" An authoritative reworking of history, combining a splendid welter of religious and political intrigues with Duncan's typically inventive, deft handling of magic and character-driven action... the author is back in top form. " - Kirkus Reviews
" Duncan excels in finding imaginative ways to present supernatural powers, and his latest series proves no exception." - Library Journal
"...a strong, exciting, and enthralling historical fantasy." - Harriet Klausner
It is a truth universally acknowledged that agreements negotiated in the dead of night rarely last as long as those signed in daylight.
The hour was late, but candles still burned in the royal palace in Mauvnik. After a long day, the king’s chief minister was still in his office. Cardinal Zdenek’s working hours were legendary, even now, but age was weighing on him at last and tonight he wished he felt fresher and more confident of his ability to cope. He had just opened critical negotiations with a wily and dangerous opponent.
She went by the name of Lady Umbral. She was grandly attired in a gown of white samite, shot through with silk thread; her jewels would have ransomed a minor king. From her lofty steeple hat trailed a gossamer veil that hid her features well. When Zdenek had met her eighteen years ago, she had seemed older than he; but now his hands were gnarled and obscenely marred by age spots, while hers, which were all that he could clearly see of her, were creamy smooth. She might not even be the same woman. “Umbral” was just a title, like “pope”.
“Some wine, my lady?”
She declined, as he had expected. To drink she would have had to lift her veil and she had not done that when she kissed his cardinal’s ring.
Brother Daniel, Zdenek’s secretary, sat dutifully at his desk behind the door, a gangling, scrawny young man, anonymous and unimportant in his Franciscan gray robe and leather eyepatch. Several Brother Daniels took turns attending the cardinal; not all were genuine friars, but all were Speakers. The two companions the lady had brought with her sat side-by-side near the curtained windows, counting rosaries. They were dressed as senior servants, silent and anonymous, their faces concealed by the protruding brims and lappets of their bonnets, but one of them would be a Speaker, too.
“I am honored that you came in person, my lady,” he said.
“My pleasure. It is far too long since we crossed swords. Besides, I happened to be in the area.” That might mean anywhere south of Sweden or west of Cathay.
“I know you travel widely. How is Christendom?”
“Boiling with war and vice, plague and hunger, as usual.” Her voice was low-pitched and her accent intriguingly unidentifiable. They were, of course, conversing in Latin. “And how is Jorgary? Your king is still breathing sometimes, I understand. Quite a feat, that. Your crown prince continues to wallow in what all young men long to wallow in and rich ones usually do.”
“And the old condemn, forgetting their own past.”
“And yourself?” she purred. “Jorgary suffered a shattering defeat in the War of the Boundary Stone two years ago. Many bets were laid that your long reign had come to an end at last.”
“It was not on my recommendation that His Majesty decided to invade Bavaria.” Konrad had been talked into it by the meddlesome crown prince, who had seen himself as Jorgary’s answer to Alexander the Great. The army had seen to it that the brat never got anywhere near the fighting, but the Bavarians had won hands-down anyway.
“You got blamed for it,” Umbral said with a chuckle. “Life is so unfair, isn’t it? I suspect that the outcry still echoes, or you would not have called out to me for help. How can I assist, Your Eminence?”
Eighteen years ago, soon after Zdenek had been appointed King Konrad’s chief minister, the woman had come to him, asking that a certain convicted rapist be spared the noose. The case had been odious, and Zdenek had been very reluctant to grant her wish. On the other hand, he had heard of her power and was even less inclined to make an enemy of her. He had set an impossible price on his cooperation by demanding a cardinal’s hat.
Lady Umbral had quietly agreed. So he had arranged the royal pardon she sought and within a month the pope had summoned him to Rome to be ordained a deacon and inducted into the College of Cardinals. That was true power! King Konrad had been so impressed that he had let Zdenek run the country for him ever since. In all those years he had communicated with Lady Umbral rarely and always indirectly. This was only their second meeting, and the fact that she had come in person suggested that she might need something from him as much as he needed help from her.
