Anathema (Part 7)
by Bek D Corbin
This story is set in the Exalted© role-playing universe,
as published by White Wolf™ Publishing, Inc.
Exalted and Age of Sorrows are trademarks of
White Wolf Publishing, Inc.
Do not believe what THEY tell you.
History and Science are nothing but candy-coated lies of fearful old men who would make the world into a stark prison to protect us- or maybe themselves?- from the threat of freedom. THEY would tell you that the universe is a sterile void, and their truth and their law are the only truth and the only law.
Open your mind, and remember.
THEY would teach you that the time before now was a time of brutal chaos and bestial savagery, and that THEY saved us all from that, and taught us civilization.
It was an Era of legend, when heroes walked the face of Creation, and were as unto Gods.
It was an Era before the World was broken to THEIR will.
It was an Era before the magic was lessened, a time before the spirits of men were bent to the yoke.
This is a story of that Era.
This is a story of the Exalted.
To the Liar Goes the Spoils
“I’m not trying to diminish Lady Dajia’s victory,” Adlynn said as we sat around the celebratory dinner table. “I’m just saying that that’s NOT Rennar’s head under that lid. By the symbol on his forehead, I’d say that he’s SOME kind of Anathema, but he’s not Ren. And that IS why you had me there, to confirm the identity of the kill, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, he’s one of the Forsaken, a Brass Tiger,” Nevros said clinically, deftly avoiding the question as to Ad’s rather shaky position. “One of the Conquering Sun’s conquerors. Which neatly answers why he fouled so much of our tactics, which assumed that we were hunting one of the Wretched, who would have run before an assembled Hunt, instead of charging in and slaughtering as many as he could. Faulty information led to a nearly disastrous misapplication of tactics.” I’ll give Cathek Nevros this, he’s tough. He nearly got pummeled to death, his arm was almost ripped out of its socket, and he saw one of his own disemboweled before him; but give him a night and a day of rest and recuperation, and already he’s being pompous.
“I think you miss the point, Captain,” Mykiros said carefully. He had to be careful, as he’d been knocked out by the gas from the Hunt’s sneaky little trap (which they had slipped into his sneaky little trap, and hadn’t told him about), so he and Nog hadn’t been beaten on as badly as the others. Given the amount of slaughter that happened, bandages were rather the order of the day, and he only had a token few. “We know that Rennar is one of the Wretched. That merely means that another of the fiends arrived quietly, and was using the Strix disguise to keep the fuss to a minimum. Ren’s clever enough to lay low for a bit, and let that… murderer… take all the blame for his crimes. But, I assure you, that unless that one killed him without us knowing about it to take the name and cloak of the Strix — and what are the odds of that?—then Rennar will pop up again, when it suits him to.”
“So, you think your friend Rennar got that Forsaken to take on the Wyld Hunt in his name, knowing that they’d use the tactics for the Wretched, which would only help the Forsaken kill? Why?”
“Why else?” Isegris snapped, modishly swathed in bandages, including one over an eye. “To destroy the Wyld Hunt in Keldon, and to terrify the populace at the threat of the dreadful Strix, who is so terrible that he can wipe out entire legions—”
“Two dragons,” Ragara Sthena corrected him.
“Two dragons of the Hunt, all by himself,” Isegris finished. “It’s just the sort of grandstanding stunt that Rennar would pull,” he sniffed.
Prince Avrall groaned, “Which means that the Strix is still out there, no doubt plotting murder and theft, and fomenting sedition and treason most foul. Which we will deal with tomorrow!” he gestured, as though sweeping the topic from the table. “Tonight, we celebrate a victory! While one Anathema still roams free, his partner in bloodshed is dead! This is still a victory! Tomorrow, we begin the hunt for the Strix anew! But tonight, we celebrate Lady Dajia’s courage and remarkable stratagem!”
“Please, your Excellency!” I blurted, covering my face, as though to hide my blushes. “I can’t accept such unwarranted praise! With all due honor to the Exalted Hunters, what happened on the Kelfaris Green was a fluke! Yes, I watched Lord Kevros and his allies fight, and I noticed that when he fought the Honorable Aeryn, the Strix fixed a point and kept returning to that point, no doubt a part of his fighting technique. I also noticed that he kept jumping to the point where his opponent had left, again probably a part of his Solar technique. My plan, such as it was, was to get him to impale himself on the Dire Lance that I’d planted there. But that didn’t work, as you saw.”
“But… the stele…”
“That was the fluke,” I lied. Adan and I spotted that flaw in the stele when we examined the Green after figuring out that it was where the Hunt would try to force their battle to happen, and weakened it to just the right point. “Apparently, when I hit that stele, I unknowingly hit a fault in the stone, and shattered it, but didn’t slip off for some reason. Then, when the Strix—”
“Brass Tiger,” Randrel corrected me with a bright smile that I’d never seen aimed in my direction before. “The Strix is still waiting to be caged.”
“Brass Tiger,” I allowed. After all, why should I worry, if Alkandor gets slighted? “When the Brass Tiger landed I guess that he used some essence technique that interacted with the stele, tipping the stone onto his head. And well, there I was with that lance at hand and suddenly he’s flat-footed… what would YOU have done?”
“We would have made the most of it, as you did,” the Honorable Aeryn said, raising a cup of tea to me in salute. “Maybe not as spectacularly, but I hope, as effectively.”
I returned her salute with wine (which may be my only hope for escaping this idiocy with my sanity), and continued. “To be honest, I had NO expectation of beating anything that terrifying.”
“What WERE you expecting?” Isegris asked, with the same sort of riveted attention that Mykiros and Randrel were giving me.
“I was expecting to buy the Shikari some time, for Lady Sthena to clear her head, or Master Trycin to call down something, or for the Honorable Aeryn to pull something else from her robes, or for Captain Nevros to play whatever trump card he must have had up his sleeve. Or for the Warstrider drivers to decide to enter the fight in earnest,” I said as graciously as I could. “There were plenty of options; they just needed time and a little breathing room.”
“I had just about gotten my sight back,” the looming Lady Sthena said gruffly. “I only regret missing the chance to mash the bastard into the ground.”
“Well, you’ll still have an opportunity to do just that,” Nog said, giving the huge woman the pleading goat eyes. “Rennar is still around, and with that horror last night dead, you should have no problem in venting your frustrations out on his hide.” Oh, thank you, Nog. See if I help YOU with your homework again!
“Master Trycin,” I asked, hoping to move the conversation along (eavesdropping is one thing, but sitting through your friends butcher your reputation is another), “have you examined the lance yet?”
“Yes, I did! WHO was the weaponsmith who forged it?”
“Ah,” I laughed, “that’s a long story. The Lance wasn’t made for me. Indeed, my family doesn’t have the fortune to equip me that way.”
“What do you mean?” Sthena asked, genuinely interested after being magnificently bored by the polite conversation. “Your armor is of the first water, and your reaver daiklave and powerbow must have cost a small fortune!”
I gave an embarrassed chuckle through clenched teeth. “That’s part of the long story…” I launched into an edited and revised version of Arrek’s and my descent into the Frabjous Tulge, trimmed various bits, cut down on the amount of sheer loot, omitted Arrek altogether, and changed several names. I threw in the part with the Lion and Unicorn cataphracts, for laughs and a bit of true foundation. “—and THEN, when I FINALLY dragged myself out of that madhouse, I found my ‘faithful local guide’ digging through my saddlebags, tearing at the linings for any hidden cash!”
“You mean…” Lady Bel’Yal asked, “He deliberately sent you into the Raksha’s clutches, in order to steal your horse and gear?”
“I’ve since learned that he inherited the business from his father, who inherited it from his father,” I replied.
“What did you do to him?”
“What do you think I did? I rammed a cold iron hammer down his throat and chucked him down the very same hole that he sent me down!”
“Excuse me,” Master Trycin interjected, “but what does this have to do with that remarkable lance?”
“Well, one of the problems with having that much conspicuous loot is that it encourages bandits and sneak thieves — oh, and tavern owners triple their prices when they see you coming. So, I felt that I needed something that would give the riffraff of the road something to think about, without actually brandishing a weapon around. Now, a daiklave has to be unsheathed to be a threat, which makes the threat overt, and that can be used against you. And a powerbow needs to have an arrow nocked to be a threat, same problem. But a Dire Lance, on the other hand… well, the point’s an obvious reminder at all times, and it’s there at hand while you’re riding, so it was pretty much what I was looking for. But the Dire Lance that I found in the freehold was broken, and the point was a total loss. Fixing it would have beggared me. So, I lashed the shaft together, contrived a point with the unicorn horn, and fit the lion’s heart into the hearthstone socket, pretty much for show. It worked. People weren’t quite as quick to presume with that thing tucked into my saddle. Mind you, I’d never actually taken it into battle. Which suited me fine, I never really trained with the Dire Lance.”
“But you did impale the Anathema with it,” Nevros pointed out.
“As I said, it was a pure fluke. I just didn’t think about it, and Mela be praised, it didn’t fall apart!”
“It did more than fall apart, my lady,” Master Trycin said, and I felt a lecture coming up like a storm on the horizon. We all battened down for heavy weather. “You say that the point of the spear was originally a unicorn’s horn?”
“Well, the horn from a Unicorn Cataphract, to be precise.”
“Ah,” he beamed, a look that was utterly unnatural on his turtle’s face. “This explains much. Some combination of the Fae nature of the horn in combination with the unholy Solar power unleashed by the Anathema’s death, most likely moderated by the Elemental power of Mela, as embodied within your anima banner, has materially affected the lance! Not only is the haft of the lance now a solid black jade-like material, but the point is now a solid transparent crystal, which looks for all the world like a razor-sharp icicle!”
“Yes, I know,” I said in the voice of tolerance tried, “that’s why I asked you about it.”
“But there is more!” he assured me. “The strange combination and contrast of the basic materials, along with the singular circumstances of their combination, have not only changed the lance, but they have imparted it with an innate power!”
“Oh?” my interest — and, in all honesty, greed — piqued.
“Yes. The Lion’s Heart crystal that you set into the hearthstone setting of the Lance? It has remained in its original form. You said that the Lion’s Heart was formed when the Lion Cataphract’s heart was drawn out by retracting the Unicorn’s horn from his chest?”
“Would you say that he was brave?”
“Of course he was brave! He was a Lion Cataphract, a living stereotype! His brains would have rattled around inside a thimble, but he had courage to spare!”
