By Paolo V. Chikiamco
Toreol Dinlangen, Antipodean Seer of the Mad Mongrels, stifled a curse as he passed through the body of a particularly large man–or at least seemed to, as far as his Gift could tell.
As soon as he emerged from the brute’s broad back, he scanned the dense crowd quickly in the hopes that he had not lost sight of his quarry. To his relief, he found the King easily–although, had he not witnessed Bropil Arkabel donning the tattered cloak in his royal quarters, Tol would have been hard-pressed to distinguish him from the rest of the crowd.
“What’s wrong?” Tol heard the tension in the voice even if the speaker herself was invisible to his skewed senses. “Did you lose him?”
“No, but the city seems to have been a good deal more crowded that day than I’d have expected,” Tol sidestepped another man scurrying in the opposite direction, this one hauling a wagonload of goods behind him.
“If your sight truly shows this place as it was six days ago then that would be the last phase of the evacuation, before the Crig reinforced their blockade.”
The woman’s voice caught. “Before the King… disappeared.”
Tol kept silent as he slid through the spectral apparitions of the past, making no comment on how his companion left the King’s fate ambiguous, regardless of what Prince Velaril had told them or the rumors that had spread through the city. Pireyeen had always been an optimist.
“That’d explain it. I almost thought you people had decided to ignore the fact that your city was under siege.”
“When did you start referring to your countrymen as ‘you people’ Toreol? You speak of Karuha as though a stranger here.”
“I am a stranger here,” he said, although each paved avenue thrummed a secret memory, each shaded arcadia hummed a forgotten song.
Blind boy, blind as a bat, where does the bat boy go…
He shook his head, banishing the insults from a past more distant than his Gift could see. “A lot can change in ten years.”
Blind boy, blind as a bat, what does a bat boy know…
Tol saw the King’s image veer left, into the Old Quarter, and he indicated the change of direction with his hand; he heard Pireyeen bark a command, then a clatter as armored men trotted ahead to make sure the street was clear of debris or passers-by: Tol’s Gift allowed him to navigate the road–which could not have changed much in six days–but only if it were clear of any new obstacles. “For instance, back then you were a pig-tailed tomboy Pen-pen, not a lieutenant in the Silver Scouts.”
“And some things I suppose are set in stone,” Pireyeen muttered. “Like your use of that horrid nickname.”
“My apologies,” Tol said as he turned the corner, spotting the disguised King as the latter hastened toward the opposite side of the road, apparently in response to the presence of a pair of soldiers. “I meant to say Lieutenant Pen-pen.”
Tol heard her teeth clack shut, either in exasperation or to bite off a more caustic retort. “One would have expected you to grow more serious after becoming a Vespar.”
“Me?” Tol barked a laugh, and shoved his hands deep into the pockets of his robe. “That’s like saying a camp-whore is a soldier because she keeps company with Knights. I may ride with Vespar but I’m no mercenary prince.”
Pireyeen was silent for a time as Tol retraced the path the King had taken, the Antipode keeping enough distance that he would be able to witness any suspicious activity.
“Are they so special then, these Vespar? One hears…” A pause. “Rumors.”
Of that Tol had no doubt; traveling with the Vespar, he’d been the subject of quite a few of the same scurrilous libels: child sacrifice, consumption of human flesh, cooperation with the Ravenous, co-habitation with the Ravenous… Tol had heard it all. He’d also been witness–albeit after the fact–of just enough to convince him that not all of the rumors were entirely false. There was a reason he was loathe to use his Gift anywhere his Katu had been angered, but Tol doubted that this was the sort of thing Pireyeen would like to hear.
“Well, special enough to be worth ten thousand gold coins to your King.”
“The price demanded is more an indication of greed than quality,” she responded tartly. “I find it hard to believe any five men to be worth that price.”
“You’re missing my point Pen-pen.” Tol slowed as he saw the King stop for a moment, glancing furtively left and right. “King Bropil paid the Mongrels with the last of the coins in his royal coffers. You’d better pray that it was money well spent.”
“Your joke is ill-made,” the lieutenant’s voice was cold. “You know as well as I that the Gods abandoned us long ago.”
So she’s not that much of an optimist then. “Certainly, but don’t forget there are a lot of people who believe they’ll return.” Tol resumed his vicarious stalking as the King began to move once more, weaving his way through the crowd and beneath a high, familiar archway.
“Imbeciles all–people who cannot face reality even when the truth is as plain as the Stitches themselves.”
“Tell that to your King,” Tol said as he pointed out the building into which Bropil Arkabel had disappeared: the local Temple of the Waiting Flame.
