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Interlude 1: Knight Moves


Creating the Order wasn't a mistake, I think.

Turning a gang of Arroy Forest brigands into his personal bodyguard was an obvious sort of thing for Mordred the Great to do, what with most noble families firmly aligned with the Tyrant since the Battle of Bedegraine, and all the rest save the Orkneys studiously neutral, as though if they didn't involve themselves, it would all resolve without bloodshed—their bloodshed.

They were, of course, wrong. Wars are like that, and civil wars are anything but civil.

Mordred the Great wouldn't have survived the first years without us—the remaining Knights of the Table Round were hardly the only ones out to kill him, after all, even before he broke with Rome. And if the truth be told—as it often isn't, but I've spent some time with the Archivist, and he's certain—the stories you read about the people greeting the new Pendragon as a savior from both the Tyrant and the Roman Empire and Church are, at best, greatly exaggerated. We were needed.


But perhaps by the sixth or seventh Pendragon—certainly by the conquest of Rome under Harold II—the Crown and Dragon were as safe as a dynasty can ever be. Avalon, at least supposedly, waited, yes, but it had been waiting for centuries then, and it's waited longer now; possibly it will wait until the Final Trump.

Perhaps it would have been better to retire the Order entirely.
Or perhaps I'm just trying to excuse my own damnation.


* * *

Halloran didn't quite hate knights.

For one thing, he was one—a Knight of the Guard, although Lord Sir Albert Halloran, OKG, OPE, and KHMG, had never stood a guard watch in his life, and was vanishingly unlikely ever to do so.

The Guard was a military order, yes, and not a priestly one, but that didn't make him a soldier; it just made it possible for His Majesty's troops to take orders from a man to whom they were not fealty-bound. The Administration was not a bad career for the second son of a minor land-baron, and Halloran's promotion to Governor almost guaranteed that the use-peerage that came along with the promotion would be confirmed and become a court-peerage upon his retirement, but that didn't mean that he had to like this assignment.

And the sooner this was over, the better. He had been up for a governorship in one of the New England colonies, and had some supporters in Parliament on that, despite the stiff competition—but the Pironesian governorship had come up at the same time that his name had topped the list, and while one could, in theory, pass up an assignment, that was only theory; he had taken it, of course, when it was offered.

Pironesia was too hot, too dry, and much too far from the Court for his taste. Not just the court in Londinium, although it certainly was that—Pironesia was too far from any court, in fact. His wife spent most of the year in Milan or Napoli, for just that reason, and if their marriage had been a warmer one, he would have resented that, as he thought her notion of his ending up with a land-peerage in Italy was even more a fantasy than his own dreams of one in New England had become.

He was sure that he would have resented her absence if there had been issue, as he sometimes wished there had been. It would have been pleasant to raise some sons, or even daughters; and any man who could govern His Majesty's Possession of Pironesia would have no difficulty with a bunch of children, after all.

The locals were like wilfull children in their own irritating way. In almost six years as governor, he still hadn't managed to get the majordomo—a local, of course—to teach the cook staff—also locals, of course—that spices were to be used with a light and judicious hand, and not put on and in everything, leaving a normal man sweating in his clothes by the end of a meal.

Perhaps it would have been better if the Crown had never conquered Inja, as the Injans and their thrice-damned peppers had infected all of the south, certainly, and much of the rest of the Crown. He had heard that there were even curry shops in Londinium itself of late, as strange an idea as that seemed. Why an Englishman would choke down spoonfuls of burning mush when there was good English food to be had, well, it just didn't stand to reason.

He put his fork down with a muttered curse, and turned back to the ever-growing stack of paperwork on his desk. The joke, back when he had been in school, was that the answer to any question about Pironesia was either "olives," "dried fish," or "resined wine," but it hadn't been very funny then, and it was less so now, when the answer was usually "more paperwork."

An empire floated on a sea of paper, yes, and the Crown was that, certainly, but why did all of it seem to flow across Halloran's desk? Taxation reports from all over the central islands, and supplements for the surrounding islands that were administratively bunched with Pironesia—and never mind that the inhabitants of the islands didn't think of themselves as Pironesian, and resented being thought so.

