/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy / Series: Instrumentalities of the Night

Surrender to the will of the night

Glen Cook


Glen Cook

Surrender to the will of the night

1. The Grail Empire: Forest of Night

Eighteen remained of the seventy Chosen who had departed chill Sparmargen, holy hunters headed south. Most had been injured or were wounded. Five had to be kept tied into their saddles. Once they stopped outside the gateway they discovered that Drengtin Skyre had been dead so long his corpse was cold. His pony was in a state of supernatural angst.

There was nothing remarkable about the gateway. It was an opening in a rail fence. On this side there was ice and a frosting of hard snowflakes. A manic wind hurled dead leaves about aimlessly. The world beyond the fence might be warmer. The leaves there were sodden. The wind could not pick them up.

The ragged, pale pilgrims with the bones and small skulls in their hair stared at the wintered wood. Something built of gray stone could just be discerned through the skeletal trees. Each sacred assassin hoped their quarry was there, so this harsh quest could be brought to an end.

From among them came Krepnight, the Elect. He wore somewhat human form. He was a divine artifact. His left hand had seven fingers. His right bore six. His toes matched that pattern. He had no hair on him anywhere. His skin seemed impossibly taut and shiny and shone a sickly snot green with irregular patches of deep reddish brown. His cheekbones were exaggerated. His eyes were those of a great cat. His teeth were sharp and numerous and serrated at their back edges.

Krepnight, the Elect, had sprung forth full-grown from the imagination of Kharoulke the Windwalker. He existed for one purpose. Its target lay just a bit more than an arrow’s flight ahead.

Krepnight, the Elect, urged his frightened mount forward. He ignored the sign beside the gateway, BEWARE THE WOLVES AND WERE, in faded Brothen capitals. He could not read, anyway.

Nor could many of his companions. None, the language of this land.

Krepnight, the Elect, paused after a four-hundred-yard advance. He faced a small castle from barely a hundred feet. Its drawbridge was down, spanning a wet moat eight feet wide.

Krepnight, the Elect, could not cross running water without help. The water in the moat was in motion.

Water was not relevant.

An arrow slammed into the artifact’s chest. It drove through till fourteen inches protruded from his back. The shaft was thick, oak, tipped with armor-piercing iron. Krepnight, the Elect, rocked back after the impact, then just sat petrified in his saddle.

Brittle cold air swirled round him. He felt every breath.

He could do nothing.

Two old men came across the drawbridge. One carried an iron shovel, the other a rusty bill. Shovel man took the reins of the divine artifact’s mount and led him away, the horse quaking in terror. A hundred yards on, at the brink of a gully, the bill man used his tool to unseat the rider, who tumbled into the little ravine.

Both old men shoveled and dragged dirt, sticks, stones, and fallen leaves onto the immobile body.

The light went away. A long time passed. Ravens watched quietly from the trees. Wolves came to consider the fallen artifact and be amused by his misfortune.

In time, the pilgrim’s companions found the divine artifact. They dug him out. One broke the heavy arrow and drew the shaft. Krepnight, the Elect, shook off the dirt and leaves and got his feet under him. The crows above chattered eloquently about this grand practical joke. The wolves kept their distance but their body language bespoke cruel contempt.

There were shamans among the Chosen. They stayed close as Krepnight, the Elect, resumed his advance on the castle. They suppressed the power of the water. A dozen men were within touching distance as Krepnight, the Elect, crossed that drawbridge and carried his god’s will into the rustic citadel.

A blinding flash. A vast roar. A thousand needles of agony. An irrevocable death for Krepnight, the Elect, and all who walked with him.

While the corpses still shook and twitched wolves hit every man who had passed the warning sign.

Three younger riders, left outside by their captain, flew off to report the disaster.

Ravens followed. Mocking.

The Night knows no special love for those who consider themselves its own. Of the three, two fell victim to ruthless minor Instrumentalities. The last was too mad to report anything useful when he did win through.

His return was information enough.

His god rewarded him as gods do. It devoured him.

2. Lucidia: In the Eye of Gherig and the

Shadow of the Idiam The wind had an edge like a rusted saw. No man living remembered such cold in the Lucidian desert. For sure not when full winter had not yet arrived. Some had seen snow before-in the distance, on peaks in the highest of the high ranges.

The stone tower atop Tel Moussa offered an outstanding view for leagues around. Built by crusaders to watch for invaders from Qasr al-Zed, the watchtower had been captured by Indala al-Sul Halaladin, Wielder of the Sword of God, after he crushed the crusaders at the Well of Days. Now it was home to desperate fugitives from Dreanger who had taken service with Muqtaba Ashef al-Fartebi ed-Din, the Kaif of Qasr al-Zed.

The cruel wind plucked at the graying hair and beard of Nassim Alizarin. They called him the Mountain. He was a man so large only western destriers could carry him. And he required a string of those when he traveled. He wore them out quickly.

Nassim turned slowly. The Unbelievers had chosen the site well, though they built on foundations set down ages past. A hundred armies had traveled the road below, headed one direction or the other, since men learned to make war. Nassim thought more would come and go before long.

A solitary horseman approached from the south, bent over his saddle, miserable. That would be the old man, Bone, back from a circuit of Sha-lug outposts along the far borders of the Crusader states. Behind Bone, crouched like an evil sphinx on the horizon, loomed the dark silhouette of Gherig, the Crusader stronghold no mere mortal could hope to capture. The Brotherhood of War manned Gherig. Sometimes those hardy warrior-priests approached Tel Moussa, hoping to draw out the fugitive Sha-lug. The Mountain would not play. In the best times he had fewer than four hundred followers scattered across the Realm of Peace. His war with his onetime friend, Gordimer the Lion, Marshal of the Sha-lug, was not going well. Most Sha-lug agreed that the murder of Nassim’s son Hagid was an abomination. Yet they did not see that as an excuse adequate to justify bloodshed between brother warriors.

The essence of al-Prama was submission. The essence of being Sha-lug was discipline.

The Master of Ghosts, al-Azer er-Selim, joined Nassim. He cursed the bone-biting wind. Softly. The Mountain tolerated neither blasphemy nor the invocation of demons. Az asked, “Is that Bone?” His eyes were no match for those of the General.

“Yes. And bringing no good news.”

“Uhm?” Az looked northward and slightly to the east, toward the Idiam, that harshest of deserts. Az dreaded bad news. If it turned bad enough-so bad that Muqtaba al-Fartebi no longer saw any value in supporting a Sha-lug splinter faction against the Kaif of al-Minphet-then the only safety might lie in Andesqueluz. The haunted city.

The Mountain read his stare. “We’ll never be that desperate. The Lucidians need every blade. The Hu’n-tai At threaten in the north and east. Once Tsistimed the Golden finishes devouring the Ghargarlicean Empire he’ll turn on Lucidia.”

Below, the weary rider began the climb to the tower. Would he make it? Did he have strength enough left?

Bone was old but those who knew him never bet against him.

“How does he stay alive?” Nassim asked.

“Uhm?” The Master of Ghosts now stared a couple of points south of the line that would bisect the Idiam. Toward the Abhar River and the northern end of the freshwater lake the locals called the Sea of Zebala. Scarcely a day’s walk away. It could be seen glistening on a sunny day. Beside that lake, to the south, lay the village Chaldar, birthplace of the Chaldarean religious error. One of the Wells of Ihrian lay near Chaldar. Az could not recall its name.

He had begun to have memory problems.

“Tsistimed, Ghost Master. How can he still be alive? He’s been the King of Kings of the Hu’n-tai At for two hundred years.” And was still fathering princes who grew up to rebel against him.

Az shrugged. “Sorcery.” The all-purpose answer. “Let’s go greet Bone beside a fire.”

“In a moment.” Nassim stared toward Gherig, now. And slightly north of that fastness, toward the Well of Days, where the crusaders had suffered their worst disaster ever. He pointed quickly, here, there, yon, naming the Wells of Ihrian. “The Well of Remembrance. The Well of Atonement,” and so forth. “If you connect them all with lines, those lines almost perfectly define the Plain of Judgment.” Where a hundred battles had been fought across the ages. Where the final conflict between God and the Adversary would take place, according to all four religions with roots in the Holy Lands.

“Really?” Az replied. He was learned but no more religious than he had to be to survive amongst the fiercely religious. “Could there be a connection with the weakening of the wells? Would we be better off if Indala had slaughtered the crusaders on the Plain instead of in the wastes overlooking the Well of Days?”

“It’s a thought. For someone more connected to the Night than I.” Nassim headed downstairs.

Bone fit his nickname. There was little flesh on him and his skin was sickly pale. Az feared the old company would shrink again soon. Only a handful were left. And their captain was far away, being someone else. Given no choice by Heaven or Earth.

Someone brought broth for Bone, Az, and Nassim. The Mountain’s lieutenants gathered. Bone was nearest the fire but could not stop shaking. The Mountain called for more fuel. Bone squeezed his mug with blue fingers and sipped. He began to thaw, to peep out into the world, to be relieved to see Az close by.

“I bring no joy,” the old man rasped. “They have forgotten us.” But that was not the message he had come to deliver. “I have that wrong. They haven’t forgotten. They can’t bring themselves to care enough to turn on the Marshal. The Rascal is a different story. They would cut him down if they could lure him out of hiding. The Lion himself would do so. But none yet despair enough of Gordimer’s leadership to turn against him. Our secret friends have begun to fade. They say we’ve offered no alternative, only an end to what stands.”

The Mountain sighed, sank onto a low divan. It was true. He had gone to war against Gordimer and er-Rashal al-Dhulquarnen. Wicked though those two had been, they had been the law in the kaifate of al-Minphet. Gordimer still was. The Sha-lug and the Faith were greater than the sum of any crimes. Before all else, there must be a Marshal. And a law. Else, Dreanger would slide into chaos. The Holy Lands would be lost.

Lucidia-the kaifate of Qasr al-Zed-could not put an end to the outsiders. Indala al-Sul Halaladin was old. Unlike Gordimer, he was too honorable to seize all power for himself. He bent his neck to the whims of his Kaif. And had to concentrate on the ever-waxing threat of the Hu’n-tai At.

“It’s true,” said the Mountain. “I am undone by emotion. And have dragged you all with me. We are become Gisela Frakier for Muqtaba al-Fartebi.” Gisela Frakier were those most loathed of Believers, Pramans who served the enemies of the Faith for pay. Gisela Frakier patrolled and enforced the boundaries of Rh?n, backed by the Eastern Emperor’s professional armies.

Ancient tribal rivalries compelled some Faithful to become Gisela Frakier. In the time before the revelation brought in by the Founding Family, religion had been a critical part of tribal identities. Throughout the range now blessed by the Faith the tribes had been divided equally amongst Devedian, Chaldarean, and animistic devotions.

In the mouth of Nassim Alizarin “Gisela Frakier” became uglier than “apostate.”

“If we have a kaif,” Nomun observed. Nomun had turned rebel when the Lion took his daughter into the Palace of the Kings at al-Qarn. Nomun had been a brilliant captain in the field. Further, he was steeped in book lore and had a reputation as a consummate surgeon. It would be the Nomuns of the Sha-lug, as their numbers increased, who ended the tyranny in al-Qarn.

“If we have a kaif?” Nassim asked.

“Al-Fartebi is sick again. Rumors whisper poison.” As always they did when a man of standing became ill. More often with Muqtaba al-Fartebi than others. Muqtaba had poisoned his predecessor. There had been talk of setting him aside because of the threats of the Hu’n-tai At, the resurgent Crusader states, and increased pressure from al-Minphet. And Muqtaba would have gone but for Indala al-Sul Halaladin. All the world feared Indala’s displeasure. Some believed the Hu’n-tai At were withholding their fury only because they did not want to waken the genius of the Battle of the Well of Days.

“There’s debate about who should replace al-Fartebi. Indala refuses the role. As always. But two of his sons have shown it no disdain.”

Civil war? Always a possibility where posts were not passed on according to blood. Nassim said, “Indala trained his sons to be warriors. The Kaif should be a holy man.”

Several men snickered. Native Lucidians all. Few recent kaifs had been truly holy. Some claimed Muqtaba’s frequent illnesses were the result of his dedication to vice. To his fondness for absinthe in particular.

The Mountain considered Bone. Bone seemed to have shrunk into himself. “All that means nothing to us. Our world is Tel Moussa and the watch on Gherig.”

Al-Azer er-Selim observed, “There’s always the option of returning to the west.”

“Not for Nassim Alizarin. I stay. I abide. If I have to flee into the Idiam, I will. I’ll play the trapdoor spider. My hour will come. God delivers the wicked into the hands of the righteous. I’ll be as patient as the mountain.”

Az and Bone stirred uneasily. They had seen the Idiam. They had visited the haunted city, Andesqueluz. Both knew that “the Mountain” was one translation of the name of the chief god in the pantheon that held sway locally before the rise of the modern religions. And of late madmen had been trying to resurrect fallen gods.

Asher and Ashtoreth, the Bride of the Mountain, were recalled only in ancient bas-reliefs, notably on walls in Andesqueluz. But it would take only one mage, absent a conscience, to conjure evil into the world. Er-Rashal al-Dhulquarnen had tried to resurrect Dreanger’s ancient horror, Seska, the Endless.

“Az?” the Mountain inquired. “Something on your mind?”

“Only what’s always there. Dread of the machinations of the Instrumentalities of the Night. And of the Night’s human pawns.”

The Mountain bowed his head slightly. “Thank you for reminding me. My great sin is selfishness. I think of my desires instead of the good of our souls.”

3. Alten Weinberg: Celebrations

The Captain-General had been assigned a three-story, eighteen-room limestone monstrosity for his visit to the seat of the Grail Empire. The house came with a staff of twelve. It belonged to Bayard va Still-Patter, son and heir of the Grand Duke Ormo va Still-Patter. Empress Katrin herself had ordered Bayard to vacate in favor of the Church’s leading soldier.

The Captain-General, Piper Hecht, and his party had come to Alten Weinberg in company with King Jaime of Castauriga. Who had dragged a sizable portion of his subjects hundreds of miles to celebrate his marriage to the most powerful western sovereign. The Captain-General, it appeared, was in favor with the Empress, though they had encountered one another only twice before, never to speak.

Three days after arriving Hecht listened as Kait Rhuk said, “We can’t figure it out but this woman definitely has something in mind for you.”

Nervous, Hecht paced and wondered if Katrin’s game involved her younger sister, the Princess Apparent, Helspeth. He had no one to share thoughts with. His intimates he had left in the Connec to manage the Church’s offensive against revenant Night. Those who had accompanied him here were lifeguards, clerks cum spies from Titus Consent’s staff, or belonged to Kait Rhuk’s weapons gang-the latter along in case the Night offered some unpleasant attention. And there was his adopted son, Pella. Plus Algres Drear, a Braunsknecht, or Imperial guard, who had been rusticated to Viscesment after offending the Empress and members of her Council Advisory.

Captain Drear told Hecht, “I’ve sneaked around as much as I dare. He’s right. She’s up to something. No one knows what. The Council Advisory are concerned.”

Empress Katrin was an Ege. Her father’s daughter. The Ferocious Little Hans frightened them still, though he was now years dead. Johannes’s unpredictable daughters frightened them more.

“I’m surprised they haven’t thrown you into the stocks.”

“People don’t see what they don’t expect to see. Algres Drear is off in Viscesment protecting the Anti-Patriarch. The few who do recognize me tell me I got a raw deal.”

Hecht had walked the streets himself. He had not learned much. He did not understand the language well enough. Nor did he have the time to fit himself in. More, he could not persuade his chief lifeguard, Madouc, that he would be safe wandering around.

Pella, though, had grown up on city streets and could slip his minders easily. His big problem was the language.

Alten Weinberg was more crowded and excited than any local could recall. The coming marriage had the world agitated. It might be the critical marriage of the century. It could render permanent the Imperial rapprochement with Brothe, ending centuries of warfare between Patriarchy and Empire. If Katrin produced a son to assume the Imperial ermine it would also give the Empire a foothold in Direcia. And would provide Jaime a shield against the ambitions of King Peter of Navaya.

“We saved him from a gang of thieves,” Presten Reges told Hecht. Hecht considered Pella. The boy was filthy, his clothing torn. “We don’t think it was political. The local soldiery wouldn’t let me bring the thugs along for questioning.”

“Tell me, Pella.”

The boy’s story supported Presten’s estimation. He had become too curious about something, then had betrayed himself as an outsider. An open invitation. “I messed up, Dad. I forgot where I was.”

“Lesson learned, I hope.”

“I’ll be more careful.”

“Did you find out anything for your trouble?”

“A lot of people don’t like this wedding. But that’s not a secret.”

Katrin Ege was unpopular because of her accommodation with the Brothen Church.

“It isn’t.” Hecht worried for Katrin’s sister. There were factions eager to move Helspeth into the top spot, hoping she favored her father’s policies. That put the Princess Apparent at risk from Katrin’s friends.

Helspeth tried to be neutral and to maintain her sister’s love. But simply by existing she became a fulcrum and rallying point.

It was early. Hecht had spent his waking time, so far, breaking his fast and studying dispatches from the Connec and Patriarchal garrisons in Firaldia. He had learned little to cheer him.

Carava de Bos approached with a small, black wooden tray on which lay three letters, their seals unbroken. De Bos managed the delegation’s clerical functions by day. The night clerk was Rivademar Vircondelet. Each doubled as a spy. Both were prot?g?s of Titus Consent, chief spymaster and record keeper of the Patriarchal forces. And friend of the Captain-General.

De Bos said, “Recently arrived letters, sir. In order of arrival. Also, a gentleman named Renfrow has asked to see you. Shall I make an appointment?”

“You don’t know who he is?”

“He thinks he’s important.”

“And that would be true.”

“Shall I make an appointment?”

“No. Send him in. The rest of you, clear off. Madouc. I don’t want the servants eavesdropping.” Bayard va Still-Patter expected his people to spy. They tried hard. And were ferociously inept.

Renfrow was nondescript. He wore seasoned clothing like nine of ten people in the street, was average in height and unremarkable in his features. His hair betrayed specks of gray. Hecht had been close enough to smell the man’s breath on several occasions but could not recall the color of his eyes.

Hecht watched Renfrow approach. Renfrow was surprised to see Algres Drear. Pella, Hecht sensed, remembered Renfrow from the Knight of Wands a couple years ago.

That boy had a dangerous memory.

Hecht considered the letters. He recognized none of the hands. One seal was that of the Patriarch. The others belonged to the Empress and her sister, respectively.

These morning reviews happened around a table capable of seating a dozen. Hecht folded a couple maps and turned over two reports that had not gone away. Renfrow took it all in at a glance, lingering an instant on the letters from the Imperial sisters.

Hecht said, “Sit. If you’ll be more comfortable. I intend to.” He settled.

“I appreciate you seeing me so fast.”

“Our talks are always interesting. And I’ve grown bored. I should have waited and come here a week behind King Jaime.”

“I can’t imagine being bored in this political climate.”

“Not my politics.”

“You could be wrong. I think. There are secrets even I can’t ferret out. Secrets hidden from Ferris Renfrow in particular.”

“I can understand that.”

Renfrow flashed a conspiratorial smile. “If I asked, would you explain why Algres Drear is with you? I pulled a lot of strings to get him rehabilitated enough to go be one of Bellicose’s Braunsknecht guards.”

“Bellicose told him to come.”

“I hear you and Bellicose have developed a mutual admiration.”

“True. Is that why you’re here?”

“No. I wanted to warn you to be careful.”

Hecht merely raised an eyebrow.

“Dark things are stirring. Rumors reach me, second- or third-hand, from sources not even marginally reliable. The Night is abidingly disturbed by what you’ve been doing in the Connec.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised.”

“You have powerful enemies. Over there.”

Hecht, never quite convinced, nevertheless nodded.

Renfrow produced a folded paper from inside his shirt. Hecht winced, half expecting a crossbow bolt. Madouc would be watching. Madouc did not like sudden movements near his principal.

Renfrow opened the sheet, smoothed it.

“What is that?”

A talented artist had drawn a face, the side of a head, and an unusual pair of hands.

“Life-size,” Renfrow said. “Killed north of here some weeks ago, along with several barbarians who wore animal bones and skulls in their hair.”

“What was it?”

“I’d hoped you would know. You’re the man from Duarnenia. The veteran pagan fighter.”

“Not a pagan fighter. I left before I was old enough to visit the Marshes. But the Sheard had nothing like this helping them.”

“You’re a mystery wearing a cloak of enigma, Captain-General. The men with this thing had some connection to Kharoulke the Windwalker.”

“Then you’re looking at the wrong pagan gods. The Sheard have nothing to do with Kharoulke. Or any gods of his generation. Kharoulke hails from the farthest north. From the lands of the Seatts. And beyond. Kharoulke was displaced by the gods that our God overcame when Chaldarean missionaries converted the north. I’ve heard rumors about the Windwalker returning.”

“You surprise me again by being so well informed.”

“I have friends in low places.”

“No doubt about that.”

“Sir?”

“I’ve found that while almost no one recalls a boy named Piper Hecht making his journey southward, to take service with the Patriarchs, records of his service with several local garrisons exist. He never stayed anywhere long.”

“Some captains kept records obsessively. I caught the habit myself. My people can account for every copper that ever touched our hands. Good record keeping lets you show your employer what you’ve accomplished and why it cost so much.”

“And still they complain.”

“Of course. This thing.” Hecht tapped the drawings. “You should’ve brought the corpse. That would cause a stir.” Maybe get some attention paid to some of the more serious threats to the world.

“Its flesh corrupted and melted within hours, though there was snow on the ground and ice in the trees. Neither ravens nor wolves would touch the flesh.”

“Something of the Night.”

“Undoubtedly. But what?”

“I’m not the man to ask. But I know who that man might be.” The Ninth Unknown. Cloven Februaren. Lord of the Silent Kingdom. Possibly the most powerful sorcerer alive. And the least predictable. “Unfortunately, he’s in Brothe. Like most of the Collegium, waiting for Boniface to die.”

“What do you hear about that?”

“Hugo Mongoz might outlive half the men who elected him.” Hugo Mongoz being the name of the Principat? who had chosen the reign name Boniface VII when he became Patriarch.

“Isn’t Bellicose supposed to succeed him?”

“That’s the deal. I have orders to enforce it if the Collegium tries to take it back. I’ll do what Boniface wants. Bellicose is a good man. Who may not last as long as Boniface has, despite being thirty years younger.”

“Drear should be with him, then. Not here.”

“Bellicose’s health will do him in. Not assassins. He sent Drear to be his representative at the wedding. As I’m standing in for Boniface.”

Ferris Renfrow kept his opinion to himself.

Hecht understood. “Bellicose knew what he was doing when he sent Drear. It’s because of how he was treated here when he was a bishop.”

Renfrow chuckled. “The pro-Brothen party were feeling their oats.”

“Is that all? I do have work to do.”

“I have ten thousand things. Nine thousand nine hundred you won’t help me with. So I’ll just leave you with another word of caution. You may have enemies you know nothing about.”

“You hear that, Madouc? Now you can nag me with the report of the Imperial spymaster himself.” Hecht felt less humor than he pretended. Madouc would, indeed, mention Renfrow’s warning every chance he got. It irked him that he would have to pay attention. He was exposed, here. And there were people who did truly believe the world would be a better place without Piper Hecht in it.

Madouc just smiled. More than did Hecht himself, the lifeguard looked forward to putting Alten Weinberg behind and getting back to murdering the Instrumentalities of the Night.

Ferris Renfrow said, “I’ve done what I had to do here. Which is warn you not to relax.”

“I do get lax, sometimes. Madouc never does. Madouc is an Instrumentality in his own right.”

“Cherish him, then. Honor him. Most of all, listen to him.”

Hecht asked, “Madouc, did you put him up to this?”

Hecht gathered Carava de Bos, Madouc, and Rivademar Vircondelet as soon as Ferris Renfrow left. Pretty blond Vircondelet could not stop yawning. Hecht stared at the letters on the black tray, longing to dive into them. “What have we found out about Renfrow? Anyone?”

De Bos and Madouc deferred to Vircondelet. The sleepy Connecten, a Castreresonese, had the potential to exceed his mentor, Titus Consent. “A Ferris Renfrow has been involved in Grail Empire politics for more than a hundred years. This Ferris Renfrow claims to be the son of the Renfrow who served the two Freidrichs and the grandson of the Renfrow who served Otto, Lingard, the second Johannes, and the other Otto. Every Ferris Renfrow frightened everyone around him. People won’t talk about them much. If a mortal can be considered an Instrumentality, Ferris Renfrow qualifies. He’s the living patron tutelary phantom of the Grail Empire.”

Hecht asked, “Is there a woman in any of the Renfrow lives?”

Vircondelet said, “I haven’t connected any Renfrow with any particular woman. Maybe they do like you and adopt.” Pella had just stuck his head in. He saw that he would not be welcome.

Maybe Renfrow’s family was like the Delari. Each generation produced out of wedlock, one after another.

Vircondelet kept on. “The princesses, Katrin and Helspeth, are the only women in his life of late. That’s because he’s the guarantor of Johannes Blackboots’s will and Bill of Succession.”

“Proceed on the assumption that all Ferris Renfrows are the same Ferris Renfrow. And keep digging. Find out who his enemies are. They’re bound to gossip.”

Carava de Bos said, “No one here has made much of it, but Renfrow appeared at court, filthy and wounded, with news of the victory, only hours after Los Naves de los Fantas.”

That startled Hecht. He hoped it did not show. “How could that be?”

“The critical question, right?”

“Keep an eye on him.” Hecht glanced at the letters. He could wait no longer. “All of you. Back to your duties. Vircondelet. Go back to bed.”

The Captain-General tormented himself. He opened the letter from Boniface VII first. He had no interest in it whatsoever. It told him its author had had a premonition that his hour on the stage was about to end. And begged him to make sure the agreements with the Viscesment Patriarchy were honored. By force if necessary,

In Hugo Mongoz’s estimation, most of the Principat?s of the Collegium were slime weasels interested only in filling their own pockets. They would ignore the agreements if they thought they could.

Hecht burned that letter. It was a waste of paper. Though Boniface could not be sure that his will would be executed. Unless he watched from Heaven as his Captain-General enforced his wishes.

Hecht read the letter from the Empress next. He dreaded what might lie inside that from the Princess Apparent.

Katrin Ege, Empress of the Grail Empire, with a string of subsidiary titles that filled half a page, requested the attendance of the Captain-General of the Patriarch of the Brothen Episcopal Church…

The flattering crap went on and on. Piper Hecht was not one to be turned and shaped by that. But he let it play. And composed an equally florid, disingenuous, and dishonest response. Yes. He would see Her Grace, the Empress, Katrin… Time and place, Katrin’s choice.

Katrin’s request was echoed by Princess Helspeth in her brief letter. Which he read over and over, looking for the slightest nuance.

In one hour Hecht would present himself to the woman who, at the moment, was the most powerful ruler in the western world. He was trapped in speculations about what might be on her mind. Alone. Pella was away wandering the city with one of his handlers. Madouc had expressed serious reservations.

Alone he might be. In the room where he slept. But one of Madouc’s men was right outside.

Some things needed no doors to get inside.

Hecht was rereading Helspeth when the flames of his candles danced briefly. “Cloven Februaren?”

“You’ve grown more sensitive. We get you more time in the Construct, you’ll be able to smell me coming.”

Hecht looked toward the voice. He saw nothing till the man materialized by turning to face him. He was old, small, weathered, all clad in brown. His eyes, of uncertain color in that light, sparkled with mischief. His hair needed a trim. And combing.

Cloven Februaren. The Ninth Unknown. Grandfather of Principat? Muniero Delari, the Eleventh Unknown. Who claimed to be Piper Hecht’s natural grandfather. Cloven Februaren was more than a hundred years old. Probably more than a hundred fifty. But he lied a lot. And he had the sense of humor of a ten-year-old.

Hecht glanced at the door. Who was on duty? Madouc’s men knew their principal sometimes became involved in spirited discussions with himself. Only Madouc dared step in to make sure they did not turn violent.

The old man said, “Well?”

“Uhm.”

“So it’s going to be one of those intellectual discussions?”

Hecht smiled. Which felt odd. “Philosophical, perhaps. I just realized that I seldom smile.”

“Your sense of humor has atrophied. What is it?”

“Sir?”

“You summoned me. You must have a reason.”

Hecht managed to hold his tongue. He had done nothing of the sort. But he had wished that he could see the old man.

“I didn’t, but I’m glad you’re here. You can help with a couple of things.” Hecht talked. In particular, about what Ferris Renfrow had said. “I’m interested in all that. And even more interested in finding out about Renfrow.” He related what little de Bos and Vircondelet had unearthed.

The longer Hecht talked the more agitated Februaren became.

“You’re disturbed. Why is that?”

“An unhappy suspicion. Has anyone accused the man of sorcery?”

“No. But he scares everybody. And has done for as long as you have. And he does things he shouldn’t be able to do.”

“Which you would accuse me of, too. I’ll check his record, then. As he seems to be checking yours.”

“More than once he’s told me he believes I’m Else Tage, a captain of the Sha-lug pointed out to him in al-Qarn when he was visiting Gordimer the Lion and his wild sorcerer.”

“That would be when he acquired the boy. Armand.”

“Yes. Osa Stile. Muniero Delari’s erstwhile bed pet. Now playing night games with Hugo Mongoz himself.”

Flash of the Februaren mischief. “And getting nothing to his friends outside Krois. The Dreangereans think he’s dead.”

Hecht steeled himself. “Have you seen Anna? And the girls?”

“No. But Muno has them to the house regularly. Anna misses you. She and Heris have become friends. And Heris has become adept with the Construct.”

Hecht was surprised at how emotional he was about his makeshift family. Anna Mozilla was not his wife but he ached with longing for her. Vali and Lila were not his flesh but he missed them more than his true daughters. Of whom there were two. Almost forgotten. Along with a real wife. Whose face he could no longer picture. None of them seen in years, and then usually only for a few brief hours before the Lion sped him off on some other deadly mission.

Cloven Februaren told him, “You’re not a bad man, Piper Hecht. Neither was Else Tage. We’re all slaves of circumstance. And circumstance can be crueler than any devil.”

Hecht understood. It was what he needed to hear at that moment. Except: “The Adversary is determined to drag me down.”

“And? Are you going to claim some special place on the Rolls of Temptation?”

“Helspeth.” He had said nothing to anyone, ever before. “The Princess Apparent. I have an obsession. From the first time I saw her, as a captive in Plemenza. I saved her life at al-Khazen. The insanity is mutual. We’ve exchanged guarded letters. I’m here, now. In Alten Weinberg. With Helspeth less than half a mile away.” Hecht was astonished. He was confessing what he was barely able to admit to himself. “I’m terrified that I’ll do something mad. That I’ll ruin myself and drag the Princess with me.”

The humor and mischievous sparkle fled Cloven Februaren. “Wow. Seeds of an international epic. I’d better shelve my lesser concerns and concentrate on this wedding. It is still on?”

Hecht did not catch the gentle sarcasm.

“Katrin worships the ground Jaime walks on. Though Jaime needs a good solid ass-kicking, to borrow a notion from Pinkus Ghort.”

“Who is getting fat commanding the City Regiment. Bronte Doneto and Pinkus Ghort make quite a team. Lords of Brothe, now, those two. What’s wrong with Jaime?”

“He’s much too impressed with King Jaime. He worships the man. And thinks the rest of the world should join in.”

That brightened the old man’s evening. He said, “Sounds like an opportunity.”

“As may be…”

Madouc invited himself into the Captain-General’s bedchamber. He glared around suspiciously. “Who are you talking to?”

“Madouc?”

The chief lifeguard had suffered this before. “Gerzina heard voices.”

“Did any of them yell for help?”

“No, sir. But it’s a given that the man we’re protecting doesn’t have the God-gifted sense to call for it.”

Hecht was irked. But did not have the strength of conviction to tell Madouc that he was wrong or was getting above himself.

Something had to be done. They were too much at loggerheads, letting personalities get in the way of common sense. Someday he would bring Madouc’s worst fears to fruition by thoughtlessly disdaining the man’s advice. Meanwhile, Madouc exaggerated every slight in his own mind.

Friction. It had to be overcome. Somehow. Madouc was a good soldier, wasted in his current assignment.

“If you were Master of the Castella Commandery, Madouc, what job would you see yourself best suited to do?”

“Sir?”

“If you could pick your job, what would that be?”

Hecht did not expect an answer. Unless as some formula. The Brotherhood of War had countless rules they did not share with outsiders.

“Given a choice, I’d master one of the commanderies in the Holy Lands.”

“And protect pilgrims? Interesting. Have you asked?”

“The Brotherhood has begun to turn its face westward. Maybe because the west has begun to turn away from the Holy Lands. You and I have been involved in two crusades, now. Neither overseas.”

Madouc’s anger at his principal had transformed itself into anger at his own order.

“Have you asked?”

“No.”

“You should. A man ought to do God’s work in a way that comforts his soul. He’ll do a better job.”

Madouc had nothing to say about that.

“I suppose I ought to start getting ready.”

“Sir?”

“Letter from the Empress. Commanding me to attend her in privy audience. After the evening meal. That’s all I know.”

“There’s one thing you need to address. We caught that man Bo Biogna trying to sneak in here. I know you go back a way so I’ll defer to your judgment. He’s been asking a lot of questions about you, here, in Hochwasser, and elsewhere.”

“Principat? Delari warned me about this. Principat? Doneto considers me a traitor to his personal cause. He wants to find something bad about me from before we saved him that first time in the Connec. I’ve given him no ammunition since. Except by faithfully serving each employer instead of being his secret agent.”

“Will he find anything?”

“I doubt it. I never stayed anywhere long. As soon as I got up a stake, I headed farther south. Well, wait. I did steal a sack of turnips once, right after I started. Some bullies took my knife and cheese…” He stopped. Madouc was astonished, hearing him open up. “Where is Bo? I know exactly what he was up to.”

“Hard times?” Hecht asked when Biogna came in. Bo was never a big man. The rags he wore hung loose. Hecht recalled them when Biogna filled them out.

“Yeah, Pipe. How’s it going?”

“You’ve lost weight.”

“Been going some cold, harsh places.”

“So I hear. You know you got Madouc’s guys all flustered.”

“I just wanted to see Joe. I heard he was here with you.”

“I thought so. I sent for him. You’ll understand if we don’t give you the run of the place. These others don’t know you like I do.”

Biogna’s gaze turned furtive for a moment.

Hecht asked, “You run into anything interesting up north? Like wild riders with animal skulls braided into their hair?”

“Nothing that outrageous. Just the Night being busier than it used to. You’d better carry some charms if you need to go out after dark. It gets worse the farther north you go.”

“Find out anything interesting about me?”

Biogna grimaced. “You didn’t stay anywhere long. Hardly anybody remembers you. But there’s always good things about you in the records.”

“I wanted to get to Brothe. I worked when I needed money. When I ran into you guys was the first time I let myself get distracted from my goal.”

“Paid off, though. For all of us. Especially you and Ghort.”

His good humor abandoned Hecht briefly. It had not worked out for most of the men of their little band. They were buried near Antieux.

“Yeah,” Biogna said. “For them as survived that nonsense. And Plemenza, afterward. We ain’t doing so bad. Hey! I met your brother.”

Hecht could not have been more startled if Biogna had pulled a knife. “What?”

“Your brother. Tindeman. You mentioned him a couple times.”

“But he’s dead.”

“Looked pretty healthy to me. Gone gray in the hair, though. And he’s got a nasty purple scar across his face that makes it hard for him to talk. But he’s alive and kicking. He’s an artillery engineer in Grumbrag.”

Hecht was too surprised to improvise. How could the Ninth Unknown have placed live people to support his backstory?

“You seem overwhelmed,” Biogna observed.

“I am. I’ve never been so surprised. I always thought I was the only one left. The fighting was really awful that year. Almost everyone on the Grail Order side was killed. Even if the Sheard were broken.”

Hecht was saved the need to dissemble further by the arrival of Bo’s friend, Just Plain Joe.

Joe was a big, slow, dull man with a genius for managing animals. Though he was a private soldier-Joe wanted no more responsibility-Hecht considered him one of his dozen key men. Joe knew animals. The Patriarchal army could not operate without countless animals if he wanted it to remain an effective, modern force.

Joe had cleaned up. Which explained why it had taken him so long.

Hecht said, “Look who’s here.”

“Yeah. They told me. Hey, Bo. Hey! You don’t want to get too close. I didn’t get that clean.”

“Look at me, Joe. Do I look like I’m ready for parade?”

Hecht called for food and refreshments. His lifeguards watched, carefully blank, while one of the more powerful men in the Episcopal world relaxed with a stable hand and a would-be trespasser.

Hecht had formed strong bonds with these men, Pinkus Ghort, and others who had not survived. Their variable fortunes since had not broken that bond. Even when they worked at cross-purposes.

Carava de Bos appeared. “I’m loath to interrupt, sir. But you have to see the Empress in just two hours. You need to eat and dress.”

“Thanks. Joe, Bo, duty calls. You guys enjoy yourself. Cederig.” Speaking to one of the lifeguards. “Mr. Biogna can stay as long as he likes. But he’s to go nowhere except here and the stables.”

Biogna would want to say hello to Joe’s tutelary mule, Pig Iron. Pig Iron had been with Joe since the beginning.

Hecht considered that mule a sort of philosophical signpost. The beast had an attitude toward the world. It served him well.

Hecht considered himself stubborn and nasty, too. Though he had yet to take a bite out of any of his friends.

Cloven Februaren twisted into existence while Hecht was dressing. Without help. He insisted on dressing himself, as much as he could, despite the status he had attained. It was almost as good as having a slave whisper in his ear.

The old man said, “I overheard your friend’s report. About finding your brother Tindeman in Grumbrag. I’m not guilty of that. My contributions to your backstory consist of false entries on minor payrolls. Did Begonia say anything he couldn’t have gotten from what you’ve told him about your past?”

“Yes. That someone I made up is alive and kicking in a city halfway between here and the permanent ice.”

“You think he told the truth?”

“Bo? I don’t know. He’s a clever little weasel. He could be running a game suggested by Bronte Doneto. To see my reaction. Only, I’d be more inclined to suspect Ferris Renfrow.”

“You’ve told the same tales so often you believe them yourself-unless you stop to think. You had Muno doubting facts about which there was no question, you lied with such conviction.”

Piper Hecht was not one hundred percent convinced that his “true” origins had not been sold to him the same way.

“True, I suppose. And Renfrow has spies everywhere.”

“Or he’d like us to think he does.”

“Maybe not so many as when Johannes was alive, but plenty. He’s thoroughly dedicated to the Grail Empire.”

“I’ll try to see this Tindeman Hecht.”

“I have to call somebody to help me with these last few laces. Some things I just can’t manage alone.”

“I can take a hint.”

For the after-dark walk to Winterhall, the Ege manse in Alten Weinberg, Madouc insisted on a guard that included both Kait Rhuk’s falcon teams, their weapons charged with godshot. Every man carried a brace of primed hand falcons and a burning slow match. Madouc absolutely expected an attack. An enemy would get no better chance.

Madouc thought not only about guarding his principal but about what potential assassins really hoped to accomplish.

Assassinations, in Madouc’s estimation, were highly symbolic, meant to make a mighty declaration. If he could guess what that might be, he should be able to guess when and where a killer would strike.

And he was not wrong. Though tonight’s would-be killer was but one starving, deranged spearman who charged out of the darkness, shrieking, intent on throwing his weapon.

“What did he say?” Hecht asked after the man had been rendered unconscious, tied, and turned over to local troops drawn by the bark of a hasty hand falcon.

“Something about Castreresone. We did something there that he didn’t like.”

Winterhall resembled the va Still-Patter house, built larger. Why did the Empress want to meet away from her palace? The grandeur there would overawe a beetle like Piper Hecht.

Madouc opined, “She knows you’ve seen Krois. You’ve seen the Chiaro Palace and the Castella dollas Pontellas. Her palace wouldn’t intimidate you. And she might want to be away from all the eyes and spies that go with a palace. Here she can talk with only a few noses poking in. Here she can get away from her fianc?.”

Rumor had King Jaime making himself thoroughly unpopular by acting like he was in charge. Katrin supposedly would not admit his bad behavior but had taken steps to neutralize it.

“Be interesting to see how much control she lets him have after the wedding,” Hecht said. Katrin Ege was used to having things her way. Often even over the objections of her Council Advisory.

“Indeed,” Madouc replied.

“What is that?” Hecht indicated construction they were passing. It could not be seen well by torchlight.

“Something being built by bankers from the Imperial states in Firaldia. Their own private fortress. You see more and more of them in northern Firaldia. Just round stone towers with only a few windows up high and just one small entrance maybe fifteen feet above the street. Good enough in family and city politics, where you don’t see heavy weaponry or extended sieges.”

Hecht recalled capturing a somewhat similar citadel in Clearenza, when Sublime V wanted to punish the local Duke. That place had had a ground-level entrance, though. And a larger footprint.

The Captain-General had to shed most of his party outside the Ege palace. And all of his weapons. Unarmed, Madouc was allowed to accompany him as far as the doorway of the sizable room where the Empress had chosen to see Hecht. He remained outside with a brace of humorless Braunsknechts.

The room was drawn from an eastern potentate’s fantasy, all silken pillows in bright colors. The air was heavy with rare incense. Six women were present. Hecht recognized the Empress and her sister. Katrin had aged badly. The other women were unfamiliar. They would be ladies-in-waiting, wives or daughters of important nobles.

It was a torment, avoiding staring at the Princess Apparent.

One of the women seemed aware of his problem. She looked him straight in the eye, mocking and flirting.

“Captain-General, come forward,” the Empress ordered.

Hecht pushed himself. He was able to pursue ceremonials under fierce pressure. He did those things an empress would expect, but once he completed his obeisance he dared say, “This is irregular in the extreme, Your Grace.” He understood that honorific pleased Katrin, though it was more suited to a Prince of the Church.

“It is. Yes. Sit. Be comfortable.”

The Captain-General did as instructed. The Empress had gained a regal air along with the haggard look. Helspeth had gained… something dangerous. More magnetism than in his frightened fantasies.

Katrin continued, “There are matters I want to raise with you. I couldn’t, elsewhere. As it is, my Council Advisory will fulminate and bluster when they hear about this. Jaime will be petulant. But not enough to endanger his chance to become Imperial Consort.”

The woman with the challenging eyes approached the Captain-General. She brought coffee in a little cup so thin the fluid level was evident from outside. The odor said this was the finest Ambonypsgan, smuggled through Dreanger and so expensive that only kings and princes dared enjoy it.

There was a message in the appearance of that cup. The Empress knew a lot about Piper Hecht. Including his fondness for coffee.

The woman who brought the coffee murmured, “Compliments of the Princess.”

She knew.

A glance at Helspeth. The Princess Apparent was not behind that message. She had best hope this woman was a true friend.

“Thank you for the coffee, Your Grace. I haven’t had the pleasure in some time. How may I be of service?”

Encounters of this sort often dragged on, no one speaking to the point, everyone looking for some bit of leverage. Hecht was impatient.

“Two matters, Captain-General. Possibly more, later. Firstly, the Remayne Pass. You came that way?”

“I came with King Jaime. Who went the northern way. He had reservations about the pass.”

“Because the thing my sister squashed there has found new life. In a smaller way. It’s making trouble but I can’t unleash my ferocious little Helspeth again.”

So. She had heard the whispers marking Helspeth as the truer child of the Ferocious Little Hans.

Helspeth was not pleased. That was clear. But, as mentioned in more than one careful letter, she meant to be the perfect younger sister and Princess Apparent.

“And?”

“Only the Captain-General of the Patriarchal forces has the power and means to eliminate this pest. The Empire will bear the expenses. Including indemnities to the families of anyone lost in the hunt.”

Hecht took a tiny sip of coffee. That could have been arranged by go-betweens. Even if Katrin was flexing her Imperial muscles for the benefit of men who had been pushing her this way and that. Who might be inclined to do more pushing, more vigorously, these final days before the wedding.

Once trivial opposition to her choice of husbands had grown dramatically since King Jaime had become available for direct assessment.

Only Katrin remained infatuated.

Katrin proved capable of cutting through when she wanted. “That’s my lesser problem. I have something bigger in mind. First, though, I want your oath never to discuss it outside this room. If we can’t come to an accommodation.”

Hecht thought the Empress naive if she believed anything discussed here would remain secret. The ladies-in-waiting had husbands who wanted to know. Someone would tell someone, in strictest confidence.

Hecht toyed with blond hair he had let grow long. And was considering pruning back. Strands of gray had begun to appear. “I can make that commitment. But my silence won’t keep the secret.”

“No doubt. The great symbol of the Empire is the eagle. But I’m surrounded by vultures.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“But you’re not surprised.”

“The price of power, Your Grace. The higher you rise the more parasites you accumulate.”

Katrin rose from her cushions. Helspeth did the same. The Empress said, “Come with us. There’s a quiet room back here.”

Every lifeguard and lady-in-waiting began to stir, driven to protest. Katrin snapped, “My ferocious little sister will guard me against the wicked Brothen.”

Moments later the Empress herself shut the door of the most austere quiet room Hecht had seen. The walls were bare stone that sorcery could not penetrate. There were no furnishings.

Hecht studied the milky rock sheathing.

“Captain-General? I promise, it’s real. The best stone, from the quarry where Aaron and his father worked.”

“I was looking for cracks. An acquaintance-he belongs to the Collegium-can spy on a quiet room if there’re cracks anywhere.”

“Muniero Delari.”

“Him. Yes.”

“Helspeth. Stop that.”

The younger woman was trembling.

“All right.” The Princess Apparent feigned an abiding interest in the integrity of the stonework.

Katrin said, “I’ll get straight to it. Excusing themselves one way or another, someone will force that door soon. Captain-General. I want to hire you away from the Church. You, your staff, and all your professional people.”

Helspeth gasped. “Katrin?”

“Your Grace?”

“I swore an oath when I was crowned. Only my confessor knows. I mean to make the pilgrimage to the Holy Lands. Leading a crusade. I want you to be its commander.”

That Katrin might launch a crusade was no secret. But…“I don’t know what to say.”

“I’ve been surrounded by the great men of the Grail Empire my entire life. The best of them, like the Grand Duke, are petty, self-serving, and would backstab any other lord I might appoint my champion.”

Hecht started to protest.

“Bad choice of words, Captain-General. Not champion. Supreme commander. General of generals. For the same reason you were made commander of the Brothen City Regiment. You have no ties to any faction.”

“So all your dukes and grafs and ritters would be against me because I’m an interloper.”

“My father developed tools for handling that sort. I haven’t deployed them yet. Once this marriage is made I intend to put together a new Council Advisory. Jaime and the Patriarch back me.”

“Possibly. I suspect Jaime will be a nuisance, determined to control you.”

Katrin’s temper flared. It was true. She would hear nothing against Jaime.

Hecht stole a glance at Helspeth, who had been stubbornly silent. That startled her. She said, “Surely you’d find service with the Grail Empire an important step forward, Captain-General.” Her voice was breathy. It wavered.

Katrin clearly appreciated the support but was puzzled by her sister’s shyness.

“It would be, indeed,” Hecht said. “I can imagine no greater honor, nor any task more challenging, than being warlord for the Grail Empire in such a holy enterprise. But…”

“But?”

“A crusade would be expensive in the extreme. Even if every fighter volunteers, wages still have to be paid. Men have to eat. Their animals have to eat. Weapons have to be purchased. Armor…”

“There should be wealth enough, Captain-General. Despite the costs of the Calziran Crusade, my father was frugal. He left a sizable treasury. My brother not only preserved that, he added to it. Despite the jackals surrounding him. Likewise, the current Empress. Who expects to come into substantial additional riches soon.” A remark she would not pursue.

“I have a contract with the Patriarch,” Hecht said. “At his will. In effect, I’m his till he loses faith in me. Right now I’m engaged in a bitter campaign to exterminate revenant Instrumentalities in the End of Connec. They refuse to go easily.”

“As with the thing Helspeth defeated.”

“I’ll do what I can about that.”

“And when Boniface goes?” Helspeth asked, voice stronger now. “Will you be free then?”

“No. Bellicose of Viscesment will be the next Patriarch. To reunite the Church. I’ve sworn to stand behind him. In case the Collegium try to renege on the Church’s promises. It’s a pity Boniface became Patriarch so late. He might have earned a place in history, given more time. He’s the best Patriarch I’ve known.”

“Bellicose won’t last long, will he?”

“Boniface may outlive him. His health is fragile.”

The hammering on the door began. Helspeth said, “That took longer than I expected. You’re starting to scare them, Katrin.”

“They’ll have a reason after this. Captain-General. What will it take to bring you here? Will Boniface or Bellicose let me buy you?”

Hecht managed not to eye the Princess Apparent. “Not as things stand. They both have uses for me.”

