When she was a little girl of five, Ges Ra Ividar had seen the dungeons of Dalsaman. Her father had been taking her through the rose gardens when he learned that an assassin was going to be executed that hour. The assassin had been trying to kill him, but still Gahandin Ro Ividar did not want anyone dying on his account. Some thought this made him a great beylan. Others felt exactly the opposite.
The dungeons were two stories below the surface, underneath the wine cellars. Made entirely of Makhese brick, the walls and floors were a dingy, reddish brown, covered in niter and cobwebs, bestrewn with rat droppings and hair from torn beards and worried scalps.
The ‘assassin’ was a stick-thin boy of twenty whose older sister had died on a ship that sank in the harbor. The boy somehow felt the beylan was responsible. Gahandin did not disagree. He sat with the boy and talked of their families for an hour. In the end, he begged forgiveness, which the beylic granted. He begged for freedom too, but that was not granted. Gahandin Ro Ividar was a kind man, but not a fool. So most thought. The boy, supposedly, died in the dungeons. In truth, she had never thought of him again until now.
Ges thought the dungeons might look or feel different from the inside, but they were just as dismal and depressing. Her left shoulder was throbbing horribly; with each heartbeat, it seemed to wrench tighter and tighter. Her right shoulder was as dense and dead as ever.
She sat in the back corner of the tiny room, her back straight. Beyond the bars and out of sight, a nearby torch threw dim orange light upon the wall. She supposed she should be grateful for that. The Monosi seemed not so much cruel as careless, and much of their evil seemed lain at the foot of convenience, more than any conscious malice. It was almost more frightening, this way.
They had not fed her, but she was not sure she could eat. It had only been a few hours, she was sure, before the sounds of armored feet thudded down the hallway, and three figures blocked out that light.
Even in the dim glow, she recognized the blue armor he still wore. His helm was off; she was shocked at how young he was. No older than twenty: grim, humorless, hard, but a boy still. Next to him stood a knight in purple and yellow silks, still in mail, with a bulbous nose and a grey beard. On his other side was a woman in a red skirt and a white silken blouse, her yellow hair tied back in a braid. A speller, though dressed a little finer than the others.
“Ges Ra Ividar?” the blue knight asked. She nodded. “I am Ardromor Vuliparo, Prince of the Blood. I believe you have met my brother, the King of Kings.”
“I have,” she croaked, “a charming boy, to be sure.” Her throat was raw.
Ardromor pursed his lips, then nodded to the speller. “Fetch a skin of water for the commander.”
“No,” she rasped, looking at the knight. “Make him do it.”
The Prince of the Blood narrowed his eyes. “Lord Urriment?”
The knight, who was evidently a lord, was surprised to be given such a menial task, but it was only a moment before he was off down the hallway.
“He seemed shocked by the command,” she noted, clearing her throat several times after speaking.
“He is a lord. A minor lord, but a lord nonetheless.”
“She is a speller.”
“Is it a speller’s task to fetch?” She wanted to say more, but her throat was closing up, and she could not get enough saliva in her mouth.
“A speller is below a lord, my Lady. Do you not have degrees or hierarchies in Zalja?”
“How many lords are women?” she choked out.
The young man pressed his lips together. Cenedras would have quibbled the point, as would Lord Borromeo, but this Prince Ardromor accepted her meaning. She was grateful for that. It was painful to speak.
“Lord Urriment was pivotal in our victory,” he said, more to pass the time as they waited for water. “It was his idea to take ships from Supola Jengo and sail south down the far side of the bay and take you from behind. The wind was in our favor. The King of Kings still has not reached us. No doubt he will sorrow to learn the battle was won without him.”
“How…” she started, but could say no more.
“How did he escape? He says he climbed the walls by the bay and swam past the northern shore. As for the truth, I could not say. Cenedras… likes to embellish.”
She coughed at that.
