By Dekker, Ted
FaithWords Copyright © 2012 Dekker, Ted
All right reserved. ISBN: 9781455515288
ROLAND AKARA, Prince of the Nomads and second only to Rom Sebastian among all Mortals, sat unflinching upon his mount, scanning the valley below with the eyes of one who’d seen far too much to be either easily disturbed or easily satisfied. He was a warrior, loved desperately by all who followed him, a leader descended from generations of rulers, a man given to purpose without an ounce of compromise.
And that purpose had never been clearer: to usher in the reign of Jonathan at any cost in utter defiance of death.
On the dark stallion next to his own sat his sister Michael, twenty-seven—younger than Roland by three years. A composite bow was slung across her back in the same manner as his. The long drape of her coat covered the curved sword that rode her hip. They were two Mortals, clad in black, overlooking their kingdom.
But this was not their kingdom. This was a valley of death. It spread out to the west and east, a vast waste only intermittently broken by a patch of twisting scrub. Whatever had once flowed through this dry riverbed had all but poisoned it. Even now, hundreds of years after the wars that had ruined massive stretches of countryside—including the vineyards that had once characterized this region—only the staunchest new growth survived.
Michael spoke in a low voice, jaw tight. “He’s there.” A slight breeze lifted a dark wisp of hair free from the torrent of braids that fell down past her shoulders, each of them tied in darkly colored cords, each of them telling a tale of rank, victory, or conquest so that one might read the entire volume with a glance. Only her brother’s plaits, shot through with feathers, onyx, and lapis beads, were more elaborate.
Roland’s stallion snorted, tugged at the bit, shifting on the rocky cliff. With a twitch of the reins, Roland commanded stillness. The stallion quieted, his black coat quivering once. They had tracked death to this valley, pushing their mounts to the breaking point through the waning night and the better part of the day. No creature had the same acute sense of smell as a Mortal, and they had picked up the scent from a distance.
Death. The smell of Corpse. The scent was common, particularly near the cities and towns in which the world’s millions lived—human in appearance… dead in reality.
But the odor Roland and his ranking second, Michael, had chased through the night was different than the scent of mere Corpse. Deeper. Pungent and metallic. The fragrance of Hades itself. The putrid odor rose from the lone outpost on the crusted valley floor half a mile before them, an affront to every breath they took.
Whatever had seized Maro, that impetuous Nomad who’d taken up with the zealots as of late, was either not a Corpse or a new kind of Corpse altogether.
And that was what Roland needed to know.
There had been rumors. Of a new kind of death gathering to crush Jonathan, the Maker of all Mortals, before his inauguration in nine days. Roland had heard far too many rumors to give them much attention. They were as prevalent as lore of the Maker’s Hand—the mystical involvement of a divine Maker. But Roland had seen no evidence of the angry god of Order that Corpses clamored to appease by following their ludicrous rules.
But now, with the new odor thick in his nostrils, the reality of an opposing force gained credence in the company of several other pungent tells: horses. Four in front of the canteen. Two more out back. Fresh earth churned up by hooves, stale water in the trough. The pine wood of the building itself. Maro. Roland had not smelled his death, which could only mean he was alive.
“How did the scouts miss this?” Roland said.
“It’s beyond our usual perimeter,” Michael said. She studied the valley for a few moments. “Thoughts?”
“Many,” Roland said grimly.
“Any you’d care to share?”
“Only the one that matters.”
“And that is?”
“He lives or we die.”
She nodded. “How then should we help that insolent zealot we call cousin live?”
Roland had gone after Maro after hearing that he’d let his drunken mouth flap about bringing the scalp of a Corpse home to the Seyala Valley, home for the last year to all twelve hundred Mortals awaiting Jonathan’s rule. Michael had caught up to him in the middle of the night and Roland had agreed to her company, expecting no real trouble—other than his annoyance—in retrieving him.
Until they’d found Maro’s horse five miles south of the valley, dead, covered in the new scent of death they’d tracked here.
He would have returned for more fighters but he couldn’t afford to lose the new scent—or the chance to learn if the rumored new death was real. With Jonathan’s inauguration days away they couldn’t afford to take chances.
Beyond that, Roland felt a personal responsibility for the hotheaded zealot. If they did salvage his cousin’s life, Roland would personally see that he spent the rest of his days painfully aware of his folly.
“We kill the rest,” Roland said.
“I’ll know once I’m inside.”
“You mean ‘we.’ Once we get inside.”
“No, Michael. Not ‘we.’ ”
Michael was in her prime as a fighter, vastly skilled in the blade and bow arts. Last year he’d watched her take on four men at the games and bring each to his knees—three with nicks from her blade just deep enough along their throats to remove any vestige of doubt as to her dominance and precision.
He’d promoted her to his second then, not because she was his sister and bore the same ancient blood of the rulers, but because she could not be matched in battle. And every one of them knew that battle would come.
She turned hazel eyes to him. They had been brown before her Mortality, as had his. Mortals couldn’t smell the emotions and natures of other Mortals—but if he could, Roland was sure, the aroma of loyalty would be seeping from her every pore. She would die for him—not as her brother, but as her prince—as all Nomads had sworn to do.
Which was why he must not give her the opportunity.
“May I ask why?”
“Because I need you to burn that shack to the ground if I fail.”
“Rom is the leader of the Mortals. Over the Keepers and Nomads both.”
He leveled his gaze at her. “Rom’s strong and we serve him, but we serve Jonathan and our people first. Never forget that. One of us must live.”
“Then let me go in first,” she said.
He had to fight the quirk of a smile at the corner of his mouth. “When has any Nomad leader not been the first one in? No. I go first. Alone.”
She acquiesced with a tilt of her head. “My prince.”
“Put up your hood. When I go in, slit the throats of all their horses except one. If things go wrong, return to Rom, give him a full report and lead our people. Am I clear?”
Her jaw was as stiff as her nod.
Roland pulled the horse round and started down the steep embankment, acutely aware of Michael a horse-length behind him.
It was true, what he’d said. The only thought that mattered now was whether they lived or died trying to preserve the life Jonathan had given all Mortals. Jonathan was nine days from his inauguration. And then everything would change.
It was also true that his thoughts were far more complex than he cared to voice, even to Michael.
For twelve years he’d led the Nomads—since the death of his and Michael’s father. He had led them in their rebellion against the Order, living in the wilderness of Europa, north of Byzantium, that city once called Rome in the age of Chaos centuries before.
His people had tenaciously clung to resistance out of a fear of being controlled by the statutes of state religion—a religion that still claimed vast casualties among the Nomads as most caved in to the greater fear of Order’s Maker. And of rules with eternal consequences.
Those Nomads who remained true were the purest of humanity, a fiercely independent people who carried their fighting and survival skills like a badge of unsurpassed honor. They kept to themselves, vagabonds with a long heritage of carving out harsh livings in the hinterlands, dreaming of a day when they would overthrow Order.
Two years after Roland had become ruling prince, word had come that a child once known to them—briefly sheltered among them as a baby—had been confirmed rightful heir to the Sovereign throne. His name was Jonathan.
Jonathan, the prince of life. He had returned to them with Rom Sebastian and the warrior Triphon—two men altered by a vial of blood obtained by the ancient sect of Keepers in anticipation of the day when Jonathan’s blood would ignite a new kingdom.
Mortals, they called themselves.
Roland had offered his full support. Not because he necessarily believed in the sayings about the boy or the Keepers’ history of friendship with the Nomads, but because any rebel who stood against Order was a friend. And so he had welcomed the Mortals and taught them the Nomadic ways of survival and fighting.
Rom Sebastian demonstrated superior skills as a leader. He spoke with strange fire about new emotions unlocked by the blood he’d taken, and of a coming age when all would taste the life he had tasted.
And then the day had come when, five years later, the boy’s blood had changed. The old man who had come with Rom—the last surviving member of the Keepers—had proclaimed it ready to bring others to life. The world of Nomads was in an uproar. Could it be? To be certain his people were not being deceived, Roland had accepted the boy’s blood himself.
