Spring came early to the Named Lands in rare fashion, and war moved on around it. For Rudolfo, the months had been a blur. He’d divided his time between Windwir and the front as the war moved southwest and Sethbert’s allies fell back. He’d lost a good portion of his Wandering Army holding Rachyl’s Bridge on the second river, connecting Pylos to the Entrolusian Delta. They’d held their first true parley just after that, though no terms had been reached. And the two Popes were starkly contrasted-Resolute in his fine, white linens and Petronus in his simple brown hermit’s robe-as they spoke in voices that were sometimes hushed, sometimes raised.
Now, Rudolfo rode with Petronus from the seventh forest manor to Windwir so they could escort Neb back with that work finished. He’d spent three rather luxurious days with his betrothed, and he found it more satisfying than anything he had ever known. Since Gregoric’s death, her strength had become his own. It was a strange sensation. For so long, it had been Gregoric as his right hand and he’d never imagined this level of partnership possible. But there was a reckless joy in this new arrangement. She had the strength and spirit of a Gypsy Scout, the mind and strategy of a general. He admired her skills of statecraft and misdirection. And for all of that, she was a formidable lover as well.
Still, he carried the loss of his friend near at all times. They’d been like brothers for longer than he had memory, and the world did not make sense without him in it. Perhaps because it was combined with the loss of Windwir that this particular death had struck him so hard. Though the Francines would say that all loss connected back to earlier losses, and that Gregoric represented the last vestiges of a time in Rudolfo’s life when he was innocent and responsible for nothing.
As he rode, he looked up to the hill above the town. Most of it had been cleared now that the snow was gone, and he expected the workers he’d hired to level it and start digging the basements within the next week. The stones were already being cut in the shallow hills at the base of the Dragon’s Spine. He had deferred to Petronus on all matters regarding the library, but the Pope had been more concerned about planning the council of bishops than plodding through the details of the restoration. Isaak continued the work of identifying the resources that hadn’t already gone ticouo the Summer Papal Palace. They’d located a small private library on the Emerald Coasts that would now be en route with the passing of the snow.
Rudolfo watched the men moving on the hill and saw the glint of light on steel, the morning sun reflecting off Isaak’s metal head. He turned in his saddle to stare at the narrow glass door of his bedchamber’s balcony. Wrapped in a red silk sheet, Jin Li Tam stood in the doorway and watched him leave.
He smiled and whistled his horse forward to catch up with Petronus.
The old man had aged in the last handful of months, but it was no wonder. The skill with which he moved across the political landscape impressed Rudolfo, but it had to take a toll. The Named Lands were
locked in its fiercest conflict since the settlers had come across the Keeper’s Wall.
Rudolfo saw that the Pope was also looking to the hill. “Three years by our best estimates,” he said. “But Isaak is confident that we can restore nearly forty percent. He’s having the mechanicals double check their inventories.”
Petronus nodded. “I’m impressed with his work.”
Rudolfo smiled at this. “He is a marvel. They all are.”
“Yes,” the Pope said, “but Isaak is different from the others. They’re more reserved. They don’t seem to have the empathetic capacity that he does.”
Rudolfo had noticed this as well. The other mechoservitors spoke when spoken to for the most part and kept to themselves. They also hadn’t clothed themselves and hadn’t taken on names, preferring their numeric designations. Yet oddly enough, they looked to Isaak as their leader.
“I think Windwir changed him as it changed all of us.” Petronus sighed. “More, I would suspect.”
Rudolfo agreed. “I tried to convince him again yesterday that he should have one of the other mechoservitors fix his leg. He said he wanted the limp as a reminder of what he had done.”
Petronus scowled. “You reminded him, I’m sure, that Sethbert did this?” “Yes.”
Petronus’s brows furrowed. “Where is Sethbert these days?”
“He’s back in the City States dealing with insurrection. Tam’s blockade has sown its discord. Lysias continues to ho cofacold their borders up, but between Pylos and the Wandering Army, it’s starting to wear them down.” He chuckled, but it was a dark laugh. “Turam’s nearly done for; the crown prince has pulled back to reconsider his commitment.” Rudolfo had been in communication with the Marsh King,
but she had insisted on staying near Windwir until the graves were filled in. He hoped to spend at least some time trying to convince her that now, with that work finished, they could use her military leverage in the southern lands.
He suspected that the Marsh King’s forces could end this war and bring about successful parley. But she’d surprised him by her refusal to leave that work. At first, he’d thought it had to do with the gravedigging.
But the last few times he’d visited Neb, the boy had remarked that he thought he was being followed by Marsh Scouts. Rudolfo saw a connection of some kind there. After all, Neb was supposedly the dreaming boy mentioned in the Marsh King’s War Sermon.
Still, if it was the boy she was concerned about, he hoped that she would trust him and his Gypsy Scouts to make sure Neb was well cared for.
Rudolfo started, suddenly realizing that Petronus had spoken. He looked up. “I’m sorry?” “I said: Perhaps this insurrection will do our work for us.”
Rudolfo nodded. “I hope so.”
But as he rode south, Rudolfo doubted it could be so simple as that.