Humans were too irreligious to hold the Truce. Long after the Firvulag and Tanu had quit the burning wreck of the city, Lowlife warriors continued to fight against those of their fellow humans who remained loyal to the exotics. Captured grays, as well as the few silvers who fell into the invaders’ hands, were hustled before a guerrilla tribunal where a Lowlife officer showed them an iron chisel and an iron knife and bade them choose: “Live free or die.” A surprising proportion had opted for death rather than the removal of their mind-amplifying collars.
Felice entered the palace. The carrion birds were absent here, but there were flies, swift-scuttling rodents, and an appalling stench. The bodies of guards and servitors were heaped behind improvised barricades of furniture and demounted doors. Many of the defenders had died without a mark upon them, faces contorted by the mind-blasting attack of the Firvulag.
Except for the buzzing of the insects, the rustle and squeak of rats, and the sighing sound of wind through smashed panes of colored glass, the palace of Lord Velteyn was quiet in its ruin. The little woman in black penetrated deeper into the apartments of Great Ones, leaping over the piled corpses of human retainers who had fought an increasingly desperate rearguard action as the invading army hunted their trapped exotic masters.
Felice came to a great open door of bronze, studded with green stones. Bodies in Lowlife buckskin and homespun mingled with those in palace livery to clog its threshold. And here, for the first time, there were also Firvulag bodies, some squat, some taller than humans or Tanu and as burly as fairytale giants; all were attired in the gold-chased obsidian armor of Pallol One-Eye’s elite corps and all had been dispatched by iron-tipped weapons that Velteyn’s human guard had presumably wrested from the Lowlives.
Calmly, Felice pulled a spear from a dead shape-shifter and used it for an alpenstock as she climbed over the noisome mound blocking the doorway. Inside the room, which was an elaborate bedchamber reduced to a shambles by the fighting, were six bodies attired in colored-glass armor. Four men and one Tanu woman were bloodied, transfixed by iron-pointed arrows. The second woman, a gold-torc human armored in sapphire blue, bore no wounds and had presumably succumbed to mental assault.
Felice removed her hoplite helmet and set it upon a large bedside stand. On a lower shelf, incongruous in undisturbed tidiness, were a golden ewer and basin. The girl filled the basin with water and set it on top of the table. For a moment, she stood looking down at the corpse of the human woman. In death, her azure eyes showed wide pupils, oddly emphatic in a face as pale as chalk. Long chestnut hair spread on the carpet in a nimbus around the bare head; her helmet lay nearby. The slender fingers in jeweled blue-plate gauntlets were hooked over a golden torc.
Like an acolyte enacting a ritual, Felice knelt. The rigor had left the dead hands and the torc was easily freed from their grip. The knobbed front catch clicked. The girl pivoted the collar on its back hinge and slipped it from around the livid throat. Rising, she went to the basin, dipped the gold several times, and dried it upon a soft towel.
Then Felice fastened the torc about her own neck.
The reality opened to her. She uttered a piercing cry.
This . . . so it was like this. All of it had been hidden within her, battened down and denied, so feared by the weaker ones all around her. But now open, released, and ready to be used.
She went out onto the balcony of the death room. Trembling, vision partly blurred by the tears of her joy, she looked over the ruins of Finiah. There was the wide Rhine, the heights of the Vosges, High Vrazel itself on the western skyline, where King Yeochee and Sharn-Mes and the other Firvulag were doubtless still celebrating the triumph over their ancient Foe. There were the high passes she had come through alone, too late for the war, passing Chief Burke and Khalid Khan and the remnant of the Lowlife force conducting newly liberated human survivors of Finiah to the bottomland camp where they would await the judgement of Madame Guderian.
Gold warm at her throat, Felice began to laugh. The sound swelled on the wind until it reverberated over the wasted city. The ravens, shocked out of their aplomb, took wing.