It was said the waters of the High Holy Sea flowed through the Archangel and fell upon the world from heaven. It was said that baptism in the water rebirthed a soul, cleansing it of sin and darkness. The priests never said how cold the water was or how it tasted like rust. It was “heavy water” born of angels’ blood and should not be ingested, but when being drowned, it was hard not to swallow mouthfuls.
“In the name of Imperator Heraclius — the Breath of the Archangel and Custodian of the High Holy Sea — lift your head,” the Ethos priest said. “And be reborn as Micah the Metal.”
That was my name now. I was born just Micah, the son of an innkeeper, who I’d watched cough bile as a lord’s hireling stabbed him six times in the belly. Why? Because that was the world. And now I was reborn in the name of the Archangel, into the same broken world, but this time I held the knife and aimed only for the deserving.
I didn’t even have to lift my head; the priest pulled my hair.
“I baptize you with heavy water and cleanse you of all sins, before the Archangel and the Twelve Holies.”
At the lakeshore, my army covered the horizon. Fifty thousand armored paladins watched the rebirth of their grandmaster.
The old priest grabbed my shoulders. “Do you believe in the Archangel and the Twelve he has appointed to guard the believers?”
“Do you reject the Fallen Angels and all their temptations?”
“I reject them.”
“Will you follow the will of your imperator, no matter where it leads?”
I hesitated, then said, “No matter where.”
Once the rite was over, I waded out of the water. Berrin, my second-in-command, handed me a loincloth, and I proceeded to the fire he’d prepared. I plucked a fig from a tree, sat at the fire, and enjoyed some warmth. Ah, how light it was to be a newborn — a blank parchment upon which holy script could be written.
“What’s it like to be Micah the Metal?” Berrin asked. He looked like a baby with those fat cheeks. But he was the first of my paladins and wore the black armor of our battalion as if it were molded onto him at birth. The red accents of the breastplate complemented the stray, ruddy hairs of his eyebrows, which now pointed downward in trepidation.
“Before I stepped into that water, my soul was covered in tar. And now, it’s sinless, shimmering like a star.” I spat a fig seed into the fire. “I don’t want it to darken ever again.” I raised my hands, palms up. “Berrin, will you help me be a good man?”
“My liege, you’re the best of us. That’s why you were given this honor.”
“No…I am no more deserving than any of you.” I pressed my eyes to shut out tears. “When the priest pushed me down, and the water surrounded me, I saw all that my hands had wrought.” Another image flashed of Miriam in the windowless room, screaming shrill from birthing pangs, surrounded by hateful one-eyed priests. How could I have left her there? “The things I’ve done…I should be flung into the deepest pit.”
“That heavy water washed it all away. This is your great day, my liege. Don’t sully it with melancholy.”
Berrin fidgeted and hid his hands behind his back. How unbearably standoffish. Yes, by being consecrated in the High Holy Sea, I was now equal to any lord, even the Imperator. But the last thing I wanted was for my men to think me superior. To see me like the villainous lords that had trodden upon them.
“It’s a great day for us all,” I said. “Any honor I’m given, I share with each of you. And Berrin…please don’t call me ‘liege.’ I’m not whipping you for wheat.”
“As you say, Grandmaster.”
I devoured my fig, shrugged off the melancholy, and looked upon my men. They knelt as I passed: my holy swordsman, their longswords pounded from the metals of Mount Damav; my gunners, their matchlocks forged with dark steel melted from the Colossus of Dycondi; my alchemists and sappers, their faces burned and blackened by firebombs. The sailors I’d taken from the isles of Ejaz were not versed in our customs, but they too knelt with their heads high.
I climbed a rock on the shore. What a perfect place and day: pure blue sky, craggy green hills surrounding us, and the High Holy Sea’s turquoise water shimmering in the sunlight. I gazed upon my men, proud as ever. Every honor I’d earned was due to their steadfastness, piety, and loyalty. No commander could ask for a braver bunch; so how could I keep these blessings for myself? “At attention, one and all!”
They did as commanded and became a wall of black metal that stretched across the shore.
“The priest asked me three questions. I have three questions for you.”
A chill breeze blew through.
“Will you pledge your swords, your guns, and your fire to defend the true faith and all who follow it?”
Fifty thousand men shouted, “Yes, Grandmaster!”
“Will you follow me to the shores of our holy lands to take them back from the infidel?”
