Home > Tower Lord (Raven's Shadow #2)

Tower Lord (Raven's Shadow #2)
Author: Anthony Ryan

PART I

The raven soars on wings of fire

When flames are born

In summer winds.

—SEORDAH POEM, AUTHOR UNKNOWN

VERNIERS’ ACCOUNT

I was raised in luxury. I make no apologies for this, one cannot influence one’s parentage after all. Nor do I find much to regret in a childhood lived amongst opulence with numerous servants and excellent tutors to nurture my ever-curious and talented mind. So there are no tales of hardship from my youth, no epic of struggle against the inequalities and injustices of life. I was born to a family of noble lineage and considerable wealth, received an exceptional education and was thence facilitated into court service via my father’s connections, and although loyal readers will be aware that heartbreak and grief were not absent from my life, I had never known a day of physical exertion in the thirty-six years preceding the events detailed in this narrative. Had I known, of course, that the voyage to the Unified Realm, where I would begin my work on a complete and unbiased history of that terrible but fascinating land, would ensure an end to my previous ignorance of labour, degradation, humiliation and torture, please rest assured I would have happily leapt over the side and endeavoured to swim home through countless miles of shark-enriched waters.

You see, by the advent of the day on which I choose to begin this tale, I had learned pain. I had learned the lessons of the whip and the cudgel, the metallic taste of one’s own blood as it gushes forth taking teeth and resistance with it. I had learned to be a slave. That is what they called me, for that is what I was, and despite whatever nonsense you may have heard or read since, I was never, at any point, a hero.

The Volarian general was younger than I’d expected, as was his wife, my new owner. “Doesn’t look a scholar, true-heart,” he mused, looking me over from the comfort of his couch. “Bit too young.” He reclined in silk robes of red and black, long-limbed and athletic as befits a soldier of some renown, and I was struck by the absence of scars on the pale flesh of his legs and arms. Even his face was smooth and completely unmarked. By now I had endured numerous encounters with warriors from several nations, but this was the first to be entirely unscarred.

“Does seem to have a keen eye though,” the general went on, seeing my scrutiny. I immediately lowered my gaze, bracing for the inevitable cuff or whip-strike from the overseer. During the first day of my enslavement I had seen a captured Realm Guard sergeant flayed and disembowelled for glaring in the direction of a junior officer in the Free Cavalry. It was a quickly learned lesson.

“Honoured husband,” the general’s wife said in her strident, cultured voice. “I present Verniers Alishe Someren, Imperial Chronicler to the Court of the Emperor Aluran Maxtor Selsus.”

“Can this really be him, true-heart?” The general seemed genuinely interested for the first time since my entrance into this finely appointed cabin. The chamber was huge for a ship-berth, richly decorated in carpets and tapestries, tables generously laden with fruits and wine. But for the gentle sway of the huge warship beneath my feet we could have been in a palace. The general rose and approached me, eyes examining my face closely. “The author of The Cantos of Gold and Dust? Chronicler of the Great War of Salvation?” He stepped closer and sniffed me, nostrils twitching in disgust. “Smells like any other Alpiran dog to me. And his gaze is far too direct.”

He moved back, waving idly at the overseer who administered the blow I knew was coming, a single, hard strike to the back with the ivory handle of his whip, delivered with practised economy. I stifled the shout of pain, caged it behind my teeth. Crying out was considered speech, and speaking without consent was a fatal offence.

“Husband, please,” the general’s wife said with a tinge of annoyance. “He was expensive.”

“Oh, I’m sure.” The general held out a hand, a slave scurrying over to fill it with a wine cup. “Don’t worry, honoured wife. I’ll ensure his wits and hands are left intact. Won’t be much use without them will he? So, scribbling-slave, how do you come to be here in our newly acquired province, mmm?”

I answered quickly, blinking away agonised tears, hesitation was always punished. “I came to research a new history, Master.”

“Oh excellent. I’m a great admirer of your work, aren’t I, true-heart?”

“Indeed, husband. You are a scholar yourself.” There was something in her voice when she said the word “scholar,” faint but present. Scorn, I realised. She doesn’t respect this man. And yet she makes him a gift of me.

There was a brief pause before the general spoke again, a slight edge to his voice. He had heard the insult, but chose to tolerate it. Who truly holds power here?

