The wall at the edge of camp was waist-height and broken in several places where stones had been taken for other construction. As Tariq, Ksara, and I leaned on it and watched the sky turn orange, I could feel the tug of Downlander blood coming from its stones, offering me memories of an atrocity long past.
The past concerned me less than the present, though, and as Tariq counted plumes of smoke and Ksara’s black eyes glistened with oily rainbows, I said what all of us were thinking: “The reinforcements Galloway promised aren’t coming.”
Behind us, the camp was alive with the sounds of cooking and laughter as Cardinal Galloway’s bodyguard mingled with the Downlanders who’d answered my call. There should have been fifteen hundred Kunstadters camped here, come to oppose Immaculate XII, biblioclast and anti-Pope. There should have been the sound of metal on metal as horses were shod, the scent of pickled cabbage in the air, and voices singing drinking songs in Kunst accompanied by the cranking of the beggar’s lyre. Instead, all the voices I could hear were Downlander or Orvali, and the only songs were hymns.
“The Kunst princes have offered his Eminence a dizzying array of excuses,” Ksara said, her shadow writhing and stretching behind her. “They’re trying to sit out the war. Galloway’s been burning the letters as they arrive.” As she finished, her shadow extended and flexed half a dozen wings.
“Burning the letters?” Tariq asked, looking puzzled.
“To keep the news from spreading,” I explained.
Tariq nodded with new understanding. “Well, he’s not wrong. We can’t take on Immaculate without the Kunst cavalry. My men are scouts and skirmishers, not cataphracts.”
“Of course we can,” I snapped. “My father defeated Orvali knights without cataphracts several times. It’s just a question of choosing the field of battle.”
Tariq shot me a sharp look, and I could see he wanted to ask, Who picked the Field of Thorns? He didn’t quite dare, though, because he suspected what my answer would be.
It wasn’t that hard to guess, when the man whose ambush had killed my father sat in our command tent wearing cardinal’s robes.
I pushed my memories of the Field of Thorns aside as another thread of smoke rose to stain the lurid sky. “Is that another monastery?” I asked Ksara.
“St. Asceline’s,” Ksara confirmed, her voice taut with anger. “The original Codex of Miraculous Beasts and Cochrane’s Dialectics were just used for kindling.” Her shadow swelled and spread its wings wide as she added, “Every day, more knowledge is lost and a new wing is added to the Burnt Library. It is not to be borne.”
I touched the back of her hand, and without speaking, Ksara took my fingers in hers. Though her digits were slender and ink-stained, she had a Prodigal’s strength, and I could feel her relax her grip to keep herself from hurting me.
“It need not be borne much longer, darling,” I whispered. “I promise. If Galloway won’t act, I will.”
Ksara nodded once in acknowledgment, and the three of us stood together in silence as the sun set and centuries of scholarship were lofted into the sky on plumes of ash.
Cardinal Galloway was finishing a roasted hare when Tariq and I arrived at his pavilion. “Anton,” he said, waving me in with one hand as he bit into the hare’s leg. “What news?”
“Three more monasteries have been put to the torch,” I said. “St. Theodora’s, St. Magnus’s, and St. Asceline’s. Our outriders haven’t run into any of Immaculate’s scouts since the ones we nabbed last week.” I paused, then added, “There’s still no sign of the Kunstadters, Your Eminence.”
“Duke Albrecht assured me that he and his men will set out on the morrow,” Galloway said, stripping the last bits of meat from the rabbit’s leg. “Surely we can wait here until they arrive?”
I stared at Galloway for a moment, trying to recall how many years had passed since he’d taken the cloth. Five? Even after half a decade, he should still know better than to hesitate on the enemy’s threshold. Nor had Galloway been a fool when I cut my deal with him, some years before that.
“We can,” I granted after a moment. “But it’s not wise, Your Eminence. The longer we stay in one place, the easier it will be for Immaculate and his commanders to infer our location. We should advance to Briareus’s Knee and extend our reconnaissance along the road to Orval.”
“We cannot challenge Immaculate’s army with only a mob of Downlanders and my bodyguard,” Galloway said. “Not even if the giants you like to use as landmarks were to miraculously rise from the earth to fight for us. You’ve seen the reports from Orval. The bastard must have ten thousand men under arms by now.”
