The Glasswrights’ Master
A final battle, with a kingdom hanging in the balance!
Rani Trader has fled her homeland, escaping just as enemy armies invade. Now she must make the hardest bargain of her life—negotiating safety for herself, her king, and the royal heir, even as she struggles to control mystical powers that rise within her. As armies line up for the final battle, Rani must fight to become the master of her fate—and her guild.
As the battering ram pounded the city gates, Rani Trader prayed the Thousand Gods would permit her to live until sunset. Hundreds of soldiers shuffled around her, making holy signs with their own mailed fists. A breeze swirled down the cathedral’s marble aisle, a harbinger of autumn’s chill, and Rani automatically looked at Mair, making sure her Touched friend had settled a cloak around her too-thin shoulders.
Mair glared back at Rani, as if the cold breeze were a personal affront. Rani started to let herself believe that the Touched woman’s old spirits had revived, that she had finally returned to her habit of ordering the world about. Before joy could boil around Rani’s heart, though, Mair glanced at the silken square tied about her wrist. She whispered to the cloth in a voice almost too soft to make out in the echoing cathedral. “All’ll be well, Lar. Fear not, son. Ye’ll not grow too cold.”
Rani shuddered against the chill that walked down her spine, a prickling that had nothing to do with the temperature in the House of the Thousand Gods. Mair had spent the better part of the past year speaking to her dead son, Laranifarso. She had convinced herself that he still rested in her arms, that she carried him wherever she went with the square of black cloth that had been ripped from the mask Mair wore when she attended clandestine meetings of the Fellowship of Jair.
Rani could still remember the sound of the fabric rending, underscoring Mair’s rage against the Fellowship that had murdered her son. That day, Mair first crossed to the land of madness.
The battering ram continued to pound the gates in the city below the cathedral, and Rani tried to remember that entire days went by without the Touched woman speaking to the silk. But each time Rani’s hopes climbed that Mair had been healed, the other woman would raise her wrist and mutter to the cloth as if it were a living, thinking creature, as if it could answer her more completely than Mair’s infant son had ever managed in his too-short life. Rani forced herself to remain silent, to pretend she did not see the imaginary child. And then Mair would go about her day as if there were nothing strange, nothing odd, nothing hideously, horribly wrong.
The ram increased its urgent tattoo and Mair rubbed her hand across the silk as if she were smoothing a real boy’s hair or gentling a fussy child. “Pay attention!” Rani whispered, unable to restrain herself.
“Mind yer own prayers, Rai,” Mair growled, and Rani almost believed the Touched woman was upset about nothing more than participating in a service designed to glorify the soldier caste. The old Mair would certainly chafe about wasting time in the House of the Thousand Gods while enemy Briantans camped outside the city walls and Liantine ships blockaded the harbor.
She would concentrate on keeping her fingers from roaming into the purses of the nobles who stood closest to her. She would focus on sparing the kneeling soldiers from her sharp tongue. She would glare at the priest who stood at the altar, blithely offering up prayers to gods that always seemed to ignore the Touched.
But the new Mair acted nothing like the Touched woman Rani had befriended nearly a decade earlier. The new Mair ignored all the assembled worshipers around her—all of them but Rani. And Farsobalinti.
Rani caught one look flashing between the pair. Mair still wore the golden armband that Baron Farsobalinti had given her during their wedding ceremony. The nobleman, though, had set his aside, unable to bear the remembrance of easier times, of brighter days when his wife and his son had prospered.
When Laranifarso had died, Mair was forced to disclose her secret loyalties, her involvement with the shadowy Fellowship. Farso had made it clear that Mair’s silent betrayal hurt him even more than the murder of their son. Nevertheless, Rani could tell that he remained perfectly aware of Mair. The troubled nobleman darted frequent glances from the dais where he stood beside his king.
If only Mair and Farso could speak to each other in the easy way they’d shared before Laranifarso was lost… If only they would say what they were thinking, how they ached, how they longed for vengeance against the secret forces that had killed their son…
But there would be no speaking, not today. Not with the War Rites only partially completed. Not with the steady pounding of a battering ram against Moren’s gates. Not with a fleet of Liantine ships blockading the harbor, with all of King Halaravilli’s enemies arrayed against him, ready to strike, ready to bring him down once and for all…
A Briantan army of priests had crested the hills near Moren on the same morning that Liantine ships blockaded the harbor. Hastily organized messengers had carried demands from the besieging army. The Briantans had come to Moren to burn out the corruption in the city’s soul, a corruption that had led Halaravilli ben-Jair to offer sanctuary to Princess Berylina. The princess had been the strongest witch the Briantans had executed in over a century of meting out religious death sentences.
