vagabond to living under Mother's rules was evidence of that. If he wanted me to know something, he'd tell me in his own time. More likely, it was his boyish arrogance at play.

I turned away from the window and entered my bedchamber, hoping for sleep that I doubted would come.

* * *

I dreamed briefly. Colors shifted within a fog like light refracting through glass, an effect I'd often seen in Maesos's shop. From that fog came a face, reptilian and malevolent. I looked up, and instead of sky above me, the ground reflected back to me like I stared at a mirror.

When I awoke, sunlight streamed in through the open ceiling. Groggy, I remembered the night's dream for a moment before all that had happened the night before returned to me. Despot Myron was dead.

I sat bolt upright, heart pounding. From the noises outside my room, Nomusa and Xaron were up and about. Despite the late hour of the morning, evident from the bright sunlight on the ceiling, they were still here. Perhaps they'd been waiting to confer with me before they made a day of it. 

Rising, I entered the main living space. Xaron had his feet kicked up on the back of our well-loved divan, idly playing with wisps of radiance between his fingers, weaving them in and out of each other and cursing when he messed up the pattern. When we were alone, he didn't bother to hide his greatest and most dangerous gift: that he was a warden, one of those touched by gods and given access to the energies of the Pyrthae. He was a fool to ever use it. If discovered, he'd be hunted down and either killed or put into the Acadium, where he might as well be be dead for all the freedom he'd be afforded.

He looked up and flashed me a grin as I emerged, then narrowed his eyes again at the wisps of light twisting above his fingertips.

Nomusa was also before the window, moving smoothly from one form to the next in her people's martial art, Ixolo. Dressed in tight underwraps and glistening with sweat, she didn't even glance over at me.

A unpleasant realization slowly dawned on me.

When I hadn't shifted or spoken for a minute, Xaron glanced at me again. "Something wrong?"

"What are you doing here?" I tried to keep the edge of annoyance from my voice.

Nomusa and Xaron exchanged a look. 

"Didn't I tell you?" he said to her smugly, then returned to his light weaving.

Nomusa just shook her head and continued her movements. She whipped herself into the air with a spin, then landed with splayed limbs like a prowling cat.

I finally found the words. "You heard the horns. You know what's going on. But you're not out trying to find out anything. You're up here. Practicing."

"And you were sleeping," Nomusa observed, barely out of breath despite her exertions.

The magic disappeared from Xaron's fingertips. "Look, Aire. The Despot's death is a shock and all that. But it isn't something we can do anything about."

"No?"

"No," Nomusa affirmed. "It's ridiculous to even consider investigating."

I looked from one to the other. My initial surprise had faded, leaving me perplexed. "This is what we became Finches for. We'll never get another chance like this. How can you not want to know what's going on?"

"Many reasons." Xaron ticked them off on his hand. "One, it's dangerous. Two, it's pointless. Three, we're hungover."

"You're hungover," Nomusa corrected.

"There's just no profit to it," he continued, rising from the divan with a groan. "Besides, I have somewhere to be later, and I want to be fresh as a summer daisy."

"Again?" I said, exasperated. "And I assume you still won't tell us where you've been going this past season?"

"Perhaps a lady's house?" Nomusa asked, a smile quirking her lips.

"Perhaps," Xaron hedged as he strolled up to me and looked imploringly into my eyes. "Leave off this Myron business, Aire. Nothing good can come of poking your nose into it. Besides, we have the Zotikos job to finish up."

"I'll leave off this job like you'll leave off channeling."

He chuckled. "Point taken." 

I looked at him, then Nomusa. "But I don't know that I can do this without you. Will you help me? Foolish as it is?"

Xaron hesitated, then dropped his gaze.

I sighed. "I'll be back sometime later." I strode to the door, strapped on my sandals, and left.

I went slowly down the eleven circles of our tower, hoping one or both of my companions would come hurrying after me. But as I emerged from the tower onto the street, no one followed. I shook my head and started walking. Despite their lack of support, my resolve had not wavered. I would see what events had unfolded throughout the night no matter their apathy.

I visited each of my contacts as quickly as I could. Little had come in while I slept, but a few points of interest rose to the top. 

Kyros Brighteyed, the Archmaster of the Acadium, and Tribune Vusumuzi, one of the highest officials of justice, had visited the Laurel Palace soon after the shell horns had blown, and hadn't yet left. It was particularly interesting because both were heavily involved with wardens and penning them in. It was also said that by way of the glowing gaze for which the Archmaster received his epithet, Kyros could see where channeling had recently occurred. It could mean a warden had assassinated the Despot. Or, if Talan was to be believed in that Oedija was ripe for an Avvadin invasion, one of the Imperium's bound pyrs, known as Silks, could be responsible. Or it could have nothing to do with channeling, and Vusumuzi and Kyros were just there to eliminate the chance that it did. Still, the implications were intriguing.

Feiyan, the Low Consul with whom I'd had misdealings in the past, had also visited the palace, but to confer with Asileia Wreath. Uneasily, I wondered what the Low Consul and the soon-to-be Despoina had to discuss. With those two women involved, it was best to assume the worst.

By two turns past noon, I'd gathered all the whispers I could, but still had no path forward. Still, I had to commit to this hunt, and more importantly, commit Xaron and Nomusa to it as well. That meant tying up loose ends.

