Excerpt from The Service

Foul Winds

Dreamport; The Cathedral of the Winds, apartments of the High Priestess

A tiny old woman slept, curled in a massive, blue brocade armchair under a window, nested with at least three blankets. Sunlight peeked through the thin cracks between the blond wood shutters, illuminating little of the woman’s form. When the shutters stood open, which wasn’t often these days, the armchair showed its age with faded upholstery, and when the woman wasn’t in it, one could see the lumps where the stuffing had migrated to accommodate years of sitting and sleeping. A long white curtain, the woman’s hair, draped over one of the chair’s arms, nearly to the floor. Near her face, it was stained yellow with smoke, and it always smelled strongly of incense, a wild, perfumed mix of a hundred different things.

The old woman’s breathing rattled. When she slept her lined face relaxed into openness, and the great beauty which had faded like the chair showed again. Like the chair, the woman had been born Before, born with the magic, and like the chair, she had survived when the magic died; they were two relics of a bygone time. She still, every so often, dreamed about the divine ecstasy of her Lady’s power flowing through her frame, when she’d felt unbreakable.

The door to the antechamber snapped open. The younger woman who ran in across the fine Hayedi carpet, sword banging against her thigh, had never known magic, but she knew the woman she served. “Disa!” she said sharply.

The old woman in the chair stirred and groaned.

“Wake up, Disa!”

“Is it Nones already?” Disa sat up in her chair and flailed at the blankets. “Gudrun—my vestments—”

“No time,” Gudrun said, and tucked her thick arms under Disa’s withered little body, and the blankets. She lifted the old woman from the chair and gathered her to a bust hard with muscle beneath large breasts.

Disa blinked, bemused, but wrapped her gnarled arms around Gudrun’s neck. “What’s going on? I don’t want to give service in my shift.”

“No prayers. Tell you later.” Gudrun strode from the chair to the door out of Disa’s sitting room. Over the younger woman’s brawny shoulder, Disa glimpsed big, bloody footprints tracked over the patterned carpet, and blankets in a messy tumble where they had slipped from Gudrun’s arm.

This had never happened before, in all Disa’s long years, even when Hengist was Champion and she was a young woman gone silly over the muscular slab of him. She hitched the remaining blanket up around herself with one hand, keeping it clear of Gudrun’s feet. “Where’s Flannery?” she asked, of her five-year-old great niece, who was up from Ennis for the month.

“Don’t know.” Gudrun dashed out of the bedroom, giving Disa another view over her shoulder, this time of a black-clad corpse in a spreading crimson puddle, and the golden disk-and-rays of an Aurelian monk resting on his chest, pulled haphazardly out of his clothes.

“Where’s the other one?”

“Didn’t make it up here. Might be more. I’m moving you.”

“Horsefeathers!” If Disa had been on her feet, she would have stamped one. “Put me down this very moment, Gudrun. If you got both of them, that’s all there is to it. I’m not in the habit of letting anyone interrupt services, let alone these blasted doom-crows. I want my vestments.”

“No, Disa.” Gudrun hurried through the hall to the door that cut off the High’s apartments from the rest of the Cathedral, her usual station when Disa wanted quiet. She put her back to it and turned the knob, inching backward to press it slowly open, peering out of the crack. She didn’t give Disa even a moment to see the situation for herself, only bolted to the left, up the side of the west gallery. The sanctuary flashed past between the caryatid statues of the Lady’s saints: blond wood pews, the rich, sky-blue carpet of the aisle runner, purest white marble. When Disa saw the altar, she screamed.

“Gudrun! Stop!”

“I see them,” she said grimly. “Now they know—”

“Stop, I say!” Disa slammed a bony fist into one of Gudrun’s breasts. Gudrun gasped; her strides faltered, and Disa writhed free. When her body struck the marble floor, she gasped, too, but immediately scrambled away and won her feet. “You, there!” she shouted at the Aurelian doom-crow at the altar, about to touch a brand to the coals that filled the thirty-foot, white-marble dish. “Don’t even think it, you fiend!”

