Smithy woke early with a feeling of deep unease. While General Sumroth had gone on with thousands of his troops to the shipbuilding center, Pexted, pursuing his plan of vengeance against Weirandale, Smithy had stayed in Alpetar with the refugees in Camp Ruby, situated where the Alpetar Mountains slid down into fertile plains.
Camp Ruby, the first of four camps established along the Trade Corridor, lay closest to the Land.
He strode out of his tent into the dawn air, gazing northward in the direction of his homeland, as he always did. He saw fingers of smoke far away and read these as a sign that FireThorn yawned and stretched.
Around him the camp stirred as the other exiles from Oromondo woke and began their days.
Pozhar’s Agent stoked his nearby fire, adding coal and blowing up the flames with a hand bellows. He had no real forge here and he missed the high, cleansing heat. But he had his hand tools and he used this outdoor fire to soften metal and shape it as best he could whenever one of the Spirit’s children approached him with a commission.
As if conjured by his thoughts, a girl of about twelve summers appeared, a little slyly, thrusting out at him a tin kettle with a broken handle. Smithy examined it closely.
“Aye,” he told the girl-woman. “Come back tonight.”
But instead of leaving immediately she lingered by his fire, mesmerized by the flames. And the fire reflected in her eyes, making them glow red.
“You like my fire?”
She nodded. “It makes me warm all over.”
“Good. Make sure you come back for the kettle yourself. I will have a small treat for you.”
Smithy realized he had found another; this girl made three Oromondo children who harbored a spark of Pozhar in their souls. He would tend these flames cautiously, to see if any of the children would grow into new Magi. The death of those Eight more than a year ago counted only as a setback, not as the end of the reign of the Magi.
Smithy walked to the camp’s communal kitchen area and asked a baker for a bowl of bread dough, which she gave without question. When he returned to his tent, he reached under his flimsy bed for the canister he kept hidden. He used his thick fingers to add large pinches of volcanic ash to the glutinous material. After mixing in the additive, he set the bowl to rise in the warmth of the stones ringing his fire. Later in the day he would bake biscuits—it didn’t matter if they looked misshapen or got singed—which he would offer to the three prospects. The ash did not contain as much Magic as cooled lava, but it would serve. These children would gain the Power, abilities that demonstrated their devotion to Pozhar and illustrated the Spirit’s might and majesty.
That fool Sumroth believes that because the Eight past Magi perished, he will rule Oromondo. But he would rule as all dictators rule: for himself. Only Magi will keep the Land of the Fire Mountains for Pozhar. I will aid General Sumroth in enacting retribution against Weirandale, and then the Spirit will deal with his pride and blasphemy.
The fire he sat by rose higher than the fuel he had given it should burn. In the crackle of the flames, Smithy heard the voice of his master.
The witch’s spawn has returned to Weirandale.
Smithy pounded one fist into the opposite palm.
What can I do, Mighty Pozhar, to stop this?
You can do nothing, Smithy. But I have other servants. Tend your flames and keep watch over my children.
Ciello and the dog, Whaki, set out from the Sea Hawk inn in the pearly dawn light. Both felt too restless to stay inside the lodging house environs a single moment longer. Despite his remonstrance, the dog had been whining and scratching at the fence gate throughout Ciello’s morning exercise routine. He could hardly get Whaki to wait while he scrubbed and dressed.
Together, man and dog surveyed the empty streets of the capital city. Last night these same streets had been crammed with townsfolk celebrating some wedding amongst the gentry by feasting at squares where soldiers roasted pig—carving off generous slices—and poured hard cider into whatever vessels the citizens proffered. Street musicians played while people danced and cavorted, happy with the free victuals. When night fell, fireworks set off over the harbor bedecked the sky in patterns of blue and white.
Ciello had partaken of the pork and Whaki had scarfed down dropped tidbits until the fireworks started; these sent the dog into paroxysms of terror. So the Zellish bodyguard had taken him back to the Sea Hawk and coaxed him into a nearly closed wardrobe to muffle the noise of the explosions. By the time the men with whom he shared the room returned, dead drunk, in the wee hours, the fireworks show had concluded, and Whaki—exhausted from his fright—snored loudly under Ciello’s bed.
