This is a short fragment for review the book. The full version can be purchased in the store.
Lord of the Silent Kingdom
The ice advances every winter. The world grows colder. The seas grow shallower. In northernmost Andoray the reindeer herds and mystic Seatts have disappeared. The farms and pastures, hills and fjords that supported the warlike Andorayans, two centuries gone, are entombed under ice so thick the wild, tall mountains are lost. Across the world-though less so amongst the Wells of Ihrian-the wells of power are weakening.
Till recently dramatic change has been confined to the far rims of civilization. Lately, though, they have begun to have a real impact round the Mother Sea. A flood of refugees has made it possible to raise armies at bargain prices. Just when the Episcopal Church is ruled by an obsessed Patriarch confident that he is the divine instrument meant to expunge heresy and crush unbelievers so all mankind can enjoy God's grace and salvation. As others have done, overlooking the fact that an omnipotent God can handle those sorts without mortal assistance.
The influx of the displaced causes instability everywhere. No one is concerned about the problem. No one sees the problem-except at the local level, where folks grumble about the increase in crime and violence, compared to the good old days. Their response to theft or violence is often ferociously violent itself.
Wars are being fought every day, even where armies are not on the march. And wars within wars. And wars behind wars.
There is the endless struggle on behalf of God, the war for heaven fought on earth. It is the war that never ends because the divine touches no two minds the same and few men credit any revelation but their own.
There is the war for daily survival in a world with neither the means nor any philosophical inclination to make abundant resources commonly available.
And there is the incessant, silent war against the Tyranny of the Night. This most deadly and most vile of wars is the struggle least well known. Not one man in five hundred becomes aware of the conflict, yet to be born is to become a conscript in the struggle with the Instrumentalities of the Night. On one side or the other.
1. Caron ande Lette, in the End of Connec
The enemy came out of the forest on the Ellow Hills, sudden as a spring squall. There had been no rumor of their coming. Brock Rault, the Seuir ande Lette, thought they were bandits when the first handful appeared. Then his conscience threw up the fear that they might represent Tormond of Khaurene. The Duke of the End of Connec had forbidden the construction of new fortifications except under ducal charter. Unfinished, Lette was just the sort of fastness that Tormond had proscribed.
Fortifications were appearing throughout the End of Connec. And caused more despair than comfort. The universal inclination seemed to be, once a man was confident of his own defenses, to hire mercenaries and become a plague upon his neighbors.
The Seuir ande Lette was an exception. Barely twenty-one, nevertheless, he had been with Count Raymone Garete at the Black Mountain Massacre and was a veteran of the Calziran Crusade. He had smelled the cruel beast War's foul breath. He had tasted blood. He loathed his family's enemies but never so much that he felt compelled to gift them with terror, death, or pain.
Peace was the root of his faith, though he was a warrior born and consecrated.
Brock Rault was Maysalean, a Seeker After Light. Peaceable by belief and a heretic by declaration of the Brothen Episcopal Church. He did not hide his beliefs.
The enemy drew closer, too quickly for some peasants to get safely inside Caron ande Lette. The Seuir realized that the invaders were no brigands. But neither were they much more, except in numbers. A banner identified them as followers of the Grolsacher mercenary captain, Haiden Backe. Backe operated under letters of marque from Patriarch Sublime V. He roamed the northeastern marches of the Connec, supposedly punishing heretics. In actuality, he plundered anyone who would not buy an exemption.
For his troubles, Haiden Backe received a third of the plunder, which he had to share with his troops. The rest went to the Church.
The Church was desperate for funds. Sublime had to repay loans taken during the Calziran Crusade. Any default meant there would be no loans in the future. Nor had he yet finished paying for votes he had bought during the Patriarchal election. And he wanted to raise new armies to launch another crusade against the Pramans occupying much of the Holy Lands.
Past crusades had established Brothen Episcopal footholds amongst the Wells of Ihrian, as Crusader principalities and kingdoms. During the last decade, though, those states had been under severe pressure from the Kaifate of Qasr al-Zed and its great champion, Indala al-Sul Halaladin. Sublime desperately wanted history to acclaim him the Patriarch who wrested the Holy Lands from the Unbeliever forever. His extermination of heresy at home would finance the glorious mission overseas.
Honario Benedocto, who had schemed and bribed his way into the Patriarchy, was loathed with enthusiasm by millions.
The Seuir ande Lette turned to his nearest companion, a gray man in his early sixties. "What say you, Perfect Master? It seems the hour of despair has arrived sooner than you forethought."
The Perfect Master of the Path, Brother Candle from Khaurene, bowed his head. "I'm tempted to declare my shame. As though my coming conjured this pestilence. As to advice, I can only repeat the admonition of the Synod of St. Jeules. Let no Seeker After Light be first to raise his hand against another man. But let no Seeker strengthen evil through any failure to resist it."
Brother Candle had argued against that stance. He was a pacifist at heart. But once the synod reached its decision he set out to prepare his Seeker brethren to defend themselves. Some would destroy them rather than recognize their special relationship with the Divine.
The young knight told Brother Candle, "He'll talk first. His men won't want a real fight or a long siege. Get away from Lette while you can."
Brother Candle stared out at the raiders. Few of them were driven by their devotion to the Episcopal faith. They were mercenaries because they could do nothing else. Without this marginally religious pretense they would be simple brigands.
More than one darkness stalks the earth.
"No stain of cowardice would attach to you, Master," Brock Rault promised. "We'd all rather that one so rare as you be removed from harm's way. Haiden Backe will offer you no respect." Rault's brothers and cousins nodded as they prepared to fight. "And you can carry our plea for help to Count Raymone."
Brother Candle went to stand alone, to meditate. To seek the best path. To discover how he could best serve. To let the Light move him.
The flesh was loath to go. The flesh dreaded what secret thoughts others might entertain if he chose flight. Yet he would do no one any good, ever, if he let himself be butchered at Caron ande Lette. The Church would crow because one of the Adversary's most favored had fallen-while insisting that it had nothing to do with Haiden Backe's campaign. Slipping the Grolsacher a bonus for having disposed of one of those pesky Maysalean Perfects.
Rault said, "I'll have a fast horse brought to the water postern."
"I arrived on foot," the holy man replied. "So shall I depart."
No one argued. A man afoot, in tattered clothing, would be ignored. The outlanders did not understand Maysalean vows of poverty.
Brock Rault engaged the Grolsacher warlord in pointless discourse. He hinted that, offered the right terms, Caron ande Lette might yield without an exchange of blows. Haiden Backe would not find negotiations unusual. Connectens seldom chose to fight in the face of superior numbers. Then Brock's youngest brother, Thurm, reported, "The Perfect Master is out of sight."
Rault grunted, gave the signal. The result would stain his soul indelibly. But he knew that soul would return for another turn around the wheel. He did not hesitate to greet evil with unexpected evil. He had learned that from Count Raymone Garete.
Archers sprang up and let fly. Backe's standard bearer and herald fell from their horses, as did two priests in dun cassocks. A third priest, of substance because he wore armor, survived the hail but had to extricate himself from his wounded mount.
Haiden Backe flung a hand into the path of an arrow streaking toward his face. Which exposed the gap in armor under his arm. An arrow found it, broke as its head hit a rib, and turned. It failed to reach his heart.
A companion snatched the reins of Backe's horse. The remaining raiders galloped away, pursued by missiles. A ballista shaft slammed through one, deep into the neck of his mount.
Only the armored priest escaped unscathed.
Brock's sister Socia, just sixteen, observed, "Sublime will use this against us."
"Of course he will. But these men, who don't work for the Patriarch, were here already, without just cause. They mean to steal our lives, our fortunes, and our good names. What else can their not-employer take away?"
Thurm sneered, "He could always excommunicate us."
Everyone in earshot laughed.
Brock said, "None of those people appear to have perished. Let's help them get to this heaven they're determined to force upon us."
Even the fallen priests were disinclined to meet their God today. One volunteered to renounce Sublime V in favor of the Anti-Patriarch, Immaculate II.
Brock let that one inscribe a letter confessing the Brothen Church's Grolsacher connections. He had the rest bound to stakes and left to the mercy of their deity. Within easy bowshot. Should their fellows be overwhelmed by an impulse to rescue them.
The mercenary force surrounded Caron ande Lette.
"Wow!" Socia said. Fearfully. "There's a lot of them."
"But in disarray," Brock replied. "They don't know what to do now. And Haiden Backe can't tell them."
That situation persisted for three days. Backe's underlings launched several clumsy attacks. Each failed.
Haiden Backe lost his struggle with fever and sepsis. The Bishop of Strang, the Grolsacher priest who could afford armor, declared himself Backe's successor. The mercenaries quickly expressed their confidence in the Bishop and the aims of the Brothen Patriarch. That night more than thirty resigned under cover of darkness.
Morcant Farfog, Bishop of Strang, was one of countless corrupt, incompetent bishops associated with the Brothen Patriarchy. Sublime had found that he could ease his fiscal woes by selling new bishoprics.
A rudimentary bureaucracy meant to raise funds through sales of livings, pardons, bequests, and indulgences was in its formative stage.
Sublime needed the money.
The Anti-Patriarch, Immaculate, at Viscesment, moaned and carried on but never really seized the moral opportunity. He was close to abandoning the struggle against the Usurpers of the Mother City.
The mercenaries besieging Caron ande Lette had little to recommend them. But most were not stupid. Few failed to see through Bishop Farfog's bluster. He was supremely incompetent, completely self-involved, and certain to cause fatalities amongst those dim enough to remain in his vicinity.
Desertions continued apace.
TWO HOURS OF BRISK HIKING TOOK BROTHER CANDLE TO Artlan ande Brith. Seuir Lanne Tuldse was a skeletal, elderly Maysalean knight. Seuir Lanne had kept faith with Khaurene. He had observed the letter of Duke Tormond's proclamation against erecting fortifications.
"Come," Seuir Lanne told the Perfect Master. "We'll go up to the house. From there you'll be able to see the smoke if they fire Caron ande Lette."
"The house" was a stone manor balanced precariously atop a tall, bristling outcrop of weathered limestone. Not, strictly, a fortress. But difficult to enter if the inhabitants preferred that you stay out.
Fifteen minutes after the Perfect Master's arrival Lanne Tuldse's grandson galloped south toward Antieux. He would raise alarms along the way.
The boy ran into one of Count Raymone's patrols. They led him to an encampment on the Old Brothen military highway, the Inland Road, which followed the western bank of the Dechear River. Here the river marked the traditional boundary between the End of Connec and Ormienden, a hodgepodge of counties and minuscule principalities of mixed and varied allegiance, some to the Grail Empire, some to the Patriarchy, some to kingdoms in nearby Firaldia. A few, by marriage, even owed fealty to the ruling houses of Arnhand and Santerin. The harsh vistas of Grolsach lay only eight leagues away, beyond a tongue of Ormienden occupied by entities called Imp and Manu. Count Raymone meant to confront would-be invaders who chose to use the Inland Road. That being the route selected by previous invaders from Arnhand. He felt compelled to resist vigorously. Occupation of the Connec's eastern marches would isolate the rest of the province from the assistance of the Empire.
The Count's spies in Grolsach had learned the truth about Sublime's secret letters of marque. Raymone meant to smash anyone who took them up before they reached the cities of the eastern Connec.
Antieux was a magnet for invaders. Antieux had delivered embarrassments to several forces trying to perpetrate the Patriarch's villainies.
Count Raymone did not have the blessing of Duke Tormond. The Duke clung tenaciously to the illusion that Sublime would keep promises he had made in exchange for Connecten support in his crusade against Calzir. Tormond could not understand that Sublime did not feel obligated to keep faith with heretics. Lying was no sin when you lied to Unbelievers.
Count Raymone moved as soon as he received word. He reached Artlan ande Brith two days later. While the Count's soldiers made camp Brother Candle responded to a summons from the hotheaded, headstrong lord of Antieux.
Count Raymone greeted him warmly. "Desperate hours bring us together again, eh, Master?"
"Existence consists of cycles and convergences," Brother Candle replied. "Even in the upwelling of wickedness. Not to mention demands upon our respective professions."
"Tell me about these Grolsachers."
"Won't?" Count Raymone was accustomed to the vagaries of the Maysalean conscience. Some were determined io remain pacifist, whatever befell them.
