Ilanor struggled upright in her bed as cold hands grabbed her shoulders and feet. She opened her mouth to shout, more angry than frightened, but shadows shifted and flowed down her throat, silencing her protests. Instinctively, she gasped for breath even as she recognized the effect as illusion.
No one would come to her rescue. It was the night after Lady Cirowyn’s betrothal feast, a twelve-course cacophony of dishes from every known realm, and Ilanor had been the only one still awake in the dorms. The others snored around her.
The shrouded figures carried her like a corpse. She tried to get enough leverage to kick. What would an illusionist want with her? The imperial court ruled the inner city, but the outer city—where Ilanor lived—was the domain of entertainers and known as the City of Veils. She shouldn’t rate a second glance, even as assistant to one of the most infamous chefs in the Imperial Capital.
Her captors deposited her in a chair in her employer’s parlor. Portraits stared down in disapproval as she scrambled into a more dignified position.
The fireplace burst into flames, dancing greens and purples amongst more traditional hues. The flames did not fully illuminate the figure leaning against the mantle.
Spidery white hands, delicate as paper, lay on the stone. “My people tell me your name is Ilanor.”
“What do you want?” she asked, veins singing with tension.
“What does anyone want? Fame and fortune, a place in history…” He waved it off. “You have a talent for illusion.”
Ilanor shook her head. “I’m a baker. My talents are for water, flour, sugar, and eggs.” Though aching and repetitive, there was nothing like the tactile pleasure of dough in her hands.
“Allow me the arrogance of understanding my work, mistress Ilanor,” he said. “Suffice to say, I require your services as an apprentice. I’ll increase what you’re being paid by five opal marks a week, and of course when your term is done, all the finer opportunities in life await.”
The sum made her dizzy. “I’ll pass.”
He gestured to his companions. One clamped down on Ilanor’s shoulder; the other knelt and pressed something to her ankle. She heard a latch click. She shoved them away, leaning down to probe it with her fingers. It burned as if hot out of the oven. She cried out.
“That wasn’t a question.” He sounded apologetic. “What you’re wearing now is an Imbrizi band. I have the other in my pocket. When I wear it, I can monitor your location. If I don’t like what I sense, the bracelet will force you to remain where you stand, your feet like stone.”
She stared, unable to make sense of the words. “You’re going to force me? Why not just pick from the hopefuls that swarm the city?”
“How many of them do you really think have the aptitude? I have my reasons. As I’ve already paid off your master, no one will miss you.”
That smarted, more than being cornered. “I’m good at what I do.”
A faint smile. “I’m sure. In time, you’ll thank me.” He peered into the flames; they flicked into nothingness. “Come with me.”
Even without the illusion that obscured her sight, Ilanor would never have been able to retrace the turns they took. They entered a manor house in the innermost City of Veils with walls filigreed like lace. A guard guided her to an immense bedchamber appointed with a bed big enough to drown in.
“This is your room,” the illusionist said. “You have free run of this part of the house, but you are not to go downstairs into the servant quarters. Do you understand?”
Because he was hiding her, she realized. “What am I going to put in that dresser, uniforms for an army?”
“Appropriate attire will be provided,” he said.
Ilanor thought about the frilly robes and elaborate hairpieces illusionists wore. “If I see a corset, I’m going to string you up with the laces.”
“I suggest you rest.” He had the audacity to smile before he stepped out.
Trying to hide the quiver in her knees, Ilanor stalked to the rug and curled up. She was not sleeping in that monstrosity of a bed; she would never find her way out again.
The guard shook her awake. He thrust a cup of too-sweet firejuice at her. He ignored her attempts at conversation. Once she set the cup aside, he pushed her up interminable staircases into a richly-appointed tower chamber. It shone like a festival.
Under the gleam of conjured lights, she could finally see the illusionist clearly. He was younger than she had expected, with no more than two decades on her nineteen years. His auburn curls were shorn close at the neck, yet hung over his brow.
It took her a second to recognize him in the plain white robe, but the mismatched eyes—one brown, one green—of High Illusionist Tanniv Deronas were unmistakable. As the chosen conjurer of the Cirowyn line, he occupied one of the most prominent places in outer-city society. Once the Cirowyns achieved control over another kingdom, which would happen with their daughter’s wedding, they would be next to the emperor himself.
“Your patrons have a feast to end all feasts, and you spend your time poking around in the kitchens?” she demanded.
