(Go back to Part 36)
“The greatest threat to the living is the living.
The dead are implacable. Their minds are made up. They will act as they will.
But the living may not choose to survive.”
–The Lexicon, Mastersbook 34:12
The winds were good and two days carried them across the strait. Another pillar, the twin of Falcon’s Watch, rose on the headland here. McCann told Alex its name; Kingspillar.
There were many more ships on this side of the strait. Two coasters beat around Kingspillar as they passed by, while a huge three-masted trader stood further out to sea. A group of fishing boats had their nets cast on the Gulf of Rothos side of the cape, but the Olive Bough soon left them behind.
The headlands eroded quickly on this side of the strait, soon giving way to rolling hills wrapped in oak and beech trees. The leaves were turning and the harvest was in—they took on crates of apples and oranges along with casks of blackberry cordial, huge wheels of mild cheese, and tobacco, dried and packed. Sacks and sacks of peanuts were everywhere, but little cotton. “Boll weevil” was the story at village after village.
These were no simple trading posts, but proper villages with schools and churches. Curate chapter houses were not uncommon, but more usual were small stone keeps flying a pair of flags. The top was always the same—green on bottom, black on top, separated by a jagged line—while the bottom flag differed.
“Minor Knights, sworn to House Elaine. They raise the house’s flag over their own, and well they should. House Elaine has kept the peace here for a hundred years. There are grown men here who have never seen the zombii, or heard a sword drawn in anger.”
They spent three days anchored in the shadow of Ellenbern, a great city of brown timber buildings that sat on the edge of Bluefish Bay. Overlooking the city was a sprawling castle that flew the standard of House Elaine. “Lord Franklund rules there, head of House Elaine and Bern of the Black Forest,” explained McCann. “He’s friendly enough to the Curate . . . usually.”
From Ellenbern they sailed Northwest across Bluefish bay to the spit. “It won’t be long now,” said McCann. “We’ll be at Antioch tomorrow if the wind holds.”
The next morning Alex rose early. She came on deck at first light, bundled in a thick blanket. Mist lay heavy on the ocean, although the wind was still up and gray vapor was streaming through the rigging. The taut black lines dripped with moisture. Captain Eskar was on deck, too, along with most of the crew. McCann alone was absent—he’d been more sullen than usual since passing the strait.
The mist paled, and a brilliant white disk appeared behind them as the sun began to burn off the morning vapor. A yellow point of light rose in the darkness ahead of them as if to complement it, flashing once and then disappearing. A minute later it flashed again. Captain Eskar ordered a slight course correction. Alex’s heart jumped in her chest as she realized she’d just caught her first glimpse of the Citadel of Antioch.
As the fog continued to thin, the sun caught the tip of Isla Sancta’s peaked mountain. It dominated the island, sheer on the south side that faced them, but less severe to the north where a ridge stretched away for miles. A long stair on the east face led up to a garrison and a tower—the Flame Tower, where a flame was always burning to guide ships through the night.
All of this Alex had read before a hundred times in Goodhollow. To see it now, though, with her own eyes . . . it took her breath away.
The clouds continued to thin, and Alex shed her blanket as the sun fell on the deck. Masts and sails appeared all around them—coasters, traders, fishing boats, whalers from the ocean to the west, mail ships with raked masts and slim hulls, ponderous long distance merchantmen from the east—there were hundreds of ships, all passing through the narrows between the mainland and the Isla Sancta.
A squat fortress sat at the southern tip of the island, overlooking the narrows. Behind it, separated by a moat and narrow drawbridge, was the city of Antioch. Buildings, made of the same gray stone of the mountain’s exposed flank, melted into the grasping tendrils of fog that were still clinging to land. Blue woodsmoke rose over the city in a different type of haze as cook fires and kilns came to life for the day’s work.
The taller buildings were plastered brilliant white and lined the long wide street that cut straight north from the harbor fortress. It was crossed at right angles two-thirds of the way up by another wide street at the Founder’s Square. The west branch of this street ended at the docks, Alex knew, while the east ended at the Credo cathedral on its stony bluff. The cathedral’s dome was one of the tallest buildings in the city.
But the citadel was taller. A gaping oval gate stood at the top of the long road, staring down at the smaller fortress across the length of the city. Angular walls, punctuated with squat towers, ringed the citadel, sloped sharply back and polished smooth. Another ring of walls, taller and more sheer, ran just behind the outer layer. Both were anchored against the sheer rock face of Isla Sancta’s peak and formed a three-quarters circle. Inside was a maze of stone buildings, half cut into the stone behind them and connected with arched bridges. The footing for the flame tower ran down through it all, clinging to the cliff face as it widened.
An hour after daybreak, McCann was still nowhere to be seen. She found him below in the hold, propped against a cask of cordial with his sword naked in his lap. A whetstone sang in his hand as he sharpened the blade.
“We can see the citadel; Captain Eskar says we’ll be alongside in an hour,” she told him.
