AFTER CAPTAIN HAVIDIAN bungled a raid on the resistance and was beheaded, raids were overseen by one or the other of Karolje’s two sons. Usually the task fell to Esvar, the younger, who hated it. Karolje was punishing him too. He wanted to be among the resisters, fighting the king, instead of rounding them up for the dungeons and torture chambers. He found himself afraid to go to bed those nights. Once he was alone in the dark, the thoughts and memories swirled around and around in his head, pulling him into some unimaginable abyss.
Tonight was likely to be no different. Low, heavy clouds had kept the day from ever warming, and now that the sun was down the air was cold, more like spring than early summer. In the gardens of the Citadel, the trees would be bending with the wind blowing strongly out of the northwest. Esvar hoped the rain held off.
The unpaved street was narrow, crowded with rickety houses whose upper stories blocked out most of the sky. Rats, undeterred by the horses, foraged among a nearby stinking pile of garbage, their scaly tails snakelike on the dirt, bright eyes gleaming in the lantern light. In daytime, the poverty would show in missing planks, in stained and ragged curtains, in grubby, too-thin children with infected sores on their arms and legs. The dank smell of the waterfront a few blocks away clung to everything.
The lightless house was three buildings down from the cross street where Esvar waited. Karegg was filled with abandoned houses that had become ratholes for the resistance, and raiding them was routine. The watchers had already confirmed that no one had left by front or back, door or window. The soldiers in the rear should be in position by now. Four soldiers on horseback blocked each end of the street. The ten other soldiers had all dismounted and were ready, stunning whips in one hand and daggers in the other. They had short swords, but they were instructed not to use them unless their lives were at real risk. Karolje wanted the captives able to talk.
Esvar looked the soldiers over one last time. “You and you,” he said, pointing, “will wait outside.” One looked too nervous, the other too eager. In the few months he had been leading the raids, he had developed an eye for both timidity and viciousness in his men. “And you, Rozik.” Rozik was capable of keeping the men under control if any of the resisters fled toward them.
“All right,” Esvar said, familiar apprehension tight within him. His horse’s ears twitched. “Go.”
The soldiers jogged away from him to the house. The three men Esvar had ordered to stay back fanned out, a lantern on the ground between them and the house, while two men broke down the door. Shouting, the soldiers poured in.
Shouts. A scream of pain. Esvar unclenched his fists. This was the worst of it. The watchers had said six resisters were inside, which was no challenge for seven trained soldiers. The greatest threat was the cramped space. In close quarters a knife strike could be deadly. The stunning whips, long enough to lash a raised arm into paralysis before a blade could ever touch, should dispose of the threat. Should. There was always room for something to go wrong.
Shutters banged as neighbors closed them. No one wanted to see what was happening. Ignorance was the only shield these people had against Karolje. Not much longer now. His eyes scanned the house restlessly from top to bottom.
He saw not the object but the motion, the disturbance in the darkness, as something arced from one of the upper windows. “Get down!” he yelled, but before the words left his mouth there was a boom. The world went silent. Flame spouted to the sky from the street, spilled lamp oil burning madly. His horse reared, its mouth open in a scream he could not hear, and he reined it in with effort. In front of the house, a man writhed on the ground, his arm wrapped in fire, while clods of earth rained down. One struck by Esvar and sprayed his face with soil.
He dismounted and ran forward. His ears were ringing. The heat of the fire struck him like a blow, but he continued to the injured soldier. The man’s face was distorted and reddened with light and flame, his open mouth shining in the firelight, the sound inaudible over the noise in Esvar’s ears. Esvar flung his jacket over him and beat at the flames.
He smelled hair burning, and flesh, and the chemicals of the explosive. The light danced unsteadily as tears from the smoke filled his eyes.
Soldiers were upon him. One lifted the injured man; the other grabbed Esvar by the upper arm and hauled him away. There was a sudden pain in his back as the mail shirt he wore was briefly driven into his flesh. He spun and saw the arrow on the ground. It was steel-tipped, a military arrow. Where the hell had that come from? Beside him a soldier fell, a feathered shaft protruding from his neck.
