Либрусек (книги fb2)
Wren the Fox Witch
Joseph Robert Lewis Wren the Fox Witch
As she entered the decaying church, Wren’s footsteps echoed across the empty chamber, and her shadow melted into the darkness. She stared up at the tall gray columns webbed with cracks and grimed with ice and bird droppings. She looked left and right at the dimly colored starlight falling through the broken stained glass windows depicting men in strange armor and women in strange dresses, all kneeling in prayer or peering up at the shattered sky. And all the while, the foreign words and names whispered in her mind with their own exotic flavors and magic.
Europa. Vlachia. Targoviste. The Church of Saint… someone or other.
She gently ran her fingers over the arms of the long benches covered in scraps of wet paper and clumps of dirty snow. At the far end of the church was a raised platform with a naked marble altar dappled in shadows, and beyond it stood a tall statue of a man between a woman and a boy, all in gray stone. Black shadows clung to the rafters overhead, a cold breeze sighed through the broken windows, and a thick carpet of aether mist glided across the floor.
“This place is amazing,” she whispered, her breath curling in white vapor around her nose.
“What, this?” Omar strode past her, rubbing his gloved hands together. His long coat swished as he moved, his short seireiken clinked softly in its scabbard on his belt, and his little blue sunglasses sat down on the end of his nose as he looked around. “This is a ruin. I’ll show you some truly amazing places when we reach Stamballa, and Damascus, and Alexandria.”
Wren touched the cold face of a column. “How did they make the stones so perfectly square, and round, and smooth?”
“With good tools and a lot of time. Too much time,” Omar muttered. He called out, “Hello? Anyone?” Only his echo answered. “What the devil is going on around here? It’s been four days since we’ve seen anyone. Vlachia was never this quiet before, even in winter. There should be thousands of people here in Targoviste.”
“Maybe it’s a plague,” Wren said. “Just like back home. All the people are dead or hiding in the hills.”
Omar shook his head. “I doubt that. It’s more likely that the city just dried up. Too cold, not enough food, too many wars. Just the usual. The people moved on to wherever they could find food or work, that’s all. It’s a pity though. Targoviste was a lovely little place a few hundred years ago. I liked it quite a bit in the summer time.”
Wren nodded glumly.
“Well, as long as we’re here, we might as well break into the old castle and find someplace decent to sleep tonight. Maybe the beds are still in one piece.” Omar gallantly gestured toward the open doors, inviting her to lead the way back out into the dark street.
Wren took one last look around the shadowy ruin, trying to see every last little detail, to remember every little stone cherub and faded painting and tarnished candlestick. She could see them quite clearly in the gloom. In the shadows, her golden fox eyes could find even the smallest lines and faintest forms.
Woden, when I return home to Ysland, I promise to build you a temple like this one. Only less gloomy and ruined, of course, one worthy of the Allfather. But don’t worry, I won’t make it too pretty. I know how you feel about that.
Boots crunched softly on the icy gravel of the road outside. Wren felt her tall fox ears twitching atop her head under the black scarf she wore over her wild red hair. They were always doing that, her ears, always shifting and twitching on their own as though hungry for sounds. They tickled her scalp when they moved, and sent shivers down her spine. She held up a cautioning finger and Omar frowned as he rested his hand on the grip of his seireiken.
“How many?” he whispered.
She held up two fingers, and then unwound the leather sling from her wrist and slipped a small stone into it. They both faded back into the shadows to one side of the church doors and stood together in the darkness, waiting, as the pale aether mist curled around their ankles. Wren glanced at her mentor.
You know, they’re probably just travelers like us. All this hiding is stupid. He’s too cautious. What is he so afraid of?
The sounds of footsteps approached the doors, and stopped.
“Hello?” a woman called. “Is anyone in there?”
Wren frowned. The voice was almost familiar, which made no sense. Everyone she had ever known was far away, back home in Ysland, hundreds of leagues to the north across the frozen sea.
Who is that?
She started toward the door, but Omar touched her shoulder and shook his head, and they waited.
“Hello?” the woman called again. “I saw you go into the church. You’re the first person I’ve seen in a long time. Do you have any food?”
Wren glanced up at Omar again, who shook his head again.
Well, I’m not going to hide in the cold and the dark from some poor, starving woman. It won’t cost us anything to tell her that we don’t have any food to share.
She shrugged off Omar’s hand and moved toward the door, saying, “Hello? My name is Wren. What’s yours? I’m sorry, but I don’t have any food with me.” She stepped out into the doorway.
In the street stood a tall young woman in a filthy black dress holding a bow and a young man with long black hair and only one arm. In his hand, an Yslander broadsword shone silver in the starlight. Both of their heads were covered by hoods that mottled their faces with shadows, but their eyes flashed gold when they turned their heads to the light of the moon.
Nine hells, it’s Thora and Leif!
How did they get here? How did they find us?
Wren felt her stomach contract into a cold knot, and she swallowed. “Oh, it’s you.”
The one-armed man smiled, and lunged at her.
Wren dashed back, the stone falling from her sling as she ran. Omar ran toward her, but he was too far away. Leif darted through the church doors with his blade raised, and Wren tumbled over the first bench just as the sword crashed down on the frozen wood behind her. Wren scrambled back and stretched out both of her arms in front of her, and then jerked her hands upwards. The thick aether mist on the floor instantly flooded upward in front of her, forming a swirling white wall between her and Leif. The one-armed warrior dashed toward her again, and crashed to a halt against the aether barrier. He stumbled back, wincing, trying to rub his nose with his sword-hand.
“Leif Blackmane. Leif, Leif, Leif.” Omar drew his seireiken slowly. The sun-steel blade shone with an unearthly white glow, bathing the entire church in piercing daylight, banishing the shadows. The air around the short sword rippled and boiled, and blue-white electric arcs snapped and crackled along the single edge of the blade. Omar held the deadly weapon loosely at his side. “You’re looking well. Exile must agree with you.”
Leif glanced from the bright sword to the wall of aether, glaring with bared teeth and dark golden eyes. “We’ve done well enough.”
“Have you been following us this whole time? Since Ysland?”
“We heard a rumor about a girl with fox ears passing through Vienna. And we just had to know who it was.” He tilted his face back to let his hood fall to his shoulders, revealing the vulpine ears on his head.
“Oh. Well, I’m still flattered, either way.” Omar smiled. “So, did you want me to even you out? Take off the other arm to match?”
The tall girl in the street raised her bow and called out, “Omar Bakhoum!”
Omar glanced over his shoulder at Thora just as the arrow pierced his back and sent him sprawling to the floor.
Wren grimaced at the sight of her mentor falling to the ground, but she kept her hands up, keeping the wall of aether as solid as she could, even though it kept her trapped inside the church with Omar alone near the doorway. She yelled at the Yslanders, “What do you want from us?”
Thora stepped inside and said, “I want him to suffer for what he did to us. For what he did to Magnus, and to Ivar, and to everyone else in Ysland!”
Leif glanced at Wren once before focusing on the Aegyptian wheezing and bleeding on the ground. The snow and ice on the floor was rapidly steaming away, and the stones themselves were beginning to glow red beneath the burning blade of the seireiken. Wren could see Omar’s fingers twitching, and his lips moving, and his eyes darting as his blood trickled out across the floor. The arrow in his back shuddered with a steady rhythm.
It’s in his heart. He can’t fight. He can’t even get up.
Wren shouted, “Get away from him!”
The young man and woman ignored her, and Leif knelt down near the seireiken, its white light revealing his pale, thin features.
“I said get away!” Wren pushed outward, shoving her wall of aether forward. The swirling mist crashed toward the church doors in an avalanche of cold vapor, knocking Thora and Leif straight out into the street. The blast rolled Omar over twice, snapping off the arrow between his shoulder blades before the mist thinned and fell back to the ground.
Wren dashed forward and dropped to her knees at his side. He stared up at her, his breath coming in tiny gasps, his chest pounding, and his frightened eyes darting wildly. She saw the barbed head of the arrow poking up through his shirt, and she took his hand. “This is going to hurt.”
Omar nodded with his eyes.
She reached down, grasped the arrow shaft, and yanked it straight up through his flesh and breastbone. She had to fight for every inch as his body seemed to cling to the deadly missile, dragging at it as though his heart and muscles wanted to hold it inside. But it came free, dripping with dark blood, and she tossed it aside, and then held open the stained silk shirt to watch the man’s warm brown skin gently fold itself closed, leaving no mark at all. Omar’s breathing slowed, becoming dry and easy again, and his heart slowed, no longer pounding and shaking his body. The man sat up, massaging his chest with one hand. “Good God, that hurt. It’s been years since I’ve been arrowed.”
“Arrowed?” Wren grimaced as she helped him to his feet. “I don’t think that’s a word.”
“Oh, please. When you’re forty-five hundred years old, you can make up all the words you want.” He picked up his bright sword from the steaming stone floor and peered out the door at the street. “I must say, your aether-craft is coming along quite nicely. You must have thrown them back two dozen paces.”
Wren resettled her black scarf over her hair and ears. “Three dozen, at least. I’ve been practicing every day.”
“I can see that,” he said as he sheathed his blazing sword, returning the church to the shadows and the starlight. “You may be one of the best aether-wrights I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen two!”
She smiled and hoped she wasn’t blushing. “Aether-wright? Is that what I am now?”
“I’m very old. I make up words. Didn’t we just talk about this?”
Wren was about to speak, but then she frowned as she listened to a fading echo. “They’re running away.”
“Really? How thoughtful of them.”
Wren and Omar stepped out into the road where the bright moonlight fell gently on the glistening ice and snow between the dark, empty houses. Row upon row of snow-capped roofs covered the hills as the city spread out below them, holding back the black forests on the higher slopes. A dozen church steeples stood tall and thin in the night air above the cottages like toy soldiers keeping watch over the empty streets, and the wind carried the ceaseless wooden creaking and keening of the houses as they shook before the wintry blasts.
Wren looked down at the fresh boot prints in the road leading south, deeper into Targoviste. And beside them, she saw several other fresh footprints.
“Bare footprints?” Omar pointed at the ground. “Now who do you suppose was out here without any shoes on?”
Wren felt her ears twitching as they tried to follow the distant sounds. “They’re over that way,” she said, pointing southeast.
Omar touched his chest again. “I must say, I’m not entirely pleased to see those two again. What with the treachery and the murder, I just get the feeling that they’re not good people, not the sort I would want my apprentice to associate with, anyway.”
“Well, that’s just typical,” Wren said with a pout. “You’re even more miserable and controlling than Woden.”
He looked at her with a curious smile. “You still talk to your god?”
“From time to time. I don’t want to trouble him too much, what with me being so far from Ysland. It must be a terrible burden on him to have to listen to my prayers from so far away. After all, he doesn’t have fox ears.”
“Well, that is very considerate of you.” He tousled her hair, knocking her scarf askew. “But back to the matter at hand. Bare feet and missing murderers. I fear we must do the right thing, and stop them. The murderers, not the feet.”
Wren sighed. “All right. But then you have to cook supper.”
“Fair enough. I am the better cook.”
They set out at a brisk trot, following the footprints through the streets, winding their way past broken down wagons in the middle of the road and other strange bits of furniture and cutlery and foodstuffs, all frozen and rotting in the street, covered in bright clear ice or blue-white snow. Wren glimpsed a broken chair, a shattered lantern, a handful of tin spoons, and a burlap sack of blackened beets as she ran.
Sounds of violence echoed from the next street. Grunting, yelling, the clangor of a sword, the twang of a bow.
Omar sprinted around the corner, his blazing seireiken hissing with heat and snapping with flecks of lightning as he drew it out. Wren dashed up beside him, her sling laden with a cold stone.
“Nine hells,” she whispered.
Leif and Thora stood back to back in the middle of the street, their weapons raised. All around them in a wide circle lay bodies, broken and dismembered bodies and limbs and heads lying in the snowy road. There were no weapons on the ground, just as there were no shoes on the feet of the corpses. The dead townspeople lay in tattered dresses and suits, unshod and unarmed, their bare skin shining deathly pale in the moonlight. Outside the ring of bodies stood three more half-naked people without so much as a stick to defend themselves with.
Thora loosed an arrow straight into the breast of an old woman.
And a second into her throat.
And a third into her eye.
The old woman stumbled forward, but did not fall. Behind Thora, two men lunged at Leif with empty, groping hands, leaping clumsily over the bodies of the fallen. The one-armed warrior hacked them down, chopping off arms and heads as fast as he could, and the limbs thumped down into the snow like hail stones.
“Good God!” Omar ran forward, his sword raised. “Stop! You sadistic cretin, stop!”
The two townsmen collapsed in pieces at Leif’s feet, and he dashed around Thora to cut down the old woman, who was bristling with arrows from her eyes to her knees. With her head and arms removed, she fell to the ground and lay still.
Wren spun her sling once and sent her stone flying over Omar’s shoulder to smash the bow out of Thora’s hands. Omar jumped over the mound of bodies and brought his burning seireiken down on Leif, but the young man leapt back, yelling, “They’re dead! They’re all dead, you old fool!”
“Of course they’re dead, you little prick, you killed them!” Omar shouted, chasing after him.
Leif ran backwards around the ring of bodies. “They were already dead. Look!”
Omar jogged to a halt, his sword still raised, but he did look down at the faces and hands near his feet. “Dear God…”
Wren came forward as she set another stone in her sling. For a moment she locked eyes with Thora, but the taller girl looked away first and yanked her dark hood up to cover her furry ears. As she drew closer, Wren saw something move near the edge of the bodies, near the old woman that Thora had filled with arrows and that Leif had cut down.
The aether mist around the dead woman was shifting, gliding, and flowing. And then a dim figure rose up from the body, the figure of an old woman identical to the one lying dismembered in the road. The ghost looked around herself, blinked, then turned to leave and simply faded away into the darkness. On the other side of the ring of bodies, Wren saw the shades of two men rise up and vanish.
“Omar? What’s going on?” she asked.
Her mentor waved his sword at the others. “Get back.”
Leif and Thora withdrew to the far side of the bodies.
Omar knelt down and picked up a severed hand. “Look at this.”
Wren winced and stayed where she was. “Thanks. I’ve seen dead bodies before.”
“Yes, and now you’re going to look at this one.” He tossed the hand to her.
Frowning, she held the hand up daintily by one finger to inspect it. The skin was pale blue and veined in violet and black. The nails were black and chipped. The knuckles were black and scraped raw. She was about to drop it when it caught the light from Omar’s sword and the dead skin glistened with a strange blue glow. “What am I looking at?”
“Aether,” Omar said, standing up. “Frozen aether in the skin, and in the blood.”
“Aether can’t freeze in a person’s body,” she said, dropping the severed hand.
“No, but it can freeze in the ice, or the icy ground. Permafrost.” Omar walked around the dead bodies, sweeping his bright sword over them. “It’s everywhere. Aether crystals. Frozen inside them.”
“But how? People can’t get that cold.” Wren wiped her hand on her black skirt.
“They can if they’re dead and buried.” Omar looked up at the scowling pair on the far side of the road. “Where did they come from?”
“Everywhere, nowhere. I don’t know,” Leif said.
Almost as one, Wren and Thora and Leif all turned to look down the lane where they saw two more bluish people walking toward them. The strangers moved quickly, thumping forward at a jog, but they were unsteady on their feet, weaving drunkenly, colliding with each other every few steps.
The three fox-eared Yslanders turned at the sound of other bare feet on the snowy roads. Left, then right. North, then east.
“More?” Omar asked.
Wren nodded. “A lot more.”
Wren clutched her laden sling as she ran. When a drooping blue face loomed out of the shadows, she hurled a stone at it, and ran on without looking to see what she had struck. She heard Leif and Thora panting along behind her, and every now and then she heard Leif hack one of the walking corpses to pieces along the way, but she never turned to look back.
Woden, whatever you’re playing at, it isn’t funny!
Omar led the way, veering around corners and down narrow alleys and across wide open market squares painted white and blue by the soft moonlight. The old Vlachian city moaned quietly with the wind pressing on the frozen walls and shaking the loose shutters, and breaking off chunks of snow from the eaves. But the homes and the streets were all empty.
Except for the dead.
Glistening blue bodies stumbled out of every doorway, their feet moving quickly but unevenly, their hands grasping clumsily, their frozen black eyes staring blindly at nothing and everything, their shriveled black tongues choking and gasping.
Omar’s blazing seireiken lit the way, transforming the four running souls into a pocket of daylight racing through the streets of Targoviste. Wren tried not to look straight at the sun-steel sword, but every few moments it would swing up into her line of sight and leave a blinding after-image seared into her vision. As they ran, Wren noticed that the houses were taller. Two stories, then three stories. Glass-paned windows reflected the starlight, and wrought iron balconies hung overhead, dripping with long icicles.
“We’re nearly there,” Omar yelled.
“Where?” Leif yelled back.
Up ahead, Wren saw the imposing walls of the castle rising above the street. It was nothing like the black stone castle of Rekavik back in Ysland. This was a building of pale bricks carefully shaped and mortared together into a proud and beautiful palace with arching windows and perfectly matched turrets capped in tiled roofs.
On one side she saw a tower, and she noted how different it was from the filthy hovel she had lived in for seventeen years in Denveller. This tower was a perfect cylinder crowned in sharp crenellations, with arched glass windows on every floor. Hers had been a leaning pile of stones under a rotting thatch roof, a single doorway she had filled with stones from the inside, and a single window she had covered with iron bars at night.
“Won’t we just be trapped in there?” Wren asked.
“Better than being trapped out here,” Omar answered.
They ran through the open gates into a paved courtyard, and then up the wide steps and through the gaping doorway of the first building they saw.
“There aren’t any doors!” Thora pointed at the entrance, where the rusty hinges stood empty.
“Here they come.” Leif strode back out to the steps. A dozen of the blue-skinned corpses rushed into the courtyard, moaning and gurgling and crashing into each other, with dozens more hurrying up the road behind them.
Omar touched Wren’s shoulder and gestured politely at the oncoming dead people. “Wren, if you please.”
“It won’t work on the dead, will it?”
“If they still have souls, it will.”
Wren nodded and pushed Leif aside. The aether lay across the ground in shifting, sliding waves of silent white vapor, and when the young girl raised her hands, the aether rose with them as high as she could reach. A moment later the running dead crashed into the wall and fell back, stumbling and falling over each other, clawing at each others’ black and blue and white skin, and groaning as they tumbled to the ground.
With a frown and a wince, Wren tried to shove the aether forward, to push the bodies back across the courtyard. But the writhing corpses lay too thick and heavy on the ground, and the aether merely rippled through them, tossing back several limp arms and legs, and making a few bodies near the rear stagger and topple over backward.
“Come on, keep moving,” Omar barked.
They ran back through the foyer and up a tall, curving stair that circled an ancient, rusting chandelier. On the second floor, Omar turned left and Wren followed him, but immediately heard feet pounding on stairs, and she turned to see Leif and Thora continuing up to the third floor.
“Wait, what are you doing?” she asked. “We need to stay together.”
Omar grasped her arm. “No, we don’t. Let them go.”
Frowning, Wren dashed after Omar down the hall.
I know, I know. Leif’s a killer, and Thora, well, she’d probably be a killer too if the situation ever came up. But there are only four of us and a hundred of those… things.
Omar shoved open a door, and another, and then a third. “Here!” They ran inside and closed the door behind them. It was a large bedroom and in the center of it was the largest bed Wren had ever seen. A huge rotting mattress lay on the wooden platform with four massive wooden columns in each corner to support the steepled wooden roof, from which hung tattered, moth-eaten curtains.
Omar ran to one side, grabbed hold of a large chest of drawers next to the wall, and shoved. The tiny wooden legs screeched across the bare floor, until two of them snapped off. Together, they wrestled the bureau in front of the door, and then stood panting in the shadows.
In the quiet, they heard thumping and grunting and distorted echoes from the hall outside and from the rooms below.
Omar crossed to the windows and looked down. “Good. There’s a balcony here. We can get to the roof, move to another part of the estate, and find our way out of here, quietly.”
“Wait a minute, what’s going on?” Wren asked in an anxious whisper. “We’ve got an army of dead bodies out there walking around, and they’re still got souls inside them. That’s crazy. That’s not how it works.”
“Oh, you noticed that too, did you?” Omar grinned. “Yes, that is a bit unusual.”
Wren frowned. “Doesn’t anything surprise you anymore?”
“Not really, no. The world is huge and strange. If you would just stop expecting it to always play by the rules, it would surprise you a lot less, too.” He unlatched one of the tall glazed windows and gently swung it out. It squeaked softly.
“But don’t you think we should stay here and figure this out? What if it’s another plague, like the one in Ysland? Some sort of ancient soul-breaking creature, maybe? One that turns people into frozen corpses instead of giant foxes?”
Omar chuckled as he swung one leg out the window and carefully slipped through the narrow opening onto the wrought iron balcony, which groaned as it took his weight. “It’s possible,” he said. “But what happened in Ysland was awfully rare and unlikely. I doubt the exact same thing is happening here. And besides, even if it was the same, this time it isn’t my fault, so I don’t feel particularly inclined to linger. Come along, little one. It’s time to go.”
Wren crossed the room. “But-”
The door handle behind her rattled in its housing, and a voice whispered, “Wren? Let us in! Hurry!”
Wren dashed back to the bedroom door. “Thora? Is that you?”
“Of course it’s me. The door at the top of the stairs was locked, so we came back down. And those things are coming up the stairs. Let us in!”
Wren looked down at the bureau and then back at Omar standing out on the balcony. “Help me move this!”
“Absolutely not. Now get out here, young lady. I imagine we have a long night of running and hiding before us. And I may be immortal, but I still get tired and sore-footed, and I’ve no desire to watch those corpses tear you apart, either. Now come along!”
“No, we can’t just leave her out there.”
“We can, and we will. Need I remind you that those two tried to kill us not a quarter of an hour ago?” He held out his hand through the open window. “Now come on!”
You don’t need to remind me, but there’s a difference between a blood feud and Ragnarok, and when it looks like the world is ending, it’s not a crime to set old wounds aside, even if it’s only for a little while.
Wren lunged against the side of the chest of drawers, heaving it slowly back across the room, its two broken feet screaming across the scratched floorboards. Between shoves, she heard the thumping on the stairs outside, and she heard Leif grunting and cursing, his sword sighing through the air as he hacked the frozen bodies to pieces, the limbs banging and rolling on the landing just outside the door.
“Hurry!” Thora yelled. “They’re getting closer!”
The bureau shifted a little more, enough for Thora to slam the door inward a bit, just enough for Wren to see her face in the gap. The taller girl looked pale, her golden eyes wide, her lips twisted into a terrified grimace. Wren shoved again and the bureau screeched again, but her hand slipped and she stumbled off to one side, right against the corner of the bed. Her shoulder struck one of the wooden columns, and the sudden pain jarred her from her chest to her hips.
She turned to look at the widened gap in the door. Thora had shoved her head and one shoulder into the room and was straining to push the door open, straining to push the bureau just a bit farther away, but the huge chest of drawers had caught on a warped floorboard and refused to move any farther.
Wren staggered up and saw Omar out on the balcony, his arms crossed over his chest, a stern and disapproving look on his face. But she dashed back to the door just as a heavy body was flung against it from the other side. There were two booms in quick succession, and each time Thora winced and grunted. Leif was shouting, and judging from the sounds Wren guessed that his sword was banging and hacking into the walls and floor as much as the corpses.
Thora’s hands clutched the door frame, her eyes screwed shut as she shoved with all her strength against the blocked door. Wren grabbed the bureau and pulled, but with a sinking, exhausted feeling in her belly that there was no hope of it moving any more. She ran to the door and grabbed Thora’s arm and tried to pull the other girl inside, through the gap was still far too small.
Then Thora’s face went slack and she stared into Wren’s eyes, and for a cold instant they stood together, face to face, in silence. Then a blue hand with black nails wrapped around Thora’s face, two of its fingers poking into her mouth, and wrenched her back out into the hall. Wren leapt forward to slam the door shut with shaking hands, and she sat with her back to the door, gasping and shaking as she listened to Thora and Leif scream together just two paces away, just behind her on the other side of the door. Leif roared and Thora shrieked, and then both went suddenly silent, and all Wren could hear were wet thumping sounds on the floor and wall behind her.
Staring across the room, over the bed, through its tattered curtains, and past the window, she saw Omar still standing on the balcony. He was gazing up at the roof, one finger tapping lightly on his chin as though he was trying to decide what sort of flowers might look best around the window frame.
A body crashed against the door behind her, rattling the hinges. With a hot surge of adrenaline in her legs, Wren scrambled up, ran across the room, and jumped through the open window. She stumbled into Omar’s arms and looked up at the Aegyptian, only to see a weary and slightly condescending smile.
“Oh good, you’re here. Now we can run for our lives.” He jogged across the balcony, pointed out a series of handholds in the brickwork and roof, and together they climbed up onto the icy tiles beside a narrow chimney.
“I can’t believe you just left them like that,” she said.
“And I can’t believe you tried to save them.”
Wren’s foot shot out from under her, and she fell to her knees. Omar helped her back up and they trudged slowly and carefully up the slope of the roof through the snow and over the ice, squinting into the whistling wind.
“How can it possibly be colder here than in Ysland?” Wren muttered.
Omar snorted. “Ysland’s covered in volcanoes. It barely counts as cold at all. This is genuine cold, here. This is winter as it should be.”
“You like this?”
“I hate this. But at least it’s the genuine article.”
The ice underfoot crackled and the snow slid down a bit here and there, but otherwise the roof held together and they walked along the apex arm in arm, each of them looking down at a steep fall across the tiles and into a frozen garden or a snowy courtyard or a wrought iron fence with tiny spikes along the top.
On their right side, they could see the walking dead milling about near the front gates of the castle grounds, but they were merely shuffling in circles or leaning against walls. They moaned softly to one another, making sounds that were almost words. Here and there, a pair of them would collide and paw at each other, sometimes even hitting each other, but never with much force or passion, and they would drift apart again.
At the end of the roof, Omar pointed out a brick chimney at the lower edge and they slid down on their backsides to it. There, between the angle of the roof and the wall of the chimney, the wind was gentler and quieter.
“Now what?” Wren asked. “Those things are everywhere.”
“Not everywhere.” Omar nodded at the north wall where a small gate house stood between a frosted garden and the town outside.
“Won’t they see us?”
“I don’t know. I’m not sure if they can see or hear. What if they can only feel vibrations in their feet, or only smell? They’re certainly not the most athletic enemies we’ve ever faced. After all, their bodies are dead and frozen.” Omar ran his thumb along his jaw. “It would seem the only things keeping them moving at all are their souls. And that means you can simply push them away with your little trick.”
Wren nodded. “I can, but I don’t know how many I can manage. And what if the aether thins out? Besides, I don’t think I’m good enough to hold off an entire city yet. Why can’t you just use your seireiken on them?”
Omar shuffled in place and winced. “I could, but frankly I’m not too keen on having these souls absorbed into the blade. What if they’re damaged somehow? Broken, insane, diseased souls, maybe? Forever is a very long time to have a diseased soul trapped in your sword.”
“Couldn’t you just ignore them?”
“Maybe. But what if they infect the other souls in the seireiken? I have some very nice dead people in there, you know. You’ve met them.”
“Then don’t absorb the corpse souls. Just do that fancy cutting thing that doesn’t kill people. Except, you know, use it to kill them this time,” Wren said.
“Iaido? Maybe. It’s still a risk. I’m cold and tired, my hand could slip, I could make a mistake, and forever is a very long-”
“-long time to live with a mistake, I know.” Wren rolled her eyes. “Only you could make immortality sound like such a burden. I think I’m becoming thankful that I’ll die one day.”
“You’re learning!” Omar grinned. “Now let’s go. Quietly.”
They climbed down from their perch on the roof to a stone balcony, and from there they slipped over the stone walls to the garden below. Snowy evergreens stood in silent rows around them, blocking their view of the north gate as well as everything else. Wren shuffled through the snow, feeling carefully with her thin boots, and soon felt the hard edges of a paved path underfoot.
Waving at Omar to follow, she led the way through the trees into an open space full of snow-capped bushes that stood waist high, and then past flower beds where only a handful of short brown stalks indicated where the flowers had once been. She could see the north gate now, its wooden doors standing slightly ajar.
They paused a moment to listen to the wind howling over the rooftops, and the ice cracking, and the corpses moaning.
Now or never.
Wren strode out into the open and headed straight for the gate. Her eyes darted everywhere, to the buildings on her right and the wall on her left, and to the garden behind.
Still all clear.
When she stepped off the garden path onto the paved lane that led to the gate, her foot slipped on the solid sheet of ice, but Omar caught her arm and they strode on without missing a beat. The open doors of the gate house swayed gently in the wind before them, and Wren heard a dry scraping sound. Then a bare blue foot poked out the gate house door, and then the entire corpse shuffled into view. It was an older man with a scraggly white beard and frostbitten ears. His eyes were brown-in-white, mostly. Thin black veins crept in from the edges.
“Nine hells,” Wren whispered.
The corpse looked up at her sharply, and then lunged at her. Wren threw up her right hand and a mass of aether swept up from the ground, striking the dead man like a huge fist to the stomach. He crumpled over and staggered to one side. Wren swept her right hand across the paved lane and the aether swept along with her, crashing into the corpse like a tidal wave and knocking him out of the way.
She darted toward the open door, but paused to stare down at the black and blue figure on the ground. The corpse was moving, struggling to pick himself up, but his arms and legs seemed stiff and heavy. Icy crystals sparkled in the deep creases on his hands and around his eyes.
“We’re not safe yet,” Omar chided her as he propelled her through the short tunnel of the gate house and back out into the city of Targoviste.
“No one’s safe,” she said.
After Targoviste, they walked east for two days on the snowy highway and did not see a single living soul. Crows circled high overhead in a pale blue sky, and rabbits dashed through the soft snow, but nothing larger than a beaver appeared. Twice on the road they saw a shambling blue man or woman in the woods, but both times they hurried on and soon lost sight of them.
Just before noon on the first day, they sighted the city of Shumen and Omar led them in a wide circle through the woods, wading through knee-deep snow over rocky and treacherous ground to avoid even the most remote houses, and only rejoined the road when they were well clear of the last signs of civilization. Wren kept her ears uncovered, listening for voices, for the sounds of labor and play and household arguments. She heard none, and saw no one.
That evening they passed through the small town of Kaspichan, and Omar decided to risk the road rather than the wilderness. Again Wren kept watch and listened, and again there was no sign of life. But she did see muddy footprints in the snow, and she saw where the old drifts had been trampled into gray slush in the alleys, but she could not guess how old the tracks were, or whether they were made by men or animals.
During the night they slept in an empty farm house just off the road. They barricaded the doors and windows as best they could and took the watch in shifts. And during Wren’s shift she heard something out in the darkness, something moving slowly through the trees nearby, but she never saw what it was, and when morning came there was no sign of anyone outside.
Late in the afternoon of the second day, with the desolate town of Devnya far behind them, they began to hear familiar sounds in the distance ahead. Flapping canvas, snaking ropes, creaking wagons, clopping mules, and clanging tools. As they drew closer to their destination, they heard the gulls crying and the waves sloshing onto a pebbled beach, and a church bell ringing, and finally the voices of people. Talking and shouting, and cursing. And when they finally walked into the small port of Varna, they saw the tall slender men in their caps and coats, and the round little wives in their shawls and scarves, and all of them were very much alive.
Wren paused to look back across the hills and down the frozen highway. Something faint tickled her furry ears. “I hear something.”
“Such as?” Omar tugged his supple leather gloves tighter over his hands.
“Footsteps. Behind us.”
“You’re imagining it,” he said. “You’re tired and tense. You need food and sleep.”
Wren hesitated, still staring out across the wintry fields behind them, but she saw nothing. With a worried frown, she raised her scarf to cover her ears and followed Omar into the town. With the sun setting behind them, the streets of Varna were already dim and growing quickly dimmer. A few torches sputtered and growled in iron braziers outside the larger buildings, but otherwise the town was awash in shadows.
The people moving through the lanes were grim and stern, mostly fishermen with sacks over their shoulders or women with aprons full of breads, cheeses, eggs, lukanka salami, and beets. Wren sniffed out the strange meals hidden behind the closed doors, and Omar named them as they passed.
Duvec stew, sarma wraps, pilaf rice, and lamb kebabs.
The names amused her, but the smells soon had her mouth watering and when they stepped inside the little beer hall down by the water, a warm fog of roasted beef and alcoholic sauces wrapped around her senses and led her blissfully to her seat.
“Should we tell them?” Wren asked quietly. “Should we tell these people what we saw out there?”
“Not yet,” Omar said. “Let’s get a sense of the place first, and see what we see.”
They ate in near silence, surrounded by unmarried fishermen and sailors who had no one to feed them, or no home to go home to, or more money than sense. The fire crackled merrily, the men talked quietly, and as her stomach grew fuller, Wren felt a lovely warm blanket wrapped around her belly and beer-addled brain. She leaned back in her seat and stared at the fire, and wondered what her friends in Ysland were doing that night.
A soft thump fell upon the door, and a few men glanced up, but the door did not open.
The door thumped again, a bit harder and sharper, and the iron handle rattled against the frame. The man behind the bar, a slender whip of a fellow with a small black mustache, sighed and came around the bar, and opened the door, saying, “It’s not locked. You just…”
Wren looked up from the fire to see why the man had not finished his sentence, and she saw a dark figure standing just outside in the road. Then she heard the blood dripping on the ground, and she saw the barkeep slump to the floor. A bloody sword entered the room, followed by a one-armed man with an uneven gait.
“Leif!” Omar stood up, knocking his chair over.
Wren stood up beside him as the sudden flush of adrenaline brought her senses back into focus. Leif was standing just inside the door, his sword raised, but it was not the Leif Blackmane that she remembered. This man was pale beyond life, as white as new-fallen snow, but his face and hand were patched and veined in blue and black, and icy crystals glistened around his eyes and in his long black hair. He looked at her, and then he looked at the fire in the hearth, and he shuffled back out into the road, disappearing into the shadows.
Two men knelt by the dead barkeep, one sidled over to the abandoned bar, and the rest were half-rising from their seats with grim looks on their faces and supper knives in their fists.
“Everyone, stay here,” Omar said, his hand wrapped tightly around the grip of his seireiken. “Wren, hurry.”
They jogged out the door into the road where a light snow was falling quietly on the seaside town, and they spotted Leif walking stiffly away down the road toward the water. Wren followed Omar as he drew his bright sword and suddenly the narrow lane was as bright as noon in summer, and the one-armed man turned to face them.
Leif’s throat was gone, his Adam’s apple torn out, leaving a ragged circle of blackened flesh between his collarbones and his jaw. The skin of his right cheek had also been ripped away to reveal his crooked teeth and black-veined gums in a permanent grinning rictus. His mouth moved, and a guttural moaning and grunting echoed out of the hole where his throat should have been.
Omar raised his sword, but Wren raised her hand a little faster and hurled a wall of swirling white aether at the walking corpse. Leif staggered back, tripped, and fell on the icy stone walkway that led down into the water where a dozen small fishing boats rested on the beach.
“What’s going on?” Wren asked softly as they both edged forward. “I know he’s not alive, but how did he turn into one of them? It has to be another soul-plague.”
“It could be.” Omar nodded. “But I have another theory.”
The half-frozen remains of Leif Blackmane slowly rose to his feet, the broad Yslander sword still in his hand. He pointed the blade at them, grunting from his chest. Another sound caught her attention, and Wren glanced back up the lane to see the beer hall patrons standing in the road, staring down at her. But then they turned and pointed to something else in the opposite direction, something Wren couldn’t see. “I think we have a problem.”
“Hardly,” Omar said. “He can barely walk properly. He’s no threat to us, even with that oversized pig sticker.” The Aegyptian marched forward and slashed the Yslander sword aside. The blazing heat of the seireiken burned through the northern steel, and the pointed end of Leif’s sword flew off into the darkness to clatter on the pebbled beach.
“I don’t mean him,” Wren said, still peering up the lane at the men.
“One problem at a time, please.” Omar twirled his bright sword lightly at his side and slipped it back into its scabbard, dousing its light. He paused to set his feet, bend his knees, straighten his back, and rest his palm on the butt of his seireiken. Leif threw down his broken sword and growled from the hole in his neck, and then lurched forward, reached out with his one clutching, grasping hand.
Omar drew his sword.
The light flashed again, bright as day, and just as quickly vanished back into its clay-lined sheathe. Wren blinked to clear her eyes. The harsh glare of the seireiken was always too much for her sensitive fox eyes, and it left bright orange and blue afterimages writhing across her vision. But when she could see again, she saw Leif lying still on the ground, his head resting beside his arm. The severed neck smoked faintly in the darkness.
Omar gestured to the body. “There, you see? A flawless draw. Wherever Leif’s miserable soul is now, it isn’t in my blade.”
“My compliments to your samurai instructor,” Wren said, remembering the ghost of the warrior she had met once when Omar had allowed her to hold his seireiken. It was the shade of the samurai, Ito Daisuke, who guided Omar’s hand in combat. “But we have another problem.” She pointed back up the lane to the men and the shambling shadows beyond them.
“Ah.” Omar nodded. “Good. You go help them. I’m going to take a look at our dead friend here and see if I can figure out why he didn’t stay dead in Targoviste.”
She stared at him. “Me? Alone?”
He merely waved her away as he knelt beside the corpse.
Frowning, Wren unwound her sling from her wrist and jogged up the lane toward the half dozen men standing just outside the beer hall. Some of them still clutched their glasses in their hands, and none of them had any weapons. She said, “Everyone, get back inside! It isn’t safe here.”
But they merely shrugged and set their glasses down on the ledge of the nearest window. One of them muttered, “We know.”
The sailors and fishers yanked up a few loose bricks from the roadbed, and one man cracked a long icicle from the roof of the beer hall, and one man simply rolled up his sleeves.
Wren glanced from one grim face to another as she set a small round stone in her sling. “You’ve seen them before? You know about them?”
The man with the icicle nodded. “The first ones wandered into town about two months ago. Don’t worry, girl. We’ll send them back where they came from.”
Wren looked up the road again and saw nearly twenty of the blue men and women drawing near. They moved too stiffly to run, but they were trotting and jogging at a fair pace, their clumsy feet crunching on the snow and ice.
“Have you ever seen anything like this before?” Wren asked the men. “Do you know what caused it?”
“Naw, never seen anything like this before,” an old sailor muttered. “But once you see one varcolac or strigoi, you’ve seen them all. Demons. Skinwalkers. Blood-drinkers. Flesh-eaters. Sinners in league with the devil, every one of them. But that’s country folk, for you. Always burying their dead, and doing it wrong to boot. And here’s the fruit of their foolishness. The walking dead.”
Wren stared at the man.
Wren wanted to ask him more, but there was no time. The twenty corpses in the lane were less than a hundred paces away and moving faster than before. She hurled her first stone, smashing in a blue woman’s knee and sending her sprawling on the ground, with two others falling over her.
“That’s no good,” the old sailor said, his voice rising above the groaning of the corpses. “You’ve got to bash in the heads!” And the men charged forward, swinging their bricks at their enemies’ faces. Skull after frozen skull cracked and caved and shattered, and the walking dead began to fall. If a man lost his brick, he would resort to grabbing one of the blue corpses, hurling it to the ground, and stomping its head with his heavy boots. And as the bodies piled up, the men shuffled back, leaving the frozen limbs as a barrier across the lane. Still the other corpses came.
Wren locked eyes with one of them, a dead woman maybe thirty winters old with ice shining in her ragged hair, a swath of glistening blue flesh on one side of her face and a desiccated patch of black skin on the other side. Her blue eye had frozen solid, no longer able to blink or move, and the woman had to turn her head stiffly to see. Her black eye was lost in the shadows on her face.
Nine hells! Thora!
The dead Yslander woman staggered over the fallen bodies, her clawing black fingers reaching out for Wren, and between her blue lips a tiny black tongue poked out of her mouth, a tongue shriveled and dried as a dead twig, and just as useless. The only sounds that came from her mouth were unintelligible moans, terrible gasping moans that dragged on and on between thin, wheezy breaths.
Wren blinked, suddenly realizing that the townsmen were all busy with the other corpses and there was no one between her and Thora. She loaded her sling from the small pouch of stones on her belt, and then Wren hurled a shot at the blue and black face before her. The black side of Thora’s face crunched inward as the stone glanced off, but the corpse merely stumbled as it charged at the girl.
Woden, if I die here I’ll never talk to you again, you lazy excuse for a god!
Wren thrust her hand out and shoved the aether forward, blasting the dead woman and everyone else in the road with a rolling tide of white mist. Thora flew back onto the other bodies, and all of the men were thrown forward onto the last few walking dead. But the men kept their footing, and were soon bashing and kicking the remaining corpses into silent oblivion.
But the blue and black corpse from Ysland was still moving, still struggling to sit up, still reaching out with her cold black fingers. With a lump in her throat and a few hot tears in the corners of her eyes, Wren darted forward, grabbed one of the bricks from the ground, and smashed the corpse in the face. Thora collapsed and lay still.
Wren backed away, leaving the brick were it had fallen so it would cover the face at least a little bit. The sailors and fishers all backed away from the bodies with her, all huffing and sweating and muttering to themselves. But they were all alive, and all unharmed except for a few scrapes and bruises.
When the pounding in her chest had faded, Wren said, “Will they rise again?”
“Naw.” The old sailor shook his head. “Not with the heads all bashed in. There, watch.” He pointed at the bodies.
Wren turned to look, and through the drifting aether she saw the pale shades of the dead men and women stand up out of their bodies, glance around blankly, and then fade into the darkness. Thora too emerged from her corpse and hesitated, gazing at Wren with wide, sad eyes, and then she vanished.
They’re gone. Their souls are all gone now. It’s over.
“See?” the sailor said. “Right as rain now.”
“But what’s causing it?” Wren asked.
The sailor shrugged. “Pacts with the devil? Some sort of curse? Who knows?” And the men headed back down the lane to the little beer hall overlooking the harbor.
Wren followed them. “And the bodies?”
“We’ll burn them tomorrow. No sense trying now. It’s too cold, and they’re all frozen,” the old sailor said as he went back inside.
Wren lingered in the street, alone in the dark, listening to the wind whistling around the roofs and chimneys, listening to the gentle rocking of the fishing boats just a stone’s throw away on the dark waves. Omar sauntered slowly up the lane from the water’s edge and stood beside her. “I have a theory.”
“They barely even care,” Wren said, still staring at the sea. “They fought a band of dead people in the street, bashed in people’s faces with bricks, and they just went back to their drinks like nothing happened.”
Omar grinned. “Some people adjust to awful things better than others.”
“What sort of people?”
“People who are used to awful things happening to them.”
Wren nodded slowly.
“This is Vlachia,” Omar said. “It’s a cold, hard place. In times of war, the princes fight with Raska and Rus and Hellas for scraps of gold, a handful of women, or a herd of cattle. Nothing more. In times of peace, the governors fight with each other for even less. But the farmers do fairly well, and the fishers do fairly well. The wine here is excellent. And when the wine isn’t enough to warm their bones, there is always the Church of Constantia to soothe their souls.”
“Church? You mean the gods?”
“Not gods. God. Singular.”
“Oh.” Wren pouted. “What’s his name?”
“God. Just, God.”
“If you only have one god, does that mean he doesn’t have a family?”
Omar sighed. “According to the Constantian and Roman Churches, he does. But they’re wrong about that, of course. The Mazdan Temple has the truth of it.”
So many things to learn still.
Wren wrapped her sling around her wrist. “What’s your theory?”
“About the walking dead,” she prodded. “You said you had a theory.”
“Oh, that.” Omar nodded. “Well, you know that when most people die, their souls just rest there in their bodies or their ashes, just sort of sleeping. And even if they do wake up, it takes some effort and some aether for them to move about as ghosts.”
“And your aether-craft allows you to use the aether to move anything with a soul.”
“So it works both ways,” Omar said. “You can use the aether to move a ghost, and a ghost can move the aether too.”
“But aether is just a mist. It can’t move anything at all. It just makes images of dead people.”
“Ah.” Omar smiled mysteriously. “But what if the aether wasn’t a mist? It evaporates in the sunlight, in the heat, but it also thickens in the dark and the cold. What if the aether froze solid? What if the aether in a corpse’s dead blood froze solid?”
Wren’s eyes widened. “Then the ghost could move the frozen aether crystals, they could move their own dead body like a puppet!” She recoiled. “Ew!”
“Ew indeed, little one, ew indeed.” Omar nodded sagely. “These corpses are buried in the permafrost, their bodies well-preserved in the cold, their blood frozen solid within hours of dying. And then, when their souls wake up, instead of just carrying their faces and voices out into the aether mist, they take their own dead bodies with them out into the world.”
Wren shuddered. “So they might not even realize they’re dead?”
“Oh, I think they do. After all, they all have to dig and crawl their way out of their own graves. Imagine falling asleep in your own bed, and then waking up in your own grave, digging up through the frozen earth, and staggering up into a graveyard on frozen, dead legs, looking down at your own frostbitten and desiccated fingers, unable to speak with your shriveled up tongue. It’s enough to drive you mad, don’t you think? And the fresh ones, like Leif, might even think they’re still alive, just wounded or sick.”
“But they’re dead! Why aren’t they just floating away like normal ghosts? Why are they clinging to their bodies at all?”
Omar shrugged. “Force of habit? Human nature? The will to live? Why ask me, I’m not a deranged corpse.”
“So, then we only need to worry about them at night, when it’s coldest, right? If they get too warm, the aether in their bodies will melt away and their souls will come free, right?”
“Maybe. Then again, this land is awash with aether. If the soul doesn’t leave the body promptly during the day, then more aether could simply freeze into the body the next night. The process could cycle on and on, forever.” He crossed the lane and opened the door to the beer hall. “Come on, it’s time for bed.”
Wren nodded and took one last look at the bodies in the road. “They move pretty fast, for dead people. And they’re strong, almost as strong as they were in life, I suppose. I just hope they can’t swim, too.”
The next morning, Wren emerged from her warm bed and her warm breakfast onto a bright, cold street. Uphill to her left she saw a pair of men with a wheelbarrow loading and moving the blue bodies. Other yawning men and women were already out, calmly going about their chores and stepping carefully over the corpses in the road. Omar stepped out beside her, resplendent in his finely tailored Mazigh coat and boots, with his blue sunglasses hiding his eyes. Without a word, he headed down to the water and strode out onto the lonely wooden pier that reached out into the Black Sea, and began a quick negotiation with the captain of a sailing ship that was about to leave port.
It was the largest and strangest ship Wren had ever seen. Ever since she was a little girl in Ysland, the stories and pictures of the warriors’ longboats had loomed large in her imagination, tales of narrow ships bristling with oars and spears, bearing only a single mast and square sail, gliding silently as serpents up the rivers of Alba to strike at the people of Edinburgh and other southern towns.
But this ship before her now, this La Rosa de Valencia, was more than thirty paces long and six paces wide, and it rode high in the water bearing two masts and triangular sails like the wings of gulls. Omar called it a caravel, a trading vessel from the distant land of Espana, which was just as cold and hard as Vlachia, where they worshiped the same nameless God, though they served another church.
The captain was a small, sharp-eyed man named Ortiz, and Omar negotiated their passage rather quickly in fluent Espani, and soon Wren was climbing the narrow, bouncing plank to the deck of the ship. Ropes slapped, canvas flapped, and chains clinked, and within a few minutes the merchant vessel was gliding away from the port of Varna and heading out into the Black Sea. Dark gray clouds filled the sky, and a sharp chill rode the breeze from the north, whipping the dark waves into pale green foam.
Wren stood at the railing and watched Varna shrinking behind them, a gray collection of walls and roofs dressed in snow with a dozen trails of smoke rising from its chimneys. Omar stood beside her, gazing out at the sea.
“I thought I would feel better when we got back on the water again,” she said. “I thought I’d feel safer. But now all I can think is that there might be a walking corpse hiding down in the hold, and as soon as we go to sleep, it will tear out our throats.”
