‘Copyright Glen Cook 2011 and used with the permission of Night Shade Books. Online use granted to Green Man Review, a publication of Kinrowan Limited, and any other use, online or in print, is prohibited without the express written permission of Nightshade Books.’
A Path to Coldness of Heart
The final Chronicle of the Dread Empire: Vol III
Year 1016 After the Founding of the Empire of Ilkazar:
The Price of Hubris
The prisoner clamped his jaw on a shriek. He had moved too suddenly, turning. He did swear softly. He could not work his muscles, could not build the strength to escape if his wounds did not heal. And they would not if he kept trying before the meat was ready.
A clatter rose outside. This austere suite might be his entire world for the remainder of his existence: a reward for having befriended a woman and having saved the life of a man.
It was the middle of the night. Darkness with stars filled the single foot square window high in the east wall, well beyond his reach. He should be sleeping.
He lay in bed, back to the doorway, feigning sleep, when the visitors arrived. Three, from the sounds of it: one large, one small, one delicate. Female, if fragrance did not lie.
“He heals slowly,” one said. “The physician blames his despair.”
That voice belonged to Lord Ssu-ma Shih-ka’i, commander of Shinsan’s Western Army. It was by Shih-ka’i’s grace that the prisoner lived.
A second familiar voice said, “The physician should look closer. He’s clever. He’ll show you what you expect to see till you relax. Then you’ll be dead.”
The prisoner’s exact strategy. If only his body would heal!
Shih-ka’i said, “The physician says his wounds pierced his soul. He overreached—and it cost him everything.”
Mist, Empress of the Dread Empire, considered before she replied. “It can’t be easy, living on after making so many bad decisions.”
The prisoner, who thought of himself only as “the prisoner” because of his shame, compelled himself to relax, to breathe slow and deep. But he could not stop tears from leaking.
Thousands had died because of his decisions. A kingdom might be destroyed by civil war. His family would be fugitives already. The child-woman he had loved… Who knew? If Sherilee was clever she would insist that she had known him only as someone who visited her friend Kristen, widow of his son and mother of his grandchildren.
He thought about Inger, his wife and queen, seldom. When he did, though, it was with a grand ration of guilt. That love had died.
Inger came to mind when the pain was bad. They met the last time he lay just outside the Dark Gate, she a volunteer nurse helping heroes injured while holding the wolves of the Dread Empire at bay. In his loneliness he had asked her to become his wife.
He had lost another wife, Elana, and another lover, Fiana, before Inger.
Women who loved him did not fare well.
“Were I in charge here,” said the woman who had been a friend, and a wife to his best friend’s wife’s brother, “and I was sure that he would recover, I would brick up the doorway.”
Lord Ssu-ma said, “I bear the man no love but that is excessive. He’s a cripple. He’ll never recover fully. And he’s nowhere where he can cause any grief.”
The prisoner had no idea where “here” was. Inside Dread Empire territory, certainly. Though Shinsan had suffered severely lately, not one inch of ground had been abandoned.
How were Shinsan’s wars coming? He had helped facilitate the conclusion of one and had been the loser in another. The Matayangan front must have turned favorable, too. Mist had time to visit.
She observed, “O Shing was a cripple.”
“As you say. Vigilance is required.”
The night visitors withdrew, to the prisoner’s frustration. He had hoped to hear something more heartening.
Despair led to self-flagellation. Then, finally, feigned sleep segued into the real thing.
Inger watched her captains bicker over a map. They were getting nowhere. She was too tired to scold them. Too tired to ask what new disasters had them bickering.
Ethnically, three were Nordmen from Kavelin’s old ruling class. Two were Wessons, freemen, descendants of long-ago immigrants from Itaskia. Inger was Itaskian-born, as was the sixth man, whom she had borrowed from her cousin Dane. Dane’s little army was wintering fifty miles west of Vorgreberg, too far away to provide quick support. Regions nearer the capital were less friendly. Dane’s men suffered virulent guerrilla attacks if they moved nearer to Vorgreberg. That forced them to cluster in stronger bands. Those became a strain on local resources, which, in turn, left the locals more sympathetic to the rebels.
Inger refused to let Dane move into the city. She said she did not want to cede the countryside. In truth she did not want her uncontrollable cousin in position to control Kavelin by controlling her.
He would try, given the chance.
Power was his reason for having come to Kavelin. Power was why she had wed Kavelin’s lonely king.
Inger sipped scalding tea.
She was a tall, handsome woman whose blond hair had begun to streak grey. Time was not the thief of her beauty. Stress, fear, and lack of sleep were the demons responsible.
