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The new supreme rulers of Khandar met in the old common room of the Justices, the cudgel-bearing peacekeepers and constabulary that were now the closest thing the city of Ashe-Katarion had to a civil authority. It was a gloomy space, buried deep in the city’s ancient gatehouse. Jaffa-dan-Iln, as Grand Justice, was the nominal host of the gathering, and he’d done his best to straighten up, removing decades of accumulated rubbish, packs of cards, dice, and misplaced papers. There was no way to hide the marks and patches on the carpets, though, nor the plain sandstone walls, devoid of decoration except where some bored Justice had carved them with a belt knife. The table was cheap wood, layered with stains, and the chairs were a mismatched set dragged from every room of the gatehouse. Jaffa had rearranged the bookcases and other furniture to at least conceal the more obscene bits of graffiti.
The chime of a bell on the stairs heralded the arrival of the first visitor. General Khtoba entered the room cautiously, as though advancing on an enemy position. He wore his uniform under trousers and jacket over a white undershirt, the jacket fringed with gold at the shoulders as befitted his rank. A crimson triangle, open on top like a squat V, had been hastily sewn over his heart to represent the fires of the Redemption. At his side was a sword so filigreed with gold and silver that it sparkled as he moved. Behind him came two other officers of the Auxiliaries, similarly uniformed but less impressively accoutred.
The general looked over the room with barely concealed distaste, selected the least tatty chair, and sat, offering Jaffa only a grunt of recognition. His officers took seats flanking him, as though they expected trouble.
“Welcome, General,” Jaffa said. “Would you care for any refreshment?”
The general scowled. He had a face made for scowls, with bushy eyebrows and lips shadowed by a broad, drooping mustache. When he spoke, gold gleamed on his teeth.
“No,” he said. “I would care to get this over with. Where are the damned priests?”
The bell downstairs rang again, as if to answer this minor blasphemy. There was the sound of a considerable party on the steps, and then the priests of the Seraphic Council entered, all in a gaggle.
Jaffa had grown up knowing what a priest looked like-either an old man, bearded and fat, in gaudy green and purple robes, or else a woman demurely shrouded in silks. This new kind, these hard-eyed young men in spare black wraps, made him uncomfortable. There were no women among their number, demure or otherwise. Their leader was a younger man with close-cropped hair and a scar under one eye, who took a seat at the table opposite the general. His flock remained standing behind him.
“I am Yatchik-dan-Rahksa,” he said. “Appointed by the Divine Hand to lead the Swords of Heaven and oversee the final cleansing of foreign taint from our land.”
The name meant “Angel of Victory,” which Jaffa supposed was appropriate enough. The Divine Hand himself had started the fashion for taking the names of angels when he’d called himself Vale-dan-Rahksa, the Angel of Vengeance. At the rate the Council was expanding, there would soon be a serious shortage of angels. Jaffa wondered what would happen when they ran out of manly, intimidating names and were reduced to naming themselves after the Angel of Sisterly Affection or the Angel of Small Crafts.
Khtoba bristled. “That cleansing should have begun weeks ago. The cursed Vordanai were like a fruit in our hands, ripe for the plucking, but they were permitted to escape. Now the task of evicting them will cost many of the faithful their lives.”
“The truly faithful are always prepared to lay down their lives for the Redemption,” the priest said. “But I think you overestimate the difficulty, General.”
“Overestimate?” Khtoba frowned. “Perhaps you’d like to try scaling the walls of Sarhatep without the help of my guns, then.”
Yatchik smiled beatifically. “Walls are no obstacle to the will of Heaven.”
“So the servants of Heaven have discovered how to fly?”
“Sirs,” Jaffa said. “Before we begin, I should remind you that our council is not yet complete.”
“Oh, of course,” the general drawled. “Let us wait to see what a bunch of boy-fucking horse thieves have to say.”
“The gods value all their children,” Yatchik said. “And glory comes to all who serve the Redemption.”
