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Ash: The Lost History Part 131

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"Except that she can't. Because of me."

"First Charles, then you." Ash couldn't stop a smile. "Jeez, I thought I was good at finding trouble and jumping into the middle of it!"

"I didn't ask for this!"

Her voice echoed back from the walls of the shaft. Dull, booming reverberations faded away. The wind from above s.h.i.+fted the candlelight, and brought a scent familiar from slaughterhouses: old blood, old urine and dung. Fear, and death, and sacrifice.

The silence deepened. No knowing, now, how much of the night is gone, or whether across the city, in the cathedral, they are waking to sing Lauds, or Matins, or Prime.



"It was Duke Charles's dream," the bishop said, "to regain the middle kingdom of Europe - to become, in time, another Charlemagne; another Emperor over all. How else to stop us wasting our time in quarrels and wars, and unite Christendom against our enemies? A Charlemagne with Heito's grace. My brother was a man who might have been that . . . but it was not given to him. If he had turned his eyes south, we might not be in such desperate trouble now. G.o.d rest him. But you are d.u.c.h.ess now."

"Oh, I know that," Florian said absently. She reached up and rapped her knuckles on Heito's stone s.h.i.+n. "Now you tell me something. Tell me, why is there sunlight over Burgundy?"

Chapter Eight.

"What?" Ash looked around, confused, at the shadowed chapel.

"Outside. Daytime. Why is it light? Why isn't it dark?"

"I don't get it."

Florian hit one hand into the other. "You told me. The Wild Machines draw down the sun. That's real. So - why isn't it dark here? Why is there sun in Burgundy? It's dark in the lands all around us."

Ash opened her mouth to refute the argument. She closed it again. Bishop John's frown showed pure bewilderment. The wind from the sacrificial shaft brought the smell of cold stone and corruption, deep here in the earth.

"Does it - feel - real?" Ash asked. "The sunlight?"

"Would I know?"

"You knew about the Hart!"

Florian frowned. "Whatever's in my blood, I used it for the first time, on the hunt. I did something. But after that . . . no. I'm not doing anything."

"After the hunt, there is nothing for you to do," Bishop John said. "It is not what you do, it is what you are. You have only to live, and you are our guardian."

"I can't tell," Floria said. "I can't feel anything."

Sweat sprang out in Ash's palm. What else don't we know?

"Maybe it's people here praying for light. The Bishop here says all men have grace ..." She began to pace on the terracotta tiles; stopped in the small s.p.a.ce, and swung around. "No, that doesn't work, because I guarantee men have been praying as hard as s.h.i.+t in France and the Cantons, too! And it was black as the ace of spades when we came through there. If G.o.d's grace was going to do a miracle through prayer, we'd have seen the sun over Ma.r.s.eilles and Avignon!"

"I'm no longer devout." Florian smiled painfully. "While I was in the sacred baths, I was thinking. I know what I do - I preserve the mundane. So did Duke Charles. I wondered why things were so bad in the infirmary. I've had men dying on me since I got here. Men I'd expect to see live. Charles's praying priests didn't do him any good, either! This is the real world, here."

The Bishop murmured, "'G.o.d lays His heaviest burden on His most faithful servants.' We can't have His gift without His penalty."

Florian hit her hand into her fist again. "So why is it light here?" She looked down at her tumbled robes, and her bare hands. "And why was there a miracle at Auxonne?"

For a second, Ash is back on the field, among rain-sodden mud, with jets of jellied flame searing across men's burned-black faces. She absently wiped her hand across her mouth. The stench is still clear in her memory.

Ash remembers priests on their knees, the snow coming down as the wind changed. "I asked de Vere to ask the Duke to let his priests pray - for snow, so the enemy would have no visibility; for the wind in our favour, so their shafts would drop short."

Floria, eyes bright, gripped Ash's arm. "At first I thought the Duke must have been injured. Weakened. But de la Marche told me it happened before he was wounded." Bewildered, Floria turned to the bishop. "Shouldn't those priests have been praying for nothing? Or is there - I don't know - a weakness in the bloodline?"

"We are only men," Bishop John said mildly. "We have nurtured the line of ducal blood, century upon century, but we are only men. Imperfect men. These things must happen, only once or twice in a generation. If we could reject all grace, how could G.o.d send us a Hart to be made flesh?"

"The Hart," Florian said. "Of course: the Hart."

"Florian won't be perfect," Ash said abruptly. "She can't be. I've been in Carthage. Two hundred years of incest." The expression on the bishop's face almost made her laugh. "That's what it took the Wild Machines to get a Faris. Two hundred years of scientific, calculated human stock-breeding. Incest! And what have you been doing in Burgundy?"

"Not incest!" Bishop John gasped. "That's against the laws of G.o.d and man!"