“Well, I removed the Lion’s Heart crystal from the hearthstone setting in order to examine it more closely. But when I put the crystal down, and tried to pick up the lance again, I was struck by the most heart-freezing fear that I have ever experienced. I dropped the lance, and my assistant tried to pick it up, and he almost had a heart attack from fear! By the merest accident, I picked up the Lion’s Heart crystal as I scrambled at the table trying to get up from the floor, and the fear left me entirely. When I pressed the Lion’s Heart crystal into my assistant’s hand, the fear left him, though he was still physically exhausted from the experience. When I picked up the lance again, holding the Lion’s Heart, I felt no unnatural fear. When I placed the Lion’s Heart back into the hearthstone socket again, both I and my assistant could handle it; well, as well as we could handle a Dire Lance that we weren’t attuned to. The Horn and the Heart were formed in primal conflict. The Horn was fused into the Lance when the Forsaken, who has the unholy power of instilling freezing fear into others, died. I believe that the Lance has the power to instill primordial fear in whomever it touches, but the Lion’s Heart crystal has the power to withstand unnatural fear. As long as you have the Lion’s Heart crystal, either on your person or set into the hearthstone setting, you can use the Lance without being affected by the fear, but anyone that you touch with the Lance’s point, even a tap, will be struck by the same fear that someone facing the Fear power of a Forsaken would.” He rattled on for a bit about the mix of influences and so on, but it struck me that he was forming his thesis with flawed information; the Lance had been formed during the Death Monk’s death, but the Death Monk was a Death Knight, not a Solar Exalted. Though, that mark on his forehead was uncomfortably similar to the sunburst that is the Fors—, er, Dawn Caste’s. And it was not Mela’s lightning that I charged the Lance with as I threw it, but Sol’s light, refined by Master Adan’s disguise gadget. It struck me as a bad idea for Master Trycin to examine that lance too closely.
Of course, the second that I realized that, he asked me if he could have the lance for further study, to see if he could learn more about the process. “Of course!” I said with as much panache as I could muster under the situation. “I will, of course, keep the Lion’s Heart crystal.”
“What?” Master Trycin bleated, “But, if you keep the crystal, I won’t be able to even touch the lance, let alone study it!”
“Master Trycin,” I said in tone of utmost reason, “in MY place, would YOU?” There was a spate of laughter at Master Trycin’s expense, but he had the good grace to grant me the point. I almost felt sorry for the poor old turtle, twitting him like that, until I remembered that if he knew the truth about me, he’d have his Erymanthoi rip me to shreds in a second.
The Satrap made a joke about to the victor goes the spoils, and threw in a talent reward for killing the ‘Forsaken One.’ I almost choked. I had a small fortune in obols and jewels (and a nice amount of walking-around money in silver and scrip) in my traveling gear, but still, even after what I’ve stolen from the monastery (and the fundraiser), a talent is still a lot of money! “Are you sure that you can afford it?” I gasped. “I mean, no disrespect, but I heard that your funds had been depleted by the Wretched’s raids on the monastery funds!”
“Why should I worry?” Prince Avrall said magnanimously. “The Wyld Hunt will be paying the money.”
“The HUNT?” I asked, looking nervously at the Shikari.
“It’s not a problem,” Nevros said. With a muted snarl, he added, “Getting MONEY from the Regent is never a problem. Additional MEN? Ships? Advanced Weaponry? Things that would actually be useful? No, there’s always a reason not to risk those out in the Threshold, where we’re—” he caught himself at the beginning of a rant and excused himself.
“Can’t you use the funds to hire mercenaries?”
“Unfortunately, all the mercenaries who would be worth the salt aren’t interested in hiring out to hunt down Solars,” the big one, Sthena said. “If anything, they’re more interested in hiring on with the Solars, figuring that they’re the rising power in Creation.” You know, not that long ago, I would have found that a depressing notion; now, if anything, it’s the most heartening thing I’ve heard in a long time. “As for the rest — well, why bother lugging provisions around for troops that you know will turn and run the second that anything nasty shows its face? Our foot soldiers aren’t just boots on the ground — they’re men who understand and support our mission. They’ve seen the Anathema, and they know what they can do.” And from there, it devolved into a long discussion as to policy regarding the dreaded Strix, and who was going to do what.
I was quietly gratified when the Shikari tacitly included me along with Mykiros and the rest of the ‘Knights Errant’ as ‘local’ Dragonbloods who would be included in the hunt for the wily Strix. Well, my bunny was caught and skinned; now to see how long it would take us to cook the stew. The ‘Eating and Drinking’ phase of the party lapsed, and we moved on to the après dinner ‘standing around talking and drinking’ phase. Normally, I held my own (for a Patrician) at these things, but I suddenly found myself as the locus of considerable attention. Decidedly male attention. And, despite the fact that they all wanted to talk to me, none of them seemed to be that interested in letting me get a word in edgewise. Isegris had a decided advantage in that he was the only one of the male ‘Knights Errant’ who wouldn’t have been chucked out of a riverside dive for stinking up the joint. The entire point of that trap with the spray was that they intended for the ‘Strix’ to run himself ragged trying to run away, when he smelled so bad that even a lapdog could have tracked him. They would have harried him until he dropped from exhaustion, and then finished him. The stink got into Mykiros, Esrak, Nog and Randrel’s clothes, hair and skin. Esrak and Randrel may have been immune to the sleeping gas by dint of their Wood Aspect, but that did nothing for their smell. Isegris, on the other hand, had been shielded from both the sleeping gas and the stink by his Fire Banner. Yes, only his manners offended. After about an hour, Lady Bel’Yal took pity on me and did the bit where she made the usual excuses, and asked me to accompany her to the ‘powder room’. After a bit of chit-chat, the lady actually let me use the toilet. Within the actual garderobe, I pulled off a bit of contrivance that Lady Danya arranged for me. Adjusting that over-elaborate pile of hair that had been arranged for me, I hid those locks under a headcloth, and adjusted and reversed certain bits of my gown, and hid my face with a veil, so that I now appeared to be one of the tower’s small army of maids. I then used the projector hidden among my skirts to create the phantasmal lieutenant, who always appeared dressed as I was dressed at the moment. Then I reversed all that, exited the garderobe, and distracted Lady Bel’Yal by having her help me rearrange my hair back to its previous architecture.
My lieutenant exited the garderobe and the lounge, and looked around for a way to exit the Bower of Joyous Crimson Celebration without getting hijacked by anyone who might notice that she didn’t have any mass. This was greatly complicated by the fact that she had no mass, and couldn’t physically affect anything. Still, she managed to find an open window, and dropped from that bower to the Bower of… well, it was sort of a bluish green, whatever it was. From there, she managed to locate the Bower of Cheery Verdant Merriment, where Master Adan, and the other third echelon celebrants were joyously celebrating crimson, or whatever. Master Adan was holding forth with a group the local haut bourgeois, using his connections to the Knights Errant as a draw, in the manner of a scholar and tutor trolling for new clients. I, or the lieutenant, (sorry, but most of my attention was riveted on directing the lieutenant, so my pronouns may wander a bit here) demurely interrupted in the manner of a servant bearing news and called Master Adan aside. Given that I was dressed in the manner of one of the more prestigious tower servants, my interruption only enhanced Adan’s standing with that pack of mercers and estate agents. Once we were alone, I told him, “It’s official — or, at least, semi-official. The Wyld Hunt is short of men and materials, so they’re calling on all loyal Dragonbloods to join in the Hunt, and I’ve been given the nod as one who’ll ride with the Hunt.”
“Excellent,” Adan replied. “Lady Danya, Nasha and Marelle left on a riverboat for Threebridge the instant that she knew that you were still alive after the fight, and she took your clever little mospid with her. When she’s ready to send up the signals that the dreaded Strix is in Threebridge, she’ll send Bop back with the message, so that you’re not too badly off balance when you have to pack off. I wish that I could say that I was sorry to see you leave, Rennar, but to be honest, between you and Arrek and Alkandor and his entourage, Jade Hill was cramped. What measures does the Hunt intend to take, as to flush out the Strix?”
‘I’ rattled off the basics of plans that would no doubt be twisted and tweaked out of all recognition, in the usual process from plan to execution. “Do you think our cryptic friends will play the false Strix card again?”
“Doubtful. This celebration here is awkward enough, hailing the death of an Anathema that nobody knew existed, while the vile blaggard, Kaellis Rennar, whom the city was set on its ear to ferret out, is still at large. Our rotting opposition is no doubt as anxious for the Hunt to leave Keldon as we are. If another ‘Strix’ is exposed as an Abyssal impostor, they know that the Hunt won’t leave until they’ve turned over every rock and toadstool. They’ll lie low, if they’ve the wits of a tombstone.”
“Very well, I think that I’ve made you as mysterious and illustrious as I possibly can…” I opened for my departure.
“Oh, one last thing,” Adan headed me off. “Tell Arrek to look for the leather trunk marked ‘Coral Feather’ at the Tower’s loading dock. His moonsilver gear, which he had no excuse to take into the tower, is in there.”
I nodded, made the appropriate noises and excused myself, blending into the shadows. Where ‘I’ literally disappeared, dismissing the lieutenant. Back at the Dragonbloods’ party, several levels up, I applied myself to actually listening to the conversation that I’d been included in, and tried to pick up the thread of narrative without looking like an idiot.
Threebridge? Azure Rose’s ears perked up as she listened in on Kaellis’ and Adan’s whispered conversation. For some reason, Kaellis was angling to move the Wyld Hunt to Threebridge? Well, that was nice for his, or rather, her comrades, but what did it do for Kaellis’ urgent need to find that whatever it was that she was supposed to get for the demon? How would getting the Wyld Hunt out of Keldon serve that end? Threebridge wasn’t that far from Keldon, but it was one of Prince Avrall’s more outlying holdings, on the very edge of the Satrapy, at the fork where the Rocky River joins the Meander River. It was a good distance, but well within the range of the Hunt’s airships…
Kaellis was going to somehow use the Hunt’s airships to get her to that Mokkan thing! Well, it was about TIME that Kaellis’ sneakiness paid off for Azure! Using airships would cut down on MONTHS of travel time, and really reduce the ‘random encounter’ factor. She had to admire Kaellis. Hijacking airships from the Wyld Hunt took balls — or… whatever… and imagination. Maybe those Solar Exalts weren’t the paper tigers that the Bronze Faction claimed they were.
Hold on… THREEBRIDGE? She had that case hanging in Threebridge, the one that she was going to get to as soon as she had this thing wrapped up? It struck Azure Rose that having a Solar Exalt — as well as two Dragons of the Wyld Hunt — on tap might cut down on the amount of time that it took to handle the Threebridge matter. Besides, she was under orders to get Kaellis out of Keldon — she might as well go to Threebridge as anywhere.
