A Magic of Nightfall (Nessantico Cycle Series #2)by S. L. Farrell
A masterwork of fantasy, The Nessantico Cycle is the epic tale of an empire at its height, yet poised on the brink of what could be a devastating descent into ruin. Told from the viewpoints of numerous characters, it is a sweeping saga of murder and magic (portrayed both as a powerful religion and a/i>/b>
Second in a brilliant new fantasy series.
A masterwork of fantasy, The Nessantico Cycle is the epic tale of an empire at its height, yet poised on the brink of what could be a devastating descent into ruin. Told from the viewpoints of numerous characters, it is a sweeping saga of murder and magic (portrayed both as a powerful religion and a forbidden art), deception and betrayal, Machiavellian politics, star-crossed lovers, and a realm facing war on every front.
Read an Excerpt
Table of Contents
The White Stone
The White Stone
The White Stone
The White Stone
The White Stone
The White Stone
The White Stone
The White Stone
The White Stone
The Battle Begun: Kenne ca’Fionta
The Battle Begun: Niente
The Battle Begun: Sergei ca’Rudka
The Battle Begun: Karl Vliomani
The Battle Begun: Sigourney ca’Ludovici
The Battle Begun: The White Stone
The Battle Begun: Niente
The Battle Begun: Sigourney ca’Ludovici
The White Stone
S. L. FARRELL’S
MAGNIFICENT FANTASY SERIES
THE NESSANTICO CYCLE:
A MAGIC OF TWILIGHT
A MAGIC OF NIGHTFALL
HOLDER OF LIGHTNING
MAGE OF CLOUDS
HEIR OF STONE
Copyright © 2009 by Stephen Leigh.
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First Printing, March 2009
DAW TRADEMARK REGISTERED
U.S. PAT. AND TM. OFF. AND FOREIGN COUNTRIES
HECHO EN U.S.A.
eISBN : 978-1-101-01951-1
For my parents, Wally & Betty
Who always encouraged the strange, “artistic” child they created.
It’s ultimately their fault!
And, as always, to Denise
I’ve read several books for inspiration and reference in writing this series. The books I read prior to starting the Nessantico Cycle as well as those read during the writing of A Magic Of Twilight are listed in that book; obviously, they too have also influenced the book you’re holding. I’ve continued to read historical texts for inspiration and research—it’s something I enjoy, in any case. Here are the books read during the writing of this book, all of which to some degree influenced the text.
• The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Houghton Mifflin, 2006
• Religion and the Decline of Magic by Keith Thomas. Oxford University Press, 1971
• The Jesuit & The Skull by Amir Aczel. Penguin, 2007
• Brunelleschi’s Dome by Ross Kind. Penguin, 2001
A trip to France in 2005 also served as inspiration for much of the Nessantico Cycle. In particular, the Loire Valley region, with its chateaux and lovely countryside, sparked several ideas, as did our days in Paris. I would recommend that anyone going to France see the Loire Valley and spend time exploring not only the chateaux, but the small villages in the surrounding countryside such as Azay le Rideau or Villaines les-Rochers. Nessantico is not specifically Paris—it’s an amalgam of that city along with Florence and Venice—but many details are drawn from our experiences there. Hopefully they have enriched the book.
It may sound strange to acknowledge a piece of software, but I’m going to. In the midst of writing this book, I stumbled across the most useful novel-writing software to have ever graced my computer: Scrivener. For those of you on the Macintosh platform who are writing novels, you must take a look at this. Scrivener thinks the way I think and allowed me to manage the monumental task of writing a novel far, far better than any word processor ever could. Thanks, Keith Blount, for creating this program! For the curious, Scrivener can be found at http://www.literatureandlatte.com/—I highly, highly recommend it!
Many thanks, as always, to my agent Merrilee Heifetz of Writers House, who has been my partner-in-writing for many years now—without her, none of this would have been possible.
My gratitude to my first readers; Denise Parsley Leigh (who was forced to read all the drafts), and Justin Scott and Don Wenzel, who labored through the submission draft—thanks to all of you for the input and the corrections! Your help was much appreciated!
And lastly (but certainly not last in importance—she goes last because you always want to end with something strong! I need to express my gratitude to Sheila Gilbert, a most excellent editor and someone I also consider a friend. We’ve now worked together on several books, and her input and criticism made each a richer book than it would have been otherwise. Thank you, Sheila!
IF A CITY CAN HAVE a gender, Nessantico was female. . . .
Once, she had been young and vital: the city, the woman. During her ascension, she had transformed herself into the most famous, the most beautiful, the most powerful of her kind.
She looked at herself now and wondered—as someone might who glimpses herself all unexpected in a mirror and is startled and disturbed by the image staring back—if those attributes still held true.
Oh, she knew that youth was fleeting and ephemeral. After all, the people dwelling within her walls led lives that were short and harsh. For them, the mirrored face changed relentlessly with each passing day until that morning when they realized that the reflection in the silvered glass was lined and tired, that the gray at the temples had spread and whitened. They might feel their joints protesting at a movement that had once required no effort or thought at all, or discover that injuries now required weeks rather than days to heal, or that illnesses lingered like unwelcome guests—or worse, transitioned from “lingering” to “chronic.”
The chill of mortality seeped into their mortal bones like slow ice.
Mortality: Nessantico felt it, too. Those within her disguised her lines and folds with the cosmetics of architecture. Look, she could say: there is cu’Brunelli’s grand dome for the Old Temple—fifteen years under construction now—which when finished will be the largest free-standing dome in the known world. There: that’s ca’Casseli’s ornate and beautiful Theatre a’Kralji on the Isle, capable of holding an audience of two thousand, with acoustics so fine that everyone can hear the slightest whisper on the stage; there, the Grande Libreria on the South Bank, begun under Kraljiki Justi’s reign and containing all the greatest intellectual works of humankind. Listen: that is the sweet music of ce’Miella, whose compositions rival the lush melodies of the master Darkmavis. Gaze on the symbol-laden paintings and murals of ce’Vaggio, whose ability to paint figures is often compared to that of the tragic master ci’Recroix. There is so much vibrant life here within Nessantico: all the plays and the dances, the celebrations and gaiety.
All is the same here as it has always been; no, all is better.
Yet she had changed, and she knew it. There were signs and portents. In Oldtown, not long ago, there was a woman born with the legs of a tarantula who (it was whispered) could kill with a single glance from her faceted eyes. There had been the affliction of thousands of green toads from the Fens two springs ago, so thick that they had covered the nearby lanes in a writhing mass a hand’s span deep. In the sewers of the North Bank, a creature with the head of a dragon, the body of a bull, and the hands and feet of a human was said to prowl, eating rats that had grown to the size of wolves.
There were the real, inarguable signs, too. The Holdings had been broken, that strong alliance of countries forged slowly over centuries. After an ill-fated attack on Nessantico in the wake of Kraljica Marguerite’s assassination, the city Brezno had become her rival as Firenzcia gathered around itself several of its neighboring lands: a Coalition under the direction of Hïrzg Jan ca’Vörl.
The Concénzia Faith, too, had been sundered, and it was not what it had been. Archigos Ana sat in the temple on the South Bank, yes, but another called himself Archigos in Brezno. Within Nessantico, the heretical Numetodo took on new adherents, and it was not uncommon to see someone casting a spell who was not wearing green robes or calling first on Cénzi.
Signs and portents. Change. The older Nessantico grew, the more change became difficult for her.
Caught in her own unwelcome autumn, Nessantico—the city, the woman—stared at her reflection in the dark waters of the River A’Sele and wondered. . . .
And, like many in her position, she denied what she saw.
The White Stone
HER VATARH HAD BEEN the sun around which she had orbited for as long as she could remember. Now that sun, at long last, was setting.
The message had arrived from Brezno by fast-rider, and she stared at the words scrawled by a hasty, fair hand. “Your vatarh is dying. If you want to see him, hurry.” That was the entire message. It was signed by Archigos Semini of Brezno and sealed with his signet.
Vatarh is dying. . . . The great Hïrzg Jan of Firenzcia, after whom she had named her only child, was passing. The words set alight a sour fire in her belly; the words swam on the page with the salt tears that welled unbidden in her eyes. She sat there—at her fine desk, in her opulent offices near the Gyula’s palais in Malacki—and she saw a droplet hit the paper to smudge the inked words.
She hated that Vatarh could still affect her so strongly; she hated that she cared. She should have hated him, but she couldn’t. No matter how hard she’d tried over the years, she couldn’t.
One might curse the sun for its scorching heat or its absence, but without the sun there was no life.
“I hate him,” she declared to Archigos Ana. It had been two years since Ana had snatched her away from her vatarh to hold her as hostage. Two years, and he still hadn’t paid the ransom to bring her back. She was thirteen, on the cusp of her menarche, and he had abandoned her. What had originally been anxiety and disappointment had slowly transformed inside her into anger. At least that’s what she believed.
“No, you don’t,” Ana said quietly, stroking her hair. They were standing on the balcony of her apartments in the Temple complex in Nessantico, staring down to where knots of green-clad téni hurried to their duties. “Not really. If he paid the ransom tomorrow, you would be glowing and ready to run back to him. Look inside yourself, Allesandra. Look honestly. Isn’t that true?”
“Well, he must hate me,” she retorted, “or he’d have paid.”
