When the blade touched his throat, Palderian’s heart stopped. His every deed sorted out in his memory; slights and alms alike. Two aphorisms shot across his mind: Everything I’ve done led to this, and the contrapuntal: None of that matters now. He knelt on a platform overlooking a throng of strangers holding their breath. He restrained his laughter.
The man holding the sword to his neck swung it around to the other side of his head. The sword rose and shimmered in the golden light of an aging year. “I hereby declare,” said the man flashing the sword around, “Palderian of Prokopenko,” the flat of the silvery steel came to rest on Palderian’s black hair, “Captain of the Fallicorn infantry, vassal of Athostus, peer of Averros.”
The crowd cheered Palderian as he rose from his knees. “Not bad for the son of a spearfisher,” said the Governor with a wink. The thin blade shot into the leatherbound sheath and Palderian lifted it from the Governor’s extended palms. Wyas Oron, one of Jaen’s final entourage. To a student of the Fallicorn legacy such as Palderian, it was almost too much taking the sword—a new sword, an officer’s sword—directly from the hands of Jaen’s squire, now an old man.
The Governess Roshan embraced Palderian and said into his ear, “If you weren’t so flabbergasted I’d think we had made a mistake.” She flashed her eyes wide and smiled at him. Her palms rubbed like sandstone against the backs of his hands. Thick worker’s hands, she had, bred to hoist spears, not goblets.
“I didn’t expect the whole city to turn out,” he said.
“Midwinter,” said Wyas. “We rolled your ceremony into the larger festivities. I hope you don’t mind.”
“A little. I am terribly late for another engagement,” said Palderian.
Wyas threw back his head and laughed. “Some other nation feasting you today?”
“Sure. I’m a prince in Thoradar, an imperator of Nahroum. The Fuereda call me thane.”
“So that makes you a king of Prokopenko?” said Wyas.
“Oh no, I’m nothing there. That’s why I left.” Palderian held a straight face. “I said to the council, ‘Look, I demand a ceremony in my honor or else I’m off to Athostus.’”
Roshan laughed and put her hand on his shoulder, a particular irritant for him, and the curse of short men. But he didn’t let it rankle his good mood. This was Roshan, Governess of Athostus, general commander of the world’s largest force, granddaughter of Jaen Fallicorn. Plus she’d recently revealed to him her most intimate secrets. She would want to keep him close until he left the city.
She said, “I’m glad to have a captain in my army who’s so well connected all over the world.”
“Just making sure I land well, in case everybody goes to war with each other,” he said.
Wyas Oron circled in front of them with his terrier grin and madman’s eyes. “Don’t count it out. Ha. My wife likes to think of nothing but the next treachery.” He winked at her.
“And my husband doesn’t care to think of our enemies at all.” Roshan’s smile swept from her husband to the new captain, but when her eyes flashed to Palderian’s there was no glow to them, only a simmer.
“Enemies. Pardon me. Ha. Ten thousand people are screaming their praise and the three of us are conspiring like turkeys.” He grabbed Palderian’s wrist and hoisted it into the air. Roshan followed along. The tableaux was altogether unflattering to Palderian, pinched between the statuesque couple. He didn’t doubt that they could fling him into the audience.
Onlookers crowded the square, leaned from windows and balconies along the boulevard, squatted on rooftops, squirreled up tree branches, and haunted every yard, alley, and patio to attend the service. His native city, Prokopenko, began just a few short centuries ago as a walled tent, the first settlement in the known world to survive a full year. With each season, the small fortification expanded, newcomers felled more trees for palisades, and continued to build walls until finally the standing city appeared to be a wooden honeycomb atop the waterfall. Averros, with its stone boulevard and multi-floored buildings, was the most modern city in the world. The sight of the concrete architecture overrun with human bodies stunned him.
“Show the people your sword,” said Wyas. Palderian unsheathed his new blade, wrist-wide and arm-long, straight as sunrays and sharp as rainfall. Palderian trained and fought with heavy leafblade swords—short, wide, sturdy—for those rare moments when spears failed. The grunts called these thin swords ‘grassblades’ in contrast; the steel tapered obliquely towards the triangular point. Its weight hung as delicately as a fishing rod in Palderian’s grip. He stretched it before him, pointed over the heads of the audience, and twisted it a few times to the hollers, whistles, applause, and clattering bells of the audience. The gold-leaf half-moon guard was stamped on one side with the crest of Fallicorn and the mark of Athostus on the other. The Orons designed and perfected the grassblade. They shared it with the Fallicorns. Palderian, now an officer, would be expected to use the more delicate weapon.
Governor Wyas stepped forward at his side. “You stand between the people and their leader. Remember this. Where you step, the honor of the name stands behind you, always. You have our face, we have your back.”
Reassuring words, thought Palderian, unable to enjoy the moment. Roshan hasn’t told her husband anything.
◊ ◊ ◊
“While I have your attention, and without drawing official attention to it, I wanted to hear about the two boys you sent to die.” Roshan sat on a wooden chair with no cushion. They were seated in her private study, a few storeys above the agora. They sat beside a low fire. The white silk curtains wagged on the breeze. All of the shutters were pinned open. The double-doors to the balcony stood wide. The midwinter air tickled the hairs under his linen tunic. Yet, the Prokopenkan’s brows sprouted fine beads of sweat and his armpits trickled strands all the way down to his elbows. Palderian’s heart sunk and he involuntarily began to speak, though the words pasted to his dry tongue, producing no sound louder than a wheeze.
