Isana awoke to pain and a sense of smothering confinement. Dull fire burned in her side. She struggled, pushing against something soft that held her close, and only after several seconds of flailing was she able to escape it. It took long seconds after that for her to come to her senses and realize that she was in a bed, upon a lumpy mattress, in a darkened room.
"Lights," murmured a male voice, and a pink-tinted furylamp on a battered card table against one wall came up to low, sullen life.
Isana began to sit up, but the pain flashed into a blaze of agony and she subsided, settling for twisting her neck until her eyes fell upon the form of the assassin sitting in a chair in front of the door. She stared at the middle-aged man for a silent moment, and he returned her look with veiled eyes that somehow made her feel off-balance. It took her a moment to realize that it was because she had no emotional sense of him whatsoever. Her skills as a watercrafter cursed her with the constant empathy that came with them-but from him she felt an utter void of emotions. It took her a moment to realize that he was concealing his emotions from her, and doing it better than even Tavi had ever managed.
Isana stared at the man, at his expression, his eyes, searching for some clue about his emotions, his intentions. But there was nothing. He might have been made from cold, featureless stone.
"Well," she spat. "Why don't you go ahead and finish the job?"
"Which job is that?" he responded. His voice was mild, and matched his unremarkable appearance admirably.
"You killed them," she said quietly. "The coachmen. Nedus. You killed Serai."
His eyes flickered with something, and there was a very brief sense of regret from him. "No," he said quietly. "But I did kill the archer who shot Serai. And you, for that matter."
Isana looked down to find herself clothed only in the silk shift she'd worn beneath her gown. It was stained with blood where she had been wounded and had been sliced open along the side to make room for someone, presumably the assassin, to clean and bind her wounds. Isana closed her eyes, touching upon Rill to feel her way through her body to the injury. It could have been a great deal worse. The arrow had ruptured flesh and fat and injured muscles, but it hadn't broken through into her vitals. The man had done a competent job of removing the arrow, cleaning the wound, and stopping the bleeding.
Isana opened her eyes, and asked, "Why should I believe you?"
"Because it's the truth," he said. "By the time I found the archer it was too late to help Serai. I regret that."
"Do you," Isana said, her voice flat.
Fidelias arched an eyebrow. "Yes, actually. She was someone I respected, and her death served no purpose. I hit him just as he loosed at you, Steadholder."
"Which saved my life?" Isana asked. "I suppose now I should feel grateful to you for rescuing me from my would-be killer."
"I think you'd rather send me to join him," Fidelias said. "Especially given what happened in Calderon two years ago."
"You mean when you tried to murder my family, my holders, and my neighbors."
"I was doing a job," Fidelias said. "I did what I had to do to complete it. I took no joy in that."
Isana could sense the man's apparent sincerity, but it only made her anger sharper, more clear. "You got more joy of it than the folk of Aldoholt. More than Warner and his sons. More than all the men and women who died at Garrison."
"True enough," Fidelias agreed.
"Why?" Isana demanded. "Why did you do it?"
He folded his arms over his chest and mused for a moment. "Because I believe that Gaius's policies and decisions over the past decade or so are leading our Realm to disaster. If he remains as First Lord or dies without a strong heir, it will only be a matter of time before the strongest High Lords attempt to seize power. That kind of civil war would destroy us."
"Ah," Isana said. "To save the people of Alera, you must kill them."
He gave her a wintry smile. "You could put it that way. I support the High Lord I regard as the most likely to provide leadership for the Realm. I don't always agree with his plans and methods. But yet I deem them less damaging to the Realm in the long term."
"It must be nice to have so much wisdom and confidence."
Fidelias shrugged. "Each of us can only do as he sees best. Which brings us to you, Steadholder."
Isana lifted her chin, and waited.
"My employer would like you to pledge your public support to his house."
Isana let out a pained laugh. "You can't be serious."
"On the contrary," Fidelias said. "You should consider the advantages such an alliance would bring you."
"Never," Isana said. "I would never betray the Realm as you have."
