Bonds and Consequences

A serial novel of epic fantasy

Archive for April, 2009

Chapter 5 – Rafella

Posted by jpbrassard on April 6, 2009

When she awoke on the chill flagstones of the floor, Rafella felt that she was falling still, though — curiously — the sense was that she was falling up. Which could not be right, could it?

She opened her eyes to a greater brightness than she remembered — she could easily see the archaic tile work on the high, arched ceiling above her, and that had to be at least twenty hands high, probably closer to thirty. Which meant one of two things: fire, or more people had come, bearing lamps or torches. Either way, she had to find out what was going on.

Experimentally, she sat up and tried to stand, but a wave of nausea swept over her, the world descending into a grayish mist. With an arm that felt weak and insubstantial, she somehow managed to stop herself from falling back completely, but she was unable to do much more than that. She squeezed her eyes shut and dropped her head, breathing shallowly through her mouth, willing herself not to vomit.

Rae?

“Poul,” she replied thickly, unable to raise her head. She had never before felt this drained after drawing from the Root. “Did I . . . ?”

“Yes,” her husband answered, closer now, near her. There was an odd tightness to his voice that she did not recognize. “Whatever you did countered the Usurpation.”

“Had to expel the Adept from his mind,” Rafella said breathlessly. It was hard to talk. “Could have used the Way on us, through Stepan. That strong. I had to tap the Root.”

She felt, rather than saw, him crouch down beside her, placing a cool hand on her cheek. “I know,” he said, concern evident in his soft baritone. “Are you well?”

“Never. . . did anything like that before,” she stuttered. “Drained me more than I thought. I’ll feel better in a bit.” Then, with trepidation: “Gracie?”

“She’s fine,” he said, and relief like she’d never known overcame her. If something had happened to Graecanna . . .

“More than fine, actually,” Poul continued, a note of puzzlement creeping into his voice. “I don’t think I have ever seen her this calm. She has not cried at all.”

“Mama,” Gracie said in a small voice, and Rafella found she could raise her head, after all. The grayish mist from before had receded and she looked at her daughter.

Poul was right: Gracie was, indeed, fine, and more than fine. Gracie sat calmly in the crook of her father’s arm, one hand absently stroking his matted black hair — otherwise, her stillness bordered on eerie. She was looking at Rafella, her expression placid and . . . expectant, somehow. Her wide, green-blue eyes regarded Rafella with an intelligence that simply was not possible for a fourteen-month-old child to possess, yet it did not seem out of place.

They looked at each other in silence for a handful of heartbeats, then Graecanna stretched out her hands and reached for her mother.

Poul started to pull her back. “No, Gracie, I think — ”

“Let her,” Rafella said, sitting up straighter. She still felt weak, but her strength was returning rapidly now. “I want to hold my baby. And you could check on Stepan, make sure he’s all right.”

The tightness that she’d heard before in Poul’s voice suddenly sprang up on his face, the brow tensing, the skin around the eyes wrinkling, the eyes themselves shining with worry or sorrow. Her husband didn’t say or do anything for a moment, simply looked at her like that, as if the weight of the world had unexpectedly dropped on his shoulders. Then he looked away from her, making busywork of fussing with Gracie’s hair.

She experienced a familiar sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. He could never look her in the eye if he had something to tell her that he thought she wouldn’t want to hear. “What’s wrong?” she asked her husband pointedly. “Where is Stepan?”

Though, if she were to be honest with herself, she already knew the answer to that question already, didn’t she?

“Poul,” Rafella said, hating the ugly note of panic that had, once again, crept into her voice. Where is Stepan?

“Dead,” Poul said softly, refusing to meet her gaze for a moment. Then he raised his eyes to hers and said, “Ioxh preserve him.”

The words didn’t make sense to Rafella at first. For a moment, she simply looked at her husband, unable to grasp what he was saying, his words like the buzzing of insects in her ears. Then something inside her shifted, with what Rae could have sworn was an audible click, and she forced her gaze away from Poul, to the crumpled, still (so still too still) body of her brother. She saw the stillness of his chest, the slackness of his jaw. Saw the coins already placed on his eyes, to keep the death gaze shuttered, and her world reeled.

