| Bladesinger . . . the word hissed through the crowd. Convenient, as the villagers parted and reformed behind her back, gaping at her. It saved her the trouble of shoving.
Bladesinger . . . Kyrianna Eliseieu had been for several years, though she had never made a sideshow out of it. That’s how she’d survived as long as she had in a profession where twenty-five was old. She was twenty-nine, the oldest active Bladesinger; the oldest who still hired out her sword, at any rate. The others had wondered why she’d survived so long; perhaps because she never looked for glory, never asked for her name to be immortalized in song. Most of the rest of her fellow Bladesingers were arrogant spoiled children, over-impressed with the power they controlled and not above using that power to strike fear into the hearts of the ignorant. Kyri never did that . . . intentionally at least. People were still scared around her, even when she wasn’t doing anything to frighten them. Oh well, she thought. Live and let live, even when those whom you let live are giving you a bad name.
Everyone could recognize Kyrianna as a Bladesinger. It was something about the power she contained, even if she wasn’t doing anything; something about the sword kept in its diagonal harness on her back, something about the old scars that ran up and down her body. She’d also heard before that it was something about the attitude, the way Bladesingers held themselves, the way they seemed to tell the world not to bother with them. She tried not to scare anyone off, but her aura of “leave me alone” was often misinterpreted as “leave me alone or find six inches of steel in your throat.” For now, she ignored the whispering of the masses – she’d had practice – and continued on to what she most devoutly hoped was a decent-quality inn. It was the only inn in town, so she really wished it would be sufficient. Not that she had to worry. As soon as the concept of Bladesinger registered in his mind, the innkeeper was tripping over his own feet to make sure Kyri was kept happy.
“Milady, you do me grace. How may I do honor to you?” and so on. She suffered through it, the same way she always did.
There were so few of the Bladesingers left after the War, and they commanded such power, that the appearance of one of them usually inspired almost as much reverence, and fear, as if Abrianna Herself opened up the heavens and stepped down a second time. Kyri didn't like such renown, such expectation. But when she’d been chosen for Bladesinger training, she was only seven. Her sword-master had seen the promise in a child’s clumsy play with unsharpened sticks and claimed her for Isala – the city of the Bladesinger – for training. When she discovered that she didn't particularly care for the clamor – indeed, that she’d be happier as a simple mercenary – it had already been decreed that Kyri had the reflexes and abilities to become a great Bladesinger. One simply did not decline such a great honor, not if one wished to continue breathing. She quietly accepted, and even more quietly began adventuring. I don’t know if indeed I am great, was her constant thought, but I’m alive. That was more than most of her year-mates could say. And those who weren’t dead were retired, spending their ‘old age’ on a farm somewhere. No, thanks. I may not be thrilled about not having a choice of career, but I’d go insane if not doing something.
The inn’s room wasn’t large, but it was clean and comfortable, and that was all Kyri needed. That and a bath, which, Lady Bless, was merrily steaming in the corner. Oh, Lady, what I wouldn’t give to have a steady supply of hot water when I’m on the move.
What wouldn’t you give? It was the familiar voice of her husband that whispered in her mind. She unbound her hair with a sigh and sank into the water. Her skin turned red in response to the scalding temperatures, but she didn’t notice. Ah, civilization. She let herself slip under the water, holding her breath for as long as she could stand before she had to surface. Her body relaxed, but her mind didn’t. She still missed Dai. She had memories, but she missed him more when she thought of him. Lady, why did you do this to me? I’m hearing his voice now. Does this mean I’m going insane? The hounds of all seven Hells were chasing her for one reason; Kyri had broken the first law of the Bladesinger. ‘Harm none you are sworn to defend.’ Family was implicit in that. Yet she had challenged Gwynn, her youngest brother, to a duel. Kyrianna Eliseieu, Bladesinger, rigorously trained and conditioned from age seven, had challenged a barely trained lad five years younger. It was no challenge. He had gone down without a fight.
Now Kyri was wanted by any who made their living by the sword, Bladesinger and common mercenary alike. All had been commanded by the Powers that Be to hunt her down and return her to ‘justice.’ The justice of the Bladesinger council wasn’t justice at all. They had tried her in her absence, condemned her without giving her a chance to tell her story, and sentenced her to death. If ever Kyri appeared in Isala again, her life would be forfeit and any sword-sworn who met up with her could challenge her to the death with no fear of retribution. She didn’t even have anyone to avenge her or speak for her since Dai, her lifemate, had been killed.
