Chapter 6 :: An Arrow Into Darkness
Four days before Yuletide I sat in the warm darkness of the confessional, looking at a book of the psalms of Iocus without even seeing the marvel of their illuminated pages. It was not often I heard confession, but that duty fell even to me. While the higher officers of the Crimson Blade knew their confessor no more than any other man did, they would at least know that their sins would not be heard by one of lower rank.
Duane had sent word that he and Guildenstern would be returning within the week, and I had been invited to attend the King's Yuletide feast. Since new appointments were granted at Yule, I was confident of my promised promotion, and could not have been in better spirits. Even the petty chore of listening to the indiscretions of other men was no hardship.
The narrow door of the confessional opened, and there was a rustle of fabric, a shiver of uncertain breathing. I had learned, in my time, to tell who came to the confessional with a truly heavy heart, and who came out of duty or habit. This was one of the former. Not that it mattered to me; my lines in this play were always the same.
"Forgive me, Father. I have sinned." I was startled enough to forget my cue. The woman on the other side of the thin wood partition was Samantha, her voice as familiar to me as my own fingertips. She did not wait for my prompting, or perhaps she heard it in her mind, pressing onward. "I have... deceived a man, Father, and taken advantage of his kindness."
Perhaps I should have played along and listened, or attempted to disguise my voice, but something flickered inside my heart, and I wanted her to know me. "Samantha?"
She gasped, and through the small gilded grate separating us I could see fragments of her alarmed face. "Grissom! Forgive me, I-- I did not know--" she was gathering herself to leave, like a quail flushed by dogs, unaware of the hunter.
"Wait!" I said, but I could not touch her, my hand pressed the to the grate and jostling it in my haste. "Wait, Samantha. You can speak your heart to me." I forced a smile over the sound of my heart and the sudden cold bloodlessness of my fingers. "Please. I would rather it be me than another priest."
She hesitated, and after consideration I heard her settle back down to the bench, her breath unsteady. "Yes," she said, though not to me, "yes, perhaps this is best."
"Come now," I said, with feigned lightness. "What great sin have you committed? Shall I intervene for you, to make your penance lighter?"
"It must end, Grissom."
The silence in the confessional was absolute. I could swear that my heart had stopped. "...Samantha."
She took a great shuddering breath, and the one blue eye I could see was too bright. "No, Listen to me, Grissom. I began this, and I must end it, for your sake as well as for mine. If he were to find out--"
"Have I a rival, Samantha?" Of course I would, some fiendishly logical voice said, in the back of my mind. A lady like Samantha would surely have an army of suitors, each more powerful than the last. There was no reason at all for her to choose a priest burdened by vows, with no land or title to his name and no way to make her rightfully his. "If so, at least let me know his name."
"No!" She said quickly. "It should never have been, Grissom. We must never speak of it."
She was scared, I realized, and some part of me thawed. "Are you in peril, lady?" I wished the barrier gone between us, so that I might take her hand and soothe her fears. "I have no small amount of power, beloved. I can-- "
"It is not enough," she whispered, and pressed her hand to mine, over the grate. "It was a dream, but we cannot live our lives asleep. Morning always comes." Her breath hitched, and I could hear her tears. "I'm sorry, Grissom."
She rose and was gone, flying out of the small space and away from me. I could hear the diminishing sound of her footsteps on the marble chapel floor, and then nothing. The book of psalms fell forgotten from my lap.
I put my face in my hands, and wept.
"Fool," Neesa said, when next she saw me, though I had not spoken of the affair to anyone. "You cannot be warned, can you man? You must grasp hot coals and be burned all on your own. In some things you are still a boy." But though her words were stern, her voice was gentle, and never again did she say any more of it.
And fool enough I felt, four days later at the King's Yuletide banquet. I had arrived somewhat early, seeking distraction. And so I was standing in attendance with Duane when Lord Guildenstern made his entrance, unsmiling even in the midst of festivity, and on his arm, her own smile as fragile as the frost, Samantha.
"What ails you?" Duane snapped, for I was laughing without sound, holding my sides and shaking. Everything fell into place, including myself, tucked into position as neatly as a sword made impotent by its sheath. I could not hate Samantha, or even myself. I had dared to set foot beyond God's boundaries, and God, in his infinite cruelty, had put me back where I belonged.
"Nothing, Brother," I said, getting hold of myself and watching Guildenstern and Samantha pay their respects to king and cardinal, paying me no heed. "Nothing at all."
"Then act it," Duane hissed. "I have worked hard to get you in this place tonight, and I will not have you blunder this opportunity."
"Mmm." I did not even bother correcting him, watching Samantha sink to the floor before the king, her crimson dress pooling around her like blood. I tried to see her as a stranger, a beautiful woman whose name I did not know, there at the side of my commander. She bowed her head at some compliment of the king and I looked away, fearing her eyes would meet mine and I would betray us both. I sought something to warrant my attention, dancers or musicians or some other lady of beauty, and found nothing to keep my gaze. I almost excused myself for another glass of wine, when I saw motion on the upper balcony.
