Master Pushin: “Ye younglings. That’s all ye ever brood about, such foolings and flitterings and futt—”
Philo: “Sir, you mistake for the merely carnal that which is a profound and spiritual state.”
—The ’Pothecary’s Folly, Act II, scene ii, pre-aria recitative.
“Sorry I was late, my heart. Valiant troops of our noble Ossian allies were beating a renunciate to death on the tubes platform and a crowd had collected to watch. Tight quarters make for warm work.” Prince Caine took off his hat and fanned himself languidly for a tick or two before setting it carefully down on the empty chair. No dirt on the aging wrought-iron: good. Silk hat brims were fashionable but they did stain so easily.
“I hope you realize you just ruined what little there is of my lunch.” Prester Lammert deliberately set his automatic pen down atop his copy of the Crown Herald before rising to his feet and bowing. “Good afternoon, Your Serenity.” The formalities taken care of, he sat back down and scowled.
“Hum.” Caine reached over and slid the folded news-sheet across the café tabletop. The headline read “Ossian Security Realm-Leader Cingeto to Visit His Highness,” old news. So was “Leader of Union praises Ruthlanni Royal Line.” He flipped the page over. As he’d anticipated, the ring-quiz was almost entirely filled out, in ink. But one word was missing. Hearth-devil, eight letters: the correct answer was obviously—
“Don’t you do that.” Lammert grabbed the edge of the paper and yanked. “Mine. Buy your own. Did you have trouble?” His conversation had veered suddenly, but Caine was used to following Lammert’s lurches. Seventeen years was long enough to learn a man’s small knacks of speech.
“Eah, I suppose. I left before the mob had done much more than mill around and make rude comments. But a tubes station strikes me as a bad place for a few soldiers on leave to amuse themselves. For example, just imagine the results if, in the midst of the crush, the Ossian station guard had accidentally fallen off of the platform in front of an arriving pneumatic. Unsupervised, that crowd could have gotten over-heated by the blood and trampled our heroic military advisors into paste. Quite the mess, it would have been.”
The prester went still, his big palm flat on the news-sheet. “Oh, so? Is that, in fact, what happened?”
“I don’t know, and I certainly won’t return to find out. I’m taking a steam-cab home.” Thoughtfully, Caine studied the crook of his umbrella. Ossian Military Police who served as station guards had lacing-hooks on their duty boots, and metal tended to scratch wood inlay. No visible damage seemed to have resulted from his brisk ankle-yank, though, and small scratches could always be explained away. “It will all be in the news-sheets tomorrow.” Caine hooked his umbrella over the chair back next to him. “Or perhaps not. Spice tea with biscuits, please.” He addressed the last sentence to the waiter, who’d shown up at last. Although the way the man was limping, he’d probably been injured during the Intervention and couldn’t be blamed for being a bit slow. At least his bow to Caine was properly obsequious. “Rise up, fellow. Lammert? Anything?”
“No, today’s part of my autumnal fast, meditation, and penance cycle. I’ve been studying the theoretical implications of multiple infinities for number theory all morning, a true mind-twister with no breakfast. But I had some citrus-water for lunch and I’ll have a digestive sweet or two in a bit.”
As he spoke, the prester was still studying Caine, eyes narrowed. He was upset. But Lammert was Caine’s link to the now-illegal opposition, and would need to know what had happened. A pity; the dear man didn’t like hearing about some of Caine’s spontaneous little diversions. Even as a resistance fighter Lammert was thoughtful and prudent, and he obviously wished that Caine’s acts of resistance were the same. Best to distract Lammert before he made his feelings known.
Caine shuddered. “Fasting again? Disgusting. Are you going to let me take you out to a proper dinner tomorrow when you’re done?”
“Are you at least going to let me seduce you this evening? It would divert you from your empty stomach.”
“No.” The second refusal was swifter than the first, but Lammert didn’t even try to keep his blue eyes from glinting with amusement, purge him. “Caine, would you please stop trying to outrage the entire café by seducing one of the Seven’s consecrated? You’re a royal and this is the Dockside district, remember? Most of these patrons voted the Radical Worker’s slate before the Intervention. One-third of them routinely don’t believe a word you say, one-third of them already think you’re lifting my tunic, and one-third plain don’t care.”
“I do so enjoy Dockside. It’s very easy for a prince to live down to the local expectations. I find that soothing.”
Lammert tossed his head in reproof, but his lips twitched. “I know you do, you devil.”
The waiter brought the tea and Caine smiled at him, unconcerned that he might have overheard Lammert’s rude epithet. “But a very incompetent devil, I’m afraid.” The tea filter was worn and had to be balanced on the edge of the glass with some care. Not unusual, these days. Such little inconveniences were a large part of what irritated Caine about the Ossian occupation. “And a generous devil, as is publicly bruited about our beauteous capitol of Chabone. Speaking of which, when are you going to let me rebuild your temple’s baths for you? All that mortar damage must make purification rites dreadfully drafty.”
“When you promise not to seduce, debauch, exploit, or molest any of my parishioners in them. That is to say, never.” Lammert pursed his lips. On most temple presters the gesture would have looked prudish, but on Lammert it only seemed wry. “My friend, you are a peril to your people. Only your distaste for the unhappiness of others stands between you and behavior that would get you put down like a man-eating shark, prince of the blood or no.”
Lammert probably didn’t realize how calm and judicious he sounded when he delivered sentences like that last. Caine raised his tea glass to his lips to hide his smile. There were reasons his darling school-friend was his link with the resistance, a great many more reasons than the spiky and heartfelt affection that provided the excuse for these meetings. Most important, Caine knew he was missing something significant when it came to sorting out the peculiar half-social, half-logical tangles that others grouped together as ethical problems. Not so Lammert, who not only made such choices but was strong-willed enough to enforce his decisions. If Caine ever fouled up his duties for the resistance badly enough that one of their pistols had to be pressed to the back of his skull to stop him, Lammert’s finger would most likely be the one on the trigger. A comforting notion, that, if not one appropriate to a café table.
Setting the tea glass down so briskly that he heard its metal base click against the tabletop, Caine said, “Delightful as it is to sit watching all the surging humanity of the capitol, not to mention the top-branch Ossian troops patrolling the Grand Avenue, I believe there was some reason you required my degenerate presence here today, sweet chum?”
“You promised your opinion of the fellow I found to fix the shrapnel damage to the temple’s mosaics. He’s been nice enough to do some work on those bullet holes in the Justicar’s chapel so we can evaluate his craftsmanship.”
“Then my opinion you shall have. Guide me, Holy Prester.”
Looking up from counting coins out of his wallet, Lammert narrowed his eyes. “Get more sleep, curb that taste for ashwood liqueur, and take more time to check the pasts of your bed partners before you undo your breeks.”
The words exasperated Caine, and he paused for a moment to quash the usual impulse that exasperation aroused where Lammert was concerned. A café was too public, true, but there were a great many nooks and niches in the district temple where Lammert’s cries, either for aid or of pleasure, would not be audible to the laity. Slowly Caine blinked away the rapturous vision, to see Lammert watching him, large hands laced together, eyes both warm and wary behind the horn-rimmed glasses.
Softly, Lammert asked, “Is this one of your difficult days? Should we meet another time?”
“Oh no.” Caine kept his own voice low. “A momentary impulse. Nothing I can’t master, and I’d hate for you to miss the entertainment of watching me make the effort. You do enjoy it so.”
Lammert’s mouth twisted into a sardonic smile. “Sah, for the wrong reasons.”
“No, no.” Caine reached out and grasped the prester’s elbow through the thick, grey serge of his tunic sleeve. “You lack perspective. From where I sit, you enjoy my struggle for the right reasons.”
“Tell that story during my preceptory this afternoon, and maybe the Dean will only have me belly-down on cold tiles for a week. More likely two, though, and at my age and dignity such penance is plain humiliation.”
“Is that a promise? May I watch?”
“Not unless you’re doing so to judge the mosaic repairs beneath me. Let’s go, Your Serenity-ness, good sir.”
Caine and Lammert traversed the six blocks to the Dockside temple-close on foot. Four years back, before the Ossian invasion, Caine would have requisitioned a private steam-car with chauffeur and attendants without thinking twice. These days he strolled, even when the lowering clouds threatened rain. The now-puppet parliament had refused to fund any bodyguards or public attendants for cadet members of the royal family in an obvious bid to pen them up inside the various palaces, out of trouble. Such unspoken restrictions were an irresistible temptation to Caine. Delectable opportunities existed for irritating the Ossian occupiers by evading the security dogs they assigned to shadow him, by accosting random Ruthlann citizens on the street, and by poking his nose into places he was neither expected nor wanted.
Lammert waited patiently, lips quirked, while Caine paused to flirt with an elderly pipe-fitter at a sewage construction site. It was hard to tell who was most amused by the encounter, Caine, Lammert, the grandfatherly worker being complimented on how charmingly his neckerchief matched his faded blue eyes, or the man’s mates enjoying their informal break. The only one who wasn’t amused was the local security warden, whose arrival Caine thought added greatly to both his and the workers’ jollity. They all dragged the chatter out a few minutes longer with dripping, insincere obsequiousness on the one side and mincing, aristocratic idiocies on the other, before Caine judged that the warden was about to lose his temper, made his royal farewells, and strolled on.
“How odd and yet intriguing to be popular in the working districts,” Caine mused, tilting back the brim of his hat with the ferule of his umbrella.
Lammert didn’t say anything but he was biting his lips to hold back the laughter. “By the Lady, you’re awful,” he managed at last.
“And doesn’t the citizenry know it.” Caine nodded graciously to a bill-poster who’d flashed him a finger gesture that might have been a rude offer or might have indicated resistance sympathies. Of course, if queried, Caine would have plumped for the former meaning. The lad could be shot for the latter. “Sah, our poor land, with but me for a nostalgic reminder of its degenerate royal past.”
Caine had little time for his late father, Thorpe IV, although he had even less time for his uncle, now Ormic I. But two of his three brothers had promptly fallen into rank behind Ormic during the coup which had accompanied the Ossian Intervention, probably both hoping to be declared Ormic’s heir when the usurper predictably failed to impregnate his fourth wife. If anyone had asked for Caine’s decision, he would have pointed out that the crown rightly belonged to his eldest brother Amerric, who’d proved interesting for the first time in a boringly virtuous life by fleeing during the Ossian Intervention to the Western Alliance after stealing half the naval fleet.
But nobody had ever much cared about Caine’s politics, just his seat on a horse, aim with a hunting rifle, manners at a table, and skills in a bedchamber. Intelligent, that consensus. If it wasn’t for the amazing genius of the Ossians for making everyone miserable, most importantly including Caine, he’d still be concentrating on his own pleasures.
“One of the Justicar’s presters pointed out at the last deanery meeting how much the moral temper of the kingdom has improved since we joined the Ossian Union.” Lammert’s tone was as dry as the ancient Remean fountain they were passing in the square.
Caine pursed his lips. “Much though it grieves me to disagree with a consecrated of the Seven, the prester in question obviously hasn’t spent much time in the Lindenwalk clubs. It’s amazing how much cherry brandy an Ossian trooper can drink and remain capable of action.”
Lammert’s eyes flicked to Caine and away.
“Yes, I meant exactly what you’re thinking, dearest, and confirmed my opinion with my person. In any case, I wouldn’t say that the prudence spawned by tension and poverty is necessarily an improvement over the exuberance born of relative ease.”
“No.” Lammert frowned at the cobblestones in front of them. “Without relaxation and leisure, poverty curdles into hate, and discipline is just an excuse for orgiastic release.”
“Security Police beatings as choreographed as the dance routines of the Danzion Girls. And kick, and turn, and kick.”
“Caine.” Lammert’s deep voice had dropped to a bass rumble.
“It was your idea. I merely teased out the consequences.” Caine glanced sideways underneath his lashes at Lammert, taking a moment to savor the familiar sight of the massive body shrouded within a consecrated’s hooded tunic, the long-fingered hands stained with ink, the sharp-featured face mobile with intelligence. A scrumptious sight, if not enough in itself to sate Caine’s true hunger.
What he really wished to do just now was push his friend back against the side of the news kiosk they were passing and tell him in urgent tones about the Renunciate, what the man’s eyes had held as the soldier’s boots curved down. Pain was fascinating. Undesired pain was a revolting waste that aroused Caine’s cold anger. He wanted consolation for not doing all he wished, for confining his revenge to a few low-voiced suggestions to his neighbors on the crowded tubes platform followed by one hard, surreptitious yank as he left. Caine wanted to stroke what lay below the woven belt wrapping Lammert’s waist as he made his impious confession. But such little impulses were Caine’s lot in life, and poor Lammert looked glum enough as matters stood, his usual humor visibly subdued. Caine really did loathe making his fellows unhappy, especially the few he considered friends.
He settled for falsely light-hearted words. “Now, now. Mustn’t brood, my heart.” Caine laced his arm through Lammert’s. “Shall I tell you about the production of The ’Pothicary’s Folly I saw at the Royal Opera two days ago? Piggy Kashan was there with his new wife Heike, a delightful little provincial girl so fresh from the high mountains that one could practically pluck the hawk feathers out of her hair. Do you wish to hear about her gown, Piggy’s proposed reorganization of the record-keeping at his Ministry, my flirtation with the rustic darling?”
“No.” But Lammert was amused again.
“In this case, quite innocent. She danced divinely at the Sternbind afterwards. I’m sure her grace extended to other physical arts, but she and the Piggy were pleased enough with each other that I expect no immediate chance to confirm my suspicions. Note, please, that he even let her dance with me.”
“Piggy likes you. You let him copy your Hellene translations.”
“You were just as susceptible to those round little cheeks of his. I remember how much time you spent teaching him his fractions back at the Institute. He asked to be remembered to you, by the way.”
“I’ll have to send him a note congratulating him on his marriage and begging an introduction to his wife. Here we are, then.” Lammert took out the old-fashioned iron key that would let them through the side gate to the temple-close. “Favor me with your kindness, Caine, and stifle the shocking comments? My fellow consecrated have good hearing, and I’m too busy just now for additional self-discipline and penance.”
“And, in any case, they don’t properly appreciate the nuances of your submission. Very well.” Caine stepped into the stone passageway behind the refectory, looked around at the delicate moss-stained carvings that topped its walls, and sighed sadly. The Dockside district was poor enough that its temple-close had never been beautified into the ghastly high-classical style of the past century. One more Ossian act to resent, that they’d damaged the place badly while suppressing the riots that had broken out in the poorer neighborhoods after the occupation.
This time of a working day, the temple itself was mostly empty, its altars of the seven daemoni quiet, and the intricately tiled floors beneath the great dome unadorned by pilgrims, devotees, or foreign tour-takers. They were able to examine the flooring of the Justicar’s chapel and discuss the fine points of mosaic work without interrupting any rites or disturbing the few pious laypeople and grey-robed consecrated flitting about.
Caine talked softly as his fingers moved across the mosaic. “—especially neat job restoring the devils. Where did he get that exact shade of black tesserae? I thought they weren’t made any more. In any case, you’ve gotten purged-well lucky, in my opinion. I’d advise doing whatever it takes to keep a hold on this fellow, at least until he’s done. Give him whatever he needs: supplies, money, drink, charming acolytes to tote his tools—”
Lammert glanced up from where he was kneeling, also running his fingers across tiles and grouting. “Aside from someone to chatter with about his art, all Stian wants is the job. He’s one who long ago hung his hat with the workers, and what happened to the Ossians who shot those Worker’s Party officials taking refuge on the Lady’s altar seems to have made quite the impression there.”
“Yes, veteran combat troops running through the streets weeping and praying for forgiveness does tend to impress your typical laborer, especially when said solders have stripped off all their military accoutrements right down to their much-scarred skins. I was certainly impressed. Who would have thought our Good Lady had such fascinating tastes in penance?” Caine snorted. “But thoroughly impressed or not, your Leveler artist will still need money to live. Give me an account and I’ll pay his expenses. You can save your temple’s funds for feeding street-younglings and boring the virtuous poor in the name of education—or should that be boring the street-younglings and feeding the virtuous poor?”
“Both, I’d imagine.” Lammert stood and stretched, and then straightened his glasses. “Although you’d be amazed by how popular our Ruthlann history and culture classes are these days.”