So Kyri had left her brother’s infant daughter, entrusted to her, in the care of a nurse, and took to the streets as if the Dark Lord himself were on her heels. Kyri didn’t care about her own life. After all, she worked in a profession where death is an occupational hazard. But she had to get to Queen Ellysse of Hindar, Isala’s sister kingdom. She hadn’t challenged Gwynn without just cause – far from it. The Queen needed to know about the treachery breeding underneath her very eyes. She’d chosen this middle-of-nowhere village to make her disguise because it was so small, so out of the way, that there was little chance of a mercenary, and virtually no chance of another Bladesinger, being present.
Or so she thought.
The hillspeople had a saying; “The best-laid plans of mice and men oft go awry.” Kyri had just finished sawing through the last clump of waist-length hair with her belt knife and throwing the severed strands on the fire when someone made his presence known. She cursed as she swept the last clippings into the flames. “Come in,” she finally called, looking around the room warily.
He was a Bladesinger, not just a mercenary. That much was instantly clear. He was also someone Kyri was familiar with . . . very familiar. “Greetings, sister. I heard the commotion and came to offer you companionship . . .” His voice trailed off when he saw just who she was. “Kyrianna.”
She sat down in a nearby chair with a thump, no less surprised to see him than he did her. “Griffin. What are you doing here?”
“Hunting you. We all are. I made sure I found you first.” The silence stretched out before he finally asked in a quiet tone, “Why, Kyri? What made you do it?”
Kyri shook her head. “Just take me back to Isala, Griffin. The Council has already decided. I’m to be executed . . . preferably in the view of hundreds of cheering spectators.” Though her words showed resignation, her mind didn’t. In no way was she delivering herself up like a lamb to the slaughter. She was already plotting ways to take him down.
He moved over to stand next to the chair, carefully putting a hand on Kyri’s arm. “Kyri, I want to know. You know the law. If you have three Bladesingers to speak for you, you can demand another hearing. Tell me, Kyri, I want to help you.”
“Do you really think the Council will listen to me?” Kyri demanded bitterly. “Do you think they will pardon me? Griffin, do you know what happened? My brother killed my partner; my Lifemate.”
Life, and after, Dai’s voice whispered in her mind, bred of madness.
“He didn’t do it for honor. He did it because Dai found him out. Gwynn was a spy, Griffin. He sold our secrets to the Ytarrans during the War. Why do you think so many Bladesingers died? Of course, the casual ties just happened to be those of us who had been approached by the Council for their little committee, and turned them down. Coincidence, no? The Council knew about it. The Council told Gwynn to do it. The Council is made up of nothing but petty lordlings who enjoy the reign of terror they hold over the rest of the rabble. Honor is lost to them, if they ever knew what it was in the first place.” Kyri got out of the chair and began pacing angrily. “The Gods-be-damned Council will make sure I never appeal their decision. And even if I did, there’s no way they’d pardon me. The instant I step foot in Isala, three Bladesingers to speak for me or no – if you could find three who don’t follow the Council’s bidding by now – I’d be dead. I can’t let that happen to me, Griffin. I have to get to the Queen of Hindar. I know she can help me. I have to warn her about Ytarra. She has to know that her ‘trusted’ Bladesingers are nothing but traitors!”
Griffin’s eyes darted back and forth, scanning the room, and he was clearly turning Kyri’s words over in his mind. He sighed.
Beware of him, lover, Dai whispered to her. She didn’t need the warning. She was already cursing her overeager tongue. Griffin, though young, was one of the best Bladesingers Isala had to offer. He had surely been approached by the Council, and was interested enough in power to have accepted. Never mind that he had been Dai’s best man at Kyri and Dai’s wedding; he could be trusted no further than any of the rest. Lady, how do I get myself into these things? Why can’t you shut my mouth for me before I speak?
