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On the stroke of Prime, the Knights rode out of the Motherhouse four abreast, shining like suns. Every buckle was polished, every helm gleaming. Thread-of-gold embroidery glittered on their snowy surcoats, and on the pennons fluttering above their heads. Led by a pair of towering black drum-horses with a squad of trumpeters behind, they shattered the morning with sound and colour, and the crowds thronging Saint Agostin Square roared their approval.
Ansel watched from atop the gatehouse and part of him could not help but despair. As a spectacle, the procession of the Knights was undoubtedly magnificent, but like the performance at the consistory hall that had given it legitimacy, it was all theatre. A show put on for the citizenry, so that when they thought of an army riding out to war, this was what they pictured: fluttering standards and pretty girls throwing flowers. This was what lodged in their subconscious and made battle something to be immortalised on ten-foot canvases that hung in public buildings and brought a tear to the eye of those who hadn’t fought. His lips tightened. Or hadn’t fought yet. And it was an illusion, all of it. A glorious, empty lie.
The shine would start to come off a few miles down the road, when the cavalcade of eager young Knights caught up with the baggage train. The banners and fine surcoats would be packed away, the glittering mail swapped for riding leathers and the flower-strewn parade for hard miles to the coast. Then the realities would sink in, all sharp edges and uncomfortable truths.
An army on the move meant clean clothes as a fond and distant memory. It meant washing in cold water and shitting in a hole in the ground. It meant pricking the blisters on your feet with the pin from your legion insignia waved through a flame, and you got those blisters because you had to walk at least as many miles as your horse did if you expected to arrive at your destination with an animal even close to battle-ready. That was assuming the mounts ever made it to said destination at all: two weeks in the hold of a ship was not kind to beasts.
And then, when the Knights pitched up at their posting, sea-sick and footsore, maybe with a dose of the flux from bad water, they were expected to fight. To take a life, up close enough to smell the fear-sweat and feel the heat as that life gushed over their hands. That would change them for ever. It had surely changed him.
Even knowing all this, having seen such atrocities as he wouldn’t wish any other man to face, Ansel had still signed the order to commit the Suvaeon into action. There simply wasn’t anything else that could be done whilst upholding all the ideals on which the Knights had been founded.
It made him want to weep.
‘Looking for someone in particular, Preceptor?’
The silky voice at his side startled Ansel out of his thoughts. He turned. Next to him stood Ceinan, vivid as blood in his formal scarlet robes.
Ansel eyed him warily. ‘Should I be?’
The Elder gave an airy wave. ‘I merely thought you might have some special interests. Children of old friends, and such.’
He smiled, and Ansel raised an eyebrow. The smile widened, showing just a hint of teeth. Like the scrape of a blade being eased from its scabbard, it put Ansel immediately on the alert for danger.
‘All the Goddess’s children are precious to Her,’ he said. ‘Who am I to pick favourites among them?’
‘Oh, come now, Preceptor,’ said Ceinan archly. ‘Be realistic. I know you are prepared to make exceptions for . . . deserving cases.’
The implication was not exactly subtle. Ansel snorted.
‘I think I know what you’re fishing for, Elder,’ he said, ‘and I’d advise you to cut line. You’ve embarrassed yourself once already on the subject of Selsen, so think very carefully about whatever it is you’re about to say.’
Ceinan bridled. ‘You wound me, my lord.’
Ansel grinned. ‘You’re a grown lad. I’m sure you’ll get over it.’
The Elder’s expression darkened a little, but he said nothing. Instead, he turned to watch the glittering, clattering cavalcade in the square below.
‘Such a sight,’ he mused. ‘It must conjure some memories for you, eh?’
‘If men are riding out to war on my order, the least I can do is salute them as they pass,’ Ansel said. ‘And what brings you out this morning?’
The Elder shrugged. ‘We stand at a crossroads in the Order’s history. I felt I should be here to witness it.’
As a man whose preferred weapon was a finely-honed word, rather than a blade, Ceinan was the last person Ansel would have expected to see at the deployment of the Knights. Come to that, Ceinan was the last person he would have expected to see joining a martial order in the first place.
On the other hand, if Ansel had to speculate on who might seek to gain from ambushing the Preceptor, the Elder topped a very short list.
‘I see,’ he said neutrally.
Shading his eyes, Ceinan surveyed the rows of gleaming horsemen crossing the square to the crowd’s cheers. ‘Magnificent,’ he said, and sighed. ‘Such a tragedy that we have been brought to this pass again.’