Omar snorted. “That old teacher of yours told you too many ghost stories. Trust me. No stumbling dead people slipped on board when the sailors weren’t looking. We’re perfectly safe here.”
“I guess so,” Wren said. “Why do you think every town we saw was empty, except for Varna?”
“I talked to the captain about that.” Omar nodded at the little Espani standing by the wheel on the quarter deck. “Unlike the inland towns, all of the ports around the Black Sea are in the habit of burning their dead instead of burying them. There’s a lot of worry about plague rats and fleas and tainted food, especially on the boats coming up from Turkiya and Babylonia. Apparently, the Eranians sometimes send sick men and animals across the sea on purpose.”
“Oh.” Wren tore her eyes away from the little Vlachian town and looked across the dark waves that seemed to stretch on forever to the south. “Are we close to your homeland yet?”
“Very!” Omar smiled. “Crossing the white sea and the length of Europa was the lion’s share of the journey. We’ll be in Alexandria in just a few more days.”
A sailor passing behind them with a heavy coil of rope over his shoulder paused and tapped Omar on the arm. “Did the captain say that?”
“Well, no,” Omar said. “But I’ve been crossing the Black Sea and the Middle Sea since before you were born. I know it well enough. It only takes a few days.”
“Heh, yeah, well, maybe in peace time.” The sailor hopped his coil of rope higher on his shoulder to keep it from slipping. “But with all the checkpoints and inspections in the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, you’ll be lucky to see Hellas before spring.”
Omar’s smile faded. “You’re joking. You’re exaggerating, yes?”
“Only a little.” The sailor grinned and went on about his work.
Omar gave Wren a very unhappy look and then strode off toward the quarter deck. Wren watched him talk to the captain, watched his dramatic hand gestures and head rolling and pacing about the deck, and listened to his voice muffled by the constant shushing off the hull against the waves. A sudden gust of wind threatened to push back her scarf, and she grabbed it to keep her ears hidden. After a few minutes, Omar returned, planted his hands on the railing, and glared at the sea. “He wasn’t joking.”
“What’s going on?”
“War. War is going on, little one.” Omar sighed. “To reach the southern seas, we need to pass through the Bosporus Strait. On the northern shore is the Hellan city of Constantia, and on the southern shore is the Eranian city of Stamballa. Both are large, wealthy, and cultured places, places that I wanted you to see.”
“But they’re at war?”
Omar nodded. “Again.”
“What happened the last time they were at war?”
“People died.” Omar turned his back to the sea.
“Would it be faster if we leave the ship and travel by land?”
“No. If there’s a war on, then there’ll be checkpoints and inspections in every town, at every crossroads, and at every bridge for hundreds of leagues. At least at sea, they can only stop you when you try to go ashore.” He shook his head. “We’ll stay aboard, and just wait it out. Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise, an excuse to explore Stamballa while we wait for the ship to clear customs.”
“Just Stamballa? What about Constantia?”
“Whatever else I may be, I am still a southerner. The empire is my home, and her enemies are, after a fashion, my enemies. I don’t think I’d be very welcome in Constantia right now.”
“Oh.” Wren chewed her lip. “What about me? I don’t look very southern, do I?”
“No.” Omar smiled wryly. “But as long as you’re with me, you’ll be fine. No one will bother you as long as I am there. Although, just to be on the safe side, I think you ought to wear these.” He held out his brass-rimmed glasses with the blue lenses.
She took them with a pout. “They look silly.”
“Maybe, but they’ll attract less attention than those bright gold eyes of yours. Did you know that you squint a lot during the day?”
Wren nodded. “The sun does hurt my eyes more than it used to.” She slipped on the glasses and took a moment to settle them on her nose and in the braids of her hair on the sides of her head where her ears should have been. The glare of the sunlight on the water and the clouds and the distant snowfields dimmed, and everything took on a soft blue tint. “Hm. I guess that is a little better.”
An entire land of southerners, of people with brown skin and black hair and funny accents. No more snow. No more cold. At least in the north I could hide my ears and blend in, even better than him. But now…
The little Espani caravel rocked and dashed across the dark waters of the Black Sea, and they sighted many other ships out on the horizon. Wren described their masts and sails and flags to Omar, and he told her which were Europan and which were Ifrican, calling them brigantines and xebecs and carracks. Most were merchantmen, but a few were fishers or trawlers with huge booms and nets dragging behind them.
After a while, Omar went below to take a nap, leaving Wren alone to stare at the thin black line of the western shore.
How many other towns are out there? How many are empty? And how many are clinging to life at the edge of the sea? Maybe when summer comes, the buried dead will thaw a bit, enough for the aether to leave their bodies and let the dead rest in peace.
Eventually Wren went below as well and found Omar snoring violently in a hammock swinging over a row of barrels that smelled faintly of salted pork. She climbed up into another hammock beside him and stared with her fox eyes into the deep shadows of the hold, wondering if Omar was right, if it really was safe on the ship, if they really were alone. She was still wondering when she fell asleep.
The rest of the day and the night and the following morning passed quietly and sleepily. Wren took long naps, ate sparingly, and spent only a few minutes here and there on deck to gaze at the waves and stars before going back to her swinging hemp bed above the salted pork.
On the second afternoon, she stood at the railing again with Omar beside her, this time looking west where the black line of the horizon had grown into a rippling body of hills and towers and walls on either shore of the Bosporus.
“So that’s Stamballa?” she asked.
“No, those are just lighthouses and fishing towns. The cities are on the other end of the Strait.”
She sighed and leaned her head down on her arms, and closed her eyes.
Traveling is so boring. Woden, what sort of sacrifice would entice you to whisk us away to Alexandria today? I have an old sling, a pouch of stones, and some dirty clothes. They’re yours for the asking.
The cloudy sky did not answer her.
She lifted her head. “So are there any other immortals like you in this part of the world?”
Omar smiled a little. “Not right here, no. But there are two to the north, in Rus, and three others to the south, in Syria. Those five are the youngest, and the last I ever made.”
“Why the last?”
He shrugged. “It never really seems to work out. Immortality, I mean. I kept thinking that if people only had enough time, they could solve all the mysteries in the world. Science, philosophy, even God. In India, I met a wonderful young man, a prince, and I made him immortal, thinking that if a good man ruled long enough, his goodness would reshape his entire people, his entire culture. And it worked, for a while. But he grew lonely and bored, just like me, and he wandered off. I have no idea whatever happened to him.”
“What about the ones in Rus and Seera?”
“Syria,” he corrected her. “The Syrians were supposed to be my great philosophers. I chose each of them because they were intelligent, disciplined, and dedicated. I taught them everything I knew at the time, and asked them to continue my work studying sun-steel, and aether, and soul-breaking. And they did, for a while, but it didn’t last. Nothing lasts.”
Wren watched his face for a moment, seeing the same faraway sorrow and weariness that always came over him when he talked about his past. She waited, hoping he would keep talking, and when he didn’t she had to nudge him. “And in Rus?”
“Just two. The very last, about five hundred years ago.”
“Lovers?” she asked, her face brightening.
“A mother and her son.”
“Oh.” She let her chin sink back down the rail. It was an uncomfortable position, but she was in the mood to be uncomfortable. Living below decks in the warm rocking belly of the ship had been the quietest, most peaceful two days of her entire journey across Europa. And she hated it.
“Actually, the mother could probably tell us something about those walking corpses back there.” Omar nodded in the direction of Vlachia. “She fancied herself quite the aether-wright, too. She liked talking to the dead. It was something we had in common.”
“You liked her?” Wren elbowed him gently in the ribs.
Omar hesitated, the pale ghost of a smile tugging at his lip. “Maybe once, or twice.”
“That’s not what I meant.” Wren rolled her eyes. “Is there anyone you haven’t slept with?”
As the sun sank and the wind rose, the caravel cruised into the mouth of the Strait, passing a slender white lighthouse on the north shore, and soon after they passed a broader gray lighthouse on the south shore. Traffic on the water quickly increased as more and more fishermen came in from the Black Sea to their homes for the night. Other merchantmen cruised along with them, most of similar size to La Rosa, but there was at least one ship far ahead of them, hidden by the glare of the setting sun, that Wren believed to be something much larger.
They entered a wider section of the Strait and she saw a pair of huge sailing ships riding at anchor. The current had swung them both to the west so their long, sharp bowsprits were pointed at La Rosa as it approached from the east. Many men in blue and gray and white shirts and coats stood on the decks of the ships with swords on their belts and knives in their hands. They leaned on the rails and looked down at the small caravel as it passed between them. The hulls of the ships wore iron plates along the water line, and the open doors below the railings revealed the dark mouths of the guns, dozens of huge guns arranged in two tiers. Wren recalled Omar’s description of these weapons, and she swallowed loudly as she thought of the black iron shells flying out and smashing their poor little boat into splinters with a roar of fire and smoke.
“Eranian galleons. But don’t worry,” Omar said. “They’re just here to keep the Hellans out of the Black Sea. They won’t bother us.”
“What about the check points?” Wren asked.
At that moment, a smaller gunboat that rode at the same height as La Rosa emerged from behind one of the warships and came alongside the caravel as it passed the hulking ironclads.
“Here come the imperial bureaucrats now. Turks, by the look of them.” Omar pointed at the gunboat. It sported a pair of small cannons near the bow and another pair near the stern, but there were no sailors near any of the weapons. Instead there were four grim men by the railing with ropes, and four of the Espani sailors went to stand opposite them. The ropes were thrown across and the two ships were pulled together as other men above deck set about reefing the sails and slowing both ships as they continued west.
Captain Ortiz went to the railing with a leather satchel in his hand, and he tossed it across the rails to his counterpart on the Turkish ship. The other captain opened the bag and flipped through the papers for several minutes, nodded, and threw the satchel back. Then six of his men climbed up on the rails and jumped across to La Rosa.
Wren instantly reached for the small bone knife on her belt, but Omar shook his head, and she forced herself to stand still as the six Turkish sailors moved quickly across the deck, glanced at the men, and then trooped below to inspect the cargo. For several long minutes, Wren stood at the rail in the gathering dark as her fox eyes came into focus and she watched the men on both ships go about their duties just as before, tying lines and taking soundings and muttering quietly. Then the Turkish sailors came back on deck and headed for the rail where their own ship awaited. One of them moved away from the others so he could lean in close to Omar and say, “And who are you?”
“Omar Bakhoum,” he said calmly. “I’m a doctor. I was sent to Vlachia to investigate a plague.”
Wren raised an eyebrow.
They don’t know about it. Is that because it’s too warm here for the walking dead, or just because it hasn’t reached this place yet?
She inhaled the night air, and saw a light flurry of snow just beginning to fall overhead.
It may be cold enough, after all.
“Nothing,” Omar said. “It wasn’t a plague at all. Just some superstitious farmers jumping at shadows and mist.”
The sailor nodded. “And where are you bound now?”
“Back to Alexandria.”
The sailor’s eyes shifted to Wren.
“With my new apprentice,” Omar continued. “She’s from Rus.”
The sailor gave Omar a wink and a shrug and started to leave, but as he moved on he reached out to flick the scarf from Wren’s head. She gasped and scrambled to pull it back over her hair and ears, but it had fallen all the way back to her shoulders and she needed a moment to grab it and flip it back into place. In that moment, the sailor stared at her head.
“What the devil…?”
Omar stepped smoothly in between them and rested his hand on his sword. “You have keen eyes, friend. Now prove that you have keen ears,” he whispered to the sailor. “I didn’t come here for some plague. I came to collect this girl, and now I’m taking her back to my masters to study her. But you saw nothing here except a doctor and his apprentice.”
The sailor narrowed his eyes and reached for the dirk on his belt.
Omar drew his seireiken, but only a hair, only far enough to expose a tiny sliver of the bright sun-steel blade. The light flashed on the sailor’s face, and then the light was gone. Omar said, “You saw nothing.”
The sailor stared down at the sheathed seireiken in wide-eyed astonishment. “You’re one of…”
“Yes.” Omar nodded. “And you. Saw. Nothing.”
“Nothing,” the man whispered, and he darted back to his own ship. The lines were loosed and the gunboat turned away to head back up the channel to the ironclads, and La Rosa continued west into the deepening gloom of the night.
Omar gripped the railing as he glared at the dark skyline of the southern shore. “That sailor recognized my seireiken.”
“I noticed that,” Wren said. “What does that mean?”
“It means that there are other members of my little brotherhood here, in Stamballa, most likely advising the Eranian army.”
“You mean the Sons of Osiris? But isn’t that a good thing? Can’t we just go meet with them? Won’t they help us get through the check points and get to Alexandria faster?”
Omar glanced at her. “Maybe. Maybe not. Ours is not a very brotherly brotherhood. It would all depend on who exactly the commander is. He might help us, or he might torture us, interrogate us, kill us, and take our sun-steel.”
“Oh.” Wren nodded. “Well, then, I suppose it won’t hurt us to just stay on board and wait a bit longer.”
As they stood side by side, listening to the creak of the ropes and the rustle of the canvas, a sudden roar of thunder burst from the southern shore as a hailstorm of fire leapt into the sky and soared across the narrow waist of the Strait. Wren jerked back from the railing, but the flaming arrows and shells flew high over La Rosa and fell like a hundred thunderbolts on the face of the water. A sparkling silver spray shimmered in the air as the missiles were quenched and hissed, steaming in the night. But some of the arrows and shells fell on a group of small boats near the north shore.
The Hellan sailors dove into the Strait, yelling orders and screaming in terror as the fire clung to their shirts. Their flapping sails roared with yellow flames in the cold wind, and were soon consumed, leaving the hulls crackling and dancing with red lights.
“I take it back,” Wren whispered. “It may hurt us after all.”
Major Tycho Xenakis strode into the war room as quickly as his short legs could carry him. His Spartan dagger clung silently to his left leg, but his white Mazigh revolver clinked in its holster on his right hip with every step, announcing his entrance. As he crossed the room, the Hellan officers and Vlachian warlords glanced up from their maps and reports to cast dark looks at him. Tycho felt their unease, contempt, and fear, but he didn’t waste his own gaze on any of them.
He arrived at the central table, which he could just barely see over, and he rapped his knuckles on the nearest leg. “Gentlemen, we have a problem.”
They looked down at the Spartan officer. On the left stood the Vlachian prince, Vlad the Fourth, the dragon of the Black Sea, grandson of the most feared butcher in the north, the Impaler. On the right he nodded to Lady Nerissa, the Duchess of Constantia, and to the aging Italian knight Salvator Fabris, who was standing just a bit too close to the lady for Tycho’s taste.
“Which problem might that be?” Salvator asked as he smoothed his oiled gray mustache. “The Eranian army across the Strait, the Eranian fleet in the Strait, or the Eranian artillery flying over the Strait?”
Tycho ignored the Italian and looked to his lady. “It’s the witch.”
Prince Vlad hissed as he straightened up and tugged at his black and red jacket. “Lady Yaga is the sainted mother of Rus. Show some respect, you malformed runt.”
“She’s only one man’s mother, and that’s the problem,” Tycho said. “Ever since Koschei was captured by the Turks, Lady Yaga has been haunting the walls, terrifying our men with her threats, or just depressing them her ideas of what awful things the Turks do to their prisoners. She’s ruining morale on the walls.”
“Are Hellan soldiers so fragile to be defeated by the heartbroken cries of one old woman?” Vlad asked. He grasped the short sword on his belt.
We never should have gotten him that sword. Seireikens are for lunatics.
“Prince Vlad, my soldiers have held this city against Darius’s armies for their entire lives,” Lady Nerissa said. “They were born to the clamor of battle, they were raised in shattered homes and streets strewn with rubble, and from the moment they are able, they serve to protect Constantia against the south. And it is their sacrifice that keeps the north free, from Rus to Raska to your own precious Vlachia.”
The hawk-faced lord scowled and turned back to the maps on the table.
But the Duchess continued, “When you pledged the support of these so-called immortals, I was led to believe they would have more to contribute to the war than the average person. But Koschei, for all his martial gifts, was merely one soldier, and his mother has been nothing but a distraction.”
Vlad glowered up through his black brows. “I swore to defend this city against Darius and the infidels of the Mazdan Temple, and I will keep that vow. But I will not stand here and listen to you foul the names of the sainted mother and her valiant son.” He pushed away from the table and strode to the far end of the room to talk with his Vlachian commanders.
Tycho watched him go. “He’s become more and more emotional and irrational since we brought him that damned sword.”
“The sword isn’t the problem. He wanted proof of our commitment and we delivered it to him, as promised,” Lady Nerissa said lightly. “The real problem runs far deeper. Vlachia is a land of summer wars and sea battles. They aren’t accustomed to prolonged siege warfare. Win or lose, they want this war to end, and that may make the Vlachians a liability at some point.”
“As distasteful as I find them,” Salvator said, “I can’t imagine they would betray you.”
“Not willingly, no,” the Duchess said. “But in their hearts? A time may come when they don’t fight as fiercely, when the fire goes out of them, when they embrace the shadows in their hearts and admit defeat simply to end this war.”
“I can see that day all too clearly,” Tycho said. “But what about Yaga? We need to do something about her. She’s scaring our soldiers, to say nothing of the conscripts from Italia and Espana.”
“That’s not the only thing eating away at morale,” Salvator said. “There’s a rumor in the barracks that Prince Radu has been seen on the walls of Stamballa. If the Vlachians learn that Vlad’s own brother is leading the Turks, it could split their loyalties and we might actually find ourselves behind enemy lines very suddenly.”
“I wouldn’t worry too much about that,” Tycho said. “From what I’ve heard, most of the Vlachians hate Radu for converting to the Mazdan Temple, and for turning against his own people. They see him as a traitor.”
“Let’s hope you’re right,” Lady Nerissa said. “In the mean time, I have something special for the two of you. This afternoon one of our gunboats sank a trawler carrying an imperial courier home from the north shore.”
Tycho frowned. “Who do you think he was visiting on the north shore?”
“That’s what I want the two of you to find out. He’s being held in the Sunken Palace. If there are imperial troops on the north shore, or worse, a traitor among our ranks, I don’t want some common soldier to be the first to learn of it.”
The Italian knight nodded curtly. “We understand, Your Grace. We will be the very souls of discretion.”
Tycho nodded as well and he followed Salvator out of the war room and down the dimly lit corridor. Their boots clacked and echoed on the polished marble floors and soaring walls covered in oil portraits of dead Constantian lords and tapestries of ancient Constantian battles. The men spiraled down the wide white steps of the west stairwell to the western doors, and then strode out through the massive Hellan columns into the cold night air. Soldiers stood at attention at every gate and door, and Tycho nodded seriously to each of them. Salvator ignored them all.
They stepped into one of the small carriages that stood ever-ready to carry a person of importance into the city and with the horses trotting briskly they soon left the grounds of the Palace of Constantine and turned southwest to pass the Cathedral of Saint Sophia. Sitting on the left side of the carriage, Tycho gazed up at the centuries-old church towering above the boulevard like a black and gold mountain shining in the starlight. The great sweeping arcs of its domed roof, heavy pillars, and elegant archways conspired in the darkness to create the image of a many-legged, many-mouthed demon looming over the tiny carriage on the road.
“You know, I’m surprised you’re still here,” Tycho said quietly.
“So am I,” the Italian answered. “I had planned to leave before winter set in, but this war is just a bit too interesting to leave, just yet. I mean, two brothers leading opposing armies, a pair of immortal lunatics, and the chance to observe the latest in Eranian ships and weapons. And besides, I’m sure the king of Italia appreciates my efforts here to single-handedly defeat the Mazdan Temple. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it, but he’s not fond of the empire.”
“I believe you have mentioned it,” the dwarf said. “But after we brought back the seireikens from Alexandria, I assumed you would be off to investigate the Osirians again. But you haven’t mentioned the Order of Osiris once since we arrived.”
Salvator shrugged. “I did enjoy our little escapade in the south, but it also served to remind me that I’m not a young man anymore. A duel here and there, certainly. But crawling through dark passages, lying in cramped cellars, running from legions of armed cultists? No, my little friend, I think that part of my career is now behind me.”
“Of a sort. I think perhaps I should restrict myself to sitting in grand ballrooms, playing cards, drinking wine, and explaining Italian foreign policy to beautiful young princesses.”
Tycho snorted. “Lady Nerissa has no interest in you.”
“I should hope not!” Salvator exclaimed. And then with a grin, he said, “She’s far too old for me.”
Both men chuckled in the darkness.
Tycho nodded to the Hellan soldiers as the carriage rattled through the gates of the Sunken Palace. The two men dismounted the carriage and stood in the silent courtyard, glancing around at the wide green lawn and the huge granite slabs strewn about the field. Before them stood the only building, a small stone house not unlike a mausoleum, classical Hellan architecture in miniature with a single gaping doorway flanked by Hellan pike men and Vlachian archers carrying small recurve bows.
Tycho had only to show his face and revolver for the guards to recognize him and allow him to enter. Inside the stone doorway a row of burning braziers led down a long stone stair. Tycho signed the log book with the officer on duty, sighed, and started down the steep steps.
Salvator clumped along noisily behind him. “My word, this is a long stair. I don’t remember it being quite so long. I hope we reach the bottom in short order.”
“Ha. And again, Ha.” Tycho grimaced and kept his eyes on his footing.
“Yes, you see, I’m harassing you for being short and thus for taking too long to go down the stairs,” the Italian said. “I’m being witty.”
“I hadn’t realized,” Tycho said. “Have you learned to parry a bullet yet, old man?”
Salvator didn’t answer.
Tycho reached the bottom of the stair with an ache in his hip, but he merely pressed his hand to his holster to silence the uneven clinking of his gun and continued across the small anteroom they had converted to an office. After just a few paces he passed the first cistern, a vast colonnaded chamber that had once been a grand dining hall, now filled with water nearly to its vaulted roof. A distant dripping echoed eerily in the darkness as they crossed the chamber on the elevated walkway.
They passed two more cisterns, both smaller than the first, before they came to a series of doors where four young Hellans in piecemeal armor and red cloaks sat around a rickety table playing cards. They glanced up and nodded sternly to Tycho, saying, “Evening, major.”
“Evening.” Tycho glanced at the doors. “We’re here to see the new arrival.”
Keys rattled, doors slammed, and Tycho and Salvator sat down in a narrow, windowless cell lit only by the small lantern that they borrowed from the soldiers and set on the floor. The man before them was just barely taller than Tycho, a lean little fellow with a shaven head and a greasy tuft of beard on his chin, and a pair of chains on his wrists.
One of the soldiers lingered in the doorway. “He was twitchy when they brought him in this afternoon. And he’s been getting twitchier by the hour.”
Tycho took a second look at the prisoner and saw the man’s eyes darting madly around the floor, his fingers shivering, his lips trembling with silent words. The major nodded and said, “We’ll proceed gently.”
The prisoner leapt forward, his eyes wide and pleading, his hands reaching for Salvator’s face. The Italian smashed his fist into the man’s nose and sent him sprawling back against the stone wall. Salvator glanced at his comrade. “But not too gently.”
Eventually, with much coaxing and a few bribes, they got the man to sit up and look them in the eye and speak in a fairly calm voice. He said his name was Tahir, and he came from a village in Turkiya just a few miles south of Stamballa.
“You were captured leaving the north shore,” Salvator said.
“Yes.” The Turk nodded many times.
“Were you sent to observe our troops?” Tycho asked.
“No.” He shook his head violently.
“Were you sent to meet with someone?” the Italian asked.
“No, no, no.” More head shaking.
“All right, all right, settle down.” Tycho paused. “All we want to know is why you were on the north shore. Where did you go? Who did you speak to? And what were you going to tell your people when you got back to Stamballa?”
For a moment, the man’s lips shook in silence. Then he said, “I saw them. I was told to look for them and I did, I saw them, a lot of them.”
“Who?” Tycho leaned forward. “The Hellans? The Vlachians?”
“The dead. The dead people. I saw the dead people… walking.”
Tycho leaned back and looked at Salvator.
The Italian sighed and stroked his mustache. “The dead. This again. It must be the fifth time this month. What the hell are these people talking about? Walking corpses. Bodies crawling out of their graves. First it was the farmers, then the Vlachians, and now even the Eranians are saying it.”
“Well, they sure as hell saw something.” Tycho grimaced and leaned forward again and caught the Turk’s eyes. “All right, Tahir. Now, tell us, exactly how many of these dead people did you see?”
Salvator shook his head and muttered, “It can’t have been that many. He doesn’t know what he’s saying. Whoever these dead people are, if there were hundreds of them out there, we would have had official reports of them by now. What do you think? Rus mercenaries? Or raiders from Jochi?”
“Maybe.” Tycho cleared his throat. “Tahir. Where did you see the dead people?”
Tycho’s fist closed around the grip of his revolver and he gritted his teeth.
No! That’s impossible.
Salvator paused. “What is that, a fort? I’ve never heard of it. Where is Saray?”
“It’s in the province of Thrace.” Tycho turned to look into the cynical eyes of the Italian knight. “It’s less than eighty miles from here.”
For the next half hour, Tycho and Salvator battered the Turk with questions but the shaking prisoner did not have much else to offer. He had left Stamballa less than ten days ago, crossed the Strait under cover of night, and then simply walked northwest along the main highway, apparently under orders to look for the so-called deathless army. And after he found them in Saray, he had turned right around and run all the way back to Constantia where a poorly transacted bribe with a Hellan fisherman had delivered him into the hands of the Constantian army. The last thing Salvator was about to wring from Tahir was that the officer who gave him the order wore a green uniform.
“Well, clearly he’s lying. The Turks wear blue, not green,” the Italian said. “Lying, or colorblind, or insane. Take your pick.”
But Tycho frowned. “No. You and I have seen green uniforms in the empire before, in Alexandria.”
Salvator raised an eyebrow. “The Osirians? Now that is an interesting thought.”
Satisfied that they would get no further details from the prisoner, Tycho and Salvator left the cells and told the guards not to let anyone speak to the Turk without Lady Nerissa’s approval. Then they crossed back through the dark, echoing chasms of the cisterns and began the long, slow climb up to the surface of the city.
“In ancient times, the Persians had an army called the Immortals,” Tycho said. “Maybe this deathless army is something similar.”
“But from where?”
“Probably not from Jochi. They still call their armies the Hordes.” Tycho huffed as he worked his way up the stairs as quickly as he could. “In Rus, I hear they sometimes call Koschei the Deathless. Perhaps it’s a Rus army.”
“But Koschei actually is immortal. You and I both saw his little demonstration. It took days to get the blood out of the carpets,” Salvator said. “Are you suggesting there is an entire army of Koscheis marching down the peninsula toward us?”
“If there is, they might be coming to support Koschei himself. Perhaps they heard about his capture, and they’ve come to save him.”
“Maybe. I don’t like it, either way.” The Italian quickened his step. “There’s far too much strangeness in the world these days for my taste. In Italia, there are no cults or immortals or secret armies. Just lies and murder and conspiracy and court intrigue. King versus pope, as it should be. Clean and simple. One wins, one loses, and the rest of us drink and wench the night away, to prepare to do it all again the next day.”
Tycho chewed his lip. “I admit, there’s a certain appeal in that. The politics in your country may be vicious, but at least they’re straightforward. Greed. Lust. Fear. But here, every time I turn around there’s some damn ritual or custom or law that makes everything grind to a halt. Festivals, feast days, mourning days, supplications. Every day, the church complains, the guilds complain, the nobles complain. We have drunken Vlachians and Rus and Raskans brawling in the streets. I can’t understand how Lady Nerissa manages it all.”
They reached the top of the stair and Tycho signed the log book again before they stepped out into the brisk night air.
“Where to now?” the Italian asked.
“Well, we have a thousand Vlachian mounted archers just loitering about the north gate,” Tycho said, rubbing the stitch in his side. “They could be in Saray by dawn. And a messenger could be back here again by noon tomorrow.”
“And then we would know what’s really going on out there.”
“Precisely.” Tycho climbed into the waiting carriage and told the driver to take them to the north gate. Then he leaned back into the padded seat and closed his eyes for a moment.
“Dreaming of raven tresses and long white legs?” Salvator asked.
“Dreaming of bed,” Tycho said.
“Hm. Whatever happened to that girl, anyway?”
Tycho sighed. “She went back to Athens months ago.”
“Oh, I see. Sorry.”
“Don’t be,” Tycho said. “She left before I could make a fool of myself.”
Salvator laughed. “You’re hopeless.”
Tycho stared out the window at the dark streets of Constantia rattling past. He saw narrow brick row houses huddled shoulder to shoulder, and several shops with huge glass display windows, and a stable full of sleeping draft horses. They passed a small band of men with rifles slung over their shoulders, but they wore no uniforms. Tycho rubbed his eyes and said, “She told me that very same thing herself.”
Wren sat up in her hammock with a sharp gnawing hunger in her belly. The Espani caravel rocked gently at anchor in the Strait and a sickly gray light fell through the cracks in the deck overhead. Boots paced lazily above her, and in the distance she could hear the wooden creaking of other ships nearby. Wren frowned as her fox ears twitched.
“Omar? Are you awake?”
The old man snorted loudly in his hammock and mumbled, “No.”
“I hear something. A ship.”
“We’re in a ship,” he muttered.
“No. Out there. Another ship. It’s coming this way.” She slipped down to the floor and crept along the curving wall toward the stairs that led up to the main deck. The watery rippling sound grew louder, a steady rushing like the distant roar of a waterfall undercut with the heavy thrumming of an inhuman heart beat.
A steam engine!
“Omar? I think you should get up.” She jogged up the steps and emerged into the foggy gloom of a cold morning mist. Beyond the dark brown rails of La Rosa floated an endless white cloud that hid the water and the shore. Only the sharp tips of the neighboring ships’ masts could be seen swaying in the fog, and beyond them the blunt walls of Stamballa stood still and silent in the distance.
Dammit Woden, why did it have to be fog? Not aether, just fog. Here I am, thousands of leagues from your holy Ysland, lost in a strange land, the lone voice a reason in a mad world of walking corpses and metal ships, and you have to give me fog? What sort of god does this to his most loyal daughter?
Beside her, a handful of the Espani sailors lingered by the starboard rail, peering into the mist and whispering to each other. Up on the quarter deck, Captain Ortiz gave the heavy brass bell beside the wheel a single clang. A moment later, Omar trudged up the steps and stood beside her. He yawned.
“Something’s coming,” Wren said. “And I think it’s big.”
“Impossible to tell,” Omar said. “Sound bounces around in a fog like this. It carries over the water, it echoes off the walls. I’ll bet you a million darics it’s just a little fishing boat puttering past the anchorage.”
A huge dark shadow formed in the fog, and Wren backed away from the railing. “A million darics?”
The mist parted and the iron-bound prow of a Turkish gunboat slammed into the side of La Rosa. The deck shook beneath her feet and Wren stumbled to her knees, but she scrambled up and away from the starboard rail and grabbed hold of a rope lashed to the mast in the center of the deck. To her right she saw Omar running back toward the captain at the wheel, and to her left she saw the Espani sailors pouring up from their bunks below decks with clubs and knives clenched in their fists.
The starboard rail of the caravel cracked and splintered as the gunboat turned hard against it, and the Turkish ironclad swept around and crashed its side against La Rosa ‘s. Wren peered into the fog, at the dark figures running along the gunwales of the other ship, and suddenly there were men leaping from the gunboat onto the caravel with wide-mouthed pistols and single-edge swords.
The blood thundered in her ears as the Espani sailors crashed into their attackers, and Wren dashed across the deck to the port rail and then back to the quarter deck where Omar and Ortiz stood shouting orders at the crew. As she pounded up the steps, she heard a woman’s voice echoing through the mist and she turned to stare at the deck of the Turkish gunboat.
A woman stood on the iron-bound deck with one foot planted on the back of the small cannon there. She wore a pale blue tunic under a dented breastplate that looked as though it hadn’t been polished in a century. There was no helmet on her head, and a short crop of black hair fluttered over her forehead. Wren almost mistook her for a man, but the woman called out again in Eranian as she pointed her long silvery saber at the Espani ship. Wren grimaced, trying to remember her lessons in the southern tongue, but the woman spoke too quickly for Wren to understand.
What does she want? We passed their check point. This ship doesn’t even have any guns!
Wren bolted to Omar’s side and when she saw that neither he nor the captain was holding the wheel, she grabbed it with one hand as she said, “What’s going on? Who is that woman? What does she want?”
Ortiz muttered something in Espani and then jogged to the steps to fend off one of the invading sailors.
Omar glanced back at Wren. “That woman… She…”
“What? Can you tell what she said? What does she want?”
Omar’s expression hardened. “She wants me.” He gripped his seireiken tightly, but did not draw it out.
“You? Why? Do you know her?”
Omar nodded. “That’s Nadira.”
Who the devil is Nadira, you old fool? Can’t you ever just answer a question without making me ask another one?
But Omar was already jogging away to help Ortiz. Wren frowned at the wooden steering wheel before her and then gazed out over the deck of La Rosa where a dozen Espani sailors were grappling and stabbing a dozen Turkish sailors. Above the fray she peered into the mist, seeing nothing but knowing that somewhere out there was the southern shore of the Strait and the walls of Stamballa.
Well, my good lord Woden, if the Turks aren’t going to play nice, then there’s no reason to give them what they want, is there?
Wren spun the steering wheel to the left and felt the caravel lean gently to port as the combined force of the wind in the reefed sail and the momentum of the gunboat slowly spun La Rosa around her mooring. Watching the tips of the masts of the nearby ships and the walls of Stamballa, she waited for the pair of battle-locked ships to come about until they were both pointed out into the Strait and the northern shore of Constantia, and then she straightened up the wheel. For a moment the ship seemed to come to a full stop, but then she felt a ragged tremble in the deck and they began to move forward again.
Yes! We’re dragging the anchor and moving away from the Turkish shore! Now they’ll have to get back on their own ship unless they want to be dragged all the way to Constantia!
Wren looked down at the ship again and her satisfaction evaporated. On her left, a Turk shot one of the Espani in the belly and then charged up onto the quarter deck. Wren let go of the wheel and reached out for the Turk with her right hand, willing the frail aether in the fog to rise up against the man. A swirl of white rippled up from the deck and slapped the man sideways, sending him tumbling over the rail and into the water.
A second Turk in blue jogged up the steps right behind his fallen comrade, and Wren felt a cold hollowness in her arm. The aether was too thin now, too scattered. She’d barely managed to push the first man overboard. So she shook her right hand, unwinding the sling around her wrist, and yanked a stone out of the pouch on her belt as the second Turk charged across the deck with his cutlass raised to strike her down. She’d only just managed to get the stone in place when the man slashed at her.
Wren dodged back, keeping the huge wooden steering wheel between her and her attacker. She hurled her stone at him through the spokes of the wheel, only to have it glance harmlessly off the man’s armguard. “Omar? I could use some help here!”
The Turk dashed around the wheel and she dashed back toward the stairs down to the main deck, where she saw yet another man in blue waiting for her. She shouted, “Nine hells!” and threw up her right hand. The aether answered, rolling up against the man and sending him reeling back several steps. And while he kept his footing and he kept his weapon, the momentary distraction was time enough for Wren to wrap the leather strap of her sling around the man’s neck and yank him off balance and wheel him about to use as a shield against the swordsman charging down from the quarter deck behind her.
The swordsman lunged, Wren shoved her hostage into the attack, and blood spattered the deck. As her prisoner went limp in her hands and the swordsman raised his blade again, the armored woman on the gunboat shouted “Bas-ast!” and the swordsman stepped back and lowered his weapon.
I know that word. Stop? Enough?
Out of the corner of her eye, Wren saw the fighting across the deck stutter to a standstill, leaving the men bloodied and leaning and panting. She loosened her grip on her sling and the dead Turk slumped down onto the deck, and she scampered back a few steps to stand beside one of the injured Espani sailors.
Captain Ortiz shouted something as well, and his men slowly sheathed their knives and straightened up, though they continued to cast black glares at the men in blue.
Her heart was still pounding and her palms were slick with sweat, but Wren shivered and tugged her black scarf a bit more firmly forward over her forehead before she wrapped her sling back up around her wrist. Across the deck, she saw Omar talking to the armored woman, who had jumped down from her ship onto La Rosa. For a moment she hesitated, not wanting to break the semi-mystical trance that had seemingly frozen all of the Espani and Turks in place on the deck as they waited to hear whether they could truly stand down or would be called upon to resume butchering one another.
She swallowed, and then started walking, slowly at first and then more quickly, heading toward Omar and the woman he had called Nadira. And as she walked toward them, she saw a pair of hands appear on the railing behind Omar and Ortiz. And then two more. And then five young men, little more than boys and dressed only in gray tunics and belts, with bare feet and only a single knife clenched in their teeth, came swarming over the side of the ship.
Five, then ten more, then twenty, all in the same drab state of undress. But after the ones with knives came the ones with guns and they poured across the deck, tackling the Espani to the ground as they opened fire on the Turks. Wren dropped to the deck, her hands wrapped around her head, her eyes squeezed shut as the huge pistols thundered again and again.
The lead balls screamed through the air and the men screamed as they fell to the deck or overboard into the sea. Wren heard wet slapping sounds and thumping sounds all around her, and she tightened her body up into the smallest ball she could imagine.
Lord Woden, I’m sorry I said anything about your fog. It’s a wonderful fog, and you’re a wonderful god, and please don’t let me die here like this!
A moment later the pounding of the guns subsided, and the screams of the men retreated into a few half-hearted moans. As the ringing in her ears faded away, Wren began to hear someone calling her name. Slowly, with her hands still clenched on her hood and her belly still a bundled of knots, she half-rolled onto her side and peeked up at the voice.
He was squatting right beside her, leaning toward her, but not touching her, and as her eyes readjusted to the light after the darkness inside of her arms and hair, she saw why he had not come any closer. All around her, in every direction she looked, there was a wall of aether. It swirled and drifted and bubbled in a perfect dome over her, like a watery current moving around and around a vortex but never being drawn down into oblivion. As she relaxed her hands and exhaled, the protective bubble of aether broke up and drifted away, vanishing into the fog, and Omar shuffled forward and helped her sit up.
“Are you hurt?” He moved his hands over her arms and back quickly and roughly.
“I don’t think so,” she said. “Did you see what I did? That shield-”
“Yes, yes, very impressive. But there is something else-”
“Where did your friend go?” Wren squinted at the railing where the armored woman had been standing, but both she and her gunboat were gone.
“Wren, listen to me.” Omar gripped her shoulders. “We’ve been boarded by the Hellans and-”
The Aegyptian was wrenched away, lifted and pulled back, and Wren felt hands hauling her up to her feet as well. She looked around at the young men in gray, at their dark staring eyes and dark curling hair and the corded muscles of their bare arms glistening with sweat and sea water. She licked her lips and said, in Rus, “Hello?”
One of them reached out and yanked off her scarf. The cold morning air ran over her tall fox ears, setting the tiny hairs on them to tingling and tickling. A shiver ran back over her scalp and down her neck, and she shuddered as she stared at the young men staring back at her.
“Omar? Omar? What do I do?”
Her mentor cleared his throat loudly and began speaking in what she guessed to be Hellan. In their months together, he had quickly taught her to speak Rus, which was very similar to her native Yslander, and she had learned a bit of Eranian, which she would need in the empire. But all other southern languages were mysteries to her.
The Hellan youths barked a few questions at Omar, and he answered them with a polite smile, but the two men pinning his arms behind his back did not relent, and Wren felt the hands on her arms tighten their grip.
“I don’t think that’s helping,” she said.
“It would help more if those ears of yours would stop twitching like that,” he answered.
“I can’t help it.” Between the breeze tickling her ear-fur and her instinctive need to focus on the sounds around her, both of her ears were dancing left and right as quickly as they could to follow the sounds of the men all over the deck.
Omar let loose another torrent of Hellan, and the young men babbled back. Wren glanced left and right, seeing the fascination and revulsion and amusement all mingling in the eyes of the Hellans.
Then they threw a sack over her head and start shoving her forward with her hands twisted around behind her back.
“Omar! Omar!” she shouted. “Help me!”
She tried to summon up the aether shield again, a wall to hold them back, a fist to push them away, but she couldn’t move her right hand and she couldn’t focus on the muffled noises and the jostling bodies.
They’re going to kill me. They burn witches in the south. Omar said that once. They burn witches here! They’re going to burn me!
She stumbled and the Hellans lifted her up to carry her.
With tears brimming in her eyes, Wren tired to tilt her head back to look skyward, though all she could see was burlap.
Woden, I know you’re a wise god and a kingly god, but you can be a goddamn monster too. So please, don’t be a monster now. Live or die, just don’t let them burn me!
Tycho heard Salvator coming, but he did not turn to look. He kept his eyes on the northern horizon, on the grim gray sky and the snowy fields and the trees sparkling with ice. The road drew a dirty brown line across the land, snaking away over the hills. There were a few people out there, leading mules and driving wagons, but there were no fleet-footed messengers or mounted soldiers racing back to the city.
“You’re never going to believe this,” the Italian announced. “Just wait until you see them!”
“Not now.” Tycho glanced up at the bright glare of the sun hidden beyond the clouds. “It’s nearly noon. They’ll be coming soon. News from Saray.”
Salvator Fabris, the Supreme Knight of the Order of Seven Hearts, agent and weapon of the king of Italia, leaned against the wall and spat over the edge. He peered down. “This is a very tall wall. I thought you didn’t like high places.”
“You know I don’t. But I want to see them the moment they come back. I need to know about this deathless army. Lady Nerissa needs to know.” Tycho kept his eyes on the horizon. It was easier to ignore the height if he kept looking out there.
“What I know is that waiting here will not bring your messenger any faster, and waiting here will not make his news any happier.”
“Stop trying to annoy me.”
“I’m trying to teach you sense, little man. Either the messenger will come or he won’t, and either it will be good news or bad. You can’t do anything about it, so there is no point in freezing your nose off out here,” Salvator said.
Tycho sighed. “So what should I be doing?”
The Italian’s eyes lit up. “You should come back to the Sunken Palace with me, right now. We have two new prisoners.”
Tycho rubbed his eyes. “More frightened Turks?”
“Better! Much better!” Salvator herded the Hellan dwarf off the battlement and down the stone stairs to the frozen road below where a small carriage waited. It took half an hour to cross back through the long bustling streets of Constantia, across the Galata Bridge to the Golden Horn peninsula. Since the beginning of the siege, the masons and the smiths had been working round the clock on the defenses, repairing walls and weapons, and their apprentices and porters and messengers clogged the streets with bundles of supplies and urgent letters and mule-drawn carts loaded with clay, or iron, or coal. The children were out in force, as always, though they tended to avoid the main thoroughfares to congregate on street corners and in alleys, playing dice and watching rats fight. Tycho caught a glimpse of two young boys boxing in a circle of their peers, and he grimaced.
Fighting is all we know anymore.
By the time they reached the gates of the Sunken Palace, Tycho had only looked back through the tiny rear window of the carriage a handful of times, and each time Salvator had said, “Ah ha ha, no.” And pointed forward until Tycho turned back around.
They dismounted the carriage and turned toward the small mausoleum that led down into the cisterns, but a young Vlachian archer held up his hand and called out in broken Hellan, “Major Xenakis? If you are come for new prisoners, I am to tell you they are not being here. His Highness Prince Vlad and Lady Nerissa did summon them to the court half an hour ago this.”
Tycho frowned at Salvator. “What the devil is going on? Who are these new prisoners?”
The Italian merely cocked an eyebrow. “A Turk and a Rus girl. They say she’s a witch. And the man. Well, what else can I say? He had a seireiken on him.”
Tycho’s eyes widened. “The Osirians really are here? Quickly, quickly, you old fart, go, go!”
They dashed to the carriage and galloped back to the Palace of Constantine, where the driver deposited them at the steps of the Chamber of Petitions in the Third Courtyard. The two men ran up the steps as fast as Tycho’s legs would allow and slowed down only when they approached the doors of the audience hall. The servants opened the doors, and Tycho entered the hall.
As he strode forward with one hand on his revolver to keep it from clinking, Tycho saw the usual faces standing by the light of the windows and the torches. The merchants, the councilors, the soldiers, the tradesmen, the guildsmen, and the ambassadors from all across southern Europa and northern Ifrica turned to watch him pass. By the midday light streaming in through the glazed windows, they examined their documents, prepared their petitions, consulted with their lawyers, and cast suspicious looks at everyone else around them. But in the center of the hall, around the grand dais and the royal thrones, there was no one.
“Officer!” Tycho hailed the guard near the throne. “Where is Lady Nerissa? Have you seen or heard anything about a pair of prisoners brought up from the cisterns?”
“Yes, sir. Her Grace and His Highness are speaking to the prisoners in the council room, in private,” the young man said.
Tycho hurried back behind the thrones to the double doors and began a heated argument with the officer guarding the room about whether he and Salvator should be allowed to enter. Barely a minute into the exchange, the doors flew open and Prince Vlad strode out with a fierce glare, which only grew fiercer when he saw the dwarf. “So it’s you making all the noise out here.” He glanced back into the room, and then out at them again. “Come in. You might as well see this now.”
Tycho and Salvator followed the prince into the room and the guards closed the doors behind them. It was a small room with a tiled floor and unadorned walls. A heavy oak table dominated the space, and it was surrounded by straight-backed armchairs. Vlad sat down beside the Duchess and gestured to the two people who stood manacled before them, flanked by Vlachian soldiers.
The man appeared to be Aegyptian or Numidian, and in his middle age judging by his salt and pepper hair. He was well-dressed in a slightly wrinkled and stained but well-tailored Mazigh coat and shirt and boots, and he only glanced at his captors briefly before returning his gaze to the tall windows beside them that overlooked the palace walls and the waves of the Bosporus beyond.
But Tycho wasn’t staring at him.
The girl was deathly pale, like the maidens in old stories about the Olympians and their conquests. Her hair was a riot of long curling red tresses that bounced and shuddered all around her face with every movement of her head. Her thin lips were the palest pink rose, threatening to vanish against her skin. She had golden eyes, not hazel or bright green, but pure gold that made her pupils and lashes appear all the more perfectly black.
But Tycho wasn’t staring at her eyes.
Her ears. By heaven and hell, those ears!
Rising from her luxurious masses of red hair were two tall animal ears, broad at their bases and rising to triangular tips. White fur covered the fronts of the ears and dark red fur covered the backs.
The ears twitched and swiveled like those of a dog or cat, each one moving alone, each one seeming to track a different person by the soft chuff of a shoe or the clearing of a throat.
Tycho glanced up at Salvator and saw the same dumbfounded expression on the Italian’s face that he knew must be on his own, so he blinked and closed his mouth and cleared his throat loudly. He looked at the girl one more time, into her wide golden eyes, and he saw her lip tremble, and he saw the traces of red around her eyes.
The dwarf turned around. “Your Grace, I was just informed about the capture of these two prisoners and came to interrogate them when I learned they had been brought here. How can I assist you?”
Lady Nerissa looked at him with a strange smile. “I have no idea, major. None at all. I had them brought here because this gentleman was seen speaking to the Damascena. But now I find that information rather… unremarkable.”
“I understand. If I may?”
She nodded and the prince nodded as well.
Tycho looked at the Aegyptian, forcing himself to remain focused on only him for the moment. “Sir, what is your name?”
“Are you an officer of the Eranian army or an agent of the empire?”
The man called Omar grinned. “When I was a younger man, yes. But not for many years now.”
“What business did you have in the Strait today?”
“I boarded a ship in Varna bound for Alexandria,” he said. “I was simply passing through when my ship was assaulted, first by the Turks and then by your own marines, who took the ship and me and my poor apprentice captive.”
“You were seen speaking with the Damascena,” Tycho said.
No one speaks with the Damascena. She just appears on the battlefield, slaughters as many Hellans as she likes, and vanishes again. She’s a weapon. A terror. Something that Radu unleashes on us to destroy morale. But she’s never been seen with an officer, never giving or receiving orders. Just killing.