“Look to your left and your right. Look upon your brothers. Look at the fire of the Archangel burning in their eyes.”
My men did as commanded.
“Do you pledge to die before you turn your back on your brothers?”
“As I am Micah the Metal, so shall you all be reborn. You are my house, you are my kin, and each of you shall carry my honor.” I gazed at the Ethos priests standing beneath an olive tree in the distance. They were not going to like this. “Go, every one of you, and bathe in the waters of the High Holy Sea. Be reborn, warriors of the Faith, one and all!”
Fifty thousand men shed their armor and became naked as pealed pears. While my army swarmed the lake and bathed in its strange waters, I sat by the fire and endured protestations from the Ethos priests:
“They have not been permitted to enter the High Holy Sea!”
“Baptism is only for those chosen by the Imperator!”
“We honored you, and this is how you repay us? Bishop Yohannes will hear of this!”
I hated priests. I hated holy men who claimed to speak for the Archangel. When I wanted to talk to the Archangel, I opened my heart and prayed. I needed no intercessors. But I kept silent and let the priests protest. My fifty thousand could not be stopped.
One man who did not bathe in the water was my engineer, Jauz. Bald and bristled, he was from the Empire of Silk far in the northeast, where the ice melts and turns again into grassland. Though he and his engineers had taken to dressing in the paladin black and red, it seemed as foreign on him as armor on a pig. Jauz spent his nights burning incense and meditating before a jade idol. Because of his knowledge and skill, I tolerated it. At least he was not a worshipper of Lat, the wretched Fallen Angel and temptress.
“Compliments, Grandmaster.” Jauz stuck a knife into an apple and plucked out the seeds. Even how they ate fruit was strange. “I share the holy feeling of this day.”
“Are you not interested in the heavy water, Jauz?”
“It’s just water.”
“No, there’s something odd about it. It tastes like steel.”
“We had a lake like that back home. Dive deep enough, and you’ll find an underwater mountain full of iron and copper. You definitely shouldn’t drink it.”
“If that’s true, I wish we could mine it all.”
“Our emperor felt the same.” Jauz crunched a piece of apple. “He drained the entire lake.”
I couldn’t imagine the words he’d just said. “You can’t drain a lake. Where would the water go?”
“When you have a million men and the knowledge to mold the earth,” he tapped on his own head, “you can do anything. The Silk Emperor is, no doubt, the most powerful man alive.”
“Good thing the Empire of Silk is so far away.”
Jauz tossed the apple pit into a pile of ants. They swarmed it. “Good thing for you I’m not.”
Once I’d dressed, Jauz and I traveled by horseback to the docks. By the Archangel, Nixos was a paradise in an emerald sea. Were I a man who sought pleasantry, I’d settle here. But something more beautiful waited offshore: my five hundred ships. They filled the horizon.
“How much more time do you need?” I asked Jauz as we climbed off our horses.
My paladins had donned their work clothes. Some readied their carts to haul wood. Others took measurements of ship dimensions. Burly men heaved planks on their backs like oxen. Even on a holy day of rebirth, my men didn’t cease their righteous labors. I had to succeed, for them as much as myself. In the new world we would build, I pledged that each paladin would have his own fief and never endure a lord’s whip again. But for that we needed land, and the only land I’d not conquered lay east, defended by the sea walls of the holiest city on earth: Kostany.
Jauz brushed his bald head. “Modifying all the ships will take a moon.”
“Too long. The Shah’s spies must’ve sent word that we’re massing for an invasion. If we wait a whole moon, he’ll have double the men at his walls.”
We stopped at one of the ships on the dock. Work had completed on it, but all I noticed was the flatter angle of the hull. Jauz had explained how rebuilding the hull would increase upward pressure. This would allow a ship of a hundred men and thirty cannons to speed through the shallow strait that led to Kostany.
“Your men are not shipbuilders, and work like this takes time,” he said. “With the men we have to spare, we can do ten to fifteen ships a day. If you want the ships done faster, then we won’t have enough men to make guns and ammunition and armor and artillery and all the other things we need.”
“Finish in a fortnight.”
Jauz twirled his mustache, as if it were a crank by which he processed his thoughts. Were all engineers from the Silk Empire bald mustachios? “You know, I’ve studied the sea defenses of Kostany. Even with ships that can travel in shallow water, you won’t get through the seven sea walls. The Shrunken Strait is rather narrow. You can only confront each wall with seven or eight ships at a time, and they will endure fire from a few hundred cannons.”
