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Thom decides, before they even actually dock, that he hates Carthak. His opinion never changes for the better.

He hates it for what it does to Numair; even before they entered Carthaki waters, the mage had gone brittle and oddly quiet, and his attempts at faking his ordinary fool's mask fail miserably, at least for Thom. Daine, too, seems to notice a difference; Thom catches her shooting concerned looks at Numair whenever he has his back turned.

Uncharacteristically, Numair never notices.


The decadence of the Emperor's court is oppressive. The old palace in full glory was a cheap glass bead to the Empire's flawless gem; the new palace at Legann doesn't even compare.

But Thom is, at heart, still a country child and a border lord, raised in the foothills of the Grimhold Mountains and trained for years smack in the middle of them, and he is used to old stone and worn tapestries, faded leaves and the cold biting north.

Besides, he has learned to be wary of too-perfect things; flawlessness is merely a mask for deeper flaws.


The Emperor has the disturbing habit of wandering his halls invisible, spying on his people and his guests alike, a simulacrum set up where he is expected to be, to keep the unobservant from knowing and the observant from saying.

Thom recognizes it for what it is the first time he sees one; he is not so far gone from his magic that he fails to recognize the telltale stillness of the double. But without his Gift, it is much harder to tell where the real Emperor is, and the Emperor has had long practice at leaving no trace of his presence.

Thom sticks close to Daine and Kitten the whole time.


It is hard to leave bad lucks in the great palace; they must be unnoticeable, so any of the brighter inks or obvious designs are out.

Thom is, still, after so many years, not sure if there is anything to this luck-working, but if there's any place that desperately deserves some bad luck, it's this poisoned heart of a bloated empire.

He thinks, once, that he hears a soft, dark chuckle after he taps out a bad-luck beat on a random section of wall. But when Thom turns, no one is in the hallway.

He knows that, in Carthak, that means absolutely nothing.


It is unwise to refuse the Emperor, especially when you are a guest from a country trying desperately to avoid a war - a war that could start at the Emperor's merest whim.

So when the Emperor manages to get him alone, Thom just smiles, grimly, and accedes with a nod and a bow.

And Thom's smile is at least a little amused, because he has learned the power that comes from breaking himself, and has learned to bend. His pride, after all, is nothing in the face of what the Emperor could do to his country, his sometime student, his sister, Numair, if he refuses. And besides, Thom knows what the Emperor does not: it is horribly unlucky to cross a luck-worker.

He clings to that as his hands rise to remove his formal Mithran robes, and it no longer matters whether he believes it.


This is why he hates Carthak: for being the rotten fruit that it is, poisoning the whole southern continent and the Sea and even Tortall, for being an insatiable, unholy monster, worse than anything the Carthaki meddlers released from the Realms, and how ironic is it that one of the only bearable people in this whole stinking court is an abrasive Stormwing?

He hates it, most of all, for breaking young Daine, and as he leans on a piece of wall that's about to collapse under the battering of her ancient beasts, he reflects that he has never, ever wanted his Gift back as badly as he does now.

He won't make it out of the building on his own; his stick is missing and he cannot walk far without support. And he knows a thing or two about raising the dead, and destroying a palace, and the hollowness both leave in you later.

Thom staggers off to find his student, at the heart of this madness.

Carthak is a bitter place, and he will be glad to be rid of it.


(This is the bitterness: Ozorne's hands on his skin, Ozorne's lips on his lips, Ozorne's body pinning him down.)

(And Numair's kiss, later, is too gentle, too kind, and too understanding.)