The spiders war, p.34
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       The Spider's War, p.34

           Daniel Abraham
 

  “Not bad,” he said.

  “I didn’t see call to save anything for a better occasion.”

  “Well, there’ll be a better one along shortly or else not at all,” he said.

  “Call this a hedge, then. If we lose, at least I won’t have spared the good wine.”

  “Thanks for sharing it.”

  “And,” she said, and then faltered. She looked at her feet. The room wasn’t spinning. She wished that it were. If her mind had lost a little more of its clarity, this might have been easier. “Thank you. For being who you’ve been to me.”

  “Not sure what you—”

  “Don’t. Not now. Not tonight.”

  It was the mercenary captain’s turn to look away. “Right. Night before the battle. Sorry.”

  “I met you when I was a child who thought walking outside the city walls was like jumping off a cliff. I have taken terrible risks with myself and the people around me, and I’ve won more than I lost. And you have done everything you could to keep me safe. We don’t talk about it. We don’t say it. But it’s true, and I want you to know that I appreciate it. All of it.”

  “It’s the… Hell. Yeah. All right.” Marcus took a deep breath and held his hand out for the bottle. This time when he took it, he nearly drained it. “You’re near the age my daughter would have been. A little younger now than my wife was when I met her. You’re not them, but you fit in that part of my head for a time.”

  “I’m sorry I couldn’t be them.”

  “No, not that. Be sorry for something else if you have to, but not for that. I did what I did because I thought it wanted doing. That’s all. And I knew you weren’t my daughter. Yardem kept pointing it out, for one thing. It’s been… it’s been the longest, strangest job I ever took. I always thought of bankers as being dull.”

  She laughed. “We want you to think that.”

  His sheepish grin made him look younger. She could see who he’d been as a boy. “Picked up that part. Took me long enough, but I see it. You… you didn’t know your parents, yeah?”

  “I remember remembering them, but nothing more than that.”

  “For all this? They’d be proud of you, scared as hell, I expect, but proud.”

  “They don’t care,” Cithrin said, taking back the bottle. “They haven’t cared in decades. They’re dead.”

  She drank the wine to the dregs. There had been a bitterness in her words that surprised her. If someone else had said it, she’d have said they sounded hurt, but she didn’t feel it. To her surprise, Marcus laughed. “You’re one ahead of me, then. Fine. I’m proud of you, then. Proud to know you, proud to work for you. Proud of all you’ve done, though God knows I don’t understand half of it.”

  “If we die tomorrow…”

  “Then we do,” Marcus said with a shrug. “If it’s all the same, I’d prefer to go first. Bad for my reputation if you die before me, and it’s hard enough to get jobs when you won’t work for kings.”

  “I’ll try to survive, then.”

  “Do that,” Marcus said. He looked up at her from under lowered brows. “What are the chances I’ll be able to keep you from coming to the Kingspire?”

  “Poor,” Cithrin said.

  “I’ll be there to call Inys. Yardem’s going to run sheepdog on Palliako. Chances are decent that the dragon’ll follow up killing the priests by turning everyone else there to slag. Not sure how having you present’s going to improve things.”

  “You might get your wish and die before me,” Cithrin said. “If you fall, I’m picking up your damned blade myself.”

  The last morning—she couldn’t think of it as anything else—dawned without a moment of sleep behind it. The day came early in the high summer, and rich with birdsong and the clatter of carts in the streets. Cithrin washed, changed into the robes that would let her pass as a servant, and tried to prepare her heart for what was to come. She could as easily have willed herself to fly.

  The sunlight slanted in from the east when they set out through the cobbled streets. Lehrer Palliako led them, riding a tall black horse and bright clothes like a man heading for a festival. Or, less charitably, performing at one. He was there to be seen and to draw any casual attention to himself and away from the motley train of servants behind him.

  For the first few streets, Cithrin felt her heart in her throat. But with every corner they passed, every tradesman who pulled aside to make way for the Lord Regent’s father, every street cleaner waiting with barrow and shovel for them to pass, every beggar and child and half-wild dog that saw them without any light coming into their eyes, she felt a strange elation growing in her.

