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Whispers of the Ice

by Jenn Gott

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Copyright © 2018 by Jennifer Gott

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without written permission from the author. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book.

Table of Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Three

Chapter Thirty-Four

Chapter Thirty-Five

Chapter Thirty-Six

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Chapter Thirty-Nine

Chapter Forty

Chapter Forty-One

Continuing Adventures

Author’s Note

About the Author

Also By Jenn Gott

Chapter One

Praxis Fellows? Don’t think I’ve ever heard of a Praxis Fellows.”

“She’s not on the list.”

Uh-oh. An uneasy feeling settled over Kaedrich Mannly as, in front of her, the cold line of Praxis’s shoulders drew even sharper. This wasn’t going to be good.

“List?” Praxis said, lips curled up in distaste. She spat the word into the faces of the guards at the gate. “What list? Since when do we use lists?”

The guards exchanged a meaningful glance. There were two of them, one on either side of the golden bars that marked the entrance into the Fellows household. They were both young, though the one safely tucked inside was clearly younger, and both were built like granite blocks. The gray leather uniforms they wore reinforced this idea, and the thick fur of the vests layered over them added even more bulk to their shape. White animal hairs stood from the shoulders of their vests like spikes of armor, rising just about to their ears. Though both Praxis and Kaedrich were tall, these men were taller—and broad enough that, to Kaedrich’s eye, either one of them could probably wrap both Praxis and Kaedrich in their arms at once, and crush them with ease. Their snow-white Yandosian hair was cropped near to the scalp, and the older one, on Praxis and Kaedrich’s side of the gate, had a scar going across the bottom of his jaw, a whisper of white against the porcelain of his skin. Somehow, the delicate color of their features only added to their sense of muscle, as if they had been crafted of eggshells and still managed to dish out more beatings than they took.

Thinking this, Kaedrich was grateful she’d kept herself at a respectful distance away from the gate. She stayed by the . . . carriage, she guessed you could call it, though it was more sleigh-like than the word implied to her. A wide runner slid across the rough ice of the carved out “streets” of Yandosia’s underground cities, and four massive white hounds, more wolf than dog, were tethered to the front. Bruskers, Praxis had called them, and Kaedrich’s eyes widened now as one of them yawned, its long teeth flashing in the light. The driver had dismounted, and was ruffling up the dogs’ deep fur and inspecting the sharpness of their claws. Behind them, traffic ambled past, both on foot and by sleigh, and so far, at least, their argument at the gates was drawing only the most cursory nosy glances.

“I’m sorry, miss,” the younger guard said now, and Kaedrich reined her attention back, “there’s just no record of you.” He held a fat ledger in his hands, as he’d apparently been double-checking the infamous list spread out across the pages inside.

He seemed genuinely apologetic, his rough face suffused with an unexpected kindness, but Praxis either didn’t see it, or didn’t care. She took a single, threatening step toward the bars.

“No record? I don’t need a record, you pointy little bureaucrat—this is my home, and if you don’t let me in right now—”

Kaedrich darted forward, grabbing Praxis by the elbow. “Praxis!” Sparks had already begun to appear, hopping from one of Praxis’s gloved fingers to the next, and Kaedrich knew a palmful of summoned flames could not be far behind. What would happen, Kaedrich wondered, her throat closing up with fear, if Praxis lost her temper in a place like this? It was bad enough back in Durland, where the buildings were flammable and a sufficiently angry Praxis could turn a whole block into an inferno. But here? Kaedrich’s nervous eyes glanced at the ice, ice, ice. Miles and miles of ice, above, below, surrounding. How sturdy was it really, all these tunnels stacked upon caverns upon tunnels? Enough to support the rest of it, if one of the walls melted through?

She could only pray they’d never find out.

Praxis was ignoring Kaedrich, jaw set as she fumed and glared daggers at the two guards standing in their way. Kaedrich felt the tug of muscles that meant Praxis’s fingers still twitched in irritation.

“Praxis,” Kaedrich repeated, dipping her voice low and slightly scolding in Praxis’s ear.

Her muscles stilled. Praxis took a deep breath, the sparks going out. “What about Geller?” Praxis asked, her voice carefully level. “Is he still in charge of security?”

“Who?” the younger guard asked, while the older one barked out a laugh.

“He’s not been here for years.”

“Fine, then who is your boss these days?” Praxis snapped.

“Prommel Fellows,” the younger guard said with no shortage of pride. His chest puffed up. “My father.”

The older guard turned, just enough to cut him a fast glare. “That’s not relevant.”

Apparently it was a little relevant, though, at least as far as Praxis was concerned—she took a quick step back, her eyes wide as she drank in the sight of the younger guard. Her face, already pale, had gone paler still, as if she’d seen a ghost. “Your father?”

“That’s right,” the younger guard said. He beamed at Praxis now, their situation momentarily forgotten as he held his hand to his broad chest. “Micadel Fellows, at your service.”

The older guard rolled his eyes at Micadel. “Your stepfather, Mica. It’s not the same.”

“You’re just jealous,” Micadel said with a shrug, “because you’re only sort of related.”

“I’m more related than you!”

Micadel grinned. “Not anymore.”

“Okay, okay,” Praxis said. “Listen. Micadel, was it? Yeah: you may be Prommel’s son—”

“Stepson,” the older guard muttered.

“—but I’m his sister. So why don’t you run and get Daddy, and then I guarantee he’ll open this gate regardless of that infernal list of yours.”

For a second everything stopped, as the two guards absorbed this.

It was kind of funny, Kaedrich decided, how they had managed to get all of this way with no issues at all, but now, literally on the Fellows’ doorstep, now they were having trouble. Their trip down had been uneventful—a steam liner to the southern tip of Tjalava, transport on a cargo ship to the barren borders of Yandosia’s shore, a caravan of heavily laden sleds across the endless stretch of frozen surface. From the instant they’d transferred to the cargo ship, it seemed as if the mere name “Fellows” had gotten them everything they wanted, no questions asked.

