The Night of the Knives
Angry fists hammered on the door. “Open up! In the name of The Speaker! Open up!”
Vale Tassan, commander of the Night Watch of the Adamantine Guard looked on. Already, other guardsmen were bringing up a ram. If that’s what it took, they’d smash in the door. He hoped it wouldn’t come to that, but he was quite prepared to be disappointed. He’d given them a few minutes to decide what to do, and so far, the door had stayed resolutely closed. He felt a slight twinge of sadness. It’s a good door on the Tower of Dusk. I remember us putting it there, twenty years ago, after we smashed in the last one. Why does every accession end like this? Why does this always have to happen?
No, no, no. He wasn’t supposed to ask questions like that. He wasn’t supposed to ask questions at all. That’s not what the Adamantine Guard did. Besides, he was one of the handful of people who knew the answer. Because it draws attention away from others.
He could see the ram, hurrying across the vast darkness between the great towers of the Adamantine Palace. Before it reached him, the door to the Tower of Dusk swung open.
I need more men. He could see that straight away. There were a lot of riders inside the tower. They hadn’t had time to get fully armoured but they all had weapons ready. He had enough guardsmen to win if it came to a fight; victory would be bloody, though. A mess. Not what he wanted.
His own men already had their swords in their hands. They held their ground. The riders inside the tower didn’t move. Tassan watched through narrowed eyes for a second, trying to guess what they would do. He knew his men well enough. He didn’t need to order them to hold. That’s what the guard did best. They wouldn’t move unless he told them to. When they did, though…
The riders inside the tower parted and a woman strode out from among them. Queen Shezira. One of the two queens he’d been sent to arrest. Two queens and one king. Well I’ve got the king and that was bloody enough.
Shezira walked out of the tower. She wasn’t wearing her armour and she wasn’t armed. Two riders came out with her. The Adamantine Guardsmen moved aside to let her pass. Tassan quietly moved around the back of them, until he stood in her way and forced her to stop. He bowed as deeply as he could without taking his eyes away from either her or her riders.
“Your Holiness. By order of the speaker you are charged with treason. Your men will surrender your arms. They will return to their lands. You and your dragons will remain as guests of the speaker until a council of kings and queens shall determine your fate.”
Queen Shezira blinked once. The look she gave him was fierce enough to make a lesser man quiver in his boots; Vale, however, was unmoved. He’d seen a lot of kings over his years in the guard and may of them had tried to be fierce. Then the hint of a smile settled on the queen’s face. “I know you, Vale Tassan, and you know me. For ten years, you took your orders from Speaker Hyram. For every one of those years, you’ve known that I would follow him.”
“Yet you have not. So whose orders do you follow now? Still Hyram’s?”
Vale was offended. “We are the Adamantine Guard, Your Holiness. The speaker commands us. None other.”
The queen nodded. “So Speaker Zafir has ordered this madness. But Night Watchman, she is not yet properly our speaker.”
“Your challenge failed, Your Holiness.”
“She has not been anointed by the dragon-priests. A worthless, pointless ceremony we might all agree. But still, it has not yet been done. Until it is, she is not your mistress.”
For a moment, Vale hesitated. “It is true,” he admitted. “But the guard has always considered the decision of the council of kings and queens to suffice.”
“It is said, is it not, that my knight-marshal has attempted to murder the new speaker.”
Vale nodded. “Speaker Zafir has been wounded, Your Holiness. Lady Nastria remains at large, but I will find her, Your Holiness, and she will hang.”
“I have heard, too, that you have already imprisoned King Valgar. That you killed his riders.”
“His riders resisted.” Vale pursed his lips. He hadn’t wanted a fight.
“Yet his queen escaped you. Very careless. Now what do you think will happen, when his queen returns to her realm?”
“She will not, Your Holiness. You are sheltering her in your tower. She will face the council of kings and queens at her husband’s side. As will you.”
Shezira leaned towards him. Her face, which had been pleasant and amiable, filled with sudden stormclouds. “She is my daughter, Vale Tassan, and you will not have her. I am going to see Hyram, who is doubtless pulling our new speaker’s strings, and we will resolve this lunacy between us, as a speaker to a queen.”
He’s not the speaker any more. The look on the queen’s face, though, kept Vale silent.
“If you try to stop me, my riders will defend me. I have a lot more of them than King Valgar did. In the fight, you will kill me, because I will leave you no choice. There will be a bloodbath but that will be just the beginning. If you win, you may take Valgar and my daughter Almiri, but my second daughter is out of your reach. Jaslyn will become queen. Some call me the Queen of Flint, although only when I am very far away, but should Jaslyn take my throne, you will come to think of me as the Queen of Feathers by the time she’s done with you. She will bring a dragon-war down around your head, Vale Tassan. Valgar’s realm will side with her, and so will King Sirion. She might win or she might not, but in the end you will all lose. I do not say this to threaten you, Night Watchman, for I have no doubt you would face such a war as fearlessly as you face me now. But I know my daughter as well as you know your duty to the Realms.”