“We’re off the record, Lieutenant,” she said, “Soon-to-be Captain. And you have nothing to fear from me.” Roshan Fallicorn was just shy of fifty and yet few grey hairs snuck into her black hair, kept only long enough to tuck behind the ears and clamp up off the neck. A life of marching all across the map tanned her naturally dark complexion into a vibrant cinnamon hue. Wrinkles fanned beneath her eyes to to the grey hairs at her temples. Little wiry crevices formed on her upper lip that folded into her dimples. Hazel eyes shined under black brows. Palderian had just returned from the southeast where Jaen had met the wife that gave all of his children and grandchildren these dark features. “Here is a pitcher of the finest water in the world,” she said. “Straight from the spring. Drink. And be comfortable. I’d like to know how you decided to send Hartig and Ormond to their deaths. Those two in particular, I mean.”
Palderian swallowed an entire glass of water and poured himself a second. “If you’re asking would I do it again: yes.”
“I presume Captain Yanar had no part in the decision.”
“He could not have counseled my command, no. He was on a skiff in the water, I was in the woods north of the city. He ordered me to attack from the north while he attacked from the south, but I signaled for him to hold.”
“How did you come to choose those two?”
“It was the right decision.” Despite his deep brown skin, many shades darker than his host, Palderian’s cheeks flared. “I am merely accepting today’s honors on their behalf.”
A smirk activated the fine wrinkles across her cheeks. “Aren’t you tactful? I have no doubt you made the right decision. In fact, there is no argument to be had. Yanar was commissioned to bring my daughter back from Caladabur with as many of her remaining troops as he could spare. In the end my daughter, all of her comrades, and the entire interloping platoon returned, save two.”
“Hartig and Ormond were the fastest runners.”
“Yes. By far.”
“Didn’t you have a Dodae attending?”
Palderian’s black eyes spread wide. He glanced over his shoulder at the arched doorway. They were sitting in the Governor’s private quarters, awaiting his arrival. His wife the Governess had bidden Palderian into their private chambers so she might get to know him, while she had him to herself, in her words. “The Dodae was extraordinarily useful. For instance, on the march back when your daughter fell sick, we sent Anvil, the runner, on ahead to Ancaro to fetch medicine for her.”
“They are exceptionally fast.”
“But not as fast as Hartig and Ormond?”
Palderian cleared his throat and realigned his posture on the leather stool. “Theador and Kess are over thirty years old and I am a short man with short legs, as you are soon to learn. I hope I don’t embarrass myself in the games being thrown in my honor.” He smiled at her, a triangular grin. “I am a son of a spearfisher, not the son of a hunter.”
“I fail to see why you would send two trained Fallicorn spearmen to run to death when you were outfitted with a perfectly disposable runner. They are, you must agree, called runners.”
“I reiterate, your daughter may have died without the medicine Anvil fetched. On the return trip. Weeks after Hartig and Ormond died bravely.”
“Walk me through it.” She refilled his goblet with water. “If you don’t mind.”
Palderian again looked over his shoulder. “The Governor, is he…?”
“He’s never this late.”
“Is he coming at all?”
“He wasn’t invited. As it happens, I asked him to give us this time alone.”
“You lied to me.”
“Would you rather I fetch him?”
“Are you made nervous by a female commander?”
“All soldiers are disquieted by elusive commands.”
“And the higher you rise…”
“The less I know.”
Roshan set down her goblet on a marble side table. “Walk me through it, captain.”
“Sixty spears in the boat, six in the trees. That’s us. Myself and Figg, Kess and Theador, Hartig and Ormond. Our Dodae up in a tree, flagging signals to the skiff and the fort. Three senloy around the fort. We lay in wait for hours. Our principal cause: to relay messages and keep a far eye for more beasts. Yanar planned to alight the skiff in full ranks and charge the beasts. Sixty against three, but on the narrow docks, and that soggy old wharf, to be honest, I didn’t like their chances. These senloy were starved. Mad. Thin and dirty, like weasels. Not like the furry white monsters up here.”
“I’ve seen them, Captain.”
“Of course. Yanar would be bottlenecked. The fight would last until all three senloy were dead, but Anvil, our guide, assured us that there were other senloy within hearing. It wouldn’t just be those three. More would come in the duration. And Yanar could not see the flat steppes just north of the fort. Nor the position of the three senloy lazing in the sun. Hartig and Ormond disrobed. We rubbed their bodies in the clay. I told them they were not allowed to die until they had all three senloy chasing them. They spit in their hands, grabbed up their spears, and charged into the falling sun straight across the flats.”
“Did they get all three to chase?”
Palderian nodded. “After the third passed, Anvil flagged for Yanar to storm the docks. We’d given him an emergency hold signal. There was no way to tell the boats what we were planning. But when we flew the emergency relief flag, Yanar unloaded. I charged forward, Figg, Kess, and Theador at my heels. Egor and her dogs charged out the front gates to further misdirect the senloy. Soria and Iyo Oron could have strolled onto the skiff. The first two senloy finished off Hartig and Ormond before turning back to us. But by then, the four of us had killed the third, with the help of Egor and her dogs.”
“How did Egor know? How was the fort so organized to carry out your reconfiguring of the plan?”
“The Dodae, miss. He snuck in. He crawled through the clay, told Soria everything, crawled back. Took an hour. When he got back, before I could say anything, Ormond asked if Soria was all right. That’s how I knew. Ormond would die for her. Hartig would die for Ormond.”
Roshan grinned at Palderian and then turned from him. He saw her chin bobbing along with an internal debate. “You didn’t prefer Kess to survive?” She turned to catch Palderian’s expression.
Palderian took a breath. The breath didn’t sink past his esophagus so he was forced to open his jaw and quietly inhale a half-lung of air. He hated that his body failed him. I’m sitting down for heavens sakes! he thought, Why can’t I breathe? He attempted to disguise his discomfort by feigning a stretch. He repositioned his legs and leaned back for just a moment. “At no point in the assignment,” he said cautiously, “was the safety of any of my charges guaranteed.”
