The battle began with spell-fire and a sword thrust to the belly of the city.
All that morning the Firenzcian army approached: a steady advance that edged ever closer, a great arc slowly pressing down toward the forces Sergei had placed around the city from nearly Nortegate to the banks of the A’Sele.
The defensive line was dangerously thin. Sergei didn’t have enough men; despite Sergei’s persistent urgings, Kraljiki Justi had refused to allow the entirety of the Garde Civile and war-teni to move forward.
Instead, the Kraljiki wrapped battalions of Garde Civile and his most loyal chevarittai around himself as a protective cocoon: inside the city walls. Sergei had been given orders by the Kraljiki not to engage unless necessary, and so the defending forces grudgingly gave ground to the advancing ranks. There were occasional skirmishes, brief flurries of combat punctuated with the challenges of the Firenzcian chevarittai.
Some of the chevarittai of the city couldn’t resist the challenge and went out to meet their cousins-a few ca’-and-cu’ of both sides bloodied the ground prematurely as a result.
By Second Call, the tension had become nearly unbearable. The army of Firenzcia was a thunderhead looming near the city, like a silver-and-black cloud issuing tongues of lightning and growling with low thunder, the wind cold and vicious and rising.
The storm, inevitably, broke.
Sergei sat astride his horse on a small knoll a mile outside the old city walls, up the Avi a’Firenzcia along the River Vaghian. His leg ached, and his back was stiff, but he forced himself to ignore the nagging pains. Several flag-and-horn pages waited near him to relay orders and A’Offizier ca’Montmorte was at his side. From the knoll, Sergei could see the front ranks of the opposing force. The banner of the Hirzg and the Red Lancers was being flown prominently: Jan ca’Vorl was out there, somewhere close. In front of Sergei, the two armies were separated by a muddy field, the once-ripening crop of wheat prematurely harvested and the remainder trampled under the hooves of the chevarittai and the boots of the Garde Civile and conscripts as they’d retreated to their present position in the western tree line.
Sergei had stopped the grudging retreat-if they backed any closer to the city, the fighting would be taking place among the houses and buildings that had grown up outside the original walls. Their spines were to Nessantico’s outskirts; the offiziers had re-formed the lines.
Seeing them waiting, the Firenzcian army had halted, but Sergei didn’t believe they would remain there for long.
The sun fell directly on the field. The light did nothing to warm them.
“If I were Hirzg Jan, I would wait,” ca’Montmorte said. “It’s already past Second Call. He should establish his lines, call his offiziers together for consultation and settle the troops in for the night. I’d continue the advance at First Call tomorrow.” Ca’Montmorte nodded at his own advice. “That would give us time to bring more conscripts from the city and have the Archigos send up the remainder of the war-teni. The Hirzg doesn’t know that we don’t have the entire Garde Civile waiting in reserve.”
Sergei shook his head. “I know the man, Elia. The Hirzg is a decent tactician but a mediocre strategist-if there’s any strategy here, it will be the Starkkapitan’s. Ca’Vorl’s most dangerous in the midst of a fight, but he has no patience. He also knows he has the advantage. No, this is what he wants and he will have it now. I’d wager that he intends to sleep tonight inside Nessantico, and we’re in his way. He’ll attack. He won’t wait.”
Ca’Montmorte shook his head. “That would be foolish.”
“Wait,” Sergei told him. “I know the man. .”
They waited less than a quarter-turn of the glass. Without warning, a half-dozen fireballs bloomed, brilliant even in the sunlight. They rushed over the field, arcing no more than a half-dozen men’s height from the ground, streaking from the far trees beyond the roving groups of Firenzcian chevarittai and the impassive lines of infantry. “Teni!”
Sergei cried and the pages reached for flags and horns to sound the alarm, but the few war-teni with Sergei had already responded. Their counter-spells, Sergei realized gratefully, were curiously rapid-no doubt the Envoy ci’Vliomani, who along with a hand of Numetodo was with the war-teni, was responsible for that. Given the lack of warning, Sergei had expected the teni’s response to be too late, but two of the onrushing suns fizzled and died before they reached the front ranks of the defenders, and two more went careening back toward the far side of the field to explode in front of the enemy ranks.
Cheers went up from the Garde Civile.
But the remaining fire-spells were untouched. They slammed hard into the ranks, exploding with gouts of the liquid fire, and cheers dissolved into screams. Those caught directly died instantly, their bodies torn apart; those nearby were enveloped in blue Ilmodo-fury that clung to their skin and clothes. They bellowed in agony, rolling on the ground, trying to smother the stubborn flames. Those who rushed to help their fellows found that the spell-fire adhered to their own hands. Where the war-fire blazed, the ranks shuddered and threatened to fall apart, the conscripts panicking, and Sergei shouted along with the other offiziers and chevarittai. “Hold!” he cried. “Damn it, make them hold!” The flag-pages waved yellow flags desperately; the horn-pages blasted an imperative two-note call on their cornets and zinkes.
More spell-fire came; again, most were countered and a few thrown back into the enemy, but not all could be stopped. The trees on the west side of the meadow were on fire now, and the panic was beginning to spread along the lines. The offiziers had swords out, keeping their men under control. The cornets of the pages seemed to be lost in the growing noise.
But the lines, tenuously, held together.
Sergei nodded-if the Hirzg had intended to send him fleeing under the barrage of the war-teni, that plan had failed.
“The Archigos’ war-teni deserve commendation,” ca’Montmorte said. “Right now, we’re holding our own, but if they keep up the barrage, we’re going to have to give ground.”
“The Hirzg isn’t that patient,” Sergei repeated. “That will be the last volley of the war-teni. He’ll bring in the chevarittai and the army now.”
Again, they did not have to wait long. With a thousand-throated voice, the Firenzcians charged. The hooves of their chevarittai pummeled the ground; behind them, the infantry spread out like a horde of black ants. “Archers!” Sergei shouted: the pages dropped their yellow flags to pick up blue, the cornets shrilled, and the offiziers took up the cry. With a sibilant, wordless steam-kettle hiss, arrows crowded the sky, arcing up and down into the onrushing forces. There were counter-spells from the Firenzcian war-teni-arrows went to harmless ash in great puffs of cloud and arrowheads pattered like metal rain onto the mud-but some of the chevarittai and their horses went down, as did many soldiers. But there were far too many behind them, and more continued to flow out from the trees.
The charge hit the front line in a clash of metal. A frothing chaos spread, the angry foam of a storm-driven wave crashing into unyielding land.
Sergei had to force himself to stay back and not charge into the fray with his sword-the Hirzg’s sword-held high. But it was difficult enough with his healing wounds just to sit his horse, and it was not the commandant’s role to fight.
Not yet. Not today. For a turn of the glass, perhaps more, the Nessantico line held, as Sergei directed his offiziers through the scurrying pages and the signals of flags and cornets.
But they couldn’t hold forever.
The line sagged inward toward Sergei’s position as the meadow filled with Firenzcian black and silver. The war-teni lobbed spells and counter-spells into the field and onto the rear ranks; fire burst in colorful sparks over the field, and the screams of the wounded and dying were muffled in drifting smoke and confusion.
Distantly, Sergei saw a portion of the northern end of the line give way entirely. Firenzcians poured through the gap, the banners of the chevarittai fluttering as they pushed deep into the Nessantico ranks.
The flag-pages around Sergei glanced over nervously. He scowled down at the battlefield.
“It’s over, Commandant,” ca’Montmorte said. “They’re through the defenses. We can’t hold them here any longer.”
Sergei hadn’t expected to prevail, but he’d also not expected to be routed so quickly. “I know,” he nearly shouted at ca’Montmorte. The angry words tasted like bitter, unripe sunberries in his mouth. “Tell the offiziers to fall back,” he grunted, and the pages snatched red flags from the ground and began waving them frantically, the horns changed their call. The cry went up from around the field.