I found my way through Port to Maesos' shop. People had begun to return to the streets after a night spent in fear, and I walked through men and women peddling skewers of unknown meats from carts and stands, and traders spreading small trinkets from faraway places on rugs. Bali wood carvings from their trees rumored to grow as big around as Pillars and nearly as tall. Qao Fu silver workings with agate from their desert caves. Intricate bead workings and fine rugs from Avvad. All of the Four Realms were present in Oedija. A Wreath might be dead, but life went on.

Arriving at the glassblower's door, I knocked and waited impatiently. Moments later, Maesos cautiously cracked open the door. Seeing me, a smile spread across his face, and he fully opened the door. "Airene! Glad to have one pleasant thing happen today. Don't be shy — come in!"

"I can only stay a moment," I warned him as I stepped inside his dark shop. The only light came from the glass pieces displayed on platforms across the shop. It was Maesos' signature: incorporating pyrkin into his glassware in shifting designs that mesmerized his clientele. The old artisan had never had more success, though he did need to call in a Finch every once in a while to take care of problems that cropped up. Like a certain smuggler I'd stalked the day before.

"You heard the horns, of course," Maesos said conversationally as he wiped ashy hands on his dirty apron. As usual, his clothes were a mess and his hair singed. "Terrible thing. Myron Wreath always seemed a decent sort."

"Yes. I thought the same thing. Which is why his death is all the more surprising. Did you hear that the Council declared it a natural death?"

"A natural death?" Maesos bellowed a laugh. "That old bull? I doubt it! What did they say he died of?"

"Foul humors of the heart. He's supposed to have dropped dead in the palace's banquet hall."

"A man of his size wouldn't let anyone stand in the way of his meal. I should know." He slapped his belly with a grin.

"That's actually what I wanted to talk about, more or less."

"Myron's gut?"

I gave him an indulgent smile. "About his unnatural death. This might be the job of a lifetime for me. If I prove it was an assassination and discover who was behind Myron's death…" I shook my head, unable to voice my hopes. 

Maesos gave me a fond smile. "Oh, Airene. You haven't changed since you were a girl pretending to apprentice at my shop while you snuck around and took care of my competitors. That same fire fills you after, what has it been? Ten years already?"

I grimaced at the memory. When I had declared myself a Finch at my Calling, I had learned just how profitless naming yourself a Verifier of Truth was. Though I continued to believe myself a Finch incarnate, I had bowed to reality and become the clerk to a certain eccentric glassblower. Maesos, a recent widower then, had needed someone to attend to his accounts and the storefront while he devoted more time to his craft. Either he was desperate enough to take on a willful, inexperienced girl, or he saw something in me others did not, but he took me under his wing.

Though I'd lamented the necessity of helping the odd man and loathed the menial task of counting beads on an abacus, there was one place I truly excelled: undercutting Maesos' competitors. The glass smith finally became curious when his profits had doubled in the second season of my employment. When put to the question, I succumbed to his gentle urging and revealed the truth: that my evenings had been spent on excursions to the other glass shops in the surrounding demes, investigating their offerings for flaws, understanding their competitive advantages — and, where possible, digging up the dirty secrets of their practices. Thus Maesos had become the first of many clients.

"Ten years," I affirmed. "Ten long years."

The glass smith smiled fondly at me. "If anyone deserves a break, it's you. Follow this dream, then. But you don't need me to tell you that."

"No. But you can still help me. Did that rat Zotikos come by here today?"

Maesos frowned. "No. Should he have?"

I sighed. "Let's just say he was warned. I should follow through and ensure he delivers it, but…"

His eyes lit in understanding. "Leave it for later, Airene. It's not immediate. I was eager to get my hands on those new strains of pyrkin because I had one to show you — a strain said to dampen a warden's channeling."

I raised an eyebrow. "And you believed whoever told you that?"

He smiled sheepishly and shrugged. "Ridiculous, I know. But after that warden Iela tried to kill you three years ago…" He shook his head. "It was my fault you got mixed up in all that. I owe you something."

"You don't owe me anything," I said firmly. "But if you're alright waiting…"

"Yes, yes." He waved me toward the door. "Best get on with it. I know how you are when you catch wind of a mystery."

It was my turn to smile sheepishly. He knew me all too well.

* * *

Two turns later, I found myself in a dirty back alley tavern.

The Ignorant Intellectual was far from my usual choice of drinking holes. Not only was it on the opposite side of the city in deme Bazaar, but its clientele were, to say the least, a rough sort. The place stank of cheap spirits and uncleanly patrons who hadn't made it to the chamberpots. A goblet of wine rested before me, but I hadn't dared drink from it, not trusting the dirty rag the bartender had wiped it with. I suspected he'd sold me leftover festival wine. But then again, when I ordered "a chalice of unrequited intoxication," I wasn't looking for drink.

"You'll wear out your pretty teeth, grinding them like that."

I startled and looked around at the man standing next to me. "You know I hate when you do that."

Talan wore his usual half-smile as he slid down next to me. His dark, shoulder-length hair was barely restrained by a greasy leather strap. He wore a once cream-color tunic underneath a sky-blue open vest, and dark trousers tucked into worn boots. But cleanliness wasn't what I expected from the Guilder. One of the agents of Oedija's predominate crime syndicate, he had become a contact and a friend in the three years I'd known and worked with him. 

