by Dan Hiestand
The Prince of Nothing
The Prince of Nothing
“There are them as say that time is a circle.”
Beyond Westwood Forest
Diamond (April) 26, 2013
Malcolm’s pace was so quick he might as well have been jogging to his tent.
To his surprise, Cleo lengthened her stride to keep up—
“I’ve never heard anyone talk to the general like that!”
Malcolm closed his eyes tight, frustration clear on every inch of his face. A moment or two went by as he listened to the whisper of her breath behind him – no sign of the jagged cadence he’d counted on, even if he couldn’t quite put his expectations into words.
She could have kept up for a long time, he decided.
“So.” He spat the word like a sunflower shell through teeth. “What?”
She lost a step on him as she turned to look him in the face, but he didn’t stop.
“He must really love you.”
Malcolm swiped a hand over his forehead – once, twice. Still, he didn’t stop.
“Of course he does. I make him look good. Generals like that.”
“There are many who provide that to him—” The little blonde startled as Malcolm kicked a stone out of his path; her attention snapped to it and followed the threat until it was gone. Then: “And he wouldn’t tolerate what you did from any of them. Not even Dabriel.”
Malcolm came to a halt and finally favored her with a quick glance under his hand.
“You must have missed the part where he threw me into the wagon.”
The girl canted her head to the side, a hand on her hip.
“He could have thrown you into the stockade.”
The heel of Malcom’s hand jittered over his forehead twice more before he was still again.
Cleo was surprised to find that he was smiling.
“Believe me, he wanted to,” said the Whistler.
Cleo’s head canted to the other side—
“What do you mean by that?”
“The general likes me well enough,” he acknowledged with a little upward nod, “but he knows I earned a day or two in the brig – maybe even in the stocks.” His brow furrowed at that as he glanced down. “Now his big visitors have to wonder, all last minute, if he’s soft on his troops.”
“So ... if all that is accurate, why not do it and lay any doubts to rest?”
Malcolm let out a bark of laughter—
Then pivoted on his heel and started walking again.
“He needs me.” He made a little twirling motion with two fingers in the air: Rising smoke.
Cleo said nothing. Malcolm heard the faint shift as she rested her palms on opposite arms.
“I’m not the first sharpshooter they’ve sent on this mission. But I do plan to be the last.”
He raised his head as if to scent the wind, his back still to Cleo. A gulf three or four steps wide had opened between them, but he could feel the heat of her gaze just as surely as he’d heard the little gasp of alarm his comment provoked from her. Then the sharp intake of—
“How did you know that?”
Malcolm shrugged, his tone cooling into the mirror image of her own; relaxed as a lounging lion.
“Knew it already, did ya?” When she didn’t answer, he pressed on – turning toward her as he heaved an impatient sigh. “Creed doesn’t brush his teeth without three days’ preparation. He wouldn’t squeeze something this critical into a day’s work unless he had to.”
For anyone else, Cleo’s face would have been as still and impassive as a mask.
To Malcolm, the faint quiver of her lip gave her away –
And he could hear the beads of the abacus slamming together in her head.
At last, Cleo tried to meet his gaze, but he may as well have been looking through her. The dissonance was jarring, and she found herself wondering if that’s what his targets saw. When, indeed, they saw anything at all. She felt her stomach clench.
“They – they didn’t want to cloud the issue.” she told him.
“Consider it clouded,” Malcolm drawled. “They?”
“They just thought it would be better if you could... focus on the mission. Without distractions.”
“They?” he said again.
“Creed and Thean.”
“Screw Thean,” went Malcolm, and he wasn’t sure if he’d said it aloud until he saw her flinch.
“You shouldn’t—” she started. But she stopped short as soon as Malcolm’s gaze flicked to hers.
Now it had turned hard, and that was worse.
“Sweetheart, the only thing they didn’t wanna cloud is my conviction. Creed talking about how proud my parents are, letting me see the convoy, the Outriders, the wizardess with my own eyes right before offering the chance to go on leave? You think any of that was a coincidence?”
Cleo just stared back at him. He pushed on—
“And that’s not even the whole of it. Is it?”
“What do you mean?” she asked cautiously. From the corner of his eye, he saw her step back.
“Telling me this job already killed someone wouldn’t be the smoothest sales pitch, would it?”
“Well ...” Cleo glanced down; found a reserve of unexpected strength, and looked up again.
“Well?” Malcolm mocked. “Well! What a deep subject!”
“Since you got this all figured out—”
Malcolm let out a huff that ruffled Cleo’s hair.
“—maybe you’ll explain why General Creed would offer the leave at all?”
“That’s simple enough. To make me think I was doing it by choice. All in, you know? I guess you wouldn’t. It’s about getting better work from your subordinates. He offered the carrot this morning – a nice vintage piece of work. Timed it so I’d think about it all morning long.”
