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The Saints of the Sword
by John Marco
Bantam, 2001


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Prologue

Alazrian’s mother had once said that the sound of rain was heaven singing. Tonight, heaven was screaming.

Five days of rain had turned the roads of Aramoor to rivers and made the grounds boggy around the Vantran house. It was spring, when this part of the Empire endured countless thunderstorms. It was the time of year that Alazrian’s mother liked best. Soon, when the rains were gone, the gardens would bloom with rosebuds, but she would not be around to see them. By the time the first butterfly took wing, she would be long gone.

A distant blade of lightning flashed outside the castle window. Alazrian watched it dispassionately. The torch on the wall bounced shadows across the hall. The rain beyond the misty glass was coming down sideways. He was glad his grandfather wasn’t still on the road. In the morning the storm would have passed; his grandfather could make it back to Talistan then. He wouldn’t be staying long. Just long enough to see his daughter die. Alazrian pondered what was going on behind the nearby door. Was his grandfather weeping, he wondered? Was his mother? She was so close to death now, probably too weak for tears. And she never really had use for tears, anyway—her life and husband had made her hard.

Lady Calida had been a good mother, and the only thing of beauty that Alazrian knew. She had the heart of a lion and the soul of a poet, and it was a mystery to Alazrian how she had come from the same loins that produced her brother, Blackwood Gayle. Her father was sometimes a beast and almost always a madman. And though Tassis Gayle loved his daughter dearly, he had stood by while she married a man without love in his heart. Her life had been a terrible thing, but she had never admitted that to Alazrian. She had taken joy and refuge in him. She had worn him like a magic cloak to ward off evil.

A crash of thunder echoed through the hall. Alazrian jumped at the blast. Down the hall, he could see the man who was not his father give him a peripheral glare of disgust. Elrad Leth snorted and turned his attention back to his own window. He wasn’t speaking to anyone tonight, not even the king, and Alazrian knew that Elrad Leth was a million miles away, preoccupied with things more important than his wife’s impending death. He had his hands behind his back, the way he always did when he was contemplative, slapping one into the palm of the other. His long body swayed a little as if he was enjoying music, but his eyes never hinted at anything but disdain. Elrad Leth cared for nothing, least of all his wife and "son," both of whom he beat regularly. He took no joy in food or pageants or expensive clothing, and the only time he smiled was when he sensed his power over others. The way the storm lit his face was frightful.

Elrad Leth, Governor of Aramoor province, waited impatiently for King Tassis Gayle to conclude his last encounter with his daughter. The family was dwindling now. Tassis Gayle had already lost his son, and Alazrian worried that this new loss would send the old man over the edge. Some were saying he had already passed it. But if that was true, then Elrad Leth would be there at the bottom, waiting for him.

But even in his grief, Tassis Gayle was different these days. As Calida faded, the king grew vital, as if through some vampiric magic he stole her years. Sorrow had given his life purpose, a dimension it hadn’t had for a decade. Grief had straightened his spine and strengthened him, quelled his coughing fits. These days, Tassis Gayle resembled the blood-thirsty warlord he had been in his youth.

Leth paid his son no regard as they both stared out at the stormy night. Alazrian could feel the man’s disappointment. He had wanted a strong son, like himself. Instead Calida had delivered him a bastard, and a weakling, too. Leth could prove nothing of Alazrian’s fatherhood, and Tassis Gayle would brook no talk against his daughter’s virtue. So Leth and Calida and Alazrian all kept up the pretense, each of them knowing the truth, but Leth still smouldered when he looked at the thin-boned son that was not his own. Someday, Alazrian knew, the dam of his hatred would burst and Alazrian would have nowhere to hide.

"Alazrian," called Leth from across the hall. "Come here."

The summons made Alazrian weak-kneed. He hated speaking to Leth. He hated being around him. But he picked his way cautiously across the hall and stood beside his so-called father, who sighed as he contemplated the rain. Alazrian waited. Finally the governor spoke.