  No one knew, and so no one saw. They were disguised as much by their improbability as by their robes. The grey-haired Kurtadam woman selling wilted cabbages in the square lived in a world where the question was how the goddess and the Lord Regent were going to defeat the roach army. If she even thought of that. More likely, she wasn’t even concerned with that so much as whether she’d be able to get rid of her produce before it started to rot. The baker’s boy with his handcart piled with sacks of flour didn’t see a suspicious bunch of servants trailing after an anxious-looking nobleman so much as an obstacle in his morning errands that he had to track around. Cithrin walked among them unrecognized either for herself or the change she was about to bring upon them all. Or try to, at any rate.

  Geder waited at an ivied archway, the entrance to one of the royal gardens. He wore a light summer tunic with braiding of gold down the sides, and the crown of his regency on his head. His personal guard stood along the edge of the garden, facing out, and created the sense of a wall even in the stretches where no actual wall existed. When the guard stood aside to let the grooms help the Lord Regent’s father off his mount, Cithrin had to bite her lips to keep from laughing. She was fairly certain that once she’d started, it would have been hard to stop, and it wouldn’t be the sort of laughter that promised sanity.

  After the press and noise and stink of the streets, the royal quarter seemed too quiet and sparsely peopled to be part of the same city. No gardeners tended the deep-green hedges and breeze-shuddered flowers, no slaves sang at the little hidden corners to sweeten the summer air for the court. It was expected, of course. She’d told Geder to send as many people as he could away. To see it all in motion was eerie all the same.

  Once they were out of sight of the guard, Geder stopped pretending to walk with his father and came to her side. His eyes were bright and he bounced on the balls of his feet with every step, like a boy excited for cake.

  “The pieces are in place?” Marcus asked even before Geder could speak.

  “The blacksmith delivered them this morning,” Geder said.

  “The priests?” Cithrin said. Something passed through Geder’s expression that she couldn’t read, a flicker here then gone that reminded her of the day she’d seen him cut down Dawson Kalliam. She was almost pleased to see it.

  “Gathering. It isn’t like it was before, but I don’t know if it’s because they’ve changed or I have. It seems like there’s more fighting now. They rub each other the wrong ways all the time. Basrahip’s been going to all of them and promising how they’ll all be reconciled and I have seen her plan.”

  “Both true,” Cithrin said, “if not the way he means it.”

  “He keeps asking to see me before the gathering at the temple, but I’ve put him off. Better not to have the chance for things to go wrong.”

  Cithrin made a little sound of agreement.

  When they reached the entrance of the Kingspire, the wide doors stood open and the great halls beyond empty. From so near, the banner of the goddess was only a shifting darkness that clung to the walls high above her. A shadow the light couldn’t dispel. The sun had risen higher than she’d expected, the morning more than half-gone already.

  Master Kit and Cary huddled for a moment with the rest of the players, bowed their heads together the way they sometimes did before a performance. Marcus stoo
d at Geder’s side, ignoring the Lord Regent’s almost palpable annoyance. Rough cloth wrapped the poisoned sword on his back, too valuable to discard and too dangerous to expose, especially here where so many of the priests might know it for what it was.

  A sparrow flew past, its fluttering brown wings loud in the air.

  “Torch ready?” Marcus asked.

  “On the dueling ground,” Geder said, nodding to the west and the great chasm of the Division. “All that needs is lighting. How… how long will it take before the dragon comes?”

  “Damned if I know,” Marcus said. “Great bastard may not show up at all.”

  He clapped Geder’s shoulder and walked away. Geder glanced from Cithrin to Yardem to the captain’s sword-crossed and retreating back. “He’s joking, isn’t he? The dragon’s coming. It’s going to be here.”

  “There’s always some element of improvisation in the plan,” Yardem said mildly, and flicked his ear. “Looks a long way up. We should go. You staying here, Magistra?”

  Cithrin clasped her hands behind her back so tightly that her knuckles ached. Everything in her body was stretched so tightly that she felt the way a viol string sounded. Clara and Aster would be waiting by the path to the gaol, ready to go with her as soon as Geder returned. There was so much to do and so much doubt. She closed her eyes.