“If you did serve me would you be just as loyal?”

“Yes. My integrity is what I’m selling. Those people out there do seem to be getting impatient.”

“They’ll regret it.” The Ege steel rang out.

For the ghost of an instant the tips of Princess Helspeth’s left hand fingers brushed the back of Hecht’s right. The effect was electric. He jerked. Helspeth gasped. Katrin paid no mind. The door had begun to open. She was headed that way in a blistering rage.

The Ninth Unknown was in a serious mood. He made no noise to attract the lifeguard outside Hecht’s bedchamber. He whispered, “Wake your dead ass up, boy. We’ve got problems.”

Hecht surfaced from a dream featuring Helspeth and him engaged in activities that could compromise the Grail Throne itself. The old man had a hand over his mouth. That was not necessary. Hecht whispered, “What?”

“Boniface had a stroke. You need to get back to Brothe.”

“I’m stuck here till after the wedding.”

“There might be a coup. Bellicose hasn’t reached Brothe yet. And neither Muno nor I can get close enough to prop up Boniface’s health.”

“Damn!” Hecht swore softly. The timing was awful. “Can you disguise yourself?”

“What?”

“You can manage not to be seen at all. I know. Can you pass as someone you’re not?”

The old man frowned his question in the weak light of a lone candle.

“Can you deliver letters without giving yourself away?”

“I’m listening.”

“I can send orders to the garrisons near the city. And my people in the Connec. If you take the long strides in between, my forces can be in place ahead of time.”

“Send for pen and ink. I’ll find a way.” Februaren turned sideways and vanished.

Hecht summoned the duty lifeguard. “I need quills, ink, paper, and sand. Right away.” He had wax and a candle.

Armed with the appropriate tools, he began writing orders.

Cloven Februaren reappeared. “Too bad you didn’t have more time with the Construct. You could handle this in person.”

“Wouldn’t be smart to let people think I could be two places at once.”

“Good point. Better than good. What were you and the Ege chits doing in that quiet room?”

Hecht forgot his promise first time he was asked. “Katrin wants to hire me to lead a Grail Empire crusade into the Holy Lands.”

“My. My, my. The Palace is going mad, wall to wall, wondering what went on in there. No one thought of that.”

“It caused some excitement?”

“King Jaime and the Council Advisory are livid. They’re blaming Princess Helspeth. Only Jaime has said anything within Katrin’s hearing. She’s dismissed everyone she saw when she stepped out of that quiet room.”

“Good for her. I hope she goes for a clean sweep. Have you learned anything about the Night thing Renfrow reported? Or my purported brother?”

“When would I have had time?”

“Right. One does take an advantage for granted quickly, doesn’t one?”

“You may. I don’t. Seal the letters you have ready. I’ll move them along. Leave the rest here, addressed. And make sure no one can get in here when you’re gone.”

Hecht grunted and folded, then applied wax. Within the minute the Ninth Unknown was gone again.

Hecht settled beside Kait Rhuk. Rhuk asked, “What have we got, boss?” Hecht did not mind the informality. Rhuk did his job. Well.

“You talk much with Prosek about the thing in the Remayne Pass?”

“Yeah. We designed our attack strategy based on what he learned there. Why? Something on the fire?”

“That interview I had with the Empress. She told me the thing is making a comeback. And hopes we’ll do something about it.”

“We can handle it. Our munitions are way better than when Prosek went after it. One good hit should take it out.”

“Good. So. We’ll deal with that. After the wedding.”

“There isn’t much to do, here. For us.”

“So?”

“So I’ve hung around a lot with guys who humped into town with the high and the mighty.”

“And?”

“There are incredible career opportunities for men in my line. Especially up north.”

“Kharoulke the Windwalker.”

“Not yet. Not directly. But his cult is back. That’s weird, isn’t it? The wells of power start drying up and, suddenly, we’ve got ten thousand more Instrumentalities plaguing us. You’d think it would go the other way.”

“Slow down.” Rhuk had a substantial accent. It thickened when he became excited. “Do you know what you’ll do if we do come up against an Instrumentality like Kharoulke?”

“More developed than Seska was. Probably bend over and kiss my ass goodbye.”

“Because?”

“At some point an Instrumentality should become powerful enough to see ambushes ahead of time. Then it’d stand off and do you wicked. With a platoon of first-string sorcerers I could lure him into a trap that didn’t look like a trap until the firing started. If the first salvo was accurate I could finish him before he pulled his shit back together. But if I didn’t get him the first time I’d never get another chance.”

“Not what I’d hoped to hear. But pretty much what I expected.”

“You ask me, boss, if you want to handle a demonic assertion like the Windwalker, you better get the Patriarch on the case with God. Get Him to come out and flex His muscles the way He used to do in the olden days.”

An interesting suggestion. But not especially useful.

Hecht suspected that God would not show up.

His faith had suffered serious ablation lately. “Think about the Kharoulke problem. If we ever face something that big it’d be handy to have a strategy set.”

“Of course, sir.”

Kait Rhuk was dedicated. He would do that. When he was not busy catching whores.

Cloven Februaren came and went. In the main, he brought good news. Buhle Smolens was headed for Brothe with five hundred crack mountain infantry. Patriarchal garrisons throughout Firaldia were on alert. The Master of the Commandery, the new Brotherhood chieftain at the Castella dollas Pontellas, Addam Hauf, would quarter Patriarchal troops there, meaning the Brotherhood would back the Patriarchal forces.

The Brotherhood existed to make war in the Holy Lands. They could not do that without support from the west. Internecine squabbling anywhere meant reduced resources available to those determined to liberate God’s homeland.

The Captain-General was satisfied that everything possible was being done. If Boniface hung on for a week, a smooth succession would be assured. Buhle Smolens would be close to the Mother City. The Captain-General would be headed south.

The Ninth Unknown said he thought the Patriarch would last a month.

He was able to get that close, now he had begun to put thought into the effort.

Cloven Februaren began to show the strain of trying to hold everything together. Hecht told him to ease up. If it looked good, let it ride. Let it work itself out.

Advice he had to take himself. He could not walk away before the wedding.

The wedding did come, though the wait seemed endless. As an anticlimax. Being Boniface’s representative, the Captain-General watched with the attendant clerics. He played no part himself, not being in orders. Pella was not allowed to join him. The boy remained outside the Holy Kelam and Lalitha Church, shadowed by Presten Reges and Shang “Bags” Berbach. The lifeguards were frantic. If ever someone wanted to get at the Captain-General through his son, this was the time.

Holy Kelam and Lalitha was one of the great churches of the Grail Empire, rich in architecture, furnishings, and decorative detail. It was an object of pilgrimage. Relics of both Founder namesakes were buried beneath its altar. The lame and sick came to light a candle and pray to Lalitha, who had wrought miraculous cures while living.

The Captain-General spared little attention for the wonders of the church. He focused on the wedding party. On Princess Helspeth and King Jaime. There was little mystery about his interest in the Princess Apparent. The Adversary had found a foothold inside his soul. He did wonder why the Direcian monarch interested him, though.

Attitude? The man was sure to be trouble. Everyone watching could tell he was impatient to get this nonsense over. That he was eager to start throwing his weight around.

Jaime was headed for a world of disappointment. Katrin might be besotted, might be fawning over him, but she was Johannes Blackboots’s daughter. No pretty Direcian would win control of the Grail Empire simply by wedding her.

And if she did surrender all reason?

The Council Advisory would step in. A dozen grim old men and their grimmer women. They watched from the floor, afraid that they had erred by agreeing to this match.

They could tell that the Castaurigan had ambitions unfettered by reality. He expected to outshine Peter of Navaya, using his new spouse’s wealth and power.

Could he be that blind? His bride meeting privately with Boniface’s military commander had outraged him. He had no idea what might have been discussed, but was aware that the Church was little interested in glorifying Castauriga or its king. The Church was cozy with Peter of Navaya.

King Jaime would be in a tight place with the Church. The outstanding characteristic of his wife was her devotion to Brothe. That was her external strength and her great political liability inside the Empire.

Hecht leaned nearer the Archbishop beside him, Elmiro Conventi. Conventi represented several Imperial cities in northern Firaldia. “We need to watch this King. He’ll intrigue with the anti-Brothens if he can’t bully the Empress.”

The grossly fat Archbishop first showed annoyance, then grasped the suggestion. “Excellent observation. I’ll pass the thought along.”

The ceremony was a long one. It did not just join a woman and a man, it formalized an alliance and founded a dynasty.

Piper Hecht thought he had been in the west long enough to be acclimated to its weirdest customs. He was aghast when he discovered that the grande dames of the court were, at this late hour, jockeying to be chosen to witness the Empress’s defloration. There would be five. Tradition assigned the respective mothers and the bride’s aunts the task. Neither Jaime nor Katrin had a living mother. Jaime had brought no sufficiently exalted Castaurigan women. He tried to refuse the ceremony. The court harpies would have none of that.

They wanted to see the Ege chit humiliated.

Somehow, the Empress, Alten Weinberg, the Grail Empire, and the greater world got through the night. As did the Captain-General of Patriarchal forces.

Madouc assured him, “Only the highborn endure that. Before the conversion to Chaldareanism, girls lost their virginity early. They seldom married before they proved their ability to bear children. It’s still that way for the peasantry. But the nobility consider it imperative that there be no doubts about paternity. No man wants to leave his patrimony to a child not his own.”

“I understand.” Without fully comprehending. “Yet most women here young enough to be interested seem to indulge in liaisons with men who aren’t their husbands. Some with more than one man. While the men are involved with women not their wives.”

“The underlying consistency is hard for outsiders to grasp.” Madouc’s tone was caustic. “The romanticism of the jongleurs is to blame.”

“Meaning?”

“They say marriage is a business arrangement. Love is something else.”

The Praman world had its love stories. Its fables of deceit, betrayal, and cuckoldry, usually illustrating the weakness of the cuckold. In real life even the suspicion of infidelity could lead to a harsh death. Here, everyone winked at it-even when one’s own woman was concerned.

And yet, Piper Hecht could not see Helspeth Ege and keep his thoughts channeled into propriety.

The post-nuptial celebrations went on for days. Two passed before the Captain-General could leave without giving offense. He left the borrowed house in better condition than he had found it, with an effusive letter of gratitude to the younger va Still-Patter.

The Braunsknecht captain, Algres Drear, rode with him. “My greatest appreciation for your efforts on my behalf, Captain-General,” he said, on the road south of Alten Weinberg. “The Princess Apparent would’ve had me back if she could. But her sister won’t forgive me. Nor will those old men she made look like fools and cowards in the Remayne Pass.” Having mentioned the pass, Captain Drear became nervous.

“I’m glad you’re along. You were there before. You can help plan.”

“You truly intend to deal with the monster?”

“I told the Empress I would. Kait Rhuk says we’re a hundred times more ready now than Prosek was then.” He glanced over his shoulder. There were four falconeers back there who had survived the last ambush. They had been injured, then taken captive by the Imperials, who had hoped to pry the secrets of the falcons out of them. They had betrayed nothing because they knew nothing.

“I’d apologize,” Drear said, following his glance. “But you’d know I wasn’t sincere. The Princess Apparent was livid. She has an overly developed sense of honor.”

“Something like her father?”

“Johannes Blackboots could put his sense of honor aside if the stakes were high enough.”

“I suspect the Princess would, too, given a real need. We’re few of us morally and ethically inflexible. Those who win the great reputations are those who are least obvious about it.”

“A cynic.”

“Perhaps. I count myself a realist. I’d forgotten these mountains are so big.”

The Jagos climbed to the sky, each peak clad in a cape of permanent ice.

Drear said, “They’ve changed a lot, just in my lifetime. There’s a lot more ice and snow now.”

Princess Helspeth’s folly in the pass had earned her no detractors among the people of the region. Their livelihoods depended on having travelers use the pass.

The Captain-General paused to rest his animals and ready his gear before entering the pass. The village was called Aus Gilden. It was unlikely ever to be known for anything but its utility as a jumping-off point.

A courier from the Connec overtook the Captain-General there.

He gathered the band in the evening. “I’ve had a message from Lieutenant Consent. Our brothers in the Connec had a productive few weeks while we languished in Alten Weinberg.”

Laughter. Every man had seized the opportunity to do everything but languish.

“Prosek cornered and dispatched Hilt and Kint on consecutive nights. He’s close behind Death, now.”

Someone called, “Let’s hope that goes well.”

“Hagan Brokke twice destroyed large gangs of bandits, with the assistance of Count Raymone. Clej Sedlakova cleared several towns and ambushed Rook. Who, unfortunately, managed to slide away again. But badly weakened. That leaves only Shade running free and uninjured.” Skilen and several lesser revenants had fallen already.

The men did not cheer. They were not that sort. But they had pride in accomplishment. Kait Rhuk said, “Let’s hope it’s as easy up ahead.”

“You foresee problems? The monster can’t offer anything like the threat it did to Prosek.”

“I like to be ready for the worst.”

An outlook Piper Hecht approved. If you were prepared for the worst you would seldom be caught unready.

The Ninth Unknown appeared occasionally but there was little chance to talk.

It was a comfort, knowing the old man was watching.

Drear warned, “We’re coming up on where it happened.”

Those who had been with Prosek before began pointing out and explaining.

Hecht sent most of the party to make camp at Prosek’s old site. A caravan headed north soon filled the pass anyway. Hecht and the veterans of the previous encounter, with Madouc, pushed on against the flow.

They found little evidence of the previous encounter. Even the scars on the rocks had faded.

Hecht said, “Let’s get an early start tomorrow.”

Returning to camp, Hecht found the north-bounds settled not far off. He sent Kait Rhuk to ask if anyone had seen anything unusual.

No. They were too many for the monster to trouble.

“So are we,” Rhuk opined.

Hecht feared so. And did not know how to hunt the thing. “I didn’t think this through.”

The Patriarchals made such extensive preparations to resist the Night that the Firaldians nearby mocked them. Every ward got set out. Every man carried at least one handheld firepowder weapon. Both falcons were charged with godshot. Falconeers sat close by them, nursing slow matches. Huge fires illuminated the camp.

And still doom nearly had its way.

A severe itch gnawed at Hecht’s left wrist. He knew he was dreaming, yet knew the itch was real. He had to wake up. He could not. The sense of d?j? vu tormented him. He had been here before. Not in this place but in this situation. Aware but unable to respond as something terrible closed in.

Reason gained ground. This had happened before, in the Ownvidian Knot. He had awakened enough to shake Bronte Doneto out of the spell controlling him.

A falcon barked. Utter astonishment, like a living force, engulfed existence. Then black pain, followed by an instant of realization that the impossible, extinction, was at hand. Then a swift descent into a vacuum of never-will-be-again.

The impact was so brutal Hecht could barely drag himself out of his tent. He was soaked with sweat, shaking. His left wrist ached like it had been broken.

It was worse for the others. They had no protective amulets. The pale light of drained fires feebly illuminated men writhing, or so smitten they lay as though dead, eyes open and rolled back. Yards from the smoking muzzle of a falcon steam rose from a circle of blackened earth. An egg, still so hot it yielded red light, lay at its center.

“Good work, men,” Hecht tried to say. Nothing came out. His mouth was too dry. Nor, he saw, did anyone really deserve the accolade. The duty falconeers were down, in attitudes suggesting that they had fallen asleep.

That thing in the Ownvidian Knot had sent a wave of sleep before it, too.

Cloven Februaren. “Thank you, Grandfather.” He should see about Pella, now.

“What?” Algres Drear, stumbling, appeared. He offered Hecht a hand up.

“My ancestors were looking out for me.” A suspiciously un-Chaldarean thing to say.

“Maybe. It’s the same as that night in the Knot, isn’t it?”

“That would be my guess.”

“And it wasn’t the thing we’re here to destroy.”

“I doubt it. This would’ve been what they call a bogon. A sort of prince of the Night. The way it was explained to me before. Why are you in such good shape? Compared to these others.”

“I was asleep behind that boulder. I guess it shielded me from the worst.”

Hecht eyed the boulder. He saw nothing special. Maybe it was laced with iron or silver ore. Maybe it had been shot up during Prosek’s adventure here and had rolled down the mountain since. Maybe rock was a solid enough barrier in itself. No matter. “Let’s see what we can do for these people.”

“Why are you up so easily?”

“I have friends in the Collegium. They gave me protections against this stuff. Though I’m asking for more, after this. I’m not feeling that grateful to be alive right now.”

“A bitching soldier is a happy soldier.”

Hecht managed a chuckle.

There were no deaths. No one had anything broken or torn. Nobody needed sewing up. But hearts and souls had been brutalized. Fear had found a home. Faith had suffered a severe strain.

Hecht told them, “Never forget. We survived. We won. It’s the Night that needs to be afraid. The Night that has to get out of the way.”

The pep talk helped. A little.

Hecht decided to invest another day in recuperation. He hoped for some sign from Cloven Februaren. None came.

Next morning Hecht got everyone moving as soon as there was light to see.

He squabbled with Madouc. He wanted to be out front. Madouc would not suffer it. The lifeguard carried the day.

Hecht had decided to give in whenever his own desires were not critical to the work at hand. He did not have to be out front, he just wanted to be. Acquiescence now would ease relations and make it easier to overrule Madouc when taking a risk might be useful.

Pella eyed him suspiciously. He asked no questions. Hecht suspected he understood. The boy was quick and smart. Too bad Madouc was just as smart and even quicker.

Progress was slow. The men out front were not eager to find what the travelers from the south had missed. Their Captain-General rotated the point frequently.

The Remayne Pass opened out some. Slopes curved up to either hand, covered with scrub and modest evergreens amongst scattered boulders tumbled from farther up. The peaks caught the rising sun first. Those shifted quickly from orange to a white too brilliant to look at.

A stream rumbled beside the road, carrying frigid meltwater.

The air grew thinner and colder.

Hecht dropped back to the pack train, fell in with Just Plain Joe and Pig Iron. He did not say much. Neither did Joe. Pig Iron kept his own counsel. There was no way Hecht could explain his need for time shared with Joe.

Just Plain Joe was one of his oldest acquaintances this side of the Mother Sea. Pinkus Ghort and Bo Biogna dated from the same time, and Redfearn Bechter from just days later. Only Anna Mozilla went back further than did they.

Joe had no agenda. Joe lived each day as it came. He made life easier for the animals. Hecht could relax with Joe. He didn’t have to explain anything, guess about anything, do any planning, be anything but a guy Joe knew.

Joe was in one of his social moods. Fifteen minutes after Hecht joined him, he asked, “You in a big hurry, Pipe?”

“Always. It isn’t necessary, though. Probably.”

“I keep looking at that river and thinking they ought to be some good trout fishing there. In one of them pools where the water takes a break before it goes charging off again.”

“You want to have a fish fry?”

“Been a while since I had a mess of good cold-water fish. Better than anything they got down in the lowlands.”

“When’s the best time?”

“Afternoon? After the sun warms the water some and there’s bugs out. Early evening is maybe even better since there’s more bugs then.”

“We come to a place that looks good, give a holler. Those men up front need a break.”

“They’re pretty worried, eh?”

“The monster had a bad reputation, back when. I think we’ll have trouble finding it now, though.”

“That wasn’t it the other night? That was rough on the horses.”

“Rough on all of us. No. That was one of those bogon things like the one in the Ownvidian Knot that Principat? Doneto chased off.”

“Uhm.” Joe went back inside himself and relaxed. Maybe half an hour later he emerged to chat briefly about ways to reduce disease amongst the army’s mounts.

A small party northbound had no news about the monster but did report that all Firaldia was holding its breath over Boniface’s health. The Patriarch made good progress for a few days, then suffered grave setbacks. On his good days he pursued his work ferociously. He had made great headway with the Eastern Church. He was close to a modus vivendi that would soothe the factions in the Connec. The ancient peace of those provinces was about to be restored.

If Boniface just had the time.

That alone should have the poisoners swarming, Hecht believed. Too many people, inside the Church and inside Arnhand, had become deeply invested in abuse of the End of Connec. Thieves, all, except for a handful of fanatics.

The column halted. Kait Rhuk and the men up front spread out, getting ready for trouble. Hecht hurried forward. His lifeguards closed in but did not stop him. This needed doing.

“Rhuk. What do we have?”

“Injured man up ahead. Maybe dead.”

Rhuk had the man covered from several angles, no one closer than twenty feet. One falcon was sited so that it could fire at anything coming out of the only cover nearby.

“He’s breathing,” Rhuk said. “I see that now.”

The man lay sprawled among the rocks like he had fallen out of the sky. He was large and wore nothing but a massive growth of washed-out reddish hair. The dense rat’s nest around his head and face contained streaks of gray. He had not been eating well.

“Been in a few scrapes, looks like,” Madouc said. “I’ve never seen so many scars.”

“Missing his right hand, too,” Rhuk said. “Want me to go wake him up?”

“No. Nobody get in the line of fire.”

Everyone eyed the brush up the hillside. Was this man bait?

Hecht said, “I’ve seen this man before. I’m trying to remember where.” The memories came in a rush. He did not want to accept them. “Below the wall of al-Khazen. This was one of the soultaken.” Whose death tussle with Ordnan and the Choosers of the Slain had cursed him with ascension to Instrumentality status.

“Target both falcons on him. Have every hand weapon ready.”

“Sir?”

“That’s our quarry. The man who became the monster.”

That caused a buzz. And brisk preparations.

“Say when, sir,” Rhuk said, slow match in hand.

“Not yet. Only if he does something threatening.” This needed closer examination. He was aware of no instances of this soultaken returning to human form. There must be a reason. “Pella. I have a job for you.”

“Dad?”

“Round up some throwing stones. Chunk them over there. Try not to hit him in the head.”

“All right.”

“Rhuk. The rest of you. No firing without my order.”

Pella threw. He did not miss. The body yonder twitched.

Where was the Ninth Unknown?

The hairy man shuddered. He forced his way up off the rocks. His naked skin bore fresh abrasions, several extensive and evidently painful. He got into a sitting position, shuddered again, rested his hands and chin on his knees.

“What now?” Kait Rhuk asked.

“Wait. Pella. That’s enough.”

The wait was a long one. At last the naked man shuddered, lifted his head, peered round with bleary eyes. He showed his palm weakly, in response to the martial display.

“Don’t anybody relax,” Hecht said. “Don’t take any of this at face value.” He told the naked man, “Speak.”

Hecht could not decipher the answer. He did not move closer. The soultaken had been created specifically to destroy him. It might not be able to abort its mission.

“Captain-General?” Rhuk wanted instructions. Again.

“Wait.”

“Food,” the soultaken gasped. That was clear enough.

“Toss him a loaf. And a hard sausage. Somebody. Don’t get in the line of fire.”

Algres Drear volunteered. He approached the naked man from uphill, avoiding the sight lines of the falcons. He tossed a loaf and a sausage into the man’s lap.

The soultaken ate with glacial haste. A party came up from the south. Threats kept them moving. The news they carried was not encouraging. The Five Families of Brothe were maneuvering heavily, determined to reject the ascension of Bellicose. They might try to lock foreign Principat?s out of the Chiaro Palace to keep them from voting in the next Patriarchal election.

The news angered Hecht. He wanted to rush ahead to the Mother City. Those idiots! Was it impossible for them to deal honorably? Impossible to stand by agreements already made?

But this situation had to be explored first.

He could just blast the soultaken. In this form he could be torn apart easily. But. There must be a reason for his having changed shape.

“This may take a while. Anybody know this pass? Is there a good campsite up ahead? I can’t remember.”

Again, Algres Drear volunteered. “There’s a marshy meadow about three miles on. It was a campground before the monster came.”

Hecht said, “We need to dress this man. I’ll buy from whoever is willing to give something up. Something that will fit, Carolans.”

The soultaken was big. The soldier Carolans barely came up to his chest.

Size and the fact that few of the men bothered to carry extra garments around made clothing the naked man a challenge.

The man devoured every crumb given him. His color returned. He got his feet under him. He dressed himself.

He submitted while silver was placed round his neck, while his wrists were bound behind him and his ankles were connected by a leather hobble.

Before resuming movement, Hecht asked, “You have a reason for what you’ve done? Other than trying to engineer my murder?”

The captive grunted. “Must talk.” But that was all he said that day.

They had no leg irons or fetters. A need had not been foreseen. The prisoner made do with hobbles while he traveled. In camp his captors attached a rope to a stake driven deep into the earth and tied the other end to his left ankle. Another rope ended up tied around his waist. A ready falcon always pointed his way-even after the rain arrived.

The Captain-General had a tent raised to shelter the sentinel falcon.

The prisoner remained in the weather.

Camp set, watch posted, men fed, animals settled, Hecht went to talk to his guest. His lifeguards were close by, armed with firepowder weapons charged for use against the Night.

Hecht brought a camp stool. He settled out of the line of fire. “I’m ready to talk.” Drizzle fell.

The prisoner pushed emptied bowls to the limit of his reach. No one blocked any line of fire collecting them. “This will take a while. The change drained me more than I imagined possible. I’d forgotten how to be human.”

Hecht was surprised. The man was articulate. But his accent was brutal.

“You knew we were coming.”

“Yes. And why. There are few secrets from the Night. But Instrumentalities don’t understand human time. If they did, the Godslayer never would have been born. Till he acted the first time, though, the Night could never be certain that he had been.”

A theory previously proposed by Muniero Delari and Cloven Februaren.

“If the Night knows the future, why try to direct it?”

“There are countless futures. Some elements are unavoidable. At the same time, countless possibilities have to be eliminated.”

Hecht sat silently. The prisoner was content to wait. And indifferent to the weather. He did lean back and open his mouth to catch what liquid fell to him.

He had been given nothing to drink.

Hecht said, “I can’t help thinking you’re too articulate to be Asgrimmur Grimmsson from Andoray.”

“Svavar suffered on behalf of his brother and his gods. Like a sword thrust into the furnace repeatedly, then hammered hard on the anvil. Most of this Asgrimmur came from those gods, garnered unwanted as they died. This Asgrimmur has seen much that that Asgrimmur never suspected.”

“If the Night can’t tell time how did you manage to get into my way at the right moment?”

“I’m not that far removed from humanity.” Talking was a strain. This man never was a talker, nor much of a thinker. But slow waters carve deep canyons, given time.

“Let’s get to the heart of it. Why put yourself in my hands?”

“Kharoulke the Windwalker. In too many potential futures the wells of power keep weakening. The earth grows colder. The Windwalker waxes stronger. He could become greater than he was before. There are no Instrumentalities capable of contesting what he might become.”

“How can this be?” That was really a gasp of disbelief. God Himself would crush the devil.

But. The God of the Chaldareans, of the Pramans, of the Devedians, of the Dainshaukin, was a God fragmented into all the thousands of places where He was worshipped. Some believed there was no longer any way that He could pull Himself together again.

“The ice will keep spreading. Someday, no power will be able to challenge Kharoulke within that realm. Already he’s found souls willing to work his mischief beyond the ice. The gods of the hot lands will weaken as their believers die and their churches are crushed by the advancing ice.”

“And you care, why?”

“The Windwalker’s return is largely my fault. The events that created the modern me filled me with insane rage. That drove me to avenge myself on the gods who made soultaken of me and my brother and murdered the rest of our band.”

Hecht nodded. “You bottled them up inside a universe inside the realm of the gods they created for themselves. Freeing the Windwalker from bonds that had held him for millennia.”

“Yes. Though Kharoulke isn’t the only one. He just awakened first. He’s forcing the other Instrumentalities of his age to become appendages of his will.”

“Why come to me?”

“You are who you are. You are what you are. You are the only means by which I can correct my error. I’m awfully thirsty.” That last stated as though by a second, different personality.

Hecht had a bucket of water brought.

Later, the prisoner said, “There is no way I can reassure you. You must, of nature, distrust me. Though I promise you that the lesson of the ambush, where I came within inches of death, hasn’t been lost. All that shot, all that terrible silver, burned the madness out of me. Since then I’ve done only what I must to survive and recuperate. No travelers have died because of me.”

Hecht stared thoughtfully. This sounded like an educated man of breeding, not a pirate ripped out of his own time by pathetically scheming lunatic gods.

“What do you want help doing?”

“I have to go back north. I have to rediscover the way into the Realm of the Gods. I have to free them. In some way that leaves me healthy. Once loose they’ll have no choice about fighting the Windwalker. He won’t give them an option. They imprisoned him ages longer than I’ve imprisoned them.”

“That’s a lot to think about. And there’s bound to be more.”

“True. See to your obligations. There’s no rush. The Windwalker is still weak. And will be for years. Though weakness is relative. And he’ll get stronger as the ice advances. One day he’ll become strong enough to reach beyond the ice. When that happens this world’s days will be numbered.”

Good Praman or good Chaldarean, Piper Hecht heard little that could be encompassed by the faiths and prejudices of his experience.

“You don’t need to trust me. I don’t expect you to trust me. But I’ll accompany you, causing you no harm, to Brothe. Where I can be examined by those able to determine the truth.”

“Can you travel hurt?”

“I heal fast.”

But not thoroughly enough to regenerate a missing hand.

“What was that about?” Madouc asked once his principal was safely away.

“He has a message for our masters. From the Night side.”

“What?”

“He’s deserting. The Night. Because of horrors that are going to come. If we aren’t forewarned and prepared.”

“What?” Incredulous this time.

“I’m telling you what I heard. He talked me into taking him to the Collegium for examination.”

“He is the monster that has been plaguing the Remayne Pass?”

“And other areas across the south slopes of the Jagos. Yes. Though he’s been quiet since Prosek mauled him.”

The monster was right. He did heal fast. And made himself useful, too, once he recovered. But no one trusted him. Ever. Not even Just Plain Joe, who was incapable of seeing evil in anyone else. Pig Iron had nothing to do with him. And where Pig Iron led the rest of the animals followed. Asgrimmur walked every inch of the road to Brothe.

He wanted to be called Asgrimmur. He did not want to be Svavar, though he had been called that since childhood.

Asgrimmur Grimmsson had, at last, done something to win the approval of the elders of Snaefells. Two centuries after the last of them crossed over.

The road south passed through numerous counties, duchies, city-states, and pocket kingdoms. Some were Patriarchal States. As many more were Imperial. The most daring claimed to be free republics. Veterans of the Calziran and Connecten Crusades made up the Patriarchal garrisons. Hecht gathered those as he advanced.

Three thousand men went into camp in the hills northeast of Brothe, the troops under strict orders to do no damage to vineyards, olive groves, truck farms, farmers, or farmers’ daughters. The Brothen peoples, of all classes, were neither to be offended nor aroused.

The guards at the city gates had orders to prevent Patriarchals from entering. However, they lacked all suicidal inclinations. When Pinkus Ghort raked them over the coals later they would be healthy enough to enjoy his fury.

Hecht went straight to the Castella dollas Pontellas. The Fortress of the Little Bridges was the commandery of the Brotherhood of War in Brothe. The fighting monks had close ties with the Captain-General. For the moment.

Asgrimmur accompanied Hecht. As the great monuments and palaces along the Teragi came into sight, the Instrumentality said, “There is a cruel something hidden beneath this city. An evil something that feeds on fear.”

Pella said, “Dad, I thought Principat? Delari said he’d get rid of that.”

“He did say, didn’t he?”

“And he said he did it.”

“Maybe he was wrong.”

“When can we see Mom?” Pella hardly pretended not to be manipulating those who had taken him in. Hecht did not mind.

“Soon. I have to see Colonel Smolens first. I have to get our new friend set up where people won’t worry about him.”

Trouble was likely if anyone connected this man with the northerners who butchered their ways through Brothe during the run-up to the Calziran Crusade. The Brotherhood of War, in particular, nurtured an abiding grudge.

“Presten and Bags can take you if you just can’t wait. But you’ll have to stay inside once you get there. They can’t stay around to look out for you. They have families they want to see, too.”

“Can I? I can’t wait to see Vali and Lila.”

“Go. But remember. You can’t leave the house. You can’t!”

“I got it, Dad. I got it.”

4. Stranglhorm, at Guretha,

Shadowed by the Ice Stranglhorm had been the seat of the Master of the Grail Order for two centuries. A sprawling fortress of small city size, it never faced a serious threat, though it had been besieged a dozen times. The fortifications expanded with the decades. Growth ended only after the Grail Knights pushed the frontiers of the faith so far out that countless subsidiary strongholds had to be built to protect roads and shrines, and to provide local sanctuaries. The pagans called their lost territories the Land of Castles.

Stranglhorm crouched on a moraine, brooding over a bend in the Turuel River, which emptied immediately into the Shallow Sea. Once the waterfront had seethed with activity. A city, Guretha, took life alongside the river, then spread across it, trailing stone bridges behind. But now Guretha was a city swiftly dying.

The Shallow Sea had grown shallower. The Grand Marshes had drained or had frozen. New land had been exposed by the recession of the waters. Navigation had become impossible, except in fits and starts when the tides were favorable. A new breed of ship had come into being. It was wide, had a shallow draught, and was stout enough to survive periodic groundings. When the waters were not frozen.

The northern gulfs of the Shallow Sea no longer thawed. Colonies of sea people no longer existed east of the Ormo Strait. In fact, the mer were almost extinct. Only a few colonies, much diminished, survived in the Andorayan Sea, around underwater wells of power still leaking feebly.

Most all Andoray lay beneath the ice. North Friesland, likewise. During winters the Ormo Strait threatened to become covered with great arching bridges of ice.

The tidal currents were too fierce for the strait itself to freeze. Their power would be tamed only after the level of the seas fell a lot farther.

Where there was any warmth at all hardy men held on, confident that God would turn the seasons. That the wells of power would wax strong again. As in legend they always had.

The Chaldareans of Duarnenia and principalities east of the Shallow Sea had withdrawn to Guretha and other coastal cities established by the Grail Order. Many continued on, desperately, following the Shirstula River south into countries where they would be unwelcome because of their desperation. Clever kings and princes used some to begin clearing lands abandoned since the plague-ridden end days of the Old Empire, when populations had fallen by more than half.

A strange, small army came to Guretha, out of the icy wastes. All thin folk with bones and skulls in their hair, carrying standards made of flayed manskin and totems built of human heads and bones. They seemed half dead themselves. There were no elderly among them. They brought their women and children right up to the edge of the fight. Their eyes were empty and hollow. They reminded their enemies of the draugs of yore, the dead who rose against the living. They did not talk. They attacked. They took food where they found it.

Guretha resisted. Of course. The Grail Knights fought. They committed great slaughters. But wherever resistance solidified something irresistible soon appeared. It wore the shape of a man but had seven fingers on its left hand, six on its right. It was a foul, pale green with hints of brown patches. Its skin appeared polished. It had hard cat’s eyes and smelled of old death newly freed from the ice. It carried a cursed two-handed sword so ancient it was made of bronze. Though soft metal, that blade did not yield to the finest modern steel. It broke through the stoutest shields and breastplates.

The Grail Knights were veterans of long wars. They did not waste themselves on forlorn hopes. Two encounters convinced them they could not overcome Krepnight, the Elect, hand-to-hand.

They stopped fighting. Gurethens who were quick retreated into Stranglhorm. Laggards fled across the bridges to the south bank of the Turuel. The city militias held the bridges. The invaders tried to flank them by crossing over in captured boats.

Krepnight, the Elect, stalked the Grail Knights to their fortress. Archers and crossbowmen kept the accompanying savages at a distance. They were a mob, not an army. What drove them? They were starving, yet seldom allowed themselves to be distracted by food or loot.

The Grail Knights withdrew, over the great drawbridge spanning the dry moat in front of the fortress gate. Engines atop the wall laid missile fires on the attackers. Krepnight, the Elect, suffered several hits. The savages yanked the offending shafts out of him. He forged ahead, undeterred.

Fierce, panicky shouting broke out inside the gate. The drawbridge had risen but a foot when its chains jammed. Then the outer portcullis fell five feet and refused to descend any farther.

Shrieked, frightened orders rattled around inside Stranglhorm. Get the inner portcullis down! But the backup refused to budge.

Decades had passed since the machinery had been asked to do anything but sit and rust.

The attackers cried praises to the Windwalker. They wanted to swarm across that drawbridge. But they would not move ahead of Krepnight, the Elect.

Krepnight, the Elect, would open the way.

The weird thing stepped up onto the drawbridge and crossed, sharp teeth betrayed in triumph. A Grail Knight in full battle gear, astride a huge charger, appeared behind the partially descended portcullis. He bellowed an order that it be raised so he could couch his lance and dispose of the monster. But the portcullis would not rise, either. The Grail Knight turned away, swearing by the body parts of the Founders that he would slay the monster once it came into the forecourt.

Krepnight, the Elect, advanced like confident doom. Today would see the end of Stranglhorm, Guretha, and these faint champions of a spineless southron god.

Krepnight, the Elect, ducked the portcullis and strode forward, charmed sword tasting the darkness of the passage.

Came a roar like all the thunders of a vast storm unleashed at once. Pale, eye-watering smoke billowed out of the gateway. Savages fell by the score, slashed into chopped meat.

The Grail Knights and their hardy foot swept beneath portcullises miraculously healed, then across a drawbridge suddenly fallen into place. The butchery began. Man and boy, mother and child, no mercy was shown. The heathen had shown none themselves. Few escaped. Only a boy named Boogha lived to carry news of an inexplicable defeat. And he died cruelly for having disappointed the Windwalker.

5. Lucidia, Tel Moussa: Sorrowful Truth

Nassim Alizarin faced the visitor across a low table. The meal was the best he could provide. That it was a sad failure would tell this boy too much. Would give him something to carry away with him.

The Mountain remained carefully composed. His age and former status left him unschooled for accepting a boy of sixteen as his superior. Birth meant little among Sha-lug. The slave warriors began as equals and established status by deeds. But this was Azim al-Adil ed-Din, grandnephew of Indala al-Sul Halaladin, upon whose sufferance the Mountain depended. The great Indala’s not so secret ambition was the unification of all al-Prama into a single kaifate that could concentrate fully on the liberation of the Holy Lands.

Amenities complete, it was time to approach the point. But the boy demonstrated a decorum beyond his years. “The Arnhanders of Gherig. How do they behave?”

“The current crop are pirates, not holy warriors. They extort bribes from every caravan coming through from Dreanger or the coast. And call it taxation.”

The boy laughed. “We do the same. And charge every Chaldarean a head tax simply for being Chaldarean.”

Nassim missed the point. That was a “So what?” That was as God Willed it. “Mark me. One day Rogert du Tancret will overstep. He has no respect for God or al-Prama.” In this Nassim said nothing that even the Crusader lords did not whisper among themselves.

Rogert du Tancret was a powerful warrior but not a man given to considering the consequences of his actions. He was lord of a crucial border bastion, in continuous contact with the enemies of his religion. Having not one diplomatic bone in his body, he was not the man to occupy so delicate a post. The Crusader lords all agreed.

But they would do nothing to move Rogert out of the crucible. It mattered not if he was a dangerous fool or a drooling idiot. His patrimony could not be denied. Further, Rogert had blood connections with most of the grand families of the Crusader states and many in Arnhand. Not to mention, he stood high in the affection of the Brotherhood of War, for title to Gherig and its dependencies would pass to the fighting priesthood on Rogert’s death.

By right, of course, the way those people saw things. The Brotherhood had chosen the site for Gherig, had designed the fortress, and had provided the captive artisans to build it.

Nassim shook off his reflections. Rogert would face his hour in time. It was Written. He needed to attend this pup from the warlord’s clan.

The boy said, “It doesn’t look like there’ll be a significant threat from the Unbeliever anytime soon. My granduncle’s agents in Rh?n and the west say the Patriarchy is too fluid and confused to get up to any mischief here. And the Grail Empire is ruled by a woman.”

“A good time, then, to push the interloper out of the Holy Lands.”

“True. On its bald face. But God, in His Infinite Mercy, may offer us a different test of faith.”

“The Hu’n-tai At.” The Mountain had heard that the horse peoples were not satisfied with the destruction they had wrought in the Ghargarlicean Empire. Far outposts of the kaifate had suffered their attention of late. Several scouting forces had roamed through the northeastern dependencies. The mountains and deserts up that way had served to protect better than had the local armies. But now the Hu’n-tai At could strike directly west out of conquered Ghargarlicea.

“Tsistimed the Golden. He’ll come. And he’s never been stopped once he decides to add a city to his empire.”

The Hu’n-tai At did not “add cities” to their empire. They looted them, then destroyed them, leaving only ash, ruins, and starvation.

The boy added, “The nomads are suffering from the changing climate. Snow and ice claim more pastureland every year.”

Old news. “Which we’ve heard all my life. A Hu’n-tai At scouting force was caught inside the Holy Lands a few years ago. Near Esther’s Wood.” And crusaders, Lucidians, and Dreangereans alike had combined to exterminate them.

The boy inclined his head. “Someday it will be a reconnaissance in force. Tsistimed is considering sending one of his grandsons with ten thousand veterans.”

Nassim was impressed with the quality of the warlord’s intelligence. He said as much.

“There are Faithful among the caravaneers who travel the east road. They talk to Faithful among the Hu’n-tai At. And Tsistimed does little to conceal his ambitions. It matters not if his enemies know his plans. They’ll be crushed anyway.”

The Mountain knew that kind of arrogance well. His erstwhile friend Gordimer the Lion had it in plenty.

It would be interesting to see the Lion and the Golden butt heads. Though neither was in his prime, now.

The great terror of the east had become an armchair warrior, they said.

He was ancient.

No one living remembered a time when Tsistimed the Golden and the Hu’n-tai At were not a storm beyond the northeastern horizon. No one living recalled a time when captains and kings were not more interested in local squabbles than in preparing for the onslaught to come.

“How does this concern us?” Nassim asked.

“Tel Moussa overlooks the road armies use to march to and fro between Dreanger and the lands between the rivers. The road armies follow north and south crosses that road southwest of Gherig, at the edge of the Plain of Judgment, by the Well of Remembrance.”

Nassim nodded. As a youngster he had known veterans of the Battle of the Four Armies, that the Arnhanders called the Battle of the Well of Remembrance. Hard feelings from that still poisoned relations between Lucidia and Dreanger. “An important site. The crusaders were defending it when they stumbled into the trap set by your illustrious relative.”

“Any Hu’n-tai At army will follow the traditional route.”

“Any army must go where the water is.”

“Just so. And for reasons to do with water and grass, my illustrious relative, as you name him, has convinced the Kaif to remove from Mezket and Begshtar to Shamramdi. The plains round Shamramdi are well grassed. The wars of the future will demand many more horses than we have today. Mounts will become a particular problem if we can’t buy them from peoples who have fallen under the dominion of Tsistimed.”

“I see.” Nassim had been in the presence of the Kaif of Qasr al-Zed several times. “What does the Kaif think of the changes?”

The kaifs of Qasr al-Zed had ruled from Mezket for four centuries. And religious leaders everywhere were known for resisting change.

“He was reluctant. But he does as he’s told.”

As did Karim Kaseem al-Bakr in al-Qarn, Nassim reflected. The Lion lurked behind every fatwa from the Kaif of al-Minphet. More troubling was the Mountain’s suspicion that er-Rashal al-Dhulquarnen still dictated Gordimer’s decisions, whether or not he had been outlawed.

“As should be in matters of war.”

“We trust in God but remember that God helps most those who plan best.”

Nassim laughed aloud, definitely beginning to like the boy. There was much of his granduncle in him. He wished Hagid had been such a boy. Though Hagid had been strong in his own way. He had crossed the White Sea alone to warn Else Tage of er-Rashal’s evil perfidy. Which burst of courage had gained him nothing but death.

Which burst of courage had driven a mortal wedge between Gordimer the Lion and his friend since boyhood, Nassim Alizarin, the Mountain. The back draft from which burst of courage swept through the Sha-lug like a blistering desert wind. But which, in the end, changed nothing. Few Sha-lug would put aside what they had always known, however repugnant they found what had been done to Hagid.

The boy returned to his primary interest. “The Hu’n-tai At will come soon. Maybe this summer. We are at that stage where we must give God every assistance by preparing to execute His will.”

Nassim nodded. “And?”

“This is a critical outpost. Signals from Tel Moussa can carry warnings down the road, or back to Shamramdi.”

True. A lookout in the mountains to the northeast could relay signals to Shamramdi in just one transfer. But to the west…

The boy smiled. “To the west is Gherig. Only Gherig, of the crusaders. Gherig, of the foulest Arnhander of all, Rogert du Tancret.”

“Yes.”

“Yet Black Rogert is right there in the path of anyone headed into the Holy Lands.”

“The adder cares not whose hand it bites.”

The boy nodded. “The Hu’n-tai At will ride around Tel Moussa. They’ll bypass Gherig. They’ll want to seize the Wells of Ihrian first. If they’re defeated, which hasn’t happened yet, they’ll try to destroy the Wells.”

“Are they that wicked?” The Holy Lands were the heart of the world. During all the thousands of years that men had fought over the Wells of Ihrian none had been mad enough to try destroying them so they would not benefit anyone else. But the Hu’n-tai At had the reputation. They killed. They plundered. They destroyed. Those who were not of the horde could not comprehend. The horde was determined to destroy settled civilization.

“They’re that wicked, General. That wicked, and more. They’re enemies of everyone who isn’t Hu’n-tai At.”

“Taking that at face, what are we to do here?”

“Assuming you’ll stand your ground?”

“We’ve taken this place under obligation. We’ll fulfill that.”

“That’s what I was sent to find out. That being the case, I’m supposed to tap your thoughts about how best to absorb and crush a Hu’n-tai At invasion.”

That puzzled Nassim. He said as much.

“Sha-lug think differently. You’re one vast brotherhood, strongly disciplined, centrally ruled. My granduncle must, of necessity, gather men from a hundred tribes, captained by proud chieftains who’d rather fight old vendettas than unite against an outsider. He tried to create his own guard, like the Immortals of the Kings of Kings of Ghargarlicea, without notable success. The central problem being the expense of maintaining the force.”

The Mountain allowed himself another nod, as much respect as assent. Indala al-Sul Halaladin had done well, teaching this one. Few Sha-lug had as solid a sense of history and their place in it.

“I’ll do what I can,” Nassim said. “It is written: We must defeat the enemies of God before we can settle enmities within the Realm of Peace.” Which name he spoke with a cynical sneer. There was no peace inside the bounds spanned by God’s Peace. Because men did not just demand submission to the Will of God, they demanded submission to themselves. Nor could they agree what the Will of God might be.

6. Navaya Medien: The Tired Man

The student waited till the Perfect completed his meditation. He carried a letter addressed to the old man. That letter had spent months in transit, tracing Brother Candle from retreat to retreat. In a community less honest and dutiful it would have gotten lost long since. With the Seekers After Light, though, delivery was assured, barring divine, diabolic, or villainous intercession.

It had survived hundreds of miles and dozens of hands crossing the Connec and the Verses Mountains to reach the remote Maysalean monastery at Sant Peyre de Mileage in Navaya Medien.

The old man rose. The youth’s presence startled him. “Jean-Pierre?”

“A letter, Master. For you. I didn’t want to disturb you.”

“Good.” The old man responded slowly. Not because of any infirmity but because the boy spoke the Medien dialect, a cousin of that used in the western Connec. It did funny things with consonants. You could confuse words that sounded familiar but then made no sense in context. “It certainly could wait those few minutes.”

Brother Candle did not reach out for the letter. He wanted no contact with the world. He had been out there so long, till recently, that he had fallen from Perfection. Far from Perfection. Only now, after months, had he gotten solidly onto the Path again.

The letter was filthy. He did not recognize the hand that had written his name large upon the wrapping. He suspected that had been added in transit because the original had grown so ragged. He saw nothing to indicate a source.

“Aren’t you going to open it, Master? It might be important.”

It would be. Of course. Extremely. To the person who had written it. He considered the possibilities. Whatever this correspondent had to report, it would not be good.

“My fingers aren’t working well today, Jean-Pierre.” He pronounced the name in the Connecten manner. Here, it was Jean-Peyre. “Read it to me, if it please you.”

The boy was thrilled. He could show off for the monastery’s great celebrity. He could demonstrate how well his lessons had taken.

Jean-Peyre took the letter back, removed the wrapper with great care. He made sure nothing had been written on the back of the paper. There had been but it had nothing to do with the letter. Unless a baker somewhere wanted Brother Candle to know details about quantities of flour and eggs and the rising cost of fuel to fire his ovens.

The inner wrapper was, indeed, the worse for wear. But its sender had foreseen its travails. There were additional layers of protection-one such discarded calculations by a military quartermaster-before Jean-Peyre found the jewel at the heart.

“All right, Master. This wrapper says, ‘To the Most Illustrious Perfect Master, Charde ande Clairs, known as Brother Candle, greetings.’”

“That doesn’t sound promising.” Few people knew the name he had worn before he had set out along the Path.

“That part is signed ‘Bernardin Amberchelle.’ Is that a name I should know, Master?”