Fidelias arched an eyebrow. "Exactly which part of the Realm is it you feel deserves such loyalty?" he asked. "Is it Gaius? The man who made you and your brother into symbols of his own power and made you targets of all of his enemies? The man who holds your nephew virtually hostage in the capital as a guarantee of your loyalty?"
She stared at him, and said nothing.
"I know you've come here to seek his help in something. And I know that you have had no luck in making contact with him-and that he has clearly made no effort at all to protect you from harm, despite the danger he placed you in by inviting you here. If not for the intervention of my employer, you would now be dead beside Nedus and Serai."
"That changes nothing," she said quietly.
"Doesn't it?" Fidelias said. "What has he done, Steadholder? What action has Gaius ever taken to command your loyalty and respect?"
She did not answer him.
After another silent moment, he said, "My employer would like you to meet with his second-in-command."
"Do I have a choice?" Isana spat.
"Of course," Fidelias said. "You are not a prisoner here, Steadholder. You are free to leave at any time you wish." He shrugged. "You need not meet with my employer, either. The room is paid for until sunrise, at which point you will need to either leave or make your own arrangements with the mistress of the house."
Isana stared at him for a moment, eyebrows lifted. "I… see."
"I assumed you would wish to care for your injury, so I've taken the liberty of having the house prepare a bath for you." He nodded toward a broad copper tub on the floor beside the fireplace. A heavy kettle bubbled on a hook over the fire. "Steadholder, you're free to do as you wish. But I would ask you to give serious consideration to the meeting. It might present you with some options you don't currently have."
Isana frowned at the tub, then at Fidelias.
"Do you need help getting to the tub, Steadholder?" he asked.
"Not from you, sir."
He smiled faintly, rose, and gave her a small bow of his head. "There is a change of clothes for you in the trunk beside the bed. I will be in the hall. You should be safe here, but if you become at all suspicious of an intruder, call me at once."
Isana arched a brow. "Be assured, sir," she said, "that if I feel myself in danger, you will certainly weigh heavily in my thoughts."
The faint smile warmed to something almost genuine for a moment. Then he bowed and left the room.
Isana grimaced down at her wounded flank and pushed herself heavily upright on the bed. She closed her eyes against a wave of pain and waited for it to recede. Then she rose, slowly and carefully, and walked deliberately across the room, one step at a time. She pushed the bolt on the door to, and only then did she make her way to the copper tub. The kettle on the fire was mercifully mounted on a swinging arm, and Isana swung it slowly out over the tub and poured from the kettle until the bathwater was comfortably warm. Then she slid the stained slip from her shoulder, loosened the bandages about her waist, and made her way painfully into the tub.
She felt Rill's presence at once, closing about her in a gentle cloud of concern and affection. Isana cleared the injury of bandages and directed Rill to her flank, carefully willing the fury through the process of repairing the injury. There was burning pain at first, then a tingling numbness as the fury went to work, and after several moments of concentration Isana sank back into the tub with a languid weariness. The pain was all but gone, though she still felt stiff and brittle. The water had been stained with blood, but the skin that now covered the wound was pink and new as a baby's. She added a little more hot water from the kettle and sank into the tub.
Nedus was dead.
Serai was dead.
They had died trying to protect her.
And she was now alone, far from any friends, any family, anyone she could trust.
No, not far from any family. Tavi was in the city, somewhere. But he was, it would seem, beyond her reach, as had been everyone else since she arrived. Even if her letters had found him, they would only have directed him to Nedus's house.
Oh furies. If he had been at Nedus's house, if he had come in response to her letter, if he had been there waiting when the assassins had taken position…
And Bernard. She had a horrible intuition that he was facing danger enough to kill him and his entire command, and yet she still had not reached the First Lord with word of the danger. For all the good she had done her brother and her nephew, she might as well have died in the barn when the first assassin had attacked her.
Isana closed her eyes and pressed the heels of her hands against them. The fear, the worry, the wrenching hopelessness of her futile efforts overwhelmed her, and she found herself curling up in the tub, arms around her knees as she wept.
When Isana lifted her head again, the water in the tub had become tepid. Her eyes felt heavy and sore from weeping.