"Cannot. The young seuir hustled me out the back door as soon as he recognized the threat."
"Brock Rault is the perfect knight. He fought well against the Arnhanders. He'd have done well in Shippen if the damned Calzirans had bothered to fight back."
"Just as well they didn't. The inevitable would have devoured them."
"Good for us, too." Because Connectens had served in the Calziran Crusade they had established certain rights. Though they had won no honors from the Patriarch, they had helped deliver vast new territories into the realm of Peter, King of Navaya. King Peter, whose queen was Duke Tormond's sister, was now a protector of the Connec.
"Are you going to preach to me, Master?" Count Raymone was intimidating. He was tall, lean, dark, and seemed older than his twenty-four and a half years. He had a long scar over his left eye that made him look more ferocious than he was. Swollen and discolored, it was still healing.
Brother Candle raised a brushy gray eyebrow. "I'd rather you call me Brother."
"I have Maysalean evangelists in my family, Brother. I recognize the light in your eye that means a bout of holy instruction is due to begin." The Count was known for his sardonic sense of humor.
Brother Candle's other eyebrow jumped up. Then he chuckled.
"That won't work, either, Brother. I feel no need to be your pal. You people are transparent manipulators."
"Then I bow to youth's need to make its own mistakes."
Brother Candle gave up. Count Raymone would give him no foothold. It was too late, anyway. Hell's tendrils had been creeping into the End of Connec for years. Ill-tempered time had begotten evil pups. He was wasting it trying to stem the cruel tide. His obligation now was to preserve and cherish what little he could.
He snorted. A Seeker After Light, a Perfect, did not entertain such conceits as Hell. Hell existed only in the Episcopal mind. The more primitive Chaldarean cults, on the far reaches of the world, believed in an Adversary but not in a Pit of Eternal Torment. Brother Candle did not know how the Hell concept had crept into the western form of Chaldareanism. In other strains, as was the case in the ancestral Devedian and Dainshau religions, all punishment and reward happened right here, right now, in this world.
The Deves and Dainshaus should have had the wickedness hammered out of them by now. Their God and the Chaldareans had been punishing them forever. "You are amused, Master?"
"Brother. My thoughts veered to the plight of those who reject the Path. These days they must believe their gods particularly spiteful and callous."
"And no less do they deserve, bending their knees to the Tyranny of the Night."
And there lay the paradox of the world.
God was real, if long unseen. All gods were real. Sometimes they reached into the mortal world. Every demon, devil, and sprite ever imagined was real, somewhere. Spirits of tree and river and stone were real. Things that lay in wait in the dark were painfully real and still found even in lands where the ruling faith officially denied them. Even in the End of Connec, which had been acclaimed as tame since the days of the Old Empire, night things were hidden away. The little ones remained where they'd always been, in the forests, in the mountains, in ancient stone circles ignorant people thought had been erected by giants. They avoided notice because in the End of Connec they were far from any source of power. They would never grow into anything more terrible than what they were. They avoided notice because whenever their presence became obvious Episcopal spirit hunters came to destroy them.
Bigger things of the Night were bound into statues or stones and buried beneath crossroads, or into magical swords or enchanted rings seldom used because they were inherently treacherous, or into the tombstones and gateway arches of old-time pagan cemeteries. Such few as had survived the cleansing unleashed by the sorcerer-captains of the Old Brothen Empire.
Once there had been those powerful enough to be accounted gods or godlings. Those were dead or their power and being had been scattered in a thousand fragments of broken stone by the conquering world-tamers of old. The world preferred them scattered and harmless if they could not be permanently destroyed.
Permanent was difficult when belief could quicken the most lost from any stray wisps of power.
There were individuals who could pull them back together. Sorcerers hungry for power. Though in the west no man had become that powerful for more than a dozen centuries. Here, men of talent were, inevitably, drawn into the Collegium. Where they endured constant monitoring by others like themselves. Or they perished.
Brother Candle said, "My creed won't let me bless what you do, Count Raymone. And yet, what you do, however ruthless, has to be done to stem the tide of darkness."
Where darkness and the Night were real forces, not personifications of evil. They could not be that. They were neither good nor evil. Not till someone decided and painted the label on, like a caste mark on the forehead. Or until someone used them to evil purpose.
Brother Candle was at peace with his conscience. He had done all that he could do. But he was troubled, even so. More was wakening than just the rage, greed, and lust of mortal men.
Two dozen soldiers demonstrated south of Caron ande Lette, drawing the attention of the mercenaries. Bishop Farfog moved to confront them, contemptuous of their numbers. The villains who remained with him were not bright enough to worry about a handful of men who seemed determined to bait them.
The Bishop himself did not see that-though he was supposed to think these few wanted to lead him into a trap. Count Raymone Garete's clever strategy nearly foundered because his enemy was too stupid to be suspicious.
Inertia and laziness kept the Grolsachers from charging. Plus a dim fear that the defenders of Caron ande Lette, all twenty-two, might fall on them from behind.
While the few demonstrated and the Raults waited, Count Raymone's troops slipped past, out of sight, to the west, taking care to raise no dust. A few passed to the east, too, filtering through the trees along the river's edge. The demonstrators withdrew. The Grolsachers resumed taunting the besieged and dodging the occasional arrow.
The demonstrators reappeared next morning. With two hundred friends. When some mercenaries considered following the example of friends smart enough to take off earlier, they discovered Connecten companies behind them. They watched their pathetic camp be overrun.
There was not much of a fight. The Grolsachers scattered, suffering their casualties on the run.
The Connectens only pursued those who did not flee in the direction they wanted. Back along the river, toward home. Where they found themselves ambushed, pinned down by archers, then set upon by heavy infantry.
That left the river. The Connectens let them be once they entered the water.
Bishop Farfog was one of the few who swam well enough to reach the far bank. Having abandoned his armor and plunder.
Brother Candle arrived while Count Raymone's men were burying the mercenary dead, some of whom had not yet stopped breathing. They had no need to lay down any of their own. The rabble had scattered before the Connectens suffered any damage.
The Perfect Master saw no one who had died of wounds from the front. Many looked like they had been murdered after their capture. Few prisoners had been retained.
Which fit Count Raymone's character. The Count believed that the best way to discourage attacks on the Connec was to obliterate anyone inclined to attack, leaving the corpses to the scavengers.
Brock Rault and his brothers were behind what courtesy was being shown the fallen.
The Perfect Master walked the killing fields in sadness. The mercenaries, refugees and Grolsachers alike, were the poorest of the poor. The dead often even lacked weapons worth looting. They had counted on arming themselves with weapons taken from their victims.
Nor was that new. Grolsach in particular produced poor, would-be killers the way Ormienden produced wines and the End of Connec generated songs, poetry, paintings, and marvelous tapestries.
Grolsachers led by Adolf Black had joined the ill-fated Arnhander incursion that ended with the Black Mountain Massacre. Two years before that, thousands of Grolsachers, again in service to Arnhand, perished in that kingdom's defeat at Themes, when the King of Arnhand tried to enforce his dubious rights in Tramaine.
Brother Candle joined Brock Rault and his siblings, Booth, Socia, and Thurm. Brock and Booth were thoughtful, Thurm unsettled. Socia was totally bloodthirsty. She wanted to put heads on poles facing the Grolsach border.
Brother Candle observed, "The human species has an attention span like that of a bluebottle." Flies became more numerous by the hour. Had Brother Candle entertained any strain of paganism he might have recalled that pre-Chaldarean Instrumentality known as Lord of Flies, Lord of Maggots, Prince of Ravens, or Rook. Rook was the last god who visited battlefields. He followed Ordnan, god of battles, Death, and Hilt, or the Choosers of the Slain. The latter collected the greatest heroes, whole. Hilt collected only the souls of those deemed unworthy of the Hall of Heroes.
Rook was Corruption incarnate.
Rook's thoughts summoned all flies and carrion eaters when men gathered for war. Before the coming of the Episcopal Chaldarean faith. Those old Instrumentalities were gone, now. Supposedly. More or less. Modern man hoped. And prayed to his newer, gentler gods.
The ghosts of the harsher gods never left the collective consciousness. They would be reborn if enough people needed them and called them forth. If the wells of power produced sufficient surplus for Instrumentalities to grow.
Socia offered a disquieting thought. "Maybe the Connec itself is a corpse, drawing flies."
Brother Candle shuddered. There was a mad edge to the girl-child's voice. Perhaps she was sensitive to the Instrumentalities of the Night. He observed, "The Grolsachers never learn. Their adventures all turn into catastrophes. The people who hire them will not learn, either. Why don't they notice that anyone who hires Grolsachers always stumbles into a disaster?"
Socia laughed. "You'd have to figure they're due for a win. Wouldn't you?"
Brother Candle exchanged looks with the girl's brothers. Brock Rault shook his head. Socia had seen the elephant nose to trunk. She had helped abuse the mercenaries cut down in front of the gate. None of that had disturbed her in the least.
The girl had no grasp of Maysalean principles. Brother Candle reminded himself that all religions came plentifully stocked with people who paid no attention to what they were about. Some became powerful in the hierarchy of their faith. And had to swim rivers when their villainy flashed back in their faces.
The Usurper Patriarch Sublime V was the man Brother Candle had in mind, though the accusation could have been laid at the feet of most of the Brothen Episcopal Collegium.
On another level, Brother Candle was deeply concerned about the supernatural impact on the conflict. There had been a sharp increase in encounters with things of the Night since the Black Mountain Massacre, in that region. The violence and emotion here was sure to attract the eyes of the Night, as well.
2. Brothe, with the Captain-General
Piper Hecht swore in the Episcopal fashion. "God's Blood! Can't those people leave me alone for a single night?"
Anna Mozilla's full lips twisted in a sneer. "You missed the night, eh? And the afternoon before it? And this morning? I'm wondering if my feelings ought to be hurt, Mr. Captain-General."
Piper took a second to make certain his mistress was teasing. Anna did demonstrate occasional, unpredictable fits of self-pity.
She said, "It's Pinkus Ghort. His own self." Imitating Ghort's Grolsacher speech habits. "So it must be serious."
Hecht's old campaigning companion commanded the Brothen City Regiment, a task as thorny and thankless as herding cats. Ghort faced constraints and demands as distracting as those plaguing the Captain-General himself. Ghort would have a good reason for appearing in person, in the rain.
"It must be." Hecht went to the door. Anna had admitted no one. Only Piper Hecht and one maid ever entered her home. Ghort and his man Polo waited on the tiny stoop.
The warm rain had wakened the rich aromas of the street. Sadly, it was not heavy enough to wash anything away.
"Some major shit coming down, Pipe. We need to jump on it. Fast."
"Clearenza. Fon Dreasser repudiated his oaths to the Patriarchy. They haven't heard at the Castella. Yet. Sublime's gonna shit himself."
There would be more. Clearenza's defection was not unexpected. Duke Germa fon Dreasser was inconstant, to be generous. His allegiance shifted between the Grail Empire and the Patriarchy with every change in the political breeze. But this time the change could have more than indifferent consequences. Sublime V owed Germa and the syndics of Clearenza eighteen thousand gold ducats against past-due loans taken to finance the Calziran Crusade. Which had been expected to be self-financing through plunder. That expectation having been stillborn. The little wealth to be found had gotten into the hands of Sublime's Imperial and Direcian allies. Lately, Sublime had stopped even pretending that he would meet his obligations. He had stopped making interest installments to the Clearenzan consortium.
"He's asked for the Emperor's protection."
Although unsurprising, that made no immediate sense. The Grail Emperor, Lothar, was a sickly boy not expected to survive the year. Though he had not been expected to survive any of his previous fifteen.
Hecht said, "I smell Ferris Renfrow. I don't have a horse." Hecht seldom rode inside the city, despite his standing.
"Renfrow. Got it first toss, I'll bet. We brought extra mounts." A dozen horsemen waited up the narrow street, only now aware that the Captain-General had come out.
"Let me get…"
Anna handed him his winter cloak. It was heavy for the season but would keep him dry during the ride to the Chiaro Palace. She kissed him. Ghort chuckled. Skinny old Polo averted his gaze and reddened.
The horsemen came up. Hecht recognized none of them. No doubt their loyalties lay with Pinkus and his sponsor, Principate Bronte Doneto. But Hecht had no reason to mistrust Ghort. No reason to be uncomfortable with the situation.
