Reviews, interviews, guest posts and more in my release week post.
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—dun 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.”
Four soldiers sat atop the ancient sandstone walls of a fortress on the sun-blasted Khandarai coast.
That they were soldiers was apparent only by the muskets that leaned against the parapet, as they had long ago discarded anything resembling a uniform. They wore trousers that, on close inspection, might once have been a deep royal blue, but the relentless sun had faded them to a pale lavender. Their jackets, piled in a heap near the ladder, were of a variety of cuts, colors, and origins, and had been repaired so often they were more patch than original fabric.
They lounged, with that unique, lazy insolence that only soldiers of long experience can affect, and watched the shore to the south, where something in the nature of a spectacle was unfolding. The bay was full of ships, broad-beamed, clumsy-looking transports with furled sails, wallowing visibly even in the mild sea. Out beyond them was a pair of frigates, narrow and sharklike by comparison, their muddy red Borelgai pennants snapping in the wind as though to taunt the Vordanai on the shore.
If it was a taunt, it was lost on the men on the walls, whose attention was elsewhere. The deep-drafted transports didn’t dare approach the shore too closely, so the water between them and the rocky beach was aswarm with small craft, a motley collection of ship’s boats and local fishing vessels. Every one was packed to the rails with soldiers in blue. They ran into the shallows far enough to let their passengers swing over the side into the surf, then turned about to make another relay. The men in blue splashed the last few yards to dry land and collapsed, lying about in clumps beside neatly stacked boxes of provisions and equipment.
“Those poor, stupid bastards,” said the first soldier, whose name was Buck. He was a broad-shouldered, barrel-chested man, with sandy hair and a tuft on his chin that made him look like a brigand. “Best part of a month in one of those things, eatin’ hard biscuit and pukin’ it up again, and when you finally get there they tell you you’ve got to turn around and go home.”
“You think?” said the second soldier, who was called Will. He was considerably smaller than Buck, and his unweathered skin marked him as a relative newcomer to Khandar. “I’m not looking forward to another ride myself.”
“I fucking well am,” said the third soldier, who was called—for no reason readily apparent—Peg. He was a wiry man, whose face was almost lost in a vast and wild expanse of beard and mustache. His mouth worked continually at a wad of sweetgrass, pausing occasionally to spit over the wall. “I’d spend a year on a fucking ship if it would get me shot of this fucking place.”
“Who says we’re going home?” Will said. “Maybe this new colonel’s come to stay.”
“Don’t be a fool,” Peg said. “Even colonels can count noses, and it doesn’t take much counting to see that hanging around here means ending up over a bonfire with a sharp stake up the arse.”
“Besides,” Buck said, “the prince is going to make him head right back to Vordan. He can’t wait to get to spending all that gold he stole.”
“I suppose,” said Will. He watched the men unloading and scratched the side of his nose. “What’re you going to do when you get back?”
“Sausages,” said Buck promptly. “A whole damn sack full of sausages. An’ eggs, and a beefsteak. The hell with these grayskins and their sheep. If I never see another sheep it’ll be too soon.”
“There’s always goat,” Peg said.
“You can’t eat goat,” Buck said. “It ain’t natural. If God had wanted us to eat goat he wouldn’t’ve made it taste like shit.” He looked over his shoulder. “What about you, Peg? What’re you gonna do?”
“Dunno.” Peg shrugged, spat, and scratched his beard. “Go home and fuck m’ wife, I expect.”
“You’re married?” Will said, surprised.
“He was when he left,” Buck said. “I keep tellin’ you, Peg, she ain’t gonna wait for you. It’s been seven years—you got to be reasonable. Besides, she’s probably fat and wrinkled by now.”
“Get a new wife, then,” Peg said, “an’ fuck her instead.”
Out in the bay, an officer in full dress uniform missed a tricky step into one of the small boats and went over the side and into the water. There was a chorus of harsh laughter from the trio on the wall as the man was fished out, dripping wet, and pulled aboard like a bale of cotton.