“If that’s what happened, Kyri . . .” He shook his head. “You are lucky to be alive. I’ll ride with you to Hindar if you want, help you reach the Queen.” There was a hint of patronization in his tone. Kyri didn’t trust it, or the look in his eye, but agreed and told him she’d meet him out front in an hour. For a moment before he left, Kyri was scared he’d try to re-awaken their old friendship, a friendship that had been punctuated by one or two tumbles, before he’d introduced her to Dai, but he just smiled at her and left her alone.
As soon as the door shut behind him, something snapped within Kyri. Once she had trusted Griffin, though he’d been Dai’s friend more than hers despite their tangles between the sheets. Now he was different. She needed to get out of the village. It wasn’t safe if anyone knew where she was.
In only a few moments, the woman Bladesinger Kyri had been disappeared, and in her place stood a youngish boy with a cheap sword. She had perfected this disguise early. It was usually useful when she needed to escape the aura of the Bladesinger. No one ever noticed the young lad out to make his mark on the world. Kyri slipped out the door of her room, trying to capture the body language and attitude of a young boy. She had ridden out of sight of the town before she noticed his horse’s cloud of dust billowing behind her.
“Where are you going, Kyrianna?” he asked her quietly when he caught up. She brought the horse around sharply to face him.
“I’m going to warn the Queen that the Bladesinger Council is the reason we almost lost the War. I have to do this, Griffin. It’s what my honor requires. You can’t stop me.”
He slumped slightly. “Yes, I can, Kyri. I’d hoped I wouldn’t have to do this.” Dismounting and drawing his sword, he said, “I’m sorry, Kyri. When you and your overgrown bear of a husband turned down the Council, I’d hoped you had the sense to keep your fool mouths shut and do nothing. I always told you your sense of honor would get you in trouble someday.”
Kyri quickly dismounted as well, but it was only reflex. She had hoped her suspicions were wrong. It seemed luck was on the other side. It was with a sinking feeling that she heard him say, “Kyrianna Eliseieu, I challenge you to a duel to the death.”
No, not with Griffin! He was always better than you in practice. You can’t beat him. Dai’s warning voice echoed in her head. That only angered her. It was the fault of Griffin and his council that her Lifemate was gone. She had always been taught that anger was the enemy in a duel, because it interfered with the magic of the song, but now she encouraged it. It would give her the strength she needed. She needed every advantage she could find to beat Griffin, who was not only better than her the last time they had sparred, but seven years younger and more flexible. She began the Song, her wordless song of rage and vengeance and hatred.
People who watch Bladesingers in combat believe they sing to themselves as some kind of moral booster. That’s not true, though that could be a part of it. They used song to shape their will. They sang to the Goddess, so that She may guide their steps and lead them to victory. They sang to their blades, so that they may strike quickly and powerfully.
They sang also to their enemies, so that they may know fear.
Kyri sang this time as she had never sung before, skill born of necessity and desperation. It was not the first time she’d been in a duel to the death. It was the first one she’d thought she had a chance of losing, however. She didn’t notice Griffin’s song in return. As she sang, her blade flashed in the sun, and she knew the exhilaration of a battle well fought. Neither of them made an error; as the battle continued, neither tired nor faltered. To her amazement, they were evenly matched. Kyri had improved.
Snatches of Griffin’s song did penetrate her ears eventually. He sang of duty and betrayal, of a woman who knew more than she should. Kyri’s lungs were gasping for air by now. This fight took more from her than she let on, but she increased her song’s volume anyway.
Then it happened. Her voice cracked, lacking enough air. Her sword faltered, and he hit her. His blade cut into her sword arm, hot pain flashing up from abused flesh directly into her mind. She sang the pain into nothingness with strengthened voice, but the damage had been done. He hit her again, and again. Her defense was slipping as she finally tired. She was losing.
Kyri would not lose. Not with this much at stake. She broke off her song – it wasn’t doing her much good at the moment, anyway – and cried as loudly as she could, a wordless scream of desperation, just before she made one last, wild lunge.
The expression on his face when his song was abruptly cut off was one of amazement, really. It was not the first time Kyri had killed a man. It was the first time that the man she killed grabbed her shoulders in the seconds before he died, cruel words on his lips.