Ana had hugged her tightly then. “He will,” she told Allesandra. “He will. It’s just . . . Allesandra, your vatarh wished to sit on the Sun Throne. He has always been a proud man, and because I took you away, he was never able to realize his dream. You remind him of all he lost. And that’s my fault. Not yours. It’s not yours at all.”
Vatarh hadn’t paid. Not for ten long years. It had been Fynn, the new son her matarh Greta had given the Hïrzg, who basked in Vatarh’s affections, who was taught the ways of war, who was named as the new A’Hïrzg—the title that should have been hers.
Instead of her vatarh and her matarh, it was Archigos Ana who became her surrogate parent, shepherding her through puberty and adolescence, comforting Allesandra through her first crushes and infatuations, teaching her the ways of ca’-and-cu’ society, escorting her to dances and parties, treating her not as a captive but as a niece it had become her responsibility to raise.
“I love you, Tantzia,” Allesandra said to Ana. She’d taken to calling the Archigos “aunt.” The news had come to Kraljiki Justi that a treaty between the Holdings and the Firenzcian “Coalition” was to be signed in Passe a’Fiume, and as part of the negotiations, Hïrzg Jan had finally paid the ransom for his daughter. She’d been a decade in Nessantico, nearly half her life. Now, at twenty-one, she was to return to the life she’d lost so long ago and she was frightened by the prospect. Once, this had been all she’d wanted. Now . . .
Part of her wanted to stay here. Here, where she knew she was loved.
Ana folded her in her arms. Allesandra was taller than the Archigos now, and Ana had to raise up on tiptoes to kiss her forehead. “I love you, too, Allesandra. I’ll miss you, but it’s time for you to go home. Just know that I will always be here for you. Always. You are part of my heart, my dear. Forever.”
Allesandra had hoped that she could bask in the sun of her vatarh’s love again. Yes, she’d heard all about how the new A’Hïrzg Fynn was the child Hïrzg Jan had always desired: skilled at riding, at the sword, at diplomacy. She’d heard how he was being groomed already for a career in the Garde Firenzcia. But she had once been the pride of her vatarh, too. Surely, she could become so again.
But she knew as soon as he looked at her, across the parley tent there at Passe a’Fiume, that it was not to be. In his hawkish eyes, there had been a smoldering distaste. He’d glanced at her appraisingly, as he might a stranger—and indeed, she was a stranger to him: a young woman now, no longer the girl he’d lost. He’d taken her hands and accepted her curtsy as he might have any ca’-and-cu’ and passed her off to Archigos Semini a moment later.
Fynn had been at his side—the age now that she’d been when she’d been taken—and he looked appraisingly at his older sister as he might have at some rival.
Allesandra had sought Ana’s gaze from across the tent, and the woman had smiled sadly toward her and raised her hand in farewell. There had been tears in Ana’s eyes, sparkling in the sun that beat through the thin canvas of the tent. Ana, at least, had been true to her word. She had written Allesandra regularly. She had negotiated with her vatarh to be allowed to attend Allesandra’s marriage to Pauli ca’Xielt, the son of the Gyula of West Magyaria and thus a politically-advantageous marriage for the Hïrzg, and a loveless one for Allesandra.
Ana had even, surreptitiously, been present at the birth of Allesandra’s son, nearly sixteen years ago now. Archigos Ana—the heretical and false Archigos according to Firenzcia, whom Allesandra was obliged to hate as a good citizen of the Coalition—had blessed the child and pronounced the name that Allesandra had given him: Jan. She’d done so without rebuke and without comment. She’d done so with a gentle smile and a kiss.
Even naming her child for her vatarh had changed nothing. It had not brought him closer to Allesandra—Hïrzg Jan had mostly ignored his great-son and namesake. Jan was in the company of Hïrzg Jan perhaps twice a year, when he and Allesandra visited for state occasions, and only rarely did the Hïrzg speak directly to his great-son.
Now . . . Now her vatarh was dying and she couldn’t help crying for him. Or perhaps it was that she couldn’t help crying for herself. Angrily, she tore at the dampness on her cheeks with her sleeve. “Aeri!” she called to her secretary. “Come in here! I have to go to Brezno.”
Allesandra strode into the Hïrzg’s bedchamber, tossing aside her travel-stained cloak, her hair wind-tossed and the smell of horse on her clothes. She pushed past the servants who tried to assist her and went to the bed. The chevarittai and various relatives gathered there moved aside to let her approach; she could feel their appraising stares on her back. She stared at the wizened, dried-apple face on the pillow and barely recognized him.
“Is he . . . ?” she asked brusquely, but then she heard the phlegm-racked rattle of his breath and saw the slow movement of his chest under the blankets. The room stank of sickness despite the perfumed candles. “Out!” she told them all, gesturing. “Tell Fynn I’ve come, but leave me alone with my vatarh. Out!”
They scattered, as she knew they would. None of them attempted to protest, though the healers frowned at her from under carefully-lowered brows, and she could hear the whispers even as they fled. “It’s no wonder her husband stays away from her . . . A goat has better manners . . . She has the arrogance of Nessantico . . .”
She slammed the door in their faces.
Then, finally, staring down at her vatarh’s gray, sunken face, she allowed herself to cry, kneeling alongside his bed and holding his cold, withered hands. “I loved you, Vatarh,” she told him. Alone with him, there could be truth. “I did. Even after you abandoned me, even after you gave Fynn all the affection I wanted, I still loved you. I could have been the heir you deserved. I will still be that, if I have the chance.”
She heard the scrape of bootsteps at the door and rose to her feet, wiping at her eyes with the sleeve of her tashta, and sniffing once as Fynn pushed the door open. He strode into the chamber—Fynn never simply walked into a room. “Sister,” he said. “I see the news reached you.”
Allesandra stood, arms folded. She would not let him realize how deeply seeing her vatarh on his deathbed had affected her. She shrugged. “I still have sources here in Brezno, even when my brother fails to send a messenger.”
“It slipped my mind,” he said. “But I figured you would hear anyway.” The smile he gave her was more sneer, twisted by the long, puckered scar that ran from the corner of his right eye and across his lip to the chin: the mark of a Tennshah scimitar. Fynn, at twenty-four, had the hard, lean body of a professional soldier, a figure that suited the loose pants and shirt that he wore. Such Tennshah clothing had become fashionable in Firenzcia since the border wars six years before, where Fynn had engaged the T’Sha’s forces and pushed Firenzcia’s borders nearly thirty leagues eastward, and where he had acquired the long scar that marred his handsome face.
It was during that war that Fynn had won their vatarh’s affection entirely and ended any lingering hope of Allesandra’s that she might become Hïrzgin.
“The healers say the end will come sometime today, or possibly tonight if he continues to fight—Vatarh never did give up easily, did he? But the soul shredders will come for him this time. There’s no longer any doubt of that.” Fynn glanced down at the figure on the bed as the Hïrzg took another long, shuddering breath. The young man’s gaze was affectionate and sad, and yet somehow appraising at the same time, as if he were gauging how long it might be before he could slip the signet ring from the folded hands and put it on his own finger; how soon he could place the golden crown-band of the Hïrzg on the curls of his own head. “There’s nothing you or I can do, Sister,” he said, “other than pray that Cénzi receives Vatarh’s soul kindly. Beyond that . . .” He shrugged. “How is my nephew Jan?” he asked.
“You’ll see soon enough,” Allesandra told him. “He’s on his way to Brezno behind me and should arrive tomorrow.”
“And your husband? The dear Pauli?”
Allesandra sniffed. “If you’re trying to goad me, Fynn, it won’t work. I’ve suggested to Pauli that he remain in Malacki and attend to state business. What of yourself? Have you found someone to marry yet, or do you still prefer the company of soldiers and horses?”
The smile was slow in coming and uncertain when it appeared. “Now who goads whom?” he asked. “Vatarh and I had made no decisions on that yet, and now it seems that the decision will be mine alone—though I’ll certainly listen to any suggestions you might have.” He opened his arms, and she reluctantly allowed him to embrace her. Neither one of them tightened their arms but only encircled the other as if hugging a thornbush, and the gesture ended after a single breath. “Allesandra, I know there’s always been a distance between us, but I hope that we can work as one when . . .” He hesitated, and she watched his chest rise with a long inhalation. “. . . when I am the Hïrzg. I will need your counsel, Sister.”
“And I will give it to you,” she told him. She leaned forward and kissed the air a careful finger’s width from his scarred cheek. “Little brother.”
“I wish we could have truly been little brother and big sister,” he answered. “I wish I could have known you then.”
“As do I,” she told him. And I wish those were more than just empty, polite words we both say because we know they’re demanded by etiquette. “Stay here with me now? Let Vatarh feel us together for once.”
She felt his hesitation and wondered whether he’d refuse. But after a breath, he lifted one shoulder. “For a turn of the glass or so,” he said. “We can pray for him. Together.”
He pulled two chairs to the side of the bed, placing them an arm’s length apart. They sat, they watched the faltering rise and fall of their vatarh’s chest, and they said nothing more.
“I HAVETO RIDE as quickly as I can to Brezno,” his matarh had told him. “I’ve instructed the servants to pack up our rooms for travel. I want you to follow along as soon as they have the carriages ready. And, Jan, see if you can convince your vatarh to come with you.” She kissed his forehead then, more urgently than she had in years, and pulled him into her. “I love you,” she whispered. “I hope you know that.”
“I do,” he’d told her, pulling away and grinning at her. “And I hope you know that.”
She’d smiled, hugging him a final time before she swung herself onto the horse held by the two chevarittai who would accompany her. He watched the trio clatter away down the road of their estate at a gallop.