And then there were the proctors' reports, each one of which had to be read, responded to, and both the report and the response passed up the administrative chain through Malta and Gibraltar, to eventually arrive in Londinium.

About twice a year, that idiot McLowery out on Keliphnia would decide that some lateen sails that he spotted from his watchtower were the first signs of an approaching Caliphate invasion fleet, and each time a messenger arrived, Halloran would have to notify Londinium that he was investigating, and then, once again, report that no, it was nothing of the sort; just another Guild felucca that had gone south of the usual central Mediterranean trading routes.

And then there were the intelligence reports. Several dozen beached Navy officers had taken up homes in the outer Pironesian islands. Understandably so; there, they could live remarkably well on the half pay that would leave them barely able to feed and clothe themselves at home. But each one of them seemed to have some relationship with Crown Intelligence, and as every ship that called in the port arrived, it fed the constant stream of coded messages flowing in both directions, each one of which had to be copied—there were clerks for that, of course—and logged.

And since any coded message that passed through the office might, at least in theory, be for Halloran's attention, and since he couldn't share his own private codes with his clerks, he had to examine each and every one at least briefly, looking for any of the six prefatory headers that indicated it was addressed to him.

Occasionally—rarely—one of them was, and he would have to go to the safe to break out his code books, and not only decode it so that he would read it, but then search through yet another stack of code books to make sure that the signatures on it were valid.

And this latest, well, that was about as annoying as it could be, and if he hadn't been a man who prided himself on self-control, he would have slammed the signature book shut, or thrown it across the room.

Sir Joshua travels under my orders and with my full authority, the letter said, and I humbly beseech your full cooperation with any requests he might make. 

The Archbishop had signed it with his tight, cribbed hand, although that wasn't necessary; his coded signatures—as Archbishop of Canterbury, as well, and not just as Abbot General!—proved its origin. The lack of any counter-signature showed that it had not gone through the usual channels, but had been, as Halloran had been told, handed directly by the Archbishop to Joshua Grayling—and proper protocols be damned.

Given that, Halloran would have been well within his rights to send it back through channels for verification and endorsement, although he hadn't. That would only anger the Archbishop, who considered himself above the Administration, on matters political as well as canonical, an opinion Halloran neither shared nor wished to dispute, even implicitly. Best just to go along.

Halloran shook his head. That was not his problem; he had already referred that matter—through the proper channels, of course—to the minister. Let him argue it out with the Archbishop.

Besides, the way that this message was sent was a message itself, and it was utterly clear. Halloran would just have to trust that His Grace knew what he was doing, even though he doubted it.

He wouldn't even give a hint in private, not even to his wife, that he thought making an archbishop of the Abbot General of the Order of the Sword had been foolish of His Majesty, and making him the Archbishop of Canterbury even more so, but Halloran didn't believe in practicing dishonesty within the confines of his own mind. It was a bad idea.

Yes, the Order of the Crown, Shield, and Dragon—what those insufferably pompous knights almost invariably insisted on referring to as the Order, as though there were no other orders of knighthood worth mentioning—was utterly loyal to the Crown and Dragon shield, and had been, ever since the old days, when they had originally been Mordred the Great's bodyguards, the origin of both their longstanding feud with the Order of the Table Round and their special relationship with the royal family.

But that was then, and this was now, and as prized a commodity as loyalty was, it had no longer been the special provenance of the Order of the Crown, Shield, and Dragon for centuries.

What was needed in politics was, by and large, more flexibility—a much rarer commodity, and one that Halloran prided himself on having. The destiny of Pironesia had yet to be settled, and wouldn't be, by royal edict, for another thirty-odd years. In the meantime, the Shqiperese and Macedoni intrigued in ducal courts from Taranto to Normandie for support for their possession of it in return for incorporation as federated states into the Crown, and Boyaliristan continued its ancient balancing act between Crown, Empire, and Dar as it sat astride the exit of the Black Sea, while Halloran simply tried to keep his head down and not involve himself in matters beyond the Administration.