Roshan smiled wide, showing her teeth. “So you allowed Fortune to make all your decisions for you?”
“You wouldn’t have thrown a bazaar in my honor if you believed that.”
“And what if Kess were the faster runner? Or the operation relied on her specialty?”
Palderian let the implication suffocate into silence. “Kess is gleefully married to Theador, the strongest man I know.”
“So why not send Theador?”
These deep breaths were doing nothing to calm the torrent in his guts. The lungs pinched. “I don’t doubt that a leader of your expertise will eventually find my weakness, but as your servant it is my duty to report that you are far off the scent.”
“Is Kess not the most stunning woman ever to wear the Fallicorn blues?”
“With all of your wealth, you haven’t acquired a mirror?”
Roshan’s hand rested on her bosom and she feigned a gasp. “You are absolutely wasted in the field, my dear.” With her hand still on her bosom, she said, “What if it should occur that my daughter were the faster runner?”
The breath finally came to Palderian. “I would prefer not to while away the evening with scenarios,” and he allowed a modicum of anger to give the words resonance. The Fallicorns love nothing more than confrontation, he thought. She must be testing me. Prying me with flirtation, prejudice, mockery.
“Would you command Soria to her death?”
“I didn’t save her life one day to forfeit it the next.”
“Ah, but you were assigned to save her life. Suppose the next assignment doesn’t require her survival.”
“I wouldn’t hazard to imagine such an assignment.”
“What if the decision came between Kess and Soria?”
“The lover of Kess would send Soria and the mother of Soria would send Kess. As it happens, I am neither.”
“And that is all you’ll say?”
“All I’ll say is well beyond all you’ll hear, so I’d rather conserve my breath for the races.”
“I wish I could keep you at my side, Palderian. To deal with our petulant opposition in the public discourse. Where did you learn such tact?”
“I’m the middle child of an extraordinarily dramatic flock.”
“What are the chances you’d be swept up on the same wind as mine?”
◊ ◊ ◊
Roshan Fallicorn rose from her chair, turned from Palderian, and walked to the balcony. She spread her arms and ran her palms outward along the smooth stone balustrade, watching the crowds gather for the afternoon’s ceremony. After a minute, she turned, spied Palderian sitting where he’d been, and said, “You were meant to follow me, captain,” but the music and singing and cheering in the agora swaddled her voice and swept it off in the wind. Palderian stood and came to her. “I’m sorry. I didn’t hear what you said just now.”
“No matter. I had to leave that room. I can only tolerate walls and ceilings for so long.” Her sadness perplexed Palderian. His own family had no power, and the whole of Prokopenko was only as powerful as a single Fallicorn battalion. She stood in a dress of the finest silk, on a balcony tiled with alabaster, overlooking a feast celebrating the greatest military in the history of the world, and everyone within one hundred leagues would give their life to protect her own. “Look down there. May as well be a corral. In an hour or so we’re going to parade you before the masses, dress you in our finery, put a blade in your hand, and call you a Vassal of Athostus. I don’t even know what that means.”
“It’s the thing that holds flowers.”
She shook her head. “Let me tell you what I have been thinking for the last few years since my arrival to this city. It pleases me to know that it will not be repeated.
“The Fallicorn name came from nowhere,” she said. “We do not even know who Jaen’s parents were. He was a boy of the wild with an extraordinary will who inspired a generation older than him to run headlong into war with beasts they dreaded since time immemorial. Then he inspired his own generation to expand and to explore. And finally he inspired the next generation to build and to settle. He taught the world to not fear; not fear the wilderness, nor the beasts, nor each other, nor the dozens of tribes we met along the way.
“And do you know how he taught the world all of these things? Of course you do. So let me phrase it in the converse: do you know what he didn’t do to teach us these things? He didn’t speak. He never once said, ‘We should build a city here,’ or ‘Let us cultivate these fields.’ He had that spirit which invigorated everyone he met. That can’t be taught or bred, even. I don’t have it. Soria does not have it. The only thing my mother did in this life is give birth to me. Do you follow?”
“You’re afraid there will never be another Jaen Fallicorn?”
“I know there will never be another Jaen. But what I’m afraid of is the Fallicorn name spoiling in the sun. Not vanishing, it would be a mercy for the name to vanish. If Fallicorn becomes one more name among sovereigns, one more title among lords, one more legend among ghosts, we will have forfeited Jaen’s spirit.”
“And yet,” he said, “we dragged Soria back to the city that Jaen himself hated. If you’re asking me never to reveal to your daughter that you agree with her, I understand.” He couldn’t contain a smirk. “My own parents withheld all affection and look how far I’ve come.”
Roshan leveled Palderian with a glare. “You are commanded to escort my daughter, but you must not coddle her. If her battles are fought for her, she would cease to be a Fallicorn. If you should need to send her to her death, do not hesitate. To be feared from without and cherished from within, she must lead a life resembling Jaen’s.”
“Jaen never served under a captain,” said Palderian.
“True,” said Roshan. “And a century ago, we wouldn’t be standing three stories above a tiled agora discussing honor and inspiration; we’d be squatting in a hut, hiding from wild pigs.” The Governess fell to silence, momentarily forgetting her guest. Her lips parted and a sigh passed from them as though she had just watched the whole world taken from her. “In Prokopenko, captain,” she said, suddenly returning to her previous posture, “do they still rule by assembly?”
“The term ‘parliament’ has come into fashion.”
“And I presume you are familiar with the pomposity of the Thoradar kings, or what’s left of them.”
“In fact it was the recruiter there who convinced me with his own bloodlust that I need remove myself from the territory.”
