Greater of Two Evils, part 3

Tuesday, September 30, 2008 - 12:26 PM

With his entourage camped in the murmuring quiet of an oasis a few miles away, Tristan exulted in his solitude. Around him, the desert's empty landscape dissolved into the dark of night, with only a few scattered stones to mark the endless sand. The bright of the moon made everything pale and grey, even the rich red and black of his flowing scarves. There was a power in these wide roaring spaces, especially at night when the horizon was destroyed and distance was a dream. He remembered experiencing such a place in his youth, standing at the cliffs that overlooked Slumberdrake glacier, and he was pleased to find the same wonder in himself now.

Squalid crowds, ancient teetering cities and the decadence of a people who had nowhere to go; these things were the legacy of Tristan's birthplace. For the spirit to survive, one found a way to drown the poverty or one reached inside to find silence and space. Half a world away from his birthplace, and half a world away from the desperate, frightened and determined boy that he'd been, Tristan felt as if he'd finally come home.

Alone, listening to the howling of the arid eastern wind, he felt the first true smile he'd had in weeks come to his face.

Part of it was the success, he knew. His arrival was the conclusion of a long pilgrimage of ruin. Like a subtle fire, he'd swept through a good many demon cults, secret societies and splinter religions on the way south. He'd left them in ashes, sparing only those few with potential or loyalty enough to suit his purpose. Over time, he'd painstakingly collected certain secrets, little tatters of legend and rumor, and it had created a map for him.

Now, walking through pearl-gray sand, his mind matched the broken stones around him to the map he'd drawn. The worn nubs of stone were like the hands of dead men, rising from the earth in a last attempt to be remembered, and Tristan was pleased to know them. Following their guidance, pausing on occasion to discern the correct direction, his walk began to take him towards a great heap of rock and sand.

The fragments were the corpse of a city. Like its name, it had been eroded near to nothing by the passing of time. It had been a wise and cruel place, full of learning and sophistication, a place of monuments, kings and scholars. Tristan did not know why it had come to an end, but he'd known why it was built.

Tristan's first teacher had been a failed scholar, a plodding man with no intuition and no imagination. From him, Tristan had learned about devils and spirits, and the dangers of making pacts with them. He learned instead, with his own fierce determination, how to find them, bind them and steal power from them. His refusal to become a pawn to the infernal drove him further than he'd expected, but he eventually had to recognize the risks. Tristan had been lucky, and he didn't like relying on luck.

So, he'd found a patron worth an alliance with. He would gamble one last time, dare to beg that patron's indulgence, but if he succeeded, he would have the authority and power he wanted. He would be above and beyond the constant infighting and squabbling that was the only constant of demon cults. Here, in the ruins, that patron would select his chosen. Never a pawn, but a peer.

Finally, he stood before the remains of a sphinx, faceless now except for the scars of wind-driven sand. Once there had been an aisle of sphinxes, a great hall of columns with a tremendous oculus peering down on a great dias. Now, it was only a single twisted heap of rock and pools of sand, but Tristan imagined the grandeur it would have been in the past. Standing beneath the featureless oval of the head, he peered up to check the positions of the stars, and found that he had only a few moments yet to wait.

Being in the exact right place at the exact right time filled him with a tranquil confidence. From here, there were only two possible futures for Tristan, and he had done all that he could to ensure one of them. There was an inevitability in the situation that pleased him. For years, he'd struggled against doubt and uncertainty. He'd managed to stay alive and unbroken in his cold-hearted homeland. He'd outwitted his enemies, betrayed and destroyed so many of the wicked, and piece by piece built the beginnings of his own merchant house.

Now, the months-long ritual that began with the destruction of the Crimson Boar cult would come to an end, one way or the other. It would not be his choosing. There was no room for doubt.

Extracting a gold pin from his cloak clasp, he pricked one finger and let a droplet of blood fall on what remained of the sphinx's withered paw. The droplet made a small black dot on the stone, and then there was a great rush of hot wind that whipped Tristan's scarves around his shoulders. With it came coils of dark red flame, whirling into a spiral as if it were dust or sand, and it howled and hissed into a tall shape with plumes of blazing shadows. A second later, and it was a slender, lethal, crimson-lit thing with wings that bled, and then it was a woman wearing the sashes, veils and scarves of an age lost. She flowed into a slight and antiquated curtsy.

“Your blood is the blood of kings,” she pronounced with a heady voice. “You are the recognized Heir, to bear again the inheritance of the Iron Crown. To you comes the authority of the Trueblood Scepter, and the right to rule.”

A ring had taken the place of the drop of blood. She swept this up and offered it. “Your signet. Behold, your court awaits you even now, and you have but to claim it.”

Accepting the ring, he slipped it onto his hand, steadily looking at the dark eyes which studied him in turn. “Does my patron offer any other message?”

“Your patron, my liege, knows that you need no messages.”

Tristan, for the first time in his life, bowed with all sincerity.

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