Authors: Ken Scholes
Rudolfo felt a light sweat gathering on his brow and tickling his armpits as the heat of the day grew. He’d bracketed his own feelings through most of the morning, setting aside his rage and playing the part with all of his heart. When it was finally time, he stepped aside from the podium.
“In deference to our new empress and as a show of good faith for our hopeful future under her care,” Rudolfo said, “I have agreed to a demonstration of our commitment to the coming grace and peace of her reign. Reverend General Yazmeera of the Imperial First Legion will explain.”
This was Yazmeera’s cue, and she stepped out onto the platform now, her smile beneficent in the late-morning sun. She turned to Rudolfo and inclined her head. “Thank you, Lord Chancellor.”
Rudolfo returned the gesture and watched the faces around the amphitheater as she began explaining the origin of the mark. There were few gasps, and he suspected it was because few were surprised. His forefathers had maintained Tormentor’s Row for millennia in their distant corner of the Named Lands, its Physicians of Penitent Torture known well for their dark work.
The truth was, Rudolfo realized, that his people had never been fully trusted. They’d not even been invited to the first Council of Kin-Clave formed by the Androfrancine settlers.
Blood Guard carried out the table now and set it up even as Yazmeera continued her discourse. At its conclusion, she turned to Rudolfo, and her smile became even sweeter. “Are you ready, Lord Chancellor?”
Rudolfo nodded. “I am.” Then, he disrobed completely, folding each garment and laying it into waiting hands. When he stood naked before them all, he saw the discomfort rising on their faces. He swallowed against the shame that threatened and felt a sudden stab of rage for his father.
I named my son for you,
and would change that now if I could because of the shame you’ve brought upon us.
It was the worst insult he could imagine for the man, and even that was not strong enough. But even this anger was set aside, tucked away to give him strength later. Instead, he thought about the chilled peach wine.
And when they tied him to the table and tilted it up for the audience to see, he turned his thoughts to the little boy he’d seen so recently in the dream. The memory of him and of those falling seeds soothed and settled him.
Yazmeera drew her knife and held it aloft, offering a prayer that she followed with a hymn sung only by those who knew it—her own people—as the others watched in slack-mouthed horror. As they sang, she stepped to Rudolfo and laid the knife to his chest. She lowered her voice and let the others carry the song as she leaned in. “It is not considered unseemly to scream,” she said. “Most do.”
He nodded but said nothing.
Their song of praise was a requiem to him now, a dirge to the ending of one life and the beginning of another. But even so, he knew that beyond this moment and this ending, there would be a beginning. Dreams would rise. Seeds would fall. And he would take action to at least spare his son what now happened to him.
His eyes met Philemus’s again as the knife cut into him with slow and precise skill. He was surprised to see tears there now and finally noticed the frantically moving hands.
What madness is this?
his second captain asked.
But even as her knife cut the mark of Y’Zir over his heart, Rudolfo knew that he was saner now than he’d felt in a long time. And that this requiem would be recompensed a hundredfold soon enough.
Jin Li Tam
Jin Li Tam swam in deep places amid the flickering blue-green lights, disoriented and straining to reach a place of clarity. But her mind would not clear; the ocean she swam had tides and undercurrents that pulled her farther beneath the surface, farther out from shore.
Give yourself to it, Great Mother.
She did not recognize the voice and had no assurance that it truly was a voice and not some fragment of dream. But still, she resisted, forcing arms and legs she didn’t have to swim against the forces that tugged at her.
Something terrible, but whatever it was, it lived far beyond her, taunting her from the shore. Daring her to remember.
Even as she broke the surface, Jin became aware of light behind her eyes and of the hand that clutched hers tightly and the voice that whispered gently.
“Can you hear me?”
She knew the voice, and she willed her lips to answer Lynnae’s question, but the only reply she could make was a soft croak of acknowledgment. Still, she felt the woman squeezing her hand.
Jin opened her eyes and lay still. She could feel the bed now, though it was unfamiliar to her. And from the corner of her eye, she saw Lynnae’s face, brow furrowed with grief and care, looking down on her with tear-filled eyes.