It was a testament to the sheer presence of Ilahen Kigani, Katu of the Mad Mongrels, that she still managed to appear regal while hauling a pair of urine-filled buckets around the ramparts. On the other hand, for all Naisha Chith’s many gifts, no one had ever complimented her on her patience and alacrity.
“Tell me again,” the short, willowy Vespar said through gritted teeth as she tried to keep the liquid filth from staining her mahogany-leather boots, “why are we doing this?”
“Urine is a very effective counter-measure against fire,” Ilahen replied, completely straight faced. “It is a basic defensive tactic.”
“Not what I meant, Katu,” Naisha glared at the taller woman’s broad back, tempted for a second to spill her burden all over the ragged cloak covering Ilahen’s pale-blue scale mail.
Ilahen tossed her head, her single braid of white hair tracing a lazy arc in the air. “What you really mean is you’d rather be out there killing people.”
“Well… yes.” Naisha pressed on despite Ilahen’s well-modulated sigh.
“What’d you expect? I mean, killing is what the Prefects trained us to do!” She shook her buckets and the yellow liquid slopped dangerously, sending those near the pair of Vespar to scurry away with disgusted looks. “Not to be walking latri–”
Naisha never even saw her move: one second Ilahen was in front of her and the next the Katu was beside her with both buckets in her left hand as her gloved right gripped Naisha’s arm with deceptive gentleness. The younger Vespar paled, trying not to look down as she felt the thick leather against the skin of her arm.
“Settle down Mongrel–the locals are starting to stare.” Ilahen nodded amicably at the nearby soldiers and propelled Naisha forward slowly but steadily.
“What we’re trained to do, is fulfill our contracts. You do remember what the King hired us for correct?”
“To… save the city?”
“Just so.” The Katu steered Naisha towards the battlements and stopped when the two Vespar had a clear view of the tableau spread before the walls of the city. “Now, tell me: do you look out there and see a problem you can solve with blades?”
Between the walls of Karuha and the amorphous gold-violet fumes of eldritch energy writhing from the nearest Stitch, twelve thousand men of Crigolot had gathered, lacquered armor glinting in a sun which had not yet risen high enough to paint the skies red. The flapping banners planted in front of their siege engines, just out of bow-shot from the city walls, showed that all ten clans of the Crig were represented. This was a testament to the fact that while the nomads had learned to trade in things other than the severed heads of their enemies, they still hadn’t lost their taste for a nice, cozy blood feud. As she watched, the massed fighters once more joined in a rhythmic battle-chant, rattling their forked swords against their shields in time to the beat of lizard-skin drums they’d hauled all the way from Crigolot.
The younger Vespar sighed and flicked her temple in the traditional gesture for resignation. “I get the point boss: find the mage, save the city. We’ll do it the client’s way–even if he went and croaked before we could get here.”
“You never know, Tol might find him alive.” Ilahen wagged a finger at Naisha’s snort. “Stranger things have happened. In any case, Bropil’s solution still seems the only viable option.”
Naisha threw up her hands. She hadn’t been at all happy when she’d learned of the King’s final recourse. “Sure, because his ‘solution’ involves magic, and magic can do anything! Makes you wonder why we even bother trying anything else–oh, wait,” she cried, her finger shooting out towards the flickering gold-violet across the horizon. “Maybe because if you use too much magic, the Stitches unravel and the world cracks open eh?”
“Careful now,” her Katu said as she herded the other Vespar back to the center of the walkway that ran above the crenellated outer curtain wall of the city. “You’re beginning to sound like one of the Order.”
Naisha opened her mouth, then closed it again, lips suddenly dry; she remembered what happened the last time the Mongrels had tangled with the Order of Silence–when she had learned what happened when the glove came off. “Lands-abandoned Ilahen–don’t compare me to those lunatics. I’m not saying I want every Mage dead and all magic banned.”
The attitude was not uncommon however, for the very reasons Naisha had given voice to. While few took it to the same extremes as the Order and their glass-eyed Circuitors, there were few places where Mages were welcome. It was one reason the Mongrels were conducting their search surreptitiously, and why they hadn’t been surprised to learn that Prince Velaril had himself only learned of the secret mage only days before the King disappeared.
Still, the urgency by which Velaril had mobilized his men to search for Bropil’s mage revealed how desperate the Prince had become. In contrast, he had spared but a scout and two city guards to search for the body of his father. Velaril had seemed loathe to spare any at all before the scout, Tol’s friend, had volunteered.
Naisha frowned at the thought of the Antipode. “You think he’ll be okay? Tol’s no Vespar. Maybe Cygnus and Strayhorn should have–”
“I need the other boys to make sure that the defenders don’t fall apart completely. Rumors of the King’s demise have already begun to spread.”
