Chapter 7 :: Lambs to the Slaughter
"Leá Monde?" I asked, lowering my cup. "Losstarot has fled the Greylands?"
"Your forces are ready to be mobilized, are they not?" Duane was not looking at me, but at the serving boy filling his cup with wine. "We move within the hour."
"You don't seem to be in a hurry," I said. The boy's hands were unsteady as he lowered the decanter back to its tray, nearly upsetting it. He bowed, and tried not to make his exit as hasty as he obviously wished it to be.
"We have been waiting three years for this moment," Duane said, with a faint trace of a smile as he watched the boy leave. "It is a fine thing, this smell of victory." He turned to me at last, and lifted his goblet in a mocking toast. "I like to savor fine things, brother."
I snorted, thinking of the boy's trembling hands. "I don't doubt it." I lifted my cup back to him, all the same, and drained the contents. "I must ready my men."
"Grissom," Duane said, swirling his wine as I stood to leave. "I trust you will not hesitate to use your new skills, in this battle. You are aware of the Cardinal's orders, and Guildenstern’s ideals. I need not remind you that all of our plans depend on the success of this venture." He fixed me with sharp midwinter blue eyes. "I will not have failure in my blood."
I was not the same man I had been, that muddy spring in Duane's tent. "Nor in mine, Duane." I smiled at him, just to watch his face darken. "Your summons have yet been unsuccessful, have they not?" My salute was mocking, and unnecessary, for one of equal rank. "And now, if you will--"
"...If the battle goes ill," Duane said, stopping me again. I waited, as Duane stared into his cup, sighing at last. "Ah, well. There has never been much love lost between us, has there." He drained the wine, and ran his thumb along the golden lip of the goblet. "But for our mother's sake, do not fall tomorrow." He looked at me a long time and I was overcome with a grim foreboding, seeing for the first time not merely my brother, but a man of power and skill, the chain of his rank gleaming on his breast, the firelight catching in his hair. Our coloring was the one thing we shared; I had our mother's face, but Duane, with some unspoken care darkening his eyes, could have been our father pulled out of time and place.
"Nor you," I said, not certain why my voice was unsure, or why I felt as though something heavy had settled on my chest. The swan song felt hot under my tunic. I wondered if Duane saw our mother in my face, as I had seen our father in his. For the first time in all our years I felt the blood between us, balancing us on the scales of fate. In all our differences, Duane was still the only kin I had. "For our father's sake."
"Hm." Duane looked again at his cup. "You have mother's brooch still, don't you?"
I nodded. He had never asked about it before.
"I thought so." Duane put the goblet on the table as though he had deemed it of poor quality, and turned his face to the fire. "You had best alert your command."
"Duane," I said, and I realized that in my vocabulary of war and ancient magic and the scriptures of Iocus, I had no words of fraternal affection. I had never learned them. "...You're right." I opened the door, and wanting some words of closure, said, "Within the hour."
Duane nodded, still facing the fire.
I closed the door behind me.
"...I see." Dimly, I recalled the sound of birdsong. Swallows were nesting in the ruins, and their bright music was a strange contrast to the smell of earth and the dust of the dead that clung to my clothes. The late summer sunlight was hot on my armor and my hair, but at Guildenstern’s words I felt a chill like a draught from the yawning toothless maw of the crypts.
"He is formidable," Guildenstern said, scratching his beard and peering at the Kildean runes marking a nearby arch, crumbling in the middle. "To have defeated Duane. I trust you will not let him elude you."
"No." I lifted my head, and faced my commander. "I will avenge my brother."
Guildenstern smiled only on the battlefield, and only when he could scent victory. He was not quite smiling now, but his lips were tight, his eyes keen. "We will purge this land of corruption, Grissom. I know how you long for true justice." He ran his hand down the side of the arch, moving ivy leaves to reveal the curving words of a spellsong. "And in the end, I think the name of St. Just will return to the Greylands."
I clutched the familiar weight of my shillelagh. Blood darkened the spikes, and was drying black in the grooves of the runes. I did not see it, lifting my head to the blue sky, and thinking of the lands of my childhood. I pulled myself forcibly back to the present, remembering my Brother's murder and a riskbreaker who had no right to meddle in our affairs. "I am yours to command, Guildenstern."
"Good. You have passed my orders on to Tieger?"
I nodded. "He is regrouping his knights, and searching for a ford across the river. I have a dozen of my blades left, and perhaps as many of the hired. We will join with them as planned."
"I have changed my mind." He scrubbed a glyph with his thumb. "Take your two best with you, and pursue Riot west through the city walls. We will continue our search for the key. If you find that noxious Rosencrantz, squeeze him. He knows more than he is telling." Guildenstern abandoned his study, and swept me with his gaze. "Bring me Riot's head."
"By your command." I bowed, my heart pounding. Duane was gone, and I would not be the weak link, not when I at last was handed a task worthy of my skills. This was the hour for action, not grief, and my blood sang with the serenade of conflict as I hurried to meet up with my comrades.
I had last seen Tieger some two streets away; it would be quicker to cut through the Rue Mal Fallde and head him off at Tircolas Flow. I passed through a weedy courtyard and into the remains of an old garden, now a slow fragrant explosion of roses run wild. Standing in the midst of them, her hand uneasy on the hilt of her rapier, was Samantha.
"Romeo told me about your brother," she said carefully, to a rose not yet opened, her eyes avoiding mine. "I'm sorry."
We had not spoken since Yule, though I had seen her often enough at Guildenstern's side. "Iocus is merciful," I said.
She looked at me at last, and in her eyes was something that made my heart close like a fortified town on the brink of siege. Pity. "You have changed," She said, in little more than a whisper. The wind stirred the roses and they bobbed their heavy dripping heads as though in agreement. "Once you said those same words to me as a stranger, and your voice held more compassion than it does now."
"If I have changed," I said, biting off the words as if they were the bitter leaves of medicine, "Then I am not the one to blame." I spun on my heel to leave her. I would not be pitied. Not by Samantha.
"Grissom," She grasped my sleeve, staying me. "Please. Please, hear me, Grissom."
"And why should I?" I was suddenly, blindingly angry. "You said enough yourself that you had deceived me! Did Guildenstern's absence leave your bed so cold that I was his unknowing second? How long were you his harlot? Months? Years?"
"Stop," Samantha whispered, blinking hard at the cracked and worn cobblestones, the crushed rose petals. "Please."
"Indeed I shall." I jerked my arm free. "You say I have changed, and well I have. I am no longer a fool."
"I thought that you knew," Samantha said, her arms curling slowly around herself. "I thought everyone knew. It was too late, I realized you had no idea... he would have destroyed you, Grissom. I couldn't let him--" She put her hands over her face, and shook her pale hair.
I stared at her. The roses had gone still. "What hold does he have over you?"
Samantha looked at the damp palms of her red gloves. She wore no blood, her own or that of another’s, though the fighting had been hot. "...I love him." She looked up at me, her eyes imploring. "Forgive me."
I stared at her. She was beautiful still, but I refused to see it. Had she ever spoken of such love to me, I might have reached for her, and together we might have fled Guildenstern's wrath. But even her heart was his. "Have done with you," I said, my voice hoarse.
"I never knew any man as gentle as you once were," Samantha said. "And I loved him enough to spare him." She straightened, her eyes steady now, the rose tattoo on her breast blooming like heart's blood. "I am sorry, for the death of the man I knew. I will mourn him." She bowed to me, as a subordinate to a commander, and strode past me out of the courtyard.
I never saw her alive again.