In good time, Lord Urriment returned with two skins of water, passing them both through the bars. Small though the cell was, Ges still had to crawl on her hands and knees to reach them. She downed one in a few seconds, then took her time with the second. “We thank you,” she muttered.
“We?” asked the prince.
She shook her head. “A matter of faith. Let it be.”
“Faith,” the boy half-scoffed. “Lord Eugeno tells me he has mentioned something of our own faith to you.”
“Something of it. It sounds… confusing.”
“No doubt it is, to Lord Eugeno. Others embrace the vagaries of belief, to their great benefit.”
Ges suddenly felt very tired. “What do you want, my Lord?”
Ardromor nodded at that. “As I said, the King has not yet arrived. We have some time to decide what to do with you before Cenedras decides to make a spectacle of you.”
“I should hate to make a spectacle,” she said.
“Traditionally, knights and lords are ransomed back to their families. However, as I understand it, you paladins foreswear your families and inheritance when you say your vows. Do families still pay ransoms for their kin under service to Satar?”
She looked at him again. She had never heard a Monosi say the holy name. Slowly, creaking, she got to her feet. She stood a few inches higher than him, which gave her some small comfort. “Some have. Not all. Not even most.”
“Would yours?” he asked shrewdly.
“My family is dead.”
“Your cousins?” he asked at once, unsurprised. “The beylan of this city is a relative, is he not?”
“He is also your captive.”
“But surely he has family.”
“You don’t know?”
“How is it you know so much about me, my Lord?” The prince glanced at the speller, only for a second, but it was enough. “What is your name, my Lady?” she asked.
She started, unaccustomed to attention. “Pietta, Madam.” She looked in her thirties, the first Monosi woman she had seen past twenty-five years.
“No last name?”
She was briefly at a loss. “My father was a glover,” she offered feebly.
“What is it you would have us do with you?” the prince asked.
She glared at him. “Do with me? Put a sword in my hand and set your king before me.”
“Do you desire death so much?”
“I would die a thousand deaths, my Lord, if one of those deaths cost your king his life.”
The prince sighed. “Cenedras is…”
“I do not need to be told what he is,” she said sharply. “I have met him. I have seen him. I know what he is, my Lord, better than you I should wager.”
“No,” he said, some heat coming into his voice for the first time, “not better. I watched him stand aside as… never mind.”
“Is this another sad tale about your mother, my Lord? Spare me, I have heard them. I am unimpressed.”
“Where?” he asked at once, then breathed the venom back into his voice. “Eugeno.”
“He too was very sympathetic toward your dear brother.”
“Lord Eugeno is a buffoon.”
“Yet he is a great lord,” she countered. “Are all great lords buffoons? Merely because their fathers were lords? Is family more important than proper governance?”
“Do Zaljan families not inherit? It seems to me we are one up on you. The Zaljans go so far as to expel their most valiant members from their line, disinheriting their heroes.”
“As I understand it, your uncle expelled his entire line, save you and your wretched brother.”
Ardromor froze. He looked as though had been slapped.
“Your Grace,” said Lord Urriment.
Ardromor turned and walked off, his steel boots echoing off the floor.
“Your Grace!” Lord Urriment cried again.
The boots ceased. There was a long pause before she heard the prince’s voice. “You have one hour to decide how you wish this to end. My brother’s power will be here before sundown, and if I do not prevail against him, he will likely hang you, like a lowborn brigand.” The boots sounded again.
Ges finished the water. “What is it he wants?”
Lord Urriment cleared his own throat. “He wants to remove his brother’s trophy, I think.”
The speller almost spoke, but stopped herself. Lord Urriment, remarkably, took a step back.
“Speak,” Ges said.
“I think,” she stuttered, “I think the prince feels fighting a woman is a losing proposition. If the King arrives, the prince thinks he might try to kill you.”
She hummed at that, remembering when they first met. “Cenedras fell out of his saddle then tried to save face by playing a fool. You think he might challenge me to a duel? Something like that?”
She cast her eyes down. “Maybe.”