“We have five hundred ships and the best sailors in the world. A shock attack on the sea walls would be unexpected.” Though the specifics still had to be drawn up, I had a gut ache the Sirmians would be unprepared. That if we got through the sea walls, we could easily scale the embankments that led to the Seat.
“You’d need a miracle to survive those walls,” Jauz said. “The Silk Emperor has a navy of two thousand and engineers more knowledgeable than me. Even he wouldn’t succeed. Our best course is to land at Demoskar, march inland, and put Kostany to siege from land.”
I’d imagined that scenario. The march from Demoskar to Kostany, dragging artillery, would take days. How many raids would we endure during that march? Though it was Crucian land, stolen by the infidels, we’d forgotten its secrets. The Sirmian horse archers would whittle us down without ever engaging in a real battle. By the time we reached the walls of Kostany, the zeal we’d gained from this holy day would be snuffed out by the realities of war. A siege could take years. To feed my army, we’d have to pillage the villages around the city, many of which still practiced the Ethos faith. That would turn the people against us and swell the Shah’s army. A protracted siege was not winnable.
“All five hundred ships should be ready to sail the Shrunken Strait,” I said, “in a fortnight.”
“Grandmaster, did those holy waters turn one man into two?”
“There are five thriving towns on this island, filled with the best shipbuilders on this side of the world. I will bring them to you.”
“How? With all the metal and ships we bought, we have no gold to pay them.”
“We won’t be paying them.”
Jauz grinned, turned his head sideways, and nodded. Did these heathens have to nod strangely, too? “And they say you have a kind soul.”
“Who says that?”
“Your men. You know, they would follow you off the edge of the earth.”
I shook my head. “We’re not going to the edge of the earth.” I pointed toward the ship-covered eastern horizon. “We’re going to Kostany.”
I ordered five legions to the seaside towns to bring back ten thousand shipbuilders by dawn’s light. We promised the guilds repayment, but the unwilling leaders wouldn’t press their own into my service. And time was too short for deliberation.
As the shipbuilders marched to my ships in chains, I cursed myself as assuredly as they must’ve cursed me. Dozens had died resisting, preferring death to working without pay. Instead of watching them herded like cattle, I returned to my flagship the Watersteel and begged the Archangel to forgive me for spilling Crucian blood. I’d just been cleansed of my sins and had now amassed many more. The weight of it crushed me, and I could scarcely lift my head off the moldy floorboards of my office. I trembled at the thought of the Archangel’s rage for each innocent Ethosian I’d hurt. How could I do this? How could I be like the lords we were trying to escape?
As birds chirped to welcome the morning, ten thousand men — including all the shipbuilding guilds of Nixos — were toiling to modify my ships.
Zosi, the youngest brother of my deceased wife, came to me as I watched the workers from a rocky hill. He’d led one of the five legions that I’d sent to round up the shipbuilders. Though barely a man, he had the valor of a veteran. His soft features betrayed his soft heart, which, from his sulking expression, seemed to be bleeding like mine.
“Is this truly right, brother?” he asked. It seemed he was growing a beard, probably to look older, but his almond-colored hairs were hardly noticeable on such fair skin. “The streets are filled with weeping children and wives praying for their husbands’ safe return. Can we bear this sin upon our backs and still expect the Archangel’s favor?” He couldn’t look in their direction, so heavy was his shame.
I too could scarcely watch. They were believers, and I forced them to labor ceaselessly. The noon sun blazed. It was a windless day, and the toil must have been crushing. The crack of whips striking flesh echoed through the hillside. I myself had suffered at the hands of more powerful men and could only empathize.
“Once Kostany is ours, I will reward them a thousand times over. I will open the vaults of the Shah and rain his treasures upon all who toiled for us.”
Zosi nodded and smiled. “I’ve never known you to be false with your words. But it’s not me you’ll have to convince.” His shoulders tensed up again. “An Ethos knight came to your flagship. You’ve been summoned.”
Of course. The people of Nixos were his flock, and I’d stolen them. I couldn’t refuse a summons from the second-highest bishop of the Ethos Church, so I made my way up the island’s second-tallest hill to the cathedral. The white brick structure had two purple spires, and stained-glass windows adorned every wall.
