Marilia stood across from Ben and Catarina. Governor Victarian Ildoran’s letter lay on the table between them. An offer of a meeting in the nearby town of Almarenne. Of an alliance—a chance to continue the war. To force the usurper, Rufyllys Vergana, off his throne.
Catarina had her doubts. It was more than understandable; her husband’s valiant—but misguided—attempt to wage a war for the crown had nearly resulted in the annihilation of the Svartennan army. They’d only escaped by a hair’s breadth, thanks to Marilia’s last-minute plan and Ben’s battlefield heroics. “We were going to negotiate for peace,” Catarina reminded Ben. “That was your promise. We get out of the last battle alive, and we write to the usurper…to my half-brother…and end the war. We can have peace on our terms, Ben.”
Do we really want to risk everything again after we came so close to disaster the last time? Catarina’s doubtful expression seemed to say. Like a gambler after too many cups, who doesn’t know when to quit?
Is that what Ben is—a gambler without restraint? Marilia wondered. Is that what this entire war has been?
“Things are different now,” Ben protested. “I understand why the governors wouldn’t join us after Ilruyn died. I don’t respect it, but I understand—they were afraid of Rufyllys. But now—we’ve proved ourselves.” He took Catarina’s hands in his. His eyes were wide and earnest. “This battle here—it was just what Governor Ephrayenne said in his letter…a signal fire to all the empire. To let them know what we can do—what the Lady Chrysathamere can do. To show them they don’t have to be afraid of a usurper and a tyrant.”
“I’m not letting you decide,” Catarina told her husband. “No offense, but I trust the Lady Chrysathamere’s judgment a little more.” Ben looked mildly offended, but he gave a brief nod of the head, as if to say—fair.
Catarina turned to look at Marilia. “What do you think, Marilia?”
“Ask yourself this,” Ben said. “What would Karthtag-Kal want? What would he really want?”
What would my father want? Marilia thought. It was a difficult question; she chewed on her lip until it began to bleed.
She’d told Ben not to march to war in the first place; she’d told him what the price would be: the pyres of the dead. The screams and the physicks’ bone-saws. If they went forward, there would be more of that. If they went back, no one else needed to die.
But if they went back, the five thousand Svartennans who had already given their lives for Ben’s cause would have died for nothing—and that wasn’t even counting the thousands of dead on the enemy side—the soldiers of the southern legions who, bound by duty to their commanders, had tried to stop Ben’s march. The friends of those dead men would return home to walk among familiar halls scarred by the empty, silent places their loved ones had once stood, a silence more damning than any curse.
What could be said to those spirits, or to the ones they’d left behind?
Oops…we thought we were fighting for something important—for the fate of the empire. For honor and justice. That’s what we told you—but it turns out it wasn’t that important, after all. Sorry you all had to die just so we could conquer a hill. We’re going to turn around and go home now.
Then the usurper and his allies—who had murdered the true emperor, along with Marilia’s father, who had spat in the eyes of the gods—they would never face justice, unless it came at the Fates’ hands.
The Fates, Marilia suspected, could not be counted on for such things.
“Marilia?” Catarina prompted her, jarring her from her thoughts.
Above all, Karthtag-Kal had been a man of honor. He’d believed in peace—but he’d also believed in duty. He’d that some things were worth fighting for. One of those things was a world where you could look into a child’s eyes and tell them—with a straight face, without lying—not only that betrayal was wrong, but that those who betrayed got what they deserved. That there was justice not only in Neravos’ halls, but on earth, too—just as the gods demanded.
What was the alternative? Write back to the usurper and surrender? Tell the world that the recent victory that Governor Ildoran had found so inspiring—the most impressive victory of Marilia’s life—was all for nothing? Just a footnote on the pages of history, a forgotten march that went forward and then back, wasting all that blood for nothing, changing nothing?
“I don’t know for sure,” Marilia admitted. “But I think Karthtag-Kal would fight.”
“He would,” Ben agreed, quick to seize the opportunity. “For everyone who’s gone, for everyone who’s still living—if we have the power to see Rufyllys Vergana off the throne, we have to try.”
So it was agreed. The three of them joined hands, standing together in the sea-stone hall of Surennis while the waves broke on the shore outside and the sun turned the waves’ white foam to gold
They would meet with Governor Ildoran of Dane, betroth Ben and Catarina’s daughter, Claria, to his son, and join his mighty army to theirs.
One step at a time, Marilia stopped herself. Don’t get ahead of yourself—don’t be like Ben. It’s still a long race to run, and we’ll run it slow and steady.
“We ride to Almarenne,” Ben said; he’d always had a weakness for melodramatic pronouncements. Catarina caught Marilia’s eyes and rolled her own.
