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The Red Knight
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It is best in all cases to maintain the initiative, even against a stronger opponent, but when you are overmatched, you must be sure of your parries, covering your body and your hands, maintaining a reserve of tempo for the moment in which you can finally strike from your cover.
Maestro Sparthos, unpublished notes to the book Opera Nuova
Night over Megara; a night with both moons high in the sky, the Red Moon almost full, its tiny disc slightly imperfect, while the Greater Moon, the Huntress, was a mere sickle that looked as if its open arms were ready to catch the smaller ball.
It was the first night of a Mazdayaznian festival, the Dreamcatcher Festival, and the tavernas were open all along the waterfront, despite the presence of the Watch and the unofficial, but heavily armed, black and yellow liveried Yellowjackets of General Roaris’ household troops and political adherents. The General, who had taken to calling himself Lord Protector, had declared a curfew throughout the city while his household troops searched the city for “traitors.” Despite that, not just Easterners, but every young person in the City seemed to be sitting in a tavern, drinking. The Watch stood by, frowning; and the Yellowjackets patrolled the Northside beachfront and the Southside fondemento in small mobs.
On Southside, between the Great Canal and the Low Bridge, under the shadow of the Red Lion, a tall campanile of brick, stood the largest inn in the city; the Sunne in Splendour. It towered over the palaces to either side and was surrounded by a sprawl of stables and outbuildings, kitchens, guest houses, and a boat dock on the seaward side and another on the Great Canal. It was a warren of comfort and good cooking, ruled by Laskarina Boulbousa, who, according to the City tittle-tattle, had started life as a prostitute among the notorious Pirates of the Sud. Whatever the truth of the rumour, her Inn was a haven on the waterfront, she paid well, and had the best cooks and the best ostlers in the city. She knew the Emperor, General Roaris and General Tribane personally.
Rumour also said that there had once been a husband, who had owned the original inn in its perfect canal-front location. Whether he had, as rumour claimed, been poisoned and then drowned, or whether he’d died of natural causes, or whether there’d never been a Syr Boulbousos at all, the inn’s good reputation and its mistress’ slightly colourful reputation tended to keep trouble away. The inn had hundreds of rooms, a dozen commons and fifty snugs, allowing the Lions, Blacks, and Whites to all hold rival meetings in its environs and never come to blows—which was as well, because the proprietress paid her bouncers well, too. When trouble didn’t stay away, it was routinely punched in the head and thrown in the Great Canal, after which trouble, in most of its young forms, rarely returned.
The curfew was due to begin in a few minutes. A handsome man in a slashed doublet, black with gold lace revealing a black silk lining and a snowy white shirt that betrayed a slow leak of blood, leant out on a balcony above one of the inn’s courtyards. On careful examination one might see that beneath the fashionable cosmetics, the man’s face was bruised; and despite silver lines of Imoter occultae, his left hand was grotesquely swollen and had no fingernails.
“If he tries to enforce the curfew,” Tiy Drako said with something of his usual insouciance, although he slurred his words, “we might retake this city tonight, with no army but offended drunks.”
“You should be lying down,” Aranthur Timos said.
Autumn had come to the city, and Aranthur was wearing a fine wool doublet—not as elaborate as Drako’s, but finer than most, although it couldn’t conceal his emaciation. In his high boots and half-cloak he looked like a Byzas gentleman, if a very tall, thin one.
Behind him, Dahlia Tarkas sat on a divan rapidly copying anything Drako said into the flyleaf of a book of translated Safiri poetry.
“He should, but he’s a fool,” Dahlia said. “Drako, sit down. None of this will work if you faint.”
“I want to be out there,” Drako spat. He was missing two teeth, which gave his voice a sibilance it didn’t need. “Roaris is winning. Kurvenos is gone. Tribane is trapped at Antioke, and the Dark Forge widens every day.”