That day, injected with a stent directly from Jonathan’s vein, his world had forever changed. Life had come like a tidal wave, sweeping away a death he did not know existed. For the first time he’d felt the arcane emotions of joy and rapture and love. He had raged through camp, delirious. He’d also found the darker emotions—jealousy, sorrow, ambition—and wept as he never had, clawing at his face and cursing his very existence. Whatever challenges this mix of emotions brought, they made him feel utterly beautiful and deplorable in ways he had never fathomed.
Teeming with new, uncaged life, Roland had called for all Nomads to take Jonathan’s blood and serve him in a new mission as the last hope for a dead world. Over the next weeks and months, roughly nine hundred Nomads came to life. In subsequent years, another three hundred common Corpses joined them, each approved by council quorum, before the council called for a moratorium until the full maturing of Jonathan’s blood.
Within a year the first Mortals born of Jonathan’s blood began to note new changes to their senses. They could smell the faintest scents with greater sensitivity than animals. They could perceive swift motion in such detail, all at once, so that the world seemed to slow about them, giving them great advantage in combat. Their senses of touch, taste, and hearing were all heightened—and continued to heighten—to the point of near insatiability.
But perhaps the greatest physical change for any Mortal was the promise of extended life. When the alchemists among them—most notably the old Keeper himself—first noted the change to their metabolism, he calculated a new minimal Mortal lifetime of hundreds of years.
They were a new race, fully deserving of the name Mortal. They were a chosen and powerful people waiting in wild abandon and terrible anticipation for the day when Jonathan would claim the Mortal kingdom for good.
A new era was upon them. Nothing else mattered.
But today there was Maro’s foolishness and this new scent to contend with, this death emanating from the cantina on the ancient riverbed not two hundred paces ahead.
Roland and Michael walked their horses abreast of one another, eyes fixed, arms relaxed. The odor was by now so repulsive it was all he could do not to cover his nose.
“Break right, to the back,” Roland said. “Slowly. All the horses but one. And listen for me.”
“I refuse to lose my prince today, brother.”
“Your prince will live a thousand years.”
“What if this is more than you bargained for?”
“If it is, Rom will need to know. Listen for me. Do as I ask. Go.”
She pressed her horse forward, cutting across his path, angling toward the back of the cantina.
The wood structure was little better than a shack, hastily and poorly built. Roland could see gaps between the wallboards even from here. He drew the hood over his head as the wind kicked up, sending dusty eddies up from the stallion’s hooves. Mortals who rode beyond their home in the Seyala Valley weren’t always immediately recognized by Corpses who didn’t know to look for the unique hazel of their eyes. But Roland sensed that whoever had captured Maro knew exactly what they’d taken.
He could feel the weight of the throwing knives beneath his coat, strapped two to a side to his belt, as he stopped at the cantina and slid from the saddle. He wound the reins around the rail with a secure tug and glanced at the other horses.
Straight-edged swords hung sheathed from the saddles. They were short, each blade perhaps only two feet in length, a weapon for cutting and thrusting—not slashing from horseback. He had not seen weapons like this before, and yet the hilts were worn and obviously used. At least the fact that they were here meant that the Corpses within weren’t expecting any trouble.
Roland turned his eyes to the door, inhaled.
Someone was talking inside. A chuckle. Another voice. Drink flowing into a cup. Wine. Beer. Bread. Salt. Sweat. The faint, acidic scent of fear. Too faint. Far less than the fear that stank upon most Corpses, spawned by the sole remaining emotion that deceived them into thinking they were human.
He’d just set his boot on the first step when another scent assailed his lungs, seeping into his consciousness. A new one he’d never smelled before. Tangy. Sharp, but not offensive. On the contrary, quite agreeable.
Something other than death or fear.
His heart surged and he willed it to calm. Mortals couldn’t smell the emotions of other living Mortals the way they could the fear of Corpses. If he couldn’t smell Mortals, then the scent wasn’t Maro’s. And yet it stirred something new in him, so that his heart started again, like a breakaway colt.
He briefly considered retreating to consider the situation, but this was a matter that would be learned only from experience.
Roland mounted the steps, stopped on the landing. He shoved his jacket behind his blades, hitching the side of it into his belt, clearing the path for his knives. He flipped out two, one in each hand. Held them firm by his waist. Tipped his head down, eyes on the dark seam at the bottom of the door, and collected himself. Not merely his thoughts or his courage—these any man or woman do before engaging an enemy. Now there was far more to gather.
Mortals called it seeing and technically it was. But by seeing they meant fully understanding every component of that vision so that the world seemed to slow, filling each instant, breath, heartbeat, with information. A superior advantage, a great gift of the extraordinary blood flowing through their veins.
The wind rifled through his braids, swept across his nape. He felt that, and far more. His heart beat like the hide-covered drums of the Nomads. Beyond the odor swilling in his nostrils there was more… than the textures and scent and sound of the world immediately before him.
Time seemed to slow around him. There was the door lever, scratched and prematurely weathered. Latched, through the thickness of the wooden door itself. There was the distance between him and that door, the wind, funneling between them, the particles of dust gusting by.
He held that posture, that vision, the scent in his nostrils, for an elongated second until, like a man stepping into another world, he became a part of it.
And then he moved, fully committed, knowing he held a supreme advantage to whatever waited inside.
His shoulder slammed into the door, splintering the wood around its latch. It flew wide with a crash and the details of the room snapped into place all at once.
Bar: across the back of the room, topped with an array of bottles. Three were open, one of them reeking of hundred-proof alcohol. Twelve mugs. Three were dirty. Stools: nine, aligned in front of the bar, no backrests. To the right and left: seven tables. Round. Dark wood, treated with creosote. Side wall: closed door. A back room, then.
Four large warriors dressed in strange, paneled leather armor, large knives on their belts, leaning on the bar. Two with mugs of beer in their fists. They were larger and stronger than any Corpse he’d seen—muscled necks and quick black eyes, already jerking toward his disturbance.
One common Corpse in a smock behind the bar. No sign of Maro.
Roland saw all of this at once before his boot landed on the floorboards.
The room seemed to stall, the scent of freshly poured beer in his nostrils. One heartbeat. Half of another—theirs. Not his.
And then his hands flashed with the speed of vipers. He flung the knives underhanded with enough force to send them straight and true for thirty paces.
The blades flashed toward their targets, one at each end of the bar. End over killing end, through the air. Turning heads, too slow, eyes bleary with drink. Facial muscles flinching, too late.
His blades took one in the right eye and the other in his forehead, slamming home to their hilts in rapid succession.
The scent hit him then, like a wall. An odor of emotions he’d never encountered before in any Corpse. The realization sliced into his mind like a spear.
But it wasn’t life. Not possible.
His hands were already on the second set of knives, committed to the certainty that these men were not alive. That they were enemies who would kill him without a second thought. He spun to his right, gaining momentum for a second salvo.
When he rounded again he saw how quickly the other two had turned. As fast as any fighter he’d seen. Perhaps faster.
One had his knife drawn and was halfway through the throw. The other was shoving away his slumping neighbor.
Roland took the one who had launched the knife first—in the face, not certain if his own blade would penetrate the heavy leather armor over their hearts. Without waiting to watch his blade find its target, he plunged forward and catapulted his full weight toward the last man.
Head lowered, three sprinting strides, up under the man’s jaw like a battering ram.
It was customary for Nomads to sew leather into the crowns of their hoods for such a purpose. There were few parts of the body that could not be used in combat if properly protected, the head chief among them. No wasted movement, no wasted weapon, no wasted moment.
He felt the crown of his head crash into the man’s jaw. He heard the shattering of teeth and the crack of jawbone. The man arched wildly over the bar, instantly oblivious, limp.
Even as the body collapsed on the bar Roland saw that his third knife had found its mark, leaving only the server behind the bar, wild-eyed and scrambling for a sword propped against the wall behind him.
Patience spent, Roland sent his last knife into the back of the man’s neck. The Corpse dropped like a bag of feed.
Roland stepped back and ripped off his hood. The air was still, filled with rot. Four were very dead and would never feel again. The fifth was unconscious, unable to feel anything for the moment.
He would soon learn everything that one knew.
But first—Roland strode to the door leading into the back room and pulled it wide. Inside a small storeroom lay the hogtied body of his cousin, Maro, mouth covered by a thick gag, eyes wide.
Roland took one long look at him and slammed the door shut again. A muffled cry sounded from within.