The Aurelian monk, a Militant from the sword he wore, bared his teeth at her and lit the brand. Disa let out a shriek of rage and ran at him, forgetting about her aches and pains, forgetting her fragile lungs. He dropped the burning torch onto the carpet and drew his sword. Gudrun sprinted past Disa, knocking her to the floor with a stiff arm, and charged to meet the Aurelian in a sparking clash of steel. “Fire!” Disa screamed, or tried to, as flames crawled across the carpet. Instead of the howl she’d aimed for, the word caught at the back of her throat and was lost in a fit of wracking coughs. She pounded her fist on the floor, clutching her chest.

Gudrun pushed the monk forward, stepping out of the flames. Her boot was on fire. She kicked at him once, twice, until his black linen clothing caught. It went up with an audible whoosh, and he started to scream, at least until Gudrun ran him through. Disa coughed on.

“Disa! Move!” Gudrun shouted in agony, beating at her flaming boot. Disa crawled forward as best she could. The thump from behind her made her start and forced out a last, bone-rattling, coppery cough. She rolled to her back, rasping shallow breaths into her aching chest.

“Aunt Disa?” Flannery asked from her left. The sneaky little thing had knocked a candelabrum onto another Aurelian, and he rose with difficulty, groaning. Disa tried to force a warning out of her mouth. “Are you—eek!”

The Aurelian lunged, snatching the front of Flannery’s blue dress and pulling her off her feet as he stood. He raised a stiletto, ready to drive it into her little body. She thrashed and struggled for all she was worth, shrieking. Disa fought her way to her knees, gasping, only to take a ringing backhand slap from the Aurelian.

Gudrun plowed into him from the side, still trailing smoke from her boot. She moved him a foot or two before he crashed to the floor under her. Little Flannery plopped down and scooted away. Disa lay reeling from the slap, trying to make her limbs obey her commands. The Aurelian cried out and dropped his stiletto when Gudrun broke his wrist. “Old women and little girls!” she said. “Try me, you filthy—” And she spat out an obscenity that would have scalded the ears of that foul-mouthed Vandis Vail. It was the least shocking thing Disa had heard this afternoon.

Gudrun planted her knee in the Aurelian’s chest, picked up the stiletto, and drove its full length into his neck. When she drew it out, his blood gushed over the carpet. Disa tried again to rise, but as soon as she did, a wave of dizziness crashed over her head, and she sank back down. Flannery knelt nearby, trying to beat out the spreading fire with her hands.

“Come on!” Gudrun said. “We’ve got to get out of here. Flannery, let’s go!” She lifted Disa again, but this time Disa could hardly bring her arms up to grasp Gudrun’s neck.

“It’s the Lady’s carpet,” Flannery said, grimly slapping at the flames.

“Akeere loves you more,” Gudrun said, and shifted Disa to one arm so she could stride over and seize the back of the little girl’s dress.

“We can’t—”

“Hush, Flannery,” Disa croaked. Gudrun bore them both out of the sanctuary, down the nave and into the narthex, where she shouldered open a smaller door to the side of the great double portal. As she ran down the marble steps, Disa reeled so badly she nearly lost consciousness. The edges of her vision grayed, but the cool slapping of wind on her bare legs kept her aware, if not alert. She shivered; even this close to Longday, Dreamport could run toward chill.

As soon as they reached the street, Gudrun set Flannery down. The little girl ran to the edge of Temple Row, shouting for help from the crowds rushing past, carrying buckets. “There’s a fire in Akeere’s house!” she cried. “Hurry!” They paid her no heed.

“Too late, little one. Look at the sky.” Gudrun raised her square chin westward, toward the pall of smoke staining the blue afternoon. “Come back now,” she said, and Flannery obeyed.

“House of the Sun,” Disa managed. “Foul winds blowing, Gudrun.”

“The foulest,” she agreed, as the portal swung wide, exuding the stink of smoke.