That had been two days ago. His matarh should have made Brezno yesterday. Jan leaned his head back against the cushions of the carriage, watching the landscape of southern Firenzcia pass by in the green-gold light of late afternoon. The driver had told him that they would be stopping at the next village for the evening, and arrive in Brezno by midday tomorrow. He wondered what he’d find there.
He was alone in his carriage.
He’d asked his vatarh Pauli to come with him, as his matarh had requested. The servants had told him that Pauli was in his apartments at the estate—in a separate wing from those of Allesandra—and Pauli’s chief aide had gone in to announce Jan. The aide had returned with arched eyebrows. “Your vatarh says he can spare a few moments,” he’d said, escorting Jan to one of the reception rooms off the main corridor.
Jan could hear the muffled giggling of two women from a bedroom leading from the room. The door opened in the middle of a man’s coarse laugh. His vatarh was in a robe, his hair was tousled and unkempt, and his beard untrimmed. He smelled of perfume and wine. “A moment,” he’d said to Jan, touching a finger to his lips before half-staggering to the door leading to the bedroom and opening it slightly. “Shh!” he said loudly. “I am trying to conduct a conversation about my wife with my son,” he said. That was greeted by shrill laughter.
“Tell the boy to join us,” Jan heard one of them call out. He felt his face flush at the comment as Pauli waggled his forefinger toward the unseen woman.
“The two of you are delightfully wicked,” Pauli told them. Jan imagined the women: rouged, bewigged, half-clothed, or perhaps entirely nude, like one of the portraits of the Moitidi goddesses that adorned the halls. He felt himself responding to the image and forced it out of his mind. “I’ll be there in a moment,” Pauli continued. “You ladies have more wine.”
He closed the door and leaned heavily against it. “Sorry,” he told Jan. “I have . . . company. Now, what did the bitch want? Oh—you may tell your matarh for me that the A’Gyula of West Magyaria has better things to do than ride to Brezno because someone may or may not be dying. When the old bastard finally does breathe his last, I’ll undoubtedly be sent to the funeral as our representative, and that’ll be soon enough.” His words were slurred. He blinked slowly and belched. “You don’t need to go either, boy. Stay here, why don’t you? The two of us could have some fun, eh? I’m sure these ladies have friends. . . .”
Jan shook his head. “I promised Matarh that I’d ask you to come, and I have. I’m leaving tonight; the servants have nearly finished packing the carriages.”
“Ah, yes,” Pauli said. “You’re such a good, obedient child, aren’t you? Your matarh’s pride and joy.” He pushed himself from the door and stood unsteadily, pointing at Jan with a fingertip that drifted from one side to another. “You don’t want to be like her,” he said. “She won’t be satisfied until she’s running the whole world. She’s an ambitious whore with a heart carved from flint.”
He’d heard Pauli insult his matarh a thousand times, more with each passing year. He’d always gritted his teeth before, had pretended not to hear or mumbled a protest that Pauli would ignore. This time . . . The nascent flush in Jan’s face went lava-red. He took three swift steps across the carpeted room, drew his hand back, and slapped his vatarh across the face. Pauli reeled, staggering back against the door, which opened and toppled him onto a braided rug there. Jan saw the two women inside—half-clothed, indeed, and in his vatarh’s bed. They covered their breasts with the sheets, screaming. Pauli lifted an unbelieving hand to his face; over the thin beard, Jan could see the imprint of his fingers on his vatarh’s cheek.
He wondered for a moment what he’d do if Pauli got up, but his vatarh only blinked again and laughed as if startled.
“Well, you didn’t need to do that,” he said.
“You may have whatever opinion you want of Matarh,” Jan told him. “I don’t care. But from now on, Vatarh, keep them to yourself or we will have more than words.” With that, before Pauli could rise from the carpet or answer, Jan turned and rushed from the room.
He felt strangely exhilarated. His hand tingled. The rest of the day, he expected to be summoned into his vatarh’s presence—once the wine had passed from the man’s head. But when he was told that the carriages were ready and waiting for him, he had heard nothing. He looked up to the windows of his vatarh’s wing as he entered the lead carriage and the servants traveling with him piled into the others. Jan thought he glimpsed a form at the window, watching, and he lifted his hand—the hand that had struck his vatarh.
Another form—a feminine one—approached his vatarh from behind, and the curtain closed again. Jan stepped up into the carriage. “Let’s go,” he told the driver. “We’ve a long journey ahead.”
He looked out from the carriage window again now. For most of the journey, he’d brooded on what had happened. He was nearly sixteen. Nearly a man. He’d even had his first lover—a ce’ girl who had been part of the estate staff, though his matarh had sent her away when she realized that they had become intimate. She’d also given Jan a long lecture on her expectations for him. “But Vatarh—” he’d begun, and she cut off his protest with a sharp slash of her hand.
“Stop there, Jan. Your vatarh is lazy and dissolute, and—forgive my crudeness—he too often thinks with what’s between his legs, not with his head. You’re better than him, Jan. You are going to be important in this world, if you make the choice not to be your vatarh’s child. I know this. I promise you.”
She hadn’t said all that she could have, and they both knew it. Pauli might be Jan’s vatarh, but for him that was just another title and not an occupation. It had been his matarh whom Jan saw each day, who had played with him when he was small, who had come to see him each night after his nursemaids had tucked him into bed. His vatarh . . . He was a tall figure who sometimes tousled Jan’s head or who gave him extravagant presents that seemed more to be a payment for his absence than true gifts.
His vatarh was the A’Gyula of West Magyaria, the son of the current Gyula, the ruler who Jan saw about as often as he saw his other great-vatarh, the Hïrzg. People bowed in Pauli’s presence, they laughed and smiled as they talked with him. But Jan had heard the whispers of the staff, and of their guests when they thought no one was listening.
His right hand throbbed, as if with the memory of the slap to his vatarh’s face. He looked at the hand in the dying light of the day: an adult’s hand now. The slap to his vatarh’s face had severed him from his childhood forever.
He would not be his vatarh. That much, he promised himself. He would be his own self. Independent.
VARINA STOOD ALONGSIDE Karl in the Archigos’ plush reception room, but—as was nearly always the case when Ana was in the same room—she seemed invisible to him. All his attention was on the Archigos. Varina wanted to lean over to Karl and slap him. “Can’t you see what’s in front of your face? Are you that oblivious?”
It seemed he was. He always was, and he always would be where Ana was concerned. Over the years, Varina had come to that conclusion. It would perhaps have been different if Varina didn’t like and admire the Archigos herself, if she didn’t consider the woman a friend. Still . . .
“You’re sure of this?” Karl asked Ana. He was glancing at a parchment that Ana had handed him, a forefinger tapping the words written there. “He’s dead?” There was no trace of sadness in his voice at all; he was, in fact, smiling as he handed the paper back to her.
Ana frowned. If Karl found the news pleasant, it was obvious to Varina that Ana’s own feelings were more conflicted. “Hïrzg Jan’s dying,” Ana said. “And likely dead by this point, I suspect, if this information is accurate. The téni who sent this message has the healing touch; he should know if the man’s beyond saving.”
“About time the old buzzard passed on,” Karl said. He glanced around the room thoughtfully, but not at Varina. “Have you talked to Allesandra? Will she contest Fynn’s claim to the throne?”
“I don’t know.” Ana seemed to sigh. Ana had never been beautiful; at best, as a young woman, she’d been plain. Even she would have admitted that. Now, approaching her middle years, she’d settled into a matronly figure, but there was something striking and solid and compelling about her. Varina could understand Karl’s attraction and devotion to the woman, even as part of her resented it. Ana’s reputation had only grown over the years. Kraljiki Justi had been mocked behind his back, and his son Audric seemed to be faring no better, and there were those in the Faith who felt Ana’s tolerance and openness were heretical, but the common people of Nessantico and the Holdings seemed to adore their Archigos and had taken her to their hearts. Varina had seen the crowds around the temple whenever Ana was to give an Admonition, and she’d heard the cheers when the Archigos’ carriage passed by on the Avi a’Parete.
“If Allesandra were on the throne of Firenzcia, I’d feel better about everything,” Ana continued. “I’d feel there was some hope that the Holdings could be restored. If Allesandra were Hïrzgin . . .” Another sigh. She looked over her shoulder at the huge, ornamental cracked globe that dominated the far corner of the room: gilded and bejeweled, with carvings of the Moitidi—the demigods who were the sons and daughters of Cénzi—writhing in agony around its base. Her voice was a half-whisper, as if she were afraid someone might overhear her. “Then I might consider opening negotiations with Semini ca’Cellibrecca, to see if the Faith could also be reunited.”
Varina sucked in her breath and Ana glanced at her sympathetically. “I know, Varina,” she said. “I assure you that the safety of the Numetodo would be a nonnegotiable point, even if I were willing to step aside as Archigos for Semini. I wouldn’t tolerate a repeat of the persecutions.”
“You couldn’t trust ca’Cellibrecca to keep those promises,” Varina told her. “He’s his marriage-vatarh’s son, all the way through.”
“Ca’Cellibrecca would be bound to keep a public pledge, as well as his vows to Cénzi.”
“You have more more faith in him than I do,” Varina answered. That caused Ana to smile.
“Strange to hear a Numetodo speak of faith,” she said, her hand reaching out to touch Varina’s shoulder through her tashta. She laughed pleasantly. “But I understand your concern and your skepticism. I ask you to trust me—if it came to that, I will make certain you, Karl, and all your people are protected.”
