“Some unanticipated expenses have come from the ceremony, of course,” Lord Jinaan added, fiddling with the sleeves of his powder blue robe. “The behemoths did some… damage… to their quarters.”
“Pay it,” the Khan answered, dismissing the issue with a flick of his fingers. “Pay whatever it is and get rid of them. The lions, the behemoths, the bears, get rid of everything already. I’ve hated this stupid ceremony from the start.”
“Still,” Lady Qadira broke him, her burgundy robes swishing as she stepped toward the dais, “it has worked. The populace seems very well disposed to your rule.”
“Did they object to my rule, before the ceremony?”
“No!” Lord Ibran insisting, waiving his saffron sleeves about. “No, no, no, let it never be said that Zalja does not love its Khan.”
“Then what was the point of this disastrous nonsense?” he asked.
“Steady, my love,” the Khanra whispered. She had not worn her crown for this, and her lustrous hair was tied into a great, thick braid, running down her right shoulder, over her breast, and coiling slightly in her lap like a snake.
“Fine,” he sighed, rubbing his face. “It’s over. Fine. Pay whatever we must and wipe this folly out of my land.”
At that, the doors to the great hall opened and the High Steward strode in. Gamila was wearing her plum-colored robes. “It must be the new moon,” he muttered. “What is it?”
“Your Grace,” she said, short of breath. “Dame Tiir has returned with news from the eastern front.”
“At last! Send her in at once.”
It was another five minutes before she arrived. Dame Tiir was young, so small she looked more like a rat-catcher than a paladin, but she was dressed in banded lamellar of gilded steel, red silk adorning her white doublet. In her right fist was a rolled up parchment. Behind her were two more warriors.
The first was a great beast of a man, weathered slightly pale, with a grizzly beard. He looked Khabarese, and when the Khan saw his ears had been lost to frostbite, his suspicions were confirmed. His leg was plastered and we walked with a gnarled staff. He wore no armor, but the Khan recognized him as one of the two Khabarese paladins the Holy Archon had recommended.
The other was presumably a paladin as well, but she too wore no armor. A southerner, though not as pale as the Khabarese man, her dark eyes seemed to stare at nothing, and her long black hair hung straggly about her. It was hard to say if she was a wild Khabarese or merely a dead woman. She wore a ratty grey blouse and brown leather jack, with demure black pants and grey stocks. Her boots were of black leather and looked relatively new. She looked down at her feet, humble as a whipped groom.
They stood before him. He was mildly annoyed that they chose not to kneel, but as holy paladins they were not required to. “Dame Tiir,” he said, “I had not thought to see you again so soon. I hope our reinforcements were well spent.”
Her hesitation told all. “Your Grace,” she said at last, “the great city of Dalsaman has fallen to the enemy. As have Supola Jengo, Mansaikhan, Makh, Ubrurough, and… Cittiuvio.”
“They have renamed Yabrad after their own fashion. Further, the king of Monos has… he has renamed Dalsaman as the Port of Vargano, and declares it the capital of Monos.”
“The capital!” the Khanra gasped. “In our own borders? Is he mad?”
“It is now on our borders, not in them,” she said, holding out the parchment in her hand. “I have come to deliver a new map, designating the borders between Monos and Zalja as declared by King Cenedras.”
“What!” Lord Jinaan snatched the parchment from her hand and unrolled it. “No. No, no, no, this is absurd.”
“How?” the Khan asked. There was no outrage or reproach in his voice, but an almost childlike confusion. “You had a thousand horse, and another thousand from the Euskati according to you. Nearly ten-thousand foot, four dozen wizards. You were led by Divine Commandrix Ges Ra Ividar. Who is this man, this King Cenedras? How did he prevail against such odds?”
Dame Tiir shook her head. “I have no answers, Grace. By the time our reinforcements arrived, it was over. The Divine Commandrix was dead, our army routed, and the enemy outnumbered our forces three against one. And they held the city. I would not spend more lives for nothing. Your Grace.”
“Nothing!” Lady Qadira spat. “Is Dalsaman nothing? Her people? Her pride?”
“Enough,” the Khan said. “Give me the map, Jinaan.”
The Khan unrolled the map and held it before him, angling it so Siriassa could see as well. Many hides of land were claimed surrounding the seized towns, and the entire eastern ridge of the Shadowgate Mountains as well, yet by odd coincidence the magic mines lay outside the claimed territory. “We must send emissaries to dispute this.”
“Emissaries?” Lord Ibran choked. “Surely we must send armies, your Grace.” The Khanra shot him a look, silencing him, and the Khan remembered why he had fallen in love with her.
“Do you think these emissaries would be safe?” the Khanra asked. “The barbarians attacked without writ or declaration yes? Who can say if they would treat honorably with us?”
“I think they will,” said Dame Tiir. “By the time I arrived, the king was already gone.”
“What?” the Khan asked. “Why?”
“His word.” It was the wild-haired woman who spoke, still looking at the ground.
“Who is this?” Lady Qadira asked.
She took a step forward. “My name is Hali Ra Parsad. I was there when it happened.”
She still would not look up, but the Khan nodded anyway. “Go on, Dame.”
“I am not… yes, Grace. The king gave his word, that he would abandon Dalsaman if the Commandrix faced him in single combat. True to his word, he abandoned Dalsaman to the governance of his brother, Prince Ardromor, and departed for home.”
The lords muttered at that. “Dishonorable,” Ibran said, redundantly.
“And this Ardromor?” the Khanra continued. “He is a man of honor, then?”