“A vintage what?” Both hands were on her hips now.
“A bow. Not to get technical on you, but it’s a real nice one.”
“And did you think about it?”
“Oh, yes,” Malcolm admitted. “And believe me, just in case I still refused—” He turned, taking a step toward his tent. “They had more up their sleeve. Probably even more than I’ll ever know.”
Cleo sighed. “The Outriders ...”
“What’s that?” Malcolm was reaching for the flap of his tent, but now he stopped.
“They’re not just providing convoy security.”
“They’re not,” Malcolm said tonelessly.
“They’ve been ordered into the service of the king of Sindell upon their arrival.”
“What’s that to me?”
“Outrider Nash is taking his family. His wife and five-year-old daughter will be on the convoy.”
Malcolm angled his head down, massaging the bridge of his nose before turning to face Cleo. “Which I’d have been conveniently shown if that whole ... step towards victory bit didn’t work.”
“You’re either very smart, Malcolm Hawkins, or just very cynical.”
“No distinction,” he said. “Not in this military, at least.”
“If that’s your outlook, I’d hate to know your feelings on higher authority figures.”
“What do you expect me to say? It’s just business. This mission is important; Creed has an asset that can carry it out. He’s just doing what anyone in his position would.”
“Is it what you would do?” Cleo asked.
“Probably,” Malcolm said. He took a half-step toward her. “Although I tend towards a more ... direct approach.” Despite the sudden closeness, Cleo did not back down. Only her smile wavered; her shoulders were unbowed. “There’s one thing that does bother me.”
“That I am the general’s second choice for this mission.”
“You were not.”
The bowman remained silent, expecting an explanation.
“There was concern your claustrophobia might be an issue.”
“I assure you … the rumors of that are greatly exaggerated.
“Hope so. There’ll be caverns.”
Malcolm cleared his throat. Then: “Caverns, huh?”
“Caverns.” Beat. “Quite a few of them, in fact.” Beat. Is that going to be a problem for you?”
Malcolm took a deep breath and seemed to regain his bearings. “No problem,” he said confidently, then peered over at the entrance to his tent. “Listen. I have a sort of tradition … a routine that I go through before every big mission. And it’s very important to me.”
“Oh?” The slight crease in Cleo’s brow showed she didn’t understand.
“See, if you go in there with me, it’ll throw everything off.”
Cleo raised one golden eyebrow. “Is that so?”
“Yes,” said Malcolm, drawing the word out two, three beats. “You know ... then if I get killed, I have to come back here and haunt you for being responsible – it’d be a real hassle.”
“Oh, I would be responsible?” Cleo asked, doing her best to hide amusement.
“Yeah,” Malcolm said, turning. “Plus, you might try to steal another of my books.”
Cleo smiled behind him as he disappeared into his tent.
What an ass, she thought to herself.
Albinus Pierce was running some little object between his fingers, playing with it in both hands so intently he didn’t even notice Malcolm enter. He was seated at what passed for a desk, looking at once focused and relaxed: A mood Malcolm never saw him in when duty was at hand.
Malcolm wasn’t surprised to find his books and correspondence untouched—
But a scowl crossed his face when he saw the wooden figures lined up in a new order.
“More toys, Albinus?”
Malcolm had expected – maybe even hoped – the brevet would be startled.
But he barely even looked up, teeth clacking in his accustomed nervous tic.
“Plenty of good stuff back at the Bazaar these days.” Now close enough to see over his friend’s shoulder, Malcolm made out the form of a tiny hornet carved from marble. As Albinus jogged it in his palm, the wings fluttered and clicked. “Everything’s just like it was.”
“Not everything,” said Malcolm, his eyes shifting irritably to his figure collection.
“Y’know ...” said Albinus, only slowly prying his attention up to Malcolm. “There are them as say that time is a circle. So, all you have to do is wait long enough an’ everything’ll be good as new. Then, a little later, everything will be new.”
“And after that, everything gets wrecked again,” Malcolm pointed out.
“Ah ...” Albinus nodded slowly, his voice thready. “I suppose so.”
“Have you been getting into your stash again, Pierce?”
“Shh! Not so loud! Ya tryin’ to wake the dead, Mal?”
This made Albinus rock back so he could get the momentum to stand. For just the span of a heartbeat, it looked like he was folding in on himself: There was an uncanny resemblance to a scarecrow. With slow, trembling hands, he took the hornet and stowed it deep in a pocket.
“You ever gonna finish these things?” Albinus asked.
“What do you mean?” With that, Albinus raised his fist and opened it up, revealing one of the wooden carvings. Malcolm hadn’t seen him take it, and knew that – if it’d been anyone else – it would’ve walked out of the tent with ease. “Put it back, Pierce.”