“Ten thousand thieves and vandals,” I said, paraphrasing Matthias of Talern, “are no match for a Downlander army.”
“We haven’t got a Downlander army,” Galloway snapped. “We have five hundred poachers, a thousand green boys, and as many veterans of the Third Carcanian War. We have fifty horsemen, all of them Mogvar exiles. Even with the hundred halberdiers of my guard, that’s not nearly enough.” He paused. “We need the Kunst cavalry, Anton. Without them, Immaculate is going to scatter us like chaff.”
I nodded slowly, pretending to agree. Behind his practical facade, Galloway was terrified. He was still capable of tactical analysis, though.
Which begged the question: did he actually believe Duke Albrecht would come to our aid? Or did he have another reason for wanting us to sit on our hands?
“All right,” I said. “We’ll wait another three days. But no more.”
The tension in Galloway’s shoulders eased as I spoke. “Good,” he said as I turned to go. “Keep the outriders on alert. We can’t afford to have Immaculate sneak up on us.”
“What was that?” Tariq demanded of me once we’d left Galloway and his bodyguards behind. “You know as well I do that the Kunstadters aren’t coming!”
“I do,” I said, keeping my voice low. “And so does Galloway. I want you to double the pickets around the camp.”
Tariq sucked air in through his teeth. “Seven seals of Heaven. You think he’s sold us out?”
“Either that, or he’s about to,” I said. Galloway hadn’t become a Cardinal of the Orvali church by not recognizing when the likes of Duke Albrecht meant to break a promise.
As Tariq saw to the pickets, I headed back to my own pavilion, lost in thought. Men I knew from my father’s campaigns nodded and waved to me as I passed, but no one hailed me with “Carcan Avs”—Blood lives, the first half of the traditional greeting of the Downlands. This wasn’t supposed to be a Downlander army, or a Downlander war. This was about the block-print prayer books that graced every home from the Freeholds to Slough Tamar; about two thousand years of learning and civilization being thrown away in a fit of misguided zeal.
Ksara was in my pavilion, paging through the Burnt Library’s copy of the Codex of Miraculous Beasts. As I came up behind her, a fresh page unfurled itself from the book’s spine, letters of flame inscribing themselves on virgin parchment as a bonfire many leagues away transmuted the original to ash.
“How are you holding up?” I asked, leaning down to kiss her ink-black hair.
“Not well,” Ksara said, stroking a picture of a leopard using its sweet breath to put an antelope to sleep. “The illuminations in this one used to be so lovely—all gold and lapis and cochineal. Now look at them! There’s nothing left. Just skin, fire, and ash.”
“The book isn’t completely lost,” I said, trying not to focus on how the book’s parchment was the same pale shade as Ksara’s skin. In a very real sense, she was the Burnt Library, as well as its custodian. “That has to count for something.”
Ksara dismissed the Codex in a swirl of shadows as she turned to face me. “Does it? Do your blood memories console you, Anton? Or do you wake whimpering in the dead of night, having dreamt of the Sack of Merane? Does it comfort you to watch your twelve-times great grandmother die in an alley?”
“The Arutanian crusade was a crime against all that is holy,” I replied, kneeling so I could take her hand in mine. “And so is this.”
“Immaculate must be stopped,” Ksara said, her words ringing out like the toll of a bell, and as her eyes kindled like coals and her shadow leapt up the pavilion’s wall to spread a dozen wings, she was Ksarael, Prodigal of Lost and Forbidden Knowledge—a creature who’d fled God’s suffocating grace to dwell in the Inferno with her renegade siblings, and wasn’t remotely human.
“He will be,” I replied, and the flames faded from Ksara’s eyes, leaving them an ink-slicked black once more.
“What were you and Tariq talking about before you came in?” she asked, stroking the skin between my thumb and forefinger.
“I think Galloway’s lost his nerve,” I told her, lifting the back of her hand so I could kiss it. “He wants to sit here and wait for Kunst reinforcements, even though he knows full well that Duke Albrecht is blowing smoke. So I told Tariq to have his men stop anyone who might be carrying a message to Immaculate.”
“My cynical, suspicious love,” Ksara murmured.
“Do you think I’m wrong?”
“Not at all,” Ksara said, tracing my jaw with a fingertip. “I’m proud of you.”
