A Path to Coldness of Heart

BOOK: A Path to Coldness of Heart
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A PATH TO COLDNESS OF HEART

The Final Chronicle Of
The Dread Empire: Vol III

Glen Cook

NIGHT SHADE BOOKS

SAN FRANCISCO

A Path to Coldness of Heart
© 2012 by Glen Cook

This edition of
A Path to Coldness of Heart
© 2012
by Night Shade Books

Cover art © 2012 by Raymond Swanland

Cover design by Claudia Noble

Interior layout and design by Amy Popovich

All rights reserved

First Edition

ISBN: 978-1-59780-329-8

eISBN: 9781597803304

Night Shade Books

Please visit us on the web at

http://www.nightshadebooks.com

CHAPTER ONE

YEAR 1016 AFTER THE FOUNDING
OF THE EMPIRE OF ILKAZAR:

THE PRICE OF HUBRIS

T
he prisoner clamped his jaw on a shriek. He had moved too suddenly, turning. He did swear softly. He could not work his muscles, could not build the strength to escape if his wounds did not heal. And they would not if he kept trying before the meat was ready.

A clatter rose outside. This austere suite might be his entire world for the remainder of his existence: a reward for having befriended a woman and having saved the life of a man.

It was the middle of the night. Darkness with stars filled the single foot square window high in the east wall, well beyond his reach. He should be sleeping.

He lay in bed, back to the doorway, feigning sleep, when the visitors arrived. Three, from the sounds of it: one large, one small, one delicate. Female, if fragrance did not lie.

“He heals slowly,” one said. “The physician blames his despair.”

That voice belonged to Lord Ssu-ma Shih-ka’i, commander of Shinsan’s Western Army. It was by Shih-ka’i’s grace that the prisoner lived.

A second familiar voice said, “The physician should look closer. He’s clever. He’ll show you what you expect to see till you relax. Then you’ll be dead.”

The prisoner’s exact strategy. If only his body would heal!

Shih-ka’i said, “The physician says his wounds pierced his soul. He overreached—and it cost him everything.”

Mist, Empress of the Dread Empire, considered before she replied. “It can’t be easy, living on after making so many bad decisions.”

The prisoner, who thought of himself only as “the prisoner” because of his shame, compelled himself to relax, to breathe slow and deep. But he could not stop tears from leaking.

Thousands had died because of his decisions. A kingdom might be destroyed by civil war. His family would be fugitives already. The child-woman he had loved… Who knew? If Sherilee was clever she would insist that she had known him only as someone who visited her friend Kristen, widow of his son and mother of his grandchildren.

He thought about Inger, his wife and queen, seldom. When he did, though, it was with a grand ration of guilt. That love had died.

Inger came to mind when the pain was bad. They met the last time he lay just outside the Dark Gate, she a volunteer nurse helping heroes injured while holding the wolves of the Dread Empire at bay. In his loneliness he had asked her to become his wife.

He had lost another wife, Elana, and another lover, Fiana, before Inger.

Women who loved him did not fare well.

“Were I in charge here,” said the woman who had been a friend, and a wife to his best friend’s wife’s brother, “and I was sure that he would recover, I would brick up the doorway.”

Lord Ssu-ma said, “I bear the man no love but that is excessive. He’s a cripple. He’ll never recover fully. And he’s nowhere where he can cause any grief.”

The prisoner had no idea where “here” was. Inside Dread Empire territory, certainly. Though Shinsan had suffered severely lately, not one inch of ground had been abandoned

How were Shinsan’s wars coming? He had helped facilitate the conclusion of one and had been the loser in another. The Matayangan front must have turned favorable, too. Mist had time to visit.

She observed, “O Shing was a cripple.”

“As you say. Vigilance is required.”

The night visitors withdrew, to the prisoner’s frustration. He had hoped to hear something more heartening.

Despair led to self-flagellation. Then, finally, feigned sleep segued into the real thing.

...

