Authors: Ken Scholes
Her eyes lingered upon his own, and he met her gaze until she looked away. “These have been difficult times for you and for your people.”
Hearing her say it in such a calm, measured voice made the anger stir in his gut. “They have. Yes.”
“So much change. And so much violence to acquire that change. Your people are tired of fighting. Their Androfrancine shepherds are gone. They are ready to learn the truth, I think, about the darkness they’ve lived in that’s masqueraded so long as light.” She paused. “They are ready for something new to believe in.”
He felt that anger now moving out from his stomach. He felt it moving into his shoulders. He took a deep breath and forced his tone and words to cooperate even as his eyes shifted to the river. “That may be so,” he said, “but belief cannot be forced.”
She laughed. “No, it absolutely cannot. We’d never compel anyone to accept our faith. But we can help them find their way to it by showing them. Provide them with schools for their children to learn in and services—food, shelter, work—for those who have sustained loss during these years of conflict.”
He thought of the evangelists that had come out of the Machtvolk Territories and about the school Jin and Jakob had visited there in the north. She’d written him about it in one of her messages. It was a brilliant strategy to teach these things to children—they were young and impressionable, their minds eager to be filled with knowledge. In one or two generations, it would be as normal to quote the Y’Zirite gospel as it would have been to quote the Precepts of P’Andro Whym just three years ago.
He said nothing and hoped that the horror he felt was not visible in his posture or his eyes.
“There is a way that you can help as well, Rudolfo.”
He forced his eyes back to hers. “How?”
She took a deep breath. “I do not expect you to believe. Not yet. But your house is bound with House Y’Zir and always has been. Your son will soon be betrothed to the Crimson Empress, and when their union bears fruit—years from now—their child will heal the world. Your father knew that he was a part of something greater than himself, and in time, saw the truth of our faith and practices. But not at first. It was a process—a journey, if you will.”
It fostered a hundred questions that he could not afford to ask in this moment, so he forced them aside. This moment was about faith, and he had to keep his focus.
Rudolfo carefully fashioned a half-lie. “I do not yet believe,” he said. “But I am trying to.”
She leaned forward and put a hand on his. “I know you are,” Yazmeera said. “And I am certain that you will find it because you are
it. And I would like you to do something in trust of that coming day. Something that will help matters here in the Named Lands, I believe.”
He stared at her hand where it clasped his own, and he felt the sincerity of her words and her care in this moment. His mouth was suddenly dry, but he asked the question anyway. “What would you have me do?”
She said nothing for a moment, and he looked to her, surprised to meet her stare but unable to look away. “At the conclusion of the Council of Kin-Clave, I would like you to take the mark of Y’Zir.”
He could not mask the look that must’ve passed over his face. He could only hope that she misinterpreted it as something other than the hatred he felt. “You want me to take the mark despite my lack of belief?”
She nodded. “It would be good for your people. But I also think it would be good for
Rudolfo, personally. Sometimes we need to meet faith half of the way in order to find it.” She drew back her hand and then stood. “But please do not misunderstand me; it is entirely your choice.”
He continued to sit. “And if I choose not to?”
She shrugged. “Then you choose not to. I only ask that you entertain the notion and consider its benefits in the transition we are in the midst of.”
Rudolfo drew in a deep breath and held it. He felt the hate now moving underneath his skin, breeding with his rage. And in that breeding, he knew that violence would ultimately be their offspring. Standing above him, Yazmeera offered him a hand.
“I will certainly consider it,” he said.
And smiling at that coming violence, Rudolfo, Lord of the Ninefold Forest, General of the Wandering Army and Chancellor of the Named Lands, took his enemy’s hand and let her pull him to his feet.
Lysias moved along the tunnels at a brisk pace, the thread looped around his wrist allowing him to run in the dark, close behind the Gray Guard scouts who led him. Behind, his own scouts followed. Occasionally, they passed through patches of dim light, twisting and turning as they made their way deeper down to the main Androfrancine camp. And from time to time, he caught a chill breeze to counter the warm air around them.
