Where the enemy creates noise, look in the opposite direction; there your doom comes softly.
—from Tun Mu’s Annals of War
IN HIS PERIPHERAL VISION, Quinn saw the city’s denizens gathered at the edges of the plaza. Lords assembled too, on balconies on the hill of manses.
The slaughtered dead lay in red heaps on the plaza as though fallen from the sky, sacrificed to a horrid god. Deep Ebb cast a purple, gloaming light.
And the Sleeping Lord, no longer asleep, was stalking toward him.
Alone, Quinn faced the ultimate Tarig, designed as a warrior, created as a protector of the Heart—and of the Entire. And Lord Ghinamid saw the darkling in front of him as a threat to both.
Quinn could only wish that he was. Deep in his crippled arm surged a will to fight, but the arm that had taken the cuts of the Tarig gauntlet would last only a few parries. The jeweled sword he bore in his left hand was glittering sharp. Still, it was no match for the short, heavy sword of Ghinamid. Quinn noted that the lord wore a traditional-looking leather-and-mail vest, but, once pierced by Demat’s bullets, it had become more impervious, he knew.
Anzi had rushed past him a moment ago. Where was she? Stay away, Anzi. I love you, but this is my fight, and it would break my will to see you die.
He backed up as the lord approached. Delay was his strategy. Let Ghinamid size him up. He might suspect that Quinn had a weapon of the Rose. Damn him to hell, he thought, damn him for killing Demat, his last hope. Damn him for everything that the Tarig had taken from him, one beloved person at a time. Quinn silently prayed to deliver one good wound. Miserable God, let me at least draw blood. Look on me, you son of a bitch, and help me deliver woe.
Moving behind a crumpled body, putting the dead man between him and Ghinamid, he taunted, “You can’t keep them from coming.” It was the same thing he’d said to Master Yulin long ago. They will come. It can’t be stopped. “We’ll come over, no matter who you kill.” Old Suzong had seen the truth of that and had urged him to find the secret of going to and from. Much good it had done him when he desperately need to do the journey.
The lord rumbled, “We will kill you first, Roseling. Shall we prune the arm gone bad?”
Ghinamid took off his helmet and threw it away. No doubt he’d see better in his peripheral vision without it. He stormed forward.
Quinn had been waiting for that. Now he paused a long second. Then, left-handed, he swept up his sword to meet the charge, bracing it with all his strength. Ghinamid’s short sword was in the air, coming down, but Quinn’s blade bit through a chink in whatever armor he had, piercing him, letting out a sonorous bellow. At the last moment, Ghinamid’s sword went wide, allowing Quinn to snake away.
The lord’s wound was solid, but not deep. Worse, the blade was stuck in the mail of his vest. Quinn scrambled farther out of reach as the lord grasped the blade with gloved hands and pulled the sword out of his gut, cutting his hands as he did so. He flung the weapon aside.
At the sight of his bloody hands, Ghinamid roared. He stood between Quinn and the jeweled sword, preventing Quinn from retrieving it.
Advancing, the lord’s face was a bronze and predatory mask.
Ci Dehai had been Quinn’s fighting instructor those first days with Master Yulin, when he had to learn to fight Chalin-style. The general’s words came to him now: When overmatched, conserve energy, watch for openings. He watched, backing up on the great plaza, retreating over bodies sprawled, darting to the side just enough to avoid the blows. Ghinamid had slaughtered the others because they froze. He had to keep moving. That day in Yulin’s fighting yard, the old general had beaten him well and good, teaching him how to win even against such as Ci Dehai. When overmatched, be content with small harms. Small adds up to large.
But there was nothing to strike with, and his opponent was not allowing him to circle back toward his fallen sword.
Quinn retreated through the obstacles of bodies, but the Tarig, having taken stock of his wound and regained his purpose, abandoned caution and attacked. His sword circled and lunged. Quinn twisted away, sliding dangerously in blood slicks. Up came Ghinamid’s arm again and down, the blade cutting fabric, notching skin. The lord, however, moved slowly, as though his blood had thickened in his million-year rest. Even so, his strength was likely to last longer than Quinn’s.
In a heart-stopping moment, Quinn slipped on a patch of blood, falling to one hand. He regained his stance as Ghinamid moved swiftly in, ready to finish the business. The lord’s feet slapped into the spill of blood, spattering it over both of them.
A great shadow cut across the square. As Ghinamid looked up, Quinn lunged to the side, taking refuge in a heap of bodies. He didn’t spare a glance for what had flown over them, but far away he saw the flash of a brightship descending to the landing bay on the edge of the city.
Ghinamid’s pivot was instantaneous. He followed Quinn, closing the distance, thrusting over the barrier, snagging Quinn’s jacket, slicing it from waist to neck. He charged over the bodies, but faltered as a shadow came at his face.
Something hovered near, diving for the lord once more. Ghinamid stormed through the shadow, but now there were two shadows, fluttering and diving.
They circled and flapped around the lord’s face. More appeared, aiming for his hair and eyes. They flew silently, circling and flapping. The lord stopped in his tracks.
Staggering backward, Quinn slipped on the outflung arm of one of the bodies, and he toppled. Ghinamid was quick to notice. Turning his attention to this advantage, he moved in for the final thrust, but birds were in his face, flapping outspread wings, obscuring his sight. He shoved at them with his non-sword hand, giving Quinn time to regain his feet.
As Quinn stood up, the plaza darkened. Overhead, a wedge of birds sailed in from the palatine hill. The formation circled once, then speared down at Ghinamid.
Birds. So this was Demat’s army. Another sortie of wings cruised darkly from the direction of the Magisterium. The plaza was awash with inky feathers and the eerie rustle of thousands of wings. Quinn was in the midst of a fluttering melee, but the drones were moving past him, not touching him. It was Ghinamid they wanted.
Demat had reprogrammed the birds, overcoming whatever powerful block Ghinamid might have put on them. His purging of the Tarig ranks earlier in the ebb had required secrecy, and he’d made sure the spy drones were disabled. It must have been on Demat’s orders that they had struggled mightily over the past hours to rise from their grounded state. Was it Ghinamid’s wound in the gut that had weakened his control? Or was it the work of the lords who now watched from the balconies of the hill and hoped to remain solitaires, as Demat had once hoped?
When Quinn won a clear view for a moment, he saw the lord blanketed in a rustling black cloak. The Tarig flailed his sword at the air, striking some birds, instantly replaced by others. Ghinamid staggered to and fro, his tormentors following.
The lord bellowed as his face became the focus of pecking and diving slices. He went to his knees, trying to cover his face with one hand while stubbornly gripping his useless sword in the other, stirring the black brew boiling around him. It had become a soundless battle, with the lord not daring to open his mouth and the drones mute even when cut.
Quinn came up to Lord Ghinamid. A shroud of black, pecking feathers mantled him. Ci Dehai had been right. Small adds up to large. A presence at Quinn’s side startled him. Tai appeared, slapping into Quinn’s left hand the jeweled sword that had fallen.
Standing over the kneeling Ghinamid, Quinn kicked him in the chest.
The lord yanked to face this new assault as the birds lifted from him a moment, flapping to adjust their positions. One of Ghinamid’s eyes was a ragged hole. In a surgical thrust, Quinn drove his sword into the eye. Ghinamid fell backward, toppling heavily.
Numb, Quinn stared at the Sleeping Lord’s body.
The thought came: I killed him with my left hand.
Drones still rustled over Ghinamid body. He hoped they wouldn’t turn on him, a new prey. But the birds swarmed over the body, determined that Ghinamid would remain in a permanent sleep.