“Not really.” Official disapproval of anything made it more attractive, in Caine’s opinion. He would have thought that the official censure for meddling with the presters was the secret of Lammert’s delectableness if Caine hadn’t repeatedly debauched his friend at the Institute before Lammert was chosen for consecration. Considering which— Caine got up. “We’ve done. Are you sure, my heart, you don’t wish for me to assess the damage to the baths? See here: I’ll promise to be good about your parishioners. I’ll even promise not to attempt the act upon you that I’d be able to assay in any normal, civilized public bath. I’ll settle for a few minor, almost innocent, glimpses of you all unclad at the dedication ceremony, with whatever imaginings may follow. You can’t ask more reasonable than that.”
There was a soft sound to one side of them that might have been a half-swallowed laugh. Interested, Caine turned in time to see one of Lammert’s fellow consecrated retreating swiftly towards a rack of incense-burners. A female, near as could be made out through all the holy swaddling.
Lammert stopped dead. His head went down and he took a deep breath. “Wonderful. Caine, your latest offer may have again cost me time for self-discipline I don’t have.” For once sounding more irritated than amused, he added, “Only chance provided that our unwitting hearer was Mother Lynn, one of my few superiors who won’t feel she has to immediately query me and then report my overindulgence of you to the Dean. Not that her discretion will do me much good since she’s just been appointed to the Precept Chapter, and I’m to take council with them this afternoon.”
Caine raised his eyebrows. For some reason, his little problems with morality made certain of his fellows’ motives – the earthier kinds - clearer to him than others. Lammert, catching Caine’s interested, skeptical gaze, suddenly deflated. “Sah. You caught me out, didn’t you?”
“You don’t want this particular colleague to think you a man-lover.”
Lammert looked away before offering two implicit admissions that only Caine could recognize as the apology they were. “If I have to have a grand, forbidden infatuation, I do wish it could have been with her. She’s a fine medico and this temple’s archivist. And, just to spoon whipped-cream onto the pastry, she’s levelheaded, kind, and has some of the world’s worst devotional poetry down by heart.”
Caine leaned forwards and turned to see Lammert’s face. “Does she recite it for fun?”
“Oh, yes. Delightful sense of the ironic. The novices really look forward to the class each Feast of Fools when she lectures on the ten most notable – substitute stinking – poems of praise of the past decade. ”
“I hope she’s a blonde. I shall enjoy envisioning you happily wallowing amidst the bedclothes with a blonde.” Caine narrowed his eyes, already pleased.
Lammert snorted, and then shook his head. “That sounded indulgent, didn’t it? So I won’t waste my time reproving you. Besides, you’re right.”
“A sensible, kind, humorous blonde with lush hips and heavy breasts—” Lammert scowled and Caine smiled. He knew the tastes his friend wasn’t supposed to have. “—swathed by all that thrice-purged grey sacking. I’ll spare you any more details, but I promise you’ll get on very, very well together inside my mental boudoir.” Caine shook his head. “All you Holy Ones. Consecrate your appetites to the gods, indeed: waste and spoilage, waste and spoilage.”
“Stop repeating yourself. It makes you sound like yet another advertisement for Zusmann’s spice tea, fine spice tea in Zusmann’s special tins. Have an herb drop instead.”
“Are you supposed to be eating these?” Caine took the wintermint and popped it into his mouth, rolling it about thoughtfully as he waited for the message capsule to emerge from the dissolving candy. He wanted to be careful. A few moons ago he’d gotten sloppy and swallowed the stinking thing by mistake, which had led to a sequel too disgusting to recall.
“They’re good for the digestion while fasting, or so we are told by the Lady of Mercy’s very own healers. I’m not ascetic enough by nature to argue.”
“Mmm. And well you shouldn’t. These are delightful.” He tucked the capsule back between gum and cheek where the bulge wouldn’t show. Their real business taken care of, all that remained was a little more irreverence to distract any additional on-lookers. “So, show me what your artistic discovery intends to do with that damage in Morbeath’s chapel. I’m eager to view his range.” He indulged himself with one more pat to his friend’s arm than was strictly necessary to mislead unknown onlookers about the intentions behind this visit. “Tell me, my Prester. Do you think your artist also does profane work? While decorating bathing chambers, say? The more profane, the better for my purposes—”
These days, Caine was glad he had long ago learned to do without live-in attendants and to rely instead on the staffs of the various royal palaces. A personal eccentricity begun as a guard against extortion had become both, after the Intervention, a money-saver and, after he joined the resistance, a life-saver. There was nothing unusual about Caine’s being alone in his suite as he checked the tell-tales he’d left to see if his rooms had been searched, no eyes watching when he unrolled the paper in the capsule, no one to see while he used the magnifying glass and a grease pencil to work out the message it contained. The cipher was simple, kidling’s-play to one who’d been tutored by a mathematician like Lammert, but almost impossible to decode without the key. Hearth-devil, eight letters: Kainealf, in the old tongue. Finished, Caine ate the message. Sah, that neither the paper nor pencil-marks were sweetened. They tasted dreadful.
To his mild bemusement, Caine had been warned to prepare for committing another assassination. He wasn’t taken aback by the nature of the job: Caine had turned out to have quite the knack for such tasks, having none of the usual need to make his killings into anything other than the chores they were. Corpses weren’t unhappy, after all, and the unhappiness of others was Caine’s best substitute for a conscience, that mysterious internal governor that caused his fellows to pick and choose between certain actions. Caine’s targets seemed to cheer the world primarily by their absence.
But a prince of the blood was a specialized weapon, too oddly gaudy to be seen as dangerous by the occupiers but only useable by the resistance in special circumstances. Not to mention, Ossian security had a crude habit of executing twenty bystanders for every one of their own people murdered. So high-level targets had to be chosen with care. Caine’s being warned to prepare himself, rather than a simple message to proceed, most likely indicated some uncertainty in the murky circles of command that currently used Caine as their tool.
Caine pursed his lips before getting up and gazing through the high, arched windows of his study across the slate roofs towards the palace walls. Only a few guards of the King’s Watch were visible pacing to and fro in the chill wind now carrying the clouds away. King Ormic was sailing the Long Lakes and wouldn’t be back for two more days, not until the day before Realm-Leader Cingeto was scheduled to arrive. Slowly, Caine smiled. Now, there was a nail for which he just might be the proper hammer. Cingeto, the man primarily responsible both for policing subversive activity and for Renunciate population control in the client nations of the Ossian Union, was inarguably a misery. He was reputed to have quite the taste for opera, too. There was to be a Royal Command Performance of The ’Pothecary’s Folly—
Seating himself on his blue damask-silk couch, Caine reached over to the side table and flicked open the lid of a small candied-fruit chest. The gilt-on-cobalt porcelain box was a prized gift; it could play the entire score to Aristae’s A Furious Knight without needing to be re-wound. Caine removed the burlwood shelf half-filled with glazed apricots and cherries and set it aside, exposing the chest’s clockwork. Then, with a practiced jiggle and twist, Caine took out the spring-box and placed it by its key. He’d be rewinding that spring-box for quite a bit longer than even a score by a long-wind like Aristae demanded: for turns, in fact. This particular device was actually a drive-mechanism that could be swapped into his air-pistol to transform the near-toy into a real weapon. He’d only have three shots at short range, but they’d be silent and they’d be deadly. Modern technology was amazing.
But before he began, Caine rose to his feet, went over to the music player, and flicked it on. The first notes from his brand-new sound-sheet of The ’Pothecary’s Folly filled the room. Music would cover the irregular clicking sound of Caine winding the spring-box. Besides, the cranking was dull and he’d need some sort of stimulation while at his work. Thinking of which— Caine settled back into his favorite armchair and turned his imagination to envisioning Lammert and his colleague romping together, just as he’d promised he would. The strains of young Philo’s defense of love filled the room as Caine’s long fingers patiently wound and his eyes grew dreamy and distant.
With a sigh, Lammert prostrated himself again. As was meet and fitting, his hands grasped each other over his head, his toes were pointed, and his face turned to the left. Too bad proper forms didn’t make for proper penance. If that was the case, he’d be a proper prester.
Somehow he’d never found what the other consecrated had, that personal tie to one of the seven daemoni that made many so happy, or the passion for power, position, or service that made most of the rest content. Lammert was chosen, dutiful, and proficient as a prester but no more, like a bored conscript serving his army years in some stodgy forest outpost. As a senior temple teacher, he could spend time with mathematics if not as much as he could have spent as an Institute lecturer. He also knew that he was doing Ruthlann’s poor some good as a prester. Such were his consolations, pathetic remnants of the searing vision of glory that had turned the temple sheering of his youngling braid from the usual passage-rite into his selection for consecration. If Lammert hadn’t known better, he’d have thought the daemoni had changed their collective minds once they’d got him penned up in their priesthood. They didn’t have that reputation, though.
Back up onto his feet, bow in turn to the seven altars – hard to see without his glasses - back down onto his belly. Sah, with the longer nights these tiles were cold. And the periodic movement was enough to keep him from focusing on anything constructive like his studies of Garamondian infinities. Lammert really didn’t want to focus on what he was supposed to be considering, Caine. A raised tool was not an acceptable sign of remorse.
Up, then onto his knees and a forehead-touch towards each altar. Down again. Caine, that psychopath, his very own best-beloved psychopath. Psychopath was a modern label too close for comfort to Caine’s behavior, even though Caine worked hard to be good, in his fashion. Sad that his standards were distributed so far away from the norm. One might as well let Lammert sing the opera Caine loved, or the Dean set the menus in the refectory. Tone-deaf, tasteless when it came to morality, that was Caine’s problem.
The resistance loved the results. To tell truth, so did Lammert, but in a different, intimate way that brought him close to hating the secular cause he now served. The last stains Caine needed on his hands were of blood. Those deft and delicate hands were already frequently blemished by ashwood liquor, malagan-cheroot stains, and semen. Especially semen. Lammert felt his grin start, quashed the expression, and clambered back onto his knees.
Full prostration to all seven altars. Justicar, Lady-of-Mercy. How about some protection, some mercy for Caine? The High King. If you once ran a whole country on your own, you should be able to fix one man. Next Greencloak, then Morbeath, the Easer-of-Ways. Eah, not even daemoni wrenched nature about on demand, not like those fattened devils, those “gods”, the Ossians claimed to serve. Now Wisdom. Dear lady, whatever are you doing with a thick-headed crazed-hearted clunch like me? And finally, the Dancer. And whatever are you doing to Caine, Master-Mistress of all that’s sensual? I know he’s yours. He was quite happy to admit which altar got both his dedicatee’s locks as he made his way to adulthood.
Of course the cryptic smile on the lips of the Dancer’s naked statue didn’t vary a jot, not even if Lammert squinted. For Lammert, the smile never would. He’d seen his fellows channel miracles on the grim day when the Ossian Military Police had stormed Dockside’s temple-close, but Lammert’s world stayed resolutely secular, stubbornly mundane. At least it did if he discounted Prince Caine.
Back down onto his belly. Even Caine’s effect, in the end, was mundane. As Holy Javan observed, a man doesn’t need a daemon to know his bed is burning. Not that knowing did Lammert any good. If he only asked sincerely, Caine would leave him be. But Lammert had already walked away once, gotten himself transferred to Berurn, dullest and most worthy of ancient academy-towns. His days spent pacing those stone quadrangles and speaking of mathematics had been serene, his work complex, his chosen companions amiable. After the first year he’d even written Caine: every other day, in fact. But each dawn had stung and every dusk had ached, and all for the sake of a friend as feral as he was loyal. Now that the temple high council had brought Lammert back to the capitol, brought them together once more, Lammert doubted he could walk away again. He snorted and flexed his hips into the cold stone. There, my seven masters, do you see? Another spade raised high, which is so very upsetting to the Dean. But he’s wasting his worry on the wrong issue. Me, I know enough to tell my symptoms from my sickness.
Although, in Caine’s opinion, the cabarets of Chabone had grown much duller since the Intervention cleaned up the capital, they were still pleasant places to spend an evening on the town. This eve he’d started in the Hiz-Huzzer with a party of fellow revelers, traipsed over to Neuki’s and then moved on with a single companion to the Golden Orb. Marindi was presently back in the gaming room, alternately tormenting and impoverishing some florid banker she’d attached herself to by the cloak-chamber. Just now in the mood for his own company, Caine had let her go in favor of smoking his after-dinner cheroot. Remembering Lammert’s comment of the afternoon, he’d hesitated and then waved away the waiter’s quiet offer of an ashwood aperitif to accompany the malagan-laced tobacco, strictly for the sake of His Serenity’s digestion, of course. Lammert often had valid reasons for his specific suggestions about Caine’s behavior, even when those reasons initially escaped Caine’s grasp.
Up on the tiny wooden stage, the singer crooned of some long-ago abandonment, accompanied only by a single man who wore a dockworker’s stippled shirt and played the reed-pipes. Her husky voice was ugly but compelling, conjuring up for Caine a hundred lost evenings spent in low haunts with lower company. Caine supposed he himself was part of the scenery of the capitol’s dives now, along with wooden furnishings scarred by being thrown about during brawls, vilely addictive drinks, and over-dressed whores of both genders. Useful, these days, having a reputation for being findable anywhere rough or depraved. Unlike more respectable folks like—Piggy Kashan?
Yes, that was Piggy over there, with an empty ashwood cup in front of him and no little highlady in sight. Usually the behavior of Caine’s fellows was none of his concern, but Piggy wasn’t enjoying his excursion, if his forlorn expression was any indication. If he’d had the sense to bring his new bride along with him on this cabaret crawl, Caine would already be standing by their table, all brightness and ingratiation, interested in helping along whatever explorations Piggy had in mind. But Piggy only sat staring glumly at his empty, amber-stained cup. When at last he glanced up, apparently sensing that someone was watching him, Caine didn’t bother to remove the frown from his face.
Caine received his due punishment for meddling. Piggy got up and worked his way across the small, crowded room to Caine’s booth, sat down on the other bench, and pulled shut the curtain provided by the management for those who enjoyed the sound of cabaret accompanying their intimacies.
Caine leaned back, raising his eyebrows. “Could you make your evil intent just a bit more obvious, Piggy?”
Piggy rapidly blinked eyes that were still as cornflower blue as when he’d been an Institute novice, the very portrait of a young ministry official corrupted by the wicked attractions of large-city life. “What? I mean to say—what?”
Now that Caine thought the matter over, ashwood did tend to make a fellow rather slow. Perhaps that was what Lammert had been worried about—
A bit more sense crept into Piggy’s expression. “No, no, Your Serenity, that’s not—” He ran out of air again.
“Oh, so?” Caine removed his cheroot, blew a smoke-ring, and drawled, “Then clarify, sweet porcine comrade of my youth.”
Piggy flushed. Caine smiled. Piggy, seeing the familiar smile, cleared his throat and said, “See here, Caine. You know all sorts of people, yes?”
“Hum.” He made the noise encouraging. Specialized advice for the newlywed, pharmaceutical stimulation for an over-strained vital system, disgraceful male prophylactics, whatever was Piggy after?
“You’ve never done a school-fellow dirt.” Caine waved a hand at the comment. Not true, but Piggy didn’t need to know that right now. Piggy soldiered on, “And I’ve run across something at the Ministry that, hem, someone ought to see. One of those fellows. You know the sort. The—” Piggy dropped his voice “—unofficial opposition fellows.”
“Oh, those fellows. Yes, I might be able to find a few of those fellows.”
“Good. Yes. Well. I was asked to review some papers – to do with the impending Ossian visitor you know - ” Piggy cleared his throat.
Caine did know. He waved a hand in assent.
“—anyhow, other papers came along in the folder, ones I wasn’t supposed to see. Proposed minutes of the Realm-leader’s meetings, that sort of thing. Very complicated stuff. Senior gazes only.” Piggy nodded to himself, expression earnest. “A kind of mistake that happens more than you’d think, which is why I’m working on revamping our records storage. I returned the extra papers immediately to the secured vault, of course, so whip-whap fast I don’t think anyone else will know I had them. No harm done.”
“That’s good, I’m sure. But exactly how do you then intend to show those fellows the something they ought to see?”
