Best Served Cold Extract
The sunrise was the colour of bad blood. It leaked out of the east and stained the dark sky red, marked the scraps of cloud with stolen gold. Underneath it the road twisted up the mountainside towards the fortress of Fontezarmo – a cluster of sharp towers, ash-black against the wounded heavens. The sunrise was red, black and gold.
The colours of their profession.
‘You look especially beautiful this morning, Monza.’
She sighed, as if that was an accident. As if she hadn’t spent an hour preening herself before the mirror. ‘Facts are facts. Stating them isn’t a gift. You only prove you’re not blind.’ She yawned, stretched in her saddle, made him wait a moment longer. ‘But I’ll hear more.’
He noisily cleared his throat and held up one hand, a bad actor preparing for his grand speech. ‘Your hair is like to . . . a veil of shimmering sable!’
‘You pompous cock. What was it yesterday? A curtain of midnight. I liked that better, it had some poetry to it. Bad poetry, but still.’
‘Shit.’ He squinted up at the clouds. ‘Your eyes, then, gleam like piercing sapphires, beyond price!’
‘I’ve got stones in my face, now?’
‘Lips like rose petals?’
She spat at him, but he was ready and dodged it, the phlegm clearing his horse and falling on the dry stones beside the track. ‘That’s to make your roses grow, arsehole. You can do better.’
‘Harder every day,’ he muttered. ‘That jewel I bought looks wonderful well on you.’
She held up her right hand to admire it, a ruby the size of an almond, catching the first glimmers of sunlight and glistening like an open wound. ‘I’ve had worse gifts.’
‘It matches your fiery temper.’
She snorted. ‘And my bloody reputation.’
‘Piss on your reputation! Nothing but idiots’ chatter! You’re a dream. A vision. You look like . . .’ He snapped his fingers. ‘The very Goddess of War!’
‘Of War. You like it?’
‘It’ll do. If you can kiss Duke Orso’s arse half so well, we might even get a bonus.’
Benna puckered his lips at her. ‘I love nothing more of a morning than a faceful of his Excellency’s rich, round buttocks. They taste like . . . power.’
Hooves crunched on the dusty track, saddles creaked and harness rattled. The road turned back on itself, and again. The rest of the world dropped away below them. The eastern sky bled out from red to butchered pink. The river crept slowly into view, winding through the autumn woods in the base of the steep valley. Glittering like an army on the march, flowing swift and merciless towards the sea. Towards Talins.
‘I’m waiting,’ he said.
‘My share of the compliments, of course.’
‘If your head swells any further it’ll fucking burst.’ She twitched her silken cuffs up. ‘And I don’t want your brains on my new shirt.’
‘Stabbed!’ Benna clutched one hand to his chest. ‘Right here! Is this how you repay my years of devotion, you heartless bitch?’
‘How dare you presume to be devoted to me, peasant? You’re like a tick devoted to a tiger!’
‘Tiger? Hah! When they compare you to an animal they usually pick a snake.’
‘Better than a maggot.’
She could hardly deny that one. Silence settled on them again. A bird trilled from a thirsty tree beside the road.
Benna’s horse drew gradually up beside hers, and ever so gently he murmured, ‘You look especially beautiful this morning, Monza.’
That brought a smile to the corner of her mouth. The corner he couldn’t see. ‘Well. Facts are facts.’
She spurred round one more steep bend, and the outermost wall of the citadel of Fontezarmo thrust up ahead of them. A narrow bridge crossed a dizzy ravine to the gatehouse, water sparkling as it fell away beneath. At the far end an archway yawned, welcoming as a grave.
‘They’ve strengthened the walls since last year,’ muttered Benna. ‘I wouldn’t fancy trying to storm the place.’
‘Don’t pretend you’d have the guts to climb the ladder.’
‘I wouldn’t fancy telling someone else to storm the place.’
‘Don’t pretend you’d have the guts to give the orders.’
‘I wouldn’t fancy watching you tell someone else to storm the place.’
‘No.’ She leaned gingerly from her saddle and frowned down at the plummeting drop on her left. Then she peered up at the sheer wall on her right, battlements a jagged black edge against the brightening sky. ‘It’s almost as if Orso’s worried someone might try to kill him.’
‘He’s got enemies?’ breathed Benna, eyes round as saucers with mock amazement.
‘Only half of Styria.’
‘Then . . . we’ve got enemies?’
‘More than half of Styria.’
‘But I’ve tried so hard to be popular . . .’ They trotted between two dour-faced soldiers, spears and steel caps polished to a murderous glint. Hoofbeats echoed in the darkness of the long tunnel, sloping gradually upwards. ‘You have that look, now.’
