“Pilgrim of grey;
Fleet-foot, dusk-clad, the wanderer,
His stride rebellion and stirring ember
In his grasp the light of a morning star
Tattered his throne, tattered his war.”
– Extract from the ‘Anthem of Smoke’, widely considered the founding epic of the Dominion of Levant
Tariq’s sole remaining brother had not aged well.
Bakri had boasted a warrior’s build in his youth, and made good use of it to bring glory to their shared blood. Decades had passed since then, however, and what had once been hard muscle turned to fat and aching bones. Though the Grey Pilgrim was thirty eight years old, he knew himself to look in his early thirties. Bakri was two years younger, but at a glance would have seemed eldest among them. The thick beard of his brother was usually combed and oiled, but being confined to his quarters had apparently robbed the man of the desire for such sophistication. The dark hair was hoarse and wild, Bakri’s eyes the red of one who had not slept a full night in too long. Tariq did not wait for an invitation to sit after the door was closed behind him, instead leaning against the doorframe as he watched his brother pour himself wine from a bronze carafe.
“Brother,” Bakri greeted him. “Finally you make time for me. Should I be kneeling in thanks?”
Tariq did not reply. He stood there, in silence, and wondered what it was about thrones that made men go mad.
“Am I to beg for my life, Pilgrim?” Bakri snarled. “Is this your justice I’ve heard so much of?”
The Ophanim were silent. Had been, since Tariq had first entertained the thought of using his gifts in anger. For that silence he thought less of them. He might have been changed by his Bestowal, but blood still ran through his vein. There were things beyond the purview of mercy. Still, the loss of the whispers was keenly felt. Without their guidance, he felt half-blind. They had known much, and shared freely. Now all he had to call on was his eyes and his wits.
“Just get it over with, Tariq,” his brother tiredly said. “You need someone to hang for this and you’ve chosen me. What point is there in making game of it first?”
“You did not act,” the Grey Pilgrim finally said, “like an innocent man.”
“And that is enough to make me guilty?” Bakri mocked.
No, Tariq admitted to himself. It was not. Confining Yasa’s husband and isolating their nephew was the blatant premise to a grab for the Tattered Throne, but it was no proof that Bakri had a hand in their sister’s death. All it was testimony to was ambition and poor character.
“You always did love her best,” his brother bitterly said, drinking deep of his wine.
He wiped a trickle away from his chin.
“And she you,” Bakri continued. “There was never any room for anyone else.”
“I loved her best,” Tariq said softly, “because she was the best of us.”
“Mother was a fucking vulture of a woman,” his brother smiled thinly. “But at least she never played favourites in her disregard. You two, though? You threw us the scraps of what you held for each other and expected your feet licked for it. I didn’t kill her, Tariq. But I will not weep for a woman I shared only blood with.”
It was a stranger he was looking at, the Pilgrim understood. A man he barely knew. A few childhood memories were no compass to the roiling sea of bitterness and frustration that stood before him. For the first time in many years, he felt adrift. Unable to tell truth from lie, black from white. He could not see into the soul of men: like everyone else he was groping blindly in the dark, hoping he would not stumble into a chasm.
“Our nephew, Bakri,” he said. “Caged and left to fade. Yasa’s son. Does even that really mean so little to you?”
The other man sneered.
“You sanctimonious prick,” he said. “You traipse around the world following stories, and now you’ve gone and convinced yourself that’s the truth of Creation. Like there’s never been killing within the Blood. Like a bit of red in the veins means we really owe each other all the oaths we break. Look around you, Pilgrim.”
Bakri opened his arms, jeering.
“Did you really think meaning well was enough?” he said. “That it stopped being a throne because the first man to hold it was a hero? This isn’t one of your pretty adventures, it doesn’t end with everyone smiling and coming home. Sometimes it ends with a Seljun being a little too good and getting an arrow in the fucking throat for it. We don’t all get to leave when we feel like it, Tariq. Some of us have to live where the Heavens don’t look too closely.”
For a moment, he thought of killing his brother. It would be easy as making a fist. Light would lash out, burn through the man’s throat, and that would be the end of it. But that was anger, that was blood. It was the same ugliness in Bakri’s voice, only with greater power behind it. Please, Tariq thought, closing his eyes. Help me. Sometimes, all you could do to beat back the night was light a candle. Please, he prayed, help me see. That I might do more than add suffering to suffering, injustice to injustice, grief to grief. He prayed, and was answered.
The Grey Pilgrim opened his eyes and knew it was his gift to Behold the truth of was what hiddem.
He saw in his sole remaining sibling fear and rage, and ambition like poison. Grief, too, however slight. But deep beneath it all he saw guilt. A hand offered and taken.
“Tell me,” Tariq said, voice like stone and steel. “Tell me who you sold our sister to, Bakri.”
After that he saw fear, mostly.
It did not stay his hand.
