Hali winced with each strike. The blows came more quickly than the day before, and those more quickly than the day before that, but still they were nothing, a child’s first foray into the practice yards. She could have turned the blade away half-asleep. Squaring off against the Divine Commandrix was embarrassing, but it was nothing compared to how the Commandrix must be feeling.
You would not know it to look at her, though. Her left arm was still in a plaster and sling, and her whole torso moved so stiffly Hali was certain she was bound up like a sleeping roll underneath her light green tunic and dark leather jack. In place of a conical helm, she wore a reinforced leather cap beneath the blue scarf she had wound about her head. Every once in a while, her small dark eyes seemed to glaze over for an instant. Hali knew she should be striking then, at those vulnerable moments. The Commandrix had ordered her to hold nothing back, but they both knew she was failing in that. Failure had been thick in the air lately.
Hali was sweating, but only because they had been at it for two hours; that, and the damnable heat coming down from Supola Jengo. She wondered briefly if the barbarians had renamed that town too.
Vargano was what they were now calling the shining city of Dalsaman. She grunted at the thought, and launched forward to throw a brutal strike against the Commandrix’ left shoulder, but at the last second the Commandrix slid out of the way, kicked behind Hali’s knee, and knocked her head with the blunted practice sword as she went down like a sack of wheat.
“Glad to see you’ve finally woken up,” the Commandrix said. “I’d offer a hand, but I’m short one. Get up, Dame.”
Vintir laughed aloud at that. It was good to hear. The practice yard had been grim and silent for the past fortnight. No one wanted to watch Hali beat up a broken old woman, and the Commandrix refused to stop training, so the shallow pit that the Monosi had dug for sport against one another was given over to Ges Ra Ividar’s perpetual humiliation.
Hali smiled for the first time in a while. “Maybe you’d like to step in, Vintir,” she called out.
“Dearly would I,” he answered, “but the Commandrix has been quite clear. I fear I must remain idle on this camp stool, dreaming of glory.”
She bit down on her smile and got to her feet. The Commandrix had insisted that Hali keep her shield, so her left arm had grown numb and weary over the course of the morning, but her legs were still spry enough to get her up without too great a cost.
They stood for a moment, breathing. The air was fresh, and despite the heat from north of the bay, there was still the faintest chill of the coming winter in the air. Much of Hali’s sweat had dried by now, so the occasional light breezes from the north caused her to shiver. Sometimes, she thought she tasted lilies on the air, but anything she might have smelled was smothered still in the miasma of smoke.
They caught each other’s eyes, and the Commandrix turned north, breathing heavily. “I think that will do for the morning, Dame.”
“Yes, Commandrix.” She followed Ividar’s gaze. “Will we be searching the woods today?” she asked. No one called them the Gazwood anymore.
“I suppose the time has come, yes.” She was rolling her shoulders as she spoke. “Sir Vintir, take a company of twenty soldiers with you to scour the woods. Bring a wizard or two with you as well.”
“May I join him, Commandrix?”
She continued staring at the woods for a long while. Hali was about to walk away when she finally said, “Yes. Sir Vintir, you have the command.” It did not need saying, but she had said it anyway. The Divine Commandrix strode off without another word toward the southern approach.
Hali turned and caught Vintir’s eye, but there were about a dozen other soldiers milling about, and six were already moving into the pit to finally start their day’s practice. Vintir shrugged and headed off to assemble his company.
It was another half-hour before they were riding north. Hali was pleased to be back atop her palfrey. Her poor starving mount had died during the battle, and even though she knew it was inevitable, she still felt guilty. She had named him Bag-o-Bones. Now, his bones were feeding the crows.