  “Yes,” she said. “I’ll be waiting when you come back.”

  Geder surged forward and took her hand in his. His eyes were intense and dark, his mouth in a scowl that was meant to be heroic. “We will return,” he said, then turned to Yardem and spoke with a false lightness. “We’d best get started. As you said, it can be a long way up.”

  Yardem nodded to her and smiled his placid canine smile that might have meant anything: He’s green or Don’t worry, it will all work out or It’s been good knowing you. Cithrin felt the urge to take the Tralgu man in her arms, but she was afraid that Geder might take it as a precedent. “Thank you, Yardem,” she said.

  She watched them walk into the vast mouth of the tower. A moment later, the high priest joined them. She watched as the huge man traded words with Geder that she could not hear, and then walked away. She stood for a moment, her heart a complication of elation and fear and a vast anticipated grief.

  When she walked away into the gardens, the actors were setting the weapons at the ready on the rough gravel paths. The bright steel looked wrong in Sandr’s hands, and she realized she’d become so accustomed to seeing mock weapons in their hands that the bright steel of the real thing seemed wrong. Cary’s laughter seemed to echo the birdsong. Sandr and Hornet and Mikel snapped and argued like they were trying to put together a stage.

  Marcus strode to the knot of men, Lak at his side, and pulled Sandr and Mikel away from the weapon. He shook his head in an amused sort of disgust and strode off toward the dueling yard. It was all so familiar and also so estranged from all she knew. A dream she couldn’t wake from. The minutes stretched, time bending itself like a fiddler’s arm to make her nerves ring.

  “You look thoughtful,” Kit said.

  “If I am, I don’t know which thoughts they are,” Cithrin said. “I can’t tell if I’m stuffed so full of them I can’t tell one from the other, or if I’m emptied of them.”

  The old actor put a hand on her shoulder. His smile consoled her.

  “When I was a child,” she said, “I had a nurse called Old Cam. She wasn’t really my nurse, but she took the role on as no one else was doing it. I remember once I was climbing a wall that I wasn’t supposed to. I was… eight years old at the time. Maybe nine. And I was afraid she’d catch me and punish me, and I hoped she would come and give me a reason not to go further.”

  “Hoping for someone to rein us in?” Kit asked.

  “Astounded that no one has,” she said.

  “It’s been my experience that the world is often—”

  “Cithrin!”

  Aster’s voice cut through the warm air like a blast of winter. Had someone heard him? The prince sprinted out of the Kingspire, his eyes wide and his mouth a gape of horror. She found herself running toward him before she saw him. His chest worked like a bellows and he grabbed at her sleeve, shaking with distress.

  “What is it?” she said, willing the boy to catch his breath and dreading what he’d say.

  “Basrahip,” Aster said. “He knows.”

  Clara

  It had gone so well for so long, it was hard to believe how little it took to destroy it.

  Clara had left Lehrer Palliako’s house after conferring with Cithrin bel Sarcour, knowing she’d stayed too late. She’d arrived at Lord Skestinin’s manor irrationally certain that by being tardy, she’d given the game away. Instead, laughter had greeted her at the doorway. The door slave nodded to her happily as she went in, and the footman led her to the largest of Lord Skestinin’s drawing rooms. The thing that had been her son sat on a divan dressed in priestly white. Sabiha and Lady Skestinin sat with him, and little Annalise cooed in his lap, reaching up toward his chin with thick, innocent fingers. The impulse to snatch the baby away was too much to resist, but she was able at least to make it seem like greed for the babe’s company more than fear.

  “Mother!” the thing that had been Vicarian said, putting his arm around her. “Here I was afraid you’d taken off to fight in the war again.”

  “Don’t be clever, dear,” she said, and kissed his cheek because it was something she would have done. “I’m certain Jorey has no need of me at the moment.”

  “And he did before?” The mockery in his voice was gentle and warm and familiar. It was how he would have spoken before the spiders had taken him.

