They kept them on the balcony, manacled only at the wrists, surrounded by guards. The balcony was crowded now, but not stifling. A few knights who looked to be of low standing, more guardsmen, and about a dozen women in shoddy skirts and old blouses. Spellers, they called them. King Cenedras wanted this recorded. The fool.
Below them, the Commandrix still had not been fettered. She was held by two guards, and her shoulder was surely still troubling her, but no more than that. She was in the tattered grey shift they threw on all their prisoners, but underneath she still had her pouched pants of black cloth, and her peached-and-black leathers could still be seen between the holes that pocked the shift. The king, of course, was armed and armored.
“Why should I fight you?” the Commandrix asked.
“Because if you don’t, you’ll die,” the fool said, cocky as ever.
“You’re going to murder an unarmed woman in front of all these people?” She threw just enough stress on woman to show she knew what these Monosi were all about.
“If I have to,” he shrugged, but Hali could sense his unease.
“She’s bluffing,” the prince insisted, “She wants to die a warrior’s death.” He was standing next to the throne now, having vacated it the instant his brother entered the chambers. This prince was nothing if not dutiful.
She ignored him. “You challenged me, your Highness. When first we met, upon your great black destrier, you challenged me to single combat. I accepted. Will you not answer me?”
“Sadly, we were interrupted,” he said.
“No one can interrupt us now.”
The king shrugged elaborately to all present. “First you won’t face me, now you will. Which is it, woman?”
“I will face you,” she said, “upon the terms you offered.”
The king stopped at that, but Lord Borromeo countered at once. “You cannot think us foolish enough to wager Vargano upon your swords. We have won.”
“Foolish?” she answered. “I was given to understand King Cenedras was a warrior. Perhaps I was mistaken.”
The king rolled his eyes. Again, elaborately. “Oh, my tender ego. And in front of all these people. Clearly, I must consent.”
Lord Eugeno, the squat fellow with the big nose, had come in with the king’s party. He strode up to the king and whispered something in his ear. The king looked at him as though he were mad.
“What more is there to say?” the prince asked. “You have challenged her, and she has refused.”
“I accept,” she insisted, “upon the terms that were offered.”
“You refused those terms, for the sake of the hostages we offered.”
“I made no refusal. You yourself said a king is not always free. I asked you if you were sure, and you backed down. You have broken your word, Highness, not I.”
A murmur ran through the lords in the courtroom. Amongst the spellers, she was able to make out some words here or there. They did not like what the Commandrix said, but neither would they deny it.
Borromeo, however, seemed ready to deny anything. “No one accepted anything, as I see it.”
“Let it be read, then,” she said. “Spelt. There were spellers there. Let them read back what was said.
A frisson ran through the room. As a body, they looked to the pink-and-red lord, who suddenly seemed desperate to be anywhere else. After a moment, he looked up to the balcony. “Miria!” he called, weakly. “Ruby?”
A woman with yellow hair and bulging eyes began shuffling through sheaves of paper. Not far, another with a brown braid began doing the same. The blond woman was the first to speak.
“’His Highness challenged the foreign commander to a duel of swords,’” she said unsteadily, “’whereupon the commander asked His Highness if he was certain.’” She paused and licked her lips nervously, as though she feared what was written. “’The king affirmed, whereupon the foreign commander accepted his challenge.’”
“I did not!” the king shouted. More murmurs ran through the crowd.
“Silence!” the prince called, quieting all assembled. “Let the second speller recite her incantation.”
Everyone looked back up to find the two spellers staring at one another. The second, a year or two older than the first, was shivering as though with fever, but she bent to her paper and read. “’His Highness, upon falling from his frighted horse, demanded the matter be settled with swords.’” Titters of laughter could be heard throughout. “The foreigner inquired if His Highness was certain, to which His Highness assented.’” She was shaking so much her words shivered in her mouth, but after a moment she finished, “’Thereafter, the foreigner accepted his challenge.’”
“They lie!” the king cried. “That’s not what’s spelt!”
“Give it to another speller,” the prince commanded. “Let it be recited again.”
The shivering speller handed the sheaf off to the woman next to her.
“’His Highness, upon falling from his frighted horse, demanded the matter be settled with swords.’” The laughter was more open this time. Sir Rehfan barked in scornful amusement. “’The foreigner inquired if His Highness was certain, whereupon his Highness assented.’”
“She’s lying!” the king said, stabbing his finger at her. “She used a different word! They’re making it up!”
