Xareff, a Man who once called himself ‘The Duke of Thieves,’ stood in what used to be his throne room, in a port that used to be called ‘Kor,’ in front of what was once his throne, made of stone, on a cracked dais of thirteen steps, where a Druid named Dilvesh sat now.
They’d let him keep his pants on—that was more than he usually did. Strip a man down naked in front of others and he was more vulnerable and more easily intimidated. He’d had two Toorian bodyguards, but they were just bodies now, laying to his left in bloody puddles against what used to be his rough, wooden gallery.
An Uman named Narem stood next to him, bleeding from gashes in his arms, chest and face. His brown eyes were fixed on the dais’ bottom step, blood was matted in his short, white hair, his lips were fixed in a thin, pink line. Narem had been the captain of the Koran Guard which had protected the city, but there wasn’t much of that left now.
Dilvesh didn’t say anything; he just…looked at them. He sat in white robes with a green hook symbol under a dot on the front of them, a brown over cloak open, framing him. He looked regal somehow—more regal than the former Duke of Thieves, anyway.
Xareff knew of Dilvesh—everyone did. A member of the Daff Kanaar and an ally of the Eldadorian Emperor, he’d come here with 2,000 Wolf Soldiers and another thousand Angadorian Knights, and he hadn’t just sacked port Kor, he’d conquered it. His troops held the whole city. Those who hadn’t bent a knee to the Druid in the Emperor’s name were dead.
That made for a lot of dead. Kor had been a pirate haven and the last free city in Eldador. People didn’t give that up easily, no matter what squalor they lived in.
To Xareff’s right he recognized Duke Tartan Stowe of Angador and his Duchess, the Lady Yeral. The former dressed out in Eldadorian field plate—a plain, steel breastplate, sleeves and greaves, a full helmet clipped to his hip and a long sword over his shoulder. The latter dressed as if for court in a full green gown with a voluminous skirt—Xareff had a hard time imagining she’d seen combat, but then, why was she here?
No one spoke—it was nerve-wracking.
Xareff heard a commotion behind him. He turned reflexively—you didn’t make it as far as he had in life without your reflexes responding on their own. Marching in through the shattered double-doors behind him he recognized Nina of the Aschire, her purple hair streaming out behind her, her black leather pants and vest smudged with white dust, her face with black soot.
Roughly two weeks ago it had been she standing before Xareff, pleading her case. Now she marched past him, two Wolf Soldiers stopping at the throne room entrance, as if he weren’t there.
The Druid smiled wide. His brown eyes followed her under green eyebrows and curly, green hair. Supposedly Dilvesh was the only hybrid of Men and Uman, but that never rang true to Xareff.
“Green One,” she addressed him.
“Nina,” Dilvesh said, inclining his head.
“Thank you for coming,” she said, her back to Xareff now, so he couldn’t see her expression. “But I didn’t mean for you to sack the whole city.”
Dilvesh shrugged. “The city was going to be taken eventually,” he said. “If our enemies were planning to use it, then it made sense to do that now.”
Nina’s shoulders relaxed. “Not like you had something better to do?” she said.
Dilvesh chuckled. “That’s what he would say, yes,” he said.
Xareff could guess who he was. It was a strange expression.
Nina turned. “And these?” she asked, turning. Her grey eyes travelled up and down the former Duke of Thieves. “I have to be honest,” she added, “he was decent to me. He could have hurt me and he didn’t.”
“That’s good to know,” Dilvesh said. “I was going to hang him—maybe not now.”
Nina’s eyes travelled to the other, the Uman, Narem. “Who’s this one?”
“I’m the captain of the Koran Guard,” Narem almost spat at her, looking up from the bottom of the dais.
“That’s a hard thing to be,” Dilvesh said, “seeing as there isn’t a Kor any more, much less a Koran Guard.”
Narem looked him in the eyes. “You slaughtered them all?”
Dilvesh shrugged. “I’m not sure,” he said. “I don’t recall them calling for quarter.”
“About one hundred did,” Tartan Stowe piped up. All eyes turned to him. “I’m holding them outside the city. They’ve asked for this one—they claim the Guard serves the city, not the leader, and if we run things now—”
“If you think you run things now,” Narem interrupted, “then we’ll serve you like we served him.”
The throne room went quiet. Glances flew between Narem and Dilvesh.
“We don’t need ‘em,” Tartan Stowe said, finally.
“I tend to agree,” Dilvesh said.
“I don’t,” Nina inserted.
Dilvesh regarded her. She half-turned so she could face the group of them.