“No, Jean-Pierre. Bernardin Amberchelle is a cousin of Count Raymone Garete of Antieux. A ferocious devil. I never suspected him of being literate. His world is defined by sharpened steel.”

“Maybe he had a scribe write for him.”

“Most likely.” Nobles did that. Those who were dim enough to trust their clerics completely. “That explains it. Go on.”

What followed was a rambling history of Count Raymone and his spouse, Socia Rault, since Brother Candle had left them to find the Path again. There was much about the slaughter of foreigners and an alliance with the Church’s Captain-General.

Odd. Count Raymone had spent years bloodily resisting the will of Brothe.

The letter eventually got to Amberchelle’s point. Which was what the old man feared it would be.

Bernardin Amberchelle begged Brother Candle’s return. Socia, for whom the old man had cared through the horrors of the Connecten Crusade, desperately needed his guidance and mellowing influence.

Socia’s brothers had all been slain in the past year. None had left a legitimate son. But that was beside Amberchelle’s point.

Socia had become a blood drinker. Her thirst for revenge had begun to influence her husband’s decisions. The only hope for Count Raymone or his Countess was to spark their respect for the Perfect Master.

Jean-Peyre looked up. “That’s all, Master. Except for a signature and a seal.”

Brother Candle groaned. The sins of his past were overhauling him. If teaching was a sin.

How bad must it be if someone as vicious as Bernardin Amberchelle was distressed?

Jean-Peyre was frightened. He sensed what the letter failed to state explicitly. He saw a chance to impress the Master. “Would you like to dictate a reply, Master? I have a clear hand.”

“Perhaps later, Jean-Pierre. Once I’ve digested the message. See me this same time tomorrow.”

Jean-Peyre could not restrain a slight bow, though that was discouraged amongst Seekers, where there were supposed to be no classes. He gave the letter to the old man and got out.

Brother Candle carried the missive to his cell, where he was profligate in his use of candles as he read and reread.

The old man was not at his meditations when Jean-Peyre arrived to record his reply. He rushed to the old man’s cell. Brother Candle was not there. Before long the monastery was in an uproar. The missing Maysalean hero was so old. The monastics feared the worst.

The mystery ended when a sleepy deacon-the antique who kept the cemetery-reported having seen Brother Candle headed down to the village that shared the monastery’s name. He carried a staff, a small pack, a blanket, and a water bottle. He wore rags, so it was likely that he planned a long journey.

The younger students begged the abbot to let them bring the Perfect back. He was too frail for today’s wild world. There were brigands everywhere. The Night was astir as it had not been since the early days of the Old Empire. And enemies were tormenting the End of Connec again.

The abbot sent the students back to their studies. The Perfect Master knew what he was doing. He was Perfect.

Already eight miles away, climbing the long slope out of the valley of heretics, Brother Candle increasingly suspected that he had no real idea what he was doing.

Once again he had allowed the world to intrude upon Perfection.

7. Mother City: Time of Changes

Rumor said the Five Families were furious. Rumor had their supporters in the Collegium gnashing their teeth. They were irked by Boniface’s stubborn refusal to get out of their way.

They were further incensed by the swift arrival of the Captain-General, whose commitment to the vision of Hugo Mongoz was common knowledge. Before his advent gangs roved the streets, bullying the retinues of rustic Principat?s, often coming to blows.

The City Regiment did little to control the violence. That said a great deal.

Someone had a firm grasp on Pinkus Ghort’s leash. Piper Hecht suspected Principat? Bronte Doneto. Doneto, of the Benedocto family, wanted the disorders to continue.

The arrival of Patriarchal troops stilled the waters swiftly.

The Captain-General answered only to Boniface VII. Boniface had asked for peace in Brothe for months.

Peace there would be, now.

Piper Hecht meant to steal every moment he could with Anna Mozilla and the children. And received an outstanding gift his first visit. The children surrounded him immediately. Pella was proprietary, having just spent all that time in the field with his adoptive father. Lila was shy. He had not been around much since her arrival. She kept looking to Anna to see if she was doing the right thing.

Vali was the amazing one. First, she had grown dramatically. She promised to become an attractive woman. But the greater thrill was having her hug him, then say, “Welcome home, Father.” Plain words. Straight out. Speaking in his presence for the first time ever.

Hecht hugged her back and looked over her at Anna. Anna smiled, nodded. Vali had regained her ability to trust. Vali had enlisted fully in their makeshift family.

Pella said, “We thought you’d never get here.”

“You and me, both. Every time I started this way they found something else that had to be handled right now. Otherwise, Mother Church and the Episcopal world would go under before sundown.”

Anna said, “You’re here, now. Leave the world outside. Madouc sent word you were coming. The children made a special meal.”

“Wonderful.” He could smell the mutton cooking. “I wish I knew how to tell you all what an anchor you are to me when I’m out there.” Which he meant absolutely, however hard temptation might nip.

“Tell us about the wedding!” Vali enthused. Lila nodded. The older girl would break no hearts. Nor get a chance to do if her background came out. “Pella wouldn’t.”

“Because they didn’t let him inside.” He settled at the table, began describing the Imperial wedding.

The girls rushed back and forth with food. Hecht talked only when both were there to hear. Pella remained seated, Anna judging him to be too old now to run with the girls.

Anna no longer had servants. She did not trust herself or the children not to give something away. And they all had secrets.

Vali wanted to know what King Jaime looked like. Was he as handsome as they said? Lila wanted to know what the Empress and her sister wore. Lila was almost appealing when she was excited.

“Jaime is as pretty as a man can be. And as spoiled. He makes enemies almost as fast as he can talk. He won’t stop saying stupid and offensive things. The Empress and the Princess Apparent were stunning. Their gowns cost more than any of us can hope to see in our lifetimes. Katrin wore gold. Helspeth wore silver. They were soaked in gems and pearls. Katrin favored rubies, Helspeth emeralds. The ladies of the court were nearly as gaudy. I do wish you could have seen them. But I’m still thinking it was a miracle that I was invited.”

“That is curious,” Anna observed.

“They said it was because Boniface can’t travel. After the crusade in the Connec, I was better known than anyone else connected with the Patriarch.”

“You were invited when Pacificus Sublime was Patriarch, too. And he wasn’t handicapped.”

“Are you sure? He went way before his time.”

Anna shrugged. “It just seems strange.”

“I won’t argue with that.”

“Pella says you had a private interview with the Empress.”

“I did. She tried to hire me away from the Church. So maybe that explains why I was there.”

“What? Why?”

Lila asked, “You aren’t going to do it, are you?” In a voice so soft Hecht almost missed it.

“No. She wanted me to lead a crusade to the Holy Lands. I don’t want that. I’d have to deal with all those pompous idiots… Never mind. I have a job here. At the moment, to ensure an orderly transition. But let’s don’t talk about that. You girls tell me what you did while I was gone.”

Anna was more than usually demanding that night. She was troubled. It took a while to get her to open up. “I’m afraid,” she said. “All the time, anymore. Not terrified. Just always anxious.”

Hecht held her close. “Any special reason?”

“I worry about the girls. That evil thing is still out there. Principat? Delari keeps saying they got it, but it keeps coming back. Plus, Principat? Doneto has people trying to find out things about us. If he digs deep enough…”

“He’ll get his digging fingers lopped off. The Ninth Unknown has created entire lives for us based on what we’ve told people. Pinkus Ghort’s special spy, Bo Biogna, dug up my service records all the way back to Grumbrag. And in Grumbrag he found a man who says he’s my brother.”

Anna stiffened. “Really?”

“He told me so himself. I saw him in Alten Weinberg. He came by to see Joe.” He did not have to explain. Anna knew about Bo Biogna, Just Plain Joe, Ghort, Hecht, and their shared adventures.

Hecht added, “You’re protected. Never doubt it. Principat? Delari will watch out for you. Cloven Februaren, even more so. I wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t have a squadron of Night things guarding your house.”

“Why would they do that?”

“Because they want things from me. And they’re more likely to get them if they look out for you and the kids.” Not to mention, they were basically decent men.

Anna started to ask something, decided against it. Probably about something she knew he would not discuss. “You may be right. Heris visits us at least twice a week. She always prowls around outside like she’s looking for something.”

“There you go.” Heris? Muniero Delari’s granddaughter. Hecht’s sister. Who, like Hecht himself, had no talent for sorcery. But talent might not be necessary with Delari and Cloven Februaren behind her.

Hecht was not sure what his grandfather, and his grandfather’s grandfather, were all about. He was no longer the naive Else Tage who had taken a picked band into the Idiam, to plunder the tombs of Andesqueluz. Piper Hecht, Captain-General of the Patriarchal armies, took no one at face value. Neither his enemies, nor the least of his friends and allies. Saving only Just Plain Joe.

Everyone had a secret agenda.

The children smirked and giggled at breakfast. Hecht ignored them. He was in a good mood. It was a fine day. He had no obligations. He planned to stay right here and do nothing.

Anna was not so cheerful. Looking further ahead, she was anticipating Hecht’s inescapable eventual departure.

Lila made breakfast. Hot bread. Honey. Some fiercely tart little green grapes harvested far too soon. And sausages that seemed to be half fennel. She explained, “This sausage is the kind my mother made. The Artecipean way.”

“Very good. Spicier than I’m used to, though.” And mostly pork. Of course. These westerners seemed determined to cleanse the earth of swine by devouring the beasts faster than they could breed.

“Vali. Now that you’ve learned to talk, why don’t you tell me all about Vali Dumaine? What’s the big mystery? What’s the big secret?”

The girl’s lips twitched and twisted. Habit died hard. But she had known this would come. “I made it up. All of it. I heard some Arnhander crusaders at the Ten Galleons talking to the Witchfinders. We didn’t know they were Witchfinders then.”

“Continue, please.” She seemed to think that she had explained.

“The crusaders had been told to go to the Holy Lands by the Arnhander king. The old one. The one that died. Anne of Menand got him to make them go. They belonged to a count she wanted revenge on. His wife was named Vali Dumaine. I liked its sound. So I made up the story that Lila told you that night in Sonsa.”

Hecht looked at Lila, who stared at the floor. “You believed Vali?”

“Not really. But I wanted to. So I pretended. I didn’t want her to do what I had to.”

Hecht guessed Lila to be fourteen. Even back then, she would have been an experienced prostitute, her virginity auctioned nightly by her mother.

“God will reward you, Lila. I’m sure of that. So. Vali. Who are you, really? The daughter of Bit’s relative from Artecipea? She told one story that ran that way. Another made it sound like you had been sold to the house.”

Lila said, “Mother never told the whole truth. She couldn’t. Not even to herself.”

Hecht thought a woman would have to be skilled at lying to herself to survive in such a hard trade.

“I don’t remember any more, Father. I was too young when I came to the Ten Galleons.”

Hecht did not pursue the matter. It was not crucial. Let the child be what she wanted. Anna would set her on the path of righteousness.

Hecht had another sausage. Vali watched, obviously anxious. He winked. She jumped. “Lila. How are you doing?”

The older girl was surprised to be asked. “Good. Considering. This is an interlude I’ll enjoy as much as I can.”

Hecht’s turn to be surprised. Not because Lila was insecure but because she had assumed a fatalistic outlook so early. Her life must have been harsh indeed. “You have a place here. As long as you like. You’re family, now.” Which could end with one slight political crosswind.

Hecht said, “Everyone listen. Life is unpredictable. Mine maybe more than most. Other people don’t have giant worms come out of the ground after them. If anything happens to me, ever, all of you get to Principat? Delari’s house the minute you hear about it.”

“Why?”

“Anna?”

“Why would we be safer there than here?”

“Because Muniero Delari is who he is.” And because Cloven Februaren made his home there, as well. The Ninth Unknown might be the most powerful sorcerer in the west, if not the world. Though he hid it well.

“I understand that. What eludes me is the Principat?’s motives for caring about me or the children.”

“Ah, I can’t really explain that.”

“Can’t? Or won’t?”

“Fifty-fifty. I know some things. I suspect some things. And I know there’s more that I don’t know. One thing I do know is, the umbrella of the Principat?’s protection casts its shade on this family. Accept it. Enjoy it, the way you will the weather we’ll have today.”

Pella rose. He had not spoken for some time. Not even minimal table courtesies. “We can’t enjoy the weather. We aren’t allowed. Some people aren’t afraid of Principat? Delari.” He left the kitchen. A moment later Hecht heard the front door open. Pella would be staring out into the fine morning and, no doubt, would be incensed because he could not go run the streets.

Hecht murmured, “All life is compromise and trade-off. He can’t run the streets but he isn’t starving.” And he had learned to read. And he had begun to learn a trade.

“Trade-offs,” Anna agreed.

Hecht wondered how she meant that.

“Dad,” Pella called. “There’s soldiers coming. Patriarchal Guards.”

Anna said, “And there goes the one day we thought we had.”

Pella made a startled squeal. Hecht rushed to the front, armed with a kitchen knife.

Heris stood six feet from Pella, who was framed in the doorway. The boy was pale. The woman had her hands spread to indicate that she was not dangerous.

“She came out of nowhere, Dad! I was watching the guards. When I turned around, there she was. And I was in the doorway the whole time.”

Heris said, “I’m no good at this yet. I meant to hit that breezeway down the street, across the street. A memory of this room got in the way.”

Anna and the girls crowded together behind Hecht, gaping. With Anna eyeing him suspiciously because it was obvious that he understood.

Hecht asked, “There’s a reason you did this?”

“Grandfather wants you to know that those men are real Patriarchal Guards.”

Hecht had not thought otherwise. Yet. But he would have done if the soldiers were not men he recognized.

“Has something happened?”

“Boniface has taken a bad turn. He’ll want to see you.”

News Delari must have gotten from Cloven Februaren. “I see.”

“Also, I’m supposed to tell you you’re all to come to the town house tonight.” Heris looked him in the eye. “It’s important, Piper.”

“The old man’s wish is my command.”

“And the old, old man’s.”

The Patriarchal Guards arrived. They formed up outside. Their corporal came up to the door with a letter case. Pella called, “Dad.”

The letter case contained only a brief note in a shaky hand. It urged the Captain-General to pay his final respects to Patriarch Boniface VII.

“It’s serious this time, sir,” the corporal said. “He doesn’t have long. Everyone says. He’s determined to see you before he goes.”

“I see.” Though he did not, really. “Anna, maybe you should take the kids to the town house now.” That place was no fortress but it would be safer than this if troubles followed Boniface’s passing. He would get his own men down here right away.

Hecht wanted to ask Heris if it was a problem, the family showing up now…

Vali said, “She just kind of turned sideways and wasn’t there anymore.” Her eyes were huge. “How did she do that?”

Anna, however, was suspicious. “What was all that? Never mind. I understand the need. I just hope nobody decides to loot this place while we’re away.”

“Don’t worry. There are watchers. And I’ll send some of my men. Corporal, I’ll make myself presentable and be right with you.”

Hugo Mongoz looked all of his eight decades, and more. “Out!” he rasped at his attendants. “All of you! Begone!”

The Patriarch had made prior arrangement with his guards. They began removing the physicians and hangers-on. They were not gentle with any who resisted.

“You arrived in time,” Boniface said.

“You’re a stubborn man.”

“I won’t let my Church slide into the grasp of those who want only to aggrandize and enrich themselves.”

Hecht did not ask why Boniface wanted to be different.

“You’ll observe my Will and Testament?”

“That’s why I hurried down from Alten Weinberg. I know Rocklin Glas. He’s a good man. He’ll be good for Mother Church. But he has drawbacks.”

“Which are?”

“You must know. He’s a cripple. Unlikely to outlive you by long. And he enjoys the enmity of every Principat? interested in assuming the ermine in order to aggrandize himself and his family.”

“True. Mustn’t forget the Five Families. Have they put forward an alternative to Bellicose?”

“No, Your Holiness. They’d have to fight it out amongst themselves, first. None of them have the charm to get the others to elect them.”

“Make them fulfill my promises.”

“I will.”

“Suppress the Society. Don’t let that whore in Salpeno seduce anyone else the way she did Sublime.”

“These things will be done. Are being done already.”

“Excellent. Excellent. I can go on satisfied that good men are in charge. Come here.” The old man’s voice had been weakening. Hecht knelt beside the sickbed. Mongoz exuded a sour odor that could not be masked by rosewater. “Tell Cloven Februaren I’ll haunt him if he doesn’t take care of you.” He laughed at Hecht’s surprise. The laughter turned into a coughing spasm.

“Yes. I know he’s out there. I know what he’s doing. He was always a busybody. With a juvenile sense of humor. But good at heart.”

“So it seems.”

“And a useful ally to someone like yourself.”

“Yes.”

“Pray with me.”

Hecht did so.

Principat? Delari could not wait to get Hecht into his silent room to ask about his visit to Krois. “The Patriarch had you in?”

“He wanted assurances that his plans will be carried out after he goes. And he wanted me to relay a message to your grandfather.”

“Uh?” Delari’s right eyebrow shot up.

“Seemed to know all about him.”

Delari scowled. “Makes me wonder who else knows more than he should.”

Heris joined them. She brought two permanent members of the household staff, Turking and Felske, who were married. The cook, Mrs. Creedon, seldom left her kitchen. Heris said, “Anna and the children are changing. Do you have anything that needs bringing in and putting away?”

“I have a couple of lifeguards outside. They could be made more comfortable.” Madouc’s men had caught up with him coming out of Krois.

Heris gestured. The couple hurried off. Hecht glanced at Delari. “She’s grown more sure of herself.”

“Blame it on the Ninth Unknown. And the Construct. Will you be able to spend time with us there, this time?”

“If I can. But I doubt it. I’m here to make the Collegium behave. Heris, what the hell were you doing, materializing in Anna’s sitting room? I have trouble enough explaining things without that.”

“I missed. I told you. The old man isn’t the best teacher. He mostly lets you figure things out for yourself. He isn’t around ninety percent of the time.”

Hecht faced Delari. “You said Heris and I have no talent for sorcery.”

“Inborn, less than some stones, certainly.”

“There are a million magical stones in folklore and myth.”

“My point. But in this case Cloven Februaren is just harnessing the Construct. The magic is in that. You could learn the trick if you spent a few months down there getting in tune.”

“Anyone can learn?”

“Given time and the inclination.”

“Including the people that work down there?”

“Within severely constrained limits. That’s how the women get in and out without falling foul of the Palace guards. Enough, for now.” Anna and the children were arriving.

Anna was stunning in something she had found in the apartment set aside for the family. Vali and Lila were not quite so remarkable but were well dressed, too.

Hecht suppressed a chuckle.

Pella had been outfitted like a young lord, complete with silken hose and slippers with bells on their upturned toes.

“Marvelous,” a new voice opined. And there was the little old man in brown, Cloven Februaren. The Ninth Unknown. “Yet there’s something wrong, here.”

Felske stepped into the room to ask, “Your Grace, Cook would like to know when the meal should be served.”

“When she has everything ready, I expect.”

Almost simultaneously, Februaren said, “These kids don’t fight. Brothers and sisters should be like cats and dogs. The girls should be scorching the boy about being dressed like that.”

Hecht observed, “Some young people are more civilized than others. I saw Hugo Mongoz today. He had a message for you.”

“I heard it. I took it up with him personally after you left. The only man we need to worry about is Bronte Doneto.”

Hecht glanced at his family, all eager to eavesdrop. “Doneto? As a concern other than what we have already?” Doneto was digging. Doneto held Pinkus Ghort’s leash.

“Friend Bronte has his eye on the Patriarchal throne.”

Not unlikely, on reflection. “He seems a little young.” Again, Hecht indicated the family with a glance.

Februaren said, “Might as well bring them in a little way, Piper. It’s true, what they don’t know they can’t betray. But what they don’t know can let them tell things they wouldn’t if they knew what was going on.”

That worried Hecht. Family worried Hecht. Family made you vulnerable. His enemies would not withhold their cruelties because he did not share his secrets with Anna and the children.

“I don’t like it. But you’re the expert. I’ll defer to your judgment.”

“Why, thank you, Piper.” The old man chuckled.

“Teach Heris better aim with the turn sideways trick.”

“I heard. She just needs practice. And more concentration. Well. Here they come. And it looks like Muno has laid on a leg of lamb.”

Principat? Muniero Delari, within the confines of his home, disdained many Firaldian customs. Among his steps away from the customary was, he let children eat with adults. Though he was not so relaxed that he tolerated their chatter during the meal.

Turking and Felske presented the initial courses. Delari remarked, “I’m as uncomfortable as Piper, Grandfather. For different reasons. If you insist on baring souls, I suggest we save it for the quiet room, over coffee.”

“Conceded. One of my failings,” Februaren told Anna, flashing a big, boyish grin. “I’ve never been sufficiently paranoid. Gets me into trouble all the time.”

“So has your childish sense of humor,” Delari said.

“It’s just not possible to resist sticking a pin in, here and there.” The old man grinned again.

Hecht changed the subject. “What’s the problem with the thing in the catacombs? First, I hear it’s been hunted down and destroyed. Then I hear that it’s on the move again.”

Amazing. Principat? Delari actually reddened. “I don’t want to sound defensive. Or whiny. But it keeps getting re-created by the needs of the populace.”

Anna asked, “Why would anyone want a monster that creeps around, doing evil?”

“Nobody wants it consciously. But refugees have a powerful need to be scared of the dark. They’re from rural areas where the Night was never a friend. The city is different. Night is almost as safe as daytime. Pinkus Ghort makes it so. So the monster fills their need to fear the dark. We destroy one, the belief and need seizes another minor Instrumentality and feeds it. Belief channeling power toward its object.”

Hecht asked, “You mean…?” He got no chance to ask.

Cloven Februaren interrupted, “The way to fight that would be to start some rumors that make the believers lose faith.”

Then the earth shook violently.

“What in the hell?”

That was Turking, suddenly terrified.

“Earthquake,” Anna suggested.

Piper Hecht had heard that sound toward the end of the siege of Arn Bedu. But that explosion, of a ton of firepowder under a tower, had not lasted so long, nor had shaken the mountain so vigorously.

“That’s southwest of here,” Delari said.

“Maybe the magazines at Krulik and Sneigon.” The Krulik and Sneigon Special Manufactory produced the firepowder and firepowder weaponry employed by the Patriarchal armies. Its destruction would be a huge disaster.

“Not a good thing,” Cloven Februaren said. “You’d have to start from scratch. Unless somebody had a few eggs hidden in other baskets.”

The three men moved out into the weather. Illuminated smoke rose into the overcast. “That’s not the Devedian quarter,” Hecht said, which was where Krulik and Sneigon were located. “That’s closer. And not big enough to be Krulik and Sneigon.”

“I’ll take a closer look.” The Ninth Unknown turned sideways and disappeared.

Anna and the children saw him go.

“Hush!” Hecht snapped. His lifeguards were closing in. Madouc himself appeared. Hecht asked him, “Any idea what just happened?”

“Your guess would be as good as mine, sir. But I suspect that a firepowder magazine wandered too close to a spark.”

Interesting. Everyone assumed the explosion was accidental. What if it was not?

A flash shone while Hecht wondered how someone outside the military supply chain might have gotten hold of that much firepowder. The rumble did not arrive for several seconds. Hecht immediately guessed that to have been one standard twenty-four-pound firepowder keg.

Cloven Februaren said, “You have more resources than you’re ready to admit, boy.”

Hecht jumped. The old man had returned. Without startling Madouc. Though Madouc was always suspicious of the old man in brown.

“Uh…”

“My sentiments, too. The bang. It was at the Bruglioni citadel. They must have had their cellars filled with firepowder. Everything fell straight down, into the cellars, then on down into the catacombs.”

The light was not good. But Hecht would have sworn the old man was distressed.

Februaren said, “No one in there could’ve survived. It’s worse than the hippodrome collapse.”

Principat? Delari stirred. Having been responsible for that. He had used a keg of firepowder to attack the monster of the catacombs in exactly the worst possible place.

“What shall we do?” Hecht asked.

Madouc suggested, “Staying out of the way would be appreciated by the city authorities.”

Delari agreed. “Good point. They’re irritated enough, having to put up with Patriarchal troops. Sit still. Let them work. They’re competent. If they want help, let them ask.”

Hecht nodded. Reluctantly. He had grown accustomed to doing what he thought was right, without consulting anyone.

Anna took hold of his left bicep. “Why don’t we go inside? Life could get exciting out here.”

The instant he was out of sight of the lifeguards Cloven Februaren turned sideways.

“How does he do that?” Anna asked.

All three children babbled, Vali loudest. “Maybe what is he doing would be more interesting.”

“Dreaming the Construct,” Heris said. “And that’s all you need to know now. And you’re not to repeat that to anyone.”

Hecht glanced at Principat? Delari. He had seen no evidence that Delari could, or did, “dream the Construct.” Why not? If it was so easy that Heris could learn?

Delari said, “We still have dinner to finish. Further discussion can wait.”

The gathering in the quiet room differed only in that Anna was present. Always before she had been asked to stay away. Heris arrived last, bringing coffee. Her great talent. Brewing the rare and incalculably expensive beverage.

Muniero Delari shut the door. Lined with stone, it was immensely heavy. He said, “Anna, you’re a remarkable person. As near perfect for our Piper as a woman could be.”

“But?”

“Yes. Right. I do have a but. I’d rather you weren’t here. What you don’t know can’t hurt the rest of us. But my grandfather says your ignorance could be a more deadly threat to you and the children. And the four of you have become important to us.”

This was new. Hecht sipped his coffee quietly, occasionally glancing at Cloven Februaren. The ancient had been away only minutes. He seemed content to sip coffee and look smug.

Anna looked to Hecht for support. He said, “I don’t know where he’s going. But you don’t need to be scared.”

“Let’s jump right into the cold water,” Delari said. “Heris, in addition to being the top coffee artist in Brothe, is Piper’s older sister.”

Hecht started. Then realized that almost everything Anna needed to know piggybacked on that one statement. Anna knew pretty much everything else about Heris.

Anna said nothing for more than a minute. Finally, “You’re all related. Grade Drocker was Piper’s father. Which explains a lot. But…” She stared at Hecht, eyes wide. “You fired the shot that caused his death.”

“I didn’t know who he was. I’m still not sure what difference it would’ve made. He meant to kill me. He’d tried before. He got two of my friends instead. He didn’t know who I was, either. Till around the time I went into the City Regiment, when he did a turnaround and started sculpting my career.”

“And his father took over when he went.”

Muniero Delari made a slight bow toward Anna. “More coffee, Piper?”

“Always. You know I’m addicted.”

Cloven Februaren leaned nearer Anna and, in a stage whisper, said, “Here comes the really grim part.”

Delari scowled. “Can’t you be serious about anything? Two hundred years old. The most powerful sorcerer in the world. And any one of Anna’s children is more serious and responsible.”

“Being serious now, Muno. Putting on my stern face and acting my age.”

A flicker of smile cracked Delari’s scowl. “He had a point, Anna. Obliquely. You’ve just been included in some extremely dangerous knowledge. The only people who know all that are in this room. Others-er-Rashal al-Dhulquarnen in Dreanger comes to mind-know Piper isn’t what he pretends to be. None of them know the whole truth. They can’t find it. The records have been destroyed.”

Februaren said, “The bush he’s beating around is, if anyone finds out it’ll be because somebody in this room right now tells somebody. And that wouldn’t be healthy.”

“Hey!” Hecht said. “Don’t you threaten…”

“Sun comes up in the east. Tides come in and go out. I’m stating facts. Cold facts.”

Delari said, “Anna, you’ve been whining because you haven’t been included in all of Piper’s life.” As Anna frowned at Heris. “Now that you’re included, you can’t walk away.”

The Ninth Unknown said, “You came to Brothe from Sonsa because your former husband’s secret employers insisted. Are you still reporting to al-Qarn?”

Hecht grew more nervous by the second. This could not end well.

“Not for almost two years. I’m sure those people wrote me off for being too close to Piper.”

“That’s good,” Februaren said. “The point’s been made. Piper, fill us in on your adventures.”

The old man and Principat? Delari hardly interrupted, though Hecht did not have a great deal to report that Februaren had not already picked up during his random visits. Both seemed particularly interested in Asgrimmur Grimmsson.

“What did you do with him?” Delari asked. “I’d certainly like to talk to him.”

“Me, too,” Februaren said. “A man who became an Instrumentality, then a man again. Interesting stuff.”

“He’s hidden in a room like this down under the Castella. Hopefully not attracting attention. I didn’t know where else to put him. He wants us to help him free the Old Gods he trapped after he turned into a monster. The unintended consequence of that was the liberation of Kharoulke the Windwalker. As the world is becoming a paradise for his sort.”

“More coffee, Anna?” Heris asked.

“No. I’ve had enough. Of everything. I need some time alone.” Her world had become far more vast and dark in just a few minutes.

As he prepared for bed, Hecht overheard Vali ask Anna, “So did they finally tell you what’s going on?”

“Yes. And now I wish I’d minded my own business.”

“Devedians say, ‘Have no congress with sorcerers.’”

“Which makes them smarter than most of us think.”

The Captain-General visited the fallen Bruglioni citadel. Four lifeguards and Kait Rhuk’s fire team accompanied him.

The Bruglioni stronghold had covered several crowded acres. Surrounded by a curtain wall, it had included gardens and outbuildings as well as the fortress that served the family as home and headquarters.

That was all rubble in a hole, now.

Madouc whispered, “Sir, here comes Colonel Ghort, his own self.”

People made mock of Pinkus Ghort’s rustic speech-which came and went according to a formula best know to Ghort his own self-and of his dress. But Hecht had heard no one but Ghort himself denigrate Pinkus Ghort’s intelligence.

Ghort said, “You musta hauled some major ass, getting down here from Alten Weinberg so fast, Pipe.”

“Promises to keep. What happened here?”

“Firepowder accident. Believe it or not, people survived that. Most of the servants. Gervase Saluda and Paludan Bruglioni, both. Though they’re both bad hurt. Paludan might not make it. Saluda was just leaving when it happened. Lintel came down and crushed his legs. He’ll probably never walk again. The rest of the family are still down there. Along with a fortune in rare wines. I’m told.” Ghort sounded more distressed about the wine than the trapped Bruglioni.

“They had a fine cellar when I worked here. You sure it was an accident?”

“It was pure stupidity. We have a witness who heard an idiot Bruglioni nephew brag that he was going to steal some firepowder and make his own fireworks. He was carrying an open lamp instead of a closed lantern.”

Hecht stared at the rubble. Dust still swirled in the hole. He tried exercising his cynical side. “Who’d profit if it wasn’t an accident?”

“Same folks as will anyway. Anybody in the Five Families who ain’t named Bruglioni. This should about do the family in.”

Kait Rhuk said, “Permission to interject, Captain-General?”

“Go ahead.”

“Colonel. Why would the Bruglioni have had enough firepowder to do this? Not to mention that-I think-legally, firepowder is supposed to be made exclusively for us. The Patriarch’s men.”

“Good point,” Hecht said.

Pinkus Ghort did not quite look Hecht in the eye. “The Collegium say they’re part of the Patriarchal armed forces, Pipe. Looking at it realistically, firepowder manufacturers are producing more than you’re buying. Your conquest of Artecipea took care of the saltpeter shortage. They’re turning a tidy profit on the extra production.” And, perhaps, certain individuals charged with enforcing the rules were getting a share.

Hecht glared toward the Devedian quarter, yet was more irked with himself than those people. This he should have foreseen.

There was nothing more likely to facilitate the redistribution of wealth than a new means of killing people. Though handling and employing firepowder effectively required skill.

Skilled firepowder handler Kait Rhuk asked, “How long before we see firepowder weaponry in the hands of our enemies?”

“Let me guess,” Hecht said. Loosing his sardonic side. “As long as it takes someone to work out a good formula for the stuff?”

Rhuk snorted. “If that was true we’d be up to our asses in bad guys with firepowder toys. The formula ain’t no secret. Every apothecary and chemist in Brothe knows it. What they don’t know is how to put them together. If it was me, I’d have somebody I really trusted permanently installed at Krulik and Sneigon. I’d babysit them day and night. I’d use somebody who’d cut a throat anytime the mood hit him. Somebody who ain’t weasel enough to get rich on the bribes he was gonna be offered.”

The Captain-General did not want to operate that way. But he saw the point. Men who wanted a fast profit, right now, would happily sell the most wonderfully murderous tools to the worst enemies of their own state or people, somehow oblivious to the fact that those weapons might bite back.

The Rh?n had a ferocious secret weapon. They called it nephron. It was a thick, heavy liquid that, once fired, could not be extinguished. It had to burn itself out. Rh?nish merchants would not sell the formula but willingly sold nephron itself, even to Sha-lug who used it against the Eastern Empire’s soldiers.

Human minds did not seem large enough to encompass an obligation to eschew profit if making it required providing a means to destroy one’s neighbor.

Pinkus Ghort said, “Hey, Pipe. You lost in there?”

“What?”

“You went away someplace inside your head. I was afraid you got lost.”

“It isn’t that vast a landscape, Pinkus. Pinkus, knowing you, you’ve found a source for the best wine in town. And you’ve found some way to get in touch with what’s going on in the underworld.”

Ghort gestured with both hands, as though playing with a balance scale-or pair of breasts. “Thus. So. I try. But, really, all I need to do is put on a show that’ll keep the senate happy.”

“Bronte Doneto is who you need to keep happy. Him and the old men of the Church. Not the old men of the city.”

Ghort shrugged. “Pretty much the same crew.”

“They’re wearing you down. Aren’t they?”

Ghort shrugged again. “How can you tell?”

“You don’t even bother to talk bad about them.”

“A man gets addicted to eating regular.”

Hecht faked a laugh. “What are you going to do about this?” He gestured at the hole where the Bruglioni citadel had stood.

“I reckon I could get a shovel and start filling it in. But I don’t suppose that’s what you mean.”

“No.” Smiling. Attitude was a big part of what made Pinkus Ghort Pinkus Ghort.

“I’ll get some of the old farts from the Collegium to come exercise their talents. Give them a chance to show off. Them antiques have egos like you wouldn’t believe. When they figure out it was really an accident, then I’ll grab my shovel. It they decide somebody did it, I’ll hunt the asshole down and drag him in begging me not to turn him over to the Bruglioni.”

“Good for you, Pinkus. You want to come by Principat? Delari’s town house some evening, I brought you half a dozen bottles of white wine from Alten Weinberg.”

“Hey. That was thoughtful.”

“It was, wasn’t it? I’m warning you, though. It’s different stuff.”

“Good. I hear you had an interview with the Empress her own self.”

“I did. She offered me a job.”

“Shit. That’s some shit. I guess you said no.”

“I said no. I’m not ready to break in a new set of crazy old men who are out to sabotage me.”

“I smell rank cynicism, Pipe. You promised you’d work on that.”

“I do. Every day, right after my prayers.”

“That don’t exactly boost my confidence. Did I ever catch you praying? I don’t remember if I did.”

“You’d have to be sneaky and fast. I try to keep it between me and God.”

Ghort chuckled. “I don’t even bother anymore. My god is on a five-century bender and don’t have time for mortal trivia.”

Hecht understood Ghort’s attitude but could not, himself, thumb his nose at the Deity. Whichever One He might be. He asked, “What’s your boss up to?”

“What do you mean?”

“Where’ll he stand when Boniface goes? I’m hoping he doesn’t put you and me in a difficult position.”

“You mean to enforce the Viscesment Agreement.”

“I swore an oath.”

“And the City Regiment, in our myriad, wondrous forms, will be blessed with breaking up the riots.”

“They get to be too much for you, Krois or the Castella can whoop and six thousand veteran Patriarchals will be here overnight. Fifteen thousand in a week. There’s only going to be one next Patriarch.”

“Easy, Pipe. No need to get all intense.”

“Just want to make my point.”

“Consider it made. But you won’t make yourself popular.”

“I have to do the right thing.”

“I give up. It won’t matter a hundred years from now, anyway.”

There was room to debate that. Hecht saw no point. It was hard enough to get Ghort to worry about next week.

Ghort said, “Tell me about your god-killing adventures in the Connec. And Alten Weinberg. What was that like?”

“The interview with the Empress was as interesting as it got. The wedding was just long, boring, and hot. And way overdone.”

“No shit? Is Katrin still as good-looking as she was when we saw her in Plemenza?”

“Time hasn’t been kind. The Grail Throne is a cruel taskmaster.”

“She made it hard on herself, changing sides in the Imperial squabble with the Church.”

“Definitely part of it. Jaime won’t help, either.”

“Not the big, handsome hero, eh?”

“Not so big. Definitely handsome, in a southern kind of way. And he did show good at Los Naves de los Fantas. They say. But he doesn’t have a much finer character than our onetime friend, Bishop Serifs.”

“Not good.”

“And Katrin won’t see it.”

Ghort stared down into the hole. “You see something moving there, Pipe?”

“Where?”

Ghort pointed.

Squinting, Hecht could just make out…“Rhuk! Front!”

Kait Rhuk shoved gawkers aside, rolled his falcon to the lip of the sinkhole. Lifeguards closed in. Hecht snarled, “You men! Stand back! Rhuk. Your eyes are better than mine or Colonel Ghort’s. Something is moving down there where that furniture is all tangled up. Get a sight on it.”

“That looks like somebody trying to wave,” Rhuk said.

Ghort said, “I’ll send somebody down.”

“Have them do it from the sides, please,” Rhuk said. “They don’t want to get in my line of fire.”

Ghort’s men were halfway down, descending from both sides. The wreckage began to shift.

Hecht said, “Brilliant, putting your men on safety ropes.”

Ghort’s response vanished in the roar of the falcon.

As the ringing in his ears receded, Hecht heard Rhuk shout, “Am I good, or what? Took it out first go!”

The Captain-General held his tongue. Rhuk could be given hell later. Then he smelled something, faint but familiar. That odor had been present elsewhere after a falcon had challenged some Instrumentality of the Night.

Then the smell was gone. Rhuk’s team, using the City Regiment’s ropes, descended into the pit, armed with the jars they used to harvest the leavings of the things they murdered.

After a while, Pinkus Ghort said, “Your guys are really good at what they do, Pipe.”

“Yes. Rhuk scares me sometimes.” He scratched his left wrist.

Rhuk scared himself, this time. While digging a smoldering hot egg out of the rubble he knocked a hole in a fragile wall, opening the Bruglioni family crypt. Where several desperate human beings had been trapped since the explosion. They climbed all over Rhuk, running to the light.

It was about then that Hecht caught his first glimpse of the old man in brown moving amongst the onlookers. He needed to talk to the Ninth Unknown. His amulet had not warned him that danger was so close.

Over a late meal Februaren remarked, “It wasn’t a full-fledged baron of the Night. But near enough. Your problem with the killing thing should ease up, now, Muno. This thing had been spinning off bits of itself to become foci for that monster parade.”

Hecht did not understand. Principat? Delari did. That was good enough. Hecht said, “This morning may have exposed a problem. My amulet provided no warning.”

Februaren frowned. “None?”

“Nothing but a persistent itch. Which started after Rhuk shot it.”

“They’re adapting. I’ll have to adjust. Maybe the ascendant can help.”

Hecht asked, “How’re you doing with my pet Instrumentality?”

“The soultaken?”

“Only one I have. I don’t even know where you’ve moved him.” The old man had insisted that the soultaken be taken out of the Castella, away from the nosy Brotherhood. Especially the Special Office and its Witchfinders in particular.

“He’s bricked up inside a tower. No doors. No windows. And nowhere you need know about. He’s teaching me about himself. And working on a plan to… But you don’t need to know that, either.”

“Why not?”

“You’ve shown a terrible inability to keep your mouth shut lately.”

Everyone fell silent. The whole table stared at Hecht.

He awaited an explanation.

“And you don’t even know it. Who swore an oath not to reveal what he discussed with the Empress inside her quiet room? Who has, since, told almost everyone who will listen?”

“There was a crack?”

“There are a dozen cracks. In the ceiling. In the floor. The place is old. It’s settled. They don’t keep it up. Why break your word?”

“I’m sorry. I never thought about it. It wasn’t that big a thing.”

“For you. For you, it’s a feel-good. Look at me! The Grail Empress herself wants me to be her Captain-General. But for her it could be crippling. She has enemies everywhere. Luckily, for both of you, I made the people you told forget. I hope. I don’t know what they might have written down.”

Hecht felt like a small boy caught red-handed in a shameful act. He had promised. And should have had the sense to see the implications for Katrin. In fact, he had. But just had not thought about it.

“Maybe I’m not equipped to operate in so rare a political atmosphere.”

“You’ll be fine,” Februaren said. “If you focus on your work. And don’t get distracted by thoughts you shouldn’t be thinking.”

Time to change the subject. “Have you seen my brother yet?”

That got looks, all round.

“No. I’m working dawn to dusk trying to put enough more hours into the day so I have time to do the things I have to do along with everything everyone wants me to do.”

Heris demanded, “What brother are we talking about?”

Hecht said, “A soldier in Grumbrag is masquerading as Piper Hecht’s brother Tindeman. Bo Biogna found him. He convinced Bo. My guess is, they didn’t have a lot of language in common.”

Pella said, “I thought all your family was dead, Dad.”

“So did I. I still think so.”

“Then who…?”

“An imposter.”

“But…”

“No point speculating till we talk to him.” He could think of several explanations, all of evil intent.

The Ninth Unknown said, “I’ll find him. After I deal with more pressing matters here. The transition to Bellicose has to go smoothly. And I want all of us to come out the other side healthy. Piper in particular.”

Heris said, “I could go.”

Februaren and Delari scowled ferociously. Both shook their heads.

Heris grumbled, “You said I’m ready to manipulate the Construct.”

“Not that ready,” Februaren said. “Not to go somewhere you’ve never been. Not somewhere that far away.”

Principat? Delari, not unkindly, asked, “What language do they speak in Grumbrag?”

Heris seemed even more deflated. “Probably several. Including Church Brothen.”

“Could be. If you were going to interview a bishop, or someone educated, you’d manage.”

Februaren said, “There’s plenty you can do here, Heris. But you have a long way to go, romancing the Construct, before you can go places you haven’t already been. Muno can’t do it.”

Delari said, “Muno can’t do much of anything with the Construct. There’s something lacking in the man.”

“If you tell the Construct you can’t connect with it, Muno, it takes you at your word.”

“Yes, Grandfather.”

Both old men checked their audience. This ancient dispute probably antedated the births of everyone in the room.

It did not need airing now. It should not have taken place in front of the children. Hecht thumped the table.

Februaren said, “You kids don’t repeat anything you hear in this house. Understand?”

He got wide-eyed nods from Pella, Lila, and Vali, none of whom had seen the ancient this intense before.

“Lives could depend on your silence.” He told Hecht, “Bragging is how criminals get caught and men with deep secrets deliver themselves to their enemies. It’s bonehead human nature. We all want to look special. Knowing something is one of the best ways.”

Februaren glared at the children some more. “It would be your own lives, most likely. If somebody wicked decided you knew something he could use against Muno or Piper.”

Hecht suggested, “That being the case, why not take steps?” He caressed his left wrist.

“There may be hope for you yet, boy. Only, that means it’ll be even longer before I go take a look at your brother.”

Anna was subdued in her lovemaking that night. She understood that she had slipped deep into the struggle with the Night. And those she cared for had been drawn in as deeply, or deeper.

“Piper, the children don’t deserve this. They’ve already suffered too much.”

“I know.” He did not remind her that all three had, already, enjoyed more good fortune than did the run of orphans.

The Captain-General summoned Krulik and Sneigon to what Kait Rhuk bemusedly called a “Come to the Well of Atonement” meeting. It did not last long. Neither Krulik nor Sneigon had leave to speak. Rhuk, backed by Brothers from the Castella, confiscated their sales records.

The excitement was meant to prod the Deves into talking to one another. A man who turned sideways could eavesdrop and discover what secret sales contracts had been accepted off the books

Hecht would not confiscate firepowder or weaponry sold on the sly. He lacked authority. But it might be useful to know where it had gone.

The vast majority of what Krulik and Sneigon had sold behind the curtain had gone into the Grail Empire, to people who did not hold their Empress in high regard.

Katrin was fortunate that her malcontents disdained one another too much to join forces. Internecine warfare was an ancient sport amongst the Imperial nobility.

Johannes Blackboots had kept the peace. Lothar had not lasted long enough to make mistakes. Katrin’s peace was holding because every villain knew Ferris Renfrow was watching from the shadows.

Would adding falcons make much difference?

Unlikely. Even the best weapons were of little use against anything but the Night. Their battlefield value was psychological rather than practical. They made loud noises and a lot of smoke.

When the end came for Boniface VII, despite the Ninth and Eleventh Unknowns, there was no dislocation. Bellicose was in the chamber, praying over Hugo Mongoz. As were physicians and key Principat?s. History demanded witnesses.

Also present were Hugo Mongoz’s children, fathered before the old man began to prefer boys to women.

Two score more people waited outside the dying room, among them the Captain-General of Patriarchal forces. And Boniface’s toy, Armand. Who seemed wary of the Captain-General. And very worried.

Hecht waited with Addam Hauf, one of the Masters of the Brotherhood. Hauf had come over from Runch, on Staklirhod. He was a tall man in his early fifties, all muscle and sun-baked leather. Neither man realized they had crossed swords in the Holy Lands, long ago. Hauf observed, “The Princess fears for his sweets and pretties.”

“Don’t waste pity on him. He’s been underfoot forever. He always finds another keeper.”

Hauf grunted an interrogative. So Hecht explained. Without revealing what Armand really was.

Hauf asked, “He seems afraid of you.”

“I’m close to Principat? Delari. The lover he abandoned so he could catch himself a Patriarch.”

“Hard feelings?”

“Not on my man’s part. He was glad to get shot of the boy. It was a strain keeping up.” And keeping Armand away from secrets. For Principat? Delari had known that Armand spied for Ferris Renfrow.

“You know this man from Viscesment.” A statement that asked a question.

“I was impressed. He’s another like Boniface. He talked fire and brimstone early. He went after the Society with amazing ferocity. He reined it in when Boniface showed that he’d be reasonable. His liability is the same as Boniface’s. Bad health. He won’t last long. And I see no reasonable successor. There’ll be the traditional dogfight amongst a lot of bad choices.”

The remark about suppressing the Society sparked a nod from Hauf. There was no love between the Society for the Suppression of Sacrilege and Heresy and the Brotherhood of War. The Brotherhood did not like the Society’s obsessive focus on heresy in the Connec. That diverted resources from the fight for the Holy Lands. That was the struggle that needed concluding, favorably, before all others.

Principat? Flouroceno Cologni stepped out of Boniface’s dying chamber. Four Principat?s from the Five Families waited attendance on the dying Patriarch. Gervase Saluda was not recovered enough to take his place on behalf of the Bruglioni. Principat? Cologni said, “His Holiness has passed over.”

Servants and lesser priests scurried out. The forms of mourning had to be observed. They would commence immediately.

Among those who hurried out Piper Hecht particularly marked Fellau Humiea, an odd creature recently nominated to become Archbishop of Salpeno by King Regard. Meaning Anne of Menand. As always with the leading men of Arnhand’s capital, Humiea stood accused of having lain with the King’s mother.

“Trouble?” Hauf asked, noting the Captain-General’s stare.

“Possibly. I don’t know what they’re thinking in Salpeno.”

“I wouldn’t be disappointed if a boulder fell from the sky and smashed Anne of Menand. The only help we’ve gotten from Arnhand lately is her son Anselin and six knights.”

“She sees no personal advantage from freeing the Holy Lands. Offer to make her Empress of the combined Crusader states.”

Hauf chuckled. “That might work. Though she’d probably strip the Holy Lands of treasure and sacred artifacts and abandon them to the Unbeliever.”

Hecht nodded. An exaggeration. But where Anne of Menand was concerned, every canard contained an element of truth. “My vigil is complete. I should get back to the Castella, see if there’s news from the Connec.”

“Difficult, managing a campaign from hundreds of miles.”

“Difficult, indeed. I had almost unnatural luck putting together a competent, trustworthy staff and officer corps. They don’t miss me much when I’m gone.”

“An interesting phenomenon. Unseen outside the warrior orders, at least since the Old Empire.”

The Captain-General grew uncomfortable. Master Hauf might be implying something. Might even be accusing. “Sir?”

“Just reflecting on the unique thing you’ve created these past few years. An army that doesn’t disperse during the winter, planting, or harvest. An army not structured around leaders who command by right of birth.”

Hecht interrupted, “My little heresy. So long as my employer doesn’t object, I’ll choose my officers based on talent. Too, no one of exalted birth ever asks to become one of the Patriarch’s men.”

“Men of noble birth come to us. Or raise forces of their own to take into the Holy Lands. Do you hear much about our comrade order, the Grail Knights?”

“Last news I had from up there was that one of my brothers might still be alive. Which I’m not prepared to believe. I left in the worst season. The pagans had found a war leader acceptable to most of the tribes.”

He stopped, shivered as though retreating from painful memories.