She was already at the door, studying his handiwork as one reads the page of a book. Her eyes flicked up at him.
“In the storeroom.”
“Until I get to him.”
Her eyes settled on the form slumped backward over the bar. She flipped out a knife and started forward to finish him.
“He stays alive,” Roland said.
She halted in midstride, shot him a glance.
“Untie Maro. Use the rope to secure this man to his horse. We take him with us.”
He strode for the door.
“And the others?” she asked.
“The rest remain in their funeral pyre,” he said without looking back. “We burn this box to the ground and piss on the ashes.”
THE FORTRESS SPRAWLED along the edge of the forest, her turrets rooted deep into the earth like industrial claws. Like the talons of a steel-footed throne.
From the highest lookout among the twisted pines, one might monitor the hills of Byzantium twenty miles away and gaze at the roiling sky’s ominous poetry, diffusing the sun’s light as those beneath lived under the guise of death.
The thin strain of violins filled Saric’s master chamber, pumped in through the vents like air. Not the soulless stuff composed in the last half millennium, but the music of Chaos as it had been five centuries earlier, resurrected—a melody to tear at the soul. The minor key saturated the darkened chamber, the heavy silk hangings, the very candlelight, until it ruined the air for anything else. Saric had ordered it played throughout the fortress every evening at the same time for the benefit of those dwelling within these walls.
So much had changed.
Nine. It was the number of years since the Master Alchemist Pravus had first injected him with the serum that awakened him to a semblance of dark life. His entire being had seethed with new emotion. It had been a tortured birth that nearly destroyed him. And yet today he celebrated that first awakening because it had ultimately led to a far greater life—the same one that now allowed him to relish the ancient paintings of lush landscapes that lined the walls of the room in which he sat.
The master chamber was twenty paces to a side. An expansive, thick rug woven from the hides of lions lay before a long ebony desk that doubled as a dining table when Saric felt so inclined. And he was inclined often. Gold silk panels gathered in each corner, hanging from the ceiling to pool on the marble floor like sunlight fallen to his feet. On the far side of the room, a tall cylindrical glass sarcophagus stood against the wall.
Eight. It was the number of years he had spent in stasis in that very sarcophagus, here, in his former master’s fortress. He had little memory of those years except for the nightmares of his time before stasis—dreams of sweaty ambition. Of clawing and desperate jealousy. Of anger like poison in the veins.
Seven. It was the number of months since he’d woken from those dark visions to find himself a man reborn. Something more than he had been, a masterwork of his maker, Pravus.
He was evolved, perfected from those first violent days of a lesser life years ago. The base sentiments of anger and greed and raw ambition had been joined by a capacity for joy and love, peace and wonder. It was then that he became aware of his true purpose: to fully embrace true life at any cost. And for this hunger he would be eternally grateful to his maker.
Saric sat behind the carved ebony table and considered the steak topped with the tiny raw quail egg. The egg was smattered with caviar, the salty aroma of which he had inhaled now for a full ten minutes. His eyes fluttered closed. The ecstasy he felt at the thought of eating life into his very cells was only the beginning. Soon he would taste life in a way that exalted him to the heavens.
He touched the silver knife with a fingertip, slid it across the damask tablecloth before gently picking it up. He lifted the fork with similar reverence and then, with deliberate leisure, slipped tines and tip at once into the steak. The egg trembled and spilled yolk onto the plate as he lifted the first salty bite to his mouth. He chewed slowly, the caviar popping, briny as life, against his tongue.
Six. It was the number of months since he had first discovered that out of this reborn life there were two things he could no longer abide: death, and any power that threatened his mastery of life, which equated to any power greater than his own. He had found true life at last in this dead world, and nothing could be allowed to compromise or supplant the unquestioned power that came with it.
He slid his gaze down the table past the glow of the candelabra to the glass sarcophagus. Pravus stared back with sightless eyes.
Five. It was the number of months since he’d killed Pravus. The memory of that day was stamped into his mind like a birthmark. His master had been bent low over a microscope in Corban’s lab, analyzing a new sample of flesh quickened by a strengthening serum, when Saric had quietly stepped in behind him, axe behind his back, trembling with the thought of what he was about to do.
He’d hesitated only a moment, considering the profanity of killing the one who’d given him life so abundantly. But Pravus could not become Sovereign of the world as he, a royal in the line of Sovereigns, could. Though he loved the man as a father, he would always stand in the path of Saric’s discovery of all this new existence could offer him. Raw power was an expression of life, and Saric’s destiny lay in unrestrained consumption of both.
Pravus had turned as Saric rushed forward, but the rage he felt as he buried the axe in his master’s face had been directed at himself. The slaying had been a deeply distasteful experience. He’d fallen to his knees and wept as Pravus slumped in the chair, dead, bleeding onto the floor.
And yet, in his death Pravus had given him a great, final gift brimming with power. And so he would revere him forever.
Saric set down the knife and fork, slid back his carved chair and rose. He rounded the end of the table and walked to the sarcophagus, napkin still in hand. Tilting his head, he wiped the barest bit of a smudge off the front of the glass, resisting the urge to weep at the sudden loneliness that seized him.
Tubes fed into the back of the sarcophagus, twitching ever so slightly at the pulse of the fluid within them. For an instant he thought of ripping them away. Instead, he touched one thoughtfully, knowing it sent nutrients even now to the layer of living flesh he’d ordered Corban to graft over the long wound that had forever separated Pravus’s eyes an inch too far—that gash that had opened under Saric’s ax, spilling blood and brains so that he could fulfill his calling.
He stepped back, his faint reflection transposed over the soulless face of his former master. Saric could not count the times he’d stood before this sarcophagus and wept. But there was new life yet to be found. And power greater than any yet understood. He leaned forward and placed a light kiss on the glass.
And he knew his master did.
Four. It was the number of days ago he’d first learned that Byzantium’s Citadel, home to the world’s highest administrative offices, housed a terrible and beautiful secret.
A knock at the door. Saric slowly turned his gaze from the sarcophagus and glanced at the delicacies on his plate. He didn’t like to be interrupted at times like this. He considered ignoring the intrusion. Instead, he folded the napkin between his fingers.
The carved double doors swung open on their hinges, revealing the robed form of Corban, his chief alchemist.
His head was bowed, his long hair bound into a braid wrapped tight with black silk that fell down over his chest. It was a preference the alchemist had adopted since waking to the life that he had once been denied by Pravus. It was Saric who had given it to him.
Two others stood behind him, taller, broader of shoulder than Corban—products of the same chambers from which Saric himself had emerged like a butterfly from a cocoon. They knelt in reverence, one in the shadow of each door, twin images of sinister beauty, perfectly muscled with inky veins beneath their pale skin so similar to his own. As Pravus was his maker, he was theirs—a better maker, having seen to it that they were stripped of all ability to countermand him. They would never know the disquiet or anguish of killing their creator as he had. He was their father, and they were his children, whom he loved as much as his own life. To a point.
The black eyes of all three lifted to him with devotion.
So much had changed.
“We’ve found her,” Corban said.
“Where is she?” Saric was careful that his words not bely the acceleration of his heart.
“You brought her?” His heart drummed to a thundering crescendo within his chest.
For a moment he could not move. Could hardly fathom the good fortune that had found him with these words. But this was his destiny, and the day of that glorious fulfillment had finally come.
Breathing deliberately against the terrible new hunger that flooded his veins, he strode forward, barely aware now of the floor underfoot, the walls that hid his legion from an unwitting world, the air he breathed.
He swept past Corban and walked down the stone corridor, quickly now. Silks—red, the color of life—billowed out from the wall in his wake like lungs, lifting with crimson breath.
He did not ask where they had brought her. He knew.
Violins assaulted his nerves, ricocheting off the basalt stone of the corridor. He passed several of his brood—Dark Bloods as evolved, nearly, as he. They knelt the instant they saw him, their heads swiveling as he passed to descend the vast stair at the far end of the fortress into the subterranean chamber below. Dimly lit, it reeked eternally of chemicals and formaldehyde. Of death—one of the two things so offensive to Saric.
But he hardly noticed that now. There, on the great steel table in the center: a body sheathed in cloth, one arm dangling off the edge, snaked through with tubes. The skin, where he could see it, still perfect…
He willed his breath to slow again. Inhaled.