Ironically, the Liantines were attacking Moren for the same princess. Berylina’s father demanded compensation for the loss of his only daughter, for the strange child he had only too willingly resigned to Moren nearly four years before. As an ungainly princess, Berylina had offered little value to the house of Thunderspear. As a martyr, she inspired dreams of revenge, dreams of recapturing the Liantines’ longtime profits from monopolistic trade in spidersilk.
Religion and money—what better reasons for a war? What better reasons for Morenia to be caught in the vise of its neighbors to the east and to the west?
With aggravating deliberation, Father Siritalanu spread his green-clad arms and intoned, “And so we ask you Arn, god of courage, to watch over Morenia. We ask you to guide our poor kingdom in these dark days. Arn, give us strength against all our enemies, from those known and unknown, from those seen and unseen.”
Some of the soldiers were little more than boys. They’d spent their entire lives practicing their caste’s warrish obligations, but they had never marched into battle for their king. Nevertheless, they understood the War Rites; they knew what was expected of them in the ceremony. Taking their cue from the robed priest, the assembled soldiers bellowed their response from one united throat: “Arn, give us strength against all our enemies!”
Rani’s eyes narrowed as she watched the priest. She had listened to him protest that morning. He had told King Halaravilli that he could not lead the Rites, that he could not prepare the men for battle, that they should wait for the missing Holy Father Dartulamino.
Dartulamino. No one had seen him in three days, since the Briantan soldiers had crested the distant ridge and poured onto the Morenian plain. The king’s men had searched throughout the city, demanding access to the cathedral close, but the Holy Father had vanished, as if he had been spirited away by the steady clang of the Pilgrims’ Bell.
Rani bit the inside of her cheek, restraining herself from calling out Father Siritalanu’s name, from urging the priest to skip large sections of the Rites. Couldn’t he see they were almost out of time? Didn’t he realize that Moren needed the ceremony completed now?
Finishing their salute to Arn, the soldiers stamped their feet in a traditional military tattoo. Above the clattering noise, Rani recognized her own personal signature for Arn, the incongruous sound of a child suckling at its mother’s breast. There was an urgency to that whisper, an earnestness that made Rani glance about the cathedral.
Arn was speaking to her. Little time remained. The god of courage would have grim work all too soon.
Next to Rani, Mair repeated the soldiers’ vow mechanically: “Arn, give us strength against all our enemies.”
Against the Fellowship, Mair must be thinking. The Fellowship that had slain her son. Rani glanced about the cathedral, wondering who was spying for them even now. Had the hated Fellowship coerced the Liantines into setting siege to the harbor? Had they bought the Briantans, paid those western religious fanatics to close off all landward approaches to Moren?
On the dais, Father Siritalanu moved his hands in a holy symbol, and Rani’s fingers followed reflexively. Perhaps the gods would help her. They might calculate some escape from Moren’s nearly inevitable destruction. Maybe they could figure out a way for the city to slip free from the closing pincers of attacking armies.
After all, King Halaravilli had surrounded himself with his best advisors. When scouts first reported that the Briantans were marching, Hal had hurriedly recalled Duke Puladarati from distant Amanthia. When the Liantine ships appeared on the horizon, he had summoned Davin from the inventor’s tower chamber, asking the old man to craft a system for breaking the blockade. Those advisors stood on the dais now, the lion-maned Puladarati brushing back his hair with his three-fingered hand, Davin squinting out at the soldiers through his deepest wrinkles.
The pounding of the battering ram echoed inside Rani’s thoughts, squeezing her heart with its predictable rhythm.
Father Siritalanu swallowed hard, as if he were trying to drown his own hopeless desperation, and then he continued. “And let us pray in the name of Bon, the god of archers.” In her mind, Rani immediately heard the powerful whinny of a stallion, the sound of Bon. In the past year, she had grown accustomed to meeting the gods this way, to gathering their introduction through her eyes or her ears, her mouth or her nose, through her very flesh. The gods came unannounced, pouncing on her as if she were a mouse daring to invade their feline domain.