“Duke Wartislaw of Pomerania has invaded Jorgarian territory,” he said.
She nodded impatiently.
“Specifically, he is moving a monster bombard down the gorge of the Ruzena River to lay siege to Castle Gallant.”
“Brave of him to launch such a venture so late in the year,” she murmured. “He’s a cunning young rogue, Wartislaw, yet inclined to be foolhardy. Of course Castle Gallant stands athwart the Silver Road and has been regarded as impregnable for centuries. Alas, those days are over and done with. It will blow away like a cloud of feathers if the Wends attack it with firearms. So you must stop the gun being emplaced. You need troops, Your Eminence, not a frail little woman like me.”
“Describing you as frail, my lady, would be like calling the Danube seepage. Wartislaw is in league with the devil.”
“Ah!” She breathed the word seductively. Satanism changed matters. Satanism was her business. “You are sure of that?”
“Very. You have heard of Havel Vranov, Count Pelrelm, lord of the march?”
“The Hound of the Hills?”
“That one. All his life he has fought the Wends like a rabid hellcat and now he has changed sides and is engaging in treason against Jorgary. He has also apostatized, gone over to the Greek Orthodox Church. His priest is a Speaker. Of that I am confident, if not quite certain. But that priest, Father Vilhelmas, who has repeatedly been seen in Havel’s company, was leading the vanguard of the Pomeranian army the day before yesterday. They were well inside Jorgarian territory.”
Umbral laughed. “If you are aware of what happened in one of your northern marches just two days ago, Your Eminence, then I question your moral right to censure the duke for dabbling in Satanism.”
He smiled tolerantly. “Two weeks ago, Count Bukovany and his son were struck down by Satanism. That news took eight days to reach me. Our minister of the army told me that it would be a month or more before he could assemble a force and deliver it to Cardice. Meanwhile, of course, Castle Gallant and the entire county were leaderless and vulnerable.”
“How tragic for you!” Lady Umbral said with a crocodile chuckle. “You faced a second disaster in less than two years. Your life flashed before your eyes, ending with the flash of the headsman’s ax. The crown prince called in his hatter and began trying on crowns? Meanwhile, your entire team of Speakers is fully occupied keeping the old king alive and guarding you!”
Again Zdenek refused to rise to her bait. “I sent a Speaker. He is young and inexperienced, but so far he has done a wonderful job. However, the Wends are unlikely to have limited themselves to one such helper—Hannibal took more than one elephant when he crossed the Alps. In short, my man needs to be reinforced.”
Speakers moved much faster than conventional troops.
The woman lowered her head and touched a fingertip to her lips to indicate that she was thinking. “I need to know more,” she concluded. “Where did you find a spare falcon around?”
“I like to keep a few in reserve.”
“So do we all, and only the pope can ever afford to. The Saints currently supply you with five hirelings, two of whom are growing old, as we all are, and all of whom must be fully occupied already, as I said.” She glanced around briefly at Brother Daniel, but if she offered a smile, her veil hid it. “The Church has five or six Speakers in Jorgary, possibly seven. So where did you find another? I won’t help unless you give me all the facts.”
Zdenek never lost his temper. “It so happened that I had become aware of a new Speaker just the previous day.” He was proud of his speedy reaction to an unexpected opportunity—the old warhorse’s mettle had not rusted yet. “A young esquire recently came to Mauvnik to enlist in His Majesty’s Light Hussars. Twenty years old, the sort of arrogant whippersnapper who breaks ladies’ hearts and men’s heads with equal abandon. A week ago, he pulled off an incredible demonstration of horsemanship before half the court, at a hunt in the royal forest.”
“My, my! How convenient. A miraculous feat?”
“At least spectacular,” Zdenek said complacently. “He was mostly trying to impress the women, of course. But he is sprung of a notable baronial family, so, with His Majesty’s permission, I sent for the lad and appointed him Count Magnus of Cardice.”
She laughed aloud. “A count at twenty? Did he pinch himself very hard?”