He waited until the test tubes along the far wall, neatly stored in their racks, untouched in years, ceased their jittering shudder after the great doors slammed closed.
Only then did he notice the silence—the music did not reach this chamber. But in this moment, silence was the only appropriate sound.
With reverent fingertips he peeled back the cloth from that face. From the long line of that neck, shoulders, and torso, unblemished all this time except for the red marks where the tubes had been sewn in to keep her alive. From the seam of a great scar where metal sutures had once held it closed.
He lifted the hand, righting the pale moonstone ring that had twisted on Feyn’s slender finger. He lifted it to his lips.
“My love,” he whispered, turning his cheek against the delicate backs of those fingers. “Now we will embrace the full power of life… together.”
HIDDEN DEEP IN THE SEYALA VALLEY, twelve hundred Mortals began their routines after a late night of revelry. A daily rhythm of gathering, hunting, grazing horses, and consuming life with eagerness bound up in the imminent promise of the boy’s coming reign. After five hundred years of oppression and death, the entire world would soon be ruled not by the statutes of Order, but by life.
But those twelve hundred living souls were oblivious to the turn of events that had brought strange new death among them in the dead of night.
Roland and Michael had returned to camp before dawn. Now, six hours later, the Council of Twelve convened in the temple ruins built into the craggy cliff. Here, in the temple’s inner sanctum, the ancient windows still boasted an array of stained glass, the only ones still intact.
Roughly thirty paces deep, the chamber lay beyond the outer courtyard. Richly woven rugs covered the pocked marble floor and ran past the stone benches up three steps to a small platform. An ancient altar stood at its center, draped in burgundy silk embroidered with the emblem of Avra’s heart. Avra, the first Mortal martyr. Atop the altar lay a simple volume propped on a wooden stand. The Book of Mortals. Within it were recorded the names of every Mortal and the date of his or her rebirth as well as an exact translation of the Keeper’s ancient vellum that had put every event in motion to make such life possible.
Torches lit against the overcast morning threw warm light on the exposed stone of the chamber’s six pillars standing like sentries down the length of the room. But they did little to lend color to the ghastly pale Corpse gagged and bound to a chair at the foot of the platform.
Rom Sebastian, Keeper, First Born Leader of the Mortals and protector of Jonathan, stood before the Corpse, carefully considering what this turn could mean.
Nine years had passed since Rom had drunk from the ancient vial of blood that had brought him to life and sent him on a quest to find the boy foretold by Talus.
Talus, the man who had created Legion, the virus that had stripped the world of its humanity five centuries ago, who had sworn to undo his grave offense.
Talus, the geneticist who’d calculated the coming of a child in whose blood that same virus would revert.
Talus, the prophet who’d established the order of Keepers to protect a single vial of blood—enough for five to wake from death and protect the boy from those forces that would seek to kill him.
Talus, who had penned the ancient vellum by which Rom had found the boy.
Rom glanced up once at the gathered council. Jonathan was conspicuously absent, as always, preferring to be with the people rather than deciding protocol. No amount of persuasion had changed that in him. And so the Council of Twelve was truly a council of eleven—seven Nomads, including Roland and Michael, who refused to sit, and four Keepers, including the first Corpse convert, a woman named Resia, and those two who had first joined Rom nine years ago: Triphon and the Book.
The Book, as the aging Keeper was called, kept his long white beard unbound in ways that mystified the Nomads, who braided everything, including the manes and tails of their horses. He had, however, adopted the long, dark leathers of the Nomads, which leant him a surprising air of youth despite the snowy white of every hair on his head and chin. In fact, the man had seemed to thrive in the wilderness, though Rom knew it had less to do with the Nomadic lifestyle and more to do with the new blood flowing through his veins since having experienced, at last, the thing he had hoped for all his life: the true life of Jonathan’s blood.
Triphon, sitting next to him, had grown his beard in recent years along with his hair. Both were braided, tied with the threads of the warrior. Red, for the Corpse kill. Black, for prowess in the games. He rarely wore the long coats of the Nomads, having never learned the patience for the elaborate beading and time-consuming needle and leatherwork with which each fighter distinguished him- or herself, but had adopted the simple leggings and hooded tunics that served all Nomads well—particularly in a fight.
Michael bore signs of fatigue, if only in the scowl that curled the corner of her mouth. Council proceedings were well known to try Michael’s patience. As did Triphon’s stares.
Rom turned his attention to Roland. The Nomad stood, arms crossed, beside his sister. No one would have guessed by the set of his jaw that he had gone nearly three days on so little sleep. Or that the prince with the wealth of beads in his hair and such an eye for artistry was as brutal a warrior as any Rom had ever seen.
The Nomadic Prince slid him an unwavering gaze.
“You say there were four of them?” Rom said.
“All as strong?”
“Except for the one behind the bar.”
“And they’re now dead.”
“They were always dead. Now they’re ash.”
So he’d burned them in Nomadic custom. If the Nomads had their way, every Corpse on earth would be better turned to ash than turned to life—a sentiment Rom could only barely understand.
“Swords, axes, knives. Heavy steel.” Roland withdrew a twelve-inch bowie knife from behind his back and tossed it at Rom, who deftly plucked it from the air. The butt was black steel, as was the blade, polished so that it glistened like oil in the torchlight.
He ran his finger along the razor edge. It was a beautiful weapon. “Have you ever seen a knife like this?”
“I’ve seen too many blades to count. But never one like this.”
Rom studied the Corpse. It glared back with coal-dark eyes, unflinching. Armor covered his torso, thighs, and arms with overlapping flaps that allowed for movement. Black leather, a quarter-inch thick, crafted to stop a blade. His boots rose to his knees, steel tipped with soles an inch thick. His hair was long and course, twisted in dreadlocks; his jaw was obviously swollen, but otherwise his features were quite refined despite his size. This was no mere thug.
Mortals had encountered elite guard before—splinter groups whose roots they’d never been able to properly trace to a single source. They’d known that forces would rise against them to challenge Jonathan’s sovereignty. But while the warrior before them was obviously battle trained and as fine a specimen of power and strength as any Rom had seen, Roland had only encountered five of them. Where were the rest?
And then there was the question of what the warrior was. The strange scent the man emitted brought a slight shudder to Rom’s nerves.
“What do you make of it?” Rom asked, glancing at Roland.
They all knew what he was talking about.
“I can’t be sure.”
“It’s emotion,” Triphon said.
“Impossible,” one of the ranking Nomads, named Seriph, said. “If he were Mortal, we wouldn’t be able to smell him.”
“He may not be Mortal, but he doesn’t smell like any Corpse I’ve met,” Triphon said. “How can he be Corpse with that scent?”
“He’s either Corpse or Mortal. There’s nothing between.”
“We know what Corpses smell like. We don’t know what Mortals smell like.”
“You’re suggesting that we smell like that? Death and these other odors mixed into that… nasty bouquet?”
“I’m saying we don’t know.”
Rom lifted his hand. “Enough.” He turned to Roland. “What’s your best guess, Roland?”
“Ask the alchemist. This is a wizard’s doing.”
Roland had never been keen on alchemy, preferring instead nature’s way of distilling purity through the generations. Nomads, once homogenous by necessity, considered themselves especially pure-blooded now that they were bound by Jonathan’s blood. This in contrast to the Keepers, who were all of varied descent except for the one thing they had in common: that they were changed from Corpse to Mortal by the same blood.
“I’m asking you,” Rom pressed. “You saw them, fought them, killed them. You have the sharpest instincts here.”
Roland turned an icy gaze on the prisoner and said in a low tone: “This is what I know. He is an enemy who took one of my men. His stench of death is far deeper than any Corpse. If this new scent is life, then it’s the work of an alchemist wizard. The real question is how many of them exist and under what authority.”
Rom nodded. “What do you say, Book?”
The ancient Keeper turned his eyes from the prisoner to Roland. He dipped his head. “I would say you are right. Roland has good instincts.”
The man had grown quite stoic this past year as Jonathan approached his maturity, keeping mostly to the task of monitoring the steady change in the boy’s blood and advising the council like a father of few words. All that mattered to him was that Jonathan fulfill the promise of the Keepers who came before him. That his blood change the world. It was the boy’s destiny, and seeing it fulfilled was his.