She would offer herself up to Bon if that would help. She would sanctify herself to the god of archers, if only Morenia’s soldiers would be strengthened. The War Rites were designed to protect fighting men, to give them comfort and confidence as they prepared to chance their lives on a battlefield. Perhaps the sound of a stallion was precisely what they needed to stave off the invaders.
“That’s right, Lar,” Mair crooned beside Rani, directing her words to the soiled silk. Her voice was loud enough that many people in the cathedral looked away, embarrassed. Rani scowled and stepped closer, knowing without glancing at the dais that Farso’s face would be carved with sorrow. Hal would be glaring at her, ordering her to keep Mair under control.
He had wanted to forbid the Touched woman from attending the service altogether. But Rani had argued that it would take an entire regiment of soldiers to keep Mair from the cathedral. She would not easily pass up the chance to gaze upon her husband, to study the new grey streaks in Farso’s hair, and to memorize the most recent lines etched into the face of the man who had fathered her poor, lost son.
Now, that man looked straight at Father Siritalanu and raised his voice to proclaim, “Bon, give us strength against all our enemies!” The vow was shouted by hundreds of warriors, and the words echoed off the ceiling.
Almost, they drowned out the change of timbre in the battering ram. Almost, they hid the fact that the last boom was deeper. Almost, they obscured the sound of splintering oak and the roar of warriors on the distant plain. Rani could imagine the Briantans maddened by their success; she could picture soldiers scrambling to enter the city, fighting to be the first to course through Moren’s streets.
As if he were unaware of the encroaching disaster, Father Siritalanu moved his hands in yet another holy symbol, and his voice echoed off the cathedral ceiling. “And let us pray in the name of Doan, the god of hunters.”
A flash of forest green blinded Rani. Would Doan protect them? Or would he shelter the Briantans and Liantines? Could Morenia possibly be the hunter, or was she doomed to be the hunted, the prey, the hapless victim?
Father Siritalanu raised his voice yet higher, and the cords of his neck stood out as he proclaimed: “We ask you Doan, god of hunters, to watch over Morenia. Doan, give us strength against all of our enemies!”
“Doan give us strength!” the soldiers cried, their feet pounding out their military pattern upon the floor.
“Doan give us strength!” Rani added her voice to the melée. How many more gods would Father Siritalanu honor? How many more deities would he weave into the ancient Rites? How much time did they have before the Briantans broke into the cathedral?
As if King Halaravilli heard Rani’s impatience, he stepped forward, making his way to the center of the dais. The soldiers watched their king hungrily, pounding their mailed fists upon their shields. They stomped the stony floor as if they would crumble it into dust. Puladarati and Farso looked out with satisfaction, even as Davin cocked his head toward the cathedral doors.
“Soldiers of Morenia!” the king proclaimed, and Rani was struck by the realization that he was far more than simple Hal, the friend who trusted her to advise him on matters of trade, the royal companion she had known for nearly ten years.
This was Halaravilli ben-Jair, king of all Morenia, founder of the Order of the Octolaris. This was a man who had held his throne for nearly a decade, despite conspirators of all kinds. He’d fought his own demons, overcome his own doubts, and unified his kingdom against all outward threats.
Hal raised his chin, setting his jaw as he stared out at his assembled soldiers. The men continued their clamor, a noise loud enough to drown out the roar of the successful Briantan soldiers. Hal’s men washed away the tumult of foreign priests and warriors crowing victory in Morenian streets.
The king nodded slowly. His hands rose from his sides, and he looked like a priest himself, like one of the holiest men of the kingdom, summoning power and faith and devotion from his assembled warriors.
Then, just when Rani could not imagine the soldiers showing any more dedication, just when she could not fathom their demonstrating a greater love of their king, Hal took a single step forward. The motion brought him squarely into a beam of sunlight, a beacon that streamed from one of the highest windows in the cathedral wall.
Rani knew the window well. She had watched her glasswright masters crafting it when she had first joined their guild. She had scrubbed its clean lines from a whitewashed table when she was only an apprentice. She had viewed it from inside the cathedral and from without; she knew every joint of lead and solder.
Hal stepped into the cobalt stream of the Defender of the Faith.