Her purpose, she realized, had not changed since coming to the capital. She had to secure help for those she loved.
By whatever means necessary.
As soon as she was dressed, she unbolted the door and opened it. Fidelias-assassin, traitor, murderer, and servant to a ruthless lord-waited politely in the hallway. He turned to her with an inquiring expression.
She faced him, chin lifted, and said, "Take me to the meeting. At once."
Ambassador Varg fled through the tunnels of the Deeps, and Tavi followed.
For the first hundred steps, Tavi had been frantic with fear. Without weapons, position, something he could use to his advantage, Varg would tear him to pieces, and so actually catching up to the Cane would be suicide. And yet, Varg still carried Kitai. How could Tavi do anything else?
But then another thought occurred to him. Even carrying his prisoner, Varg could have outpaced Tavi on foot without more than moderate effort. Canim battlepacks could often outmarch even the Legions in the field, unless the Alerans countered their natural speed by using the roads to lend speed and endurance to their troops. And yet, while Varg fled at great speed, it never quite pulled away from Tavi. The young man actually slowed his steps for a time, but Varg's lead did not lengthen.
Suspicion came over him, and his brain started chewing furiously over the facts. As Tavi pelted along the tunnels, he used his knife to strike the stone walls at each intersection, drawing small bursts of sparks and leaving the stone of the tunnels clearly marked. He knew the tunnels near the Citadel well, but Varg swiftly descended through a gallery Tavi had never explored and began working his way deeper into the mountain, to the tunnels that connected to the city below, the walls growing slick with moisture the lower they went.
Tavi rounded a final corner, to find the tunnel opening up into a long and slender chamber. He slid to a halt, lantern in hand, only to feel a sudden impact on the lantern that tore it from his hands and extinguished the candle in it.
Tavi got his back to the nearest wall and gripped his knife tightly, while struggling to keep his labored breathing quiet enough to allow him to hear. There was a quiet, steady trickling of water, where runoff from above the mountain escaped cisterns and flowed into the subterranean channels beneath the mountain's skin. After a long moment, he made out a dim red glow, the same as from one of the barely visible Canim lamps in Varg's chambers. Over another moment or two, his eyes adjusted, until he could make out the silent, enormous form of Ambassador Varg, crouched a dozen yards in front of Tavi, one hand holding Kitai's back to its front by the waist, the other pressing black claws against her throat.
The Marat girl looked more angry than frightened, a fierce glitter in her green eyes, and her expression was proud and cold. But she did not struggle against the vastly more powerful Cane.
Varg stared at Tavi, its eyes hidden in the shadows of its muzzle and fur. Varg lifted black lips from his fangs.
"I'm here," Tavi said, very quietly. "What do you want me to see?"
Varg's tongue lolled over its fangs for a moment in what looked like a pleased grin. "Why do you think that, pup?"
"You don't need something this complicated to kill me. You could have done it already, without bothering to lead me somewhere first. So I figure you wanted to show me something. That's why you took Kitai."
"And if it is?" Varg growled.
"You wasted your time. You didn't have to do this to get me here."
"No?" Varg asked. "Sooth, pup, would you have followed me deep into these tunnels simply because I asked it of you?" The Cane's white teeth showed. "Would you have walked this far from any help with me, given any choice?"
"Good point," Tavi said. "But I'm here now. Release her."
A bone-rattling deep growl rolled up from Varg's chest.
"Release her, Ambassador," Tavi said, and kept his tone even and uninflected. "Please."
Varg stared for a moment more, then nodded and released Kitai with a little shove. She stumbled away from the Cane and to Tavi's side.
"You all right?" Tavi asked her.
She seized her knife from where he had thrust it through his belt and turned around to face the Cane with murder in her eyes.
"Wait," Tavi told her, and clasped his hand down over her shoulder. "Not yet."
Varg let out a coughing, snarling laugh. "Ferocious, your mate."
Tavi blinked, then said, "She is not my mate."
At the same time, Kitai said, "He is not my mate."
Tavi glanced at Kitai, cheeks flushing, while she favored him with an acidic look.