“For justice, hope, valor, and the light of the gods,” Catarina added, in a tone so entirely serious that Marilia had to stifle a laugh.
“You’re mocking me, aren’t you?” Ben asked, narrowing his eyes suspiciously.
“Your majesty,” Catarina said sweetly, “I would never.”
They rode south through the foothills of Dane. A dozen of Ben’s household knights galloped ahead, their green-gold armor resplendent in the light of the rising sun. Marilia’s friends rode beside her—Ben and Catarina on her right, Jariel Valennos on her left; since his great-uncle, Prefect Valennos, had once fought heroically alongside one of Dane’s most beloved governors, Ben had figured bringing him along to meet the current Governor of Dane couldn’t hurt.
It was the same group of friends that had often gathered for meals in Ben’s command tent, save one omission—Camilline was gone, on her way to the northlands. Ben had decided to make her his personal ambassador to Daevium, given the friendship she’d struck up with the city-state’s Duchess the last time she’d been there. Camilline would sail north and beg the Duchess to lend a few thousand men to help Ben take the throne.
It was a shame she was missing today; she loved a good horseback ride more than anyone, and this one was shaping up to be quite splendid. Clear sky, crisp wind, and the smell of wildflowers on the air.
Gravelly earth crunched beneath their horses’ hooves; birds, roused by the noise of Ben’s party, took to the sky, filling the morning air with their song. As the sun finished cresting the mountains to the east, the last, lingering chill of the night began to burn away.
They threaded their way through rocky foothills and groves of olive trees until they rounded a bend and saw the town ahead of them—Almarenne, the holy site where, legend had it, Almaria the Blessed had once come to whisper the secrets of knowledge in Neravos’ ear.
The grass outside the town was strewn with the gold claria flowers that had given Ben and Catarina’s daughter her name and adorned the Danish flag. Below her, in a gap between the trees, Marilia saw a collection of houses, a small market, stables and several pastures of yoba encircled in rickety wooden fencing; at the far end of the market, at the edge of a bluff overlooking a river, she could make out the curved, winged walls of Almaria’s temple. While the other buildings were made of plain, yellow-brown clay, the temple was painted a crisp, pristine white.
A little closer, a building equally large, though not nearly so graceful, flew the rust-red banners of Dane, the gold claria flower beaming proudly in their center.
Victarian Ildoran stood before the hall’s entrance, flanked by several of his knights. He was a man of average height, maybe thirty years of age, if Marilia had to guess. He was handsome, she saw, with sharp features and an elegant goatee—his hair well-combed, his gold cloak thrown dashingly over one shoulder…but she judged that he was strong and trim beneath his cloak and the fine armor he wore. A fighter, like Ben. He might have been nicknamed Victarian the Cautious, but it seemed he had finally found his courage.
“His cautiousness in the flesh,” Ben remarked. “I was starting to worry he wouldn’t show up. After all, if the events of the past weeks have shown me anything, it’s that the Fates truly love to fuck me.” He shrugged. “It’s understandable, I suppose. I’ve been told I’m a good lay…” Catarina squawked in protest. “…but at some point, the debauchery has to stop.” He frowned, peering closer. “That is quite a cloak. I want one.”
“You’d look ridiculous,” Catarina said.
“I think the words you’re looking for are crushingly handsome.”
“I think that the lady, being as articulate as she always is, knows better than the rest of us what words she was looking for,” Jariel said.
“Well, haven’t you become presumptuous,” Ben scolded. “I am your emperor, in case you’ve forgotten. You don’t get to speak to me that way, Valennos.”
“But I do,” Catarina said. “And, unfortunately, I have to agree with Jariel’s assessment. Might need a new helmet to go with the cloak, the way your head keeps swelling.”
“Ouch. If the Graver’s men were half so good with their swords as you were with your wit, my lady, I’d have bled out in our last battle.”
They slowed their horses to a walk. “Funny thing,” Ben remarked. “All the strategizing and tromping about with swords…but it’s a betrothal that’s made the greatest difference in this damned war.” He glanced sideways at Marilia. “Come to think of it…you’re unattached. Don’t suppose there’s any handsome young governors with large armies you’d take a fancy to?”
Marilia’s stomach lurched. It was a possibility she hadn’t considered; one, perhaps, she ought to have done.
What—willing to barter Claria away, but not yourself?
Of course, it was a little different. Claria was fond Governor Ildoran’s eldest son. Whereas Marilia…
She was fond of someone entirely different.
“Maybe she could find someone to take a fancy to,” Catarina said. “But I think the Lady Chrysathamere’s place is on Svartennos—the people of our island would be none too happy if she were to sail away to join a husband in some far-off province. And there are few Navessean husbands who would be willing to make their home on Svartennos. Few, too, who would take a warrior as their bride.”