“I made copies.” Piggy cleared his throat once more, obviously uncomfortable with one of the few unconventional acts of his privileged existence. Caine wondered idly if Lammert would judge Piggy’s betrayal of his Ministry’s trust good or bad. In any case, someone had better relieve Piggy of his burden before he was overstrained by its weight, all the air leaked out of him, and he went toddling off to confess his crime to some unsympathetic under-chief secretary. Neither Piggy nor his little bride would be made happier by the bacon that would result if Ossian Security got out their butcher’s blades. Caine regarded the lit end of his cheroot, glowing red in the dim behind the pulled curtain. No, indeed, no Security for Piggy.
Caine said, “I do know someone, a very reliable someone. Did you bring your copies with you?”
Piggy fumbled at his suit-coat. Of course he had. Not that Piggy was an idiot, merely completely unused to conspiracy above the school-boy level. That very naiveté might be his guard. He passed over the papers, and Caine put them away without looking at them. He didn’t need details, just a gist. “First, give me a five-sentence summary of what they said.”
As Caine had expected, Piggy was junior enough to be used to distilling down reports for impatient listeners. He leaned over the table and spoke, his voice low. While Piggy talked, Caine felt his eyes narrow. He didn’t need Lammert to help him decide his course of action this time. No, this time the Ossians were proposing something that immediately irritated Prince Caine of Ruthlann, irritated him very much indeed.
Abruptly, he stubbed out his cheroot on the tabletop. “Fine. I want you to leave here and take a cab to this address.” Caine took out his card-case, his pen, and wrote on the back of an engraved visitor’s card. “Give the house proprietor my card and say you want the style of Widow’s Friend that would be least shocking to a fresh young mountain lass. I’ve jotted down the proper sizes both for the harness and the tool itself; she’s slim-waisted, and you always liked your riders light in the saddle back at the Institute. Madam will put the items concerned on my tab. You can consider the physical part of this alibi your wedding present.”
Piggy glanced down at the card, up at Caine, opened his mouth, and shut it again.
“There, now, don’t look so disconcerted. If anyone asks, wicked Prince Caine has just solved that naughty little marital difficulty that drove you to behave so oddly, drinking alone in this horrid part of town. If interrogated, you’ll even have physical evidence of the reason why you were slinking about so obviously.” Caine smiled sweetly. “But I wouldn’t wait too long to obtain the collaboration you’ll need from the appropriate innocent party.” He raised one hand. “No, don’t thank me. Contemplating the enhanced happiness of you and your bride will be reward enough.”
Before Piggy could flog his ashwood-sodden wits into remonstrations, Caine had leaned forwards, planted a kiss on the still-lush lips, slipped out from behind the curtain, woven his way through the crowded cabaret, and departed into the night.
It was possible Piggy’s supposed adventure into rebellion could be nothing but a trap, but Caine wasn’t inclined to think that the case. He was convinced enough not to be much worried about himself, only about his connections to the resistance. But dangerous or no, given the contents of Piggy’s papers, Caine didn’t mean to delay. Instead of using drop-boxes for the delivery, this information would have to take the short route, the one used in the opposite direction for Caine’s special assignments. He’d have to go to Lammert, which meant taking trouble over his passage.
Good thing that taking trouble would also be normal if Caine’s meeting with Lammert was – not innocent, but part of Caine’s usual behavior. He could use all the tricks he’d learned to throw off followers, just as he would have done if he’d weakened enough to stalk his very own prester to Lammert’s lair on some other, more innocuous midnight. Most times such a hunt would be useless, with Lammert sleeping the sleep of the blessed behind a securely locked door. But this was a fast, meditation, and penance day on which Cain had probably gotten Lammert into trouble yet again. If Lammert was done with his devotions before the second turn of the night, Caine would be amazed.
The chill wind had blown away most of the clouds; only a few now scudded, silent and silvered, across the bright harvest moon hanging above Chabone’s slate rooftops. For once the stars were sharply visible, with the streetlights darkened for the black-out and the peat smoke from thousands of chimneys thinned by the wind into threads that raveled away towards the west. Caine had long ago memorized both the plans he’d bought from a clerk in the city inspector’s office and the information purchased by liberal refills in the pub favored by the Dockside district temple staff. In the bright moonlight, Caine found it remarkably easy to get over the wall of the temple-close and up the stone stairs to Lammert’s wing of the cloisters. Really, he was surprised the laity didn’t do this sort of thing all the time. Perhaps they did. That was a happy thought to keep Caine company as he stepped quietly through the halls, patient as a pard prowling after his prey.
By the Seven, he loved the late Interregnum style. The entire corridor was lined with unnecessary decorative alcoves with shelves at their backs and arrases in front, a lurker’s dream. Easing behind a dreadful last-century tapestry that depicted the Lady of Mercy as more anemic than ascetic, he found himself keeping company with what smelt like six shelves of lectionaries and rite-books. Then his hunt became merely a matter of easing the corner of the tapestry aside and waiting for the familiar footsteps.
When, after a long silence, he heard Lammert’s tread, Caine swept aside the tapestry with one hand, reached out, seized, and yanked. Then he let the tapestry fall so he could wrap both arms around his captive.
“Caine.” Lammert’s voice was soft, resigned, amused.
“I should have known you wouldn’t be surprised.” Caine rose onto his toes to nuzzle into the nape of Lammert’s neck. In his opinion, he’d earned the treat by staying out of Lammert’s chambers. Much more tempting, a bedchamber, even a consecrated prester’s bedchamber, than an alcove full of musty leather bindings.
“Peel off, you idiot.” Lammert reached back over his shoulder, laced a hand into Caine’s hair and then yanked, hard. “Of course I was surprised, just not that my ambusher turned out to be you. Are you trying to make sure I don’t sleep easy for a moon? Or is it my consequent session of self-discipline that interests you?” Finally noticing that his hand was still laced into Caine’s hair, Lammert pulled it away. “Whatever this is about, you should have settled for writing.” He twisted, not so much to get free, in Caine’s opinion, as to keep from relaxing so intimately against Caine’s body. Caine managed to ease a leg between the prester’s thighs from behind and, with a sigh, Lammert stopped struggling. “You’re enjoying this, Caine, and I’m sure you know many more effective brawling maneuvers than I do.”
“I find our encounter stimulating, I admit. As to the nasty maneuvers—” Caine searched, found the groin even through the ridiculous prayer-robe. As he’d remembered from their school-days, Lammert’s tool was of average size, maybe a bit broad-bored, useful for all sorts of jobs: lovely.
“That’s not nasty, that’s altogether too nice.” Caine felt Lammert take a deep breath, felt the back against him tense as if the prester had come to some sort of resolution. “Caine, you know perfectly well I love you, want you. But if I break my vows my life will be purgation, for all sorts of reasons, the more material of which you understand quite well. You would have to take me without my consent, and I really hope you don’t.”
Caine blinked in the dark. This was the first time he’d heard the twin, blunt declarations in—years? No, since they were roomies at the Institute. Lammert speaking of love made him feel both ill and eager, but such words were hardly the magic talisman against harm the lady’s journals would have their female readers believe. And the possibility of rape heated rather than chilled. Caine knew enough, cared enough, was skilled enough that he could easily demand and receive Lammert’s bodily pleasure, probably even if his friend put up a determined fight. But Lammert was right, there would be trouble afterwards. So Caine would let go in a minute or two. Just now, though, Lammert’s tool was still hardening. Caine stroked gently, holding Lammert tight with his other arm. A mere caress, a flutter of fingers, a child’s game. Very restrained, in fact.
Caine must have said the last words out loud. Lammert chuckled warmly, barely audible.
Caine’s fondling hand sprang away as if he was petting broken glass. Alarm, revulsion, or anger: any of those responses and he would have pressed on, knowing the emotions could easily be overcome. The well-known, deep laughter stopped him cold.
“You stinker,” he breathed into Lammert’s ear, and then craned up to kiss it, flick the lobe with his tongue, suckle.
“No really, Caine, don’t. You’re much too good at this and I can’t entirely resist you.”
Purge him. Caine didn’t want to unwrap his arm, but now he had to admit his reluctance wasn’t only because of how Lammert’s buttocks felt against his own tool even through the annoying serge. The warmth he enfolded, the familiar, faint, mingled smells of incense and skin oil, the deep voice, intimate and affectionate, he wanted everything for his very own. “I could keep going. I should; you’d spend in short order, I promise you. As it is, two to one you’ll suffer like the Judged if I stop.”
Once again, Lammert shuddered with mixed amusement and passion, which shifted him a little against Caine’s groin. “Remember, I’m not supposed to gamble, either. A pity, considering how much time I’ve spent studying probability theory over the years. Caine, why else are you here?”
“Oh, business.” Even to himself, Caine sounded petulant. He let go and moved as far away as the tiny alcove allowed. “I ran into Piggy Kashan again in the Golden Orb tonight. Did I tell you that he’s working on reorganizing the record-keeping in the Foreign Ministry? He had a wedding present for me: rather backwards, that.”
Lammert went still before he said, his mind obviously leaping ahead, “A trap?”
“Perhaps, if he’s a tool, although I doubt that, knowing Piggy. He’s the sort who’d twist unexpectedly in your hand.” Caine grinned to himself. “And certainly not with Piggy as willing bait. You know I have a sense for that sort of thing, people hiding baser motives.”
Lammert snorted, but then added, “Yes, you do. What did he tell you?”
“Passed along to me, rather.” Caine took out the papers and handed them over, then lit his cheroot torcher so that Lammert could see. The prester skimmed the papers, his glasses glinting in the faint light. Caine knew Lammert was reading the details of what Caine had been told. The Ossians had decided they were going to round up the Kingdom of Ruthlann’s renunciate population and ship them all off to help build the grandiose new Ossian god’s-holt in the Great Brechii marshes.
Caine had once been intimate with a soldier who’d served some moons on guard duty in the Brechii. The man had told Caine that renunciates, along with all the other folk Ossians considered trash, were set to labor there until insufficient food, no rest, and the marsh diseases weakened them past being useful. Then they were used as devil fodder, and the husk that remained was shot. Sometimes, the soldier had admitted with a laugh, they were used and then shot on arrival. It was more efficient, in many cases. The gods were fed either way—
Unhappy, that situation, but this new variation was infuriating. Abjurers of the daemoni or no, Ruthlann’s renunciates were Ruthlann citizens, not just random competitors with the Ossians for the title of most annoying apostates from the Established Reformed Temple in the past three centuries. Caine had shopped at renunciate stores, eaten at renunciate restaurants—their sea-fish dishes were especially fine—and had a renunciate bootmaker. He had no intention of putting up with both gross inconvenience to himself and useless unhappiness for his eldest brother Amerric’s subjects if he could do anything about the matter.
Finished with his reading, Lammert tossed his head. Caine capped his torcher.
In the renewed dark, Lammert’s voice was both sad and amused. “Piggy, Piggy. What kind of an age is this, when you have to be a hero?”
“One could ask the same about either of us, dear-heart.”
“True, and with arguably greater cause. Caine, I’ve fasted most of the day. I need some sleep. I don’t want to be this stupid tomorrow when I pass Piggy’s information up the chain. Although I think they may already have heard murmurs of something.”
Caine considered the indecisive instructions he’d received from the resistance that afternoon. He’d never been sure how much Lammert knew about the details of Caine’s jobs for the resistance, so he settled for saying, “Yes, there’s a certain air about people on the town tonight. Everyone seems to sniff that something strong is fermenting.”
“Let me go, then. I’ll need my wits about me and, as you predicted, I’m now suffering like the purged.”
With the near-instinctive grace born of ample experience, Caine stepped forward in the dark, grasped Lammert’s shoulder with one hand, tilted the prester’s head down with the other, and kissed the well-known lips. He was purposefully rough, plunging his tongue into the hot mouth opened to him. Beneath his own ravaging tongue, Lammert’s lay still. But the low sound that escaped Lammert was one of desire. Caine pulled back. “There, now I’m as badly off as you again. I won’t comfort myself, so we’ll suffer together. Happy?”
“Eah, yes and no.” Lammert’s voice was hoarse, deep. Caine felt himself smile. “Caine, you’re a very dangerous man.”
“And you know perfectly well it gives me joy to hear that from you. As I said earlier, stinker.” He heard the soft sound, the intake of breath as Lammert’s mouth opened, probably to say those three deadly words again. Caine pressed his hand over the lips, which smiled against his palm. “No, silence. I do have my limits, and this rotting cruel joke on the part of the daemoni strains them sorely.” His fingers caressed the smile.
Lammert gripped Caine’s hand, tugged it away. “What, aren’t you going to claim that my yielding could be the making of you, the transforming sacrifice that would change your life?” The tone was as kind as the words were mocking.
“Am I to assume you’re that stupid? Prester, dear, don’t torment this pitiful wreck with vain hopes.”
“Swallow your hopes, Caine. I’m not stupid: merely, at times, too optimistic.”
“Then go away from me. Flee, Lammert.”
“I shall. But you’ll still be the hopeless dissipate that I can trust to stop when I really need you to. What a challenge to my understanding of the Seven’s will you are, Caine.”
“A few more such compliments and I surely will rape you, dear heart. That would not only be bad for me, but I might fumble and hurt you.”
“Eah, I’m going.” Again Lammert paid Caine the compliment of taking him seriously. He backed away through the tapestry, paused in the dim light of the corridor’s lamps to smile once more and kiss his own hand towards Caine, and then fled. The sound of his sandals against stone flags was followed by the noise of a door slamming, a bolt shooting home.
Caine closed his eyes as another hard tremor racked his body and then he stretched his own lips. The smile felt ironic and probably looked it as well. How deliciously painful this dancing on the sword’s edge was. What a pity Lammert had transferred provinces quickly enough to ward off Caine’s fall when they were both younger and unburdened by the worries of these annoying political chores. Caine’s lips twisted. If ever he did again have the time and opportunity to fall, he hoped it was onto Lammert.
Over a decade ago, when the cloth-mills were closing in the Western Hills and the displaced workers had streamed into Charbone, the consecrated of Dockside temple had converted their old ossuary into a charity café. When times turned fat, the café had fed the tour-takers who came to gape at the temple’s ancient stonework and statues. Now, with much of Ruthlann’s butter, barley, and beans going to support the Ossian war effort, food was in short supply again and once more the café helped feed the district locals.
Lammert preferred eating in the café to the refectory on those days after he’d lain stretched out before a select group of his fellows, confessing his errors and receiving council. He put his tin tray down on the tiny wooden table tucked into a corner formed by two barrel arches, and sat. Next to Lammert, the skull of Dean Icthio Stenlar grinned from his painted niche. They were colleagues: three centuries ago, the good Dean had devised a “most cunning and devout system of calculations for the discernment of secrets revealed by hairy stars,” or so the ornate script engraved on the marble plaque beneath Stenlar’s niche proclaimed.
He eyed his predecessor. “I’d bet you never had to grovel in front of your Precept Chapter of Council.”
“Don’t be so sure, Lammert.” Startled, he glanced up. Mother Lynn, of course, the one of his seven auditors of the previous afternoon he’d least wanted to meet so soon after this latest preciptory. While he’d been confessing, she’d had a way of smiling sympathetically that had made him talk and talk, elaborating on details he usually suppressed—
Without asking permission, she sat and regarded her own tray. “Do you think there are turnips in the goulash this afternoon? But why do I wonder? There are always turnips in the goulash. In any case, I believe Dean Stenlar had twin weaknesses for mead and wagering on skiff-races. Seemingly, he devised a system of calculations for those, as well. The precept archives say they had to take the vault keys away from him.” She tore off a neat hunk of the bread and dipped it into the stew, tasted, chewed, and swallowed. “Alas, turnips.”
“Their correlation with our café goulash approaches statistical significance even without knowing Prestor Bella’s brother has both a turnip farm and a generous disposition.”
“In any case, I’ve been thinking about the difficulties you mentioned during Chapter yesterday. Not that I could help doing so, mind.” She suddenly grinned, an expression that was slightly surprising on her usually serene countenance. “When I went down to the clinic this morning there was a bouquet of flowers waiting for me. Mixed lilies and leap’s-foot, my favorites, in a blue porcelain vase.”
Lammert felt his own lips start to quirk, but forced them to purse instead. “His Serenity, of course. He tends to like my friends. Don’t let him get you alone.”