“It’s not bad or anything,” Albinus said, slinking back with a half-apologetic shrug. “Just they’re all a little bit creepy without any faces—”
“I said put it back,” Malcolm repeated, enunciating slowly and dangerously.
It finally occurred to Albinus Pierce that his art critique wasn’t at issue here.
“You know, they used to call us Al and Mal. Whatever happened to that?”
“Pull yourself together, Pierce – I don’t have any time for this.”
“Aye,” Albinus said with a solemn nod. “Where to this time, oh intrepid hero?”
“Bryce Valley,” Malcolm said, dropping heavily down onto the edge of the bed.
“Bryce Valley? There’s nothin’ left out there but shadows of things.” Albinus shivered, and Malcolm saw him make a quick little gesture with his hand; a superstition of his trade that hadn’t quite bloomed into full-blown religion yet. “Ya can’t shoot things, Malcolm.”
“Or shadows either, technically.”
He’d meant it as a joke, but Albinus made the hand-sign again.
“The hell ya goin’ there fer?”
“Don’t know yet,” Malcolm said, looking up briefly from fastening a dagger to his boot. “Shooting something, I expect.”
For a blink, as they both turned different ways, Malcolm got a glimpse of his friend’s eyes. It was just enough to know they were bloodshot, and to wonder how he hadn’t noticed that before.
“That the general’s girl out there, then? Thin as a rake, she is.”
“You should talk,” Malcolm said, now fastening the fully loaded quiver to his back so that the leather straps intersected across his chest. Then, with a final adjustment it contracted, securing the arrows within. “That’s her, yeah. Been on me like butter on bread since I saw Creed.”
When Malcolm finally looked, Pierce’s eyebrows were still raised high.
He’d wait all day to make sure I saw that look.
“On bread, eh. Heard she used to take a serious shine to you.”
“All the worse for her, then, innit, you got all arrogant and popular-like.”
“You know, Pierce,” Malcolm said as he moved to pick his heavy brown cloak off the chair beside his bed, “for some reason, I can never sense if you’re lying or not, and you’re about the only person I know who can pull that off. Must be pretty convenient for you, considering.”
“Oh, it is!”
Malcolm finished wrapping the cloak around his shoulders, his attention now focused.
“Lucky for me, you’re dumb enough to where I don’t have to sense shit.”
Albinus just laughed, reaching into one pocket and pushing Malcolm with his other hand.
“Ain’t lyin,’ but don’t you worry. Pretty sure she just thinks you’re stupid now.” He withdrew a small pouch, tapping it gently on the bottom and sides as if to loosen the contents, and a wide smile wormed across his face. “She wouldn’t be the only one, if she did.”
He looked up with a warm expression—
But it was no match for the stone cold emptiness of Malcolm’s.
“Aw hell, don'tcha tell me you’re still carryin’ that torch. Thought you’d-a learned by now. You ain’t gettin’ to her position ‘less you got ties to high society, and no mistake. I mean, what’d ya think, Mal? One day she’d just look up at your mug with those big blue eyes and ...”
Malcolm turned around and began to pace. Back and frth, back and forth.
“Her eyes are green,” Malcolm said. “And shut up. That’s not what I’m thinking.”
“Then what?” Albinus’s breath suddenly caught in his throat. “What is it, man?”
“Should have known,” Malcolm said, but it seemed he was speaking to himself.
“Mal, I swear if you don’t tell me what’s going on, and right quick, I’m gon−”
“I thought Creed sent her to feel me out, get my impressions of his command. You know, a little vanity project,” he said, floating his attention back to Pierce as he crossed in front of the man. “But there’s something else. They’re onto this. Us.”
Several beats behind what he’d just heard, Albinus’s expression froze.
And then the last of his smile melted clear off and he leapt to his feet.
“The hell! I’ve got to get out of here!”
Malcolm pushed him down. “Shhh!”
“Aw, no. Aw, hell no, Mal. Hell no!”
“Relax? How the hell am I supposed to relax?”
“Might have been a problem if I let her in here, but all they have now is rumors. No big deal.”
“H-how you know? How do you know they’re not waitin’ for us outside right now?”
Malcolm’s eyes flashed anger, but he took his words with deliberate calm; one hand hovering in case he needed to push again. “For one thing, I would notice if we were being surrounded. But more importantly ...” He let out a sigh. “if they knew you were dealing to me, Pierce, I’d already be sitting next to you in Fairlawn jail trying to explain what court-martial means.”
“Well, whatchew expect, with all those damn mood swings of yours!” Albinus shook his head, Adam’s apple bobbing as he did. “It’s a wonder this ain’t happened sooner.” He jerked upright again. Malcolm didn’t stop him this time – but now they were eye to eye, and that was far worse.