“No, he seemed to regard it as more or less his right. He certainly did not question his own suitability for the post. I also passed on His Majesty’s command that he marry the late count’s daughter, Madlenka Bukovany, a fabled beauty of seventeen. That seemed only fitting.”
She laughed again. “I expect he thought so.”
“I even explained that his odds of surviving to enjoy her or any of the rest of it were very slight, but by then there was no holding him. He was out of here like a ferret down a coney hole.”
“A Speaker as count?” the lady mused. “An interesting ploy.” Speakers usually operated out of the public eye. They could be instantly identified by other Speakers and public miracles would expose them to the wrath of the Church, which was ready enough to use its own Speakers, but condemned occult “talent” in the laity as Satanism.
“No,” the Cardinal admitted. “The Speaker was his younger brother, who was attending him as his varlet, Wulfgang by name.”
“Ah! And how old is he?”
For a moment she did not speak, and he sensed a very shrewd mind at work behind her veil. “So his talent should be fully developed. It is curious that the Saints have not heard of him and the Church has not enlisted him. Who trained him?”
“I did not inquire.”
“You don’t mean he’s a haggard? You sent a haggard into a war?”
“Whether haggard or trained, he has done extremely well. He moved himself and his brother safely to Cardice. His brother proclaimed himself count and promptly showed that he meant business by hanging the constable of Castle Gallant for treason. A couple of days later he received a surely fatal wound when he blundered into the Wends’ vanguard near the border. Wulfgang healed him. After all that, the boy went home to report to the head of the family.”
“He must have nerves of iron and an incredible resistance to pain.”
“Quite so,” Zdenek said impatiently. Magnus males were all human bulls. The boy had shown he could cope and would cooperate—at what cost to himself was irrelevant.
“And the new count—Anton?—is his cadger?”
“Possibly. These matters were not mentioned when I spoke with the Magnus boy.” But they had both known that sorcery would be required to get the lad to Castle Gallant in the time available. “Yesterday, the baron himself, their brother, came to call on me. He pointed out that one Speaker is not enough to counter an entire army. It is a reasonable request.”
“Mm.... Speakers are in very short supply just now.” Lady Umbral turned to her two companions. “Justina?”
The taller of the two looked up from her rosary. “My lady?”
“Would you enjoy a few days’ vacation in fabled Castle Gallant, freezing in those ghastly mountains, defending it from ravening hordes of Wends?”
“Among droves of handsome young men-at-arms, my lady? Singing romantic ballads to me under my window?” No mere servant spoke so, or in such polished Latin.
“More likely an insufferable raunchy rabble of diseased, flea-ridden drunks.”
“Life as usual, then. A few days would make a pleasant change from dusting.”
Lady Umbral turned back to the cardinal. “I believe I could spare one Speaker, but for a limited time only.”
“Not enough,” he said flatly. “Not nearly enough.”
“No?” Her voice hardened. “Then there would seem to be no purpose in continuing this conversation. I am not merely staking out a bargaining position, Your Eminence. One is all I can possibly spare at this time. When winter is over, perhaps more. Have you asked Archbishop Svaty to lend you one of his? The Church has plenty.”
Svaty would help if he could, because the Wends belonged to the Orthodox faith, but his price would certainly include Wulfgang Magnus himself, and Zdenek had his own plans for the boy.
“What can one more Speaker achieve against an army?” he demanded.
Lady Umbral had the French knack of shrugging graciously. “Against the bombard, you mean. The gun is critical to your problem is it not? Wartislaw has little time to take the fortress before the weather drives him back home. Pomerania needs the tolls it levies on the merchant caravans just as much as Jorgary does, and he cannot afford to keep the Silver Road closed for long. That explains why he launched his campaign so late in the year: he waited until the great fall trading fairs were over. Spike the gun or roll it into a lake and you will have won.”
“True,” Zdenek admitted. “And I am confident that the boy could achieve that, but the Wends will certainly have posted their own Speakers to guard it, so he needs protection while he does it.”