‘That is something we can almost agree on,’ Ansel said. ‘If not necessarily for the same reasons.’ He eyed the Elder next to him, wondering what he might say here, now, without the rest of the Curia to hear. ‘You think I’m wrong to send the legions to Gimrael.’
Still studying the parade, Ceinan’s lips thinned. ‘I think you have taken a grave risk, resuming a war that should have ended almost thirty years ago.’
‘I agree with you – it should have. Unfortunately, the Cult did not oblige us.’ It was petty, but Ansel couldn’t resist a little dig of his own. ‘Remind me, Elder. Where were you when last the trumpets sounded?’
The faintest crease appeared at the corner of Ceinan’s mouth, as if the barb amused him. ‘As you well know, Preceptor, I was but a boy. Thirteen is a little young to be seeing war at first hand, don’t you think?’
‘I imagine the mothers in Gimrael are saying the very same thing about their children,’ Ansel replied. ‘The only difference is they don’t have a choice. We do, and we’ve chosen to try to make a difference for the ones who can’t fight for themselves.’
Ceinan swung towards him, his pale eyes narrowed. ‘By plunging the desert into open conflict again? How exactly is that going to help them?’
‘And how many lives will be lost if I do nothing?’ Ansel fired back. ‘They’re slaughtering their own people, Ceinan! The ones who aren’t pious enough, the ones who’ve embraced another faith, the ones with no faith at all – it’s bow down to Silnor or feel your neck bent!’
‘So we must step in to save them from themselves, like children?’ Contempt twisted Ceinan’s lips. ‘This is not our battle, Preceptor. Twenty four years ago, your warmongering cost the Order half its number, and it has never recovered. Sending Knights into the desert again will be the end of the Suvaeon.’
‘Warmongering?’ echoed Ansel. ‘Is that really what you think I did?’
‘What else would you call it? Gimrael didn’t ask for your help. You sent an armed force into a sovereign nation and provoked local unrest into a series of pitched battles, at the cost of thousands of lives on both sides. Now you are proposing to do it all again!’
‘We had a moral duty to act, and the Emperor supported us. Last I checked, Gimrael was still part of the Empire.’ Ansel bit his words off short. ‘If the Cult hadn’t been stopped, they would have taken that entire nation back to the dirt. No trade outside their borders. No schools for their children. No law but tribal custom and the whims of frothing zealots. Those people deserve better than that.’
Ceinan sneered. ‘You know this for fact, do you? I wasn’t aware that becoming Preceptor had bestowed you with the gift of prophecy.’
‘You’d be surprised what it’s bestowed me with, Elder. Perspective, for one thing. Patience, for another, and a greatly reduced tolerance for fools.’ Ansel sighed. ‘Look. Any number of things happened in the last desert war that I could wish were different, but my decision to take the Knights into action isn’t one of them. I still believe we did good work there. Bloody, aye, but we did what was needful. I only wish I could be riding with them today.’
A frown creased Ceinan’s brow. ‘You’d go back into that cauldron? Willingly? After everything you did?’ When Ansel nodded, he gave a disbelieving laugh. ‘And you expect me to think you are anything but a savage?’
‘I’d go in a heartbeat,’ said Ansel. ‘I’ve never asked the Knights to take action I wasn’t prepared to take myself. Any fool can order men into battle, Elder. You see his colours when he’s willing to bleed alongside them.’
‘Which you so famously did at Samarak, of course.’
Nettled by the man’s tone, Ansel glowered at him. ‘Aye, I did. Wasn’t the first time, either. It just happened to be the last.’
Ceinan turned back to the spectacle in the square below. ‘It must have been a great comfort to those men, knowing their Preceptor considered himself still one of them.’
Goddess, he sounded pleased with himself, Ansel thought, the way those with a sly wit often did. Amused by their own cleverness, like a precocious child.
‘I imagine they were mostly grateful to have a Preceptor young enough to remember which end of a mace you crack skulls with,’ he said.
‘Speaking ill of your predecessor, my lord? I am surprised.’
Ansel barked a laugh.
‘That amuses you?’ Ceinan asked.
‘Preceptor Oswin was almost eighty and hadn’t raised a sword in anger for decades. He would have been first to admit he made a poor choice to lead the Order in wartime.’
‘Such a shame, then, that he died before we found out whether that was true.’
‘For the Goddess’ sake!’ Ansel exclaimed, rolling his eyes. ‘He was old! In failing health!’
