The city was falling to pieces. The queen tried not to think on this too hard as she performed her morning prayers. In the little chapel, safe within the inner walls, the priestess of Dreamer sang the prayers in a calm, low droning. It was enough to induce sleep in some, and deep thought in others. Innogen had often been infuriated by the fact that Dreamer wanted her people to lay down and sleep mere hours after they had gotten out of bed. The blind priestess stood in the centre of the small space, while her acolytes, in their ragged white robes meandered in circles, swinging balls of incense and humming along. At least they did not make her drink that foul dream tea. She did not want to sleep and dream just after she had awoken. Perhaps she should adjust the schedule of prayers, an afternoon of sleepy prayer might be more well suited to her disposition? In all truth, it did not matter when the prayers were, she would dislike them all the same. She had never liked sleeping, and on the rare occasion she had allowed herself to dream, they were never full of wonder and joy as the priestesses seemed to think they were.
Innogen and Dreamer had never been on good terms, as only a Queen and Goddess can be. The queen did not think Dreamer had the right to hold sway over her. All she ever dreamed of was death, perhaps the goddess was trying to tell her something, but she would prefer to live her life at least a little before she saw her death. Every time the dream was the same.
The smell of smoke, charred wood, blackened stone, burning flesh and hair; the air thick with it. It stung her eyes and impaled her throat. Her ears filled with screams, of people and animals dying, the groaning of wooden beams weak with fire and no longer able to carry their load. The crashing tumble of stone collapsing. And the crying, too, almost worse than the screams.
There was only one small, good thing in this dream, other than the fact that her eyes were filled with smoke and she could not see the horrors that happened around her, there was a strong warm hand holding hers, guiding her, saving her. She felt some small comfort from that hand, knew that as long as it held her she would be safe. But the dream always ended with a sudden pain blossoming in her gut, and the feeling of hot wet blood, her blood, washing down her back and belly.
She shook her head and discreetly wiped the tears from her cheeks as she thought on this. The hand in the dream was Cab’s, she knew it, and it had been the only comfort she’d had since the dream had begun in her youth. She knew he was there. And so when he had left... she bit her lip to keep from crying. Well, the dreams at least had gotten worse, to say nothing of her disposition. She had never wanted to sleep again. She would sit up in her room and stare into the fire. She would dump the dream tea onto the floor. Oh, the pain, the fear, the worry had all been too much for her and in those first few years she had been in a sorry state. It was almost like mourning. Then it had been good that Hanesca was around to keep things in order. To make sure the sky and the ground did not switch places when no one was looking. Many a night did she slip out of the castle, as she had done so often in her youth, but now she went by ways most secret, and always did she carry a blade, though little good it would do her against a trained assassin. She went down to the sea shore, to the little inlet behind the castle, and took comfort in the night, in the moon and stars that shone so serenely upon the world, the ocean lapping calmly upon the shore. It was there that she prayed, not to Dreamer, but to another: Mag Rand Am.
For Dreamer had given her nothing but visions of death and destruction. But Mag Rand Am had blessed her with twin sons, as like to their father as they were to her own. The birth had been swift and the pain had been easily forgotten. Mag Rand Am pulled water from the sky for her to drink, and provided fish and sea lettuce for her to eat. She wondered why, when they lived every day in the swell and play of this kind and generous goddess, why did they not worship the Lady of the Waters? Why worship a goddess that sustains nothing but madmen?
It was on those nights that she had forsaken Dreamer. Blasphemer, her father called her, in the secret depths of her mind. Dreamer carried us here, pulled us up from the tyranny of Mag Rand Am so many ages past, and now you turn your back upon our saviour?
Yes, she replied, proudly. Yes, I blaspheme. Yes, I worship another. Perhaps she had pushed us down then, but now she lifts me up like no other can. She comforts me in my time of need. I would gladly dance the waves with her until the gods battle in the sky and the world breaks asunder.
A bell chimed, indicating the end of the morning prayers. Innogen hid her smile, buried treacherous thoughts in the deep parts of her heart, next to the outraged rantings of the ghost of her father. She let the Lady Nyta take her arm and they walked back to the castle, to the great hall, where she would see the morning petitioners.
He was more beast than man, in more ways than one. Though any one might be a beast when a platter of luscious food is set before them when they have not eaten in days. He gulped at the small dark beer, made quick work of brined herring, hard rolls, hard cheese and sea grapes; he devoured preserved fruit, pickled eggs and cold roast pigeon. He ate until his stomach hurt, licked the grease from his fingers and pounded on his hairy chest to let out a burp.
