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Hammer of God

Hammer of God

Godspeaker - Book 3

(AUS/NZ Release)

FORMAT: Paperback
ISBN-10: 0732284538
ISBN-13: 9780732284534

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Edward, Duke of Morvell, cleared his throat. “I’m sorry, Majesty, but Damwin and Kyrin leave you no choice. You’ll have to fight them.”

Rhian stood at her privy council chamber window, back turned to her councillors, and felt her fingers curl into fists. She had such a fondness for her staunch and stalwart supporter, but even so …

Don’t tell me what I have to do, Edward. You know such intransigent talk sours my temper.

Instead of answering, she stared down at bustling Kingseat Harbour. She had a perfect view from within the castle, so high above the town. Even though it was early, yet before nine of the clock, the harbour’s blue waters were clogged with vessels coming and going, loading and unloading their various cargos. As though no danger loomed in the east. As though life in its sweet safety would never change.

But it will. Life as we know it will soon be torn asunder, if the witch-men of Tzhung-tzhungchai can be believed.

She had no reason to doubt them. It was seductive wishful thinking, no more, that enticed her to hope calamity was not come upon them, that war on a scale unimaginable did not hold its foul breath, waiting to exhale and spit death on them all.

As if I needed more proof, with Zandakar locked in a dungeon beneath my feet.

A mistake, to think of Zandakar. Her eyes burned, the distant harbour prismed, as the pain of betrayal seared anew.
He should’ve told me who he really was. What his people are planning. He should’ve trusted me. I thought we were friends.
Thrusting pain aside, she turned. Let her gaze first touch upon Alasdair, silent at the table. His expression was sober, serious, most kingly indeed, but her heart beat just a little bit faster as his eyes warmed.

My husband. My husband.

But she kept her own face as well-schooled as his. In this council chamber she was queen, and he was only a councillor. Let one man think Alasdair guided her steps, ruled from the shadows …

Edward was frowning. “Majesty –“

“Yes, Edward,” she snapped. “I heard you.”

“And what I said is not to your liking, I’m well aware of that,” he said, sighing. “But my duty isn’t to tell you what you want to hear. My best service lies in telling you what’s needful. And so I tell you now, knowing full well you’re likely to sharpen your tongue on me for saying it: Damwin and Kyrin must be confronted. It’s been nearly two weeks since you were crowned and they have yet to pledge fealty. Their recalcitrant defiance keeps Ethrea in a turmoil.”

“Edward’s right,” said Alasdair. “Every one of us here knows it, you best of all.”

“I don’t dispute Damwin and Kyrin must be dealt with, and soon,” she said, keeping her voice level and low. “But Edward … gentlemen … I haven’t changed my mind regarding how I shall rule. I will not pit Ethrean against Ethrean in bloody combat. There must be another way.”

Her privy councillors exchanged purse-lipped looks. “If there is, Majesty,” said Rudi, glowering, “we can’t think of one. More to the point, neither can you.”

No she couldn’t, and not for want of trying. And she’d happily admit it, if only Rudi weren’t so bullish in his manner. Her Duke of Arbat could pass comment on the weather and make it sound like a declaration of war.

“At this rate it’s going to take a miracle to bring them to heel,” Rudi added. Then he looked at Helfred, expectant.

Ethrea’s prolate sighed and examined his bitten fingernails. When Rudi opened his mouth to say something else, Rhian held up a hand and shook her head at him. There was no use prodding her former chaplain; he would answer in his own time and not before. Prodding only produced a tedious lecture, as long ago she’d learned to her chagrin.

Unlike his late and unlamented uncle Marlan, Prolate Helfred dressed like a plain venerable in a dark blue woollen robe and open leather sandals. The only concession he made to his exalted status was the newly-made heavy gold ring of office on the second finger of his left hand, containing a splinter of one of the arrows that had slain Rollin. Even his prayer beads were the same battered old wooden ones he’d prayed and complained over on their circuitous journey from the clerica at Todding to duchy Linfoi and home at last to Kingseat.