‘No more fun today.’
‘Huh.’ She felt the familiar frown gripping her face. ‘You can afford to smile. You’re the good one.’
It was a different world beyond the gates, air heavy with lavender, shining green after the grey mountainside. A world of close-clipped lawns, of hedges tortured into wondrous shapes, of fountains throwing up glittering spray. Grim guardsmen, the black cross of Talins stitched into their white surcoats, spoiled the mood at every doorway.
‘Monza . . .’
‘Let’s make this the last season on campaign,’ Benna wheedled. ‘The last summer in the dust. Let’s find something more comfortable to do. Now, while we’re young.’
‘What about the Thousand Swords? Closer to ten thousand now, all looking to us for orders.’
‘They can look elsewhere. They joined us for plunder and we’ve given them plenty. They’ve no loyalty beyond their own profit.’
She had to admit the Thousand Swords had never represented the best of mankind, or even the best of mercenaries. Most of them were a step above the criminal. Most of the rest were a step below. But that wasn’t the point. ‘You have to stick at something in your life,’ she grunted.
‘I don’t see why.’
‘That’s you all over. One more season and Visserine will fall, and Rogont will surrender, and the League of Eight will be just a bad memory. Orso can crown himself King of Styria, and we can melt away and be forgotten.’
‘We deserve to be remembered. We could have our own city. You could be the noble Duchess Monzcarro of . . . wherever—’
‘And you the fearless Duke Benna?’ She laughed at that. ‘You stupid arse. You can scarcely govern your own bowels without my help. War’s a dark enough trade, I draw the line at politics. Orso crowned, then we retire.’
Benna sighed. ‘I thought we were mercenaries. Cosca never stuck to an employer like this.’
‘I’m not Cosca. And anyway, it’s not wise to say no to the Lord of Talins.’
‘You just love to fight.’
‘No. I love to win. Just one more season, then we can see the world. Visit the Old Empire. Tour the Thousand Isles. Sail to Adua and stand in the shadow of the House of the Maker. Everything we talked about.’ Benna pouted, just as he always did when he didn’t get his way. He pouted, but he never said no. It scratched at her, sometimes, that she always had to make the choices. ‘Since we’ve clearly only got one pair of balls between us, don’t you ever feel the need to borrow them yourself?’
‘They look better on you. Besides, you’ve got all the brains. It’s best they stay together.’
‘What do you get from the deal?’
Benna grinned at her. ‘The winning smile.’
‘Smile, then. For one more season.’ She swung down from her saddle, jerked her sword belt straight, tossed the reins at the groom and strode for the inner gatehouse. Benna had to hurry to catch up, getting tangled with his own sword on the way. For a man who earned his living from war, he’d always been an embarrassment where weapons were concerned.
The inner courtyard was split into wide terraces at the summit of the mountain, planted with exotic palms and even more heavily guarded than the outer. An ancient column said to come from the palace of Scarpius stood tall in the centre, casting a shimmering reflection in a round pool teeming with silvery fish. The immensity of glass, bronze and marble that was Duke Orso’s palace towered around it on three sides like a monstrous cat with a mouse between its paws. Since the spring they’d built a vast new wing along the northern wall, its festoons of decorative stonework still half-shrouded in scaffolding.
‘They’ve been building,’ she said.
‘Of course. How could Prince Ario manage with only ten halls for his shoes?’
‘A man can’t be fashionable these days without at least twenty rooms of footwear.’
Benna frowned down at his own gold-buckled boots. ‘I’ve no more than thirty pairs all told. I feel my shortcomings most keenly.’
‘As do we all,’ she muttered. A half-finished set of statues stood along the roofline. Duke Orso giving alms to the poor. Duke Orso gifting knowledge to the ignorant. Duke Orso shielding the weak from harm.
‘I’m surprised he hasn’t got one of the whole of Styria tonguing his arse,’ whispered Benna in her ear.
She pointed to a partly chiselled block of marble. ‘That’s next.’
Count Foscar, Orso’s younger son, rushed around the pool like an eager puppy, shoes crunching on fresh-raked gravel, freckled face all lit up. He’d made an ill-advised attempt at a beard since Monza had last seen him but the sprinkling of sandy hairs only made him look more boyish. He might’ve inherited all the honesty in his family, but the looks had gone elsewhere. Benna grinned, threw one arm around Foscar’s shoulders and ruffled his hair. An insult from anyone else, from Benna it was effortlessly charming. He had a knack of making people happy that always seemed like magic to Monza. Her talents lay in the opposite direction.
‘Your father here yet?’ she asked.
‘Yes, and my brother too. They’re with their banker.’
‘How’s his mood?’