There had been far too many dead to bury. Sir Sanin had been in charge of cleanup, and he had ordered all the captured Monosi foot to dig graves for the dead Zaljan officers. Then he executed half the Monosi foot, and ordered the rest to dig graves for their own officers. Then he executed the rest. The Zaljan foot were burned at the southern approach, and the Monosi foot were tossed into the bay. The Commandrix looked livid when she had heard this, and even said aloud that Sir Sanin had behaved dishonorably. He shrugged at that and walked away. Sir Waldun had died of his wounds the day after the failed assault, and while no one would have called Sir Sanin a jovial man before that, he had changed noticeably since his companion’s demise. Most notably, he had stopped wearing his eyepatch, allowing all and sundry to look into the gaping, puckered wound where once his other eye had been. Dame Tiir said the only time Sanin smiled these days was when someone blanched at his missing eye.
“We’re looking for seven corpses,” Sir Vintir reminded them as they rode into the dead forest. “Be careful with their bodies, but also be sure to inspect them for stray magic.” One of the wizards glared at that, but said nothing.
Hali kept pace casually behind Vintir as the troops spread out. She noticed at once that none of the Khabarese had joined the search. Either Vintir had not conscripted any, or they were starting to reflect the isolated attitude of their one remaining paladin. The Wizard Mamun, the Commandrix’ chosen favorite, wore a kind if weary expression as he glanced about. The other wizard was a remarkably young woman, no older than Hali, wearing robes of black and burgundy. Mamun’s robes were all of peach and yellow, but he had taken to wearing a black cowl and stole over them since the battle.
Hali waited until the soldiers had dispersed before approaching Vintir. She knew he could hear her ride up, but he still flinched slightly when she settled next to him. “Has Rehfan been invited back into the Six?”
Vintir shrugged. “I’m not close in the Commandrix’ counsel.”
He hummed at that. “Do you think there’s any magic left in here?”
“I imagine the Lesser Fire would have burnt up. No Greater Fire, or we’d all be dead. I don’t really know how the rest of it works.”
She grinned sheepishly at that. “My bedroll has been getting cold.”
“Are you still stuck with that woolen shift?”
“I don’t always wear the shift,” she said. He did not respond.
They had not been alone together since the night before she had snuck into Dalsaman. She knew why, but it was still frustrating when he finally voiced his fears.
“The Commandrix knows about us.”
“Obviously.” She glanced around, more for Vintir’s comfort than her own. The Wizard Mamun was about fifty yards away, and everyone else was even farther. “This sort of thing happens all the time on campaigns. You know that as well as I.”
“How many men have you had on campaign?”
“How many women have you had?”
“It’s not always women,” he hedged.
“That’s hardly the point, is it? You’re as married as I am, Vintir, don’t get jealous of me now.” She knew he was only trying to change the subject, but it still rankled.
“Adultery means expulsion from the holy army.”
Hali swallowed a great sigh. “According to the Holy Solulan, sure. When was your first adultery, Vintir? Have you been expelled yet?”
“Ividar has a reason to expel us, Hali. And if she knows about us, she has the means to do it, too.”
“Us?” she had to laugh at that. “Did you lead a failed sortie that killed thousands of our own troops and let the enemy into the Commandrix’ home city?”
“She doesn’t care about that sort of thing.”
“She’s still human, Vintir!” He flinched at that and looked around, so she measured her voice again. “No matter how pious she is, and I’m not entirely sure she is at all, she still has a woman’s passions. She’ll not magically forget the place where she was born, and she’ll not magically forget that I was the one who led the sortie that left the damned gate open.” Fools. Even now, she could not believe that the watch of Dalsaman had grown so lax. She had been a fool herself, to trust in strangers, fellows-in-arms though they were.
“It’s my fault.”
That one deserved a groan. “Your fault? Your humility is outmatched only by your ego, Vintir. Truly.”
“I’m the reason that…” He was a grown man, nearly as old as Ividar herself, and still he would not say it.
Her laugh at that was full and from the belly. “Oh? Sir Vintir, is your vigor so great that you left me unable to do my duty?”
He was not amused. “You hadn’t slept in two full days. It’s no wonder. That…”
“That someone else left the gate open?” she finished sharply. “I led the sortie, Vintir. I didn’t wait at the tail like some camp follower to close up shop behind us. I am a paladin, just like you.”