Ferris Renfrow was a sinister figure close to the Grail Emperor. He had been close to Lothar's father, Johannes, as well. Renfrow's work in the shadows had made Johannes Blackboots powerful and kept his fragile successor free of challengers now, within the Empire and without.
The Patriarch, Sublime V, had anticipated a respite. The Imperial crown would pass to Lothar's sister, Katrin, next. But Lothar refused to die. And his Empire kept after the Patriarchy like a pack of hounds, trying to reduce the Church's temporal power. More so now than had been while Johannes was alive.
The young Emperor blamed Sublime for his father's death. And Renfrow fed his bitterness.
That contest would not end while the New Brothen Empire survived.
Hecht could not imagine the Chaldarean Episcopal Church collapsing into history's dust. Much as he might long for that end, secretly. Too many men had too much invested in the institution.
Hecht swung aboard a gray palfrey. He thought some of Ghort's men looked unusually nervous. "What's the trouble?"
"You don't know? You need to pay more attention, Pipe. The Night's been active lately. Even by day. There's been a string of mystery murders. Really violent. Really messy. Victims all torn up. The rumors blame night monsters. People are praying that that's really the cause."
These men were veterans. They should not be troubled. Should they? "There's a less pleasant alternative?"
"The kind who kills to conjure ugly spirits. Eaters of souls."
Hecht shivered. He had seen and suffered a lot during his thirtysome years. But there were worse things out there, uglier, more evil things, than ever he had seen. Worse things waiting in the night.
'That sounds like Sheard savages, Pinkus. Not Brothens."
"I don't think that's it. I mention it for the sake of completeness. People mostly want to look on the dark side. And there ain't no Grand Marshes anymore, way I hear tell."
"I know you don't pay attention to anything but Anna and your job. Word is, the marshes are drying up. Principate Delari could tell you. He has priests all over sending in reports about the changes going on. Like the ice and snow piling up in the high mountains. Like the water level in the Shallow Sea dropping the height of a man. So that all those marshes up there are draining out and drying up. And freezing over permanent on their northern side."
"That makes sense. I guess. It wasn't obvious when I left."
Ghort shrugged. He did not much care about changes going on a thousand miles away. He did not have that kind of mind.
Piper Hecht was glad the man he was around most was shallow and self-absorbed. When talk grew uncomfortable he could divert it just by mentioning wine or the hippodrome. Ghort and the grape got on much too well. And the hippodrome preoccupied most everyone in season.
"So what's special about this killer? What makes him a celebrity?"
Brothe was the world's second largest city, first honors going to Hypraxium in the Eastern Empire. Hypraxium enjoyed a thoroughly decadent reputation. But Brothe had its dark side. Murder was a fact of life. Law was mostly a private matter.
Some murders always fell outside common understanding.
"I can't tell you anything more than I have. I don't get out to find out what the poor and the squatters are saying these days. I just know people are scared. And the Collegium won't take it seriously."
"Is it like when the soultaken were here?" That part of his past Hecht understood only because his current mentor, Principate Delari, had taken pains to find out what he could about those divinely possessed butchers. Which had been very little.
"They just killed people to make money to get by till they could do whatever it was that their managing Instrumentalities wanted done."
Only the soultaken knew they had been elected by their gods to destroy a mortal those Old Ones called the Godslayer, a slave-soldier of far Dreanger. Else Tage, one of the most capable captains among the Sha-lug. Sent to Firaldia by Gordimer the Lion on behalf of the Kaif of al-Minphet, to blunt Sublime V's lust for new crusades.
Else Tage never learned that he was a target of ancient gods. He did suspect that the Instrumentalities of the Night had a marked interest in him, however. With only the vaguest notion why.
Else Tage survived the soultaken. Else Tage now wore the name Piper Hecht. He had risen amongst the Episcopal Chaldareans to become Captain-General of the armies being raised by the one man most determined to loose fire and sword upon the Unbelievers of the Holy Lands.
Few knew the truth.
Piper Hecht would have been more comfortable if those few were fewer still.
Hecht said, "Pinkus, you see Doneto all the time. Does he have any idea what's going on inside Sublime's head? Will he want Clearenza punished?"
"Probably. There's a history between Germa fon Dreasser and Honario Benedocto." The latter having been the Patriarch's name before his elevation.
"These Firaldians have been dishonoring each other's wives and daughters and using that to excuse assassinations since…"
"Not to mention their sons and catamites."
"Why are we going this way, Pinkus? Especially on a rainy day?"
They had entered an area of tenements so closely crowded that two horsemen could not pass in opposite directions. The unpaved streets were slick and deep in a mix of manure and human ordure. It made sucking noises when the horses lifted their hooves. Water filled their hoofprints instantly.
The grooms in the regimental stables would have plenty to do once these animals returned. "Just Plain Joe will love you." Hooves and legs would need special attention to prevent disease.
"Ogier! Aubero! What the hell is it with this romp through a shit pile? Who told you to go this way?" Ghort tried to bully his way forward.
Half a minute later Hecht emerged into a small square. Those who had preceded him were looking round warily, weapons drawn.
"Something besides the shit stinks," Ghort declared. "Ogier and Aubero have disappeared. Those assholes."
"I deduced as much when I saw your blade bare to the weather."
"Polo will rub the rust out. That's what he gets paid for. That and for spying on all of us for Paludan Bruglioni."
Polo overheard. He did not protest. Ghort never showed any concern for his feelings.
Ghort gave orders. Men dismounted and moved out along the walls facing the square and its central cistern. The emptiness of the square was not a good omen. Ghort muttered, "I never should've taken those two into the lifeguard."
"Who?" Hecht asked.
"Ogier and Aubero. Twins, would you believe? From back home. They had a letter of introduction from my uncle Orisim. I should've listened to my gut instead of figuring I owed family."
A nasty bumblebee whir silenced Ghort's lament. Like Hecht, he dove aside. He had heard the distinctive thunk! of a crossbow. He splashed and rolled and got behind the only available cover, a wooden pillar scarcely seven inches wide.
You see where that came from?"
"No." Piper Hecht had acquired similar shelter. Without getting filthy. His pillar was as thick as it was wide. A good thing, because one iron quarrel had bitten into the hard old wood already. "But your men are on to something."
Those Ghort had ordered forward rushed a doorway. They were professionals, all veterans of the Calziran Crusade and the fighting in the streets of al-Khazen.
Bolts continued to streak around and miss till one of Ghort's men got hit in the foot by a ricochet. His man Polo, who had been Hecht's servant at one time, crouched behind the Captain-General, wringing his hands and whining, not in terror but about the amount of work he was going to have to do after this was over.
"Put a stopper in it, Polo." Hecht had located the snipers, now. There were three of them. He didn't think Ghort's wayward bodyguards were among them. No doubt those two were headed north in a hurry, arguing about how to spend their bounties.
Hecht picked a moment when all three snipers would be rewinding their weapons, surged up to go to the attack. Polo grabbed his right arm, trying to keep him from exposing himself. Hecht lurched left, trying to break the servant's grip.
A bolt of darkness streaked down from the rooftop. Hecht saw the spellcaster in momentary silhouette. The bolt was the size and shape of a hammer handle, in infinite black. It would hit him in the chest. He flung his left hand up. His left wrist exploded in sudden, fiery agony.
The clot of darkness curved aside. It struck Polo's outstretched arm. The man shrieked.
It happened in a blink. Polo's arm withered into a leathery, desiccated black stick, a dead mockery of a human limb.
The mutilation was complete before Polo finished his first scream.
One of Ghort's men appeared behind the sorcerer-assassin. A veteran for sure. He wasted no time. He grabbed the assassin and flung him off the roof.
The would-be killer landed on his head. He died instantly, neck broken and skull crushed.
"Shit!" Ghort swore. "Now we'll never know what this was about. He'll be the only one who knew." His men dragged a prisoner into the square. "Can you make him stop howling?" He meant Polo. "That shrieking could get on my nerves."
Hecht said, "Find the soldiers who led us here. You know who they are and where they're from. Have them brought back. Bo Biogna would be the man to send." He massaged his left wrist. It had not been bad this time. "I want to talk to them." The amulet he wore, invisible since its installation by the Dreangean master sorcerer er-Rashal al-Dhulquarnen, protected him well but at the cost of harsh pain. "Bring that corpse. Somebody in the Collegium may be able to get something out of it."
Ghort did not argue although, strictly speaking, the Captain-General of Patriarchal forces had no standing with the Brothen City Regiment. "What the hell just happened, Pipe? I mean, I'm fucking glad it did, but there ain't no way you shouldn't be all over looking like Polo's arm now." Ghort had Polo down, now, trying to examine his arm. Polo would not lie still. "That black bolt shoulda plugged you in the brisket. But it turned off. And got this poor bastard."
"I don't know. I'm glad it did. Though I'm sorry about Polo's arm."
"No shit. Hold still, goddamnit! Garnier! Arnoul! Get those damned horses under control! Aaron's Hairy Balls! They're worse than kids. You have to tell them everything."
Piper Hecht burst into laughter.
"Grade Drocker said the same about you not that long ago."
"When? I was always a self-starter."
"When we were in the Connec. At Bishop Serifs's manor, besieging Antieux."
"That was different. You didn't want to stick your neck out around those Brotherhood of War assholes. They didn't care what you did, it was fucked up. You were always wrong just because you didn't belong to their crazy man club."
Pinkus Ghort always had an answer. It might not ring true or make sense, but he had one.
"The corpse," Hecht reminded gently.
"Izzy. Buchie. Search the dead guy. And don't pocket anything. It could kill you later." Softly, he said, "They wouldn't take nothing, no how. They're all guys from out in the sticks. So superstitious and scared of the Night it'll be a miracle if they keep it together now long enough to find the kind of priest who'll pretend to pull the imaginary supernatural leeches off them."
Ghort was exaggerating. That was a matter of course. But Hecht had run into people who were that afraid of the hidden world. People who could not draw a breath without praying and calculating how much attention that might draw from the Instrumentalities of the Night.
Brothe being the Holy Mother City of the Episcopal strain of Chaldareanism, its streets ever boasted floods of religious pilgrims. Many were the sort who held intimate discourse with their deity every waking moment. They wandered in a perpetual daze, babbling constantly.
God must find them annoying. They suffered more misfortunes than the less devout.
Ghort helped Polo onto his mount. Sensitive to the Night, the animal grew skittish. Men, forced to walk because their mounts were carrying a dead sorcerer, a wounded ambusher, or had run away, kept Polo's horse under control.
Polo was incoherent.
He needed a healing brother. Soon.
Pinkus Ghort did not dispute possession of the prisoners. "Just let me have one healthy one, Pipe. A trophy. So I don't have to listen to Principate Doneto bark."
"Take your pick. Take two if you want." Hecht was confident that nothing useful could be gained from any of the prisoners. "That'll ease my budget." Working for Sublime, even indirectly, included an endless, thankless, continuous scramble for money. The Patriarch had no comprehension of economics. He could not be made to understand that he had to have income if he wanted to spend. He resented any effort to explain by those whose wages had to be paid and whose costs had to be underwritten.
Sublime was convinced that the Lord would provide. And that hired hands should be happy with what the Lord provided.
They were crossing the vast limestone sprawl of the Closed Ground, so-called since antiquity because the wings of the Chiaro Palace enfolded it completely. The Palace was three and four stories high, its limestone architecture classically simple. The eastern face, in the direction of the Holy Lands, boasted balconies where the Patriarch and senior Principates presented themselves on Holy Days. There were always scaffoldings somewhere around the marges of the Closed Ground. The Chiaro Palace was under continuous rehabilitation.
The Palace was built of stone from the same quarry as the pavements but the coloring did not match. The pavements had been in place for only three centuries. Parts of the Palace went back fifteen centuries. They showed the effects of all those years of weather and bad air. The stone was streaked brown, yellow, or pale pink.
The first foundations of the Chiaro Palace had been laid down before the Old Brothen Empire recognized itself as such.
Parts of Brothe were older, still. But Hecht was not impressed. His boyhood had passed in a city where structures still in daily use were three times the age of the oldest in Brothe.
