An excerpt from The Iron Palace
SPOILER ALERT! The following excerpt will reveal plot twists to those who have yet to read A Woman Worth Ten Coppers and Candle in the Storm.
The Most Holy Gorm’s divining chamber was atop the highest tower in the Iron Palace, but sunlight never entered it. Only a single oil lamp broke the darkness of the windowless room. The smoky flame gave the air a pungent odor but didn’t ease its otherworldly coldness. The lamp’s pale light illuminated an iron door and walls of black basalt, a circle of blood painted on the stone floor, the corpse of the young boy sacrificed to provide it, and the Devourer’s high priest. Gorm sat within the circle’s protection and cast a set of ancient human bones upon the floor. They were yellow with age and inscribed with runes. As the bones clattered upon the cold stone, they appeared to move as if stirred by an unfelt wind, and it took some time for them to settle.
After the bones grew still, Gorm stared at them and noted their positions, where their shadows fell, and what runes were exposed. On three successive days, he had performed the ritual. Each time the revelation was the same. “Seventeen,” he uttered to the chilly darkness. “Seventeen today.”
The room slowly warmed as Gorm waited patiently within the circle of blood until it was safe to leave it. Even he wasn’t immune to his master’s malice, and the blood served as both offering and barrier. When the Most Holy One deemed it safe, he left the tower room and descended the long spiral stairway to the palace rooms below. Passing through them to the great hall, it was impossible to ignore their neglect. Gorm had been present when the foundation of the Iron Palace was laid and had lived through the reigns of all its lords. The structure reflected the wax and wane of the lineage. Its iron exterior was oiled and black when Lord Bahl was in the fullness of his power, and rusty when that power passed to an infant heir. But never had the cycle reached such a low. Gorm walked past empty rooms shrouded in dust and gazed out dirty windows to view towers and crenellated walls incrusted with a thick reddish cancer.
Few servants remained, and even the garrison of the Iron Guard had many empty bunks. That was partly due to economy, for no plunder poured into the coffers, but it also reduced the number of potential wagging tongues. Gorm knew it was rumored that the heir was absent. He had done his utmost to suppress the talk, but it was hard to hide what was so plainly evident: the lord of the Iron Palace was but a husk with his seed missing. The most Gorm could hope for was an uneasy silence until the heir was found.
Gorm entered the great hall, his footsteps echoing in the empty, cobwebbed space. He passed the huge, cold fireplace and the unused banquet tables with their vacant chairs, all pale with long-gathered dust, to reach the raised platform at the room’s end. There were two seats upon it, a large ornate one at the forefront, and Gorm’s seat, slightly to the rear. The latter was modest in appearance, and few realized it was where Bahland’s true ruler sat. The ornate chair was occupied. Gorm bowed to the man sitting there out of habit, but there was no deference in his manner. “My lord, your son was born this day, seventeen winters past.”
The man on the throne replied in a dull voice. “That long ago? How do you know?”
“The bones told me.” Gorm gazed at Lord Bahl with thinly disguised contempt. He was almost god, he thought. Gorm assumed that the Devourer had once so filled the man that little remained after it had departed. The pale, thin figure upon the throne resembled a squeezed rind, a withered and juiceless castoff. His eyes, which formerly had been so daunting, possessed the weary and haunted look of someone who hesitates to sleep for fear of dreams.
“Why tell me this?” asked Bahl. “It’s useless information.”
“Oh, it’s far from useless. The time’s auspicious.”
“Auspicious for what?”
“To reach out to your son and persuade him to come home.”
“How? Your precious magic bones have failed to divine his whereabouts. I can’t speak to someone who can’t be found.”
“I’ve a means for you to do just that.”
Bahl’s expression grew uneasy. “Through sorcery?”
“Yes. It’s the only way.”
“As I said, the time’s auspicious.”
“Then do it yourself. Magic’s your province.”
“Only a father may accomplish the feat. You sound fearful. Why?”
“Because I am. Your sorcery has cost me dearly.”
“You failed our master, not I!” said Gorm, his voice echoing through the dark hall. “You would have been the world’s sovereign—immortal and omnipotent—if you hadn’t tupped that girl. Do you imagine the Devourer was pleased by your deed? Do you suppose that you’re forgiven? Don’t fear my sorcery. Fear our master’s retribution.” Then Gorm softened his tone. “This ritual is your chance for redemption. Your only chance, I might add.”
Though it seemed impossible, Bahl’s bloodless face grew even paler. “What must I do?”
“Join me atop the high tower at dusk.”
After the Most Holy One had departed, Lord Bahl rang for a servant to bring him wine. An elderly man appeared from a side door to receive the request and departed the same way to fulfill it. Bahl seldom began drinking so early, but he needed to drown his apprehensions. Gorm terrified him, and he dreaded the idea of visiting the high tower.
Nonetheless, he saw no alternative. After his downfall, he had learned who possessed real power in the Iron Palace. It wasn’t him. Bahl had come to believe that it had always been so. Even when he recalled the height of his power—when he commanded conquering armies and subdued men with a single glance—it seemed that true mastery lay elsewhere. I was only power’s vessel, thought Bahl, once full, now empty. But the power was never mine. I merely thought it was. Such thinking made Lord Bahl bitter, but not rebellious. There was no rebelling against the Devourer.