Then again, if you were surrounded by nobody but “Fellows,” the power of it must diminish somewhat. Kaedrich squirmed, suddenly uncomfortable. If they were used to this much pomp and opulence, what were these people going to think of her? Her plaid green suit, the one piece of clothing that she still had after fleeing the capital city of Monfort with literally just the clothes on her back, felt shabby now, even though it had once been a fine bit of tailoring that had cost a full month’s wages. Okay, fine, so Praxis had already bought her a leather jacket, warmer and longer than her plaid suit coat, and a thick fur coat that currently draped over her shoulders and trailed down to the back of her knees, to replace the full-bodied bundle she’d worn as the caravan crossed the surface. A pair of borrowed gloves, “gifted” to her by the cargo ship’s captain after a weighted look from Praxis. These pieces were all finely crafted, as far as Kaedrich could tell, but it didn’t hide everything. She was still mix-matched, half Durlish and half Yandosian fashion.

She tried to tell herself it didn’t matter, that these people wouldn’t be judging her for herself, anyway—not really. Praxis and Kaedrich had talked about it at length on their long journey down here, and decided it was probably best if Kaedrich kept up the pretense that she was actually a man. For one thing, Kaedrich (technically Kaedriella) was used to it, and didn’t really know who she would be anymore if she presented herself as female. For another, it made . . . them . . . easier to explain to Praxis’s family.

Most Yandosians aren’t exactly, um . . . open-minded,” Praxis had said, twining her fingers in with Kaedrich’s. They were wedged together on the narrow bed of their cabin, the covers kicked into a heap on the floor. Kaedrich was listening, because she knew what Praxis was saying was important, but she was also trailing the silhouette of Praxis’s side with her eyes, the hills and valleys of Praxis’s waist, her hip, her legs. It had been two weeks since they’d left Durland’s shores, two weeks since all of this had happened, and Kaedrich still couldn’t quite believe at times that Praxis was finally hers.

Kaedrich shook her head, shooing the memory away. Micadel had taken a step toward the gate while she’d been distracted, and now he was staring down at Praxis, searching her face as if looking for something familiar.

“Wait, you’re . . . that one?” he asked.

Praxis shrugged. “Sure—you don’t know my name, but you know I’m ‘that’ one. Not exactly a great legacy, but I’ll take it.”

“But . . . but you’re dead!”


The older guard gave Micadel a glance, visibly nervous. “Maybe we should get Prommel after all.”

“That’s what I’ve been—!” Praxis started, but the snap of a voice from somewhere behind the guards cut her off.

It carried easily across the distance, robust and commanding. Kaedrich craned her neck, trying to be discreet as she peered through the gold bars protecting the Fellows’ property. From what she could tell, the space beyond was a cavernous “courtyard” of sorts, sculpted trees and shrubs lending it an outdoorsy feel even below ground. She did not see the speaker, however, not until he was there, on the opposite side of the bars, an imposing slash of black clothes and glinting eyes, as sudden as a thunderclap. Kaedrich froze, terrified without knowing quite why. The man rested his hand on Micadel’s shoulder, asking a fast question in Yandosian.

Praxis, however, breathed an exaggerated sigh of relief upon the sight of him. “Prewish, thank goodness. Can you please tell these whelps to let me in?”

Prewish took his time in turning his gaze upon Praxis. He just stared at her for a moment, studying her features as if he didn’t quite know what to make of her. He’d moved his hands to his hips, the broad sweep of his midnight fur coat drawn back. Beneath that, his black, fur-lined jacket came all the way down to land somewhere near his knees, which were covered by tall leather boots. A pattern of overlapping Xs were embroidered into his jacket, which was then tied together with a low-slung leather belt. Fellows gems dotted his appearance in tasteful moderation—a ring, a pin, a jewel on his belt buckle.

It was easier for Kaedrich to study his clothes than his face. His face, which already looked familiar, was marked by harder versions of Praxis’s features; something in the eyes, the flat line of the brow, the vague scowl of suspicion that tied it all together. A pointed goatee and thin mustache gave him the look of a stage-show villain. Kaedrich found herself averting her gaze, as if, instinctively, she knew that he would never deem her worthy enough to look upon him.

Praxis, however, was having no such difficulty. Spine straight, she put her hand impatiently at her own hip. “Well?”

Prewish said not a word. With nothing more than a glance, the guards sprang into action. Micadel drew out a key from the depths of his fur vest, and the older guard moved aside, touching his three central fingers to his lips as he motioned with his other hand for Praxis to pass.

Praxis’s right thumb twitched, and then she linked her left hand with Kaedrich’s, guiding them through the gate. Faint clicks echoed off of the ice as they moved, a light undercurrent to their footsteps.

“That’s better,” Praxis said, as soon as they were on the other side.

The corner of Prewish’s mouth twitched upward, just a fraction, drawing his mustache along with it. “Sister dear, did you forget how to speak?” His voice was surprisingly soft, now that he was not calling from a distance, and for a second Kaedrich wondered how it had managed to carry at all.

Praxis brushed the comment aside. “Durlish is more comfortable for me these days.”

A lie. Praxis had been speaking it for Kaedrich’s benefit, ever since they’d arrived. Many Yandosians were bilingual, Praxis explained, since Durlish was such a global language of trade, and Yandosia dealt almost entirely in exports.

It wasn’t clear how much Prewish believed this, but he let the subject drop. He reached out to touch Praxis’s hair instead, raising one of the short locks away from her scalp. “You cut your hair.”

“You lost yours.”

A bark of laughter escaped Prewish. He released Praxis’s hair, running his gloved hand across the shining dome of his own head. Not even the scrape of stubble remained. “Times change.”


“You know Mother isn’t going to like it,” Prewish said. He raised an eyebrow, a pointed expression at Praxis.

Praxis shrugged. “At least I’m not dead.”

“Ah, yes,” Prewish said. “Speculation, naturally, but you understand. I’d say only about half of us ever believed it.”

“Did you?”

Prewish was silent for a moment. He stroked his beard, once, before shrugging.