“You cannot make up a spell!” the little pink lord declared, shocked by the very idea. Hali’s eyes widened in amazement, and she shared a brief, incredulous look with Sir Priyandar.
While the king raved and sputtered, the prince commanded that every speller present take turns reading the so-called incantation. Some hesitated, but all read the same report, the same story of the king falling from his horse and demanding satisfaction, each retelling goading the king to greater snorts of outrage. “They’re lying!” he screamed at last. “They’re all lying! Treacherous women!”
“You have been spelt out twelvefold times, Highness,” Lord Borromeo announced solemnly. “You are geased to honor your word. Or so it seems to me.” Several of the lords nodded.
“It is for the better,” squat Lord Eugeno said, not unkindly. “You must do the bloody business, Highness, else history would have called you a coward.”
“I am not a coward!” he shrieked. “I took five cities by storm. I took the great walled city of Vargano. I snuck out and rode back home to retrieve a new army. What man dares call me coward!?”
“No man,” the Commandrix answered at last. “Surely no man would dare say such a thing to his king.” She let that float in the air, but then, just to be sure, she added, “No man would say it, at least.”
The prince cursed under his breath. “It seems clear, Cenedras.”
The king ripped his blade from its sheath. “Give her a damn sword, then.”
“My pleasure,” said Lord Eugeno, drawing his own and holding it hilt first toward the Commandrix. It was long seconds before the guards released her, and she took the weapon.
A squire was handing the king his great helm, when the Commandrix said, “A helmet, Highness? Would you like a horse as well? Perhaps I should exit the city and try to storm your palace by myself. Would that make you more confident in your victory?” The laughter was uncomfortable, but it was there. The king grabbed the helm and threw it behind the thrones into the back corner.
“Let’s get this over with,” he grumbled, striding toward her with his point up.
“No so fast, Highness.” She held her hand out to stop him, her sword down by her leg. “You will swear to abandon Vargano if I defeat you. Swear by the god or gods of Monos.”
He took his sword in both hands. “I am the god of Monos,” he growled through gritted teeth.
“Then swear by your own honor. For whatever that is worth.”
“I will show you what I am worth,” he said, evenly for once. He stepped toward her again, and again, but still she would not lift her blade. They were within striking distance. He raised his weapon to attack, and still she would not move. “You wanted to fight,” he said. “Fight.”
He pointed up into the balcony. “I have already sworn, according to you.”
“Then swear again.” She stood, planted in place, implacable as the oak.
“I have already sworn.”
She looked up at the balcony. “The king says he has already sworn. He has already sworn to abandon Dalsaman if I should defeat him. He has accepted the truth of your… incantation.”
“I didn’t say that,” he growled acidly.
“Then swear now.”
“I already…” His glare was so baleful, that for once, he seemed an actual threat. Hali laid three fingers on her heart. “I swear,” he grumbled.
“What was that, Highness?”
“I swear!” he shouted.
In a flash like lightning, her blade was up. She leaned forward bare inches and struck her sword against his, knocking it out of the way. Rather than impale him at once, however, she stepped back and settled into ready stance. After recovering, the king rolled his eyes as though it were nothing, the familiar smirk drifting back onto his face. He too readied himself.
They began to circle each other, he wide and sweeping, she steady and careful. He was clad in bronze and gold, his dark yellow hair framing wide, beautiful blue eyes. She was draped in the tattered greying shift like a ghost, her small, glittering eyes set in a face of wood.
The Commandrix could afford to be patient, but with every second Hali could see the king’s power fading. Each time she exhaled, the lords thought less of him. He continued to circle wide around her, testing her with tentative strikes that she easily repelled. The Commandrix was happy to wait and let him spend his power. He was younger than she, fitter even, but in another minute or so that would not matter.
What blessing, what vicious happenstance had allowed these barbarians and their clown king to seize victory not once but twice? The room was life and death, yet it all seemed so certain that Hali allowed her mind to wander. She thought of the three lines of Satar: Her sun, Her rain, and Her lightning. How could a mortal god prevail against that?
As if in response, Ges finally answered the king.
Swift as the fox on the enemy’s banner, she slipped to the side and thrust. The boy king sidestepped the blow with a rakish shout, not realizing it was a feint, and swung his sword down hard from above. Ges evaded it easily and let the fool’s point carom off the floor. She bulled into him with her left shoulder, not even a grunt escaping her lips as she knocked him onto the floor. His arms flew wide, his sword skittered off against Lord Eugeno’s feet, and before he could roll away she had her point at his throat.