Aranthur came up beside his friend, slipped an arm around his waist, and took him to the divan and into Dahlia’s hands.
“I hate being cosseted,” Drako said.
“You’d hate being dead a lot more,” Dahlia said. “You have a touch of the Darkness, and honestly, only my puissance and Aranthur’s is keeping you on your feet. If I release the pain-blocker…”
“She’s not coming,” Drako said pettishly.
“She’ll come.” Aranthur glanced out into the night and pulled the curtains across the balcony windows. “And Tribane isn’t trapped. She’ll win.” He made himself smile. “Drako. We need to know everything about how you were taken. Everything you know about Kurvenos. Please… co-operate. You cannot go out there.”
Drako continued as if Aranthur had never spoken. “She needs food, powder, ball, replacements. Food. They all need food, from what you’ve said, and Roaris’ move was brilliant. Even if we topple him, the damage he’s done…”
Neither of the others disagreed.
I need food myself, Aranthur thought. He was hungry all the time.
“We should be planning a revolution,” Drako insisted.
Aranthur tugged at his growing beard; very fashionable among the Byzas and the Souliotes too.
“Tiy, you know they say that Imoters make the worst patients? Well, spies give the worst debriefings. We need to know what happened. I have a plan,” he said carefully. “And it doesn’t involve starting a revolution. In fact the last thing we need is a wave of violence in the City to rip the bandages off every old quarrel—faction fights, house fights…” He poured himself some wine from a bottle on the side table. “And the first to die would be the Easterners.” Aranthur put a hand on Drako’s shoulder, and put a little power into his pain-blocker; it already needed reinforcement. “Stop trying to plan. You need serious healing, and to tell us what happened.”
“Sophia,” Drako said. He glanced at Dhalia. “When did he become so—?”
“Skinny?” Dahlia asked.
“Arrogant,” Drako said.
“This from you?” Aranthur asked with a smile. “I made a plan, and I confess that I am now used to being the one to do it.”
The two men looked at each other for too long.
Dahlia brushed some breadcrumbs from her doublet.
“Are you going to fight? Because if you do, I’m leaving.”
“I’m struggling with the idea of Aranthur as the planner,” Drako said.
Dahlia raised an aristocratic eyebrow. “I don’t wish to take sides,” she said. “But he planned your rescue. And you needed to be rescued. So stop being so fucking high and mighty and tell us what in ten thousand icy hells happened.”
Drako winced and sat back suddenly, having encountered some half-Imotered ribs, and Aranthur put a hand to his neck to pass some more raw puissance into the healing.
Then he knelt in front of Drako. “Please?”
Drako blinked. “I hate telling the truth. And I hate failing, and this will be a truthful vomiting forth of fucking failure, fully fleshed in folly.” He smiled his old smile, and then shook his head. “I have a pile of reports on the money… the money Roaris must be spending on bribes to stop his castle of ice from melting. He’s living a gigantic lie—anything can topple him. And I know he’s paying bribes.”
He turned pale, and grunted, a hand across his abdomen, and Dahlia was there.
“Gods,” he muttered. “Where is she? I’m dying here…” He looked at the door.
Dahlia looked worried, put more power into her treatment, and frowned at Aranthur.
He shrugged. “I was making this up from the moment the boat landed us here,” he said. “I have to hope that our message got through.”
Drako scowled up at him. “Do you want to hear this or not? They grabbed Kurvenos in Atti. There was an attempt on the Sultan Bey—well-planned, but someone betrayed it to the Capitan-Bey and it turned into a bloodbath. An open street fight with heavy magic, hundreds of bystanders killed. Kurvenos went to see if he could help. A friend of his was badly wounded… probably another Lightbringer, and no, Kurvenos was no more open-mouthed with me then than with,—Sweet Sophia’s wisdom! Aphres’ flowery gate! Drax’s dick!”
He doubled over, the pain of internal haemorrhage leaking through their various attempts at healing. He continued to swear, his white shirt showing the blood very clearly.