“It’s mood swings, is it?” Malcolm hissed.
There was a danger in that voice Albinus Pierce hadn’t heard in a long time.
He nodded agreement, but said nothing – coughing suddenly into his hand.
A kind that his uncle had warned him about; and even then, months before.
“How about you hiding in the damn shadows like some thief in the night?”
Things had changed – had gotten a lot worse – since that late-night talk.
“Like hell it is! You know who does that?”
Albinus just stared blankly back at him.
“Bad guys, Albinus,” Malcolm said, harsh as a whisper allowed. “Bad guys do that.”
Another moment passed. Malcolm took a deep, shaky breath, stepping closer.
“Listen, it’s all going to be okay. We’ll just be more careful from here on out.”
Albinus was looking at the floor now, pausing a little while before finally nodding.
“Wait a few minutes after we’ve gone before you leave, alright? Play with your damn toy.” There was no response from the brevet, as Malcolm could still clearly see him contemplating a disgraced future behind bars. “Alright?” Malcolm repeated, a little louder.
“Alright,” Albinus said, looking up again. “Alright, I’ll do it.”
“It’s not your fault, anyway. I should have seen this coming.”
“It’s just ‘cause ya like her,” Pierce said, smiling again.
Just like that, the worry in his eyes gave way to a self-satisfied smugness that was almost a relief.
Malcolm smiled back, shaking his head. “You’re an idiot.”
Albinus handed the small pouch to Malcolm, putting the other hand over his in a brotherly gesture. “Maybe so, but listen t’me, Mal, My conscience ain’t naggin’ at me, on account I do believe this done wonders for your sanity over the past few months. Maybe done more’n than.”
Malcolm pulled away, turning his back to glance down into the pouch.
“But I ain’t so much an idiot that I don’t notice a thing or two.”
“Like what,” Malcolm said tonelessly.
“Last bag had ‘nuff to last you a long, long while, and, keepin’ track of your mission count such as I do, this meeting we have here tonight ain’t s’posed to be necessary. Not even with what all transpired unexpectedly some two days ago. Which means …”
Malcolm tried to look away, but Albinus wouldn’t allow it, grabbing the bowman’s chin and dragging him back to stare him in the eye. “Which. Means,” he continued, “you been usin’ even when you ain’t had to. An’ that, my friend, is very ... very dangerous.”
The Whistler found himself wondering just how much it would take to break Albinus Pierce.
Not nearly enough, he concluded, and pushed a space open between them – his tone brisk.
“Listen, I respect what you’re saying, and I appreciate what you do for me, but if we don’t have this conversation later – and I mean much later – it’s gonna start to look suspicious. Pretty sure that’s how your uncle got caught by The Captain, and he’s been doing this a lot longer than you.”
Instantly, Albinus started to itch. Malcolm could see the difference every time.
“Feverlew ain’t no joke, Mal. Don’t treat it as such. That’s all I ‘as to say.”
Malcolm nodded, tucking the small pouch inside his cloak.
“There’s ‘bout enough there for six shots,” Albinus went on, nodding toward Malcolm’s cloak. “A li’l pinch at a time, ya hear? Any more ‘n that and you might wind up thinkin’ you can fly, seein’ ‘round that edge of time, or imaginin’ some other such nonsense gonna get you killed.”
“I hear you,” Malcolm said, taking a step to the side and moving towards the exit. “See ya when I get back. Remember what I said: Wait a bit before you leave.” As he turned, he glanced over the makeshift desk. “And here – do something to quiet that conscience of yours.”
Albinus bounced on the bed while he followed Malcolm’s path with his eyes.
Malcolm found the envelope he was looking for and snatched it up with two fingers.
“If – and only if I don’t come back – take this up to the bowyer at the Fairlawn Bazaar.”
He leaned over – and then pressed the thing forcefully into Pierce’s unresponsive hands.
“Wha—hey. You’ve never needed anything like that before, and I don’t—”
“Call it an insurance policy,” Malcolm said flatly. “Don’t let me down, Pierce.”
“Ain’t never done before,” Albinus said, but he sketched that sign in the air one last time.
As Malcolm turned to leave, that same hand rose to stop him—
“Hey! Ain’t ya forgetting something?”
Malcolm looked over his shoulder.
“What? Do you need a hug?”
“Yer bow!” Albinus said, exasperated. “Ain’t goin’ far without it!”
“Got a new one,” Malcolm said. “Haven’t showed it off yet.”
“Huh? You been makin’ deals behind my back, Malcolm?”
Malcolm shot Pierce a grin thin and sharp as a switchblade.
“Yeah,” he said. “With the Devil.”
And away he went—
Never seeing the flurry of prayerful gestures Pierce made then.