Kaedrich glanced uneasily between Prewish and Praxis. True, Kaedrich’s only experience with siblings was with her twin brother when they were growing up (the real Kaedrich), but this didn’t exactly seem . . . normal. Kaedrich’s heart squeezed, remembering her brother. Oh, what she would have given to have him standing in front of her, telling her that he wasn’t really dead . . .

Abruptly, Prewish turned back to Micadel. “See that you add her to the roster at once.” He glanced at Kaedrich. “Get her servant’s name, as well, and send it to the lower entrance. We wouldn’t want him making the mistake of coming to this one again.”

Kaedrich’s cheeks flared hot as Micadel nodded and moved to make the notations. She started to slide her hand from Praxis’s grip, but Praxis’s fingers only tightened around her.

“No, wait,” Praxis said, and something in her voice stilled Micadel. He turned back, curious, as Praxis straightened her spine. “Kaedrich isn’t my servant. He’s my guest. You will add him to this entrance.”

Micadel’s gray eyes popped. They flicked down, to where Praxis’s hand was still linked protectively with Kaedrich’s.

A cold dread swept over Kaedrich, remembering the sea of ghostly pale faces she’d passed through in order to get this far. It wasn’t just that darker people were rare—there had been none of them as they’d arrived at the shore, as they’d arranged passage into the vast network of tunnels. Kaedrich had tried to tell herself that she wasn’t attracting funny looks, that it was just her imagination, but the truth is she knew better. She’d known from the instant they’d arrived. Part of her wanted to pull herself back, put some respectful distance between herself and Praxis, but Praxis had only gripped harder, keeping Kaedrich by her side. An unspoken Stand your ground passed between them, in the clutch of Praxis’s hand.

Prewish chuckled. It rumbled low, reverberating against the ice. “Oh, Praxis . . . Mother isn’t going to like that, either.”

“I don’t care,” Praxis said, so fiercely that Kaedrich’s heart swelled.

“You might,” Prewish said. “After a while.”


Prewish made a noncommittal “hmm,” neither agreeing nor arguing with his sister’s assertion. He took one last look at Kaedrich, barely sweeping his eyes over her before he nodded at Micadel. “Not that this hasn’t been lovely,” he said, taking a step to the side, “but if you’ll excuse me, I was on my way to the lapus lumeni division. Some of us have a company to run, after all.”

“The lumeni?” Praxis asked sharply. “What do they need you for?”

Prewish smirked. “They’re gems and I’m a geologist, Praxis, it’s not that big of a stretch. Or have you forgotten while you’ve been off . . .”—his gaze flicked to Kaedrich, just for a second—“exploring?”

“I haven’t forgotten anything,” Praxis said. “But they’re magical gems, and you’re not exactly a wizard.”

“Yet here I am.” Prewish spread his arms as he stepped away. His fur coat flared when turned his back to them, the dark hairs waving farewell in the breeze of his movements. “Welcome home, Praxis,” he called over his shoulder. “Try not to cause too much trouble this time, all right?”

*   *   *


Everyone kept using that word, but Praxis scoffed at it as they set off through the Fellows’ courtyard. What did it really mean, anyway? It was nothing—a collection of sounds and letters, a jumbled attempt to express the place where you lived and shat and kept your belongings. Praxis blamed poets. Sentimental fools attempting to make simple concepts sound grander than they really were. Let’s not get bogged down in false expressions of longing and nostalgia: this was a household, a dwelling, a shelter. Praxis used to live here, and then she did not.

She should have known it was a mistake to come back here, but what other choice did they have? In the aftermath of Pon Lanali’s rise to power in Durland, Praxis had panicked. She was fleeing, scrambling to make arrangements, tending to a vulnerable and unconscious Kaedrich as she recovered from her . . . ordeal. Praxis had barely had time to stop at Brindlewood and make arrangements for the care of Brex—his species did not care to be underground, and while she had no idea how a creature from the jungle would have handled the cold, she was willing to bet it wouldn’t be good. At the time, it had felt like enemies were advancing from all sides, like the chokehold was tightening in on her. Praxis had needed safety and protection. Simply hopping the border wouldn’t be enough, not with Lanali in charge of Durland’s military forces.

It hadn’t taken long for Praxis’s mind to turn toward Yandosia. Its frozen depths were about as far from the danger up north as you could get, but perhaps more importantly, the Fellows had power and resources, influence and security. The bottom line is they needed safety and protection, and to Praxis, there was only one place she trusted to provide that.

So here they were.

Still, this did not do much to ease the knot that had been growing in her stomach ever since she’d stood aboard the deck of the cargo ship and caught her first glimpse of the slab of white that signaled her return. The shore sat atop the blue-gray of the sea, snow and ice blending in perfectly with the thick clouds above and the ocean depths below. Only two faint lines marked the division. The captain was beside her at the time, directing his crew as they churned through the ice floes that led up to the mainland. He was a Yandosian himself, and his chest swelled with pride as they approached. “Happy to be going home, Miss Fellows?” he’d asked in their native tongue. There was that word again.

Praxis hadn’t answered, just turned away in search of Kaedrich.

Whose hand was linked with hers now, in the courtyard, although between both of their gloves, Praxis could barely feel it. For Kaedrich, they provided extra warmth, but for Praxis it was more to conceal the other, mechanical “glove” on her right hand. She tried to shift her fingers with as much subtlety as she could, though there was nothing she could do about the faint click of the gears running down her leg. Another complication, one she’d been stewing on for ages now as they’d made the long journey down: how in the name of sanity was she supposed to hide her disability from her family? The glove was . . . feeble, she knew, but it was the best she could put together.

It wouldn’t be enough.

What if none of it was enough?

Praxis jerked around. The thought had entered her head without summons, slipping into her mind as a whisper. Praxis peered around the sculpted garden of ice, not even really sure what she was looking for, as a shiver ran up her spine. But there was nothing to see, of course. Just the sigh of conjured wind, slipping like chimes through the crystalline leaves. It must have been Praxis’s imagination. The combined efforts of fatigue and stress, finally coming to collect.

“I can’t believe the level of effort this must have taken,” Kaedrich said, drawing Praxis’s attention back to the moment; and the concern, like the memory of the whisper itself, slipped effortlessly from her mind.