“Because you’re waiting for proof before you strike,” Ksara said, rising to her feet and pulling me up with her. “It’s good to know I taught you properly.”
Our kiss tasted of saffron and cinnabar; of iron and ink and ashes.
Tariq roused us in the cold watch before sunrise, with the pallor of false dawn barely touching the western sky.
“We caught one of Immaculate’s agents,” he said, averting his eyes as I fumbled with my trousers and Ksara clad herself in shadows. “He was dressed in Galloway’s livery, but I’d never seen him before, and I know all of the cardinal’s guards by name. The bastard tried to eat the note he was carrying, but Nassir pried his mouth open before he could swallow.”
“Tell Nassir he did well,” I said as Tariq handed Ksara the note. “What does it say?”
“It’s a substitution cipher,” Ksara said, squinting at it. “Easy to crack, and it’s in Galloway’s handwriting. He agrees to all of Immaculate’s terms.”
“Do we know what those terms were?” I asked Tariq.
Tariq was shaking his head as Ksara plucked a letter from the air, its creamy parchment etched with smoldering letters. “Be careful,” she said as she handed the letter to me. “It’s fresh from the brazier.”
“How kind of Galloway to burn his correspondence,” I murmured as I scanned Immaculate’s offer. “He really should know better.”
Ksara and Tariq exchanged smug looks. During my father’s war, they’d used Ksara’s abilities to trick the previous pope into hanging several of his advisors as spies.
“What does it say?” Tariq asked as I reached the last paragraph and froze, barely able to breathe.
“Well,” I said carefully, “there’s a great deal of ranting, in which Immaculate accuses me of parricide. Then there are the clauses you’d expect, about Galloway betraying us, acknowledging Immaculate as Pope, and retaining his place as a cardinal. And then....” I couldn’t go on.
“And then,” Ksara finished for me, “Immaculate demands Galloway’s cooperation in prosecuting a second Arutanian crusade, to purge the Downlands of heresy.”
Her words barely registered. Blood memory crashed over me in a wave, flinging me back to the Sack of Merane. I saw the perfect cerulean sky overhead as Guy of Demora breached the Stone Gates and the first Orvali troops rushed through. I could make out hundreds of faces in the crowd of women, children, and old men that were waiting for them. I had witnessed this atrocity hundreds of times—I knew their names, their lives, their grief. There was Petros, the quarryman who’d lost his arm in an accident and come to Merane to beg charity of the Perfecti. There was silver-haired Ulyana, surrounded by her daughters and granddaughters; widows, every one. And there was Yuliya, her great-grandchild, who wore the gray robes of a Perfecta at the age of twelve and was the first to raise her voice in song.
They stood with their arms locked together, singing hymns to their god—a god who cared nothing for the world of matter, and who they knew full well wouldn’t save them.
I saw the vanguard falter before them. Watched Guy of Demora urge them on.
And heard the chorus swell as the killing began, glorifying God the Most High through two more verses before the sounds of butchery drowned out their voices forever.
It took Ksara’s hand on my arm to bring me back to the present. “Anton? Are you all right?”
“No,” I whispered. A second Arutanian Crusade. At that thought, more blood memories stirred, and it was all I could do to keep myself from hearing Orvali soldiers laugh and jeer as they kicked the heads of mothers and grandfathers through the streets. A beard trailed in one head’s wake, like a gore-smeared tassel. “No, I’m not all right. Do they not understand what that means? Do they not remember why the Downlands were eager to follow my father to war?”
Ksara shook her head. Of course they didn’t understand. I hadn’t made them remember, like I’d made a generation of Downlands youths recall Merane and Phenare. I hadn’t made Galloway watch as his ancestors hung children from the hooks of butcher’s stalls or smashed the icons and stained-glass windows of Saint Vadim’s Cathedral.
“It was three hundred years ago,” Tariq pointed out. “And Orvali have short memories. They measure their grudges in decades, not centuries.”
“Immaculate’s memory seems to work just fine,” I said. “He longs to reenact the Arutanian Crusade and every one of its horrors. Well, not while I draw breath.” I paused to calm my racing heart, then added, “Come the day, Immaculate and his adherents will lie dead—or wish they were.”
Come the day. That had been my father’s phrase. Meaning the long-awaited day we conquered Orval.