Master Hauf nodded. “Some new horror is afoot up there. News came down the amber route, through the Eastern Empire, about an attack on a Grail Order stronghold called Stranglhorm. The Grail Knights were victorious. But the behavior of their attackers, and the sorcery supporting them, is unsettling.”

Hecht was moving now, headed for the Castella, slowly. Addam Hauf paced him. The Master was headed the same way. “We faced strangeness and sorcery in Calzir and Artecipea, both. We’re still cleaning up a mess in the Connec.”

“I’m guessing this is more of the same.”

“Kharoulke the Windwalker.”

Master Hauf looked startled.

“There’s been talk. The Principat?s are interested. So were people in Alten Weinberg when I was there. So. Work is being done. Of what value time will tell.”

“Include the Brotherhood when you learn something interesting. If you can.”

“Of course. Though you seem better informed than I. I hadn’t heard about an attack on Guretha. How bad was it?”

“The pagans were particularly destructive.”

“I’ve never visited Guretha. It was supposed to be a great city. By the standards of that part of the world.”

“I suppose the ice will have it before long, anyway.”

Piper Hecht closeted himself with his cronies inside one of the Castella’s quiet rooms. Force of habit. He did not expect to share any secrets but you never knew what someone would say to excite an eavesdropper.

“I want to know more about Master Hauf. He doesn’t have a reputation that precedes him.”

Buhle Smolens said, “Bechter says he was new to the commandery at the Castella Anjela dolla Picolena. He came to Runch out of the Holy Lands with a solid reputation as a battlefield leader. His family has connections with the lords of several Crusader states but he’s no politician himself. His claim to fame is that Indala al-Sul Halaladin counts him a friend.”

“How could that be?”

“They’ve had chances to do malicious harm but never dishonored themselves. Bechter thinks Hauf was promoted because he’s too honest and honorable. There were men who wanted to get him out of the Holy Lands. Where a lack of scruples, morality, and honor has begun making the Brotherhood look bad. Bechter thinks Hauf is here looking for a few good Brothers to help scour out the corruption.”

“Interesting. Strange, but interesting. Slip him what we know about the Witchfinders in Sonsa. Tell me more about Hauf and Indala.”

Colonel Smolens launched a convoluted tale of treachery and chivalry centered on one Rogert du Tancret, the violation of a holy truce, the kidnapping of Indala’s sister, and the Brotherhood’s intercession. In the person of Addam Hauf. Whose effort forestalled a war that might have pulled in Pramans from across all three kaifates. As it was, several mountain counties in the northern Holy Lands passed from Chaldarean to Praman control.

Rogert du Tancret remained unabashed. He continued to provoke the Pramans.

Smolens said, “Rogert fears no one because his fortress, Gherig, is unassailable.”

Once, when he was Else Tage, Hecht had seen Gherig. And even from many miles away that fortress had been grimly intimidating.

Some-most-strongholds were just piles of rock, however big they became. Gherig, though, had a personality. It lay crouched on its stony mountaintop like the home of earthly evil. It radiated the sense that something terrible could happen at any moment.

No. Evil was not right. Gherig was more like the Night. Neither good nor evil, except as one chose to behold it. Gherig simply was powerful and predatory. And, evidently, was these days in the hands of a master suited to it.

“Not important to us,” Hecht said. “We have troubles of our own. In the Connec.”

“Letter from Sedlakova came this morning. They’re having real trouble cornering Rook. Who gets a little stronger and smarter each time they take out some other revenant.”

“How did they get him the first time? Are there records?”

“You mean the Old Brothens?”

“Yes. Find out how they pinned him long enough to bind him.”

“The ancients exploited the nature of the god they meant to confine.”

“Research it. I’m going home. Which, this once, I’m not looking forward to. Anna and I are going to have a row about Pella going with us when we go out again.”

There was little reason to remain in Brothe. Bellicose’s ascension was not being disputed. The loud grumbling was all about his not yet having selected a more clement reign name. Hecht only needed the new Patriarch’s confirmation before he returned to the Connec.

“I’ll be glad to get out of here. What’re you going to do with the Braunsknecht?”

“Drear?”

“Him.”

“Take him back to Viscesment and put him in charge of the Imperial pullout.”

“And me?”

“Drag you back and make you work. You’ve had your holiday.”

Smolens snorted derisively.

Hecht said, “We don’t need to be here. Good guys and bad, they’re doing what they’re told.”

“Only because they’ve seen the new guy and he looks like death on a kabob skewer. They figure he won’t last a year.”

Hecht had seen Bellicose, briefly, and agreed. But the Ninth Unknown thought the man might not be beyond help. “He might surprise them.”

“I hope he does. I liked working with him in Viscesment.” Smolens shifted footing dramatically. “We really do need to maintain a presence here. A lobby with the Collegium and an inspectorate to ride herd on Krulik and Sneigon. Those bastards will sell weapons to anybody with money.”

“I’ll leave Rhuk. Like Prosek, he keeps coming up with marvelous ideas. Being here, he’ll have the chance to try them right away. I’ll get him the tools he’ll need to handle those people if they don’t behave.”

Smolens put his feet up. “I think, was I Krulik or Sneigon, I’d have seen this coming. I’d be setting up a manufactory somewhere secret. Maybe several.”

“Worth thinking about.” Hecht decided to mention it to Cloven Februaren. The old man would find the potential for mischief invigorating.

The relaxed state of the Mother City was evidenced by the size of Hecht’s escort. Just four lifeguards accompanied him to Anna Mozilla’s house. And no one in the streets paid attention.

Which made Madouc especially nervous. Naturally.

It had been some time since someone had tried to get the Captain-General.

Hecht surprised Anna and broke Pella’s heart by not arguing when the subject of the boy going back to the field came up. He told Pella, “I want you to study with the Gray Friars at Holy Founders. To learn the things you need know to do what Titus does.”

Anna was startled. “Is there something wrong with Titus? No? hasn’t said anything.”

“There’s nothing wrong with Titus that a visit home wouldn’t cure. I’m thinking about Pella, not the army.” Said with a meaningful look.

The children did not know the extent of the connection with Muniero Delari and Cloven Februaren. Those were just nice but weird old men who had them round to visit. Who gave them small but expensive presents.

“Which reminds me. Heris was here today. The Principat? wants us to come for a late dinner. A coach will call.”

“An invitation with muscle behind it.”

“She said the old man wants a last visit before you leave.”

“Really?” His plans remained vague. He wanted to see more of Pinkus Ghort. He wanted to sit down with the man who had been a monster. He wanted to get a real feel for the political tides in the Collegium and city.

“Have you decided when you’ll go?” Anna asked.

“No. I had a message from Sedlakova today. They’re having trouble. The squatters from Grolsach keep getting underfoot. Count Raymone can’t seem to sort them out.”

“Not to mention problems with Arnhander incursions,” Principat? Delari said when Count Raymone Garete came up during dinner. “Small bands, so far. A few straw knights and poorly equipped foot soldiers following some righteously indignant veteran of the Society adopted by Anne of Menand when Boniface VII dissolved the order.”

“There’ll be trouble from that direction?”

“Grandfather thinks so. Maybe as soon as news of the Interregnum reaches Salpeno.”

Legally, Bellicose had to wait out twenty-six statutory days of mourning before he became fully infallible.

Hecht said, “I got messages off as soon as Boniface went. Arnhand won’t catch anyone by surprise. Where is your grandfather?”

“He’ll be here later. He finally went to Grumbrag. From there he was going on to someplace called Guretha.”

“A second opinion would be useful.”

“Second?”

Turking and Felske came and went with the courses. Mrs. Creedon appeared in the doorway twice, possibly hoping for a compliment. Hecht paid no attention. He barely noted that everyone but the old man was keeping quiet.

Heris finished eating and went to the kitchen.

Cloven Februaren ambled in and settled at Heris’s place, pounded the table with the pommel of his knife. Delari said, “Gracious of you to make yourself presentable before you joined us, Grandfather.”

Februaren was filthy. And stank. The children, though they enjoyed the old man most of the time, edged away.

“Too hungry. Hungry work I’ve been doing. Couldn’t find your brother, Piper. I think somebody was working you. The rest we’ll talk about in the quiet room. Food!”

Everyone exchanged glances.

“What?”

Heris returned with the coffee service. Turking and Felske came armed with sweets. Mrs. Creedon beamed from the kitchen doorway. Heris poured coffee for Hecht first. “Happy fortieth,” she told him. Then everyone congratulated him on having reached forty.

He could say nothing. He dared say nothing. He had had no notion of when his birthday was, nor even, for sure, his exact age. He supposed Heris must have worked it out. He could not ask.

“I don’t know what to say. I’ve never had a birthday, or a name day.” Which was true despite his dissembling.

Heris said, “I wanted to invite some of your friends, too. Colonel Ghort and that man with the animals. And some others. But Grandfather gets nervous about having strangers in the house.”

Principat? Delari said, “The times are trying. Outrageous paranoia is the only rational response.”

Piper Hecht watched his children enjoy their first encounter with coffee. Two out of three rolled up their lips. Vali, though, nodded. None of them had a problem attacking the sweets.

Before he took his cup up to the quiet room Hecht had a few quiet words for Mrs. Creedon.

“Visited a city called Guretha,” Cloven Februaren said. “Lots of dead people there. Mostly not Gurethan. The city will have to be abandoned, anyway. Unless the climate turns. It can barely support itself. Importing grain. But the Shallow Sea has fallen so far that soon it’ll be impossible for the grain ships to get there.”

Hecht told what he had heard of Guretha from Addam Hauf.

“Accurate enough. They have better communications through the Eastern Empire.”

“Or sorcerers paying closer attention,” Delari opined.

“That, too. From Guretha I went to several other places on the edge of the ice. It’s the same everywhere. Desperate savages and something not human. The monster is the one from Ferris Renfrow’s drawing. At Guretha the Grail Knights lured it into the castle gateway and killed it with a blast of godshot. The falcons were Krulik and Sneigon products. Meaning they got there awfully fast. The charges were from the same generation that killed the worm on the bank of the Dechear. The falconeers were Deves contracted to the Grail Knights.

“I found Devedian falconeers several places once I looked. Those people need to be reined in.”

Hecht said, “We should’ve expected it. I knew they’d arm themselves better. That was my unstated reward for all the good they’ve done me. But I never meant them to arm the world. I’m going back to Krulik and Sneigon. If I find anything suspicious…” What could he do short of filling graves? The firepowder genie was out of the bottle. He would have no more luck stuffing it back in than the Night was having ending the threat of the Godslayer.

Cloven Februaren asked, “Who told you about your brother?”

“Bo Biogna. An old friend. I met him the same day I met Pinkus Ghort and Just Plain Joe. He’s one of Ghort’s sneak arounds, now.”

“I know him.”

Muniero Delari sighed.

Hecht asked, “Is there a problem, Grandfather?”

Delari said, “I’m just tired. Helping Hugo Mongoz, and now this new man, stay alive is exhausting. Health sorcery is the most draining kind.”

Also the most common, though the majority of people with a healing touch had only a small portion of the gift.

Delari continued, “And Piper’s Nightside defector isn’t helping. Because of him I’m getting less assistance than I’d hoped.” He looked pointedly at his grandfather.

“You’ll get more help, Muno. Once Piper goes back to the Connec he won’t need guarding so much. And if you really wanted to ease your load, you’d let Heris do the easy stuff down in the Silent Kingdom.”

“But…”

“But you want to manage everything yourself. Every little facet. So they all get everything just right.”

“But…”

“I know you, Muno. I used to be you. I still can’t help poking my nose in. But not so much anymore. Look. Heris is a grown woman. She’ll be right there with the Construct. She can yell for help. If the end of the world comes, she can translate out.”

Sounded like the old man was trying to convince himself. “I won’t need guarding so closely? Is there something going on that I haven’t been told?”

“No,” Februaren said. “But you’re in Brothe. Brothens have strong opinions and act impulsively.”

The Ninth Unknown was an accomplished liar. Hecht did not believe him.

Februaren revealed a small, smug smile. “Once you leave the rest of us will have time for the Construct, for investigations, for conspiring with the thing you brought out of the Jagos.”

“I’ve overstayed my welcome.”

“And you said the boy isn’t bright enough to lace his own boots, Muno.”

That night with Anna was more melancholy than usual before Hecht’s departures. She seemed sure she would not see him again. She did not want to talk about it and would not be reassured.

Hecht had just swung his legs out of bed, rising to use the chamber pot, when the earth began to shake. A rumbling came from the south. Earthquake and thunderstorm in concert?

No. This was what had happened the night the Bruglioni citadel went up. Only more sustained.

“What is it?” Anna asked.

“Krulik and Sneigon,” he said as the children rushed in. “Paying the price of perfidy.” He was sure. He knew the collector, too.

That old man was one cold, murderous bastard.

The hole in the ground was ten times that left by the Bruglioni explosion. It continued to smolder. Minutes ago there had been a secondary explosion down there somewhere.

Pinkus Ghort observed, “We’re gonna need a new law. No more stowing firepowder in the cellar or the catacombs.”

“That should help.” Hecht watched Kait Rhuk.

Rhuk and two hundred Patriarchals were searching the rubble, recovering the occasional corpse. But that was not their principal task. They were watching the Deve rescuers and confiscating firepowder weapons. And unexploded firepowder, where that turned up. Carefully.

There were a lot of weapons. Many more than contracted for by the Patriarchal forces.

Hecht noted several senior Deves watching. Nervously. None were men he knew. The Devedians he had known in his early days had all died, many by suicide.

That old man was a ruthless bastard.

The Krulik and Sneigon who had given their names to the business had died in the explosion. Hecht collected those likely to take over, all from the Krulik and Sneigon families. “I’m not happy,” he told them. “My principal isn’t happy. We feel betrayed. Our very generous contracts have been violated repeatedly, even after our warnings.” He glared at the Deves. “I’m not feeling especially sympathetic today. But I give you one last chance.

“The people who worked here were the best at what they did. They can go on doing it. Somewhere where there’ll be less devastation next time there’s an accident.”

One hundred eighty-one dead had been recovered already. Most had been denizens of the tenements surrounding the works. Scores continued missing. It was a miracle the fires had not spread through the whole crowded Devedian quarter.

Damp weather had proved a blessing.

“I didn’t plan this but I’m not unhappy that it happened. Though I do wish I had that firepowder back.”

Departure for the connec had to be delayed. Hecht and a band of lifeguards took the damp road to Fea, the village where the creature from the Jagos was being kept. Hecht enlightened no one about the reason for the trip. Madouc was in a sour mood. No tempers were improved by the ongoing drizzle.

Feeble rains had fallen irregularly since the explosion at the Krulik and Sneigon works. Old people complained about their joints and proposed unlikely theories to explain the weather. Those in the midst of life were amused because their elders usually claimed everything was bigger, brighter, prettier, deadlier, and just generally more so in every way in decades gone by. Not so, the rain.

Hecht’s destination proved to be at the heart of Fea, a tower seventy feet tall. It was a primitive example of architecture beginning to appear in various republics and even a few Patriarchal cities where local politics could overheat. Entry was accomplished through a doorway sixteen feet above ground level, after climbing a ladder. Its few windows were archer’s embrasures well above that. Food and water, sufficient to endure a brief siege, were stored inside.

The towers were not fortifications in a traditional sense. City politics being volatile, they needed to protect their owners for hours only. Days at the most. Rioters seldom came equipped with siege trains. Or martial determination.

Hecht thought these family fortresses might be worth consideration in the Collegium. They could make difficulties for Patriarchal troops trying to control local disorders.

This tower was different from similar towers in that the ladder was stored outside. The Captain-General swung that into place. “Wait here, Madouc. I won’t be long.”

Madouc did not want to risk his principal to a thing that had harvested lives by the score. He argued. But Piper Hecht had no fear. Asgrimmur Grimmsson had reclaimed himself from the Night.

“Madouc, I do most everything you ask. Even when I don’t see the point. But not this time. I need to talk to this man alone.”

Madouc reddened. Would this be the one time too much?

But Madouc controlled himself. He had his men hold the ladder.

“Thank you, Madouc.” Hecht climbed. He felt it in his thighs. Too much comfort lately. And too many years.

The tower door swung inward at a touch. Hecht swung off the ladder, stepped inside. He saw no immediate evidence that the place was occupied. He moved through the gloom to a narrow stairs that had no rail. Stepping carefully, one hand against the wall, he climbed a riser at a time, testing each before he put his weight on it.

His eyes adjusted. And the light did grow stronger as he climbed, sneaking in through the unglazed embrasures above.

How had Cloven Februaren gotten hold of this place? He supposed the villagers would have reports, thirty percent fiction and sixty-five percent speculation.

“Godslayer. Welcome to my mansion in Firaldia.”

“Soultaken. I’m glad you’re enjoying the Patriarch’s hospitality.”

“I don’t think your old man has much to do with it. Except insofar as he executes the will of the All-Father.”

Hecht found himself in a round, featureless room boasting few comforts. Archer’s embrasures marked the points of the compass, designed to accommodate crossbowmen. Hecht tried to hide the fact that he was winded.

“The will of the All-Father?”

“Unless my brother Shagot lied, one of our rewards for destroying the Godslayer would be a stone-built mansion in warm Firaldia. Warmth being a huge luxury and giant temptation for wild young Andorayans. Who believed everything could be theirs if they had the will to take it.”

“I must confess, you’re entirely unlike my preconceptions of an Andorayan pirate.”

“I’m not that Svavar anymore. He was ignorant and shallow and an embarrassment to his people. And wasn’t bright enough to see it.”

“So how…?”

“When you’re trapped inside the monster of the Jagos you can’t do much but think. And taste the Night. And sample the unfortunate minds and souls that get in your way. You become as aware of the beast you were as you’re aware of the horror you’ve become. All that time thinking could drive you mad. Unless you re-create yourself in a shape more acceptable to yourself. I think most ascendants must go mad. I’m probably barking mad myself-though I keep trying to convince me that I was doing my stint in Purgatory and I’m just fine now. A diet of iron and silver does wonders for clearing the mind.”

Hecht moved to an embrasure, looked out on countryside that had changed little in two thousand years. In all likelihood those vineyards and olive groves and wheat fields had been where they were before the rise of the Old Brothen Empire. There were ruins down there the Feaens claimed antedated the Old Empire. Ruins no one disturbed. They were part of a pagan graveyard protected by the insane fury of cairnmaidens, children buried alive so their angry ghosts would guard the burying ground.

Even devout Chaldareans would not test those beliefs.

“Nor should they dare,” the soultaken said, as though reading Hecht’s thoughts writ upon his face. “Those murdered children are ascendants themselves, of the most terrible sort. Though very small. The world is fortunate they can’t grow and can’t sever their connection to the ground they guard. I’ve tried to talk with them. I can’t. Their rage is impenetrable.”

“Once upon a time, when the Faith was young, the saints set out to free the cairnmaidens and lay them to rest.”

“So they did. Once upon a time. But it was cruel and painful work. And thankless. Changing the official religion didn’t change the superstitions of the country people. When those early saints passed over they left no apprentices to carry on. Idealism flees all faiths early.”

Hecht moved to another embrasure. From this he could observe Fea itself, and Madouc nervously pacing. He stuck an arm out and waved to demonstrate that he remained among the living. “You wanted to see me.”

“In a sense. The old man who comes has a very one-sided mind. He doesn’t want to talk. He wants to ask questions that produce definitive answers. But he doesn’t know how to ask the right questions.”

“You’re hoping I’ll sit around chatting, wrestling the world’s travails? I’m not the right man. I’m a soldier. I solve problems by killing people and burning things till the problems go away. I seem to be good at that.”

“Better than most of your contemporaries. Your weakness is your inability to be ruthless.”

Recalling the Connecten Crusade, Hecht considered a protest. He forbore. The soultaken was right. He had made examples in an effort to chivvy potential enemies away from the battlefield. But his thinking had been local and limited, concerned only with the immediate future. Ten years from now, if the Patriarch sent him against Arnhand, no one would be intimidated by what he had done then.

The Old Brothens said war was neither a game nor a pastime. If a man was not willing to pursue it with all his strength, with utter ruthlessness, he should not go to war in the first place. In the long term, ruthlessness saved lives.

An enemy had to be stripped of all hope. Before the killing started, if possible. He had to know that if war came it would not end till someone had suffered absolute destruction. The Old Brothens always had the numbers. Not to mention superior discipline and skills. And utter ruthlessness.

“I see what you mean.”

“Good, then. In time to come you’ll need to be less gentle.”

“What?”

“I am become a child of the Night. Though I’ve resumed my original shape part of me is still entangled in the Night’s boundless sea. I know what the Night knows. Like most Instrumentalities, I have trouble organizing that so it makes sense inside this world’s limitations. The toughest chore is to anchor information at the appropriate place on the tree of time.”

“The same problem your Old Ones had when they conscripted you to murder me.”

“Exactly. They read the causes and effects incorrectly, then misinterpreted the results. By trying to defeat the future they wrote their own downfall.”

“Be careful what you wish for.”

“Exactly.”

“I’m trapped climbing the tree of time myself. I have places to go and things to do according to the workings of this world.”

“True. A point I wanted to make. The reason I wanted to see you. I am an Instrumentality, now. Almost a new thing. My eyes are open to the Night. But I’m still human enough to see how I could be of use to an enemy of the Night.”

“You’re volunteering to spy?”

“Sort of. First I have to undo what rage made me do after my suffering at al-Khazen.”

“So you said. Yes.” Hecht was not ready to take the Night at its word, or at face value. Slippery was a defining characteristic of the Instrumentalities of the Night, be they gods or woodland sprites.

“Trust you need not invest. Judge by results.”

“You want to help in the struggle, feel free. A window into the supernatural realm would be priceless. But I can’t manage it. The old man will have to do. He can get any really useful information to me quickly.”

“He could teach me that traveling trick.”

“He could. You never know. He’s always got another surprise up his sleeve. But I wouldn’t count on it.”

“We have an understanding?”

“I’m not sure. I’m not clear on what you want for you.”

“At its simplest, absolution. Asgrimmur Grimmsson, as Svavar, was a terrible man. Not as bad as his brother Shagot, but a waste of flesh. What Svavar became might be worse-though that was circumstance, not intent. The ascendant absorbed power from two major Instrumentalities-which left him the slave of the qualities that made Svavar so awful.”

“But you’re a changed man now.” Hecht could not suppress his skepticism.

“The power of the metal to burn out evil and self-delusion can’t be explained in any way that would make sense to you. For weeks I’ve looked for an explanatory metaphor. There must not be one. Just say silver ripping through me constituted a baptism of the soul and spirit.”

Soul and spirit? The remark bore a suspicious odor. Some heretics believed men had two souls, consciousness and spirit. Hecht did not know the details. He shied away from deviant thinking.

The ascendant guessed his thoughts. “There’s a saying to the effect that there are more things in heaven and earth than we know. That is true beyond mortal imagining. For every Instrumentality you know there are a dozen in the air, the water, and the earth below. You know nothing about them because they never interact with human beings. They’ve always been insignificant in the history of your world. And always will be if they’re left alone.”

Hecht was becoming impatient. What the ascendant really wanted was company.

“I’ll release you in a moment, Captain-General.”

Hecht could not move.

“Those like Kharoulke prey on benign Instrumentalities. That explains how the Windwalker gets stronger when the wells of power are dying.”

“Not a secret.”

“Of course. But the dark Instrumentalities have never been so efficient. Not even Kharoulke’s generation, before they were defeated and constrained. They’ve changed. They’ve become devourers.”

Hecht noted the use of “they.” “There are others? Besides the Windwalker?”

“Yes. They’re still blind and only beginning to waken. But mortals are looking for them, wanting to quicken them. Hoping to become them.”

“Er-Rashal al-Dhulquarnen.”

“First try. Go. Enjoy your war. Cleanse the Connec of revenant Night. But your success won’t stay that nation’s doom.”

Hecht could move. He did so instantly, despite having a thousand questions.

The ascendant was amused.

Cloven Februaren should be careful. This thing was no dim pirate.

Brothe was calm. Pinkus Ghort told the Captain-General, “I almost wish you could stay around, Pipe. It’s so quiet.”

“Enforce that yourself. You have the power and the men.”

“And could be out of a job. I’m not on the payroll to keep the peace. I’m here to make sure Brothe runs the way Bronte Doneto and the Five Families want it to run. In that order. They could hardly care less if the lower classes murder each other. And they’re behind the Colors.”

Those political parties, once just passionate partisans of various racing teams, had been quiescent since the collapse of the hippodrome. Which had been reconstructed sufficiently that a partial racing season was set for the coming summer. Street politics would come along with. Had begun already and were in abeyance only because the Patriarchal garrison was intolerant of disorder.

Hecht said, “I’ll enjoy it from afar. If it gets to be too much, come see me. The militias of the various Patriarchal States desperately need reorganization.”

“Thought you already did that.”

“I tried. Against a lot of inertia. A couple more tries, I’ll get them hammered into a tool that’s ready to use when I need it.”

Something flickered behind Ghort’s eyes. A shadow. A thought he did not care to share. “I’m glad I’m not at the tip of the spear no more. Here I’ve got some control over my life. I can squirrel away a little wealth.”

Hecht filed that for consideration. That would be Pinkus Ghort expressing shadow thoughts as plainly as he dared.

Hecht had a row with Pella. The boy did not want to stay behind. Hecht ended it. “I promised Anna. I keep my promises. If your studies don’t keep you out of trouble, Principat? Delari can find something for you to do.”

Madouc visited Hecht in his office in the Castella. “Captain-General.”

“Madouc.” Coolly. Displeasure carefully constrained.

“I want to withdraw my resignation. If you will permit.”

“What’s changed, Madouc? I’ll never be any different.”

“I understand. I was tired and frustrated. The trip to Fea, with all that bad weather, broke me. I’ve had time to get over it.”

Hecht had not replaced Madouc. It was not a pressing concern. “All right. Get caught up.”

“Thank you, Captain-General. I’ll try to be less prickly.”

Cloven Februaren told Hecht, “Addam Hauf told Madouc to come back. He got bumped up two stages inside the Brotherhood hierarchy and proclaimed chief observer of Piper Hecht. You’ll see some changes among your lifeguards. Several who aren’t Brotherhood will go. Others who are will be replaced by men less captivated by you personally.”

“Ah. So now I’ll be like the old-time emperors. Protected from everything except my protectors.”

“Seems to be the idea.”

“I shouldn’t have let him come back.”

“Better the devil you know.”

“Possibly.”

“Take care. I won’t be around much anymore. Other chores need my attention.”

Hecht said only, “I’ll miss you, then.”

“The Connec should present no special challenges. Just be alert. And let Madouc do his job. He’s good at it. When you let him be.”

“I get the message.”

The Captain-General undertook one last unpleasant chore before leaving Brothe. In company with his lifeguards he rode out to a small Bruglioni estate southeast of the Mother City.

Gervase Saluda had recovered some. He now occupied a wheeled chair. A blanket covered his lap. “To hide the fact that they took my left leg,” he said in response to Hecht’s glance. “Gangrene.”

“I hadn’t heard.”

“You’re a barrel of surprises, Captain-General. I never expected you to come out here.”

“I’ve moved on but I do owe the Bruglioni. Without you I’d be just another sword looking for work.”

“I doubt that. The gods themselves watch over you.”

Not a particularly apposite remark from a Prince of the Church. But Hecht was not treating Saluda as a Principat?.

“I have been lucky. And the Bruglioni haven’t. What will you do now?”

“Recover. And try not to turn bitter.”

“For the family. You understand? You are the Bruglioni, today. I hear Paludan hasn’t died, but isn’t much alive anymore, either. He can’t manage anything. His surviving relatives aren’t going to do the Bruglioni any good. Which, I should think, puts you in a fix.”

There was pain in Saluda’s expression. He had not yet shaken his physical distress sufficiently to explore his future.

“You’re the Bruglioni Principat?” Hecht said. “But will that last if there isn’t a Bruglioni family behind you? The other families don’t love you.”

“I know. They think Paludan chose me because I was his lover. That’s not true. Or because I have some unnatural influence over him. Never because I was the best available.”

“You were the best. You’re still the best. But if Gervase Saluda doesn’t step back from the Collegium and take charge of the Bruglioni fortunes, the family is going to collapse.”

After a moment, Saluda said, “I should just roll this chair onto the Rustige Bridge and right off into the Teragi.”

“A simple solution but not the one I hope to see.”

“Yes?”

“I’ll help if I can. For what good that is, with me away in the Connec.”

“Oh. Good on you.” Saluda looked skeptical.

The Captain-General reached Viscesment at the head of troops numbering several hundred more than he had detached to keep order in Brothe and neighboring Firaldia. The new Patriarch had authorized the use of any force necessary to clear the Connec of revenants. And, in a secret directive, of agents of the Society for the Suppression of Sacrilege and Heresy. Too many members of that harsh order had gone underground rather than disband, their defiance fertilized by Anne of Menand’s covert support.

Hecht carried letters from Bellicose authorizing Count Raymone Garete to act against any monk or priest who refused to conform to the will of the Patriarch. Though he could only catch the renegades and turn them over to the ecclesiastical courts. Where they were too likely to be judged by sympathizers.

Clej Sedlakova, Hagan Brokke, and other trusted staffers assembled at Viscesment, in the Palace of Kings. With the Anti-Patriarchy ended, the Palace stood empty. The Patriarchals took over, which reduced the strain of their presence in the city.

Nothing critical needed deciding. The staff had managed well in their commander’s absence. “Makes me worry,” Hecht told no one in particular. “You men are either so good you don’t need me, or the job is so easy any fool can do it.”

His staff were all shrugs and smiles.

A feast of sorts filled Hecht’s first evening back. In attendance were the magnates of Viscesment and nobles of regions nearby. Count Raymone Garete and his bride Socia, and the Count’s more noteworthy henchmen, also attended. Senior churchmen were well represented, as well. They divided into clearly identifiable factions.

Bellicose’s friends formed the larger party. The other, called Arnhanders by their opponents, recognized the current state of affairs only grudgingly. And openly hoped for the end of Bellicose’s reign.

The Arnhander party did, in fact, consist almost entirely of outsiders who had come into the Connec during the crusader era.

Though officially only a lieutenant, Titus Consent had contrived himself a seat at Hecht’s left hand. Hecht supposed the rest of the staff had schemed to make that happen. Titus was in charge of intelligence. He would have a lot to report. Especially about those personalities of interest in attendance.

Consent whispered, “I’m still huffing and puffing from the rush to get here.” He had been in the field.

“Well, you made it.” Hecht noted several churchmen watching the exchange keenly. “Don’t take it personal, but you look like hell.” Consent did appear to have aged a decade in just a few months.

“Stress. These assholes want me to be you when you’re not around. No! Listen! We just got Rook cornered. Finally. In the Sadew Valley.”

“Isn’t that where he first turned up, back when?”

“Yes. The place must be important to him.”

Hecht flashed a sinister smile at one of the more notorious clerical agitators. The man wanted to be defiant, dared not. The Captain-General of Patriarchal forces did not, unlike the temporal powers, have to defer to the ecclesiastical courts. Which had led to occasional instances of harsh, summary justice.

“How soon will it be over?” With Rook stricken from the roll of revenants there would be no more demand for a Patriarchal presence in the Connec. Except for Shade. He had heard nothing positive about Shade. Yet.

“A while. It’s a loose cordon. They’ll tighten it slowly. They don’t want to get in a hurry and let him get away again.”

Hecht wanted to ask about problems in the force. But practical matters had to wait. He had powerful people to entertain, seduce, overawe. 8. Faraway East, the Oldest City: A Slender String How old was Skutgularut? Only the Instrumentalities themselves might know. Old enough to have been there in the Time Before Time, if its people could be believed. Old enough to have been there before men learned to write. Across the ages Skutgularut, anchor of the northern silk road, had been attacked, besieged, even conquered countless times. Never totally, not even by Tsistimed the Golden. Skutgularut was a place of high honor, sacred, that even Tsistimed could reverence. It was a place where scholars gathered. Where sorcerers met to study and experiment. It was a city at whose heart lay a small but utterly reliable well of power. A well never known, in all history, to have waxed or waned. For which it was called the Faithful.

Once Skutgularut yielded to the seductions of the Hu’n-tai At, Tsistimed made it his western capital. With age he came to favor the city’s famous gardens. The city prospered, for it no longer experienced war. Bandits dared not trouble the great caravans traveling the silk road. Those who tried were hunted down, man, woman, and child.

The aged Tsistimed seldom left his beloved gardens. He gave warring over to his sons, grandson, and the sons of his grandson. But he could not resist the call of adventure when the Ghargarlicean Empire collapsed. He had to tour the famous cities that were now his own.

The grand warlord of the steppe did not look like a man over two hundred years old. Those who came to grovel before him saw a man in his prime. A man with many years still ahead.

Age had overtaken Tsistimed only on the inside.

He was just plain tired of it all.

The savages came out of nowhere. There was no more warning than a few rumors of strange things brewing to the north. Then the men and women with the bones and skulls in their hair were everywhere, killing and destroying. Amongst them walked a thing in near-human form, with too many fingers, no hair, and spotted skin. Later, some claimed it had eyes like a tiger. Others said it was ten feet tall. All agreed that it was terrible. Invincible. Immune to the bite of any lone piece of iron but not to the cumulative effect of ten thousand.

The thing eventually fell. Eventually perished. Eventually melted into a pool of puss inside the temple that housed the Faithful.

Survivors agreed that pollution of the well had not been the thing’s desire. It had hungered for a direct drink from the Faithful.

The savages turned more ferociously destructive after their tutelary went down. They left Tsistimed’s palace a smoldering waste. They wasted most of Skutgularut.

Only a handful lived to flee into the icelands to the north.

The Hu’n-tai At courier system was such that Tsistimed learned of the attack while the destruction of Skutgularut was still under way. He ended his progress through Ghargarlicea and turned north.

The eastern world huddled into itself. The Night trembled.

There was no fury like the fury of Tsistimed the Golden.

9. Realm of the Gods: The Ninth Unknown

Cloven Februaren now spent most of his time with the soultaken. The soultaken did not enjoy the isolation of Fea, though he understood its necessity. He was not accustomed to being confined.

The old man said, “I sympathize completely. I do. I get ferociously restless when I have to wait. Be patient just a while longer. We’ll move as soon as my other obligations are covered. So. Here. More maps. So we can narrow the search.”

“You don’t listen, old man. I’ve told you, I know where it is. I’ve been there. I spent a long time there, trying to shut it down.” But that the ascendant would not discuss except in the vaguest possible way. That must have been a time of great stress. Or there were secrets the ascendant did not wish to reveal.

The Ninth Unknown was inclined to suspect the latter.

“You know where it was a few years ago. The world has changed. What did the non-divines do after your vengeance raid? Did they leave? Did they close the way behind you?”

The Svavar of old peeped out occasionally. Notably when the soultaken thought the Ninth Unknown was deliberately inventing obstacles to getting on with what needed doing.

Februaren’s concern was genuine. He wanted to invest the least possible time accomplishing this mythic jailbreak.

“There’s nothing more I can learn from here,” Februaren told the soultaken. Failing to mention that he had visited the north on his own and had failed to find a trace of the higher realm-though he had found where the entrance had been before. A powerful resonance remained.

The god realm was still there, over on the other side.

“It’s finally time to go?”

“It’s time.”

“Let’s do it, then.”

Asgrimmur Grimmsson began to change.

Februaren barked, “Wait! There isn’t room in here.”

The soultaken had swollen, shredding his human apparel. The buds of numerous legs had begun to show.

He reversed the change. “Good thinking.” He swarmed downstairs, through the door, down the ladder, to the ground. When the old man caught up he was well on toward resuming his former monster shape. And looking notably healthy-though his hand remained unrestored.

Odd that a demigod would not be able to replace a lost appendage.

Februaren sighed repeatedly. Would the ascendant remain rational and amenable after the change? No way to know. Asgrimmur Grimmsson was unique in modern times.

The people of Fea did not stay around to watch the change.

Soon the only humanity remaining was the monster’s head. Which migrated down to its belly. A ghost of a face using a voice barely audible told Februaren, “Climb onto my back.”

Februaren gathered his belongings. The climb was difficult. Terribly frightening. Yet compliance left him with arrows in his quiver.

He had the Construct, always.

The soultaken did not yet know much about his ally’s capabilities. Said ally meant to keep every secret he could. The enemy of my enemy today could well move to the head of the enemies list tomorrow.

The monster’s shoulders were broader than those of a horse, and less soft or warm. Nor were there ready handholds. Just some bristles almost as fierce as porcupine quills.

The monster surged up. It began to move. It gathered speed fast. Countryside streaked by. Februaren gasped for breath, shook in fright-and enjoyed every instant. He was not one of those old men who disdained novelty.

He settled into the rhythm.

The monster stuck to wild country. That meant traveling rougher terrain. The journey took longer than it could have. Yet Februaren was astonished to see the sunset-stained peaks of the Jagos in just a few hours.

Once darkness fell the monster took to the roads to make better speed. Darkness did not hamper it.

Februaren worried about what the darkness might conceal. Worry was wasted. The ascendant created its own bubble of immunity or invisibility.

Dawn found them well into the Empire, racing past amazed peasants. Instrumentalities seldom materialized these days. Though travelers’ tales from the north promised excitement to come.

The feel of the world began to change. Each league onward seemed more charged with reality, with a growing electricity. Had it been like this in the dawn times, when magic was everywhere? The old man worried. Why had he not felt this when he came north by way of the Construct? Was it something you had to come to gradually, giving it time to grow around and through you? Was it the hope of this that drove er-Rashal al-Dhulquarnen’s cabal?

No. They could not know about this without having experienced it. They wanted immortality. They wanted to become Instrumentalities in their own right.

In a world charged like this everyone would be a demigod.

Reality took a fat bite out of fantasy.

The wells of power were dying. This might be an island of magic in a desert of power, nothing more. One that had not existed long. It was not yet overrun by ravenous things of the Night.

The Ninth Unknown felt those moving all around, headed the same direction. A reservoir of power must have burst, emptying in hours instead of ages. It had happened before, a sort of volcanic burst. The last in the west had taken place almost two thousand years ago, in the eastern reaches of the Mother Sea.

Did the monster understand human speech? Februaren shouted, “We have to hurry! This will draw Instrumentalities from everywhere.” Including Kharoulke the Windwalker, who would take most of the power. Unless the source was too far beyond the edge of the ice.

The ascendant sucked it in as he ran. Februaren felt it growing stronger beneath him.

They were crossing the fields of Friesland, where snow was melting in the shade only because of the advent of the power, the epicenter of which lay somewhere to the west. Which meant somewhere out in the Andorayan Sea. In unfrozen water. The Windwalker of antiquity could not cross open water except to step over it, hop from island to island, or walk a bridge. Could that still be true?

No matter, really. Kharoulke could come to the edge of the Andorayan ice and suck up power from there. But without being able to hog the trough.

The monster reached the shore. It stopped, sank down so the old man could dismount. Then it shrank, folded in on itself, flowed, becoming a huge, naked man with an immense complement of red hair. “I can go no farther in that form.” He pointed westward. “That’s already fading. There’ll be nothing left in a week.” He shook like a huge dog. “It feels good!”

Februaren thought any Instrumentality would say the same. “I hope Kharoulke is so far off he can’t take advantage. What next?”

“The way has to be out there. I’ll become something that swims.”

“I was afraid you’d say that.” Knowing that he had done it before.

“A little water never hurt anyone, old man.”

“Good point. Unfortunately, that’s not a little. That water goes on for a thousand miles.”

“No. The southern tip of Orfland is just a few miles out. It’s low and swampy. We’ll have to swing around it to reach the true open sea.” The man who had been Asgrimmur Grimmsson walked into the surf. “The way is out there. You’ll have to take your chances.” He began to melt. And expand. He turned into a whale of modest size, twenty-three feet from fluke to snoot. Februaren walked into the water up to his waist. He got soaked by the little breakers rolling in.

Slimy skin. He could not mount up. The Instrumentality took pity and grew handholds. Once he was astride its shoulders a sort of saddle formed beneath him.

“Excellent. Just don’t sound.”

The whale swam circles where the gateway ought to be. It could sense the Realm of the Gods. Somewhere.

The Ninth Unknown felt it out there, too. But the way was closed.

The whale grew a grotesque caricature of a blind-eyed face in front of its blowhole. The mouth produced spectral sounds. “This is the place. But the Aelen Kofer have blocked the way.”

Who could blame the dwarves? Nothing good came from outside. And the affliction of tyrannical gods had been resolved inside.

“How fine have your descriptions been? Did you exaggerate anything to make the Realm of the Gods sound more glorious, more dangerous, or more exciting?”

The whale did not respond for so long that Februaren began to fear that it might refuse.

But, then, “The bridge. The rainbow bridge. It broke. I did not report that.” After an exchange prolonged by the whale’s slow replies, Cloven Februaren concluded that Asgrimmur Grimmsson had been at pains to accurately describe the private universe of his boyhood gods. And began to suspect that ascension had changed the man’s brain in ways not immediately obvious. Those might be characteristic of many other Instrumentalities.

Dealing with the ascendant reminded Februaren of the difficulties of raising a mildly autistic child. Which he had done, in the long ago. A son, Muno’s uncle Auchion. Love, training, and sorcery had allowed Auchion to live a normal, if truncated, adult life.

“Wouldn’t that be some shit?” the old man asked the salty air. “If the gods were autistic?”

It would explain a good many puzzles.

“Wait here,” Februaren told the whale.

“How long?”

Not where was he going, nor how could he get there from the middle of the water, but the most basic, literal question.

“For as long as it takes to open the way. Eat if you get hungry.” He saw seals at play in the distance. There must be land of some sort nearby.

Was the whale the kind that ate seals?

“But stay close.”

Asgrimmur Grimmsson’s reports were so detailed the Ninth Unknown managed to build a fine, if colorless, picture inside his head. Hand in hand with terror he took hold of the hidden strings of the Construct and stepped into what might turn out to be eternity. He could not know if it was possible to slip into the other world until he tried. He could not know-granted success breaking in-if he could get back out if he could find no means of opening the way from within.

Cloven Februaren was two hundred years old. More or less. He had taken risks before. But never quite so blindly, betting against such unpredictable odds.

He took the first step still wondering what secret need compelled him to engage in such blatant folly.

There was the sense of walking through starless, frozen night that accompanied every romance with the Construct. Then he was awash in a silvery light.

The Aelen Kofer must have scrubbed out all the color before they went away.

Cloven Februaren found himself inelegantly sprawled on a stone quayside, facing a mountain. A harbor lay behind him. One lone ship rode alongside the quay. It could have been a ship of legend. But even the legendary suffered from neglect.

That whole world had suffered from neglect.

Where were the Aelen Kofer? He had expected dwarves-though the ascendant thought those might have sailed away in the golden barge of the gods. But what ship, then, moldered at quayside?

“Should have paid more attention to my mythology studies,” Februaren grumbled. The dwarves had not been seen in the human world. Ergo, they must have stolen away into another of the realities to which this world was connected.

Were there not several such overlapping realms involved in the northern cycle? The land of the giants, the world underground, a frozen land of the dead, somewhere where elves ran rampant?

What did it matter? He was here. He was alone. He had to go on from there.

He needed to open the way. It did not look like there was a lot of food lying around. The contents of his knapsack would not last.

Sweet irony. To starve to death in heaven.

The old man looked up the mountain. The Great Sky Fortress up top was a ghost almost completely hidden by clouds. The rainbow bridge was partially visible below, showing hints of the only color around.

The bridge was broken.

Sufficient to the hour that problem. The trial of the moment was to open the way for the return of this world’s doom, Asgrimmur Grimmsson. A notion that birthed a grim smile.

Awakenings, revenances, most always featured the return of old evils thoroughly dedicated to the pursuit of greater evil. Not the correction of good deeds gone rotten. 10. Alten Weinberg: Sisters As often as she dared without sparking the Imperial wrath, Princess Helspeth begged leave to return to Plemenza. Telling Katrin, honestly, “I want to get away from the politics.” Making it sound general. Avoiding specifics because it was the specific that terrified her.

Katrin married was worse than Katrin the virgin. This shrew hated the world because, it seemed, she had chosen her husband so poorly. And could not admit her error.

Jaime had lost interest as soon as it was clear that he would never become Emperor himself. Though for some time he did perform his duty in an effort to create an heir.

More often he lay with some woman of the court. Or with a dusky little mistress he kept in an apartment not far from the Palace.

Alten Weinberg eventually lost its appeal. Jaime returned to Castauriga.

His argument for going was sound. He was king, there. His kingdom was being pressed by its neighbors. Had Peter of Navaya not been distracted by grander ambitions he might have gobbled Castauriga already.

And there were stirrings in Arnhand, aimed at the Connec. That could pull in the Chaldarean Episcopal princes of Direcia. None of them wanted a stronger Anne of Menand behind them.

The politics Helspeth wanted to escape were those of religious factions. Most of the nobility would not accept Katrin’s accommodation with the Patriarchy. They wanted to put forward the Princess Apparent as their banner in the struggle to bring back yesterday.

Helspeth would have no part of sedition. And made that plain to anyone who came to her with a scheme.

Katrin adamantly refused to let Helspeth leave the capital. She did not want the Princess Apparent in residence where she could not be closely watched.

There was a huge strain between the sisters. Helspeth was terrified she could end up imprisoned again. Or worse. And had reason to fear. For Katrin’s advisers suggested extreme measures regularly.

The gathering storm broke when Katrin announced that she was expecting. Again.

She had become pregnant almost immediately after her wedding. That child spontaneously aborted in the sixth week. The days following had been hard. No one knew what to expect. Katrin flew into rages with no apparent provocation. The rages fled as quickly. She became deeply remorseful, countermanding draconian orders issued while she was angry. The court adapted by pretending to pursue her cruel directives while hoping she would change her mind.

Katrin seldom followed up. She forgot.

But sometimes her people, frightened of a future without Katrin in it, did not ignore her maddest orders.

The Empress’s behavior drove more and more nervous nobles into the camp of those who thought life would have to be more congenial with a different sister occupying the Grail Throne. Which thinking terrified the Princess Apparent.

Katrin’s announcement, scarcely four weeks after Jaime’s departure, brought peace. Her irrationality went away. She buried herself in the work of empire, and in preparations for the baby’s arrival. She assured everyone it would be a son, a strapping heir to the mantle of Johannes Blackboots. She would name him for his grandfather. She drove women of the court to distraction with pregnancy talk. She slept much less than before. This manic phase appeared endless.

Which frightened some of the court more than had her earlier psychosis.

Everyone avoided mention of Jaime of Castauriga.

Jaime was a subject Katrin would pursue with more intensity than her pregnancy. Jaime had become a demigod who bore no resemblance to the living man. A man even Katrin’s most devoted supporters hoped was gone for good.

Helspeth had been summoned to dine with her sister. She dressed dowdy, determined not to outshine Katrin, whose looks had declined alarmingly. She found Katrin in an expansive mood, inclined to sisterly intimacy. Helspeth played along, afraid a hammer would fall just when she least expected.

Katrin said, “I’m so lonely, Ellie. Jaime is gone. I don’t have anybody. These people… They’re not my friends. They just want to use me.”

“Kat, you’ve always got me. If you’d just accept that. I don’t want to be anything but your loving sister. That’s all I need to be.” In the back of her mind was a hope that she could scuttle efforts to find her a husband. One who would take her far from the Empire.

The search always livened when Katrin was in a good mood. With her expecting, now, there was no perceived need to reserve the Princess Apparent against the unexpected.

A baby would be easier to manipulate if Katrin suddenly went away. Helspeth, many feared, was too much like her father. She would be difficult despite her sex.

An hour of Katrin’s insecurities fled. Helspeth suspected her of making some of it up, purely for the pleasure of being reassured.

Then Katrin said, “I hear that Braunsknecht captain, Algres Drear, is back in the city.”

“I didn’t know that. Why?”

“They ran the Imperials out of Viscesment. After the Captain-General made sure his puppet was settled in Brothe.”

“Really? He didn’t strike me as that kind. More a loyal soldier.”

“He must have turned my offer down because he knew he was in a position to make the next Patriarch.”

“I never thought of that. Though I don’t see why he’d be chasing revenant Instrumentalities through the End of Connec if he could be the man behind the Patriarch in Brothe.”

“He’ll have a reason. That man is too slick.”

“Just because he turned you down?”

“Doesn’t make any sense, otherwise.”

“Sure, it does. He gave his word. He’d have jumped at the chance if he hadn’t already promised his service to someone else.”

Katrin eyed her oddly. Was she too intense? She did not think so. But she ought to back off anyway. This was not the first time she had shown unbecoming emotion when the Captain-General was the subject. People might wonder.

She wondered herself. She was an adult, rational woman. Why the obsession? Why the secret letters? Having witnessed Katrin’s obsession with Jaime of Castauriga she feared she might succumb to a similar madness.

