“Allesandra,” Jan called. “Come here to your vatarh.”
The girl pulled away from the servant holding her hand and the knot of women around the Hirzgin as they emerged from the Hirzg’s tent-palace. Her feet raised pouts of dust from the torn ground as she came up to Jan. Starkkapitan ca’Staunton, U’Teni cu’Kohnle, and Jan’s aide Markell were standing with Jan in the slanted, foggy rays of early morning. They all smiled politely as the girl hugged him around the waist. “Good morning, Vatarh,” she said. “It’s a good day to move the army, I think.”
Jan grinned and embraced his daughter tightly, allowing himself an additional taste of satisfaction at the sour look on his wife’s face. He had told Greta the night before that they would not be going to Nessantico for the Jubilee, and her howls of outrage had kept many of the courtiers awake. Markell and cu’Kohnle nodded in satisfaction at seeing daughter and vatarh embrace, but Starkkapitan ca’Staunton’s face mirrored that of the Hirzgin. “You see,” he told ca’Staunton, “my daughter has a fine military mind. All I get from you, Starkkapitan, are excuses.
“My Hirzg,” ca’Staunton said, a trace of careful arrogance in his voice, “it’s not fear. Any of the chevarittai, the offiziers, or our soldiers would lay down their lives for you-and many have, for you or for Hirzg Karin before you. But to move toward Nessantico’s borders during the Kraljica’s Jubilee, even as an exercise. .” Shoulders lifted under the sash of his rank. Medals clashed. “We risk misinterpretation. As I’ve said, if we marched instead toward Tennshah, the Kraljica could protest not at all, and the longer march would provide ample opportunities for formation exercises, especially once we reached the eastern plains.”
Jan glanced at the Hirzgin again, who had paused with her entourage carefully out of earshot. He watched her face as she chatted with her attendants, though his attention now drifted toward Mara, standing beside the Hirzgin. He’d spent most of the night with her after the Hirzgin’s outburst had finally faded. Mara’s face was turned slightly toward the Hirzg rather than to the Hirzgin, and she nodded to him.
“Have we not always been the mighty sword in the hand of Nessantico, the spear that the Kralji send against their enemies?” Markell was asking Starkkapitan ca’Staunton. “Don’t we have the need-nay, the
Starkkapitan ca’Staunton glared at Markell. “I serve the Hirzg, of course,” he snapped. “But I still say that moving the army so close to Nessantico’s border is an unnecessary provocation when we could as easily turn east.”
“Starkkapitan,” Allesandra said, “aren’t you the Hirzg’s strong right arm?”
Ca’Staunton appeared startled, though whether it was at the question itself or from being addressed so presumptuously by an adolescent, Jan could not tell. “Indeed, I suppose that is what I-and our army- represent, A’Hirzg Allesandra,” the starkkapitan replied, a bit stiffly and with a glance at Jan, as if looking for his approval.
“If my right arm refused to obey me, I would chop it off myself,”
Allesandra told him. She smiled innocently as she said it. “What good is an arm that thinks it owns the body?”
Jan broke into laughter at that, with Markell and cu’Kohnle following a moment later. The starkkapitan’s face flushed, and his mouth opened silently. “There, you see, Starkkapitan?” Jan said. “We have wisdom from the young A’Hirzg. Maybe I will make her Starkkapitan- what do you think?”
The man’s cheeks were as ruddy as if the winter wind had scrubbed them raw, and his mouth had tightened into a thin line. He bowed his head to Jan. “The Hirzg may certainly do as he wishes,” ca’Staunton answered. His hands were clenched at his sides, and his medals rang with his movement. “I have served you, the late A’Hirzg Ludwig, and your vatarh all my life. If that no longer means anything to you, my Hirzg. .”
“Look at me, Starkkapitan,” Jan interrupted, and ca’Staunton’s eyes came up. “I am grateful for your long service, and you have proven your worth a dozen times over during your career. That is why I have listened to you at all this morning, and that is why I tell you now that we
“Then I will inform the a’offiziers,” ca’Staunton said. There was still fury in his gaze, but it was banked now. He bowed again, to Jan, to Markell, and to Allesandra, then turned to leave.
“Starkkapitan,” Jan called to him, and ca’Staunton turned back.
“Prepare them as if we were truly going into battle. I want them as ready as they were when we fought in Tennshah.”
The man’s eyes widened then, and Jan saw the realization there.
“Yes, my Hirzg. They’ll be ready.”
“Good. Then go, and make preparations. I expect us to be on the move by Second Call.”
Another bow, and ca’Staunton strode quickly away. “And I will inform the war-teni,” cu’Kohnle said. His eyes narrowed. “If I may say, my Hirzg, I look forward to this. Cenzi will bless you.” He made his bow and followed ca’Staunton.
“Can I ride with you, too, Vatarh?” Allesandra asked, tugging at his bashta. “I can ride very well now.”
“I’m afraid not,” he told her. “You’ll be going back to Brezno with the Hirzgin.”
“Vatarh!” Allesandra stamped her foot, though the grass rendered the protest silent. “If I’m going to lead the army one day, I need to learn.”
“And you will,” Jan told her, tousling her hair affectionately. “But not today. Not yet. I want you in Brezno, and I want you to write to me every day. Tell me what the Hirzgin is doing and who’s she talking to.
That’s your job.”
“Isn’t that what Mara does for you?” Allesandra asked, and Jan laughed again as Markell grinned.
“I need your eyes there,” he told her, not answering her question.
“Remember, I want to hear from you each and every day. Markell will tell you how to send me private messages before you leave today. Now-
what I need you to do is go back to your matarh. Don’t tell her anything we’ve talked about. Not yet; I will tell her myself in a few minutes, after I finish talking with Markell. Go on now.”
“I don’t want to,” she said. “I want to stay here with you. I want to listen.”
“Allesandra, you are my heart,” Jan said to her. “Just like Stark-kapitan ca’Staunton is my right arm. And I don’t want to have to rip out my own heart because it won’t obey me.”
