Last week was a tour de force from Alaya Dawn Johnson, giving us a searching look into the conflicted hearts of our protagonists. Kaab is caught between her love and her family; Rafe is torn between his vow and his urges; and Diane is ever so curious to get to the bottom of what lies between Vincent and the Ambassdor from Chartil (aren’t we all!)…

We begin with a vision of Binkiinha. Alaya Dawn Johnson evokes another world with Kaab’s memory of virginal priestesses walking the Avenue of the Dead. Ixkaab Balam has always been a woman of strong passions; and her memory of her mother comforting her with a reminder that loves come and go, but family is forever is… troublesome. Foreshadowing? My heart sank much as Kaab’s did. I’ve held little hope that Kaab and Tess will be able to work out their differences, and now I hold a little less.

However, this week Johnson repeatedly manages to bend my sympathies in Kaab’s direction for once. I’ve been a foreigner living abroad; I returned to my own country to find myself become a foreigner in my supposed homeland. I understand Kaab’s need for company – family – who will share food, jokes, attitudes; for  a safe space where – for once – you needn’t fear you’re being misunderstood. I still can’t help but shake my head at her though: she wants to make Tess family; she never asks how she might adapt herself. It cuts both ways, Kaab.

In the meantime, we get a delightful set of scenes in which she sneaks into the Chel compound to steal food. It’s an escapade and a chance to peek behind the curtain into Trader culture; there’s no real suggestion that Kaab will get caught out (bringing disgrace on her family for spying on an ally, and for being unable to feed their own), so we can simply enjoy one of these rare glimpses of Trader culture.

I particularly enjoyed Kaab’s shock at realising the Chel don’t hold the Balam in reverence. The Chel are full of below-stairs cheek about their senior partners and the airs they give themselves. Because the Balam are full of themselves; I had a good giggle at their expense, although it’s another reminder of Kaab’s blind spot where her family are concerned.

Speaking of the Chel, I have spent the past few weeks convinced that handsome young Ahtul Chel was a conniving double agent in the best Trader fashion. All that eagerness to put himself at Diane’s disposal, followed by his impassioned flirting with Rafe – I was sure there must be some deeper design driving him, whether he was aware of it or not.

However, while Diane may have launched him at Rafe in an attempt to unsettle her least favourite former scholar, the Balam don’t appear to have placed him in her household to keep an eye on her (my favourite conspiracy theory). In fact, Ahchuleb suspects him of being behind the thefts – although by the time Kaab has followed him across the City without him so much as noticing, it’s plain that either he’s playing a very deep game indeed, or – I admit it – he’s too naïve for his own good, as innocent in his way as Micah. I don’t think I can cling on to this one any longer. He’s a cinnamon roll, isn’t he?

Our other cinnamon roll is out drinking chocolate this week, trying to help Kaab discover who has been reselling the stolen chocolate. Our favourite mathematician has an excellent sense of taste; ironically, she’s better able to spot good chocolate than Kaab herself. But Micah is understandably uncomfortable at the tension between her friends: she can see how unhappy Tess and Kaab are.

This in spite of the fact that Kaab has finally opened up and shared her current problem with Tess. In a lovely twist, as soon as Kaab lays out the situation (which she now understands better, having recently compared notes with Rafe), Tess solves it for her. Why steal from a warehouse when you can simply forge the papers that ensure the warehousemen hand it over to your delivery boy? See, Kaab. This is what happens when you trust your loved ones.

Unfortunately, a shared victory isn’t enough to melt away all the other tensions that lie between them. Chocolate tasting with Micah exposes the festering wounds inflicted by food and family.

“It was nice when Kaab made it for me It really was. It was beautiful. But because she was the one making it… You’d think one over-boiled potato mattered a hundred times more than the person you’re sharing it with!”

Poor Tess. She lost her family when she was disgraced, and won them back only to lose them again. Kaab has her whole heart. She can only be cut to the quick that Kaab can’t reciprocate – especially as she’s been told repeatedly (implicitly and explicitly) that the Balam wouldn’t consider her good enough for their first daughter. I just want to give her a huge hug.