They ran. An arrow grazed his shoulder. More arrows skipped against the ground. He looked back with swollen, painful eyes. The lurid flames painting the houses against the night transformed the street into the entrance to hell.
Panicked neighbors fled directly into the soldiers cordoning the block. As Esvar watched, appalled, a sword cut down the slender figure of a youth. Other soldiers followed suit. He raised his arms, shouting, but he could not hear his own voice. The soldiers likely couldn’t either. Firelight gilded the blades and the trappings of the horses.
Esvar pushed past a terrified woman and reached the soldiers. He waved them aside. For a moment no one moved; then the soldiers stepped out of the way, and the fleeing people scattered into the night. A few lay dead or injured.
The clouds chose that moment to disgorge themselves of torrential rain. Had Esvar still believed in the gods, he would have dropped to his knees in a prayer of gratitude. The water stung on his bare arms, hurting more than rain ever had. His skin was burned and tender. He was soaked through almost at once. He crossed his arms against the cold and turned his face upward, hoping the rain would clean his eyes.
The street darkened abruptly as the fire went out. There was just enough light from the lanterns to see bodies on the street. At least three were soldiers. It had all happened fast.
Someone brought him a cloak. He put it on and watched grimly while men bustled around him. His trousers clung to his legs. Slowly the stinging in his eyes and the noise in his ears abated. Raindrops fell into the water-filled holes in the street.
“My lord? Sir?”
Esvar turned. “What is it, soldier?” He could tell his voice was louder than normal.
“There were three resisters as tried to flee out the back, sir. We caught ’em before the fire. Two men and a girl.”
“Are they hurt?”
Better for them to have perished. Esvar wished he could send the prisoners to their death before the interrogators got to work. Karolje would know, that was the damnable thing about it. Karolje always had a way to know. Men were too frightened of him to do anything other than spy on each other.
“Where are they?” Esvar asked.
“In the cart, sir.”
“I’ll see them. What about the others?”
“Two died. One got away.”
He swore to himself. Karolje would be furious.
In a swirl of cloak and squelch of boot, he walked the dozen yards to the guarded cart. It was a wooden box on wheels, bigger than was needed for only three prisoners; they had expected to bring back half a dozen. An oil lamp hung from a rod over the back of the cart, where a man stood guard. No one was supposed to talk to the prisoners once they were locked in, not even to ask names. Questions were all saved for the Citadel.
Esvar motioned for the door to be unlocked. He wanted to see what he had. He would not defy the rule and speak to them, not when the rest of the raid had gone so wrong. The guard was Karolje’s man, and a report of any transgression would make its way to the king. He wished he could select soldiers for the raids from the few dozen men sworn to him and his brother, but Karolje did not trust him that far.
The door swung open. The rain against the top and sides of the cart echoed in the space of it. A wooden bench ran front to back against either wall. The prisoners, separated from each other, were chained by their wrists to the bench. Their ankles were bound with fire-twine. Any movement against the rope would burn and blister their skin.
The men were both in their early twenties. One kept his head bent, but the other glared. The woman, younger than them, had her eyes closed, her mouth set.
She was not the woman he had hoped to find. The leader of the resistance, who called herself Sparrow, was known to be significantly older. The three prisoners were all too young to have any authority and were not likely to yield anything new to the examiners.
The guard locked the prisoners in the darkness again. Free them, said the voice of his conscience. He quashed it as he always did, by telling himself he protected the throne for his brother. After fifteen years of rule, Karolje was ill, fading. His fierce grip on city and country would not last forever. When Tevin was crowned, he could reverse the laws and edicts.
Esvar saw no point in waiting any longer to go back to the Citadel. He walked to his horse and rubbed as much water off the saddle as he could. The cloak was heavy and sodden. He mounted and chose three men to accompany him. Karolje would be no easier to face in a few hours.