The Nessantico war-teni turned to different spells; now they covered the field with a thick, dense fog to confuse the inflow of the Firenzcians and cover the retreat. The chevarittai reluctantly turned their mounts; the foot soldiers gave way and the archers tried to slow the enemy troops that filled the vacated space.
Faintly, Sergei heard the Firenzcian horns. He’d hoped that the Hirzg would let them retreat, so that the Hirzg could lick his own wounds and set the army for the final thrust toward Nessantico. That was the way of polite warfare: when the outcome of the battle was decided, the the triumphant side allowed the loser to draw back, perhaps to exchange prisoners and recover the bodies of any important ca’ or cu’ who had fallen.
But the horns across the field weren’t sounding halt, but pursuit.
Ca’Montmorte spat onto the grass. “The bastard. .” Sergei shook his head. He pulled on the reins of his horse.
“Regroup the chevarittai with the Kraljiki’s troops near the Fen Fields,” he told ca’Montmorte. “Send a runner to the Archigos; we’ll need all the war-teni to try to stop them there. Tell the Kraljiki to be ready. The Hirzg wants his city today.”
Sergei glanced once more at the battlefield wreathed in spell-fog.
He shook his head and kicked at his destrier’s sides.
The pages rushed about, carrying news from the front lines and relaying orders from Jan and Starkkapitan ca’Linnett as the attack began. Well back from the front line and protected, Allesandra was with Jan, as were Archigos ca’Cellibrecca and Starkkapitan ca’Linnett. From the cover of the trees, they watched as war-fire arced away from the teni toward the defenders of Nessantico. But the sense of destiny and power faded almost immediately. Jan cursed and Archigos ca’Cellibrecca gaped in shock as the spell-fires were countered, as the blazing suns were extinguished or-far, far worse-were sent back toward their own lines. There were cries of alarm from across the field of battle, but the overwhelming terror that Jan had been assured would be the result was lost. “They’re using the Numetodo. .” the Archigos muttered. He made the sign of Cenzi, as if to ward off evil.
Jan was merely furious. “Archigos, I’d remind you that both you and U’Teni cu’Kohnle assured me that our war-teni would send our enemies running back to the city. It seems to me that nothing of the sort has happened, and that, in fact, you’ve just caused the death of many of our own men.”
“The counter-spells came impossibly quickly, my Hirzg,” ca’Cellibrecca answered nervously.
“Impossible, Archigos? I
Ca’Cellibrecca bowed his head. “I’m sorry, my Hirzg. But it’s obvious the Kraljiki and the heretic cu’Seranta have made a pact with the Numetodo.” Ca’Cellibrecca clenched his hands and made the sign of
Cenzi. “They deserve everything Cenzi will bring them. Everything.”
Allesandra answered him. “My
“We’ll deal with this failure later, Archigos,” Jan told him. “Numetodo or not, and despite the performance of your war-teni, we
Ca’Linnett bowed and barked orders: cornets blared, and with a great cry, the army surged out from the trees, the chevarittai leading the way with banners of black and silver flying.
But the resistance was stiff, far more tactically adroit than Jan had hoped. The flood of pages continued to come over the next turn of the glass, and the news was never what Jan wanted to hear. “That’s ca’Rudka,” Jan grumbled. “Ca’Montmorte hasn’t this kind of flair. The bastard should never have been allowed to escape Passe a’Fiume.”
With that, ca’Linnett glanced at Jan uneasily. “They’re outnumbered, and your strategy has them spread along too long a line to defend well,” the starkkapitan insisted. “We have more war-teni and more chevarittai. They won’t be able to hold for much longer, my Hirzg.”
Jan raised his eyebrows. “They’d better not, Starkkapitan,” he said.
“For your sake.” At his side, Allesandra giggled at the face ca’Linnett made.
Jan prowled the tree line restlessly, glaring across the field, his hand on his sword. He ached to be out there, even if he knew it was not his place. The adrenaline of battle sang in his ears, and he could not stay still. Allesandra watched him as he paced, her gaze always on him.
But the starkkapitan proved to be prophetic. One of the pages came riding up, breathlessly, a grin on his stained face. “Their line’s broken, my Hirzg,” he shouted. “We are behind them now.” Even as the boy spoke, Jan heard Nessantico’s horns on the far side of the meadow calling retreat and saw a spell-fog rise near the trees on the other side of the clearing.
“Excellent,” Starkkapitan ca’Linnett nodded to the page. The relief was obvious on his face. “It was only a matter of persistence. Tell the offiziers to let them run. Have the horns call ‘Halt’ and. .”
“No,” Jan interrupted, striding up to them. “We pursue.”
Jan watched Ca’Linnett struggle not to let relief turn to irritation.
Ca’Cellibrecca simply blustered. “My Hirzg,” ca’Cellibrecca said, “it’s well past Second Call already and this is an excellent location to consolidate our forces. We should plan our final assault. We shouldn’t be reckless. .”
Cu’Linnett bowed low to Jan, hiding whatever expression might have crossed his face. “The Hirzg has given his orders,” he told the page. “Send word to the offiziers and have the horns call ‘Pursuit.’ ”
Jan watched the page, his face serious and drawn, ride away. He hugged Allesandra as the horns began to blare. She beamed up at him.
“We’ll rest tonight inside the walls of Nessantico,” he told her.
The courtiers, the sycophants, the chevarittai, the ca’-and-cu’: they gathered about Justi. He was surrounded by them while they cooed support and encouragement. He swaddled himself in their comfort, even though he glimpsed the uncertainty on their faces when they thought he wasn’t watching.
The pages had returned from the battlefields at three separate points around the city; the word was not good anywhere: the northern arm had been entirely routed and the Firenzcian forces were nearing the sections of the city outside the walls; the news was little better in the south, though the fens and marshes along the river worked as their ally there.
But there was one ray of hope: in the center, Commandant ca’Rudka had kept his men in order and was still holding back the main enemy force. It seemed that the Firenzcians could not break through him.
“Kraljiki,” the courtiers crooned, “everyone knew that it would not be a swift battle, and the closer to Nessantico the Hirzg comes, the less room he will have to maneuver and the more our resistance will stiffen.
The commandant is already demonstrating this. Hirzg ca’Vorl
If Justi noticed that the words were spiced with desperation, as if they were trying to convince themselves as much as him, he pretended not to notice. Instead, he nodded knowingly and gazed fiercely out from the wall at the Avi a’Firenzcia. Behind him, Nessantico seemed oddly quiet and deserted; ahead, the road and the fields beyond the last houses of the city swarmed with soldiers in blue and gold.
In their thousands, a bulwark against the Hirzg, they comforted him.
You have never been defeated, Kraljiki,” Bella ca’Nephri said loudly, and the ca’-and-cu’ murmured their agreement, all the chevarittai who had been his friends and cronies for decades now. “You
He closed his mind to the doubts. He frowned more fiercely and gripped the pommel of his sword more tightly. “We will never be defeated,” he agreed. “Where is the Archigos?” he asked Renard, as always near his side. “I thought she would be here with me.”
“She told me to inform you that she has moved forward with the remaining war-teni and the Numetodo, Kraljiki,” Renard told him.
Justi frowned. “She did that without. .” he began, but there was a disturbance near the gate, the ranks of the Garde Civile parting to let a rider through: a page, the boy covered in dust and his horse lathered with sweat. He half-fell from the horse and staggered over to Justi, dropping to his knees before him. “Kraljiki,” he panted. “The commandant. . Could not stop the Firenzcians. . Falling back to the Fen Fields. . Garde Civile must come. . And the rest of the chevarittai. .”