He was seven years in the grave, yet I was still using his rhetoric. Still playing the role he’d groomed me for, even as I rekindled the war I’d killed him to stop.
Come the day, all the world would bow to Antonin Carcania, and offer fealty and tribute to the sign of the Eclipse.
“Is it war, then?” Ksara asked, tiny sparks kindling in the tarry depths of her eyes.
“Yes,” I whispered. This was a Downlander war now; a fight for our survival. Visions of corpses dangling from trees like swollen fruit filled my mind, but I pushed them aside. There would be no more monasteries burnt; no more massacres like Merane and Phenare.
I would not permit it.
After three heartbeats of silence, Tariq and Ksara covered their hearts with their fists. “Carcan Avs,” they said in unison. Blood lives.
“Carcan Raes,” I replied, the ritualized response so ingrained I didn’t even have to think.
I emerged from my pavilion just after dawn, clad in plate, with Ksara and Tariq flanking me. I carried my father’s ram-horned helm beneath my arm, and the camp fell silent as my retinue and I swept past. Everyone knew what the trappings of my father’s war meant, and why I’d avoided them.
We were long past that kind of delicacy now.
The guards standing watch at the entrance to Galloway’s pavilion blanched as they saw me bearing down on them. “My lord,” the one wearing a sergeant’s badge on his cap ventured, “I can’t—you can’t—”
“Sergeant,” I said, coming to a halt. “Inform His Eminence that Prince Antonin Carcania desires to speak with him.”
The two guardsmen took in the ranks of Downlanders who’d come to see what the fuss was about and exchanged glances. I could see the sergeant searching his conscience, trying to decide if it was worth his life to bar a not-yet-hostile Carcania from his master’s tent. It wasn’t, apparently, as he nodded and ducked inside.
“His Eminence will see you,” he said after a moment, holding the tent flap open.
“Anton,” Galloway began, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. “You have me at—” He cut himself off as I slammed my father’s helm onto the table in front of him.
“You had a visitor here last night,” I told Galloway in a deceptively calm voice. “You needn’t deny it. Tariq intercepted him on his way out of camp. He communicated an offer to you from His Holiness, and you accepted it.” As I spoke, I stepped forward, forcing Galloway to crane his neck to look up at me. “I’m here to help you understand the gravity of your error. Tariq, the chalice.”
“What are you doing?” Galloway asked, his voice trembling as Tariq placed a cup on the table beside my father’s helm.
“Were you ever curious how my father managed to mobilize nearly a quarter of the Downlands for his war?” I asked Galloway as Ksara poured several drams of pear brandy into the cup.
“He showed your people illusions of blood and slaughter,” Galloway quavered as I nicked my thumb with a knife and squeezed a drop of blood into the brandy, “and persuaded them that they were visions of the Arutanian Crusade.”
“Wrong on both counts,” I told him, swirling the brandy to disperse my blood through it. “First, I was the one who showed people visions.” I offered Galloway the chalice. “And second, they weren’t illusions. Have a drink, and see for yourself.”
Galloway hesitated, then accepted the chalice and took a tiny sip. I plucked it from his fingers as his eyes lost focus and handed it to Tariq, who emptied it outside the tent flap.
The guard sergeant glanced at me nervously as Galloway began to keen and shake. “Never fear,” I said. “This is normal. So is weeping. And vomiting, after.” The carpet we stood on was so richly embroidered as to have been the life’s work of several weavers, and I added, “You might want to get a bucket.”
After a hurried consultation, the junior guardsman ran for a clean chamberpot. He brought it just in time for Galloway to heave the contents of his stomach into it.
“God almighty,” he whispered, leaning on the table as the pot was taken away. “No wonder you fought like demons.”
“You understand, of course,” I said, “that you’re no longer in command. Your guard will take orders from Tariq.”
“And you expect them to follow you?” Galloway asked.
“Of course,” I said, glancing at the sergeant who’d let me in. “They’re practical men, and my strategy hasn’t changed. I’m going to crush Immaculate. Then I’m going to march straight into Orval and anoint you as pope.”
“You’re mad,” Galloway said. “Immaculate has three times as many men. You can’t beat him, Anton.”
I put my hand on my father’s helm and gave Galloway a measuring look. “Not conventionally,” I agreed. “But pitched battles were never my forte.”
