Authors: Craig Schaefer
The night was a hungry thing in Belle Terre. Gnarled oaks spread their spidery boughs to blot out the stars, forming a canopy of blood red and gray. With only the faint sliver of a new moon hanging above, Fort Blackwood was a tiny torchlit oasis in the heart of vast, inky space.
Oskar braced one hand on the crenelated stone, steadying himself as he leaned out and squinted. The young soldier’s eyes were drawn to sudden movement below, and then a spark.
“What in the Barren…” he muttered, then waved over his partner. “Schmitt, come here. What is that?”
The plump Schmitt trundled over, clutching his oversized crossbow in a sweaty grip. He’d never had to fire it at a living target; the Empire’s war with the Terrai was over—the savages crushed and brought to heel—and most of the Imperial veterans who’d actually done the conquering had been shipped off to more important posts. Peacekeeping was a job for neophytes and washouts.
Schmitt stood at Oskar’s side, leaning over the battlement. A single torch burned below, fixed into the diseased soil and casting a sphere of smoky yellow light. Beside it, a figure stood with arms raised up to the night sky.
,” Schmitt said as if he’d never seen one before.
The woman wore a robe of gray wolfskin and high, furred boots, and a crescent-moon circlet gleamed upon her pallid brow. She’d powdered her face corpse white and smeared her eyes and lips with pigment black as coal. A specter of death in the dark, staring back up at them.
“It’s a…what do you call it,” Oskar said, trying to remember his briefings. “A moonseer. One of their heathen witches.”
The Terrai woman danced. It was a slow, sinuous movement, a waltz without music, her arms rippling like half-frozen waves.
Schmitt grinned and jabbed Oskar in the ribs with his elbow. “You think she’s tryin’ to put a curse on us?”
Oskar took a step back, shaking his head, eyes locked on the figure below.
“I don’t like it. I’m going to get the captain.”
“Oh come on.” Schmitt braced the crossbow against his knee, almost giddy as he wound the crank. “You don’t believe in that magic stuff, do you? She can’t
hurt us. Watch: bet you next week’s pay I can take her down in one shot.”
Oskar strode to the banded oak door at the edge of the battlement, glancing back over his shoulder.
“Not yet,” Oskar said. “Captain’s gonna want to see this. Just keep her in sight until I get back.”
He grabbed the iron ring and hauled the door open. Schmitt hefted the crossbow and steadied his aim.
“Yeah, all right, long as I get to take the shot.”
A faint, high-pitched wheeze from the doorway.
“Oskar, are you—”
He turned and froze.
Oskar stood transfixed, with three feet of a spear punched through his lung and out his back, the glistening steel point dripping scarlet. The hooded man on the other side of the doorway lowered his weapon and shoved Oskar to the floor with his boot as the spear slid free, leaving the soldier to heave his last wet breaths on the flagstones.
The three Terrai men, silent as ghosts, stepped over Oskar’s dying body. All eyes on Schmitt. They wore rags but their spears were master-forged, better weapons than the Imperials themselves had. Seized by panic, Schmitt tried to level the crossbow as his shaking hand jerked hard on the trigger. The bolt whined into the dark, flying three feet over the raiders’ heads.
He wouldn’t have time to load a second one.
They didn’t say a word as they closed in on him. They didn’t need to. Every time Captain Beitel was deep in his cups, the drunken conversation would turn to the conquest and the horrors he’d seen. And the unspeakable fate of any man taken alive by the Terrai.
We’d carry mercy knives
, he’d reminisce,
to cut our own throats if they managed to lay hands on us. Better to die that way.
Schmitt didn’t have a knife. And he knew, unarmed against three of the savages, he didn’t have a chance. Heart pounding, his vision turning gray and narrowing like tunnel walls, he looked down into the dark. Below, the heathen priestess danced, locking eyes with him. Her corpse-painted face a promise of nightmares to come.
Schmitt took one quick breath. One last breath. And threw himself over the battlement.
As he plummeted, wind whistling in his ears and rising over the drumbeat of his heart, he had time for a single, short prayer.
, he thought,
please let me die when I hit the ground
* * *
The sun rose over the forest canopy, and dawn’s first light caressed the flag at the highest spire of Fort Blackwood. Not the black and gold of the Holy Murgardt Empire, but the lion rampant of a fallen kingdom on a field of white and blue.