The Gray Guard had arrived a day earlier with Orius’s request that Lysias join them. His own men were settling into their new camp beside an underground stream, and morale was holding. But weeks of living underground was starting to take its toll. They were an army of refugees and foresters, not seasoned veterans, and the lack of knowledge about what was happening aboveground combined with the lack of sunlight below wore on them. The infusion of rations and fresh game from the Androfrancines had helped, as had the fresh running water, but Lysias knew better than to believe that they could stay sharp for long hidden in the Beneath Places like sewer rats. So he’d packed a three-day kit and left with Orius’s scouts, leaving his first captain in charge.
Now, a day and a half later, he saw signs of life in the tunnels. They’d run across a returning hunting party shortly after crawling from their bedrolls, and they’d passed two checkpoints.
He saw the lights of the camp before they turned the corner and spilled into it. The sudden sight of it made him blink and squint. It was a massive chamber, its vaulted ceiling lit not by lichen but by gems set into the stone. It was warm as sunlight on his skin, and he raised his hand to shield his eyes from it. “Gods,” he whispered.
“Lysias,” a familiar voice bellowed. “Good to see you.”
He saw the general moving toward him quickly, his hand extended. Lysias met him and took the hand, squeezing it firmly. “Orius.”
“How is the new camp?”
Already, they were on the move as the Gray Guard fell in around them. “It’s perfect. But I’m pretty confident we won’t be there long.”
Orius chuckled, and it was a dark sound. “You’re right about that, I fear.”
They moved quickly through a bustling camp. As Lysias’s eyes adjusted to the light, he saw row upon row of tents of varying sizes. As they passed the mess tables, he could smell frying bacon and onions mingled with the scent of baking bread and boiled chai. It made his stomach growl after too many days of dried rations. Orius couldn’t have heard it but somehow knew nonetheless. He clapped a hand on Lysias’s shoulder and shot him a sideways glance as they stopped. “I’ll have some breakfast brought to us,” he said. “Stand your scouts down now so they can eat. We’ve got bunks for them, too, when they finish.”
Lysias looked over his shoulder and caught his lieutenant’s eye. “You heard the general. Get some food and get some sleep.”
One of Orius’s men stayed back with the scouts while Lysias and his Androfrancine counterpart continued to make their way through camp. They moved quickly and silently across the wide cavern, stopping at a central tent where Orius left quiet instructions with a captain before motioning Lysias to follow him. Then, they made their way to the back wall of the chamber, slipping into a narrow passage barely wide enough for their shoulders to clear the walls as they followed it.
They arrived to a guarded metal door that one of the soldiers opened for them. The room within was small, lit by a single gem that sat on a table in the far corner. The walls were covered in maps of both above and below ground, and the room was furnished with the small table, two chairs and a cot. The blanket on the cot was folded with military precision, and a rucksack sat, closed, at the foot of the bed with a pair of freshly shined boots nearby. Orius gestured to one of the chairs as he took the other.
Lysias sat as the guards closed the door behind him, his eyes drawn to the maps. Orius followed his gaze and pointed. “The red,” he said, “is the Y’Zirite advance. The black is the Machtvolk at the flank.”
And the colors in between are the few in the Named Lands still standing.
“How recent is your intelligence?”
Orius shrugged. “Two days, give or take.”
He turned to the maps of the Beneath Places and saw similar red and black marks. “And they’ve been below as well.”
The Androfrancine general nodded. “They have. Machtvolk initially, but we’ve also spotted Y’Zirites in the tunnels. They’ve found two access points in the north, and their diggers have broken through in the craters of Windwir. We’re running out of time. At some point, they’ll make their way lower—or access one of the hatches that we’ve wired. And once we start collapsing tunnels, they’ll certainly know we’re here.” Orius leaned forward. “We’re running out of time,” he said again, “but we may not need much.”
Lysias looked into Orius’s single eye and tried to read the man. His posture was straight, his jaw firm. That spoke of a confidence he did not have at their last meeting. “There have been new developments?”