He regarded her mildly. “With that much mead, no one needs an illusionist. Can we begin?”
What choice did she have? “Are you still going to pay me?”
“Seems only fair.” Tanniv spread his hands. The gesture revealed where he wore the other bracelet, high on his right arm. She narrowed her eyes.
At his gesture, the guard slipped out. “Illusion involves manipulating the underlying forces of the universe to create misleading phenomena. Fooling the eyes is the simplest part and involves bending rays of light. You must understand,” his voice sharpened, “that attention to detail is critical. Every step must be executed to perfection and every sense invoked.”
“I know how to do that,” she said, fighting her temper. Of course he didn’t understand or respect a baker’s craft.
Tanniv eyed her. “We’re not rattling amongst pots and pans now, my dear. This is delicate work.”
“Clearly,” she countered, “you’ve never tried to prepare a red velvet cake with boiled buttercream frosting.”
“I should think that would be obvious. The problem with food is no one notices it unless it is bad,” Tanniv said. “Illusion, on the other hand, commands attention, and just as the flaws become more glaring, the successes are more crucial.”
Ilanor bit her tongue. What had she expected from a man who had no worries but aesthetic pleasure and simpering at his employers?
“To create an illusion of a specific sense, you first heighten your awareness of that sense. A raw student such as yourself can learn this focus by stating the name of every color you see in your surroundings.” He waited, brows arched, clearly expecting to have to coach her.
She flitted a look around her. “Gray. White. Red.” She continued to scan. “Gold, mint, saffron, cinnamon, iron, scarlet, beet…” Everything came into sharp focus. She noticed the knots and snagged threads in the curtains, the roughened flecks in the stone, and every contour and dot of pigment in his face.
With it came a peculiar sensation: a knowledge behind the sight, like tasting a pastry and knowing how it had been made. She could sense where light absorbed and where it reflected, and the web made by imperceptible flows of warmth and energy. Despite herself, her lips parted with a sharp intake of breath.
“It’s remarkable, isn’t it?” Tanniv’s voice was warm, sharing the wonder. “If you move, do so slowly—the trance is easy to break.”
Something more: a light inside herself, Ilanor realized, a mass of writhing incandescence. Was this the talent he had seen in her? Instinctively, she focused on Tanniv, trying to see his talent. Her eyes clouded with shadow, and she teared up.
“Enough,” he barked. “Look away.” She did, rubbing her eyes. “Standard practice for an illusionist of stature,” he said brusquely. “Can’t reveal to our competition how strong we are.”
Or how weak, she resisted the urge to point out.
“I want you to fix on that inner light. Let it expand. It will become a second set of hands. A skilled illusionist can work with more than one sense at once—only the best—” did he have to say ‘Such as himself?’ Clearly, he thought not, “—can manage them all. Adding the various senses in layers is time-consuming, but I wouldn’t expect anything more from you for a while.”
Ilanor ignored the barb, focusing until the light flowed into her fingertips. “If it’s so time-consuming,” she said, “maybe you shouldn’t babble on.”
“Are you always this surly? Put your hand in the stream of light coming from the window and lower it. You’ll feel a resistance. Push down.”
Ilanor followed his directions. Invisible force gathered under her fingers like kneaded dough. It responded to her touch, both tough and pliant. A cord of shadow formed under the pressure. She caught her breath. There was something thrilling about it, this shape she had created from nothing.
“It’s like food,” she said. “You can’t actually make something out of thin air. You have to work with the resources you have.”
“If you’d like to think of it that way, yes.” His tone was brisk. “We’re going to borrow elements of color from the curtains…”
By the end of the first lesson, Ilanor had formed something with the color and vague appearance of a rose. Another frustrating session and a clever person might have been able to guess she had created a book. Part of her wanted to be excited, but progress seemed so slow.
One morning, she decided she couldn’t do worse by experimenting on her own. She pulled red from the hint of dawn, brown from unswept dirt, and spun them together with dappling sheen. Her heart quickened with delight.
“That’s more like it,” Tanniv said from behind. “Not sure I agree with the choice of subject matter, but it will do.”
She jumped, but managed to hold the apple steady. “You have to give me something I’m familiar with,” she said. “I only read recipes, and my only experience with gardens is when I’m throwing out scraps.”
He arched a brow. “We shall certainly have to fix that.”
