The spiders war, p.40
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       The Spider's War, p.40

           Daniel Abraham
 

  “Didn’t slow you down,” Cithrin said, and the frustration and contempt in her voice were like a slap. Dannien stood up. This wasn’t going well, and Cithrin wasn’t done. “Elassae learned a lot about war and how much good it does, but you’re still here turning aside the opportunity to stop it. Why should they learn something from being hurt? You didn’t.”

  “Elassae didn’t start this, and you don’t get to tell me when to end it. If I want to kick Antea’s balls until I’m bored with doing it, that’s mine to choose. I’ll go back to camp now,” Dannien said, his voice low and dangerous. “And I’ll confer with my men. If we decide to accept your surrender, I’ll let you know. Meantime, you guarantee the safety of all the hostages. All of them. Tomorrow, maybe we’ll talk.”

  Cithrin nodded crisply, Emming less so. When Aster spoke, it surprised them all.

  “No,” the boy said. “You take them. I won’t make them go back to Camnipol. They need their parents, and their parents need them. I didn’t bring them as hostages.”

  “Ah,” Dannien said, suddenly on the wrong foot. “All right, then.”

  Aster rose to face the mercenary captain. His eyes were clear and his voice stronger than Marcus had expected it to be. He was maybe a third of Dannien’s mass, and damned little of it muscle. He hardly looked older than the Timzinae children in the carts. Marcus felt his gut clench and had to fight the urge to push the boy king back, to put himself between Aster and the enemy soldiers.

  “This is my fault,” Aster said, “because this is my kingdom. When my father died, I was too young and too weak to rule. I should have protected Antea. And Elassae as well. I didn’t, but I’m older now. And I’m stronger. If the council feels that there has to be more blood, say so. You can kill as many of us as you need to make it right. Give me a number, and I’ll bring them to you. I only ask that you start with me.”

  Cep Bailan shrugged and put a hand on the hilt of his sword, but Dannien was the one who mattered, and he shifted his weight, confused.

  Aster said, “I’m sorry I wasn’t strong enough to stop this sooner.”

  Dannien pressed his lips together until they went white. “Well,” he said. And then, “Shit.”

  The coffeehouse looked out over the Division toward the ruin that was the Kingspire. For that matter, the ruin that was Camnipol. The whole city—carts and carters, beggars and bakers, everyone from the highest lord to the mange-hatted dog sulking at the alley’s mouth—had the half-stunned look of a man trying not to faint. But when Marcus glanced down into the chasm of the Division, past the bridges of wood and stone to the rope-and-chain contrivances below, he could see the ruins of other Camnipols. The city had been broken before, collapsed, and been rebuilt. This present stumble wasn’t the worst it had seen.

  Cithrin, sitting at his side, drank her coffee and sighed. Yardem, sitting across from them both, stuck to beer. Marcus only wanted water. Since he’d stopped wearing the sword, an acuity was returning to his tongue that left it easily overwhelmed. He hoped that stage would pass too.

  The staff of the little house walked around them like they were lions, as likely to claw the help as ask for bread. He supposed that was fair. Cithrin bel Sarcour, who had humiliated and ultimately destroyed the beloved or despised Lord Regent. Who had thrown down the false goddess or else brought the world into a new age of lies. Who had saved Camnipol or else debased it before the Timzinae. Aster had made it clear that she was under the protection of the Severed Throne, but Marcus kept at least one guard with her wherever she went. It was a little odd to realize that, killer of kings and hero of Wodford and Gradis, he wasn’t the most storied person at any table where he sat with Cithrin.

  “Jorey Kalliam’s called the disband,” Marcus said.

  “I heard,” Cithrin replied. “But I don’t think he’s planning to throw a triumph.”

  “He should,” Marcus said. “If people pretend there’s a reason to celebrate, it won’t be long before they convince themselves it’s truth.”

  Cithrin’s chuckle wasn’t much more than a low noise in her throat. It sounded like satisfaction. Marcus found himself smiling as well. Yardem… well, he seemed amused, but it was hard to tell with him sometimes.