"Are you listening?" Duane was saying, and so did not see the shape on the balcony resolve itself into a bowgun, light glinting on the copper wire wrapped around the gut string. "Grissom!"
I had broken into a run, elbowing past my brother and having time only for a glimpse of the king's startled face as I toppled him from the throne. The bolt thudded deep in the back of the king's chair, splintering the wood.
Guildenstern had drawn his sword as I picked myself up, and ordered his men to search the area. The Kingsguard had swarmed to the king's side and were struggling to keep the peace. From somewhere outside there was a short, shrill scream and a long crash, and one of Guildenstern's blades returned, bloody and grimly triumphant. "Brilliant!" The king said, as if he had not nearly met his maker and I had only executed a cunning maneuver at a tournament. "Absolutely first-rate! One of yours, isn't he, Guildenstern?"
I looked up and saw not my king or commander, but Samantha, her hands over her mouth, her face white. Behind her, the cardinal turned to murmur something to one of his aides, and Guildenstern grimly sheathed his weapon.
"Grissom," Guildenstern said, and I started, when he was only answering the King's question. "One of my sub-commanders."
"I feel as though I know your face, young man." The king eyed me with a gaze still sharp in spite of his years.
"His father was once a noble of the Greylands, I believe." Cardinal Batistum swept down from his dais in a ripple of crimson silk, his eyebrow arched in appraisal. "St. Just, wasn't it?"
I bowed, my mouth dry. "Yes, Your Grace."
"Ah!" The King's gaze cleared. "Bardorba has those lands now, does he not? Pity, so much ugliness before the restoration. What have you found there, Guildenstern?"
"Müllenkamp," Guildenstern said, wrenching the bolt free of the king's chair. "It bears the mark of the ancient priestess."
"Speak of the devil," one of the cardinal's aides murmured. "They would strive to assassinate the king?"
"And failed!" the king said, clapping his hand on my shoulder. "A shame about your father's lands my boy, but I confess I am glad you were in attendance this night! Is he here for promotion, Guildenstern?"
Romeo Guildenstern was turning the warped shaft over in his hands, his eyes on the cardinal. Batistum tilted his head slightly and light from the myrtlewax candles flashed on his signet ring, as though in signal. Guildenstern said, "Yes, Your Highness. For exemplary service and keen judgment."
"I can well see why. But I'd double it, if I were you," the king said. "Though I can only offer a suggestion of that, Your Grace, naturally he is under your jurisdiction."
"Naturally," the cardinal demurred, and I did not care for the cool look in his eyes, or the silent exchange between him and Guildenstern. His gaze swept over me, and when he spoke, his dismissal was apparent. "You are to be commended, Grissom. We will have to consider what reward would be most suited to such bravery."
I protested that I had done only as any soldier in sensing peril, and bowed myself out of the illustrious company and the heavy weight that hung around them. I thought of Samantha, her slim shoulders bent under Guildenstern's presence and the intrigues of kings, and hurried past Duane's scowl into the cold air of the lower balconies.
The bolt in Guildenstern's hand had been unmarked.
"First Commander, Brother!" Tieger slapped my shoulder hard enough for me to spill my tankard, his smile lighting his face like the winter sun over a craggy mountaintop. "On equal footing at last with that brother of yours, eh?"
"And far overdue," Neesa added, swinging a lean leg over the tavern bench and leaning close to be heard over the noise. "Duane couldn't fight his way though an army made of butter, and yet all these years he has outranked you. Damn time, I say."
Even the commendations of my closest friends were bittersweet, as were the new benefits of my rank, and the fine silver mace that hung at my side, a gift of kingly gratitude.
"Come now," Neesa said, draping her arm over my shoulders. It occurred to me belatedly that she was a woman as much as Samantha, for all that her words were as stern as any man's, and the force of her arm harder. She smelled like cinnamon and leather. I had not noticed before. "We are in your direct command, Grissom. When will you be showing us some of those fancy tricks you know? You are not the only one to have earned higher rank this Yuletide, eh?"
I had not told them of my efforts in the realm of sorcery, but I was not surprised they knew. Neesa, I had learned, had an eye and ear sharper than the blade of her polearm, and Tieger's wisdom led him to infer connections that common men would have overlooked.
I wondered later if Neesa's insistence to learn magical arts was a clever trick to distract me from Samantha's constant presence at Guildenstern's side. She was not the sort otherwise to care for such tools, and scorned the fancier crafts for spells of simple practicality. She and Tieger were quick students, pressing my own knowledge to its bounds, and the darkness of winter was lightened by their company.
All the same, some frost had settled over me that could not thaw, not even with Neesa's potent ministrations. She was an unexpected fire, enough to content my blood if not my heart, with no interest in promises that would last after dawn.
Spring came that year, as it had every year before and would every year after. But it did not come to me.