There were scores of public gardens in the outer city, and his guards dragged her to them until her head ached with perfume, though her soul sang with prismatic tones. Tanniv inundated her with books about fashion and art, and she labored through the elaborate texts with a vow of vengeance every time she stumbled over a three-syllable word. The lessons became easier: he conceded on the subject matter, allowing that food was suitable for a harvest scene, and her first experiment with sound was clattering pots.
“Dreadful din,” he dismissed it, “but realistic enough. Just—for the life of me!—don’t ever do it again.”
She made sure to practice the tonal patterns whenever he passed by.
He demonstrated few techniques. When he did summon illusions himself, he seemed distractible: they were thin and almost transparent.
In other circumstances, she might have enjoyed her lessons. The concoction of illusion was as painstaking as a seven-layered torte. She found her touch growing surer without words to describe how.
Ilanor always had questions, the urge to dig deeper. In the kitchens of autocratic bakers, she had been silenced. Tanniv answered questions of theory with alacrity, though he sometimes went on far longer than she wanted. He roused her out of a nap one afternoon. “We need to start work now. I have a project for you—a serious project—will you up! Did you respond this slowly when rats got into the grain?”
“Rats never got into the grain,” Ilanor mumbled, pulling the blanket over her head, “and that wasn’t my job if they had.”
“Well, I am paying you to deal with the metaphorical rats.” He snapped his fingers. “Out.”
She flung the blanket at him and sat up. “Fine. What do you want me to do?” “An ivory flute that plays of its own accord. For the front door of the new Cirowyn steward.” He scrubbed at his face. “Blast, it was supposed to be another week and a half before he arrived.”
“But I don’t—”
“It will only need to play a few snatches of tune,” he assured her, “and you seem to have a tolerable ear. I have no time for your self-doubts.”
“I don’t even know how many holes a flute has,” she said.
“Do you ever pay attention to the finer points of things that don’t immediately concern you?”
“Do you?” she countered.
He whirled away, ignoring the question. “The basic form first.”
Ilanor followed his directions, correcting where he pointed out flaws. They squabbled over the choice of tune, neither with the advantage; she couldn’t craft music without him, and he couldn’t teach her to imbue a song she didn’t know.
The finished flute was a thing of beauty, gold filigree weaving around the holes. Twenty-four notes played in an endless loop, pure like the whistling of steam and the rustling of morning birds, which Tanniv confessed he was rarely awake to hear. For the first time, she saw admiration in his eyes.
“Bend the rim into a loop,” he instructed. “Tie it together—carefully! Break it free of the surrounding energy and—”
She cried out when he brought his hands down on the flute, compressing it into nothing. He arched a brow, then drew his hands apart. The flute materialized again. “How else did you think you moved them?”
“I was just worried you’d bust it with your clumsiness,” she said, covering for her dismay.
Tanniv smiled slightly. “I’ll send my dresser in with your robes.”
He was halfway out the door when she caught up to him. “Wait—my robes?”
“Yes, is there a problem?”
“Why do I have robes?”
“You’re coming with me,” he said.
She swallowed, her stomach fluttering. “You didn’t take my measurements.”
“You’re not a tricky fit. Thick waist, narrow hips, and long neck. The numbers are not difficult to estimate.”
Her voice rose in indignation. “You’ve been staring at me?”
“Yes, and I found it something of a trial.” He sighed. “Could you be quiet the two seconds required to dress?”
She kicked the door after him, muttering curses. His dresser, a stout, florid woman, yanked her headfirst into a lavender robe with a scalloped neck. Even with the sash around her waist, she felt undressed. The woman batted her hands away long enough to force a brush through her hair.
The dresser turned her to the mirror. She confronted a sculpted version of herself, as if an illusionist had decided to play a trick on the world. The fabric swished sensuous across her skin, and for a heartbeat she felt almost fine enough for the gilded role.
The door flew open. Tanniv stood there in some impossible flourish of gold and emerald and looking as if he would combust at a touch. “Are you—”
“You don’t burst into a woman’s chamber!” Ilanor whirled, snatching up her tunic from her bed and holding it before her like a shield.
He regarded her with a frown, tensed to deliver a retort, then laughed. The next words sounded approving. “Put ten of you on the war-front and foreign armies wouldn’t have a chance. Come on, and don’t speak unless someone shoves a hot poker between your lips.”
“Is anyone actually likely—” she started. He held up a hand to silence her.
They headed to the stables. The driver helped them into the carriage. She strained out the window as they moved, trying to identify streets, but Tanniv kept interrupting her with a finger snap and impatient directions as to precisely how to stand, how to hold her hands, and distinctly how not to respond to the noble pair.