Tycho asked, “What did you discuss with her?”
“The Damascena?” Omar’s grin grew a little broader. “How poetic. I’m certain that she didn’t name herself that. Nadira was never one for poetry, even at the nunnery.”
A silent instant of shock rippled through the room. The Vlachians glanced at each other, and Nerissa and Vlad glanced at each other, and Tycho felt Salvator’s eyes on him, but he pressed on. “Her name is Nadira? You know that for certain?”
Omar laughed. “You don’t even know her name? But you wouldn’t, would you? Not that it matters, really. She is what she is, by any name. And yes, to answer your question, I know that for certain. I met her a very long time ago.”
“And what did you discuss with her today?”
Omar shrugged. “The weather. How time gets away from us. The old days. Better days. Old friends-”
Tycho picked up the report on the table and scanned it quickly, and then cut off the prisoner. “I find it hard to believe this woman took command of a Turkish gunboat and attacked an Espani merchant ship just to make small talk with an old friend.”
“Can my new friend sit down? She’s a bit tired,” Omar said.
Tycho allowed himself to look at the beautiful girl with the tall red ears. She was shivering. “Yes, of course. What’s your name?” he asked her.
“It’s Wren,” Omar said. “She doesn’t speak Hellan. Just Rus, and a little Eranian, though not very well just yet. She’s still learning.”
Tycho pulled a chair forward and said to the girl in Rus, “Please, sit down. No one is going to harm you. We just have a few questions for your friend.”
The girl blinked and sank warily into the chair. “Thank you.”
That accent. She’s not from Rus.
Tycho let his eyes linger on her ears a moment longer before returning to the man. “What did the Damascena, Nadira, what did she say to you?”
Omar rolled his tongue around his mouth for a moment. “She asked me to help her with a small personal problem. A medical problem.”
“You’re a doctor?”
“Of a sort. I specialize in very rare cases.” He nodded at the girl in the chair.
Tycho nodded. “I see. What’s wrong with the Damascena? Is she sick? Is she dying?”
Omar laughed. “No, quite the opposite, my little friend. The lady suffers from an overabundance of life, much like myself, as a matter of fact.”
An overabundance of life?
Tycho froze. His mind flew back several months to the arrival of the two strangers from Rus, the barbarian Koschei and his damned mother, Yaga. The ugly northerners had entered the Chamber of Petitions dressed in furs and rags, the man covered in patchwork armor and curved daggers from all over Asia, and the woman covered in bones and feathers. Prince Vlad had boasted of the two so-called immortals from Rus, and Tycho had not been impressed. And then they both slit their throats and fell dead on the floor, and then, only moments later, both had staggered back to their feet, wiped the blood away, and pledged their service to the defense of Constantia.
An overabundance of life?
Tycho blinked. “Sir, how old are you?”
Omar stopped smiling. “Older than I look.”
“Do you know a man from Rus called Koschei the Deathless?”
It was Omar’s turn to freeze with a queer look in his eye. “You know Koschei?”
Prince Vlad leapt to his feet. “Do you know Koschei?”
Omar nodded and said softly, “I do. Better than he knows himself.”
Tycho exchanged glances with the others. “I believe this is no longer an interrogation of a military nature. Mr. Bakhoum, was it? Please have a seat. Let’s all have a seat for a moment.”
Everyone sat down around the end of the council table, except the Vlachian soldiers who retreated toward the door. Tycho placed himself between Lady Nerissa and Omar, and he was about to speak when he saw the Aegyptian take the Rus girl’s hand in his and whisper in her ear. The girl seemed to relax a bit more.
“All right.” Tycho folded his hands on the table in front of him. “Mister Bakhoum, for the record, are you now in the service of Emperor Darius in any capacity?”
“Do you intend to give aid to the troops in Stamballa?”
“I intend nothing except to return to my home in Alexandria. But, truth be told, if someone did ask for my help, I might feel inclined to help them. I’m a scholar, not some sort of monster who snatches innocent girls, ties them up, and throws them into dank dungeons without just cause.”
Tycho ignored the barb. “Mister Bakhoum, are you immortal?”
Omar hesitated only a moment. “Yes.”
“Is this girl here also immortal?”
“Is the Damascena also immortal?”
Omar tilted his head to one side. “I think you know the answer to that.”
“Please answer the question.”
“Yes.” Omar sighed. “Yes, she is.”
Tycho leaned back.
Of course Tycho had suspected as much ever since that day Koschei first arrived and proved that immortals really did exist. The Damascena had fought in too many battles, with too many confirmed injuries to be believed, and yet she always appeared on the battlefield the next day, just as strong and devastating as the day before. So after he saw Koschei die and rise again, Tycho had wondered if the Damascena might have the same gift. But now, actually hearing that it was true struck him cold.
Prince Vlad groaned. “So Radu has his own immortal warrior, and he has our immortal warrior. Damn him! It’s just like him. He never was any good at sharing.”
“Radu?” Omar asked.
“The prince’s brother, Radu, converted to the Mazdan Temple and is now in command of the Eranian forces in Stamballa,” Tycho explained.
“So this Radu has Nadira, and you had Koschei,” Omar said. “But now Radu has Koschei as well?”
“Captured, two months ago,” Vlad said. “They swarmed him with gunfire. Numidian rifles. Sharpshooters. It took a hundred shots to his chest to bring him to his knees and a hundred more to drop him dead.”
“Don’t exaggerate,” Omar said, rolling his eyes. “It only took one shot. I know how it works, there’s no need for your propaganda here.”
Vlad glared in silence.
“Are you also a warrior, sir?” Lady Nerissa asked. “You had a seireiken when you were captured. We know of these terrifying swords. If you have one, you too must be a great warrior.” She stood up, her face pale and stern. “Sir, I ask you, on behalf of my people and my city, to use whatever power you have to help us end this war and save my people. I will grant you any reward you ask if you will do us this service.”
Don’t ask that yet, it’s still far too early. This is why they shouldn’t be here. They don’t know the routine. They’re giving him leverage.
Tycho held up a hand and drew Omar’s attention. “If I may. Let’s just step back from that question for a moment. Mister Bakhoum, do you have any knowledge of Koschei’s whereabouts?”
Omar focused on the dwarf. “You’re not interested in the big picture, are you?”
“Actually, I am,” Tycho said. “Koschei?”
“And the Damascena?”
“ Nadira. And no.”
Tycho rifled through his papers. “It says here that the captain of your ship, a Mister Ortiz, confirmed that you boarded in Varna, bound for Alexandria by way of several other ports. And none of our contacts inside Stamballa have ever reported seeing a man fitting your description in the company of Prince Radu. Therefore, I’m inclined to believe that you are what you claim to be. A traveler with no part in this war.”
Omar snorted. “Well, thank you very much, my little friend.”
“On the other hand, the fact that you claim to be immortal and that you carry a seireiken gives us two very serious reasons for concern,” Tycho said. “I’ve been to Alexandria. I am familiar with the men who carry these swords. The Sons of Osiris. Are you one of them?”
“Off and on. They have certain valuable resources, and they don’t ask questions, as long as I help them with the occasional project.”
Omar sighed. “I’m sorry, but this is getting to be a bit tiresome, friend. I’m not going to tell you my life story. It’s far less interesting than you might think, and hardly any of your business.”
“The safety of Constantia is my business, Mister Bakhoum,” Tycho said. “I’m sure you can appreciate that.”
“Constantia has stood here for fifteen hundred years,” Omar said. “It has survived countless wars and sieges, famines and plagues, and more earthquakes than I care to remember. It doesn’t need you to save it.”
“Be that as it may-”
A fist pounded on the door and everyone turned to look just as a man on the other side called out, “Major Xenakis! Major! I saw them! I saw them at Saray!”
Tycho moved his shaking hands to his lap and looked at the pale Italian. Salvator nodded. Tycho stood up. “Would you all excuse me for a moment, please?” And he walked calmly to the door.
On the other side he found a young Vlachian archer, his face flecked with soot and blood, gasping for breath. “Major, I saw them. Hundreds of them. We fought them, but there were just too many. We couldn’t stop them. We lost half our men in the first few minutes, and most of the others broke ranks and ran into the wilderness. And now they’re coming toward the city. They’re coming here.”
Tycho grabbed the man’s dirty jacket and pulled him forward and down to look him in the eyes. “ What are they? Tell me exactly what you saw.”
“The dead.” The soldier trembled and covered his eyes. “The dead. Dead bodies. Corpses. Rotten and broken, black and blue and white, covered in dirt and ice. Sir, they were dead bodies, and they tore our men and horses into pieces. They were dead. They were already dead.” The man collapsed to the floor, shaking.
Tycho stepped back and let the other men tend to the archer. Salvator stared at the soldiers with a look of revulsion and confusion. Tycho swallowed and tugged his jacket down.
It’s true then. The dead have risen. And they’re coming here. It’s the end, the end of the world. God is choosing who shall stand and who shall fall.
He swallowed again, turned and walked back into the room, waved Salvator inside, and then closed the door. He sat in his seat and folded his hands together on the table. “Your Grace, Your Highness, I must report that there is another army approaching the city from the northwest. They have taken Saray and are moving this way. The rumors have been confirmed.” His voice broke and he paused to swallow again. “It is an army of corpses. The dead have risen from their graves. I’m afraid… The end of the world is upon us.”
Lady Nerissa and Prince Vlad stared at him, and he did his best to look them each in the eye and to keep his breathing slow and even.
“Oh, that?” Omar said.
Everyone turned to look at him.
“That’s nothing,” the Aegyptian said. “It’s certainly not the end of the world. It’s a strange event. A scientific curiosity, certainly. But it’s just a confluence of local burial practices, weather conditions, and aether distribution currents.”
“I’m sorry, what?” Tycho asked. “You know about this?”
“Of course. We saw it in Vlachia.”
Tycho felt his heart begin to race. “Can you… can you stop it? Can you help us?”
“Well, I did say I might be inclined to help someone if they asked.” Omar glanced at the fox-eared girl, and then nodded slowly at Tycho. “So, maybe we can spare a little time to help you in your hour of need. Does this mean I can have my sword back now, please?”
The longer Wren sat at the table and listened to these strangers babble in Hellan, the less frightened she felt, and eventually even a bit of boredom sank in. Omar looked and sounded as calm and comfortable as ever, and that was enough assurance for her, for the moment. The dwarf had been kind enough, offering her a seat, and once everyone started saying “Nadira” and “Koschei” they lost all interest in her and her ears.
Thank you, Woden. That was a kindness.
But then someone beat on the door and the dwarf stepped out and when he stepped back in everything was different. There was fear in the air, even in the eyes of the beautiful lady in her fancy green dress and the tall scowling man in his black and red uniform. And then, just as she was losing patience with not being able to understand what was being said, she realized that Omar was speaking in Rus again.
“…to include my young friend in the conversation,” he said. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is Wren Olgasdottir of Denveller, my apprentice and student of natural philosophy and metaphysics.”
Every eye was once again on her. Wren nodded to the lady in green. “Hello. It’s very nice to meet you.”
The lady smiled.
“Wren,” Omar continued, “I’d like you to meet Lady Nerissa, the Duchess of Constantia, and her ally in arms Prince Vlad IV of Vlachia. And these two gentlemen are their intelligence officers, Major Tycho Xenakis, from Hellas, and Signore Salvator Fabris, from Italia.”
“Hello.” She nodded at them.
“It would seem, my dear, that these good people have just now learned about the small matter of the walking corpses, which have appeared as close as eighty miles away from where we are sitting right now. And being the most gracious and humble fellow that I am, I have agreed to help them deal with the problem.”
Wren looked at him. “You have? What about Alexandria?”
“We’ll get there soon enough. But the Duchess and the Prince have extended their considerable hospitality to us in exchange for our help, and I think this is a fine opportunity to rest and study before we continue on our way.” He leaned closer to her and said, in Yslander, “Better to have them as allies than as jailers. And more importantly, it was the only way to get them to agree to return my seireiken.”
“Ah.” She nodded, rubbing her thumb against the ring on her right hand, grateful that no one had thought to take her gloves and steal the bit of sun-steel on her finger. The ring felt warm against her skin. “All right. Then where do we begin?”
“With a question,” Omar said, turning to their captors-turned-hosts. “Prince Vlad, I see you too wear a seireiken. I’ll skip over the very salient question of how you came to possess it and simply ask, when did you receive it?”
“Ten months ago,” Vlad said. “It was a gift from Lady Nerissa, brought by these two men here.” He indicated Tycho and Salvator.
“Ten months.” Omar frowned. “No, from what we heard, this business of the corpses only started this winter. So that’s probably not a factor. I do need to learn more about this area, though. It’s colder here, which is important when dealing with aether. Do you have any local experts in aether studies? Any of your Constantian priests, or perhaps even one of the Sons of Osiris here in the city? I’m sure there’s at least one Osirian in Stamballa advising the Eranians, but I doubt we’ll be able to speak to him any time soon.”
“No,” said Lady Nerissa. “I do not have an Osirian in my court, nor would I wish to. I have met them before, and found them unpleasant.”
“How tactful,” Omar said with a genuine smile. “Well, if there is no one else, then I-”
“There is someone else,” Prince Vlad said. “Someone here who knows about mists and the dead.”
Wren saw the dwarf close his eyes and rub his temples as he shook his head.
“We have Koschei’s sainted mother,” the prince said.
Omar paused, glanced at Wren, and then looked back at Vlad. “Here? In the city? Yaga is here now?”
Wren touched Omar’s arm and said, “This is the immortal woman from Rus that you mentioned before?”
“The one you slept with?”
He winced and nodded again.
“You didn’t mention how you left things with her, did you?”
“No, I didn’t. And no, I didn’t leave on the best of terms.” Omar dragged his thumb down the edge of his unshaven jaw. “But we do need to speak to her. She’s had five hundred years to learn how aether behaves in a cold climate. We need that knowledge.”
Wren nodded. “I suppose that makes sense.”
Omar’s eyes lit up and he sat up a bit straighter as he said in a loud, clear voice, “My apprentice, I have a task for you.”
Wren looked at him. “Oh no, no no no. Me? Why me? Not me. You have a history with her, you should be the one.”
“No, my history with her would only get in the way. Besides, I suspect that I have many more important discussions to hold with these fine people.” Omar nodded at the duchess and prince. “So if you could interview the woman in question for me, it would be most helpful. Just ask about the corpses, ghosts, aether, the usual. Anything that seems relevant. It should be easy, you’ll have so much in common. She’s a witch, you’re a witch.”
“I am a vala of Ysland!” Wren said more loudly than she had intended. She paused and said, more quietly, “I’m not a witch.”
“I know, I understand how you feel, but here in this country, for all intents and purposes, you are a witch. You’re also the ideal person to speak to her for me.” Omar turned to the dwarf. “Major, would you be so kind as to escort my apprentice to see Yaga?”
“Show some respect,” Vlad muttered. “Do not call the sainted mother by her name. Or if you must, at least call her Baba Yaga.”
There was a brief discussion in Hellan and then the dwarf stood up and gestured to the door. Wren stood, pulled her scarf up over her head, and followed the major out into the larger audience chamber. A few waiting petitioners glanced up, and then turned back to their papers and ignored the pair walking down the corridor.
“I’m sorry, what was your name again?” she asked. She glanced back at the closed doors of the room with a cold, sinking feeling that she might not see Omar again, that she was leaving her only anchor, guide, and protector behind her.
“Call me Tycho,” he said. “Would you believe, I didn’t even have a surname until this year?”
“A what?” Wren rubbed her right wrist where her sling should have been, and felt the lightness of her belt where her stag horn knife and pouch of sling-stones should have been.
But I still have the ring. I still have the aether, only, it’s midday and the sun is warm and the aether is thin. If there’s trouble…
“When I was promoted, I needed a surname,” Tycho said. “They’re not common where I come from, in Sparta. Then again, dwarfs aren’t common in Sparta either. So I chose Xenakis. It still feels strange to hear it. So you can just call me Tycho.”
“Oh. All right.” Wren passed through the light falling from one of the tall stained windows and glanced down at her skirts. She could see the specks of dirt and blood clearly against the faded black of her clothes. “Could I wash up before I meet with this woman? We’ve been traveling for weeks now and I haven’t really changed or bathed since… a while.”
“Absolutely. Please, follow me.” Tycho turned and led her through several doors, down corridors and across empty rooms until they came to a carpeted corridor. Every chamber had gleaming white walls hung with dark paintings of people lounging in gardens or being lashed by demons, and every window was framed with dark green curtains hung from golden rods, and every corner of the ceilings were armored in sculpted wooden panels, some covered in thin grooves and some crafted to look like leaves and berries. Wren tried to see all the details at once as she hurried after her guide.
He paused in front of a closed door. “This is one of the rooms kept for the Duchess’s niece, Daphne. But she was sent back to Athens with the rest of the family just before the siege began.”
Tycho opened the door and Wren stepped inside. It was a small bedroom, and everything was covered in dusty white sheets. The bed, the dresser, the small table, and the chairs all looked like snowy little hills.
“Here.” Tycho opened a tall cabinet and gestured to the clothing hanging on the rod. “Feel free to wear anything you like. Daphne won’t mind. She’s not the minding sort. And the wash room is right back here. I’ll just wait outside for you.” He stepped back out into the hall and closed the door.
Wren glanced at the dozen or so dresses in the cabinet and then went to the wash room where she found a porcelain bath tub and a porcelain bowl on a wooden table. Above each basin were a pair of small hand-pumps, and after a moment’s experimentation she figured out how to make the left one produce lukewarm water and to make the right one produce freezing cold water. She stripped off her black jacket and black sweater and black blouse and black skirts and socks and stood over the bowl of warm water for several minutes scrubbing her face and arms and chest. She even soaked her hair and when she was finished the water in bowl was a curious blend of gray and brown, with many small brown things floating in it.
I thought it would be worse.
She wandered back out into the bedroom dripping water as she went and looked at the dresses again. There was only one in black.
Well, that makes this simple.
The long skirt was pleated and fringed in black lace, which she found amusing and she wondered how long that fringe would survive. The blouse was so thin and cold and smooth that she couldn’t imagine what sort of fabric it was made of, and resolved to ask Omar about it later. When she had the top on, she found that it too had black lace around the cuffs and the neck, and there were voluminous folds hanging from her upper and lower arms, overlapping to transform her arms into drooping black flowers. The black jacket at first seemed too small, but that was only because the sleeves only came down to her elbows, the better to display her layered blouse sleeves, she guessed.
When she was finished dressing, she stood in front of the window and squinted at her dim reflection superimposed on the view of the palace grounds outside. A tiny draft whistled around the edge of the window and the movement of the air made her lace and ruffles and ribbons flutter gently around her.
I look like a raven.
A pretty raven.
She found a black ribbon in one of her jacket pockets and used it to tie her thick red hair back from her face, and then she covered her hair and ears with a thin black scarf that she found in the dress cabinet. She stepped back out into the hall and said, “I’m ready.”
The short officer turned and looked at her, and froze. He blinked. “Uhm. Yes.” He smiled, and a nervous twitch at the corner of his mouth made it look as though he wanted to speak but didn’t know what to say.
“Right.” Tycho tugged his jacket down smooth over his chest and straightened his back. “Let’s be off.” He started walking and she followed, but he kept slowing down a bit to walk beside her instead of in front of her, and since she didn’t know where they were going, she kept slowing down to follow his lead, and so they proceeded rather slowly, glancing at each other every few moments.
Either he thinks I’m pretty, or I put the dress on backwards and he’s trying to think of a polite way to tell me. I don’t think I’d know what to say to either one.
She followed him out into the courtyard and down a broad brick road through a park of yellowed grass and naked trees. Gradually, the major stopped looking up at her and they quickened their pace, and her thoughts returned to the task at hand.
Damn it, Omar. You old coward. Why am I going to talk to this woman? She doesn’t know me. I don’t know her.
“Can I ask you something?” Tycho said, glancing up at her.
Wren looked at him, and for a moment she forgot about the corpses and the immortals, and she saw a handsome young man struggling to keep pace beside her, and she slowed down a bit and managed a smile. “Sure. As long as it’s not about my ears.”
“Oh.” He looked away. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you.”
Oh gods, he looks mortified!
“It’s all right, it’s all right,” she said. “I’m just a little sensitive about them, and it’s a rather long story.”
“I understand,” he said. “I’d tell you about my condition, but it’s a rather short story.”
She smiled, and he smiled back.
“All right, well, I’ll tell you the short version then,” she said.
“Just my type!”
She said, “Well, there was a plague, and everyone in my country was becoming infected, including me. It wasn’t a normal plague, with spots and smelly bile and death. It was a… soul plague, I guess. Then Omar found a cure, except it wasn’t quite perfect, and everyone was left with a little bit of a fox’s soul inside them, which gave us these ears and eyes.”
“You have a fox’s soul inside you?” He glanced at her with a look of mingled amusement and disbelief.
“Yes. But just a little piece of one.”
“And now everyone in your whole country has ears like that?”
“Even the men?”
She laughed. “Yes, even the men, although they weren’t very happy about it.”
Tycho blew out a long breath. “Well, if that’s the cure, then I’d hate to see the disease.”
Wren winced and looked away. Visions of deformed monsters ran through a blood-soaked tapestry in her mind. “Yes, you would.”
They walked on in silence for a minute, nodding at passing servants and soldiers. Wren tried to study the strange buildings around them, the huge towers and domes and arches and columns. Omar had told her about the buildings in the south, that they would be larger and grander than anything she had known in Ysland. And he was right, as ever. But there was no magic or mystery about the palace. It was all just cold, gray stone. Shaped and polished and cunningly arranged, yes, but just stone all the same.
Tycho led her up the steps to a many-arched entrance, and Wren saw high above the building a square tower rising behind it.
“She’s up there?” she asked.
“In the Tower of Justice? No, not usually. She’s made herself quite comfortable in the lower chamber. It’s an older hall, abandoned long ago, but still intact,” Tycho said. “It’s not very nice down there.”
“Then why does she stay there?”
“She says she likes it.” Tycho opened the door and ushered her inside a nondescript room of polished marble filled with doorways to other chambers. “When Prince Vlad agreed to defend Constantia, we had no idea he would bring someone like Koschei with him. And I think even Vlad had no idea that Koschei would bring his mother.”
“Life is full of small surprises,” Wren said.
Tycho paused at the top of a stair that led down into a well of flickering torchlight. “Listen, to be honest, I’m still not sure what sort of person she is. She spent most of her time alone even before Koschei was captured. And now, since he’s been gone, she’s been more than a little unhappy, as you can imagine. She comes out at night to harass the soldiers from time to time, but other than that, we don’t see her.”
“No one sees her, not even to bring her food?”
“The servants leave it at the bottom of the stairs for her. But she’s made it fairly clear that she’s not in the mood to take visitors unless there’s word that her son has been freed.” Tycho said, “Are you really a witch, like her?”
“I’m not a witch. I’m a vala.”
“What does that mean?”
“I make medicines from herbs, and I read the stars, and I read dreams, and I talk to ghosts,” said Wren. “Anyone can do what I do, if you learn how.” She fingered the ring inside her glove again, feeling a vague sense of guilt at her one omission.
But he doesn’t need to know about the aether-craft. Not yet, at least.
“I didn’t think you were really a witch, exactly, but the black dress, and the ears, well…” Tycho shrugged. “Are you ready?”
Wren nodded, and they descended the stairs.
The steps spiraled down and the air grew cooler, until they stepped out of an alcove into a large chamber in which their footsteps echoed far into the distant shadows. But only a few paces from the alcove, the floor was covered in Persian carpets, which were covered in dirty animal pelts, many of which had their heads and paws still attached. Three iron braziers stood in a crooked triangle around the rugs, all burning brightly and throwing off waves of heat.
In the center of the braziers there was a collection of gold and silver plates and goblets, none of the same size or design, and all with the remains of some old meal dried and crusted along their edges and bottoms. And seated amidst this chaos and debris, was a woman.
Wren wasn’t sure what she had expected. A crone, a gibbering lunatic, a vicious old mother, a lady in mourning? But not this.
The woman sitting on the pile of skins, surrounded by chewed bones and dried wine, roasting between the braziers, was…
…beautiful. She looks like an ancient queen. What sort of witch can she possibly be? And why is she down here, living like this?
Wren stared at the woman’s blood-red dress, the crow feathers tied into the braids of her snow white hair, the silver bracelets on her wrists, and the necklace of tiny animal skulls hanging around her neck. The woman looked up, tilting her face to the light, revealing a thousand fine lines of age and worry, but her skin was still firm, her eyes keen, and her lips ever so slightly pink.
“Where is my son?” she asked in a deep, commanding voice.
Wren blinked. “I’m sorry, I don’t know.”
“Then get out!” The witch flung up her hands and a white wind blasted across the braziers and shoved the two near the alcove.
Wren stumbled back as the aether struck her flesh, and she instinctively threw up her own hands to shield her face, and the aether fell away, melting into the darkness. Slowly, she lowered her hands and looked at the woman, and felt the cool air tickling her tall furry ears.
Damn. The aether couldn’t move my scarf. I must have knocked it back myself. Stupid, clumsy…
“Lady Yaga, if you please!” Tycho said loudly from behind Wren. “We have something very important to discuss with you. And I’ve brought this young woman to meet you. She’s from Rus, too.”
“Ysland, actually,” Wren corrected him quietly.
“Right, Ysland.” Tycho nodded. “This is Wren Olgasdottir.”
“What the devil is wrong with your ears, girl?” the woman asked.
“I’ve, uh, I have an extra-”
“An extra soul, a portion of an animal, something thrust into you.” The witch rose to her feet. “Come here. Let me look at you.”
Wren swallowed and came forward.
“A fox soul,” the witch said, peering at Wren’s head. “But just a portion of it. A tiny scrap. And something else, as well. Something to keep the animal at bay, trapped in your silly ears and those pretty eyes of yours. What is it?”
Wren nodded. “That something else, the thing that keeps the fox under control, is another soul, a bit of a man’s soul.”
Don’t ask anymore. Not yet. Don’t make me say his name to you yet.
“Hm.” The witch turned away with a weary sigh. “Is that why you’re here? You want me to fix you? You want me to get it out of you?”
“Good, because I can’t. It can’t be done.”
“I know,” Wren said. “I know how it works. I know about soul-breaking and aether-craft.”
“Do you now?” The witch sat down on her pelts. “Then why are you here?”
Wren knelt at the edge of the rugs. “I’m here because I need your help. The city needs your help. There’s something coming, and I need your help to stop it.”
“We have reports, my lady, of an army marching on Constantia,” Tycho said. “An army of walking corpses. The undead. The deathless ones.”
The witch stared into Wren’s eyes. “You don’t say.”
“You don’t seem surprised,” Wren said. “Has this happened before?”
“In Rus, the dead often have a mind of their own,” said the witch. “That’s why the people burn their dead. At least, they do when they can.”
“And when they can’t?”
The witch smiled. “Then they call for me and my son to set things right.”
Wren nodded. “I see. But why does it happen at all? Is it because the aether freezes in the blood, and the ghost stays there, confused, thinking they might still be alive? And then they just drag their dead bodies around by the aether like puppets on strings?”
The older woman narrowed her eyes. “That’s exactly right. Although, the ghost in a frozen body is no more likely to rise from the grave than the ghost in a rotting body. The real question is, why are so many ghosts rising now?” The witch picked up an empty cup and considered the wine stain on the bottom for a moment. “Who has been teaching you about these things?”
“I’ve had several teachers,” Wren said, glancing away. “Why do you think the ghosts are rising now?”
“I don’t know.” The white-haired woman tossed her goblet aside. “Why does it matter?”
“It matters, my lady, because these corpses are attacking every person they come near,” Tycho said. “They’ve devastated entire towns, entire provinces, judging from the reports. Thousands are dead, and thousands more have fled. Some refugees are coming to the city, but most are fleeing into the hills. The farmers seem to think the deathless ones are drawn to cities, to people. And the more they kill, the more dead rise beside them.”
“Then destroy them, and be done with it,” the witch snapped. “Give them the sword, and give them fire. There’s no mystery in this. Cut their bodies to pieces. Take their heads. Burn their flesh. Once broken they cannot be healed, and once the aether melts, the ghost cannot cling to the flesh.”
“We tried that,” Tycho said. “I sent mounted archers to Saray. Many died, and many fled. And the ranks of the dead continue to swell. If they strike Constantia from the west while we are besieged by the Turks to the east, the city will fall.”
“Then the city will fall!” The witch glared at him.
Tycho frowned. “You swore to defend Constantia, before Lady Nerissa and Prince Vlad.”
“That was before those dogs took my son!”
Wren motioned Tycho to take a step back and she said, “Mistress, I swear to you I will do everything in my power to help you find your son. But I can’t do that if this city is overrun by the risen dead. We have to stop them first.”
“ You will help me?” The witch laughed. “What can you possibly offer, except for fleas and a slightly sharper sense of hearing?”
Wren glanced at Tycho and then back again. “I’ve studied aether-craft as well. Quite a bit, actually.” She slowly raised her right hand, drawing the aether in to herself, bundling the mists beneath her, and ever so gently, she lifted herself up from the pelts on the floor and floated in the air. And then, just as gently, she lowered herself back down and let the aether drift away. “What do you say now, Mistress?”
She could feel Tycho staring at her, but she kept her gaze on the old woman, and the old woman gazed back at her. The witch nodded. “Very well. We will try. And you may call me Baba Yaga, little sister.”
Tycho climbed the stairs, straining to hear what was happening in the cellar behind him, but the women’s voices were too soft and distorted. So he emerged from the Tower of Justice into a cool afternoon in the Second Courtyard of the palace and paused to look at the men and women bustling about the paths and roads and stairs in front of him.
She floated. She floated in the air. She said she wasn’t a witch, she said that anyone could learn what she knew, but… she’s a witch.
He turned to his left, intending to return to the Chamber of Petitions, but he saw Salvator pacing along the portico at the entrance to the Third Courtyard toward the stables, and he angled aside to intercept his colleague.
“When I was a boy, I believed in magic,” he said abruptly as he caught up to the Italian. “In church, I always like the stories about miracles and portents. And at home, I always pestered Philo to tell me the old stories about the Olympians and the heroes of ancient Hellas. But somewhere along the way, I suppose I stopped believing. Fighting the Eranians, seeing ships in the sky, cannons, ironclad frigates, seireiken swords… It seemed like there wasn’t room left in the world for magic. Of course there were still wonders everywhere, but not miraculous ones. But this girl.” He shook his head.
“I saw you staring at her,” Salvator said. “You like those ears of hears, don’t you?”
“Don’t be perverse. She’s a pretty girl. The ears are just… weird.” Tycho drummed his fingers on the grip of his gun. “But just now, I saw her do something. She floated in the air right in front of me. Just lifted off the floor as light as a cloud for a moment.”
“Mazigh airships can float off the floor for longer than a moment, and they’re much larger than some girl with funny ears. There’s no magic in that. Just another sort of science.”
Tycho nodded. “You’re probably right. So, why are you out here?”
“The duchess and the prince want to be alone with their new best friend, Omar. They seem quite taken with him. I suppose it’s quite a coup, really, finding yet another immortal. Not that I trust him, of course.”
“We don’t know that he really is immortal. He’s only said he was. He could be lying.”
“He wasn’t. After you left, Vlad demanded a demonstration,” Salvator said. “Omar slit open his hand and we watched it heal itself almost as quickly as he cut it. Just like Koschei did, only less macabre.”
“Oh.” Tycho paused at the entrance to the stables. “So, what shall we do with the rest of our day? Have another chat with the Turk in the cistern?”
“I don’t see the point.” Salvator sniffed and grimaced at the horses. “Even if he knew something worthwhile, he’s half-mad from whatever he saw at Saray.”
“Do you really think it’s that bad? Half the Vlachians deserted when they saw this army of the dead, and the Vlachians aren’t afraid of anything,” Tycho said. “What will happen when the dead reach Constantia? Will we all go mad?”
Salvator shrugged. “Well, I won’t. You might.”
They continued around the rear of the stables and looked out across the frosted lawns. On their right stood the Church of Saint Irene, its golden dome gleaming in the sunlight, and on their left stood the ancient sea walls that protected the Seraglio Point and the palace itself from invaders in the Strait and the Sea of Marmara.
“What worries me is-”
A horn blew three blasts, and the two men looked up at the watch tower overlooking the Seraglio Point. Tycho frowned. “Come on.”
They commandeered one of the little carriages in the courtyard and rode across the length of the palace grounds to the tower on the point, and then shouldered through the stream of Hellan soldiers heading up to the wall. When they finally emerged into the cool sea breeze at the top, Tycho looked down at the mouth of the Bosporus and saw three Eranian ironclads in the channel.
He frowned. “Oh good, the Furies are back.”
They had no idea what the three ships were called in Eranian, so the Hellan lookouts had simply taken to calling them the three Furies. Each one carried a hundred heavy cannons and the sailors on deck could be seen carrying pistols and rifles. Huge steam engines sat puffing and chuffing amidships on all three, and the massive screws beneath their armored hulls were known to drive the ships above fifteen knots, faster than any other steamer in the area. From time to time, the Furies would range out across the Sea of Marmara, terrorizing the shipping lanes or protecting Eranian convoys, but they always returned to the Bosporus sooner or later.
Salvator leaned on the wall, peering at the ships. “They’re a bit close today. You don’t suppose they’re actually going to take a shot at us, do you?”
Tycho looked again, his keen eyes gauging the distance. “You’re right, they are closer than usual.” And then a flurry of movement on the deck of the center ship drew his attention there. “Good God, what are they doing?”
He beckoned for the watchman to hand over his spyglass, and Tycho studied the ship’s deck again through the narrow view of the glass. The sailors had formed ranks around a central stage on the deck where two large men where forcing a third man down onto his knees with his arms held straight at out to his sides. The kneeling man had a long, scraggly tangle of black hair hanging over his face, but his massive chest and arms were quite bare and Tycho could see the thin gray tattoos on his skin. “It’s Koschei. They’ve got Koschei on the center Fury.”
Salvator grimaced. “What are they doing with him?”
“Stretching him out like a lamb for slaughter,” Tycho said. “Kneeling. Arms out. Head down. There’s a man with an axe. Shit. I think they’re going to behead him.”
“Hm.” The Italian nodded. “Interesting. Do you suppose that will actually kill him?”
“If it does, there’ll be hell to pay with his mother. And if it doesn’t kill him…” Tycho trailed off as he tried to imagine a headless Koschei. The man was demon enough on the battlefield with his skull intact. He couldn’t fathom a Koschei with even less self-control.
He continued to watch through the glass. “Do we have any ships nearby? I don’t see any.”
“Not close enough,” Salvator said. “We have five cruisers protecting the Galata Bridge, and several more patrolling the southern shore of the Horn, but none of them could reach Koschei in time to help him.”
Damn it. God only knows what Yaga will do if her son dies.
“I have to give Radu credit,” Salvator said. “This is probably the best thing he could do with Koschei. A public execution like this will do more than upset his mother. It’ll demoralize our entire army when they learn their immortal champion is dead. And we can hardly hope to keep this quiet. Everyone is going to see it.”
Tycho slammed his fist on the wall. The Furies were only a quarter mile from shore, but there was no way to reach them, not even with a bullet or arrow. Through the spyglass, he saw the axe man circle around behind the kneeling Koschei. An Eranian officer postured and gestured, no doubt making a grand speech about how they boldly captured this mighty warrior, and were now doing God’s work in executing him as well. The officer signaled the executioner, and the man raised the axe, and then the axe fell.
When the blade sliced through Koschei’s left shoulder, the two men holding him down both stumbled back as the arm and body separated and a river of dark blood spilled across the deck. And a moment later, Tycho heard a thin scream echo across the water. But he kept his spyglass on the deck and watched as the Eranians wrestled their prisoner back into position, raised his right arm, and hacked it off at the shoulder as well. This time there was no scream. Koschei collapsed facedown and did not move as a cheer rose from the ranks of Turkish sailors across the deck.
At the same time, a low groan and sigh and gasp rippled across the sea wall as the Hellans saw or heard their immortal champion fall.
Still, Tycho watched the deck of the ironclad ship. He watched as the sailors gathered up the severed arms, and he watched as they dragged Koschei to a flagpole, tied his ankles, and lifted his body upside-down over the deck, his gory shoulders still dripping.
Then the sailors began to disperse back to their posts and duties, all except two young men with mops and buckets who set about scrubbing away the blood.
“Well, that’s that,” Salvator said. “I suppose they’ll be sending us the arms at some point, just to be certain that we got the message.”
Tycho nodded. “Not that it matters. Everyone saw it. The duchess and prince will know in a matter of minutes. And then, one way or another, Yaga will hear of it too. That’s when things go completely to hell.”
He was about to turn away and head back to the stairs when a distant keening caught his ear. It sounded almost like the cry Koschei made when they struck off his first arm, and Tycho lifted the spyglass again. “My God. He’s still alive.”
“He won’t be for long,” Salvator said. “He may have only passed out from the shock, but he’ll die from loss of blood in a minute.”
“I guess. Although, it looks like he’s stopped bleeding already. In fact… my God.” Tycho handed the spyglass to Salvator and closed his eyes, and rubbed his forehead.
The Italian gazed out at the ship for a moment, then put the glass down and shook his head. “That’s inhuman.”
As he dangled from his ankles over the deck of the Eranian warship, Koschei screamed and screamed and screamed as his shoulders slowly knit themselves together and new bones began to thrust out from his wounds. Exposed muscles and nerves snaked out, bit by bit, wrapping around the bones, and milk-white skin appeared in ragged patches over the new flesh. Tycho walked slowly back to the watch tower, descended the steep stone stairs, and entered his waiting carriage. The distant screams still warbled across the Strait. When Salvator sat down beside him, Tycho looked up and muttered, “At that rate, it’s going to take all day and half the night before they grow back, won’t it?”
The Italian knight nodded.
“He’ll scream through every minute of it.” Tycho thumped on the roof and the carriage began to roll. “Our men will have to listen to every minute of it.”
“And there’s nothing to stop Radu from doing that to him every single day, over and over again.”
Tycho stared out the window at the snow-dusted lawns of the park rising above the sea walls to the palace. “This is the fourth one.”
“My fourth siege. The fourth time that Eran has tried to take Constantia in my life time. But this time…” The major shook his head. “We’ve never had so little support from Athens. We’ve never had to go to Vlachia for help before. And now we have immortal people on every side, and an army of corpses attacking our rear, and huge ironclad steamers in the Strait, and a man being tortured to death right in front of our troops. It’s never been like this before. I’ve never heard of anything like this before.”
Salvator pressed his lips together for a moment. “The unique and hideous gravity of the situation has not escaped me. And under the circumstances, I don’t think a man would be faulted for thinking a bit more of his own welfare than that of his fellows. I have friends here, you know. I can leave whenever I want. Slip past the blockade. I could be in Rome in less than three days.”
Tycho nodded. “Maybe you should leave. There’s no sense in you dying here, too.”
“You little fool, I’d take you with me. I meant that both of us could escape. There’s no reason for you to die here, either.”
Tycho looked at the older man. “Growing fond of me, are you?”
Salvator stared back with eyes of cold steel. “Terrible things are going to happen here, Tycho. As you say, the dead are marching, immortals are screaming, war machines are churning, and the Sons of Osiris are out there as well. Constantia is going to fall, and I see little hope for anyone here when that happens. As for you, well, you’re clever and useful, and I trust you. If you came back to Rome with me, we could do great things for Italia. None of this insanity here, none of these monsters. In Rome, it’s all just lies and duels, clever insults and stabbings. Clean and simple.”
Tycho waved the suggestion away. “I can’t leave. My father died to prepare for this war. I have to see it through.”
The Italian frowned and looked out the opposite window. The carriage rolled into the Second Courtyard near the stables and carriage houses, and the two men stepped out.
Tycho nodded at the doors of the Chamber of Petitions. “You should report what we’ve seen to the duchess and prince. I’m going to check on the girl, and make sure the witch hasn’t eaten her or something.”
Salvator took several steps, and then looked back. “You don’t like her, do you?”
“I don’t even know her,” he said.
“That’s no answer,” the Italian called out. “And as I recall, you once told me that you preferred redheads.”
No, I didn’t. Did I?
Tycho ignored him and entered the Tower of Justice, and descended the stone steps into the underground chamber where the witch called Baba Yaga lived. He heard voices below, calm and civil voices, and he felt some small relief that at least here, for the moment, there was peace and sanity.
When he stepped out of the alcove into the brightly lit room, he found Wren and the old witch sitting together on the mound of carpets, leaning together over something in the girl’s hand. Tycho cleared his throat and the two women looked up, both with a trace of annoyance in their eyes.
“Yes?” Yaga frowned at him.
“Is everything all right?” he asked. “Have you made any progress?”
“You haven’t been gone an hour,” the witch snapped. “What progress do you think we’ve made?”
Wren smiled at him. “A little. We’re still learning a bit about each other.”
Tycho nodded. “Good. That’s good.”
She’s in a good mood, more or less. Maybe this is the right time to tell her. And it’s better if she hears it from me than from some gossiping maid.
He stepped farther into the room and cleared his throat again.
“Madam, I’m afraid there’s some news of your son, and I thought it best if you heard it from me rather than some rumor. It’s bad news, I’m sorry to say. We’ve just seen Koschei on an Eranian warship in the Strait. And they’re… they’re torturing him.”
Baba Yaga stood up so that she towered over the small man and said, “My son is immortal, and there is no punishment that any man could conceive of that would make him weep or cry for mercy. He is the very iron of Rus. He cannot be bent or broken by these cowardly Turks.”
Tycho hesitated and looked at Wren.
I’ve done my duty. I’ve told her. It’s not my duty to make her believe me. There’s no need to tell her everything. It wouldn’t do any good. It would only upset her. But, I suppose, whatever else she may be, she’s someone’s mother. She deserves to know.
He said, “Madam, the Eranians cut off your son’s arms, and at this every moment he is growing new ones, while hanging over the deck of this warship in full view of our men on the wall. And he’s, well-”
“He’s what, major?”
Tycho swallowed. “He’s screaming.”
Baba Yaga stepped back from him, her hand straying to her lips as she muttered to herself, her eyes darting across the floor. Then she dashed across the room, shoved Tycho aside, and bolted up the stairs. He fell to his hands and knees, but stood up and beckoned to Wren, who had already risen to her feet. “We have to follow her. I don’t know what she’ll do.”
Idiot! Why did I tell her? Because like a moron, I thought it was the right thing to do!
Together they ran up the stairs and when they reached the landing Tycho heard the echo of footsteps higher still above them, and they ran up into the Tower of Justice high above all of the other buildings in the palace grounds. When they reached the top, Tycho saw the witch standing at the railing and staring to the northeast, to the three warships in the Strait.
She can’t possibly see anything from here.
Then Baba Yaga reached out her hand draped in silver bracelets, and her necklace of bird skulls clattered on her breast as a violent wind rushed through the open tower and raced over the palace and the park and down the hill to the sea wall, and then over the waves to the ironclad ships. But only a soft puff of mist wafted over the decks, and as far as Tycho could tell, none of the ant-like sailors even noticed.
Yaga screamed up to the heavens and then spun about to grab the Hellan major. “My son! My precious son is there, right there, I can see him! Where are your men? Where are your ships? Why have you abandoned him?”
Tycho gasped as the two clawing hands pressed in against his throat. He grabbed her wrists, trying to pry her off as gently as possible. He wheezed out, “Salvator is telling Lady Nerissa right now. She’ll decide what’s to be done.”
Yaga shoved him away and he stumbled back into Wren, who caught him and held him steady on his feet as he rubbed his neck.
“I’m sure they’ll send someone to rescue him,” Wren said. “Now that they know where he is, and so close at that, I’m sure that’s what they’ll do.”
Tycho grimaced. “Maybe. Those are powerful warships, stronger than anything we have. There’s little hope we could sink them. Even just to storm the deck and carry Koschei away would be a massive operation that would cost us both ships and men.”
The tall witch whirled back to the railing to glare at the distant ships. “Damned Turks. They dare to invade the north, they dare to take my son, they dare to hurt him within my sight! These Turks dare too much. And for what? They want to frighten you, to give you nightmares resounding with Koschei’s screams. So be it. I will teach them something about nightmares.” She leaned forward and wrapped her bony fingers around the rail, and closed her eyes.
Tycho glanced up at Wren. “What’s she doing?”
But the girl with the fox ears only shrugged and shook her head.
As he looked from the witch to the ships and back again, Tycho felt a sickening vertigo and he staggered against Wren and then against the rail, and then fell to his knees. He squeezed his eyes shut and swallowed rapidly to keep his breakfast down, and dimly he knew that Wren had fallen beside him, moaning and gasping. With shaking hands, Tycho reached for her but his fingers found only empty space. He tried to open his eyes and the world spun wildly to one side and he toppled forward, and fell.
The world went on spinning and he fell and fell, and something hard smashed his shoulders and back and legs, again and again, and when it finally stopped he peered out through squinting eyes to see that he had fallen all the way down the stairs to the ground floor of the tower. Still shaking and wobbling, he staggered up to his feet and shuffled away from the stairs toward the door that led out into the courtyard. But he paused and looked back at the entrance to the stairs, a black rectangle of stone that twisted and spun and warbled like water in the air.
Wren… she’s still in… needs help…
He took a step back toward the stairs, and a freezing white cloud billowed up from the cellar and poured into the vestibule. As it swirled around him, Tycho shivered and gasped as the cold air penetrated his lungs, and he saw his fingers growing long and thin, twisting away to pale strings in the breeze.
“No!” He ran drunkenly through the whiteness and burst out onto the steps of the tower where the cloud abruptly ended and he fell again, rolling down the sharp marble stairs to the gravel road at the edge of the yard where he lay gasping, staring up at the sky. He held his hands in front of his face and saw his fingers were as short and solid as ever.
What the devil just happened?
He blinked and swallowed and balled his hands into fists until the nausea and dizziness faded. And then, as he sat up, he saw the mist again. It engulfed the Tower of Justice, clinging to the stones like white smoke, roiling and storming and rushing around and around as it spiraled up toward the distant clouds.
Tycho stood up, staring at the unholy storm raging around the tower against the pale blue sky. “God save us all.”
Wren lay on the cold floor in a ball, her arms wrapped around her head, her eyes squeezed shut as she tried to imagine a calm grassy field that was quiet and solid and safe. But her body and mind continued to tell her that the world was spinning and tumbling and racing out of control, and her stomach churned with bile and her eyes burned with tears. She tightened her right hand into a fist, feeling the lump of the ring around her finger, and she cried out to the souls of the dead valas hidden within the ring.
Gudrun! Brynhilda! Kara! Anyone! Help me!
And after a moment, she heard over the blasting aether storm around her a shaking old woman’s voice. Gudrun’s voice.
Help yourself, girl. It’s only aether.
Wren blinked her eyes open for a brief moment and saw the white maelstrom around her, and she snapped her eyes closed again. The aether buffeted her body, her arms and legs and head, even her hair, but her lifeless clothing lay still and heavy on her skin. So she focused on that stillness, on the folds of her shiny new skirts and sleeves and ribbons.
Slowly, the spinning sensation passed and Wren slowly unclenched the muscles in her belly and back. She could still feel the aether pushing and pulling on her body, but it was only the sensation of wind or water, or maybe soft hands. It was only physical and no longer inside her head, and so with one last deep breath, she opened her eyes.
The world was still a whirling white storm of aether flying around and around, but through the wispy gaps in the chaos she could glimpse the pale stone walls and the dark vistas of the palace beyond the balcony, and the shadowy figure of the woman at the railing. Wren tried to stand up and the aether shoved her sideways into the wall. But she pushed away from it and staggered through the aether typhoon toward the tall woman.
The woman did not move.
The dark figure shifted, though still vague and rippling through the veil of aether. Wren saw her turn and reach out. A pale bony hand shot through the mist and touched her forehead, and Wren felt the icy fingers of aether flood sharply into her nostrils and mouth, and she fell back to the floor, choking and gasping.