“Will it come to that?” Karl interjected. He’d watched Ana’s hand as if wishing she were touching him. “You think there’s a chance, Ana?”
She looked at the paper in her hand as if searching for an answer there, then turned to drop the scroll on a nearby table. It made little sound—a strange thing, Varina thought, for something so heavy with import. “I don’t know,” Ana said. “There’s no love lost between Allesandra and her brother—given how long Allesandra was here with me while both of them were growing up, they’re more strangers than siblings, and the way Hïrzg Jan treated Allesandra when he did ransom her . . .” Ana shook her head. “But I don’t know what Allesandra wants anymore, or what her desires and aspirations might be. I thought I knew once, but . . .”
“You were a matarh to her,” Karl said, and Ana laughed again.
“No, I wasn’t that. Maybe an older sister or a tantzia. I tried to be someone she could be safe with, because the poor child was all alone here for far too long. I can’t imagine how much that hurt her.”
“You were wonderful to her,” Karl persisted. Varina watched Karl’s hand reach out to take Ana’s. It hurt to watch the gesture. “You were.”
“Thank you, but I always wonder if I could have done more, or better,” Ana said. She moved her hands slowly away from his. “I did what I could. That’s all Cénzi can ask, I suppose.” She smiled. “We’ll see what happens, won’t we? I’ll keep you informed if I hear any more news.”
“You’re still available for dinner tomorrow?” Karl asked her.
Ana’s gaze slid from Karl to Varina and back. “Yes,” she said. “After Third Call. Would you like to join us, Varina?”
She could feel Karl staring at her. “No,” Varina said hurriedly. “I can’t, Archigos. I have a meeting with Mika, and a class to teach . . .” Too many excuses, but Karl was nodding. His satisfaction at her answer was like the cut of a small blade.
“Tomorrow night, then,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it. We should probably go, Varina. I’m sure the Archigos has other business. . . .” He inclined his head toward Ana and started toward the door. Varina turned to follow him, but Ana’s voice called out behind them.
“Varina, a moment? Karl, I’ll send her along directly, I promise.” Karl glanced back, puzzled, but he bowed again and went to the doors. The two massive panels were carved with bas-reliefs of the Moitidi in battle, with swords clashing and overlapping at the join. Karl pulled and the combatants separated. Varina waited until the polished, dark wood had closed behind him and the Moitidi were once again at war.
“I wanted a moment with you, Varina, because I’m worried,” Ana said. “You look so tired and so drawn. Thin. I know how caught up you’ve become in your . . . research. Are you remembering to eat?”
Varina touched her face. She knew what Ana was saying. She’d seen her face in the small mirror she kept on her dressing table. Her fingertips traced the new lines that had emerged in the past several months, felt the coarseness of the gray hairs at her temple. She was afraid to look in the mirror most mornings—the face that looked back at her was an older stranger she barely recognized. “I’m fine,” she said reflexively.
“Are you?” Ana asked again. “These ‘experiments’ Karl says you’re doing, attempting to recreate what Mahri could do . . .” She shook her head. “I worry about you, Varina. So does Karl.”
“So does Karl . . .” She wished she could believe those words. “I’m fine,” she repeated.
“I could use the Ilmodo if you’d like—it might help. If you’re in pain.”
“You’d disobey the Divolonté and heal me? An unbeliever? Archigos!” Varina smiled at Ana, who laughed in return.
“I can trust you to keep my secrets,” Ana said. “And the offer stands, if you ever feel the need.”
“Thank you, Archigos. I’ll keep that in mind.” She nodded her head toward the silent, battling Moitidi. “I should catch up with Karl.”
“Yes, you should.” Ana started to give the sign of Cénzi to Varina, then stopped herself. “I could tell him,” she said.
“I have eyes. When I see you with him . . .”
Varina laughed. “You’re the only one he sees, Archigos.”
“And I’m bound to Cénzi,” Ana said. “No one else. I’m not destined for that kind of relationship in this life. I’ve told him that. I treasure his friendship and all he’s done for me and Nessantico. I love Karl dearly, more than I ever loved anyone else. But what he wants . . .” Her head moved slowly from side to side as her lips pressed together. “You should tell him how you feel.”
“If I need to tell him, then it’s obvious that the feeling isn’t shared,” Varina answered. She managed to force her lips into an upward curve. “And I’m bound to my work, as you’re bound to Cénzi.”
Ana stepped forward and gave Varina a quick hug. “Then Karl’s a fool, for not seeing how alike we are.”
EVEN A KRALJIKI could not avoid his lessons, nor the examinations designed to scrape away whatever essence of knowledge clung to the inside of his skull.
Audric stood before the Sun Throne with his hands clasped behind his back, facing his tutor, Maister ci’Blaylock. Behind the brittle, chalk-dusted stick of the maister, the audience gazed at Audric with smiling encouragement: a few chevarittai bedecked with their Blood Medals, the ca’-and-cu’, the usual courtiers, Sigourney ca’Ludovici, and a few other members of the Council of Ca’ . . . all those who wished Audric to notice that they had attended the young Kraljiki’s quarterly examination. At fourteen, Audric was all too aware of the flattering attention that came to him because of his lineage and his title.
They weren’t there for the examination; they were there to be seen. By him. Only by him.
He enjoyed that thought.
“Year 471,” ci’Blaylock intoned, looking up from the scroll-laden lectern at which he stood. “The line of the Kralji.”
An easy one, that. No challenge at all. “Kraljica Marguerite ca’Ludovici,” Audric answered quickly and firmly. He coughed then—he coughed often—and added: “Also known as the Généra a’Pace.”
And also my great-matarh . . . Marguerite’s uneasily realistic portrait, painted by the late master artisan Edouard ci’Recroix—who had also created the large canvas of a peasant family that adorned this very Hall of the Sun Throne—hung in Audric’s bedroom. Marguerite watched him every night as he slept, and gave him the same strange, weary half-smile every morning when he woke. He’d wished many times that he’d had the chance to actually know her—he’d certainly heard enough tales regarding her. He sometimes wondered if all the tales were true: in the memories of the people of Nessantico, Kraljica Marguerite had presided over a Golden Age, an age of sunlight compared to the storm-wrapped politics of the present.
The court applauded politely at his answer, smiling. Most of their pleasure was undoubtedly due to the fact that they were finally nearing the end of the examination, as Maister ci’Blaylock slowly climbed the ladder of history. They’d begun—nearly half a turn of the glass ago—in Year 413 with Kraljiki Henri VI, the first year of the ca’Ludovici line from which Audric himself was descended; the onlookers had been standing the entire time since, after all, one did not sit in the presence of the Kraljiki without permission. Audric knew the answers to the few remaining questions; how could he not, being so intricately bound up in his family’s life? A barely discernible sigh emanated from the court, along with a rustling of clothing as they shifted their stances. “Correct,” ci’Blaylock said, sniffing. He was a dark-skinned man, as many from the province of Namarro were. He dipped the tip of his quill pen into the inkwell of the lectern and made a short, deliberate mark on the open scroll. The scratch of the pen was loud. The wings of his white eyebrows fluttered above cataract-pale eyes. “Year 485. The line of the Archigi.”
Cough. “Archigos Kasim ca’Velarina.” Cough.
More polite applause, and another dip and scratch of the pen.. “Correct. Year 503. The line of the Archigi.”
Audric took a breath and coughed again. “Archigos Dhosti ca’Millac,” he said. “The Dwarf.” Applause. Pen scratch. Audric heard the far door of the hall open; Regent Sergei ca’Rudka entered, striding quickly forward to where Audric was standing. Despite his years, the Regent moved with energy and a straight bearing. The courtiers, with a cautious glance, slid quickly aside to give him room. Sergei’s silver artificial nose alternately gleamed and dimmed in the shafts of failing sunlight streaming through the windows.
“Correct,” ci’Blaylock intoned. “Year 521. The line of the Kralji.”
That was easy: That was the year Audric’s vatarh had taken the Sun Throne after Marguerite’s assassination. Audric took another breath, but the effort sent him into a momentary coughing spasm: deep and filled with the ugly sound of liquid in his lungs. Afterward, he straightened and cleared his throat. “Kraljiki Justi ca’Dakwi,” he told ci’Blaylock and the courtiers. “The Great Warrior,” he added. That was the appellation Justi had given himself. Audric had heard the other whispered names given him when people thought no one was listening: Justi the One-Legged; Justi the Incompetent; Justi the Great Failure.
Those names no one would have dared say to the Kraljiki’s face while he’d been alive. Audric looked at the smiles pasted on the faces of the ca’-and-cu’ and wondered what names they called him when he was not there to hear.
Audric the Ill. Audric the Regent’s Puppet.
Again, applause came from the onlookers. Sergei, his arms crossed, didn’t join them. He watched from just behind Maister ci’Blaylock, who seemed to feel the pressure of the man’s presence. He glanced once over his shoulder at the Regent and shivered visibly. “Umm . . .” The old man shook his head, glanced at the scroll, then plunged an ink-stained forefinger toward it. “Year 521,” he said. “The line of the Archigi.”
That one was a longer answer but still easy. “Archigos Orlandi ca’Cellibrecca. The Great Traitor and first false Archigos of Brezno.” Audric coughed again, pausing to clear his throat. “Then the same year, after ca’Cellibrecca betrayed the Concénzia Faith and Kraljiki Justi at Passe a’Fiume, Archigos Ana ca’Seranta, the youngest téni ever named Archigos.”