“Wait!” he cried out.
Hali could not help herself. Rich laughter erupted from her belly out into the chamber, breaking the tension in the room, if only for a moment.
“You have been defeated,” the Commandrix said. “Give the order to abandon Dalsaman.”
He stared at her, wide-eyed and looking more a child than ever. In that moment, Hali realized this man had never tasted defeat, and worse yet, and never expected it. In this respect, he and Ges were one. Yet there she stood, and there he lied.
“Are you defeated? Give the order, or I shall make your defeat more permanent.”
He was shaking his head faintly, denying anything and everything at once.
She looked up to the prince. “Your Grace, will you honor this man’s pledge?”
The prince and king were opposites in every way, yet both were stricken speechless. “I…”
“Are you a man of honor, Prince Ardromor?”
“You are asking me to order my brother’s death.”
“If the king cannot—”
Suddenly, the king struck her blade aside with a mailed arm, rolling away toward his sword. Stumbling like a boy playing in the Khabarese snows, he stuttered to his feet and pulled the sword from the feet of Lord Eugeno. Cenedras turned and pointed his sword out, breathing heavily and smiling bright, as though he had just performed a feat of great daring.
The Commandrix kept her sword down. “Dalsaman is now mine, Highness.”
“There is no Dalsaman!” he shouted, laughing hysterically. “There’s only Vargano, the capital of Monos, and it is mine.”
“I defeated you,” she said evenly.
“I’m still breathing.”
“Not for long,” she said, striding forward.
The king reared back to strike, and only within distance did the Commandrix at last lift up her weapon. She leapt forward and blocked the king’s sword-arm with her left hand. She tried to shove her own blade into his armored belly, but he again twisted aside and whirled away like a dancer. He threw a couple of wild slashes as he backed off, but she easily evaded both.
“You gave your word!” she shouted, rare emotion returning to her voice.
“Dalsaman is dead, you stupid woman!” He was still laughing as he spoke, insensate to the looks of disdain that fell on him from even his lordly lords. Eugeno, the boy in red and pink, the prince himself; Lord Borromeo alone betrayed nothing as he watched the fight. “But if you desire dead Dalsaman so dearly, I’ll send you there.”
“Liar! Liar and coward!” The words echoed through the chamber, and for a moment the combatants looked away from one another. The entire throne room was staring at Hali, and it was another few seconds before she realized the words had been ripped from her own throat.
Silence hung like a pall in the room.
“Liar!” Sir Rehfan echoed. “Liar and coward!”
“Liar!” Sirs Yniv and Priyandar took up the cry.
“Liar!” she shouted in a voice like thunder. The four began to chant it in desultory storm, their voices making a sort of chaotic song. The combatants turned back to each other. Ges strode forward and attacked. Still, the paladins chanted.
Liar grew louder, a muddy and erratic drumbeat sounding above and below the clarion clangor of the swords. Hali was growing short of breath, but she would not stop. The edges of her vision dimmed, and soon all grew grey but the silver flash of light off the swords as they danced together to the hideous rhythm of Liar! Liar! Liar!
The words grew louder than the earth, echoing off the marble walls, and it almost seemed that the spellers around them had taken up the song. Liar bounced off every surface in every voice. Hali’s knees grew weak, and she knew not where she found the breath, but she would not stop. No one would stop. Everyone, everyone in the room it seemed, was singing Liar! Liar! Liar! For a mad moment, she thought she could see the prince himself joining in. Far, far beneath the horrible din, she could hear the king screaming in frustration.
Just as suddenly, it stopped. Hali herself did not know why, but her knees gave out. Her manacled hands clung to the railing, and the guard behind her seized her and lifted her up. She felt she should be gasping, but no one seemed to breath. There was no noise.
Down below, near the center of the green and white throne room, a sword was buried in the belly of Divine Commandrix Ges Ra Ividar. Her eyes, her little, beetle-black eyes, seemed to triple in size as she stared at the man who had killed her. They stood in their iron embrace for a heartbeat, another, another, and then the king tore his sword from her stomach. Blood vomited forth, reddening the tattered grey shift and spilling onto the floor.
Finally, instinct took over, and Ges thrust her hand over the wound. She looked at it, then back at the king. Hali could not see the king’s face, but his silence was more shocking than what she saw. No vainglorious crowing, no smug boasting. Whatever was in the clown king’s mind, he kept it there for once.