Varg barked another laugh. "Plenty of fight in both of you. I can respect that."
Tavi frowned. "I assume you are the one who broke my lantern."
Varg made a guttural, affirmative sound.
"The light," Varg said. "Too bright. They would see it."
Tavi frowned. "Who would?"
"We put our fangs away for now," Varg said, white teeth still gleaming. "Truce. And then I will show you."
Tavi nodded sharply and without any hesitation. He sheathed his knife, and said, "Kitai, please put it away for the moment."
Kitai glanced at him, wary, but slipped her knife back into its own sheath. Varg's stance changed to something more relaxed, and it let its lips fall over its teeth. "This way."
Varg stooped to pick up the Cane lamp, a small affair of glass that looked like a bottle full of liquid embers only moments from dying. As it did, Tavi took note of the fact that Varg now wore the armor he'd seen on the mounting dummy in the Black Hall, and wore its enormous sword on its belt. Varg set the bottle on the floor next to an irregular opening in the cavern wall, and growled, "No light past here. We crawl. Stay to the left-side wall. Look down and to your right."
Then he dropped to all fours and wriggled his long, lean frame through the opening and into whatever lay beyond.
Tavi and Kitai exchanged glances. "What is that creature?" she asked him.
"A Cane," Tavi said. "They live across the sea to the west of Alera."
"Friend or enemy?"
"Their nation is very much an enemy."
Kitai shook her head. "And this enemy lives in the heart of your headman's fortress. How stupid are you people?"
"His nation may be hostile," he murmured, "but I'm starting to wonder about Varg. Wait here. I'll feel better if someone is watching my back while I'm in there with him."
Kitai frowned at him. "Are you sure you should go?"
Varg's growl bubbled out of the opening in the wall.
"Um. Yes. I think I'm sure. Maybe," Tavi muttered. He dropped down into the opening, which led to a very low passage and started forward before he could think too much about what he was doing. Had he tried, he could have crawled forward with his knees on the floor and his back brushing the rough spots in the ceiling.
Within a few feet, the cave became completely black, and Tavi had to force himself to keep going, his left shoulder pressed against the wall on that side. Varg let out another, almost inaudible growl in front of him, and Tavi tried to hurry, until Varg's feral scent and the odor of iron filled his nose. They went on that way for a time, while Tavi counted his "steps," each time he moved and planted his right hand. The sound of falling water grew louder as they proceeded. At seventy-four steps, Tavi's eyes made out a faint shape in front of him-Varg's furry form. Ten steps beyond that, he saw pale, green-white light ahead of him.
And then the wall on his right fell away, and the low tunnel they were in became a dangerously narrow shelf at the back of a gallery of damp, living stone. The Cane rose to a low hunting crouch, glanced at Tavi, and jerked its muzzle at the cavern beneath them. Tavi drew himself up beside Varg, instinctively keeping every move silent.
The cavern was enormous. Water dripped steadily down from hundreds of stalactites above, some of them longer than the outer walls of the citadel were tall. Their floor-level counterparts rose in irregular cones, many of them even longer than those above. A stream spilled out of a wall on the far side of the gallery, fell several feet into a churning pool, and rushed on down a short channel and beneath the back wall, continuing down toward the river Gaul. Tavi stared at the scene illuminated in green-white light, and his mouth dropped open in sickened horror.
Because every surface in the cavern was covered in the croach.
It had to be. It was exactly the same as he had seen in the Wax Forest two years before. It did not look as thick as the wax that had covered that alien bowl of a valley, but it gave off the same pulsing, white-green glow. Tavi saw half a dozen wax spiders gliding with sluggish grace over the croach, pausing here and there, their luminous eyes glowing in shades of green, soft orange, and pale blue.
Tavi stared down at them for a moment, too shocked to do anything more. Then his eyes picked out an area where the croach had grown up into a kind of enormous, lumpy blister that covered several of the largest stalagmites. The surface of the blister pulsed with swirling green lights and was translucent enough to reveal shadows moving within it.