Naisha’s gaze followed Ilahen’s to the mass of men and women on the battlements, a mix of hardened veterans and fresh-faced volunteers, brave men all–yet around them was an air of loss and desperation like a miasma. “It will be good for morale for the soldiers to see Vespar taking an active role in the defense of the city.”
“Especially if one of them is half bull-demon.”
“Quite so.” Ilahen smiled. “The others know their missions. Maybe you should focus more on your own.”
“Hey! I’m looking alright?” Naisha turned around to scowl at her Katu. “Maybe your hunch is wrong this time. It’s not like I could miss a one-armed man if I…”
Naisha stopped when she saw Ilahen was grinning widely. The younger Vespar groaned and turned–sure enough, there behind her was a one-armed, pale-skinned young man being chewed out by a garrison officer.
“Just after our scintillating discussion of fire-retardants.” The Katu set down her buckets and strode past the other Vespar. “Come. Let’s convince the savior of Karuha that there are better ways to serve his country than getting thrown off the walls by an irate man-at-arms.”
Karuha’s Temple of the Waiting Flame was approximately forty-eight steps wide and one hundred eighty-three steps deep, encircled by inward-sloping walls that were covered with mosaics depicting scenes of the Creation, Departure and eventual Return. It contained eleven support pillars, each one carved with the likeness of one of the Dead or the Vanished: Azner of the Dark Passage, Frask of the Hollow Field, and all the rest. Pireyeen knew their names and jurisdictions by heart–quite the feat given that she’d never set foot in the Temple before today.
Then again, there had been nothing else to do since they arrived other than stalk the tiled floor like a caged tiger and scowl at the script etched beneath each impassive visage–or at the slight figure sprawled atop one of the central pews.
“Your King has turned into a duck and gotten himself roasted by a pair of hungry clerics,” Tol answered in a laconic drawl, not bothering to turn towards her. “Maybe they’ll let you search their latrines for what’s left of him.”
Pireyeen brought her steel-clad boot down hard enough to crack the tiled floor. “Show some respect!”
“I give as good as I get,” Tol said. He gestured towards the southeastern portion of the temple. “I’m a professional, Lieutenant. If I’d seen your King do anything but pray to absent divinities, do you really think I’d keep it to myself?”
The young woman took a deep breath, waving the two city guards back to their positions at the main entrance. They had probably been alarmed by the sound of tiles being crushed. Pireyeen found herself glad that they had already sent all the Patient Clerics away.
For want of anything better to do, the scout returned her attention to the wall mosaics that depicted the Three Divine Acts. She found her eyes drawn once more towards the Temple’s depiction of the Return of the Gods: the Eleven banishing the Ravenous, unraveling the Stitches and remaking the One World. Pireyeen’s gaze moved from the stylized faces of the Gods to the smaller, simpler figures of their worshippers Even a week ago she would have looked with disdain at those adoring eyes, at the refusal to face the harsh truth–yet now she looked at this reflection of a people’s desperate hopes and felt she understood.
And that terrified her.
“If you don’t stop pacing,” Tol called out, “the Patient Clerics will be devoid of both Gods and floor.”
Pireyeen stopped, thankful he couldn’t see her flush. Tol had always delighted in teasing her, and while she’d never admit it to him, she was glad that he retained that impish humor–if little else. She remembered him as a vigorous, brawny lad with eyes almost the same burnished copper as his skin. Now he was flesh-and-bones, with a wiry mass of blue-black hair and a stooped, almost defensive posture. And his eyes… they were entirely copper now, save for pinpricks of color in the center, white now, then red, then green. She wondered when he’d last seen his reflection in a mirror–or anywhere for that matter.
“Pen? You still with me?”
“Er, yes!” She shook her head, short flaxen locks swaying, cursing herself: treating him like some exotic creature was exactly why Tol had left the city.
Before she could think of anything to say, Tol spoke again: “You always did need to keep moving whenever you were nervous. I remember you practically wore a path into the floor of old Warden Jurol’s place.”
Despite herself, Pireyeen laughed. “I was so afraid I was going to jail forever! I still don’t know what possessed me to accompany you. I mean, to break into the Belvoir house! Everyone said the paranoid old coot had his own dungeon and kept a loaded crossbow under his bed…”
“I think that the insanity of it all was the appeal,” a smile grew on Tol’s face as well. “We almost made it out too… then your mother started pounding on his front door. What kind of sneak leaves a note on her bed regarding her whereabouts?”
“W-well I wanted to be sure they knew how I’d died if I never made it back.” Pireyeen shook her head, her mother’s ruddy face springing to her mind for the first time in… well, a long time.
She walked over to the Antipode, stopping when she’d reached the pew directly behind him. For some reason, his tangled locks made her fingers itch.