“That’s not fair, Vatarh.” She pouted dramatically “No, it’s not,” he said, smiling. “But it’s still necessary. Go on, now.
Be the A’Hirzg, not my daughter.”
Allesandra sighed loudly, then finally stood on her toes as Jan bent down to give her a kiss. “I’ll write every day,” she whispered to him, hugging him with her arms around his neck. “And I’ll tell you everything.” With that, she released him and ran back to the knot of women near the tents.
“My Hirzg?” Markell said. “Should I send a message to A’Teni ca’Cellibrecca, to make him aware of your intentions?”
Jan watched Mara bend down to take Allesandra in her arms; she smiled over the little girl’s shoulder to Jan. The Hirzgin’s mouth tightened so that even from this distance, Jan could see the lines folding in her plain, flattened face. “Yes,” Jan said to Markell. “Tell the a’teni that it’s time for him to make his choice: either for me, or for the A’Kralj.
Tell him he can no longer play both sides. He must make his choice now. Tell him that I hear his daughter will be looking for a new husband soon, and that I’ll be looking for a wife.” Jan clapped Markell on the shoulder. “When we reach the border, Markell, the Kraljica will realize that the might of the Holdings is Firenzcia. She will negotiate, as she always has, rather than risk war-and the terms will make me the A’Kralj, not her son. From what I’ve heard, that may even please her.
And if not. .” He shrugged. “Then may Cenzi have mercy on her in the afterlife.”
She had expected that the Archigos would be waiting at her apartments when she returned from Oldtown. He was not. There was, in fact, only silence from him the next day, a day in which she performed her duties in the Archigos’ Temple without seeing him, a day in which the Kraljica lingered-according to all the rumors-on the edge of death, a day in which she found that she could not stop thinking of what she had seen. The Numetodo haunted her dreams and skulked like shadows in her waking thoughts.
She’d returned changed, and she knew it. She wondered how everyone else could not see it as well.
On the morning of the following day, a note came from the Archigos: he would meet her at the Kraljica’s Palais immediately. The carriage was already waiting for her; the Archigos was not in it, but the driver was the same e’teni who had taken her to Oldtown. He glared at her accusingly as he opened the carriage door.
At the palace, Renard was waiting to escort her to the Kraljica’s chambers. “How is she?” Ana whispered as they walked. The mood in the palais was somber; the servants Ana glimpsed hurried about their tasks, silent and frowning. Renard shook his head.
“I pray, O’Teni, as does the Archigos, but I fear that Cenzi calls her too strongly.”
The hall servants opened the door to the Kraljica’s chambers as they approached. “The Archigos said for you to go in directly to her bedroom. I’ll wait here,” Renard said. Ana nodded, and the old man took her hands before she could move away. “If you can help,” he said, “the healers with their potions and leeches have been able to do nothing, but you. . you were able to keep her alive. I know that it is what she would want, and Cenzi will forgive you.”
He released her hands and turned away before she could respond, leaving Ana alone. The Archigos’ voice called to her from the bedroom. “Ana? Come here. .”
The bedroom looked the same as she’d last seen it, all but the Kraljica. Her face was a pale skull draped with parchment above the covers, strands of white hair clinging to it stubbornly. She looked already dead, her eyes and cheeks sunken.
“She’s nearly gone,” the Archigos said. He was seated alongside the bed, looking like a wizened child in the tall chair with his legs dangling below the robes of his office, clad in white stockings and slippers. She looked for accusation in his face and saw nothing there but grief.
“I’m sorry, Archigos.” She came to the other side of the bed and looked down at the Kraljica. “I can’t help her. Not anymore.”
“Try,” he said. The single word was an order. The deep sadness in his face had been erased. He looked across the bed to Ana, his eyebrows raised angrily.
He cut her off, lifting himself nearly off the seat with his hands.
“You will try again,” he repeated. “I brought you into the Faith from obscurity; I have raised you up. I’ve protected you. I have given you and your family all that they have. I know where you went the other night and I’ve said nothing. I’ve protected you from enemies you don’t even know you have, Ana. You
I know what I ask of you, and I know the Divolonte. Try. One more time.”
The Kraljica’s mouth opened slightly in a sour breath. Ana nodded.
“I’ll try,” she told the Archigos. She closed her eyes, drawing in a long, calming breath, trying not to think of the exhaustion and pain that were going to follow.
The words of the chant sounded false in her ears. She kept thinking of what she’d seen with the Numetodo.
She stopped chanting. She let her hands fall to her side. “Archigos,”
she said. “I’m sorry. I can do nothing for her.”
He nodded as if it was what he’d expected to hear, and Ana realized that he misunderstood her, that he believed she had already tried and failed. She started to tell him the truth but could not think of a way to do that without betraying her promise to Karl.
The Kraljica would die, and she would bear the blame.
“Thank you for the effort, Ana,” the Archigos was saying. “I knew it was her time, but I didn’t want. .” He stopped. She saw the grief wash again over his face as he looked down at the Kraljica. “Stay here with me. Pray with me.”
Ana nodded. She brought a chair over to the side of the bed and sat across from him. His eyes were closed and his lips were moving. A faint glow emanated from his hands; he was calling the Ilmodo reflexively, unconsciously. Ana found herself mute. She watched the Archigos, but she could not bring herself to pray. Her thoughts were chaotic: a nightmare mix of fright at what would happen to her, of images from the Numetodo’s heretical use of the Ilmodo, of what she’d been taught of teni who had lost their faith and found themselves punished by Cenzi, never to be able to use the Ilmodo again.
“Archigos,” she said softly, almost a whisper. “Let me try again, one more time. .” The dwarf’s eyes opened, the glow faded from his hands.
He nodded to her, silently.
Again she felt the emptiness there, how the frayed thread of life in her body led irrevocably back to the painting elsewhere in the palais. She wrapped the Ilmodo around that thread, began to tug at it delicately.
