/ Language: English / Genre:sf_history, / Series: The Foreworld Saga

The Mongoliad Book Three

Neal Stephenson


Neal Stephenson, Erik Bear, Greg Bear, Joseph Brassey, Nicole Galland, Cooper Moo, Mark Teppo

The Mongoliad: Book Three

CHAPTER ONE

Leaving Finn

The Shield-Brethren buried Finn on the hill where they had set up camp. “It is not as grand as one of those burial mounds-the kurgans-we have seen,” Raphael pointed out to Feronantus, “but it has a view of where we came from, and the sun will always warm the ground.” Given the choice, Finn had always preferred to sleep outside, where the sun could find him and warm his bones in the morning. Finn may not have been a sworn member of the Shield-Brethren, but he was a feral brother to many of them.

One by one the members of the Shield-Brethren attacked the rocky ground of the hilltop. Without coming out and saying as much, they all wanted to be the one to dig Finn’s grave, as if the backbreaking labor would somehow assuage their individual guilt. It was not that they valued Finn above their other fallen comrades-the loss of any brother was equally horrific-but each was racked with a sense of responsibility for the circumstances of the hunter’s death.

As he prepared Finn’s body for burial, Raphael tried not to let his thoughts dwell on other members of their company whom they had lost. Or even his own role in the deaths of those dear friends. With Vera’s assistance, he laid the small man’s body on Percival’s cloak-the knight refused to hear otherwise-and arranged Finn’s limbs as best he could. The stiffness that creeps into a man’s body in the wake of death had filled Finn, and one of his arms resisted Raphael’s efforts. His face, once it had been tenderly washed by Vera, was surprisingly boyish. Raphael felt the weight of his years when he saw the delicate lashes and the unlined swath of forehead clearly for the first time. Too young, he thought, to die so far from home.

And he realized how little he knew of Finn. How little any of them knew.

“Wait,” he said to Vera as she made to cover Finn’s face with Percival’s cloak. He strode to his bags and dug out his worn journal and his writing instruments. With the sun peering over his shoulder, he sat and carefully sketched Finn’s face on a blank page. There will be a record, he promised his dead friend. You will not be forgotten.

As Raphael painstakingly tried to capture the essence of Finn’s character-an amalgamation of the peaceful features before him and those memories he had of more exuberant expressions-Vera busied herself with washing Finn’s feet and hands. The leather of his boots had been soft and supple once, but months and months of being in the wilderness had hardened the material into a second skin over Finn’s feet. She tugged at them briefly, and then gave up, opting to run a knife along the thin seams instead.

“Strangely fastidious,” she noted when she got to his hands. Raphael looked up from his sketching as she showed him Finn’s palms. Calloused, as expected, but surprisingly clean. The nails were long, but there was no dirt or filth beneath them.

The Binder, Cnan, approached, and with some interest examined Finn’s hands. “Like a cat,” she said, and Raphael nodded in agreement.

“They’re done with the grave,” Cnan reported. “Though,” she snorted, “I think Percival would like to keep digging.”

Raphael nodded. “Yes, I can imagine he would.”

There had been very little conversation among the company since Alchiq’s attack on Finn; the sudden shock of the Mongol’s assault had left them all wordless. But no words were necessary to comprehend Percival’s grief at having fallen asleep at the watch.

Privately, Raphael thought it was more likely that the Frank had been captivated by an ecstatic vision-much like the one that had come over him in the forest shortly after the death of Taran and the knight’s horse. He tried to push the idea out of his thoughts though, because he did not want to face the dreadful conclusion that followed: illumination brought death to those nearby. What price was being exacted for the guidance the knight was receiving?

Vera indicated to Cnan that she should help with the wrapping of the dead. “It is time,” the Shield-Maiden said to Raphael, her stern eyes unusually soft. “No amount of drawing will bring life back to this face.”

“Aye,” Raphael agreed, and he set aside his tools. He lent a hand, and soon Finn was nothing more than a squat bundle.

The other Shield-Brethren came down from the hill and carefully carried the body to its final resting place. Without speaking, they lowered Finn’s corpse into the deep trough they had hacked out of the rocky hilltop. It was deep, Raphael noted. Deep enough that the body might never be disturbed by the carrion eaters.

Feronantus waved them off, and even Percival relented, letting their aged leader undertake the task of filling the hole by himself. They stood around awkwardly for a little while, watching Feronantus scoop and pack handfuls of sand and rock into the hole. Once a thick layer had been carefully laid over the body to protect it from being crushed during the burial process, Feronantus would shovel dirt in more readily. A cairn would be raised and words would be spoken, but until then, they had little to do but wait.

Death itself was always quick, Raphael reflected, staring off at the distant horizon. It is the survivors who feel pain the longest.

“Where’s Istvan?” Vera asked.

Raphael blinked away from his thoughts and scanned the surrounding countryside. “I don’t know,” he said.

“Chasing Graymane,” Cnan offered, pointing toward the west.

Raphael vaguely recalled their pursuit of the Mongol commander after Finn’s death, the long line of horses strung out across the plain. One by one, their steeds had faltered, until only Istvan and Alchiq remained, two tiny dots dancing in the midmorning heat. “He hasn’t returned?” he asked, caught between surprise and apprehension.

Cnan shook her head. “I find myself hoping that he doesn’t. At least, not today.” She looked at Raphael and Vera, and they both saw their own pain mirrored in the Binder’s eyes. “If he is still hunting, then he might still catch him. If he comes back, we’ll know if he was successful or not.”

Vera nodded. “I don’t want him to return empty-handed either. Better he not return at all.”

None of us are going to return, Raphael thought as he turned and looked back at Finn’s slowly filling grave.

That night the company made no fire, and the stars wheeled dizzyingly overhead. The air grew cold quickly after the sun vanished in a burning haze of gold and red in the west. They hobbled their horses near a band of scraggly brush that the animals appeared to be interested in eating, and then they wandered off to make their respective preparations for sleep.

Raphael tried to make himself comfortable. The lush grasslands surrounding the river had given way to flatter terrain, and he found the sere landscape to be oddly distressing. The muscles in his lower back and thighs kept twitching, phantom fears that the ground would suddenly tilt and he would slide away. But slide away into what? They had passed beyond the edge of the world that he-or any of the Shield-Brethren-knew. His hands pressed against the blanket beneath him, pressing the wool against the hard ground.

His reaction was not a sign of madness; it was simply a reaction to the unfamiliar. Men were drawn to civilization; only the most severe ascetic among them relished isolation. Penitent hermits craved seclusion. Being away from the squalor of humanity was an integral part of their spiritual monasticism. They could talk more readily to God in the silence of their mountaintop cave or their desert isolation. It was easier to believe that the voice you heard responding to your queries issued from a divine trumpet if there were no other souls nearby.

But he was a soldier. He slept more soundly when surrounded by the sounds of men preparing for war. His mind was less prone to fearful speculation when he rested behind a stout battlement. Even the sounds of domesticated animals were a welcome lullaby: cows calling to one another in the pasture; the nervous clucking of chickens as they scratched in the yard; dogs, barking at shadows.

On the steppes, there was nothing but the sound of the wind through the grasses; when there was no grass, the wind had no voice, and the silence was unsettling.

He heard her bones creak as she lay down next to him. A blanket fluttered like the wing of a large bird, and he shivered slightly as the cloth descended upon his chest and legs. Her breath hummed against the skin of his neck as she pressed her head against his. Their hands found one another beneath the blanket. Beneath the stars.

Her skin was hot. Pressed against her, his mouth seeking hers, he thought they could stay warm enough to survive the night.

In the morning, there was only a fading blush of heat in the base of his throat. A lingering memento of Vera’s kiss.

“This emptiness does not go on forever,” Cnan said. “We have ridden off your maps, but we are barely at the edge of ones I have seen that show the boundaries of the Mongolian Empire.”

“No wonder it is so huge,” Yasper complained. “Do you really control the land if there is nothing there?”

The lithe alchemist slouched in his saddle, his jaw working absently on a piece of salted meat. In the days since they had crossed the river-since they had left Finn behind-Yasper was typically one of the first to break camp, and more often than not, volunteered to take point. At first, Cnan had found it odd that Feronantus usually acquiesced to the Dutchman’s request. While Yasper was not his to command, typically Feronantus would set one of the more proficient scouts riding before the company. Cnan soon realized Feronantus’s strategy: the alchemist was looking for something-a natural deposit of some alchemical treasure. As long as Yasper was keeping an eye out for anything unusual, then he would be a satisfactory scout and Feronantus could allow the other riders some rest.

Though, recently, he had been afflicted with the same malaise as the more experienced Shield-Brethren.

Graymane’s trail had led them toward Saray-Juk-not surprising, given the presence of more Mongol troops there-and with some caution they had found the place where Benjamin had instructed them to meet him. The caravanserai was deserted-nothing more than a scattering of fire pits near a stand of scrawny trees and a tiny trickle of a stream. The ashes were cold and there were too many tracks of Mongol ponies-it was dangerous for them to stay in the area. Before they left, Cnan found the cryptic message left by the trader, a series of marks carved into the bark of one of the trees-almost as if she had known to look for them. South and east for six days, the message had read, look for the rock.

Which rock? Feronantus had asked.

It will probably be the only rock, Raphael had pointed out.

Given how Yasper tended to focus so tightly on his own little projects, Cnan suspected he might ride right into the rock before he noticed it.

While Raphael’s comment was all too accurate and would likely be the only guidance the company needed, she knew the rock. It was one of the landmarks the Binders used as they passed from the east to the west. A station in the wilderness where messages could be coded and left for others to pick up.

Some Binders, like her, traveled widely, but others stayed within a few days’ travel of where they had been born and raised. At the verge of their domain, they would receive messages and instructions from other kin-sisters, and being more qualified to navigate the dense locality, they would complete the assignment for the foreign Binder. In this way, messages could be carried across the known world and delivery could be readily assured, because the kin-sisters were never dependent upon one messenger.

Such a landmark was used by the Silk Road traders as well.

Cnan glanced over her shoulder at the string of horses and riders behind her. While she was accustomed to traveling across wastelands such as this, she could tell the tedium of riding from daybreak to sunset was beginning to wear on the rest of the company.

And they have no idea how many more days await them, she thought.

“What are you smiling about?” Yasper inquired.

“Nothing,” she replied, setting her face aright. “What could I possibly see that would provoke some humor in me?”

“That’s why I asked,” Yasper said. He sat up and tapped his horse lightly with his stick, edging closer to her. “You’ve been this way before,” he noted. “Tell me, have you seen deposits of salt?”

“Salt?”

“Yes.” He spread his hand out flat and moved it across the landscape. “Like a dry lake. A place where the wind plays.”

Cnan laughed. “All of this land is like that.”

“No, no. Not like this. Perfectly flat. Alchemists call it a sabkha.”

Cnan shrugged. “I do not know that word,” she said, though she had a dim recollection of a Turkic word that might mean the same thing. She tried to dredge up the word, but nothing felt quite right on her tongue. “Nor have I seen one,” she admitted.

“A pity,” Yasper said. “Neither have I.”

Cnan smiled again. “There’s still time,” she said.

“I know, I know.” Yasper flapped his hands, and blew out, puffing up his cheeks. “This… wasteland… wears on me. I’ve been trying to find some solace in my recipes, but my supplies are terribly meager, especially after… “ He trailed off, and Cnan knew he was thinking about the loss of his horse in Kiev.

When he had fled from the fight with the Shield-Brethren, the Livonian commander Kristaps had returned through the same stinking tunnels they had used to reach the Shield-Maiden sanctuary. Upon emerging from the well house, the Livonian had stumbled upon her, Yasper’s, and Finn’s horses. He had taken all three-a smart ploy to reduce their ability to pursue him. Yasper hadn’t been so distraught about the lack of his horse as he had been about the loss of his numerous satchels and jars and powders.

All of his alchemical supplies, gone.

Since then he had been trying to replenish his stores, with some mixed success. The market in the border town had supplied him with the firecrackers they had used so effectively against the Mongol war party, as well as a number of other basic ingredients. Yasper had been excited when they had first stumbled across the wormwood-the hearty plant native to these lands-but after days and days of seeing clumps of it everywhere, Yasper’s enthusiasm had diminished drastically. Cnan knew little about the alchemist’s recipes (and wanted to know very little, actually), but what she had gleaned was that all of his potions, unguents, powders, and salves were built from a carefully measured base of two or three simple ingredients.

Salt being one of those basic ingredients.

“What is it that you hope to create?” she asked, out of boredom more than any concerted interest.

Yasper offered her a wolfish grin. “Why, nothing more than the secrets of the universe, of course,” he laughed. “Every alchemist seeks to unlock the riddle of existence by discerning the secret methods by which God constructed the world. All of this,” he gestured around them, “though this is not much, but all of the world was created through a complex set of instructions. Men have spent their entire lives trying to enumerate the multitudinous mystery of creation. Pliny-do you know Pliny? No, of course you don’t-Pliny wrote thirty-seven volumes on the natural history of the world. Thirty-seven!” He sat up in his saddle, his mood improving as he spoke. “Can you imagine how complicated this world is that God has created? Don’t you want to understand how all the various pieces fit together?”

“I hadn’t really thought about it,” Cnan admitted. “But why do you want to understand it? So that you can become a god too?”

Yasper shook his head. “That would be heresy,” he clucked his tongue at her, a grin stretching his mouth. “No, we seek to understand who we truly are, and what our true purpose is. If we can comprehend how the world was made, and learn the power of transmutation-the art of changing one thing into another-could we not give ourselves that same gift?”

“Which gift?”

“Transmutation.”

“Trans-what?”

“Becoming something new.”

Cnan scratched her nose. “What’s wrong with what we are?”

Yasper closed one eye and stared critically at her. “What’s right about what we are?” he asked.

Cnan, now somewhat sorry she had even asked her initial question, shook her head and stared out at the horizon in the vain hope of finding something to distract the alchemist. He was warming to this one-sided conversation, and she feared it was only going to get more confusing. “Look,” she said, sitting up in her saddle and pointing. She was not embarrassed to hear a note of elation in her voice. “There!”

Ahead of them, a thin black shape reached up from the flat ground, a finger stretching to poke the empty dome of the heavens. It wiggled, like a worm struggling to pull itself from rain-softened mud.

“Rider!” Cnan called out to the others while Yasper stood in his saddle, shading his eyes. After peering through the heat haze for a moment, he sank back down into his saddle, and the slope of his shoulders told her everything.

“It’s Istvan,” he said bitterly.

As the Hungarian drew closer, she could confirm what the alchemist had noticed as well. The Hungarian was alone.

But what chilled her was the fact that he was in front of them.

Where had Graymane gone?

CHAPTER TWO

Factus Sum Tamquam Vas Perditum

He needed to make a dramatic entrance.

Not far from the secret door he used to come and go from the Septizodium, there was a crack in the wall that opened into a narrow slot. Previously, Fieschi had used it as a makeshift dressing room, exchanging the vestments of his station for a plain wool robe. Now, as the tunnels beneath the Septizodium began to fill with smoke and the cries of the panicked Cardinals, he waited patiently in his hiding spot.

Before squeezing into his secret sanctum, he had gone ahead to the secret door and released the hidden latch. He had pushed it open slightly, just enough for a little air to get in, and for a little smoke to get out. The young messengers had used the door, and while he suspected the two jesters-Colonna and Capocci-had known of its existence prior to the arrival of the intruders, he didn’t want to leave it to Providence that it would be found: he needed witnesses, an audience that would flock to his miraculous appearance.

Fieschi set his shoulders against the back of his niche to get more comfortable. He opened and closed his right hand slowly, keeping the aching paralysis of his recent exertion at bay. Quoniam fortitudo mea et refugium meum es tu, he prayed, et propter nomen tuum deduces me et enutries me.

Fieschi recalled a sermon St. Augustine had delivered on the thirty-first Psalm-in particular, a portion of the homily concerning Abraham. The patriarch was justified by the virtue of his faith; his good works came second. God is my rock and my fortress, and I am unshakeable in my faith. “Exsultabo, et laetabor in misericordia tua,” he whispered, knowing that God would hear him, “quoniam respexisti humilitatem meam; salvasti de necessitatibus animam meum.”

By destroying Somercotes, he had saved the Church. Were such trials not part of God’s love and kindness? Surely God would forgive him of his transgression.

The fire, incendiary agent of Satan, eagerly devoured the combustibles in the narrow room. It had licked the walls and found them wanting, and so it had fallen upon the dead body. Fueled by the cloth and the flesh, it had grown larger, sending out creeping tendrils of fire that wormed their way through the cracks in the walls. It was no longer a single blaze by the time Capocci approached Somercotes’s room but a string of fires, prancing with unholy glee, in a number of the tiny rooms the Cardinals had been using.

Most of the smoke came from Somercotes’s room, rolling off the huddled mass that popped and crackled as the fire joyfully burned fat and flesh off bone. Capocci ducked his head, breathing through his mouth; he knew that smell. Years ago, when he still believed in Gregory IX, he had led papal troops into Viterbo and besieged the citadel of Rispampano. The Roman troops resisted for a few days, hurling everything they could haul up to the battlements down upon his troops, including burning pitch. The screams of dying men and the smell of their burning flesh had only hardened the resolve of his soldiers.

Somercotes’s body lay curled near the center of his room. Not on his bed and not near the door-two places that Capocci would have expected to find the body had the fire been an accident. He pushed aside the inquisitive thoughts that crowed his brain, and waddled slowly into the hot room. His beard crackled as strands of his capacious whiskers began to curl and burn from the heat. Blinking heavily to clear the smoke from his eyes, he reached out with his gloved hand.

Somercotes couldn’t still be alive. The fire danced too merrily along his frame, and the crackling, sizzling sound of burning meat was so loud. And the smell… Capocci grabbed something-an elbow, perhaps-and clenched his teeth as the fire gnawed through the heavy leather of his gloves. He pulled, intending to drag the body out of the inferno, but there was no resistance and he fell back on the floor.

Clutched in his hand, covered in writhing tendrils of fire, was a spitting piece of charred meat. The entire arm.

Spitting out an oath that he would have to beg forgiveness for later, Capocci tried to hurl Somercotes’s arm away, but the fire had fused the meat to the leather of his glove. Orange tongues of flame licked at the cuff of his sleeve. Using his other hand, he stripped the glove off-both of them, in the end-and scrambling backward, he fled from the room and its grisly pyre.

Capocci leaned against the hallway wall, coughing and choking as he tried to catch his breath without inhaling the fouled air. He knew he should check the other rooms. Hopefully they were empty, but what if they weren’t? Would their occupants be any more alive than Somercotes?

He wanted to run away. He wasn’t such a prideful man that he couldn’t admit when he was afraid. Fear was a powerful emotion, and giving himself up to God meant letting go of the fear. But such a sacrifice did not make him invulnerable or fireproof.

It made him cautious.

He had to be sure, though. He had to be sure there was no one else. Only then could he listen to the voice in his head-the one that telling him that Somercotes’s death was not an accident.

Rodrigo had dreamed of a dragon once. It was sinuous and long, and covered in red and brown scales. When it roared, a great billow of black smoke issued from its mouth. There were great furnaces in its belly, stoked by infernal spirits, and in the wake of that smoke came the fire. The brilliant, burning fire.

He ran from that fire. To stand his ground would be to be burned, and while he had faith in God-while he believed that God watched over him and that God’s love was enough to protect him from any such foul denizen of Hell-another part of him was broken and fearful. That part of him fled, dragging the rest of his spirit with him. The rest of his body and mind. Running from the fire…

Rodrigo bashed his hands against rough rock as he tripped. The smoke surrounded him-it was in his mouth, his nose, his eyes-but there was less of it down here next to the rock. He wanted to press his face against the rocky ground, and let the smoke pass over him. Let the dragon’s fire burn the sky overhead. Down here, nestled against the ground, he would escape notice. He could still breathe.

“Get up.” Someone grabbed his robes and dragged him upright. He fought back, his body racked with heaving coughs, but he had no real strength in his arms. He let himself be dragged along until it became clear that whoever was carrying him would continue to do so-more roughly, in fact, he realized as his knees bounced painfully off the ground.

When he had his feet beneath him again, the hand released its hold, and he was free to continue staggering down the endless passage.

As if he was running up the dragon’s throat, trying to escape the burning churn of the infernal fires in its belly.

Then, without warning, he was free. The smoke went upward, a curling black finger rising into the pure serenity of the blue sky, and the walls of the tunnel fell away. He had escaped.

And with the freedom came a sudden rush of clarity, as if much more than smoke was wiped clear of his eyes and throat. He had been in the grips of the fever again, the persistent heat that plagued his soul. It was such a heavy weight to carry that the brief moments when he felt God’s eyes upon him were such a momentous blessing. He felt so… elevated.

He looked behind him at the unadorned outer walls of the Septizodium. He stood in an alley, one of the many unmarked and unmemorable gaps between buildings in Rome. The door through which he had stumbled wasn’t a real door, but a clever panel of stone. Any other time, he would never have noticed it against the mottled background of the surrounding stone, but it hung open now and a column of black smoke spiraled up from it. There were other spires of smoke rising over the rooftop; clearly, there were other exits from the Septizodium. They might not have been plain to those who were sequestered inside, but smoke had a talent for finding a way out.

The tall, elderly Cardinal-Colonna, Rodrigo could remember his name effortlessly now-stood nearby, his chest heaving with a great cough. He spat something foul on the ground, and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. “Are you all right?” he asked, and Rodrigo recognized his voice as the one that had kept shouting at him during his long exodus from the fire-laden darkness.

“Yes,” Rodrigo replied. “Well enough.”

Colonna nodded and made the sign of the cross. “Watch for others,” he said, “I am going to see if anyone… is waiting for us to… escape.” He took a step up the alley, and then seemed to realize he was still cradling a small earthenware jar in his hands. “Hold on to this,” he said, thrusting it toward Rodrigo.

“What is it?”

Colonna cocked his head to one side. “Just… hold it.” Shaking his head, he headed up the alley, leaving Rodrigo to wonder what was on the Cardinal’s mind.

Rodrigo peered at the jar, cradling it tentatively. The stopper was a thick wooden plug surrounded by a layer of wax, and the seal was so tight that if he turned it upside down-like so-the stopper did not come out. He held the jar close to his ear, cautiously listening, but he heard nothing over the groaning rumble of the fire burning deep within the Septizodium.

I am being a fool, he thought. If it is the one thing that Colonna brought out of this prison, then it must be important. That is enough for me. He glanced in the direction the tall Cardinal had gone. We all have our secrets.

Unburdened by the fever, he dispassionately recalled what he had seen at the abandoned farm near Mohi: the slaughtered horses in the barn; the children hiding in the hayloft; their mother, lying on the hearth in the house, her body burned and defiled; the old man pinned to the wall with arrows, forced to watch. He could remember it all clearly, unburdened by the horror and dread he had felt at the time. It was as if he was looking at the pages of an illuminated manuscript, and no matter how badly he desired to close this book and hide these pictures forever, he could not. They were an indelible part of him now, burned into his memory by the fever. By the vision.

He could also remember what Brother Albertus had taught him many years prior. He had been so young, so eager to learn how to worship God, and the older monk had been equally eager to share his newfound knowledge with a bright student. The Ars Notoria, a means by which he would be able to more readily explore his relationship with God. By understanding the language of God, by learning how the tongue and the mind were connected.

Brother Albertus had taught him a prayer. Te quaeso Domine mi illumina conscientiam meam splendore luminis tui. To call upon God to illuminate him with his light so that he would remember what he had seen and heard. Adorna animam meum ut audiendo audiam et audita memoriter teneam.

Bless me, God, so that I may remember.

And he did. He remembered all of it, as clearly as if he was experiencing it for the first time. Was this God’s love? Or, by invoking those names that Brother Albertus had taught him, had he transgressed against the glory of God? Algaros, Theomiros…. The names of angels, according to Brother Albertus, aspects of God that would fill him with the celestial majesty.

He had tried to forget. After covering and burying the dead, he had knelt in prayer before the hearth where the woman had been killed. He had asked God to undo all that had been done to him. He did not want to remember anymore. He wanted to open his eyes and be innocent again.

But God never answered his prayer. His knees aching, the wound in his abdomen slowly weeping down his side, he had refused to quit praying. He would pray until God heard him, or until his soul went to God directly. He wouldn’t stop.

And then the angels had come. First, they were nothing more than beams of light, streaming through the holes in the rough walls of the house. They came swirling and combining into a winged figure that floated over the hearth.

Aperi mititissime animam meam. Mercifully open the dullness of my soul…

Rodrigo clenched Colonna’s earthenware jar tight to this chest. Our secrets, he thought, imagining a great door closing over the part of his memory that refused to fade.

A clatter of metal and the chatter of voices drew him away from that memory and cast him into another. Soldiers, wearing purple and white, were coming toward him and the smoking hole of the secret entrance of the Septizodium. Rodrigo saw them coming, but he also saw-with equal clarity-a sweltering afternoon in a marketplace. Ferenc was there, riding beside him, and there was a girl too. Behind them. Watching them. He had seen her again. Where? In the darkness of the dragon’s belly, before it had been woken from its slumber. Like a tiny bird that had been swallowed, she had fluttered down into their prison. She had brought him something… the ring! Archbishop Csak’s signet ring.

“Father Rodrigo.”

He started, blinking heavily. His vision blurred, swimming with too many distinct images, too many layers overlapping. Eventually, cleared away by a minute wash of tears, all that remained was the concerned faces of Cardinal Colonna and another man whom he recognized but did not know. “Yes?” he said.

Colonna indicated the other man. “This is Master Constable Alatrinus.” His voice was flat. “He and his men are here to ensure our safety…”

The Master Constable nodded. “Please, Father. Let my men escort you.”

“Where?” Rodrigo managed. He was still clenching the jar, and he lowered his arms, though he did not relinquish his burden. He caught sight of a ring on his right thumb, and he stared at the ornate band. The Archbishop had been a large man, much heavier and taller than Rodrigo, and his hands had been enormous.

But that wasn’t why he stared at the ring. He stared because he had no memory of putting it there.

“A safe distance,” the Master Constable said. He put a hand on Rodrigo’s shoulder and squeezed slightly, misinterpreting the priest’s confusion as being caused by inhaling too much smoke.

One of the guards called for the Master Constable’s attention, and the hand disappeared from Rodrigo’s shoulder. Someone else was coming out of the tunnel, a soot-blackened apparition with white hair.

“It’s Capocci,” Colonna breathed with a sigh of relief.

Confusion grew as more guards arrived, overfilling the narrow terminus of the alley. The Master Constable shoved his way through the crowd to Capocci’s side as the white-bearded Cardinal sank to the ground. Rodrigo could not hear the Cardinal’s response to the Master Constable’s question, but the answer was plain to read on the latter’s face as he stood.

“Find out how many they’re pulling out of the courtyard,” he said to one of his men. “Tell them I have three. Get an accurate count.” The man nodded, and brushing past Colonna and Rodrigo, he ran to deliver his message.

As several other soldiers knelt to help Capocci to his feet, the Master Constable gingerly approached the smoking mouth of the tunnel entrance. Was he going to go in? Rodrigo felt a shout rising in his throat; he wanted to warn the Master Constable. How could the man not see that no one could still be alive in there?

“Ho!” the Master Constable shouted. “Is anyone there?”

Rodrigo choked on his words as something moved in the darkness of the door. The Master Constable jumped back, startled by the sudden appearance of a figure. What had he summoned with his words?

A man staggered out of the tunnel, his face and clothes streaked with soot. He fell to the ground at the Master Constable’s feet, gasping for air. With a shaky hand, he grabbed at the soldier’s boot, clutching the leather like a drowning man grabbing a piece of driftwood.

Rodrigo stared, and as the man raised his face, he remembered something else: the last time he had seen Somercotes alive, they had been interrupted by a visitor, who had taken Somercotes away. The hawk-faced man. This man on the ground before him.

Cardinal Fieschi.

CHAPTER THREE

Chinese Fire

To Haakon, the only difference between the previous few weeks and this last week was the pace at which the caravan traveled. Since they had arrived at the capital city of the Mongol Empire-Karakorum, he could pronounce it better now-little had changed for him and the other men who had survived the rough journey across the steppes, and within a day or so it had become apparent that Karakorum was not to be their final destination. He had watched, with great fascination, the preparations that had gone on for the departure of the Khagan. He had even caught a fleeting glimpse of the man himself shortly before the caravan had departed once again. This time, however, the pace of the wagons was indolent in comparison, and there was little reason to wedge himself between the bars of the cage in order to minimize the buffeting and shaking he received from the hard track. The rocking motion of the cart reminded him of the gentle motion of the longboats at sea-a motion that was as familiar to every Northern boy as the warm embrace of his own mother. Throughout the day, he had dozed numerous times.

As a result, Haakon had been awake when the attack had started.

Raphael, one of the well-traveled Shield-Brethren he had met at the chapter house outside of Legnica, would-when properly coaxed by the others-tell stories to the trainees. Like Feronantus, he was prone to being short and gruff with the young men, but when he spoke of other places and other times, he became bewitchingly eloquent. Raphael had spoken of the siege of Cordoba, and he had likened the bombardment of fiery arrows and flaming balls of pitch to the sun being shattered by the angry fist of God. You could not flee from such a disaster, he told them, you could only stand witness as the sky was blotted out by fiery rain. If one of those shards of the sun was meant for you, then that was your fate.

When Haakon saw the tiny lights rise from the horizon, he thought of them more as a flight of startled birds than as falling pieces of the sun, but he watched them nonetheless, no less fascinated. As the arrows fell on the camp, the stillness of the night was disturbed by the rushing thrum they made through the air. The burning arrows scattered throughout the sea of tents and wagons, and each one, as it landed, became a flickering beacon that called out to its companions. Within the camp, Haakon could hear the rising commotion of the Mongolian response: voices shouting orders to protect the Khagan, screams of pain, and cries of bewilderment. The entire camp was not unlike an anthill that had been poked with a stick. At first, it would be a writhing, chaotic mass; but then, an organization would emerge. Some of the ants would start attacking the stick; others would fall to rebuilding the nest, or carrying the food and the young to safety.

Haakon watched as another wave of fire arrows took flight. They rose and fell, spreading themselves throughout an area closer to the cages. One thwacked into the ground not far from him, and Haakon stared at the burning strip of cloth wrapped around the shaft of the arrow.

Krasniy, the red-haired giant who was squeezed into his own cage nearby, hissed at Haakon. When he saw that he had the young man’s attention, the giant hunched his back, finding a better position within the confinement of his prison, and jerked a thumb at the roof of his cage. He strained, muscles standing out in his thick neck, as he tried to snap the heavy cords that bound the roof to the bars. Haakon watched Krasniy for a moment, and then returned his attention to the fires and chaos around them. No one seemed to be paying much attention; for the moment, the giant could try to escape.

Krasniy let out a huge rush of air, a noisy exhalation that bordered on a cry of frustration and despair. Haakon didn’t have to look to know what the sound meant. The cage was stronger than it looked. Or the giant was weaker than he had thought. The cords held.

Haakon wedged his shoulder against the bars of his cage, and stretched his arm as far as he could manage. The arrow was just out of reach, and the flames licked at the tips of his fingers. Another inch or so. That was all he needed. He pressed his feet against the floor of the cage, trying to gain a little more leverage, trying to squeeze a little more of his arm through the bars. The flames danced merrily, capering in delight at his efforts. He opened his hand wider, ignoring the searing pain that followed, and wrapped several fingers around the arrow. With a gasp, he shoved himself away from the bars, closing his hand into a fist.

He rolled over, twisting his wrist so that the arrow fit through the bars. He threw it to the floor of his cage and beat at it rapidly with both hands. Slapping hard to put out the flame, to not feel the pain as the fire fought back.

The orange flames flickered and vanished, leaving only a thin strand of white smoke and a stinging pain in his palms. Gingerly, he picked up the arrow. The fire had devoured the cloth that had been wrapped around the shaft, and the shaft itself was charred enough that he thought it would break if he flexed it at all. But that wasn’t what he was interested in.

It was a heavy war arrow, and the metal arrowhead was hot to the touch. Its edge was still sharp.

He snapped the head and a few inches of wood off the charred shaft, and shifted around in his cage until he was closer to Krasniy’s cage. The giant was watching him, and when Haakon tossed the arrowhead over to his cage, he grinned at the young Northerner.

Just as Krasniy was twisting himself in his cage to get at the ropes, a group of Mongol warriors sprinted out of the line of ger. Krasniy froze, but the men were not interested in what the prisoners were doing. As quickly as they appeared, they were gone, and both of the prisoners relaxed. Krasniy stared at the piece of arrow in his hands-it appeared almost like a child’s toy in his thick fingers-and then he shook his head.

Haakon nodded. When the attack had first started, the confusion had seemed like a perfect opportunity for them to try to escape, but the chaos also meant guards could wander by at any time. It would take time to saw through the ropes, and without knowing they would be undisturbed, it would be a risk. As frustrating as it was, it was better to wait.

Cradling his hand in his lap, Haakon arranged himself as comfortably as he could in his cage. In the weeks he had had to watch his captors, there had been almost no opportunities to see them in combat. He had learned a great deal by watching how they rode their horses, how they organized their patrols, and the type of armor and weapons they carried, but he hadn’t actually seen them fight.

The flights of flaming arrows had stopped, and Haakon suspected this meant the attackers were launching their ground offensive. The rain of fire was meant to disorient and confuse the Khagan’s men, a tactic that would reduce their effectiveness. Perhaps this meant the attackers did not have so many numbers that they were going to overwhelm the camp. While it was likely that most of the fighting would happen near the perimeter of the camp, Haakon sat near the bars of his cage and watched. He saw men and women running about in a chaotic effort to put out fires, and occasionally he would spot the glint of firelight off steel as armed warriors moved through the ger, intent on finding invaders.

Stories of Feronantus’s insight into battlefield tactics were told and retold among the initiates at Tyrshammar, and here was an opportunity for Haakon to observe-to learn something of his enemy that might be useful knowledge. Yet he could see so very little.

As he strained to get a better glimpse of the fighting, he wondered if there was any leader in the West that could command such willing sacrifice-not just from his soldiers, but from all of his subjects. Soldiers would fight to protect their lord-that was their commission, after all-but civilians, for the most part, suffered whatever rule was impressed upon them. Some kings did manage to instill some devotion in their subjects, and the landed nobility might be inclined to take up arms for their ruler out of a similar devotion, but the wholesale fixation of a people on their leader on the scale that was the Mongol Empire dwarfed any kingdom Haakon had ever heard of in the West. Not even the Pope enjoyed this kind of fervor from his flock.

The Mongolian devotion to their Khagan was… daunting.

But he does have enemies, Haakon thought. He could hear men fighting. He flexed his singed fingers, wishing he had a real weapon.

Munokhoi paid little attention to the wild faces that rushed at him from the gloom. The night was filled with twisting strands of smoke, which disgorged screaming Chinese men at random intervals. Some of them had weapons-swords and spears he brushed aside like seed pods floating on a breeze-and others were wide-mouthed phantoms that he silenced with a quick thrust of his blood-drenched sword. They came and went, and their deaths were but tiny sparks that vanished instantly in the raging fire of his bloodlust.

He wanted the Chinese fire thrower.

He had seen its fiery exhalation a moment ago, a spurt of purple flame that had appeared like a tear in the night. The men fighting near him had been knocked down, and when he raised his right arm, he felt jagged jolts of pain run down his side. Tiny bits of metal hissed and steamed in his armor, and his elbow gleamed with fresh blood. But he didn’t stop. He couldn’t stop. Not now.

He was so close.

There were two of them-Chinese alchemists-hunched together like two whores tittering to one another. One held a tiny covered lantern that let slip tiny shards of firelight; the other was frantically trying to wipe down a long misshapen tube. There were a number of pots and satchels scattered around them, the cumbersome tools of the nefarious device.

With a shout, Munokhoi dashed toward them. The one carrying the lantern looked up, and light from his lantern glinted off Munokhoi’s upraised sword. He brought his arm down, felt the blade bite into flesh, and then he yanked the sword toward him, pulling the Chinese man off balance.

The first alchemist dropped the lantern, and its cover was knocked askew. The other alchemist froze, the whites of his eyes glowing in the dim light.

Munokhoi twisted his blade and pulled it free. The first alchemist made a wet coughing sound, and fell to his knees, vainly trying to stem the steady stream of blood coming from a mortal wound in his neck. Munokhoi kicked him out of the way, and pointed his dripping blade at the second alchemist.

“Show me how it works,” Munokhoi snapped, speaking Chinese.

The alchemist shook his head, trying to pretend he didn’t understand Munokhoi’s words. The tube in his hands looked like a piece of swollen bamboo, though it was made from iron; one end was dark with soot. The alchemist’s hands were stained black as well, and he was missing two fingers from his left hand.

Munokhoi flicked the point of his sword, letting it ring off the tube, and then he flicked it up. The man jerked his head back, but not quickly enough, and the sword point opened up a line on his cheek from which blood immediately started to well.

“Show me,” Munokhoi said again, all trace of humor gone from his voice.

His body shaking, the Chinese alchemist lowered himself to his knees and started to comply. Munokhoi watched closely as the man loaded the ingredients from the pouches and pots into the mouth of the tube, trying to keep them straight in his mind. A thick plug with a thin tail went first, the tail emerging from the back side of the tube. Then, two handfuls of black powder. Shards of metal went next, and Munokhoi felt the muscles in his side and lower back twitch as he heard them rattle into the dark mouth of the weapon. He knew that when he had his wounds examined later, similar pieces of ragged metal would be found embedded in his armor and skin. Last was another piece of flat metal, almost like a cap, that the Chinese man lowered carefully so that it filled the mouth of the barrel before sliding in.

Munokhoi nodded, his tongue flicking over his dry lips. Yes, he could remember that sequence. Eagerly, he gestured with his empty hand for the Chinese alchemist to give him the loaded weapon, and to his surprise, the man flung the tube directly at his face.

Caught off guard, Munokhoi reared back instead of intercepting the clumsily hurled missile. He found his pulse racing at the thought that the weapon was going to explode in his face, but the tube struck him in the chest-nothing more than an inert, heavy object-and then fell to the ground.

The Chinese alchemist was gone, having taken that split-second opportunity to flee.

Munokhoi stared into the night for a moment, idly rubbing his chest where the weapon had hit him, and then he retrieved the tube from the ground. Peering at it carefully, he decided it was unharmed. The man had distracted him with it long enough to make his own escape, and Munokhoi couldn’t help but chuckle at the man’s well-timed cowardice.

He had been planning on using the weapon on the man anyway.

He examined the string hanging from its back, and determined that it was a fuse. He retrieved the discarded lantern, checked on the tiny stub of a candle that provided its illumination, and looked about for a suitable target.

The first alchemist was still alive. He was hunched over on his knees, choking and struggling to staunch the flow of blood from his neck. Munokhoi held the candle up to the end of the fuse until the tiny string caught fire. Sparking and hissing, the fuse crinkled, rolling itself up into the back of the tube.

Munokhoi pointed the tube at the choking man, and whistled lightly, catching his attention. The alchemist looked up, startled by the noise, and his eyes focused on the mouth of the tube. He dropped his hands from his bloody throat, and started to curse Munokhoi. One of those long Chinese curses that went on forever.

Fortunately, the man’s last breath was cut short by the detonation of the weapon. It jerked in Munokhoi’s hands, belching a tongue of blue flame with a mighty roar, and the alchemist was smashed against the ground as if he had been swatted by the hand of a giant. The air was filled with the reeking stench of the fire powder, and the tube was so hot in his hands that he almost dropped it.

The alchemist’s body looked as if it had been set upon by wolves, hungry beasts that had stolen its head and part of an arm, shredding the rest to a mess of bloody strips.

Cackling with delight, Munokhoi set the tube down on the ground and began to investigate the pots and leather bags.

CHAPTER FOUR

The Orphan’s Tale

Ocyrhoe thought the watchful eyes of the Holy Roman Empire would be closer to the walls of Rome. As they trudged away from the city, she tried to explain to Ferenc what she expected to find. Those leaving Rome would move freely, most likely, and it would only be city-bound travelers who would attract attention. The soldiers of the Holy Roman Empire had been charged with detaining men of the cloth-ecclesiastical officials, presumably Cardinals-who were traveling to Rome in order to participate in the Papal conclave. After a lengthy session of Rankalba she thought he understood the what of the empire’s obstruction, though she was not sure he understood the why.

In her imagination, the road would be blocked by a gate, much like the gates in the Aurelian Wall, and soldiers of the empire would be checking all pilgrims bound for Rome, seeking some sign or symbol of their Papal importance. Such was the imagination of a city-bound child; she realized her ignorance as soon as they were outside the city, for the roads were lightly traveled and surrounded by open countryside.

She understood Ferenc’s confusion as she realized the approach to Rome was not as well guarded as she had anticipated. Ferenc had tried to tell her something about how the priest’s vision had protected them on their approach to the city, but he wasn’t fluent enough with Rankalba-the secret language of knots and finger touching-to express himself plainly. And was such protection even necessary? she wondered.

He was frustrated with their lack of a truly common language, as was she, and she tried to reassure him. I will teach you more, she told him. He had shrugged-When? — and since she had no answer, they let their hands drop. They walked in silence, and her fingers ached to reach out and try to soothe him.

It took them until the early afternoon to find men who wore the colors of the Holy Roman Empire. A brace of them stood at either side of the road, watching for Rome-bound traffic, and they were able to get within shouting distance before the men noticed their approach. Ocyrhoe squeezed Ferenc’s arm one last time, and then presented herself to the ruddy-faced, pale-haired soldier who seemed to be in charge of the group. She put her curled fist over her heart and bowed, wishing she knew the precise ritual address for seeking audience. Cardinal Somercotes had known more about Binder etiquette than she did…

The soldier’s disdainful expression softened when she began to speak in slow, clear Italian. “I am bound with a message to the Emperor,” she began. “Robert of Somercotes, Cardinal of the Church, sends greetings and words.” Beyond that, she had no idea what to do next.

Neither did the soldier. He blinked at her a few times. “Do you want money?” he finally asked. His accent was thick, and Ocyrhoe thought for a moment that he was speaking Latin, but then she understood the emphasis he was putting on his vowels and realized he was speaking a dialect so estranged from her Roman Italian that it was almost a different language.

Despite her best effort, she could not hide her righteous indignation at being mistaken for a wandering orphan, and her expression was so intense that the ruddy-faced soldier jerked back in surprise.

“I do not want money,” she retorted. “I am bound with a message to the Emperor. A Cardinal has sent me. I must speak with your officer. Now.”

The other men clustered around them, and the ruddy-faced soldier, not quite sure what to do with this strange and intense girl, glanced back and forth between Ocyrhoe and Ferenc. Ferenc stared back at him for a moment, then smiled wanly. Ocyrhoe checked the urge to stamp on his foot; he was not helping her credibility.

Resolute in her need, she remained standing in front of the soldier, staring at him, until he turned to one of the other soldiers and sent him running to fetch someone who would know what to do. Ocyrhoe knew she did not have exactly the right salute, or exactly the right greeting, but she was sure the words bound and message-especially in conjunction with the words Emperor and Cardinal-would catch someone’s attention.

It was a hot, sticky afternoon, and she and Ferenc wandered over to the shade of a nearby tree. Several of the other soldiers were amused by her indifference to them, and they took it upon themselves to join her and Ferenc in the shade. They remained standing, while she and Ferenc sat, maintaining the illusion that the pair were under guard.

Ocyrhoe didn’t much care what they thought, as long as they left her alone. She found a comfortable crook in the roots of the tree. Someone would come from the soldiers’ camp soon enough. And as Ferenc and the soldiers watched over her, she fell into a light slumber. What else could she do at this point?

The sun had softened, and the shade of the tree was much longer when she woke. There were more people gathered around the tree-additional soldiers and a young man no older than Ferenc who, in much better Italian, asked them to follow him. Accompanied by a group of soldiers, she and Ferenc let themselves be led across the sparse countryside to a covert village of canvas tents that were hidden behind a narrow wood of dense trees.

A full-fledged Binder would not stare. A full-fledged Binder would not even appear to be interested in what was around her, Ocyrhoe told herself, so focused would she be on completing her task. But the tent village of the Holy Roman Empire was the strangest environment she had ever seen.

She saw almost no women; most of the men and boys were coiffed, shod, and dressed alike; and although the village appeared to be a mobile community-with livestock, ovens, latrines, even a chapel-the sounds and sights were all wrong: there were no cries of street peddlers, no shouting children, no banners advertising wares, no open stalls of a marketplace. It was a stolid, unfriendly place.

But she did not ogle. And neither, she was pleased to see, did Ferenc. The moment they’d gotten out of the city, he had relaxed in a way she had not seen before, and even now, he seemed far more at home than she felt.

The two youths to whom they had been entrusted-one before them, one behind-marched them between two rows of low-slung sleeping tents, and then turned left directly into a much larger, higher tent. Ocyrhoe squinted in the diminished light.

Despite the heat, the walls of the tent were pegged down, preventing any breeze from cooling the stuffy air within. There were three-legged stools scattered at one end of the enclosed space, around a low table with an unlit lamp on it. The soldier behind them tied back the tent flap, which let in sunlight but very little air. He saluted his fellow soldier and then departed.

Ocyrhoe and Ferenc exchanged looks. Ferenc, probably intending to show her that he trusted her, smiled again and shrugged. She wished he would not do that; it made him look doltish in front of the soldiers.

His smile faded suddenly and his head moved slightly toward the open tent flap. He held up three fingers, and then he imitated the stance of the young man guarding them. Reflexively, Ocyrhoe did likewise.

A moment later, three silhouettes appeared at the tent flap. Ocyrhoe tried to look at them with respectful casual confidence-but then she saw one of them was a slender dark-haired woman with familiar knots tied into one lock of her hair. Ocyrhoe felt her eyes open wide and her jaw drop, despite herself. Stop that, she ordered her facial muscles, refusing to let them break out into a smile of relief.

A Binder.

The woman was older than any of the kin-sisters Ocyrhoe knew, maybe older, even, than Auntie. She was with two men-the second youth who had led them here, and a man who must be the commander of the soldiers’ unit. The commander’s face looked chiseled out of marble; his eyes were so pale Ocyrhoe wondered how he could bear the Roman sunlight. He stared at her unblinkingly. “Yes?” he said, expectantly.

The woman made a subtle noise, which immediately commanded his attention. She had a stateliness to her that suggested a noble upbringing, but she was dressed almost like a servant, and she was barefoot. “We understand you are bound to us with a message,” she said, directing the words at the man as much as to Ocyrhoe. She spoke Italian with a lilting accent, as if her own tongue was much more fluid. She looked concerned, though, and almost as humorless as the commander.

Of course: most people in power, or who served power, knew about the Binders, but few ever had occasion to interact with them directly; they were not common messengers for hire. It made sense that the Emperor would have Binders in his service, but of course not all of his military commanders would know what to do with them.

“We understand… you are bound to us with a message,” she repeated, more forcefully.

Ocyrhoe gaped at the woman, then not knowing what else to do, put her fist over her heart. “I am bound to you with a message,” she echoed hurriedly. “From Robert of Somercotes, Cardinal of the Church, to His Imperial Majesty Frederick.”

The Binder gave her a strange, perhaps even an accusing look, and Ocyrhoe felt her face flushing. “I am the only sister left in the city,” she added. “This message would have come sooner, and… more correctly, if there were anyone else… more experienced… to bring it.”

The woman’s dark eyes opened wide, briefly, like a cat just before it pounces. Then they narrowed, and the woman turned with barely hidden disdain to the commander, then back to Ocyrhoe. Her expression softened. “Our mother receives one of her children most gladly. You may give your message to this man, and he will carry it to its final destination. Then, relieved of your burden, you and I may talk.”

Ocyrhoe felt her entire body sag with relief. “Thank you,” she said, her throat tight.

She turned her attention back to the man. The words tumbled out: “Robert of Somercotes, Catholic Cardinal, greets His Imperial Majesty Frederick and summons him or his men to the Septizodium within the walls of Rome, where all of the Cardinals are being held against their will by Senator Orsini until they have selected the new Pope. I will lead your men to the Septizodium.”

She glanced nervously at the woman. There was a pause.

The woman closed her right hand and moved it slightly toward her heart. Ocyrhoe picked up on the hint and slammed her fist against her sternum, eyes still on the Binder.

“Thus delivered of your message, you are as the fox, unbound and unencumbered,” the woman said. Ocyrhoe sucked in a breath and almost recited the confirming phrase after her, then realized this would only make her look more foolish. Instead she nodded, once.

During this exchange, the commander and both soldiers had exchanged concerned looks, and now the commander spoke rapidly to the woman in that same dialect spoken by the ruddy-faced soldier. She could not quite follow what was being said, and she could sense Ferenc’s frustration as well.

The woman replied briefly, and Ocyrhoe heard the Cardinal’s name and a reference to the Emperor; the commander responded with a brusque nod and left, the two young guards following him.

Left alone with the newcomers, the Binder cast a questioning eye at Ferenc-who returned her look just as quizzically as before.

“He is with me,” Ocyrhoe said quickly. “He knows Rankalba.”

The woman blinked and pursed her lips. “You have taught him?” she demanded accusingly.

“No,” Ocyrhoe said quickly. She tried to think how best to explain their strange fellowship, but the Binder had already turned her attention to Ferenc. She moved to him swiftly, took his arm, and signed something onto it. He glanced, startled, at Ocyrhoe, then made the sign for Mother on the woman’s arm.

The woman shook her head angrily and pushed his fingers from her arm.

“He is from Buda. I think his mother was a Binder,” Ocyrhoe interjected, trying to mediate between the woman’s anger and Ferenc’s confusion. “He does not sign quickly and we have not had time for long explanations. He must be completely confused by what is happening.”

The woman searched Ferenc’s face for a long moment before answering. “There may be men in this camp who speak his language. I will have someone explain everything to him,” she said.

Ocyrhoe let slip a tired laugh. “Everything? You do not know how long that will take,” she said. The woman turned her attention to Ocyrhoe, and under the brunt of that gaze, Ocyrhoe wondered how much the woman actually knew.

“I am Lena,” the Binder said as she gestured toward the camp stools at the other end of the tent. “Please, let us sit and talk.”

Her name alone revealed nothing of who she might be or from where she may have come. Were they not kin-sisters? Ocyrhoe wondered. Why did she not share more of her identity? The delight she had been relishing at meeting another Binder threatened to slip away, and she hid her panic beneath the stoic mask she had worn when they had first reached the camp. “I am Ocyrhoe,” she replied guardedly, and with a gesture toward her companion, “He is Ferenc.”

“Tell me what is happening in Rome,” Lena directed as they sat down on the stools.

“Did you send the dove?” Ocyrhoe asked.

“What dove?”

“The dove on the statue of Minerva,” Ocyrhoe said, and as the panic threatened to overwhelm her, she let her tongue go. “Are you the Bind-Mother?”

Lena gave her another long, questioning stare. “I see,” she sighed at last. “You are an orba matre.”

Ocyrhoe didn’t know what to do with her hands, and so she clutched the rim of the stool. Holding tight. “I am… I don’t understand.”

“A child, born of a Binder mother”-Lena glanced at Ferenc-“a girl child, would know more than you do, for your age.”

“I was chosen,” Ocyrhoe said, a little hotly.

Lena smiled reassuringly. “Do not be insulted by my words, child. I am trying to determine what you are. We both know you are not a Binder, not fully.”

With nothing but their expressions and body language to read, Ferenc had stiffened when Ocyrhoe got defensive, and now he reached out a protective hand toward her. She took a deep breath and stroked his forearm without looking at him. In this tent, in this company, she realized she was treating the boy like a dog… a faithful dog. He did not seem to notice, or to care.

“About three months ago, a messenger came from Rome with word that Senator Orsini was moving against our sisters,” Lena explained. “Since then, we have had no other news from the city. And then, with the death of the Pope, and this sede vacante, it has been a most troubling-”

“The Emperor is here, in this camp?” Ocyrhoe interrupted.

Lena inclined her head and stared over her long nose at Ocyrhoe. “No, I did not say-”

“He is,” Ocyrhoe offered a tiny smile. Lena’s explanation and Ferenc’s reassurance had calmed her, dispelling the desire for flight, and in its wake, her awareness was coming back. It wasn’t the same as the way the city spoke to her, but other subtle suggestions were there, if she simply took the time to read them. “A Binder’s duty is to deliver her message,” she said. “If the commander had to leave this camp in order to relay my message, then I would not have truly delivered it and you would not have released me from that duty. If you are discharging your duty properly, then wherever you are, he must be as well.”

Lena looked strangely satisfied at Ocyrhoe’s response. “Your arrival is timely, child; he has stayed overlong away from his court in Palermo and had planned to return soon. Your message will, I suspect, change his mind. There is more afoot, however. Why have our kin-sisters been taken? It would be helpful if you could tell me everything you can about what has transpired in Rome.”

CHAPTER FIVE

Seeking Revenge

The change that came over Luo Xi was as dramatic as if a mask had been removed, revealing a face pitted and harsh beneath a delicately painted facade. Lines appeared in his face, deep striations etched in his forehead and cheeks. Such lines were not unusual-every Chinese person who had suffered under the yoke of Mongolian oppression was similarly burdened-but he secretly cultivated his suffering. His grip on Lian’s arm was tight, his fingers digging into her flesh as if he would squeeze down to her bones.

“These dogs ravage our homeland,” he snarled at her, all pretense of geniality gone. “They loot our cities. Kill our children.” He shoved her again, driving her ahead of him. “They rape our women.”

She wanted to run, wanted to flee the lash of his words. Moments ago, she had wanted his eyes on her, wanted him to be distracted from his surroundings, but now she didn’t want his attention.

One of the soldiers slapped Gansukh on the legs with the shaft of his spear, and the Mongol warrior rolled away from the blow, getting his legs under him. Even though Gansukh didn’t understand a word of what was being said, the message was clear. Clenching his teeth, Gansukh wobbled to his feet, and as he stood upright, one of the other soldiers whacked him across the back, causing him to stumble and nearly fall.

She couldn’t help herself, and she darted toward Gansukh. A Chinese soldier reached for her, and she slowed, pulling her arm out of his reach. He grinned, revealing a wide gap between his upper front teeth; lowering his spear so that the point hovered near her breast, he shook his head.

Beyond him, Gansukh stared at her. One of his eyes was swollen partially shut, dark shadows already discoloring his flesh. Dirt and ash and blood streaked his face, and a chill ran across her arms as she met his one-eyed gaze.

The Chinese soldier clucked his tongue, flicking the tip of his spear toward the unruly mass of her unbound hair that fell across her breasts. She looked away from Gansukh, met the Chinese man’s eyes for a second, and then demurely dropped her gaze toward the ground.

She caught sight of a dagger shoved negligently through the man’s belt, and she sucked in her breath. Her dagger!

A man staggered toward the group, and Luo Xi drew his sword. It wasn’t a Mongol, and Luo Xi relaxed his guard enough to slam his helmet back on his head as the wounded man came closer.

Lian recognized him as the other commander, the one who had argued with Luo earlier. The one who had argued against taking hostages. He had worn a helmet too, but it was gone now, and his head was covered with blood, some of it still wet.

“We have failed,” he gasped to Luo. “We had the banner-” He caught sight of Lian, and stared owlishly at her. Slowly, as if he was having a great deal of trouble remembering something of vital import, he looked at the four men surrounding Gansukh. “My men are dead,” he said, and he swung his gaze back to Luo. “We are all dead.”

Luo’s face was ashen. “Idiot,” he hissed. “We only needed the sprout. Why didn’t you take it?”

“It wasn’t there.” Seeing Luo’s expression, he shook his head. “It had been harvested already,” he explained. “We had no choice but to take the banner. Otherwise-”

Luo cut him off with a wordless hiss. “Do not think you know what is best. The banner is too old to sustain life. What we need-”

“Commander,” one of the soldiers interrupted Luo. He pointed toward the rise that blocked the caravan from view. The light was softer now, no longer the harsh radiance of hungry fires. White plumes of smoke hung in the night air. “The Mongols are putting out the fires,” he said.

Luo’s companion swayed unsteadily. “If they know why we are here, they will not negotiate.” He pointed toward Gansukh. “Your hostage will not save you.”

The soldiers guarding Gansukh shuffled uneasily.

“I cannot run,” the man said softly, indicating the dried blood on his head. “I can barely walk…”

Luo lowered his head briefly in acknowledgment; then, with a swift jab, he ran his sword into the belly of the wounded Chinese man. The look of confusion on the other man’s face faded, and the tension in his face eased. His gaze remained locked on Luo, and he grunted lightly as Luo pulled the sword free. Something akin to a smile came to his lips.

All the air had fled from Lian’s lungs. She couldn’t move; she couldn’t scream. She could only stare in horror as the dying Chinese man tried to speak, failed, and crumpled to the ground.

Luo whirled, his face twisted into a demonic mask. “Kill them both,” he snarled. “And then run. Run as fast as you can, for the Mongol dogs will be at your heels.”

His sword was red with blood, and as he strode toward them, the paralysis that had held Lian vanished. “Wait,” she cried.

Luo didn’t slow down. He raised his sword.

“Let me do it.” Lian was as surprised as Luo to hear the words come out of her mouth.

Luo hesitated. “What?”

“If I kill him,” she said, letting the words run out of her mouth of their own accord. She didn’t think about where they were coming from or what they meant. All she knew was that if she wavered, if she showed any fear or hesitation, this sudden resolve would vanish. “If I kill him, will you take me with you?”

Luo’s mouth twisted, finally shaping itself into a nasty leer. “You want revenge on this dog?”

Lian stood firm, pushing her chin out and throwing her shoulders back. “This one. All of them.”

Luo examined her, letting his eyes roam over her body. His sword dipped slightly, but his body was still rigid.

“Commander,” one of the guards interrupted.

“Go,” Luo shouted, the muscles in his neck standing out. “Run, you cowards!” His eyes remained locked on Lian.

Two of the four guards took him at his word, dropping their spears and sprinting away into the darkness. One of the remaining pair lingered, unwilling to turn his back on Gansukh or leave his weapon. The gap-toothed one stayed, and Lian’s gaze fell on the dagger in his belt again.

“Let me do it,” she said again, and pointed at the dagger. “That’s his dagger. I want to kill him with it.”

Luo laughed, and Lian tried to not flinch at the sound, though it made her skin crawl. He nodded to his man, who pulled the blade free of his belt and tossed it to the ground. “Go,” Luo said to the remaining pair. “I…we,” he amended with a curt nod at Lian, “will meet you at the second camp.”

The soldiers needed no other prompting, and they too fled.

“Pick it up,” Luo said, indicating the knife as he walked toward the captive Mongol.

Gansukh hadn’t understood any of their conversation, but the look on Luo’s face was plain enough, as was the bloody sword. As the Chinese commander approached him, Gansukh strained at his bonds while moving slowly backward, giving himself some room to maneuver. He wouldn’t be able to dodge Luo’s attack, but his expression said he wasn’t going to make it easy for the Chinese man.

Lian crouched, and with a shaking hand, reached for her dagger. Was she going to go through with this? Could she actually kill a man? In his own way, Gansukh had tried to warn her at the feast. He had said she would be punished if she were caught with the weapon, which was true, but there was another message behind his admonition. Why carry it, he had implied, if you aren’t willing to use it? She slipped the blade from its sheath, and wrapped her fingers tightly about the handle.

She had no choice.

Luo feinted with his sword, and when Gansukh dodged away, the Chinese man leaped forward with a savage side kick that connected with Gansukh’s stomach. Gansukh doubled over, gasping and retching, and Luo brought a knee up sharply to Gansukh’s lowered face. Gansukh’s head snapped back and he toppled over. His hands, bound behind his back, prevented him from lying prone, and he flopped onto his side. He curled forward, retching and shaking. Trying to protect the parts of his body that had been traumatized.