“My husband says the veteran crisis is a tribute to the Fallicorn soldiers. They will not throw down their honor to pick up their spears for mercenary work. Great success that speech. I say, tribute or no, it’s still a crisis.”
“I’ve heard the argument that our Athostan soldiers simply cannot decide which faction of the Thoradaran conflict they hate more.”
“I trust you won’t repeat that before my husband.”
“I trust he won’t ask my opinion.”
“It does not pass my hearing that you call our soldiers Athostans and not Fallicorns.”
“I quote your father’s definition. A Fallicorn against senloy, an Athostan against each other.”
“Ah, yes. So you can read?”
“Only what’s worth the effort.”
Roshan shook her head. “No gift for politics, he claims.” She turned from the balustrade to face the Prokopenkan. “A parliament in Prokopenko. A royal lineage in Thoradar. We have neither. As my father said, whether he knew it or not, Fallicorns are not the rulers of Athostus, we are bushwhackers. We rule only because no one has figured out a better system here. My father was no champion, and my husband is not even a Fallicorn. He’s an Oron from the southern harbor. Meanwhile, I’m blamed for abandoning the Fallicorn legacy. An utter mess, the whole family. Soria is a soldier with a bright future and a burdensome name. You are assigned to escort her where she is going, but you need not concern yourself with bringing her back. That task is hers alone.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Wyas nodded to the master of ceremonies who clapped his hands twice and the roustabouts at the back of the audience began splitting the crowd. A wide aisle cleared before the platform stretching across the entire agora. Drummers lining the square pounded a heavy war rhythm as nine teams of acrobats paraded down the aisle in huge senloy costumes, three acrobats to each. All three acrobats in each construction were yoked to wicker bars running under their armpits so that the first could leap into the air, supported by the posterior two, and simulate the rearing of the great beast. The costumes thundered and rattled with taut, blanched vellum skin and white-painted reeds that simulated senloy quills. Diminutive performers dressed in shag and dancing on all fours ran out next and circled the beasts, each in turn blaring small brass horns in a tribute to barking.
Egor the kennelmaster looked askance at Palderian; Palderian grinned at the humorless woman. They’d been warned the master of ceremonies would conduct a pantomime of their victory for the solstice fest. Egor refused the request to give a demonstration of her dogs’ training. In her opinion, conducting an entertainment would dilute the self-regard of the dogs whose expertise should only be employed in military circumstances. She stood on the secondary platform just below Palderian with her lead dog, Kiku; a gray and white large-game dog with bright chestnut irises ringed around graveblack pupils. Both Egor and Kiku wore the same expression while watching the show. Once Palderian noticed this, he could not stop laughing. Egor Novos, so-called Coldbath since girlhood, came from a long line of stern commanders. When at an age she considered herself venerable, she demanded a command position. When none were offered, she resigned. Years later, she returned with a pack of bear-dogs. Under no one’s orders, she trained and bred every kennel unit in the infantry. She wore her hair in a long black braid that draped along her spine, tucked underneath her undyed cloak, stained by the years in a pattern not unlike treebark. The dogs needn’t dye their coats blue, she said once, and yet we know on whose side they serve. Therefore, she need not dye her clothing to appease the Fallicorn commanders. Twenty years of kennelwork. The joke passed around between sergeants, captains, and commanders was that Egor Novos had gone ahead and amassed an infantry as large as the Fallicorns and placed her loyal charges among every unit. Should the day come the Fallicorns insult her again, be wary of that woman and her whistle.
The master of ceremonies touched Palderian on the shoulder and indicated with his palm that it was the captain’s turn to participate.
Palderian stepped down past his brethren with a self-deprecating grimace. Sergeant Figg and his squad shouted encouraging words: go get ‘em, and show no mercy, and so on.
“I present to you, ladies and gentlemen, brave Palderian, savior of Caladabur!” shouted the master of ceremonies as Palderian approached the floor.
There was another on the stage even less amused than Egor. Palderian glanced over his shoulder at the young Soria Fallicorn, standing among her parents, scowling. Savior of Caladabur, thought Palderian, Soria will never forgive me for that epithet. Soria ignored him. She seemed to be ignoring everyone. She bore no resemblance to that savage-tempered warrior they found in the rain-soaked fort, ranting with a bear’s voice that not all the senloy were dead as the others dragged her onto the skiff. Standing in silk brocade, cobalt and sapphire woven against gold and silver, the refined lady seemed half the size of that warrior whose clay-heavy leather armor whirled a spear above her head, begging for the opportunity to strike the beasts that had for months haunted her gates. Her hair, washed and brushed, lay gently on her shoulders. Some enterprising courtesan had placed a white dahlia in her shimmering onyx hair.
Behind Soria stood Iyo Oron, cousin to Soria’s father Wyas Oron. On both of their belts hung grassblades. If Wyas was an ever-grinning terrier, Iyo was a pointer. He bore no expression whatsoever. Chin, cheekbones, black eyes seeing all yet showing nothing.
The first senloy puppet turned its paper flank to Palderian. He tapped the frame with his sword and the acrobats threw red lace at him and then shook the great costume so that the quills rattled. Palderian turned back to Egor, still laughing. She was not enjoying herself, which only made Palderian laugh harder. “It’s harmless,” he shouted to her. “Precisely,” she said. And then her face turned down, and her jaw opened and her eyes widened. Her dog, Kiku, made the same expression. Palderian spun to see what they saw: a muscular dog tearing at the paper ankle of the second senloy puppet. The first acrobat operated the wicker jaw of the beast. The second held the first’s legs against his chest. The third stared down to his right, horrified, shouting at the dog to stop, which only increased the dog’s furor.