Sweet Wyrtheras, what have I done?

“Poul”, she said after a moment of ponderous silence, her gaze still intent on the body of her dead brother. “Give Gracie to me.”

Poul hesitated. “Are you sure that’s wise?”

Now Rafella did look at him, and something in her eyes caused him to blanch. She was surprised to find that, right now, she didn’t much care what he saw there. “Do you think it wise,” she said, a distant part of her wondering at the cold, haughty voice coming out of her mouth, “to keep my child out of my arms? To deny me that small comfort? Do you really think that wise?

For a moment, her husband looked at her as if she had gone mad; she thought he might continue to rebuff her, out of pique or spite or worry or some combination of the three. Instead, with a hint of disapproval in his eyes that was gone so quickly she wasn’t sure she hadn’t imagined it, he handed Graecanna over to Rafella’s waiting arms. “Be careful now, Gracie,” Poul said as Rafella pulled her daughter close, breathing in the clean scent of her hair. “Mama’s tired.”

Almost by way of reply, Graecanna pushed herself slightly away from her mother’s embrace and gave Poul a long look that seemed to say, I know that, Father. I’m not an idiot.

Poul barked a single, humorless laugh and shook his head.

Graecanna looked at her father for a moment, then turned her attention back to Rafella. Again, she was struck by how knowing her daughter’s gaze was, and by how odd it was that it didn’t seem . . . well, odd.

Rafella suspected something larger was at play here, but her weary mind couldn’t quite grasp it.

“I’m well enough,” she said, starting to rise, the action made more difficult because she was now holding her daughter. “Besides, we need to go.”

“Go?” Poul asked. He made an abortive move to help her, but was stopped by a swift shake of her head.

“He knows where we are, Poul,” she explained, getting to one knee — from there, it was much easier, even if her head swam precariously and the edges of her vision went gray for a moment. “We cannot stay here, with no protection. We need to find Gray and the others.”

Poul nodded agreement. “You’ll get no argument from me on that.” He paused, looked at his wife with renewed worry. “Can you find him?”

Rafella met his gaze, knowing what he was really asking: Do you have the strength to find him? Do you have the strength to tap the Root again? “Yes,” she answered, closing her eyes. With her free hand, she reached up and lightly grasped the shard of Root Stone about her neck.

“Should I take — ?”

“No,” was her terse reply. It would take longer to explain to him that what she was doing now was different than before, that she was using her connection to the Root rather than channeling its power through her, than it would to simply do it.

“There,” she said after a moment. She opened her eyes, catching Poul still anxiously looking at her, his hands half-raised as if in anticipation of needing to spring to her aid should she once again collapse. He quickly lowered them, having the good grace to look embarrassed, at least. “He’s below us, second floor, but I think he’s moving toward us. If we hurry, we’ll catch him on the main stair.”

Poul’s hesitation was refreshingly brief. “I’ll get my sword,” was all he said.

Moments later, they encountered Granil, flanked by a single weary-looking member of the Keepsguard, at the top of the main stair. Like their brother, Granil — eldest of her siblings and recently-appointed Lord Commander of her Keepsguard — was clad only in his nightclothes, his feet bare, his long auburn hair (so much like her own) mussed and tangled, hanging limply past his shoulders and across his brow. It was clear he’d been fighting: his nightshirt was stained with blood and sweat; there was a reddish-brown smear on one night-stubbled cheek; and, Rafella could see by the light of the single guttering torch carried by his escort, his sword had seen recent, violent use.

“Rae,” Granil said, his voice coarse and raw, yet unmistakably buoyed by relief at the sight of his sister. He gave her a quick, one-armed hug, then stood back and with one nicked and bloodied hand gently cupped her daughter’s cheek. “And Graecanna, too, thank the God. I thought we may be too late, that somehow they — Ioxh’s Tears, Rae, what happened to your hair?

“Mama,” Gracie said, patting her uncle’s hand with her own and nodding. “Hair.”

Rafella felt her world spinning. “What do you mean?” she asked in a small voice. “What about my hair?”