“Are you satisfied?” Nora asked.
“Quite,” he replied.
“Now I must cut your hair,” she said, brandishing a pair of iron shears.
“Must you?” he asked, reaching a hand up to touch the unruly creature that lived upon his head. He had never paid much attention to it, except to tie it up out of the way. It had seemed to grow heavier, though he had not realized. And he could not see the mess of it. Greasy, matted and almost as foul smelling as a man recently pulled from a five day vacation in a forgotten dungeon.
“The queen insists,” Nora said, her strange accent showing now that she had more to say. “And the queen’s word is law. You want to see me hanging by my ankles from the inner wall? No, I didn’t think so. Well, I will cut this mess from your head and you will oblige me, or I will get these fine gentlemen to hold you down that I may do it unhindered, yes?”
Cab only nodded. He did not need to be told twice. He supposed he should be thankful that he had been pulled from his death, a hair cut was nothing compared to what he had been through.
The first snip was loud in his ear and she cut through the leather strap that held the Eye around his neck. It dropped to the floor with a gentle tink.
“Forgive me,” she said as she bent to pick it up. She very nearly dropped it. An eye, carved of stone or made of clay or wood, she could not tell, but so lifelike was it that she thought it was looking at her, seeing her.
“Where did you get this?” she demanded.
“It was given me,” he said, holding his hand out for it.
“No,” she said. “This is not for you.”
“It is,” he insisted, worried she would take it. “They gave it to me.”
“Who gave it to you?”
“The monks, they took care of me when I was ill.” It was not a total lie. “They gave it me, to keep me safe.”
She gave him a hard look, her thumb running over and over the smooth surface. Then, with great reluctance, she put it in his hand.
“They tell me this god is dead,” she said as she returned to her work on his hair. “Why worship a dead god, they said, and I felt a fool. I never felt a fool for my god before I came to this place. Now I see I am not the only fool. Perhaps the world outside the walls is not so changed as I supposed. Perhaps the people within the walls are the fools. They know nothing of my one-eyed father and so they call him dead. And maybe he is dead within these walls. I see no sign of him. But now this,” she gestured to the sigil in his hand. “It is a sign.”
“His many eyes see many things,” he said.
“This is what I say to myself. And to the others I say, my one eyed father sees more than your white woman. Hah! We argue. That is the way of things.” She sighed, but there was a smile on her face, where before it had been serious and hard.
His hair fell away from his head in fat clumps. When she was finished he ran a hand through hair so short he could barely get a grip on it. His ears and neck were chilled as they hadn’t been in ages, but a great weight had been lifted. He felt lighter.
“Now the beard,” she said. He had taken better care of this, it being right there on the front of his face, a thing he often ran his fingers through. But tutors taught that Mornwor were bearded and there is nothing an Ur hates more. So with careful snips of the shears and then gentle ministrations with a straight edged blade his face appeared, cheeks gaunt and hard edged and now cold. She stared at him for a long moment.
“You are quite handsome, under it all,” she said. He raised his eyebrows.
“Am I now?” he said.
“Yes,” she stated. “But your eyes are so black. With all that black hair around them they did not seem out of place. Now the white flesh is here,” she touched his cheek and neck. “And the eyes, they are...well, they are very black.”
She did not speak again as she set about the task of cleaning him, except to instruct him to turn or to lift his arm or some such thing. He was scraped and oiled and scraped again. He was plunged into cold water and then into hot. He was scrubbed and soaked and oiled and scraped over and over until his flesh felt raw and what of it that was not dark from sunlight was pink from abrasion. Finally he was oiled and sweet water was rubbed through what was left of the hair on his head. He was provided a soft silk under tunic and helped into a fine damask surcoat with a pattern of leaves, bright red upon dark. It was a fine thing, made for a rich courtier, but served only to make him think of blood. His hose were a dull brown as were the soft woollen shoes she gave him. He was unaccustomed to such silly dress and longed for the comfort and strength of his usual rough hemp and leathers, a second skin he felt almost naked without. But when he asked for these things she only shook her head.
“The boots, at least,” he said. “Strong, sturdy boots I wore when I arrived. Surely they can be located.”
“I am sure my lord Captain Iridian had them destroyed,” she told him. “Or perhaps given to one of his men, if they were not in bad shape. No, this is what you must wear. You are not going soldiering, you are going before our lady queen. And for the love of things unnamed, do not let her see that eye around your neck, or it will become a noose.”
“I am no farther from the noose than I was mere hours ago,” he muttered.
“Perhaps,” she said. “Perhaps not. You think she would go through this trouble only to hang you?”
