An excerpt from The Dread by Gail Z. Martin

Just a few candlemarks before dawn, a solemn group assembled in the seneschal’s chambers. Tice the king’s closest advisor; Allestyr, Donelan’s seneschal; Kellen, Trygve, Wilym, Darry, the armsmaster and Rhistiart were seated around a table. With them was Brother Felix, the king’s favored scholar and an Acolyte of the Oracle. Cam joined them, and accepted the warm mug of wassail Wilym pressed into his hand with a nod of thanks. No one spoke until Allestyr cleared his throat.

“I know we all have duties that demand our attention, as well as our own grief. But I thought it was important to gather this group, before things get any more complicated.” Allestyr’s voice was tight, and his eyes were red. In all the years Cam had known the seneschal, he had never seen Allestyr look as worn and sad.

“You’re here your loyalty is certain,” Allestyr continued, his voice growing firmer. “By dawn, Count Renate should arrive at the palace. As the most senior member of the Council of Nobles, he is empowered, under Isencroft’s Covenant of the Lords, to step in as Regent for up to ninety days until an Heir of the Blood is crowned.”

He paused. “Renate is an honorable man, and his loyalty to the crown has never been doubted. He even volunteered to raise a private army and hunt down the Divisionists himself, but Donelan persuaded him that it was a matter best left to the king’s troops.”

Tice nodded. “He’s a bold man, and good in a fight. We could do worse for a Regent, that’s for sure.”

“Since we learned of the king’s death, we’ve allowed no one to leave the palace. We wanted to keep the news from spreading until Renate could be installed as Regent, and until Wilym had a chance to speak with the generals,” Allestyr continued. He shook his head. “I don’t know what will happen when word reaches the streets. I fear the worst. We have to crown a new monarch before Alvior lands his armies on Isencroft soil, or he will claim a right by blood to the throne, and I don’t know how many might throw their allegiance to him out of sheer panic.”

Cam leaned forward. “Kiara is in Margolan. By fast horse, it’s a two-week ride. She’s recently given birth, and it was hard on her. We may well be at war before she can reach Isencroft.”

Allestyr nodded. “There’s no helping that. And although Kiara is an excellent warrior, she can’t be expected to fight so soon after the birth, nor would we put her in that kind of danger.”

“Wilym asked me to contact my friends among the vayash moru. They can travel more quickly than mortals. Antoin will take the news to Kiara in Margolan. He’ll leave tonight. It should only take him a few days.” Everyone turned toward Brother Felix. “Antoin’s loyalty is beyond doubt. He can be trusted to carry word to the Princess.”

Allestyr and Tice exchanged glances. “Thank you,” Allestyr said. “In the meantime, we had something a bit more arcane in mind.”
Wilym raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“There is a way to crown a new king—or queen—in absentia,” Allestyr replied. “It hasn’t been done in several hundred years. We need a mage, preferably one of the Oracle’s Acolytes. It also requires eight witnesses, one for each of the Faces of the Lady. There’s a very particular way to carry out the ceremony. For one thing, it has to be done in the necropolis.”

“Why in the tombs, for the Lady’s sake?” Rhistiart clapped a hand to his mouth as he realized his outburst.

Allestyr gave a wan smile. “It has to be done in the necropolis, because that’s where the dead monarchs of Isencroft are buried. The only way to crown someone in absentia is with the agreement of the ghosts of the fallen kings.”

“There is precedent.” Once again, Brother Felix drew their attention, although his voice was scarcely above a whisper. “Aldo the Wise was crowned in such a manner, over two hundred years ago. He was on a visit to Dhasson when King Zoccoros the Third choked on a piece of venison at dinner and died. A group of loyalists and an Acolyte petitioned the dead kings and consecrated the crown. Something about the ritual activates the regent magic that’s carried in the royal blood. Once done, it can’t be undone by writ.”

“So once the crown is consecrated for Kiara, the regent magic can’t be conferred on anyone else, even if Alvior found some traitor lords to crown him?” Wilym leaned forward earnestly.

Brother Felix nodded. “If the ceremony is done right, then the crown can’t be claimed by another—unless Kiara dies.”

Wilym crossed his arms over his chest. “Just what does this “consecration” ceremony involve?”

Allestyr looked to Brother Felix. The scholar took a deep breath. “It’s very old magic, and somewhat controversial. There are reasons why it fell out of favor in recent generations. For one thing, the spirits of the dead kings can be temperamental. They don’t like to be disturbed. There are legends—“

“Save the ghost stories for another time, Felix,” Allestyr prompted gently.

