As a ward of the powerful Viscount and his wife, Faina whiles away her days exploring the palace and its grounds, dancing in the halls, hiding from her tutors, and spending time with the common folk she has grown to love.
And then comes Sorrow. An assassin of brutal efficiency, who weeps black tears over the corpses of the fallen, Sorrow has claimed the life of a beloved clergyman within the confines of the Viscount's own palace, and the infamous Lord Ash has come to investigate the crime. Faina is key to both their quests.
Sorrow cares only for destruction. Lord Ash cares only for the hunt. Whoever wins, whatever the cost, Faina will pay.
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.58(d)|
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Prologue: Prelude to Sorrow
One time, I was in the Dreaming, carried by the Wake and cradled by All-Mother, rising and falling in the rhythms of Her heart drumbeats. When I was low, I slept, but when I rose high, I could see and hear the Firsttime.
Grandfather sat and sang around the Spirit Wheel and painted and turned and painted and turned. And He whispered and turned and shared His wisdom with the darkness. And He shared His wisdom with the Seekers and all those drawn to the warmth of His soulfire. And with each song, He turned the Wheel again.
On the Wheel then was as it is now. Painted there was Zå and Her Son, grappling in conflict, embraced in union, never to be parted, forever separated. For all of time it has been, forever it shall be.
One time, I was in the Dreaming, carried by the Wake and cradled by All-Mother, rising and falling in the rhythms of Her heart drumbeats. When I was low, I slept, but when I rose high, I could see and hear the Firsttime.
I stole close to Grandfather and whispered in His ear, "Manyfaces confessed. He broke Your finest iron spear."
"Tuq-tuq!" Grandfather grumbled, "So careless is Manyfaces! He has turned it red as blood! Never again shall He touch it. But for His honesty, I shall bestow upon Him honor." And he made the designs on the Spirit Wheel and gave it another turn. And thus it was so.
One time, I wasin the Dreaming, carried by the Wake and cradled by All-Mother, rising and falling in the rhythms of Her heart drumbeats. When I was low, I slept, but when I rose high, I could see and hear the Firsttime.
Weepingchild began His feud with the Seekers, for their numbers crowded His sky and their cold sapped at His warmth. It was a contest of lies and venom against voices without breath.
Grandfather lent Weepingchild His silver moonshone hounds, fleet of foot for the hunt. The chase was successful, but Weepingchild forgot to return the gift.
One time, I was in the Dreaming, carried by the Wake and cradled by All-Mother, rising and falling in the rhythms of Her heart drumbeats. When I was low, I slept, but when I rose high, I could see and hear the Firsttime.
Grandfather still sang and painted His Spirit Wheel. Many designs He had already drawn, many of the First Children had stepped forward, while many others stayed back in the shadows. Many gifts were taken, and many prices were paid. But the place on the Wheel between Manyfaces and Soullost was still empty.
Grandfather shook His head sadly and sang another song. "Who shall take Manyface's lost gray-metal?" He asked. "Who shall bear the burden of passing ages?" None stepped forward to accept this gift, to pay that price. And then He looked at me.
Thagan Yugal, shaman
Nhiibi Warragil tribe
They were going to betray him.
Phindol could see it in the eyes of the serjant, in the self-conscious way he flicked the reins of the team, in the flighty movements of his men. Phindol and his wagonload of cargo were too great a temptation.
Sitting back in the town cart's bench, he chewed his lip and wondered when it would come. If they had been on an isolated forest trail, or a ship at sea, or a narrow mountain crevasse, he could know for sure--he'd be able to sense the moment coming--but it was not, and so he could not. He was in one of the largest cities of the world of Man, in an alien land, among alien people and their alien ways. How could he predict the time and place?
The cart rocked suddenly on the uneven cobblestones, and the cursing serjant lurched over, elbowing Phindol sharply in his afflicted side. The two men quickly retreated from the unexpected contact, the serjant muttering loudly in guilty embarrassment. Phindol crumbled and moaned silently at the pain of his withered flesh.
The serjent noticed the movement, and his eyes glanced down at Phindol's side and then up at his ashen face. Phindol straightened as quickly as his body allowed, but he was certain he was no longer fooling anyone. His apparent weakness and vulnerability would be yet two more tics in the list the man was compiling against him, reasons why robbing him wasn't wrong.
How will it happen? Phindol wondered. Shall it be the execution of a foreign infidel? The putting-down of a wounded animal? Or a simple robbery, his death no more than the snuffing out of a candle? There was nothing in the serjant's countenance to betray the future. Phindol had only his growing sense of dread.
The serjant grunted in what sounded like satisfied amusement as he jerked the team to a halt. Dropping the reins into his lap, he braced his boot against the frame of the wagon, turned his head, and spat copiously over the side.
They had come to yet another gated archway, preparing to pass from one forgotten, untended garden into another. In front of them, the serjant's men worked quickly at the rusted hinges, coaxing the gate to open through oil, muscle, and rough language.
Phindol's eyes roamed as they waited. The walls of this arcade were fashioned from weathered marble, the baseboards covered in once-delicate molding. Time and the elements have done their damage and worn their wear. Paint was peeling, the surfaces were pocked, and the edges dulled. These walls were designed to be interior walls, with a ceiling above them, but now they were exposed to blue sky.