Inside stood a solid gold, towering likeness of the Archangel. Melted down, it could pay for five hundred more ships. Not that I would go that far. Perhaps I could be forgiven for acts against my fellow man, but to act against god himself? There’s only so much a man should do against his own soul, though it all be for the greater good.
The Bishop had me wait. That’s what pompous men do — waste the time of those they think are beneath them. He had me sitting in the pew for thirty minutes before he showed his gray face.
“Micah the Metal,” Bishop Yohannes said. His robe was gray too, as were his whiskers. “Welcome to the Holy Sepulcher of Benth the Apostle.” Even his voice lacked color. What was he hiding behind his plainness?
He led me to his office, a small room attached to the cathedral’s library. It was devoid of luxuries, with only a plate of figs on a stone desk and a well-stocked bookshelf.
“Have you heard the story of the angel Micah?” he said. “Your namesake.”
“Only a thousand times.”
“It is said that Micah’s wings—”
“Destroyed a star and burned the earth, then covered the sun for a hundred years until the earth froze. It did not warm again until all sinning ceased. While I love the scripture dearly, I didn’t come here to hymn with you.”
“Your time is precious to you. You want to be somewhere so fast that you can’t spare a moment to remember the Holies.” The Bishop grabbed a book from a nearby shelf and opened it: Angelsong, the chapter of Micah. “Recite it to me, from the first verse.”
I laughed so hard, the spot in my ribs that the Alanyan pirate had slammed with a hammer hurt. “I’m not one of your choir boys. And you’re right, my time is precious. Goodbye, Bishop.”
Before I could step out, the Bishop said, “Cross that threshold and I’ll declare you a heretic.”
That wiped off my smile. “You wouldn’t dare. Imperator Heraclius sent me here to receive your blessings.”
“You may be Imperator Heraclius’ favorite pet, but it would take several days for him to hear about my declaration. And in that time, well, what would happen to you?”
“Nothing at all. I have fifty thousand men on this island. How many do you have?”
The Bishop must have stared down dozens of upstarts with his beady eyes and thought I was another. “There are only two who hold a higher position than me in the Ethos Church — the Patriarch and the Imperator. As holy paladins, your men are devoted to the Archangel. You have willed them to commit acts against their own souls and the souls of fellow Crucians. How many already doubt you? And how many would refuse your orders once I proclaim you a heretic?”
“My men would never take your side.”
“We’ll see,” the Bishop said. “One thing I’m sure of — the work on your fleet will take far longer without the total loyalty of your men.”
I walked to his side of the desk. Bishop Yohannes stood and faced me, a filthy grin on his face.
“This is a holy land,” he said, “one of the few not defiled by infidels. And you came here and treated it like it was yours, and not the Archangel’s. You will answer for your crimes.”
I refused to blink and stared him down. “I’ve sent more men to hell than there are on your placid little island. Choose your words carefully, Bishop.”
“You are valued by Heraclius and thus beyond reproach.” He stopped grinning and looked away, his tone losing its sharpness. “But your soldiers are not. I must show my flock that I can administer the angels’ justice to those who have wronged them. I want the five commanders of the five legions you sent to our towns. They will face justice in your place.”
“You will never sit in judgment over my men. They will die on the battlefield, not in your noose.”
The Bishop closed the book of hymns and dusted it. “Well said. A true commander never forsakes his men.” He cleared his throat. “But true men forsake their commanders all the time. Loyalty is easy when you’re winning, but you cannot win against the Church. I will give you a recourse…”
I sat again and grabbed a fig. Rolled it in my hand. “Go on.”
“You’ve just returned from the isles of Ejaz, where they worship the accursed Lat.”
“Indeed. We sent many infidels to hell to be with her.”
“Ah, and you also took many infidels prisoner, didn’t you?”
He was referring to my shipmen, the Ejazi sailors. They stuck out with their eastern dress and manner, so of course the Bishop took notice.
“The Ejazi are the best sailors in the world,” I said. “Still, I executed thousands I’d captured. The two hundred I spared proclaimed their faith in the Archangel and now are our brothers. You can’t have them.”
The Bishop fingered the spine of the book. “I’m not talking about the sailors. I’m talking about your other prisoner.”
He couldn’t mean…I’d been careful to hide her from everyone other than my closest lieutenants. Though the Ejazi knew…but still…
I swallowed my dread and disappointment. “What other prisoner?” How bitter to think I’d been betrayed. Not just me, but every paladin who dreamed of freeing Kostany, who dreamed of being free.