‘Good, so far as I can tell, but you know my father. Still, he’s never angry with you two, is he? You always bring good news. You bring good news today, yes?’
‘Shall I tell him, Monza, or—’
‘Borletta’s fallen. Cantain’s dead.’
Foscar didn’t celebrate. He hadn’t his father’s appetite for corpses. ‘Cantain was a good man.’
That was a long way from the point, as far as Monza could see. ‘He was your father’s enemy.’
‘A man you could respect, though. There are precious few of them left in Styria. He’s really dead?’
Benna blew out his cheeks. ‘Well, his head’s off, and spiked above the gates, so unless you know one hell of a physician . . .’
They passed through a high archway, the hall beyond dim and echoing as an emperor’s tomb, light filtering down in dusty columns and pooling on the marble floor. Suits of old armour stood gleaming to silent attention, antique weapons clutched in steel fists. The sharp clicking of boot heels snapped from the walls as a man in a dark uniform paced towards them.
‘Shit,’ Benna hissed in her ear. ‘That reptile Ganmark’s here.’
‘Leave it be.’
‘There’s no way that cold-blooded bastard’s as good with a sword as they say—’
‘If I was half a man, I’d—’
‘You’re not. So leave it be.’
General Ganmark’s face was strangely soft, his moustaches limp, his pale grey eyes always watery, lending him a look of perpetual sadness. The rumour was he’d been thrown out of the Union army for a sexual indiscretion involving another officer, and crossed the sea to find a more broad-minded master. The breadth of Duke Orso’s mind was infinite where his servants were concerned, provided they were effective. She and Benna were proof enough of that.
Ganmark nodded stiffly to Monza. ‘General Murcatto.’ He nodded stiffly to Benna. ‘General Murcatto. Count Foscar, you are keeping to your exercises, I hope?’
‘Sparring every day.’
‘Then we will make a swordsman of you yet.’
Benna snorted. ‘That, or a bore.’
‘Either one would be something,’ droned Ganmark in his clipped Union accent. ‘A man without discipline is no better than a dog. A soldier without discipline is no better than a corpse. Worse, in fact. A corpse is no threat to his comrades.’
Benna opened his mouth but Monza talked over him. He could make an arse of himself later, if he pleased. ‘How was your season?’
‘I played my part, keeping your flanks free of Rogont and his Osprians.’
‘Stalling the Duke of Delay?’ Benna smirked. ‘Quite the challenge.’
‘No more than a supporting role. A comic turn in a great tragedy, but one appreciated by the audience, I hope.’
The echoes of their footsteps swelled as they passed through another archway and into the towering rotunda at the heart of the palace. The curving walls were vast panels of sculpture showing scenes from antiquity. Wars between demons and magi, and other such rubbish. High above, the great dome was frescoed with seven winged women against a stormy sky – armed, armoured and angry-looking. The Fates, bringing destinies to earth. Aropella’s greatest work. She’d heard it had taken him eight years to finish. Monza never got over how tiny, weak, utterly insignificant this space made her feel. That was the point of it.
The four of them climbed a sweeping staircase, wide enough for twice as many to walk abreast. ‘And where have your comic talents taken you?’ she asked Ganmark.
‘Fire and murder, to the gates of Puranti and back.’
Benna curled his lip. ‘Any actual fighting?’
‘Why ever would I do that? Have you not read your Stolicus? “An animal fights his way to victory—”’
‘“A general marches there,”’ Monza finished for him. ‘Did you raise many laughs?’
‘Not for the enemy, I suppose. Precious few for anyone, but that is war.’
‘I find time to chuckle,’ threw in Benna.
‘Some men laugh easily. It makes them winning dinner companions.’ Ganmark’s soft eyes moved across to Monza’s. ‘I note you are not smiling.’
‘I will. Once the League of Eight are finished and Orso is King of Styria. Then we can all hang up our swords.’
‘In my experience swords do not hang comfortably from hooks. They have a habit of finding their way back into one’s hands.’
‘I daresay Orso will keep you on,’ said Benna. ‘Even if it’s only to polish the tiles.’
Ganmark did not give so much as a sharp breath. ‘Then his Excellency will have the cleanest floors in all of Styria.’
A pair of high doors faced the top of the stairs, gleaming with inlaid wood, carved with lions’ faces. A thick-set man paced up and down before them like a loyal old hound before his master’s bedchamber. Faithful Carpi, the longest-serving captain in the Thousand Swords, the scars of a hundred engagements marked out on his broad, weathered, honest face.
‘Faithful!’ Benna seized the old mercenary’s big slab of a hand. ‘Climbing a mountain, at your age? Shouldn’t you be in a brothel somewhere?’