Slowly, slowly, she started to pull the Kraljica back once more. Ana nearly sobbed with the relief and effort.
She could do this, she could bring the Kraljica back yet again even if she could not fully heal her. She could- but a strange nausea passed over Ana, a sudden disorientation.
It was as if someone had shaken the world. For a moment she thought that it was the tremor of an earthquake. . and she realized that the thread holding the Kraljica to her body was-impossibly-broken.
“No!” Ana screamed. The spell dissolved, the Second World vanished, the Ilmodo fled from her.
The Kraljica’s mouth was open, but her chest was still. Her hair, only a few seconds ago brushed and arranged, was mussed, as if in her last moment she had thrashed and struggled. The Archigos stood, and Renard, from his station along the wall, called through the door for the healer, in a choked voice. The healer entered, glanced at the body and held a silvered glass to the Kraljica’s nostrils.
He shook his head.
The Archigos began the prayer of the dead as Renard sobbed, and the servants fled the room. Ana sobbed with him, and wondered whether she was weeping for the Kraljica or because Cenzi had snatched her away from Ana, as if in punishment.
Before the Archigos had finished his prayer, the wind-horns in the temples began to call throughout the city.
Orlandi felt physically ill, as he had since he’d deciphered the message from the Hirzg.
Everything had gone utterly wrong since the Gschnas. Orlandi had anticipated playing the Hirzg against the A’Kralj for several months yet, time in which he could gauge which one would ultimately make the best ally. But now. . the Hirzg, ever impetuous and dangerous, was forcing his hand. He’d underestimated both men and their willingness to follow a slower, more circumspect path. The Hirzg was pushing his army forward in blatant threat, and if Francesca’s suspicion was true, then the A’Kralj had been the one responsible for the Kraljica’s death.
But the Kraljica
He would send the army forward over the border, hoping to take the Sun Throne himself.
That was the most frightening thought of all. Orlandi had thought of himself as the master, moving the pieces in the game, but the pieces had asserted their own wills.
The Archigos had given Orlandi an office in the Temple so that he wouldn’t need to return to Ile Verte in the wake of the Kraljica’s sudden illness. Orlandi went to his knees on the carpet, groaning with the effort as his joints protested, bending over until he huddled there with his back bowed, his forehead on the woolen nap. He prayed, as if he were a simple e’teni in the service of the temple.
After a time, he rose slowly, sore and stiff. He wiped at his eyes. He’d heard no clear answer to his prayers, but he knew one thing: whether the A’Kralj or the Hirzg eventually sat on the throne, that person would need a proper wife who gave them a political tie they could use. And Orlandi could-he must-provide that.
Orlandi went to the door and spoke to the e’teni stationed there.
“Find someone to fetch the courier from Firenzcia and send him to me; I have a note for him to deliver to the Hirzg. Then go yourself to U’Teni Estraven ca’Cellibrecca at the Old Temple-inform him that
he is to come here immediately. Do you understand?” The e’teni-a young woman who looked to be no more than sixteen and fresh from her studies as an acolyte-nodded with wide eyes. She hesitated, and he waved an impatient hand at her. “Go,” he said, and she fled, without even giving him the sign of Cenzi.
Orlandi returned to his desk, pulling the cipher disk from a pocket in his vestments. He took a piece of vellum from the drawer and un-stoppered the inkwell. He wrote slowly and carefully, dusting the manuscript with sand and blowing it off before folding it. He took a candle and a stick of red wax and sealed the letter, pressing his ring into a cooling pool of wax the size of a bronze folia. He put the letter in an envelope, addressed it to the Hirzg, and also sealed that.
By the time he’d finished, the rider had arrived. He handed the man the envelope. “The Hirzg
“A’Teni,” Estraven said, bowing and giving the sign of Cenzi as the courier hurried away. “You asked for me?”
“I did,” Orlandi told him. “Come in. Sit, Estraven. There’s wine and water on the desk; please, refresh yourself.”
He watched while Estraven poured himself a glass of wine. “Sorry
it took so long to get here, A’Teni; when your e’teni came to tell me, I was just finishing the Second Call passages for the celebrants, and I had to speak to the choirmaster regarding the evening services and the ceremony for the Kraljica. I came as soon as I could.”
Orlandi waved his hand. “The needs of the Faith come first,” he said. “In a sense, that’s why I’ve sent for you. I need you-because I can trust you to keep the Faith’s business private.”
His marriage-son’s face took on a faint blush of pride. “Indeed you can, A’Teni. What do you need of me?”
“I want you to go to Brezno, Estraven,” he said. “Quickly. I want you to leave tomorrow morning.”
Estraven’s smile collapsed. The wine shuddered in his glass. “To Brezno? With the Kraljica’s funeral in a week? I thought you had left U’Teni cu’Kohnle in charge of Brezno and Firenzcia. A’Teni, what
of my charge here? — all the services, my obligations. . I couldn’t possibly. .”
“You can. You will,” Orlandi said firmly, and that closed Estraven’s mouth. “I will make arrangements for your obligations to be covered.
U’Teni cu’Kohnle is with the Hirzg and away from Brezno, and I need someone in that city for the next month or two. I need you there soon,
“What. .” Estraven stopped, licking his lips. He took a sip of the wine. He seemed to be recovering himself. “This is all so sudden. I’m sorry, A’Teni, if I seemed flustered, but this comes so unexpectedly. Certainly, I’ll do whatever you ask, as I always have. What do you require me to do in Brezno?”
“I will send you written instructions this afternoon, Estraven, for you to open once you reach the temple in Brezno. I will also send word to U’Teni cu’Kohnle about your temporary assignment. In the meantime, I want you to get yourself ready to leave at daybreak.”
Estraven set the wine down, rising. “I’ll begin, then,” he said. He tapped his clean-shaven chin with a finger. “I should send word to Francesca that we’ll be leaving-or have you done that already, A’Teni?
She’ll need to get the household together.”