The Bishop’s smile was so smug, I would have bashed it off his face were he not a holy man. “You thought I wouldn’t find out? To climb high in the Church, one must know where the limits of loyalty lie.”
“Who told you?”
“Just a lowly Ejazi — his limit was his large toe. I barely got a squeal from the small one.”
A righteous fire flared through me. “There’s nothing softer than the heart of a new believer. Are you so cruel?”
“Oh Micah, men don’t forsake their gods so easily. He screamed out for Lat when my inquisitor brought the knife to his throat.” The Bishop’s chuckle was as dirty as his grin. “Now give me the prisoner, and you and I will be as one.” He clasped his hands. “Of and for the Ethos.”
I didn’t give Bishop Yohannes an answer. He gave me one night. I had to know if this prisoner was of use or better on the Bishop’s pyre.
We kept the prisoner on my flagship, the Watersteel. I’d seized it from Alanyan pirates. Unlike Crucian galleons, it had a second deeper hold, which could only be accessed by a trap door and was meant for hiding gold from tax collectors. That’s where I kept the prisoner.
Save for my lantern, it was utterly dark. The mold-stench was stronger here than anywhere on the ship. The prisoner sat in the corner, chained by the ankle to an iron ball. She looked at me with eyes as green as the water surrounding the ship. Her face showed no fear, anger, or sadness, only an utter calm.
“How’ve you been passing the time?” I asked from across the room.
Strange answer, perhaps she didn’t know our language well.
“I could make things better for you. A lot better. Would you like that?”
She stared in silence.
“Here’s my proposal,” I said. “Renounce your false goddess, proclaim faith in the Archangel, and join my crew. You’d be the only girl, but I’ll guarantee your safety and honor. The alternative is much worse. I give you to the Bishop and he burns you.”
“I will not renounce my goddess.”
“I am pledged to destroy her faith, as she is the enemy of my angel. You can’t worship Lat in my crew.”
I held up my lantern to see her better. There wasn’t a wrinkle on her face or a hair that wasn’t lustrous. She couldn’t be any older than eighteen — too innocent to be what the Ejazi insisted. I’d fallen for a few girls like her in my hometown, forever ago. The baker’s daughter. The butcher’s niece. The moneylender’s suspiciously young wife. They weren’t stunners — a bit pasty and narrow — but plenty for an innkeeper’s son.
“Understand this,” I said. “I will burn your shrines. Any who refuse the true faith, I will put to the sword.”
“Yes, you will do all that and more.” Her broad eyes stared straight ahead, as if looking at an invisible man behind me.
“We’re enemies unless you change your faith.”
“We are not enemies, who serve the Dreamer.”
Another language fumble? But she seemed to speak Crucian well enough.
“The Bishop will be pleased to have you,” I said. “Burning witches is his special joy.”
I grabbed the metal rung of the ladder.
“The seven sea walls of Kostany have never been breached in the history of the world. How will you cross with a thousand cannons raining death upon you?” Now it was obvious she spoke our language better than most foreigners. “Below Kostany, there are tunnels. I know the way through.”
“Tunnels? What tunnels?”
“Impossible,” I scoffed. “Labyrinthos is the gate to hell. There’s no way through.”
She stood and walked toward me until her body recoiled from the weight of the iron ball. “Where did you find me?”
“In the titan mines of Ejaz,” I said. “You just appeared, as if a ghost.”
“Do you know where I was a day before?”
She pushed closer. The iron ball gave way. She lifted her legs and pulled it, as if it was air. I stopped myself from gaping in awe.
And then I could smell her breath. Like mint and ice and honey. She’d been locked in this dungeon for days and had little water for bathing. How did she smell so tempting?
“I was in Kostany, six hundred miles away,” she said. “In Labyrinthos.”
I sniggered. “I ought to spank you for fibbing like that.”
“I can lead you through the tunnels in hours. You’d appear beneath the Sublime Seat while the Shah and his armies sleep. You’ll butcher them and capture the sea walls. Once you sail your ships through the Shrunken Strait, Kostany will be yours.”
The Crucian flag flying over the city. Divine hymns bursting from our holiest chapel. It sounded too good to be true. But her words made the image of conquering Kostany so real.
“There is a cost,” she said. “One that heavy water cannot cleanse. Those who enter Labyrinthos don’t leave quite the same. Ahriyya touches them.”
