Petronus skirted the ruined city and followed the river south. Three or four leagues downriver from the shattered and blackened stubs that had once anchored Windwir’s piers, Petronus remembered a small town. Once he reached it, he’d recruit what men-or even women-that he could and return to begin his work.
It would be months, he realized, and the rains would be upon them sooner than that. Not far on its heels, the wind and the snow of a northern winter. With the Androfrancines gone, there’d be no one to magick the river. Some years it froze. Some years it didn’t. But with the Androfrancines gone, there’d be no need to go upriver with any frequency.
Petronus rode his horse along the bank, careful to keep from the forest. The first battle of the war had gone late into the night-he’d heard bits of it as he’d ridden south-and from time to time, during the
day, he saw the birds lifting and speeding off carrying whatever word they carried. He’d also listened to it as he lay in his fireless camp and tried to sleep, before rising early to silence and morning fog.
As he rode in the quiet of the day, Petronus wondered about this new war and what had started it.
The Entrolusians would easily outnumber the Wandering Army, but if Rudolfo was his father’s son, he’d be fierce and swift and ruthless.
He was less clear why they were fighting, but wasn’t willing to stop and ask, either. It had to do with Windwir, but just what eluded him. Neither of those two armies had anything to do with the city’s destruction-that was something the Androfrancines had done to themselves, meddling with what they had no business meddling with.
Still, Rudolfo and Sethbert would have their piss together and see who could go the farthest.
His horse started, jerking its head and frisking. Petronus felt a hand on his thigh, and realized that invisible hands held his horse by the bit. “Where are you going, old man?”
A face stretched up and the light hit it in a way that Petronus could barely see its outline. Magicked scouts. But which?
“South to Kendrick Town,” he said, nodding in that direction. “I’ve business there.”
“Where do you come from?”
Petronus wasn’t sure how to answer. Caldus Bay was too far for any citizen to have reasonable business so far away. He glanced back over his shoulder, taking in the black expanse of Windwir. “I was bound for Windwir on Androfrancine business,” he said. “But when I arrived, there wasn’t anything left of it. I just thought any survivors would have headed south.”
“We’ve been instructed to bring any survivors before Lord Sethbert, Overseer of the United City States of the Entrolusian Delta.”
Petronus squinted, trying to see the line of the man’s face. “So there were survivors?”
“It’s not our place to say,” the scout said. “We will bring you before Lord Sethbert.” Petronus felt his horse being pulled. At first the roan resisted, and Petronus considered doing the same. He’d known Sethbert when the Overseer was a pimple-faced teenager. The young son of Aubert had been in the Academy around the time of Petronus’s death by assassin’s poison. They certainly hadn’t seen much of each other.
But what if he recognizes me? He chuckled. Thirty years had changed him. He was twice the size he’d been and his hair had gone white. He was an old man now, moving a bit slow. Dressed in ratty fisherman’s robes. It had been three decades since he’d worn the blue cloak or the white robe. The man that he had been in those days wouldn’t even recognize the man he had become.
“Very well,” Petronus said with a laugh, “take me to Lord Sethbert.”
They moved quickly through the wood. Those places where the sunlight lanced in, Petronus caught shadows of the dark clothing and the drawn battle knives of the Delta scouts. They reminded him of the Gray Guard, and he thought about Grymlis again and the Marsher village.
A black field littered with bones as far as the eye could see.
Petronus shook off the memories. “I heard fighting in the night,” he said.
No quick reply and no boasting. These men were defeated, he realized. He’d not press the question to them again.
In silence, they made their way to Sethbert and the Entrolusian camp.
The camp was alive with activity, a small city of tents blended into a forested hillside, invisible until you were within it. He saw servants, war-whores, cooks and medicos all busy about their trade. For the whore, his escort even paused for a moment, laughing and pointing at the young lieutenant she was riding.
Finally, they stopped outside the most lavish array of connected tents Petronus had seen. It even
out-glamoured the silk Papal Suites that the Gray Guard accompanied around the Named Lands during the Year of the Falling Moon, that time each century when the Pope wandered the Named Lands to honor the settlers who homesteaded the New World.
They walked Petronus to the side of a large open canopy, and whispered for him to dismount.
“Wait here. When Lord Sethbert is finished, he’ll send for you.” Then, taking his horse, they left him there. He couldn’t help but hear the one-sided conversation.
“I just hope you’ll be able to speak soon,” the voice said. “I’m running out of patience, boy. You are the only witness and I must hear your story.”
Petronus looked for the voice, and saw an obese man sitting upon a folding throne that creaked beneath his weight. He was chastising a boy in robes not dissimilar to his own. With Sethbert’s tone, he would’ve thought the boy would hang his head, but instead, he was looking all around.
He’s counting the guards, Petronus realized, and with no subtlety. But Sethbert wasn’t noticing as the boy cased the open air court.
What’s he up to? Perhaps a spy from the other camp. But Jakob would’ve certainly never used a boy in such a hapless way. Surely Rudolfo could not be so very different from his father? Then he saw the line
of his face.
He’d had a professor of human studies at the Francine School named Gath. “Show me the line of a man’s face,” Gath would say to his classroom, spanning the students with his finger, “and I will tell you the intentions of his heart.” Petronus stayed late after class three afternoons per week and asked that old professor every question he could think of.
It had never failed him, and he knew exactly what the line of the boy’s face meant.
The intention of his heart was to kill Sethbert, and as careless as he was studying Sethbert’s circumstances, Petronus was fairly certain that his intentions wouldn’t matter once the guards saw what he was doing.
Petronus shouted and raced beneath the canopy.