She knew something was wrong, horrifically wrong. As if something were missing and the crater where it had been was so vast that she could see no end of it.
“Jakob,” she whispered.
Lynnae’s face collapsed in grief as the woman’s control gave out. The tears flowed freely now, and as they did, Jin felt a panic rise up within her.
Another nearby voice spoke up. “Perhaps we need to sedate her again.”
It took her a moment to place it.
She licked her lips. “No sedation,” she said.
And then the memory that eluded her made its ambush, and the crushing weight of that mountain of grief fell upon her. She closed her eyes and felt her own tears. She struggled to sit up with Lynnae’s help, and at the woman’s touch, everything within her crumbled, and she clutched at the woman with the sudden need of someone drowning. Lynnae’s arms were strong as she gathered Jin up; and as Jin was pulled in and held, she gave herself to sobs she couldn’t contain.
I’ve lost everything.
The mantra played its loop as the memories of that night returned through the haze of kallacaine. She felt another hand upon her now, strongly gripping her shoulder, and she forced her eyes open to see Sister Elsbet also weeping as she stood over her. She was vaguely aware of others in the room now, too, and heard their sobs mingling with her own. The sound of it made her shoulders heave with even more force as the sobbing built in pitch. She felt it slipping beyond her control, and she felt a wail rising within her. The wail built into a shriek, and before she knew what was happening, Elsbet’s other hand quickly slipped a dropper of bittersweet kallacaine into her mouth.
“I’m sorry, Great Mother,” the older woman whispered. “I am so, so sorry.”
Jin felt the kalla taking hold instantly, her body flooding with warmth even as her shriek faltered. She tried to make her tongue work to protest, but it already felt as if it filled her mouth. Her eyes, burning from her tears, became heavy, and her body relaxed as sleep took her again.
When she awoke again, she felt a warm body beside her, and her thought was that it was Jakob before her muddled brain comprehended that this form that held her close was far too big to be her son. No, it was Lynnae, and the woman had fallen asleep holding Jin close.
The truth of it all reasserted itself.
I’ve lost everything.
The tears started again, and as they did, images flashed across her inner eye. Those early days of learning she was with child, the expression on Rudolfo’s face when she’d told him his soldiers had swords after all. The terror and exhilaration of watching her body change, and then that day Jakob finally arrived. He’d come into the midst of pandemonium and catastrophe, born on the heels of the world changing in ways no one had foreseen.
Born as a part of that manipulated change.
She felt Lynnae stirring against her and felt those comforting hands upon her. “I know,” the woman whispered. Then, she repeated it. “I know.”
Jin remembered the circumstances of Lynnae’s arrival in their household, fresh on the heels of Lynnae’s own child’s death. Her son had died of the moonshadow pox not long after birth, and because she still had milk, she’d shared the nursing with Jakob when the powders he’d needed to keep him alive—ingested through the milk—had been too much for one woman to bear.
Somehow, the memory of the young, lost woman settled her, and Jin found some semblance of control. She pushed against Lynnae and then forced herself up in the bed, dizzy suddenly from the effort.
More images of her son washed over her, accompanied by other senses. The smoothness of his skin. The smell of his dark, curly hair. The sound of his laughter.
Things I’ll never experience again.
The sobs were back, and this time, she turned inward to face them and force them to submit to her. She focused on her breathing and lost track of the minutes before she realized she was staring at nothing.
Lynnae sat up beside her in the bed. “I’m so sorry.”
She took another deep breath. “Does Rudolfo know?”
Lynnae shook her head. “No. They’re trying to keep it quiet, though they’re losing control of that silence. The kin-ravens have been grounded and Ahm’s Glory is closed, but the word’s out already here and the people are panicking. The city is in collapse.”
The next question fell from Jin’s lips, and she heard the poisonous rage in the calmness of her voice. “And what of my father?”
“They’re turning the city inside out, but they haven’t found him yet.”