It could have been worse, he supposed. The Prime Minister could have prevailed on His Majesty to send a Knight of the Table Round again, and Halloran would have had to—again—spend his days and nights entertaining one of those pompous twits, instead of attending to his real duties. He had been through that before, and his head still ached in memory of the morning after. Nobody could put away wine the way a Knight of the Table could, and even pretending to try to keep up was punishing.

At least these two had simply left the . . . item in his safekeeping—as though he were some sort of clerk!—and then gone about their business, leaving him to his own, of which there was always more than enough.

He didn't complain, though. It would have been unseemly, and, while it was less important, in fact he liked his work; it suited him, and—

There was a knock on his door, and it immediately opened, before he had a chance to ask who it was.

He looked up in annoyance.

"I'm sorry to bother you, Lord Albert," that damned Grayling said.

A handsome enough man, Halloran would have said at first glance, but there was something about his eyes that was dark and ugly, although Halloran couldn't have quite said what that something was.

"Not at all." Halloran forced a smile to his face. "And I'm even more sorry that one of the carls didn't announce you, Sir Joshua. I'll have to have a word with Miconou; he's been much more reliable."

Grayling blinked. "May we come in?"

You are already in, he didn't say. "Of course, and be welcome," he said, pulling at the bell rope as he rose to greet the knight.

Grayling and his peasant-looking companion had some sort of unwashed, raggedy peasant in tow. The old man carried himself with a self-confidence than Halloran thought quite improper.

The other knight, the big man who was—supposedly, although he didn't look it—the third son of Baron Shanley, seemed to have trouble keeping his legs underneath him. Without so much as a by-your-leave, Grayling settled the big man into Halloran's own chair by the fire, laid Shanley's swords across his lap, then turned back to Halloran, and drew himself up straight.

"Lord Sir Albert Halloran," Grayling said, "I have the honor to present Sir Cully of Cully's Woode, of the Order."

So the ragged peasant was supposedly a knight? And of the Order, at that?

"The Order of the Crown, Shield, and Dragon, I take it?" Halloran asked, trying to keep the sarcasm out of his voice.

"Of course."

This Sir Cully—if indeed he was a knight at all, much less the famous Cully of Cully's Woode, and not some peasant that Grayling was passing off as a strange sort of joke—smiled, and touched the end of his rough-hewn walking stick to his forehead in a mockery of a salute. "Your servant, Lord Albert. I beg the governor's pardon for my appearance," he said. "I'm . . . largely retired, these days."

"Nothing to apologize for, of course, but accepted nonetheless." He forced himself not to sniff. "Please," Halloran said, waving to the chairs in front of the unlit fireplace, "make yourselves comfortable." He did his best to make it sound as though he had nothing better to do with the evening than entertain the three of them, and, as critical as he tended to be of his own performance, thought that it came off as sincere.

Halloran's valet, Miconou, was nowhere to be seen, but Papilodos, the majordomo, appeared in the doorway, a heavily laden silver tray balanced easily on one palm, and Halloran excused himself for a quick moment to cap his inkwell and tidy his desk before joining the others, while Papilodos set out a small repast of bread, cheese, and wine. Good man, Papilodos, despite his affection for spices; he anticipated most of Halloran's needs without much prompting, and from the looks of it, had had the tray under preparation from the moment the knights had passed through the gates.

It was nothing terribly fancy, thankfully; in Pironesia, "fancy" meant "unbearably hot," and it would be bad manners indeed to inflict on his guests a so-called mild local sausage that would be doing the dance of a thousand knives in their colons before the next morning, as amusing as the mental image of Sir Joshua Grayling squatting over a chamberpot in agony might be.

"I've taken the liberty of sending for the bishop," Grayling said, from around a huge mouthful of bread and cheese, without the decency of engaging in any small talk first.

"How interesting."

"Not nearly as interesting as the half dozen darklings we chased away in the Plaza of Heroes," Grayling said. "Well, Bear—Sir David and the Nameless did that; Sir Cully and I just kept them off him while he did so." He washed the food down with half his wine. Apparently, Grayling thought that wine was for drinking, not for tasting.

