As the sun rose behind him in a birdless sky, Petronus crested the ridge and looked down on the
Desolation of Windwir.
Nothing could have prepared him for it. He’d crested this ridge hundreds of times, riding out and back on various assignments for the Order. Certainly he’d known this time that he wouldn’t see the familiar sights. The large ships at the docks, low in the water with cargo bound for the Entrolusian Delta. The wide, high stone walls that encircled the various quarters that made up the world’s greatest city. The spires of the cathedrals and of the Great Library, colors waving in the morning breeze. The houses and shops outside the city gates, nestled up against the walls like calves against their mother.
Petronus slid from the saddle and let his horse tend itself. He stood, shaking, studying the scene that unfolded before him.
He’d known better than to expect any of these things, but he’d thought surely there’d be something familiar to him here.
There was not.
The charred ruins were scattered across the field, and there was no clear delineation where the wreckage of the city stopped and the wreckage of the outlying areas began. Flecked with impact craters and mounds of black rubble, the landscape stretched out and away, ending abruptly at the river’s edge. It
was bordered by hills to the west and south, and Petronus could see the smoke and flags of the Gypsy camp nestled between foothills.
There was no sign of the Entrolusian camp, but knowing Sethbert, it was hidden away, within reach but not easy reach. A man seldom fell far afield of his father, and from everything he’d heard, Sethbert was every bit as paranoid and problematic as the man who’d raised him and trained him up into his current
role. Petronus had once had Aubert removed from the Papal Residence under the watchful eyes of the Gray Guard for threatening the Pope’s hospitality staff after accusing them of some kind of treachery or another.
Of course, the same theory would apply to Rudolfo. He’d known the father well enough. Jakob was a fair albeit ruthless man who ruled his Ninefold Forest Houses with a blend of Androfrancine sensibility and Snsih. uncompromising attention to the Rites of Kin-Clave. He hadn’t balked at putting heretics on
Tormentor’s Row… but neither had he been willing to allow the Order access to those prisoners.
Petronus suspected that Rudolfo was made of similar stuff as his father, too. He’d been a boy when Petronus had set into motion his transition out of power. But soon after, Jakob died and that boy was forced to early manhood, taking up the turban of his fallen father. The old man had heard a bit here or there, most notably that he’d stood with the Freehold of the Emerald Coasts in their decision to embargo the City States when they announced their annexation of the Gulf of Shylar and its free cities. Rudolfo had earned a reputation as a brilliant strategist and a competent swordsman during the skirmishes that followed.
He gathered what little he knew about both men and stored it away for future use.
Even now, he told himself, in the face of this devastation, you’re scheming and plotting, old man. But why? He’d needed to see for himself that it was gone. He couldn’t wait for the birds or the other messengers-no one’s description, written or spoken, would’ve been good enough. He needed to see it himself.
Beyond that, what did it matter? There were two kings on the field, both having kin-clave with the fallen city. And both men were competent-albeit different-leaders.
You’ve seen what you came to see. Go home now. Return to your boat and your nets and your quiet life.
He turned away from the blasted plain below him, recovered his reins, and then turned back. “There’s nothing here that I can do,” Petronus said out loud. “It’s not my place.”
But in his heart he knew it was a lie.
Jin Li Tam
Jin Li Tam knew they were close when the boy stopped. The magicks had not only enhanced her speed and her strength, but also her sight and her sense of smell. The trade-off was the buzzing in her ears and the shifting headache. Her father had seen to it that she was trained in all manner of subterfuge, including the use of stealth magick even though it was considered unseemly for a noble to use the Elder Ways.
She looked at the boy when he stopped, and what she saw raised the fine hair on her forearms. Alternating waves of anger and relief washed his face, and he kept looking behind them, pulling at the string.
“We’re nearly there,” she said in a low voice. “Keep moving.”
Then he d Smannt›id the unexpected. His hand snaked out, catching the magick pouch that dangled from her neck and tugging it so hard that the cord snapped. With his other hand, he snapped the silk thread
that bound him to her. She reached out to grab him, but he was already running back toward the camp. Cursing beneath her breath, Jin Li Tam followed him. She knew that she could catch him easily, but the
sky above proclaimed the cusp of morning and every minute she spent going in the wrong direction was a minute closer to being caught. But she couldn’t leave the boy knowing what Sethbert’s state of mind was. She moved quickly after him.
