MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Hada, the Fae—Also demonio, demon. An individual is called a Faerie. A race of wicked supernatural creatures, who defy the Creators’ will and seek to tempt humanity into ruin. Fighting together, humankind, the Grey Angels, and the Creators Themselves defeated their attempt to conquer all Paradise during the dreadful Demon War. Notorious for their pranks, which can be cruel, and their fondness for driving bargains with mortal men and women. Which they keep, but seldom as expected.
–A PRIMER TO PARADISE FOR THE IMPROVEMENT OF YOUNG MINDS
THE EMPIRE OF NUEVAROPA, FRANCIA, ARCHIDUCHÉ DU HAUT-PAYS:
“Lord Karyl, I’m your death.”
Quickly though the sibilant crackle had snapped Karyl Bogomirskiy to wakefulness, thought caught his body already in motion, rolling out of the simple pallet in the sumptuous tent.
He hit the fine Ovdan carpet spread across the tent’s canvas floor. Without need for conscious intent, he dropped his shoulder, rolled, and snapped to his feet, facing back at his bed. A spurt of yellow fire blazed up in a twist of stinking smoke—but briefly, since both the baggy linen mattress and the vexer feathers it was stuffed with were hard to kindle.
Beyond it, something floated in midair. All he could make out was a random seethe of lights and shadows, angles and forms, shapes and void. Now it looked like a beautiful nude woman with purple skin; now a miniature Three-horns; now a thorn-bush; now a black whirlwind; now a man with the head of the mythical Home beast called the ram, with two huge horns curling from it; now jags of primary-colored triangles like shatters of a pane of glass; now a flame. Chimes and grinding noises and gurgles like a Thunder-titan digesting its day’s graze chased each other through Karyl’s ears. He smelled jasmine, fresh dew, candles, shit.
In his hand he felt the cool, hard reassurance of a dagger hilt. He hadn’t needed thought to grab that as he escaped the bed, either.
At the evening’s great feast, to celebrate the day’s great victory, Karyl had drunk sparingly of wine, and no ale at all. He preferred water. In the weeks after he had awakened from what he thought was sure death, he had sought shelter from the head pains and night terrors in a bottle. Even now, confronting horror, he felt a shudder of fear at the thought of what he had found instead. Sanctuary wasn’t it.
Clear though his mind was, it took him a full, steady breath to come to grips with what he was confronting. Or perhaps merely to accept it.
“A Faerie?” He laughed savagely. “Why not? Everything I thought was impossible is the only thing that happens to me now.”
Thought-quick, the thing struck at him. Pivoting out of its path, he slashed at it with the dagger. He felt impact.
Sparks flew. Dark smoke puffed and stank. “Iron!” the Faerie shrieked. “It stings.”
“Good,” Karyl said warily. But he saw his cut had done the creature no harm. The blade, though, was scored and still smoking, as if by strong acid.
He lunged toward the bed—and away from another stab of a thorned / flaming / frothing protrusion. His blackwood staff lay beside the pallet. Kneeling on the staff to hold it down, he whipped out the meter-long blade concealed inside. Then he grabbed the thin blanket off his pallet and threw it over the apparition.
The blanket thrashed. Squeals and sparkles came from underneath. Light glowed hellish yellow and blue through holes that appeared and rapidly grew in the goat-felt fabric.
The Faerie’s reaction to Karyl’s dagger stroke had taught him that, whatever else, it was palpable. As expected, the blanket disconcerted the thing as it would a mortal foe. Also as expected, it wouldn’t for long.
As the blanket was consumed into glowing fragments and scraps that appeared to be being eaten up by some black growth and a frightful stench not just of burning goat-felt arose, Karyl leapt over the bed and thrust the tip of the single-edged straight sword through the center of the thing.
The shriek that battered his brain did not seem to enter through his ears. A terrific shock up his arm threw him back on his ass on the bed.
Now the crackles and gleams and fast-spreading blights seemed to be consuming the Faerie itself.
“I die!” it screamed. “But why?”