They both did what they could, which was far too little.
“If I die,” Drako said suddenly. “Aphres. If I die, thanks for the rescue. I love you two. That’s no bullshit. I was going to die a nasty death and fuck, this is hard but it’s still better.” His head came up as the wave of pain passed. “They hit Kurvenos the moment he landed on the Ulama side, or that’s what I heard from my source, who was there. They got the Kaptan Bey; not last night but the night before last… No, it’s all too fucking confused now. Anyway, I met someone with access across the strait in Atti. I was going to mount a rescue. And the bastards had already started burning my people—two agents were already dead.” Drako looked up. “What are you going to do, Aranthur?”
“I really do have a plan,” he said. “Which is to do this with the minimum number of corpses. The stakes are very high, but this isn’t a one-time crisis. We need the Empire, and the City, to be stable, even comfortable. We need them to be solid—so I swear to you, if we turn taking Roaris down into a fight we’ll be playing straight into the Master’s hands.”
Drako shrugged. His eyes were too bright. “I know you’re right. Because he’ll play the factions—”
“Because we’ll be weaker. Because there will be more distrust. We can only win by being united. Divided, we’ll be crushed.”
Aranthur was so close to Drako’s left hand that he couldn’t help but look at it. It looked as if it had been beaten with an iron rod. The Imoter they’d found on the waterfront had done his best, but had described the hand as nothing but a bag of bones.
Drako leant back. “Pain-blocker is wearing off,” he said.
Aranthur shook his head like a reprimanded schoolboy.
“That shouldn’t be possible,” he said, and reinforced it.
It was like a problem in applied magical mathematics, with diminishing returns. The pain-blocker was going to fail, and his own hunger was growing like a mad thing eating at his vitals.
“Tell me what you plan,” Drako muttered.
There was a sound outside; footsteps on the stairs.
“For starters, I plan to land the Black Stone and move it to the Academy, where it will be safe. Where we can use it.” Aranthur was lying; he and Dahlia both knew it.
Dahlia’s head turned slowly, and her eyes met Aranthur’s with flat accusation, but there was, just then, a rhythmic knock at the door.
Aranthur leapt to his feet. In a moment, he had a small puffer in his hand. So did Dahlia. He moved to the door; she rose silently and went to the curtains, her left hand already burning with power, her shields ready to deploy.
Drako lolled on the divan.
Aranthur opened the door. Outside was a tall, cloaked figure in a plain mask and a long cloak—the brown cloak of a priest or priestess of Aploun.
“Cold Iron,” the woman said.
She swept into the room, took off her mask, and stood over Drako. She was neither young nor old, neither beautiful nor ugly; a plain, nondescript woman with brown hair.
“Who are you?” Aranthur asked. He was not quite pointing the puffer at her.
“Drako, you look like all the hells,” she said.
She leant over and put a hand on his forehead. He flinched, and a ring sparkled on her hand.
“Myr Benvenutu!” Aranthur said.
The woman turned, and gave Aranthur a slight smile.
“Very perceptive, Syr Timos.”
Even as she spoke, her guise dropped and she was revealed as the Master of Arts. She wore a silk gown under the brown cloak, beautifully cut. Aranthur had never really seen her as a woman before, or if he had, her form had been buried beneath her authority.
She smiled more widely. “I do go to parties,” she said.
Dahlia laughed and released her puissance and stepped out from behind the curtain, to be embraced by her mentor. Aranthur had never embraced the Master of Arts, so he stood in social confusion as she took his shoulders and kissed him on both cheeks.
“The man of the hour,” she said in her deep voice. “Your work on Drako is very good, but he has a high fever, he’s on the verge of going into shock and I think that’s a touch of the Darkness. I’ve prepared… friends. For this eventuality. Listen, we have to move quickly. I have reason to believe that Roaris is going to strike against the festival, and has plans to enforce the curfew. And I don’t have long—my daughter is pretending to be me a festival ball.”