“You’ll never be free,” he croaked. “They’ll hunt you until–”
She kicked his body once she’d retrieved her sword. I’m almost ashamed of myself, but not really. Kyri stood for a long time after, watching the body of the man she’d once been friends with, before she met Dai.
Amazing, dearheart, his voice whispered. What a little anger will do!
“What will a little anger do, Dai?” she asked with a small chuckle. Her voice rasped, and she could hear the damage deep in her throat from overextension. Nonetheless, she began singing the Bladesinger’s song of death to speed Griffin’s soul to the arms of the Dark Lord. The sound that came from her throat was a mockery of song, but it sufficed. Griffin had died a traitor to his country and his honor, but he had died a Bladesinger. Kyri thought it strangely fitting that she sang his Deathsong with ruined instrument.
Your voice . . . how can you still be a Bladesinger if your voice is gone? Dai’s voice whispered. By now Kyri was reconciling herself to the seeming impossibility, enough to talk back to the figment of her imagination.
“Well, dearest,” Kyri whispered, brokenly, “I never really wanted to be here in the first place, remember? But I’m still going to warn the Queen. I have to. It’s my duty.” She remounted the horse after bandaging her arm. She was light-headed from loss of blood, and her throat hurt like Hells, but she held her head high.
She had not lost who she was, nor would she.
* * *
Neris Lukra, Bladesinger Ambassador and Advisor to the Hindarian Crown, had a droning voice that could have done a clerk an injustice. For the flair and show the man put into everything he did, his orations were terribly dull. Nobles and courtiers stood glassy-eyed, seemingly comatose. Usually those fawning bootlickers adored being near the center of power, but these days were better suited for a child’s nap time. One older nobleman was actually sitting in a corner, snoring.
Ellysse sat in stiff repose, her back sore and her jaw working fiercely in an attempt to not only stay awake, but to keep from glaring a hole through the ambassador’s head. As numbing as the man’s voice was, the message he conveyed to anyone who stood witness was that Ellysse was unfit to deal with any of problems facing Hindar, and her titles were merely adornments, and just as useful in any decision handed down from the throne.
Ellysse Eulanbar, by the Grace of Abrianna, Queen of the Blade, Widow of Torren the Great, and Ruler of Hindar, felt like as much an adornment as Neris’s words made her seem to be. The soft cushions and delicate curves of her throne seemed like a chair made of slate or granite. Each veiled insult the man threw at her seemed more and more weight added to her shoulders. She knew that, in most cases, she was indeed a helpless ewe against an angry wolf, but it was not fear or timidity that stayed her hand. It was the man before her. When he wasn’t manipulating her into terrible decisions, he was holding back vital information she needed until he could make the best use of it.
She fought the urge to slump in her throne and rest her chin in her hand. Lady Bless, the man could – and usually did – go on and on! But those eyes were dangerous as he lingered on her. She knew that if she showed any hint of wavering from his proclamations, he would pounce of her like a wolf against that baby lamb. She would hold her peace . . . for now.
Despite the monotony of Neris’s words, there was little actual substance to them. More veiled threats than any reports. The Recovery was a definite priority, but he barely made any reference to the lands still needing assistance. In fact, he made a show of how little those lands concerned him, as if they were simply beneath his notice. And, of course, his opinions overshadowed hers so much that it seemed she had the same indifference as he.
The War had barely been finished when Ellyse had ascended the throne, but it had taken years to repair the damage caused by the Ytarrans. It had taken almost as much time, and certainly much more effort, to regain acres of fields and farmlands from the devastation Ytarran magic had destroyed. The Recovery was still underway in fact, but it was nearing its end and very few lands needed the throne’s attention. So far, she had managed to keep the other kingdoms from biting off chunks of her lands. The Great Nations were still quibbling after the War, vying for more power and greater control. Had she been any less firm with foreign dignitaries, her kingdom would extend perhaps only a hundred acres outside Hindar’s walls. If Neris was making an attempt to claim the throne in her stead, he would be pathetic in her place. So many of the large problems came from so many of the little things many people overlooked. Attention to detail was essential to working through the demands on a ruler.