Justi stared at the boy. The whispers were already spreading through the crowd, racing back into the city. Ca’Nephri and the other ca’-and-cu’
watched Justi, the masks momentarily struck from their faces. He could almost hear their thoughts. They were prepared to tell him whatever he wanted to hear, and they would be equally prepared to say whatever the Hirzg might want to hear, should he take the Sun Throne from Justi.
There was less loyalty in them than in the palais dogs.
As long as they thought Justi would remain Kraljiki, they would do as he asked. But if they believed he were about to fall, they would be on him, snarling and vicious. .
Justi chuckled at the boy, as if his reports were amusing. “Renard, please give this boy some refreshment. He’s had a hard ride and he’s done his task well. It seems I will have to go rescue our commandant.”
The sycophants laughed with him, their amusement edged with nervousness.
Justi drew his sword, and the crowd cheered. “We ride forward” he cried, “and we will show the Hirzg what happens when he rouses the ire of Nessantico.”
Their cheers rose as he urged his destrier forward, and the chevarittai closed around him and the troops of the Garde Civile surged through the gates of Nessantico to the sound of blaring horns.
They cheered, and Justi showed them a stern face, and he wondered whether he would ever ride through these gates again.
Ana had sent the dozen or so most effective war-teni ahead with Commandant ca’Rudka and Karl. The others. . she wasn’t as certain about any of them-in more than one way.
The training with the Numetodo had been at best erratic. Ana found that she couldn’t blame the war-teni, given the way she’d reacted to seeing the Numetodo spell-magic. Many of them had resisted the
training, they’d scoffed and hesitated and argued with Karl, Mika, and the other Numetodo who tried to show them ways to speed their spells or to store them for future use. Several, like Ana, had found their faith tested enough that they’d become less rather than more effective.
Worse, she wondered whether when the time came-and she knew it would come-that ca’Cellibrecca called on them to obey him as Archigos rather than Ana, whether they would stay loyal to her at all.
But. . a handful had taken to the training with enthusiasm. And many of the Numetodo had set aside their suspicions and recent history and pledged their support to Nessantico. “The better of two ills,”
Karl had said to her when he brought the news. “We know well how ca’Cellibrecca would treat us.”
“Archigos!” Kenne’s voice broke in on her prayer. Ana, her head bowed and hands folded before her, brought her head up. “Look!”
Perhaps a half mile beyond the old gates of the city, the Avi a’Firenzcia made a turn eastward. Several buildings, the outliers of the city, were set there, with fields around them and the River Vaghian murmuring behind. The fields had, only a century before, been a low mosquito-infested swampland, frequently flooded when the rain-swollen Vaghian left its bed. But during the Kraljica’s reign, the Vaghian had been tamed with mounds of earthern banks, and the fens converted to farmland.
Ana had commandeered the second-story balcony of an inn there, at the curve of the road. From her vantage point, she could see out to where Kenne was pointing. The fields, like all the farmland to the east of the city, had been stripped and harvested early. The meadows were now muddy encampments. At the eastern edge of the camp, soldiers in the colors of Nessantico were pouring from a small woods bordering the fields, and she could hear distance-blurred shouting.
“The commandant’s outer line must have broken,” Kenne said, and Ana felt a stab of fear run through her for Karl. “They’re retreating. Yes, look, there are the chevarittai, and that’s the commandant’s personal banner.”
Ana had already turned. Her hand brushed the hard, heavy bulk of the glass ball Mahri had given her, in its leather pouch tucked in a pocket of her green robes, and she felt the tingling of the power within it through the cloth. “Gather the war-teni,” she said to Kenne. “We’re going to them. .”
The ride through the Nessantican troops seemed to take a turn of the glass, though she knew it was far less. The agitation was spreading through the gathered army: the conscripts and soldiers of the Garde Civile grabbed armor and weapons nervously, the offiziers were shouting and assembling them. Pages were rushing about, and cornets and zinkes were sounding their calls.
When they reached the banner of the commandant, the chaos was more ordered but no less frantic. “Archigos,” ca’Rudka said, his voice almost sounding relieved. “I’m glad you’re here. We need more warteni. If you’ll direct them-the teni banners are over there-you, Page, direct the Archigos.”
“The envoy?” she asked, almost afraid to voice the question.
Ca’Rudka nodded indulgently even in the midst of the rush. “He’s fine,” he told her. “And he’s amply demonstrated his worth. Go to the war-teni and you’ll find him. I’ll send word as to what we need you to do. Hurry, Archigos. There isn’t much time. Check on the war-teni for me, then come back here. I need to meet with the a’offiziers.”
She gave him the sign of Cenzi and followed the page south toward the Avi a’Firenczia, just behind the newly-coalescing lines. Among the trees and along the road, she could hear the sound of cornets and the call of offiziers with strange accents-the Firenzcians. A low rumble seemed to shake the earth.
She saw him. “Karl!” He turned. His face was streaked with soot and dirt, his clothes were filthy, and he looked exhausted. The war-teni with him looked no different. “I’ve brought the rest of the war-teni. You can rest, recover your strength.”
He shook his head. “No time,” he said. “They’re on our heels. Put them in position, but they have so many. .” He shrugged. “War-spells won’t be enough.”
“Then we must do something different,” she told him.
“You weren’t there with us, Archigos,” U’Teni cu’Kohnle said, the scorn far too obvious in his voice. They were riding quickly along the Avi a’Firenzcia just behind the Hirzg’s retinue, with the army an ocean around them, grim-faced. “I tell you that my warteni did all we could, and more. There should have been no time for response to our first volley of spells, Archigos-no time. But they
Orlandi grimaced with the unsubtle rebuke, as much from the pounding his rear end was taking despite the cushioned seat of his carriage as from cu’Kohnle’s words. “The false Archigos will be dealt with,” he told cu’Kohnle, “as will the Numetodo: once I am seated back on the Archigos’ Temple throne. I assure you of that, U’Teni.”
He didn’t care for the man’s attitude, or the fact that cu’Kohnle seemed to consider himself a peer, or worse, a superior.
Orlandi was beginning to fear that the only reason the Hirzg was dragging him along was because of the title he held.
Well, he would show the Hirzg once he was back on the throne. He would demonstrate to the man that Concenzia was separate from Nessantico and the Holdings, that
The Numetodo would be hanging from the bridges, as thick as pigeons, with the false Archigos among them. And U’Teni cu’Kohnle, with his arrogance, might just find himself serving in the Hellins. “
“Our war-teni are stronger.
Cu’Kohnle gave the sign of Cenzi at the mention of His name, but his long nose wrinkled at the same time. “My war-teni are half exhausted, Archigos. And we will be entirely so before the day is done, it seems. I get no rest bandying words here. You asked for my report; I’ve given it to you. Now I need to consult with the Hirzg so he can direct the battle. With your leave, Archigos.”
“A moment yet, U’Teni. .” Orlandi began, but cu’Kohnle didn’t wait or listen. He kicked his horse into a gallop, hooves tearing clods from the ruts of the Avi that splattered against the sides of his carriage and tossed muddy droplets on Orlandi’s sleeve and shoulder.
The teni-driver of the carriage chanted, perhaps a bit too loudly.
The e’teni walking along the road beside the carriage looked carefully down at the ground. Orlandi wiped at his soiled robes.
Orlandi sank back into his seat as the carriage jolted over a pothole in the Avi. Through a gap in the trees, he thought he could glimpse the roofs of the taller buildings on the North Bank. He began to imagine his revenge on everything and everyone who had put him in this position.
That revenge, in his imagination, was pleasantly slow, detailed and creative.
The a’offiziers of the Garde Civile were huddled around Sergei. A broken door laid across two boulders served as a table, and a map was spread out on the raw, splintered wood. Sergei gave hurried orders. “Cu’Simone, I need you to take the river fields-keep them from following the A’Sele into the city. Cu’Baria, you will take your men north; the Hirzg may try to send a few battalions around
our main force; if that happens, hold them as well as you can and send a page for reinforcements. Cu’Helfier and cu’Malachi; you will spread out on either side of the Avi. Ahh, Archigos-you’re back already?