Thick plumes of sooty smoke licked the clear morning sky, rising up from a bonfire in the heart of the fort’s courtyard. The invaders had spent the night tearing down flags and symbols of the Gardener, tossing them all onto the flames. Imperial bodies served as kindling. The lucky ones were dead when they went into the fire.
By two bells after dawn, word spread to the nearest village. The fort had fallen, the invaders slaughtered like pigs, and what rightfully belonged to the Terrai was theirs once again. Reclamation.
. Peasants, terrorized and beaten into abject submission, felt a glimmer of an emotion long forgotten.
And their hope fed their rage.
At noon, a mob attacked the village governor’s house. They dragged the Imperial overseer out by his ankles and sang old songs of Belle Terre as they strung him up from the highest oak.
Judicael Leclerc, knight-commander of the Autumn Lance and acting regent, would have loved to stay and watch the hanging. He and his forces were already on the move, though, bolstered by two dozen new recruits and more joining the procession with every hamlet they liberated. By his reckoning, they’d reach Fort Ironwake by nightfall.
By dawn, it would be theirs. And four more villages lay on the road to the next one.
On the perch of their wagon, leading the procession down a winding forest road, Judicael’s wife Ophelie sat serene and regal, still wearing her darkened eyes and corpse-paint. Now and then followers would run alongside the wagon, passing up trinkets and prayer fetishes for her to bless, tokens to keep them safe in the battles to come.
“So what do your bones say about all this?” Judicael asked her.
She favored him with a smile. “My ritual bones, or the ones under my skin?”
“They are in perfect agreement,” she said. “The Lady has blessed this crusade. It is our honor and our duty to see it through.”
Judicael chuckled. “And all because the Empire dropped their troops to quarter strength, sending them off on some mad war in the desert. Couldn’t properly finish one fight before starting another.”
“That,” Ophelie said, “and our benefactor.”
Judicael’s troops marched with spears of a quality not seen in Belle Terre, not even in the hands of their oppressors. Hundreds of them, with cartloads yet to be handed out to those who joined their cause. It was a welcome gift in the time of the rebellion’s greatest need, but the edge of hesitation in Ophelie’s voice echoed his own uneasiness.
“You’re wondering when payment’s coming due,” he said.
She contemplated the question, then shook her head.
“No. I believe that our payment, as it were, is to do exactly what we wish to do: make the ‘Holy Empire’ bleed.”
“That’s a price I’m pleased to render.”
“The glory is ours,” Ophelie said, “but so is the risk. Our mysterious friend cannot, or chooses not to, wage war himself. By serving as his proxies,
are the ones who will face the emperor’s wrath while our benefactor sits in the shadows.”
Judicael rubbed the stubble on his long, narrow chin and nodded.
“Sounds fair enough,” he said. “Let the emperor come. This is our chance to retake the country—
. I’ll die with my fingers wrapped around that bastard’s throat and with a smile on my face.”
She trailed her fingers lightly down his arm.
“Have a care, my beloved. If there is one thing I know about kings and emperors the world over, it’s this: a ruler might endure an injury, but he will
forgive an insult.”
Rhys Jernigan stood at the octagonal table in his strategy room, his bushy rust-red beard spilling over his unkempt vest as he gripped the table’s edge and stared downward. His hammered gold crown sat off to one side on a pile of maps, a discarded bauble.
“Dead,” he said for the fourth time.
His advisor, stood a safe distance away on the other side of the table. The slender bald man clutched the folds of his black velvet robe and nervously stroked his long fingernails against the soft fabric.
“Their bodies were found this morning, sire,” Merrion said. “All four guards. They were…butchered.”
“And my wife?”
Merrion bit down on his bottom lip.
“Missing,” he said. “It was either a rescue operation or an abduction. And considering there haven’t been any ransom demands…”
Rhys still didn’t look at him. “Who knew?” the king asked.
Now he looked up. Rhys’s eyes were hard as frozen coal.
“Who. Knew. Who knew that Livia’s first act as pope would be an order of inquisition? Who knew my men were standing ready to throw the Argall clan in chains? Obviously not the damned
, since they didn’t see it coming, now
Merrion’s fingers twitched.
“No, sire. Which would indicate that whoever was behind the rescue couldn’t have been your wife’s kinsmen.”
