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THE KING’S BLOOD

Introduction

Master Kit

The apostate, called Kitap rol Keshmet among other things, stood in the soft city rain, the taint in his blood pressing at him, goading him, but being ignored. Fear and dread welled up in his throat.

In any of the cities and villages of the Keshet or Borja or Put, the temple would have been the central fact of the community, a point of pride and honor, and the axis about which all life turned. In the vast glory of Camnipol, it was only another of a thousand such structures, awe-inspiring in its scope, beauty, and grandeur, and rendered unremarkable by its company.

The city was the heart of Imperial Antea as Imperial Antea was the heart of Firstblood power in the world, but Camnipol was older than the kingdom it ruled. Every age had left its mark here, every generation growing on the ruins of the old until the earth below the dark-cobbled streets was not soil, but the wreckage of what had come before. It was a city of black and gold, of wealth and desperate poverty. Its walls rose around it like a boast of invulnerability, and its noble quarters displayed great mansions and towers and temples casually, as if the grandeur was trivial, normal, and mundane. Had Camnipol been a knight, he would have worn black-enameled armor and a cloak of fine-worked wool. Had it been a woman, she would have been too handsome to look away from and too intimidating to speak with. Instead, it was a city, and it was Camnipol.

Soft rain darkened the stone walls and high columns. Wide steps rose from street to landing and then again to the shadowed colonnade. The great spider-silk banner—the red of blood with the eightfold sigil of the goddess at its center—hung beneath the overhanging roof, dark at the bottom from the rain and at the top from the shadows, and the breeze sent ripples across it. The carriages and palanquins of the highest noble families of Antea filled the narrow road, each trying to reach a more prestigious place on the smooth-cobbled street and none willing to retreat a step that might give a rival some opportunity. And it was still hardly past first thaw. When summer and the court season came, the place would be unnavigable. To the north, the great tower of the Kingspire was greyed by mist, its top shrouded so that it appeared to grow up into the spreading cloud: the Severed Throne reaching out in all directions and weighing down the world.

The apostate pulled the hood of his cloak forward to hide his face and conceal his hair. Tiny spheres of rain beaded his beard like web-caught flies. He waited.

At the top of the steps, the hero of Antea stood, smiling and nodding to the few grandees who had come early to the city as they passed into the dimness of the temple. Geder Palliako, newly Baron of Ebbingbaugh and Protector of Prince Aster who was the only son of King Simeon and heir to the Severed Throne. Geder Palliako who had saved the kingdom from the conspiracies of the courts of Asterilhold. Geder wasn’t the image of a national hero. His face was round and pale, his hair slicked back. The black leather cloak he wore was cut for a thicker man’s frame, pooling around him like an ornate curtain. He stood under the great red banner like a new actor freshly on a stage. The apostate could almost see him repeating lines to himself, straining his ears toward his cue.

This was the man who had brought back the cult of the goddess, long forgotten, and dropped it into the center of the greatest empire outside Far Syramys. In a more pious age, the temple might have struggled to take root, but the priests of Antea had long ago become political spokesmen and champions of the expedient. The voice of the goddess, impossible to resist for long, had found willing ears here, and the nobility streamed in like children before a puppet show, excited by the hint of the exotic, the decadent, and the strange.

They were dead. Their city, their empire, the truths they had learned at their nurses’ breasts. Like the first pale mark of leprosy, the rot had touched their city, and none of them could see it for what it was. Nor, in all likelihood would they ever, even as the madness took them. They would die and never understand what they had become.

“Hoy! Old man!”

The apostate turned. The armsman was Jasuru, bronze-scaled and black-tongued. He wore boiled leather and the sigil of a serpent on a field of orange. Behind him, a young woman was stepping down from a gilt carriage with the help of a footman in matching colors. The woman herself wore a black leather cloak, cut too generously. Fashion in all things.

“What’s your business here?” the Jasuru demanded, his hand on his sword’s pommel.

“Nothing pressing,” the apostate said. “Didn’t see I was in the way. Quite sorry.”