‘And wise as Saint Simeon, if his books are anything to go by,’ the Elder countered. ‘Perhaps you should read his Meditations and consider whether he might have seen a solution to the desert problem that that didn’t cost quite so much Suvaeon blood.’ His tone sharpened. ‘Or at least one that wouldn’t have put us back at sword’s-point with the Cult less than three decades later.’
Pulse thumping dangerously loud in his ears, Ansel scowled at Ceinan’s scarlet-clad back. He felt the heat rising up his neck; not embarrassment but rage, the same forge-hot fury that had propelled him to war the first time. He slammed the heel of his staff onto the stone flags underfoot.
‘There was no other way!’
‘Really.’ The word was laden with disdain.
‘No! I could not stand by when the innocent were suffering. The Order needed to act, and act quickly, before more lives were lost.’
Still Ceinan didn’t turn to address Ansel directly. ‘How convenient, then, that Preceptor Oswin died when he did.’
Ansel snorted. ‘It was hardly convenient on the eve of a war.’
‘But well-timed to suit your ambitions, eh?’
The implication so stunned Ansel that at first he wasn’t sure if he’d misheard. ‘You think I had something to do with Oswin’s death? Saint and angels, man! I never had any hopes for high office. I was only concerned with the good of the Order.’
‘A noble sacrifice,’ the Elder said, with a sidelong glance. ‘It was fortunate for the Order that you were available to shoulder the onerous responsibility of leadership in a time of crisis.’
Words like that would have made a younger Ansel bunch his fists in the front of Ceinan’s spotless robes and offer to meet him out behind the tilt-yard at Low bell. Hells, his older self was halfway tempted to do it anyway, even though his arthritic fingers were unable to make a decent fist these days.
‘Is that how you want to play this, boy?’ he rasped. ‘Hints and innuendo? Say it plain or hold your tongue; I’ve no more time to be dancing with you.’
‘Never a truer word, given your age.’ Leaning back against the wall, Ceinan folded his arms. ‘You have to admit, for something you never wanted you have held onto that staff for a very long time.’
He smiled, and Ansel’s temper snapped.
‘I don’t much care for your implication, Elder. The Preceptor’s declining health is a matter of record. Ask Hengfors, he’ll show you the infirmary ledgers.’
‘I may do just that.’
‘Good, then you can come at me armed with some facts for a change!’ Growing tightness in Ansel’s chest warned him to moderate himself, but damn it all, he’d had about enough of Ceinan – and Goran too – conniving behind his back. ‘By the time Oswin died, the situation in Gimrael was beyond exigent. Whether we liked it or not, a war was coming, so the Order needed a leader who wouldn’t flinch when it did.’
Ceinan smacked his palm on the wall beside him. ‘You had no mandate! You made no attempt at a negotiated settlement, and marched the Knights straight into El Maqqam like an occupying force. The sword should be our last resort, not the first!’
‘Then perhaps the Suvaeon should have elected someone else to lead!’ Ansel barked. ‘You’re too young to remember, but your podgy friend Goran isn’t. It was a fair election, with only three candidates. It’s not like the Curia didn’t know what they were going to get when they cast their ballots.’
The Elder’s lip curled. ‘A warmonger. A bloodthirsty thug.’
‘A soldier,’ Ansel said. ‘Someone prepared to do what needed to be done.’
‘A more politically astute Preceptor would have seen the value in pursuing a diplomatic solution, instead of committing thousands of men and their equipment—’
Another stroke of Ansel’s staff cut Ceinan off. ‘Read your history books, man! Diplomacy only works when both sides are willing to come to the table. The Emissary has amply proved that he’s not, therefore he must be brought to it.’
‘Not all problems can be solved at the point of a spear,’ Ceinan said. ‘That you and people like you think they can is only an indicator of your unreconstructed savagery.’
Ansel laughed. He couldn’t help it. ‘Savagery, is it now? My dear Elder, I fear you’ve been in the cloister too long. You’ve forgotten what happens when men start thinking with their balls.’
Ceinan stared at him. ‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Led by their bollocks, men are no better than beasts. Like robins in the spring and stags in the autumn, the only way their conflict ends is when somebody dies. The Emissary is no different. He’ll not come to peace unless he’s dragged there.’
The Elder’s mouth twisted in distaste. ‘Now I understand how you spend the lives of others so freely,’ he said. ‘It is easy when you hold them so cheap.’