Palderian sheathed his blade and waved his arms. Egor and Kiku ran up behind him. In a stern voice, louder than any expected of her, Egor told all three acrobats to lie down. She said it once and the three, even the two who did not yet know what was happening behind them, complied.
Once the puppet rolled to its side, the loose dog, Rolo, turned to the next team of acrobats and began barking shrilly, deafening those around him. Even the trumpeting wilted beneath the blare of the dog. Kiku batted Rolo’s snout and bit him behind the ear. Rolo understood the command and ceased barking but he glared at his commander with sad, frightful eyes. Egor ran to Rolo’s side and scratched the point of his cranium. Rolo looked to her for sense but she gave him none.
Then eight more dogs appeared, deafening the crowd with their barks and terrifying the acrobats with their teeth. “They think Rolo’s been hurt,” Egor shouted at Palderian with a contemptuous tone. “Because he stopped barking.” The eight dogs circled the huge senloy puppets and nipped at the stitched heels. The dancers in dog costumes fled back to their staging area. Palderian jogged down the line of senloy puppets begging the puppeteers within to all lie on their side. Egor refused to quiet her dogs, and now that they had begun barking, others joined.
“Why won’t they stop?” Palderian asked Egor after all the paper senloy lay passive on their sides. “We haven’t killed them yet,” she answered. Palderian called to his old friend Yanar. “Captain, call your men. Dominate the beasts.”
Captain Yanar and his platoon ran to the senloy puppets, separating in a synchronized fashion, and pulled their weapons on the unfortunate acrobats strapped inside the costumes. Egor blew her whistle: three shrill pulses. The dogs ceased barking and ran to her.
Palderian apologized to the acrobats immediately beneath his sword, then sheathed it again. As he walked to the platform, Rolo trotted up to him and sniffed his legs and his torso. Palderian said to Wyas, “He’s making sure I’m unharmed.” Wyas grinned and nodded. Palderian turned to the crowd surrounding him. “He wants to know if I’m okay!” he shouted. A sustained guffaw brushed through the audience. Palderian leaned to Rolo, who licked his face. Palderian kneeled and rubbed Rolo’s neck and withers and kissed him on top of his head. But Rolo didn’t need Palderian’s affection. He shook off the kiss with a tilted head and trotted away. Kiku escorted Palderian back to the platform.
Wyas, when the crowd settled, said, “My compliments to the master of ceremonies and our unparalleled acrobats. So lifelike are your creations you almost sacrificed your own lives.” The audience replied with obsequious laughter. “And to Master Egor and her noble animals for seeing to the safety of our captain, even if it ruins the program.” The audience laughed and muttered amongst themselves and wiped their brows and called three cheers to the performers. The acrobats were helped out of their costumes while still on the ground to avoid further alarm.
“You’re not embarrassed in the least,” said Wyas to Egor.
“Why should I be?” she asked. “My squad protected the captain from belittling his service.”
“Keep your voice down,” said Wyas.
Egor turned to the governor, red-faced, and said, “You may deafen your ears with revelry, but you’ll never govern my tongue.” Palderian froze with shock until he remembered that long ago the two were quite close. How different their lives have turned out, he thought. For ages, the Novos and Oron clans warred in the southeast before Jaen imposed himself. That temporary alliance peeled away since his death, along with many others.
The Governor extended his palm and rubbed the kennelmaster’s shoulder. “Steadfast Coldbath. The Sisters could learn much from your example.”
“Gag it, Wyas.”
Roshan Fallicorn added, “I agree with Egor. War and performance deserve separate critique. I would never arm these acrobats against real enemies, nor would I ask Captain Palderian to play a fool.” Her black brows lowered to Palderian’s for a moment and then fluttered off into a stately pose for the rest of her council.
“Maybe,” came a low voice from behind them, “if we devoted these circus resources to slaying real senloy,” it was Soria descending the platform, speaking only for her immediate family to hear, “the savior of Caladabur might have actually saved Caladabur. ”
The new captain grimaced and averted his eyes. He did not see her hoist a torch from the edge of the platform, but he felt the breath of heat and heard the roar of the people as the paper monster lying at Soria’s feet flared to ash. “How much did that one cost you?” she asked her father.
◊ ◊ ◊
Roshan and Palderian moved from the balcony to a rotund dining room. “North of the lake, the cities are flourishing. South of the lake, returning soldiers with no work are inundating cities with nowhere to shelter them and little to feed them. There are whispers of a northern strategy to secede.” Roshan plucked a tomato from its vine and set it between her molars. “How would you advise your governor to proceed?”
“First, I would counsel him to sit in on more of the Governess’s private meetings. Especially if they are catered.”
“You are a charmer,” she said in that tone the danced between pleasant and acerbic. “Eat up, but not so much you purge on the platform out there.”
Palderian shook his head. He hadn’t even an appetite for the water, but his throat kept seizing. “I’m afraid troop discipline does not transpose to civil discipline.”
“And why not?”
“A military recruit waives personal liberties, ideologically. Survival demands discipline. A clever commander remembers that discipline is welcome, while an indentured soldier should be expected to test their commander incessantly.” As Palderian spoke, Roshan plated a small selection of meats and vegetables and slid it across the rosewood table. “A civilian, born into plenty, the product of their forebears, will find discipline inconvenient, and in certain circumstances, an insult to their own self-assessment. My sister and brother, for instance, they would confuse military discipline as an act of aggression, when you and I would recognize it as a matter of respect.”
Roshan smiled and waved her hand. “A military question then: An elderly captain with no affection for my husband or myself had been given a sinecure in a southern city. An honorable station with little risk of overreach. Recently he wangled a transfer to a quaint northern city. How would you respond to the news?”
“Does one city have more wealth than the other?”
“Yes, in fact. But it was the one he abandoned.”