“Still what? If only I hadn’t submitted to your potent charms, I would have been rested enough to tell the gateman to do his one job? What power is it you think you have over me? You think I’m unable to say No to you, Vintir?”
“Emotions can overwhelm our reason.”
“Emotion?” She laughed so loud, she felt the eyes falling on her. “The only emotion here is your love of guilt, Vintir. It’s an ague. It’s a fever. Don’t smear it on me and call it Emotion.”
His face contracted in a way she had never seen before. “You’re telling me you feel no guilt?”
Her heart thudded once at that, but only once. “Not on account of you,” she answered, so evenly she might have been the Commandrix speaking.
Vintir heeled his palfrey and rode off.
It was a greater reaction than it seemed. Dead branches were all over, the entire forest floor was ash. Even a light cantor was inviting a broken leg, and Vintir summoned a glow cloud behind him as he rode off.
“Are you well, Dame?” The Wizard Mamun was riding up to her, gingerly upon his battered old mare. Even now his eyes seemed to smile, though the rest of his face was dour.
Hali snorted and looked away. “Did you know them?” she asked.
“None of them well,” he said, casting his eyes about the wood. “Almira over there was an apprentice of mine. She still is, according to her,” he smirked. “Beylan Casid and I share a sister-by-marriage, but he too survived the flames. He is still tending to the wounded.”
“Beylan? And he’s a wizard?”
“Anyone with the time and the will can become a wizard, Dame Hali.”
“And the wealth.”
He chuckled at that. “Yes, well. Wealth buys time, ask any peasant, if they have time enough to answer.” His laughter died quickly as he looked about. “Never enough, though, sadly.”
Vintir’s cloud of ash was slowly settling back to the ground. If she half-closed her eyes, it looked a little like the snows of a Khabarese Autumn. “Seven wizards is nothing to mourn,” she said suddenly, not sharp but blunt. “We lost thousands of foot. Thousands of peasants.”
“Yes,” he nodded at once. If she had offended him, he disguised it incredibly. “I know I should grieve for all of them equally, but I confess a certain kinship even with these seven strangers. These seven kindred-in-study. Death by fire is a hard, horrible way to go.”
She eyed him with suspicion. “You speak from experience?”
“Observation. Any wizard knows it to be true. Not personally, of course,” he added, and the specter of his chuckle returned to his voice, “but most wizards study in cities or in the mines, and we form little academic communities. And every such community has its fools, its braggarts and its braves. One of them, sometimes more, will try their hand at Fool’s Fire.”
“Power, fame…” he shrugged. “There are six magics, and we have not scratched the surface of their secrets. Even Lesser Fire, the darling that gains us so much attention and praise and contributions from beylans and prefects, and even the Khan himself, even Lesser Fire has not revealed a fraction of its mysteries to us, I think.” He sniffed. “Yet all the same, wizarding is a long, trying process, with few revelations and less glory. Many are those who dreamt of being warlords or, failing that, powerful sorcerers who might turn the tides of time. It takes short years for some of us to start looking for quicker roads to notoriety. It should not surprise you that Greater Fire, Fool’s Fire, remains the least researched and most mysterious of the six magics.”
“So they think they’ll discover some new use for it, before they blow themselves up?”
“Themselves, yes, and often many others, Satar forgive. The Fire Mine has had more collapses than all the others put together, and not because of poor mining practices.”
“It’s had more rebellions too.” She would know. She had first met Vintir putting down such a rebellion, eight years ago.
“I know,” said the old man. “The Fire Mine makes more widows, widowers, and orphans than almost anything else. Almost,” he repeated, looking around the wood again.
A flush crept into Hali’s face. “Why?” she almost spat. “Why would they do that?” She felt a fool for how obvious it seemed now. She had not been to the Fire Mine in years, but she could see the dirty, deranged faces she had battered into submission. In her memory, they all looked like her brother Jivril. In truth, they were faces that, but for a once-noble name, might have been her own. “How could they be so reckless?” she demanded of the wizard. “So selfish!?”
