|The Grand Design|
|excerpt courtesy of Bantam Spectra Science Fiction and Fantasy|
|and Victor Gollancz|
General Vorto quietly led his legion out of the Walled City. True to his promise, Larius called back the archers from the towers and the tattered remains of Gothan infantry. Their city was in flames anyway, and all hands were needed to stem the growing fires. General Vorto rode resolutely past the astonished faces of the civilians, enduring muttered insults and the tearful, spiteful looks of children. The sun was higher now, bright and burning away the earths snowy sheen. And the wind had fled with the night. As he reached the city gates, Vorto looked to Heaven for guidance. Beyond the staggered clouds he saw the gray-blue sky. God was speaking to him, as He had been for months now. On the dying breeze he heard the Lords breath. Vorto nodded, understanding.
When he was safely clear of the city, Vorto called over Colonel Kye. His second trotted closer, then closer still when he heard Vorto whispering.
"Kye, its time. Get the men away from the city. But leave the ram. Keep it near the gates to block it."
"The ram?" Colonel Kye looked over his shoulder to where the giant weapon waited, still blocking a good portion of the ruined portal. On either side of it men and horses squeezed through. "Were leaving it behind?"
"Were leaving it exactly where it is. Gather the lieutenants. Have them ride for the launchers and tell the gunners to make ready."
Colonel Kye seemed stricken. "General . . ."
"It is the will of God, Kye. This place reeks of evil. It must be cleansed."
"General, you promised Lokken youd spare them. His family . . ."
"His family bears the same taint he did," said Vorto firmly. "And so does all of Goth. We came here to stop the Renaissance, to stomp it out like a fire. I wont leave the job half done."
Kyes expression hardened. "Sir, may I speak freely?"
"You always do," snapped Vorto.
"Sir, this is genocide. Its murder."
"Murder?" Vorto flared. "Who said anything about murder? This is salvation, Colonel, make no mistake. The Black Renaissance is a tumor. If you had a disease in your flesh, would you not carve it out? This is what were doing here. Were saving Nar. Stop being a dullard, Kye. See the truth for once!"
Silenced by his Generals implicit threat, Kye merely looked away, toward the hills around the city where the deadly launchers awaited their orders.
"Wait until were clear," said Vorto. "Then send up the signal rocket."
Kye nodded sullenly and trotted off, but Vorto called after him.
"Kye . . ."
The colonel turned to face Vorto. "General?"
"Its not easy to do the work of Heaven, Kye. Not for me, not for anyone. Pray for strength. He will provide."
"Yes, General," replied Kye dully.
The colonel rode away.
Duchess Kareena of Goth, newly widowed, stood on the rooftop of the fortress tower, watching her dead husband pendulate in the breeze. The tightness of rope about his throat had turned his face a curious purple, making it scarcely recognizable, even to the woman who had borne him three children. The tower roof was cold. But for a few stray flurries, the snow had stopped falling. Larius drew his dagger and began cutting his dead master down. Good Larius, the only person in the world Kareena could bear to be with for this gruesome task. Downstairs her daughters were weeping, inconsolable. Her only boy was probably dead, a casualty lying blood-soaked on the wall. Kareena trembled. Somehow, she had tamed her tears, but a terrible fog had descended, drawing out the time of things. She was in her twenty-ninth year and had never thought she could love this much older man, but now that he was gone she wondered what life there could possibly be without him.
Around the city, Vortos army had retreated as promised, a fact that astounded Kareena. She hadnt expected the butcher to be good to his word. As morning flooded the valley, she could see them riding away, satisfied to have murdered her husband. The Duchess stifled a sob and went to the flag pole, helping Larius draw Lokken down. His body had gone cold. Kareena cradled him and lowered him to the ground, cursing as she fought to free the noose.
"Oh, God," she moaned. "Oh, my husband . . ."
Lokkens eyes were wide. Unseeing, they stared at her. Larius put a hand over them and closed the lids. The old soldier knelt, kissed his masters forehead, then backed away, leaving his mistress to grieve. Kareena held Lokkens head to her bosom and rocked him. Was she leader of Goth now, she wondered? Would Vorto return for more vengeance? Kareena stroked her husbands head, brushing strands of hair from his lifeless, distorted face. Larius walked over to the edge of the rooftop and looked out over the city. Wet snow blanketed the horizon, punctuated with fire and smoke. Far below, Kareena heard the wails of her people, the aimless, bewildered cries of children and their mothers. Soldiers moved through the avenues, fighting back the fires with blankets and bucket brigades. Kareena closed her eyes and mouthed a prayernot to the new God of Nar but to the old, when God was mild. Before the death of Arkus, she had loved the church. She had even made a pilgrimage to Nar City to see the great Cathedral of the Martyrs and to hear the words of Herrith. But in the ruins of the old Empire, something had gone horribly awry.
A sound in the distance halted Kareenas prayers. A popping in the hillside, followed by another and another still. Kareena craned her neck to see. The sound was all around her suddenly. Panicked, she laid Lokken down and hastened to Larius side. The Counselor was scanning the horizon.
"Larius? What is it? Whats that sound?"
"My Lady, I dont know. Cannons?"
"Cannons? Oh, no, that cant be."
"I dont see flashes," agreed Larius. "But the sound"
Overhead an object whistled past. Larius grabbed his mistress and pulled her to the ground. Kareena screamed as another missile hissed, slamming into the tower wall. There was a sound like exploding steam. The far-off popping in the hills intensified. Kareena pulled free of Larius and ran to the stone railing.
"What is it?" she screamed. She put her hands to her ears to banish the sound.
All around Goth, green smoke exploded, its emerald fingers crawling through the streets. The strange bombardment had the city looking skyward. Men screamed, tearing at their eyes as the relentless vapor engulfed them. On the wind came the sweet smell of something evil. Kareena sniffed at the air, too late to know the poison she was breathing. Fire climbed into her nostrils, burning out the membranes. Her throat constricted and a flood of tears rushed from her eyes. She staggered from the wall, reeling backwards into Larius. Desperately she grabbed for him. The old mans eyes were filled with blood. Horrified, unable to breath or scream, Duchess Kareena looked down at her stained dress and realized that her tears were crimson.
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