She and Kaedrich stopped, partway up the courtyard path. Kaedrich leaned in, examining a twisted vine that snaked up the side of a tree. All crafted of ice, all glittering beneath the soft blue glow of the lapus lumeni crystals embedded throughout the courtyard. Kaedrich’s finger hovered just over the petals of one of the flowers blooming on the vine, so thin it was almost vapor.

“I mean, how do you even carve something this delicate?” Kaedrich said. “Wouldn’t it break?”

“It would, and that’s why you don’t. I had to shape each piece as it was forming.”

“You?” Kaedrich turned, her lips parted in wonder. “You did this? What, with your magic?”

Praxis nodded. “I was thirteen. I’d seen a picture of a Durlish garden, and thought it looked like a sufficiently complicated project. I was wrong—it took me a year longer than I’d planned.”

Kaedrich’s eyes widened. “Wait, you did everything?”

Praxis’s cheeks flushed, but she forced a nod. “I was showing off,” she said, trying to sound dismissive. She didn’t like the way Kaedrich’s face lit up at this information, the way she turned in place, taking in the garden slowly. The way her lips held themselves apart, wonder taking her breath away. Standing there, surrounded by the frozen replicas of trees and flowers and shrubs, a magical wind teasing the air so that the leaves chimed like bells, imported white doves flitting beneath the high ceiling, Kaedrich looked beautiful, a fairy princess in a magical kingdom.

“Come on,” Praxis said gruffly. She grabbed Kaedrich’s hand, dragging her away in an attempt to break the spell. The twisting paths of the courtyard beckoned them at every turn, and Praxis fastidiously avoided them. The scar on Praxis’s wrist burned, embedded flames twisting themselves around in a fast track beneath her skin. She could not look at anything—not a branch, not a flower—without remembering the hours she’d spent crouched on her knees, teasing water out of a bucket and hurrying to shape it before it froze. Moc, her tutor in magic, would watch over her shoulder and scold her whenever a leaf came out lumpy or misshapen. He’d be dead less than two years later.

Instinctively, Praxis pictured her other wrist. The skin, and the tattoo it bore, was hidden beneath layers of leather brace and thick glove, but right now just knowing it was there was a help. She’d spent a long time staring at it, on the trip down here, grounding herself against what was to come. The tattoo, crisp black, depicted a simple drawing of a bird’s wing, surrounded by stylized licks of flame. It was a much more refined mirror image of the same symbol she’d burned into her other wrist, and together they represented the two most defining moments of her life in Yandosia. Neither of which she was ready to think about, but there wasn’t a lot she could do about that now. Not here, with every glance bringing her back to one point or another.

It was almost a relief to reach the door.

A pair of servants stood to either side. Nondescript in their crisp white uniforms, they had either been informed of Praxis’s return already, or else they recognized that anyone who got through the gates was perfectly welcome to step inside. They touched three fingers to their lips as Praxis approached, and swept the double doors open with a flourish. And so here it was: the final threshold. Though Praxis had been moving steadily closer and closer to this moment for about three months now, a part of her must not have believed she would ever actually make it.

She plunged through before she could question herself. There was no more turning back—perhaps there never had been.

With this last step taken, Praxis’s eyes opened up to her family’s home. She and Kaedrich stood in the doorway, boggling at the sweeping view that unfolded before them. Everyone had always commented on the Main Hall, but Praxis had never seen it before, not really.

She saw it now.

The room was massive, the rounded ceiling so far overhead that artificial clouds had no difficulty drifting past. Arched hallways branched off both on the ground floor and for three levels up, balconies ringing the hall. Whale-bone trim ran as pale highlights down all the lines, acting as railing, support beams, accents. At the far end, a towering staircase twisted both up beyond the clouds and down into the floor, leading way to the rest of the household. Her family had redecorated in the long years since Praxis had left. Fat crystal chandeliers hung down at regular intervals all along the length of the room, glittering with both lapus lumeni and traditional gemstones. The ice of the walls, ceiling, and mighty pillars had been polished so much that they were almost mirrorlike in their reflection of the light, which bounced off and then back through the many crystals at just the right angles to splash the walls with luminous murals. The rest of the walls, and the ceiling itself (if Praxis’s squinting was to be believed), had been filled in with their own murals: great sprawling landscapes and portraits crafted of thousands of tiny flecks of gemstone.

“Perlandra’s breath,” Kaedrich whispered beside her, and Praxis could only nod in agreement.

Clearly, business had been good to them over the many long years.

They were so busy staring at it that they did not hear the voice immediately, careening down from one of the many branching hallways. Kaedrich’s ears actually perked first; she tipped her head, glancing at Praxis with a curious expression, a question of “Is that . . . ?” forming on her lips.

Then it reached Praxis. Breathless and repeating, a voice Praxis would recognize anywhere. Her throat seized up, listening. “Out of my way, out of my way, out of my—!

Her father burst into the Main Hall, leather boots skidding as he rounded the corner.

Prawl Fellows drew to a halt, eyes popping at the sight of them. “By the stars, it’s true.

A sharp jab hit Praxis’s chest as her scar flared hot on her wrist. It was only the stoic nature drilled into Praxis by her mother’s intense social training that kept Praxis rooted in place. Her father. Gods, he’d been one of the only members of her family that Praxis had actually missed, on occasion. His cheerful grins, his thick and jolly beard, his easily flushed cheeks. His warm embraces, his laugh. Praxis tapped her middlemost three fingers to her lips, a formal greeting that was much too impersonal for what the situation warranted. “Hello, Daddy.”

“Oh, no,” Prawl said, shaking his head as he switched seamlessly to Durlish. “No, my opal, this is much more than ‘hello’!” He ran forward, and before Praxis knew it, he’d thrown his arms around her so tightly that she almost couldn’t breathe. The fur of his coat tickled Praxis’s nose, the smells of leather and ale and his spiced cologne wrapping their own familiar hugs around her. In a burst of enthusiasm that defied his age, he lifted his daughter up and whirled her around once before dropping her back in place, laughing the whole time.