She overtook him and caught his shoulder, spinning him around and to the ground. She pounced on him. “I don’t know what you’re playing at,” she whispered, “but nothing good awaits you there.”
He struggled against her, his mouth working and his eyes rolling.
I should’ve drugged him and carried him, she thought. He’s less well than I thought.
“I think,” a new voice said low in her ear, “that you should release the boy now and stand up slowly.” She felt the cold steel tip of a knife pressed in against her ribs, near the back of her heart.
She released the boy and did as she was told. Shadow hands grabbed the boy and pulled him to his feet. More hands gripped her and held her away from him.
A shadow face leaned in to hers. She could make out the blond stubble on the chin and could smell the roast pork on his breath. A single blue eye took form just inches from her own eye.
Another whisper cut the night, drifting across the forest. “What do you have there, Deryk?” Jin stayed quiet.
“A woman and a boy.” The blue eye blinked. “She’s magicked, too.”
Another shadow slipped into the clearing. Jin Li Tam carefully looked around. She could see the patches in the soft forest loam where their boots were-or at least had been. She could pick out the faintest breeze as they shifted around her. But the magicks held, and unless they were inches apart, she could not see them. Still, standard Academy tactics suggested a half-squad loosely surrounded her.
She looked at the boy. He seemed unafraid. The pouch he’d taken from her was nowhere to be seen, and she wondered if he’d hidden it in his shirt. If so, they’d find it soon enough.
“The boy looks familiar to me,” the voice said again. “Aren’t you the lad we brought down from the ridge? The one with the wago S wir tn?”
The boy nodded.
The voice moved now across the clearing to Jin’s side. Hands fumbled with the hood of her cloak. “And who do we have here?”
Another eye appeared near her face-this one brown and speckled with green. It widened and he gasped. “Well this is a surprise.” A smile formed in the shadow.
“You’d do well to release us now and go about your business,” Jin Li Tam said, her voice barely above a whisper.
The scout captain laughed. “I don’t think you’ll convince us of that, Lady Tam… no matter how persuasive your courtesan ways may be.”
Jin Li Tam relaxed the muscles in her shoulders and in her arms; she willed her legs to unlock. “I can be very persuasive.”
The sky was purpling now, and she knew that when the sun rose, what little of the scout magicks that
remained would be half as effective. There was no time for preferred strategies in the face of this present crisis.
“I’m sure you can-”
She dropped before he could finish his sentence, and as she fell to her knees, she flicked her wrist and felt the small knife’s handle fall into the palm of her hand. Pitching forward, she ran the knife once around the back of his boot as she rolled toward the boy. As she came up, her hand wove the air, the blade slipping in and out of cloth as she cut where the magicked scouts should be if they were following their own field guides. The howls told her she was not far from the mark.
The one behind her-the one whose knife had pressed into her back-growled and lunged forward, knocking her over. And then she was all knees and elbows, whipping the cloak around his knife hand as she brought her own blade up to the side of his throat.
“Be still,” she said. “You don’t have to die here today.”
But he moved and she didn’t give it a second thought. Father trained his daughters very well indeed. Pulling herself into a crouch, she looked around the clearing. She could smell the blood and she could see the wet patches of black on the gray shadows that lay groaning and thrashing on the ground.
The boy was gone now. She could hear him running full on for the Entrolusian camp, and she knew that she could catch him. But what would she do when she did? The look on his face spoke to more than just having left something valuable behind. It spoke of compelling need, of resolution, of a decision being made.
She would let him run. But she would also do what she could to protect him right here, right now. It didn’t matter that the injured scouts had recognized her-she would be under Rudolfo’s offered protection in a matter of hours. But they had also recognized the boy. And for whatever reason, the boy was returning to Sethbert’s care.
One by one, speaking quiet words of reassurance to the hamstrung scouts, she moved from man to man and cut each throat with careful, practiced precision.
She wiped the blood from her knife onto a twitching, silk-clad corpse and stood, facing west. Then she ran, and the thought came to her again, unbidden but true:
Father trained his daughters very well indeed.