Jin blinked, surprised suddenly at the focus she found in this place. “Have they found…” She couldn’t finish the question.
Lynnae nodded slowly, and her voice was somber. “They have,” she said. “They found them yesterday.”
She looked over at the woman. “How long have I been sedated?”
“Off and on for three days,” Lynnae answered. “You were … out of control. You put three soldiers and a Blood Scout in the infirmary when they approached you on the roof. I think you broke the imperial physician’s nose, too.”
Jin nodded, the words sliding over her as her mind continued finding a focal point to center her. “I need to see him.”
She shook her head. “No. I need to see Jakob.”
Lynnae’s hand found her shoulder and squeezed it. Her voice was husky with her own tears. “Morning will be here soon,” she said. “We can sort that out then.”
Jin nodded. “Good.” Then, she repeated herself. “I need to see him.”
She sat silent for a moment and tried to stay within the inhales and exhales of her breath. But it wasn’t helping. She felt hollowness spreading within her and found her eyes unfocusing again. Finally, she reached over to touch Lynnae’s leg. “I think I need to be alone now.”
Lynnae inclined her head. “Absolutely.”
Jin waited until the woman had left the room before she got out of the bed. She started pacing, moving back and forth across the floor of the unfamiliar room with deliberate strides.
There was only one place of calm in this for her, and she gave herself to it.
He was the one who’d orchestrated her marriage to Rudolfo and had commanded her to bear the Gypsy King a son. And she’d followed the orders given to her just as any child—son or daughter—would do for the Lord of House Li Tam. They’d known from childhood that their house’s work in the Named Lands was vital and that their father’s honor was to use his children as tools and weapons to shape the world.
But as she’d grown to love Rudolfo, she’d found herself more and more at odds with her father, and by the time she became pregnant, she knew that what she did was for herself and for her beloved. Seeing what her father had done to the man she loved—then multiplying that against the untold numbers of others her house had sacrificed for her father’s plans—had made her transition into the Ninefold Forest the rejection of one family for another.
I’ve lost everything.
No, she realized.
It’s been taken from me.
She’d come to this place with murder in her heart, sent by her grandfather to assassinate the Crimson Empress. And when she’d learned that the empress was a girl the same age as Jakob, she’d known she could never do such a thing. It staggered her that her grandfather could even conceive of such a thing, but she also remembered a time when she could have followed those orders without regret or remorse.
Because I could never harm a child now that I’ve had one.
She felt that focus tightening, and as it did, she felt her grief twisting into something else. The idea that her own father could—that he’d ordered dozens of her brothers and sisters to their deaths, murdered or humiliated thousands of innocents, and given no thought or regard to anything beyond his family’s plans—pointed to a clear difference between her and the man who’d fathered her. Something that set her apart from him and from his father before him.
And the last of the fog fell away as Jin Li Tam realized that because of what he had done, she would now do what should have been done long ago.
She could not kill a child. But Jin Li Tam knew that she
kill her father, and in knowing, the forty-second daughter of Vlad Li Tam found the truest clarity of purpose she’d ever known.
The night was gray with the light of Lasthome when Petronus went out into it from their makeshift camp just inside the temple. The wide doors murmured open at his touch and then closed behind him. The air was warm on his naked skin, and for the thousandth time, he looked down at himself to take in his well-toned body.
He gave a soft chuckle. Even when he’d been the age his body now appeared to be, he’d never been particularly fit. Certainly as a child, working the nets with his father, he’d been in shape. But once he’d followed the call to join the Order, he’d traded a life of working with his hands for a life spent behind a desk in the midst of a world of books.
And when he’d been that age, he’d not really considered the other uses of his body. But now, having left his seventies for something akin to thirty, he was suddenly aware of his entire body coming to life. He’d taken his vows of celibacy seriously, for the most part—he’d allowed himself a few indiscretions when he was younger—and for the longest time, his libido had been checked and supplanted by focus on his work with the Order. And then it had become a comfortable habit after he’d faked his death and gone into hiding.