“Believe me, I won’t. From your accounts, the temptation would be much too perilous for the poor man, not to mention the danger to his targets. I wonder where in the world he got those lovely brown eyes. I don’t remember seeing such an unusual color mentioned in the royal genealogical society records.” She tossed her head. “Speaking of records, though, I may have unearthed something that bears on your problem.”
“Oh, so?” The turnips weren’t too bad. At least they hadn’t been stewed into mush.
“Yes, in a gloss on Father Shenowe’s Visions of the Seven Realms. I recently re-read Shenowe, so he was fresh in my mind during your preceptory. His sacred visions were almost opaque, but the devotional poetry he wrote as a postscript was quite clear and quite—”
“—dreadful,” they finished together and laughed.
She resumed, “One of the best arguments for daemoni influence on Shenowe, I’d say, is that his account of his visions was so tastefully lyrical. Obscure, though. I’m afraid the commentary was much needed. Here, I’ll read you the annotation in question, sans the archaic language.”
She pulled a thin, worn book from her sleeve, leafed for a moment, and then read, voice low. “ ‘In this passage, Holy Father Shenowe reveals to us the twelfth gift of the fifth heaven, the miracle of salvaging that which is unsalvageable. When a babe is born vile as a beast, a babe warped by devils who consumed its conscience in the womb, a devouring babe whose depredations would burden the world, this is the miracle that may be wrought by a virtuous sacrifice. One of the angels who rejoices with the daemoni may choose to be born to mortality, dividing his holy nature between his new self and the bereft babe, so gifting from his own abundance scruples to an infant who has none.’ ”
Lammert realized he was tearing his bread into smaller and smaller pieces, and forced himself to stop.
Lynn closed the book on a finger and tilted her head. “Inspired by viniculture grafts, some of my chirurgical colleagues have pondered the notion of human organ transplants. I don’t think they’ve ever considered transplanting ethics into a psychopath, though. In any case, the commentator then writes—” She reopened the book. “ ‘Since the moral sense grew not within the babe’s own body but arrived after the birthing from a different hierarch of being, we are informed that the adult’s conscience will ever be as an exile in a foreign land. Still, sundry horrors can be diverted by this miracle, such monstrosities as when—’ I’ll skip her enumeration of the disgusting slaughters and revolting murders most dear to moralizers of the early Interregnum. But you may be interested in this last bit. ‘Each being thus formed shall always seek its partner. Each shall yearn for their reunion, this hunger the fire that reforges the babe devil-shattered into a tool of virtue in the hands of the Seven.’ ” She shut the book.
“By the Lady.” Lammert closed his eyes. “I have to say, on first hearing, the whole idea sounds ridiculous. I’m certainly not angelic, to tackle one proposition.”
Lynn considered him. “You are quite virtuous, I’m afraid. Amazingly virtuous, if you’re actually operating with only part of your moral facilities. How much your elder is Prince Caine?”
As temple archivist, she probably already knew his answer. “Eight moons or so. But mine was an early birthing.” Opening his eyes, staring at the arrowhead pattern beat into his cheap tin tray, Lammert said softly, “To tell truth, I’d prefer for Holy Shenowe to be wrong. What would his words signify? What would they mean for Caine?”
“Hum. For one thing, I’d suggest your not dying before His Serenity. For another—well, I don’t want to bias your own research with my preliminary conclusions.” She offered Lammert the book. “Here are all the gruesome and/or poetic details, in case you’re interested. Now, do you have your written reflections on yesterday’s preceptory?”
He traded Piggy Kashan’s documents to her for the annotated copy of Shenowe. Without looking, she tucked the papers into her sleeve. When not busy with her usual labors, Mother Lynn was also a fine field-supervisor for the resistance.
“Good. Lammert, I’m leaving these turnips to their destiny. Wasteful, I know, but not even a miracle of the Seven can change their intrinsic nature.”
Picking up her tray, she strode briskly off through the ossuary. Lammert dutifully ate his own goulash for a few minutes more. Then, giving up, he opened Shenowe and flipped to the good Father’s long and lyrical description of daemoni miracles.
Caine gave his umbrella an idle twirl. Sometime late last night the wind had shifted to the north-west and was now blowing chill and moist, tainted with the fish-and-fuel smell of the grand harbor, towards where he stood by the Teraband Bridge. The first thin clouds had appeared high above the northern horizon, which portended either rain today or squalls tomorrow. Enough excuse, in any case, to bring along his umbrella once again. He’d used it in the crush on the pneumatic tubes to “accidentally” jab a woman he’d spotted as one of his security dogs. Poor amusement, but Caine would take any distractions he could after this morning’s meeting. His steward had spent almost a half-turn complaining about the amount Caine gave away to this or that entertaining little cause. Sah, the man had no sense of how delightfully a few coins could make people behave. Perhaps that made Caine’s charitable impulses strictly self-indulgent, but he could have been spending the dosh at the gaming tables, after all.
“Your Serenity.” Lammert seemed none the worse for wear, given last night’s little meeting. But he’d been to the barber this morning; his hair was shorn so short the scalp showed faintly through the stubble. How very consecrated of him.
Turning away from the railing where he’d been watching some rather handsome longshoremen unloading a Maruyan coaster – the banner of neutral Maruya was one of the few foreign flags flying in Chabone, these days – Caine smiled. “Prester. Why are we rendezvousing here?”
“I wanted to stop by an antiquarian bookstore over on Chandler’s Lane to buy you this.” Lammert reached into the sleeve of his tunic and pulled out a worn volume bound in temple grey.
Caine read the spine. “Visions of the Seven Realms. I vaguely remember the title from our studies of Interregnum literature. Rather obscurely mystical, isn’t it? Not my usual kind of book, dearest. I’m more the Jolly Swivery of Goodwife Tuppey sort when it comes to reading the classics.”
“This book may hold your interest. Let me tell you why, and then you can buy me lunch at Amsalon’s by the pier.”
Delightful, a renunciate restaurant. The security agents following Caine would be livid. Dear Lammert. He did indulge Caine when he could.
As they made their way through the packed streets of the Harbor district – bustling, but not as much as they should have been, given the Western Alliance blockade – Caine divided his attention between checking for followers and listening to Lammert’s account of the conversation with his much-admired Mother Lynn. Gradually Caine’s attention shifted from the passers-by to the talk.
When Lammert ran down, Caine said, “My, I am glad now that I sent a proper vase with her flowers. Do you think she likes candied fruit? I can’t lay hands on any decent ginger these days.”
“Try a tin of allspice-crisps. Caine, what do you think about the divided-conscience notion?”
“Well—” He raised his eyebrows, considering. “I believe I rather like the idea. It’s wonderfully flattering to my self-importance, after all.” That surprised a crack of laughter out of Lammert. “And how pleasing to find that everyone who spent valuable time naming me devil had gotten half-way to the truth. Devil-crafted, would that be correct?” Caine smiled, and said, “Not to mention, I do like a neat explanation.”
“Yes, you do. I remember how sulky you’d get back in school when you thought something hadn’t been made properly clear.”
“I had reason. ‘Don’t knock out Young Master Ithwich with a palings bat, Your Serenity,’ even though you remember how he pleaded for relief from that toothache. ‘Don’t drink the cherry brandy hidden in the buttery, Your Serenity,’ even though none of the kitchen staff remembered the flask still existed. Worst of all, ‘You mustn’t request such vile acts from other boys, Your Serenity, especially not from your roommate.’ And yet I knew full well you didn’t already have a sweetheart, would never hurt me, and were amazingly good at futtering. Morality: the one subject in which I got extracurricular tutoring more irrational and tedious than that in royal deportment.”
Lammert paused by a tram stop to take off his glasses and polish them on his sleeve before saying, “Thank you for the compliment, Caine. By the way, I wasn’t the one who told on us.”
“You are quite welcome, and I never thought you did. When you decided we had to stop, you said so.”
“I’ll admit, not by my choice. I’d been chosen—”
“Once more the Seven get their way. It’s nice to be the daemoni.” Caine looked sideways at his friend. “Still, your explanation of the metaphysical roots of past events encourages me. What is your opinion of secluded waterfront alleys, holy Prester?”
“That they reek. I take it that you’re not deeply concerned by Shenowe’s revelation?”
“Only that I find it more inspiring to be a blind man who’s learned to see using scents rather than a normal man who’s tone-deaf, if you grasp my rather mixed metaphor about my moral state.”
“Speaking of which, is your problem with ashwood that it makes a fellow slow? Then why didn’t you complain about the malagan?”
Lammert shrugged. “Pragmatism on my part, I’m afraid. Malagan, for all that it stinks vilely and will shorten your life, tends to calm. Ashwood, on the other hand, not only makes a man slow, it makes him libidinous. And,” Lammert’s voice was dry, “as we both know, that’s a problem for you.”
“I still hew to our deal, Lammert. You don’t worry about all that chaste-mind, chaste-tongue nonsense the temple advises while you’re with me, and I, in turn, follow your list. No matter how happy I could make them, no pain-eaters, no one wearing a youngling lock, no rape even sans force—” Lammert glanced at the sailors who were pushing past them as Caine enumerated points on his fingers. Caine followed Lammert’s gaze. “Don’t mind them. They just want liquor and men. As for myself, I just want a nice seaweed stew.”
“No offense, Caine.”
“None taken. When it comes to the ashwood I suppose, as usual, you’re right about the virtue of giving it up. I wouldn’t know.” Caine shrugged, already bored with the topic. “But what shall I do with Shenowe?”
“Why not read him? You might enjoy yourself. The poetry really is rather pretty. Besides, part of the book seemingly discusses you, your favorite subject.”
Caine laughed. “Ow. A neat jab. My prester, you do give me joy.”
“In gratitude, would you consider renewing the usual let’s-not-talk-about-you-know-what-for-a-turn truce? I’m still recovering from last night.”
“Of course. I want your opinion on the war news anyhow, and on a rather interesting little article I read about Remean remains recently uncovered in the western hills. We can pretend to be mundane chums of the so-called educated classes.”
“For a turn, at least.” Which they did, until the Ossians joined them at lunch.
If the troops had wanted to join them to eat, that would have been one matter. The seaweed stew was rich with fresh-caught haddock and inexpensive enough to lure all sorts of patrons past the mandated sign in the front window that read “Renunciate Business” in heavy, black Ossian typeface. But the troopers had obviously come to destroy.
The front door was opened so violently that the bell-string swung clanking against the wall instead of chiming, and the other diners seemed to freeze at the sound. The four troopers – veteran mountain guards, by their informal kit – looked around the restaurant. Then one turned and picked up the doorstop, a cast-iron porpoise, and wheeled it casually underarm into the machine that sold sweets, shattering the glass dome and sending candies bouncing and rolling across the floor. The trooper plucked a single cherry-drop from the ruin of the machine and popped it into his mouth. Caine felt, as much as saw, Lammert tense.
The troop-leader had spotted Patriarch Vere, Amsalon’s cook, picking up a searing-plate from behind the counter. Cracking a joke to his men in Ossian that made Caine’s eyebrows climb, the troop-leader started forward. A couple of the patrons scrambled out of his way although most stayed still and a few had risen to their feet. But it was Lammert, his size suddenly as obvious as his consecrated’s robe, who stepped into the troop-leader’s path.
“Stop now, please.” The words were calm, but Lammert’s Ossian was almost painful in its purity. Then, before the troop-leader could comment, “This establishment is under temple protection. If you have business here, use legal channels.”
Caine, who’d been watching with interest, pursed his lips. Actually, Amsalon’s wasn’t under temple protection, only Lammert’s. No renunciate was under temple protection. That was the point of being a renunciate, after all, that you rejected both the mastery and the giftings of the daemoni. Still, one could tell the troop-leader was suddenly recalling naked Ossian military penitents running through Charbone’s streets. Best to act before the memory became a challenge to the man’s courage.
Caine stood and pointed to an out-of-place couple dressed in bureaucrat’s clothing, who’d been uncomfortably prodding at some braised eel before the soldiers arrived. “You two. Yes, you. I’m trying to have lunch, and these men might throw something about that would spill my food or even bruise me.”
Now another of the troopers stomped towards them, probably to support his leader by assaulting Lammert, Caine, or the pair of security agents. The third trooper had just been poked in his belt by the bony index finger of a small, elderly woman in a ridiculous black-net hat, and the final one was gaping, his lips stained red from his candy. These troops were not the brightest boys in the barracks, obviously, but Caine still reached for his umbrella.
Before the scene could degenerate into some ridiculous brawl, the woman Caine had addressed also stood up and pulled out a card-case. “Troop-leader!” Her Ossian wasn’t any better than Lammert’s, merely more precise.
The troop-leader turned, looked at her, and spotted the now-open case. Seeing the credentials inside he braced, his eyes suddenly focused at a point midway down the stuffed tunny on the wall across from him. “Yes, ma’am.”
“You’re out of bounds. Take your men and go.”
“But, ma’am, the new directives—”
Really, Caine thought, official encouragement for off-duty brawling? Well, that explained the sudden rise in recreational renunciate destruction on the part of the troops. Caine was willing to wager their appetites were being whetted for the impending general round-up.
The agent’s eyes narrowed at the troop-leader’s small slip. “Leave. Now.”
Gathering up his men, the troop-leader was out of the door a few ticks later, and given the woman’s tone Caine didn’t wonder. The security pair stood up and left in their turn, although the man spat on the floor just inside the door before it finished swinging shut. Caine cocked his head. Was another agent still in the restaurant, or would they wait outside? He peered through the window. Outside.
When he turned his attention back to the restaurant, one of the Vere daughters was already preparing to clean up the candies and spittle, and the elderly lady was over by the counter speaking to Patriarch Vere, her voice shrill and angry.
“Well, there it is, Vere. No matter how many years you’ve lived in this district, it’s time for you to depart—”
That was revealing. Seemingly, Lammert thought so too, since he interrupted her with, “I’m sorry, but could we have our bill?”
Caine waited until they were in a clear space on the Teraband Bridge to ask Lammert, “Depart where? Is someone going to re-open the smuggling routes to Maruya?”
“Dear Wisdom, I hope so. The entire renunciate matter’s obviously rising to a crest even before the Ossians put their cursed plans into place.”
Lammert was so upset that he was spitting his plosives. So there went any hope of flirtation for the rest of the afternoon. Caine hid a sigh. Purge the resistance, anyhow.
Still, all the Ossian disruption was annoying enough to Caine that he put something very special into the tiny load-case he left in the drop-box for his courier-chain that evening. Caine had access to a horse tranquilizer with an unfortunate intravenous effect on humans. Dipping an air-pistol bullet into the stuff was good insurance against poor aim. Better careful than caught short, after all.
When, the next day, his uncle the king returned from the Long Lakes, and Realm-Leader Cingeto arrived at the National Airship-plaza south of the city, Caine wasn’t invited to take part in either ceremony of greeting. Instead a royal aide, dressed in the new red uniform of the Loyalist Ruthlann Ossian Regiment, was waiting in his suite when Caine returned from a morning of nosing around the capitol. Uncle’s written orders were for Prince Caine to appear, properly garbed, well-behaved, and sober (underlined), to join a party attending the Royal Opera that evening. Number Four Auntie, the queen, must have taken to her bed again, mourning a sterility that obviously wasn’t her fault. So the party would be stag, which Ossians preferred anyhow. That left Caine the closest approximation of a socially-adept high royal available to help escort the notable visitors. Work, work, work.
Caine would rather have spent his evening crawling the capitol, both because he was in the mood for some distraction and because an acquaintance who ran a scarification booth, a woman he suspected of harboring resistance sympathies, had touched him up for an unexpectedly large loan in the morning. Something big besides the Ossian plans was obviously brewing in Chabone, and Caine wanted to gauge a wind more immaterial than the one rising outside his windows.
Instead he had to check his tell-tales to see if the aide had taken advantage of a chance to search. Of course the man had. And then Caine had to don the colonel’s uniform of a regiment of cavalry, (whose men would have fallen about with laughter if Caine had ever actually tried to command them), before listening to chatter from all sorts of delightful Ossian characters. Aside from the usual bullet-headed and fox-faced war leaders, he spotted a trio of grey-clad senior security officials cupping glasses of bond-label mead in white-gloved hands and scuffing up the antique Cormian carpets in this reception room with their polished high-tip boots.