“Tol,” she said quietly. “Do you remember what you promised when–”
The Antipode suddenly jerked rigid, his eyes swiveling left. “Someone’s here.”
Pireyeen looked reflexively to her own left, knowing she’d see nothing. “You mean… in the past? Who?”
“It’s a man, but hooded.” Tol clambered to his feet, head swiveling back and forth between two figures only he could see. “The King is approaching him. Let me see if I can get a closer look.”
Tol hurried to the central aisle. From their posts by the doorway, the guards turned, perhaps relieved to see some form of activity in the Temple. It might have been why neither noticed the attack until it was too late.
The first guard fell with the hilt of a dagger still vibrating as it protruded from his neck. The missile aimed at the second guard ricocheted from his shoulder armor, and he recovered in time to block as a man dressed in pauper’s rags assaulted him with a sword and a proficiency that bespoke extensive training.
Pireyeen flung herself at the Antipode. The pair hit the floor hard, breaking more tiles as they skidded forward and just as the dull thunk of metal sinking into wood proclaimed a third dagger had missed its target. The scout gripped Tol by the collar and dragged him bodily behind a pew.
“Pen, get off me! I’ve got to–”
“Stay down Tol!” Pireyeen pushed him flat against the ground as she herself rose, drawing her sword. She raised her head above the back of the pew just in time to see the second guard desperately fending off the combined blows of two assailants, the “pauper” joined by a man garbed all in black. A third man, blonde of hair and pale of skin, ignored the guard and his opponents as he circled towards the southeastern portion of the room, a dagger spinning in his hand. As the pale man surveyed the room, Pireyeen noticed there was something strange about his left eye: the way it moved, the way it reflected the rays of the morning sun…
Analyze later. Pireyeen reached out for one of the legs of the pew and broke it off with a firm tug.
She clamped a hand on his mouth but the knife thrower was already turning in their direction. Another blade sailed over her head as she ducked down behind the pew once more.
Releasing Tol, she scrambled forward then leapt out from behind her wooden cover. The blonde man raised his weapon, but dodged hastily as the chair leg sailed past him. It splintered against the far wall as Pireyeen charged.
“Crown and Country!”
With her battle cry still echoing from the walls of the Temple, Pireyeen closed the distance to the blonde man, her sword sweeping out in a diagonal arc before he had time to throw another blade. He parried, but the force of the lieutenant’s strike sent the smaller weapon spinning towards the watchful eyes of Lijanna of the Silent Gate.
“Mage-lover!” her pale opponent snarled as he reached down to a sheath beneath his left arm. Pireyeen pulled her own arm back and crumpled his nose under the pommel of her sword. He staggered away, blinded by blood and pain–but as she thrust towards his throat, her blade was met by the sword of the false pauper.
The scout didn’t fight the recoil of her blade, shifting her grip to the left hand as she used the momentum to spin away from the false pauper’s follow up attack. She pivoted on her left foot and swung her sword up in an underhand slash that forced her foe to retreat a half-step, his sword out of position as her right hand reached out to grasp the collar of his tattered tunic and pulled. He doubled over as her steel-clad foot slammed into his stomach, then shuddered as she slashed his throat.
Pireyeen let the corpse fall to the ground, holding her sword at the ready as she searched for the knife thrower, ready to fend off his assault–but he was nowhere to be found. Instead she saw the black-clad swordsman stepping over the corpse of the second guard, eyes not on her but on the western side of the Temple… and a determined Tol making his way towards a side room.
Swallowing a curse, Pireyeen broke into a dead run, shouting a challenge. The swordsman saw her and sprinted towards the Antipode- but the lieutenant reached him first, her sword fully extended before her to keep the swordsman at bay as her other hand grabbed the Antipode’s robe.
“I told you to–!”
“The Order of Silence!” Tol struggled against her grasp. “They took your King! Don’t you see–if it wasn’t the Crig, there’s a chance he’s alive, but I need to trail them now!”
As if goaded by Tol’s words, the swordsman lunged and Pireyeen barely managed to deflect it–the blade cut into the padded leather beneath her ribs rather than piercing her throat. Her eyes met the swordsman’s and she realized he too had a strange eye–a glass eye.
“What you need to do,” Pireyeen said, flicking her blade at her opponent’s blind side–only to find he could see perfectly well with the artificial eye, “is quit squirming while I deal with this false-eyed freak!”
“Oh by the Vanished, I’ll deal with him then,” the Antipode shook free of her grasp and awkwardly climbed a pew. He raised his hands to the air, chanting in some tongue Pireyeen couldn’t decipher as his sightless eyes opened wide.
With an inarticulate cry the swordsman lunged towards Tol, abandoning his attack on Pireyeen as well as any pretense of defense. Training took over and the lieutenant practically severed the swordsman’s torso from his hips before her conscious mind recognized the opening.