The hot tea wakened her fully. “Silence! Thank you, gentlemen. Using the term loosely. Mr. Cleary, you talk. Everyone else stay quiet.”
Cleary was the senior Wesson, a stout, sturdy man of thirty-three who had served King Bragi faithfully and remained loyal now that Bragi had fallen. Inger trusted him. The Nordmen and Nathan Wolf, borrowed from Dane of Greyfells, she trusted not at all. In Wolf’s case it was no secret that he was here to watch her because Dane no longer had faith in Josiah Gales.
“Ma’am. Your Majesty. The contention arose because General Liakopulos has gone missing. No one knows where, when, or how. He was polling units out west to see where they stand, now. Our discussion concerned possible hows and whys of his disappearance.”
Inger’s heart sank. This was bad news indeed, though not a surprise. Liakopulos had had little interest in supporting her. He had been Bragi’s man. He considered her incapable of, or uninterested in, pursuing Bragi’s reforms. “What are the theories? Mr. Wolf?”
“He deserted. He didn’t want to be here anymore.”
“And the rest of you disagree?”
Two Nordmen, Sir Rengild and Sir Arnhelm, thought the truth more sinister: The Guild General had gone over to the Marena Dimura strongman, Credence Abaca. Sir Arnhelm insisted, “Those two were always cozy.” Which he found repugnant because, as a class, Nordmen considered Marena Dimura less than human woodland savages. Colonel Abaca and his henchmen had developed massive pretensions during the reign of the lost king—a savage himself who would not distinguish between noble and ignoble.
The third Nordmen, Sir Quirre of Bolt, said nothing. With a slight sneer and shake of the head he expressed contempt for his fellows. He believed in King Bragi’s vision.
Inger turned to the Wessons. Boyer disagreed completely with Cleary. Neither considered Liakopulos a villain. Cleary was sure the General just did not stop heading west when he saw a chance to leave. Boyer was sure that Liakopulos had been murdered. “And rebels didn’t do it. It will be Greyfells when the truth comes out. It’s a matter of who stands most to gain, Your Majesty.”
“Spoken like a true money-grubbing merchant,” Sir Arnhelm snarled. “Everything comes down to a balance sheet.”
“Yes, it does,” Inger said. There was no love for the General here. Liakopulos had kept these men in check, favoring no one, contemptuous of them all because he considered them adventurers and plunderers who cared nothing for Kavelin. Bragi, Queen Fiana, and her husband the Krief, who died when Fiana was a teen, had all stretched reason to breaking to create a nation in which all the peoples had a stake.
Inger covered her forehead with her left palm, rubbed, thumb and little finger massaging her temples. “Jokerst, find Colonel Gales. I want him here for a working breakfast tomorrow.”
Gales would replace Liakopulos. He had been understudying, with the General’s assistance. The move was expected. And might be what Dane wanted to see.
Was he behind Liakopulos’s disappearance? He was capable. But would he dare the hostility of the Mercenaries’ Guild?
Inability to predict consequences accurately was the bane of the Greyfells line. Again and again they dropped stones on their own toes while trying to be clever.
“The rest of you. No more speculation. Get me facts. Find out what actually happened.”
Several faces went pale. It was dangerous out there.
“One thing can’t be denied,” Sir Arnhelm said. “The break with the old regime. Liakopulos was the last.”
Inger suspected that pleased the man no end. “All of you, go away. I need rest before I go mad.”
They went. She sent for Dr. Wachtel, an overlooked holdover from the old regime. But Wachtel was a holdover from every regime. He was Castle Krief furniture. He had tended Kavelin’s rulers for sixty years, whoever they were.
The doctor provided a draught to make Inger sleep. The medication sometimes had a harsh side effect. It caused vivid, often prescient dreams, some of which would be nightmares.
Inger wakened less rested than she had hoped. She did not remember her dreams but met the new day afraid.
Credence Abaca’s Marena Dimura partisans kept their political prizes in comfort but there were limits to what could be managed in the wilds of the Kapenrung Mountains. Kristen and her companions learned the cost of commitment to a cause, though the privations were social, intellectual, and circumscription of movement rather than a dearth of food, warmth, or shelter.
The children, including young King Bragi II, did not mind. They ran wild with the Marena Dimura urchins, getting every bit as filthy and bruised while having just as much fun in the ice, snow, and forests. Kristen tried to convince herself that this was good for a boy who would become king of all Kaveliner peoples, including the disenfranchised Marena Dimura.
Which was their own fault, Kristen believed. They would not leave the wilderness and become part of the nation, though some had done so while Bragi was king. Abaca had been one of the army’s top commanders.