“Pietta,” she said, her voice even and firm. “Look me in the eyes.”
She shuffled her feet, but she looked up into Ges’ face.
“You think your king will try to fight me? Sword to sword?”
“I think, if he lets you live, he fears Monos might say he failed to kill a woman.”
“A mere woman.”
She nodded at that, nearly casting her face down again. “But, you see, if he kills you…”
“Then he’s nothing more than a woman-killer,” she nodded. “We have similar views about killing the unarmed.” And peasants, she thought, though that rarely stops us.
“So, the prince wants to get rid of you, before the king arrives.”
“Prince Ardromor has proven himself wiser than…” Lord Urriment trailed off. “Wiser than others.”
Ges smirked at that. “I understand his family has a reputation. Mine does as well.” She was no stranger to the weight of reputation.
“Then you understand,” Urriment said. “He isn’t… He’s not…”
“I don’t care what he is or isn’t. You have invaded my nation.” She hesitated, but pressed on. “You have invaded Dejitsa, my home, you have invaded Dalsaman. You have taken my home from me. There is no forgiveness for that.”
Even now, she expected these foreign barbarians to chide her, to tell her she had no home, save Satar’s grace. She had no mother but the All-Mother, and no father but the Holy Archon’s guidance. That she was a selfish heretic, and a failure. A failure. The word echoed unspoken in her ears.
Instead, all he said was, “No. No, I suppose not.” He ran his fingers through his grey hair. “We must all obey our king. I suppose it is in our nature, then, to convince ourselves we are right to obey him.”
Ges’ left shoulder throbbed. “What you need tell yourself is none of my concern.”
The lord nodded, then walked away. Ges looked at Pietta. The speller would not hold her eye for more than a second.
“You can read, Pietta?”
“It’s my vocation, my Lady.”
“Why do men fear literacy so?”
“Literacy, my Lady?”
“Magic is a dangerous force, my Lady. It can be… it’s disruptive. People abuse it.”
So instead, they abuse you. Ges felt an icy stab in her heart. She was horrified to think of a nation, with kings and lords, that so abhorred the written word. Did they have art? Music? Stories? How could they plan to construct buildings? How could they scribe their laws? How could they have beaten you?
“Speller is a new profession to me. You are the oldest one I have yet seen.”
She seemed to take offense at that, but masked it quickly. “Many spellers were…”
“Your last king. Dalabar, was it?”
She nodded at her feet.
“Look at me, Pietta.”
“This king. Cenedras. Do you believe he will challenge me?”
“I know his brother the prince, better than the king.” Ges continued to look. Pietta looked away twice, but finally kept her gaze. “But the prince seems certain, and he seems a good judge of character. From what I know… yes, my Lady.”
“You trust this prince?”
“He is a good man, my Lady.”
Ges almost choked on the words. A good man does not invade a neighboring khaganate for no reason, she wanted to shout. He does not help his vicious, dishonorable brother to break treaties or abandon his armies or murder innocents. Or burn down my home. But she knew there was no point. Whatever cruel customs the Monosi had, Pietta had been raised in them, and like a sword taken fresh from the forge and shoved into ice-cold water, she had been broken by them. She could be remade, but Ges did not have the time nor resources here and now.
She nodded dismissal. Pietta stood for a moment, seeming to want to say something, but Ges backed into the corner and sat again, her aching shoulders her only company. A moment more, and Pietta turned and left.
When they finally came for her, her left shoulder had become a slow, dull throb. She stood when she heard their footsteps. A man in black and brown with a skull badge on his breast stood at the head of six armed pikes. Even now, they fear me, she thought. Good. Good.
The palace throne room was an immense chamber of white and green marble, with a commons’ balcony running all along the second level, so everyone could see proceedings and understand how justice was done. Ges remembered watching from those balconies, surrounded by the unwashed masses, along with her guards, and thinking how wonderful it was that even the peasantry were allowed to see her father work. It all seemed so evenhanded, so right. Now, the balconies were empty. The great chamber held about a dozen guards, eight more knights, and six lords.