Luo looked over at Lian, and nodded at the sight of the dagger in her hands. “Do it quickly,” he sneered, “and I won’t leave your corpse with his.”

“Pull the dog’s head back,” she instructed with more confidence than she felt. She couldn’t dwell on what was going to happen after the next few moments. She couldn’t let herself wonder if she was doing the right thing. She had to focus on what had to be done, on what was required in order for her to survive.

Luo put his sword down, and crouched next to Gansukh’s supine body. He hauled the semi-conscious man upright, and positioning himself behind Gansukh, he grabbed the Mongol’s hair. “Do it,” he hissed at Lian, exposing Gansukh’s throat.

Gansukh shuddered, his one eye rolling in its socket. Luo’s strike had bloodied his nose, and his lower face was smeared with blood and dirt. His mouth hung open. He was unrecognizable to Lian, just another Mongolian warrior-indistinguishable from the men who had taken her from her family years ago. They were all alike. It was as Luo had said: the Mongols destroyed everything; they burned countless villages; they had raped generations of Chinese women; they had plundered the great cities. So much had been lost to Mongolian rapaciousness, wiped from existence.

Gansukh was one of them. Had he not demonstrated that fact when he chose his brutal Khan over her? Had he not denied her the ability to defend herself by stealing the very dagger she now held in her hand? Had he not wanted to keep her as a slave? It didn’t matter how much she taught him about how to speak, how to dress, how to be civilized; he was still a barbarian, a dog with blood on his face and hands.

She gripped the dagger tight, the way Gansukh had taught her.

She looked at Luo’s sweat-slicked face, and her stomach twisted as she realized his expression was just as alien. His eager anticipation of Gansukh’s death sickened her.

But he was one of her own countrymen-her rescuer. He was going to help her get back to China. Back to her family. She was going to be free. All she had to do was kill one man. One Mongol.

“Kill him,” Luo barked. He jerked Gansukh back, leaning forward as he did so. His face was so close to Gansukh’s, his mouth nearly touching the Mongol’s ear. “Watch her,” he laughed in Gansukh’s ear. “I want you to see your death.”

Gansukh surged against Luo, but he had little strength and less leverage. The Chinese man held Gansukh tight, his knee in the middle of Gansukh’s back. Gansukh snorted, blowing blood and snot out of his impacted nose; his open eye staring wildly at Lian.

She licked her dry lips and stepped forward, swinging the dagger from left to right. Her swing was slow and weak, and Luo grimaced as he watched her halfhearted attack. She was too far away, and the blade missed Gansukh’s neck.

Luo was starting to say something, his lips curled in an ugly snarl, when he realized she wasn’t finished. Having come as close as she dared to the Chinese commander, she stabbed savagely upward, the way Gansukh had taught her, driving the dagger deep into Luo’s neck.

CHAPTER SIX

A Colorful Tongue

You are young to have gone through so much loss,” Lena said when Ocyrhoe finished telling her story. “I hope you know how strong you are.”

Ocyrhoe shook her head. “I am not strong. I am small and weak, and that is why they didn’t come for me. I don’t know anything. I was not worth hunting.”

“You were the only one left, dear child, and you managed not only to survive but to bring a message out,” Lena stared intently at Ocyrhoe. “You taught yourself to hear within the silence. While you lack an understanding of certain rituals and the signs we use to identify ourselves to one another, you have innate and remarkable skills.” She laughed gently. “They should be frightened of you. Not the other way around.”

Ocyrhoe should have been pleased by such compliments, but the only thing she felt was deep exhaustion. It seemed ironic now, how eager she’d been to tell her story to a kin-sister, but it was so tiring. She had wanted to find out what was going on in Rome, but she actually had more information than anyone else. The more she learned, it seemed, the less she understood.

Lena wasn’t finished with her questions. “What happened when it was only you?”

Ocyrhoe exhaled, letting the words run out of her in a tumbling rush to be done. She knew she was babbling, but she didn’t care. “I don’t even remember what happened next. I don’t know what I ate, or where I slept, or if it was too hot or cold. The days were a blur. The Bear-” she stopped, flustered at her use of the nickname. How would this woman know who she meant? “The Senator,” she corrected. “Senator Matteo Orsini. His men had a list, I knew it as plainly as I knew I was the last one, and I couldn’t go anywhere I had been before. All I could do was practice my lessons. Learn the faces. Listen to the city. Stay out of sight. Stay alive.

“I would visit the statue of Minerva, because I remembered that Varinia had said that she watched over us. I didn’t know what else to do; maybe if I prayed…” She shrugged, summarizing her frustration and helplessness in that simple motion. “But why did I do that?” she continued. “I don’t really know. One day there was a pigeon with a message that said, Where are my eyes in Rome? Had one of my other sisters made it to Palermo? I didn’t know. And so I kept watch. I kept waiting until-”

Until the priest and Ferenc had arrived, and in the few days since-how many days? One? Two? — everything had changed.

“Enough,” Lena said. “I have asked too much of you already, I can tell. Let me send in some food, and then I shall inquire about someone who speaks your friend’s language. I have questions for him.”

When Lena left, Ocyrhoe sat with Ferenc on the cool and dry ground. They leaned against one another, their fingers tapping on the other’s skin. She told him as much as she could: the woman was a friend, another like her, and they had been talking about what had happened to others like them; she had gone to fetch them food and someone who spoke his tongue; afterward, they would return to Rome, probably with armed soldiers, to rescue Father Rodrigo from the Septizodium. Ferenc was remarkably patient throughout the lengthy process of Ocyrhoe telling him all this. If he were a tracker or a hunter, she assumed he should have been more intent on knowing what the goal was, but he appeared quite placid. He only showed some urgency when the food arrived; he ate quickly, as if he feared the hovering page boys might try to snatch the plates away before he was finished. He kept a protective eye on her too; otherwise he may as well have been one of the camp stools, so quiet and still he was.

She realized her affection for him went deeper than the simple love one had for an attentive pet.

When they finished eating, the page boys took away all the dishes, and they were left alone with a guard standing outside the tent. Dimly Ocyrhoe could hear the joyless sounds of camp life going on around them, and the light outside the open tent flap finally softened to an amber tint. A page boy came in and lit the lantern, and a hint of cool air began to circulate through the tent.

“Lena?” Ferenc asked and Ocyrhoe almost jumped; he had been silent so long.

“She wanted to find a Magyar speaker,” she said, and then signed on his arm. “She wants to talk to you.”

“About my mother,” Ferenc signed back, and gave her a questioning look. When she nodded, he signed, “My mother is dead.”

Ocyrhoe grimaced and patted the back of his hand. “Mine too,” she sighed.

“She was killed by the invaders,” Ferenc added.

Ocyrhoe snapped out of her maudlin remembrance of Auntie coaching her on how to use the needle and thread. “The invaders,” she signed. “The invaders who also made your priest body-sick and mind-sick.”

Ferenc nodded.

Her life, her focus, had always been about the city of Rome. She knew there were lands beyond; Auntie had taken her to another woman’s house on occasion to look at maps, and Auntie had wanted her to memorize them, but she had always found it so hard to make sense of the jagged lines. She knew that Binders were sent to other places, like the ones named on these maps, but she was a child of Rome, and there was always so much happening there. Her attention had never had occasion to wander far, and recent events seemed so enormously significant: the death of the Pope, the incarceration of the Cardinals, the destruction of the Binder network, the Emperor’s blockade of the city. What could possibly be more significant? Even the worried murmurs in the marketplaces about vicious, keen-eyed invaders from the East seemed so distant and so… unimportant. The threat of these Mongols was only something that strangers visiting from far-off places concerned themselves with.

But the Mongols had destroyed Ferenc’s life, and Ferenc was not a stranger.

Ferenc touched her cheek, and she started. “You are staring at me,” he signed, a self-conscious, slightly lopsided smile tugging at his mouth.

“Sorry,” she signed hurriedly. “I am sad for you.”

At that moment, there was a movement by the tent flap, and they both scrambled to their feet. Ferenc looked embarrassed, and she thought it was not entirely because he hadn’t noticed the approach of all the people who were streaming into the tent.

First two heavily armed young men entered, wearing livery that featured a black eagle with widespread wings on the chest. After them came Lena and the commander. They were followed by a striking-looking man who was pale-skinned, pale-eyed, and nearly bald. The hair he did have-which covered much of his face and his bare arms-was a vivid reddish color. His tunic was far more ornate than those of the other men, and the entire front of it was covered with an image of the same black eagle, which gleamed with iridescence. After him came several more well-dressed men, all ruddy and tall, and all with the eagle insignia somewhere on their person; these were followed by two more armed guards.

The group, a dozen in all, entered formally, and took a seemingly ceremonial stance just inside the tent flap. Lena stepped forward and gestured for them to come closer. Ocyrhoe stepped forward cautiously, Ferenc behind her, a protective and reassuring hand resting on her narrow shoulder.

Ocyrhoe wondered who the man with the red hair was. He was ugly, in part because he was squinting, as if he could not see well. He looked stern, but not cruel. She had already met the commander; perhaps he was a general? Would he be leading the soldiers back to the Septizodium when they went?

“Ocyrhoe,” Lena said, “I have the honor of presenting you to the Wonder of the World, Frederick Hohenstaufen, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and King of Germany, Burgundy, and Sicily.”

Ocyrhoe recovered from her surprise, and gazed upon the man with respect, which she was sure he could tell from her gaze. But Lena said sharply, “You are to bow to him.”

Ocyrhoe hurriedly did so, and felt Ferenc do likewise behind her. “Your Majesty,” Ocyrhoe said. Ferenc made an earnest attempt to imitate the sounds of her address, but ended up mumbling nonsense syllables.

Frederick chuckled. “You are the first goddamned Roman who has bowed to me in months,” he said to the top of Ocyrhoe’s head; he spoke with a heavy accent, but she could understand him clearly. There was a pause, during which nobody spoke or moved. “It’s all right, you may stand up now,” he said at last, still to the top of her head.

Ocyrhoe straightened. “It is an honor to meet Your Majesty,” she said, wondering if his cursing was intended to frighten or intimidate her. Ferenc, behind her, had straightened as well; she was grateful that he made no attempt to imitate her words again.

“I have heard Somercotes’s message,” Frederick said.

Wanting to demonstrate her professionalism, Ocyrhoe quickly put her hand to her heart and declared, “Thus delivered of my message, I am like the fox, here unbound and unencumbered.”

Lena’s lips tugged back in an almost motherly smile. Frederick, as if he had not heard her, continued on, “Lena has informed me of what has transpired in your city, and it saddens me that Senator Orsini-what did you call him? The Bear? Yes, it saddens me that the Bear has treated his innocent people so monstrously. Whatever grievance you have with the Senator, I too share.”

Binders bear no grudges, she heard Varinia’s voice recite in her mind. Binders bear nothing but messages and knowledge. She opened her mouth to say it aloud, but Frederick seemed to not require a response from her. “Jesus Christ. I am sure you’d take as much satisfaction as I would in my men destroying that goddamned Orsini and tearing down his whole goddamned palace, but I cannot indulge the impulse. Why are you gaping at me?”

Ocyrhoe blinked, and looked at the ground to recover her composure. He spoke like the other children who ran wild in the alleys and tumbledown hovels of Rome. She’d never heard anyone in good clothing use such foul language-and he did it so casually. She had never wasted much imagination anticipating how an Emperor might behave, but she assumed his demeanor should resemble the Pope’s, and Frederick’s most certainly did not.

“Forgive me, Your Majesty,” she said, and looked up again. “I am to return with your response to my message, and I am uncertain of…” She found herself struggling to find the right words. He isn’t a street rat; think of the ways Auntie and Melia taught you to speak. “I only wish to be certain of your reply.”

“Oh, I’ll reply,” Frederick said with a huff of bitter laughter. “You better damn well believe I’ll reply. But not the way he asked me to. If I send soldiers in there to storm the Septizodium, the Church will accuse me of all sorts of goddamned abominations, and as soon as they’ve gotten their new false idol on the throne of Saint Peter, he’ll only continue to blather at me the same way his predecessor did. Perhaps, instead of simply excommunicating me, they’ll put my entire empire under interdiction.” He started to pace about the tent, and his attendants shuffled closer to the canvas walls to give him space. “Not that I give a shit about that, of course, but my nobles tend to twist their hands like frantic ladies when the subject of eternal damnation comes up. They are like pustules on my ass, even when things are going well.”

Ocyrhoe bit the inside of her cheek to keep herself quiet; she was absolutely astounded at the man’s language and attitude. She herself had never felt any particular interest or attraction to the Church-the few times she had been inside any of the churches in Rome had been as part of her lessons with Varinia-but she knew enough to be respectful. She had been to several public events outside the Lateran Palace and St. Peter’s Basilica, and had watched in wonder at the reverence with which each person approached the Pope. Even from those whom she later learned did not like the Pope. And excommunication. It had to be a horrible thing, the way people in Rome spoke of it, but the Emperor seemed to think it was less troubling than a mild ailment of the stomach.

“No, my child,” Frederick continued in the same offhand tone, “I must take a different tack altogether. The Church rages against me because I am preventing some of its Cardinals from returning to Rome. They wish to elect a new pontiff, but their own rules have forced them into a deadlock. I knew Orsini had hidden them, so as to better prevent my spies from influencing their decision, but the decision to remain in that fucking nightmare hellhole of a ruin is theirs. Not mine.

“So, rather than leaping to take up this role they wish me to play-the part of the villain-and assaulting their precious conclave, I will opt to be the hero and salvage their byzantine procedure instead. I will not send troops into Rome; I will release one of the Cardinals instead. I will allow him to accompany you to the Septizodium, where he may join the others in damnable discomfort and imprisonment. May his vote end their tedious torture.”

He offered her a dazzling smile, clearly very pleased with his decision. “He will probably vote for the wrong man, but”-he threw up his hands and looked toward the roof of the tent-“there is no right man. Attempting to control the outcome has been a misguided waste of my goddamned time, frankly. It doesn’t matter who the hell they choose, he isn’t likely to approve of me. Let’s just get the damn thing settled; let the new puppet dance on his throne, let him waggle his finger at me and write his endless bulls and tracts, castigating me and telling me how to run the empire. I will ignore him much like the man before him; life will go on.”

Ocyrhoe did not know if she was supposed to respond to this diatribe (though she suspected a response was neither necessary nor required), and so she stood there mutely, a pleasant smile plastered to her face. How would she tell all of this to Ferenc? For all his patience, she knew he was eager to return to Rome with a complement of soldiers and stage a dashing rescue of his beloved Father Rodrigo. She glanced at Lena, wondering if the Binder had found someone who spoke Ferenc’s native Magyar.

Lena was staring at her, a thoughtful yet distracted expression on her face. She had seen similar expressions on the faces of artisans in the marketplace crafting something out of raw material. It was an expression of concentration; simultaneously assessing the half-crafted state of the object in front of them and comparing it to their mental image of what that thing was meant to become.

Having finished his proclamation, Frederick turned and said something to one of his officials in a guttural tongue that she did not know. The man responded tentatively, and at a nod from Frederick, bowed and scurried out of the tent. Frederick said something to Lena-in the same tongue-and she stirred from her reverie, her reply precipitating a rapid conversation. Frederick’s face lost some of its ready humor, but he eventually agreed to whatever she was suggesting. Even though she did not understand what they were saying, Ocyrhoe was fascinated by the brief insight into the working relationship between them-they seemed to be conversing as equals. Then, very abruptly but cheerfully, the Emperor bid good afternoon to Ocyrhoe and Ferenc, and strode out of the tent while they were still bowing to him. The entire retinue, except for Lena, followed.

“If I ever used half as much gutter-speak, Auntie would have whipped me,” Ocyrhoe declared when the entourage was well outside the tent.

Lena-very briefly-smirked. “His Majesty is renowned for his colorful and often blasphemous language. He grew up in Sicily,” she said, as if that somehow either explained or excused his language. “I hope you understood the import of his words?”

Ocyrhoe nodded, turning toward Ferenc and taking his arm to start the lengthy process of relaying Frederick’s decision.

“You will stay here in the camp until His Majesty has determined which Cardinal it will be. His guests, as he describes them, are staying at the castles of men he trusts. When the one he has selected arrives, we will return to Rome.”

Ocyrhoe paused, her fingers resting on the back of Ferenc’s hand. “We?” she asked.

“Yes,” Lena said. “I will be going with you.”

CHAPTER SEVEN

Lian’s Dagger

Lian stabbed Luo in the neck, and she had only a moment to be shocked by the volume of blood spurting over the blade and her hand before the Chinese commander violently clawed at her. He caught some of her hair with a wild grab, and clutching the black strands tightly, he yanked her head forward. The hilt of the dagger was slippery, but she tightened her grip and sawed the blade back and forth. More blood gushed out, and Luo gurgled and coughed, and blood spattered from his yawning mouth.

Gansukh, having ducked aside during Lian’s stab, planted his feet more firmly against the ground and shoved. Luo, a dead man’s grip on Lian’s hair, stumbled back.

The dagger came out of Luo’s neck and Lian, her resolve failing, swung it again and again at Luo’s hand and arm. She wasn’t trying to cut him; she just wanted him to let go. She just wanted to get away. Luo-covered in blood, mouth gasping wordlessly, eyes rolling back in his head-no longer seemed alive. He was a shambling apparition, already claimed by death but whose body was still animate. Would death claim her as well, bound as they were by Luo’s frightful grip? She felt the blade of the dagger bite into flesh, and holding the hilt tight, she cut again.

Finally, Luo’s hand let go. His legs gave out, and he fell down. His body jerked, legs kicking as if they were still trying to walk. He lay on his side, one arm reaching out. He stared at her, though his eyesight had already fled, and his mouth tried to form a word, but he never finished. His legs stopped, and his frame relaxed. The fingers of his outstretched hand folded in, and his gaze fell to her feet.

“Lian.”

She started, dropping the dagger. When Gansukh whispered her name again, she finally managed to tear her gaze away from the dead Chinese commander.

Gansukh was sitting up, half turned toward her. He raised his shoulders, trying to draw her attention toward his bound hands. “The dagger,” he whispered, blinking and nodding toward her feet. “Cut me free.”

Nodding dumbly, she bent to pick up the dagger. She recoiled at how much blood was on the blade and the handle, unwilling to touch the bloodied weapon, but then she saw her own hand and arm. She froze, staring at the stain.

“Lian,” Gansukh hissed. “Don’t panic.”

I’ve killed a man. The thought swelled in her head, and she could hear the individual words growing louder and louder inside her skull. She couldn’t make them stop. A terrible voice-hers, hoarse and ragged with utter despair-was shouting the words, and a multitude of echoes answered, chirping and shrieking the words in response, kill kill kill killed a man…

“Drop it,” Gansukh barked, and her hand opened of its own accord like a startled bird taking wing from a bush. Then, freed from the dagger, she recoiled from the sticky thing lying on the ground, stumbling and tripping over her own feet.

Clumsily, Gansukh dragged himself toward the dagger, falling onto his side and blocking her view of it. He stared at her, moonlight making his swollen and pulpy face a hideously grinning mask. His shoulders moved as he struggled to pick up the dagger with his bound hands and orient the blade so that it could cut his bonds, but he didn’t give up. With dogged, unblinking persistence he kept trying to free himself, all the while without saying a word-without admonishing her to help him in any way.

She regarded him with fascination as if she were watching a wild animal try to chew its way out of a snare. A tiny part of her still wept and shrieked within, but mostly she found herself fixated on Gansukh, staring uncomprehendingly at this being who fought with every iota of his body to live. Who would kill in order to live. He had done so, and would again. And it wouldn’t bother him. It was part of who he was, a real part of the world in which he lived.

It wasn’t her world. She had strayed into it. He had warned her. He had tried to protect her, but she had gone anyway. Was she like him now? Would she fight and claw for her own life? Would she kill again in order to survive?

She shivered, not wanting to know the answer to those questions, but as the voices in her head fell silent, there was no avoiding the knowledge.

Gansukh could barely see. One eye was swollen shut, the result of a brutal clubbing from one of the Chinese guards, and his nose was broken. His other eye was nearly glued shut with sand and blood and tears. His lower back ached-he was sure he would be pissing blood in the morning-and his shoulders shook as he tried to move his hands up and down. He gasped heavily, breathing through his mouth, and his tongue pressed against his lower teeth. He could still feel pain. It is enough, Gansukh thought.

It had been enough at Kozelsk, when he had been pinned down behind a barn with arrows in his gut and his leg. He hadn’t died then. Narrow-faced Jebe, an old boyhood rival, laid out in the city street, pinned to the mud by arrows. Still alive, each breath a gasping torment. He had sat there, hiding behind the worn barrels, and watched Jebe die, ashamed that he was hoping that his death would be quicker. That he’d never see it coming.

But as long as could still feel pain, death wasn’t coming for him at all.

His hands slipped, and he thought he had missed the blade of the dagger, but as he tried to reseat the cloth that bound his hands behind his back against the sharp blade, he realized his work was done. The cloth had separated, sawed through by his dogged determination. By his denial of death.

His shoulders quivering with exhaustion and strain, he tried to pull his hands apart. Slowly, he felt the rope stretch and come apart around his wrists, and with a last, shuddering tug, he split his bonds. His hands flopped around, his shoulders sighing with relief at no longer being restrained. The skin along his upper arms and across the top of his back prickled fiercely, a thousand needles being shoved under his skin. Grimacing, he rolled over.

Behind him lay the crumpled corpse of the Chinese commander. The earth around the man’s head was darkened with blood. There was no movement of his chest, and his gaze remained fixed and unblinking. Just like Jebe.

Gansukh struggled to sit up. “Lian?”

Unlike the Chinese commander, she was still breathing, though judging from the manner in which each breath rattled out of her body, she was deep in shock. She could hear him, but she wasn’t present.

The ground vibrated, the sound of hooves against the packed earth. Gansukh recognized the rhythmic beat, the noise of steppe ponies. Friendly riders. With a lingering glance at Lian, he struggled to his feet so as to not be mistaken for a Chinese raider, trying to flee. He brushed the last few strands of rope from his wrists and tried to summon the breath-and presence of mind-to speak.

Lian. He walked, his legs stiff and slow to respond, over to her. He made no effort to touch her; he just positioned himself between her and where he thought the approaching riders were coming from.

Short-legged horses emerged from the gloom, and they quickly shifted their course to converge on Gansukh and Lian. The man on the lead horse was much too large for the frame of the horse, making him seem all that much more like a giant in comparison, and Gansukh felt his throat relax when he recognized the man. The wrestler, Namkhai.

Namkhai pulled his horse up short-deliberately blocking the advance of the riders behind him-and Gansukh stood still as other riders flowed around Namkhai like a stream diverting around a large stone. Out of the corner of his field of vision, Gansukh saw a pale flicker as moonlight glanced off a rider’s naked head. Munokhoi. He inclined his head toward Namkhai, acknowledging what the wrestler had just done for him.

Respect. Hard won and easily lost. But still very much the coin of the realm among the true men of the steppes.

Horses continued to flow around them, and by the time the Torguud captain managed to bring his horse around, a ring of Mongolian riders had formed. Freezing the tableau of recent events into an image that would now be assessed.

Gansukh. Lian. The dagger. The dead Chinese commander.

Munokhoi pushed his mount through the throng, his sword raised above his head. “I said to cut down anyone on foot,” he shouted, his voice breaking. “Why are these dogs still standing?” He refused to look at Gansukh and Lian, staring at his men with a wild ferocity, daring any of them to question his order. His face was streaked with soot and blood, which made his bulging eyes only that much more deranged.

“Because they are not dogs,” replied Namkhai evenly.

Munokhoi jerked his horse’s head back, and the animal nearly reared. Its nostrils flared and it showed its teeth. “They are dogs if I say they are dogs,” he retorted, still not looking at Gansukh or Lian.

Namkhai stared at the aggravated Torguud captain with the same calm mien that Gansukh had seen when they had wrestled. Appraising. Waiting. Confident. Unafraid.

Munokhoi knew the gaze as well, and he looked away. He finally looked down at Gansukh and Lian, his lips curling into a sneer. “She’s Chinese,” he pointed out as if no one had ever noticed. “The Chinese attacked us. They are her people. She must have told them where to find us.”

“Was the Khagan hiding?” Gansukh found his voice, and in the silence that followed his words, he cleared his throat and explained his question. “If she had to tell them where we were, that would suggest that they couldn’t have found us with their own eyes.” He rolled his shoulders and straightened his back. “Are you saying that the Khan of Khans was traveling in stealth? That he was afra-”

Munokhoi kicked his horse, and it lunged forward while simultaneously trying to avoid running into Gansukh. Gansukh shuffled to his right, but not so much that he abandoned Lian, and the horse’s shoulder bumped into his chest. He stepped back, not out of fear of being hurt by the horse, but to get out of range of Munokhoi’s sword. His hand, reaching back, brushed Lian’s arm and he felt her shiver.

“They are no danger to us, Munokhoi,” Namkhai said. “There is no danger to the Khagan here.” Namkhai’s voice was clipped and tight, somewhat impatient. With a hint of a challenge. “We should be guarding the Khagan. Not riding around in the dark, chasing ghosts.”

“You will go where I tell you to go,” Munokhoi raged.

Gansukh took another step back, directing Lian to move with him. He knew that physical contact with her would clearly link them together, but what could be gained by denying their connection? Munokhoi was out of control. He was dangerous when he was soft-spoken and calculating, but that was only because everyone knew that calm facade hid a much more monstrous aspect of the man. They were all seeing it now, and glancing around at the faces of the other men, Gansukh saw that he was not the only one who was concerned.

Namkhai remained unruffled, as if he had seen this facet of Munokhoi before and was not concerned. Gansukh looked at Namkhai’s expression and knew the wrestler had looked upon something much more terrifying than the enraged Torguud captain and had found that thing wanting. Namkhai was still waiting to find a reason to be truly afraid, and judging by the placid arrangement of his features he was prepared to wait a long time.

“Namkhai’s right,” Gansukh said. “There are no more Chinese. They’ve all fled. Back south.”

A few heads turned toward the south, but most eyes were still roving back and forth between Munokhoi, Namkhai, and Gansukh. Munokhoi had gone icily quiet. His hand rested on the hard rim of his saddle, and Gansukh noticed the shape of his saddlebags. They were full. But of what?

“Escaped, you mean. Escaped with the help of their Chinese spy.” Munokhoi had control of his voice again, and Gansukh felt a chill touch his spine. “She may be no danger to the Khagan now, but she’ll bring her murderous brothers back for another attack.”

Lian stirred at Gansukh’s side. Words tumbled from her mouth, but they were so softly spoken that only Gansukh heard them. He tried not to react. She was speaking Chinese.

“She brought them to us; she betrayed our Khagan,” Munokhoi repeated, still holding on to his previous accusation. “Your whore is a traitor. Protect her, and you are a traitor.” His hand twitched, and almost imperceptibly, he turned toward the pair of bags thrown across his horse’s back.

“You are a liar.” Gansukh stared up at the Torguud captain, keeping his gaze away from the bulging saddle bags. “Lian killed the Chinese commander.” He pointed in the direction of the body. “He lies over there. There is her dagger.” He grasped for her hand, found it, and raised it up for the throng to see. “Here is his blood.”

Munokhoi spat on the ground, refusing to look at the dead Chinese man. “Look at my face,” Gansukh demanded, letting go of Lian’s hand. “I was their captive. They were going to interrogate me, but she came to my rescue.”

Namkhai locked eyes with the two men nearest the dead man, and they dismounted to examine the corpse. Namkhai jerked his head, and the two Mongols flipped the body over. Grabbing the corpse by the hands, they dragged it around Munokhoi’s horse and deposited it on the ground next to Lian and Gansukh. She shied away from the body, stepping more closely to Gansukh, her hands lightly touching his arm. The Chinese man lay on his back, the dark ruin of his throat plainly visible.

“Anyone could have killed this dog.” Munokhoi spat on the body.

Gansukh felt Lian go rigid and then relax. When she spoke, her voice was clear and precise. “I killed him,” she said. She wasn’t looking at Munokhoi. She held Namkhai’s gaze. “And when I killed their leader, the rest fled. Like the broken dogs they were. We’ve stopped their attack.”

We?” Munokhoi’s voice dripped with scorn and disbelief.

“We,” Gansukh said simply. “Following them would be a mistake. We do not know this terrain. We do not know if they even have a camp. Those who are still alive are scattered, running for their lives. What would we gain by chasing lost dogs in the dark? It is better for us to return to the Khan’s side.”

Namkhai nodded in agreement, but he made no move to do that. He only looked at Munokhoi with that same flat expression. Waiting.

Munokhoi had two options as Gansukh read the situation: agree with him and return to the Mongol camp, or insist on continuing the hunt. If they continued and found little trace of the Chinese raiders-which seemed likely-then Munokhoi risked losing face with the Khagan for making a foolish decision. If he returned to camp now, he only lost face with the current group of men by standing down from his challenge to Gansukh. It was an infuriating choice, Gansukh knew, but as he watched the Torguud captain weigh these choices, he realized Munokhoi was considering a third choice. Killing both him and Lian now before anyone could intervene.

Lian sensed the conflict in Munokhoi as well, and she took a step back and to the left, putting some distance between herself and Gansukh. Making two separate targets. Gansukh, surprising himself, took a step to his right, preparing to flank his enemy.

Munokhoi growled deep in his throat, and his eyes betrayed him, flicking down to the saddle bags.

What secret did he have in there? Gansukh wondered.

“Captain,” Namkhai said, breaking the tension. “What are your orders?” What saved them was not the question, but the deference in Namkhai’s voice. The submissive request for direction from a superior.

“We head back to camp,” Munokhoi snapped. “Take them with us.” Without another word, he pushed his horse through the rank of men and the sound of its hooves trailed after it in the night.

Singly and in pairs, the other riders followed their captain until only Namkhai and two other riders remained.

“We’ll follow you,” Gansukh said. “Somewhat more slowly.”

Namkhai shook his head. “Ride with them,” he said, indicating the other horsemen. “We are to bring you back with us.” The expression on his face made it quite clear he was not interested in any more discussion.

CHAPTER EIGHT

An Auspicious Outing

Andreas awoke to the sound of the initiates battering one another in the training yard. He lay quietly on his cot for a few minutes, listening to the rhythmic clacking noise of their training weapons. His back and shoulders were cold and stiff, a reminder of a bruising hit he’d taken during his last qualifying bout. He’d endured worse, he reminded himself as he rolled to his side. I am a knight initiate. As long as I can stand-even if only on one leg-I will carry on. A grim smile played itself across his lips as he climbed to his feet and stretched, the muscles in his back and legs complaining. Just as long as I can still hold a sword.

Shuffling slowly, he wandered from his alcove-a tiny cell once used by a lay brother as a quiet sanctum for prayer-through the ruined monastery, and to the heavy cloth masquerading as a door over the ragged threshold of the hall. Squinting, even though the outside light was diffused by the pale morning fog and the tall trees surrounding their chapter house, he pushed through the cloth and tottered outside. A barrel had been placed next to the door, and rain from the last few days had topped it off. He dipped his hands in, and splashing his face, drove away the last clinging vestiges of sleep. Warm, we sleep. Cold, we wake.

No longer bleary-eyed and befuddled by the dawn light, he straightened and looked for the source of the clacking noise-the young men, sparring with training blades.

Since the Shield-Brethren had made this place their temporary home, the overall deterioration of the buildings had been arrested, and the unkempt grounds had been transformed. The training yard, in particular, had been nothing but a swath of open ground covered with pale grass and a few fiercely determined shrubs. But after many hours of men trampling back and forth, the ground had been scoured of plant life and pounded flat.

The trainees roamed freely across the yard, working in pairs and in teams of three under the watchful eye of Knutr, one of the other knight initiates. Andreas wandered toward the trainees-watching their technique, eyeing their form. He was no oplo-not like Taran had been-to see at a glance where a man faltered, but he knew his way around instruction at arms all the same. Maks, for example, had a tendency to favor striking on the right side more than the left, and this morning he seemed to be trying the reverse. Without much success. He’s thinking about it too much, Andreas thought, his mind is getting in the way of what he wants to do.

Beyond the yard, others were practicing archery, putting arrows into a line of straw men that had been erected close to the tree line. The penalty for missing the target was to scour the underbrush for the missing arrow, and the trainees had all quickly learned to hit some part of their target. Now, they were improving their precision.

Doing drills was a continuous facet of life-for the knights as well as the trainees-and their Spartan existence in this makeshift chapter house meant an opportunity for more drills. Training for war was much different from training for duels in the lists, and while a part of what they prepared for was combat in the Khan’s arena, most of their preparations were for war. As Andreas watched the young men train, it was clear to him that they were no longer mere boys. Some laughed and joked with one another as they awaited their turns-exuding confidence in their body language; the faces of others were fixed resolutely-not with fear or apprehension, but stern focus. The Virgin watch over them, Andreas silently implored. They are still so young.

Styg was sitting next to one of the cookeries with two other trainees, idly prodding the flames with a long stick. He looked up as Andreas approached, as did the other two, and Andreas was jarred by their expressions. He’d had that same look once, when he had worn training leather of his own. That imploring look of adoration and admiration the student has for his oplo. The look that said, There is a hero.

Andreas couldn’t help but think of his teachers over the years. And of his fellow students, both at Petraathen and elsewhere. How many of them were still alive? he wondered. How many of them had died with that look still on their faces?

“I can’t promise the hare is well cooked,” Styg said, a grin on his broad face, “but at least it isn’t badly burned.”

Andreas eyed the logs on which the young men were sitting. After years of traveling, he was accustomed to the often rough-hewn quality of the furnishings at camps and chapter houses, but the muscles in his lower back were tight as he considered sitting down. He needed to move around more, to get his blood moving, to shake off the stiffness that had crept into his body during sleep. However, eyeing the three faces around the cook pit, he indulged their desire to talk, and lowered himself to the log. Even though the wood had been softened by the rain, his buttocks complained slightly as he sat. How long had it been since he had sat on a plush silk pillow?

“Anything that hasn’t been heavily salted will taste like manna just now,” he said as Styg pulled the hare from its spit and cut it into pieces. “Panis Dominus,” Andreas explained to the other young men, answering the question clearly written on their faces. When the Latin elicited no sign of understanding in their eyes, he shrugged and reached for the offered food. He juggled the charred pieces lightly, blowing on them, before tossing several into his mouth.

Styg had overestimated his abilities. The hare was overcooked.

“There’s going to be a fight today,” one of the pair said. “At the arena.”

Andreas chewed his food slowly, nodding for the young man to continue. He had gathered as much from the activity in the wrecked city the last time he had been there, but he was curious what sort of rumors made their way back to the boys who remained at the chapter house.

“One of the Livonians is fighting.”

Andreas swallowed heavily, pushing the partially masticated food down his throat. “Indeed,” he offered, trying to recall the names on the lists. “Do you know who his opponent is?”

“One of the Khan’s privileged fighters.”

Which one? Andreas wondered. The messages that Hans eked out of the Mongol compound were appropriately cryptic, and there had been few sightings of the Khan’s coterie of exotic fighters, but Andreas had managed to glean several names: Kim Alcheon, the Flower Knight; the crazily named demon who had fought Haakon, the one the crowd called “Zug”; Madhukar, the stone-shouldered wrestler whose cudgel had caved in a Templar’s helm early in the matches, before the arena had been closed. According to Hans, the Flower Knight was still gathering accomplices, men who could be trusted to fight in an uprising. He hoped, and not just because his opponent was a Livonian Knight-as ungracious as that thought was-that the Khan’s man survived today’s fight.

“I would like to see this fight,” Andreas said. He let that sink in with the three of them as he chewed another tough piece of hare. “I am still on the lists, and it will be my turn to fight in that arena soon. It would be good to scout out the terrain, don’t you think?”

Styg nodded happily. “It is always good to take your enemy’s measure before actually engaging him.”

“I don’t expect to encounter any trouble in Hunern, but it is like a hive that has been stuck more than once with a stick, don’t you think? Its residents will be restless, prone to reacting at the slightest hint of provocation.”

“It would be foolish to expose yourself to such danger,” one of the others piped up, eagerly grasping at the opportunity being dangled in front of him.

Andreas nodded as he tossed the rest of his portion of the overcooked meat into his mouth. There was something about the threat of conflict-of the looming possibility of a violent death-that enriched a man’s senses. Food, even when burned, became more flavorful. The sun was brighter, its light searing through the recalcitrant fog. The crisp morning air, inhaled through his nose, had a faint scent of distant rain.

As he took his leave of the threesome, Andreas couldn’t help but look on the trainees with new eyes, noting that the same bracing enthusiasm that filled him was present in them as well. Death instilled a vitality for living. Detractors of the Shield-Brethren were quick to call them bloodthirsty monsters who thrived on violence, but the opposite was true. It was a foreign mind-set for those who had never carried a sword or walked across a field of battle, and Andreas had long ago given up on trying to explain it to those who did not already understand. The horrors of war-of a life filled with violence-could only be balanced by cherishing each moment of that life with a resolute assuredness and a sharp awareness of what beauty it did have.

His well-used panoply awaited him back in his tiny chamber. His longsword was notched, his maille patched, and gambeson stained. Cleanliness was a part of the Shield-Brethren vows, and he did his best to maintain what he owned in that spirit, but over time, his harness and weapons became more and more permanently marked by the travails of his life.

He had spent many years wandering Christendom, and he could not recall the origin of all the scrapes and nicks in his maille. While the masters of Petraathen had been displeased with him, they had not stripped him of his privilege. He could have returned to Tyrshammar or gone to one of the other chapter houses of the Brethren, but he had opted to travel the known world instead. His journey had been lonely more often than not, but it had been one of his choosing. The decision to join his brothers at Legnica had, at first, been born out of curiosity, and in the first few weeks, he had felt-on more than one occasion-the gentle whisper of the wanderlust that had guided him for so many years. But that was akin to the temptation offered Christ during his exile in the wilderness. The promise of illicit freedom was a strong pull on a man who feared the true path he knew he had to walk.

The long alley behind the alehouse was drenched in sunlight, and the three men and the boy stood awkwardly close in the narrow space. Each but the child held a mug of ale, and the man who was not wearing the blue cloak of the Shield-Brethren was a short, stocky fellow going bald across the top of his head. His name was Ernust and he had a quick smile and a sharp laugh, which Andreas found refreshingly infectious.

Of course, the ale helped.

“I will not accept your money,” Ernust said, setting his mug down upon the wooden lid of a nearby cask. “There is little else to do in this city but brew ale and swap stories.” He grinned at Andreas and Styg. “The Livonian Brothers of the Sword are cheap bastards; they’ve taken advantage of more than a few of the poor people who come into my alehouse. Anyone who gives them-or any of the Khan’s thugs, for that matter-a good thumping will never want for drink in my establishment.”

“Your kindness is matched only by the quality of your drink, brewmaster,” Andreas said. “However, I do have two more men with me. They are keeping an eye on our horses.” He nodded toward the entrance of the alley. “Arvid and Sakse are their names, and while their cheeks are still as soft as rabbit’s fur, they are men enough to be thirsty. While I will accept your gracious hospitality for myself and Styg, I would not presume to assume that-”

Ernust scoffed, brushing aside Andreas’s concern with a wave of his burly hand. “Hans,” he said to the boy hovering nearby, “Fetch two more mugs for the knight’s companions.” The boy nodded and ducked through the heavy curtain on the back wall of the alehouse.

“I fear that we are an unfortunate influence on your young charge,” Andreas said when Hans was gone. “He puts himself in danger for a cause that is not his. My heart is heavy with the thought that I might bring pain and suffering to your family.” He raised his mug and examined its content. “Especially in light of your generosity.”

“The lad makes his own choices. Has since his mother died,” the brewmaster explained. “She was my sister, and she died a year before the Mongols came-thank God for that simple blessing-and the lad’s been living-” He chuckled. “Well, he was always welcome in my house, though he visited but once before running off again. Back to the streets he knew. A bit of a wild one, he is, and if you don’t mind my saying so, your attention has had an impact on him. But, I suppose you knights get that all the time, don’t you? The boys do love men in armor. And the swords-”

Andreas gave the man such a stern glance that the brewmaster’s voice died in his throat. The portly man dropped his eyes and fidgeted with his mug. “My apologies, Sir Knight. I meant no harm…”

“None was taken,” Andreas said. “Your ward has become much loved by me and mine, and his aid has strengthened our cause in a way that can never be fully repaid. Though, I wish to try.” He cleared his throat, considered what he wanted to say next, and then raised his mug to his lips. “When this unfortunate business is finished,” he continued after a long drink, “I would like to take Hans with us. I would like to make him my squire. I would protect him, and would pay for his education and training in the Ordo Militum Vindicis Intactae-”

A small noise caught their attention. The edge of the heavy curtain was raised, and Hans was staring at them with bright eyes. His mouth moved, trying to summon words, and after a few feeble attempts, he gave up and launched himself out of the doorway. He impacted Andreas in a tight hug that caught the big man off guard, but he smiled awkwardly and returned the youth’s affectionate embrace. He ruffled Hans’s hair and gently disengaged the boy’s arms. “You’ve done us a great service,” he said, somewhat gruffly. “What I offer is a hard life, and is in no way proper compensation for the risks you have undertaken on our behalf, but it is all that I have to offer you.”

“You… you offer me much,” Hans said shyly, wiping his tear-stained face. “I just tell the other boys where to go, and listen to their messages when they return. They’re the ones taking all the risks…” He looked at his uncle. “I worry about what they face when I send them out, and I am ashamed that I have not gone myself.”

Andreas looked at the boy, seeing him not for the first time with fresh eyes. “Hans, when I asked you to find a way for us to communicate, I knew the dangerous task to which I was assigning you. What you feel is what I have felt-what any commander of men has felt when he has given an order that has sent one of his companions into danger. You must always remember this feeling, and use it to temper your judgment and your compassion, lest you become careless with the lives you hold in your charge. That you can do what you have done-and that you feel what you do-tells me that my order would be honored to have a boy-nay, a man like you in our ranks.” He smiled. “That is, if you would join us…”

Hans raised his eyes, and the fear seemed to ease, at least a little. The guilt remained, but Andreas knew that that would never flee. A part of him felt the same, knowing what the boy would inevitably face, if he took this path. “I won’t let you down,” Hans said after a long moment. “Now, or in the future.” His eyes grew hard and resolute. “I promise.”

Ernust pressed a palm of one hand against an eye and squinted up at the sun. “I wish you’d not begged off on a single drink today, sir,” he said in a proud voice. “I’d like to give you an entire cask. ’Tis truly a moment to celebrate.”

Laying down his mug, Andreas put a hand on the brewer’s shoulder. “I wish I could,” he chuckled. “But we’ve less pleasant business to attend to.”

Andreas was not unfamiliar with the reputation garnered by champions-he had won more than a few competitions in his time-and he had been party to the affection showered upon a victorious host as it enters a newly liberated city. But none of those experiences truly prepared him for the celebrity bestowed by the dissolute Khan’s tournament. He and his three companions had managed to slip into the outskirts of Hunern without much notice, enabling him to detour to the unmarked alley where Hans’s uncle operated his brewery. However, as they left the alley and made their way toward the arena, they were beset by a sea of wide-eyed citizens. They were shouting his name, and their hands clutched at his legs, at the hem of his cloak, at his saddle and gear. It did not seem to matter to them that he had lost to the Flower Knight at First Field; all they seemed to remember were his other bouts, the ones he could barely recall the details of. Andreas shifted uneasily in his saddle; his horse, sensing his discomfort at the press of bodies, stamped and tossed its head nervously.

The immense blossom of the Circus rose like a fungus flower from the carcass of the rotting city. Unable to do much else in the madding crowd, he examined the tumbledown structure. Its timbers had all been sourced from nearby ruins-even as far away as Legnica proper-and it was a testament to the Mongol engineers that they were able to erect such an impressive structure from such a hodgepodge of materials. It was not a particularly attractive building, yet the row of banners snapping in the wind that blew across the top of the bulbous shape and the persistent roar of voices from within stirred him in a manner not unlike the way in which a suitor is transfixed by the woman he desires.

“I never know,” Styg said quietly, “whether I should stare in awe at that thing, or be scared out of my wits.”

“Aye,” Andreas murmured in response. Death was close, infecting his body and brain with a rich reminder of life. Making him overly aware of the inherent beauty of God’s touch in the world that surrounded them.

He dug his heels into his horse’s side, urging the nervous animal through the surging crowd. If they dawdled too long, they would be late.

The most direct path was filled with spectators and adoring fans, and so Andreas directed his horse off the main road and onto the alleys and paths between the ruins and the shanties in an attempt to shake some of the crowd. Some of the lanes were so narrow that he could touch walls and tents on either side of his horse as they passed. Circuitously, the Shield-Brethren made their way toward the arena.

As they approached, the grandiose impression of the arena faded, revealing the true fragility of the structure. Wood slats and tall beams were haphazardly slapped one atop another in an intricate creation that was no more or less than barely organized chaos. It is a death trap, Andreas thought grimly. Few exits-easily sealed. It’s nothing more than kindling, waiting for a torch.

A sudden chill made him shudder, and he turned away from the looming edifice and raised his face toward the warm sun overhead. Pushing aside a vision of fire, he set his focus on the task at hand: watching the fights, learning about his opponents, and preparing for when it would be his turn to walk on the sand of the arena. Fear was only of use insofar as it taught a man what was dangerous and what was not, and Andreas had lived through worse things than one-on-one duels for the entertainment of bloodthirsty crowds. As he rode, the taste of the brewer’s beer was a balm on his tongue, still fresh on the palate of memory.

Nearby, a horn called on the morning air and an ocean of voices rose from inside the arena. Sunlight danced across ramshackle rooftops, glinting off the tiny spires of adornments and fragmented curios the locals had mounted over their heads. The city’s rooftops had a gleaming newness strangely at odds with the muck and ash that layered the ground. Hunern was a ruin where the survivors of the horrors of war made do with what they could, scrounging for hope amid the ashes, and yet there was beauty here as well. Andreas guided his horse absently while he took the time to examine the tiny efforts the people had made to make the city livable again.

When the bone-heavy weariness of his oath and his duties threatened to overwhelm him, he only had to look to these unfortunates to be reminded of why he had taken up both oath and arms. Their plight fortified his spirit, regardless of the deep-seated knowledge that there would be no end of injustice and despair in the known world from which to draw strength.

The shadow of the stands and their waving banners fell over Andreas and his companions as they reached the open ground surrounding the arena proper. He shook off the last of his apprehension, squaring his shoulders and sitting tall in his saddle. Several young men, eager to earn some pittance, approached the riders. Andreas waved them off. The horses of the Shield-Brethren would not be tended to by local boys, even ones as eager as these.

Arvid and Sakse were clearly disappointed when told they were going to stay with the horses, and Andreas tried to explain why without going into too many details. There was some history with the Livonians concerning the disposition of some horses, he told the pair. It was important to be wary of Livonians who might take it upon themselves to thieve their horses, given the opportunity that insufficiently guarded horses might present.

Styg nodded sagely during this explanation, though Andreas could tell the younger man was fighting to hold back his laughter.

Leaving the horses with the two younger men, Andreas and Styg entered the arena through one of the narrow gates. They walked through a short tunnel that terminated in a short series of steps that brought them up to the first level of the audience. As they emerged from the unpleasant dimness of the tunnel, they were afforded their first glimpse of the sandy pit that was the arena proper, surrounded by the tall walls at whose crest began the stands in which the crowds sat.

Styg drew in a sharp breath at the sight of the filled stands, and Andreas felt a similar awe clutch his chest as he gazed upon so many different peoples clustered together for the singular purpose of watching men fight. The Colosseum in Rome had served a similar purpose once, and Andreas had heard his share of stories about the gladiators of old, but the sheer diversity of the audience here was much more worldly than the bloodthirsty crowd that gathered in Old Rome. His heart skipped a beat as he looked upon Saracens, Slavs, Germans, Franks, Mongols, Persians, Turks, and those of a number of other races he couldn’t readily identify; he saw the same rapt expression on all their faces. They were here to watch someone bleed. It would help them forget their own woes, Andreas knew; it was one of the ugly truths of the world. Steeling himself, he took a few more steps forward so that he could look down upon the killing field.

The sand had been raked, but there was still a shadow that resided in it, a ghostly smear of the blood shed in the last fight. The hint of blood in the sand had a tangible effect on the audience, and there was a pressing hunger in the air. The back of his throat constricted, and his tongue was numb in his mouth. It was not unlike battlefield nerves, but it felt so much more vile and wrong for the place and manner in which it crept into his blood.

“Remember why we have come today,” Andreas said to Styg. He swallowed heavily, pushing his revulsion back down into his stomach where it roiled angrily.

Styg pressed his lips together and gave Andreas a jerky nod. Andreas laid a hand on the younger man’s shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze.

CHAPTER NINE

Quoniam Fortiduo Mea

In the long, flat valley between the Palatine and the Aventine hills lay the overgrown ruins of the Circus Maximus. It had been hundreds of years since chariots had churned across the sand, and the ground had slowly been reclaimed by wild grass and narrow stands of trees. The only reminders that the ground had once been trampled by frenzied horses were a squat tower and a series of low stables at the southern end. The stables themselves were vacant of horses now, but the largest stall was filled with a confused collection of dirty and agitated Cardinals.

Fieschi remained on the periphery of the bare room. The chamber was not unlike many of the rooms they had so recently inhabited not far from here; the main difference was the large opening at the north end that looked out upon the empty expanse of the Circus Maximus.

And the guards. A line of a dozen of Orsini’s men stood between the Cardinals and the open field, just to remind them that they were still prisoners of the Senator of Rome.

The Bear was on his way, they had been told, though Fieschi surmised that the delay had more to do with Orsini playing to their fear and confusion than any real conflicting activity. What else could be more exciting in Rome this afternoon than a fire in an abandoned temple? he thought with a wry smile.

The other Cardinals milled about in the empty stable, still congratulating themselves on their narrow escapes. Bonaventura, especially, seemed particularly enlivened by the experience. His cheeks were ruddy with excitement, and he was deep in his fourth or fifth retelling of the experience of having been lifted out of the Septizodium by a brace of soldiers. Da Capua, who had heard the story at least twice already, hung on every word like an eager sycophant, and announced that he would write a ballad about the ordeal. Dei Conti, meanwhile, kept his annoyance off his face as he listened to Bonaventura’s rambling story-he had been, from what he had muttered to Fieschi earlier, standing next to Bonaventura during the rescue. Torres, inscrutable as ever, held council with Annibaldi and Castiglione, while de Segni tried-yet again-to open negotiation with the guards, who remained unmoved by the tall Cardinal’s exhortations. Colonna fussed over his friend, Capocci, who was seated as comfortably as possible in this Spartan environment.

Capocci’s hands had been badly burned, and the Master Constable had found some cloth that had been soaked in water and wrapped around them, to provide some relief from the pain while a healer was found. Colonna kept wanting to check the bandages but, realizing he was being a fussy nursemaid, would catch himself. Capocci ignored the other man’s fluttering presence, his gaze steady and unwavering.

Fieschi did not shy away from that gaze. Whenever he glanced over, Capocci’s expression was the same, and he found no reason to give the man any satisfaction. He met Capocci’s glare with a calm and untroubled expression of his own. He knows nothing, he thought. He might have seen Somercotes’s body, but he cannot know what happened. He wants to believe that I am responsible; it would fit his impression of me-a simple solution that would ease his mind.

Fieschi looked away from the wounded Cardinal, returning his attention to the line of guards and the open field beyond. His mind drifting, wondering about the races that had once been held in the valley. Thousands of citizens had once clustered around the raked sands while charioteers beat their horses bloody in an effort to gain glory for their leaders. The pagan rituals of the gods of Imperial Rome had been brutal, savage rites of a weaker age, but they had had their place in that world. It did not surprise Fieschi that a place like the Circus had fallen into disuse; Christianity was, after all, civilized. Love for Christ had brought them all out of darkness, and-with proper guidance-that love would bring them all to salvation. It was much as Augustine said: Rome loved Romulus and made him a god; the devout believed Christ to be God, and therefore loved Him.

Yet he could not help but wonder about the power of that crowd’s love. The roar of their voices, chanting and screaming the names of their champions. The orgiastic surge of delight when their man won a race. Or the tumultuous rage when a favorite son fell, his body most likely crushed beneath the wheels of another’s chariot. To control that energy, to know that these men raced for your pleasure, to soak in the emotional exultation of the crowd that had come to worship at this barbaric temple of your creation. Such power was an aphrodisiac to the Roman Emperors, surely, as it would be to any ruler. It was an earthly love, a devotion to the materials of the flesh and the world; while it felt fierce and all-consuming, it was not the same love one could have for Christ, for God.

He had, in fact, had this argument with Frederick once. Years ago, before the Holy Roman Emperor drifted from his allegiance to the Pope. Frederick, reveling too much perhaps in his delight at playing the fool, had taken the side of Imperial Rome. It was better to have the love and respect of your subjects, he had argued, than to persist in frightening them with the threat of losing the love of a Supreme Being they will never know.

He had quoted Scripture in response. Fieschi caught himself smiling at the memory. The thirty-first Psalm. Diligite Dominum, omnes sancti eius, quoniam veritatem requiret Dominus, et retribuet abundantur facientibus superbiam.

God rewards the faithful, and His rewards were abundant to the proud believer.

The Rome of Romulus was gone, sacked and pillaged as it grew too decrepit to protect itself. Rome belonged to Christ now, and he was going to make it the heavenly city that Augustine had posited.

Ego autem in te speravi, Domine,” he whispered, lighting touching his forehead with a trembling finger. “Deus meus es tu.

Fieschi caught sight of the mad priest, standing in the far corner of the stable like a forgotten child. He clutched a plain jar in his hands, holding it tightly as if it contained a sacred relic. Much like he had clung to his satchel when he had been first lowered into the Septizodium.

Fieschi finished making the sign of the Cross before letting his hand drift toward his satchel. He still had the priest’s parchment, the page covered with the frenzied scribbling of a heretical prophecy. For an instant, Fieschi almost felt some empathy for the deluded priest. To be so bereft of God’s love that he could be snared by the heretical vision of those words, to be so lost that he could believe that he had been the recipient of a divine visitation. To feel the Serpent’s tongue and mistake it for the whispering voice of an angel.

He sent a silent prayer of gratitude to God. Quoniam fortiduo mea at refugium meum es tu. His purpose was clear; his path was like a ribbon of shining white stones, laid before him.

They called him the Bear, a nickname that Rodrigo assumed was nothing more than a childish play on the Senator’s name, but when he saw the man approaching the stables, he realized how true the appellation was.

Matteo Rosso Orsini wore his hair long, in a style reminiscent of the sculpted faces of Roman Emperors that peered down at the citizen of Rome from every building and temple. His hair had lost some of its youthful luster, but it was still a rich brown color that reminded Rodrigo of the dirt in freshly plowed fields. The Senator was tall and wide, though not so tall that he was a giant among his men, nor so wide that his detractors would call him fat. The wind toyed with his hair and flung his cape about his shoulders. The light of the sun inflamed a tracery of gold thread in his tunic, making his clothes appear to be made from a wealth of golden leaves, all stitched together in a seamless pattern. When he reached the stables, he stood silently at the doors, waiting for the Cardinals to acknowledge his arrival.

Eventually, their conversations trickled to an end, though Bonaventura seemed hesitant to let go of the audience he had been enjoying.

Rodrigo had been watching Cardinal Colonna. The feud between the Colonnas and the Orsinis had been so long-standing that it was a persistent part of his memories of growing up in Rome, like the Colosseum or the ruins of the Circus Maximus. Judging by the Cardinal’s expression, nothing had been settled between their families.

“Look what has dragged itself out of bed,” Colonna muttered, a little too loudly in the near silence.

“Good afternoon, your Eminences.” Orsini ignored the Cardinal’s comment, and his voice was naturally loud and commanding, rising from the barrel-like vault of his chest. “I deeply regret the occasion of our meeting. I have just come from the Septizodium, where Master Constable Alatrinus has informed me of the tragic death of Cardinal Somercotes.” He paused, his eyes on de Segni, who appeared to be on the verge of speaking. The Cardinal, who was nearly the tallest among the group (other than Cardinal Colonna, who was taller even than the Bear), squirmed under the Bear’s gaze and finally looked down at the ground.

“There will be opportunity later for discussion as to how this tragedy came about, and I will hear all of your recriminations and accusations in time. However, this tragedy does not alter the critical task which is your duty-”

“He would not be dead if you hadn’t imprisoned us!”

They were all surprised at the source of the voice. Mild-tempered Castiglione, who was prone to disappear in any given gathering of the Cardinals, was flushed and animated. Spurred on by the echo of his voice in the chamber, the Cardinal strode toward Orsini, one hand raised to point dramatically at the Senator. “You will bear the mark of the Cardinal’s death, Senator,” Castiglione continued. “When your soul is released, God will reject it. You will not be afforded a place in Heaven; your soul, weighed down by your actions, will be cast into endless perdition.”

“Is that so?” Orsini asked, raising one eyebrow. Rodrigo thought he was remarkably calm for a man who had just been condemned by a Cardinal of the Church. His own stomach was tied in a knot at the very idea of being subjugated to such an accusation, and the Bear seemed nonplussed by Castiglione’s accusatory finger. “I am wounded by your words, Your Eminence,” he said. “I fear your temper and exhaustion do you a disservice; your head is filled with words you do not mean to say. How, pray tell, do you find me responsible for Cardinal Somercotes’s untimely death? I was not in the Septizodium. I have been at my estate all afternoon. In fact, the Master Constable tells me that the halls beneath the Septizodium are still filled with fire and smoke. It would be a miracle if the Cardinal were still alive down there, but, alas, I must confess that I have no hope that such a thing is true.” He brought his hands together and bowed his head. “May God receive his soul with all alacrity.”

The Bear’s reaction threw Castiglione, and the Cardinal’s outrage faltered for a moment. “Our imprisonment is unjust, as is your insistence that we immediately vote on a successor to the late Pope. This is a matter of the Church. We do not elect a new Bishop of Rome at your command. You serve at our-”

“I serve Rome,” Orsini thundered. “Have you forgotten your late Pope’s concessions to the city when we allowed him to return from his inglorious exile? Have you forgotten the insults laid against the Church by that jackanape of an Emperor? Frederick wants-”

“Neither you nor Frederick have any authority over us,” Castiglione interrupted. He stepped closer to the Senator. “God sees the willful blasphemy of your pride. He has marked how your words and actions have injured those of His flock who are close to Him. Deus iudex iustus, fortis, et patiens; numquid irascitur per singulos dies. Have care, Senator Orsini, your soul is in peril.”

Something flickered across the Bear’s eyes-a shadow of fear, perhaps-but it fled so quickly, Rodrigo had nothing more than a fleeting impression of the Senator’s reaction. The Bear’s face was otherwise impassive as he considered the Cardinal’s heated words.

“What would you have me do, Your Eminence?” the Bear finally asked.

“Release us,” Castiglione snapped.

“I cannot do that,” Orsini said, and Rodrigo heard a surprising weariness in his voice. “You have a sacred task to accomplish, and I cannot allow you to shirk that responsibility.”

Castiglione drew himself, puffing out his chest. “We shall never cast a vote,” he replied. “One by one, we shall all die of exposure or accidents, and God will condemn you again for each of us.”

An ugly sneer twisted Orsini’s mouth. “No,” he replied, rejecting Castiglione’s defiance. “You will vote, and you will vote tonight.” He stepped close to the Cardinal, towering over him. “By sunrise, you will have elected a new Pope.” The sneer spread across his face. “You have all had enough time to bicker amongst yourselves and select a candidate you can all live with. Let God strike me down-right now-if He thinks I am asking too much of Your Eminences.”

Rodrigo held his breath, as did everyone else in the room. Everyone except for the hawk-faced man, Cardinal Fieschi, who seemed to be watching all of this with barely concealed delight. Orsini did not waver; he stood his ground before Castiglione and met the Cardinal’s gaze without a shred of fear in his broad features.