“It’s gone white,” Granil answered. “Not all of it, just a lock at the front, but . . . it’s white, Rae. Not gray. White.” He looked at her, concern crinkling his brow. “This is because you tapped the Root. Before the Third was complete.”

This was not a question. “I had no choice. He wanted Gracie.”

She saw understanding suddenly blossom in his eyes. “Stepan,” he said softly. Again, it was not a question.

Rafella nodded, unable to do more than that for the time being.

“Is he . . . ?”

Rafella nodded again, felt a single tear spill down her cheek. “He’s dead, Gray,” she whispered. “I couldn’t — he was going to take her and — and I had to . . . ”

“The bloody Way magus,” Granil growled.

“I couldn’t — he was too strong, and . . . ”

“Shhh,” her brother said in a gentler tone. “We can grieve for Stepan later. Ioxh has him and will preserve him till such time as we may meet again beyond the Pale. But, for now, we must get to someplace safe. You and Graecanna are not yet out of danger.”

Rafella closed her eyes for a moment, pushing back on the tide of guilt threatening to consume her, all the while trying to ignore the thready beat of panic that had been lurking in the background of her thoughts since Graecanna’s nightmare. When she opened her eyes again, she felt more in control. “How many?” she asked her brother, who could hear the change in her tone, the shift from sister to Queen, instantaneous. “How many does the Way magus have protecting him?”

“Twenty, at least,” Granil answered after a brief hesitation to mentally calculate. “Though I’d wager thirty or more. To start — we’d slain a few, perhaps as many as five, before I left Monir.”

“How did they get in?” she asked.

“That is not important — ”

“They were discovered in the kitchens,” came a low, familiar alto voice, and Rafella trained her gaze past her brother’s shoulder to find Shamora, the Root Mother and Ar-Naetra of the School — and Rafella’s teacher for as long as she could remember — striding slowly up the main stair toward them, alone. She was dressed in humble nightclothes, unadorned by the trappings of pride afforded her by her station as the second-most powerful woman in Rûhn, and her iron-gray hair, normally bound and covered by a white wimple, flowed loose about her shoulders, hung straight down her back, nearly reaching her buttocks. Though nearing her sixtieth nameday, she stood erect, climbing the stair without aid of the polished oak balustrade, as others her age might have done. Arms crossed in front of her, so that each hand disappeared into the loose sleeve of the opposite arm, she was the exemplar of supreme competence. Her simple presence was enough to lift Rafella’s spirits a little.

“It was Chae, actually,” the Root Mother went on, seeming to glide up to their level at the top of the flight. “Your father’s appetite unwittingly alerted us to the approaching danger.”

She smiled, a tiny upward curve of her lips, but in that movement one could see that Shamora ces HegLeinz, Root Mother to the Queen of Rûhn and Ar-Naetra of the Treptis Trepae, had been beautiful once. And vain.

“But that is not important now,” Shamora continued after a beat. Something in her voice, some hollow note that had not been there before, caused the hairs on the back of Rafella’s neck to stand on end. Unconsciously, she held Graecanna to her chest a little more tightly as Shamora went on, “What is done is done and cannot be immediately redressed. There are other, more pressing issues at hand.”

“Agreed,” Granil said. “Rae and I were just discussing our next move. What do you think? What’s next?”

“What’s next?” the Root Mother repeated, the small smile dancing across her lips again. “This.”

With a speed that belied her age, Shamora drew one hand out of the opposite sleeve and calmly buried the blade of the dagger she’d hidden there into the throat of Granil’s escort. In the same instant, her other hand went to the amulet she, like Rafella, wore about her neck. Without pause, Shamora turned from the guard to face Granil, extending a hand toward the Lord Commander of the Keepsguard, fingers rigidly splayed.

Dimly, through her mounting horror, Rafella realized what was happening.

Too late.

Shamora uttered a sorcerous word. Rafella could feel the Power of the Root coalesce about the Root Mother, though distantly, without the immediacy of personally tapping the Root. Her skin tingled with a thousand thousand tiny pinpricks and she opened her mouth to call out to Granil, to warn him, even though she knew no warning could save him.

