Garroth looks over the heaving sea of silver grasses. “I’m no stranger to smiting the wicked, as your Parson would put it.”
“So I’ve seen,” Stellia says.
“But one must be sure one has the right man. No evidence was ever found linking Prince Altachin to the uprising in Jontar.”
“How is that possible?”
Sedwin gives a weary chuckle. “More easily than you might think.”
“Queen Ingharad did take it upon herself to come to Jontar in person,” Garroth says. “But she was, to put it very mildly, rather cavalier in her investigations. Her soldiers rounded up a few petty criminals and the odd disgraced noble and tortured them until any number of names tumbled from their bruised lips. They proceeded to arrest those so named, tortured some more, and before long they had a vast list of suspects, including, by some slip of a half-severed tongue no doubt, Prince Altachin. The queen had all of these unfortunates rounded up, five hundred people or so, never bothering to instruct her henchmen to distinguish between women young and old, small children, invalids, dotards, and the feeble-minded, who were then summarily flogged to death in a public square. Saving the best for last, Ingharad had Prince Altachin executed in the middle of the dead and the dying. I suppose your Parson regaled you with the details of the Prince’s end?”
“He said Ingharad had him impaled,” Stellia says. “And his corpse mounted on a spike above the gate of his father’s palace.”
“Where it hangs to this day, not to be removed under penalty of death by Queen Ingharad’s orders. It is said that King Sooringal’s heart breaks anew each night, when he hears his son’s bones rattling in the wind. Did your Parson tell you that, as well?”
Stellia shakes her head, horrified. “No.”
“Of course not,” Garroth says. “Far be it from us to pity our enemies.” He pauses, scowling at something only he can see. “Once Altachin’s cadaver was properly hoisted into place, Ingharad declared that the Guardian’s justice had been done, and rode home to her palace in Ceriselle, where Baramondese Parsons at once set about composing sermons praising the even-handedness of their heroic queen. As you well know, the tale became quite popular in her realm, as well as in Taronnis and Hestia, though less so among the Okasti. For some reason, the lesson they took away from this episode was that the Guardian’s justice means torment and death. Some even decided that they might be better off living the wretched life of brigands in the Thorns.”
“How do you know all this? Were you there?”
“I’ve eyes and ears,” Garroth says. “In more places than one.”
He spurs his horse and dives into the roiling grasses, speeding toward the shadowy hills.
Stellia stares after him, stunned. “Is this true? What he said of Queen Ingharad?”
Sedwin kicks his horse into a canter. “Garroth is not one to repeat idle falsehoods.”
“And the Guardian—” Stellia hesitates; the question itself seems heresy. “Surely she cannot have approved of the killing of innocents, of women and children?”
“If she disapproved, she was never heard to say so. An eloquent silence, if you ask me. Or the Okasti.”
A dark unease takes hold in Stellia’s heart. Again she thinks of what she said to Till, as the soldiers took him away: Whatever the Guardian wants from you, it can’t be bad. She wanted to believe it just as much as she wanted him to believe it. But that doesn’t make it true.
“The Guardian upholds the Faith,” she mutters. “She counseled Emperor Thedric, made sure that he ruled with mercy and compassion as well as with strength.”
“So that his subjects should love rather than fear him,” Sedwin says. “I used to believe that as well, and without question. But now that I’ve seen six years of her rule in Thedric’s stead, I wonder often who it was in truth that favored clemency and who an iron fist.”
“You mean to say the Guardian is cold and without mercy, like Queen Ingharad?”
“I mean to say we can’t be sure of anything or anyone,” Sedwin says. “I know you fear for your brother, and that this is not what you want to hear. But a questioning mind will serve you better in life than blind faith in names and titles. I think in your heart you know this already. Perhaps there was a time when things were different. But those days are lost to us.”
“I wish Prince Ansil would return,” Stellia says. “And take his father’s throne.”
“As do many.” Sedwin sighs. “I fear for the Empire, if the throne remains empty. What will we become, if all that governs our future are ironclad devotion and cold steel, untempered by warmth of heart?”
He spurs the horse once more, and it breaks into a swift gallop, hurrying after Garroth, who is far ahead of them already on the open plain. Stellia clasps her arms around Sedwin’s waist more firmly, glad for the warmth and strength of his body so near her.
Even so, she feels a chill. The night air is cool, and as the horse plunges through the sea of grass, the rustling of the stalks sounds like the rattle of bones stirring in the wind above a grieving father’s gate.
NEXT: Answers are Promised