The bell rang a third time before Khtoba could respond. The last member of the council made no noise on the stairs, and entered the chamber with only the slightest whisper of silk. He was dressed in black from head to foot, loose-fitting robes cinched at the waist, wrists, and ankles in the Desoltai style, with a black silk scarf wound around his head. His face was invisible behind his famous mask, a simple oval of brushed steel with two square holes for eyes.
This was Malik-dan-Belial, the Steel Ghost, chieftain of the desert tribes. He had risen to prominence long before the beginning of the Redemption. The Ghost’s Desoltai raiders had been a thorn in the side of the prince and the Vordanai for years, and the Ghost himself was the hero of a hundred stories told in hushed whispers. It was said that he had no face, only an inky void behind the steel mask, and that he’d traded his very identity to a demon for the ability to see the future.
No one rose as he entered, so it fell to Jaffa to greet him. He got up from his seat and bowed.
“Malik,” Jaffa said. The Ghost had never claimed another name or title. “Welcome. Please, take your seat.”
“Yes, welcome,” said Yatchik. “We were discussing plans for the final destruction of the Vordanai. Perhaps you might care to add your opinion?”
“It is too late,” said the Ghost. His voice rasped like silk over steel, harsh with the heavy accent of the desert. “The raschem fleet has arrived, with transports and ships of war.”
“I’ve heard nothing of this,” Khtoba said. “Where did you get this information?”
The Ghost fixed the general with his blank, faceless gaze. “The ships came into sight yesterday evening.”
Khtoba sat tight-lipped. The Steel Ghost had always displayed a remarkable ability to know more than he should. It was just possible that a man on a fast horse, with a string of remounts, could have covered the hundred miles between Sarhatep and the city along the coast road, but Khtoba’s own men had undoubtedly been watching that road and presumably they’d seen nothing. That meant either that some Desoltai messenger had accomplished the same feat cross-country, over the scrubland and desert of the Lesser Desol, or that the Steel Ghost really did have some magic at his command.
“We’ll need to confirm that,” the general said. “If what you say is true, my couriers should bring the news by tomorrow.”
“Even still,” Yatchik said, “we know nothing of their intentions. They may mean to take the prudent course and return to their own lands.”
Khtoba bared his teeth. “In which case we’ve lost our chance for vengeance on the foreigners and their Exopterai dogs.”
“That the Redemption is accomplished is enough,” said the priest. “We need spill no more blood than necessary.”
Jaffa had seen the charnel pits in the great square in front of the Palace. Presumably, Yatchik would say that those deaths had been necessary.
“They will not leave our shores,” the Ghost said. General and holy man both turned to look at him. “The transports are unloading. Men, guns, stores in great quantity.”
“How many men?” Khtoba snapped, his earlier reluctance to accept the Desoltai’s information forgotten.
“Three thousand, perhaps four.”
The general snorted. “What can they hope to accomplish with so small a force? Can they be mad enough to believe they will defeat the Redemption? My Auxiliaries alone outnumber them.”
The Ghost shrugged.
“Perhaps they mean to simply hold Sarhatep,” Yatchik said. “If so, they are welcome to it. There is nothing of value so far down the coast.”
“They cannot be allowed to retain a foothold,” Khtoba said. “We must soak the sand in Vordanai blood and pack a ship full of their heads to send back to their king. He must understand the folly of sending armies against us.”
“Then,” Yatchik said, soft as a snake, “will you march against them?”
Khtoba froze. Jaffa saw the trap. The general was more afraid of the priests than of the foreigners. If he marched his strength away from the city and weakened himself in battle, there was no guarantee he would find a friendly welcome on his return.
“My friends,” Jaffa said, “the city is restless. Not all have accepted the Redemption. It may be that the raschem will simply wait, and if they do I suggest that we do the same.”
“Yes,” said Khtoba. “My men are needed to keep order.”
In truth, the drunken soldiers of the Auxiliaries were more of a detriment to public order than a help in keeping the peace, but Jaffa knew better than to say so. Yatchik smiled.
“In that case, General, you are in accord with my own views.”
Khtoba grunted, conceding the point. Jaffa turned to the Ghost.
“Can we rely on you to keep us informed as to the foreigners’ movements?”