Are you certain? Halloran didn't ask. He tried to avoid stupid questions—Grayling wouldn't make such an absurd claim if he wasn't sure.

Halloran was reaching for the bell rope when Grayling spoke up again—"And I've also had words with Father Czerny. He's blessing the grounds right now."

It was typical of a Knight of the Order to impinge on a local governor's prerogatives, but Halloran tried not to bristle. It was, after all, more important that it be done, and quickly, than that Halloran himself order it done.

Halloran nodded. "I see."

"Then Your Lordship is doing far better than am I," Grayling said. "I haven't heard any reports of darklings south of Aba-Paluoja in a generation."

"Nor have I," he said. "But it should be a simple matter. The right blessings, and we shouldn't be bothered."

North of the southernmost border of the Zone, of course, darklings were just this side of unkillable, but the ground of every square mile of both Crown and Empire had long since been hallowed, and cursed ones were unable to draw sustenance from it—even if the blessings to keep darklings in particular away had apparently evaporated.

Understandable. Pironesia was not connected by land to the north, and running water was supposed to be a barrier to darklings, and to all the unholy.

Still, the bishop probably should have renewed the blessings as a matter of course. Halloran would have to have words with him, which would be a pleasure, of sorts—Anastadiadis was a native, and his natural hot-bloodedness had not been cooled a whit by his years in the seminary in Norwich; handling him with the right delicacy was a matter of some art, and Halloran took pleasure in doing his job properly. But with this Grayling having sent for him, it would be best to get his business done and him out of here before Anastadiadis arrived—native or not, the bishop was an Anglian, and jealous of his prerogatives. It would probably take a full hour to unruffle his feathers at the thought of having been sent for by an Order knight.

"And we still don't know why they were here," Grayling said. "They're not like termites, you know, Your Excellency."

"You think it has something to do with that . . . item you came for?"

"It would seem likely." Grayling shrugged. "I'd ask Brother William of Occam, but I don't think it's worth raising his spirit for this."

Cully smiled. "You have indeed risen in estate, Joshua, to speak of such things so casually, even if only to dismiss them. As for me, I've never lost the common fear of wizards, and would rather avoid the whole matter—"

"Shh." Grayling turned back to Halloran. "You still have the sword?"

"Of course," he said. "I'd hardly throw it away, after all."

Grayling nodded. "We need to examine it more closely, and while I think we'll have things under control, it might become more . . . interesting than it ought to be. You might wish to take the evening air while we look at it?"

The nerve of the man! Halloran didn't know whether he found the notion of Grayling trying to commandeer his office more irritating than Grayling's imputation of cowardice, but he didn't much like either.

"I'd just as soon observe," he said, pleased with how calm his voice sounded. "If, of course, that meets with your approval, Sir Joshua."

"As you wish." Grayling looked over at Sir David. "Bear? Do you need a few moments?"

"There's no need to wait on me," Sir David said. "I can manage, if need be, with little difficulty."

"It can wait until you're ready."

"I am ready, Gray."

Shanley rose to his feet, the wobblyness of his knees giving the lie to his claim; he had to catch himself against the chair as he bent and retrieved one of his scabbarded swords. It was the White one, no doubt, although there was no way that Halloran could tell from the scabbard or grips; they were plain wood, wound with brass wire for a better grip. Halloran had been presented with a fine-looking sword when he had ascended to the Guard, but knights of the Order of Crown, Shield, and Dragon were boastful in the affected simplicity that extended even to their weapons. Halloran had no doubt that even with the ornate surplice and miter of his office, the Archbishop of Canterbury still kept an ostentatiously plain sword belted around his ample waist—two ostentatiously plain swords, in fact.

"If Your Excellency wouldn't mind having the sword fetched?" Gray more ordered than asked.

"That's not necessary." Halloran allowed himself to show some slight irritation. "I'd hardly put such a thing in another's hands," he said, rising from his seat.