Ilanor had seen the inner city and its mad flush of splendor before, but never entered its manors by front gates, much less with the reverent courtesy of everyone they passed. The Cirowyn great hall would fit her former employer’s residence twice over. While she tried to read the illuminated lettering on the tapestries, Tanniv pulled her down a hallway.
A spidery servant stood sentinel. He bobbed his head and opened the door. “Their excellencies gave instructions that you were to be let in immediately.”
The private sitting chamber reminded her of a jeweled box, with Lord Keltan and Lady Hilre merely the two largest stones within the settings. Tanniv swung into an elaborate bow; Ilanor dropped as low as she could without falling over, locked her leg muscles, and hoped she could hold onto the position.
“Tanniv!” Hilre stood in a swell of skirts. “So wonderful to see you. Whoever is this creature?”
“If it pleases your excellencies,” Tanniv said, “my new apprentice, Ilanor.”
“Since when do you take on apprentices, Tanniv?” Keltan rumbled, voice like a mountain avalanche. “You’re not planning on retiring on us, are you?”
“Of course not.” He sounded…nervous? Ilanor risked a peek. His neutral expression looked forced.
“Oh, let the poor dear relax,” Hilre said. “She looks uncomfortable. Ilanor, would you care to sit down?”
Ilanor ignored Tanniv’s glare and bobbed upright. “Thank you, your excellency, I’d like that.” For the first time in her life, she got a direct look at a noblewoman’s eyes—soft sky blue, but like anyone else’s. She scuttled to the indicated chair. Velvet notwithstanding, it was hard and angled.
The trio conversed over her head, Hilre sweet and banal, Keltan vaguely discontent, and Tanniv respectful to the point of reverence. Ilanor had the suspicion he had expected similar treatment from her, that he had put her as far below him on the grand scale as the Cirowyns were above him. It explained a few things.
He showed them the illusory flute. Hilre cooed appreciatively.
“Suppose it will do,” Keltan said. “You keep a good standard, Tanniv.”
Ilanor shifted on the chair. Tanniv silenced her with a look. “Thank you, your excellency. I’m glad such poor workings please you.”
She stifled a spurt of indignation. That was her work he was maligning! But it seemed to be the game, to abase himself with a knowing smile. She shouldn’t care. She was doing this because she had no choice, and the money would be useful when it was over. She could rent rooms, get out of the dormitories, take steps towards a kitchen of her own.
Tanniv instructed the Cirowyns on how to place the illusion, asked them to pass his greetings on to their daughter, and ushered Ilanor out.
A stunning blonde woman descended from a carriage. Ilanor recognized the silver silk that pooled around her: the robe of a senior illusionist. Tanniv stiffened, clutching Ilanor’s shoulder.
“Tanniv! So good to see you,” the woman said. “You’ve been absent so long, we feared you were ill.” She regarded him through lowered lashes. “You’re not ill, are you?”
“I’ve been busy, Betra,” he said.
Her hands lilted in a summoning gesture. “With…?”
“My apprentice, for one.” He pushed her forward like a sacrificial offering. “Ilanor, this is High Illusionist Betra Sindasri. Betra, this is Ilanor.”
Betra’s brows rose, the question obvious in her eyes: Ilanor who? Only common folk had no surname. “Charmed, I’m sure. How soon do you expect to replace him, Ilanor?”
Ilanor’s first impulse was to run with the jest, but something about the woman made her uneasy. “Probably never,” she said. “Figure a man like him doesn’t need replacing.”
Betra laughed. “Oh, I’m sure he’ll go crusty and his powers will wither eventually. Don’t be a stranger, Tanniv! Good to meet you, Ilanor.” She tossed him a last look and sailed up the drive.
“In the carriage,” he said shortly. “Now.” Only when the inner city fell behind did he speak again. “Betra is the personal illusionist of Lord Harmac, Elen Cirowyn’s betrothed. She and I have been at odds for years. With the betrothal and Lord Harmac being of lesser stature, he becomes a Cirowyn and—you see where I’m going with this, yes?”
“Sort of,” Ilanor said.
“There are a number of unpalatable possibilities, from one of us being fired to the other being designated as a junior.” Tanniv grimaced. “Better a junior in the Cirowyn household than the senior illusionist anywhere else, but Betra won’t rest until she’s ruined me.”
“It’s the way things are done, and she’d expect the same from me. There was a time she would have been right, but…I’m tired of it, I suppose.”