Even the most delightful of parties — or whatever it was that I’d found myself stuck in that night — has to break up, and Adlynn, Lady Bel’Yal, the Honorable Aeyrn, and Lady Sthena were escorted to the suite that it was decided that Adlynn, the two Shikari and I would share while the Hunt was in Keldon. As Lady Sthena put it, “Y’need someone with both feet on the ground here or those three airheads will go drifting off into the Blue.” I had no say in this, and poor ‘Bosthar’ (yes, Arrek had to answer to ‘Bosthar’ again) had been given the cold fish eye, until I assured everyone that Bosthar was loyal, trustworthy and not a peeper. As we trooped in, Sthena made a production out of getting shuck of her party clothes as quickly as possible. I let out a few stays as well, and plopped down onto the sofa. “MELA!” I said loudly, playing a card that Lady Danya assured me would go a long ways towards setting the proper tone, “What WERE your brother and his friends on about?”
Sthena let out a sardonic grunt and shot me a withering glance. “You know damned well what it was about.”
I looked at her confused, and waved aside the comment. I lay back on the lounge chair and let out a deep breath. “There aren’t any more dinners that I have to attend, are there? Two more dinners like that, and I’ll have to have my armor refitted — AGAIN.”
“Why would you have to have your armor refitted?” The Honorable Aeryn asked, curious.
“Oh, after I won the armor from those daft rakshas, I had to have it fitted,” I answered. “And then, a few months later, I had to have it refitted. Do you know how much an armorer who can work jadesteel worth a damn charges for that? I can’t afford that a third time!”
“Why’d you have to have your armor refitted?” Sthena asked, this time actually interested.
“Oh, the Fair Folk didn’t take it kindly when I walked out of that freehold with all that loot — or maybe they did, and I just piqued their interest; who can tell with that lot? Anyway, they did something to the road that we were travelling on, and suddenly, Bosthar and I were on a road to nowhere, and it took us the better part of a season — and SHOWERS the season at that!—to find our way back to something that resembled civilization! We used up our trail rations the first week, we had to eat bark and berries after that, and well, by the time that we actually found a town, I was rattling around inside my armor, and poor Bosthar was a mere shell of his former self! Well, it did Bosthar a world of good — he was a bit of a butterball before, but my armor was almost useless! I felt like dice knocking around in a cup!”
“So…” Lady Bel’Yal started, picking around for a delicate way to ask, “before… the, ah, ordeal… you were, ah, large?”
I looked at her sharply. “I’m a big blonde PLOWHORSE in a dress, and I know it, so you don’t have to beat around the bush!”
Keeping strict rein on a puckish grin, the Honorable Aeryn leaned forward and asked gently what my life had been like back in Chanos Prefecture on the Blessed Isle. I spun her a story of the classic ‘big boned girl’ who was always a handspan taller and a hogshead heavier than everyone her age. I claimed that the aunties despaired of me, so they neglected my domestic training as I ran around with the boys as one of the boys. Even after I exalted, they decided that trying to marry me off advantageously was a waste of time and jade, so I studied under a retired Dragonblooded warrior who was more expert with the Water Dragon style than the Air Dragon style.
As Lady Bel’Yal winced, Adlynn, Aeryn and Sthena noticeably warmed up. Sharing quarters with a gorgeous prima donna who would put on airs and make demands and cause scenes was one thing; sharing those quarters with a former ugly duckling who had no idea as to how to be a swan was another. The Honorable Aeryn steered me over to a full-length mirror and politely informed me that my (mythical) three-month deprivation had done my figure a world of good. I looked into the mirror, aghast. “WHAT? You mean? Those men? At the party?” I yelped, the very picture of the bumpkin virgin in a House Cynis skit.
Adlynn and Sthena did their level best not to snicker as Lady Bel’Yal cooed, “You’ve already gained admirers.”
“WHAT? BUT! But I don’t know anything about dresses, or parties or polite behavior or any of that girly stuff! I drove the aunties halfway around the bend, trying to explain my menses!”
The Honorable Aeryn’s mouth was twitching as she said, “You did well enough at the party just now.”
“Well? What well? I just stood there and smiled like a statue, while they yapped at me!”
“Well, that IS mostly what they want from us at a party,” Adlynn murmured. “If we’re lucky.”
“I must say, you’re very… well put together… for a girl who doesn’t know about ‘girly stuff’,” Lady Bel’Yal observed. “Your hair, for instance.”
“Oh, when my brother and I set out, my mother gave me this,” I held out the Collar of Dawn’s Cleansing Light that Lady Danya had been good enough to let me have back. She figured that I needed it more than she did. The Collar of Dawn’s Cleansing Light is a common enough minor wonder, one that most Dynasts have seen, and many own. It’s a neckpiece that keeps the wearer clean and presentable, in hair, clothing, nails and other matters. And, beyond that, it manages to keep hair and so on in proper shape; with this, my hair wouldn’t just be clean, I’d never have a bad hair day, or wrinkled clothing. Mind you, it didn’t give you taste, it just took care of all the fiddly little grooming matters. The ladies looked at it, and they all recognized it, and made ‘aaahhs’ of approval.
Even Sthena, who made no secret that she had little use for ‘girly stuff’, admired it. It cut down on the time necessary for field hygiene, and it even took care of the smaller needs of armor and weapons maintenance. Her only criticism was, “Don’t get too used to it. Pesiap teaches that a Dragonblood should rely on skill and discipline, rather than tricks. Tricks can fail you, but skill and discipline will always see you through.” So spoke a woman whose magic had all but turned her into a stone statue.
Before my eyes, these four women assigned themselves various roles in my ‘rehabilitation’, with Lady Bel’Yal casting herself as the Worldly Aunt who would oversee my education in such matters. Adlynn cast herself as the Giddy Best Friend who would make shopping and such into an adventure. But then, Ad really had been missing Eryalles Dirani, who had been her best girly-girl friend back in Juche, and had done that sort of thing with her. The Honorable Aeryn cast herself as the calmly reasonable Maternal Figure, snaffling the tacit last word for herself. And the redoubtable Sthena assumed the role of the gruff but supportive Elder Sister, who would back me up when I said that I wasn’t interested, and would act with the Honorable Aeryn to keep the other two in check.
We men hear about these things, but it’s downright terrifying to see it up close.
Lady Bel’Yal volunteered Vallere Syresse and a few of the other local young ladies of quality to help see to the mending the grievous shortcomings in my wardrobe. The Prince had awarded me an entire talent (just the cash value, not an actual tablet of jade, Sol be praised!), and obviously Lady Bel’Yal intended for all that money to re-enter the economy of Keldon — via the pockets of her favorite couturiers. I wondered if she was going to get a kickback from them. The Honorable Aeryn objected, saying that my first obligation was as an honored Shikari, and that my attention should be focused on ferreting out the Wretched Strix.
“We don’t KNOW that Rennar is one of the Wretched,” Adlynn whined. “Yes, I’ll admit that he’s involved in something, and that he’s going around dressed as this ‘Strix’, it’s just the sort of thing that he would do! But anybody can put on an owl-cloak, like that ‘Brass Tiger’ devil did. Something is going on in Keldon, and we need to figure out what it is, before we go chasing around, kicking in doors and putting daggers to people’s throats!” What’s this? I expected loyalty from Adlynn, but really! Maybe I should have left her to her own resources a long time ago; she’s actually starting to think! Adlynn launched into a well thought-out defense of me (as Rennar, not Dajia), and reasoned out several credible leads to the presence of the Death Knights in Keldon (by way of ferreting out the ‘Mock Strix’). We let her talk herself out for about an hour or so, and then let her toddle off to bed.
“She’s absolutely dotty,” Lady Bel’Yal said sadly. “That Wretched Strix has her entirely in his power.”
“Oh, I sense no greater or more pernicious influence than genuine disbelief and filial love,” the Honorable Aeryn said lightly. “She HAS spoken to us of these things, and she is right about a number of things. Not about Kaellis Rennar, of course, but she is right that there are things going on in this city that need looking into. We’ll give her her head, and let her nose out these things in the hopes of clearing her cousin’s name. Rennar the Strix is no doubt mixed up with these things, the exact nature of the connection we still don’t have any clear impression on. But it’s clear that he is still very protective of Lady Adlynn. If she finds anything on these mysterious rivals of the Strix, they will act against her, and he will act against them, and then we, the Wyld Hunt, will act against both of them.” The Honorable Aeryn locked eyes with Lady Bel’Yal, and assumed a more commanding mien. “You are NOT to tell those locals you mentioned any of this. You are to tell only the Satrap of what I’ve just said. I don’t want the City Watch or any paid spies of the Satrap following Kaellis Adlynn. They’ll only get in the way of the Hunt stealth agents that will be keeping track of her. Do you have any questions?”
Lady Bel’Yal bowed obediently. “None whatsoever.”
Sthena pointed out that the hour was getting late, and we were expected to be on duty in the morning. Lady Bel’Yal made her goodnights, and we went off to bed. I went into my new rooms, and said in a quiet but clear voice, “Very well, I know that you’re there, and I’m NOT changing into nightclothes unless I know exactly where you are.”
Arrek stepped out of the shadows and said in a reassuringly disapproving voice, “Well, you’re certainly fitting in as one to the manor born.”
“Wrong side of the nursery,” I pointed out, as I stepped behind a screen and started slipping out of my dinner dress. “And, in case you’re worried that I’m fitting in too well, the Honorable Aeryn, the Immaculate, was just spelling out how they were using my cousin as a bloodhound to track me down. No, every fifth reference is to ‘the Wretched Strix’; I’m in no danger of forgetting who my enemies are. And how are you fitting in, backstairs?”
“I’ll give ye this, the deef-mute act is a winner. I get out of all the finicky chores, but I don’t have to put up wi’ insults, ’cause the nasty ‘uns won’t waste ’em on people what can’t hear ’em. And yer right: people don’t mind their tongues around a ‘dummy’. They’ll say whatever comes to mind, even if they’d rather cut their own throats than say it afore anyone else.”
“Oh? You’ve picked something up already?”
“Only that this place leaks information like a sieve. Oh, and the maids are all aflutter with how taken the local bravos are wi’ ye,” he finished with a leer.
“Oh, there never was a palace that didn’t leak information, and the smart lords are the ones that know it. Keeping secrets is a fine art. As for the romance race, any inside tips? After all, being the lady in question, I am, by the natural order of things, the very last to know.”
“Well, yer three buddies, Isegris, Mykiros and Randrel, ye know about—”
“How could I miss it?”
“But the chars also say that the turtle-wizard is sweet on you, but in an elderly uncle sort of way—”
“Well, killing the bastard who disemboweled your sword-brother right in front of you will do that for a girl,” I riposted with a wry smile.