No, he amended that observation. The flagstones covering the ground were older than these delicate walls. This arcade was designed to be open-air, later was covered, and some time after that was exposed once again.
Phindol shook his head. What kind of people could build and live in a city like this? His gaze returned to the profile of his driver, his protector and potential robber. The serjant's eyes were turned skyward, and they seemed to be tracking the path of the sun. The pain in Phindol's side was slowly fading to a dull ache, and as he struggled to master his body's reactions, he likewise looked upwards. High above, the sun blazed. In the wrong place in the sky. They were still going in the wrong direction.
"Khat?" he blurted reflexively and then immediately grimaced in embarrassment. No wonder this Medianist planned to betray him. These people spoke in such subtly inflected ways, without the clarifying prefixes that made his Chroani tongue so perfectly non-ambiguous. Although the serjant didn't react, Phindol knew his little habitual coughs and sighs served only to emphasize how alien he was. He shook his head and pressed on, "Are you a knight, Willam?"
The serjant's eyes darted back to meet Phindol's. He cleared his throat uncomfortably, and Phindol noticed the nearly unconscious clenching of the man's fists. Willam stared at him for some seconds before answering.
"Knight?" Willam scoffed. "What, you can't tell?"
Phindol shook his head, smiling, hoping he might still make a connection with this man, hoping any possible unpleasantness might still be averted. The rising and falling inflections of the Medianist tongues, like EroBernac, still confused and overwhelmed him, but he hoped it didn't show.
"Quippe?" Willam's eyes narrowed. "Where were you from again?"
Phindol took a slow, deep breath. "Açc ... some would consider that a complicated question. My parents hailed from Solym, far to the east and north of these Seven Kingdoms..."
"Ats ... yes, which is where I was raised, but I consider Lapárkwi my home, one of what you call the Chroani Kingdoms."
"Yes, you have the smell of clay and salt about you."
Phindol ignored the jab. He was well aware of how the Chroani were viewed by the people of this land. "Açc--of my particular journeys, they began in Synes, brought me north across the Bracklands and through many of the Chroani Kingdoms, back south across the Equoranda, Ymyl Gwland, Ehre, and hopefully, they will soon see me returning to Synes." Phindol smiled back at the serjant. "And so, in regards to your question, you may take your pick of answers."
Willam's grunt was non-committal and unimpressed. "So, no knights where you came from ... whichever land you choose?" There was no warmth in his words nor in his demeanor.
Phindol sighed deeply with a nod. "Ats. I have heard the term, of course. Who could not? Knight. We have such men in Lapárkwi, but we call them by other names. A special breed of warrior, provided with special training, special armaments, special mounts ... and a special code of conduct?"
Willam barked a laugh so sharp, his four men turned to look in unison. "Yes, that is a knight, of course," he chuckled. Phindol frowned slightly at his words.
"Mâ--so you are not, then?"
"Well," Willam hedged. With a flick of the reins, he urged the small team of horses forward through the opened gate. "There are many different breeds of knight ... knights of Ehre, knights of EroBernd ... Brackish cings, Muttese ritters, Mynyddi lovags, Söderkarl ridders, and others ... You got the knights with inherited titles, knights of strictly military rank, and the templar knights ... and of course, you have the Ravens..." He glanced at Phindol from the corner of his eye. "All the sort of men that you'd like to avoid right now, I would imagine..."
Phindol hesitated, rolling the tiniest of grains of sand between his thumb and finger. It grew warm beneath his attentions, and the áñme roused, wishing to rise. He quickly sent it away. He was slowly building a picture of the kinds of people Willam usually consorted with. "And so by that implication--khat--I would presume you are not that sort of man as well?"
"Yeah," Willam chuckled, "I have no title, no lands. I served in the army ... but the life didn't suit me, so I moved on. You might call me," the serjant hesitated, "a knight in action and deed rather than in word or title." He made some grandiose gesture with the reins that clearly upset the team. "I may wear the trappings of a scoundrel," he proclaimed with feeling, "but I have the heart of a paladin!"
"Açc--your words are most reassuring," Phindol murmured, not meaning it.
"Glad to hear it," Willam laughed.
Phindol gripped the seat of the town cart and did a quick bearing of the sun. They were still headed south.
Aquilaleon. By Ñakte's tears, what was he doing here? Phindol could do naught but wonder and pray.
A city without streets. A city of nothing but endless palaces, inns, taverns, shops, warehouses, tenements, and other structures, all connected by narrow alleys, arches, palisades, malls, gardens, and courtyards. Buildings and walls seemingly placed at random, around, atop, and within each other. They seemed interconnected by chance and happenstance, demolished by whim, leaving random dead-ends, switchbacks, and blind alleys. Colonnades might turn to basements, which might turn to rooftops with a sheer, unforgiving drop to the next set of courtyards far below. It was a labyrinth without clues, reason, or pattern. The secrets of negotiating it were likely known only to its residents and a select, favored few visitors.