Rom shared the old Keeper’s resolve to the end.
He nodded at Roland. “Remove his gag.”
The Nomad stepped behind the prisoner, slid the knotted cloth up, and jerked the gag free.
The Corpse spat blood onto the ground, not in apparent disgust so much as to clear his mouth. A tooth skittered across the dusty stone, landing near Triphon’s foot.
His friend glanced at Rom, then bent and picked it up. Sniffed it. Flipped it back toward the prisoner with a flick of his thumb.
“Vanilla,” he said.
Triphon shrugged. “That’s what it smells like to me. Vanilla pudding. There’s plenty of death mixed in there, but I’m thinking vanilla.”
Rom suppressed the slight turn of a smile. Triphon, the man of bold words and no guile, loved by all. Except maybe Michael.
“It’s from a vanilla plug,” the prisoner said.
His words robbed the room of sound. It was amazing the man could speak so well past his swollen jaw—obviously broken. Rom wasn’t sure how to follow such a statement. Vanilla plugs were common in these parts, chewed to clean teeth and freshen stale breath. But to hear a Corpse with dark eyes who carried a knife the length of Rom’s forearm make this his first confession struck him as strange.
“What’s your name?” he said.
The prisoner stared without answering.
Mortals could be quite persuasive and seductive, a trait that had grown with their abilities to perceive others in unique ways. Seduction began with understanding the needs, fears, and longings of another. Jonathan’s blood had afforded them heightened perception of all of these.
New scents drifted off the prisoner, mitigated by one far more familiar: fear. Respect motivated by fear. Honor, bound to that same fear. The prisoner was obviously loyal. Breaking him would be difficult.
“You’re in a tough position,” Rom said gently. “I recognize that there are many things you’re not free to tell me. But some things you are, and I would know them. You should know that we have no intention of torturing you because we already know you won’t break.”
Immediately the thin scent of fear began to ebb. The stench of death did not.
“We know you are dead. Do you know that, my friend?”
The man swallowed once, opened his mouth as if to speak, closed it, and then did speak.
“Corpses are dead,” he said. “I am not a Corpse.”
Rom paused. “Are you saying you’re Mortal? Because you smell like death.”
“I’m not Mortal. And I’m not a Corpse.”
“Then what are you?”
“I’m human, made by my master. Alive.”
“Really. And who is your master?”
The name hung in the air.
“Saric’s dead,” Triphon said, his voice hard.
“Saric… is alive,” the Corpse said. “A Dark Blood. My maker. Fully alive, as I am fully alive.”
Cold prickled along Rom’s arms. Impossible. He glanced at the old Keeper, whose eyes had widened in shock.
He rounded on the Corpse. “Saric made you? No. You mean he changed you with his alchemy.”
“Wizards,” Roland muttered.
“Saric gave me life, as he has given all Dark Bloods life.”
“Those made in his image, resurrected from death to know full life.”
“Sacrilege!” Zara, one of the Nomadic elders, cried. “Only Jonathan can give life.”
Even Mortals who brought Corpses to life with the blood from their veins—a discovery of the last six months—could do so only because their own blood came from Jonathan. Unless Saric had taken Jonathan’s blood… But that wasn’t possible. This was a different kind of life entirely.
“How many has Saric given ‘life’ to?” Rom said carefully.
The Dark Blood nodded once, eyes steady. “Three thousand.”
A faint but distinct collective gasp filled the ruined chamber.
“Three thousand?” Triphon said. “All like him?”
“Roughly,” the Dark Blood said. “And others who are not warriors like me.”
Triphon was on his feet. “He’s lying!”
“Sit!” Rom ordered. Roland’s hand fell on Michael’s wrist where it had reached toward her sword.
Triphon slowly lowered back down to his seat.
So the threat they had always feared had finally surfaced. But Rom refused to allow fear to gain a foothold among his council. For nine years they had protected Jonathan with regular communication from Rowan, Jonathan’s Regent and acting Sovereign. Never once had Rowan spoken of any true threat. And Rom would not abide any threat to him now. In eight days, Jonathan would claim the Sovereign office.
Anything else was unthinkable.
He turned to Roland. “Three thousand. Is that a problem?”
The Nomadic Prince answered deliberately. “It would be far less of a problem if we had known and acted sooner.”
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
“If you’re asking if we can handle three thousand of these in direct confrontation, the answer is yes. But it would be foolish of us to think the threat doesn’t go deeper into the Order.”
“If there was a threat in the Order, Rowan would know.”
Rom let it go. To the Dark Blood, he said: “Where is Saric now?”
“Where he can’t be found.”
“What is your name?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“Do you feel fear?”
The Corpse shrugged.
“All men hate their enemies.”
And yet Corpses did not feel hatred, only fear.
“When it is fitting.”
“Is it fitting now?”
The man slowly dipped his head. “My mate will weep when I fail to return.”
Rom felt a strange prick of pity for the man. Hatred and sorrow, then. These were two of the new scents they smelled. Which was which, he wasn’t sure.
“Joy?” the Book said from across the room.
“It’s a lie,” Seriph said. “Only Mortals feel these emotions he’s mimicking.”
“Hold your tongue, Seriph.”
Could it be possible Saric brought these emotions to life?
“What are your orders?”
“To seek any who threaten our Maker.”
“To what end?”
“To destroy,” the Dark Blood said.
“And now that you’ve seen us in action, do you think you can?”
A pause. “Yes.”
“Do you know how many we are?”
“And yet you believe you can destroy us. Why?”
“Because only Saric can prevail.”
“Jonathan has already prevailed!” Zara snapped.
Without warning, Roland strode to the prisoner and slammed his fist into the man’s temple. The Dark Blood slumped in his seat, unconscious.
He shot Zara an angry glare and turned to face Rom. “He’s heard far too much.”
“Removing him from the room might have been easier,” Rom said.
“Killing him would have been easier.”
“We don’t kill Corpses out of hand.”
“We kill any enemy who stand in Jonathan’s way. And this enemy has given us all the information he can.”
“I haven’t agreed to kill him.”
“He’s unclean, full of death. We have no choice but to kill him rather than risk any harm to Jonathan. No unclean thing among us, isn’t that your own edict?”
“It is, but that doesn’t mean we just kill him!”
“And what would you propose? That we keep him in chains forever?”
Rom had already considered the issue and not landed on an answer. They had never allowed a Corpse to dwell among them except those who came to be brought to life. Separation from Corpses at all costs was a hard and fast law that he himself had argued for as the time of Jonathan’s ascension drew near.
“Kill him or not,” Triphon said, standing, “we have to acknowledge that if Saric’s really alive and managed to make three thousand of these, we have a problem.”
Rom turned away, picked up the wineskin sitting upon the altar step, uncorked it, drank deep.
Saric… alive. Was it even possible? And if it was, could he have fashioned a force of Corpses to some kind of life—and enough of them to take the Citadel by force?
Eight days. He would not be pulled into direct conflict with Saric with the end so close.
He handed the skin to Triphon and faced the council.
“This changes nothing. We do not alter course. We remain sequestered here and deliver Jonathan to the Citadel on the day of his inauguration. If we are challenged we will accept that challenge, but we won’t go seeking it. We can’t risk exposure before Jonathan assumes power.”
“What about after?”
“Then he’ll decide how to deal with Saric.”
“Jonathan decide?” Seriph muttered. “The boy’s a carrier of life and rightful Sovereign, but let’s make no mistake. He’s not a leader.”
“Silence!” Rom thundered. His voice echoed through the chamber. “Speak one more word and I will personally put you in chains for a week!”
Seriph shifted his gaze away in deference.
“Seriph misspoke,” Roland said, pacing to his right. “But we can’t ignore the popular call for a more proactive way to bring Jonathan—and Mortals—to power.”
“If you mean your zealots, I want nothing of it,” Rom said.
“You need to know their number is growing. And they grow more convinced.”
“That Jonathan was always meant as a figurehead, not a leader. That he will begin the new kingdom as foretold, but that he need not necessarily rule it.”
“He will be Sovereign,” Rom gritted out. “And Sovereigns rule.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Don’t tell me you give them any credence.”