This morning the thoroughfares stretched deserted except for the loads of rubbish strewn about and a few unconscious drunks curled up on their sides.
In Zellia, after a fete, the mayor would hire the poorest of the poor to sweep up the refuse. Ciello wondered if that was the custom here. Certainly, street sweepers needed to clean these streets; their disarray offended his sense of order.
Ciello allowed the dog to lead the way. This morning Whaki didn’t detour to sniff or eat the meat scattered on the ground. His nose stuck high in the air and he loped onward without wavering. Whatever was bothering Whaki this morn, Ciello knew it had to do with the woman he guarded. Whaki rushed up the streets so urgently that Ciello, supremely fit as he was, had to struggle to keep up.
The white towers of the Nargis Palace, perched on the top of the hill, flashed in the morning sun, and grew larger as they approached.
* * *
Regent Matwyck had tossed and turned the whole night through, disturbed by the rich fare of his son’s wedding feast, and—more than he would care to admit—by the image of his intended, Duchette Lolethia, lying murdered in Burgn’s chambers.
The hole in her throat had gaped with an almost lewd intimacy, and her blood had soaked the floor black. A small quantity of this blood had stained his shoes and the side of his doublet, both of which he tore off with disgust and ordered his valet to burn, even though they were new and quite costly. Even after washing his hands three times he still felt the touch of her clammy palm in his own.
Although the Regent knew he had no cause to feel guilty—he had not killed the girl, nor ordered it done—an unease lingered, perchance because of how angry he had been when she failed to appear for the wedding and the banquet. Lolethia’s murder—while it explained her absence—did not really douse his fury. Even if she had not, after all, purposely missed the grand wedding, he could conjure no innocent explanation as to why she had gone to Burgn’s chamber.
Giving up on sleep, Matwyck pushed aside his bed-curtains and rang for his valet. His head pounded so that he poured himself a glass of wine while he waited for the man to appear.
“No word yet from the Marauders who went after Burgn?” he barked when the valet entered, carrying his fastbreak tray.
The man shook his head.
Matwyck was not surprised. It really was too soon for them to have caught up with the muckwit and returned. He would have to think of the proper way to punish the man once he had him in his possession.
“Fetch Heathclaw and Councilor Prigent,” Matwyck ordered as he sat down to his food. Undoubtedly, he was the most put upon of men: after all the time and treasure he had lavished on the wedding his son had run off early, skipping the capstone events, and then that damn minx Lolethia had gotten herself killed. And when Prigent arrived, he would bring the latest expense receipts and wave them under his nose.
His valet dispatched a guard with his requests, received a pitcher of wash water from a chambermaid, and started to lay out an outfit for the day.
“Not brown, today, you shitwit,” Matwyck corrected. “Black. And I’ll need a circlet of mourning.”
The valet nodded, replacing the offensive clothing with black silk, and pulled a box of accessories out of the wardrobe. Matwyck gave upon moving the food around on his plate and crossed to his washbasin, waiting for the valet to pour the water and hold a towel. When the man started to sharpen his razor, however, Matwyck shook his head—his unshaven appearance would show the court just how little he cared about appearances in the midst of his grief.
Matwyck had dressed in fresh smallclothes, trousers, hose, and boots, but he still had his sleeping shift keeping his upper body warm when Heathclaw and Prigent bustled in together. Both of them looked hastily prepared, as if they had been roused earlier than they had expected. But why should they loll in bed when there were so many things to attend to?
“Lord Regent,” they murmured as they bowed.
“Prigent, I want a report by midday of every remark the visiting gentry make,” Matwyck ordered. “Get our people amongst the servants to write everything down. Everything about the wedding and the unfortunate events concerning the duchette. They will chatter like magpies during fastbreak and I want to know who says what.
“And Heathclaw, I want you to take three guards and summon Captain Murgn.”
“Where should I bring him, Lord Regent? Is he under arrest?” Heathclaw raised his brows.
“Not yet. We don’t know if he was in league with his cousin in this crime, and he’s been extremely useful to us over the years. Take him to my office. We will let him dangle for a while before I question him.
“Now, what do you have for me?” he asked, because both men had lists and leather portfolios tucked under their arms.