When the lords and ladies of the Dominion came to Levante for his sister’s funeral games, the city felt as if a shroud had fallen over it. Until the first of them had arrived he had spent his hours with Izil, keeping the fragile flame remaining in his nephew from dying out, but when the greats of Levant arrived Tariq was forced to leave the boy’s side. There would be an election in the Majilis, when the games came to a close, and there was only one result he would brook. Yasa’s son would be the Holy Seljun, his father holding regency until the boy came of age. Yet for all that none denied him audience, and instead made great pageantry of receiving him, the answers he received were evasive. These people, he thought, had professed loyalty to Yasa. Followed her with eagerness, with pride. And together with her they had served Levant well. And yet now the loyalty had waned, replaced by guarded eyes and cautious tongues. What had been granted to the mother would not be inherited by the son.
“They’re afraid, Tariq,” Sintra told him.
That much he had known. He could not fail to see it, now that his eyes had been opened by Above. He had stolen a moment with his lover in a tucked away corner of the old city, where none would see them. Much as he would have preferred to speak only between Tariq and Sintra, they were not only that. The Grey Pilgrim and the Lady of Alava need speak as well.
“Bakri died at my hand,” Tariq acknowledged.
“Died?” Sintra murmured. “There were only cinders left. That is more than death. And for all that, fear is not what the act earned you. You passed judgement as the Grey Pilgrim, and none would deny your right to end a traitor. It is those that clasped hands with Bakri that still tongues.”
“I am the only man alive to have heard his confession,” the Pilgrim flatly stated.
“We’re not fools, Tariq,” Sintra sighed. “Your brother might have greased a few palms in the harbour, but it was not one of ours who loosed the arrow. There are only two who could have given the order, and neither is to be trifled with.”
“Procer,” he said. “Ashur.”
He turned to look upon the love of his life as the silence lingered, and what he beheld filled him with pride. There was iron in this daughter of the Champion’s Blood. Fear as well, but it did not bend her spine as it did so many others he has spoken to.
“Which was it?” Sintra quietly asked.
That was the question, he knew, plaguing the thoughts of every person of influence in Levant. Was it their protectors in the Thalassocracy that had seen a Dominion resurgent, less eager to take instructions from committees on an island across the water, and acted to smother the insolence before it could grow further? Or was it the covetous packs of royalty past the Red Snake Wall who had struck the blow, wary of a Levant that would not retreat at the mere hint of the First Prince’s displeasure? Neither were enemies anyone could truly afford.
“The Prince of Orense,” Tariq finally told her. “Bakri believed it was with the tacit permission of the First Prince himself.”
Sintra let out a sharp breath.
“Prince Alejandro Trastanes,” she murmured. “Do they plan to invade?”
“No,” he replied just as quietly. “It was a petty thing, Sintra. That is, perhaps, the most absurd part of it. We have silver veins of our own, now, and no longer rely on his for coinage. His treasury thinned as a result. Worse, he foresaw that the Ashurans would rather use our silver than his for their own mints.”
Bakri was to declare those very veins as having run out, after a few years, and quietly the old sales would have resumed. The Levantine silver would have gone to the treasury of the Seljun instead of the mints in Levant and Ashur. A stupid, petty waste. And for that Yasa had died.
“There are some who’ll say electing Izil to the Tattered Throne would be sending a message,” his lover said. “That we will not desist.”
“That we will not bow to fear,” Tariq mused. “I can see how this would not be popular, as so many of us wish to do so.”
“They’ve never been shy about sending knives south,” Sintra darkly said. “They know Ashur will only stir against invasion. And that’s always been the unspoken guarantee from Salia hasn’t it? Do not be a threat, and you will not be troubled. We became a threat. Trouble found us.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Tariq said. “When the games end, Izil will stand before the Majilis as candidate for the Tattered Throne.”
“You don’t have the votes,” his lover told him. “One of Bakri’s children will be raised, it is almost a certainty.”
“You misunderstand,” he said. “They are bowing, Sintra, to fear.”
“And?” she frowned.
“When Izil stands, I will stand with him,” the Grey Pilgrim said.
He met her eyes, and smiled thinly.
“Alejandro Trastanes is very far away. I am here.”
Nine days later, Izil Isbili was unanimously elected the Holy Seljun of Levant. His uncle stood in silence behind the seven-year-old boy as the votes were cast into the large brass cup, but for once the pale stones meaning support made no sound as they fell.
The cup, after all, was already filled with the ashes of Bakri Isbili.
The following dawn, Tariq began marching north.
Orense was prosperous.
The principality as well, he had seen while treading the roads and fields, but the capital of the principality stood above the rest in that regard. Traders from all over southern Calernia could be found haggling in the streets in a smattering of tongues, be it the fluid tradertalk of the Free Cities or the elegant Ceseo of the southern Dominion. Colourful cloths and elegant furs, ripe fruit and vivid painted slates: the markets of Orense were a thriving throng, a centre of commerce. And among them, all was traded for the silver of Prince Alejandro Trastanes’ mines. It was the fortune of the Trastanes line to own these, it was said, but also that of it subjects. The city would not attract so many if not for the remarkable purity and quantity of its ore. Tariq had not known it was possible to hate the bounty of the earth before then, but he had learned. Pieces of metal glinting in the sun could take a life months of riding away, even if they were not spent for the purpose. All they needed to do was exist and men would do horrors for the purpose of owning them, or keeping them, or even ensuring other did not have them.