Somehow even Caine had never gotten past the general feeling that grey Ossian security uniforms were a deliberate and rather horrid parody of the consecrated’s garb, in the same way that Ossian interrogators were said to wear green chirurgical coats in the cells beneath their building on Burrim Square. Distracted by his aesthetic distaste, Caine was a touch surprised to feel his skin prickle when he clasped hands with Realm-Leader Cingeto. Such visceral reactions were rare for Caine, and usually meant trouble.
“Your Serenity.” Behind his glasses, the man looked like an upper-end, successful teacher, the sort who had tried to tutor Caine in proper behavior back at the Institute. Caine wondered if the man liked the switch as much as some of those teachers had. “My colleagues, Realm-Commanders Vitor. Realm-Commander Gostinho.” From Cingeto’s stance and tone, Vitor was a time-server and Gostinho a protégée, a possible rival, or, most probably, both.
“Charmed, charmed.” Not really, but what was one more lie by now?
“I understand, Your Serenity, that you’re quite knowledgeable about opera. We’ll be seeing The ’Pothecary’s Folly this evening. Is it true that the composer, Uwe Tuchman, had renunciate sympathies?”
“Not at all, Realm-Leader, he was merely a devotee of the Dancer. The two beliefs occasionally may result in behavior that appears the same to the uninitiated.”
Cingeto grunted dubiously. “Your so-called demons are obvious remnants of primitive folk-theology, but I suppose such beliefs were acceptable in your country’s then-current state of social development. So, is your house orchestra capable of dealing with Tuchman’s usual trio-runs?”
For the next half-turn, the man pulled Caine’s store of operatic lore inside-out. For some reason it annoyed Caine that Cingeto was genuinely knowledgeable about opera. But Caine didn’t bother to argue himself out of the irrational feeling. Since he hoped to be instructed, either tonight or tomorrow, to kill the man, there was no real reason to bother.
“Stian, take this next left corner,” Lammert said, peering through rain-spattered glass. The blackout covers on the truck lamps made visibility poor in the best of conditions, which these weren’t. The rain had made for a dark drive through the maze of Dockside district streets.
“Isn’t that alley blocked?” Stian asked dubiously. He had a right to be concerned. The truck they were in had been “borrowed” from his usual employer, a night-transport firm whose wage vouchers supported his day work as a mosaic-maker. Scratches or dents could lead to dangerous questions.
“No, I was by here yesterday and the smoked-crab merchant’s had finally emptied and stacked their ashcans.”
Stian eased his truck down the alley. They emerged just across Creaker’s Lane from the alley they actually wanted. Stian grunted in satisfaction, checked for both cross-traffic and random Ossian onlookers, and then took them between peat-smoke-stained brick buildings, along the second alley, and to a spike-topped fence that barred its far end. He idled the engine while Lammert got out and used the key he’d been passed along with his instructions at Morning Rites. Then Lammert pulled back the gate and Stian drove into a tar-stained half-acre that had once been part of a rope-walk and was now used for timber storage. Lammert rolled the gate closed, and, with a hissing of steam, Stian killed the lamps and shut down the truck. He opened the door to the cab, and he and Lammert both listened.
Sounds of wind, sounds of rain, faint noise of vehicles on the streets around them, only silence from the surrounding buildings, mostly warehouses. Surprisingly close, a blat sounded, the horn of a trawler passing on the channel just to the other side of the warehouse in front of them. A sea-finch, perched on a pile of salvaged oak spars, let out a cheeping protest. Seemingly nothing out of place, even though Lammert’s skin prickled. But he’d learned not to trust his nerves, and he and Stian didn’t have all night. He went and rapped sharply, once, on the cargo door of the truck before ratcheting it open. Dim light caught the eyes of the people packed inside, and he heard a susurration that sounded like a hundred breaths being released at once. In fact, there were only twenty-eight people in the truck but that was quite enough. Somewhere in the throng, a child whimpered and was brusquely hushed.
Stian brought the ramp. Between them, they got everyone unloaded and inside the warehouse, passing them into the care of a muffled-up figure Lammert couldn’t and didn’t want to recognize, one who smelled of oil, tobacco, and tar. Probably a sailor, Lammert couldn’t help thinking. For a bit there were the noises of milling humanity trying to be quiet, footsteps fading away across concrete floors, what might be a door opening and eventually shutting, and then silence again.
They ratcheted down the van’s cargo door and got back into the cab. Stian peered at his watch; the numbers were picked out with foxfire, useful for his usual job. “That one patrol should’ve moved through by now, but let’s give them a skooch longer.”
Stian would chatter when nervous. He’d been talking on and off for most of the evening. Lammert allowed himself to sigh. “At least we’re done. After this last run past the Sternbind I have no nerves left. I wish we could have waited for a later hour.”
“No offense, Prester, but after second curfew we’d have stood out like the Ossian Leader’s naked tits at a military review. Besides, if all those renunciates we gathered up and dropped off are going to make the tide—” He trailed off suggestively.
“Hum,” Lammert said, keeping his tone neutral. He couldn’t have elaborated and wouldn’t have if he could. There were reasons for compartmentalizing information even during an operation as large as this one seemed to be, and reason primus was Ossian Security. “Stian, what are you thinking about doing with that damaged panel between Wisdom’s and the Dancer’s chapels?”
“Not sure yet.” The man didn’t sound offended, but, then, it took a lot to offend Stian. Unless you were a member of the ruling classes, of course, in which case almost anything would do the trick. But privileged background or no, Lammert, as a labor district prester, seemed to have slipped onto Stian’s list of those-who-almost-work-for-a-living. Stian asked, all innocence, “Maybe I’ll do something with all this heroic toting about of daemoni-dumping renunciates?” That was sheer devilment, Stian’s payment for Lammert’s evading his question. The chance that any temple would allow a depiction of a renunciate on its walls was somewhere between slim and none. “Anyhow, I’ll drop by the bone café tomorrow and we can chew it over with lunch. Turnip goulash again?”
“Of course. I’ve had an offer to pay your expenses for the restoration work, by the way.”
Stian let out a half-snort of laughter, loud in the dark. “Prince Likes-to-stick-his-nose-in, I bet. Eah, I suppose. He’s got the gelt to take the bills. But tell him to keep his paws to himself, ’less he wants to lose ’em.”
“I’ll inform His Serenity of your requirement for accepting his commission.” Lammert was suppressing some amusement of his own. Not that the idea of Caine mashing Stian was funny, but the idea of Stian being able to stop him was. Caine’s deadly talents were also compartmentalized information, though.
“You do that.” Stian reached for the release lever to start the truck. After he’d deftly squeezed the van through several blocks of back routes, he turned onto Chandler’s Lane and asked, “What do the Ossies want with all these renunciates, anyways?” This time his tone seemed genuinely curious. “Not like the Ossies aren’t unbelievers themselves.”
Lammert smiled at this inadvertent evidence of Stian’s birth-standing amidst the middle-sort. No truly poor child would skip, or be allowed to skip, the free meal and prester’s pence received for attending the temple classes, classes where one learned the theological difference between those who responded contentiously to a metaphysics and those who didn’t believe in that metaphysics. A few renunciates were unbelievers, true, but most merely saw no reason to, or had reasons not to, serve the daemoni they believed in. Well, educating adults was part of Lammert’s temple calling.
“There are those who say that the daemoni, back before the beginning of time, started as devils.” Stian made an unthinking noise of protest at the near-blasphemy. “And they don’t mean the civilized sort of devil, the hearth-devil that leaves you a gifty or pinches you black and blue at mid-winter, either. The Seven themselves are silent on their origins. However, the Ossians subscribe to the devil theory and have decided what can happen once can happen twice, this second time under the civilized direction of Ossian science. They’re busy trying to craft devils into daemoni – gods, in fact – who better suit their ways. Their theory is, I believe, that feeding devils just the right mix of human prey—”
“Stinking purgation.” Hard to tell if Stian sounded more impressed or disgusted.
“This heresy does serve a second purpose for the Ossians. It’s as effective for them to pen up all their devils in one big swamp as it would be for them to depend on daemoni they don’t like for protection from becoming devil-prey. For a while, it’s as effective. But eventually I imagine they’ll lose control of their ever-stronger devils. In any case, the renunciates were the first to make noise about all of this, long before even the remaining Ossian temple-believers spoke up. I suppose if you are a renunciate and see no good reason to serve the daemoni, the prospect of serving some Jorry-just-came is even worse.” Lammert shrugged. “So, now the Ossians enjoy their not-so-subtle joke of making the renunciates labor in the swamp on their nice, new temple complex, as well as play the turnips in their scientifically devised recipe for diabolic goulash. Not to mention, the Ossians have never much liked renunciates anyhow.”
“Hah. That’s at least easy enough to understand. Snot-nosed, greasy, over-educated tools of the ruling classes, the lot of ’em.”
Lammert shook his head. Like a lot of dockside folks, or like many of Lammert’s colleagues for that matter, Stian detested renunciates past the point of good sense. He’d risked his life to save some this evening, though, because they were now potential victims of the Ossian class-oppressors. As Lammert’s first tutor used to point out about Remean history, virtue always made its home where it would, not where people thought it should. Once again, Lammert changed the subject, this time to discussing the advance Stian would need to purchase his mosaic tesserae.
Stian let Lammert off three blocks from the temple-close. Lammert strode briskly down the sidewalk, more than ready to get inside and out of his wet clothing. The way the wind was building, this was turning into a nasty night. He hoped an autumn squall wasn’t in the offing. If, as he suspected, the Ruthlanni renunciate population was currently being shipped across the straits to Maruya, they’d have rough passage enough without encountering a squall-line.
Rain damped the sound of Lammert’s footsteps, but his weren’t the only ones muted. He rounded the last corner and was caught unaware by the cluster of Ossian security in rain-slickers, gathered around one of their too-familiar black steam-vans in front of the temple-closes’ wrought-iron gates. There was a barked command and a pair of troopers trotted over to seize Lammert, one on each arm. A troop-leader walked over and shone a spark-lantern onto his face.
“He’s on the list.” In Ossian, but Lammert didn’t let his comprehension show. Then the man continued, in accented Ruthlanni, “Your papers, citizen-ally!”
Some part of Lammert was still hoping this was all a mistake, that, upon seeing his identification as a consecrated, they’d let him go his way. But no. His papers were compared with the troop-leader’s list. The man looked up and nodded. The two troopers holding Lammert promptly took turns hitting him, briskly, once each. Then they yanked him back upright to face the troop-leader.
Lammert looked up, dazed.
“You’re under arrest,” the troop-leader said. Then, as if he’d remembered an unimportant but customary detail, “You’ve violated the curfew.” A fairly thin excuse for an arrest, given that he was now ticking something off his list, obviously Lammert’s name. “And for resisting arrest.”
Before Lammert could spit the blood out of his mouth and reply, the infamous black hood was yanked over his head, he was shackled, and he was in the van, out of the rain.
He’d rather have still been soaked. Taking a deep breath beneath the stifling fabric, he concentrated on mastering his fear.
Caine was numbered off to keep Cingeto company in the man’s chauffeured car en route to the Royal Opera House, but they were separated at the entrance. The welcoming committee swept away the Ossian security party in a swirl of military orders and sashes-of-award, but Caine was held back to be put through the usual search. Out of deference to his position, he was taken off to one side of the line and the security troops were polite. But they were still thorough. His pockets were emptied, his royal self patted down. One trooper took Caine’s air-pistol out of his holster, opened it quickly to check that the magazine was empty, and then passed the pistol back. Caine wondered if he’d imagined the sniff of disdain at the ceremonial supposed-weapon.
Afterwards, Caine loitered with a few of his cronies, putting off a bit longer his duty of occupying a rear-row seat in the royal box and being a charming host to the Ossians. As was customary, Caine’s clique awaited the first notes of the overture in a corner of the grand lobby where they could observe the procession of Charbone’s exquisitely garbed upper society as they entered, mingled, and promenaded up twin curved staircases to the retiring rooms and the refreshment bar. Caine had just refused an invitation to a boar hunt when a slim figure in green satin and feathered diadem caught his eye.
Well. Piggy’s new highlady, Heike, was surveying the crowd herself, probably seeking her missing spouse. She caught Caine’s eye from across the crowded marble floor and then looked away. Caine smiled, excused himself to the acquaintance who was now telling an off-color joke that Caine had already heard, and deftly threaded his way through the crush. As he approached, her eyes darted left and right before her chin firmed and she stood her ground.
“Your Serenity.” Her tone was more wary than frigid or annoyed.
“How pleasant to see you here this evening. Are you a devotee of Tuchman?”
“No. I’m completely stupid about opera, but I need to learn. Piggy’s senior supervisor is mad for the stuff, I fear.”
Caine’s lips twitched at her frankness. “You picked a tolerable piece to start with, then. The ’Pothecary’s Folly is rather jolly. Where’s Piggy?”
“Probably still trying to get us drinks.” She eyed him. “I hope you aren’t trying to set up a sustained flirtation with me. Piggy warned me about that.”
“Oh, so?” Caine shook his head. “Unfair. And after all I did for him at our last meeting.”
Caine had meant to leave the matter there, just a tiny prod for amusement’s sake, but her eyes narrowed. “I’d been hoping to have a chance to ask you about that meeting, Your Serenity.”
“Hum?” Too late to retreat.
“Piggy doesn’t tell tales, but he’s been upset ever since the evening he went out with you.” She examined Caine and then added, with a touch of defiance, “Out with you, crawling the cabarets, that is. Will you tell me what you talked about?”
Oh dear. But Lammert always said that honestly was the best choice, except when it wasn’t. “Just about what you’d expect in the circumstances, highlady, idle gossip about his new happiness. I suggested he introduce you to a deviant sexual practice he used to enjoy.” There, that should put her off-scent.
Her eyes went wide. “By our Lady, you really are a devil,” she blurted. “And I thought Piggy was exaggerating.” Seemingly trying to mitigate the crude epithet, she amended hastily, “a hearth-devil.”
Not offended, Caine still blinked, but at the code-word that informed him she was his resistance contact. By the Dancer, here was a turn. Did Piggy know about the hobby his wife had brought with her from the mountains? No, he couldn’t know, or he would have told her about the renunciates and not Caine. Good spy-craft, her keeping her own council, but how amusing.
While Caine was absorbing the new situation, Heike had moved in closer and lowered her voice. “So, then, what in the world is that—that object you gave to poor Piggy, the one I caught him trying to hide in his study?” She’d lowered her voice, but intentionally not enough. What a neat excuse for a private conversation. He really had to get to know her better.
Caine grasped Heike’s arm, and drew her to one side, away from the flow of traffic up the grand staircase. “Softly, my dear, softly.”
Seemingly, she didn’t like public and physical reproof. Her chin went up. “I’ll softly you—” She turned abruptly, threw off his hand, started to twist away, and then just as suddenly ceased her struggles, her features delicately and deliciously flushed. “Sah. I’m sorry, Your Serenity. I know that was rude, but honestly. Piggy is beside himself and he won’t say why.”
The pass had been perfect. Caine, protected from watchers by the swirl of her gown as she twisted, had received and pocketed the load-case containing the bullets for his air-gun. He tossed his head. “Oh dear. I was afraid Piggy might lose his nerve.” But Caine didn’t intent to lose his. Work to do or no, this was too good a chance for jollification to miss. Making sure that his hands were quite visible and held well away from her, he leaned over and murmured in her ear a brief explanation of exactly what he’d given to Piggy.
When she looked up at him, eyes wide, he didn’t think her expression was faked. “I—” She swallowed.
“Really, you should talk to your husband about this. I’m not at all the one to be explaining the details of exactly why he was wandering around the cabaret-district, confiding to me the confidential information that suggested that particular wedding gift.”
If he hadn’t been right next to her, he wouldn’t have seen the miniscule shift in her eyes that let him know she’d caught his slight emphasis on the words confidential information. Just as he’d thought, Piggy’s little resistance agent hadn’t known of her husband’s sudden lurch towards heroism. Delicious, but best for her to find out now. She could coach Piggy on discretion in his future endeavors. Perhaps she’d even choose to reward Piggy for his first valorous sally by confirming Piggy’s alibi. Caine gave her a brilliant smile.