A lady of the court interrupted, “Lord Maeterlinck begs your indulgence, Empress. Ferris Renfrow has arrived with important news. The Graf believes you should be made aware as soon as possible.”

The interruption angered the Empress. People just would not stop butting in with things that could wait. For weeks, for all she could do anything about some of them. With the old men it was always the crisis of the moment. Were they determined to test her to her limits?

Helspeth whispered, “It’s not Claudelette’s fault. Be gentle. She’s doing what she’s supposed to do.”

Katrin muttered angrily.

“Take it out on fon Maeterlinck. He’s the villain.”

Easy to say when she was not the girl who had to growl at one of the old warhorses. Simpler to take it out on a woman who could do nothing but bow her head and take it.

“All right, little sister. I’ll let you show me how.”

Ouch! But Katrin did no such thing.

“Claudelette. Inform the Graf fon Maeterlinck that I require him to assemble the Council Advisory and other appropriate individuals within the hour. No excuses.”

The Empress grinned wickedly. “That, little sister, is how I deal with the Maeterlincks. Now he has to make himself unpopular with fifteen or twenty cranky old men. Most of whom won’t arrive on time. So they’ll look bad in front of their Empress. A few will actually blame fon Maeterlinck.”

“Are you going to change?”

“No. I’ll show up breathless and inappropriately dressed. I’m so devoted to the Empire. Which should make the Council that much more irked at Maeterlinck if this is just another routine report being exaggerated into a millennial threat to the Empire.”

A parade of insignificant crises did arise. Helspeth suspected there was less malice behind them than Katrin wanted to believe. Men like the Graf fon Maeterlinck just wanted to be reassured that they were important to the Empire.

Having acknowledged the Imperial dignity of the Empress and Princess Apparent-perfunctorily-a tattered and filthy Ferris Renfrow declared, “There wasn’t any need to convene the Council in emergency. My news may be dramatic but it doesn’t require an immediate response. It may require no response at all.”

Katrin’s glare very nearly melted the Graf fon Maeterlinck.

Maeterlinck had shaken the hornet’s nest before finding out what brought Ferris Renfrow here. And Renfrow had let him think the news would be earth-shaking so he would stick his fingers in the meat grinder.

“Renfrow? We’re here. Let’s have it.”

“Arnhander crusader forces raised by Anne of Menand and renegades from the banned Society for the Suppression of Sacrilege and Heresy have invaded the Connec. The largest force, commanded by King Regard, is headed toward Khaurene, out west. A second army is working its way through the mountains toward Castreresone. The Archbishops of Salpeno and Pernoud are its commanders.

“A third force will come down in the east, following the Dechear. It’s supposed to reduce Antieux, then follow the example set by the Captain-General during Sublime’s Connecten Crusade. This army consists of those who have angered Anne of Menand. They’ve been ordered to crusade or face severe disfavor. I expect Anne hopes Count Raymone Garete will eat most of them up.”

Helspeth had begun breathing rapidly. She bit her lower lip.

Katrin said, “It’s true. It’s not crucial. But now we’re here.” Scorn edged her words. “Those who bothered to respond.” She glowered. “So let’s discuss it. How is Brothe likely to respond? I’d expect wholesale excommunications. At the least. No Patriarch tolerates defiance from the temporal authorities. And what will the Captain-General do?”

News delivered, Ferris Renfrow had eased aside. Helspeth thought he seemed particularly interested in her reactions. But she had been living close by a sister who turned ugly in an instant. She revealed nothing.

Practically, the news meant little to her.

Not so to the old men. Already there were whispers about this town or that, on the frontier, which really ought to be part of the Empire. Though the Empire had been nipping off bits of Arnhander territory for decades, whenever Arnhand became preoccupied elsewhere.

Helspeth asked, “What will King Brill do?”

Santerin was always at war with Arnhand. The kings of Santerin seldom disdained an opportunity to raid and capture towns should the generally feeble central Arnhander authority turn its back.

Katrin welcomed the interjection. “Renfrow?”

“I can’t say for sure. I haven’t heard from my sources. But King Brill should do what Santerin’s kings always have. Though Anne of Menand, being smarter than the last dozen Arnhander kings put together, might have made arrangements ahead of time.” Renfrow gave the Empress a sharp look. As though to suggest that crusades were not to be undertaken on a pious whim.

“How would she do that?”

“King Brill hungers for more titles and territories. She could relax Arnhand’s claims to some of the more fractious border counties till she feels strong enough to take them back.”

Katrin stepped down from her high seat. She walked among the Councilors, and around them. Her father shone in her then. That made the old men uncomfortable. “Have we heard anything from Salpeno? Officially? Or has someone forgotten to inform the Empress?”

Renfrow said, “Your Grace, if I might?”

“Go ahead.”

“Strong as she is herself, Anne can’t conceive of a strong woman. She’ll need her nose bloodied before she considers the Empire worth her worry.”

“Is that so? Lord Admiral. Grand Duke. You two are always spoiling for a fight. Arrange for demonstrations along the frontier.”

Helspeth asked, “Should we undermine Anne’s effort in the Connec? She’ll be more of a threat if she gains the strength and wealth available there.”

Katrin asked, “Renfrow? Any thoughts?”

“No. Except to note that no good for the Empire will arise from any success Anne might enjoy. Also, we have to consider the fact that there’s another unhappy truth out there. The physical world is changing.”

“Meaning?”

“The winters are getting longer. Seas are getting shallower. The far north is going under the ice, fast. Permanent snows in the Jagos and other high ranges are several times more vast than just ten years ago. The wells of power, everywhere, keep getting weaker. Meanwhile, old evils, Instrumentalities from the Time Before Time, have begun to ooze back into the world.”

“No big revelation there, Renfrow. Why bring it up?”

“Because it’s going to get worse. While we stay focused on war and politics as usual. You’re looking to try another crusade into the Holy Lands…” The spymaster stopped before he said something risky.

Johannes Blackboots had allowed Renfrow the freedom of a court jester. Johannes had found his forthright observations useful.

Katrin Ege was more traditional. She preferred to be told what she wanted to hear. But she had not lost all affection for the truth. She might not like what she heard but she could cope with it. So far.

Helspeth did not expect that to last much longer.

Katrin’s connection to bitter reality frayed by the hour.

Ferris Renfrow bowed and began to retreat from the presence, one step at a time.

Helspeth watched. He was not afraid. He just wanted to go away. He had delivered his information. He had tried to make a point. No one cared. Now there was work to be done elsewhere.

Helspeth understood. And could not care herself. She could focus only on the fact that the Captain-General would soon be caught in a political pinch.

11. Tel Moussa: A New God Talks

Back to Father One bronze falcon lay hidden in the tower at Tel Moussa, its existence known only to Nassim Alizarin and two cronies. The Mountain had hired it made-the tube only-by a renowned Dainshau founder in Haeti, a city in Rh?nish territory. It was smaller than falcons elsewhere. This Dainshau cast the weapon believing it to be something intended for use in a Devedian temple.

The Mountain had mounted the falcon on a goat cart. Everything Nassim knew about its use he had learned during the campaign against Rudenes Schneidel, by watching his Unbeliever allies. The firepowder-what precious little he possessed-had been purloined from Sha-lug stores in al-Qarn by sympathizers and smuggled north an ounce or two at a time.

Alizarin had powder and shot enough for a dozen discharges. He did not try to accumulate more. He was sure his weapon would not survive that many firing cycles. Bronze was not the best metal for casting falcons. Brass was better, iron best. But only the Deves out west had mastered casting iron tubes that cooled without developing fatal flaws. Gossip out of al-Qarn said the stubbornness of the iron had been a greater irritant to er-Rashal al-Dhulquarnen than all his failures in the west.

Which adventures he had sold to Gordimer the Lion as preemptive machinations meant to cripple the west’s ability to launch fresh incursions into the Holy Lands. Or, as the Marshal so feared, against Dreanger itself.

The Rascal was back in al-Qarn, momentarily rehabilitated. The Lion needed the sorcerer more than he abhorred the man.

Each year left Gordimer more frightened of the future. The prophecy concerning his doom came nearer fruition every day.

It might be a blessing to the Sha-lug, Dreanger, and the kaifate of al-Minphet, all, if someone were to slip the Marshal a taste of poison.

Nassim Alizarin set little store by omens or prophecies. Nor had he been inclined to be God’s most faithful servant since his son’s murder.

The Mountain stared at his half-eaten meal. Was there any point to going on? Looking back, it seemed his very soul had been invested in Hagid.

El-Azer er-Selim interrupted, “Riders on the Shamramdi road. Coming our way.”

“Meaning we’re about to be blessed with demands from our lords.”

Az bowed slightly, said no more. Garrison duty at Tel Moussa was not difficult. Its one great demand was patience. But the Mountain treated every message from the Lucidian capital as an imposition. Though he never failed to do as he was asked, nor did he not do it well.

“Young Az!” Alizarin said, pleased to see Azim al-Adil again. “Old Az didn’t tell me it was you.”

The Master of Ghosts said, “Old Az doesn’t see that well anymore.”

The boy said, “My pleasure, I assure you.” He launched into flowery flattery, a sure sign he had been taught well at his granduncle’s court.

The Mountain said, “I’m getting old, boy. I may not last through all this. Have your companions been seen to?”

“They won’t want much. We’ll head back as soon as you and I finish talking.”

“My lord! You mustn’t subject yourself…”

“I must. We all must. Something dramatic is happening with the Hu’n-tai At. Some unknown force attacked Skutgularut. Left it in ruins. Tsistimed is calling in all his sons and grandsons and their armies. There’ll be a huge event of some sort.”

“Maybe the old man will beat his brains out against whoever did it. What does it mean to us?”

“To you, very little. To Indala al-Sul Halaladin it means tribes on the periphery of the kaifate will feel more comfortable about defying the central authority. Few of their chieftains can think ahead far enough to understand that they’ll need protection again next summer.”

“I see.” Governance was difficult when communications seldom exceeded the speed of a galloping horse. “Again, what part am I to play?”

“My illustrious relative begs your assistance in an entirely different matter. The beast du Tancret has offended al-Prama again. Deliberately.”

“The lepers?”

“You heard?”

“The caravan master came here. He begged me to punish Rogert. I showed him our weakness and told him to make his case at court. I see that he did.”

“He did. Indala’s anger was boundless. Among the women in the caravan were two of his brother Ibid’s granddaughters, Needa and Nia, returning from a visit to the antiquities of Dreanger. No. They weren’t defiled. Not even Rogert du Tancret would dare that with any but slaves and pleasure women. But the girls were among those ‘guests’ he forced to dine in Gherig, then served using lepers.”

“I sense a particular interest on your part, young Az.”

“One of the girls, Needa, could be my betrothed.” In answer to the general’s lifted eyebrow, “The relationship is remote. Indala and Ibid had different mothers.”

The old man nodded. The children would be sufficiently distant to marry.

“What do you require of me?”

“The beast dared that insult only because my illustrious relative was preoccupied with Tsistimed. But now the Hu’n-tai At have turned their faces. Indala would like to seize the moment to punish du Tancret. Permanently.”

“Again, what do you require of me?”

“That you insert a spy into Gherig. Some of your followers have visited the west. They should be able to play Gisela Frakier well enough to fool the Arnhanders.”

“Sad hope,” the Mountain said. “I’ve tried. Twice. Both men were caught. And thrown from the wall. A gesture of contempt. As though they were trash, not worth torture or ransom. One man, abd Ador, survived. You can talk to him. He’s had nothing but time to think about what went wrong.”

“The paralyzed man in the wheeled chair downstairs?”

“Him.”

“Why do you keep him?”

“He hasn’t asked to die. He isn’t ready for Paradise.”

The youth’s eyes narrowed. A preference for pain and incapacity over Paradise suggested a feeble level of faith.

The boy was brilliant. Well educated. But he needed seasoning in the world outside palace walls.

“It’s his choice, youngster. We’re Sha-lug, not some rabble turned out of a prison that won’t wait for the wounded to die to bury them.”

The boy inclined his head slightly, conceding the point.

Alizarin said, “There may be a way to get inside Gherig that hasn’t occurred to us. I’ll find it. Betimes, your illustrious relative might try to lure Rogert out and destroy him.”

“Such plans are being considered, General. But the Arnhanders aren’t fools. Gherig sits on the frontier of the Holy Lands, surrounded by princes and principalities, tribes and chieftains, towns and townsmen, any of whom is likely to betray any of the others, or us, for a fistful of copper. And never suffer a pang of conscience.”

“The alternative would be to isolate the fortress.”

“Harder on the Faithful than the Unbeliever. Gherig can withstand a prolonged, determined siege.”

“I understand. I don’t mean a siege. Instead, just deploy raiders. Cut Gherig off. Attack anyone going in or coming out. Lay on the occasional small sorcery to worsen the misery of servants, soldiers, and merchants who are inside and have to watch the rest of the world go on.”

“I see. Shield the world from Rogert du Tancret by caging him. With people who will come to realize that the only way to change their fortunes is by stepping over his corpse.”

“Exactly.”

“Not particularly satisfying. But it might appeal to my uncle’s sense of humor.”

A soldier, Hawfik, interrupted, “Pardon me, General. Riders are approaching. They’re from Dreanger. The Master of Ghosts says it’s time to be wary.”

“Az? But…” But old Az was no longer in the chamber, lurking at the edge of awareness. “This could be trouble, young Az. We’ve been expecting the Rascal to try to silence us, now he’s back in favor.”

Alizarin had been awaiting a counterstroke since the fall of Rudenes Schneidel. It had taken time because the Rascal had had to worm his way back into the Lion’s good graces.

The boy waited quietly. Alizarin suggested, “Stay here. Make yourself known quickly if we fail to defend ourselves. Er-Rashal won’t want to offend Indala.”

“Er-Rashal offends my uncle by existing. I won’t hide from his lackeys.”

Quick, the general thought. The boy recognizing that the Rascal would not waste his own time on an upstart rebel.

Al-Adil asked, “How does your Master of Ghosts recognize trouble from so far off?”

“Az is a very minor sorcerer. But quite good within his abilities.” Enough said. Indala’s loathing for sorcery was well known, and shared by his associates. “He knows.”

Alizarin went to the small balcony overhanging the tower gate. The tower itself was just a few feet wider than the gate itself on that face. It formed a widening wedge behind, climbing Tel Moussa. There was a six-foot dry moat in front of the gate with a bridge that could be taken up and dragged inside. Alizarin had yet to see that done. Behind the gate, the way rose steeply. Any attacker who broke through still had to attack uphill.

The general found that Az had wasted no time waiting for orders. The men had been turned out. They were at posts away from the gate. Which stood open.

He considered the party of four approaching. Two Sha-lug. And two pretending to be Sha-lug. One of those radiated the arrogance Alizarin associated with er-Rashal al-Dhulquarnen.

The senior Sha-lug looked up. The Mountain did not recognize him. The man said something to the sorcerer. Alizarin told al-Adil, “Time to fall back. Just in case.”

Soon afterward, a flash and howl spoke eloquently of interesting events outside. Nothing passed the wards denying entrance to things of the Night.

The boy was startled. “I didn’t think… I can’t believe…”

“When you return to Shamramdi you can say you saw it yourself.”

“If I get back. What can you do against that? Your Master of Ghosts…”

What al-Adil might have said, doubting Az’s abilities, vanished in a huge roar. The tower shook. Stones groaned. Dust fell.

Almost immediately horses began screaming. As did men. Or a man.

Alizarin returned to the balcony.

All four riders were down. Two lay still. The sorcerer was the human screamer. The other wounded man was focused on reattaching his right hand to his wrist.

Two horses were in flight, one on three legs. Neither appeared to be wounded. The cripple must have hurt itself trying to get away. The two fallen animals would have been in front, bodies shielding the fleeing pair but not their riders.

“Excellent,” Alizarin said. Though he mourned the fallen Sha-lug. Their crime had been to be in the wrong place with the wrong man. “Let’s see if we can salvage the sorcerer. He could make an interesting witness. Should your uncle be interested in what he has to say.”

“No doubt of that.”

“You have reservations?”

“He’s still a sorcerer. And I have no resources for managing him.”

“We’ll fix you up.”

Arriving down below, Nassim found his precious falcon defunct. “Az?”

“We overcharged it, sir. To make sure we put enough stuff in the air.”

“Deal with those horses. And the wounded. If the sorcerer looks like he might live, save him.”

Az met the Mountain’s eye. He nodded, went back to work. Comrades from his old company joined him. Bone shouted, “We can save the one with the hand gone if I get a tourniquet on him now.”

“Do it,” Alizarin called back. “We’ll kill him later if he needs it.”

Mohkam, one of Bone’s band, said, “They never saw us coming out of the bright sun, General.”

Azim al-Adil observed, “That sorcerer’s arrogant certainty astonishes me.”

“We’ll ask him about it.” Alizarin moved, the better to watch Az.

The Master of Ghosts ignored the sorcerer’s pleas for help. With assistance from two companions he removed the forefinger and little finger from each of the man’s hands. That would end his gesture magic. Then they punched a hole through his tongue. Through that they threaded a strip of silver, bent and twisted its ends together. There would be no verbal magic, either.

Only then did they bring their captive into the tower.

Nassim said, “I trust you’ll be able to wait till he’s ready to travel, young Az.”

“I can. But you’ll need to send a message.”

“I’ll have the signalmen get started. It’ll be a long message. I need to catch those horses, too. And we have bodies to bury.”

Nassim Alizarin al-Jebal was pleased. This had been a good day. The Rascal’s beard had been well and thoroughly yanked, then twisted. Word would spread amongst the Sha-lug. Some might question continued allegiance to a Marshal who let such schemes be woven around him.

“Bone! Tomorrow you go back to Haeti. Tell our Dainshau friend his bronze chalice is so favored by our congregation that they want to add three more just like it.”

Bone sighed. He was too old. But he did not argue. Nor had Nassim thought he would.

Bone was Sha-lug.

12. The Connec: Confrontations

The circle had closed. At last. Rook had proven slicker than a barrel of greased snakes, according to one veteran of the interminable campaign to eliminate the last of the Old Gods resurrected by Rudenes Schneidel. Hecht told Clej Sedlakova and Titus Consent, “I’m worn out. And I wasn’t here for half the work.” He glanced eastward. First light limned the Connecten hills. “There’s no way he can slide out again?”

Sedlakova waved his one arm in exasperation. “No! Hell, no. Only, he’s managed twice already when I promised he couldn’t. So, no, I won’t guarantee anything. He could turn into a flock of crows and fly away. One of his appellations is Prince of Ravens.”

“Easy, Colonel. You have nothing to be ashamed of. None of you do.” That thing about the crows, though… Some of the old Instrumentalities had done stuff like that. Another of Rook’s appellations was Lord of Flies. If he turned into a million flies, what hope would there be, ever, of eliminating him?

On the other hand, that would be the ultimate act of desperation by the revenant. What hope would even a god have of pulling a million flies together again, far enough away to be safe? How many would survive? How many would become distracted by carrion, offal, fecal matter, or mating imperatives?

Rook would never become that desperate.

The world lightened. Dawn illuminated the hilltops. Rook and the lesser Instrumentalities attached to him would be shrinking down into the deeps of the valleys, looking for places the light never reached. The sprites and bogies did not interest the Captain-General. He needed to get this one last, stubborn revenant. Then he, and all who were part of this campaign, could go home to their families.

Hecht turned, hoping to see an unusual shadow, or movement in the corner of his eye, to assure him that these events were being observed by the Lord of the Silent Kingdom, Cloven Februaren. The Ninth Unknown. Grandfather of his supposed grandfather. Who had been there in the shadows, making sure all went well, throughout the Connecten Crusade and the campaign on Artecipea.

But the old man never showed. Hecht hoped for the best and feared the worst. He did not want to lose the aid and friendship of that too often sophomoric old man.

Muniero Delari had been training his whole life to step into Cloven Februaren’s role. But Hecht was not entirely confident of Delari. The Eleventh Unknown did not have the command of sorcery of the Ninth-despite his reputation as the big bull sorcerer of the Collegium.

“One more hour. We’ll have him where we want him,” Titus Consent promised. “And when the bang-bang stops, I’m heading for Brothe. I’m going to have No? making some noise.”

Hecht cocked his head and eyed his intelligence chief. It was unlike Titus to be that crude.

Only Sedlakova was in earshot. Consent added, “Been a damned long time, Piper. You got to visit Anna… No? will probably be knocked up two minutes after I walk in the front door.”

Hecht chuckled despite the familiarity. Which was unusual, though Hecht was godfather to one of Consent’s children and had helped sponsor his conversion to the Chaldarean faith.

Sedlakova retailed the punch line to a crude joke. “Me so horny.”

“And that’s the truth,” Consent said. He did things with his arms, overhead and beside himself, that caused movement down where the shadows were creeping out of sight of the rising sun.

Hecht saw others of his senior people on the far ridge, up and ready for action.

Sedlakova said, “Time to tighten the circle.” He gestured with his one arm. Consent continued his own signals, using both arms. Movement began, hard to see because of the brush and trees.

A little waterfall dropped a modest stream into a cold, deep blue pool. The foliage nearby was especially verdant. The air was cool. The Patriarchal soldiers surrounded the area, high and low, almost shoulder to shoulder. Every falcon the force owned was there, inside the circle. Some of the soldiers carried the smaller man-portable falcons with the one-inch bore, double charged and loaded with iron shot. They were to employ their slow matches only if the Instrumentality survived the falcons.

Sedlakova was now on the side of the stream opposite Hecht. Like Hecht, he was twenty-five feet above the stream leaving the pool. The Brotherhood man waved and pointed at dense growth beside the pool, against the cliff, in a sort of armpit formed by the turn and meeting of the high ground. It would be dark in there all day long.

Kait Rhuk accompanied Hecht. Drago Prosek, senior falconeer, was at the head of the waterfall with Colonel Smolens, tasked to lay the falcons so as to get the most from their fire.

Rhuk grumbled at his crew captains. Never satisfied. But, in an aside, he told Titus Consent, “Lieutenant, when the smoke clears off, I’m jumping into that damned pool. That sure looks good.”

Hecht thought so himself. And the thinking was universal. In fact, why wait? The monster wasn’t going anywhere. Let the men have a dip, take the tension off.

He found himself rubbing his left wrist. Startled, he looked down. Then looked around. Several men were in the initial stages of undress.

“Rhuk! Consent! With me!” He stepped to the nearest falcon, seized the slow match from the chief gunner. “Lift the back end. I want it pointed right at the middle of the water.”

Consent and Rhuk did as instructed. Which both would regret.

As he touched match to primer Hecht saw a face on the surface of the water. It did not last. The falcon bellowed. Consent and Rhuk howled when the recoil threw them back. Silver and iron darts whipped the surface of the pond.

Thunder began a continuous roll as every falcon crew assumed the first blast was the signal to fire.

Godshot shredded the shadows in the natural armpit.

No one could hear. Hecht moved Consent and Rhuk back, examined their wrists while the falcon crew swabbed and reloaded. “Put the shot into the water!” he shouted in the crew captain’s ear. “That’s where it is!”

The center of the pool rose, a pillar of dark water that took human form. That morphed into a naked woman. An incredibly sensuous woman. Twice life-size.

The Patriarchals were practiced at deicide. Most kept their heads. Lighter weapons began popping. A few falcons shifted aim. Their shot tore the water woman apart.

She did not rise again.

The firing faded. The weapons reloaded. The troops awaited their commander’s will.

The Captain-General wished the Ninth Unknown were handy. He did not know how to identify success.

His officers seemed as uncertain as he. “Titus. Can you hear me now?”

“Yes, sir. It’s only really bad if you get in front of the falcons.”

“You went through this with all the others. How did you know when they were done?”

“You just felt it. You knew. The earth itself seemed overwhelmed by sorrow.”

“Meaning we haven’t gotten our guy.”

“Not fatally. What came up out of the water wasn’t Rook. That was some local Instrumentality. Too big for a dryad. Maybe a water horse…”

A falcon spoke, someone having seen what he took for movement. In a moment every weapon discharged, mostly into the pit that had been the main target before. With the brush destroyed and the rock laid bare, now, the darts ricocheted, buzzed, and whined off in every direction. A man died and a dozen were wounded before the firing stopped.

Hecht asked, “Do you suppose he’s laughing at us? For being so panicky?”

“No,” Titus said. “I think he’s been hit so many times that he’s more scared than we are. He was right down there where we guessed he’d be. Because there was nowhere else for him to be.”

“And he didn’t fight back. An Instrumentality, a revenant deity, and he didn’t fight.” Shade had put up a fierce fight. Men had died. And the revenant had left a husk of a corpse that the Patriarchals ground in a mortar and scattered a pinch at a time.

“He was never that strong. And he’s been getting cornered and escaping now for more than half a year. Each time we get close we hurt him. This is the end. Stirring the undine, or whatever that was, was his last hope. If we thought it was him we’d killed…”

Consent was rattling. Stream of consciousness pouring out his mouth. Hecht had seen it before in men under stress. Had been guilty himself when he was younger.

A soldier yelled. Another did the same. A third called, “Hey, General, there’s some guy down there.”

Hecht squinted. Sure enough, he saw a bony, pale character in rags who looked like one of the Grolsacher fugitives Count Raymone and his bloodthirsty wife were hunting out of this quarter of the Connec. The man had both hands in the air. He kept bowing.

Hecht asked, “What do you think?”

Consent replied, “I think Rook is still with us.”

“Bring him up that gully. Rhuk, I want a whole battery positioned to rip him apart. Have him stop on that piece of white stone…”

Rhuk was frowning and shaking his head. Hecht saw the problem. If the falcons fired while the man was right there shot would ricochet into the troops on the far slope.

“All right. He stops a yard short. The ricochets will mostly hit him.”

The man seemed to be waiting for someone to come get him. “It isn’t going to happen, fellow,” Buhle Smolens called down from the head of the fall. He had a pair of falcons discharged in the man’s direction.

Hecht said, “Bonus for Smolens.”

A shadow flickered over the ground. “Raven,” Kait Rhuk said. “Landed in that big oak behind Sedlakova. Just to the left.”

No one knew how much power the revenant had over ravens today. The legendary Prince of Ravens had had a great deal. But the troops were ready.

A skilled crossbowman dropped the bird the moment it stopped moving.

That was the only raven seen, though they flew in mated pairs.

Vultures had begun to circle high above, though.

Moved by gestured orders, the man below waded the stream and started climbing toward Hecht. He was emaciated. Starved. Weak.

There was not one ounce of sympathy amongst the watchers. Grolsacher or Instrumentality in refugee guise, this was no one capable of generating compassion in men who had been in the field for more than half a year. Most wondered why the old man didn’t just kill him and be done.

“Stop him. Move a couple falcons to make the point.”

Rhuk did as directed.

Across the way, Clej Sedlakova repositioned his falcons to get a better angle of fire into the little shadow left down below. Buhle Smolens had his men drop firebombs, including some from the precious nephron supply.

Rhuk returned from moving the weapons. “He stinks, boss.”

“Probably has a religious problem with bathing.”

“A bath won’t help this smell. Never has since God created the world.”

The Instrumentality could not mask the stink of corruption.

“Before you do that,” the disguised revenant called, in a strong bass voice, as Hecht started to give the fire command, “a word.”

“Quickly.”

“A crisis is coming. You’ll need all the allies you can muster. Especially across the boundaries of the Night.”

Hecht rehearsed what he knew about the Old Gods and crises pending.

He made a hand gesture out of sight of the revenant.

Rook had some power in reserve. It prevented the match men from firing their falcons. All but one.

One was enough. Rook’s concentration broke.

The falcons began to bark. Raggedly.

Belatedly.

Rook collapsed into a seething mound of maggots.

Kait Rhuk did not need to be told. Injured wrists and all, he helped tilt a falcon so it could fling its godshot into that mess before many maggots could wriggle away.

Hecht felt the sensation Titus Consent had talked about earlier. An abiding, deep sorrow that an age had come to an end.

Ravens began to gather. Hecht said, “Take iron tools and mash those maggots. Throw coals on them. Do whatever it takes.” An Instrumentality as old as Rook must have had several ways of evading ultimate death. The evil always did in old stories.

This one would get no help from Piper Hecht.

Titus Consent said, “You didn’t consider his offer.”

“It would not have stuck to the bargain. It couldn’t have. That was not its nature. It would’ve turned on us.”

Everyone got busy destroying maggots and cleaning up. Hecht sat on a boulder and contemplated the pool. It had changed color. Maybe because of the changing angle of the light. Maybe because of something else.

That water was cold and uninviting now.

Something did not want to be disturbed.

Let it be. It would harm nothing now.

Hecht sensed that it grasped the “Or else” implicit in his clemency.

The men all talked about what they would do now. Everyone assumed there would be downtime. Maybe a lot. They might all be unemployed soon.

Not one man decided to go swimming.

The Patriarchal army left the wilderness, headed into garrison in Viscesment. From Viscesment Hecht intended to return to Firaldia, where he expected his force to wither. The Patriarch would start letting soldiers go, now. He had no need for them anymore.

Riders on exhausted horses came hurrying up the old Imperial road beside the Dechear. They caught the army two leagues east of Viscesment. Pickets brought them to the Captain-General. Who picked one out and snapped, “Pella! I told you to stay…”

“Dad, the Patriarch sent me! Bellicose himself! He thought I could find you easier than anyone else.”

Hecht saved his thoughts, including those about a boy so young being abroad with only four lifeguards in these anxious times. “What is it?”

Pella swelled with pride as he handed off a courier case bearing the Patriarchal seal. Hecht felt some pride himself. So much trust for one so young. Pella had come far since the streets of Sonsa.

The boy said, “It’s about Arnhand invading the Connec. In defiance of Krois and the Collegium.”

Hecht sent orders for the companies to tighten up, then had the trumpets sound Officers’ Call. And kept moving. The soldiers came alert. Something was up. They feared that something was unlikely to be good.

A message from Count Raymone arrived during the officers’ meeting. It reported rumors of an Arnhander army headed for Viscesment, to capture the bridges there before invading the Connec. The Count had friends and agents in Salpeno. And Anne of Menand had enemies willing to betray Arnhand if that would burn the whore.

“Gentlemen, it’s clear. Anne of Menand has defied the Patriarch. She’s sending troops into the Connec to cleanse it of the Maysalean Heresy. Her real motive is probably the same old grab for property and power. There seem to be three armies. One is coming our way. It numbers between two thousand and twenty-eight hundred, the leadership mostly people Anne of Menand would like to be shut of. It should accumulate Grolsachers along the way. The Patriarch wants us to stop these people. We have the numbers and the skills. And these won’t be men eager to die for Anne of Menand. So we have to delay our holidays. In the meantime, we need to secure Viscesment and its bridges.”

He expected grumbling.

There was a lot of grumbling. The officers reminded the men that while commanded by the Captain-General they had never missed their pay. How many soldiers could say that?

In many armies the leaders considered the opportunity to steal money meant for the men to be one of the perquisites of command.

Titus Consent, possibly the most disgruntled Patriarchal of all, said, “There may be irony at work, here.”

“Yes?” Hecht asked.

“It’s well known that since Regard took the throne Anne and her Church cronies have taxed Arnhand blind. She must have sent some of that with her crusaders.”

Consent launched a long-winded explanation of his reasoning. Hecht listened with half an ear, already worrying how best to carry out his orders while minimizing the suffering of his troops. “What was that?”

“I said if they bring as big a war chest as they’ll need to finance a long campaign, we could take enough to keep the troops together.”

What next? was on the minds of thousands.

“Maybe, Titus. Maybe. One thing at a time.”

The Patriarchal army reached Viscesment with days to spare. The Arnhander crusaders did not want to be in the field. They moved just fast enough to soften the screeches of the Society monks. The force had been raised according to the laws of the feudal levy. Their forty days were rolling away. They might never have to fight if they dithered long enough.

Consent was right about the war chest. The bishops who considered themselves to be in charge intended to keep the army together by taking its men into pay. Once they had completed their feudal obligations, they could not imagine the nobles and knights not being willing, even eager to continue. They would be, after all, doing God’s work.

Titus Consent sent agents to meet them. Those assessed the oncoming troops, took names, estimated individual wealth. Disgruntlement vanished in the face of confidence and the expectation of ransoms.

The grumbling changed character. Now the men groused about not getting a chance at the bigger Arnhander columns out west, where richer prizes could be taken. Even King Regard, in the field again because that was the only way to escape his terrible mother.

The Captain-General was less sanguine. What was he missing? Why would Anne send a force so small-even counting on it being reinforced by essentially useless Grolsachers-against his own veteran force?

Count Raymone Garete and Socia offered an answer that fifth evening, two before the crusaders were expected to slouch into view. Hecht was entertaining them at a small, private supper.

“You’re ignoring faith, Captain-General. You’re overlooking the fact that Anne is so sure her cause is righteous, she can’t imagine that the Church would do anything to stop her. Corrupt as her life may be otherwise, she truly believes she’s doing the work of God in this. She knows, beyond any doubt, that you’ll step aside after a token gesture to maintain the pretense of honor. I have friends inside Arnhand’s councils. The people most devoted to this crusade absolutely believe that your soldiers will defect before they risk their souls fighting God’s Will. They’re also convinced that you won’t resist a chance to finish what you started last year.”

Hecht asked, “Titus. Do you know any of our men who actually think like that?”

“A few may. Possibly. I haven’t run into them. I know some who say they’ve let Society spies think they feel that way. Hoping they’ll keep coming to the harvest.”

Always there were complications. Problems guessing the true loyalties of various men. Hecht believed he could count on most of his people. But adding religion to any equation altered its balance unpredictably.

Men would do bizarre things when they thought their immortal souls were at stake.

“Let’s not disabuse them of their illusions. Once Count Raymone leaves us, and has gotten a good head start, start a rumor that I plan to arrest him. Count, I’ve come up with a fairly complicated scheme that could help us succeed at slight cost.”

“I’m all ears.”

“As may be these walls. The Anti-Patriarchs had several fine quiet rooms. I suggest we use the nearest after supper.”

Arnhander scouts informed their commanders that the Captain-General’s troops were headed back to Firaldia. A few remained in Viscesment, getting ready to go chase Count Raymone Garete as soon as an accommodation with the crusaders had been reached. If they could not capture the wicked Count they would, at least, cut him off from Antieux.

“We’ll find out how much those people are slaves to their own wishful thinking,” Hecht said. “Titus. Has it been going smoothly?”

Consent was one of few staffers who hadn’t been sent to set up what was coming.

“Like clockwork.”

“I worry when things go too well.”

“And you worry when they don’t. You just plain worry.”

“Oh. Yes. I guess I do. And something that’s worrying me now is, I don’t see any Deves around anymore. Have we lost them?”

“Yes. I get very little out of the Devedian community anymore. When I do I’m not sure it’s any good.”

“Why?”

“They feel badly used in the matter of Krulik and Sneigon.”

“They feel badly used? They do?”

“No point yelling at me. They think they have the right to do whatever they want with their product as long as they fill your needs first. The constraints imposed after the explosions, and after they were found out, they consider unreasonable. Outright oppressive, even.”

Though inclined, Hecht did not say that he was fully capable of showing those people some real oppression.

“Where are they building their secret foundries?”

“Sir? Piper?”

“I’m not stupid, Titus. Nor are you naive enough to think they’ve accepted the rules we set down. They see a chance to get rich fixing the rest of us up to kill each other more effectively. It’ll take more than one rebuke for them to get my message.”

Consent’s eyes narrowed. His face hardened. “Was Krulik and Sneigon destroyed on purpose?”

“No. But I might’ve if I’d known what we found out after we got into their records. I wouldn’t lose any sleep, either. The way they were operating, they would’ve sold the powder Rudenes Schneidel’s thugs used to attack Anna’s house. They don’t care how their product is used as long as it’s paid for.”

“I do understand… What, Berdak?”

“A gentleman wants to see the Captain-General. He says it’s life-and-death critical. He has plenipotentiary credentials from the Imperial court.”

Ferris Renfrow. Or, if not Renfrow, Algres Drear. Which could have dramatically different implications.

“Send him in. Stay, Titus. Unless he asks you to go.”

A moment later, “Ah. Renfrow. Not a gentleman after all. How long did it take you to get past all the people who don’t want me to find out what’s going on in the world?”

“Not so long. I have a golden tongue. People listen when I tell them it’s important.”

“So, then, tell me.”

Renfrow glanced at Consent.

“He’ll know in a minute, anyway.”

“A quiet room, at least? So the whole world doesn’t know in a minute? Some people need to be kept in the dark.”

“Titus? We have a small room right back there.” To Renfrow, “They’re all over the Palace. The Anti-Patriarchs were justifiably paranoid.”

Titus Consent did not know Ferris Renfrow, other than by reputation. Clearly, he wondered how Hecht knew the man.

Hecht shut the door of a tight little room that had been used to hide female visitors more than to protect conversations.

“Crowded,” Renfrow observed.

“The sooner you tell it the sooner we’re back out where we can breathe.”

“Bellicose is dead. Your old friend Bronte Doneto has arranged to succeed him. That will be decided on the second ballot. A bull forged in the name of the Collegium is on its way. It will direct you to forget Bellicose’s orders. You’re to place your forces at the disposal of the Arnhander crusaders. This isn’t a legal order now. It will become legal once the Interregnum is complete and Doneto takes full control. Tomlin Ergoten will take over from you the day the Interregnum officially ends.”

“Who is Tomlin Ergoten? A Brotherhood import? I thought I knew everyone of standing in Firaldia.”

“Tomlin Ergoten is a false name meant to protect Pinkus Ghort. Some people are afraid you won’t cooperate if you know Ghort is going to replace you.”

“Some people being Bronte Doneto?”

“Exactly. The man has a hard-on for you.”

“Hang on,” Titus Consent said. “An Interregnum. It lasts twenty-six days. When did Bellicose die?”

“About four hours ago.” Renfrow’s expression dared Consent to pursue that.

Titus knew a waste of time and energy when he met it head-on. Renfrow would not explain. He nodded, left it to his commander to ask questions.

Hecht remained impassive. With an effort.

Where was Cloven Februaren when he could be particularly useful?

There had been no sign of that old man for ages.

“Tomlin Ergoten. Strange name.”

“Sounds like a disease,” Renfrow said.

“Wonder where they came up with that?” But curiosity was pointless. “How long till the orders get here?”

“You have something in mind?”

“Just a gesture. To leave Bellicose’s stamp on the world.” The latest Patriarch could not have taken a more controversial reign name. He had wanted the world to know he was one militant bastard about the true mission of the Church.

Renfrow said, “Give me an idea. Maybe I can contribute.”

“I can crush the Arnhanders headed this way. Capture most of them. Ransom them. So my men go into unemployment with some prospects.”

“It could be made difficult for couriers to get through. But your men don’t have to be unemployed. Take them with you.”

“With me? Where?”

“Don’t be coy, Captain-General. The Empress wants you to lead a crusade to liberate the Holy Lands. A most ironic turn of the wheel. Take the job. The barons will scream but there’s a lot of Ferocious Little Hans in Katrin. She’ll get what she wants. Once you take the job, you can bring your own people in to help.”

Piper Hecht had no desire to lead another crusade.

“I’d say you don’t have much choice. You’ll get no work in the Patriarchal States. Bronte Doneto must be nursing a huge grudge.”

“He knows he can’t count on me to be his tool instead of the Church’s.”

“Sure. That sounds good.”

Titus made a growling noise. He was not best pleased by the Imperial.

Hecht asked, “You speaking for the Empress?”

“She hasn’t heard the news.”

“Let’s see where she stands once she has.” Hecht signed Consent to silence.

Renfrow bowed slightly, with just a hint of mockery. “Fine, then. As general information, you could probably get on with Anne of Menand. If her captains show their usual overpowering incompetence.”

After another slight bow, Renfrow departed.

“What was that, Piper?” Consent asked.

“Huhm?”

“The man said a lot that he wasn’t saying. If you see what I mean.”

“He was. My problem is, I’m too literal to understand most of it.”

Consent was not convinced. He did not pursue the matter. He knew his way around his boss. He did ask, “Are we on the brink of becoming Imperials?”

“Possibly. We have an army to care for.”

“The army is in no grave danger. Only those of us that Bronte Doneto knows he can’t tuck in his pocket.”

Consent had a point. Several key staffers were Brotherhood of War. If Bronte Doneto had an arrangement with the Brotherhood-which seemed likely-Pinkus would inherit a ready-made staff.

Consent continued, “We ought to consider the implications.”

“Meaning?”

“Doneto was all set to jump when Bellicose went down.”

“It does seem like. But he can’t take full power till the mandated mourning time is over.”

“Sure. But I’m thinking, if he had his election rigged, maybe he rigged some other stuff, too. How about a deal with Anne of Menand? As much as any Patriarch, he’ll need money. The greedy ones all want to plunder the Connec.”

“And Doneto does have an old grudge. I’ll send a warning to Count Raymone.”

“Good. Meantime, let’s get ready for the crusaders. Maybe they’ve been dawdling because they’re waiting for this news.”

Hecht did doubt that. The Arnhanders were slow because they did not want to come at all. They were giving forty days a chance to pass without them having to bleed for the Whore of Menand.

“Nothing else we can do to get ready,” Colonel Smolens told his Captain-General. “I don’t know if it’ll work. There are bound to be locals who sympathize with the Arnhanders.”

“If Titus did his job-and hasn’t he always? — they’ll hear so much conflicting stuff from so many sources that they won’t believe anything. Especially not that we might fight with the few people we have left here.”

Those responsible for baiting the trap rode out to meet the captains of the crusader force.

“Titus, if you don’t have anything pressing? I want to talk falcon manufacture.”

That earned looks from several staffers as they returned to their duties. But they shrugged. It was typical of the Captain-General. He would turn to unrelated matters at the most difficult moments.

“You want time off?” Hecht asked Titus Consent. Titus looked exhausted. Threads of gray had begun to appear at his temples. He was losing the hair at his crown.

“I do. Of course. But to business. I’ve got what you wanted to know about iron production.”

“Let’s be quick. We’ll be at war in an hour.” He did not recall asking Titus anything about iron.

“Iron is now the metal of choice in falcon production. It stands up better to heavier charges. But it’s hard to work. Only Krulik and Sneigon have figured out how to cast and cool it reliably.”

“Meaning anyone they want to share the wealth with will find out.”

Titus frowned. Though a convert, he still resented stereotyped observations about the Devedian people. “Possibly. But listen. It will take a major operation to manufacture iron falcons in any number.”

Hecht seated himself, cleared his mind. “Go ahead.”

“The first thing is, wherever they locate, it will have to be forested. With old hardwoods. It’s astounding how much oak it takes to make smelting quality charcoal. Then it takes almost two hundred cubic yards of charcoal to smelt out twenty-five pounds of what they call malleable iron. The light iron falcons weigh almost a hundred pounds. Immense amounts of charcoal are consumed all through the process. Which is also labor-intensive. I couldn’t get exact figures but the Krulik and Sneigon records suggest hundreds, maybe even thousands, of man hours are needed to make one iron weapon.

“As a labor example, making a simple iron sword, of basic utility and ordinary hardness, using malleable iron already smelted, takes about two thousand pounds of charcoal and up to two hundred hours of smithing.”

It never occurred to Hecht to be curious about what it took to create the tools of his profession. “Krulik and Sneigon make swords, too, don’t they?”

“They produce a complete range of weaponry. Most of us carry something of theirs. I’m fearing the explosion in Brothe may have been a blessing for them. Their productivity has always been constrained because of their location. They had to bring the iron and charcoal to the manufactory. There are no decent forests anywhere near the Mother City.”

“I see. They’ll be able to offer better prices, now.” He and Titus shared a chuckle. “Or to improve their profit margin.”

“Yes.” And, as though thinking out loud, Consent said, “Charcoal is also an ingredient in firepowder.”

“Yes?”

“Just occurred to me. I’ve been thinking in terms of regions that have a lot of hardwood near iron deposits. There are a lot of those. But if you add a need to be near sources of chemicals to make firepowder, the possibilities shrink.”

“Artecipea. It’s the main source of natural saltpeter. There are iron deposits, copper deposits, some low-grade sulfur pits. We saw forests.”

“We saw softwood evergreens. But there are hardwoods at lower altitudes, in the east part of the island. And it isn’t that far over to the south coast of the Mother Sea. And right there, in what used to be the Imperial province of Pharegonia, are mines that have been producing first-quality sulfur for two thousand years.”

“So you think they’ll relocate to Artecipea.”

“I would. Because Artecipea has one more resource, maybe more important than all the rest.”

“Which is?”

“It’s outside the Patriarchal States. In territory now beholden to King Peter of Navaya. No Patriarch or Patriarch’s Captain-General can tell anyone how to run his business there.”

“I see. We’ll see. Keep after that. In your copious free time.”

“Yeah. I told the quartermasters to round me up a set of brooms so I can sweep up when I don’t have anything else to do.”

“Believe it or not, Titus, I know how you feel. I’m thinking I might enjoy being unemployed.”

“For the first few minutes, maybe.”

“Yes.”

The consuls of Viscesment had told the approaching crusaders that the city would not resist their passage. Pass through, cross the bridges, head off into the Connec, no bad behavior along the way. The crusaders had agreed despite knowing they could not control their Grolsacher hangers-on. Nor even the more fanatic members of the Society for the Suppression of Sacrilege and Heresy, who damned Viscesment for tolerating the Maysalean Heresy.

The consuls did insist that the common soldiers, Grolsachers, and camp followers surrender their weapons to the armorers and quartermasters during the passage through the city.

The pliable Arnhander nobles acquiesced. The Society churchmen gave the consuls promissory scowls.

The Captain-General lost patience. He sent a message telling the consuls to get on with it.

In the end, the crusaders were granted use of one broad, paved street leading to the Purelice Bridge. The Grave Street. The Purelice Bridge was the broadest and longest of the three Viscesment boasted.

The crusaders found the cross streets all blocked with carts, wagons, and furniture, the barricades backed by local militia. The distrust shown by the locals accentuated an ages-old southern attitude toward the cousin in the north.

The Purelice Bridge, named for the Emperor who ordered it built, humpbacked over the middle of the Dechear to make it easier for traffic to pass under without having to unstep masts. Today, few riverboats or ships depended on sail power.

The bridge was straight. The west end could not be seen from the east end because of the hump. The bridge’s west end had been barricaded. Eighteen falcons loaded with pebbles backed those barricades. Buhle Smolens and Kait Rhuk were in charge. They had several companies of archers and spearmen in support.

The rest of the Patriarchal firepowder weaponry was scattered along the Arnhander route of march, hidden, sited by Drago Prosek. The point was to stun the crusaders into surrendering. If they failed to be convinced by the cruel logic of their situation.

Should the falcons be discharged they would generate noise and smoke enough to summon the rest of the Patriarchal force to cut off retreat to the east.

From the bell tower of Sant Wakin’s Church-the Anti-Patriarchs’ own-the Captain-General could observe both ends of the Purelice Bridge and most of Grave Street. Nowadays, nobody knew why the street was called that. Some locals would not use the name for superstitious reasons. The street filled. First came determined Society types who suffered catcalls and occasional thrown stones as they excoriated the locals for being sinful. Then came the gaily caparisoned nobles who commanded the army, followed by their lances, foot, and train.

“What a lot of clutter,” Hecht said. “We aren’t that bad on the march, are we, Titus?”

“Not so much. But if you let the men bring their families…”

That touched a nerve. That was one way Piper Hecht differed from other captains. He did not allow a lot of noncombatants to form a tail that impaired his mobility.

Despite his efforts, though, the force inevitably developed a drag whenever it remained in place more than a few days.

The leading priests reached the height of the hump in the bridge. And came face-to-face with dread reality.

Hecht said, “I wish I was out there. I should’ve gone out there.”

“Better you’re here where you can control everything but Smolens and Rhuk.”

“Looks like the priests are yelling for their bishops and archbishops.” His breath came faster. He trusted Colonel Smolens. Yet… Bishops were clever. One might convince Smolens that…

“Smolens will stay the course,” Consent said, reading his unease. “Kait Rhuk wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“I worry about Kait, too. He enjoys his work too much.”

“You’re never happy about anything, are you?”

“Not so much. Not at moments like this. Oh, damn!”

The falcons had discharged into the churchmen and Society brothers. Smoke rolled up and drifted eastward, concealing the western end of the bridge. By the time the rumble reached him Hecht knew part of the plan had gone south. Flashes shone inside the smoke. Kait Rhuk’s falconeers continued to fire.

Below, a wave of consternation ran back along Grave Street. That turned to fright. Fright turned to panic at the speed of rumor.

“Hold off, Prosek,” Hecht muttered. “Hold off. Let’s don’t kill anybody we don’t have to.”

Consent gave him an odd look, then whispered to a messenger. The messenger dashed off to give that word to Drago Prosek.