“Ouch. That sounds like a killing blow if I’ve ever heard one.” Tol lowered his arms and blinked. “Can we go now?”
“Yes–I, I mean–” Pireyeen looked down at the swordsman, then at the Antipode. “You can use magic?”
“Lands-abandoned, of course not. My eyes are the only thing magical about me.”
“But then why–”
“Your ‘false eyed’ friend was a Circuitor–an assassin of the Order. Very good at sensing magic, but not so great at distinguishing one kind from another…” Tol stepped off the pew and held out his hand. “Now, shall we go find us a King?”
If Karuha’s fate rested on the shoulders of Efferol Damdred, then Naisha firmly believed that the smart move would be to side with the Crig.
“Take me back,” snarled the Mage, for what must have been the eleventh time since they’d been ushered into the palace gardens to await the arrival of the Prince. “Don’t you hear the drums? The bastards could attack at any time!”
“And what were you planning to do if they did?” Naisha stretched out both her legs on the stone bench. She flicked a pebble at one of the nesting birds and smiled in satisfaction as it squawked and flew off. “Ram them with your stump?”
The Mage rose to his feet, face like a ripe tomato, but Ilahen pushed him back down on to the bench. The Katu had positioned herself nearby after the last time Efferol had made a run for it.
“Naisha, enough.” The white-haired woman’s tone was severe.
“Look, I just don’t see what’s so hard for him to understand–if he wants nomad blood, isn’t it better for him to get Unsealed and release hell on the Crig?” Naisha paused. “Well, a moderate, careful hell anyway…”
“You don’t understand.” The mage clenched the chubby fingers of his one hand. He was a stout man, more in the image of a baker than a Mage. Efferol looked down at the remains of his left arm, at the runic insignia on the stump. “Only the King can break my Seal.”
“And once we find Bropil’s body,” Naisha said, ignoring the warning look her Katu gave her, “Velaril can be crowned and he can take care of your Stitch-damned Seal.”
“You know nothing of our traditions.” Efferol shook his head. “You need the entire Concord to be present at a coronation–”
“We know that–”
“–and they all fled during the last evacuation.”
Ilahen and Naisha shared a look. That was something they hadn’t known.
“I’m sure there must be some way around that,” Naisha ventured, but Efferol’s laugh cut her off.
“Certainly, if the King abdicates,” the Mage cackled. “And the King is dead! My King…”
Before either of the Vespar could make any further inquiries, the castle steward arrived to announce that the Velaril was ready to receive them.
The mage and the two Vespar were led to a long hallway that terminated in a tall open doorway around which ten of the Prince’s Royal Sentinels clustered, weapons at the ready and visors lowered. As they arrived at the entrance to the throne room, a pair of Sentinels stepped out of the formation to approach the Vespar, holding out their hands mutely.
“I’d sooner walk in there naked,” Naisha began, but Ilahen was already handing her staff to one of the Sentinels–who almost buckled under its weight.
“It’s alright Naisha. Remember, a Vespar is never unarmed.”
Easy for her to say. Naisha scowled at her Katu then began removing her blades from their sheathes and laying them gently at the feet of the Sentinel.
“If I find so much as a dagger out of place…”
“Naisha,” Ilahen called and with a last warning glare at the assembled Sentinels, the younger Vespar followed the mage and her Katu into the room, her empty scabbards thumping dully against her leather armor.
The throne room of Karuha’s palace was a simple, almost hollow affair, impressing with its size more than its opulence. A single window was set atop the domed ceiling, so high that the noon light that filtered into the room almost seemed to hesitate before diving to the cold stone floor. A lush crimson carpet climbed the five steps to the top of the raised platform on which rested the ivory throne that had been the seat of the Arkabel family for generations. Beside the throne, flanked by another pair of Sentinels, stood the latest in that line.
“So,” said Prince Velaril Arkabel. “This is my Father’s secret weapon.”
The Prince of Karuha had the look of a man resigned. The dark circles under his eyes gave the impression that he stared out at the world from a deeper, darker place. That his plate mail armor was of the highest quality was clear not because of any jewels or fine gilding, but by reason of the armor still being functional in spite of the number of blows it must have taken to amass such an impressive collection of dents and scratches. As the Prince’s eyes fell on Efferol, his lips turned upwards in an expression of acute satisfaction.
The two Vespar bowed low while Efferol sank to one knee. “My Prince,” said the Mage.
Velaril gestured for him to rise, impatience clear in his expression. “You could have saved us a lot of effort if you had simply made yourself known to me, Mage.”