Kristen and Dahl Haas shared a bench inside a cozy cabin equipped with the blatant luxury of a huge glass window. Kristen often wondered where the forest people had stolen it. Snow fell outside. Big chunks hit the window, melted, slid downward as they perished. “Winter here is harder than it is in Vorgreberg.”
“Think so? How about during the Great Eastern Wars?”
“That was one bad winter.” She frowned. It had been more than one winter and had been unimaginably worse than this. Hunger, danger, fear, and sickness had been constant companions.
Haas leaned close, no longer discomfited by his affection for the girl who had been the wife of his king’s son and who was the mother of Bragi’s legitimate heir. Kristen had abandoned reticence long ago. She knew her father-in-law approved.
She said, “Sitting here like this, I don’t think this is such a bad life.”
“How much better the world if everyone were equally content.”
“You ought to be content. You’ve got me.”
“Somebody is getting a big head.”
Sherilee came for the fire and to watch the snow. The couple said nothing. Speaking to Sherilee gave her license to vent her unhappiness. She could be tiresome.
Sherilee was young, small, beautiful, almost porcelain in her perfection. She looked years younger than she was, which was only Kristen’s age. In his absence she had become pathologically enamored of King Bragi, based upon a brief, furtive liaison with a man older than her own father. In her dramatic way she had reconstructed her life around what she thought she had lost when the King had fallen.
Sherilee sighed dramatically.
Her performance drew no response. After further vain sallies, the tragic doll declared, “There must be something we can do to rescue him.”
Sherilee was one of a tiny number of people who knew King Bragi was alive and a prisoner.
Kristen sighed herself, then plunged into the game. “Michael Trebilcock and Aral Dantice got away with that once, when they rescued Nepanthe. It won’t work again. He’s being held by the Tervola, not some dinkle-brain queen of Argon.”
She played loosely with history but facts did not matter here. What did was the undeniable futility of any effort to free the King. To start, no one knew where he was being held. Unless, maybe, Michael Trebilcock or Aral Dantice knew. But Michael was out of touch and Aral no longer haunted Kavelin. Trebilcock might be dead. He had not been seen for months.
But Michael was his own man. He went his own way. And that worried everyone.
Since coming to Kavelin Michael Trebilcock had created his own hidden realm of dedicated friends and allies who disdained the small-minded politics of the Lesser Kingdoms. Those people believed in the welfare of the whole instead of that of the partisan.
Michael Trebilcock had remained faithful to Bragi while Bragi was king but Bragi was never fully confident of Trebilcock.
Sherilee asked, “Do you think Aral is in touch with Michael?”
Those two had been friends since their school days in Hellin Daimiel. They had shared several fierce adventures in Kavelin and abroad. Dantice occasionally visited the Marena Dimura during more clement seasons. He lived in Ruderin nowadays but remained in the family business, being part trader, part smuggler, part gangster. Once upon a time, before the wars, his father had been a trader, too. A more legitimate trader.
Aral had one foot firmly in the shadows. Many of his associates over there had spied for Michael Trebilcock.
Dahl said, “Maybe. But Michael would come to him. Michael lives in his own secret kingdom of loyal friends. I couldn’t guess their ideology, if they have one. Probably something like what Bragi’s was. They aren’t after power. They collect information, then dispense it where they think it’ll do some good. And they hide each other when there’s a need.”
“He did support the King.”
“As far as we ever saw, he did. He took extreme risks on Bragi’s behalf but Bragi never trusted him completely. Inger is sure that Michael cleaned out the treasury.”
Kristen caught something. “Dahl? You know something about that?”
“How could I? I was way far away.”
“Dahl. Talk to me. I’m your Queen Mother, remember?”
Sherilee stalked in from the other side, looking ferocious. “Talk, soldier boy! This is something you shouldn’t be hiding.”
“I’m not hiding anything. I don’t know anything. I just remember what contingency plans there were. It’s just a gut feeling.”
Kristen said, “Talk to me about your digestive troubles.”
“Michael might not be innocent, but that’s only because he was involved in the planning. Emptying the treasury was up to Cham Mundwiller and Derel Prataxis. A merchant prince and a Rebsamen don with an abiding interest in economics.”
Both women held their peace but glared in a way that demanded further commentary.
Dahl said, “Prataxis sometimes talked about how a lack of specie could inhibit economic growth. He believed in a money economy. Meaning he thought we’d all live better if there was a lot of trustworthy coinage circulating. You can’t build a state on the barter system. It always made sense when Derel talked about it. He always had examples. Kingdoms like Itaskia, where a lot of money is always in motion, grow strong economically and militarily. In the Lesser Kingdoms, where there isn’t much money, nothing good happens because nobody can pay for it. Kavelin has been an exception because it controls trade through the Savernake Gap.”