“Did you ever wonder how I meant to dispose of my father and his bodyguard before I captured you?”
Galloway just looked baffled.
“There are giants in the earth,” I reminded him.
Galloway barked out a harsh little laugh. “That again? You can’t be serious. Giants don’t exist.”
“Just like blood memory?” I asked, as Ksara’s shadow writhed and flexed its wings. “Just like the greatest of the Prodigals never chained themselves to the Inferno to resist God’s summons? Just like there are no seals binding Heaven to the world?”
Galloway shuddered and made the sign of the sun-disc, doing his best not to look at Ksara or her shadow.
“Don’t look so glum,” I said, patting him on the shoulder. “You still get to be pope. If anyone else had tried to sell my people to Immaculate, I would have killed them already.”
Five days later, I stood on a hill overlooking the broad and grassy expanse of Field of Thorns. Immaculate had been all too eager to take the bait and return to the site of my father’s defeat. I could almost hear him exhorting his men about history repeating itself.
“What are you thinking?” Ksara asked as I let out a low chuckle.
“Oh, nothing. Just that Immaculate doesn’t know history as well as he thinks.”
The Field of Thorns had been drenched in Downlander blood, and though memories of my father’s defeat tugged at every fiber of my being, I pushed them aside. My own memories of that day were sufficient; I didn’t need to witness the deaths of my father and his bodyguard up close.
It had been hard enough to watch while it was happening, with my cheek and temple still purpling from an encounter with my father’s gauntlet.
I looked up as Galloway came up beside me, flanked by a pair of my guards. His halberdiers were on the field below us, in the van of our forces; a place of honor, or so they’d been told.
They were veterans, though. They knew better.
Immaculate’s forces were still milling about, trying to assume formation. If I’d meant this to be a conventional battle, I would have struck while they were still disorganized, in order to maximize panic and confusion. The Kunst cavalry would have been perfect for the job—but Duke Albrecht continued to send his regrets, and this battle wouldn’t be won conventionally anyway.
“Tariq should be harrying them,” Galloway said quietly. “Trying to rout the rabble. It wouldn’t work, not with the handful of horsemen we have, but it would be something.”
“Tariq and his men have better things to do,” I said, turning away from the field. “As do we. Bring the prisoner.”
Galloway’s lips pressed into a bloodless line as Immaculate’s courier was deposited at my feet with his hands bound behind his back. “Heretic,” the courier snarled before I cut him off, paralyzing his vocal chords with a hissed syllable.
“Will you shrive the condemned, Your Eminence?” I asked as the man gasped and sputtered. “It would be a mercy.”
Galloway nodded curtly and began the absolution rite. Once the courier had had his brow anointed with the three drops of oil, Galloway stepped back and I nodded to my guards, who seized the courier’s arms.
Spies were usually killed by hanging. Sadly, we didn’t have time to observe the proper forms.
I balled my hand into a fist and stopped his heart.
“What was the point of that?” Galloway asked, unable to keep his voice from trembling as my guards laid the dead man on the ground. “A reminder that you can kill me at any moment?”
“Hardly,” I said, drawing my dagger and pricking the pad of my thumb. As blood welled up, I knelt and drew a line of gore across the dead man’s forehead.
The courier’s body spasmed and thrashed, then jerked upward into the air, like a puppet lifted on invisible strings. Blood seeped from his pores and tear ducts, forming a film on his skin and spreading into the air around him like a membrane. More blood issued from his mouth, misting and thinning as it emerged, and as the corpse rose higher, it seemed to shrivel, as if the dead man’s flesh and bones were being milked for all they contained.
“The Sanguine Banner,” Galloway bit out as we watched the dead man’s tortured ascent, “is an abomination. An obscenity.”
“My father used live prisoners,” I reminded him. “Besides. It’s necessary.”
With Galloway gone silent beside me, I urged the Banner westward, feeling the wind blowing through the veil of gore and nerves I’d made from Immaculate’s spy. As I did so, trumpets sounded on the far side of the field, and Immaculate’s commanders chivvied their undisciplined mob into motion.
“So,” Galloway asked as Tariq’s men formed up and moved to meet Immaculate’s vanguard. “We stand at the brink of disaster, and you still haven’t explained your strategy.”