“Francesca will be staying here,” Orlandi told him, and he enjoyed the blink that Estraven gave in response. “You’ll be traveling with Vajiki Carlo cu’Belli and those in his employ. He’s a trader who travels frequently through the Holdings, and he has served me as well for the last several years. I will send along two of the teni from my own staff to act as your aides and coordinate things for you once you reach Brezno; your personal staff should remain here since they know the routines for the Old Temple. Vajiki cu’Belli has been an associate of mine for some time, and I have every confidence in him, despite what you’ll find are his somewhat coarse ways. His loyalty is unquestioned.”
“Of course, A’Teni. Is there more I should know?”
“Not now,” Orlandi told him. He came over to him, taking the man’s hands in his own and patting them. “Estraven, I’m giving you this task because I know how committed you are to the Faith, and how well you’ve always served me. I rewarded you with Francesca’s hand because of your faith. Now I ask you to trust me once again.”
“Of course, A’Teni.” The bravado was back in Estraven’s voice, his ego adequately stroked. “I won’t fail you.”
“I know you won’t,” Orlandi answered. He released Estraven’s hands and went to one of the windows, pulling aside the curtain to look down at the temple square. “Now, you should go. You don’t have much time.”
Orlandi didn’t bother to watch Estraven’s bow. He’d send word immediately to cu’Belli and let the man know what needed to be done.
And he would have a late dinner with Francesca, alone, so they could talk.
He wondered how Francesca would react to the news.
“Commandant, the body is over here.”
Sergei walked over to where a man gestured. His companion, O’Offizier ce’Falla, offered a silken handkerchief soaked in perfume, but Sergei waved it away. He walked through the high meadow grass to the bank of the A’Sele. He could see the body, like a black hummock in the grass, a few strides from the sullen green currents of the river. The scent of corruption already hung around the corpse, and black flies lifted in shrill irritation as he approached. A quartet of peasants stood close by, looking uneasy and half-frightened. Sergei smiled at them, though he could see them staring at his face. At the gleam of his nose.
“You did as you should, and I am here to give you the Kraljica’s thanks,” he told them. They ducked their heads at that and gave the sign of Cenzi. “You will each also be given a half-siqil reward. The o’offizier will take care of that. .” He nodded to ce’Falla, who quickly ushered the now-smiling peasants aside as Sergei crouched down next to the body.
The corpse lay faceup on the ground. The scavengers had been at it, but even though the face was nearly gone, Sergei knew from the black clothing and the lanky body that it was ci’Recroix, even if the dew-ruined sketchbook a few feet away weren’t already a mute witness.
“Did the peasants steal anything, Vajiki?” Sergei asked the man who had remained behind: Remy ce’Nimoni, a retainer employed by Chevaritt Bella ca’Nephri, who owned the chateau and the land on which it resided, and who was, as Sergei knew, also one of the A’Kralj’s good companions.
Sergei had found that he instinctively didn’t care for ce’Nimoni.
There was an air of smugness about him, and he’d caught the man smiling strangely as they conversed on the way from the chateau to where the body had been found. Nor did the retainer’s startlingly green eyes want to rest on Sergei’s face. His answers to Sergei’s questions had been too quick and too pat, as if he’d given every possibility too much thought, or someone had coached him well.
That suspicion was not a path Sergei cared to tread. Chevaritt ca’Nephri was far too close to the A’Kralj for that to be comfortable.
“Steal anything? I don’t think so, Commandant,” ce’Nimoni answered now. “They saw the body and the blood, and with the dark clothing they were afraid it was a sorcerer or worse, and they came running back to the chateau. I searched all of them afterward and found nothing. Then I placed guards here until you could be summoned-they
kept away most of the beasts, but. .” He waved a hand at the corpse, and again there was that odd flash of a smile and his glance at the body was almost possessive. “Not all, as you can see. The dogs and wolves are less afraid of a dead body than us, and very persistent.”
“Wild beasts know an opportunity when they see it,” Sergei answered. “If you’ll excuse me, Vajiki, I would like to examine the body. Alone.”
Ce’Nimoni bowed. “As you wish, Commandant. I’ll be at the trail with the horses.”
Sergei leaned closer to the body as the man strode away. His flesh wrinkled above the bridge of his false nose at the smell, but the stench was no worse than the lower cells of the Bastida, where sewage and corruption mingled with the odor of chained, desperate men. He could see blood crusted on the man’s blouse, though the animals had chewed away most of the stained cloth and ripped open the stomach to get to the man’s entrails-it would be difficult to determine whether ci’Recroix had been wounded there first. The cut at the neck, though. . even with the animal gnawings and the maggots wriggling deep in the wound, it was apparent that a blade had made that cut.
Disappointing: Sergei would have liked the opportunity to find out what ci’Recroix knew: the slow, careful, and painful interrogations that the Bastida could provide. Sergei was certain that the person who had hired ci’Recroix had been afraid of exactly that.
He hadn’t yet touched the body. A chain glittered dully around the torn neck; Sergei leaned closer. His gloved fingers brushed aside the ripped cloak. A pendant hung on the man’s chest: a dark seashell, a shell carved of stone.
He wondered only for a second before the answer of where he’d seen a similar pendant came to him. He reached down and pulled the pendant away; the fine chain broke against the weight of the skull. Sergei grimaced and placed the shell in his pocket.
“How very clumsy, Vajiki ci’Recroix,” he told the corpse. “Could a man of your great talent truly be that stupid?”
As if in answer, a beetle clambered from the corpse’s open mouth.
Sergei smiled grimly.
Moving away from the body, he stooped to pick up the sketchbook, glancing at a few of the pages, and staring at the final sketch there-a bird drawn in charcoal that looked as if it were solid enough to fly away from the page-before closing it. He put the sketchbook under an arm.
Standing, he stared down at the body again for several breaths. Finally, he gave the sign of Cenzi over the remains, then went up from the bank to the narrow lane that led to the chateau. The retainer ce’Nimoni waited there with ce’Falla, as well as Sergei’s gray stallion and their own horses; the peasants were gone.