The next thing she knew, Wren was lying on a bed of grass. The shadows stretched out around her into the distance in shapeless, formless darkness, and she peered in every direction, seeing nothing. No walls, no trees, no people. There were no stars overhead and the air hung perfectly still and cold around her. She exhaled and watched her breath curl away from her nose.
There was no echo and no answer. She stood up, turning and turning, looking and looking.
Where am I? What happened to the tower? Where is the witch? What happened to Tycho?
She took a few steps in no particular direction and found only more dead grass underfoot and more darkness all around.
“Hello? Yaga? Tycho?”
Wren spun to see who had spoken, and saw the crumpled form of a little old woman standing behind her, clutching a moth eaten blanket around her shoulders. She was pale and shriveled and shrunken, with wrinkled translucent skin hanging from her cheekbones and watery yellow eyes under her snowy brows. Only a few thin scraps of gray hair clung to her spotted scalp, and a bright trail of spittle hung from her thin lips.
Wren’s eyes widened. “Gudrun?”
“You. Here. Heh.” The crone hobbled forward, peering up at the girl. “One of us now.”
“One of…?” Wren covered her mouth. “This is the ring? Am I inside the Denveller ring too? Am I dead? I died? Yaga killed me?”
Gudrun cackled and looked to her left, and Wren looked as well. Seven other bent and broken figures shuffled out of the shadows, some leaning on canes, some dragging crippled feet, and one crawling with her lifeless legs stretched out behind her on the ground.
The dead valas of Denveller!
She knew their faces well. In the long year since Gudrun had died and Wren had taken up the ring, she had communed with these women, seen their ghostly faces hovering in the darkness around her, heard their voices whispering and sneering in her mind. Sometimes they offered their wisdom and experience with herbs or animals to heal some injury, and sometimes they helped her to negotiate with the spirit world, seeking out lost souls and learning their secrets. But always with a look of contempt. Always with a smug or cruel laugh.
“You’re not dead, girl,” said Brynhilda. She was a tall and gaunt figure, a woman of too much bone and too little skin. “You’re not in the ring, yet. We are in you.”
“In me? In my soul?” Wren tried to let her arms hang calmly at her sides, but her hands leapt together to fidget and squirm in front of her. “Possessed?”
Gudrun shuffled forward and her milky white eyes slowly darkened and came into focus as she wiped the drool from her lips. “Yes, little bird. Why? Don’t you like it here, with us? You should show some gratitude, after all we’ve done for you. All the answers we’ve handed you over the last year, all the work we’ve done for you. What a miserable excuse for a vala you would be without us.”
“I–I know, and I’m grateful for everything,” Wren said. “But I shouldn’t be here, or you shouldn’t. This is wrong.”
“Wrong?” Yet another woman came forward, one looking a bit younger and stronger than the others.
Kara! Nine hells…
The most ancient vala of Denveller took Wren’s hands and peered into her eyes. “Little Wren. Oh, little Wren. It might be a little early, yes, but there’s nothing wrong about being here. This is where you’re going, little Wren, this is home, this is where the long road will bring you in the end.”
Wren glanced around at the endless darkness, the starless sky, the black void of a world resting on a tiny patch of dead grass and dry earth where eight dead women huddled together in the endless night, wheezing and shaking and spitting on each other.
Wren looked back at Kara, a woman who died of old age at forty-two winters with a dozen gray claws in her raven hair, and then she looked down at their hands still clasped together. Kara’s hands were thin and wrinkled around the knuckles, and Wren’s…
She blinked and shook her head.
Wren’s hands were as thin as chicken feet, like brittle twigs shaking in the wind. She could barely bend her fingers, barely lift her arms, they were so stiff and sore. Suddenly she was gasping for breath, wheezing through tiny wet lungs with a huge weight crushing her chest. Wren fell to her knees, her mouth hanging open as she struggled to breathe, and her hair fell forward around her face, thin strings of gray and white. Wren tried to raise her head, but her back was aching and her vision blurred.
“Help me,” she wheezed. “Someone, help me…”
The shadow world of the Denveller ring was gone. The ghosts of the crones were gone. Now the world was blinding white and freezing cold, and she could breathe again. Wren stood up, squinting at the bright snowy hills and the distant snowy mountains. The pain in her back was gone, and her hands were her own again, and her hair was dark red again. She shivered as the wind blasted over the hill, pelting her with ice.
She took a few more uncertain steps and heard the snow crunching underfoot. Huge white clouds sailed across the face of the sun in a pale blue sky.
“Hello? Kara? Anyone?”
The snow crunched behind her. Wren turned around and felt her bowels turn to frozen slush.
A dark titan loomed over her, a giant covered in red fur and obsidian claws, with eyes that burned like molten gold, and in its maw stood a forest of white fangs dripping with venom. The beast roared.
Wren stumbled back, her shaking hands reaching for her sling, but it was gone, reaching for her knife, but it was gone, summoning up the aether, but it wouldn’t answer.
“No, no, stay back, stay away!” She turned to run and the giant fox demon roared again. Wren fell to her hands and knees in the freezing snow as a sharp cracking pain raced down her spine and erupted from her back. She twisted around and saw the dark red fur of her own tail writhing and flicking around her thighs.
She lurched up to her feet and saw the fur on her hands, the black points of her nails as they sharpened into claws, and the dark tip of her nose as her face stretched forward into a canine muzzle.
Not this, please, Woden, no, not this, it can’t be this, I’m not an animal, I’m human, damn it, I’m human!
She could feel the points of her fangs slipping out over her lips, and she could feel the fur growing all over her body, scratching and rustling inside her clothes.
Another sharp crack of pain raced down her spine and she leaned back, her arms outstretched and head tilted back to howl at the bright winter sky.
But when she flopped forward again, exhausted and sweating, her arms remained suspended at her sides. She pulled at them, but they were bound tightly at the wrists. Wren looked and saw first her pale pink hand and then the rough ropes tied around her arms, lashing her to a wooden beam. She tried to pull free again, but she was tied at the ankles and waist and neck as well.
I’m not an animal. I’m myself again. What the hell is happening?
The pale winter sky was swallowed by raging thunderheads flashing with lightning. As the shadows rolled across the white landscape, Wren saw figures moving out of the corners of her eyes. People were trudging through the slush from behind her, circling her, gathering before her. They were strangers, all of them, dressed in rags and smeared with mud and soot. Men and women, and children too. They formed a filthy, silent congregation in front of her, and stared.
“Untie me, please. Someone, please let me go. What’s happening? What are you all looking at? Who are you? Please, someone untie me.”
Wren struggled against the ropes, yanking at her hands and wrenching her legs back and forth, but the ropes held firm.
The crowd parted and an old man stepped forward. A black cloak hid his body and clothes, and a slouching hood covered his head. A knotted and braided gray beard fell across his chest, and from within the folds of his hood, the man peered out at her with a single gray eye.
“Who…?” Wren’s voice faltered and she slumped against the ropes. “Lord Woden?”
“Ah, my poor sweet little Wren,” the man whispered. “Look at you now, with your little wings clipped and nowhere left to run. These are holy people, Wren, people of faith. And they will not suffer a witch to live.”
The man took up a stick from the ground and scraped his fingers over the end of it, and where he stripped away the dead bark the wood sparked and burst into flame. Wren looked down at her feet and saw the pile of kindling stacked up as high as her knees. The one-eyed man thrust his burning brand into the dark thicket on the ground, and instantly every stick and twig was dancing with yellow flames.
A tremendous wave of heat rolled up Wren’s body and a filthy column of black smoke raced up into her nose and mouth. Wren choked and shook, pulling and twisting against the ropes, and all she wanted to do was beg the silent people to help her, to cut her free, to put out the fire, but she couldn’t scream. She couldn’t even whisper. The smoke had reached deep into her chest and was crushing her lungs, and her heart was screaming as her eyes went dim.
No… Why would they do this? I never hurt them… them… wait… Who are they?
She tried to open her eyes and saw the blurry faces of the grim people around her beyond the flames.
They have no faces… They’re not real… This isn’t real!
The flames vanished, the people vanished, and the entire dark hilltop vanished. Wren crumpled to the ground, coughing and shuddering, feeling the cold smooth floor beneath her.
I’m alive. I can see.
Wren sat up, one hand pressed to her throbbing head. She squinted around at the balcony at the top of the Tower of Justice, at the view beyond the railing of the Palace of Constantine and the distant waters of the Bosporus. And standing at the railing was the witch, Baba Yaga.
A torrent of white aether blasted around and around outside of the tower, flowing past the balcony in icy waves of vapor and mist. But despite this maelstrom, the air inside the tower was perfectly still.
Aether can’t even stir the empty air. The only thing it can touch is a soul.
Wren coughed and saw the aether spilling out of her mouth. She pounded her chest as she got back up to her feet, and the world gradually felt more solid and heavy around her as the last fading claws of the nightmare slipped away, leaving her clear-minded but exhausted.
The old witch turned, her long white hair clattering quietly with the tiny bones in her braids. “You woke up? Good for you, little one. I’m impressed. A little.”
“What did you do to me?”
Yaga smiled. “You claim to be a student of the other worlds, a mistress of aether. You tell me.”
Wren swallowed and came a few steps closer to her. “You can move the aether, so you must have a rinegold object. Omar called them tuning forks, resonators, for moving aether.”
“Rinegold? You have a strange name for sun-steel, girl. And Omar? Is that your teacher?”
He must have used a different name when he knew her. Makes sense, really. It was five hundred years ago, after all.
“Yes.” She held up her right hand to display the tiny glimmer of dark gold. “I received this ring from my first mistress, Gudrun. It’s what I use to move aether.”
Yaga smiled and held up both of her arms. Four silver bracelets clattered on each of her arms, and in a narrow channel around the center of each one ran a slender golden wire. “These are what I use.”
Eight of them!
She said, “And you used the aether to put me in that hell? To make me live out my own nightmares? Why?”
Yaga sighed. “Maybe you’re not as bright as I thought.”
Wren nodded slowly as she stared up at the massive aether whirlwind consuming the tower around them. “It wasn’t about me at all, was it? All this aether, all this energy… who is it for?”
“Them.” Yaga jerked her chin out at the palace below and the city beyond, a vast rippling plain of white and gray stone houses and shops, and gleaming gold churches. “I brought my precious boy here to help them win their petty war, and what do they do? Abandon him! Left him for dead on the walls of Stamballa two months ago, and did not make a single attempt to set him free. And now, now! There he is! Koschei the Deathless! The war god of Rus, the scourge of the Jochi hordes, the terror of the steppes, left screaming on a rope not one league from this place. And still they do nothing!”
The aether storm surged around them, momentarily obscuring the world behind a solid white wall of mist.
Two months ago? Wait, that’s when-
Below in the courtyard, a chorus of screams rippled outward from the base of the tower, and Wren peered down at the soldiers and servants lying on the ground, clutching their heads and curling up like terrified children wailing in the night.
“Stop it! They’re not immortal, they’re only human!” Wren wrapped her black jacket tightly around her shoulders. Insubstantial as it was, the aether was still leeching the warmth from the air. “Major Tycho and the other soldiers here, they’re only men. They’re trying to protect their homes, their families. You can’t ask them to risk everything for one man. Especially a man who can’t die. Sooner or later, Koschei will be free again. Maybe the Duchess will negotiate his freedom, or he’ll escape, or he’ll simply be set free when the war ends. He can’t die, Mistress Yaga! Your son will survive this, and you’ll see him again. You know that’s true, don’t you?”
“And until then?” The tall witch turned to glower down at the younger woman. “Until then, my son has to suffer unspeakable torments, hour after hour, day after day, just because he can’t die? Is that right? Is that fair? He may only be one man, but he is my son! My only son! And if he can have no peace, if I can have no peace, then no one will have any peace!”
She threw her arms up and her sun-steel bracelets rang as they crashed against her wrists, and the aether roared straight up the sides of the tower, streaming up into the late afternoon sky.
Wren stood at the railing beside her, gazing up at the mist cascading upward with all the fury of a massive waterfall.
When the sun goes down, and the temperature falls, the aether will only grow thicker all across the city. And when she can command that much aether… Woden, help these poor people.
Salvator Fabris stood in the anteroom, exchanging glares with the Turkish guards by the office doors, and by the hallway doors, and by the windows. Each of the men in blue uniform wore a scimitar of Damascus steel, and a Numidian two-shot pistol, and an eclectic collection of mismatched daggers. The Italian sighed, wondering idly how the soldiers kept their belts from falling down under all of that weight.
“It’s been over an hour,” he said in his best Eranian to no one in particular.
None of the soldiers answered.
His left hand went to his own belt, again, and pawed uselessly at the void where his own golden rapier should have been, again. It had galled him to leave his prized possession with the chief of the Hellan armory before he left Constantia, but he knew the weapon would not be allowed into Prince Radu’s presence, and he didn’t trust the Turks to return it to him.
“The last time your ambassador came to the Palace of Constantia, he was shown into a private office where a page kept him quite content with wine and an assortment of cheeses until his meeting with the Duchess,” Salvator said loudly. “I would have thought you might show me the same courtesy, this time. But I see the war effort has strained your resources considerably. You haven’t even a single chair to spare for me, let alone for these eight valiant gentlemen who are doing such a fine job of guarding an empty room and an unarmed guest.”
The hallway door opened and the Turkish ambassador strode in. He was a rotund little man with huge soft jowls and a tiny black mustache plastered to his lip with oil. His suit was well-made but either it had been poorly measured or the ambassador had grown considerably around his middle, because his trousers and shirt were straining under his belt.
“Ah, Fabris!” he cried with a smile. “Such a pleasure to see you again, of course. I hear you have some new proposals and such to share with us, so I hurried down from the temple as quickly as I could.”
“I’m here to speak with the prince,” Salvator said. “Not you, Murat.”
“Oh, yes, of course, but Prince Radu is a very busy man. He is meeting with architects and artists from across the empire, you know. He is planning a most glorious renovation of poor Constantia. I’ve described to him its hideous state of decay and he is most eager to see it restored and rebuilt, once it is part of the empire, of course.”
“Of course.” Salvator sniffed and stared out the window at the slate rooftops of Stamballa and the gleaming domes of the Mazdan Temples. “You do realize of course that, as an Italian, I don’t give a damn about Constantia at all, and nothing you say about it is going to make me angry. I should also point out that nothing you say will make you any less of a fat pustule, or make me any less handsome.”
Murat’s smile faltered.
“Now about that chair.” Salvator peered down his nose at his counterpart and gracefully plucked at his long, silvery mustache.
Murat huffed, cleared his throat, glanced at the soldiers, and went back out into the hallway.
Another hour passed before the hallway doors opened and Prince Radu strode into the anteroom with a dozen grim-faced generals and perfumed servants trailing behind him. The Vlachian prince was a younger version of his brother, but everywhere Vlad was hard and crooked and dark, Radu was softer and straighter and brighter. He smiled easily and moved with the practiced grace of a court dancer.
Salvator performed a grandiose bow and said, “Your Highness, it is an honor and a privilege to see you again. I hope you have been well since our last meeting.”
Radu paused at the doors to the inner office. “Quite well. And you?”
“Never better, Highness.”
Radu glanced back at his retinue. “You should really handle Murat a bit more gently, you know. He’s a fine accountant, but he doesn’t have your wit.”
“No, he doesn’t.” Salvator smiled. “I’ll try to keep that in mind in the future.”
“Your little friend, the major, he is not with you?”
“He was injured this afternoon. Nothing serious, but he couldn’t join me.”
“I’m sorry to hear it. I like him very much. So, is it business or pleasure today, my friend?” Radu opened the office door and led the way inside. He tossed his coat onto the back of the chair behind the desk.
Salvator sauntered inside and several clerks and guards shuffled in behind him to stand along the walls. “Business, if you can call it that. We caught your afternoon performance by the waterfront. I imagine if we were all quiet enough, we could hear the endless encore even now.”
Radu sighed. “These damn immortals. You know, for weeks, we’ve tried to learn his secret. How does he do it? Why can’t he die? Interrogations, torture. Nothing worked, of course.”
“You want to know why he’s immortal?” Salvator shrugged. “I suppose I can see the appeal, especially for a handsome young fellow like yourself. Couldn’t you simply ask your own immortal about it? The Damascena?”
Radu smiled. “You know as well as I do that she does not serve me, does not answer to me in any way. Ask her about immortality? Ha! If I could simply find her, it would be a memorable day. That woman has been a mystery to the Emperors of Eran for ages.”
Salvator chuckled. “It’s good to know we have that in common. And it’s very good to know that you couldn’t pry any secrets from your prisoner.”
“Hmph.” Radu settled into his chair and glanced at the papers on his desk. “Koschei is like a stone. He’s a brute, dressed in half-rotten skins and bloody furs. The only thing of any value we found on him was this.” The prince reached inside the neck of his starched shirt and pulled out a slender black chain from which dangled a small golden pendant.
Salvator squinted at the lumpy trinket. “What is that?”
Radu frowned at it. “I’m not sure, really. It looks like a human heart, vaguely.” He tucked it back into his shirt. “It seemed important to him, so naturally I tried to destroy it. Perhaps it’s a gift from his mother, yes? But my smiths cannot melt it down in their hottest forges, and they cannot smash it with their strongest engines. Ridiculous, isn’t it? So, here it remains.”
One of the clerks slipped out of the room.
Salvator went over to the window and stared at the darkening clouds over the Strait. “I don’t know exactly what you hoped to accomplish with Koschei, but it is having an effect.”
“Ah.” The prince nodded. “Your men are angry and afraid. Some of them will no doubt attempt an ill-fated rescue mission tonight under cover of darkness. They will be slaughtered.”
“The Hellans look scared,” Salvator said. “The Vlachians seem angry. But none of that compares to what’s happening in the witch’s tower. Koschei’s mother is… well, see for yourself.” He pointed at the distant city skyline.
Radu came around the desk and stood beside him. “What is that?”
Across the water, a pale gray cyclone rose from grounds of the Palace of Constantine. It spiraled up into the dark sky where a light scattering of clouds were just beginning to shift and turn around the vortex.
“I’m told it’s aether,” Salvator said. “And any man who gets too close to it falls to the ground, screaming like a child. We had to evacuate half the palace.”
Radu cast him a doubting glance. “Why would you tell me this?”
“Hm?” Salvator raised an eyebrow. “Oh, I simply thought you’d want to know. After all, you butchered Koschei outside our walls to prod some sort of reaction from us, didn’t you? Well, there it is. Koschei’s mother is reacting.”
The prince sighed. “Baba Yaga? I’ve heard the stories, of course, but I left Vlachia when I was very young, long before she visited Vlad. I never met her, or Koschei, at the time. What is she like?”
“She’s quite distasteful.” Salvator paced away from the window. “She’s selfish, childish, unpredictable, and most importantly, she has a startling array of strange abilities that are making life in Constantia very unpleasant at this moment.”
Radu nodded sternly. “Good.”
“I’m afraid it isn’t good at all, Highness,” the Italian said. “You see, our aether expert has told us that when the sun sets and the temperature falls tonight, the aether will grow thicker. Much thicker. And that annoying little tornado over the palace will become a massive storm, hurling aether across both cities, and then you too will have men lying in the streets, screaming like children.”
The prince paused. “I don’t believe you.”
There was a knock at the door. “I’m afraid you should believe him, Your Highness.”
Salvator turned. An older gentleman stood in the doorway dressed in long, heavy green robes and in the thick black sash around his waist was the familiar scabbard and grip of a seireiken.
So the Sons of Osiris are here after all.
The Italian stepped quickly forward and held out his hand. “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced, Signore…?”
The shorter man shook his arm free of his sleeve and embraced the offered hand. “I am Master Iruka of Alexandria, advisor to the holy prince.”
Salvator carefully gauged the man’s handshake, noting the rough palm and warm skin, and the thick veins around the wrist.
A fighter. A strong one.
“Salvator Fabris, ambassador from Her Grace, the Duchess Nerissa.”
“A pleasure.” Iruka nodded curtly as he slipped his hand back into his long sleeve as he turned to the prince. “My lord, what the ambassador has said is true. If that is indeed a storm of aether, when the sun sets it will surely grow larger and more powerful. And there will be nothing I or anyone else here can do to stop it.”
Radu frowned very intently at the man in green. “And when it reaches us, you believe we will all be reduced to screaming children, lying on the ground, as Signore Fabris claims?”
“If that is what the aether is doing to the Hellans, it will certainly have the same effect on our own people.” Iruka bowed his shaven head.
Radu glared at both of them as he circled back around his desk and dropped heavily into his chair. “Immortals, aether, plagues! Vlad is grasping at straws. He knows he cannot defeat me, he knows that Constantia must fall and the Church with it. The empire will rule both banks of the Bosporus. It is inevitable. Why can’t he see that!?” He gripped the arms of his chair.
“I don’t presume to speak for your brother,” Salvator said calmly. “But I’ve come to know him fairly well these past few months, and I can say with some certainty that he will defy you simply to defy you, Highness. If any other man sat in your chair, Vlad would never have left Vlachia to join the war and Constantia might already be conquered. Vlad is not here for the city, or for the Church, or even for Lady Nerissa. He’s here to fight you. To spite you. To punish you.”
“Really?” Radu looked up, his body beginning to sag as he slumped lower in his chair.
“Yes. You left your country and your family and your faith,” the Italian said. “And he took that very personally.”
“That’s all very interesting, but it has little bearing on the matter at hand. Iruka, how do I defeat a storm of aether?”
The Aegyptian bowed his head once more. “I am sorry, Your Highness. But these are uncommon arts. Aether-craft is still a rudimentary science, at best. No one of my order could possibly defeat someone as powerful as Baba Yaga.”
“You don’t have to defeat her,” Salvator said. “She’s a dreadful creature, but not a mysterious one. You’re torturing her son right in front of her, and she’s throwing a fit. The only difference between her and a fishwife is that when a fishwife stamps her foot the heavens don’t roar in agreement with her.”
“So what?” Radu glared up through his black brows. “You want me to free Koschei to stop Yaga’s tantrum? Just let him go? Give Vlad back his greatest warrior, an unkillable Rus juggernaut? Never.”
“We could come to some arrangement,” Salvator said. “An exchange of assurances. You return Koschei, and we send him and his mother back to Rus. We remove both of them from the equation. That would satisfy everyone, wouldn’t it?”
Radu laughed, his face suddenly transformed from a dark scowl to a youthful smile. “You expect me to simply trust you? To trust that you will send away Koschei the Deathless, that he will never return to slaughter my men on the field of battle?”
The Italian shrugged. “I’m merely here to suggest solutions that will make both parties happy, Highness. The sun is setting, and I would prefer to spend the night pleasantly, in my bed, preferably with a bottle of wine and a young female companion. I have no desire to collapse to the floor and scream until the dawn lifts the aether.”
Radu’s smile faded and he sighed. “You’re being serious, aren’t you? This aether business, Yaga, all of it. You’re telling the truth, yes?”
“Very well, then. Give me Yaga.”
The Italian stared at him. “What?”
“She misses her son, she grieves for his injuries. I understand this.” The prince held out his hands. “Surrender her to me and I swear no harm will come to her, as long as she does not attempt to harm me. She will be reunited with her son, and I will place the both of them in a very comfortable estate a few leagues to the south where they will be out of the way for the remainder of this war.”
Damn him. I didn’t expect that from him. It’s a shrewd play. It solves everyone’s problem, avoids violence, and leaves him with one more immortal prisoner. Who’s been schooling him in negotiations? The Sons of Osiris, I suppose.
“A reasonable proposal,” Salvator said quietly. “Politically, it’s quite sound, and under any other conditions I would be almost eager to present your terms to the Duchess.”
“But what you are proposing would require us to somehow bring you the woman in question, either by coercion or by violence, and quickly too. The sun will be setting very soon,” Salvator said. “I would have to return to the palace, mount an armed force, and somehow penetrate this storm of aether without being rendered insane, capture Baba Yaga, and drag her to your ship to be reunited with her son.”
“I see your point,” Radu said. “Whereas, if I were to concede to your terms, I could have Koschei set free in a matter of minutes in plain sight of his mother, and all would be resolved.”
“My thought exactly.”
“It’s quite a trap you’ve set for me,” said the prince. “If I believe you, then I have only a few minutes to free my prisoner to prevent a storm of madness from crippling my people. But, if I don’t believe you, if I call your bluff, if I choose to go about my business, then perhaps nothing will happen at all, and that puff of wind over your city will simply blow away.”
Salvator paused, wondering what else he might say.
“Most holy prince,” Iruka said, again bowing his bare head. “If I may be so bold, I would advise you to accept what you see and what you have been told as truth. I have studied aether for many years, and I assure you that the storm over the palace is not a natural one, and if it does engulf Stamballa, as I believe it will, we will all suffer. The city will be defenseless for hours, perhaps even days.”
“If that’s true, then Constantia was be just as weak,” Radu countered. “They could not attack us. Anyone who came near would fall victim to this storm. And besides, even if Baba Yaga is causing this, how do I know she is not simply performing to the tune of our Italian friend here? What if she isn’t mad with grief at all? Perhaps this is merely a threat to try to pry Koschei from my grasp. She will not attack the Hellans, or us. Fabris can call her off at any time.”
“I assure you, I cannot,” Salvator said.
“You assure me?” Radu stood up sharply and tugged his dress jacket down smartly over his chest. “Who are you to assure me? You are no councilor of mine, no trusted advisor to the imperial court. You serve my enemies!” He slammed his fist down on the corner of the desk as he circled it to stand beside the other men.
This has gone on long enough.
“Yes, I suppose I do serve your enemies, Highness.” Salvator’s hand shot out and ripped the seireiken from the green-robed monk’s sash. The scabbard flew off the blade and clattered against the wall as the sun-steel sword bathed the room in a warm golden light. Ripples of heat danced around the edges of the blade.
The seireiken was heavier and shorter than his rapier, and the knowledge that even touching the flat of the blade was deadly did nothing to soothe Salvator’s peace of mind. But still, it was a weapon, and a terrifying one at that.
Suddenly everyone in the room was quite still and silent, and every eye was fixed on the shining sword. Salvator swung the tip of the blade casually past Iruka’s face, passing just before his eyes, and then he pointed the bright sword at the sweating prince. “Highness, I could kill you and everyone in this room before you could cry out for your guards. I could imprison your souls in this hideous sword and leave you trapped in there for all eternity, and I could slaughter my way out of this palace and sail back to my beloved Rome, where I will live out my days, never giving any of you a second thought.”
Radu wet his lips. “Fabris…”
“But I’m not going to do that,” the Italian said. “With you dead, no one would free poor Koschei and his mother would drive everyone mad, but sooner or later your emperor would send someone else to command the siege and this war would go on, and on. And if I was very unlucky, I might even be caught in this aether storm of insanity myself.”
“I see,” said the prince, his eyes never leaving the golden shimmer of the sword. “So when words fail, you resort to violence like any other man, Fabris?”
Salvator smiled. “I didn’t become the Supreme Knight of the Order of Seven Hearts without a certain flair for violence, Highness.”
“Very well, then. I accept your terms. Koschei goes free, immediately.”
Salvator nodded and lowered the sword as he backed away toward the window. “Excellent. You won’t mind if I just oversee the orders and make sure all is in order before I return this little trinket of yours, would you?”
The bullwhip crack of a pistol shot rang out.
Salvator grimaced as the searing pain began to radiate out from his belly. He saw the trail of smoke rising from inside Iruka’s right sleeve. The monk’s hand glided out with a tiny Numidian gun clutched in his hairy fingers.
“Damn you.” Salvator dropped the seireiken as he leaned heavily against the wall and pressed his hand to his stomach and felt the warm blood staining his shirt. He glanced down at his bloody hand and then looked up at the prince. “I despise guns.”
And he fell to the floor.
Tycho sat on a cold, wet stone beneath the Galata Bridge and stared out across the dark waters of the Bosporus. On his right he could follow the outer walls of the Palace of Constantine out to the Seraglio Point, and from there it was a short distance to the three ironclad warships sitting in the middle of the Strait.
A young man called Lycus clambered down from the upper road and crouched beside the major. “Sir, the sun’s down. It’s getting pretty dark out there. And it looks like the storm around the tower is getting bigger.”
Tycho nodded and checked his revolver one last time. “All right then. It looks like Salvator didn’t get anywhere with the Turks after all, so it’s down to us.”
“Don’t worry, sir. We’ll get through them just fine.” The youth grinned and ran his hand over his shaved head.
All of the marines had recently shaved their heads, and at that moment Tycho couldn’t remember why.
They were probably drunk.
Nearly one hundred of the lightly clothed youths stood in the shadows under the bridge with their dozens of little boats bobbing in the shallows. They wore no uniforms, no boots, and no armor, but every last one them had two knives and a Mazigh revolver, and they knew how to use them.
Tycho stood up. “Let’s get moving. You all have you orders.”
The marines flashed cruel and eager grins as they headed down to the water, climbed into their boats, and slipped silently out into the river.
Tycho sat in the bow of his dory and two young men rowed him out into the center of the channel where the Hellan destroyers sat at anchor, protecting the Galata Bridge. When the dory came alongside the Herakles, a sailor at the rail lowered a knotted rope. Tycho grabbed the line and was lifted up to the deck of the warship, and then he hurried to the bridge to tell the captain that it was time to begin.
The shadows of the palace walls blanketed the channel, masking the rippling waters and the dozens of tiny boats quietly rowing down the river toward the Strait and the three Furies. The Herakles and two of its escorts rumbled to life and pale columns of steam rose from their engines. Tycho stood in the corner of the bridge, watching the sailors go about their business, shouting orders down to the engine room and pulling levers and spinning wheels. The Hellan destroyers shuddered as their screws bit into the cold waters and the ships crept forward.
“Lights,” Tycho said.
“Ensign, lights,” the captain said.
“Lights, aye.” The young officer began flicking switches and a dozen huge electric lamps snapped and buzzed on the bow, throwing a hideous white glare out over the water, aimed upward away from the tiny dories and the marines rowing silently in the dark.
Tycho paced quietly over to the chart table where the captain was frowning at the depth markings. “You don’t look very confident, captain.”
“We need more ships for this,” the older man muttered.
“I agree, but we don’t have more ships to risk.”
“We shouldn’t be risking any ships like this, not for a single man.”
Tycho nodded. “We’re not doing this for a single man. You really think I would risk my precious marines for Koschei? No. We’re doing this to save the entire city.”
“You said that before. But from what exactly?”
Tycho glanced out the dark windows, over the walls of the palace, to the slender spire wrapped in white storm winds. “From that.”
The aether maelstrom had doubled since he last saw it, growing wider and taller, and now as he stared at it Tycho could see slender ribbons of white mist streaming out from the storm over the city and over the Strait.
“We don’t have much time.”
As the Hellan ships accelerated down the channel toward the Furies, Tycho lingered by the window and peered into the storm, searching for the outline of the Tower of Justice.
That poor girl. All alone in there. I can’t believe I just left her there. I should have… done something. Gone back. Gotten her out.
Tycho turned back to the captain. “What hope do we have of actually damaging those warships?”
The captain glanced up from the map table. “None.”
“Don’t spare my feelings, sir, I can handle the truth.” Tycho forced a grin. “What if we angle the guns up at the command deck instead of down at the hull?”
“We’ll kill a few officers while their guns shatter our hulls and destroy our engines.”
Tycho sighed. “Ah, the soldier’s life for me.”
The captain strode past him, saying, “You’re a sailor tonight, Xenakis.”
The Herakles and her escorts bore down on the Furies, and now Tycho could see the lights shifting on the decks of the Eranian ironclads. The three warships were turning to meet their attackers, their electric lights flickering and blinking in the darkness as the Turks ran back and forth across the decks to their battle stations.
“We’ll bear northeast and draw their fire in that direction,” the captain said. “With any luck, they won’t notice your boys coming up out of the water until it’s too late.”
With any luck. If we had luck, we wouldn’t have needed Vlad, or Koschei, and we wouldn’t be sacrificing three ships and a thousand good men to stop a witch from driving us all insane. No, we won’t have any luck tonight.
The Hellan destroyers swept to the northeast and the guns began to fire. A soft boom here, a distant crack there. And then a few more. And more, a little faster. As the enemy ships came together, they came within range of the enemy guns one by one, and one by one they opened fire.
Shells exploded in the water, hurling tall white spouts of spray into the air.
That one was damn close.
Tycho moved away from the windows.
I’m only in the way here. I shouldn’t be here at all. I should be in the palace, protecting the Duchess. I should be trying to help Wren…
A shell struck the hull of the Herakles and the whole ship shuddered for a moment. Men were shouting and screaming outside. The captain calmly issued orders, and the bridge crew calmly obeyed them. Engines at one quarter, all guns fire at will, fire team to the armory, medics to the armory.
Tycho watched the mechanical precision and stoic demeanor of the sailors around him, wondering if there had ever been a field of battle on dry land like this one.
Rifles began crackling and popping as the men on deck fired at each other across the water. The Hellan ships were spread out in a long line, cruising slowly past the Eranians with their hissing electric flood lamps glaring up at the enemy decks.
Directly ahead of the Herakles, the lead Hellan escort ship’s engines exploded in a rolling firestorm that flew up into the sky and painted the rippling waters in yellow and red. Bodies were thrown in every direction and the survivors dove over the railings into the freezing Bosporus.
Tycho shoved a sweating hand back through his hair and tried to slow the pounding of his heart.
You never see the shot that kills you. It just kills you, and that’s it.
He swallowed and went to the rear door of the bridge, exchanged a grim nod with the captain, and headed below.
Another shell struck the Herakles and Tycho clung to the handrails and walls to keep his balance at the ship groaned and shivered around him. A sailor scrambled past him and Tycho called out, “Where are the wounded?”
“Aft!” and the sailor was gone.
Frowning, Tycho headed aft, and down another deck, and aft again until he found the fire team throwing buckets of water on the smoldering decks and hacking at the smoking walls with their axes. One of the men pointed Tycho down the narrow corridor and he hurried to the far side of the ship where he found nine burned and bloodied men lying on the floor with two very young and very nervous medics trying to bandage them up.
“Major Xenakis, sir!” One of the medics bolted up.
Tycho waved him back to work. “Give me those bandages, and find some more blankets.” He knelt down beside one of the injured men.
“Sir, is there something you need?” the medic asked.
“No.” Tycho began wrapping up a bloody leg. “I just need to be busy right now.”
They’re out there, right now. My marines. My boys. If not for me, they’d probably be sleeping in some barracks right now, safe and sound. But I had to open my big mouth, and well, here they are.
The Herakles shook and from down the long corridors the voices of the sailors and the keening of the bulkheads echoed thunderously.
I had to show off my damn gun. I had to be so smart.
He recalled his tirade to Salvator, which had caught the Duchess’s attention from the far end of the Chamber of Petitions.
Why fight a powerful ship when all you need is to disable the crew? Why pit man against man when a gun will kill the enemy at a distance? We don’t need to be strong, we need to be fast and silent and precise.
One thing had led to another, and within three months he had founded a whole new force of young marines, all trained in gunplay and knife throwing, all trained to swarm a ship silently from fragile little dories wearing nothing more than rags.
They must be on the Eranian ship by now.
Tycho tried to focus on his bandaging.
They’re dying right now. Some of them are dying. And it’s because I put them there.
He finished with his patient and moved on to the next one.
It’s awfully quiet out there right now. Maybe they’re doing well. Maybe they’ve found Koschei. Maybe this stupid plan will work out after all.
“Good God, sir, what’s that?!”
Tycho looked up and saw a pale shape snaking its way along the deck. “Aether! It’s the aether, it’s here. Get the men up, get them out of here!” He jumped to his feet and began yanking at the injured man in front of him as the two medics grabbed the arms and legs of another man and fumbled him down the hall, heading farther aft.
Tycho pulled and pulled, but he could only shift the wounded sailor a few steps and the curling, writhing tendril of white mist was flowing closer and closer to him.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered as he dropped the sailor. He stumbled backward the first few paces, keeping his eyes on the mist. Then he heard the screams.
Men were screaming in the distance, their voices echoing across the waters and in the narrow steel canyons between the ships’ hulls. There were no words, no cries for help, no names, no pleas. Just wordless shrieks of pain and terror.
Tycho turned and ran back down the hall. At the end of the corridor was a locked door and he pounded on it, yelling, “Let me in! Let me in!”
But the door remained shut, and there was no sound of anyone on the other side.
The entire hull of the Herakles shuddered and groaned as the ship began to list to starboard, and the growling and crackling sounds of fire echoed in the distance while yellow and red lights danced on the walls.
And along the floor of the corridor, the thin fingers of the aether mist crept toward him.
Tycho pulled out his revolver and glanced around at the walls, but there was only one target. He flattened himself against the inner bulkhead, aimed, and fired.
The first bullet shattered the window, and the next four shots smashed away the bits of the frame and small chunks of the wall, splintering the wooden panels and revealing a few ragged glimpses of the black night outside.
Tycho holstered his gun with one bullet still in the chamber, climbed up onto the handrail, and began kicking at the window frame. It creaked and cracked, and then suddenly burst apart and a piece of the wall disappeared out into the darkness. The resulting hole was not large, barely larger than the window had been, but it would do.
The small major scrambled up into the jagged gap, stabbing and cutting his hands on the broken boards. For a moment his jacket snagged, and he was caught half in and half out of the ship, dangling high above the black waves. He stared down into the darkness, gasping for breath.
I am an idiot.
The wood crackled and snapped and the man tumbled out of the ship just as the aether clouds slithered over his boots. He spun sideways and smashed down into the water shoulder first. The freezing Bosporus stabbed him in the ear and shocked his heart and clawed at his warm skin. He opened his mouth to gasp and choked on the cold brine rushing into his mouth and nose.
Everything was dark and icy and churning with bubbles and surging with liquid force, tumbling him head over heels. Tycho kicked and pulled and swept his arms back and forth, squinting into the dark for some hint of where to go. He glimpsed a flash of fire and swam toward it, and his head broke the surface. The night air felt warm in his mouth, but the breeze slashed through his wet hair and skin like an icicle.
“Help!” Another mouthful of water stung his tongue and he gurgled and spat as he struggled to breathe. “Help! Anyone!”
Tycho twisted around and saw two of the little dories just a stone’s throw away, each with a handful of young marines aboard. “Lycus?”
One of the boats paddled near and several hands reached down and hauled Tycho up and out of the water. He slumped down to the bottom of the dory clutching his chest. The cold had cut him deeply, well under the skin and into the muscle and had begun to scratch at his bones.
Another minute in that water and I’d be dead.
“Sir, what do we do?”
Tycho sat up, shivering, and looked at the three scared young faces leaning over him. The other boat was coming alongside them now with four more marines, some clutching bleeding or burnt wounds. Out across the water, the Herakles was leaning dangerously to starboard and most of it was blanketed in white mist. What few parts of the ship remained dry were on fire, and from somewhere within her hull there were voices screaming.
Farther out, Tycho could see the remains of the lead Hellan ship smoking as it sank beneath the waves. The three Furies remained intact, all three still at anchor and none on fire, but none of the Turks were firing now. Their guns were silent and their lights pointed out at every angle at nothing in particular, illuminating empty patches of the Strait or burning flotsam.
“They’re not shooting at us,” Lycus said softly. “Why aren’t they shooting?”
“Listen.” Tycho nodded at the Furies.
And over the roar of the flames and the growl of the engines and the slosh of the waves, they heard the distant screams of the Turks.
“We have to get away from this mist.” Tycho pointed the marines to the oars, and they began turning the dories. “Get to the north side of the channel, fast as you can. And don’t worry about making any noise. I don’t think anyone is listening for us anymore.”
The young men set to rowing and the burning ships began to recede into the darkness as the aether continued to billow out from the palace, swallowing up the city and the waters a bit more with each passing moment.
It’s happening just like Omar said it would. The old witch has all the aether in a hundred leagues at her command now and she’s going to drive us all insane, all for her precious Koschei.
Tycho turned his back to the ships and faced the dark shore ahead. And then he turned to his right and gazed out over the Strait to the twinkling lights of Stamballa.
Salvator never came back. Poor bastard. Radu has never liked either of us, but I always thought he disliked Salvator a little less. I guess that Italian charm didn’t go as far as he thought it would. I wonder if he’s in a cell right now. Or just dead.
“We’ll go back to the barracks by the bridge,” he said quietly.
Lycus nodded. “We all need more ammunition, and we can meet up with-”
“No, we’re not regrouping,” Tycho said. “We’re retreating. We’ll lock ourselves inside and wait out the storm in there. We can go down into the cellars. If we’re lucky, the aether won’t reach us there. We’ll keep our heads down and wait for morning.”
“And what happens in the morning, sir?”
Tycho shrugged. “With any luck, the sun will come up and we’ll still be alive to see it.”
Omar Bakhoum raced through the streets of Constantia on the back of a massive Hellan warhorse. The beast snorted with every breath and its hooves thundered on the old stone roads of the city. Just ahead of him rode Prince Vlad and just behind him rode several hundred Vlachian archers, all clad in heavy leathers and worn furs, all bearing wickedly curved short bows and thick-bladed swords.
Faces filled the windows and doorways of the houses and shops and inns, all staring out at the riders in grim silence. Men stood smoking and drinking by the doors, saluting the soldiers as they passed. The children peered down from their bedrooms, some waving little flags or toys at the archers.
The company charged through the shadows of the city, plunging down long straight avenues, and clattering ever farther away from the Palace of Constantine. Somewhere behind them, the Tower of Justice was still wrapped in its aether cyclone and hundreds of soldiers and servants were still lying on the ground, the veins in their necks bulging, their eyes straining in their sockets, as they screamed in unending terror.
Lady Nerissa had sent the Italian to bargain with Radu for Koschei’s life, knowing that it would do no good, but the attempt had to be made. She had also sent the dwarf to coordinate a hastily designed rescue plan that also had no hope of success, but again the attempt had to be made. As the screams had filled the palace, no suggestion was dismissed and no option left unused.
But as the hour drew late and the sun dipped below the horizon, Vlad had seized command. A company of Hellans had escorted the Duchess out of the palace toward another fortress at the western end of the city where she might be safe from the aether. As the palace was evacuated, Vlad had prepared to move his own men to other forts and barracks until a messenger stumbled into the war room, his face pale and drenched in cold sweat. The man had staggered forward, clutched the sleeve of the Vlachian prince, and said, “The deathless ones are at the north gate.”
And now they raced to the north gate, every soldier they could find in or near the palace, most mounted but many left running along behind the company on foot.
Omar frowned at the dark road ahead.
They’re not a deathless army. They’re a mob of half-frozen bodies stumbling through the night, half-crazed, trapped between the truth of their deaths and the fantasy that they might still be alive.
A few bonfires and a bit of patience is all that’s needed to turn them back, to melt the frozen aether in their blood, and to free their poor souls.
So how is it that they’re defeating armed men and attacking cities?
They reached the gate and found it in chaos. Hellan and Vlachian soldiers already swarmed across the walls above, firing burning arrows out into the darkness and screaming for more shafts, more pitch, and more flint. On the ground the men dashed back and forth in search of beams and stones to pile up against the gate itself and already a small mountain of debris obscured the armored doors and steel portcullis.
Vlad dropped from his saddle, drew his bright shining seireiken, and started barking orders at the archers. The Vlachians leapt from their horses and charged up the stone stairs to the top of the wall where they shouldered their way in and among the Hellans and let loose a fresh torrent of arrows.
Omar watched Vlad waving his gleaming sword about for a minute, and then the Aegyptian slipped into the shadows and headed down the dark road along the wall. It took him several minutes to get away from the chaos of the gate houses, away from the soldiers, but he found a quiet stretch of road and a small iron stair that spiraled up to the top of the wall. The stair was locked behind a rusty steel door, but a sharp blow from his seireiken shattered the lock and Omar jogged up the creaking steps.
At the top of the wall, he could see for miles over the dark hills of Thrace where the snow lay in thin icy sheets and the half-dead olive arbors shivered like naked skeletons in the winter wind. And all the way down the long dark road from the distant hills to the north gate of Constantia marched the army of the dead.
The pale bodies, clothed in rags and dirt and ice, strode down the highway on stiff legs clutching broken sticks and jagged rocks in their cold blue hands. And here and there, Omar saw the flash of steel as the starlight played on the swords that the deathless ones had taken from the fallen soldiers at Saray.
My God. There really are hundreds of them. Thousands of them.
The Vlachian arrows rained down on the walking corpses, but precious few of the dead actually fell to the ground. Most of them just staggered on, bristling with arrow shafts. A thick knot of the frozen bodies was already pressed up against the gate, and it was growing thicker with each passing moment.
It’s hard to imagine how these creatures could possibly breach a defended wall like this, but still, better safe than sorry.
Omar shuffled along the top of the wall, picking through the discarded tools and weapons on the narrow walkway. Under a tarp he found a coil of rope, one frayed and stiff with frost. He pulled it out and tied the end around the railing of the iron stairs, and threw the coil over the wall.
“There are easier ways to die, old man,” a woman said.
Omar smiled, but didn’t look up. “For people like us, there are no easy ways to die.”
Boots clacked softly on the wall to his right. He turned and saw Nadira lean out over the wall to look at the army of the dead. “I could take your head.”
Omar made a sour face. “There’s no guarantee that would kill me. I know from personal experience that whole limbs can grow back in less than a day. I’d hate to find out how long it takes to grow a new head.”
Nadira jerked her chin at the pale corpses below. “What are they so worked up about?”
“Who knows? Their tongues are all frozen,” Omar said. “And frankly I don’t care. I just don’t want to see this lovely city overrun with filthy dead people.”
“Such a romantic.”
“You’re one to talk. How does a nun become a soldier, by the way?”
She peered at him from her perch down the wall. “You stop being a nun in small steps, bit by bit, as your faith wanes and your heart turns to wood. But you become a soldier all at once, in a moment of steel and blood.”
Omar grunted. “You’ll have to tell me more about that some time.”
“I doubt it.”
“Yes, well, either way, I need to go down there and make some sense of all this. Care to join me?”
“Then why are you here?”
“Because I’d rather kill these things here in Hellas than wait until they cross the Strait and start moving south toward Damascus.”
Omar smiled. “Ah, Damascus, home of the fabled Damascena. You see? You’re a sentimental old fool, too.”
She didn’t answer.
With a weary sigh, Omar climbed up onto the wall, grabbed hold of the rough rope, and began climbing down toward the ground. It was farther than it looked, and the shadows made it hard to guess where the ground actually was, so when he finally reached the bottom it was both a relief and a surprise.
“Took you long enough.”
He frowned at her as she stepped out of the shadow of the wall. “You just jumped, didn’t you?”
“Why not? A broken leg, a broken neck? It only hurts for a moment. Come on, old timer, let’s see if you’ve learned how to use that shiny knife of yours yet.” Nadira strode past him, her boots crunching through the icy snow toward the road and the shambling press of cold bodies full of arrows.
Omar followed in no particular hurry. He took the moment to look at her more closely. Nothing about her face had changed except the dirt, and the short hair. He leaned his head to one side.
Funny that we can cut our hair without it instantly growing back to the same length. Perhaps it’s because hair isn’t truly alive anymore.
She wore ancient Damascus armor, pitted and dented and missing strips and chunks of steel here and there. Beneath it was a much newer Eranian uniform, blue and white, though thoroughly stained with old blood and new filth. She drew her saber and let the slender curving blade rest on her shoulder as she stomped over the broken ground and through the dead grasses toward the road. Her blade was common steel, but expertly forged by the masters in Damascus and stamped with the telltale veins and marbling and etching that proclaimed the excellence of the weapon.
My seireiken could reduce it to melted slag simply by touching it. All of that skill, all of that work, all of that beauty reduced to hideous waste without any effort at all.
The story of my life.
He followed her and his attention drifted away from the woman’s armored backside to the thousands of corpses groaning and gasping as they shuffled down the road toward the gate. The arrows still flew fast and thick, pelting the half-frozen bodies and the road, thumping with a murderous rhythm.