The rain continued, growing heavier. Thunder mouthed off north of the Teragi River. There was a pre-Chaldarean superstition about thunder's location being some sort of omen. Hecht could not recall details. He was too wet and uncomfortable to focus on much but the ambush and getting into dry clothing.
His batman came out to help. "What's all this, sir?" Redfearn Bechter was a pensioner of the Brotherhood of War. And, surely, still its agent.
"They ambushed us, Sergeant."
"Bad decision on their part. I know that one there."
"Not personally. I've seen him before. He was with Duke Tormond of the Connec when he visited the Patriarch a few vcars ago."
Bechter had a scary knack for recalling names and faces. "Rainard. That's his name. I remember thinking he was either too stupid or too smart for the job he was doing."
"And that was what?"
"He was one of the varlets managing their animals. But he didn't do much work. He kept sneaking off to hang out in low places. So he was a shirker. Or a spy. I figure spy. A shirker wouldn't get away with it for long."
"You listening, Pinkus?"
"Plenty. You want to keep him? I'll take the other two."
"We do have better interrogators here."
"Let me know what you find out. Look, I came after you for a reason. The screaming high shits really do want to talk about Clearenza. Now."
Being Captain-General had its perquisites. A dozen varlets and stablemen came for the animals and prisoners and casualties. Ghort lied to them. "The guy with the bad arm is related to Principate Bruglioni. See he gets treated like it."
Polo did come from the Bruglioni household, originally, and likely continued spying for them. But he was a hireling. Even so, invoking the name of one of the Five Families got results.
Ten minutes later, Hecht entered a room he found depressingly familiar. Each time he visited, it was to face irate members of the Collegium, the Princes of the Church. This looked like no exception. The dozen most powerful Principaees had gathered. A bitter squabble was under way, along the usual political lines. The one friendly face he saw belonged to Principate Delari.
"About damned time!" Principate Madisetti bellowed. "Where the hell have you been? We sent for you hours ago."
And the Cologni Principate wanted to know, "Why do you have to come here filthy, smelling like a dung heap?"
"We were ambushed. Four men. Three equipped with our own standard-issue crossbows. The fourth a sorcerer of some skill but very little luck. The corpse is downstairs. If you want to examine it. Who, other than Colonel Ghort and yourselves, knew that I'd been summoned?" Professionally, he had to admire the quickness with which the ambush had been put together. Though, certainly, the ambush team had been around, waiting for an opportunity, for some time.
It did not occur to Hecht that he might not have been the target. He thought he knew who was behind the attempt. He did not know why.
He watched the churchmen closely, not expecting anyone to betray himself. None were major suspects, anyway. Their crime, if any, would be the sin of talking too much.
Only Principate Delari reacted strongly. His response was vast anger tightly reined. He had, to all intents, adopted Piper Hecht. This ambush was a direct assault on his family.
Piper Hecht had not plumbed the relationship deeply enough to understand. The man he had worked for from his earliest mercenary days, Grade Drocker, had become his mentor during the Calziran Crusade. Drocker was one of the top dozen men in the Brotherhood of War. And the warrior priest had been the illegitimate son of Principate Muniero Delari. Who assumed the mentor role with a passion following Drocker's death.
Hecht did not understand but he did not scruple to exploit the situation.
"I'll return shortly," Muniero Delari said. He was a sallow stick figure of a man in his seventies. He moved as easily as men thirty years younger. He left in a rush. The air seemed to go out with him.
The Madisetti Principate, Donel Madisetti, presumed to pick up his attack. For reasons as obscure as Delari's favor, the Madisetti family had developed an antipathy toward Hecht. The Bruglioni and Arniena families were firm supporters, though they disagreed with one another about Sublime V. The Cologni family waffled. More often than not, though, they opposed the Captain-General because he had worked for the Bruglioni before his elevation. And the Bruglioni may have been behind the assassination of Principate-designate Rodrigo Cologni. Which had taken place before Hecht's arrival in Brothe.
The relationships and balances between the Five Families seldom made sense to outsiders.
Strange bedfellows. Always. Piper Hecht now worked for Honario Benedocto, the Patriarch Sublime V. The Benedocto were sworn enemies of the Bruglioni. This decade. The Madisetti had marched shoulder to shoulder with the Benedocto for a generation.
The Captain-General was immune to most of the feuding. He was not supposed to be part of city politics, only Church politics. Though the former became the latter at every Patriarchal election.
He turned his back on Donel Madisetti. He addressed details of the ambush to Principate Bronte Doneto, the Patriarch's cousin. And one of Sublime's few friends.
Doneto asked, "Why would these men want to kill you?"
Hecht shrugged. "That will become more clear once, we know who they are."
Doneto's gaze shifted to Pinkus Ghort. Ghort said, "I don't have any ideas."
"You'll have to answer for the men who led you into the ambush." Meaning that, while Ghort was beholden to Bronte Doneto already, he was about to be pushed in a whole lot deeper.
"We're on that already, Your Grace. They'll be brought back. I'll see that they talk." Ghort had sent for his man Bo Biogna. Biogna should be headed north before nightfall.
Hecht said, "I understand there's a problem in Clearenza."
Doneto replied, "I doubt there's a connection."
"I doubt it myself. There'd be no state interest at this point. Would there?"
"Just so. Donel. For Aaron's sake, stop whining. You're a grown man." He tossed that at the Madisetti Principate. To Hecht, he said, "That bolt would have been better spent sped at another target."
Donel Madisetti shut up. Appalled. He did not expect to be chastised by an ally.
With Principate Delari absent and Principate Hugo Mongoz lapsed into a drooling nap, Principate Doneto took charge. Though he was not the eldest.
Doneto was the sort who wanted to be in charge.
Most of the time he was not unpleasant about it.
Doneto said, "I sent Colonel Ghort to get you at the same time I alerted the crisis committee. They arrived first because they didn't have to go out into the weather or fight anyone to get here." Doneto disdained most of the Princes of the Church. The world might be terrified of the Collegium and its supposed wizards, but Bronte Doneto knew most of his colleagues were incompetents appointed via nepotism or bribe.
There were powerful sorcerers amongst the brethren of the Collegium, however. Who was, and who was not, was a puzzle that interested outsiders constantly strove to solve. While the Principates strove to stay masked.
Even Sublime, who had come out of the Collegium but whose qualifications mainly included family connections and being stone deaf and blind to the Instrumentalities of the Night, was kept in the dark.
Doneto said, "My cousin is worried about Clearenza because he worries about everything. Too much. For him it's all personal. And an insult to God and all the Holy Founders. All blasphemy, heresy, or something."
Hecht had worked for Principate Doneto for a year. Doneto liked to think that Hecht worked' for him still. Undercover. The Bruglioni and Arniena families, likewise, thought they had a claim on the Captain-General's loyalty incause he had worked for them, too. Hecht felt he owed them nothing. He did not say so. Their silent patronage was useful.
He asked, "Is there some military cause for alarm? Or am I just here because His Holiness is in a snit?" He needed to show a little respect here. These men had known Honario Benedocto since childhood.
Doneto nodded. "There is. The Grail Emperor is probably behind fon Dreasser's defection. With an eye to extending his influence into the Aco floodplain."
"Is that more of a problem now than the last time fon Dreasser switched allegiances?"
For a moment the Patriarch's cousin seemed unwilling to share secrets. Then he shrugged. 'This puts another Imperial stronghold at our backs."
"So. His Holiness still wants to plunder the Connec."
The Empire had neutralized a parade of Patriarchs by forcing them to concentrate on protecting the Patriarchal States. The spate of cooperation during the Calziran Crusade was an anomaly. That truce lasted only till the last Praman kingdom on the Firaldian peninsula fell.
"I'm afraid so."
"Not good, Principate." Clearenza was ideally sited for interdicting traffic on both the central north-south military road and the east-west highway skirting the foothills of the Jago Mountains and the Ownvidian Knot. Nor would it be a long ride to interfere with barge traffic on the Aco River, or traffic on the eastern military road, which swung inland to cross the most downriver bridge spanning the Aco. "Especially if Clearenza's neighbors harbor grievances of their own."
Principate Doneto appeared slightly embarrassed. Principate Madisetti sneered.
Hecht asked, "His Holiness owes them money, too?"
"All of them," Madisetti growled.
"I don't want to seem defeatist. But if His Holiness won't pay his debts, yet keeps on spending, how can he not expect difficulties? Won't he listen to Your Graces?"
"No," Donel Madisetti admitted. "Voting for that man may have been the biggest mistake I ever made."
Interesting. This was the sort of news Gordimer the Lion hoped to glean when he sent his best captain over here. Though he meant to distance a potential threat as well.
Captain Else Tage had been too popular with the Sha-lug.
Principate Doneto grumbled, "Sometimes I wish Honario wasn't family. But he does have a flair for intrigue. He has something going in the Connec. He says it will take care of his debts." Doneto did not sound convinced. "And Lothar Ege's obstruction…" He stopped. Secrets escaped even the deepest heart of the Chiaro Palace.
Hecht wished Principate Delari had not gone down to question the prisoners.
Principate Delari had a taste for boys. His current favorite was Armand. Armand was an agent of Ferris Renfrow. And of Dreanger. Gordimer had presented the boy to Renfrow during one of the Imperial spymaster's visits to al-Qarn. Armand's real name was Osa Stile. He had been trained and rendered permanently youthful by er-Rashal al-Dhulquarnen.
The old man shared everything with his lover. Who, most observers assumed, was too self-absorbed and scatterbrained to care the slightest about things political, religious, or military. Armand just wanted to be spoiled with sweet scents, rich foods, and pretty clothes.
Piper Hecht saw the boy seldom and was glad of it. What had been done to Osa Stile was too terrible. The slavery of the Sha-lug should not be that cruel.
Osa gave every indication of enjoying his life.
Er-Rashal had known what he was doing when he chose the boy.
Principate Delari returned, still angry. "They knew nothing. Of course. They were hirelings. Two belonged to the City Regiment, Colonel Ghort. The deathmage and his brother were outsiders."
Pinkus Ghort showed color in throat and cheeks, anger and embarrassment alike. "Who paid them? Who recruited them? Would the two who got away know anything more?"
"Unlikely," Delari said. "But we do know where they're headed, now. The Knight of Wands. An inn in a town named Alicea. The entire team was supposed to reassemble there."
Hecht and Ghort produced skeptical scowls. Both knew Alicea. They had first met not far from Alicea. Hecht said, "The West Way runs through the town. Crossing the trace running east from Sonsa. Pinkus, if you sent Bo by sea he could be there waiting for them."
"I changed my mind. They know Bo. They'd recognize anybody I trust."
"You have to send somebody who'll recognize them."
"I don't know. I'm thinking some of your Deve pals might be the answer."
Grumbling from Donel Madisetti reminded them that I hey were not brainstorming in their quarters.
Hecht's too-friendly association with the Devedian community did cause stress with some Collegium members. "Won't work. They're only trying to stay out of the way of a crusade themselves." Which was true, well known, and no doubt would, someday, constitute sufficient excuse itself for a Patriarch with Sublime's twist of mind to go after them.
Devedians, and their less numerous and far stranger religious ancestors the Dainshaukin, were loathed by Episcopal Chaldareans. The more because western society could not function without them. Deves provided an inordinate proportion of the lettered and artisan classes. They kept the records and wrote the letters, made the paper those were written on, and manufactured the pens that did the writing. Not all, of course, but better than anyone else. And so they were hated.
Hecht mused, "Then again, I know one who might. But we're here because of Clearenza. Where do we stand?"
He hoped there would be no punitive expedition. The Patriarchal army was not up to it. As always, it was tied up in garrison wherever Sublime feared rebellion or some encroachment by the Grail Emperor. It was a purely defensive force and the Captain-General was not being given the resources to change that. Not fast.
Principate Doneto broke Hecht's heart. "I'm sure my cousin will insist on something. As a demonstration."
"It can't happen. Not now. He's too far in arrears to the troops."
"He'll send the City Regiment, then."
Hecht said, "The City Regiment isn't his to send. It was raised for the Calziran Crusade. That's over. The men who financed it didn't get any loot out of that. They won't take the same hook twice."
Doneto replied, "I know. But I have to read my lines."
Interesting. The Patriarch's number one supporter was not inspired by his cousin's behavior.
"Would it help if someone he trusted drove each point home?"
"He pays no attention to what I say if it's something he doesn't want to hear."