“His troops know the city,” she said, “and it will take us a long time to do that. They can fight, they’re peace keepers, we’re warriors—they know how to do things we don’t, like hunt down criminals and contact important people left in the city.”
“Not many of those,” Tartan said, a smirk on his face.
“But some,” Dilvesh countered. “You don’t know this Uman, Nina. How can you speak to his loyalty?”
Nina turned her face to his. “Are the Wolf Soldiers any different, before they take their vows?”
Dilvesh sighed, closed his eyes and opened them.
Nina turned to Narem. “Your solemn vow?” she asked him.
Narem met her eyes. “Given to the city,” he said. “The Koran Guard—”
“There is no more Kor,” Dilvesh interrupted him. “This is the port city of Lupor, of the Eldadorian Empire. Where is your loyalty now?”
Narem looked sideways at Xareff, then back at the Druid.
“On my life, on my honor,” he said, “to the Port City of Lupor, of the Eldadorian Empire, ‘till the gods take me.”
Nina smiled. Her eyes shifted between Narem, Xareff and Dilvesh.
The Druid nodded.
“And now, the other one,” Tartan Stowe said.
* * *
Shela Mordetur lay bound with her hands behind her over the back of her gelding—the same one she’d rode off of the plains with her husband, then her master, when she’d met her Yonega Waya more than a decade ago.
They’d been travelling south slowly. By her best estimates they were at the edges of Thera’s provinces now. The Bounty Hunters who’d captured her, her daughters and prince Hectaro, son of the Duke of Galnesh Eldador were complaining there were Eldadorian patrols everywhere, and debating whether they were looking for this group or not.
She knew better. Her husband was in the process of collecting his forces in Uman City for the War months. Roads from Andurin and Metz, from Galnesh Eldador and the wealthy port cities came through here.
Any of them would have someone who’d recognize the Empress of Eldador, and the Bounty Hunters knew it. They were keeping their heads down, as her husband would say.
Her husband, the Emperor. She’d betrayed him. She’d known better, she’d known better than to leave on her own with her children to track him down on his way to Uman City and inform him she’d ordered the Druid in Vrek to march on Kor. It was a relatively unimportant adjustment to their plans which could be handled with a message, but she wanted to be with her man, and any excuse seemed reasonable.
Now she’d turned herself and those children over to his enemies—and not just any, but Clear Genna, the woman they’d left for dead in Conflu more than a decade before, the one who’d loved him before he’d come to Andoran and they’d met.
They hadn’t known Genna was a Bounty Hunter, but it made sense now. Her resourcefulness, her effectiveness as a guide—they should have suspected this of her all along.
Now she had these hostages, and she’d use them to force her husband to surrender to the Bounty Hunter’s Guild or, worse, to her. She and her children were likely as good as dead anyway—she’d tried to kill them all and failed before they’d subdued her. She’d do it again now if she could.
She couldn’t—she had to speak the words to use her magic to kill her children, and they’d gagged her. Now she pretended to be asleep, unconscious from the poison they put into her blood stream when they’d ambushed her and killed her guards. They’d reapplied it to her lips but she’d neutralized it—changed it to salt water. She acted like an unconscious woman, she’d even soiled herself and left herself for her older daughter to clean as best she could, and she waited.
They’d make a mistake, and she’d act. Oh, how she’d act. They’d know the full fury of an Andaran Sorceress, the most feared on Fovea, when she got her chance.
A thousand years from now, people would shudder at the fate of Clear Genna of the Daff Kanaar.
* * *
Jahunga had insisted he and his seven remaining Toorians scout ahead of their wandering band from Kor. The Salt Wood wasn’t the same as their native jungle, but tracking and scouting didn’t change anywhere.
It had been the right decision. Defassi, his good friend, knelt down in the dry brush next to him and surveyed the Eldadorian plain beside him.
They’d left one thousand Angadorian Knights behind them at Kor. They hadn’t expected to find another 3,500 here between them and the Lone Wood.
“That is more than we can sneak past,” Defassi informed him, as if he needed to. “Especially with this lot.”
Jahunga nodded. They were in the camps the Eldadorian soldiers made. The trash around them, the cess pits and the refuse from their fires, told him they’d been here in this same place for more than a week. They didn’t look like they were packing up now—they were running drills and they were practicing charging and their turns—this group was going to remain right here for a while.
“We can cross to the north,” he said. “We can avoid their scouts, circle past them—”
“The one called Raven,” Defassi argued, “she said to the purple-haired witch that we’d go north.”
Jahunga closed his eyes and nodded. “You’re right,” he said. They’d wanted their enemies to think they were heading to Andurin. Not wise to go that way.
“South, then,” he said. “Just as good.”
