The spiders war, p.13
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       The Spider's War, p.13

           Daniel Abraham
 

  “I was naïve,” she said.

  “Everyone is at the start,” Komme said mildly. “Were you thinking of something in particular?”

  “The public letters. I thought that by telling people what they were, the world would rise up against them.”

  “That if you told them the truth, they would thank you and see things as you do?” Komme said. “Yes, that was naïve. It’s a forgivable error, though.”

  “Only if I can correct it,” she said. “Inys didn’t mean to slaughter the world when he upset his brother. He didn’t see the end his actions would take him to either. If the stakes are everything, no errors are forgivable. We have to be better than that.”

  “So be wiser than dragons?” Komme said. “Don’t let it be said you aim low.”

  “Dragons aren’t wise. They’re only powerful and noble and impressive to the people they fashioned to be easily impressed.”

  “True,” Komme said as the carriage shifted and slowed. The gate of the holding company passed the window, and the voices of the grooms and guards and footmen rang out in the dark. Torches flared, and boots tapped against the paving stones. The carriage lurched to a halt, and the door swung open. Two servants stood ready to help them out, but Komme Medean hadn’t moved. His eyes were on Cithrin, glittering in the light as if the fire were in him. His expression was grim and considering. “So how do you win this war? More hunters? More fighters? More public letters exhorting people to take your side?”

  No, she wanted to say. It was in her mouth. She could taste the word. Komme lifted his eyebrows, and for a moment, she was a child again, sitting at Magister Imaniel’s table, peppered with his questions. Trying to show that she was clever enough to be loved.

  “In part,” she said. “Gathering new allies is part of what we can do, even though they may not all do quite as we’d hoped. That part wasn’t wrong. It was only incomplete.”

  The servant at the door cleared his throat and leaned in. “Sir, is there something—”

  Komme lifted his hand sharply, and the man went silent. “Go on,” Komme said.

  “It’s a war, but it’s also a marketplace. I have to have something better than the people at the next table and at the right price.”

  “Lower price?”

  “Perhaps. Unless costing more makes it seem more to be valued.”

  “And what is it you’re selling? Peace? Been a long line of clever people who couldn’t clear that inventory.”

  “Not at first. No. I’m selling dead spiders. As long as their death is worth more to the world than the advantage they give, I won’t need to pull anyone to my side. They’ll find their own reasons.”

  “And how do you do that?”

  Cithrin was silent for a long time. The torches muttered. The grooms unhitched the horses. Cithrin felt her mind grow still, the knot in her belly loosen. “What do kings want more than power?” she asked.

  “Find that, my dear,” Komme said, “and we’ll have something worth knowing. Because in my experience, the answer’s nothing.”

  Marcus

  Marcus went on campaign the first time when he was sixteen. His first sword had been a thin blade, meant for close, dirty work. Even pretending he’d never carried a knife until that day, he’d spent more of his life armed than not. He’d taken the field in the ice-caked springs of Northcoast and the kiln-hot summers of the Keshet. He’d commanded men and been under the command of generals and doges, princes and kings. He’d wintered in the most libertine of the Free Cities and the most pious garrisons of Herez.

  Long experience told him that an army camp had its own logic, its own form, its own character unlike that of any township or hunter’s encampment. Even without setting foot in it, Marcus knew quite a bit about the Anteans’. He couldn’t have said where exactly the tents of the camp followers were, where the dice games were played, who was the company prig and who the joker, who was undercutting which commander when his superiors weren’t about. He knew that they all existed, though. It was only a matter of finding the specifics.

  And then, of course, the priests. They had to be found and followed. Once he understood just a bit of their role in the geography of the army, he’d be able to make the plan that the Lord Marshal of Antea and Cithrin bel Sarcour both wanted of him. Along with that, there were other things he was looking at and looking for. Signs and indications, patterns and systems. And again, he knew that they would be there before he knew what they were.

  And all the things he saw drew him to the same basic conclusion: Antea, after the most successful and extended campaign he’d heard of outside legend, had destroyed itself.