When this small excitement had died away, Buck’s eyes took on a vicious gleam. Raising his voice, he said, “Hey, Saint. What’re you gonna do when you get back to Vordan?”
The fourth soldier, at whom this comment was directed, sat against the rampart some distance from the other three. He made no reply, not that Buck had expected one.
Peg said, “Prob’ly go rushin’ to the nearest church to confess his sins to the Lord.”
“Almighty Karis, forgive me,” Buck said, miming prayer. “Someone threw a cup of whiskey at me and I might have gotten some on my tongue!”
“I dropped a hammer on my foot and said, ‘Damn!’” Peg added.
“I looked at a girl,” Buck suggested, “and she smiled at me, and it made me feel all funny.”
“Oh, and I shot a bunch of grayskins,” Peg said.
“Nah,” said Buck, “heathens don’t count. But for that other stuff you’re going to hell for sure.”
“Hear that, Saint?” said Peg. “You’re goin’ to wish you’d enjoyed yourself while you had the chance.”
The fourth soldier still did not deign to respond. Peg snorted.
“Why do you call him Saint, anyway?” said Will.
“’Cause he’s in training to be one,” Buck said. “He don’t drink, he don’t swear, and he sure as hell don’t fuck. Not even grayskins, which hardly counts, like I said.”
“What I heard,” Peg said, taking care to be loud enough that the fourth soldier would overhear, “is that he caught the black creep on his first day here, an’ after a month his cock dropped off.”
The trio were silent for a moment, considering this.
“Well, hell,” said Buck. “If that happened to me I guess I’d be drinking and swearing for all I was worth.”
“Maybe it already happened to you,” Peg shot back immediately. “How the hell would you know?”
This was familiar territory, and they lapsed into bickering with the ease of long familiarity. The fourth soldier gave a little sigh and shifted his musket into his lap.
His name was Winter, and in many ways he was different from the other three. For one thing, he was younger and more slightly built, his cheeks still unsullied by whiskers. He wore his battered blue coat, despite the heat, and a thick cotton shirt underneath it. And he sat with one hand resting on the butt of his weapon, as though at any moment he expected to have to stand to attention.
Most important, “he” was, in fact, a girl, although this would not be apparent to any but the most insistent observer.
It was certainly unknown to the other three soldiers, and for that matter to everyone else in the fort, not to mention the roll keepers and bean counters a thousand miles across the sea at the Ministry of War. The Vordanai Royal Army not being in the habit of employing women, aside from those hired for short intervals by individual soldiers on an informal basis, Winter had been forced to conceal the fact of her gender since she enlisted. That had been some time ago, and she’d gotten quite good at it, although admittedly fooling the likes of Buck and Peg was not exactly world-class chicanery.
Winter had grown up in the Royal Benevolent Home for Wayward Youth, known to its inmates as Mrs. Wilmore’s Prison for Young Ladies, or simply the Prison. Her departure from this institution had been unauthorized, to say the least, which mean that of all the soldiers in the fort, Winter was probably the only one who was of two minds about the fleet’s arrival. Everyone in camp agreed that the new colonel would have no choice but to set sail for home before the army of fanatics arrived. It was, as Buck had mentioned, certainly better than being roasted on a spit, which was the fate the Redeemers had promised to the foreigners they called “corpses” to mock their pale skin. But Winter couldn’t shake the feeling that somehow, three years later and a thousand miles away, Mrs. Wilmore would be waiting with her severe bonnet and her willow switch as soon as she stepped off the dock.
The scrape of boots on the ladder announced the arrival of a newcomer, and the four soldiers grabbed their muskets and arranged themselves to look a little more alert. They relaxed when they recognized the moon-shaped face of Corporal Tuft, flushed and sweating freely.
“Hey, Corp’ral,” said Buck, laying his weapon aside again. “You fancy a look?”
“Don’t be a moron,” Tuft said, panting. “You think I would come all the way up here just to look at a bunch of recruits learning to swim? Fuck.” He doubled over, trying to catch his breath, the back of his jacket failing to cover his considerable girth. “I swear that fuckin’ wall gets higher every time I have to climb it.”