Her eyes slid from the compelling gaze of the Bladsinger Ambassador, and immediately fell onto the vacant seat next to her. It was a throne more massive than her own, the gilding heavier and fuller, and the deep wood seemed to gleam in the dim lighting of the hall. Thick purple cushions padded the throne, but the fabric was slightly worn and faded where its occupant had sat. Her heart skipped and filled with deep mourning, as with every time she saw the throne. For so many years before her, Torren the Magnificent sat there, ruling with an almost inhuman patience, and a fist of steel. Law-abiding citizens had once felt safe in the deepest forests of Hindar. A child could safely carry a bag full of gold from one end of her land to the other without fear of bandits and thieves. But criminals feared the displeasure of the crown more deeply than even the bite of a Bladesinger’s sword. He had been the one who had taught her about ruling. She knew that if he were alive to see her, he would have been disappointed in her. But if he had still been alive, she wouldn’t have been saddled with the burdens she now carried.
How long had it been since he had left her to oversee the War? How long ago had he left and burdened her with the weight of two crowns, one large enough on its own to be impossible to carry? The complete autonomy he had given her should have kept his kingdom in line long after his departure. How long ago had it been since she last felt the ability to control events in Hindar?
“How long has it been since I last cried over your death?” she asked quietly, her rich voice seething with pain.
“Majesty?” Neris’s voice broke into her morbid reverie.
Ellysse blinked back tears that she refused to let surface. She had given the man so much, but she would not let him see her cry like a hurt child. Instead, she filled her heart with anger. The tone he took with her was just barely respectful, but even in the bounds of propriety, he sounded mocking. The steady stream of “your Majesty, your Majesty” she heard sounded like the spiteful laughter of cruel children. Most of it was imagined, but she couldn’t help but feel as if the entire kingdom was laughing at the foolish queen trying to maintain her kingdom while it was in the jaws of Isala.
“Yes, Neris,” she replied irritably. “I was listening.”
“As I was saying,” he said condescendingly, “even if the rumors are not true, the number of arson and bandits in the countryside will swarm over Port Ajuber before the snow flies.” He buffed his nails on his silver doublet, glancing at them as if they were much more important than a major port nation. “I took the liberty of dispatching the fifth and ninth legions and sending them as an advance force to place Port Ajuber under Royal Protection – under your seal, of course. I wouldn’t want you to think I was going above myself. Perhaps if we appeal to the sympathies of other nations, we’ll gain a stronger foothold on our own lands.”
This time, the smug superiority was not even thinly veiled. The courtiers and nobles lining the walls began muttering darkly, but the mere presence of the man before the double throne was enough to keep them doing more than whispering their disagreement.
What an idiot this man was! Assisting a weaker nation to show how much greater your own was only showed how little control over your own borders you had. Anyone who had spent more than a month on the throne knew that injecting your attentions outside of your lands to show the ability of your kingdom was only a ploy. And an open door to rebellion. Not to mention the retaliation of the kingdom you intruded upon. This had to be stopped before her subjects pulled her down from the throne and stoned her like a criminal!
“Of course, I had to make sure that we had enough people to counter the numbers, so I reinforced the fifth and ninth legions with the first battalion from the twelfth through the fifteenth legions. Altogether, I believe twenty-thousand men should be able to maintain order there. Port Ajuber will be in our . . . debt before the week is out.” With an oily smile and another low bow, the man left, obviously finished with his report. The hesitation was clearly a pause to find a better word, and the only one she could think that he would replace was “control.” That sent a shudder down her spine. She hoped she wasn’t sending an invading army instead of a relief effort.
All around her, mutters of outrage and disbelief grew into a heavy buzz. It was as if she had stuck her head inside a giant bee hive. She couldn’t believe the man’s audacity! Using her name and seal without her even knowing! This was new for him. Usually, he could at least give her the illusion of control in front of her people. This last offense, of course, had pulled the rug out from under her before she could even respond to it. He was letting it generally be known now that he was in control. She wasn’t sure that he wasn’t right.
She was in trouble. There was only one person she knew of who could help her out of this. Neris had to be reigned in, and it would take a stronger Bladesinger than he to do it. Before anyone could openly voice their complaint to her, she rose with as much dignity as she could and left the room. Behind her, she left a wake of bows and curtsies she largely ignored. Her retinue, a flock of gabbling idiot women whose only concern was fashion and pretty men, followed after her almost absently.