Aranthur had known the Master of Arts for more than a year and had no idea she had a daughter.
To Drako, she said, “Can you walk?”
Drako nodded. “Of course.”
“Nonetheless,” she said, and there was a controlled burst of power. Aranthur noted that her ease of access to the Aulos was as good, or better, than Qna Liras’ or Kurvenos’.
“Sweet… Sophia’s…” Drako thought better of whatever he was going to say. But he rose carefully. “I’m healed!”
“Not even a little,” Benvenutu said. “I’m burning some of your youth to keep you on your feet. You have about ten minutes.”
“Oh, gods,” Drako said, as if the full extent of his injuries had just hit him.
“There’s a chair waiting at the base of the steps,” Benvenutu said. “The chairmen are friends. Get in, and trust them.”
Drako nodded slowly. “Where are you going?” he asked.
“The Academy,” Myr Benvenutu said. “I have to run it. Trust me. You will be well-hidden and taken care of.”
She ran a hand over Drako’s uninjured side, and suddenly he was guised exactly as she had been—as a tall woman with brown hair. She handed Drako her cloak and mask, and he bowed, winced, and steadied himself on the door frame.
“How will I find…?” he said.
The Master of Arts shook her head. “Tiy, you are badly hurt, inside and out. I’ve virtually cut your pain centres from your mind. It will take expert Imoters at least three weeks to heal you now. Just for once, do as you are told. Get in the chair and go.”
“Damn it,” Drako said, and then he was leaning against the door frame and Aranthur moved to catch him.
“Damn it,” he repeated.
Aranthur put an arm under his and helped him down the steep steps. There were people at the bottom; strangers, a dozen students. One had Yellowjacket livery over his arm. Another, a small woman, had seized his arm.
“You’re a fucking idiot if you think Roaris is a legitimate government,” she said.
The off-duty Yellowjacket tried to shake her off.
“That’s not an appropriate attitude,” he said, in a superior tone not calculated to win any argument. “I shouldn’t even be with you people—”
“I’ll tell you what’s not appropriate,” spat a young man. “Arresting everyone you disagree with. And I hear a whisper that Tribane didn’t lose in the East.”
“Treason,” the Yellowjacket said.
Another young man put a restraining hand on the Yellowjacket’s sword arm.
“Jace,” he said. “Not everything is treason. We’re out for a night of drinking, and you, my friend, are being an arse. When you fucking promised to keep your pious aristocratic mouth shut.”
Aranthur and Draco had reached the landing and Aranthur didn’t think this was the moment to hesitate; he could see the chair and the two men who carried it just past the students at the base of the steps.
“Fuck,” Drako said.
“Act drunk,” Aranthur said.
“Not a problem,” Drako hissed.
Aranthur began easing the brown-cloaked Drako down the last steps.
All of the students turned and looked at them. They were embarrassed to have been so loud, and curious, too, so they fell silent.
“Excuse me,” Aranthur said, in a deliberately pettish voice. “I need to get this priest to her chair. And gentles all, there is a curfew. Shouldn’t we all be going to our homes?”
The chair was sitting on its stretchers: a plain black box. Four very big chairmen stood by it, and all four wore cutlasses.
Most of the students moved from his path, but the biggest of them chuckled.
“No curfew in the Sunne in Splendour,” he said.
He was a young man used to getting his way; not particularly belligerent. Merely big.
Aranthur looked past him to the man who’d been called Jace.
“And you a member of the Special Watch,” he said, as if shocked. He got Drako into the chair.
The moment Aranthur’s head was inside the closed cabin of the chair, Drako’s guised eyes met his.
“Listen, Timos,” he said. “You need some help to pull this off. Go to my office at the lighthouse.” His voice was very quiet, and the students were noisy. “Complete works of Tirase—top shelf, volume three. My agent lists. You’ll need the whole network to get anywhere.”