It seemed to be sucked in on itself. And out of the world.
For a moment Karyl simply stood, eyes wide, breathing hard. Though not from physical exertion.
“You saw the whole thing,” he said without turning.
“Yes,” came from behind.
Turning, he saw what appeared to be a small woman, features and form completely hidden by cloak and cowl. He weighed the sword briefly in his hand. But he already knew, from trying to strike her in despair and fury earlier that evening, that Aphrodite was not physically present; what he saw and heard was a projection, an illusion. Reassured nonetheless by the weapon’s feel, he stooped to pick up the staff-scabbard and return the blade.
“You don’t need to be seen to see, do you?” he said, tucking the dagger back into its sheath beneath his bed.
“And, of course, you didn’t help.”
“You know my nature, Lord Karyl. I cannot interfere in human affairs.”
“What’s stopping you? You’ve got absurd and mystic powers: To walk the world without substance. To grow back my hand. What can possibly restrict you?”
“What you might call a geas,” she said. “One which will destroy me if I disobey.”
“What could lay that kind of … enchantment on you?”
“The Creators,” she said. “They made me that way.”
He pushed out a sound that was half grunt, half sigh. “Very well. It seems I must accept that. Disbelief has long since played me false, and left me no solid ground to stand on.”
He pointed the straight blade toward where the Faerie had hovered. The carpet was scorched beneath, and discolored, as if something had pissed on it.
“They made that too?”
“No,” she said. “At least—not deliberately.”
“It was a Faerie.”
He shook his head. Which hurt. It wasn’t one of the horrific headaches, like big iron spikes being driven through his brain, that often snatched him screaming from sleep or helped to sink his waking self into black despair. But it seemed to herald one.
“I notice the guards haven’t exactly swarmed to my aid.”
“It never occurred to you to call for them, did it? Practical though you are in so many things.”
He raised a brow. “No. I’m used to fighting my own battles. Too used, perhaps. But the commotion should’ve caught somebody’s attention.”
“The Faerie spoke quietly—and as much in your mind as aloud, as you may have realized. Nor were the shines and flashes particularly visible through the walls of the tent. In any event, with the great threat gone, the few guards on duty tonight are fuddled by fatigue and wine themselves.”
He nodded. “People always lose spirit and energy after a battle, even a victory.”
“So I have seen, over centuries of observation as the Witness.”
He picked up the staff, sheathed his sword, and tossed it on the bed. “I don’t really know much about human feelings. And thinking processes, such as they are. Less than you, I don’t doubt.”
She pulled back her cowl. Her face was that of a pretty young woman, not even fifty, with green eyes and short red-gold hair.
“I have had more practice,” she said.
Not for the first time, he wondered what she was. Or what she really looked like. He suspected she could take any semblance she chose, especially given that all he had seen of her was illusion.
She approached him, seeming to glide without moving her feet. She reached out a hand as if to stroke his hair. He flinched. Just because he couldn’t touch her did not mean she could not touch him. He did not welcome such contact.
Her brow furrowed. The outsides of her eyes compressed as if in pain. She dropped her hand.
“Yet your words can rally women and men to serve your ends as few others.”
“A mere sleight,” he said, “like any common mountebank’s.”
Stepping back, she waved at his left hand. “Perhaps you should be less dismissive of conjuring sleights.”
He scowled. When Rob Korrigan had taken Karyl to meet her in an inn in the Francés village of Pot de Feu, she had gestured mysteriously and shone light on the stump of his left hand, bitten off by a Horror on the brink of the Cliffs of the Eye. He had taken that as fraud—and as cruel mockery. Then his hand grew back.
Which in some ways was crueler.
“Why did the thing speak to me?” he asked. “I was sound asleep.” For once. “If it had just struck, it would have killed me.”
“The Fae are insane,” Aphrodite said in her earnest childlike way. “It probably did not believe you could harm it. Humans seldom can.”
“How did I harm it?” Karyl said. “And did I harm it badly enough that it won’t soon come back?”
“You heard it. You killed it.”
Karyl asked a question with his brow.