This is the strangest battlefield I have ever seen. No shouting, no waving weapons, no flags or standards, no trumpets, no leaders. Just a mob of peasants who are already dead but can’t quite slip free of their frozen flesh.
Omar wrapped his fingers around the grip of his seireiken. The woven shark skin of the handle was cold and smooth, worn by centuries of use. Instantly, as he touched his weapon, a sea of faces appeared around him floating in the darkness, the faces of the dead, the faces of the souls who rested inside the blade of the seireiken.
It took some small effort of will to keep the thousands of ghosts at arm’s length. They were all so hungry for attention, so eager to be spoken to, to have their knowledge valued once again as it had been in life. But Omar had spoken with them all, and while many still had some wisdom to offer, many of them were simply too old and too primitive to be of much use anymore.
The dim shade of Ito Daisuke appeared at Omar’s side, walking silently over the icy snow. “More demons?” the samurai asked.
“Corpses,” Omar answered quietly so that Nadira would not hear him talking to himself. “Dead bodies with souls still clinging to them, driving them across the land.”
“Why here?” Daisuke glanced up at the dark walls of Constantia. “Why would the dead all want to come here?”
“I don’t know. Most of them are just farmers and laborers from Thrace and Vlachia and Raska, I suppose. There’s no reason for them to all come south. Most of them would never have come here in life. And the warmer air during the day would only threaten to melt the aether in their blood and let their souls slip free.”
“Maybe that’s it then. They seek the warmth that will set them free.”
“Maybe.” Omar frowned. “But if they only wanted warmth, they could find that at any simple farmer’s hearth. There’s no need to march across the country. And why attack people? Why slaughter soldiers?”
“I cannot say. The demons of Nippon may be foul and hideous, but they are often of noble blood with noble goals. I haven’t seen such mindless creatures as these before.” Daisuke sighed. “The moon has risen. So beautiful, so serene. A white blade in the sea of stars. Silent. Simple. Perfect.”
Omar nodded. “I’m going to need your help here in a moment. Can you slaughter an army for me?”
“Of course,” the dead warrior said. “There may be no honor in the combat itself, but there is honor in defending a beautiful city and the thousands of innocents who dwell there.”
“I’m glad we agree. You’ll need to focus on the necks and shoulders and hips. Decapitations and dismemberments.”
“As you wish.”
Ahead, Nadira had stopped at the crest of a small rise to look down on the road and the shuffling mass of dead flesh flowing toward the city. “Are you ready, old timer?”
“I am.” Omar drew his seireiken and the light of its blade illuminated the entire road all the way to the gate. Hundreds of the walking dead all flinched and recoiled from the light, stumbling sideways away from his side of the road. But then they looked up and saw the two living warriors standing just above them. “Remind me why we’re doing this?”
“Because it will be easier to fight them here than inside the city when they’re tearing apart the women and the children with their dead, frozen fingers,” Nadira said as she took her silvery sword off her shoulder and spat on the ground. She wiped her sleeve across her nose and sniffed.
Omar glanced at her with a despairing look. “You were so demure, once.”
She rolled her eyes at him. “You’re starting to sound like Gideon.” And she dashed down the slope to the road.
“Gideon? Have you spoken with Gideon lately?” he called after her. “Damn it.”
Omar charged down the slope after her with his bright seireiken held low and as he plunged into the press of dead bodies, his sword’s light rippled over the faces and hands of the angry corpses. Hissing electric arcs raced up and down the razor-sharp blade, and when he reached the center of the road, he raised his sword.
In that moment, he was no longer Omar Bakhoum. He allowed the spirit of Ito Daisuke to flow over his body, washing over his skin like a cold wind and gently taking control of his hands and feet.
And the dead samurai whispered, “Begin.”
Omar exploded into motion, his blade flying in blazing white arcs high and low on every side as the roaring army of the dead closed in upon him. The burning white blade of the seireiken seared through the necks and shoulders and knees of the mob as Omar lunged left and right, attacking on every side at once, driving back the tide of blue faces again and again.
Severed heads and limbs fell to the ground with rhythmic precision, and the bodies fell a moment later, quickly piling up into rounded walls of flesh and cloth and dirt. Omar tried to relax as much as he could, allowing the motions of Daisuke’s ghost to guide his body, but his body was still very much flesh and bone, and within the first few moments of the battle Omar could feel his arms and back beginning to ache.
But the samurai raged on, butchering the dead with relentless skill and artistry. Every cut was perfect and every flourish brought one more corpse to its knees as the blinding seireiken flashed again and again and again.
The island of motionless bodies around him grew wider with each passing moment, and Omar found himself dashing and lunging around the edge of his abattoir, spiraling slowly outward until the entire width of the road was nothing but dark lumps and mounds from one side to the other.
“Arrows,” the samurai whispered.
“What?” Omar spun around and Daisuke slashed a pair of arrows out of the air before they could pierce the Aegyptian’s back. He blinked. “Oh.”
They returned to the fray but found that the marching dead to the north of him were no longer marching down the road. The stiff-legged corpses were stumbling out into the fields to the east and west, shuffling clumsily through the tall dead grass and the thick snow covered in ice.
Omar cut down his last blue-faced man and turned to look back toward the city. The moaning mass of the dead still pounded on the gate, pressing against the armored doors as the Vlachian arrows poured down from the top of the wall.
“Nadira!” He jogged toward the wall, scanning the crowd. “Nadira!”
He looked to his left and saw her sitting on a small stack of pale blue bodies at the side of the road in the shadows of a tree. Omar grinned. “Tired?”
“A little bit.” She nodded at the gate. “Is there any chance you can get your friends up there to stop shooting at us while we’re cleaning up this mess?”
“Probably not.” He slipped his seireiken back into its clay-lined scabbard, instantly plunging the road back into utter darkness. “You mentioned Gideon a moment ago.”
“Did I?” She shrugged. “I run into him every few hundred years. He’s still carrying a torch for me.”
“But you don’t feel the same way?”
She flashed a brief, cold smile. “No, I don’t feel the same way.”
Omar glanced out at the road again, seeing the small hills and ridges of dead bodies as though for the first time. “Good God. And this is what you do now? Haunt the battlefields, year after year, slaughtering men, filling up graveyards? I had such high hopes for you. Noble ambitions. We were going to save mankind, you and me, and Gideon, and the others. We were going to meet God. We were going to find all the answers, the meaning of it all. Life and death, and the immortal soul…”
He gestured helplessly at the dark road full of dismembered corpses. “And look at us now. We’re little more than animals. Killers. We’re destroying the world, not saving it.”
“Don’t be so dramatic.” Nadira stood up and rested her saber on her shoulder. “Tonight we’re saving lives, the lives of the innocents living in this city, and the lives of the soldiers who would be out here dying for their lovely duchess if not for us. And when I haunt my battlefields, I’m saving the lives of my people.”
“For Damascus. My home. My people.”
Omar sighed. “That’s a very narrow view of the world. A single city. A few thousand souls. We were meant to serve so much more.”
“Maybe you were, but not me.” Nadira spat in the road and started walking toward the gate. “I keep my city safe, and I keep her sons safe so they can go home to their wives and make babies and keep my city alive, until the next war. That’s what I am.”
“That’s not enough,” he called after her.
“It’s more than enough. Now get your ass moving. We’ve got things to kill.”
Omar nodded and started forward, but he paused to stare up at the eastern end of the black walls. There in the distance, he could see the pale thin fingers of the aether just beginning to slip over the battlements, and he could hear men screaming.
Wren stood by the railing and watched the ships burning in the Strait. The screams came from everywhere now, some in the palace, some in the city. The thin wailing sounds skittered up and down her spine, and she shivered as she gripped the edge of the balcony. The maelstrom of aether was now a great flood of mist pouring up the sides of the tower high into the air where it blossomed outward, spilling across the city in thin streamers of palest blue and green.
“I can’t let you do this.” She shook her head slowly, trying to summon up the courage to face the woman beside her. Wren swallowed and turned.
Baba Yaga stood just a few paces away, both of her thin hands clutching the railing as she stared out at the ships beyond the Seraglio Point. “You don’t have children of your own, do you, girl?”
Wren shook her head. “No, but I hope to, one day. I think.”
“Then you don’t know what it means to love someone, to truly love someone, beyond all reason, beyond all sense, beyond life and death,” the old witch said. “Husbands and wives choose each other, falling in and out of love on a whim, blinded by lust or jealousy or greed. It’s nothing like the love you will have for your child.”
Yaga let go of the balcony and turned to face Wren, to tower over her, to take the girl’s shoulders in her bony hands. “When you feel the child growing inside of you, it will terrify you like nothing else. The knowledge that there is a living creature trapped inside your body, feeding on your flesh, beating upon your bones from the inside, and all building toward the day when he will burst forth, red and white and vile. A hideous wrinkled thing, glaring and screaming, covered in your blood, covered in your filth.”
Wren tried to pull away, but the witch held her fast.
“And then you’ll take this tiny monster in your arms, and wipe away the blood and the filth, and he will look at you. He will look into you,” Yaga said. “And after all the pain, all the misery, what do you? After all you have endured and sacrificed, all you have given to him, do you hurl him away and dash out his brains for a moment of peace? No. You give him even more. You press his mouth to your breast and you feed him the milk of your flesh.”
Wren looked away but the witched grabbed her chin and yanked her gaze back to the old woman’s face.
“And you’ll go on feeding him, day after exhausting day. Feeding him, washing him, protecting him from the world, protecting him even from himself.” Yaga released Wren’s arms and pushed the girl back against the wall. “You’ll endure the tantrums and the nightmares and all the pains and fears and failures he’ll have as he grows. And you’ll go on giving, and giving, and giving to him. All of your strength, every last shred of strength in your body and soul, all to keep him alive, to see him grow into a man. And for what?”
The tall witched smiled a hideous smile of crooked yellow teeth. “All to watch him leave. To go off into the world, to find some other woman to give him his own screaming little monsters.”
Yaga backed away but kept her eyes fixed on Wren. “That is love, girl. It isn’t pretty or kind or fair. It’s a madness all to itself. But don’t worry if you don’t understand it yet. You will. One day, you’ll hold your own screaming monster in your arms, and you’ll understand.”
Wren nodded, and for a moment her voice failed and she couldn’t speak at all. “Maybe. But right now, all I know is that there are other mothers and other sons out there tonight and they’re all trapped in their own nightmares. They’re suffering, not because the world is cruel, but because of you. And you can stop it with a word. Please stop it, now.”
The tall woman folded her arms across her chest and leaned against the wall to gaze out at the sea again. “Not tonight. Tonight, let them scream.”
“How can you say that? There are babies down there shaking in agony, and starving because their mothers can’t feed them,” Wren spoke faster and faster. “It’s the dead of winter, but no one can light their evening fire in the hearth. How many children will freeze to death tonight, Yaga? There are old grandmothers curled up in their beds, with their hearts bursting from the strain of this. And every soldier in the city will soon be lying helpless on the ground, leaving Constantia undefended. How long until the Turks realize their enemy is vulnerable? How long until they start firing their cannons, hurling their shells, and setting fire to the city? By morning all of Constantia could be rubble and ash, and countless thousands of people, innocent people, will be dead!”
“Let them die.”
Wren curled her hands into fists and felt her rinegold ring pressing against the edge of her palm.
Damn you, Gudrun, and all the rest of you. What good are the souls of the valas of Denveller if you won’t help me stop this witch? We’re supposed to save lives, not ruin them!
The faces of three shriveled crones appeared dimly before her, and Wren glared at the ghosts, but they only cackled in silence and faded back into the shadows.
“Two months ago.” Wren looked up. “You said the Turks captured Koschei two months ago, right? That’s when it happened?”
“Well, from what I’ve heard, that’s the same time the dead started to rise from their graves all over Vlachia.” Wren swallowed and wrapped her arms across her belly to stop them from fidgeting and shaking. “And that can’t be a coincidence. Are you making the dead rise? Are you making their souls cling to their bodies?”
Yaga turned her head with agonizing deliberation, slowly shifting her gaze away from the sea to return to the girl’s face. The old witch’s long white hair fluttered on the dark breeze, and a murder of crows cackled and screamed as they flew past the open balcony. Wren flinched away from the black birds, but they were already gone, already winging away into the night.
“In Rus, the dead do rise from time to time,” Yaga said softly. “It’s only natural. The buried bodies freeze, and the aether in their blood freezes too. And sometimes, if the death is sudden enough, if the soul is angry enough, or crazed enough, that soul will drag its own body up out of the ground and walk the earth again.”
Wren nodded. “How often?”
Yaga shrugged. “Maybe one or two in a decade.”
The girl frowned. “That’s all?”
“And when word reaches me that there is a dead man walking about, I send my son to settle the matter. The body is broken and burned, and the soul flies free, usually to haunt the aether mists as just one more sorry little ghost.”
“But now, what’s changed? Why so many? What did you do?”
“Nothing.” Yaga’s wrinkled face hung grim and slack upon her skull. She still bore a strong echo of the beauty of her youth, but in the shadows of the tower, with her hair flying about her, with her voice rasping in the dark, all Wren could see was the dim reflection of her own mistress Gudrun, ancient and insane, cackling and drooling in the long black night.
“I did nothing. How could I do anything when my precious Koschei was gone?” Yaga bowed her head and looked back toward the sea. “I did not eat, which is nothing for our kind. I need no food to go on living, if that is my choice. But also, I did not sleep. Not since that night, the night they came to tell me that my Koschei was gone, lost to the enemy, taken away. So I didn’t sleep. And I haven’t slept since that night.”
“Two months without sleeping?” Wren furrowed her brow as she tried to remember Omar or Gudrun ever telling her about how much sleep a person needed. “And you can do that? Not sleep?”
The old witch grinned out at the dark outlines of Constantia, and in the distance the faint screams and cries of mothers and fathers and children echoed in the streets. “It is possible for me to go on living without sleep. But I suppose I have paid a price for that, too. The nightmares that taunt me at the borders of my sleep, the fears that I ran away from…” The old woman shook her head. “…they found me all the same. All of the horrors that I could ever imagine, all of the torments my tired head could conjure up, are here.” She placed her hand over her eyes for a moment.
Wren gaped. “You’re having nightmares? While you’re awake?”
Yaga nodded. As she leaned forward, her heavy bracelets clanked around her wrists.
The girl watched the woman’s unsteady hands clutching the railing of the balcony. “And your rinegold, I mean, your sun-steel bracelets, they’re always on your arms, and you, you’re always having nightmares. It is you. Your whole body is resonating with fear and sorrow, and it’s all flying out into the world through the aether.”
Yaga said nothing.
“You’re waking the dead.”
“You have to stop.”
“I can’t stop!” Yaga snarled and held up one clawing hand as though poised to tear her own heart from her chest. “The nightmares are never-ending. I can see them now. Koschei burning on a pyre, his face reduced to melted black wax around his white, staring eyes. Koschei on the rack, his bones cracking, his breast bursting. Koschei with a nest of vipers in his bowels, wriggling out through his skin and shredding his flesh with their fangs. My boy, again and again and again, with his face white and red and black, screaming and screaming!”
Wren lurched forward and wrapped her arms around the woman. “It’s all right. It’s not real. None of it is real.”
Yaga shoved her away. “But it is real!” She pointed out across the palace grounds to the three huge ships still sitting at anchor in the channel, surrounded by the smoking remains of the Hellan destroyers. “He’s there! He’s shrieking and gasping, all alone on a rope in the dark. And tomorrow they’ll do it all over again, and I’ll see it all over again!”
“You need to sleep, Yaga,” Wren grabbed the woman’s hands and tried to make her focus. “Are you listening to me? You need to sleep, right now.”
“Don’t you think I know that?” Again she pulled out of Wren’s grasp and stumbled to the railing. “I’ve been trying to sleep for weeks. I lie in the dark, all alone, in the quiet, and I close my eyes and try to think of nothing, try to rest, to slip away. But my mind never rests. The nightmares churn on and on and on!”
“Drugs! What about drugs? I can make something to make you sleep. I know a dozen plants that can put you to sleep in a heartbeat,” Wren said breathlessly. “Take me to your herb cellar, or to the palace kitchens. I can do this, I can help you sleep!”
“No! Not now. I can’t, I can’t.” The old woman clutched her head and leaned back. “How can I sleep when my baby is screaming in agony right in front of me? How could I forgive myself? How could I ever face him again, knowing that while he was in hell I was resting in my own bed?”
Woden, give me strength!
Wren swept her right hand across the balcony, hurling a great fist of aether out of the maelstrom beyond the railing and sending it into the witch’s chest. But Yaga merely raised an arm and the wave of aether burst apart into glimmering motes in the cold air.
“I’m trying to help you, Yaga,” Wren said slowly. “I want to help you, I do. I want to give you peace. I want to end your suffering, end your nightmares, end your pain. But if you won’t let me help you, then I’ll just have to stop you, because I’ll be damned if I’ll let you kill everyone in this city for your grief, no matter how much you love your son.”
Gudrun, Kara, this is your last chance. I swear to the good lord Woden that if you don’t help me now I will throw this ring of yours into the sea and leave your souls trapped in the dark until Ragnarok comes!
Wren made a fist, and a shape appeared in the air before her.
“Kara,” Wren whispered.
The ancient vala glared, her long black braids clattering with tiny bones. “You’re a fool of a child. How dare you threaten us? How dare you!”
All around her, the dim shades of the eight valas of Denveller appeared, short and tall and crippled, hissing at the girl in black.
Damn them all. I can do it alone!
Wren thrust out her hand and the aether obeyed her. The mist rose and smashed across the room into the old witch, sending her reeling against the far wall.
Yaga straightened up and pushed her long silvery hair back from her face. “I’m tired of this.” She pointed her hand at the girl and the aether rushed back across the room.
Wren dove to the floor and swept her hand over her head, guiding the aether up and away from her as she scrambled behind the wall at the edge of the stairs that led back down to the ground level. The aether swelled and flooded past her, racing and racing through the wall and out into the night, and when it finally stopped she dropped her arm to her side, gasping for breath and drenched in sweat.
Wren scrambled to her feet and dashed across the room. Yaga glared at her and raised both arms, but the girl crashed into her waist and knocked her to the ground before she could summon up another wave of freezing mist. The two women collided with the wall and then toppled to the floor in a tangle of skirts and hair and bones.
Huffing and straining, Wren grabbed the old witch’s wrists and wrestled her arms down to her sides as she rolled over. After a moment’s quiet struggle, Wren sat up on top of Yaga’s chest with the older woman’s arms pinned at her sides under Wren’s knees.
Wren leaned back and blew a curling lock of red hair out of her face as she paused to catch her breath.
Well, that wasn’t so hard after all.
“Now what?” Yaga grunted through her clenched teeth. “Are you going to sit on me forever? I am immortal, you stupid little girl. I will never grow tired, but you are already exhausted. Soon I’ll throw you to the ground, and crush your heart with my bare hands.”
“She’s right,” Gudrun muttered in Wren’s ear. “If you don’t think of something soon, you’ll be a corpse before midnight comes.”
“Help me or shut up!” Wren shouted.
Gudrun’s presence vanished and Wren looked down at Yaga’s smug grin.
“Having trouble, girl?” Yaga asked. “Are the souls in your little ring too much for you to master? How many are there, again? Nine, ten? Heh. There are dozens of souls in each of my bracelets, and you don’t hear me crying out for them to be silent.” The witch laughed.
Wren frowned down at her. “I’m sorry about this, but it should only hurt for a minute.” Wren folded her fingers together, turning her two hands into one bony hammer, raised her arms above her head, and brought them down as hard as she could on the old woman’s cackling face.
Yaga instantly went limp.
Wren leapt up and rolled the woman onto her stomach and whipped off her own belt. Then she stripped the clanking bracelets off the witch’s arms and bound her wrists together with the belt. She was still struggling to fit the ends of the belt together when the old woman groaned and twitched.
Wren stepped away with the bracelets cradled in her arm.
Yaga rolled onto her side and looked up with a trickle of dark blood on her lip. “You stupid child.”
Wren shook her head. “No, I’m not stupid. I know exactly what I’m doing, sister. I had a very good teacher.” She sat down on the floor a few paces away and let the bracelets fall into her lap. “His name is Omar Bakhoum. You might remember him. A middle-aged gentleman from Alexandria. Friendly, clever, and just a little bit immortal.”
Yaga’s eyes went wide. “Grigori? He’s here?”
“Omar, Grigori. He’s had a lot of names over the years.” Wren nodded seriously. She could feel the heat and panic of the last few minutes fading away, leaving her even more tired than before. “I see I have your attention now. That’s good. Maybe now we can start talking like civilized witches.”
“Damn it.” Lycus pointed up the road. “More aether.”
Tycho nodded. He could see the pale tendrils of the mist snaking over the rooftops and around the corners all around them.
It’s everywhere, draining down every street. We’re never going to make it to the barracks at this rate.
He stood in the middle of the dark road with the six young marines, and they listened to the cries and moans and shrieks of the people in the houses all around them.
“All right, boys, we need to-”
“Major!” Lycus pointed down a side alley with his knife in his hand.
Tycho jogged up beside him and peered into the deep shadows between the two houses. In the stillness, he heard footsteps coming closer, but moving in a limping, shuffling manner. He called out, “Hello?”
The feet shuffled closer.
“I’m Major Tycho Xenakis. Who’s there?”
The feet shuffled closer still.
“Damn this.” Tycho drew his revolver and strode to the mouth of the alleyway. “Who’s there? Answer or I’ll shoot!”
The feet shuffled closer and a figure loomed out of the darkness into the pale blue starlight. It was a man with skin the color of snow that sparkled in the light. The flesh from his cheek and lips was gone, revealing his teeth in an eternal grimace.
“God!” Tycho fired into the corpse’s face as he stumbled back and two more shots rang out over his shoulder and he saw Lycus standing beside him, pale and wild-eyed, his own gun smoking in his hand.
The corpse toppled over and hit the ground like a frozen beam.
“Back to the boats. Move, move!” Tycho holstered his weapon and ran with his marines at his sides. They darted down the center of the road, avoiding the shadows, and leaping clear of the thin wisps of aether seeping out into their path.
At the bottom of the road they struck the waterfront and turned right, ran another block, and clambered down the stone stairs to the water’s edge where their two dories bobbed, lashed to a rusting iron ring. The boys leapt into the boats and Tycho climbed in as quickly as he could, and a moment later they were rowing swiftly out into the Strait once more.
Tycho sat in the bow of his boat, staring back over the boys’ heads at the receding shore, but he couldn’t see the mist or any other figures walking in the shadows.
“God in heaven, it’s true,” Lycus whispered. “The deathless ones. The army of the dead. They’re real. They’re here.”
Tycho nodded slowly, but then frowned as he tried to remember exactly what he had seen stepping out from the dark alley. “He wasn’t dressed like a soldier, though. No uniform, no armor, no weapons. I think he was barefoot.”
“He was,” Lycus said. “I saw him. He was just wearing a shirt and pants. Nothing else. And they were torn up, too.”
“What kind of army goes around barefoot in rags?” Tycho muttered.
“What kind of army goes around dead?” Lycus asked.
The other boys were nodding and muttering in a quiet panic.
“It’s all right,” Tycho said loudly. “We’re all safe now. I doubt anything that clumsy and slow can swim, or at least not as fast as we can row.”
“What about the aether?” Lycus nodded toward the Palace of Constantine and the three Furies where the aether lay like a thick cloud all across the channel.
“We’ll just have to stay ahead of it,” Tycho said. “We’ll head up the Strait and stay away from land. If the aether keeps following, then we’ll just have to keep rowing, all night if we have to. And if you boys get too tired, then I guess I’ll just have to grow giant arms and row for you.”
The marines grinned sheepishly.
“What about the Eranians?” Lycus asked. “If the aether hasn’t reached Stamballa yet, they might try to capture us to find out what’s going on. There’s only six of us, sir, and we’re low on ammunition. We can’t take on anything too big.”
“I know.” Tycho turned to squint across the water to the bright lights of Stamballa on the far shore.
What the hell happened to Salvator? It’s not like Radu to take a messenger hostage, let alone kill him. He’s too refined, too proud, too honorable. And besides, he knows it’s something that his brother would definitely do, which is all the more reason for him not to. So where is that smug Italian?
“Change of plan. No one wants to row up the Strait all night, do you?” Tycho pointed at the distant lights. “We cross the channel and have a little chat with our friends over there.”
“Sir?” Lycus winced. “Are you sure?”
“Absolutely. I’m still one of the Duchess’s ambassadors. I have every right to talk to them on her behalf, and every right to an armed escort. And how can they possibly object to six young men in wet rags?”
Lycus didn’t smile. “We can’t protect you from the Turks with these empty guns and a handful of knives for very long, sir.”
“You don’t need to worry about that.” Tycho eyed the billowing cloud of aether slowly expanding across the Strait from the Seraglio Point. “I have a feeling that tonight, the Turks will be the least of our enemies.”
The boys at the oars set to work and the two dories slowly crept across the Strait. The bright shore of Stamballa grew closer and clearer, and the dark shore of Constantia slowly faded into the shadows and mist, punctuated by distant screams of terror.
The crossing was quiet and clear until they reached the center of the channel and saw a small ironclad gunboat puttering toward them from the east. Tycho told the boys to go on rowing and so they were well into Eranian waters when the gunboat drew near and a small but bright lantern cast its light on the two small boats. But when it did, Tycho was already standing in the bow with his empty hands raised in greeting.
“Good evening,” he called out in Eranian. “I am Major Tycho Xenakis en route to meet with my colleague Salvator Fabris, who is currently a guest of the holy prince.” He deliberately avoided using Radu’s name, just in case his marines had not yet heard the rumor that the Vlachian lord now commanded the Turks. The last thing he needed was more friction between his Hellans and Vlad’s northerners.
“You will follow us to port,” a man yelled down from the gunboat, and the lantern switched off.
Tycho nodded at Lycus and the others, and they proceeded to row toward the Turkish shore with the gunboat growling along beside him. He could see the sailors on its deck, each one with the distinctive outline of a Numidian rifle slung over his shoulder.
As they reached the dock, Tycho whispered to the marines, “Whatever you do, you all need to act like my official escorts. You don’t speak to anyone but me. You don’t even look at anyone but me. And you damn sure don’t give up your weapons to anyone at all.”
“Yes sir,” the youths answered.
They tied up the dories at the bottom of the pier as the gunboat idled behind them and two dozen young Eranian soldiers trooped down to the water to meet them. Their commander said, “Major Xenakis, we were not expecting you. Your men will surrender their weapons and we will escort you to the embassy for the remainder of the night. I understand that the holy prince is quite busy this evening, so it is unlikely he will see you before the morning.”
Tycho climbed up onto the pier and the marines scrambled up beside him in two crooked lines, all with blank stares. “My men will be keeping their weapons, as per usual, and you will take me to see the prince immediately. We have a crisis on our hands, sir, and if something isn’t done about it this very hour, a great many people are going to die.”
“That isn’t my decision to make,” the officer said.
“Then let me make it for you,” Tycho said. “You’re stationed here at the waterfront. When the fighting begins, if the fighting begins, the first area to be shelled into oblivion on both sides will be where, exactly?”
The Turk frowned. “I will see what I can do, major.”
The Turks escorted the Hellans through the brightly lit streets of Stamballa, between houses full of clinking plates and glasses where voices laughed and sang. Tycho frowned at each one in turn.
Constantia should be like this right now, instead of a shrieking tomb.
The walk was long and hard as much of it was uphill, but Tycho struggled along as quickly as his legs would allow and his marines, God bless them, kept their own pace to match his, which in turn forced the Turks to keep theirs.
Finally they reached the iron gates of a modest estate and the soldiers from the waterfront turned over the Hellans to the soldiers from the house. Tycho repeated his urgent need to speak with the prince, and a few minutes later, after some heated discussion and exchange of papers between the Eranian officers, the Hellans were allowed inside the gate.
When they reached the doors of the main house, a massive white building of soaring columns and tiled floors, Tycho loudly declared that his men would remain there while he met with the prince. He shared a pregnant look with Lycus as he handed his Mazigh revolver to the youth, trying to silently order the young marine to only make good decisions while he was gone. The boy looked back with grim confidence, but Tycho had no idea whether that was a good thing.
Inside the house, a young man in a crisp white evening jacket escorted Tycho to a small vestibule, and left him there. The room was empty, but Tycho was familiar enough with it. The door behind him led back to the hallway, and the door ahead of him led into the prince’s office. There was often a guard here as well, but at the moment Tycho was alone.
And now the waiting begins.
But after only a few minutes he heard shoes clacking sharply on the floor outside, the doors opened, and Radu strode inside. The prince’s jacket was open, his shirt unbuttoned at his throat, and there was a certain disorder to his oiled black hair that Tycho found disconcerting.
He’s usually the very picture of nobility. This is bad.
“Major.” The prince strode past and opened the door to his office, and disappeared inside.
Tycho hesitated, glancing back to see if any of the usual guards or clerks would be joining them, but there was no one else about. Tycho entered the office.
Radu sat behind his desk, his hands on the arms of his chair, a tired scowl on his face. “Fabris is in a cell, there is a bullet in his stomach, and neither will be coming out any time soon.”
So he’s still alive, for the moment. I suppose that’s something.
Tycho nodded. “May I ask what happened?”
“He threatened me with a sword.”
“Oh?” Tycho struggled to keep his voice calm. “I thought he always left his sword at home when he visited you.”
“He did. He helped himself to a seireiken, right here in this very room.”
“I see.” Tycho glanced quickly across the floor but saw no signs of blood or other damage. “I trust you are well, Highness?”
“He tried to negotiate for Koschei’s release, which I had expected, of course. Then he threatened me with fairy tales about witches and nightmares,” Radu said. “He was desperate, practically raving. I’d never seen him like that before.”
“Yes, well, he had good cause.” Tycho glanced out the window, but the glare from the lamp on the desk made it difficult to see anything outside in the darkness. “Highness, at this very minute your warships off the Seraglio Point are drifting at anchor. Half of Constantia is already shrouded in darkness and silence. What Salvator told you is true. Baba Yaga has gone insane and is at this very moment covering the land and sea with a cloud of aether that drives anyone mad with fear when it touches them. And at this very moment, that cloud is stretching out across the Strait. It will be here within the hour.”
Radu showed no reaction. “Then I will tell you what I told your friend. Let it come. The Empire of Eran will not be threatened or intimidated by a sad old woman or a light fog, major. I’m disappointed in you.”
Tycho nodded slowly. “Fair enough. I suppose if I were in your position, I wouldn’t believe a story like that either, especially coming from an enemy.”
Radu waved impatiently. “Is that all? Is that why you came tonight, to repeat this pathetic lie?”
“You’ve been sending scouts across the Strait,” Tycho said loudly as he stared out the dark window. He still couldn’t see anything out there but he often found it easier to talk to the prince when his back was turned. “We know you’ve sent scouts up into Thrace. We’ve captured one of them. I assume there were more.”
“Naturally,” Radu said.
“You’ve sent them to Saray.”
“And farther north, as well.” The prince smiled.
“And we have scouts throughout Turkiya and Syria and Babylonia,” Tycho replied. “That isn’t the point. The point is, what have these scouts of yours reported? What have they seen in the north? They’ve told you about the army, the deathless ones, the army of the dead, haven’t they?”
Radu shrugged. “They report on many things.”
“Ah.” Tycho glanced over his shoulder. “You don’t believe those stories either, then?”
“Of course not. This army of the dead is nothing more than a band of killers and thieves dressed in filthy rags to frighten Hellan farmers.”
“Did they frighten your scouts as well?”
Radu didn’t answer.
Tycho came back to the desk. “Highness, you may not want to hear these things, you may not want to believe them, but they are true all the same. If a man had never seen a gun before and you pointed one at him from across a room and said it would kill him in an instant, he would be well within his rights to think you were lying. But he’d die all the same.”
“So I should believe you now? I should believe that an old woman from Rus is going to bring the entire city of Stamballa to its knees tonight?”
“She’s already brought a third of Constantia to its knees, and I have no doubt that the aether storm will continue to spread. Look across the water, Highness. See for yourself. The city is dark. There are no candles, no lanterns, no fires, not even smoke from the chimneys. Every man and woman and child in the southern part of the city is lying on the floor, paralyzed, and screaming in terror.”
Radu fidgeted with a pen on his desk.
“As for the army of the dead, if you don’t want to believe me, believe your own scouts, believe their reports,” Tycho said.
The prince dropped his pen and sighed. “And if I do believe you? I should set Koschei free, yes? That’s what you want. You want your precious immortal back.”
“It’s a little late for that,” Tycho said. “The cloud has already swallowed the palace and your ships. There’s no one left standing to set Koschei free, and no way for us to reach him.”
Radu threw up his hands. “All this time you’ve been trying to get Koschei back, and now you don’t want him?”
“I don’t give a damn about Koschei. The man’s a pig and a butcher. But yes, if you had set him free this afternoon, it might have saved us from this disaster, but now that disaster is here,” Tycho said. “I’m here to help you, Highness. You need to evacuate this district, and be prepared to evacuate more.”
“I won’t leave my city undefended,” Radu said sternly.
“Then get the civilians out! Save the children, for God’s sake!” Tycho snapped. He paused to tug his jacket down and run his fingers through his hair. “I’m sorry, Highness, that was uncalled for.”
Radu smiled just a little. “I believe you. Maybe not entirely, but enough for the moment. All right. I’ll have the district emptied immediately, civilians only.”
“Fine, good, thank you,” Tycho said. “There’s probably nothing else we can do about the aether tonight. We’ll just have to weather this storm as best we can. But in the mean time, there is something else you should do. Send your scouts across the Strait at the northeast end of the city and have them check the area just north of Constantia.”
“Check for what?”
“For the dead.”
“You think this army of the dead is closer now?”
“Highness, I myself shot a walking corpse in the street not an hour ago. The dead aren’t coming,” Tycho said. “They’re already here.”
“Yes. But there is hope on that front, Highness.” Tycho smiled grimly. “From what I saw, we can kill the dead.”
Radu’s face tried to convey the confusion and distrust and disgust and curiosity warring in the man’s heart as he stood up and began writing orders on several pieces of paper. The next few minutes were a flurry of papers and clerks and messengers, and when it was over Radu was striding off to an emergency meeting with his military advisors and Tycho was being escorted back to the foyer where his underdressed marines stood surrounded by mustachioed Turks in blue uniforms.
“Your business is concluded, then?” the Turkish officer asked.
“Yes. Did you see the prince just now? Did he give you your orders?” Tycho asked.
The officer frowned. “I did see the prince leave just now, but he gave me no orders.”
“Yes, well, it’s going to be a busy night. You’re to take us to the cells and release Salvator Fabris into my custody, immediately.”
The officer went on frowning. “You have this in writing?”
“No, of course I don’t, the prince said he would tell you himself. Are you calling the prince a liar?” Tycho said as Lycus handed him back his white-handled Mazigh revolver.
“Of course not.” The officer hesitated, then snapped his fingers and indicated to his men that they were leaving. The Turks and Hellans marched back out into the night and after a quarter hour they came to a squat stone building near the waterfront where a lengthy and heated exchange in Eranian took place between the Turkish officer and the Turkish jailer. Tycho missed some of what was said, but they were both quite fixated on paperwork for many long minutes.
Finally the jailer went back inside and moments later produced his prisoner.
Salvator Fabris stumbled out into the street, his hands clutching his belly, and his face dripping with sweat. But he managed to straighten up with a sneer on his lip and he glared down at the jailer. “I told you so.”
The jailer went back inside and slammed the door.
The Turks then escorted the Hellans back to their two dories by the pier and all the while Tycho exchanged confused and angry glances with his pale Italian partner, but neither said a word until they were all in their boats and safely away from the shore.
Salvator frowned at the southern waters where the great white cloud of aether hid the entirety of the Point and most of the far shore. His breathing was thin and labored, and his hands and shirt were painted in blood. “So it’s happened then, has it? Everyone has gone mad?”
“It would seem so,” Tycho said.
“And you left in the middle of that crisis to rescue me? I’m touched.”
“No, I came to save the people of Stamballa. I convinced the prince to evacuate the civilians from the waterfront district, and to send more scouts to check the walls of Constantia for the dead army. We saw them tonight. The dead. We shot one.” Tycho grimaced.
“And how did you convince our friend the prince to set me free? I was fairly certain they were going to execute me right next to Koschei tomorrow,” said the Italian. “If I lived through the night.”
“I didn’t convince him.” Tycho grinned over his shoulder at the bright shore of Stamballa. “I just told the guards that those were the prince’s orders. You should know better than anyone, Fabris, that if you lie with enough conviction most people will do what you say.”
The Italian grunted. “Good for you. Good for me. Bad for the Turks. What do we do now? And does it involve finding a surgeon any time soon?”
“We row up the Strait,” Tycho said as he pointed toward the distant lights of the ships farther up the Bosporus. “And pray that we stay ahead of the aether. Maybe we’ll come along side one of our ships, and they’ll have a doctor on board. But we need to keep moving.”
Omar massaged the side of his neck and heaved a loud sigh. The bright sword in his hand felt heavier than it had in a very long time. The light from the blade cast a long black shadow of his legs that stretched over the fields. He glanced across the road full of frozen heads and arms and said, “I could use a drink.”
Nadira grunted as she sat up. She’d flopped down on a pile of dismembered corpses, spread-eagled on one of her little victory mounds. Now she sat with her legs sprawled wide apart and her sword leaning against her thigh. “You could use a bath, too.”
Omar smiled and slipped his sword back into its scabbard. Above them in the dark, he could hear the Vlachians and the Hellans on the top of the wall still talking about the battle, about the dead. They had continued firing volley after volley of arrows down into the mob, even after Omar and Nadira had cut all the way through to the gate itself. He had taken two arrows to his arm and shoulder. He was fairly certain that Nadira had taken more.
But the wounds healed as soon as the barbs were pulled out and, as always, the injuries were quickly forgotten as the pain vanished. But the weariness remained.
A heavy metallic banging echoed from inside the gate.
“I suppose we should be moving on before our friends finish clearing the barricade and come out here to poke at the bodies,” Omar said.
“What do you care? You’re their hero,” Nadira said. “Don’t you want them to adore you and worship you and beg to hear how you saved their city?”
“No, I don’t.” Omar started walking along the edge of the wall.
After a moment, he heard Nadira following him. She stomped through the frozen snow and smashed through the delicate, skeletal bushes along the way. He slowed a bit so that she could come alongside him.
“Bashir?” she said.
He blinked. “Actually, it’s Omar now.”
“You changed it?”
“I change it every few decades. It keeps things simple for my business partners,” Omar said. “Not everyone can pull off the mystique of an immortal savior, century after century.”
Nadira shrugged. “I’m not trying to pull off anything. I’m just trying to protect my people.”
“I thought your people were in Damascus. The last time I checked, that wasn’t anywhere near Stamballa.”
“It’s near enough. There are several companies of soldiers from Damascus here, and I intend to see that they all make it home to their families. After all, it’s better to fight the infidels here than at home. This way, the city itself is safe.”
“What’s that?” he asked.
“Five hundred years, more or less. That’s how long I did your research for you, back home. That’s how long I stayed a nun and studied the aether for you.”
“Oh.” Omar cleared his throat. “Thank you. I don’t suppose you discovered anything that you’d like to share?”
“Why didn’t you come back?” she asked quietly. “I knew it might be a long time, but five hundred years? And now, how long has it been? Two thousand?”
“Give or take,” he said. “I’m sorry about that. I didn’t forget about you. I never forget about any of you. I just…” He shrugged. “I’m always getting distracted by one thing or another. I mean, I spent the last ten years at the top of the world on a whim, and half of that in a cave. Don’t ask. But I suppose I always say to myself, well, there’s always next year. We have forever. There’s always more time.”
Nadira shook her head. “That’s a hell of a way think.”
“That’s a hell of a way for a nun to talk.”
“I’m just a soldier now. I can talk however I want.”
He nodded. They passed the length of rope he had climbed down a few hours ago, but they kept walking, crunching along in the snow. The starlight shone brightly on the icy ground.
“Gideon left first,” she said. “He said he was going to look for you. I guess he never found you.”
“How is he?”
“The same. Happy as a puppy.”
“What’s he doing these days?”
“He destroys seireikens,” she said casually. “And he often kills the people carrying them.”
“Really?” Omar pouted thoughtfully. “Good for him.”
“Good for him? He’s killing your Osirians and destroying your precious sun-steel. I thought you’d be more upset,” she said.
So did I.
He scratched at his stubbly beard and said, “And Lilith?”
“I don’t want to talk about her.”
“What do you want to talk about?”
“Death. Dying. Not living anymore.”
Omar stopped and rubbed his eyes. “We talked about this on the boat the other night. I’m not going to kill you.”
“Because I don’t kill my friends.”
“I’m tired, Bashir!” Nadira threw her sword down. It bounced and clattered on the frozen earth. “So damned tired. I’m tired of watching the same human filth crawling through my city, stealing and raping and killing people, century after century. It never changes. It never gets any better. I thought that maybe, one day, I would see Damascus become the paradise that it should have always been. But it’s still the same pile of rocks, full of the same predators and vermin.”
“I know,” Omar said softly. “I know all of that. I feel the same way about Alexandria. And believe me, Alexandria is not nearly as pretty as Damascus. At least, not that I recall. But it sounds to me like your little crusade to save your city needs to stop. You need to find something else to do with yourself.”
“Like you? Wander about turning people into your immortal servants trying to unlock the secrets of the universe for you?” She spat in the snow. “How is that going, by the way? Have you met God yet?”
“Not yet.” Omar sighed. “Nadira, I’m sorry. I’m sorry you’re unhappy. And I’m sorry that I put you in this position. But I’m not going to help you die. What I will do is help you find something else to do with your life.”
Nadira laughed. “Like Yaga and Koschei? Like Gideon?” Her smile vanished. “Like Lilith?”
Omar shook his head and sat down on a rock. It was cold and sharp, and he shifted his buttocks. “I’m not a god, or even a priest. I’m just a very old man with an obsession.” He nudged a chunk of ice with his boot. “I don’t have any real answers for you. Just ideas. Places you could visit, people you could meet, or even help. Someone like you could do a lot of good in the world.”
“What’s the point? Those places, each one is just another Damascus, isn’t it?”
“Maybe you’re right. So maybe you don’t need a change of scenery,” Omar said. “Maybe you need a change of vocation. Maybe it’s time to put that sword away and learn some new skills and find some other way to pass the time.”
“I don’t want to pass the time. I want out.”
Omar frowned at the ground. “There are ten thousand places out there that are nothing like Damascus, or here, or anywhere you’ve been. Ifrica, Rajasthan, Jochi, Ming, Nippon.”
“I’m not listening to this.” Nadira picked up her sword and started walking.
Omar sighed again, planted his hands on his knees, and pushed himself back up to follow her. “I’m not going to just let this go. I’m not going to disappear on you again. I’m here and I’m staying right here.”
“Shut up.” Nadira stopped. Her breath steamed away from her mouth as she stared off into the distance. She began to draw to her sword.
“What is it?” he whispered. He heard nothing.
She drew out her long, silvery saber. Its damascened face writhed with spidery etchings in the moonlight.
Omar hesitated, then drew out his seireiken. The blade’s light washed up the high walls of Constantia and far out over the snowy fields. He held the sword high over his head to let the cold white light reach a bit farther out into the darkness. “There’s nothing out there.”
Nadira whirled on him and slashed at his sword hand.
Omar barely had a moment to feel the adrenaline surge of fear in his chest before the ghost of Ito Daisuke seized control. Omar leapt back and dropped into a low fighting stance with the seireiken held back away from the woman. “What the hell are you doing?”
“What’s it look like?” Nadira dashed forward. “If you won’t kill me, I’ll just have to do it myself.”
“I won’t let you!”
“You’ll have to kill me to stop me!”
The Syrian saber flashed in the starlight as Nadira’s hand spun faster and faster until her sword became a flat shining disc of steel whirling at her side.
Omar grimaced. “Nothing is ever easy for me.”
Nadira attacked and Omar retreated, stomping and stumbling through the frozen snow. He swept the ground around him with the tip of his blazing seireiken and the ice became shimmering water and the snow began to rise in waves of steam.
“I’m better than you, old man.” Nadira slid to a halt in the soft warm mud.
“You’re not better than my sword.” Omar lowered his seireiken to his side.
“But I only need to be better if I want to win.” Nadia loosened the clasps on her armor and let her breastplate crash to the ground. “I want to lose.”
She lunged at him and brought her saber down in a vicious slash at his shoulder. Omar raised his seireiken in a simple square block and let the blades crash together. The scorching sun-steel burned straight through the Damascene sword and the broken tip flew through the air and clanged on the stone wall beside them.
Nadira stumbled away and then straightened up to look at the twisted, melted ruin of her saber. “I’ve had this for a very long time.”
“And as I tried to tell you, I think it’s time you put it aside.”
“I will, in a moment.” She hurled the handle at him and charged again, empty-handed.
Omar swatted the broken saber out of the air, shattering it into half a dozen pieces, and then he slipped his seireiken back into its clay-lined scabbard just as Nadira tackled him to the ground. They crashed into the soft mud and slid into the sharp edges of the nearby ice.
Her hands instantly went to his belt, clawing at the shark skin grip of the seireiken. Omar grabbed the handle to hold it in place and the ghost of Ito Daisuke appeared off to one side, staring down dispassionately at the two figures rolling about below him. The samurai said nothing and did nothing.
Nadira kept one hand on the seireiken, straining to pull it free, as her other hand went to the neck of her shirt. She pulled out a slender steel chain and yanked it up over her head. Omar saw the little golden heart dangling from the chain.
“No!” He twisted sharply, throwing her off his chest and sending the tiny pendant skittering across the icy snow.
Nadira dove for her sun-steel heart.
Omar stood up and backed away toward the wall with both of his hands clutching his seireiken, pressing it tightly down into the scabbard so not even a sliver of the deadly blade was exposed.
She really wants to die.
Omar took a moment to catch his breath and he watched as Nadira found her pendant and got back up on her feet.
“If you do that, you won’t be free,” he said. “Your soul would be trapped in my sword. Forever. I don’t think you want that. It’s just another sort of immortality, and frankly I don’t think you’d find it an improvement over your current situation.”
Nadira looked at him. Her face was pale and shining with sweat, and for the first time that night he didn’t see any of her casual bravado in her narrowed eyes or frowning lips. She just looked tired.
“Then I’ll find another way to die,” she said softly.
“I imagine you’ve been trying to find another way to die for a very long time.” Omar moved a little closer to her. “The only way out is to destroy the sun-steel heart, and the only thing that can melt it down is the heat of another sun-steel object. I’m sorry. It’s a trap, I know. It wasn’t something I ever thought about in the old days. I don’t have any answers for you.”
She nodded and sighed, and slipped her pendent back inside her shirt. “So what do I do?”
“Whatever you want. But whatever you do, you need to do something new, something different,” he said. “This soldier-of-fortune routine of yours is tearing you to pieces.”
“I’m not the same person you knew back in Damascus,” she said.
“Neither am I. You know, it’s funny, the nature of our immortality is that our bodies can’t change because our souls are inside these pendants, yet our souls seem to go on changing all the same.”
“It’s not funny at all.”
“Sorry.” Omar wiped his hand across his mouth. “Well, we’ll figure it out. Come on, let’s get back into the city and call it a night. All right?”
She nodded and they started walking again. She paused by her dented armor lying in the snow.
“Leave it,” he said. “That’s in the past now.”
She nodded again and they continued along in the shadow of the wall. They eventually found another smaller gate and a quick flash of Omar’s seireiken convinced the guards to let them enter.
As they walked through the empty streets of Constantia, a cold wind began to blow gently down the wide boulevards. Omar saw the tiny shiver in Nadira’s shoulder and the prickling gooseflesh around her bare throat. He shrugged off his coat and held it out to her, and she took it and slipped it on without a word.
“So what’s the story with the walking corpses?” she asked.