It must also be filled with predators, as such places often are. Phindol felt eyes always on him and the boxes he protected. If it weren't for Serjant Willam's men and the weapons they carried, Phindol feared what might befall him.
Of course, now he feared Willam would treat him no better, and, of course, that realization had come too late to help.
Phindol nearly wept at his foolishness. Of all his travels and all of the things he had endured, how is it he had come to this place?
He should never have landed in this paranoid, magic-parched, faith-drenched nation. He was in the wrong place, and he knew it. This place, this Aquilaleon, whispered dreams of death and fear. It smothered his áñme and scattered his grains to the winds. Its people roared with fury at anything strange and crushed it without mercy.
With so much at stake, why had Fate chosen to bring him here? Had Fate Herself now aligned against him? In addition to everything else, must he now contest against Her? If so, he had no option but to fail, and this thought threatened to break his heart.
What of his family? What of the others depending on him and what he guarded? Too much was at stake for him to fail at the whimsy of chance.
Evidence seemed to show otherwise.
First, the untimely appearance of an EroBernac man-of-war had forced his ship to divert to this terrifying city. At least he could be grateful the frigate had not forced his ship ashore at Cærimonia during the Burning Time. What irony it would have been to find himself in the seat of this empire's religious power during their season of witch and heretic burning. In retrospect, shipwreck or marooning didn't sound as terrible after all.
And with the help of the Captain, Phindol had been able to escape the ship with his cargo intact before the Port Authority became aware of their arrival. He and his cargo had melted into the bustling crowds before the customs guards could discover him.
In just the same way the narrow walls of this cursed, baffling city seemed to close around him, Phindol remembered being overwhelmed by its docks. Piers stretched as far as the eye could see in either direction. Countless masts reached skyward, thicker than the trees of any forest he had yet seen. Air horns bleated like angry animals, engines roared, men shouted, livestock brayed,and cannon thundered in salute to arriving and departing ships. Great clouds of smoke and steam rose from gigantic ships and freight rail wagons, commingling with foggy sea air, so thick it at times obscured the sun.
So many ships, so much cargo, so many people! Phindol shuddered at the memory. There were thieves, thugs, pirates, mercenaries, spies, barbarians, and prisoners. Soldiers pushed and jostled with sailors, merchants, assayers, refugees, and holy men of the fearsome Bisected Circle. There were clothes, skins, and goods from every land and nation known to him and from many that were not. Clergy, well-dressed in silks of gold and royal red; ominous, sickly-looking figures in robes of gray and brown; grim, soft-spoken men in blues and reds; and thoughtful, serene elders in black and white argued passionately with each other and competed for the attentions of arriving sailors, merchants, and foreigners.
In such a place, even a slender, dark-eyed foreigner like Phindol might have easily disappeared into the crowds, at least for a time. Great warehouses spread out endlessly from the docks, interconnected by spider webs of roads and railways. Those were the paths to freedom, if only he understood their complexities. Those routes could have led him to other, smaller wharves, more remote corners of this city, and, ultimately, to the rolling countryside and farmland of the EroBernd Empire's Ordohorht province. But those avenues were closed to him. Every visible entrance and egress appeared to be closely watched by attentive soldiers, accompanied by efficient-looking customs agents with the ink stained fingers and pinched mouths of accountants.
They had blocked his way with mighty halberds, muskets, and fearsome bureaucracy: the Search and Seizure Statutes, the Heresy Tariffs, and the Inconnu Laws. Phindol had despaired when he learned of the punishments they implied, too terrified to run away--and yet refusing to abandon his mission and his cargo. It was then he found Serjant Willam and his associates.
The man seemed earnest, frank and convincing, qualities that immediately drew Phindol to him. He repeated all the things about EroBernd and Aquilaleon Phindol had already heard, and reinforced the rumors he suspected. Normally, Phindol would have considered himself immune to clever wordsmithing and salesmanship, but he and his little stack of goods had begun drawing curious looks from lounging EroBernac soldiers. It was obvious to Phindol that he was not going to remain unnoticed for much longer, and so his desperation blinded him to other, potentially more troubling qualities in the serjant.
That morning, with suitable payment, Willam had assured Phindol of safe conveyance through the Aquilaleon sprawl to the Saints' Gate suburb north of the docks. From there, he would have an easier time fleeing the region and making his way to the city of Green Shores, where he might find another ship to carry him home.
Phindol had placed himself and his property in Willam's hands.
It was, perhaps, his last and worst mistake.
The day passed, and night began to fall. The sky above turned yellow, to orange, and then to purple. Behind Phindol the last vestiges of sunlight faded. He realized that meant they were traveling east now. They had traveled east and south and south and east but only rarely north, and north was the direction Phindol had been promised.
But their forays north had been brief, and, though at first Willam was careful to explain the detours, as the day drew on, and they moved deeper and deeper into the city, the explanations and excuses came less and less frequently. Certainly some backtracking may have been necessary--take one step backwards for every two forward--but now Phindol had to accept the fact that he has been kidnapped to be robbed and possibly killed.
Phindol watched his escort, Willam and his four men, furtively. They were adequately armed. The men carried knives and cudgels. Willam carried an EroBernac rapier and flintlock. It was enough weaponry to dissuade street thugs but not enough to attract the attention of city guards or private garrisons. They moved through these neighborhoods with confidence and seemed to have no fear of the urchins, thieves, and gangs that lurked in the shadows below and the eaves above.