The safe was set into the wall behind a tapestry of lambs frolicking in a meadow, as it had been when Halloran had assumed his duties here, and—unlike when Halloran had assumed his duties—the heavy iron door was now well maintained, and swung silently open upon its regularly whale-oiled hinges when Halloran put his hand into the recess and grabbed the handle. His wrist always tingled when he did that—from fear, not from the magic—even though he knew full well that the safe door had been attuned to his own vibrations. This was an old safe door, from the time of the first Pironesian governor, and in those days, the trap was set to cut off the hand, whether from the influence of what was done to thieves in the Dar al-Islam, Halloran didn't know. He would have preferred the more modern type, where the mechanism would simply clamp down, holding a would-be thief in place, unless he was willing and able to cut his hand free.

He stepped inside, and walked past the the carefully labeled bags of coins and jewels on the racks, as well as the ever-growing pile of account books that were a history of his tenancy in the governor's palace. At the very back of the safe was the shelf where the sword lay, carefully wrapped in layers of burlap. He picked it up then backed out of the safe, reflexively if somewhat awkwardly closed the safe door with his boot before turning to set the package on the table before the knights.

Grayling had pulled a pair of lambskin gloves from his belt pouch, and already had them on as he untied the twine and unrolled the burlap, deftly working the knots and cloth with his gloved fingers.

The sword lay there, what there was of it; it was just a bare sword, with no hilt or pommel covering the naked tang.

Without being asked—and without deigning to ask permission—Sir Cully took the lamp from Halloran's desk and brought it over, peering closely at the bright steel.

It was a good-enough-looking blade, the swirls of the Damascus pattern fine and close. The blade was thicker and wider than was common these days, although it was a typical length for a modern sword. The blade was bright and unmarked, save for a spot, about the width of a palm, halfway down the blade, which was caked with some tarry substance that Halloran presumed was dried blood.

Save for that, there were no markings on the sword at all, none that Halloran could see. The only swords he had ever heard of without makers' marks were Army- or Navy-issue weapons, and each of those was always stamped with acceptance marks. While Halloran knew little and cared less about such ordinary occupations as smithing, he knew that Crown, Empire, Dar al-Islam, or elsewhere, the making of a sword was an affair of some great effort, and any smith that Halloran had ever heard of would surely wish to sign the product of his art.

"Mmph," Sir Cully said. "An awfully plain blade. I couldn't place it to country, much less to century. Pattern-welded steel, yes, but that doesn't help much."

"Easier to say what it's not," Grayling said. "About the only thing I can say for sure is that it doesn't look Byzantine or Damask. Tien-shin weapons tend toward the plain, when they aren't overly fancy."

Sir Cully shook his head. "A Tien-shin straight-sword? Possible, I suppose, but not likely."

"Look at the hammer marks, though," Sir David said. "It's either reasonably new, or it's been preserved well without being much polished."

Grayling nodded. "That was my thinking, as well. It was, so I understand, in seawater for some time. Even if rust had been polished away, there would be some pitting."

"Red? White?" Cully asked. "Is it live at all, or just devilishly cursed?"

Grayling shrugged. "I haven't . . . tested it. The only thing I know is that the fisherman who picked it up is dead." He gestured at the mottled markings. "Which doesn't necessarily mean that it is live; a cursed sword can certainly kill, true enough, but—

Sir Cully nodded in approval, then nodded some more, as Grayling went on: "But it is definitely enchanted, if that's what you're asking, and it's likely something beyond what would be needed to protect it from rust."

"Indeed." Sir Cully's fingers trembled as he brought them near the blade, and he yanked his hand away sharply. "Shit," he said, in a decidedly unknightly exclamation. "It moved."

"Easy, Father—"

"Cully. Just Cully." He gestured at the blade, then seated himself heavily in the chair. "Take it off the burlap and set it on the table. You hold it down, and I'll slide my hand along the table toward. Safer, I think, to have it solidly under control." His smile seemed forced. "As it would be for me, too, I suspect, but there's little that can be done about that, eh?"

Grayling nodded, and did just that, then gestured to Sir David to take his place to one side of Sir Cully, while he took a position on the other side.

"Be careful, Just-Cully," Grayling said, with a thin smile. "Brother Bear and the Nameless One have had enough exercise for one night—"

"And if they are to have more, we'd all rather it not be them hacking through this ancient neck, eh? I know I would, and that's a fact." He gave a glance down at Grayling's hands, as though to reassure himself that Grayling was still wearing gloves. "Hold it down, please."