“Fire’s out,” said Norbert, one of the young priests who lived in the east transept. He had ash in his hair and soot on his face. “All right, Your Holiness?”

“What took you so long?” Gudrun snapped, before Disa could answer.

“Sorry, Lady Gudrun, but there were assassins in the—”

“Never mind it,” Disa said. “Is anyone injured?”

“Sturgis is dead,” said Norbert, flatly. “Lira’s got a bad stab wound, and Karys is on it. That’s it.”

“Go help the House of the Sun,” Disa ordered, feeling slightly better now that she had something to do rather than dangle from Gudrun’s arms and feel useless. “But first, get me a blanket. Send Thalia next door.”

“Right away, Your Holiness.” Norbert disappeared back inside and the portal swung slowly shut behind him.

“The fire’s out. We’ll go back in,” Gudrun said.

“This is where I need to be. Once Norbert comes back, put me down and go with him to the House of the Sun. Flannery! Where’s Flannery?”

“Right here, Aunt Disa,” said the little girl from Gudrun’s elbow. Disa pressed a hand to one temple. She wasn’t remembering things properly; the blow to the head must have addled her.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” said a young man. He was shorter than Gudrun, with almond-shaped eyes and a flattish nose—he must have been from Kuo. “I’m from the Knights.” He pointed a gloved thumb over his shoulder as he spoke, eastward, at the headquarters of the Knights of the Air. “They came here, too, didn’t they? Is everything all right?”

“We lost one,” Disa said shortly. “Did they get Sir Vandis?”

“No, ma’am, they did not.” The young man grinned. “This close to Longday, Vandis is already in Knightsvalley.”

“Good,” she said, and just then Norbert returned. “Put me down, Gudrun, and go with Norbert.”

“It’s not a good idea,” Gudrun said quellingly, but Disa grasped the blanket Norbert offered.

“Horsefeathers! You’ll go. Flannery will stay here with me, and this young fellow here, Sir Whatsisname. Won’t you?” She looked sharply at the Knight.

“Hui,” he said. “Hjaldi told me to make sure you’re all right, and that’s what I’ll do, ma’am.” He patted his sword and turned his cheerful face to Gudrun, who huffed disgustedly. “Gudrun, ma’am, do you know Pearl?”

Gudrun grunted an affirmative, though Disa didn’t know who that might be. “Fine swordswoman.”

“She was my Master,” said Sir Hui, his smile widening.

 Gudrun nodded, placed Disa carefully on the top step, and followed young Norbert down to the street. Disa struggled to wrap herself in the blanket, until Sir Hui took it and draped it around her. “There you go, Disa, ma’am.”

“You Knights never address me properly,” she snapped, but when he sat down next to her and looped a wiry arm around her shoulders, she didn’t protest. He supported and warmed her.

“Well, I suppose it’s how we’re taught, ma’am,” he said in a tone so serious it had to be meant cheekily. “Respect, always. Reverence is earned.”

“Hmph.”

“You know,” he went on, “we don’t even call Vandis ‘Sir Vandis’. He’s just Vandis.”

“You don’t think I’m holy?” she snapped, knowing exactly what sort of question she was asking.

“I’m sure you are, ma’am, but calling you ‘Your Holiness,’ I can’t do that. It’d be like saying you are the embodiment of holy, and I just don’t think anyone but our Lady can be that.”

“Hmph.”

They sat, quiet for a while, watching the people form into lines to bring water from pumps and fountains to the House of the Sun. “Just how old are you, anyway? You can’t be more than a Junior, young man.”

“I’m twenty-seven,” Sir Hui replied. “I’m serving my Seniorship. Maybe I’ll pass the Mastery exams this year. I don’t know, do you think I should try it?”

“I think you lose nothing in a valiant attempt.”

“That’s what I’m thinking.”

They were quiet again, for a longer while, the man with the almond-shaped eyes warming the tiny old woman, listening to the shouts from down the Row. Little Flannery sat for a short time, and then got up and started playing some sort of hopping game on the marble steps.

