Authors: Ken Scholes
Jin Li Tam forced her eyes down, followed by her head. “I am honored,” she said. Already, she was forming her strategy for this woman. Reading in her face and words and posture exactly what path was best used to approach her, to gain her trust and then ascertain her best use. She smiled.
“Well,” the regent said, “I have other matters to address. I’ll leave you two to discuss the work ahead.” A look passed between him and the woman; then he turned and moved down the narrow passage.
Elsbet glanced again over Jin’s shoulder, and Jin followed her gaze. Behind her, Lynnae held Jakob’s small hands above his head as he practiced awkward steps. “He’s beautiful,” the Y’Zirite said.
Jin nodded. “And strong.”
Elsbet looked from the boy to the mother. “May I hold him?”
Jin Li Tam forced her mind away from the growing ache in her stomach. “Certainly,” she said. Standing aside, she held the door open for the woman. “Please come in.”
Lynnae shot her a questioning look, and Jin nodded. Then, Elsbet was scooping up the boy, holding him aloft to cluck and coo at him as he first smiled and then giggled.
While the old woman fawned over the child, Jin counted the places on her turned back where a well-placed blade might be most effective. She pushed her anger aside. “You’ll forgive me,” she said. “But I’m unfamiliar with how you knew my grandfather.”
Holding the child close, Elsbet turned. “We were lovers,” she said. “A long time ago.” Her voice was so matter-of-fact that it caused Jin to blink. “I would have gladly been his kin-healer as well, but the kin-healing was reserved for your father once we knew the time of the Empress was at hand.”
She’d talked little with her father since he was captured and tortured by Ria, but she knew that was what the woman had called it. That, along with the systematic torture and murder of most but the youngest members of her family.
“There is much I do not yet understand,” Jin said.
“Yes. That is to be expected.” The woman held Jakob with one hand now, tickling his chin with the other. “Everything that transpires now is a product of prophecy and meticulous planning. Your grandfather, when he came to the true faith, was an integral part of that planning.” Her smile showed teeth now. “It is a strength of the Tams.”
And the resurgence that brought down Windwir was carefully planned, Jin knew, with many hands in the stew pot. Most of those hands were her brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces, though she suspected now that there were also others involved, likely from the heretofore hidden Empire of Y’Zir.
And certainly the Watcher played a role.
She suppressed her memory of the ancient mechoservitor, resisting her body’s urge to shudder, before returning her attention to Elsbet.
The woman placed Jakob into Lynnae’s waiting hands. Her eyes were wet with tears. “I’m so very pleased to meet you, Lord Jakob,” she said, kissing his forehead. Then she turned to Jin. “I’ve a chest of books for you—some you can read and some you’ll be able to read shortly if you’re diligent in your studies. I’ll have one of the men drop them by later. And tomorrow morning, we’ll start your language lessons. I taught your grandfather Y’Zirite, and he learned quickly.” Here, she winked. “I suspect it will be the same for you.”
“I hope so, Sister,” Jin said.
The woman moved to the door and paused with her hand on the latch. “It was good to finally meet you,” she said. “I’ve longed for this day my entire life. Your grandfather longed for it as well.”
Jin forced herself to nod, remembering his words—spoken decades ago and carried to her by way of his golden bird. Whatever this woman thought, her grandfather had died believing her faith was madness and executing a plan that spanned three generations to end the resurgence by killing the Crimson Empress. “I look forward to your tutelage,” she said with a final smile.
Sister Elsbet let herself out, and Jin locked the door behind her. When she looked to Lynnae, she saw the girl’s face was pale and her eyes wide as she held the squirming prince. She could see the fear there and wished for a moment that she could just bare all, lay the truth out on the table, and have at least one person in her confidence. If it were Winters here with her, she might be more tempted to. But Winters was a girl who could now dance the knife with the best of Rudolfo’s scouts. There was a strength about her that Jin trusted, though she suspected it was because she knew the girl better. Lynnae had accompanied her and shared in the care of her son for nearly two years, yet the young woman largely remained a stranger.
Because I’ve kept her apart; I’ve not let her near.