Phindol rubbed his hands together, seeking that comforting, familiar sensation of grinding sand. It took some minutes, but slowly the seed strengthened, his áñme stirred, and the feeling grew in his palms, spreading warmth and power.
Ñakte's Eyes, this land is parched! The áñme languished, starved and begging him for succor. How could anyone survive here? Phindol ached for the fecund lands of home.
With a few grains of sand in his hands, he felt more secure. As he rolled them between his palms, he considered his options. Five-to-one odds were hardly favorable in any fight, but they were exactly what he would have to overcome if he were to survive. The men might be manageable, for they were armed only with close quarters weapons. The serjant and his gun, however...
He would have to best them without undue injury to himself or damage to the cart and team, and make sure that his goods remained safely in his sights at all times. Should he succeed in that, Phindol would then have to escape this city and complete the journey alone. Obviously, having wealth did not guarantee safety.
The thought put him into a grim mood, and he sat and brooded, massaging Ñakte's sands, nurturing his seed, barely acknowledging the actions of the others.
So consumed was he that Phindol didn't notice the change around him until the cries of Willam's men roused him from his reverie. Their shouts and gestures were returned by greetings from other men. This was not as startling as the fact that they were standing on a road.
A road in Aquilaleon?
No, not quite in Aquilaleon.
Even as the men greeted and embraced each other, Phindol looked around and took his bearings. The sounds of the city were still all around him. The night sky glowed with gaslights and torches from countless roofs and balconies, but the buildings lining this avenue were dark, barren, and in disrepair. The cobblestones of the road were broken and uneven, with wide patches of bare earth and dried mud between them. Deep wagon wheel troughs marked the road, and further down it, he could see that the buildings were even more spread out and ramshackle, some little more than piles of crumbling stone and mortar.
They were at the edge of the city! Willam might not have taken him to Saints' Gate, but he had taken him out of the city!
With a quiet sigh of joy, Phindol eased himself from the cart and once again flexed his good leg against the raw flesh of Zå. It had been too long since he had dressed his wounds, and the muscles of opposing side and leg ached with deep pain. Gingerly, he massaged his ribs and thigh, rubbing the warming officinal sand back into his skin, and his áñme rose to bring him more. It was a temporary easement, but for the moment it would have to do.
Willam and his men watched Phindol's activities warily, but after a pause they returned to their conversation. Their words became short and clipped, using a tongue Phindol couldn't understand but he recognized as Drungi.
He slowly limped around the back of the cart, his slender cane loudly ticking with each strike and step against the stones. He rested the cane against the cart and carefully lifted the leather tarpaulin. There, his 10 boxes lay, each sealed tightly and each untouched. If only--
Willam cleared his throat. It was a polite gesture, but Phindol knew it was not a request but a command. Slowly, he turned to regard the serjant.
"Khat--so now you leave me, yes?"
Willam frowned and pursed his lips.
"We have decided to liberate you from your goods, yes. However, you will be relieved to know that we shall not otherwise harm you ... so long as you do not resist."
Phindol nodded, disappointed but not surprised. "Khat, is this what you meant by 'action and deed rather than in word or title'?"
The mercenary curled his lip. "Your clothes, your cane, your boots are all very fine. Be grateful we choose not to take them as well."
Phindol deflated, sagging onto his cane even as Willam's men clustered around the cart, preparing to unload his goods. The vehicle was suitable for travel through the city, but the new men had brought a larger wagon and a team more appropriate for road travel.
"Khat, may I make a request then, sir?"
Willam shrugged. "I will promise you nothing, but you may ask whatever you want."
Phindol gestured towards the boxes behind him. "Bime--leave me with one, please. You will find the contents of the others more than compensatory--"
"Which one would you take?" Willam answered quickly.
After a pause, Phindol elbowed his way through the curious bandits and carefully examined the boxes. The men murmured and gasped at the implied weight as Phindol struggled to move one aside. Eventually, he found the one--the special one--and he turned back to Willam, lifting it to his breast. "Bime. This one, please, I beg you."
The serjant frowned, his face darkening. At a flicker of his eyes, his men returned to off-loading the cart.
Phindol eased away, making room for them to work and trying to get some distance between him and them, but Willam stayed close. "What is it?" he asked simply.
Phindol hugged the box closer, his other hand shaking as it clenched his cane. "Açc, it is precious to me alone," he said, "It is the reason for my travels. I must bring it home. What the other boxes contain were brought simply to facilitate that effort."
Willam flinched, his eyes flickering between Phindol's earnest face and the box he carried. "Listen, you whoressons!" he suddenly barked, making Phindol wince at the incivility of the words, "Open one of those boxes! Let's see what we've troubled ourselves over!"
One of the men gratefully dropped his box into their waiting wagon and carefully turned it around, examining every side. "They're heavy enough, forti," he shouted, "but they're sealed tight!"
"Open one with your club if you have to!" Willam bellowed.