“Have a care, Flannery,” Disa said when night began to fall. She felt desperately weary. Smoke marred the sky, a huge, ugly smear against the sunset, looking progressively paler as the light faded. Flannery uttered a frustrated sigh and came to sit next to them.

After a moment she asked, “Can you tell me a story, Sir Hui?”

“Maybe. What kind of a story?”

“Any story. I’m bored.”

“All right, I’ll tell you a story from Kuo,” Sir Hui said. “Do you know something about Kuo? We had different dragons from you guys here in Rothganar. We call them ‘liung,’ and they weren’t wicked and greedy. They were very wise. Well, once upon a time there was a prince of the blood. He wanted more than anything to be a good king and rule his people well, so he went down to the great river in the royal city and called out for the liung who ruled its waters, but the liung didn’t come. The prince went back to the palace and went about his business. He went to the river the next day and the next. The liung didn’t come, but he kept going down there, every day for years. Even after his father died and he was king, he kept on going. At last, one morning when he called to the liung, a fish came up to the surface and spoke to him. ‘Why do you keep coming here to disturb my master, the liung?’

“The king said, ‘I don’t mean to disturb him. I only want to ask him one question: what does it mean to be a good ruler?’

“The fish said, ‘Come back tomorrow morning.’

“So the king went away to rule his kingdom and came back again as always. The fish returned and asked him, ‘Are your people hungry? Do they suffer from ill use by your soldiers?’

“‘Of course not!’ the king cried.

“‘I will tell my master, the liung. Come back tomorrow morning.’

“The next morning it was the same thing. The fish said, ‘The mighty liung desires to know whether you have made an heir.’

“‘You may tell the mighty liung that I have three strong sons,’ said the king.

“‘Very well. Come back tomorrow morning.’

“So the king did as the fish told him to do, and the fish asked him another question the next morning. ‘O king, you are a good king, making certain that your people are cared for, even after your death, but the great liung would ask you one more question. Why, when you are so wise, do you do something so foolish as to eat with your brother, since it was his hand that struck your father down? You are a good king, but serve him justice and you will be great.’

“When the king heard this, he rushed away angrily, and went to his brother in the gardens. He couldn’t raise his sword against his own brother without confronting him. It wasn’t in him, so he shouted a demand to his brother, because he wanted to know why their father was dead.

“The king’s brother replied, ‘Yes, I struck him down, but have you noticed I didn’t strike you, even though you’re the elder? Our father was not what you think. He was cruel, and starved the people. He didn’t deserve his royal seal, and I saw that you did, because you wanted so much to be a good king.’

“‘Ah!’ the king cried in anguish. He couldn’t kill his brother now, not when he spoke wisdom. He ran back down to the river and was just about to shout out to the liung when he saw that the fish was waiting for him.

“Before he could speak, the fish said, ‘Have you killed your brother yet?’

“‘No, and I won’t. How could I, when he wanted only what was good for the people?’

“‘My master the liung wants you to know that you have already learned the highest virtue of a king: compassion. Go and rule your kingdom, and remember that the true meaning of justice is understanding.’

“The king—” But there, Sir Hui stopped speaking. Gudrun and Norbert were coming up the steps, sooty, sweaty, and reeking of smoke.

“What news?” Disa asked, jerking herself straighter on the step. Her head spun.

Gudrun shook her head. “The outside’s still standing. Otherwise? Total loss.”

“Everything?”

“Everything. And Solveig.”

Disa felt suddenly ancient, and even more tired. Solveig was a friend, and a good one; for years, they’d had dinner once a week. “She’s dead?”

“They got her.”

She sagged against Sir Hui again. “Let’s go back in,” she said. To her credit, Gudrun refrained from an I told you so. She only lifted Disa in sooty arms.

“Thank you, Sir Hui,” Disa said graciously.

“My pleasure, ma’am,” he said, and bounded down the steps.

“Wait!” Flannery shouted after him. “Sir Hui, did the king remember?”