Rani’s guild had made that window for another descendant of Jair. They had fashioned the masterpiece for a man who was dead nearly ten years, a man whom Rani had watched stand on the very same dais. Without glancing up, Rani knew the window would reflect a near-perfect image of her king, the long lines of his face, the square shape of his jaw. She would see Hal’s high cheekbones and his penetrating eyes. She would be looking at Hal’s older brother, the prince who had been cut down in the prime of his life, but she would see King Halaravilli ben-Jair.
The riotous soldiers knew nothing of glasswork, of grozing irons or diamond knives. They had never heard of silver stain, or lead chains, or specially forged armatures to support the weight of a glassy masterpiece. Their knowledge was limited to swords and maces, battle axes and spears. They knew about long leagues marched down endless roads. They understood blood and sweat and the salty stench of exhaustion.
And they understood their king. Their king was threatened, and he called upon them to rise up against invaders. They were about to be tested, asked to pledge their lives anew, to offer up the most personal of devotions.
Halaravilli ben-Jair raised his arms above his head, letting the cobalt light stream over his hands and down the ornate golden sleeves of his robe. He let the light envelop him, and when he was fully washed in its power, he proclaimed: “The house of ben-Jair needs you now! In the name of my glorious father, Shanoranvilli ben-Jair, in the name of my brother Tuvashanoran who once led you, I call upon you to stand beside me this day!”
Hal filled his lungs to continue his exhortation, but before he could speak again, there was a tremendous crash. The cathedral doors flew back on their massive hinges, and their oaken planks shattered against the marble walls.
Rani had expected chaos. She had thought the Morenian soldiers would immediately unsheath their swords, that they would surge forward to slake their thirsty steel with the invaders’ blood. She had pictured tumult in the side chapels, gore flowing from altars like wax from melting candles. She had imagined the reek of battle, the sickening pall of blood and fear and worse.
But there was none of that. There was none of the noise and the confusion, none of the heart-pounding horror.
Instead, there was silence.
And when Rani looked to the shattered doors of the House of the Thousand Gods, she could see why. Holy Father Dartulamino stood clothed in robes of deepest green, gold-trimmed, ermine-lined, framed in the broken remnants of the cathedral doors.
And yet Dartulamino’s power did not come solely from the fact that he was dressed in priestly robes. Rather, men quailed because he wore a helmet on his head, a massive gold-washed construction. The headpiece fit him closely; accenting his cheeks, protecting his skull with the sharpest of metal points. Even down the length of the cathedral, Rani could make out the fierce glint of his noseguard and the sturdy metal flaps that came down over his ears.
As if the ancient image of a warrior priest were not enough, Rani realized the Holy Father wore a film of black gauze over his robes. She remembered the last priests she had seen wearing such shrouds, the curia in Brianta. Those men had used their holy office to sacrifice a woman, murdering Princess Berylina in service to their supposed gods.
What did Dartulamino signify, donning such a garment in the House of the Thousand Gods? What evil did he work here?
As if in answer to her questions, men appeared in the church’s shattered doorway—rank after rank of soldiers, all clad in dark Briantan cloaks. Rani knew those garments; she had worn one during the long summer months when she sought to complete a pilgrimage in the city of First Pilgrim Jair’s birth, when she’d worked to become a master in her guild.
Each Briantan warrior proclaimed his religious dedication with a Thousand Pointed Star emblazoned on his chest. The brilliant gold splashes declared that the men dedicated their lives to all the Thousand Gods, to the First Pilgrim who had recognized the force of those deities. The Briantan soldiers were prepared to die for their faith. They would be martyrs for the Thousand.
Dartulamino strode down the aisle, looking neither to the left nor the right as he approached the great dais at the front of the cathedral. His warriors marched behind him in precise formation, their metal-shod boots clanging on the marble floor. The Briantans were well-armed and fully rested; aside from manning the battering ram, they had spent their time on the plain outside the city recovering from their long march across Morenia.
Hal’s soldiers shuffled as the enemy marched between them, and every hand moved closer to a weapon. Nevertheless, Rani sensed the superstitious fear that gripped the local men. They were present for the Rites. They had gathered to concentrate their power for a battle. That concentration remained incomplete; final blessings had not been bestowed.
Hal had waited too long in summoning Father Siritalanu.