"I was thinking more like his father or mother. Or somebody he especially respected when he was a kid."
"That hadn't occurred to me. I'll do what I can. But don't expect much."
Hecht nodded, disgruntled. This gathering, slapped together with such suggested high drama, was typical. Every day he had to deal with crises that existed only in the minds of the Patriarch and his henchmen. And with their implacable blindness to the needs of the men they expected to work their wills.
One irony of the world round the Mother Sea was that only during periods of peace and security was there economic activity sufficient to generate the revenues princes needed to finance their wars. The Church, in particular, needed money because the Patriarchy did not have enough fiefdoms whose feudal obligations could be exploited. The Church used mostly hired soldiers. But those mercenaries were seldom dedicated or reliable. Or even very effective. As all the defeats suffered by Grolsachers so frequently demonstrated.
Principate Doneto suggested, "Let's break this up. We've done His Holiness's bidding. We agree that punishing Clearenza may be more painful for us than them. Hecht, put together the best show you can. Ghort, catch your traitors. Donel. Wake Mongoz so he can close this officially."
Several Principates wanted to protest but were not inclined to argue with the Patriarch's cousin.
Principate Delari told Hecht, "Come with me, please."
Hecht did so, though he wanted to stay with Ghort, to manufacture a scheme for catching the fugitives. He was uncomfortable being alone with Muniero Delari. Despite his intellectual confidence that the man was not interested in him. He was far too elderly. He was thirty-five.
Principate Delari sensed his discomfort. And did nothing to allay it. "It's time to bring you into the inner circle."
"The Collegium is more than a clatch of doddering old farts squabbling over bribes." A popular notion underlying an entire cycle of contemptuous jokes.
"Well, of course."
"We occasionally do things we hope will do some good for humanity. Some of us. Sometimes. Even people here in the Palace don't realize."
"You sound skeptical."
"Your Grace, I judge only by what I've seen."
"And that is?"
"What the man in the street thinks. Only more so. Because I've met the beast face-to-face."
Delari chuckled. "And that isn't far off the mark. Particularly my brethren from the Patriarchal States. They exist to indulge their own pleasures. They have their capes and miters because they bought them. Or because they're Brothens whose families always have members in the Collegium. If for no better reason than to make sure the Patriarch is always Brothen."
"Yes. I've never understood how Ornis of Cedelete got elected." Hecht meant Worthy VI, the first Anti-Patriarch. Worthy VI was elected legitimately-then run out of town by the Brothen mob. The people of the Mother City believed the Patriarchal seat was Brothen by right and preeminent over the Chaldarean world. In fact, however, the earlier Brothen Patriarchs had been but one of nine equal Fathers of the Church. The Praman Conquest overwhelmed five. Three others went with the Eastern Rite in the schism after the Second Synod of Hypraxium.
"He was elected because an angry Collegium, including Principates from the Five Families, were fed up with a string of arrogant Bruglioni Patriarchs."
Hecht did not comment.
"The lesson seems to have gone to waste."
Hecht held his tongue. Delari held Honario Benedocto in high disdain.
The Principate led him to the baths for which the Chiaro Palace was infamous. In Hecht's eye. He used them himself only to avert suspicion. The way he ate pork and broke countless other religious laws. So he told himself.
Never again would he be the hard, razor-edged warrior who had captained the best company of special fighters ever fielded by the Sha-lug. Brothe had ruined him.
Delari's boy Armand awaited his master. He smirked as he helped Delari disrobe. "Would you like someone to assist you, Captain-General?" The boy's voice had yet to break. He was an excellent singer.
"Herrin and Vernal will be along." Those being the youngsters who bathed him regularly. He made no personal demands on them-though the rules did not permit a bather to force himself on the orphans who served there.
The baths were a sort of charity, providing employment for Brothe's more comely orphans.
The rules were tested occasionally. Principate Delari was in mild violation by bringing his own catamite in. There would be no complaints. The whole Chiaro Palace feared Muniero Delari. He was reputed to be a powerful sorcerer.
Principate Muniero Delari was famous for, and sometimes hated for, his determination to do what best served the Church as a whole.
Hecht was repelled by Delari unclad. The man was a pallid old stick figure veined with ugly blue, like an Arnhander cheese. He resembled an artist's caricature of death, as in some paintings hanging in the Palace's miles of hallways. He smelled old, even after his baths.
Hecht could not imagine how Osa Stile had congress with that.
Delari said, "If you're as unlucky as I am and survive as long as I have, you'll be a repulsive old man yourself."
Hecht started. Delari had a disconcerting knack for knowing what he was thinking.
Herrin and Vernal arrived. Both were tall and thin. Both were of an age where they would be expected to find other employment soon. Herrin had blossomed dramatically of late. She was an attractive blonde burdened by a dour personality. An eventuation Hecht thought ought to mar all children compelled to serve in order to survive. Then reflected that he had not turned out badly despite having been kidnapped and sold into slavery as a toddler.
Vernal lived up to her name. She was bright and cheerful. Evil fortune could not crush her natural optimism. Hecht had, occasionally, considered sending Vernal to serve Anna Mozilla. Anna could use the help. Being what she was, and having who she had for a lover, though, left her unwilling to have anyone stay in full time.
Vernal shared a birthday with Herrin and was as tall but had not yet bloomed. Hecht suspected that she would not change much once she did.
Osa and the girls led Delari and Hecht to an unoccupied hot pool. Once he settled, Hecht asked, "How do you think Sublime will respond to Clearenza's defection?"
Armand's ears pricked up. Delari seemed puzzled by the question.
Hecht said, "The others think he'll do something stupid. You've known him since he was a pup. Will he?"
"Probably. Thinking he's being clever."
"But he will insist on doing something? Even if Lothar is serious about protecting fon Dreasser?"
Armand paid close attention.
"Even more certainly if the Grail Empire gets involved. He's sure Lothar is a weakling. Despite the evidence so far. He's also sure the boy won't live much longer. Despite the contrary evidence there. If he could hasten Lothar's passage into the hereafter, he'd probably do it. Thinking the sisters will be weaker than the boy."
"I don't know about Katrin. I saw Helspeth on the battlefield. She's young and female but that apple didn't fall far from the tree."
"As may be. Right now I want you to see what we do that could be of more enduring consequence."
"Since it's so secret that I don't know about it already, should we talk about it here?"
Armand donned a sour look.
Delari said, "The Empire couldn't put a spy in here. Children aren't that motivated. But what a coup if they could. Everything gets discussed here."
"Later, then. If that makes you more comfortable."
"I have the evening free."
"Take supper with me, then."
Hecht accepted. Anna and Redfearn Bechter alike would pout.
Bechter wanted him to spend more time with the staff in the Castella dollas Pontellas. Hoping to seduce him into the warrior Brotherhood.
The Brothers there were preparing to welcome a new castellan. He would replace Grade Drocker. Though Drocker had been but acting head of the local chapter. The true castellan, Hawley Quirke, had been summoned to the Brotherhood's home base, the Castella Anjela dolla Picolena on the island of Staklirhod, in the eastern reaches of the Mother Sea. Quirke had been lost in a sea battle with a Praman fleet. The position of castellan had gone unfilled since.
"Send word to Bechter about when and where."
"You're in a hurry to go?"
No. I want to see how Polo is. And I want to talk to Colonel Ghort."
Hecht asked, "You ever have trouble with those two before?"
"Not really. They belonged to the Cologni company." The City Regiment was a conglomerate of forces subsidized by wealthy benefactors. "And, no, I don't think the Cologni put them up to it. They don't have the imagination."
Having worked with senior members of all the Five Families, Hecht agreed. "They are a dim lot. They're lucky there aren't any bright outsiders around to take advantage."
"Those idiots just saw a chance to grab some extra money."
That was not hard to understand. The poor generally were very poor and desperate indeed. Thinking past tomorrow was a waste of time.
Hecht shrugged. "I'd like to go after those cousins of yours myself."
"Not cousins." Ghort meant to distance himself. "Just guys from back home. How would you get away? Especially with this Clearenza shit?"
"'I can't. I'd just like to. To talk to them before anyone else."
"What do you want to find out before anybody else?"
"Who sent them."
"You know they won't know that."
"Don't underestimate the reservoirs of stupid in this world. The man who's supposed to pay them will turn up there. Maybe to pay them, maybe to cut their throats."
"It was me, I'd send some other guys to do that."
"That's possible, too."
"So. I'd really better have somebody get there first. You gonna lend me your Deves?"
"They aren't mine. They're still part of the City Regiment."
"All but the best ones. You took them with you."
"Yes. I did. And I mean to keep them close."
"I'll talk to Titus. If he sees any advantage for his people, he'll help. Was I you, I wouldn't count on it."
"Well, shit. I didn't want to use my own guys. The finance board will kick my ass for operating outside the city. 'Course, they'll kick it if I don't do nothing, too."
"I feel your pain, brother. I don't have it any better. It's a full-time job just getting my troops paid." He had a sudden notion. He suggested it.
"I like it, Pipe. How long till you could find out if Consent would cover you?"
"I know a ship. The Donetos own her. She's waiting for a cargo. She's supposed to be greased lightning. She trades in places where the republics think they own a monopoly."
"Technically. Her master would argue, though."
"He'd sail up the Sawn to Sonsa?"
"Why not? If he ain't carrying contraband?"
Hecht thought there might be a problem, anyway. If he took up his notion. He had been to Sonsa before.
Ghort said, "Unless the gods intervene, we can afford another day. If we use the Lumberer."
"That's the name of the boat. A joke. Like calling a big guy Tiny."
Hecht understood without comprehending. It was a western thing. "Uhm. I wonder. Think we could pull it off?"
"Sneaking out. To make the pickup ourselves."
"Sure. But your excuse is gonna raise a stink like a year-old latrine." Ghort smirked.
"But if we say we did it ourselves because we didn't have the money to pay our men to, we shame them before the people."
"If we pull it off."
"Yes. We wouldn't dare fail." Hecht knew what he was proposing was not bright. But sometimes you bull ahead in full knowledge that you are doing something dumb.
"Goo! Hey! Back to the fun days when we didn't have no responsibilities."
"We could get things done right the first time."
"Let's do." Ghort was not obsessive about being responsible. "Just cancel everything and go, Pipe."
"I'm tempted." He was. "I'll think about that, too."
The visit to the baths, the conference with Plnkus Ghort, and a visit to Polo in the Chiaro Palace hospital left the Captain-General two hours late for his daily staff conference. "I'm sorry. The Clearenza situation has the Collegium in a snit." They would know that he had been called in.
Five senior staffers waited in the master planning center at the Castella dollas Pontellas. They included Hecht's new second in command, Colonel Buhle Smolens. Smolens had not been appointed by the Captain-General. Hecht did not know the man. He came from the Patriarchal garrison at Maleterra and was related to somebody Sublime owed money. He did, however, have a solid military reputation.
Clej Sedlakova was an observer for the Brotherhood. They insisted. The Captain-General was using their facilities.
Hecht could not operate without their approval and support.
Sedlakova was new, too, but there was no doubt he knew his way around a battlefield. He had lost his shield arm. His face bore two ugly scars, one down the right side and one across his forehead. The latter was permanently purple. He did not say much. Nor did he interfere.
The other three men had been with Hecht since he had taken over the City Regiment in the run-up to the Calziran Crusade. They were Hagan Brokke, a Krogusian who had
been a private soldier at the time of the first pirate attacks.
He had risen swiftly by demonstrating outstanding abilities. He was Hecht's planning officer.
The others were Titus Consent and Tabill Talab, chief intelligence officer and lead quartermaster. Both were Devedian, which made folks like Clej Sedlakova uncomfortable. Consent was in his early twenties.
Sedlakova might be uncomfortable but he was implacably tolerant. Both Deves were exceptionally competent. And unobtrusive with their religion.
All five men were accompanied by assistants. Managing the Patriarch's armed forces was not a minor enterprise.
Hagan Brokke said, "We're working on that, sir." He indicated a vast wall map of Firaldia. That was a permanent feature of the room. Every little county, dukedom, principality, city-state, kingdom, and republic was delineated. Political entities were identified by color, in a dozen shades. Isolated parts of the same entity were connected by black strings. Each entity was tagged with a numbered piece of paper. That referenced a sheet listing significant local personalities, the number and sorts of soldiers available, quality of fortifications, and useful political, marital, and family alliance information.
