Authors: James Enge
Published 2009 by Pyr®, an imprint of Prometheus Books
Blood of Ambrose.
Copyright © 2009 by James Enge. Interior illustrations copyright © Chuck Lukacs. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, digital, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or conveyed via the Internet or a Web site without prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
Cover illustration © Dominic Harman
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Enge, James, 1960–
Blood of Ambrose / by James Enge.
ISBN: 978–1–59102–736–2 (pbk. : alk. paper)
ISBN: 978–1–59102–842–0 (ebook)
Printed in the United States on acid-free paper
he King was screaming in the throne room when the Protector's Men arrived. He knew it was wrong; he knew he was being stupid. But he was frightened. When the booted feet of the soldiers sounded in the corridor outside, he belatedly came to his senses. Dropping to the floor, he crawled under the broad-seated throne where the Emperor sat in judgement, next to God Sustainer. (Only there was no Emperor now, and Lord Urdhven, the Protector, made his judgements in his own council chamber. Did the Sustainer dwell there now? Or still upon the empty throne? Was there really a Sustainer? Would the Protector's soldiers kill him, like all the others?)
He pulled in his legs just as the soldiers entered the room, their footfalls like rolling thunder in the vast vaulted chamber. He'd hoped they couldn't see him. (Would God Sustainer protect him? Was there really a Sustainer?) But the soldiers made straight for the throne.
If the Sustainer was not with him (and who could say?), the accumulated precautions of his assassination-minded ancestors were all around. As he pressed instinctively against the wall behind the throne, it gave way and he found himself tumbling down a slope in the darkness. Briefly he heard the shouting voices of the soldiers turn to screams and then break off suddenly. Because the passageway had closed, or for another reason? His Grandmother would know; he wished she were here. But she was far away, in Sarkunden—that was why the Protector had moved now, killing the family's old servants like pigs in the courtyard….
He landed in a kind of closet. There were cloaked shapes and bits of armor lying around in the dust that was thick on the floor. Perhaps they were, or had been, things to help an endangered sovereign in flight or self-defense. He thought of that later. But just then he only wanted to get out; by flailing around in the dark he found the handle of a door and plunged out into the bright dimness of a little-used hallway.
Hadn't he been here before? Hadn't Grandmother told him to come here, or someplace like here, if something happened? He hadn't been listening. Why listen? What could happen in the palace of Ambrose, with the Lord Protector guarding the walls…? And they had cut his tutor's throat, cut Master Jaric's throat, and hung him upside down to drain, just like a pig. He had seen it once at a fair, and Grandmother had said he must never, never do that again.
The sudden memory renewed his terror; he found himself running down the corridor in the dim light, the open doors on either side of him yawning like disinterested courtiers. There was a statue of an armed man standing over a broad curving stairway at the end of the hall. The King was almost sure Grandmother had mentioned a place like this, but without the statue. If he went down the stairs, perhaps that would be the place, and he would remember what Grandmother had told him to do next—if she had told him.
But as he passed the statue it moved; he saw it was not a statue—no statue in this ancient palace would be emblazoned with the red lion of the Lord Protector. The Protector's Man reached for him.
The King fell down and began to scuttle away on all fours, back down the corridor. The Protector's Man dropped his sword and followed, crouching down as he came and reaching out with both hands.
“Now, Your Majesty,” the soldier's ingratiating voice came, resonating slightly, through the bars of his helmet. “Come along with me. No one means to harm you. Just a purge of ugly traitors who've crept into your royal service. You can't go against the Protector, can you? You found that out. And stop that damned screaming.”
The King was screaming again, weary hysterical screaming that made his body clench and unclench like a fist. Looking back, he saw that the soldier had caught hold of his cloak. There was nothing he could do about the screaming, just as there was nothing he could do about the soldier.
Then Grandmother was there, standing behind the Protector's Man, fixing her long, terribly strong hands about his mailed throat. The soldier had time for one brief scream of his own before she lifted him from the floor and shook him like a rag doll. After an endless series of moments she negligently threw him down the hall and over the balustrade of the stairway. He made no sound as he fell, and the crash of his armor on the stairs below was like the applause that followed one of the Protector's speeches—necessary, curt, and convincing.
Before the echoes of the armed man's fall had passed away, Grandmother said, “Lathmar, come here.”
Trembling, the King climbed to his feet and went to her. Grandmother frightened him, but in a different way than most things frightened him. She expected so much of him. He was frightened of failing her, as he routinely did.
“Lathmar,” she said, resting one deadly hand on his shoulder, “you've done well. But now you must do more. Much more. Are you ready?”
“Yes.” It was a lie. He always lied to her. He was afraid not to.
“I must remain here, to keep them from following you. You must go alone, down the stairway. At the bottom there is a tunnel. Take it either way to the end. It will lead to an opening somewhere in the city. Go out and find my brother. Find him and bring him here. Can you do that?”
“How…? How…?” The King was tongue-tied by all the impossibilities she expected him to overleap. He was barely twelve years old, and looked younger than he was, and in some ways thought still younger than he looked. He was aware, all-too-aware, of these deficiencies.
“You know his name? My brother's name?”
name?” the King cried in horror.
“Then you do know it. Say it aloud. Say it to many people. Say, ‘He must come to help Ambrosia. His sister is in danger.' By then I will be, you know.”
The King simply stared at her, aghast.