“What are you going to do when you get back to Vordan, Corp’ral?” Buck said.
“Fuck Peg’s wife,” Tuft snapped. He turned away from the trio to face Winter. “Ihernglass, get over here.”
Winter cursed silently and levered herself to her feet. Tuft wasn’t a bad sort for a corporal, but he sounded irritated.
“Yes, Corporal?” she said. Behind Tuft, Peg made a rude gesture, which provoked silent laughter from the other two.
“Cap’n wants to see you,” Tuft said. “But Davis wants to see you first, so I’d hurry up if I was you. He’s down in the yard.”
“Right away, Corporal,” said Winter, swallowing another curse. She slung her musket over her shoulder and took hold of the ladder, her feet finding the rungs with the ease of long practice. She seemed to draw more than her share of wall duty, which was undoubtedly another little gift from the senior sergeant. Nothing was too petty for Davis.
The fortress—Fort Valor, as some Vordanai cartographer had named it, apparently not in jest—was a small medieval affair, little more than a five-sided wall with two-story stone towers at the corners. Whatever other buildings had filled it in antiquity had long since fallen to bits, leaving a large open space in which the Vordanai had raised their tents. The best spots were those right against one of the walls, which got some shade most of the day. The “yard” was the unoccupied ground in the center, an expanse of dry, packed earth that would have been ideal for drills and reviews if the Colonials had bothered with such things.
Winter found Davis waiting near the edge of the row of tents, watching idly as two soldiers, stripped to the waist, settled some minor argument with their fists. A ring of onlookers cheered the pair indiscriminately.
“Sir!” Winter went to attention, saluted, and held it until Davis deigned to turn around. “You wanted to see me, sir?”
“Ah, yes.” The sergeant’s voice was a basso rumble, apparently produced somewhere deep in his prodigious gut. Davis would have seemed fatter if he wasn’t so tall. As it was, he loomed. He was also, as Winter had had good occasion to find out, venal, petty, cruel, stupid as an ox in most respects but not without a certain vicious cunning when the situation arose. In other words, the perfect sergeant.
“Ihernglass.” He smiled, showing blackened teeth. “You heard that the captain has requested your presence?”
“Yes, sir.” Winter hesitated. “Do you know—”
“I suspect I had something to do with that. There was just one thing I wanted to make clear to you before you went.”
“Sir?” Winter wondered what Davis had gotten her into this time. The big man had made her torment a personal project ever since she’d been transferred to his company, against his wishes, more than a year before.
“The captain will tell you that your sergeant recommended you for your sterling qualities, skill and bravery and so forth. You may find yourself thinking that old Sergeant Davis isn’t such a bad fellow after all. That deep down, under all the bile and bluster, he harbored a soft spot for you. That all his taunts and jibes were well intentioned, weren’t they? To toughen you up, body and soul.” The sergeant’s smile widened. “I want you to know, right now, that that’s bullshit. The captain asked me to recommend men with good records for a special detail, and I’ve been around enough officers to know what that means. You’ll be sent off on some idiot suicide mission, and if that’s got to happen to any man in my company I wanted to be sure it was you. Hopefully, it means I will finally, finally be rid of you.”
“Sir,” Winter said woodenly.
“I find I develop a certain rough affection for most men under my command as the years wear on,” Davis mused. “Even the ugly ones. Even Peg, if you can believe it. I sometimes wonder why you have been such an exception. I knew I didn’t like the look of you the first day we met, and I still don’t. Do you have any idea why that might be?”
“Couldn’t say, sir.”
“I think it’s because, deep down, you think you’re better than the rest of us. Most men lose that conviction after a while. You, on the other hand, never seem to tire of having your face rubbed in the mud.”
“Yes, sir.” Winter had long ago found that the quickest, not to say the safest, method of getting away from an audience with Davis was simply to agree with everything the sergeant said.