Mamun sighed, forcefully, and gestured at the dead trees around them. “Who can say, why powerful people do the things they do? We can ask ourselves why King Cenedras felt the need to murder so many of our citizens, to steal our towns and the shining city of Dalsaman. Why did he need to sacrifice so many of his own people? For what gain?” He sniffled, hesitating before he continued. “We as well might ask why the Khan saw fit to sacrifice so many of his own people to retake the city.”
“What else could he do? Should he have just let the barbarians keep it?”
“I don’t know,” he sighed, disappointment heavy in his voice. “I have spent many years studying, yet I’ve yielded few answers. I know how to dig certain rocks out of the ground, and I know how to make them perform a few tricks. But I can’t tell you why Cenedras did what he did.” He hummed absently. “You know, the name ‘wizard’ actually means ‘wielder of power.’ But then again, in a way, so does Khan. Prefect. Beylan. Dame.” He looked at her. “What are titles? Perhaps knowing what to do is the real secret, the thing that defines powerful people.”
She stared at him, trying not to goggle. “Do you really think so?”
He laughed again, openly and almost lightly. “Really? No. I’m not sure I really think anything. I’m just distracting myself. This not the first time I have searched for the body of a burnt wizard. Thank you for providing such a distraction.”
She smiled at him, though her eyes crinkled more in apology. “Has the Commandrix taken Rehfan back?” she asked suddenly. “In her Six, I mean?”
“I think not,” he said mildly. “She uh. She has not… dismissed you, has she?”
“Good,” he nodded. “I counseled her to keep you on.”
“She,” her voice caught in her throat for a moment. “She was going to dismiss me?”
“She considered it,” he said lightly.
“I’m not a gateman,” she countered. “No one would expect a paladin to mind the gate while a charge went on without her.”
“Which is precisely what I told the Commandrix.” He smiled flatly. “She said the gatemen was your responsibility. I told her you were hers.”
Hali grew so tense at that, her horse whickered and stopped for a moment. “How did she take that?” she asked.
The wizard tugged his mare to a stop. “The Commandrix is a very stoic woman, as I’m sure you know. Yet all the same, her gaze can be terrifying.”
“How… What did she say to you?”
He started his mare again. “She asked me to join her Six.”
Hali stared dumbfounded for several seconds before nudging her mount forth. “You? But you’re not…”
“It’s not a strictly military position,” he said. “Every beylan has a Six, every prefect, the Khan himself. Some of the greatest Sixes in history were primarily thinkers, preachers, even crafters.”
“Yes, but a Commandrix—”
“Could do with some counsel less like the voice in her own head,” Mamun interrupted. “Or so says Divine Commandrix Ges Ra Ividar.”
They rode in silence for several minutes, until the wizard’s horse began to snort and paw the ground and would go no farther. Mamun sniffed the air and sighed. “Alas,” he said, “I fear we are in luck.”
He dismounted and began to pick through a barrier of black, broken branches. Hali slipped off her mount and tied the two beasts to a heavy branch before helping him.
The body they found was unrecognizable. It was a skeleton in cracked, black wrapping that was tearing and flaking away. Whatever clothing they had worn was completely gone. The empty sockets stared upward, and its mouth hung wide in a wordless, voiceless ecstasy.
They stared in silence for long minutes.
“I don’t see any pouches or… anything we could search for magic.”
“This was no wizard,” Mamun sighed. He pointed to a spot beneath a crossway of dead branches, underneath way a burnt and blackened spearpoint. “He wore no armor, it would have survived the fire. This was a Monosi footman. He must have helped to set the fire then become cut off from his escape somehow.”
“Good,” she said, immediately. “That’ll please Sanin.” The image of his one-eyed face, grim and gaunt and ghast from the winter airs, floated before her eyes, yet even it melted into Jivril’s.