Outside the blister were Canim. They crouched in the Cane four-legged guard stance along the base of it in a steady perimeter, no more than four or five feet apart, every one of them armed and armored, their heads mostly covered by the deep hoods of their dark red mantles. Not one of them moved. Not a twitch. From where he crouched, Tavi could not see them breathing, and it made them look like full-color statues rather than living beings. A wax spider made its slow way across the croach and climbed over a crouching Cane as if it was a simple feature of the landscape.
There was a sudden snarling bellow that rattled off the cavern walls, and from somewhere almost directly beneath them, several Canim appeared. Tavi watched as three of them hauled a bound and struggling Cane into the cave. The Cane was wounded, and its steps left bloody footprints on the cave floor. Its hands had been bound at the wrists, fingers interlaced, and several twists of rope bound its jaws shut. There was a mad gleam in its bloody eyes, but struggle as it might, the Cane could not shake the grip of its captors.
By contrast, the Canim dragging the prisoner were silent and calm, letting out no snarls, no growls, and wearing no expression whatsoever on their ferocious faces. They stepped onto the croach, dragging their prisoner, crushing the surface of the material as they went. Wax spiders moved with lazy grace to the damaged area and began repairing it, multiple legs stroking and smoothing the croach back into its original form.
Beside him, Varg's chest rumbled with another, quietly furious growl.
They dragged the prisoner forward to what proved to be an opening in the wall of the blister. They hauled the Cane inside. A second later, another shrill, smothered snarl erupted from within the blister.
Beside him, stone crunched as Varg's claws dug into it. The Cane's ears were laid flat back, and it bared its teeth in a vicious, silent snarl.
For a moment, nothing happened. And then four Canim emerged from the blister. They paced along the wall of the blister until they reached the end of the row of Canim, where they settled down into identical crouches and went still. The last Cane was the prisoner, now freed of its bonds. A pair of wax spiders appeared and began crawling lightly over the Cane, legs smoothing gelatinous croach into the Cane's wounds.
"Rarm," Ambassador Varg growled, in a voice barely audible over the sound of the cascading stream. "I will sing your blood song."
A moment later, more shadows stirred in the blister, and another Cane emerged from within it. Sarl still looked thin, furtive, and dangerous. His scarlet eyes flicked around the chamber, and when a wax spider brushed against him on the way to repairing the croach he had broken, Sarl let out a snarl and kicked the wax spider into the nearest stalagmite. It struck with a meaty-sounding splat and fell to the croach, legs quivering.
Without so much as hesitating, two more spiders diverted their course and began sealing the dying spider into the croach, where Tavi knew it would be dissolved over time into food for the creatures.
A second form emerged from the blister, this one smaller, no more than human-sized. It wore a deep grey cloak, and its hood covered its head altogether-but the way it moved was eerily inhuman, too graceful and poised.
"Where is the last?" the cloaked figure asked. Its voice was absolutely alien in tone and inflection, and revealed nothing about what might be concealed beneath the cloak.
"He will be found," Sarl growled.
"He must be," the figure said. "He could warn the Aleran leader of us."
"Varg is hated," Sarl said. "He was unable to so much as gain an audience with the Aleran leader. Even if he managed to speak to him, the Alerans would never believe him."
"Perhaps," the cloaked figure said. "Perhaps not. We must not chance discovery now."
Sarl gave its shoulders an odd shake and said nothing.
"No," the figure said. "I am not afraid of them. But there is little logic in allowing our chances of success to be endangered."
Sarl gave the cloaked figure a sullen look and eased a step away.
"Are your allies prepared?" the figure asked.
"Yes. Storms will strike the whole of the western coast this night. It will force him to his chamber to counter them. There is only one path to the chamber. He will not escape."
"Very well," the figure said. "Find your packmaster. If he cannot be found before the setting of the moon, we will strike without him."
"He is dangerous," Sarl objected. "As long as he lives we will not be safe."
"He is no threat to me," the figure said. "Only to you. We will strike at the setting of the moon. After which-"
The cloaked figure broke off and turned abruptly, staring up at the ledge and seemingly directly at Tavi.
Tavi froze, and his mouth went dry.