“I don’t know yet. Are you interested in that sort of thing?”
“I’m interested if I need to be.”
He shook his head. “I doubt it’s anything we’ll need to worry abo-”
A moan echoed out of the alleyway beside them.
Omar looked over and saw three figures staggering toward them. He drew his seireiken. “I’m starting to regret destroying that lovely sword of yours.”
“A pity, but that life is behind me now,” Nadira said as she gestured to the alley. “Whenever you’re ready, old man.”
He sighed. “This is turning into Ysland all over again.” The three corpses began shuffling along faster, their frozen eyes fixed on his bright sword.
“What happened in Ysland?”
“Very bad things.” He raised his weapon and saw Ito Daisuke standing to one side out of the corner of his eye. “At least this time it’s not my fault.”
“It looks like the aether is starting to settle,” Wren said. “If the wind could move it, it would probably thin out pretty fast, I think. Oh well.” She lingered by the balcony a few more moments and watched the stars shine down on the palace and the water.
The screams echoing across the city outside had died down shortly after she took the bracelets from Yaga, and once she had used her own ring to sweep the aether out of the tower, most of the nightmare sounds had faded away completely, leaving the city quiet, though still shrouded in darkness.
Wren came back inside and sat down by Yaga’s head. “How are you feeling?”
“I hate you.”
Wren sighed. “I suppose I can keep you like this. Without a sun-steel resonator, you can’t move the aether, and as long as I’m nearby, I can keep the aether from carrying your nightmares out there.”
“Idiot child,” Yaga muttered. “I am forever.”
“I know, and that’s the problem. I can’t always be here, taking care of you, can I?” Wren played with the silver bracelets and ran her fingers over the veins of gold running around them. As she touched the warm sun-steel, dozens of strange faces flashed in the shadows around her, the ghosts of men and women wearing furs and leather cloaks covered in bones, almost like armor.
Her ancestors? Her enemies? Her priests? What sorts of souls would a woman like this collect for her trinkets?
Wren said, “So you can’t sleep, and you can’t stop having the nightmares. All right then. I can fix that.”
“No, you can’t.” The answer was a mangled chorus of Yaga, the ancient valas of Denveller, and the souls inside the bracelet she was holding.
Wren dropped the bracelet into her lap and frowned. “Thanks for the support.” She shuffled over closer to Yaga’s head. “So, you’re always having these nightmares, eh? All right then. Let’s take a look at your ghost.”
She reached out and laid her right hand on the woman’s brow and pressed down tightly, squeezing her sun-steel ring between their skin. Wren closed her eyes.
Gudrun had explained ghost-talking to her once, during one of the old crone’s more lucid moments, but the lesson had been less than helpful. Omar had found the story amusing and offered a few similar anecdotes, but no lessons of his own.
I can do this. If Gudrun could do it, I can do it.
For a brief moment she felt herself falling through the darkness, falling forward through a shadowy space where eight old women sat clustered around a tiny circle of moonlight. They glanced up at her as she passed, and Wren saw the cold eyes of Kara watching her fall.
And then she was standing on solid ground in the middle of a dirt road that had been churned up by horses and wagons and then frosted with snow and ice. The houses on either side of the road were log cabins with stone chimneys gently exhaling their hearth smoke into the pale blue sky.
This is the nightmare?
There were goats, sheep, and chickens in small wooden pens. There were people all around, chopping wood and carrying buckets of water and trudging down the lane toward a small lake with their fishing poles. The men wore dark shabby suits and women wore dark shabby dresses with colorful scarves tied over their hair.
It looks a little like Vlachia, or what Vlachia must have been like before the corpses. Is this Rus?
She started walking down the middle of the road, and she nodded to the people as she passed them, but no one nodded back. They walked on by as though they didn’t see or hear her at all.
It only took a few minutes to reach the end of the village, where she paused to gaze out over a frozen field that may have held rows of wheat just a few weeks ago, at harvest time. Now everything was bare and empty, resting for the winter.
Wren was about to turn back for another pass through the village when a small boy came running out of the woods at the far end of the field. He careened over the dirt rows and dead stalks and flew by Wren on his way into town. He shouted over and over again, “Mama! Papa! The sainted mother! Help!”
She almost followed him back to his house to hear more, but instead she set out across the field. She could see the boy’s tracks easily in the fresh snow and broken mud and at the edge of the field she pushed her way through the dead bushes and entered the woods.
The trail led downhill and Wren lifted her skirts to step over the broken branches and fallen saplings. Hundreds of brown and silver trees stood silent watch over her, their trunks making dark pillars against the white of the snowy ground. The slope was rocky in some places and icy in others, and she fell more than once before she reached the bottom of the hill. There she found a small stream running over a bed of round stones with bits of ice clinging to the mossy banks.
Now what? Where am I? What am I doing?
“Hello?” she called.
No one answered.
Upstream or downstream?
She turned right and started crunching along the snowy bank of the stream, following it back up in search of its source. The water wound through the woods in the deep depression of its bed, and Wren wondered if the water ever filled the channel, perhaps when the spring thaws unleashed the floods that were frozen high on the mountains in the distance.
As she walked, she listened to the stillness of the wood. No squirrels chattered and no birds sang. From time to time, a frozen branch would crack and tumble to the ground with a dry crash and clatter in the distance.
Maybe I did it wrong. Maybe this isn’t Yaga’s nightmare at all. After all, these are waking nightmares. Maybe they work differently from regular ones.
Wren came around a bend in the stream and found a wide flat glen ahead where a cottage stood in the center of a clearing.
Or maybe this is the right place after all.
The cottage did not sit on the ground. In the center of the clearing there stood two massive old trees with huge twisted roots snaking and writhing through the frozen earth. The trees were only a few paces apart, and they were both cut off some twenty feet in the air. And upon the tall stumps of the trees was the log cabin.
Omar said something about this. In Rus they build tree-houses to store meat where the bears can’t reach it. But I never pictured something like this.
She glanced down at the clawing roots at the bottom of the two trees.
It looks like the house has giant chicken legs.
She entered the clearing and eyed the high ring of earth that encircled the two trees. The mound was covered in snow, but as she came closer Wren saw that were dull gray lumps poking up all along the top of the frozen wall.
It’s probably a stone wall to keep animals away.
There were two openings in the wall where the little stream trickled in from the north and trickled out to the south, and Wren paused at this natural gateway to brush the snow off the nearest of the gray lumps, and found a human skull staring back at her. She froze, her hand still raised in mid-swipe. A sheet of frozen snow groaned and broken free of the wall for many paces off to the right. The snow crashed to the ground, revealing a wall of femurs and ribcages, and tiny finger bones.
It’s like something out of the old sagas. Maybe a demon lives here.
Wren entered the ring of bones and began circling the two trees, peering up at the log cabin in search of a door or ladder, but she saw neither. As she walked, the hard crunching of the snow underfoot softened into a wet sucking sound and she felt the ground clinging to her feet. She looked down, expecting warm brown mud.
Her boots were soaked in blood up to her ankles. Looking back, she saw that the last few of her boot prints were all full of bloody puddles.
A crow screamed in the distance. She looked up into the woods and stood very still, listening. And as she peered up at the trees, she saw something moving. Many somethings. Slowly, she realized it was the trees themselves. Their stiff and bare branches were all gradually sagging, drooping lower, gently bending and arching as though they had become as soft as supple leather. Shards of bark began to fall away from the branches, revealing the moist pink and red flesh of the trees spotted with dark blood.
Wren closed her eyes and swallowed hard. She felt her heart pounding and her hands shaking.
It’s not real. It’s just a dream. Just a nightmare. It’s not real.
She opened her eyes, but this time ignored the ground and the woods and tried to focus on the cabin high above her.
She made a second pass around the two trees just to be sure she hadn’t missed something the first time, but she only confirmed that the house had no windows, no doors, and no way to climb up to it. And with each passing moment, the stark black and white landscape around her was swallowed up by wide swathes of crimson on the earth and up the trees, seeping up out of the ground.
“Damn it, Yaga, I’m tired of this game. Show me the door already! Show me now!”
A terrible wooden groaning and keening echoed through the wood, and Wren stumbled back into the bone fence. The soft bloody earth under her feet shuddered, and the ice cracked, and a deep rumbling shook the ground.
Woden, be my shield.
One of the trees beneath the cabin was bending sharply halfway up, and the base of the tree began to rise, its clawing roots tearing up the earth. When it broke free of the ground, huge clumps of dirt and snow tumbled from the exposed roots like dead bodies. Then the roots came down to rest on the ground and the other tree bent and tore itself free of the ground just like the first one.
It’s going to trample me!
Wren bolted toward the nearest opening in the fence, but the cabin lunged and planted one of its massive tree-legs directly in her path, splashing her with the blood from the pools all around her. The impact shook the ground from under her and Wren slipped backward in the muck and struck her head on the skulls of the fence. As she clutched her aching head, she looked up, expecting to see a filthy mass of roots about to crush her into the ground.
But instead, the cabin leaned back and forth, stomping its tree-legs one by one as it shuffled around and around in a slow circle within the bone fence, stepping back and forth across the tiny stream. Eventually it turned halfway around, and stopped.
Wren remained still and silent, her eyes darting around the clearing, waiting for something else to happen. But nothing did.
She sat up, and then stood up, her eyes fixed on the cabin above her. There, in the wall of the cabin facing her, was a door. A door that had not been there before.
“Okay, that’s something. But how am I…” She glanced around again for a ladder and saw that none had appeared during the cabin’s clumsy dance. She looked back up at the door. “Well, it is a witch’s house, I suppose. She wouldn’t need a ladder.”
Wren held out her right hand and focused on the sun-steel ring on her finger. It took very little effort to make her own soul shiver just right to make the ring buzz ever so gently against her skin. She pulled the aether in from the clearing, in from the woods, in from as far as she could reach. The cold mist slithered over the pink snow in thin wisps, but eventually she had enough. Wren sat down cross-legged and gathered the aether under her, and then she lifted herself off the ground.
She had never lifted herself so high as the cabin, in fact she had never risen more than a few feet off the ground. So she moved slowly, struggling to keep the small cloud of aether beneath her as dense as possible. Two feet, six feet, ten feet. Wren kept her eyes on the door and tried not to think about the vast empty space forming below her legs.
When she reached the height of the cabin, Wren grabbed the wooden handle of the door and pulled herself forward so she could stand on the shallow lip of the door sill. With a pillow of aether at her back to keep her from falling, she wiggled and shook the handle until the clasp popped free and the door swung out toward her. She waved the aether forward, and it delivered her safely into the cabin.
The interior was very dark, as the only light inside came from the doorway that she was now standing in. There were no windows, shuttered or otherwise, and no hint of a hearth or candles to light. So Wren held up her sun-steel ring a second time and squeezed it tight until the eight meager souls inside it made the ring glow with a dim orange light.
“Yaga? Are you here?”
She stepped inside. The door slammed shut behind her.
Instantly a dozen large candles sprang to life, but Wren had barely glimpsed her surroundings before an ear-splitting screaming erupted all around her. She slammed her hands over her ears and squeezed her eyes shut from the pain of the noise, and she crouched down as a wave of vertigo swept through her, threatening to send her spinning to the floor.
Wren didn’t move. With her eyes closed and ears plugged, she waited for the screaming to stop, but it didn’t stop. She couldn’t tell if it was one voice or a thousand voices, male or female, near or far. There weren’t even pauses for the screamers to catch their breath.
After several long moments of this, Wren cautiously opened her eyes and squinted at her surroundings. She was still inside the small cabin, still crouched just inside the door, and from her position she could easily see everything around her. And what she saw was terrifying.
Her legs gave out beneath her and she fell on her side, she forgot how to breathe, and all of her insides turned to ice.
There were two dozen men screaming, and one woman screaming back at them. The men were not standing or sitting in the room. The men were the room. The men were the walls, their bodies melted and twisted and flatted against the logs of the cabin, their bodies turned and bent and leaning at every angle, their heads hanging out into the room to scream. And they were all the same man, the same ugly man with limp black hair and a drooping black mustache and a large crooked nose.
Some of them were blackened with frost and some were white as bone. Some even had bones erupting through their skin as their bodies stretched out across the walls. And Wren realized that there were no candles in the room after all. Every few paces, there was a hand or a foot or a face on fire.
In the center of the room lay Yaga, curled up on the floor with her clawing hands wrapped around her white head. Her screams came from her belly as she kept her face down and did not look up at the tortured men around her.
Wren felt her hands shaking. They felt so thin and fragile and useless, her hands. Her belly felt hollow, and she couldn’t think a single thought, couldn’t form a single image in her mind because the screaming crowded into her ears, drowning out her own thoughts. The only thing that welled up inside her was a single word:
She crawled across the floor on her hands and knees, trying to cover her ears as she moved and keeping her eyes narrowed to slits so she wouldn’t have to look at the screaming faces on the walls. When she reached Yaga’s foot, Wren grabbed it with both hands, shuffled around, and started crawling back toward the door.
The screaming wormed its way inside her, piercing her head, gnawing at her chest and bones like a thousand hungry locusts. Her heart sank by degrees with each passing moment, from shock to disgust to fear to despair to self-loathing to an all-consuming desire to die, just to escape the screaming.
But still she crawled, and she pulled on the witch’s leg.
When her head struck the door, she reached up and fumbled with the wooden handle, but the door would not open. Tears poured down her cheeks as she pounded on the door, and she moaned wordless prayers for silence, for darkness, for sunlight, for death, for anything but the fiery chamber of screaming faces.
She slammed her hand against the door one last time and it swung out and open, and Wren tumbled out, dragging Yaga with her. The two women spun out into the cold, empty air and Wren had a brief glimpse of the blinding white snow before she struck the ground and lost consciousness.
Wren awoke slowly, her eyes focusing slowly through layers of white blurs, her ears focusing slowly through layers of white noise. Gradually she blinked away the pain and looked across the bright white snow and ice at the old woman lying beside her. The stream gurgled by their feet and the winter wind whistled through the leafless trees. And in the distance, she could hear people talking and boots crunching on snow.
The blood is gone.
The trees all stood tall and stiff again wearing their black and silver bark, and the snow was just snow, and the ice was just ice, all white and silver and hard and cold.
She sat up and knocked the cold wet clumps off her clothes, and then she crawled over to Yaga and rolled the old witch onto her back.
Yaga stared up at the sky, and blinked. “Where am I?”
“Where’s my Koschei?”
Wren took a deep breath. “The real Koschei is on a Turkish ship. And sooner or later, he’ll be set free or he’ll be rescued, and he’ll come home to you. He’s immortal, just like you. You’ll see him again soon.”
Yaga sat up and looked around the clearing. “I’m home?”
“No. This is a dream. Your dream. You’re not really here, in Rus. You’re in Constantia, in the south. You’re in a tower in the palace.”
“I know you.” Yaga frowned. “Or do I?”
“You do, in the waking world,” Wren said. “I’m a vala, a witch, from Ysland. We met earlier today.”
“I’m dreaming.” Yaga looked at her sharply. “But I’m not asleep.”
“No, and that’s the problem. You need to sleep. And you need to stay out of there.” Wren pointed up at the cabin above them.
Yaga nodded. “I’ll go to the village.”
“Good. I think some of the people are coming to check on you now.” Wren looked over her shoulder at the woods and saw tiny shadows moving among the trees. “So I’m going to go back to the waking world now. Are you going to be all right here?”
Yaga nodded slowly. There was a miserable blankness about her eyes and mouth.
“All right then.” Wren stood up, leaving the old woman sitting in the snow in the shadow of her cabin by the edge of the stream. She hesitated, uncertain of what to do next, and then she started walking upstream, away from the approaching people.
When she was back among the trees and the clearing was out of sight behind her, Wren sat down on a cold stone and looked at the ring on her hand. “All right. I’m ready to go back now. Back to my own body. Back where I belong.”
A soft cackling laughter resounded from her ring.
“Gudrun? Kara? Hrist? Brynhilda? I want to go back to my body now.” Wren glared intently at the ring. “Come on now, I know how this works. Omar told me. You can’t just do whatever you want. You have to listen to me, like when I make the ring glow, you have to do it. I’m in control here.”
The dead witches laughed louder.
Wren tightened her hand into a fist and focused on the little golden ring between her knuckles. “I command you to take me back to my body! I command you! Right now!”
The world fell out from under her and Wren flew up into the air, tumbling out of control into the cold white sky above the silent forest. She caught a fleeting glimpse of the clearing where Yaga’s cabin stood above the stream, and then everything went black.
Wren sat up. She was sitting in the dark again, on the blank patch of cold, smooth earth beneath a pale circle of moonlight in a starless sky. “Gudrun? Kara?”
The eight valas of Denveller stepped out of the darkness, ringing her in on every side.
“You’re just a child,” Rangrid said. She was a bulbous creature of folds and mounds and humps, and she hobbled forward with her little fingers fidgeting together over her huge breasts. “You were nothing as an apprentice, and you’re even less now. You don’t deserve to wear the ring of Denveller. You don’t deserve to command us.”
“Truly the great line of Denveller has failed,” Kara said. “But perhaps it can still be salvaged. Perhaps one of us should return to the world of the living in your place and-”
“Enough!” Wren shouted. “All of you! Shut up! You’re all dead. Do you hear me? Dead! And I’m sick and tired of listening to your insults and your cackling. You’re dead, and you’ll do as I say!”
“You think you can threaten us?” Gudrun hissed. “We are, as you say, dead. You can’t threaten the dead, little one.”
“Can’t I? I wonder.” Wren lunged at her shriveled little mistress, spun the crone about, and wrapped her arm around the old woman’s throat.
Gudrun gasped and wheezed as she clawed feebly at Wren’s arm. “Let me go!”
“Why? I thought I couldn’t threaten you,” Wren said softly.
“What is this?” Kara backed away with a look of horror on her face. “How can you do this? We’re ghosts, we’re invincible here.”
“Remember the corpses in Vlachia?” Wren asked. “Omar said the ghosts were clinging to their bodies. Even though they knew they were dead, they still wanted to be human. Do you see, ladies? The human soul can’t become something else, something more than human. We’re human. We’re always human. We’re only human. Now and forever. Even here, in death, we’re still human. And you can still suffer, like any other human being. We don’t transcend. Humanity isn’t some step toward a higher state. Humanity is our lot in life. And in death.”
She released Gudrun and the old woman hobbled away into the soft arms of Rangrid. Wren straightened up. “That’s my lesson for you. Something none of you knew. Something I learned for myself. Something that I don’t think even Omar understands.” She pushed her hair back from her face, tickling the edges of her tall fox ears. “So, now, I’ll ask you ladies again. Let me back into my body. Please.”
Wren blinked and sat up. She was on the floor of the Tower of Justice, and to her right she could see out the balcony to the eastern sky where the first soft fingers of dawn were rising over the horizon. Yaga lay on the floor beside her, snoring loudly.
Wren smiled. “I did it. It’s over.”
And from outside she heard the urgent clanging of a brass bell.
Wren frowned. “Or not.”
Tycho sat shivering in the bow of the dory, listening to the clangor of the bells coming from the Palace of Constantine. He looked over at Salvator and Lycus and the other marines. Some of the boys were asleep in impossibly uncomfortable-looking positions, but the others were all sitting, like him, staring out at the dark gray water and the light gray sky.
“What now?” The Italian groaned and squinted down the Strait at the palace. He was pale as death, his face thin and his eyes haunted. His lip trembled. All night long he had hunched in the back of the boat, both of his arms wrapped around his belly, his breath coming in shallow wheezes as he stared blankly across the water.
“Listen to the pattern,” Lycus said. “It’s the palace alarm for enemy ships, an attack from the sea. The Turks must be moving. Sir?”
Tycho nodded. “We need to get back there.”
Salvator rolled his eyes. “We just spent half the night rowing to stay ahead of the aether, and we spent the other half sitting out here in the freezing cold, watching for Turkish patrols. Now you want to row all the way back?”
“No,” said Tycho. “The current has been carrying us back toward the palace for the last two hours. I didn’t say anything because the aether has been retreating as well. So we only need to row part of the way back. How are you holding up?”
His only answer was the sound of oars slipping through oar locks and then shoving through the cold black waters of the Bosporus.
Tycho sat in the bow with his eyes fixed on the dim outline of the Seraglio Point. He could see the gray shapes of the Furies still sitting quite still in the center of the channel.
Who could be attacking us now? I thought everyone would be exhausted this morning. I thought maybe we’d have a quiet day for once.
It took most of an hour to row back down the Strait. Along the way, they saw weary sailors on the decks of the ships near them, and weary men and women moving about the city streets above the docks, going about their business in silence, casting dark and haunted looks at each other.
As they crossed the river spanned by the Galata Bridge, Tycho kept his hand on his revolver. He only had two bullets left, but the gesture gave him a measure of comfort, and control. The blackened wreckage of the Hellan ships still floated around the hulls and anchor chains of the Eranian ironclads, and sea gulls floated amidst the flotsam. High above them, they could hear men moving about on the decks of the Furies, but they saw no one, and no one called down to them, and they rowed quietly on.
The two dories knocked against the black rocks of the Point below the high sea walls of the palace. Tycho climbed out with Salvator and the marines, and moments later a voice called down from above. Hellan soldiers leaned over the top, waving down, and Tycho waved back. At the base of the nearest watch tower, Tycho thumped on the iron door and a few moments later he heard the locks turning and the door swung out. A young soldier nodded to them. “Major. Good morning.”
“That remains to be seen.” Tycho led the way into the tower and then back out into the park inside the walls. “What’s happening? Who’s ringing that alarm?”
“I don’t know. It’s coming from the south end.” The soldier pointed to the far end of the palace grounds, out beyond the Church of Saint Irene.
“Why don’t you know? It’s been ringing for over an hour now,” Salvator said.
The soldier wavered. “Well, no one’s come to tell us anything, and there’s only three of us awake so far, and I… didn’t want to…”
“It’s all right,” Tycho said. “Last night was hell. We all know it. But today is a new day, and we all have a job to do. So I need you to get up to your post, wake the rest of your men, and get someone down to the south tower to find out what’s the matter.”
“Yes sir.” The soldier nodded and jogged back into the tower.
“And us?” Lycus asked.
Tycho wanted to smile, wanted to offer them something warmer than orders and work, but orders and work were all that he had. “I want all of you here on the wall for now. Spread out. Check on the soldiers. Remember, they were all in the center of the storm last night. They had the worst of it. But we do need them awake and on their feet as soon as possible. The Turks will be waking up now too, and we can’t let them catch us sleeping.”
“Yes sir.” Lycus and the other young marines trudged back into the tower as well.
Salvator sighed. “The palace?”
Tycho nodded. “The palace.”
The pair began walking across the wide green lawns up toward the palace grounds. The Italian hobbled along, leaning heavily on Tycho’s shoulder and wincing with every step.
“What’s the plan when we get there?” Salvator asked.
“First we find you a surgeon, and then a valet or courier or something to run your errands. Use them to track down the Duchess and Prince Vlad. God only knows where they ended up last night. We need to make sure Lady Nerissa is safe and secure, and see how many soldiers we still have on their feet,” Tycho said. “I’ll go to the Tower of Justice and find the witch.”
“The old one or the young one?” The Italian grinned.
“Both of them.” Tycho gazed worriedly at the tall tower beyond the Chambers of Petitions.
I can’t imagine how much that poor girl must have suffered, being right there in the heart of the storm all night long. What if she’s gone mad? What if she’s dead? And it’s all my fault. I took her in there. I introduced them. And then I came back and told her about Koschei. What the hell was I thinking?
At the edge of the park, Tycho handed Salvator over to a pair of exhausted porters to carry him into the palace. As Tycho continued across the Second Courtyard and climbed the steps to the tower, he saw a few servants moving about the buildings through the windows and he saw others still lying on the ground, but he left them where they lay. There would be time for rude awakenings soon enough.
“Hello?” Tycho called up the steps to the top of the tower, but only his echo answered. With a grimace, he trudged up the tall marble steps, gripping the cold brass railing for balance. But when he reached the top, the landing and the balcony were empty. “Wren? Yaga?”
He stepped out onto the balcony for a moment to look down over the palace. There were quite a few people moving around now, maids carrying trays and linens, porters with sacks and boxes. It was still deathly quiet, but seeing the people below made the palace feel less desolate.
How can they just go back to work like nothing happened? I heard them screaming. They screamed all night, half the city, screamed until their throats were raw.
Maybe they don’t remember. After all, they don’t know what caused it. Maybe they think they all had normal nightmares.
Maybe I should be grateful for that.
Tycho climbed back down the stairs. By the time he reached the ground floor, his back was aching and his belly was growling, but he continued down into the cellar, spiraling down into the darkness.
Fire light flickered at the bottom of the stair, guiding him down, and when he stepped out into the cellar and saw Wren sitting beside Yaga’s sleeping figure, he felt every muscle in his body relax as he whispered, “Oh thank God.”
Wren looked up. “Tycho?”
He came over and knelt on the edge of the mismatched pile of fur rugs and Persian carpets. “You’re all right?”
She nodded, her golden eyes flashing in the fire light. “It was a long night, but everything’s all right now.”
“What about her?” Tycho nodded at the white-haired witch.
“She’s better now. She needs to sleep. But when she wakes up, she’ll be better. There won’t be any more aether storms for a while. I’ve seen to that.” Wren pointed to the pile of silver bracelets by her leg. “And there shouldn’t be any more walking corpses either. That was Yaga’s doing as well, although it wasn’t intentional. She was just… she just missed her son, was all.”
Tycho nodded, hoping he could believe her.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
“Fine.” He looked up at her, into her golden eyes and tall fox ears, and he smiled. “I’m fine. I had a lovely moonlit sail up and down the Strait with a few close friends, and it looks like everyone is all right now. I even rescued Salvator, and with any luck he’ll live out the day.”
“No one. It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I’m just glad you’re all right. And I wanted to say that I’m sorry that I left you here alone with her. I tried to come back in, but I couldn’t. I should never have brought you here in the first place, never should have asked you to deal with this.”
“It’s all right,” Wren said softly. “Everyone’s alive, and the nightmare is over. That’s all that matters now.” She smiled at him.
Tycho smiled back and sat up straighter. “Sure, yes, you’re right. So, is there anything I can get you? Are you hungry?”
“A little.” She glanced upward, her fox ears twitching. “Do you know what that bell ringing means? It’s been going on forever.”
The alarm! Damn it!
“It’s an alarm. The Turks. I need to, I should be…” He stood up and glanced at the stairs, but he didn’t move.
“It’s all right, if you need to go, you should go. I’ll stay here with her,” Wren said. “Just, can you come over here for a second?”
He blinked. “All right.” He crossed the carpets and knelt beside her, glancing at the snoring old witch in front of them.
She took his hand and he felt a warm flush race from his arm across his chest and into his face.
“Last night was a bad night,” she said.
“Yes, it was,” he said.
“It’s probably going to be a bad day, too.” She squeezed his hand.
She leaned down and kissed him, pressing her warm, soft lips to his mouth and slipping her hand back through his hair to hold him there. Tycho closed his eyes and reveled in the gentle caresses of her lips and tongue against his own. He felt his heart quicken and his manhood rising as he put his hands on her cheeks, feeling the warmth and softness of her skin.
When she pulled away, he wasn’t ready for it to end, not nearly.
“There,” she said. “Now today won’t be all bad.” And she smiled.
He smiled back, and nodded.
I have to go. Damn the world for making me go.
Tycho squeezed her hand as he stood up. “I have to go, but, as soon as I can, I’ll come back, straight away, I promise.”
She nodded, still smiling. She bit her lip.
He backed away slowly, nearly stumbled, then turned and hurried to the stairs. “I’ll be back soon!”
If he climbed the stairs to the ground floor, he had no memory of it. The next thing he knew, he was jogging across the courtyard in search of a carriage and trying to calm the racing of his heart.
She kissed me.
“You there!” he called to a very young stable boy he recognized. “I need a carriage.”
The little boy looked lost and sick. “Sorry sir, I’m not allowed to hitch the horses yet.”
“Then just give me a horse.” Tycho paused. “A small one.”
A few minutes later he was sitting on large pony and riding hard toward the south corner of the palace. The pony’s hooves clattered on the paved walkways around the Church of Saint Irene and then clattered on the gravel paths that wove through the gardens behind the church and across the park as he raced toward the watch tower. The ringing of the alarm bell was less urgent now, slower and with the occasional long pause between strikes.
Whoever they are, it sounds like their arms are getting tired.
Tycho rode up to the iron door at the base of the tower where he found no one to greet him, and he left the pony alone as he rushed inside and climbed the rattling iron steps to the upper level. At the top of the stair he found a lone young man leaning against an open window frame facing out onto the southern Sea of Marmara. His whole body was slumped against the wall, even his head leaning against the cold stone, all but his right hand which was raised to grasp the striker of the bell just beside the window and was ringing, ringing, ringing with what little strength was left in his shoulder.
Where the devil is Lycus? Why haven’t they come yet?
Tycho touched the young soldier’s elbow. “Private?”
The youth turned sharply, and then looked down. “Oh God, major, you scared me. I mean, sorry, sir. I didn’t see you. I mean, sorry. Sir.” His trembling hand fell away from the bell, which fell mercifully silent.
“It’s fine, private. We’ve all had a hell of a night. You’re not the only one.” Tycho rose up on the tips of his toes to peer out the window at the sea. “Why did you ring the alarm? What did you see out there?”
“Oh, it’s not out there.” The youth pointed at the sky. “It’s up there.”
Tycho tilted his head back and scanned the rippling layers of gray clouds. “What’s up there? What am I supposed to be… Oh.”
Low in the southern sky he saw three black dots. They hovered there, never flying any higher or lower, never wavering in their formation even a hair. But as he peered at them, he was certain he could see them growing ever so slightly larger, and closer.
“Airships. Three of them.”
The soldier nodded. “And since I haven’t heard any talk about us getting any airships, I figure they must be for the Turks. Airships all come from Marrakesh, right sir?”
“As far as I know.” Tycho gripped the edge of the window and took a long, slow breath.
“Does this mean the Mazighs are fighting for the Eranians now?”
“I hope not. Because if they are, we aren’t going to last very long.” He gave the young man a serious look, and then turned back toward the stairs. “I’ll go inform the others. No need to keep ringing that bell now. Good work, private. Good eyes.”
“Nothing good about it, sir.” The young man frowned and squinted up at the sky.
“You’ve given us fair warning,” Tycho said. “Now it’s up to us to use it.”
Tycho descended the stairs slowly and carefully, chewing on his lip and wondering what threat the airships might be.
Gunfire from above?
Shelling from above?
At the bottom of the tower, he stepped out into the cool morning light and fought his way up into the saddle of his pony, and headed back to the palace at a quick trot. As he crossed the Second Courtyard and approached the Chamber of Petitions, he glanced to his left at the pale finger of the Tower of Justice.
If they do bomb the city, if they do breach the walls, if we do lose Constantia, then my first duty is to get Lady Nerissa to safety. But in the middle of a battle, anything can happen. I might not be able to help the Duchess, but there will be plenty of others who can. Vlad, at least.
But who will get Wren out of the city?
She doesn’t even have her Aegyptian friend with her now. She’s all alone here.
And she kissed me.
He nodded to himself as he slipped down from the saddle and handed the reins to a small boy at the steps to the Third Courtyard.
I won’t leave her behind again.
A maid brought a cold breakfast down to the cellar on a silver tray, and Wren ate the strange little meats and wheat cakes while she watched Baba Yaga snore. The meats were spiced with something other than pepper, and she couldn’t name it. But she liked it.
When the maid came back, she brought a young page with her and the boy said he was to take Wren to a meeting with the Duchess.
“Will Tycho be there?” she asked as she stood up.
“Major Xenakis? I think so,” he said.
The maid said she would stay with the sleeping witch, so Wren started to follow the boy up the steps, but she stopped and came back to the carpets.
Just to be safe.
The eight silver bracelets lay in a pile on the floor, and one by one she picked them up and slipped them onto her wrists. And then, with four of the trinkets jangling on each of her arms, she climbed the steps and left the tower.
Outside, the morning sun shone brightly behind the thin gray clouds, and the entire sky glared a colorless mottled blend of charcoal, silver, and white. Wren pushed her blue glasses up her nose to hide her eyes and followed the young boy in the red jacket across the courtyard and into the Chamber of Petitions, and then down a hallway she had not seen before to a room guarded not only by Vlachian and Hellan soldiers, but a small legion of anxious-looking councilors, clerks, merchants, and over-dressed courtiers.
As the page knocked on the far door and spoke with the guards, Wren slipped off her glasses and loosened, but did not remove, the black scarf over her ears. The door opened, the page stepped aside, and Wren entered the room.
This room was slightly larger than the last one where she and Omar had met Tycho and the others, but in many ways it might have well been the same room. A long table, many chairs, the Duchess and the Prince, and more than a few soldiers and clerks milling about with papers and pens. She spotted Tycho across the room, and after a moment the young major looked up and saw her, and he smiled. She smiled back.
“There you are, good.” Omar waved her over to the side the room. “I hear you were able to make Yaga see reason. Very good. And you found time to change into some lovely new clothes and some very noisy jewelry. Ah, well. You look very nice.”
Wren stared at him. “I spent half the night clawing my way out of three of my own nightmares, then had an aether duel with that old witch just so I could turn around and dive into her own nightmare and pull her out. I saw things, horrible things. And then I had to fight the valas of Denveller just to get back into my own…” She trailed off as she noticed the strange look in his eyes.
Omar was smiling. He winked at her and leaned in close to whisper, “I know. You did marvelously. I’m truly impressed. And when we have some time, I want to hear all about it. But right now, I’m afraid we have yet another crisis on our hands.”
She glanced around the room and saw Tycho had his back turned as he spoke to the other officers. “What is it?”
“It would appear that our friends across the water have enlisted the aid of several Mazigh airships, which will be here by noon to begin bombing Constantia.”
“Airships?” Her eyes flashed. “Like the skyship that brought you to Ysland? Huge flying whales in the clouds?”
“Yes, just like that, except that instead of a journey of exploration that ends in a fiery crash, these airships have come to make war, which will end in a fiery inferno for everyone except them,” Omar said sourly. “If we don’t do something about it, a lot of people are going to die today.”
“But what can we do?”
“Quite a lot, actually. Vlad’s working on a plan right now. From what I’ve seen, it looks like the Hellans are going to attack the Eranian ships in the Strait and even attack Stamballa to draw the airships’ fire away from Constantia. I don’t know how long that will work, but it should buy us some time, maybe even the whole day.”
Wren glanced from his worried face to the jumble of maps and papers on the walls to the toy soldiers and ships strewn about the table in the middle of the room. “Will that really work?”
He shrugged. “Maybe. The crews of the Furies were incapacitated all night long. The boilers in the ironclads are all cold, and it will take hours before their engines are running, and the men won’t be any more ready to fight than ours. Less, if we’re lucky. But we’ll do whatever we can to help, as ever. How do you feel this morning? Did you get any sleep last night?”
“A little. Not really. What about you? Were you caught in the aether in some sort of nightmare like everyone else?”
“No.” Omar sighed. “I spent the first half of the night killing dead people outside the walls for our friend the prince, and then I spent the second half of the night escorting a lady friend back through the city streets, which were also quite full of dead people in need of killing. All in all, it was thoroughly unpleasant evening and I have no wish to repeat it, or even remember it, quite frankly.”
Wren grinned. “A lady friend?”
Omar smirked and pressed a finger to his lips, and he winked at her again. “Another time. I think Vlad is about to say something.”
They turned as Vlad knocked an empty glass loudly on the table to get everyone’s attention. The Vlachian prince looked haggard and unwashed, but there was something grim and terrible in his eyes as well. “Your attention! We have a plan and we haven’t any time to waste. I’ve already dispatched messengers and our remaining ships at the Galata Bridge are preparing to attack the Furies. Just like last night, they will all draw the Turks’ fire toward the north while the marines attack from the south, launching directly from the shore on the Point.”
“In broad daylight?” Tycho asked, his face pale. “My boys won’t stand a chance against those ships.”
“Yes, they will,” Vlad said. “Omar and I will be aboard the boats with them, and we won’t be trying to board the Furies. As soon as we reach their hulls, we will use our seireiken swords to burn through their armor and send them all to the bottom of the Bosporus. With any luck, we might even pull Koschei out of the water.”
A tired chuckle ran through the room.
“With the Furies crippled or destroyed, our entire force will then continue across the Strait and attack Stamballa itself.”
“Where, exactly?” Omar asked.
“Everywhere.” Vlad pointed at his maps. “Tycho says the Turks evacuated this entire district last night in fear of the aether. With only a token guard to oppose us, we should have no trouble setting fire to the entire waterfront. That should get the attention of those airships.”
“And what if it doesn’t?” asked Lady Nerissa. “What happens if the airships arrive and begin bombing Constantia? What if they attack the palace? How can we fight them?”
“We can’t,” said Tycho. “We don’t have any way to hurt them. They’ll bomb the city, Your Grace, and they’ll only stop when they run out of bombs.”
The room was silent.
“Then we’ll just have to keep their bombs falling in the sea,” Vlad growled. “I want all marines on the north beach immediately and ready to leave. All riflemen to the sea walls. And I’m pulling most of our men off the north and western walls to defend the Strait should the Turks decide to cross the water. Now go!”
The soldiers and clerks scurried out of the room clutching their papers and Wren pressed back against the wall out of their way. She glanced at Omar. “You’re going with them?”
“I am,” he sighed. “But don’t worry too much. I’ll probably survive.”
“I’m not worried about you.”
“Oh, thank you very much.”
She elbowed him in the ribs. “I just meant, what am I supposed to do while you’re gone?”
“Whatever you can do,” Omar said. He gave her a pointed look. “You’re not a little girl anymore, Wren. You’re a very big girl, with very strange ears, and you just defeated a very old witch at her own game. You don’t need me to hold your hand anymore. The things you know, the things you can do… my God, you’re one of the most capable people I’ve ever met. There aren’t any more rules to learn or tricks to figure out, not for you. It’s high time you realized that for yourself. Just go to the sea wall where you can see the ships and do whatever you can to help them. The more lives saved, the better.”
Wren frowned. “I won’t be much help. The sun is rising and the aether is thinning, and I’m tired. And I probably won’t be able to see much with the sun glaring off the water.”
“Hm.” He placed a heavy hand on her shoulder. “Do you know why I let you go see Yaga alone? Yes, it’s true that I didn’t want to see her myself, but I did trust you to deal with her, even though she’s five hundred years old and you’re, what, nineteen?”
He grinned. “Because you’re smarter now than she ever was. And that’s all that matters. Life is less about knowing the answer than figuring out the answer. Look around this room.”
Wren looked, and saw nervous old men talking to anxious young soldiers, and exhausted clerks carrying armloads of papers.
“Look at them,” Omar said. “Now tell me. Do you honestly think anyone here has any idea how to save this city from the Turks’ airships and ironclads? Did any of them know how to stop Yaga, or the undead armies at the gates? Did they figure it out? Did they even try?”
Wren smiled and blushed. “I guess not.”
“Say again?” He lifted her chin so she had to look him in the eye.
Wren blinked. “No, they didn’t. I did.”
“That’s exactly right. You did.” Omar stepped back and gently arranged her scarf over her head and straightened the lapels of her black jacket. “Now I want you to go out there and be smart. Figure it out. Do anything and everything in your power to save some lives today. That, and come back in one piece, please.”
She smiled a little. “I will. You too.”
As the flood of bodies pouring out the door died down, Wren stepped away from the wall and headed out into the hallway.
“Wren?” Tycho caught her hand and pulled her aside in the corridor. “Where are you going? You should head for the cellars, or the cisterns. Someplace underground where you’ll be safe. Or maybe…” He glanced over his shoulder. “I could put you on a horse with an armed escort and get you out of the city. If you want.” His eyes pleaded in silence for her to say yes.
Wren squeezed his hand. “No, thank you. Where are you going?”
“To the watch tower overlooking the channel,” he said gloomily. “I can’t help my marines, and recent events have proven I’m little enough help aboard a ship in the middle of a battle.”
“The wall? Good. I’ll come with you.”
“But the bombs! It won’t be safe for you.”
“I know.” Wren looked left and right down the crowded, busy corridor. “Which way?”
Tycho gave her a pained look, but instead of arguing further he shook his head and led her down the hall to the left. When they finally emerged from the building, the major summoned a page, who fetched them a pony. Tycho glanced uncomfortably from the high saddle to her and back.
“Here.” Wren leapt lightly into the saddle and held out her hand to him. He smiled, and climbed up in front of her.
They rode across the park, a wide open expanse of dark green grass and gray gravel paths dusted with snow and frost. They passed between squads and companies of Hellan soldiers and Vlachian archers and even a few Rus freebooters. As they approached the high watch tower, their view of the Strait and the Eranian warships disappeared behind the sea wall, and the noise of the men echoed chaotically across the park, bouncing off the ancient stone walls.
Wren followed Tycho into the tower and up the narrow iron stair, and at the top they stepped out onto a wide platform under a conical roof from which they could see the Furies to the east, the Galata Bridge to the west, and the silvery path of the Bosporus winding away between the shores of Constantia and Stamballa to the north. And then she turned and squinted up to the southern sky and saw the three airships in the distance, small droning dots that looked like fat wingless flies against the bone-gray clouds. She set her blue glasses in front of her eyes and the glare of the winter sun was blunted, and the pain behind her eyes dulled.
“What will you do now?” she asked.
Tycho pulled a tube from the shelf on the wall and went over to the window. As he walked, she saw that the tube had glass lenses on each end.
A spyglass! I wonder if there’s another one here somewhere that I can… hm, no, of course there isn’t. Maybe later.
“Now, I watch and pray.” Tycho stood on his toes to peer over the lip of the window down at the beach below the wall.
Wren looked and saw the marines in their drab tunics carrying their little boats down to the water and making ready to push off. There was a knot of men farther up the strand and she thought she could see Omar among them, but she couldn’t be certain.
Woden, watch over them. Be their shield today.
“What’s your god called?” she asked absently as she watched.
When he didn’t answer, she looked over at him and saw the conflicted confusion on his face.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Omar told me about this. You call him God, don’t you? He doesn’t have another name, right?”
“Sort of.” Tycho frowned as he raised the spyglass back to his eye. “What do you call God in your country?”
“There are lots of gods, of course,” she said. Her vulpine ears twitched under her black scarf as the sea breeze tickled the long red hairs around them. “But Woden is the only one I pay any mind to. He’s the king, the Allfather, so I suppose he’s the best to have on your side. But really, all valas talk to Woden. He knows the most about magic and souls and death. Anything else you can learn for yourself, can’t you?” She smiled.
“I guess so,” he said quietly.
I don’t think he likes talking about the gods, or maybe it’s death that bothers him?
“They’re leaving.” Tycho nodded down at the water.
Wren saw the little boats rowing out into the Strait. Farther out, a group of Hellan warships were steaming and paddling their way down from the Galata Bridge with dozens of armed sailors on each of their decks. “What about the Turks?”
Omar turned his spyglass to the Furies. “It’s hard to tell. There are men on deck. They’re working. Their engines don’t seem to be running. There isn’t much steam coming out of the stacks. It looks they’re still waking up out there. Vlad may get his miracle after all.”
Wren watched the Hellan steamers chugging down the river and the marines rowing out from the beaches. It was all very quiet. There were no trumpets or horns, no battle cries or war songs. Just the soft slapping of oars and the sloshing of the waves and the rhythmic churning of the engines.
A single rifle fired, the sound echoing like a dull thud across the water. And then a second rifle fired, and a third. She could see the figures on the decks of the Furies moving along the railings, and she tried to guess which ones were shooting at the marines.
“If that’s the best they can do, this might actually go according to plan,” Tycho muttered. “Damn it. Row faster. Row! Lycus…”
“Don’t worry about your men,” Wren said. “Worrying won’t help them now.”
“Then what should I do?” he asked sharply, nearly snapping at her.
Wren shrugged. “When there’s nothing to do, then do nothing. Wait and see.”
He nodded. “Sorry. I guess you’ve done this before? Omar goes off to fight and you have to wait and watch?”
“Oh no,” Wren said softly. “I’m a vala of Ysland. I fight, too, usually.”
“But not this time?”
Wren felt the bracelets clinking softly on her wrists as she leaned on the window sill. “Especially this time. But I’m going to need your eyes. It’s too bright for me to see very far or clearly. Are the marines doing well? Are they nearly to the ships?”
“No, they’re barely halfway. And it looks like more riflemen are coming up on deck on the Furies.”
The sounds of gunfire popped and pattered like rain in the distance.
“Then maybe we can speed your marines on their way,” Wren said, stepping back from the window. “Keep watching them, and when they reach the Furies, tell me to stop.”
Wren raised her arms and she felt Yaga’s silver bracelets hanging loose and wobbly on her slender arms. She focused on her own soul, tightening it like a muscle, bearing down upon herself in her mind.
Woden, guide my hands.
She sent a pulsing wave into the bracelets and the many veins of sun-steel wrapped around them began to resonate. She felt them tremble against her skin, and suddenly all around her there was an electric energy in the air, and a soft breeze began to blow forward, down her arms and away from her finger tips.
Aether. There’s still quite a bit here from the storm last night. Now to see if it’s enough.
“Wren? What are you doing?”
She bit her lip.
The aether raced down her arms across the shivering bracelets and blasted out the window and down across the surface of the Bosporus, and when it reached the flotilla of little wooden boats full of marines, it caught hold of the souls of the men, and it pushed.
“My God, something’s happening!” Tycho stretched up on his toes to keep his glass fixed on the boats. “They’re flying like arrows over the waves. They’re all holding on to the sides for dear life, bashing and thumping across the water. And they’re about to hit the Furies. No!”
Wren opened her eyes and dropped her arms to her sides, and exhaled the breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding. She blinked and saw that the dark little blurs of the marines’ boats were no longer out in the open water but looked to be huddled up tightly against the hull of the first Eranian ironclad.
Tycho spun to stare at her. “You pushed the boats all the way there!”
“Actually, I pushed the men all the way there. The boats were just long for the ride,” Wren said. “Omar and Vlad should be able to take it from here. I don’t think I can do much else for them at this distance.”
“That was amazing.” The major gazed up at her in admiration.
“Thanks.” Wren slipped her hand around his neck to rest it on his far shoulder as she stood close beside him. For a moment they both stared out at the sea, at the men and ships in the distance, and the Hellan steamers bearing down on the Furies. “I guess they’re on their own now. So, what do you suppose we can do about those skyships?”
“Airships,” he said.
“I’ll call them whatever I want,” she said with a grin. “I’m a witch.”
Omar clung to the side of the little dory as he felt his naked flesh being hurled forward against his clothes, against the wind, against the wood of the boat. And all around him were the pale and terrified faces of young marines clinging right beside him, clutching at the seats and sides of the boat and dragging it along with them as the cold aether wind tossed them across the Bosporus like a skipping stone.
And just as suddenly as it began, it was over. Omar fell flat on his chest across the rear seat and felt the air rush from his lungs. He sat up, gasping. All around him the marines were picking themselves up, prying splinters out of their palms, rubbing bruises, and putting their weapons back into their sheathes and holsters. Wincing, Omar glanced up and saw the sheer steel wall of a ship’s hull less than an arm’s length away.
Thank you, Wren. Well done.
“Everyone, mind your heads if you want to keep them!” He drew his seireiken and the sun-steel blade shone brightly over the sweaty faces of the young marines. Omar slammed the sword into the hull of the Eranian ironclad right down at the water line so the foaming waves started to sizzle and hiss, and a plume of scalding steam flew up past his face, forcing him to duck back. “Now row!”
The marines scrambled into the seats and grabbed the oars and began rowing. In jerks and thrusts, they moved the dory along the side of the warship, dragging Omar’s burning sword straight through the armored hull. When they finally stopped and looked back, there was a melted gash as tall as a man’s hand running the entire length of the ship and they could see water gushing into the dark crack. A deep, echoing boom resounded inside the ship, followed by a series of metallic pings and groans.