“We’re done here, O’Offizier,” he said to ce’Falla. He put the sketchbook into a pouch of his saddle. “We’ll ride now. I have work to do back in Nessantico.”
Ce’Nimoni frowned, brows lowering over meadow-bright eyes.
“Commandant, the body. .?”
“Bury it, burn it, let it rot-whatever Chevaritt ca’Nephri bids you to do with it. I don’t care. I’ve learned all I can from it.” With that, Sergei hoisted himself astride the gray, who nickered nervously and flared his nostrils as if the smell on Sergei’s clothes bothered him. Sergei pulled at the reins and leaned forward to pat the gray’s neck to calm him. “You did well,” he told ce’Nimoni. “When the Gardes a’Liste looks at the Roll of names next, I know they will consider your service here. I will convey your cooperation and your quick intervention here to Chevaritt ca’Nephri, and the Kraljiki.”
The retainer bowed and clasped hands to forehead. Again, Sergei
caught a glimpse of that self-satisfied grin on the man’s face.
Then he gestured to O’Offizier ce’Falla, and they rode east and north toward Nessantico.
“cu’Belli! Where are you?”
There was no answer. Estraven stared at the trio of gray, lichen-spotted plinths leaning against each other a stone’s throw from the Avi a’Firenzcia, the road bordering the River Clario. In the mist-ing drizzle, they appeared particularly dark and foreboding, as if they’d been set down by the Moitidi’s children in the First Age. “Cenzi’s piss,”
Estraven muttered and slapped the reins of his horse, then quickly gave the sign of Cenzi and whispered a quick prayer for forgiveness at his blasphemy. His horse shook its soggy mane and nickered, the ears flicking as if it had heard something. Estraven shifted anxiously in his saddle. “Cu’Belli!” he called again.
Their little troupe-Estraven, the trader cu’Belli, two e’teni from A’Teni ca’Cellibrecca’s staff, and four men whose job it was to handle the pack animals cu’Belli brought with him-had crossed the border
yesterday into Firenzcia, passing through the guard station set up across the Avi at the border town of Ville Colhelm. They were three days from Nessantico, and Estraven was regretting ever having agreed to his marriage-vatarh’s request. At the least, A’Teni ca’Cellibrecca could have allowed him to bring his own staff, but the A’Teni had insisted that they remain behind at the temple on the Isle A’Kralji so they could attend to the Kraljica’s funeral ceremonies.
“When you get to Brezno, my own people will be waiting for you,” ca’Cellibrecca had said. “As I told you, Cu’Belli is a crude man in many ways, but he’s also a loyal one. He’ll make certain that you’re comfortable, if only because that’s what he’ll want himself.”
Estraven had to agree with his marriage-vatarh’s assessment of “crude.” The man was certainly that. His vision of “comfortable” seemed to consist mostly of whether the inn’s kegs were full of good ale and that the barmaids were comely and seducible. He’d drunk and whored the night away in each village they’d stayed in. Estraven had stayed in his room in disgust, forcing the e-teni to do the same, spend-ing his time writing letters to Francesca and to his o’teni aides at the Old Temple back in Nessantico.
It would all be worth it one day. One day he would be A’Teni ca’Cellibrecca himself, stationed in one of the great cities of the Holdings. He would work with his marriage-vatarh, who would be Archigos Orlandi, and together they would create a Concenzia Faith stronger than it had ever been, unassailable and more powerful even than the Kralji and the rulers of the other lands of the Holdings. They would be the founders of a new order firmly rooted in the words of the Toustour and the law of the Divolonte.
A better world than this one. Which wasn’t at the moment hard for Estraven to believe at all. Nearly any world would be better than this one. Estraven’s clothes were soaked, and he was fairly certain he’d picked up a horrible infestation of lice from one of those lonely beds.
They’d spent the previous night at one of Ville Colhelm’s many inns, with cu’Belli imperiously telling the innkeeper that “A’Teni ca’Cellibrecca of Brezno will pay for your best rooms.” In the morning, one of the chambermaids had delivered a note from cu’Belli.
Now it seemed cu’Belli’s “business” had kept him longer than expected. The sun was hidden behind scudding clouds and the fine rain misted Estraven’s woolen cloak, but it was midmorning. Had to be. Estraven glanced in annoyance at the zenith, blinking into the drops of rain. He sneezed. “Damn the man,” he said.
Estraven gave the sign of Cenzi, then began to whisper a quick chant, his hands moving in the wet air: a warming chant. He felt the surge of blessed heat wash over him as he finished the spell and he sighed gratefully-one of the quicker and more useful of the little chants that any teni was taught to do, and one most teni tried to work surreptitiously when trapped in long ceremonies on cold winter mornings in the temples, especially since the spell taxed its caster very little. At least he wouldn’t catch his death of illness out here in the cursed weather.
He thought he heard the snap of a branch from the trees beyond the standing stones, and he straightened in his saddle, turning his head.
“Cu’Belli?” he called. “Come, man. We’ve wasted half the day already.
We’re still a good two days’ ride from Brezno.”
This time an answer came in the sinister
Estraven grunted in surprise and shock as an arrow whistled past his left ear; an instant later he fell backward from his horse’s saddle as a trio of feathered shafts sprouted from his cloak: two in his chest, the other in his right shoulder, the shock of their impact sending him to the ground. Spattered with mud, blinking in the rainfall, he looked down at the arrows in surprise, confused by their impossible appearance, touching the dark feathers of their fletching even as he saw the blood beginning to spread out from the wounds. He tried to rise, managing to struggle up on his knees. Strangely, he felt little pain, only a great tightness in his chest.
This was a dream. This was a sign from Cenzi. This wasn’t real. It couldn’t be real.
“I’m here as promised, U’Teni,” Estraven heard cu’Belli’s voice call out, and the portly man stepped from behind one of the moss-flecked stones. His quartet of companions were with him, and they held bows with new arrows nocked to the strings. There was another man with him as well, dressed in the uniform of Firenzcia’s army.