“—but no joy from the Captain of the Hunt. He’s married to the Hunt, it seems.”
“Oh, my languishing heart!”
“But take heart, the kitchen wise women say that there’s two local Dragon Lords and a patrician who been asking after you.”
“A patrician? How bold of him! What’s his name? I’ll give him a smile or two, to buck him up. That is, if I can figure out a way of doing it without getting him stepped on like a bug. Something like that happened to Tepet Urmlog, a patrician boy I knew at the Cloister, when he developed a crush on Cathek Liballa. Poor Urmlog never did walk right again, after that. Well, we won’t be around long, so I guess that I’ll just let them dance, if they like it so much.”
“Not the best idea,” Arrek mused. “Even if we can sucker the Hunt into going where we want, odds are those six muttonheads that you rode with will be tagging along, and three of ’em are panting for ye. That is, unless ye want to keep ’em at each other’s throats for some reason?”
I mulled it over. “You’re right. Captain Nevros would probably decide that it would be easier and more efficient to simply toss the bone overboard, than whip the dogs fighting over it.” I chewed it over for a bit. Then inspiration struck. “I think that I’ve just conceived a mad, tragic passion for the dashing Captain Nevros,” I said with a grin.
“Who’s all but married to ‘is work fer the Hunt, and won’t embarrass ye by either denying you right out, or by askin’ fer things yer not ready to give,” Arrek nodded with a grin. “Yer three pantin’ young swains won’t dare call ‘im out, but they won’t take it out on each other, either.”
“One good thing about you, Arrek: you’re never shy about letting me know when I’m being stupid, so I know when an idea’s good.”
“Well, I’ve had so much practice.”
“Let’s see… Lady Danya and two of her girls are on their way down to Threebridge, as planned. Oh, and Master Adan says that there’s a leather trunk marked ‘Coral Feather’ that you might be interested in.”
Arrek grinned. “Ah, gettin’ the Wyld Hunt to tote my bags halfway to the Mokkan… there’s a brag in there, fer sure.”
“Speaking of which, why exactly do you have to go to this Mokkan thing?”
“The three elders said that I need to be examined for my caste, and the Mokkan is where I should go. They’re the ones who know what they’re talking about, so it’s not like I have a lot of choice in the matter.”
“Are you sure that you remember the directions to the Mokkan?”
“There aren’t any directions,” Arrek corrected me. “The Mokkan’s always on the move, so directions would only give them what got no business at the Mokkan an idea as t’where it’d be, and that’s too tempting a prize to ignore. So, them as would seek the Mokkan are given Cryptic Guides.”
“Riddles. Things what make no sense iff’n ye got nothing to set ’em agin. Then, when you find the thing that the Guide is talkin’ about, it makes sense, and you know what t’look for, and so on and so on, until you finds the Mokkan.”
“And what if you don’t recognize what the Guide refers to, or you just don’t connect the two?”
“Then yer not smart enow, and ye got no business at the Mokkan, and ye’d probably only lead riffraff to the Mokkan if ye were led there.”
“That’s… that’s pretty harsh, Arrek.”
“That’s the Lunar way.”
I pressed my hands together in prayer, “And I thank you, My Lord Unconquered Sun, for choosing me.” I stepped out from behind the screen in my nightclothes. “And, having said my prayers, I’m going to bed. Now, get out, and don’t let anyone see you leave.”
“What? You’re chucking me out, now that yer actually worth watching sleep?”
“Just MOVE, and don’t get fleas on my bedspread.”
Things had calmed down from yesterday, and the Wyld Hunt was operating more like a military unit. The City Watch, the local unit of the Imperial Legion, and the Hunt alike had taken casualties, but the Hunt was in the advantageous position that it could open up positions in its Wings and Scales for veteran Watchmen and Legionnaires who wanted to join. The Watch, on the other hand, had to make do with members of the local militia who wanted to go full-time, and the Legion either had to wait for reinforcements from other Dragons — IF any came — or train local farmboys who wanted a life of adventure. If soldiering for the Legion can be called a ‘life of adventure’.
I walked around with Adlynn, taking in the activity of the Command (couldn’t call it a ‘camp’, not in the Bower of whatever it’s called) in regular everyday clothes, only identified as not being regular tourists by the daiklaves strapped to our backs. The Shikari sergeants got us out of their hair by sending us up to the Bower of Tranquil Ivory Restoration, the Tower’s hospital wing. While this unit of the Hunt only has (or at least had) the five Dragonbloods, they did have three ‘enlightened’ – by which I mean they’d awakened their essence – healers, so the Shikari foot soldiers were in better shape than they had any real right to expect, after throwing themselves at a Knight of Darkness. But then, they’re trained for that sort of thing, and they appear to know how to ‘roll with the punches’. The City Watch and the Legion, on the other hand, had performed just as bravely without any such tricks, and the Watch had had to split their efforts between caring for their wounded and going for the fire buckets. Adlynn and I both knew minor healing charms (not the same ones, but no one who knew any better was watching), and we helped with some of the wounded.
Yes, I know, I’m helping mend men who would consider lopping my head off as the high point of their careers. What can I say? A brave man is a brave man is a brave man, even if he’s coming screaming at me with a pike. I look at this and ask myself ‘what would the Unconquered Sun tell me to do?’ One of the problems with having the Ultimate Paragon as a patron is the really high standards.
Oddly, the men seemed to react as much to having attractive females changing their bandages and washing their wounds as they did to the actual essence. And I was loudly hailed for actually getting the job done on killing the Death Monk, which also seemed to do good things for their morale. After making the rounds for a while, an adjutant found us and told us that we were needed down in the Bower of Diligent Scarlet Valor for some sort of meeting.
We made our excuses to those who really needed us, and made our way back down to where we’d been chased out of before. Aside from Nevros’ circle and the Knights Errant, there were five local Dragonbloods who had signed on for the effort, a few of whom I recognized from our assault on the White Temple, and a few of the mortal officers and sergeants of the Hunt. Adlynn and I settled down on some of the cushions set in a semi-circle facing Captain Nevros, who was standing in front of a map of Keldon.
Adlynn looked around and asked, “Where is Isegris?”
“He’s back in hospital,” Nog answered morosely. “Something that Brass Tiger did to his eye is making it fester. The doctors say that they might have to amputate it, and replace it with more of that clockwork stuff.”
A few more officers and another Dragonblood, this one a female who was rather obviously of the Wood Aspect, judging by her vine-like green hair, joined us, and Captain Nevros cleared his throat for attention. He made the usual opening pleasantries, and then went over the layout of Keldon with the intention of searching out places and venues for setting traps for the Strix. “While the Forsaken are the most openly dangerous in combat and the Blasphemous are most dangerous in terms of doctrine, the Wretched are the Anathema that give us in the Wyld Hunt the most trouble. You can draw the Forsaken into open combat that they can’t win. You can use the cults that the Blasphemous create around themselves as weapons against them. You can track down the Unclean by the supplies that they need. You can tear the webs of lies and sedition that the Deceivers weave apart, and free those ensnared in them. You can simply throw weapons and troops at the Forsaken, until they drop.
“But the Wretched? Catching the Wretched is like trying to grab a shadow in your hand. You seek them out, and they hide between the ticks of a clock. You chase and corner them, and they disappear down an anthole. You think that you’ve got them by the neck, but you’re only holding onto vapors. If you turn your back, they plant a thousand daggers into it. If you go to sleep, their knife is at your throat the second that you nod off.”
While it was rather flattering to be painted as such a dreadful threat, I had no doubt that he had other speeches perfected that painted each of the other Solar Castes as the worst of the worst.
“The only way to hunt the Wretched is to turn their very nature against them. Their first instinct is to run and hide: use that. Run them ragged, and only offer them traps to hide in. Relay between your forces, giving one unit the opportunity to rest and refresh, while the other units keep the Wretched running. Remember, anything that helps you track them better is far superior to any attempt to kill them right off. Use bluffs and feints and dupes to get them to use every trick up their sleeves, and when they run out of tricks, then you strike for real.
“In the situation that we find ourselves in at the moment, we are comprised of three basic groups, each of which brings something important to the table. Those of you who are local, you know Keldon and its environs, and more importantly, you know the local players, the people that Rennar the Strix will try to get at, in one way or another. He will most likely try to suborn those he thinks will be useful to him, or, as in the case of Tatifar Brunneg, those he can rob, slander or kill in ways that would appear noble to the gutter mob. We also have Kaellis Rennar’s former companions. You know how he thinks; we need that insight. And of course, there are those of us of the Wyld Hunt proper. We bring professionalism and experience. We know the ploys and stratagems that will work.
“We need to search out Keldon, its outlying areas and the greater area of Kellesval. Fortunately,” he sketched out circles and wide arcs in colored crayon on the map of the city, with the circles and arcs overlapping and creating jagged triangles and tetragons on the map, “while he destroyed the Great Compass at the monastery, the Strix couldn’t destroy the records of the readings that they’d made searching for him in the days before. Those, combined with the readings that our own Master Trycin has made more recently, give us a good idea as to the flows of essence through Keldon. The Wretched are, as a rule of thumb, more at home in urban settings, so Rennar’s first reflex will be to stay in Keldon. While the Geomantic Compasses haven’t told us where Rennar IS, they do tell us where he’s NOT, which eliminates much of Keldon.” He pointed out some large areas that indicated that they couldn’t have been scryed for some reason. “The Strix knows about our geomancy, so he’ll roost somewhere where he knows that we can’t scry for him. So, that’s where we’ll search.”
I hid a smile as I noticed that not only wasn’t Jade Hill one of the areas that Nevros had designated as a ‘dead zone’, but it was clearly overlapped by three arcs, which meant that the geomancers hadn’t noticed anything suspicious there, THREE TIMES. Master Adan’s faith in the arts of the Dragonbloods who’d built that decoy complex was well founded.
Mykiros peered at the map and said, “You know, that section right there — your geomancers couldn’t scry there because of some sort of malignant interference—”
“Yes, but that’s a very bad part of town, and it’s always had more than its fair share of bad influences,” one of the local Dragonbloods corrected him.
“YES, I know!” Mykiros insisted. “I know, because that’s the neighborhood where that haunted house that the Black Dragons set up their geomantic compass is! And, if you ignore the malign influences running amok in the place, it’s a well-built if rather rundown, luxurious mansion that’s still furnished from the stuff that the Mock Dragons installed!”
“But we posted guards at that house, just in case the Mock Dragons returned,” an Ensign in the City Watch complained.
“All the better,” Mykiros maintained. “He’s one of the Wretched; he’d regard hiding under our noses as a great gambit.” He was right, with one little problem: even if I hadn’t had Jade Hill to hide in, I still wouldn’t have hidden in that old house. You could have cut the miasma in that place with a knife!