“It’s not,” Defassi said. He pointed south and continued, “Their supply train runs south and they guard it.”
Jahunga shook his head.
He’d been wondering at their logic, at keeping with these people. They’d gone to Kor and that was pointless. They’d divided their forces for no reason, either, in his opinion. Their song told them to go to a sacred place and find the one who ‘fights as does the sun.’ It didn’t say they couldn’t all go, just that certain of them had to. It would have been wiser to stay together, but they hadn’t listened to Jahunga.
The Scitai, Xinto, and the Uman-Chi, Glynn, had appointed themselves as leader. Why not Jahunga? In Toor his council was among the wisest. Here, they thought of him as just another warrior with a spear.
It was hard not to be angry over this.
“There!” Defassi said, pointing past the army on the field.
Jahunga squinted, the setting sun behind him, and painted by the dusk light, four individuals, one of them a hulking giant, another an overlarge Man, and the third a slip of a figure in a dress. A fourth dressed in some sort of robe or cloak—it was impossible to tell more in the dying light.
Roaming at their feet, apparently something the size of a small lion; behind them three horses, one of them huge.
They could have picked up the animal, but there was no mistaking Zarshar or Little Storm. Magee, the Uman-Chi witch, had probably found them by the beacon Karl carried. Jahunga watched as they ducked back behind the hill they’d topped, to let themselves be seen.
They couldn’t let this army see them; neither could they let their allies miss them. No one of the race of Men would have marked them in the Salt Wood, hidden as they were, but Uman-Chi eyes worked strangely.
Or they might have been there for a long time, exposing themselves a few times a day. It didn’t matter—Jahunga needed to report this back to the mainstay of their group.
* * *
Dilvesh dined with the Duke Tartan Stowe, his wife Yeral and Nina of the Aschire at what passed for a dining room, in what passed for a palace, in the port city now called Lupor, the newest of the Eldadorian Empire.
It used to be known by another name. It used to be called ‘Outpost III’ when the Cheyak lived here, but that was more than 1,000 years ago. Dilvesh kept this secret to himself. The Daff Kanaar had once been a group focused on selling mercenary services to the rest of Fovea, in an effort eventually to eradicate the Fovean High Council and pave the way for Ancenon Aurelias to reunify the nations under his banner. That had quickly changed to the wolf’s head banner of Lupus the Conqueror, and that had changed again when that same Lupus had started to discover the lost Cheyak Outposts. Lupus knew of almost all of them now, and the Daff Kanaar were very focused on reclaiming and looting them.
Not for their gold, but for the knowledge still hidden within them. Lupus had an amazing and exceedingly fortunate fixation with history and the collection of knowledge, and that played right into Dilvesh’s hands.
As they dined on a mean fare of pork and old vegetables, the Druid called ‘the Green One’ collected more of that information now.
“In fact,” he answered Nina, who sawed on a piece of over-tough pork before her, “no one ever saw Genna fall, so of course we were never sure she’d died. I’d always had my doubts.”
The Duke and his wife kept their own council, just listening. Neither of them had ever met this lost member of the Daff Kanaar.
“She confessed to me she’d left to Conflu,” Nina said, “but not just to escape the Emperor.”
“And that’s what I find troubling,” Dilvesh said.
“The timing does not work,” Yeral added. She was a plain woman with a freckled face and over-large bosom. She tried to style her hair but it tended to fall back straight and dish-water blonde. She been paired to the Duke, but her family had once ruled Uman City, and her father had been deposed. She’d served as a lady in waiting for the Empress and elevated from common to baroness without lands, with only that to legitimize her marriage to the son of the former King.
Lupus might seem to sit secure on his throne, but he’d clearly still felt the need to neutralize the old Stowe line.
All eyes turned to her. This woman had, in the last ten years, all but created the infamous Angadorian breed of horses, the most coveted by Angadorian Knights and Theran Lancers. Her worth was in her mind—she’d made her husband a wealthy man and, ultimately, a Duke with her ingenuity.
“Assuming no dalliance with her during his relationship with the Empress, then his slave,” she said, “she’d have birthed a child before the Battle of Tamaran Glen.”
“There was a period when Genna rarely saw the rest of the Free Legion, before she set up the meeting between Lupus and my father,” Tartan Stowe said, holding a pile of withered vegetables on the end of his knife, before him. “She may have birthed it then.”
“Or she may be lying,” Dilvesh said. “Genna has done worse to slight Black Lupus.”
Nina shook her head. “I looked into her eyes,” she said. “I heard her words. I also saw her body—let there be no question, Genna birthed a child, and she believes in her heart the father of that child is Rancor Mordetur, Emperor of Eldador. She also believes this is his eldest child, so she must have birthed it during that time when she was away from the rest.”
