By Ken Scholes
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2009 Kenneth G. Scholes
All rights reserved.
Late-afternoon sun washed the expansive forest in red, and Rudolfo watched it from the highest point of Library Hill. It had been a long day of paperwork amid the pandemonium that gripped his Seventh Forest Manor's staff, and finally Rudolfo had fled under the pretext of an unscheduled inspection of the library construction. He had quietly strolled the basements and subbasements, grateful for the break in routine.
Of course, he couldn't blame the staff for the chaos. It was, after all, his Firstborn Feast they were preparing. In mere weeks, Rudolfo would see his first child into the world, and it was the custom of the Forest Gypsies to celebrate that event with great vigor. That it was Rudolfo's firstborn and an heir transformed the event into a minor affair of state, with dignitaries expected from a dozen or more houses. Even the Marsh King was attending. Rudolfo smiled at this, knowing that the large hairy man who posed as the Marsh King did so at the command of a fifteen-year-old girl who was the true heir to that Wicker Throne. But tonight, Hanric would play the part of king alongside Rudolfo and the other lords in attendance. Those aspects of tonight's festivities bored Rudolfo. Instead, he thought about the men who were the true hosts of tonight's event — the men who rose to their captain's challenge to honor their Gypsy King and the Gypsy King to Come.
The Gypsy Scouts could be proud of their work. They'd hunted and fished for six weeks to stockpile the game required for the festivities; they'd sent birds and riders all over the Named Lands to gather the finest sampling of wines and spirits. They'd even hired in cooks from the Emerald Coasts to study the best of the Forest recipes and reproduce them with southern augmentations to draw out the flavor.
Rudolfo chuckled. Tonight, the Marsh King would sit to his left and the Entrolusian ambassador would sit to his right. The Entrolusians had sent their ambassador because Erlund was beset by the fires of rebellion on the Delta. When Erlund's uncle, Sethbert, had destroyed Windwir, he'd hoped to shore up the Entrolusian economy by annexing the Ninefold Forest Houses with the help of his puppet Pope. Rudolfo and his kin-clave had pressed them back, and eventually Sethbert's plans were unraveled and the Overseer himself tried and summarily executed for the genocide of the Androfrancine Order and their city.
How long ago had that been? Six months? Seven? It had crawled like years. League upon league of paperwork. Hour upon hour of meetings. Entire days that slipped past him without seeing the sky or feeling the wind on the back of his neck. The last time he'd stood here, the bookmakers' tent was still below in the heat of Second Summer as metal man and Androfrancine and Forester worked together to reproduce what they could of Windwir's Great Library.
Now winter wrapped the forest, and the bookmakers' tent was packed away. Their tables now crowded the basements of Rudolfo's Seventh Forest Manor, and the books they produced filled the hallways and spare rooms to overflowing. Until now, of course, when those spaces were suddenly required.
Rudolfo paused and wondered where they had managed to store all of the books. And how long ago had it happened?
What it pointed to disturbed him. I didn't even notice. There was a time when he would have picked up on the slightest difference in the length of any one of his scout's beards. But now mountains of books vanished beneath his very feet and it took him days to realize it.
He heard the clicking and clacking, the slightest wheeze of bellows, and turned to watch his metal friend approach.
"Lord Rudolfo?" a metallic voice asked.
"Isaak," Rudolfo said. "You've found me."
Isaak stepped into view. "Yes, Lord." He paused, smoothing his Androfrancine robes with his metal hands. "I trust you found your inspection satisfactory?"
Rudolfo chuckled. He should've known the metal man would worry. "You are doing wonderful work here, Isaak."
Isaak blinked. "Actually, Lord, there are many more besides myself performing this work. The list is rather extensive, but I have a file of names in my office for your review. Or I could recite them —"
Rudolfo raised a hand. "A compliment to all involved," he said.
Isaak nodded. "Thank you, Lord. We serve the light."
"We do indeed," Rudolfo said. "But truly, Isaak, you are a fine foreman for this work."
Isaak inclined his head slightly. "Thank you, Lord. Might I add that Lieutenant Nebios has been extremely helpful in that respect."
Rudolfo had seen Neb's leadership throughout the grave-digging of Windwir. That was when he'd first recognized that there was a fine captain buried in the lad. And some of Isaak's methods looked surprisingly similar to Neb's. "So he's been advising you?"
Isaak blinked again. "I have been making inquiries and cross-referencing them against library holdings on Francine observations of human leadership dynamics." He paused, releasing steam through the exhaust grate in his back. "Neb is a natural leader."
Rudolfo nodded and stroked his beard. "Yes," he said. "I see that, too." But beyond what Rudolfo saw, the Marshfolk saw Neb as the one who would someday find — and take them to — the new home as promised in their Book of Dreaming Kings.
