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The Shadow in the Mirror
The shadow in the mirror drew him in, and Aydrian could not get the thought of Jilseponie out of his mind. Unlike the unrelenting hatred he felt for the woman, a rush of warmth came over him, as if this shadow was communicating to him that Jilseponie was his answer here. Not for glory. Not for power.
For what, then?
Aydrian leaned back against the wall in the small darkened room he had set up for Oracle, this mystical connection to the shadows in the mirror. The elves had taught him Oracle, and had taught him that in looking into the mirror, he was seeing those who had gone before. Aydrian wasn’t sure of that. Perhaps Oracle was more a way for him to look within his own essence and heart. Perhaps these shadowy creatures he saw in the mirror—and he saw two, whereas others usually saw only one—were messengers of the gods, or his own attunement to godlike wisdom.
It was here, at Oracle, that Aydrian had learned to comprehend the power of the gemstones. It was here, at Oracle, that Aydrian had first come to understand the manner in which he might reach his coveted immortality—immortalis in the ancient tongue of man and elf.
So now he watched, basking in the continuing rush of warmth and softness that accompanied the thoughts of Jilseponie—imparted, he understood, by this one shadow. But then the second shadow appeared across the way, and Aydrian was immediately reminded of the truth of Jilseponie, that she had abandoned him to die, that she had, in effect, forced him into slavery at the hands of cruel Lady Dasslerond!
Moments later, all warmth and thoughts of some mystical salvation flew away from Aydrian, replaced by his hatred for the witch Jilseponie, the pretend queen. He watched as the two shadows came together, not to blend into something larger and greater, but in an apparent attempt by each to overshadow the other.
Aydrian couldn’t help but grin at this continuing battle. Other people who knew the secret of Oracle saw one shadow, but he had two, and it was precisely that, these two warring viewpoints on every issue, that led Aydrian to realize that he was truly blessed. Unlike the lockstep fools who followed Oracle without question, Aydrian forced from Oracle the power of reasoned resolution. Each step was worked through logically and in his heart.
He laughed aloud, recognizing then that the first shadow was his own conscience, was the shackle the gods had placed about the neck of mor- tal men.
In that revelation, the issue of Jilseponie was settled once more. The witch would watch his rise to greatness beyond anything the world had ever known. She would die—of her guilt and with his smiling face watching her go—while he would live on forever.
Now very different images filtered through Aydrian’s thoughts. He visualized a map of Honce-the-Bear—the southern reaches, from Ursal to Entel, shaded red; the rest, uncolored. Like crawling fingers, the red began to spread. It moved north from Ursal to engulf Palmaris, and as soon as the city fell under his control, all of the Masur Delaval, the great river that cut through the kingdom, bloodied. In the east along the coast, the red moved north from Entel, sweeping along the Mantis Arm toward St.-Mere-Abelle.
Yes, Aydrian understood that the conquest of St.-Mere-Abelle would be the final victory to secure all of Honce-the-Bear south of the Gulf of Corona. The thought of that monastery, the seat of power for Father Abbot Fio Bou-raiy and the Abellican Church, made him consider another problem: what to do with Marcalo De’Unnero and Abbot Olin, both of whom desired to rule that Church?
Aydrian asked the shadow in the mirror. What of Abbot Olin?
He envisioned the map again, and now the red fingers crawled south of Entel, around the edge of the Belt-and-Buckle, to Jacintha, the seat of Behren’s power.
A knock on the door brought Aydrian from his contemplations, shattering the moment of Oracle. He looked up, his expression angry. But only for a moment, for as he considered what he had just seen, he realized that he had his answer.
The coach rolled through the southern gate of Palmaris, much like any other. The city was open, for despite the rumors filtering up from Ursal, this was a time of peace in Honce-the-Bear. Thus no guards approached the coach or inspected its contents or passengers. If they had looked in through the curtained window, they might well have recognized the woman sitting there, though she seemed barely a shell of her former self.
Jilseponie was hardly aware that her driver had crossed into Palmaris. She sat quietly, her arms crossed before her, her face still showing the lines of the tears that had marked the first days out of Ursal. She wasn’t crying any longer, though.