The bandit emitted a cry of delight when he found two rings projecting from the face of one side. Inserting his fingers, he pulled, and a thin wire began to peel away, leaving a wax-filled groove all around the edge of the box. Tossing the cord aside, he slowly began to worry off the top. Wood and wax creaked and groaned.
Some of the men crowded forward, while others kept their distance. Willam's eyes never left Phindol's.
The lid of the box came off with a loud pop, and the men sighed in surprise.
"What? What is it?" Willam demanded.
The bandit threw aside some straw packing material and dug into the box. Slowly, reverentially, with both hands he turned and showed what he found. It was a small bar of substantial weight. In the night's torches, it glowed like blood.
Willam's eyes widened. Phindol sighed and looked at the ground.
"What could be in this box that you'd give away so much?" Willam whispered, almost too quietly for Phindol to hear.
"Mâ, no, please," Phindol begged, but the serjant's hand was already moving.
The rapier hissed from its scabbard, the steel blade flashing in the torchlight.
Phindol staggered backwards, shying away even before the weapon was completely drawn. His feet became fouled with his cane, and he fell backwards, landing hard on the stones. His wounds burned like fire. Shock and pain seethed through him, and he was temporarily overwhelmed, curling into a gasping ball, as agony pulsed through his savaged flesh.
When his vision finally cleared, he saw Willam crouching over his box. His rapier was planted firmly in the dirt nearby.
Phindol levered himself back up with his arms and struggled to get his good leg beneath him. He rose and swayed, watching the serjant as he carefully pulled away the sealing cord.
"Nû-bime, please," he whispered, "Willam. Don't."
The bandit didn't pause in his work.
Phindol sighed. Ñakte has cast this die. There was nothing left to do but see it through. What must be, must be.
Silently, Phindol rubbed his hands, and the sensation of sand returned. His áñme was excited, enraged by the pain he was experiencing. Despite the drought of this land, it brought the sand through his seed. The essence was waiting for him, and he reached out to touch it. It would be difficult, but thankfully all of Willam's men had stopped in their work on the wagon and were watching with hungry fascination. They seemed eager to see what Willam might discover and yet hesitant to put any distance between themselves and so much gold. As a group, they would be easy to capture. And Willam, Phindol hoped, would deal with himself.
Carefully, the serjant lifted the lid off the box and tossed it aside. Inside, his torch revealed more packing material, but a quick touch showed it to be more than mere straw. In this light, it shone. His eyes darted up at Phindol. "Gold?"
Thin wispy coils of spun gold filled the box like sprays of tangled hair, cradling what lay within.
Willam shook his head. Carefully, he began removing the finely spun gold and placing it in the discarded lid. As he worked, a new light began to shine upon his face, radiating up from within the box, as if from a source of light itself and not merely a reflection of his torch's fire, and with each coil of gold he removed, the light increased.
Willam stood and took a step backwards, absently wiping his hands against each other. There in the box nestled a shard of orange light, a spike just over 2 feet long, glowing like liquid fire. It beckoned.
Phindol could not help but look. It had been so long since he'd last seen it.
"What is it?" Willam demanded.
Phindol flinched. "Açc, I call it the Splinter. It is a blade."
Willam frowned. Phindol understood his confusion. A blade it may have been, but not of a shape or design like anything seen in the EroBernd Empire. The Splinter was straight and narrow like a rapier, single edged, with small disemboweling hooks across the backside. It was without pommel or handle, and, despite its short length, the size of the tang implied a two-handed grip. But such strangeness was nothing compared to the flowing orange metal from which it was forged. "But what is it?" the serjant sputtered.
Phindol's eyes widened. "Khat, you have not heard of--"
Willam stared blankly down at the blade, hungrily, and Phindol sighed. There was no warning this man, and he resolved to stop trying. Let the man's greed carry him into Ñakte's embrace, let Chance roll Her dice. "Mâ. No, no..." he said quietly, "Perhaps it is not important..."
Phindol might be vying against Fate Herself, but he resolved to fight on nevertheless. Now was as good a time as any. He opened his hands and let the sand fall to the cobblestones at his feet. He unleashed the áñme.
Curiosity finally overwhelmed the other men, and they pushed forward for a closer look, or they tried to. Many fell or stumbled, some screamed in sudden pain. All were completely immobile, their feet having sunk into the soil and solid stone beneath them. One broke his own leg in his struggles, bending it where it shouldn't. Cries of outrage, confusion, and fear filled the night air.
Willam looked from the Splinter to his men to Phindol. "What did you do?" he demanded with sudden anger. "Magery! Sorcery!"
Phindol ceased massaging his thigh and raised his hands. "Mâ! Oh, no, no. I have no talent in that art." Bending down, he picked up his cane and took a new stance. No longer did Phindol, crippled foreigner as he might be, feel quite so helpless.
Sneering, Willam looked about wildly, but his rapier was no longer at his side. He looked up accusingly at Phindol.
As if growing like a summer stalk of corn, the rapier burst out of the ground next to Phindol, rising up to him pommel first. Grasping it, he took a dual weapon stance.
"Interesting magic," Willam growled, "Sorcery or not." Willam drew out his pistol and cocked its doghead. "Now can you make this disappear into the ground?"