Tassan held his ground. “I have no intention of killing you, Your Holiness.”
“I’m sure you don’t.” The queen’s expression softened for a moment. “But as I have already said, that is not a choice I’ll be giving you.” With the flick of her wrist, she had a knife in her hand, the point placed to her breast. “I know you and your soldiers are far too disciplined to kill me by accident, no matter what I do. But I doubt you’re quick enough to stop me, in the middle of a melee, from doing it myself.”
Tassan nodded. It was hard not to smile. If he’d been allowed an opinion, Vale would have said that Queen Shezira would have made a much better speaker that Queen Zafir. The council of kings and queens disagreed, however; and the guard were not entitled to opinions, only orders.
“I am going to talk to Hyram. Vale Tassan, I know it’s not your place to think, but I’ve known you for long enough to know that you do it anyway. Speaker Zafir is teetering on the brink of war. That is not something any of us should want, you above all. I will go to Hyram. Send as many men with me as you wish. My riders will hold their peace in the Tower of Dusk. When I’ve spoken to Hyram, you may follow whatever orders you have, and I will see that my riders do not resist.”
Vale shook his head. “Those are not my orders, Your Holiness.”
Queen Shezira raised an eyebrow. “Your orders are to prevent me from talking to Hyram?”
“My orders, Your Holiness, are to disarm and disperse your men and to ensure you remain in the Tower of Dusk until a council of kings and queens decides your fate.”
Shezira gripped the knife. “Then one way or the other you will fail to fulfil them. Do you want peace or a bloodbath?”
She meant it. He’d known Queen Shezira, if only from afar, for fifteen years. She’d married King Antros, who was destined to be speaker. She’d struggled to hold on to her power when Antros had died. She’d succeeded, and now she ruled with a hand of iron. She had more dragons than any monarch except the King of the Crags. On top of that, she had daughters married to one king and one prince who might as well have been. She was not one who made threats very often, but when she did, as far as Vale knew, she meant them. They called her the Queen of Flint for many good reasons. If you struck her with steel, his soldiers joked, you would not hurt her, but there would be sparks and everything around you just might catch fire.
Orders. The guard obeys orders. From birth to death. Nothing more, nothing less.
But he was the Night Watchman, the commander of the Adamantine Guard, and surely that entitled him to consider what she had to say. He looked her in the eye. “On your word as the Queen of the North. As the Queen of Flint. As the Speaker of the Nine Realms that you should have been. You will do nothing to harm anyone, you will return without resistance to the Tower of Dusk, your riders will hold their peace while you are gone and will surrender their swords when you return?”
She gave him the slightest of smiles. “On my word as Queen of the North, Vale Tassan. You may escort me in person if you want.”
This time Vale smiled back. “And leave the rest of your riders unattended? I don’t think I should do that, Your Holiness. I have plenty enough guardsmen to spare. And they will obey their orders, nothing more, nothing less.”
“From birth to death.”
Vale bowed and watched as Queen Shezira walked on, away into the darkness. A dozen Adamantine guardsmen surrounded her. He’d done the right thing, he was sure of it. She was the Queen of the North and she’d given him her word. In his heart of hearts, he knew she was the rightful speaker. There should be a chance, shouldn’t there? One last chance for peace?
The guard obeys orders. Yours were to confine her to the Tower of Dusk.
He looked around at his soldiers, born and bred for dragon-war. If he asked them, any of them, they would have told him he was wrong. They were younger than he was. An Adamantine Man generally didn’t live as long as Vale had done. Most of them probably wanted a war. It was all they knew, after all. Still, if they knew what he’d done, if they knew what his orders hard been, they’d turn on him. He’d never command their respect again.
Worth it, though. For peace in the realms. That’s what we’re for. When this night is through, I’ll go to the speaker and tell her what I’ve done. I will be dismissed, but inside I will know that what I’ve done was right.
He was comfortable with that. He might even have relaxed, if an Adamantine Man was able to do such a thing. All he had to do was wait for the queen to come back, and the rest of the night could pass in peace and calm.
Half an hour later, he heard what the Queen of the North had done. Or the start of ta, at least; he didn’t quite hear the rest over the roaring of his own rage in his ears. Betrayed and fooled! My Lord! My mistake! My fault!
Vale Tassan, commander of the Night Watch of the Adamantine guard screamed with fury. He pointed at the Tower of Dusk and roared out his orders. “The Queen of Flint is a traitor and a liar! So’s her daughter, and she’s in there! Get her out and bring her to me. If anyone tries to stop you, kill them!”
The Adamantine Men charged at the tower. Queen Shezira’s riders met them at the doors, and whatever peace there might have been, it died in screams and swords and blood.