She was just numb.
She could hardly comprehend the truth of Aydrian, could hardly believe that her child was not dead, but had been stolen from her by the elves and raised all these years apart from her. How could he have become the tyrant that she had seen in Ursal? How could a child born of her and Elbryan have become the monster that was Aydrian?
And he was a monster. Jilseponie knew that profoundly. He had torn Constance from the grave and, Jilseponie believed, had used her to murder Danube. He had stolen the throne of Ursal. And all of that under the guidance of Marcalo De’Unnero!
To Jilseponie, there was no purer incarnation of evil than he, unless it was the demon dactyl Bestesbulzibar itself! How could Aydrian have taken up with the man who had murdered his own father?
It made no sense to Jilseponie, and in truth, the woman had not the strength to try to sort out the confusing morass.
Aydrian was alive.
Nothing else mattered, truly. No other questions could find their way to a reasoned conclusion within Jilseponie in light of that terrible and wonderful truth.
Aydrian was alive.
And he was the king, the unlawful king. And he was in league with De’Unnero and of like heart with the hated man.
That was all that mattered.
The coach lurched to a stop, and only then did Jilseponie realize that the road beneath them had turned from dirt to cobblestone, and that the fields beside them had changed to crowded streets, farmhouses to shops and taverns. The door opened and her driver, an older man with sympathetic eyes, offered her his hand.
“We’re here, milady Jilseponie,” he said tenderly.
Palmaris. A city Jilseponie had known as her home for much of her life. Here she had found refuge after the catastrophe that had destroyed Dundalis to the north. Here she had found her second family, the Chilichunks. Here she had married, though it had ended abruptly and disastrously. Here she had ruled as baroness. Here her friends presided over St. Precious. And here, Elbryan had been killed, as he and she had defeated the demon within Father Abbot Markwart. Moving as if in a dream, Jilseponie drifted out of the coach and onto the street. She was dressed modestly—not in any of the raiments suitable for the queen of Honce-the-Bear, surely—and so her appearance caused no stir among the folk moving about the crowded city avenue.
Jilseponie slowly looked around, absorbing the sights of the city she knew so well. Across the wide square stood St. Precious, the largest structure in the city, a soaring cathedral that could hold thousands within its stone walls, and that housed the hundred brothers under the leadership of Bishop Braumin Herde.
The thought of her friend had Jilseponie walking toward that cathedral, slowly at first, but then breaking into a run to the front door.
“Seems a one needin’ her soul mended, eh?” a passerby remarked to the old driver, who stood by the coach, watching her disappear into the abbey.
“More than you’d ever understand,” the driver replied absently, and with a sigh, he climbed back to his seat and turned his coach about, for the south road and Ursal. He had been explicitly instructed not to approach Bishop Braumin or any of the other leaders of the city, and while the old driver thought it strange that no formal emissary had come north from Ursal to this important second city, he knew enough of the history here to gather the motivation behind the silence.
King Aydrian, and more specifically, Marcalo De’Unnero, wanted to make the announcement personally.
“Few if any will oppose you openly,” Aydrian said to Duke Kalas, as the pair, along with Marcalo De’Unnero, Abbot Olin, and some other commanders, stood about the large table in what Aydrian had turned into the planning room. A large map of Honce-the-Bear was spread before them, with the areas currently under Aydrian’s secure control, notably the southern stretch from Ursal to Entel, shaded in red—just as he had seen at Oracle.
“None will stand before my Allhearts,” Duke Kalas said.
Marcalo De’Unnero smirked at him, quietly mocking his proud posture. “Not openly, perhaps,” the monk corrected. “The key to our victory will be to look honestly into the hearts of those you leave in your wake. Will they accept King Aydrian? And if not, how great is their hatred? Enough for them to take up arms against him?”
“Most will do as they are told,” Abbot Olin insisted. “We have seen this before, during our march from Entel. The people care little who is leading them as king, as long as that king is gentle and fair toward them.” He looked to Aydrian. “I suggest that Duke Kalas’ journey be more a parade of celebration than the conquering march of an army. You are not invading the kingdom of Honce-the-Bear, after all, but rather spreading the word that the kingdom is rightfully yours.”