When they finally parted, he held her at arm’s length as he took in the sight of her. Prawl’s face scrunched. “Is . . . this what women are wearing up north these days?”

Praxis fought against a blush, running her hands absently over the front of her vest. The clothes had been tailored to her female shape, but were still undeniably masculine, and not even her long, slate-blue overcoat could hide that she was wearing trousers instead of a skirt.

“Not . . . exactly, no,” Praxis said.

Prawl grinned, his thick beard crinkling up around his smile. “Well, it looks good on you. It’s nice to see people setting their own trends.”

Praxis raised an eyebrow, taking in the details of Prawl’s own suit. Rusty-red pants and a dusky-gray jacket hid beneath a sweeping coat of fox fur, while a heavy chain of gold hung down from shoulder to shoulder, supporting a bold spread of diamonds. No doubt the cut was of the latest style, a little longer and a bit more puffed at the sleeves than Praxis was used to. Praxis reached out, smoothing down the fur at his shoulders that had gotten ruffled in the force of their reunion. “I don’t think Mother would agree with you.”

“Don’t you worry about your mother,” Prawl said, waving his bejeweled hand in dismissal. “She fusses too much.”

This was, perhaps, the understatement of Praxis’s lifetime. She choked back a snort as Prawl smiled and then, finally, turned his attention beside her. “And you are . . . ?”

Kaedrich squared her shoulders, but it was Praxis that spoke.

“Daddy, this is Kaedrich Mannly,” Praxis said hurriedly. She stepped into line beside Kaedrich. Their fingers interlaced and Praxis found herself staring up at Kaedrich’s face, ensnared, just for a second, by her profile. Praxis shook her head, refocusing. She motioned forward. “Kaedrich: my father, Prawl Fellows.”

One of Prawl’s bushy eyebrows twitched upward, and for a horrible second Praxis feared they might have a repeat of the gate incident all over again. But as quickly as the panic began to stir, so did it settle. Prawl broke into a wide grin, extending his hand. “Indeed! ‘Kaedrich,’ you say? Am I pronouncing that right?”

“Just about right,” Kaedrich said as she accepted the handshake, slapping their palms together in the efficient way of businessmen.

Prawl’s other hand wrapped warmly over Kaedrich’s as he pumped them up and down. “Such a pleasure to meet you! I have to say, you must be quite the extraordinary young man to have turned my Praxis’s head.”

Kaedrich blushed, a tint of coral layering beneath the lush brown of her cheeks. “The pleasure is all mine, sir—it’s an honor, truly. Praxis speaks very highly of you.”

“Ha! When she talks of us at all, I bet,” Prawl said, laughing at himself, though Praxis flinched.

“Oh, no,” Kaedrich started, “I wouldn’t say—”

Prawl waved his hand. “I appreciate that you’re honorable enough to rush to my daughter’s defense, but can we make a promise to always be honest with each other, Kaedrich? I find that business works best if it’s built on a foundation of honesty, don’t you?”

To anyone else, it might have looked as if Kaedrich’s “of course” was seamless, though Praxis noted the tiniest slice of hesitation.

“Then in the spirit of honesty,” Prawl said, “I think it’s safe to assume we were often the last thing on Praxis’s mind these past however-many years—and that’s exactly as it should have been, my dear, stop looking as if you’re going to pass out! You had your own life you were building; we understood that.”

“If that’s the case,” Praxis said, “why does everyone think I’m dead?”

“Dead?” Prawl frowned. “Oh! Yes, I believe I did hear that rumor, once or twice. Never paid it much attention myself. Your bank account kept needing to be refreshed, and the dead don’t tend to do much shopping.”

“And you didn’t think to tell anyone that?”

Prawl shrugged. “There seemed little point, to be honest.”

Praxis took a step back, torn equally between incredulous and amused. Here he’d known all along, and he just sat back and let the rumors persist? If it wasn’t exactly the kind of thing Praxis might have done in his place, she would have been incensed.

Prawl tossed her a wink. “So!” he said, clapping his hands together. With a discreet nod into the distance, Prawl signaled at a servant, tucked away against the walls, who unfolded himself from his post and stepped forward.

The servant tapped his lips. “Sir?”

“Prepare my daughter’s old room, and a second suite on Emerald Level for her guest.” Prawl turned, regarding the two of them. “Do you have any luggage with you? Anything we should bring in?”

“No . . . ,” Praxis said. She glanced once at Kaedrich, gathering her strength before she plunged on. “And—just the one suite on Emerald will be fine for us, please. Mine can stay as they are.”

To his credit, Prawl merely nodded at this information. He waved his fingers, indicating that the servant should update his assignment and go, but the servant, it seemed, was not exactly eager to comply.

“Sir . . . ?” he asked, glancing to Prawl as if hoping to be saved from something. A wrinkle marred his nose. “Are you sure, I—”

“You heard my daughter,” Prawl snapped. His hand lashed upward—he would not ever strike the servant, not really, though Praxis felt Kaedrich tense beside her, as if anticipating that he would. Instead, his hand caught the light of the lapus lumeni, each one of his fingers decked in a ring bearing a gem whose color twisted and shifted as they watched. Fellows gems, reserved for only the innermost circle of family. Never offered for sale.

The servant averted his eyes. “Sir,” he said, his teeth gritted. But he pressed his fingers to his lips again, backing up until a sufficiently respectful distance had been laid between them, before turning his back and retreating down a hallway.

When the servant was gone, Prawl heaved a weary sigh. He looked at Kaedrich, reaching up to put a hand on her shoulder. “Welcome to Yandosia,” he said, his voice apologetic. “I hope you’re ready for it.”

*   *   *

Prewish Fellows crouched at a table, in a small office just off the main labs for the lapus lumeni division. His hands were spread on the tabletop, and he drummed his fingers against the whale-bone slats so hard that he could feel the vibrations underneath his chin.

The object in the middle of the table didn’t move at all. Not underneath the steady rhythm of Prewish’s drumming, nor when he grabbed the table and jostled it, nor when he lifted the edge and tipped it just slightly. He straightened back up, folding his arms over his chest, burying his hands in the warmth of his thick black coat. He looked up.