“There are no men of honor in Monos,” she snarled, a notable emphasis on ‘men.’ “But he can be reasoned with. He is not a vainglorious fool like his brother. He will know enough to fear you. As a gesture of good faith, he ransomed several nobles from the fallen towns, even the Ividars of Dalsaman, as well as Sirs Yniv and Priyandar, Sir Sanin here. And myself.”
The Khan tapped his lip in thought. “That sounds quite generous. Perhaps this Ardromor does indeed fear us. Might he be vulnerable?”
“I don’t doubt he wants the fighting to end,” she answered. “He never wanted it started in the first place, I think.”
“He will cede nothing, Grace. Monos was landlocked before now. The ports are too valuable.”
“And the other towns?”
She shrugged, still looking at the floor. “Perhaps. I am not a lord, Grace. These things are beyond me.”
The Khan’s eyes narrowed shrewdly. “Dame Hali. Look at me.”
She blinked at that, and tears filled her eyes. “I am not a Dame, your Grace. I disgraced myself in battle, and again at the chopping block. The Commandrix gave up her life for Dalsaman. Sir Rehfan, Sir Kenahl, Sir Waldun, Sir… and thousands of others gave up their lives for Dejitsa, for Zalja. I would not die for my honor. My honor died for me.”
There was no immediate answer to that.
“There are worse things,” the Khanra suggested lamely. “There are greater dishonors. Consider these Monosi barbarians.”
“If I must compare myself to Cenedras the Liar in order to find my dignity, then it is long lost. Your Grace.”
More silence followed.
“Still,” the Khanra said at last, kindly, “this was never truly your fight. The Holy Archon charged Divine Commandrix Ges to this quest, not you. You were not truly pledged to die.”
“No,” she agreed, her tears dripping on the floor. “A paladin has no home. No family and no home.”
“Save Satar’s grace,” the Khanra finished. The Dame who was not a Dame, did not answer.
“Hali Ra Parsad,” the Khan said, “look at me.”
She looked up at him, and her face hardened.
“How?” he asked. “How did this happen?”
She shrugged. “Luck. Unseeing, unhearing luck. Luck allowed the king to escape the Commandrix on the field of battle. Luck allowed him to sneak out of Dalsaman and raise reinforcements. Luck allowed him to be born into a royal line. Perhaps he really is a god, as the Monosi believe.” She shook her head. “I don’t know what more the Commandrix could have done.”
“Killed them.” The grizzly Khabarese, Sir Sanin, spoke at last. “She could have killed that corpse-lord at the northern gate when we were treating, and taken the city. She could have gutted the boy king when he fell from his horse. She could have dishonored her precious self, for one second, and saved thousands of lives. That’s what she could have done.”
Hali looked about to say something, but instead she stared at the floor. “Your Grace,” she said, “I have come to beg your leave to travel south into Khabar. I mean to squire for Sir Sanin.”
The Khan resisted the urge to roll his eyes. The fall of Dejitsa seemed more important to him than this former-paladin’s crisis of honor. “As you wish.”
Dame Tiir cleared her throat. “Do you wish anything more of us, your Grace?”
He let a frustrated sigh out, then shook his head. “No. Speak with my understeward. He will see you housed until you are ready to return to the Holy Solulan.”
Before they had even left the room, Lady Qadira was insisting upon a counterstrike. Jinaan and Ibran were nodding along until Siriass stood and commanded them to leave the room. Gamila closed the door behind her, leaving them alone in the great hall.
“None of this matters, my sweet.” She assured him. “They are still six-hundred miles away.”
“They are closer,” he insisted stubbornly. “Tomorrow, they may be closer still.”
“Well, at this rate, when they are finally at our gates, your great-great-grandchildren can worry about them.”
He sighed again. “I suppose so.”
“Let me take you to bed.”
“It is scarcely after midday.”
“And what a trying morning you have had. Come.”
The Khan surrendered, and found a little comfort, and so the matter was ended.
“I’d like to stop by Khair, on the way to the Cickatrice Tail.” Hali was standing by her piebald gelding. She had her sword out, the sword of the watch of Dalsaman. “It’s not far from the Holy Solulan.”
“Are you giving the orders now, squire?” There was an amused warmth in Sir Sanin’s voice, but she could tell he was implacable. “We’re not going to the Holy Solulan. Let Tiir tell them of our failures.”
“I have to tell them,” she insisted. “I’m the only one who was there.”
“And what can you tell them that Tiir can’t?” he growled. “We fought and we failed. The end.”
“She deserves to have her story told.”
Sanin glared at her, but his look softened after a moment. He looked down at her blade. “What did you say she told you? About that sword?”
She looked it over. “To carry it with me. Always.”
He nodded, climbing onto his shaggy-coated garron. “Carry it with you. You failed. We failed. No confession will change that. There is no absolution. To live without guilt is to live like a god on earth. And we’ve seen what those are like.”
She gave the sword one last look. It was a good sword, but she had not paid for it. Perhaps she would someday.
She shoved the sword of the watch back into her scabbard and climbed up on her gelding. “To the Cickatrice Tail, then?”
He nodded. “It’s deathly cold down there. We’ll stop off somewhere farther south to buy some furs along the way. Khair, perhaps.”
The sun was still high as they rode out the southern gates of Tsen Ikha, yet it would grow darker and colder as they went. Hali knew this, though, and was ready to carry it with her. She rode south, her shoulders hunched up against the future cold, a little harder than they had been. She could carry that with her too.