Phindol blinked. He had forgotten about that.
His foot dug into the ground, seeking to touch the essence, seeking his seed. He found it. Without any warning for the serjant, a spike of rock and dirt erupted beneath him as the áñme leapt upward. The weapon discharged with a roar as the bandit fell backwards. Phindol ducked instinctively, though he probably did not need to.
Trying to capitalize on his advantage, Phindol leapt forward and onto the new rocky mound, swinging both his weapons through the foul-smelling smoke.
He connected with nothing, and then he was face-to-face with Willam. The bandit leered, brandishing his pistol once again. The doghead was cocked and ready to fire, but part of Phindol reasonably reminded himself that there was no way Willam could have reloaded it so quickly. The gun was harmless.
The hesitation cost him dear. The gun wasn't pointed at him but to the side. Willam pulled the trigger, and a brief fusillade of sparks and burning flint sprayed into his eyes. Phindol reeled away, pawing at his face with the back of one hand while swinging madly with the other in the hopes of keeping the serjant at a distance.
He fetched up hard against something solid--a fallen column, a piece of wall--and the unforgiving object crushed the withered flesh and bone of his yielding side. Phindol howled in agony and dropped to the ground.
He tried to call for his áñme again. He tried to stand and defend himself, but he could not make his body answer. It was overwhelmed by the pain, and his áñme cowered. The seed was closed for now.
The serjant grinned at him, and Phindol suspected his end was near. Willam's rapier was some paces away where Phindol had dropped it, as was Phindol's cane. Then Willam's eyes fell upon the Splinter, and his smile faded as he reached for it.
Phindol curled into a ball and tried to catch his breath. He almost pitied the bandit.
Without hesitation, Willam lifted the Splinter from its box, holding it in two hands by the long tang. He had no fear, he showed no caution. His leather gloves provided sufficient protection to grip a blade without a handle.
Willam stood, and then a shadow of doubt passed across his face. His eyes widened, first in surprise, and then in terror. His hands clenched into fists around the blade and began to tremble. Blood welled up from inside his gloves, pouring down his sleeves, but it hardened and faded to dust before hitting the ground. His arms began to shake, and then his whole body. His mouth gaped, his cheeks and chest sank inward. He turned his clouding eyes to Phindol and pleaded without words, but Phindol could do nothing.
When Willam collapsed, he was naught but a heap of bones and desiccated flesh, which quickly blew away as dust and ash.
In the silence that followed, Phindol sighed deeply. When he was able, he struggled to his feet and limped over to the remains. Tiny bits of metal shone in the torchlight: Willam's buttons, trinkets, and coins. Slowly, Phindol circled the corpse and examined how the Splinter lay within the dust. Lifting with his silver cane and Willam's rapier, he carefully levered it back into the golden cradle inside the box. After a few more adjustments, he replaced the rest of the packing material and closed the lid. He would have to find a way to reseal it with wax, but that wasn't an immediate concern.
Standing, he held Willam's blade up to the torch light. A stripe of rust bruised it wherever it had touched the Splinter. His cane of noble silver was marred only with patina, easily polished away.
A horse whickered and stamped its foot and Phindol returned his attention to the wagons. There, Willam's seven bandits remained, their feet still swallowed by Mother Zå beneath them.
Phindol measured the weight of his cane and performed a prayer to Ñakte.
My esteemed friend and servant, my heart is heavy, and with great difficulty do these words pass from my hand, through my pen, to this page. I have just recently received news of Pater Eustace's untimely and unnatural passing, and I am still trying to master my grief. While I have had my differences with our pious colleague, I fostered hope that I could dissuade him from the path of self-indulgent and apodictic heresy he was so bent on pursuing. Sadly, I was too slow or too careless or too clumsy in my arguments, and now I will never again have such an opportunity.
In addition to our friend, I hear tell the wanton killer sent five palace guards to their accounting with Guiot. May the primate's prayers protect them on their voyages, and may God judge them worthy.
Unpleasant business, but obviously a sign that this agent (or agents?) is more than a dilettante. Yet another professional assassin within EroBernd? So curious! With every Fallen Lord claimed, word of this new killer is spreading. Perhaps soon the very courts of Aquilaleon will run red with heterodox blood. If this should continue, there won't be enough souls left for the armies of our worthy enemies to dispatch.
--Of course, I am making light of serious events, and I apologize. Like the wildfire that drives the beasts from the forest, let us pray the fear of this killer will drive the misguided from their misbelief.--
And now on to other matters. You have represented my interests well so far. But with the murderer of Pater Eustace still undiscovered, I fear more troubling times ahead. A dear friend, Altupater Tuggub, Archbishop of Green Shores, shall be in Vestiga Gæsi next month, and it is of great importance to me that he is safely conducted to Cærimonia. These days are disquieting, and the ebullient passions of scoundrels and ne'er-do-wells seethe just below the cultivated surface of my homeland. We all must take precautions, lest we wake murdered in our beds. And so I place my friend in your care. I have enclosed some lamna for any expenses you may incur or require. It would be of great sadness to me if he were to meet with any sorrow.
May God and His Prophets bless you and Primate Klemm.
