In the port city of Auragos, seven merchant Houses vie for control of the trade that has made the city wealthy. Raised as a spy for House Corellis, Elunet has played so many roles that she's sometimes unsure of who she really is.
Sent to uncover proof of possible treason by their greatest rival, House Mellas, Elunet will be more than happy to see such a despicable family brought down. But then she meets Tavia—heir to House Mellas, student mage, and nothing that Elunet expected. And the treason she hoped to unmask instead proves to be an entirely different, but equally dangerous secret...
Elunet had never quit an assignment, and she wasn’t about to quit now. Not over raw hands that cracked and bled when she curled them too quickly, not over the steward giving her the switch in front of all the other servants when she broke a vase, and certainly not over Lord Kenar and Dowager Lady Isendre’s utter lack of consideration for their social inferiors. She had played her role of innocent housemaid perfectly—she’d been meek and apologetic and frightened rather than coolly defiant, cried a little but not too much over the punishment, and no one had ever caught her snooping or noticed the four knives she kept secreted about her person in case of real trouble. She would continue to play the role until she found something incriminating House Mellas that she could turn over to Chal.
She’d be even happier to see House Mellas go down than Chal’s masters at House Corellis and their allies at House Valen would be—and Corellis and Mellas had been rivals since the coffee trade with Nurana in the south began over a hundred years ago, a rivalry that had expanded to numerous other trade goods and resulted in public humiliations, bitter love triangles, business deals arranged largely to spite the other party, piracy, and at least two assassinations. The satisfaction would be almost as good as the payment she’d be adding to the lockbox under the floorboards of her hideaway. She’d been a spy for fifteen years, and Corellis and Chal paid her well for her expertise.
Elunet was dusting Lady Isendre’s marriage chest and examining it yet again for anything that might suggest the family had a closer connection with Isendre’s home city-state of Telar than fond memories and an heir attending the Collegium Arcanum there. Among the city-states of the Lirrisaran peninsula, a married woman owned in her own name only her marriage chest and everything she could fit into it; appropriately, Isendre had brought from Telar to her new home in Auragos a gilded and bejeweled behemoth, painted inside and out with scenes of wifely virtue and familial bliss by the renowned Delon Avelos, which had increased considerably in value upon the artist’s death in a notorious duel. It was to be cleaned very carefully every day, along with the model ship, the curious angular statue from somewhere in the far south, and everything else in the room, but there was nothing suspicious or informative about it. Elunet was no closer to evidence of treason than she had been the day she’d arrived, and nothing in any of the rooms she cleaned was any more helpful.
“Nel.” She jumped a little at hearing her assumed name from the doorway, but it was not spoken as a reprimand. Almara, head of the female servants, had a worried line between her eyebrows, not an angry one.
“Yes, ma’am?” Elunet turned around and bobbed politely—not the curtsy proper for the lords and ladies of the House, but a sign of deference to her superior.
“Lady Tavia’s due home later, and you’ll be helping her get settled. We had a letter from her yesterday saying that her maid quit—ran off with some young man who worked in the Collegium stables.”
If Tavia was anything like her father and grandmother, Elunet didn’t blame the maid in the least. “Yes, ma’am.”
Almara smiled. “Since you’ve been a maid to a young lady before, I was thinking you’d fill her spot, at least for now.”
She’d forgotten that little detail of her invented history. On the positive side of the balance, she’d have less cleaning to do, and perhaps her hands would have a chance to recover. On the negative side, she’d spend day and night catering personally to the whims of the spoiled heir to House Mellas. Elunet had never met Tavia, but the examples of her father and grandmother did not bode well—and Tavia was a student mage, too. The arrogance of nobility plus the arrogance of arcane knowledge couldn’t add up to anything good. “Me? Um. Of course, ma’am.”
“Don’t be giving yourself any airs, now. We’ll see how you do, and if her ladyship doesn’t care for your service, you’ll be back to dusting and scrubbing the floor.”
“Certainly, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am, and I’ll do my very best for Lady Tavia, I promise.”
Almara frowned again. “Tuck that hair under your kerchief and clean your shoes before she arrives.” She tsked. “I wish we could do something about how short your hair is. It’s bad enough having the heir coming home to a strange maid without her looking like a ragamuffin.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Elunet pushed a thick dark lock under the cloth where it belonged and fluffed the ends of her hair around her chin, then moved on with her dust cloth from the marriage chest to the table with the pierce-work oil lamp. A ragamuffin was just what she’d been, years ago, until Chal had plucked her from the street and taught her to spy, to act roles, to fight, to read and write, and to observe and remember. Unfortunately, none of her training seemed to be leading her to anything useful just yet.