“Treachery!” Estraven tried to call, but his voice was garbled and he spat blood. “Help!” He started to chant, tried to force his hands to move in a new spell, one that would smash cu’Belli and gain him time to get back on his horse and ride away, but cu’Belli gestured quickly and the bows came up and the bowstrings sang their note of death, and Estraven was slammed backward again into the rain and into the mud of Firenzcia and into whatever afterlife awaited him.
She tried to refuse to see him. She’d feigned sickness that morning so she wouldn’t have to attend the opening of the Archigos’
Temple at First Call, and so she wouldn’t need to chant with the others and light the temple’s lamps. When the Archigos had come to her apartment, she’d sent Watha out to tell him that she could not see him now, but she’d returned with a pleased, grim smile. “The Archigos waits for you in the outer reception room, O’Teni,” she’d said. “He said that you will dress and meet him for breakfast. Beida is already serving him tea.”
She’d dressed, and gone to him. There had been no choice. Now, after the formal, empty greetings, after sitting there watching the Archigos drink his tea and eat his biscuits, the smell of them making her own stomach grumble in protest, the Archigos had pushed away the tray with his breakfast and leaned forward with his elbows on the table.
“I am going to suggest to our new Kraljiki that you would make an excellent wife for him.”
It was a statement that had shocked Ana to her core, and now he stared at her as the discomfort colored her face. She could not breathe for a moment; her hands pressed against her heart as she sat back in her chair across from him. Underneath her robes she could feel the stone shell Karl had given her. It gave her no comfort.
“That is not what I want, Archigos,” she said. “You have no right to use me that way, no matter what you paid my parents.” A sullen, liquid fire burned high in her throat and her temples pulsed with the beat of her heart. She could feel her hands trembling as she placed them on the table. “Even if the A’Kralj would agree to it, I will not.”
The Archigos nodded, as if her response was what he had expected.
“I understand your reluctance, Ana. I do. But you will learn, sooner than I did, perhaps, that the higher you ascend in life, the higher are the pay-ments expected of you. Certainly the Kraljica expected such of her nieces and nephews, and of the A’Kralj himself. She knew what a weapon the right marriage could be. She had already broached this possibility to me, the day after she first met you-when, you should know, my own niece Safina had been considered for the same position. So I don’t suggest this lightly; this alliance could be more important now that the Kraljica is gone. The A’Kralj will be the Kraljiki, and he is unduly influenced by A’Teni ca’Cellibrecca. Without some countering influence, Justi’s ascension to the Sun Throne could cause changes in Concenzia-changes that would undo all that I and Kraljica Marguerite tried to accomplish.”
He sighed, lifting a hand and letting it fall again. The tea shivered in his cup; the biscuits jumped on their plate. “There’s another matter also. The army of Firenzcia is gathering too near the border for anyone’s comfort. I think now is indeed the time for action, or it may be too late.
Justi is not who I would want as Kraljiki, but he is still a better option than Jan ca’Vorl. Would it be so bad, Ana, to be the Kraljiki’s wife? Do you have other and better prospects? Your Numetodo from the Gschnas, perhaps?
I know you went to see Envoy ci’Vliomani the other day, Ana-” he raised his hand against Ana’s burgeoning protest, “-and I want you to know that I don’t care-as long as your curiosity doesn’t get in the way of your faith or your duty.”
But she would not say that. The Archigos seemed to take her silence as consent, and continued to speak. “Cenzi has given you an extraor-dinary Gift, Ana. Cenzi would expect you to
He said it without the question mark, as if it were an obvious conclusion, and at the same moment, a realization came to Ana. “You intended all along to connect me to the A’Kralj,” she said. The accusation made the Archigos smile.
“Yes,” he said simply. “Very nearly.”
“The Kraljica. .?”
“She agreed, once she’d met you and once I’d told her about you.
We had hoped to introduce the two of you formally at the Gschnas, but. .” The Archigos’ mouth twisted. “It is still what she would want,” he continued. “Even more so now. With the Kraljica gone, we must tie together the new Kraljiki and the Concenzia Faith-not with ca’Cellibrecca and his movement, but with our own faction.”
After the Kraljica’s death, she had been unable find the Ilmodo again. Cenzi had abandoned her for her lack of faith, for her betrayal of Him with the Numetodo. She had tried. She had attempted the simplest spells, the ones she had been able to do since she’d been a child, and they crumbled in her hands. She wouldn’t be able to keep her failures secret for long: how she avoided using the Ilmodo, how weak her spells were, how she could barely manage to conjure up light or heat from the energy with which Cenzi filled the air. She couldn’t hide the decay of her skills for long; no teni could, not when the rituals and ceremonies of the Faith required their daily use. Someone would mention their suspicions to the Archigos, and he would come to her and demand that she show him whether the rumors were true.
“That’s all I was for you from the beginning, Archigos?” she demanded, trying to disguise her fear with bluster. “A way to bring the A’Kralj closer to you? You’re no different than Vatarh; you’d use me in the same way, only with another man.”
The Archigos managed to look hurt. “My intention, and the Kralji-
ca’s, was to keep the Faith strong in a changing world. We need to look forward, Ana. Ca’Cellibrecca would return us to the dark. The world changes, Ana, whether we like it or not, and the Faith must learn to change with it-that’s not something ca’Cellibrecca is willing to do.
Our ships go ever farther out into the world. One day, perhaps even in your lifetime, they will have touched the shores of every land. As the Holdings reaches out into new territory and finds new peoples, we also find the rich beauty of Vucta and Cenzi’s creation, a richness we never suspected before.”
“The Numetodo, Archigos? Are they part of this richness?”
He cocked his head to one side as he stared at her. “They could be, if they would only acknowledge that their Scath Cumhacht is actually the Ilmodo and that it derives from Cenzi. There are other ways of bringing people to the truth than through violence, torture, and imprisonment-certainly that’s what the Kraljica believed, and why she was able to rule so well for so long. The more Nessantico draws from the knowledge of those she rules, the stronger she becomes. I don’t look to exclude the Numetodo or to ignore what they might have to teach us, as long as they can be brought to understand the truth of the Toustour.