“Then I suppose the southern city also has a greater density of captains.”
“Perhaps in his twilight years, he wanted to stretch his arms a bit more.”
“I daresay you’ve underestimated him. The man’s ambition is matched only by his cunning. Do you know Captain Sneed?”
Palderian’s head floated backwards with a great sigh. “A name among few remaining of that generation. He’s from Ancaro, no? What friends are there for him in the north?”
She pointed at him and her brows arched. “How would you advise your governor to proceed?”
“Being new to political theory, I would certainly not think to suggest that my governor send his only child to him.”
“You must find my questioning rather odd,” she said, and her words were punctuated with the crackling of bread crust.
“I find it very odd. If I may speak candidly, it sounds like you want me to see to your daughter’s destruction.”
Roshan pressed her lips, sucking the grease of sausage off the beds of her fingers.
“Racoor gave Jaen nine children. Of them, only their daughter Sorrosh survived into adolescence. Sorrosh had four children. Of them, only I survived. Fallicorn women… I had great difficulty bearing children. Soria is our only child, as you know. My husband wishes to guard her forever. He and his councilors fear a war of accession should anything happen to her.”
“You do not?”
“Of course not.”
“But why?” asked Palderian.
She said, “I just told you.”
Palderian pondered. “Because if there is not a blood relative of Jaen in the world, there is no Fallicorn army?”
“And therefore, if she dies, so does the name. There will be no wars of accession because there will be no power over which to squabble. My husband wants her to marry and produce as many children as she can, to protect the commonwealth. But that would be worse.” She turned to him, held his gaze and commanded, “Tell me why.”
Palderian tilted his head forward slightly in deference. “That would be living in fear, which would be a disgrace to Jaen.”
“So you would have me lead your daughter into certain danger?”
“I would rather she die than become a politician.”
“She was dying well enough in Caladabur.”
“Ah, that.” Palderian could see Roshan’s mind turning over half a dozen thoughts. “There isn’t time to…” She sighed. “A concession to geography. We like to think Anshamara is our land. You can’t steer a ship from the shore, as they say.”
“Meaning you have no control there. But how does it matter where she dies?”
“The ship is lost at sea, though Soria refuses to accept that. If you swim out to a sinking ship, no one will pity your death.”
“You don’t care if your daughter dies, you only care that her death be a political advantage to you?”
“Not political. Historical.”
“I fail to see the difference,” said Palderian.
“No,” said Roshan. “You choose not to.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Roshan said, “You are to escort Soria to Cadaes, but that is not all. You will then march to Faragos where you will notice you are not expected. Until you’ve cleared out of Cadaes, no one can know the true plan. Tell no one in Cadaes you intend to go. Tell your troops nothing. You want to keep Soria alive? Then mind your tongue until you have left Cadaes. Even then, tell your troops nothing. Once you arrive in Faragos have a look around. Enjoy the town, it’s quaint but cheerful. Once there, send a messenger to Hurleweth. Do you know Hurleweth?”
“I do not.”
“In the far north, way up in the mountains, at the highest peak of the road, there is a valley, austere in its beauty and silence. In this valley there is a hill and atop the hill a fort, it may as well be a ship upon the sea it is so remote. Our commander there, a friend so dear to me he may as well be my brother, is Eton Novos, so-called Black Cherry. You’ll understand why when you meet him. When you arrive at Faragos, send a runner to tell Black Cherry that you are in Faragos with Soria and with Egor. He’ll want to see his sister.”
Palderian held up a hand, imagining all that he’d just learned as separate crates of supplies, but he hadn’t yet figured out how to stack them. “Egor is Black Cherry’s sister?”
“There’s a lot of history there that will never be sung by a chorus. There was a time when Novos and Oron were Jaen’s two best loved generals. Now the two families hardly speak and the Fallicorn name is caught between them.”
“I imagine you’ve spoken all you wish me to know so I’ll refrain from asking unrequited questions.”
“There’s one thing I’ll ask, with no hope of an answer, but I ask in vain, to prove I am at least paying attention,” he said. “Why is all of this being kept secret from your daughter?”
“I leave it to you to withhold or expose,” Roshan said, filling both glasses with clear water. “One last secret, Captain, and if information were currency, you’d now be the wealthiest officer on my payroll.” The Governess smirked and bit her lip—a final hesitation, a last reckoning of the new captain’s character. A sigh escaped her clenched breast, releasing the words like a hand tossing dice. “Soria believes she was born near Averros. But that was impossible to manage.” She reached across to Palderian’s untouched plate of food and peeled off a translucent slice of bacon. “In the spring, when the snows quit the mountaintops, you’ll be leading her to her birthplace.”
Palderian figured out how to stack all of this new information. “Hurleweth?”
◊ ◊ ◊
Sergeant Figg quaffed a glass of whiskey and, with his one eye that he could still open, looked to Palderian and winked. “Thank you very much,” Palderian said to the officer who bought him the drink. “Figg assures me it is of very high quality.”
“That it is, captain, and I hope you’ll keep the bottle,” said the officer.
“I shall and I promise I’ll enjoy it in time. Not today, sadly. If I shared a drink with everyone who has offered me a glass, my stomach would have dissolved by now.” Palderian shook the man’s hand and greeted the next in the receiving line, also carrying a bottle of liquor.
“Wise of you to ask Sergeant Figg to be your second,” said Yanar sitting on the other side of Figg.
“We’ve all gotter genius,” said Figg through the side of his face.
“Yesterday he was my mentor, today I am his superior. I thought it fair that my first order to him be that he consume vast quantities of the nation’s finest booze,” said Palderian.
“If you hear of a fair-rer way to cul-vitate loyalty,” said Figg, “I’va quarrel with it.”