He had stripped his life down to its essentials, and there were not many ways for the king to punish him. Karolje had ceased physical violence against him some years ago, and the failure of the raid was not significant enough to render Esvar useless. He made his report on bended knee and endured the acid cuts of scorn he was accustomed to.
Dismissed, he rose. Karolje sat straight in his high-backed wooden chair, his clothing loose on him, his hands bony and pale on the chair arms. He had not reached gauntness yet, but it was coming. Though he still met with the chancellor, the spymaster, and a few other men, he no longer appeared before ordinary courtiers. It was years since he had allowed himself to be seen in the city. Around his neck he wore the ancient Vetian pendant of office, a silver wolf’s head. Legend said that nine hundred years ago Kazdjan the first king had laid the first stone of the Citadel on the spot where he wrestled a wolf to its death. The jet eyes of the wolf’s head were as black and baleful as Karolje’s own.
I could kill him, Esvar thought, as he often did. The guards would slay him at once, but it would give the crown to Tevin.
Except it wouldn’t. Esvar knew he lied to himself when he justified the raids as for his brother’s sake. As soon as Karolje died there would be a power struggle for the throne, and Tevin might well lose. Each prince was the other’s only ally. The king had made no secret of his contempt for his heir, and since his illness had become evident a few months ago, many of the lords had ceased pretending loyalty to Karolje’s successor. Esvar and Tevin still needed Karolje to live long enough for them to discourage the circling dogs and to bribe, threaten, or cajole as many courtiers as possible to their side. Lord Goran the chancellor, Karolje’s cousin and next in the succession after Esvar, had numerous adherents. Lord Doru Kanakili, the spymaster, had fewer adherents but more assassins and the ambition to match.
The corridors were empty of anyone but guards this time of night. Esvar had changed out of his wet clothing before reporting to the king, so he went directly to his brother’s workroom. The soldiers at Tevin’s door stepped aside for him to knock. The vigor in Tevin’s call to enter was forced.
On one side of the room was a large desk, which had on it books and papers and a filament light, turned off now. On the other side were a sofa, a low table, and a few upholstered chairs. The only illumination came from an oil lamp and what remained of a fire. Rain spangled the window glass. Tevin sat on the sofa, a half-empty cup of tea on the table.
“What happened?” Tevin asked. He was a handsome man, capable, five and a half years older than Esvar, who had just turned twenty-one. When he wanted to be, he was intimidating in his own way. Esvar had two inches on him, but Tevin could make him feel much smaller. Right now he looked weary. His gold-brown hair shone in the light.
“We got three, the inexperienced ones. They had explosives. And military arrows.” Briefly, he recounted the events.
“You didn’t know they had archers,” Tevin said.
“It doesn’t matter. I should have left that soldier to die instead of trying to save him. If I’d stayed where I belonged, the soldiers would not have killed the neighbors either.” He slammed his fist into the palm of his hand. He missed Havidian, who had been a good soldier and still maintained his honor, a difficult task in the Citadel. The captain would not have made so elementary a mistake as Esvar had.
His brother looked steadily at him. “The resistance had to know that setting off an explosive would frighten people out of their homes. They made that choice, not you.”
A few years ago, the resistance strikes had not amounted to much: a watchman stoned on patrol, damaged sculptures and defaced paintings of the king, broken glass on storefronts that displayed the royal seal of goods. But since last autumn the attacks on soldiers had been more daring and more deadly. Explosives were another step toward insurrection.
Esvar said, “There are enough people killed every day without having to make chances for soldiers to kill more.”
“Which means that if the resistance has gone there, if they are ready to go to full-out war against the king and don’t care about incidental deaths, or want to use them to rouse people, we have to hit back hard at them too. I’m not going to let Karegg get any bloodier.” Tevin left the sofa and poured wine into a cup. “Here.”
It was an attempt to take Esvar’s edge off. He did not want to be dulled, but he sipped obediently. If it had not still been raining, he would have returned to the city and found a dark tavern where he could be completely unknown. Obscurity was the privilege of being the younger son.