The rattle in the distance slackened, then stopped. Smoke continued to conceal the far end of the bridge. Hecht could see only mass confusion as mounted nobles and knights tried to push back east into a street already filled. While below the bell tower calmer crusaders continued to push west.

The panic faded after the falcons fell silent. Attempts to break through the street barricades declined. The militia showed remarkable restraint.

Hecht began to breathe easier. “All right. We killed a bunch of Society priests. That isn’t so bad. They weren’t going to survive anyway.” If Count Raymone had a say.

Firing resumed at the bridge. One salvo. “Fourteen weapons,” Hecht said. “That means several are out of service. Unless…”

Titus Consent observed, “You do need to take time off.”

“Where’s Pella?” Continuing to worry. Realizing that he had not seen the boy for two days. Feeling sudden guilt because he had not been giving Pella much of his time.

He did not know how. He had not had a father of his own.

“Tagging around after Kait Rhuk. He’s infatuated with the stinks and bangs.”

“And Rhuk doesn’t mind having him underfoot? With all his lifeguards?”

“Knowing Rhuk, Pella is getting his tail worked off. His lifeguards, too.”

“Speak of the Adversary.”

Madouc had invited himself into the belfry. He had not been seen much lately. “A messenger from the consuls, sir. They want to know if they can begin accepting surrenders.”

“Remind them that the Arnhanders are ours. Otherwise, yes. Let’s move on. I want to get home as much as any of you.” After Madouc ducked out, Hecht asked, “Does it seem like he’s changed?”

“Absolutely.”

“How? Why?”

“He’s not doing his job for you, now. He’s doing it because the Brotherhood wants him to.”

Hecht grunted. Kait Rhuk was raising hell on the west bank again. Why? He wasn’t being attacked. Why waste valuable firepowder when a handful of fanatic churchmen could be brought down by archers and crossbowmen?

“I messed up with Madouc, didn’t I?”

“Yes. But that was bound to happen, you two being who you are. And it isn’t a dead loss. He still respects you. Make sure to show your respect for him.”

“What the hell is Rhuk up to?”

“A demonstration, I’m sure. That’s just one falcon, now. Talking slow.”

“Ah. Right. I got it. He’s probably letting Pella play. Using Society brothers for targets.” He saw dust from far beyond the bridgehead. That should be Count Raymone.

The main hall of the Palace of Kings was filled. The magnates of Viscesment, the Captain-General’s own champions, Bernardin Amberchelle and Count Raymone’s lady, Socia, and the greats who rode with them, and the leaders of the defeated crusaders, all were gathered. Some in despair, most in high spirits. No invader churchmen were present. The few survivors had been claimed by Bernardin Amberchelle. The Captain-General had given them over, bishops and all. The Connectens could ransom them. Or not.

Titus Consent brought Madouc to the high table. Seating him to the Captain-General’s left. “His report is ready.”

“Ah. Good,” in a soft voice. “Madouc?”

“Seventeen dead priests, sir. And more than a hundred wounded. Including two bishops, one of whom won’t survive. A stone opened his gut.”

“It could have been worse, all the firing Rhuk did.”

“Showing off.” Disapproving. “Just two Arnhander knights were wounded. Back up the column, there were minor injuries among the foot, taken trying to escape. And one man dead. From a fall. He landed on his head.”

“That’s good. The consuls will get a lot of labor out of the prisoners. So. The treasure? And the Grolsachers?”

“The treasure is secure. It’s not as big as you hoped. The bishops expected plunder would cover their expenses starting around fifty days into the taken into pay period. And the news isn’t good for the people of Grolsach. Again.”

“Is there anyone left up there?”

“There’ll be less competition for resources now.”

Hard but true. Count Raymone and his band had gone north to cross the Dechear and get into position to intercept the fleeing Grolsachers. Raymone meant to stop those people coming to the Connec-if he had to exterminate their entire nation.

His attitude toward Arnhand was no less fierce.

“Madouc, have you made any plans?”

“Sir?” Sounding honestly puzzled.

“We’re near the end of our run. Bellicose’s health is fragile…”

“Bellicose is dead. Sir. That may not be common knowledge but it isn’t a secret anymore.”

Hecht reflected briefly, scanning the crowd. Typically, knights from both sides were catching up with relatives on the other. The Arnhanders were relieved about not having to feed Anne of Menand’s ambitions.

“All right. My question stands. And becomes more pertinent.”

“I’m a Brother of a holy order. I’ll do what my superiors tell me.”

“As will we all, of course. I hope they reward you well. Though I always felt fenced in, you did an amazing job.”

“Thank you, sir.” With no great warmth.

He had lost Madouc for sure. He had wasted the honor of seating the man so close.

Madouc yielded just the slightest. “I’m hoping for a command in the Holy Lands. Addam Hauf sounded positive when I spoke to him. When we were in Brothe.”

“Perhaps we’ll meet again overseas.”

“Sir?”

“Not really. I’m done crusading. I’m thinking about buying a rural tract somewhere and retiring. Spend my last days with Anna, making wine for Colonel Ghort.”

Madouc did not react to the mention of Pinkus Ghort. He had no feelings on the matter. Or lacked knowledge.

Hecht said, “When we’re done here I want a private word with the Viscount Dumaine.”

“Yes sir.”

For the remainder of the evening Hecht mostly observed. Keeping an eye on Pella, in particular.

Anna had gotten a few social skills to stick.

Madouc remained in the quiet room while the Captain-General saw the Viscount. It was the largest quiet room in the Palace of Kings but not so big that the chief bodyguard had to strain to eavesdrop. Madouc was less inclined to avoid the Captain-General lately.

“How can I help you?” the Viscount asked. Politely, conscious of being a prisoner but unwilling to stifle his pride of class completely.

“Sit. Share coffee with me. And tell me about Vali Dumaine.”

The Viscount did the first two, not concealing his delight at being offered the rare and precious drink. But he thought some before doing the third. “Vali Dumaine is my sister. She’s Countess of Bleus. Why do you ask?”

“To find out. What you just said is a variation on what I’ve already heard. I thought she was your wife. I didn’t understand why your wife would be Countess of Bleus while you were Viscount of… what is it?”

“Klose. You can throw a rock across it. Once I’ve been ransomed it’ll belong to someone else. I’ll have to go live with my sister. Or join the Brotherhood. You haven’t told me why you’re asking.”

“I haven’t.” The Captain-General let that lie there. “Do you have any connection with Sonsa?”

“I? None. My father traveled on a Sonsan ship when he went on crusade. Him and his three brothers. He was the one who came home. The one who inherited even though he was the third son.”

“The Holy Lands are a harsh mistress. They devour all who come there. Are you involved with the Special Office? The Witchfinders in particular?”

“No. We don’t see that kind back home. There used to be a Brotherhood chapter house outside Salpeno. You’d see a few of them in the city. But they pulled out before Charlve the Dim died. Cherault, one of Anne’s clever villains, had a scheme for confiscating their assets. They found out. They left with all their wealth. Cherault contracted a wasting disease. It causes him a lot of pain. He’ll be a long time dying.”

“Are the two connected?”

Madouc was very attentive. And contemplative.

“Unfortunately, the world doesn’t work that mechanically. Bad people don’t get what they’ve got coming. And good people die young.”

“And all we can do is trust that it’s part of God’s plan. Yes. You have children? On either side of the blanket?”

The Viscount glowered. “I insist on knowing what this is about.”

“Sit. Viscount. You don’t insist on anything. I’m a lowlife hiresword with no noble blood and no honor, even if I do command the Patriarch’s armies and embarrass his enemies regularly. How can you count on a man like that not to drop you off a bridge, or have you strangled and burned to deny your hope of resurrection? Or any of the other wicked things a man like me might do?”

“You’d lose your ransom.”

“Hardly a problem. The Count of Antieux will buy all the Arnhander prisoners I’m willing to wholesale. He wants to send their pickled heads to your sweet King Anne. Or he could sell them into slavery across the Mother Sea. He talks about that when he’s feeling particularly vengeful.”

Viscount Dumaine had turned pale. But he did not disgrace himself.

“He’s a mad dog, Count Raymone. If you Arnhanders insist on plundering the Connec, Raymone will make you pay in barrels of blood. But I don’t want to talk about that. I’m interested in a girl child named Vali Dumaine. About thirteen. Possibly younger. Found as a captive in a Sonsan brothel. She claimed she was being used as leverage to force her father to do something. Everyone who can answer to the truth or falsehood of the claim is dead. I look into it when I get the chance. This was a chance. You and your sister are the only Dumaines I’ve ever identified.”

“I can’t solve your mystery. Sorry.”

Hecht wished the Ninth Unknown was making a nuisance of himself, still. He could help with this. The Viscount was being truthful, in the main, but something not quite right was happening, too.

Might be interesting to have him stripped, to see if he didn’t have some little hidden tattoo.

Hecht asked, “You haven’t gone on crusade? Never been to the Holy Lands yourself?”

Dumaine eyed him several seconds before making a decision. “I went with my father.” That would be a matter of record, hard to hide. “I was a child. Eight when we left. Twelve when we came home. I pray God never again requires my presence in the east. Hell can’t be worse than the Holy Lands in summer. Or winter. Or any season in between.”

Hecht nodded. Some westerners felt that way. Others liked the Holy Lands well enough to stay. There were generations of crusaders, now, who had been born in the east and who offended their western cousins by having adopted local clothing and customs.

“I felt the same about Firaldia when I first came down. The summers were too hot and they never seemed to end. And snow was a rare treat instead of the natural state of the world.”

“I hear that’s changing.”

“It is. Definitely. People in the Chiaro Palace have been tracking the changes. They’re dramatic. With worse to come.”

Once Dumaine left, Hecht brought in Titus Consent. “There’s something not right about that man. Keep an eye on him. Have him be the last we let go home. Have you seen Bechter?”

Sergeant Bechter had been scarce of late.

“He’s still sick. They say he tries to get up and come in every day. Most mornings his body won’t cooperate. He’s old.”

“I miss having him underfoot.”

“If he could, he’d be there.”

“Is he getting good care?”

“He should be shipped back to the Castella. Let him live out his last years with his brothers.”

“He asked? You haven’t sent him?”

“I’ve asked him. He wants to stay here. Says this is where he belongs, now.”

“The old coot is too stubborn for his own good.”

“Lot of that going on around the heart of this army.”

Hecht refused the bait. “You checked up on Pella?”

“He’s having the time of his life. He’s decided that firepowder artillery will be his career. Rhuk says he has interesting ideas.”

“That’ll change. I just want to know that he’s all right. Don’t want to fuss in his life like I’m his mother.”

“He’s fine, Piper. But, really, he could use a little more interference in his life. He’s too raw for the independence you give him.”

Anna would agree. “All right. Create a training program for falconeers. Put him in. Keep him close and busy.” That should sound good to the boy. And needed only last till Bronte Doneto fully assumed the Patriarchal throne.

Hecht asked, “What future do you see for your boys, Titus?”

“These days, maybe the priesthood.”

“Security.”

“Yeah. Only, I’m afraid the opportunity won’t be there when they’re old enough. The monasteries are full of freeloaders now.”

Titus might be pulling his leg. It was hard to tell. “There’re always careers in military staff work.”

“But how many? Assuming I’d let my sons get into this insanity?”

Hecht frowned.

“You still don’t realize what you’ve done, do you?”

Hecht felt, too frequently, that he had no idea. He raised an eyebrow in invitation.

“There hasn’t been anything like the Patriarchal force since the Old Empire. Not in the west. In the Eastern Empire they have professional soldiers, enlisted and officers alike. Here, since the fall, there’s been no need. We mainly fight our neighbors, on the smallest scale. And a fear of standing forces, plus contempt for mercenaries, is the standard. The warrior class is especially hard on men who fight for pay. Except when they go into pay after their forty days themselves. But they’d argue that that’s a different animal.”

Why did Titus want to remind him of the obvious? Oh. Because he really was changing the shape of thought about professional soldiery.

Titus went on, “All of which is about to be undone.”

“Indeed?”

“Pinkus Ghort isn’t Piper Hecht.”

“Piper Hecht won’t be out of work.”

“So you’ll sign on with the Grail Empress.”

“I don’t see any alternative.” Whenever he considered retirement, as he threatened so often, a disappointed Helspeth Ege wormed into his thoughts and, like a song getting stuck, would not go away. “For a while. But don’t count on me actually invading the Holy Lands.”

“How would No? and the boys fit in Alten Weinberg?”

“I don’t know. It’s cosmopolitan. People from all over the Empire live there. I didn’t see much prejudice. But it’s bound to exist.” And in some minds Titus would always be a Deve, whatever religion he pursued. “I hear so much about the Holy Lands from pilgrims and returned crusaders, I know I don’t want to go there.”

Titus gave him an odd look but kept his thoughts to himself. He was fully invested in Piper Hecht’s imaginary past. If Piper Hecht fell, Titus Consent would follow.

Madouc stuck his head into the room. “Can I interrupt, Captain-General?”

“Of course. What is it?”

“It’s Bechter, sir. The healing brothers say he’s slipping. They don’t understand why. He should be recovering. I thought you’d want to know.”

“Yes. Is it…? Do they think it could go fatal?”

“Very likely. And it might not be long.”

“Titus, I have to go.” He felt the sorrow rising. Another way the west had infected his soul. He had become a servant to his emotions.

Consent asked, “Can I tag along? Bechter has been a force in my life, too. Almost a father since I converted.”

Hecht was surprised. He had not noticed. But it could be. He did not pay close enough attention to the lives of those around him.

Madouc waited outside. He explained, “Now would be when a villain might think we were relaxing.”

Hecht took the point. “Of course. Lead on.”

The Patriarchals had complete control of the Palace of Kings. A hospital had been established there. It served the troops principally, but aided poor locals where it could, in the name of Bellicose. That paid dividends. Titus Consent kept in touch with the nuns and healing brothers, who were not shy about passing on useful information.

Redfearn Bechter was the sole tenant of a room featuring pallets for four. A healing priest sat with the old soldier, no longer trying to battle Bechter’s illness.

The room stank.

The Captain-General met the priest’s eye. Who shook his head sadly.

Bechter heard them enter. He cracked one eyelid, recognized the visitors. He struggled to lift himself.

The healing priest pushed him back.

Hecht knelt beside the old man. Took his hot, dry, fragile hand. Could think of nothing to say. He could remember only a sutra from The Written about finding love for one’s enemies. Redfearn Bechter was that most cruel of foes, a soldier of the Brotherhood of War. And the Sha-lug Else Tage, having transmogrified into the Patriarchal champion Piper Hecht, had grown to care for the man.

Bechter said nothing, either.

Hecht considered some banter about shirking, about hurrying up and getting back to work, but Bechter knew. The end was at hand. So the Captain-General said, “I have one last task for you, Sergeant. I want you to deliver a message when you stand before the Divine. Ask Him to show me His Design. Ask Him to still the turmoil in my heart by granting me a clear vision of His Will.”

Bechter did not speak. He could not. But he managed a slight inclination of his head. He had heard and would comply.

Hecht ignored his other duties till the end came. And that was not long delayed. The healing priest reported, “He was running on sheer willpower. He was determined not to pass over without making his farewells to those he loved.”

That idea startled Hecht. Redfearn Bechter had been the consummate Brotherhood warrior. He should have loved nothing but his own secret creed.

News of Bechter’s passing, and the circumstances thereof, swept through the army.

One uncalculated gesture won the Captain-General an even fiercer loyalty. None of the soldiers had ever heard of a high officer entrusting a trooper to carry a message to God Himself.

Hecht said little when he heard, other than to express bewilderment to Titus Consent.

Bechter’s latest assistant, Vladech Gerzina, onetime bodyguard, turned up asking for a minute of the Captain-General’s time. Hecht had no cause to refuse.

Gerzina carried a teakwood chest two feet long, fourteen inches wide, and nine inches deep, with an arching, hinged top. The old wood was almost black. The corners and edges of the chest were protected by fittings of brass. “Sergeant Bechter asked me to bring you his personal things, sir.”

Hecht could think of nothing appropriate to say. “Personal things?” Members of the Brotherhood were not supposed to accumulate personal things.

“Memorabilia, perhaps? Bechter was in his seventies. We think.” Gerzina was Brotherhood. He was not dismayed by Bechter’s bit of worldliness. “We all pick up souvenirs to remind us of key moments. Don’t we, sir?”

“Yes. I suppose.” Hecht still carried one small white pebble, twice the size of a chickpea, that had been in the load of the falcon he had discharged in Esther’s Wood. It connected him to the most critical moment of his life. No one else would know what that pebble meant.

Gerzina set the chest on a bench the lifeguards used when they kept watch on some dubious visitor. “I have to get back to work, sir. I’m behind because of the emotional distraction.”

“What’s in the box?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

“It doesn’t appear to be locked.”

“It isn’t my place to look.”

Hecht considered the man closely for the first time.

Physically, Vladech Gerzina was nondescript. Average height, neither good-looking nor ugly, his colorings unremarkable. He was a few pounds overweight, which was unusual in a soldier.

A walking illusion. A man with a big don’t-notice-me spell on.

Maybe.

Gerzina’s body language shifted suddenly.

He didn’t like being noticed.

“Can you do Bechter’s job?”

“Sir?”

“I don’t believe I mumbled.”

“Yes, sir. I’ve been doing it. All of it. I don’t know how he managed, at his age.”

“He had an assistant. You’re the man, now. Officially. At least till the new commander comes in.”

“No, sir. Begging your mercy, sir. I have to decline. And, no sir, it’s not because it’s too much work. It’s a cush job.” He patted his belly. “Enough to eat and warm in the winter. And not one heathen Praman in sight. But a time of change is on us. Sir. Those sworn to the Brotherhood have to leave you. Or the man who replaces you.”

“Oh?”

“There’s been word from Addam Hauf. The Master of the Commandery will send reinforcements to the Holy Lands. Men, material, and money. Which he’s having some success gathering since the Patriarch doesn’t have to use all his resources to stave off predatory Emperors.”

“I see.” And, though Hecht had not considered it before, he did.

Katrin’s peace had eased life dramatically for the Patriarchs. Bronte Doneto would see no need to consult Imperial ambitions at all.

“I’d better get everybody together and see who needs to be replaced. Help with that. Before you go.”

“Yes, sir. It won’t be right away. Sir.”

Alone again, Hecht sat down with Bechter’s chest.

He had worked up an expectation of something dramatic. Reality proved disappointing. Memorabilia, indeed. Bits of cord. Several stones. A small dagger rendered useless by means of having had an inch of its business end broken off. Several iron arrowheads of Lucidian design. Assuming Bechter followed Brotherhood custom, those had been removed from his own flesh. Then several scraps of paper, one crumbling, one in an unreadable hand, another a pass to be shown while traveling on Brotherhood business. A locket with a bit of brittle hair inside, uncharacteristic for a warrior-priest. Several small wooden boxes, beautifully made, all but one unlocked. One contained a perfectly preserved moth with a wingspan over four inches. Hecht had never seen its like. But he understood that it must have been beautiful when it was alive. And, in death, had been treasured by a man Hecht could not help but honor.

He opened two boxes that contained nothing, then one wherein lay a shredding little cotton sack containing several dozen copper coins from almost as many polities, forming a metal log of Redfearn Bechter’s journeys.

This was a life. Seventy years, plus.

Why had the man wanted him to have this?

As a message? A warning?

“Vanity of vanities. All is…”

There was still the box that was locked. The key was there in the mix with the copper coins, itself brass and as green as any of the money. Hidden in plain sight, perhaps without much concern.

The box contained a thin, bound book, its leather cover at once stained, worn, and grown brittle. Hecht opened it carefully.

The first page was done in artful calligraphy, in a language Hecht could not immediately identify. Till he suffered an epiphany: He was looking at Melhaic written down using the Brothen alphabet. Melhaic was the ancient language of the Holy Lands. He could read that clumsily. In its native characters Melhaic was inscribed across the page in a direction opposite that customary for most of the languages of the region.

He had just discovered that the book was a history recorded by Grade Drocker when Pella burst in, so startling him that he jumped.

“Dad? Pinkus Ghort is downstairs.”

“Pella. What’re you doing here?”

“I thought you’d be kind of down. Because of Sergeant Bechter. So I thought I’d see if I could do anything. I ran into Colonel Ghort in the street.”

How the devil had Ghort gotten here so fast? What was Bronte Doneto up to? The news about Bellicose was not yet general knowledge. The Interregnum had weeks to run.

“You’re right. I am in a bleak mood. Here’s how you can cheer me up. Get your butt on back home and get into school. Make something of yourself. So you don’t end up like Sergeant Bechter. Like I might end up any day.”

“Whew! It does have its claws in you.”

“It does. Bring Ghort. Tell Cederig I want some of the red wine I’ve been saving. Might as well get Pinkus started on it. Save the trouble of hauling it to Brothe and back.” And a few cups might loosen Ghort’s tongue.

“Damn, man!” Ghort said as soon as he walked in. “You look like shit on a stick. You need to get more sleep.”

“Put the wine on the desk, Cederig. And stand by. Pinkus, I’ll be getting all the rest I can stand starting real soon.”

“You know what’s up.”

“Of course I do.”

“Consent’s still got eyes in Brothe.”

“That, too. More importantly, several Principat?s aren’t happy about Doneto taking over. Some hoped I would overrule the election.”

“Care to name names?”

“I don’t think so.”

“What do you think?”

“I’m not some old-time legionary commander who wants to control who gets to be the next Emperor.”

“Yeah. The boss figured you’d see it that way. I meant, what’s your opinion? About Doneto.”

“He’s the best man available. But I wish he wasn’t nuts about the Connec.”

“Yeah. I don’t know for sure but I got a notion your Count Raymone won’t get no joy out of him.”

“Raymone will have plans in place. Doneto should let the old grievances go. He’s supposed to be everybody’s Patriarch.”

“Told him that myself. I don’t think he was listening. Hey. Pipe. No hard feelings?” Ghort was well into his first bottle. He had begun to slur.

“No reason. You didn’t fire me. Actually, I might’ve quit if I hadn’t been fired. I’ve had about all of this that I can stand. I couldn’t work for a busybody like him. I want a boss who tells me what he wants, then gets out of the way and lets me do it.”

“That scares the busybodies. Makes them afraid they might get run over themselves.”

Hecht understood that. He had dealt with it most of his adult life. It was the reason he had been sent west. Gordimer was afraid of getting trampled. “The problem is, those men see the world in the mirror of themselves.”

“Huh?”

“They’re scared because they know what they’d do in my place. Which means that they start from a different notion of honor.”

“Gotcha. But, hey, Pipe, you can’t never claim you don’t pull a slick once in a while your own self. Damn, this grape juice is fine.”

“Me? A fast one?”

“I ain’t as dumb as I look. You knew the change was coming. You jumped in on them crusaders anyways.”

“I did. Yes.” Hecht grinned.

“Doneto ain’t gonna like that.”

“What’s he going to do? Fire me?”

“That’s rich. I don’t know. He can be a vindictive prick. Like what he figures on doing to Count Raymone and Antieux.”

“Which would be?”

“I don’t know, Pipe. Not yet. But I ain’t gonna be nowhere near that berg when it happens. I don’t want to be remembered for what I’m scared is gonna happen.”

“In that case, I regret being so effective against the revenants.”

“Thanks, buddy. That’s all I need. Them goddamned spook demons traipsin’ round behind me, kicking my ass every time I bend over.”

“It would keep you humble.”

“This stuff right here keeps me from gettin’ bigger than myself.” Ghort took a long draw of wine, stared at his feet for a dozen seconds. “An’ I keep wonderin’ how long it’ll be before he fires me.”

“Look at it this way. Who could possibly replace Pinkus Ghort?”

“A good question, Pipe. A fine question. But you gotta remember, Doneto has got some huge blind spots. That might be one of them.”

“When do you plan to take charge?”

“Officially? When the Interregnum is up. If you want to work it that way. Otherwise, anytime after my core staff gets here.”

“You going to fire my guys, too?”

“Have to. Most of them. What I was told. I figure they wouldn’t stay on, no how. The Brotherhood ones is all gonna report back to the Castella. That Addam Hauf is a ball of fire. The rest are loyal to you. According to Doneto. My first job will be to vet all the officers, to see which ones need to go and which ones are loyal to the Church or their pay.”

“Too bad. This was an effective force. It won’t be anymore.”

Ghort shrugged. “Way of the world, Pipe. Sad way of the world. I need a place to lie down. This shit was just too damned good.” He put the wine bottle aside. Empty.

The Captain-General did what he could to hamstring a new crusade against the Connec. Falcons disappeared. Firepowder, likewise. Titus Consent’s records, and those of the quartermasters, turned sloppy, incomplete, and confused. Hecht suffered considerable guilt. Which he handled by telling himself Pinkus Ghort would still get paid. He would just have to work harder to start making the Connec miserable.

Most of the soldiers did seem inclined to stick. Few were pleased but an income was an income. There were a dozen refugees willing to replace any veteran afflicted with excessive scruples. The staff, though, did have theirs. Hecht had trouble keeping them in place till the day of the changeover.

Hecht overheard one staffer tell Ghort that his departure was not personal. Another insisted he had no problem with the new Captain-General, just with the villain behind him. Hecht passed the word that they might want to feel a little less free to speak their minds.

Bronte Doneto was less popular with the soldiers than Hecht had expected. They recalled Doneto’s behavior during the Connecten Crusade.

Hecht’s last official act was the release of the Viscount Dumaine and other remaining Arnhander captives. Those who had not yet been ransomed would send the money themselves. Their honor demanded that they not renege.

The change of command was no drama. Hecht shook Ghort’s hand and went away, leaving the new commander frazzled and dismayed.

“What do we do now, Dad?” Pella wanted to know. He had begun to stick close. He was not welcome among Pinkus Ghort’s artillerists.

“Go home. Settle in with your mother. Loaf.” Those who would make the journey to Brothe were gathering. The company seemed curiously small. Hecht needed a moment to work out why.

There was no Madouc. Nor any of Pella’s constant companions. There were no bodyguards at all.

For all that he had resented Madouc every moment that he was underfoot, Hecht found himself feeling naked now. And constantly uneasy.

13. In the Frozen Steppe with the

Talking Dead The Chosen of the central steppe and northern waste assembled. They would crush the enemy of their god. Defiant Tsistimed had come far enough into the cold that the Windwalker himself could join in.

The Chosen, whipped on by a dozen fierce copies of Krepnight, the Elect, probed and retreated, probed and retreated, drawing Tsistimed and his sons deeper into the realm of winter. The Chosen neither knew nor cared what was happening among their enemies. They did as they were told.

The warlords of the Hu’n-tai At recognized the enemy strategy. They used it themselves. It was as old as men riding horses. They did not care. The Chosen would not retreat forever. When they turned they would be obliterated.

No army survived the Hu’n-tai At.

The ground chosen by the Windwalker was wild and stony, a vast sprawl of sharp-edged, tumbled basalt. Harsh mountains rose within a mile, to either hand. Ice rimed most of the stone. Ice and snow masked the brownish gray rock of the mountains. This was not a place where horsemen would enjoy an advantage. The Krepnights, the Elect, should prosper there.

Tsistimed dismounted his warriors and sent them to hunt. He accepted the disadvantages of the ground. This enemy did not know what he had chosen to fight. The Hu’n-tai At were not just the fiercest warriors alive, they boasted the most skilled and ruthless warrior-sorcerers as well.

The warlord of the Hu’n-tai At, in turn, did not understand that one of the oldest, cruelest, darkest Instrumentalities would stalk the battleground himself. These days the gods did not meddle personally.

Tsistimed learned too late.

The collective power of the Hu’n-tai At sorcerers bothered the Windwalker no more than a circling bat annoyed a traveler hurrying home at dusk.

The slaughter was epic. For the Hu’n-tai At it was like nothing they had ever known. They faced an enemy more stubborn and fearless than themselves, though of little skill and limited endurance. Most were on the edge of starvation.

Tsistimed gathered his sons and generals. The Windwalker was a pillar of darkness drifting about, squirting lightning. The warlord admitted, “We cannot destroy that thing.”

A leading sorcerer observed, “We can destroy those who serve it. Even those tiger-skinned monsters do fall. Eight have been overcome already.”

The warlord nodded but did not agree. In the fog of war those at the tip of the spear always imagined successes greater than what had been achieved. Sure enough, soon enough, reports had the tide of fighting turning ever less joyful. The monsters were hunting down the power users among the Hu’n-tai At. And the Instrumentality was developing a taste for destroying life himself.

One of Tsistimed’s sons suggested, “Perhaps we should go collect another army. There’ll be few enemies left when this is done.”

Tsistimed considered the indeterminate darkness that seemed about to hand him his first defeat ever. Even in early life, when wrestling other boys, he had never been less than completely victorious. His very soul shrieked, go forward! Compel that thing to his will! But he had not become Emperor of all Men by letting his ego lead him into choices unsuitable to a longer view.

A general observed, “If we choose to go raise another army we ought to do so soon. The god has noticed us.”

The tower of darkness was miles away but had stopped. The warlords sensed it feeling the world around it, trying to locate them. They were hidden by the most potent sorceries available, but this thing…

Something happened.

Something changed.

The Instrumentality coalesced. It hardened. It took shape. That shape seemed indecisive, though. One moment it resembled a man two hundred feet tall but far too squat and wide, the next it was a toad on its hind legs. Then it became something very wide, with vast wings of shadow. Color could not be discerned.

A great tongue darted down, pulled back with a struggling man whose allegiance could not be determined at that distance. The Instrumentality’s eyes fixed on the mound where the lords of the Hu’n-tai At had gathered. But maybe they did not see. For the god seemed distracted. Its tongue acted again, without apparent conscious direction, as the Instrumentality fed absentmindedly.

It rose from its toad slouch into its tallest manshape, turned, leaned westward. Tsistimed sensed an immediate change in the flow of battle. The Chosen were no longer getting help from their grim patron.

The Instrumentality leaned a little farther, took a tentative step. It sniffed the air. Then it loosed a great groaning excited rumble, shook all over, and began walking, the battle forgotten. It headed west.

Cries of despair rose from the jungle of shattered stone, the Chosen bewailing their abandonment.

They fought. The many-fingered monsters fought. Mourning would blanket the continent. Never had so many Hu’n-tai At fallen in one battle. Never had so many fallen in one generation.

Kharoulke the Windwalker strode steadily westward.

14. The Lucidian Frontier: Skirmishes

Nassim Alizarin’s raiders never neared Gherig closer than two miles. They engaged the crusaders only when there was no alternative. They intercepted couriers. They forced caravans to choose more difficult routes. And they made mock of Black Rogert. The strategy was transparent. And warmed the heart of Indala al-Sul Halaladin in far Shamramdi.

Young Az had brought several hundred warriors to support the Mountain’s efforts. The boy had firm instructions about bowing to the wisdom of the veteran. Indala remembered Nassim Alizarin as an enemy. He considered the Mountain his equal. Nassim’s Sha-lug had routed a larger force of Lucidians, long ago, during one of the periodic collisions between Lucidia and Dreanger. Only one other could claim to have bested Indala on the battlefield: Gordimer the Lion.

The boy showed his character. He accepted his relative’s directives. He did tell Nassim, “It grates. If I were any of my brothers or cousins, I’d ignore Indala. They do, too often, despite his having shown no reluctance to discipline his own blood.”

Nassim thought about his murdered son. Hagid would be about this age. Without as much promise. “You remind me too much of my son. I’ll probably be too soft to teach you what you need to learn.”

Old general and youth were astride horses, in the shadow of a rock spire in the dun badlands, observing Gherig. Smoke signals were rising there. No knowing what that meant. But they suggested a season to be wary.

Rogert du Tancret might be angry enough to move against Tel Moussa.

Young Az asked, “Were you too soft with your son?”

“Possibly the opposite. He was desperate to prove himself. That got him killed.” Nassim did not share the details. He would not, other than to reiterate his indictments of Gordimer and the sorcerer er-Rashal. He did not want to explain why the boy had gone to Brothe.

Captain Tage could not possibly maintain his charade indefinitely. But he would not be betrayed by the Mountain. Nassim Alizarin owed that man a debt of honor. He could repay it no other way.

He grumbled, “It’s a complicated world.”

“Certainly one where few men see past the sunset.”

“Eh?”

“Nobody thinks beyond the moment. Especially those who serve God. They just don’t get the concept of consequences.”

Nassim grunted. That was true, though more characteristic of Lucidia than Dreanger. The kaifate of Qasr al-Zed was, before all else, tribal. The kaifate of al-Minphet was more unified, with the Sha-lug there to enforce the will of the Marshal and Kaif.

He supposed the western kaifate was more like the Lucidian than the Dreangerean. A continuous dance of changing tribal alliances, a game that had begun millennia before the Praman Conquest.

Nassim asked, “Are the eastern tribes still being difficult?”

“Absolutely. You’d think they’re convinced that Tsistimed has gone for good.”

“If Indala can’t hold the kaifate together, then it can’t be done. His passing will bring on a long, dark age of chaos.”

The boy seemed slightly miffed.

Nassim amended his observation. “Somewhere among the young there could be one with the character and will of an Indala. But there isn’t among his contemporaries. His brother and uncle and cousins are talented but they aren’t Indala. They’re the kind of men who make an Indala great. They execute the Will but they aren’t the Will itself.”

The youth considered that. He responded with a nod. “I’m here to learn.”

The general had the boy working with old Az, Bone, and that band. He would be in the middle of everything. He would find out what it meant to be the hand on the spear.

The boy said, “There’s a big group coming out of Gherig.”

Right. Light cavalry first, with infantry behind. Then heavy horsemen. Crusader knights. Nassim wondered what they planned.

Young Az suggested, “Maybe you’ve stung Rogert so much he has to make a demonstration in order to feel better.”

That was in keeping with the man’s reputation. “A pity we can’t lead him on, into waterless wastes, the way Indala did.”

“Is even Rogert stupid enough to let that happen again?”

“He is. But those around him would rein him in.” Nassim chuckled. “For which God be thanked. I can’t imagine how awful he’d be on his own.”

Wagons and camels emerged from Gherig. The column turned eastward. Gisela Frakier rode ahead, scouting and screening.

Young Az guessed, “They’re going to besiege Tel Moussa.”

“I expect. Not even Rogert du Tancret would dare go farther than that. We should get back.” Nassim was sure that other, younger observers were ahead of him with the news. “A pity there’s no army to cut them off once they settle in.” Nassim chuckled again. Rogert du Tancret would try to starve Tel Moussa into yielding. Even fools would not storm the tower without the assistance of some severe Instrumentality of the Night. Every topographical advantage lay with the defenders. Only the lack of a natural source of water served the besieger.

“That smoke concerns me,” Alizarin said. “It must be meant to let somebody know that this has started.”

“Other Gisela Frakier. Tribal allies. No one else…”

“They aren’t enough in awe of Indala to refrain from dealing with Rogert?”

“Some don’t think that big. The al-Yamehni, for example, might consider an alliance with a strong crusader more attractive than their present role protecting the flanks of their ancient enemies, the al-Cedrah and the al-Hasseinni.”

The crusaders had been manipulating tribal hatreds since their advent in the Holy Lands. Never numerous, they had to make politics a strength. Fractious tribes with timeless squabbles made manipulation easy.

Neither the old fox nor the young lion could make out which tribe had chosen to aid Black Rogert. But they were quick and efficient. They streaked toward Tel Moussa, quickly threw a loose screen around it. Nassim and the boy did not get back ahead of them.

Others would be in the same straits.

Black Rogert’s move was an obvious one. So were the likely results. There was a plan in place.

There was a spring in the hills north of the Shamramdi road. Those caught outside the tower would assemble there. Or nearby, if the enemy knew about the spring and chose to deny it.

Late afternoon saw Nassim and young Az watering their mounts. The Mountain took the reports of those already gathered, then others as they arrived. Alizarin said, “There must have been a hundred Gisela Frakier.” Exaggerating slightly, perhaps. “How did they assemble without us noticing?”

The youngster said, “Our encirclement was porous. One man and one horse, on a path unknown to us, by moonlight? Easily done. We do the same. In any case, we were denying food and supplies. More mouths only worsened their position.”

All true. The boy was paying attention. But Nassim Alizarin did not like to admit that a general of the Sha-lug had been outwitted by Rogert du Tancret.

“So. What will they do now?”

“Simple enough. Keep Tel Moussa locked up… Uh.”

“Good. You’re thinking. Anyone else want to guess why they’d do this now? Why not last month? Or next winter? There are no campaigns being readied on either side. Rogert isn’t strong enough to launch one of his own.” Though Nassim was not sure about that. Rogert du Tancret might be arrogant enough to think he could defeat Lucidia on his own.

Certainly, he was arrogant enough to start a wider war over the harassment of Gherig.

Still…“Time will unmask him.”

Time withheld its judgment. Nassim began to suspect that Black Rogert had acted impulsively because he had found himself in possession of several momentary advantages. He had the Gisela Frakier for only a few weeks. And he had recruited a sorcerer, about whom Nassim’s spies could learn nothing. Not his name, whence he came, how he managed to work beside Rogert’s Brotherhood allies, notorious for loathing sorcery.

Three times the sorcerer acted against Tel Moussa. Thrice his efforts did no obvious harm. Three times Bone and old Az hunkered down inside the tower, remained calm, and endured.

Black Rogert stayed in the field himself only a few days, then returned to the wicked pleasures of Gherig. He left the siege work to others.

The crusaders did not patrol far from their line of investiture. Nassim gathered fighters in the hills nearby. Reinforcements came from Shamramdi. Indala was concerned.

Nassim ambushed the Gisela Frakier when they started back to their tribal territories, up on the frontier with the Rh?n. They fought bravely and appealed to Gherig for help. Help did not come. Black Rogert was done with them. They were on the discard heap. No matter to him that he might want to hire Gisela Frakier again tomorrow.

Nassim did not have the strength to exterminate the traitor Pramans. He did hammer home the point about the folly of becoming an ally of Rogert du Tancret.

A week later the truth made itself known.

The crusaders attacked a vast, rich caravan from Dreanger headed for Lucidia and the silk road beyond. The caravaneers had refused to take the harsher but safer path through the eastern desert. They believed a bribe to Rogert would guarantee safe passage.

Rogert seized all the goods and made captive the few people not slain outright. Those were all people who could be ransomed. The dead and captured both included important Chaldareans from the Eastern Empire. Among the dead were Dreangerean diplomats headed to Shamramdi and Lucidian ambassadors coming home.

Young Az observed, “At least this time there were no women from my granduncle’s family.”

But there had been Praman pilgrims by the hundred, going to visit shrines in the east or returning from shrines in the west. They had been robbed and butchered without concern for their religion or status. To Rogert they were all Unbelievers and vermin. There was no market for them as slaves. Murder was the obvious way to be shut of their hungry mouths.

“He’ll get a war for this,” young Az predicted. “It’s a prince’s duty to protect pilgrims. Even Unbeliever pilgrims.”

“Or, failing that, to avenge them so nothing wicked happens to the next band.”

Nassim bemoaned the disaster. But it had happened miles away and without warning. It was over before the news reached him. He could have done nothing, anyway. His forces were not concentrated. In retrospect, though, he thought he should have anticipated something of the sort, based on du Tancret’s past behavior.

Before the attack the crusaders bled most of the strength from the lines around Tel Moussa. Nassim took advantage of that to launch frequent counterattacks against what, in the end, proved to have been a calculated distraction.

A brace of new falcons arrived from Haeti, having evaded interception along the way.

15. Wrong Place, Wrong Time

The Perfect Master approached Khaurene late in the day. The setting sun liberally splashed the golden light for which the Connec was famous. He meant to bypass the city and would have done, but circumstance adjusted his thinking.

A year earlier Brother Candle would have gotten behind Khaurene’s walls to escape Patriarchal invaders and revenant things of the Night. Now the great dangers were bandits and itinerant heretic hunters from the Society for the Suppression of Sacrilege and Heresy. The Writ of several recent Patriarchs banning the Society had not taken hold in Arnhand, where those grim monks had been multiplying like mice, with Anne of Menand’s blessing. There was a new Patriarch, Serenity, now. Society vermin were coming out, getting into everything, everywhere, excepting those counties in the eastern Connec where the locals were not in the least reluctant to invite them to become participants, as targets, at archery practice.

Bandits were no threat to a wandering Maysalean Perfect. Bandits were a homegrown peril. Those desperadoes knew the holy men carried nothing worth stealing. Even their ragged clothing had no resale value. Society brethren, though, would happily rob the Perfect of their lives. And, though those villains were not yet numerous in the Connec, they were so absolutely convinced of their righteousness that most people had not the courage to stand up to them. They were fanatic about keeping lists. Including lists of what people were worth.

And they had the threat of Arnhander crusaders behind them.

King Regard himself was headed for Khaurene with an army, rooting out heretics as he came.

The Khaurenesaine had recovered substantially from its recent travails. Crops were in. Vineyards seemed restored. That which had been damaged or destroyed had been repaired or replaced. But the folk the old man met did not smile. They were worn down, exhausted, but had not lost hope. Not even in the face of this latest invasion.

The Connec had the greatest soldier of the age behind it.

Peter of Navaya’s Queen was Duke Tormond’s sister. And Peter had guaranteed the safety and independence of Khaurene. Peter of Navaya, hero of Los Naves de los Fantas, was the most beloved, honored, and respected monarch of the Chaldarean west. Not even Serenity dared try to call him to heel. If Serenity assayed the usual holy bluster and bullying he might find himself master of nothing but what he could see from Krois. He might even lose allies his predecessors had gathered so painstakingly.

Among Peter’s devoted battlefield allies was Jaime of Castauriga. There was no love between those Direcian monarchs but Jaime was unshakably hitched to the Navayan star. And was worshipped by the Grail Empress Katrin. Who had a vast capacity for making any Patriarch’s life more miserable than ever Peter might.

All this Brother Candle heard on the road from Sant Peyre de Mileage. It piled emotion atop emotion, luring him ever farther from Perfection.

He might yet have avoided Khaurene had he not needed to dodge Arnhander scouts that afternoon. They roamed unchallenged. Regard himself was tied up harassing the gentle folk of the Maysalean-tolerant communities of the Altai but did have strong recon patrols surveying the countryside around the Connec’s greatest city. He was, at least, making a grand show.

A show was the best Anne of Menand had yet gotten from most of the men she bullied into going after the Connec’s heretics. Only the fanatics of the Society were enthusiastic. And their captains were notoriously incompetent as warriors.

Brother Candle entered Khaurene just before the gates shut. When he was young the gates never closed. Often they went unguarded because the old men charged with the task failed to show up for work. Now everyone who entered Khaurene enjoyed a personal chat with a young, fit, and suspicious soldier, usually Direcian. The soldiers were practiced and efficient and familiar with the local dialect. They asked quick questions while their comrades watched. Society infiltrators usually betrayed themselves by the lies they told.

One soldier murmured, “Take care in the streets, Master. We still haven’t controlled all the gangs.” Religious violence had become part of city life.

“I’ve been here before. I know which streets to avoid. But thank you for reminding me.”

“Fair weather and good fortune, then.” Since he could not wish a Seeker “Godspeed.”

“And you as well, young man. And you as well.”

King Peter had chosen his soldiers well. Or, more likely, Queen Isabeth had done.

Sometimes the Perfect thought Isabeth loved Khaurene more than did her brother. Duke Tormond seemed to find his role an oppressive burden.

So Brother Candle entered the capital city of the End of Connec, that had stood since before men began keeping records. He had no specific plan but knew he would have to reveal himself to the local Seeker community. He could not survive here, otherwise. He had no money. He had no family here. He had left those things behind to become Perfect.

No choice seen, he made his way toward where the weavers, dyers, tanners, and leatherworkers dwelt. Those trades found the Maysalean philosophy congenial. That area was where he stayed regularly. If those people had recovered from the siege and defeat Khaurene had suffered he should find hospitality there again.

He arrived shortly before nightfall.

Grim news. Brother Candle was too well known. He had been recognized. News of his coming had raced ahead. Raulet Archimbault, the tanner, intercepted him as he turned into a street where all the tanners, spinners, and weavers were Seekers After Light. A plump Madam Archimbault hurried after her husband. Both brought the reek of the tannery with them. The entire neighborhood shared that stench. Weather could only make that worse, never weaken it.

Archimbault definitely showed the consequences of life in a time of stress, having regained few of the pounds he had lost during a grim winter spent hiding in the Altai. His wife had been eating well, though, and actually seemed younger than the Perfect remembered.

Archimbault swept Brother Candle into a great embrace. “We feared you had gone on, Master. No one knew what had become of you.”

“I went into isolation. To find my way back to Perfection. But the world wouldn’t let me be.”

“Come. Come. You’ll stay with us, of course.”

The wife said, “And you’re just in time to eat.”

By the time they reached the Archimbault home the whole neighborhood knew that Brother Candle had returned. Scores came out to see. It would be hard to slip away again.

He observed, “The house seems bigger and quieter.” Madam Archimbault scurried about, winkling out bread, cheese, wine, olives, and pickles of a dozen sorts.

Archimbault said, “It’s awfully quiet with the children gone. Empty, too.”

Brother Candle held his tongue, afraid he might open a wound. Every family in Khaurene had lost someone the past couple years, either to crusaders, or to disease and hunger after the fighting stopped.

Madam Archimbault expanded: “Archimbault doesn’t like to talk about it. He doesn’t like to admit error.”

Her husband muttered but did not argue. Equality of the sexes was one of the great heresies of the Seekers After Light.

“Soames turned up. After we started looking for a new husband for Kedle.” Kedle being their daughter. “The story he told is a barrel of dung. He wouldn’t say where he’d been or what he’d done. The men from his company say he ran away before the fighting started. Some think he surrendered without a fight and might be a spy for the Society, now. He has no explanation for why he didn’t join us in the mountains. He knew Kedle was near her time.” Madam Archimbault had a huge anger against her son-in-law, rigidly controlled. “He’s already got her with child again.”

Archimbault made a noise like a hissing pot. His anger was larger than his wife’s. He would say nothing because he did not want to look bad to the Perfect. These were the sorts of cares a Seeker was supposed to put aside.

Madam Archimbault confessed, “I blame myself. It’s all my fault. I urged the boy on Kedle. She wasn’t really interested. I bullied Archimbault into approaching his family.”

Brother Candle had been surprised by the match, back when. Though then it had been a coup for the Archimbaults because Soames’s family was so prominent.

The woman said, “Soames has all the family property, now. Which must be the real reason he came back. Only his grandfather was still living when he did. Soames had become the only heir.”

Archimbault grumbled, “That family suffered so much misfortune in so short a time. People said it was because of Soames’s bad behavior. And Soames is the one who benefited.”

Madam said, “He insisted that Kedle and baby Raulet go live with him.” Angrily. As an afterthought, she admitted, “Kedle doesn’t mind.”

“It lets her put on airs. Master, the child has strayed from the Path. She may never find her way back. We need your help. Desperately.”

“The times try the faith of the best of us.” The Perfect tried recalling Kedle’s age. Still under eighteen, he thought. Of an age to sway in every philosophical breeze.

Visitors began to arrive. Domestic talk ended. Brother Candle was always a favorite with the local Seekers.

Khaurenese stayed up late, seldom sitting down to the last meal till the tenth or eleventh hour. They rose with the sun but took an extended nap during the heat of the afternoon. Spirited talk continued till well after the Perfect fell victim to exhaustion.

A different breed of visitor appeared next morning. Early, but not wickedly so. His appearance demonstrated the speed with which news spread in the tight environs of the city.

A groggy Brother Candle found himself face-to-face with Bicot Hodier, Duke Tormond’s chief herald. The old man was too sleepy to manage his manners perfectly. “Hodier? That’s you? I thought you died in the fight with the Captain-General. You were with Sir Eardale Dunn.”

“No doubt there were people who hoped that was true. As ever, I continue to disappoint. The Duke wants you to come up to Metrelieux. Please don’t frustrate him.”

“No.” Though Tormond was another reason he had wanted to pass Khaurene by. “I can’t.”

“It would be disrespectful of you to visit these friends but not him.”

“I know. I know.” And Tormond was a friend. Or had been, when they were boys. After a fashion. Now they were just two tired old men.

Brother Candle had not visited the fortress Metrelieux for some time. “Improvements have been made, I see.”

“Isabeth’s Direcians are pushy. Though it’s only the gate.” Hodier shrugged. “The rest is cosmetic. Militarily, the Direcians are more interested in upgrading the city gates and walls.”

Brother Candle had noted the physical improvements where he had entered the city. He had seen patrols in the street, mixed Direcian and native. “Do you think a siege is a sure thing?”

“That decision will be made by King Regard. Meaning, by his mother. King Peter will make sure the city resists.”

“His soldiers seem to be everywhere. How many are they?”

“Fewer than some like, more than make the Patriarch’s friends happy.”

“Meaning you don’t know.”

“Clever, Master. But the question can’t be answered. By me. Perhaps by Principat? de Herve or Count Alplicova. The garrison turns over constantly. Nor do they want spies being able to establish anything certain. The soldiers are here to teach our people to defend themselves. Most seem willing to learn.”