“I serve the Mortal life with my own, and Jonathan with the life of every Nomad. But to dismiss the sentiments of other Mortals who have sworn to protect Jonathan is dangerous. Jonathan has brought us life and we must protect it at all costs.”
“We will protect him. As our Sovereign.”
“Yes, of course. Meanwhile, a more proactive approach to eliminating any threat presented by Saric and these Dark Bloods”—he jutted his chin in the direction of the slumped prisoner—“might be the best way to ensure that he does become Sovereign. We should at least consider the option now, while we have it.”
“What? Ride into Byzantium and take the Citadel by force?”
Roland shrugged. “Whatever is required to ensure Jonathan’s ascension.”
“We will not bathe his rise to power in blood unless our hand is forced,” Rom said.
“No, of course not,” Roland said with a slight dip of his head. Ever the warrior, ever the statesman. “In the meantime, I expect that we kill this Dark Blood.”
Rom considered him, then glanced at each of the council members in turn, landing, at last, on his truest friend.
“Triphon,” he said. “Find Jonathan. He’s our Sovereign. Let him decide.”
THE CITADEL. Heart of Byzantium. Throne room of the Sovereign. Seat of world power.
Place of whispers. Place of secrets.
A day had passed since Saric’s world had changed once more. Now he strode into the outer foyer of the senate chamber, footsteps on the marble floor echoing through the hall’s vaulted ceiling. He was only vaguely aware of the two Citadel guards flanking him on either side, cowering in his wake.
He breathed deep.
It all rushed back in an instant: the Chaos of these ancient chambers. It seeped from her very stones like sweat from her subterranean walls. It flitted through her hallways like the ghosts of a former age, whispering songs of passion. Anger. Love.
Did those sitting within the Senate Hall have any idea how very wrong they were? How weak and flawed was the foundation on which they’d built their staid and stoic laws?
Today they would learn. Today he would teach them.
He smoothed the dark sleeve of his robe and angled toward the great doors leading into the senate chamber. He had owned many fine robes in his life before, but none of them could equal the one he wore now, glittering with faceted onyx and garnet at neck and cuff, snug across shoulders that had emerged from the years of his metamorphosis more broad and muscled than before. Corban himself had drawn back his hair, wrapping it in a length of the finest silk he owned. An adoring tribute to his maker, one Saric had accepted with full love in the face of such worship.
Two guards stood at the twin doors as he approached. One of them paled, the color in his face replaced by recognition. As it should be—Saric was a veritable ghost come back from the dead. A reaper come to take what was his.
“My Lord,” the one whispered, drifting aside.
The other one glanced sharply at his partner, but stood his ground, the ceremonial pike at his side not wavering once.
“Senate is in session,” he said. “Entrance is not permitted.”
Saric slowly closed the distance between them until, an arm’s reach away, he towered a full head over him. The man’s eyes darted to the two guards behind Saric and then back to Saric and down his neck, where the inky line of his veins disappeared beneath his neckline.
“Do you know who I am?” Saric said.
“No.” His hand trembled once on the pike.
“Then it’s time you do.”
Saric leaned in, as though to whisper between them.
The guard’s eyes darted up and after a moment’s hesitation, he tilted his head toward him. Saric lifted his long, pale fingers to the man’s head and drew him close, so that his lips touched the man’s ear.
“You may call me death,” he whispered.
He twisted the guard’s head. A sick pop, half of a gasp… and then silence.
The young man slumped to the marble floor as his spike clattered beside him.
The guard on the other side of the door took one more step back and then stood frozen, ghostly white.
Without a word, Saric stepped past him, black hem of his robe sliding over the dead man’s boot. And then he laid his hands against the heavy double doors, pushed them slowly wide, and stepped into the great senate chamber.
The hall had not changed in nine years. Very little did among the dead. The great torch burned above the dais, constantly fed by a supply of gas—the flame of Order, gathered from all corners of the world, never to be extinguished. Its smoke had all but obscured the ancient painting on the ceiling, blacking it out.
A debate was in progress—about what, Saric did not care. None of their paltry concerns now mattered. Only he did.
The cacophony of voices began to die as those sitting nearest the door of the chamber theater reacted to the sight of him standing in the open maw of the great doorway. Swiveling necks. Gasps, sibilant as prayer to his ears. One or two of the senators half-rose from their seats, papers falling from their laps.
Saric released the doors and walked down the great center aisle, through the middle of the tiered seats, not seeing so much as sensing the hundred gaping faces on either side of him. He took in the astonished silence as one does the sun, or the power of a coming storm. In the back of the chamber, the heavy doors fell closed with a dull and hollow thud.
There, on the rounded platform protruding into the chamber, was Rowan, the Sovereign Regent. For the first time in his life, Saric regarded the man he had known so long ago with new curiosity.
The dark-skinned man who had once served Saric’s father as senate leader was as seemingly unchanged as Order itself. He wore the same dark robes as before, his hair bound back in the same manner Saric so vividly remembered. Only the slightest streak of gray in his hair and scant lines beneath his eyes betrayed his aging. Otherwise, he was exactly as he had been. Saric found this disappointing.
The Regent stood near a marble table, the Sovereign’s seat neatly tucked behind it, signifying the symbolic presence of the rightful Sovereign, not yet of age. On the other side of the table sat another man with gray hair, his nose hawklike, hands grasping the arms of his chair, eyes fastened on Saric. This then, must be Dominic, the new senate leader.
“Order!” Rowan said, reaching for the gavel, pounding it twice on the thick travertine. The old fool hadn’t yet recognized him. “What is the meaning of this interrupt—”
And then Saric saw the recognition in his eyes, the collision of the impossible and inexplicable at once. The way his eyes coursed over him, lingering at his changed frame, returning to his too-pale face.
The gavel slipped from his fingers and came to rest on the table. Rowan staggered back a step.
Saric slowly mounted the steps to the platform. Crossed to the table, not once removing his gaze from the man.
“Saric… We thought you dead…”
Behind Saric, the theater was utterly still.
The Regent glanced at Dominic then toward the greater senate chamber. He dipped his head slightly and returned to his seat. He sat as one not sure of his own movement.
Saric lifted the gavel, tapped it once against his palm, and turned to face the senate theater. One hundred senators stared at him with varied expressions of confusion. Little did they know just how appropriate that sentiment would soon be.
“Esteemed senators. I have returned to you. I, Saric, who was once your Sovereign.”
Murmurs from those in the chamber.
“I have been gone from you for many years. Perhaps you, like your Regent, thought me… dead.” He paused, allowing himself the barest smile. “As you can see, I am very much alive.”
He faced the senate leader, seated to the left. “Dominic, I assume?”
The leader held his stare, steady. “That is correct.”
The man was strong. Unwavering. Good.
“You serve Order. You serve it faithfully as a way of sustaining life, given as the gift of Sirin after the Age of Chaos. Tell me if this is true.”
“We have pledged our lives to it.”
“Indeed. Your lives.” He turned back to the assembly and spoke the words with clear, perfect authority.
“It was Sirin who first preached the denial of emotions in a new philosophy designed to prevent the great passions that led to the wars five centuries ago. And so humanity learned to control its passion and baser sentiments. Old things passed away and we became new, evolving beyond those baser instincts that once guided us only to death and destruction.”
He twisted his head and addressed the senate leader. “This, too, is true, is it not?”
“Yes,” Dominic agreed. A murmur of assent from the chamber.
Saric nodded and smiled. “Yes.” He paced to his right, scanning the auditorium, holding them in silence for an extended moment.
“Unfortunately, it’s not true.”
Glances between the senators. In his periphery, Rowan sat forward. Saric stayed him with a glance.
“You have been fed a lie. You are the products not of philosophy, but of treason… and Alchemy.”
A confused ripple of voices throughout the chamber.
“The truth is, you are not evolved. You have, rather, been stripped of those emotions not required for control. Namely, every emotion but fear. All through a virus called Legion.”
“Madness!” Dominic said, leaping up from his chair, face white.
“The truth is, Megas assassinated Sirin when he refused to infect the world with Legion, knowing it would strip mankind of its humanity. The truth is that after killing Sirin, Megas released Legion on the world, killing it to all but the fear required to create puppets of Order. The truth is, you have not evolved—you have, in fact, devolved.”