“Your sword is special. You must have surmised that, since when you woke again after your fall you found yourself a homeless beggar dressed in shabby robe and sandals—yet carrying a weapon of a quality only a rich grande could afford. And of a kind seldom seen in Nuevaropa: a single-edged sword with a straight blade, concealed in a staff.”
“Indeed. Though I’ve seen swords just like it in Zipangu. They call it shikomizue.”
“Have you noticed anything unusual about the sword?”
“I take it that you mean, other than that I have it at all.”
“It’s uncommonly sharp, and never needs sharpening. That’s fairly strange, but I quickly came to take it for granted. I was not at my best mentally when I returned to myself. From wherever I’d been. Acceptance was easiest, so it was what I did. And later—” He shrugged. “There were more urgent things to think about.”
She nodded. “It is as I thought. Certain … artifacts … exist which are imbued with the power of harming creatures from the World Below. Clearly, your staff-sword is one.”
“Shiraa’s bite was enough to make an end of Raguel.”
“As I told you: Raguel is not dead. Though surely discomfited. And angry.”
“But the Faerie’s really dead.”
“Yes. They lie. This one happened not to. They are unpredictable even in prevarication. They are mad.”
“Could my staff-sword have killed Raguel?”
Her features, which even the anti-aesthete Karyl recognized as flawless, creased with concern.
“I do not know. That is truth. Some such artifacts might. Very powerful beings of the sort that you would regard as ‘supernatural’ have been truly destroyed before.”
“Which begs the question of how I, a homeless beggar, came into possession of a mystic weapon of a degree of power too preposterous for even a romance.”
She smiled sadly.
“You won’t tell me,” he said.
“When you are ready.”
He made a disgusted sound and waved a disgusted hand.
“I’m thinking of declining the dukedom the Emperor announced for me at the banquet,” he said, turning away. “I hate nobles. They’re shit.”
Of course, Karyl Bogomirskiy, once heir to the throne of the Misty March, and years later its Voyvod or Warrior-Count, was noble himself. Aphrodite refrained from pointing out the obvious.
“Do you think you can do more to counter the evil they do as a bourgeois, or a peasant? A penniless outcast? Or as one of them, and powerful and well-respected even among them?”
“Am I to be spared nothing?” he said, hearing and hating the whine in his voice.
She shook her head. “I thought you never asked rhetorical questions, dear Karyl.”
“That wasn’t necessarily one,” he said. “Sometimes I still dare to hope.” If doubt forsakes me, sarcasm still serves. Or anyway answers my summons.
“You should,” she said. “Indeed, you have to. But you must do more than hope, Lord Karyl, my dear. Because now the Grey Angels are angry. And, more, they are coming.”
* * *
He walked. The crushed bone that metaled the road crunched beneath the sandals on his feet. He smelled warm soil and ripe growth, the vagrant hints of flowers growing wild in the ditch. The sun stung his bare and beardless face through a particularly thin scrim of overcast.
I need to get a hat, he thought.
He looked around at his surroundings. He was walking through a gently rolling land, fields of brown grain stretching left and right, dotted with scrub-topped hills and stands of evergreen broadleaf trees. Ditches whose spoil had gone to build up the roadway ran along both sides to drain it. Fifty meters to his left, three peasants, two men and a woman, naked or wearing only loincloths along with their inevitable conical straw hats, loaded sheaves into a wagon. A single nosehorn, dark green mottled over grey, munched contentedly in its harness at the contents of a feed bucket looped over its single big horn.
Wheat grew near enough to the road to provide cover for a quick strike from ambush, he realized. A tautness ran up the underside of his penis, knotted the base of his scrotum, coiled in his stomach. Was that fear? His left hand tried to clench but felt peculiar; his right hand clenched on something hard.
He looked down. Almost absently, he noted that his body was clad in a rough, almost sack-like robe or smock of greyish brown hemp. With a jolt he realized that his left hand wasn’t there. His left arm, swinging into view at the rhythm of his pace, ended in a pink, puckered stub.