He stole my goblet of wine and sniffed it, wrinkling his nose. "How does that barkeep ruin festival wine?"

"I assumed he would. But you know why I'm here."

"Yes, I suspect I do." He studied me critically. "But don't you think sniffing around the Despot's death is a bit extravagant even for you?"

"Don't try and talk me out of it. I just want to know what you've heard."

His smirk didn't dissipate as he leaned back into the hard booth, hands folding behind his head. "I think you might be in need of something more than talk. How about we take a walk instead?" 

He rose smoothly and offered a hand to me. Perplexed, I took it and let him lead me out of the tavern.

"Where are we going?" I asked as I followed him opposite the way I'd come.

The Guilder turned back with his usual half-smile. "Do you trust me?"

"Not in the slightest."

"Good." He turned and started down the alley.

Shaking my head, I followed.

After a series of back alleys, Talan finally stopped at the end of one opening into a forum. From the position of the Pillars looming above us, I knew we'd crossed from Bazaar into the neighboring deme Sandglass. The forum was laid out as a square, with a small moat separating a courtyard from the surrounding buildings, and delicate bridges crossing over.  On the island formed by the canal, there was a single building, an ugly, black pyramid barely illuminated by blazing braziers and twice as tall as the surrounding buildings.

"Interesting activities have been occurring here," Talan said softly. "Activities some might believe less than legal, were they in a different line of work than myself."

"I assume you're referring to the arks? Linos mentioned something about about smuggling things through them."

"Perhaps. More to point, I refer to what I believe they harbor in the heart of the temples." His eyes bore into the dark stone, as if he might see through it.

"And what's that?"

He flashed me a mischievous smile. "I can't tell you everything right away, can I? I know you, Airene. You're in this for the intrigue."

I smiled despite myself. "Come on, Talan. I'm in the middle of the biggest job of my career. I need to know if I'm wasting my time on more Avvadin conspiracies of yours."

The Guilder's smile slipped. "We'll find out soon enough. For you and I are going to investigate within."

I stared at him. "You're not serious."

He raised an eyebrow. "Oh? Am I not? Me, the most famous vault-breaker to come out of Erimis, isn't serious about breaking into a simple Valemish temple?"

"Yes. Because that same famed vault-breaker knows that a certain Finch isn't fond of house-breaks."

He cast me a wink. "We'll see who prevails."

I already knew. Since the last exception I'd made two years before, I'd held to my resolution. It'd be simple to resist this wild pyr chase as well.

I turned away. "Thanks for the brief diversion. But it's time to get back to the real work."

Talan halted me with a touch to my arm, his touch burning, as it always did. I shivered, as I inevitably would.

"Consider it," he implored.

As I met his eyes, they burned with something else, a fervor I couldn't understand. Even knowing his stories, his hate for the Valemish and Avvad was beyond what I understood of him.

"I will," I lied, and I left him there in the dark alley.

City of Whispers - Chapter 1

The Festival of Radiance, a celebration as old as Oedija, is a reminder of the Great War that drove our ancestors across the Lighted Sea, when the daemon god Famine slew the Foremost of our gods and nearly swallowed the world…

- The Traditions of the Eleven: Eidolan worship in the demotism of Oedija; by Oracle Iason of deme Iris; 1164 SLP (Succeeding the Lighted Passage)

Perched on the edge of the rooftop, I searched for the smuggler.

It was the wrong time for a hunt. Forum Demos was packed as tightly as fish in barrels after a day's ample catch, a full third of Oedija gathered for Despot Myron's address. Expecting to spy one man among thirty thousand was a fool's wish.

But though my back ached and my legs had gone numb from hanging off the eaves, I didn't let up. I didn't have a choice.

"We should give it up, Airene. We're never going to find him." Xaron, who sat next to me, stretched and yawned, then reached back for his cup of festival wine, nearly spilling it in the process. Though he dressed like a fop and possessed the athleticism of a gymnast, he had the manners of a boar, and his yellow coat and scarlet trousers sported many stains from the day's activities.

"We need the coin," I reminded him drily.

"But we won't get it today," Nomusa, our third accomplice, spoke up from my other side. "Zotikos will need to surrender the goods before we can pick up the coin from Maesos."

"Thanks for having my back." I gave her a long-suffering grimace. 

She smiled back, a teasing curve to it. Her dark, olive skin and revealing robe accentuated her natural beauty. When we'd been younger, standing next to her had made me self-conscious of my own middling looks. But nine years of working and living together had cured that small jealousy. Her bared arms revealed the intricate, blue tatu that wound up to her elbows. They told of her Bali heritage and displayed the truths of her past, for those who could read them.

Xaron leaned into me, his breath sour. "How much longer until we can convince you to leave it off? Radiance ends today, and with it goes the free wine."

I was hanging on by a thread myself. But I forced myself to say, "Until we find him."

Xaron lapsed into a morose silence and took another drink. Nomusa held her tongue. Not to be made a liar, I renewed the search, if half-heartedly. The dying light strained my eyes further, promising an aching head that night.