Somehow, Winters had slipped past her gate, but Lynnae had remained shut out. And even with the young queen, Jin knew she’d frequently withheld her trust, holding back information that might’ve benefited the girl.
Moreover, she’d done the same with the man she claimed to love—the father of her child. And it took her no effort whatsoever to dispel all of it under the guise of that love. A love that protected and guided by what it gave or took, shared or kept. It was an equation she could run with nearly all of her choices and in the end, justify them.
How very Tam-like of me,
Swallowing her remorse, Jin Li Tam reached for her child and held him tightly even as he squirmed and pushed at her. “No, Mama,” he said, but the words weren’t what caused her mouth to fall open. It was the look of fierce anger in his eyes, so much like Rudolfo’s, that caught her off guard.
Putting Jakob on the floor, she watched him crawl quickly back to the chair to pull himself up once again, seeking first to stand and then to walk.
She knew there was something buried in his resolve that held some kind of meaning for her, because she felt it in the form of tears that pushed at her eyes.
But Jin Li Tam did not fathom what exactly that meaning was.
Twilight stilled the thin forest surrounding them, and Rudolfo crawled carefully beneath his snow cloak, moving slowly until he lay between Philemus and his first lieutenant.
The second captain pressed words into Rudolfo’s shoulders.
The monoscopes are effective.
Rudolfo smiled. In Charles’s absence, the mechoservitors had provided six of the devices, and this had been their first opportunity to test them in the field. His own fingers found the man’s forearm.
Downslope and upwind from them, in a small clearing, burned a single fire. Beside it, a solitary form sat eating from a metal tin near the mouth of a small, open tent. Nearby, a horse chewed at its feed-sack.
Philemus pushed the cold, metal monoscope into Rudolfo’s waiting hands and Rudolfo held it to his eye, disregarding the leather harness designed to strap the device onto his head. As he panned the hollow below them, he held his breath. In the wavering image that the Firstfall steel reflected, he counted four—no
figures that formed a perimeter around the man. The people were slight—probably women as the other members of the Blood Guard had been—and they crouched low to the ground, heads moving back and forth.
Philemus’s fingers were light on his shoulder.
What are your orders?
He frowned. The woman who’d met him in his tent—the so-called Ire Li Tam—had been truthful about this much. He knew that meant little when it came to validating her other claims or proving the devotion of her blades in his service. Still, Rudolfo would take whatever intelligence he could get. He stretched out a hand, holding it over his second captain’s forearm before finding his words.
Pull back for now.
Soon enough, this man would find him, and Rudolfo need do nothing now. Ire had told him that the Y’Zirite emissary would not approach the Gypsy watchtowers until the last sign was given. He glanced up at a somber, gray sky that seemed empty enough and puzzled again at her cryptic words. Then, he pushed the monoscope back toward Philemus’s waiting hands and slowly scooted backward on his belly, the snow cold against him, until he was beneath the ridgeline and could risk rising to a crouch. They moved even farther down the hill, ghosts brushing evergreen branches over their footprints, wiping the snow clean.
“There are only six of them,” Philemus whispered nearby. “And we have the advantage.”
Rudolfo shook his head. “No. This war has changed for us before it’s even started. We bend to this wind and find a different path or we risk breaking.”
The faintest change in the captain’s breathing told Rudolfo what he needed to know about the man’s thoughts on the matter. But he put that information aside, laying it next to Philemus’s disapproval of the enforcement of Rudolfo’s Y’Zirite edict. In earlier days, he’d have removed the officer and replaced him. But Philemus’s willingness to question—even challenge him—was a trait he’d grown to value.
I learned it from Gregoric.
The memory of his fallen friend stabbed at him, and he felt his jaw growing firm. That man would have taken an even firmer hand with Rudolfo, he suspected. And the second captain might disapprove, but Rudolfo had no doubt that the man would do as he was ordered, with or without a given reason.