‘And there speaks a man who’s never learned just how much they cost.’ Frayed beyond endurance, Ansel’s rein on his temper finally snapped. ‘I have had just about enough of your games, Ceinan, so let me put you on notice. I see you – you and your fat little stalking-horse. I see what you’re trying to do. Hell, it might even work. But until it does, I am Preceptor here. Disagree with me all you like in debate, but once the decisions are made, you will damn well support them. Is that clear?’
Pale blue eyes returned his glare, expressionless as shuttered windows. ‘As clear as daylight.’ The merest pause. ‘My lord.’
The barb did not escape Ansel’s notice. ‘Then I think I’ve seen all I need to,’ he said, and turned on his heel. Staff ringing on the flagstones, he stumped to the tower stairs.
Saints, but that man got under his skin! Not just his penchant for chicanery, but the way he had to be so damned smug about it. It irked Ansel to no end.
His irritation with Ceinan propelled him a full three turns down the spiral stair before the grinding fire in his hips and knees became too much to ignore. Leaning against the wall, Ansel groped in his pocket for the bottle of poppy syrup and downed a mouthful. He grimaced at the taste. Damnable stuff, but nothing else in Hengfors’ dispensary even came close to touching his pain. The truth was, if he wanted to walk further than his apartment, he was dependent on it. Some days, even getting out of bed was impossible without the poppy’s kiss.
He took another swig, to keep the first one company. Served him right, he supposed. Climbing all those stairs to watch the Knights ride out, without a thought for how he was going to get back down again. But his conscience wouldn’t let him skulk in his study on a day like this. If that meant he needed an extra dose of sweet poison, then that was simply the price he had to pay for it.
Slowly, the pain in Ansel’s joints dulled to an ache. He pushed himself away from the wall and essayed a step or two. Nothing he couldn’t bear, as long as he was careful. That was good enough for now. Leaning on his staff, he picked his way down the remainder of the stairs.
Once he was safely back in his study, with the door closed and no-one to see him, he sank into the cushions in his chair with a groan of relief. Old age never came easily for a man like him, after so many years in armour, but there were times, he had to admit, when he wished it didn’t have to be quite this difficult.
His secretary pattered in with his daybook and a thick sheaf of papers. A red mark from his spectacles straddled the bridge of his snub nose.
‘Good morning, Preceptor,’ he chirped, and began laying the documents in neat piles on Ansel’s desk. ‘I have these for your attention, and these, these, and these for your signature.’
Ansel eyed the thickest stack, which bore the mailed-hand stamp of Lord Marshal Bredon. ‘It’s started, hasn’t it?’ he asked heavily.
Euan straightened up, one last sheaf of papers on his arm. ‘My lord?’
‘The paperwork,’ Ansel said, waving a hand at the desk. ‘The Knights are barely out of the door and already the ink is flowing like water.’
His secretary deposited the remaining documents and squared the edges of the stack. ‘I’m afraid that does seem to be the way of it, Preceptor.’
And it was only going to get worse from there, Ansel knew. With the Order at war there would be no end to the flow of administrative make-work across Ansel’s desk. Resupply notices, requisitions, intelligence reports. Then, eventually, the casualty lists would come. Those would be the hardest of all.
He sat back in his chair, drumming his fingers on the arm-rest. ‘I should be there,’ he said. ‘On the same ground, where I can do some good.’ Where I belong, he thought, but didn’t say.
‘Is that wise, Preceptor?’ asked Euan, looking concerned.
Ansel chuckled. ‘Probably not, no, but it’s where my heart lies. I’m a soldier of the Goddess, Euan. I always have been.’
His secretary’s eyes grew rounder. ‘Surely you aren’t thinking of . . .’
‘Oh, I know I’m too old to be in the field, lad. Don’t worry. I just wish I wasn’t so far away. I feel like the last link in the chain up here, waiting weeks for reports that arrive too late to be meaningful.’
Euan pursed his lips. ‘You have competent commanders in Zhiman-dar, my lord. There is no need to put yourself at risk.’
‘Why? Do you not think I still have something to offer? I’ve fought the Cult before – and my brain still works, even if the rest of me doesn’t.’ Realising that he’d sounded bitter, Ansel forced himself to smile. ‘Don’t fret. I promise I won’t do anything too foolish.’
Euan peered at the daybook in his hands and closed it with a sigh. ‘Very good, Preceptor. How far ahead should I clear your diary?’
‘To the end of the week, if you can. I need some time to think.’ Eyeing the neatly-piled documents on his desk and the weight of everything they signified, Ansel added, ‘Come and see me when you’re done. I have some letters to write.’