A member of the Collegium was in Khaurene representing interests opposed to the Father of the Church? “So the debacle when they met the Captain-General convinced the survivors that they have some shortcomings.”

“Indeedy do, Brother. Indeedy do. Wait in here. I’ll find out how soon the Duke can receive you.”

Brother Candle settled in one of Metrelieux’s quiet rooms. He had waited there on other occasions. Usually someone turned up wanting a private word before he saw Tormond. Which seemed to be the point of the delay.

This time was different. Hodier was gone a half hour but no whisperer materialized during the wait.

“He’s ready, Brother. You’ll understand the delay once you see him. Be prepared for changes. For the worse.”

The worse? And Tormond was still alive?

“Sorry, Brother. I don’t mean to sound dramatic. But, as I said, you’ll understand.”

He would. Almost. But, more, the Perfect was tempted to decline into despair.

The Great Vacillator, Tormond IV, last of his line because he had no surviving issue, had become a drooling ruin. He was confined to a wheeled chair. He stank. He could not lift his chin off his chest, so weak had he become. He was little more than a stick figurine.

Hodier said, “This time there’s no sorcery and no poison. This time it’s just age and poor health.”

This, Brother Candle suspected, would be the last time he saw his friend among the living. His resentment over having been dragged up to Metrelieux faded. “Has he made a religious commitment? Will he take Church rites or the consolamentum?” The latter being the final ritual for the dying Seeker After Light.

“He’s the Great Vacillator. Unto the extremity itself. Bishop Clayto, Bishop LeCroes, and the Perfect Brother Purify have been standing by. His Lordship won’t choose among them.”

Brother Candle thought that must be Brother Purify’s fault. One of Brother Candle’s most persistent failings was his inability to think a single charitable thought about Brother Purify. They were flint and steel. But he also started at the mention of Bishop LeCroes. His onetime friend had been caught giving Tormond slow poison at the behest of Sublime V. His reward was to be exalted status once the Church gained control in Khaurene.

Publicly, Bries LeCroes had been the senior local supporter of the Anti-Patriarchs, not a Brothe man.

Bicot Hodier noted his response. “One thing the Duke does do is forgive. Sublime is dead. The threat of Patriarchal troops is gone. So he pardoned everybody. Including every noble who worked with the Captain-General during the time of the crusade. And for that we’re paying already. Now they’re conspiring with Arnhand.”

Knees grinding in protest, Brother Candle sank down in front of Tormond. He considered the healing brother behind the wheeled chair, saw nothing to indicate that the man was anything but what he pretended.

The Perfect thought he would see the serpent of darkness lurking behind the priest’s eyes if he was a Society tool.

Tormond’s eyes glittered. He was as aware and alert as could be, trapped inside that deteriorating flesh. But he could not communicate easily.

The meeting took place in an audience where Brother Candle had conferred with Tormond and his councilors before. Tormond had asked his opinions about everything, always, but never took them to heart. This morning the room was damp, chill, gloomy, barren, and almost unpopulated. Hodier was there. The healing brother was there. The Duke and the Perfect were there. Where twenty to thirty usually gathered, raucously, with fires roaring in the fireplaces.

Brother Candle observed, “Between us we have over two centuries of experience. And the priest is just a boy.”

The healing brother said, “I can give him an infusion that will restore his control of his body briefly. We seldom use it. It sucks up what resources he has left. Is now a good time?”

The priest had bent to ask that question beside Tormond’s ear.

Brother Candle caught a flash of mischief in Tormond’s rheumy eye as he managed a tiny nod.

The priest hustled away.

Hodier said, “This infusion does work wonders. But the cost is cruel. Hours like this, or worse, after barely a quarter hour of creeping over just this side of the far frontiers of normal. Don’t waste what time you get.”

Brother Candle could think of no appropriate response. He shifted the Duke’s chair so they could face one another once he parked himself on a bench so he did not have to grind his knees into the hard oak floor.

“We’ve all enjoyed several seasons since last we met.”

Tormond offered a gurgled grunt.

The healing brother rematerialized. “This won’t look good. But it’s how the job has to be done.” He seized Tormond’s wispy hair and forced his head back. Tormond’s mouth opened as his head tilted. The priest gave him five heartbeats to clear his windpipe, then dumped a small clay cup into his mouth. The contents looked like dark tea. Brother Candle smelled nothing. That meant little. His own senses were not what they used to be.

The priest pinched the Duke’s nose, forced a swallow response.

Tormond downed his medicine without choking or aspirating.

His response was not long coming. And was dramatic.

“Almost magical,” Hodier opined, perhaps tongue in cheek.

Color came to Tormond. His slight palsy stopped. His drooling ceased. Then, laboriously, his chin came up off his chest. “Charde ande Clairs. My most faithful friend.”

There was a pathetic indictment of relations between Tormond IV and his world. And the Duke’s own fault. He never took charge. He let himself be managed and manipulated and got stubborn over the wrong things at the wrong times. Everyone tried to take advantage, excepting Sir Eardale Dunn, who had died defending Khaurene. And Brother Candle, who had been Charde ande Clairs in an earlier life, when he and the Duke-to-be had shared childhood adventures in contravention of the rules of station.

“I’m here.”

“But, almost certainly, had to be dragged.” Tormond could not overcome a slur and a lisp, nor did he rattle on as was once his wont. He could, however, be understood. And it was clear that he wanted to speak directly to Brother Candle. “Bicot, find Isabeth. Bring her. No excuses. Fornier, go get coffee. That was supposed to be here by now.”

The priest inclined his head. “As you wish, Your Lordship.”

“He took that gracefully,” Brother Candle said. While searching the room for shadows that did not fit.

“He’s a good man, Charde. Unlike most of his tribe. We have little time. I need you to listen.” Tormond beckoned the Perfect closer. “Among my many ills, lately I’m cursed with glimpses of what the Instrumentalities of the Night see when they look into the face of tomorrow. Usually while this drug infusion is fading.”

“Uhm?” Carefully neutral.

“Charde, the future is not a friendly place.”

Not exactly an epiphany.

Tormond took Brother Candle’s hands into his own. He eased something out of his sleeve into that of his guest. The Perfect concealed his surprise.

“Not friendly at all. Great sorrow is coming. Fire will scourge the Connec. There is no way to avoid it. Tell Count Raymone that I regret everything. Though I don’t see what I could have done to make things come out better. Give him my blessing. Tell him to salvage what he can.”

A wisp of darkness stirred behind the Duke’s eyes. The effect of the infusion was approaching its peak already.

Fornier returned with coffee service so fast Brother Candle had to believe coffee preparation had been in progress after all.

Queen Isabeth and several Direcians blew in moments later, all frowns. As Tormond failed his demesne became, ever more, an extension of Navaya. King Peter’s men would not be pleased with random old contacts who wandered in and caused distress.

Brother Candle recognized none of the Queen’s men.

He eased the packet in his sleeve to an inside pocket.

Brother Candle had known Isabeth since birth, though never familiarly. For reasons he never understood there was more warmth on her part than his. Bright with concern, she demanded, “What’s going on?”

The Perfect gestured. “Your brother sent for you. Not I.”

“Sit, Isabeth,” Tormond told his sister. “Listen. This may be the last chance I get to speak.”

The Duke rattled along as though there was more in need of saying than he possibly had time to say. He had been having apocalyptic visions. Disaster could not be avoided but its harsher details were not yet fixed.

Twice Isabeth started to interrupt. Twice Brother Candle stopped her with a gesture. This would be a grim race. Tormond had no time for interruptions.

He did not get as specific as anyone wanted. Always the trouble with sibyls, though Brother Candle did concede that all futures were fluid as long as they still lay ahead. The Night saw possibilities and probabilities but could fix nothing to its place or temporal point before it happened.

Still, some things verged upon certainties. None of Tormond’s futures boded well for Khaurene.

Tormond’s flirtation with lucidity degenerated into a gurgling mumble. The Duke vainly trying to communicate, still.

Isabeth eyed the Perfect. He stared back. She said, “It will start before we’re ready.”

“The future always arrives before we’re ready. Whatever you do, the ambush comes when you don’t expect it. But he did tell you a lot that you can use.” In a way. The personalities set to dance in the coming storm thought too much of themselves to deliberate what might be best in the long term.

Isabeth said, “I’ll have to inform Peter. He’ll have decisions to make. And you. You can’t waste time. Go preach to your people.”

He had other obligations, too. And might succeed in fulfilling none.

The dying man’s most dire visions had presented as the most determined futures.

And Tormond was dying. No doubt about it. He had given them a choice of three dates, all inconvenient. Two could be beaten by taking action to prevent them. Action entirely within the domain of Father Fornier.

Brother Candle suggested, “Whatever you do, be clear and don’t sugarcoat. Your husband’s choices will be hard. He deserves the best information possible.”

Isabeth considered him for several long seconds. She was no child. And she was not her brother. If anything, she could be hasty making decisions. “You accept what he told us, Master?”

Brother Candle did not correct her usage. She had done that deliberately, for the benefit of her companions. Most Direcian nobles were solid Brothen Episcopals, if openly contemptuous and defiant of the Patriarch himself. They were willing to exterminate the inquestors of the Society-mainly because those fanatics presented a threat to the nobility’s temporal power.

Isabeth was suspect religiously. She sprang from this nest of heresy. She had to tread carefully.

Brother Candle said, “I accept his visions. My creed tells me I must accept what is. The Night is. The Instrumentalities are. None of us can deny those facts because they’re inconvenient.”

Nothing he said contravened Chaldarean doctrine. So long as no one accorded the Instrumentalities any status but that of devils or demons.

Truths like that did not please the kind of soul that found completion only in a Society for the Suppression of Sacrilege and Heresy. A soul determined to coerce God Himself to conform.

Brother Candle said, “I’ve played the part your brother created for me. Which was to make sure he got his say and you people listened.”

Isabeth was skeptical.

She was a tired, graying woman who had spent her adult years enmeshed in the politics of her brother and husband. She had seen little of the stylish court life enjoyed by most women of standing. From the moment the Connec went into continuous crisis she had scant opportunity to enjoy the company of her husband or son. Who would be walking and talking and making life an adventure for his nurses, now. And whose name, Brother Candle realized, he did not know.

Embarrassed, he asked.

Isabeth rattled off a string of names. Direcians liked to get their favorite ancestors and saints involved. “But just Peter, or Little Peter, for everyday.” Wistfully.

Brother Candle got away soon afterward. Bicot Hodier accompanied him to the citadel gate. “I can’t walk you all the way, Brother. Tormond will need close watching now. He sometimes suffers after using Fornier’s infusion.”

“I understand. I know the way. I’m not senile yet. I just walk slower.”

The Perfect did not walk alone. He soon realized that he had a tail, a brace of rogues who did not appear to be moved by benign intent. But they suffered a change of heart soon enough. A half-dozen Direcian troopers came jogging down from Metrelieux and by coincidence seemed headed whatever direction the Perfect was.

“I don’t know what that was all about,” Brother Candle told the Archimbaults when they got home from the tannery.

Archimbault hazarded, “Must have been Society thugs. The capture of the notorious heretic Brother Candle would be quite a coup.”

The Perfect did not argue. Archimbault might be right. There was no fathoming the reasoning of some people. “Possibly. I need to get back on the road. Before I become a distraction.”

He could become one in a huge way.

After reaching the Archimbault home and making sure he was safe from stalkers and prying eyes, he retrieved the packet Duke Tormond had slipped him.

The contents could rock the Connec.

Within it were the ducal seal, the ducal ring of office, and a relic of Domino that had been in the Duke’s family since Imperial times. Each was an item only the true Duke of Khaurene could possess. They were the talismans of the office. Also included were documents inscribed in a tiny hand, copies of the legal instruments that confirmed Duke Tormond’s family as lords of the End of Connec. The originals went all the way back to Imperial times. Each copy was signed with incontestable sworn attests that it was an exact and true copy in every respect. Multiple signatories had witnessed every page of every document. The names ranged across the spectrum of Khaurene’s religious leadership.

The key document, the prize that could shake the world, was one in which Tormond IV legally adopted Count Raymone Garete of Antieux and made the Count his heir in all respects.

That would upset everyone. People had been jostling for position for years. Peter of Navaya led the pack. Isabeth had been Tormond’s only heir for a decade.

Adoption had not been much employed since Imperial times, when the more thoughtful emperors used it to assure the Empire of a competent successor. But adoption remained a viable legal maneuver. So long as it could be established beyond challenge.

Brother Candle considered the list of witnesses. Every man was highly respected, excepting Bishop LeCroes. And LeCroes had been rehabilitated.

There were too many of them. Honest men all, yes, moved by loyalty and the best of intentions, surely. Yet someone would say something to someone. That was human nature. The news would leak, if it had not done so already. Someone with ambition and a streak of villainy would start trying to undo Tormond’s scheme.

Thus, Brother Candle saying he had to get on the road. He needed a good head start before anyone began to suspect that a lapsed, superannuated Maysalean Perfect had smuggled the emblems of state out of Metrelieux for Tormond IV.

Brother Candle considered taking Archimbault into his confidence. Archimbault was as good a soul as they came. And the man thought better of Tormond than did most of his subjects. Archimbault could be valuable in the effort to execute Tormond’s plan. But Archimbault had a life, a wife, a family, a career, and an important role in the community. He did not deserve such cruel peril.

Archimbault and his wife both tried to talk the Perfect out of going. The Maysalean community did not want to share him. They did not like Brother Purify, who was the only other Perfect available.

Identical arguments were offered later, once the evening meeting started. The Seekers enjoyed themselves. Debate became spirited. And, to a soul, they insisted that their gatherings were never so enjoyable when the Perfect was not there to teach. Meaning, by implication, to referee.

Brother Candle put more into the evening than usual. The Seekers had to be warned that dark times would return. “The trial that’s coming will be harsher than ever the Captain-General was. The Captain-General was a gentler, more honorable man than the commanders we’ll see now. And that time of tribulation, terrible as it was, lasted only a few seasons. The next trial might last for generations. Till the last Seeker has been burned.” The Society had shown a fondness for burning heretics.

Tormond had not mentioned prolonged persecutions. His focus had been on the near future. But the crushing darkness of the deep future had been implicit in his every word.

Brother Candle finished the evening by saying, “Please awaken me early. I want to be on the road to the Altai with all the day ahead.”

He felt badly about the misdirection. Which, no doubt, would be of little efficacy, anyway. Anyone chasing him for what he might be carrying would know that he had to take it to Count Raymone. In which case, he ought to head into the Altai after all, then travel eastward through the wilderness.

Brother Candle reached the northernmost of Khaurene’s several gates only to find it shut. A lot of military activity was under way. There had been a bloody fight in the assembly area just inside the gate.

The soldiers and militia were not looking for an old man smuggling the emblems of state. Brother Candle approached a Direcian who did not appear to be overwhelmed, asked what had happened and when the gate would open.

“King Regard’s men are outside, Father. They tried to capture the gate during the night. They had inside help. They failed. The survivors are licking their wounds but they haven’t gone away. If you want out you’ll have to use another gate. They won’t be watching them all. They’re too busy here.”

Brother Candle thanked the soldier and backed away. The man had not said so but it looked like the troops were getting ready to sortie.

He was amused by having been called “Father.” Though for a Direcian that could be a term of respect for the aged, not necessarily a title for a cleric.

Brother Candle headed for the eastern quarters. One of the gates there should let him get to one of the roads to Castreresone.

16. Other Worlds

There was no night in the Realm of the Gods. The Ninth Unknown assumed that there must have been, once. The Aelen Kofer must have taken the diurnal and seasonal cycles with them, leaving only a changeless silvery gray sameness.

How long had he been there? There were no temporal milestones. Not even the sonic rhythm of the world changed. Hunger only worked till the food ran out. Bowel movements became erratic before that. His digestion did not tolerate traveler’s iron rations well.

For a time he had concentrated on reaching the Great Sky Fortress without having to walk the broken rainbow bridge. A young warrior, a hardened commando type, might have climbed that sheer gray stone. If there were no traps and no hazards less obvious than those Februaren saw from points he could reach riding his own weary flesh.

He had to admit he was a bit past his prime.

Maybe the ascendant could make the climb without using the bridge. He could change into something built for that. But the ascendant was not here to help.

Februaren had not yet gotten a ghost of a hint of a means of opening the way between the worlds. Nor of escaping himself. No good trying to call on the Construct, either. From inside the Realm of the Gods there was no sign that great growing engine existed.

He had dropped himself into a room without doors.

He was not powerless. If anything, his sorcerer’s abilities were enhanced. But they were no help, except insofar as he could charm his stomach into believing that it had not gone out of business.

Despair did not defeat him. There was that of the “northern thing” in his character. No surrender. Battle on till the Choosers of the Slain arrived. Or whichever deathlord followed on after the Gray One’s beautiful daughters.

He prowled the dwarf town till he knew it like he had been born there. He found nothing of value or interest. The Aelen Kofer would have taken the wood and mortar and stone had they not been loaded down with night and the seasons.

They had that reputation in myth and legend.

Must be a lot of truth in the old tales. Februaren had yet to uncover a contradiction to the little he knew of the Old Ones.

But in the Night everything was true.

In time spells no longer silenced his hunger. Soon he would stop thinking logically and linearly. Something dramatic needed doing.

In desperation he fashioned crude fishing apparatus. Something lived out there in the oily gray water of the harbor. The surface often stirred to movements underneath. He had no bait. He would have devoured that long since had he been able to find anything. He made a shiny lure and stained it with his blood, then went down to quayside. He boarded the derelict tied up there, began fishing off its bow. He hoped he was a better fisherman than hunter.

He had enjoyed no luck trying to catch the few rats, squirrels, other vermin, and birds still inhabiting the Realm of the Gods. As desperately hungry as he, they were the fiercest survivors of their species, too fast for an old man not used to hard work. He thought they might be hunting him.

Not even sorcery availed him. These creatures were indifferent. Maybe they were immune, simply by always having lived inside the supernatural.

He expected no better luck with the denizens of the harbor. But in just minutes he felt a tug on his line so determined it was clear something down there was fishing for dinner, too. Februaren pulled. The thing pulled. The old man had more success. He glimpsed something like a miniature kraken. A squid. He had eaten squid all his life. Squid was popular throughout Firaldia. Too bad he had no olive oil or garlic.

This squid was miniature only by comparison to the krakens of nautical legend. It outweighed the Ninth Unknown. And had the reach on him, too. Its long tentacles were a dozen feet in length. It failed to take Februaren only because the old man had the better leverage.

The monster would not give up.

The Ninth Unknown was just as stubborn.

Tentacles slithered up over the edge of the quay. The monster began to lift itself out of the water. It turned, tried to reach over the rail of the hulk. Its eyes…

Startled, Februaren stared down at a face almost human, contorted in desperate effort. Those eyes were intelligent but mad with hunger.

It let go the quayside, hoping to topple Februaren with its weight. He did stumble but not enough to go over the rail. Just enough to see the tentacles reaching. Enough to see the water suddenly churn and give up three heads that looked almost human. Shoulders and torsos and weapons followed. Short harpoons in manlike hands plunged into the monster’s unguarded back.

Februaren surrendered his fishing gear. It was time. Time to get off the hulk, too. He watched the struggle as he went. The people of the sea were gaunt with starvation. They were weak. Though they were three and the monster one he knew they would get the worst of this. The kraken would feed.

He employed his last resources once he reached the quay, hitting the monster with a spell meant to paralyze. The spell would immobilize a human for hours. This kraken was not human. But its struggles did turn sluggish.

Februaren collapsed.

He went down with enough reason left to make sure he kept stumbling away from the water as he did.

Someone was singing. The voice was remote and eerie and the words were alien but the melody was familiar. It went with a love song sung first in the dialect of the western Connec a hundred years ago. Cloven Februaren recalled making love to the refrain out of the Khaurenesaine.

He smelled a powerfully fishy stench.

He lay where he had fallen, right cheek hard against cold, damp stone, palms burning from abrasions. He cracked the eyelid nearest the pavements. What he saw so startled him that he gave himself away.

Five feet away, seated cross-legged, facing him, was a young woman, singing while she worked. She wore nothing that had not been on her at the moment of her birth.

Had he the strength he would have turned away. She might be without modesty but he had his, even after all these years. But he was too weak to do more than flop and make noises even he did not understand.

The song faded into gurgling laughter.

The mer got onto her knees. Putting those together. She extended a hand with something in it. The fishy stench grew more powerful. “Eat!”

After struggling into a seated position, Februaren could see what the mer had been doing. Carving flesh from a tentacle.

He was much too hungry to worry about what that flesh used to be. Or how badly it smelled now.

His stomach would soon rebel. But sufficient to that moment the evil. He seized the food.

The girl said, “I have… been sent out… to watch. Our debt. Your spell saved… many lives.” Clearly, she was not accustomed to speaking a human language. But she did warm up quickly.

The little Cloven Februaren knew about the people of the sea he had learned from books. They could change shape and walk among men but only for a short while. Only in extraordinary circumstances would they put themselves through the pain necessary to gain legs. The change, in this case, had been perfectly mimetic. And the mer had deliberately revealed that.

She cautioned, “You don’t eat too much. Small bites. Chew, long times. Or get sick. When you get stronger, make fire. Cook.”

She spoke a dialect of the northern Grail Empire. One he had known well as a youth but had not heard in a century. He gestured at her to keep it slow. He took her advice and ate slowly, too.

She stopped needing thought pauses between words and phrases but never spoke at a conversational pace. “You are not the only sorcerer. But you are the one who had the right spell.”

The raw kraken lost its savor. Februaren supposed that was his own body telling him to stop eating. So he tried to concentrate on the girl. Without having his gaze drift downward.

She was admirably equipped, there, just a hand below her chin.

He supposed her capacity to distract was why she had been chosen to speak for the mer.

“You may think we fed you in gratitude for your help. In less desperate times that would be true. We are a peaceful, hospitable people. But that luxury has been taken from the mer who are trapped here. We feed you, instead, by way of investing in our own survival. You have legs. You can make the journey even the greatest hero of the mer could not endure.” To his frown she replied, “I cannot go far from the water. I have to return to the wet frequently. Please. Tell your story.”

Little splashes behind Februaren told him he had an audience broader than a single shape-changed girl.

He told ninety percent of the truth. And no deliberate lies.

The girl said, “We are after the same thing. The opening of the way. Otherwise, we all die. And the world of men will follow. Unless…”

“Yes? Unless?”

“We are at the mercy of the Aelen Kofer. Only the Aelen Kofer can open the way. Only the Aelen Kofer have the skills to rebuild the rainbow bridge. Only the Aelen Kofer can save the Tba Mer. And…”

The girl wanted him to ask. “And?”

“Only you can go where the Aelen Kofer have gone. Only you have legs to survive the dry journey. Only your human lips can shape the magical word that will compel the Aelen Kofer to hear your appeal.”

“Magic word? What magic word?” A swift riffle through his recollections of north myth exhumed nothing. “Rumplestiltskin?”

“No! Invoke the name of the one whose name we dare not speak. The one you named in your tale.”

“All right.” He would have to think about that. It must be Ordnan, whose name was not to be spoken though everyone knew it somehow. But the Gray Walker was gone. Named or unnamed, he had no power anymore. How could an extinct god compel the Aelen Kofer? “But I can’t make any journey if I’m sealed up inside here.”

“Only the middle world, your world and mine, is denied us. The Aelen Kofer went down into their own realm.”

“Down? I thought they sailed away aboard the golden barge of the gods.”

“No. The barge is right behind you. You were on it. It is involved, but the dwarves went down. Back to the world whence the Old Ones summoned them in the great dawn of their power. Back when they were the New Gods and the Golden Ones.”

The girl stopped talking. The old man was pleased. He had time to do more than labor after what she was trying to say.

She was patient. As were the mer in the water behind Februaren.

“I don’t know the stories of this world as good as I should. How does one move from this world to that of the dwarves?”

The answer was absurd on its face. And explained why someone might think the Aelen Kofer had gone away on a barge.

His acquaintance with religion suggested that most were founded on logical absurdities easily discerned from outside. And yet, each was true, courtesy of the Night. Somewhere. At some time. At least part of the time.

A dozen Instrumentalities of the grand, bizarre old sort had shown their resurrected selves of late. He had come here seeking help dealing with the worst of the breed.

He could almost feel the bitter cold breath of the Windwalker.

Absurd. But real. Februaren boarded the rotting ship again. Gingerly, afraid the decay might be so advanced that ladders would collapse under his negligible weight. But time had not advanced to meet his dread.

The ship was not large. It was low in the waist, rising only a few feet higher than the quay. Februaren doubted that it drew a dozen feet heavily loaded. The main weather deck was six feet above the waterline. The tub was short and wide and indifferent, like one of his earliest wives. It did not resent his presence enough to react. Magic ship or not.

This ship was not the same size inside as out. Which was no stunner to the Ninth Unknown. Space needed only to conform to the Will of the Night.

The only deck below the main weather deck was the bottom of the cargo hold, loose planking on cross frame members, concealing the ballast voids, bilges, and keel. Half the ship was nothing but a big, empty box that stank because it had not been pumped clean in far too long.

The hold could be examined from above simply by moving a hatch cover. It appeared to be accessible-safely-only through the bows or stern castle. Februaren had instructions to go down. The mer had told him to use the stern route, past the master’s cabin.

The master’s quarters were on the main deck level, behind a pathetic galley. Februaren ransacked that, found nothing more useful than several rusty knives and an ebony marlinspike that had to be a memento. It was too heavy to be a practical tool.

Done there, Februaren descended a steep stairs. Seamen would call it a ladder. The deck below constituted quarters for two or three officers, so low even a short man had to bend to get around. How much worse for the seamen up forward? Had they even had room to sling hammocks?

Had there, in fact, ever been an actual crew? Did the gods need one?

Light leaked in from above and through skinny gaps in the hull. It revealed little of interest. A fine deposit of dust. Webs whose spiders had been hunted out long ago by rats and mice who had since abandoned ship.

He had been told to keep going down. He descended to another cramped deck where food and ship’s stores might have been kept. Then down again, and again. Counting steps, he was fifteen feet below the ship’s bottom when he ran out of ladders. There was no less light here than there had been up above. The tired old light leaked in, around, and through cracks in a crude plank door. Which, in theory, ought to open on the cargo bay but could not possibly because it had to be beneath the bottom of the harbor.

The rotten latchstring broke when he pulled it. Why had it been left out? Had someone been left behind? Or did it just not matter?

He slipped the blade of the thinnest knife through a crack and lifted the latch. Which proved to be a wooden strip so slight it would have broken if he had just pushed the door hard.

“Hatch,” he reminded himself as he eased through, cautiously. Sailors called their doors hatches.

What lay beyond the hatchway was no ship’s hold. It was a mountain meadow in summer, without the direct sunshine. Lightly wooded hills rose to either hand. Mountains more fierce than the Jagos loomed beyond, all around. Mountains all dark indigo gray, most with white on the tips of their teeth.

Cloven Februaren stopped halfway through the hatchway, saw what was to be seen, withdrew. He swung the rickety door open as far as it would go, used one of the plundered knives to jam it so it could not swing shut. He collected a loose plank from those covering the bilges, laid it down so a quarter of its length protruded into the world of the dwarves. Only then did he step on through.

He removed his pack, extracted his spare shirt, fixed it to the plank end by hammering in another liberated knife. The shirt hung there like what it was, a rumpled, dirty yellow rag. Attached to a board protruding from a blot of darkness the eye could not fix and could not have found again without knowing the correct magic-had he allowed the hatch to close.

He found nothing better than a few stones so tossed those through to strengthen the connection between worlds. Then he walked slowly uphill toward a standing stone on sentry duty a hundred yards away.

With each step a little of the gray around him went away. A wash of pale color entered the world. It waxed but never became homeworld strong. It was a pastel world when the old man stopped in front of the standing stone.

The menhir was covered with dwarfish runes. The gods had borrowed them, then gave them to the children of men so they could record their prayers. Cloven Februaren stared at three runes inked onto his left palm, then found a matching sequence on the face of the stone. He traced each of the three with his right forefinger as he spoke the names of the runes. He was careful with his pronunciations.

The air shimmered. It shuddered and pushed against the Ninth Unknown. It twisted. Then the space between him and the stone filled with an old, hairy, bewildered Aelen Kofer who rubbed his eyes and squinted, rubbed his eyes and squinted. He did not want to believe what he saw.

Februaren said, “The Aelen Kofer are required.” He used the tongue he shared with the mer. He had been assured that the dwarves would understand.

If his recollections of the mythology were correct, the Aelen Kofer would understand him whatever tongue he used.

The dwarf gulped air behind his beard. Doubtless, that had sprouted before the first men turned sticks into tools. He rasped, “Son of Man!” and made it sound like the worst swearing he could imagine.

“Kharoulke the Windwalker is awake and free. The middle world is going under the ice. The Aelen Kofer are required.”

The ancient looked like somebody was beating him with an invisible shovel.

“Others like the Windwalker are wakening, too. There is no power to keep them bound.”

“Stop!”

One word, so heavily accented Februaren almost failed to grasp it.

“Do not… speak… again.”

The Ninth Unknown waited, feeling the world around him.

The realm of the dwarves was thick with magic, the way the middle world had been in antiquity. Its wells of power must be boiling, flooding it with magical steam. Yet the power of the dwarf world was slightly different. Februaren clawed at it but it slipped through his sorcerer’s grasp like quicksilver between cold, stiff fingers.

“Son of Man. You stand before Korban Iron Eyes.”

Februaren heard the “Iron Eyes.” It took him a moment to connect that with Khor-ben Jarneyn Gjoresson, the son of the dwarf king in the commoner northern myth cycles. He was supposed to have made several magical rings and swords and hammers for various gods and heroes.

Februaren stifled an urge to tell Iron Eyes that while he was older than expected, he did not look his age. His sense of humor was moribund lately.

“Cloven Februaren, Ninth Unknown of the Collegium, in Brothe. The Aelen Kofer are required.”

The dwarf grunted. He wanted time to think.

Februaren felt a rising dread. This would not go quickly. Dwarves were not immortal but their lives did stretch back to the dawn of memory. They knew no urgency. He glanced back. The doorway remained visible. The world continued to gain color, maybe as his eyes adapted.

Korban Iron Eyes turned to the standing stone. He talked to it as, slowly, he rested his palms on a dozen runes in succession, naming them in turn.

Reality quake. Silent thunder. A moment when the lightning of all darkness met. And a moment beyond when the old men of the Aelen Kofer joined their Crown Prince. Including the ancient Gjore himself. Nobody spoke. Everybody stared at the outsider.

These were the pride and glory of the Aelen Kofer?

The tribe was in bad shape. Maybe as bad as the Realm of the Gods.

The Old Ones must have taken steps to make sure they would not go down alone.

The dwarves talked among themselves. Februaren heard the Windwalker mentioned several times.

Iron Eyes faced him. “Son of Man. You say the Aelen Kofer are required. Divulge the full truth if you hope to see your arrogance overlooked. What do you want? What do you mean to do? How did you find your way into our world?”

Februaren told it. Without lying. Without overlooking much. Without admitting how powerful he was in the middle world. The Aelen Kofer of myth had a mystical horn that trumpeted whenever it heard a lie. No horn was on display. But it would be around somewhere.

The Aelen Kofer began to debate.

Language was no mask for the dispute. There were two points of view. Which seemed to verge on turning deadly.

One side wanted to go right on doing nothing. The Realm of the Gods meant nothing to the Aelen Kofer. Let the Windwalker have his way with the middle world. Let both worlds die if that was their destiny. The fates of men-and of trapped mer-did not concern the Aelen Kofer.

The opposition held that the dwarf world had begun to grow pale. It was dying, in its own way. And, the fate of the world aside, Kharoulke the Windwalker was the most vile, hideous, ancient, and implacable enemy of the Aelen Kofer. Whose cleverness had been enough to imprison him in the long ago. In time, come for the Aelen Kofer he would. In time, make himself Lord of the Nine Worlds he would. Unless someone stopped him.

Februaren’s ears pricked up. Nine Worlds? That exceeded the census of myth by several. And, how the devil was he following all the argument? Till minutes ago he had never heard a word of dwarfish spoken.

Magic.

One man in ten thousand would not just say, “Magic,” shrug, and walk away. The one guy, a Ninth Unknown, would begin fussing about it immediately, driven to find out how it worked and why.

The debate raged. The dwarf elders remained balanced precariously on the cusp of violence. Cloven Februaren thought about what could go wrong. He recalled what he knew from the Aelen Kofer myth cycle.

“Oh-oh.”

He was in a typical story. And a story of this kind-not just in the northern tradition-tended to launch its hero onto a whole ladder of quests. If that pattern held the dwarves would agree to help but only if he went to the land of the giants to steal something only a Son of Man could carry away. But before he could do that he would have to pilfer something from the world of the elves so he could unlock the way. And whatever that was could be handled only by someone who had been thrown down into the icy wastes of Hell… And once he got home they would wed him to the King’s daughter and the old monarch would abdicate in his favor.

Something to look forward to. If he lived that long.

The inaction party had a good argument. Saving the world was too much work.

Iron Eyes announced, “It’s been decided. A compromise has been reached. Those who think the Aelen Kofer ought to respond to your petition are free to do so. Word is spreading. Those who aren’t interested will stay behind and forget you ever crept into our world. The rest will join you in the Realm of the Gods.”

Iron Eyes did not bring up a need for a talisman from the Land Beyond the Dawn. Februaren chose not to raise the question. Iron Eyes said, “Organization of the expedition has begun.”

“Excellent. Meanwhile, any chance I could get something to eat?” It had been a while. The kraken was no longer coming back. And he had harped on the hunger all through the telling of his tale.

“Of course.”

Iron Eyes touched the standing stone in a pattern of pats and whistles. He vanished, leaving a pop! and a tuft of beard drifting toward badly trampled grass. Cloven Februaren moved nearer the menhir. It must have something in common with the Construct.

Dwarves began to reappear, attired and equipped for war. Fighters were not what Februaren had come to get. He needed magical engineers. Masters of their trade. Not breakers of bone and stone.

Well, maybe they did come equipped with mystic tools. Hard to tell. Each had loaded himself down with a pack bigger than he was.

Should he despair? These dwarves were the oldest of the old. The grayest and hairiest of the extremely hairy and gray.

Iron Eyes came back armed with two packs. The puny one he handed to Februaren. “For you.”

The mass bent the old man to the ground. “You did hear me when I said I’ve been around over two hundred years?”

“Barely out of nappies.”

“That’s extremely old, for a man. Since age has come up, why are only the grandfathers volunteering?”

“They’re the Aelen Kofer who believe there’s a problem. They remember the Windwalker and his brothers. The youngsters think the old folks exaggerate. They do about everything else. Times always used to be harder. In any case, some think that the Windwalker was cruelly done. We didn’t try hard enough to talk out our differences before we resorted to violence.”

Cloven Februaren touched his chin to make sure his jaw had not gone slack. The Aelen Kofer were nearly immortal. How could a rational being who had survived more than two decades possibly think that way? Kharoulke’s idea of a peace conference would be to eat the delegates the other side sent. By offering to negotiate you announced that you had already accepted the probability of defeat. You wanted to weasel out of the worst consequences.

With Instrumentalities like the Windwalker there was nothing to discuss. He offered victory or extinction. The Night saw no in-between.

“Don’t be shocked, Son of Man. Your tribe doesn’t have an exclusive claim to the production of fools.” Iron Eyes changed subject. “This adventure will be hard. We have to make the walk between worlds by actually walking. No eight-legged horses. No changing into hawks or eagles. There isn’t power enough left for any of that. Tell you truly, Son of Man, I’m surprised that the Realm of the Gods has survived as well and long as you say. It ought to be farther down the path to extinction.” At the end, there, the dwarf seemed bitten by a sudden, dark suspicion.

“Time is wasting,” Februaren said. He started downhill toward the shadowy uncertainty of a doorway.

The climb out of the ship was not that long, intellectually. Physically, it was a harsh challenge for Cloven Februaren, weak and unaccustomed to labor. He felt every one of his years when he collapsed on the main deck of the barge.

Some Aelen Kofer were equally drained by carrying all that weight. The more spry went to the rails and called to the mer. Much of what they had dragged up the long climb was food.

Iron Eyes said the mer would have to find the seams outlining the gateway to the middle world. The Aelen Kofer could not.

The people of the sea showed little interest. Having eaten, they began to display a certain animus. Understandably.

Februaren reminded them that the Aelen Kofer were not obligated to feed them again. And recruiting the dwarves had been their idea. They had to help save themselves.

The mer then declared their unwillingness to stray from areas they considered safe. The slain kraken was not the last of its kind. There was a white shark out there, too. It had produced pups not long ago. Those, most likely, had been eaten by something.

All smaller forms of life, barring things able to burrow deep into the bottom mud, had been hunted out. Nothing remained but the top predators, eyeballing one another, desperate for an opportunity.

There were six people of the sea. Four males, in their prime before becoming trapped, the female who had shape-changed, and a fiercely protected female child. Had she been human Februaren would have guessed her to be four.

Korban Jarneyn said, “There is little magic left. We need to be niggardly with it. Opening the gateway will bankrupt us.”

“How large a hole do you need? My associate on the outside can get through a rat hole if he has to.”

“The bigger the opening the more outside magic we can pull in.”

The Aelen Kofer hoped to catch the tail end of the burst of power in the Andorayan Sea. None, Februaren noted, suggested drawing on the more accessible magic of their own world.

“Will a small hole let you draw power to make a big hole?”

“If we find the seams so we can force any hole at all.” Iron Eyes glared at the timid mer. He looked up the mountain. Its peak lay hidden in clouds. Most of the Aelen Kofer had gone to study the rainbow bridge.

Februaren said, “Make the way safe for the mer. Even if that leaves only power enough to force a finger-size hole.”

Iron Eyes scowled. He muttered. He bobbed his head once, fiercely. “The alternative is defeat without having fought.”

And that, of course, was not to be endured. The fight was the thing. To battle without hope, yet battle on and battle well. Thither loomed immortality.

Korban collected a half-dozen dwarves. They formed a circle facing inward-excepting Gjoresson himself. He faced the harbor.

The mer made frightened noises. They crowded into the tight space between the barge and the quayside. They wept, sure something would winkle them out.

A shark’s fin broke water a hundred yards out. It headed straight at the dwarves.

Something brought mud boiling to the surface beside the quay. Tentacles followed. Cloven Februaren slashed one reaching for the Aelen Kofer. That fixed the kraken’s attention on him.

The Aelen Kofer were teasing the desperate hunger of the monsters of the harbor.

The kraken got no chance to taste the Ninth Unknown.

The shark arrived. The quay shook to its strike. Then another kraken materialized, rising into the death struggle.

Satisfied, the Aelen Kofer broke their circle.

“Better than any dogfight,” Gjoresson observed. “Son of Man, ask the mer if there are any more monsters out there.”

The answer was, there were no more known dangers.

The shark tore the first kraken apart. But the second got hold of the shark and hung on, out of the reach of lethal jaws. Its beak was sharp enough to slice through shark skin. Shark blood and kraken ichors filled the water.

Februaren remarked, “If there’s anything else out there that will bring it.”

Iron Eyes lamented, “Those krakens are as intelligent as us. But their minds are more alien than you can imagine. They were created by the Trickster. Accidentally. It’s a long nightmare of a story about giants and incest and revenge gone awry. The krakens hate the Old Ones, the more fervently because they could never do anything about it.”

“Uh…”

“They hate the Sons of Men almost as much. The mother of them all was a mortal fathered by the Trickster. These are the last of them. Unless some escaped to the middle world when the way was still open.”

The krakens out there were far bigger than these. These could not pull down anything larger than a coracle.

“The closing ought to put the Aelen Kofer on their list, too.”

“Oh, right at the top. Yes.”

Februaren muttered, “With the Night all evils are possible and most are probably true.”

The shark rolled, thrashed, then sounded. And that was that for several minutes. Then the killer fish broached so violently that for a moment it was entirely free of the water. It rolled, came down with the kraken between it and the water. Stunned, the kraken lost its grip.

“There’s the end, then,” Iron Eyes said. “The shark will finish the kraken, then bleed to death.” He gestured to his companions.

The dwarves boarded the ship, took in the rotten mooring lines. The mer protested vigorously. The combat continued out in the harbor. The kraken had to get back on and hang on if it hoped to live. It could not run to safety.

The dwarves found oars somewhere. Gjoresson explained, “The Aelen Kofer built this barge. Employing our finest arts. There’s more to it than what you see. Though you should have seen it when it was new and the magic was everywhere. It needed only to be told what sort of vessel to be and where to go. It didn’t have to be rowed.”

In its final throes the shark smashed into the side of the ship, breaking oars and leaving a hole at the waterline. The oars could be replaced. Februaren and Korban went below to get a patch on the breach.

The shark stopped thrashing. Two of the mer found the courage to look for the portal to the middle world. Which took only a few minutes to find. The problem became locating a good place to break through.

By then Februaren and Iron Eyes had been replaced at the breach by dwarves no longer needed at the oars. Gjoresson was in continuous conversation with the mer. Once, as an aside, he told the Ninth Unknown, “I see the outlines, now. But no weak spots. We did good work in the old days.”

Old days? That was just a few years ago.

“We’ll go for the best opening we can force and hope there’s magic enough to do.” Iron Eyes grinned behind his beard. “And if we fail, you can settle down with us back in our world. I have a grandniece who would find a human wizard endlessly fascinating.”

“If need be.” But he didn’t want to entertain that bleak a future. Instead, he began contemplating a possible alternate method of attack.

The world of the dwarves, in story, had its own connections with the middle world. Maybe the ascendant could be brought to the Realm of the Gods the long way round.

How would Korban Jarneyn respond to that suggestion? Maybe his grandniece would like to play with a newly minted Instrumentality.

Februaren glanced across the harbor. The dwarves from the mountain had returned to the quay. They did not appear to be filled with good cheer.

Gjoresson stayed focused on the gateway. He gathered his companions, muttered with them, then the lot put together something indistinct. They pointed it at the portal, right where it met the dead water.

A spot of ruby fire came to life.

Februaren stared. The bounds of the world could not be discerned by his eye. Harbor and sky seemed to roll right on. Yet ripples caused by the barge made little splashes against something right where the dot shone. Seabirds wheeled in the distance, fishing, but never came close. Clearly, they could not see the barge or harbor.

The dwarves broke up. Most went to the oars. The barge wobbled back to the quay. Iron Eyes said, “I need more help. Particularly from those who closed the way, back when.”

Curious. Gjoresson kept talking like those events had taken place in the remote past.

The barge hugged quayside just long enough for the other Aelen Kofer to board. Dwarves were a dour tribe but this klatch were unusually taciturn and grim. A few muttered with Iron Eyes while the barge crossed the harbor. Finally, Korban told Februaren, “The bridge can be restored. We haven’t lost the secrets of building with rainbows. But it will take time and require a lot of magic. Which we don’t have. We’ll have to bring it from the middle world. But, granting that we get the bridge restored, freeing the Old Ones may still be impossible.”

“Why is that?”

“Because the entangled sorceries sealing them in were written so that only one of the Old Ones, or one of their blood, will be able to thread a passage through the magical closure. Your soultaken must be a genius. How could he know? Did he know? He did better imprisoning them than they did imprisoning the wicked gods they overthrew. No one has to stay here to keep these spells working. I’m in awe.”

And more than a little dishonest, Februaren reflected.

Iron Eyes said, “Unless the soultaken himself gives us a tool, there may be no hope. Those who could open the way are all inside. Even the Trickster, which amazes me. He was always too clever to get caught.”

Februaren considered. The ascendant had elements of the All-Father and the Chooser of the Slain Arlensul inside him. He would have drawn on those to imprison the rest of their divine gang. Could their knowledge also bring the walls down?

Had to.

The ascendant would know. The Aelen Kofer were peerless magical architects and engineers. They just needed his direction.

The Aelen Kofer gobbled steadily, gesturing, showing unusual animation. Februaren could not follow.

That little floating ruby dot grew. It burned more brightly. Ruby droplets dribbled down an invisible surface into the dead, colorless water.

There was a crack! of an explosion. Water sprayed the barge. A small wind heavy with alien odors knifed in behind it. And kept on coming, whistling.

“Success! Of a sort,” Gjoresson declared.

A vertical sword stroke of light three feet long, dropping into the water of the harbor, now hung in the air. It was an inch wide at its broadest, at the water level. Sunshine rushed in with the wind and odors. It was so bright!

Februaren said, “I didn’t realize how bleak it is over here.” His eyes adjusted. Blue water sparkled beyond the crack.

Where the breach met the harbor surface dull water began to show streams and eddies of color. Februaren felt gusts of power coming in with the wind and smells.

The Aelen Kofer started singing. Iron Eyes said, “The magic will return.”

From a world where the wells of power were drying up. Februaren wondered, was the power dying out of all the worlds?

He reminded himself that these worlds existed only to a few Instrumentalities and believers anymore. They were dying for sure.

The white shark broached feebly, halfway to the quay. It lived, just barely. Its eye fixed on the barge for one baleful moment.

Color continued to spread from the crack. Here, there, sparks of gold flashed for an instant on the rotten wood of the ship.

The power from that sea burst, over there, must still be strong.

A great whale eye appeared at the gap.

The Ninth Unknown raised a hand in greeting.

A worm of flesh started wriggling through.

Color spread. It climbed the side of the barge. Cloven Februaren opened himself to what power there was.

The Ninth Unknown knew exactly when the Windwalker sensed that the Realm of the Gods had been opened.

Iron Eyes shrieked.

Kharoulke had not known about the burst of power in the west. He did now. His attention had been attracted by a sudden, ferocious threat.

17. Brothe: Brief Idyll

Piper Hecht’s return to the Mother City was uncomfortable for everyone. A thousand men accompanied him, men who did not want to work for Pinkus Ghort. Some Brothens wanted to celebrate their coming. Most did not want to attract the attention of the new Patriarch. Serenity’s cronies wanted to shut the gates but did not have the popular support. Hecht had strong backers in the Collegium. Serenity did not, to his abiding mystification.

The moment the Interregnum ended Serenity started swinging Mother Church back to the course long steered by Sublime V. No surprise to Hecht, but a shock to most Brothens, including several Principat?s who had taken bribes to vote for him.

Bronte Doneto had done well pretending religious indifference when he lacked the power to enforce his convictions. Now he owned that power. Now he could feed the rage that had festered since the Connec humiliated and nearly killed him.

“I’m not comfortable,” Titus Consent said. While coming off the Blendine Bridge, watching Brotherhood members turn upstream toward their Castella dollas Pontellas. Leaving the former Captain-General without his lifeguard.

“As they tell us, be careful what we wish for.”

“Yes?”

“I resented every minute that Madouc was underfoot. Now he’s not.”

More than a hundred men did remain with them, headed the same direction. “We’ll be good for now. Later, maybe not so much.”

“Uhm. Pella. Stick close.”

A mile on, nearing their own neighborhood, with only a handful of friends close by now, Titus asked, “Made a firm decision yet?”

“What?” Hecht had been daydreaming about Anna. And the girls. Then, bemused, reflected that his true home and family were somewhere in the slums of al-Qarn. Possibly. What horrors might time, poverty, disease, Gordimer, and er-Rashal have worked there?

“About what’s next. You going to buy that vineyard? Or become Empress Katrin’s war tiger?”

“Oh. No you don’t. I’m not deciding anything now. It’s time for some plain old lazy drifting.”

Titus just smiled. He knew. The decision had been made, though Hecht’s motivations might not be clear. Even to Hecht himself.

The former Captain-General meant to head north, out of the Patriarchal States, possibly forever.

News of their coming had run ahead. Anna and the girls were out, waiting with No? Consent and her brood. And with Heris. The Consents left immediately. Hecht went into Anna’s house. He had one answer for all of the first dozen questions. “I’m tired. I’m exhausted. Later.”

Pella took up the slack. He had plenty to say. And was disappointed when Anna and the girls did not share his enthusiasm for falcon warfare.

Again, “I’m so tired. I just want to vegetate. I don’t want to go anywhere. I don’t want to do anything.” That directed to Heris, who had hinted already that Principat? Delari wanted to see him. “Brothe and everybody got along fine without me. And can keep right on doing without me. Anna. Stop scurrying around. Come over here. Sit by me. Let me drink you in.”

Anna did so, managing to blush.

Leaning against her, sleepily, Hecht considered Lila and Vali. “What’s happened with the girls? Other than Vali filling out and both of them wearing better clothes?”

“School. The nuns on the girls’ side of Gray Friars.”

“Uhm?” A questioning grunt that Anna interpreted correctly. How had she managed to get two girls of questionable antecedents into so exclusive an academy?

“Your name and Principat? Delari’s. Plus a surprise legacy from Hugo Mongoz.”