Inger watched her captains bicker over a map. They were getting nowhere. She was too tired to scold them. Too tired to ask what new disasters had them bickering.

Ethnically, three were Nordmen from Kavelin’s old ruling class. Two were Wessons, freemen, descendants of long-ago immigrants from Itaskia. Inger was Itaskian-born, as was the sixth man, whom she had borrowed from her cousin Dane. Dane’s little army was wintering fifty miles west of Vorgreberg, too far away to provide quick support. Regions nearer the capital were less friendly. Dane’s men suffered virulent guerrilla attacks if they moved nearer to Vorgreberg. That forced them to cluster in stronger bands. Those became a strain on local resources, which, in turn, left the locals more sympathetic to the rebels.

Inger refused to let Dane move into the city. She said she did not want to cede the countryside. In truth she did not want her uncontrollable cousin in position to control Kavelin by controlling her.

He would try, given the chance.

Power was his reason for having come to Kavelin. Power was why she had wed Kavelin’s lonely king.

Inger sipped scalding tea.

She was a tall, handsome woman whose blond hair had begun to streak grey. Time was not the thief of her beauty. Stress, fear, and lack of sleep were the demons responsible.

The hot tea wakened her fully. “Silence! Thank you, gentlemen. Using the term loosely. Mr. Cleary, you talk. Everyone else stay quiet.”

Cleary was the senior Wesson, a stout, sturdy man of thirty-three who had served King Bragi faithfully and remained loyal now that Bragi had fallen. Inger trusted him. The Nordmen and Nathan Wolf, borrowed from Dane of Greyfells, she trusted not at all. In Wolf’s case it was no secret that he was here to watch her because Dane no longer had faith in Josiah Gales.

“Ma’am. Your Majesty. The contention arose because General Liakopulos has gone missing. No one knows where, when, or how. He was polling units out west to see where they stand, now. Our discussion concerned possible hows and whys of his disappearance.”

Inger’s heart sank. This was bad news indeed, though not a surprise. Liakopulos had had little interest in supporting her. He had been Bragi’s man. He considered her incapable of, or uninterested in, pursuing Bragi’s reforms. “What are the theories? Mr. Wolf?”

“He deserted. He didn’t want to be here anymore.”

“And the rest of you disagree?”

Two Nordmen, Sir Rengild and Sir Arnhelm, thought the truth more sinister: The Guild General had gone over to the Marena Dimura strongman, Credence Abaca. Sir Arnhelm insisted, “Those two were always cozy.” Which he found repugnant because, as a class, Nordmen considered Marena Dimura less than human woodland savages. Colonel Abaca and his henchmen had developed massive pretensions during the reign of the lost king—a savage himself who would not distinguish between noble and ignoble.

The third Nordmen, Sir Quirre of Bolt, said nothing. With a slight sneer and shake of the head he expressed contempt for his fellows. He believed in King Bragi’s vision.

Inger turned to the Wessons. Boyer disagreed completely with Cleary. Neither considered Liakopulos a villain. Cleary was sure the General just did not stop heading west when he saw a chance to leave. Boyer was sure that Liakopulos had been murdered. “And rebels didn’t do it. It will be Greyfells when the truth comes out. It’s a matter of who stands most to gain, Your Majesty.”

“Spoken like a true money-grubbing merchant,” Sir Arnhelm snarled. “Everything comes down to a balance sheet.”

“Yes, it does,” Inger said. There was no love for the General here. Liakopulos had kept these men in check, favoring no one, contemptuous of them all because he considered them adventurers and plunderers who cared nothing for Kavelin. Bragi, Queen Fiana, and her husband the Krief, who died when Fiana was a teen, had all stretched reason to breaking to create a nation in which all the peoples had a stake.

Inger covered her forehead with her left palm, rubbed, thumb and little finger massaging her temples. “Jokerst, find Colonel Gales. I want him here for a working breakfast tomorrow.”

Gales would replace Liakopulos. He had been understudying, with the General’s assistance. The move was expected. And might be what Dane wanted to see.