Brokke said, "If we have to attempt the absurd we have garrisons here, here, and here that can support us. I've sent warning orders."
Titus Consent said, "The Imperials will expect that. It shouldn't worry them. They won't expect anything to come of it. Our side talks loud but never actually does anything."
"We might break that precedent this time."
Consent continued. "Couriers will alert our intelligence assets in the region, too." He tended to talk that way.
"Good again." Consent meant messages had been sent to the Devedian ghettoes.
There were Deves everywhere. Going unnoticed, they saw and heard most of the inner workings. And their elders, for the moment, were willing to feed information to Captain-General Piper Hecht.
Which was useful but embarrassing. Deves were little more popular than demons. They were too educated. Too prosperous. Too smart. You did not want to associate too intimately with that sort. They were the source of all the world's evil-if there were no handy Pramans or Maysaleans, other loathsome Unbelievers or heretics, or the Instrumentalities of the Night, to blame. Being literate, Deves wrote things down. Often things you did not want retailed accurately later.
The literate were as mistrusted as those who had congress with the Night. Either could destroy you with arcane knowledge.
Hecht said, "Bring me up-to-date. Can fon Dreasser protect himself?"
Titus Consent was a tall youth, slim, dark of mien, usually cheerful. He was talented in the extreme and thoroughly competent. He was not obviously Devedian. He handled rampant prejudice mainly by refusing to acknowledge it. He was a solid family man. Early on he had told Hecht that he had been raised from infancy to become a sort of savior for the Deves of the western diaspora.
He said, "We haven't had time to find out. I can tell you that it would be smart to get some arrears money to the garrisons out that way. Blatantly obvious, but every time we pry back pay out of the Patriarch we win more friends among the men with the sharp iron."
That sort of thinking had gotten Hecht exiled from Dreanger when he was Else Tage. Else Tage had been popular with the soldiers.
"Any chance we can find some money?"
"We talked to the Fiducian, Joceran Cuito." Cuito was director of the Patriarchal treasury. He was a Direcian archbishop who was in line to join the Collegium. On merit, and because he had Peter of Navaya as a sponsor. "He means to employ a battery of limited, secured loans."
Sublime was inclined to avoid securing his loans with anything more substantial than a signature. But ink was no longer enough for Brothe's moneylenders.
"Property?" The Church was the biggest landowner in Firaldia. Since earliest Old Brothen times land had been the critical measure of wealth. Only land could provide a stream of income.
"Fiducian Cuito would rather pawn art treasures and rare books from the Krois Palace. He won't say why, but he's sure the Church is going to receive a substantial windfall before long."
"Then something's going on under the table. And Sublime's kept it inside his inner circle."
"Considering the time of year and general economy, I'd say they're going to steal something. Or sell something. Big. They've already sold all the seats in the Collegium that they can. And all the livings that anybody will pay for." A thought. "Could it be a fat bequest?"
"I don't know of anyone with one foot in the grave and the inclination to bribe the guardians at Heaven's gates."
"Would they hurry somebody off to the Promised Land early?" Sublime had not yet been accused of murder for profit. But his predecessors had.
"We don't have access to their records. We haven't heard of any pending legacies."
"Keep an eye on it." Hecht settled in to listen to other reports, not just about Clearenza. He had some responsibilities regarding the ongoing effort to suppress diehard Praman partisans in Calzir.
Calzir would never reclaim its independence. If Sublime recalled his garrisons the Grail Empire and Navaya would flood the vacuum. Making Sublime's two biggest competitors even stronger.
Fate conspired to thwart Sublime at every turn. But he refused to see the stumbling blocks as an expression of God's will.
Few men took their own reverses as God's will. Instead, they worked hard to adjust God's will to reflect their own.
Sublime probably spent a lot of time asking God why it all had to be so hard.
Moving close, Titus Consent asked, "Can I see you privately after we're done?"
"Absolutely. I need a word with you, too. Colonel Smolens, are you confident enough to take over if I take a few days off?"
Smolens showed surprise, then curiosity. "I know my way around, now."
"Your biggest problem would likely be having to deal with our masters. None of them are the least bit reasonable."
"No problem, Captain-General. I can pretend they're my extended family." Buhle Smolens was perfectly formal. He demonstrated the ideal military courtesy, uphill and down, always. He had brought his family to Brothe. Nobody had met them yet. Smolens mentioned them only in passing. His eldest son supposedly wanted a subaltern's position, if one came open.
Smolens had several interesting ideas for installing a more professional attitude in the Patriarchal armies. His big fault was his conviction concerning the earthly and moral supremacy of the Episcopal vein of the Chaldarean faith. Though he did not buy the doctrine of Patriarchal Infallibility.
Hard to do with Sublime V in front of you every day.
Tabill Talab was troubled. He wasted no time once Hecht recognized him. "I'm having a problem no one else seems to notice. I feel a bleak future closing in. For everyone."
Talab was the eternal pessimist, chosen to balance Titus Consent's overconfidence. "Do explain."
"I talk to our couriers. I talk to merchants. I talk to refugees. I ask for reports from our agents in the republics because their ships visit all the ports of the Mother Sea."
Hecht nodded. No point hurrying the man. Talab could get where he was going only along an engineered path.
"No matter where the reports originate, they always mention upswings in the activities of the Night. Not big stuff. Not yet. Just more sightings, more encounters, more malicious mischief getting more virulent."
"Only the minor spirits remain unbound."
"Unbound and unconstrained. But becoming more numerous. They're running from the ice, too."
"Which we expected. Right?"
"Yes, sir. But what hasn't been considered is the fact that the things of the Night have always been more common along the edges of the ice, where societies are more primitive. Out there some of the big ones are still running loose. When the ice advances, and establishes itself permanently in places like the high mountains, all the wildest surviving free shades are pushed into tamer country."
Hecht nodded. No one talked about it much-yet-but that was a logical and obvious development. "That's generally recognized. It's started already."
"Yes, sir, it has. What I don't hear discussed is what that means for the Night."
"Yes?" Talab might be headed where most people were afraid to go.
"When people get pressed together you get what we already have here in Brothe. Worse poverty. More violence that's deadlier. More organized criminal activity. More racism and prejudice. All because you have more people trying to live off the same limited resources.
"The same thing happens with the things of the Night. Only they start to combine into stronger entities. Not often willingly. They just keep getting bigger and stronger if they can devour their own kind. They get angrier, more hateful, and malicious. When they're strong enough, and big enough, they turn into the Night things from old scary stories."
"The ice will gift us with a new round of monster gods?"
"If it advances far enough. Possibly a crop as ugly as those who cursed the earth before modern religions hammered their deities into a more benign shape."
The God of the Pramans, the Chaldareans, the Devedians, and the Dainshaukin enjoyed the same lineage. The Dainshaukin saw Him fierce and psychotic and disinclined to be a nurturer or giver of rewards. He was a punisher, the Punisher, the source of all misfortune, and would happily do you in because He did not like your haircut.
Devedians had a better deal. Their vision of the Almighty visited miseries only when they were earned. He could be appeased without a human sacrifice.
"It isn't something we can do much about. Except keep our heads down and hope… What?"
Titus Consent said, "You're forgetting the soultaken."
"I haven't forgotten. They…" Hecht noted what had to be a warning glance from Talab to Consent, nearly invisible in its subtlety, reminding him that his staff had other loyalties.
The soultaken had been men from another age conscripted by their gods so they could open a pathway out of a northern sort of hell. The dead heroes preserved there could then storm forth and destroy what those gods feared most: the Godslayer. Someone who, by happenstance, had learned that even the greatest of the Instrumentalities of the Night could be rendered subject to the wrath of men.
Else Tage had slain a bogon, a baron of the Night, in Esther's Wood in the Holy Lands, saving his war band from an attack initiated by a source he never identified. Later, he and the Devedians of Brothe destroyed one of the soultaken meant to silence him before knowledge he did not know he possessed became general.
The All-Father god of the pre-Chaldarean north himself perished trying to extinguish that knowledge. Prophecy fulfilled.
Piper Hecht remained largely unaware of the full implications of what he had done. The Devedians were not unaware. Their Elders knew who Piper Hecht used to be. They knew what he had done. They knew he had won a fierce reputation amongst the Instrumentalities of the Night, and that those forces would have exterminated him long since had they been better able to distinguish one mortal from another.
The biggest had to use something like the soultaken to find an individual.
Although a brilliant commander and leader, Piper Hecht, under whatever name, sailed through life in near ignorance of what he really was. He was feared by powers and people of which and whom he was unaware or was insufficiently suspicious.
"What about them?" Hecht did know that he was woefully ignorant about all that. Other than that a string of murders had culminated in the emergence and passing of major Instrumentalities during the Calziran Crusade.
Hagan Brokke observed, "The soultaken were just a foretaste of what's coming, I think. The gods themselves have begun to take a real interest in mundane events."
"Gods?" Clej Sedlakova demanded. "There is only one God!"
"Excuse me. For want of another label. High Demons, if you prefer. To borrow from the Dainshaukin."
Those monotheists recognized a mind-boggling array of lesser supernatural entities arranged in several parallel and inimical hierarchies.
Hecht smiled. "I don't much care." No one took exception. Even Sedlakova was disinclined to insist on strict conformance to dogma. "I'll think about it. Though that's something more suited to the Collegium. Colonel Smolens. To my earlier point. I'll be out of touch. You'll have to deal with whatever comes up. I shouldn't be gone long."
Smolens asked, "Do we know where you are? Do we admit that you're not around?"
"If you're pressed say I'm not available. You really won't know where I am." Though he would not bet against the Deves keeping track.
"How long? At the most?" Titus Consent asked.
"As long as it takes to finish what I need to do." Meaning do not get up to anything he should not. "Good. Enjoy yourselves. Oh. You wanted a private word, Titus?"
Consent betrayed what might have been a glimmer of fear. He whispered, "Outside the Castella. I'll walk with you."
Hecht nodded. Not inside the keep of the Chaldarean religion's most ferocious defenders? What a surprise.
Hecht waited till after they crossed to the shore and were headed downriver, toward the Memorium. "More problems with the Elders?" The Seven, the Elders of the Brothen Deves, were a pain as big as the heads of the Five Families, or members of the Collegium. They could not leave Titus Consent alone to get on with his sacred work.
"Not yet. I'm sure there will be. That isn't it. Yet."
"Noe is almost to term."
"Uhm." Hecht knew Consent's wife and sons by name but had yet to meet them. Deves did not mix with Chaldareans socially. "Congratulations."
Consent stopped. He shuddered. Hecht halted, back to the jungle of monuments to Old Brothen emperors, generals, and dictators, and their triumphs. "What is it?"
"Noe and I have discussed this for months. We want you to be the baby's godfather. And Principate Delari to sponsor us. If he will."
Hecht did not get it right away. He still had to get the hang of being Episcopal Chaldarean. "Godfather? I didn't know Deves did that."
"Not the Chaldarean way. My brother would do it. If I had one. Since I don't, my uncles should get the job."
Hecht finally caught on. "Are you talking about converting?"
"I am. If you'll be the baby's godfather. And if Principate Delari will sponsor us. We've been studying in secret. We already know most of what we need to."
Hecht was stunned. "But you're the Elect."
"They never asked me. I don't want to be the Elect. It's eaten me up for twenty years. I want out. I want to convert."
"The Seven will explode! They won't have anything to do with us anymore. They'll blame us." Selfishly, he added, We'll be blinded."
Consent was not offended. "That will come eventually anyway, Captain-General. The Elders are beginning to question the benefit of continuing an alliance put together for the Calziran Crusade. Nor does the Patriarch see any need to keep on getting along with Deves or Dainshaus."
"Shortsighted of him."
"Indeed. Our moneylenders are the main financiers of his adventures. The Seven won't lend Sublime a copper for a crusade against the Connec. We don't have that many people there. The Seven think it will be easier and cheaper to protect them by just fixing it so the Patriarch can't afford to hire soldiers.
"I think they have blinders on. Sublime isn't worried about money. Not nearly so much as he should be. He has something going, under the sheets. But the Elders won't hear that. Apparently, the Elect is supposed to be seen but not heard."
Hecht was lost. "You mean it? This conversion?"