As she neared her apartments, she gathered up the ladies and sent them off on various tasks that wouldn’t unhinge their delicate minds. They could go off and gather up whatever necessities were required for new dresses, and it would seem she was having a new wardrobe made to settle her nerves, but really she just wanted those women out of her hair. And maybe it would distract from her real intent. One of the two guards standing outside the door of her study was sent off, and the other was told to keep anyone and everyone out until the other guard returned. By then, she would have everything ready.
Perhaps an hour later, a soft knock on the door brought her out of her quiet thoughts. Quiet but furious. She had delayed too long in doing this, but things could be remedied. She knew they could be.
The man who entered was so profoundly retarded, it was a wonder he could be let out of his room at all without a caretaker. His back was so hunched, he looked to be an old man in his seventies at least, but in reality he was closer to forty. His eyes were unfocused, and one looked directly at her while its companion looked at the far wall. A line of drool ran from his lips to his rumpled tabard, and his breath came in labored gasps, but he managed a kind of bow before her.
“Your Majesty,” he mumbled. He sounded as if his mouth was stuffed full of cotton, but it was the most sincere anyone had sounded towards her in years.
“Mysst, my friend,” she said quietly, as if speaking to a child. Anything louder or more forceful would have sent him curling into himself and weeping. “I have a job for you.”
The folded envelope in her hands was sealed with a glob of golden wax, pressed with her personal seal; a representation of a blade crossed by a blooming rose. The letter inside was of the finest parchment, and her hand was clearly evident. So was the desperation she felt. She hoped the letter’s recipient felt it enough to drop everything and come to her aid. She doubted she had any other hope.
* * *
The room was too small for its purposes. Even clerks on meager salaries had larger spaces to work. The single window was barely large enough to account for shutters, much less the dark curtain that blocked out most light. The curtain was necessary. The dirty yellow light of the tall lamp on the street kept the room in full brightness if the curtain was not down, even in the middle of the night. As it was, a spot of light slid past the edge of the black material to land in the exact center of the desk against the far wall. Bundles of scattered paper seemed to glow ephemerally under that dull yellow beam.
As small as the room was, the furniture was perfectly fitted to it. The desk was small enough to make even a child bump his knees sitting at it, and feel constrained sitting in its accompanying chair. They were both scuffed and withered, too ratty to even sit at a farmer’s kitchen table. Sitting at the desk was risky, as one of the legs had a habit of sliding out and bringing its considerable weight down on an unsuspecting leg.
Beside the desk, against another wall, a poorly made cabinet stood. The feet were uneven, and one door hung askew where the hinge had been replaced improperly. It held mostly odds and ends; old folders and ledgers, spare paper, even an old studded quarterstaff that had not seen the light of day since first being brought into the room. Dust created a faint miasma in the air, but it very seldom swirled, as the only man in the room barely moved.
The man was greasy and rumpled, a product of a sedentary lifestyle. His hair was limp and thin, and completely gone in some spots. Grease held it in place more than any management with comb or brush. Occasionally, his hand would come up and scratch at the stubble on his jaw. Somewhere in his room was a razor that had not been touched in a week. His eyes were crusted from lack of sleep. Sleep was more of an enemy now than anything the shadows could hide. There was still much to do, but somehow, he could feel the hours counting down until his end.
Unseeing eyes stared at the numbers on his ledger, though nothing seemed to process in his mind. He had maintained a counting room for years now, and clerks’ numbers was all that seemed to take up his time now. When he had first taken this job, the numbers didn’t seem important at all. What else were the clerks for but to keep the accounts straight? Unfortunately, after a week of problems and angry clients, he found that he had to take a hand in the numbers personally. Just the amount of paperwork to set the accounts straight again was appalling. He had no head for numbers, but the challenge of keeping the problems from overtaking him had begun to seem a game, and he was good at it.
Tonight was not a night for numbers, however. Death rode on silent wings on nights like tonight, and cold fear kept the man awake more than any need to keep priorities in order. There were so many things that so many people wanted him to do, but he needed to be careful about picking and choosing what things to do and when. To do otherwise was death. He was a man between factions, and any number of people would kill him if they found out what he had really managed in his tiny office. He wasn’t sure they wouldn’t kill him just for what he knew anyway.