The great amphitheater spread out below us showed no mercy. A quarter mile of marbled tiers cascading down to a colonnaded dais, every tier was filled to overflowing, their occupants from all echelons of society.

Patricians, in their fine robes and polished jewelry, took the best seats among the columns close to the dais. They sat in marble chairs, and were waited upon by their household honors, a caste of people little better off than the slaves of Avvad.

Citizens — landowners who possessed the right to vote — congregated closer to the dais on stone benches, their dyed clothes a splash of color amidst the sea of plebeian brown. 

All the rest were common folk like me and my companions. With no say in who was elected to the People's Conclave, and barely enough food and clean water to survive, we occupied whatever spot we had carved out for ourselves, taking what we could just as we scrambled for coin and jockeyed for position.

The thought brought me back to the hunt at hand. Somehow, Xaron, Nomusa, and I needed to spy one particular man, and from this rooftop at the back of the forum. But though the man would be wearing the colored robes of the mercantile class, I'd searched the tiny figures below for far too long. My eyes felt too large for their sockets; my head buzzed with festival wine; my vision swam.

It was a pyr hunt, and I knew it.

I broke off my search for a moment to kicked the blood back into my legs and stare up at the sky. Finches, each with small scrolls tied to their legs, flitted above, flecks of fast-moving colors in the sunset light. Even now, just before the largest gathering of the year, the messenger birds of Oedija received no rest. A gentle breeze, the last of the warm summer winds, blew against my face. Shouts, laughs, and shrieks from orphans underneath our feet filled the air; no doubt many of them had gotten ahold of their fair share of the festival wine. Freely dispensed by the People's Conclave during the five days of the Festival of Radiance in a flagrant facade of generosity, this was the children's last chance to indulge and escape the misery of their daily lives.

A new voice broke through the others noises to rise over the tumult of the crowd, slowly quieting them. Squinting at the dais, I found an oracle of the Eidolan faith, the religion of Oedija's ancestors, stood there between the grand marble columns. The old man's voice was worn as pilled wool, yet loud enough to be heard all across the public square, thanks to the present Hilarion's mystical aid.

"Our story begins long before our demotism and the Conclave," the oracle said, voice echoing through the now-quiet amphitheater. "Before the Tyrant Wardens took Oedija for their own, and set those attuned to the Pyrthae to rule over those who were not. Long even before the first Wreath occupied the Laurel Palace. Our tale goes back to just before the Lighted Passage, when our ancestors sailed from their blighted homeland in the west to a faraway land in the east — this land, settling the stones on which we now stand."

The oracle paused, then spoke as if reluctant, "The story begins with Famine. Some have called Famine a serpent, a great serpent. But he was no more a snake than a phoenix is a finch. Some have called him a dragon, yet this can still not do him justice. For when Famine opened his mouth wide, he could swallow the whole of Telae."

Famine. Despite the joviality of the festival below, the specter of the daemon god loomed large over the city. A drought in Oedija's farmlands promised food shortages soon. Prices were already rising, and would only rise higher as stores ran low. With famine would come strife. Robbery. Rioting. Perhaps even revolt, if this drought was as bad as the reports promised.

As much as I wished to give up my search, I couldn't. Without the much-needed coin, Nomusa, Xaron, and myself might soon find ourselves among the starving.

Xaron stirred and pointed. "There! By the Pillar. Is that him?"

I followed his direction, peering at the immense column of gray stone that rose high into the sky above. One of the remnants of an older civilization, it and the other Pillars scattered across Oedija made for convenient landmarks. I picked out a man standing near its base in bright red robes, easy to pick out from the browns surrounding. Next to him stood a man half a head taller than everyone else. 

A thin smile found my lips. Zotikos, the man we'd been searching for, and his bodyguard, no doubt.

Nomusa leaned forward. "Can you see who he's meeting with?"

I reached into my satchel and pulled out my peering glass. Looking through it, I brought the man in red robes into focus. He was turned away from me, but his close-cropped, curly hair was the same as Zotikos sported.

I lowered the glass and shook my head. "Too far to tell, and too many surround them. We'll have to move closer."

"Meeting by the Pillar." Xaron tutted. "You'd think people would be a little less obvious."

I shrugged. "I won't object to a straightforward venture for once."

"Don't speak too soon," Nomusa chided. "This job isn't over."

As we made our slow way off the roof to the street below, we were forced to endure the gibes of the orphans surrounding us. As well-practiced at ignoring them as I was, their words still needled me. Ten years ago, I would have been a match for any of them. But at twenty-five years, having long traded a smock for a chiton, I found the climbs harder to manage. Even if the long robes didn't get in the way, the daring of youth seemed to have left me. 

Though being a Finch was not what people called a cautious profession.

As we made it to the street, I muttered to Nomusa, "Is it just me, or are we getting too old for this?"

She drew me in with an arm around the waist. "You just need to practice Ixolo with me. Then you'll be as nimble as any street orphan."

"Or as naturally graceful as I." Xaron leaped the last several feet to the ground and stumbled as he landed.

I rolled my eyes. "Graceful as a three-legged mule. Hurry up."

As we pushed through the crowd, the stench of unwashed bodies filled my nose. From the dais, the oracle finished his story. 