‘If only.’ Carpi shrugged. ‘But his Excellency sent for me.’
‘And you, being an obedient sort . . . obeyed.’
‘That’s why they call me Faithful.’
‘How did you leave things in Borletta?’ asked Monza.
‘Quiet. Most of the men are quartered outside the walls with Andiche and Victus. Best if they don’t set fire to the place, I thought. I left some of the more reliable ones in Cantain’s palace with Sesaria watching over them. Old-timers, like me, from back in Cosca’s day. Seasoned men, not prone to impulsiveness.’
Benna chuckled. ‘Slow thinkers, you mean?’
‘Slow but steady. We get there in the end.’
‘Going in, then?’ Foscar set his shoulder to one of the doors and heaved it open. Ganmark and Faithful followed. Monza paused a moment on the threshold, trying to find her hardest face. She looked up and saw Benna smiling at her. Without thinking, she found herself smiling back. She leaned and whispered in his ear.
‘I love you.’
‘Of course you do.’ He stepped through the doorway, and she followed.
Duke Orso’s private study was a marble hall the size of a market square. Lofty windows marched in bold procession along one side, standing open, a keen breeze washing through and making the vivid hangings twitch and rustle. Beyond them a long terrace seemed to hang in empty air, overlooking the steepest drop from the mountain’s summit.
The opposite wall was covered with towering panels, painted by the foremost artists of Styria, displaying the great battles of history. The victories of Stolicus, of Harod the Great, of Farans and Verturio, all preserved in sweeping oils. The message that Orso was the latest in a line of royal winners was hard to miss, even though his great-grandfather had been a usurper, and a common criminal besides.
The largest painting of them all faced the door, ten strides high at the least. Who else but Grand Duke Orso? He was seated upon a rearing charger, his shining sword raised high, his piercing eye fixed on the far horizon, urging his men to victory at the Battle of Etrea. The painter seemed to have been unaware that Orso hadn’t come within fifty miles of the fighting.
But then fine lies beat tedious truths every time, as he had often told her.
The Duke of Talins himself sat crabbed over a desk, wielding a pen rather than a sword. A tall, gaunt, hook-nosed man stood at his elbow, staring down as keenly as a vulture waiting for thirsty travellers to die. A great shape lurked near them, in the shadows against the wall. Gobba, Orso’s bodyguard, fat-necked as a great hog. Prince Ario, the duke’s eldest son and heir, lounged in a gilded chair nearer at hand. He had one leg crossed over the other, a wine glass dangling carelessly, a bland smile balanced on his blandly handsome face.
‘I found these beggars wandering the grounds,’ called Foscar, ‘and thought I’d commend them to your charity, Father!’
‘Charity?’ Orso’s sharp voice echoed around the cavernous room. ‘I am not a great admirer of the stuff. Make yourselves comfortable, my friends, I will be with you shortly.’
‘If it isn’t the Butcher of Caprile,’ murmured Ario, ‘and her little Benna too.’
‘Your Highness. You look well.’ Monza thought he looked an indolent cock, but kept it to herself.
‘You too, as ever. If all soldiers looked as you did, I might even be tempted to go on campaign myself. A new bauble?’ Ario waved his own jewel-encrusted hand limply towards the ruby on Monza’s finger.
‘Just what was to hand when I was dressing.’
‘I wish I’d been there. Wine?’
‘Just after dawn?’
He glanced heavy-lidded towards the windows. ‘Still last night as far as I’m concerned.’ As if staying up late was a heroic achievement.
‘I will.’ Benna was already pouring himself a glass, never to be outdone as far as showing off went. Most likely he’d be drunk within the hour and embarrass himself, but Monza was tired of playing his mother. She strolled past the monumental fireplace held up by carven figures of Juvens and Kanedias, and towards Orso’s desk.
‘Sign here, and here, and here,’ the gaunt man was saying, one bony finger hovering over the documents.
‘You know Mauthis, do you?’ Orso gave a sour glance in his direction. ‘My leash-holder.’
‘Always your humble servant, your Excellency. The Banking House of Valint and Balk agrees to this further loan for the period of one year, after which they regret they must charge interest.’
Orso snorted. ‘As the plague regrets the dead, I’ll be bound.’ He scratched out a parting swirl on the last signature and tossed down his pen. ‘Everyone must kneel to someone, eh? Make sure you extend to your superiors my infinite gratitude for their indulgence.’
‘I shall do so.’ Mauthis collected up the documents. ‘That concludes our business, your Excellency. I must leave at once if I mean to catch the evening tide for Westport—’
‘No. Stay a while longer. We have one other matter to discuss.’