I thought, Ana, that we might share that outlook in the same way that we share a deep faith in Cenzi.”
“I do share that,” Ana answered.
“You can. You will. If it’s what Cenzi decrees.” He waved a diminutive hand at her. When it dropped again to the table, china and silver clattered once more. “It may be, Ana, that the new Kraljiki is already too well snared by ca’Cellibrecca-I may have made a horrible mistake, allowing them to become close. I saw all this over the last several years and I did nothing. The rumors I’ve heard of ca’Cellibrecca’s daughter. .” He shrugged. “If that is the case, then we will have to find a new tactic. But if Justi
As to love. .” He reached out as if to touch Ana’s hand; she drew back. The Archigos shrugged. “Well, that’s never been a necessity in a political marriage, has it?”
He paused, and Ana remained silent, still seated on the other side of the table and staring past the Archigos to the windows of her apartment without seeing any of the day outside. The Archigos pushed himself off his chair, giving her the sign of Cenzi. “You know I’m right,” he said. “And you know your place, I trust.”
“I know where you have placed me, yes, Archigos.” She could not move. She felt bound to the chair in which she sat, caught in cords she could not see.
He gave her a strange, twisted smile, and nodded.
“We found her in the baggage train, my Hirzg, raiding the stores.” The offizier standing before Jan looked embarrassed by his tale. He stood well back, obviously uncertain how Jan would react. Markell, seated at the traveling desk with a sheaf of reports before him, stifled a chuckle as Jan frowned.
Allesandra stood trembling before Jan, hands clasped behind her back, her head bowed. “What do have to say for yourself?” he barked at his daughter. “You disobeyed me. What is your matarh thinking now?
She must be frantic.”
“I left Matarh a note,” Allesandra said to the floor. “And I told Naniaj that she had to pretend as long as she could. Maybe Matarh thinks I’m still with them-she never comes to my carriage unless she has to.”
Markell snorted. Jan glanced at him, shaking his head. “How long have you been gone?”
“Two days, Vatarh. I left the first night, so that I could find the army again.”
“You rode back alone in the night, unprotected? You snuck through our rear guards?”
She gave him the ghost of a nod. “I climbed into one of the wagons.
There was plenty of food there, Vatarh.”
“Those are the army’s supplies, food for our soldiers. Do you know what the punishment is for someone who steals from those wagons?”
She shook her head. He could see her shoulders beginning to shake with subdued tears. “We cut off their hands,” he told her harshly, “for they are no better than our enemies.”
Allesandra clutched her hands tightly to her stomach, but she did not cry. She lifted her face to Jan, and he had to force himself not to take her in his arms and hug her. “I wanted to be with
Her face was so penitent and sorrowful that he could not keep up the pretense any longer. He knelt down and opened his arms, and she ran to him. She broke into heaving sobs against his shoulder. “It’s a good thing you are the A’Hirzg,” he whispered to her, “because that means everything here also belongs to you.”
“You can’t send me back now, Vatarh,” she said fiercely, sniffing. “I won’t go. I won’t.”
Jan looked at Markell over her shoulder. Markell shook his head.
“This isn’t a place for a child, Allesandra.”
“I’m not a child. I’m the A’Hirzg. This is where I should be, with my vatarh the Hirzg, and besides, Matarh is days away and you will protect me and I will learn ever so much from you, and Georgi could continue to teach me. .”
Behind her, Markell busied himself with the reports.
“It will be dangerous,” Jan said. “There may be fighting, Allesandra.”
“Then teach me how to use a sword as you do, Vatarh, or have Georgi do it. I’ll learn fast. I will.”
Jan hugged her again. He sighed. “Markell,” Jan said. “Take a note to send to the Hirzgin with our fastest rider. Tell her that Allesandra is with her vatarh and safe, and that she will remain with me for the time being.”
Allesandra squealed happily. “Thank you, Vatarh. I’ll be good, I promise. Where is my sword? You promised.”
“No sword,” he told her. He unlaced the belt around his waist and and pulled from it a soiled leather scabbard holding a double-bladed knife with a jeweled hilt. He displayed it to her. “This is a knife Hirzg Karin, your great-vatarh, gave me when I was about your age.” He didn’t tell her that it was one of the few things the Hirzg ever gave Jan, or that the same day he’d given Ludwig, little more than a year older, a full suit of armor and a sword. “I give it to you now, and I’ll show you how to use it. For now, though, keep it in a pocket of your tashta.”
Allesandra took the knife and clutched it as if it were the most precious gift he could have given her. “Thank you, Vatarh,” she said.
“Thank you so much. I will learn. I will learn everything you have to teach me.”
“You will,” Jan said, almost sadly, “whether it’s what you want to learn or not. Markell, summon O’Offizier ci’Arndt. We have an additional assignment for him.”
“I didn’t expect to see you so soon, Ana,” he said. “In fact, I wondered. . well, no matter. I’m truly glad for the chance to speak with you again.” He smiled at her, taking her hands in his.
He thought she would pull away immediately; she did not, and he let his hands linger. He enjoyed the touch, enjoyed looking at her face, at the eyes that stared into his.
He saw her face relax slightly at that, but the determination in her face remained. “I’m tired of everything being hidden. I don’t
“I know you will,” he told her, “or I wouldn’t have made the invitation in the first place. I knew when I saw you. .” He stopped, shaking his head. He gestured to a chair without saying more. “Would you sit?
I could have someone bring up refreshments. .” She shook her head, and he could see the agitation in her: in the way she paced the room, in the shine that touched her eyes, in her quick breath. She went to the fire and held her hands out to the flames. He could see her trembling, and he came to her, touching her gently on the shoulder. “Ana, what’s troubling you? What’s happened?”
