From the number of stools left, Elizabeta knew that the herald was nearing the end of the list of names he was reading.
"Barone Rosolen, for arson."
The executioner settled the noose around the arsonist's neck, then gestured for the guards to bring the next man forth.
"Tamerighi Godori, for murder."
There was a brief scuffle on the scaffolding before the stool was properly occupied. During the delay people exchanged greetings, asked after business, and commented on any of the convicts who were arranged in a row to witness their last sunrise. A few citizens — relatives of the condemned, no doubt — stood stone-faced and silent enough to join the gargoyles perched atop the older palaces. Others leaned forward to better hear the herald's words. Elizabeta simply stood and waited.
The last man stepped forward without being dragged . Though young, he was tall, and the executioner had to adjust the height of the noose. During the pause, his gaze swept the crowd and met Elizabeta's eyes.
The rest of the world faded against those black eyes. She tried to turn her head but couldn't move. Panic seized her and squeezed the cry in her throat stillborn. He didn't look away, even as the herald called out the last name.
"And Deo Miceli...for treason."
The square fell silent at this pronouncement. And so the raised voice of another herald, riding into the plaza, was as clear as Chidalien glass: "Stop! Take that man down! Deo Miceli has been declared innocent!"
Disbelief erupted. Someone jostled Elizabeta, freeing her from those eyes. She fled, slipping through the press of bodies, but before she vanished down a side street, she couldn't help glancing over her shoulder back at the scaffolding.
Through the uproar, Elizabeta watched Deo Miceli, standing on the stool positioned to put him in prominent view, smile and fold his hand closed, as though over a victory softly come.
* * *
"Deo Miceli is a necromancer," Elizabeta said to her father as they dined.
"What does that mean?"
She had had time to look through her books and find out, herself. It was a type of magic she had never heard of before. "He steals others' life-force to replace his own. He wouldn't have died today in that noose."
Her father, Alyuiso da Vilardino, one of the Council of Ten that held power in Chidalia, heaved a sigh. "Then I was right not to have him hang."
"He may have deserved it, but you wouldn't have succeeded, and someone else would have died in his place." Me.
Their private dinner was at the end of a long table. There had been a third setting when she was young and her mother alive, and the possibility of more children and a household brimming with people and happiness. The plague had taken that away. And so Alyuiso threw himself into politics, and Elizabeta into her magical studies, and occasionally their interests crossed and brought them to conversations like these.
Last night he had told her about a prisoner who had been planning to sell Chidalien military secrets to one of their mainland rivals. During the interrogation, the man had insisted on his innocence, and when that failed to move the Council, he had revealed that he was a mage, and threatened to kill someone if his sentence were enacted. Elizabeta had gone to watch the hanging to try to keep that from happening. Little good she'd managed. She flushed in shame even now, thinking of how helpless she'd been.
"So how can we be rid of him?" Alyuiso asked. "I have him locked in a cell for now, but letting him rot away there seems too good for him."
Elizabeta refused to let her fear cow her. "I'll have to talk to him," she said. "I might be able to find out more about his power in person."
He frowned. "What use was all your schooling, then, if you can't answer questions like these? And I can't risk you like that."
Her father complained often of the expense of having sent her to the mainland when her talent first emerged, to learn from the best mages. But she knew he had done so to be rid of her while he mastered his mourning for his dead wife. She looked too much like her mother, except that her eyes were dark where her mother's had been green.
She remembered Deo Miceli's eyes.
"I think he uses his gaze somehow," she said slowly. "Make sure he's in a dark cell, and I should be safe. But I want to know more before he's killed. Call it research."
Her well-being had never been the foremost of her father's concerns. "Very well," Alyuiso said.
* * *
She hooded the lantern before she stepped in front of the cell.
"Who's there?" he called.
Deo Miceli's voice wasn't as she had expected. It was deep and rich, like velvet down her spine.
She made her own voice hard. "I'll ask the questions, traitor."