“Now that you mention it, most of your scans use the Great Tower as a central point,” Randrel said, raising an eyebrow at the map. “Wouldn’t an Anathema with the proper wards, who was too close to the geomantic compass, go almost unnoticed? Rennar would regard hiding here, at the very center of the Satrap’s power, not only safe and undiscovered, but in luxury, with food and drink easily at hand, as a grand joke. And, he could keep track of us, and our efforts to find him, without so much as exerting himself.” I was genuinely surprised. I’d underestimated him! Drel had a point! That would have been great, and a place like the Great Tower must have acres of secret rooms and passages and such. Finding them does sound like a lot of fun! Sol’s Glory, I’d even bet that there was some way of finding a way into the Underground Palace in there somewhere! Pity that I couldn’t stay around and search. I made a note to pass the idea along to Master Adan somehow.
“Yes,” Esrak murmured, “but that would involve concealed doors, hidden passages, secret rooms and things like that, which Rennar hasn’t had a chance to find yet.”
“But maybe he has!” Nog argued. “He broke into our rooms in the Azure Bower and got out again with no problem! Maybe he didn’t need to, ’cause he didn’t need to leave the Tower! Maybe he’s listening to us right now…”
“If Rennar was going to play the ‘hide right under their nose’ game, he wouldn’t do it here, where if anything went wrong, he’d be trapped,” Esrak counter-argued. “He’d hide somewhere like out in the White Temple, where he was taken. It’s large, it’s spacious, it’s magical, and since he was taken there, he probably feels some sort of connection to it.”
“No, Rennar’s still here in Keldon,” Adlynn said with conviction. “He wouldn’t want to take the risk of entering and exiting the city every time he wanted to check something out. And, he’s keeping a very close eye on the city, as he obviously wants to clear his name.”
Ad started on her ‘Rennar’s innocent’ theory again, which Captain Nevros promptly quashed. “This is precisely the sort of informed input that we need. Unfortunately, we don’t have the manpower to handle all that. We’ll have the Tower staff do a search of the Tower, and send squads of men to check out the White Temple and that house. But only to check for any signs of habitation or entry. We here have to focus on expelling the Strix from Keldon. We need to be sure that Rennar hasn’t built his nest in any of those areas, and then we can start looking past the city walls.
“We need to search those areas. We will split up into teams that combine at least one of the local Dynasts, the Knights Errant, and the regular Shikari.”
One of the local Dynasts raised a hand and said, “Why don’t we try a combination of brute force and stealth? As you said, the trick isn’t to find the Wretched, it’s to know where they’re going to run to, and be there waiting for them. Have a few claws of the Legion go through an area, while we wait in ambush at the exit points.”
“A worthy thought,” Nevros allowed. “But premature. At the moment, we lack information. The Geomancers have narrowed the field considerably, but there are still areas that need to be searched. We need to look for signs of the Strix, before we make our tactical decisions. After that debacle with the Brass Tiger, the Strix will be far more cautious about running into any ambushes that we set. We’ll have to make the groups small, and travel without armor or obvious weapons, or the Strix will simply move to his next new place. Being inconspicuous is of the utmost priority.”
“Well then!” the Honorable Aeryn said brightly, “I happen to have the perfect stratagem for searching this area here,” she tapped a map that showed an area that included one of the more fashionable districts. “Lady Bel’Yal was speaking of getting Damsel Dajia fitted out with new clothing, and spoke of several local patrician ladies who might help out. What would be more innocuous than a shopping trip? Say, Damsel Dajia, Damsel Adlynn, Sthena and myself, along with Lady Bel’Yal and those patrician girls? Sthena can play the bored menial dragged along despite herself—”
“Who’ll say that I’ll have to play?” Sthena said with a martyred drawl.
“—so it won’t be suspicious if she’s watching everywhere except at the clothing. And I can keep an eye out without seeming like it. Damsel Adlynn knows the Stryx well enough to spot his tricks. And Lady Bel’Yal knows the district well enough to notice anything out of place. And who’ll notice if a well-heeled party of Dynast women pick the entire district apart, looking for a bargain?”
Captain Nevros started to complain, but the Honorable Aeryn ran right over him, as her due as a female, and invited the Wood Caste local Dynast woman along on the shopping trip. The local woman, one Cathek Ijoara, accepted the invitation as Captain Nevros gave us all the cold glare of authority superseded. He allowed us this, as the Honorable Aeryn was in charge of this minor mutiny, and then dryly addressed the *ahem!* Men! of the meeting as to the other areas in need of searching.
I managed to lay a foundation for my plan to keep Nevros from kicking me off the mission (and keep Randrel, Mykiros, and ewww… Isegris off my back), with keeping up with Nevros’ plans and keeping my sanity with not having to listen to all of Lady Bel’yal’s shopping plans. I intentionally did a poor job of hiding the fact that I was watching Nevros at all times. It was hard to follow what Adlynn and Bel’yal were nattering about, but that was all for the good. I think.
Back in Juche, there was a local patrician girl Elgran Wesra, who had a rather massive crush on Randrel for years. She was big and clumsy and painfully naïve, and she never quite worked up the nerve to tell Drel how she felt. And Drel, being Drel, never quite picked up on how she felt about him, despite the fact that it was painfully obvious to everyone else. Wesra would walk up to Drel, sort of gawk at him, and try to talk to him. She’d beat around the bush, never getting anywhere near to what was obviously her point, until she completely lost her nerve and left the conversation blushing like a red rose, as Drel stood there, wondering what was ailing her. It was hilarious to watch when we were twelve, but downright painful, once we’d learned how having your heart broken feels. As the debriefing ended, I asked myself how Elgran Wesra would have handled this, and took my page from her book. I walked up to Captain Nevros, waited awkwardly just a touch too closely with my mouth open, as if to talk, but just stood there stupidly, with nothing coming out. The Captain asked what I wanted and I made a stupid, inconsequential remark, and you’ve probably seen this, and it was, if anything, more painful to act out than watch, so what say we put this behind us?
I didn’t have to act that I was blushing as I skittered out of the debriefing chamber. I was actually glad of the enfolding number of females, even if most of them seemed to be holding in loud amusement with great effort.
My Lord Unconquered Sun, you are the Ultimate Paragon, and therefore you must be the greatest of detectives and sages. So, oh Bright Unveiler of Secrets, WHY do women have to preen for hours so that they’ll be presentable enow to shop for more clothing, which they’ll only take home and have their seamstresses alter beyond all recognition anyway?
Besides Adlynn and the two huntresses, Lady Bel’Yal had invited along that Wood aspect Dynast, one Cathak Vekai, Randrel’s friend Syresse, and a couple of local Patrician demoiselles whose names I admit that I’ve lost. Being that there were eight of us, occasionally one or two of the group would go off checking some other shop or bazaar booth, for any sign of the wily and elusive Strix. Well, at least Sthena and the Honorable Aeryn were; Adlynn and the rest were far too engrossed in crafting a ‘definitive look’ for me, a ‘wearable statement’ of some sort. Alas, as the putative beneficiary of all this, I wasn’t allowed the freedom of looking for anything.
One thing that I really hadn’t appreciated, being a Patrician, and looking in on the Dragonblooded, even from up close, was how political everything was. Or maybe that’s just a female thing. Anything can have political connotations — or, at least, it can have such connotations glued to it by diligent and malicious gossips. “Aren’t these sleeves just a tad too… Tepet?” one of the patrician girls asked as I tried on one under-robe.
“Well, it’s definitely Air Aspect, but how is Air Aspect necessarily Tepet?” Cathak Vekai retorted.
“Well, let’s face it, there’s a lot of air in these sleeves, making much ado with very little,” one of the other patrician girls giggled, making light of House Tepet’s well-known financial woes.
“Yes,” Lady Bel’Yal drawled frigidly as she examined the sleeves, “these do very well, from so little.” The two patricians shut up tight, remembering that Prince Avrall owed his satrapy largely to House Tepet, and hence any remark against Tepet was a strike against the Satrap. Or, at least it could be, if a rival chose to make it so. “Still, the design is predominantly wind-oriented, and there’s no sign of any roses,” Bel’Yal, was, of course, remarking on the strife surrounding Tepet Evadja, known far and wide as ‘the Roseblack’.
“And what’s wrong with roses?” Cathak Vekai said languidly, running a hand through her leafy hair.
“You’ve heard something from your Father House on the Blessed Isle?” The Honorable Aeryn asked, actually interested in the political undercurrents of the conversation. If House Cathak had thrown its lot in with the Roseblack, who was largely regarded as the neck-and-neck rival for Mnemon herself in the competition for the Dragon Throne, then Tepet’s fortunes were due for an upswing. Cathak controlled several other satrapies throughout the threshold, and more amicable relations between the two Great Houses would mean much for Keldon, even if there wasn’t a speedy resolution to the Succession Issue.
Vekai shrugged magnificently. “Cathak admires the Warrior Spirit.” Mnemon was possibly the greatest sorceress of the current age, second only to her mother; but she was still a sorceress, while the Roseblack was being widely hailed as the Warrior Exemplar of this age. It could mean much, it could mean nothing; such is the art of gossip-mongering.
Sthena yawned magnificently. Then her stone-hard face went even stonier. “Pesiaps’ Pebbly Pate, will you look at THAT?”
Following her gaze, which was at least more interesting than the lacy hem of this surplice that I’d been strapped into, I spotted a well-dressed man in clothes of patrician quality and cut — save for the preposterously overlarge and over-elaborate wig that he was wearing. The Honorable Aeryn stopped short at the sight of him. “Normally,” she said in suspiciously even tones, “I disregard the tides of fashion, especially in men. But if that oaf is trying to get that accepted as the cutting edge of fashion, then, sadly, I must wish him twelve different sorts of ill. I humbly pray that the local Dynasts have the elan to mock him mercilessly.”
“Truth, truth, Sister,” Sthena said with a softer, more introspective voice than I normally associate with her. “Can you imagine the effect, if that become fashionable, and junior officers started wearing such idiocies on the battlefield? The effect on our troops’ morale alone would be a disaster!”
“Oh, all Five Dragons at once!” one of the patrician girls squeaked, “That’s Bardor Knossel! What does he think he’s doing, wearing that thing? Winning a bet?”
“He seems to be stopping people without any consideration for their station or his, and asking them things,” Vekai said with disapproval.
“Let’s pay him no more attention,” Lady Bel’Yal suggested, “lest he mistakes that attention for approval, and tars us with the brush of association by stopping to talk to us.” Her suggestion was silently taken, voted on and approved.