The apprehension in his belly turned to nausea. A spasm dropped him to his knees. Some reflex of propriety made him turn toward the ditch before he vomited.
All he could produce was dry heaves anyway.
When the convulsions passed, he got back to his feet with the aid of the blackwood staff he now noticed he was carrying in his right hand. Knowing nothing better to do, he walked on.
The nausea reaction to discovering the loss of his sword hand left him keenly aware of a growling emptiness in his belly. He was carrying something, by feel a pack or sack, over his shoulder by a strap of nosehorn leather, stained dark by sweat and weather-cracked, that ran across his chest. Perhaps he carried something to eat there? And also drink.
Before he could begin to rummage, memory snatched him like a Tyrant’s Jaw—
* * *
He floats, he floats.
Something sears his left arm. He screams. Yet no sound enters his mind.
He opens his eyes to nothing. To grey Void, speck-swarming.
Then faces. Inhumanly beautiful—shifting subtly to merely, monstrously inhuman. And back again. He feels as if he is being twisted—torn inside out. He longs for escape, for respite, for relief from the sudden lust that somehow threatens to explode his groin.
Then: Laughter! Laughter!
* * *
He falls. He falls. He feels and sees the blood of his life pumping from the stump of his left arm, like a red rope unreeling from the cliff from which he fell, pulling out his life. Feels the fevered heat through the feathers of the narrow-keeled chest of the Horror he clutches to him with his right hand. Smells its fetid rotting-meat breath as the toothy snout snaps at his face, spattering droplets of his own blood hot on the face he still struggles desperately to keep from being bitten off. The dinosaur struggles furiously to rake his sides with the great killing-claws on either foot. But he grips it too tightly.
He is dead, and multiply so: from loss of blood, and from the surface of the great gulf called the Tyrant’s Eye rushing up to smash him like a granite wall. But he fights on. That is what he does.
As for hope, he long since lost that.
Still, his balls and gut tighten in anticipation of the pain of impact: imminent, releasing.
He falls and falls.
* * *
His scream woke him before the guards, stumbling with weariness and drink but willing nonetheless, it brought into his tent could do so.
Tricornio, Three-horn, Trike.…—Triceratops horridus. Largest of the widespread hornface (Ceratopsian) family of herbivorous, four-legged dinosaurs with horns, bony neck-frills, and toothed beaks; 10 tonnes, 10 meters long, 3 meters at shoulder. Non-native to Nuevaropa. Feared for the lethality of their long brow-horns as well as for their belligerent eagerness to use them.
—THE BOOK OF TRUE NAMES
The closed-fist blow rocked Rob Korrigan’s head to the right.
He reeled on his knees. Quite the punch he packs, he managed to think inside a brain that felt as if it were spinning in his skull like a child’s top, for such a swag-bellied old reaper.
“Let that be the last blow you suffer from another without taking retribution!” declared the man who stood over him, the ginger fur of his paunch practically tickling Rob’s nose in the shade of the silken pavilion atop the loaf-shaped hill.
Ah, but that clout struck me long ago, your Emp-ship, Rob thought. When I parted ways at last with my original Master Morrison, that vile, drunken, one-eyed old Scot bastard.
“Arise, Montador Robrey Korrigan,” Felipe said, “and assume the duties and privileges of a Knight and Baron of the Empire of Nuevaropa.” Rob winced to hear his full first name—for the first time in many years. Where on Paradise did the man go and dredge it up?
I must’ve babbled it in my cups. Aye—I certainly babbled it in my cups; isn’t that me to the life? Possibly to that vexer Melodía.
Felipe reached down a hand wound in bandages to cover the burst blisters. For all the presumed softness that had led to them, his Imperial Majesty latched a substantial grip on Rob’s forearm when he accepted. Gratefully, since he was still woozy. And, for a wonder, not because of a drink.
The day’s young, he thought.