“Of course he did, sweetie!” Sir Hui called back, grinning over his shoulder. “His name was Chuang, and he was the greatest king ever to rule Kuo.” He gave her a jaunty wave as he leapt down the last two steps to the street and set off toward Knights’ Headquarters.

“Come, Flannery,” Gudrun said, and they went into the Cathedral. Inside, beneath the rich scents of the incense the under-priests already burned, it stank of charred, wet wool.

“Take me up there a moment,” Disa said, though all she’d wanted to do for hours was sleep. When Gudrun sighed and obeyed, she said to the under-priests, “Burn some myrrh for Solveig tonight, when you’re doing the commendations.” When the affirmative came, Gudrun was already making her way out of the sanctuary to Disa’s apartments, so that the distance blurred the words. “Take me to my study, Gudrun, and fetch me a dressing gown,” she ordered.

“Bed would be better.”

“The study,” Disa said, as firmly as she could. She wanted to get a start on the paperwork for replacing the carpet. “But—perhaps you ought to remain nearby.”

“I’d do that even if you told me not to,” Gudrun said, with the faintest trace of a smile.

Disa huffed. “You’re as bad as a Knight.”

 

 

Too Bad

Fort Rule, Muscoda

Krakus sat at his end of the desk in the sunny office, booted heels propped up and ankles crossed, playing with a metal ring puzzle that had sat for so long he didn’t remember the aim of the thing. Lech sat over on his end, scribbling something. The scratch-scratch-scratch-pause, scratch-scratch-scratch-pause of his quill as he wrote and dipped usually faded into the background, but today it annoyed Krakus near to screaming. He could go over to Section One and work with the Special Units a while—something he’d been doing more and more often—but didn’t see why he should always be the one to leave.

Krakus had lost some pudge. Once, his gut had kept slipping out from under his breastplate. Now he was wearing one of the old ones, three sizes smaller. Soon he’d need to switch to a smaller one yet. He wasn’t thin, but he looked pretty good, if he did say so himself. Even Tatiana had commented on it, just last night when she had come on her weekly visit, and for the first time in years, he could see his own feet.

Lech hadn’t said anything, but Krakus hadn’t expected him to. They weren’t speaking much these days, at least Krakus wasn’t. Lech went on and on like he always had. Used to be Krakus would offer something to shut him up, but no more. No matter how much Lech ranted and raved, no matter how closely in front of his nose a simple solution might hover, Krakus didn’t say a word. He liked being able to sleep at night.

“Go outside, Krakus,” Lech said. “I can’t concentrate with all your noise.”

“I’m comfortable where I am.” Krakus contrived to make his puzzle ring a little louder, watching Lech from under half-lowered eyelids.

Lech’s jaw clenched, but he kept on with his work. Every time Krakus made a sound with his toy, Lech’s mouth pinched tighter. Finally he threw down his quill. “Krakus—” He stopped and breathed, steepling his fingers over the desk. “I’m about to take a meeting.”

Usually that was enough to chase Krakus out, but today he felt mulish. “Meet away,” he said, shrugging.

“It isn’t your kind of meeting.”

“None of them are, Lechie.”

“Mm.” Lech’s lips pursed more tightly than ever. His ears started going red—he hated being called Lechie, like Krakus used to call him. “Be that as it may, this meeting in particular holds nothing of interest to you, since you persist in your refusal to promote the interests of Father Muscoda and the Church.”

“Everyone knows you’re the brains of this outfit,” Krakus said sweetly.

“Go play with your freaks.”

He smiled. “Fuck you.”

“Ah, yes, profanity. The last resort of a tiny mind.”

Krakus snorted. He was on the point of saying something about tiny genitals and Lech’s obvious need to compensate, but a soft knock sounded from the door. Feodor opened it a crack and said, “Estevan Barshefsky to see you, Father Lech.”

“Excellent. Send him in.” Lech looked down his nose. “Last chance, Krakus.”