Malik-dan-Belial inclined his masked head slightly. “However,” he said, “I do not believe they will stay at Sarhatep.”
“Why?” said the general, anxious to be done with this council.
“Among the thousands, there is one who possesses true power. An abh-naathem. Such people do not cross the oceans to no purpose.”
Khtoba snorted. “So the Vordanai have sent us a wizard, then? We’ll see if his spells make him proof against cannonballs.”
“The power of the gods will overcome any raschem magic,” Yatchik said. “Those who trust in the Redemption need have no fear of spells or demons.”
The Ghost only shrugged again.
Stripped of his painted cloak and staff of office, the Grand Justice passed into the slums of Ashe-Katarion as the sun sank toward the horizon. He wore the garb of a common trader, a plain brown wrap belted with a rope, and a heavy cudgel swung from his hip.
There were parts of the city to which the writ of the prince’s Justices had never extended, except in name, and this was one of them. Once there had been an informal accord between those who enforced the law and those who flouted it. The criminals kept their operations quiet and orderly, and made certain that the bodies found floating down the river never belonged to anyone wealthy or important. In return, the Justices turned a blind eye to their activities.
That peace had gone by the board with the coming of the Redemption, along with all the other unwritten rules that made the ancient city work. Some of the slums had practically emptied as the desperate poor flocked to the Redeemers’ banners. Others had become armed camps, with raids and counterraids leaving corpses that lay in the street for days, to be torn by packs of feral dogs.
Jaffa therefore kept one hand on his cudgel, and shot hard looks at the unwashed children who watched him from doors and alleyways. The few adults he saw were hurrying along, eyes down, intent on their own errands. This slum, known for reasons understood only by historians as the Hanging Garden, was one of those that had seen the greatest concentration of Redeemer fervor. The dwellings of those who had left to follow the holy flame had been rapidly colonized by the city’s enormous population of vagrant youths, always in search of someplace to sleep where they wouldn’t be bothered by thieves, pimps, or Justices.
Along with the squatters had come others who wished to hide from Ashe-Katarion’s new rulers. Jaffa turned off the main street, a hard-packed dirt road pocked with occasional half-buried paving stones, and into a narrow alley. This ran on for some time, twisting and turning, and eventually opened out into an irregular courtyard.
Here, some of Ashe-Katarion’s ancient architecture had survived the attentions of the years and the insatiable demand for cut stone. A broad fountain stood in the center, dusty dry now, watched over by a weathered stone god with arms spread in an attitude of benediction. Erosion had blurred his features until he was unrecognizable. Uneven flagstones still floored the rest of the yard, with hard, wiry grass pushing up through the cracks between them.
It was here, in this hidden yard, that the last true servants of the gods waited. Jaffa approached the wicker chair set beside the fountain and fell to his knees, head lowered.
“Welcome, child.” The figure in the chair was cloaked and hooded, despite the spring heat, and her hands were swathed in white bandages. Her voice was desiccated, cracked and dry, like the very voice of the desert.
“Holy Mother,” Jaffa said, keeping his eyes on the broken flagstones, “I have news from the council.”
“You bring more than news, it seems.” There was a dusty sound from the cloaked woman that might have been a laugh. “Onvidaer, bring me our guest.”
There was a startled squeak from behind Jaffa, and the shuffling of sandals. The Grand Justice remained in his attitude of obeisance, sweat beading on his face. “I am sorry beyond words, Mother. I did not think?”
“Rise, child,” the cloaked woman said. “No harm has been done. Now let us see what fish our net has caught.”
Jaffa got to his feet and turned, weak with relief. Standing behind him was a young woman of fifteen or sixteen, scrawny and stick-limbed. Her skin was smudged with the filth of the slums, and she wore only torn trousers and a dirty vest. Her hair hung in thick, greasy clumps.
Onvidaer had one hand on the girl’s upper arm, holding her still without apparent effort. He was a young man, only a few years older than his prisoner, but lean and well muscled, with the copper-gray skin of the Desoltai. He wore nothing but a loincloth, showing broad shoulders and a muscular chest to good effect, and his face was round, almost cherubic. His other hand held a thin-bladed dagger.
