27 Festivis, 1137
By sparkling cold moonlight, the tracks veering off the road were just visible. Three carriages, assorted horses. The carriages bumped over rough, arid rises and into dips, then fell into a shallow ravine. It caught all three carriages, thirty-two horses and their riders. The rest lay dead on the ground above.
“How’d they miss that ravine? It was bright daylight,” I muttered to myself.
The stench of charred bone and wood, flesh, leather and wool covered the site, but it didn’t obscure the sulfurous, resinous smell of fire oil in quantity. Some body had been burned, and it had been started with Galantier’s best weapon. I dismounted, gestured Paval to follow. We stood over the closest corpse, untouched save for the crossbolts in his chest and the slash across his throat. We’ll need pyres, aid from Western Two. It’ll wait. I need information more.
I followed my nose to the edge of the ravine, where the pyre- and fire oil-stench was strongest. Paval went slightly blank as he forced his ingenia to make his memories permanent, not just the sight, but the sounds, the odor, the time and place. I waited until his eyes flickered. He’d come to serve Galantieran justice, and though his expression was closed and guarded, I knew the moment I gave him leave, he’d declare this a criminal scene.
I looked at the security detail until I found the Corpsman I wanted, the Observer from my office. “Other than us, where are the closest people?” I asked.
He went blank for a moment, then turned, one arm outstretched and pointed south. “Approximately thirty milliae, sir. At Western Two.”
Good. I turned back to Paval. We’d argued, by Evocata, for the entire long trip to this grisly site. Not knowing what we’d find, but knowing that nobody lived, I’d considered three possibilities — this might be an accident, a Spagnian ambush, or an internal assassination. I’d hoped for an accident. The succession would move fastest, since there’d be no blame, no investigation except why and how. It would grieve Rien, and me and the entire nation, but accidents happen, even to clever, cautious people. The part of me who had held my infant cousin when I was four and realized what love meant, who had been her friend, confidante, brother and liegeman, wanted to make this an accident for her sake, and Galantier’s. If Uncle had to die other than in his bed of age, I wanted this easy for her and us.
Paval glanced up and shook his head once, briefly, with something like relief mixed into the horror, grief, shock and anger on his face. You can’t make this an accident, he said in my head. I know that’s expedient, but these bodies have cross-bolts in their chest. Fuel-oil means this was encouraged, fire oil means it was set. His Majesty wasn’t carrying fire-oil, so whoever did this brought it. You’ve too many people here to cover this. If you try, the truth will out and that’s worse.
I knew that, and understood his relief, at least a little. Not only is it damned difficult to keep a secret in a country where over a thousand people can read minds, making this an accident would deprive Uncle of justice. Better let Paval investigate than try to cover it with a facade of innocence.
I lowered myself down the loose bank, knowing what I’d find, not wanting to see. The wreckage was bad, but it shouldn’t have been this fatal. Those carriages were too well built for ten feet to break them. The wheels had splintered, but the boxes were still roughly rectangular rather than shattered and torn. Or had been, before the fire. They had not burned well, considering. These winter plain carriages had wool felt stretched between the wood frame and the leather skin, and wool doesn’t burn easily, even with encouragement. Paval slipped his hand into mine and squeezed.
I knew that Uncle had been in the first carriage, the one that took the most damage from falling and being fallen upon, but the least burnt. I don’t know how I knew, because Uncle himself never knew until he threw a die to choose one. There is security in a depth of men at arms, and in being unobtrusive, but there is also safety in randomness. Uncle had used all three. Successfully, for many long years. Just not this time.
His carriage had been smashed, but less than half burnt. I clung to Paval’s hand and forced my legs to carry me to the twisted frame. I pushed the leather curtain aside and saw what remained of the man who raised me. His aide and his two body guards were crumpled with him, their bodies clearly battered beyond life, but neither fall nor fire took Uncle. I cupped his uninjured cheek without disturbing his shattered spectacles or the cross bolt that had destroyed him.
Or not, the Army lifer deep in my mind whispered. I’ve seen men survive a bolt to the eye. A lucky few even keep some sight. I stepped aside so moonlight fell more strongly on him, and saw the skew in his neck at the same moment Paval slipped away from me. A moment later, he returned with a narrow-mouthed bottle full of white fire. He gingerly lifted the phosphor light until the light fell on the four bodies. Uncle’s aide had been impaled by a piece of broken wheel that had come through the carriage on impact, but Tem sune Sandren had been trying to save my uncle when they fell. He still had the bandage in hand, though both hand and bandage were scorched. One bodyguard was folded in thirds in the corner, his spine broken at hip and neck; I guessed he had been standing over Uncle at the moment they went over and had smacked first into the carriage roof, then the floor. The other had bolts in his throat, belly and shoulder. He had been the first down. Then I saw that I had been wrong about the fire. More than half of the carriage was burnt. More than half of the bodies, too. This one, being lowest, had absorbed most of the oils, but the least air. It had probably smoldered like a charcoal heap most of the day, until the oils were burned off. I’d let air in when I moved the curtain. The seats and wooden frame flared back to life.