Still, he continued. “You and Lysias told me yourselves that we are spread too thin. How many more are we willing to throw at these Y’Zirite knives?” He leaned in close to the vague shimmer that marked where his captain stood. “Do not misunderstand me, Captain,” Rudolfo said. “I intend to win this war. But we will not win this one by striking first and fastest.” He paused. “This will require patience … and precision.”
Philemus’s eyes flashed for a moment, and then he looked away. “Aye, General,” he said. “What would you have us do?”
Rudolfo smiled at the evidence he heard of the efficacy of his words. The edge in Philemus’s voice already softened. Because men were eased by the confidence of their king even when that king felt uncertain.
And because they know you’ve never chosen the wrong path.
Even as he thought it, a choice he’d not considered presented itself and he smiled at it.
“Perhaps,” Rudolfo said, “we should invite our visitors to return with us.”
Philemus made no attempt to hide his astonishment. “General?”
His smile widened.
A simple gesture.
Something to show that he still made his own choices, despite those others had made for him. “I know better than to tell you not to follow,” he said. “But follow at a distance and do not interfere. Stay clear of the Blood Guard and do not let them see you.” He waited, and when he heard no acknowledgement, he spoke again. “Do you understand?”
The doubt was back in his second captain’s voice, and the words were clipped. “Aye, General.”
Rudolfo nodded in the direction of his magicked officer. Then, he turned and set himself to climbing the hill, making no effort to conceal his approach. He took the slope with long, deliberate strides, his breath clouding around his face. The forest grew darker as night fell around him, and he whistled into that dark, choosing a cheerful tune. When he crested the ridge, he raised his right hand, pausing before he continued his descent. “Hail the camp,” he shouted.
The sitting figure shifted, turning, and Rudolfo kept his eyes upon him as his feet chose their path down the snowy hill. By now, the Blood Scouts would be moving toward him, and he willed his men to obey him and hold back. He had a great deal of confidence in his own safety in this moment, but they were another matter. “Hail the camp,” he said again. “Rudolfo approaches.” He kept talking as he walked, his voice ringing out into a silent forest. “Lord Rudolfo of the Ninefold Forest Houses to some,” he said. “General Rudolfo of the Wandering Army to others.” He smiled as he approached the bottom of the hollow and his shadow twisted in the light of the fire. “That damned Rudolfo to those I’ve bested in battle or bed.”
He was close enough now to see that it was indeed a man who sat at the fire on a large chunk of wood. The man was younger than Rudolfo but not by much, and his hands and face bore the scars of Y’Zir. His heavy winter cloak was of a dark fur that matched his boots, and beneath the cloak was a dark uniform much like those he’d seen at the Blood Temple where he’d found Vlad Li Tam.
And like those the Machtvolk now wore.
But unlike the others, this man appeared unarmed, holding only a tin plate and spoon in his hands. A cooking pot sat to the side of the fire, where some kind of stew simmered.
The man paused and continued eating without a word.
Rudolfo stopped just a few spans from him. “Have you no words for me?”
Still, nothing. He felt the stirring of anger and forced it aside. He stepped closer, keeping his hands well away from the knives that hung from his hips. He leaned in, pausing to listen and hearing nothing but the sound of the man chewing. Then, he walked slowly around the fire.
“I’m perplexed,” he finally said. “I’m told by kin-raven to expect an emissary; I ride league upon winter league to meet him. Yet when he arrives, he hides from me in a hollow. And when I approach, he ignores me.”
Rudolfo continued. “Regardless, you and the women who travel with you are welcome. There is warmth and comfort yonder. And much, I’m told, for us to discuss.” He waited, though he expected no answer. “So come when you will. I will be waiting.”
With that, Rudolfo turned and strode from the camp, returning the way he had come. The man’s silence surprised him. There was strength in it. And focus. Rudolfo pondered it as he made his way slowly up the hill until a thud to his left brought him to a sudden halt.
He looked in the direction of the sound and saw a small, dark form lying in the snow. As he approached it, he recognized it at once as a bird. It lay unmoving on the ground, and as Rudolfo grew closer, he saw the blue thread of inquiry upon its foot and the scrap of paper it held in place.
He looked up to the sky, then back to the fallen bird.