As young Bardor tottered from vendor to vendor, we wordlessly shut him out. “Oh, Hsieh, he’s coming this way!” Syresse squeaked as she tried to put as many of us between herself and social disgrace.
But young Bardor blithely ignored our shunning as he tottered up to us with a fatuous smirk on his face and made a deep bow that suggested that he was deeply under the influence. “Ah, good morrow, Good Ladies!” he greeted us with a deep mellifluous voice that was at odds with his youth and lean frame. “I take that you are ladies of good breeding and elevated position. Might you know the household or whereabouts of Lord Mordrese Isegris, Dragonlord of the Blessed Isle?”
“Isegris?” Adlynn bleated, surprised at this turn. “Why, he’s at the Great Tower.”
“The Great Tower?” Bardor asked, perplexed, “WHY would he be in the Great Tower?”
“Well, he’s recuperating, in the Bower of Tranquil Ivory Restoration.”
“Oh, excellent, excellent, excellent!” Bardor exulted. “And WHERE is this ‘Great Tower’, pray tell?” Adlynn numbly pointed at the white tower that dominated the rooftops of Keldon. “Oh! Of course! Of course, of course, of course, where else would he BE?” Bardor chortled with satisfaction and glee, and then rambled off clumsily, almost crashing into another well-dressed young man wearing an absurdly high ‘stovepipe’ hat. The two conversed animatedly and then stumbled off together eagerly.
“What has gotten INTO Knossel?” one of the patrician girls whispered aghast. “He was never the sleek young hero, but he always had more panache than THAT! I only hope that his reputation survives being that drunk this early in the day!”
It was her comment, ‘what has gotten into Knossel’ that made the connection for me. “If I were you, I wouldn’t worry about Knossel’s reputation,” I said, sounding like the heroine’s best friend in a melodrama, even in my own ears, “I’d worry about his life, or his SOUL. Nothing’s gotten INTO Knossel; rather, I’m afraid that something’s gotten ONTO him, which in this case is worse.” I repeated for the benefit of Cathak Vekai and the two patrician girls a carefully edited version of my story at the Frabjous Tulge, focusing on the under-chancellor, and comments about the chancellor proper.
“Raksha?” Syresse whined, “How can they be Raksha? Raksha can’t come into Keldon!”
“The Raksha haven’t come into Keldon. So far,” the Honorable Aeryn said stolidly. “Which doesn’t mean that they can’t, merely that they haven’t had any particular need. I smell a Strix. Lady Adlynn, how would you say that your cousin Rennar and that Mordrese boy, Isegris got along?”
“They loathed each other,” Adlynn said with cold conviction. “Isegris cheated Rennar out of a minor ritual at the Cloister that’s supposed to be a sure way of Exalting. Whether it is or not, Isegris exalted for the Dragons, and Rennar… didn’t. It was a low, cunning, utterly unworthy thing for Isegris to do, and he resented Ren as a constant reminder of what a swine he is.”
“So, somehow sending a pack of lesser fae after Isegris is something that he’d come up with. Strike at an old enemy and stir up the local watch, so that he could operate more freely.”
“NO!” Ad said, offended to the core, “Ren had no USE for the Raksha! His favorite quote about the ‘Fair Folk’ was something from a Shogunate sage, something about ‘the glittering brilliance of a fever dream, and all the wholesomeness of one as well’.” She remembered that? Maybe I’ve been unwittingly wronging Adlynn all these years by backing her up! Having to think for herself seems to suit Ad!
“Honorable Aeryn,” I cut in, “Whether Kaellis Rennar is behind them or not, the simple fact is that those are most likely lesser fae, and as such they are a direct threat to Keldon, a minor threat to the Realm, and part and parcel of the Chaotic Horde that threatens Creation entire. They’re looking for Lord Isegris, for some reason. How do they even know who he IS? Honorable Aeryn, this can NOT be good for anyone. I know that we’re supposed to be looking for the Strix, but if you’re hunting for a wolf and you find a panther instead, do you let the pard go, just because it’s not the predator that you’re looking for?”
“And, Honorable Aeryn,” Cathak Vekai cut in, “while the Gray Neighbors coming in to hunt down Mordrese Isegris is bad enough, may I point out that it will only be worse, once the Fair Folk realize that they can enter Keldon? These are obviously lesser fey, and they somehow used Bardor Knossel and that other poor soul to get into the city. Sextes Jylis’ thorny claws, if their Raksha masters get the idea that they can squeeze through the chinks in Keldon’s defenses that way, then we’ll be overwhelmed by a flood of ridiculous headwear!”
“I’ve never heard of the ‘Good Neighbors’ to be able to possess and override the will of mortals before,” the Honorable Aeryn. “Of course, with the Raksha, that means little.”
“The wig and the hat appear to have been born — or made — or willed into existence — or whatever it is that brings lesser Raksha into being, with the intent of ‘riding’ whatever lesser fey happens to be handy or appropriate or amusing,” I pointed out. “But that means that they’re designed — if that word really applies here — to control other Fey. I have NO idea what this experience is doing to young lord Bardor… and I don’t hold a lot of hope for him. Still—”
“Still, if the Fae Lords learn that these things CAN, they’ll just make more of the fool things,” Sthena grated through her granite teeth. “The only way to prevent that is to make it appear that this gambit doesn’t work very well.”
“We capture them,” the Honorable Aeryn said with the frosty certainty of a wind off the North Pole. “We learn what has riled up the Raksha. Calibration has passed, so Fire has given way to Wood, so their season of war has passed. So, why are they sneaking into the city?”
“Well, I don’t know about elsewhere,” Syresse said, “but in these parts, Wood is the local fae’s season of tricks and pranks and such. Well, this definitely fits with them being tricksome, but still, it is a tad beyond the pale for the Frabjous Tulge. Sturdy Sthena is quite right — we’ll have to capture those and question them, just to see why they’re going to such a bother.”
‘Question them?’ rattled through my head, as it occurred to me that in trying to be over-clever, I’ve bitten myself on the ass — again. If they capture those two, the very best that will happen is that the local Dynasts will learn that the Frabjous Tulge has been taken by parties unknown, which will spur much interest, most likely in the direction of ME (or, at least the Strix). From there, it goes downhill at an alarming rate, from the Wyld Hunt learning that the ‘Moon Mad’ had gained a foothold in Kellesval, to that rattle-brained hat spelling out a tale of ‘Isegris’ stealing the Raksha lords’ eggs, which would be far too close to my own story, which was supposed to take place long ago and far, far away. I’m surrounded by Dragonbloods; I can’t afford that sort of suspicion. My only recourse is a swift, inconspicuous case of haticide.
The Honorable Aeryn sent the two patrician girls to the central contact point, where an ensign of the Hunt was waiting with messenger birds for the various search parties; the ensign would contact Captain Nevros, and he would adjust his priorities as he saw fit. In the meantime, Lady Bel’Yal and Syresse would act as messengers between Sthena and Vekai on the ground, and the Honorable Aeryn, Adlynn and myself up in the rooftops. We would observe them to see if there were any more. Lady Bel’Yal would approach one of them and correct herself, saying that Isegris had been released from the Bower of Tranquil Ivory Restoration, and was reportedly enjoying the view of the river from an isolated public garden set on a prospect overlooking the river. We on the rooftops would watch, and see if they made to pass this information onto any others. Once we had a better idea as to their numbers, Sthena and Vekai would herd them as to isolate each from the others, and Aeryn, Adlynn and I would pick them off, one by one. It was a good plan; it had the smack of established Wyld Hunt procedure about it. Also, with my Night Caste steal charms, it meant that I could beat them to the punch every time, and they’d just think that the Fey had gotten wind of them.
Once we were up on the rooftops, I positioned myself so that I was the one keeping an eye on the Underchancellor, who was the one most likely to give me away. The Big Wig would have to go as well, as well as the Rhymer, who was probably their local guide, and any other lesser fey that might be along, but the High Hat was a dead bonnet for sure.
I looked over the eaves of the roof with keen anticipation of the hunt. Then it occurred to me: I was removing another being from Creation for the simple fact that it was a threat, and a minor, rather removed threat at that. Weren’t things like this the entire reason for the Usurpation in the first place? The Solar Exalted taking for granted that everything in Creation had to suit them, or else? I mean, of course, we’ve got to get that thing off from Bardor Knossel’s head; but do I really have a right to summarily extinguish the Underchancellor? Yes, the Underchanellor is a Fey, who thought that it was cheating both Arrek and myself out of our LIVES; but does returning the favor in this way make me any better than the High Hat? Tatifar the Tightfist was a miser, a child-stealer, and one who sold those children to the Fey; but what authority did I have, to force fey-wrought gems down his gullet until his stomach burst? And I reviled Alkandor for being a mooch and a thief when he blithely helped himself to my shield; but given my sticky-fingered ways, who was I to sneer at him?
I looked up at the Unconquered Sun, high in the sky and asked, “My Lord Sol Invictus, I know that you prefer for us to handle these things ourselves, but I could use a little guidance just about now. Do I really have the right to take those Raksha’s lives, just to cover my traces? I know that as one of your Exalted, I’m not held to the same morals and standards as ordinary mortals, but saying that I’m justified in killing, just because it suits me to, does rather strike me as uncomfortably like the Solar Exalts of the Usurpation. That was… something that I really think that all of us would rather not repeat. So… do I help the Dragonbloods capture those things and risk being exposed? Or do I kill the unborn thing, and be sure?”
And suddenly, the rooftop disappeared, and I was somewhere else: I was in Chirascuro, but not the Chirascuro the glittering ruin, the picturesque shadow of First Age glory, but Chirascuro the Shining Metropolis at the height of its majesty. I was Kayan Tallar, the Shadow that Laughs at Evil, First Agent of Security and Justice for the Lord of Chirascuro, and exemplar of the Night Caste. The city of Chirascuro was brilliant with bright lights, but those bright lights cast dark shadows, where evil flourished, like rot that hides from the cleansing rays of the Unconquered Sun. But those shadows are my rightful hunting grounds. The Polychrome Spider swathed in Silk had returned. Excellent, excellent, the ‘Diplomat’ raksha was always amusing; better yet, she had an uncanny nose for corruption, that being her tipple of choice. She’d crawled silently into Chirascuro, thinking that I wouldn’t notice, and spun her web, and sure enough, the petit aristocrats had fallen into her web of seduction and corruption, trading money, gems, petty treasures, information, little bits of their souls, and even small children, for the rapturous escape of Raksha spun delirium.