McCann grunted and continued sharpening his sword.
“We . . . won’t be needing swords, will we?” asked Alex.
McCann grunted again. “Unfortunately not.”
McCann was down the gangway as soon as the Olive Bough was warped into the pier. He didn’t even cast a glance up at the citadel looming in the distance, but bulled his way into the crowd. Alex had to run after him to keep up.
Their first stop was at a stable near the docks. Here they found the horses, just as Captain Tyrus had promised. The one-eyed, one-legged innkeeper who owned the stable had a voice like rusted chain being dragged over broken stones. “I thought to meself, that Tobias has finally got hisself et up by the zombii, an’ now I’ll never see the coin he owes me fer keeping ‘is horses. An’ of course he got two of them, somehow, so as they’d eat twice as much of poor Lothar’s grain . . .”
“Lothar, I’ll be back with silver once I visit the citadel, just write the damn bill already!” McCann scowled at him.
Lothar smiled, revealing that his luck at keeping his teeth was not much better than his luck with keeping his limbs. “Ah, I shoulda known you’d be too thin an’ gristly for ’em, Sergeant, an’ that they’d spit you right back up. No coin, either—well, no harm there. The Seneschel’s not like to be happy ta see ya even if you weren’t bringin’ ‘im unpaid bills.”
“Aye, but don’t you be writing any grain on that bill,” said McCann, feeling his horse’s ribs. “These horses have had precious little of that, by my eye.”
“Tha’s not Lothar’s fault, it’s those long sea voyages, bad for the digestion, you know?”
McCann collected the bill and went to leave, but Alex was still rooting through Brutus’s saddlebags. She couldn’t find Dalia’s journal.
“Acolyte! Let’s go!”
“I . . . uh, need my papers of recommendation from the headmaster.” Alex had found them already, but Dalia’s journal was gone. Everything else was still there—except for the journal. Alex didn’t know what to think of this.
“Well, hurry up!” McCann was growing impatient. Finally, Alex gave up. The big horse whinnied when she went to leave. “I’ll be back soon, boy,” she rubbed his nose once, distracted. Where could the journal have gone?
McCann jammed the receipt into his pocket. Alex tagged along behind him as the sergeant stormed off down the street.
Soon they were at the citadel’s gate, waiting in line for the sentry. McCann gave their names to the guard. “Knight-Sergeant Tobias McCann, traveling from Tyre with dispatches for the Grand Master. Acolyte Alexis, to take the precepts.”
“The Grand Master’s been away for a month. The council rules in his stead, but you’ll have to go through the Chapter Master,” said the sentry.
“Desdemona. Wonderful.” McCann swore under his breath. “Where can I find her?”
“The Island Tower.” The guard waved them through.
Alex and McCann passed under the thick outer wall, turned left, and followed the path a few hundred feet before reached the inner gate. Here they were waved through again into the inner plaza of the citadel.
The Island Tower was not actually an island. It was named because all affairs of the Isla Sancta chapter were managed from within. The blocky storehouses and offices of the Island Tower took up one entire side the citadel’s main square. McCann and Alex passed under its arched front into an interior courtyard, where he gave their names and again and was asked to sit down. They took a seat on a bench.
As they sat, Alex started to notice the veiled stares of passersby. A steady stream of knights, captains, and other Curate irregulars were flowing through the courtyard between the carefully trimmed shrubbery and the simple marble fountain. Most were clad in immaculate white tunics emblazoned with the single flame cut in brilliant red; those in armor were clad in shining oiled mail. Learned brothers, librarians, and chaplains passed by as well, some with gold chains hanging from their necks. Faces were scrubbed clean, beards were neatly trimmed, and rose petals were scattered around the base of the fountain to give off a pleasant smell.
Alex felt very out of place, sitting there filthy in her faded brown and gray, smelling of tar, sweat, and the sea. She didn’t even have a sword—the belt hung around her waist, empty scabbard rattling against her knees as she walked, reminding her with every step of the blade rusting in the river near the Weeping Tree. By comparison, a passing knight’s sword was decorated with a huge ruby set into the pommel.
At least McCann was armed, thought Alex; all she had was a disgusting withered hand and a useless scabbard. The sergeant was in his usual slouch; exaggerated a bit, Alex thought, although it could have been the ramrod-straight postures of everyone else around them that made it look that way.
They were definitely attracting stares; she was more and more sure of it each moment. Most people had the courtesy to pretend not to see them. A few hid smiles behind their hands; one knight laughed out loud. Alex’s stomach began to sink. This was not how she’d imagined arriving in Antioch.
Their names were called. “Knight-Sergeant McCann and Acolyte.” McCann’s name drew a few whispers from the other men waiting in the courtyard, but they were through the doorway soon enough and out of earshot. McCann knew the way—he led them up three levels of a wide spiral staircase, crossed a landing, walked down a long corridor, and stopped in front of an oaken door. A footman in a plain white tunic, iron mail, and a half-helm moved his spear aside to let them pass.