“Or lied,” Yeral reasserted.
“Regardless,” Dilvesh said, “we must contact the Emperor with this and let him know he has Genna’s machinations to consider.”
“This couldn’t come at a worse time,” Nina complained, putting her ragged piece of pork in her mouth.
“I don’t see why,” Tartan said, his brown eyes shifting between the persons at the table. “Lupus could have a thousand sons and all of them could be older than Lee and Vulpe, and it wouldn’t matter. The Eldadorian law is not that the leader’s eldest son succeeds him.”
“Or else you would sit the throne,” Yeral added.
She exchanged a glance with her husband. Nina regarded both of them and returned her attention to her meal.
Dilvesh thought these feelings were of more concern to the Emperor. There had been a time when nobles in the Eldadorian nation might have considered changing their laws and putting Tartan on the throne. That had been a time when Black Lupus, then just become Emperor, had nearly provoked every nation in Fovea to attack him. Many of the Dukes had shown concern that the new ruler took on too much, assumed too much, and they’d all pay for it with their lives and the lives of their people.
Then Black Lupus had won a decisive naval engagement with the Uman-Chi called The Battle of the Deceptions. After that, Eldador could boast decisive sea power in addition to the most feared land troops on the planet.
No one wanted to alienate Eldador. Now Black Lupus was starting that whole process again. It might be a good time for an ambitious Tartan Stowe to seek his future, if he wanted more than he already had.
“And so,” Dilvesh said. Nina opened her mouth but Dilvesh interrupted her.
“However I know Clear Genna,” he said. “And it doesn’t matter to her what the law is, what the rules are or what protocol might dictate, not when it comes to Black Lupus. What will matter is that she has some imagined slight, she has some imagined cure for it, and she will focus a great deal of effort to secure that cure, especially if she believes she’s entitled to it, which I’m sure she does.”
“Making this something the Emperor needs to know,” Nina said. “Do you have access to Central Communications from here?”
Dilvesh shook his head. “Central Communications is set up between specially tuned rooms between the key cities in the Empire,” he said. “It lets Wizards communicate by sight and sound between the cities, but I can’t just invoke it from here. It will be months before I can choose a room and tune it to Central Communications.”
“Then I need to go to—” Nina said, but Dilvesh was shaking his head.
“No,” he said. “You have an immediate mission, and you need to complete that.”
Nina lowered her eyes. Yeral straightened.
“Messengers to Uman City should suffice,” she said. “We can send a full Century if need be.”
“I think that would be excessive,” Tartan countered.
“You claim this group you’re following split up, and now they’ll try to get back together in Andurin,” he said.
“And they have a beacon, made by the Uman-Chi, to allow her to find them again.”
“Yes,” Nina said, her eyes on him now.
Dilvesh smiled. “I don’t suppose you can use that same beacon to find them?” he asked.
She shook her head. “I don’t know how it’s tuned,” she said.
A Wizard would create a beacon to emit a call into the infinite aether, the stuff of the universe which contained all things and nothing. The Wizard would then look into the aether for that specific call. Because the aether is infinite and the things that resonate into it many, one looks like the next and someone who didn’t know what he or she was looking for could find another Wizard, an enchanted weapon or a duck that swallowed the ingredients to a complicated spell.
This bellied methods more simple.
“I don’t suppose the Salt Wood is overrun with magical beacons, created by Uman-Chi,” he said. “I would think the beacon would have to be very powerful, and relatively near to us.”
Nina frowned and looked into her plate. She closed her eyes, hummed for a moment, and then opened them, a smile on her face.
“I believe the Duke and his Lady could now be of great assistance to you,” Dilvesh said.
“So they’re out there waiting for us on the other side of an army,” Karl said, repeating what Jahunga had told him.
Typical of the race of Men, Xinto couldn’t help thinking.
“To the south their supply train stretches back to either Vrek or Angador,” Jahunga said. “Perhaps both. They expect us to go to the north.”
Xinto nodded. Karl with him.
“To the north, then,” the Volkhydran said, looking to Xinto for approval.
The Scitai nodded.
“But that might put us—” Raven protested.
“That will put us right where they expected us to be,” Xinto said, cutting her off. “And then they will think we are doing just what they expected us to do, and they will move past us and cut us off.”
“Because with that many warriors, it’s easier to ambush us than to chase us,” Jahunga said.
“They’ll spread out to our north, while we double back in a day and come right back here,” Karl said. By the time they realize we’re not coming, we’ll be gone to the west or the south.”
Clearly his intelligence was rubbing off on them.