The moment passed in silence, then the cloaked figure turned to Sarl again. As it did, a pair of Cane rose from their stance beside the blister and moved to take position beside Sarl. "Take these. Hunt him down."
Sarl's teeth snapped in a sharp clash of bone on bone, and the Cane whirled to stalk out of the chamber.
The hooded figure stared up at the ledge for a moment more, then turned and glided back into the blister.
Varg pressed against Tavi and nodded toward the tunnel. Tavi turned and dropped to crawl back along it, to the chamber where Kitai waited with her knife and the Canim lamp. Tavi rose immediately, unnerved at the silent, dangerous presence of the Cane behind him, and stepped over to stand with Kitai, their backs to a wall, facing Varg.
"What did you see?" she whispered.
"Keepers of the Silence," he replied. "Croach. A great big nest, a lot like the one in the old Wax Forest." Kitai inhaled sharply. "Then it did come here."
"Yes," Tavi said.
The Cane emerged from the tunnel and rose to its full height, stretching. Though it wasn't showing its teeth, Varg's ears were still laid flat back against its skull, and rage boiled off it in an invisible cloud. Tavi looked at Varg and asked, "What happened to them?"
Varg shook its head. "They are bewitched, somehow."
"But who are they?"
"Members of my battlepack," Varg replied. "My guards."
Tavi frowned. "But you are only allowed six. There were twenty there."
"Twenty-one," Varg corrected him. "Garl got a belly wound when the others came for us. I sent him to the blood lands ahead of us before those things could take him as they did Rarm."
"You knew they were coming for you?" Tavi asked.
Varg nodded. "Started to figure it out two days ago, when four of my guards were getting ready to leave. They mentioned rats in their quarters. Hadn't ever been any. But the month before, Mori and Halar said the same thing. Next day, when they left, they acted strange."
"Strange how?" Tavi asked.
The Ambassador shook its head. "Silent. Distant. More than usual." His eyes narrowed. "Their ears didn't look right."
Tavi frowned, and said, "Then… the departing guards, the ones you thought were going back to your lands, did not actually leave. They've been going down here into the Deeps instead."
Varg grunted. "And Sarl is behind it. With the cloaked one working witchery on my wolves."
"Why would he do that?" Tavi asked.
Varg growled. "Among my kind are several… castes, your word is. Warriors are the largest, the strongest caste. But also very strong are the Ilrarum. The blood prophets. Sorcerers. Deceivers, treacherous. Sarl is one of the Ilrarum, though he pretends to be of lower caste, working for me in secret. As if I did not have a brain in my head. The blood prophets hate your kind. They are determined to destroy you by whatever means."
"Then Sarl's working together with the cloaked one," Tavi said.
"And coming to kill Gaius," Varg said. "He wants to cripple your leadership. Leave you vulnerable." Varg rested a hand on the hilt of its sword and showed its teeth in an easy grin. "I attempted to warn your First Lord. But some pup with more guts than brains stopped me with a knife."
"So you tried to point me at it," Tavi said. "And hoped I would figure it out for myself. That's why you sent the letter to Gaius like that, too. So that he would investigate the ship and see that the guards weren't actually leaving."
Varg let out a growl that somehow sounded affirmative. "Didn't work. So I brought you here."
Tavi tilted his head and studied Varg closely. "Why?"
"Why expose this to us at all? You are an enemy of my people."
Varg looked at Tavi for a moment, then said, "Yes. And one day my people will come for you, pup. And when I rip the throat from your First Lord, it will be on the battlefield, when I have burned your lands, destroyed your homes, and slain your warriors-and you. There will be no secrets. No sorcery. No betrayal. One day I will tear the belly from the whole of your breed, Aleran. And you will see me coming all the while."
Tavi swallowed, suddenly very afraid.
Varg continued. "I have no stomach for Sarl's methods. He would sacrifice the lives of my pack for the sake of a treachery he thinks will give us your lands. He defies my authority. He makes pacts with unknown forces employing strange witcheries. He would rob our victory of honor, of passion." Varg held up the claws of its right hand and regarded them for a moment. "I won't have it."
"He wants you dead, too," Tavi pointed out.