“Many might not see it that way,” Duke Kalas reminded. “Certainly, Prince Midalis and his followers . . .”
“Who are mostly in the distant land of Vanguard,” Abbot Olin went on. “You will find few along the road to Palmaris who readily embrace Prince Midalis, if they even know of the man. We must simply tell them the truth of the situation: that Aydrian is king, and accepted as such by the Ursal nobles. Almost to a man, the common folk will go along without argument.”
“For how could they begin to argue?” Marcalo De’Unnero added with a snicker, one that was shared about the table.
But not by Aydrian. “Let us not forget that he who leads Palmaris is a great friend to Jilseponie, and certainly no friend to Marcalo De’Unnero,” the young king pointedly reminded. “Bishop Braumin Herde will oppose us, no doubt.”
“Do you believe him foolish enough to denounce your authority?” Duke Kalas asked. “Do you believe that he will force the army of Ursal to crush the folk of Palmaris?”
“I know not, but certainly St. Precious will not open wide her doors to Marcalo De’Unnero and Abbot Olin,” Aydrian remarked.
De’Unnero looked to Olin, and then to Kalas. For that moment, at least, it seemed as if the fiery monk and the warrior duke were in complete agreement. Kalas even nodded as De’Unnero replied, “Then we will open the door for them.”
“St. Precious will be a fine prize,” Abbot Olin said. “I greatly anticipate seeing her halls.”
“But you will not,” Aydrian said bluntly, and the declaration brought looks of surprise from all about the table, particularly from Abbot Olin himself—and the old abbot’s expression fast shifted from startled to suspicious.
“Abbot Olin will have better and more pleasing duties to attend,” Aydrian explained to the curious stares. “We have all heard the reports of the tumult in Behren, of the revolt of the To-gai-ru and the downfall of the Chezru Chieftain. Behren is a country drifting aimlessly now, with no leader, spiritual or secular. Perhaps it is time for Honce-the-Bear to come to the aid of our southern brothers.”
“What are you saying?” De’Unnero asked incredulously.
“You believe that I should go to Jacintha?” Abbot Olin asked, almost as doubtfully. “To lend support and friendship?”
“To assume the mantle of leadership,” Aydrian declared, and the doubting expressions only magnified, and a few murmurs of disbelief followed. “We cannot allow this open door to close to us,” the king explained, and he began to walk about the table, settling his gaze on each leader in turn. “Not now. Behren is in desperate straits. The people have just learned that their Chezru religion was founded on a complete falsehood, and was in fact one based on the same gemstones that the Yatols use as proof that the Abellicans are demonic. The people of Behren are desperate, I say, for both a friend and a leader. Abbot Olin will be that man.”
“To what end?” De’Unnero demanded, and his tone drew a dangerous look from Aydrian.
“Behren will be mine, perhaps before the fall of Vanguard,” the young king explained to them all, and there was no room for debate within his tone.
“How thin will we stretch our armies?” De’Unnero asked.
“It will take fewer than you believe,” Aydrian shot right back. “We have the wealth to bribe enough of Jacintha’s garrison and the confused Yatols to our side. If this is done properly, and I hold all faith in Abbot Olin, our conquest of Jacintha will be nearly bloodless. And once Jacintha is ours, once we have given the people a new religion and a new hope to grab on to, once we have shown them that we are their friends and brothers, my kingdom will spread from Jacintha to engulf every Behrenese town.”
De’Unnero started to argue further, but Aydrian cut him off.
“I have seen this vision and I know it to be true,” Aydrian proclaimed. “Go to Entel, Abbot Olin. Speak with the pirate fleet we used to secure Entel from Danube. Duke Bretherford will support you with several warships. Gather enough of an army together, not to crush Behren, but to convince those scrambling for power there that you are the necessary alternative to the chaos that now grips their land. Our coffers are deep with gemstones.”
Before De’Unnero could argue further, which he obviously meant to do, Abbot Olin voiced his intrigue. “Could this be possible?” he asked, his eyes verily glowing.