I pulled my slouch hat down, and pulled my dark cloak around me, and leapt from the cornice down into the streets, eager for the hunt. The demoiselle Varras Erzille was barely a year out of the Seminary, but already she had learned much of indulgence and depravity. If the Polychrome Spider hadn’t nosed out such a choice morsel, then she was slipping. Of course, that was precisely why I had let Erzille pick up such nasty habits in the first place.
I had chosen Erzille as my stalking horse because, besides being naïve, headstrong, self-indulgent, proud, rash and impudent, she thought herself clever and subtle. This meant that she’d use ridiculously over-complex ways of getting away from her father’s townhouse. Which I could follow easily, simply by knowing what beginner’s ruse she’d try. She tried the old chestnut of changing her clothes three times, never realizing that her carriage and gait gave her away each time. At one point, she gave away the large gaudy ring that she wore on her right hand; was she learning? Was it some passage-token? Was she paying for her vices with family treasures?
No. She was growing cautious and wary, like a deer that’s scented the tiger. She realized that she was in some danger, but she didn’t know what the danger was, or from what quarter. She proceeded forward only from a vague belief that she was traveling toward safety, and a worry that in simply bolting she might run squarely into whatever was following her.
I scowled. I wasn’t used to being challenged by a mere squit of a girl. Not that I was stopped, by any measure. But my target was the Polychrome Spider swathed in Silk, and she would simply scuttle off, leaving her playmates to face justice alone, if she knew that I was on her trail. What I needed was some way of enticing the Spider so that she’d stay long enough for me to get my hands on her, something that would play on her basic Fey predatory instincts.
Then I had the perfect ploy. Fighting down a grin, I evoked the ‘Perfect Mirror’, and in a trice, I was a gawky stripling, barely out of the Academy, wearing a Man’s clothes with more than a touch of presumption. I wrapped my cloak around me and made *hurmph!* ‘stealthily’ forward. I kept after her, and was *ahem!* ‘almost spotted’ a few times. After *heh* ‘craftily avoiding’ various watchers, I followed her to a tall glittering building that was ‘closed for repairs and maintenance’. I made a ‘daring leap’ onto the top of the gondola that carried us both to the top of the tower. But just as I was about to *ahem* ‘nimbly’ leap off the top of the gondola when a mass of hairy tentacles snaked out and wrapped around me. Tickling me into giggling helplessness (or so it seemed), the tentacles dragged me through a tunnel into a large open arena.
Yes, I said arena.
No, I never said that the Raksha were anything like original.
I made a production out of gathering my wits and staggering to my feet as cruel laughter rang down from the arena seats above. Then I heard Varras Erzille’s voice saying in a scolding tone, “Jashber Penrod! What are YOU doing here?”
Assuming Jashber Penrod’s quavering reedy tenor, I stammered, “Erzille, sweetest, we were to dine tonight! You promised!”
“I did NOT!” she insisted, “and what right does that give you to follow me as though you had some sort of CLAIM over me?”
We went back and forth, with me playing the concerned young savior, and Erzille playing the annoyed sophisticate and the drugged reprobates on all sides laughing themselves sick. And none laughed louder, or with such penetrating scorn as the Polychrome Spider swathed in Silk. Beautiful, she was, with silky iridescent hair framing a delicate face with a smile designed to laugh at the death of innocence. Her sloe eyes were solid balls of jet with six smaller eyes set on her forehead. She was willow slender, but her six arms put the lie to any notion of fragility on her part. She sat on a huge spider throne. She was every inch the Raksha, flaunting her deadliness through a hazy veil of glamour. Finally, the Polychrome Spider cried, “ENOUGH! Now, we get to the high point of the evening! Erzille? You would be rid of this pest? This I will grant you!” she handed Erzille a golden ball.
Erzille took the ball, and a huge glassine spider popped out of a trap door in the arena floor. Erzille had no idea of how to use the construct, and I could have evaded it easily. But I needed the Polychrome Spider to be more personally involved. I made a farce out of barely clumsily jerking just out of the crystalline spider’s mandibles, and tripping under its fangs. The crowd loved it, but if the Nightmare Brood have a fatal weakness, it’s an abject lack of tolerance for frustration. Again and again I snatched satisfaction from the Polychrome Spider’s grasp. Finally, frothing at the mouth with frustration, she snatched the golden orb of control from Erzille’s fumbling hands and took control of the construct herself. The spider-construct became more sure and fluid under the Polychrome Spider’s sway, but I still managed to dance around its gambits, all the while looking like a sprawling idiot who was escaping out of pure luck.
Finally, the Polychrome Spider’s marginal patience was spent. She sent lines of essence out from the golden ball to the crystal spider, linking them directly. This was precisely what I wanted. I flowed between the crystal spider’s legs like a waft of smoke, and attached a cold iron collar to the place where the essence joined the spider. Now, the Polychrome Spider was attached by her own essence, which was far more truly part of the Raksha diplomat than her physical seeming. Shedding the puling seeming of Jashber Penrod, I raced to each of the exits, placing a Censor’s Seal on each of them. When I’d sealed the bagnio so that none of the reprobates could leave, I announced, “I AM THE SHADOW WHO LAUGHS AT EVIL! In the name of the Unconquered Sun, and the Solar Circle that rules Chirasuro, I arrest you for consorting with the Unformed, conspiracy against our rightful rule, and the MURDER of innocents! Resist at your own peril!”
“Well?” the Polychrome Spider snarled impotently from where I had her bound, “What are you waiting for? This is your chance for immortal GLORY! Earn it, you fools, EARN IT!”
Raksha cataphracts, goblin warriors in the forms of anthroform spiders in glassine armor, exploded out from the corners and crannies of the bagnio, armed with tridents and silky nets. HAH! Barely a moment’s hesitation. Drawing out my twin orichalcum blades, I cut into them with passion and zeal. I turned their own tridents against them and tangled them up in their own nets. Once I had them bound and helpless, I advanced upon the Polychrome Spider, who huddled against Varras Erzille in an adequate reproduction of terror. “POLYCHROME SPIDER SWATHED IN SILK,” I thundered, “Rhabyamadhuja Vahidjahana,” I whispered her secret true name, just to remind her that I knew it, “Now I crush you under my heel, like the annoying little pest that you truly ARE!”
“Iron Wolf,” she breathed, her only true passion that of the enjoyment of the game of Treachery and Betrayal, “’ere you bring down your iron heel, you should know: there are voices that whisper in dark corners, forging betrayal, hoping to weave your downfall from honeyed lies and acid truths.”
“And it’s cold when it snows,” I sneered. “Isn’t it strange how that works?” We bantered back and forth, and she managed to convince me that she’d been playing the counselor and messenger for several highly placed officials who were planning to ‘put me on a leash and rein in my terror’, as they insisted on putting it. The Polychrome Spider gave me their names, and in return, I touched the golden ball that held her prisoner. She erupted into a swarm of tiny glassine spiders, and flowed out of the chamber through the cracks in the doors. “And now for YOU, Varras Erzille,” I turned in her direction.
“ME?” she squealed, “but YOU let that… that THING escape!”
“NO, Varras Erzille,” I droned holding my brilliant white-red opal ring up to her eyes, and capturing her negligible gaze. “YOU allowed the Polychrome Spider swathed in Silk, hoping to preserve some scrap of favor from that unnatural disaster, holding that above your duty to Creation, your family, your father and the Law. And so you will be punished for it.” And, in her entranced condition, Varras Erzille believed that, and she believed that until the day she died.
As for me, the hunt was over, and I wanted only the warm embrace of Elan Omgar, my Lunar mate. I had everything that I wanted, and Elan’s caresses would make the evening perfect.
I snapped out of the remembrance, and I knew that the memories were from Kayan Tallar, the previous possessor of my Exaltation shard, and a premier example of why the Dragonblooded horde rose up against the Solar Exalted in the first place, and not the shard itself. Still! I shuddered; what was the point of that? I mulled it over until I had something that I could work with. Kayan treated his Exaltation as his just due, not an obligation upon him. He hunted the Polychrome Spider more out of sport than to protect the citizens of Chirascuro, and when he caught her, he let her go because she bribed him, if not simply for her to return, so there’d be more sport later on. She bribed him with names of those who plotted against him, instead of jade, but still, it was a bribe. And he let Varras Erzille take the blame for the Polychrome Spider’s escape. The point of the remembrance was that the Polychrome Spider was a threat to Chirascuro and to Creation entire. Kayan’s duty was to destroy the Polychrome Spider before she could corrupt and destroy more of the elite of Chirascuro, not allow her to escape like a villainess at the last scene of a cheap romance. Kayan had forsaken his duty for sport and self-interest.
The point of the remembrance was that Duty came first. The Underchancellor and Chancellor Proper of the Frabjous Tulge were threats to the citizens of Keldon, and they certainly weren’t doing Bardor Knossel or his companion any good. The fact that I was covering my tracks was secondary at best; in this immediate matter, the most important thing was that Creation was protected, and two innocent (as far as I knew) mortals were freed from the Raksha’s influence. I focused on the two Raksha (who for some strange reason were still there), and readied to pounce, sport and advantage forgotten…
…when something hit me on the side of the head.
Turning around, I spotted Adlynn a few rooftops over. She waved at me, and motioned for me to join her. I ran over the rooftops to her and she said, “What’s has been the matter with you?”
“Oh, I just sort of lost myself in anticipation of the hunt. Why hasn’t Honorable Aeryn given the signal?”
“Because this hunt has been called off.”
“Captain Nevros sent word for everyone connected with the Hunt for Rennar to report to the Tower immediately. Apparently, instead of falling into all the complicated stratagems, Ren showed that he has brains, and simply upped and left. He’s been spotted in Threebridge.”
“What?” That was impossible! Lady Danya only left yesterday, and it’s a three-day trip from Keldon to Threebridge by riverboat! “But what about those Raksha?”
“Aeryn says that an order to reassemble overrules a side issue like those raksha.”
I had yet more proof that even the great Solar Exalted aren’t immune to that nagging suspicion that somewhere, somehow, someone was laughing at them. I made a trifling excuse, went off in one direction, used my Night Caste concealment, and went back from another direction. I spotted the Big Wig and the High Hat and some third Raksha that looked like a rabbit dressed up in the clothing of a minor functionary. Fortunately, while we had been legitimately browsing through the shops, the Dragonblooded ladies and I had also been searching for ‘the Strix’, and while we weren’t armed and armored for battle, we each were carrying a few discreet weapons on us. I charged forward, unseen, and bowled over the two patricians, sending the Big Wig and High Hat flying, and finished the charge by pinning the rabbit-fey to the ground with one of my knives. As the rabbit-thing screamed like a woman, I turned and headed for the High Hat with a severe deblocking in mind. The High Hat was hopping away frantically, as I’d gotten between it and its victim. Both victims, by the way, were standing up and clearing their heads. The High Hat tried to get to one of them, but while they weren’t completely clear, the two humans had the good base instincts to avoid it and run away as quickly as they could. The High Hat watched its only two mounts scurry away, and then it turned with a squeak, and cowered with fear as I came at it, daggers drawn.