The servant brought a goblet of wine. As Bahl drank, he gazed about the hall. A coat of dust lightened its black stone, and the bloodstains on the floor had long faded. The lord of Bahland tried to remember when the room was the seat of power and thronged with folk. Memories of those times had faded with the bloodstains. They seemed like scenes from another man’s life and as vague as rumor. Much of what he recollected was nightmarish—ravaged towns awash in gore, men transformed into rabid beasts, brutal tortures, and a pervasive atmosphere of fear.
Bahl rang for another goblet of wine and wandered off with it. No one would notice his absence. The day promised to be like all the others—purposeless and idle. Gorm took care of the domain’s administration. The Iron Guard reported to him. He levied taxes, made judgments, and issued decrees, all in Lord Bahl’s name. No one objected. No one dared, Bahl least of all.
Bahl stepped onto a balcony that overlooked the bay and the sea beyond. Leaning against a rust-covered railing, he gazed out at the ocean as he drank. The day was heavily overcast and the restless sea had a dull, sullen shade. There was no clear horizon, only gray water merging with gray mist. Lord Bahl finished his wine and retreated inside.
Dusk arrived. Acting on impulse, Lord Bahl had his servant dress him in black velvet and gold. He hadn’t worn the outfit for ages, and it was moth-eaten. It also hung loosely from his diminished frame. Nevertheless, it somehow seemed appropriate for the ritual, for he had worn those clothes on the night he had lost his power. Tonight I’ll amend that error.
When he was dressed, Lord Bahl ascended the tower stairs alone. He had climbed them only once before, for the tower was Gorm’s domain. The windowless structure was pitch-black, and Bahl carried a torch to light his way. The darkness had the palpable quality of smoke that made the torchlight pale and watery. Bahl hurried his pace to pass through it more quickly.
The last time Bahl had stood atop the tower he was only thirteen winters in age. He recalled that occasion vividly. It was sunset. Gorm was there with a woman whom Bahl had never seen before. She was dressed in a thin white robe and lay barefoot upon a large rectangular stone. Bahl remembered her as a blonde with the pale skin of someone shut away from sunlight. Bahl never knew if the woman was drugged or under a spell, but she must have been one or the other, for she was awake yet completely passive. She remained quiet and unresisting even when Gorm pierced her throat with a stone knife. He cut an artery, judging from the spurting blood. Then Gorm commanded Bahl to drink, and he obeyed.
The intervening winters never dimmed what happened next. No wine ever tasted as rich as that woman’s blood or was as intoxicating. Moreover, it transformed Bahl as he drank it. Before that evening, he had felt incomplete, as if he were missing some vital part. The woman’s sacrifice cured that. Bahl was convinced that he had ascended the stairs a boy but descended them a man. Although he had known the ritual was called the “suckling,” only later did he learn the blond woman had been his mother.
The ritual was still on Lord Bahl’s mind when he emerged onto the tower’s windy summit. Gorm was waiting there, and he closed the iron trapdoor after Bahl stood upon the ironclad deck that capped the tower. The deck had not been allowed to rust, and its oiled surface was shiny and black. A slight slipperiness increased Bahl’s feeling of vertigo, for the tower was the palace’s loftiest, jutting like a spire high above its seaward wall. Moreover, the platform was only six paces wide, and it had no wall or railing at its edge. Bahl shuddered and moved to the deck’s center, which featured the waist-high rectangular stone.
Gorm smiled sardonically. “The last time you were here, the height didn’t bother you. But no matter, this potion will cure your fear.”
Bahl noticed that the priest held a goblet. “What’s that?”
“A concoction to help you find your son.”
“It’ll send your spirit forth. Blood will always find blood.” Gorm cast another derisive smile. “Don’t worry, it’s not poison. Your spirit can return. Drink.”
Bahl took the goblet and sipped from it. The liquid tasted both bitter and sweet. As the flavors warred in Bahl’s mouth, Gorm said. “Finish it quickly. Then you’d best lie upon the stone.”
Bahl gulped down the rest of the potion, then climbed upon the block of basalt. Unbeckoned, a thought arose: My mother lay here. Bahl decided the potion tasted bitter. To easy his nerves, he spoke. “So, soon I’ll meet my son.”
“Yes, and in your old form with your powers restored. The Devourer has abandoned you in this world, but not in the other one.”
The other one? thought Bahl. The phrase had disturbing connotations. Don’t worry. Gorm said this draught wouldn’t kill me. Bahl was beginning to feel a little dizzy, so he turned his gaze seaward to glimpse something substantial. But the sea was still a seething void of gray without a horizon; only it was darker than before.
The Most Holy Gorm waited for Lord Bahl to close his eyes and fall into an ensorcelled slumber. Then he turned Bahl’s face upright and studied it in the dying light. He had performed the ritual many times and knew what subtle signs to look for. The eyelids quivered and the lips moved, then grew still. Soon Lord Bahl’s breathing was as easy and regular as that of an innocent man. His spirit’s on its way, Gorm thought. Now my master can receive what’s been long overdue.
Gorm reached down and lifted a long, leaf-shaped blade fashioned from obsidian. One end of the black, glassy stone was wrapped in boiled leather to form a handle. Gorm gripped it with both hands and held it high. The knife was sharper than the finest steel, and when he plunged it downward, it easily parted Lord Bahl’s chest. Gorm reached into the gaping cavity and tore out the heart. It was still beating when he threw it into the void.