“Brilliant deduction. I can see why you’re my spymaster, Merrion, always ferreting out the obscure and hard-to-find clues.” Rhys’s fist slammed down on the strategy table, making his crown jump as he shouted, “
Who knew about the order of inquisition?
“Your guards, of course,” Merrion said. He fell silent for a moment, hesitant to say the name on both of their minds. “And Livia Serafini.”
“I told her,” Rhys muttered. “First time we met, I told her she had a pair of balls dangling under that dress. Think they’re big enough for a stunt like that?”
Merrion shook his head. “Whoever took your wife…they killed four men to do it. Livia may have resented being forced to sign that order, but to respond with
“Aye,” Rhys said, “and I’m the king. Remind me how many deaths I’ve ordered in this very room. But you have a point. She’s no pretender; the girl actually believes the nonsense she preaches. She wouldn’t damn her own soul to the Barren Fields just to get back at me. What about the others, though?”
“The men in her orbit. Like Dante Uccello, for instance. He plays games inside of games, and if he thought he could get an advantage by taking my wife, four corpses wouldn’t be much of a deterrent. And what’s-his-name, that old man who’s always two steps behind Livia.”
“Amadeo Lagorio,” Merrion said. “He was her father’s personal confessor. I assume he’s hers as well.”
Rhys stroked his beard, pondering.
“Meaning he knows all her secrets and sins,” Rhys said. “Dispatch your best men, Merrion. I want them followed, discreetly.”
“Amadeo and Dante, sire?”
of them. Livia too. I don’t care if she’s the pope. I want eyes on her at all times. And while you’re at it,
find my damned wife
* * *
The brew at the Hogshead Pub tasted like the tavern itself: dark, warm, and weathered. The room smelled like roasted walnuts, and Amadeo contemplated his tankard in the glow of flickering yellow candlelight. He didn’t indulge in drink much these days, but an invitation from an old friend was impossible to refuse.
“Beer,” Gallo Parri said, “is arguably the one thing these Itrescans do well.”
Sitting across from the burly, barrel-chested man, Amadeo arched an eyebrow and shot a glance around the half-empty bar.
“Little louder, Gallo, if you’re
to start a brawl.”
“Ah, I’m too old for brawling. Wait, I forgot one. Peppered beef. I like the peppered beef here.”
“Beef, beer, and nothing else?” Amadeo asked lightly.
“Did you see the frost this morning? Every window painted white, and the stones slick as ice. Nearly went ass-over-teakettle stepping out my front door, and winter’s still a month away. We’d be warm back in Verinia.”
“We’d be dead back in Verinia.” Amadeo clanked his tankard against Gallo’s. “Unless you’d like to take your chances and go ask Carlo for your old job back.”
Gallo snickered. “I’ll pass. The drunken brat always did carry a grudge. Still, there are warmer places to spend a winter. Places that won’t make my bones ache.”
“Please. You’re twelve years my junior, Gallo. You don’t get to whine about your bones aching, not until your hair turns as silver as mine.”
“Right, well.” Gallo shrugged. “I’m old, but you’re ancient.”
Amadeo saluted him with the tankard before taking a sip. “Then revere the wisdom of your elders.”
“That’s…part of the reason I asked to meet you tonight,” he said, the smile slipping from his face.
Amadeo set his tankard down. “Speak your mind, friend.”
“Is it true?” Gallo asked him.
“I’m a priest. You’ll need to be a little more specific with a question like that.”
of it. The letters. The accusations. Is Carlo really a bastard? Is Livia really Benignus’s only heir?”
“Yes and yes.” Amadeo looked him in the eye. “We’ve known each other for thirty years, Gallo. You know I’d never lie to you.”
“Then answer me this,” Gallo said. “Is she the pope?”
“You were at her coronation. Did you think it nothing but a vivid dream?”
“That’s not what I mean, and you know it.” Gallo leaned closer, pitching his voice low. “Is she
the pope? Is she anointed by the Gardener, like her father was? Is she the right one to lead us?”
Amadeo couldn’t answer right away. He hated that he couldn’t. He took a long drink from his tankard, almond-tinged suds fizzing on his tongue, and thought it over.
“The best we can do is have faith,” he said. “We know that Carlo is fallen. He ordered the massacre in Lerautia, and he let the Alms District burn. He’s no servant of the Church. Not
Church. But…now we have Livia.”