“Hugo Mongoz? But…”

“Not money. Influence. Bellicose found a letter among his papers. Instruction to an illegitimate grandson that didn’t get sent before he died. In it he claimed he owed you a big debt. Not saying why. He wanted the grandson to repay you. The grandson is a monk at Gray Friars. So there you go.”

“Oh. I guess that’s good. Heris. Heris?”

Vali looked past Pella, said, “She did that turn sideways trick, Dad.”

Lila said, “I wish I could learn how to do that. I’d get rich.”

Anna told her, “You are rich. Your father has gathered up more prize money than the rest of us can spend in three lifetimes.”

Hecht laughed. “I sincerely doubt that.”

“What are you going to spend it on? And none of your nonsense about vineyards and latifundia. What you know about agricultural management I could tuck into a thimble with room left over.”

“You think? I’d surprise you, heart of my heart. I spent a long time in prison in Plemenza. The only way to pass the time was read old texts about farming.”

That gave Anna pause for scarcely an instant. “Which means nothing, practically. You’ll never be a farmer.”

“You could be right. We need to talk about that. But not now. I just want to wallow in the luxury of having no demands on me.”

“Oh, there are going to be demands. But first you’re going to have a long wallow in hot, soapy water.”

The girls had Anna’s big copper bathing tub set up already, with water heating. Anna would not use the public baths. Nor would she let the children. A safety measure, that. She said. But Hecht suspected there was more to the story. She would not discuss it. It was not worth a squabble.

Settled in the tub, with females dumping warm water and Pella contemplating making a break for it, to avoid being next, Hecht observed, “The one thing I’ll miss, being on the outside, is the baths at the Chiaro Palace.”

“Really?” Anna asked.

“And there you go, letting your imagination get loose. The rumors aren’t true. Nothing ever happens there.”

“Really?” Again.

Hecht shrugged. “Don’t let me confuse you with facts.”

Heris turned up every day. She had little to say and did not press. “You’ll let me know when you’re ready. I just come down to see if you are. There isn’t anything crucial. Yet.”

But Heris and Principat? Delari were not the only people who wanted a slice of the former Captain-General. Representatives from members of the Collegium, from most of the Five Families, from the Castella, and from the Imperial embassy at the Penital, all turned up during Hecht’s first four days at home.

Only Titus Consent and his tribe were allowed in. And Heris, who could not be turned away at the door.

“You’ve started getting restless,” Anna observed. Voice carefully neutral. At a time when she thought the children would be occupied.

“Titus tells me I never learned how to relax.”

“Titus is outrageously smart, for his age. So. Is it time to talk?”

“I suppose.” He had been puzzling how to put it all together for her. “The Empress wants me to come work for her.”

“To help her fulfill a holy obligation. By leading an Imperial crusade into the Holy Lands. I know. That may be the worst kept secret of the age. It was all over Brothe within hours of the announcement that Bronte Doneto would become the next Patriarch. The Penital put it out. Doneto was upset. Pinkus sent some of his trusted men to look out for us. Not that he would brag about looking out for a friend. He was afraid Doneto might do something stupid.”

Hecht grunted. Ghort had not said a word. But that was Pinkus Ghort. Never say anything when he did something someone might construe as good or thoughtful. He did not want to tarnish his black reputation. “He’d know if the danger was real.” Hecht eyed Anna curiously. Why had she kept this to herself till now? Was she hoping the question of taking service with the Empress would go away?

Probably.

“It turned out to be a tempest in a teapot. Pinkus pulled his men out after Principat? Delari dropped a few one-ton hints on the right people.”

That sounded like something Heris would say. After rehearsing before she said anything.

“Muniero Delari and Bronte Doneto have a bitter history. Which I’m not free to discuss. I suspect Doneto will avoid reviving old quarrels now that he has his dream job. Delari is older than stone. Doneto can let time put an end to their squabble.”

“Piper, I won’t follow you if you go to Alten Weinberg.”

And there it was. Not unexpected but not understood. Despite having given the possibility plenty of brooding.

“You know we’ve only actually spent a few weeks together over the years we’ve been a couple.”

Was that question or statement? Whichever, she was exaggerating. Sort of. He did not say. Because there was a deep truth, down under.

“You’re always in the field. If I move I still won’t see you. And I won’t know anyone but the girls. Nor even speak the language. So I’ll just stay here and not see you because you’re in the field.”

“I’m not really going to lead a crusade into the Holy Lands. I’ll get the Empress to change her mind.”

“No doubt. You can do anything. You have a knack for getting people to do what you want. But, once all is said and done, you’ll be in the field. That’s who you are. So, as I said, I’ll stay here, where I’m comfortable, and only see you once in a while. I won’t have to upset the way I live.”

Hecht clamped down on his emotions. Stilled his inclination to pull male rank. He did not own that in this relationship, in this country. Irritably, he batted thoughts of Helspeth aside. This was not an opportunity. “I see.” He sensed the children lurking, out of sight but not out of hearing.

“I freely admit that I have more than most wives and many mistresses. Which leaves me too spoiled, besides being too long in the tooth, to take up the life of a camp follower.”

“I won’t argue. I can’t. You’ve put it perfectly. I am what I am and you, more than anyone, know the truth of that. But I did think Alten Weinberg might be more domestic.”

Anna definitely had an answer for that. She did not get the opportunity to deliver it. Heris turned around out of nowhere on the far side of the room. “You have to come this time, Piper. Things have happened. Supper. Anna. Grandfather would really be pleased to see the children, too.” She turned and was gone.

Anna caught her breath. “That was a polite invite to a command performance.”

“Yes?”

“You might say Heris and I have become friends. The way she carried herself… Our discussion might be moot.”

Again Hecht offered only an interrogative monosyllable.

“We have to see Principat? Delari before we make any other plans.”

A premonitory chill crawled Hecht’s back. His own desires could become so much chaff in the breeze should the Night be driving down some rigorous line of its own.

The Delari town house was in the throes of a dramatic makeover. Not just repairs to damage but a total renovation. The staff had expanded by a dozen, all hard-eyed rogues who were as alert as ever Madouc’s gang had been. Each hailed from the Principat?’s own clan. Which made them kin of Muniero Delari’s grandchildren.

Supper was served at the usual table by the usual servants, Turking and Felske. As the first course arrived, Delari explained, “Everything changed when Bronte Donte achieved his ambition. I expect him to resurrect the conflict that brought us head-to-head not so long ago.”

He said this in front of Anna and the children. Who looked to Hecht for an explanation. Hecht did not deliver.

He did say, “Two of us got you out of that. Whatever became of the other one?”

“Armand? I don’t know. The little weasel vanished seconds after Hugo Mongoz expired. I suppose it’s too much to hope that Doneto’s partisans did away with him.”

“What’s the construction all about?” Hecht asked. “What’s going on?”

“Forting up.”

“I get that. But what about us, here? This isn’t just me and the family stopping in for a friendly supper. You look almost guilty. Which tells me there’s something going on. Heris implied as much, the way she acted. Where is she, anyway?”

“She’ll be here any minute.”

Turking and Felske brought the courses with a noteworthy absence of enthusiasm. As though they were stalling.

Heris came in, roughly dressed. Turking and Felske hustled in the small courses she had missed. Even Mrs. Creedon took a moment to bring her a single marinated cheese and onion-stuffed mushroom. Heris grunted pleasure and dug in. Evidently her story would be shared only if necessary.

Principat? Delari became taciturn, his contribution to table talk vague questions for the girls about their progress at school. To which Lila was the unexpectedly enthusiastic respondent. She found intellectual pursuits more interesting than did Vali. Hecht was surprised.

People never stopped not being what you expected.

Turking and Felske came to life. In a trice they produced the clutter of another place setting as Cloven Februaren dragged in.

Hecht observed, “Borrowing from my friend Pinkus, you look like death on a stick.”

“No doubt.” Cloven Februaren did look like he had suffered extreme starvation.

Delari said, “He’s the picture of health, now. You should’ve seen him this morning. I thought his story was over.”

The Ninth Unknown settled. He picked at his food, ferociously. He made Vali and Lila uncomfortable. Anna needed to release those girls into the wild. They needed re-exposure to reality. They had developed amnesia about their own early romances with the harsh side. Februaren said, “I spent a night in Elf Hill. It was worse than any of the stories.”

Hecht said, “I don’t get it.”

Delari said, “You should. It’s part of the northern thing. Up there people believe that we share the world with lots of other races. The Hidden Folk, collectively. Pixies. Brownies. The Fair Folk. Light elves and dark elves. Goblins, dwarves, the People of the Sea. And dozens more.”

“Not to mention the evil dead,” Februaren grumped.

Delari ignored him. “The Hidden Folk get up to all sorts of mischief. Some good, some bad, according to their nature. More bad than good, of course. A favorite trick is to lure a mortal into their realm, where time passes differently.”

“Usually a lot slower over there,” Februaren said. “In the Realm of the Gods it was the other way around. I used up all my food and was starving. It’s true about the food, too. It helped me forget I was hungry but it didn’t provide enough nourishment.”

Delari said, “The point is, while he was there for months only a few days passed here.”

“So you did what you went off to do. You released the…”

“I did not. Not even close. The Old Ones are locked up like olives inside a cask closed inside a sealed barrel. My success amounted to opening the way between the middle world and the Realm of the Gods. This being what those involved with the northern thing call the middle world. Because of where it stands in relation to the other worlds involved in their concept of the universe. Oh. Success number two. I talked the Aelen Kofer into helping break the Old Ones out.”

Hecht resisted a conditioned response, reminding himself, yet again, that all beliefs were true inside the Night.

The children had grown bored. The Ninth Unknown had not described his adventure in epic terms. Which was a little out of character.

Februaren said, “After all that positive news you just know there’s got to be a catch.”

Principat? Delari seemed to be hearing all this for the first time, too. “Grandfather. Please.”

Februaren’s grin was a ghost of itself. “All right. Time is important. The way is open. The magic is flowing in. The Aelen Kofer can rebuild the rainbow bridge to the Great Sky Fortress. We can get that far.”

“But?” Delari, with a scowl.

“But the Windwalker is on his way. And we can’t get inside. Only someone with the blood of the Old Ones can crack the last barrier.”

Delari said, “And those of the blood are all inside.”

“Basically. I thought the ascendant could manage. He has chunks of the knowledge of Ordnan and Arlensul. And he shut them in. It seemed logical that he could undo what he did.”

“But not so,” Delari guessed.

“No. He did the job too damned good. And there is some mythological imperative at work. One even a freethinker like me, because I spent my life immersed in Brothen Episcopal Chaldarean culture, can’t get to make sense. What it comes down to is, if we’re going to spring the Old Ones so they can stop the Windwalker, we need someone of their blood to kick down the door.”

Anna startled everyone by chiming in. “From what I’ve heard, the male Old Ones doinked every farmer’s and woodcutter’s daughter they ran into when they visited our world.”

“It would be hard to find those descendants,” Delari said. “They haven’t done that sort of thing for four hundred years. The blood would be pretty thin.”

Februaren said, “There’s another option. According to the ascendant.”

“Gedanke,” Hecht guessed, wondering why he even recalled that name. Was he damned eternally because he had acquired that kind of wicked knowledge?

“Right road.” Februaren was startled. “How did you know?”

“Lucky guess. That and the fact that most of what happened below the walls of al-Khazen had to do with the feud between the Banished and her father, over Gedanke.”

“Most of what happened had to do with the hunger of the Old Ones for the blood of the Godslayer. Arlensul took the opportunity to get revenge. Also, Gedanke was Arlensul’s lover. Not the child they created. The ascendant says Gedanke himself was there for the showdown. As one of the undead heroes. Which gave Arlensul added incentive in the fight.”

No one said anything. Hecht wondered why Februaren chose to discuss this over dinner. In the normal course, it would await withdrawal to the quiet room. He began peering into shadows and watching Turking and Felske closely.

The Ninth Unknown recognized the moment realization struck. He grinned, nodded, said, “The part of Arlensul the ascendant incorporated offered very useful information about her half-mortal bastard. She did her best to watch over him. He was still alive at the moment of her own demise.”

“That should narrow the search. There can’t be many men who have been around longer than you and who show the occasional burst of divine power. He would have some of that, wouldn’t he?”

“Excellent, Piper. He would, yes. But, chances are, he doesn’t know what he is. His mother never told him. He never saw her. He should think he’s just a very strange orphan.”

Principat? Delari interjected, “He’d have to suspect. If he had any familiarity with the mythology. If you grew up in that part of the world, were an orphan, had unusual abilities, and seemed to be immortal, wouldn’t you suspect something?”

“Of course, Muno. As far as I know-the Arlensul part of the ascendant isn’t completely forthcoming-the bastard should be a long-lived peasant or woodcutter somewhere in the northeastern part of the Grail Empire. The infant was abandoned in the sacristy of a forest church in the Harlz Mountains of Marhorva, a hundred miles from Grumbrag.”

Anna asked, “Could he be the one pretending to be Piper’s brother?”

Cloven Februaren chuckled, made a sign indicating that subject ought not to be pursued. Hecht asked, “And you know all this because?”

“Because the ascendant knows most of what the mother knew. Though she couldn’t provide any help locating him today. Or wouldn’t.”

“Meaning?”

“Even in severely reduced circumstances the Banished’s personality is still alive and independent. A tiny fraction, but the essence of who and what she was.”

Delari said, “Easy work now, Grandfather. Just pop up to that rustic church and work your way out in a spiral search, asking each man you meet if he’s four hundred years old. When you get an affirmative, you’ve found your half-blood god.”

“An ingenious strategy, Muno. Piper, the boy always did have a knack for slashing through the fog around the core. Though I have in mind a simpler, faster methodology.”

Anna offered, “A man who’s been around that long did things to hide his age. If he didn’t he’d have every aging petty lord after his secret.”

“Or people would want to drive stakes through his heart,” Heris suggested.

Hecht asked, “Could he be the source of vampire legends?”

The Ninth Unknown replied, “Vampires are the source of vampire legends. Things of the Night with a taste for blood.” Februaren pointed at Anna. “The young lady is as smart as she is beautiful. No. I daren’t say that. That would declare her a goddess. Let’s just stipulate that she’s smart. Concealing his longevity would be a serious problem.”

“Flattery will get you everywhere, sir.”

“I wish. Piper? You look like you just bit into an unexpected pit. If my wordplay offends you, tell me to go to hell. I’ll take it back.”

“So, go to hell, old man.” He chuckled. “No. You just stated the facts. She is all that. But I had a thought. A place to start looking. That doesn’t force you to go all the way back to a church that probably doesn’t exist anymore.” He laid his finger across his lips. He did not want to carry on here. The old men were hamming it up for eavesdroppers, be they shadow or human. Every household had a servant or relation who did not mind picking up the occasional extra ducat by contributing to the informational black market.

Principat? Delari, “We’ll talk about it over coffee, then. Now, children, you’ve been quiet as snakes. Why don’t you girls tell me about the Gray Friars? And Pella can tell me about his adventures with Piper. They tell me you’ve fallen in love with the falcons, lad.”

Encouraged, coaxed, the children came forward with a few details of their own lives. Bits innocuous enough to be shared with the old folks.

Heris stood. She had eaten rapidly and heartily. “I’m full. I’ll go help Cook get the coffee service ready.”

The youngsters soon talked themselves out. Hecht told Februaren, “Regale them with tales of your adventures in the lands of the gods.” Pella, at least, should be interested in a fairy-tale realm that was mostly real.

The Ninth Unknown did regale, employing outrageous exaggerations, sounds, and distinct voices for his characters. He made Korban Jarneyn sound like a dimwit old gorilla. Even Hecht enjoyed the show.

“I hope you were just trying to make your ordeal more entertaining,” Hecht told Februaren as he accepted coffee from Heris.

“I took some of the grim out, so they wouldn’t be too upset, but that was the way it was. They ate the shark, too.”

Principat? Delari wondered aloud, “Why do I find myself doubting you, Grandfather?”

“Because you’re such a tightass, Muno. You always were. You don’t have an ounce of wonder in your soul.”

“Likely not. I’ve always been too busy picking up after you and trying to hold it all together.”

Heris snapped, “Will you old people stop? Piper had a reason for wanting to talk in here. Since you were so blatant about that burlesque downstairs. Get on with it. Before us being hidden has your spies wondering what’s really going on.”

“She’s right.” Februaren sighed. “And I was just getting warmed up. Definitely a chunk off the Grade Drocker block. Looks like he did at the same age, too.”

“Stop!” Hecht growled. “That’s enough. Cloven Februaren. You said you had a plan for rooting out the missing bastard, fast. What is it? Tell us, then I’ll explain why I wanted us all in here.”

“Another chunk off the Drocker rock. No patience. All right, Piper. The scheme is simplicity itself. The new Patriarch, our beloved Bronte Doneto who happens to be the most powerful sorcerer to assume the ermine in two centuries, has his Instrumentality minions all over you and Muno. I let them hear all sorts of intriguing stuff downstairs. As a result, a very nervous Serenity ought to unleash the whole power of the Church on the problem of Arlensul’s bastard.”

“Why? He shouldn’t really care.”

“Wrong. Well, maybe if he knew the whole story. What he’s been allowed to know will compel him to care.”

“Do take the trouble to explain.”

“Key point. He’s just found out that I’m still alive. That will rattle him badly. At the same time he’ll learn that there’s absolute, concrete proof that his religious vision remains incompletely triumphant. That the Old Ones, while no longer seen, are still alive. They survive in the imaginations of hundreds of thousands of rural people who attend church on all the appropriate days, then hedge their bets by following the ancient rituals when those are due. More, the Old Ones will need to be awakened and strengthened if the world isn’t to be crushed beneath the hooves of even older and darker Instrumentalities.”

Hecht said, “You may have lost me. I understand every sentence. Individually. But how do they all connect up in a way that helps us find our missing half-god?”

“Blood simple, Piper. Blood simple. Listen to what I say. I scare the crap out of Serenity by being alive. I terrify him by being eager to find Arlensul’s pup. He’s already scared Muno will make his life difficult. So he panics. And deploys all the resources of the Church to find our man for me.”

“Clever. But you might have outsmarted yourself. Look. The reason I wanted to talk in here is so I could tell you to look at Ferris Renfrow. We tried to investigate him when we were in Alten Weinberg. We didn’t find much but some odd facts did surface.”

“Such as?”

“He wasn’t well known before Johannes but somebody with the same name has been connected with most of the Emperors since the Grail Empire was founded. Today’s Ferris Renfrow claims all those other Renfrows are his ancestors. But we couldn’t find anybody who ever heard of any of the Renfrows being married. Or otherwise involved with any human being, male or female.”

“That would be unusual.”

“He does odd things, too.” Hecht repeated what he had heard about Renfrow presenting an apparent eyewitness account of the Battle of Los Naves de los Fantas to Empress Katrin the evening of the battle.

That got some attention. First in the form of denial, mostly by the Principat?. “He must have used Night things to observe the action and report back. Nobody walks the Construct but Grandfather. And Heris, now. We don’t teach anyone. We don’t tell anyone. Even the monks and nuns down there don’t know what it really does.”

Cloven Februaren was not so certain. “Someone else could have come up with a Construct of their own.” The ancient fell into a brooding silence, clearly trying to remember something.

Heris said, “If he’s a half-god and near-immortal he might not need a Construct. When was the bastard born? How long ago?”

No one knew. The child was mythical. Februaren grumbled, “At least four hundred years. Probably more.”

Hecht said, “You have an eyewitness. A participant. Inside the ascendant.”

“Who couldn’t say. Arlensul never developed any skill at grasping a place in time in the middle world. A common failing of the Night. Which has kept you alive. So far.”

Hecht said, “Whatever else, Renfrow is a place to start. Even if he isn’t our man he might know where to look.”

The Ninth Unknown blurted, “I’ve got it! When I was a boy! Younger than Pella. The Sixth Unknown was in charge. The Construct was primitive back then. But we did get more support from the Collegium… You wouldn’t have recognized it…”

“Grandfather! Did you have a point?”

“Oh. Sure. There was a brother who worked on the project. Something was wrong about him. Beyond being just plain creepy. A lot of brothers, especially ascetics and monks, are natural-born creepy. It has to do with the kind of personality that’s attracted to the life…”

“Grandfather.”

“Yes. Creepy. I told my father and grandfather and his father. None of them wanted to hear it. He worked hard and didn’t do anything heinous in public. And he definitely had a talent for the work.”

Hecht said, “And his name was Brother Ferris.”

“No. It was Brother Lester. Lester… Temagat! That’s it. Temagat. He was way more interested in the Construct than anyone I’ve ever seen. Including Muno. But maybe excepting Heris. Heris is in there like a fish trying out water.”

“I have plans, ancestor.”

“Temagat disappeared under what I considered mysterious circumstances. No one else gave a rat’s ass. People came and went. The old folks only whined because they couldn’t come up with as dedicated a replacement.”

“Temagat? Lester Temagat?” Hecht asked. “You’re sure?”

“Of course I’m sure, pup. I’m old, not senile. The melon works as good as ever. Why?”

“I know that name.”

“Ah! Then talk to me, young Piper.”

“When we were in captivity in Plemenza, being interrogated by Ferris Renfrow, Pinkus Ghort told a story about one of his early jobs as a mercenary. He was working for the old Duke of Clearenza. Which was under siege by the Emperor. An Imperial agent named Lester Temagat supposedly murdered Ghort’s father and opened the gate during the night. This all came up because Ghort insisted that the man interrogating us was the man who called himself Lester Temagat back then.”

“Very interesting.”

“The problem is, Pinkus Ghort is notoriously unreliable about details of his own past. He’ll tell conflicting stories about the same incident on the same day. I didn’t try hard to find the truth about that. But Clearenzans don’t recall events the way Ghort did. Till now I’d have bet that the story was mostly true but with Pinkus Ghort in the Temagat role.”

“Rather a bleak indictment of your friend.”

“He is a friend. That doesn’t make him any less a villain to some. It doesn’t guarantee that he won’t be a villain to me, someday. Especially if he’s had too much wine. He can’t resist a good vintage.”

“Vintage this,” Anna said, ending that chatter. “Find out more about Pinkus. If only so we know how he came up with that name.”

“Anna?” All three men spoke her name at once.

“Pinkus Ghort is definitely a bastard. So far, he’s been our bastard. What are the chances he’s the half-god bastard you want to find?”

Futilely trying to be funny, Hecht suggested, “He would have to be several hundred years old to have done all the things he claims.” Which failed to stir a smile.

Cloven Februaren said, “You people will have to deal with that. My focus will be the Great Sky Fortress.”

“Wouldn’t this be part of that?” Hecht asked.

“The hunt for Pinkus Ghort’s past? Doubtful. Though my mind isn’t working with its usual cool precision. I’m a bit distracted these days.”

That piqued Principat? Delari’s curiosity. “Explain that.”

“The Windwalker is coming. Uh. No. Not here. Toward the entrance to the Realm of the Gods, through Andoray. He knows the way is open. And, before we got started, there was an explosive event under the Andorayan Sea. An immense surge of power. It’s fading now but it’s still leaking. Every Night thing able to get there is coming to feed.”

“You think he might overwhelm the others.”

“I’m scared that he’ll get strong enough to freeze the water between Andoray and the gateway. If he does, we’re doomed.”

Hecht pictured a map of the north. “Wouldn’t that approach be going the long way round? Coming along the south shore of the Shallow Sea would be shorter. He’d end up in Friesland, which would put him closer to the entrance.”

“He can’t leave the frozen country. The ice isn’t permanent south of the Shallow Sea. Yet.”

“I don’t recall my mythology that well, Grandfather,” Delari said. “Wasn’t Kharoulke afflicted with a curse that kept him from crossing open water?”

“Some. He can step over puddles and streams with little discomfort, unless the water touches him. He can wade through liquid water for a short time if he concentrates on managing the pain. If he takes the time, he can make water freeze for a hundred yards around him. One way of handling him, back when, was to make sure he stayed distracted around sizable water barriers.”

Hecht said, “This is a winter god who can’t abide water? Winter is all about ice and snow.”

“He isn’t bothered by ice or snow. They just get harder when he’s around.”

Anna observed, “There’s water naturally in the air. It evaporates. Would that explain why this devil is in a bad mood all the time?”

“Could be. Or, like some people, he could just be a natural-born asshole.”

“Well, gentlemen, I appreciate you letting me into your club tonight.” Anna downed a last sip of coffee, pushed her chair back. “But I’d better go check on the children.”

The Ninth Unknown told her, “When you get to the door, stop and count slowly to ten before you lift the latch.”

That puzzled everyone. For eight of the requested seconds.

Hecht grew irritated because the old man kept staring at Anna’s lower half.

Februaren pointed a finger, spoke a word. The word hung in the air, glowing like hot, violet metal.

Hecht loosed a violent belch, first in a gassy chorus that embarrassed everyone.

High-pitch shrieks erupted from the folds of Anna’s skirt. Shadows fell out, writhing, looking like foot-tall humanoids with scorpion tails and an extra set of arms. Nothing cast them. For an instant each shone the same dark glow as Februaren’s floating word. Then they collapsed into little piles of black sand. That sand quickly decayed to black dust.

The Ninth Unknown said, “A few seconds more, if you please, Anna. Heris, scatter that dust. Gently. You should find two tiny amber beads. Patience, Anna.”

Heris did as instructed. “I don’t see any beads. Just two flakes of gold.” She placed those in front of Februaren.

“Well, well.”

Anna asked, “Can I go, now?”

“Certainly. Catch hold of that word and drag it along. That’ll keep any others from sliding in while the door is open. Once you close that, give the word a shove to put it in motion. It’ll drift around and rout out any more lurking things. Lurking! I love that word. It should last twenty minutes. The floating word should, that is.”

Anna followed instructions, refusing to be impressed or intimidated by the unexpected.

The door chunked shut.

“So what do we have?” Hecht asked.

Everyone stared at the flakes. Hecht downed some more coffee. Finally, Delari said, “Bronte Doneto has gone clever on us.”

Heris asked, “Why do you think it was him?”

“Because of the flakes. Any true Night thing would’ve left an egg. In this size, a bead. These were specially created from Night things, then trained by a sorcerer who had the inclination to spend a lot of time shaping them.”

“All that from a couple flakes?”

“All that. I’d guess they represent years of work.”

Heris asked, “How did you know?”

Februaren tapped the side of his nose. “Talent, sweetling. Talent. Take my word. Since you don’t have it yourself you’ll never really understand.”

“I understand when somebody is blowing smoke, though.” Heris was irked but only mildly so. Februaren had not been condescending. “Won’t their disappearance tell him you’re on to him?”

“He has half a brain. He should assume that anyway.”

“When he doesn’t know you’re still alive?”

“He’ll know that as soon as he gets the news from the show downstairs.”

Principat? Delari said, “I have no love for Bronte Doneto. But I have an almost boundless respect. He’s done an amazing job of crafting himself, almost entirely in secrecy. I still have no real idea what he was up to in the catacombs with the Witchfinders that time. You be careful of him, Piper. He must have figured out that you and Armand helped me escape.”

Februaren added, “Keep an eye out for rogue Witchfinders, too.”

“Rogue Witchfinders?”

“You’ve been around the Brotherhood of War most of the time since you arrived in Firaldia. Have you figured out what the Witchfinders were up to in the catacombs? Or in Sonsa, at the Ten Galleons?”

“No.” And he had tried to find out. Cautiously.

“Chances are, nobody knows anymore. Except maybe Bronte Doneto, the only survivor. Barring Lila or Vali knowing something they’ve never reported.”

“There’s nothing there.”

Heris said, “You could always ask the Patriarch himself.”

The others chuckled charitably.

The Ninth Unknown asked, “How soon till you go haring off after your impossible fantasy, Piper?”

“Excuse me?”

“I’m sure you won’t resist the blandishments of Alten Weinberg. I’m hoping you hold out awhile. So Muno can get you connected to the Construct.”

Hecht’s response was instant aversion.

Februaren revealed a lot of teeth. Those could have used more attention. “You aren’t in the Realm of Peace anymore, Piper. And it’s important.”

Delari observed, “The Realm of Peace turned its back on you.”

“You don’t have to do that. I get it. But I don’t like it. I don’t like being an exile, either. I’ll spend as much time with the Construct as I can.”

Heris remarked, “Note that he denied nothing about Alten Weinberg, nor the Empire, nor the two pullets running the farmyard there.”

Februaren said, “Oh, we noted.”

Hecht’s cheeks grew heated.

Breakfast at Anna Mozilla’s house. The Consent family visiting. No? in the kitchen with Anna. Little Consents infesting the place like they were twice their actual number, playing some game where they fled from Pella and the girls, shrieking and running.

Hecht slumped in a comfortable chair, sipped a mint tea, and enjoyed the domestic chaos. Titus occupied a chair facing him. He had said nothing since they finished eating. He sipped from a showy Clearenzan glass filled with grape juice. He, too, was savoring the moment. Finally, reluctantly, he asked about Alten Weinberg. “Are we going?”

Hecht nodded. “I don’t know when. I visited the Penital. Told them we’ll take the job if the Empress still wants us.”

“Us?”

“She takes everybody. Or nobody. Has Prosek decided?”

“He waffles. He loves the stinks and bangs and won’t get to play with them if he follows the Brotherhood to the Holy Lands.”

“I don’t want to lose him. Or Kait Rhuk. By the way. There’s a new ambassador. Bayard va Still-Patter. Graf fon Wistrcz got called home. His wife did something to offend the Empress.”

“Bayard. Not so good. He didn’t like us taking over his place.”

“All is forgiven. If he hadn’t been made to suffer through that, Katrin wouldn’t have given him this plum assignment.”

“What’s holding you here?”

Hecht made a gesture to include their surroundings. “And Principat? Delari. That old man is a slave driver.”

“Having you do what?”

“He claims it’s education. I’m not allowed to talk about it.” And did not want to. Encounters with the Construct left him feeling inadequate, even retarded. Heris said she had felt the same in the beginning. He could accept that intellectually but never before had he had difficulty mastering any skill.

“All right. We’ll go when we go. I won’t need to look for work right away. But I do worry about No? getting sick of having me underfoot.”

“I can empathize with that.” Hecht was uncomfortable. Titus no longer seemed able to conceive of life without his being part of Piper Hecht’s staff.

Consent said, “By the way, I’ve found where Krulik and Sneigon are relocating. Which isn’t anywhere near where I expected.” He took a folded sheet of paper from his sleeve, handed it over. Hecht opened it, smoothed it. On it was a painstakingly produced map of the upper Vieran Sea. A red circle lay in the wild mountains over on the Eastern Empire side. “Somewhere in there. I found it because Krulik and Sneigon are recruiting veterans to defend something. Some of my agents were approached. I had them sign up.”

“I presume you know more than this.”

“Of course. Hidden in rough country that’s mostly empty. Plague wiped out the population several hundred years ago.”

An odd and terrible time that had been. The plague hit hardest in the Eastern Empire just as the Praman Conquest reached its ferocious peak. Some believed that the vast movements of peoples at the time spread the disease. Within the Eastern Empire urban populations became so depleted that rural folk flooded in hoping to prosper. Many of them died as well. Vast tracts of country had gone back to nature. And remained wilderness even now, centuries later.

“Why just there?”

“Splendid isolation, yet a river wide and gentle enough for small barge traffic. Vast old forests to turn into charcoal. And nearby ore deposits. Not the best but still good. Especially if they use forced labor. There’s no government to interfere. Tribal leaders can be bribed or intimidated. Those wild people are why they hired soldiers. The ownership plans a huge, bloody demonstration first excuse they get. Construction has already begun. They want a huge operation that’ll make them filthy rich selling to everybody.”

“There are, indeed, fortunes to be made creating the tools for efficient organized murder. What about sulfur? For making firepowder. There aren’t any sulfur mines over there, are there?”

“That they have to import. Unless they make the firepowder somewhere else.”

“Which would make some sense.”

“I’ll keep on it. Yes. But you need to remember that we no longer have any legal standing.”

“I understand. But we’ll pretend. We’ll be our own law.”

“Also, some new intelligence sources have opened up. Because of that.”

“Oh?” Immediately curious.

“A lot of Brothen Devedians aren’t happy about what Krulik and Sneigon are doing. Ones who have seen what happens when Deves get blamed. People like refugees from Sonsa. They’re sure Krulik and Sneigon will bring down the wrath of the Chaldarean world on the Deve communities.”

“You never know.” Full of one of Anna’s finest breakfasts ever, Hecht wanted nothing more than to go back to bed.

“I know. The hammer will fall because Chaldareans will be terrified the Deves might arm themselves with fearsome weapons.”

“And they’d be right.”

“Probably. But I remind you, Deves never start the ruckus.”

“Titus! Of course they do. Just by refusing to acknowledge a few self-evident religious truths.”

“I’m now a devout convert, boss, but bullshit!”

Hecht laughed.

“I haven’t found anything useful about Ferris Renfrow or Pinkus Ghort. I don’t want to push, especially with Renfrow. I don’t want to alert him. His network is bigger, more sophisticated, and more deadly.”

“I get you, Titus. He worries me, too.”

“Thank you. With Ghort the problem is a lack of resources. I can’t send somebody to Grolsach. Assuming Ghort really is from there. The investigator wouldn’t survive.”

“Naturally. What about the catamite?”

“Not much there, either. He disappeared the day Boniface died. He may have fled to the Empire, in disguise. He might be living on the street. Somebody might have killed him. All three hypotheses have their advocates. Why are you concerned?”

“He lived with Principat? Delari. He heard things. The Principat? is worried that he might repeat them.”

For an instant Hecht wondered if Cloven Februaren might have dealt with Osa Stile. He would have to ask.

“I see.” Said in a tone suggesting that Titus knew he was not hearing the whole truth.

Heris rotated into being behind Titus’s chair. Her mouth burst open. This was a huge blunder on her part. She turned again, hastily.

Consent felt the air stir both times but Heris was gone before he looked back. “What the hell was that?”

“A ghost? Something. It was only there for half a second.”

“But…”

“If this was my place I’d make Anna move,” Hecht said. “Too many weird things happen in this neighborhood. Not to mention too much dangerous stuff, like people blowing up carts loaded with kegs of firepowder. Now what?”

Someone had begun pounding on the door.

Hecht headed that way.

Pella streaked past. And was totally disappointed when he found Heris at the door. Who told him, “My feelings are hurt just by being here with you, too, Pella. I need to see your father.”

By now everyone had come to see what was going on. Pella told Heris, “I thought it might be Kait Rhuk. He said he might come… Uh-oh.”

Numerous pairs of eyes bored in. Hecht asked the question. “When did you see Kait Rhuk?” When no answer was forthcoming, “I distinctly recall telling you, more than once, not to leave the house.”

Heris reminded them of her presence. “I can provide a convincing demonstration, Piper. It’s one reason Grandfather sent me.” She produced a shiny brown mahogany dowel an inch in diameter and eighteen long. She found the center of the room, lifted the piece of wood overhead, closed her eyes, and began turning. And singing in a bad voice, words in something like Church Brothen. The mahogany dowel wiggled, wobbled, and writhed.

It vanished in an eye-searing scarlet flash. Two more flashes followed quickly, then one sharp little crack of thunder.

Hecht’s eyes adjusted. Three black silhouettes now decorated three different walls, each near a corner of the room. The shapes were knee-high, nearly as wide, vaguely humanoid but without necks, demonic by the standards of every present or formerly held religion of those in the room.

Something more tangible lay a step behind Hecht. Twenty pounds of already rotting, greenish meat, shedding ribbons of lime steam. Severed extremities, shiny and lizard-belly yellow, lay scattered around the odiferous mass.

Heris said, “Pella, this is what we’re dealing with. The least dangerous of it. When you go out unprotected, things like these go with you. Some could make you look like that green mess if their master ordered it. Like this.” She snapped her fingers. “Piper, you just witnessed a triumph of technical education over an absence of talent. The old people can make a monkey over into a deadly weapon.”

Hecht gave Pella a hard, promising look, but asked Heris, “Why are you here? And how did those things get into the house? I thought the Principat? charmed the entrances against the Night.”

“There are ways to ride somebody through the wards. If that somebody is in a hurry and doesn’t take precautions. Pella.”

Hecht said, “Pella, out there it just might be something a whole lot nastier. Something that could kill you before you knew it was there.”

No? Consent said, “Titus, we have to talk. When we get home.”

That did not sound promising. Hecht said, “You haven’t told me why you’re here, Heris.”

“That was part of it. Clearing the vermin.”

“Please.”

“The same reason I always come here when you’re in town. I’m Grandfather’s messenger. This time, besides getting the bugs out of Anna’s house, he wants me to warn you that you’re about to hear from Serenity. He wants you to be careful. The other old man has gone away again. Though he did sow some confusion before he left.”

As she talked Heris turned slowly, pointing her stick at every corner and shadow. And at Titus, his wife, and all the children. She did not care who might be offended.

Following the path blazed by her surviving male ancestors.

“Nothing got away when I came in. Anna, let’s take a quick look around. There may be more. Pella. Stay away from that.”

Dazed, Anna left the room with Heris. The children and Consents had sense enough to stay put. Titus asked, “What was all that?”

“You saw everything I did.”

Timid No? wrung her hands, gathered her brood, and looked to the men for a cue.

Hecht said, “Pella. Do I have to strap you to get you to leave things alone?”

“I just wanted to see.”

“And what would there be to see if you’d done as you were told? You let those things in when you came back. Boy, there can be real consequences…”

Fierce red light. A crack! that rattled the house. A roar of rage and agony. Anna squealed in terror in the kitchen.

Hecht and Consent headed that way. As though there might be something they could do that Heris could not.

The blonde appeared. “That will be all of them. That was the big one.” She stepped aside, glared at Pella. It was plain there were things she wanted to say but could not in front of the Consents. “Grandfather will send someone to clean up. He’ll probably come himself, to fix it so this can’t happen again.” Pella had begun to wilt. “I’d clean up myself but… He’ll want better information than I can give. Being just a messenger.”

“You did have a reason for coming?”

“I told you. He suspected the kind of problem I just corrected. And he wanted you to know things are happening inside Krois. That you’ll be seeing Serenity and should be careful when you do.”

Hecht was sure there was more but Heris would not broach it in front of Titus.

She said, “Go comfort Anna. Don’t whip Pella. Just make him sit watch on the thing in the kitchen. Sense might penetrate.” She went out the front door into a bright morning. Carefully.

Anna was badly rattled. She stood in a corner of the kitchen, hands clasped between her breasts, staring at a mess like that in the other room but five times its size. It was evaporating. It stank. Hecht wondered if it would be all right to open a window.

Best not. Not till an expert said it was safe.

Anna sounded like a frightened little girl when she asked, “How could that thing be invisible? And not make any noise or smells?” Then, more focused and more determined, “I can’t live like this, Piper.” After a pause, “These things happen because you’re you. And they only happen when you’re here.”

Probably not strictly true but he did not argue. “I won’t be long. I can move to the Castella. If that will make you more comfortable.”

He watched Anna struggle to behave like an adult. She wanted to scream at him for being willing to desert her. Even though she had told him that having him around was intolerable. Only a short time after telling him that she refused to leave this place for any other. Even if moving put her beyond reach of those inclined to deploy the Instrumentalities of the Night against her.

Anna took deep breath after deep breath. Her color improved. The ugliness of anger faded. He knew she wanted him to utter some magic words that would close the situation neatly. He remained silent. This was outside his expertise. He had a Sha-lug’s sense of being a fragment of a larger instrument. He took what was given and did not look beyond. Otherwise, God might find him guilty of hubris.

Anna said, “We’re all counters in a game. We don’t get many choices, however much we whine about the injustice. I’ve never regretted following you here. But sometimes I do miss the quiet old life.”

Hecht took her into his arms. It felt good, having her there. Felt good having put together this makeshift family from human spindrift, all flotsam like himself. Though he had found a blood family of his own, as well.

“We still have company, Piper.”

But not for long. No? Consent had had all the excitement one timid woman dared enjoy in one morning. Titus was apologetic as he followed his wife to the street.

Hecht told him, “I understand, Titus. If I was No? and had three knee-highs to worry about, I wouldn’t want to be around me, either. Well. Look at this.”

Principat? Delari’s coach was approaching, surrounded by outriders armed with firepowder weapons. They wore smoldering slow matches on their hats.

Consent grumbled, “How the hell did he get here so fast?”

“Has to have been on his way.”

Titus eyed him suspiciously. He did not buy that. Not whole, though it had to be true. Something was going on. He was not trusted enough to be taken inside.

“There’s that thing called need to know, Titus.”

“I understand.” But he was not happy. He considered coach and outriders. “They do say he’s a wizard. And he knew there were eavesdropper entities on the premises.”

“He is a wizard. And a damned sight more scary one than people realize. I’ll keep you posted on my plans.”

“Be careful. I really don’t want to look for another job.”

“A vote of confidence. Excellent.” Hecht surveyed the street, checking for gawkers interested in Anna Mozilla’s house. What he saw startled him. Two of his old bodyguards were hanging around up the way, trying to be inconspicuous.

They were not doing a clever job of it.

Was he still under the protection of the Brotherhood? If so, why? The castellans, the masters of the commanderies, and the overlords over in Runch, they all liked their Patriarchs driven. They had that kind of a man in charge, now. Except that Serenity’s obsession was not the Holy Lands.

“Piper? Are you lost in the next world?”

He blinked. Heris’s face was just a foot away. And there was Titus looking back, clearly wondering how the blonde could be riding with Principat? Delari. “No. I’m lost in this one.”

The Eleventh Unknown, with help from his coachman, had descended and started for the house. Bent and taking small steps.

Hecht asked, “What happened to him?”

“Nothing. Protective coloration. The world doesn’t need to know how spry he is. Especially the part that lives inside Krois.”

“I understand. They’ll be more patient if they think he’s on the brink.”

Delari straightened up as soon as the door closed. He considered the members of the household. He did not appear to be in a good mood. The look he gave Pella made the boy cringe. Nor was there the customary gentle indulgence when he considered Vali and Lila. “You girls go do whatever you’d be doing if I wasn’t here. Pella. You’ll clean up the mess you caused.” He indicated the green meat. “Starting now!” when Pella opened his mouth to protest.

The boy did not know what he should do or where he should start. Heris took him by the ear and headed for the kitchen.

Delari stared at Anna so long she finally demanded, “What?”

“Are you ready to move to the safety of the town house?”

“What? No! This is my home.”

“I can’t protect you here. You’re too far away.”

“I don’t need protecting if Piper isn’t here. And he’s about to run off to Alten Weinberg.”

“If those are the facts you perceive, then I bow to your superior feminine wisdom. It’s Piper who concerns me, anyway. I offer friendship and protection because you’re important to him. It’s not something I do lightly. Neither will I argue. You want to be on your own, so be it.”

Anna considered Delari with always big, dark eyes gone huge.

Pella stumbled through, headed for the front door. He lugged a chamber pot filled with reeking demon flesh. Heris opened the door.

Delari said, “I won’t argue with you, either, Piper. You stay at the town house for the rest of your visit. Stop! That wasn’t a request. That was a statement of fact. That’s the way it’s going to be. Don’t waste your breath.”

Piper Hecht chose to avoid a squabble. For the moment. This would be one he could not win without losing the Principat? too. And it made sense. Assuming he still had enemies. Say, someone so powerful he sent Night things to spy in Anna’s house.

Hecht caught Anna’s eye, glanced at the meat pile not far from where he stood. That thing had come in with Pella, not with Piper Hecht.

She would come around. He hoped.

Though feeling fierce, Anna also saw a fight she could not win. She left the room to see what the girls had found to do.

Pella trudged back in with an empty chamber pot. He started on the mess in the front room.

Principat? Delari heard Hecht’s report on events, remarked, “The balance has tilted slightly in our favor. For the moment.”

“I don’t understand.”

Delari shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. So long as you exercise due caution. Now. You’re going to be summoned by Serenity. Expect him to be unpleasant and verbally abusive without burning his bridges. I want to use your visit to get around his security precautions.”

“You know he won’t let me in with anything dangerous.”

“It won’t be anything dangerous. Just the kind of things Heris rooted out here. Pella! That boy is dogging it, Piper. He needs a little more direct encouragement.”

“He’s a kid. It’s what they do at that age.”

Delari grunted. “May be. I don’t remember ever being that young.”

Heris and Pella returned from another trip to the gutter. Pella lugged the chamber pot. Heris carried a covered stoneware dish. She handled it like it was hot. “Are you ready for this, Grandfather?”

“Yes. Set it on that stand.”

She did that. Delari removed the lid. Fragrant steam rolled up.

“Damn! That smells good!” Hecht said. He leaned into the steam.

The dish looked to be something featuring lamb and rice, with red beans, fragments of vegetable, seasoned heavily with garlic and fennel and something less familiar.

Delari said, “This would be some of Mrs. Creedon’s best work.” He took a packet from a pocket, added what looked like a dozen dried button mushrooms. He stirred those in with a wooden spoon presented by Heris. “We’ll let this set a minute.” Heris replaced the lid. Delari continued, “I’m sure Anna has fed you up just fine. You’ve filled out some already. But when I tell you, you should gobble this down. The mushrooms are particularly important.”

“Why?”

“I’ll explain when you get back. Also, we need to get Grandfather’s amulet off you before you head out. That’s the sort of thing they’ll be looking for. Bronte Doneto is already suspicious because you’ve survived so much. We’ll reinstall it when you get back. Be especially careful while you’re doing without.”

Hecht had a library of questions but got no chance to ask them.

“Time to eat.” Delari lifted the stoneware lid. Heris proffered a tin spoon. Pella slumped past, grumbling because he had to do all the work.

A clatter rose outside, the Principat?’s coach leaving hurriedly. Heris spun sideways and disappeared. She rotated back into being seconds later. Anna and the children gawked like that was something new. Heris said, “The Patriarchal messenger is just a few blocks off, Grandfather. Let’s get busy. The watchers out there need to forget seeing anything after Lieutenant Consent left.”

“Right. Do what you can while I deal here. Piper. Be honest with the Patriarch. But don’t volunteer anything. Make him work to find out anything. Eat, damnit! Those mushrooms. And stick your left hand out here so I can get that amulet off. Anna. You and the girls need to come in here for a second.”

The pounding on Anna’s door bespoke arrogance. Bewildered, Anna answered it. She suffered that confusion one has after hastening into a room to do something, then not being able to remember what. The children had the same confused air.

Piper Hecht occupied his customary chair. He shared the confusion. Something had happened but he was not sure what. He rubbed his left wrist. It felt odd. Moist, too. And it itched.

A mild stomach cramp startled him. He belched.

The man at the door was being unpleasant to Anna. Hecht went over, pushed children aside, moved Anna, smacked the man squarely in the nose. “Pella, bring my sword. And a rag for the blood.” He wore a short sword when he was out and about. Though the blade had seen action, it was more symbol than substance.

Anna begged, “Don’t start anything, Piper.”

“I won’t, sweet. Much. Except for this asshole. Who seems to have lost the manners his mother taught him.” The deliberate use of “asshole” was more likely to get the man’s attention than the pop in the snot locker. All Brothe knew that the Captain-General-emeritus, now-used bad language only when extremely provoked. “Or can we expect those manners to improve, Mr. Silo?”

Hecht knew the man, barely. Deepened Silo. Related to the new Patriarch. An ambitious thug with none of the skills necessary to get where he thought he deserved to go. He had been rejected by the Brotherhood, had enjoyed a three-week career with the Patriarchal forces of Captain-General Piper Hecht, then had been asked to leave the constabularii of the City Regiment after failing to shine there. Family connections were all he had.

None of his problems, of course, were his own fault.

Hecht wondered what Silo was doing working for Serenity, family or no. Bronte Doneto seldom let sentiment ignore incompetence.

Silo was, undoubtedly, scheduled to become a throwaway in some underhanded scheme.

“Do I have your attention, Mr. Silo? Or shall I break something else?”

Venom sloshed behind Deepened Silo’s eyes. There would be paybacks for this humiliation. But, right now, he just wanted the pain not to get any bigger.

“Yes, sir. No, sir. I was just…”

Hecht drew back, ready to indulge himself again.

“Sir, the Patriarch sent me to bring you to see him. He wants to consult you. In person.”

Curiously put. A summons, but just slightly soft.

“Is that so? Then I’d better get going.” He strapped on the sword that Pella handed him. He tested the ease of its draw. As encouragement to Mr. Silo. “Thank you, son.”

An interesting journey, that to Krois. The Patriarch’s men had not come with a coach or horses. They walked, soaking up the morning sun. The Patriarch wanted to deliver a message to the rabble. Hecht did not think they were getting the one Serenity intended. He saw anger over what appeared to be the arrest of a hero.

So. Maybe Bronte Doneto felt threatened by Piper Hecht the way Gordimer the Lion had felt threatened by Else Tage.

Everywhere he looked, along the way, Hecht saw a tall, hard-