On the great dais sat the seats of power. In the left-hand one sat Prince Ardromor, changed from his armor into a quilted doublet of blue and gilt wool, tied with gilt laces, tame pantaloons of black wool and stocks of black silk. His boots were simple brown leather. His sword, sheathed, was leaning against the arm of the throne. The prince was straight-backed, stiff, and grim, but he looked more comfortable there than he had in the dungeon, or even on horseback in battle, if Ges’ memory could be trusted.
Lord Urriment stood at the prince’s right hand, still in mail and plate but without helm, still armed. To his left stood Lord Borromeo, in black and grey silks, unarmed, still looking half a corpse, but smiling faintly. Lord Eugeno was not present.
The guards brought her before the dais. There was a pause, and one of the guards pressed firmly down on her throbbing left shoulder. She did not move.
Borromeo’s smile devolved into a smirk. “It is customary to kneel before your liege.”
“I am aware of it, my Lord,” she answered.
“This is what comes of reading,” declared a skinny young lord in red and pink, a cloud of black hair floating about his face. “This woman is too proud by half.”
“Let it be,” the prince said. “Lady Ividar, as commander of the enemy forces, you are condemned to die with them. Do you have anything to say in your defense?”
“If I am their commander, then call me by my title, your Grace.”
The red-and-pink boy scoffed and crossed his arms, but the prince ignored him. “Divine Commander Ges Ra Ividar, is there no one to ransom your freedom?”
“I belong to the Holy Solulan. The All-Mother alone pays my ransom.”
The prince shifted awkwardly in his throne. “The divines above may keep our souls in death, but is it not better to live?”
“It is better to die a thousand deaths with honor than to live one second without it.”
The prince sighed. “Very well.” He angled his head upward a bit and cried out, “Bring them in!”
She heard a door open in the balcony above. Ges turned around to see over a dozen people emerge, most of them armed guards. In their power were four paladins: Sir Yniv, Sir Priyandar, Sir Rehfan, and Dame Hali. Sirs Yniv and Priyandar were scarce twenty years old, Sir Rehfan twenty-five. Even Dame Hali had not yet seen thirty years. Out of their armor, in grey linen shifts, they looked like children.
Sir Yniv’s beard had only just come in during their ride to Dalsaman. Sir Priyandar was still fuzz-faced, much like the red-and-pink silked boy who crossed his arms near the dais. Sir Rehfan showed the barest shadow of stubble coming through; Ges wondered briefly what the boy would look like with a proper beard. Dame Hali was hiding her face, looking at her feet. The speller Pietta flashed before her mind. Ges continued to stare, but Hali would not look up.
Something struck her at that moment, and she looked around. There were no spellers present.
“Honored guests,” the prince said, “your commander informs me that there is no one in Zalja who will pay your ransoms. I therefore have no choice but to execute you as prisoners of war.”
“No!” Sir Yniv cried out, before mastering himself. He glanced at Ividar, embarrassed.
“Tell me, Commander,” the prince continued, “do you see no other option for these four prisoners? Must they die for your folly?”
“The Undirads are a wealthy family,” Sir Yniv burst out again. Again, he had the grace to look ashamed, insubstantial as those looks proved.
Ges looked back at the prince to find a mild look of amusement. “The Undirads. Is this his family, Commander?” She shrugged. “Surely not. These are paladins, yes? They have no family. No worth.”
“Put steel in their hands,” she insisted, “and they’ll show you their worth.”
“Will they?” The prince sat up straighter, prouder, more comfortable. “We did not overpower and capture these four, as we did you. These four gave up their weapons and surrendered. If we put steel in their hands, as you say, they’ll just give it up again.”
She managed to turn slowly and glare, instead of whirling and gawking. If she was honest with herself, Ges was not surprised at Sir Yniv. This was his first true battle, and many times on the trail he had betrayed the callow boy he was. Sir Priyandar had put down two rebellions, though. Peasants’ rebellions, she was forced to admit. He was fond of boasting and braving, yet when facing armored men with castle-forged steel in hand, he had shown himself what he was.