Mauthis’ dead eyes moved towards Monza, then back to Orso. ‘As your Excellency desires.’
The duke rose smoothly from his desk. ‘To happier business, then. You do bring happy news, eh, Monzcarro?’
‘I do, your Excellency.’
‘Ah, whatever would I do without you?’ There was a trace of iron grey in his black hair since she’d seen him last, perhaps some deeper lines at the corners of his eyes, but his air of complete command was impressive as ever. He leaned forwards and kissed her on both cheeks, then whispered in her ear, ‘Ganmark can lead soldiers well enough, but for a man who sucks cocks he hasn’t the slightest sense of humour. Come, tell me of your victories in the open air.’ He left one arm draped around her shoulders and guided her, past the sneering Prince Ario, through the open windows onto the high terrace.
The sun was climbing now, and the bright world was full of colour. The blood had drained from the sky and left it a vivid blue, white clouds crawling high above. Below, at the very bottom of a dizzy drop, the river wound through the wooded valley, autumn leaves pale green, burned orange, faded yellow, angry red, light glinting silver on fast-flowing water. To the east, the forest crumbled away into a patchwork of fields – squares of fallow green, rich black earth, golden crop. Further still and the river met the grey sea, branching out in a wide delta choked with islands. Monza could just make out the suggestion of tiny towers there, buildings, bridges, walls. Great Talins, no bigger than her thumbnail.
She narrowed her eyes against the stiff breeze, pushed some stray hair out of her face. ‘I never tire of this view.’
‘How could you? It’s why I built this damn place. Here I can keep one eye always on my subjects, as a watchful parent should upon his children. Just to make sure they don’t hurt themselves while they play, you understand.’
‘Your people are lucky to have such a just and caring father,’ she lied smoothly.
‘Just and caring.’ Orso frowned thoughtfully towards the distant sea. ‘Do you think that is how history will remember me?’
Monza thought it incredibly unlikely. ‘What did Bialoveld say? “History is written by the victors.”’
The duke squeezed her shoulder. ‘All this, and well read into the bargain. Ario is ambitious enough, but he has no insight. I’d be surprised if he could read to the end of a signpost in one sitting. All he cares about is whoring. And shoes. My daughter Terez, meanwhile, weeps most bitterly because I married her to a king. I swear, if I had offered great Euz as the groom she would have whined for a husband better fitting her station.’ He gave a heavy sigh. ‘None of my children understand me. My great-grandfather was a mercenary, you know. A fact I do not like to advertise.’ Though he told her every other time they met. ‘A man who never shed a tear in his life, and wore on his feet whatever was to hand. A low-born fighting man, who seized power in Talins by the sharpness of his mind and sword together.’ More by blunt ruthlessness and brutality, the way Monza had heard the tale. ‘We are from the same stock, you and I. We have made ourselves, out of nothing.’
Orso had been born to the wealthiest dukedom in Styria and never done a hard day’s work in his life, but Monza bit her tongue. ‘You do me too much honour, your Excellency.’
‘Less than you deserve. Now tell me of Borletta.’
‘You heard about the battle on the High Bank?’
‘I heard you scattered the League of Eight’s army, just as you did at Sweet Pines! Ganmark says Duke Salier had three times your number.’
‘Numbers are a hindrance if they’re lazy, ill-prepared and led by idiots. An army of farmers from Borletta, cobblers from Affoia, glass-blowers from Visserine. Amateurs. They camped by the river, thinking we were far away, scarcely posted guards. We came up through the woods at night and caught them at sunrise, not even in their armour.’
‘I can see Salier now, the fat pig, waddling from his bed to run!’
‘Faithful led the charge. We broke them quickly, captured their supplies.’
‘Turned the golden cornfields crimson, I was told.’
‘They hardly even fought. Ten times as many drowned trying to swim the river as died fighting. More than four thousand prisoners. Some ransoms were paid, some not, some men were hanged.’
‘And few tears shed, eh, Monza?’
‘Not by me. If they were so keen to live, they could’ve surrendered.’
‘As they did at Caprile?’
She stared straight back into Orso’s black eyes. ‘Just as they did at Caprile.’
‘Borletta is besieged, then?’
The duke’s face lit up like a boy’s on his birthday. ‘Fallen? Cantain surrendered?’
‘When his people heard of Salier’s defeat, they lost hope.’
‘And people without hope are a dangerous crowd, even in a republic.’
‘Especially in a republic. A mob dragged Cantain from the palace, hanged him from the highest tower, opened the gates and threw themselves on the mercy of the Thousand Swords.’
‘Hah! Slaughtered by the very people he laboured to keep free. There’s the gratitude of the common man, eh, Monza? Cantain should have taken my money when I offered. It would have been cheaper for both of us.’