"I'm no traitor," he said wearily, as though he'd said the words many times before. "Only a thief. I didn't realize what those scrolls were when I took them, and I never would have sold them."
"Necromancer, then. You tried to take my life-force."
There was a pause. "You're the woman who was watching the hanging? Braided brown hair and black eyes and a noble's cheekbones?"
He remembered too much about her. "Yes," she said.
She turned away and began to uncover the lantern to light her way out of the dungeon. He was clearly insane and her visit was futile.
There was a note of real pleading in his voice. She shuttered the lantern again, plunging them back into darkness. "Are you ready to talk?"
"I laughed," he said, "because of all people, I don't think I could kill you."
"Say what you mean."
"Your eyes," he said. "They're like mine. Once you take someone's life-force through your gaze, your eyes hold that midnight. That's why I stared at you. I didn't know there were others like me."
"I am not a necromancer!" She wished she could slap him through the bars for his impertinence. "I'm a respected mage." As respected as mages could be, when people distrusted magic. "Don't try to cast your own crimes on me."
"Think back," he said. "There must have been a time when you were near death, and someone was there."
And she remembered—
Her mother, singing a lullaby.
The burn of the fever. "Mamma!"
Her mother, bending over her. "I'm here, Elizabeta, I'm here."
The tenderness in her voice and her eyes.
Her beautiful green eyes.
Those eyes widening in horror, unable to look away.
Elizabeta broke away from the memory and dropped onto her hands and knees, retching dryly. Tears filled her eyes and it was still dark, but all the same she could see that emerald gaze, trapped against hers.
She gradually became aware of a hand gentle on her back, rubbing soothing circles. Deo was reaching through the bars to comfort her. The simple human contact finally brought her fully into the present, and she calmed enough to fold her legs under herself and lean against the bars.
"Who was it?" he asked quietly.
"My mother. I had the plague, and she insisted on caring for me herself. We always thought that she caught it from me, and died of it when I recovered. But I was the one who should have died. I took her life."
He sat on the other side of the bars directly across from her. "It's easy for someone we love to be the first," he said.
"For you too?"
"Yes," he said. "I was always a thief. As a boy I ran in a gang of them, and one of them, Nicolo, was like a big brother to me. He kept others from bullying me and taught me tricks. I ignored his advice one day and went after a nobleman with a sword. He caught my fingers in his purse, stabbed me, and left me to bleed on the cobblestones. Nicolo found me."
"I'm sorry," she said, moved by the thought of the frightened boy he had been.
"I went a little mad, I think. I did some things I'm not proud of, daring death to overtake me, and each time I would force my death on someone else. Then I thought that perhaps I could use this power to live forever. It keeps you young too, you know. But then I started wondering, what use is immortality if you have nothing to live for? So I started stealing again as a game, trying to get that thrill back. And it brought me here." His voice went dry. "I suppose there are worse fates."
"Than being locked in a dismal cell?"
"Than being at the side of a beautiful woman," he said indignantly.
She couldn't help laughing, and the sound warmed the cell.
There was an intimacy that the darkness brought along with the shared confessions. And she could feel the warmth of his body against her shoulder and hip, where they pressed together between the bars.
Her father had never bothered to arrange a match for her, and her studies had kept her away from much of society. Surely that explained the attraction she felt for this man. That and his unexpected gentleness, and how he'd made her laugh so soon after crying.
"Would you uncover the lantern?" he asked. "I'd like to see you again."
Elizabeta hesitated. If he had lied to her, this would give him a chance to kill her. But she believed him. She tossed away caution and reached out to unhood the lantern.
He did not try to capture her gaze. Instead he looked over her face carefully, as though memorizing it. "You're as lovely as I remember," he murmured.
She thought of her tear-streaked cheeks and shook her head.
He smiled, and it changed his face. She forgot breath for a moment.
"I am known as Deo Miceli," he said formally, as though they had just been introduced.
"I know, I heard the herald," she said without thinking.