Beside Rani, Mair tensed as Dartulamino approached. The Touched woman spread her fingers over her silk square, as if she could protect the fabric from rending blades. Her breath came fast, and her eyes flashed wildly. She reached one claw toward the man she had wed, toward the father of her dead son, and it seemed that she was trying to alert Farsobalinti to the evil in their midst.
A high keening tore at the back of her throat, a sound of terror annealed with rage. Rani remembered stallions she had heard, declaring their fury in hopeless battles, and she recognized Mair’s passion.
Bon, Rani thought. The god of archers sounded like a stallion screaming.
But none of the archers inside this church had his weapons ready. And even if he had, not a single man would have dared to sight down a shaft. None would have been brave enough or ruthless enough or foolish enough to draw against the Holy Father of the church of the Thousand Gods.
Dartulamino paused on the first step of the dais, and his men fell into formation behind him. He glared at Father Siritalanu, his gaze searing beneath his helmet as if it had the power to set the younger priest on fire. Father Siritalanu stood firm, but his plump face grew as pale as the marble altar behind him. The wind tore down the cathedral aisle, unimpeded by the ragged shards of the broken doors, and the younger priest’s robes caught against him, outlining his body like a sad joke.
Father Siritalanu was no warrior. His legs were thin beneath his gown. His belly was soft. His arms had never been shaped by the weight of a sword. Nevertheless, he raised his chin and faced down the invaders as if he thought he could win this encounter.
Rani fought the urge to twist her hands in nervousness, to wring some confidence from her solemn gown. Why hadn’t they started the ceremony earlier that morning? Why hadn’t they completed the ritual swearing in of the soldiers the day before? Why were they unprepared in the face of Dartulamino’s dire threat?
Father Siritalanu’s breath came faster, and Rani suspected he was reciting the same catalog of failures. The poor man tried to draw himself up taller, straighter.
Beside Rani, Mair’s lips curled back in a snarl. Dartulamino was the man Mair blamed most for the loss of her son. The priest was one of the strongest members of the Fellowship of Jair; he had long been instrumental in coordinating the cabal in Morenia. To this day, neither Mair nor Rani—nor Hal himself, for that matter—had learned who had given the actual order to steal away Laranifarso. They did not know who had commanded the child’s execution. But Rani could still remember the instant they learned of the infant’s death, when Mair had toppled from a shrewd, spirited advisor to a madwoman bent on revenge.
Rani reached out and grasped Mair’s wrist, the bare one not wrapped in silk.
Father Siritalanu called out, “Who defiles the House of the Thousand Gods with implements of violence and a warlike mask?” The priest’s defiance might have inspired confidence among the loyal Morenian soldiers if his voice had not quaked.
“You know me, boy.” Holy Father Dartulamino’s voice echoed as if he stood on a parade ground. “You know me, and you fear me.”
“I f— fear no man who breaks into the House of the Thousand Gods!” Rani’s heart was wrenched as the priest’s brave defiance was hampered by his stammer. She pictured him kneeling beside the now-dead Berylina, speaking to the princess in reassuring tones. Siritalanu was meant to be a teacher, a guide, a peaceable man. He was not a warrior-priest.
“Stand down, boy, or I’ll have you spitted on the dais.”
“You would not dare, Dartulamino.” Father Siritalanu’s defiance was coated with incredulity. “Not here. Not in the House of the Thousand Gods. Not when my death would defile the church that you worked so hard to build these many years.”
For just an instant, Rani believed Dartulamino might listen to reason. After all, he appeared in the church surrounded by religious warriors, by Briantans marked by the Thousand-Pointed Star. Their very costume proclaimed these men were devoted to the gods. Would they really spill a priest’s blood upon the altar?
As if in answer to Rani’s questions, Dartulamino raised one commanding hand. His fingers were jagged pokers, and fire jutted from his eyes. “Remove that man from the House of the Thousand Gods!”
The Briantan soldiers sprang forward, but Hal’s voice froze them in the aisle. “Halt!”
Dartulamino turned a sneering gaze on his king. “You do not have the right to command my Briantans.”
Hal’s voice was as bright as the edge of a sword. “I have every right, Father, for they are my men as well. I am Defender of the Faith, am I not? Was I not sanctified in that duty by your own predecessor’s hand, in this very building?”