A burning sensation started in Rodrigo’s belly, a bloom of fire that spread to his ribs and chest. It was the fever, assaulting him again. He clutched the jar tightly to his chest, and fell back against the wall of the stables. His teeth began to chatter. Bright lights began to spark in the corners of his vision. Was this the presence of God coming over him? Was a thunderbolt about to split the brick roof of the stables? Rodrigo shivered, unwilling to watch what came next, but unable to close his eyes or look away.

Castiglione took a step back, and he passed a hand in front of his face, making the sign of the Cross.

“Master Constable,” Orsini barked, his gaze unwavering.

“Sir!” The Master Constable stepped up behind the Senator.

“Prepare some transportation for these eminent persons. This location is hardly suitable for the task before them. They need food and shelter that more reflects their station.” He raised his shoulders slightly. “Perhaps your previous lodgings were ill-considered. I see no reason to repeat those conditions…”

Castiglione, realizing he was being addressed, shook his head. “No,” he said. “The Lateran Palace will be fine.”

The Master Constable bobbed his head in acknowledgment and made to leave, but the Senator stopped him with a word.

“They go to the Basilica of Saint Peter,” Orsini corrected. Castiglione thought to argue the point, but Orsini cut him off. “You will be under my guard until morning. Unless you prefer to allow my men complete access to the Papal residence…?”

“Saint Peter’s is fine,” Fieschi spoke up from the edge of the room. The hawk-faced man glanced at the other Cardinals. “It is one more night, my friends, and it will be more comfortable than the Septizodium. Let us not forget what it is that we are supposed to accomplish. And how little time we have left.”

Rodrigo did not recall the particulars of the wagon ride. The soldiers procured two rickety wagons and several equally aged and withered mules readily enough. It was hardly a suitable procession, but the events of the day had taken their toll, and the Cardinals submitted meekly enough to the ignominy of a bumpy wagon ride across Rome.

He lay against the front of the cart, still holding on to the jar given to him by Colonna, who was in the other cart with Capocci. When he turned his head to the side and peered through the uneven spaces in the slats, he could see the other wagon, but he could not tell which of the slumped shapes were either of the two men. He still felt isolated, and while such a feeling was not unusual, he felt it with newfound clarity. Some of the men he had met in the Septizodium had given him hope. Soon, he hoped, the new Pope would be elected, and then he could finally divest himself of his message.

The wagon jumped sharply, and several of the Cardinals voiced their annoyance at the bumpy ride. The jar popped out of Rodrigo’s grip and bounced on the wooden floor of the cart. He got his hands on it quickly enough, but as he checked it, he realized the stopper had come loose.

He sat up hurriedly, his eyes frantically scanning the wagon bed for the narrow plug. He caught sight of it on his left, near the wall of the wagon. As he reached for it, the wagon hit another bump, and the stopper jumped out of reach. It slid across the wooden floor, bounced against the lowest slat on the side, and then slipped through the gap. Rodrigo stared, and then whipped his head around to fixate on the jar.

It was open! What had Colonna said was inside? Rodrigo tilted the jar up to see its contents, and as he did so, he saw with utter clarity what was going to happen next. When it happened, he was not surprised; he simply accepted the Hand of God as it reached down and jostled the cart one last time.

The jar spun out of his hand, scattering its contents all over him. He closed his eyes, accepting the squirming offerings that God was giving to him. Scorpions.

He remembered waking from a horrible dream while trapped underground. There had been a scorpion on him-one much smaller than the specimens that crawled all over him now-and he had wondered if it had stung him. If the return of his fever could be attributed to the poisonous sting of the tiny creature.

There were so many more of them now. They were in his hair. One crawled across his forehead, and several more had already found their way into his robe.

This is God’s Will, he thought, spreading his arms and accepting his destiny. He had not delivered his message; God would not let him die. Not until he had completed the task He had set for him.

One of the Cardinals noticed the pale shapes crawling all over him and started screaming.

CHAPTER TEN

The Khagan’s Banner

On catching sight of the Spirit Banner, the Khagan’s warriors instinctively flocked toward it, and as he strode through the camp, Master Chucai found himself acquiring an entourage of blood-stained soldiers. At first he had waved them off, shouting at them to continue hunting for Chinese rebels who might still be skulking among the tents, but as his survey of the caravan continued, the soldiers began to show up in greater numbers.

They knew he was going to end up at the Khagan’s ger eventually, and they wanted to be there when he arrived. They followed the banner, and Chucai’s practical examination of the damage and status of the caravan took on an air of a celebratory parade.

Chucai ignored the soldiers. They had been ambushed by an unknown force, and had reacted well. It was still too early to make an accurate assessment of how many had been killed or the extent of the destruction to the wagons and livestock, but as far as his eye could see, it looked like the damage was minimal. A few isolated fires still burned, but most of them were tiny patches of flame that were trying to creep off into the night and were slowly being starved of readily accessible fuel.

The Khagan’s wheeled ger had been spared, and while some of the men following him were beginning to spin tales about the Khagan’s invincibility, Chucai knew there was a more practical reason. The Khagan had not been the target of the Chinese raid. What they had wanted was the Spirit Banner.

His thumb unconsciously strayed to the rough scab on the pole.

He had fruitlessly searched the bodies of the three Chinese men who had tried to steal the banner. They hadn’t been wearing any insignia or common markings on their armor, and other than a short string of glass beads in the pocket of one man, they had been carrying nothing. Which in itself was interesting, and had he been less distracted by the mystery of the banner, Chucai might have wondered more where these men had come from. But they were dead and their corpses offered him no useful clue. As he roamed through the camp, he was also keeping an eye out for any prisoners-living men who could answer the question burning in his mind.

A cheer rose from the men surrounding the Khagan’s ger, and it was answered by the host trailing behind him. Chucai grimaced, and beat the butt of the staff against the ground a few times as he slowed his relentless pace through the maze of tents. The soldiers of the Imperial Guard who had been left to watch over the Khagan had seen the Spirit Banner. Their shout was a roar of recognition, but it held an inquisitive note: Those who return, tell us of your victory!

Chucai sighed, and using both hands, raised the banner overhead. The string of soldiers behind him cheered as he waved it back and forth. When the Imperial Guard responded with another cheer, he angled toward the Khagan’s ger, leading his ragtag column of combatants to the celebration of their victory.

The Khagan, summoned from within his tent by the shouting, appeared at the flaps of his ger. The crowd, spotting him, began cheering even louder, and the noise became a tumult as men-wanting to be more boisterous than their voices would allow-began to beat their swords against the shields and to stomp their feet. By the time Chucai reached the base of the steps that led up to Ogedei’s ger, the noise was so loud he wondered if it could be heard in Karakorum.

Ogedei waved at him to come up the stairs, indicating that he wanted to hold the Spirit Banner. Chucai nodded, and with some gravity, ascended a few of the steps so that he could hand over Genghis’s legacy. Ogedei, his eyes startlingly clear, reached down and gripped the banner firmly. His brow furrowed slightly when Chucai did not immediately release the staff, and with some reluctance Chucai removed his hand from the banner.

The Khagan stood up straight and tall, raising the banner over his head. The crowd of warriors shouted in unison, their voices rising and falling in concert with the motion of Ogedei’s arm as he shook the staff with exaggerated slowness. The horsehair braids undulated, and staring up at them, Chucai saw-for a split second-the manes and tails of an endless procession of wild horses, so many of them that he could not see the ground over which they ran.

Chucai thought of himself as an educated man, one well versed in the esoteric reaches of Chinese philosophy and mysticism, as well as the shamanistic legacy that underlay the Mongolian reverence for the Great Blue Sky. Intellectually, he knew the spirit trances that the Mongolian shamans sought for their enlightenment were-in all likelihood-a combination of wakeful dreaming and overactive imaginations, but that had never prevented a part of him from wondering about the experience of ecstatic vision. It would require more than a modicum of faith to accept. It was not a lack of spirituality; it was simply that he preferred to believe what he could see and touch.

He fell to one knee, his hands clutching at the wooden step of the Khagan’s wheeled ger. The thundering noise of the crowd overwhelmed him, echoing in his head like the roaring sound of a flash flood as it rushed through a narrow defile. He gasped, struggling to breathe, feeling like he was a small tree that had been uprooted by this flood. He was being hurled at the foaming crest of this wave.

Horses. Thousands and thousands and thousands of them. Running from one end of the world to the other.

“I am the Khan of Khans,” Ogedei shouted, his voice cutting through the storm of noise. “My empire will cover the world.”

With a great deal of difficulty, Chucai raised his head and stared up at Ogedei. The Khagan’s face was glowing with sweat, and his teeth were bared in a feral grin. A wind tugged at his hair and the horsehair braids. Wisps of smoke swirled overhead, shapes like late summer thunderheads that were pulled into long streaks stretching out across the star-dappled sky.

The manes of horses, streaming behind them as they ran.

Following the Khagan’s appearance, and with the rout of the Chinese raiders, most of the dignitaries and courtiers milled around for a little while before returning to their interrupted feast. A pall of smoke hung over the tents and wagons, and the air stank of scorched leather, fabric, flesh, and wood. And yet, they fall to gorging themselves again, as if nothing has happened. Master Chucai shook his head in disgust as he passed the banquet area. Having completed a tour of the sprawled camp, he was returning to the Khagan’s ger.

An accurate assessment of the damage done by the raid and the fire would have to wait until daylight. Making an inspection of the camp had been his excuse for leaving the Khagan’s ger so soon after returning the Spirit Banner, and he had performed this duty during his perambulation. Balancing the Khagan’s desire to move swiftly with the need to provide properly for both the Khagan, his retinue, and the soldiers had been a tricky business, and Chucai was already making calculations in his head as to how he was going to manage the loss of supplies.

Mostly, he had wanted to clear his head after the confusing experience of the vision.

Where had it come from? He was exhausted, his mind dulled by the endless preparation for the Khagan’s trip, and he was more susceptible to the mental confusion produced by a powerful oratory. But the Khagan’s speech had not been very elaborate, nor terribly arousing in its content. Not the sort of rhetoric that should have been able to move him, even in his sleep-deprived state.

He had heard the Khagan make similar speeches in the past, in fact, and while he had seen how they impacted the warriors, he had never been impressed in the same way as he had been earlier. He had been able to watch the Khagan stir up his troops with a bemused detachment, much like the way he had observed Lian manipulating Gansukh. It was a simple skill every leader-and most women, for that matter-learned instinctively, and as an educated man he was somewhat inured to such manipulation.

And yet, he had been caught up in the fervor, like some fresh recruit eager to spill blood for the empire. An addled fool, hanging on each word.

He paused at the foot of the wooden stairs that led up to the immense platform of the Khagan’s mobile ger. Had it been the Spirit Banner? The thought had been nagging at him during his examination of the camp. He had tried to shake it loose, but it remained, a barbed porcupine quill caught in the spongy depth of his brain.

The Chinese had launched a foolhardy raid on the caravan in an effort to steal the banner. Given the Khan’s dramatic appearance before his men, he couldn’t dismiss the power that such a symbol as the banner had had on the warriors, but if all the Chinese had wanted to accomplish was a symbolic assault then why hadn’t they simply destroyed the banner? It would have been easy enough to throw it in any one of a number of fires that their archers had started. Why steal it?

Because it had power.

Chucai snorted, rejecting that answer. He waved at the guards outside the ger, indicating that he wanted to see the Khagan, and when they acknowledged his presence, he mounted the steps. “My Khan,” he called through the opening at the top of the tent flaps. “May I have a word?”

He listened for a response, and hearing little more than a single grunt of an answer, he glanced at the nearest guard and raised an eyebrow. The guard shrugged, and pulled back the flaps of the ger. Chucai ducked and entered.

The Khan was sitting in a cypress yokeback chair, a recent gift from a provincial sub-administrator from Ningxia, facing away from the ger flaps. He stared at the wall, lost in the roseate light provided by a nearby brazier of orange and red coals. His large cup-the one provided by Gansukh and later dented by the young man’s skull-dangled perilously in his slack hands.

There were white feathers scattered all over the floor. Chucai frowned, wondering about the source of the down, and his gaze roamed across the chamber. He hoped the Khagan hadn’t slaughtered a live bird in here…

The roof of the ger was low enough that Chucai had to duck slightly to avoid hitting his head on the support poles. He walked around (still keeping an eye out for any sign of a mangled bird), until the Khagan could see him. “My Khan,” he said, sweeping into a deep bow. “I wish to report on the Chinese raid.”

The Khagan stiffened slightly, drawing in breath, though he still appeared lost in thought. Chucai hesitated, watching the Khagan intently. Was Ogedei in some sort of trance, a passing vegetative state in the wake of channeling the vision? Traveling to the spirit realms exacted a harsh toll on shamans, and he had heard stories of seekers who had been so moved by their experiences that they never fully returned to their bodies. Their spirits, loosened in their flesh, eventually drifted away. One day, the body would just stop breathing.

Chucai cleared his throat noisily. Such foolishness, he thought sourly. I am behaving like a superstitious herdsman.

Ogedei stirred, blinking heavily. His hands closed more firmly around his cup, and he came back to himself. “Master Chucai,” he mumbled. “What news have you for me?”

“The Chinese rebels have been defeated, my Khan. Their efforts to destroy your magnificent caravan were futile, and-”

“Any prisoners?”

“No, my Khan.” Chucai ground his teeth. He had given strict orders, but he had been too late.

“What did they want?” Ogedei asked. “They did not fire on my ger.” He raised the cup to his lips. “I have had much time to reflect on their strategies,” he continued after drinking. “They were not idiots, I presume. Fools, but not idiots.”

Chucai nodded. “No, My Khan. They were not idiots.”

“How many were there?”

“Forty, perhaps. I have sent out a number of arban to ensure there are no more of them hiding nearby.”

“How many of my Imperial Guard did we lose?”

“About the same number. Plus a number of-” Chucai waved a hand to indicate the inconsequence of having lost some of the nonessential members of the Khagan’s retinue.

“What was their mission?”

“I suspect they were after the Spirit Banner,” Chucai confessed. “Though I do not know why.”

Ogedei’s eyes twitched toward the wall of the tent, and as carelessly as possible, Chucai glanced over to see what Ogedei had been looking at. There was nothing on the wall, nothing but a vague shadow-a misshapen circle with tiny strands descending from it. A shadow of a head with long hair, he interpreted.

“Do they think I am that weak?” Ogedei asked. “If they stole my father’s banner, would the empire fall apart instantly? Would I wake in the morning to find that every clan had deserted me?” He snorted, answering his own questions.

“I doubt it, my Khan,” Chucai said. He wet his lips, suddenly disturbed by the shadow on the wall. Glancing around the room, he could not figure out how it was being projected on the wall. And when he looked at the wall again, the shadow had changed into an amorphous streak, as if the previous shape had started to run, like ink staining a page.

“What did your father tell you of the banner?” he asked curtly. The shadow was unsettling. The more he tried to ignore it, the more it crept into the periphery of his vision. “Where did he get it?”

Ogedei shrugged. He peered into his cup, seeming to have lost interest in Chucai’s questions. “It’s just a stick,” he muttered. “Father made it.”

He didn’t, Chucai realized with an absolute certainty. He wanted to look at the wall once more, but the shadow was gone. All that remained was a blur in his mind, a shape that flowed and wavered. Like a horse’s tail. Or the tassels of the Spirit Banner.

Why had the Chinese sought the banner? He recalled the rough spot on the wood, and wondered if he was asking the wrong question.

Chucai had meant to retire to his own ger to reflect more on the puzzle of the Spirit Banner, but he had been accosted almost immediately by Jachin, Ogedei’s second wife, who had decided to place the blame of the Chinese attack on him. While he had been trying to extricate himself from the tiresome woman’s ranting, they had been interrupted by Munokhoi. The Torguud captain had swept back into the camp, demanding an audience with the Khagan. Chucai, welcoming the opportunity to escape Jachin’s tirade, had directed Munokhoi to his ger, knowing that Ogedei was in no shape to listen to the headstrong warrior. A decision which, in retrospect, might not have been the wisest. Out of sight of his underlings, Munokhoi unleashed a raging torrent of invective that appeared to have no end in sight. It was as if the man has kept a tally of every perceived slight against him since Gansukh arrived at court, he thought, and now they are all being counted.

“Enough,” he snapped, waving his hands to get Munokhoi to stop.

Munokhoi came up short, caught in midsentence and midstep. He glared at the Khagan’s advisor, his eyes glittering with a copious amount of still untapped rage.

“Captain Munokhoi,” Chucai said after a moment, “I appreciate your concern about young Gansukh and Mistress Lian. I will…” He was torn between several responses, and with a sign, decided to address the underlying matter directly by responding in a way that would further enrage the Torguud captain. “I will take it under consideration.”

Munokhoi quivered. “Under consideration?” he hissed. “You will imprison-”

“You will do well to remember who is in charge of the Khagan’s court,” Chucai snapped. The Torguud captain hadn’t been able to contain himself, as Chucai had anticipated. His own frustration had an outlet now. “And wherever the Khagan is, wherever he takes an audience, that is his court. We are not at war, Captain. This is not the battlefield. Your concerns are noted.”

Munokhoi did not say anything, but he refused to budge, staring daggers at Chucai. The fingers of his right hand twitched. He was not wearing his sword-Chucai had smartly requested that he leave his blade with one of the servants standing outside the ger-but the Torguud captain still had his knife.

For a long moment, Chucai held his stare, examining Munokhoi’s eyes for some sign that the man was foolish enough to draw the blade. Are you such a fool? he projected. What do you think will happen to you if you draw that knife? If you kill me, what will the Khagan think of you?

Munokhoi seemed to be having similar thoughts. His hand relaxed and he looked away. He exhaled, and it was as if a storm cloud fled his body with his released breath.

“Gansukh and Lian are surrounded by the entire caravan. They know they are under scrutiny,” Chucai explained, knowing that Munokhoi was actually listening to him now. “They know you are watching them. Whatever Gansukh and Lian may be, they are not fools. Even if Gansukh wanted to leave the Khagan’s service-and I don’t believe he does-he’s too smart to attempt it on this pilgrimage to Burqan-qaldun. And even if Lian wants to escape-which I grant you is something she desperately wants to do-she’s too smart to attempt it without Gansukh’s help. Now, consider the needs of someone other than yourself.”

Munokhoi blinked, and then slowly nodded as he realized Chucai was not going to continue until he had physically acknowledged Chucai’s words.

“What drives the empire? Is it not an awareness of a grander destiny for all Mongol people? And in whom does this awareness reside?” Chucai paused, as if to give Munokhoi a moment to realize the answer to his question-a moment both he and the Torguud captain knew was unnecessary. “You live to serve the Khagan, Captain, just as I do. As do Gansukh and Lian, in their own ways. The empire is too vast for one man to handle. It has a singular vision, yes, but managing the myriad of people and clans and resources is well beyond the ability of one man. The Khagan, then, has to rely on people he can trust. People he knows will act as he would act if he were doing the job he has given them.

“Now, consider recent events. The Khagan has fallen into a malaise-which happens every year at this time. In the past, he drank to excess so as to forget the pain of his brother’s death. This year, however, he has been convinced to make a spiritual pilgrimage to Burqan-qaldun.”

Convinced, in no small part, by Gansukh, which Chucai decided to not say aloud.

“During his journey, the Khagan has been attacked by a motley force of disgruntled Chinese rebels,” Chucai continued, “of which there are thousands and thousands scattered across his magnificent empire. This attack has been ably repulsed by his hand-picked Torguud captain. Your swift and decisive martial response not only ensures his safety, but validates his decision to make you the commander of the whole of his escort.”

Chucai leaned forward. “Think carefully, Munokhoi. Do you really want to disturb the Khagan’s goodwill by whining to him about Gansukh and Lian? Especially when all that you are really talking about is the relationship between a warrior the Khagan admires and a Chinese whore?”

Munokhoi lowered his eyes. “No, Master Chucai.” The muscles in his jaw flexed.

Chucai nodded and sank back into the embrace of his chair. “Thank you, Captain,” he said, stressing Munokhoi’s title to remind him how new it was-and still so easy to remove. “As I said earlier, I have heard your concerns. I will let you know if there is any assistance I might require.”

Munokhoi bowed, albeit shortly and stiffly, and retired from the ger. One of Chucai’s attendants poked his head into the tent as Chucai returned his attention to the scattered documents on his desk. “Master?” the man inquired.

“Find out where Master Gansukh is,” Chucai said without looking up. “Do not disturb him. I simply want to know what he is doing.”

The attendant nodded his understanding and vanished from the entrance of the ger, leaving Chucai to some long overdue privacy. He pressed the palms of both hands against his eyes. His head was pounding and he realized he hadn’t eaten or drunk anything since before the Chinese attack.

He was still waiting to hear reports from the war parties that had been sent out to ensure that the Chinese force had been decimated and that there was no sign of another group waiting to strike. It would be dawn soon, and the caravan needed to move, despite the fire damage and those incapacitated. He didn’t want to present too opportune a target, and as long as the caravan was moving he didn’t have to consider the more troubling issue.

Munokhoi’s patrols had failed to anticipate the Chinese attack. For all that he had just said to Munokhoi, the Torguud should have been better prepared.

He could insist that Munokhoi double the size of the patrols, but that was a game that the Chinese could play as well. At Karakorum, they had had the advantage of the walls and the city as well as the entirety of the Imperial Guard to provide adequate protection for the Khagan. But the Imperial Guard was not used to being mobile, nor did its leadership have the right experience.

Chucai drummed his fingers on the desk. What of the young pony? he reflected. Would Gansukh be a better choice to lead the Khagan’s guards?

An attendant pushed his way into the ger, a cup of steaming tea in his hands. Without a word, he placed it on the desk and backed out of the tent. The cup was warm and the tea was a pale yellow color, with tiny white streaks that reflected back the light. Chucai held the cup, inhaling the aroma of the white tea and letting his mind go blank. Letting all the tumbling concerns in his head slip free.

The Khagan. Shortly after his audience with Ogedei, Chucai had been accosted by Jachin, who accused him of making Ogedei despondent and distracted. The Khagan was ignoring her, mumbling on about hunting a great bear at Burqan-qaldun, about recovering his warrior spirit. This was Chucai’s fault: he had fostered this idea in the Khagan’s head; he had organized the caravan; he had allowed that whelp of Chagatai’s to whisper in the Khagan’s ear. It was his doing, and she would have no more of it.

As much as Munokhoi’s arrival had spared him further recriminations from Jachin, he had to admit there was some credence to her accusations. Ogedei was suffering from a lack of self-confidence, a lack of faith in his own ability to lead the empire.

For the most part, Chucai knew Ogedei’s concerns were unfounded. Genghis had chosen Ogedei as his successor for good reasons, and for many years, he had been pleased to watch Ogedei grow into a role most thought him incapable of filling. He had watched Ogedei deftly manage the lesser khans and their inane territorial squabbles; he had seen the Khan handle delicate diplomatic situations with both the Chinese and the Koreans with aplomb. He had witnessed Ogedei’s prowess in battle, a much different-yet equally critical-aspect of leadership.

In the end, it was something as simple and ludicrous as wine that threatened to destroy the empire.

Gansukh. What he had said to Munokhoi was entirely true: an empire could not be managed by one man. But it was true that some men wielded more influence than others. For some, their influence was obvious. Him, for example. Others, like Gansukh, might never be recognized by history, but their part in the overall success of the empire was paramount. Chagatai had chosen wisely.

It could have been ten; it could have been a thousand men sent by Chagatai to watch over the Khagan and keep him from drinking himself to death. But Chagatai had sent one man, and Chucai dared to allow himself the thought that Gansukh might actually succeed in saving the Khagan.

Which made this issue of Munokhoi’s report that Lian had been trying to escape all the more infuriating. He could insist that she remain in his ger, and Gansukh would take his lessons under his watchful eye, but he sensed that a great deal of the success of their lessons lay in Lian’s unfettered access to him. Doing so had its drawbacks though, and it was becoming more and more evident that he would, eventually, have to address Lian’s influence over the young warrior.

There was also the issue of the Spirit Banner and why the Chinese had tried to steal it. For what purpose? he wondered. And the cut in the wood, the scab where something had been trimmed off the banner? The scab was too much like a living tree’s effort to cover a wound, or like flesh healing after a cut from a knife. How could that be possible on a piece of wood that had been harvested and shaped many years ago?

His mind traced a complicated path through recent events. If the cut had not been made on the banner tonight, then when? And by whom? His mind returned to the female assassin who had fled the palace. When she had been spotted on the roof of the Khagan’s palace, he had-like everyone else-assumed she had not yet entered the building. But what if that was the wrong conclusion? What if she had been spotted as she was leaving? What if, much like the Chinese raid, her target hadn’t been the Khagan, but the Spirit Banner? If so, then this raid was a desperate-and much less subtle-attempt to accomplish what had failed earlier.

Chucai picked up his tea and sipped it carefully. They didn’t know, he mused. The Chinese had attacked because they thought their agent had failed. But what if she hadn’t? What if she had been successful in her theft and-had it not been for Gansukh and Munokhoi-escaped completely?

After the fruitless interrogation, the thief’s clothing had been searched, and nothing had been found.

Which meant either Gansukh or Munokhoi had taken something from her before she had been delivered to the Khan’s throne room. The fact that neither had admitted to having such a prize in their possession was-

“Master Chucai.”

Chucai looked up, still lost in thought, and he dimly recognized the attendant standing inside the ger. The one he had sent to check on Gansukh.

“Master Gansukh is in his tent,” the attendant reported.

Chucai grunted, and then as the attendant remained, he pulled himself out of his thoughts and cocked his head. “Yes?”

“Master Gansukh is not alone.”

“Mistress Lian.” It was a statement, not a question, and the attendant nodded in affirmation.

“Thank you,” Chucai dismissed the attendant with a nod and leaned back in his seat, cradling the tea cup in his hands, an idea starting to form in his mind.

Gansukh and Lian, together. Confirmation of what he had suspected for some time. Their affection for each other was obvious even if they both denied it. In Karakorum, it had been difficult to distinguish between teacher and student and lovers, and Lian had always been very good at guarding her thoughts and feelings. Evidently, now, they were no longer concerned about hiding.

What should he do about it? According to Munokhoi’s somewhat fragmented story, they had been discovered together on the steppes during the attack. Gansukh had been a prisoner of the Chinese and Lian had claimed to have killed one of their commanders in order to rescue Gansukh.

If true, this would help deny the charge that Gansukh had abandoned his duties during the attack to help Lian, but it would not dispel Munokhoi’s accusations entirely.

Munokhoi saw both Lian and Gansukh as threats, and he had tried to convince Chucai the pair was a threat to the Khagan and not to his own personal advancement. The Torguud captain clearly hated the Chinese teacher and it did not take much imagination to see why he hated Gansukh. A hatred that would only increase as it became obvious to others that Gansukh’s knowledge of steppe fighting might be more useful than Munokhoi’s own experience. Regardless of what Chucai commanded of him, Munokhoi would continue to look for opportunities to do both of them harm.

Knowing that, it was foolish for Lian to sleep alone. In fact, Chucai concluded, it might be safer for both of them to stick together.

And that was not entirely a bad situation. In fact, if Gansukh knew something about the Spirit Banner-if he had whatever had been cut from the wood-then Lian might be the only one who could get it from him.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Rough Beasts

Lakshaman lived because other men bled. His world, the gilded prison of Onghwe Khan’s menagerie, had been reduced to this axiomatic definition. He could no longer recall a life before the Khan’s arena-not that such a life mattered to him any more, anyway. He had seen the light go out of a man’s eyes more than a hundred times, and each time, the cessation of the other’s breath and heartbeat simply validated the primal truth of Lakshaman’s existence.

Did he secretly yearn for something else? Some life that was not filled with the torpid stickiness of blood or the putrefying stench of fear? Did he look at his hands and wonder if they were meant to hold something other than his cruel knives? When he was led into the dark tunnel that led to the arena, did he gaze into the darkness and wonder if, perhaps, there was no end to this tunnel? Maybe it went on forever, and eventually, he would stop and look back and not be able to see where he came from. There would be no point in continuing, and so he would sit down in the darkness. Maybe he would even lie down and rest. If the fundamental truth of his existence was no longer valid, would he close his eyes and simply stop breathing?

The islander had asked him questions like those, recently. The one who called himself Mountain of Skulls. After Zug’s defeat in the Circus, he had become oddly reflective and was prone to fits of introspection like this. As much as Zug’s questions seemed to be the addled nonsense spewed by an idiot, Lakshaman had found himself unable to simply ignore them, and so he said they were silly questions. There was always an end to the tunnel, he told Zug, and at the end, there would be a man waiting to die.

The Khan’s stickmen surrounded him as he strode through the tunnel. They stank of fear, even though they were many and Lakshaman’s hands were bound. They walked stiffly, the tension in their arms and legs announcing their discomfort more loudly than a hungry baby’s wail. Lakshaman gave them as little thought as he had Zug’s philosophical questions. They were like the flies that swarmed horse shit.

He may even have said as much to the Flower Knight, Kim Alcheon, when the Korean had come to talk of rebellion. They are flies on shit, he may have said.

Does that make us the shit? Kim had enquired. He had been amused by Lakshaman’s words, and for a moment, Lakshaman had felt a twinge of something deep within his brain, an unfamiliar emotional response.

If you wish to think of yourself that way-certainly, he may have said to Kim, ignoring the man’s humorous query. The Korean had been spending too much time with Zug, and had picked up some of the Nipponese man’s annoying habits. They’re just flies. I can swat flies.

The gate at the end of the tunnel opened as it always did, and the channeled sound of the audience swept over him. Several of his Mongol guards hesitated, and Lakshaman found himself idly thinking about pulling the wings and legs off some flies as he stepped out of the dim tunnel. He blinked in the sunlight, and took a deep breath, inhaling the fecund aroma of the arena’s sand, the sweat of his guards, and the stink of the massed audience. The familiar smells.

Soon there would be the scent of blood too.

One of the guards stepped forward to undo the bindings on his hands, and Lakshaman stared unblinkingly at the top of the man’s head. The guard fumbled with the knots when he saw another of the guards placing Lakshaman’s knives in the dirt-just out of reach, but still too close for the man’s comfort. The Mongol nervously licked his lips and tugged hard on the last knot, trying not to be distracted by the presence of the knives.

Lakshaman didn’t move; he didn’t even blink. As soon as the final knot was loosened, he flexed the fingers of his right hand, and the Mongol guard fled.

The gate banged shut behind him, leaving Lakshaman alone in the arena, surrounded by the thunderous noise of the eager crowd. Slowly-Zug would have accused him of playing to the crowd slightly-Lakshaman stripped the loose bindings from his wrists and hands, tossing the rope aside. He flexed his hands, bending each of the joints of his fingers.

His knives waited for him. Unadorned, hilts wrapped with stained leather, blades marred with age and use, they were not fancy weapons. Lakshaman scooped them up, the hilts slapping comfortably against his palms, and finally turned his attention to his opponent.

The man was by now waiting for him in the center of the sandy arena, swathed in a coating of maille from neck to knees. A white coat covered his midsection, stained with dirt and stitched with a red sword beneath a Christian cross of the same color. The man’s helmet was an unadorned metal can that offered only a thin slit in the front. While it made the man’s face a difficult target, it also reduced his field of vision. He held a short hatchet in one hand, a horseman’s hammer in the other.

A frown crossed Lakshaman’s face. He was wearing mismatched leathers, a sleeved jerkin, and pants he had acquired from a dead man a long time ago. Though his blades were long, each roughly the same length as the span from his elbow to his fingertip, they were made for cutting. Against this man, they would not be very effective. Lakshaman glanced up at the colorful silk hangings of the Khan’s pavilion. He would not be able to see the Khan very well if at all-the sun was high overhead and most of the pavilion was clothed in shadow-but the Khan could see him.

He would kill this man-he could imagine no other outcome. But the Khan’s dismissal of his value was like an itch in a spot he could not easily reach. He was under-armed and underprotected to fight this man. Either the Khan was supremely confident of his ability, or Onghwe simply wanted a spectacle, a passing bloody fancy to occupy an otherwise indolent afternoon.

Like flies, he thought, and spat in the dirt. If he survived, he would speak with the Flower Knight. He did not care what Kim’s plan was, as long as it allowed him an opportunity to kill Mongols.

Tightening his grip on his knives, he approached the knight. As he closed, the knight fell into an easy stance, hatchet held ready in front of him, hammer raised behind his head. Lakshaman adjusted his step, circling to his right-just outside the reach of the knight’s hammer swing.

The knight shuffled, shifting to keep Lakshaman in front of him. He held himself with an easy confidence, assured in the superiority of his weapons and armor. His reach was longer; he had no reason to attack first. Lakshaman would have to get in closer to use his knives, and during that time, the knight would have a chance to use the hammer and hatchet.

Arrogance is good, Lakshaman thought. It will make him slow.

He continued to drift around the man, maintaining the same distance and letting the tips of his knives dance hypnotically. As if he was mentally assessing the knight’s armament, and trying-vainly-to ascertain a weak spot in the man’s maille. He stopped being aware of breathing, as his mind unconsciously focused on the subtle changes in the knight’s posture and position.

The sun beat down, and Lakshaman felt sweat bead up on his neck and drip down the inside of his arms within his leather bracers. The knight’s white coat would keep him somewhat cool, but his arms and head did not have the same protection. It had to be getting hot in that armor. How much patience did the knight have?

Having completed two complete circuits of the man’s stationary position, Lakshaman settled into a low stance, knives ready, and waited. How long?

The Westerner leaped forward, the hatchet lashing out at Lakshaman’s neck. It was a marvelously delivered blow, the weight of his opponent trailing behind the ax head as it whirled toward him. Waiting behind it was the hammer, held high in preparation to swing down and shatter bone. A less experienced fighter would have expected the hammer to come first, but Lakshaman had never doubted that the first strike would come from the hatchet. For all the swiftness of the knight’s attack, signs of his intent had been readily clear to Lakshaman. The hatchet was in his enemy’s left hand, and as it snapped toward him, Lakshaman stepped forward and to the outside. He slammed the pommel of one of his knives and his other forearm against the Westerner’s arm, blocking the blow before it could even be fully extended.

He was close enough now for the knives.

The knight reacted quickly, folding his arm back to make his elbow a blunt object. His momentum carried him forward, and his elbow hit Lakshaman hard at the base of his rib cage. With a concussive whuff, the less-armored man felt half his breath abandon his body. It was only an instinctive tightening of his abdomen that prevented him from being left gasping for breath.

He felt the hammer coming. If he stood still and looked for it, his upraised face would be a natural target the knight could not miss. He could not step back quickly enough to avoid the strike either. He had to stay in close.

Lakshaman had a choice to move right or left, behind or in front of the knight’s body. Moving in front meant that he was exposed to the man’s weapons, but it also meant his own could come into play. Moving behind the knight would put his own back to the man. As the hammer came hurtling down, Lakshaman darted to his left.

As he moved, his left hand came up, and his blade slashed across the gap between the base of the man’s helm and his neck, on the off chance that the armor was weaker there. Metal rang off metal with no sign of blood, and Lakshaman had no other opportunity to investigate his blow as the knight’s hatchet blade came whirling past his nose.

The only reason the hatchet missed was because the move was one that Lakshaman himself knew-the whirling arm-over-arm assault that seemed, to an untrained eye, to be an impossible tangle of limbs. That the Westerner knew it was a surprise to Lakshaman-even more so that he would attempt it with disparate weapons like the hammer and hatchet-and it was only pure instinct that had warned him to pull back. As it was, the blade of the hatchet passed less than a finger’s width in front of his face.

Lakshaman did not wait around to see if the knight was capable of continuing the whirlwind. The angle was bad, and his knives were not meant for stabbing, but he jabbed the one in his right hand up into the knight’s left armpit anyway. He put as much strength as he could in the attack, and the knight collapsed around his weapon, a muffled grunt of pain coming from inside his helmet.

The knight jerked backward, and the knife was torn out of Lakshaman’s grip. Instead of trying to retrieve it, Lakshaman grabbed for the shoulder of the man’s coat, getting a fistful of cloth and maille. The knight was off- balance. It would be easy to throw him now. Once the man was on the ground, the superiority of his weapons would be negated and it would be much easier to cut him.

Fire exploded across his back. The knight had managed to twist the hatchet and plant it into Lakshaman’s back. His legs and arms still worked, so the hatchet had missed his spine, but the strike had split his leathers. Snarling like a wounded beast, Lakshaman drove his right knee into his enemy’s groin, sending the man reeling. His back muscles shrieked in agony as the knight tried to hang on to the hatchet; finally, Lakshaman managed to twist away and pull the handle from his opponent’s fingers.

The crowd roared with delight as they separated, each now missing one of their weapons. Lakshaman’s knife lay in the dirt somewhere, and he tried to reach around and grasp the haft of the hatchet caught in his back. More pain lanced up his back and into the base of his skull as he twisted his body. His fingers slipped on the bloody handle.

The knight wobbled, his legs struggling to hold him upright. He grasped the lower edge of his helmet with one hand, adjusting it, and Lakshaman caught sight of a shadow at the base of his neck. His knife had cut the man after all. Not fatally, but he had drawn blood.

The crowd was on its feet, shouting and screaming a war cry of its own, as the knight gripped his hammer with both hands and charged. A bold attack. The man hadn’t learned caution from their first exchange.

His teeth bared in a feral grin, Lakshaman’s hand found the haft of the hatchet and pulled it free. Now he had a more suitable weapon.

The hammer swept down, and Lakshaman darted to his left, sweeping the bloody hatchet up to slam its handle against the shaft of the knight’s hammer. Even before the shock of the contact rippled all the way up to his shoulder, he was already turning his wrist, letting the momentum of the hammer carry it past him. He was inside the knight’s guard again.

The knight snapped his right hand out, and his metal-shod fist drove into Lakshaman’s throat. He’d taken worse, but the blow made his throat close. Gagging, he felt his grip on the hatchet loosen. The knight hit him again, and he barely managed to tuck his chin down. The knight’s fist scrapped across his jaw-once, twice.

Lakshaman stumbled back. The knight pressed his advantage, pounding Lakshaman with short jabs. They weren’t terribly powerful hits, but the flurry of punches kept him off balance, forcing him to retreat.

He saw his opening: his opponent was covered from head to foot with the tightly linked maille, but it did not cover the entirety of the palms. At the base of the hand there was a patch of exposed skin. As long as the knight held a weapon, it wasn’t vulnerable, but without one…

As the knight punched him again, Lakshaman jabbed upward with the knife in his left hand. He shoved the point into the base of the man’s hand with all of his strength, and the knight’s fist cocked at a strange angle. He felt the knife grind against bone, and he shoved and twisted the blade.

The knight screamed, and Lakshaman caught a flash of the whites of the man’s eyes through the narrow slit of the helmet.

Letting go of both his knife and the nearly forgotten hatchet, Lakshaman grappled with his enemy. He looped his left arm around the knight’s right, pinning the man’s elbow against his side. The knight, moaning and spitting, threw his weight against Lakshaman in a desperate attempt to overwhelm the lesser-armored man and regain control of the grapple. Lakshaman dropped his hips-the one whose hips are lower is the one who wins-and twisted his body around as he swept his right leg back.

The knight tried to stop the throw, but he was too off balance, and his armor gave him too much mass. He flew off his feet, and Lakshaman, still holding onto his arm, came tumbling with him. They crashed to the ground, and there was a bone-snapping crunch as his elbow twisted too far in the wrong direction.

Lakshaman rolled off his opponent, the roar of the crowd filling his head. Crouching, he warily regarded his downed opponent while his right hand tried to explore the painful gash in his back. His hand came away red with blood, but he could still move. He could still fight.

Unlike his opponent.

The knight was struggling to turn over, but his brain hadn’t quite realized how useless his right arm was. The hand had been punctured by Lakshaman’s knife, and the elbow was bent at a hideous angle. The maille sleeve was already dark with blood. If he was spared the ignominy of death in the arena, he would be maimed for the rest of his life.

Lakshaman was reminded of something he had seen as a boy, an odd memory of a time before he had become a fighter. One spring morning, he had stumbled upon a butterfly as it struggled to emerge from its chrysalis. He had watched it wriggle out of its sheath and tumble to the ground. Its wings never opened properly, and the fall had caused its crumpled wings to harden stiff in a wrinkled mass that would never carry it aloft. He remembered crouching over it, staring intently at this tiny creature whose life was over a scant minute after it had been born.

The knight flopped onto his back, clawing at his helmet with his good hand. He was screaming and crying inside the metal cap; he couldn’t get a good look at what was wrong with his arm. He knew something was wrong, but the pain had to be so intense that his martial resolve had been swept away. He was like the butterfly, lying on the ground, struggling to fly but unable to understand why it couldn’t.

Lakshaman retrieved his other knife from the sand and knelt beside the downed knight. With a grunt, he shoved his blade through the eye slit of the man’s helmet. The man thrashed for a moment and then his limbs stilled.

Just like the butterfly when he had crushed it with his thumb.

CHAPTER TWELVE

Sequestered

There had been so much confusion when they had arrived at the Basilica of St. Peter. The second wagon, the one carrying the mad priest, had disgorged its passengers in a frenzied rush. Bonaventura had been screaming something about the Devil’s handiwork and da Capua had climbed down as if transfixed by a heavenly vision. By the time Fieschi had joined the others, the wagon was empty of all its passengers but Father Rodrigo.

The priest sat in the back of the wagon, arms splayed loosely at his sides. His attention was on the shapes crawling on him, and shouldering his way past de Segni, Fieschi had seen that they were scorpions. Rodrigo was covered with them, and appeared to be unharmed.

“It is a miracle,” da Capua offered, and Fieschi whirled to the incessantly romantic Cardinal to quiet him, but paused as he caught sight of the expressions on the faces of the two mischief-makers, Colonna and Capocci.

“Yes,” Colonna said, putting his large hands together in front of his quirking lips. Capocci had the benefit of his bandages, making it much easier to hide his own smile.

The Master Constable, unmoved by the sudden presence of divine intervention, hollered at the guards to rescue the bescorpioned priest. “The rest of them,” the Master Constable said, pointing at the chapel behind them, “will be sequestered in the Chapel of the Crucifixion until morning.”

“No.” Castiglione placed himself in front of the Master Constable. He swayed slightly, and his face was flushed. All of this excitement is taking its toll, Fieschi mused.

In the cart, several guards were trying to figure out if they could use the tips of their swords to pick the scorpions off without accidentally cutting the dazed priest. One guard leaned forward, flicking a scorpion off the priest’s robe, and the flung arachnid nearly struck one of the other guards, who yelped in fear and nearly stumbled off the back of the cart.

“The Senator has decreed that we will cast our vote by morning,” Castiglione continued, oblivious to what was happening in the cart. “And while I do not condone his authority or this egregious manner in which he forces the Church, I will acquiesce to the point that God has not chosen to show His displeasure at the Senator’s demands.”

“I beg your pardon, Your Eminence?” The Master Constable asked, his attention distracted by the guards in the cart.

“We have been treated like rough animals. If the Senator wishes our obedience-however temporary-he would do well to seek it from us as men.” Castiglione pointed to the tall building-the Castel Sant’Angelo-behind the Master Constable. “Food and shelter,” he said, “that is what we require now more than prayer and incarceration. If the Senator wants us to vote, then we will only do so after a meal that we do not have to eat out of a trough, and a night of slumber on a bed that is softer than the old bones of Rome herself.”

Colonna and Capocci applauded Castiglione’s mettle immediately, with an eagerness-Fieschi noted-that masked the delight with which they had been watching the cart. The other Cardinals joined in, and the Master Constable-swiftly assessing the shift in the Cardinals’ mood-acquiesced.

After the guards managed to extricate Father Rodrigo from the cart and the Cardinals were led toward Castel Sant’Angelo and a night of more humane conditions, Fieschi tarried by the now-empty cart. A pale shape squirmed along the boards and he inspected it carefully.

The scorpion lacked a stinger.

The priest had never been in any danger. However, Fieschi mused, as he strolled after the others, that did not make the incident any less a miracle.

It was a matter of convincing the right individuals.

In the morning-an hour or so before dawn-it took two dozen of Orsini’s men to roust the Cardinals from the rooms the Master Constable had found for them. Like herding sheep back to their pen, the guards drove the Cardinals into the Chapel of the Crucifixion. Colonna and Capocci cheerfully stepped into the round chamber and took their seats; Fieschi, stiff from a night of sleep on a real bed, strode in after them and sat on the opposite side of the chamber. Rinaldo and Stefano, the two de Segni Cardinals, stumbled in next, Rinaldo still whispering to his younger cousin; while Bonaventura and Castiglione, the two candidates for the Pontiff’s chair, both appeared unsettled and vaguely disturbed by what might come to pass in the vote. Torres and Annibaldi were unruffled, especially in comparison to the younger da Capua, who had all the appearance of a spooked child.

Fieschi had spoken to him briefly in the hallway outside their rooms. A few earnest words, a bit of quoted Scripture, and a conspiratorial air was all it took to lay the seed of an idea in the younger Cardinal’s mind. What had happened the day before in the cart was a demonstration of God’s Grace-an incident that could, given a proper poetic treatment, turn into the basis of…

Of a miracle, da Capua had breathed.

In the voting chamber, there were ten chairs set up, backs against the walls, equidistant and too far apart for any prelate to communicate with any other during the voting process.

A priest followed the Cardinals in while some of them were still deciding where to sit; he carried a tray on which sat a chalice, paten, several quills, a horn of ink, and strips of paper. He set these on the altar, bowed deeply to the Cardinals, then left the room.

There was a thudding sound as a bolt slid home outside the door.

“This is much more comfortable than the Septizodium,” said Colonna, into the sudden silence. “We really must thank the Bear for this… indulgence.” His friend Capocci smiled at the ecclesiastical pun, but the other Cardinals looked uncomfortable. Some glanced around the room, staring at one another, as if seeking some kind of omniscient paternal reassurance.

“Where is our friend?” asked Capocci. “Did he survive his trial with the scorpions only to be lost to us in the night?”

“He is not a Cardinal,” said Fieschi dismissively. “He has no right to vote. I asked the Master Constable to take him to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. He is to wait for us there.”

“But is it safe for him to be wandering about the basilica on his own?” asked Annibaldi reasonably.

“It is the holiest spot outside of Jerusalem,” Fieschi said impatiently. “And there are priests, clerics, and guards everywhere. He made quite a spectacle of himself yesterday; people will keep an eye on him.” He paused, casting a glance toward da Capua. “I thought it best to keep one of God’s chosen ones close to Him.”

“Amen,” da Capua said eagerly.

Colonna glanced at Capocci, who was staring at Fieschi quietly, chewing on a strand of his long beard. “Amen,” the bearded Cardinal echoed, his voice muffled by the thick strand of beard in his mouth.

Was that not your plan? Fieschi wondered, staring back at the Cardinal. Why else would you have kept those maimed scorpions?

“Let us take a moment to pray,” said Torres, rising and walking to the altar. He held up the papers, and then with ceremonial dourness, he began to walk around the circle, and offered a wide slip of the paper to each of his fellow Cardinals. “And once we have reached our fill of prayer, let us begin.”

The church was calm and cool and everything was made of marble. The marble was beautiful, and echoed the sounds of things happening nearby, and this was comforting, for it kept the other sounds, the sounds inside his head, at bay. Rodrigo had slept poorly the previous night, the memory of the men screaming in the wagon with him haunting his nocturnal thoughts. The screaming reminded him of the horrible battle, the horrible war, the horrible soldiers, both foreign and familiar, and he did not want to be reminded of any of that. He was a poor simple priest and he wanted to be left alone to worship. He could not keep track of where he was, or in what company. But they were all gone now, locked in the smaller chapel, leaving him alone. At last.

He still had not delivered the message and he found it sulking in the back of his head, waiting for attention. He did not want to give it attention. But he could feel the message he was to deliver to the Pope, he could feel it dancing in his skull, around his brain, stamping its feet and now demanding, no longer waiting for, his attention. Distracted and almost distressed, he dragged his eyes from the vein of marble and looked around him. He was in the transept of a church, a huge and magnificent cathedral that seemed familiar but distant, as if from another lifetime.

A young priest, even younger than he himself, and so innocent looking, was walking down the center aisle.

“Where am I?” Rodrigo asked plaintively.

The priest approached him, hand held up in smiling assurance. “You are in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre,” the priest said. “Saint Peter’s Basilica. I have been asked to assist you… if you need anything.”

“Saint Peter?” Rodrigo cried out. “May I see him?”

The young man hesitated, then smiled again. “Certainly, Father. His tomb is directly below the altar. Follow me, please.”

“I want to go alone,” said Rodrigo. The young man looked innocent enough, but there were spies everywhere, and he needed to speak to the Pontiff in absolutely secrecy.

“I will show you where to descend,” the young man said and held out his hand toward the altar.

Ferenc was relieved and grateful that they had found somebody to speak Magyar with him. The soldier-Helmuth-was not a native speaker, and his accent was very thick, but to have any kind of conversation at all nourished Ferenc’s heart-even Father Rodrigo had been nearly silent through most of their harrowing journey from Mohi to Rome.

They were breaking their fast together, the soldier speaking and Ferenc listening. Perhaps it was an accident of birth, but Helmuth had a permanent sneer on his face; he radiated disdain toward the young hunter. It was clear to Ferenc that the man was judging him critically, and finding him unworthy-but of what he had no idea. He was so grateful to hear his native language spoken that he would have smiled to have abuses hurled at him.

Ocyrhoe and the other Binder woman were huddled together near them, talking quickly in words Ferenc could not follow. This bothered Ferenc, who felt protective toward Ocyrhoe, but unable to protect her. Several times during her long conversation with the woman the afternoon before, Ocyrhoe had been reduced nearly to tears, and he blamed Lena for this.

“When do we go back to the city?” Ferenc asked the man.

“We are waiting for the Cardinals,” Helmuth responded sullenly.

This made no sense. “But the Cardinals are in the city! We are going back to the Cardinals,” he protested.

Helmuth shook his head. “Not all the Cardinals. Some of them are being held as guests by His Majesty, the Emperor. They are his guests in Tivoli.”

Ferenc found this even more confusing. “He is here; why are his guests not with him?”

Helmuth grinned in a superior way. “They are in Tivoli. They are guests of the empire, not of the Emperor personally.”

Ferenc shook his head. “What does that mean, guests of the empire?”

Helmuth’s grin faded. “It means they are prisoners,” he said.

The young hunter would have given anything at that moment to turn back time, and to prevent Father Rodrigo from coming to Rome. This was a land of madness. “So all of the church’s Cardinals are being held prisoner somewhere,” he said. “Either in the Septizodium or in Tivoli. Then doesn’t your Emperor sin as much as whoever holds the Cardinals hostage in Rome?”

“It’s not that simple,” said Helmuth impatiently. “Anyhow, the Emperor is now releasing a Cardinal, who will go into Rome with you.”

“There are already plenty of Cardinals in Rome,” protested Ferenc. “What good will another Cardinal do us?”

“The Cardinals in Rome are being held hostage until they vote for a new Pope. They cannot make a choice. His Majesty hopes that if a Cardinal is allowed to join them now, that Cardinal might swing the vote one way or another.”

“And then they will be released?”

“And then they will be released.”

Ferenc mused on this. As a hunter he appreciated the use of strategy over brute force, but he had been very pleased with the notion of leading an army into the city to liberate Father Rodrigo.

“Where is Tivoli?” he asked at last.

“It is half a day’s march away,” said the soldier. “It is a well-traveled road and a carriage was sent for the Cardinal overnight, so I imagine he will arrive here soon. In the meantime, you may bathe and have fresh clothes.”

What a strange offer. “Is there something wrong with my clothes?” Ferenc asked.

Helmuth smiled condescendingly. “You are filthy, and so are your clothes. We make the offer to be hospitable and considerate. I have no time to educate you about basic human decency, so either take the offer or leave it-it is all one to me.”

Ferenc wanted to speak to Ocyrhoe, but then realized she would be even less educated on these issues than himself. It was exhausting, being the eternally ignorant outsider. “I appreciate your hospitality,” he said, restraining his true emotions, “and humbly accept your offer.”

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Picking Flowers

It was customary for Tegusgal-as captain of Onghwe Khan’s guards-to attend the fights in the Circus. Many of the guards went as well, both to attend to the safety of the Khan but also to participate in the furious betting. Without Tegusgal around, the guards who remained at the Mongol compound had a tendency to let their displeasure at being left behind turn to laziness, which presented an opportunity for Kim and Zug to plan somewhat openly. The Mongols were typically loath to allow any group of fighters to enjoy true seclusion in numbers greater than two, but this afternoon they-and some of the men who they had approached previously-were allowed to gather in the training yard, where the relative absence of supervision permitted them to stand about and speak. So long as they periodically made a show of moving through patterns or drills, the bored guards would not be overly suspicious.

They made for a strange assortment of mismatched and dangerous individuals, a patchwork of potential violence that would alarm Tegusgal if he were ever to see them assembled. Will it be enough? That was the worry that gnawed at Kim as he surveyed his motley band.

Madhukar’s shoulders rippled as he uttered a sound of dissatisfaction. The wrestler’s grasp of the Mongol tongue was not exceptional, but Siyavash, a Persian with a face that looked like it had been carved from marble, understood some of the big man’s native tongue. Enough to offer better translations.

“Too much waiting, Madhukar says,” Siyavash murmured. “And standing around talking like this is dangerous.”

“A little longer,” Zug murmured where he stood, leaning against a stave of white wood. The bushi was already sharper than Kim had ever seen him, his focus honed like the edge of his skull-maker and set inexorably upon the task at hand. And yet, he exuded such patience. “Unless the Rose Knight has been killed by Lakshaman.” The cheers from the arena had occasionally reached them, and judging by the ebb and flow of the noise, the fight was finished.

“We don’t know to which of the fighting orders Lakshaman’s opponent belonged,” Kim said. “’Tis better to concern ourselves with what we know, and what we can accomplish.”

“With or without him, what is your plan, Kim?” Siyavash intoned. The man’s eyes held him steadily, hungry for freedom, suspicious of hope. These men had all entertained dreams of escape once upon a time, but the relentless yoke of their imprisonment had destroyed most of those ambitions. They were prisoners, surely, but they were not broken men, not like some of the others who were so filled with bitterness and resentment that the very idea of rebellion was violently loathsome. But they were wary of being hopeful. It was a dangerous emotion, the kind that could get them killed.

And yet, here they were. Gathered in the training yard, holding wooden weapons. Listening to the impossible plan as if it were an idea with the slightest possibility of success.

“Kill the Khan,” Zug said with a jarring, blunt sobriety. “How, we are not certain. When? When the moment is right. How? That is part of why we are here.”

“We are closest to him when we fight in the arena.” Kim said, spinning a stave as though he were at his drills. “All we need to is put one of our own in the ring with one of theirs, and there will be an opportunity. If the Khan is killed, the Circus will crumble around him. Even Tegusgal cannot keep order at such a time.”

Silence hung palpably on the field between them, broken only by the rise and fall of the wind. The cheers from the arena had died down, as a wave recedes from the pounded sand. Madhukar’s face had been stoic as he listened, but now the wide mouth cracked into a broad grin that Kim suspected would have sent every child of Hunern running in terror.

“Good plan,” he said in his halting grasp of the Mongol tongue. He thumped his wooden cudgel against the ground. Kim could easily imagine a skull bursting apart beneath it.

“That is not a plan,” Siyavash said. “It is madness.” Nevertheless, Madhukar’s smile was contagious, and as much as the Persian wanted to keep himself free of the infectious gleam of hope, he couldn’t help himself. “But I agree with Madhukar,” he said finally.

“We will have to get word to the Rose Knight,” Zug said. “Using the boys.”

“Agreed,” Kim said.

“A simple plan it is, then.” Zug said with an air of finality. “Often, those are the best. The less we must argue about information, and the more we can act with weapons in hand, the better. A word is all that will be needed, and the understanding that those who stand in the arena will not live long after they make the kill.”

There was the wild look in Zug’s eyes once more as he spoke, and Kim was reminded again that a part of his friend longed for death. Given what Zug had been through, it was difficult for Kim to begrudge him his wish. He simply hoped that the burning desire did not kill them all. One by one, the others nodded their agreement.

And like that, the planning was done. They stood in silence awhile, listening to the wind of voices that blew over their heads from the distant structure of the arena that controlled all their destinies.

“Are there many flowers today?” A nervous young voice asked. Kim turned sharply, lowering his eyes to find one of the very boys they had been speaking of looking up nervously at him. So many children came and went from the camp, conscripted to bring everything from wine to drugs, that the Mongols seldom paid attention. These children had a courage that any man worth his strength could admire.

“I would hear of the fighting first,” Kim said, kneeling down to bring himself eye level with the youth. Behind him, he could feel the attention of the others. “Who has won in the arena?”

“The red-cross knight is dead,” the boy said simply.

Kim breathed a tangible sigh of relief. It had not been Andreas in the ring, as he had feared. He looked behind him, catching Zug’s eye. “The one with the knives was wounded,” the boy continued. “But he will live.”

“The task falls to one of us then,” Zug laughed.

Kim couldn’t help but smile, and to quell the boy’s confusion at their words, he rested a hand on the lad’s shoulder. “Lakshaman-the man with the knives-will not fight again so soon,” he said. “Therefore it will be one of us who goes to the arena. To fight the Rose Knight.” He squeezed the boy’s shoulder gently and leaned forward. “There are no more flowers to be picked here,” he said quietly. “This is the message I want you to carry. We are done picking flowers, but two will bloom in the bloody sand. Can you remember that? The two will bloom together.”

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

The Paten and the Chalice

Rodrigo was grateful the young priest had allowed him to descend into the crypt alone. He had approached the high altar in the middle of the church, its towering canopy dwarfed by the almost incomprehensible height of the cathedral’s ceiling. A balustrade descended into the sacred pit below the altar, the walls lit by oil lamps. Those lamps have burned unceasingly since I was last in Rome, he thought, not sure how many days or hours or lifetimes that had been.

He followed the steps into a cavelike chamber, feeling as if Mother Earth herself was preparing to take him into her bosom and relieve him of his burden. At the far end of the lamplit space stood a wall of red and white marble with a low, arching doorway in the middle. On the other side, he knew, lay St. Peter, Christ’s greatest disciple, in a repose more peaceful by far than anything Rodrigo himself had ever, would ever, know. The silence was absolute, as if the world had stopped, paused to breathe in the holy air of such a holy man. Even the lamps burned in ghostly silence-with none of that serpentlike hissing they made in the upper world.

Carefully, worshipfully, Rodrigo walked in callused bare feet toward the archway. He was only half convinced the father of Catholicism would awaken to hear his prophecy… but if he didn’t, if Peter were too close to God to care now what became of the minions left on earth, it would still be restful to spend a moment by the crypt and pray to the saint for guidance.

Rodrigo lowered his head and entered the crypt. This too was lit by an eternal flame, an oil lamp suspended from the ceiling just above the coffin. For a long moment, too long, he tracked a tendril of soot rising from the flame, studied it as he had studied the marble.

That is the reward and the way of sacred repose, the blessed freedom to think such thoughts, make such observations undisturbed, alone, forever and ever.

Resting on top of the coffin was a chalice and paten, as if the tomb itself were an altar and somebody had been in the middle of preparing for mass but was suddenly called away. He walked to the coffin, touched the cool stone and felt reassured by its simplicity amid the glamour that entombed it. He reached toward the paten and chalice, then paused, hand wavering slowly in the still, cool air, and picked up the paten. There were no communion wafers on it, and it was burnished gold, unsmudged by any fingers but his own. The chalice likewise looked freshly polished, pristine. He set the paten down on top of the tomb, and reached with both hands now toward the chalice. He cupped it between his palms, lifted it high, then brought it closer to his body. He looked inside.

It was not empty.