He has no vanity. No ambition beyond serving God to the best of his ability. He is that rare thing, a good man … and still he drives me to distraction.

Helfred’s silence dragged on. And since they couldn’t sit here forever, waiting for him to pronounce, she decided to risk a lecture. “Helfred? Has our age of miracles passed? Or can God intervene in the matter of Damwin and Kyrin?”

Helfred stirred and lifted his gaze. “I was never privy to miracles, Majesty, as you well know. For an answer to that question you must seek out your toymaker.”

Dexterity. Again, that searing stab of betrayal. He should’ve told me about Zandakar, he had no business holding his tongue. “I think not,” she said shortly. “I think I will exhaust all other possibilities first. Unless you tell me I must?”

“No,” said Helfred, after another, shorter silence. “I am not moved to instruct you so. Majesty, you are the queen. God has placed you upon Ethrea’s throne for his purpose, and the welfare of all who dwell here. The matters of men must be dealt with by men.” He smiled briefly. “And women. The dukes Damwin and Kyrin are your disobedient subjects. It is your business to chastise them as you see fit.”

“And chastise them you must,” said Adric, seated beside his father Rudi and just as bullish. “They make a mockery of crown and council every minute they draw breath in defiance of your rule.”

She exchanged a glance with Alasdair then turned back to the window so she could battle her temper without councillor witness. More and more she regretted elevating Rudi to the dukedom of Kingseat. He was headstrong, he was prickly, he refused to guard his tongue. I made a mistake

“Adric makes a good point,” said Alasdair, mildly. He almost never lost his temper. “Intemperately, but … it is a good point. A pinprick turns to a festering wound without physicking. And the people of Hartshorn and Meercheq duchies deserve better than these disobedient lords.”

“I do know that,” Rhian said, again staring down at the harbour. Emperor Han’s swift, sleek peacock-blue hulled imperial vessel still rode at anchor along one of the ambassadorial piers, its two gold-painted sails furled and its crimson pennants becalmed. When he intended to leave Ethrea for Tzhung-tzhungchai she had no idea. She hadn’t seen him since her hastily arranged coronation, when he had smiled and bowed and terrified the minor ambassadors to stuttering incoherence. Nor had she laid eyes on his witch-men. They kept to themselves within the walls of the ambassadorial residence.

And if I never see them again I’ll die thrilled beyond words.
“Knowledge without action is folly,” said Rudi. “Your Majesty.”

She turned on them. “And what action would you have me take, Rudi? Would you have me gather every last man and boy in duchy Kingseat’s garrison, thrust a sword into their right hands and a pikestaff in their left and send them into Hartshorn and Meercheq with orders to maim and kill as their fancy takes them? Is that what you would have me do nine days after Helfred anointed me queen?”

Rudi’s swarthy face reddened. “I’d have you be less tender of your womanly scruples and more manly in your care for the crown. Like a woman you cling to the thought that a smile will solve a multitude of sorrows. But these feisty dukes aren’t little boys with scraped knees, Majesty. They’re men and you have gouged gaping wounds in their pride. There aren’t smiles enough beneath the sun to heal the hurts you’ve lately dealt them. If they refuse to kneel and pledge you their fealty then their lives must be made forfeit … and the lives of any man, woman or child who is foolish enough to follow their treasonous example.”

Rhian felt her heart thud, her head swim. “Children, Your Grace? You would have me slaughter children to retain power? My God, you’d make of me another Marlan. No, a ruler worse than Marlan. At least he never stooped to killing babies!” She glared at Edward. “Is this your remedy also? If so, I am shocked. I took you for a kindlier man.”

“No,” said Edward, distressed. “I did not mean –“

“Didn’t you?” she retorted. “You said I had to fight them, Edward. What else did you mean but that I must seal my coronation with a kiss of blood?”

“Blood does not necessarily follow,” Edward replied. “If you but threaten to bring steel against these stubborn dukes should they refuse to yield, then –“

“Oh, Edward. Whatever I threaten I must be prepared to carry out!”