"Of course. I don't want to be anything special. I just want to take care of my family and do my job. Which is perfect for me. I love it and I'm good at it."
"I'm sorry. My fault for not being clear. You have no idea how stressful this is. This is the biggest thing I'm ever likely to face."
"Tabill Talab. How will he respond? His father…"
"Is one of the Seven. Yes. That does worry me. But you're going to lose him before long, anyway."
Not good, Hecht thought. Not good at all. The Devedian connection had made him look good.
Honed by three decades lived in a city and land that had been old in the wiles of conspiracy before the beginning of time, Hecht started sniffing for a whiff of what Consent was really up to.
They resumed moving because Titus was too nervous to stand still.
An arrow, presumably from a longbow, removed Hecht's hat. The shaft came from amongst the monuments. It missed Consent by a scant inch, too. It ricocheted off the pavements into the cold brown of the Teragi River. Bystanders yelled and scattered. Ten thousand pigeons took wing in a flapping roar.
"You see where that came from?" Hecht demanded.
"No." They crouched at the pediments of a small memorial arch. Consent held a dagger with a long, slim blade. Hecht had not realized that the Deve carried any weapon. He carried a short sword himself, more emblematic of his office than useful in a fight. "Only generally, that way. Because of where it went."
"Yeah. Who's Galinis Andul?" Hecht tapped the inscription beside his head, so ancient that it was almost illegible.
Startled, Consent said, "The man who designed the arch. Those guys grabbed the chance to make their names last. The memorial proclamation is up top. This one looks like it predates the Old Empire. Meaning it was moved here by Arember the Hairy."
Hecht wanted to ease Consent's tension, not listen to a lecture. "Work from cover to cover and flank him from the left. I'll move in from the right."
He did not expect to find the sniper. There had been no second shaft. Not that a lone archer could expect to take out a distant target who was alert.
And the would-be assassin was gone. No one had seen an archer. There was no physical evidence. A sorcerer of exceptional weight might have found a trail. Hecht did not have one handy.
His amulet had not warned him. The assassin would be nothing but a skilled archer.
"It was a pretty good shot," Hecht admitted. "At least a hundred fifty yards. On a breezy day. From in here where the wind would swirl."
"Yes." There was no admiration in Consent's tone. "Who was he after? Or would it matter, as long as he got someone from Central Staff?"
"Sure you want to convert?"
"If there's a plot, wouldn't Deves be more likely to ferret it out?"
"No. The underworld doesn't intersect with the Devedian."
"That archer wouldn't belong to the underworld. He's a soldier after fast money." Nor did he swallow Consent's protest. Thieves had a cautiously close relationship with the men who purchased the goods they appropriated in their struggle to redistribute Brothen wealth. But Hecht seldom challenged known falsehoods. People became defensive. They clammed up. He believed in paying rope out and watching.
Consent would understand. He and Talab did the watching.
Hecht said, "We're accomplishing nothing." He brushed his left forearm. Yes. The amulet was there. Which reaffirmed that there was no sorcery active nearby.
Someone was keeping track of him somehow, though.
Hecht and Pinkus Ghort were at the waterfront, waiting to board Lumberer. Hecht asked, "What are you into on the side, Pinkus?"
"If I didn't have your word for this being a fast coaster I'd suspect her of being a smuggler." The crewmen looked shifty.
"I'm not involved in anything. But do note that smuggling and trading are a matter of viewpoint."
"No doubt every smuggler ever born makes that argument. And princes send them to the galleys anyway."
"You're probably right. You always are. So what? They're handy people to know. What the hell is this?" A couple of black crow Brotherhood types were headed their way, on horseback, in a hurry. They slowed to an easier pace when they saw that Hecht and Ghort had not yet shoved off.
"Seems like everybody knows where to find me, these days."
"You told Bechter?"
Hecht did not recognize either rider. A handsome man with salt-and-pepper hair and beard dismounted. "Captain-General?"
"I bring messages." He presented a large leather courier's wallet. It bore no seal. "And our wishes for your success. Prayers will be offered."
"Thank you. Do keep us in your prayers." A formula he was just now learning to use automatically.
"And the Brotherhood in yours." The man bowed his head slightly, in the manner of those who grew up inside the Grail Empire.
"And so shall it be." Hecht returned the nod. He took the Brotherhood deadly serious. They were scarce in Firaldia but wielded power beyond their numbers.
There were few checks on the Brotherhood. They accepted none. They did not hesitate to enforce their prejudices.
"How and where to deliver that is all in here." The Brother handed Hecht another smaller case, then returned to his mount.
Hecht considered the anonymous courier's wallet. He began rubbing his left wrist.
Ghort muttered, "There's a Special Office thug if I ever saw one. He don't even try to cover the smell."
"So's the other one."
The Special Office was a sub-cult inside the warrior order made up of sorcerers sworn to destroy the Instrumentalities of the Night. Using the Instrumentalities as their principal tool.
"So what did he bring you, Pipe?"
"Let's wait till we're moving."
"Gotcha." Ghort stared after the two riders in black. "I think I know who the other one was."
"Parthen Lorica. The Witchfinder."
Hecht started. Parthen Lorica? Not possible. Parthen Lorica was dead. "I don't think so. Unless there's more than one Parthen Lorica. Him and Bugo Armiene died in our hospital camp at al-Khazen. Special Office guys came in and snatched the bodies."
"I missed all that. I heard, but not the names. But them two was definitely Special Office. And that one was definitely a Witchfinder. So. Hey. Time to go." A smuggler-or coastal trader-beckoned them. Two others began casting off.
Hecht hoisted his bag to his shoulder. "I wonder what they really wanted."
"To give you a courier packet. Unless they were looking for witches." In the context of the Special Office a witch would be anybody who consorted with the Instrumentalities of the Night absent the blessing of the Church.
That troubled Hecht. It was vague. The Special Office could make anyone fit. Even the most devout Episcopal Chaldareans bought small charms and invocations against the malice of the Night.
"What you got?" Ghort asked as Lumberer cleared the mouth of the Teragi, after creeping past dredges valiantly trying to keep the channel navigable. The craft rode the evening ebb tide. Lights in Remale-on-Teragi shone to their left. Hecht was, at last, allowing himself to examine the contents of the anonymous courier wallet by the light of a storm lantern. A crewman stood by lest the landlubbers did something stupid and set the ship on fire.
Fire was the fiercest terror of sailors.
"What've we got, Pipe?"
"Other than this letter telling me to take the big packet to somebody named Montes Alina, who'll be using the name Beomond, and how to find the guy, there's nothing here."
"Turning us into mail carriers, eh?"
"Possibly." Paranoia suggested the possibility that the packet would finger him for another assassin.
The Special Office owed him some pain. But they should not know that. He hoped they did not know that.
Ghort said, "That's right. They got their fanatic asses roasted and kicked out up there, a couple years ago. That's where Drocker got himself all crippled."
"Yes. Something about them trying to wipe out the Sonsan Deves."
"You ask me, they were just gonna rob them. But the damned Unbelievers had the balls to fight back."
"So then the ruling families got their tails all twisted because that would cost them their clerical class."
"Yep. Ran the Brotherhood out of town. Too late, the way I heard. The Deves packed up and left."
Hecht knew that story from the inside.
Only Anna Mozilla and a few Deves knew.
"We should be careful," Ghort said. "Till we know who wants to kill you."
"I plan on that. I'm going to hang around just long enough to steal enough to set myself up with a commercial farm. So Anna and I can spend our old age raising grapes and making babies." He was half serious. He did not expect to return to Dreanger while er-Rashal al-Dhulquarnen remained the power behind Gordimer the Lion, who was the power behind the Kaif.
That Lumberer did not always operate inside the law was borne out by the skills of her crew. After crossing the bar they turned north and sailed on into the night, navigating by the light of a quarter moon. In often treacherous seas. There were a million little islands out there. More shoals appeared regularly as sea levels fell.
Near as Hecht could tell, more permanent ice lingering in the high mountain regions meant less water in the rivers feeding into the Mother Sea.
There were dredges working the channel of the Sawn River, up to Sonsa. Lumberer had a shallow draft and, of course, rode in on a flood tide. That was basic, common sense seamanship, old as the trade itself.
Hecht was surprised by Sonsa's quays. Today's highest high water was three feet lower than at his last arrival.
He said, "I want out of Sonsa as fast as possible. So we deliver the courier case and scoot." Though he had no reason to think anyone would recognize him now.
"I'm with you. This place is so quiet, it's creepy."
The waterfront was unnaturally sedate. Two dozen large ships tied up at the family quays looked like they had not moved in a long time. The rigging on some had gone ragged.
"The place is dying," Hecht said. He slung his bag, stepped up to the quay from Lumberer's rail, using a main stay for leverage.
A dozen men and boys surrounded him. Each tried to out-shout the others. All offered to help carry his possessions, to guide him wherever he wanted to go, to take him to a willing sister or daughter. There had been none of this desperation last time Hecht came through.
"This is worse than back home," Ghort murmured. "Except around where the squatters are. You." Ghort grabbed a little weasel with a swift, bright smile, maybe eight or nine. "Where we headed, Matt?"
At the moment Piper Hecht was Mathis Schlink from Schonthal and Ghort was Buck Fantil.
"It's a great name," he had told Hecht aboard Lumberer. "I always wished I had one of them names like Dirk or Steele or Rock. Pinkus Ghort. My momma ought to be spanked. What the hell kind of name is Pinkus Ghort?"
"You tell me," Hecht had responded. "You made it up."
"You want to know the sick, sad truth, my friend? I didn't. It really is the one my momma hung on me. Though nobody never believes me when I tell them."
Hecht remained firmly established in that class. He was sure that Pinkus Ghort would be wanted in more than one principality farther north, under other names.
About the boy, he asked, "What are you doing, Buck?"
"You know your way around this dump? I don't. Besides, the kid reminds me of me in my better days. What's your handle, Shorty?"
"Pella, Your Honor. Pella Versulius."
Pella's competitors laughed. One advised, "Don't turn your back on the little turd, Outlander. He'll steal the hair off your ass."
"He's got shorter legs than me. I can run him down and break his neck."
Hecht caught a flicker of admiration from the urchin. "We need to come to a place called the House of the Ten Gallons in Karagos Middle Street. You know where that is?"
The boy lied easily and glibly. "Absolutely, Your Honors. My own mam was born in Cuttlebone Close an' that's practically next door. Just follow me, Your Honors."
Ghort murmured, "As long as he's out front my butt hairs are safe."
"I'd still keep an eye on our back trail. And not follow him into any place that's narrow or dark."
"You don't need to teach me how to dance. I told you, I used to be this kid. Watch how he gets just far ahead enough so we can't hear him ask people how to get to Karagos Middle Street."
"And how they eyeball us before they decide to help him fleece us."
"Yeah. You feel like there ain't much love for foreigners going on here?"
There was anger under Sonsa's thick despair. The waterfront was moribund. Many of its warehouses appeared abandoned.
Hecht shuddered suddenly.
"I don't know. I got one of those feelings like you get when some night creature is watching you."
The truth, though, was that the boy had led him past a site where two friends had been killed by sorcery during his previous visit.
"Yeah? What did you think of the kid's name?"
"Sounds a little classical."
"A little, huh? He insulted us, you know."
"Basically, he told us we're too damned unlettered to recognize the name of the poet who wrote The Lay of Ihrian."
"You know what? He's right. In my case."
"You are ignorant and unlettered up there in the Grand Marshes, aren't you?"
"I never denied it. That's why I left."
'There's a damned lie if I ever heard one. Nobody runs away from home on account of… Anyways, if I was honest, I'd admit that the only reason I know is because life around Doneto's dump is so damned dull there that there ain't nothing else to do but read. Because you got me hooked on that shit when we was locked up in Plemenza."
"You don't need to make excuses. Reading isn't a bad thing."
"Now you sound like the Principate. Hey! Kid! Pellapront. How's Alma?"
The boy froze in place, eyes big. He stared at Ghort, bewildered. "Your Honor?"
"Never mind. Go on. And stay on the paved streets. I don't care if it is longer that way." To Hecht, he said, "The Lay of Ihrian is this long-ass comic poem about a guy who goes on a tour of the Holy Lands. But only in his dreams. Guided by a ghost who lies about his name all the time."