Ilanor almost felt sorry for him—or would have, without the silks and splendor. “And you wonder why I just want to bake,” she said.
“As it happens,” he responded drily, “I still do.”
She rolled her eyes. There was no arguing with the man.
The next weeks became routine. Tanniv had Ilanor craft three more illusions for the Cirowyns, each of increasing complexity. Trapped in Tanniv’s estate, following his directives, helping him with a political game she didn’t understand…it made her bones itch. Their exchanges of quips took the edge off. She had the sneaking suspicion he enjoyed it.
One day, they worked on smells in the garden. He shaped an example for her, perfume. She inhaled, found it cloying but inoffensive. She turned her thoughts on him, caught a whiff of the smoke barrier that surrounded him, and drew it into her lungs despite his shouting.
He grabbed her shoulders and shook her. Her nose cleared, but not before she got a whiff of what was behind the barrier.
“Something’s wrong with you,” she said.
“I’m not the one who just—” to his credit, Tanniv stopped, with a guilty look down at the anklet she wore. “What’s going on with me is not your business.”
“You made it my business when you paraded me in public,” she said. “I’m your apprentice. Anyone who thinks they can get at you because of…whatever this is might decide to come through me.”
He turned away. “No one knows what is going on, and it will stay that way.”
“Your powers are damaged,” she said. “They’re not working the way they should. Am I right?”
“I begin to think you’re more trouble than you’re worth.” He couldn’t muster any heat in his voice. “If I tell you, will you leave off?”
“Depends on what I hear.”
Tanniv barked laughter. “I think I find that more reassuring than an empty promise. Sit.” He eased himself onto a stone bench, weariness dripping into his frame. “The skill never dies. Decades of finesse, experience, contemplation—these things are the mark of an exceptional illusionist, and can never be erased.
“The talent, on the other hand…I’m dry. Have been since three months before I recruited you.” He had the grace to stumble over the word. “I don’t know what happened. If there were warning signs, I didn’t notice. I don’t think it was sabotage, but the force that brings illusion together—gone.”
Ilanor was surprised by the stirrings of sympathy. He had thrown his life into it, staked his world on his abilities, and there were no explanations, no one to blame.
“I’m so sorry,” she said.
He looked away and said nothing. They sat in indecisive silence. Now she understood the melodramatic abduction, the Imbrizi band, though she could not entirely forgive him for it. Indignation swirled on her tongue: if he had simply asked…but he didn’t live in a world where people could be trusted.
“I’m not staying forever,” she said. “If this is what your job puts you through, I don’t want it. But I will stay.”
He chuckled weakly. “I am an unusual case. I’ve never heard of this happening.”
“That doesn’t mean anything. They could have done exactly what you’re doing,” she said. “Why me?”
“The hopefuls who stream into the city every year are the children of minor nobles and rich merchants—people who have enough money to foot the bill while they wait for an illusionist to be interested in them.” Tanniv snorted. “They’re owned, marked, somebody’s puppet.
“Besides,” he continued, “you do have a remarkable amount of potential. It’s a shame to waste it on stews.”
“Actually, my specialty is cakes,” she said.
He rubbed his face. “Bear with me until after the wedding? Whatever’s going to happen will fall out before then.”
Three months. It was longer than she wanted, but it was the first time there had been an end to it—and the first time he had asked. “Deal,” she said.
He pushed himself up. “Well. Shall we back to work?”
“Let’s.” Truce, she thought, reciting the list of scents.
The wedding drew nearer. Despite newfound patience in their lessons, Tanniv looked older and moved like it.
One day, head throbbing, she abandoned practice and prowled in a direction forbidden to her. She needed to clear her head, and the only way to do that was to get her hands dirty.
She slipped down to the kitchen. When not wearing apprentice robes, she could have been anyone. A cook thumped out the dough for a cherry morning cake.
Ilanor slid in next to her. “Mind if I help?”
The woman pushed the bowl of fruit over. “Wash those.”
She came back with the cherries to find the cook fighting with frosting that had turned to sludge. “Here,” she said, “you don’t want to add any more sugar or it will harden too much.”
No one asked why Ilanor was there, and she fell into the routine. She chatted with the women, sharing tips and coated to her elbows in flour. She was stunned how comfortable it was. She hadn’t realized how much of a strain her apprenticeship put on her.