The sun was high and hot and the clouds were thin, a sort of watered-milk white. A brisk wind from the ridges to the north snapped the bright banners and boomed the gold and scarlet silken canopy overhead. Rob wished he had a hat to shield his face. Sweat streamed down his forehead, stinging at his eyes and making his beard itch abominably. At that the grandes—my fellow grandees, he reminded himself, though most considerably grander—suffered considerably more. The courtiers crowded onto the hilltop wore little but fripperies of gold and glittering jewels, green and red and blue flashing darts of reflection in every direction, but if nothing else the headbands of their grand feather headdresses had to chafe, and the showy great plumes of bird and dinosaur offered little protection from the sun. And they were the lucky ones.
From behind him Rob heard a snort. That would be one of the famous war-Triceratops of his commander—and friend—Karyl Bogomirskiy. They were arrayed at the base of the hill next to the glorious but sadly few remaining hadrosaurs of the Companions of Our Lady of the Mirror—also glorious and sadly few after riding at least twice through the whole Horde during yesterday’s slaughter.
That was an uneasy pairing, and not just because Three-horns’ terrible long brow-horns were the bane of the dinosaur knights’ showily crested sackbut and morion mounts. Around and beside the two blocs were arrayed the rest of the two armies, previously hunter and hunted, who had come together yesterday to defend the Empire and people of the Tyrant’s Head from Raguel’s mad Crusade.
Rob became uncomfortably aware that thousands of eyes were on him right now. You should’ve got away whilst the getting was good, me boyo, he thought glumly. It’s well and truly stuck you are now.
The fact that the Emperor had strong hands despite their softness needn’t have surprised him. In his youth Felipe had famously pushed a pike as a simple soldier for his uncle the King of Alemania. The hand that hadn’t helped Rob up held still the longsword used to knight Rob moments before, its tip now stuck in the turf of the round hill called Le Boule, whose blade showed numerous notches that had not, by all accounts, been there yesterday. Despite the self-sacrificing efforts of his elite bodyguard, the Scarlet Tyrants, and their commander, the huge Alemán Duke Falk, on his albino Tyrant Snowflake, Felipe had struck hard blows in his own defense.
A young man and woman in the crimson and scarlet tabards of Heraldos Imperiales flanked Rob and, with respectful firmness, marched him off the top of the round hill and away from the Imperial presence and party. A murmur of commentary rippled through the onlookers: the courtiers and grandes crowded atop Le Boule and the thousands of surviving knights and common soldiers ranged on the battleground to watch the hilltop ceremony. Which, having dragged on for over an hour, was finally closing in on its climax.
Then at last the real question struck Rob. But there was no way to ask it, because the next to receive elevation was already being led before Emperor Felipe.
The unquestioned hero of the final confrontation with Raguel: Rob’s commander and best friend, Karyl Bogomirskiy.
* * *
“Arise, Mor Karyl, Duque Imperial de la Marca!”
At Felipe’s exuberant call—and Melodía did rejoice to see her father enjoying himself so hugely, as he always did a spectacle—the slight man rose from the yellow bare-scuffed dirt before him. It struck the Princess that she wore almost the same garb he did. Except that he wore a straight-bladed arming-sword instead of a curved Ovdan talwar, slung to the right hip rather than the left.
Naturally enough, she thought. After all, he rides to the fights armored like a light rider, too.
Despite the sneers of certain courtiers, most or all of whom had managed to turn up soon after the desperate battle against Raguel and his Horde had ended, she was proud of her garb and of the nickname that went with it, the Short-Haired Horse Captain. She had earned them. Unlike her titles or family name.
Even though I guess I’ll be growing my hair out again, now that I seem to be becoming a Princesa Imperial again.
Karyl stood up into a storm of cheers, in which the assembled thousands seemed to participate more eagerly than the courtiers gathered around the Emperor, even though the majority couldn’t hear a thing. They knew the man who had saved them from Raguel, though. If not by sight, then by having him excitedly pointed out by those who had been so placed as to see him on the battlefield in person.