"Tyurn Sky-Sea knew we could not face Famine unarmed. So giving all of his strength, he granted us his gift. Attuning the First Wardens to the Pyrthae, humanity gained the gift of magic. Wardens drew on the power of the Pyrthae and fought alongside the gods. Wielding the energetic elements like soldiers use swords and spears, they worked together to drive Famine and his horde from the world and, once again, bound him."

As he concluded, there was a spattering of applause, then silence. The quiet of anticipation. Soon, Despot Myron Wreath, purported ruler of Oedija, would take the stage for his annual Radiance address. Though the royal family continued to be named monarchs, the majority of power had been transferred to the People's Conclave. Yet all around me, folk murmured their hopes as if Myron could bring about change himself. They dreamed of a year of plenty, not of famine. They dreamed of quieting streets rather than dangerous ones. But Myron could do little for them. Even if the Despot still possessed the power of his forebears, nothing could be done for the hunger that would soon come. No amount of trade with the other nations of the Four Realms could change the fact that our granaries were near empty and our fields fallow. Each realm had to watch out for themselves now, not wait for another to save them.

It wasn't long until I glimpsed our quarry again through the crowd. Zotikos turned around for a moment, a scowl on his face. His guard, a tall, broad man who wore a yet deeper frown, stood nearby scanning the crowd. The smuggler turned back, gesturing at someone before him.

Xaron whistled. "That's a big man he brought."

"Not a problem for you, though." I cast him a sidelong glance.

He grinned. "Not if you let me off my leash."

"You're lucky we don't muzzle you, too." Nomusa grabbed his arm. "Come on. Let's get this over with."

We pressed forward, the crowd thinning as we neared. The bodyguard's forbidding glare was enough to make people think twice about coming close. Leaning around those in front of me, I caught a glimpse of Zotikos' contact, and my mouth went dry.

The man was an honor, his caste clear from his shaved head and tin spiral earrings. But despite being of the servile class, he wore robes at least as rich as the merchant's. His dark green eyes met Zotikos' with the poise of a patrician, a jovial gleam in them. But though unusual, none of this was surprising. It wasn't my first run-in with Low Consul Feiyan's righthand man.

"Kako," Xaron breathed. "What's he doing here?"

I fought to clear my expression from its grimace. "What else? Dealing with smugglers is business as usual for Feiyan."

Nomusa shook her head. "We should have suspected she was behind this."

"She could just be an opportunistic buyer," I said sarcastically.

Nomusa raised an eyebrow. "Very likely, when he comes first thing to meet her righthand man after a long trip from the Bali highlands."

Xaron waved a hand. "Never mind that. Are we doing this or not?"

All three of us were nervous, that was plain. I couldn't help a wry grin. Nearly a decade in, and I still got butterflies before confrontations.

I glanced at the dais. "Despot Myron's taking the stage. If he gives his usual performance, it should be a good distraction."

Confirming my words, the crowd roared as Despot Myron Wreath mounted the platform, waving solemnly to his people. In the hundred years of Oedija's demotism, there'd never been a more popular member of the royal family than Myron. He appeared both strong in dealing with other nations while upholding the Concordance of the Four Realms, the treaty brokered between the member nations that had led to the unprecedented century and a half of near unbroken peace. It also didn't hurt that at fifty years, he retained a broad frame, handsome features, and sharp eyes. He was a man you'd trust equally to lead an army and rein in a chamber full of bureaucrats — even if in truth, he did neither.

The Despot of Oedija boomed over the tumult.  "My people! Thank you for this marvelous welcome!"

As a deafening wave of cheers swept over us, Xaron grinned at Nomusa and me and shouted, "Despot Myron, claiming the stage as usual!"

As the cheers quieted, the Ruling Wreath continued in his strong, rich voice. "We gather here to celebrate, as we do every year, the blessings that the Pyrthae grants us. The rains that fall from the heavens; the sun that warms and energizes; and, of course, our ancestors who take the form of pyr and move through and among us. Each one of us is touched by the radiance of the realm above." He gestured with a large wave above him. "Let us never forget that."

A solemn murmur rippled from the crowd.

"Long, long ago," Myron continued, "our forebears encountered a catastrophe in the western lands. The Hunger War. The calamity was so profound that they deemed their lands too desolate to continue sowing. Thus, they abandoned them forever. A hard decision indeed, and one that could have had terrible consequences. But they held to faith. With the Eidola lighting the way, they traveled the endless seas, braving starvation and storms for eleven full spans. Children grew languid and weak, and men and women faltered at the oars. But finally, they landed here, on Oedija's shores, and founded this great city. The Lighted Passage, as we now call it, was a great hardship to bear. But without our ancestors' courage, the prosperous Pearl of the Four Realms would never have existed."

There were some assents of approval, but joining them now was a susurrus of discontent. I didn't have to look far to know why. Though people were clad in their festival best, many of them were unwashed and underfed. Myron had overplayed his hand. Most did not feel the prosperity he claimed.

But the Despot seemed to understand their shifting mood. "I know we face trials now, many trials indeed. The gods and spirits of the land and sky have seen it fit to plague us with pestilence and droughts, robbing us of our plentiful harvests. And Valem stirs, discontented, in the south, so that Avvad's fields are covered in ash, the rivers are muddied and polluted, and the trade caravans that might alleviate Oedija's hunger encounter obstacles and delays. Yes, I know we have many trials to overcome."