Rudolfo turned his eyes back to the forest and his home in it.
The sun was nearly down now, and the lights of the manor and the town called to Rudolfo. High above, as the sky went from purple to charcoal, swollen stars pulsed to life and a blue-green sliver of moon danced behind a hazy veil of cloud. Rudolfo drew in a lungful of night air and smelled the roasting meat from the kitchens far below.
"I suppose we should get ready for the feast," he said, clapping Isaak on the shoulder and feeling the cool metal beneath the rough wool robe.
Isaak nodded. "Lady Tam sent a scout for you. I told him I would pass her message along."
Rudolfo chuckled. A few weeks earlier and she'd have come herself, but the River Woman insisted she rest now. She'd balked initially but at the last accepted the midwife's instruction and forced herself to bed. Rudolfo knew better than to taunt the tiger in her cage. "I was finished here," he said, turning to Isaak. "Walk with me."
They walked in silence among the massive, scattered stones that were slowly taking shape. The air was cold on Rudolfo's face and his breath showed. Picking his way carefully through last week's snow, he and Isaak descended the hill that was gradually transforming the Ninefold Forest, turning it into the center of the Named Lands.
It had already started, of course, not long after Petronus had executed Sethbert and transferred the wealth of the Androfrancine Order into Rudolfo's name for the reestablishment of the library. And just yesterday, another university — this one a larger bookhouse out of Turam — brought their petition to establish a presence near the Great Library. Rudolfo had listened to their request, told them he was honored by their interest in the Ninefold Forest, and that he would take the matter under consideration. It was the fourth university to ask in as many months, and he wasn't sure how long he could keep them at bay.
Rudolfo's boot slipped on a patch of snow-crusted ice and he stumbled. He felt a strong metal hand grip him before he could fall. He glanced over at Isaak. "Thank you."
Isaak nodded and waited until Rudolfo was steady before releasing him. They reached the bottom of the hill and followed the road back into town. Already, the forest between the hill and the town was thinning for new construction. Soon, Rudolfo's Seventh Forest Manor and the small town that surrounded it would grow into a city.
What would my father think of this? Rudolfo paused. Orphaned at twelve, he rarely thought about his father. But he thought about him more now that he stood on the edge of fatherhood.
A handful of Rudolfo's Gypsy Scouts fell in around them as they walked. They hadn't yet changed into their dress uniforms, and their rainbow-colored woolen trousers and shirts were damp from the forest. Uncharacteristically, they grinned at their general.
He smiled back at them. "I hear you've pulled together a Firstborn Feast like no other before it," he said to them.
Their grins widened and then vanished as First Captain Aedric approached from town. His face looked worried and he gripped a note in his hand. For a moment, he seemed to study Isaak and then fixed his eyes on Rudolfo. "I've just had two birds from the Wall."
Rudolfo stopped. They had inherited the watch on the Keeper's Wall when they took on rebuilding the library. The mountain range separated the Named Lands from the Churning Wastes, the ruins of the Old World. The Androfrancines had controlled access to the one pass until Sethbert broke their back and Petronus dissolved the Order, passing its role on to Rudolfo and his Ninefold Forest Houses.
Shepherd of the light, he thought.
"What is happening at the Wall?" He took the notes and read them quickly. Coded into the message was an emphatic urgency. A metal man, clothed in robes, claiming to be an Arch-Engineer of the Order's Office of Mechanical Science in a city that was now desolated. I bear an urgent message for the hidden Pope, Petronus, Rudolfo read. Sanctorum Lux must be protected.
He looked up from the note and turned to Isaak. "What is the name of the engineer who created you?"
Isaak blinked, his eyes flashing golden in the crisp twilight. "Brother Charles, Lord."
Rudolfo nodded. "Yes. Brother Charles. Arch-Engineer of the Androfrancine Office of Mechanical Science?"
Isaak nodded. "Yes, Lord."
He stroked his beard. "When was the last time you saw him?"
Gears whirred to life inside the metal man and he shuddered, venting steam into the cold night. "I ..." The mechoservitor paused. "The evening before the city fell. He had given me my assignment and sent me with the Gray Guard escort into the spell vaults."
So it was possible that he could've escaped, Rudolfo thought. And perhaps he knew of Petronus — it certainly wasn't impossible, though the old man had surely kept his secret from most. But it did not explain the metal man.
"And we liberated all of your" — he searched for the proper word — "peers from Sethbert's camp?"
Isaak nodded. "I've accounted for my brothers."
Rudolfo nodded. He looked at Aedric now. "What do you think?"
Aedric's hands moved quickly into the sign language of the Gypsy Scouts. I don't like it, he signed. "I think we ride for the Keeper's Wall and see for ourselves what this is about."