She let her gaze slide down the slope, which had been trod almost bare of cover. A man was walking up from the base of the cone-shaped hill. He was tall, and the breeze whipped his long, fine orange hair over sharp, fine features like a banner. He moved easily, despite his twenty kilograms of steel plate armor. The harness was so gouged and battered it was hard to make out the large orange Lady’s Mirror emblazoned on a once gleaming-white breastplate. A longsword hung from his waist.
Warmth beyond the day’s heat filled her. He was the Imperial Champion, Constable of all the Empire’s armies and navies, Knight Commander of the Military Order of Our Lady of the Mirror, Jaume dels Flors. He was also her betrothed all but officially—and the lover she had driven from her over his refusal to resign command of an army ordered to a war they both agreed was unjust.
I was right, too, she thought. Somehow that doesn’t fill the hollowness his absence has left in me over these last months.
The two apprentice heralds were escorting Karyl out of the Imperial presence, keenly aware of the moment and working their dignity hard. But he stopped, resisting their gentle but insistent hand-pressing to get him moving again. Like the torn-up remnant of the Scarlet Tyrants standing guard around her father, heralds had nearly unlimited license in the course of their duties to lay hands on persons regardless of rank.
Melodía’s heart almost stopped. Her former commander was staring at the man who was climbing Le Boule toward him. Karyl’s features were handsome enough, she supposed, for a man of his years and their hardness, though they were more gaunt than anything else. But his gaze was sharp and merciless as an Allosaurus’s.
Karyl, she knew, believed the man approaching him so boldly had stabbed him in the back and destroyed his famous White River Legion in the River Hassling, when the Battle of Gunters Moll ended in an unexpected truce with the rebellious Princes’ Party instead of the victory Karyl and his walking-fortress Triceratops were helping the Imperial forces win. And by the man’s own regretful admission to Melodía, he was right.
They were the two most storied swordsmen in the Empire of the Fangèd Throne. Not even Melodía was sure the orange-haired knight would win. And she worshipped him.
I do Karyl too, I suppose. In a very different way, of course.
Jaume stopped a pace away from Karyl. The two stood facing each other for a moment that seemed to stretch out as if a hank of Melodía’s nerves were being reeled off her on a spindle. Long turquoise eyes stared into intense eyes so dark they were almost black.
Karyl thrust out his left hand—his sword hand. Bare, wiry fingers closed on steel vambrace; steel gauntlets closed on linen-clad forearm, and the two heroes shook hands.
The applause from the massed soldiers was thunderous.
As Karyl walked on away from Jaume to join the other recently elevated nobles, one of them stepped haltingly forward and raised a hand.
Oh, no, Melodía thought.
“Pardon me all to pieces, Your Majesty,” Rob Baron Korrigan said, “but I need to ask a question.”
* * *
“Begging your pardon,” Rob said to Felipe, “but you called me Baron. What might you have meant by that, if you please?”
Felipe’s courtiers looked shocked at the question’s impertinence, gathered with the Emperor beneath the gold-and-red silk canopy and spilling down the sides of the hill. Some were his buckethead captains, others the Eight Creators, though they were got up in enough feathers, and gilt to choke Falk’s Tyrannosaurus, who was tethered well behind Le Boule, where his scent wouldn’t upset the plant-eating dinosaurs commonly used in war. But the slim young woman who stood on Felipe’s left wore not the scant yet gaudy garments of a noblewoman on such a momentous occasion, on such a warm day, but the nosehorn-leather jerkin and jackboots of a jinete. She caught Rob’s eye and gave him a slow wink.
But the Emperor smiled indulgently. “I’ve decided your service demands not just knighthood but a true patent of nobility.”
Well, there’s your mistake, Rob thought. Though, somewhat to his own amazement, he didn’t blurt that too.
He did blurt, “Baron? Of what?”
“That’s up to your liege, the Imperial Duke Karyl, to decide. We decided it in council.”
His “we” included a nod to the tall young woman by his side, her brush of dark-red hair ruffled by the fingers of a rising wind. She was plainly dressed in such a glittering gaggle, but anything but plain.
Rob’s former Horse-Captain gave him a grin that made her look like a child of fourteen—the same age as her adored baby sister, Montserrat.