“Why didn’t you give it to Dahlia?” Aranthur asked.
Drako shook his head. “Just remember that someone on those lists fucked me over,” he said bitterly. “Someone talked.”
“You don’t trust Dahlia?”
“I trust you, Timos. Right now, you are a Souliote farm boy, and that means you cannot possibly be playing for the Imperial throne. That’s what all this is ultimately about, and I’ve been too fucking thick to see it,” Drako muttered.
Aranthur could see the fever in the man’s eyes.
“You need to go,” he said.
“I’m not raving,” Drako spat. “Damn it, Timos. The world is sinking. Be careful. Be fucking careful.”
Aranthur was pulling his head out.
“Dahlia is fucking related to Roaris,” Drako muttered. “There’s a key with my steward at my palazzo. Say gold rose and he’ll hand it over. Understand?”
“I don’t believe it. I don’t believe she’d ever betray you.” He blinked. “But I understand.”
“Someone did,” Drako spat. “One of us is bad. Someone betrayed Kurvenos and then me. And she could have motive. Or maybe I’m cutting at shadows. Go with the gods, Aranthur. Do what you can.”
Aranthur was reeling at his words, but he got his head out of the chair’s box and looked at the chairmen.
The front right-hand man nodded. “We know our business,” he said quietly. “We won’t let the Cold stop us, and we have Iron in our bones.”
Aranthur nodded and turned to the students.
“Well?” he asked, looking at the students, some of whom were actually several years older. “Do you have rooms, or do you just loiter in the courtyards?”
He worried he was overplaying it, but the Yellowjacket was red in the face, and they all shuffled away.
“What an arsehat,” someone muttered, but they were going.
The chair had already gone, out of the High Street gate. Aranthur went back up the steps with a forced slowness, but the moment he got to the top, he whirled into action.
“We have to go,” he said.
Dahlia nodded and collected her mask and cloak and her wide-brimmed black hat with its beautiful black plume. She’d bought it earlier with the last of Ansu’s money.
Benvenutu had made herself another young cavalier, a dark-haired version of Dahlia, complete with a plain, workaday sword.
“We’ll walk to the precinct,” Benvenutu said. “No use of power to give us away.”
Aranthur nodded. He put on his own cloak and hat and his old sword while Dahlia glared at him.
He accepted her glare and went back down the steps, glancing cautiously at the courtyard, but the students were gone, and the three of them hurried through the gate and into the night.
There were sounds of merriment from the other courtyards of the inn, but to the south they could hear chanting, and what might have been breaking glass in the Angel, the open square a whole canal block to the east.
“Straight up the steps,” Benvenutu said.
She led the way, taking long strides, and Aranthur matched her, so that Dahlia had to hurry along behind.
“You don’t trust Tiy Drako?” she hissed.
“I trust you,” Aranthur said. “And the Master of Arts. I trust her.” He kept going.
“You’re insane!” Dahlia said. “You lied to him about the Black Stone…”
Aranthur turned. “Later. Please.”
“Listen!” he insisted.
Behind them, the chanting had become louder and more shrill, and now sounded like a series of waves breaking on rock.
Benvenutu turned. “Damn his eyes,” she said. “Roaris is enforcing the curfew.”
Indeed, from the first square above the inn, they could see a swirl of crowd activity down on the Square of the Angel, and what appeared to be a fire.
And the telltale sparkle of musket or puffer shots.
“Sophia!” Dahlia said. “He’s firing on the crowd.” She turned to Aranthur. “It’ll be a revolution, whether you think that’s a good idea or not.”
Aranthur shook his head. “My views stand,” he said. “Myr Benvenutu, have you seen the Emperor since he became sick?”
She was still watching the fringe of what appeared to be a riot in the piazza, two hundred feet below them.
“I have not.”
“He appears to be afflicted with the Darkness, like Drako,” Aranthur said. “Can it be cured?”