“As soon as they placed that hat on her head, the first thing she did was start an inquisition. Her father never did that, Amadeo. Never. I saw a boy cut down on the cathedral floor. The king’s own
“On his orders,” Amadeo said.
Gallo fell silent.
“On the king’s orders,” Amadeo said. “And if you breathe a word of that to another living soul, you’ll be taking your life into your own hands. The evening of her coronation, Rhys gave Livia an ultimatum. If she hadn’t the order, he would have had her…removed.”
Gallo didn’t answer at first. He furrowed his thick brows, frowning, deep in thought.
Amadeo nodded, his lips pursed into a bloodless line.
“That was the price for our shiny new Itrescan Church. That was the price for Livia’s throne.”
Gallo stared down at his tankard. “Was it worth it?”
“Livia,” Amadeo said, “is pious. She is righteous. And she is perhaps the best choice among us to shepherd the Church through this crisis.”
“And yet I hear an unspoken reservation,” Gallo replied.
“She is also…determined. The sort of determination that can become ruthlessness. I’ve been seeing more and more of that side of her lately, and it concerns me. It would be all too easy for her to harden her heart and forget why she fought for that throne in the first place. Then again, maybe that’s exactly the quality we
at the helm right now. Time will tell.”
Gallo raised his tankard. “Time will tell.”
“You’ve a melancholy about you tonight. Is it just Livia that’s bothering you?”
He shook his head. “No. It’s the burden of bad news. My comments about the weather weren’t idle, Amadeo. I’m leaving.”
Amadeo’s grip tightened on the tankard’s handle. The hard iron edges bit into his fingers. “Leaving?”
“Retiring,” Gallo said. “There’s no place for me here, not anymore.”
“You were the master of the papal guard under Benignus, a post you earned and bled for. Why wouldn’t you do the same under Livia?”
Gallo spread his hands and gave him a gloomy smile. “What guard? Most of my men died on the night of the massacre, and the others have drifted off. As for Livia, she
her personal guard.”
“The Browncloaks? Gallo, you’re a veteran soldier, practically a knight. The Browncloaks are…”
Amadeo’s voice trailed off as he tried to find the right word. Gallo offered one up right away.
Amadeo nodded slowly. “They…do carry a small amount of religious zeal in their hearts, yes.”
“Amadeo, always with a kind word for the undeserving. It’s not zeal for the Gardener, or for the Mother Church, and you know it. It’s zeal for
. Have you heard what people are saying in the streets? There’s a rumor spreading that Livia is some sort of…reincarnated
. This following that’s building around her—it’s not normal. It has a dangerous air to it. You feel it, don’t you?”
“All the more reason for you to stay,” Amadeo said, sidestepping the question. “Stay and do what you can to shape things for the better.”
Gallo waved over a serving girl and ordered another round. He waited until she’d scurried back to the bar before he answered.
“I’m past my prime, old friend. I can command and lead, but fight? My reflexes are slowing. I pull muscles doing exercises I performed with ease a decade ago. No, I’ve got no business with a sword in my hand. I’d love to pretend otherwise, but when your job is protecting people’s lives, that kind of make-believe is fatal.”
“There are other jobs you can do—”
“No.” Gallo reached across the table and put his hand over Amadeo’s. “There are other jobs
can do. The Mother Church still needs you. You’re a man of the mind and the spirit, and yours are still sharp. I’m just a man of muscle. And I know when it’s time to take my graceful bow.”
“Where will you go?” Amadeo asked him.
“Maybe Carcanna. Warm, good sea air, white sand beaches. A good place for an old soldier to write down his memories before they grow too faded. History is being made all around us, Amadeo. Someday, someone might want to read my little piece of it.”
Amadeo swallowed, his throat suddenly dry.
“I’ll miss you,” he said.
“I’ll miss you too.” Gallo squeezed his hand. “But let’s save the tears for tomorrow, when my bags are packed. I have a much better way to spend this fine—if frigid—Itrescan evening.”
“And that is?”
The serving girl brought around a tray, slapping a fresh tankard down in front of each of them. Gallo hoisted his high, grinning as ivory foam sloshed over one side and spattered the rough-hewn table.
“The two of us,” he said, “get blind stinking drunk together, one last time. C’mon, Father, let’s see if you’ve still got stamina where it really counts. What do you say?”
Amadeo smiled at Gallo, despite himself.
“I say,” he replied, hefting his own tankard, “let’s drink to your health.”