It was past time to be gone. Six years he maintained this office and the job that came with it. But someone else would have to take over for him. Perhaps he could work the numbers around to give himself a nice severance package. He had done more than enough to earn it. He actually would have taken the time, but he was too busy working in his mind how to escape clean. Too many people knew him, and there was always going to be someone able to recognize him if he tried to leave. Perhaps a family emergency of some kind. He did have a sister after all, and he was fond of her. He hadn’t seen her in years, and her brood of children most likely had grown into something manageable by now.
No. That wouldn’t work. His superiors knew his family thought him dead, and he had been confined to this place by his own doing. He was certain to die, and he had no idea how to avoid it. Swallowing, he leaned back in the chair and expelled a deep breath, wondering if he had time for a sturdy drink before his end. Maybe. Reaching into the bottom drawer of his desk, he unlatched the secret compartment and pulled out a half-full bottle of spirits. It was deathly strong, and put his head to shaking violently with each swig, but it fit his mood perfectly. If he were to die, let him at least enjoy a last good swill.
He nearly spilled the bottle all over himself with the sound of a heavy pounding on his thin wooden door, but only a few driblets spilled out. For a second, he stared at the bottle, surprised to find that it was empty. He forgot how quickly the Spirits could take a man. If you weren’t careful, you could find your head stuffed with wool and your wits completely gone.
Before he could answer the knocking at his door, it opened and a woman’s head peeked in. Her face seemed a wrinkled strip of leather, and her hair was pulled back in a severe bun. Her icy blue eyes glared daggers at him when she saw the bottle. “I was going to ask if you needed anything tonight, Jeryl, but it seems you have all you need now.”
“Go to bed Aeryth.” He couldn’t believe the sound coming from his throat. Spirits really could take you hard. “I don’t want to see you again tonight. Plenty of time in the morning for work to be done.”
The woman ignored him, however. “Someone left something for you, Jeryl. It’s not something I would have thought you’d be interested in.”
“What is it?”
She tossed him something that flashed in the dim light, and it landed heavily on his desk with a metallic clink. His fingers traced the design several times before he recognized it, and when he did, he suddenly felt stone sober. It was a pin, gold and enameled red in the shape of Exile. Only a few knew its meaning. Fear gripped his spine, and it took everything he had to not jump up and run.
“Get out of here, woman.” She opened her mouth to argue, but he forestalled her quickly. “I mean it, Aeryth! Don’t backtalk me! Get to bed!”
“Don’t stay up all night. I get tired of doing your morning paperwork all the time. It’s late enough as it is.” She glared at him darkly, but closed the door carefully behind her as she left, making little more sound than was necessary. Sending her to bed was possibly the only act of kindness he would ever show her. She wouldn’t understand until the morning sunlight, but she could deal with her irritation before then. She might even thank him. Yes, his only act of kindness to her, and most assuredly his last.
Rising unsteadily to his feet, he took his empty jug and moved to the cabinet, fumbling with the latch until the door came free and swung out. Something brushed his cheek flutteringly, and he screamed in horror, dropping the jug and stumbling back until he nearly tripped against the desk. It took a moment to see the moth as it landed on his desk, but when he did, all he could do was laugh. The damned thing was settled right on the metallic pin lying on his desk. It was morbid laughter, but he felt surprised he even could. Both moth and pin were symbols of death tonight. “Well, my little friend, you may be a messenger, but you’re a little late. Someone already told me.”
When he turned back the door and latched it again, he felt coldness settle over him, as if the icy hands of the Shepherd of the Dead were suddenly placed on his shoulders. It was about time. The worst part about expecting your own death was the anticipation. At least he had had his drink.
Moving back to his chair – and suddenly very sober – he stared at the door, waiting. Nothing happened. No one was there. Time stretched on. He tapped his fingers on the desktop, his eyes never straying. But no one came.
Finally, he turned his attention to the ledger again, thinking that numbers would help pass the time. He had never liked arithmetic, but he had at least grown respectful of it. Knowing exactly how the numbers would fall was simple now, but when he first began his position here, he could have led a battle easier than find the answers laid out before him.
After another hour, his head drooped in weariness, and the ink from the spilled ink pot made a large blot on the page, but sleep still eluded him. Lady, he was tired. How long had it been?