Palderian inherited Yanar’s small unit and Yanar, for his part in Soria’s rescue, received a recently vacated sinecure in Ancaro, a bustling settlement in the south where a Fallicorn captain commanded unparalleled respect. Sitting at Palderian’s side for fear of being caught up in any conversation, Egor sipped a cold glass of water.
The four of them were as dissimilar as any in the Fallicorn army which had spread across the known world. All of Figg’s hair fell out at a young age but for the irrepressible tufts on his temples and the flaxen hair ringing his cranium. His sun-spotted pate, pink cheeks, and fat pallid lips contrasted with Palderian’s deep brown skin, thin mouth, and sharp chin grown over with a pointed beard. Where Figg seemed to sprout brown spots on his fair scalp, Palderian grew thick black hair that he twisted into spines.
Egor, at three-quarters Palderian’s height and with a round expressive face the color of sesame oil, looked the least like any of the others. She wore a long black braid that ran straight down her back and dozens of strands were wound with white thread to indicate her years of service. Yanar, the angular, light brown-skinned prodigy from the southeast was nearly half Figg’s age. He stood the tallest of the four and sat higher than the others at the table. Unlike the other two men who kept their hair short, Yanar wore it down to his shoulders, thickened with apple oil, colored gold and blue and green, and combed out flat like a horses tail, lying over his shoulder past his bosom.
They sat in the northwest corner of the agora at a narrow table in front of the officer’s hall, crowded in among other tables of lieutenants and captains and so-called commanders displaced by age or disaster. To one side, an enterprising family of brewers doled out mulled wine and hot mead for a few bits donation in cheap wooden cups carved with their family’s crest. To the other, a fife-and-drum team stirred up enough commotion to keep a group of twenty-odd people dancing all afternoon. Occasionally, singers would mount the platform unbidden and lead the crowd through an off-key ballad of uncertain structure and half-remembered lyrics.
Palderian’s receiving line never stretched more than a handful of people yet hadn’t diminished in the few hours since he’d sat down to eat. What bothered Yanar more than the endless glad-handing was that the line of bodies waiting to meet Palderian obscured his view of the athletic contests in the middle of the agora. Their unit’s two strongest soldiers, the husband and wife team of Theador and Kess Sovano, competed in the melee and Yanar stood up on the table to watch.
The next two men in the queue introduced themselves as the Tretoro Brothers of Ord, Erstas and Ernac. “Bert and Nack. Bert Brunette and Nack Non-Brunette. Don’t fret calling us by the wrong names, our mother still does and the whole operation was of her devising,” said Nack the younger brother. Bert handed Palderian a clay vial with a cork stopper wrapped in paper with three bright yellow bulbs of witch hazel. “From our family’s garden. Aftershave oil,” he said.
“Not wine, then?” asked Palderian. “How wonderful! You have won the day, fellows.” He set the jar beside the others. “I’ve been given a ship’s load of wine and whiskey. Figg here bought me the largest meatball I’ve ever eaten and Yanar gave me sixteen leaves of paper folded and sewn in the Dodae style. Egor doesn’t believe in gifts—”
“I don’t believe in gifts,” Egor said.
“—but it’s all been wine and whiskey besides,” said Palderian.
“And don’t f’rget Iyo Oron,” said Figg.
“Yes, Iyo Oron presented me with an exquisitely crafted knife that he first used to slice his palm,” said Palderian, retrieving from his sash a black-sided utility knife with a stacked leather grip.
“A handsome article and a great show of obeisance,” said Bert. “The man’s reputation precedes him. As does yours, captain.”
“I gave the command, but Hartig and Ormond gave us the advantage.”
“Two souls for three beasts exceeds the average by an impressive margin,” said Nack.
“Yes, and their service plus Egor’s squadron of cunning animals earned the victory. I simply chose brave death over craven death and it so happens we didn’t die.”
“You don’t take any credit for yourself,” said Soria Fallicorn, appearing behind Palderian.
“What credit could I possibly take, miss, that your father has not graciously given?” said Palderian, turning and subtly bowing his head. Egor rose and bowed. The Brothers Tretoro bowed deeply, following the lead of the others.
“What’s all this bowing business?” asked Soria. “Stop that. What ever rank I had I abandoned in Caladabur.”
“It is an absolute honor,” said Palderian, “to finally enjoy a few moments of peace with you, miss.”
“I’m sorry I wasn’t better company on the road,” she said.
“Nonsense,” said Palderian. “You were deathly ill. I wouldn’t expect you to have been much for conversation.”
Soria nodded. “I’ve come to ask when we leave.” Palderian grinned at her, turned to Yanar and shook his head. “My father tells me you are in charge of my safekeeping,” she said.
“Safekeeping,” muttered Figg, and everyone looked at the drunken man. Palderian hoped in vain Figg wouldn’t say anything uncouth and Soria hoped he would. “Wha? Why’s everyone lookin’ at Figg all perplecked? Anywhere she goes she brews her own peril. She’s Fallicorn blood in the wrong century. If there were a bridge to the moon she’d find it.”
“Thank you, Mr Figg,” said Soria with a full bow. “The winter is fast descending and if we’re marching north, best we leave as soon as possible.”
“Where are we marching?” asked Palderian.
“Cadaes. In the Sourwood Forest. The wrong direction entirely if you ask me which no one does.” She had been told by her father, no doubt. Cadaes for the winter. That was the official assignment. He couldn’t imagine that Soria was lying. Her manner was so open, she’d have to be the world’s greatest liar to be withholding anything more. And if she knew that Cadaes was only part of the assignment, he couldn’t imagine she’d care enough to keep it quiet.
“This is Midwinter. Now is the worst time to march north,” said Palderian, playing ignorant.