‘The people are falling over themselves to become your subjects. I’ve given orders they should be spared, where possible.’
‘Mercy and cowardice are the same,’ she snapped out. ‘But you want their land, not their lives, no? Dead men can’t obey.’
Orso smiled. ‘Why can my sons not mark my lessons as you have? I entirely approve. Hang only the leaders. And Cantain’s head above the gates. Nothing encourages obedience like a good example.’
‘Already rotting, with those of his sons.’
‘Fine work!’ The Lord of Talins clapped his hands, as though he never heard such pleasing music as the news of rotting heads. ‘What of the takings?’
The accounts were Benna’s business, and he came forwards now, sliding a folded paper from his chest pocket. ‘The city was scoured, your Excellency. Every building stripped, every floor dug up, every person searched. The usual rules apply, according to our terms of engagement. Quarter for the man that finds it, quarter for his captain, quarter for the generals,’ and he bowed low, unfolding the paper and offering it out, ‘and quarter for our noble employer.’
Orso’s smile broadened as his eyes scanned down the figures. ‘My blessing on the Rule of Quarters! Enough to keep you both in my service a little longer.’ He stepped between Monza and Benna, placed a gentle hand on each of their shoulders and led them back through the open windows. Towards the round table of black marble in the centre of the room, and the great map spread out upon it. Ganmark, Ario and Faithful had already gathered there. Gobba still lurked in the shadows, thick arms folded across his chest. ‘What of our one-time friends and now our bitter enemies, the treacherous citizens of Visserine?’
‘The fields round the city are burned up to the gates, almost.’ Monza scattered carnage across the countryside with a few waves of her finger. ‘Farmers driven off, livestock slaughtered. It’ll be a lean winter for fat Duke Salier, and a leaner spring.’
‘He will have to rely on the noble Duke Rogont and his Osprians,’ said Ganmark, with the faintest of smiles.
Prince Ario snickered. ‘Much talk blows down from Ospria, always, but little help.’
‘Visserine is poised to drop into your lap next year, your Excellency.’
‘And with it the heart is torn from the League of Eight.’
‘The crown of Styria will be yours.’
The mention of crowns teased Orso’s smile still wider. ‘And we have you to thank, Monzcarro. I do not forget that.’
‘Not only me.’
‘Curse your modesty. Benna has played his part, and our good friend General Ganmark, and Faithful too, but no one could deny this is your work. Your commitment, your single-mindedness, your swiftness to act! You shall have a great triumph, just as the heroes of ancient Aulcus did. You shall ride through the streets of Talins and my people will shower you with flower petals in honour of your many victories.’ Benna was grinning, but Monza couldn’t join him. She’d never had much taste for congratulations. ‘They will cheer far louder for you, I think, than they ever will for my own sons. They will cheer far louder even than they do for me, their rightful lord, to whom they owe so much.’ It seemed that Orso’s smile slipped, and his face looked tired, and sad, and worn without it. ‘They will cheer, in fact, a little too loudly for my taste.’
There was the barest flash of movement at the corner of her eye, enough to make her bring up her hand on an instinct.
The wire hissed taught around it, snatching it up under her chin, crushing it chokingly tight against her throat.
Benna started forwards. ‘Mon—’ Metal glinted as Prince Ario stabbed him in the neck. He missed his throat, caught him just under the ear.
Orso carefully stepped back as blood speckled the tiles with red. Foscar’s mouth fell open, wine glass dropping from his hand, shattering on the floor.
Monza tried to scream, but only spluttered through her half-shut windpipe, made a sound like a honking pig. She fished at the hilt of her dagger with her free hand but someone caught her wrist, held it fast. Faithful Carpi, pressed up tight against her left side.
‘Sorry,’ he muttered in her ear, pulling her sword from its scabbard and flinging it clattering across the room.
Benna stumbled, gurgling red drool, one hand clutched to the side of his face, black blood leaking out between white fingers. His other hand fumbled for his sword while Ario watched him, frozen. He drew a clumsy foot of steel before General Ganmark stepped up and stabbed him, smoothly and precisely – once, twice, three times. The thin blade slid in and out of Benna’s body, the only sound the soft breath from his gaping mouth. Blood shot across the floor in long streaks, began to leak out into his white shirt in dark circles. He tottered forwards, tripped over his own feet and crashed down, half-drawn sword scraping against the marble underneath him.
Monza strained, every muscle trembling, but she was held helpless as a fly in honey. She heard Gobba grunting with effort in her ear, his stubbly face rubbing against her cheek, his great body warm against her back. She felt the wire cut slowly into the sides of her neck, deep into the side of her hand, caught fast against her throat. She felt the blood running down her forearm, into the collar of her shirt.