A raw, coa.r.s.e laugh burst out before Ash could stop it. She grinned at the bishop's pallid face, there being nothing else to do now but laugh, scarified by irony. All mercenary now, she snorted out, "That's what you get for following G.o.d's law! You said it to me, at the hunt. Burgundy has a bloodline. Well, Burgundy should have done it properly! Dynastic marriages, chivalric love, and a bit of adultery at best - s.h.i.+t. That's no way to breed stock. You guys needed a Leofric here!"

A little ironically, Florian said, "Remember, I succeeded. I made the Hart real." Her voice contrastingly quiet, her gaze abstracted, she walked back towards the shrine of St Heito. With her back to Ash, she said, "If the Dukes need to prove themselves - I have. If I hadn't, the Wild Machines would have made their miracle at the hunt."

"Oh. Yeah." A little embarra.s.sed at her outburst, Ash coughed. "Well . . . yeah, there's that."

". . . Until I die." Barely a whisper. Florian turned to face them. "I still don't understand. I'm alive. What the Ferae Natura Machinae do when they draw down the sun is real-"

"Oh, it must be." Ash sounded sardonic. 'The Wild Machines don't do miracles - if they did, they wouldn't need the Faris! And Burgundy would have been charred and smoking six hundred years ago."

Florian gave a loose-limbed shrug that did not belong on anyone wearing court dress. "We're right about that, or we'd be dead. But, Ash - we shouldn't be seeing the sun."

A brief burst of novices' voices came from above as the iron-studded door opened, then shut. Bishop John of Cambrai called to them to leave, up a shaft that echoed now.

Puddled wax alone remained of the smaller candles; the fatter ones still burning down, beginning to enclose their flames like yellow lanterns. A stray cold draught blew across the back of Ash's neck. She reached up to scratch under the fur collar of her demi-gown with one finger.

"It's no use me trying to- I won't take them by surprise again."

"No. I know that." Florian gathered up her robes again, hugging them against herself, as if for comfort. "But I'm right. Aren't I? Bishop, you can't answer this one. There's still something we don't know!"

"This must be taken to your grand conseil," John of Cambrai said. "Or the pet.i.t conseil first, perhaps, your Grace. There may be those who can answer this. If not, then we conclude, I think, that G.o.d may do His will as He wills it, and if He chooses to bless us so, then all we may rightly do is give thanks for His light."

Ash, alienated by his expression of shaky piety, remarked, "G.o.dfrey says that G.o.d doesn't cheat."

Florian turned away from the bishop's hand, and Ash saw her face; her eyes prominent, dark-circled, stressed. Catching Ash's gaze, the woman said, "I didn't want to know that there's still something I don't know!"

The Bishop of Cambrai stepped back towards the altar. His soft, black eyes reflected the candlelight. He moved with gravitas. When he turned back, he held in his hands a circlet carefully cut, glued and shaped from horn. The ducal crown.

"You had questions. They have been answered," he said. "This is your vigil. Will you take the crown?"

Ash saw her panic. The glittering walls pressed in, in the candles' yellow gloom; the brick vaults above sweating nitre, and the tiles underfoot smelling of old blood. There is nothing here to remind her of the filigree stone of the palace above, all white light and air. This place is a fist of earth, ready to close around them.

Florian said finally, "Why do I have to? I don't need it, to do what I do. This whole thing - I don't need this!"

She backed a step away from the Bishop of Cambrai.

"You didn't need this," Ash said grimly. "I didn't need this. But you understand something, Florian - make your mind up. Are you running away from this, or are you d.u.c.h.ess? You commit yourself to one or the other, or I'll kick your sorry a.s.s so hard you're going to wonder what fell on you!"

"What's it to you?" Florian said, almost sulkily. It was not a tone Ash was used to hearing from her, although she suspected Jeanne Chalon might have heard it a lot, fifteen years ago.

Ash said, "None of us owe Burgundy anything. You could be what you are in London or Kiev, if we could get there. But I'm telling you now, if you're staying here, you'd better be committed to being d.u.c.h.ess. Because there's no way I'm putting people's lives on the line as army commander if you don't mean it."

Bishop John said, half under his breath, "Now we see why G.o.d brought you here, demoiselle."

Ash ignored him.

Florian muttered, "We've - the Lion's agreed to defend Dijon."

"Ah, for f.u.c.k's sake! If I find us a way out - f.u.c.k knows how! - they'll go if I say go. I've been talking to people. They don't give a flying toss about the glories of Burgundy, and they really, really don't give a s.h.i.+t about fighting alongside Messire de la Marche. Some of us have died here, but they don't have any loyalty to this place-"

"Shouldn't I have? If I'm going to be crowned?"

"And do you?"

"I do."

Ash stared at Floria's face. There was very little to go on, in her expression. Then, in a flood, everything there: doubt, dread, fear at having committed herself, fear at having said, not what is true, but what is required. Tears filled up her eyes and ran over her lids, streaking her cheeks with silver.

"I don't want to do this! I don't want to be this!"

"Yeah, tell me about it."