Aydrian and everyone else spent a few moments studying the man. It was no secret in Honce-the-Bear that Abbot Olin of St. Bondabruce in Entel favored Behren, perhaps even over Honce-the-Bear. The reason this senior Abellican abbot had been defeated by Fio Bou-raiy in the last election for Father Abbot of the Church was his close association with Chezru Chieftain Yakim Douan and the Behrenese people. To the Abellicans, Olin had always been a bit too comfortable with the southern kingdom.
And now here was Aydrian, hinting that the southern kingdom might be his.
“More than possible, it is likely,” Aydrian assured the eager man. “Understand, Abbot Olin, that you will come to Jacintha as a friend, and more than that, as a savior. The Yatol priests will follow you because you will bring them the security they have lost with the downfall of the Chezru Chieftain and the chaos it has created among the flock. And because you will pay them—they are a greedy lot!”
“Not all will abandon the way of Chezru,” Abbot Olin warned.
“But enough will to marginalize the others, and you will have enough power at your disposal to . . . well, to dispose of those who prove most troublesome. I expect that Jacintha will be yours, my friend Abbot Olin, and very quickly. And from there, I have no doubt that you will spread your influence and spiritual kingdom, and my secular kingdom, in rapid manner.”
Aydrian looked away from Olin, to the others. De’Unnero was staring at him blankly, trying to absorb it all, obviously, while Duke Kalas was just shaking his head, his expression still doubtful.
“Fear not, Duke Kalas, for Abbot Olin’s press to the south will take little of your resources from the duties of securing the main prize, the kingdom of Honce-the-Bear,” Aydrian remarked. “He will use part of the mercenary armies that brought us to Ursal, and not the professional armies of the kingdom.” He looked back to Olin. “You go there offering friendship and support above all else.”
“And it will be an honest offer,” Abbot Olin replied.
“Indeed,” said Aydrian, “as long as they ultimately agree to the rule of King Aydrian Boudabras.”
Olin’s face darkened for just a moment, but then he grinned, and replied, “Of course.”
He hugged her and he held on for a long, long time. For Bishop Braumin Herde there was usually no more welcome sight than Jilseponie Wyndon, his dear and trusted friend, the woman who had led him through the fires of Bestesbulzibar and the hellish swirl of the rosy plague.
This day, though, the sight of Jilseponie tore at the man’s heart more than it elevated him. In all his years beside her, even during the plague, Braumin had only once seen Jilseponie this downtrodden, and that after the death of her beloved Elbryan. And aside from his fear for his wounded friend, the mere fact that she was here, and not sitting as queen of Honce-the-Bear, set off alarms in his head that many of the rumors creeping up the river might well be true.
“We have word of the death of King Danube,” remarked Brother Marlboro Viscenti, standing across the room from the hugging pair. “Truly I am sorry.”
Jilseponie, her face streaked with tears once again, moved back from Braumin. “It was Aydrian,” she tried to explain, though their looks told her plainly that these two had no idea of who Aydrian truly might be.
“Aydrian Boudabras,” said Braumin. “Yes, the proclamation has come up the Masur Delaval that this young man is now king of Honce-the-Bear, though what that means for us all we do not yet know. I have never heard him mentioned in the royal line.”
“There are other rumors,” Viscenti started to add, but Braumin waved his hand to silence the man.
Jilseponie, though, steadied herself and looked back at the thin and always nervous Viscenti. “Rumors of a change in St. Honce, one that shall spread throughout your church,” she said.
Viscenti nodded slowly.
“Our new king was aided in his ascent by your own Abbot Olin,” Jilseponie confirmed. Then she paused and took a deep breath. “And by Marcalo De’Unnero.”
“Curse the name!” Bishop Braumin cried, and Master Viscenti stood there trembling, wincing repeatedly with his nervous tic.
“How has this happened?” asked Braumin, and he moved away from Jilseponie, stalking across the room. “How did this come about without warning? A young man, unheard of, suddenly proclaimed king? There is no sense in this! What claim might Aydrian Boudabras hold to the throne of Honce-the-Bear?”
“He is my son,” Jilseponie said quietly, though if she had shouted it, if she had brought in a thousand people to shout it, it would not have struck Bishop Braumin and Master Viscenti any more profoundly.