“Oh, well. I had some lovely duty on the latrines lined up for you.” Davis gave a huge, rolling shrug. “But instead you get to find out what lunacy Captain d’Ivoire has dreamed up. No doubt it will be a glorious death. I just want you to remember, when some Redeemer is carving chunks out of you for his cookpot, that you’re there because old Sergeant Davis couldn’t stand the sight of you. Is that understood?”
“Understood, sir,” Winter said.
“Very well. You are dismissed.”
He turned back to the fight, which was nearly over, one man having wrapped his arm around his rival’s neck while he pounded him repeatedly in the face with his free hand. Winter trudged past them, headed for the corner tower that served as regimental headquarters.
Her gut churned. It would be good to be away from Davis. There was no doubt about that. While they’d been in their usual camp near the Khandarai capital of Ashe-Katarion, the big sergeant’s torments had been bearable. Discipline had been lax. Winter had been able to spend long periods away from the camp, and Davis and the others had had their drinking, gambling, and whoring to distract them. Then the Redemption had come. The prince had fled the capital like a whipped dog, and the Colonials had followed. Since then, through the long weeks of waiting at Fort Valor, things had gotten much worse. Cooped up inside the ancient walls, Winter had nowhere to escape, and Davis used her to vent his irritation at being denied his favorite pursuits.
On the other hand, Winter had learned to parse officer-speak, too. A “special detail” definitely sounded bad.
There was a guard at the open doorway to the building, but he only nodded at Winter as she entered. The captain’s office was just inside, marked by the smiling staff lieutenant who waited by the door. Winter recognized him. Everyone in the regiment knew Fitzhugh Warus. His brother, Ben Warus, had been colonel of the Colonials until he’d taken a bullet through the skull during a hell-for-leather chase after some bandits upriver. Fitz had been widely expected to leave for home after that, since everyone knew he was only here for his brother’s sake. Inexplicably, he’d remained, employing his easy smile and flawless memory on behalf of the new acting commander.
Winter always felt a bit uncomfortable in his presence. She had small use for officers of any description, much less officers who smiled all the time. At least when she was being shouted at, she knew where she stood.
She stopped in front of him and saluted. “Ranker Ihernglass, reporting as ordered, sir.”
“Come in,” said Fitz. “The captain is expecting you.”
Winter followed him inside. The captain’s “office” had more than likely been someone’s bedroom back when Fort Valor was an actual functioning fortress. Like every other part of the place, they’d found it stripped to the bare rock when they arrived. Captain d’Ivoire had made a kind of low desk out of half the bed of a broken cart propped on a pair of heavy trunks, and he sat on a spare bedroll.
This desk was strewn with paper of two distinct sorts. Most of it was the yellow-brown Khandarai rag paper the Colonials had used for years, recycled endlessly by enterprising vendors who rescued scraps from trash heaps and scraped the ink off, over and over, until the sheet was as thin as tissue. Amidst these, like bits of polished marble in a sand heap, were several pages of honest-to-Karis Vordanai stationery, crisp as though they had just come off the mills, bleached blindingly white with creases like razors. They were obviously orders from the fleet. Winter itched to know what they contained, but they were all carefully folded to shield them from prying eyes.
The captain himself was working on another sheet, a list of names, wearing an irritable expression. He was a broad-shouldered man in his middle thirties, face browned and prematurely wrinkled like that of anyone else who spent too much time in the unforgiving Khandarai sun. He kept his dark hair short and his beard, just starting to show slashes of gray, trimmed close to his jaw. Winter liked him as well as she liked any officer, which wasn’t much.
He looked up at her, grunted, and made a mark on his list. “Sit down, Ranker.”
Winter sat cross-legged on the floor across the desk from him. She felt Fitz hovering over her shoulder. Her instincts were screaming that this was a trap, and she had to remind herself firmly that making a break for it was not an option.
It felt as though the captain wanted her to open the conversation, but she knew better than to try. Finally he grunted again and fumbled around under the desk, coming up with a little linen bag. He tossed it on the desk in front of her, where it clanked.
“For you,” he said. When she hesitated, he gestured impatiently. “Go on.”