“Preposterous! Absolute heresy!”
“Is it? Ask yourself: is it loyalty that compels you to your feet in this instant? Love, for Order?”
“Yes,” Dominic said, straightening.
“Are you so certain? Or is it only that you fear losing Bliss in the next life if you do not leap to your feet and defend the way of Order? Just as you function from day to day caring only that you’re not caught in transgression and that your offenses do not multiply so that on the day when life arbitrarily cuts you off from the world, you do not end up in fear eternal?”
The senate leader stood absolutely still—not angry, as Corpses were incapable of such emotion—but terrified. Rowan had risen to his feet as well.
“Fear guides us as it should,” Dominic said.
“Should? The truth is, you are incapable of anything but fear because you’ve been genetically stripped of those sentiments. Of that which makes you human. The truth is, my dear Dominic, Rowan… esteemed members of the senate… all of you are in fact, quite dead.”
They stared at him as if he were a madman. By these words he’d just killed all credibility in their eyes, naturally. But this was expected. Who, being told they were dead, could possibly believe the bearer of such news sane?
Saric waited for a moment, briefly considering the gavel in his hands, before laying it aside on the marble tabletop, just so, and moving again to the edge of the dais, where he faced Rowan.
“Am I not your former Sovereign? The last acting Sovereign to stand in this chamber?”
“Yes,” the Regent said, “but—”
“Have I not had access to every archive in the chambers beneath this very one?” He glanced toward the door beyond the dais. It was quite obviously sealed around the edges, without doorknob or handle. But anyone who knew the Citadel had at least heard rumors of its subterranean maze of secrets.
“Do I not come from the royal line of alchemists?”
“Yes,” Rowan said, his mouth a flat line.
“And am I dead, as you and everyone else here, once presumed?”
He hesitated. “Clearly not.”
“Tell me,” Saric said, pacing along the dais, pulling wide the top of his robe where it fastened at the neck. He turned to face the assembled senate.
They stared at the black treelike skeleton of veins beneath his pale skin, far darker than the coveted blue of royal Brahmin veins—so praised that royals had for years highlighted their color with blue powder. His body was chorded with muscle, stronger than any other body they could have possibly seen.
“This is life! I know so because I was once dead.” He released his robe. “Tell me, when is the last time you wept at the sight of the sky? At the devotion of your constituents? That you looked forward to a meal with anything more than duty to your body… when you did not crave every experience if only for the sake of taking each ounce of life into yourself?”
They stared, unfathoming. That, too, was expected.
“But you cannot possibly do any of these things. Do you know why? Because you lack the capacity for any of it!”
This time there was the beginning of an outcry, but he threw up his hand for silence.
“Nine years ago, the Master Alchemist Pravus injected me with a serum that fired my veins with emotion the likes of which you have never even imagined. Anger. Lust! Jealousy. I was a thing turned feral. Chaos ruled my heart. Yes, I know it is blasphemy against Order. But I tell you today, your Order is a blasphemy against life itself!”
Off to the side, Rowan was staring at him strangely, as though with a new revelation of his own.
“Those days…,” Rowan said quietly. “Before the inauguration… when you wanted to become senate leader…”
“Yes. And so now you know. I could not contain such virulent emotion, and Pravus reclaimed me. Eight years I spent in stasis. Until the day that he drew me out as one reemerging from the womb. This time, perfected. He spent months with me, teaching me. Schooling me in this new, reclaimed humanity.” His voice broke. “I was his child. He was my father.”
“This is… this is abomination,” Rowan whispered.
For that, the man would die.
Saric ignored him and spread his arms as if he were their father. “Today there is only one living man in this chamber. See now and know that I am he!”
For an extended moment, no one spoke. The dead could not stoop to challenge such an absurd claim. So it had been, and so it would be…
At least for a few minutes more. And then their entire world would change before their very eyes.
“My Lord,” Dominic said, in a practiced, conciliatory tone. “We will most certainly investigate the veracity of all that you claim. This is quite a… revelation.”
It was not the word he wanted to use. It was blasphemy to him, Saric knew. As Order was blasphemy to him.
“We revere you for your service to the world—in such a time as your father’s abrupt passing, no less. And while Order is given by the Maker, law is not the Maker. It is not perfect. But we must follow the dictates of the law until it is changed. These are serious claims, and to make them known would throw the world into nothing short of raw panic. We cannot afford such uproar, and if such claims are proven true, we must proceed with utmost care.”
Rage rose up within Saric like bile. Did the man really believe he would be placated by such patronizing foolishness?
Dominic continued: “Until such a day that your claims are proven and the senate dictates otherwise, Order must be upheld. Our Book of Orders is infallible, created not by Sirin or by Megas who wrote that holy book, but by the Maker who inspired its writing. And until such a day it may be proven wrong, we serve Order and the Maker both by obedience to its statutes.”
Murmurs of assent.
Saric inclined his head. So very predictable. Somehow he had hoped for more from this one.
Overhead, the senate flame burned straight and even, throwing her faint smoke onto the black of the ceiling. Dominic would look quite handsome, he thought, in a glass sarcophagus.
“Yes. Forgive me,” he said, tilting his head. “Your memory is infallible. These items, you have said, will be investigated by the senate. The veracity of them will be checked, and the senate will act accordingly—even if it means altering the history of Order itself, which is the history of the world, and of the Maker.”
Dominic hesitated, obviously uncertain about this last bit. “Yes. If such a revelation may be proven true.”
“Until then, I bow to your wisdom.”
“Thank you, my Lord. Now, if we may—”
“As you bow to the authority of the senate. As only the senate may decide these matters under the Sovereign.”
“Yes. Such is the way.” Dominic inclined his head.
“And to the authority of the Sovereign, who holds all sway over the senate.”
“Yes, of the Sovereign. That is true.”
“But the Sovereign is not here…?” Saric turned, looked around him.
“He will soon come of age. Until then, there is Rowan—”
“And if your Sovereign were here… the one chosen by the cycle, as dictated by Order… born on the seventh day of the seventh month, closest to the seventh hour, would you bow?”
Rowan was sitting forward, frowning. Out in the senate chamber, the senators had returned to their seats, most of them, the alarm of earlier having smoothed into a strange calm—except for those few, still white-faced, obviously undone by Saric’s claims.
“You would serve your Sovereign first, before the senate,” Saric said, brows raised.
“Of course. I serve the Sovereign first in all things. As do we all.”
Saric glanced at him sidelong. “And you would have it no other way.”
“Of course not.”
“Good. I, too, bow to the full authority of the Sovereign.”
Saric looked at the cloaked man who’d slipped in the back after him to wait his orders. Corban. Saric lazily lifted a hand to motion to his chief alchemist.
Corban turned, grasped the large doors by the handles, and pulled them wide, stepping to one side.
Two Dark Bloods walked through the double doors with the unmistakable shape of a body draped in white silk on a pall between them. The sight of his Dark Bloods towering so majestically over the frail bodies of those assembled flooded Saric with a father’s pride. Now they would see.
Soon they would bow.
But first, the senators closest to the door bolted to their feet and backed away, skittering like crabs. When was the last time any one of them had seen a lifeless body?
The caustic reminders of death weren’t allowed, even at funerals.
Near him on the dais, Rowan stood. “What is the meaning of this?”
The Dark Bloods carried the pall down the aisle, up the dais steps, and laid the draped body on the top of the stone table.
Not a soul moved. Breath had fled the room. A dead body in the senate chamber—by that alone, Order had been shattered today.
On either end of the altar, the Dark Bloods faced him, sunk to one knee, and bowed their heads.
Saric moved to the side of the body, hip brushing against the Sovereign chair. He traced one finger along the edge of the still form, his touch trailing toward the head. He grasped the silk cloth with the tips of four fingers, and, with a quick yank, flicked off the cloth, revealing the naked body of a woman, staring with dead eyes at the ceiling.
Rowan stood frozen, eyes wide with recognition, face as white as the silk on the floor. The room was utterly still.
And then that one name, whispered by Rowan for all to hear in the perfect silence.
JORDIN SIRANA PASSED THROUGH CAMP like One Who Is Not Seen. It was the name her companions had given her, growing up, for her uncanny ability to go practically unnoticed.