The Cardinals had arrived; Ocyrhoe and Ferenc had been washed and dressed in cleaner clothes that did not quite fit them-especially Ocyrhoe, who was wearing a spare shift and stockings given to her by Lena; both had been shortened and the shift belted like a tunic, but she still seemed to float in it.

They stood now with Lena and Helmuth to the left of the Emperor. Frederick was dressed exactly as he had been the day before, except now he also wore a crown. As lofty as his clothing appeared, he himself did not look regal, nor did he speak at all the way Ocyrhoe thought an Emperor should. The wonder of the world indeed, she thought. It is a wonder he is king of anywhere. Then she chastised herself; Binders must be above such prejudices.

The tent flap opened, and all of them stood at attention, even the Emperor.

“Cardinal Bishop Giacomo da Pecorara,” said a young servant standing by the tent flap. A tall, elegant, obviously irritated older man strode into the tent. He was dressed in a much finer red robe than any of the Cardinals Ocyrhoe had seen in the Septizodium; in all ways he was better kempt than they were too. Head held high, he walked with long, slow strides toward His Majesty. Behind him followed another man, shorter and wide-eyed and a few years younger, dressed just like him. The second Cardinal had tucked a bulky object under each arm and walked with both arms out in front of him: one hand held a burning candle, the other hand cupped protectively in front to keep the flame from spluttering as he walked. Why on earth would anyone waste the wax of a lit candle in broad daylight? Ocyrhoe wondered.

“And Cardinal Oddone de Monferrato,” added the page boy hurriedly, abashedly, as if he had not expected the second Cardinal.

“Why have you summoned me hither, my son?” asked Pecorara in a voice as cold as winter stone. The tall man named Helmuth began to murmur quietly to Ferenc, who nodded, his eyes glued to the Cardinals. Ocyrhoe was glad her friend was finally able to understand what was going on around him, in full, while it was actually happening. She had never met anyone with so much patience.

Frederick’s eyes glanced toward Monferrato and the candle. He let out a disgusted sigh, rolled his eyes, and cursed. “I’m setting you free, Your Eminence,” he said tartly to Pecorara. Pecorara must have already known this was the cause of the summons; his face showed no surprise or even pleasure. “You are no longer required to remain a guest of the empire. You are at liberty to go into Rome immediately and take part in the election. In fact, I would be most obliged if you would do just that, so we can get the fucking charade over with and I can return home. If, God forbid, the goddamned Mongols get as far as my empire, and I cannot protect my people because the Church insists on squabbling with me, then the Church is sin made manifest. So thank you for not trying to escape-well, not trying too hard, at least-and you are now free to go. These folk to my left”-and here he gestured to Ocyrhoe, Ferenc, and Lena-“will take you straight to the palace.”

The Cardinal looked thoughtful for a moment. Then he pursed his lips. “I appreciate my liberty, but I am not the only one of God’s chosen whom you have imprisoned. You have interfered with the smooth functioning of the Church at a time when it is needed most. For such a sacrilege, there is but one response.” He looked over his right shoulder toward Monferrato. “Cardinal, if you please?” He held his hand out toward the junior Cardinal.

“Oh for the love of Christ,” Frederick said, annoyed. “Not this again.”

Imperturbable and solemn, Pecorara received from Monferrato a small handbell. He took the handle, turned back toward the Emperor, and with a flick of his wrist, rang the bell twice, sharply. “You have spread division and confusion among the faithful,” said the Cardinal severely. “By your own willful acts, you have separated yourself from the Church and may no longer receive the sacraments. You are not a person to be followed.”

Helmuth blanched. Ferenc tugged his sleeve politely for a translation but the German soldier seemed too spooked to even notice.

Pecorara handed the bell back to Monferrato, who clumsily attempted to receive the bell, hand Pecorara the other object under his arm, and still hold the candle upright. The transfer accomplished, Pecorara returned his attention to the Emperor, and Ocyrhoe saw he held an enormous book. She guessed it was a Bible, since she could imagine no other modern book requiring so many words. The Cardinal opened the book, held it out in the direction of the scowling Emperor, and then portentously slapped the left-hand side closed over the right-hand side, as if he had just captured an insect with it. Helmuth looked very uncomfortable, but Frederick himself only shook his head as if in derisive amusement.

Pecorara now returned the book to Monferrato, and received the candle. Again turning toward the Emperor, he very gravely raised the candle level with his face, and blew out the flame. Helmuth shifted nervously; Ferenc was frowning in confusion; Lena’s face was unreadable; King Frederick looked, more than anything, peeved.

“Frederick Hohenstaufen, you are hereby excommunicated,” Pecorara declared. “It has been signified by bell, book, and candle.”

For Cardinal Rinaldo de Segni, the world was an uncomplicated place. That is not to say that God’s creation was not incredibly complex; he knew his role, which was to devote his life to the message offered by God. Other men, like the Holy Roman Emperor, sought physical rewards: power, money, prestige. The Emperor, for all his learnedness, was nothing more than a greedy man who wanted to exert his dominion over the entire Italian peninsula. De Segni loved his Church and he would not suffer a Pontiff who was willing to submit the Church to the Emperor’s power; clearly, it should be the other way around.

Which made writing Bonaventura on a slip of paper very easy.

He folded the paper, rose, and walked to the altar. The paten was lying atop the chalice. According to ritual tradition, he set his piece of paper on the paten and then lifted one side of it, drawing it aside so that the paper tumbled down into the chalice. He replaced the paten on top of the chalice. The first of ten votes had been cast.

With an explosion of bright light and trumpets, Rodrigo left the crypt of St. Peter far behind. A wind caught him, spun him about, pushed his head back on his neck, as if it might break him in two. He struggled, fighting the grip of the vision but he was held fast in an ecstasy of cracking bone and sacred paralysis. As he feared his flesh would tear, the wind subsided. It puffed lightly against his cheek-a gentle, almost friendly slap-and he found himself on a mountain slope.

His dirty robes were gone, replaced by a thin white gown, and he stood barefoot on the verge of a grove of towering cedars, the aroma of them so thick and strong he could almost swallow it like nectar. He could not see the horizon beyond the trees, but the cedars were swaying wildly, erratically, as if they were trying to warn him of an approaching storm.

As a furious darkness spread like ink across the sky, a whip of lightning snapped the roots of a nearby cedar. The tree let out a groan as the sizzling bolt-like none he had ever seen-solidified into hot, bright silver where it struck the earth, then burrowed into the soil like an auger. The soil blackened and glistened and retreated, then fled from around the cedar’s roots. The tree screamed, it was human, surely it was human-it sounded human-and looking up he could make out in the shadows of the branches a human face, neither male nor female but simply human, very human, and wise, a being who had ancestors and descendants and was being severed from both by the roots. The molten silver bolt, zinging and slicing, grabbed hold of the great tree’s roots like a hand around a baby’s throat, and shook it, shook it right out of the earth until the tree, screeching, horrified and uncomprehending, toppled, and fell with a groan and an earth-shaking thud. Its leaves and branches thrashed just inches from Rodrigo’s head.

He wanted to comfort the tree but he was afraid to touch it lest the lightning sense his presence and likewise fell him.

The remaining trees were wailing, branches flailing, trunks swaying, as if they would all bend over, reach down and touch the fallen cedar. Then the heavens shattered, split open by many streaks of lightning. Each tree was snatched and twisted by its topmost branches, as a hand might grab a woman’s hair, and each began to tremble as if possessed. Shaking and screaming with one voice, all at once they were sucked out of the ground. They rose a few dozen feet into the air, bare roots shivering off the damp dirt that had sustained them, and then immediately, and in total silence-

They leaned over and collapsed on top of Rodrigo. Trunks crushed him, branches thrust out to pin his arms, and twigs descended to poke out his eyes.

Screaming in horror, Rodrigo lay across the tomb, feeling the cold stone beneath his fingers-but also the press of the dying trees, and he could not break free of either the dream-the vision-or the pain.

Cardinal Giovanni Colonna’s family had feuded with the Orisinis for so many years that the genesis of the hatred had been forgotten. But that did not prevent each successive generation from clinging to the long-standing rivalry. Colonna, not a man to hate easily, hated Orsini, and Orsini wanted Bonaventura on St. Peter’s throne; therefore Bonaventura would never receive Colonna’s vote. In all the previous elections, he had voted for Castiglione… but it seemed to him now that all the Cardinals would be so enraged at Orsini that Castiglione would certainly get all their votes, especially after the magnificent way he had stood up to the Senator. So there was no danger that Bonaventura would win the election.

In which case, Colonna decided, he wanted to cast a vote that would remind everyone of the Church’s humble and mystical beginnings. For the Supreme Pontiff, I elect-he wrote on his slip of paper-Father Rodrigo Bendrito. He grinned, stood up, and walked toward the altar.

Ocyrhoe could hardly believe what she was watching. Nothing in her training had prepared her for the petty, irrational tension between secular and holy powers. Raised as she was to be fairly indifferent to the sanctity of either, the intensity with which both Emperor and Cardinal took themselves so very seriously seemed maddeningly bizarre. Surely men of such importance had greater concerns than this affected posturing to one another?

In response to the news of his excommunication, Frederick had simply sighed like a long-suffering parent. Then he smiled tightly at the Cardinal. “Excuse me, Your Eminence, I believe I have made a mistake. You are not the Cardinal I intended to liberate. Sorry for the long overnight journey, but I’m sure you’ll find the trip back to my castle in Tivoli quite a pleasant one on this lovely autumn day.” The Cardinal’s eyes blazed, but he said nothing.

“Cardinal Monferrato,” the Emperor continued, in an indulgent, conversational tone. “Seeing that you had the audacity to accompany your friend here without my permission, please step forward, ahead of your unsporting brother there.”

Monferrato’s eyes, already quite wide, showed full rims of white. He delicately took a step forward and stood beside Pecorara. “Yes, Your Majesty?” he said.

Frederick smiled briefly at the title, and again when he caught sight of Pecorara scowling at the other Cardinal. “I asked you to step ahead of your brother. You are merely alongside him. Get the hell in front of him, man, you are the one I am talking to now.”

Looking like a rabbit wondering which way to flee from two dogs, Monferrato took another careful step forward. Ocyrhoe could see Pecorara bristle. What silly games, she thought. Ferenc was still tugging Helmuth’s sleeve, hoping for a translation of what was happening. Ocyrhoe reached over and started to spell out the Latin word for what had just happened, but changed her mind at the last moment. Cast out, she signed. Surely he would understand that much, she thought. The youth glanced uncertainly at Frederick and then at Ocyrhoe. Ferenc shrugged, letting her know that he understood what she was telling him-this was something very bad that churchmen could do to other people-but he was not sure what it meant, exactly.

Frederick didn’t seem at all perturbed.

“Your Eminence,” said Frederick to Monferrato. “If you will give me your solemn oath that you will not perform this same heathenish ritual against me, I will liberate you, instead, and my young scouts here will take you to the Papal enclave. Do not look behind you at Pecorara; this is your decision, and you must make it on your own.”

There followed an eternal period of perhaps five heartbeats, as the Cardinal struggled internally with all sorts of demons whose power over him Ocyrhoe could not comprehend. It was transparently obvious that he would agree, so when at last he did so, with a single mute nod, Frederick’s smile of relief seemed exaggerated to her.

“Very well,” the Emperor said, his smile vanishing. “Let us not let this moment of enthusiasm escape. Horses are waiting for you. Get yourself to Rome and end this wearying sede vacante.”

Rodrigo struggled to rise, but the weight of the vision-of the dying trees, fallen all around him-held him fast. He tried to draw breath, tried to call out to God to ease his suffering-surely he had carried this weight long enough? — but his plea was cut short by a fresh, blinding flash. The ground was hard as stone, yet it shattered and gave way beneath him, and he fell a thousand freezing years through blackness, until suddenly he landed.

Was this Hell? It was hot enough-but no, the air was bright, and sunny, dusty even. This was some place on earth, perhaps in the Levant.

He felt and then heard a low, melodic rhythm and looked around to see he was surrounded by a thousand men, wearing only loincloths and sandals, sweat glinting from the ribs clearly visible beneath their sun-baked skins, groaning in pained protest against their burden: lined up in long rows pulling at a heavy rope, whipped by cruel slave-drivers wearing hardly more than they were, toiling away at the something that loomed over them.

Rodrigo looked up to see what he had already guessed would be there: a half-built pyramid. These driven men were tugging the next huge block into place, and he knew them, he knew them all: these were the sons of Israel, enslaved in Egypt.

The clouds rolled on overhead, tempering the heat of the day, and several men looked up in hopeful anticipation of a drizzle. But with a cough of thunder, the clouds darkened, opened great rents in the heavens-and the rain plummeted in sheets, but this rain was red and warm and sticky-slick: with shrieks of horror and disgust, the men held their hands over their heads and began to run around aimlessly, dragging their fetters and their overseers after them-all desperate for a shelter that was not there.

Rodrigo watched once more as if he stood before a stage spectacle; no blood fell on him, but he could hear it spatter on the ground and on men’s skin; the air reeked of it, a foulness that made him choke and gag. As the screams grew louder and the panicked raced about more frantically still, the rain of blood gave way to a slimy cascade of frogs-live frogs, landing in heaps below the angry green sky, their croaking glugs of fear and confusion almost as loud as the cacophony of the men on whom they fell. Many that did not split open and spill their innards were instantly trampled on and smashed flat; others hopped about and added to the bedlam, as Rodrigo watched, knowing with a sick feeling, exactly what had to come next.

For as the frogs ceased to fall, the entire dark cloud above descended upon the panicked men and proved to be an enormous swarm of flies, their buzzing louder than everything below combined-a ripping, whirring, cutting sound, as if their wings and jaws were made of metal and they had come to saw through every living thing they touched. They bit the men wherever they found flesh, and sharp cries from this stinging pain were added to the overwhelming din, like water dripping on cymbals above an avalanche of grinding boulders.

As Rodrigo watched, there followed in quick, awful succession the plague of lice, the plague of boils, the murrain of cattle, the plague of locusts-a new, striped yellow and black cloud, fascinating to watch-and then, all-consuming darkness. And finally, of course, death everywhere, every first-born son throughout the land falling at the whim of the steel-winged, pock-faced angel of death.

And again the scene shifted dramatically. Rodrigo felt the earth disappear beneath his feet, and he was airborne, high above the catastrophe, the crisis, sailing in the darkness, until he saw below him water that stretched out as if forever… and he knew what this was too: the Red Sea, parting for Moses and the Jews, and behind them, in chariots and armed on foot, came the teeming armies of Egypt… but the sea closed over them, and with a final scream of defiance, Egypt gave up its possession of the Jewish race.

And the people of Israel, free from captivity, turned their faces toward a barren desert, and set out on a journey that Rodrigo knew would last for forty years.

Gils Torres, the aging Spanish Cardinal, stared balefully at the slip of paper in his hand. He had hated Gregory for keeping him in Rome when both he and the Emperor Frederick had wished his presence as imperial legate.

“But you are so useful to me,” Gregory had crooned, “I must keep you here beside me; I cannot imagine how the daily life of the Papacy would function without you.”

The flattery had disgusted Cardinal Torres. He knew it wasn’t true, but he could not gainsay the Pontiff’s wishes. And so his vote had been, throughout this process, for Castiglione-not because he cared so much for Castiglione, but because he knew that Bonaventura would have been Gregory’s choice, and he had been determined to vote against Gregory’s choice, period. However, after Castiglione’s defiance of Orsini, it was obvious that all the Cardinals would vote for Castiglione-possibly even Sinibaldo Fieschi, who had been Gregory’s most devoted sycophant. Castiglione had even won Torres’s own regard. Castiglione, clearly, would be Pope. Even if Gils Torres did not vote for him.

Which was a relief, because it freed Torres to think about what kind of man he’d actually want as Bishop of Rome. Somebody as different from Gregory as possible. Somebody without any political ties or machinations. Somebody with the hardiness to survive the stress of the throne of St. Peter. He thought of the befuddled but earnest priest who had somehow-he did not know or care how-survived the scorpion attack. That man had also survived a brutal battlefield, although Torres did not know the details. He had been shaken by his experience, but his faith had not been shaken, and faith-despite the reality of necessary politics-faith was, after all, important in a Pope.

Nobody else would think to do something as radical as vote for the distraught priest, but Torres thought it would be a good slap in the face to all the cynics and politicians in the room, if they heard his name called out once as a potential candidate.

Cardinal Torres wrote Father Rodrigo Bendrito on the form, and rose to cast his ballot.

In the heat and dust and the burning sun, the children of Israel wandered without rest, and Rodrigo wandered with them, a wisp, a spirit, unseen and unsensed by them, but suffering with them.

Moses was long dead. This was some other exodus, some other journey, he did not know whither.

He watched them under the blazing, punishing brilliance of the sun, and realized they had been traveling forever, were eternally traveling, in tents, with livestock, raising children as they went, and they would never, ever have a home. They were an endless caravan, this lost tribe of Israel, destined to wander forever. The king of this tribe was far distant, and they were moving away from the kingdom, not toward it. This tribe did not ride donkeys, nor did they ride camels. Instead they rode stocky, short-legged ponies. And they were no longer wandering around the deserts to the east, but coming directly toward Rodrigo and his flock and his home, determined to overtake everything he held dear.

At the same moment he knew that, he was terrified to realize he was becoming visible to them, they were aware of his existence, some could already see him, even seemed to hear him, and these wary few approached on their short horses and raised broad brown faces and sniffed the air around him. Sniffed, then smiled like wolves, and nodded to each other.

Rodrigo writhed on the tomb, consumed in a sweating, knotting horror beyond anything induced by the other visions, for he knew that this vision was real.

“Clergy!” one of the soldiers spat in derision, and reached out to grab his collar. Rodrigo was no longer a ghost among them, a silent observer; he had become all too solid, and even as he pulled away, the man pulled him down, so that he sat kneeling upright by the man’s hip. “Beg for your life,” the soldier said in a nasty, mocking voice. Other soldiers nearby in the throng turned their attention to him and laughed with him.

“I will not,” Rodrigo retorted in a shaky voice. “I entrust my life to the Lord and His angels, and surely they will come to save me.”

As he said the words, the bright blue sky above them cracked wide open and brilliant celestial light shone through, impossible to look at directly, it was so glorious and proud. Rodrigo, with a cry of relief, held up his arms toward the light, averted his eyes, and thanked the Lord for his salvation.

A large, beautiful angel, wings the size of tomb covers, came beating down upon these dangerous, swarthy enemies. Rodrigo’s outstretched fingers reached for the angel’s powerful hands, and he took in a breath in anticipation of being lifted bodily above these dangerous enemies.

But a sound like hissing filled the air, and the angel, rattled with arrows, shuddered and fell like a beautiful statue to the ground right before Rodrigo’s feet. His body cracked and fell into pieces as if he were made of glass. The enemy screamed in delight and triumph, and Rodrigo, beyond all help mortal or holy, felt alien hands grabbing him, tugging, intent on tearing him apart.

Cardinal Goffredo da Castiglione wrote the C of his name, hesitated, then stopped. He glanced at the other Cardinals who had not yet voted. They were either writing or deep in prayer, or meditating, or pretending to do any combination of the three. While the buzzing excitement of standing up to Orsini had passed, he could still remember what the moment felt like: his heartbeat loud in his ears; his cheeks warm with the rich flush of blood; the dampness of his palms. It had been so invigorating in the moment, but this morning, he was exhausted. He knew he had impressed every man in that room-several had glanced knowingly at him as they returned to their seats after casting their votes-but he also knew he could not possibly behave like that on a regular basis without having some kind of breakdown.

He did not want the job. It was that simple. Here it was, in his hand, the time was right and he had earned it, but given the choice between the throne of St Peter or a comfortable bedroll, at this moment he would choose the bedroll.

We need somebody younger, he thought. To save and serve Christendom in this dark hour, we need somebody full of piss and vinegar, somebody for whom such staggering feats of righteousness are as natural as breathing. It would take a kind of fanaticism to wrest the Church away from the dangerous extremes Gregory had brought it to, to return it to a path of service and spirituality, from a path of power and control.

Happily, he realized, he had just recently met a fanatic, and a Rome-born one to boot.

He raised the stylus and began to write a name.

Rodrigo writhed on the tomb of St. Peter, both senseless and fully-hideously-aware of the world around him. The phantom hands still grappled with him-pulling his limbs, yanking his hair, fingers digging into his mouth. He saw other lands being burned and ravaged by strange warriors, other people driven from their homes by savage invaders. The world was full of bloodshed and cries of annihilation. The tomb vanished beneath him, and he lay on the ground in some place he could not recognize, it was so ravaged by war-perhaps a plain that had once been fertile, or a desert that had once been pristine, or a mountain valley, perhaps even a city in which all the buildings had been razed. He could not tell. He did not know if he writhed in calcined dirt or the dust of human bones.

He had lost all sense of time and place, nor did he recognize any of those who raged across his vision. He did not know who belonged to what side, who was good or who was bad, who was in power and who was not, who was a Christian and who was not, who had done evil and who had done good. There were men fighting each other, nameless, faceless, faithless, one human being determined to kill another, with whatever means they had, each set on hearing the death-throes of their fellow human beings. No other living thing was of value to them-and no doubt they would turn and kill their allies when they had finished killing their enemies.

To be alive and to be human meant to want to kill, maim, hurt, destroy. It did not matter what a man believed, or how he conducted his affairs, or where he lived. His merely being human meant he was the target of another’s wrath, another’s fury.

The most base animals do not turn on their own kind so, Rodrigo thought miserably as he watched men slaughter men, and women, and children. It hardly mattered who fought, who defended, who died-no one was to be spared the wrath of the others, and the world tumbled on with terrifying disinterest.

This was the past and the future, and Rodrigo was seeing all of it now.

All of the Cardinals had voted except Cardinal Sinibaldo Fieschi. No doubt they assumed he was waiting until the end to make some kind of dramatic flourish, since it went without saying that he would vote for Bonaventura.

But he could count as well as Castiglione, and read men’s faces better than anyone else in the room. If Somercotes were still alive, the Englishman would have translated Castiglione’s grandstanding into a guaranteed victory. But Somercotes, thank Heaven, had gone to his reward, and Fieschi had no illusions about the impact of Castiglione’s brief flare of leadership.

He thought about the demented priest, wandering around somewhere inside the basilica. Somercotes had taken the man by the collar so easily. If I had gotten to him first, he thought, he would have been my puppet. I would have hidden the ring, passed him off for a Cardinal, told him who to vote for… and then that fortuitous accident with the scorpions would have made everything so much easier. Idiots like da Capua-so easily swayed by the most puerile of mummery-would have taken the priest’s word as gold, and voted as he told them-the candidate I would have already suggested to him! It would have been an easy victory for Bonaventura.

Of course, Bonaventura had never been his favorite. He was a necessary tool, that was all. A mediocre instrument with which to accomplish a task of tremendous significance: to keep the Church away from the influence of Frederick, who was at best agnostic and quite possibly an atheist. Bonaventura was not especially smart, but he was doggedly good at keeping his eye on the prize: total emancipation from secular power. Beyond that, when it came to all the details of shepherding the masses, Bonaventura was not somebody Fieschi would have chosen to work with, in large part because he was too obstinate. Fieschi would have preferred somebody weak-willed, even feeble-minded, whom he could manipulate with the skill of a puppet master.

That is why he wrote Father Rodrigo Bendrito on the piece of paper. He could read men’s faces, and he knew-he knew-that he was casting the seventh vote for the crazed priest; and he further knew that it had not occurred to any one of them that Rodrigo might actually be chosen.

Fieschi finished writing the name, underlined it for emphasis, and rose. He walked to the altar, placed the piece of paper on the paten, tilted it so that it slid into the chalice, and returned to his seat.

As Gil Torres and Colonna rose to count the votes, Fieschi relaxed in his seat. He reached for his satchel and took out the piece of paper he’d found in Rodrigo’s satchel. His eyes skimmed over the words, not for the first time, and he took pleasure in the inanity of Rodrigo’s prophecy.

The high Cedar of Lebanon will be felled. The stars will tumble from the heaven, and within eleven years, there will be but one god and one king. The second son will vanish, and the children of God will be freed. Wanderers with come, bearing a head. Woe to the priests! A new order rises; if it falls, woe to the Church! Battle will be joined, many times over, and faith will be broken. Law will be lost, and kingdoms will fail. The land of the infidels will be destroyed.

Yes, Fieschi thought, repressing a smile. Yes, this man will serve us very nicely.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Under the Night Sky

After reuniting with Istvan, Feronantus called for a kinyen. “For all of our company,” he said, “both present and fallen.” Cnan felt both honored and troubled by the elder knight’s words. Nor was she alone in her feelings, judging by the expressions on the faces of some of the others. But they all fell to preparations nonetheless, building the illusion of a communal feast hall on the open plain.

She found a shallow depression, deep enough to provide some shelter from the wind. From its center, she could almost pretend the horizon was hidden beyond a gentle ridge. It must have held water once, as there was more wormwood clustered within the bowl than the surrounding area. The brush would burn after a fashion, sticky and smoldering until it dried out, and then it would flash with heat and light. Eleazar set to cutting down a supply of fuel for the fire.

Two hunting parties ranged north and south from the depression, engaged in an unspoken contest to see who could provide the best meat for the evening meal. Cnan privately thought neither team would find much, and her stomach grumbled noisily when Vera and Percival returned a few hours later with a pair of scrawny rabbits. However, when she spotted R?dwulf and Yasper a while later, her excited shouts brought the rest of the company running.

R?dwulf was walking beside his horse, who had been conscripted into pulling a makeshift travois that had been assembled from cloaks, rope, and one of Finn’s hunting spears. Sprawled on the makeshift frame was a deer with a spread of velvet-covered antlers. Cnan’s mouth watered at the sight.

“There are more out there,” Yasper announced with a grin, “but figuring out how to carry one back to camp was hard enough.”

“One is more than sufficient to best our paltry rabbits,” Percival said.

“I like rabbit,” Istvan pointed out.

Everyone ignored the Hungarian. Very little of what he had said since he returned had made much sense, and they could all see that he was lost in the throes of a freebutton mushroom madness. Though, how he had found them on the plain was a mystery no one had been able to explain.

“There’s a herd about an hour north of here,” Yasper explained, “And water too, I think. We could smell it, but didn’t have a chance to find it. These deer spooked at the sight of us, but didn’t run far.”

Feronantus grunted slightly at the unspoken details of Yasper’s report. A wild herd that knew enough of mounted riders to be wary, but not so much that they would abandon the sanctuary offered by running water.

Yasper slapped the side of the dead animal. “Tarandos,” he pronounced, winking at Raphael. “Aristotle’s stag. We must be at the edge of the world when we start finding the beasts of legend.”

Cnan guffawed at the lunacy of this statement, but the alchemist’s mood was too infectious to be deterred.

Fresh vegetables were in short supply. Most of what the company carried was dried or salted-the meager rations a soldier ate without noticing taste or texture-but Yasper, once he had convinced Feronantus that he wasn’t going to make the deer burn with witchfire, managed to blend together a paste that he threw on the fire at regular intervals as the deer cooked. It should have been slow-roasted, cut steaks buried in a bed of white coals, but their stomachs all growled so loudly-and so constantly-as R?dwulf was skinning the deer, that they decided to erect a makeshift spit and cook the meat as quickly as possible.

The fire was going to be visible for many miles, and the smell of cooking meat would spread for a similar distance. They couldn’t hide on the steppes, and given everyone’s exhaustion, Raphael didn’t think such obscurity was high on anyone’s mind. Better to fight with a full belly than to be denied one final, solid meal.

They gathered around the fire as Feronantus cut heavy chunks of steaming meat from the cooked deer. Squatting, lying, standing, kneeling-none of them went far-they fell upon the meat with the appetites of doomed men. Even Cnan, who typically ate very sparingly, like a tiny bird pecking at seeds, attacked a piece of meat with both hands, eagerly licking at the juices as they ran down her arms.

We needed this, Raphael thought, his belly groaning as it stretched around the weight of deer meat. Yasper had produced a pair of skins filled with the Mongolian liquor-arkhi-and Raphael intercepted one as it came past him. He had not gotten any more used to the pale liquid, but he drank it readily enough. He coughed, his nose and eyes watering, and he passed the skin on to a laughing R?dwulf.

“Breathe in more slowly,” the big Welshman chuckled as he tipped back a portion nearly double the size Raphael had taken. R?dwulf grimaced and belched, eliciting a cheer from Eleazar on the other side of the fire. The Spaniard raised the other skin of arkhi in salute.

“I have drunk many strange things in my travels,” Raphael admitted, “but this drink of the Mongols is difficult to acquire a taste for.”

“I’ve had worse.” R?dwulf offered the skin, but Raphael begged off. “That tree sap in Greece, for instance.”

Retsina,” Yasper moaned. “Oh, the Greeks know many things, but it is a pity that they could not apply the same rigor to the crafting of wines as they do to the natural sciences and philosophy.”

“Philosophy cannot solve every riddle, my friend,” R?dwulf said.

“Making a decent spirit is not that hard of a riddle,” Yasper countered. He received the second skin from Eleazar. “Do you know how the Mongols make this? They prepare the ingredients and attach it to their saddles. As they ride, the heat of the sun and the movement of their horse create a perfect environment for the spirits to arise.”

“It sounds like you admire them,” Istvan slurred from his semi-supine position next to R?dwulf.

Yasper shrugged. “Each of them is entirely self-reliant. They carry food and drink. Tools to mend their clothes and their weapons. Furs to sleep on. They can shoot from horseback, without any care as to the direction they face. A single Mongol could ride from one edge of the world to the other, and never suffer from any want. One man is dangerous, but when you field thousands of men like this, they become unstoppable.”

Raphael glanced around the fire, and based on the expressions on the faces of the others, judged that few of the company shared the alchemist’s admiration. Yasper, becoming aware of the silence in which the crackling shift of fire-glazed wood was overloud, lowered his eyes and struggled to find the words to repair the damage he had done to the mood.

“A woman’s touch,” Istvan croaked.

“I beg your pardon?” Raphael asked, eager to welcome the distraction.

“That’s what they’re missing.” The Hungarian waved a hand toward the shadowy shapes of their hobbled horses. “Where would you put a whore?” He shrugged, the answer seemingly self-evident-even in his demented state. “They can’t ride forever,” he said. “A man can eat and sleep in his saddle, take a piss, and shit, even. Eventually he’s going to have to stop.” His head lolled back and he stared, unseeingly, at the night sky.

Eleazar guffawed, and when Raphael realized the Spaniard was looking at him, he felt his face redden. He tried very hard not to steal a glance at Vera, who sat between Yasper and Percival. Separate from him, but not that far away.

“Finally, something you and I agree on,” Eleazar said, nodding toward Istvan. “What is the point of riding across the world if you don’t get to enjoy the array of riches it has to offer you?”

Vera spat a hunk of gristle into the fire where it snapped and sizzled. Percival shifted awkwardly and leaned forward as if to come to her aid in the conversation, but Vera stilled him with a steely glance. “No,” she said, “the man with the huge sword speaks true. Were I as well-endowed as he, I would make sure to sheath such a weapon in every town I conquered. ’Tis only the basic rule of rapine, is it not? Take what isn’t yours. At sword point no less.”

“Eh,” Eleazar blanched, refusing to meet Vera’s intense gaze. “That is not what I meant. I only-”

“My Shield-Maidens and I were in Kiev when the Mongols came,” Vera snapped. “It had been more than ten years since rumors of this invincible army had reached the city-ten years of waiting, of living in fear that the stories we had heard from the Cumans about the battle at the Kalka River were true. The Ruthenian nobility dismissed these stories, lying to themselves that they had been victorious at Kalka, that they had driven the horde away. They fought among themselves, ignorant children squabbling over lies of their own making, and when the horde came back-and it most certainly did-none of them were prepared.

“Refugees from the cities conquered by the Mongols streamed into Kiev. Our wards filled with wounded, women and children who had not been so badly maimed that they couldn’t still walk tens and hundreds of miles to our citadel. These were the lucky ones, and though we did what we could for their physical wounds, each was deeply scarred by what they had seen, by what had been done to them. We could not help them. We could only offer prayers that their suffering would be eased.”

Tossing her gnawed bone into the fire, Vera got to her feet. “By the time the Mongol army actually appeared outside the gates of Kiev, we were numb from the stories we had heard. From our citadel, we can see beyond each of the gates, and we watched the plains fill with enemy soldiers. Kiev had been besieged before; it was a jewel each of the Ruthenian princes longed to possess. But this army was different. The Khan-Batu-did not want to take Kiev as a treasure; he wanted to destroy it. Utterly.”

Tears streamed down her face, and she angrily swiped them off her cheeks. Her eyes were bright with firelight. “I would submit that Kiev was one of the grandest cities in the world. I had watched it welcome all of the lost refugees from the surrounding principalities. It clasped all of these frightened people to its bosom and found places for them within its walls. It was a haven. It was home. And the Mongols burned it all, simply because they could.”

After a long silence, Eleazar shifted awkwardly and opened his mouth to speak, but Vera cut him off with a savage slash of her hand. “They are monsters,” she said, her voice hard. “Just as the men of the West have been monsters as well to those who they strive to subjugate, and I am not such a fool to think that all men are monsters, but by the blood of the Virgin, I will not ride with men who cannot remember the sanctity of their oaths or how to honor those whom they have sworn to protect.”

Eleazar lowered his gaze. “I have erred greatly by insulting you, lady of the skjalddis,” he said. His face was flushed, ruddy even, in the firelight. “It burdens my heart greatly to think that you might remember me by the ill-formed speech, and I hope that the words I have spoken this evening may, someday, be erased from your memory.”

A wry smile tugged at the corner of Vera’s mouth as she nodded, her hands unclenching. “I have heard tales from some of my more traveled sisters of the sweet-tongued men from Iberia,” she said. “Though your speech is rough-hewn, Eleazar, I know it to be from your heart, unlike the words you spoke earlier, and for that I am thankful.”

She turned her attention to the other side of the fire where Istvan lay, his head still thrown back. His mouth was open, and he shuddered and gurgled when R?dwulf kicked his leg. The Hungarian raised his head, closing his mouth and working his tongue against his teeth. “What?” he asked, blinking like a surprised doe.

“The lady finds you offensive,” Percival said quietly.

Istvan stared up at Vera for a second, and then idly waved a hand in her direction. “Of course she does,” he muttered. “She’s one of you.” He let his head slip back, and his attention wandered back up to the scattered stars across the wide night sky.

Yasper was the first to laugh, a dry chuckle that slowly worked its way around the fire, increasing in volume as each member of the company joined in, allowing a little levity to escape.

Vera threw a small stone at Istvan, who flinched as it bounced off his chest, flapping a hand as if he was brushing away a fly. She sat back down, and as she did so she met Raphael’s gaze.

He returned it, having gotten much better about not looking away when she looked at him, and he found himself inordinately pleased that she appeared to be comforted by his presence.

While R?dwulf was telling a war story that seemed as if it would last longer than it would take for a man to fetch back one of the Englishman’s longest arrow flights, Raphael excused himself and wandered off to piss. He walked downwind until he was at the edge of the fire’s light, and after kicking the scraggly bush in front of him to make sure there was no nocturnal creature hiding in it, he stood and watered the plant.

As he finished, he heard the soft slap of a leather boot against the hard ground, and a hand fell on his shoulder. “A moment, brother,” Percival said. Raphael nodded, and kept his gaze directed outward as Percival watered the next bush over.

“Tarry with me a while,” the tall knight suggested as he finished. He pointed to his left. “Let us make the night circle,” he said, referring to an old technique of nighttime patrolling. Two men would walk widdershins around a camp-one directing his attention to the ground before them, the other keeping his eyes trained outward. The outward-looking man would not have his vision spoiled by firelight from the camp, knowing that his companion was keeping him on the correct path.

“I have been troubled as of late,” Percival said after they had walked awhile. Raphael grunted at this, but kept his eyes turned toward the emptiness beyond the camp. It was no mystery that the Frank shouldered a weight none of the rest of them wanted to-or could, for that matter-carry. It was not just Finn’s death, or the fact that Percival had had the watch when Graymane had approached. It went back further than that. Roger had fallen in Kiev, a stop they had made at Percival’s insistence.

“I know the others are disturbed by my visions,” Percival said. “But you have been in the presence of those who have been recipients of the Virgin’s Grace; you know how it changes a man. We cannot refuse what she gives us, even if we do not understand what it means.”

“We rarely do,” Raphael murmured, thinking of Eptor, the young brother in Damietta. Wounded in the horrific assault to take the city’s guard tower in the Nile, Eptor had been shaken to the core of his being by the Virgin’s Grace. He had seen ghosts-both companions who had fallen during the endless siege and other apparitions. The legate, Pelagius of Albano, had tried to turn Eptor’s visions to his own end, even though he had no power over the Shield-Brethren. Conditions were horrendous at the camp, and most of the men were so sick they could barely stand, which was the only reason the Shield-Brethren had not abandoned the Crusaders. They would not leave behind those who could not defend themselves, no matter how contrary to their Christian virtues they acted.

Knowing that Eptor trusted Raphael, the legate had demanded Raphael make the boy acknowledge the vision the Church wanted. Raphael had refused and been flogged for his insubordination. Pelagius tried to coerce Eptor during Raphael’s punishment, and the legate’s brutish insistence only frightened the sensitive boy.

By the time Raphael recovered from his punishment, Eptor had become lost in a squalid terror in his own mind. He had seen something while mentally fleeing the legate’s demands, and this dreadful vision devoured his spirit. The end came quickly. He was feverish in the morning, his condition worsening with each hour; by nightfall, he was raving. He screamed most of the night, and shortly before dawn, he died.

Raphael had been with him during the last hour, waiting for sunrise. Waiting for the life to leave the tortured knight’s body. His throat raw from screaming, he could only make tiny rasping noises like the sound of a knife being drawn against a leather strop. Raphael had sat as close as he dared, his head lowered toward the other man’s lips, listening to Eptor’s prayers. He only wanted to understand why the Virgin had chosen him.

“I have seen wheels in the sky,” Percival was saying. “Circles of flame and smoke that are not really there. I saw them in the woods when I laid Tonnerre to rest, and though I did not realize it at the time, I saw them again the morning Finn died. I was on watch, Raphael, my eyes did not stray. I am a knight initiate of the Shield-Brethren. We do not shirk from our duties. We do not fail to protect our brothers-in-arms.”

“We were tired,” Raphael interjected. “None of us would have been any more alert that morning.”

“I would have been,” Percival insisted, and the conviction in his voice stilled Raphael’s further comment. Percival laid a hand on Raphael’s arm, and Raphael turned his head slightly, trying to see the Frank’s face without spoiling his night vision. “I would have been,” Percival repeated. “And I was. I watched the sun come up. I watched Finn leave our camp to go fetch water. I saw him find the ravine and climb down. I waited for him to come back.” Percival’s grip tightened. “The next thing I knew the sky had been blotted out by the spinning wheels, and Vera was shouting at me. I wanted to look away; I wanted to know what had caused her alarm. But I could not tear my eyes away from the wheels.”

“What are they?” Raphael asked.

Percival dropped his hand and continued his slow course around the camp. “I do not know. They are both terrifying and beautiful. I find myself yearning to see them again, and I have never felt such desire as this before. Not even-no, I have never felt such conviction. And what is it that I desire? The sight of these wheels accompanies the death of those whom I love. What does the Virgin want of me? Am I to become a monster that puts his friends in danger so that he may receive a glimpse of Heaven?”

“No,” Raphael countered. “That is not what she wants of you. You simply don’t-” He paused. What could he tell Percival? What did he truly know of visions, of what they meant?

“But that is not all,” Percival said. “When we were in the tomb of Saint Ilya, I had a different vision. One I felt I had had before. In the woods. It was not the wheels that drove me to Kiev, it was the other vision. The one of the cup.”

Raphael inhaled sharply, but kept his tongue silent. The true vision, he feared.

“I saw a grave, a tomb of a great man. Resting on top of it was a flat plate and a gold cup. I saw my hands reach out and touch the plate, but I knew that was not what I sought. As soon as I had that thought, I felt myself put the plate back, and I reached for the cup instead. I used both hands, and they were not these hands…”

Raphael risked a glance over his shoulder, blinking as the firelight filled his left eye. Percival had raised his hands, staring at them as if he did not recognize them.

“… but they were my hands,” Percival continued. “I picked up the cup, and I thought it was empty until I looked inside. And that is when I saw the wheels.”

He stopped walking. Forgoing his night vision, Raphael stopped as well, turning to face the other man. “What is it?” he asked, sensing Percival had not yet spoken what was truly on his mind.

Percival raised his head and stared off into the night. He looked with such intensity that Raphael turned his head and tried to spy what Percival saw in the night. There was nothing but darkness beyond the camp, and Raphael shivered.

Percival was staring at something. It was not visible, and Raphael had a suspicion that even were the sun to be overhead, driving every shadow into hiding for a thousand miles, he would still not see what Percival saw.

“I’m going the wrong way,” Percival said softly.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

God’s Plan

Andreas and Styg stood in the heart of the raucous audience, watching as the dead Livonian was dragged away. The Khan’s man, a ferocious fighter who had beaten considerable odds, had been driven out of the stadium by men with padded sticks. Men who were clearly terrified of the man, even though he was wounded. He had heard stories from the others about the riot that had followed Haakon’s fight, about the demon warrior with the pole-arm who had slain a number of Mongol guards before they had subdued him. Clearly, this man was of the same ilk, and Andreas found it fascinating that the Mongols were so cowed by their prisoner.

But it was more than just the guards’ trepidation toward the captive warrior. There was a restless uneasiness among them as well. Looking at the seething mass that filled the arena, Andreas began to understand the source of the Mongolian unease. They were mobile warriors, used to fighting their wars on horseback, skilled at covering great distances and making war as far away from their homeland as their great mobility permitted them.

Horses were more of a liability than an asset within the confines of a city, or even the close-knit environs of a forest. He recalled his own ride to the arena, through the throngs of the crowds and the narrow alleys. The Mongols were not weak, but they were not in their place of strength. On some level, they were aware of their reduced capabilities, but they couldn’t do anything about it. Onghwe Khan’s degenerate obsession with blood sports kept them here; but every day they remained, their confidence waned a little more. He could see it-plainly now-in how they handled the volatile assets that were at the heart of their leader’s diversion. They’re as much a prisoner as the men they keep caged, Andreas thought, and it’s starting to become apparent to them that they’ve locked themselves inside the cage with those who have every reason to want to do them harm.

Even as this realization struck Andreas, so too did the urgency of this knowledge. While the Mongols still ran the Circus, their control was less absolute. Order in Hunern was precarious now, and the tiniest nudge was probably all that was required to make it slip, to let chaos in, and then devastation would visit Hunern again.

If I’ve noticed this, then others must have as well. Moving quickly through the crowd, Andreas forced his way out of the stands, Styg at his side. He had shown himself at the arena, letting the people take note of his presence, and he had witnessed for himself the type of fighters that the Khan had at his disposal, and now it was time to report back to Rutger.

To say that the situation had ever truly been under control was to lie, but the calm that had settled over Hunern in the wake of this seeming return to routine was a sham. Violence simmered beneath the surface of the city, waiting for the slightest provocation. Waiting to erupt.

“That man,” Styg said, “was amazing. Call it luck, or call it fortune, but I’ve never seen such odds so quickly reversed.”

“He wanted to live,” Andreas said as they reached the stairs and began to descend into the dim tunnel beneath the stands. “The Livonian didn’t understand what happens when you corner a wild beast, no matter how strong his advantage might have seemed.” He paused, and with a touch, brought Styg to a halt as well. “Remember that, Styg. There are few advantages that can’t be tipped when your opponent wants victory more than you do.”

Styg nodded. The implications seemed to chill him.

Arvid and Sakse were waiting with the horses, and with the eagerness of unblooded youth, they wanted to hear about the fight. Andreas let Styg tell the tale, falling slightly behind the three men as they rode out of town. He prayed-fervently and silently-that the Virgin would hold back the waiting deluge of violence just a little longer. Once it started, it would not be controlled or stopped. At best, it could be channeled; if they were lucky, they might be able to turn it in the right direction.

Otherwise, he feared, the Shield-Brethren would be its first victims.

Dietrich punished the pell until the rope suspending the wooden block from the rafters snapped. The wood thudded to the earthen floor, and Dietrich stared at it for a long moment, furious that it had the audacity to lie down on him. Breathing more heavily than his pride wanted to acknowledge, he sheathed his sword and glanced around for something to quench his overwhelming thirst. Something to drown the fury still within him.

His man should have won the fight today. The Khan’s man should have been the one bleeding out in the sand, not his knight. Yet another embarrassing incident for the Livonian order. His knight had been better armed and had worn maille that protected him from the other man’s inferior weapons. But it hadn’t been enough. It hadn’t been nearly enough.

To make matters worse, the fight came on the heels of the meetings with the other militant orders-meetings that had ranged from frostily standoffish to downright disastrous. The other Grandmasters had, as a whole, been indifferent to his charges and his concerns. They all had been circumspect in their language and demeanor, but Dietrich had spent enough time at royal courts to read the unspoken distain and dismissal in their carriages.

No wonder they think I am a fool, he thought. The best man I can field for the arena turns out to be an incompetent corpse.

He had seen the fight from his usual place at the top of the stands, watching his man stumble instead of seizing opportunities. The hatchet in the back should have ended the fight, but instead the heathen bastard had plucked the weapon free and used it against his Livonian opponent. His man had given the enemy his weapon! The whole fight could have only been more embarrassing if the knight had fallen on his weapon and killed himself.

Moreover, he had seen the two Shield-Brethren knights in the audience, and with a creeping, seething certainly, he knew the audience was imagining how the fight would have gone if one of them had been down on the sand. The knights of Petraathen would have been victorious.

The rotting timbers of the old barn did little to keep out the noise of the Livonian compound, and he could hear the din of his soldiers doing their drills. Gritting his teeth, he cursed his current accommodations and how they denied him the slightest solitude. The echo of steel against steel sounded so timorous that each clash fouled his mood even more.

He cast about for the wineskin he had brought along. Drinking hadn’t cured his mood, and he had thought that some physical activity might assuage his temper, but the rope had failed him-like so much of this godforsaken place, he thought-and it was time to return to the solace of the wine. There were times when he envied the common man and the ease of his vices. The callings of the just and the righteous could make taking one’s pleasures far more complicated than it needed to be, especially when one was a man of position, tenuous though that might be.

He found the skin and took a long swallow. Staring absently at the far wall, he tried to put aside his frustration and concentrate on what he could accomplish.

An isolated thud interrupted his musing, and he glanced about, listening. The din of training had lessened, and there was a hum of voices growing nearer. One pleaded, and the other responded in clipped tones, swatting the first man’s words aside like they were nothing more than an annoying fly. Dietrich smiled, the wineskin suddenly forgotten in his hands, as recognition of that second voice took hold of him swiftly, pulling his attention away from his frustrated ruminations and into the here and now.

The door to the barn banged open, and two men walked through. One, the pleader, was a new recruit, his spurs freshly earned and his courage not proven. The pale fuzz of his young beard didn’t quite hide the lack of a chin, and his voice grated on Dietrich’s ears even as he profusely apologized.

“Forgive me, Heermeister,” the young knight babbled. “I told him that you were busy at your drills, and that he should take a moment to eat or drink after his lengthy ride-”

The other man brushed aside the complaints with a dismissive cut of his hand that struck the pleader across the mouth. Dietrich knew this one well, and much of his exhaustion and dismal mood were swept away by the sight of those cold and merciless blue eyes.

“Apologies, Heermeister,” Kristaps said. “As this knave says, I have ridden long, but my news is of greater import than the needs of my belly.” He was soaked through, his maille damaged and his tabard stained with blood. He could easily be mistaken for a battlefield wretch, a man-at-arms who had miraculously survived an enemy’s charge by hiding beneath the fallen bodies of his comrades, but one only had to stare at those eyes for a moment to realize that such craven behavior would be incomprehensible to this man.

God has heard my prayers, Dietrich thought. In my hour of need, he grants me salvation.

Sir Kristaps of Steiermark, the First Sword of Fellin. Known to his enemies as Kristaps Red-Hilt and as Volquin’s Dragon. One of the few who survived Schaulen; had it not been for Kristaps, none of them would have lived.

“It is a long ride from Rus,” Dietrich said, coming out of his shock and remembering where Kristaps had been. “You came alone?”

Kristaps nodded, his face suffusing with an intense anger. “Overall, our errand was a success,” he said in a tightly controlled voice. “Later, I will report of what we learned of the land’s defenses. It was in the matter of the Lavra that our efforts were blunted by an ambush on the part of the Shield-Brethren.” His eyes flashed. “Feronantus was there, Heermeister.” He spat the name, and those that followed. “As well as Percival, Raphael, and Eleazar, and several others. Twelve all told, I think. Many of their finest.”

Suddenly, it all made sense to Dietrich. The Shield-Brethren had broken their oath to the Pope: their best were not at the Circus of Swords, minding their duty. Instead, Feronantus had taken a party of his best knights on some errand that had them crossing paths with his own scouts in Rus. What were they doing out there? Did they know what the Livonian order was planning? Were they after some secret of their own? Why had they abandoned Christendom?

There were too many questions, and they tumbled noisily in his head, banging against a gleeful thought that threatened to crush them entirely-a way in which his honor, his order’s honor-could be restored.

He held up his hand, more to silence his own flurry of thinking than to cut Kristaps off. There was nothing he could do about the Shield-Brethren’s betrayal at the moment. There was a more critical opportunity that needed to be seized.

“We have both endured sufferings at the hands of the Shield-Brethren, sufferings that have as yet been unavenged,” he said. “I will hear more of your mission in the Rus, and what you know of these scurrilous Shield-Brethren, but first, I must ask: can you fight?”

Kristaps stared at him, his eyes even colder than before, and for a second Dietrich wondered if he had mistakenly spoken too plainly. It was, ultimately, a foolish question to ask Kristaps; if the man could breathe, he could fight. To question that dedication was rather impolitic of the Heermeister of the order to whom Kristaps had sworn his life and his sword.

Kristaps’s face lost some of its ruddy color, and the hint of a smile curled his cruel mouth. “Of course, Heermeister,” he said. “I slew one of their number with my dagger, and God did not strike me down. In fact, He spared me so that I could return and perform more work for Him.”

There was the fervor and the passion that his current company of men lacked. If Dietrich could have had even fifty men like Kristaps, Schaulen would never have happened, and the pagans of the north would still know their place. He flicked a hand at the foppish knight who had tried to prevent Kristaps’s entrance. “Food and wine,” he commanded.

As the younger warrior scurried away, Dietrich offered his wineskin to Kristaps. “Oh, yes,” he said. “God has a plan, and I think you will find it very satisfying.”

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

The Stone Ring

The Khagan’s caravan failed to move the next morning, and did not appear to be inclined to move the following morning either. As the day wore on and Gansukh watched preparations for yet another feast, he wondered if the Khagan and his retinue would ever reach the Place of the Cliff.

He had spent too many summers and winters in the saddle, and his spirit was restless. This inactivity chaffed at him. The Chinese raiders had been routed, and what few survivors remained had scattered. The scouts had found little evidence that any raider remained within a half day’s ride, but to stay in this valley was the foolhardy decision of a provincial administrator, not a warrior.

In addition, such inactivity meant too many opportunities for the Khagan to slide into a drunken stupor. Any decisive action would be slow in coming.

They had left Karakorum, but too much of the palace had come with them, which is why the routing of the Chinese had to be celebrated. Such idleness was typical of the way courtiers thought: the Mongol Empire is brave and strong; we must have a feast! After as many months as he had spent at court, Gansukh wasn’t sure why he was still surprised at such a ridiculous decision.

Wandering around-waiting-darkened his mood, and on the few occasions when he caught sight of Master Chucai, he could tell the Khan’s advisor was similarly concerned about the delays. Gansukh suspected Chucai would join him if he started whipping each and every ox and draft horse, until every wagon, ger, and lazy courtier was dragged toward Burqan-qaldun.

To keep his gnawing frustration at bay, Gansukh tried to stay alert to Munokhoi’s movements. He knew how brittle his safety was, and even more so, Lian’s. Gansukh continued to haunt the circle of tents near the Khagan’s ger, performing whatever odd job he could find so as to keep an eye and ear turned toward Munokhoi’s comings and goings.

If the Torguud captain was aware of his silent shadow, he did not acknowledge it.

Now, as the sun began to slip toward the horizon, tickling the bellies of the white clouds with orange feathers, a crowd started to gather about the stones that had been laid in a large ring near the feasting area. Gansukh had participated in the gathering of the rocks from the surrounding hills, a boring and laborious task that had taken up a goodly portion of the morning, and as the rock haulers had been directed as to where to deposit their stones, Gansukh had gleaned a pretty good idea as to the eventual use of the circle.

An arena.

Much of the growing audience’s attention was on the two cages facing each other on opposite sides of the circle. In one cage, on the northern side of the arena, a burly man with a body patched in thick black hair, a great bushy beard, a hooked nose-broken more than once and never set right-and dark eyes nearly lost in a perpetual squinting scowl. In the opposite cage, a tall blond ghost of a man, sitting more often that standing. While his attitude was quite passive, his cold blue eyes carefully and exactingly watched everything. Two guards stood beside each cage, and more guards circled the ring, keeping back the growing throng of spectators. People in the mob jostled each other for a better view as they jeered at the captives and loudly proclaimed their bets on the fight’s outcome. The Khagan’s mighty ger had been moved a few hours ago so that it loomed over the circle of stones, and Munokhoi, Master Chucai, and a few other people-including one of Ogedei’s wives-milled about on the raised platform near the ger’s entrance.

On the western side of the arena-not far from where Gansukh stood, watching the spectacle unfold-enterprising gamblers kept tallies in the dirt and with bundles of sticks as bettors huddled around them, shouting to make themselves heard.

“Three oxen on the wild ape-man from the West!”

“Ten goats on the fair one!”

“Put me down for six copper pieces on the big fellow!”

Up on the platform, Munokhoi strutted back and forth, pleased with the attention being given to the proceedings. Gansukh was fairly certain the fights had been Munokhoi’s idea. It was the sort of demeaning spectacle that the Torguud captain would relish, and while he had little desire to watch, Gansukh stayed.

The crowd was getting noisier. Sporadic chants for the Khagan sprang up, but they had little strength and quickly petered out. Munokhoi’s pace became more agitated, and with a last glance at the closed flaps of the Khagan’s ger, he sprang off the platform. Stalking over to the hairy man’s cage, the Torguud captain sized up the fighter. Stroking his chin, he took his time examining the big man, circling the cage to study him while the prisoner watched him cautiously. Munokhoi abruptly grabbed the cage and rattled it hard, shouting like a demon right in the prisoner’s face. The prisoner did not startle; he stared at Munokhoi, and the lines of his face creased deeper as his scowl intensified.

Munokhoi laughed boisterously and turned away. With long, quick strides, he walked over to the gathering of gamblers. “Put me in for twenty oxen on that man!” he ordered.

It was the other man however, the pale man, who intrigued Gansukh. Though captive and caged, he was fascinatingly tranquil. He did not hang his head in despair, nor did he glower and rage at his captors. He sat still in the center of his cage with his legs crossed. If he was waiting for some future opening, some chance at escape, he betrayed no sign of it, but Gansukh was certain there were depths beneath that placid surface. A great warrior must always search for the enemy’s intentions and guard his own.

The dark-haired man was savagely strong. He growled at his captors like a dog trying to establish dominance. Gansukh could see why Munokhoi favored him. Strength, however, was not always a guarantee of victory. If the pale man was swift and clever, he could win the fight handily.

Waiting, Gansukh thought, and without realizing it, he had shoved away from the tent wall that he had been leaning against. “Twenty-five cows on the fair one,” he said, loudly and clearly enough to be heard.

Munokhoi whirled to see who had called out, and catching sight of Gansukh, his entire body went rigid. His grin was malformed, uneven and showing too many teeth.

Gansukh did not react in any way. “Twenty-five,” he repeated, his eyes flicking toward the gamblers.

Munokhoi was more than an annoyance; he was a very real danger. Gansukh couldn’t kill him outright, nor could he continue to ignore him. Lian would argue otherwise-at least she would have previously. After killing the Chinese commander, she had gotten very hard to read. Perhaps, she might condone the death of Munokhoi now.

If he asked her. But he wasn’t going to. He didn’t need to. Munokhoi was his problem, a problem that wasn’t going to go away. And since he couldn’t just stick a knife in him and be done with it, he had to come up with some excuse.

Judging by the Torguud captain’s tension, it would not take much to provoke him, and if Munokhoi became openly hostile, then wasn’t lethal self-defense justified? What better way to provoke him than by injuring his pride? And here was a convenient way to do just that: by publicly backing the pale man against Munokhoi’s favorite.

“The scrawny one?”

The crowd fell silent at the voice, and everyone’s attention turned to the Khagan’s ger. Ogedei stood-swaying slightly, cup in hand-on the platform. “You favor the scrawny one?” he said, waving an arm at the pale warrior’s cage.

“I wager what he lacks in muscle he makes up for in skill, my Khan,” said Gansukh. “Even the superior force can be defeated through speed and tactics.” The last was unnecessary, but he saw the effect his words had on Munokhoi.

“I remember your fight with Namkhai,” the Khagan laughed. “I do not recall you being that swift, nor your tactics very effective, young pony.” He let his gaze wander about the assembled throng. “Namkhai,” he shouted, looking for his favorite wrestler. “Which do you prefer?”

Namkhai emerged from a clump of warriors not far from the platform. “I prefer to regard both men as equally dangerous,” he offered diplomatically.

Ogedei waved his cup back and forth, and wine slopped out, staining both his and Master Chucai’s robes. “That is the sort of answer I expect from my spineless administrators. Not from my champion wrestler.”

Namkhai bowed his head briefly, acknowledging the Khagan’s insight into his reply. “If I were to fight one of them,” he said, “I would be more wary of the pale-haired one.”

The Khagan stroked his beard expansively. “Perhaps I will offer you that chance,” he mused as he raised his cup toward his lips. Namkhai tipped his head deferentially once more.

Munokhoi spat in the dirt, and several of the gamblers looked nervously between the Torguud captain and Gansukh.

Still drinking, Ogedei waved his hand at the guards surrounding the cages, indicating that he was done waiting for the fighting to begin. Cautiously, the cage doors were opened and the two contestants were offered crude wooden sticks approximating swords. The crowd yipped and yelled in frenzied bloodlust as the two men were directed at spear point toward one another.

“The winner,” the Khagan decided with a glance at the cup in his hand, “receives one cup of arkhi.” He languidly raised a hand, and when he let it fall, the spearmen withdrew their weapons, leaving the two men, sword-sticks in hand, to face off against one another in the ring of stones.

Haakon had never learned the other man’s name, or even where he hailed from. Now, he might not need to. While the crudely carved shape in his hand implied this fight was not intended to be deadly, his opponent’s expression suggested otherwise. The man stood still, solid as a boulder, both feet firmly planted, unmoving save for the steady rise and fall of his hairy chest. He held his stick directly in front of him instead of keeping it to his shoulder or some place where it could not be knocked aside.

Haakon figured him to be untrained in the finer arts of wielding a sword, but the man held his sword-stick firmly and resolutely, as if he had some knowledge of what a hilt felt like in his hand.

He will come quickly, when he does, Haakon thought as he slowly circled his opponent, prowling just out of easy reach. He will seek to capitalize on his strength. Haakon tried to calm his brain, but now that he was out of the cage, his brain was a whirling confusion of thoughts. Part of him focused on the fight, but other parts of his mind were reflecting on his situation. Was this not unlike the arena in Legnica? From violence to captivity to violence again, here he was, forced to be a fighting dog for the amusement of these barbarians. And when he ceased to be amusing? What then?

It’s what they want you to think. It is the fear that will make you fight. It is the fear that will make you do something stupid.