Rudolfo looked to his men and then to his first captain. They would go with me now, Firstborn Feast or not, if I said we must. The scouts were sons of scouts and had served the General of the Wandering Army and Lord of the Ninefold Forest Houses as their fathers before them had, raised on the knives and the powders. And Aedric himself was Rudolfo's best friend's firstborn son. Gregoric and Rudolfo had been close since childhood, and when Lord Jakob and his wife were murdered, Rudolfo had taken the turban and passed the First Captaincy to his friend. They'd fought together in many political skirmishes and helped divert resurging heresies at the Order's behest, equally earning their reputations as fierce leaders and formidable strategists. But Rudolfo knew the truth: A leader is only as capable as the men he commands, and his men were the best in the New World.
Their loyalty is nearly love, he realized. They learn it from their fathers. The reality of that gave him pause, and a thought pushed at his mind. He shoved it aside, forcing his attention to the matter at hand. "I concur with you, Aedric." Then he used the hand language of the Gypsy Scouts in such a way that none could possibly miss it: But tomorrow morning is soon enough. We feast tonight as these men honor my first fatherhood.
The Gypsy Scouts were silent, but Rudolfo's eyes darted over to see several of them grinning again. He smiled at them and inclined his head.
As they took to the road, making their way through the bustling streets of his growing tribe, Rudolfo brought back the thought he had pushed away. These men, he realized, were yesterday's children, and they would pass their knives to tomorrow's children soon enough. And in that brief time between, the world had changed again — and was still changing — as the Named Lands reeled and floundered from the loss of its Androfrancine shepherds. Still, the Gypsy Scouts would pass their knives onward, sharing what they learned from these precarious times.
And I will pass my knives, now, too, Rudolfo thought. He hoped they would be sharp and balanced for the world they were making.
Neb stalked his prey through the darkened Whymer Maze. He moved carefully, lifting his feet and placing them in the footprints he'd left earlier in their hunt. She was up ahead now, he was sure of it. He caught the faintest hint of earth and ash on the cold night air. It intoxicated him.
Suddenly, he felt something cold and wet impact the back of his neck. Bits of ice and snow fell into his shirt, and Winters burst into laughter behind him. Spinning, he lunged at her and she danced back and away from him and his flailing arms.
She grinned, pushing her dirty brown hair away from her face. "You've become clumsy, Nebios ben Hebda."
Neb shook his head. "I would've heard you if I'd been magicked," he said. The stealth powders that he trained with made Rudolfo's Gypsy Scouts nearly invisible to the naked eye. Only used during time of war, the scout magicks also heightened their senses and enhanced their speed and strength, making them formidable opponents.
She smiled. "That's the problem. You've grown dependent upon the powders — your senses are dulled without them." She stepped closer and put a dirty hand on his cheek. "It makes you easy prey."
Neb grinned and stepped closer to Winters, his hands moving up to fold her into his arms. Slender and willowy, she pressed herself to him and raised her mouth to his. She felt warm to his touch despite the cold.
When he'd met her, Neb thought Winters was the Marsh King's servant or daughter or worse. He'd learned later that she was actually the Marsh Queen herself, hiding behind a more fearsome shadow until she reached her majority and could strike the proper balance of respect in the Named Lands' elaborate system of kin-clave. They'd shared dreams together there on the edge of the Desolation of Windwir — dreams of a new home — and they'd walked long afternoons while Neb inspected the gravediggers' progress. They'd even kissed in the shadow of the forest that hemmed in the ruined plains of that great, dead city.
It had been seven months, and he had forgotten how good she tasted. "This is better than the dreams," he said.
She shuddered beneath his hands, squirmed and pushed at him. "Don't you need to get dressed for the feast?" she asked, laughing.
He pulled her back and kissed her again. "Yes, Lady Winters, I do."
"Then I release you to your responsibilities," she said, slipping away. "I will see you in the morning."
Winters moved away with a speed and sureness of foot that astounded Neb. Unmagicked, she was easily the best scout he'd seen. He followed at a slower pace, willing his heart to stop racing. He'd forgotten how powerful the draw to her was. Certainly, the dreams reinforced it. Bits of prophecy, strands of glossolalia and, sometimes, a sensuality that caught Neb's breath in his throat and woke him up sweating and trembling. Even now, he blushed as he thought about it.
He left the maze and took the winding garden path up to the scouts' back entrance to the Seventh Forest Manor. He could hear the woodwinds and stringed instruments trickling from the Grand Hall's windows and could hear girls and scouts laughing in the kitchens. Neb slipped inside and found himself in hallways crowded with scouts and soldiers in the dress uniforms of the Ninefold Forest Houses. Servants bustled about, moving from room to room. Neb took the back stairs, and after a few twists and turns of the hall, he let himself into his small room. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Canticle by Ken Scholes. Copyright © 2009 Kenneth G. Scholes. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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