Then the glamour was cast; the Power of the Root sprang from Shamora’s splayed fingers, setting the tingling on Rafella’s skin aflame; there was a bright flash of something that was not quite light and a sound like the far-off felling of trees and the rush of displaced air . . .

Rafella watched in horror as her brother was eviscerated by a beam of what looked like light. He gasped as it went through him, his body tensing, going rigid. He uttered a series of small, strangled gurgles that were somehow the worst thing Rafella had ever heard. Then, in a purely reflexive reaction, Granil tried to clutch at the beam with his non-sword hand. The fingers on that hand were instantly vaporized to the knuckle. Granil let out a tiny, childish shriek, staring dumbly at his ruined hand.

Then Rafella felt the Power disassociate and the beam disappeared. Her brother immediately dropped to his knees.

“Gray!” she cried.

“Granil!” Poul shouted at the same time, from behind her.

Both of them reached out to the stricken man, heedless of the suddenly dangerous Shamora in their midst, urged on by the powerful need to help a loved one in pain.

Shamora, however, was not to be forgotten so easily. She muttered another cant; immediately, Poul and Rafella were frozen in their tracks, each surrounded by a softly glowing nimbus whose illumination seemed to be made up of every single color imaginable, all at once. Graecanna tumbled from Rafella’s suddenly leaden arms but did not fall far, as Shamora cast another spell that caught the babe before she hit the top of the stair and levitated her to where Shamora stood. The Root Mother took the toddler in her arms, cradling the child to her bosom with absent-minded affection.

“I had no need to do that,” the old woman said, as calmly as ever. She might have been discussing the weather, or the weave of a rug, or the ripeness of an apple. “I could have taken Graecanna without violence, without hurting Granil. But you DarClamants are so bloody righteous! To be quite honest with you, Rafella, my sweet: it feels rather good to help bring your family down a peg or two.”

She smiled again, then, without further ado — save for an almost inaudible tsk as she had to step over Granil, who had fully collapsed at the top of the flight — she calmly made her way down the main stair, back the way she had come.

Rage and despair surged inside Rafella, the strength and intensity of the emotional wave surprising, even a little intoxicating. She struggled against her sorcerous bonds, but try as she might, she could not move a single muscle. Her lungs still drew breath, her heart still beat, her brain was perfectly clear: it was everything else that was completely shut down. Almost a living death, if such an oxymoron could make any sense whatsoever.

It was a couple of moments before she realized that Granil had died, only a step or two away, without her knowing. His face had (thankfully) turned away from her when he’d fallen forward, as if even in death he was ashamed of what had happened, ashamed of failing to protect her and Gracie. There was very little in the way of blood; the beam which had killed him had instantly cauterized the flesh through which it passed. If it weren’t for the smoking ruin of his midsection, the charred hole in his back, he could almost be mistaken for being asleep.

But he’s not, she though bitterly. He’s dead, dead at the hand of your teacher, your most trusted advisor, the woman who was almost more of a mother to you than your own mother. And you never even had an inkling of her betrayal.

You blind fool.

For a few moments, she couldn’t tell how long, Rafella simply surrendered to the canker of self-pity. There didn’t seem to be anything to be done, no way out of their situation, so why not wallow? Graecanna was gone, stolen; her two eldest brothers dead; Ioxh knew how many of her Keepsguard slain; the very heart of her realm attacked, breeched, sullied by the lone Way magus belonging to some order from the Continent of which she’d never heard. This night could very well doom her reign on the Root Throne, might even tear her beloved nation asunder. Why not simply give in to cruel fate? What was left? The traitorous Shamora and the Way magus for whom she worked had stolen it all . . .

Rafella’s mind stopped racing of a sudden. If she could have, she would have blinked stupidly, as her self-destructive thoughts spontaneously re-ordered themselves, presenting her with a potential solution that should have been blindingly obvious. She had her own Way magus at her disposal, after all, even if these days Anoli spent three nights out of five finding new and interesting ways to drink himself to death. And the Root shard that hung about her neck at all times was actually resting against the flesh of her bosom — there was nothing that said she had to be gripping the shard in order to wield the Root magick, just that she be touching it. She’d never tried to cast a glamour without holding the shard, but if ever there was a time to try, now was it. Not to break Shamora’s paralytic spell — she felt certain she didn’t have the capability to do that without the Third Binding completed — but to send out a call for help to her Way magus, perhaps the only other magicker in the Keep with the ability to set her and Poul free.