Her eyes narrowed. “Excuse me, but I think I’d better go find my husband now. If we are to discuss such matters in the future, Prince Caine, let it be afterwards, outside of the royal opera.”
And there was Caine’s cue about the setting for his assassination, after the show was over. He removed himself from her path and bowed politely. When he straightened up, she was marching back up the staircase, long skirts slightly hoisted in green-gloved hands.
Since most of the patrons thought the true purpose of an opera was to see and be seen, the intervals were long. After the first act, Caine took his chance to slip away again, this time to the King’s Royal Retiring Room. Long ago he’d palmed a key to that toilet and had a copy made, having found it was the sole place at the Royal Opera he could smoke enough malagan to calm a temper shredded by his Uncle’s idea of artistic commentary without getting caught.
No cheroot tonight, though. Caine shut himself into the marble-walled stall and loaded his pistol, then flushed the load-case. He waited to check that there were no problems with the plumbing before he slid the cover closed, sat, and used a small piece of wire to trigger the switch that activated the gun’s extra drive box. There, his air-pistol was armed and ready to go, as was Caine. He was about to get up and send the sliver of wire after the case down the plumbing when he heard the door open. Following childhood lessons, he yanked his feet up off the floor.
Two voices in Ossian, one Cingeto’s. He was saying “—lock that door.”
The lock was dutifully thrown. But no one checked the stalls: perhaps they couldn’t imagine anyone breaking into a royal toilet. Ah, Ossians.
Uniform fasteners undone – a familiar enough noise to Caine – and the plumbing being used. But a far more interesting sound was the voice asking, “Given what he said before dinner, do you think the King will object to tonight’s sweep?”
“He may once have believed in his primitive demons, but now he believes in us. Besides, we will only round up a few of their priests and politicals along with the renunciates, all ones on record as having spoken against us. The rest will fall into place neatly enough.” Cingeto sounded bored. “In any case, I want to know what else is going on that we keep hearing hints of. At least one of the priests must be a resister. There we’ll not only find our information but more justification for dealing with the rest of that rat’s nest.”
A pause, and fasteners again. “Your hounds will be out and about by now.”
“No, they’re to hold off. I am master and must oversee this evening’s work myself, but not until after this performance. The choral piece ending the second act is said to be spectacular and the State’s Opera never manages to—”
Smooth, smooth, feet on the floor, open the door, pivot through the space with pistol descending, target, and shoot. Blood from the back of Cingeto’s skull as he still faced the urinal, so done there. Shift the point of aim to the other officer, Gostinho. Shoot again at the turning target and, sah, see only a face wound, possibly survivable even with the poison. So send the last bullet into his heart at close range, dead.
Perhaps fifteen ticks passed before Caine shared the royal retiring room with two bodies.
Not too distressing, that. He’d been supposed to wait until the crowd was emptying from the theater to do his job, but the hardest-to-solve murders were opportunities seized on the fly. Since he hadn’t used the facilities himself, Caine was still wearing his formal gloves. So no fingerprints. He looked down at his uniform and saw no blood-splattering, either.
First, back to the stall, eject the spring box, and send it and the wire tool after the ammunition case. This facility shared lower drains with the main toilets; Caine’s fellow members of the audience would provide more than enough flow to send the evidence away into the main sewers. Next, holstering his pistol, Caine went to the window, opened it, and stripped off his gloves to keep them unstained. Climbing down into the small courtyard below would soak him to the skin. But the short clamber to the Queen’s Royal Retiring Room was acceptable in a crisis, as Caine had discovered once before. Also, he’d be sheltered by an overhang. And, best of all, the open widow overlooking the small interior courtyard would suggest an alternate route for the assassin.
He was amazed, though, to find no guards loitering around when he eased open the door from the Queen’s to the royal corridor. Ah, well, unexpected death from above strikes once more. From above in social status, that was. Caine checked his uniform again. No sign of his clamber. Satisfied, he walked briskly down the corridor, and then turned his walk into a saunter as he joined the interval throng clamoring for a drink.
Feeling refreshed, Caine returned and rejoined the party in the royal box. Although he wanted to make sure that Cingeto’s minions had actually held off and weren’t out bothering Lammert, leaving early would attract exactly the attention he was trying to avoid. Given that difficulty, he hoped to see the rest of the opera, but didn’t expect that he would. But at least they’d been graced with Philo’s famous aria before Realm-Commander Vitor came marching out onto the stage and stopped the spectacle. Caine distinctly heard his uncle grumble, “Sah, what’s this fellow doing?” Not that his so-called Majesty was much for opera, but the soprano playing Philo showed a nice leg in tight breeks, and Ormic followed family tradition in that direction.
Vitor held up both hands and the orchestra dwindled down from trio-runs through alarmed squawking into silence. The process was much accelerated by the double squad of troops, all armed with burst-guns, who followed Vitor out onto the stage and then lined up along the proscenium. Caine had never seen a cast exit quite so quickly and with such lack of concern for applause.
Voice harsh, Vitor called out over the noise of the audience, “Silence!” He got a rough approximation of the state he desired. “There has been an assassination. Two assassinations.” That lost the silence again for several ticks until one of the guards let off a burst into the ceiling. Caine looked up, annoyed, as paint and plaster sifted down onto the crowded seats below. Thus passed one of the murals around the great gilded dome. Scratch off one more perfectly preserved cultural artifact, thanks to the Ossians.
But Realm-Commander Vitor marched on. “Your names will be taken and your papers examined at the doors before you are allowed to leave. However.” He paused for effect.
Caine felt his eyebrows go down, as he absently made some reply to one of his Uncle’s huffles. Surely, in this high crowd, Vitor didn’t mean to enforce—
The Realm-Commander did. “However, we will first impose the mandatory penalty for this audience’s complacency.”
Caine’s mind raced. Dead security officers, and a book-bound Realm-Commander. Of course, Vitor thought he was being virtuous in his consistency, behaving this way. And Cingeto had been a favorite of the Ossian Leader. The resistance had warned Caine. Somehow, once again, Caine had missed putting together subtle clues about consequence that were clear to others before he’d chosen the intoxicating sweetness of action. Somehow he’d fouled up, forgetting what the toll could be amidst his personal concerns. Forty members of the audience were about to be selected and shot, twenty for each dead man.
“Troop-leaders, count off these people.” Craning, Caine could just manage to see troop leaders break away from the guards clustered at each of the main entrances and start moving down the aisles, heads turning as they scanned the audience. The penalty wouldn’t be decimation; closer to one-in-fifteen. Was there a word for that? Lammert would know if he were here.
Only now was the crowd beginning to stir. Didn’t they read the newssheets and know the mandated Ossian penalty? Or was this just the sluggishness of a group who was used to hiring others to riot for them?
The Realm-Commander looked up at the Royal Box. “Remove His Majesty and his party to the palace. Then gather the counted.”
As his gaze followed the troop-leaders, something familiar caught Caine’s eye. A green-feathered head-dress. Piggy’s wife, and next to her, Piggy. By the Lady, was he actually holding her hand in public? Someone had paid attention to Philo’s aria, then. A troop-leader stopped at the end of their row, his gaze passed across the couple, his head paused, and then he moved on.
Lammert was brilliant with numbers, but some arithmetic even Caine could do. Suddenly, clearly, he realized that one-in-fifteen was much too large a fraction, forty too high a count. How amazing: a moral decision he could make all on his own. It would turn out to be a choice he detested.
Caine leaned forward and touched his uncle’s shoulder, who was glaring at Vitor’s presumption in ordering the king to be shifted without consultation. “Excuse me, Sire.” Then he stood up, squeezed past Ormic to the front of the box, and called out, in the voice he’d honed in a hundred noisy pubs and cabarets, “Realm-Commander!”
The man’s chin jerked up slightly. Chah, Vitor, you shouldn’t flinch like that when surprised. The crowd might realize you’re as nervous as you are livid.
Caine continued, gripping the gilded railing with both hands, pitching his words to carry, “I am Prince Caine of Ruthlann. By your grace, I will stand responsible for my fellows’ complacency in this act.” Not that he particularly wanted to, mind, but he was responsible for getting them into this fix in the first place. “Once the Leader of the Ossians was kind enough to say that her loyal allies, the members of my royal house, were each worth a hundred lesser men. Given those words, if you so permit, I will take the place of these others in this audience so that the innocent might not be swept up with the guilty and yet justice still be done.” Pompous phrasing, but such bad theater worked well with Ossians. And he couldn’t offer fairer than this. Not that fairness and the Ossians had much to do with each other.
Vitor considered, fisted hands propped on his hips. The crowd’s muttering was rising to a roar. Come on, fellow, realize I’ve offered you a way to change your mind without losing face, by substituting one useless royal degenerate for forty unknowns with potentially influential survivors. Come on. How long must you think?
Finally, rising up slightly onto his toes, Vitor again bellowed, “Silence!” Amazing how easily the sound of a few burst-gun slides ratcheting back could now enforce that command, what with the former second panel of “The spirit of opera addresses the daemoni” and all. The Realm-Commander continued in a lower, colder tone, “Very well, Prince Caine. Never let it be said that our Union is not merciful to its true supporters. However, we must resolve this matter now.”
“Oh, of course. Here I come, then.” It was an easy jump from the Royal Box to the stage: Charbone legend said that the only architectural requirement of Thorpe II, who’d built the Royal Opera, had been a decent sight-line to the chorus-dancers’ legs. As Caine clambered over the brass railing, Uncle’s face was a treat, if not what Caine would have chosen for a last glimpse of his family. Nurse would have been much better, or the boringly kind and noble visage of Amerric.
He was seized by the Security Guards almost before his feet touched the boards of the stage. They jerked his honor pistol out of its holder: your interest’s too late there, lads, unless you also searched the plumbing. Caine said coldly, “Let me go.” To his surprise, they complied. Then, ignoring his escort, Caine strolled over to where Vitor stood. “Whenever you’re ready, Realm-Commander.” Preferably before I lose my nerve.
Caine turned to look out towards the audience. Unused to the footlights and the spotlight now shining upon him, he was dazzled. But he could hear his fellow Ruthlanni out there, the uneven sounds of a tense crowd forced to near-silence. Several people were now audibly weeping. My, wasn’t this scene bathetic.
He glanced over at Vitor, who was checking the pistol his aide had handed him. What, did the Realm-Commander think someone might have substituted blank rounds during the first act? Caine had certainly left the right Ossian alive to cope with this situation; the man was a militaristic buffoon with all the imagination of a lump of damp peat. He had no idea what he was about to demonstrate to Chabone’s upper crust, not at all the lesson he thought he was teaching. Assassins with guns were nothing for danger compared to a privileged class made afraid for their luxurious lives. Caine should know. Very soon Vitor and his fellow countrymen were going to be amazingly unhappy, and Caine was glad. It was irritating to be executed by such a cretin. Lammert would be so upset. Oh, Lammert.
Indulging in one last, delicious irony, Caine turned back away from the Realm-Commander, dipped his chin, closed his eyes, and crossed his arms over his chest with a hand spread submissively over each shoulder, the classic stance of one consecrated, or of the king-to-be at coronation. The gesture would both pour oil onto the audience’s flames and read wonderfully in the histories. Too bad they couldn’t record what he was actually taking refuge in, his memories of Lammert’s warm ass tight around his tool, his school-friend’s scent, his lovely—
Brightness. The utter shock of the irresistible blow.
Lammert’s head rocked back as he took the latest clout. This one had been pointless, brought on by his firm refusal to suddenly start understanding Ossian when his interrogator came in. The man – small, innocuous, and, as reported, dressed in chirurgical green – shook his head. He said in accented Ruthlanni, “Stop that, Timo. You can’t expect everyone in this country to speak our tongue, not yet.”
He strode briskly over to where Lammert sat strapped in his chair. With a critical expression on his face, he circled Lammert. “Tscha, tscha.” This time in Ossian. “Do I have to tell you men everything? You’re supposed to have been trained in preparation, according to your records.” Delicately, he reached out, plucked the glasses from Lammert’s nose, and peered through them. “Powerful. He won’t need these.” He turned and tossed them to one of the three guards, who placed them on the floor on a piece of paper, ground the glasses into shards and twists of wire, and then disposed of the paper and remnants in one of the covered bins in a corner.
Satisfied, the interrogator walked over to Lammert. “I am the Medico Higini Brask. You, I understand, are Prestor Lammert of the Dockside temple. You were arrested for a curfew violation and assaulting an officer.” He’d switched back to Ruthlanni. The backing and forthing was probably a test of Lammert’s lack of comprehension, but years of rites that mixed the old tongue and Ruthlanni had left Lammert precise about which language he was working with.
“Yes, and yes.” Lammert wasn’t going to waste his strength reserving obvious information.
Brask considered him. “You’re going to be what you call reasonable.” He shook his head. “I’m afraid I distrust your attitude, and I’m rushed. Something is happening in this city my leaders need to know about. And instinct tells me you may have the information I want.” He held out a hand and the largest of the guards stepped forward and placed a file into it. After a minute of reading, Brask looked up and said, “Yes. How lucky that you’ve spent so much time under observation.” He leaned in close to Lammert. Holy Justicar, the man’s eyes twinkled when he smiled. “The observers were surprised by your persistent chastity. I am not. I have studied the consecrated at length with the assistance of some of our Ossian templers who needed to be reeducated before serving their due purpose for the state.”
Ossian security had taken to experimenting on their remaining consecrated? And was the man implying they were then being fed to the Ossian gods? Around now, passing out would be nice, Lammert decided. No, he’d probably want the faint later.
“In any case, I learned of a few short-cuts during my studies. As a mathematician, you’ll understand me when I say my best estimation of the chance that this one will work runs around 0.37.”
Better than a third, he meant. And just what had the size of his experimental population been, anyhow, to achieve precision out to the second decimal place?
“Given my hurry and the fact that I still have two of you to work with, those odds are acceptable.” He turned back to the guards and said in Ossian, “Take him out of this chair, get the clothes off of him, and bind him onto the medium table in the same stance as the last one. Wedge some of his clothing beneath him to pad the genitalia. And get the adjustment of the table angle right. I don’t want you crushing something by mistake and having him lose consciousness. One error tonight was enough.”
Then he went over to the room’s single normal chair to sit and leaf through his file folder as the guards worked; Lammert could hear the sound of pages turning in the pauses while he was being man-handled. When they were buckling the stained leather straps around Lammert’s ankles, Brask looked up long enough to observe in Ruthlanni, tone mild, “You aren’t asking any questions, Prester.”
“This scenario’s fairly obvious, Medico. Rape’s not a violation of our chastity, you know.” Lammert’s voice was only a little higher than usual. That might be his ribs. They hurt worse in this position even with his feet on the floor, able to take some of his weight. But the table’s metal was cold, and he hated that he was being forced to observe, close up, the gutter all around its edge intended, from its stains, to drain off excess blood.
Brask stood and moved back into his field of vision so that Lammert could see. “I was given to understand your theologians differed on the question.” Taking out a pencil, he made a quick note on one of the pages. “So this may not work to best effect on you. But then again—” he shrugged, “—one never knows. We can still move on if we must. Better to be sure first.” He looked up and moued in faint annoyance towards the sound of baritone contention on the far side of the room. “Aren’t you ready yet? Just match fists for the order. We don’t have all night.” That had been in Ossian. Still in Ossian, he turned to Lammert and said, “In any case, please excuse me. I need to review the rest of these papers. If there’s something you want to say to me, I’ll be right over there, well within earshot.”
Lammert made himself squint in confusion. All courtesy, Brask gestured towards his chair, bobbed his head in farewell, and disappeared from Lammert’s view. Lammert closed his eyes and kept them closed at the sound of approaching footsteps.
“All right, you.” An Ossian voice, deep, filled with distaste, the one who’d been so efficient with his boots.
Was distaste better or worse than interest? Lammert’s mind was trying to skitter away from abrupt hands towards that question when he felt his head explode. Then he screamed and kept screaming, everything outside of the tearing pain in his skull an irrelevancy.
He’d been right. He definitely needed the fainting later.
Consciousness returned, an unwelcome gift.
“Sorry I was late, my heart.”