He had spent most his life shielding people little different than these from the wickedness of the world. Divested himself of the right to be bound to his lover in the eyes of any but each other, of having a home for more than a summer’s length and even of half the name he had been born to. And yet, blind to anything but the coins that saw the wheels of their existence keep turning, they had killed his sister. Tariq could not hate them for that. No, he could. He would not allow himself to. He had made sacrifices, but not with the expectation of reward. That exceptions would be made for him and those he loved. If a good act was done only at the condition of recompense, then it was not that – it was a mere transaction made with the Heavens. Yet it would have been dishonest to say it did not infuriate him, deep down, that Yasa had died and it was not so much as a ripple in the sea that was Creation. All were as specks of dust, in the eyes of Above. All were as the entire world, in the eyes of Above. The Lanterns had long taught this and Tariq knew more of the truths of the Heavens than most, but never before had he been forced to look that particular truth in the eye.
For days he walked the streets of Orense, taking the measure of the people and through them their ruler. Prince Alejandro was well-liked, he learned. The man leant the weight of his name and influence to the charitable enterprises of the House of Light, and after a string of sicknesses had ordered the sewers beneath the capital fully cleaned out for the first time in many years – at his own expense, without raising taxes to fill his coffers afterwards. He paid his watchmen and soldiers well, better than his mother had, and always on time. The prince favoured the merchants of his land above others, but did not do so egregiously and did not use the livelihood of others as means in his disagreements with other royalty. Some said that he spent too much time in Salia, at the court of the First Prince, but others argued that Orense had benefited from his influence there. There were less flattering rumours, of paramours entertained even though he was wed and duels fought for frivolous purposes, but these were old and looked upon with a forgiving eye.
Tariq was not certain what he had truly expected. Few men presented themselves as devils, even when keeping covenant with their kind, and it was said Arlesites were more attached than most to their repute. It still filled him with dismay, that priests from the House of Light could sing the praises of a man who had ordered murder. The people could be fooled, and often were. Yet he had believed, in some way, that those wielding the light of the Heavens would not be so easily taken in. It took him days, forcing himself not to act before having fully seen what there was to see, before he admitted to himself that perhaps the people of Orense had not been fooled at all. That the prince did behave well towards them. That the priests did not condemn the man because they had not been given reason to. It was a strange thing, coming to the understanding that a man could be both wicked and kind. That one did not chase away the other and claim the whole of the person. Strange and displeasing.
After twelve days, Tariq had assuaged his conscience and he set out once more. For a man of his talents, it was merely tedious to slip into the towering palace that belonged to the Trastanes. Even without the guidance of the Ophanim neither soldiers nor watchmen caught sight of him moving under cover of night, and the sorceries pervading the grounds were no true bar. The nature of the wards was sister to miracles, in some arcane way, and there were few even among the Bestowed who understood miracles as Tariq did. Whispers opened cracks to creep through, Light blooming and fading as he passed through gardens and climbed a tall trellis. From there he reached a balcony, a brush of fingers unmaking the locks and allowing him to enter unseen the private study of the Prince of Orense. Tariq closed the doors behind him, and settled in a fashionable sofa to wait until the man arrived. Servants came first, to put the study in order and leave a tray of fragrant tea and assorted spice cookies, but he moved where they were not looking and so they did no see him.
The Grey Pilgrim was sipping at a perfectly-brewed cup of Thalassinian black leaf when the man who ordered the murder of his sister entered the study. He waited in silence until the prince sat at his beautiful redwood desk and reached for a cup that was not there. Calmly, he set down the tea.
“Alejandro Trastanes,” Tariq said. “There will be no point to shouting.”
His advice was ignored, unsurprisingly. The Prince of Orense was still in good shape, for a man his age, though Tariq ruefully admitted to himself that the royal was likely younger than himself. The healer was no longer so young as to be able to casually pass such a judgement. Once shouting proved fruitless, the man drew a thin blade.
“You will not find me easy meat, assassin,” Prince Alejandro snarled in Tolesian,
“Not assassin,” Tariq calmly corrected in the same. “Pilgrim.”
From the beginning he had beheld what lay at the heart of the man, fear and pride and anger, but not he saw the second of the first of these begin devouring the others. The tipping point, he thought, was when Alejandro Trastanes realized he was alone in a room with a Bestowed whose sister he’d recently had murdered. The man was not without bravery, but few among even the most crazed of villains would care to try odds such as those. And this was no villain, no champion of Below. Only a man, with all the evil banality of that stature.
“You know not what trouble you borrow, Levantine,” the prince said.
How mundane it was now, to see through bluster. Neither tone nor posturing could hide the cold fear spreading through the soul of the man. Tariq wondered if he should enjoy the sight of that, for he found he did not. Even Yasa’s death was not enough to whet his appetite for cruelty, it seemed. He almost wished that it had been. It would make the accusations Bakri had laid at his feet echo slightly less.
“Sit down,” Tariq said.
“And then?” the prince asked.
Hope, the slightest bit of it.
“We will have a conversation,” the Grey Pilgrim said. “And when it ends, I will kill you.”