One of Benna’s hands crawled across the floor, reaching out for her. He lifted himself an inch or two, veins bulging from his neck. Ganmark leaned forwards and calmly ran him through the heart from behind. Benna quivered for a moment, then sagged down and was still, pale cheek smeared with red. Dark blood crept out from under him, worked its way along the cracks between the tiles.
‘Well.’ Ganmark leaned down and wiped his sword on the back of Benna’s shirt. ‘That’s that.’
Mauthis watched, frowning. Slightly puzzled, slightly irritated, slightly bored. As though examining a set of figures that wouldn’t quite add.
Orso gestured at the body. ‘Get rid of that, Ario.’
‘Me?’ The prince’s lip curled.
‘Yes, you. And you can help him, Foscar. The two of you must learn what needs to be done to keep our family in power.’
‘No!’ Foscar stumbled away. ‘I’ll have no part of this!’ He turned and ran from the room, his boots slapping against the marble floor.
‘That boy is soft as syrup,’ muttered Orso at his back. ‘Ganmark, help him.’
Monza’s bulging eyes followed them as they dragged Benna’s corpse out through the doors to the terrace, Ganmark grim and careful at the head end, Ario cursing as he daintily took one boot, the other smearing a red trail after them. They heaved Benna up onto the balustrade and rolled him off. Like that he was gone.
‘Ah!’ squawked Ario, waving one hand. ‘Damn it! You scratched me!’
Ganmark stared back at him. ‘I apologise, your Highness. Murder can be a painful business.’
The prince looked around for something to wipe his bloody hands on. He reached for the rich hangings beside the window.
‘Not there!’ snapped Orso. ‘That’s Kantic silk, at fifty scales a piece!’
‘Find something else, or leave them red! Sometimes I wonder if your mother told the truth about your paternity, boy.’ Ario wiped his hands sulkily on the front of his shirt while Monza stared, face burning from lack of air. Orso frowned over at her, a blurred black figure through the wet in her eyes, the hair tangled across her face. ‘Is she still alive? Whatever are you about, Gobba?’
‘Fucking wire’s caught on her hand,’ hissed the bodyguard.
‘Find another way to be done with her, then, lackwit.’
‘I’ll do it.’ Faithful pulled the dagger from her belt, still pinning her wrist with his other hand. ‘I really am sorry.’
‘Just get to it!’ growled Gobba.
The blade went back, steel glinting in a shaft of light. Monza stomped down on Gobba’s foot with all the strength she had left. The bodyguard grunted, grip slipping on the wire, and she dragged it away from her neck, growling, twisting hard as Carpi stabbed at her.
The blade went well wide of the mark, slid in under her bottom rib. Cold metal, but it felt burning hot, a line of fire from her stomach to her back. It slid right through and the point pricked Gobba’s gut.
‘Gah!’ He let go the wire and Monza whooped in air, started shrieking mindlessly, lashed at him with her elbow and sent him staggering. Faithful was caught off guard, fumbled the knife as he pulled it out of her and sent it spinning across the floor. She kicked at him, missed his groin and caught his hip, bent him over. She snatched at a dagger on his belt, pulled it from its sheath, but her cut hand was clumsy and he caught her wrist before she could ram the blade into him. They wrestled with it, teeth bared, gasping spit in each other’s faces, lurching back and forth, their hands sticky with her blood.
There was a crunch and her head was full of light. The floor cracked against her skull, slapped her in the back. She spat blood, mad screams guttering to a long drawn croak, clawing at the smooth floor with her nails.
‘Fucking bitch!’ The heel of Gobba’s big boot cracked down on her right hand and sent pain lancing up her forearm, tore a sick gasp from her. His boot crunched again across her knuckles, then her fingers, then her wrist. At the same time Faithful’s foot was thudding into her ribs, over and over, making her cough and shudder. Her shattered hand twisted, turned sideways on. Gobba’s heel crashed down and crushed it flat into the cold marble with a splintering of bone. She flopped back, hardly able to breathe, the room turning over, history’s painted winners grinning down.
‘You stabbed me, you dumb old bastard! You stabbed me!’
‘You’re hardly even cut, fathead! You should’ve kept a hold on her!’
‘I should stab the useless pair of you!’ hissed Orso’s voice. ‘Just get it done!’
Gobba’s great fist came down, dragged Monza up by her throat. She tried to grab at him with her left hand but all her strength had leaked out through the hole in her side, the cuts in her neck. Her clumsy fingertips only smeared red traces across his stubbly face. Her arm was dragged away, twisted sharply behind her back.