Ana, who still held the title of Archigos. Ana, whom Audric loved as if she were the matarh he’d never known. Audric smiled at the mention of her name, and the applause that came then was genuine—Archigos Ana was well and truly loved by the people of Nessantico.
“Correct,” ci’Blaylock said. “Very good. Also Year 521. War and politics.”
“The Rebellion of Hïrzg Jan ca’Vörl,” Audric answered quickly. The guttural Firenzcian syllables sent his lungs into spasm again. It took several breaths to stop them and manage to talk again. “The Hïrzg was defeated by Kraljiki Justi at the Battle of the Fens,” he managed to croak out, finally.
“Excellent!” The voice was not ci’Blaylock’s but Sergei’s, as he applauded loudly and strode out to stand alongside Audric. The courtiers joined the applause belatedly and uncertainly. Sigourney ca’Ludovici, Audric noticed, didn’t applaud at all, only crossed her arms and glared. “Maister ci’Blaylock, I’m sure you’ve heard enough to make your judgment,” Sergei continued.
Ci’Blayblock frowned. “Regent, I wasn’t quite fin—” He stopped, and Audric saw him staring at the Regent’s frown. He laid down the quill and started to roll up the testing scroll. “Yes, that was very satisfactory,” he said. “Well done, Kraljiki, as always.”
“Good,” Sergei said. “Now, if all of you will excuse us . . .”
The Regent’s dismissal was abrupt but effective. Maister ci’Blaylock gathered up his scrolls and limped toward the nearest door; the courtiers drifted away like tendrils of fog on a sunny morning, smiling until they turned their backs. Audric could hear their furious whispering speculations as they left the hall. Sigourney, however, paused. “Is this something the Council of Ca’ should know?” she asked Sergei. She wasn’t looking at Audric; it was as if he weren’t important enough to be noticed.
Sergei shook his head. “Not at the moment, Councillor ca’Ludovici,” he said. “If it becomes so, be assured that I will let you know immediately.”
Sigourney sniffed at that, but she nodded to Sergei and bowed the proper obeisance to Audric before leaving the hall. Only a few servants remained, standing silently by the tapestry-hung stone walls, while two e-téni—priests of the Concénzia Faith—whispered prayers as they lit the lamps against the dying light. On the wall near the Sun Throne, the faces of the peasant family in ci’Recroix’s painting seemed to shiver in the light of the téni-fire.
“Thank you, Sergei,” Audric said. He hacked again, covering his mouth with a fisted hand. “You could have come half a turn of the glass earlier, though, and saved me the whole ordeal.”
Sergei grinned. “And face the wrath of Maister ci’Blaylock? Not likely.” He paused a moment, and the lines of his face went serious around the metal nose. “I would have been here earlier to hear your examination, Kraljiki, but I’ve just received a message from a contact in Firenzcia. There’s news, and I thought you should hear it before the Council: Hïrzg Jan of Firenzcia is on his deathbed. He’s not expected to live out the week. It may be that he’s dead already—the message was days old.”
“So A’Hïrzg Fynn will become the new Hïrzg? Or will Allesandra fight her brother’s ascension?”
Sergei’s grin returned momentarily. “Ah, so you do pay attention to my briefings. Good. That’s far more important than Maister ci’Blaylock’s lessons.” He shook his head. “I doubt Allesandra will protest. She doesn’t have enough backing from the ca’-and-cu’ of Firenzcia to contest Hïrzg Jan’s will.”
“Which of the two would we prefer?”
“Our own preference would be Allesandra, Kraljiki—after the decade and more she spent here waiting for Hïrzg Jan to ransom her, we know her far better. Archigos Ana always had a good relationship with her, and Allesandra is far more sympathetic to the Holdings. If she became Hïrzgin . . . well, maybe there would be some hope of reconciliation between the Holdings and the Coalition. There might even be a faint possibility that we could return things to the way they were in your great-matarh’s time, with you on the Sun Throne under a reunited Holdings. But with Fynn as Hïrzg . . .” Again, Sergei shook his head. “He is his vatarh’s son, just as bellicose and stubborn. If he’s Hïrzg, we’ll have to watch our eastern border closely—which will mean less resources we can spare for the war in the Hellins, unfortunately.”
Audric bent over with another coughing fit, and Sergei placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Your cough is worsening again, Kraljiki,” he said. “I’ll have the healers make another potion for you, and perhaps we’ll have Archigos Ana see you tomorrow after the Day of Return ceremony. It’s a little early, but with the rains last month . . .”
“I’m better now,” Audric told him. “It’s just the damp air here in the hall.” The nearest e’téni had stopped her chant, her hands frozen in the middle of shaping the Ilmodo—the energy that fueled their magic. She was a young woman not much older than Audric; she blushed when she saw that Audric had noticed her, looked quickly away, and began her chant anew: the lamp set high on the wall bloomed into light as her hands waved in the Ilmodo patterns under it.
Audric’s chest was beginning to ache with the racking coughs. He hated being ill, but it seemed he was often sick. He’d been that way from the very beginning of his memories. If an illness were passing through the staff of the palais, he was certain to catch it; he was constantly assailed by coughing fits, by difficulty in breathing. Any physical exertion left him quickly exhausted and gasping. Yet somehow Cénzi had protected him from the outbreak of Southern Fever when he was four, though the illness had taken his older sister Marguerite, named for her famous great-matarh and primed to be the Kraljica on their vatarh’s death. Her state funeral—a long and somber ceremony—was one of his earliest memories.
It should be Marguerite standing here now, not him. Audric hoped this meant Cénzi had a plan for him.
He drew in a long breath and this time held back the cough that threatened. “There, you see,” he told Sergei. “Just the damp, and having to answer all the Maister’s damnable questions.”
“At least the maister’s questions have definite answers. The solutions for a Kraljiki are rarely so clear-cut, as you already know.” Sergei put his arm around Audric, and Audric leaned into the man’s embrace. “Trust ca’Rudka as your Regent,” his vatarh had whispered as he lay on his bed during that final day. “Trust him as you would me . . .”
The truth was that Audric had never quite trusted his vatarh, whose temperament and favor had been erratic at best. But Sergei . . . Audric felt that his vatarh had made a final good choice with the man. Yes, he might chafe under the Regent’s hand more and more as he approached his majority, he might be irritated that people at times treated Sergei as if he were the Kraljiki, but Audric could not have asked for a more loyal ally in the chaotic winds of the Kraljiki’s court.
It didn’t matter to him what the whispers of the courtiers said about the Regent. It didn’t matter what the man did in the dungeons of the Bastida, or with the grandes horizontales he sometimes took to his bed.
“I suppose we must draft a statement for the Hïrzg’s death,” Audric said. “And we must listen to ten different councillors requesting that we respond in twenty different ways. Then ten more advisers to tell us what we need to do about the Hellins in the west.”
Sergei laughed. His arm tightened around Audric’s shoulder, then released him. He rubbed at his silver nose as if it itched him. “No doubt,” he answered. “ I would say that you have learned all your lessons very well, Kraljiki.”
HIS AUGUST PRESENCE, the Kraljiki Audric, hunched in his padded, elevated seat alongside Sergei, coughing so desperately that Sergei leaned over to the boy. “Do you need some of the healer’s draught, Kraljiki? I’ll have one of the attendants bring it over . . .” He started to gesture, but Audric caught his arm.
“Wait, Sergei. This will pass.” Audric said it in three breaths. Wait, Sergei (breath) This will (breath) pass. . . . Just the effort of grabbing Sergei’s arm visibly tired the boy.
Sergei rubbed at the polished surface of the false nose glued to his face, his original nose lost long decades ago in a youthful sword fight. “Would you prefer to return to the palais, Kraljiki?” Sergei asked. “The smoke from the censers and the incense can’t be good for your lungs, and the Archigos will understand. In any case, she’ll be over to see you as soon as she’s finished here.”
“We’ll stay, Sergei. This is where I should be.” We’ll stay (breath) Sergei (cough breath cough). This is (breath) where I (breath) should be. . . .
Sergei nodded. In that, the boy was right. The two were seated in the royal balcony of the Archigos’ Temple, on the South Bank of the River A’Sele in Nessantico. Below, the main floor of the temple was packed with worshipers for the Day of Return. Archigos Ana stood with several of the a’téni in the quire of the Temple, her hair—streaked with bright, gray-white strands at the temples—gleaming in the glow of the téni lamps, her strong, fierce voice reciting the lines from the Toustour. The Day of Return was the Spring solstice ceremony, preparing the faithful for the eventual return of Cénzi to the world He had created. It was the duty of Kraljiki Audric to attend, which was why the temple was crowded to its very sides with the chevarittai, with the ca’-and-cu’, with those lesser-ranked families who could cram into the remaining space, all of them there to catch a glimpse of the young Kraljiki and perhaps to also catch his eye: for a request, for a petition, or perhaps because he was not yet officially betrothed to anyone despite the persistent rumors that the Regent intended to make arrangements soon with one of the great families of the Holdings.
They also would have noted the Kraljiki’s deep, barking coughs punctuating the Archigos’ reading. Even Archigos Ana stopped once in the midst of her recitation to glance up with concern and sympathy toward their balcony. She nodded almost imperceptibly to Sergei, and he knew that she would hurry to the palais after the ceremony. Sergei leaned over again, whispering into the boy’s ear. “The Archigos has promised to come by after we’re done here and pray for you. She always helps you, I know. You can endure this, knowing you’ll feel better soon.”