“I don’t have to tell you the devastation the … recent events left behind,” Felipe said. Rob got the sense the Emperor was speaking for the benefit of far more ears than his alone. “Many lords of the affected provinces were killed, and often their entire families as well. Their fiefs stand empty. Other knights and nobles willingly joined the Crusade. Their domains are vacated too.”
His avuncular tone took on an edge for that last bit. Though it seemed treason and attainder ran too contrary to the occasion’s spirit. Which struck Rob as a sort of desperate festivity. Not unjustifiably, given that the Grey Angels were the personal servitors of the gods of this world, the Eight Creators, and that one of their Crusades was nothing less than the direct manifestation on Paradise of their awful justice. The Emp’s having fought back against Raguel’s Crusade left him and his Empire in decidedly dicey circumstances, theologically speaking.
“So I’ve decided to create or assign your Karyl a passel of loose lords,” Felipe said. “And as a Duque Imperial he naturally enjoys privilege to create ’em on his own. So you’ll accompany your new liege back to Providence, and he’ll find the proper seat for you. Not doubt it’ll be a fine one, since by all accounts you served as his strong right hand.”
Rather the left, being his spymaster and chief skulldugger, Rob thought. Then he felt the awful weight of Felipe’s words land on him like a lightning-struck titan.
“But what am I to do with the job?” he all but wailed. “I’m a peasant rogue of a minstrel and dinosaur master, not a bucket—a grande. I don’t know how to be a Baron!”
“Provided for as well,” said Felipe, whose patience seemed as boundless as his cheer today.
Rob could see how surviving the certain destruction, not just of one’s own personal arse but of family and Empire as well, could do that to a body. Especially the day after, when His Majesty and most of them had a chance to rest away most of the awful depression that followed battle.
“An important nobleman has kindly agreed to lend you a trusted, capable servant to serve as your seneschal. He’ll take the burden of managing castle and estates, wherever they may be, off your shoulders. And I believe you can trust Duke Karyl to make sure you’re not given more than you can handle at first, eh?”
Uncertainty still tied Rob’s stomach in a knot. Best to cut your losses and escape while you can, lad, he told himself, and allowed the apprentice heralds to squire him to the side with the other glittering riffraff.
Count Jaume was presented to the Emperor, his uncle and liege, and a herald began to recite his many and mighty deeds, with emphasis on the ones performed just yesterday. Rob listened with half an ear, because Baron or not—and he still couldn’t believe he was a Baron—he remained what he always was: a minstrel and a dinosaur master. Along with something of a scoundrel; but his experience suggested that was a career asset for a buckethead. He had written and sung many songs of the heroism of Jaume, as of his hero Karyl, and they had brought him silver.
And as fast as Maris’s Wheel had turned to bring him these blessings, dubious as they were, he knew it could turn back again and dump him penniless in a ditch. He might need more songs.
Meanwhile, his eye wandered out across the mingled armies. They made a brave if battered spectacle: with pride of place in the front line going to Jaume’s remnant Companions on their hadrosaurs, the surviving Tercio of Brown Nodosaurs, and Karyl’s bloc of Triceratops with tall wicker-and-lath fighting castles strapped to their backs. All were sadly reduced by yesterday’s unequal fight.
Flanking them were the other dinosaur knights of both armies, Karyl’s Fugitive Legion and Felipe’s Imperial one—which until midmorning yesterday had been hunting Karyl and his lot. And behind them the rest: chivalry, even more defiantly colorful in their display of heraldic banners and caparisons, as if to outshine their more massively mounted kindred; professional House-soldiers in their mail and peaked helmets; Imperial peasant levies, looking less slack and disgruntled than normal, since for once they’d had some stake in fighting; Karyl’s ragtag light troops, infantry archers and Rob’s own jinetes, less irreverent than usual and for the most part paying attention.