Holy Order of Guiot, Vestiga Gæsi
The Will of God
"God is all things, made all things, has become all things. Whether you know Him as Âkapirmas, Deivas, or even Johlpa, you have felt His presence in every breath and sigh, every itch and prick, every caress, every sight, every shadow, every whisper and shout. Our experiences are not variable; they are not subjective or open to interpretation. One-and-all, we have all shared in God in the same way. We breathe the air He breathed, we eat the flesh He slaughtered, we drink His blood and sweat and wine and seed and tears--we are all one upon Zå--we are all God's children."
Archbishop Tuggub paused and looked out at the assemblage, fishing for reactions. He was not disappointed. They stared back with the full gamut of expressions and emotions. Bored young rakes counting away the hours to their next sellâria orgy. Aged matrons devouring every word with eager adoration--or hatred--or both. Young girls clutching at their Medians and bodices, coiling their ribbons and hair, on the verge of either pious climax or collapse. Husbands, wives, lords, ladies. They were the cream of EroBernac royal society--the wealthiest of the wealthy, most privileged of the privileged--and they had risen to the very top here in Vestiga Gæsi. Short of the royal families themselves, there were no others in all of the Seven Kingdoms wealthier, more powerful, or more indulged.
And here they float before me, the archbishop mused, awaiting me to skim them from the surface and send them to Heaven ... or condemn them to the Hells.
He could see in some of their eyes the decision was already made. It was his Johlpa comment. A minor bit of heresy, used for effect, but for some it had the wrong effect. They now believed he had no other purpose other than to drive them straight to the Ice Hell. Their ears and hearts were closed to him.
He only hoped there were others that were more receptive.
"Who is God?" he asked suddenly, loudly. The silence was broken so abruptly, some women gasped in surprise. Fans snapped open to cool corseted breasts and collared throats. Most of the young men blinked and straightened in their seats, temporarily snared by his energy.
Tuggub left his pulpit and paced across the chancel, the hems of his long red and blue robes hissing across the floor. "Who is God?" he demanded again, pointing meaningfully at a pale, obese lady near the front. Baroness Gymele, wife of Baron Petchere, known for her unseemly gambling habit and a taste for younger men. She paled even further at first, then flushed as his silence grew, demanding an answer.
"M-most holy Prophet Gui--"
"Guiot!" Tuggub shouted, having already anticipated her answer. His body rotated slowly, and he leveled a finger at the triptych behind the omphalos, the Prophet Guiot flanked by the saints Reccared and Bredbeddle. "I am the embodiment of purity, holiness, and divine wisdom," he intoned reverentially to the statues, his voice carrying, echoing across the pews behind him. "My flesh, untouched by sin or corruption, is the vessel of God's will." He turned and looked back at the assembly. "Guiot is a good answer, my child," he said with a nod, "for He taught us that God was within Him. Unlike the others before Him, He was not merely a vessel, a spokesman ... He was God."
He scanned the crowd again. They hid their eyes lest he call on them: Sir Kewu and his lady, the fair Esslt. Baron Marato and the Baroness, Yvylt. Sir Tautlaut, Sir Navon, Sir Eydres, and Sir Oates, all escorting ladies of notable beauty (and probably sellâria, no simple whores). Count Nilhard stood out, he and his entourage visiting from the east. As did the sullen Vavasour Moloas and his drunken wife, Fenna.
Though they might have aged a bit since his last visit, the faces here never changed and Archbishop Tuggub never forgot a face.
The strong, beautiful gaze of Lady Chrysanth met his without fear, and held. Her face was perfectly painted and adorned, her hair beautifully curled, coiled, and piled, webs of silk and lace and spears of gold holding it in place. A tiny black beauty mark accented her lips. Those lips smiled ever so slightly, daring him to call on her.
Tuggub would have loved to accept the challenge--he was most interested to hear her answer--but he knew better than to embarrass his hostess lest he never be invited back to this beautiful land again. With the subtlest of nods, his eyes left hers. Her fan snapped open, and she leaned over to whisper something to her husband, the Viscount Palus.
"Is this the only answer?" he challenged. "Guiot's words were spoken most recently, but we still revere others. Others may have wisdom worthy of hearing..."
Behind the viscount and his wife was their entourage. Lackeys, servants, friends, and lesser relatives. Tuggub was surprised when his eyes found a new face nestled there, a pretty girl of tender years and black hair wearing a fashionable gown of blue and black. Who was she? She seemed familiar, and yet he was troubled when he could not place the face. She seemed more interested in gawking at the people in the pews than paying any attention to his sermon, so perhaps she was a visiting relative or boarder.
Oblivious to the growing tension in the room, she tugged at the sleeve of the man to her left and pointed out some odd feature in the ceiling. Tuggub noted that man was Sir Taur--thanks be to God he had left his vulgar wife behind to mind their tavern. The viscount's chief vassal swallowed with embarrassment and tried to settle the girl. His eyes darted furtively between her, the viscountess, and the watching archbishop, fearing that her restlessness has drawn attention.
Tuggub made note of her and moved on.