Impatient, the big man lunged at Haakon’s chest. The thrust was quick and dangerous, but it lacked any real strength. Haakon-anticipating this very attack-sidestepped easily, and whipped his own stick out to knock the big man’s weapon aside. The first defense every student learned, drilled into them until it was an instinctive reaction. When Haakon tried to snap his stick back for a quick blow to his opponent’s face, the man simply raised his arm and ducked his head. Haakon felt a momentary flare of anger at having made such a foolish mistake: these pieces of wood did not have sharp edges like real swords, and a blow on the upper arm and shoulder would sting, but it wouldn’t do any real damage.

Growling, his opponent rushed him, using his own bent arm and sword as a makeshift battering ram. Haakon couldn’t get his own sword back into play quickly enough, and all he had time to do was brace himself before the burly man smashed into him.

He tumbled back, letting the momentum of the push take him into a roll, and he heard the other man’s sword slam down into the ground. Dirt pelted his legs. He came out of the roll into a crouch, looking up to see the big man standing with his legs spread, the sword rising up for another two-handed swing. Without rising, Haakon snapped his sword up, striking the big man’s knee with a violent crack.

His opponent howled. He wobbled as he tried to complete his downward swing, but the stroke was slow and clumsy. Haakon scurried aside, and as he regained his feet, he slammed his sword down on the other man’s extended hands, feeling the satisfying thwack of wood against bone, and then he followed through with a backhanded swipe. The tip slammed into the man’s face, crunching cartilage, and a crimson torrent of blood gushed out of the man’s nose.

Unlike the strike to the knee, the blow to his wrist and the broken nose appeared to only enrage the man, and with a roar, he retaliated with a jab of his thick fist. Haakon had closed after the strike to the wrist, and he pulled his head back to avoid the punch. The man’s hard knuckles scraped across the side of his face, and out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of the big man’s other hand. He had dropped his sword! The second punch caught him squarely on the cheek. His vision blurred and doubled as pain lanced through his jaw.

The big man pawed at him, trying to get a grappling hold; blinking through a film of tears, Haakon fought to extricate himself. His wooden sword was heavy, stuck on something, and the more he pulled on it, the more resistance he felt. The big man clouted him on the side of the head once more, and Haakon’s vision split even further. His sword was moving of its own volition now, and he dimly realized that his opponent had seized his weapon.

His arms were yanked upward, and he felt a blast of heavy breath on his neck. The wooden sword slammed against his chest, and he struggled against the big man’s sudden leverage. He had gotten behind Haakon, and with a firm grip on the stick, was trying to choke him.

His field of vision was filled with yellow starbursts and streaks of shining light. He had managed to get his hand between the stick and his throat, but even still, he could barely pull any breath. The big man grunted and heaved, his sweaty frame braced against Haakon’s back.

He was not going to last much longer. He needed air. His opponent was too strong.

Desperately, Haakon kicked backward. His first attempt missed, but he felt the big man shift his weight. The knee! His vision starting to darken, Haakon tried again, and this time he connected, the heel of his foot smashing against the knee he had hit previously. There wasn’t much strength in his blow-the angle was all wrong-but it was enough to make the other man stumble.

Haakon dropped down to his knees, leaning forward a tiny bit as he did so. The pressure against his throat increased as-for a second or two-he was straining against all of the other man’s weight, but then he felt the balance tip in his favor. From his kneeling position he then bent forward, and the big man tumbled over his shoulder.

The other man landed heavily, the air forced from his lungs with a sickly gasp. He still had Haakon’s sword, though his grip on it was loose.

His vision clearing as he greedily sucked in air, Haakon threw himself toward the supine man, reaching for the sword. Sensing Haakon’s approach, the big man struggled to sit up, but Haakon punched his broken and bloody nose. Wrenching the sword out of the man’s slack fingers, Haakon jabbed the short hilt into his opponent’s throat, and then clumsily scuttled away before the big man could grab him.

There was no need. The combination of being hit again on the nose and the blow to the windpipe had taken all of his opponent’s will to fight. The big man was curled into a ball, his body shaking as he tried to draw breath.

Still somewhat unsteady himself, Haakon used the wooden sword as a crutch and got to his feet. Suddenly aware of the crowd around him, he started to raise his hands-and the sword-into the air, but when he spied the warriors with spears approaching, he dropped the sword.

But he still raised his arms in victory, a signal the crowd responded to with an enthusiastic roar of approval. The men with spears indicated he should return to his cage, and with a final glance at his downed opponent, he staggered across the sandy field to his tiny cell. His vision still suffered, but he could see well enough, and he threw a salute to the tall Mongolian standing on the raised platform.

The tall man wasn’t quite as imposing as General Subutai, but his clothing was much finer and more ostentatious than anyone else’s. And he had a way of looking down on everyone around him that reminded Haakon of the liege lord who controlled the land on which Haakon’s village had been located.

Khagan, he thought, recalling the name he had heard from the guards during the long trip to Karakorum. The Khan of Khans.

Waiting at his cage was a man holding a wooden bowl filled with an eggshell-white fluid. Before he ducked back into his prison, Haakon took the offered bowl and quaffed it in three gulps. It was sour and vile, but he knew it would numb the pain that was going to visit him soon.

He glanced at the man he suspected was the supreme ruler of the Mongols, and raised the empty bowl.

A humorless smile playing across his lips, the Khagan lifted his own cup in return.

Gansukh did not join the crowd in their noisy exclamations. Half were cheering the bravery of the pale youth, while others shouted insults at the burly, black-haired man. He started to smile, and as soon as he realized he was doing so, he twisted his lips into a frown and turned away from the spectacle.

It did not matter that they were prisoners taken from foreign lands conquered by the Mongols. They were still men, and no man should be forced to fight for the entertainment of others. If they had refused to fight, they would have been killed. And what galled him further was a recollection of the wrestling match with Namkhai. He had challenged Namkhai, in fact, and not because he wanted to demonstrate his martial prowess, but because he wanted to get the Khagan’s attention. He was a free man, a warrior of the steppes, and yet, he too had fought for the pleasure of the Khagan. How different was he from those men in their cages?

He had sought to anger Munokhoi-and, judging by the Torguud captain’s clenched fists and stormy expression, he had accomplished as much-but this method was not to his liking.

“Young pony,” the Khagan’s voice drew his attention away from Munokhoi and the gamblers. Gansukh tilted his chin up and looked toward the Khagan’s ger. “The pale-haired one is very fierce. You were right.”

Gansukh inclined his head in acknowledgment.

“Would you fight him?”

Gansukh froze. His guts churned, and with a great deal of caution, he raised his head. “My Khan?” he asked, attempting to keep his face calm.

Ogedei stared at him, his eyes unblinking. “Namkhai said he would, and I wonder if you have the same desire.”

“My desire is whatever my Khagan desires,” Gansukh said, his tongue thick in his mouth. He hated saying the words, but he knew they were what Lian would have wanted him to say. It was the safe response, and here-in the midst of a crowd of warriors and courtiers, it was best to stick to the safe answers. Judging by the expression on a few of the faces in the crowd, he had disappointed them. They had been hoping for another replay of the night where he had challenged the Khagan and given him the cup.

Not tonight.

Ogedei grimaced, and raised his cup, draining the last few gulps of wine within. Ogedei too had hoped for a different answer.

As the Khagan’s attention drifted, Gansukh took several steps to his left. He glanced over his shoulder as he slipped into the crowd’s embrace.

Munokhoi was watching him, a feral smile on his lips.

Gansukh hesitated. I am not a coward, he thought. This spectacle wasn’t to his liking. He was tired. He was simply opting to retire early. He wasn’t running away.

“Bring out more fighters,” the Khagan shouted, and the crowd lustily roared its approval.

Gansukh fled, unable-and unwilling-to enjoy the gladiatorial bloodlust of the crowd. As he hurried through the sea of tents, he imagined he could hear Munokhoi’s mocking laughter ringing in his ears.

He fled back to his ger. And Lian.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

The Roots of Our Stories

I am going the wrong way.

Percival’s words echoed in Raphael’s mind as they completed their widdershins circuit of the company’s camp. The night circle watch had been an excuse on Percival’s part to unburden himself of a portion of the mental weight that he carried, and Raphael struggled with the import of what the Frank had told him. Percival had said I, implying that the vision he had received was his alone. What did that mean for the company? Would Percival depart in the morning, heading back toward the West?

That was the direction he had looked when he had said those words to Raphael. The endless sky of the steppes was disorienting, and it was hard to gauge one’s facing, but Raphael knew-with a shivering realization that made him hug himself-that Percival could feel the Grail. He could point to it the way a lodestone pointed north. As the company continued to ride east, Percival got farther and farther away.

Would his visions become more chaotic-more distracting-the farther he got from the source? Would the wheels-the images that Percival feared were signs of impending death-become more forceful in their apparition? Was his continued presence dooming every member of the company on its quest?

Raphael’s mind fled back to Damietta, to Eptor’s anguish. The boy had suffered greatly, and to what end? Raphael had wondered, in the years since, what would have happened if Eptor had simply died during the assault on the stone tower in the Nile. Would the legate have realized sooner the futility of their crusade? Would Francis of Assisi been able to reach a better accord between Christian and Muslim? How many less would have died during the Fifth Crusade?

And Francis himself, sequestered in the ragged shack at the peak of La Verna, receiving the stigmata. It had happened soon after Raphael’s visit to the Franciscan hermitage, and the venerable priest had died a few years later. But had those marks-those symbols of being marked by God-given Francis any solace in his lifelong quest for compassion and unity?

What good had ever come from listening to visions?

The annals of the Ordo Militum Vindicis Intactae were filled with stories of men receiving divine insight. He had, himself, told more than one fable to eager trainees about the blessings offered to the devoted and the pure-hearted by their patron goddess in whatever guise she wore. Athena. Freya. Mary. The name did not matter as long as the men believed their prayers were heard. Those who asked for guidance would be given it. Their mission-as hard and as unforgiving as it was-was not a fool’s errand. They would be rewarded for their diligence. Their lives-and their deaths, especially-would have meaning.

But what of Finn? Of Roger? Of Taran? Of Eptor, and so many others? Victories were won upon the sacrifices of these men, but was the world ever changed for the better?

Cnan quietly listened as the men told their stories. When she had first joined the company, she had sat apart from them during the evening meals and had ignored the way their conversations stuttered to a halt when she wandered into earshot. After a few months, they had grudgingly accepted her presence and no longer treated her as a complete pariah. She was no longer a stranger at their gatherings, and, more often than not, they ignored her completely. She had become invisible, and she was not bothered by their idle dismissal; in fact, such camouflage was part of her Binder training, though she had not had much opportunity to practice it over the last few years. She was, unlike many of the other kin-sisters she had met, a wanderer.

She knew enough to know that she might never fully comprehend the vastness of her sisterhood, but she also realized that knowing was not required in order to fully participate. Wherever she went, she could find signs of other sisters, and that they would welcome her and whatever news she carried. It was comforting, in her isolation, to know that she was part of an extended family. Over time, in the company of these men, she had come to realize she and they had more in common than she had thought.

The men of the Ordo Militum Vindicis Intactae were both knights and vagabonds. Independent, fiercely loyal, and surprisingly intelligent, they were bound by a set of principles that remained unspoken and mysterious to her. Not like the tenets espoused by the zealous Christian missionaries or the mumbled riddles clung to by starved ascetics she had encountered in her travels. The Shield-Brethren, like her kin-sisters, appeared to believe in a grand design, even if each of them, singularly, did not know the full extent of its shape or plan.

They are messengers too, she realized.

Shortly after completing her first assignment as a Binder, she had given up on the idea of family, hurling herself completely into the roles offered to her as a roaming messenger. She made no attachments, avoided falling in love with any boy, and never let herself be drawn into local politics. She delivered her messages and kept moving. She had seen a great deal of the world, and every once in a while wondered if there was a Binder who had traveled farther than she. She had chosen this life, and had reveled in the freedom such a decision had granted her.

And yet, listening to the Shield-Brethren, she began to realize how lonely her life truly was. Few of these men knew each other well before they had begun this journey, but now, they were tightly bound. Even Istvan, as much as the others expressed a near constant dislike of the mad Hungarian. They were-for lack of a better word-family.

Yasper was telling the story of the fight in the tunnels at Kiev again, though no one seemed to mind. Cnan smiled as he pulled at his face and waved his arms, imitating the gibbering priest with the flaming staff. He was exaggerating, of course; the alchemist had a natural penchant for embellishing details that made even the most mundane aspect of an event seem exceptionally heroic. She recalled slipping in the corridor and nearly dropping her knife, but in Yasper’s version, her clumsiness became a clever tuck-and-roll that saved all of them.

And Finn. Yasper lingered long on Finn’s valiant spear work. The hunter, more terrified than any of being caught underground and burned alive, held off a dozen of the crazed and raggedy monks with graceful precision. His spear, a serpentine extension of his hand, darted back and forth-piercing throats, slashing cheeks and hands. The filthy monks were forced to climb over their dead, and for all their efforts, each man only added to the pile of bodies choking the narrow tunnel.

Somewhat drunkenly, his words disjointed and slurred, Istvan told them of Finn’s bloody work in the Mongol camp. The Hungarian was not as good a storyteller as Yasper, and his memory of the raid was spotty at best, but he spoke with some admiration of the hunter’s swift knife and sure hand among the sleeping Mongols. Six, Istvan claimed. Finn slew six, before any of the enemy even realized death was among them.

Feronantus told them the story of how he met Finn. Following the Livonian defeat at Schaulen, the commander of the Livonian presence on the island of Saaremaa sought to be named the new Heermeister. He thought the best way to rally support for his claim was to keep the island under Livonian rule, thereby enabling his decimated order a safe haven from which to rebuild. The islanders resisted, and since a fair number of sons of the island’s gentry were apprenticed at the Tyrshammar, the Shield-Brethren were pressed to take a side in the conflict. Feronantus resisted, stating such involvement was akin to allowing the Shield-Brethren to be nothing more than hired mercenaries. The men of Tyrshammar must remain aloof from this local conflict.

However, small raiding parties began to whittle down the Livonian ranks. These guerilla-style attacks were successful for two reasons: the islanders were intimately familiar with the local terrain; and, given the relatively wild nature of the landscape, a number of men used to such conditions proved to be exceptionally useful. They wore no insignia that could connect them to Tyrshammar, of course, and in the end, their presence was overshadowed by the exploits of a single man. A hunter, who was neither one of the Shield-Brethren nor a native of the island. His prowess and zeal were so great that his exploits were already immortalized in song and drunken tale-telling before the last Livonian had fled the island.

The hunter’s name was Finn, and he never spoke of why he had devoted himself to the islanders’ cause, and Feronantus never asked. When the Shield-Brethren longboat returned to Tyrshammer, Finn had been seated on the oar bench with the other men. He pulled an oar as an equal, stayed for a fortnight at the Rock as a guest, and then vanished one foggy night.

When Feronantus and the rest of the Shield-Brethren landed at Stralsund to come to Legnica, Finn had been waiting for them. Without a word, he had joined the company as if no time had passed.

“You always leave out the best parts,” Yasper groaned when Feronantus finished his story. “Who was the woman?”

Eleazar lowered the satchel of arkhi. “What woman?” he asked, wondering what part of the story he had missed.

“The whole reason he was on Saaremaa in the first place.” Yasper smacked his forehead with one hand. “You don’t think he was up there because the hunting was good!”

Cnan glanced at Feronantus, who met her gaze briefly, his lined face giving nothing away. Then he leaned back, and the firelight no longer reached his eyes.

“It’s not always about a woman, Yasper,” Raphael observed as he returned to the circle, Percival not far behind him.

“Is that so?” Yasper retorted, making a big show of leaning forward and glancing in Vera’s direction. He had drunk more arkhi than the rest of them, and even though he wasn’t standing, he nearly toppled over. Eleazar reached out a large hand to steady the slight alchemist. When Yasper had recovered, Eleazar shoved him, knocking the Dutchman sprawling on his ass.

“Excuse the wretch,” Eleazar said to the circle at large. “His tongue has come loose in his head. Hopefully, he’ll get it tightened before he joins us again.”

From his supine position, Yasper raised a hand and made a rude gesture in the Spaniard’s general direction. The company laughed, forgiving the Dutchman’s momentary enthusiasm; and as Raphael and Percival sat back down, Cnan caught the glance that went back and forth between Raphael and Vera.

Vera noticed her watching, and suddenly embarrassed to have been caught spying on a private exchange, Cnan leaped to her feet. Waving everyone to silence, she launched into her own story about Finn. She was flustered at first, stumbling over the tale, but after a few seconds, she stopped thinking about Vera and Raphael-and Percival too; how had he managed to get in her thoughts like that? — and sank into her role as bard.

It was a simple story. One that had little room for embellishment the way Yasper would have told it, and none of the romantic gravitas of Feronantus’s, but it was her story. She prided herself on her woodcraft: on her ability to read the trails; to know where water and fruit-bearing plants could be found; to move so silently through the woods that the birds never betrayed her position with warning calls to another. Yet, compared to Finn, she was a large cow, blundering through the heavy brush.

No matter how far she ranged ahead or behind the company during their journey, she invariably found sign that Finn had already been there. At first, she thought he was clumsy in how he hid his passage, and then she allowed herself to think she was actually sharp-eyed enough to notice the tiny marks of the hunter’s trail. When they had been traveling in the forests of Poland and Rus, she would find tufts of hair from the pelts he wore caught on the unruly bark of the black alders. She would find the occasional boot print-usually only a partial print, at that-on boggy ground. His marks, tiny chips cut out of tree bark high above ground, indicated the presence of water, wildlife, and possible ambush sites; over time, she deciphered them all.

“I thought I was being clever,” she admitted to the company, “but I was only learning to see the signs Finn was leaving for me. I know he understood Latin better than he ever admitted, but out in the woods, it didn’t matter. He told me everything I needed to know without saying a word.”

One day, a few weeks after they had left Legnica, she had spotted Finn near a tiny stream and had decided to shadow him. Moving as carefully as she knew how, she tried to keep the wary hunter in sight. Several times she thought she had lost him, only to have him reappear in a different direction from where she had thought he had been traveling. After a few hours of this cat-and-mouse game, she realized he knew she was behind him. He had known all along, and when he vanished again, she gave up, feeling very foolish for having indulged in such a whimsical distraction.

When she turned around, Finn jumped back. He had been standing right behind her. Grinning wildly, he had scampered off as she had chased him, only to vanish in thick woods again. “He was a ghost,” she said. “I would catch a glimpse of him out of the corner of my eye, but when I looked, he was gone. The only sign that I wasn’t imagining things was how the branches shook, as if the trees were laughing at me. They knew where he was, but they would never tell me.”

They were smiling at her story, and she felt a warmth suffuse her that had little to do with the fire. She sat down quickly, suddenly very self-conscious, leaving her story somewhat unfinished. But she had said enough.

Feronantus had called this gathering a kinyen, and she suddenly recalled what that meant. This was the private mess of the fully initiated members of the order. She had stood up and spoken about one of their fallen companions as an equal, and none of them had objected on the grounds that neither she nor Finn were sworn members of the order.

They accepted her. She was part of the family now.

As the night wore on, the Shield-Brethren honored their fallen comrades. After they spoke of Finn, they remembered Roger: his perpetual scowl, the endless supply of hand axes, knives, and other sharp implements that seemed to grow on him like fruit; his steadfastness in battle, regardless of his disgruntlement at being forced to fight. They talked of Taran as well-their eternal oplo-who, even in death, still reminded them of their bad form when holding a sword, of how often they failed to close the line, and how they consistently neglected to ready themselves for their next opponent as their first was still dying. Even Istvan joined in, though his tales were intermittently interrupted by disjointed conversations held with phantoms only he could see. After awhile, the others would take these asides as opportunities to pass the arkhi or to wander off to relieve themselves, confident they would miss little of the Hungarian’s story.

Feronantus, however, listened intently to Istvan’s ramblings.

What secrets do you hope to hear? Raphael wondered, his curiosity aroused. His interest lay, partially, in having something to distract him from Percival’s confession, but their leader’s enigmatic relationship with the Hungarian had always puzzled the others. His eyes half-closed, Raphael watched Feronantus, trying to read something in the older man’s features.

Life on Tyrshammar had changed the elder knight. The wind and rain of the north left their mark on a man’s features, but Feronantus had been more than weathered by his exile. His face had become like rough stone, making it very difficult to ascertain his thoughts and emotions.

One of the failings of the Shield-Brethren’s hidden fortress was its very inaccessibility; too often, in the absence of real news, the boys of Petraathen would turn to embellishing stories of older members of the order to entertain themselves. It was a habit that he was not entirely free of himself. The story of the Electi’s displeasure with Feronantus and his exile was one of the more widely whispered tales.

Raphael had heard enough legends and tall tales in his travels to know that each contained a kernel of truth. In the case of stories about Feronantus, the reoccurring motif was that the Master of the Rock was a strategist of unparalleled depth.

Istvan was staring up at the sky again, babbling to one of his recurring ghosts, and this digression had become lengthy enough that the others seemed less inclined to wait him out. Yasper and Eleazar were bickering about who should get the last dregs of the arkhi, playing up their mock outrage to their captive audience, and no one paid much attention to the Hungarian’s mutterings.

Except Feronantus, who was unmoved by the theatrics of the Spaniard and Dutchman.

Raphael leaned forward, his eyes on the bickering pair, but straining to hear what Istvan was saying.

“… can’t go to the sea… can’t see the sky… yes, it hurts… the head… don’t let it look at me… I don’t care about your pain… I didn’t-no, it wasn’t my fault… there is no-no, let me go… I didn’t want… I didn’t!.. who cut him down? Who did it? Who cut it down?” Istvan shuddered suddenly, his legs bouncing against the ground. “The staff,” he growled, “Where is the All-Father’s staff? She lost it, didn’t she?… When her favorite son… I don’t know… no… no, no, no-” He shook his head. “Not my fault that they lost it. Not my-I don’t want… so many horses… don’t let it look-”

His voice was getting louder now, and his motions were more agitated. “The bitch lost it,” he said. “It’s not my fault. I never-fuck you! I will cut off your balls. The crows will eat your guts. Whoreson. Turd-eating cur. Stop looking at me!”

This last was delivered to the company as Istvan leaped to his feet-his eyes wild, his face straining and purpled with rage. His chest heaving, he gulped in great draughts of the night air. He stared around the circle, and whatever haze had obscured his vision gradually cleared. His mouth snapped shut, and he scuffed sand at the fire before he stalked off into the darkness.

Raphael cleared his throat. “That was my fault,” he apologized. “I was the one who was staring.”

“You do that a lot,” Cnan offered, giving his polite lie some credence.

Yasper snorted with laughter. “Who wouldn’t?” he asked. “That horse-lover is crazy.”

“Perhaps he has cause,” Raphael mused. His eyes strayed to Feronantus, who was staring at the fire as if nothing had happened.

You know who he was talking to, don’t you? he silently asked the old knight.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

Different Worlds

Afterward they lay together in each other’s arms. Gansukh’s hands, dry and rough as the leather they handled, gently abraded her smooth skin as they brushed over it. That porcelain pale surface had yielded gently in his grasp and the warm pulse beneath traveled from her heart to his fingertips, the rhythms of her body ebbing and flowing, rising and falling. She touched her head to his tanned chest and her breath fell upon him like spring wind, warm with the promise of life. Outside the ger the watch fires still burned, and they made the walls of the ger glow. Her hair was sleek as a midnight stream. Under the thick fur blanket her hand clasped his, and he felt how tender it was, how untouched by work or war.

She was of a different world, a soft world, and here she was in his harsh land. It was shaping her as surely as wind and rain carved the rock. There was the faintest ochre tinge to her shoulders where the sun had begun to tan her as it did him. There was a callus on her finger, just between the knuckles, where the bowstring was held. This hand once had never touched a weapon, this heart once believed violence unthinkable. Now his world had marred her.

And her world had affected him too. She brought him alien customs and manners, philosophy, polite civilization. The ways of the Mongols were ancient, customs passed down through seasons beyond count: births in the spring; nomadic grazing throughout the summer months; harvesting during the fall; surviving through the cold winters. It was an endless hardship, but it was what made a man a Mongol. These men now, who swaddled themselves in silk, sat on jeweled thrones, and never lifted a hand to tend livestock, what were they?

“What do you think will become of the empire?” he asked Lian.

She raised herself up on her arms, hair sliding down perfect shoulders. “You’d ask about history at a time like this?”

“I wasn’t asking about history. I was asking about the future.”

She favored him with a smile as she stretched out a hand for her robe, discarded so frantically some time ago. “History is the future. Its cycles repeat themselves like the seasons.”

“You are always teaching me,” Gansukh grumbled, running his hand down her exposed back. He took delight in how she shivered at his touch. “So what does history have to say?”

Lian elegantly slid her arm into the sleeve of her robe. “Every empire decays, in time. They become old and corrupt, and fall apart, or they become soft and complacent, and are conquered by the young and ambitious.”

“Will the Mongol Empire suffer the same fate?” he asked.

She paused, the sleeve of her robe pulled halfway up her arm, and gave him a raised eyebrow. It was a look she had given him many times during his studies, an expression that said, This question is not mine to answer.

“I think…” he sighed, and lay back to stare at the ceiling of his ger. “It has already begun. The Khagan carries a great sadness within him, and the drink only deepens it. These-” He shook his head. It wasn’t the fights between the foreigners that bothered him. It was… everything they represented. They were not fights for survival or for the glory of the empire. They existed for purely base, selfish reasons: the fighters were there to entertain the Khagan; the Khagan was there to vicariously feel the joy of battle.

“What if he cannot rid himself of his sickness?” he asked, more of himself than of her. “It festers, like an arrow wound that is not properly dressed. The skin may grow back, but the head of the arrow is still inside the body. Eventually, the rot will kill him, and when he dies, the empire will fall as well.” He pointed at the thick pole rising in the center of his tent. “Take that down, and the whole ger collapses,” he said.

“And yet you do not abandon him,” she said as she slid her other arm into her robe. “You still see something worth saving in him.”

“I do,” he said. “I must, because-” He stopped, unwilling to give voice to what lay in his heart. He listened to the whisper of silk as Lian tied her robe. Was she getting ready to leave?

“What if he does heal himself? What happens when the empire spreads across the world, from sea to sea?” He broke the near silence with his questions. Not because he thought she might know the answers, but because he didn’t want unspoken question to become true. “What will we become when there are no more lands to conquer? Will we become civilized, provincial administrators of our new lands? Instead of feeling the wind and rain on our faces, we will throw on more layers of silk and fur and hide inside our new fortresses. Instead of counting horses, we will tabulate numbers on our abaci. We will not chase the seasons across the steppes. We will stay in one place all year, and be neither Mongols nor Chinese. We will be…” What? he wondered. What will we become?

“But what of the people you rule?” Lian said as she knelt beside him, her hair hanging down across her robe and jacket. “They will learn Mongol customs, they will bear half-Mongol children. As they change you, you change them. As I have changed you. As you have changed me.”

Gansukh toyed with the yellow fringe on the lower edge of her jacket, contemplating asking her to take all her clothes off again.

“How old were you when you first killed a man?” she asked.

Gansukh frowned, annoyed at the intrusion of violence into his thoughts. “Ten,” he said.

“So young! How did it happen?”

“We were herding goats to pasture. My father, my uncle, and myself. Five men of the Spring Hawk Clan came down from the hills, thinking they could take our goats. They rode noisily, trying to scare us with their numbers.”

“Five against three. They thought they had an advantage.”

Gansukh nodded. “They were poor shots, though. I was frightened, but my father and uncle did not flee. They calmly took up their bows, and my father admonished me to do the same. My uncle and father each killed one as I was trying to ready my bow. And then we each took one of the remaining three.” Gansukh let go of Lian’s jacket and touched the hollow of his throat. “Right here. That is where my arrow landed.”

Lian’s eyes went to Gansukh’s throat, and she swallowed heavily.

“Even then,” Gansukh said, “I was an excellent shot.”

“Was it easy?” she asked.

“If I hadn’t fired my bow, they might have killed me. As it was, we lost two goats to their arrows.” He shrugged. “The Spring Hawk Clan never challenged us again”

“What did it feel-” She hesitated, and he watched her quietly as she struggled to ask her question. Her shoulders hunched forward and her body shivered slightly.

“He was some distance away,” Gansukh said softly. “He fell off his horse and we left him. I never saw his face.” He reached for her hand. “The first man I killed with a blade was in Volga Bulgaria. To stare into a man’s eyes as he dies is a much different experience. Some enjoy the feeling.” He squeezed her fingers. “I did not.”

“I’m afraid to sleep,” Lian whispered. “I’m afraid that his ghost will be there, haunting my dreams.”

“You took a man’s life to save mine. Would you rather my ghost haunted your dreams?”

She shook her head, and in the weak light, he saw the gleam of a tear tracking down her cheek.

“Then you did the right thing,” he said. He tugged gently at her jacket.

She slid down onto the bedding next to him, burying her face against his chest, and he let his arms fall around her. He held her tight and listened to the ragged sound of her breathing.

How long will this last? he wondered. How long will any of it last?

These questions remained unspoken and unanswered, long after Lian had fallen asleep, and he found their roles reversing. However, when he slipped from the bedding, she did not stir.

Gansukh remembered this too. The exhaustion that comes in the aftermath of the first kill. You cannot sleep for all the thoughts racing around your head, he thought, but your body demands it anyway.

He was dreaming about escaping from his cage again, though this time he did not try to steal a horse and ride out onto the steppe. This time, when he managed to get out of his cage, Haakon stole toward the center of the camp. The Khagan slept in the enormous tent on wheels. It was easy to find, and once he sawed his way through the heavy fabric, it would be equally simple to slay the man inside.

It was all very easy in his dream, but Haakon knew the reality would not be as simple. The Khan of Khans was always under the protection of his elite guard, who would not be blind to his efforts to cut a hole in the tent. He would have to fight at least one man, and the noise of combat would draw others, until he fell beneath a sea of Mongol warriors.

It was a fantasy. Nothing more. A way to pass the time, and while he wished his mind would dwell on more practical matters, he did not fret at the presence of such desires in his head. They meant he had not given up, that he still sought to stay alive.

Haakon stirred, sloughing the weight of sleep. His cheeks and left jaw ached, and his throat ached when he swallowed. The physical reminders of his fight the previous night. All in all, his bruises were slight in comparison to his opponent’s. Eating might be a little more painful, but then, the Mongols hadn’t been feeding him much more than a bowl of watery slop. Very little chewing was required.

He rolled onto his side, opened his eyes, and froze.

A Mongol crouched outside his cage, staring at him with evident curiosity.

Haakon stared back. The man’s jacket and leggings were utilitarian and plain, well-worn and well-traveled, and his face, while not as dark as some of the riders who had traveled with the first caravan, was clearly weathered by the sun and wind. He wore no markings, unlike the white-furred men with cruel mouths and hard eyes who made Haakon think of hungry wolves when they stared at him. This one was different. No less feral. Unlike many of the silk-robed Mongols who had wandered by his cage to gawk, there was clear intelligence in this man’s gaze.

Seeing that he was awake, the Mongol made a noise in his throat and indicated that Haakon should sit up. Haakon considered ignoring the man’s gesture, but after a moment he pushed himself up to a seated position and coolly stared at the Mongol. He kept his face expressionless: if he smiled, he might appear a fool; if he grimaced, it might be taken as a threat.

The man seemed familiar, and Haakon suspected he had been at the fight the previous night. He tried to recall details from the sea of faces that had surrounded the ring of stones, but other than the Khagan and a few of the others who had also stood on the raised platform, he could not remember any of the faces in great detail.

The Mongol tapped his chest. “Ghan-sook,” he said.

Haakon nodded. Easy enough to understand. “Hawe-koon,” he replied, drawing out the syllables much like he had for the general weeks ago.

From somewhere inside his jacket Gansukh produced a strip of dried meat. He tossed it close to the cage and watched as Haakon crawled over to the bars to retrieve the meat. He tore off a piece with his teeth and chewed it slowly, letting the taste linger in his mouth. It was fresher than the strips the guards had been giving him, and Haakon suspected it was from the warrior’s own supply. He raised the remainder to his lips and tipped his head in thanks.

Gansukh grunted and stood up, his knees popping. He began to pantomime, and Haakon quickly interpreted the gestures to mean, You fought another man; other man lost.

Haakon nodded again. “Yes,” he said in Mongol tongue. “I fight.”

Gansukh smiled. “You fight,” he replied, and then he said something else, which was beyond Haakon’s limited vocabulary. Reading Haakon’s shrug, Gansukh took to pantomime again, though this series of gestures was harder to follow. He pointed at Haakon, mimed holding a sword, made mock slashes in the air, and then he pointed to himself and pretended to be…

Haakon shook his head. “I don’t understand,” he said in his native tongue. He tried to think of how to say the same thing in Mongolian. He could say “no,” but that wasn’t what he wanted to tell the warrior.

Gansukh tried the pantomime again, refining his gestures. You fight was easy to read. I… watch. Haakon nodded, following that much. The last part was trickier.

Haakon smiled as he deciphered Gansukh’s signs. He wants to see how I fight, he realized.

Haakon took his time getting up, stretching his stiff limbs as best he could in the cramped space of his cage. He bristled somewhat at the idea that he was expected to perform for this man, but another part of his mind considered the benefit of this man’s interest. At the very least, he might be able to bargain for more dried meat.

Haakon put his hands together as if he was holding a sword and settled into a simple stance. He had to duck his head forward and hunch his shoulders due to the cage, but Gansukh seemed to understand what he was doing.

The warrior mimed drawing a sword of his own and he held it out before him, the imaginary tip pointed at Haakon’s chest.

Haakon responded, twisting his hands up to beside his head. Imagining his own sword point, he thrust his hands forward quickly, and Gansukh clapped his right hand to his left shoulder, crying out in mock pain.

Haakon laughed. The young warrior played the fool well, and his judgment as to where Haakon’s point would have struck was sound. Gansukh left off his playacting and brought his hands together over his head with a sharp clap. He swung them down, a quick overhead stroke of his imaginary sword, and Haakon reacted instinctively.

In his mind’s eye, he saw where the blade would fall, and he brought up his hands to parry as he slid a half step to his right. He barked his knuckles on the rough ceiling of his cage, and he growled lightly in his throat. He knew the appropriate response-he could hear Taran’s voice, telling him to strike quickly and true, making the long diagonal cut from the shoulder to the groin-but there wasn’t enough room to perform that motion.

Haakon lowered his arms and shrugged. “Can’t fight in cage,” he said.

“A horse can’t run when it is hobbled,” Gansukh replied with a nod. He looked down at his hands as if he were examining his imaginary sword, and then with another curt nod, he departed, leaving Haakon to wonder what the young warrior had hoped to learn from their mock battle.

The shaman’s tent squatted on the verge of the caravan, leaning, like an old tree, away from the rest of the tents. The shaman’s horse, a bony gray gelding, quietly cropped a ridge of dry grass nearby, and an unruly pile of colorful blankets lay near the loose flap of the tent.

As Master Chucai approached the tent, the old gelding raised its head, regarded him for a moment, and then resumed its unhurried grazing. Chucai eyed the pile of blankets, and having gotten a whiff of the smell coming from them he decided to keep his distance. He cleared his throat noisily as he peered past the pile into the dim interior of the tent.

There was a rattle of wood and metal, and part of the pile moved. A bony foot extruded, and soon after-from another side-a hand followed. As the pile quivered and shifted, Chucai caught sight of a cracked set of antlers, festooned with bits of dull metal and shards of bone. The antlers rose up like the ghost of an ancient spirit, and a cracked and weathered face emerged from the blankets. There was a bulbous knob of a nose and a ragged hole that Chucai suspected was a mouth; only one of a set of eyelids managed to flicker open.

Chucai bowed, holding his beard against his belly so that it didn’t drag on the ground. “O servant of the wind and sky, I seek your guidance,” he began. “There is a matter that puzzles me greatly as of late.”

The shaman continued to shift around in his expansive layers of clothing as if he were trying to find a more comfortable position. Or perhaps he was simply trying to find something he had lost among the voluminous folds of his robes. Either way, his expression did not change and the gaze of his single eye remained fixed on Master Chucai.

“The great Spirit Banner of the Khagan,” Chucai continued. “Ogedei received it from his father, and I wish to know how his father-Genghis Khan-acquired it.”

“Temujin.”

It took Chucai a moment to realize that the shaman had said something coherent. Temujin. The name by which Genghis Khan had been known before he had become the great leader who had united the clans. “Yes,” he acknowledged. “Temujin.”

“Temujin went into the mountains,” the shaman croaked. “Genghis Khan returned.”

“With the banner?” Chucai asked, trying to interpret what the shaman was telling him.

“The womb of the spirits,” the shaman said. “The belly of Eternal Heaven.”

“Is that where the banner came from? Is there a spirit in it?”

The shaman wheezed and cackled, a nasty barking sound that was strange enough to spook the gelding, which raised its head and snorted noisily at the laughing pile of blankets. “There are spirits everywhere, bearded master,” the shaman explained when the stream of laughter dried up. “If you shatter a rock, do you shatter the spirit too, or does it live in every shard? When you cut down a stalk of grain, does the spirit pass into every seed?”

“I do not know,” Chucai said.

“If you cut off the head, does the body die?”

“Yes,” Chucai admitted. He smoothed down his beard. “I had hoped to learn more about the Spirit Banner, wise one. I have not come to engage in riddles.”

The shaman opened his other eye and stared fixedly at Chucai. “I am talking about the banner,” he croaked. “You are not listening.” A bony finger jabbed forth from the robes. “Why does the body die?” the shaman asked again. “Why? Is it because the spirit has abandoned it?”

“I suspect it has more to do with the head being separated from the body,” Chucai replied, reluctant to play the shaman’s game.

“But you could sew the head and body back together,” the shaman said.

“It’s-” Chucai shook his head and sighed. “I confess the mystery of death is beyond my knowledge.”

“It is not death you should concern yourself with,” the shaman snorted. “Life, bearded master. That is what you should be worrying about. Life.”

“Is the banner alive? Is that what you are telling me in this maddening fashion?”

“The banner is a piece of wood,” the shaman snapped, his voice suddenly harsh and dry. “It is the spirit that is alive.”

CHAPTER TWENTY

Raphael’s Book

Cnan started awake as Feronantus prodded her gently with his boot. She lurched upright, feeling the sky wheel around her, and she slapped her hands against the ground in an attempt to right herself. Blinking heavily, she tried to recall the last few moments of the previous night, yet there was nothing in her head but a hideous yowling sound. She tried to lick her lips, and found her tongue too dry to provide any moisture.

The sky was shifting away from black, bands of purple and blue sliding into one another, each one lighter than the last, until they became a roseate glow over her left shoulder. A few bright stars still twinkled in defiance of the coming dawn-laughter light from the heavens.

She raised her arms, no longer assailed by the vertigo of being suddenly awoken, and shook the sleep from her frame. She had not drunk as much as some of the others, but her mouth still felt like it was coated with sand. She peered at the misshapen lumps of the other members of the company as Feronantus moved among them, prodding and poking with his boot as he went. There was a great deal of groaning and complaining that rose in the old knight’s wake.

“Up, you lazy dogs,” Feronantus barked. “You lie about like indolent princes, waiting for me to wipe your asses and prechew your food for you.”

“Ach,” Yasper swore, cradling his head in his hands. “That sounds revolting.”

“Which?” Raphael asked.

“The latter,” Yasper shuddered. He put a hand over one eye, tilted his head to the side, and opened and closed his mouth several times. “I should not have slept on my side,” he groaned.

“I’m glad you did,” Eleazar said. “Every time you rolled over, you started to make a horrible choking noise.”

“I did not,” the alchemist said.

“You did,” Vera noted. “I had a wolfhound once that made a noise like that when he was choking on a rabbit bone.”

Yasper popped his lips a few times. “What happened to him?” he asked when his efforts appeared to have little effect on his internal condition.

Vera stretched until something moved into its proper place in her back. “He ate one rabbit too many.”

Cnan, who had been counting bodies, came up one short, and shifted her attention to the horses. “Where’s Istvan?” she asked, discerning a similar shortness in the number of horses.

“Scouting,” Feronantus replied. He rocked R?dwulf with his foot. The Englishman hadn’t reacted to more subtle attempts to wake him.

“In his condition?” Vera asked.

Nimbly avoiding an angry swipe of R?dwulf ’s hand, Feronantus let the big archer’s body slump back against the ground. “His condition roused him before dawn. At which time, he and I had a discussion about Graymane and our route.” He glowered at the Shield-Maiden. “Unlike the rest of you, Istvan can handle his drink, and woke this morning with a clear head and a willing spirit. Which is why I gave him the easiest of the tasks that we will undertake today.”

The last elicited a groan from Yasper.

“What news of Graymane?” Raphael asked quietly, and Cnan recalled the circumstances under which they had found Istvan: ahead of them, bewildered, and lost in a haze of freebutton madness.

“He did not tarry at Saray-Juk. Whoever he is, he no longer concerns himself with trying to stop us. I doubt he understands our true mission, but we did not flee back to the West after our assault on his camp. He must suspect our goal lies in the East. He hopes to beat us there.”

Eleazar shook his head as he folded his blanket. “And raise the entire Mongol Empire against us,” he said.

“We’re doomed,” Yasper sighed.

“This changes nothing,” Feronantus reminded him. He swept his gaze across the whole company. “He does not know whom we mean to strike, or when, or where. He knows nothing of import, and the sheer… impossibility of what he suspects means it will take some time before he can convince anyone to listen to him. Even then, he must mobilize a response, and still find us. By then, it will be too late.”

“Aye,” Percival nodded. “We must be swift and true.”

“We will still meet Benjamin at the rock, and we may still travel with him along the trade route, but speed matters. More so than ever.” Feronantus nodded toward the cluster of hobbled horses. “This will be our last full camp. From here on, we must become like them. We must eat, sleep, and piss from the saddle. Kiss the ground, my brothers and sisters, for you will not rest upon its breast for some time.”

R?dwulf, who had propped himself up on one elbow, lay back down, his arms splayed out.

Feronantus looked down at the archer for a moment, and something akin to a smile tugged at the corner of his stern mouth. “Yasper,” he called. “We are in need of your potions.”

The alchemist, who had been routing around in his saddlebags, paused, his expression suddenly wary. “How so?” he asked.

“R?dwulf-” Feronantus prodded the archer gently with his foot-“will be bringing down several more deer this morning. The meat will need to be cured.”

“That-that’ll take a week,” Yasper complained. “Even if I had the supplies.”

“You have until first light tomorrow,” Feronantus countered. He shoved R?dwulf again. “Get your bow and knife. I suspect the Dutchman will find a way, but he’ll need as much of the day and night as your swiftest arrow can provide.”

R?dwulf grunted and rolled to his feet, his lackadaisical attitude vanishing like a wisp of smoke.

“Percival, Eleazar,” Feronantus continued, his voice the flat and hard tone of command. “Go with R?dwulf. He will need strong backs. Vera and Raphael: find their water source. Cnan-” he paused, and this time the smile did actually quirk his lips-“help the alchemist find his elusive salt.”

They rode in comfortable silence: Vera, as if she could read the multitude of thoughts whirling through his brain, led their effort to find the stream R?dwulf and Yasper had seen the other day; Raphael let his horse follow hers, while his mind churned. More than once his hand strayed to his saddlebag, where he kept his private journal.

The book was a treasure he had picked up some time ago when he had passed through Burgundy. He and several other Shield-Brethren had provided protection for a group of Cistercians returning to their abbey at Clairvaux, and while one of the brothers recovered from an arrow wound received on the journey, he had explored the abbey. The monks had been pleased to discover a like-minded soul in one of the martial orders, and the abbot had personally given him a tour of the abbey’s substantial library.

He was drawn to the Cistercians’ collection of illustrated manuscripts like a magpie to a piece of shiny brass, and he spent numerous afternoons with the scribes, endlessly asking questions like a curious child and watching-with rapt attention-as they painstakingly copied text from aged scrolls that were in danger of crumbling from the slightest touch. The chief scribe, so amused by Raphael’s guileless enthusiasm, had a book made for the inquisitive knight-a sheaf of blank pages bound between two unadorned boards. The book lacked the extravagance (and weight) of the tomes commissioned by Burgundian nobility, but it was also of a size that fit easily into a saddlebag.

Bring it back to us, the chief scribe had told him. When it is filled with your words.

It was a strange request, and for many months, Raphael had been reluctant to besmirch the virgin parchment of his book. Such hubris to think that his words would be worthy enough to be placed on the same shelf as the evangelion, the horae, and the psalters he had seen in the library at Clairvaux! When he needed to meditate, to empty his mind before battle, he would look at the blank pages and lose himself in the striations in the parchment. Over time, each page took on its own character, the lines and whorls suggesting images that were hidden in the parchment; and one day, he had taken a piece of charcoal to a page in an effort to manifest the ghostly image.

Other images followed; eventually, he added annotations. His awkward scrawl looped around the heads of his portraits like textual halos. Cryptic references piled atop one another, creating striated layers of history that charted both the passage of the seasons and his route across Christendom. The early text was Latin, but gradually he started to default to whatever language was most relevant to the event he was trying to capture. Doing so, he discovered, helped keep the tongue fresh in his head. The few notations he had scribbled down about Benjamin were in Hebrew, for example, while his record of the visit to the tomb of St. Ilya were a combination of the Ruthenian script and Greek, the closest approximation of the Slavic alphabet that he knew.

Eventually, the urge to look through its pages became too great, and he tugged the book out of his saddlebag. He wasn’t sure what he hoped to find in the pages of his journal, though much like the horae-the Book of Hours-that Burgundian nobles had commissioned for their wives, perhaps what he sought was not illumination but comfort. His recollection of the past, the faces he drew so that he would not forget them, the names and deeds of those who died: these were subjective records, his attempt to mark the passage of time.

Raphael was unsettled by the events of the previous night, both Percival’s admission of despair and Istvan’s erratic interjections. He was not overly superstitious-among his brethren, he had a reputation for healthy skepticism-but he could not shake a sense of foreboding. Too many visions, he reflected as he turned the pages. Our path is occluded by this confusion.

“You remind me of the hesychasmos.”

Raphael looked up from his examination of his journal. “Who?” he asked.

“The priests of Pechersk Lavra,” Vera said. “They would stand for hours in the cathedral, meditating.” She raised a hand and rubbed several fingers together. “Worrying their chotki-their prayer ropes.”

Suddenly self-conscious, Raphael closed the journal and absently slipped it back into his saddlebag. “Saying their prayers,” he nodded. Seeking comfort in their rituals, he thought. Is that what my book has become?

“They called it the Scala, a ladder they were trying to climb.” She shrugged. “A mental exercise, I suppose, and not unlike some of our own drills, but I never did understand what purpose a ladder served. You cannot climb up to Heaven.”

“No, of course not,” Raphael said thoughtfully, recalling the aerie of Francis of Assisi at the top of La Verna. The closest you can get to God and still have your feet upon the ground.

He shifted in his saddle, setting aside the memory of the nearly blind friar and his scarred hands. “Do the skjalddis offer tribute to the Virgin?” he asked.

“Mary?” Vera asked, a cautious note in her voice. “Or are you referring to the older traditions?”

“I have seen so many ways of worshipping God that I don’t care to judge any,” Raphael offered, a wry smile tugging at his lips. “The Shield-Brethren heritage goes back a long way; most of those in Petraathen have forgotten our origins, and those in Tyrshammar have been under the sway of the Northmen for many years. The old ways linger, though: the glory offered by battle, the sanctuary of the sword, the visions offered to those who are worthy…”

“The Christian worship of Mary does not include visionary practices,” Vera pointed out. She spoke bluntly, as always, but Raphael had learned to read some of her subtle mannerisms. Lately, he had begun to detect an austere wit in her words.

“Does she not offer guidance then?”

“Little has been offered, of late.” Vera nudged her horse closer to his, as if to make their conversation more confidential, even though they were surrounded by miles of open terrain. “Your brother, Percival, for all his Christian trappings, appears to still believe in these older traditions…”

“Yes,” Raphael said. “As does Istvan, I fear.”

And Feronantus too? He wondered silently.

Vera snorted. “Istvan is addled by his mushrooms. His mind is too broken.”

“Did you hear what he said last night?”

“Madness and nonsense,” she said, her eyes flashing. “That is all I heard.”

“He spoke of the All-Father. And of a staff. And-”

“Odin carried a spear. Not a staff.”

“Odin?”

“The All-Father.” Seeing Raphael’s expression, Vera laughed. “You are a child of Christendom, my friend, regardless of how enlightened you strive to appear. We may appear Christian-like yourselves-but the skjalddis remember our roots too. Our grandmothers and their mothers before them were Varangian, and we remember the stories of the cold sea, of the war between the giants and the Aesir, and the tales of Yggdrasil.”

“Egg-?”

Yggdrasil,” Vera repeated. “The World Tree.”

Raphael shivered. “What happened to it?”

“Nothing. It stands at the center of the world. The fields of Folkvangr are supported by its branches, and Hel lies beneath its roots.”

“He said it was cut down.”

“Who? Istvan? He is mad, Raphael. You cannot believe anything he says. If Yggdrasil were to be cut down, Ragnarok would be upon us.” Vera shook her head. “The Mongols are a scourge upon the world, but they are not the end of it. They are just men. They are not…” She trailed off, unwilling to speak of a greater terror. She raised an arm to indicate the open steppes. “This place inspires fear in its endlessness. You cannot let its emptiness rule your mind, Raphael. We all seek guidance, but we cannot invent it where it does not truly exist.”

“What about Percival and his vision?” Raphael asked. “Do you think he is mad as well, or has he been granted guidance?”

Vera lowered her arm and pointed. “Look,” she said. “I see a shadow. A gully. I suspect we’ll find our water source there.” She snapped her reins, and her horse snorted as it began to trot toward the shadow snaking across the plain.

Raphael gathered his reins, but did not immediately follow. She hadn’t answered his question, and he suspected she would pretend to have forgotten he had asked it. She had welcomed his attention, even going so far as to allow him to think that he knew her, but he wasn’t that naive. Like all of them, she wore a great deal of emotional armor.

But it wasn’t her reticence that worried him, nor whether she believed that Percival had been granted spiritual guidance. It was the possibility of such guidance that continued to confound him. If Eptor’s madness had been the Virgin’s Grace, or Francis’s insistence that God had left a mark on his flesh was true, then Percival’s vision could be true. As could Istvan’s.

Ragnarok, he thought. Yggdrasil.

He thought of Damietta, and the zeal with which Pelagius, the legate, had seized upon the idea of having Eptor’s madness interpreted as prophecy. What were the Crusades but zealous men striving to realize some vision they thought they had been given? Pelagius had invented a myth to convince the army to march on Cairo; the Crusaders had been slaughtered because of his lie.

Feronantus had been listening to Istvan, and Raphael wondered again what the old knight had heard in the other’s mad mutterings. Feronantus had been at Tyrshammar a long time. What stories had he heard from the children of the Varangians?

And had he come to believe those stories?

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

Cantate Domino Canticum Novum

The custom, as old as the Church herself, was that the names would be announced by the most senior Cardinal. He would draw the names from the chalice, one by one, and read each aloud to the assembled host of Cardinals. He would then hand the slip to his assistant, the second-oldest Cardinal, who would repeat the name. Finally, using a needle, the slip would be strung on a red thread that had been prepared by younger priests and left in the room the night before.

Bundled together on the red threads, the first three had been inscribed with Bonaventura. This came as no surprise, although based on his unexpected standoff with Senator Orsini the day before, the collective assumption was that Castiglione would be getting most of the remaining votes.

When Cardinal Torres read the name on the fourth strip-Father Rodrigo Bendrito-Fieschi noted the reaction of several of the Cardinals. Gloating quietly, they glanced around at the others as if to say, “Ha! Take that!” There was, briefly, an air of repressed amusement in the room.

But when the fifth strip also contained Father Rodrigo’s name, the Cardinals looked startled, glancing almost guiltily at each other. Fieschi raised his hand casually to cover the smile he couldn’t quite suppress. Their expressions were only going to grow more pronounced over the next few minutes.

Fieschi had been watching the faces of the others during the election process and had kept a dutiful count. He already knew that every remaining slip of paper in that chalice had Bendrito’s name on it. The crazy wayward stranger, the common priest lost in his own world of madness, was about to be elected as the next Bishop of Rome. Fieschi settled back in gilded anticipation.

The sixth strip: Bendrito. The scores were now even. Alarm was exchanged between certain parties; astonishment from others. Colonna and Capocci, the eternal clowns, traded looks that bordered on perverse delight. They do not understand what they have done. It is all childishly unreal to them, Fieschi thought with contempt. All that matters is their petty satisfaction in watching Bonaventura lose.

“Father Rodrigo Bendrito,” Cardinal Torres read aloud. His aged face showed no expression as he handed the seventh strip to Cardinal Colonna, who repeated the name and added it to the others. Every Cardinal in the room sat up in his seat, or shifted about, some with consternation, others relief. Since there were ten Cardinals voting, Bonaventura needed seven votes to win; Father Rodrigo, by having claimed four votes, now made that impossible.

“That’s that, then,” Annibaldi ventured. “Another deadlock. Send up the black smoke.” He started to stand.

“No,” Fieschi said sharply. “We cannot say there is a deadlock until all the votes have been read.”

Every head in the room turned to look at him, all equally surprised at such a statement from Bonaventura’s most vocal supporter.

“We must do this honorably,” Fieschi said with dripping condescension. “All the votes must be counted, even though we know there will be no success in it.”

“It will be a deadlock,” said Torres in a tone of concession, clearly disliking ever having to agree with Fieschi. “Arithmetic gives us that.”

“Count the votes,” Fieschi said. “We must have a record, amongst ourselves, of where we stand.”

The eighth strip of paper: Father Rodrigo Bendrito. Again the return to darting glances.

“We should annul the votes,” said de Segni. “If we stop now-”

“And what is your precedent for breaking with this long-standing ritual?” Fieschi asked. “This is our tradition. We must remain firm of purpose and trust that God’s will be done.”

The ninth strip of paper: Father Rodrigo Bendrito.

“This is a terrible jest,” Bonaventura said nervously. “Six of you are making a mockery of this process!”

Cardinal Torres reached in for the last slip of paper, looked at it, and with a dumbfounded expression, turned to Cardinal Colonna for aid.

“Not six,” Colonna said, taking the slip from Torres. “Seven. This name is also Father Rodrigo Bendrito.” To Fieschi, Colonna seemed perversely delighted. “Fathers, we have our new Pontiff.”

Immediate chaos overtook the chamber. Nine Cardinals leaped from their seats, a rainbow of different hues of amazement, from outrage (Bonaventura) to awe (da Capua) to delight (Capocci)…

“You did this!” Bonaventura shouted over the hubbub, crossing threateningly toward Fieschi, who alone remained sitting.

“Did I?” Fieschi said archly. “I have only one vote. There are seven votes for the priest.”

“If you had not changed your vote!” Bonaventura nearly screamed.

“If any of us had not,” Fieschi agreed.

“A common priest is not worthy to be Pope!” dei Conti snorted derisively.

“Ah, now,” Fieschi warned with calm condescension. “The first Pope was a fisherman.”

In response to the panicked commotion within, a guard outside the chapel had cautiously unbolted the door and opened it wide enough to look in with one eye. Seeing the commotion, he ventured to open it a little more.

“Your Eminences?” he said, completely unheard beneath the squawking and arguing.

But Fieschi saw the guard enter and, rising at last, strode comfortably past his upset fellows. He smiled paternally at the young man. “You may burn the wet straw,” he said. “We want white smoke-a new Bishop of Rome has been chosen.”

The guard’s face relaxed into a smile. “At last,” he said. “Praise God.”

He closed the door behind him without bolting it. Fieschi turned back to face the hubbub of his nine fellow Cardinals. Several voices were already demanding that they throw out the vote and try again.

“Brothers,” Fieschi said calmly, raising his voice. He looked more feline than hawkish now. “Brothers, please calm yourselves. It is too late to throw out the votes. The world has been informed we have a new Pope. We must prepare to announce him.”

Nine pairs of eyes stared dumbfounded at him.

“What right had you to tell anyone?” demanded Rinaldo Conti de Segni.

“Was there not a two-thirds majority cast?” Fieschi responded. “Is that not a deciding vote? We have been secreted away for far too long-this announcement frees us! Why are you not overjoyed at being liberated from our captivity?”

“But the result…” said Annibaldi. He was seconded and thirded and fourthed by others in the room.

“The result stands,” Fieschi said. “There are no grounds for repealing it.”

“He’s not a bishop,” Gil Torres rebutted. “There has never been a man made Pope before he was a bishop.”

“I don’t think there is a law about that,” Fieschi mused. “But perhaps there should be. Let’s ask the new Pope about it.” He put his hand on the door as if he would open it.

“Wait, wait, wait!” shouted a number of voices from the circular chamber, as others demanded, “Let’s talk this through!”

Fieschi turned his back to the door, his eyes flashing cold gray light. Everyone took a step away from him and fell silent. “What is there to discuss?” he said sharply. “We have voted in a leader of the Church. If we feel he is not up to the task, then we must assist him to it. Is that not our duty as Cardinals of the Holy Church? I certainly intend to do so. I hope you will all join me, but that is your choice.” He smiled coldly, enjoying the moment of drama immensely.

The other nine regarded each other dismally, then stared down at their feet, shoulders slumping, subdued.

“Well then,” said Fieschi after a triumphal moment, and threw up his hands to God. “Habemus Papam!

And then Father Rodrigo was back in the crypt of St. Peter, in this time and this place, this world-this universe. The vision had ravaged his mind, torn out his senses, retuned his perception of the world beyond insanity… but it was over. It had been a test, and he had survived.

The message he had been given, in that feverish dream in the farmhouse near Mohi-the images and mystic understandings he had scribbled feverishly onto a slip of paper, now lost along with his satchel-he had thought, all these long miserable months, that this prophetic vision contained a message he was meant to bring to the leader of all Christendom.

Now he saw the fallacy of that. How arrogant of me, Rodrigo thought, to suppose I could prophesy the future of the world. There were only a few people who could understand anything as vast as what he had scribbled on the piece of paper. One of them, he sensed, was the kind Englishman, but he was dead.

But understanding the vision meant very little. In the wide world’s larger scope, that vision counted for almost nothing. It was a password, or a hazing ritual, that was all: a means by which he was challenged to enter into a realm of mystical insight. The higher powers of the cosmos had asked his unconscious mind to demonstrate that it knew the secret code, and that secret code was no mere phrase of words, but a shattering prophetic vision, to live through with his entire being.

His vision was not the fruits of a mystical initiation; it was merely the invitation to be initiated.

Rodrigo was still trembling. He brought the cool metal of the communion cup to his temple and rolled it gently, side to side, across his forehead. He found the smoothness, and the rolling gesture itself, calming. The metal absorbed the fevered heat he was emitting, yet remained cool. Of course it did, he thought, of course it does. Now at last, he was purified. He was rational. He was sane. He could look back on his strange, fevered behavior since Mohi and see it for what it was, and know that he had come through it. He was challenged, and he had survived.

Having proven he could survive a loss of sanity, at last sanity was restored to him.

First, I must find Ferenc, he thought. The poor boy must be bewildered here without me-he doesn’t have the language, and no experience surviving in a city. And I will need him in what lies ahead. For there is to be no rest for the weary.

He had a responsibility now, a calling; he understood that, just as he understood that until today, he could not have guessed why he was really summoned to Rome. To give a message to the Pope? Ha! What good would that do? One mortal sharing words with another mortal; a transfer of information, nothing more. The spirit of the Christ was far more dynamic than mere words and information.