“And you’re doubting I have one?” I asked, focusing on keeping the Sanguine Banner above my troops.
“If I’m going to be a party to deviltry, I’d like some warning of what it will be.”
“Some warning, is it?” I asked, watching a cavalry troop sweep out from the Orvali lines. “Very well. Do you recall how the first Carcania ended the Arutanian Crusade?”
“There was an eclipse,” Galloway replied. “Guy of Demora was thrown from his horse, and his army was cut apart as they fled.”
“There was an eclipse,” I agreed. “But not a natural one; every astronomer of standing agrees on that. And Guy’s army had good reason to rout, as you’ll soon see.”
As Galloway sputtered, Tariq’s riders sprang from our lines to harry the Orvali cavalry. Arrows flew, and men and horses fell, some screaming, but it wasn’t enough to break their formation.
“Here they come,” Ksara murmured as a mass of steel-clad knights and destriers thundered towards our vanguard, who’d braced their weapons to form a hedge of iron.
The moment of impact was a hammer-blow even I could feel. As men and horses died, spitted on pikes or crushed underfoot, I felt a terrible pressure gathering on my skin as the Sanguine Banner absorbed each death and turned it to my purpose.
The pressure spiked, then abated as a thunderclap split the air. A moment later, tongues of gold and crimson flame congealed in the sky, licking at the bellies of the clouds.
“My God, Anton,” Galloway bleated. “What have you done?”
“Broken one of the seals binding the world to God,” I said. “But don’t fret. There are six remaining.”
The firmament trembled, then the second seal shattered with a soul-rending crack beneath the pressure of hundreds of deaths. As it broke, the fires clawing at the clouds gave way to a carmine horizon.
“Well. Five now,” I told Galloway. “Still, my point stands.”
“It pleases you to jest while we stare damnation in the face?”
“It does, actually,” I replied as Tariq moved to pincer the Orvali knights. “I would rather jest than scream.”
“Stop!” Galloway pleaded as threads of gore flooded the vault of heaven. “For the love of all that’s holy, Anton!”
“It’s too late, Your Eminence,” I said gently. “It became too late when Duke Albrecht decided not to aid us. This is our only path to victory.”
As I spoke, Tariq took the Orvali vanguard from both sides, and the third seal trembled and broke. Streams of shadow bled from the clouds overhead, deflating them and making them writhe like serpents as the sun’s light grew bloody.
“Would you give over the world to the Adversary?” Galloway asked, pleading.
“Patience, Your Eminence.” I ventured a glance in Ksara’s direction and wished I hadn’t; her eyes blazed like molten iron, and half a dozen inky wings spread from her back, slicing the air as they stirred. “Everything proceeds as it must.”
Despite the awful light, the battle went on, with Tariq pulling his riders back to cover his flank. Immaculate’s troops were pressing forward, and as my forces withdrew, I could feel the next seal weaken. I flinched as a rain of arrows tore into the Orvali lines and the next seal split asunder, but the sound of its breaking was dim and muted.
I drew a breath as the sounds of battle dimmed, and the clouds and every banner and pennon on the field fell still. The air was heavy and close, even though Ksara’s wings were in constant motion. Distantly, as if the sound was crossing an unimaginable gulf, I heard the sound of chains creaking.
“God preserve us,” Galloway said, his voice sounding thin and weak in the leaden air. After a heartbeat, he dropped to his knees and began to pray.
The Orvali reserves wavered and dissolved as men panicked, fighting each other to be the first to leave the field. But my forces were still outnumbered, and as pressure built on my skin and more and more soldiers breathed their last, I knew we were losing.
“Sound the retreat,” I told Ksara, who gestured at the heralds, and a moment later, three thin and mournful blasts rang out, just as the fifth seal shuddered and dissolved into splinters.
A horrid sigh rose from the battlefield as a legion of specters seemed to lift themselves from the ground. I caught a glimpse of a ram-helmed figure amidst the milling ghosts, and as I did, my memories of the Field of Thorns reached up and swallowed me whole.
I lay on the ground in my father’s tent, clutching my bleeding cheek. Father stood over me, the torchlight making the proud flesh running along his jaw look slick and glossy.
“It is not your place to question,” he declaimed, stabbing the air with an armored finger. “Your place is to obey.”