‘Where’s Hermon’s gold?’ came Gobba’s rough voice. ‘Eh, Murcatto? What did you do with the gold?’
Monza forced her head up. ‘Lick my arse, cocksucker.’ Not clever, perhaps, but from the heart.
‘There never was any gold!’ snapped Faithful. ‘I told you that, pig!’
‘There’s this much.’ One by one, Gobba twisted the battered rings from her dangling fingers, already bloating, turning angry purple, bent and shapeless as rotten sausages. ‘Good stone, that,’ he said, peering at the ruby. ‘Seems a waste of decent flesh, though. Why not give me a moment with her? A moment’s all it would take.’
Prince Ario tittered. ‘Speed isn’t always something to be proud of.’
‘For pity’s sake!’ Orso’s voice. ‘We’re not animals. Off the terrace and let us be done. I am late for breakfast.’
She felt herself dragged, head lolling. Sunlight stabbed at her. She was lifted, limp boots scraping on stone. Blue sky turning. Up onto the balustrade. The breath scraped at her nose, shuddered in her chest. She twisted, kicked. Her body, struggling vainly to stay alive.
‘Let me make sure of her.’ Ganmark’s voice.
‘How sure do we need to be?’ Blurry through the bloody hair across her eyes she saw Orso’s lined face. ‘I hope you understand. My great-grandfather was a mercenary. A low-born fighting man, who seized power by the sharpness of his mind and sword together. I cannot allow another mercenary to seize power in Talins.’
She meant to spit in his face, but all she did was blow bloody drool down her own chin. ‘Fuck yourse—’
Then she was flying.
Her torn shirt billowed and flapped against her tingling skin. She turned over, and over, and the world tumbled around her. Blue sky with shreds of cloud, black towers at the mountain top, grey rock face rushing past, yellow-green trees and sparkling river, blue sky with shreds of cloud, and again, and again, faster, and faster.
Cold wind ripped at her hair, roared in her ears, whistled between her teeth along with her terrified breath. She could see each tree, now, each branch, each leaf. They surged up towards her. She opened her mouth to scream—
Twigs snatched, grabbed, lashed at her. A broken branch knocked her spinning. Wood cracked and tore around her as she plunged down, down, and crashed into the mountainside. Her legs splintered under her plummeting weight, her shoulder broke apart against firm earth. But rather than dashing her brains out on the rocks, she only shattered her jaw against her brother’s bloody chest, his mangled corpse wedged against the base of a tree.
Which was how Benna Murcatto saved his sister’s life.
She bounced from the corpse, three-quarters senseless, and down the steep mountainside, over and over, flailing like a broken doll. Rocks, and roots, and hard earth clubbed, punched, crushed her, as if she was battered apart with a hundred hammers.
She tore through a patch of bushes, thorns whipping and clutching. She rolled, and rolled, down the sloping earth in a cloud of dirt and leaves. She tumbled over a tree root, crumpled on a mossy rock. She slid slowly to a stop, on her back, and was still.
‘Huuuurrrrhhh . . .’
Stones clattered down around her, sticks and gravel. Dust slowly settled. She heard wind, creaking in the branches, crackling in the leaves. Or her own breath, creaking and crackling in her broken throat. The sun flickered through black trees, jabbing at one eye. The other was dark. Flies buzzed, zipping and swimming in the warm morning air. She was down with the waste from Orso’s kitchens. Sprawled out helpless in the midst of the rotten vegetables, and the cooking slime, and the stinking offal left over from the last month’s magnificent meals. Tossed out with the rubbish.
‘Huuurrhhh . . .’
A jagged, mindless sound. She was embarrassed by it, almost, but couldn’t stop making it. Animal horror. Mad despair. The groan of the dead, in hell. Her eye darted desperately around. She saw the wreck of her right hand, a shapeless, purple glove with a bloody gash in the side. One finger trembled slightly. Its tip brushed against torn skin on her elbow. The forearm was folded in half, a broken-off twig of grey bone sticking through bloody silk. It didn’t look real. Like a cheap theatre prop.
‘Huurrhhh . . .’
The fear had hold of her now, swelling with every breath. She couldn’t move her head. She couldn’t move her tongue in her mouth. She could feel the pain, gnawing at the edge of her mind. A terrible mass, pressing up against her, crushing every part of her, worse, and worse, and worse.
‘Huurhh . . . uurh . . .’
Benna was dead. A streak of wet ran from her flickering eye and she felt it trickle slowly down her cheek. Why was she not dead? How could she not be dead?
Soon, please. Before the pain got any worse. Please, let it be soon.
‘Uurh . . . uh . . . uh.’