  Part of the blame—though he wouldn’t have said it aloud—lay at Jorey Kalliam’s feet. The boy seemed smart, competent, even well enough read in the theory of leading an army. But he was also little more than a boy, and his mistakes were the mistakes of inexperience. It was possible to hold a small army in the field all through the winter if there was no other option, but this was the bulk of Antea’s fighting force. Even with supply carts coming up from Porte Oliva in the south and water and occasional fish from the little creek that ran through the camp, it was too large to sustain itself. The weariness and hunger of the soldiers made them look like he could push them over with a breath. And the Lord Marshal hadn’t kept discipline in digging the latrines. The frozen ground would make it hell’s own work, true. And shit left out in the cold of the little ravine beside the camp froze. It was easier to let it lie there in piles. After all it didn’t stink. They’d pay for it all when the thaw came, though. First in flies and then in fever.

  The placement of the tents said something as well. Cliques were forming among the men. Maybe they’d been there from the start, but the camp wasn’t a unified whole. It was a network of camps centered around Kalliam’s subject lords and sharing a few common resources: the cunning men’s tents, the practice yard, the priests’ tent. Far better to keep the men from fragmenting, especially when they had so many other reasons to be primed for mutiny. If it had been a smaller army—the command of a new leader who was himself answering to some greater lord—it would have been serviceable. Respectable, even. But as the central force of a great empire, it looked like something that the Lord Regent had awarded a young friend instead of an experienced commander.

  Which, in fact, it was. If not for the priests, the whole thing would have fallen into chaos long before.

  “He’s a good man,” the young huntsman said. Vincen Coe, Lady Kalliam had called him. Her conspirator and servant. And, since he’d followed the army only from the Free Cities and not trekked with it all the way through Sarakal and Elassae first, he was about half again the weight of the average Antean soldier. All in all, not a bad ally to have. “Jorey’s men like him.”

  “They’re told to,” Marcus said. “If he didn’t have this dragon’s trick on his side, it’d go harder for him. And I didn’t say he was a bad person. I said he was an inexperienced war leader.”

  “He took down your dragon,” Coe said.

  “Once,” Marcus said. “That’s the problem with a maneuver like that. It works best the first time.”

  Coe shrugged. The man seemed to take any criticism of House Kalliam personally. Either doglike loyalty or the natural distrust of a servant for anyone who might take his place in the household. Either way, Marcus made the point to himself again not to bait the man without meaning to.

  The three of them—Marcus and Coe and Kit—had set up tents in the gap between two of the larger factions within the camp. It was an unpleasant piece of land. The siege towers and machinery that had brought down the dragon sat to the east, white with frost. Come morning, their tent would be in shadow until the sun was five or six hands above the horizon. The curve of the low hills seemed to channel the wind to it, and the heat from their sad, underfed little fire didn’t do much against it.

  Marcus wouldn’t have chosen the spot, but in four of the past five days, the spider priests had crossed this way on their
rounds. Marcus’s first hope had been that the priests would sleep far enough from the others that he could take them in the night. But the enemy was in the center of the most concentrated group of soldiers, and so the second plan was this. Find a place along their customary route, distract them, and then kill them fast enough that no one noticed.

  The middle of an army was a poor place for an assassination. His only comfort was that, once it was finished, the Lord Marshal would be able to help cover the thing over. If he’d been trying to escape after, it would have been harder.

  Not impossible, but harder.

  Voices came from the neighboring camp. The chatter of the men, but above them, trumpeting in rough tones, the priests. Vincen Coe had helped them stay out of the priests’ immediate path while Marcus made his plan. Even now, he hadn’t come close enough to see them as anything but dusty cloaks. They spoke like actors from a stage, filling the camp with their words. We cannot fail. The goddess is with us. All enemies will fall before us. We cannot fail. It didn’t work if the soldiers didn’t hear it, and they shouted it all wherever they went.

  For all that he knew it was hairwash and deception, Marcus found himself wondering when he heard them. When they said We cannot fail, the soldiers all took it as a promise of Antean victory. Marcus knew more, and the words meant other things to him. The war will never stop. There are too many of us already, and scattered too far across the world. The chaos will come, and nothing will stop it. Put in those terms, their argument seemed convincing. And he thought it would have even if it hadn’t come with Morade’s cruel magic to back it.