She was smaller framed than the other fighters. In a camp full of ornately adorned Nomads, the eye did not notice the simple russet of her tunic and brown leggings… until they saw the braids bound with so much red as to appear dipped in blood.
Her father had been a deserter of the Nomadic camp in northern Europa, one who left the wilderness for Order—a stigma passed on to her and her mother, who had died on a hunt less than a year later. The tribe no longer wanted the motherless child of a deserter and had offered her up at the Gathering that year. Had Roland not approved of her adoption, she would have been left to survive on her own or die. Thin chances for a child of six.
What had once been seen as shortcomings made her who she was today: a fierce warrior recognized as such by all the elders, including Roland himself. A young woman of uncompromising character, whose many days hunting alone and sparring larger opponents had gained her a reputation for speed and deadly accuracy.
She didn’t speak much. She didn’t tell stories about the hunt or show off her kill the way the others did. She wasn’t the first to challenge an opponent at the games, nor did she quickly raise her fists in victory.
A warrior without pretension was unencumbered by distraction. Little escaped her observation. Like the fact that Roland’s and Michael’s horses were not only back before dawn, but lathered with sweat. Like the fact that four hours later, the smoke of the fire of Adah, who cooked for Rom, still coiled in wisps thin enough only to keep the fire alive before cooking the hot first meal of the day.
Whatever news Roland had returned with in such a hurry had stolen Rom’s appetite.
And now they were frantically calling for Jonathan. She could hear their voices sounding through the camp. They needed him urgently.
Triphon, meanwhile, had come directly to her instead.
“Will you find him?”
She was the unspoken guardian of his side, the one who knew, always, where to find the Sovereign of the world.
Jordin strode on silent feet through the camp, past Rhoda the blacksmith’s yurt—the dwelling of the Nomad.
Here, the broad Seyala Valley narrowed between the cliff and the rising foothills. She glanced up, just making out the familiar sight of the scout on the hill above the camp. From there, the watch could see any sign of movement in the valley below and the plateau beyond.
She jogged down toward the smaller river branch that passed on the far side of camp. Several men and women were washing clothes, utensils, children, themselves—their songs carrying downstream like soapsuds. She waded across and hurried up the hill opposite the ruins, only pausing when she’d reached the top of the scrubby knoll. From here she had perfect vantage to make out the bullish form of Triphon passing through camp in his own search for the young Sovereign. Wasted effort, she thought, but then, you could never be absolutely certain with Jonathan.
She knew this: Jonathan was rarely where many thought he was supposed to be. And where they assumed he would not be, he usually was.
Beyond the rocky knoll there was a place where the hill leveled out against the rising cliff face, where children often went to play out of sight of their parents and lovers met far beyond the reach of campfires at night.
Jordin crested the edge of the hill and saw them. Five children, playing knuckle-sticks. And with them was Jonathan, as she’d guessed, having overheard the children’s plans for the game earlier.
He was sitting cross-legged on the scrubby grass, dust on his pants and boots. He had changed so much from the boy with the limp who had come to them nine years ago when Jordin herself was nearly ten, just after her mother had died. He was now a rangy young man two heads taller than she, with a strong neck and broadening shoulders, and hands that played the Nomadic lyre as easily as they wielded a sword. He had his knife out and was just blowing the dust off a new carved game piece when he saw her and smiled.
She returned his smile with her own and quickened her stride, easily concealing her gladness at having found him. Again.
Jonathan. The man who gazed at her differently than the way he looked at other women. The man who bowed his head when they came to tap his blood as if he was a well. She wanted to take him away every time the Keeper came looking for him.
“Jordin, come play!” one of the children said. “Jonathan’s making a second set!”
“Oh?” she said, dropping down to the ground beside them.
“What do you think?” Jonathan said, handing her the piece. It was the length of a man’s hand, cylindrical in shape.
“I think it looks like…” She paused, taking in the rough carving of the hair, pulled back. The figure was standing on a stone to make her the same height as the others. She glanced up at Jonathan. “Like me.”
“It is you!” one of the children crowed. “And here are Michael and Roland!”
She let out a soft laugh as she glanced at Jonathan, whose braids had fallen into his face.
“I’m surprised you didn’t make Triphon.”
“The piece would be too tall,” Jonathan said with a wry smile.
“He’s calling for you. The council needs you. It seems to be urgent.”
“Urgent? Isn’t it always?”
“I think this is different.”
Jonathan looked down at the knife in his hand, nodded once, and got to his feet, extending his hand to help her up.
“Don’t go!” one of the boys said.
“I’ll be back. Promise.”
Jonathan took her hand and led her from the children, then released it and helped her down a short drop. He’d never been reserved about showing affection, but there was something more to the way his hand had held hers of late. She had wondered each time, afraid to ask his intentions, afraid that what she dared hope might be crushed with a simple word that he was only showing her friendship. Could he feel the surge of her pulse when he touched her fingers? Hear the shortening of her breath?
They didn’t speak as they descended toward camp. There was no need to fill the comfortable silence between them; in this way they were much alike.
Those bathing and washing clothes got to their feet as they crossed the river, several of them coming to greet him, reaching for his hand.
“Jonathan,” they murmured, lowering their heads.
He let them. He always let them, as they took his hand, their fingers touching the vein along his wrist—an acknowledgment of the life that flowed through it. A few, an older woman among them, reached up with aging fingers, to touch his neck.
And then they went on, along the edge of camp—passing through it would take far too much time. They slowed again as those working out behind their yurts came to touch him, to murmur his name. Even then some, seeing him, hurried into their tents and came out with bits of meat, a cup of wine, mare’s milk. He took them all, drinking the milk, tearing into the meat with a gusto that made those watching nod approval, tossing back the wine as expected.
It had never been a mystery to Jordin why he kept to the fringe of camp when he could. It wasn’t just for his sake—because he wouldn’t do anything other than accept each of their gifts with grace, no matter how tedious—but for their sake, because they could not see him without feeling compelled to thank him for the vast gifts of Mortal life. For the acute perception that served them so well in every hunt. For the wild existence they celebrated in everything they did from the riot of color in their clothes to the beat of their drums and strength of their wine at night. All of which they craved and consumed with abandon.
All of which Jonathan—and Jordin, too—enjoyed as much outside camp as within it. More.
They came to the temple ruins from the side. Above the stone stairs, the ancient pillars opened to the sky. The vaulted ceiling that had once covered them had long ago caved in and been carted away by scavengers. It had been a basilica at one time, before the time of Order, when men knew the Maker as another name: God.
In the face of the lone stone beam that bridged the two columns at the front of the courtyard, Rom had chiseled the creed by which all Mortals lived: The Glory of the Maker is Man Fully Alive. They said it had first been spoken by an ancient saint named Irenaeus during the second century of Chaos, twenty-three hundred years ago.
Today, the stone corners were broken away and tiny plants grew in the cracks between each step, but every time Jordin mounted these stairs her skin prickled. In the sanctum of this temple called Bahar—a name she was once told meant “Spring of Life”—she had come into Mortality on the high platform without mother or father to clasp her afterward.
It had been Jonathan who’d kissed her and welcomed her to life with the stent still in his arm.
They passed through the long corridor of pillars to the inner sanctum at the back, pulling open the double doors together and entering without a word.
The smell assaulted her without warning and she jerked back. Jonathan, too, hesitated.
Stench of Corpse.
Of something more…
Ten heads had turned, Roland, Michael, Rom, and the strange old Keeper among them. On the wide aisle before the altar, a large and very pale man slumped in a chair. Was that what she smelled? He looked like a Corpse. He was half again as tall as she, his tangled and unkempt hair hanging like ropes from his head. Her hackles raised at the sight of him.
Rom hurried forward to meet them as the others got to their feet. Roland and Michael were already standing.
“Jonathan,” Rom said. He lowered his head.
“Who do I smell?” Jonathan said.
“That’s the Corpse Roland and Michael brought back last night.” His jaw was tight. “We need a decision from you.”
Jonathan stared at the Corpse, the Adam’s apple in his throat bobbing slightly as he swallowed. Continues...
Excerpted from Mortal by Dekker, Ted Copyright © 2012 by Dekker, Ted. Excerpted by permission.
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