“My instructions were to keep my identity secret from any but the King, my Prince,” Efferol said. “But… if you have some way, some manner to release–”
“Yes, well, we shall set our minds to that.” Naisha’s brow furrowed slightly at the distant tone in Velarin’s voice. He moved swiftly now, like an artist seizing a moment of inspiration. “In the interim, you will remain here as our guest.”
As the Sentinels moved towards Efferol, Ilahen stepped forward, moving to the foot of the steps. “Prince Velaril, if I may, how go the preparations for your coronation?”
The Prince seemed to start, almost as if he’d forgotten the Vespar were still there. “There can be no coronation unless proof of my Father’s death can be presented to the Concord. You know this, Katu.”
“Yes, and we’ve recently learned that the Concord have fled the city. If there is any way we can aid them in returning to–”
Velarin flipped his hand as if brushing aside Ilahen’s offer. “The coronation is no longer your concern Vespar. I shall send word to you should we have any further need of your services.”
“Your highness, you are one splintered gate away from a massacre,” Ilahen said, her eyes shifting from the Prince to the advancing Sentinels as they passed her by on her left. “I’m not sure you understand the situation Prince Velaril: it is your duty to–”
“I know my duty!” Velaril’s dark eyes burned. “My people shall overcome this ordeal with our own strength.”
This was wrong. Naisha loosened her muscles in preparation for action as she looked askance at her Katu. Ilahen stood, apparently at ease, but the younger woman could see she was flexing her right hand.
“As you wish,” Ilahen said. The Sentinels had almost reached Efferol. “In that case, I wish you good hunting.”
Ilahen took two steps up the dais and held out her right hand to the Prince. Velaril looked at it as if she’d offered him a hissing cobra.
“That… won’t be necessary.”
He knows about the hand.
Naisha froze. No one but the Vespar should know about the hand. No one still breathing… unless-
As the first of the Sentinels reached for Efferol, Naisha grasped the scabbard of one of her longer swords and slammed the butt into his throat.
The other Sentinel drew his blade. But before he could bring it to bear, Naisha sent him crashing to the ground with a kick to the back of his kneecaps.
Before he could rise, Naisha picked up his fallen sword and stabbed him through the neck. As the guard crashed to the ground his visor flipped open and the Vespar found herself staring into the glass eye of their true enemy.
“Gods-Dead-and-Vanished!” She spat on the corpse. “Shoulda known.”
“What–what are you doing?!?” Efferol gasped, recoiling as Naisha grasped him by the stump.
“Getting you out of here,” Ilahen said as she drew up next to them, one hand carrying the Prince’s sword, the other dragging Velaril with his left leg twisted at an improbable angle.
“Kill the Mage! Kill the–” was all Velaril managed to get out before Ilahen broke his other leg.
As more Circuitors poured into the room, Naisha stepped forward. “Finally some ac–” she stopped as she saw Ilahen’s outstretched hand.
“Oh come on,” the younger Vespar said.
“Sorry,” Ilahen said, her tone regretful as she pulled off the glove from her right hand. Naisha tried not to cringe away as she saw the bulbous, pulsating mass that squirmed to life in the center of Ilahen’s palm, all teeth and tongue and hideous maw. “No time. Make sure our Prince gets the point.”
The charge of the Circuitors faltered, then stopped: not soon enough.
As the screaming–and the slurping–began, Naisha flipped the Prince over and propped him up beside her, holding his face towards the carnage. Beside them, Efferol was suddenly and noisily sick.
“Quite a difference between knowing about the Ravenous and seeing it eh?” She ruffled his hair, almost fondly. “Now, I’m going to tell you a little something about what makes a Vespar Katu so special… and then you’re going to tell me what you’ve done to your father.”
Tol pulled at the hand he could not see as he raced across the city streets, trying to keep the Order’s men in view of his Gift as they stole the King away right under the collective noses of his subjects.
“It’s ingenious really, using a wagon in the midst of the evacuation. They fit right in.”
His companion however, had her own concerns.
“The King has a Mage?” Pireyeen’s voice was incredulous. “Why didn’t you just tell me?”
“I had no idea how you’d feel about the use of magic. I knew you’d do your duty regardless, so why risk complicating things?”
“You could have–wait.” Tol felt her tug on his hand and he stopped, then changed direction as he felt her pull him towards the left. “There’s some debris in the middle of the road.”
“They turned down there,” he said, pointing at an avenue to the right. Pireyeen led him towards the corner circuitously, but Tol took the lead as they plunged once more into the warren of streets. He saw the wagon again almost immediately, empty this time, as his Gift showed him two large Circuitors bringing the unconscious King into a wide, squat stone structure.
“I think we found the King’s new summer palace,” he said, pointing towards the building, even as he tried to figure out why it seemed so familiar. “Now we can–”
“Wait.” She pulled him to the shelter of a nearby shop front. “Let me scout it out–they’re not likely to have left the King unattended.”