  The others heard it too. Coe’s face took on a clarity and focus like a hunter on a trail. Kit folded his arms together. The lines at the corners of his mouth drew deeper.

  “You all right?” Marcus asked.

  “Fine,” he said. “It’s only… I can feel them. Like little rivers of pain in my flesh. I hear them say that the goddess is with us. The truth of that is in their voices, and yet that it’s false is something I’m sure of. The two come together, and it’s…” Kit shook his head. “I find it difficult to fully describe.”

  “Are they going to be able to feel your presence too?” Coe asked.

  “I think not. My experience is that the spiders have an affinity for one another, but I expect each of them will assume any sense of my presence is inspired by the other. Unless they hear me speak. When that happens…”

  “It’ll be close to the end,” Marcus said. “May not even need it.”

  The voices of the priests grew louder, and then stopped. Their visit to the neighboring camp was ended. If the previous two days were a guide, they’d cross the empty space near Marcus’s tent on the way to the next little camp. The poisoned sword lay beside the fire, the scabbard covered by dirt, the hilt by a bit of cloth. Kit met Marcus’s gaze, nodded, and moved into the darkness within the little tent. Vincen stood, stretched, and ambled off toward the frost-rimed bulk of the siege towers. Marcus understood the man had been badly injured earlier in the season, but there was no sign of it in how he held himself. There had been a time when Marcus had healed that quickly too, but it hadn’t been in the last decade. Or since he’d started carrying this thrice-damned sword, for that.

  The two men appeared, walking together. The cold breeze pushed their brown cloaks against their bodies. They had wiry hair not unlike Kit’s, and skin of a similar cast. Mostly, though, they were just a pair of Firstblood men. If he’d seen them sitting together at an inn anyplace from Daun to Stollbourne, he’d have thought them cousins and ended there.

  Marcus shifted from sitting to a low squat. One hand rested on the hilt of the hidden blade. Two men, unsuspecting. He saw them notice him. From their smiles and nods, he was nothing more than another soldier to them. The plan was simple. Draw them to his fire, have Coe distract them, then cut them down. Two quick cuts, and then let the blade’s toxic magic finish the rest. And if things went poorly, hope that Kit could pull him out of it.

  Now he just had to see it work in practice.

  “Afternoon,” Marcus said, loud enough for it to carry. “How are you two doing?”

  “Well,” the taller of the two said. “The goddess blesses us with this beautiful day.”

  “If you say,” Marcus said. They hadn’t broken stride. A single tent apparently wasn’t draw enough for their time. “You’re priests then? I saw another like you not long ago. Up in Northcoast, it was. Eshau, he called himself.”

  Their steps faltered. Marcus poked at the little fire, bringing up a cloud of tiny sparks. It was the truth. Marcus had seen the man die in dragon flame. Now, Eshau was an unpleasant memory and bait for the hook. And bless the man, he did his job.

  The two priests came to stand by the fire, looking down at Marcus. The shorter of the two had a chipped front tooth. The taller, a scar on the back of his wrist. Marcus smiled up at them, his fingertips brushing the hilt under its cloth.

  “You knew Eshau?” the taller one said.

  “That’d be an exaggeration,” Marcus said. “I met him once. He was up looking to speak with King Tracian. All on about how your Basrahip fellow had become corrupt and the goddess was incorruptible, and everyone should raise up an army against you and Antea and revel in the light of her truth. Something along those lines.”

  They exchanged alarmed glances. Marcus smiled vacantly up at them, making himself seem innocuous and a little dim. It was a mistake to think you couldn’t mislead the spiders. You just couldn’t lie outright to do it. There was and always had been a gap wide enough to march a cohort through between speaking truth and being understood.