“Go, go!” Omar waved at the marines and the marines rowed some more, pulling the dory away from the ship as the behemoth began leaning toward them.
When they were clear of the ironclad, Omar wiped his brow and scanned the scene behind him. Vlad and his marines were almost finished filleting the southernmost Fury while the other Hellan boats spread out in the shadows of the warships to take careful shots at the Turkish riflemen leaning over the railings overhead.
“Looks like the last one is ours,” Omar said. “Bring us alongside her.” The marines grunted in unison and their little dory surged across the choppy waters to the side of the last of the three Furies, and once again Omar slashed the huge ship from bow to stern right at the water line, and soon it too was groaning and listing.
Just as they met up with Vlad’s boat, Omar heard a tremendous moaning echo across the water and he turned to see the first Fury, the first one he had wounded, roll sharply over toward its gashed side. The steel hull smashed down into the waves, sending a great rolling tide across the Strait, and the marines grabbed their seats and gunwales as the small boats leapt lightly on the surge. The sinking ship came to rest at a violent angle with its steam funnels pointed up over the Seraglio Point and every bit of loose gear slid down the deck to tumble into the sea. Ropes and hooks and tool boxes splashed down, as did the Turkish sailors and engineers, though the latter scrambled to grab hold of the hatches and lines and rails on their way into the cold water.
A few moments later, the ship that Vlad had attacked shuddered and groaned as its still-cool boiler came to life and its propellers clawed weakly at the Bosporus. And a moment after that, the warship rolled over completely, plunging its decks below the waves and baring its barnacle-crusted hull to the heavens, its screws spinning wildly in the wintry air.
“I like your plan,” Omar called to Vlad.
The Vlachian prince laughed. “You admire my genius?”
“Well.” Omar paused. “I admire the fact that we’re winning.”
The marines continued firing their revolvers at the sailors on the last Fury, and the sailors continued firing their rifles down at the little boats floating in the warship’s shadow.
Soon this one will be underwater, and we can all go home.
Omar glanced back at the distance sea walls of the palace and waved, wondering if Wren could see him.
When the last Eranian ship began to lean over, the Hellans scrambled to get out of its way. The third warship sank very slowly, listing gently to port and displaying its decks to the palace. On the far side, Omar could hear the Hellan steamers firing their guns at the warship’s exposed hull.
Then one of the marines pointed up at the deck of the ironclad and shouted, “Look there! It’s Koschei!”
Omar squinted up and against the glare of the winter sky he saw the small figure of a man hanging by his legs from a flag pole in the center of the deck. The Rus warrior had regrown his arms and it appeared that, for the moment, no one had any interest in hacking them off again. The sailors on deck were all scrambling to reach the small launches along the railings and the marines were gleefully picking off the fleeing Turks. But no one was minding the dangling Rus man.
When the ship rolls, he’ll be trapped underneath if his legs aren’t cut free.
God only knows how many times he’d have to drown down there in the cold and the dark before he does get free.
The Aegyptian briefly recalled the handful of times he himself had drowned. Most had been in shipping accidents, in storms, and he’d only be gone for a moment or two. Only once had he been intentionally drowned in a fight, but that too had only lasted a moment.
A moment is more than enough.
“Vlad!” Omar glanced at the prince. “I think it’s time we rescued your lost champion.”
The Vlachian nodded and waved his men to row back toward the sinking ironclad and Omar followed suit. When they reached the edge of its shadow, the warship was still high enough above the waves that the marines had to use their hooks and ropes to snag the railing and climb hand-over-hand out of the pitching dories up onto the ironclad’s sloping deck.
Omar waited patiently below, staring up at the sharp edge of the ship for the marines to reappear with the mangy-haired Rus, but instead a single Hellan youth stuck out his head and called down, “He’s chained and locked! We need to find a key!”
Damn my luck.
Omar sighed, took hold of one of the dangling ropes, and began to climb. Every pull made his shoulders ache and his back ache and his legs ache, and when he paused to rest and catch his breath he looked down to see that he was barely a third of the way up. The marines down in the boats were grinning up at him.
“Oh, shut up,” he muttered to himself. “I was climbing ropes when your ancestors were still worshipping Zeus, you stupid children.”
He climbed, and rested, and climbed. When he reached the top, four marines were waiting to help him over the rail, and then to help him up the steep slope of the deck toward the flag pole. He shook off their hands. “I can walk, thank you very much!”
When he finally grabbed hold of the flag pole and stood face to upside-down face with the prisoner, Omar was again out of breath, but he recovered quickly.
The hanging man opened his eyes and frowned. “Grigori?”
“What are you doing, just hanging around like this?” Omar grinned. “Haven’t you heard? There’s a war on!”
Koschei frowned a bit deeper and his black eyes flicked from side to side, looking at the marines scattered about the deck. “Where are the Turks?”
“Dead, mostly. Now mind your head.”
Omar drew his seireiken and slashed the chains around Koschei’s feet and the Rus man smashed down onto the deck straight onto his head. He flopped over and two of the marines grabbed his arms to keep him from sliding down the deck. But the thick-necked warrior shoved them away and stood up. His thin black hair was plastered to his face with sweat and sea spray, and his black mustache bristled between his scowling lips and his thrice-broken nose.
“You’re looking well,” Omar said. “Care to come to Stamballa with us for lunch? I think they’re serving something with coffee and hummus.”
The Rus immortal cast his black glare left and right. “Is the captain dead?”
“I’m going to cut off his arms,” Koschei said. “And then I’m going to shove a sword up his ass and set fire to his-”
“Sorry to disappoint you,” Omar said with a tired look. “But this ship is about to roll over and sink, so we need to be leaving. Everyone, back to the boats!”
They stumbled down the deck to the railing, and then descended the ropes into the wobbling, wavering boats below. Omar found himself sitting nose to nose with Koschei as the marines began rowing. They angled south away from the sinking ships, but soon turned east to cross the Strait and reach the shores of Stamballa.
“I saw you come across the water,” the Rus man said. “It was very fast. My mother helped you, yes?”
“You could say that,” Omar said. “Although, I have my own mistress of the aether, these days. A very talented young girl.”
“Bah.” Koschei waved his thick, hairy hand. “Children. They know nothing. My mother, she knows everything. How long have you been in Constantia?”
“Three days now.”
“Three!” Koschei grunted and slapped one of the marines in the head. “You see? You little children have two months to rescue me and you do nothing. Grigori comes and he gets me free in three days. This is a man!”
Omar smiled and glanced up at the walls of the palace receding into the distance. The Hellan soldiers were on the move, trooping around the point toward the south tower, toward the approaching airships.
“It’s Omar now, actually.”
“Bah. You are always Grigori to me. So, you have seen my mother, yes? How is she?”
Omar winced. “Actually, I’ve been a bit busy with the war and I haven’t been to see Yaga yet. But my apprentice has been to see her and I understand she’s doing just fine.”
“What is this? You haven’t seen her?” Koschei smacked Omar in the face. “Where are your manners? There is always time for manners. You taught me that. You will come see her with me now, when I go to her. She will be so happy to see us both, you will see.”
“Uhm.” Omar nodded slowly, rubbing his cheek. “Maybe. Although you can see we’re not heading that way at the moment.”
“Yes, yes, I see. We go to kill more Turks, yes? Fine with me.” The Rus man snorted and spat at the water, but missed and hit the inside wall of the boat instead. “So, Grigori, why so serious? You’re not the same man as before, all smiles and games. You look like these Hellans, all grim-face and pissing your pants.”
“Well, it’s the Hellans I’m worried about. I certainly wouldn’t mind if Constantia became a part of the empire, but I have no wish to see this lovely old city burned to the ground or thousands of innocents murdered in the process.”
Koschei shrugged and picked at his bent nose. “People die.”
“Yes, they certainly do.”
“What do you care? We don’t die, you and me. And you, you are looking for God, yes? Have you met him yet?”
A faint smile tugged at Omar’s cheek. “No, not yet.”
“Well, these things take time. God, heaven. Heh. Is tricky business. You’ll do it, someday.”
Omar chewed his lip. Over Koschei’s shoulder, he could see the third Fury finally rolling over and drifting lower and lower into the Bosporus. The Hellan steamers were arrayed around the wreckage, pulling Turkish sailors out of the water and shelling the sinking ironclads. The cannon fire boomed and popped and whistled across the waves.
Then Omar looked back at the walls of the palace again. The three airships loomed in the sky like dark monsters suspended in amber, but these monsters were still growing larger and the faint droning of their engines growled over the city. He sighed and rested his hand on his seireiken. “I hope you’re feeling rested. We have a long day ahead of us.”
“Fighting? Killing? Is no problem. This is what I do.” The Rus man grinned. “Remember who you’re talking to. I am Koschei the Deathless!”
Omar grinned back, momentarily infect with the other man’s dark enthusiasm. “Yes, I suppose you are.” He settled back in his seat to rest until they reached the far shore, and he muttered, “But who the devil am I?”
Tycho stood in the south watch tower between Wren and the young soldier who had been ringing the alarm bell a few hours ago. He could see the airships clearly now, including the long gondolas clinging to their bellies and even the shadowy figures of the crews moving about inside. Now that they were closer, the airships looked to be moving faster and he could see them shifting slightly in formation, sometimes closer, sometimes farther apart. They nosed gently to the left and right as the wind moved around them.
“I can’t tell if they’re heading straight for us, or if they’re pointing toward the ships in the Strait,” he said to no one in particular. “They’re angled into the wind.”
“Does it really matter?” Wren asked. “You said your guns can’t shoot that high.”
“Then why are we out here? Just to wait and see what those skyships do?”
Tycho felt a sudden storm of anger and frustration in his chest and he almost snapped at her, Because I have to do something!
Instead he said, “What else can I do? I have to defend my people.”
Wren shrugged, jangling the silver bracelets on her wrists. “If you can’t fight your enemies, you hide from them. So hide.”
“Hide?” Tycho clenched his spyglass. “I can’t run away and hide in the middle of a war. There are thousands of people out there and they’re all counting on us to defend them. We have to be here. We have to do something about this.”
“Or, you could get your people to safety.” Wren poked her head out the window and looked up through her blue glasses. “Those skyships are huge and slow. You know exactly where they are, and they just drop the bombs straight down, right? So all you have to do is not be under them. Easy.”
“So what? Am I supposed to just evacuate all the houses in the path… of the…” Tycho blinked. “Of course, that’s exactly what we should be doing. You’re beautiful! Captain!” The major spun around and shouted down the stairs to the bottom of the tower. “Captain! I want your entire company assembled in the First Courtyard in five minutes. New orders! I want every building within a quarter league of the water to be evacuated. Empty every house. Tell the people to leave all their belongings, it’s just for a day or two. Get them back as far as possible.”
“Go door to door, now! Move it! Move out! Go!” Tycho paused at the top of the stair, then looked back at Wren. “We need to get the Duchess to safety, too.”
“Sure. But where should we take her?”
We shouldn’t take her too far from the palace. If we end up spread out all over the city, we won’t be able to coordinate our forces.
“I think I know a place.”
Tycho and Wren rode their little pony back across the park from the wall to the palace, dashing through the columns of soldiers jogging up the shallow hill side to muster in the First Courtyard.
Back in the Chamber of Petitions, the atmosphere was strangely calm and quiet as the servants went about their chores and the clerks shuffled their papers, and the politicians argued quietly in the corners.
Tycho found Lady Nerissa in her office with the gravely pale and sleepy-eyed Salvator and several other senior officers. “Your Grace, we have to evacuate the palace.”
The Duchess’s face betrayed her worry and fear. “Vlad’s plan failed? The airships are still coming this way?”
“It’s impossible to be sure, but we can’t wait until the last minute to find out. I’ve already sent our men into the city to evacuate the homes near the waterfront, but we need to get you to safety as well. The palace will be their first target.”
“Not the most gallant recourse, but probably the most prudent,” Salvator said begrudgingly.
The Duchess nodded. “Very well. We’ll move to the Cathedral of Saint Sophia. Not even the Turks would dare to destroy that house of God.”
“I’m sorry, Your Grace, but we can’t take that chance.”
The woman’s face hardened with resolve. “Major, I won’t simply run away to some country estate and wait for it to be safe enough for me to resume my duties. I have a war to fight.”
“I know, and I agree,” Tycho said. “Which is why I want to move you to another palace nearby.”
“What other palace nearby?” The Duchess’s look of confusion blossomed into realization. “Major, that’s an excellent idea.”
The next half hour was a maelstrom of clerks and papers and maids and orders as the palace staff were all sent away and the entire bureaucratic machinery of Constantia was bundled up into satchels and cases and bags and trunks and simply carried out through the front gates of the Palace of Constantine.
The train of porters and soldiers and clerks shuffled down the road behind the Cathedral of Saint Sophia led by Lady Nerissa, Salvator, Tycho, and Wren. When they reached the gated entrance on their right, they turned into the estate and crossed the flat lawn of brown grass.
“What is this place? Have I been here before?” Wren asked. “I thought we were going to another palace.”
“We are, and you have, although you were probably blindfolded at the time,” Tycho said. “I’m sorry about that.”
“You mean… we’re going back to the prison?”
“We call it the Sunken Palace now. It’s centuries old, and no one’s certain what it was really for or why it sank, but it’s down there. It’s partly flooded as well, and it’s used as a cistern. And a prison.” Tycho opened the door of the small mausoleum in the center of the field and let the ladies enter ahead of him, and then he followed them down the stairs into the darkness with the stampede of men and papers following behind him.
Down below, the air was stale and cold and Tycho saw Wren’s breath swirling around her pale lips. He led the way through the makeshift office at the bottom of the stair and headed down the narrow corridor to the first vast chamber. The walkway skirted the edge of the room some ten or twelve feet above the floor, and the level of the water reached nearly to the walkway, so that the rippling surface of the reservoir lapped and splashed gently at their feet. The light of the torches danced on the water, and dripping sounds echoed over and over into the distant shadows.
Tycho hurried on past two more cisterns that had been grand ball rooms or dining halls for the long-dead lords of Constantia. The major kept his eyes on the walkway.
Perhaps Constantine himself danced in these halls. Princes and emperors from half the world might have walked here, talking of war and love and religion and politics. Writing history with every gesture and word. And now it’s all one big well full of cold water for people who barely remember that Constantine ever really lived. What a joke.
Beyond the cisterns stood the hall of small locked rooms guarded by the pale-faced soldiers, who leapt to salute the major as he led the Duchess and her entourage past the cells ever deeper into the ancient palace.
Finally they came to another large room, one not flooded but still pocked with broken tiles and wide shallow puddles from the water that dripped from overhead. The moldy remains of the ceiling were supported by two rows of thick Hellan columns, which may have been solid marble, or merely granite, beneath the layers of moss and fungus and filth on them. A dozen other doors led out of the room in every direction, but Tycho paused just inside the entrance and said, “We should be safe here.”
“Where is here?” Wren asked.
“We’re fifty feet underground, near the edge of the empty field.”
“Very good,” said the Duchess. “With nothing on the surface, there’s no reason for the airships to bomb this area. Good thinking, major.”
Tycho nodded. He was too tired and too worried to feel any pride in the compliment.
Salvator hobbled out into the room and sighed loudly. “Well, if we must, we must.”
For the next ten minutes, Tycho watched the Duchess direct the clerks and porters and other servants carrying in the machinery of government, hauling chests and desks and tables and an endless supply of paper into the dingy, dark hall. Torches were set and lit, furniture was arranged, and within half an hour the center of the ancient hall resembled a large office ringed in fire light, already bustling with the mundane business of reconciling numbers and reports and issuing new orders. Couriers began jogging out the door, heading for the surface to deliver their new papers to the officers outside.
Toward the center of the room was a round table with a square map laid on it with the corners drooping over the edges. Wooden figures of soldiers, marines, horses, archers, and ships were scattered over the map to show the last known positions of every defender in the city. They were scattered very thinly.
“You see, this would have been an ideal moment for two forward thinking gentlemen to be on a ship sailing away across the placid Sea of Marmara toward the Ionian coast,” Salvator said from his chair. “Have you ever been to Palermo? It’s quite picturesque in the winter. And when spring comes, those two gentlemen might take a leisurely journey up to Rome to seduce foolish young women and kill arrogant young priests. For money, of course.”
“How are your stitches?” Tycho asked, his eyes never leaving the map.
“Holding, for the moment. Your common Hellan surgeon is no match for even the lowliest Italian tailor, but I suspect I’m going to survive.”
Tycho said nothing. He stood by the map, his arms folded, his foot tapping, as he waited for the runners to start bringing fresh reports so the map could be updated and he could offer the Duchess some new idea, some new tactic that might help save Constantia from the airships. But as he stood waiting, his mind was a blank. His eyes traveled up to the young woman in black, to her long red hair cascading around her shoulders in wild tumbling locks, her tall red ears poking up in front of the black scarf that was slipping back over her head, and to her pale white hands with the jangling silver bracelets.
“Is everything all right?” he asked her. “Can I get you anything?” He frowned as he glanced around the makeshift office in the dank cavern.
That was stupid. What the hell can I get her? A handful of dirty water?
“I’m fine.” She flashed a brief, tired smile and came over to stand beside him and look at the map of the city. “Just restless. I don’t like standing still, waiting for something to happen to me. I spent a long time with my first teacher, Gudrun, in this one little village, just listening to old stories and learning about herbs. And toward the end, I couldn’t even leave the tower for more than an hour or two. It wasn’t safe. But then when I did leave the tower, it was nothing but running and fighting and arguing and more running. Even after I left Ysland with Omar, it’s been nothing but moving and moving. We sailed across the Sea of Ice in a ship made of steel, and rode through frozen forests on huge shaggy horses, and then crossed the glaciers on sleds pulled by dogs.”
“It sounds like it was hard. And cold.”
“It was, but it was wonderful. I saw new places, met strange people. I talked to ghosts hundreds of years old and visited tiny villages in the mountains that can barely survive, but somehow do, generation after generation.” Wren stared up at the shadowy ceiling as she spoke in soft, reverent tones. “And then we reached Vlachia and saw the walking corpses, and fought them, and escaped here, and the war, and Yaga…”
“Not a moment to rest?”
“Not a one.” She glanced at him. “I guess I’m starting to like it that way. I don’t like just standing still like this, especially in the dark. Waiting in the dark. It brings back bad memories.”
“I’m sorry. It’s only for a day or two,” he said. “But at least we’ll be safe from the bombs.”
“Right, the bombs.” She nodded absently. “If they ever drop any bombs.”
He sighed. “If. When.”
Wren looked sharply to her right. “Did you hear that?”
Tycho turned to peer into the deep shadows at the far end of the hall. He heard people murmuring and papers shuffling and pens scratching, and faintly, he heard water dripping. “What was it?”
Wren’s ears twitched, jerking left and right in tiny increments. “It was like footsteps. Tapping, but irregular, not like the dripping. And scraping, like boots.”
Tycho frowned a bit deeper as he started walking through the office space and out beyond the perimeter of torches across the wet tiles toward the dark corners and sealed doors. He heard nothing. Still, he drew his white-handled Mazigh revolver and pointed it at the shadows and stood very still, listening.
Wren followed a moment later and stood behind him. “I hear it. Scratching.”
“It could be rats in the walls,” he said quietly.
One of the sealed doors in front of them banged against its hinges and the deep wooden thump echoed across the room. A dozen clerks looked up from their papers.
Tycho pointed his gun at the door and took a few more steps forward. “That wasn’t a rat.”
“What else could be down here?” she asked. “Are there other parts of this palace used for other things? Could other people be down here for shelter too?”
“Maybe,” he said.
But probably not.
Tycho waved to two of the soldiers to follow him and they crossed the room through cold puddles and over crackling, uneven tiles to the door that had banged. It was a double door hung in a thick frame of carved pillars crowned with stone leaves and flowers.
“Hello?” he called.
The doors banged, and banged again. Something heavy was striking the wood panels, and the doors shook on their hinges, rattling against the old iron locks that held them together. They banged a third time and the left door cracked apart a bit, splintering just enough to reveal a sliver of darkness on the far side.
And from that darkness a pale blue hand clawed into the light.
“Guards! Get over here!” Tycho grabbed Wren’s hand and pointed his gun at the door.
I have six bullets. I can kill six of them, at most. Six, and then we’re all dead.
He squeezed Wren’s hand and grimaced.
Palermo is sounding very nice right about now.
Omar stood on the banks of the Bosporus and gazed up at the beautiful towers of the Mazdan temples beyond the tiled roofs of the ancient villas and mansions and princely estates of Stamballa. It was late in the morning, nearly noon, and the droning of the approaching airships reverberated across the pale winter sky.
“We’re certain the entire district is empty?” Omar asked.
I can’t believe I’m about to be a party to this.
“My scouts have been to the top of the hill,” Vlad said. “Half a league or so from the water. The houses are all empty.”
Omar nodded grimly. “Then I suppose we should get started. Those airships will be overhead in just a few minutes.” He paced up the cobblestone lane to the first house and plunged his seireiken into the joint between the top of the wall and the bottom of the roof. The stones began to glow a dull red and the old timbers of the house burst into flame.
As he stood there, making certain the house was well and truly on fire, Omar noticed the dim shade of Ito Daisuke standing beside him. “Yes?”
“This is your side of the border, isn’t it? Imperial soil?”
Omar sighed. “Yes.”
“And you’re setting fire to this city to save that other city?”
Omar stifled a glare. “Yes.”
“Ah.” The dead samurai paced along the front of the house, looking up at the burning roof.
Omar pulled his seireiken free, walked to the next house, and plunged the blade up into the roof. A second fire crackled to life.
“I know you said you would help the Hellans with their little witch problem, with the walking dead and such,” Daisuke said. “And I respect that. But that task appears to be complete. Koschei is free, Yaga is under control, and the army of corpses was defeated.”
“So why are you now helping the Hellans to fight the Turks?” The samurai gestured to the street around them as the Constantian marines and Vlachian archers strode by, tossing torches onto roofs and kicking in doors to ransack the abandoned houses. “This has nothing to do with you, or your promise. This is barely even warfare. This is simple barbarism, and you appear to be on the wrong side of it.”
“If the airships bomb Constantia, thousands of innocent people will die. But if they bomb us here, only a few soldiers will be in danger.” Omar moved on up the street.
“This is about saving lives?” The samurai frowned. “You’ve spent the last forty-five centuries searching for arcane knowledge to overcome death, to transcend humanity, and to meet the Divine face to face.”
“Your confrontation with the witches and the corpses might have advanced your knowledge, and helped your search for truth. It didn’t, but it might have. But this little enterprise?” Daisuke paused. “It profits you nothing.”
Omar pulled his sword free and continued up the lane. The burning roofs behind him crackled merrily as the flames danced higher, and the beams inside began to snap and buckle. “I suppose not. But it’ll make the world a slightly better place. Less dying, and so on.”
“Perhaps.” Daisuke nodded. “Except for the people who live in this neighborhood. They’ll be homeless.”
Omar sighed. “Except for them, I suppose.” He continued up the lane, occasionally cutting through alleyways parallel to the water, and always poking his blazing seireiken up into the eaves of the little fishermen’s houses, setting fire to the district and hoping the smoke would catch the eyes of the airship pilots and bombardiers.
The ghost of Ito Daisuke appeared again, and behind him ten thousand other dead faces hovered in the distance. Omar sighed. “What?”
“When this is over and you finally returned to Alexandria, what then?” Daisuke paced along the street, his shadowy wooden geta sandals clacking silently on the cobblestones.
“I don’t know.” Omar smiled. “I really don’t.”
A sudden outbreak of men shouting and boots pounding drew Omar’s gaze up the hill where he saw the marines and Vlachians running across an intersection.
“Hm.” He sheathed his bright sun-steel blade and jogged up the road, and cut across two lanes to find the Hellans arrayed in a loose formation across a narrow street with Vlad at their center. Above and beyond them, Omar saw another company of men forming, this one dressed in blue uniforms and light armor, with Numidian rifles in their hands.
Damn. Just what we wanted to avoid.
Prince Vlad held his own seireiken high over his head and shouted, “Radu! Where are you, Radu?”
Omar sagged and slouched and wished Wren was there to share an exasperated look with him.
What the hell is that fool thinking?
“Radu!” the prince cried.
The Eranian troops continued to trickle into the street and the long rifles in their hands were leveled at the ragged band of Hellans and Vlachians with their varied assortment of knives, pistols, swords, and bows.
Omar faded back against the wall of a house.
This is not going to end well.
He slipped around the corner onto a side street, out of the field of fire, took several backward paces to be sure no one had noticed him leaving, and then turned and nearly ran face-first into a very broad and hairy chest. Koschei looked down at him, confused.
“Grigori! What is happening?”
Omar glanced over his shoulder. “I think Vlad is about to have a pissing contest with his little brother, and lose.”
“Ha! This should be fun. We watch them fight and we get to kill all these stupid little Turks too, eh? Oh, so sorry, Grigori. I forget sometimes that these are your people. You don’t have to help me kill them, I can do this alone.” The hulking Rus warrior frowned at the crowd of soldiers at the end of the street, wavering as though uncertain whether he wanted to join them. Then he looked back down and said, “But I think they’ll have to do without us for now. Vlad is a man, and he can die like one if he likes. There is other business for you and me.”
Koschei turned and strode away.
Omar ran after him. “What business?”
Koschei didn’t answer. He continued down the deserted street past the burning houses. The sounds of fire woofed and roared and crackled all around them as the bright yellow cinders fluttered down from the black pillars of smoke creeping up into the sky.
They turned several corners, moving up higher away from the water, and finally Koschei pointed across the road to a gated estate. Omar gave it a quick glance and was about to ask his question for a third time when he looked back sharply at the gate. A slender figure shuffled out from the shadows and walked smack into the gate, knocking it halfway open on its creaking hinges.
“Some sort of graveyard,” Koschei said, waving at the gate. “The soldiers tell me, back in the boats, that the dead are rising, yes? Is no problem. I see this all the time in Rus, just not so many. So I get you to help me.”
“How many?” Omar glanced up at the sky. The sun was shining and the breeze blowing through the street was almost warm as it carried the heat of the burning houses through the winter air.
How can they still be rising? The aether should be melting, and Wren took Yaga’s bracelets! Damn it!
He drew his sword and the blade’s light fell on the black and blue face of the corpse in the gateway. “Can’t we just lock the gate and keep them in there?”
“There is no lock,” Koschei said. “And I have no rope.”
Omar grimaced. “I don’t have time for this. I should be helping Vlad stop this idiotic war.”
Koschei shrugged. “Is fine. Let me borrow your sword. I can do this.”
Omar gave the warrior a tired look. “Have you ever held a seireiken before? Do you know anything about them?”
“What’s to know? Blade is hot, don’t touch. This I know.”
Omar’s shoulders sagged. “Your mother never taught you how to contain and subdue a captive soul, did she?”
Omar tightened his grip on the seireiken, wishing he had something precious to smash on the ground to express his true feelings about the situation. “Fine! Fine, I’ll stay and deal with this. Let’s just be quick about it, all right?”
Koschei smiled a hideous grin of cracked lips and broken teeth. “Whatever you say, Grigori!”
They jogged up to the graveyard gate and Omar saw that the corpse standing in their way was barely moving now, and its skin had none of the icy sparkle of the ones he had seen in Targoviste or at the north gate of Constantia.
The aether is melting after all. Just not fast enough for my taste. If only we had a chain for this gate! This is all so uncivilized!
Omar cut down the dead man and stepped inside the graveyard. It was a small place full of stone mausoleums and paved walkways, a tiny city for the wealthy dead. But most of the stone doors had been pushed open and several dozen crooked men and women stood scattered across the area, moaning softly and dragging their feet along the paths.
He rubbed his forehead to ward off the imminent headache. “All right, just grab a stone or brick or something and knock them down as fast as you can.”
“Of course.” Koschei jogged away to the left and snatched up a rock on his way to attacking his first corpse.
Omar moved more slowly. In broad daylight, the faces of the dead were far clearer and in the heat of the sun they were all in far worse states of decay. Their dried flesh hung in tatters from their cheeks and arms like shredded clothing. The immortal Aegyptian squinted and held a handkerchief over his mouth and nose as he worked his way down the paths, hacking apart the barely moving bodies at arm’s length as quickly as he could without getting bits of them on himself.
The dead people offered no struggle. They didn’t run to attack him or to escape him. They simple stood there and let him cut them down.
When he was done, Omar returned to the gate where Koschei was sitting, picking his nose. “You’re sure you got them all?”
The Rus man nodded. “Pretty sure.”
“Good enough.” Omar glanced back one more time at the quiet little necropolis of neatly built stone houses and neatly arrayed stone paths, and the dismembered corpses scattered all over them. “I don’t want to be here anymore.”
Wren stayed back as Tycho fired his gun again and again into the dark gap in the broken door. Every time a pale face or empty eye socket lunged into view, the little major’s revolver would bang and the rotting skull would burst apart and disappear.
“I’m almost out,” Tycho said.
There were two other soldiers beside them with rifles aimed at the doors, but neither of them had fired. Wren glanced at the young Hellans and saw their hands shaking and lips moving with silent prayers.
“We can barricade the door with the tables and things!” Wren pointed back at the office furniture in the middle of the room.
“Yes, a barricade!” Tycho fired again. “Go, go!”
Wren let go of his hand and ran back to the office area where the makeshift war room had frozen in the middle of its business as every bloodless face stared in horror at the doors slowly cracking apart from the outside.
“The tables! Get the desks, grab everything, use it to block the doors!” she shouted.
One by one, the clerks and servants blinked back to life, cast frightened nods at one another, and began lifting the tables and scrambling like drunken crabs to carry the furniture to the doors. The pale Italian slowly stood up, drew his golden rapier, and staggered after them.
“Miss Wren?” The Duchess stepped gracefully out of the way of four men with a chest of drawers. “I understood this particular crisis to be over. You subdued Baba Yaga, didn’t you?”
“I did, and this isn’t her fault,” Wren said. “Well, I mean it is, but it’s not a new problem. You see, Yaga did wake up the corpses from the graveyards for hundreds of leagues all around, that’s true, and she did twist up those poor souls pretty badly with her nightmares, but she didn’t create them, and she didn’t control them. She just woke them up, is all.”
“Ah.” Lady Nerissa nodded calmly. “So then, all of the dead souls that she woke up will continue to walk the earth on their own until something or someone stops them?”
“I’m afraid so.” Wren glanced at an over-turned chair by her foot. Part of her wanted to grab the chair and rush to help build the barricade, but the rest of her wanted to stay as far from the doors as possible.
And besides, one more chair won’t make any difference.
A young man shrieked, and the sound echoed through the dark hall, bouncing and bouncing again from every angle. Wren winced and spun about, trying to find the source of the cry, and she caught sight of a clerk on the far side of the office area pointing not at the doors where Tycho was directing the construction of the barricade but to another pair of doors at the opposite end of the room. The doors were open and three corpses stumbled through them, grunting as they clawed at the stale air.
“Hey! We need that there, I mean, back there! Go, that way!” Wren waved and pointed frantically at the open doors as she tried to catch the attention of the servants still rushing to block Tycho’s doors. A half dozen of them saw her and turned to look where she was pointed, and a chorus of panicked curses and shouts erupted from their pale lips.
“Come on, there’s only three of them!” Wren grabbed the chair at her feet and rushed across the dark chamber, splashing through the cold puddles as quickly as her long black skirts would allow.
Two more corpses staggered out of the doorway. And then another.
Wren glanced over her shoulder to see if anyone was following her, and her heart dropped into her belly when she saw only two young men with chairs and candlesticks jogging halfheartedly in her wake. They were at least a dozen paces behind and falling farther behind with every step she took.
Oh gods, I’m alone.
Wren splashed to a halt in the middle of a puddle and threw her chair out in front of her, perhaps in the hope that it might make the dead men and women stumble for half a second. But the six corpses shuffled forward faster and faster, parting to pass around the chair on both sides, their rotting faces hanging apart on threads of skin and strings of muscle, their filthy bones exposed around their eyes and fingers.
All six of them reached for her.
All six of them stared at her with frozen black eyes.
All six of them moaned with frozen black tongues.
“No!” Wren threw up her arms, praying that there was enough aether in the sunken chamber to form a solid wall in front of her.
The thin wisps of white vapor on the floor rushed forward and upward like a wave, but instead of rising into a barrier, it swept on through the six corpses like a hurricane. Wren watched in wide-eyed wonder as the aether wind tore at her stumbling attackers, forcing them backward with their arms raised to shield their frostbitten faces. Then one of the corpses collapsed to the floor, and Wren, with arms still raised to guide the aether, stared at the pale ghostly shape that washed out of the fallen body.
Then a second corpse fell, tipping over backward very slowly and gently until it smashed into a puddle of filthy water in a depression in the floor, and again, Wren saw the dim face of a ghost flying away into the shadows.
Nine hells! I’m knocking the souls right out of their bodies? Is that even possible? I mean, it must be, obviously, but still, shouldn’t Omar have warned me I could tear a soul from a body? Unless, he didn’t know…
Wren dropped her arms to her sides for a moment to rest her shoulders and stumble back from the four remaining dead men and women, who tottered uncertainly on their frozen legs and then began stumbling toward her again.
“Stay away!” She shoved both hands toward just one of the corpses and the resulting blast of aether knocked the fragile ghost of an old woman free of the body, which smashed down to the floor. The shadow form of the woman hovered above her desiccated corpse for a moment, and then vanished.
I can stop them. I can stop all of them!
Wren shoved her hands out toward the remaining corpses, her silver bracelets jangling as they slammed against her wrists, and she hurled the aether through the frozen bodies to yank the souls free and send them drifting into the darkness. The last three bodies slumped to the floor in a haphazard pile of black and white and blue limbs gleaming dimly with aether crystals in the torchlight.
She glanced over her shoulder and saw the two porters still standing a few paces behind her, clutching their chairs and candlesticks. “It’s all right,” she said. “They can’t hurt us now.”
The young men slumped forward with exhausted smiles and set their chairs down.
Wren looked out across the dark cavernous space to the far end of the room where Tycho and the others were still piling furniture up against a single pair of doors. She waved at them, knowing that they couldn’t possibly see her in the gloom, and called out, “It’s all right! I can stop them! We’re going to be all right! Don’t worry!”
“Miss!” one of the porters cried.
Wren saw him pointing over her shoulder and she turned to look over the bodies of the six soulless corpses to see three more dead bodies rush out of the open doorway behind her, with more shadowy forms rustling in the darkness beyond them.
“Everybody get behind me!” Wren shouted as she backed toward the office area.
If I can knock a soul free of a dead body, it can’t be much harder to knock one free of a living body, can it? I need to be careful. Very, very careful, or I might kill everyone in the room.
She kept her eyes on the dead people pouring out of the ancient doors. On and on they came, more and more frozen and rotten faces plunging out of the shadows.
Where on earth are they all coming from? There really must be nine hells after all!
The new wave of corpses moved faster than the last, stumbling and loping as quickly as their frozen legs would allow, their fingers fixed in icy fists and claws, their crystallized eyes locked open, their blackened tongues raised behind yellow teeth, and all of them moaning and grunting as they raced toward the warm bodies in the light.
“Stay behind me!” Wren yelled over her shoulder.
Woden, be my shield!
She swept her arms left and right, dragging thin waves of aether back and forth across the floor to knock the corpses from side to side, and occasionally ripping a ghost free to let its body crumple to the floor. But with each sweep of her arms, the aether drifted a bit farther away into the darkness, leaving it a bit thinner and weaker as it struck the oncoming wave of dead bodies.
The chamber was enormous and the distance between the doors and the torches would have taken a healthy man several long seconds to run across on warm, living legs. The corpses limped and ambled at a fraction of that speed, but still they moved faster than a mere walk, and they spread outward from the doors, slowly filling the vast ballroom with groaning, stumbling figures.
And the first of them were about to reach the torchlight.
Guns began to fire, some of them booming right in Wren’s ear, making her wince as her head filled with watery white noise. Men were shouting behind her and small objects began flying over her head toward the corpses. Chair legs, candles, pens, knives, ink wells, jars, and even a boot or two whizzed by her, nearly hitting her tall ears more than once.
Wren wrapped her fingers together, turning her hands into one massive fist, and she swung both arms together through the air, trying to coax all eight bracelets into resonating through the aether one last time, but the otherworldly mist was simply too thin now and it barely nudged the corpses sideways as they rushed into the light.
The body of a middle-aged man lunged at her, and she threw up both of her arms to shield her head as she closed her eyes and hoped…
Eight silver bracelets veined with sun-steel crashed together as she crossed her arms, and they resounded with a horrible metallic whine. Wren opened her eyes and jerked her face back from her arms and the noise coming from the trinkets on her wrists, and then she saw the corpse standing just in front of her, wobbling in place, stutter-stepping sideways.
She crashed her arms together again and again, letting the bracelets ring out with their buzzing, hissing, growling whines. And with every crash, the dead bodies stumbled and turned and tripped and fell. But only for a moment. As the ringing died, the corpses recovered, crawling back up to their feet and turning back toward the clerks and soldiers gathered within the ring of torches.
“Wren!” Tycho appeared at her side, fumbling with the bullets for his revolver. He snapped the gun shut and pointed it at the dead men and women. “Get behind me!”
He fired twice and two corpses slumped to the floor. But in the shadowy corners of the room, Wren’s keen fox eyes saw the dead bodies still pouring in through more and more doors by the dozens, by the hundreds. She clutched Tycho’s shoulder to steady herself as she stared at the countless dead faces stumbling toward her out of the darkness.
Aether. I need more aether! How? HOW???
And a familiar voice whispered to her, “Draw it up from the earth.”
Wren’s eyes snapped to her finger where the slender ring of Denveller gleamed with coppery gold.
“Is that… Hrist?” Wren asked. She frowned at the ring, not certain when she had last heard Hrist’s voice. She had always been the quietest of the Yslander ghosts.
“It is I,” the dead vala answered. “Draw the aether you need up from the earth using the bracelets.”
“Sit on the ground,” Hrist said. “Place your palms on the ground, and shiver your soul just as you do when you move the aether around you. But this time, imagine the shivers rippling upward through your body, like ripples on the surface of a lake when the wind blows straight across it.”
“No, not straight across,” a second voice said from the ring.
“Yes, Wren. Do as Hrist says, but picture the shivers spinning around you like a water spout, rising as it spins, faster and faster. Do it now!”
Wren jerked away from Tycho and ran to the center of the office where Lady Nerissa stood calmly, though very pale, surrounded by her servants. Wren dropped to the cold floor and placed her hands on the damp tiles. Closing her eyes, she tried to forget about the yelling and the shuffling and the gun shots.
Making her own soul shiver was easy enough. Over the last few months, it had almost become a comfortable reflex from her long hours of practice with Omar’s guidance. It then took several moments of effort to make the tiny ripples in her ghost start to turn, to revolve around her, sweeping over her skin from right to left like a wave of gooseflesh, faster and faster, until she was trembling uncontrollably as though she were standing naked on a glacier, her whole body shaking as her flesh tried desperately to stay warm against the freezing elements.
“Faster!” Hrist cried.
“Faster!” Kara ordered.
Wren bore down on her chest, tightening her muscles, making herself smaller so her shivering ghost could spin ever faster. And suddenly the trembling stopped and she felt strangely warm. She knew, dimly, that her ghost was whirling within her body, spinning like a top, but spinning so fast that she could barely feel it anymore.
Wren opened her eyes.
At first, all she could see was white. Then she blinked and saw that the white was moving, flying, whirling past her face, whirling around her body. She turned her head and saw through the tiny wispy gaps in the white wall to the faces of the men and women standing around her, staring in at her in fear.
I did it.
She looked up and saw that the column of aether reached all the way up to the distant ceiling.
I really did it!
“Now use it!” Kara grumbled.
Wren rose to her feet, careful to keep her hands close to avoid touching the aether storm.
“Everyone get back!” She yelled through the white wall. “Everyone get down on the floor!”
She squinted through the whipping clouds, but couldn’t tell if anyone had heard her.
“Get down now!” she screamed.
Wren raised her arms over her head, letting the bracelets fall to her elbows. She could still feel her soul revolving within her flesh, spinning like the stars in the night sky, flying like the leaves on an autumn wind. She brought her hands together, feeling the humming vibrations in her ring and in her bracelets, and slowly she brought her hands down in front of her as she pulled the aether out of the storm cloud, drawing it in tighter and tighter into a ball of freezing white mist rolling between her hands.
As she pulled the aether down to her, the wall of the storm grew thinner, revealing a room full of people lying flat on the floor with their hands over their heads, and a few young men in the distance on their knees, still shooting at the dark figures out beyond the torches.
Wren inhaled and in one final gesture she pulled all of the aether into the whirling sphere of storm clouds trapped between her palms. Now she could see everything. The terrified people, the broken furniture, the guttering torches, and the sea of rotting faces clambering over the fallen dead to reach the huddled survivors.
Wren turned her hands so that one was below the storm-sphere and the other was above it, and with a silent prayer she ripped her hands away from each other. The aether exploded outward in a flat arc, tearing across the entire room like a pair of enormous white bullwhips snapping through the darkness. And everywhere that the aether whips struck a cold body, a soul would fly free up into the air as the corpses toppled over to the floor.
In an instant every dead body in the entire chamber was lying on the ground and a thousand pale faces and figures hovered in the air looking lost and frightened and sad, but also relieved and grateful. They looked down at her, a multitude of fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, farmers and soldiers and sailors and fishers, and the ghosts smiled gently as one by one they faded away into the darkness.
Wren stood very still, staring into the shadows with her fox eyes and listening with her fox ears. But no more figures shambled through the open doors, no more frozen tongues murmured, and no more dead feet scraped over the tiled floor. Everything was still and silent, except for the dripping of the water and the purring of the torches.
The major scrambled up and dashed to her side. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” she said. She could still feel her soul spinning, though much slower now and slower still with each passing moment. It had filled her with warmth and a wild sharpness, like lightning in her skin, but now it was fading, leaving her chilled and tired. She leaned on his shoulder slightly. “Can you please close those doors now?”
He smiled. “Yes, I think I can.”
Nadira descended the stairs slowly, her hand sliding down the cold stone wall, feeling the grain of it, the age of it, wondering how many other hands had passed over it. She wore a heavy brown robe over her borrowed clothes, a worn monk’s habit draped over a servant’s sturdy green dress. It felt strange not to be wearing trousers, feeling the air on her legs, feeling the cloth flowing around her. It stirred very, very old memories of her life in Damascus. Her first life, in the nunnery.
At the bottom of the stairs, she found a cellar. It was a long room with doors leading to other chambers, but the center of the floor directly in front of her was home to a pile of old Persian carpets and bearskin rugs flanked by three iron braziers, and on top of the mound of carpets lay an old woman with long white hair.
Nadira glanced around the space as she stepped farther in, and saw nothing of interest. No windows, no furniture, no alcoves where an enemy might be waiting to strike. She sat down on the carpets and peered at the old woman. “Wake up.”
She poked the woman. “Hey, you alive? Wake up.”
The woman didn’t move.
Nadira sighed. “Well, I can see why they left you here, at least.”
“Left?” The woman blinked and rolled her head to look at her guest. “Who are you?”
“Nadira.” She wiped her nose and sniffed violently. “I’m new around here. And you are?”
“Yaga, mother to Koschei the Deathless.”
“Oh, you’re Koschei’s mother?” Nadira smiled. “I think I met him once or twice.”
“I doubt it. He is a warrior. He does not consort with palace maids.” The white-haired woman sat up slowly.
“I’m no maid.” Nadira reached into her dress and pulled out the chain around her neck to display the little golden pendant shaped like a human heart.
Yaga plunged her own gnarled hand into her blouse and held out a matching sun-steel heart. Slowly, they both put them away.
“So,” Nadira said. “I hear you were the last ones that received Bashir’s little gift.”
“Bashir? Oh, you mean Grigori? Yes, I believe we were the last. Five hundred years ago. You?”
“Two thousand, or so.”
Yaga sneered. “Typical. He took you young and beautiful. And me? Look at this.” She waggled the loose flesh around her neck. “This, for five hundred years. Bah!”
“Where is everyone? Where is Wren?” Yaga asked.
“Everyone’s gone,” Nadira said. “The palace is empty. I heard them running around in the halls, and then I came out and watched them leave, scurrying like mice to get away.”
“I don’t know. Bashir put me in a room and told me to wait for him to come back, but he didn’t, and now everyone’s gone.”
“Bashir? Ugly name. I like Grigori better. He looks like a Grigori.” Yaga glanced away and wet her lips. “He came to me the first time when I was younger, like you, and then he went away, for years, and didn’t come back again until I was like this.”
“He came back?” Nadira snorted. “He never came to see me.”
“He’s a man. You can’t expect much from a man, especially once he’s tasted you.”
Nadira blanched. “You slept with him?”
“No!” Nadira shivered and let the horrid thought scamper back into some dark corner of her mind, but then another thought took its place. “Is Koschei his son?”
“No, no.” Yaga cackled. “Koschei’s father was a trapper, a fur trader I found half dead in the forest near my house one winter. He died, but not before he gave me my precious Koschei.”
Nadira nodded and let a long moment of silence pass between them.
“Does it change, over time?” Yaga asked. “You said it’s been a thousand years.”
“Two thousand,” Nadira said.
“Does it change?” Yaga repeated. “The way you see time, the way you move in the world, the way you feel life and death moving around you. Does it change? Ever?”
“No.” Nadira swept a few short stray hairs behind her ear, and then started picking in her ear. “Nothing changes, ever. Things come and go. Why?”
Yaga shook her head.
“So what did he want you to do for him?” Nadira asked. “I was supposed to study aether for him. I did for a while, but I lost interest. I got tired of watching people die. I still I am, but at least I’m free to waste my time how I like now.”
“Aether.” Yaga nodded. “He asked me about aether, too. And ghosts. And death. But he never came back.”
Nadira bobbed her head and stopped digging in her ear.
“I’m tired,” Yaga said. “Tired of it all. Aren’t you?”
“I thought I was.” Nadira shrugged. “But now, I’m starting to think that I’m more bored than tired.”
“Well, I’m tired,” Yaga said. “I was too old for this when he made me immortal, and now I’m five hundred years too old for this. People aren’t supposed to live this long, to think for this long, to fill themselves up with memories and feelings and nightmares for this long.”
“But there’s no way out,” Nadira said. “The only thing that can break the pendants is another piece of sun-steel, and then you’ll lose it all, your whole soul, trapped forever.”
“Trapped?” Yaga cackled, her tiny green eyes twinkling with glee. “A soul inside the sun-steel cannot escape, but it is no different from being trapped upon this earth, or in this flesh.” She reached over and pinched Nadira on the arm. “It isn’t a prison cell where you suffer and serve for all eternity. For the most part, you sleep in darkness and silence, as peaceful as the grave. From time to time, some living person touches the sun-steel and asks for your service, so you wake up, and you answer their question, and you go back to sleep again. Didn’t you know that?”
Nadira shook her head. “Sounds boring.”
“It sounds wonderful.” Yaga sighed. “Perhaps… no, but Koschei. He needs me.”
“Koschei the Deathless needs you?” Nadira laughed. “You old fool, he’s an immortal butcher. He is death and war incarnate. He doesn’t need anyone.”
“You don’t know him like I do.”
“I know him well enough. I was there when the Turks shot him and chained him. I saw it. I heard it,” Nadira said, staring into the crone’s eyes. “He swore to do unspeakable things to those men. Hateful, evil things. To them, and to their mothers, and to their daughters. I’ve known many men in my time, and I can tell you exactly what sort a man is by what he says about women, and I can tell you, Yaga, that your son doesn’t need you.”
“That was just war-talk. Men spout all sorts of nonsense when they fight.” Yaga frowned, her wrinkled lips folding in upon themselves. “You’re wrong about him.”
“No, I’m not.” Nadira snorted and spat across the room. The wad of phlegm smacked against the wall in the shadows. “So if it wasn’t for Koschei, you would let Bashir kill you and take your soul into his sword?”