“Which, some might argue, would be a prime reason not to go in there alone. We’ll go together.”
Pireyeen had the good grace not to laugh. Instead her hand tightened on his for a moment, and then she let go. “If I haven’t returned in a thousand beats, go and get help.”
Tol counted to six hundred before he went in after her.
The Antipode found himself standing in a foyer, a small one given the size of the abode. Still Tol found that he wasn’t surprised by the modest space, nor by the exceedingly narrow corridor it opened up into. In fact, he felt that if he concentrated, he could almost tell what was behind that door–
Tol’s feet caught on something and he stumbled, landing painfully on his shoulder while his knees were cushioned by the obstacle itself.
Blind boy, blind as a bat, why are your friends so few…
Tol grit his teeth, fighting back the panic and accompanying self-pity. He resisted the urged to rise too quickly, his hands checking the floor to make out just what it was he had stumbled upon, his left hand encountered something soft, fleshy…
Before he could shout, Tol felt a hand close around his mouth and he thrashed wildly before he heard Pireyeen whisper in his ear.
“He’s alive Tol. Alive.”
She led him past the corpse, past junctions where other narrow corridors intersected with their own, creating a maze of lanes interspaced with identical wooden doors… a familiar maze.
“The Belvoir house.”
“Yes. Looks like someone finally found a use for his dungeon.”
She led him past an ascending staircase, into a hidden alcove and down into the bowels of the residence. As he emerged on to the lowest floor, he saw an old man bound to a chair, saw a blonde Circuitor finger a serrated knife with loving care before drawing it slowly across wrinkled skin.
Tol turned away just as a ragged voice called out from his left. “Lieutenant? Who–”
He felt Pireyeen release her hold. “This is Tol, your Majesty. An Antipode… from the Mad Mongrels.”
Tol felt her grasp his hands again–then another pair was laid atop his, creased and trembling.
“I… confess,” whispered King Bropil Arkabel, “that when I hired you… this was… not the mission I had in mind.”
“But that doesn’t mean we’re not getting paid for it, right?” Tol said, and smiled when he heard their laughter.
Pireyeen carried the King on her back, while Tol in turn kept a hand pressed lightly against the old man’s back for guidance.
“It was my son,” King Bropil said in a dead voice as they reached the main level. “A member of the Order this whole time and I never… They wanted me to give them the name of my Mage, they tried to make me… But the Gods… gave me strength and I–”
“It’s over now, your Majesty,” Pireyeen said. “We’ll get you back to the palace, unseal your Mage, end this nightmare. All is well.”
She had always been an optimist.
Tol heard the sickening sucking noise of a blade sinking into flesh half a moment before Pireyeen started to scream.
“Got you,” a rough voice, thick, as if the speaker had a cold. “Got you Mage-lover!”
“Pen!” Tol shouted as he heard the sound of bodies hitting the floor, metal on metal, a discordance of senses as his Gift showed him nothing but empty air as Pireyeen wailed–
“The King!” A clash of metal, then splitting leather. “G-go Tol–go!”
A shaking, emaciated hand found his and he grasped it firmly, turning to run.
He shifted his grip when they reached the stairs, hands fumbling for the old King’s shoulders, then pushing him upward, higher and higher until the echoes of battle were muffled by distance, even if her screams were not.
They emerged, panting, on to the top floor. There was only one room here, only one door which Tol’s Gift showed invitingly ajar.
“Inside,” he gasped, after confirming the open doorway with his hands. He heard the King stumble inside, breathing ragged, the surge of terror-induced energy overcome by Bropil’s aged, tortured body. The Antipode followed, fumbling the door closed behind him even as he heard footsteps on the stairs, slow and heavy.
The Antipode’s Gift showed a room that was practically empty, containing only an old mattress atop a fancy wooden bed frame. Tol ran his fingers along the dirty covers to confirm its presence.
“The bed–quickly.” Tol circled around the frame and put his weight into it; a moment later he felt another force join him, weak but constant.
The Antipode felt the bed bump into door just as he heard the doorknob rattle. A second later he heard the sound of a body hitting the stout wood: whump, whump.
“No tricks now, blind Mage,” said the muffled voice. “Split you like your whore!”
It wasn’t fair. They’d almost made it.
Something tickled the back of his mind; a memory, freshly viewed, bubbling back to the surface. The old man. The paranoid old coot. Almost of their own volition, his fingers dropped to the bedframe, traced their way beneath the headboard–
–he could hear the wood begin to splinter, the door begin to give–
–found metal, smooth to the touch, cold in his hand–
–the bed shook, quivered, hinges squealed–
–found the trigger, pulled it free, raised it and fired–
He heard the crunch of metal puncturing wood, the sound of the rough voice cursing, screaming; then the thud-thud-whack of a body tumbling down the stairs.