As Myron paused, those who had protested were hushed with anticipation, waiting for his next words. With hope, I realized. They truly believed the Despot could say something that would change their situation. Desperate, they needed something to believe in, and found none better than the purported ruler of our nation.

Myron's next words, however, were hard. "But turning to false religions is not the answer. Believing in false claims — in delusions — because you wish them to be true will do our future no favors."

The crowd was quickly becoming agitated now. Jeers and calls were hurled down at the dais. Laurel guards, with green leaves painted on their armor and carved into their helms, began to wade in at the edges of the crowds, spears and shields held at the ready. The less wise among the crowd resisted, and spats broke out as guards dragged some of the most vehement of the decriers away.

I shared an astonished look with Nomusa and Xaron. In my memory, unrest was unprecedented at Myron's addresses.

"But we need not dwell on our trials!" Myron boomed over the protests. "Today, we celebrate both the victories of the past and the present. And that is not all! For today, one of our own returns, who will one day wear the Evergreen Wreath in my stead. A day long from now, gods willing."

The crowd, who would have normally agreed, barely responded. Still, the Despot smiled benevolently up at us like we'd cried out his name. 

"But I will let her speak for herself. My daughter, Asileia Wreath, future Despoina of Oedija!"

He swept his arm behind him, and his daughter came striding out from the eaves to join him. Asileia was a thin woman, taking after her mother, the daughter of a Qao Fu matriarch. Yet she walked with such strength and sense of command that one could almost believe her a ruler of old. As she strode forth, fine jewelry danced upon her and glittered brilliantly in the festival lights. She'd never had her father's sense of modesty when it came to demonstrating the inherited wealth of the royal family. But even more striking were the golden tatu that shone on her skin. At this distance, I couldn't tell if they were more extensive than when we'd last seen her. They gave her an otherworldly cast, making her seem like a pyr come into the flesh.

"That ought to be distraction enough," I noted to Xaron and Nomusa. "I'm going in. Wait for the signal."

Nomusa looked at me askance. She knew that I spoke the reminder more for my sake than theirs. "We'll do our part, don't worry. 'Thae's blessing, Aire."

I nodded, and turned back to our quarries, who stared at the shimmering Asileia Wreath. Not giving myself another moment for doubt, I approached the trio.

The bodyguard immediately spotted me. I pretended to be peering toward the dais until I was within a dozen strides, then looked around with a smile. A smile wouldn't stop his fist from pounding me into the stones at the smuggler's command, but it might let me get in a word or two first. That was all I needed.

Asileia Wreath's uncommon alto and clipped, haughty words accompanied my approach. "Thank you for the welcome. I have just come from the northern branch of our great nation, from the prefectures along the Peninsula, where I have acted as governor on your behalf for the past two years. It is a backward territory compared to our grand city, but under my leadership, I hope to bring our people of the Peninsula into the modern age of learning and prosperity."

A spattering of applause broke out, much less than Myron had first garnered. I imagined Asileia's expression would be souring at the lukewarm welcome.

Kako had followed the bodyguard's gaze. His face lit up as he gestured toward me.

"Airene the Finch!" he shouted over Asileia's speech. "Excuse me, Zotikos, but here is an old friend come to visit. If I know her at all, I believe she'll have words for you as well."

"Kako," I greeted the honor stiffly as he approached. "How's your mistress?"

"Very well, thank you. Power suits her nicely." He gave me a coy smile.

I pointedly looked away.

Zotikos studied me with an open scowl. "An old friend, you say. What words do you have for me, girl?"

Little rankled me more than a man's casual scorn. My reply was cool and calm. "Many you won't wish to hear, Zotikos of Hull. And many you would not wish your wife to hear either."

His lips curled in distaste. "A dirty pleb should speak no words to my wife. Leave us, wench. We have business to discuss."

His bodyguard turned toward me. My heart, already racing, began to gallop, but I continued to ignore the big man. "As do we. If I were you, I'd send Feiyan's man away. You don't want an audience for what I'm about to say."

Kako watched with open amusement. "Never fear, my dear. I freely leave you to your fear-mongering. But remember the last time you meddled in Feiyan's business. I would think carefully before you interfere again."

With a subtle bow, the honor turned away and disappeared back into the crowd.

Relieved as I was to see Kako's back, the full attention of Zotikos and his henchman was no easier to bear. The merchant was red in the face as he turned back to me, but before he could speak, a collective gasp turned our heads.

"Yes!" Asileia was shouting. "The elder Eleven, the Eidola of old, have spoken to me. And as no other mortal has experienced, I have become—"

Her voice cut off as Despot Myron ripped Hilarion's hand away from her neck and slapped it to his own. "Thank you, Daughter," he said. As his low, powerful voice rolled over us, I could feel his rippling anger. "We are all happy to see you home."

Asileia stood for a moment, quivering with rage, then stalked off the dais.

Zotikos and his bodyguard turned back to me. "An ominous night for interruptions," he said coldly. "You spoil my business and threaten my wife. Who are you, Airene the Finch, and what do you wish to say?"