“Yes. I do.”
Halstan, Knife-steward, was as boring as he was old. He had been Hanesca’s man before Hanesca was king, both men from the far East beyond the Spine Peaks, a strange land of rivers and mud, was it the land that shaped the men or the other way around? The hold’s on the Eastern side of those mountains were full of strange people and the king and his man were no different. It was strange to think that this old man survived the King, Innogen wondered if anyone had ever imagined things ending this way.
Halstan spoke in a hum, like a bee, buzzing in her ear. She had to concentrate too hard to understand what he said through his thick accent. Hanesca at least, had the decency to take lessons, to practice enunciation, to speak at a pace more manageable, but Halstan’s mangling of the language of her fathers only brought on frustration in great waves. So she blocked him out. She wondered what her children were doing. She wondered what was taking that damned Nora so long with her...
“What do you propose, Halstan?” Innogen responded. “Shall we burn the entire village down? Shall we bring the men to the chopping block and leave the farming to the women-folk? I warrant this might not be all bad, I am sure the women of the village would not be all tears if their husband’s blood were feeding the soil, but it sets a bad president, don’t you think?”
“Your Grace, I-”
“Sir Knife,” she said. “I warrant the men of this village behaved rashly. But really, a dead witch is a dead witch, it hardly matters in this world where her soul is sent to in the next. Perhaps we can deal with such things after the long dark, but until then, why don’t you present me with some of the issues of this world?”
Halstan spluttered something unintelligible in a voice that creaked like an old set of stairs. She caught sight of Nora entering from the front of the chamber and her heart stopped at the man by her side. It was him. After all these years, here he was, looking hardly any different than she remembered. Yes, his face was a bit more pale, a bit thinner, his eyes seemed to rest in slightly deeper hollows on his face, but still, there was no mistaking the man she had repeatedly devoured with her eyes every chance she’d had.
And those clothes! She wanted to laugh, but contented herself with an inward smile. He hadn’t dressed like that even when he had gone before her father, the King. He looked like a courtier. Always he had worn the black woollens or tough leather armour of a guardsman. Always he had been a soldier, a warrior, a man of strength and integrity. Now he looked a fop, better suited to strutting around the court, than protecting it. But she couldn’t very well pull a man from a dungeon and give him a weapon, that would mean her head on a platter to any one of the ophidian nobles that soiled her court. If it were up to any of them, they would see him dead; though if she thought too hard about it, she was certain they would have her head before any others. She couldn’t let them see him, not just yet. What a fool she had been to have him turned back into his old self! She should have left him looking the beggar, all the better to disguise him from their poisonous actions.
No matter, she couldn’t very well get the girl to put the hair back on him.
“Sir Knife,” she said. “If there are no further worldly issues that require my jurisprudence I shall have to dismiss the court for today. Perhaps you can come up with something more on the morrow.”
“Your Grace,” the Lord Dendal of house Muscyra, a withered noble, and part of her court of ministers, tried to speak. “The laws of the next world are of as much importance as the laws of this one. These men have performed a crime upon the next, upon Great Bella and the long dark itself! If they are not punished in this world, then we cannot call ourselves justicars! It would be like to taking a known thief and setting him loose in the marketplace to do as he wished!”
“I hardly agree,” the Lady Edode of house Lentinan was heard to say. “This heresy, if that is even what it can be called, was performed by an entire village. As her Grace has already aptly stated, it is hardly desirable to punish an entire village for so small a transgression. If you wish them punished, call in a tithe, let the coin go to the black brothers and say that it is done.”
Innogen sighed. Without fail, these nobles needed to have the last word. If one opposed her, another would rise up to defend her, they were at each others throats more often than trained fighting dogs, except it was not nearly so entertaining. There was really only one thing to do now. She traced a finger over the smooth curve of her sceptre’s hawks beak, pricked her finger on the tip so that a tiny bead of bright red blossomed there. She smeared the blood upon the hawks mouth and the noble folk found they no longer had the desire to speak. Small magic, small wonder. The queen smiled.
“We do, hereby adjourn this session of the Great Court of Ur, and dismiss our noble justicars, attendants, and so forth, to meet again on the morrow. May Dreamer soothe the lost and weary.”
She stamped the butt of the sceptre upon the floor three times and the crowd began to disperse.
Halstan stepped toward her.
“Get thee gone, Halstan,” she said hardly looking at him. “I shall attend to this man now, and no other.” She gestured to Cab with the sceptre. As an afterthought she said, “You may present my dinner to me when I am done, in the small chamber.” And they both knew that the meal would be the least of what he presented to her.