“We don’t have that trade anymore,” Kristen said.
“We don’t,” Dahl agreed.
“The theft of the treasury fits how?” Sherilee asked.
“Inger doesn’t have a copper to pay her soldiers. And soldiers don’t usually want their pay in chickens or corn.”
“Ha-ha,” Kristen said. “That may be. But I haven’t heard of any regiments who declared for Inger falling apart because they haven’t gotten paid. And we can’t pay the men who stuck with us.”
“Troops on both sides are on partial pay donated by the wealthy. The Estates for Inger, the merchants of Sedlmayr and the west for us. Inger claims new money is coming from Itaskia. Our friends say Kavelin’s silver mines are pledged to us. Nobody has been asked to fight. Any showdown between men who fought side by side before will probably cause mass desertions.”
Sherilee proved she was not just a gorgeous face and damned fine everything else. “We can’t mine, refine, and mint enough silver to support production and an army, too.”
“When you get down to it, neither side can afford to pay soldiers who aren’t fighting for what they believe in.”
Kristen said, “So most of them will go home, whether or not they loved Bragi. We should find the treasury money.”
Haas said, “My love, the girl genius. One problem. Everybody who knew anything about it died in the riots after the King’s fall.”
“Except Michael Trebilcock. And maybe General Liakopulos.”
“Remote and remoter.”
“Liakopulos is dead. Probably murdered by the Itaskians. As for Michael, I don’t honestly believe he survived, either. But if he did he isn’t going to help us.”
Sherilee and Kristen glared. Haas thought that unfair. Such lovelies deserved to have nothing weightier than fashion on their minds.
Yet another way Kavelin distorted the natural order. Kavelin boasted strong women who made remarkable things happen.
Dane, Duke of Greyfells, want-to-be lord of Kavelin, paced before a fireplace. His newly acquired headquarters was large, old, and draughty. It overlooked Damhorst, a key town on the east-west trade route through Kavelin. The castle was the ancestral home of the Breitbarth barons. Claimants to that title had been eliminated.
Greyfells had taken the castle by stealth. He and his adventurers now enjoyed shelter, warmth, and security but seldom dared go out in bands of fewer than a dozen.
The locals were mainly Wesson, ethnic cousins of the Itaskians. Politically, though, they favored the line of King Bragi through his first wife.
Greyfells favored a succession through Ragnarson’s latest wife, his cousin Inger.
Dane of Greyfells was not happy. He had come to Kavelin expecting to put the kingdom in his pocket before winter. But winter was here, ferociously, and he was still far from Vorgreberg, hurrying the family decline toward destitution. His troops were melting away, mainly through desertion. Replacements, when he could find any, were untrained, unskilled, and belonged in cells rather than under arms.
His personal attendant announced, “Gales is here, Lordship.”
“About damned time. He was due yesterday.”
“He had trouble getting through. He’s wounded. So are those of his escort who survived.”
Though in a foul temper Greyfells did not yield to the unreason that, too often, left him unable to concede that events could, on occasion, disdain his wishes. He said only, “Clean him up, then bring him in.” He did not like dirty people. He loathed the sight of old blood.
“As you will, Your Lordship.”
The family sorcerer showed up.
“May I join you, Your Lordship?”
Dane scowled. Fat people were another dislike. Greyfells further disliked Babeltausque because he was expensive to maintain. He was the best paid of any Greyfells retainer, and the least useful, lately.
The Duke was convinced that Babeltausque was a coward and that he knew things he would not share with his employer.
Greyfells was incapable of understanding that he was what the sorcerer feared. Babeltausque withheld information he thought might spark the kind of rage that might lead to him getting hurt.
Greyfells asked, “You have a reason?”
“To collect information. I have trouble working in the dark.”
“You don’t work at all.”
“To work I must be given tasks. Plausible, possible tasks. Not pie in the sky, wishful thinking tasks.” Babeltausque had found his courage today. “Bridge builders are constrained by the limits of their materials. A sorcerer is constrained by the limits of the Power.”
“Varthlokkur never seemed limited.”
“Only from outside. He was. He is. He makes what he does look easy because he’s ancient and far more talented than me.”
Greyfells grumbled but did not send the sorcerer away. Babeltausque found a shadow and settled. He resented the Duke’s attitude but understood it. He was just a house sorcerer, under contract. He lacked a grasp of the Power sufficient to make it as an independent. He could help heal scrapes and bruises. He could retard meat spoilage. He read the tarot imperfectly and the stars the same. His divinations were reliable out to about three hours. He did read character well, usually recognized lies, and could anticipate danger’s approach, particularly when that included him.