Ahriyya was another false god, believed by Lat worshippers to be the embodiment of evil. As if sin wasn’t bad enough. As if you needed something evil to embody it. Yes, the Fallen Angels were evil too, but their sins were their own.
I laughed in her face. “Here’s how I know that my religion is true and yours false. You people take slaves. You believe a man can be owned. If anything is evil, it’s enslavement. It’s the sins we commit against each other that are evil, not some dark god who rules over hell.”
I swear she smirked, but it was so slight I might have imagined it. “And what is it you’re doing? How many men toil to modify your ships without a speck of silver?”
I winced in surprise. “Who told you about that?”
“I know a great many things, just as I know you’re not as unyielding as you pretend.”
“I am a man of faith. The first thing I’ll do when I sack Kostany is bring all its gold and silver back to this island to pay everyone who even so much as lifted a plank for me. And to the widows of those who fell in the heat, I’ll give a shipload of the Shah’s precious jewels.”
“You’ll have to conquer Kostany first. You won’t without me.”
The girl walked away, pulled the iron ball across the room as if it weighed nothing, and sat in the corner.
Two choices lay before me that night: give the Bishop the witch or my five lieutenants. I stayed huddled in the nook where I slept, in the office onboard my flagship, and covered my head with a sheet to drown out the world around me. I begged for guidance and deliverance from the one who heard all prayers. How could I ever entertain giving up my men? And yet, the girl’s promise of Kostany lingered in my heart. She had shown me a sign of her power by moving the iron ball, and I could not hand over such a promise to the Bishop and his inquisitors. By dawn, I was writhing on the floor, still covered in a sheet and crying for the Archangel’s forgiveness, because I knew what I had to do.
I called the five lieutenants who’d overseen the conscription of the workers to my office. I explained how the Bishop wanted them to face justice in my place but omitted mention of his offer to hand over the witch.
“We’re ready to die for you,” Berrin said at the head of the five. “Don’t hesitate because of your love for us. We know it’s the same love the Archangel has for mankind.”
I could only say, “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry, brother,” said cleareyed Zosi. The thought of him swinging at the noose made me tremble. “We’ve all just been baptized in waters that cleansed our sins. We’ll die with so few, and perhaps our books of good deeds will be weightier than our books of sin.”
“May the Archangel put all your sins in my book,” I said. “Let me carry them, as you have carried our holy cause.”
Orwo, my chief alchemist and sapper, put his burnt hand on my shoulder. “I don’t want to die. I’ve too many recipes to try. But I’d be honored to see the angels with this bunch.” The man had no eyebrows, yet his raw face was more beloved to me than that of the fairest maiden.
Edmar, who had as many scars as he had hairs, nodded in agreement. “You can name a bridge after me in Kostany. Nah, make it a bombard. The biggest bombard.” Each scar on his face was holier than a sacred hymn, for they were rent in service to the Archangel.
Only Aicard remained silent. Not just silent, but dismissive. He tugged at his blond goatee, a vain fashion that I hated. My chief spy changed his facial hair every week, and it seemed he was pondering what to grow next, as if he knew he would live.
“I will pray with my last words for your victory in Kostany.” Berrin smashed his fist on my desk, almost crushing my brass compass. “Crush the Shah beneath your boot and tell him my name!”
Just thinking about what the Bishop would do to him turned my blood to fire. I could not accept it. I was Micah the Metal — reborn in the heavy water of the High Holy Sea, servant of the Archangel and the Twelve Holies, conqueror of Pasgard, Sargosa, Pendurum, Dycondi, and Ejaz. In a decade of blood, I’d tripled the size of the Imperium. What had Bishop Yohannes achieved to presume authority over me?
I unsheathed my sword, threw it on the table, and looked into the unyielding eyes of my five loyal lieutenants. Men so brave that death was but a trifle. Nay, men so faithful they welcomed death.
“Today, it begins,” I said, “our war for a pure place, outside the grip of rotten priests and cruel lords. A land ruled by the Archangel and only for those faithful in word and heart.” I grabbed my sword and raised it in the air. “Onward!”
The six of us killed or maimed every Ethos knight guarding the Holy Sepulcher of Benth the Apostle, though Edmar did most of it. His throwing knives always found flesh, whether the underarm gap in the plate or the back of the knee. I was a big man with a big sword, so cutting down the knights was like rending armored children — not that I’d ever done such a thing.