To obey. Bile seared my nose and throat, and blood and fury tinted my vision. Was this the man I’d raised an army for? The man I’d spent years trying to please, who greeted setbacks with frigid silence and every triumph with a surly grunt?
“You will regret that,” I whispered, but Father had already turned his back to me. What could I do? He was Carcania, master of the Downlands, while I was his disappointment of a son, more a scholar than a warrior.
“Get out,” my father said—and I was on a hill overlooking the Field of Thorns, watching the Orvali ranks crumble before our assault. Father led the vanguard, and every now and again I could make out his ram-horned helm amidst the melee.
Just as the Orvali troops seemed ready to break, Galloway’s men emerged from the woods to the east, riding horses they must have led through the trees. Ksara and I exchanged glances, but said nothing, while Tariq was so intent on the battle that he didn’t notice Galloway until he’d encircled my father.
“Chains of the Prodigals,” Tariq cursed as he finally saw what was unfolding beneath us. “Where did they come from?”
“They must have come through the wood,” I said, trying to sound surprised. “Clever.”
“Your orders, my prince?” Ksara asked.
“Retreat,” I replied as my father and his men died. “We would gain nothing by throwing away our lives.”
I composed my features into a mask of regret as I turned from the field. Only Ksara knew I’d orchestrated the day’s events; that I’d captured Galloway and offered him my father’s head on a platter.
“Carcan Raes, you heartless bastard,” I whispered as my troops wheeled and marched away. Remembering the pages of my grandfather’s grimoire being torn out and fed to the fire.
I fell back into the present on my hands and knees, with Ksara kneeling at my side. “My love,” she said, her voice spawning a chorus of unnatural echoes. “Are you well?”
“Never better,” I breathed, wiping a string of saliva from my lips. The ram-helmed figure was facing me now, and though it was too far away to tell, I thought my father recognized me.
I considered saying something as Ksara helped me to my feet, but decided against it. Instead, emptying myself of doubt, I pulled the ghosts of the Field of Thorns into the Sanguine Banner by their thousands, tearing them wailing from the earth.
I could feel a vast, inchoate pressure gathering above me, as if the Divine had finally stirred himself to action. Before the sun could burn away the veil of shadows and blood that had been thrown across it, I gathered every last shade I could reach and clutched them close, furling the Sanguine Banner around them like a fist.
“Let the sun be effaced,” I whispered, and though my words seemed to die as they passed my lips, I felt my power swell with each syllable. As I finished, I hurled the Sanguine Banner and its payload of ghosts at the sky like a spear.
The veil of blood and shadows drawn across the heavens converged on the sun’s disc, clotting and covering it with darkness. Within instants, only a thin corona of light leaked past the scab I had carved into the sky. Past the Eclipse.
“God is blind,” Ksara sighed, her voice accompanied by the distant clash of chains and thousands of wings beating the air. When she met my gaze, her eyes were seething pits of flame.
“How long before the last seal breaks?” I asked, turning to the battlefield, where Tariq’s forces had reached the foot of our hill.
My answer was an awful wrenching sound and the scream of metal being twisted beyond recognition.
“Not long, beloved,” Ksara said. She paused, then said, “Enlighten me. How do you mean to best Immaculate before the Adversary severs the world from God’s light?”
“The way I’ve always said I would,” I told her, sparing a glance for Galloway, who’d abandoned prayer to curl into a fetal ball. “There are giants in the earth. Remember?”
And as the sound of chains being strained to their utmost and thousands of wings hammering the air grew louder, I said in a language older than the Inferno, “Awaken, Antaeus.”
Across the continent, beneath the blind eye of the sun, the earth roiled.
A bell tower collapsed in Merane. A rockslide in Turos flattened a village. A tidal wave drowned fishing boats and smashed coastal towns to splinters, while the dome of the Great Cathedral in Orval collapsed, crushing hundreds, and the city’s wall was breached in a dozen places. Not far away, the town of Evult vanished from the world in the blink of a titan’s eye.
And at the foot of the hill on which I stood, the earth parted like a pair of eyelids, and the flower of the continent’s manhood was consumed.