His most valuable talent was the ability to remain calm and bland of expression in the face of fear or provocation. He used that talent frequently. Greyfells was an ambitious beast blessed with cunning and a complete lack of scruples—typical of his line. He was neither the worst nor the best duke that Babeltausque had known. He was mediocre in most ways. He stood out because of his rages.
Those assured Dane’s early demise, probably as soon as someone believed he had a chance to get away with it.
Babeltausque’s most important chore was to protect the Duke from his own family, which was not that difficult out here.
The tradition of elevating oneself over the corpse of one’s father, brother, or uncle had not been much honored of late. Only outsiders had laid the Greyfells Dukes low with any verve the past three decades. But the possibility survived in Dane’s imagination.
If this Duke met an early end the House of Greyfells might collapse. There were no relatives suited to replace him.
Enemies in Itaskia must be busy as worker ants trying to make that happen while Greyfells was away. Returning deserters would tell encouraging tales of Dane’s incompetence, which explained why he grew ever more testy. Every day of triumph delayed out here was a day when the family lost ground at home.
Colonel Gales entered. He wore clean clothing that did not fit. His hair was stringy wet from an unwanted bath. His face was red from a rough shave. His right arm was in a sling. He limped.
Greyfells, of course, first noted that he needed a haircut.
The Colonel bowed.
The Duke said, “I hear you had some trouble.”
“We got ambushed by Marena Dimura. They knew who we were and had our itinerary.”
“But you fought through.” Stating the obvious.
“They didn’t press the matter. They hit us, hurt us, failed to kill me in the first rush, started getting hurt themselves, so they faded away. I didn’t chase them. We were all hurt and they would’ve led us into a secondary ambush.”
Greyfells grunted. He was not pleased but he understood. That was everyday life in Kavelin.
Gales said, “Abaca is content to wear us down a man at a time.”
“Too true. Josiah, I’m starting to think I miscalculated when I decided to do this.”
“Don’t feel badly, Lordship. This kingdom ends up making everyone over into a pessimist, whether you love it or hate it.”
The man in shadow studied Duke and soldier. Gales enjoyed remarkable freedoms. He and Greyfells had known each other since childhood. Still, the Duke looked like he wanted to hurt somebody. He controlled the beast within. “Tell me why I’m still out here, Josiah. Why am I not enjoying a cozy fire inside Castle Krief?”
“I can put no kinder face on it than to tell you that Inger wants it this way. She doesn’t trust you. She’s determined not to let you in till she knows you won’t steal her throne.”
The watcher thought that would waken the beast for sure.
The Duke did puff up and turn red but controlled himself again. He managed better with Gales than with anyone else. “I can see that from both the Kavelin disease and family familiarity angles. What she’s been through since we got her to marry Ragnarson has made her leery of everyone.”
Especially family, the sorcerer reflected.
“There lies the matter’s heart, Lord. We talk frequently. Lately, she has been concerned less with Wesson resistance or Colonel Abaca than about your intentions. You mention the Kavelin disease. I think she’s caught it. She believes it’s possible to come to terms with her local enemies. She has started hinting that she wants me to find a way to get you to go home.”
“Really?” Surprised. Greyfells could not imagine a female cousin defying him.
“Really. She doesn’t know my true loyalties. She thinks I’ll support her in anything because of an obligation between me and her father. She is inclined toward sentimental thinking.”
“I see.” Sounding less than convinced of Gales’s faith. But he had to be paranoid. People were out to get him.
Gales said, “Inger has no friends and few sympathizers. She has no one to count on in the narrow passage. She’s alone except for Fulk.”
Greyfells stopped pacing. He placed himself at parade rest, back to the fire. “It doesn’t matter a whit who controls her son, does it?”
“No, Lord. Fulk is King. Confirmed by the Thing and the Estates. I’ve been thinking…”
“I think I know, Josiah. My cousin is in grave danger. This kingdom is renown for its intrigues. Her family should put her under our protection for her own sake.”
“Exactly, Your Lordship!”
Babeltausque smelled a king-size load of what, technically, was called bullshit. But which man had tipped the cart?
Gales stayed the evening and night, mostly heads together with the Duke.
Babeltausque suspected that success at gaining Vorgreberg and Castle Krief would mean less than Greyfells hoped. His writ would extend no farther than he could see from the capital’s wall. And that might be problematic.
Other forces were at work.