There was a slight commotion at the door. Kel looked up to a swirl of Castelguards outside, like an incursion of flames. In their midst was a boy, who passed through the door and closed it firmly behind him.
Bensimon straightened up; he did not seem surprised. “Prince Conor.”
Kel felt his stomach drop. Here was the boy he’d been impersonating. A boy who had clearly never been sick. He gathered, now, that it had all been a test—and that this was somehow the final part.
The Crown Prince was all in steel blue, just like Kel. He was not wearing a circlet, but Kel would have known him for a prince regardless. He was tall for his age, with his mother’s fine features, and there was a sort of leaping flame behind his eyes and laughing expression on his face that made Kel want to smile at him, which was startling enough in itself. He knew the boy ought to be terrifying—he was royalty—and he was, and yet Kel wanted to smile at the Prince all the same.
Though he had no more years than Kel, Conor seemed worlds older as he crossed the room with a light step and said, “How was it, then? Being me?”
An unexpected ache bloomed like a flower behind Kel’s rib cage. I want to be like him,
Kel thought. I want to walk through the world as if it will reshape itself around my dreams and desires. I want to seem as if I could touch the stars with light fingers and pull them down to be my playthings.
It was strange to want something you had never known you wanted.
Kel just nodded, as if to say that it was all fine. Conor tilted his head to the side, like a curious robin. “Leave us, Mayesh,” he said. “I would talk to Kel alone.”
Kel rather expected the Counselor to put up a fight. Instead, Mayesh Bensimon seemed to be hiding a smile. “As you wish,” he said, and swirled from the room in a cloud of gray cloak.
When he was gone, Kel rather missed him. Bensimon was the person he had known longest in the Palace. Prince Conor, though Kel had spent the night pretending to be him, was a stranger.
“Do you like weapons?” Conor said. “I could give you a dagger, if you liked.”
“To do what with?” Kel asked, suspiciously.
Conor smiled crookedly. “I don’t know what you like, you see,” he said. “I’m trying to think how to convince you to stay.”
“Stay? Here? In the Palace?”
Conor sat down on the edge of the smaller bed. “My father fostered in the kingdom of Malgasi,” he said. “They have a tradition there. When a prince turns ten years old, he is given a sort of—bodyguard. Királar,
they call him. Sword Catcher. He is meant to stand in for the prince, to—to protect him from danger. He learns to walk and talk like him, to dress like him. He is made to look like him.”
“Made to look like him?” Kel echoed.
“Talismans, charms. Posy-drops to change the color of his eyes.” He sighed. “I am not making it sound very pleasant, but I told myself I would be honest with you. There is no point not being. You would find out, eventually.”
“You want me,” Kel said, slowly, “to be your Sword Catcher?”
Conor nodded. “My father could order you, but I do not want someone reluctant. I want someone who wants
to do it. And not someone torn from their family, either. That is why—you are from an orphanage?”
Kel nodded. He was too stunned to speak.
Conor relaxed minutely. “That is good. Jolivet did not lie to me, at least.” He looked at Kel. “What do you think?”
“I think,” Kel said, “that it sounds dangerous, and probably difficult. I think if you are looking for someone who wants
to do it, that may also be difficult.”
Conor exhaled painfully. “As you say.”
He looked deflated, which brought home the peculiarity of the situation. Kel had not known what to expect of a meeting with the Crown Prince of Castellane, but he had certainly not expected him to be depressed.
“Well, you could try
to convince me,” he said. “Tell me, what about it would be good?”
Conor looked up, his eyes brightening. “Really?” He sat up straight. “Well, you would live in the Palace. You would have whatever you wanted, most of the time. Within reason, but any clothes or books or—well, really anything. If you saw it in a shop window, I would get it for you. Unless it was a jade elephant or something else enormous.”
“That does seem impractical,” Kel said gravely, fighting a grin.
“We would learn together,” said Conor. “Jolivet isn’t the most agreeable fellow, but he’s the best sword-trainer out there. You would become an expert fighter. And my tutors are teaching me everything there is to know; they would teach you, too. You would speak a dozen languages, know the history of all Dannemore, the patterns of the stars, all the Great Equations.”
Despite himself, something kindled inside Kel. It was small and bright, a distant signal fire. It startled him. He had not expected to feel truly tempted.
“You would never be hungry,” Conor said softly. “And you would never be lonely. You would sleep here, beside me, and we would always be together. And your life would be extraordinary.”
Kel leaned back against the table. Extraordinary.
He knew the word—from lessons, mostly.
Conor leaned forward in excitement. “You would meet royalty from all over, people descended from famous heroes. You would watch the greatest dancers dance, hear the best musicians. You would see things hardly anyone ever sees. You would travel the whole world.”
Kel thought of the White Rock near the Orfelinat; that had been the ship he sailed with Cas across imaginary oceans. He thought of the marbles they used to weight down their map in the endless game of where-do-you-want-to-go. They had both always known they would never see those distant lands.
“See the world,” he said. “With—you?”
Conor nodded eagerly. “Most of the time you won’t be pretending to be me. You’ll be given another identity. The name of a noble. And when I become King, you stop being the Sword Catcher. After that, you will become like Jolivet, the leader of Castellane’s finest soldiers. The Arrow Squadron. And one day, you can retire in honor and wealth.”
Honor sounded boring; wealth less so.
“But perhaps you had something else you wished to do? Like becoming a merchant, or a guildmaster?” said Conor, uncertainly. He looked tired. Kel had not thought rich boys ever looked weary like that. “I won’t keep you here against your will. I told my father that.”
I told my father.
That he meant the King was strange enough, but even stranger, Kel saw that Conor’s hands, laced together as they were, were shaking. He really did need him, Kel thought in shock. He had never been needed before. Cas was his friend, but Cas didn’t need
him, and neither did Sister Bonafilia or the others. Parents needed their children, but he had never had parents. He had not known what it meant to be needed by someone else: that it made you want to protect them. To his own surprise, he wanted to protect this boy, the Prince of Castellane. Wanted to stand between him and a forest of bristling fléchettes. Wanted to stare down and demolish any enemy that wished Conor Aurelian harm.
It was the first thing he had wanted
to do since he had come through the Palace gates. Well, besides eat.
Perhaps you had something else you wished to do? Like becoming a merchant, or a guildmaster?
When Kel turned sixteen, the Orfelinat would eject him, penniless, into the world. It existed to help children—and only children. Untrained, largely untutored, on the streets of Castellane, there would be nothing for him. Even sailors were trained from a young age. He could scrape by as a lamplighter, or a ship’s boy if he was lucky, and would be poor as dirt. Or he could be a criminal—pick pockets or join the Crawlers, the highest he had ever dared to dream—and wind up dangling from the gallows of the Tully.
He took a deep breath. “Extraordinary, you say?”
And Conor began to smile.