“Yes, you must,” said Adric. “Without the tempering of mercy.”
Rhian swept her council with a cold look. “My lords, if you feel so inclined you may indeed blame ‘womanly scruples’ for my reluctance to plunge Ethrea into civil war. For myself, I prefer to think of it as statecraft. I very much doubt if the late king would’ve rushed to send soldiers into Hartshorn and Meercheq. I also doubt you’d have called him womanly for preferring to find a less violent solution to this problem.”

And that observation struck home, as well it might.

“There is nothing wrong with being a woman, gentlemen,” she continued, still cold. “Being female doesn’t make me weak. If it did, would God have seen fit to put me on the throne? Helfred?”

Helfred looked up. “Majesty, you are where God intends you to be.”

“But not yet doing what God intends you to do,” said Rudi, stubborn to the last. “If you won’t send soldiers against Kyrin and Damwin, what will you do to end their defiance?”
“That’s a fair question,” said Alasdair. “And we must have an answer.”

Rhian bit her lip. Was she the only one who could hear the tension in his voice? They’d not discussed this. Some things – like planning for the coronation, or the day-to-day grindstone of the kingdom’s business -- she happily talked over with him at night, in bed, pillowed on his chest. But not this. It was too important. Touched too closely on her fragile sovereignty. It hurt him, she knew that, but it couldn’t be helped.

As she stared them down, the dukes of her council and her prolate and her husband the king, words she’d tried hard to forget echoed loudly in her mind. The words Zandakar had spoken to her as she stood over dead Ven’Martin, the knife that killed him in her hand.

You want be queen? This is queen. To kill bad men and be wei yatzhay.

She had rejected his assertion then. She rejected it now. She would not be a queen of blood and steel.

Not unless Damwin and Kyrin back me hard against a wall.

“I’ll give them a final chance to come to their senses,” she said. “If this must end in violence I won’t let history show I refused these foolish men every hope possible of averting disaster. Helfred …”


“Will you and the Court Ecclesiastica act as my emissaries? Will you travel with all solemn ceremony to the duchies of Hartshorn and Meercheq and use every persuasion in your power so their dukes might see reason?”

Helfred smoothed his prayer beads through his fingers. “Of course.”

Bless you. “I’ll have letters drawn up for you to present to the dukes in person.”

“Letters saying what?” demanded Adric. “And promising what retribution should they fail to recognise Ethrea’s lawful queen and council?”

Rhian looked at him in silence for a moment, then nodded at the venerable whom Helfred had granted her as secretary for both private and council matters. Middle-aged, pedantic and a swift scribe, he was faithfully recording every comment in a secretive church notation that later was translated into legible Ethrean.

“You would have me dictate to you my royal correspondence, Adric? Perhaps you tire already of ducal duties. Do you wish to take Ven’Cedwin’s place? It can be arranged.”

She spoke sweetly enough but her threat was plain. Adric darted a glance at his father, temper mottling his high, sharp cheekbones. Rudi said nothing but his eyebrows lowered in a warning frown.

Yes indeed, Adric, do have a care. My patience is rubbed precarious thin.

“Majesty,” said Helfred, releasing his prayer beads. “The Church stands behind you without reservation. Defiance of you is tantamount to defiance of God. It won’t be tolerated.”

He reminded her of Marlan when he spoke like that. The others heard it, too. Spines straightened, jaws tightened. Knuckles whitened in suddenly clenched fists.

“I think we’ve had enough of interdict for the time being, Helfred,” she said quietly.

Helfred’s eyebrows rose. Despite their recent hardships he remained a soft man in his body, but something in his eyes had changed. He was tempered now. His soul was steel. “Majesty, it’s not the crown’s place to stand between a man and his soul. That is the Church’s domain. God has put us there, and there shall we be until God decrees otherwise.”