“What do you offer in return?”
“What do you ask?”
“The hand of a princess.” Now there was no mistaking the smile behind her voice. “Jorgary’s delectable Lamia, of course. Sweet sixteen and beautiful by any standard, not just as the usual courtesy compliment awarded to royalty.”
No! No!! No!!! Zdenek had been urgently matchmaking all over Christendom for months, frantic to see a betrothal contract signed and sealed before the old king died and his grandson appointed a new first minister. Princess Lamia was not only a beauty, she was second in line to the throne, and her brother showed no signs of fathering an heir. The bidding was spirited, and the cream that Zdenek expected to skim off this one contract might exceed all the graft that had flowed his way in the last twenty years. Now he knew why this hag had answered his call so promptly, but if she thought she was going to sup one spoonful of that deal, she was hugely mistaken.
“There have been negotiations,” he admitted. “Which suitor are you backing?”
“A very suitable young man, with a distant claim to the crown of France”
Louis of Rouen! Zdenek registered polite regret. “This is not yet public knowledge, but in fact a marriage contract has been initialed and will be finalized within a week. So the princess is not available. Name a second choice.”
The lady remained silent for at least a minute, which was always a good debating technique. He remained silent also, and eventually she spoke.
“A piece of the Wulfgang boy. About half would be fair, I think.”
“Oh, no! ‘Finders keepers!’ That’s the rule we all play by.”
She shook her head vigorously. “The Church doesn’t, and in this case I won’t. Blue-blood Speakers are rare and therefore precious. Besides, if Gallant falls he may well die with it, so his life is worth very little at the moment. Your back is to the wall, Your Eminence. Obviously Duke Wartislaw blindsided you. Another military disaster like the Bavarian campaign and you will have nowhere to put that red hat of yours. I can spare Justina for a week, maybe two, which should be plenty. Take it or leave it.”
Again she paused, leaving him staring at that faceless veil. Finally she said, “A third of him, then. My final offer.”
Zdenek mentally shuffled papers into heaps, which was his way of weighing decisions. The boy could not possibly save Castle Gallant singlehanded if the Wends had arrayed more than one Speaker against him—right. If Gallant fell, then both the boy and Zdenek himself were likely going to go down with it—right again. Archbishop Svaty might be willing to assign two or three of the Church’s Speakers to keep the Orthodox Wends from taking a Catholic fortress—left. But Svaty’s price would certainly include the boy himself and probably much else—right. Lady Umbral was a trader in magic that the Church publicly condemned as Satanism, whatever it really believed, and thus her dealings must always be secret and her reputation for honesty was vital to her continued success, but no one could ever dare denounce her if she cheated. Now that she knew about the boy, if she were not bound by some sort of agreement she might well feel free to grab him for her own purposes, leaving the castle, Zdenek, and Jorgary to fall together—right.
He sighed and nodded. “Your Justina must serve until the Wends withdraw, though. As you said, it cannot be very long.”
“Until the Wends withdraw or the castle falls.”
“If the castle and the boy survive, then you get one third of him.” There might still be opportunities to renege on that part of the agreement. The Magnus family had a long tradition of patriotism and service to their king.
“The password is ‘Greenwood’.”
“How do we arrange the travel?”
“Brother Daniel has met Count Anton. Brother?”
The friar nodded. “But the hour is late to go calling on a fortress under siege, Your Eminence. Men-at-arms in dangerous situations often strike first and ask questions too late.” He removed his eyepatch to let the visitors have a clear look at his face. “If you will come calling on me tomorrow morning at, say, terce, my lady, I shall be happy to conduct you to Cardice.”
“I’m no ‘lady’,” the Speaker said. “Just Justina. I will see you then, brother.”
The women rose as one.
“A pleasure doing business with you, Eminence,” Lady Umbral said.
A gap seemed to open in the air itself. All three stepped through it and vanished, leaving the cardinal with his hand out, offering his ring to empty air.