Grayling set his own, still-scabbarded blade on the table, and held down the naked sword with both gloved hands, leaning heavily on his palms, his fingers spread widely, as though to keep his fingers, even though gloved, away from the sword's sharpened edges. "Anytime you're ready."

Sir Cully took a deep breath, closed his eyes tightly for a moment, then laid his hand on the table and inched his long fingers forward with excruciating slowness—and were those fingers trembling? It was probably just Halloran's eyes, but perhaps not.

Halloran had never seen a knight of the Order actually make contact with a live blade—their mundane swords were invariably used for ceremony, and for all but the direst of other occasions—but he had certainly heard enough about it.

Before, the blade had seemed to want to move toward Cully's fingers, but now the very air around it seemed to jell in opposition to his movement, and Sir Cully's forehead beaded with sweat as he forced his fingers ever closer to its surface, never quite touching it.

His head sagged forward on his neck, and his eyes closed. Ancient, cracked lips parted slightly, but his breathing became slower, much slower—not faster, as Halloran had thought it would, as his lined face drained of color.

"Pull him away, Gray," Sir David said. "I don't like the looks of this."

Gray took a step toward the old man, but stopped himself; Halloran couldn't tell whether because he would have to remove one of his hands from the hilt or scabbard of his sword, or because Grayling immediately made a patting motion with the fingers of his hands, telling Sir David to move back, although not releasing the pressure of his gloved palms that kept the sword anchored to the table as tightly as though it had been welded there.

"No," Grayling said. "Leave him be, Bear."

"That wasn't my suggestion, Father," Sir David said, gesturing with his scabbard.

"The Nameless One is much holier than I have a hope of ever being, but it doesn't know Father Cully as well as I do. We leave him be, Sir David."


"There's no buts about it, Bear—just stand by."

Sir Cully stopped the argument by leaning back in his chair, his head coming erect. His eyes opened slowly, and his breath left him in a quiet whoosh.

"Shush, the both of you," he said. His face was pale, and sweat stained his tunic dark as blood under his arms and across his chest. He shook his head. "Well, you were right to use an expendable old man for this."

Sir Joshua Grayling smiled. "Not a White blade, I take it?" he asked, casually, his question more rhetorical than anything else. The only way a White blade could be created would be with the consent of one who was dying anyway—suicide was incompatible with a blade of virtue—and while saints tended to have short lives, they had always been in short supply.

Even during the Age of Crisis, when Mordred III had ordered the making of as many White Swords as could be created, it had been more a matter of luck for the Order to bring a willing volunteer, a talented smith, and an accomplished wizard together at the right moment, and then even more luck if the volunteer turned out to have the requisite purity of soul—something you could only know after the fact.

Most often, the attempt had failed, and a Red Sword had been the result. A Red Sword, after all, didn't require that the volunteer already be dying, or even that the subject be a volunteer, and legends to the contrary, most Red Swords now in existence had come from failed attempts to create a White, rather than by the execution of the guilty; the Khan and Sandoval were two of a half dozen exceptions.

Turning murderers and would-be conquerors into weapons of justice and defenses against the ungodly was, in the long run, one of those sensible-sounding ideas that had far too many unintended consequences, most of them negative. Halloran had visited Linfield, once, which was at least one time more than enough.

"Hardly." Cully shook his head. "But it's not like, say, the Khan or Sandoval, or even Jude." His brow furrowed. "No sense of cruelty; no thirst for revenge, nor a hunger for blood. Anguish without anger; fear without thought of retribution; innocence, rather than virtue. A blank slate, I think, not one set in sin or sanctity." He shrugged. "But it's Red, sure enough. And worse."

"What could be worse than a Red Sword that nobody's ever heard of?" Halloran asked.

Sir Cully closed his eyes.

"It's no more than a year or two old," he said, softly, as though by making the words soft it would soften the truth. He opened them again. "And it remembers lying quietly, in a wooden rack, aboard a ship, with a dozen others."


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