He looked around the tomb, stood up, tested his balance. He was fine. He felt light on his feet, in fact; his wound was entirely healed, he could not even remember which hip had been wounded. Somebody had changed his clothes since the previous day, and what he wore now was clean and softer than anything he could remember. He had even been accoutred with sandals, a rosary, and a new satchel. Sanity is such a blessing, when your setting is serene, he thought. No wonder he had taken leave of his senses outside Mohi; how else would he have survived?

“Very well, then,” he said to the tomb, quietly. His hand was still clenched around the cool metal, the ever-cool metal, of the communion cup. He tucked that hand into his satchel and smiled benignly around the little tomb. “Thank you, Father,” he said to the coffin of St. Peter. “You are far wiser than the rest of us, and upon this rock, let the new Church, when the time shall come, be built again.”

He turned his back on the tomb, crossed the candlelit room, and strode up the steps with a slow, comfortable assurance he had not known possible.

At the top of the stairs he met a fresh-faced young priest whom he thought he recognized, but he could not figure out why.

“You were down there quite a while, Father,” said the priest. “I was getting worried. I almost came down after you to see if you had hurt yourself.”

“On the contrary, my son,” said Rodrigo with smiling beneficence, “I have never been so well.”

The Cardinals sat around a highly polished wooden table, eating fruit and arguing. They grudgingly acknowledged that the vote was final, now that it had been announced, and that they had, in fact, elected a raving madman to be the next Bishop of Rome. What they could not agree upon was what to do about it.

There were three schools of thought.

First was Bonaventura and the de Segni cousins-Rinaldo and Stefano. They were bound and determined that the vote be somehow invalidated, and had sent junior clergy off to ferret out moldering codices of canon law in the bowels and attics of the church, seeking some justification to excuse them doing just that. They did most of the shouting, because-as far as Fieschi could make out-they wanted to make sure nobody else had a chance to even think straight until they had shaped events to their own liking.

If nothing else, they would probably turn to Orsini for help and ask him to arrange for the Pontiff-elect to be assassinated. This group, in short, was in a dither.

Then there was the group led by Castiglione, who were shocked but not panicked by what had happened. They believed that the vote should hold on legal principles, but that the madman should then be gently induced to decline the honor. This would send all the Cardinals back into seclusion for another vote, but now within the sanctity of the Vatican compound, and not as victims of Orsini’s oppression.

And then there was the unlikely triumvirate of Colonna, Capocci, and Fieschi. For different reasons, these men felt that the vote should hold, and Rodrigo should be enthroned. It was uncommon (but not impossible) to raise as Pope a man who was not a bishop; this was an easy technicality to fix: he could be made bishop, and then anointed Pontiff.

“I am curious. Why do you support the outcome of the election?” Fieschi asked the other two. Obviously the two clowns could not be trusted, but perhaps they would let slip some useful observation that could sway some of the other prelates.

Colonna shrugged. “I’m an old man, and I’m tired of being here,” he said. “If this fellow is accepted, then I can finally go home and change my clothes and start acting like a Cardinal again.”

“So sloth is a primary motivator,” Fieschi said, attempting dry humor but sounding instead as accusatory as he felt.

“Absolutely,” said Colonna. He clapped his right hand down on his friend’s knee. “Capocci, my dear fellow, tell the nice villain why you are taking such a perverse position on this topic.”

“My position is the most honorable one in this room!” protested Capocci, waving his bandaged hand dismissively at everyone else. “We’ve made our bed and now we must lie in it, simple as that. Those of us responsible for leading the masses of Christendom, we have fallen to such a state that we would allow such a man to be elected, and having done so, we have to live with the circumstances. We have only ourselves to blame.”

“That’s a much better response than mine,” said Colonna. He turned to Fieschi. “I want to change my answer to make it more like his.”

Fieschi rolled his eyes. When he returned his attention to the other two Cardinals, he found them staring at him with accusing malice. “And may we dare ask why the great and honorable Fieschi has betrayed his preferred candidate?” asked Colonna.

“You may ask,” Fieschi said. “I am not bound to answer you.”

The other two looked at each other. “Well, that proves it, then,” said Capocci.

“Indeed,” said Colonna, and the two turned to face him together. “You’re definitely up to something nefarious,” he informed Fieschi pleasantly. “Which means we’re going to have to stop you.”

“And hold you accountable,” Capocci added ominously.

Fieschi turned his head away from them, refusing to be baited. Capocci could prove nothing. And Rodrigo would be his man, his puppet, he had no fear of that at all-but it was annoying that he would have to brush off these two gadflies along the way. I will make sure the new Pope excommunicates them, he decided. That will get rid of them nicely.

Rodrigo had tried to excuse himself and break away from the young priest, but the young man was strangely reluctant to be dismissed. He begged Rodrigo’s pardon and followed him through the great church, toward the door, politely asking Rodrigo where he was planning to go, suggesting that perhaps he would be more comfortable resting in the deacon’s office.

“Have you been assigned to keep an eye on me?” Rodrigo asked with a knowing smile. They had stopped at the grand western entrance to the basilica. Rodrigo was eager to be gone from these staid halls of ancient power. The days when such magnificence signified sanctified holiness had long since passed; he understood what must come next, and nobody else in the Vatican compound did.

The young priest blushed. “Yes, Father,” he said, glancing down.

“There is no shame in your task,” Rodrigo said. “When I first arrived in Rome, I was a raving madman. I was mistakenly placed in seclusion with the Cardinals. When we were all brought here, the Cardinals-very good men-were concerned that I might harm myself if left to my own devices. I understand. Previously, there was just cause for such concern. But my son,” he said, with a reassuring smile, “I am now a changed man.”

The younger priest frowned in polite confusion. “Father…?” he murmured.

“I cannot explain what happened in Saint Peter’s tomb, but it was a gift, a blessing-a blessed event,” Rodrigo said, and rested his hand paternally on the youth’s shoulder. “My madness was taken from me-and so were my physical wounds! I am well again, and in no need of chaperoning.”

The young man looked at him, troubled, and blinked several times. “The Holy Sepulchre is known to have miraculous healing properties,” he said at last. “And I am very glad to hear of their effect on you. However, Father, I must stand by my oath, and that is to keep you in my sight at all times until I turn that responsibility over to one of my fellows.”

Rodrigo sighed patiently. “So be it. I commend you for your dedication to your office. Will you, in that case, accompany me on a constitutional? I am a native of this city, and it has been a very long time since I have freely walked its streets. I have a yearning for that, and I hope your duty does not prevent me from it.”

The younger priest considered this. “Father, perhaps we can make an arrangement that is to your liking, but allows me to fulfill my obligation.” He glanced down again, unwilling to gaze upon Rodrigo as he continued. “As it happens, I… have other duties to which I will be called. I would have to turn your care over to another anyhow. Let me see if I may do that now.”

Rodrigo smiled benignly. “You are thinking that a new chaperone, meeting me as I am now, clearly rational and well recovered, would not feel the burden of sticking to me like a burr, as you perhaps do because you saw me before I was healed.”

The young man reddened. “Really, Father, I simply have other duties. I am scheduled to receive confessions until dinner.”

“Very well,” said Rodrigo, gesturing back into the church. “Lead me to my next keeper. Rome is not going anywhere.”

The junior priest looked relieved. “Very well, Father. Just this way, if you please.” He turned and began to cross through the nave of the church, trusting Rodrigo to follow.

Which Rodrigo did. The communion cup within his satchel bumped against his hip as he walked.

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

The Frog and the Stone

The pale-haired warrior, Haakon, knew some of the Mongol tongue. His accent was very bad, but he could make himself understood, and Gansukh suspected his comprehension was much better than his pronunciation. No wonder he watches us so closely, Gansukh mused as he wandered through the sprawling camp. He’s listening and learning.

A tiny smile flickered across his face. He would keep this tiny nugget of information to himself. Using the pale-haired youth to rile Munokhoi was a dangerous proposition, but an entertaining one. Given the pace at which the journey to Burqan-qaldun was progressing, he would need distractions. He couldn’t keep shadowing Munokhoi; sooner or later, the Torguud captain would catch sight of him and take umbrage at the attention.

He didn’t need to start a fight with Munokhoi. He just needed to be sure the other man’s attention was directed somewhere other than at himself or Lian.

Gansukh wandered toward the eastern edge of the caravan where the Imperial Guards had set up a makeshift archery range. He walked over to the line scratched in the bare ground where the archers stood.

Behind him he heard the guards’ conversation fragment, and he waited patiently. Finally, one of the them heaved himself to his feet and approached.

“Brother Gansukh.”

Gansukh turned his head and regarded the one singled by the others. “Are you from the mountain clans?” he asked, noticing the colored threads braided into the man’s hair.

The other man nodded.

“The days are long out here on the plain, aren’t they, brother?”

“Tarbagatai,” the man supplied. He wiped a hand across his face. “No longer than the nights, I suppose,” he said with a shrug.

Gansukh offered a bark of laughter. “That is true.” He waved a hand at the targets. “It has been a long time since I hunted in the mountains. I found the light to be different there. Night came swiftly, and if you were tracking prey, you had to be quick about making your kill. Otherwise, the sun would vanish and so would your target. Out here, though, the day seems to last forever.”

Tarbagatai squinted at the targets, his tongue working at the inside of his lower lip. He seemed to be wondering if Gansukh was making sport of him, and Gansukh made no effort to guide the younger man’s thinking. After his encounter with Namkhai and the Imperial Guard the other night, he had realized how few friends he had among the Khan’s elite guard. Lian’s schooling and his mission had kept him aloof from the men of the arban, a dangerous situation for a front-line warrior such as himself. If the caravan came under attack again, he needed some confidence that his fellow Mongols wouldn’t see him as an adversary.

“Care to test your skill?” he asked, nodding at the nearby rack of bows.

Tarbagatai laughed. “I have heard the stories about you,” he said. “In the Khagan’s garden. How you felled a deer with one arrow.”

Gansukh shrugged as he wandered over to the rack. He let his hands roam across the bows-stroking the hardwood curves, fingering the sinew of the strings-and he finally selected a likely candidate. Smoothly, he strung the bow, and then offered it to Tarbagatai. “Maybe I was lucky that day,” he said.

Tarbagatai snorted, and dismissed the offered weapon with a wave of his hand. His gaze darted toward his lazy companions. “I’ll use my own,” he said, and he called for one of them to fetch his bow.

Gansukh wandered back to the line, and standing shoulder to shoulder with Tarbagatai-who was slightly taller-he looked out at the scattered targets, counting them, noting their distance. “In the mountains,” he said, “if you have a good position, you can see everything.”

Tarbagatai nodded. “Anyone can shoot one arrow and hit one target.”

Gansukh smiled at the mountain man’s tone. Respectful, and yet slightly challenging at the same time. Tarbagatai had known who he was when he had approached, and he was certain the story of the deer in the Khagan’s garden wasn’t the only story that had been passed around. The cup at the Khagan’s feast. The wrestling match with Namkhai. His ongoing feud with Munokhoi. All of these stories contributed to his reputation among the Imperial Guard, but every member of the Guard had been hand-picked for his own prowess and reputation. Stories meant little; actions counted for more.

The consensus about his match with Namkhai was that it had been a draw, and only because the Khan had allowed them to withdraw from the field. Opinion was split on who would have truly won, but regardless, no one could recall anyone ever besting Namkhai before. And Namkhai, of course, hadn’t spoken one way or the other.

There was some allure to challenging Chagatai’s envoy, then. There were few other opportunities for members of the Imperial Guard to distinguish themselves.

“We could pretend these targets are Chinese raiders,” he offered. “A race to see who can kill more of them?”

The other guards wandered over in the wake of the man who brought Tarbagatai his own bow, eager interest plain on their faces. The pair in the back began to speak in hushed tones, making wagers.

Tarbagatai glared at the pair for a second, and then shook his head slightly, as if he was pushing their wager from his mind. The mountain man looked over the targets once more. “Ten,” he said. “A full arban. Shall we have ten arrows each?”

“I would hope you would not miss that many,” Gansukh said with a laugh. “How about six? That should be enough to warrant a clear winner.”

Tarbagatai agreed, and with a word, sent one of the men to fetch two quivers of arrows. Each archer selected six, and Tarbagatai stuck his in the ground before him-a neat line, waiting to be snatched up.

Gansukh slowly pushed each of his arrows into the dry ground, making sure they were all firmly planted with their fletching pointed straight up. He opted for a tight cluster of shafts, a grouping that his hand fell upon naturally without requiring a look.

Tarbagatai would have to chase his arrows. Each shaft was a little farther away, and eventually, he would have to take a tiny step to his left in order to reach the last few arrows. Such movement wouldn’t take much time, but in this contest, that tiny delay might make the difference.

“Ready?” Gansukh asked, laying his first arrow across his bow.

He heard the creak of a bowstring being drawn back, and Tarbagatai grunted.

“One of you,” Gansukh called to the onlookers as he raised his own bow, “Give us a word and we shall start.” He peered along the straight shaft of his arrow at the first target. His right arm quivered for a moment before his muscles relaxed into a well-remembered position, and his breathing slowed. His belly tensed, and his vision shifted. The target-pale thatching stuffed into the ragged end of a log-sprang into greater focus, while everything else softened and dropped away.

“Hai!”

Gansukh loosed his first arrow before the man had finished shouting. He had heard the sudden influx of breath from behind him, and had known the cry was coming. His arrow flew true, burying itself deep in the thatch of the first target, though he did not hear the sound of its impact. Tarbagatai released his first arrow in concert with a horrific battle cry, as if his shout would give the arrow more loft in its flight. The sound was startling, more so for being projected right into Gansukh’s ear, and he hesitated for a split second, caught off guard by the racket. Ruefully, he snatched up his second arrow, nocked it, drew back the bow string, and let it fly.

His second arrow struck a target that already contained one of Tarbagatai’s arrows. His shaft was closer to the center, but the mistake was already made. As he reached for his third arrow, he silently commended Tarbagatai on his clever ruse.

There was no time for further recriminations. The mountain man was quick, and Gansukh lost himself in the rhythm of archery: nock, pull, release. As soon as an arrow was clear of his bow, he would focus on the next target. He tried not to wonder if he was shooting at the same target as Tarbagatai; to worry would be to hesitate, and to hesitate would be to lose.

As he released his last arrow, he heard an echoing twang from over his shoulder, and he released the breath he was not aware he had been holding.

The archers and their audience stared out at the field of targets, watching as the two arrows buried themselves in the thick thatch of the farthest target. The rustling impact of the arrows in the dried stalks was like the fluttering noise of a bird’s wings-two beats so close together that they could be easily mistaken for one sound.

“Every dog is dead,” Tarbagatai announced, clapping Gansukh on the shoulder. “You shot well.”

“Indeed,” Gansukh replied, “As did you.” He looked around and saw no arrows in the ground, and then let his gaze roam across the targets once more. This time he checked every target more closely. “We seem to have shot all our arrows, Brother,” he pointed out.

“Yes, and we did not mark them ahead of time,” Tarbagatai laughed. “Do you remember which ones were yours?”

Gansukh pointed at the nearby target that sported two arrows. “That one was already dead when my arrow hit it,” he said.

Tarbagatai grinned. “But what of the last?”

Gansukh shaded his eyes with his hand and made a show of peering at the farthest target. “It is very far away,” he said, “And I have developed a thirst. Perhaps we can check later.”

Merriment danced in Tarbagatai’s eyes as his grin stretched even wider. He raised his bow and let out a loud whoop of joy. “Yes,” he chortled. “Let us have a drink in celebration.”

As the other men noisily agreed with the resolution of the match and eagerly dispersed to gather skins of arkhi, Tarbagatai put his hands on Gansukh’s shoulders. “I would follow you into battle, brother Gansukh,” he said, and the intensity of his gaze matched the fervor of his words.

Gansukh returned the embrace, and found himself considering a strange idea. Could he lead men like Tarbagatai? To have the Imperial Guard at his command? The idea presented itself with no preamble, and he was surprised to find himself considering it.

And then he remembered the siege of Kozelsk, and the idea was like a black stain in his mind. He wanted to make it go away, but it only spread.

The arkhi, when he shared a skin with Tarbagatai a few minutes later, was incredibly sour in his mouth, and he fought the urge to spit it out.

She shouldn’t have stayed, but she had, and when Gansukh stirred shortly after dawn, she had laid still and kept her breathing as even as possible, hoping he would think she was asleep. With her eyes lightly closed, Lian listened to Gansukh as he rolled out of the tangled mass of furs and blankets that were their shared bed. He stretched, grunting and mumbling to himself, and noisily fumbled his way into his clothing.

Trying to be quiet, and failing miserably. She fought the urge to smile.

Once he was gone, Lian continued to feign sleep, slowly counting to one hundred in her head before she moved.

She had been sleeping in his tent since the night of the Chinese raid, though they had not been intimate that first night. He had given her the bed, and had slept next to the flaps of the tent, letting her know that no one would enter the tent without his knowledge. His protective gesture had been touching; and no less so when, a few hours later, she had prodded him with her foot and found him completely unresponsive. He had become her protector, but he did so without making her feel like property.

She had power over him, whether he realized it or not, and as she rose and dressed, she wondered what she was going to do with that power. A few weeks ago, the answer would have been clear, but she found her resolve wavering. Don’t be a silly girl, she thought angrily as she pushed back the flaps of the tent and stepped outside.

She wandered toward the heart of the caravan, taking note of the increase in activity around the cluster of ger where the caravan masters were quartered. The Khagan and his entourage might move today.

A clump of women came toward her, and Lian recognized Second Wife and her attendants, and she scuttled around the nearest tent, trying to avoid being seen. If spotted, Jachin would insist on hearing any gossip, especially anything about the Chinese raid.

She just couldn’t bear to talk about it. Not with that woman.

The women’s voices followed her, and her heart started to tremble in her chest. They couldn’t be following her, could they? She was being irrational, but that didn’t stop her from quickening her pace and changing her course several times. And when she spotted the flag raised over Master Chucai’s tent, she quickly made a decision and altered her course for his ger.

Jachin would never follow her in there.

She slapped the open flap of Chucai’s tent and waited impatiently, glancing over her shoulder. There was no response, and so she slapped it again, more firmly this time, and jumped back as one of Chucai’s servants suddenly appeared in the ger’s open mouth.

“Oh,” she started. “I… I am here to see Master Chucai,” she finished.

The servant stared at her, one eyebrow partially raised, and made no move to stand aside. His rigid posture made it clear that a shift in power had occurred. Rumors of her relationship with Gansukh were already circulating, and Chucai’s servants were taking advantage of the gossip to remind her that there was a difference between being the slave of a powerful man like Master Chucai and being the kept woman of a horse rider.

Lian sucked in a large breath, using the motion to draw herself up to her full height and to throw out her chest. “At his command,” she amended, with more than a little of regal haughtiness in her voice.

She should have come to see Chucai earlier, but there was no sense in castigating herself about that now.

The servant nodded without blinking, and stepped aside. She swept past him, flicking her hair with mock distain as she did so. Playing her old role, while part of her was certain the man would see right through it. He could see she was filled with nothing but doubt.

“Ah, Lian.”

Chucai’s traveling home was a replica of his small office at Karakorum. He was seated behind a wooden desk, working by candlelight. His travel trunks sat on one side of the ger, neatly arranged in a row; on the opposite wall, his long fur coat hung on a collapsible wooden rack.

“Sit down,” he said, waving a hand toward the stool next to the trunks. If he was surprised to see her, he gave no sign.

Lian sat, placing her hands, right over left, on her lap. She waited while he finished reading the scroll. He read, untroubled and unhurried by her presence, and she did not fidget. Fidgeting was for nervous girls, for scared women who were not in control of their lives. Squirming was what bored slaves did, and she was neither.

“It is a curious situation, is it not?” he asked as he began to roll the scroll up.

“Yes, my Master,” she replied immediately, her eyes downcast. Mainly so he would not spy any of the confusion and frantic wonderment she was experiencing.

“On one hand, I think you may have overcommitted yourself to your assigned task; on the other, I admire the security it has provided you.”

She knew he had seen the terse exchange at the entrance of his ger, and though he wouldn’t admit to having instructed his servant to act that way, Lian knew Master Chucai well enough to read the underlying message in both his words and his servant’s attitude. “Yes, my Master,” she breathed, carefully stressing the last two words without seeming to grovel.

“And of course there is the matter of why you might feel the need for such protection.” Chucai looked at her then, holding her with his piercing gaze. Not accusatorily, but with an air of knowing, as if it was indeed true that he knew everything that went on in this camp, just as the same impression were true within the walls of Karakorum.

Lian blinked. “Munokhoi,” she said, giving name to the true dread that had kept her awake the previous night.

It should have been the dead commander, Luo, but when she closed her eyes, it wasn’t his face, with his staring eyes and accusing mouth and the black tears that dripped from the gash in his neck, that haunted her dreams. It was the cruel visage of the Torguud captain.

“Before the Chinese bodies were even cold, he was here in my tent, standing right over there, railing at me about you being a Chinese spy.”

“What?” Lian spluttered, too surprised to form more words than the one.

Chucai squared up the ends of the scroll with a practiced twist of the cylindrical shape. “Indeed. It is an interesting accusation. And when I thought to ask you myself, you were-”

“I swear to you I am not-I would never-I am not a spy!” Lian tried to quell her rapid breathing, to lessen the feeling she had of being squeezed by a giant hand.

Chucai stared at her, letting the silence stretch between them to an almost unbearable length. “Yes,” he said eventually, releasing her from the penetrating intensity of his gaze. “I do believe that you are not.”

Lian gulped a breath and nodded gratefully. “Thank you,” she managed. Being subject to the gossipy attention of Second Wife and her attendants might not have been such a bad fate after all.

“However, I also believe the Torguud captain’s accusation that you were trying to escape, though he has, in all likelihood, completely forgotten this little detail by now. A fortunate omission in his record, don’t you think?”

Lian made no reply.

“Even though I believe you did not lead the attackers to us, what I think is of little consequence.” Chucai offered her a tiny smile, completely absent of any affection. “At least, in this matter.”

Lian regarded him warily, a serpent of fear slowly twining itself around her lower spine. If she had come to his tent immediately after the raid, would his attitude toward her been better? And yet, he sat here speaking to her as if she had been expected, as if he had, indeed, summoned her to hear this very… obtuse… conversation.

“Your opinion matters in all things, Master,” she said, lowering her gaze to her hands. Her fingers were knotted in her lap, and with some effort, she extricated them from one another.

Chucai chuckled. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, it does. In some areas, my opinion is all that is required. What I think is best is what is done. And what is done by my command causes ripples. Like a stone dropped into a pond. The frog, thinking it is safe from predators, may suddenly find its protective lily pad disturbed. Removed from beneath it, even.”

“Am I the frog?” she asked.

“Are you?” Chucai raised his hand and mimed dropping a heavy stone. He leaned forward as if he was examining the results of his action.

“Munokhoi fears change,” Chucai said after staring at the results of his imaginary stone. “He does not like being outside the city walls. Too provincial. Too many wild animals, untamed creatures like… ponies.” Chucai laughed. “Yes, our brave Torguud champion is afraid of a young pony.”

The serpent twisted even higher up Lian’s spine. The young pony, she thought, and in thinking of him, was afraid for his safety. And hers, as well.

“What is to become of me?” she heard herself asking.

Chucai raised an eyebrow as he sat back in his chair, running his fingers through his long beard. “What should become of you?” he asked in a somewhat bored tone.

And she knew, in that instant, that Chucai was done with her. The failed escape attempt, the relationship with Gansukh, the threat of Munokhoi: these were all matters he no longer wished to concern himself with, and he had, in fact, realized a simple solution to all three. When she walked out of Chucai’s ger, it would be for the last time.

She should have been more thrilled. Chucai had, in effect, freed her, but where could she go? They were days from Karakorum, and if she tried to ride off again, Munokhoi would relish the opportunity to hunt her down. And Gansukh. Would he follow her? Would he protect her against Munokhoi?

She put her hand over her mouth to stop a half sob, half giggle from escaping. After all these years, what she had yearned for was being offered her, and all she could think of how to reject this freedom. How could she restore her usefulness to Chucai?

At least until the Khagan’s caravan returned to Karakorum.

“The Chinese,” she started, grasping at a fleeting memory from the night of the attack. “While I was being held captive by the Chinese, I heard one of their commanders talking about…”

The Khagan’s advisor remained slumped in his chair, but his fingers were no longer idly stroking his beard. “Go on,” Chucai said carefully.

“He spoke of a sprout, and… and a banner-”

Chucai leaped out of his chair, startling her into silence. He leaned on his desk, looming over her. “What did he say?” Chucai demanded, his voice sharp.

Lian swallowed nervously, her hands fluttering in her lap. The change in Chucai’s demeanor was not what she had expected, and she squirmed under his intense gaze. Her mind raced, trying to recall the conversation between Luo and the other Chinese man. “They… they said they wanted a sprout-that was why they attacked the Khagan’s caravan, but… but they were not able to find it. And so they tried to steal a banner instead.” She sat up, realizing which banner Luo and the other man had been referring to. “The Khagan’s Spirit Banner,” she breathed.

“Hssssst,” Chucai uttered, slamming himself back into his seat.

Lian fell silent. She kept her gaze on her lap, mentally calming her fingers and her breathing. Now was not the time to speak. Whatever she had heard from the Chinese meant something to Master Chucai; it was best to let him tell her, versus her trying to puzzle it out.

For now, at least.

“A sprout,” Chucai said eventually.

Lian let her gaze flick up, but Chucai was staring into the space over her head and did not notice. “Do you know what he was talking about? Have you seen such a twig?” he asked.

Lian shrugged. “A twig, Master? I have seen many twigs.” She felt unduly coy in saying it, but sensed a change in Chucai’s mood. If there was a way she could benefit from this change, she had to try to take advantage of it. “Perhaps you could enlighten me a little more.”

Chucai snorted and shook his head. “You would know it if you had seen it,” he snapped. “I’m not talking about the sort of branch of flowers that Jachin has her handmaidens bring her. This would be…” He waggled his fingers at her, glowering.

Chucai doesn’t know either, she realized. She dropped her gaze so that he couldn’t read her expression. “I have not, Master,” she said. “Though I would be more happy to keep an eye out for it, while I…” She left her sentence unfinished, hoping he would fill it in for her.

“While you what?” Chucai asked, his demeanor returning to its previous stony state.

The panic returned, squeezing her body. She was like the frog, swimming frantically in an enormous pond, with no shelter in sight. No lily pads. Just open water.

“While I… do nothing, Master,” she ended lamely. Her dreams of freedom were nothing more than childish whimsy.

“Exactly,” he replied with finality.

The frog, waiting for the stone to drop.

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

A Fateful Choice

Tegusgal was not the most physically imposing of men, but there was a quality in his gaze that Dietrich found both refreshing and worthy of a modicum of respect. They sat across from each other in a tent in the Mongol compound, separated by a narrow table on which a small pitcher of airag and two cups sat, both untouched.

To one side stood the priest, Father Pius, a nervous look on his face as he waited to translate for whomever would speak next. His eyes darted between the two dangerous men, looking rather like a mouse caught between two cats.

“Will he take the deal?” Dietrich asked when the silence overtook his patience. The priest turned and spoke rapidly to Tegusgal in the Mongol tongue. As he did, Dietrich loosened the pouch from his belt, laying it on the table with a jingling sound that no man, no matter his creed or homeland, could fail to recognize. The Fratres Militiae Christi Livoniae had lost many things, but its wealth was still in some part preserved, and Dietrich had brought enough coin with him to finesse certain situations.

Tegusgal reached for the leather pouch, loosening the string and digging out a single coin. He held it aloft between callused fingertips, and his eyes were dark and hooded. He flipped the coin and caught it, then said something in his own language.

The priest nodded in his nervous way, then translated. “He wishes to know why.”

Dietrich frowned, suddenly in muddy waters where the stones on which to put one’s feet could not be seen. A clumsy answer could upset everything the coin was about to purchase. Still, the coins were already on the table. It was too late to turn back.

“Because there are times,” Dietrich said, “when a higher purpose must be put before all other things. When honor must be defended, even if doing so seems mad and foolish.”

That was the truth of it. There were other benefits to this arrangement-matters which Tegusgal could ascertain for himself easily enough-but the settling of accounts was of paramount import to Dietrich. His return to Rome would not be coated in shame. His masters would not be able to accuse him of failing in his assignment or speak derisively of his efforts at protecting the honor of his battered order.

“This is such a time,” Dietrich finished, and let it lie there in the space between them, with the coins.

The priest translated the words into the Mongol tongue, and Tegusgal’s only response was a soft grunt. The Mongol’s attention was on the sack of coins, his fingers dipping in and drawing out coins at random. Finally, the man’s dark eyes flickered toward him once more. Tegusgal’s lips curled into a cruel smile and he said a single phrase, short and direct.

The priest translated. “He finds your deal agreeable.”

Zug hustled beside Kim through the maze of tents that formed the fighters’ camp, an air of energy and urgency informing their pace. They rushed passed fires where meat roasted on spits, dodged around clumps of men bent over impromptu games of knucklebones, and diverted from their path to avoid a crowd forming around two men who were settling a disagreement over a camp girl by bare-knuckled brawling. They were running out of time.

They had not been able to speak with Madhukar. He had been impossible to find since word had come from the guards that he was to fight next in the arena. Worse still, they had been waiting for confirmation from the street rats that the Rose Knight, Andreas, would be the Western fighter. Zug had thought it too risky to warn Madhukar of the plan far in advance, and now they only had a few minutes before Tegusgal’s men arrived and escorted the wrestler to his bout. By the time they reached the tent, Zug and Kim were both winded.

Gasping for breath, Kim flipped back the flap on the wrestler’s tent and stared in shock. Madhukar was calmly seated on a mat, a girl massaging each of his massive arms while a third tried to dig her delicate hands into the hard muscles of his shoulders and neck. He was wearing a narrow loincloth that was only a token nod toward modesty. He was not even remotely ready to fight in the arena.

“What has happened?” Kim asked, and Zug could hear the strain in his voice. Zug felt at a loss as well, and he struggled to keep his panic in check.

Madhukar glanced up, his face twisting into a dour mask of displeasure as he did. He gave a gesture with his right arm, speaking bluntly in his halting grasp of the Mongol tongue. “Tegusgal changed his mind,” he grunted. “Said other man would fight instead.”

A cold fist wrapped itself around Zug’s gut and tightened into a viselike grip. Did the Khan’s man know something of what they were planning? No, he pushed that fear aside, if he knew, Madhukar would be locked in a cage now, not having his limbs massaged by lithe slave-girls. Tegusgal might toy with them, but he would not take any chances. If he knew, he would have come for Kim and himself already.

“Why?” Zug asked; at the same time Kim asked, “Who?”

Madhukar answered both of them with a shrug that only confirmed what they already feared. Why would Tegusgal have explained anything to the big wrestler? He barely treated the fighters in the Circus as anything above well-bred dogs, even at his most generous.

As there was nothing else to be learned from the taciturn wrestler, Kim and Zug turned away from Madhukar’s tent. They wandered, somewhat aimlessly, toward the middle of the camp, somewhat stunned and unsure what to do about the chance for freedom that might, even as they stood there, be slipping away like grains of sand through their open fingers. Zug felt a fury boiling inside him. It was a reaction to the futility of their circumstances, he knew, a response that was distracting to a warrior, but it was not unexpected. He wanted to scream, to grab any of the slaves and other oppressed fighters wandering blithely past and shake them. Grab them by their hair and force them to face the visceral truth of their circumstances. He inhaled slowly and deeply, drawing air in through his nose and letting it back out even more slowly through his pursed lips. Embracing such a fury would be a fatal mistake, and all chances of their plan ever succeeding would vanish.

“The boy,” Zug said, looking at Kim. “We could still get word back to the Rose Knights.”

Kim’s face was drained of color, the ashen pallor of death. “He’s already come and gone,” the Flower Knight said, as though hope were a delicate vase suddenly dropped and shattered on the ground, the reality only now sinking in.

“Then everything rests on him,” Zug said, looking toward the arena. “One man. Fighting alone.”

Kim jerked his head back, a smile fighting its way onto his lips. “We tried to make it otherwise, didn’t we? But that is the way it always is, in the end.”

There was cheering in the streets when he came. Hunern was a town inundated with violent men and aggressive souls whose lust for battle had brought them from lands far and wide. Where the fighters passed, common men got out of their path, women hid themselves, and children stepped aside.

Not so with the Ordo Militum Vindicis Intactae. The people raised their faces to look up at the banner of the Rose Knights as it passed. Every story they had heard was instantly solidified as an unassailable truth in their minds. Every hope they had ever harbored in secret was suddenly given new life. Even those who had not been there when Andreas had come to First Field and demanded to be allowed to fight for all of Christendom would remember that day as if they had stood next to the knight when he had issued his challenge. The crowds looked upon the Shield-Brethren, and loved them.

The memory of the crowds was a balm on Andreas’s mind as he walked down the long tunnel of the arena. His mind was agitated, more so than usual, spinning around on all the aspects of the plan that were out of his control. When he had dismounted from his horse and had been about to enter the arena, a small figure had launched himself out of the crowd and thrown himself into Andreas’s arms. Hans had held him tight and whispered a message into his ear. You will be facing a friend. He will guard your back as you do what must be done.

Despite his courage, there was fear written plainly across the boy’s face. Only a fool would presume that whomever went into the arena with such intentions would walk out again, whether the Khan lived or died.

The plan-like all good plans-was simple, and Andreas’s fingers flexed about the shaft of his spear. When he and his ally stood opposite one another, they would have the opportunity to strike at the Khan directly. Andreas was well practiced at hurling shafts, and that practice had not stopped since the arena fights began. He had a good arm for throwing, even battered as he was. With a man to guard his back, the only other thing he would need was a wind that was kind.

“Be careful,” Hans had said as the crowd separated them. Andreas had not had time to answer, and he could only nod grimly before the boy’s tear-streaked face vanished into the press of bodies.

The light at the far end of the tunnel summoned him. His heart quickened as his thoughts became less hurried, less confused. The plan was simple. His action would be clear. Now was the time when the Shield-Brethren would live up to the legends spoken of them. They had accounted heroically for themselves in the lists, and Andreas had endured blow after blow at First Field, holding onto their place long enough to buy their allies the time they needed to gather what friends they could. Now, at last the efforts were coming to fruition. Their days of hiding were coming to an end, and today would be the spark that ignited all of Hunern.

He had only to throw his spear, and throw it well. The rest would be in the hands of the Virgin.

He reached the final archway, and paused for a final quick prayer, and then he stepped into the arena proper, where he was immediately assaulted by the deafening roar of an aroused crowd. Distantly, he marveled at the physical weight of the sound that fell upon him, glad of the thickness of his helm, and he tried to push all of that confusion aside as he looked around the killing ground for his opponent.

Andreas drew in a sharp breath at what he saw. Across the sand stood a tall, broad shouldered knight, wearing full maille armor and a steel helm that gleamed in the sunlight. Steel plates of the sort many knights had begun to add to their maille adorned his shoulders, and his steel-sheathed hands rested upon the hilt of an unsheathed, broad-bladed greatsword, its point resting in the dirt. A white surcoat draped across his chest, reaching down to above his knees.

Stitched on the unblemished fabric was the red cross and sword of the Fratres Militiae Christi Livoniae.

Andreas blinked several times, glancing around the arena with some vain hope that he was mistaken in what he saw. Or what he didn’t see. There was no one else. He was alone before the Livonian.

The man raised his sword in a formal, seamless salute. Andreas’s heart was now pounding in his ears as he faced his unexpected foe. Memories of the alehouse, of staring down at the Livonian Heermeister from the saddle of a stolen horse flashed through his mind. Had their allies in the Mongol camp been compromised? Had Hans? Was this a deliberate gambit on the part of the Khan, or merely the revenge of a Grand Master humiliated in the street? Uncertainty started to give way to something else, something less noble.

With a calming breath and a tightening of his grip on his weapon, Andreas forced the fear away as he returned his opponent’s salute. This was not the first time in his life that Andreas had endured an ambush, nor the first time that he had been taken unawares. When thrust into an unfamiliar situation against expectation, it was the way of the untrained novice to falter in the face of reactive terror. Andreas was a knight initiate of the Ordo Militum Vindicis Intactae-branded, blooded, and proven. This was a complication, and not a failure of the plan.

The roaring chant of the crowd faded to a distant din as Andreas focused his attention on the task at hand. Had they stood in the open field, the greater length of Andreas’s spear would have been more than enough to keep his foe at bay. Here in the arena, the space was smaller, limited. He would not have the room necessary to keep the Livonian at bay forever, and the thick maille that swathed the man from head to toe would be an obstacle even in the face of strong thrusts. It made no sense to wait, then. Time was not his ally today.

He exploded forward, charging across the sand, and as he closed the distance he unleashed a series of rapid thrusts at the Livonian’s body: head, feet, chest, head again, feet. Each strike was more rapid than the previous one. Forced to back away or check each attack with the strong of his blade, the Livonian gave ground. With each strike, Andreas shortened his grip upon the spear, bringing him ever closer to physical reach of his target. The Livonian continued to retreat, checking each thrust, his attention on the flickering point of Andreas’s spear.

Closer, closer. Then his chance came.

Andreas aimed a thrust at the Livonian’s groin. The Livonian’s blade snapped into a ward to drive it off, but now Andreas was close enough to grapple. The butt end of his spear shot across the Livonian’s arms, entrapping them together as Andreas hammered him hard in the neck. Hips beneath the other man, his tireless reminder to his students rang in his head as he leveraged his foe and sent the Livonian sprawling.

In the two heartbeats it took Andreas to steady himself enough to pursue, his opponent had already regained his feet and his sword. They stood facing one another again, and as he took the other man’s measure, Andreas felt a chill run through him.

He doesn’t even look winded.

Kristaps watched as the Shield-Brethren hesitated a mere fraction of a second at the sight of him standing ready. Behind his helm, Volquin’s Dragon smiled. You’re afraid, little knight. Afraid, and stupid to let me know it.

Once more, he raised his sword in salute. Amid the storm of shrieking faces that surrounded them, Kristaps was a focal point of channeled calm. The Shield-Brethren of Petraathen were the stuff of legends told from one end of Europe to the other. Kristaps knew all the stories, had believed them himself once upon a time, and he knew the lie they all imparted. No man, no matter how skilled, was ever anything more than bone, blood, and flesh, kept breathing only because another man hadn’t yet cut him open.

God willing, he would cut this one open. And all of his brothers as well. That was the debt owed. That was the promise he had made and that he intended to keep, as long as he could wield a weapon. As long as he too could breathe.

Kristaps kept his sword up, watching the other man, how he moved and taking note of what it might tell him of the way that he thought. From the stories Dietrich had told him the night before, Andreas was a bold fool, according to his Heermeister, an audacious soul who might be assumed to leap before he looked. Kristaps doubted this was true. The Shield-Brethren were exceptionally trained, to a fault. Their actions might appear like those of a careless fool, but they always knew the risks. They always planned ahead.

Andreas’s first assault had been a clear indicator, and in another time and place, Kristaps might have congratulated Andreas on the feint which had resulted in him being thrown. But it had been a mistake. He should have followed through and killed me, Kristaps thought as the spear tip came at him once more, lancing through the air. Because now I know the measure.

Kristaps stepped into the latest thrust, his blade sweeping the point aside. Abruptly Andreas made a rowing motion with his weapon and too late Kristaps saw what he was doing as the butt smashed into his chest. He gave a sharp breath and drew back. He brought his sword up and then down, aborting a second rotation of the spear.

A fighter learns how to endure a blow without giving ground, without wincing and crumpling around the pain. It is a basic survival skill, one mastered quickly and readily. In an open field, the advantage would have belonged to the Shield-Brethren, the limitless range of his potential movement allowing him to constantly keep Kristaps at bay. The arena hemmed both of them in, however, and a fighter who fled from every blow would eventually be pushed up against a wall.

He who was trapped first died.

They had separated again, following his disruption of Andreas’s attempts to beat him with the knobbed end of his spear. Andreas came at him once more, thrusting in rapid succession at his midsection, his head, and his foot. Smart plays, Kristaps thought as he kept his distance, but there was only so much he could do with that attack.

Kristaps swept his sword upward from a low guard and intercepted the next thrust. He locked the shaft with his weapon and then stepped in to tuck it behind his arm. Andreas knew what he was doing and stepped in too, throwing his head forward. Their helmets slammed together, and Kristaps tried to take the brunt of Andreas’s furious head butt on the ridge of his helmet.

His ears ringing, Kristaps shoved Andreas away. A smile spread across his face as he reset his guard and circled his opponent.

This was going to be more of a challenge than he thought.

Andreas had faced members of the Livonian order before, but this one was different. He was strong and skilled, and that was to be expected, but there was more to him than simple martial prowess. There was a disturbing familiarity in his movements, even in the way he forced separation and covered his retreat. He’s been trained by one of ours.

Andreas couldn’t rely on wearing his implacable foe down. The blows he had landed so far had been fierce, but they were the sort of trauma that would leave bruises and cause stiffness tomorrow. They weren’t going to change the fight today. Andreas could feel the Khan’s box behind him, its occupant at the heart of all his endeavors here. This Livonian was not a friend, that much was certain, and the only way he could accomplish the plan-and it was his alone, at this point-was through victory.

He’d bested his own brothers before; he could do the same here. End this, was his final thought on the matter. There is no more time.

Andreas launched himself forward with a powerful thrust aimed at the Livonian’s neck. His opponent stepped off line and to his left, his left hand darting from the pommel of his sword to midway up the blade, dashing in faster than Andreas could retreat. The spear was ultimately a weapon made to keep opponents at range, but when the enemy bypassed the point and stepped inside, then that advantage was utterly lost and the weapon could rapidly become a liability. As the Livonian stepped forward, the tip of his blade hooked Andreas’s hand against the shaft, and had it not been for the maille that protected his limbs, the back of his hand would have been cut straight to the bone.

He tried to withdraw, but the Livonian had already slipped behind him, and the pommel and grip of the greatsword were looped around his neck. He dropped his weight, but found the Livonian had beaten him to that trick first. The sky and the ground reversed their positions as he flew backward, landing painfully on the ground.

The Livonian was coming for him. The spear had landed within arm’s reach, and Andreas snatched it up, waving it around from where he lay on his back. The motions were forceful and wild, but they had the desired effect of forcing his opponent to back up enough to let him regain his feet.

The Livonian stared at him, his posture bespeaking absolute confidence. Abruptly, the man spread his arms wide, leaving his chest open to attack. He’s goading me, Andreas realized, and I have no choice.

With a cry, he launched himself forward, the spear lancing toward his enemy’s chest.

The Shield-Brethren was starting to panic. With a smile, Kristaps gave ground as his opponent lashed out with his spear, trying to buy enough time to regain his footing. Get up, Kristaps thought, as he retreated from the slashing spear tip. The Shield-Brethren had been expecting a different opponent; Kristaps doubted he would have brought the same weapon to the arena had he known whom he was fighting. Ordinarily, fighting against a spear was a severe disadvantage, but the First Sword of Fellin had been at Schaulen and other fields of battle and he knew the walls of the arena reduced his opponent’s advantage. There were far fewer ways to fight a man with a spear, and once desperation started to creep in, the options became even more limited. His opponent was starting to panic; his fear was plain in his motions as he struggled to regain his feet. A desperate man forgot his advantages quickly, and was more prone to carelessness at the slightest hint of an opportunity for a quick victory.

They stood apart now, panting. Kristaps watched the other man assess him. His own blood was up and his mind alert and sharp. The Shield-Brethren could not touch him.

With deliberate slowness, he spread his arms wide, leaving his body undefended. Come, his posture said, let me make it easy for you.

The Shield-Brethren took the bait. It was his only chance, and both men knew it. He was quick, but speed could not counter strategy when his enemy was ready for it. It was a well-delivered strike, and would have skewered Kristaps like a pig had it landed.

Kristaps stepped forward, bringing his sword to the center just in time to catch the spear tip upon the base of his blade, pushing it aside. The thrust was broken, but the Shield-Brethren’s momentum was not. Kristaps levered his greatsword forward the mere foot of distance necessary to plant its point squarely in his enemy’s chest. It was not enough to penetrate the maille and padded gambeson, but Kristaps watched with satisfaction as the man jerked violently at the blow and fought the urge to crumple. A rib might have cracked, muscles torn by the sudden contraction.

He raised his blade for another blow, preparing to bring the sword down in a bone-breaking strike that would shear through maille and shatter limbs, but the Shield-Brethren’s hand shot beneath his elbow, keeping his sword arm at bay. A desperate effort that would only prevent what came next for a few more seconds. The Shield-Brethren’s arm was extended now, and it was Kristaps who was inside the range of his weapons. His left hand slid from the pommel of the greatsword as he twisted his hips, hooked the shaft of the spear, and drove it behind the Shield-Brethren’s legs.

This is the first of many blows owed you and yours. Kristaps smiled, and snapped his hips back, levering the Shield-Brethren with tremendous force and hurling him to the ground. He managed to roll, struggling to regain his feet as Kristaps watched, now holding his greatsword in his right hand and his enemy’s spear in his left. You are unarmed. You are wounded. You have already lost.

He hefted the shaft, and threw it back toward his foe. Goading him now. You are no threat to me.

The trap had been sprung, and Andreas had landed badly. When he struggled to his feet his breath was coming in difficult rasps, his head throbbing with pain. The stillness of his enemy was unnerving, absolute in its predatory, watchful confidence. Andreas had begun the fight in uncertainty, his resolve shaken. Now, feeling the agonizing fire in his chest, the only possible end to this confrontation was making itself clear. I am going to die.

The spear sailed toward him and he caught it reflexively. The motion of snapping his arm out to seize the shaft sent ripples of white-hot pain through his chest, shoulders, and back. He was losing the battle rush, and when the sword tip had struck him, something had broken. His legs were sluggish, and his maille and gambeson made it feel like he was carrying two or three full-grown men on his shoulders. The Livonian stood before him, his sword at the ready, watching with the contemptuous contemplation of a cat enjoying a game with a mouse before it has a meal. The sun was relentless in its attention, and what felt like rivers of sweat were coursing down his back and legs.

Behind the Livonian, the colorful flags atop the Khan’s box fluttered, calling to him.

All at once the fear was gone, and Andreas gasped at the sudden clarity that lay before him. The goal of this battle, whether the advantage had been his or not, had never been about survival. It would have been nice had the Virgin allowed him and his absent ally to walk away laughing with a grand tale to tell his brothers back in Petraathen when this was all done and past, but that had always been an indolent dream. Even Hans had known.

His hands tightened on the spear and he set his teeth against the pain. Andreas had heard stories from older brothers, speaking of the times when they had believed death upon them, how their senses became sharper. When fear fled, everything became serene and perfect. One last gift from the Virgin before she came to collect her brave warriors.

It was all he needed. One last gift. One last throw.

He sprang toward the Livonian, his spear flickering before him in a last flurry of thrusts. The Livonian defended himself, almost lazily, as if he could not quite believe that his opponent thought this assault would bear fruit. His enemy sidestepped the first thrust toward his midsection, swatted the spear tip aside as it came again at his helmet, and then-becoming bored with the same sequence being forced upon him once again-rushed in with a killing blow. It was exactly what Andreas had expected. He let the spear whirl around in his hands as the Livonian came at him, and smashed the butt of the weapon into the flat of the greatsword’s blade, sending it veering off its course and to the side. Control the motion, control the body.

The butt of the spear was now between the Livonian’s weapon and his body. Andreas slammed his weight into his enemy’s flank, and used the shaft of the spear to hook his foe’s neck. He dropped his hips, twisted all his weight against the pain, and sent the Livonian through the air, his body crashing into the ground. Get out of my way.

The crowds were roaring in his ears, expecting a finishing move. But Andreas ignored his opponent, continuing his mad dash across the sand. His legs cried out in pain; he ignored them. His chest was afire with the agony of each breath, but he would only need his lungs for a few moments longer.

The Khan’s box hung before him, a massive work of wood painted with red and gold and decorated with the stolen fineries of a thousand looted kingdoms. A pair of gleaming curtains shielded its occupants from the rays of the summer sun, stirring now in the wind. Andreas held one arm before him to steady his aim. You should have known better, he thought. Out of the reach of a sword, but not my spear. A gift, Onghwe Khan. I give you my life, so that I might take yours…

Limbs burning, chest screaming, Andreas set his weight, and threw his weapon, as hard and as far as he had ever done. As he watched it sail through the air, white-hot agony seared through his body-from his shoulder to his hip-and all feeling went out of his legs and his right arm. The world spun and he was no longer looking up at the Khan’s box. A shadow passed overhead, and all he could see was the red and wet sand of the arena. He tried to lift his head, tried to find the Khan’s box. Had his spear found its mark? Virgin, into thy hands I place my-

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

Into Hyperborea

Where are we?” Yasper squinted up at the sky, as if assessing the location of the sun might be of some assistance in an otherwise futile effort at divining their location. In all directions, the steppe went on forever, a flatness marred only by the scraggly knobs of wormwood.

The landscape was-though Cnan didn’t want to belabor the point-not much different from what it had been for the previous phase of the moon. “We’re getting close,” she said, catching Raphael’s eye and hiding a smile.

“Close to what?” the Dutch alchemist wanted to know. He idly scratched his jaw, an unconscious tic most of the men had adopted since they had shaved their beards as part of Feronantus’s initiative to blend in more readily.

Other than Raphael and Istvan, the men were very Western in appearance, and given their need to move quickly and effortlessly across the broad steppe they needed to be less conspicuous. With much grumbling, they had shaved their heads and beards, and with the assistance of a salve concocted by the alchemist and daily exposure to the sun, their skin tones had been darkened as well.

“We’re close to that bush over there,” Cnan said, pointing.

“Ah,” Yasper said, throwing up his hands. “Now I know exactly where we are.” He dropped his arms until he could look down one arm at the bush (which looked like every other bush for miles in any direction) and along the other at the route they had been following. “Yes,” he said, wrinkling his nose and peering down his arm, “it is a good thing I have the latest inventions from Arabia to guide us.” He wiggled one of his thumbs. “We are, and this measurement is exceptionally accurate-”

“To within one thumb width, at least,” R?dwulf interjected.

“Better mine than yours,” Yasper chortled. “As I was saying, yes, we are exactly halfway.” He raised his arms again and looked at the company, rather pleased with himself.

Istvan chewed on the end of his mustache and glowered. Both Percival and Feronantus dozed in their saddles, oblivious to the alchemist’s wit. Eleazar was a half mile ahead, riding point, and of the remaining quartet-Vera, Raphael, R?dwulf, and Cnan-only Cnan regularly engaged Yasper. She liked the quirky Dutchman’s company; he had a lively insouciance and an inquisitive eagerness that made the long days and nights of their journey palatable. When she had made this journey west before, she had ridden along for many, many months, and she could recall very little of the journey.

Cnan stole a glance at Feronantus and Percival. They were alike in many ways, even though many years separated them. Feronantus was, in fact, old enough to have fathered every member of the company and, in some cases, of such an age that he could be someone’s grandfather. Percival was younger than the other Shield-Brethren, but it was his bearing and his vision that lent the impression of gravid wisdom, the sort that usually comes with having survived many hard winters. In fact, she was starting to think that he was not much older than she, and this realization had caused her some distress a few days back.

“I am quite serious, though,” Yasper continued, dragging her from her thoughts. “Where are we?”

“It’s not far now,” she replied, enjoying the consternation her words wrought on the alchemist’s face.

“Weren’t we supposed to meet that trader, Benjamin?”

“We are.”

“When? We didn’t meet up with him after the river. You found a note that we were supposed to go somewhere else. A rock, wasn’t it? Some sort of landmark that would be obvious. How many days’ journey was that supposed to have been?”

“Six,” she said. “But we were chasing Alchiq, remember?”

“I thought we were looking for Istvan.”

Cnan shrugged as if to say those two things were one and the same. “We went north when we should have been going south.”

Yasper groaned. “I knew we should have stayed closer to the trade routes.”

“We’ll be there soon,” Cnan assured him.

“You still haven’t told me where there is.”

“Soon.” She nodded toward the horizon. “Can’t you see it?”

Yasper whirled in his saddle, leaning forward like a hunting dog catching a scent. He even quivered a bit in excitement. “Where?” he said, a tiny quaver in his voice.

R?dwulf pointed, and Cnan marveled at his eyesight. She knew the rock lay in that direction; she had felt the gentle tug in her belly earlier in her day that said she was going in the right direction, but she hadn’t spotted the lone finger of stone jutting up from the steppe yet. She had been looking for it, and even though the air was crystalline in its clarity, she couldn’t see it yet. But, apparently, R?dwulf could.

“A day’s ride,” the tall Englishman said.

Raphael glanced up from the tiny journal he was constantly scribbling in. “Only then will we be halfway,” he pointed out.

Yasper stood in his saddle, straining to see the tiny dot on the horizon that R?dwulf could see. “Next time,”-he sank back down-“can we pick a target closer to home?”

Cnan caught Raphael looking at her, an oddly gentle look in his eyes, and she gave him a wistful smile before ducking her head and kneeing her horse lightly to get it to trot a little faster. Home, she thought. Where is that for a lost little leaf like me?

“Oh, my friends, I did not recognize you!” Benjamin leaped down from his horse and approached the Shield-Brethren’s horses. The trader offered them a wide smile and a wider embrace, hugging each one of them in turn, except for Istvan, who deigned to get down from his horse. “The steppe has changed you,” he observed. “Well, most of you.”

“Only on the outside,” Raphael quipped, disengaging himself from the trader’s hug.

“It is a very clever disguise.” Benjamin fingered Raphael’s plain cloak, and the gleam in his eye said he had felt the ridged texture of the maille beneath the simple homespun cloth. “From a distance, you look like Kipchaks or Cumans, not altogether unusual in this region, and this one”-he indicated Cnan-“always adds a bit of Eastern flair to your company. Up close, I would still think Cumans, what with your garb and your saddles. Most would not think twice about who you were.” He tapped his forehead. “But I have traded this route too long to not notice the little things.”

“We did not expect to confound you, Benjamin,” Feronantus explained. “We only hoped to become invisible to the dull-eyed so that our passage would not be remembered or hindered.”

“It is a good strategy,” the trader nodded. “When you did not arrive at the caravanserai as immediately as we had planned, I suspected your mission had waylaid you. When the survivors of your encounter with the jaghun started to limp through, I knew you would not dare to meet me there. Fortunately, knowing your companion,” he glanced at Cnan, “I suspected you might be able to find this place.

He slapped Raphael on the shoulder. “Oh, but I have been enjoying the wild tales that have preceded you. I have heard a number of stories about Western devils rising out of darkness, spitting fire, and walking across water.”

Raphael laughed. “I suspect the last may be overly embellished.”

“It was not my place to dissuade these people of the errors in their stories. I am but a humble trader,” Benjamin said. “I would not dream of interfering with the fabrication of local legends.”

“What of Graymane?” Feronantus asked. “The one called Alchiq.”

“An elusive ghost, that one.” Benjamin’s face lost some of its levity. “As I came east, I made inquiries and heard very little. The few who spoke of him tended to whisper their rumors, as if they were worried he might hear them. Though I cannot imagine how, as everyone agreed that he was hurrying east, leaving a trail of dead horses in his wake. He asked many questions too as he rode-too many, in my opinion. He heard few satisfactory answers, which have led others to wonder about the cause of his ferocious curiosity.”

“How many days ahead of us?” Feronantus asked.

“Enough.”

“Aye,” Feronantus sighed. He raised his eyes toward the impressive spire of the rock. “We will rest and resupply tonight; tomorrow, we will acquire fresh horses and ride on. Friend Benjamin, I would ask a boon of you. We had hoped to utilize your expertise on our journey, sheltering ourselves in the midst of your caravan, but I fear your need to stop and trade will only hinder our pace. Events, I am afraid to admit, have left us bereft of not only one of our numbers but also of time. We must get to the Khagan before Alchiq can reach and warn him. If we cannot beat him there, we must hope that his warning is delayed or otherwise ignored. Otherwise…”

“Yes,” Benjamin mused, resting a finger on his lips. “I see your predicament. My caravan can offer you more invisibility than you already possess, but it will, alas, move at a rate that will not be to your liking. If I were to abandon my cargo to one of my caravan masters, he would, most likely, rob me blind and leave my camels in Samarkand.” He shook his head. “Hardly a suitable end to a trade caravan that has gone back and forth along the Silk Road for nearly three generations.”

Feronantus said nothing, and Cnan leaned forward to scratch her horse along its mane. She-and the rest of the company-had become accustomed to their leader’s long silences. It was rarely due to an extended bout of thinking on Feronantus’s part, but more for the sake of others in the conversation. Feronantus had already considered, rejected, and postulated several possible solutions, and in his mind he had already settled on the most suitable answer. He was simply waiting for the rest of them to come to the same conclusion.

Cnan found her own readiness to follow Feronantus’s conclusions without convoluted mental peregrinations of her own both comforting and unsettling. She was allowing herself to become complacent with the company, letting them do her thinking for her.

“No decision need be made immediately,” Benjamin said. “Come. Let us eat and rest. We have much to discuss before the morning.” He beckoned to the company as he strode toward his camp.

Cnan grinned. Benjamin was a very adroit trader. He had neatly avoided Feronantus’s trap.

Raphael had never seen a land as flat and inhospitable as the steppe. Scoured clean by the wind, the landscape east of the river where they had fought Alchiq’s jaghun had been brutal in its emptiness, as if this were a land abandoned by God. There were animals and plants that thrived on the endless plain, enough that a desperate party could sustain itself, but such a life was spent being cold, miserable, and constantly hungry.

According to Cnan, it was only going to get worse until they reached the Mongolian Plateau on the other side of several mountain ranges.

Raphael doubted the rest of the company were familiar with Herodotus and Pliny, ancient historians who had tried to make sense of the myriad of travelers’ tales that described the distant edges of the known world. Alexander had used Herodotus’s Histories as his map of the East, and the Macedonian conqueror redrew all of the known maps by the time of his death. Pliny, hundreds of years later, tried to make further sense of the tangled histories of the peoples encompassed by Alexander’s reach, but he never traveled to all of the places that he wrote about.

It struck him Raphael as both strange and marvelous that he, a bastard born in the Levant and raised in Al-Andalus, was seeing more of the world than either Herodotus or Pliny. Both had written of a land called Hyperborea, where the north wind lived in a vast cave. They repeated stories of one-eyed giants and gryphons, forever at war with one another, though it was difficult to see what was worth fighting about on these barren steppes.

As the company settled itself following a simple feast (one that was mouth-wateringly delicious in comparison with their diet of salted meat and dried berries over the last few weeks), Raphael took it upon himself to investigate the rock. Perhaps, he reasoned, I might find some gryphon feathers.

The rock was a mystery, a prominent landmark in a land that had none. It was shaped like a sundial’s gnomon, oriented east to west with the higher end in the east. It cast a significant shadow, and were they staying a day or two more, Raphael would have wanted to scale it. He was intrigued by the allure of the view from its pointed peak. How far could he see from the prow of this rocky ship? Who else had been up there, and had they left any markings for later travelers to decipher?

Boreas may have smoothed the sharp edges of the rock, but there were still narrow channels cut in the limestone as if from water (leading Raphael to speculate that the weather had been vastly different in this region once) as well as pockets and divots filled with twigs and down from generations of nesting birds. Much like an oasis in the desert, the rock offered shelter and solace, providing a place where men and animals could pretend the surrounding land was not intolerably harsh.

Benjamin’s camp was situated on the southern side, and Raphael hiked around the thicker end of the rock, mainly to see the other side. It was the same as the other, though at this time of year, the shadows were longer. He clambered across the rough scree and laid his hands on the rock directly, marveling at how cool the stone was to the touch. Letting his right hand rest on the rock, he walked east, idly wondering if he could circumnavigate the rock before nightfall. He chided himself on such frivolous thinking. As the day cooled, there might be beasts that would come out of hiding to hunt, and he was out of earshot of the camp.