The wine was better than he would get in a tavern. He sat on the sofa, put his feet on the table, and said, “It’s a bloody disaster no matter how we look at it. I want trained men for the raids. A group of them, who know how to do it. Not whoever draws the duty. Get me two decent officers who can choose good men.” Men who were able, incorruptible, and unexcited by cruelty.
Tevin sat beside him. “I know one man you can work with. He was just promoted to lieutenant, and he seems to have actually merited it. His name’s Jance Mirovian. I suggest you take him unless you think he’d not fall in line enough. He was educated at the College. Finished two years ago and came on as an officer. Havidian trained him. He’s a cousin of Lord Darvik, and it would be useful to have Darvik feel flattered by you.”
“Who paid his commission? Darvik?”
“Darvik paid a third and Mirovian’s father paid the rest.”
Esvar hated paying out favors—the recipients usually immediately wanted another one—but Darvik had a following among the minor lords and was popular with the wealthy merchants. Tevin read people well. It was the men like Darvik, who had friends in both Citadel and city, whose support Tevin would need.
“I’ll take him out with me,” he said. “See what he’s made of.”
That was something he had far too much experience in. When Esvar was sixteen, Karolje had sent him east to put down a rebellion in the mountains. The fighters were peasants, untrained, crudely armed. It should have been an easy slaughter. But Karolje had salted the company with men who questioned his orders, disobeyed, mocked. He stood by the campfire the second night, recognizing the test, and the next day he ordered three men hanged. He was obeyed. Then they killed the rebels.
Upon returning to Karegg, he sat in his bedroom at the open window and held the edge of a knife to his wrist. He did not want to die, but he did not want to live this way either. His room overlooked the gardens, and outside the grounds the lake, shining in sun, and circling it the tree-covered hills, green and glossy. He remembered the dead men swinging on the rough gallows before they were cut down. He had passed the test, but Karolje had won.
At last he had sheathed the knife. If he killed himself, the game was over. He refused to let the king beat him that way.
Tevin said, “I don’t give a damn how many of Karolje’s men are killed on these raids, but I can’t afford to lose you. If Mirovian’s not suitable, we’ll find someone else. If I could, I’d send you away altogether.”
“An assassin can kill me anywhere. Where would you send me?”
“To the shah of Milaya and his eight daughters. I’ll need a queen.”
“You’re not serious,” said Esvar. “If you want to marry one of them, you’re going to have to give the country in return.” Milaya was everything Vetia was not: large, rich, powerful. Sending a Milayan princess to Vetia would amount to exiling her.
“Nasad will get a grandchild on the throne.”
“The lords will never stand for that, Tev. If they even think you’re considering it, they’ll force someone else on you.”
“Will they challenge me with Nasad’s army behind me? Killing me would guarantee war.”
“They’ll challenge you before a betrothal is made.” Esvar rubbed his face with the heel of his hand. The day’s stubble rasped against weapon-hardened skin. His back hurt where the arrow had struck it. “I could marry one of Nasad’s daughters,” he said. “And stay there, in the Milayan court.”
Tevin picked up his tea, sipped it, made a face. “Cold,” he said. “That’s not a bad idea. It gives us a hell of a hammer.”
It could save Tevin’s life. If he was killed, the kingdom would go to a man with the shah’s army behind him. The potential for a Milayan conquest would keep the lords from doing anything that gave Esvar claim to the throne in place of his brother.
“Write the letter. If he’s interested, I’ll go.” He had no expectations that marriage would be anything other than an affair of state, and this was better than resolving a conflict by marrying the daughter of a Vetian lord who hated him. The harshness of rule in Milaya was velveted with music and poetry and hanging gardens full of birdsong.
Tevin said, “If I write the letter, it’s treason. If we ask, Karolje will see through it.”
Each of them had a lifetime full of small defiances of the king: a bribe to a prison guard, a kindness to a servant, a look the other way at a report of invective against Karolje. Defiances that could be explained away as errors or ignorance. There was no explaining away a deliberate negotiation with a foreign power. They approached the edge of a precipice.