Paval pushed me roughly back and put himself between me and the blooming fire. I knew it wasn’t for my safety but to make the scene permanent in his memory. “Tret Darasin, to me,” he yelled as the fire began to crackle.
A moment later, the young Perceptive from my office was beside us. “Full recall, transferable and privacy, Corpsman,” Paval said. “See everything. I’ll help, just do your best to record.” He glanced briefly at me. “You, too. The more perspectives, the better. We haven’t much time.”
I’ve got barely enough of the necessary Ingenia — Perceptio — to make a memory permanent, unalterable and concealed. That skill is why the Royal House breeds for Ingeniae at all. I inhaled a lungful of smoke and death and pure grief along with the puissance that makes the machine in my head spin its wheels. For one long second, I considered putting a key on it, giving memory and key to Paval, then erasing it. The blackened bones, the flesh like lumps of meat left too long over a campfire —
They barreled into me and shoved me up the ravine as the carriages exploded into white light and heat. We landed in a tangled heap of legs and cloaks and arms, but unscorched.
“Ancestors fuck the shit suckers,” I said under my breath as I stared into my uncle’s pyre. “The damned evidence — ”
“It would have happened no matter who was first,” Paval said. “We haven’t near enough water to douse it. I got better memory than if we’d waited and let it char until dawn or tried to bury and smother. We would have needed six Incendiaries to control that.” He turned my face away from the pyre and made me see him. “This isn’t your fault. We can’t change it, but I swear to you we will have justice, Your Valor.”
For most of the next hour, Paval stood by me as we bore witness to the final disposition of my uncle, the only father I ever knew or acknowledged, my Razin. So, too, did my unit of outriders, the only honor guard possible in this desolate darkness forty milliae from anything. We had to let it burn — we had no means to stop it. But we did have to put it out, because we do not leave our comrades for the wind to scatter. We especially do not leave our Razin. The only person permitted to scatter a Razin’s ashes is his heir, who will place him with his ancestors at the base of Felicita’s Rose. It’s been four hundred years since a Razin fell in battle, but we don’t forget those protocols.
The outriders were scooping loose sand from the bottom of the ravine onto the edges of the pyre when Paval squeezed my hand to get my attention. “You can tell Her Ascendency it was fast, if that will bring her solace,” he murmured. “His Majesty did not suffer long. You’ve little time to say your farewells, my dear, but this time is yours.”
I wanted to keen and hold Uncle’s broken body, to throw myself into the dying embers, but the grief around my heart seemed too large. If I let it leave my throat, it would rip everything else in me on its way out. Instead I found that new memory and stepped into it. The stars shifted back an hour, the moon rose again, and I stood twenty yards up the ravine, still damp from three hours ahorse and chilled in the winter desert night. I touched Uncle’s face again, took note of what he still clutched, and forced that sight to plant a seed of consolation. He never surrendered.
I shoved the ache deep inside. I lacked time to grieve for Uncle. The only person I love more is my brat, and this would half-kill Rien. I stepped out of the memory, looked hard at Paval, and begged his forgiveness. “I can’t take this back to the Karsai,” I said.
“She’ll demand you share it,” he said. “If you don’t have it — ”
“Paval, she’s a civilian. She’s never seen — ”
“She’s an Advocate and a High Justiciar, Ragin. She’s not an innocent infant, and she’s done two years of death investigation in her spare time. I assure you she has seen this and worse. Do you want me to take this memory because you think you can protect her, or because you need to protect yourself?”
I almost couldn’t answer him, but I have a small stage in the back of my head. Many scenes have played out there in my life, but this memory had already signed a long contract. Its permanence had nothing to do with making it inviolate. The only way I’d ever muffle it was to give it away. “For me,” I said. “It’s already turning the black key.”
He nodded. “Hand it over.” He cupped my jaw in both hands and breathed in as I exhaled the memory in a cloud of puissance. Then he took a copy of my key, a little tune that rattles around in the back of my head that I’ve never actually heard, but left the original.
With the fire out and dawn still half a sky away, the ravine had turned as black as the darkness of my worst nightmares and memory. Paval guided me a step or two deeper into the shadows and wrapped me in a lover’s embrace. Is it survivable now? he asked.