Varg's teeth showed again. "But I found him out too late. All but two of my battlepack had already been bewitched. They are now gone. They will hunt me. They may well kill me. But I will not let Sarl say that he bested me entirely. So the next step is yours, pup."
"Me?" Tavi asked.
Varg nodded and growled, "There is not much time before Sarl moves. And we both know that even if I spoke to Gaius, he would be slow to believe me." Varg pulled up the hood on his cloak and strode to a side passage leading off from the long gallery. "It will not be long before Sarl is on my trail. I will lead him away. You are the only one who can stop them now, pup."
Varg vanished into the darkness of the tunnels, leaving the dim scarlet lamp behind.
"Crows," Tavi said weakly. "Why does this keep happening to me?"
Fidelias had to give Steadholder Isana credit: The woman had courage. Only hours ago, she had been wounded in an attack that had killed virtually everyone she knew within the capital. She had missed death by the width of a few fingers and by the fraction of a second it had taken Fidelias to steady his aim on the assassin-archer and release his own shaft. She was, as far as she was concerned, consorting with murderers and traitors to the Realm, even now.
And yet she walked with a quality of quiet dignity as they left the relative security of the room within the brothel. She had covered herself in a large cloak without complaint, though upon entering the raucous main hall of the house, her face had turned a decided shade of pink upon observing the activities there.
"This second-in-command," Isana asked as they walked outdoors. "Will he have the support of your employer?"
Fidelias mused over the woman's choice of words. She could as easily have said, "Lady Aquitaine" and "Lord Aquitaine," but she had not. She had understood that Fidelias had avoided mentioning their names where it might be overheard, and had respected that. It gave him hope that the woman might actually have enough flexibility of thought to work with them.
"Completely," he told her.
"I have conditions," she warned him.
Fidelias nodded. "You will need to take it up at the meeting, Steadholder," he replied. "I'm only a messenger and escort. But I think it likely that some sort of exchange can be negotiated."
Isana nodded within her hood. "Very well. How far must we walk?"
"Not much farther, Steadholder."
Isana let out an exasperated little breath. "I have a name. I'm getting tired of everyone calling me Steadholder."
"Think of it as a compliment," Fidelias advised her. The hairs on the back of his neck abruptly rose, and he forced himself not to turn and stare around like a spooked cat. Someone was following him. He had played the game long enough to know that. For the moment, at least, he did not need to know the details. He had shown his face too often the previous day, and one of any number of opportunists would love to turn him in to the Crown and collect his bounty prize. "No other woman in the Realm can lay claim to the same title."
"No other woman in the Realm knows my recipe for spicebread, either," Isana said, "but no one says anything about that."
Fidelias turned to smile briefly at her. He used the moment to catch sight of their followers in the corner of his vision. Two of them, large rough types, doubtless river rats for one of the hundreds of riverboats now docked at the city for the festivities. He could see little more than that they were not i dressed well, and one of them had a drunken hesitation to his step. "Do you mind if I ask you a question?"
"Yes," she said. "But ask."
"I cannot help but take note that you have no husband, Steadholder. Nor any children. That is… unusual, for a woman of our Realm, given the laws. I take it that you did spend your time in the camps when you came of age?"
"Yes," she said, her tone flat. "As the law requires."
"But no children," he said.
"No children," she replied.
"There was a man?" Fidelias asked.
"Yes. A soldier. We were together for a time."
"You bore him a child?"
"I began to. It ended prematurely. He left me shortly after. But the local commander sent me home." She glanced aside at him. "I have fulfilled my duties under the law, sir. Why do you ask?"
"It's something to pass the time," Fidelias said, trying for an amiable smile.
"Something to pass the time while you look for a place to deal with the two men following us, you mean," she said.
Fidelias blinked up at her, for the Steadholder was a hand taller than he and more, but this time his smile was genuine. "You've a remarkable eye for a civilian."
"It isn't my eyes," she said. "Those men are putting off greed and fear like a sheep does stink."
"You can feel them from here?" Fidelias felt himself grow even more impressed with the woman. "They must be fifty feet away. You have a real gift for watercrafting."