"I can see where you'd be amused by that." Hecht eyed his surroundings uneasily. This was a different Sonsa. Too many surly men stood around doing nothing. Blaming their ill fortune on anybody but themselves.
"Ain't we all? Anyway, all the names the ghost gives are names of gods that had something to do with the Wells of Ihrian. Very blasphemous. Toward the end, this guy- whose name in the story is the same as the name of the poet-he gets into a big romp with a whore who turns out to be his sister, Alma. It's pretty funny. But The Lay of Ihrian was banned by the Church. Though nobody probably pays any attention except in Brothe. Principate Doneto says there's probably only four or five copies in the city but the story is famous up north. Like around here, I guess."
"I think we're close."
"Keep an eye out. This could be the tricky part."
Pella let them catch up. "That's Karagos Middle Street up ahead, Your Honors. Cutting across. But I never heard of no House of the Ten Gallons."
Ask around," Hecht suggested.
Yes, Your Honors. Right away. What did you mean about Alma, Your Honor?" he asked Ghort.
Nothing, really. There's a poem with a Pellapront Versulius in it. He has a sister named Alma."
The boy gulped some air.
"Shit," Ghort said. "You got a sister named Alma?"
Pella nodded. He was a gaunt little thing, small for his age. His eyes seemed exaggeratedly large.
"Find out about the house," Hecht urged.
"That's spooky," Ghort said when the boy was out of earshot.
"It is unusual," Hecht conceded. "But not a mystery we need to solve."
"No. Hey. Somebody knows where the place is."
"Good. It's late. We need to get off the street."
Pella came back. "Your Honors didn't have it right. It's the House of the Ten Galleons."
"That makes more sense. Here."
"My sister would make you a better deal."
Hecht recalled the boy offering his sister on the quayside. "Another tie to the poem. I take it the House of the Ten Galleons is a sporting house."
Pella nodded, not conceding the possibility that his charges would be unaware of that fact.
Ghort observed, "An interesting place to find our friend."
"Indeed." Members of the Brotherhood took the same vow of celibacy as less warlike priests. But the Brotherhood tried to observe its vows. All of them. Which was a source of frequent and abiding friction with the rest of the Church.
"We'll think about your sister later," Hecht said. "We need to see a man who lives at the House of the Ten Galleons."
"Really? He must be a eunuch, Your Honor."
"Show us where."
Pella showed. Ghort gave him a coin and told him to wait. "We'll be right back out. We'll need you some more." Once they were away, he asked, "We will be right back out, won't we? You didn't get any special instructions in that mess, did you?"
"Just to give the packet to a man named Beomond. Using a set of signs and countersigns."
"What's he look like?"
"Six and a half feet tall, almost as wide, with a big scar on his face. Plus a wine stain birthmark that starts on his left cheek and runs down his throat and under his shirt."
"Sounds like a beauty. Good evening, sir," Ghort told the man who responded to their knock.
Hecht offered, "We came from Heber," which was the formula included in his instructions.
"Confuckinggratulations. Show me some silver."
That was not the appropriate response.
A small, high voice piped, "Out of the way, Tiny."
Tiny moved. A truly tiny, wrinkled old woman whose coloring suggested origins far to the east stepped forward. "Where are you from?" Her Firaldian was flawless, with a Sonsan accent. She must be a Chaldarean refugee from the Kaifate of Qasr al-Zed. There were countless pockets of non-Episcopal Chaldareans scattered around the Realm of Peace.
"Welcome, countrymen. Come in. Can I offer you refreshments?"
"Coffee, perhaps." All part of the sign-countersign, but here the old woman broke the rhythm. "We can't afford coffee anymore. Business has been bad lately."
"I'm sorry to hear that." Hecht knew that was the sort of complaint an eavesdropper would expect to hear. "Whatever's convenient, then."
"Wine would hit the spot," Ghort said.
Hecht scowled. Ghort was far too fond of wine. But to say so would be dangerous. All westerners drank wine, many to excess.
Hecht asked, "Is my cousin Beomond here? My uncle wanted us to bring him his birthday gift."
Tiny held out a hand. Hecht ignored it. The old woman told him, "Go wake him up." She continued a frank examination of the visitors. "You're finally catching on how to look like regular people."
Hecht did not understand. Ghort replied, "It's a gift. Some got it. Some don't. Me an' Matt, we're natural-born talents. In fact, Matt really was regular people, once upon a time."
A great, sloppy, jiggling mountain of a man appeared, rubbing sleep out of his eyes. He was naked to the waist. The wine stain birthmark extended down his chest to the level of his heart.
Ghort said, "Cousin Beo has been living large since we seen him last."
Hecht released a blurt of nervous laughter. Because what Ghort said was true. The man had gotten fatter since last Hecht had seen him, in Runch, working as a porter in the Sonsan factor house. He had lacked the scar, then. And the birthmark had not been obvious in the poor light of the factor house. His name was Goydar back then.
He was drunk. He squinted at Hecht. "I seen you somewhere before."
"I'm your cousin, Mathis. Matt. I brought a birthday present from your father. I wanted to hand it over. We're in kind of a hurry. We have other business."
Mention of a present pierced the fog in the giant's mind. Dad remembered? I was beginning to wonder. You have any trouble out there? In the street?"
Puzzled, Hecht said, "No. We hired a boy off the quay. He brought us straight here." He indicated the possessions they had dropped after being admitted. "The city almost seems deserted."
The fat man asked, "You didn't get stopped by any Family patrols?"
"You will. There'll be rumors about strangers out by now. That'll turn into spies from the Brotherhood or agents of the Deves. They really want to get even with somebody. Sonsa is dying. And they claim it's all our fault. Not the damned Deves. They're gonna need passes. Good ones. Brothers, when they stop you, forget who you are. Just show your passes. Do what they say. Don't give them any excuse to strip you down. They do, you'll be lucky to end up just having your stuff taken and your ass seriously kicked. They killed a Deve last week. And he was under the protection of Don Alsano."
Ghort chirped, "Matt, you want to remind me why I had to come with you?"
"Yeah. That's the one."
Tiny offered what was, likely, the only profound statement ever to escape his mouth. "You can't fix stupid."
"Shit. Man. I like that," Ghort said. "I'm gonna use that."
The old woman yelled in from the next room, "Will you see who the hell is at the door, Tiny? Hey! You girls get back where you belong." Hecht spotted several girls trying to get a look at the visitors. They seemed awfully young for denizens of a joy house. "You two from Heber. Come in here. That should be a customer. I don't like my customers to see each other."
Voices at the door. Ghort said, "That's Pella. I better see what's up." He went.
Beomond asked Hecht, "You been involved for long?"
"Only a few years."
"Been to Runch?"
Hecht considered admitting that he had. But that might start Ghort asking questions.
He was doing fine with his Duarnenian past. "I hope to go someday. To the Holy Lands, too. To walk the roads the Founders walked, among the Wells of Ihrian… I have to make the pilgrimage. But the traffic all seems to be headed this way these days. Those who sent the packet were Special Office."
"You talk too much. These walls have ears."
"Point taken. Apologies." He had let too much thought leak through while he concentrated on Ghort's conversation with Pella.
Old Bit had gone into a corner. She rummaged through a pile of what looked like refuse, came up with passes bearing ihe Durandanti family crest. "These will do. As long as you stay away from Durandanti patrols. If you don't act like what you are and piss somebody off. These make you agents of Don Alsano Durandanti. The Three Families are trying to get along. Them against the world. Don Alsano has a plan to bring Sonsa back."
"Hey, Matt! Granny!" Ghort yelled. "The kid says somebody's staking the place out. There's four of them. Another one ran off like he was going after reinforcements."
"That's not good," Bit said. "Not if they think you're the ones who came in on the smuggler. They'll want to know why you didn't go straight to the Don's palace. I know what. The girls don't have anything to do. We'll make up families for you. Beomond, get your damned birthday present put away. Tiny! Look around. Make sure there ain't nothing laying out that we don't want to answer questions about."
In ten minutes Hecht and Ghort left the House of the Ten Galleons accompanied by their wives, Ghort's son, and Hecht's brace of prepubescent daughters. He had a real daughter in al-Qarn older than these apprentice prostitutes. The purported wives managed to look surprisingly respectable.
Bit had had practice showing witnesses what they wanted to see.
The thugs in the street evidently did not find it remarkable that men would take their families along on a visit to a brothel. There were no challenges. Hecht wondered how they meant to catch spies with no more information than they had.
Once clear, Ghort said, "I get the chance, I'm having me a chat with my sailor friends. They sold us out."
"Not completely. Those men didn't have good descriptions of us."
"Yeah. So my guys gave up what they had to in order to keep from getting their own nuts in a clamp. But they didn't volunteer anything useful. Good on them. What say we get out of town, now? Suddenlike."
"That's always been my plan. We made this side trip because I didn't have guts enough to tell the Special Office no."
"You never get to where you can say no anytime you want, do you?"
"You're turning into a philosopher in your dotage."
"What do we do with the wives and kids?"
The families were quieter than good, obedient Praman families. The women wore the black expected of rural wives even here in this land of idolaters. The daughters were clad poorly and plainly. Both had been among those who had tried to spy on Bit and her visitors.
"I'm sure they have instructions already. Right, ladies?"
Exactly. Except that Hecht and Ghort soon found themselves equipped with children who refused to go away. Pella Versulius thought he had a good thing going. He insisted they still needed his help. The girl, one of the supposed daughters… She grabbed hold of Ghort and refused to be returned to the joy house. She was, probably, clever enough to see that these men would not be long on respect for the claims of a whoremaster.
Madness, Hecht thought, watching the two women try to pry the girl off Pinkus Ghort. What did she face back there that was more terrible than running off with men she knew nothing about?
The older prostitutes cursed and shouted, their fear mounting. Big trouble awaited them if they did not bring this child back to the brothel. They did not give a damn what became of the other girl.
That child sidled up to Hecht. She whispered, "Her name is Vali Dumaine, Mr. Soldier of God. Her father is important. They stole her to punish him. And to blackmail him. They're going to auction off her virginity. If her father don't do what they want. There'll be a really big reward if you take her home."
"She talks?" The stubborn child had been stone silent, the women treating her like a deaf-mute.
The girl nodded. "Nobody knows. The whores don't know who she is, either. They'd probably steal her for the reward if they did."
"What would we do with her?" Loud and physical as the prostitutes became, they could not separate the girl from Pinkus Ghort. Ghort did not help them. Neither did he send them off. He was waiting for more evidence to develop.
"Take her home, Mr. Soldier of God. Ransom her."
"You're trying to help her?"
"What about you?"
"It's too late for me, Mr. Soldier of God."
Hecht chose not to pursue that. "Won't you get in trouble?"
"Not me. Bit is my granny. She won't believe I fixed it up. I cain't do no wrong. Them bitches are gonna pay for every time they slapped or pinched me when Bit wasn't looking. Now."
So. Helping the other girl's escape attempt was not a selfless act.
Vali Dumaine kept her death grip on Ghort's belt.
"Ladies!" Hecht snapped. "If this doesn't stop we all end up in chains." The uproar had begun to attract attention.
The women shut up. They stared at each other, murmured, tried one more time to pull the girl off Ghort, then grabbed Bit's granddaughter and fled. Cursing all the way.
Pella said, "Your Honors, we need to get out of here. This kind of racket always brings investigators."
"Just another reason for us to get out of town now." He felt hidden eyes watching.
Pella said, "You can't leave before the gates open. The guards don't bribe."
"Lead on, Pella." Hecht related the story the girl had whispered during the squabble. As they followed Pella.
"Hey, Pipe, we can't go dragging a kid around."
"I'm open to suggestions. Including what to do about the fact that we've attracted the attention of the Night." His amulet had begun to offer a faint warning.
"The street's full of kids. Give her to Pella." Ghort glanced round, sensing the stirring of shadows.
Hecht's wrist tingled. The warning was unnecessary. Somebody was coming. In a hurry. A lot of somebodies, considering the racket.
Ghort said, "I thought them whores gave up awful easy."
Hecht grunted. "They'd know their city. They'd know how long they could raise hell before they had to run for it."
"I don't like this. These guys have torches." ...
All rights belong to the author: Glen Cook.
This is a short fragment for review the book. The full version can be purchased in the store.