Good. Here’s what I want you to do-put your war-teni in position with A’Offizier cu’Helfier’s battalion; that’s where we’re expecting the main thrust to come. Envoy ci’Vliomani and his war-teni will be with A’Offizier cu’Malachi, though I suspect they’re nearly exhausted from the first attack-is that the case, Archigos?”
“It is,” the woman answered. “They won’t be able to hold back many war-spells, Commandant, and those with me. .” She shook her head. “I don’t know how effective they’ll be, either.”
“They’d better be damned effective,” Sergei told her. “We have no choice. If they don’t, their war-teni will destroy our lines before we ever have a chance to draw swords again. They will overrun us.”
“I understand,” she told him. She pointed at the map. “Where are you placing your main defenses, and where would you expect their warteni to be?”
“Here, and here,” Sergei said, pointing. “Which is why I want your war-teni with cu’Helfier.”
But the Archigos was shaking her head. “No,” she said. “Hold the battalions back-here.” She pointed farther west along the Avi, much closer to Nessantico. “And the chevarittai, if they could be close to this bend in the Avi. .”
Sergei could not stop the laugh; his a’offiziers chuckled also. If the battalions were placed where the Archigos suggested, the Firenzcian army would own the Fen Fields, and shortly thereafter, the gates of Nessantico. “With all due respect, Archigos,” he said, interrupting her, “you’ve no experience in battle or with tactics, and you show it.”
“With all due respect,” she answered him, “you would not be here at all, Commandant, with all your grand experience, if I had not healed you. I would think you might give me the courtesy of hearing me out without interruption, in gratitude.”
She glared defiantly at him, and he sighed. “Quickly, then,” he said. “We haven’t much time. And whatever we do, it will be
“Agreed,” she said. “Commandant, the Hirzg has more war-teni than we do, and they’re better skilled in their arts than those I have been able to muster. Would you agree with that assessment?”
He shrugged. “Envoy ci’Vliomani did surprisingly well,” he said. “I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. But, yes, I agree.”
“Then, as you’ve already suggested, we lose this battle if we fight them as they expect.”
“What else do you suggest, Archigos?” It was difficult for Sergei to keep the condescension from his voice.
“Their war-teni have already used much of their strength in the first attack, and in that way they’re no better than any other teni-if they use the Ilmodo, they will become exhausted. So I suggest we
Sergei’s eyes narrowed, causing the skin to wrinkle around his false nose. A suspicion began to take shape in his mind. “And how do you suggest we can accomplish that?” he asked.
The Archigos shrugged. “You’ve already said it, Commandant: you believe what you see with your own eyes.”
The horns sounded “Halt,” and a page came riding wildly down the line to Jan’s carriage. “The Garde Civile holds the road and the fields ahead,” the page said. “They’re drawn up in battle formation, at least three full battalions.”
“This far from the walls?” Jan said. “If I were the commandant, I would have taken them closer to the city. But. .” He shrugged.
“U’Teni cu’Kohnle! You’ll ride forward with the Starkkapitan and me to see this.”
“My Hirzg,” ca’Cellibrecca called from his carriage behind Jan’s. “I will go with you.”
Ca’Cellibrecca was already struggling to rise from his seat, and Jan heard cu’Kohnle sigh. He nearly sighed with him. Jan waved at ca’Cellibrecca to remain. “Stay here, Archigos,” Jan ordered. “You can. . pray for the outcome of the battle.”
“Vatarh, may I come also?” Allesandra asked. “I’d also like to see. How else can I learn, now that Georgi’s gone?”
He nodded indulgently, stroking her hair. “Bring our horses forward,” he called to his attendants. “We’ll ride without banners.”
The sun was heavily westering and the weather had deteriorated, with storm clouds gathering behind Nessantico. The light was dim, and an odd fog clung close to the ground-the Fen Fields were reputed to be haunted and fogs were common here, though generally not in the afternoon. They rode up a small rise toward the front of the Firenzcian column and paused to look down.
The line had halted at a bend in the Avi. There, beyond the long curve, was a field where thick lines of men in blue-and-gold livery waited. Spears hedged their ranks, and the banners of chevarittai fluttered just behind them, moving along the lines as if the chevarittai were impatient for the battle to start, ready to burst through. “There are more of them than before,” Jan said. “The Kraljiki has emptied the city of troops. Good. That will make things easier. Semini, how are your war-teni?”
“Tired from the last attack, my Hirzg, but we’re ready,” the u’teni answered. A small smile curled his lips under his beard. “Those Numetodo-tainted fools will be rather more exhausted than us, I would think.”
Jan chuckled. “Starkkapitan?”
“Their troops are badly positioned, my Hirzg,” ca’Linnett said. “It’s difficult to tell in this damned fog, but I don’t think the lines are deep. They’re too far out from the trees and the river will hem them in further. Let the war-teni and archers take as many as they can, and concentrate on the middle of the line along the Avi. I’ll loose the chevarittai there.”
He pointed north of the Avi, where the trees grew thickest. “They can move them into position while the war-teni attack. Then we’ll drive our infantry straight at where we’ve weakened them-down the Avi-while the Red Lancers take the wing. Drive hard enough and fast enough, and we might still make the city gates before sunset. If ca’Rudka or the Kraljiki have any sense at all, they won’t try to hold the entire North Bank of the city; they’ll pull back near the ponticas.”
“Allesandra?” he asked his daughter, seated in front of him. She tilted her head back to look up at him.
“Can I watch from here, Vatarh, where I can see it all?”
He tousled her curls. “We both will,” he told her. “Starkkapitan, I leave it to you. Send my attendants and pages to me. U’Teni cu’Kohnle, you may start the attack when your war-teni are ready.”
Ca’Linnett and cu’Kohnle bowed low and rushed away. Calls went out along the lines, horns blared and flags waved, and the Firenzcian line spread out slowly to either side of the road. Half a turn of the glass later, they heard the boom and thunder of fire-spells arcing out from just behind the front of the line, followed by the hissing of flights of arrows. The sputtering, roaring glares-a full dozen of them-traced smoky lines over the intervening yards between the armies. Jan watched them, waiting to see if the defensive spells of the Nessantico war-teni would take some of them, but they continued on without resistance, and the men shouted in triumph as the fireballs crashed into the opposing lines, tearing great holes through them. They could hear shrieks of alarm and pain, but except where the fireballs crashed into them, the Nessantico lines held.
The war-teni loosed another barrage, larger than the first, and these also streamed unchallenged across the field to plow into the ranks on the other side. More men fell. The screams redoubled, but other men in yellow and blue slid into the gap. Jan frowned; the opposing war-teni might have been sapped, but he doubted that they had
As a third volley of fire-spells sizzled across the landscape, Jan glanced down at Allesandra. “What, little bird?”
As the next wave of destructive suns raced over the field, he did watch-not to where they struck but to the side. It was difficult to see through the smoke and fog, through the gathering dark under thicken-ing clouds, but he saw that Allesandra was right. There was an unnatural stiffness to the soldiers alongside the blasts of the war-teni. They didn’t flinch, didn’t cower, didn’t run. They stood upright, always looking forward, their heads not turning at all as their companions were consumed in fire.
The spell-fire ripped through them as if they were stones thrown through a painted canvas.
“We’ve been deceived. .” he breathed, but it was already too late.
The ranks of enemy Garde Civile shredded away entirely, like smoke driven by a gale. Fire-spells came now from the Numetodo: not from the ghostly ranks before them, but from the southern flank, fire-spells raking the Firenzcian lines. Not far distant came the clashing of arms and the pounding of hooves, and Jan saw the Nessantico chevarittai leading a charge, soldiers in yellow and blue pouring in from the river side of the Avi. “There!” he shouted to his aides, pointing. “Sound the horns! Quickly!”