She convinced the head cook to purchase ingredients for an exotic northshore ice-cake she knew would be a delicacy even for Tanniv. It was a recipe she had never prepared and longed to, and she might give him the idea there was some art to it.
“What is going on here?”
She hadn’t even heard footsteps before Tanniv thundered into the kitchen. She jerked around, swinging in front of the worktable to shield its contents.
“You,” he snapped. “Out. Now.”
“I’m taking a break,” she said. “Mind your own business.”
“We have an arrangement.” His voice was crisp and hard. “Splashing about like a child playing in mud puddles was not part of it.”
“Don’t worry, I’m not going to mess up your imaginary friends,” she bit back. “I know they’re the only ones you have.”
He caught her arm, jerking her back. She jammed her elbow into his ribs. His hand came about with a sharp crack against her cheek.
She stood motionless, shaking. He stared, eyes wide, as stunned as she was. “Get out,” he said, this time to the staff. They fled.
Ilanor tried not to tremble. “I just needed…”
“You’re better than this kind of menial work,” he said, “or if you’re not, now is the time to pretend.”
“It’s not menial, it’s an art—my art.”
“And our survival doesn’t depend on that art.” Tanniv sucked in a breath, looking as if he would shatter. “Clean up. I don’t want to see you here again.”
Ilanor’s body clenched. If he wanted his work, he would have it, but their understanding was finished.
They didn’t speak of the argument. The lessons become cold, formal, no unnecessary words exchanged. One week later, Ilanor lay curled on the rug when a knock came.
It was his dresser with a fancier variant on her formal robes. “Master says you’re coming with him to an event tonight.”
“Can you tell him he can walk off a cliff?” Ilanor said.
The dresser sighed. With the extensive wardrobe of even an apprentice, they had spent a fair amount of time together—and by simple necessity, she was the only other person who knew about the Imbrizi band. They had developed a certain understanding. At least, she knew not to be shocked by Ilanor’s temper. “I get in trouble if you’re difficult, miss. Would you please?”
Ilanor submitted, stewing, but on her way to the stables, she considered. There would be plenty of people at a party, those who would wonder and perhaps ask questions. If she could get Tanniv in trouble without revealing his disability, she might have a chance to escape.
No word passed between she and Tanniv until they arrived at the home of a minor noble. He held her arm and murmured, “Remember everything you say reflects on me…and like a doubled mirror, it comes back to you.”
She hadn’t intended to, but the anxiety in his voice softened her response. “I understand.”
The music was familiar, though she had never been so surrounded by its ebbs and flows. Impossible color swirled past her, gowns and cravats and elaborate feathered hats. Who needed illusion when reality was so vivid?
By habit, she found herself picking out detail, noticing the reflection of jewels and the shadows cast by petticoats. The press of people overwhelmed her, and she squirmed through the crowd into a garden capped with lanterns like stars. She leaned against a stone pillar.
“Beautiful night, isn’t it?” Betra’s perfume preceded her.
Ilanor stiffened. Her instincts warned her about this woman, but Betra was Tanniv’s enemy, not hers. “Hard to take it all in.”
“One gets accustomed to these things before long.” Betra’s voice was one part reassurance, two parts inquiry.
Ilanor made herself shrug. “I don’t like to let anything get commonplace.”
“You sound like your mentor. We don’t have to be enemies, you know. I would scarcely blame you for Tanniv’s faults.”
“Good. I’m not in this to make enemies.” The anklet itched. Did he know where she was?
“What about friends?”
“I…maybe.” She bunched her fingers in her robe. All she had to do was lift it a fraction.
“Here’s some advice, as a friend.” Betra smiled faintly. “Even if the sins of your mentor amount to treason, you can’t be hanged with him—if you have protection.”
What, if anything, did Betra know? Ilanor had never considered what the punishment for having an Imbrizi band was. She knew the reaction Betra expected—a combination of panic and ambition—but she found herself indignant instead. Betra thought of her as a commoner, a thing to be used and manipulated. Ilanor couldn’t stomach that. At least Tanniv saw her talents for illusion and trusted her to honor her end of their bargain. She had made a deal with him; she would keep it.
“That’s a low thing to say,” Ilanor said, turning.
“Oh, don’t let me drive you away,” Betra said, stepping past her. They got tangled, and Ilanor stumbled. The illusionist supported her with an arm, a solicitous touch. “Enjoy your sanctuary, Ilanor.”