A flicker of the old Florian: sardonic bleakness: "You and the Maid of Burgundy."

"Our guys won't fight for some d.u.c.h.ess," Ash said, "but they'll fight for you, because we don't leave our own. You're the surgeon, you went to Carthage; they'll fight like s.h.i.+t to keep you alive, the same as they'd fight to hang on to me or Roberto or each other. But we really don't care if it's fighting rag-heads to keep the d.u.c.h.ess alive, or fighting Burgundians to get you out of here. The Burgundians need to know you're d.u.c.h.ess, now do you get that?"

"What do you want to do?"

Refusing the distraction, Ash said rapidly, "Me? I'll do whatever I have to do. Be their banner. Right now, I need to know what you're going to do. They'll know if you don't mean it!"

Florian moved away, stepping on the chill flagstones of the chapel as if they were hot; all her body fidgeting with indecisiveness.

"This is a place for confessing sins," she said abruptly.

The bishop, from the shadowed altar, said, "Well, yes - but in private-"

"Depends. On who you need to confess to."

She walked back and took Ash's hands. Ash was astonished at the coldness of the older woman's skin - almost in shock, she thought - and then she made herself concentrate on what Florian was saying: "I'm a coward, when it matters. I can pull people out of the line-fight. I can hurt them when I need to. Cut them wide open. Don't ask me to commit to anything else."

Ash began to speak, to say, Everyone's afraid; fight the fear, and Florian interrupted: "Let me tell you something."

About to answer with a casual sure!, Ash stopped and looked at her. She wants to tell me something I don't want to hear, she realised, and paused, and then nodded in a.s.sent. "Tell me."

"This is hard."

Bishop John coughed, artificially, drawing attention to his presence. Ash saw Florian's gaze flick to him, and away; unclear whether she was giving tacit consent to the man's presence, or merely so far past caring that she couldn't be bothered to acknowledge him.

"I'm ashamed of one thing in my life," Florian said. "You."

"Me?" Ash realised her mouth was dry.

"I fell in love with you, oh ... three years back?"

Into silence, Ash said: "That's what you call cowardice? Not telling me?"

"That? No." A glimmer in the light: more welling tears wet on Florian's cheek. She took no notice of her own weeping. Her voice didn't change. "First I wanted you. Then I knew I could love you. Real love; the sort that hurts. And I killed it."

"What?"

"Oh, you can do that." Florian's eyes glittered, in the s.h.i.+fting light. "I couldn't know that you didn't want me. Esther said she didn't want me. And then she did. So you might. . . but I watched you. Watched your life. You were going to die. Sooner or later. You were going to come back from a field on a hurdle, with your face chopped off, or your head blown in, and what was I going to do then? Again? "

The bishop's long fingers wrapped around his Briar Cross, pale in the torchlight. Ash saw how the skin over his knuckles strained white.

"So I killed the love and made you into a friend, because I'm a coward, Ash. You were trouble. I don't want to take on trouble. Not any more. I can't take it. I've had enough."

Dispa.s.sionately, Ash asked, "Can you kill love?"

"You're asking me that?" Florian shook her head violently. Her voice exploded in the catacomb-darkness. "I didn't just want a f.u.c.k! I knew I was capable of falling in love with you. I strangled it. Not just because you're going to die young. Because you don't let anyone touch you. Your body, maybe. Not you. You pretend. You're untouchable. I couldn't find the courage to let it grow; not when I knew that!"

Watching, Ash sees - past her own gauche embarra.s.sment, and a sneaking wish not to have been told any of this - how much damage the woman has done to herself.

"Florian ..."

And she sees that what looks back at her, from Florian's whitened face, is not only shame and anger.

"So how come you keep telling me about it?" Ash demanded quietly. "How come you keep teasing me with it? And then telling me it's okay, you don't want me, you'll back off again. And then you tell me again. How come you can't leave me alone?"

"Because I can't leave you alone," Floria echoed.

Conscious of dust, damp, the glitter of candles on old mosaics, Ash would give anything to run out of this place - weighed down by history as it is - into daylight. Leave all of this, leave everything.

Am I that detached? Is that bad?

"Why do we hope?" Floria said. "I could never understand that."

Careful to say and look nothing that could be construed as acceptance, Ash only shook her head.

"It wouldn't have been any good," she said. "If you'd told me three years ago, I would have kicked you out - probably screamed for a priest. Now, I think I'd give anything if I could want you. But half of that is guilt because I never gave G.o.dfrey what he needed. And I still want Fernando more than either of you."

She looked up, not aware until then that her head had drooped, and that her field of vision held only the floor mosaic of the Great Bull of Mithras, bleeding to death from a dozen mortal wounds.

"You know ..." Sweat stood out on Florian's skin, making her forehead s.h.i.+ny. With one swift movement, she wiped her palm across her face, smearing wet hair back. "You certainly know how to finish something off. s.h.i.+t. Don't you? That was ..."

Brutal.

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