Lammert peered towards the blurred, smoky shadow. “Caine? I can’t see very well. My glasses are broken.” In his gut he felt a thread of dread, a trickle of—
“Not to mention, Prester dear, your right eye is completely swollen shut. Never mind. You don’t really want to see me clearly anyhow. And your recent interrogators would be even less charming to contemplate, given your distaste for blood. I apologize for the mess. They hurried me, and this is all still rather odd.”
His voice was strange, as if Caine was speaking from inside Lammert’s bones rather than outside his ears. Lammert envisioned a skull plucked from an ossuary niche, set neatly between his shoulder-blades, whispering into his skin. The remaining thread of fear in Lammert’s gut wove across the weft of his pain. As a prester, he’d been trained how to interpret such mental images. “Caine. You’re dead, aren’t you?”
“Yes.” Caine sounded more bemused than upset. The sense of being touched increased. A pressure too warm for flesh moved down Lammert’s back, searching. “These injuries aren’t good. Purge my timing.” There was a pause. The pressure was joined by its twin, not only too warm but too liquid, too smooth for human touch. Silk dipped in warmed oil? A cool breeze over a hot fire? Neither comparison was right: Lammert’s body didn’t have the vocabulary for this. He was snapped out of his dazed reverie by Caine’s voice saying, “And purge your injuries. They annoy me, especially considering that you’re also stark naked and stretched out like an emerald necklace draped over a jeweler’s silver display tray.” The so-familiar, predatory note—
To his amazement, Lammert heard himself laugh. It made his ribs hurt again. “In the name of the Seven, you’re dead. Not even you can be that persistent.”
“This doesn’t seem to be about futtering.” The twinned pressures – all right, call them hands – moved slowly down from the small of Lammert’s back to the bottom of his buttocks. There they rested, stroking. Lammert bit his lip, another note of pain amidst the clamor of yearning. Such a touch just now should arouse only revulsion, but Caine had broken rules since the day they met. At least, thanks to Shenowe’s book, Lammert now knew why. The trickle in his gut was a seep of arousal. The seep was widening to a stream, to a river.
Caine said, voice abstracted, almost rapt, “Hum. I don’t think this is about futtering, anyhow. Where does this situation fall amidst all your vows of consecration?”
“I—” Lammert’s mind scrabbled wildly through two decades of metaphysics, natural philosophy, and mystical reading. “—don’t know.” The wrong answer to ever give Caine, but still the truth.
“Well.” The hands shifted slightly. “Well, then.” The strokes of Caine’s hands – no, the heat - was spreading all across Lammert’s buttocks, his loins, his back. Following the channels of pleasure that the touch excavated across his damaged body, Lammert’s arousal rose like the crest of a flood.
“Then perhaps I’d better not ask you what you want, just to be safe.” A weight came down against him that was no weight at all and yet crushingly heavy. “But, for whatever it’s worth at this macabre but tantalizing juncture, I love you.”
“Caine, your timing reeks like—” Whatever else Lammert had meant to say, he’d left the words too late. Caine thrust into him.
It wasn’t the thrust of their youth, those joinings rich in his memory with the smells of sweat and sex, those unions when Caine’s tool had worked up his ass, slowly filling him, building the pressure until Lammert didn’t know whether to plead for relief or for more. No, this was every layer of him from the skin inwards being caressed, seared, and overwhelmed with delight, consumed by the man he loved. He could offer no remonstration but harsh moans that tore away the last rags of his voice. He could take no action but to choose what to give. And so he chose to give all, to empty himself in a way he couldn’t start to describe into what joined with him, to empty himself into Caine. Lammert felt consciousness start to waver again as his seed spurted beneath him, his body translating ecstasy into the only language it knew. Then the building power was too much. He burned.
When Lammert opened his eyes once more, Caine was squatting down next to him, expression anxious. The dress uniform looked good on him, but the neat hole in the center of his forehead ringed with dried blood and brain did not.
“Caine, that’s disgusting. The bullet hole, I mean.”
The low grating his ears heard didn’t match the words in his head but, by his expression of relief, Caine had heard the latter. “Complain to Realm-commander Vitor, the man who shot me. But be glad he didn’t use a higher-caliber, soft-nosed bullet, or the exit wound would have assured I didn’t have a forehead left.”
“Never mind, then. What turn is it?” This time Lammert kept his mouth shut as he spoke.
“About a half-turn has passed, according to the watch on the fellow by the door. The others had watches, too, but they seem to have, hum, melted—” Caine, whose delivery had been amazingly close to babbling, trailed off.
Lammert tried rolling over. He was surprised to find that he could. He was even more surprised to find that he was lying in the midst of a seared black spot on the bare, hot concrete floor. He was surrounded by a few spatters of still-cooling melted metal, three suggestively man-shaped smears, and one charcoaled body next to the door. The room’s green paint was now charred, peeling away from the concrete walls. Lammert raised his eyebrows. “Whatever just happened, it was certainly energetic.” Seeing Caine bite his lips to stop them twitching, Lammert added, “The physics were energetic, you hopeless case.”
“The remnants will give the Ossians something to contemplate. Can you see better now?” Caine started to touch his own forehead, abruptly stopped.
“Only you.” Caine stood out like a fresh painting over the bar in a smoke-filled pub. Perhaps he was just an illusion. He wasn’t helping Lammert scrabble to his feet. But then, considering what had happened the last time they’d touched, that might be for the best.
The keys on the guard by the door hadn’t melted; huzzah for good old-fashioned cold iron. Swallowing hard, Lammert managed to get the keys off the body and into the door lock. At least his right hand still worked well enough, less two of the fingers disabled and a certain stiffness in the wrist.
In the next room down the concrete corridor, Lammert found another corpse, this one mostly intact. He got close in enough to see who it was, checked the non-existent pulse, and peered at the face. The Dean. Oddly, instead of having the usual slack features of the dead, there was a definite expression on the face, a slight, complacent smirk that Lammert had known very well indeed. However the Dean had died, he’d apparently managed to inform his company at the last that he had warned them this would happen. Lammert shook his head slowly, amazed at the pang of regret he’d felt. But he’d never have suspected the Dean of resistance sympathies, either. Human nature, as he’d often told Caine, was occasionally unfathomable.
“Is he dead?” Caine inquired silently and delicately from where he appeared to stand just outside the open door.
“Yes, but he Told Them So.”
“Good for him.” Caine waited patiently while Lammert fumbled at the next door across the corridor. He didn’t offer to take over the keys.
When Lammert checked this room, somehow he was not surprised by its occupant. He hurried inside, almost tripping as his halting leg dragged on the floor. But she was still alive, sitting back with hands spread on folded knees, her eyes closed. At the sound of his stumble Mother Lynn’s eyes opened and Lammert caught his breath. They were no longer a muted grey but an incandescent green.
“Hullo Lammert. I thought I sensed a commotion.” She gestured towards her eyes. At least her voice was the same. “As you can see, my Mistress is upon me.”
Lammert spread his fingers in the tree of life, the gesture of Greencloak, whose dedicatee Mother Lynn was. “Are you all right?” He found that, if he kept his voice to a harsh whisper, he could talk.
“Certainly better than I would be without the help.” There was a note of laughter beneath her words that faded as she continued. “Even the preliminaries of Ossian interrogation are awful, as I can see you’ve found out.”
“So did the Dean, but he’s dead. Although he must have had aid as well. That ‘you should have listened to me’ expression is all over his corpse’s face.”
She sighed. “Since his dedicated Master was the Justicar, no doubt the Ossians should have listened to him, but I imagine that they didn’t. Where are our hosts, anyhow? I’d expected a visit from the official interrogator by now.” Neatly unfolding, she rose to her feet.
“Hum. Dead. At least some of them.” Lammert made a vague gesture. “There’s been a somewhat energetic accident.”
“Seemingly to you.” Her eyebrows raised.
Not wanting to dwell on his condition, Lammert gestured again, towards where he saw Caine standing watching the conversation with an amused expression. “And Caine’s here. I’m afraid he’s rather dead as well.”
She sighed. “I thought something like this might happen, given what must have been building up over the years with one of you consecrated. But I didn’t want to theorize ahead of my evidence.” She turned and looked towards Caine. Then her eyebrows rose once more.
Lammert didn’t want to ask but he made himself. “What do you see?” But he asked so quietly he was amazed she heard his whisper.
“Shadow incarnate, as if peat-smoke had been forged into the form of a man.” Caine raised his arms, wiggled his fingers, and mouthed ‘Waooo!’, the perfect would-be pantomime devil. Whatever she saw must have done the same. “Stop that, Your Serenity. We shouldn’t be wasting time with antics, but fleeing while we can.”
“Alas,” Caine said, “she’s right. And now that I’m dead I shall never be able to find out how deep that charming imperturbability goes.”
Even if Mother Lynn couldn’t hear Caine’s exact words, she seemed to sense something. She interrupted checking Lammert long enough to dart a quelling glance towards the door. Then she asked, “Any guards yet?”
“No,” said Caine, leaning back through the doorway to check.
“Caine says no,” Lammert repeated. “How am I doing?”
“Not good, but not in any shape where you’d be helped by the details. Since you can still walk, let’s leave.”
Caine preceded them up the basement stairs. If Lammert squinted his eyes, he could see the details of his surroundings, but his sharp image of Caine then faded into a murky darkness he didn’t really want to contemplate. So he let Mother Lynn do the steering and settled for transmitting Caine’s directions to her. His poor vision also spared him comprehensive views of the Ossian bodies that they passed, increasingly less charred as the trio found their way to the main entrance. The one dead face Lammert clearly saw was that of the guard by the locked gate to the basement, whose desk they had to rifle in search of more keys. The man’s expression inclined Lammert to prefer the less vivid horrors of charcoal. Obviously the power spawned by Caine’s act had lashed out farther than Lammert had thought, destroying Ossians who hadn’t already met Caine on his way in. That image made him feel ill.
His view of Caine was cheerful enough, though, smiling and waiting patiently for the more physical members of their little party to deal with the business of locks and resume their trek. Caine was taking being dead amazingly well. Perhaps his state hadn’t really sunk in yet. Lammert’s state was sinking in, though. He was perilously close to fainting when they left by the front door, passing four almost intact bodies with burst-rifles. Some part of Lammert considered taking one, but the sensible part of him knew he’d just drop it and blow his own head off if he tried to use the thing. And whatever Mother Lynn did never involved weapons. So they went out into the night unarmed.
Seemingly, nobody observed the three – two – of them as they descended the wide stairs from the front entrance down towards the street. No pedestrians were out in the wind-blown rain, and, in any case, no self-respecting Ruthlanni would loiter by Security House. But Burrim Square was important enough to the capitol’s transport system, with both a tubes entrance and a trolley-transfer platform long located there, that citizens couldn’t avoid it entirely no matter what the hour, the conditions, or the number of Ossians who chose to squat nearby. The locals could, however, stick to the other side of the square and they did so. Lammert knew those waiting for late transport on the trolley would be over by the former green, either beneath the trolley shelter or just inside the graceful metal curves of the tubes entrance, above the locked after-hours gate.
In fact, he could hear them. They were shouting words he couldn’t make out, punctuated by a few screams. Sah, that wasn’t good.
Mother Lynn said, sounding abstracted. “Something’s coming. Something big and nasty. Can you see the fires, Lammert?”
Now that she pointed out the direction, he could see a brightening glow. Probably only the rain had kept him from seeing it before. And there was noise, not a noise of armored steam-cars and troops firing, but a tearing, crashing noise, like buildings collapsing, coming ever closer.
“Everyone’s running to take shelter on the stairs to the tubes. I hope they’ve made the right choice.” Mother Lynn wasn’t moving, though, and Lammert could guess why.
“Dear, dear,” said Caine, chiming in to affirm Lammert’s suspicions. “Our little escape seems to have attracted attention. Someone appears to be looking for us.”
Even Lammert could see clearly when the offices on the corner of Gelton Street burst into flame. Absently, he repeated the remark to Mother Lynn.
“Yes and no. I’d imagine it was the energy of your reunion with Prince Caine that attracted this particular attention.”
Lammert didn’t waste his strength on a whisper. Trotting across the square, his passing leaving behind bootsteps of molten pavement, came a figure dressed in Security Grey. But as Lammert stared, squinting, while something deep inside him tried to fight past shock to conscious recognition, the trooper paused. He caught sight of his prey; he saw Lammert and Mother Lynn on the sidewalk in front of Security House. Raising his helmeted head towards the sky, his flickering red eyes clear even in the murk, he bayed. Then he fell forward onto his hands and knees. As his forearms touched the pavement, he changed. A man-sized black hound now crouched, slavering flame, where the trooper had formerly stood.
Caine’s voice observed, “I have to say, when Realm-Leader Cingeto spoke of his hounds being about their work, I thought the man was being metaphorical, not referring to some of those half-baked Ossian devil-gods— Lammert, what are you doing?”
What Lammert was doing was walking – well, staggering, anyhow – forward. Caine might be past damage, but Mother Lynn, now standing calmly with her hands tucked into her sleeves, certainly wasn’t. Not to mention, there was the crowd on the stairs to the tubes platform. Devils were notoriously undiscerning once their hunger had been aroused by feeding.
Caine’s voice was following him. “My heart, what are you doing?”
“I don’t know. Something.” That feeling deep inside him was whispering that he could do something.
It turned out that the something he could do was die.
There was no nonsense about fighting the devil-hound to a draw. Abruptly the hound leapt forwards, got his lava-like teeth into Lammert’s gut, and shook him violently from side to side. Lammert’s voice was a ragged squawk when he tried to scream, as much from surprise as with pain. This time he was conscious through the entire event although he wished he wasn’t. The pain didn’t last but the shock of mortal death did, like the shock of knocking over a treasured inkstand or splitting the seam of a favorite shirt magnified ten-thousand-fold. But even shock had to end, as did Lammert. When his belly at last ripped open, entrails didn’t spill out. Light did.
Caught by surprise, Security’s devil-hound let loose and wailed even as he shredded away. The light radiated outwards, Lammert’s perception impossibly racing outwards with it as it reached and shredded the image that had been Caine. But instead of dissipating, the darkness beneath the illusion seemed to intensify, like a hard-edged shadow beneath a bright noon sun. Caine was shaping the guttural groan of pleasure Lammert knew well from their dorm room of old, but he didn’t have time for hearing the sound or feeling embarrassment at the intimacy. The light raced on, spreading farther, diffracting neatly around the faint green glow that was Mother Lynn, passing her to find a suitable sink for its energy. Security House didn’t burn as the energy poured in. Instead it exploded upwards, fragments flying along the eye-searing beam that punched like a spotlight up into the clouds.
Lammert tried blinking a few times. He was being rained on, and the feeling was strange, as if he could calculate the kinematics of each drop that trickled down his naked skin. Naked skin? His hand flew downwards and he relaxed a little at the feeling of something blowing against his fingers, something substituting for breeks.
Caine – the shape of darkness – no, Caine, said, “Well, well. Who knew? You really do look like all the statues.”
“Look like what?” And where had that voice standing in for Lammert’s come from?
“The statues. Of angels.” Why did Caine sound so amused?
Lammert looked down and then closed his eyes. Not that it helped. He could still see with his eyes shut, so he opened them again. The golden-glowing skin was bad enough, and he wasn’t sure about the absurdly perfect musculature, either. Most ridiculous of all, though, was the object that he’d always taken for an artistic convention, the fluttering ribbon now demurely shielding his intimates. Yellow was the color of wisdom, of course, but did Lammert’s ribbon have to be such a bright, cheerful, butter-bud sort of yellow?
His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a throat clearing. “As much as I hate to rush you gentles through your latest adjustments, I’m afraid I must,” said Mother Lynn. Lammert turned to her and gawped. Well, he’d known she was beautiful. He’d just been looking at her all the wrong way, it seemed, to perceive the truly spectacular bits.
“Wipe the drool from your chin, Prester mine.” Caine’s familiar outline turned towards her. “Can you hear my words now, Mother?”
“Yes, my Mistress draws me closer. Apparently I’ll need a bit more in the way of support to deal with the three or four innocents now sitting in the earthen pit that used to be the basement of Security House – janitorial staff, perhaps – not to mention the locals who came up back up the stairs to see what happened, all of whom are now having a religious experience.”