Winter worked her finger through the drawstring and tipped out the contents. They were two copper pins, each bearing three brass pips. They were intended for the shoulders of her uniform; the insignia of a senior sergeant.
There was a long silence.
“This has to be a joke,” Winter blurted, and then hastily added, “sir.”
“I wish it was,” the captain said, either oblivious to or intending the implied insult. “Put them on.”
Winter regarded the copper pins as though they were poisonous insects. “Sir, I must respectfully decline this offer.”
“Too bad it isn’t an offer, or even a request,” the captain snapped. “It’s an order. Put the damn things on.”
She slammed her hand on the desk, just missing the dangerously upturned point of one of the pins, and shook her head violently. “I—”
Her throat rebelled, closing so tight she had to fight for breath. The captain watched her, not angry but with a sort of bemused curiosity. After a few moments, he coughed.
“Technically,” he said, “I could have you thrown in the stockade for that. Only we haven’t got a stockade, and then I’d just have to find another damned sergeant. So let me explain.” He sorted through the papers and came up with one of the crisp sheets. “Aboard those transports are enough soldiers to bring this regiment up to book strength. That’s nearly three thousand men. As soon as they dock, I get this instruction”—he gave the word a nasty spin—“from the new colonel, telling me that he hasn’t brought any junior officers and he wants me to provide people who are ‘familiar with the natives and the terrain.’ Never mind that I haven’t got enough for my own companies. So I’ve got to come up with thirty-six sergeants, without stripping the other companies completely bare, and that means field promotions.”
Winter nodded, her chest still tight. The captain made a vague gesture in the air.
“So I ask around for men who might be able to do the job. Your Sergeant Davis picked you. Your record is”—his lip quirked—“a bit odd, but good. And here we are.”
The sergeant would be apoplectic if he knew she was being promoted, rather than sent on a dangerous foray into enemy territory. For a moment Winter reconsidered her objection. It would be worth it, almost, just to watch his face turn tomato red. To make Buck and Tuft salute her. But—
“Sir,” she protested, “with all due respect to yourself and Sergeant Davis, I don’t think this is a good decision. I don’t know how to be a sergeant.”
“It can’t be difficult,” the captain said, “or else sergeants couldn’t do it.” He sat back a little, as though waiting for a smile, but Winter kept her face rigid. He sighed. “Would it reassure you if I said that all the new companies have their own lieutenants? I doubt that your duties will involve as much . . . initiative as Sergeant Davis’ do.”
Shortage of lieutenants was a perennial problem in the Colonials. The primary purpose of the regiment, it sometimes seemed, was as a dumping ground for those who had irretrievably fucked up their Royal Army careers but hadn’t quite gone far enough to be cashiered or worse. Lieutenants—who, by and large, came from good families and were young enough to still make a life outside the service—would usually resign rather than accept the posting. Most companies were run by their sergeants, of which the regiment always had a sufficiency.
It was reassuring, slightly, but it did little to address her primary objection. She’d spent three years doing all she could to avoid contact with her fellow soldiers, most of whom were vicious brutes in any event. To now get up in front of a hundred and twenty of them and tell them what to do—the thought made her want to curl into a ball and never emerge.
“Sir,” she said, her voice a little thick, “I still think—”
Captain d’Ivoire’s patience ran out. “Your objections are noted, Sergeant,” he snapped. “Now put the damn pins on.”
With a shaking hand, Winter took the pins and fumbled with her coat. Being nonregulation, it lacked the usual shoulder straps, and after watching for a moment the captain sighed.
“All right,” he said. “Just take them and go. You have the evening to say your good-byes. We’re breaking the new men out into companies tomorrow morning, so be on the field when you hear the call.” He cast about on the table, found a bit of rag paper, and scribbled something on it. “Take this to Rhodes and tell him you need a new jacket. And try to look as respectable as possible. God knows this regiment looks shabby enough.”
“Yes, sir.” Pocketing the pins, Winter got to her feet. The captain made a shooing gesture, and Fitz appeared at her side to escort her to the door.
When they were in the corridor, he favored her with another smile.
Winter nodded silently and wandered back out into the sun.
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