“Right. Well, assuming you don’t bring the wrath of the dead kings down on you, which we shouldn’t, I hope, then a small figure is created using items that were used frequently by the heir, either things she wore or things she valued highly and dirt from the burial place of the kings. The items are placed inside a piece of cloth cut and sewn to be the shape of a person, like a child’s doll without the stuffing. The Acolyte petitions the dead to come. It’s up to them whether they do, unless the Acolyte happens to be a summoner, which none of the current ones are.”

“Skip the details, Felix, please, or we’ll be here all night,” Tice muttered, but there was affection in his voice.

“Sorry. Sorry.” Felix rubbed his bald head. He was obviously warming to his tale. “The warding and ceremony are not unlike a ritual wedding—each of the eight witnesses must contribute a few drops of blood into a chalice, which is mixed with wine and sacred herbs. Then we each lay hands on the effigy and drink from the chalice, and the Acolyte says the words of power. The dead kings lend their magic, and the doll becomes a nenkah. Magically, it “becomes” Kiara until she arrives to take its place.”

“You want us to do blood magic?” Trygve’s voice was a warning growl.

Felix sighed. “I told you it was controversial. That’s one reason why it went out of fashion. But anyone who makes a ritual wedding uses a form of blood magic when they cut their palms and mix the blood with wine. It’s not like there’s a human sacrifice.”

Tice cleared his throat. “I took the liberty of reading over Brother Felix’s shoulder when he retrieved the old scrolls. There are a few potential complications.”

“Complications?” Cam asked warily.

Tice nodded. “Because the items that are used to make the nenkah are very personal to the heir, they have a strong physical and emotional tie. When that link is activated by magic, the nenkah shares that magic with the person who owned the items. In exchange, the heir shares a glimmer of life force with the nenkah.”

“This thing is alive?” Cam’s voice reflected his horror.

Tice sighed. “In a manner of speaking, yes. That’s how it can be crowned in the princess’s absence with the force of law. It creates a way for Kiara to be in Margolan, and here at the same time. But if the nenkah were to be captured, or destroyed…well, the records aren’t entirely clear. It’s possible that whoever controls the nenkah may control the princess so long as the nenkah exists. And there’s at least a suggestion in the records that destroying the nenkah might be able to wound Kiara through it—maybe kill her.”

“I don’t like this.” Wilym sat back in his chair, arms crossed and face set. “What happens after Kiara arrives? How do you get rid of the damned doll?”

Brother Felix shrugged. “According to the scrolls, once Kiara is crowned and the regent magic is activated, the nenkah becomes nothing more than a rag doll filled with an odd collection of items.”

Kellen leaned forward. “While I have to say that I share Wilym’s concerns, what choice do we have? Without the nenkah, Alvior might be able to have himself crowned and invoke the blood magic before Kiara could take the throne. I agree there are risks. I don’t like magic. But even with the vayash moru’s help, it will take weeks for Kiara to reach Isencroft. We can’t leave the succession open.”

“What of the Regent?” Trygve shifted in his seat.

Allestyr shrugged. “The nenkah must remain our secret. We’ll need Renate as our public face. As far as everyone at court knows, there’s only Renate. But the crown is both legal and magical. Renate covers us as far as the legal matters go. But for the magical, we need the nenkah.”

“Does Antoin have everything he needs to leave for Margolan?” Cam asked, turning to Brother Felix.

“All he needs is a letter—I was assuming Allestyr would want to write the message.”

Allestyr nodded. “Very well. I’ll do it immediately. While I’m busy with that, I’ll need your help to make ready for our little ceremony.” Cam could hear a touch of distaste in the seneschal’s voice, and guessed that Allestyr was as uncomfortable about the ritual as the rest. “Trygve, I’m hoping nothing goes wrong, but I’d like you to have your healer’s kit with you, just in case. Cam and Tice, I need you to go to Kiara’s rooms and find some things that belonged to her that we can use for the nenkah. Kellen, I’ll need you to prepare the ritual chamber. We haven’t used it since Kiara left for Margolan.”

“What about me?” Rhistiart had been nearly silent, but now he sat forward. “I want to help.”

Brother Felix regarded him for a moment. “There have to be eight witnesses. You’ll be the eighth man.” He stood. “Gentlemen. This kind of magic is best done at dusk or dawn. We’ll meet in the crypt chamber at fifth bells. And may the Goddess look kindly on our souls.”

© 2011 Gail Z. Martin, all rights reserved, used by permission