As the horns began to shriek, as the battle clamor rose below him, he set Allesandra down from his horse. “Go back to the Archigos,” he told her. “Hurry! You, Page, take her!”
He drew sword then, without looking back, and kicked his destrier into motion.
Karl felt Ana shivering with the effort and exhaustion. “Let it go,” he told her. “You can let it go now. .” With a gasp and cry, Ana collapsed into his arms. He held her tightly. Around her, the ground was littered with the prone bodies of men and women in green robes-those who had helped her, who had taken the Ilmodo and fed it to her to create the illusion she’d woven.
He’d seen nothing like this, ever before. He hadn’t even realized it was possible. He suspected Ana hadn’t either.
“Now,” Karl called to the remaining war-teni. “Start the attack!”
He heard the quick chanting, and false suns bloomed above them to go shrieking off toward the Firenzcians. Around them, the Garde Civile gave a whooping cry and surged forward. A knot of chevarittai pounded up the Avi on their destriers, calling out a challenge to the Firenzcian chevarittai. As the hiss and boom of war-fire subsided, the clamor of steel on steel began to rise.
“Karl?” Ana whispered. Her eyes were closed. “Did it work?”
“It did,” he told her. “I don’t know how, but it worked.”
“Good. .” The word was mostly a sigh. “I need to sleep. .”
“Sleep, then. You deserve it.” He brushed the hair back from her head and kissed her forehead, laying her down on the ground. Another flurry of war-fire erupted above them to go shrieking off toward the Firenzcian line, lighting the meadow in a furious yellow glare, but it would be the last, he saw: both the war-teni and the Numetodo were exhausted. They would all need time to recover; the battle would be decided by steel now, not spells.
Karl motioned to Kenne. “Take care of your Archigos,” he said. “I need to go to the commandant.”
He brushed Ana’s cheek a last time and swung up on the horse that one of the e’teni was holding. As he rode away, he thought of what he’d seen, still marveling.
A shrill of bright horns brought him out of his reverie. He could see the banner of the commandant ahead of him in the press of men, but the cornets were sounding from
Justi, unannounced and unasked for, had entered the field.
“Kraljiki!” ca’Rudka bowed perfunctorily to him. “I thought you intended to remain in the city.” Justi thought he saw irritation in the man’s scarred face, in the way his skin folded around the silver nose glued to his skin. Justi saw the Numetodo envoy standing next to ca’Rudka along with A’Offizier ca’Montmorte. The Archigos was nowhere visible, and he wondered where she was.
“The battle is here,” Justi said to the commandant, “and I intend to fight this time. Word came to me that you were retreating. I will
“I fell back at need, Kraljiki,” ca’Rudka answered, making no pretense to hide his scowl now. “But we’ve turned again.”
“Then we waste our time here, Commandant. I have brought the chevarittai with me, and they are ready.” The riders with him shouted agreement, their horses stamping impatiently.
“Kraljiki, you should remain here, so that we can place your men where they will do the most good. The pages will bring us news.”
“News?” Justi howled. “You’d have me wait here like a doddering
matron? I sent you forward to stop the Hirzg; you have not. Now I will do it myself.”
“No!” Justi shouted. The man denied him his moment, and he would not have that.
“You are, Kraljiki,” the commandant said. At the mention of Passe a’Fiume, his face had gone ruddy, and a scowl had twisted the mouth under the silver nose. Justi saw ca’Rudka glance at the ca’Montmorte, at the Numetodo, at the offiziers and pages around them. “Bring my horse,” the commandant said. “We ride with the Kraljiki.”
Justi nodded, grim-faced. He drew his sword and gestured up the Avi, to where the sound of battle was loudest. “Ride, then!” he cried.
They pounded away, the chevarittai around him, the banner of the Kraljiki snapping angrily in the wind, not waiting for the commandant and the others. The Garde Civile shouted encouragement as they galloped past their ranks, and their cheers drove Justi forward harder.
Ahead, he could see the melee of the spreading front line, and he and the chevarittai plunged into it, breaking the line of infantry and plow-ing through into the ranks beyond.
The fury of battle banished any other thoughts.
Justi hacked at a spear thrust toward him, hewing off the hand that held the weapon, and the man’s lifeblood spurted out as he screamed and fell under the hooves of Justi’s horse. Justi began to strike blindly, at anything that moved wearing silver and black. Around him, his chevarittai tore through the Firenzcians like a plow through earth, blood and death in their trail. They were deep behind the lines now, and the Firenzcian chevarittai had noticed the banner of the Kraljiki and were pushing toward them. “Kraljiki!” Justi heard Sergei shout from behind him. “You’re too isolated here! We must fall back to our own line!”
“No!” Justi shouted over his shoulder. “I will not be called a coward!”
He struck at the nearest man, heard a howl as glittering red spattered his sword arm. He pushed forward. He heard the challenge of the enemy chevarittai, and he shouted back at them defiantly.
Justi managed to take down the first chevaritt who reached him-a man whose face was vaguely familiar, a ca’ who had perhaps once been at the court or to whom Justi had been introduced on one of his so-journs to Brezno. He didn’t know the man’s name, only knew that his own sword was growing heavier even as their blades met and he thrust hard into the space between helm and chestplate, finding flesh above the collar of the man’s surcoat. Justi tried to pull his sword back as gore splashed over the surcoat’s embroidered crest, but his blade was snagged on bone or armor. There was no time to think; another chevaritt was on him and he could not defend himself. He let go of the sword (the chevaritt tumbling from his saddle) and brought up a hopeless arm, hoping the steel of the vambrace could deflect the blow. . but ca’Rudka’s horse slammed hard into Justi’s attacker, the commandant’s sword slicing through the Firenzcian’s hauberk. The chevaritt slid to the ground under their destriers with a scream.
“Kraljiki-” Sergei started to say, but there was no time. They were caught, snared in the press of foot soldiers and chevarittai. The young chevaritt holding Justi’s banner was down. To his left, Justi saw ca’Montmorte borne under, skewered on a spear, his surcoat and hauberk feathered with arrows. Near ca’Montmorte, the Numetodo ci’Vliomani gestured and fire exploded, but his war-fire was pale and ineffective.
Everything was chaos: screaming and shouting and movement. Pain lanced Justi’s right leg and he cried out in shock, glancing down to see his greave rent and blood streaming from the gash in the metal. Hands clutching at him, threatening to pull him down.
Justi knew that he was about to be captured, if not slain outright.
If either happened, this war was over. Any parley for his release would include his abdication. He struck at the hands with a dagger pulled from his belt, kicking at his destier’s side. But the destrier was hemmed in and though he saw Sergei still fighting desperately at his side, they were surrounded now in a sea of black and silver.
Justi screamed in fury.
He had nothing left. The spells he had prepared so carefully before the battle were gone, and it would take too long and he was far too exhausted to call up new ones. His arm was already exhausted from using his sword-and swordplay was hardly his strength, in any case.
He wondered what death was going to feel like. He wondered-briefly-what he might say to Cenzi if He were there in the afterlife.
He heard the Kraljiki scream and saw the man surrounded, about to be borne down.
But the earth answered the Kraljiki’s scream.
The ground erupted as if some demon of the Moitidi had risen from the depths: an explosion of mud and trampled wheat tossed away from them anyone in black and silver, though it left the Kraljiki, the commandant, and the remaining chevarittai of Nessantico untouched.
For a moment, there was silence.
Karl saw the commandant grab for the reins of the Kraljiki’s horse; the Kraljiki himself swayed in the saddle, clutching at his leg.
“Retreat!” ca’Rudka shouted to the others. “Retreat while we have the chance!”