He only smiled again. "I want to know who you are."
She blushed. "Elizabeta da Vilardino." She stood with a sudden resolution. He was innocent, she was certain, but her father would never believe it. "And the person who will free you from this cell."
"You have the key?" he asked, hope brightening his voice as he rose with her.
"I'm a mage," she reminded him. She found the lock with her hands, then slipped a tendril of magic inside and twisted it. There was a click.
"Are you sure about this?" Deo asked.
She had never felt more determined. "Yes."
He pushed the cell door open. Its rusted hinges screamed, and they froze.
"What's going on?" a voice called.
There were running footsteps, and then the guard who had let Elizabeta in came into sight, only to skid to a halt and stare at them in shock.
She stepped forward, not knowing what to say, but the guard reflexively raised his sword. Deo shouted, "No!" and lunged out of the cell. When the guard turned toward him, she grabbed his sword arm and tried to keep him from striking with his blade. There was a moment of furious grappling, and then the guard lost his balance and slipped out of their hold.
He fell, and his head hit the ground with a dull thud. A pool of blood began to form beneath him. Elizabeta brought her hands to her mouth in horror.
Deo knelt by him, feeling his pulse and checking the wound. "It's bad," he said. "I don't think he'll die of it, but he needs to be tended to soon."
They looked at each other, knowing that the last thing they could afford to do was bring this injured guard to anyone's attention.
"I can't be the cause of another death," she said. "Go. I'll find someone to help him."
He shook his head. "They'll never believe that I escaped from the cell by myself, and once the guard recovers, he'll tell them what happened. The Council of Ten is brutal in their questioning. I won't leave you to it."
"My father is on the Council," she said, but she knew that would be no protection.
He looked at her helplessly. "Isn't there something you can do with your magic?"
"Until I learned about necromancers, I thought mages could only affect the inanimate," she said. Her eyes widened. "If necromancers can take life-force," she said, "surely we can give it."
"Wouldn't we only kill ourselves?"
"I don't need to give it all, just enough to heal them." She leaned over the guard, but he set a hand on her arm to pull her away.
"I'll try it," he said. "That way, if a partial transfer's not possible, I'll be the one who finds out."
She tried to find a protest, but he was already carefully opening the guards' eyelids with thumbs and forefingers. His eyes were rolled up at first, but then they suddenly focused on Deo.
There was a near-palpable connection between them. Elizabeta glanced at the wound and watched the flow of blood slow, then stop. "Enough," she said, but Deo did not respond. She set her palm over the guard's eyes, cutting the link.
Deo swayed for a moment. He looked pale even in the lantern-light, but he was alive. "Did it work?" he asked.
"Yes," she said in relief at the guard's healing, at Deo's survival. Giddiness overcame her and she leaned forward and kissed him.
He brought his arms around her and kissed her back. She felt a thrill across her skin and deep in her belly. When he tore his mouth from hers, she made a protesting noise and pressed herself against him.
"We have to get out of here," he said, his voice husky. "Elizabeta, will you come with me? I don't know if you'll be safe here, and I couldn't bear having put you in danger."
She couldn't go back to my her father anyway, not knowing that she was the one who killed her mother. And there was something about Deo that drew her. He held the promise of a life beyond her dry studies, a new vista to explore.
"Yes," she said.
* * *
Her jewels had bought passage on the first ship to sail to the mainland. She didn't know what awaited them there, but she knew that Deo would be there beside her--just as he was now while they stood by the rail of the ship.
"You know you must stop stealing others' lives," she said, leaning her head against his shoulder.
He stroked her hair. "I know. I never will again. I'll heal instead." Then lightly, "Must I stop stealing anything else?"
She laughed. The sea winds caught the sound and tossed it away. They were sailing away from their home with only their love to sustain them. "That would be too much to ask. I know you'll always be a thief. You're stealing me away, after all." She brought his hand to her heart. "And you've taken this."
He kissed her temple. "No," he said into her ear. "That one was a trade."