Bishop Yohannes was counting tithes in his office when I burst in. I dragged him by the hair out of the cathedral, bound him with rope, and pulled him up the tallest hill. He’d built a pyre there — of all ways to deal death, burning was the most painful. Did he presume I’d give him the witch and so prepared a pyre? Or was he going to torch my men?
Either way, his fate was decided.
“You are lost, Micah the Metal,” he said as I tied him to the pyre. “I speak for the Archangel. Have you no sense?”
“Then seek his forgiveness. You’re about to be judged.”
Paladins gathered. My five lieutenants stayed close. Baby-faced Berrin, soft Zosi, Orwo, Edmar, unflinching Aicard — I would never again think to forsake them.
But there was another that I didn’t expect. My prisoner — the witch.
“Who freed you?” I asked as she strolled toward me, her expression plain as the clear sky.
She removed her yellow headscarf. Her pupils reflected sunshine as emeralds would.
The Bishop’s eyes bulged when he saw her. “This is the cursed woman! This is whom you are willing to kill for, Micah? Do you not know who she is? Do you not know what she is?”
“Whatever she is, she’s mine.”
“She’s a magus!” the Bishop shouted. “A sorceress with powers you cannot comprehend! You must kill her before she brings ruin to us all!”
Berrin whispered in my ear, “Grandmaster, this man is a bishop, consecrated in the name of the Archangel by both the Patriarch and Imperator Heraclius. He baptized the Imperator’s sons in the High Holy Sea with his own hands. Are you sure you want to do this?”
A good argument. Though I desired to see Bishop Yohannes burn and was furious toward his cruelty, he was still an Ethosian. I tempered my fury with mercy, as all good Ethosians should.
“I’ll give you a chance to save yourself, Bishop,” I said. “If you’re truly a believer, then answer me — in the story of Micah the angel, when he covers the sun with his wings, why does he let the righteous freeze along with the sinners?”
The Bishop spat in my face. “I will not debate theology with you, nor will I be judged by you!”
I wiped the slime off my eyebrow. “Because we’re all sinners.” I grabbed the flint from Berrin. “We all deserve a painful death. Ice cleansed the believers of sin in the time of the angel Micah. Now fire will cleanse yours.”
“You are a curse upon this land.” The Bishop began his final lamentations. “Imperator Heraclius will excommunicate you. He will declare you an enemy of the Faith, and all that you’ve done will be for naught!”
I struck the flint. It took a few tries to create fire with this wind.
“You’re right, Heraclius probably will,” I said. “I’ve committed grievous sins and will continue to. But all will be forgiven.”
The Bishop laughed for the last time. “How can you be so filled to the brim with hubris!? The Imperator will never forgive this! The Archangel will cast you into the deepest hell!”
I lit the pyre. Fire crackled up the wood. “I will be forgiven because I will give Imperator Heraclius what he wants the most. What he has wanted since he ascended the throne. I will give every Ethosian what they yearn for with raging hearts.”
The Bishop bleated like a dying goat as fire charred his feet. The stench of burnt flesh assaulted my nose.
“For the Archangel and all his worshippers,” I said, “I will cleanse the holiest land upon this earth. I will open Kostany. I will defeat the unbelievers and take the east back for the Ethos.”
I hoped the Bishop’s screams were heard through the island. I enjoyed each one. When it was over, I turned to the witch, who’d been watching without emotion.
“Who freed you?” I asked again.
“I was a prisoner because I wanted to be,” she said, her ashen hair messy in the breeze. “Now I’m free because I want to be.”
She gazed upon the Bishop’s charred remains. Her blemish-free, almost child-like face betrayed no feeling. Was death even a curiosity to her? More importantly, was it a curiosity to me?
I stared at my hands. What the hell had I done?
“He’s only the first,” the girl said.
“The first of what?”
She whispered in my ear, “The first of many you’ll kill for me.”
What a strange thing to say. No matter how pretty, a girl was not worth killing for, though she wasn’t just another girl from town.
My men began marching down the hill — silent, as if in mourning. Most of them admired priests, so they’d be shaken. I’d have to work hard to reaffirm the justice of our purpose.
The witch looked upon Nixos, her eyes shimmering like its emerald waters.
“You haven’t even told me your name.”
She came close and said, “You can call me Aschere.” And then she walked away.