“I would.” Yaga hesitated. “Him, or someone like him.”
“Huh.” Nadira sighed loudly. “He wants to take me back to Alexandria with him. He said he was going to teach me some new way to live. I don’t know about that. I’m good at fighting.”
“Then why stop?”
“I don’t know. It’s not the same anymore. Or it is the same. Exactly the same. Bashir said I should see the world and see how other people live,” Nadira said.
“Or maybe, you could see the world to see how other people fight,” Yaga said. “It’s foolish to deny your nature. But it’s just as foolish to be a slave to your nature.”
Nadira pouted. “Maybe. I’ll have to think about it, I guess.”
“Think all you like,” Yaga said. “You have all the time in the world.”
Nadira nodded, and after a moment she stood up. “I think I’ll get going. It’s a big world out there. I’ve got a lot of walking to do.”
“There are faster ways to go than walking.”
“Faster, but not better.” Nadira paused at the bottom of the steps and looked back at the white-haired crone. “We probably won’t meet again. Take care of yourself.”
Nadira turned and started back up the steps. In her mind she tried to picture the world beyond the borders of the empire, beyond the peoples and the cities that she had known for two thousand years. She conjured up new cities, but they looked just like Damascus, and the people all looked like Persians, and they all fought with sabers.
Well, I’ll just have to see it when I get there. I wonder what Nippon is like.
She climbed to the top of the stairs and left the tower. Out in the courtyard, she paused to glance about, wondering which way led out of the palace grounds, when the droning of the airship engines suddenly grew louder and sharper. She looked up and saw the vast round nose of the first balloon come over the south wall of the palace, heading straight toward her.
The other two airships were a bit farther behind and looked to be farther out over the water, but this one was already over the wide green park and coming closer to the little white tower and the broad gravel courtyard with every passing moment.
Nadira sighed, turned toward the largest gate in sight, and started walking with her empty hands resting in the hidden pockets of her borrowed green dress. She was still walking when the bombs began to fall behind her, shaking the earth and hurling grass and gravel at her back. And she was still walking, with her hands in her pockets, when she heard the first building crumble and fall to the ground behind her.
But she didn’t look back.
Omar jogged through the streets of Stamballa with one hand clutching his sheathed seireiken. Koschei pounded along behind him, his bare feet slapping on the cold cobblestones. Up ahead they could hear men yelling and rifles firing and swords clashing, and all of the sounds echoing and rolling over on themselves in the narrow corridors of the city streets.
Damn those idiots!
Omar turned the last corner and saw the battle raging all the way down the street to the edge of the water. Above them the roofs of nearly every house were burning brightly, the flames roared loudly, the smoke vomited upward in filthiest black, and the dying timbers cracked and collapsed left and right. Entire roofs gave way all at once and crashed into the homes, and some houses were beginning to lean downhill toward the sea.
“Stand down!” Omar yelled.
No one heard him.
Koschei barreled past with a mad bellow and leapt onto the backs of two Turks in blue. The Rus warrior sank his elbow through one man’s skull as he wrapped his other arm around a man’s neck and choked him into oblivion. Then Koschei picked up an Eranian saber in one hand and a brick in the other, and screamed.
Half the men on the street, even in the middle of swinging a blade or aiming a gun, looked up and saw the half-naked Rus barbarian roaring at them, his arm painted in blood from the elbow down.
A rifle fired and the bullet tore through Koschei’s shoulder, spraying a fine red mist into the air, but the warrior only screamed louder as he rushed down the street with his weapons raised. The saber hacked artlessly at necks and stabbed brutally at bellies while the brick smashed left and right through jawbones and eye sockets. Koschei chopped off hands and arms and ears and legs, and he crushed skulls and shattered ribs. And all the while he screamed with joy as the hot blood splashed across his face and the bodies fell to the earth in pieces all around him.
For a moment, the Turks converged on the invader, all their long Numidian rifles coming to bear on a single target. But the Hellans and Vlachian sprang on them from behind and chaos erupted in every quarter.
Within a few racing heartbeats, Omar saw the Turks plunging down the alleys and side streets, dashing away from the marines and away from the rampaging, blood-soaked monster called Koschei the Deathless. Men fell dead to the ground in pieces, dripping with blood and bile and urine and feces, and men fell writhing to the ground, shrieking like mad women and crying like frightened infants for mercy and death.
Omar stared. A moment ago there had been dozens of men struggling and running and grappling and shouting. Now there were piles of shredded flesh and shattered bones wrapped in blood-soaked rags. Terrified faces stared up at the sky, frozen in the instant of death. A river of human garbage trickled down the center of the street between the burning houses. And in the center of the carnage stood a bloody god of war, an ugly barbarian from the distant north who churned men into filth, and could never die.
A sharp metallic taste washed up from Omar’s stomach and burned at his teeth and tongue, and he hastily swallowed it back down.
Look on my works and despair, oh Lord, for I am thy humble servant, loyal and true, and I have made nothing but monsters and death in your name.
The gunfire stopped. The yelling stopped. Only the fires went on growling and crackling as they consumed the houses and hurled bright cinders down on the men in the road.
A moment ago, these things were men, with thoughts and families and dreams and fears. And now they’re just red pieces of dirt.
Not because of humanity, or fate.
Not even because of Koschei.
Because of me.
Omar coughed on the smoke as he walked slowly and carefully down the street. His boot slipped on the blood and meat more than once, but he didn’t fall. He passed Koschei, who was busy dismembering one of the dead Turks for no apparent reason. He passed the grim-faced Vlachians and the weary young Hellans. And at the bottom of the road, just above the docks and the dark waters of the Bosporus, he found the two princes.
Radu lay on his back, his broken sword near his hand, his face still defiant and proud as he glared up at his older brother. Vlad towered over him, his burning seireiken hovering over his younger brother’s face, blinding him with its light, scorching him with its heat.
Omar ignored them both. He walked right past them to the edge of the dock, fell to his knees, and vomited into the water. His stomach churned and his throat burned and his mouth ran slick with acid and slime as his nostrils filled with the stench of it. He squeezed his eyes shut and felt the tears stinging him as they seeped out and ran down his cheeks.
Ysland. Vlachia. Constantia. Stamballa. And how many more that I never noticed?
How many thousands… millions more?
How many died in agony? How many live on in agony?
Four and a half thousand years… of this.
He wept and retched, and eventually he had nothing left to give to the water, and he collapsed onto his side, staring out over the Strait at the distant skyline of Constantia in silence. For a time he simply lay there on the ground, shaking, clutching his belly with one hand and his eyes with the other. But eventually the emotion receded, drawing back into whatever reservoir it had come from, leaving him empty and cold.
I am the stone cast upon still waters. See how the ripples grow as they churn life into blood and dust.
I am the stone that cast itself. I am worse than death. Death is a release. I am a plague, and they shall know me by the ruins in my wake.
Have I become the destroyer of nations? Am I a deceiver so powerful I have deceived myself into believing I am something noble?
What am I?
His mind awoke from the torment of his heart and he began to think again. He became aware of the fact that he was indeed lying on the ground and weeping in front of dozens of men, and the shame of it forced him to sit up, wipe his face, and spit away the last remnants of bile in his mouth. He got to his feet, straightened his shirt and coat, and rested his hand on his sword, all while still gazing out over the water.
He saw the two airships looming over the channel, drifting ever closer to where he stood on the shore, and he saw the third one in the distance dropping tiny black specks over the Seraglio Point, and he heard the soft thumping and crackling of the bombs bursting inside the Palace of Constantine.
Nadira… I’m so sorry.
When he glanced over his shoulder, he saw with some surprise that Radu was still alive and Vlad had stepped away and sheathed his sword. The younger brother still sat on the ground, unarmed, and both of them were staring at the Aegyptian.
Behind them, the Hellans and Vlachians had come down the street to stand just a short distance from the docks to watch him in silence. Farther up the road, Koschei alone stood in the street, hurling bits of the dead Turks up onto the burning roofs and laughing like a drunkard.
Omar drew out his seireiken and the soldiers stepped back from its searing light. The old sword felt heavier than it ever had before and he nearly dropped it before he could tighten his fingers around the shark skin grip.
God forgive me.
He started to move but a flash of gold caught his eye and he paused. It was something small, something hanging out from Radu’s shirt. A little golden heart.
Omar knelt beside the prince and poked the trinket with a single finger. He whispered, “Koschei’s?”
Omar held out his hand and the wide-eyed prince yanked the chain over his head and dropped the golden heart into his palm. Omar closed his hand around it, stood up, and began walking back up the street. The soldiers parted before him, dashed back to either side to let him pass. He climbed the slope of the road, feeling for the first time how truly steep it really was, and how sharply the houses seemed to lean in order to keep their walls true and plumb.
He stepped on things. Red things, black things, blue cloth. His mind still recoiled from it, but his blood and bones had no strength left for fear or pain or misery. His body was numb and empty. He walked over the dead bodies, up and up the hill, until he stood before Koschei the Deathless.
The Rus giant grinned at him. “Grigori! There you are!”
“Yes, here I am, and God forgive me for it.” He looked up into the barbarian’s shining black eyes, and shoved his seireiken into the man’s chest. The sun-steel blade slipped in as though drenched in oil, and the man’s flesh burst into flame at the touch of the white-hot blade.
Koschei reached for the blade, only to have it incinerate his fingers on contact, and he fell to the ground, his teeth clenched, and only a wordless grunting growl emanating from his throat. Omar stood over him, held out his fist, and then let the little golden heart fall. The trinket struck the blazing white sword and vanished with a soft hiss.
Instantly, Koschei fell still and silent. The flames quickly engulfed his body, which slumped down flat on the ground. The seireiken burned through the flesh in half a breath, and then toppled over onto the ground, where the cobblestones began to glow a dull red and the puddles of blood began to boil. Omar picked up the weapon slowly, and by the time he had raised it up to look at the blade, it was entirely clean, washed pure by its own divine fire. Omar exhaled slowly and slipped the sword away.
Then he walked back down the street to the bottom where the soldiers and marines and princes stood, still watching him in curious and wary silence. He looked over at one of the young Hellan marines, and said, “Take me back to the palace now, please. I’m ready to leave.”
Wren stood very still in the half-light of the underground chamber. Two of their torches had gone out and no one had relit them. Everyone stood or sat in silence gazing up at the black ceiling, listening.
The bombs thumped and thudded, and tiny trickles of dust fell on the silent clerks and servants and soldiers.
Boom, boom-boom… boom.
Wren’s fox ears twitched with each reverberation as she tried to guess exactly where the bombs were falling.
They’re not falling on top of us, that’s for sure.
As the minutes passed, the detonations grew fainter by degrees until the floor stopped shuddering and the inkwells stopped clinking and even Wren herself had trouble hearing the deep vibrations in the earth.
“They’re moving away,” she said softly.
Tycho nodded. “But there are three of them out there. They might pass over the city one by one. The next one might be coming.”
“Unless Vlad’s plan worked,” Wren said. “What if they reached Stamballa and managed to distract the other two airships? Maybe only one of them is over Constantia.”
“I have little faith in the prince at this point,” Salvator said. He stroked his mustache thoughtfully. “Still, it may be that the airships were ordered to attack different targets. One to bomb the palace. The others to attack the bridges or harbors.”
“Maybe.” The major turned away and caught the attention of a young soldier standing near one of the extinguished torches. “Corporal, I want you to run up and take a quick look around outside. Just get a glimpse of where the airships are and which way they’re going, and come back. Understood?”
The young man nodded and jogged out through the main doors.
“I should go too,” Wren said.
“Just wait a moment. Let’s see what the corporal finds,” Tycho said. “If there’s trouble out there, we could find ourselves down here for a very long time. And to be blunt, you’re the strongest weapon we have to protect the Duchess. So if you need aether to protect her, then I want to keep you down here near the aether.”
Well, he did say I’m the strongest one down here. I suppose I can’t be too upset with him.
It took several minutes for the corporal to cross back through the length of the Sunken Palace, climb the long stair to the surface, and scout the area, and then come back to report. When he did jog back in through the doors, he was sweating and breathing hard.
“All clear, sir,” he said breathlessly. “There’s only one airship on our side of the Strait, and it’s not dropping bombs anymore. It’s moving north along the waterfront at the moment. The other two airships are out over the water. One of the men upstairs thinks they might be there to bomb our ships, eventually.”
“Good, thank you.” Tycho dismissed the young soldier and turned back to Wren. “There. Safe as houses, so to speak.”
The major took a few minutes to speak with the Duchess and arranged for most of the soldiers to remain down in the palace with Lady Nerissa and her staff while Tycho ventured out with a handful of guards and Wren. Salvator sat in his chair breathing hard, and at one point he announced that he would remain at the Duchess’s side to ensure her safety. The Duchess replied with a thin smile.
The journey back through the cells and cisterns was dark and dank, and seemed to go on forever, but eventually Wren and Tycho reached the stairs, and those seems to go on forever as well. Finally they emerged from the small mausoleum and stepped out onto the brown lawn of the empty estate and looked up.
Smoke filled the eastern sky. Some of it rose from within the walls of the Palace of Constantine, but even more seemed to be rising from the far shores of Stamballa. The bright glare of the afternoon sky hurt her eyes and she slipped her blue glasses onto her nose, and looked again. And there, in the distance, she saw the tiny flickers of yellow and red where the homes of the Turks were burning.
“The palace.” Tycho’s voice fell with exhaustion and misery.
Wren looked again at the base of the smoke and saw the shattered edges of the walls and the buildings just barely visible in the distance. Higher and to her left, she saw the lone airship hovering above another neighborhood farther north. But the tiny gray and white houses and shops along the shore appeared to be intact, as did the tiny white fishing boats bobbing along the waterfront.
“I suppose there’s no point in going back to look right now,” Tycho said. “It’ll be just as broken and ruined tomorrow as it is today. The bastards. The Palace of Constantine is fifteen centuries old… or it was. At least we got everyone out in time. At least no one was hurt.”
Wren nodded. “Do you know where everyone else went?”
“No, there wasn’t time to plan anything. We just sent out the word to move as far from the water as possible. Why?” Tycho smiled a little. “Were you hoping to round up the kitchen staff to have a little hot lunch?”
“No, I was just wondering where they took Yaga. I wanted to check on her, if I could.” She watched the playful glint in his eye fade. “What?”
“Nothing, it’s just… She was still in the tower, wasn’t she?”
Wren nodded. “Sleeping. But the maids would have gotten her, wouldn’t they?”
Tycho set his jaw for a moment, and then said, “I really can’t say. In all that confusion, in all that rush and chaos, I really don’t know if anyone would have remembered to go get her. I didn’t give any instructions about her, and I doubt that any of the servants would have gone looking for Yaga on their own. I don’t know that for certain, but I doubt it.”
Wren felt her face tightening up as she pressed her lips together and looked away. She wasn’t even sure what she was feeling. Regret? Anger? Fear? She crossed her arms over her belly, and with each hand felt the many silver bracelets on her wrists. “I left her there, defenseless, asleep. And I didn’t think…”
“Well, even if she was caught in the bombing, she is immortal after all,” Tycho said quietly. “She can survive anything, can’t she?”
Wren nodded slowly. “She’s alive. But she’s still an old woman. If something fell on her, if she’s buried in the rubble, if she’s in pain, then that’s exactly where she’ll stay until someone finds her.” Wren started walking across the lawn.
“Wait!” Tycho ran after her, and his four guards ran after him.
“You don’t have to come with me,” Wren said. “You have duties here, I know that. But this is something I have to do.”
Why? Why is it something I have to do? I don’t owe Yaga anything. She put me through hell. She nearly killed me.
But she’s also just like me.
And now she’s all alone.
Tycho fell into step beside her, and she slowed a little to let him keep pace with her, and the other Hellans followed closed behind them. They hurried up the wide empty avenue behind the Cathedral of Saint Sophia, with its marvelous golden domes which appeared to have survived the bombing unscathed, and they soon came to the palace gates and entered the First Courtyard.
The bombing had begun to their right, punching huge black holes in the green park to the southeast of the palace, but then the bombs had fallen on the buildings as they worked north and west. The Church of Saint Irene had lost most of its north wall, and half of its roof. The stables along the eastern side of the Second Courtyard had been reduced to gravel and splinters, except for the last three stalls, which remained miraculously intact. The doors and columns of the portico of the Chamber of Petitions lay in shattered pieces all across the courtyard, and much of the building itself was burning, and every few minutes something inside it would moan and growl and crash. And on the far side of the courtyard, the Tower of Justice lay on its side, smashed into dozens of large chunks of masonry and stone like a broken finger pointing to the south.
Wren ran across the courtyard and climbed up on the rubble of the tower, scrambling over the cracked stones and charred beams, until she reached what had once been the central stair that had spiraled up to the balcony and down into the cellar. Now, all she could see were ragged slabs of rock covered in gray dust. She knelt down and placed her hands on the stones, and with a few gentle swirls of her soul, she dragged a few fragile threads of aether back and forth through the earth beneath her, searching for a tug, for a sensation of resistance. Searching for a soul.
Wren opened her eyes. “She’s down there.”
Tycho nodded. “Can you use your power to lift the stones?”
She shook her head as she reached down and picked up a small rock, and tossed it away. “Aether can only touch the spirit, not the flesh, and definitely not a stone.”
She threw aside another rock, and another. Tycho and the four guards climbed up beside her, and they all began tossing the bits of debris away from the tower stairs.
After a quarter hour, they had managed to throw, carry, or push aside most of the rubble covering the entrance to the cellar and found the way down blocked by one last block of masonry, a large section of wall that had not broken and now stood at a slight angle in the stairwell itself, leaving gaps that only a mouse could get through.
The six diggers sat down to rest.
“You know,” said Tycho. “The floor under us still solid, so the ceiling over Yaga’s head is probably still intact as well. She’s trapped for the moment, but she may not be hurt at all.”
Wren nodded. The thought had occurred to her as well, but there was no way to know for certain and she didn’t want to guess or assume. She wanted to know. She knelt by one of the gaps around the fallen wall and called down, “Yaga! Hello? Can you hear me? It’s Wren!”
There was no answer.
“Look for tools,” Tycho said to his men. “Hammers, shovels, anything. Maybe we can break up this wall, or pull it out of the way somehow.”
The guards nodded and wandered off in separate directions.
Wren sat down by the top of the stair to wait, and Tycho sat beside her. After a moment he said, “What you did before in the cistern, to save the Duchess, to save all of us, that was… the most amazing thing I have ever seen in my life.”
She wanted to smile. She wanted to enjoy that moment, but she was too tired and worried and distracted.
What happened to Yaga? Where is everyone else? What am I supposed to do next?
Wren reached over and took his hand. “Thanks.”
Boots thumped and crunched across the gravel courtyard behind them, approaching at a quick step, and Wren turned, hoping to see one of the guards returning with some remarkable device for clearing huge walls but instead she something more familiar. “Omar?”
The Aegyptian’s face was paler than usual and his eyes were a bit narrower, and his lips a bit thinner. But he strode along quite quickly and came to stand at the bottom of the rubble, and looked up at her. “I thought I might find you here. But I didn’t think the damage would be this bad. At least, I’d hoped the palace would be spared, somehow.” He looked ill.
Wren stood up. “Are you all right?”
Omar shrugged and glanced away, squinting at the quietly burning ruins all around them.
“Vlad?” Tycho asked. “Koschei?”
“Vlad is fine. So is his brother.” Omar hesitated. “Koschei is dead.”
Koschei is dead?
She pointed to the broken wall behind her. “Yaga is trapped in here. The men are looking for tools to get her out.”
Omar grimaced and climbed up the rubble to stand beside her. “Move back,” he said softly as he drew his seireiken. The sword’s blinding light swept over the destruction, painting the near sides of the stones white and the shadowed sides black. And then Omar slammed the tip of the sword into a fine crack in the broken wall, and a small chunk broke away. He struck the wall again, and another piece fell. Bit by bit, he chipped away at the stone until the pieces were small enough for them to lift, and they cleared the entrance to the stair in silence.
Down in the cellar the only light came from Omar’s sword and it revealed that while the ceiling had remained intact, one of the walls had toppled into the room, dropping several large stone blocks onto the legs of the white-haired woman stretched out on the pile of carpets in the center of the space.
As Omar moved to deal with the stones, Wren knelt beside the woman’s head, gently stroking her silvery hair back from her wrinkled face. “Yaga? Can you hear me? We’ve come to take you out of here. And there’s someone else here. Omar. I mean, Grigori. Grigori is here, too.”
Yaga sighed and her eyes opened halfway. “Grigori?”
Omar continued clearing the rocks. “I’m here.”
But the old woman didn’t look at him. She looked up at Wren and said, “I’m tired, little sister.”
“I know. You still need more sleep.”
“No, not that.” Yaga shook her head. “I’m tired of all this. I don’t want to be here anymore. I want to slip away into the quiet places, the dark places, and sleep forever.”
Wren glanced at Tycho and Omar, who could only give her sympathetic looks in reply. Wren said, “I don’t know what that means.”
“It means I’m ready to die now, you silly girl.” Yaga stared up at the ceiling through lidded, unfocused eyes.
“What about your son, Koschei?” Wren asked.
Do I tell her that he’s already dead? He was her entire world yesterday, but now, everything has changed.
Omar paused in his work and glanced at them.
“He’s a grown man,” Yaga whispered. “And I’m a grown woman. And this is my life, and my choice. I want to die now, please.”
Wren leaned back and looked at Omar again. “What should I do?”
He took half a step back, his face lined with age and worry in the harsh light of the seireiken. “Do whatever you think is right. Stop asking me. She’s talking to you, not me.”
Wren looked down at Yaga again. “All right.”
Yaga pulled the necklace from inside her dress and pressed the little golden heart into Wren’s hand. “Take it.”
Wren looked at the sun-steel pendant. “I can’t destroy this. I can’t release your soul. We’ll need Omar’s sword. Your soul can rest in the seireiken.”
Yaga grimaced. “Is there no other place? Your ring, perhaps?”
Wren glanced down at the golden band of Denveller and she thought of the eight valas already in there, and what it might be like to have Baba Yaga among them.
“My ring? Not one of your bracelets?”
Yaga laid one of her thin hands on Wren’s arm, and she smiled. “Your ring.”
Wren nodded. “All right.”
The last time someone gave her soul to this ring, she bit off the end of her own tongue and smashed her bloody face on it.
She held out her hand with the ring toward the old witch. “Right now?”
Omar pushed aside the last of the stones and gently moved Yaga’s broken legs up closer to where she was sitting. The old Rus woman winced and pressed her hand to her foot for a moment, and then exhaled and opened her eyes. “It’s fine now. Thank you, Grigori.” And she turned her back to him.
“Well, I guess I’ll just need a small cut, a little blood,” said Wren.
“Don’t be squeamish, child.” Yaga took one of the small bird skulls dangling from her necklace and ripped its beak across her open palm, releasing a small red sea into the center of her hand. “Quickly!”
Wren shivered as Yaga reached out and wrapped her bloody hand around Wren’s fingers, and the ring of Denveller. As the blood faded into the golden ring, the old woman’s face went gray and slack and she fell over on her blankets, dead. Wren looked from the body to the ring on her finger and back again.
“Mistress?” she whispered.
“Am I your mistress now?” Yaga cackled from the ring, and her face shimmered out of the shadows for a moment, and then vanished again.
“Is she in there?” Omar asked.
Wren nodded. “It’s done.”
“Almost.” Omar picked up Yaga’s necklace from the carpet and held it over his seireiken. The pendant glowed white hot, and then faded to dull gray, and Omar slipped the dead metal into his pocket. “It was only a tiny shred of her soul. It won’t matter much to her that it’s here in my sword with me instead of in your ring with you.”
“Are you sure?” Wren asked.
Omar shrugged. “Remember, there’s a shred of my soul in your body right now, keeping that fox of yours under control, and I’m not suffering much for it, am I?”
“I guess not.” Wren stared at her ring for another moment and finally let her hand fall to her side. “It’s sort of sad. For two months, all she wanted was to see her son again. But they missed each other by a few hours, and now they’re both dead, and never had the chance to say goodbye.”
“Not exactly.” Omar held up his seireiken. “He was here. He saw the whole thing.”
“What? You mean you killed him?”
“I did.” The Aegyptian sheathed his bright sword and crossed the shadowy cellar to the bottom of the stairs. “And that shred of Yaga’s soul in here with him will leave them some small connection for the rest of time. It’s more than Koschei deserves. But Yaga… I can’t help feeling I owed her more than this.”
Wren looked at Tycho, who could only shrug and offer his hand, and she took it and followed him up the stairs into the light.
Wren stood in the wasteland of broken stone and drifting smoke that used to be the Palace of Constantine and gazed up at the three enormous skyships hovering above the two cities.
“I see flags,” she said, peering up through her blue glasses at the bright sky. “Blue flags flying from the ships.”
“Imperial banners,” Omar said. “I suppose that means Darius bought them, instead of making some sort of unholy alliance with Marrakesh. It’s a good sign, actually. If they were flying Mazigh flags, it would mean the war was spreading across Ifrica as well.”
The one airship still cruising over Constantia began dropping bombs over the distant harbors to the north of the palace. Wren watched the tiny black specks tumbling through space and the bright flashes of fire on the ground and the small clouds of dust and smoke rising from the waterfront.
Across the river, the other two airships were slowly circling the burning district near the shore, chasing each other like a pair of sharks around an unseen school of flying fish.
“What happens now?” Wren asked.
“More fighting,” Tycho said. “Followed by some negotiations, skirmishes, alliances, betrayals, more negotiations, and eventually a ceasefire, if we’re lucky.”
“And if we’re not lucky?”
“They take Constantia.”
Omar cleared his throat and the others looked at him. “I have to find someone,” he said. “She was in the palace, and I suppose she left during the evacuation, but I somehow doubt she’s hiding in some shelter somewhere. I have to go. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” He gave Wren a long worried look. “Stay safe.” And he strode away.
Wren glanced at Tycho. “I wonder who-”
“It’s Nadira,” Yaga said, her tiny voice whispering from the Denveller ring. “He’s looking for Nadira, the Damascena. But he won’t find her. She left before the bombs began to fall and I don’t think she’s coming back. But let him go. He needs some time alone.”
“I’m sorry about Koschei,” Wren said.
“No, you’re not,” the ghost said. “But thank you for saying it.”
Wren looked at Tycho again and saw him staring at her. “It’s all right, I’m just talking to… you know, her.”
He nodded. “Well, I guess we should be getting back to the cistern to tell the Duchess what’s going on out here.”
Across the courtyard, a couple of the Hellan guards emerged from the shadows with ropes and shovels. The sounds of the bombs falling and exploding echoed across the city.
“More hiding?” Wren took a few steps toward the distant airships. “More of this? More things burning and people screaming?”
Tycho followed her. “I’m afraid so.”
“And all because you have a church and they have a temple?” Wren sighed.
It’s all so stupid. It’s not over gold or food, or even revenge. They’re killing each other over the gods, as though the gods could be made or unmade by a sword or a fire.
Whatever exists in paradise or the nine hells won’t change just because a different person sits on the throne of Constantia.
And meanwhile, people are dying.
She kept walking across the courtyard past the broken columns and burnt timbers and shattered windows. “I have a better idea. Come on.”
They walked together through the ruins of the palace and out into the wide snowy park beyond. She glanced at him, and he smiled at her, and she could tell he wanted to say something, but he didn’t, and she didn’t ask what was on his mind. Eventually they reached the sea wall, which had been teeming with young soldiers and younger marines just a few hours earlier and now were bare and silent. They climbed the iron stairwell in the north watch tower and stepped out onto the platform high above the water and looked out across the channel at the burning homes of Stamballa and the burning homes of Constantia.
They look exactly the same, don’t they?
Wren pushed her glasses up her nose. “We need to make the airships go away. And then make the warships go away.”
Tycho laughed. “Yes, that would be nice.”
“Then I’ll make them go away.” Wren placed her hands on the cold stones of the wall in front of her.
It’s still the middle of the afternoon, still too warm. But Yaga could gather the aether in the daylight, and the valas taught me to pull it from the earth. It should be enough.
“Wait, what are you going to do?” Tycho put his hand on hers. “You said you can only move aether, and souls. You can’t move ships.”
“No, I can’t. But there are people in those ships, aren’t there?” Wren nodded up at the flying behemoths. “Remember how I pushed Omar and the marines across the water, and they pulled their boats with them? Well, this is exactly the same. Only bigger.”
“Wren, you don’t have to do this. In fact, I don’t want you to do this,” Tycho said. “This war has been going on for years, and this siege is just one more battle. There’ll be more. More people will die. It’s the way of things, I guess. But it’s not your responsibility. It’s not your fight. And there’s no need for you to dirty your hands with it.”
“I know it’s not my fight,” she said softly. “It’s my choice. Now get behind me. I don’t want to pull your soul out of your body by accident. You’d die, and I’d be sad. So get down.”
He squeezed her hand and then moved around behind her.
Wren took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and began to spin her soul. It was even easier than the last time, and the shivers quickly gave way to gooseflesh, and then the pulsating waves of heat racing round her body. The silver bracelets on her wrists buzzed and hummed against her skin. She opened her eyes and watched the wisps of aether flying up out of the ground, swirling up through the wall and into the air above her.
I’ll need a lot. More than before. A lot more. Those ships are awfully far away.
She stood very still, enjoying the rippling sensations running up and down her legs and across her breasts and throat and face as her whirlwind of aether grew ever taller around her. And then a very different sort of heat and shiver ran through her hips, and she smiled.
Wren raised her hands and pulled the aether down between her resonating bracelets, pulling the cold mist in, grasping it tightly, and holding it in front of her where she could watch it fly around and around in a blinding sphere of white and silver light.
“Get down, Ty, and stay down.”
She ripped her hands apart, tearing the sphere out into two endlessly long whips of aether that spiraled out and out into the northern sky, reaching across the vast empty air for the airship above the harbor of Constantia.
When the aether whips struck the distant souls of the men and women aboard the ship, Wren felt the aether shudder in her hands, and she began to pull. She pulled, not with her arms, but with her whirling soul, reeling the aether back in toward herself, and dragging the four souls of the airship crew down, down, down toward the black waves of the Bosporus, and with those souls, came the airship itself.
The crew must be crushed against the floor and walls. If I pull too hard, I’ll crush the life from them, but if I take too long, they’ll die all the same, only slower.
The flying machine moved slowly at first, and then faster, gradually gaining speed as it sank down toward the earth, and just as the cabin reached the surface of the water, the edge of the huge balloon touched the edge of a jagged broken wall along the harbor, and the balloon tore open. It ripped apart and quickly began to deform, collapsing in upon itself and dropping the cabin into the water, and Wren released her grip on the souls of the crew and drew her aether back into the sphere between her hands.
“My God,” Tycho whispered.
Wren threw her arms out a second time, casting her aether whips across the sea and seized the crews of the other two airships high above Stamballa, and she pulled them down, one with each hand. They came down faster than the first one had, and they came together just above the water, their balloons scraping and rubbing against each other until some bolt or buckle snagged the fabric and tore them open, spilling their gas upward into the sky and dropping the cabins into the sea.
Again Wren gathered the aether back between her hands, and again she felt her hips shudder and her knees wobble as the whirling of her soul set her whole body to tingling.
“Ty?” she said softly. “Show me which are the Turkish warships, and which are the Hellans, and which are the fishing boats.”
“Sure, sure.” Tycho leapt up and moved to the edge of the wall a few paces away, and he began pointing. “There and there, those are the Turks. And there and there, and back there, are ours, and just about everything up that way are the commercial ships.”
“Thank you. Now get down again.”
He dropped back down behind her. “So you’re going to sink the Turks?”
“No. I’m sending them home. I’m sending all the warships home.”
“What do you mean, home? And what do you mean, all?”
Wren drew in a deep breath and hurled out her aether lines for the third time, but instead of a whip in each hand she hurled a slender white wire from each finger tip, half to the south and half to the north, and she seized the crews of all the Turkish ships and all the Hellan ships. There were hundreds of souls packed into the warships, and as she grabbed hold of them she could feel all of their little bodies fly across their tiny wood and steel rooms and flatten against the walls as she hauled the ships from their anchorages.
The huge warships groaned and popped and creaked, and then they began to move. They dragged their anchors, grinding slowly through the waves, heaving up and down against the pull of the aether, but they did move and then began to move faster. Tiny rippling wakes formed around their armored hulls, and then those wakes rose higher and foamed white and green as the massive warships surged through the Strait faster and faster, and when they were all whistling through the spray, nearly skipping over the waves, Wren twisted her hands and turned them all aside.
The Turks bore off toward the docks of Stamballa as she let them go, and their tremendous momentum carried them on, crashing through the cold black waters and then crashing up onto into the wooden piers and stone quays of the Turkish city. The ironclads slashed inland like a dozen enormous hatchets slicing into the shore and grinding up higher and higher, crushing the docks and sea walls and houses and roads, until they finally shrieked to a halt, all leaning at sharp angles on their exposed hulls above the high tide line.
At the same time, the Hellan destroyers were surging straight into the Seraglio Point and the gunboats smashed up on the pebbled beach one after the other, sliding up side by side and crashing into the sterns of their sisters and nosing all the way up to the sea wall just below Wren’s feet. The wooden ships crackled and splintered and burst and shrieked as their hulls scraped up on the land and a huge wave swept up out of their wake and crashed against the wall, sending a curtain of freezing white spray high into the air.
And then it was over.
Wren stood very still as the last wisps of aether flew off into the sky and vanished from her fingertips, but her soul was still whirling and her skin was still tingling. She ran her tongue across her lips and said breathlessly, “It’s done.”
Tycho stood up and stared down at the ruined Hellan fleet at the base of the wall below them, and then across the sea to the ruined Eranian fleet, and then to floating wreckage of the airships out in the middle of the Strait. As he stood there, one of the Mazigh pilots emerged from an airship cabin, pointed a gun into the air, and let a bright red flare shoot up into the sky above the water.
The bright red star shot upward into the colorless cloud of gas from the crashed balloons and a brilliant golden fireball erupted across the sky, rolling about in a cloud of smoke, and then vanished from sight.
Tycho nodded. “I don’t know if it’s over, but it’s definitely going to be very quiet out there for a long time.”
“Good.” Wren took a step toward him. It was her first attempt at moving her feet since she began to summon the aether, and her legs shook beneath her, sending her stumbling into Tycho. They fell together to the floor, and he held her to his chest, and they laughed.
“Good catch,” she said.
His hand was cupping her breast, and he moved it. “Sorry.”
“I’m not.” She pressed her mouth to his and sought out every corner of his mouth with her tongue. Her hips pressed against his, and her jaw trembled, making her gasp. Her thighs were still pulsing with heat, still throbbing with tiny thrusts almost entirely on her own. And she felt Tycho quickening against her shaking skirts. She smiled, her lips still grazing his. “Don’t move.”
“Wait,” he whispered. “I don’t know if… I’m ready.”
“Neither do I.” She smiled. “Let’s find out.”
In half a moment she had his trousers around his knees and her skirts up around her waist and she plunged down onto his warm flesh and felt them suddenly become a single, shivering, thrusting body. She clenched him between her thighs and wrapped her arms around his neck, pressing her cheek to his, feeling his hot breath on her neck as she rolled her hips over his again, and again, shaking and gasping in silent ecstasy.
When it was over, Wren lay on her back staring up at the sky, listening to the sea and the birds. She floated inside her body as her soul finally stopped whirling about, leaving her feeling infinitely still and solid and real.
She kissed Tycho, and he kissed her, and they watched the clouds drift overhead.
“The sailors will be coming off the ships soon,” he whispered.
“We should probably get up,” she whispered back.
They both sighed and groaned and sat up, and then moved apart to stand up and fix their clothing. Wren felt a last lingering tingle in her veins, down in her legs and back, and it slowly faded as she stood there, looking out over the city.
“What would you like to do next?” she asked.
Tycho laughed. “I don’t know. I suppose we should go tell someone that the war has been indefinitely postponed.”
They climbed down the stairs in the watch tower and headed back across the park, and then through the broken palace and through the quiet city streets to the gates of the cistern. Everything after that was a blur of faces and the same conversation, over and over. Tycho would tell someone what had happened, and they would run off to tell someone else. Soldiers spilled up out of the little mausoleum, followed by squinty-eyed clerks and weary servants, and the calm Duchess and the haggard Italian.
Tycho did most of the talking, and Wren was happy to let him answer the questions, over and over. What happened, and when, and who, and on and on it went. She let her thoughts wander off to other things, to images of them both lying on the wall, breathless.
I wonder if we can do that again.
As the afternoon became evening, things began to happen more quickly. Soldiers and sailors began patrolling the shores and streets, though they found the city quiet enough. The Duchess moved her army of clerks and papers into the Cathedral of Saint Sophia, where the priests graciously found rooms for most of the staff to sleep and work.
The priests also produced a small feast of roast lamb and red wine for their guests, and Wren found herself sitting in a corner with a warm belly full of food and her brains floating gently in alcohol as she watched Tycho on the far side of the crowded room doing very boring things with men in uniforms and piles of papers. She played with the ring on her finger, wondering what sort of talks she might have in the days to come with the ghosts of the valas, and the ancient witch Yaga. She also played with her bracelets, wondering what else she might one day learn to do with them and the aether they commanded.
She looked up as Omar sat down across from her with a glass of wine in his hand.
“Hello, old timer.”
He nodded and forced a smile. “I see you’ve been busy saving the world without me.”
She smiled. “I learned from the best.”
“Hm.” He sipped his wine. “You learned from your valas, and I suspect you even learned a thing or two from Yaga in your brief time together. I…” He sighed and sipped his wine.
“Everything all right?”
“No, not really,” he said.
“You didn’t find Nadira?”
He narrowed his eyes at her for a moment, and then looked away. “No, and I doubt I’ll ever see her again.”
She sipped her wine. It tasted awful but she liked the warmth in her belly and the tingle in her fingers. Her gaze wandered over to Tycho again.
He has the most intense eyes.
“Do you want to stay here?”
Wren blinked and looked at Omar. He slouched in his chair, his head resting on his hand as he leaned over the table and stared down into his glass.
“Maybe. For a while,” she said. “I don’t know. Why?”
The Aegyptian shrugged.
“Aren’t we still going to Alexandria?”
“I do need to go back,” Omar said. “Eventually. Things to do. Loose ends to tie up. Mistakes to correct. Sins to atone for.” He drank.
“What are you talking about?” she asked.
“Nothing.” He looked up at her. “Wren, you’re a very impressive young woman and I imagine you will have a very remarkable life, wherever you go or whatever you do. But there’s little need for you to follow me around anymore. You don’t need a teacher. Anything you need, you’ll find in that ring or you’ll figure out for yourself.”
Wren sat very still.
He’s never been like this before. These last few days, something has changed in him. Something very deep, very important.
She cleared her throat. “I won’t ask what exactly happened to you out there. Nadira. Koschei. That’s your past, and your business, and I know it’s probably very complicated and painful, and I’m sorry about that. But I thought we were going to solve all the mysteries of the universe together, and open the gates of paradise, and meet the gods. You’ve been doing this for, well, a very long time, and I wanted to be a part of that. I still do. Don’t you?”
Omar shook his head, his eyes gazing darkly into hers. “Wren, I stumbled into your country and caused a plague that nearly wiped out an entire people, and the best cure I could invent left you all deformed for life.”
She reached up and plucked lightly at one of her tall furry ears. The sensation sent a shiver down her scalp, and she smiled. “But isn’t the point that you saved us?”
“No.” He sipped his wine. “Five hundred years ago in Rus, I made a woman and her son immortal because I thought they were good people, and would make the world a better place. And that mother went mad with grief and raised the dead from their graves, and that son became a bloodthirsty butcher. And now Nadira’s gone, too. And you don’t even want to know about Lilith.”
Wren frowned. “You may have a played a part in all these things, but you’re not responsible for other people. Koschei killed those people, not you. Yaga lost control, not you.”
“But I made them!” Omar squinted up at the stained glass window on the far wall. “I made all of them. If it weren’t for my damned pride, none of this would have happened. Not here, not in Ysland. How many people would be alive today if it weren’t for me?”
“Maybe you did make mistakes, but you didn’t engineer these things. You certainly didn’t want them to happen. Yes, you made some people immortal, to help you. Don’t you see? That was humility, not vanity or pride. You knew you needed help on this search of yours, that you needed other people to uncover new truths and build a better world,” Wren said. “Those are all good things.”
“What better world? What have I actually accomplished? In four and a half thousand years, what have I done?” He shook his head. “Science? I didn’t invent the steam engine, or electricity, or flying machines. The Mazighs did that all on their own. Exploration? The Espani discovered the New World, two entire continents! And they did it with some of the worst sailing ships in the Middle Sea, too.”
Omar rubbed his eyes as his mouth twisted downward and his voice began to break. “Art. Music. History. Engineering. Politics. Philosophy. I haven’t added one bit to even the smallest corner of human achievement, in four millennia of life. I’ve just played with things I didn’t understand, and turned decent people into murderers and self-loathing shadows of themselves. How many people are dead because of me? How much of the world has been dented, broken, stained, and ruined by me?”
Wren played with her glass, swirling the last dregs of her wine around and around. “I don’t know. I don’t know what to tell you. All I know is that I’ve known you for the last year, and I think you’re a decent man with good intentions.”
Omar said nothing.
“You discovered sun-steel. You invented immortality. I’d say that’s something.”
“I invented a new sort of torture,” he whispered. “Seductive, and insidious, and unnatural.”
What does he want from me? He’s pouting like a child. Does he want me to forgive him, or tell him what to do? Is this just guilt and regret, or something deeper? How can he possibly feel responsible for what Koschei and Yaga did five hundred years after he left them?
“So what? Do you want me to kill you with that sword of yours? Put you out of your misery? I can, if you want,” she said sharply. “It would be a waste, I think, but if that’s what you want, then it’s the least I can do for you.”
He looked at her. “You’re young. The world is still new and interesting and simple to you. It’s still so easy for you to judge, isn’t it? Good and bad, right and wrong. You don’t see all the pitfalls and traps waiting for you out there.”
“You’re right, I don’t. You want to do good? Let’s do some good,” she said, sitting up a little straighter and looking around the room. “We’re in a war-torn city. Things are broken. People are hurt. We can stay here and fix things. You know, help.”
Omar sat up a little straighter too. “You’re right, we could. And you’re right, that would help. Although, now that everyone here knows who I am, it would be hard to avoid being caught up in the world again. In politics. In the next war. And I know myself. The next problem will come along, and I’ll want to help, but somehow I’ll go a bit too far, lose sight of the dangers, and make everything worse again.”
Wren leaned back and folded her arms. “Well, you need to make a decision. You need to go somewhere and do something with yourself. Fix a house, build a road, teach someone how to fish. Something.”
He smiled sadly. “I’m a very old man, Wren, and I’m afraid I’m more than a little bit set in my ways to start over, just like that. I’ll lose interest. I’ll start making the same mistakes all over again, sooner or later.”
“You’re probably right,” she said. “Give me your sword. I’ll make it quick, I promise.”
He blinked up at her, a vague horror in his face. “No. At least, not yet. There are other things I can do. Or we can do together, if you like.”
He smiled again, this time with a hint of his old playfulness. “Well, I was just thinking that we could go undo all the things I’ve done. There’s a world full of immortal people and deadly weapons and unholy trinkets out there. I think the world would be a better place without them.”
There’s the old Omar. I knew he was still in there.
Wren smiled. “And I can’t think of anyone better qualified to find them, and unmake them.”
“So you’ll come with me? Help me?”
Wren’s smile faded as she looked across the room at Tycho, who was still talking with the soldiers and clerks, reviewing reports and giving orders as the sour-faced Italian loomed over his shoulder and muttered what must have been snide remarks.
He won’t leave. This is his home. This is where he belongs. He’ll stay here and help his people, and I guess that’s the way it should be. He’s a patriot, and a hero, and I can’t ask him to leave, even if I thought he’d come along. This is where he needs to be. And that’s all right. Maybe one day, I can come back here, maybe even to stay. But not yet. There’s still so much to see, and learn, and do.
She looked at Omar. “Yes, I will. I’ll come with you. After all, someone needs to keep an eye on you and make sure you stay on the straight and narrow. So, where will we start?”
The Aegyptian looked thoughtfully up at the stained glass portrait above them again. “I suppose we should start at beginning. Do you still want to see Alexandria?”
Wren nodded. “Absolutely.”
Wren and Omar stayed in Constantia for five weeks after the destruction of the airships and the fleets. Vlad returned from Stamballa with his younger brother in irons and after much politicking flavored with Vlachian sibling rivalry, a new treaty was signed between the Hellans and the Turks. Wren spent the days down in the streets by the waterfront, helping to mind the children while the soldiers and marines slowly rebuilt the shattered homes and shops and warehouses and docks. From time to time, someone would call her out to another neighborhood, or into the countryside, or just down to a graveyard where some poor soul was still trapped in its half-frozen corpse, and she would rattle her silver bracelets and gently set them free.
She spent her nights in Tycho’s bed.
By the time she and Omar boarded their ship to Aegyptus, both the bombed district of Constantia and the burned district of Stamballa were well on their way to being fully restored, although the beached warships remained stranded high above the water on both sides of the Strait and no one had any idea what to do with them yet.
The journey to Alexandria only took two days by Mazigh steamer, and they stepped onto the docks as the setting sun painted the Middle Sea in shining gold and the great lighthouse tower in deepest crimson. Omar led her into the dusty streets bustling with porters and merchants, wagons and carts, horses and zebras, huge lumbering sivatheras, and huffing steam carriages.
They walked down broad boulevards of pale stone buildings all hundreds of years old with the slender towers and shining domes of ancient palaces and temples in the distance. It was a city of babbling noises, voices and animals and machines all competing for attention in the markets and in the streets and alleyways. It was a city of smells, of cooking meats and rotting vegetables and burning oil and mounds of elephant dung in the middle of the road.
Wren hurried down the streets behind Omar, one hand clutching her bag and the other hand clutching her scarf to keep it in place over her ears and hair as she stared up and around at everything, trying to see and hear and smell it all at once. She was so overwhelmed by the sheer size and life and strangeness of it all that she ran straight into Omar when he stopped walking. She stepped back and looked up at the building in front of him.
At its base it was a massive stone fortress, similar to the stone houses and shops around them only much, much larger, but rising above the stone fortress was an elegant wooden temple, each level slightly smaller than the one below, until her eyes reached the tiny wooden shrine at the very top where a single bell hung in the early evening light.
“What is this place?”
“The Temple of Osiris,” Omar said. “A nest for priests and scholars, and thieves and assassins.”
“Tycho told me about the Osirians,” she said. “They’re dangerous.”
“Very,” he agreed.
“So why are we here?”
He smiled. “Didn’t I tell you? I live here.”
She stared at him. “You live here? You’re one of…? Nine hells, you created this place, didn’t you?”
“I helped,” he admitted. “But now I’m going to raze it to the ground. Care to join me?”
She grinned. “Love to.”
They approached the main doors and the row of green-robed guards protecting the entrance, but a flash of color caught Wren’s eye and she turned and nudged her blue glasses down her nose to get a better look at the two women standing in the road beside her, staring up at the temple. One of the women wore a yellow dress and carried a brown bag on her shoulder, and she gazed around at the passing foot traffic with stern, almost angry eyes. Her shorter companion wore a red robe, with a strip of red cloth tied over her eyes, and bright white flowers nestled in her long black hair, and unlike the woman in yellow she seemed to be unable to stop smiling. And on the smiling woman’s shoulder hunched a small furry creature with tiny black eyes. The women both had light brown skin and wore thread-bare sandals on their dusty feet, and they were talking in a strange language like nothing Wren had ever heard before.
She smiled at them and offered a little wave, which the blind woman didn’t notice and the serious woman didn’t acknowledge. Wren followed Omar up to the temple doors.
What a strange city. I’ve never seen anyone like those two ladies before. This is all so exciting!