“Who else knows about this?”

The other two men in the room glanced at each other. Stamm, the head of Excavation and Prewish’s highest ranked subordinate; and Trendall, the wizard in charge of the lapus lumeni division.

“Couple of the grubs,” Stamm said. “We’ve already put them in quarantine, told Praine they had the Aulish flu. They were the ones who dug it up, and brought it to me. I took it from there.”

“Anyone else?”

Stamm pointed: you, me, the wizard. “No one else.”

“Good. Let’s keep it that way for now.”

Prewish knew Stamm wouldn’t have a problem with that and, indeed, Stamm nodded as if this was the most obvious order in the world. Of course he wouldn’t blab, it was his job not to blab, but Stamm wasn’t the one Prewish was worried about. No, it was Trendall that drew his attention. The wizard had been hired less than a year before, and it still wasn’t entirely clear who had won the auction of his loyalties. Prewish nodded at him. “What’s your assessment?”

Trendall glanced up, almost as if he was surprised to have been addressed at all. He was leaning against the wall in the corner—not far away from the rest of them in a physical sense, yet somehow the gesture seemed to isolate him. Something about Trendall had always unsettled Prewish, though Prewish couldn’t say why. Certainly Trendall had been thoroughly vetted, both by Praine—who, as the head of staff, was in charge of that sort of thing—and by Prommel, making sure he was reputable enough not to steal from the company. Really, there was no reason for Prewish’s dislike, yet there it was.

Was it just his dislike of wizards in general? The Fellows family had been thoroughly burned by them, in the past, though no one else seemed to hold a grudge against their own little “star,” the once-shamed daughter who had seemed to not only be forgiven, but grow into a private legend in her absence. Prewish frowned, remembering Praxis’s sudden reappearance at the gate. Was that all it was? His suspicion and annoyance at her, projected now at Trendall?

Trendall gave Prewish a moment, as if sensing the tempest of his thoughts. But that was impossible, surely . . . Prewish cut him a glare, and the wizard pushed himself off from the wall. There was never a single hair out of place on Trendall, on either himself or the fur coats he wore into work, coats that were much too expensive for a man of his station in life. “If you’re asking me if this is a new phenomenon, I’d have to say yes. To my knowledge, no one has recovered a gem like this before.”

“You’re saying it is a gem, then.”

Trendall chewed on his lip for a moment before answering. “Nothing crafted could have possibly made its way to where this was found,” he said finally, and this was true. The tunnel they were excavating was one that Prewish himself had found not two months before, a branch-off in the deepest depths of a system they’d only acquired in the last year. The gem, then, was buried in a layer of rock, twenty feet or more in, which had been slowly chipped and chiseled for days, flecks of sediment flaking off and dusting the ground beneath the grubs’ knees. The odds of them finding it were slim enough—the odds of someone placing it there were nonexistent.

And yet here was another undeniable fact: no one that knew of its existence—not the grubs who had been responsible for chipping it out and hauling it back to the main level, not Stamm, not Trendall with his books and years of higher learning, not Prewish with decades of experience and family mining connections going back generation after generation—had ever heard of anything like this object.

It wasn’t natural. Its perfectly spherical shape, the outer layer so much like glass. The light that twisted inside of it, writhing and clawing its way around the bubble that held it as if searching madly for a means of escape, any means of escape. When you tried to roll it, it stayed put. When you held it, it seemed to weigh nothing at all. When you hit it with a hammer (because of course they had hit it with a hammer), it did not break, not a single crack darting out across the impossibly delicate surface. When you stood for a while in silence and stared at it, you could have sworn it was somehow staring back at you, even if you knew this was foolish and impossible, even if you didn’t dare admit to this feeling out loud.

None of it was natural, and yet it had to be.

Prewish forced himself to look away. “Keep examining it,” he said to neither man in particular. “Let me know if you find anything else.” He waited just long enough for both of them to acknowledge this order before he left the room.

It wouldn’t be easy to keep this discovery under wraps, Prewish thought. Rumors had a way of leaching through the ice, spreading like a great network of cracks, but Prewish could not afford to let that happen here. Not now, with everything riding in the balance. He made his way out of the lapus lumeni division slowly, painfully aware of the vibrations emanating each time his boots touched down. How much did a person give away, just by moving about, just by setting things down and picking them up? If someone was skilled enough, he sometimes wondered, and listened hard enough, would they be able to tell everything that was going on, just by pressing their ears against the great slabs of ice that connected every piece of their empire?

Was it even possible to keep a secret in a place like this?

Chapter Two

The fast clack of excited footfalls brought the rumor to Prett Fellows’s attention.

He was in his law library, positioned about halfway up the stacks via a sliding ladder. At the moment, his nose was buried in a book so fat that it took both hands to balance, his arm looped through the ladder’s rails for support. A stray lock of white-blond hair hung beside his eyes, just enough to distract him. He wore his a little longer than the rest of his brothers, those who still had it, anyway, long enough to curl along the line of his ear. That was fine—he was still fairly young, young enough for his winning smile and roguish looks to do the family favors. Prett glanced at the stray bit of hair, annoyed. He was always pushing it back, but he dared not now, with his balance so careful on the ladder.

Prett didn’t bother to look up as the footsteps raced into the room. He listened to them, tracking their movements with half an ear. Women’s shoes, chiming against the ice in much the same manner as his mother’s, but younger and lighter and somehow softer than Prestina, even in haste. They entered the room, skittered to a stop. Tapped slowly, as if their owner was turning in place to look for Prett. Then they started up again, quickly, in his direction.

“Prett!” a breathless young voice said. “Prett, you’ll never believe this!”

“If that’s true, then you should save yourself the trouble of telling me.”

Prett flipped a page, still attempting to be engrossed in his research. Only when the voice gave a quiet “ugh” of frustration did he bother looking up—or rather, down. Annelle, his research assistant and one of his many nieces, was staring up at him with exasperation written plainly over her face. Prett allowed himself a smile. “What’s your news?”