"I’ve been called to the Black City," he said. His voice had a confessional tone, like a whisper. "Emperor Biagio and his inquisitor wish to speak with me."

"Yes, Father," said Alazrian. He had heard the gossip among the staff. Leth was to face the Protectorate.

"Politics," said Leth. "That’s what it is, you see."

"Yes," agreed Alazrian. "I see."

"Do you? I doubt that. I doubt you understand anything but needlepoint. You have your mother’s sensibilities for these things, boy. Your head’s full of air."

Alazrian swallowed the insult. His relationship with Leth had only grown worse since they had come to Aramoor. The pressures of governing had embittered Leth.

"Biagio lays traps for me," Leth said. "He thinks I’m stupid, eh? Bloody fop." He balled his hand into a fist and rubbed the knuckles. "Well, he’s got something up his sleeve. He wants you to come as well."

"Me? To the Black City?"

"We leave the day after tomorrow."

"Why me?"

"You’re old enough to make the trip." Alazrian had just turned sixteen. For his birthday Leth had given him a dagger, something to make him "look more like a man." Alazrian never carried it.

"I don’t understand," said Alazrian. "What does the emperor want with me?"

"How the hell should I know? But that’s what the summons says, and we’ve got to obey. So don’t spend too much time weeping over your mother. We’ll need our wits about us for the trip, and I won’t share the voyage with a child that needs a wet-nurse."

"But. . ."

"But what?" growled Leth, whirling on Alazrian.

Alazrian felt his throat constrict. "What about mother?" he managed.

"What about her? She’s dead. We can’t help her."

"She’s not dead! Not yet."

"Oh, mother, mother!" taunted Leth. "Please mother, don’t die." He scoffed and closed his eyes. "Pull yourself together, boy. We’ve got bigger concerns."

"Don’t say that!"

Leth’s hand shot out and delivered Alazrian a stinging slap. "What was that?" he barked. "Did you raise your voice to me?"

Alazrian was silent. He knew his words would only invite another slap, so he merely looked at the man he was forced to call father, trying to convey his hatred with his eyes.

Elrad Leth read his face easily and returned the revulsion. "My god, if I had a real son I could deal with these things. Tassis had Blackwood, and I’ve got you. Go on, get out of my sight. But be ready to leave early, day after tomorrow. Pack for a long voyage. And don’t make me wait for you."

Alazrian had a thousand questions but didn’t dare ask them. He could guess why Emperor Biagio wanted to see his father, but he couldn’t fathom the faintest reason why the Protectorate wanted to question him. He knew nothing about the happenings in Aramoor. All he knew was what he heard whispered in the castle—that Leth was still trying to put down the Aramoorian rebels. He was using ungodly tactics, but that was no surprise. And why it should bother the emperor was a mystery. But there had been strange things happening in Aramoor lately. Alazrian had been too concerned about his mother to take much notice, but Leth was away from the castle often these days, and messengers from King Tassis Gayle were frequent. Whatever was happening, it had gotten his father in trouble, and Alazrian was glad for it. He was glad that the Saints of the Sword were still hassling the "governor." Jahl Rob might be a priest, but he had a general’s craftiness, and his Aramoorian rebels were proving a gigantic thorn in Leth’s side.

Good, thought Alazrian as he retreated across the hall.

The sudden sound of a door opening pulled Alazrian back to reality. He turned to see his grandfather, Tassis Gayle, backing out of his mother’s bedroom. The king was stooped with weariness and was whispering something to the unseen woman in the room, something gentle and fatherly. His cloak of wolf fur dragged along the floor, limp as the look on his face. He was an old man now, ancient really, but he had the classic Gayle strength about him, long of bone and wide of shoulder, and his short hair was hardly thinning at all. Yet despite his recent resurrection from depression and old age, the night’s events had wearied him. He had travelled quickly from Talistan when he’d heard the news of his daughter’s decline, and had disappeared into her bed chamber hours ago. Alazrian looked at his grandfather and felt profoundly sad. Tassis Gayle was cruel, and the rumors of his mania were well-founded. But he was good to his daughter and her son, a dichotomy that puzzled Alazrian. Other than his mother, Tassis Gayle was the only person in the world that showed him any kindness.