“Tevin, he thinks you’re weak. Show him you can be as ambitious as he is and he’ll praise you for it. If he truly didn’t want you to succeed him, he’d have found a way by now to name you traitor. If he’s as worried about us as we think he is, we’d already be dead.”
“Damn you, I don’t want to be praised by Karolje.” Tevin got up with enough force to push the sofa back a few inches. The legs screeched on the floor. “And you know that.”
Tevin’s conscience was the pivot upon which their plans always stuck. He tried to hold on to honor when no one around him did. Once Esvar had told Tevin that he could play the king’s game without becoming like Karolje, and Tevin had shoved him hard into a wall, knocking him to the floor. Both of them had seen the bitter irony at once, and he had taken the hand his brother extended to help him up. But the line Tevin would not cross always lay on this side of the action that needed doing. He was not willing to dirty his hands even slightly. The fact of that restraint stood between them, immovable, unspoken.
Esvar said, more sharply than he would have if he had not been tired, “Is he your enemy or not? There’s never going to be a good time to face him. You’re going to be the king. You should want power.”
“I’m no coward.”
“I don’t think you are.” Esvar softened his voice. His brother wasn’t close to breaking, not yet, but the fraying was starting to show. Had Tevin ever spent a sleepless night with a knife at his own wrists, considering the cuts? “Power accrues. If you marry me off to the Milayans, you’ll be that much stronger. It’s a better guarantee of support than flattering Lord Darvik.”
Tevin stared at the floor a moment, then raised his head. His face was set. “Very well. I’ll write the letter. I will offer myself but inform the shah that everyone is likely to live longer if you are the bridegroom instead.”
“And in the meantime?”
“In the meantime we watch our backs, pretend to be loyal, and do politicking like hell. Start with the lords of the six southern cantons. You won’t get anywhere with Lord Cosvar, but we need the others, however minor. I’ll take everyone else.”
Esvar grimaced. He hated politicking, and the lords of the south would want a renewal of war with despised Tazekhor in exchange for support. Most of them were older, too, not having displeased Karolje enough to be eliminated. “You’re not giving me much to work with.”
“Lead them to believe I’ll reduce their taxes.”
“You can’t do that, that’s over half the kingdom’s revenue.”
“Revenue that is then spent on maintaining those provinces. The lords will think it’s a wonderful trade, paying less in taxes and having more control.”
But, Esvar thought. He kept his mouth shut. Freedom from Karolje’s oversight was the only coin Tevin had right now, even though most of the lords would govern abominably. If they ran their cantons to satisfy their own greed, they might still have a gentler hand than Karolje did. And their sons and grandsons were more malleable.
Tevin added, “If there’s any conflict in the south, I’m going to set you down in it. If I do, these will be your people. You have charm when you want to. Use it.”
That was a command. Esvar squirmed internally. He probably deserved the tone. He could hardly tell his brother to act like a king and then turn around and defy him in the next breath.
By conflict in the south, Tevin meant another Tazekh war. “Do your spies tell you something I haven’t heard?”
“Korikos isn’t arming for war. Not yet. But he’s watching what happens here closely. If we have a civil war, I don’t think it will be long before he invades.”
Esvar had always imagined that whatever struggle there was for the throne, it would be settled in the Citadel, by duel or assassination or arrest. Soldiers would fall into line with the winner. Civil war was a different picture. A chilling one. Ruined crops, the lake and earth poisoned with death, the abandoned prisons from the Tazekh war filled again. Harpies feasting.
“Is it Goran you’re worried about, or the resistance?” he asked.
“Both, but Goran more. He’s stronger.”
There seemed nothing to say to that. The rain drummed steadily in the courtyard outside.
Esvar finished the wine in three gulps that were more suitable for something much cheaper. “I’d better check that there are no lingering problems,” he said. “Good night.”
“I’m going to find a way to get you out of here.”
I don’t need to be rescued, Esvar thought. But Tevin could not cease the habits of a lifetime; he had taken on the burden of proving himself perfect to a ghost.