“Your sister has come back!”

The words burst out of her, as if they were simply too amazing to be bottled up for another second longer. And yet, they did not land with the intended impact on Prett. He looked quizzically at the book still in front of him, wondering why Annelle would have referred to her own mother in such a roundabout way of phrasing. Not to mention the question of why such news was noteworthy to begin with—to Prett’s knowledge, Prenna came and went from the household with the same regularity as the rest of the Fellows family, so the idea of her return being a surprise was odd, to say the least.

“Um . . . okay,” Prett said. He shut the book, sliding it back into place on its shelf, and only then did Annelle’s words finally settle in Prett’s mind. His sister—he did, technically, have more than just the one.

Prett’s eyes widened as he whipped his attention back to his niece. Annelle was beaming at him, looking as if she had just excavated this news from the depths of the mines herself. But despite the surge that had coursed through him at the idea, Prett held himself reserved for a moment, steadying himself against the ladder. For seventeen years, Prett had waited and wished for something like this, and he was not going to be mistaken on this point. “Annelle . . . where did you hear this?”

Annelle laughed. “Grandfather is going around telling everyone. He says he’s seen her! He says—hey, wait a second! Where are you going?”

Prett didn’t bother to answer. He had leaped from the ladder and begun to charge out of the law library, all sense of decorum and safety be damned. The soles of his leather boots slid here and there as he navigated down the wide hallways of his family’s expansive home, but Prett barely felt it as he crashed into the occasional pillar or servant. Praxis, Praxis, Praxis. Could it really be true?

It was easy enough to find her. Even without stopping to ask the servants, Prett could tell he was getting closer by the spark of delight in their eyes, or the clamped lips as he appeared, their gossip cut off by his presence. He strained his ears, listening. The whisper of movement, the dramatic murmur that rose up again in his wake. Annelle chased after him, calling for him to wait, but Prett ignored her. There was only one voice he was interested in hearing, though would he even recognize it after all this time?

As it turned out, yes. It was accented with an odd mix Prett couldn’t quite place, and the tone had lowered a notch or two, but it was undeniably familiar. The sharp pitch of it echoed out from one of the ballrooms, just ahead, and Prett drew himself to a sudden halt outside the doorway. “No, this one’s the smallest,” he heard her saying, the Durlish words harsh and discordant. Prett was straightening the cut of his jacket, smoothing out the rich, royal-blue fabric as Annelle caught up with him. Unlike most of his family, he didn’t bother with a heavy fur coat, not unless formality forced his hand. The many layers of his suit were enough.

“Wait here,” he told Annelle, whose face fell open in unrestrained despair.

“But—!” she started, but Prett held up a single finger. Annelle clamped her mouth shut, crossing her arms over her chest. She slumped dramatically against the wall, the high, fanned collar of her dress mashing against the twists of her hair.

Prett turned away. Okay; he could do this.

“I don’t know,” Praxis was saying as he entered. “Probably when they—”

She cut herself off, staring opened-mouthed at the doors. At Prett.

In a family of eight children, Prett had only ever had one younger sibling. He was too close in age to remember when Praxis was born, of course, and so while they were growing up, Praxis had always insisted that Prett being older didn’t matter since they were both the youngest at the end of a long line. Prett knew better. It didn’t matter that he only had a year’s lead time on her—Praxis was his responsibility, always had been.

His baby sister. He hadn’t gotten a chance to say goodbye when she left.

Time had changed her, as it would, but perhaps not as much as Prett expected. The trappings of her hair and clothes aside, her face looked exactly the same as he remembered. It was so much like his own, as if they were mirror twins. Gods, but he’d missed her. He hadn’t even realized how much, until now.

Prett felt the shy pull of his lips as he nodded at her. “Praxis,” he said, while her mouth soundlessly formed the name, “Prett?”

Then, two voices at once: “What are you doing here?” Though they were asked in two separate languages.

Prett laughed, ignoring the question—both his own, and the one posed to him. He ran forward and wrapped Praxis in a one-armed hug, thumping her hard on the back. “I never thought I’d see you again,” Prett said as he stepped away.

It was meant more out of sentiment than reproach, though his voice caught and turned it harsher than he’d intended. Praxis looked away, stepping back so that she once more aligned with the man she’d been speaking to when Prett interrupted.

Prett hadn’t bothered to regard the man before, though now he tried to pay attention as Praxis made introductions. Praxis called him “Kaedrich,” and he was by far the darkest man Prett had ever laid eyes on, much more so than even the tutor Praxis had as a child. It was hard not to stare. Kaedrich wore a trim suit, plaid green trousers sticking out from underneath a longer brown jacket and a suspiciously new fur coat. Prett glanced at the way Praxis leaned toward this stranger, her gloved fingers linked easily with his. He made note of it, but he did not comment. Prett accepted Kaedrich’s handshake when offered, and he tried to issue a warm smile in return. Kaedrich was holding himself perfectly still until called upon, but hidden underneath his calm façade was a look of utter terror, as if the very walls around them might break apart and start attacking at any moment. Most people probably wouldn’t notice it, but Prett had seen that exact behavior so many times, standing across from people as they argued their case to the magistrate; he had seen it so many times in the mirror as he practiced his own arguments and tried to mask it.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Prett said, trying and failing to put Kaedrich at ease. The Durlish language felt awkward on his tongue, all staccato consonants and lazy vowels.

There were a million questions Prett wanted to ask, and yet as he looked back to Praxis, there was only one that actually made its way out. Only one that mattered.

“Have you called upon Mother yet?”

Frost chilled the air between them.

Prett leveled Praxis with a steady look. “You can’t avoid her forever.”

“I can try.”

“Prax. You know that putting it off will only make things worse.”

Praxis said nothing, just turned and looked at her shoes.

“Come on,” Prett said, his voice laced with tenderness. He held out his arm, the way that someone from Durland might if he wished to escort a lady of quality. “I’ll go with you. We’ll face it together.”

*   *   *

When Kaedrich first learned they were heading to Yandosia, she thought she had some idea of what to expect.