"Sometimes I think I would prefer not to have it," she said. "Or at least not quite this much of it." She pressed fingers against her temple. "I do not think I shall go out of my way to visit cities in the future. They're far too loud, even when most are asleep."
"I sympathize to some degree," Fidelias said, and turned their path down a side lane that wandered among several homes and was thick with shadow. "I've seen watercrafters who were unable to maintain their stability when their gifts were as strong as yours."
"Like Odiana," she said.
Fidelias felt disquieted at the mention of the mad water witch's name. He did not care for Odiana. She was too much of an unknown quantity for his liking. "Yes."
"She told me about when she first came into her furies," Isana said. "Frankly, I'm surprised she's as stable as she is."
"Interesting," Fidelias said, and found a nook between two buildings. "She's never spoken to me about it."
"Have you asked?" Isana said.
"Why would I?"
"Because human beings care about one another, sir." She shrugged. "But then, why would you?"
Fidelias felt a faint twist of irritation as the Steadholder's words bit home. His reaction surprised him. For a moment, he considered the possibility that the woman might be speaking more accurately than he was prepared to admit. It had been quite some time since he'd had occasion to behave according to motives other than necessity and self-preservation.
Since the day he had betrayed Amara, in fact.
Fidelias frowned. He hadn't thought of her in some time. In fact, it seemed a bit odd that he had not done so. Perhaps he had been pushing her out of his mind, deliberately forgetting to consider her. But for what reason?
He closed his eyes for a step or two, thinking of the shock on Amara's face when she had been buried to her chin in rough earth, captured by Aquitaine's most capable henchmen. She had deduced his change in loyalties like a true Cursor, but her logic had not prepared her for her emotional reaction. When she accused him, when he admitted that her accusation was true, there had been a flash of expression in her eyes he could not seem to forget. Her eyes had been filled with pain, shocked anger, and sadness.
Something in his chest twisted in a sympathetic reaction, but he ruthlessly forced it away.
He wasn't sure he regretted that he had pushed his emotions so completely aside, and it was that lack of regret that caused him concern. Perhaps the Steadholder was correct. Perhaps he had lost something vital, some spark of life and warmth and empathy that had been extinguished by his betrayal of the Crown and his subsequent actions in the Calderon Valley. Could a man's heart, his soul, perish and yet leave him walking and talking as if alive?
Again, he pushed the thoughts aside. He had no time for that kind of maudlin introspection now. The bounty hunters had begun to close the distance on Fidelias and Isana.
Fidelias drew his short, heavy bow clear of his cloak and slipped a thick and ugly arrow onto the string. With the practiced speed of a lifetime of experience as an archer and woodcrafter, he turned, drew, and sent his shaft home into the throat of the rearmost bounty hunter.
The bounty hunter's partner let out a shout and charged, evidently unaware that the first man was already dead, Fidelias noted. Amateurs, then. It was an old archer's trick, shooting the rearmost foe so that his companions would continue advancing in the open unaware of the danger instead of scattering for cover. Before the would-be bounty hunter had closed the distance, Fidelias nocked another arrow, drew, and sent the heavy shaft through the charging man's left eye at a range of about five feet.
The man dropped, already dead. He lay on the ground, one leg twitching steadily. The first bounty hunter thrashed around for a few more seconds, his spraying blood pattering on the cobblestones. Then he went still.
Fidelias watched them for a full minute more, then set down his bow, drew his knife, and checked the pulse in their throats to be sure they were dead. He had few doubts that they were, but the professional in him hated sloppy work, and only after he was sure both men were dead, did he take up his bow again.
Perhaps Isana was more right than she knew.
Perhaps he had lost the capacity to feel.
Not that it mattered.
"Steadholder," he said, turning to face her. "We should keep moving."
Isana stared at him in total silence, her face pale. Her schooled mask of confidence was gone, replaced with an expression of sickened horror.
"Steadholder," Fidelias said. "We must leave the streets." She seemed to shake herself a little. She looked away from him, narrowed her eyes, and assumed her mask again. "Of course," she said. Her voice shook a little. "Lead on."