“Which is why we should press it head on. The Dodae almanac promises a massive blizzard this year that I sincerely hope we witness from within a fort, beside a fireplace.”
“It’s going to take at least a month to get there.” He kept prodding her, gently, just to see how she’d react.
“We can take the ferry to Ord.”
“From Ord to Cadaes, though, we’re marching steadily uphill. The snows are bound to strike before we get there.”
“The Dodae circle the entire northland in six weeks, snows or rains,” said Soria.
“You served alongside Dodae in Anshamara,” said Yanar. “Did you ever keep pace?”
“You can either stand on the table like a gargoyle or speak to me as a friend. Not both.” Yanar shrugged and turned back to the competition. “Anyway,” she said. “I’m also supposed to remind you that you should leave all your finery with one of your charges. You’ll be drenched in olive oil and that stain doesn’t come out.”
“Olive oil?” he asked.
“Ah, yes. You and your unit are required to run in the races, as the guests of honor. In Averros, the game are played nude and dripping. The oil, I don’t know, glistens in the lamplight. I don’t know. That’s how we race. It helps people in the back see. Otherwise the athletes get all muddy or dusty, and then nobody can make them out against the grounds.”
“It’s Midwinter. It’s freezing.”
“Run through the cold, captain,” said Nack.
“Will you be racing?” Palderian asked Soria.
“Oh, of course. This whole city spent a lot of resources to bring me back here. Least I can do is perform for them.”
“It might also be, and I’m just proffering a different mindset,” said Palderian, “they might love you. The people of Averros, the chief city of Jaen’s legacy. They might consider you a beloved member of their most famous family, not just the thing they spent resources to rescue.”
“Now you sound like my father.”
“I’ll try to keep that to a minimum.”
“Do.” Soria looked over Palderian’s head. “Mr Figg, are you going to competing?”
He lifted his head from the table. “Not the speed ones, but the ones you get rewarded for taking hits.”
“The melee?” asked Egor. Immediately she regretted allowing Figg’s ridiculousness get under her skin.
“You do realize a critical facet of the sport is not falling over, right?” said Soria.
“Hey,” said Figg, and with two quick lungfuls of fresh air he spoke unaffected by the booze, in that rare trick of career drinkers, “every champion only ever wrestles themself out there.” Soria smiled at him and that smile reminded Palderian of his conversation with the governess.
“You found me in Caladabur, under years of mud. Now you’ve seen me in ceremonial dress with roses in my hair.” It wasn’t a rose, but Palderian didn’t interrupt. “And now you’re about to see me naked and glistening and running around for laurel leaves and berry pies. I wonder what you’ll think of me by day’s end.”
“Probably a higher opinion than you’ll have of me.”
“Oh, don’t worry, Captain. They’ll let you win. These games are in your honor.”
“How wonderful to be honored,” he said, picking up a mug which Figg then splashed whiskey into.
“Let me join you. What are all these?” asked Soria.
Palderian answered, “Wine, wine, brandy, rice wine, whiskey, wine, mead, wine.”
“Ooo, what’s this one? It has three flowers, must be special,” she said pointing at the clay jar adorned with witch hazel.
“Don’t drink that,” said Palderian, “that’s aftershave oil.” At the mention of their gift, Bert and Nack turned from watching the games to smile at Soria.
“Somebody gave you medicine? As a celebration gift?” Soria furrowed her brow. “Don’t you find that odd?”
Palderian blushed and shook his head. “It’s handmade. I’m grateful for all presents from all present,” said Palderian.
Soria looked askance at the captain. “Oh dear, not again,” said Soria. “I’m awful. Miss Egor, was this your gift? I’m so stupid sometimes and my mouth runs on and on.” Figg knocked her on the elbow and fingered the Tretoro brothers. Soria saw their blushing faces. “Oh, no. Oh dear,” she said. “Gentlemen, it’s a lovely, it’s a quaint offering, isn’t it? Novel, certainly.”
“You shoulda jus’ let her drink it, Captain,” said Figg.
“Captain Yanar,” said Soria, “could you please, in my absence, convince these lovely people that I am not, despite my own testimony, a blathering scoundrel?”
“As it happens,” said Captain Palderian, “Bert and Nack will be joining us in your escort.”
“Oh great. That’s good, yes. Please don’t call it my escort. We’re traveling together as a unit. But yes, Bert and Nack, we’ll be great friends, I’m sure. You can stay by my side to make sure I don’t say anything embarrassing to those yokels up north.”
“As ‘tappens,” said Figg.
“Oh no,” said Soria.
Palderian said, “Miss Soria, Bert and Nack are the sons of Turtle Tretoro, the Commander of Ord.”
“No need to eat crow on our account, miss,” said Bert.
“And if I may,” said Nack, but Bert elbowed him in the ribs. Nack elbowed his brother back and continued, “It’s a fine gift, and a tincture from our own garden. You’d understand if you shaved your face.”
Both brothers wore full beards; one brunette with traces of auburn hairs, one blond with a dark patch of brunette around the chin. Soria nodded, bit her bottom lip, shook her head slightly, forced another nod, looked up through her eyebrows far above the heads of her companions, shook her head again, and said, “I’m sorry,” and under her breath, “evidently I’m choosing not to learn my lesson,” and she said, “I’m sorry, but none of you shave your faces.”
Captain Palderian wore a pointed black beard. Figg shaved his chin and Yanar shaved his cheeks. Neither could be said to spend more than a minute per week on the process.
“But when you do,” said Nack, “you’re going to want that witch hazel from Ord.”
“Are we to be rivals, Bert?” Soria asked with a grimace.
And Figg pressed into her palm a mug of warm mead and toasted, “To no more talk.”