Oh no. That dreadful sound in the background really was a rite-hymn being sung raggedly and off-pitch. Lammert flinched.
“Don’t worry, Lammert. I won’t let them get too silly.” Mother Lynn smiled at him. Her smile turned grim. “Finally, I have to stand preceptor to the Central Temple Council about this matter of the renunciates. But, my own business aside, I do have a message for you from my Mistress.”
That snapped Lammert into attention and, to judge by his suddenly alert posture, Caine as well. What in the world did the daemon Greencloak, the Mistress of the Wilds, have to say to them?
Mother Lynn’s eyes turned upwards, towards the clouds that Lammert could now see in fascinating detail, dark or no dark. “This storm centers over the Straits and strengthens into a gale. And into that raging squall sail this kingdom’s renunciates.” Her eyes, greener than the first leaves of spring, turned back to Lammert. “We hold to our word. Renunciates are no business of the daemoni, nor should be the Ossians. But those who escort this kingdom’s renunciates are ours, and the Ossians who oppose them have clamored for our attention. They have it now. Lammert of light, Caine of darkness, my Mistress of Nature commands you to turn the storm. Gift it to those who deserve its embrace.”
For a moment her eyes were windows to someplace else. Then, taking a deep breath, she said in her normal voice, “And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have my own work to do.” Hesitating, she added, “Do let me know how you go on if you find you can. I’m still your friend, Lammert.” Her tone was wistful, but her smile was amused and her step brisk as she turned away to go to the edge of the brand-new pit on Burrim Square.
Lammert looked at Caine, Caine at Lammert.
Caine spoke first. “This is just wonderful, I must say. Years of being wound up like a spring-box and then, bam, one’s very own death used for the bullet. But just ignore the earlier bits of your bad evening, the daemoni say. You two, hop to it. Fix the weather. As if we had a handbook.” He snorted. “I only fed my spring-box down the plumbing. It’s nice to be the daemoni.”
Lammert said, feeling a bit distracted, “No, I think I may know what to do. All those papers about stochastic effects on cyclonic formation I reviewed for Herert back at the Berurn Academy, they seem to suggest something to me now. If only I could see properly what I was considering—”
Caine laughed. “It’s not like you don’t have your glasses.” Before Lammert could ask what Caine meant, he seized Lammert’s arm and tugged him upwards, hard. Lammert yelped as the ground fell away beneath his feet. “I shouldn’t be having to remind you about flying, oh angelic servant of Mistress Wisdom.”
“Caine, fine, that’s enough.” Their dangling feet had already risen past the roof beams of the lower buildings. “No, really, I can see what I need, now.” Lammert’s words weren’t an excuse. He’d merely had to tear his mind away from the usual two-dimensional framework he was used to. Their abrupt flight had done the job.
“Good, the top of the Reliability Financial Building is now approaching. Watch your step as you disembark, gentlefolk.” One of the few sky-towers in Charbone, Lammert had never cared for the RFB’s flat-topped multi-storied, new-world architecture. But he had to admit the roof did have a nice view across Charbone, out over the harbor, and towards the Straits. The visual information helped him arrange the pictures forming in his mind’s eye.
The rain fell, the winds blew. Above, the clouds twisted and roiled, surging as energies were balanced. Just as every creature had a life history, so, too, did every storm. And just as every life could have turned different corners, so, too, could the storm. Now he could grasp what Herert had groped vaguely towards, the interlacing of randomness and fate shared by men and maelstroms.
“Lammert.” The voice cut through his gathering vision like a knife. “We have more company. ‘Hounds’, not ‘hound’, was what Cingeto said. I really have to work on paying better attention to my information before I act.”
“But I was so close,” Lammert said before he looked out over the city, towards what trotted along above the roofslates, the chimneys, and the lightning-rods. Then he fell silent, comprehending.
Lammert remembered the first time he’d managed to impress his metaphysics tutor at college. He’d been asked, “What is a devil?” Rather than reciting the usual elaborate definition from the classic sources and texts, thinking instead of Caine’s on-going struggles, Lammert had simply said, “A devil is hunger.”
He’d been right. Now, with his new senses, he could see that he’d been right. This being was a hunger that would eat the world if it could, and the patina of shape that the Ossian efforts had imposed upon it was as insignificant as tying a pink ribbon around the neck of a starving, rabid boarhound.
Caine laughed joyously from beside him. “Never mind, my heart. You go back to what you were doing. This, I think, is my job.” His smoky form somehow seemed to saunter as it left the edge of the roof and soared out into the airy dark. “I believe the fellow has something I want.” Caine’s voice calling back was all hunger too, but not the elemental hunger seething under the devil’s Ossian surface. Rather, Caine’s was a honed hunger, that of a prince demanding, an assassin stalking, a seducing rapist unleashed. His expression of hunger was as much a product of refined, civilized sentience as the poisoned bullets Lammert knew Caine used, and as deadly. Caine spoke one last time as he flew, his tone suave. “Come here, you. Come and dance with me.”
The scrape of smoke that was Caine should have seemed ineffectual when measured against the wildly swirling, oily-black chaos of the Ossian devil-hound surging forward, but Lammert knew otherwise. His friend was right; here, Caine was the surgeon’s knife and Lammert was an altogether different tool. Out over the harbor the wind was still rising, and somewhere a gale line was sweeping down upon the informal flotilla strung out across the Straits.
Throwing his arms wide to the wind, Lammert let his attention diffuse outwards, along the subtle strains of air and water, energy and matter, physics and probability that was the other reality of the autumn storm. His mind, trained to mathematics, seemed to have opened outwards, as if he’d formerly composed an operatic score on a half-tuned piano and now led the royal orchestra and opera company through his composition. If this tiny warm current in the far Ocean of Storms had risen here instead of there, and the cyclone thus spawned had torqued slightly as it passed over the great, earthy bulk of the Western Isles— Lammert wasn’t sure if all his work was done in the human now, but temporal location didn’t matter much beneath the crystal dome of mathematics. All that counted was the aria he shaped, a song in which winds shifted abruptly and oddly, massed clouds surged and turned, and a squall line swept away from the flotilla of trawlers and coasters that traversed the strait’s waters towards the Ossian guard fleet patrolling just outside the Maruyan territorial limit.
When, satisfied, Lammert returned his attention to the solid world around him, he was somehow enormous, encompassing the masses of air and water he’d been coaxing. The shock of perception was like missing a step. But, rather than falling, Lammert seemed to fold inwards down to a human scale, to a human size, to end up with a mental bump back on the building roof. He stood blinking, feeling the rain shift from surging gusts into the constant, easy fall that heralded the passing of an autumnal storm. Then, suddenly anxious, he looked around for Caine.
Shining black. That was what he first saw. A mass of black no longer smoky but as absolute as the hound’s had been, if of a different shade, forming a different structure, and with a different, somehow stronger patina of form laid on top.
The shape seemed to turn towards him. Even in this short span of time, the black was deeper, more disorderly, and murkier. “My prester, I bore it down and had it, right and proper. And wasn’t it good.” Some part of his mind’s eye envisioned Caine tense, wearing the rapt, feral expression of joy that meant he was contemplating using Lammert without reckoning results. “But, dearest, I’m still hungry, and I know you’d be much sweeter than he was. Perhaps you’d better flee while you still can.”
Something about the currents of newly consumed power flowing through Caine seemed familiar, a different key of the energy in which Lammert had already composed that night. But even more familiar was the sudden memory that had time and again comforted Lammart’s dreams when his hands couldn’t comfort his body. On the summer day when he’d chased Caine out across the playing fields and into the sunlight-dappled dim of a copse of burlwood trees, Cain had rounded, laughing, and ambushed him. Lammert had ended up down on his knees in the leaf-mold, his arms wrapped around wool-clad hips, his lips stretched around an unfamiliar skin-smooth warmth while Caine futtered his mouth. But, unaccustomed or not, Lammert had loved the entire program that day: the suckling he’d mastered, the spending he’d swallowed, and the pleasure Caine had demanded from him in return.
Lammert considered and then smiled. He didn’t bother to wonder if the expression was real or a mere foam-bubble atop the wave of some deeper metaphysics. “No, love, don’t worry.” This time, he was the one to move forward. Reaching out, he combed lightly through the swirling black currents, tantalizing them, milking them of entropy, coaxing the consuming hunger towards being less diabolic and more Caine. Caine shuddered with surprised pleasure, and Lammert told him, “I think we can find you a feeding you’ll enjoy.”
Prince Amerric of Ruthlann, now known both to his loyal exiles and quite a few of his former countrymen as Admiral Ruthlann, the King-over-the-Waters, stood clutching the railing of his bridge, feeling sick. Hunters were small for armored warships and took the waves with a pitching briskness that often nauseated sailors used to larger and more stable vessels. But he’d been unable to justify to the Western Alliance using anything larger than a hunter for his flagship on this crazed expedition. A week before, though, he’d received his orders and this fast-squadron was the result.
Amerric swallowed his nausea quietly, taking care to keep his features calm. He knew better than to argue with his destiny. He’d lost that right, along with his beloved collection of obscure customs-stickers of the world, on the night he’d awoken to find a massive, glowing figure standing at the foot of his bed.
Part of him had wanted to gibber and hide, and another, larger part had immediately comprehended, flooding him with regret at the end of his dutiful, obscure, and unchallenged existence. But a small part of him, one he’d long kept buried, coolly noted what the posture of ultimate authority, of true and dominating confidence, looked like. Such knowledge would be useful in his new future.
Even then Amerric had known that it was the last part of him that his daemon Master, the High King, addressed when he said, “Hum. Seems you’ll do.” Then He raised and held out one gauntleted hand, saying, “Rise up, Amerric. I have a job for you, my dedicatee, that’s none of your deserving but much of my requirement and demand. So rise up and come away. The Ossians are across the border and you’re to pass over the sea.”
Now Amerric had come back, at least to the Straits if not to Ruthlanni soil, with a fast-squadron in pursuit of a daemon vision. By now he was used to visions that panned out, as this one seemed to be doing. All around him his seamen were shaken but exalted by what they’d seen, by the vast figure that had rent away the fierce gale threatening to tear apart the fast-squadron. “The daemoni gift us!” the sailors had cried, one of their more printable cheers. Inside, Amerric had exulted at his relief, but he’d keep his outside manner cheerful and calm, and turned his attentions to reforming the squadron. Now, once again, they plunged ahead over the vast, dark swells left behind by the storm.
There was a gonging of the web-line to the bridge, but before the communications officer could report, Amerric had started and raised his binoculars to his eyes. Ahead, over the water line, there was a brilliant light and, silhouetted against it, a blot of dark that surged towards them.
Amerric had already listened to his inner voice, the way he’d learned so well in the last few years. “Steady ahead, Captain.” Then he turned back and waited.
The figure seemed to shrink as it approached, but it also grew clearer, its edges sharp, shining black against dark water and sky.
“By our Lady, a hearth-devil.” That voice was the steersman’s.
Yes, the shape did resemble the familiar midwinter figure, painted bright as onyx on a thousand holiday door-murals. But the shape’s silhouette was also familiar to Amerric for a different reason.
Amerric wasn’t surprised when the black figure, now hovering just over the bridge, said, in his youngest brother Caine’s voice, “Hullo, Amerric! Lammert thought those were your ships he spotted steaming towards the straits.” The figure turned and pointed towards the brilliant spot of light hanging suspended over the waters, the one towards which they were steaming. “That’s him, out there. He’s damping down the water a little so you can make more steam.”
Amerric tossed his head. Damping down? The waves of the Straits, notoriously disturbed and treacherous, had subdued to oily flatness. But debating the magnitude of miracles wasn’t Amerric’s job. He turned to his fellows on the bridge, raised his eyebrows and cleared his throat, and was unsurprised to see them clamber back onto their feet from their various ritual prostrations. “Increase speed.” Then he turned away, ignoring the activity behind him as if nothing could possibly happen except for his will being obeyed.
Caine, who’d settled to the decking, was snapping his fingers. The brat probably meant his gesture for genuine applause. “Caine, what in the world—”
“Too long a story for the short time I have, good lord brother. Anyhow, I’m sure your loyal subjects in Charbone will send you all the details. To trim a long tale, we’re both dead, my prester and I. And yet, here we are. Amusing, no?”
Amerric wasn’t surprised by the sharp surge of loss he felt, either. “Yes, here you are. And amusing, no.”
The sound of a sigh. “Anyhow, I’m supposed to be telling you that the storm’s moved away from the boats and ships toting your loyal renunciates to their temporary exile, and towards the naughty Ossians playing sentry line dangerously close to other folk’s waters. If you move fast, you can catch them with their breeks flapping about their ankles.”
“Don’t worry, brother-mine. We will.”
“Good.” The hearth-devil that was Caine turned away and seemed to gaze towards the brightness, now close enough to be seen as a figure with head thrown back and arms extended. “Before I have to depart, how are you doing?”
“The better for seeing you, hum, well. Busy learning how to go on as a King.”
“You’ve already surpassed Ormic, and even Father, by leagues.” Caine reached towards Amerric but the dark hand didn’t actually touch flesh. “Are you happy?”
Caine’s question exemplified much of why Amerric had felt that pang at the idea of losing his wild youngest brother. Selfish by inclination, Caine was generous by labor. Unlike their other relatives, he had always risen above what he was, not sunk beneath it. Amerric smiled. “I’m happy becoming what I should be.”
Caine shook his head. “Too bad about losing your customs-sticker collection, though. As I’m sure you heard, they burnt it along with the rest of the things you left behind.” And there was much of the rest of the reason Amerric had done his best to cherish Caine. Only Caine, among all the family, had even noticed Amerric’s pet distraction or cared.
While they’d been talking, the ship had drawn so close to the bright figure that it was about to pass underneath him. Amerric didn’t try to quell his sailors’ reactions, their mutters and murmurs of awe. The signs and symbols they all saw were obvious. The figure guarding them was an angel—Amerric blinked—an angel wearing glasses?
Caine waved a casual arm upwards. “Lammert!”
With light-footed grace, the angel, Caine’s old school-friend, settled down onto the bridge. Amerric smiled. Not only was former Prestor Lammert wearing glasses but they were horn-rimmed, clashing neatly with his fluttering yellow ribbon.
Caine turned back to Amerric. “I’m afraid we must be off.”
Amerric nodded. The cold, strong core of him knew that most of this conversation had been nervous chatter of the kind newly promoted officers used to reassure themselves that they were still what they’d been before, that their new responsibilities wouldn’t make a real difference to their lives and natures. Action taught them better. Battle had taught Amerric better, and now something more esoteric would seemingly teach his little brother the same harsh lesson. But that didn’t mean that the rest of Amerric wasn’t glad to have some warm last words to remember.
Caine leaned in close. “However. Here’s my best advice from beyond the gates of death to you, lord brother mine. When you get your throne back, turn to collecting inexpensive cheroot box stickers. They’re amazingly bright and colorful, there are thousands of them, and they’re so cheap that no ambassador would ever sink to giving you an entire set just to cozen favor, thereby ruining your fun.”
“This wouldn’t have anything to do with the opera singers who, or so I am informed, tend to grace many of those stickers while wearing but the briefest of costumes?” Amerric felt his smile stretch into a grin. Every young officer needed bucking up from chatter now and again, even a devil, an angel, a king. “What a wonderful idea. I’ll do that.”
The angel shook his head, smiling wryly. The hearth-devil blew Amerric a kiss. Then, as if they were running up some grand staircase visible only to themselves, they ascended between the rags of the storm, up into the starlit sky, until they brightened and were gone.
Perhaps it was because of having had to sacrifice his customs-sticker collection to his sacred destiny, or perhaps it was due to some deep-buried blood similarity to his youngest brother, but a part of Good King Amerric would always enjoy the reaction he got when he recited the last holy words uttered by the Saviors of the City and the Straits before they vanished in their aura of celestial light.
“Wherever we’re going, I really hope I find some way to clean my glasses—Caine, just what are you doing?”
“My heart, do you think that this ribbon thing of yours comes off?”
Master Pushin: “Pish-tush. Say what you will, young Philo, but all these goings-on still sound like naught but carnality to me.”
—The ’Pothecary’s Folly, Act II, scene ii, post-aria recitative.
Return to the index of my original slash stories