Prigent, distressed over how much it would cost to feed the visiting noble folk, wanted to talk about how long they would be staying in residence.
“No, you idiot,” Matwyck cut him off, “we want them to linger where we can keep an eye on them. We need, however, to provide entertainment tonight, something fabulous that will wash away any negative impressions. Perchance the Aqueduct or Peacock players could be induced to give a private performance? Bring me a list of possibilities in an hour.
“And what is already on my schedule for today?” Matwyck turned to Heathclaw.
His secretary consulted his list. “Mostly formal farewells and a few ‘private meetings’ that dukes have requested—these are probably requests for loans.”
“The farewells are so tiresome,” Matwyck said, steepling his fingers. “The carriages are never ready on time and the guests themselves are worse, and thus I’m forced to stand in the entry hall making empty conversation while the spouse or insipid offspring makes excuses.”
“Perhaps you’ll be able to directly glean information about the gentries’ reactions to—recent events?” Prigent offered.
“Hmm,” Matwyck assented with a grudging nod. “Who’s specified a leave-taking time?”
Heathclaw consulted his list, “First up, at ten o’clock, is Mistress Stahlia and her dependents, though I hardly think they are worth your time, Lord Steward. I could represent you, if you so desire.”
Matwyck slapped the table with his hand because so far this morning he had forgotten about the Wyndton sister. His suspicions about her mysterious appearance and his memory of her judgmental eyes came rushing back.
“Fetch a brace of guards,” he ordered, “I want to examine that wench right away.”
* * *
Gunnit had been in Cascada a moon, often stealing away from his page duties to serve as liaison between Water Bearer and her allies outside the palace. Yesterday, he saw Finch—no, now he had to think of her as “Cerúlia”—from a distance: she was strolling in the garden as he hustled out the Kitchen Gate with a note. He had longed to run to her, but Water Bearer had told him that his errand was urgent.
His job today had been to unlock and unbolt the West Gate two hours before dawn. He took down the crossbeams that held it shut. As soon as he poked his head through he saw more than thirty people waiting in the shadow of the stone wall in dark garb.
After they slipped into the grounds, however, they paused—each tied on a sash and reversed their capes. In the brightening sky he saw they wore black trousers, black shirts, dazzling white sashes (elaborately knotted), and blue capes sparkling with silver thread. Three of them, including Captain Yanath, also wore breastplates and helms so polished they caught the fading starlight. Gunnit’s mouth fell open at their splendor.
“I take it you like the cloaks?” Yanath asked him. “My wife—she’s such a clever fabricator—she’s been working on them for moons. Uniforms matter, especially when you need to impress. We are the New Queen’s Shield, or whatever we’re going to be called, and anyone who crosses us better drought damn know it.”
Yanath turned to a woman with a peeling red nose to whom he seemed to defer. “Ready, Seamaster?”
She, in turn, surveyed the men behind them. “Don’t let your mace clatter,” she said to one with very bowed legs. Then she nodded at Gunnit, “Lead on, lad.”
Moving at a gentle lope Gunnit shepherded the troop across the grounds. The soldiers clutched their weapons so they didn’t jingle as the boy weaved them through the deeper obscurity of shrubs and trees for over an hour. By the time the white stone of the palace loomed before them, the sun had just risen.
Palace guards, positioned in a loose formation, much looser than the nightly cordon created by Matwyck’s Marauders, kept watch. Yanath gestured to his followers—singing arrows struck two guards who stood in their immediate way and slicing daggers made sure they didn’t cry out. The New Shield pulled the bodies from where they tumbled, hiding them under nearby shrubs. Then the captain had everybody double over into a crouch while moving to reach the shelter of some hedges, then crawl on their bellies to a small, unremarkable door through which footmen usually brought firewood into the Great Ballroom. They paused, taking deep breaths and passing around water bags.
Gunnit whispered to the captain, “Wait. There will be a signal.”
“What kind of signal?” Yanath asked.
The boy had no idea, but he placed his confidence in the Spirits. “We’ll know it,” he answered with conviction.
They waited. Everyone had already readied his or her weapon.
Copyright © 2020 by Sarah Kozloff