Free, so that they could get their daughter back.

Rafella closed her eyes and concentrated on the Root shard where it touched her skin, summoning the energy and focus needed to send out her desperate plea for aid.

 

<< Chapter 4 – SebastenMain — Chapter 6 – Sebasten (coming soon) >>

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Chapter 4 – Sebasten

Posted by jpbrassard on April 2, 2009

No matter how long he might have before his time Beyond the Pale; no matter how many times he had seen it with his own eyes; no matter that he knew the mechanisms at work: Sebasten Mol would never grow accustomed to the sight of man being flayed by . . . well, nothing.

It was a favorite glamour of Kaliks’s, he knew from long experience, and a particularly tricky one to cast — which, Sebasten realized, was probably the reason the old Adept favored it. Even in a situation like this, where his powers and attention were distracted by the need to maintain wards to defend them from bolts and arrows, Kaliks would, given the choice, use this spell above all others when the need arose to kill, as if to prove his superiority by its use. Look at what I have wrought! Others have naught the skill as I!

Sebasten Mol felt something for the old man he had never felt, in all his years with the Order: a semblance of pity. What does he try to prove? he thought idly, mostly blocking out the screams of the man Kaliks had just skinned alive. For what shortcoming, perceived or otherwise, does he try to overcome?

He did not know the answer to these larger questions, most likely never would. But he did know that, ever since he had regained his strength after the disturbingly powerful ripple in the MindSea — even a failed initiate like Sebasten had felt it, a momentary disembodied pressure on the back of his skull, almost pleasurable in a way — had sent him reeling, Kaliks had been wielding his magic like a man possessed. Like a slave boss, upbraided by his master, exacting his vengeance on the slaves beneath him.

Like a child, Sebasten thought sourly, as the Way Mage turned his sorcery on yet another hapless victim, eyes bright with feral glee, his thin, wrinkled lips intoning the Argots silently. Like a spoiled brat, throwing a fit when a favorite toy is taken away. Bile threatened to surge up his throat as another Rûhni guard — a young man who could not have yet seen his twentieth nameday — was caught up in the web of Kaliks’s glamour. Sebasten could feel the Way Mage gathering his might, the MindSea thrumming in the back of his head like a plucked mandolin string. The guard was lifted off the floor by unseen hands — Sebasten found himself wondering just what it was the lad was seeing; whatever it was, it terrified the guard, judging by the wideness of his eyes, the growing wetness at the crotch of his breeches — and then Kaliks completed the Argots, the final words coming out of his mouth as a barely audible hiss. At the same time, the old man slashed one hand down in a ripping gesture.

In one terrible instant, the guard’s flesh, from head to toes, was peeled from his body, exposing glistening muscle, sinew and bone. The resulting slough dropped to the floor unceremoniously, making a wet, flopping sound that incongruously reminded Sebasten of his mother doing laundry. A moment later it disintegrated into ash, as if consumed from within by unseen fire.

The boy hung silent in the air for a moment, leaking blood and plasma, his skinless head lolling to one side, lidless eyes unable to close against the pain. Then he screamed, an awful, anguished howl rising from the pit of his being, scraping raw from his ravaged, lipless mouth, and whatever pity Sebasten Mol had felt for Kaliks disappeared beneath the accusation in that wail.

I am a part of this, he thought with disgust as the boy’s scream somehow grew louder. I am a part of this horror.

He looked at Kaliks, whose feverish eyes were watching the skinned guard with a hunger that bordered on sexual arousal, and knew that the old man delighted in this torture. Killing wasn’t a necessary evil for Kaliks, as it was for a lifelong soldier like Mol; no, killing was a pastime, the most intoxicating of entertainments, and if the killing was more painful than it had to be, all the better.

As he watched, Kaliks’s lips peeled back from his teeth in a rictus grin, his wrinkled chin and jowls quivering orgasmically. Nausea swept over Sebasten in a wave, until he could bear it no longer. Turning, he raised his crossbow, took quick, sure aim, and fired.