"I’ll see you again," Alazrian heard the King of Talistan whisper before closing the door. Tassis Gayle squared his shoulders, gathering himself. Alazrian waited anxiously for him to speak. Elrad Leth stared out the window with appalling disinterest.

"She’s very weak," said the king at last. It was an effort for him to speak. "Oh, my Calida. My little girl. . ." He beckoned Alazrian closer with a finger. "Alazrian, come here."

Alazrian hurried over to his grandfather, taking his hand and finding it trembling. Obviously the king hadn’t expected to see his daughter so frail. For a woman who was once so robust, she looked like little more than a shadow now.

"You’re mother is very ill," the king said. "You know that though, don’t you?"

Alazrian nodded.

"Not much time, I think," his grandfather went on. He didn’t bother speaking to Leth. "You should go to her. She wants you with her now."

Leth’s lips twisted in disdain. Not surprisingly, his wife wasn’t calling for him in her final moments. Alazrian ignored him and offered his grandfather a smile.

"I’ll be out soon," he said. "She should sleep now anyway."

The old man squeezed his hand. "Yes, go to her." Then his face hardened and he added, "I have things to speak to your father about."

Leth folded his arms over his chest. "About time," he muttered.

Alazrian had hoped his grandfather had come to Aramoor just to see his daughter, but it seemed there was business on the agenda as well.

"Go to her," ordered Gayle. "We will speak of your trip to Nar City later." He grinned crookedly at the boy. "You’re afraid, I know. Don’t be. We have things in store for our new emperor."

"What things?"

The king put a finger to his lips. "Shhh. Go see your mother now. Be with her. It’s what she wants."

The old man slid over to where his son-in-law waited and began talking in murmurs. Alazrian didn’t listen. The way his grandfather accepted Leth was shocking, but he knew the king had reasons for keeping Leth’s confidence; the man had a talent for cruelty that Gayle needed. Only Leth’s iron hand had been able to govern Aramoor. Once he had become governor, nearly all the rebellions had ceased. Except for the Saints.

Alazrian knocked gently on the door, not expecting his mother to answer. He fashioned a smile and stepped inside. His mother’s eyes gazed at him from her sick bed. They were the only part of her that still looked familiar. Her flaxen hair had fallen to dead grass, and her once strong body had been devoured by the cancer, so that a husk now stared back at him. Lady Calida managed a frail smile. The treacly smell of medicines infused the air.

"Mother," said Alazrian cheerily, going to her bedside. "Can I get you anything?"

Lady Calida shook her head, looking ghastly in the candlelight.

"Grandfather said you wanted to see me," said Alazrian. "But you should rest."

"No more rest for me, child," said Lady Calida. "Where I’m going there will time enough for that." She looked at him, and Alazrian knew that somehow she had seen the future and was counting down the minutes. "Stay with me," she said. There were no tears, not from this woman who had endured so much. "I want you with me now. You alone."

"But Grandfather—"

"Just you, Alazrian. My little boy." She reached out for his cheek, but carefully avoided touching him. She didn’t want the magic contact. Alazrian tried to hold back his desire to save her.

"Mother," he said desperately. "Let me help you. Please. . ."

Calida closed her eyes. "No, Alazrian. Do not even think it."

"But I can," the boy insisted. "You just need to let me." He leaned over her and lowered his voice. "Father need never know. We’ll call it a miracle or something. Just let me try, please."

"No," said his mother adamantly. Her face grew pained. "Don’t ever do it, not around your father. He must never know, Alazrian. Never. Understand?"

Alazrian didn’t understand. He didn’t know why his mother was dying or why such a good woman had endured such a cruel husband, and he didn’t know how heaven could stand to watch something so unjust. His life was nothing but questions now. And the one that vexed him most was his secret gift. Watching his mother wither away, he wanted desperately to use it.

"I have this gift for a reason, Mother," Alazrian argued, careful to keep his voice low. "You always told me so. Maybe the reason is to save you."