The door creaked open, spilling brilliant light into the room, and he had to shield his eyes before they burned out of his skull.
“Aeryth, I told you to stay in bed tonight!” he snapped, still hiding his eyes. “There’s no need–”
“The door was unlocked,” a chilling voice said, deep and resonant with the sounds of death on its lips. “I thought you wouldn’t mind a visit.”
Lowering his hand despite the light, he stared at the cowled and hooded figure standing in the door. Piercing red eyes stared balefully at him, almost boring into his skull. Or was it just the light?
“You,” he said witheringly. “You’re the last person I expected to see. Did the others tire of hunting you? Or are you here for . . . other business?”
“A little of both, I think,” the man replied, finding his way to the desk and sitting on the edge. “You’ve been busy, Marti. And not getting enough sleep. Do they keep you awake at night now, too? Or are you just worried about something?”
Baring his teeth at the sounds of his real name – he had shunned it long ago – Marti leaned back as if at his ease, while fingers hunted for the string that held the dagger down his back. “They keep me busy enough. No need to worry over them, though. I told you before; I’m your man to the hilt. No need to worry over my loyalties.”
“I certainly hope not,” the man said smoothly. If he was the one to end Marti’s life, he made a poor show of it.
“Of course,” Marti replied just as easily. “I’ve sworn on every oath I could think of.” Drat! Where was that blasted knife? His fingers searched harder, but still nothing was to be found.
“Did you loose something?” the cloaked man asked, his voice dripping venom. A knife suddenly bloomed in his hand; the knife Marti was hunting for. “I wish I could believe you about your loyalties, Marti, but I know you. And unfortunately, I know your employers as well. Have they called you for an audience yet? Are you a full member? Or just a hopeful?”
“Wait a minute,” Marti snapped, slamming his hand down on the desk. “You can’t think–”
“Oh, but I do, Marti.” The red of those eyes shone like burnished copper now, and stared threateningly at him. “I want to know what you told them. Every last detail.”
“I . . .”
“You have three seconds to answer, or I’ll make you howl.”
Marti knew he wasn’t playing, now. The man could be deadly with just his hands. With that knife in his grasp . . . “Wait! Just – just let me explain! I’m not in the business of telling anyone’s secrets. No one’s asked me anyth–” Pain exploded in his right hand, and he stared down at it, seeing the knife stuck almost to the hilt into the flesh. Tears stung his eyes as he looked fearfully at the hooded shape. “No . . . please no.”
“Two Bladesingers came through here asking questions,” the man hissed. “Finding one Bladesinger anywhere is a rare enough occurrence outside of Isala. Now there are two, which is next to impossible. Tell me exactly what you told them, or you’ll begin to lose fingers.”
Sniveling, Marti nodded. “I told them where to find her. They threatened my life! I had to give them something! They’d have killed me! You have to understand! I didn’t give them anything else! I swear!”
“I understand perfectly,” the figure said, suddenly looming over Marti. “You gave away the one thing I needed hidden. She’s mine, and if those fools who call themselves Bladesingers find her first, there’s no telling what they’ll do to my plans. You’ve been a poor friend to me before, but this makes it inconsolable.”
“No!” Marti cried, wishing he could free himself, though even the dagger the pinned his hand to the table would be useless to him if he did. He doubted he’d even be able to close his fingers around the hilt. “No, please! Please! Please!” Black steel slid from a hidden sheath, vanishing beneath the black cloak. “No! I’ll help! I can fix it! Don’t do this! Please! No! Ple–”
Black and gold reflected poorly in the dim light from outside, and he found he could no longer breathe. Pain radiated from his neck as the sword bent it at an awkward angle, and his snapped vertebrae made darkness circle his vision. Hidden in the shadows of the cloak and sword and the blackness of the room, the only thing Marti could see were those burnished copper eyes and the blood red and bright gold emblem on the black steel, a last mockery to his death.
By morning, the room was silent, and little dust stirred. The ledger was open, and the severe chair was where it had been all night. Even the cabinet seemed unchanged. But the figure dangling from the ceiling, his dagger wedged through his skull into the rafters above, was more than enough to make Aeryth scream hysterically.