  With her son, she could have laughed or lied or done whatever she pleased. With this one, every comment was an interrogation, every answer an evasion desperately trying not to seem evasive. “The need might possibly have been my own,” she said, matching the lightness of his tone. “I see you’ve met your niece.”

  “Indeed I have,” Vicarian said. “She’s more charming than she has any right to be, given the hour.”

  “She’s always stayed up late,” Sabiha said. “Ever since she was born.”

  Clara put the child in her mother’s arms, took Vicarian by the wrists, and led him back to the couch and away from the baby. She imagined that his skin moved under her fingers. Tiny bodies crawling through the veins like living clots. Like a man already dead and worse than dead. She could picture too easily one of the little things slipping out of Vicarian’s mouth and stealing into the baby’s. She didn’t let go of him, even as her own flesh crawled. “Jorey was just the same,” she said. “He was always brightest when everyone else was half-dead from exhaustion. By everyone else, of course, I mean myself and his wet nurse. What was her name? Idrea, I think. Something like that. Lovely woman, though of course I haven’t needed a wet nurse for something near twenty years now, and even if I did, I can’t think she’s still in that line of work. One’s body cannot last forever, after all, and don’t look like that, dear. You’re in a house of women now.”

  “I consider myself warned,” he said.

  “But tell me everything,” she said. “What news from Porte Oliva?”

  It wasn’t so hard from there, prodding him to speak about himself. Vicarian had always had a bit of the showman in him, and he enjoyed taking even so small a stage as this. The coffee in Birancour was better than in Camnipol. Porte Oliva was already starting to regrow after its difficult year. Trade ships from Lyoneia had begun negotiating fresh contracts. He’d had a report of Korl Essian, off on a treasure hunt for Geder Palliako and the throne, that made some fairly outlandish claims about tunnels passing under the depths of Lyoneia and a buried machinery deep underground that connected in some obscure fashion to dreams. He’d brought the report with him, ready to deliver to Lord Regent Palliako tomorrow.

  Tomorrow. When Vicarian, who didn’t realize he’d been killed long ago, could finally be put to rest. Her throat ached and her eyes fought tears the
whole night. Lady Kalliam left first, and then Sabiha and the child. When Clara rose to go, Vicarian rose with her and put his arm over her shoulder as they walked down the hallway together.

  “Jorey’s a lucky man,” he said. “This Sabiha seems a genuinely good woman.”

  “I’ve become quite fond of her,” Clara said. It was true. She could say it. Everything now she had to judge before it left her mouth. Was it true, did she believe it, would it give away more than she meant it to? Vicarian tipped his head to the side, resting it against her even as they walked, just the way he’d done before.

  For a moment, she was taken by the transporting memory of a five-year-old Vicarian bringing her a sprig of lilac, his hands and feet caked in the garden mud. She’d knelt beside him, torn between amusement and annoyance. He’d pressed it in her hand with such solemnity and then touched his forehead to hers. It had been a gesture of such simple love from a boy to his mother. She’d thought then and for years after that it would be among her most treasured memories. Now it hurt.

  “Good night, Mother,” he said, stepping away. “Will I see you in the morning?”

  “I was hoping to walk to the Kingspire with you,” she said. “I have some business there.” True. All true.

  “I would be honored, my Lady Kalliam,” he said with a flourish and a bow. Then, in a more prosaic voice, “We really do have to do something about getting Jorey the family title back. He’s earned it, that’s clear enough. And it feels odd not being able to call you baroness. Lady’s too general. Could mean anyone.”

  “It would be dowager baroness now,” Clara pointed out. You were such a good boy. Such a good man. I am so sorry that I’ve lost you.

  “Near enough,” the thing that had been her son said. “Good night, Mother.”

  She could not say good night in return. It wasn’t a good night. It was a terrible one. Instead, she made herself ignore the things lurking under his skin and kissed him lightly on the cheek.

  Vincen waited in her apartments, sitting by the window as faithful as a dog. As a husband. They didn’t speak, he only held her as she wept, muffling her sobs with his shoulder and the enfolding comfort of his arms.

 
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