Sir Rehfan’s honor had been balanced on a knife from the first. More than once he had allowed his courage to overwhelm his reason. Only now did she come to see that what she thought was courage was mere bravado. She stared at him. He did not look away. That at least could be said in his favor.
Dame Hali still stared at her feet. She was a veteran of several rebellions, but most of her career had been spent guarding cattle trains from brigands. Ges seemed to remember her killing some Khabarese brigand king in single combat, nearly a decade ago. Still, she supposed, brigands who call themselves kings came in all shapes and powers.
“Well?” the prince pressed, “will no one pay their ransoms? Are paladins truly without family?”
“Please, write to the Undirads in Tsen Ikha,” pleaded Sir Yniv, lost to all dignity. “They are a great family, they will make you wealthy!” Despite his shame, he still had the decency to say they instead of we.
The prince gestured upward. “And you, Sir? Will your family speak for you?”
Ges did not look. After a moment, Sir Priyandar’s voice answered, meekly, “The Baryanads of Tsen Ikha, too, are a wealthy family. I cannot say how they would respond, though.”
“Two, then” the prince said. “And you, Sir?” Silence followed. “Forgive me, your name eludes me. Sir…”
“Ah. Sir Rehfan. And your family name?”
There was a pause, before his quivering voice erupted. “Satar is my mother!” he cried. “The Holy Archon is my father! The All-Mother shall pay all ransoms in Heaven!” The throne room echoed, very faintly, just for a moment, with his words. His voice had been thin and weak, but Ges drew strength from it all the same.
“Adorable,” the prince answered in a bored tone, sounding for a second like his abominable brother. “And you, Sir? Forgive me, not Sir. My Lady—”
“Dame,” she said, firmly.
“Dame? Very well. Dame…”
“Holly? That is a significant name in Monos. We Host-Keepers name the most sacred places after the holly tree. Truly, you carry both faiths in you, Dame Holly. And what is your family name?”
Silence answered him.
“Is it Satar, by chance?” Again, a flush of fury swept Ges’ face to hear a foreigner speak the name. “Satar is a popular name, it seems, though less popular than I might have thought.”
Faintly, she murmured, “Parsad.” Ges would not look at her.
“I beg your pardon?” the prince called up. “I missed that.”
There was a long pause before she answered, “I was born to the Parsads of Khair, a great southern city near the Holy Solulan.”
“Mm. A great family?”
There was another pause before, “A great family. Yes.”
“And would they pay your ransom?”
“It is customary to answer a prince when he addresses you. It is also wise to answer a man who holds you prisoner. Will the Parsads of Khair pay your ransom?”
“We loved each other very much.”
“Touching. And will they pay your ransom?”
Ges was seconds away from a defeated sigh, when her voice sounded out, low but steady. “Satar is my mother. The Holy Archon is my father. The All-Mother will pay all ransoms in Heaven.”
Ges turned once more to look up at them. Sirs Yniv and Priyandar’s faces were cast down like beaten spellers, Sir Rehfan’s fiery and defiant. Ges locked eyes with Dame Hali. Her face was even, betraying nothing. It was carved out of wood. Ges nodded to her, then turned to face the prince.
“Is this your ideal?” he asked with a roll of his eyes.” Speaking the same, thinking the same? No family, no value?”
“It is a great sacrifice,” she said. “Honor comes at great cost.”
“I don’t know. It sounds to me like you want to die. Wouldn’t that make living in shame the greater sacrifice? So your poor subordinates can live?”
“You don’t need my permission to ransom Sir Yniv and Sir Priyandar.”
“And yet I want it. Your cousin is the beylan of this city, is he not? We have already written letters of ransom for his relatives in Qabarjat and Tsen Ikha. Would they not also ransom someone as famous as you?”