She disappeared on a cloud of perfume, and Ilanor slumped against the pillar. She noticed, in the half-light, a long rip in the robe, and grimaced—but it didn’t connect that it might be anything more than an inconvenience.
A flurry of knocking awoke Ilanor. She pulled herself up, grunting, and realized she was still dressed from the evening before. “Go away, Tanniv.”
“Miss! Let me in.”
It was the dresser. Ilanor scuffed to her feet, pulling the door open. The woman’s face was red and puffy.
Ilanor squinted. “What’s going on?”
“The emperor’s men just took the master into custody,” the dresser said. “Betra accused him of planning to use an Imbrizi band on Lady Elen.”
“What?” Ilanor heard a soft click. Startled, her gaze jerked down as the anklet fell away. “Why did it release?”
“The guards must have removed the master band. There’s no proving you were wearing it now, miss.”
“Except my word.” Ilanor might have been irritated with Tanniv, but she realized she had looked forward to her lessons, the next challenge. “What am I supposed to do?”
“You’re free now.”
“I know.” Ilanor rubbed at her ankle. “I could just go home.” Her life had been given back to her, but the price for treason was death. She had railed at him…but she could never wish him dead.
Her hands drifted, finding the tear in the robe. She swore.
“I ripped my robe,” she said, the truth burning off the haze of confusion. “Betra must have seen the band and thought she could get away with this. I have to go to the emperor. I have to explain—”
The dresser stopped her. “If you tried to approach the guard as his apprentice, they would arrest you for conspiracy.”
In a way, wasn’t that accurate? The conspiracy she had undertaken was hiding Tanniv’s loss of power, and it had thrown her into a new world. She had told Tanniv that baking was her art, and she didn’t want to leave it behind—but she wasn’t ready to leave this world, either. She had too much to learn about illusion and its expression, the ephemeral touch of it under her hands.
She thought of her first lesson and how she had compared the power to bread dough. “Then I’m going in as a baker.”
“That still won’t get you near the emperor, miss.”
Ilanor turned the anklet over, her mind supplying her with an image of Tanniv compressing the illusory flute: folded out of sight, to emerge whenever it was needed.
She knew, as if it had been whispered to her, exactly what to do.
“If the guard comes back,” she said, “tell them Tanniv’s apprentice is out of town with her sick mother.” She headed to the kitchens. She pulled the sash off to tie up her hair; the sleeves got tucked up to her elbows.
“Did you order the ingredients for the ice-cake?” she asked.
The head cook blinked. “Aren’t you—”
“Right now, I’m your best hope of this job still being here in three days,” Ilanor said.
“Everything is in the storerooms now. What do you want to do?”
“What I’m best at,” she replied. “We’re making that cake.”
It was a delicate, painstaking process, with a mistake at any juncture meaning they would have to dump the batter and start anew, and every layer had to be frozen before the next was added. Ilanor and the cooking staff went through most of Tanniv’s stored ice maintaining the required temperatures.
And one thing more: while the core chilled, Ilanor crafted the illusion. She needed sight, snatches of darkness; sound, the whispers of voices remembered; and a touch of fear she didn’t have to fake. The only way to acquit Tanniv of one crime was to admit another. She recreated the scene.
“What you’re wearing now is an Imbrizi band…”
“You’re going to force me?”
“I have my reasons…”
Finally satisfied—it wasn’t technically perfect, but it was her best without days to review—she folded the illusion up. She eased it into the batter, where it melted like butter.
The results were fantastic: a dark raspberry liqueur in the center of a ring of shaved ice, with the marbled raspberry and cinnamon cake protecting both. Ilanor let out a long breath.
“Thank you,” she said. “Now to the palace.”
“I have a cousin who works there, miss,” said the head cook. “Do you want me to introduce you?”
Ilanor had never dreamed of entering the imperial palace, even through the kitchen doors. The emperor kept a massive staff; it was simple to put one more delicacy on the dessert tray. As soon as the cake was whisked out of sight, Ilanor resorted to fretting. She knew the emperor ate before his guests, but the food-taster was between him and the illusion.
Despite her worries, the kitchen routine soothed her. She watched the bustle of what was probably an ordinary meal, but looked like a holiday feast. More food than ten people could eat in a week went by with every dish.
Two palace guards navigated the kitchen. Her heart clenched when they approached her.
“Are you Ilanor?”
“Sometimes,” she replied. “What’s going on?” “The emperor wants to see you.”
Good news? Bad? Was putting an illusion in the emperor’s food considered poisoning him? What she said was: “It’s about time.”