Ca’Rudka yanked at the reins of the Kraljiki’s mount. Karl kicked his own horse into movement, dropping the useless sword to better hold the reins. They galloped back toward the Nessantico lines through the tumbled bodies.
Black and silver merged into blue and gold: they were through and behind the lines as the sounds of battle arose anew behind them. “We need a healer!” Sergei shouted to a page as they halted. The commandant was helping the Kraljiki down from his saddle; Sergei slid from his own horse to aid him, but the commandant nearly fell himself with his own wounded leg. The Kraljiki was moaning and fighting their hands; Sergei saw blood pulsing from the wound in the man’s thigh. He and ca’Rudka looked at each other as they lay the Kraljiki on the grass and mud. Sergei was already stripping off his coverlet, ripping the cloth and stuffing it into the wound. “Get his greave off so we can bind the wound,” he said to Karl. “Quickly.”
Karl cut the straps of the plate mail with his dagger and pulled it free of the torn links of the mail leggings underneath. More blood gushed over his hands. The spear, he saw, had come in at the top of the plate and pierced deep into the muscle. He glimpsed white bone before Sergei packed the wound and bound another strip above the gash. The flow of blood slowly subsided, though the Kraljiki’s face was pale and he’d lapsed into unconsciousness.
“He may lose that leg, if not his life,” the commandant said to Karl as the healer arrived, and ca’Rudka stood up, watching as the healer fussed over Justi. “This was so unnecessary. The Archigos, though, she might be able to help.”
Karl shook his head. “Ana has no strength left. The Kraljiki is in the hands of the healers for now.”
A nod. The commandant was looking back, toward the line of battle. The gloom of twilight was beginning to deepen, aided by the dark fan of a storm front. A few large drops of rain were beginning to fall and the wind had picked up. “We’ve done all we can do,” the commandant said, glancing up. “The city is safe for another day, at least.” He gestured to a nearby page. “Find the horns. Have them call ‘Disengage.’
Tell the a’offiziers to fall back toward the city. I doubt the Hirzg will follow this time.”
He looked down again at the Kraljiki. Karl watched him shake his head.
“They’re pulling back all along the line,” ca’Linnett said to Jan. The Starkkapitan’s face, like Jan’s own, was spattered with mud and blood smeared by the driving rain, and the edge of his sword was badly nicked. “If we press, they will turn and fight; if we allow them, they’ll retreat.”
Jan grunted. He wiped at sodden eyes. He was surprised that therain did not hiss like water dropped on heated steel as it struck him, the anger burned in him so hot.
The carriages had come forward as the line of battle had pushed on toward the city. Allesandra, wrapped in an oilcloth against the wet, was at his side again, looking up at him as ca’Linnett gave his report. U’Teni cu’Kohnle stood by ca’Linnett, his hair plastered to his skull and dripping with the rain; he looked as if he’d not slept in a week, drained by the efforts of his spells. Ca’Cellibrecca was present as well-unsoiled, untouched, protected from the rain by a large umbrella held by an e’teni, yet somehow managing to look as if he’d suffered worst of all.
This was not a victory. At best this was a draw. Jan stared at the men in black and silver laying unmoving in the field as the rain pummeled them. This was a defeat. He knew it. The Numetodo illusion had wasted their war-teni’s efforts, and they’d been unable to counter the war-fire that had been sent after them. The Garde Civile had fought like madmen rather than halfhearted conscripts, and the chevarittai of Nessantico had shown their worth. Jan had felt some hope when he’d glimpsed the Kraljiki’s foolish advance beyond his own lines, but another unusual spell-was it the Numetodo again, or the false Archigos? — had saved the idiot.
Now darkness threatened and the rain poured down on them.
“Pursue,” he said, furious. “I don’t care. I will rest tonight inside the walls.
“Hirzg,” ca’Linnett persisted, “they’re not fleeing in panic. Their retreat is orderly and slow, and they
Jan was shaking his head at the argument. “Hirzg,” cu’Kohnle broke in, “the starkkapitan is right. My war-teni are exhausted; we have nothing left. Give us the night, though, and we’ll be ready for a final assault in the morning.”
“Are you not
I will have it. If you won’t help me take it, then I will find offiziers and teni who will.” He glared at them, and was gratified when both ca’Linnett and cu’Kohnle bowed their heads. Ca’Cellibrecca, in his ornate robes under the umbrella, was looking away, as if fascinated by the Avi behind them.
“Vatarh.” Allesandra tugged at his cloak. He glanced down at her serious face, blinking against the raindrops pelting them. “The starkkapitan and the u’teni are right. They’ll do as you tell them to do because they respect you, but they’re right. I know you want the city, and I know you’ll give it to me as you promised. But not tonight, Vatarh.
Tomorrow.” She smiled at him, and the fury inside him cooled somewhat. “Or even the next day,” she said. “It doesn’t matter. The Firenzcian army is strong, and you are their leader. You will take the city, but it doesn’t need to be
“I promised you, Allesandra,” Jan said. With his forefinger, he brushed dampened curls back from her cheeks.
“I can wait, Vatarh,” she answered. “I can wear the lights of the city for the rest of my life. Another day won’t matter. I can wait.”
He took a breath. Thunder grumbled overhead, but the rain was lessening, and the lightning was flickering east of them, toward Firenzcia.
“We’ll make camp here,” he said. “U’Teni cu’Kohnle, make certain
that the war-teni sleep and are ready for tomorrow. Starkkapitan, you’ll prepare your offiziers and troops for the final assault, and I will meet with both of you later this evening. We’ll move at first light tomorrow.”
He hugged Allesandra to him. “And you shall have your jeweled city tomorrow,” he told her.
Ana was dozing in her chair, but she must have sensed his presence. Her eyes fluttered open. If she was surprised to see
him standing in her apartments near the Archigos’ Temple, she didn’t show it.
“You don’t agree to my advice?” he asked her, chiding her gently.
“You won’t use the gift I gave you?”
He saw Ana touch her robe at her right side. He could see how the cloth rounded there over the enchanted glass he’d given her. She said nothing. “I heard the gossip in the city, Archigos. They say that you saved the Kraljiki’s life with a spell,” he continued.
“It wasn’t me,” she said. “I don’t know. .” Then her eyes widened a bit.
“Yes,” he told her. “I shouldn’t have interfered, but if I hadn’t, my gift to you would have been wasted.”
She stirred, sitting up in the chair in which she’d fallen asleep. Her hand brought out the ball. He could see the glowing colors within it; he could feel the power he’d placed within the glass for her. “Here, then,” she said. “I give it back to you. Use it yourself if you’re so certain.”
“I can’t.” He kept his hands at his sides, refusing to take it. After a moment, she placed it on the stand next to the chair, on her untouched dinner tray.
In answer, he brought a shallow brass bowl from the bag he wore under his cloak, the rim decorated with ornate filigrees of colored enamel.
He went to the desk and set the bowl there, pouring water into it from a pitcher the servants had left there. From a leather pouch, he sprinkled a dark powder into the water and stirred it, chanting words in the West-speech. He could see her watching him, her head cocked to one side as she listened, and he knew that she heard the similarity between West-speech and the language of the Ilmodo: the same cadences and rhythms, the same sibilance and breathy vowels. A mist rose above the bowl.
“Look into it,” he said.
She gave him a long, appraising look. Then, finally, she rose from her chair (he could see her weariness in the grimaces and the way she stretched her limbs) and-on the far side of the desk from him-stood over the bowl. She looked down.
He knew what she saw, knew because he’d glimpsed it himself a dozen or more times over the last few months.
He knew what she saw. He stretched his scarred hand between Ana’s rapt face and the bowl, sweeping away the mist.
He would not let her see what came afterward. That was only for him.
Ana looked up at him, her hands fisted on the desktop. “This is the future?” she asked.