“Your son?” Viscenti echoed incredulously.
“He is but a child?” Abbot Braumin asked. “You bore King Danube a babe? Why did we not—”
“He is a young man,” Jilseponie corrected. “The son of Jilseponie and Elbryan.”
Both monks stood dumbfounded, Viscenti shaking his head and Braumin just staring at Jilseponie, trying to find some reason in this unbeliev- able turn.
“How is that possible?” the bishop of Palmaris finally managed to ask.
“The child I thought lost on the field outside of this very city was not lost,” Jilseponie explained. “He was taken away and raised in secret by . . .” She paused and shook her head.
“And now corrupted by De’Unnero and Olin, to the doom of us all,” reasoned Viscenti.
“So it may prove,” Bishop Braumin answered, when it was apparent that Jilseponie would not. “And Duke Kalas and the armies have thrown in with this phony king? It seems impossible! What of Prince Midalis? Surely he will not stand idly by while this pretender to the throne dismantles his brother’s kingdom, and the Abellican Church, as well!”
“Prince Midalis may go against him, but he will not win,” Jilseponie said, her voice becoming little more than a whisper.
“Many will rally to him!” Viscenti declared, and he shook his fist in the air. “The throne of Honce-the-Bear is not one simply to be stolen, nor is the Abellican Church a willing victim of such treachery! Abbot Olin will be thrown out in disgrace! And Marcalo De’Unnero—we should have burned that fool at the stake years ago. I can hardly believe that he is even still alive! Like the demon dactyl, he is! Unending evil!”
“Surely Aydrian’s claim to the throne is tenuous, at best,” Bishop Braumin reasoned, all the while patting the master’s hands to try to calm the volatile Viscenti, who had not been well of late and had been warned by the healers to try to remain calm—something that was surely against the man’s instincts!
“His claim is enough so that the general populace will accept him,” said Jilseponie. “It is enough so that the nobles who were not in Danube’s favor at the end have the excuse to embrace him. Aydrian came to Ursal with an army at the ready, and once the throne was taken, he only added to that army with Danube’s own soldiers.” She looked at Bishop Braumin with sincere sympathy, and slowly shook her head. “He has Ursal, and will sweep through Palmaris, long before Prince Midalis can organize and offer any aid to you, should you choose to oppose Aydrian. Of that much I am sure. And allies will not be easily found, especially here in the southwestern reaches of Honce-the-Bear, so dominated by Ursal and the corrupt dukes. The common folk will welcome Aydrian because to do otherwise would mean doing battle against him, and that, they have not the power to do.”
“The Church will not succumb to the threats of a usurper and his treacherous cronies!” Bishop Braumin declared. “Palmaris will offer resistance to this King Aydrian, and St. Precious will never open her doors to him, or for Marcalo De’Unnero and the traitor, Abbot Olin.”
“You would pit your city against the legions of Ursal?” Jilseponie quietly asked, and her words stole more than a little of Braumin’s bluster. Palmaris was no minor city, and its garrison was strong and deep and well seasoned. But they would be no match for the Allheart Knights and the thousands of soldiers of Ursal.
“For the city, I . . . I do not know,” Braumin admitted, but the helpless shake of his head didn’t last for long and the fires quickly returned to his dark eyes. “But on my life, I vow that neither Aydrian nor the cursed De’Unnero will enter this abbey, unless they are dragged through the gates in chains!”
“Do not make such a vow!” Jilseponie scolded. “You do not understand the power that will come against you!”
“You would have me welcome them?”
“I would beg you to flee!” said Jilseponie. “To St.-Mere-Abelle, and from there to Vanguard, if that is necessary. If you stay . . .” Her voice failed her then, and she began to pant, trying to catch her breath. She would have fallen to the ground had not Braumin rushed forward and caught her in his grasp, holding her tightly once more.
Aydrian waved them all away and continued to stand at the map table as the noblemen filed out, talking amongst themselves. De’Unnero grabbed that open door and stepped beside it, as if he meant to close it behind the others while he remained in the room.