The guard growled low in his throat and looked away. The apostate turned his back and walked. Behind him, the high, rattling sound of the tin gongs began. He hadn’t heard the call to prayer since he was a boy and a priest in a mountain temple half a continent away. For a moment, he could smell the dust and sweet wellwater, could hear the scrape of lizards across the stone and taste the curried goat that no one else in the world made the way they had in the village of his youth. A deep voice began the call to prayer, and the power in the apostate’s blood thrilled to the half-forgotten syllables. He paused, ignored the wisdom of a thousand children’s tales, and looked back.

The bull-huge man wore the green and gold of a high priest preparing the low rites, but he was no one the apostate recognized. The high priest he had known was dead, then. Well, the spider goddess promised many things, but physical immortality wasn’t one. Her priests could die. The thought was a comfort. The apostate pulled his cheap wools closer around him and disappeared into the wet labyrinth of broadways and alleys.

***

The Division split Camnipol down its center like Gods knife wound. Half a dozen true bridges spanned the abyss from its rim, standing high above the empty air, massive webworks of stone and iron. Any number of improvised chain-and-rope constructions reached across it lower down where the walls came closer together. If one were sitting near its edge, the history of the city was laid bare, ruin laid upon ruin laid upon ruin until the ancient architecture vanished, indistinguishable from stone apart from the occasional archway or green-bleeding bronzework. Since the age of dragons and before, there had been a city where Camnipol stood, growing upon and out of the ruins of the city before it. Even now, poor men and women of the thirteen races lived deep in the flesh of the city, inhabiting lightless caves that had been the storehouses and ballrooms and palaces of their ancestors.

“You never really think about drainage,” Smit said, looking out into the grey air.

“I don’t believe I do,” the apostate said, shrugging off his cloak. “Was there a reason you felt I should?”

The troupe had taken shelter in a common yard at the Division’s edge. The cart’s thin doors were open, but they hadn’t lowered the stage. Cary sat cross-legged with her back against the wide wheel, sewing beads to the blue gown. They were going to play The Bride’s Folly that night, and the role of Lady Partia called for a bit more frippery. Sandr and Hornet were at the back of the high shelter with sticks in their hands, walking the choreography of the final battle where Anson Arranson exposed the treachery of his commander. Charlit Soon, their newest actor, sat with her hands under her thighs, her lips moving as if in prayer. It was her first night playing in The Bride’s Folly, and her anxiety was endearing. Mikel was nowhere to be seen, likely off to the market and haggling for meat and river fish. There would be plenty of time for him to return and make ready. It was only the gloomy weather that made everything seem late.

“Well, you think about it,” Smit said, nodding at the rain, “the things that really make a city are about controlling nature, aren’t they? This here rain may not look like much, but Camnipol’s a big city. It all adds up. Right now, just looking at it, it’s like God upended a river on the place. All that water’s got to go somewhere.”

The sea, the sea, the endless sea,” the apostate said, quoting a play they’d done two years before. “As all water finds the salt waves, so all men end in death.”

“Well sure,” Smit said, rubbing his chin, “but the important thing’s how it gets from here to there, isn’t it?”

The apostate smiled.

“Smit, my dear, I believe you’ve just committed metaphor.”

The actor blinked a false innocence.

“Did I? And here I thought we were talking about gutters.”

The apostate smiled. For fifteen years now, he had traveled the world with his little band of players. They had sung for kings and brutish mobs. He’d taught players from eight of the thirteen human races, and taken lovers from three. Master Kit, he’d been. Kitap rol Keshmet. It was a name he’d given himself even before that, when he had delivered himself into the world out of a womb of desert stone and madness. He’d played a thousand roles. And now, God help him, there was time for one more.

One last.

“Cary?” the apostate said. “A word?”

The long-haired woman nodded, slipped her needle into her sleeve, and laid the handful of beads carefully into a cupping fold of the gown’s cloth. It looked casual and unthinking, but not one bead would escape that little nest. The apostate nodded, smiling, and strolled toward the next shelter in the common yard, empty apart from a cold iron brazier and a stone bench. The brick paving was wet where the rain struck, the subtle red and green deepened and enriched until they seemed enameled. He sat on the little bench and Cary sat at his side.