After all, she had experienced a memory of it from Praxis, back when they’d plunged into the land of the dead to stop Pon Lanali and remove her as Lady of Souls. A delusion of these very halls had been spun as a bubble around Praxis and Kaedrich, and Kaedrich had seen for herself the opulence of the Fellows’ dwelling. She was prepared for the endless tunnels that would lead here, she was prepared for the size and ostentation of the household, she was prepared for their excessive use of whale bone in place of the much more expensive imported wood, she was even a little prepared for the cold. Neither the grandeur nor the lighting nor the faces particularly surprised her.

What she was finding difficult to reconcile was, ironically, the most familiar thing of all: Praxis herself.

She carried herself differently here. Praxis had always been somewhat arrogant and haughty, and Kaedrich assumed this was a direct result of her upbringing—and maybe it was, but if so, you would expect an increase in her superiority the closer toward home she got. Instead, what Kaedrich had been observing could only be described as a kind of shutting down. Despite the brief outbursts of joy at seeing her father and Prett, or the indignation necessary when she needed someone to listen to her commands, Praxis spent most of her time since dropping beneath the ice acting as if she was trying her hardest to become part of the frozen walls around them. She spoke little, her face a controlled blank. Only a handful of times could Kaedrich catch her attention, and in those instances she had tried to smile at Praxis, send some kind of reassurance to guard against a thing she didn’t even have a name for. The most Kaedrich got in response was a squeeze of the hand.

Praxis wouldn’t take her hand now. She walked ahead of Kaedrich, arm linked with her brother, leaning against him as if steeling her strength. Once, Praxis seemed to almost stumble, her braced leg buckling for a second before she caught herself. Kaedrich lurched forward, her pulse leaping, but Prett had already steadied Praxis, already glanced to make sure she was okay. Cold air swept in Kaedrich’s face as she hung back, following them through the labyrinth of the Fellows household. The three of them spoke not a word; not her and Praxis, not Praxis and Prett.

By the time they reached another massive set of double doors, Kaedrich’s heart had worked its way to her throat. Two men, tall and willowy, stood on either side in exquisite uniforms of silver and blue. They tapped their lips, as expected, and then they nodded—no, Kaedrich realized, they bowed their heads, bending slightly at the waists—as they reached between them and swept the doors open with a flourish. Kaedrich reached up, as they passed through the doorway, and grounded herself against a pin that she wore on her lapel. The wavy rays of a sunbeam, a reminder of Perlandra’s love, were soft and well worn under her fingers. She tossed a fast prayer out; she had a feeling they’d need it.

On the other side of the doors, another uniformed man, hair tied back in a tidy ponytail. Same build, same uniform, though his jacket bore a silver signet above the breast. He regarded them with no apparent surprise, just tapped his lips without a word, and motioned for them to follow as he turned toward the room.

If the rest of the dwelling was fit for a king, then the room they found themselves in next could only have been the heart of court. Kaedrich was actually surprised, upon first entering, that there weren’t a pair of thrones at the far end. The décor was done in much the same styling as the Main Hall, mosaics and chandeliers and gems encased deep in the ice, pale support beams cutting panels into the walls. More clouds overhead, more birds chirping near the ceiling. A soft white carpet, shimmering as if woven with diamonds, led the way all down a long and narrow chamber, to where a raised dais supported a massive white desk.

It was difficult for Kaedrich to unlock her knees enough to walk forward, but she dared not be left behind in such an environment. She hurried to keep up as the uniformed man led them to a place several feet back from the dais.

They were announced, or so Kaedrich assumed. Even if she could speak Yandosian, she doubted she’d be able to pay enough attention to understand what he’d said, because all of her attention was fixed on the chair that sat in front of the desk.

Or, more accurately, the figure occupying it.

Prestina had her back to them, opposite to what Kaedrich was used to. Her desk clearly was not intended to have visitors sitting across from her: everything from the high-backed chair, to the positioning of the desk, to the enormous collar rising up behind Prestina’s head, was designed to let you know that you were unimportant. All you could see were jewels and feathers and furs, though they did shift in response to the man’s announcement.

He was already slipping back toward the door, and Kaedrich was suddenly burning with envy that his task in this matter had ended.

Prestina, still ignoring them, said something, her voice turning up at the end like a question. Gods, it sounded so much like Praxis’s—the dip of the accent, the way it bloomed outward through the room, demanding attention.

Kaedrich watched as Praxis stiffened. “Yes, Mother, it’s true. Though I would appreciate it if you’d speak in Durlish.”

A slight trill of laughter, followed by another brief question.

“Because I asked you to,” Praxis snapped.

Prestina sighed, as if already exhausted by this exchange. “Very well, dear, you don’t need to get so snippy about it.” And only now did she turn, rising from her chair with a great sigh of dresses and robes.

Kaedrich’s breath caught in her chest. Almost two years ago, a magical creature had been conjured up, designed to pose as Praxis from more than twenty years in the future—and it had been such a perfect replica, so easy to see how Praxis would settle into her age. For the briefest second Kaedrich’s head spun at the sight of Prestina, nearly convinced that the same creature had risen from the dead and found her way here.

She was Praxis—older, though the ethereal glow lent to Yandosians by the lapus lumeni hid many of the years from her face—and yet, in this setting, with these clothes, with her hair swept into elaborate knots and dotted with diamonds, she was also a queen. Something even resembling a crown was nestled atop her head, spikes of ice rising up almost as high as the collar that framed her living portrait. White feathers trailed down her pale blue dress, glittering with hidden gems. They shifted with her, rippling with life, as she descended the dais.

Praxis was the sole focus of her attention, and for the moment that was fine with Kaedrich. Even Prett had stepped to the side, so that nothing would interfere with this reunion. Prestina stepped forward, placing her hands on Praxis’s shoulders and gracing a kiss upon the top of her daughter’s dipped head.

Then Prestina took a single step back, folding her jeweled hands neatly in front of her. “My poor darling, were you set about by bandits?”

Praxis’s face twitched with a barely repressed flinch. “No, Mother. This is just how I look now.”

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