“I have no family.”
“Then no Ividars have family. Perhaps I should execute the beylan as well. And his wife. And his children. What do you say to that?”
“Murder them if you must. Satar is my mother.”
“You have the power to save them, Commander. Name your price, and they will live. Otherwise, their blood is on your head as much as mine.”
“Dalsaman is my price,” she nearly shouted. “Leave our verdant fields, never to poison us again with your barbaric presence. Do that, and I’ll live or die, however you wish. It has always been my faith to live and die for Zalja.” From the corner of her eye, she saw a faint smile on Lord Urriment’s face, perhaps of admiration. She sneered at him.
“Vargano is now part of Monos,” the prince continued. “It is the property of the King of Kings, and I am his agent until he arrives. All the citizens are mine to ransom or execute. Do they have families?”
“Will you be ransomed?”
“I have no family.”
“Dammit!” he thundered, rising to his feet. “The King will not will called a murderer.”
“Then he should not murder!” she roared. It came through her like warm, bubbling water from a spring, her voice clarion and clear and true. “If you fear your king’s honor, then he must act honorably. If you fear your own honor, you must act honorably. Honor! Not family! Not wealth! Not disgusting conquest and piracy! Honor!” She twisted away from her guard, and every man in the room reached for his sword. “You stand on that dais, where my mothers and fathers have stood for a thousand years, ruling and protecting and providing for Dejitsa, for Zalja, for a thousand years! And you try to shame me by laying your murders at my feet! Blanch!” she screamed, as even then the prince grew paler and stumbled back onto the throne. “Blanch! Ghast as death, you soulless beast! A warrior would blush for shame. A khan would blush for shame. But you, that have no shame, grow paler still when your inhuman crimes are thrown back in your face!” She could feel her own face twisting into a fury, but still she pressed on. “No writ! No defiance! You roped me like an animal, but you are the animals! You are thieves and cutthroats, and you think you can shame me? Can a mouse shame the lion! Never! Do what you will! Murder who you will. I will not kill my soul to patch your so-called honor.”
“Satar is my mother!” Sir Rehfan cried above, ecstatic.
“Satar is my mother!” Dame Hali echoed. She was not as firm, but she still said it.
The prince’s face had returned to normal. He took a breath to steady himself, then drummed his fingers on the arm of the throne. “Your mothers and fathers. Hm. For a thousand years. That sounds like quite a lineage.”
He stood again, calmly this time. “I will not be called a murderer. Take these all the dungeons. If their families will ransom them, let them. If not, let them rot and be forgotten. The Hosts do not smile on martyrs.”
“Put a sword in my hand, you coward!”
“You had one,” he answered curtly. “You lost it.”
“Against four men!” Dame Hali cried from above. “You sat on your great white horse and did nothing! Face her now.”
“Yes,” he sighed, “that sounds very heroic. But I am not a vainglorious hero. I am a prince, and my duty is to my people. Not my honor…” He had the gall to turn the word into a curse. “Lock them away. I’ll not see them again.”
The guards had her before she could resist. Her shoulder throbbed and rumbled as they kept her restrained, turned her around, and began marching her out of the throne room.
She would not gnash and scream, nor drag her feet. She had shaken them. She had reminded Sir Rehfan and Dame Hali of what they were, and perhaps even shown Yniv and Priyandar what it is to be a paladin. It was not a glorious end, but neither was it an end. Someday, she would escape, and she would die with the king’s blood on her hands. Somehow.
A great boom sounded, and the doors flew open. Standing there, haloed in light and surrounded by knights and guardsmen, stood a man in gilt-and-bronzed armor, an enormous red plume erupting from his great helm. His sword was sheathed, but he still wore a crest shield, enameled bronze, with a gold crown upon it. Below the golden crown was a fox, curled up and resting.
Another knight took his shield, allowing him to remove his great helm and examine the throne room. “Ardy! My dear brother!” he cried out in sunny elation. “What have you done with my war!?”