She wasn’t about to engage in a theosophical debate with him. Not with the rest of the council listening. And especially not when she needed him to act as go-between with the dukes. “Prolate, I don’t mean to usurp your proper authority. Of course your province is the spiritual well-being of every Ethrean, no matter how high or low his station. I merely seek to remind you that this kingdom is newly healed. Scratching open those wounds can’t serve any good purpose.”

“This kingdom isn’t healed at all,” said Edward. “And won’t be until these laggard duchies are shepherded to obedience.”
She could have shouted. Banged a fist on the council table. Reprimanded Edward for his tone of voice. But she was tired, and worried, and she wanted this meeting done with. Needed some small time in solitude, in fresh air, so she could think clearly about what must come next without their burdensome gazes and warlike expectations. Because when the matter of the dukes was dealt with, there was Mijak …

She felt herself shiver, felt the nape of her neck crawl. I’m not ready. I can’t do this. God, why did you choose me? I think you’ve made a mistake.

“Edward,” said Alasdair, looking at her. Knowing her fear. “Her Majesty needs no instruction. She was tutored by a king.”

Edward nodded, saying nothing. But she thought she could hear his thoughts, and those of Rudi and Adric.

Perhaps she was, but she has yet to show us.

Which wasn’t fair or right and God curse them for their short, mean memories. Hadn’t she fought for her crown? Stood against Marlan? Stood against all of them until they saw reason?

With Dexterity’s help. Now I’m alone, without convenient miracles. Now I’m a girl on a man’s throne, hesitant to force my authority down anyone’s throat with the tip of a blade. Does that make me weak? Was Zandakar right after all?

Zandakar … fighting … protecting her people … winning against the dukes … the old days of Ethrea …

“Rhian?” said Alasdair, suspicious. “What are you thinking?”

She didn’t answer. An idea was forming, outrageous and unlikely. But no more unlikely than an Ethrean queen. She wasn’t yet ready to talk about it in council.

I have to get out of here …

She clasped her hands before her, chin lifted, eyes wide and carefully noncommittal. All her secrets hidden from the men who would rule her, if they could, even if only with the best of intentions. “My lords, we are agreed that the matter of Kyrin and Damwin must be promptly decided. They have tried our patience to its final length and can no longer be permitted to flout the crown. Prolate Helfred, you and your Court Ecclesiastica must be ready to depart Kingseat at first light tomorrow. My missive to these egregious dukes shall be placed in your hands before you leave, and we will have further speech on how you should deport yourself while meeting with them.”

Helfred nodded. “Your Majesty.”

“Edward, Rudi …” She made herself smile, though a part of her still fumed at them. “Your care for my stewardship of Ethrea does not go unappreciated. Nor is it taken for granted that you stay here in the capital to give me wise counsel when your duchies cry out for their ducal lords. As soon as matters are more settled here I hope to let you return home, if that’s your wish. Or, if you prefer to remain on the privy council, that is equally agreeable to me.”

Edward and Rudi exchanged ruefully resigned glances. “Majesty, we serve at your pleasure,” Edward replied. “For so long as you have need of two old men, we will remain.”

She nodded, then turned to Adric. “Your Grace, I take comfort in the presence of youth on this council. Don’t despair if all seems overwhelming to you now. Time will season you, I have no doubt.”

“Majesty,” said Adric. He almost sounded sulky. He was such a young man. He would do well to learn from Alasdair how dukes behaved in private and public.

“Gentlemen, you are excused.”

The council meeting broke up. Ven’Cedwin nodded respectfully to Helfred as he methodically salted his ink-wet parchment. Helfred spared Rhian a small, approving nod and took himself off. She wasn’t sure whether to be pleased or irritated. Somehow, in some strange way, regardless of how the world tossed and turned the pair of them, a part of her would always be the princess, Rhian, and a part of him would stay plain Chaplain Helfred. They didn’t speak of that, they just knew it. She wondered if he found it as bemusing as she did.