At first, Rani thought the Holy Father might be outsmarted that simply. He clearly had not anticipated Hal staking claim to any religious title. He had rallied his men by rebelling against secular authority.
Silently bolstering his claim, Hal shifted the heavy necklace of Js that lay upon his shoulders. “I am the heir of First Pilgrim Jair, Father.”
A part of Rani’s mind objected to Hal granting the priest his religious title. After all, what sort of religious man marched an army into a cathedral? What sort of priest raised angry steel in the very house of the Thousand Gods?
But then, Rani glanced at the Morenian soldiers assembled for the Rites. These were sworn to preserve order, to respect their liege lord and all he stood for. These were men who acted to maintain the world as they understood it, who—even though they would not shrink back from fear or terror or pain in battle—would cower at the destruction of their religious faith.
Hal granted Dartulamino his proper title, but he demanded that the priest rise to the responsibilities of that name. Hal bound the Holy Father to solemn obligation by acknowledging his strength.
“You have forfeited that claim, rebel,” Dartulamino spat, and his Briantan fighters grew more tense. “You have deluded your people with your claims of right and wrong, with your attempts to steal diadems and gold that were not yours for the taking.”
“What do you claim I have stolen, Father?” Hal’s challenge was hot and immediate. When he moved his hand to rest upon the grip of his sword, his hair flashed in the cobalt light.
Rani could not help but glance up at the window. She could barely keep from choking out a word of warning. No. That had been another time. That had been another threat. That had been another test that she had taken, that she had failed, all unknowing. Hal repeated, “What do you claim?”
Dartulamino took three steady steps, mounting to the top of the dais. He pulled himself to his full height, made even taller by the helmet atop his head. Hal looked very young, as if he were a child playing at a game of war.
Beside Rani, Mair writhed like a possessed creature, pulling her silken square between her fingers, tugging at the fabric as if she could make it disappear. Rani longed to reach out for her, to gather her close, to protect her from the man they knew was a murderer.
Hal darted a glance at the Touched woman, then flicked his attention to the stone-faced Farsobalinti. Before Hal could speak, Dartulamino roared, “By Jair, you cannot claim innocence about the blood upon your hands!”
By Jair. Dartulamino was making this Fellowship business.
Despite Mair’s strangled cry, Rani felt herself relax. She had not realized how difficult it was to fight a lifetime of teachings, to take a stand against the leader of the church that had nurtured her since infancy.
But Dartulamino did not stand on the dais as the embodiment of that church. Certainly, he bore its trappings—in his fine green robes, in his careful overgown of gauze. But he was not a priest today.
He was a conspirator. He was a messenger from the Fellowship of Jair. He was a leader of the secret organization that was bent on ruling all the world, on taking over the kingdom of Morenia, and of Brianta as well, of Liantine and Amanthia and all the distant lands it could reach.
Rani watched Hal measure out the same distinction. She sensed the certainty that settled over him as he accepted Dartulamino’s oath. Of course, the Fellowship was hidden to most of those who stood in the cathedral. Soldiers would not recognize the secret meaning behind the traitor-priest’s words. Father Siritalanu, Puladarati, Davin—none knew the depth of betrayal that stood inside the church.
Glancing at the ranks of soldiers, Rani knew Hal must act quickly. His warriors were growing confused. They had been excited by Father Siritalanu’s exhortation. They had gathered their strength to rise up against the invaders, against the ships that blockaded the harbor and the forces that besieged the city’s walls.
Now, though, they questioned the rightness of their fight.
And, looking out the broken doors of the cathedral, Rani wondered if the soldiers were not wise to quail. A giant plume of smoke rose from the city walls. Rani wondered what the invaders had done to create such billows of smoke, how they had managed so quickly to send such an incontrovertible signal.
She threw a quick glance to Davin, to see if the old man was working out the Briantans actions, how they had worked their war engines. The ancient advisor was nodding slowly, as if he were discovering some arcane method of waging war that even he had not considered in his decades of military calculation.
But what did it matter? What did it matter if the invaders had harnessed some Briantan trick, or merely received a healthy dollop of unholy luck? The city gates were burning.
And if the gates were burning, then the blockading vessels in the harbor would know the end was near. The Liantines would land their boats and bolster the Briantan forces. They would force their own ships into the harbor, up to the docks. They would add their naval crossbows to the Briantans’ weapons, and poor Moren would crumple under the weight.