He paused, his hand dropping to the hilt of his sword as he caught sight of movement ahead of him. He relaxed as he recognized Cnan’s shape, but his curiosity was immediately piqued as he wondered what she was doing. Her posture suggested she was looking for something.

His foot dislodged a rock, which clattered noisily as it rolled, and the Binder whirled in his direction. So as to not spook her further, he raised an arm and called out a greeting. He slid down from the rocky sill and strode toward her, making no pretense at having been spying on her. “Ho, Cnan. I see you have been curious about the spire as well.”

Her face was guarded, and she was clearly wrestling with deciding how to reply, if at all.

Raphael beamed, opting to appear as nonthreatening as possible. “Do you know who Herodotus was? He was a Greek scholar, and he wrote this wonderful book called The Histories. He attempted to collate the stories of the known world into a comprehensive narrative-it is very impressive.” He knew he was babbling, but he wanted her to be at ease. “He wrote of a people known as the Arimaspoi. They had one eye in the center of their foreheads. Very warlike.”

“I am not familiar with them,” Cnan said slowly, peering at Raphael with thinly veiled unease.

“Their mortal enemies were gryphons. Do you know what a gryphon is?”

Cnan shook her head.

“It is an enormous bird that has the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle. Many cultures regarded it as a sacred creature, a symbol of the divine power of their gods. To adapt the gryphon as your symbol was to harness the magic of the gods, and I imagine the Arimaspoi hunted them, for their feathers among other things.”

“I have seen no feathers,” Cnan said, shifting from one leg to the other.

“Nor have I,” said Raphael sadly “Can I ask what it is you are looking for?”

His question caught Cnan off guard, and she blinked owlishly. She sighed heavily when he said nothing more, waiting for her to offer some explanation. Beckoning him to follow her, she started walking east.

Raphael followed, wisely keeping his mouth shut.

After a few minutes of walking, Cnan spotted something that was indiscernible to Raphael. She led him up to a crack in the rock face that stretched far above their heads, and Raphael was surprised to realize the crack was both wider and deeper than he had first thought. One slab of the rock overlapped the other, hiding the true depth of the crevice from casual examination. Cnan squeezed through the narrow gap, and Raphael stopped, eyeing the tight space with some trepidation. He might fit, but he wasn’t so sure he wanted to find out. Especially if he managed to force himself through and then couldn’t get back.

“I’ll be right back,” Cnan said, and before he could argue otherwise-and what would be the point of telling her to stop, really? — she slid farther into the crack and turned a corner he hadn’t realized was there. He stood beside the crack, somewhat at a loss as to what he should be doing while he waited, and just as he was starting to think he could squeeze through the gap, Cnan returned.

She slipped back out of the crack and showed him a strip of braided horsehair. It had been tied in an intricate series of double and triple knots, and he knew there was some purpose to the order of them, but he couldn’t discern it. “You found something from your kin-sisters,” he said.

“Aye,” Cnan said. “A weather report.” She tucked the horsehair braid into her a pocket of her jacket.

“Is that all?” Raphael asked.

“No,” she said tersely, but after staring at him for a moment, chewing her lower lip, she relented. “Some of us are firmly rooted in the soil of our birth. Others, like myself, travel endlessly. The ones who put down roots know everything there is to know about where they live. The wanderers know less about their destination, but they know how to get from one place to another. Spots like this one are where we leave messages for each other. Some of them”-she patted her pocket-“are as simple as notes about the weather, about local warlords and who is fighting whom in the region, or about the location of caches of food and money. Others are…”

Raphael looked at the crack once more, suddenly desirous to try to squeeze past the lip of stone. Maybe without my armor…

“Come,” Cnan said, grabbing his arm, not altogether gently. “Let us return to the camp.” She tugged him. “Even if you could squeeze through,” she said softly, “you would not be able to read any of the messages.” She pulled the horsehair braid from her pocket and waggled it in front of his face. “‘There is no snow in the gap,’” she quoted. “Can you decipher these knots?”

Raphael shook his head.

“Let it remain a mystery then,” she said. “Like your gryphons.”

After dinner, by the light of a roaring fire, Benjamin laid down a large piece of cowhide and unrolled his map of the trade routes. The company clustered around the worn palimpsest, trying to make sense of the marks and letters that had been written and rewritten over many years.

“This is the Yaik,” Benjamin explained, tracing a thin line that ran along one edge of the map. “This is Saray-Juk, not far from where we had planned to meet, but wisely, you bypassed that caravanserai and came here”-his finger traced to a small triangle-“instead.”

“The middle of nowhere,” Yasper quipped.

Benjamin smiled, and dropped his finger to the closest line on the map. “We are north of the Silk Roads, and as you can see, they tend to run much farther south. There are two, primarily. One runs north along the Tien Shan Mountains, through Urumqui and Turfan, and the other runs much farther south, beyond the Taklamakan Desert. Both take you to the heart of China, which is not where you want to go.” His finger had been moving across the map as he spoke, highlighting each of the places as he mentioned them, and when he finished, he moved his finger up into a large blank spot where, seemingly at random, he spotted and tapped the map. “Karakorum, the imperial palace of Ogedei Khan, Khagan of the Mongol Empire, is here.”

The members of the company examined the map for a few minutes, silently considering the information that Benjamin had given them.

Percival cleared his throat and leaned forward, his finger gliding across the map to a point that almost seemed to summon his finger, an X that was the result of two mountain ranges coming together. “What of this place?” he asked.

Benjamin glanced at Feronantus and Cnan briefly before he answered. “It is a pass called the Zuungar Gap,” he said.

“What do you know of this gap?” Feronantus asked.

“It’s a high pass,” Benjamin said. “A long and narrow course through the mountains. If there is, indeed, not much snow, it will be an easy route.” He traced a finger along the map. “You stay on the western side of the Tien Shan until here, cut over through the gap, and you will find yourself on the edge of a place known as the Gurbantunggut. As deserts go, it is not as bad as some, and travel across it will be fairly easy until you reach the Altai Mountains, which are not as imposing as the Tien Shan-the Celestial Mountains-but they have other dangers.” He paused to draw breath, and he glanced at Cnan, a flicker of a smile touching his lips. “Once you have crossed those mountains, you will be on the Mongolian Plateau. From there, it is only a week or so hard ride to Karakorum.”

“Is that all?” Yasper asked.

“It is a dangerous route,” Benjamin continued, “and one I would not attempt if I was not certain about the weather.”

Feronantus looked carefully at Raphael, Percival, and then Cnan, and then spoke for all of them. “I think we are,” he said.

Percival beamed, and Raphael wanted to run away from the firelight, out in the darkness around the rock, where he could berate God and no one would hear his blasphemy.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

Tenebras in Lucem

Ferenc was intrigued by this Cardinal Oddone de Monferrato. His eyes seemed to be in a permanent state of gaping. Helmuth had explained to him how much this man had been through, what he had seen and survived, especially far away from here in the little island nation of England. But to Ferenc, he looked like a deer startled by everything happening to him and around him.

They were a motley little group, returning to the city: Lena, the Cardinal, and the soldier named Helmuth; Ocyrhoe and Ferenc, in clothes much too big for them-like children dragged along on a family outing. Helmuth was there as the eyes of the Emperor, to keep Monferrato in line and in view. Lena had requested permission to go with the party, and her reasons had not been made clear to the others, but Ocyrhoe suspected she wanted to ascertain for herself what had happened to the other Binders in Rome.

Ocyrhoe looked so happy to have her company that Ferenc was actually a little jealous. His primary sense of purpose since arriving in the city was to be of use to her; now he had to share that purpose with somebody else. He noticed Ocyrhoe going out of her way to pay attention to him, to let him know that she was still glad of his company, but that struck him as condescending. He had drained his face of expression as they began their journey back toward the city walls; he stopped signing to her or even speaking to Helmuth.

He decided he did not respect Helmuth. The Holy Roman soldier had an arrogance that Ferenc did not think was justified. Not that arrogance was ever justified, but he could abide it in people who were clearly in some way superior. Helmuth was ugly and large, and seemed preoccupied with appearing as subservient as possible to Emperor Frederick. This, perversely, seemed to be the root source of his arrogance, which made no sense to Ferenc.

Lena-to Ferenc’s mind-was similarly suspect. She was standoffish, and Ocyrhoe seemed so desperate to make a good impression on her, to demonstrate that she was not foolish or inadequate. He did not like to see his friend embarrass herself this way. Even before they had departed, he had tried to warn her about Lena.

She is going to Rome to replace you, Ferenc had signed to her. You will be useless in Rome if Lena is also there.

She had given him an impatient look and waved him off. But then, about an hour later, as they approached the gates of the city, Ocyrhoe slowed down to let Helmuth and Monferrato pass her, joining Ferenc as he brought up the rear.

Hello, she signed on his arm, smiling.

Hello, he signed back, fingers lax.

Soon we will save Father Rodrigo, she signed again, heavily tapping his forearm, as if to focus his attention.

He made a doubtful face.

This Cardinal will vote and break the tie, and then they will all be released, and Father Rodrigo will be with you, she signed.

He shrugged in grudging acknowledgment.

And then what will you do? Tell me please, she signed, with an intense look.

Ferenc withheld his answering fingers. He had never stopped to think about this, not once since Mohi. Everything had been an unwelcome quest for him, from the moment of his mother’s death at the hand of the Mongols. First with Father Rodrigo to get to Rome; then with Ocyrhoe to free Father Rodrigo. The priest had never wanted anything but to get close to the Pope; surely, after all this time sequestered with the high-up Church authorities, that would be easy for him now, whoever the Pope was.

So what would Father Rodrigo do next? That would determine Ferenc’s course. Months ago he had stopped thinking about wanting anything for himself. Everyone and everything he knew and loved had died or been destroyed. He had no reason to go back, and nothing to go toward. The more he thought about this, the more it felt as if the hard dirt road beneath his feet was giving way like quicksand.

He felt tapping on his forearm and realized Ocyrhoe was trying to communicate with him. Are you all right all right all right? she kept asking.

All I know is useless, he signed back.

Ocyrhoe nodded solemnly, and he was sure she understood exactly what he meant. They ran forward to catch up with the others, but at that moment, the others stopped.

“We approach the gates,” Lena announced from the front, turning to face them. “From here we need our tracker and our native to get us to the Septizodium.”

Our turn to be in charge, Ocyrhoe signed with a small smile, and then grabbed his sleeve and pulled him forward.

Rodrigo had had no difficulty convincing his new chaperone, Brother Lucio, that there had been some mistake-he was merely supposed to be treated well and made comfortable, but not actually guarded. And so, when he explained that he dearly missed his native city and wanted the liberty to explore his old haunts, especially around the basilica, he was allowed to go, with only a young page boy, Timoteo, shadowing him.

Rodrigo remembered the city so clearly, although he was not used to approaching it from this side of the Tiber. From where he stood, a broad bridge, hundreds of strides long, led to the northwest corner of the city proper. This was the only part of the city that relied on water rather than walls to protect it.

He crossed the bridge and strode along the broad avenues. There was a vague memory of passing through here while he was feverish and wounded-how disturbingly loud and confusing everything seemed then… just a few days ago, was it? He knew where he was now, and he did not mind the bustle. He followed one road that led him almost due southeast, as Timoteo silently followed at his heels, lugging a water skin and saying nothing.

Rodrigo recognized certain buildings-merchants’ shops, this intersection, that ruined shrine… a pleasing familiarity washed over him with the soft autumn warmth of the sun.

After walking the distance of several bowshots-he was still thinking in terms of battle! — Rodrigo paused in the crowded avenue and turned to the boy. “Do you see that wall?” he asked, pointing to an entire city block hidden behind an unbroken stone barricade. Distinctive rooftops rose up beyond the wall, interspersed with thick tree tops, carefully trimmed. Timoteo nodded. “Do you know who lives there?” Rodrigo asked. The boy shook his head.

“That,” said Rodrigo, as if sharing the secret to a magic trick, “That is the home of the Orsini family. When I was a child, they were like powerful kings… in my imagination. But now I have actually met Orsini, in the flesh, and he is just a regular man like me.” Rodrigo smiled. “Perhaps even more regular. And should we move another thousand paces, along this street, on the left, we will come to an even larger and more magnificent palace. That is the home of the Colonna family. When I was your age, they too were great as kings in my estimation, and I feared them. But now I have met Cardinal Colonna, and he too is just a mortal man. In fact, he is friendlier than most men.”

Timoteo stared at Rodrigo without speaking, probably baffled as to a proper response.

“And when I was a child, everyone in Rome knew that those two families absolutely despised each other.”

“They still do, Father,” said the boy. “Everyone knows that.”

“Well then, my wise one, I will tell you something both enlightening and entertaining,” Rodrigo said, smiling beneficently. “Yesterday, I saw Cardinal Colonna and Senator Orsini in the same room, forced by circumstance to be civil. It was like watching actors in a play. I felt as if I was in the audience of a very subtle, special comedy. I thought, all those stories I heard when I was a child-and here are these two characters, acting them out, for our amusement!”

The boy smiled sheepishly. “What did they do?” he asked.

“Cardinal Colonna kept making jests at Orsini’s expense,” said Rodrigo. “It was not very Christian of him, but he was rather witty. And Orsini kept growling at him like this.” Here Rodrigo attempted to imitate the throaty rumble of a bear. The page boy grinned. “They were in front of lots of people they thought were important, and so they could do no more than that.”

Timoteo frowned. “You mean the Cardinals? Those are people who are important, aren’t they, Father?”

Rodrigo gave the boy a knowing smile. “My son, in the eyes of Heaven, we are all as little children. No one of us is more important than another. In fact, the more important we think we are, the less we stand out in the eyes of the Lord. Remember that, if you yourself someday become a man of God.” He looked around the avenue. “We have a ways to go yet before we reach our destination.”

“What is our destination, Father?”

“I fondly remember the area around the Colosseum,” Rodrigo said. “I recall there is always a nice bustle of people. I would like to be surrounded by a bustle of people. That way, if I have something important I need to say, I have only to say it once.”

He gestured for the boy to walk along beside him. Timoteo happily followed. Rodrigo knew that the boy found him both gentle and amusing, and likely regarded him as no more eccentric than the other priests.

Rodrigo wandered on, humming old melodies, following pleasant memories, turning, turning, taking this lane, then that, looking up between the leaning, lowering buildings. An hour later he saw that the young boy was no longer with him-had somehow lagged behind and was now out of sight and earshot.

Rodrigo smiled some more. All would be well; nothing was amiss. The boy would find him again, if God willed it to be so. Father Rodrigo Bendrito was blessed in such things, for Providence was with him.

Providence, and what he carried concealed in his robes.

“What do you mean he isn’t here?” Colonna demanded of the sheepish young priest. “You were assigned to keep an eye on him. He was half dead. Where could he have gone?”

The young man lowered his eyes, looking as if he wouldn’t mind a nice straightforward crucifixion instead of a grilling from the entire College of Cardinals. “He went into the crypt, and I allowed him time alone down there. He seemed greatly recovered when he came out, and I turned him over to the care of Brother Lucio, as I was scheduled to take confessions in the chapel. I cannot account for Brother Lucio’s care of him, nor do I know where Brother Lucio himself is now.”

Fieschi turned his attention away from this useless young cleric and seared the half dozen guards around them with his eyes. “Find Brother Lucio,” he ordered. “Bring him here at once.”

The ten Cardinals stood in the antechamber to the bishop’s conference hall. Despite the relief of being free from months of deprivation and now surrounded by arguably the most sumptuous decorations in all of Christendom, the ten Cardinals were so beside themselves they took no notice of their surroundings at all. Sunlight streamed in at an angle from one set of open doors. It was magnificent, almost literally golden, and it cast their shadows artfully across a marble floor. Not even da Capua, the most artistic one among them, noticed the beauty.

“This is a calamity,” Fieschi said angrily to the others. “The leader of the Church has gone missing.” He tried to remain calm, but a worm of doubt was gnawing in his belly. He glanced at Colonna and Capocci, wondering if they were responsible for this mishap.

“Perhaps we need to get another leader, then,” de Segni said in a sharp, bitter tone. “One who is voted into power because people want him in the position.”

“You are both overreacting,” said Annibaldi blandly. “The man is surely somewhere in the immediate area, and as soon as he is retrieved, we will explain the unusual circumstances. He is, after all, a man of God. He will surely do the right thing.”

Fieschi chewed his lower lip, glaring at Capocci. He was trying to account for the movements of the two clowns since all the Cardinals had left the voting chamber. Had they spoken to anyone since? Had either of them wandered off for a little while?

Rodrigo moved slowly through the crowded city, toward the main gateway to the Colosseum. It was perhaps a mile away, but his stroll took longer than it usually takes to walk such a distance-in part because of the crowds, but also because Father Rodrigo was in no particular hurry. He ambled more than strode, and with a small smile or even a sigh of nostalgia he imagined pointing out to young Ferenc places of historical or personal significance. He pretended for now that Ferenc was still with him. He wanted to thank Ferenc for bringing him home, and he wanted the boy to feel welcome in this city, welcome enough to call it home as well. He wondered where Ferenc was. He would have to find him, and make sure he was safe.

Somehow, the boys always strayed…

But there was something else he had to do first.

“But he was absolutely unremarkable,” Brother Lucio insisted, from his knees. He had been impelled to this level by the collective glowering of Cardinals-glowering so intense it seemed to add to his earthly weight. “I had been told I’d be put in charge of a demented invalid, but the man who was handed off to me was as healthy and rational as any man in this room.” He dared to look up at them, cringing. “I am always obedient, but this was an imposition on my day, which was already a very full one. It is the beginning of the entry of the grape harvest into the compound, and it is my responsibility to oversee it. So when a perfectly lucid priest assured me that he did not want to be a source of trouble, I did not see the need to doubt him.”

“Where did he go?” Fieschi said coldly.

Brother Lucio shook his head. “He said he wanted to go into the city, because he was a native and had not been here for a long time. I managed to spare Timoteo, one of the lay boys who help us with organizing the harvest influx. The two of them left over the Ponte Sant’Angelo.”

“When?”

“About an hour ago, perhaps two.” Lucio looked extremely ill at ease, which Fieschi felt was entirely deserved.

“And nobody knows where they went?” Fieschi demanded. “They are at large in Rome?”

“They could not have gone far,” Lucio began in an apologetic voice, but was cut off by Fieschi’s hand slapping him hard across the face.

“You negligent fool!” he snarled. “You’ve misplaced the Pope!”

Despite themselves, Colonna and Capocci snickered at the sound of this. Fieschi whirled around, his scarlet cloak swirling like wine in a cup, and glared at them. They immediately repressed their grins, but this only made them look like naughty school boys. Muttering, Fieschi turned away from them and looked at the other Cardinals.

“Perhaps he is headed for the Septizodium,” he suggested. “We should send guards there at once.”

“Yes,” said Capocci in a meaningful voice, rubbing his bandaged hand gingerly. “I’ll wager he is looking for his friend Cardinal Somercotes.”

“Perhaps he is seeking his childhood haunts,” Castiglione suggested. “Are there any records of his background? Do we know where he was ordained or who he studied under?”

As much as Fieschi did not want to admit it, this was a sound idea. He looked around the room irritably for someone else to order around. There were now a dozen priests and two bishops standing with them, all equally unable to do anything about the situation.

“You,” Fieschi said, randomly pointing to one of the older priests. “Discover where this Father Rodrigo studied, and where he served before he went to Hungary. There must be some particular church he has affiliations with in the city, and he may be headed in that direction.”

The man bowed hurriedly and left. The other priests looked torn between relief at not being given the assignment, and forlornness at being stuck with the glowering Cardinals until further notice.

The boy, Timoteo, ran up beside Rodrigo, panting and wide-eyed.

“I thought I’d lost you!” the boy cried.

“I am here, no harm. I have been walking and thinking.”

“They will be looking for us. We have been gone too long!”

“Then let them find us.”

They passed by the dumping ground that a thousand years earlier had been the Forum, the center of Roman government and religion. There were many markets in the city of Rome, but one of the largest was in the open space between the Forum and the Colosseum. The cemented combination of debris and ruined buildings had raised the height of the ancient Forum so that it seemed to peer and hover awkwardly over the western edge of this market.

He remembered climbing those rubbish-strewn ruins as a child, and he even remembered a section-if it were still intact-where part of a wall of the Temple of Vesta had fallen, without breaking, onto its side, creating a flat area not unlike a dais. The accidental acoustics of half-fallen columns around it had made it an effective place to shout from, if, as a child, one wanted to get the attention of several hundred market-goers and market-sellers at once. He had done that when he was younger than the lad who followed him-Timoteo. He even remembered how to get there.

Rodrigo approached the awkward, angular bulge on the earth that was the ruins of the Forum. The boy stumbled up after him.

“This way, my son,” Rodrigo said with a smile. “I am going to show you a secret way into the marketplace, and then you are going to witness something that people will talk about for generations to come.”

He led the boy up a wobbly crest of boulders and broken walls that formed an uneven series of steps and stairs. They moved sideways across what had once been the upper portico of some great administrative building. The stone was warm and reflected the bright afternoon sunlight. It felt wonderful, so wonderful, to feel the sun shine upon him in his native city. Rodrigo watched the familiar pathways of years gone by unfold before him, unchanged but by the smallest degree. When they reached the edge of the portico, he gestured to the boy to look.

Below them by some dozen feet spread the western edge of the enormous market. It was mostly a fruit and vegetable market, but to the north there were several horse traders, and farther east the mercers’ stalls began.

Timoteo took in an awe-filled breath at this unusual perspective. “It’s beautiful,” he said. Then, pointing to a small crowd gathered together and facing a single point, he asked, “What is that?”

Rodrigo looked and huffed dismissively. “Nothing has changed since my early days here. That, my son, is a false prophet, preaching some heresy to gullible innocents whose souls he may well damn for all eternity. Such men as he are popular in gathering spots like this. Look, there is another one,” he said, and pointed to the south where a smaller band of women with market baskets stared slack-jawed at a man in a bright blue robe who stood on a cart, gesticulating madly. “And there too.” A bowshot to the east of him there was another man, this one dressed in sack cloth, shouting abusively into a growing crowd made up mostly of young men.

“Where do they come from?” Timoteo asked, genuinely alarmed at seeing souls led astray. “Why does anybody listen to them?”

“That,” said Rodrigo, “is an excellent question. Let us attempt to find the answer to it. Will you come with me?” He gestured forward. The portico ended but abutted the fallen temple wall that Rodrigo had anticipated. He had to take one unnerving jump across a gap the breadth of an arm; the gap was deep and he could see the jagged stubs of ruined columns below. For the boy’s sake, he acted as if it did not bother him.

The boy, perhaps for Rodrigo’s sake, acted likewise, and jumped right after him.

Now they stood in clear view of hundreds of people. Rodrigo glanced down at the boy. “Et in semitis quas ignoraverunt ambulare eos faciam. Ponam tenebras coram eis in lucem, et prava in recta,” he said, and seeing the boy’s confusion, he offered him a genial smile. “It is my time,” he explained, “I have something to show them.” He reached into his satchel and pulled out the communion cup he had brought with him from the tomb of Saint Peter.

Timoteo’s eyes grew very wide.

A guard entered the antechamber where the Cardinals were clustered in their confusion, a squirming figure thrown over his shoulder. He dumped his cargo in the middle of the marble floor, and gesturing at it, he offered a terse explanation. “This one ran up to me like he was being pursued by the Devil,” he said. Out of the corner of his eye, Fieschi saw da Capua hastily make the sign of the Cross to ward off any truth to the man’s statement. “Name’s Timoteo, he says. He’s seen something. Maybe what you’re looking-”

“Of course,” Fieschi said, waving the guard away from the boy sprawled on the floor. The boy was still half hysterical, and with little prompting from Fieschi, his story spilled out in frighteningly rapid rush of words. The Cardinals listened to his story, and their expressions changed from incredulity to disbelief to-for more than a few-horror. Especially when he reached the part about…

Fieschi nearly pounced on him. “Magical priest?” he said, furiously gesturing the others to back away. “This man. Was his name Bendrito? Father Rodrigo Bendrito?”

“Yes, Your Eminence,” Timoteo said, trembling even more now that he was being stared at by so many angry, well-dressed men. “I was assigned to go with him into the city.”

Annibaldi glanced up and signaled to one of the several extraneous guards by the door. “Release Lucio,” he said, “but bring him back here.” Then his eyes, like all the others in the room, went back to the boy.

“He took me to the marketplace at the Forum,” the boy said. “He was kind, he seemed normal, until we got there, and then… and then…”

“And then what?” demanded Fieschi. “What happened? Where is he? Why did you leave him there? He could be anywhere now!”

“Oh, no, Your Eminence,” Timoteo said, gaining courage. “He’ll be very easy to find. You’d have a hard time not finding him, I think.”

“What does that mean, boy?” Fieschi demanded, as all the Cardinals exchanged confused looks.

“He began preaching,” said the boy, and stood up, taking a deep breath as if to reassure himself his lungs could still do that. “Like all those crazy preachers in the marketplace. He began prophesying and talking about the Mongol invaders bringing an end to the world, and how to defeat them.”

There was the slightest collective sigh as all the Cardinals exchanged knowing glances. “So he is still demented,” said Fieschi. “Despite reports to the contrary.”

“He did not seem demented, Your Eminence,” Timoteo said. “He got a lot of attention right away. Well, not he himself so much, but…” his eyes widened. “Your Eminences, I know you won’t believe this, but he was carrying… he said it was… it did look-”

“What?” Fieschi demanded.

The boy seemed on the verge of tears, but his face was caught between despair and such a wild delight that Fieschi could not help but feel a sense of dread creeping over him.

“It glowed,” the boy said, “When he held it up. It was so bright, and it blinded me. I put up my hand to shield my eyes, but he turned it and it only glowed more brightly. He smiled at me, and… and he said it was-”

“Damnation, boy!” Fieschi could not contain his impatience. “What was he tossing around out there?”

“The Cup,” the boy said, staring around at the group. “The Cup of Christ.”

What?” demanded most of the voices of the room, followed immediately by Colonna and Capocci breaking into quiet guffaws.

“I saw it,” the boy insisted.

Fieschi watched his face closely. At heart, Timoteo seemed a practical young fellow, and the reactions of the Cardinals had made him swallow hard. Perhaps he was wishing he’d never said a word, but Fieschi suspected the boy would defend his story vigorously, now that he had told it. He would elaborate now, adding more details to the story. It was quite wonderful, actually, he reflected, to see how God shaped the world with such subtlety.

The priest was mad, clearly, and this boy’s testimony was only going to further the Cardinals’ impression of the priest’s insanity. The new Pope would need strict guidance, they would all see that, and it would be so much easier for him to insert himself…

“I was standing right next to him,” Timoteo said. “It materialized from nowhere, and then suddenly he was holding it in his hands, and the sunlight hit it, and rays spread out from it in all directions-” here Timoteo excitedly and awkwardly tried to demonstrate emanating rays. “It was almost as if the light was reaching out to touch people, people in the crowd, and you could see it, you could see when they were touched, their faces changed, they lit up, they suddenly could not take their eyes away from him. It was the most miraculous thing I have ever seen in my life!”

The boy had gone quite far enough. Such a story could be dangerous, after all, if it got around. “That’s blasphemy,” said Fieschi sharply. “There is nothing miraculous about it, it was just a trick of the light. Why did you leave him there unattended when you were ordered not to?”

“But he wasn’t unattended, Your Eminence,” the boy said. “Hundreds and hundreds of people were hanging on his every word-”

“The child exaggerates,” Fieschi said with contempt, and turned away from him. He gestured to one of the bishops. “Send guards to the Forum to find Father Rodrigo before he disappears again. Tell them to look for the crazy preacher.”

“There are a lot of crazy preachers in that marketplace,” Capocci pointed out with a smile.

“He… you will find him, surely,” Timoteo said hurriedly, trying to be helpful. “He is the one that hundreds of people are flocking to. He could have jumped off the ledge where we were standing and been caught and carried away by them, they were so packed together, jostling to come closer, to see this miracle-and more were moving toward him every moment. I was sure we would be separated by the crowd, for there were people climbing up the ruins to get near to him. I thought it was my duty to come back here and inform Your Eminences of what was happening. Of… what I saw.” He blinked at Fieschi, wide-eyed innocence. “Have I done wrong?”

For a moment, Fieschi was too flabbergasted to speak.

“It seems our new Pope already has both a calling, and a following,” Colonna announced philosophically. “We really must give him more credit.”

Ferenc, Ocyrhoe, and the rest of the party from the Emperor’s camp entered the city without incident from the Porta Labicana, and took the left of the broad roads. This led a mile west to the Colosseum, where a turn to the left would lead south to the Septizodium.

The day was hot and dry, and the streets too noisy for comfortable conversation. Ocyrhoe led the way with Ferenc beside her, the adults abreast behind them. Occasionally Ocyrhoe would glance over her shoulder to make sure they were still close on her heels. Each time, she saw them making assorted faces of displeasure. She took it as a personal insult that they did not like her city.

When at last they reached the ruined Colosseum-and she exacted some satisfaction from the amazed expression on surly Helmuth’s face-she was surprised to notice that all the foot traffic was suddenly heading only in one direction: westward. People were moving into the market area between the Colosseum and the Forum, but nobody seemed to be leaving.

Ocyrhoe knew her city well, knew how to read its pulses as if it were a living organism. Beside her, Ferenc was equally distracted, picking up on other clues from his own training: something strange was afoot.

The two of them stopped at the same moment. Ocyrhoe did not even bother to sign. She simply glanced ahead toward the marketplace, just out of view around the bend of the Colosseum, and then looked back at Ferenc, raising her eyebrows. He raised his too, and nodded.

From the market, echoing from the walls, boomed a great voice, and around that voice, the murmurs of entranced listeners… like the lowing of contented cows in a field.

“Father Rodrigo,” Ferenc said.

Ocyrhoe nodded.

Without explaining, they turned together toward the market, ignoring the protests from their companions, who held back for a moment, then ran to keep up.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

He Never Faltered

Rutger leaped to his feet as the spear sailed through the air. The collective voices of the audience turned from raucous cheers to screams of panic. The Shield-Brethren in attendance at the arena wore maille and carried weapons under their cloaks and plain robes in preparation for the culmination of Andreas’s plan. But everything had gone horrifically wrong the moment one of Dietrich’s men had walked into the arena instead of one of the Khan’s fighters. The Shield-Brethren had all been waiting for the fight to end, hoping that their brother would be triumphant, but fearing they would be forced to watch him fall. Forced to watch one of theirs die, unable to do anything to prevent it. And their plan would have come to naught, undone by the Livonian Grandmaster’s desire for revenge. Everything undone.

But Andreas-bold, stupid, heroic Andreas-had refused to give up. He had tried to save them anyway.

Rutger’s eyes followed the path of the shaft as it vanished between the curtains of the Khan’s box. He stared at the billowing curtains, trying to ascertain if it had hit its target. His lips moved in a silent prayer. Give me some sign.

A Mongol swathed in silks and drenched in blood, staggered into view, the spear through his midsection. He was thin, dressed like a functionary.

Andreas had missed his target. The gambit had failed.

Everything was undone.

The death of the Khan would have made for much more confusion, which they had planned to use to their advantage. As it was, their enemy was simply aroused and angry, actively seeking the presence of enemies within the crowd. They had to flee the arena before anyone realized they were there. Before anyone thought to look more closely at their bulky clothing. They could not afford to be caught in a riot.

Hans wanted to scream, but his throat had seized. Wedged as he was between two watchers in the common stands, the cacophony of the crowd would have drowned him out anyway, yet he struggled to make his voice work. As if the sound of his voice might somehow change the gruesome scene before him. He struggled to make a noise as the Livonian’s hand brought the heavy sword down on the Rose Knight’s shoulder. The blade did not bounce off the maille, but sheared through the mesh, cutting deeply into the body underneath. I told him there would be a friend.

The deafening roar of the crowd overwhelmed him, hurting his ears and making the wood floor tremble and shake. The world is falling apart, he thought, and we will all fall through the cracks.

Andreas fell, a violent spray of blood all around him-in the air, in the sand. Hans wanted to look away, but his eyes-like his mouth-refused to obey. He could no more look away than he could stop what was happening with his tiny voice. Get up! he silently begged, though he knew Andreas would not. He had seen blood like this, when the Mongols had sacked Legnica, and he knew the wound was fatal. He knew there was nothing God could do to save the Rose Knight. Nothing anyone could do.

They knew, he realized, staring at the red cross on the other man’s chest. Somehow, the Livonians had known of Andreas and Kim’s plan. And if they had known…

The others. I have to warn the others. Now it was his legs that wouldn’t move. He had to do something-anything-but he was frozen in place, held captive by the horrible spectacle.

He did not want to watch, but he couldn’t tear himself away as the Livonian raised his sword again.

The crowd was shrieking now, no longer cheering the wild battle down below. The Livonian had struck Andreas at the shoulder, and the greatsword had sliced through his maille, splitting Andreas from shoulder to hip. The sand was a filthy pit of red mud, and Andreas-somehow, by the Virgin! — was still alive.

Rutger forced his way to the rail, trying to ignore what was happening as he looked elsewhere. The gates were open below, and Mongol guards were streaming into the arena. In the stands, panic was already tearing through the crowds as some of the onlookers tried to flee the riot they knew was coming while others surged toward the rail. He spotted several of the Shield-Brethren, confusion and frustration writ over their features. Nearby, Styg was openly weeping, his mouth screwed up into an expression of inescapable horror. As he watched, something died inside the young man and his mouth snapped shut. He surged forward, shoving his way toward the rail.

“No!” Rutger intercepted him, hauling him back from the wooden barrier. The pain in his hands made him gasp, but he held on, holding the young man back.

Styg fought him, great sobbing gasps quaking his body. “We can’t let him do this!” Styg shouted at him, and Rutger stole a glance over his shoulder at the killing floor below. “That’s our brother!”

The Livonian was still cutting, his sword rising and falling like a butcher’s cleaver, even though the body beneath his blade was clearly dead.

“Aye,” Rutger snarled, hauling the young man around so that he would no longer look upon the bloody spectacle of the field. “And if you go down there, you will join him. Others will follow you, and it will all be for naught. We are done here. Get to the horses!”

He barked at the other Shield-Brethren within earshot. “Go, now. Get back to the chapter house.”

He wasn’t sure if they heard him, but they could read his command in the anguish of his face, in the bared ferocity of his teeth, in the wild fury of his gaze. They understood him, and obeyed, fleeing the retribution that was to come.

To the chapter house, he thought. They would regroup, grieve briefly, and then they would ready themselves. His mind raced, leaping across a dozen different courses of action as his men melted into the teeming chaos of the fleeing crowds. He gave Styg one last shove, ensuring that the young man was moving in the right direction, and then he spared one last glance back at the arena and the Khan’s box.

A Mongol dignitary, wrapped in bloody silk, the spear jutting out of his body, sprawled against the railing of the Khan’s pavilion. The curtains had been pulled close around the box, and the roof of the pavilion was swarming with the Khan’s archers.

Andreas, he thought as he let himself fall back in the crowd. It should have been me.

Roosting crows cawed irritably from the rafters of the barn. Hunern had become a ghostly ruin. The Mongols had withdrawn into their camp, barring their gates and shielding their Khan. The streets were empty but for a few stragglers, too drunk or senseless to seek shelter. Even the birds had gone into hiding.

Dietrich knew the silence wouldn’t last. The Mongol retreat was a strategic withdrawal so that they could order their ranks. Once they got over the initial shock of the assault, they were going to ride out in full force. While their main focus was going to be on the Shield-Brethren, there was little doubt in his mind that every living soul between them and the Ordo Militum Vindicis Intactae was going to be counted as an enemy.

If they survived, there was still the issue of Kristaps’s actions to be dealt with. War had been declared between the two orders.

“Have you taken leave of your senses?” Dietrich snarled at Kristaps when he found the man. “I didn’t tell you to kill him while his back was turned.”

Kristaps stood before a water trough in the barn that was serving as a basin, washing Andreas’s blood from his sword. From tip to hilt, the weapon had been coated with the blood of the Shield-Brethren, and no one had dared try to take the blade from Volquin’s Dragon.

“I’ve likely saved our order, Heermeister,” Kristaps replied with an unnerving calm. The knight looked at Dietrich, and the Heermeister was struck by the utter lack of feeling in the man’s unflinching gaze.

“By starting a war?” Dietrich snapped. He was in no mood for double-talk, and Kristaps’s implacable stare was unnerving.

“By making our intent clear to those who truly hold the power here,” Kristaps replied bluntly. “When the knight made his dash to throw his spear, how would it have looked if I’d let him live? Especially given that you bribed my way into the fight. They would have seen two Western orders putting aside their differences to defy the Khan. What vengeance comes next would as likely fall on our heads as theirs. To save us, I had to defend the Khan’s honor.”

Silence hung between them, filled by the chatter of crows in the rafters. In the distance, a bell started to toll. Dusk was upon the city, and the dolorous tone of the bell made Dietrich shiver involuntarily. Night was coming, and only God knew if any of them would see another sunrise.

He had ordered his men to start striking their camp. They had to be ready to ride at a moment’s notice. The compound had served as suitable shelter for his order, but it would not protect them at all when the Mongolian wrath was unleashed. Even if Kristaps was correct in his assessment, it would only buy them a little time. The Mongols would turn their attention to the other orders once they finished destroying the Shield-Brethren. He couldn’t overlook what had happened at Mohi. The Mongols did not discriminate.

There was something else, though. A thought nagged at Dietrich and he stared at the First Sword of Fellin, trying to elucidate his concern. “You made your point when you killed him,” he said, now holding his knight’s gaze. I will not be cowed. I am your Heermeister. “You did not need to mutilate his body.”

Kristaps said nothing, though whether his silence was due to genuine regret, which Dietrich doubted, or because there was no proper way to excuse his behavior, was not apparent.

The big knight had already doffed his maille, and he slowly slid the sleeves of his gambeson up to his elbows. He raised his forearms to Dietrich, revealing circular scars on both arms. Old burns, seared deep into the meat of his forearms. In the fading light of the day, they looked like heraldic devices, though smeared and stretched across the skin.

Kristaps’s blue eyes flashed. “They mutilated me first.”

But for the evening birds and the distant tolling of a bell in Hunern, the Shield-Brethren toiled in silence. Armor was being donned, swords sharpened, and those horses that were not yet readied were being saddled. Rutger felt the pain in his joints acutely, a grinding heat in the knuckles of his fingers. It had robbed him of his place in the order years ago, and the succeeding years had slowly buried his disappointment until he had come to accept the lesser role of quartermaster. But there was a need to hold a sword again.

Eventually, the Shield-Brethren gathered around a pyre erected from the remaining firewood. Rutger counted thirty somber faces. Full knight initiates, squires, and the untested like Styg and Eilif who had more than proven their worth in the past few weeks. Andreas had been right, Rutger realized as he looked at the assembled men. They were boys no more. He was surrounded by his brothers-the only family he had ever known-and their hearts and minds were as focused to the task ahead as their bodies were ready. There were no other men among whom he would rather stand when it came time to die.

The Mongols had taken what was left of Andreas’s corpse and nailed it to the walls of the arena. While he would have preferred to give Andreas a proper burial, dying in an effort to retrieve the body was an utterly foolish way to honor their fallen brother. What few personal items that remained would be enough, a symbolic gesture that would hearten the men and honor the spirit of their departed companion.

A torch was offered to him, and he managed to wrap his stiffening fingers around the piece of wood. Thirty pairs of eyes turned toward him, and he knew it was time.

Time to tell them why. Time to tell them the reason they all took the oath.

“We are all dying,” he said bluntly. Feronantus would have done a better job. His old friend was a much more gifted orator, but as the most senior brother present, the duty was his now.

What happened to all of them was his responsibility. He tightened his grip on the torch, afraid that his clumsy fingers would betray him and let go of the flaming brand before he was done speaking.

“High-born and low, peasant or king,” he continued, “our lives come to the same end. The Virgin claims our souls, and the earth and sky claim our flesh and blood. She whose honor we have sworn to defend measures our deeds in life, and those who are found worthy are taken to her hall where we spend eternity beneath the tree that is the root of all. Those of us who remain honor the memory of our worthy dead by hanging their pommels in the Great Hall of Petraathen.”

Rutger paused, a lump at the back of his throat, a wetness swelling behind his eyes. “Brother Andreas was worthy,” he said, his voice breaking. “Honest in word and deed; unflinching in his courage; first to act when the call came. When we floundered in our duty, he remembered. When we wished to hesitate, he struck. Andreas was everything that a knight of the Shield-Brethren must remember to be. When we forget who we are, when fear seizes us or when doubt assails our hearts, we need only think of our brother Andreas to find our strength again.”

Styg raised a longsword encased in a worn leather scabbard. Upon its pommel was a design similar in composition to the sigil of the order, but unique. Every brother owned a blade, given to him when he proved himself, that bore his own symbol. When he died, it was the sworn duty of his brothers to return the weapon to Petraathen. The blade would be reused, given to a new initiate, but the pommel would be struck free and permanently housed in the Great Hall. Andreas’s sword would have been lost with his body, but for the fact that he had not carried it with him into his final match. The blade had stayed here at the chapter house, and so they possessed it still.

Rutger carefully transferred the torch to his left hand. With his right, he drew Andreas’s sword from its scabbard. His hands felt like they were on fire, each knuckle a burning coal beneath the skin. “This blade is the finest steel our smith could forge, and when we go into battle, this sword is our virtue and our strength. But our brother did not take this sword into battle. Instead he took his faith and his love.” He raised the blade. “It is our tradition to break and reforge a blade once its wielder has fallen, but I submit to you that this sword should never be broken. It should hang, whole, in the Great Hall for all eternity as a reminder of our brother’s faith. It never faltered. He never faltered…” His voice wavered, threatening to lay bare his grief, and he tightened his grip around the hilt, the pain in his joints hardening his resolve. “We are the Knights of the Virgin Defender. We are the Shield of Saint Mary.”

He said the older name next, the Greek words hard in his mouth, and he saw confusion on the faces of some of the younger men. It is time they knew. “We have stood fast for many lifetimes,” he explained. “We live to see our brothers die in battle. We too will die violent deaths. But our vows remain. Our strength remains.” He raised the sword high and let his pain fill his voice. “Andreas,” he cried. “Alalazu!

His brothers answered with the same. The still air was filled with the sound of swords being drawn and voices raised in salute. Alalazu! Alalazu! The battle cry of the Shield-Brethren shook the branches of the trees and rattled the old stones of the ruined church, and before the echo of the first salute had died away, a second followed. And then a third.

In the wake of their salute, they heard the sound of horses. The rhythmic rumble of hooves against the hard ground. The jingling sound of steel against steel.

“Mongols,” Styg spat.

“No,” Rutger countered. Too heavy. “Mongols don’t ride chargers.”

The sun had nearly set, a redness bleeding in the western sky, and the horsemen riding into the camp appeared to be swimming out of a sea of blood, the last light of the day glinting off helmets and shields and maille. White surcoats marked with red crosses and black ones marked in white hung on the riders as they filed into the clearing, their combined numbers several times that of Rutger and the Shield-Brethren about him.

Rutger lowered Andreas’s sword and stared at the host of Templars and Hospitallers. As he waited for some sign as to their presence, the lead Templar slid from his horse. His short hair and closely cropped beard were steel gray, and his face was a stone-etched mask. “I am Leuthere de Montfort, commander of the Templars at Hunern,” he said in a rough-edged voice turned hoarse from many years in the field. “Who commands here?”

Rutger stepped forward from among the circle of Shield-Brethren. “I am Rutger, knight initiate of the Ordo Militum Vindicis Intactae. My brothers look to me for guidance.” Having said the words, he felt their weight settle upon his shoulders. I will lead them, Andreas, he vowed. “Do you come for blood?” he asked plainly. The Livonians had made themselves enemies of the Shield-Brethren today, openly and with all the hatred that could be mustered. He was somewhat surprised that the other orders would feel the need to mete out justice.

One of the Hospitallers dismounted and strode forward to stand beside the Templar. “I am Emmeran, commander of the Knights of Saint John,” he said. Like Leuthere, he was armored for battle. His face was kinder, however, though at the moment it was etched with a solemn expression. “The Livonian atrocity committed upon your brother was ill done. You should know that their Heermeister, Dietrich von Gruningen, had come to both our orders previously, speaking ill of you and your brothers.”

Leuthere nodded in agreement with the Hospitaller. “I apologize for the bluntness of my question,” he said, his gaze still unreadable. “Your man, when he threw his spear at the Khan today… was he acting alone?”

A desperate hope seized Rutger as his mind warred with itself over whether or not to tell the truth. He was surrounded by a host of knights that was several times larger than his small company of Shield-Brethren. He exhaled slowly, and in his mind’s eye, all he saw was Andreas, smiling at him. Wouldn’t you rather choose the manner of your death?

Rutger opened his eyes and looked at the unlit pyre for their fallen brother. I hope you rest in the arms of the Virgin, he thought. With a grunt, he threw the torch atop the bundle of wood, and it clattered across the pyre, scattering wisps of flame. As the oil-soaked wood ignited with a huff, he turned back to the Templar and Hospitaller. “The plan was of his making,” he said, “but it was done with our knowledge and support. Our brother did not act alone.”

Emmeran and Leuthere exchanged a look, and then the Templar’s mouth cracked into a smile. It looked almost bizarre on that stony face. “Surely he did not think he could take on the entire Mongol host by himself?”

Rutger shook his head, trying not to let the small hope burning in his chest erupt into something larger. “No,” he said, his eyes flickering back and forth between the two men. “Such an action requires more men.”

The Hospitaller’s eyes glittered in the leaping firelight. “That is our thought as well,” he said. “Which is why we have come to join you.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

The Long and Winding Road

Now I understand why the Silk Road runs along the edge of a desert,” Yasper groused, slapping his arms against his body in a futile effort to keep his body warm. He wore a fur hat, pulled down as far as his eyebrows, and he had let his beard grow out again. Wild and uncombed, it resembled a weaver’s nest, and his voice issued from somewhere inside the bramble of wiry hair. “What I wouldn’t do for a handful of hot sand. Doesn’t that sound like paradise?” he said wistfully. “Just one handful of hot sand.”

Raphael nodded, though the motion was hard to distinguish with all the frantic shivering he was doing. Even with woolen strips wrapping his arms and legs and an extra layer of foul-smelling furs the company had traded for a week prior, the cold air still managed to worm its way down his back. He was doubly glad he had stopped wearing his maille several days ago. The chain seemed to absorb the chill in the air, and more than once he had found his hands sticking to the metal links.

Of all the company, Feronantus seemed the least affected by the weather. He wore extra layers, like everyone else, but Raphael had yet to see the old veteran shiver. If anything, he seemed to find the frigid air bracing.

Raphael had only ever been to Tyrshammar during the long summer months, when the nights were short and the sky never fully darkened. Over the last few days, he started to get a sense of what the winters in the northern stronghold must be like.

Of their own journey, there was one more pass to ascend before they reached the long valley where Boreas blew constantly. Raphael couldn’t even imagine attempting this route if there was more snow. As it was, they had reached the snow line the day before, and by Cnan’s reckoning, it was another three days before they would be able to pass through the gap and start their descent to the Gurbantunggut Desert.

Like Yasper, Raphael had been having dreams-when he was able to fall asleep-about deserts. Along with dreams of the sun and fire, vast pinwheels of raging flame spinning across the sky.

As the horses slowly picked their way up the narrow mountain path, Raphael tried not to let his thoughts dwell on the significance of the pinwheels. It was unsettling to think they might be the same spoked wheels that Percival saw in his visions; if they were, did that mean he was gradually being won over by the persistent truth of Percival’s vision? That the images the knight saw were, indeed, a message that issued from divine lip and hand.

Raphael had seen too much of what men did in the grip of visions. From the atrocities perpetrated in the Levant and in Egypt, to the mad works of that unholy inquisitor Konrad in his zealous pursuit of heretics in Thuringia, to the mystical zeal that was the source of constant torment and conflict within Percival.

It was not fair of him to judge Percival so, but over the last few months Raphael had begun to lay the blame of Roger’s death on the Frankish knight. If Percival had not insisted on visiting the caves beneath Kiev in pursuit of the illicit artifact he had imagined he knew to be there, then Roger might not have been killed.

He was spending too much time reliving the past. It was an unfortunate aspect of his fascination with keeping a record of their journey. At first, his tiny marks in the journal had been a means of passing the time during the endless days of riding; later, when he started to look back upon earlier entries and find them lacking in detail, he began to write more earnestly, thinking of Herodotus and Thucydides and their histories of the ancient Greek world. During the long nights on the steppe, when he could not sleep and lie, staring up at the endless spray of stars across the heavens, he began to think of the Confessiones written by Augustine of Hippo when the Christian theologian was of a similar age. In many ways, the Confessiones was a preamble to Augustine’s truly revelatory work, De Civitate Dei, as if the theologian had to exorcise his own past before he could address the more complex philosophical inquiries of the later work.

Vera said he thought too much, and while she did not intend her words to be mean-spirited, there was more than a hint of truth to them. Raphael would not deny that he thought a great deal about an endless panoply of ideas; it was his boundless curiosity about God’s creation, about his role within it, and how he was supposed to understand his purpose. Many never gave much thought to their ultimate purpose on the earth, and he knew that it was by God’s grace that he was able to even conceive of having a purpose, but that self-knowledge only inflamed his desire.

Yasper and his alchemical recipes had not helped either. The scrawny Dutchman had his own codex, though the alchemist’s was not nearly as well constructed as Raphael’s, being an olio of parchment, cloth, hide, and a few scraps of what looked suspiciously like tattooed skin. Yasper kept the loose collection in an oilskin satchel, and he referenced it, annotated it, and fussed with it on a daily basis. Raphael’s curiosity had led him to inquire about the alchemist’s notes, and he had been intrigued by some of the Arabic passages Yasper had in his collection. Written by a Persian named Jabir ibn Hayyan, the material was not-as he had anticipated-a babble of mystical nonsense disguised as a treatise on philosophical medicine, but a well-reasoned discourse on the immutable nature of the soul. Jabir sought answers to the same questions as Augustine; it was only his rhetoric and his practical methods that were different.

What is my purpose? How may I best serve God?

“It is a beautiful view, isn’t it?” Eleazar spread his arms to encompass the vista of snow-capped mountains. “Almost worth the trip for this alone, yes?”

Yasper shook his head, and nudged his shivering horse back onto the path.

“You must not take umbrage with Yasper,” R?dwulf explained to Cnan. The pair of them were riding behind Yasper and Eleazar. “He was born in a place that has nothing but dikes and low hills that barely come up to here.” He held his hand out, level with his horse’s shoulder. “The first time he saw the Alps, he fell off his horse. He claimed he was struck dumb in awe and terror at the majesty of God’s work. The other riders he was with thought otherwise and, on many subsequent occasions, performed entertaining pantomimes of what came to be known as the Low-Lander’s Abasement before God.”

“Does it happen often when he is talking to you?” Cnan asked, squinting up at R?dwulf. The tall Englishman smiled wolfishly. Glancing around, Cnan saw smiles on the faces of a few of the others who had paused at the scenic overlook.

There had been few opportunities for jovial camaraderie since they had left Benjamin at the rock. The trader had argued strenuously about joining the company, even after his detailed account of why such a decision was financially disastrous for him. Cnan had not understood the merchant’s interest in the hard ride that the Shield-Brethren had before them, but as she listened to the trader’s cogent argument, she grew to see that Benjamin thought he was in the company’s debt.

A debt that, ultimately, Feronantus refused.

The route through the Zuungar Gap was not well traveled, Benjamin argued, and the villages and clans that dotted the route were not as open to strangers as many who lived more closely to the Silk Road. The company would need a guide and an interpreter if they were going to reach the far side of the gap.

It was Benjamin’s informed guess that Alchiq would be keeping to the trade routes, where he could readily acquire fresh horses. Benjamin’s proposed route along the Tien Shan and through the gap would be rigorous and more dangerous, but it would be quicker.

Rigorous, dangerous, and quicker: those had been the magic words that had betrayed Benjamin. Feronantus had nodded with a gravid finality that the others knew well when Benjamin stressed them. Three reasons why you cannot come with us, Feronantus had said. You place too little value on your life.

What of you and yours? Benjamin had retorted.

Each of our lives have no meaning, except that which we give them by our deeds, Feronantus had replied, and Cnan knew he was quoting some old dictum of the Shield-Brethren.

In the weeks since, Cnan had noticed how the weight of that saying-the burden of their journey-was starting to show on the old veteran from Tyrshammar. He may have traveled to the far edges of Christendom, but the steppe was much broader than he could have imagined, and occasionally Cnan could read a crumbling despair in Feronantus’s eyes when he stared at the distant horizon. What had, in the beginning, seemed like a simple plan-ride east, passing over the Land of the Skulls and into the heartland of the Mongol Empire, and kill the Great Khan-was becoming such an extended odyssey that he was beginning to doubt they would reach their goal in time to save the West.

“That one over there is Khan Tengri,” Cnan said as the rest of the company reached the overlook, pointing to the white peak, blazing in the afternoon sun. “We are close to the Zuungar Gap.” The mountain floated above a layer of blue and gray clouds, a slab of flying marble like the mystical and unreachable home of foreboding gods. “When the sun sets,” Cnan finished, “the snow turns red.”

Istvan hawked and spat, and Cnan wasn’t sure if the Hungarian’s reaction was one of disbelief or if he was engaged in some manner of warding ritual. More and more, she had begun to see the Hungarian as a deeply superstitious man, one who was both haunted and hunted by some spirits only he could perceive. He hadn’t been completely taken by the influence of the freebutton mushrooms for many weeks, but she suspected he still had a secret cache of them on his person and that he would, from time to time, chew one.

Tengri,” Yasper mused. “Isn’t that the name of the Mongol god?” The light from the distant mountain peak seemed to be reflecting from his face. “Does he live up there?”

Cnan shook her head. “No, the Mongols aren’t like that. They believe in spirits. Everything has a spirit-the rocks, the trees, all the animals-and these spirits are all part of the world that flowed from Tengri.”

“That is not dissimilar to the Christian view of the soul,” Raphael pointed out.

“Ah, but the Christian soul is unique and distinct,” Yasper countered. “Your soul inhabits your body, and when your body perishes, your soul goes to Heaven. It is still your soul. I suspect-and correct me if I am wrong, Cnan-when something dies, the Mongols believe its spirit flows back to Tengri where it is reabsorbed into the great expanse that is their god.”

Cnan shrugged, indicating that this conversation was already well beyond her.

“You are separate from God, good Raphael,” Yasper continued, “I suspect the Mongols and their world are not. In fact, I am sure we will find a shrine near the top of the gap that is dedicated to the rocks and the trees that manage to thrive at this height, so close to the realm of the Sky God.” Yasper seemed genuinely thrilled by the idea.

“I’m sure the Church will be delighted to send missionaries to endlessly debate this distinction,” Feronantus observed dryly.

“We could let these two debate it now,” R?dwulf said. “We have many days left in our journey.”

Feronantus smiled at the longbowman’s enthusiasm. “I am a fighting man,” he said. “Not a theologian or a philosopher. All of this talk is well beyond my simple understanding, and I fear such discourse will be meaningless to me.”

“I think your understanding is far from simple,” Raphael noted dryly.

“Perhaps,” Feronantus said. “But it is my understanding.” The old veteran tapped his horse with his reins, nudging it back to the sloping path. The others, sensing the time was over for scenic viewing and rhetorical discourse, followed until only Cnan and Raphael remained.

“There,” she said, pointing. “Do you see it?”

Raphael nodded. There were winds blowing at the top of the mountain, and a gauzy curtain of white mist fluttered at the tip as if it were caught upon that high spire. Below the slope of the mountain was changing color-gold to crimson.

“I have heard stories about the Shield-Brethren, though I have little faith they contain but the merest morsel of truth to them. They are like many fanciful tales one hears along the trade routes,” Cnan said as the others moved out of earshot. “You pretend to fight for the Christian God, but you swear your oaths to someone else, don’t you?”

“Does it matter?” Raphael countered. “If the oath I am swearing is to protect people like you and other innocents?”

“Do you all swear the same oath?” she asked.

“We do,” Raphael said.

“But it means something different to some of you, doesn’t it?” she pressed.

“Aye,” he said softly. “I fear that it might.”

Ahead of them, Khan Tengri became drenched with blood.

The wind howled so vociferously and with such zeal that, for the rest of the day after they breached the gap and began their rapid descent down the other side, Raphael’s ears were blocked. His head was filled with the shrieking echo of Boreas, the angry north wind that had attempted to drive them back with the sheer volume of its outrage.

But they had doggedly kept moving, hauling their horses by the reins when the beasts balked at going any farther. He had taken part in the crusade in Egypt, and the disastrous march on Cairo had tested him vigorously; others in the company had been in similar campaigns, and they knew their wills were stronger than any temporary pain. They knew the only way to complete any journey was to focus on the ground in front of them. Place one foot, and then the next. Do not look at the unmoving horizon or the immobile sun. One step at a time. The Shield-Brethren can always take one more step.

The Gap was a narrow slit, as if God-or Tengri-had cut a notch in the shoulder of the mountain, and the wind shrieked with near physical violence as they dragged their terrified horses through the rocky defile. On the eastern side of the gap, the land dropped away rapidly. By nightfall, which came so quickly that Raphael wondered if God had snuffed out the sun as soon as it had passed beyond the notch of the gap, they were already below the snow line.

The route descended into an endless forest filled with tall and narrow trees, unlike any evergreen that Raphael had seen before. The needles were like the trees in the West, long and pointed, but the trees held their branches close to their trunks. In the West, the evergreens spread their branches wide, as if they were offering shelter to any weary traveler; the trees on the eastern slopes of the Tien Shan struck him as being wary of strangers.

He felt as if he was constantly being watched as the company made their way down into the long valley. This land knew they were invaders and regarded them with a great deal of suspicion.

He slept poorly that night.

Shortly before midday, the evergreens began to thin out, invaded by squat, broad-crowned leafy trees. R?dwulf recognized them as walnut trees, and he and Yasper dismounted from their horses to fill several bags with the hard-shelled nuts. Istvan enjoyed cracking the nuts with his bare hands.

Raphael suspected the walnuts signified the presence of water, and an hour later, the company discovered a crystalline tarn nestled in the basin of the valley. A rocky moraine at the southern end formed a natural dam, and the water was bluer than the pale, cloud-dappled sky.

And much colder.

Feronantus called a halt and announced they would overnight on the bank of the lake. They had been traveling hard for several weeks, and the strain of the journey was clearly etched on everyone’s face. The sun was warm on the rocks, there was little wind (especially in comparison to the howling gale of the gap), and there was food and water in ready supply. It was a good camp.

Yasper broached the lake first. With some effort, he pried his stiff clothing off. Venting a shrill battle cry, he dashed for the water. His voice became more agitated as his pale legs entered the lake, and his words turned blasphemous. But he kept going, and eventually his head disappeared beneath the surface. He reemerged almost immediately-shuddering, his lips blue and teeth chattering-but his mood was irrepressibly jubilant. “It’s warmer than it looks,” he shouted to the rest of the company, all of whom wore doubtful expressions. He splashed water at Istvan, who danced back from the spray as if it were hot coals.

“You first,” Vera said to Raphael in response to his raised eyebrow. Her expression brooked no argument.

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

In the Shadow of Burqan-qaldun

As the terrain became rockier, the caravan folded itself into a narrow formation and wound its way along a more circuitous route. To Gansukh, perched on the flat, sun-warmed crown of a rocky promontory, the elongated caravan looked like a serpent, fat and swollen with a recent meal. Sluggishly, it slithered around uprisings of crumbling rock. Beyond, a day’s ride back, lay the grasslands. They had found the edge of that endless sea and left it behind.

Now was the time for an ambush. There were numerous tactical advantages in this terrain: how the narrow track forced the caravan to spread itself out, making it more difficult for the patrols to guard it well; the rocks offered so many more hiding places from which to launch an assault; these same rocks provided cover for a retreat. Why had the Chinese attacked them in the lowlands? They had had inferior numbers, and the caravan had been stationary with a defensive perimeter established.