But there was a knowing look in Catarina’s eye as she spoke—a look that made Marilia wonder if Catarina well knew just who Marilia had taken a fancy to. She wouldn’t have been surprised; Catarina had always been impressively perceptive.
Ben grunted. “True enough. Well, it’s something to consider, I suppose.”
“If it comes to that,” Marilia said, hoping very much that it wouldn’t.
Only, she thought, a political marriage, a union of convenience, and only if there was no other way…if it was a choice between her marriage and the failure of Ben’s campaign, and her hand was the price that had to be paid for justice.
That won’t be necessary, she told herself. Catarina’s right; the lords of mainland Navessea won’t want to marry a sword-wielding wild woman from a far-flung island province. Even if they did, Ben had plenty else to bribe them with; once he won his crown; positions on the royal council would open up, along with governorships…and the Order of Jade would need a new prefect, once her brother’s day of reckoning came.
They brought their horses to a halt. Ben swung to the ground and the others followed him. Two guards remained at his side; the others hung back, tending to the horses.
“Prince Espeleos,” Victarian said. Marilia supposed he thought it would be inappropriate to use your majesty before Ben had been formally crowned in the Senate. Or maybe it was a reminder that Victarian’s fealty was still conditional, at least until Victarian’s son and Ben’s daughter had been formally betrothed.
“Governor Ildoran. I salute you.” Ben raised his eyebrows. “You’re all armored up.”
“Of course,” Victarian said. “Dress like a warrior to greet a warrior. It is a warrior’s business we are about.”
“You look most excellent.”
Victarian blinked. He looked taken aback by the compliment. “Thank you.”
“I got the present you sent.” Ben drew a gold aeder sword from the sheath at his belt. A sword Marilia knew well. She marveled at the play of light on the blade. It was beautiful, like a piece of sunlight ripped from the heavens—and deadly. This was the blade that had butchered her friends in Oba’al’s pillow house, that had nearly ended her own life several times.
The Graver’s blade.
It had come with Victarian’s letter. Seeking to escape Ben’s light cavalry—who had pursued them south after the battle—six of the Graver’s knights, along with the governor himself, had crossed over into Danish territory. They had sought refuge in Almarenne, searching for a place where their governor could rest and heal from the injury he’d taken on the battlefield. Only a day later, Victarian’s men, having received word of the intrusion, arrived and took all the Antarenne knights into custody. The Graver was now Victarian’s prisoner, and, if the governor’s letter was to be believed, gravely ill; the wound Marilia had given him had begun to fester, and the physicks weren’t sure they could save him. That was part of the reason Ben’s party had hurried here so fast; so that Marilia could face her enemy, one last time, with her friends at her side.
“Is the filth still alive?” Ben asked.
“He lives,” Victarian confirmed.
“Can I see him?”
“I think I’m going to give his sword to the Lady Chrysathamere,” Ben said. “It just occurred to me—she deserves it more than I do. She’s the one who beat him.”
“Is she?” Victarian asked.
“Her plan that crushed his army,” Catarina confirmed, with a touch of what sounded like vicarious pride. “Her blow that knocked him down the hill.”
Victarian’s eyes lingered on Marilia for a moment. Once, she might have flushed under his gaze. Once, she might have worried about whether she measured up. Not anymore. She met his eyes squarely; ever since the battle on the hill, she’d felt bolder than she had since she first raised her banner over Chrysathamere Pass.
“Fair enough,” the governor said.
“I don’t want that sword,” she told Ben. Fine aeder it might be, but it had killed too many of her friends for her to ever want to touch it.
“Understandable.” Ben slid the sword back into its sheath. “Maybe I’ll keep it, after all.” He didn’t sound displeased by the prospect. “So…to business, then?”
Victarian hadn’t moved. His eyes were full of emotion, and there was a keen light in them as he looked from Ben to Marilia and back again. “I want you to know that your victory on that hill—no one will forget it,” he said earnestly. “Even if Emperor Vergana wishes it might be so. Word spreads. Which philosopher was it who said that trying to contain a legend is like trying to stop sand from slipping through your fingers?”
“I’m not sure,” Ben admitted. “I never was much for philosophy. Catarina might know.”
Victarian smiled ruefully. “No; you are for war. That much, I have always known.”
“It was actually the poet, believe it or not,” Catarina said. “Annuweth Long-Spear.”
“Well. I guess poets are good for something, after all,” Ben said. “The world is full of wonders. Shall we head inside?” he asked Victarian. “Discuss the betrothal? I’m guessing you already had one of your magistrates draw up a contract?”
“Ben…” Victarian’s voice was tight. “This isn’t what you think it is.”
Ben frowned, not understanding. “What is it, then?”
Victarian’s voice was soft. “It’s an execution.”