Benvenutu nodded, her mask gleaming white in the moonlight.
“Perhaps. Though we’re not getting much research done these days.”
“Iralia thinks he’s been poisoned. In a strange way, I hope she is right.”
Aranthur was listening. There were people above them on the steps.
“Blast of Darkness,” Dahlia spat. “Poisoned is better?”
“I’d like to go directly to the palace,” Aranthur said. “With you. To see the Emperor.”
Benvenutu glanced at him.
“If Roaris is moving against the crowd, he’s also going to isolate the Academy, if only to arrest students violating the curfew,” Aranthur said. “We’ll be taken if we go there.”
Dahlia nodded, as if in unwilling agreement.
The Master of Arts thought for a long moment.
“Very well,” she said. “My daughter is in for a long, dull evening…”
Suddenly the steps above them were full of men and women. Some wore yellow and black livery; a few had armbands, or headbands.
“Halt, in the name of the Protector!” called one.
“This way,” Benvenutu said, and rolled over the railing on the steps.
Aranthur turned, and the man on the steps above him called again.
“Halt! Take them!”
Dahlia leapt over the railing and fell to the slope below.
Aranthur followed. He let himself drop, carefully, and landed at the base of the retaining wall that held the steep steps. Dahlia was already sliding away down the slope, and Aranthur had no choice but to follow, as the hill was too steep to stand. He grabbed at trees and slowed his descent enough to not land atop Dahlia, and then his sword tangled between his legs, and he rolled over and got a face full of dirt and old leaves. He rolled again, and his head struck the stems of a decorative bush; not a heavy blow, but enough to stun him. He hung there a moment, and then something gave and he fell free.
He landed badly, knocking the air out of Myr Benvenutu. And he was immediately aware that he’d lost his sword in the long slide down the hill.
There were calls above them, and the sound of more people sliding.
Dahlia glanced at the damage to her hat. “We have to run.”
“I’m not leaving my sword,” Aranthur said.
He sprang back up the steep hill, grabbing at the brush for support. The hill above him seemed alive; a dozen Yellowjackets and their supporters were combing the bushes.
He raised his magesight and saw the sword; not far above him.
“Ware magery!” called a voice.
Three shields went up on the hillside and a heavy offensive occulta flashed through the undergrowth on the steep hill, burning plants.
Aranthur’s shields unrolled around him like a fountain springing to life, almost without his volition, and then his reaching hand closed on his sword hilt.
That was stupid, it said.
Aranthur let himself fall back down the hill, clutching the ancient sword. The belt had caught on something and the whole scabbard had been torn away.
This time he landed on the trail with a little more control, and on his feet.
“This way!” Dahlia called.
Aranthur ran to follow her along the bottom of the Cleft, where footpads sometimes lurked and adventurous students went to have privacy.
- "Utterly, utterly brilliant. A masterclass in how to write modern fantasy - world building, characters, plot and pacing, all perfectly blended. Miles Cameron is at the top of his game."—John Gwynne, author of The Faithful and the Fallen series on Cold Iron
- "Cold Iron is fantastic. It shimmers like a well-honed sword blade."—Anna Smith Spark, author of The Court of Broken Knives
- "I cannot recommend the Traitor Son Cycle enough... amazing."—SF Signal on The Fell Sword
- "The Red Knight is an excellent debut... [It] will only get better as the series progresses... You will be won by the intricate story and sophisticated world building."—Fantasy Book Critic on The Red Knight
- "Promising historical fantasy debut featuring an expansive cast, an engaging plot, and a detailed eye for combat."—The Ranting Dragon on The Red Knight
- "Literate, intelligent, and well-thoughtout...a pleasingly complex and greatly satisfying novel."—SFF World on The Red Knight
- "A rousing read."—SF Signal on The Red Knight
- On Sale
- Dec 10, 2019
- Page Count
- 464 pages