He nodded. “It is a glimpse of one path the future can take,” he said. “A path that’s uncertain and hard to decipher sometimes. But when I see the Hirzg’s death, when I see Nessantico saved and Justi on the throne, it is always
He wondered if she could hear the half-lie.
“I can’t,” she said. “To murder people while they’re helpless. .”
He smiled, and saw her recoil from his expression. “How better to do it?” he said. “My people have a saying: ‘In time of war, all laws are silent.’ How many have died today-unnecessarily-because you
Her gaze hardened then, and he realized he’d pushed her too far.
Mahri hurried to answer, shaking his head. He could not give her time to think, or it would be too late. “No, Ana. I don’t blame you-if anything, the blame is mine for not making it clear enough. You can play by the rules of ‘civilized’ war if you wish, Ana, but you will lose if you do so-ask Commandant ca’Rudka if he truly thinks you will
prevail against Hirzg Jan; ask your war-teni if they believe they are stronger than those on the other side. You’ve already bent the rules of your Faith and your Divolonte. Bend them further. You have tonight to do this. Tonight only. Tomorrow, it will be too late, because the Hirzg will be dining in the Palais and ca’Cellibrecca will be standing where you’re standing right now. Both you and Justi will be dead, or worse.”
“Why?” she asked him. “Why do
“I don’t,” he told her. “I care for what is best for my people, as you do. And so I want Justi as Kraljiki and you as the Archigos.”
“You saw that here?” she asked, pointing at the bowl.
For a moment he wondered if she had guessed, or if she’d seen more in the bowl than he’d intended for her to see. “Yes,” he told her tentatively. “Glimpses, as you saw. And I hope that they’re right.”
He was relieved when she nodded. He plucked the glass ball from the dinner tray. “Tonight,” he repeated, holding the ball. “It’s your only chance.”
She stared at him. He was afraid she was going to refuse, afraid that what he’d seen in the bowl would be forever shattered and lost. But finally her hands came up from her sides, palms up.
He placed the ball in her hands and closed her fingers around the glow.
Ana was more frightened than she could remember. Her hands were shaking, and she felt impossibly cold.
Kenne brought the carriage, driven by a trusted e’teni. When she told him that she wanted to leave the city along the Avi a’Firenzcia, that she wanted to come as close as she could come to where the Hirzg’s army was camped (trying desperately to keep her voice from shaking), he nodded as if she’d asked him to take her on a promenade around the Avi a’Parete. “And Envoy ci’Vliomani? Will we be picking him up also?”
“Let Karl sleep,” she’d told him. “This is something I must do on my own-but I need your help.”
Kenne had nodded and kept any thoughts he might have had to himself. That gratified Ana; she didn’t know if she would have been able to answer his questions.
She stared out from the curtains as they rattled through the city.
The Avi a’Parete was strangely dark, the teni-lamps unlit for the first time in generations. The storm front had passed on eastward, leaving moon-silver puddles on the flags of the courtyards and the Avi.
The streets were deserted except for Garde Civile (though the taverns they passed were both crowded and noisy), and it was only the cracked globe of Cenzi on their carriage that saved them from being stopped and questioned several times. The A’Sele flowed dark and forbidding under the Pontica Mordei, and the heads on either side
of the gates of the Avi a’Firenzcia were black and still, frozen as they stared outward into the night, gazing blindly to where the army of Firenzcia slept.
The carriage was hailed as they came to the barricades at the gate; Kenne leaned out from the carriage and answered the challenge. At his insistence that they were on the Archigos’ business, they were permitted through. They passed between uncounted tents of the Garde Civile along the Avi.
The world seemed calm, despite the cataclysm that had come to Nessantico, despite Ana’s own apprehensions. She cradled the glass ball nestled in her pocket, letting the Ilmodo energy captured within it tingle her fingers and praying to Cenzi to tell her that she was doing the right thing.
There was no answer. Only an aching uncertainty in her heart and the fear of what she was setting out to do.
She felt the carriage come to a halt as the driver stopped chanting.
“Archigos,” she heard the driver say. “I can’t go farther. .”
Kenne opened the carriage door and Ana peered out. Ahead, the Avi was entirely blocked: the rear defensive line of Nessantico troops.
A squad of the Garde Civile were approaching the carriage; as they saw Ana and Kenne step from the carriage, they all hurriedly gave the sign of Cenzi. “Archigos, U’Teni,” the e’offizer with them said. “I’ll send word to Commandant ca’Rudka that you’ve come.” He started to gesture to one of his men, but she stopped him.
“No, E’Offizier. Let the commandant have his rest. I’ve come to look at the lines, that’s all. I couldn’t sleep, so I thought I’d see where we should place the war-teni.”
He nodded, with a quick, almost shy smile. “I understand. Right now, though, things are quiet.”
“Where are the Firenzcian troops?”
The man pointed up the road. “No more than a quarter mile past our lines. You can glimpse their campfires through the trees.”
“I’d like to see.”
“We’ll take you. .”
Ana walked with Kenne, the e’offizer, and his squad through the quiet lines, where most of the Garde Civile were sleeping on the ground or packed into small tents, getting what rest they could before the sun and inevitable battle came. The Avi itself was blocked by a barrier of quickly-felled trees, but there was nothing but field, trees, and the occasional abandoned farmhouse between the two forces on either side of the road. The e’offizier led them to one side of the Avi, to a small stand of apple trees. She could see a few lookouts stationed along the line, but otherwise there was no one near them. “This is as far as we should go,” the e’offizier said. “Any farther out from cover and it would be too dangerous.” Yellow flames blinked like distant fireflies in a rough line ahead of her, flickering through the swaying foliage of trees and brush.
She stared out into the dark.
“You saved us earlier, Archigos,” the e’offizier said behind her. “I want you to know that we appreciate that, all of us.”
She nodded. “Thank you, E’Offizier. Now, if you would leave us alone for a bit, please,” she said. “To pray. .”
He gave her the sign of Cenzi once more. He gestured to the squad and they strode away, leaving Ana and Kenne standing alone in the little grove. She pulled out Mahri’s gift. She cupped it in her hand. “Archigos?” Kenne said, looking at the ruddy fire in her hand.
“I need you to hide me, Kenne,” she told him. “A shielding spell so no one sees or hears me moving in the night. I need to get as close as I can.”
She thought she saw Kenne’s eyebrows lift in the moonlight, but he nodded. He began to chant, his hands swaying in the moonlight.
The air shimmered around her-she was not invisible, but unless one looked carefully they might mistake her form for a tree’s shadow or a cloud over the moon.
It was the best she could hope for.
Ana took a long breath, then stepped forward from the sheltering
trees and into the open field. She waited, half expecting to hear the hiss of arrows or a call of alarm. Yett she heard nothing but Kenne’s chanting behind her. She continued to walk: a step, another, with each step fighting the temptation to run.
She was nearly across to the line of trees and the campfire among them when the shimmering of air began to lessen: Kenne was tiring. She lifted the glass ball in her hand.
She looked about. In the sky, the fast-moving clouds had stopped.
There was no sound but the roaring of the power in her mind. A night swallow hovered high above her, captured in mid-turn, its wings locked in mid-beat.
Ana began to walk as quickly as she could toward the campfires- but now she found movement difficult and slow. She felt as if she were wading through deep water. As she reached the enemy lines, her heart pounded, seeing a man staring directly at her as he stood beside the nearest tree. She gathered herself-to run or to ready a spell-but then she realized that he was as unresponsive as a sculpture, and that the flames of the campfire against whose light he was outlined appeared painted on the air.
She hurried past the soldier, feeling a chill as he stood there, still staring outward.
It was easy to locate the Hirzg’s tent, with his banner caught in mid-flutter above. She walked unchallenged through the encampment and past the gardai outside. She lifted the flap-the canvas as stiff and unyielding as if it were frozen-and stepped inside.