  Most of the morning had been spent in what they were calling a business meeting. For the most part, it was the same thing that came after any battle. Relief and fear and anger and more relief coming out in stories and jokes and fights. And the weird melancholy that came at the end of a contract. He’d never understood why the end of a war should carry that sense of rootless mild sorrow, but it did. Something about endings, even when what had ended, was awful.

  Yardem had told the story of Geder’s death again. Marcus, his minimal description of killing Basrahip. Cithrin retold the attack against Inys, the death of Kitap rol Keshmet, the only good priest in the history of the world. Or maybe that was only Marcus being cynical. Hard to say. With every story, the sense that they’d actually come to a place of relative calm and safety grew. Yes, Dannien was leading the men south. Yes, the Timzinae slaves were freed, and their children—the ones who remained—were going back to Elassae. Yes, the spider priests were dead. And Geder Palliako with them. The bravery of Aster and their hopes for his reign. Jorey’s return. Clara Kalliam’s role in rallying the court. All the things that had happened and were happening and would come in the future, as certain as kittens in springtime. And then, like a child before sleep, Cithrin would ask a question or clarification that really meant “Tell me again,” and Yardem would. And Marcus would listen. And at the end, they’d begin again.

  Though there was one part that kept catching on his mind like a splinter too small to see. Invisible still, but present…

  “So that’s done,” Marcus said, lifting his cup toward the serving boy to call for more water. “What’s the plan from here?”

  Cithrin smiled. “I’d thought that was obvious,” she said. “We won’t get a better opportunity. I’ve already written the letters to Paerin and Komme. We have to open a branch in Camnipol.”

  “Of course you do,” Marcus said.

  “The only way Aster will ever be able to pay reparations to Elassae and Sarakal is war gold,” Cithrin said. “And it’ll help build trust back with Northcoast and Birancour once they’re all part of the same system.”

  “A temple,” Yardem said, “in every city she conquers.”

  Probably, he was joking.

  Cithrin

  The war was over.

  The thought couldn’t quite find its resting place in Cithrin’s mind. It rattled through her like the last dried pea in a jar. The war was over. The priests were gone, the goddess killed, Morade’s vengeance wiped from the world. Geder was dead. The war was over. No one was going to die at the edge of a sword today, or at least no one more than the usual. Her heart should have been all songs and celebrations, and perhaps it would have been, except she couldn’t sleep.

  Now that’d she’d come out of hiding, the world around her had changed. She took rooms at the moral successor of the inn Paerin Clark had brought her to her first time in Camnipol. A lifetime ago. The new place was on the ruins of the old, and the halls still stank of fresh wood and paint. The rooms were larger, and the one she’d taken had its own little balcony that looked down on the street, a table for her to work at, if she had any work, an anteroom where her guard could sleep and make sure no one slipped in during the night to slit her throat. The keeper was an elderly Dartinae woman whose glowing eyes reminded Cithrin of the sun behind clouds. The keeper’s husband treated Cithrin and her guards like ambassadors from a powerful country, as perhaps they were. The morning sun greeted Cithrin with coffee and eggs, the night with wine and salt crackers. And more wine after that, without any hesitation or hint of disapproval. Despite all that, Cithrin felt like a six-legged pony trotted out for the amusement of the crowd.

  The city and the kingdom—and perhaps the world—seemed in a moment of stillness, like the pause between breaths. They were betw
een what had happened before and what would come next, and she was that uncertainty made flesh. Cithrin bel Sarcour, once the deadly enemy of Antea, and now confidant of Prince Aster and Clara Kalliam, her son Jorey. She was welcomed in the imperial court because Aster insisted on it, and because everyone there was shaken and frightened and ready for the world to be something different than it had been. So long as Cithrin held her head at the best angle, so long as she walked with authority and spoke with confidence, she would be assumed to have power. And so perhaps she did.

  She traveled under guard always. Geder had stripped the court of any dissent or disloyalty. If he’d survived the plan, they might have been able to use that to steer the court. Now there would be some who still believed in his cause, since he was no longer there to disavow it. People would still call the Timzinae roaches, as they had before the priests had come. They would still look down upon them, as the Yemmu disdained the Tralgu; the Cinnae, the Kurtadam; everyone everywhere, the Drowned. The war was over, but humanity was still itself. The hatred might last forever. The injustice. The petty cruelty and moral blindness.