Lady Calida shook her head. "No, the reason remains a mystery. And I don’t want you to save me." Her eyes grew dim as her memory called up the recent years. "I welcome death, I think."

"Because of him," Alazrian growled.

His mother merely nodded. There was still a scar on her forehead where Leth’s ring had slashed the skin. Alazrian wanted to touch the scar and make it fade away. He wanted to heal her ravaged body the way he had the goat with the broken leg, knitting the bones with one miraculous touch. And he wanted to heal her broken soul too, but he knew that damage was beyond his power. Elrad Leth had cut those scars too deeply for any physician to reach, even one with magic.

"Listen to me now," Lady Calida ordered. "Don’t use it around your father, you hear?"

"He’s not my father," Alazrian scoffed.

"Are you listening? Never around him. Or your grandfather. If they knew there would be no peace for you. No peace. You grow up and get free of them. Find out about your real father and who you are, and never let them know you’re gifted." The effort wearied Calida but she kept a steely gaze on Alazrian, insisting that he listen. "Alazrian?"

Alazrian nodded. "I hear you."

"Swear it." Again she reached out, stopping just shy of his touch. "I won’t rest unless you do."

She was asking the impossible of him, but he knew there was nothing else worth saving here in Aramoor. Alazrian gave his mother a forlorn smile.

"I swear it," he said softly. "I’ll not use the gift around father."

"Or your grandfather," Calida cautioned again. "He loves you, Alazrian, but he’s not to be trusted. He’ll not be the same once I go."

True enough, Alazrian knew. He had already seen the aberrations in his grandfather. Tassis Gayle had never been stable, and the death of his son had rushed him toward insanity. Now the death of his daughter was sealing his fate.

"Has grandfather told you?" Alazrian asked gently. "I’m to go to Nar City. The emperor has summoned father, and me with him. I’m afraid, Mother."

Calida’s thin eyebrows went up. "The Black City? The emperor has asked for you?"

"Yes, I think so. Father just told me so. We’re to face the Protectorate."

Even from her sickbed Lady Calida had heard of the Protectorate. The emperor’s tribunal was famous throughout Nar. Or more precisely, it was infamous. War criminals from the corners of the Empire were being summoned to face Biagio and his inquisitor, Dakel. Since the death of Arkus, Nar had become a very unstable place.

"I’m not surprised about your father," said Calida at last. "The way he butchers these Aramoorians. . ." She thought for a moment. "Biagio is a devious man. Do you remember him, Alazrian?"

"Not well," replied the boy honestly. In the days before the death of Arkus, when Biagio was merely the head of the Roshann, he would come to Talistan from time to time, mostly to supervise the goings-on in Aramoor. Alazrian’s grandfather always had a room ready for Biagio in the castle. The two titans had been friends then, or more precisely, allies. But times had changed. "I remember he was odd-looking," Alazrian mused. "I remember his eyes."

Lady Calida smiled. Biagio’s eyes were unforgettable. They were sapphire blue and preternatural, and they burned with fire. Alazrian didn’t remember much about Biagio, but he could never forget those eyes.

"The emperor wants the truth," Calida decided. "And he thinks he can get it from you."

"But I don’t know the truth. I don’t know what I can tell the emperor."

It wasn’t a lie. Elrad Leth kept everything he did a secret, especially from his son. And Calida had been too ill to find out what was happening. She had only the view from her window, and even that didn’t belong to her. It belonged to Richius Vantran, wherever he was now.

"Don’t be frightened," Calida told her son gently. "The Protectorate can do nothing to you if you tell them the truth. And the Black City, Alazrian. . . You’ve never seen anything like it. It’s breathtaking."

Alazrian sat down on the bedside, waiting for his mother to regale him with a tale. She had only been to the Naren capital once, for the coronation of Richius Vantran, but it had left an indelible impression on her. Calida’s mind, soaked with pain-killers, skipped back over her memories, picking out pretty pieces.