“She followed Jaffa,” he announced. “For some time before he came here. But she has reported to no one.”
“Such a ragged little alley cat,” rasped the woman in the chair. “But what house does she belong to, I wonder?”
“No one,” the girl said. Her eyes were full of defiance. “I’ve done nothing, I swear it. I never followed him.”
“Now, now,” the woman said. “Cool your anger. Were I in your position, I might do better to beg for mercy.”
“I don’t know who you are, or . . . or anything!”
“We will find out the truth of that, soon enough.” The hood turned. “Summon Akataer.”
A huge shadow detached itself from the wall behind the old woman, resolving into an enormous, hairless man in leather breeches and straps. He gave an assenting grunt and wandered out through the rear of the square, where empty doorways gaped into long-deserted apartments.
“Now, child,” the old woman said. “Who sent you here?”
“No one sent me!” she said, jerking at Onvidaer’s grip. “And I’m not a child.”
“All men are children of the gods,” the old woman said, not unkindly. “And all women, too, even little alley cats. The gods cherish all their children.”
“Just let me go.” There was desperation in the girl’s voice, and Jaffa had to harden his heart. “Please. I won’t tell anyone anything?”
She stopped as the huge man returned, accompanied by a skinny boy of eleven or twelve years in a white wrap. The boy was as bald as his giant companion, with solemn features and bright blue eyes. He bowed to the old woman, nodded politely to Jaffa, and turned his eyes to the girl.
“We will find out what she knows,” said the old woman. “Onvidaer.”
The girl threw a wild glance at the knife. “Please. You don’t have to hurt me. I don’t know anything? I swear?”
“Hurt you?” The old woman gave another paper-dry laugh. “Poor child. We aren’t going to hurt you.”
Jaffa saw the sudden hope bloom in the girl’s eyes. At just that moment, Onvidaer moved with the speed of a striking snake, raising her wrist above her head and sliding the long, thin dagger into her left side beneath the armpit. It went in smooth as silk, finding the gap between her ribs. The girl gave a single jerk, eyes gone very wide, and then her legs buckled. She hung from the young man’s grip on her wrist like a broken puppet. Her head lolled forward, greasy hair swinging in front of her face.
“I have no desire to cause anyone pain,” said the old woman. “Onvidaer is extremely skilled.”
Jaffa closed his eyes for a moment, running through the words of a prayer. Once, such a thing would have sickened him. Once, he had even sought to bring the prince’s justice to Mother and all who served her, to break the secret temples and bring their obscenities to light. Now, having seen the men who had risen in her place, he had bound himself to her service. Now he was able to look on the death of an urchin girl without much more than a tremor. There had been so many deaths, after all. And one lesson the Redeemers had taught to Ashe-Katarion at painful length was that there were worse things in life than a quick ending.
Mother crooked a bony finger. “Now, Akataer.”
The boy nodded. Onvidaer gathered the girl’s other arm above her shoulders, so she hung with her knees just brushing the flagstones. Akataer put one hand under her lolling head and lifted it, looking solemnly into her blind, staring eyes and brushing back her hair. Then he leaned in, with the quiet concentration of a craftsman at work, and gently kissed her. His tongue pushed past her slack lips. There was a long, silent moment.
When he was finished, he put one hand on the side of her face and pulled open the lid of one rapidly filming eye until it gaped in ludicrous surprise. Again the boy leaned close, this time extending his tongue through his teeth, and ever so carefully he touched the tip of it to the corpse’s eye. He repeated the procedure with the other eye, then stepped back and muttered a few words under his breath.
In the depths of the girl’s pupils, something took shape. Her body swayed, as though Onvidaer had shaken it gently. Her eyes closed of their own accord, slowly, then flickered open. In place of white, iris and pupils, they were now filled from edge to edge with green fire. Her lips shifted, and a wisp of smoke curled upward from the corner of her mouth.
The old woman grunted, satisfied. She gestured Akataer to her side and patted him proprietarily on the head with a white-wrapped claw. Then she directed her attention to the thing that had been the urchin girl.