  There was no call to believe that wars would not come again, and for reasons as obscure or justified, as they had without Morade’s spiders. Blood and innocent lives were still the currency of empires, as they had been in the absence of the priests.

  But the spiders wouldn’t spread, and Cithrin was not yet done.

  During the day, she made herself present at court and among the merchant class of Camnipol. At night, she sat in her room and drank until she fell into a stupor not so unlike sleep. Or walked the night-black streets in the center of a protecting square of swordsmen. Or sat in the taproom, beer in one hand, and watched the players there put on another version of The Butcher’s Daughter with the part of PennyPenny played by a sweet-faced Jasuru who seemed all too happy to mock his own race.

  Her players—Cary and Sandr and Mikel, Charlit Soon and Lak—were gone. As gone as Kit. As gone as Smit. As gone as Pyk Usterhall and Opal. They’d left without saying goodbye to her, leaving only a note saying that Camnipol was too rich in sorrow for them anymore. That their tour had begun in tragedy, and that they would follow it until there was a comedy again. Or a romance. Or an adventure that they could bring themselves to smile at. Cithrin didn’t blame them, but she felt their absence like a wound on some part of her that she could touch.

  And so when Wester had said he was leaving as well, it had been doubly hard.

  He’d brought his bad news in the afternoon. The high Antean summer was announcing its end with bright mornings and hard rains. Cithrin, on her way back from an informal gathering with Clara Kalliam and a nobleman named Curtin Issandrian, had paused in a baker’s shop while the clouds dropped a small river onto the city. The roar of the water would have been frightening if the men and women of the city hadn’t shrugged it off quite so calmly. Along with the lemon tea and the plate of flaky butter bread, Cithrin took comfort in the way the baker and her son treated the downpour as an inconvenience. She sat at the front, suffering a little mist for the pleasure of watching the streets flow like little streams, the filth and wreckage that came from humanity simply going through its day being washed away. Marcus, sitting across from her, had cleared his throat in a way that meant something.

  “I’ve sent for Enen,” he said. “She’s a solid lead, been with us since Porte Oliva. She’s bringing a full company of guard with her. As long as you’re here, you’ll want watching, and I don’t recommend hiring local talent. Too many people in this city have been asleep for too long. Can’t trust they’ll all wake up just because it’s morning.”

  “You think we need more guards?” she’d said, but there had been a tightness in her chest even then.

  “Different’s more the issue,” he said. “There’s some things Yardem and I need to take care of.”

  As the baker had made little of the rain, Marcus said the words like they only meant going off to visit an aunt or having a contract signed. She surrendered to understanding, and must have reacted, because Marcus took her hand.

  “Inys?” she said.

  “Among others,” Marcus said. “Just some things that want attention.”

  A hundred questions had swirled through her, each clamoring to be the one that passed her lips first: How can you track a dragon? Do you think the danger from him’s real? What if Camnipol rises again in revenge for Geder and the Kingspire and the end of the war? What if Elassae changes its mind and marches back in force? Her world was a labyrinth of uncertainties, contingencies and barely restrained chaos. Which, in fairness, it had always been.

  “Will you be coming back?” she asked. She cared about all the information, but this was the only question that seemed critical.

  Marcus’s smile was as much an answer as his words. “Hope to, but you know how the world is.”

  “I do,” she said. He’d nodded, and that was the last they’d spoken. When they got back to the inn, Yardem had horses ready for the two of them. The Tralgu had folded her in a vast, warm embrace, his chin resting on top of her head while she wept a little, and then they were gone.

  She’d spent the evening on the roof of the inn, sitting on a stool and watching the carts hauling debris away from the royal quarter in the north to drop into the Division. The sun, setting behind her, had lit the high, ornate clouds in gold and orange. And then grey. She’d drunk a full bottle of wine by herself on that roof and had come back down steady as a stone.

  And so she was a little drunk and a little maudlin three days later when, without warning, Magistra Isadau arrived.