"It’s so tall," she sighed. "And the emperor’s palace looks like a mountain. There’s so many people that sometimes you can’t even move in the streets, but you can buy anything you want. Take money with you, Alazrian. Buy yourself some nice things." Then Calida shook her head ruefully. "Oh, I wish the cathedral was still there for you to see. It was so beautiful."

In fact, it had been his mother’s favorite part of Nar City, and she had wept when she’d heard of its destruction. Now the memory almost made her cry again.

"I will bring money with me," Alazrian said. "And I’ll think of you when I’m walking the avenues."

"Yes," she agreed. "You go to Nar City." She was so excited suddenly that she tried to sit up. "There’s a library there, with scholars. They can help you find out about yourself. There are all kinds of texts there, about everything. Some about Lucel-Lor, I’m sure." Her voice became a whisper. "And Jakiras."

Alazrian was shocked that she’d spoken the name, and quickly swiveled his head toward the door to make sure no one had heard. Only once before had she mentioned the name of his father, and only then when they were far from the castle, away from prying ears.

"Mother, hush. The medicines are making you tired. No more talk."

"Listen to me," his mother insisted. "Don’t be afraid of this trip, Alazrian. Use it. Find out about yourself and your father. Find out who you are."

"Mother, please..."

"I didn’t know, you see," she said sadly. Again she reached out for him, desperate but afraid to touch him. "But you can find out in Nar City."

"All right," agreed Alazrian. "I’ll look when I get there. Now rest. Please, you’re getting weaker."

"I am weaker. Weaker by the moment." Calida’s face betrayed the painful battle going on inside her. She was perspiring now, and the scar on her forehead flushed ruby red. "I want to touch you," she said. "I want you to look into my heart. Do that for me, so you never forget how much you mean to me. But do not heal me, you hear?"

Alazrian didn’t know how to respond. His touch could bring her back to life, and if he felt her love for him he might not be able to resist the urge to heal.

Lady Calida put out her hand. It was frail and bony, a crone’s hand. Alazrian couldn’t speak. He could barely breathe. Her fingers twitched as she reached out. Their eyes locked, and there was so much strength in her stare that Alazrian’s conviction faltered. Slowly he took up her hand, cradling it in his palm. At once the power seized him. The magic bathed him in its warmth, and for the strangest moment he was Calida. Her heart and mind were his, like a book open for reading. Lady Calida was the purest thing he had ever experienced, and her love for him was boundless; it rocked him like a baby. But he went deeper still, closing his eyes and not moving, finding things he had never expected to find. He felt Elrad Leth’s rage and a fist flying out to strike her, and then he felt forgiveness of a kind only saints possess.

Then, suddenly, there was a shift in the feelings. Anticipating something great, Alazrian held fast to his mother’s hand. He opened his eyes and saw that she had closed her own, thinking of something special, something she desperately wanted to convey. In the mirror of his mind Alazrian saw a young woman who was his mother, beautiful and not much older than Alazrian himself. She was with a man, also young, with shocking white hair and a gentle face. A Triin.

Jakiras.

Alazrian locked on the image of his father. His mother’s love for this stranger poured into him, and he felt profoundly sorry for her, that she had not stayed with the stranger from Lucel-Lor, and that her father had given her to Elrad Leth.

Then the image of the young lovers vanished, and in its place came an anguished yearning for death. Alazrian swayed, sickened by his mother’s pain. But he didn’t release her hand. He held it, lost in his empathic fugue, and let time slip into something meaningless. His mother was dying, here in the castle they had usurped from Richius Vantran, in a place she hated because it wasn’t home. Her hand went from burning hot to vaguely warm, and there was no death rattle or visions of God. There was only emptiness.

His mother was dead.

Alazrian carefully laid down her hand, then wiped his tears with his shirt sleeve.

"I’ll go to the Black City," he promised. "I’ll find out what I am."


Excerpted from The Saints of the Sword by John Marco. Copyright 2001 by John Marco. Reprinted by permission of Bantam Spectra Books, a division of Random House, Inc. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or republished without permission in writing from the publisher.










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