The bolt took the guard through the throat, cutting off the horrible scream, killing him. An act of mercy.

Kaliks let out a guttural growl and whipped around to face Mol. The naked fury in his piercing eyes caused Sebasten to take an involuntary step backward.

“I was not yet finished!” the old Way Mage spat.

Refusing to think about the many ways Kaliks could kill him without lifting a finger, Sebasten replied firmly, “He was as good as dead already. I merely quickened the process.”

“It was not your place, Mol,” Kaliks replied, the anger and frustration in his voice making him sound like a man interrupted in the middle of coitus. “You forget yourself.”

In spite of himself, Sebasten felt his own ire rising. “Not my place?” he repeated incredulously. “I am a soldier; death is my business. No, you forget yourself, Kaliks. We are not here to torture lowly guards.

“We are not here simply for your pleasure.”

This last was meant to cut to the pith, despite the inherent danger in provoking Kaliks’s wrath, and Sebasten saw with muted satisfaction that he had found the mark. The Way Mage’s eyes narrowed until they were barely slits camouflaged in the wrinkles of his face, and he pressed his thin lips together so firmly that they disappeared into a barely discernible white line. Lonely, almost perfectly-round splotches of color appeared high on his cheeks, lurid against his otherwise grayish skin. His liver-spotted hands, arthritic knuckles bulbously swollen, curled into claws — the closest the old man could come to making fists.

He raised a palsied hand and Sebasten had a sickening moment to wonder if he had underestimated Kaliks’s temper — or overestimated his own importance to the mission — and was about to pay the ultimate price for the barb. How would the old bastard do it? Would he flay Sebasten like the Rûhni guard? Or would it be something even more gruesome, something that would draw out the pain for excruciatingly long moments?

Sebasten had only ever had the Way unleashed on him once, not long after he had joined the Order as an Initiate to see if his own latent ability with the MindSea could be harnessed, and it was not an experience he was ever likely to forget. The thing that Ty’vendech — the ancient Siil Adept who was Ar-Phostaeron of the Secthi Order and had been (it was often joked) since before there had even been a Secthi Order — manipulated into existence from the MindSea for his first true test as an Initiate had been a nightmare given corporeal form, a slavering creature with as many eyes as limbs (and it had had a great many limbs). His task had been a relatively simple one: to cast an effective ward of protection, known colloquially among the Initiates as “the Blanket” for its uncomplicated function, enveloping the caster in a nimbus of MindSea unreality, so that all who looked upon him would think him a number of steps from his actual position. The easiest of the defensive wards — really, the easiest of any of the glamours taught by the Order’s phostaers — but, of course, Sebasten’s throat froze closed at the sight of the creature (a creature only he could see, for Ty’vendech had cast it for him and him alone) and he had been unable to utter the Argots, the ritualized Old Tekamic words that gave access to the Way. Ty’vendech had been forced to intercede, muttering the Argots of the counter with contemptuous ease, and the creature had winked out of existence. Though, Sebasten knew, it had never really been there in the first place.

He had, of course, failed his first — and last — test as an Initiate.

The recollection of that night was so vivid, the non-existent creature so ghastly in his remembrance, that his mind shied away from the image still, nearly two decades later. As if the mere thought of it would bring it back.

In his most secret heart, Sebasten Mol believed that this just might be true.

He was brought back to the present by the sound of Kaliks’s voice. “Your impertenance will not go . . . unrewarded,” the mage said icily, pointing a rheumy finger at him. “For now, you are still needed.”

Sebasten breathed an inward sigh of relief. Like any lifelong soldier, he had a fondness for wagers — he didn’t know how many turns of the glass he had wasted throwing the bones, losing more often than winning. He did not, however, make a habit of wagering his life on the temper of a capricious and clearly sadistic old phostaer, especially one as demonstrably powerful as Kaliks. That he had cast his bones and won — or, at the very least, managed a draw — was nothing short of miraculous.