I didn't flinch from his glare. A Finch for nine years, I'd encountered more men like Zotikos than I cared to recount. And at the core of every one of them were the dark secrets they kept hidden from the world. Lies they whispered to themselves to obscure the truths that defined them. 

But I knew how to unravel them.

"You've been keeping a secret, Zotikos. One that would break your family if it were revealed. Your wife might not care for honors, but I doubt she would excuse you… mishandling her handmaid during her evenings away." Despite the revulsion hollowing me, I pasted a knowing smile on my lips. "But it's up to you whether she hears of it or not."

The merchant's expression spasmed, and his eyes darted from me, to his impassive guard, to the crowd around us.

"Liar!" he hissed, but the words caught in his throat. "It's all lies! You know nothing!"

"No doubt you wish to believe that. I, however, would not risk your reputation over a misplaced shipment from the Bali highlands."

Zotikos' eyes widened, then he gave a wild laugh. "Aha! So that is what this is about! You want a cut, do you? You think to threaten me so I'll just hand over the profits to you, you greedy strumpet? I know people, important people. I'll have you strung up for your slanderous words!"

I glanced at the bodyguard, who stared daggers into me, then pulled my gaze back to the smuggler. This was the critical moment. I had to hold firm. Swallowing hard, I prepared to lose a few teeth.

"That will not keep your family from falling apart, Zotikos. That will not keep business partners from looking at you twice and deals falling through. But all of that can be prevented. Your secret will be safe with me. All you must do is return what you stole to those with whom you broke contract."

The river merchant stared at me balefully, his mouth pressed into a hard line. He was considering my offer. Soon, he would relent. He just needed one last twist of the knife.

"Think carefully, Zotikos. Everything you possess is on the line. Your dignity, your relationships, your fortunes — everything. And it can all be safe if you do the right thing."

I reached into my robes and seized the object concealed there. The bodyguard, no doubt suspecting a weapon, snaked his hand forward, grabbing my slender arm in a bruising grip. Pain raced up my arm, but I didn't struggle. I just had to wait a moment longer.

Xaron and Nomusa stepped into view behind the smuggler and his brute.

"I'd listen to her," Xaron said with a nonchalant air. "She won't let it rest until she's had her way."

"And you won't rest either," Nomusa said coldly. "This is the best way out for you, trust us."

Zotikos whirled. His bodyguard didn't release me as he eyed the newcomers warily. 

"And who are you two?" the smuggler demanded.

I gestured toward them. "Zotikos, meet my fellow Finches. The other people who hold your fate in their hands."

"Finches?" His eyes narrowed. "Airene the Finch… Now I know why you sounded familiar. Filthy spies and thieves, the lot of you!"

"Can't dispute you there," Xaron said easily. "But it's hard to feel bad about it when we blackmail scum like you."

I could see we had him. If I had been alone, he might have forced down the fear of someone knowing his secret, assuring himself that his bodyguard could take care of it. But he couldn't stop three people from talking. 

"Fine!" the river merchant snapped. "Fine. I'll give my investors their due, so long as you never speak of this to anyone." He eyed me shrewdly. "Which one of them put you up to this?"

I smiled thinly. "Best make sure you don't leave out anyone, just in case."

Zotikos bared his teeth in nearly a snarl, then gestured sharply to his bodyguard. The brute gave me one last bald glare, then released me and followed after his master.

Xaron grinned openly as he and Nomusa joined me. "That went well. As soon as you called us in with the lodestone, that is."

I rubbed at my prickling arm as my fingers brushed the concealed lodestone. Bonded somehow through magnesis, one of the energetic elements, to a stone Xaron carried, each would move when the other was touched. It had been useful for faraway communication on many occasions.

"In the end," I conceded. "We'll have to follow up tomorrow evening to make sure he remembers what's at stake."

"I'd expect nothing less of the pig than to try and weasel his way out now." Nomusa stared at their retreating backs, then turned her head aside with a small shake of disgust. "Come. There's a little of the festival left. We should give off this thankless work for a bit, find an untapped barrel, and celebrate."

I sighed, trying not to think of Zotikos' wife, and whether we did a greater injustice by keeping quiet or telling her. But it didn't matter. I wouldn't inform her of what scum her husband was unless Zotikos failed to deliver. A Finch was only as good as her word.

I followed after my companions as we claimed our last piece of Radiance.

* * *

Several turns of the sandglass later, Nomusa, Xaron, and I stumbled back up the stairs of the derelict tower we called home. With wine-logged heads and sour stomachs, the climb to the top seemed never-ending.

As much for distraction as out of curiosity, I asked Nomusa, "Asileia truly said she was — what was it, 'the Hand of Clepsammia?'"

"So she claims. And she supposedly has oracles following her around declaring the same thing."

"Two circles left," Xaron panted. "We're almost to Canopy."

"It's not that far," I chided him. "What happened to her governing the Peninsula?"

Nomusa shrugged. "How should I know? Myron made it seem like a good thing she'd returned, but he'd have to spin it that way."

"She was probably booted for burning her subjects alive," Xaron interjected.

I cast him a disdainful look. "Don't believe every rumor you hear. It's a long way from the Oedijan prefectures. Events are often inflated."

"But do you really doubt it? The woman mutilated herself. She cut off her ear markings and disavowed her mother's heritage. And now she's back when she's not supposed to be."