She stopped, breathing heavily with the exertion of simply walking in this gelid air. The interior of the tent was ornate: a thick rug covered the ground, a wooden field desk stood on its stand to one side, a brazier trailed an unmoving wisp of incense, and teni-lights had been lit to brighten the room. There were several people in the tent, gathered around a table set with food: ca’Cellibrecca she recognized instantly, his hand lifting a fork-ful of meat toward his gaping mouth. There was another man in black and silver with the insignia of the starkkapitan on his sleeves; a thin man who was seated at the middle of the table; a green-robed teni with the slashes of an u’teni-that could only be cu’Kohnle.
The Hirzg sat at the head of the table. . and on his lap, unexpectedly, was a young girl. The sight puzzled Ana for a moment, then she realized: it was the Hirzg’s daughter Allesandra. It had to be her; she could see the similarity in their faces.
They were all statues crafted by a flawless artist. The power snarling in her head, she went to the Hirzg. She pulled the knife from its scabbard.
But she stood there, staring at the tableau, the power within Mahri’s spell buzzing insistently in her ears. Allesandra was gazing up at her vatarh, her mouth half-open, and there was such deep love and affection in her gaze that it stopped Ana’s hand.
She almost heard the girl’s chuckle. She saw the Hirzg’s hand, ready to brush away an errant curl from her forehead, and in his eyes was the same affection, the same love.
Ana’s hand trembled. The tip of the knife wavered just above the Hirzg’s flesh. The Ilmodo seethed and crackled around her, as if Cenzi Himself were laughing.
She knew. All in that instant, she knew. This was what
She glimpsed another way. A better way, she hoped.
There was little time left. The Ilmodo screamed in her mind, a rising wail, and she could not hold the spell together for much longer. She slid the knife back in its scabbard and went to the field desk, spreading out a piece of thick paper that seemed to fight her hand, taking a quill and dipping the end into the inkwell.
Even writing was a struggle, as if the ink itself were fighting her.
She wrote a brief, scrawling note and signed it. Returning to the table, she tugged the Hirzg’s arms away from Allesandra-they moved reluctantly, as if he were loath to allow this. She tucked the note in his hand and closed his fist around it.
Finally, she took the unaware girl in her arms.
Hoping she could make her way from the encampment before she could no longer hold the spell together, she fled. Carrying the stiff body of Allesandra, it was as if Ana were fighting her way upstream against a rushing, white-watered current. She stumbled from the encampment with the burden of the young girl, past the campfire and beyond the line of guards, and out into the open field between the two armies, pausing a few times to rest and recover her breath.
The campfires of the Nessantico defenders edged closer.
There was a man standing between herself and the campfires, though, and he stood where there had been no one before. “Kenne?” she breathed, hoping somehow it was true and knowing it was not.
“No,” the apparition answered, and the shock of his speech was enough to tear away the remnants of the spell. The world returned to motion around Ana, the impact of it causing Ana to drop Allesandra to the ground.
“It was you, wasn’t it, Mahri?” Ana said.
“You are my little bird, and I love-” her vatarh said, but then the world lurched around her and she wasn’t there on his lap anymore but somehow lying on the cold, wet ground in the night. Someone-a woman’s voice-was growling at a black figure in the middle of a meadow. Allesandra tried to get up, but she was disoriented and could only struggle to her knees.
“It was you, wasn’t it, Mahri? The Kraljica didn’t die because of ci’Recroix’s spell-it was you who killed her.”
Dizzy, feeling nauseous from the strangeness, Allesandra stared at the speaker. It was hard to see in the dim, fleeting moonlight, but the woman was dressed in a teni’s robes-robes that looked similar to those the fat Archigos wore. She was speaking to a man: he was little more than a beggar. His face, when the moonlight caught it under the hood of his cloak, was horrid: all twisted and scarred with one eye missing, and the smile he gave the woman was hideous.
“Yes, it was me,” he admitted. “This won’t do, Ana. I can’t have you take the girl back to be ransomed. That would leave the Hirzg alive. .” He smiled again, and the coldness of the expression made Allesandra shiver. She would have cried out, but they were both ignoring her. She remained still, but her fingers crept to where her vatarh’s knife was tucked under her tashta. “But I can remedy that problem.
After all, finding you out here with the girl’s body will tell everyone who killed the Hirzg-that will work nearly as well for my purposes, I think.
There’s still time. In fact, there’s all the time I need.”
He lifted a hand; in it was a small glass ball. He closed his eyes and spoke a word; but the woman had done the same-gesturing sharply with one hand and speaking a phrase that boomed loudly in the night air. The glass ball shattered in the man’s hand. Green-and-yellow light shot through the air, sending shadows racing over the ground. The man shouted and staggered backward.
“I didn’t come entirely unprepared, Mahri,” the woman-could she really be Ana, the false Archigos? — said to the man. “And I’ve learned from Karl, too.”
“You’ve not learned enough,” the cloaked man told her, cradling his arm. “Not enough. .”
He lifted both his hands, sweeping them through the air, and speaking a sequence of words in a strange tongue. The attack came so quickly that Allesandra was certain that the woman would be consumed by it: crackling blue fire streamed from the gesturing man to envelop the woman. But Ana had raised her own hands at the same moment and the blue fire split into two streams just in front of her, hissing and fuming as they struck the ground on either side of the Archigos.
But the firestream continued to pour toward her, and Allesandra heard the woman gasp as she held her shielding hands before her. Her mouth was moving, but the words were unheard over the fury of the spell; her eyes were closed and lines of effort creased her face. The sundered firestreams began to close, threatening to drown her in the blue flames.
Allesandra wanted to believe this was a nightmare, that she had simply fallen asleep suddenly in her vatarh’s lap, but it couldn’t be a dream. And she knew that when the cloaked man killed Ana, he would look next at her. .
Georgi had told her that a starkkapitan must know when to make alliances, even with those who might the next day be your enemy. Vatarh had shown her the same.
Allesandra closed her fingers around the knife Vatarh had given her.
She pulled the blade free of the scabbard. Gathering all her strength, pushing away the dizziness, she rushed toward the man, screaming. His gaze shifted to her and the firestreams began to curl, but she was already beside him and she thrust the blade into his cloak blindly.
The firestream nearly touched her, but in the instant she thought she would feel its touch, the blaze shifted as if someone had taken hold of it, and the flames instead wrapped around Mahri himself. He screamed, and Allesandra flung herself away from him, dropping the knife. She struck the ground hard, the breath taken from her. As she tried to breathe, to move, she saw the firestreams crackle and flare, covering the man’s entire body and flinging him a dozen feet away. The spell-fire vanished then, but real flames-yellow and pale in comparison- sputtered on his clothing.
He did not move.
Allesandra could hear people shouting nearby, calling alarm. Tenifire was beginning to glow to both sides of them.
Ana was on her knees in the mud, breathing heavily. Allesandra saw the woman rise, and she tried to get up herself to run away, but she didn’t know which way to go, she was frightened and sore, and Ana already stood over her. “Are you all right?” Ana’s voice was hoarse and cracked and tired.
Allesandra nodded silently, sniffing away the tears that threatened, and when Ana stretched a hand toward her, she took it. “We have to hurry,” Ana said.
“I want to go back to my vatarh.”
Ana nodded. “You will,” she said. “I promise you. In time, you will.”
There were men approaching them, and they wore blue and gold rather than black and silver. Allesandra whimpered in alarm and tried to break free from the older woman, but Ana hugged her tightly. “They won’t hurt you,” she whispered to Allesandra. “I promise you. They won’t hurt you. I won’t let them.”
“Vatarh promised me the city,” Allesandra told her.
“And I will show it to you,” Ana said. “But Nessantico belongs to itself.”