Now that the time had come, he couldn’t ignore the sorrow any longer. It had been there for weeks. The fear was an old companion by now; a fire lit in a common house in Porte Oliva months before when he had first heard word that a banner of the goddess flew in Antea. Sorrow had only come later, and he had put it aside as long as he could, telling himself that the thickness in his throat, the weight in his breast, would keep. They would keep no more.

“Master Kit?” Cary said. “Are you crying?”

“Of course not,” he said. “Men weep. We find crying undignified.”

She put her arm around his shoulder. Like a sailor sipping his last freshwater before a voyage, he tried to drink in the feeling of her beside him—the bend of her elbow at the back of his neck, the solid weight of her muscles, the smell of verbena and soap. He took a deep, shuddering breath, and nodded his assent. It took a long moment before he could speak.

“I believe we will need to find another player,” he said. “Older man with a certain gravity. Someone who can take the paternal roles and the villains. Lord Fox. Orcus the Demon King. Those.”

“Your roles,” Cary said.

“Mine.”

Raindrops as small as pinpricks tapped the thatching above them, the bricks before. The practiced blows of false swords and the grunts of the boys swinging them. Hornet had been with the company longer than Cary. Smit played more roles. But Cary would guide them. She would hold the little family of the road together after he was gone, if anyone would.

“What’s happened?” she asked.

“There’s something I feel I have to do,” he said.

“We’d help.”

“I believe you would try. But . . .”

“But?”

He shifted to look her in the eyes. Her arm slid away from him. Her eyes were as dark as her hair, and large enough to make her seem younger than she was. He could see her now as she had been that first night, seven years before in the free city of Maccia, dancing in the public square for coin. She’d hardly been a girl then, feral and hungry and distrustful of anything masculine. Talent and ambition had burned off her like heat from a fire. Opal had warned him that the girl would be trouble and agreed that the price would be justified. Now Cary was a woman full-grown. He wondered if this was what it would feel like to have a daughter.

“I am afraid I wouldn’t be able to do what was called for if I was also protecting all of you,” he said. “You are the family I’ve made. If I can imagine you safe and content, I think I can sacrifice whatever else is needed.”

“You’re expecting a high price, it sounds like,” she said.

“I am.”

Cary sighed, and the wry smile that haunted her lips in times of trouble came to her. Remember this, he told himself. Remember the way her lips twist and her eyebrow rises. Keep it close. Pay attention.

“Well, piss,” she said.

“For what it carries, I am truly sorry to go.”

“Do you have anybody in mind to take the roles?” she asked.

He could see the pain in her. He was betraying her, abandoning them all, and she would no more blame him for it than cut off her toes. He wished he could take her hand in his, but she’d chosen the tone for their conversation, and he didn’t have the right to overrule her. Not any longer.

“There’s a group that makes the northern circuit. Paldrin Leh and Sebast Berrin. Three years ago, they had two fighting for the same roles. Find them, and you might get someone who already knows the lines. Paldrin’s a Haaverkin, but that might add a touch of the exotic if you take him south.”

“I’ll ask around, then,” she said. “When are you leaving?”

“Tonight,” he said.

“Do you have to go alone?”

The apostate hesitated. It was a question he hadn’t decided yet. The task before him was impossible. As doomed as it was inevitable. His sacrifice was his own, which made it curiously easy. To ask someone else to walk willingly to death beside him was no favor. And yet if it made the difference between success and failure, a world redeemed or lost . . .

“Perhaps not,” he said. “There is one other who might help. But not from the troupe.”

“And I suppose it would be entirely too much to ask what this mysterious errand is that’s calling you away?” she asked. And then, contradicting herself, “You owe us that much.”

The apostate licked his lips, searching for words he hadn’t used, even to himself. When he found them, he chuckled.

“This may sound a bit grandiose,” he said, scratching at his beard with one long finger.

“Try me.”

“I’m off to kill a goddess.”