But this is where Alaya Dawn Johnson gives Kaab some grace I so often feel she lacks. Kaab exits, pursued by a black dog of guilt. She is so close to solving the thefts, so close to being able to go home. She’s in anguish. She seeks solace in the one place she can find it – at home. For all Kaab’s supposedly banished and nominally gets scolded for repeatedly sneaking home, there’s never really any question of her welcome. There will always be a place for her. She is family. She is loved.

Here’s the thing: the same is true in Riverside. Tess may save harsh words and recriminations, but she also melts in the face of Kaab’s love. Love vs family is an impossible, false dichotomy (however often it is has been played out through the centuries of human affections). Kaab is desperate to find a way to make it up to Tess. To find a way to make her family. Oh, Kaab. I’d love to believe you can. My poor heart is in pieces over here.

Thankfully, Tremontaine is very good at offering balm for a bruised heart. With swords. Oh yes.

We have been teased for weeks by the Ambassador from Chartil (yes, I know he has a name. It’s a good name. I like his name. But I love saying the Ambassador from Chartil more – Reza swans into rooms with his long hair and his grace and his stunning outfits making an impression, and his title is the glittering jewel in his extravagant crown) and the suggestion of a past entanglement with our Vincent.

It was inevitable that Diane would decide she wanted Vincent to be part of her collection household, if surprising that Vincent turned her down. But he’ll consider a contract. Or will he?

“Swordsmen fight swordsmen,” Applethorpe said stiffly. “And the gentry pay us for the blood. It’s beneath my honor to fight with some dilettante foreign lordling.”

Oh my. Where’s my fan? Diane isn’t convinced for a second that Vincent believes Reza is some unskilled foreigner, but she’s not above gently baiting Vincent to see whether he’ll bite. The description of Vincent setting his cup on its saucer is enough to set me all a-flutter. With a ringside seat for his precise performance, even Diane is a little flushed and indulges in a brief fantasy of what other skills Master Applethorpe may possess. Yes, Duchess, Vincent is as hot as sauce. But I don’t think he’s for you, no matter how much you ay him.

However, Vincent is prepared to pocket an exorbitant fee to fight this one duel at Diane’s little soiree. Really, I think these two are just trading barbs to see whether either can provoke a response in the other. If I’m wrong about the chances of them ending up in bed, it’ll be explosive. In the meantime, though, they acknowledge their mutual respect and call it a day.

Diane’s other manoeuvres this week are much less elegant. Bumbling Arthur Chel and racist, classist asshat Duke Karleigh are both far too easy to manipulate to really be of interest to her (of course Campion can’t be Duke, if he’s not even a noble – and I’m not sure that’s true, but Diane can sell anything). They’re nothing but tasters to whet the appetite for the main event: Vincent and Reza crossing swords.

It’s classy, people.

The setting is luxurious: candles, cedar smoke, orange blossoms. Canapés, probably. Vincent is white linen; Reza strips down to a white tunic – two smoking hot swordsmen wearing white for a blood sport, daring one another to stain their linens. Reza hasn’t even tied back his long hair. Reza comments that he’s ‘looking forward to seeing how much we might surprise one another’. CAN IT BE ANY MORE LOADED?

The narrative swaps to present tense just to be quite clear how exciting this is going to be. 

Not that we needed any extra cues at this point.

Are you trying to kill me or remind me of why I left?

I dearly hope we’ll get to the bottom of this pair’s history one day. In the meantime, we get one hell of a fight – clothes cut to ribbons, but skin crucially untouched – until the Ambassador from Chartil decides to end it. Oh, my. When these two get a private moment, it’s going to be INTENSE. 

Excuse me, I need a moment with my fan. All the Tremontaine authors are flirting hard with this tasty morsel of narrative goodness now, and I cannot wait to see where they take it next.

Tremontaine is available from Serial Box Publishing in ebook and audio format each week.