"Hoël perhaps?" he offered, still searching. He gestured at his own robes of red and blue, and the crowd sighed. "To Him, God wasn't as important as God's Will, yes? That we prayed the right way, waged war the right way, thought and dreamed and spoke the right way. These were the things that set us apart from the others, the unbelievers. Hoël was a man of form over substance. The outcome of one's life was irrelevant, even inevitable--Heaven or Hell, they were predestined--what mattered was how we got there. Without Hoël, there would be no Seven Kingdoms. No Holy Church of the Median. No Primate, no Cærimonia, no Certu or Dulia. We would still be savage, petty Drungi tribes, bickering over bits of rock and bone, slaves to the Bracks."
Tuggub's eyes scanned the back of the cathedral, where stood the lowest servants, local laity, and all those who had arrived too late for a seat in the pews. For the most part, they were fortis, goodys, and castis. His gaze was drawn to an unsettling, unassuming man in fashionable brown justaucorps, breeches, and a white gilet. Yet another strange face! He was unquestionably a titled man, but the archbishop could not recall when he had slipped into the nave. Had he been here all along? If so, why didn't he take a seat? Had he arrived late? If so, why didn't the archbishop see him enter?
The lord was leaning against a column in self-absorbed distraction, neither ignoring nor acknowledging the commoners around him. Everything about him exuded power, confidence, and means. The laity could sense this too, and they respectfully gave him a wide berth. Although his manner suggested he wasn't paying particular attention to the service, Tuggub suspected he could recite what had been said word-for-word.
"What else is God?" Tuggub asked, unable to look away from this person. "Does anyone else dare to define such a thing?"
Perhaps sensing the archbishop's gaze, the man's eyes rose to meet his, and the archbishop suffered a chill. Those eyes were grim. The man smiled coldly at the archbishop, his little finger etching a tiny Sign of the Median over his heart.
Tuggub looked away quickly, his voice catching in his throat. He scanned the blurred faces before him, his eyes seeking a new, safe haven ... only to be caught by a cocky leer.
Tuggub blinked at young Toku's arrogant grin, and his next thought died in his throat with a groan. Before he could move on, the young lord shouted, "Golagros!" and the crowd tittered in shocked surprise.
Tuggub coughed and smiled as waves of embarrassment passed over the assembly. Alas, with that one shout, the spell his words had woven was broken. With a nod to the laughter, he acknowledged that he would have to start all over again.
The young man smirked and elbowed one of his comrades in the ribs. Tuggub should have known. Only Toku would have had the mischievous pride necessary to shout such an inappropriate answer. He might as well have farted. Loudly.
"Saint Golagros," Tuggub sighed. "A worthy name indeed; however, rather than address the servant, let us turn to the master instead. Kahedin ... To Him, we are God ... or, we were God. We are His imperfections, His blemishes, His failings, cast away from His flawlessness as a snake would slough off its skin. To Kahedin, God is nameless and aloof, far far beyond the reach of our puny prayers. To Kahedin, our goal is simple: Cleanse ourselves of our imperfections, so that when we die, we may be rejoined with God in Heaven."
Tuggub drank briefly from a water cup and then tipped it towards the young lord as a salute. "It is understandable why Kahedin is not popular here in Vestiga Gæsi--places such as this are reluctant to admit imperfection within and without--but I thank you nevertheless for reminding us of Him, my child. And it is most appropriate that you of all people, Sir Toku, might invoke Him, being that you may be the most in need of His wisdom..."
The congregation burst into laughter once again, although this time, poor Toku did not seem to share in the mirth. Turning dark red, he sneered something angrily at one of his cronies and shoved him away. Tuggub smiled softly. If no spiritual lesson was learned today, perhaps the boy learned one of another sort.
"Hoël, Guiot, Kahedin ... Pennenc," he continued once the murmuring died down. "Ehre, EroBernd, Mut. Drungi, Synesi, Söderkarl, Brack ... Why would I ask these questions? And who could answer them? They all had different words to define the essence of God."
He sighed and nodded his head, "And yet earlier I said we all shared in God's experience the same. How can this be?"
He smiled. His eyes sought and met those of this friend, Bishop Forma. The thin man sat stoically, listening, his eyes disapproving, his body tensed for what Tuggub was about to say next. He shook his head slightly no, and Tuggub nodded yes. Forma closed his eyes and sighed.
"The answer is simple, my friends," Tuggub said, "if you care to listen. For you see, God is not the abstract being Pennenc proposed. He is not the meddling proud creature described in Söderkarl sagas or Brackish triads. We are not His cast-away flaws. It does not really matter how we worship Him..."
Tuggub paused, gauging the expressions of the people before him. The nave was stone silent, perhaps even shocked. He suspected many weren't breathing. He wondered how long he could wait before someone passed out.
"God was the Prime Mover. He was the creator. Existence began with His words and has continued ever since ... But He has moved on..."
He beat his chest loudly. "The divine spark, this He left with us! In us..."
He stared into that silent room. "Let me impart upon you a great Truth," he said almost conversationally. "God created all existence, but He has moved on. We are alone. He is not looking upon this world, this land, this cathedral. He is nowhere near us, and He does not care! God is God ... but His divinity, this He left within us. And it is up to us to create or destroy Heaven!"