The dukes departed, and finally Ven’Cedwin, and it was just herself and Alasdair in the small, high room she’d taken as her privy council chamber. That other room, where Marlan had held sway, was locked and bolted and would not be used again so long as she ruled in Ethrea.

Alasdair shook his head at her. “One of these days you’re going to sit down through a privy council meeting. You’re queen whether you’re on your feet or your arse, you know.”

She gave him a look. “I’m not certain it’s proper to use words like ‘arse’ to your sovereign.”

Eyes glinting, he pushed away from the council table and joined her in front of the window. Kissed the tip of her nose, and then her lips, lightly. “Neither am I. Do you care?”

She rested her hand flat to his chest. “Not in here, Alasdair. Never in here.”

The playful, loving light in his face dimmed. He stepped back. “Majesty.”

It nearly broke her bones not to throw her arms around him. “Alasdair, please. Don’t be like that. In every other room in this castle, in every room of every house in this kingdom, I can forget who I am. What I am. But if I forget that in here, in my privy council chamber, if I once let the woman rule the queen …” She shook her head. “I can’t. You mustn’t ask me.”

He clasped his strong, gently ruthless hands behind his back. “Edward’s right, you know. You will have to fight them. You’ll have to surrender this fantasy, that men like Damwin and Kyrin will see reason if only you give them a little more time.” He laughed, unamused. “Even this ploy with Helfred. It won’t succeed. Do you truly think they’ll kiss the hem of his robe weeping penitent tears, and ride back to Kingseat with him so they can pledge their public loyalty to you?”

She folded her arms. “No. Of course I don’t.”

“Then why –“

“Because it gives me some time, Alasdair! Time to think, time to prepare myself for what has to be done! Just because I recognise a harsh reality doesn’t mean I’m ready to embrace it like a lover!”

Breathing hard she stared at him, willing him to understand.

After a moment he nodded. “I can see you’d want time. Sound decisions are rarely made in haste.”

And what did that mean? Was there a secret message coded into his seemingly harmless statement? She’d shown up on his doorstep, a fugitive exile, and they’d hastily married. Did he regret the decision? A duke in his own duchy was like a little king. Did Alasdair wish he’d remained in Linfoi, a duke, instead of condemning himself to a life as her consort, a life in her shadow, a life in which his crown would never be the same as hers?

Don’t think about that now. You can’t afford to think about that.
“What are you going to do, Rhian?” he said. “When Damwin and Kyrin push you to that last step, and you know they will. They’re not sensible men. What in God’s name are you going to do?”
“You know what I’ll do,” she said, suddenly so tired. Tears were too close. “I’ll fight them, Alasdair. I have no other choice.”

“I could fight them for you,” he said. “I could be your king consort commander. I could …” And then he sighed. His plain, bony, beautiful face was sad. “Except I can’t.”

She’d never dreamed it would be so hard. Could be so hurtful. He doesn’t deserve this. It isn’t fair. “No,” she whispered. “At least … not yet. One day you’ll fight my battles for me, Alasdair, and nobody will think it makes me weak. But that day is a long way off. I need you, my love. You know how I need you. But for now the world must believe I need no man.”

He nodded. “I know.”

“I want to walk alone a while. When I’m ready I’ll find you, and you can tell me where my thinking shows itself too womanly. Would you go to Ven’Cedwin, and let him know I’ll need him after noon? Perhaps we could compose the dukes’ letters together. If you’re not taken up with other commitments.”

He offered her a brief bow. “Majesty, I am, as always, your obedient servant.”

There were times … last night, for instance, in their marriage bed … when he said such things and made of them a loving tease.
And then there are times he makes of them a fist, and strikes me with it.

“Thank you,” she said quietly. “I’ll find you later.”

She was barely aware of the servants and courtiers who acknowledged her passing as she left the castle. They bowed, she nodded, no words were exchanged. She refused a cloying coterie of attendants and discouraged hangers-on at court. If she wanted company she called for it, otherwise everyone knew she was to be left alone.

The weight of their gazes as she walked by was as heavy as any crown devised.