The wizard knelt down by the wrecked remains of the spearman. “Ohh, I’m not sure anything would please Sir Sanin at this point.”
Hali shook her head whilst no one could see her. “He hasn’t been the same since Waldun died.”
“No. They had often quested together. They were very close.”
“I don’t think so.” He stood again. “I could not say. It is not exactly frowned upon in Khabar, for men to wed or simply love one another, but it is… less encouraged, say, than in Zalja.” He glanced about, as though there were Khabarese nearby that might hear him. “Khabar is a harsh, narrow place. It can breed harsh, narrow people. Sometimes.”
“But they left Khabar.”
“For this,” he nodded, looked directly at her. “It is not my habit to pry into the personal lives of my neighbors.” He looked another minute, then looked back down at the corpse. “Still, a couple need not love each other in only one way, and even love need not exist for two people to comfort one another. I don’t know how Sir Sanin and Sir Waldun felt about one another, but I am certain they were a comfort to one another.” He looked upward, through the bare branches, into the stark grey sky. “Now that comfort is gone from this world.”
They left the body where they found it. Sanin would only toss it in the bay, reigniting the Commandrix’ wrath. All seven wizards were found, though none by them, and none had any stray magic. Vintir worried briefly that a Monosi soldier might have picked through the bodies late some night, but Mamun called it unlikely. “They do not seem to have any understanding of our magics,” he had said. “Nor we of theirs, I suppose.”
It was nearing evening when the bodies had been recovered. The wizards buried the bodies themselves, placing a small white crystal of Lesser Earth on each before covering them with dirt. “In a few days,” said Mamun, “these plots will bring forth beautiful flowers. Lilacs, farimoths, jonquils. We shall see.” Vintir had stood beside her as they watched them bury the bodies. She had held his hand.
The sun was a golden memory by the time Hali reached the Commandrix’ tent and was nodded inside.
“Dame Hali,” she said by way of greeting. She was sitting on a camp chair. One of her maidservants, Narsa she thought, was massaging her shoulders. The wizard Almira was inspecting her plaster and sling. After her eyes adjusted to the braziers, Hali saw that the maidservant was rubbing a white substance into the Commandrix’ shoulders.
“What is that substance?” she asked.
“Greater? Isn’t that for healing bones and hardening armor?”
“Don’t get me started,” the wizard drawled. The Commandrix gave her a look, seemingly empty, but it cowed her all the same.
“My shoulders need to be stronger. What is the matter, Dame?”
She felt a fool even as she did it, but she moved forward and knelt before Ividar. “The north gate was my fault. I’m sorry, Commandrix.”
Her face stayed wooden as ever. “Mamun seems to think the gateman was to blame.”
Was, she said. The gateman had stayed within the city walls. He was likely the first to be killed by the barbarians riding in. “He is at fault,” she agreed. “But so am I.”
“That’s a lot of fault, it seems to me.”
The Commandrix stared down at her. Hali looked at the ground. It was several long seconds before she looked back up and met her hard, even gaze. “It never is,” she said, finally.
From her knees, Hali drew her sword and set it at the Commandrix’ feet. “This is the sword of the watch. It should go to… to whoever holds the watch now.”
Hali sighed in frustration. “What do… what should I do, Commandrix?”
“Can you return that sword?”
She knelt, staring down at the sword. “No.”
“And if you could?”
She shook her head. “Then nothing. They’d still be dead.”
“They would.” She sat, and waited. Seconds stretched into minutes before Hali looked up at her again. “Carry that with you,” she said at last. “It will always be there. Always. Don’t pretend it isn’t. That is for children. Carry it with you.”
Hali walked slowly from the tent. Night had fallen, and the sword of the watch weighed at her side like lead. Her feet dragged as she went, but still they eventually took her to the tent. She bent down, opened the flap, and stepped inside.
“Vintir,” she said, as the flap closed behind her.