“Go to St. Honce with Abbot Olin,” Aydrian said to him. “Help him to prepare the formal documents declaring the change in the Abellican Church.”
“And what is that change to be?” De’Unnero asked, and he looked back to the hall to make sure that Olin was far away by then. “Are we to proclaim Olin as Father Abbot?”
“For now, our friend Olin will serve as the official Abellican emissary to Behren,” Aydrian replied. “That is all we need to tell your brothers. Soon, Olin will be named Father Abbot of the Abellican Church in Behren.”
Not surprised, De’Unnero nonetheless chuckled. “You make it sound so easy.”
“That part will be easier than placing Marcalo De’Unnero as Father Abbot of the Abellican Church in Honce-the-Bear,” came Aydrian’s response, one that had De’Unnero’s dark eyes glowing. “While most of the country south of the Gulf of Corona will fall to me without bloodshed, we both understand that your Abellican brothers will not so easily accept you as their leader.”
“They are not my brothers, so killing them will bring me little pause,” De’Unnero replied.
“Then go and begin the process of your ascent,” Aydrian told him. “Invite all who would come to join you in the march of King Aydrian, as the kingdom is solidified, as the church is renewed. Do not overtly threaten any who refuse, but—”
De’Unnero stopped him with an upraised hand. “I understand how I must proceed, now that it is clear that Abbot Olin and I are to walk diverging roads.”
“The more you convince with promises, the easier it will be to destroy those who refuse,” Aydrian said.
De’Unnero smiled wryly and left the room, closing the door behind him.
Aydrian turned back to the table, to the large map of the world. He ran his hand from Ursal to Palmaris, then from Entel across the Mantis Arm, following the coast all the way to St.-Mere-Abelle, the most coveted prize of all, and the one he knew would prove the most difficult to attain.
“You see?” he asked.
Across the way, a drapery moved, and Sadye walked out into the open.
“Tell me,” Aydrian asked her, “what did you perceive of Duke Monmouth of Yorkey?”
“He fears you,” the woman replied, walking to stand beside Aydrian at the table. “And he hates you. Though neither emotion is as strong in him as in Duke Kalas.”
“And yet the fear within Kalas is so profound that it dooms him as my ally,” Aydrian remarked. “What of Bretherford?”
Sadye looked up at him, her gaze lingering on his young and strong and undeniably handsome features for a long while. “I do not know.”
“The southland must be secured before I do battle with Prince Midalis,” Aydrian explained to her. “That will be a process more of measuring the loyalty of the noblemen who service each region than of conquering the commoners.”
“King Danube was loved by the common folk, as was your mother.”
“The common folk care not at all who is their king,” Aydrian told her, and he looked away from the map, locking stares with her, and smiled. “If they are eating well, they love their king. If they are starving, they despise him. It is not so difficult a thing to understand.”
“And you will feed them well,” Sadye said.
Aydrian looked back at the map, running his hand from those areas already shaded red to those areas, all the rest of the world, he intended to overtake. “I will win with kindness and I will win with cruelty,” he said calmly, matter-of-factly.
The fact that they were standing almost directly above the dungeon staircase, beneath which rotted the body of Torrence Pemblebury, only strengthened that statement.
“Long live King Aydrian,” Sadye said quietly, and she gently touched his arm.
Aydrian didn’t look at her, knowing that his indifference at that moment only strengthened his growing hold over her, only heightened her growing hunger for him.
* * *
“What are you going to do?”
The question was simple and straightforward enough, but it echoed confusingly around the thoughts of Bishop Braumin Herde.
What are you going to do?
About the abbey? About the city? He was the appointed bishop, which meant that both were under his guidance. He knew in his heart that he could not welcome any change to the Abellican Church that included Marcalo De’Unnero. The man was a murderer. The man had brought nothing but chaos and misery with him whenever he had come through Palmaris. He had once been bishop here, and had executed one merchant horribly and publicly. As henchman to Father Abbot Markwart, he had imprisoned Elbryan and Jilseponie, Viscenti and Braumin, among others.