  Coe whistled sharply from behind them, and they glanced back. Marcus grabbed the hilt and moved forward, using the weight of his body to unsheathe the blade and swing it. The tall one was turning back to him when the blade took him in the side, just under the ribs, cutting up. The priest’s eyes went wide, and Marcus yanked the sword back to free it. The shorter priest yelped with alarm, and the taller one grabbed the blade in his bare hands, encumbering it, holding it in his own gut. The blood pouring down his belly was lumpy and black. The spiders already dead from the venom of the blade.

  Marcus pulled again, slicing deep into the meat of the tall priest’s palms, but he couldn’t get the blade free. The shorter priest stumbled back, turned. Coe was near him, a long knife in his hand.

  “No!” Marcus said. “Don’t cut him! Don’t get close!”

  Marcus planted his boot on the tall priest’s chest and shoved. The blade slid free. White foam mixed with his blood now. The dying man collapsed into the fire pit, but Marcus was already running across the frozen field. The short priest, ahead of him, was shouting a gabble of words he couldn’t follow and pumping his legs. Marcus put his head down and ran. The poisoned sword was long, and poorly balanced for sprinting. The priest opened the distance between them and closed the one to the nearest camp and the soldiers of Antea. A glance showed Marcus half a dozen men in imperial clothes who’d already noticed them, but hadn’t started toward the fray.

  That wouldn’t last. And he wasn’t catching up. For every four steps he took, the priest managed five. The cold stung Marcus’s lungs. He fought not to cough. The Antean tents came closer. A couple of men were running out toward them, coming to the rescue of the disease that was killing them. Marcus pushed his awareness of them aside, his gaze on the shifting brown cloak in front of him. Nothing else mattered.

  Something flickered to his left, and the priest stumbled. Fell. The hunter’s knife, thrown from God knew how far, protruded from the priest’s thigh like a bone in a bad break. Tiny black bodies skittered across the frozen ground, the chill already slowing them. The priest looked up, his hand raised as if to parry, as Marcus brought down the blade. He sheared through the man’s wrist, sank the point of the green-black sword into his chest. The fumes from the blade wafted up into Marcus’s face, astringent and cutting. The priest cried out once, then blood gushed from his mouth. Blood and other things: the
bodies of spiders and the white foam of the poison.

  Marcus stepped back, pulling the blade free. The soldiers were crying out in dismay and anger, their voices close. He looked up. Five of them in the first wave. Maybe twenty more behind those. They looked like sticks rattling in too-wide jackets. Scarecrows with the stuffing picked out for nests. They held their swords smartly enough, though.

  Marcus lifted the blade, breathing between clenched teeth. He could try outrunning them. Might even manage it, given how near starvation they all were.

  “Stop!” Kit’s voice rolled across the frozen earth. “In the name of the goddess and empire, put up your swords!”

  The first five didn’t put up their blades, but their charge lost its speed. Marcus took a couple of slow steps back and risked a glance over his shoulder. Kit was a few yards behind him, arms lifted wide, face beaming in a wide grin. He looked joyful. Marcus rolled his eyes.

  Actors.

  “Do not be alarmed! Put your confusion aside, and rejoice! I have come as your liberator and savior! I am Kitap rol Keshmet, sent by the goddess to free you from the bonds of these false servants. Put up your swords, my friends, and let us be merry! Those who brought false words of the goddess, who kept you from the full truth, who pretended to guide you to victory, have fallen beneath my righteous blade!”

  “Fuck is this?” one of the soldiers shouted. The second wave was catching up to the first, surrounding them. There was no running to safety now, but seeing as they hadn’t butchered Marcus or Kit or Coe, there were also ways it could have been worse.

  Kit came to Marcus’s side, put a hand on his shoulder. Marcus lowered the point of the blade and tried to seem like Kit’s righteous servant. If it came down to blows now, they were likely all dead anyway.

  “Have you not wondered, my friends, why victory has been so slow to come? Have you not wondered why, for all your good work and sacrifice, the goddess has withheld the comforts of home? I bring good news and more than good news. The peace you deserve is upon you! You have been misled by those who would use the gifts of the goddess against her, but she has seen your faith. And she keeps her faith now with you. Put up your swords and rejoice. I am Kitap rol Keshmet, and I have come as the true voice of the goddess to lead you home!”

 
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