“Barely,” I whispered. “I’m not going to hang myself or ride my own pyre. Thank you, beloved.”
You know it’s temporary. At best, you’ve got two days until it begins to rebuild. You need a Mind Healer, not an Advocate. It’ll hit you in dreams, just like every other —
“Ayuh,” I whispered. Two days would be long enough to insulate. I’ve had twenty-three years of nightmares. This one would hurt. Ugly, sad, cruel. Ayuh. But no shame. No guilt. It wouldn’t try to kill me, once I got past the shock. “I’ve always promised I’ll tell you goodbye before I hit the pyre, Pav. Not going to change that now. I’ll have to stay through the Coronation, but Cazerien will let me come back once that’s over. A couple tendays. I’ll get it back then. Anything you want from the city?”
“Always the optimist,” he said. “All I ask is you go over to the Renaran Hospital between midnight and eighth. Ask for Mell Bruckides, my sister. She’s their trauma Mind Healer. Tell her nightmares, black despair and Advocate’s privilege. She can work around your secrets. Let her help.”
“I don’t need a Mind Healer, love.” And I don’t. I need an executioner and a Judicatura willing to let the Advocates General keep this. Because army justice is faster and less sticky about the little things.
For the moment — for the next couple days — I could breathe and think. Who wants him dead? Spagna — the succession, even if it went as well as planned, would cause a year’s chaos. People change slowly and after twenty-six years, they’d find Rien difficult to take. Forty-seven bodies, seventy horses… this was well funded. At least forty men on excellent mounts. Spagna’s Rania Alsarka is reputed to be fiendishly clever.
I built the ambush in my mind. The road hadn’t been blocked, not that I could see in the dark, but it might have been. A pile of sandbags that disappeared with the bandits? I need to see the site by day. What next? Block the road, they’re coming fast, they don’t see the block so they veer — maybe in that dip? They ran for almost four milliae so they were herded. I counted, and yes, all of the bodies were here, so they didn’t make any shots before… unless the bodies were moved? Hopefully, we didn’t ruin the trail. I see the ravine in the dark, so they’d see it in daylight unless it was camouflaged. If so, the material was below the carriages. I need more light. Who?
And why burn the carriages? Spagnians don’t burn their dead. They bury, polluting the earth and trapping the soul for eternity. I shuddered. A terrible fate. Spagnian cross bolts, but Galantieran cremation? Have they developed a conscience? Unlikely. I’d never seen Spagnians stop for the dead. Why burn them anyway? Whoever did this knew we’d learn soon. Not panic — they had enough oil for three carriages, it wasn’t a case of a broken lantern, which wouldn’t have been burning at noon. The entourage left Western Two just after seventh hour, when the road was light enough to see. Given the place, the ambush happened about four hours later. Good planning — this desert’s bitter, even in daylight, so everyone’s a bit muddled with cold, tired, cramped, bored. Four hours in, so just before a change of horses. The horses in harness would have been tired. Close to haven so ostensibly safe. Off the border, so doubly so. The sun would be in their eyes. Whoever planned this was no amateur. He had money, wits, patience and loyal, intelligent men.
Of Uncle’s enemies, my parent topped that list. He’s made low men rich and they’ll follow him anywhere. He’s clever, patient, and not poor. I don’t know how wealthy since he can’t show it, but I didn’t doubt he could buy many Teregenis.
I can hear you. Lock it down, Paval said inside my skull. Why kill Vohan? Mathes hates His Majesty, but Cazerien’s a worse prospect for him —
I forced puissance into the battlements around my mind and Paval nodded. “Rien,” I breathed. Was she the target? Her carriages, her horses, her guards. Vohan came at the last minute.
The only reason for a fire would be to burn evidence. This was no accident.
I sent three of the freshest horses and their riders — relative, we’d ridden hard getting here and even our remounts were damp and breathing hard — for wagons, tarpaulins, torches and hands, while Paval directed the rest into preserving the site while gathering the bodies above by torch- and bottlelight. Half a dozen went to close the road at each end while the rest of us counted bodies, checked wounds — crossbolts and slit throats — and slogged through the grim night. I coded a short message and gave it to the Evocator to relay to Western One for transmission to Cimenarum, keeping it obscure despite the encryption. Announcing Uncle’s death was Rien’s job, not mine and certainly not some signal officer’s.
Why didn’t Western Two notice? Because day fires aren’t obvious, especially oil fires and a smolder. They don’t smoke much and Western Two lacked watchers or Observers looking this way. Why would they look into our land? This was Galantier, the safe haven. Home.