I shrugged. “These here, I believe. They are mixed up quite well but…” I slipped a hand into the concealed pocket in the breeches I’d had made this morning in Kyruna. “I kept a few pieces back from my purse just in case I was robbed or something unexpected happened.” I emptied the pocket and gave Syndrian every piece of silver.
He dropped them all in the liquid. Biko, Syndrian, and I gathered around the mug and watched. None of the coins from my mother tarnished in the vinegar. None of the coins darkened in the liquid. No matter how we stared, the money simply reflected through the liquid, looking bright, shiny, and new.
I understood now what this meant. What the test back in the pub in Kyruna had been intended for. And worse, how close I’d come to a fate that no one—no goblins with their magical craft, no criminal with a treasury full of money—could have reversed had it gone the way of the man who’d cheated at cards. I clenched my icy, trembling hands and bit back a sob.
Each and every one of the gifted coins was a fake.
Istaggered back from the butler’s cart as though I’d been struck in the face.
“I d-don’t understand…” I stammered. “This cannot be. How? How could this happen? These coins were…”
Biko interrupted me, his angry exclamations punctuated by the steely fury in his eyes. “Your mother set you up. That’s the only explanation that makes sense. You crossed her, Pali. And she gave you those coins knowing full well that they’d be tested at the tournament. Do you realize what could have happened!”
Biko stormed the length of the sitting room, yanking at his hair.
“You could have been killed! What if they’d had some other system in place to detect the fakes?” He rushed over to me and grabbed my shoulders. “Sis, by the gods. Your mother sacrificed you. Served you up on a platter.”
I dropped onto the settee and curled my knees in front of my chest. I wrapped my arms around them and hugged tight, my thoughts racing. “Did she know?” I whimpered. “Maybe she didn’t know…”
“Pali! There’s no way she did not know what those coins were.” Biko lifted his injured hand to his face. “Look at this! She nearly had us killed by vengersax. Do you think the same woman who would do that hadno ideawhat was in your family’s treasury? Doesn’t your mother manage the books and the money?”
I swallowed hard against the knot in my throat and nodded. “She does,” I admitted.
“That godforsaken demon set us up! All of us!”
I’d never seen Biko like this. Angry—fuming. Seeing the playful man driven to this kind of rage yet again because of my mother’s cruelty was heartbreaking. But I wasn’t certain I had any heart left to break.
“Think about it!” he pressed. “She dismissed me and my mother, knowing full well that your father had made a commitment to us. As long as we kept their filthy secrets, Mum and I would have a home and work.”
I could see the point he was making, but something just was not adding up for me. My mother had exposed us to the vengersax attack, but she’d seemed sincerely shocked and concerned that Biko had been hurt. And while I believed that she’d been furious at my father when she burned his village cabin, if she did know that the coins in the treasury were counterfeit…what would she have gained by giving them to me? Other than, of course, my demise?
“Maybe that’s why that coxcomb has been prowling around the grounds, trying to meet with me in secret.” Biko groaned and rolled his neck, a cracking sound echoing from his bones. “Maybe your father wanted me dead, Pali. Did you ever think about that? To ensure that I could never challenge the inheritance that would pass to your husband when you married?”
I hung my head in shame. I truly had nothing to offer Biko. No apology would make up for what my father and mother were. No excuse would clear the scorecard.
“I might have to go outside… When I’m upset, emotional like this… I can’t control what I do, what I become.” Biko groaned and wiped the back of his arm against the sweat on his brow.
Idony rushed to her son’s side and smoothed a hand over his arm. “Why don’t we go outside together? Come.” She looked at me, tears shimmering in her eyes. “Pali, my darling, I have no words for this. We’ll be back soon.”
She quietly closed the door behind her, leaving Syndrian and me alone. The room spun, and I struggled to sit before I toppled over. “I don’t understand,” I murmured, focusing on the fire. That might have been a poor choice, though. The ripples of emotion inside me had an influence on the fire; the flames diminished like I’d thrown a cup of water against them. I looked away and they flared again, filling the room with light and heat. “Syndrian, I’m lost.”
He was still staring into the mugs, but at my words, he turned slowly, his face pensive. “I don’t think you’re lost at all. I believe you’re just coming into your power.”
He reached a hand out to me, but I was shivering, gripping my knees with my hands. “What if my mother wanted me dead all along? With both Biko and me out of the way…” I closed my eyes against the hot tears. “She could…I don’t know. Kill my father? Marry Emeric Otleich, the way she always wished?” I released my knees long enough to wipe my tear-stained cheeks. “What if my mother has been the dark force in our family all these years? I do not know what to believe.”
Syndrian scrubbed the dark stubble on his chin with one hand. “Yes,” he insisted. “You do. You’ve always known what to believe. Your instincts, Pali. They’ve never let you down.”
“Are you talking about backgammon? It’s a game, Syndrian. One with checkers and dice. Anyone with enough time on their hands and no real work to do could become proficient at it.” I shook my head, thinking of all the things I wanted to ask Lady Lombard. I could not give up until I knew the truth. I only wished I knew when and how to reach my mother. If I just went home now…and if she really did want me dead…
“Pali, no.” He knelt on the floor in front of me and rested his hands on mine. “That’s not true, and you know it. You have exceptional instincts and skill. You react in the moment based on the roll of the dice, yes, but you’re always thinking steps ahead. I can see that in you. It’s one of the things that I’ve always loved about you. Look at your brother. He’s outside cooling off so he doesn’t turn into a bear and tear apart Neo’s sitting room. But even now, I’m sure you’re already planning what to say when you confront your mother. Calmly thinking through each move and its consequences.”
I moved my legs out of the way and laced my fingers through his. “Do you believe that my mother intentionally gave me those coins?” I whispered.
Syndrian pressed a kiss to the back of my hand. “Someday, Pali, I wish to make you my wife. I won’t make allegations against your family that I cannot support. But make no mistake.” He squinted his eyes closed. “If I ever have proof…your mother will know no more brutal enemy in all of Efimia than me. The fate of those corpses hanging outside Knuckles & Bones will seem like a holiday when I’m through with any who would hurt you.”
I shook my head. “I can’t believe she meant to. I won’t believe it, even if my trust in her is my undoing.”