Hali did not know where Ges’ sword was. Her hands were on her wound, each redder than the hands of any rebel or heretic she had killed in her long career. Her eyes, themselves growing red, cut into the king. Ges’ shoulders slumped, and it seemed to Hali that all the life in the world was filtering out of her Commandrix’ body and onto the floor. Her shoulders sagged further.
And then her eyes narrowed, and her face caught fire.
Ges leapt forward, tackling the king as she wrapped her red hands around his throat. He battered the back of her head with one mailed fist, but it had no effect. Finally he released his sword in desperation and grabbed her wrists. Blood was puking out of Ges’ stomach onto the king’s bronze-and-gilt chest plate as he slowly peeled her hands away from his neck. Ges responded by headbutting him. She did it two more times before he finally managed to twist and throw her off of him.
They lurched to their feet as one, he with a sword back in his hand, she with another great torrent of blood voiding onto the marble floor. The king’s mouth was bloody, and his left eye was blackened and already bruising. She charged again, and as he brought his sword up to defend himself, she grabbed the blade in both her naked hands, loosing more red onto white steel as she wrenched it away from the king’s grip. A childish flush of hope ran up Hali’s spine, until Ges flung the sword away. She grabbed the king’s throat in one hand and punched him with the other, again and again. Each punch echoed like thunder in the silent chamber.
The king finally regained his senses, threw his arms up under hers, and broke her grip even as he seized ahold of her shoulders. Ges’ shoulders slumped further as the king pulled his head back and butted her in the face, breaking her nose with a sound like a giant branch snapping. The prince himself gasped at the noise.
Ges seized the king’s shoulders, bared her teeth, and dove for the king’s throat. Cenedras cried out like a frightened boy, trying to back away but arrested by their joint grips. He tripped, his leg gave out, and as he fell he managed to plant his other foot against Ges’ belly. As he landed, he shoved his foot hard against her stomach and threw her back into a pair of guards who stumbled to clear the way. An arc of glittery red blood spewed over her as she flew, and a scream like a dying horse tore out of Ges’ throat as she crashed to the floor and tumbled.
The king looked around wildly for his sword, retrieving it long before Ges began to move. He pointed it at her and backed away as she slowly rolled onto her stomach.
Ges raised herself up onto her elbows, her eyes again grown large. The spot where she lay was already awash in red. A glazed look fell at last over her eyes, and she seemed to lose focus. Her sight flew between three different points in space, three different nothings only Ges Ra Ividar could see. She grimaced in pain, and a little wail left her lips as she reached her hand out toward whatever she was looking at. First, to her right, steady and sure, but then she faltered. She reached to her left, then straight before her, then right again. She retracted her arm, looking at the three invisible things before her. Even as her lids grew heavy and closed, still her little eyes flew back and forth and back again. Her eyes had been closed for several seconds before her shoulders gave out one last time, and she collapsed to the ground.
She lay there, still, and silent. Under the linen and leather, she looked almost soft.
The silence was broken by the king, who at last began to pant and gasp. Even from above, Hali could see his fingers growing weak, but rather than drop his sword, he carefully returned it to its sheath. He moved toward the Commandrix’ body, stepping into the red flood that surrounded her, and gasped and panted down at her. He reared his foot back, just a little bit, but before he could kick the corpse, Lord Eugeno was there with a restraining hand on his shoulder. “Don’t, boy,” he growled, meaning to be quiet but failing. “Enough.”
The king shook his head. He tried to whisper, but in the marble hall everyone heard him say, “It’s never enough.”
“Hail!” Prince Ardromor cried out. “Hail Cenedras Victorious, the Fourth of that Name, the Hundred-and-twenty-third of the Unbroken Line Divine! By conquest the rightful Lord of Vargano and King of Kings!”
No one took up the cry. It seemed to echo unnaturally long. Hali thought of the crickets in the acacia woods outside the old Fire Mine, half a world away. The crickets sang songs of love and lust throughout the night, but to human ears it always sounded sad.
“Hail!” the red-and-pink boy cried, finally, weakly. “Hail to the king!”
“Shut up, Massam,” Cenedras grunted. The bronze-and-gilt king stumbled over to one of the thrones and sat down. The prince, meanwhile, strode into the middle of the hallway and looked up at the balcony. At them.
“You two,” he said, “who begged for mercy. You will be ransomed.” Then he pointed to Rehfan and her. “You two, who defied the clemency of Monos, shall die.”
Sir Rehfan’s voice cracked as he shouted, “Satar will pay all ransoms in Heaven!”
Hali did not echo him.
Hali did not speak.