Was he behind Liakopulos’s disappearance? He was capable. But would he dare the hostility of the Mercenaries’ Guild?

Inability to predict consequences accurately was the bane of the Greyfells line. Again and again they dropped stones on their own toes while trying to be clever.

“The rest of you. No more speculation. Get me facts. Find out what actually happened.”

Several faces went pale. It was dangerous out there.

“One thing can’t be denied,” Sir Arnhelm said. “The break with the old regime. Liakopulos was the last.”

Inger suspected that pleased the man no end. “All of you, go away. I need rest before I go mad.”

They went. She sent for Dr. Wachtel, an overlooked holdover from the old regime. But Wachtel was a holdover from every regime. He was Castle Krief furniture. He had tended Kavelin’s rulers for sixty years, whoever they were.

The doctor provided a draught to make Inger sleep. The medication sometimes had a harsh side effect. It caused vivid, often prescient dreams, some of which would be nightmares.

Inger wakened less rested than she had hoped. She did not remember her dreams but met the new day afraid.

...

Credence Abaca’s Marena Dimura partisans kept their political prizes in comfort but there were limits to what could be managed in the wilds of the Kapenrung Mountains. Kristen and her companions learned the cost of commitment to a cause, though the privations were social, intellectual, and circumscription of movement rather than a dearth of food, warmth, or shelter.

The children, including young King Bragi II, did not mind. They ran wild with the Marena Dimura urchins, getting every bit as filthy and bruised while having just as much fun in the ice, snow, and forests. Kristen tried to convince herself that this was good for a boy who would become king of all Kaveliner peoples, including the disenfranchised Marena Dimura.

Which was their own fault, Kristen believed. They would not leave the wilderness and become part of the nation, though some had done so while Bragi was king. Abaca had been one of the army’s top commanders.

Kristen and Dahl Haas shared a bench inside a cozy cabin equipped with the blatant luxury of a huge glass window. Kristen often wondered where the forest people had stolen it. Snow fell outside. Big chunks hit the window, melted, slid downward as they perished. “Winter here is harder than it is in Vorgreberg.”

“Think so? How about during the Great Eastern Wars?”

“That was one bad winter.” She frowned. It had been more than one winter and had been unimaginably worse than this. Hunger, danger, fear, and sickness had been constant companions.

Haas leaned close, no longer discomfited by his affection for the girl who had been the wife of his king’s son and who was the mother of Bragi’s legitimate heir. Kristen had abandoned reticence long ago. She knew her father-in-law approved.

She said, “Sitting here like this, I don’t think this is such a bad life.”

“How much better the world if everyone were equally content.”

“You ought to be content. You’ve got me.”

“Somebody is getting a big head.”

Sherilee came for the fire and to watch the snow. The couple said nothing. Speaking to Sherilee gave her license to vent her unhappiness. She could be tiresome.

Sherilee was young, small, beautiful, almost porcelain in her perfection. She looked years younger than she was, which was only Kristen’s age. In his absence she had become pathologically enamored of King Bragi, based upon a brief, furtive liaison with a man older than her own father. In her dramatic way she had reconstructed her life around what she thought she had lost when the King had fallen.

Sherilee sighed dramatically.

Her performance drew no response. After further vain sallies, the tragic doll declared, “There must be something we can do to rescue him.”

Sherilee was one of a tiny number of people who knew King Bragi was alive and a prisoner.

Kristen sighed herself, then plunged into the game. “Michael Trebilcock and Aral Dantice got away with that once, when they rescued Nepanthe. It won’t work again. He’s being held by the Tervola, not some dinkle-brain queen of Argon.”

She played loosely with history but facts did not matter here. What did was the undeniable futility of any effort to free the King. To start, no one knew where he was being held. Unless, maybe, Michael Trebilcock or Aral Dantice knew. But Michael was out of touch and Aral no longer haunted Kavelin. Trebilcock might be dead. He had not been seen for months.

BOOK: A Path to Coldness of Heart
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