Those men and knights among the Orvali army who hadn’t broken died first, falling into the chasm that opened beneath their feet. The cowards died next, and they had a heartbeat to realize they couldn’t outrun their doom. As the empty eye of the titan I’d roused yawned wider, the Orvali camp was swallowed whole: camp followers, palisade, and all. A handful of incautious footmen and a few of Tariq’s riders fell into the abyss, sucked in by the hungry wind or thrown by maddened mounts, but the chasm had barely started towards the hill I stood on before I released my hold on the Eclipse, dissolving it so God could gaze upon the world once more.
As the sun’s rays struck that unnatural void, there was a heart-stopping, thunderous boom, and the Field of Thorns was restored, denuded of the army Immaculate had gathered. I felt the seals I’d shattered slam closed one after another, and then I toppled forward, like a puppet whose strings had been cut. Only Ksara’s intervention kept me from falling flat on my face.
“That was glorious,” she breathed in my ear as Galloway burst into tears. “A triumph of applied scholarship.”
“I’m glad you found it so,” I croaked, feeling light-headed.
“My prince,” Tariq said, dismounting beside me as Ksara propped me up. “The day is ours. No trace of Immaculate’s army remains.”
“Good,” I whispered. “Send riders to scout the road to Orval, and break camp once our men have recovered from battle.”
“My prince?” Tariq asked, but consciousness was already slipping from my grasp.
It took us three days to reach Orval, and by the time we sighted its walls, I’d recovered enough to accept the city’s surrender. The lord mayor and his deputies were joined by those cardinals who hadn’t fled, and as they entered my pavilion their finery reeked of fear.
“Gentlemen,” I said, resting my left hand on my father’s helm and pushing the treaty Ksara had drafted across the table. “These are the terms on which I will accept your capitulation. You will find them generous. Given the circumstances.”
The Lord Mayor blinked numbly as he paged through the treaty. Several of the cardinals hissed or exclaimed as they reached the clause requiring religious toleration.
“You want us to permit heretics to preach their filth on every corner?” Cardinal Varria demanded.
“Your Eminence,” I replied, never raising my voice, “if you do not, I will burn Orval to the ground and let the heretics preach their filth over your dead body.”
“For the love of God, Varria, give him what he wants,” Galloway said, wringing his hands. “He killed his own father and nearly ended the world. He’s capable of anything.”
“He wants to veto the appointment of popes and bishops!”
“Your Eminence,” Ksara said sweetly, “perhaps Prince Anton was not clear. These terms are not negotiable. You will sign, or we will put Orval to the sword.”
They signed, of course. Orval’s walls were a sieve, and Immaculate had stripped the city of arms and fighting men. Resistance was hopeless; a child’s fantasy.
That afternoon, I entered Orval by the Martyr’s Gate, the master of a city without books.
It has been two years since that day, and Orval is greatly changed.
The Grand Processional is now the Avenue of Feet, named for what remains of the statues that lined it. Every pope who praised the Arutanian Crusade or the burning of books has had their bones exhumed and memorials desecrated. Nearly a hundred clerics who preached rebellion were gibbeted or burnt at the stake.
Every month for a year, news came of another rising, of another lordling convinced my forces were overstretched. Every month, another rebel fled the field, routed by Tariq, or died screaming with his blood boiling in his veins. Now the provinces lie supine, too terrified to revolt.
Scholars will name me tyrant and parricide; fornicator and heresiarch. Let them say what they will.
They cannot take this from me: Ksara and I have restored the libraries that Immaculate and his vandals burned. Ten thousand women have learned to read and use a pen, and been set to copying works by Cochrane, Matthias, and Parathemus. The prayer books of the Freeholders are in half the households of Orval now, and new tracts and block-printed codices spring up each day. Galloway’s efforts at censorship only encourage those he would suppress.
I will not delude myself into thinking I have made another Arutanian Crusade impossible. As Ksara frequently reminds me, the memory of mortals is short and their folly great. Still, Immaculate and my father wanted the world to stay credulous and ignorant. I say, let learning and dissidence blossom where they may. If scholars must name me Anton the Cruel, let it be a peasant’s daughter who does so. By the time I am done, there will be no way to roll back the tide; no way to make the people unlearn their letters, or keep them from airing their grievances in pamphlets and broadsheets.
This is my gift to the papacy and all others who would rule by fiat. May they choke on it.
And blood remembers.