“Now,” she said, “we shall have some answers.”
“This is Mother,” said Akataer, in a high, clear voice. “I charge you to answer her questions, and speak truthfully.”
The corpse shifted again, drooling another skein of smoke. The glowing green eyes were unblinking.
“You followed Jaffa here,” the old woman said, gesturing at him. “This man.”
There was a long pause. When the corpse spoke, more smoke escaped, as though it had been holding in a draw from a pipe. It curled through the girl’s hair and hung oddly still in the air above her. Her voice was a drawn-out hiss, like a hot coal plunged in a water bucket.
“Yesssssss . . .”
Jaffa swallowed hard. He’d been half hoping Mother was wrong, though that meant the girl would have died for nothing. Small chance there, though. Mother was never wrong.
“And who bade you follow him? Who are your masters?”
Another pause, as though the dead thing were considering.
“. . . Orlanko . . . ,” she said eventually, reluctantly. “. . . Concordaaaaaat . . .”
“The foreigners,” the old woman said. She made a hawking sound, as though she would spit but didn’t have the juice. “And what were the raschem looking for?”
“. . . Names . . .” The corpse groaned. “. . . Must . . . have . . . the Names . . .”
She wriggled in Onvidaer’s grasp, and the green flared brighter. Akataer glanced anxiously at the old woman, who waved one hand as though bored by the proceedings.
“Dismiss her,” she said.
The boy nodded gratefully and muttered another few words. All at once, the corpse slumped, green fires dying away. The girl’s eye sockets were a charred ruin, and the stench of burned flesh wafted across the yard.
“You have done well, Akataer,” the old woman said. “Return to your chambers. Onvidaer, dispose of that.”
Jaffa frowned. “Mother, I don’t understand. What did she mean, ’the names’? Our names?”
“It is not necessary for you to understand, child,” the old woman said. “Put the business from your mind, and tell me what occurred on the council.”
Jaffa remembered Khtoba’s sarcastic aside at the prospect of Vordanai sorcery, and wondered if the general would be quite so flippant had he been in attendance here. Would a cannonball kill Mother? Jaffa, looking at her frail, wrapped form, decided that he thought not.
He cleared his throat and began, summarizing the talk and giving his impressions. The old woman listened attentively, interrupting only once, when Jaffa was speaking of Yatchik-dan-Rahksa.
“He said nothing of Feor?” she asked.
Jaffa shook his head. “No, Mother. She must still be a prisoner, or else . . .”
“She is not dead,” the old woman said. “I would have felt her passing. No, they hold her still. Go on.”
When he had finished, there was a long silence. The old woman’s hands, loose ends of the wraps fluttering, were never still. They sat in her lap, fingers entangled like eels, tugging here and there at the bindings as though they pained her.
“An abh-naathem,” she said. “There is a warning there, though that puffed-up fool Khtoba and the upstarts who usurp the names of angels are too deaf to hear. The Desoltai remember the old magics.”
Jaffa remained silent. It was not his place to offer an opinion.
“Child,” the old woman said, “I want the truth from you, now, not what you think will please me.”
“Yes, Mother.” Jaffa bowed his head.
“Will the Vordanai retake the city?”
He looked up, taken aback. “Mother? I am no soldier. I cannot?”
“As best you can tell,” she said, her ragged voice almost gentle. “Is it possible?”
“The Redeemers have assembled a vast host,” Jaffa said, thinking aloud. “But they are poorly trained, and armed only with faith. Khtoba’s Auxiliaries are better, but . . .”
There was a smile in the old woman’s voice. “You distrust Khtoba.”
“The man would sell his own mother for a thimbleful of power,” Jaffa said. “As for the Steel Ghost and his Desoltai, they will do as they see fit, and who can say what that will be?” He shrugged. “If I were the Vordanai captain, I would not attempt it. But if the gods smile on him and frown on us? yes, it is possible.”
The old woman nodded thoughtfully.
“I will give you a message to carry,” she said. “You must conceal it from Khtoba and the Council, of course. But I think it is time that I met this Steel Ghost.”