Audric nodded wide-eyed, muffling another cough with a perfumed handkerchief. Sergei wondered if Audric knew—as Sergei did—that the reason the Archigos’ “prayers” helped him so dramatically was because, against the laws of the Divolonté that governed the Concénzia Faith, Ana used her skills with the magic of the Ilmodo to heal Audric’s ravaged lungs. This was something she had done since soon after Audric’s birth, when it was apparent that the boy’s life was in jeopardy. She had done much the same for Audric’s great-matarh, the much-lamented Kraljica Marguerite, in her last days, keeping her alive when without intervention she would have died.
It had been a month since Archigos Ana’s last visit for that purpose; it was obvious that the illness in the boy was returning once more: as it always, inevitably, did. Audric folded the handkerchief and put it back in his bashta; Sergei saw flecks of red caught in the linen. He said nothing, but decided he would send word to Ana that they would instead meet her immediately after the service, in her chambers here. The boy needed attention quickly.
Sergei sat back in his chair as Archigos Ana strode toward the High Lectern for her Admonition to the gathering, as the choir in their loft began a Darkmavis hymn. The ca’-and-cu’ stirred in their finery. Sergei could see Karl ca’Vliomani standing near the side of the Temple, lifting his hand to Sergei in acknowledgment—ca’Vliomani, the Ambassador of the Isle of Paeti and of the Numetodo Sect, wasn’t a believer but Sergei knew that the Ambassador and Archigos Ana had been, if not actual lovers, then friends and confidants since before the Battle of the Fens twenty-four years ago. During that battle, the young Archigos Ana had used both the Numetodo and her own magic to snatch A’Hïrzg Allesandra of Firenzcia from her vatarh and hold her as hostage against the Hïrzg’s retreat. The plan had worked, though Firenzcia and her neighboring countries had seceded from the Holdings in the wake of the hostilities to form the Firenzcian Coalition.
Sergei found himself wondering, again, whether Ana’s defeat of the Firenzcian forces had truly been the triumph they had all thought it to be, whether it might not have been better for the Holdings had Hïrzg Jan taken the city and become Kraljiki. Had that occurred, both Ana and Sergei himself would be dead, but in all probability there would be only the Holdings and no rival Coalition. There would be only one Concénzia Faith. Had that occurred, then the new Kraljiki could have dealt with the Westlanders’ uprising in the Hellins fully, with all the resources of the Garde Civile and without having to worry about what might happen to the east.
Had that occurred, then Justi the One-Legged Fool would never have become Kraljiki and Audric never his heir, and Nessantico would be flourishing, not languishing.
Sergei, frankly, had never expected Archigos Ana to be able to retain her title—she had been too young and naïve, but the fire of the Battle of the Fens had tempered the steel within her. She had proved stronger than any of the a’téni who might have tried to take her place, stronger than her rival Archigos in Brezno, and certainly stronger than Kraljiki Justi, who had believed he could control the Faith through her.
In the end, Justi had been able to dominate nothing: not Ana, not the Faith, not the Holdings. While Ana showed herself to be surprisingly successful as Archigos, Justi had been a catastrophe as Kraljiki.
Justi the One-Legged squandered in two decades what it had taken his matarh and the Kralji before her more than five centuries to create, and we are left to pay for his incompetence with both the Holdings and the Faith sundered into East and West factions. And now the troubles in the Hellins compound the issue while we have a boy on the Sun Throne who may not live to sire an heir himself.
Sergei sighed, closing his eyes as he listened to the choir. He would go to the Bastida tomorrow morning, and he would assuage his worries with pain. He’d find solace in screams. Yes, that would be good. The ending chords floated glistening in his mind, and he heard the Archigos step onto the stairs of the High Lectern.
Sergei would remember the next moment for the remainder of his life.
There was a ferocious, impossible light—as if Cénzi had sent a lightning bolt from the heavens through the gilded dome above. The harsh glare penetrated Sergei’s closed eyelids; a thunder roared in his ears and the concussion pounded at his chest. Instinctively, Sergei hurled himself over Audric, knocking the boy to the floor of the balcony and covering the Kraljiki’s body with his own. His aging joints protested at the sudden movement and the abuse. He could hear Audric gasping for breath; he could also hear the screams and wails from below, pierced by Karl ca’Vliomani’s stricken, horrified shout ringing above them all: “Ana! Ana! Nooooooo!”
“Kraljiki! Regent!” Hands pulled at Sergei, lifting him—a quartet of the Garde Kralji, whose job it was to protect the Kraljiki and the Regent. Dust clouded the air inside the temple and Sergei blinked against the grit, barely able to breathe himself. He could hear the desperate coughing of Audric. The temple stank of sulfur and brimstone.
“You, and you—escort the Kraljiki from here and back to the palais immediately,” Sergei said, jabbing his fingers at the gardai. “You two, come with me.”
Sergei hurried down the forward stairs of the balcony, flanked by the gardai with swords drawn pushing aside those who were in their way. People were screaming and yelling, and he could hear the moans and shrill cries of the wounded. Sergei was forced to limp, his right knee sore and swelling rapidly; it took him far too long to navigate the stairs, clutching at the railing with each step. Below, everything was confusion.
“Regent! Here!” Aris cu’Falla, the Commandant of the Garde Kralji, gestured over heads to Sergei as gardai pushed at the crowds. The din of pain and grief was enormous, and Sergei noted many bloodied faces and arms. The front of the temple was littered with cracked stone and splintered wood; he glimpsed several bodies in the rubble.
One of the bodies wore the Archigos’ robes. Sergei’s breath left him, to be replaced by a cold, icy rage. “Commandant, what happened here?”
Cu’Falla shook his head. “I don’t know, Regent. Not yet. I was watching the ceremony from near the rear of the temple. When the Archigos came to the High Lectern . . . I’ve never seen anything like that, Regent. It was a spell of some sort, almost certainly, but like something a war-téni would do. The flash, the noise, the stone and wood and . . .” He frowned. “. . . other things flying everywhere. The blast seems to have come from underneath the High Lectern. There are at least half a dozen dead, and far more injured, some of them badly. . . .”
Groaning at the pain in his knee, the Regent crouched next to Ana’s body. Her face was nearly unrecognizable, the lower half of her body and her right arm entirely gone. He knew immediately that she was dead, that there was no hope here. An odd black dust coated the floor around her. Sergei turned his head away to see Karl ca’Vliomani being held back by the gardai, his face panicked, his bashta coated with dust. Sergei pushed himself slowly to his feet again, grimacing as his knees cracked. “Cover her and the other bodies,” he told cu’Falla. “Clear the temple of everyone but the téni and gardai. Send for Commandant cu’Ulcai of the Garde Civile if you need more help.” He released a long, shuddering breath. “And let the Ambassador through to me.”
Cu’Falla nodded and called out orders. Ca’Vliomani immediately darted toward Ana’s body, and Sergei moved to intercept him. “No,” he told Karl, clutching his shoulders. “She’s gone, Karl. There’s nothing you can do. Nothing.”
He felt the man sag, heard him sob once. “Sergei, I have to see her. Please. I have to know.” His eyes were stricken, and he looked suddenly decades older. His Paeti accent, which the Ambassador had never lost despite his years in Nessantico, was stronger now than ever.
“No, you don’t, my friend,” Sergei persisted. “Please listen to me. You don’t want this to be the last image you have of her. You don’t want that. Truly. I say that for your own sake.”
Ca’Vliomani started to weep, then, and Sergei held him as the gardai moved around them, as téni of the temple—silent in their shock and horror—went to tend to the wounded and the dead, as the dark dust settled around and on them, as the roar of the spell echoed eternally in Sergei’s ears.
He didn’t think he would ever forget that sound, and he wondered what it heralded: for himself, for Audric, for the Concénzia Faith, for Nessantico.
NICO SIPPED AT THE TEA that his matarh placed in front of him, holding the wooden mug with both small hands. “Matarh, why would someone want to kill Archigos Ana?”
“I don’t know, Nico,” she answered. She set a slice of bread and a few hunks of cheese before him on the scarred table near the window. She brushed wisps of brown hair from her forehead, staring through the open shutters to the narrow street outside. “I don’t know,” she said again. “I just hope . . .”
“You hope what, Matarh?”
She shook her head. “Nothing, Nico. Go on, eat.”
They’d attended the Day of Return ceremony at Temple Park, a long walk from their apartment in Oldtown. Nico always enjoyed it when they went to Temple Park, since the open, green space was such a contrast to the crowded, dirty streets in the maze of Oldtown. Just as they were leaving the park, they heard the wind-horns start to blow, and then the rumors had gone through the crowds like a fire in a summer-dry field: the Archigos had been killed. By magic, some of them said. Awful magic, like the heretic Numetodo could do, or maybe a war-téni.
Nico had cried a little because everyone else was crying, and his matarh looked worried. They’d hurried home.
Once, Matarh had taken Nico across the Pontica Mordei to the Isle a’Kralji, and he’d seen the grounds of the Regent’s palais and the Old Temple, the first one built in Nessantico. He’d marveled at the new dome being built on top of the Old Temple, with the lines of scaffolding holding the workers so impossibly high up in the sky. It made Nico dizzy just to look at them.