I just shrugged. Being Qao Fu himself, Xaron was particularly offended that Asileia had severed the additional ear lobes of their people. It was typically a point of pride for the Qao Fu, and many — including Xaron — wore earrings through their ear markings. We didn't know why Asileia had removed hers, but it didn't incline Xaron toward her.

We finally reached the top of the tower, the eleventh circle. The previous ten floors were filled with poor families or young men and women with nowhere else to go. At least in the loft atop it, we had the circle to ourselves. It was the best our bribes could afford. As Finches — hunters of secrets, misdeeds, or other knowledge that might turn a profit — we didn't have the most reliable income, and couldn't risk trying for something more expensive.

Living on top of the tower was both a blessing and a curse. At the moment, with unsteady legs and a head already pounding from sour festival wine, I wondered what had possessed us to move here.

Yet as we pushed inside the door, Canopy was a welcome sight. Opposite the door, a great bay window, only a little cracked and grime-covered despite our negligence, afforded a stunning view of Oedija's cityscape. Along the right side, four small enclosures we'd fashioned into bedrooms with ceilings open to the rest of the loft, huddled against each other. To the left lay the kitchen, cluttered with unwashed pots, and the pantry. I breathed in the faint smell of mildew and bird droppings, which wafted in from the finch cage on our balcony. Foul though the scents were, they were part of being home.

Saying their goodnights, Xaron and Nomusa closed themselves into their bedrooms. I, however, wasn't ready for sleep yet. Despite my better judgment, I drew a cup of wine from the barrel that our last loftmate, Corin — who worked as a cartwoman rather than a Finch — had claimed for us, then moved to the great bay window. The festival lights glittered in the inner and outer demes of the city, as both inside and outside the wall the celebration continued. Bonfires, pyr lamps, and torches illuminated the city from below, while the green light of the radiant winds and the three moons, full as they were every Radiance, shone above. The gray Pillars rose ominously from the demes, the magic-forged columns shadowed specters in the darkness. Beyond the city wall, a bonfire greater than any other burned, so large I wondered for a moment if it were spreading.

But as I swirled my glass, my thoughts drifted. The sense of disquiet that had filled me of late, a cloud that followed we wherever I went, rose in me once more. In the midst of the hunt earlier, it had dampened so I could almost forget about it. But it had always been there, simmering beneath the surface.

I feared to think what it meant.

Secrets had been my pursuit for as long as I could remember. Ever since I'd been old enough for Mother to bring me to the markets, I'd listened avidly, sieving conversations for scraps of scandal.

By the time I was five, I'd learned the patricians' most salacious stories from the washerfolk. More people should be wary of washerfolk — they always know your dirty laundry. 

By the time I was eight, I sought more dangerous tales — street-side scams, moneylender muggings, even a few political bribes. I'd return home after a long, dusty day, and illustrate my hard-earned stories in colorful detail to my brothers for their amusement.

By the time I was twelve, I'd sold my first secret.

At fifteen, during the Calling when adolescents decide their life's work, I had named myself a Finch after the Order of Verifiers, a long-disbanded branch of the government, to carry on their mission of exposing truth wherever deception obscured it. When I'd actually set to the work a year later, I found myself more often chasing profit than justice. But always, I'd told myself it was in the eventual pursuit of that noble goal.

Standing atop our derelict tower, staring over the glimmering city, I wondered what had come of my nine years of striving. Perhaps it had never been about the truth. Perhaps it was the power of it, of hunting down a story and claiming its truth for your own. But the hunt could only thrill for so long.

And it was hard to believe it mattered when I couldn't even find Thero's murderer.

A sudden sound yanked me from my thoughts. It took me a moment to recognize it. Not since I was a child had I heard it, for it only sounded in the most dire circumstances. It blared over the rooftops and poured into the reveling forums and silent alleys. It vibrated in my chest and shook all other thoughts away.

The shell horns of the Laurel Palace called over Oedija, solemn and forlorn.

Three warnings came by the horns. The first, for fire. The second, for war. And the third, for a death.

Fire was likely. With wood buildings common along the peripheries of the city, the bonfires of Radiance posed a grave danger if mismanaged. The fire that burned in deme Thys beyond the wall seemed a likely candidate.

War, beyond rare skirmishes, had not been known in recent history, not since the Concordance of the Four Realms. The Bali ishakas to the east quarreled among themselves. The Qao Fu jaitin to the northeast remained isolated, their power waning. The Avvadin Imperium to the south seemed content with conquering their southern neighbors along the Rift.

The horns sounded twice, then a third time. I had heard this call once before, when I'd been young. I'd clutched to my father's robes and asked him if we were safe. He'd taken me into his arms and cradled me back and forth. Three horns is nothing to fear, Little Songbird, he'd murmured. Three horns is nothing to fear.

As the echo of the horns died away, the late festival-goers below pantomimed their distress. Some cried into their hands. Others clutched their heads and fell to their knees, disregarding the mud that caked the street. Some just stood staring up, as if asking the gods how this could happen.

I closed my eyes. The fading vibrations of the horns seemed to shake me awake after a troubled dream, filling the gaps that had formed in me over the past two and half years.

Three calls of the horns announced that Despot Myron Wreath was dead. Three horns made me remember what it was to be a Finch.