“He has a way of knowing when people say his name,” the King's Grandmother, the Lady Ambrosia, continued calmly. “That much of the legend is true. But more is false. Do not be afraid. Say the name aloud. You are in no danger from him; he is your kinsman. He will protect you from your enemies, as I have done.”
From the far end of the corridor echoed the sound of axes on wood.
“I had hoped to go with you,” his Grandmother continued evenly, “but that will not be possible now. You will have to find someone else to help you; I wish you luck. But remember: if you do not find my brother, I will surely die. Your Lord Protector, Urdhven, will see to it. You don't wish that, do you?”
“No!” the King said. And that, too, was a lie. It would be a relief to know he had failed Grandmother for the last time.
“Go, then. Save yourself, and me as well. Find—”
Knowing she was about to say the accursed name, her damned brother's name, he covered his ears and ran past her, skittering down the broad stone steps beyond. He passed the corpse of the fallen soldier. He kept on running.
By the time the light filtering from the top of the stairway failed, he could see a faint yellowish light gleaming below him. When he reached the foot of the stair, he found a lit lamp set on the lowest step.
His feelings on reaching the lamp were strong, almost stronger than he was. He knew that his Grandmother had set it here to give him not only light, but hope. It was a sign she had been here, that she had made the place safe for him, that he need not be afraid. As he lifted the lamp, he felt an uprush of strength. He almost felt he could do the task his Grandmother had set him. He swore in his heart he would succeed, that he would not fail her this time.
Choosing a direction at random, he walked along the tunnel to its end. There he found a flight of shallow stairs leading upward. He climbed them tentatively, holding the lamp high. At the top of the stairs was a small bare room with one door. The King turned the handle and looked out.
Outside was a city street. It was long after dark, and wagon traffic was thick in the streets, in preparation for the next day's market. (Cartage into the city was forbidden during the day, to prevent traffic jams.)
The King closed the door and sat down on the floor next to his guttering lamp. But presently it occurred to him that sooner or later the Protector's Men would discover the tunnel and draw the obvious conclusion. No matter how dangerous the city was at night (he had heard it was; he had never set foot in the city unattended, day or night), he knew he should leave this place.
He stood impulsively and, leaving the lamp behind him, stepped out into the street.
Night to the King meant a dark room and the slow steps of sentries in the hallway outside. Night was an empty windowcase, a breath of cold air, the three moons, wrapped in a smattering of dim stars, peering through his windows, and the sullen smoky glow of Ontil—the Imperial city—to the east. Night was quiet, and the kind of fear that comes with quiet, the fear of stealth: the poisoned cup, the strangler's rope, the assassin's knife.
This night was different: a chorus of shouting voices, the roar of wooden wheels on the cobbled street, the startled cries of cart-horses. It was like a parody of a court procession, with the peasants in their high carts moving in stately progress—when they moved at all. The King, who had never been in a traffic jam (though he had caused many), wondered why they were moving so slowly, when they were all so obviously impatient. Then he saw that they all had to negotiate a sort of obstacle at the end of the street: a row of stone slabs stretching across the way, so that each cart had to slow to fit its wheels through the gaps in the stone causeway, and all the carts behind it perforce slowed as well. When the stones were higher than a cart's axles, or when no gap in the stones corresponded to the width of a cart's wheels, the delay was longer; the cart had to be pulled over, or unloaded and lifted over, or shunted aside.
Above the chaos of lamps the stars were almost invisible, but the King could see Trumpeter, the third moon, standing bright beneath the sky's dim zenith. The major moons, Horseman and great Chariot, were down—this was the month of Remembering, the King remembered. (He didn't have to bother much with days or months; he just did as he was told when someone told him to do it.)
Fascinated, the King crept along the narrow stone walkway toward this center of activity. Before reaching it he saw that, beyond the relatively narrow street, there was a great square or intersection into which several other streets emptied out. All of the traffic converged on one very large way that seemed to lead to the great marketplace or market district. (The King was hazy about the geography of the Imperial city, one of the two that he, in law, ruled.)
It was horrible, with the noise and the dust and the reek of the horses—sweat and manure—and the shouts of the peasants and the glare of the cart lamps (dazzling in the darkness of the otherwise lampless street). Horrible but fascinating. The King believed that the noise, the dirt, the confusion would drive anyone mad. But the peasants did not seem mad, only annoyed. The King had no idea where they were coming from, and only the vaguest as to where they were going, but did not doubt there was backbreaking drudgery at either end. The King was not exactly sure what “backbreaking drudgery” entailed, but it was something (he had been told many times) that was not expected of him. This relieved him greatly, as he considered his life hard enough as it was. Surely none of these peasants had a Grandmother like the Lady Ambrosia, or an uncle like Lord Urdhven.
On the far side of the street he saw three figures, cloaked, masked, booted, gloved, all in red. They carried something between them…he saw an arm trailing on the ground and realized it was a dead body. So the red figures must be members of the Company of Mercy, the secret order that tended to the sick and buried the bodies of the city's poor—no one knew where. There were strange stories about the red Companions; no one ever saw their faces, or knew where they came from. There were bound to be stories.
One of the red-masked faces turned toward him as he stood on the sidewalk, open-mouthed, watching the traffic pass, and it occurred to him again that the Protector's Men would be coming for him soon. At the moment he was just another mousey-haired, underdeveloped, twelve-year-old boy in dark clothes wandering the city streets. But when the Protector's Men started asking questions, some of the people passing by might remember that they had seen him. He had to get on his way, and immediately.