The walls of the dining room were paneled with gold, the table inlaid with diamond, and the messy dishevel of a mostly finished meal lay in heaps and mounds. The cake, half-eaten, its core gelled out on the plate, sat before a pudgy individual overwhelmed by his robes of state.
Ilanor stared, trying to look past the splendor and seeing not much there. “How did you do this?” he asked, gesturing to the cake.
“It requires patience and access to enough ice to deep-freeze the inner layers,” she answered, “but isn’t terribly—”
One of the guards shoved her. She squawked and started to turn on him, but a low chuckle from the emperor interrupted her. “That wasn’t what I meant. How did you insert the illusion inside it?”
She blinked. “I just did. It seemed to work.”
“Your mentor came up with this idea, did he?” he said. “It’s an intriguing concept, I have to say.”
Didn’t he understand what she had shown him? Ilanor fought a flare of aggravation. “No. It was mine. I didn’t do this to amuse anyone.” “You succeeded, even so,” the emperor said. “Tell me more.”
“It’s a true story,” she said, knowing it wasn’t what he meant. “Tanniv never meant to use the band on Lady Cirowyn. He’s not guilty of treason.”
A long pause. The emperor sighed, as if it was a petty distraction. “By your own admission, he’s guilty of holding you against your will. Why not leave him to the greater crime?”
“Because he doesn’t deserve to die.” Ilanor met his eyes. “All Tanniv Deronas ever tried to do is survive and practice his trade, and he does it like no one else. If there’s one thing in all the world I understand—” she waved at the cake “—it’s wanting to do what you love.” “I see.” The irritation faded, his expression becoming thoughtful. He turned to the guards. “Bring Tanniv to me.”
Ilanor waited, staring down the ruler of the known realms across a cluttered table. The guards returned with Tanniv, his eyes reddened and his wrists chained together.
He stumbled to a halt. “Ilanor?”
The anxiety in his voice was unmistakable. She wanted to smile in reassurance, but she had no idea what the emperor was thinking.
“If this is you playing politics,” she said instead, “you’re terrible at it.”
Tanniv chuckled. “I’m not sure you are the best mentor in that regard.” He managed a stilted bow, hindered by the chains. “Your servant.”
“This young woman informs me you held her with an Imbrizi band,” the emperor said.
Tanniv winced. “The circumstances were—”
“I’m going to leave it to her to make a formal accusation,” the emperor cut him off. “I have no interest in the interactions of peasants.”
Ilanor flicked Tanniv a covert look, surprised the words hadn’t summoned an indignant squawk.
“If the band was worn by this woman,” the emperor continued, “it was never on the Lady Elen.”
“It was never,” Tanniv said fervently, “on the Lady Elen. She is my shining star.”
Once again, the emperor simply trundled over the interjection. “If there is conspiracy here, it seems to be at the hands of the illusionist who brought the charges.”
“Betra and I have long been at odds. She would do anything to—”
The emperor halted him with a lifted hand. “There will be a more thorough investigation, but until then, I release you.” He gestured to the guards, who removed the shackles.
Tanniv wobbled. “If there is anything I can do—”
“There is. Your apprentice here seems to have found a unique use for your illusions. When placed inside a baked concoction, they materialize in the mind in extraordinary fashion.” The emperor looked directly at Tanniv for the first time. “I wish to place you both on retainer to study this further.”
Baking, with illusion, under the patronage of the emperor? Seeing her mentor too stricken to reply, Ilanor took it upon herself to be the voice of the obvious. “We’d love to.”
“Then this audience is over. My steward will bring over the formal documents. I look forward to the results.”
“I—thank you, your imperial highness,” Tanniv stammered. Once outside the chamber, he turned to her. “You realize this doesn’t mean I admit that your art is in any way on parallel with mine.”
“That’s a strange way of saying thank you,” Ilanor said, “but since I rescued you, it seems only fair to stick around long enough to finish the job.”
“I wonder how anyone found out about the band in the first—” He stopped, looking at her keenly. Perhaps he even thought she had done it on purpose. She flushed and started to speak, but he shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. If we’re going to do this, I insist upon perfect accuracy in your technique…”
“There’s nothing wrong with my cake preparation,” Ilanor interjected.
He arched a brow. “I thought we had agreed…”
They dickered down the corridor, neither one winning, neither one giving ground. Ilanor resisted a grin as they strode along, teacher and student—and it was no longer clear which was which.