Blind boy, blind as a bat…
…what can a bat boy do?
He didn’t know how long it took him to get down the stairs, didn’t know how long it was after that before Ilahen and Naisha found him.
Too late, either way. Too late.
Naisha grinned viciously at the confused and terrified look on the face of Prince Velaril Arkabel as he awoke, gagged and soaking wet from the icy water that Ilahen had poured over his body. He tried to move only to discover he was bound, hand and foot, to Karuha’s ivory throne.
“At least you have a better chair than I had,” said King Bropil from his perch on a stool set in front of his son. He was dressed in full royal regalia: a silver furred cape, a crimson doublet with hanging sleeves, and atop his head the royal crown. Beside him stood Efferol Damdred while behind him were arrayed the Mad Mongrels: Naisha and her brother Cygnus; Strayhorn the half-breed; Ilahen Kigani; Toreol Dinlangen.
“Do you know why there are so few Mages of power, Velaril?” asked the King. “It is because the Masters of the Inner City require that a Mage’s Seal be commensurate with the amount of magical ability he is allowed to have. To have the power to, say, single-handedly turn back an entire army, a Mage would need to consent to the imposition of a Seal so onerous that it would only be lifted in situations that were literally life or death.”
The King stood, and as he moved toward the bound Prince, Naisha broke formation as well, moving to Velaril’s right side. “When I requested that Efferol be given such power, the Masters decreed that he would only be able to use it if he was covered in the blood of the King of Karuha… a substantial amount of it in fact.”
The King removed his crown, fingers tracing its edges. “Sadly, I appear to have given a bit too much blood in the past few days and find myself unfit for this particular duty. But you, my son… I hear you know your duty.”
The Prince shook his head, eyes wide, but Bropil merely held his son’s face by the jaw and pressed the crown down firmly upon his forehead, even as Nasiha unsheathed her longest, sharpest blade. “I hereby anoint you King Velaril the first.”
“Long may he reign,” intoned the assembled as Naisha brought down her sword.
“So I heard the King offered you a job eh? A seat with the Concord–that’s a big compliment.”
Tol made a non-committal sound, his back against the shapely thighs of Erisfera of the Verdant Valley.
“I hope he didn’t take it too hard when you turned him down.” Naisha paused, and so did the incessant sound of her knife scraping against the whetstone. “You did turn him down right?”
Tol sighed. “Yes, I turned him down.” He waited a beat, then gambled: “You can stop waving your knife around now.”
He heard nothing at first, then: “Stop acting like you can see me,” she said, her voice sullen. Tol grinned. Bullseye.
“You coulda taken it,” she continued. “Not like you’ve been thinking straight the past few days.”
Tol felt his eyebrows arc. “Is that… concern I hear, Naisha Chith?”
Her only answer was to resume sharpening her knife, if, perhaps a trifle more vigorously. Tol returned his attention to the city he could see just beyond the Temple entrance; his Gift showed him the Old Quarter as it had been, a Karuha in pre-dawn darkness, still under siege.
“You sure you want to do this?”
“Want?” Tol shook his head. “Not the word I’d use, no.”
“You’ll miss the good parts,” her voice took on the excited timbre of a child talking about her favorite toy. “I can show you exactly where I stood when bloody Efferol turned the Crig siege towers into molten lava–it was quite the sight.”
“Hmm, combusting nomads… Somehow, I don’t think we share the same tastes, Naisha.”
“Tell me about it,” her voice was suddenly serious. “I, for one, wouldn’t make a habit of reliving a broken heart.”
The Antipode’s face twitched. “I… I need to see. It’s… it’s what I do, Naisha.”
“She wouldn’t have wanted this.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” he said. “I think she would have… liked having someone know how she died.”
Tol felt a hand on his shoulder; calloused, but warm. “You’ll see but you won’t be able to change anything. It’ll be torture.”
He took her wrist and held her hand in front of his face. His Gift showed him nothing.
“I’m used to it.”
He felt her pull her arm away, heard her heave a huge sigh. “By Gods-Dead-and-Vanished, I swear you’re the most sentimental Vespar alive, Tol.”
Tol blinked, and this time he did turn away from the city, his eyes swiveling to the spot in the air from which her voice had seemed to emanate.
“What did you call me?”
“Nothing,” came her reply. “All I said was: I’m glad I brought a lot of knives.”
Tol smiled, then leaned his head back, waiting for his Gift to show him his own face… and that of the girl he had promised himself to, so long ago.
Tags: Paolo V. Chikiamco