This night, at least, he appeared to be in a mood to gamble haphazardly. “Then let’s stop playing around and get on with this,” Sebasten said, turning away from the mage to survey the scene before him. He, Kaliks, and the three newest members of his squad that he’d held back with him for Kaliks’s protection — which seemed, on its face, patently absurd, considering how powerful he was in the Art of the Way, but the old man had insisted — were on a raised, stepped dais at the north end of the hall, which Kaliks had called “Monir” (named, he presumed, for something depicted in the bas relief images carved on the doors he had noticed earlier). All of the other men, with Uffo in the lead, were engaged in close combat at the southern end by an ever-increasing number of Rûhni guards and — so it appeared from Sebasten’s vantage point, in the guttering half-light of inconsistent torches — by Keep nobles, as well. They were quickly going to be outnumbered two-to-one, Sebasten realized. Already, they had lost five men, and Uffo was being forced to give ground as the Rûhni’s numbers kept growing.

They’d been set upon as they made their way through the audience chamber, the first of the Keep’s defenders — undoubtedly alerted by the servant boy with the bolt in his head who, annoyingly, hadn’t died quickly enough — bursting through the doors in the southeast corner of the hall just as Mol and Uffo were approaching. There had been three of them, Sebasten remembered. The first guard through the door Sebasten had dispatched easily enough, lopping the head from his shoulders in one sure, thoughtless motion; the second had been felled almost as quickly by Uffo, unleashing one of his favored djik, the infamous Baramundi six-pointed throwing star, burying it with unerring accuracy in the man’s throat.

The third, however, had immediately recognized what he and his now-deceased companions had discovered, and he’d stumbled backwards, tripping on his own feet after a couple of steps and tumbling to the tiled floor of the hallway outside. His clumsiness had saved him from Uffo’s second djik, which he’d drawn and thrown almost before the first star had left his nimble fingers; the gleaming six-pointed weapon had sailed a hair’s breadth over the Rûhni’s head, to embed itself in the hallway wall opposite, some ten arm-lengths away.

“Second time tonight, friend,” Sebasten had remarked with a grim smile, to which Uffo had not deigned to reply.

The man had loudly started calling for assistance then, shouting in Middle Barish, the guttural-sounding tongue of Rûhn (as well as the once-mighty city-states of the Barren Coast, across the sea to the north and east, whose ancestors had first come to Rûhn centuries earlier), all the while fumbling with his sword, which had become entangled between his legs and in the ridiculous cape he wore. Sebasten figured he was a guard captain, or whatever the Rûhni used for the equivalent rank, and one who had gained his position by virtue of a patron in the higher echelons, not by the merit of his own service: no self-respecting soldier would dare adorn himself with such a potential encumbrance while on duty.

When Uffo’s third djik found the mark, tearing into the man’s throat and cutting off his shouts with a gurgling yelp, Sebasten had spit on the floor at the man’s feet, to show his disgust.

Then the other Rûhni started to arrive and they had to fall back into the audience hall. They’d not been able to get any closer to the royal apartments, which had been their goal. They were bogged down here and would soon become hopelessly trapped if they couldn’t either find a way around their current impasse or beat a hasty retreat and pray they could make it back to their boats without being slaughtered. Kaliks’s Usurpation had failed, Sebasten knew, and they were wasting time while he exacted his petty vengeance on ultimately unimportant guards.

“We’ll die here this night,” he said now, still looking away from Kaliks to the growing battle down the hall. He made a vague gesture with the hand not holding his sword, a movement that seemed to encompass the entire room and all within it, friend and foe alike. “All of us will die here this night — if we do not move soon.” Now he turned to face the old Way Mage and, not without considerable difficulty, looked him square in the eyes. “Stop playing games, Kaliks. It is time and past time for us to figure out a way to get this bitch’s whelp and leave this damned island.”

Kaliks’s clear eyes hardened with renewed anger. He opened his mouth, no doubt to issue another not-so-subtle threat.

He did not say a word, however. His eyebrows shot up in surprise and his open mouth formed a shocked O. Curious — a man like Kaliks did not easily let such a vulnerable expression grace his features — Sebasten turned to look behind him, to find the source of such outrageousness.

There, like a prayer answered, like a curse consummated, stood an older woman, dressed in nightclothes of plain, uncolored wool.

With a gift in her arms.

 

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