“And what was its subject?” the general enquired. “This new history of yours?”

“The Unified Realm, Master.”

“Ah, then we have done you a service have we not?” He chuckled, delighted with his own humour. “By giving you an ending.”

He laughed again, drinking from his wine cup, and raising his eyebrows in appreciation. “Not bad at all. Make a note, Secretary.” The bald-headed slave in the corner stepped forward, stylus poised over parchment. “Orders for the scouting parties: the vineyards are to be left untouched, and halve the slave quota in the wine-making regions. The skill set should be maintained in the fief of . . .” He paused, looking at me expectantly.

“Cumbrael, Master,” I said.

“Yes, Cumbrael. Can’t say it has much of a ring to it. I’ve a mind to propose a complete renaming of this province to the Council on my return.”

“One must be a Council-man to propose to Council, honoured husband,” his wife said. There was no scorn this time, but I noted how he hid a glare of fury in his wine cup.

“Where would I be without your readiness to remind me, Fornella?” he muttered. “So, Historian, where did we have occasion to welcome you into our family?”

“I was travelling with the Realm Guard, Master. King Malcius had given me permission to accompany his host on its mission to Cumbrael.”

“So you were there? You witnessed my victory?”

I fought down the immediate upsurge of hellish sounds and images that had plagued my dreams ever since that day. “Yes, Master.”

“It seems this gift has more value than you realised, Fornella.” He snapped his fingers at the secretary. “Pen, parchment and a cabin for the historian. Not too comfortable, don’t want him nodding off when he should be writing his, no doubt, eloquent and stirring account of my first major triumph in this campaign.” He came close to me again, smiling fondly. The smile of a child with a new toy. “I expect to be reading it by morning. If I’m not, I’ll take one of your eyes.”

◆ ◆ ◆

My hands ached, my back strained from hunching over the short-legged table they had given me. Ink was liberally spattered over my mean slave’s garb and my vision swam with exhaustion. Never before had I produced so many words in such a short time. Parchment littered the cabin, filled with my often stumbling attempts to craft the lie the general wanted. Glorious victory. There had been no glory on that field, fear, pain and slaughter amidst the stink of death and shit, but no glory. Surely the general knew this, he had been the architect of the Realm Guard’s defeat after all, but I had been commanded to produce a lie and, dutiful slave that I was, bent to the task with all the energy I could summon.

Sleep claimed me sometime past the peak of night, dragging me into nightmare freshly stoked by my enforced remembrance of that day . . . The Battle Lord’s face when he knew defeat was imminent, the grim determination as he drew his sword and rode straight at the Volarian line, cut down by the Kuritai before he could strike a single blow . . .

I scrambled to wakefulness by a hard rap on the cabin door, stumbling to my feet as it opened. A house slave entered bearing a tray of bread and grapes, plus a small flask of wine. He placed them on the table and left without a word.

“I thought you might be hungry.”

My fearful gaze fixed on the sight of the general’s wife in the doorway. She wore a gown of red silk embroidered with gold thread. It did much to enhance her figure. I switched my gaze to the floor. “Thank you, Mistress.”

She came in, closing the door behind her, taking in the sight of the sheets covered in my feverish script. “Finished then?”

“Yes, Mistress.”

She picked up one of the sheets. “This is in Volarian.”

“I assumed my master would wish it so, Mistress.”

“Your assumption was correct.” Her brows furrowed as she read. “Elegantly phrased too. My husband will be envious. He writes poetry, you know. If you are particularly unfortunate, he may recite it for you. It’s rather like listening to a duck with an unusually annoying quack. But this.” She held up the sheet. “There are Volarian scholars of great reputation who would be shamed in comparison.”

“You are kind, Mistress.”

“No, I’m truthful. It’s my weapon.” She paused then began to read aloud. “‘Foolishly the Realm Guard commander gravely underestimated the guile of his enemy, attempting an obvious and mundane strategy of engaging the Volarian centre whilst his cavalry sought to turn their flank. He reckoned without the sublime tactical acumen of the general Reklar Tokrev, who anticipated his every clumsy move.’” She looked at me with a raised eyebrow. “Clearly, you’re a man who understands his audience.”

 

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