She gave an odd bark of a laugh that turned into a choked sob, turning to him. “Everything.” She spread her arms wide, her teni’s robes flaring with the motion as if she were giving Cenzi’s Blessing. A single tear tracked its way down her cheek, and she brushed at it. “I’ve lost my ability,” she told him. “The Gift I had. Since you showed me what the Numetodo do. . I can’t. .”
She began to cry fully then. He watched her, wanting to go to her but not daring to, until the pain and sorrow in her made him take a step, then another. She made no resistance when he folded her into his arms. She leaned into his embrace, burying her face into his shoulder. He held her silently, one hand stroking her hair. He pressed his lips into the fragrance of her hair, touching his lips to the strands. She felt. .
She felt as if she belonged there. Guilt tore through him for the thought.
After a few moments, she sniffed and pushed away; he released her as she wiped at her eyes with her sleeve. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I. . we. . I shouldn’t have. This isn’t what I came here for.”
He wanted to embrace her again. Her sorrow and distress pulled at him.
He tried to think of Kaitlin, but he found that he couldn’t remember her face; it was hazy in his memory, a ghost that seemed to belong to another person’s past.
Ana was here, though.
Not when she pulled at him the way she did.
“What do you mean, you lost your gift?” he asked.
Haltingly, she told him. “I noticed when. .” She stopped, pressed her lips together, and he realized that she was holding something back from him. “I noticed the next time I tried to use the Ilmodo. I couldn’t.
I called to Cenzi, but He wouldn’t come, wouldn’t let me shape the Ilmodo as I used to. I felt like an apprentice again, stumbling through the simplest spell.” She looked at him, and he thought he saw both accusation and hope in her eyes. “Did
He shook his head. “No,” he told her softly. “I wouldn’t do that to you, Ana. I don’t expect you to believe that, but it’s the truth. Even if I could manage that-and I can’t-I wouldn’t have done that to you.
No, I’m afraid you did this to yourself.”
That sounded cruel even to his ears, and he brought a hand up both against her protest and in apology. “Ana, let me explain. With the Numetodo, everyone finds their own individual path to the Scath Cumhacht. Each of us uses a slightly different technique, our own words and gestures. That’s where we’re different. You teni use your faith to open the Second World; we use a standard routine, one that we must discover ourselves, no different than an herbalist who mixes the in-gredients of her potions in the same quantities each time so that the effects are always the same. Your faith. .” He shook his head. “I think it’s just another formula. A routine. What you saw, well, it shook that faith, and so. .”
“No!” she shouted at him. “Stop. I know what you’re saying, and I don’t believe it. I still believe. I do. Cenzi is punishing me.”
“I told you the other night that I could show you our path,” Karl said. “I still could. Your gift isn’t gone, Ana. It’s still there-and it doesn’t matter whether you believe in Cenzi or not. It’s still there.” He took a stride toward her, taking her hands in his. She didn’t resist, didn’t pull away. He could see that she wanted to believe him. He brought her to him. Their faces were close. So close.
As he said the words, he heard the creaking of the door behind them. Ana’s eyes widened and her gaze shifted. “How touching,” a voice said drolly, and as Karl started to turn, releasing Ana’s hands so his own were free, the voice
Commandant ca’Rudka stood at the door, his sword still in its scabbard and a sardonic grin on his face. In the hall beyond, Karl could see the woman who owned the building cowering against the
far wall with her keys in her hand, and two gardai in the uniform of the Bastida, both holding crossbows with bolts nocked and ready.
Ca’Rudka motioned to the two, and they lowered their bows slightly.
“O’Teni cu’Seranta,” he said, bowing slightly and giving her the sign of Cenzi. “Your driver said you would be here. Evidently the envoy’s dancing at the Gschnas impressed you more than the Archigos
Ana’s face, when Karl glanced at her, was pale, all the color gone from her cheeks. “Commandant,” she said. She took a breath, drawing herself up. “The Vajiki and I have been discussing religion. I had hopes of making him see the error of the Numetodo.”
“Indeed, that’s a noble exercise,” ca’Rudka said. He entered the room, the two gardai following, closing the door on the landlady’s curious face. “But somehow I doubt that the Vajiki is convinced of the greatness of Cenzi and the Faith.” He went over to the sill of the window, where Karl had set the plant the commandant had given him.
Ca’Rudka touched a fingertip to the soil, then looked at the black earth clinging there. “Damp,” he said. “I’m impressed, Vajiki.” He looked at the plant. “But I’m afraid it’s only a common weed after all. You’re wast-ing your efforts.”
“Why are you here, Commandant?” Karl asked. He could feel the tension gnawing at his belly.
“Unfortunately, I’m here in my official capacity,” ca’Rudka answered. “Vajiki ci’Vliomani, I regret to inform you that you are under arrest. Now, you will give O’Offizier ce’Falla your hands. . Unfortunately, we can’t risk you using the Ilmodo. Please don’t move, Vajiki, nor you, O’Teni, until the o’offizier is done.” The garda moved forward quickly as the other kept his crossbow carefully aimed at Karl’s chest.
Karl held out his hands, and ce’Falla confined them in metal cuffs. He saw another device on the man’s belt: a contraption with straps and a gag. He shuddered, knowing that would be next.
“What is it I’ve supposedly done, Commandant? Am I allowed to know that?”
“Certainly,” ca’Rudka answered. He reached into a pouch on his belt, withdrawing a length of chain. On the end dangled a stone shell.
“This was found around the painter ci’Recroix’s neck when his body was discovered. Does it seem familiar to you, Vajiki?” Ca’Rudka looked at Karl’s chest, where a similar symbol rested. “You needn’t answer; I see that it does.”
Karl glanced at Ana, who was standing with her hand on her breast.
Karl suspected he knew what she hid there under her robes, and he shook his head at her warningly as ca’Rudka followed his gaze.
“I’m sorry, O’Teni,” ca’Rudka said to Ana, “but I’m afraid Vajiki ci’Vliomani is under arrest for plotting the assassination of the Kraljica.”