Orius nodded. “Rudolfo is with us. We’ve established contact, and we expect a significant flow of intelligence from his position.” He sat back in the chair. “We’ve also acquired the mechoservitor—and the former Queen of the Marsh. The behaviorist assures me that this dream of theirs is the salvation of the light. And we’ve a Pope and a boy on the moon to prove it. I’m under papal unction to see them through this dream. But more than that, my service to the light is an unction of its own.” When his fist came down, it jumped the table, and the noise of it made Lysias blink. “And that unction requires me to rid the Androfrancine Order—and the Named Lands—of its enemies. And I can do that. But I need your help.”
He has a plan.
The confidence was there again in the way his eye didn’t blink. Lysias leaned forward. “How?”
Orius smiled and stood. “I’ll show you.” He moved to a map of the Named Lands and pointed to a mark in the far north.
Lysias recognized it. “The papal summer palace?”
Orius nodded. “Yes. Now … here.” He pointed to a map of the Beneath Places. “This is the area below the ruins of the papal summer palace.”
Lysias knew the palace, though he’d only seen it from afar. For centuries it had been the Androfrancine fort that kept watch over the Marshers and their madness, pretending to be a retreat for the Pope and his closest advisors. It had been destroyed by the Y’Zirites hidden within the Marshfolk not long after Windwir’s fall. He nodded. “How far beneath?”
“Far,” Orius said. “I want you and your army to escort three of my officers there and keep them alive at all costs.”
Lysias blinked and stood himself, moving in to get a closer look at the map. “The entire army?”
Orius nodded. “Yes. I want you to establish outposts and a chain of couriers along the way, and I want you to hold that location until you hear otherwise.”
The Androfrancine general shook his head. “I can’t tell you that, Lysias. I need your trust.”
Lysias’s eyebrows went up. “You’re asking me to risk an army without knowing the desired outcome. And not my army—Rudolfo’s. Have you orders from him regarding this? I think I need
Orius considered him for moment and finally nodded. “Fair enough. Come with me. But not a word of what I show you.”
“Understood,” Lysias said.
They slipped out of the room, and two guards fell in behind as Orius led them farther up the narrow passage. It twisted and turned, then climbed a bit before leveling off into a flat, wide space. At the far side of it, Lysias saw light from beneath a closed door.
Scouts materialized from the gloom around them, and Orius whistled them off as he approached the door. He spun it open himself, and once more, bright light caused Lysias to squint.
They stepped into a chamber that had been converted into a workshop—counters covered in packets of powders and phials of fluid. Two young men in robes were hunched over those counters. They stood to attention when Orius entered, the surprise of Lysias’s presence obvious on their faces.
“Is the next one ready?” Orius asked.
One of the men stammered and then spoke. “We were waiting another few hours, but I’m certain she is ready.”
Orius nodded. “I want General Lysias to see what you showed me.” He grabbed up a canteen and tossed it to the other man.
Lysias watched as the man poured water from a pitcher into the canteen. Then, he went to a Rufello lockbox in the corner of the room, spun the cipher, and drew out a small phial. He opened it carefully and touched the tip of a length of thread to the dark liquid in the glass before putting the phial back into the lockbox. Next, he dipped the thread into the canteen. And after, he carefully coiled the thread into a small box.
Then, he shook the canteen and passed it to Orius.
The general opened it and took a long drink. “Try it,” he said, handing the canteen over.
Lysias hesitated. “What is it?”
Orius chuckled. “Water.”
He took a tentative drink, then took a longer one. The water was cold and sweet. He passed the canteen back. “I don’t understand.”
“You will,” Orius said as he hooked the canteen into his belt.
At a nod, the men led them from the room and down another passage. At the end of the hall, another room opened—this one occupied by three guards. There were several doors in the room and Orius stepped aside, taking Lysias by the arm while they opened one of the doors.
Behind it, chained to a bolt in the floor, was a woman. Her face and arms were laced with scars. She wore plain gray Androfrancine trousers and shirt, and her eyes were dead from whatever Orius’s men had done to extract any useful knowledge she had. She looked up from where she sat on the floor.