Braumin understood that he now had to keep these two tumultuous, shattering events in Ursal separate. On the secular level, Aydrian was now king of Honce-the-Bear, and whether that was a legitimate claim or not, the fact that he apparently had the armies of Ursal to back him up made it a claim that none could oppose without dire risk. On the spiritual level, the mere thought that Abbot Olin was in league with De’Unnero discredited the man wholly within the Abellican Church, the Church that had been moving steadily toward the vision of dear Avelyn Desbris, De’Unnero’s avowed enemy.
Slowly, Bishop Braumin turned to face the questioner, Brother Viscenti, his dear friend who had been through so much beside him, all the way back across the decades to their mutual discovery of the truth of Avelyn under the tutelage of dead Master Jojonah in the catacombs of St.-Mere-Abelle.
“St. Precious will not open her doors for them,” the bishop declared. “Never that. Let De’Unnero and his newfound henchmen knock those doors down, if they will. Have them burn me at the stake, if they will. But I’ll not surrender my principles to that man. I’ll not encourage his misguided view of the world.”
“Almost every brother here will stand firm with you,” Viscenti replied.
Braumin Herde wasn’t sure if that was welcome support or not, because he understood clearly what that might mean to his beloved companions. He almost said something to deny Viscenti’s words, but he bit the retort back, reminding himself that he, as a younger man, had been more than ready to die for his beliefs. He had stood beside Elbryan and Avelyn when that surely put him in line for the gallows. Could he ask those beneath him now to surrender their own principles and beliefs for the sake of their corporeal bodies?
“St. Precious will lock them out and keep them out!” Viscenti boldly declared.
“And if they overrun us, then our deaths will not be futile,” Braumin assured him. “The Abellican Church must make a principled stand against De’Unnero, whatever the cost, because to do otherwise would be to abandon everything we hold dear.”
“But what of the city?” Viscenti asked. “Can we demand as much from the common man? Should we bar the gate and man the walls and allow the folk of Palmaris to be slaughtered by this new king?”
That was the rub. How Braumin Herde wished at that moment that King Danube had never appointed him bishop of Palmaris!
“I think you should deny him entrance, or at least, deny his army entrance,” the surprising Viscenti remarked. “If this man who claims to be king wishes to parley, then allow him that, but in such a meeting, make it perfectly clear that Marcalo De’Unnero, curse his name, is not welcome here. Perhaps we can drive a wedge between them. Perhaps we can persuade Aydrian to speak more openly with his mother.”
“You ask me to take quite a risk,” said Braumin. “And if King Aydrian refuses to parley? If he demands the opening of the gate? Do we face war with Ursal, brother?”
Brother Viscenti leaned back and pondered the possibilities for a long while. “I would expect that the people of Palmaris, given the truth of their choices, would fight Aydrian to a man and a woman,” he replied. “These are the folk who witnessed the Miracle of Avelyn. These are the Behrenese welcomed as part of Palmaris when no one else would have them—forget not, for they certainly have not forgotten, that De’Unnero and his Brothers Repentant persecuted them most horribly in the days of the plague! These are the folk who saw the folly of Markwart, and De’Unnero, who saw the beauty of Elbryan and Jilseponie, and of Bishop Braumin Herde. If you would so readily die for your principles, my friend, should not they be given the same opportunity?”
Bishop Braumin chuckled at the strange irony of that implication, that it was his duty to allow his flock to be slaughtered.
He strode across the room and hugged his dear friend, patting him hard on the back. Yes, Braumin Herde was quite grateful to Brother Viscenti at that moment, for the man had indeed helped him sort through the swirl that was in his mind.
“Jilseponie has gone to Roger,” Viscenti remarked. “Watch the fire of Roger Lockless when he learns of the events in Ursal. He will rally Palmaris, if you will not!”
Braumin pushed Viscenti back to arm’s length. “Or both of us, or the three of us, will rally all the region as never before!” he said with a determined smile.
Just beneath that determined smile, that shared pat on the back, though, lay the realization that the coming darkness might be the greatest threat ever to face the city of Palmaris. For always before, when the hordes of the demon dactyl threatened or the foul stench of Father Abbot Markwart pervaded the air, Palmaris had had an ally in the greater city of Ursal.
This time, though . . .
From the Hardcover edition.