Rani took a step forward to advise Halaravilli ben-Jair of the full extent of his danger, in case he had not recognized the pattern. The king’s jaw was tight as he glared back at Dartulamino. Had only seconds passed? Was Hal still formulating a response to the secret message his enemy had delivered?
“Aye, Father,” the king said. “In the name of Jair, the innocent must have clean hands.”
And then, as if he were not threatened, as if there were not enemy armies ranged before him, as if no navy waited to sail into his stronghold, Halaravilli ben-Jair turned his back on the invading priest. He raised his hand to Father Siritalanu and commanded, “Continue, Father. My men await your final blessing.”
“Your men will be cursed if that so-called priest speaks a single word in the name of the Thousand!” Dartulamino’s rage spattered across the cathedral floor.
“Continue,” Hal said, refusing to grant the rebel his attention.
Father Siritalanu tongue darted out to moisten his lips as he glanced from his worldly lord to his spiritual one. He raised his hands in a shaking holy gesture, and there was a long pause while pockets of men decided whether to sink to their knees to receive his blessing. “In the name of Arn and Bon, in the name of—”
“Will you risk your soul?” Dartulamino cried to Father Siritalanu. “Your soul and those of all the men who pray here?”
Many of the soldiers who had knelt scrambled to their feet, and more than one fist settled back on a weapon. Father Siritalanu managed to proclaim, “The only souls risked in the house are those that do not bow before the Thousand Gods.”
Holy Father Dartulamino’s sallow face grew dark. Rani heard him catch his breath; the sound was amplified by his helmet. She felt the tension curl through his fingers, up his arms, and into his gut. As if Mair were a mirror, the Touched woman stiffened as well, focusing all her anger and grief upon the single man.
“First God Ait will spit upon you,” Dartulamino said, and his voice quaked with fury, nearly as tremulous as poor Father Siritalanu’s had been at the beginning of the ceremony. “First Pilgrim Jair will look upon you with outraged laughter. All the Thousand will turn from you and glory in the ways that they can cause you grief. They will reach into your slumber. They will seize you while you are awake. They will strangle your minds and your hearts and leave you gasping like tiny children, abandoned in a winter storm.”
As if in response to the Holy Father’s exhortations, the sun moved behind a cloud bank, plunging both worshipers and invaders into shadows. At the same time, the cobalt light that came from the Defender’s Window seemed to intensify, pulling in upon itself so that Halaravilli ben-Jair was more captivating, more controlling, more important than he had ever been before.
Hal stepped forward, raising his chin so his necklace of Js was at the perfect angle to reflect the beam from the window. “Father Siritalanu,” he said, and his voice was so soft, so even, that he might have been speaking to a child. “Finish with your service. Complete the War Rites so my men will best be able to defend me with the strength of their arms and the faith in their hearts.”
Father Siritalanu appeared unable to follow his king’s command. The priest’s boyish face trembled as if he were a child shamed before his elders. Flushing, the priest raised his hands in a familiar holy gesture, but he seemed to have forgotten all his words.
And in that instant of hesitation, in that pause where all the Thousand Gods seemed uncertain whether to rush in or abandon the rightful cause of Moren, Dartulamino raised his arms. He threw back his head and bellowed, “To me, Briantans! To all that is holy in this house of gods! To me!”
For a heartbeat, Hal’s loyal troops were frozen in shock. Then, swords clattered from sheaths. Spears were leveled. Axes were hefted to shoulders, arrows nocked to bows.
Dartulamino tossed back his priest-green robes, revealing heavy sheets of chain mail. The man had never expected peace in the House of the Thousand Gods. Dartulamino raised his hands and began to summon the gods, chanting through the decades of their names as if the very syllables graced him with power.
Rani’s mind was filled with the presence of each god he summoned. Her senses were overwhelmed by sights and sounds, touches and tastes, by countless scents. How had Berylina borne this? How had the princess subjected herself to endless worship? How had she submitted to the ever-changing emanations of the Thousand?
Rani shut her eyes against the nauseating array. Her knees buckled, and her breath came fast and sharp.
“Come along, then!” Suddenly, there was a strong hand beneath her arm, pulling her upright and forcing air back into her lungs. She opened her eyes and blinked hard, bringing Mair into focus. “We’d best be leavin’ this.”
