Hugo Award–winning author Elizabeth Bear returns to the epic fantasy world of the Lotus Kingdoms with The Red-Stained Wings, the sequel to The Stone in the Skull, taking the Gage into desert lands under a deadly sky to answer the riddle of the Stone in the Skull.
The Gage and the Dead Man brought a message from the greatest wizard of Messaline to the ruling queen of Sarathai, one of the Lotus Kingdoms. But the message was a riddle, and the Lotus Kingdoms are at war.
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Himadra had lied about the army.
It was far from his first time lying about such things. One did not garner a reputation as a master strategist by telling people all about your plans. Nor, in fact, by telling them anything they did not need to know in order to do their jobs and solve the problems they encountered doing them. Knowing what information each such job required was one of the chief parts of Himadra’s duty, and there were certainly people who needed to know things that he didn’t. The ones he trusted to do so, he also trusted to sort out what he needed to be made aware of.
One also did not gain a reputation as a master strategist by sticking to an old plan when a better opportunity presented itself.
He and Ravana and his small group of men had been on a scouting expedition in his neighbor’s territory when the earth tremors that began the destruction of Ansh-Sahal struck. Himadra had realized instantly that he could use those tremors as a ruse, and that if he rode into his cousin Sayeh’s damaged city and offered help, other opportunities might present themselves. The help would be real, after all, and the very worst that would come of it was that she would owe him.
Also real would be the opportunity for reconnaissance. The fib about an army at his back would be enough threat, he thought, to keep his widowed cousin from developing bright ideas about taking Himadra himself as an honored guest—which was a polite way of saying “hostage.” Sayeh was a gifted politician, and she would think of political solutions before brute-force ones. Also, Himadra was certain that Ravana could spirit him away if necessary, although he preferred to owe the sorcerer as little as possible. Debts to magic-wielders had a way of accruing interest until they began to multiply.
But when Himadra’s clever sergeant Navin saw a chance to make off with Sayeh’s heir—her miracle child—Himadra had agreed to it. There was a hostage worth having. Especially as Sahal-Sarat seemed to be drifting inevitably from a period of cheating to one of fighting, as was the way of government among the squabbling kingdoms that had once been an empire. The move toward war was largely at the instigation of another of Himadra’s many cousins, the wealthy Anuraja of Sarathailae, whose kingdom controlled the mouth of the Mother River, and therefore trade across the Arid Sea.
Anuraja was the last of the previous generation, older even than Sayeh Rajni, and he had dreams of empire reclaimed and of sitting on the Peacock Throne. A throne he did not hold, for it was in the palace of their very young cousin Mrithuri. Himadra, however, had accepted something that Anuraja had not, despite having buried five wives without living issue.
Himadra had accepted that the fragile body that housed his acute mind would get no heirs of its own. He had two brothers, it was true. Both much younger than he, for there had been children born between Himadra and these surviving siblings who had inherited the same curse Himadra had, and who had not survived their first hours. Neither of the surviving brothers seemed ill, but who could say what would happen to their descendants, when they got of age to get some?
Himadra’s brothers were both guests fostered at Anuraja’s palace, under Anuraja’s thumb. Himadra had not seen them in years now. Who knew where their loyalties lay?
He could not say where the curse—or lethal sport, if that was what it was—had entered his father’s house, or if it would end before that line died away entirely. But Himadra was a soldier, and soldiers are gambling men by nature.
Sayeh was the daughter of his father’s father’s brother. And Sayeh’s line showed no evidence of being touched by the curse. Himadra might get no heirs. But now he had stolen one.
Ansh-Sahal wouldn’t miss the boy. Judging by the billowing plume of smoke and steam receding to the west behind them, and by the brutal shocks that still jolted the rocky passages of the mountains called the Razorbacks under his mare Velvet’s steady feet, Himadra did not think there was much of Ansh-Sahal left to do any missing.
He guided Velvet around a recent rockfall, trying to think clearly despite the fog of pain that rose from his frail bones to cloud his wits. If Sayeh Rajni was alive, Himadra mused, she might thank him for rescuing her child.
Well, probably not. But a man could hope.
Himadra hoped the pretty rajni had herself survived, and managed to get some of her people away. She was like him, he thought. A misfit. Stuck in a body that was not shaped to obey the dictates of a mind that knew very well what it had been made for.
In Sayeh’s case, to be a queen. In Himadra’s, to be a mighty warrior. Well, he said to himself. We both get by.
And maybe with the leverage of her child and her damaged
kingdom—and if Sayeh lived—Sayeh could be induced to marry again. If not Himadra, one of his brothers. There were odder things in politics than a dynastic marriage between a third-sex rajni of four decades and a prince of twelve. And such an alliance would repair both of their positions and that of the boy.
Himadra thought he could make a convincing argument, with the resources at his disposal. Especially if he had a bargaining chip good enough to get his brothers back.
What would he do, he wondered, if Anuraja took it into his mind to offer to exchange Vivaan and Rayesh for Drupada? Himadra did not think Anuraja would harm the boy. But he would want the leverage over Sayeh. The question was, would he want it more than leverage over Himadra?
Himadra would rather have Sayeh as an ally. But he couldn’t afford Anuraja—wealthy, well-armed—as an enemy. Perhaps he could convince Sayeh that he and she together could protect her son.
And if not, well. Maybe a still-better opportunity would happen along if Himadra just kept playing to strong positions.
He would be ready for it if it did.
Copyright © 2019 by Elizabeth Bear
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