Alex was reminded of Headmaster Barrius’s office the moment she stepped through the door. Large arched windows looked out over the courtyard below, and a desk sat in front of them. The Chapter Master’s office was three times the size of the Barrius’s, though, and the bookshelves were lined with neat leather-bound volumes instead of practice swords and battered helmets. Two clerks scribbled away at their own desks in the corner. The only swords in the room were mounted on pegs, high out of reach, and were heavily gilded.
A woman sat at the desk writing a letter. Her robes were thick and lined with black fur. A red flame lined in gold pinned them together—the sigil of the Isla Sancta. She had thick black eyebrows on a long, thin face, and gave the impression of a small person wearing large clothes.
“McCann.” The voice was smooth, careful, and not without beauty.
“Desdemona,” he said.
“Chapter Master Artunian to you, Knight-Sergeant,” she said. “Tell me, how long has it been? Six months? Eight?”
“Near enough,” he replied.
“And yet never quite long enough to get the smell out of my office,” she said.
“Some things smell worse than a soldier in the field. It’s my pleasure to remind you of that,” replied McCann.
They glared at each other.
“So, Sergeant,” the Chapter Master steepled her fingers. “What outlandish story can you bring me this time? I assume you have a good reason for being,” she made a show of checking her calendar, “. . . what, three months late?”
“Sinclair. He blocked the passes to the Curate,” said McCann.
“We know. It really took you three months to get around?”
Desdemona blinked as surprise replaced her disdain. “Dead? Are you sure?”
McCann began to tell the story. After a few sentences, the Chapter Master waved to one of her clerks, who began to take down McCann’s account on paper. She didn’t interrupt, waiting until the sergeant had finished before saying anything.
There was a long silence—Desdemona ran her tongue under her upper lip once time, slowly. “And so your only witness to any of this is a one-armed Acolyte?”
“It’s only a hand, she didn’t lose the whole arm. And she’s still got her letter of recommendation,” said McCann.
Alex pulled the oilcloth packet from where it was stashed in her pocket. It was battered and worn, but Barrius’s seal was still visible.
“And I’ve got dispatches from Mudfort, and a half-dozen chapter houses between there and Ellenbern.” McCann added another few packets, forming a loose grimy pile on Artunian’s desk. The Chapter Master’s lip curled as crusted dirt crumbled from the pages.
“Well.” She tapped her steepled fingers together. “I’ll see that your story reaches the Grand Master’s desk . . . fanciful as it may be. He’s due back any day now. Until then,” she smiled, “I’m sure there’s some sentry duty I can find for you.”
“You’re too kind.” McCann’s voice dripped sarcasm.
Desdemona Artunian waved a hand and their interview was over. McCann led them outside, unrolling the orders that Desdemona’s clerk had scribbled for him. “Of course. Midnight watch. Seaward wall. That’ll be nice and chilly.” He cursed under his breath again, without conviction. “Come on.”
“Where are we going?” asked Alex.
“I need to drop you off at the Acolytes’ Tower. There you’ll stay until the trials. Then I need to see the Seneschel—”
“What about Brutus?”
“—if you’d let me finish, I’d explain that I need to see the Seneschel about stable space for the horses. Brutus will be taken care of until the trials.”
“Oh,” said Alex, somewhat abashed.
They followed a narrow street off the plaza, and then took a set of steps down into the roots of the mountain. In a dim alcove McCann rapped against a wooden door. It opened and they were brought inside a narrow room cut from the living rock and lit with torches.
A sleepy man sat at the desk inside. He wore the blue robes of an apprentice scribe and was nodding over a fat ledger. McCann roused him by kicking a table leg.
“Oy! You! Go tell Osmund I’ve got another one for him; unless he’s finally died, that is.”
“Ha! You should be so lucky, Tobias.” An old knight, short, bald, and spotted, appeared from the back room. “I’m like to outlive all of you. It’s been awhile since you brought me a fresh one.”
“More than a year. They only let me stay a day last time . . . not that I was complaining. Desdemona will probably have me a bit longer this time, just to remind me which part of my neck her boot sits on.”
“Hrmph.” The knight McCann called Osmund turned to Alex. “And who are you?”
“Alexis, sir, of Goodhollow, North of Dunheim.”
“Hrmph.” He looked her over. “Too young, too short, too skinny, too scared. What happened to her hand?”
“Accident,” said McCann.
“Hrmph. She hasn’t even got a sword.” He sniffed once. “By God, Tobias, she even smells like you.”
“She’ll be fine. Write her in already, I’ve got business to attend to.”
The scribe took down Alex’s name and home chapter in his book. McCann clapped a hand on her back once, and then with a nod to Sir Osmund he was gone. The old man turned to Alex.
“All right, Acolyte Alexis-Goodhollow-North-of-Dunheim. Welcome to the cave.”
(Go on to Part 38)