  Cithrin caught sight of her from the balcony as Isadau and her guards walked toward the inn from the public stables. She wore a dress the color of gold with a lacework shawl blacker than her scales, but no armor that Cithrin could see. Her guards were Firstblood men and Yemmu women, all in mail, with swords and axes at their sides, and the glowering expressions of people who’d taken up that kind of work because they enjoyed hurting people. Even in the relative darkness of the summer twilight, a crowd lingered at the margin of the group. A Timzinae woman walking in Camnipol. A sign that, welcome or not, change had come. The mix of pride and joy and apprehension was not made simpler by the dead bottles of wine at Cithrin’s feet.

  The urge to wave and call and maybe crawl out the window and slide down the tiled roof to where she could lower herself down to the courtyard fought with the sense that she should behave as if she were already the voice of the Medean bank in Camnipol. Which meant clearing away the bottles and skins and chewing a handful of mint fairly quickly. She wiped away the tears she’d been crying, threw the evidence of her dissolution into a sack under her bed, and washed her hands and feet before the scratch came at the door.

  “Yes?” Cithrin said, her heart racing.

  “It’s a Magistra Isadau,” the guard’s voice said.

  And then Isadau’s. “I’ve come to speak with you about… about the peace, I suppose.”

  Cithrin opened the door. The older woman stood there like a vision from a dream. Her smile was calm and amused, her hands folded before her. Only the flickering of the nictitating membranes in her eyes, opening and closing without ever blocking her gaze, gave any sign of the strength of Isadau’s emotions. For a moment, Cithrin was frozen, filled with the powerful and irrational fear that anger was shaking the Timzinae woman. That by saving Camnipol from the armies of Elassae, Cithrin had lost her respect.

  And then Isadau stepped into the room and opened her arms. Cithrin fell into her the way she imagined a sister might. Isadau smelled of earthy perfume and sweat and the open air.

  “I’ve missed you,” Isadau said.

  “You too,” Cithrin said.

  Cithrin led her to the little table and sat with her, their two hands touching like a priest offering comfort to a mourner.

  “How are things in Suddapal?” Cithrin asked.

  Isadau’s laugh was low and rueful. “Complicated. Very complicated. But improving.
After Kiaria, the fighting all through Elassae was vicious. It was only the Anteans at first, but after they’d been driven back, there was more. The occupation undid some of things that kept the five cities playing nicely with each other. In the last year, I’ve been brokering armistice agreements between the oligarchs as much as helping with the war against Antea.”

  “Ah,” Cithrin said, and her mind caught at the fact. Found a toehold. “Is that why they had Dannien leading the army and not a Timzinae?”

  “Yes,” Isadau said. “The mercenary was the compromise everyone hated least. And he was good, which was a blessing. He sent word of his victory along with the children. The ones who survived.”

  “I’m so sorry,” Cithrin said. “How bad was it?”

  Isadau’s smile was wistful. “Jurin lost one of his sons in the fighting. Kani is fine, though our mother is gone. She left the world last winter. It wasn’t violent, but I think it was the war. Seeing her world tear itself apart was an injury, if not a physical one. War always has more casualties than we see. All the things that we might have done instead are lost as well.”

  “Could have made a glorious world with what we spent on this one. Or at least a few decent roads,” Cithrin said. She felt as though she were speaking in Wester’s voice, and the pang of loss came again. “Wait. Salan? Is he…?”

  “Wounded in the battle that broke the Antean army. It went septic, but it didn’t carry him off. He still has fevers sometimes, and the cunning man says he will have for the rest of his life.”

  “That’s terrible,” Cithrin said.

  “Only give him so much sympathy. He’s been known to play the crippled patriot more than once for the joy of the role. The way he’s living now, he’s more likely to die from an angry lover than an old wound.”

  “Still,” Cithrin said, her hands rising to her throat. She undid the necklace there, pulled the pendant of the little bird from her chest, and held it out for Isadau to take. The older woman looked at it, shifting the necklace in her hand so that it caught the light. “He wanted me to keep it until the war was over.”

 
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