But just as I was about to get on with the un-brimming and de-crowning, something wrapped around me, binding my arms and legs. As I struggled, I discovered that the Chancellor Proper had somehow grown by a factor of at least twenty to the size of a small pony, and it was using its long curling locks as tendrils to hold onto me. Or at least TRY to hold onto me. I was furiously slashing at the Big Wig, doing things to its hairdo that would no doubt have sent the hairdresser that Lady Bel’Yal had stuck me with earlier into fits. But the Chancellor Proper wasn’t trying to strangle me or break anything. Rather, it was trying to set its base against my head. It was trying to take me over, and to use me as a mount. But, just as I was figuring out how to use that to my tactical advantage, I heard the High Hat’s pompous voice harrumph, “Here, here! Stop that! Stop that at once!”
“She’ll stop it, once she’s wearing me,” the Big Wig shot back.
“I wasn’t taking to HER, sir; I was talking to YOU. She is MY mount, and I’ll thank you very much to stop trying to cut in line, Sir!”
“What are you blithering about? I am the Big Wig! I out rank you!”
“Yes, but she chose ME as her rightful master, by the way she singled me out,” the High Hat quibbled. “She went after ME first, which clearly makes ME the more dangerous threat.”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” the Big Wig shouted, “You’re a Hat! A high-crowned hat! Women don’t wear high crowned hats, they wear WIGS! And besides, LOOK at you! I am clearly the greater threat!”
“Tosh!” the High Hat harrumphed, and it grew twentyfold as well, and now its mouth was a lamprey’s maw of jagged teeth. “You’re just a rag and hank of hair, without even a bone! I am clearly the greater threat!”
Well, the Chancellor Proper dropped me and pushed his… whatever… up into the Underchancellor’s… whatever he used for a face and they started arguing at each other. After all, an enemy is only an enemy, but a presumptuous underling is a THREAT! As they nattered at each other, I found the still screaming rabbit, and shoved it into a wooden keg of trash. Then I chucked the keg into the Chancellor Proper’s back, forcing him into the Underchancellor’s mouth. The Underchancellor took this opportunity to bite more than just the Chancellor Proper’s back, and started to consume both of them and the keg as well. I took advantage of this to grab the Underchancellor’s hatband and pull it tight, pulling its maw shut. The Underchancellor responded to this by shrinking down to his usual size.
As they still argued over precedence (I could hear them, despite the fact that I had the Underchancellor’s mouth clamped shut), I hurried and quickly found a garbage fire. I shoved them in, and ignoring the screams and the smell of burning hair, I made tracks back to rejoin Adlynn.
As Adlynn nattered about the clothes that I’d never get to wear, I wondered whether the fact that I’d dealt with them as a nuisance to be done with, instead of opponents to conquer, had had any impact on how easily I’d handled them.
Back at the Great Tower, Nevros told the assembled Dynasts and officers of the Hunt, “The Strix has decided to not play by our rules; I don’t know why I’m surprised. We were operating on the presumption that Kaellis Rennar had some manner of stake in Keldon, but apparently, this is just where Kaellis was taken by the Conquering Sun. He has relocated to Threebridge, where he has made his presence known by slaughtering the head of the local brothel-owner’s guild in a spectacular way.”
“How do they know it was Ren?” asked Mykiros (not Adlynn, to my surprise).
“The guildmaster was found in his office with his heart cut out.”
“Really?” Mykiros said, “That doesn’t sound like Ren at all.”
“Yes,” Drel agreed, “Nasty, I’ll allow, but Ren always liked to make a show, a big display, like he was showing off for the monks back at the Cloister. Where’s the showmanship?”
“The Guildmaster was found with his heart cut out, crushed under an idol of the local goddess of prostitution, with the office painted red — largely, but not entirely with his own blood — and a talent-and-a-half worth of silver, jade, jewels and minor artifacts left as sureties for gambling debts were stolen, as well as another two talents worth of written IOUs.”
“Now THAT’S Ren all over!”
“Yep,” Mykiros agreed, “Snide political comment AND making off with a small fortune in whatever’s lying about. Ren never could resist the urge to fill his pockets whenever he could,” Kiros said with a sneer. I’m beginning to wonder why I regarded these people as my friends.
“Oh?” Adlynn asked with a rip of her own, “Does that mean that you’re going to start kicking in money for the room and board?”
“What are the chances that Kael — er, the Strix is doing this as a trick to lure the Wyld Hunt out of Keldon?” one of the local Dragonbloods asked.
“Excellent,” Captain Nevros admitted. “But the Wretched have tried this ploy before, and we have tactics to deal with it. The local Dynasts will stay here in Keldon with the green recruits and a cadre of veterans; The Dynasts from the Blessed Isle will accompany us with the veteran wing. The emphasis will be on confirming that whatever is in Threebridge is the Strix or not. Upon confirmation or exposure of whatever fraud is involved, the half that is not in the city contaminated by Kaeliss’ presence will make haste to the city that is so plagued, with equal parts speed and stealth. If we can, we’ll try to maneuver the Wretched into abandoning whichever city he’s holed up in, and catch him in open ground.”
“Why are you going to Threebridge?” Cathak Vekai asked. “It’s not a satrapy. They even allow some of their gods to wander about freely!”
“True,” Nevros nodded sagely, “Threebridge isn’t a satrapy. But it IS a tribute-paying client state of the Realm, AND it occupies a strategic point where the Rock River branches off from the Yellow River. In these uncertain times, the Realm, especially the Wyld Hunt MUST be seen as coming to the aid of its allies, especially when the Anathema are involved. Remember, if nothing else, Threebridge is a trade terminus in this region, and a major contributor of tribute to this satrapy.”
“Doled out, mostly, from the profits of drink, whoring, gambling, and usury,” one of the local dynasts grumbled dyspeptically.
“It’s going to happen anyway,” another one said in the tones of someone bringing up an old issue, “so, at least in Threebridge, they do it right and keep a lid on the corruption. And by their tribute, Keldon taxes those excesses without getting our hands dirty with making pimps and pawnbrokers cough up.”
“And after what the Strix has done, Avros is going to need that tribute more than ever,” another pointed out.
Nevros waved all that down. “Now, this is for those going to Threebridge, and to those who may have to come and back us up. Remember: Threebridge is an ALLY. We are going there to help those people. Rennar the Strix is one of the Wretched, not a Deceiver or one of the Blasphemous; we don’t have to worry that he’s managed to taint their minds. They are in TERROR of him. This suits us right down to the ground. We are going to rescue them. Act like rescuers. We are not there to take over, we don’t need to take over, taking over would be a bad idea. We need for the people of this stretch of the river to know that the Realm, despite the troubles back home, still stands by its allies, and only troubles those who troubles us.”
Nog raised his hand. “And what about Ize, ah, Isegris? He’s still laid up in the hospital, gettin’ that eye to see right.”
“Lord Isegris will rejoin us when he can, as he can. Right now, Lord Mordrese, we need you with us, chasing down this Strix-or-not. If the Strix is still here in Keldon, and you, his companions of his former days, leave, then Kaellis is more likely to show whatever hand he’s playing here. You will come with us; your brother will follow as best he can.”
And that was more or less that. We got our things together as quickly as we could. Adlynn and I had some experience in moving on the fly, but the veteran Shikari seemed to have packing quickly on short notice down to a fine art. Of course they cheated slightly. They had Dragonblooded charms that made their clothing dance their way into packing themselves. Still, the Honorable Aeryn was a sport about it and Ad’s and my clothing whirled into packing and were set with the other luggage (including a trunk for ‘Coral Feather’). I helped Arrek with his ‘confused deaf-mute’ act and got him stowed away with the Hunt’s servants. Then Lady Bel’Yal, Syresse and those two patrician girls (whose names I still can’t remember for the life of me) saw us off with hugs and well-wishes and small gifts.
I didn’t have to feign the thrill as I boarded the manta-skycraft with Adlyn, who was buzzing with excitement herself. We’d both been around a bit, but neither of us had ever flown in one of the skycraft that are one of the marvels that the Realm has managed to hold onto from the First Age. We both looked around keenly at the designs of the cabins, which were quite sparse and utilitarian, until we were brought to a luxurious salon with upholstered chairs, elegant tables and shelves of various things, which were battened down for traveling. “Where are our sleeping quarters to be?” Ad asked.
“On the Orca ships,” Captain Nevros said. “But as we’ll be in Threebridge just about sundown, we’ll delay getting you settled in, once we’re sure that this hunt doesn’t end at Threebridge. We’ll spend the time reviewing the layout and power structure of Threebridge.”
“What he’s not telling you,” the Honorable Aeryn said with a sigh, “is that while flying may be a wondrous experience — for the first hour or so — after that, it’s perishingly like being stuck in a small room with blessed little to do, and less to look at. We’ll spend the last hour or so of the ‘review’ playing cards.”
“Lady Dajia!” Nevros said severely. Remembering my ploy with him, I snapped to immediate and rapt attention to whatever he’d say. “You were delayed getting back, after I’d sent explicit instructions that everyone was to regroup at the Great Tower immediately. Did you try to capture one of the goblins that the Honorable Aeryn described to me, despite those orders?”
“No sir!” I replied with the smile of an adoring student to a favored teacher, elated to report that she’d finished her homework, “I made no attempt to capture any of the fey-things, whatsoever. I was delayed by a triviality, which I won’t bother you with. Orders are orders.” And well, that was nothing less than the truth, now wasn’t it? A carefully worded truth, but still the truth!
“Very good,” Nevros said gruffly with a nod. “You made an excellent debut with the Hunt, Lady Dajia. But excellent beginnings can come to bad ends, when the Shikari thinks that he’s the great hero, and doesn’t need the rest of the Hunt. The Anathema were great warriors, but they were warriors, who fought by themselves, for themselves. The Dragonblooded Horde are soldiers; UNITY and coordination are our greatest powers—” He went on like this for a bit, and then finally, they brought out maps of Threebridge and environs, and diagnostic trees of the local families and power groups.
Sol’s Blazes, I can’t wait until we get to Threebridge! The debriefing is interesting enough, but it’s going to take a tun of wine to wash the sounds of my ‘dear and boon companions’ Randrel, Mykiros, Nog and Esrak defaming my character at every turn, to show what loyal Dynasts had been riding with an Anathema.
To Be Continued in ‘Nightbringer’