Afterward, they’d even gone over the Pontica a’Brezi Nippoli to the South Bank, where most of the ca’-and-cu’ lived. He’d walked with Matarh through the grand complex of the Archigos’ Temple and glimpsed the Archigos herself: a tiny figure in green at one of the windows of the buildings attached to the massive temple, waving to the throngs in the plaza.
Now she was dead. That was easy enough to imagine. Death was utterly common; he saw it often in the streets and had watched it come to his own family. Matarh said that Ana had been Archigos since she’d been a baby, and Matarh was twenty-eight years old—practically ancient, so it was hardly a surprise that the Archigos would die. Nico could barely remember his gremma, who had died when he was five. Maybe Gremma had been as old as Archigos Ana. Nico could remember his older brother fairly well, who had died of the Southern Fever four years ago. Matarh said there’d been another, even older brother who had also died, but Nico didn’t really remember him at all. There was Fiona, his sister who had been born first—he didn’t know if she was still alive, though he always imagined that she was; she’d run away when she was twelve, almost three years ago now. Talis had been living with them—Talis had been living with Matarh ever since Nico could remember, but Fiona had told him that hadn’t always been the way it was, that there’d been another man before Talis who had been Fiona’s vatarh and the vatarh of his brothers. She said that Talis was Nico’s vatarh, but Talis never wanted Nico to call him that.
Nico missed Fiona. He sometimes imagined that Fiona had gone to another city and become rich. He liked to think of that, sometimes. He dreamed of her coming back to Nessantico with a ce’ or even a ci’ before her name, and he’d open the door to see her wearing a tashta that was clean and brightly-colored as she smiled at him. “Nico,” she’d say. “You, Matarh, and Talis are going to come and live with me . . .”
Maybe Nico would leave home when he was twelve, too—two years from now. Nico could see the deep lines in Matarh’s face as she stared out toward the street. The hair at her temples was streaked with white strands. “Are you watching for Talis?” he asked.
He saw her frown, then smile as she turned her head to him. “You just eat, darling,” she said. “Don’t worry about Talis. He’ll be along soon enough.”
Nico nodded, gnawing on the hard crust of the nearly stale bread and trying to avoid the loose back molar that was threatening to fall out, the last of his baby teeth. He wasn’t worried about Talis, only the tooth. He didn’t want to lose it, since if he did Matarh would make him smash it with a hammer and grind it up, and that was a lot of work. When he was done, she would help him sprinkle the powder onto some milk-moistened bread, and they’d put the bread outside the window next to his bed. At night, he’d hear the rats and mice eating the offering, scurrying around outside. In the morning, the dish would be empty; Matarh said that meant that his new teeth would grow in as strong as a rat’s.
He’d seen what rats could do with their teeth. They could strip the meat from a dead cat in hours. He hoped his teeth would be that strong. He reached into his mouth with a forefinger and wiggled the tooth, feeling it rocking easily back and forth in his gums. If he pushed hard, it would come out. . . .
Nico heard Talis call out for his matarh. Matarh ran to him, and they embraced as he shut the door behind him. “I was worried,” Matarh said. “When I heard about . . .”
“Shh . . .” he said, kissing her forehead. His gaze was on Nico, watching them. “Hey, Nico. Did your matarh take you to Temple Park today?”
“Yes,” Nico said. He went over to them, sidling close to his matarh so that her arm went around him. He wrinkled his nose, staring up at the man. “You smell funny, Talis,” he said.
“Nico—” his matarh began, but Talis laughed and ruffled Nico’s hair. Nico hated when he did that.
“It’s all right, Serafina,” Talis said. “You can’t fault the boy for being honest.” Talis didn’t talk the way other people did in Oldtown; he pronounced his words strangely, as if his tongue didn’t like the taste of the syllables and so he spat them out as quickly as possible instead of letting them linger the way most people did. Talis crouched down near Nico. “I walked by a fire on the way here,” he said. “Lots of nasty smoke. The fire-téni put it out, though.”
Nico nodded, but he thought that Talis didn’t smell like smoke exactly. The odor was sharper and harsher. “Archigos Ana died, Talis,” he said instead.
“That’s what I’ve heard,” Talis answered. “The Regent will be scouring the city, looking for a scapegoat to blame it on. It’s time for foreigners to lay low if they want to stay safe.” He seemed to be talking more to Nico’s matarh than to Nico, his eyes glancing up toward her.
“Talis . . .” Matarh breathed his name, the way she sometimes called out Nico’s name when he was sick or he’d hurt himself. Talis stood up again, hugging Nico’s matarh. “It will be fine, Sera,” he heard Talis whisper to her. “I promise you.”
Listening to him, Nico pushed at the loose tooth with his tongue. He heard a tiny pop and tasted blood.
“Matarh,” Nico said, “my tooth came out . . .”
Allesandra heard the call, followed by a tentative knock. Her son Jan was standing at the open door. At fifteen, almost sixteen, he was stick-thin and gawky. In just the past several months, his body had started to morph into that of a young man, with a fine down of hair on his chin and under his arms. He was still several fingers shorter than the girls of the same age, most of whom had reached their menarche the year before. Named for her vatarh, she could glimpse some of his features in her son, but there was a strong strain of the ca’Xielt family in him as well—Pauli’s family. Jan had the duskier skin coloring of the Magyarians, and his vatarh’s dark eyes and curly, nearly black hair. She doubted that he would ever have the heavier ca’Belgradin musculature of his uncle Fynn, which Allesandra’s great-vatarh Karin and vatarh Jan had also possessed.
She sometimes had difficulty imagining him galloping madly into battle—though he could ride as well as any, and had keen sight that an archer would envy. Still, he often seemed more comfortable with scrolls and books than swords. And despite his parentage, despite the act (purely of duty) that had produced him, despite the surliness and barely-hidden anger that seemed to consume him lately, she loved him more than she had thought it possible to love anyone.
And she worried, in the last year especially, that she was losing him, that he might be falling under Pauli’s influence. Pauli had been absent through most of Jan’s life, but maybe that was Pauli’s advantage: it was easier to dislike the parent who was always correcting you, and to admire the one who let you do whatever you wanted. There’d been that incident with the staff girl, and Allesandra had needed to send her away—that was too much like Pauli.
“Come in, darling,” she said, beckoning to him.
Jan nodded without smiling, went to the dressing table where she sat, and touched his lips to the top of her head—the barest shadow of a kiss—as the women helping her dress drifted away silently. “Onczio Fynn sent me to fetch you,” he said. “Evidently it’s time.” A pause. “And evidently I’m little better than a servant to him. Just Magyarian chattel to be sent on errands.”
“Jan!” she said sharply. She gestured with her eyes to her maidservants. They were all West Magyarians, part of the entourage that had come with Jan from Malacki.
He shrugged, uncaring. “Are you coming, Matarh, or are you going to send me back to Fynn with your own response like a good little messenger boy?”
You can’t respond here the way you want to. Not where everything we say could become court gossip tonight. “I’m nearly ready, Jan,” she said, gesturing. “We’ll go down together, since you’re here.” The servants returned, one brushing her hair, another placing a pearl necklace that had once been her matarh Greta’s around her neck, and yet another adjusting the folds of her tashta. She handed another necklace to her dressing girl: a cracked globe on a fine chain, the continents gold, the seas purest lapiz lazuli, the rent in the globe filled with rubies in its depths—Cénzi’s globe. Archigos Ana had given her the necklace when she’d reached her own menarche, in Nessantico.
“It belonged to Archigos Dhosti once,” Ana had told her. “He gave it to me; now I give it to you.” Allesandra touched the globe as the servant fastened it around her neck and remembered Ana: the sound of her voice, the smell of her.
“Everyone keeps telling me how Onczio Fynn will make a fine Hïrzg,” Jan said, interrupting the memory.
“I know,” Allesandra began. And why would you expect anything else? she wanted to add. Jan knew the etiquette of court well enough to understand that.
He evidently saw the unspoken remark in her face. “I wasn’t finished. I was going to say that you would make a better one. You should be the one wearing the golden band and the ring, Matarh.”
“Hush,” she told him again, though more gently this time. The maidservants were her own, true, but one never knew. Secrets could be bought, or coaxed out through love, or forced through pain. “We’re not at home, Jan. You must remember that. Especially here . . .”
His sullen frown melted for a moment, and he looked so apologetic that all her irritation melted, and she stroked his arm. It was that way with him too much of late: scowls one moment and warm smiles the next. However, the scowls were coming more frequently as the loving child in him retreated ever deeper into his new adolescent shell. “It’s fine, Jan,” she told him. “Just . . . well, you must be very careful while we’re here. Always.” And especially with Fynn. She tucked the thought away. She would tell him later. Privately. She stood, and the servants fell away like autumn leaves. She hugged Jan; he allowed the gesture but nothing more, his own arms barely moving. “All right, we’ll go down now. Remember that you are the son of the A’Gyula of West Magyaria, and also the son of the current A’Hïrzg of Firenzcia.”
Fynn had given her the title yesterday, after their vatarh had died: the title that should have been hers all along, that would have made her Hïrzgin. She knew that even that gift was temporary, that Fynn would name someone else A’Hïrzg in time: his own child, perhaps, if he ever married and produced an heir, or some court favorite. Allesandra would be Fynn’s heir only until he found one he liked better.
“Matarh,” Jan interrupted. He gave a too-loud huff of air, and the frown returned. “I know the lecture. ‘The eyes and ears of the ca’-and-cu’ will be on you.’ I know. You don’t have to tell me. Again.”