Krakus didn’t budge as Feodor opened the door for a man so average the eye slipped off him even when bookcases and the jamb framed him in. Brown hair, brown eyes, medium height—not even a scar or tattoo marked him.

“Good afternoon,” the man said, in a voice as mild as fresh curds.

Lech nodded sharply. “I suppose you know why I called you here. Shut the door behind you.”

The ghost of a smile crossed the man’s face. He shut the door. “And I suppose you know I don’t generally respond to being summoned, or ordered around. I thought you might make it worth my while, Father Lech, but perhaps I was mistaken.”

“Yes, well. There are times, for every man in my position, when … impediments must be removed for the greater good. The impediment in question is a thorn in the side of Church and State, Mr. Barshefsky, and—”

“Stop.” The man crossed to the desk, Krakus’s side, and held out his hand. “May I, Father Krakus?”

Wordlessly, Krakus handed over the puzzle. In five heartbeats, no more, the man handed it back with the largest of the rings separated from the rest. Krakus tossed the puzzle into his desk drawer and rummaged for a horehound stick.

“As you can see, Father Lech, I specialize in solving problems. Your reasons are your own. Give me a name.”

“Vandis Vail,” Lech said, and Krakus rolled his eyes. Two horehound sticks, he decided, and slammed the drawer shut. “I want it done within a fortnight, at their Longday Moot.”

“Ah.” Barshefsky frowned slightly. “I’m afraid that will not be possible. Even if I could reach Knightsvalley in time, which I could not, the thing you ask cannot be done. Even if I could pass all the Knights around Sir Vail and reach him, which I could not, it is out of the question.”

Lech opened a drawer on his side and pulled out a canvas sack. He dropped it on the desk, and it crashed and rang with the coins inside it. “Five hundred sovereigns.” Krakus crunched into one of his candy sticks and chewed noisily.

“Oh, it’s a kingly price you offer me, Father Lech, but no. Some fool might bring himself to attempt it, but it will not be this fool.”

“And if I doubled your compensation?”

Krakus crunched again.

“I believe you’re missing my point, Father.” Barshefsky backed toward the door. “To attempt Vandis Vail north of the Back would be madness. To attempt it so near Dreamport would be to beg for painful death. Even ten thousand sovereigns couldn’t induce me to try.”

“In some other place, then,” Lech said, with a desperate edge on his voice.

“It’s best not to consider it. To murder Sir Vail for money—that’s more than my life is worth. No, I’m afraid I can’t help you, Father.”

Krakus fought the urge to laugh as Lech gnashed his teeth. “I am not accustomed to being answered ‘no.’ Why,” he bit out, “not?”

Krakus bit so hard into his candy he cracked a tooth.

“There is a world you don’t know,” Barshefsky said, “and most people never touch, even as much as you just have, but it is all around you. On your streets, in your temples, even in your precious Fort here, it exists just beneath your notice, and in that world, Vandis Vail is screened by an aegis none would seek to break, lest they find themselves in—if I may be permitted—deep shit.” He bowed slightly. “Good day.”

Barshefsky let himself out. Lech should have been boiling, but instead he wore a triumphant smirk.

“I knew it,” he breathed. “I knew it. Demons…”

“He meant criminals, you idiot,” Krakus said, unable to pass up the chance to correct Lech.

“Hush.” Lech pulled his writing things closer and began to scratch away at top speed.

Krakus took his legs from the desk. As he rose, he gave the side of it a good, solid kick, so ink would slosh out of Lech’s well. It splattered on his snow-white sleeve and he shot Krakus a burning glare.

“Oops.” Krakus spread his hands and smiled again. “See you later, Lechie.”

Lech didn’t quite growl out loud, but it was a close thing. Krakus strutted outside, heading for Section One. Thanks, he thought. I think I will go play with my freaks. He whistled the whole walk there.

***

Check out The Service, coming soon from M.A. Ray — and if you haven’t read Hard Luck, you’re behind! Check the “My Books” tab and go get your copy.

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