Beyond them, he could see scores of men and women canvassing the battlefield, seeing to the wounded, animal and human. Rob’s own dinosaur grooms from Karyl’s army were among them, as well as their erstwhile opposite numbers from the Imperial camp. His boys and girls had volunteered with an alacrity that might surprise an outsider. While most of the exceedingly valuable war-dinosaurs who had any hope of recovering had been moved off the field last night, some remained who were beyond healing. Any true aspirant to Dinosaur Mastery—and Rob himself, who would’ve been out there if not for an engagement he couldn’t escape, much as he wished to—would want to ease the great beasts’ suffering in the only manner possible. Equerries performed the same final mercy for untreatably wounded horses, of which there were a good many more than dinosaurs.
Meanwhile, robed sectaries of Maia and Spada, the Creators most associated with healing and with war, searched among the most numerous casualties of all: their own kind. Hundreds had already been moved to hospital tents, improvised shelters, borrowed farmhouses nearby, and even as far as the village of Canterville several kilometers southwest, whose name had already been attached to the fight. Rob could see some being carried to ambulance wagons on makeshift stretchers.
Those who couldn’t be helped received the same grace as the injured dinosaurs and horses, delivered with lead maces and the misericordia, or mercy-dagger.
War’s a terrible mistress, Rob thought. Yet somehow we can’t quit her.
Still the Imperial Herald droned on. She was up to Jaume’s exploits in yesterday’s battle, anyway. Rob began to hope he might soon find the shelter of proper shade and ale. It’s not as if my body and soul’ve fully recovered from yesterday, he thought. Not to mention the days and weeks preceding.
The wind veered to blow from the east across the former battlefield, bringing the smell of tens of thousands of corpses, from those of children hag-ridden by the frightful Raguel to the three-ton morions of dinosaur knights, full in the faces of the nobles on their hill.
Rob blinked. His stomach gurgled unhappily but kept its place. The Emperor’s smile as he looked upon his appointed Champion never faltered. The herald kept declaiming, showing her stomach was made of the same tough leather as her lungs. But the mercantile magnate who stood three places upslope turned, the sixty-centimeter green-and-white Ridiculous Reaper plumes sticking up from his silver bonnet wavering like yarrow shoots and his brown skin gone a sickly ashen-green, and gagged, spilling pale chunky vomit down the silver-and-feathered gorget he wore and across the garnet-bossed target strapped to his bare chest. Others joined him as he fell to his knees to offer his own special sacrifice to the soil of Paradise.
The smell of death wasn’t uncommon. Even the glittering courtiers now either surrendering to sudden nausea or fighting valiant rearguard actions against it had encountered it before, surely. But a stench on this scale was anything but common. It seemed to coat your tongue and suffuse your whole body with uncleanness.
No one Rob knew of ever got used to it. You just learned to deal with it. He felt a certain stab of admiration at the Emperor’s aplomb.
Rob kept his face stiff with the reflex of a peasant who knew too well that the mere hint of a smile at his betters’ discomfiture could earn him at best a buffet, and at worst a noose. Then he remembered, Wait, I’m one of these hada now! And let himself guffaw.
And of all things, that broke him.
Thought of the Fae inevitably brought their archenemies the Grey Angels to mind. The reminder that the rudely ejected Raguel had mates shot a memory into him like a stinger-bolt in the stomach.
It was last night. Sure, he’d been thoroughly ossified—drunk enough to find himself not just pissing on the backside of the Emperor’s own tent but daring to peep inside through a small slit, which he may or may not have improved with his dagger for the purpose. But Rob had never drunk enough to make him hallucinate.
Which meant he had really seen raw horror.
He now knew a thing apparently unknown to Felipe, or anyone else in the Empire: that the Emperor’s confessor and closest confidant, the mysterious Fray Jerónimo, was himself the same terrible thing as Raguel.
A Grey Angel. Who likely enough, even now, sat in his screened cell in that selfsame pavilion not fifty yards from where Rob stood.
And thus he dropped to his knees and added the gruel, flatbread, and fatty-bacon he’d had for breakfast to the offerings he’d just been mocking from his fellow lords and ladies of Nuevaropa.
Copyright © 2017 by Victor Milán