Allesandra wished she believed that. “All right,” she breathed. “Let us go down, then, and be with the new Hïrzg as we lay your great-vatarh to his rest.”
With the death of Hïrzg Jan, the required month of mourning had been proclaimed, and a dozen necessary ceremonies scheduled. The new Hïrzg Fynn would preside over several rituals in the next few weeks: some only for the ca’-and-cu’, some for the edification of the public. The formal Besteigung, the final ritual, would take place at the end of the month in Brezno Temple with Archigos Semini presiding—timed so that the leaders of the other countries of the Firenzcian Coalition could make their way to Brezno and pay homage to the new Hïrzg. Allesandra had already been told that A’Gyula Pauli would be arriving for the Besteigung, at least—she was already dreading her husband’s arrival.
And tonight . . . tonight was the Internment.
The Kralji burned their dead; the Hïrzgai entombed theirs. Hïrzg Jan’s body was to be buried in the vault of the ca’Belgradins where several generations of their ancestors lay, a hand or more of them having shared with Jan the golden band that now circled Fynn’s forehead. Fynn was waiting for them in his own chambers; from there they would go down to the vaults below the ground floor of Brezno Palais. The Chevarittai of the Red Lancers and others of the nobility of Firenzcia were already waiting for them there.
The halls of the palais were hushed, the servants they saw stopping in their tasks and bowing silently with lowered eyes as they passed. Two gardai stood outside Fynn’s chambers; they opened the doors for them as they approached. Allesandra could hear voices from inside as they entered.
“. . . just received the news from Gairdi. This will complicate things. We don’t know exactly how much yet—” Archigos Semini ca’Cellibrecca stopped in mid-phrase as Allesandra and Jan entered the room. The man had always put Allesandra in mind of a bear, all the way back to when she’d been a child and he a rising young war-téni: even as a young man, Semini had been massive and furred and dangerous. His black beard was now salted with white, and the mass of curly hair was receding from his forehead like a slow tide, but he was still burly and muscled. He gave them the sign of Cénzi, clasping his hands to his forehead as his wife Francesca did the same behind him. Allesandra had been told that Francesca had once been a beauty—in fact, there were rumors that she’d once been the lover of Justi the One-Legged—but Allesandra hadn’t known her at that time. Now, she was a humpbacked matron with several of her teeth missing, her body ravaged by the rigors of a dozen pregnancies over the years. Her personality was as sour as her face.
Fynn rose from his chair.
“Sister,” he said, taking her hands as he stood in front of her. He was smiling—he seemed almost gleeful. “Semini has just brought some interesting news from Nessantico. Archigos Ana has been assassinated.”
Allesandra gasped, unable to hide her reaction. Her hands went to the cracked globe pendant around her neck, then she forced herself to lower them. She felt as if she couldn’t catch her breath. “Assassinated? By whom . . . ?” She stopped, glancing at Semini—who was also smiling; almost smugly, Allesandra thought—then at her brother. “Did we do this?” she asked. Her voice was as edged as a dagger. She felt Jan put his hand on her shoulder from behind, sensing her distress.
Fynn snorted. “Would it matter?” he asked.
“Yes,” Allesandra told him. “Only a fool would think otherwise.” The words came out before she could stop them. And after I just cautioned Jan . . .
Fynn glowered at the implied insult. Jan’s hand tightened on Allesandra’s shoulder. Semini cleared his throat loudly before Fynn could speak.
“This wasn’t the Hïrzg’s doing, Allesandra,” Semini answered quickly, shaking his head and waving his hand in dismissal. “Firenzcia may be at odds with the Faith in Nessantico, but the Hïrzg doesn’t engage in assassination. Nor does the Faith.”
She looked from Semini to Francesca. The woman looked away quickly but made no attempt to hide the satisfaction in her face. Her pleasure at the news was obvious. The woman had all the warmth of a Boail winter. Allesandra wondered whether Semini had ever felt any affection for her, or whether their marriage was as loveless and calculated as her own despite their several children. Allesandra couldn’t imagine submitting to Pauli’s pleasure so often. “We’re certain this report is true?” she asked Semini.
“It’s come to me from three different sources, one I trust implicitly—the trader Gairdi—and they all agree on the basic details,” Semini told her. “Archigos Ana was performing the Day of Return service when there was an explosion. ‘Like a war-téni’s spell,’ they all said—which means it was someone using the Ilmodo. That much is certain.”
“Which also means they may look eastward to us,” Fynn said. He seemed eager at the thought, as if anxious to call the army of Firenzcia into battle. That would be like him; Allesandra would be terrifically surprised if Fynn’s reign were to be a peaceful one.
“Or they will look to the west,” Allesandra argued, and Fynn glanced at her as he might an annoying, persistent insect. “Nessantico has enemies there as well, and they can use the Ilmodo also, even if—like the Numetodo—they have their own name for it.”
“The Westlanders? Like the Numetodo, they’re heretics deserving of death,” Semini spat. “They abuse Cénzi’s gift, which is intended only for the téni, and we will one day make them pay for their insult, if Nessantico fails to do so.”
Fynn grunted his agreement with the sentiment, and Allesandra saw her son Jan nodding as well—that was also his damned vatarh’s influence, or at least that of the Magyarian téni Pauli had insisted educate their son despite Allesandra’s misgivings. She pressed her lips together.
Ana is dead. She placed her fingers on the necklace of the cracked globe, feeling its smooth, jeweled surface. The touch brought up again the memory of Ana’s face, of the lopsided smile that would touch the woman’s lips when something amused her, of the grim lines that set themselves around her eyes when she was angry. Allesandra had spent a decade with the woman; captor, friend, and surrogate matarh all at once for her during the long years that she’d spent as a hostage of Nessantico. Allesandra’s feelings toward Ana were as complex and contradictory as their relationship had been. They were nearly as conflicted as her feelings toward her vatarh, who had left her languishing in Nessantico while Fynn became the A’Hïrzg and favorite.
She wanted to cry at the news, in sadness for someone who had treated her well and fairly when there had been no compulsion for her to do so. But she could not. Not here. Not in front of people who hated the woman. Here, she had to pretend.
Later. Later I can mourn her properly. . . .
“I expected somewhat more reaction from you, Sister,” Fynn said. “After all, that abomination of a woman and the one-legged pretender kept you captive. Vatarh cursed whenever anyone spoke her name; said she was no better than a witch.”
Fynn was watching her, and they both knew what he was leaving out of his comment: that Hïrzg Jan could have ransomed her at any time during those years, that had he done so it was likely that the golden band would be on her head, not Fynn’s. “You won’t be here half a year,” Ana had told Allesandra in those first months. “Kraljiki Justi has set a fair ransom, and your vatarh will pay it. Soon . . .”
But, for whatever reasons, Hïrzg Jan had not.
Allesandra made her face a mask. You won’t cry. You won’t let them see the grief. It wasn’t difficult; it was what she did often enough, and it served her well most of the time. She knew what the ca’-and-cu’ called her behind her back: the Stone Bitch. “Ana ca’Seranta’s death is important. I appreciate Archigos Semini bringing us the news, and we should—we must—decide what it means for Firenzcia,” she said, “but we won’t know the full implications for weeks yet. And right now Vatarh is waiting for us. I suggest we see to him first.”
Meet the Author
S. L. Farrell boasts (but generally resists sending out) a resume that includes the obligatory long list of occupations, including a stint as half of a juggling act where a few scars and a grudging appreciation for gravity were acquired. Other interests include music, fine art, history, and the fascinating details of cultures both present and past. S. L. is the author of The Cloudmages trilogy: Holder of Lightning, Mage of Clouds, and Heir of Stone; and The Nessantico Cycle: A Magic of Twilight, A Magic of Nightfall,and A Magic of Dawn. S. L. Farrell currently lives in Ohio and teaches Creative Writing at a local university. He can be found at farrellworlds.com.
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Nessantico is the capital of the Holdings, but it is not as large as it once was. Firenzcia has broken away and other states followed forming the Coalition. Audric the ruler is two years away from his majority so continues to rule under the guidance of the Regent Serge Ca¿Rudka. However, Audric is also falling into madness, as he imprisons the Regent while heeding the advice of an ancestor who the lad believes is giving him good counsel even though she is in a painting which he believes talks to him.
Sergei escapes heading to Firenzcia where Allesandra Ca¿Vorl is manipulating events to enable her to achieve her goals. Allessandra was once a hostage is Nessantico because her father rejected her as his heir choosing her younger brother Fyyn. The lady has the assassin The White Stone carry out her plan for having the counsel place her son on the throne. The Westlanders in the Hellins were invaded by Nessantican forces; they push the outsiders from their country and invade the city. Alexandra wants her son to use his army to help Nessantico, but he has learned about her lies and murders so needs time to decide what to do.
The second Nessantico Cycle doesn¿t suffer from the middle book syndrome as A MAGIC OF NIGHTFALL takes place twenty five years after the events of A MAGIC OF TWILIGHT. This gives the saga a feeling of freshness yet retains the innovative political intrigue. Each main character maintains their part of the story so that the audience sees a changing POV that makes for a fascinating read; for instance how different mother and son look at Nessantico. Based on a blending of medieval France, Florence, and Venice, this superb fantasy captures the betrayals even within families as Machiavelli would claim S. L. Farrell is more than just a great world-builder; he understand the essence of power is manipulating your opponents and allies to do your bidding.