“Mair—” Rani struggled for words.
“Aye, ’n’ Laranifarso, too.” The girl gestured toward her silk square. “We came t’ ’elp ye, since ye seem all unfit t’ ’elp yerself.”
“Help?” Rani asked, not comprehending. Open battle boiled in the cathedral behind her. Horrible oaths echoed off the stone spine of the cavernous space. When Rani dared a glance over one shoulder, she saw one of the Briantans stumble past a side chapel, pulling down an ornate curtain meant to honor Lor, the god of silk.
“Aye, Rai. Lar ’ere is a smart un. ’E knew there’d be trouble. ’E told me t’ come prepared.”
“How could he—” Rani started to protest, and then she looked at the scrap of black silk and fell silent. Mair was mad. Whatever fantasies her broken mind wove, whatever dreams she played out now…
“Dinna argue wi’ me, Rai.” The Touched woman certainly sounded reasonable, as sound as she ever had. “Ye’ll do as I say, ’n’ p’raps ye’ll live through th’ day.”
A vicious clatter forced Rani to spin around, and she saw ranks of candelabra toppled to the floor, their offerings to Tren flying. Soldiers leaped back from the burning wicks. One of the Briantans, discernible by the over-size Thousand Pointed Star embroidered on his chest, picked up a sharp-pointed stand and lunged into a knot of Morenian soldiers. He was cut down, his blood spraying across the altar dedicated to the god of candles.
Mair laughed, and her cold glee was more frightening than anything else she had said or done in all her days of madness. “Are ye wi’ us, then, Rai? Are ye wi’ us, or d’ ye plan t’ stay ’ere ’n’ be cut down?”
Another Briantan leaped into a group of soldiers loyal to Hal, and fierce blows echoed off shields. Oaths rang out in the cathedral, and the sickening stench of entrails wafted on the wind that blew through the shattered door.
“I’m with you,” Rani said, and she caught the victorious gleam in Mair’s eye.
The Touched girl nodded once, and then she sprang past the dais. Rani never would have sought shelter there, away from the doors, away from the city, away from escape. Mair, though, leaped as if she had a plan. She moved with more certainty than she had in months.
As Rani watched her friend move, she called out, “Sire!”
It was a sign of the devotion between them that Hal looked up at her cry. He did not hesitate to respond to the command in her one word; he trusted her, even in the midst of treachery and chaos. Against the battleground of the cathedral, she saw him measure her gesture. She watched him start to shake his head, to turn back to his soldiers, to his pitiful, betrayed men.
But then the choice was taken from him. Farsobalinti bulled into his king, forcing his liege back one step, two, three. A group of soldiers swirled in front of the dais, as if they knew what Mair intended, and Farso took advantage of the chaos to push Hal forward even more forcefully.
Hal tried to plant his feet, but he did not stand a chance. Farso worked against him, and then Davin and Puladarati and Father Siritalanu and a handful of loyal fighting men. All of them rolled past Rani, tumbling after Mair through a doorway hidden in the floor behind the altar. Steps disappeared into darkness.
Rani hesitated on the threshold. Where was Mair taking them? What secret passage had she mastered years ago, during her misspent youth as a Touched wench who ransacked the city for her personal gain? What was to keep the invading soldiers from following them?
Rani bit back an oath as strong fingers wrapped around her arm. Mair had come back through the passage and was pulling her into the darkness. “Rai!” the Touched woman shouted. “Now! Or ye might as well prepare t’ meet Tarn ’imself!”
Rani’s eyes were clouded by the green-black wings of the god of death; he always hovered near. Before she could blink away his presence, Mair pulled her forward, into the darkness, into the relative quiet. And then Davin stood at the top of the stairs, resting his hands on the frame of the stone-cut door. He nodded once to himself, as if he had discovered some secret magic.
The old man cast one glance down the dim corridor, and then he twisted his wrists, manipulating a hidden latch. The door glided closed behind them, cutting off light, cutting off sound, cutting off the battle above and sealing away the small force who remained loyal to their lost cause.
Character development is strong as Rani continues to struggle with her past. As with the previous novels, this has a gritty sense of realism that belies the fantasy setting and imperfect characters who strive to rectify their mistakes. Rani’s growing awareness of her own destiny and the difficult choices she faces resonate and evoke sympathy for this strong heroine.