Gansukh shaded his eyes and peered at the tiny shapes darting around the bulky midsection of the serpentine caravan. The Torguud and their endless patrols, eternally vigilant and restless since the attack. Like an anthill after it had been probed with a stick.

His horse nickered softly. His mount had spotted another horse, one that it knew, and Gansukh caught himself hoping the approaching rider was Lian. He knew it couldn’t be, and as he glanced over his shoulder, he squashed the momentary thrill of the idea.

The horse was black, and the rider wore black. His long beard trailed behind him.

“Master Chucai.” Gansukh scrambled to his knees, thought about standing, and then realized, in an awkward reversal, that he would be taller than the other man. Instead, he remained on his knees. A ridge of stone pressed against his left knee, and he wobbled slightly as he offered a perfunctory bow.

Chucai nodded in return as he dismounted from his horse. He effortlessly scaled the spur of rock and stood with his feet spread apart. “They can see us quite easily,” he said, taking in the view.

Gansukh brushed a dusting of fine grit from his leggings as he got to his feet. “You are an imposing figure,” he pointed out, “and you don’t blend in well. I would hope that they see us.”

Chucai regarded him with a sidelong glance. “And you? Prior to my arrival, would they not have mistaken you for a Chinese raider?”

“Even if they had, they are too far away.” Gansukh thought of the archery contest with Tarbagatai a few days ago. “There are good archers in the Torguud, but they would have to ride much closer before they could hope to hit me. They are shooting up; I would be shooting down. My range is better. By then, I would hope they could tell the difference between one of their own and a Chinese archer.”

Chucai nodded. “There is a great deal of optimism in your thinking.”

“More strategic than optimistic,” Gansukh corrected.

“Of course,” Chucai acknowledged. “This location also offers us some privacy.”

“Yes, it does,” said Gansukh, wondering why that was important and fearing the reason at the same time.

“I too engage in what might be considered strategic thinking, albeit it with less optimism. In my position, I am called upon to make important decisions regarding the Khagan’s safety and well-being. Normally, I make those decisions without any need for discourse with those who will carry out my decisions. I order; you, and others like you, obey. That is how the empire continues to function.”

“Of course, Master Chucai.” Gansukh inclined his head.

“But these are not normal times, are they?”

Despite his confusion at Chucai’s appearance and a bit of annoyance at the interruption of his reconnaissance, Gansukh allowed a wry smile to cross his lips. The Khan of Khans was going to the sacred homelands of the Mongol people, where he would hunt a mystical animal at the behest of his shamans, all so that he might reassert his control of the empire. Meanwhile, his general, Subutai, was preparing to expand the empire past the distant lands conquered by his father, the greatest leader the Mongol people had ever known. No, these were not normal times.

“In these times, is it possible that members of the empire might be thinking more of themselves?” Chucai asked. “It is possible that they might place their own desires and wants above the desires and wants of the Khagan-and, by extension, the empire?”

Gansukh cleared his throat, weighing whether Chucai actually sought a response to this question or if this was one of those instances in which it might be best to simply wait for a clear directive to which he could respond. His eyes darted toward Chucai, noting that the Khagan’s advisor was staring at him intently, one eyebrow partially raised.

“It… it is possible,” Gansukh said. And then, with more bravery, “But, for some individuals, they always think thusly.”

“Does the empire then overlook their lack of duty-shall we say-because they are useful to the empire? What happens when they are no longer useful?”

Gansukh shrugged, more casual than he felt. “They are discarded,” he said, opting to not shirk from the point he felt Chucai was trying to make.

“Discarded,” Chucai mused, stroking his beard. He seemed, to Gansukh, to be play acting, giving the moment more gravity than necessary, as if to frighten Gansukh. But why? Gansukh thought. Does he want me to confess to something? Have I not done all that he has asked in regards to the Khagan? His heart skipped a beat. Lian!

“Do you know why the Chinese attacked the Khagan’s caravan?” Chucai asked suddenly.

“The Chi-Chinese?” Gansukh stuttered.

“Yes, the Chinese raiders. Do you think they were trying to assassinate the Khagan or was there another goal? Thievery, perhaps?”

Gansukh swallowed heavily. He tried not to let his relief show. Chucai wasn’t asking about his relationship with Lian. “I don’t know, Master Chucai,” Gansukh said, his chest relaxing. “I spent most of the attack as a prisoner.”

“Yes, so I have heard. And during this imprisonment-most embarrassing, if I may say so-you didn’t hear them talk of their plans?”

Gansukh felt his face flush. “They spoke Chinese, Master Chucai.”

“Oh yes, of course. And Lian hasn’t…?”

“Taught me Chinese?” Gansukh shook his head. “You may certainly ask her, Master Chucai, but I believe she will tell you she was having enough trouble teaching me the proper way of speaking Mongolian.”

Chucai laughed. “Well spoken,” he said. “What of their tactics, then? What of the Torguud response?”

Gansukh sensed that Chucai had changed his mind about his line of questioning. He wasn’t sure what he had said-or not said-but Chucai appeared to be mollified on some topic. Or perhaps he is simply setting it aside for now, he thought, admonishing himself to listen carefully to Chucai’s questions. “I am not a member of the Torguud,” Gansukh said carefully. “It would be presumptuous of me to speculate on their martial response.”

“Oh, very tactful,” Chucai said. “Lian’s instruction, I suspect.”

Bristling, Gansukh held his tongue and bowed his head slightly in return.

“The reason I ask,” Chucai continued, “is that there may be a strategic advantage gained by soliciting your opinion in a certain matter rather than simply giving you an order,” Chucai continued.

“I can only hope to be of service, Master Chucai,” Gansukh offered.

Chucai raised an eyebrow in response to Gansukh’s obsequious response. “I am going to ask Munokhoi to relinquish his position as captain of the Khagan’s private guard,” he said.

Gansukh’s heart thudded loudly in his chest, and his cheeks and forehead were suddenly hot in the sun. His knees trembled, and the landscape wavered slightly as he tried to calm his racing thoughts. He had no idea what sort of expression was on his face, though he was certain Chucai could tell the statement had caught him off guard. Was this what he was referring to when he talked about men failing to follow the Khagan? he wondered. Had Chucai’s question had nothing to do with him after all?

In a moment of rare talkativeness, Chucai explained himself. “Munokhoi is unfit to lead the men out on the steppes”-he indicated the land spread out below them with a sweep of his arm-“or here in the mountains. Did he send you here to watch over the caravan? No. That was your decision. You saw the need to look over the terrain before the Khagan crossed it. Munokhoi thinks like a man who has spent his life behind walls.”

Gansukh scratched behind his right ear. “You need someone who has fought beyond the Khagan’s walls,” he said slowly, belaboring Chucai’s point.

Gansukh waited a moment for Chucai to continue, but he wasn’t terribly surprised when the Khagan’s advisor said nothing. This was a not uncommon gambit on Chucai’s part: to start a conversation, and then let it peter into silence. He had infinite patience: as a hunter, he could probably outwait even the most cautious deer; as a veteran of the Khagan’s courts, there was no one more skilled than he at making silence excruciating. The more he learned from Lian, the more Gansukh had understood the merits of Chucai’s techniques. People were more likely to believe something they felt like they had a hand in creating. Order a man, and he will dutifully comply; let him possess an idea as his own, will he not leap to implement it with great enthusiasm?

Gansukh couldn’t help but think of Ogedei’s decision to leave Karakorum for Burqan-qaldun. Had he not, in some small way, manipulated the Khagan into believing the idea was his?

“Master Chucai…” he began.

“Hmmm?” Chucai seemed to have forgotten he was there.

“This is an unusual circumstance that I find myself in,” Gansukh said. “As you say, typically you would simply inform me of your decision, and I would carry it out. Yet, you come to me now and appear to want my input on a certain matter.”

Chucai nodded absently, his attention still on the landscape below.

“Yet, I doubt that you haven’t thought through every consequence of every possible decision already. Do you expect me to have better insight on this matter than you? Or am I supposed to change your mind?”

“Change my mind?” Chucai raised an eyebrow. “What choice do you think I have made?”

Gansukh regarded the Khagan’s advisor warily, a response to Chucai’s question hanging in his throat. Why else would he have come all the way up here to tell me this? Does he want me to ask for the position? Gansukh rejected that idea almost as soon as it came into his head, but it wouldn’t go away. Me, a Torguud captain. There would be certain benefits, of course. And while there were many in the Khagan’s service who wouldn’t trust him, much like he had earned Tarbagatai’s admiration, he could win them over. All he had to do was demonstrate the depth of his allegiance to the Khagan-and wasn’t this entire hunting expedition the result of his efforts to show his devotion to the Khagan? The men would drift toward him. He had led men before; he could do it again.

But what of Munokhoi? Awkwardly, Gansukh felt a pang of empathy for the man. Cruel and self-serving as he was, he had served the Khagan well for many years, otherwise he never would have been promoted to his current position. It was unnerving to see how easily he could be pushed aside, and for someone who was such an outsider. What would stop Chucai from doing the same to me? Gansukh wondered.

And Lian? What would her reaction be? Would she see it as Gansukh choosing the Khagan over her? It is what I would be doing, he admitted to himself. Would she attempt to escape again, and would he be forced to go after her? Would he be ordered to put her to death for disobedience?

Gansukh took a deep breath to calm his addled nerves. His mind was twisting itself into knots, trying to examine all the possible outcomes. He felt like he was playing that Chinese game that Lian had told him about-black and white pebbles on a wooden board; rules she explained in less than two minutes; followed by an hour-long conversation about strategy that had numbed his mind. Chucai was clearly a master at weiqi, and Gansukh felt as if he was playing his first game, already on the defensive.

Don’t think of it like a game you don’t understand, he realized. Think of it in terms of something you are good at. What are the options for a warrior who feels he is cornered and on the defensive? Think more strategically. What is the best defense?

Shifting roles. Becoming the attacker. Fighting back.

“What is your goal, Master Chucai?” Gansukh asked.

For a moment Chucai’s expression remained blank, and Gansukh flushed, his guts tightening with dread that he had spoken too bluntly. But then Chucai’s eyebrows crept up, and the corners of a bemused smile peeked through his beard. Though he didn’t understand Chucai’s reaction, it was better than the one he had anticipated.

“That is a very direct and astute question, Gansukh,” Chucai said. “Mistress Lian has told me-on numerous occasions, in fact-that you are prone to speaking your mind. Even with all of her efforts to obscure that tendency beneath layers of courtly civility.”

Gansukh felt his face redden even more, but he didn’t break the other man’s gaze. Do not lessen your assault.

“Sun and rain and good seed will not produce a crop from fallow ground.” Chucai’s smile broadened. “I know you are a warrior and a hunter, but surely you understand that basic tenet of farming, yes?”

“Yes, Master Chucai.” Gansukh kept his annoyance out of his voice.

“Does a farmer give up if his land is bad, or does he find new land?”

“He finds new land.”

“And while he is searching for new land, what of his family, of his horses and cows?”

“He must still provide for them.”

“So, it follows that fertile ground must be found-quickly-and the farmer must continue to plant his seeds, cultivate his tender plants, and reap his harvest as he always does, with as little disruption as possible.”

“With all due respect, Master Chucai, there is no way to remove Munokhoi from his position without some disruption.”

“Of course not,” Chucai snorted impatiently.

“Replacing him with me would be… very disruptive,” Gansukh pointed out. Even if he were a good choice to replace Munokhoi, such a decision would only further enrage the already hotheaded Torguud captain.

Chucai lifted a finger and touched it to his lips. “Would it? Don’t you think the empire would benefit more from advancing you than it would lose by discarding Munokhoi?”

Gansukh didn’t like the way Chucai was twisting his words; and behind his calm facade, there lurked another series of barbed questions, waiting to entrap Gansukh. And then, within the span of a heartbeat, Gansukh realized a way out of this predicament. “There is another who would be more suitable,” he offered. “Brother Namkhai.”

Chucai shrugged slightly, his finger remaining against his lips. Realizing Chucai had already considered Namkhai, Gansukh rushed to explain his thinking. “I’m not suggesting Namkhai because I am trying to shirk my duties to you or the Khagan, Master Chucai. It is not that I feel I am unworthy of the position-I am worthy of it-it is just that…”

Chucai’s expression suggested he was listening intently to Gansukh’s words, but that they weren’t quite enough to convince him.

Gansukh thought rapidly, trying to verbalize key reasons that would support his claim. “Namkhai is a steppes rider too, plus he has been with the men longer. He knows them as well as they know him. I do not know many of the men.”

Chucai gave him a tiny nod. Keep talking.

“I have seen Namkhai stand up to Munokhoi when Munokhoi has been caught up in rage, irrational and unable to command. The men respond to Namkhai’s leadership. They will respect him more quickly.”

“Respect is an important quality to have in a leader,” Chucai offered as encouragement for Gansukh to keep talking.

“And Munokhoi does not resent Namkhai like he resents me. The perceived insult would be less grave and the reaction less severe.”

“Would it be?” Chucai considered Gansukh’s words. “There is some wisdom behind your suggestion, Gansukh. Even as hastily offered as it is.” He smiled fleetingly, and then his expression deadened. “But you speak of Munokhoi’s reaction being less severe…”

“Yes,” Gansukh agreed.

“There will still be a reaction,” Chucai said. “His resentment of you will not be lessened. It will simply be unburdened, no longer shackled by the strictures of his rank.”

Gansukh sucked in a quick breath. Munokhoi would be free to come after Lian. Ever since the gladiator match between the two Westerners, Munokhoi’s furtive glances made Gansukh think of a wary predator-biding his time.

Chucai had to be aware that this would be a likely outcome of stripping Munokhoi of his rank. He found his hands clenching into fists as his temper flared, a reaction that Lian would have chided him for. He could almost hear her voice: this is the reaction he expects you to have. Though he was tempted to accuse of Chucai of playing a deadly game, Gansukh calmed his breathing and stared at his hands until he could force them to relax.

“Namkhai is a good choice, Gansukh,” Chucai said, ignoring Gansukh’s mental distress. “A better choice, in many ways.”

Gansukh felt a strange mixture of elation and disappointment at Chucai’s words. The emotional rush was confounding. On the battlefield, such confusion-this temerity and second-guessing about one’s decisions-was deadly. He needed to keep focused.

“However, that is all he will ever be,” Chucai explained. “He does not have the same broad-mindedness that Chagatai Khan saw in you when he selected you as his emissary. Namkhai has not been to the far edges of the empire; he has not been exposed to different martial cultures.” Chucai fixed Gansukh with his fierce gaze. “He has not watched his brothers die in the streets of foreign cities. He has not truly faced death, and as such, cannot tell his men how to be strong at such a time.”

Gansukh dropped his gaze, the crazy welter of emotions racing around his brain falling silent in the face of Chucai’s praise. “You honor me too much, Master Chucai,” he muttered.

Chucai was silent for a moment. “Perhaps,” he offered. “Still, recent revelations have made it clear that if the empire is to maintain its strength, it needs less blind devotion and more…”

“More what, Master Chucai?”

“Are you asking as a Torguud captain or a free warrior of the steppes-one who thinks more of his needs than the needs of the empire?”

Gansukh hesitated, sensing a trap. “My apologies, Master Chucai. I was merely asking as a concerned warrior of the empire, who only seeks to assist the Khagan in any way that the Khagan wishes.”

Chucai laughed. “You are much less a fool than anyone takes you for, Gansukh.”

Gansukh chuckled. “Please do not tell anyone otherwise.”

“Oh, I won’t.” Chucai sighed as he played with the trailing end of his beard for a moment. “It would have been much easier to address your problem with the weight of the Torguud guard behind you.”

Gansukh tensed as Chucai’s hand tightened on his shoulder. “That problem is my own, Master Chucai. It is best I dealt with it directly.”

“Yes, Gansukh,” Chucai said. “That would be for the best. Much less disruptive that way. Much less.”

Gansukh did not watch Chucai mount his horse and ride away. He stared down at the snaking caravan, his eyes following the tiny dots of the Torguud riders as they patrolled.

He wondered which one was Munokhoi.

He could wait until the caravan was in range, and then he could solve his problem with a single arrow. It would be so much easier.

Gansukh sighed and shook his head. While an arrow was efficient, it would have consequences that could be as equally disastrous. No, he had to find another way. A less disruptive way.

Patience, he told himself as he walked back to his horse. A true hunter knows to wait until his prey shows itself.

When the caravan reached the Kherlen River, it was greeted by a contingent of twenty horsemen. Each rider carried a pole with a sky-blue banner that snapped and whipped in the wind as the party galloped toward the caravan. The Torguud parted for the riders, and they swept through like a sudden squall of rain. As they reached the dense cluster of mounted guard near the Khagan’s ger, they reined as one and dismounted in near-unison, each landing swiftly on the ground and dropping to bent knee. Sky-blue arrowheads woven into their robes marked them. Darkhat. Guardians of the lands sacred to Genghis Khan-his birthplace, his tomb, and region beyond. Burqan-qaldun.

Some of the Torguud shuffled nervously, attempting to keep their horses at ease. The Darkhat remained still, waiting for Ogedei to emerge from his ger. The tableau remained frozen for what seemed to be an inordinately long time, and then the flaps of Ogedei’s ger were thrown back, and the Khan of Khans emerged.

Ogedei leaned against the railing of the narrow platform, and stared thickly at the Darkhat host as if he could not account for their sudden appearance in his camp. Just as he seemed about to lose interest in their presence, one of the Darkhat shot to his feet and raised both arms in salute to the Khagan.

“Hail, Ogedei Khagan,” he said. “I, Ghaltai, welcome you to the lands of your father.”

“Hail, Ghaltai, faithful and eternal servant of my father’s legacy,” Ogedei replied. He waved an arm to encompass the other Darkhat. “Hail, faithful servants.”

Ghaltai was not a tall man, but he was stocky, with thick weather-beaten skin. His eyes were thin, almond-shaped slits in his face. “What brings you to these lands, O Khagan, with so mighty a retinue?” he asked.

“A pilgrimage,” Ogedei replied. “We will need your guides to take us through the mountain passes.”

“That we can gladly provide,” said Ghaltai with a bow.

“Oh, yes,” Ogedei said as if the idea had just occurred to him. “My father’s grave. I wish to see it.” His gaze roamed over the assembled Torguud until he spotted Munokhoi. “The caravan will continue without me,” he instructed. “I will catch up with it by nightfall.”

“My Khan-” Munokhoi began.

“You have your orders, Captain.”

Ogedei shuddered slightly, surprised by the voice at his elbow.

Chucai stood a respectful distance behind the Khagan, but with his height, he still seemed to tower over the slumped figure of the Khagan. “Your task is to ensure the safety of the caravan,” he explained. “Namkhai and a few others will accompany the Khagan. As will I.” He inclined his head toward Ogedei. “With your leave, of course, Khagan. I too would like to pay my respects to your father, my late friend.”

“Of course,” said Ogedei thickly, a grimace twisting his mouth into an ugly sneer.

The windswept plain between the Kherlen and Bruchi Rivers was filled with wild grasses. Closer to the rivers, ash and cedar trees grew, leaning toward the flowing water. A rounded boulder, taller than a man seated on a horse, lay in the center of the plain. It was such an anomaly in the landscape that Chucai’s gaze was drawn to the distant crag of Burqan-qaldun, and he wondered how far the massive rock had traveled to end up in this field.

The stone was the only marker of Genghis Khan’s interment. There were no pavilions of gold and silver, no field of banners, no sculptures or monuments. Just the rock, in an untouched plain of wild grass, at the confluence of the Kherlen and Bruchi Rivers. As Genghis had wished.

Chucai, Ghaltai, and the rest of the honor guard remained at a respectful distance as Ogedei dismounted and approached the boulder. The Khagan sank to his knees, head bowed in prayer.

Before he had become Genghis Khan, Ogedei’s father was a simple man named Temujin. When he was nine, he was promised to Borte-daughter of Dei-sechen, of the Onggirat tribe-and he eventually married her six years later. Their marriage was interrupted by Merkit raiders who had never forgiven a theft by Temujin’s father. He had stolen Hoelun, a woman intended for their clan leader, and the Merkits saw the theft of Borte as due compensation for their loss. They also intended to kill Temujin, but after three days of searching for him among the woods and bogs surrounding Burqan-qaldun, they gave up. Temujin, as the stories went, stood in this valley and swore in the presence of Burqan-qaldun, the great mountain that had kept him safe, that he would rescue Borte.

Not only did he rescue his wife, but with the assistance of friendly clans he defeated the Merkits, beginning what was to become the unification of all the Mongol peoples under his rule.

The empire started here, Chucai reflected. One man. One promise. He shivered slightly, dismissing the chill as nothing more than an icy gust of wind finding its way inside the collar of his jacket. He recalled the vision thrust upon him in the wake of the Chinese attack on the caravan: the endless herd of wild horses, their manes flowing like clouds-the never-ending empire. Born out of Temujin’s love for Borte.

“Your tribe has dwelled in these lands for some time, have they not?” Chucai asked Ghaltai, pushing aside these idle, and yet troubling, thoughts.

“For many generations,” the Darkhat rider replied.

“After Temujin became Genghis Khan, he came back to Burqan-qaldun,” Chucai said. “What did he find here?”

Ghaltai made a show of looking around the wide plain, and then shrugged. “Open sky.”

Chucai gave him the look that normally withered visiting dignitaries who presumed to be important enough to warrant disturbing the Khan. Ghaltai, nonplussed, met his gaze.

“Tell me about the banner,” Chucai said. And when Ghaltai pretended to not understand, Chucai leaned toward the Darkhat and lowered his voice. “It was old when Genghis raised it as the standard for the empire, and it is older now. It should be a dead piece of wood, but why does it thrust forth new growth?”

Ghaltai’s weather-beaten face paled. “I–I do not know of what you speak,” he said.

“You know something,” Chucai hissed, unwilling to let the Darkhat’s reticence get in the way of learning something about the history of the banner. “Tell me.”

“There is a legend,” Ghaltai began after a moment of reflection. “Before Borte Chino mated with Qo’ai Maral, when Tengri walked this land-”

Chucai snorted derisively before he could stop himself, and seeing Ghaltai’s expression, he offered an apologetic nod.

“The people who lived here taught the birds to fly in formation and the bees to gather in swarms. When the Wolf and the Doe mated, these wise men gave this knowledge as a wedding gift. Teach your children, they said, so that they may grow to become the strongest clans under the Eternal Blue Heaven.”

“But the clans did not unite until Genghis brought them together,” Chucai pointed out. Ghaltai’s story sounded like yet another fable that had become truth, another fanciful explanation for Genghis’s rise to power. He had heard so many of these stories over the years; in fact, he and Genghis had laughed together about a number of them. They were the idle stories that belonged to the uneducated-the superstitious who would flock to a passionate visionary and follow him anyway.

“The clans were waiting,” Ghaltai said with an unsettling fervor. “They were waiting for someone to claim the legacy of Borte Chino and Qo’ai Maral. My father’s father led the Darkhat when Genghis returned to Burqan-qaldun. He told his father, who, in turn, told me when I was old enough to take his place, that Genghis was visited by Tengri in a vision. Tengri told him where to find the sacred grove, the place where Wolf and Doe first laid together. Beyond the mountain. Genghis went there alone, and-”

“And when he returned, he had the banner,” Chucai said, filling in the last detail of Ghaltai’s story. “But you don’t know where or how he found it.”

Ghaltai nodded. “We guard the way to the grove, but we do not venture onto the path.”

Squinting, Chucai raised his face toward the mountain. “Ogedei Khan has had a vision as well,” he said. “He has come to hunt a bear in the sacred grove.” When Ghaltai did not respond, he lowered his gaze and looked over at the Darkhat rider.

Ghaltai sat rigidly in his saddle, and he would not meet Chucai’s gaze. “It is a place of powerful spirits,” was all that he would say.

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

In the Aftermath

After the death of the Rose Knight, Hans remembered very little. He had managed to avoid the tumultuous press of bodies throwing themselves out of the arena, mainly by virtue of his size, but the streets had been so chaotic, filled with so many Mongol warriors with bared weapons, that he had gone to ground. Like a frightened rabbit. He knew a half dozen routes back to his uncle’s brewery and the safe haven of the tree, and most of those paths could only be traversed by a boy his size or smaller, but he hadn’t felt safe.

Nowhere was safe.

And so he hid. Beneath the southern stands of the arena, he found a corner of the foundation where the Mongol engineers, in their haste to assemble the edifice, hadn’t quite closed off the foundation. The hole was narrow and dark, and he managed to rip his shirt and scrape his shoulder, but he got in. Crawling around in the dark until he felt stone and wood behind him on two sides, he curled up in a ball. Only then did he let himself cry, and he bawled until he had no tears left.

He must have fallen into an exhausted stupor-not quite sleep, but not quite consciousness either. When he came to his senses, wiping the crust of dirt and dried tears from his stiff eyelashes, he heard nothing. No pounding feet. No screams. No shouting, nor clashes of steel. Stiffly, he pried himself out of his corner sanctuary and gingerly crawled back toward the dim light of his entry hole. Distantly, he heard the raucous screams of angry crows, the sort of cries the black birds made when they were trying to intimidate each other. When they were trying to drive other birds away from a prize of putrescent carrion.

Hans cringed at the thought of what lay outside, scooting back on his hands and rear until he was pressed into his safe corner again. It wasn’t Hunern outside any more, it was Legnica-the day after the Mongolian engineers had breached the city gates and the mounted warriors had streamed into the city.

He wasn’t old enough to fight with the rest of the men in the defense of the city, but he was old enough to understand what the women were planning should the walls fall. He was old enough to know that he should hide, someplace where no one could find him. Not even his own family. Their children would not become slaves, the mothers of Legnica vowed, and when the Mongols came, the women took their children to the wall.

He was not the only boy to survive the hammer and hilt, blade and knife, that took every boy and girl child of Legnica, the frantic solution laid upon each child by their parents to keep them safe from the ravenous pillaging of the Mongol Horde. They were all marked for having been cowards-a darkness each could easily read in the eyes of the others; bound by this shadow, they swore oaths to one another beneath the cracked branches of the old tree in Hunern. Never get caught. Never betray one another. Never give succor to the enemy. Think of the living.

He had survived the fall of Legnica. Days after the Mongols had finished plundering the city, he had crept out of his hole, shivering and weak from hunger. The city stank of death, and the stone walls of those few buildings still standing were smeared and stained with blood. There were corpses everywhere, bloated and stinking with maggots and flies. The sky had been dark with crows and vultures.

He forced himself away from the stone wall and crawled toward the hole in the arena’s foundation. It can’t be as bad. Hunern was silent, daring him to find out.

The arena was empty, but some sense-that same animal cunning that had kept him sane and safe while hiding in Legnica-warned him to stay hidden. He crept slowly along the edge of the stands, eyes and ears alert.

Wood creaked overhead, and he froze, pressing himself against the wood. Barely daring to breathe, he listened intently for the sound to be repeated, and after a few moments, he heard the weak groan of the timber as it was forced to support a heavy weight once more. Voices followed, guttural snatches of conversation, and Hans listened intently, trying to discern what the pair of Mongols was discussing.

They hadn’t seen him: that much was clear. The men were both bored and on edge-guard duty, Hans guessed, watching the arena. But why was the unanswered question. Satisfied that he wasn’t in danger of being spotted, Hans crept toward the back of the arena, a dangerous curiosity tugging at him.

Each of the arena’s numerous exits was typically sealed by a heavy wooden gate, but they were all an after-thought, and their timbers were the leftover scraps from the initial construction. There were gaps in the gate, and most of them didn’t quite marry with the well-worn path. There was a gap large enough to squeeze through beneath the gate nearest Hans’s hiding place, and he-gingerly, carefully-eased through the hole.

Once through the gate, he lay flat on the ground, trusting that dirty dinginess of his clothing and hair would make him blend in with the rough and knotted wood of the gate. Raising his head not much more than the width of two fingers from the ground, he let his gaze roam around the open field outside the arena for any movement.

There were a few huddled shapes. Corpses, he assumed, judging by the interest being shown by numerous crows. A few sported the familiar fletching of Mongol arrows, and after examining the position of these bodies in comparison with the others, Hans was able to discern a history of what had played out in the field.

Most of the dead had probably died in the riot, cut down by Mongol swords or trampled in the madness that had followed Andreas’s valiant attempt on the Khan’s life. The remainder-the ones sporting arrows-were closer to the wall, grouped in a cluster, almost as if they died trying to reach a specific spot on the arena wall.

Curiosity dared him to look, and he crawled belly down along the gate until he reached the wall. The gate was inset slightly, and with a final, nervous glance around, he pushed himself up to his hands and knees. Leaning forward, he peered around the corner, directing his attention up.

At first he couldn’t quite understand what he was seeing. A leg. An arm. The ragged edge of a maille shirt. And then a horrible realization hit him: a body had been nailed to the wall. It was in pieces, the limbs hacked from the torso, and little effort had been applied in putting the pieces back in their proper position. Hans leaned out farther, trying to spot some identifying mark, and he finally spied the head.

“No,” he sobbed, sinking back against the wall, and as soon as the word had slipped free of his lips, he wanted to take it back. He wanted to grab the sound with his hands and shove it back into his mouth, as if by swallowing the word, he could reverse time and erase the image burned into his brain.

Andreas.

Overhead, the timbers creaked as the guards reacted to his tiny cry. They began jabbering at one another, and before they could investigate, Hans was on his feet. He sprinted away from the arena, his feet flying across the dusty ground. Behind him, the guards shouted, and he heard the whistling hiss of an arrow as it flew past him. Dodging the dead, he kept his head down and his eyes forward. His whole body-lungs aching, heart pounding-was solely focused on reaching the welcoming embrace of the nearest alley and the shadows that would hide him from the arcing arrows of the Mongols guards atop the arena walls.

He didn’t look back. He had seen enough.

CHAPTER THIRTY

The Gift of the Spirits

In other circumstances, Chucai might have marveled at the scenery of the valley at the foot of Burqan-qaldun. He might have stood quietly in a reflective qi pose, and let his breathing become one with the gentle sighing sound of the northern wind. If he didn’t have the responsibility of managing the entirety of the Khagan’s vast empire, he might have lain down on the ample grasses and watched the white clouds chase one another across the vault of Blue Heaven. It was a hard man who was not moved by the beautiful simplicity of the site where Genghis Khan lay entombed, and the austerity of the Great Khan’s grave only furthered the myth that Genghis truly understood his place within the endless expanse of the known world.

However, Genghis was dead, his empire was nearly double the size it had been during his life, and his third son-while perhaps the most capable of his children-was a drunk. Chucai did not have the luxury of admiring the unspoiled beauty of this sacred place. The empire, if it was to survive, needed leadership. It needed a strong Khagan.

Chucai ran his hand through his long beard and let his gaze bore into Ogedei’s back. The Khagan had been kneeling at his father’s gravesite for an interminable time now. At first, the Khagan had been speaking in a low voice, offering a solemn prayer to his father’s spirit and the spirits of this valley; now, the Khagan was still-so still, in fact, that Chucai wondered if Ogedei had fallen asleep.

Gansukh’s impetuous actions had touched a long-slumbering part of Ogedei’s spirit, and for all the administrative headache the trip to Burqan-qaldun had caused, Chucai had been pleased at the initial elevation of the Khagan’s attention to all matters concerning the empire. But the delays and the constant presence of the court-even as diminished as it was on this journey-had mired the Khagan again. The siren lure of the drink was too strong, and Ogedei loved it too much.

Was the hunt for the bear going to be enough to drive that thirst from Ogedei, once and for all?

Voices from the direction of the Torguud escort roused Chucai from his ruminations. Piqued by the movement among the bodyguards’ horses, he turned his attention from the kneeling Khagan.

Namkhai and the other Torguud had surrounded an interloper. The horseman was not Darkhat, though he was clearly Mongolian, and his attire was both well cared for and weather-beaten. His sun-darkened face was familiar to Chucai, though he could not quite place the man, and his unrestrained hair had been bleached of all its color by years of sunlight.

“Who is this man?” he demanded as he rode over to the cluster of Torguud riders.

“He claims to be an old friend of the Khagan’s,” Namkhai rumbled.

“Here? Now?” Chucai scoffed. “The nearest outpost is how many days away?”

“Two, Master Chucai,” the interloper called out. He raised his arm-slowly, so as to not startle the already tense Torguud-and pointed. “In that direction. It used to be an old Merkit village before Temujin and the clans took it over. Do you remember it, Master? Or was that before you came to the Great Khan’s household?”

“The Merkit are no more,” Chucai said. “We are all Mongols now.”

The gray-haired man smiled. “Some of us remember, though, because we were there.”

“Who are you, old man?” Namkhai demanded.

“His name is Alchiq.” Ogedei rode up beside Chucai, and though his face and beard were wet with tears, there was a smile on his face. “He was my father’s man. On one of my first hunts, he helped me carry the meat from my kill back to camp.” His smile became a broad grin. “I thought you were dead.”

“Not dead, my Khan,” Alchiq replied, sparing a withering glance at Chucai as he placed a closed fist over his heart and bowed his head. “Just far away, in the West.”

Ogedei appeared to not notice the glance as he waved his hands at the Torguud surrounding the gray-haired man. “He is an old companion,” he commanded. “Do not treat him as an enemy.”

But he was, Chucai recalled, when you first became enamored of the spoils of the empire. He was one of those who stood at your side-exhorting you to drink, to enjoy the privileges of being the Khan of Khans.

The dissolution had begun with the desire to build Karakorum. Shortly after vanquishing the Jin Dynasty-one of the last conquests left unfinished by his father-Ogedei had decided to build himself an imperial palace, much like those his armies had demolished throughout the Chinese provinces. Chucai could recall the arguments about the foundation of such a fixed camp, and one of the few regrets he had concerning his governance of Genghis’s legacy had been telling Ogedei that Genghis never would have built such a place.

I am not my father, Ogedei had shouted at him, and there had been such finality in those few words, such outrage and such pain, that Chucai knew he had indelibly damaged his relationship with the son of the Great Khan.

And now this man, this gaunt and weather-hardened Mongol, has returned, and in his gaze, Chucai saw an obdurate devotion that had refused to wither. When Alchiq had been exiled from the nascent palace of Karakorum, his only duty-his final duty to his Khagan-had been to go someplace far away, to wander past the edge of the empire and die. Like the decency a dog has when it realizes it is too old to hunt.

While Chucai ruminated on Alchiq’s arrival, Ogedei pushed his way past his sluggish and reluctant Torguud, and warmly clasped Alchiq’s hands in his own. “You have returned at the right time,” the Khagan said, pulling the older man half out of his saddle in an effort to hug him. “You are an omen of good luck, sent by Blue Heaven to bless my hunt.”

“No, my Khan-” Alchiq began. His mouth closed to a narrow line and his nostrils flared as he smelled the wine on the Khagan’s breath.

“Yes!” Ogedei blustered on, ignoring Alchiq’s change of expression. “The hunt!” He turned in his saddle, seeking to make eye contact with Namkhai. “I am done here. I have paid my respects to my father, and the spirits of this place have responded. They have sent me an old friend. They approve of my quest. They approve of me.”

“Of course, my Khan,” Namkhai replied smoothly. He turned in his saddle and, with a quick series of hand gestures, informed the bodyguard of the Khagan’s desire to ride back to the caravan. The riders fanned out into a teardrop formation.

Namkhai is the right choice, Chucai thought, watching the other riders respond to the wrestling champion’s commands. I will inform Ogedei tonight that Namkhai is his new Torguud captain.

“You will dine with me,” Ogedei said to Alchiq. “I will hear of everything that has happened to you in the last few years.”

“There is one thing-” Alchiq started.

“It can wait,” Ogedei said, and with a wild cry, he snapped his reins. His horse leaped to a gallop, and the Torguud followed, smoothly parting around Alchiq, Chucai, and the few Darkhat who had accompanied the Khagan to Genghis’s grave.

Ghaltai, the Darkhat leader, hesitated for a moment, and then he and his men followed the Khagan and his bodyguard, leaving Chucai and Alchiq behind.

Chucai stroked his beard and stared at Ogedei’s old companion, daring Alchiq to lock eyes with him again. The surprise had worn off, and his own mental guard was back up. Exiling Alchiq and the few others who had been a bad influence on the Khagan had been the right decision. They had all been drunks, and he had hoped the shame of the exile would have been enough to give them the requisite excuse to drink themselves to death, but such a supposition had clearly failed in Alchiq’s case.

“He’s still drinking,” Alchiq frowned.

“Yes, he is,” Chucai said. We both failed. He brushed that thought aside as readily-and with the same indifference-as if he was brushing dust from his sleeve. The past is dead; there is only the future of the empire to consider. “Do you recall the penalty for breaking your exile?”

“I do.”

“Then why have you returned?”

“The Khagan is in danger. I–I had to warn him.”

“You could have sent a messenger.”

“Would you have believed a messenger?”

Chucai offered Alchiq a withering smile as his answer.

“That is why I came,” Alchiq said, a fervent finality in his voice. “My duty was clear.”

And so are your eyes, Chucai noted, and the irony of Alchiq finding salvation in exile was not lost on him.

The Darkhat had met the Khagan with a great deal of noisy ceremony when the caravan reached the Kherlen River, two arban of identically clad warriors on splendid horses thundering across the water. Only one of the Darkhat spoke, offering greetings to the Khagan; the rest had sat like imposing statues on their horses, staring into the distance as if they could see the enormity of the empire’s history laid out in the caravan’s wake.

They were meant to be imposing, and Gansukh had noticed the effect their stoic intensity had on a number of the younger Torguud. When the Darkhat had arrived, they had galloped toward the Khagan’s ger without pause, as if they expected the Torguud to get out of their way. The Khagan’s Imperial Guard had moved aside for the oncoming riders, and-just like that-the Khagan’s men had already ceded the mental advantage to the newcomers. Without even realizing it, they had accepted a presumed subordination.

After the Khagan departed for the grave of Genghis Khan with a retinue of his own men and half of the Darkhat riders, Gansukh had had an opportunity to watch the remaining Darkhat as they preceded the caravan to its final destination.

The caravan was being taken to a valley on the southern slope of Burqan-qaldun. It was not-as he had inaccurately assumed-the location of the Sacred Grove that the shaman had spoke of back in Karakorum, but a long meadow that would provide sufficient open ground for the many ger as well as pasture for the horses and running water. The grove itself was closer to the mountain, through a vale of rock and-according to the vague nonanswer offered by one of the Darkhat when Gansukh had inquired-beyond a waterfall and a field of singing rushes.

All very mysterious, intentionally off-putting so as to maintain an air of secrecy and mysticism. Gansukh was a humble steppe warrior-sure to be mentally constricted by long-extant clan superstitions that would keep him docile and respectful. So that he wouldn’t question what his eyes were telling him; so that he wouldn’t allow his curiosity to ask too many questions.

The Darkhat armor was worn-not from use, but from age. Their horses, while sure-footed and well-groomed, were no longer young stallions. Gansukh was fairly certain his pony could outlast any of the larger Darkhat horses in a long-distance race. While all of the Darkhat carried bows, nearly a quarter of them had quivers that were only half full. And the men themselves? None of them were his age, and, in a less formal setting, he probably would have referred to more than half of them as grandfather.

He ruminated on these details during the remainder of the day, and as the caravan slowly trundled down a gentle slope toward the sunlit meadows of their camp, Gansukh was struck by an odd discrepancy. No one was waiting for them.

It was not a significant social failure. The Khagan had not yet rejoined them, and such pomp was typically reserved for his eyes, but Gansukh found himself wondering why there had not been more riders waiting for them in the valley. Typically, when receiving visitors, an ordu chief would send out his best warriors as escort, and he would greet them himself when they arrived at their destination.

There are no more Darkhat, he realized. The two arban that had met the Khagan at the river were all the Darkhat fighting men. The clan was dying out.

He tried to dismiss this conclusion as the caravan came to a halt and began the lengthy process of settling into camp. Once he had removed his saddle and gear from his horse and performed the remedial tasks of brushing and feeding it, he joined the other men who were clearing the field for the ger. The busy work would keep his hands and mind occupied, so that he would not dwell overlong on the conclusion he had reached.

It wasn’t just the Darkhat clan he kept thinking about; it was the empire as a whole.

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

The Man Who Would Be Pope

Ferenc’s eyes nearly popped out of his head, making him look like a younger Monferrato. “Father Rodrigo!” he gasped, grabbing Ocyrhoe’s arm and pointing excitedly.

Too far away to tell, she signed on his arm, reluctant to believe the evidence of her ears.

Ferenc and Ocyrhoe paused at the edge of a crowd of at least a thousand people, no longer milling and murmuring, but transfixed, all eyes trained on a small man dressed like a priest, standing halfway up a huge mound of rubble, head bowed as if in prayer. Ocyrhoe could not see his face clearly, but he held out something that flashed and gleamed-something brilliant, golden, almost hypnotic in the steady sunlight. The cattlelike lowing sounds had subsided into a profound quiet. Ocyrhoe was used to the city and its busy, noisy throngs, but she was not used to so large a group falling mute all at once, unified in utter silence.

The three adults-Lena, Cardinal Monferrato, and the soldier, Helmuth-came up behind. The Cardinal was breathing heavily through his mouth.

After a long break, the priest on the mound lifted his head and resumed his harangue. His voice rang out clearly over the onlookers and echoed from the far walls.

Ocyrhoe had seen many prophesiers in many marketplaces, but never before had she seen one of them attract this kind of attention. And his words! She shook her head, still unwilling to believe what she was hearing. He was preaching violence.

Ferenc shook his head and exclaimed out loud, “It is Father Rodrigo!” Around them, outliers glared in disapproval and lifted hushing fingers. Oblivious, Ferenc spoke to Helmuth, the one man who could understand his native tongue. “That is the man we have come to Rome to save!”

Helmuth frowned. “We did not come to Rome to save anyone,” he said. “We came to bring Cardinal Monferrato to vote for the Pope.”

Ignoring him, Ferenc turned back to Ocyrhoe. Tell me what Father Rodrigo’s saying, he signed.

Ask Helmuth, she begged off. Too many words. She couldn’t tell Ferenc what the priest was saying.

The Cardinal was staring open-mouthed at the man on the rubble pile. “Who is that?” he demanded. “How is it this boy knows him?”

Ocyrhoe wondered how best to explain. After a deep breath, she began. “It is Father Rodrigo Bendrito, a Roman priest who once lived near Ferenc’s home. Ferenc and Father Rodrigo traveled together to Rome, and then Father Rodrigo was put into seclusion with the Cardinals in the Septizodium. As he is not in the Septizodium, that could mean the others are no longer imprisoned there, either.”

Monferrato closed his eyes a moment, as if hoping to open them to a different, saner reality. “He is preaching a Crusade. He is telling these people to rise up and defend Christendom against the Mongols.”

“I hear what he’s saying as well as you,” Ocyrhoe said. The man’s face pinked. He puffed and looked outraged that she had dared to address him so abruptly. Out of the corner of her eye, Ocyrhoe saw Lena frown. “He was very ill when they arrived here, both physically and mentally,” Ocyrhoe said quickly, trying to find some explanation that the Cardinal would find suitable.

Monferrato blinked owlishly at her, and she shrugged, not sure what else to tell him. She had no idea why the priest was exhorting the crowd to launch a Crusade against the Mongols. It seemed so unlike the kindly-albeit somewhat dazed man-she had met in the Septizodium.

Beside them, Helmuth was translating Rodrigo’s rant to Ferenc, who looked as if he were watching eels do circus tricks. Ocyrhoe felt somewhat mollified; Ferenc couldn’t believe what Father Rodrigo was saying either. He replied to Helmuth in a tone that Ocyrhoe took to be a defense of the priest, and used the word Mohi several times.

Lena started upon hearing the name. She snapped her fingers in front of Ferenc’s face to get his attention and repeated, “Mohi?”

When Ferenc nodded, she turned her attention to Helmuth. “What was he saying?” she demanded.

The Emperor’s guard shuffled nervously, his face pale. “He talks of the battle at Mohi, as if he and the priest were there.” He said something to Ferenc in Magyar, and Ferenc nodded tersely in reply. “They didn’t just witness it,” Helmuth continued. “They were on the battlefield.”

“You poor boy,” Lena said softly. She touched his arm, her fingers dancing lightly across his skin, and Ocyrhoe was surprised when Ferenc pulled away from Lena’s touch.

Lena hesitated for a moment, and then she turned to the others. “The priest and this young man were present at one of the most atrocious battles Christendom has ever witnessed. It was a battle no one should have had to witness-least of all a man of God-and what the priest saw must have driven him mad.” She indicated Ferenc. “With what sanity he had left, he must have asked this boy to bring him back to Rome, perhaps to seek redemption-or whatever peace might be left for him. But now it would appear that his madness has consumed him, and he is infecting the rest of the city.”

She listened intently to Father Rodrigo’s sermon, as if hearing him differently now. She had the same expression on her face that Ocyrhoe had seen previously-her attention both intent and distant.

Privately, Ocyrhoe thought Father Rodrigo looked much healthier than she had ever seen him. And he spoke with a great deal of verve. His words were clear and direct. He spoke without hesitation or confusion, as if the message he was delivering to his rapt audience was one that he knew quite well.

It was a strange message, one she did not understand fully. He spoke of trees-cedars-being cut down and the darkening of stars. He spoke both of the need for faith and the end of the Church, and when she glanced over her shoulder at Lena, she noted that the Binder woman was mouthing words almost in concert with Father Rodrigo.

A disturbance rippled through the crowd and further discussion as to the sanity of Father Rodrigo was cut short by the arrival of other figures on the makeshift pulpit. From around the side of the mound of rubble came a young boy and half a dozen men dressed in white uniforms, each with an image of crossed keys emblazoned on their chests. Three of the men carried pikes, and were already pointing their tips down toward the crowd. The other three men rushed Father Rodrigo and brandished swords close to his face. He gave them a curious glance, then returned his attention to the crowd, calling upon them again to take up arms, to drive the darkness back to the East, whence it had come.

The guards looked disgusted and reluctantly sheathed their swords. One of them circled from behind and grabbed Father Rodrigo around the neck, while the other two lifted his legs and tied his ankles. They then tossed him like a pig carcass, pulled back his arms, and used a length of rope to bind his wrists behind him. The cup he had been holding fell clanging to the stones. The guards, still manhandling the unresisting priest, did not notice. Ocyrhoe did, and when she glanced at Ferenc, he nodded, indicating he had seen the cup fall too.

Behind her, she heard Lena draw in a sharp breath.

The crowd, released from the spell of the priest’s prophetic ranting, turned ugly. Swiftly, a chain of possession from the vendors’ carts materialized, and the angry citizens began to pelt the soldiers with vegetables.

The soldiers ignored the fusillade of vegetables. One even reached out and intercepted a flying cabbage, giving the crowd a brief bow and a crooked grin. Within a few heartbeats, they had efficiently draped Father Rodrigo over the largest man’s shoulder and departed in the direction from which they had come.

The crowd growled and surged to the left, as if it would move, in one unit, around the ruins and follow the soldiers and the trussed up priest. But as quickly as it moved forward, it fell back again like a wave on a beach meeting a sea wall. A phalanx of uniformed, helmeted men equipped with yet more pikes erupted into view. The crowd’s shouts of protest twisted into cries of alarm, then pain, and the mass swayed sideways and back to get away from the prodding, jabbing weapons.

Without another word, the five travelers grabbed each others’ hands and shoulders and fled down a small street that led south, away from the market. After a score of paces, they stopped and stood in a circle, staring at each other, husking out frightened breaths.

“What just happened?” Cardinal Monferrato demanded.

“Guards… from the Vatican,” Ocyrhoe said. “They wore different uniforms from the men who serve the Bear-Senator Orsini. They will likely take this priest to Saint Peter’s or the Castel Sant’Angelo. We should go there, not to the Septizodium.”

“Why? Isn’t the Septizodium where the Cardinals are being held?” Helmuth shook his head. “The Emperor does not care about this priest friend of yours, and neither do I. He wants us to go to the Septizodium.”

“Those soldiers take their orders from the College of Cardinals,” Ocyrhoe argued. “How could the Cardinals be commanding them if they were still imprisoned in the Septizodium? How would they even know-”

“Child,” Lena said sternly, and Ocyrhoe silenced herself at once. “What was the message you were given to deliver, by the English Cardinal?”

Ocyrhoe already understood the point of this lesson. “It was to bring the Emperor’s men back to the Septizodium,” she said in a resigned tone.

“You are under oath,” Lena said simply. “Does a Binder interpret the message that has been given to her or does she simply deliver it?”

Ocyrhoe lowered her eyes. “She delivers it,” she said. “But I think it is a waste of time to go there.”

“What you think matters less than what you are sworn to do,” Lena said, not unkindly. “It is a characteristic that many rely on with the Binders.” A note of bitterness crept into her voice, which caused Ocyrhoe to raise her head, but Lena, seeming to anticipate Ocyrhoe’s gaze, was already looking away. “Let us continue with what we came here to do,” she said softly.

Ferenc had been watching them all with increasing impatience, and at this lull in the conversation he grabbed Ocyrhoe’s arm and urgently pointed back in the direction Father Rodrigo had been taken. It took no translator for her to understand what he wanted. She gave Helmuth a plaintive look, and the German soldier brusquely translated to Ferenc what had just passed between the two Binders.

Ferenc squirmed and flung up his arms in frustration, then grabbed her forearm. She wanted to pull away-he could not possibly understand-but he did not. Lie to them about where we are going, he signed.

At that, she snatched her arm from his fingers as if she’d been burned. “No!” she said angrily, and shook her head. “Never. Never!”

“You obviously have no control over anything that is happening,” said Senator Orsini furiously. “How are you of the slightest value to me? I should demand payment for all the choice viands you have supped upon at this table. I might as well have thrown them to my dogs. At least I know their loyalty is solid.”

Cardinal Fieschi seethed and twitched with frustration. “Total control is impossible, and not even useful. There has been a hiccup in our plan, but don’t you see it has allowed things to unfold in a way that can be even more fruitful?”

“No,” said Orsini. “I don’t see that at all, nor do I care for your inference that I am too stupid to understand your clever plan. In fact, I am so unmoved by your cleverness-”

“Orsini, what is it we want?” Fieschi demanded. “We want a Pope we can control, do we not? One who will repel the advances of the Emperor.”

“We would have had that in Bonaventura. And it is your fault Bonaventura is not now the Pope.”

“If anything, it is to my credit he is not,” Fieschi shot back. “But even if I’d voted for him this last round, he would not have won. Do you understand that? It would have been another deadlock. Unless Frederick were to release one of the Cardinals he holds hostage, and allow that man to come back to Rome, it would always be a deadlock. Even after removing one of Castiglione’s supporters from the equation entirely, there was no way to avoid deadlock.”

“Deadlock is better than chaos,” Orsini huffed. “Currently we have chaos. I should never have trusted you to steer anything. I will remember that when we really do have a Pope in power. The Bishop of Rome and the Senator of Rome will have plenty to talk about, but you have lost your place at that table.”

Fieschi could feel the heat rise in his face so intensely he wondered if even his eyeballs had turned red. You imbecile, he wanted to shout at Orsini. Are you really so blind you do not see how much more is at stake? Rome means nothing compared to the world that the Church commands. You are nothing but a convenient tool, and you are rapidly becoming inconvenient.

Instead, he forced a tight smile and said, with tempered condescension, “If you will listen to me for but a moment, you will realize that I have actually helped to set that table. We have the Pope in a room a half mile from here. The citizens of Rome have already heard him speak and they were mesmerized by his rhetoric. We will be able to steer him in any direction we desire, and the masses will eagerly follow. He offers us power that would be unimaginable if Bonaventura had been elected.” He sat back in his seat and crossed his arms, looking up at the Bear smugly.

Orsini made a dismissive face. “What do we care what the masses do?” he snorted. “They have no power.”

Fieschi altered his tight smile into a sympathetic one. “Come with me to the Vatican compound and you may change your mind. It took me two hours to get here because the mob was so thick. There is something hypnotic about that priest. Come with me and see for yourself, and then dismiss the masses-if you dare.”

Orsini shook his head stubbornly. “If he has that kind of power and he’s a madman, then he is extremely dangerous and must be killed immediately.”

“But he is pliable,” Fieschi insisted calmly. “I saw Somercotes win him over easily. If we stage the next few days carefully, I am confident that I can make him my creature. And then all that power is ours to use as we want.”

“And if you fail?” Orsini said. “I do not share your confidence in your abilities.”

“If I fail, then get rid of him, and we’re back to where we were before,” Fieschi said. “A deadlocked College of Cardinals and no Pope.”

Orsini thought about this for a few moments. Fieschi watched him, and was careful not to make a sound or indulge in even the slightest movement lest he trigger Orsini into some truculent response.

Finally Orsini asked, grimly, “What are the other Cardinals doing about all this?”

Fieschi made a dismissive gesture. “Some of them are poring over old codices of canonical law trying to establish if we may…” He lifted his hands. “Annul the election? Force a resignation? I doubt they will find any definitive answer or procedure, but the longer we stay here, the more time they have to create an argument against keeping him.”

“Are you the only Cardinal who wants to see him remain the Pope?”

Fieschi shrugged. “The only one who counts,” he said firmly. “I have two unlikely colleagues, but they are mostly interested in entertaining themselves. They’re not taking any action, they are just sitting back to watch what unfolds.”

“Is one of them Colonna?” Orsini asked in a disgusted voice.

Fieschi sat upright and said sharply, “Do not refuse this course simply because you don’t want to agree with Colonna. That is childish. The entire Colonna-Orsini feud is childish. Do you even remember what your ancestors first argued about?”

Orsini made a dismissive gesture. “If you genuinely believe that you can bring this man under your sway, so that he will be my tool, then I will consider-but only consider-ensuring that all civic authority in the city is dedicated to carrying out his enthronement.”

“That is the only sane way to persevere in this,” Fieschi said, feeling a wave of relief that he was careful not to show. Let Orsini think Father Rodrigo was to be Orsini’s tool.

He knew better.

A dried, charred smell wafted toward the five as they approached the alley that ran behind the Septizodium. “We turn left here,” Ocyrhoe announced. “There is a hidden entrance that only Ferenc can find.” Ferenc glanced at her and smiled with sheepish pride, knowing what she was telling them. “Then there is a series of dark passages. We will need at least a candle. Do you still have the candle from this morning?” she asked Monferrato. “The one you used to irritate the Emperor?”

Every time she spoke to him, he seemed startled and slightly annoyed. She wondered how many girls other than servants ever spoke to him, Cardinal as he was. “That was part of the excommunication ritual,” he said. “I gave it to my colleague.”

“Well, we’ll need to get a candle from somewhere else, then, or a lantern,” she said. “But first we’ll show you the doorway. It’s just… Oh!

They had turned the corner as she spoke. The charred smell hit their faces, wafting on languid curls of smoke that emanated from a large, ragged opening in the rock face, a few dozen paces away.

This was the secret entrance to the Septizodium, but it stood wide open-in fact, the hinged rock that served as the actual door had been lifted away, as if by the hand of God, and lay in the street. Amazed, she turned to Ferenc, who was already staring at her.

“That’s the entrance. Something has happened,” she said, as calmly as she could.

“I think there has been a fire,” the Cardinal said in a concerned voice. Ocyrhoe rolled her eyes. She was not prone to sarcasm, but this man was just too easy a target.

“Let’s take a closer look,” Lena calmly intervened.

“Yes, absolutely,” Helmuth said, so quickly that Ocyrhoe suspected he was embarrassed he was not the first to suggest it.

They walked toward the entrance. Ocyrhoe glanced up at the surrounding rooftops but saw no guards-no one at all. The alley was deserted. As they approached the entrance, preparing to enter with Ocyrhoe in the lead, an echoing, percussive sound issued from the darkness. And then, softer, the sounds of footfall, coming closer to them.

A low, blocky form emerged from obscurity: a small, hunched man, a shovel slung back over his shoulder, wearing the ill-fitting livery of a low-ranking servant. His face was wrinkled, furtive, sad. He stepped through the doorway and paused with disinterest, lowering his jaw slightly when he saw them all gathered. “No entry allowed,” he said, sounding bored. “There are guards back there, they’ll just chase you out.” He took another step to move past them.

“Can you tell us what happened?” the Cardinal asked.

The old man shrugged. “Fire. Someone died.”

“Who died?” Ocyrhoe demanded.

Again the old man shrugged. “Cardinal.”

“Which one?” Monferrato demanded shrilly.

“Foreigner. English, I think.”

Ocyrhoe gasped before she could catch herself. Ferenc tapped her arm. She ignored him and turned to Lena. “The man who sent the message is dead.” She tried to push aside the strange upwelling of emotion-she’d only met Somercotes once, yet she found herself disoriented by the news. “How do I fulfill my obligation now?” she asked, almost childlike. “I was to bring the Emperor’s men to Cardinal Somercotes, but he… no longer lives.”

Lena gave her an understanding look. She reached for Ocyrhoe’s right hand, lifted it, gently pressed the hand into a fist, and rested the fist against Ocyrhoe’s breastbone. “You are like the fox, unbound here and unencumbered,” she prompted.

Ocyrhoe began to echo the phrase before Lena had even finished. Then she heaved a huge sigh, both saddened and relieved that her mission was over. She saw Ferenc watching the two Binders with a wary, envious look.

During their exchange, Helmuth had continued to question the worker, who met the soldier’s demands with a series of shrugs and other signs of stolid disregard-and only a few mumbled words. After releasing the old man with a disgusted kick at his backside, Helmuth informed the rest of the group, “The other Cardinals were escorted to the Vatican compound yesterday.”

“I knew that,” Ocyrhoe said matter-of-factly. Helmuth glared at her. Ocyrhoe had never encountered so many fragile men in her life. They must feel very insecure indeed if a girl talking back caused such unrest.

“Let us go there,” said the Cardinal.

Helmuth grimaced. “The way will be congested,” he said.

“It would have been much less congested earlier,” Ocyrhoe said, unable to still her tongue.

“Silence, brat,” Helmuth said.

Lena smiled, silencing both of them with a look. “A path will present itself,” she said calmly. “I am sure of it.”

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

The Boy and the Tree

The reflection in the horse trough was a hollow-eyed phantom. Ripples in the water added lines, distorting his mouth into a quivering frown that split his face in half. Dietrich slapped the water, disturbing the image even further, and turned away from the wrecked face staring up at him. He dried his face with a rag that was probably dirtier than he was. As much as he tried to push the matter out of his mind, he could not avoid the truth. It kept creeping up on him-staring back from the water in the horse trough, leering from behind the eyes of his men. Doubt. Fear. Panic.

He had lost his way, and he was leading the Fratres Militiae Christi Livoniae to ruin. Had Heermeister Volquin suffered this same realization shortly before the battle at Schaulen? Dietrich recalled the fury in Kristaps’s eyes when the knight had revealed the ugly scars of his failed Shield-Brethren initiation. That same fervor had driven Volquin, and he had been blind to the trap at the river. The Heermeister’s obsession had nearly destroyed the order; the Teutonic Knights had taken pity on the survivors of Schaulen, welcoming the lost Livonians into their ranks. Many of the Sword Brothers wore the black cross rather than the red, and were content to leave the past buried along the muddy banks of the Schaulen River.

But some had strained under the Teutonic yoke. These men-veterans of the Northern campaigns, survivors of Schaulen-secretly spoke of taking the red cross again, of taking their own lands, of regaining their old glory. They chose him to lead them, and all they had needed was a sign that their purpose was just and right.

And they had been given that sign by the Pope himself. The Sword Brothers found an unexpected patron in Rome, and once Dietrich had sworn himself-and the order-to serve not just the Church, but the men who secretly ruled the Church, they could wear the red cross again.

But the memory of Schaulen proved difficult to shake.