Morning in Karaya Village was remarkably quiet, so much so that Chris overslept.
Exhaustion from the travel of the past few days combined with the anxiety
of the mission had taken its toll on her, and finally her body collected
on the debt. Perhaps it was the bucolic stillness of the place, or the cozy,
earthy scent of the bearskin, or even Boruss gentle snoring, but something
finally put her at ease enough that she found a deep, welcome, sleep.
When she finally awoke, her stomach was growling, her companion was gone, and the sun was quite high in the sky. Afraid that she had upset her host, she dashed out of the small chamber without even bothering to tie up her hair.
Good morning, Lucia said as Chris appeared in the living space of the hut. Or should I say good afternoon?
My sincerest apologies. I didnt mean to
The Karayan cut her off with a wave of her hand and a good-natured grin. You were exhausted. I know by your traditions it would be considered an insult, but here enjoying anothers hospitality to the fullest is the greatest of compliments. Now, lets have some lunch. Have a seat near the fire.
With a nod, Chris walked to the center of the house and sat down on the floor, tucking her legs under the low table. It had some intricate carving on it, symbols she didnt recognize, but guessed to be words in the Karayan language. On the table were two thatched mats that were to be used as plates and a small vase holding a single white flower.
Lucia disappeared into another small chamber and returned with two baskets that she placed on the table before taking a seat on the floor opposite her guest. Waving her hand over the food, she said to Chris, I hope this is to your liking.
Of course, Chris replied as she glanced down at the baskets of cooked meat and fresh fruit. I truly appreciate your generosity. I just wish Borus had remained to enjoy it as well.
He was up before the sun and seemed restless, Lucia said as she took a piece of the meat and began to break it into pieces with her fingers. I suggested that he join the men on our daily hunt.
Chris nodded as she helped herself to some fruit, thankful to learn that Borus hadnt run off or caused trouble. He doesnt like feeling useless. It will be good for him.
Lucias eyes narrowed as they followed Chriss hand. Your rune is gone.
I had it sealed, she said simply.
You did not want to be immortal?
Looking her host in the eye, she replied: I would rather live a normal life with my family than be condemned to watch them perish. They are more important to me than a heros title or eternal life.
Lucia gave a warm maternal smile. I understand and respect your decision.
The women ate in silence for a few moments until Lucia asked, So why have you come all this way?
Chris tried some of the meat, tearing it into small bits with her fingers just as her host had done. As I said last night, I have come for your counsel.
On what matter?
The Zexen was pleasantly surprised at the smoky, sweet taste of the meat that she guessed to be rabbit. Breaking off another bite, she said, Lilly Pendragon.
Lucias tone grew harsh. She is none of my concern, or the concern of my clan. My son has worked hard to keep us out of this war, and I intend to uphold his wishes.
Chris sighed as she gave a slight shake of her head. I am not asking for you to dishonor your son or his wishes. I am only seeking Lilly on a personal matternot one of my country. I am not even traveling in any official capacity, and Borus is not under my command. Hes only here as a friend and escort.
The Karayan seemed a bit suspicious as she ate the last of the fruit. Last I heard, you were living off in the wilderness and had married one of your knights. I had assumed he was the one since it would make an easy covera couple traveling together.
The younger woman grew defensive. No, were not under any sort of guise, and hes not my husband. I married Percival. He was also with us during the war. At the others confusion, she added: He was taller, and had dark hair.
Was? The Kayaran asked gently.
He was missing at the last report. I am desperately trying to find Lilly in the hopes that she would know more.
Or to ransom her, Lucia said with a raised eyebrow. One Presidents daughter for a knight? It sounds like a one-sided trade to me.
No, Chris said firmly. Besides, Salome doesnt think were even fighting Tinto anymore.
The older woman was even more skeptical. How would Lilly know more if you just said you werent fighting Tinto?
Id hope shed at least know who we are fighting so that I could arrange for the release of my husband.
Lucia finished her fruit, and set the pit back in the basket. What if they are mercenaries that she hired? What would you do then?
I dont have an answer for that, but I would hope that Lilly would instruct them to show the same respect for their enemy that Tinto and other respectable nations do.
The Karayan seemed strangely intrigued. Tell me what you do know about the people you are fighting, then.
Chris took a deep breath and relayed all of the information she had from Borus and Salomethe strange enemies, the lack of normal battles, and the fact that the Zexen Council insisted upon having everyone believe they were at war with Tinto. Finally, as she finished the tale of her travels from the past week, she paused and then said, There is one other thing, too.
Borus told me when he found the weapons of Percivals unit that they were arranged in a bulls-eye formation.
Lucias eyes grew cold, and her words were full smeared with surprise and hatred. Are you sure about this?
Yes, Chris nearly stuttered, caught off guard at the other womans abrupt change of tone.
Then I know who you are dealing with, Chris. I will also promise do everything in my power to help you find them.
Chris looked at Lucia in confusion. I thought you wanted nothing to do with this?
Not any more, Lucia said, her pretty face contorting into a mask of loathing. These people--they are called the Locusti and mercenary is too good of a term for them. They are more like pirates. They fight only for money, and their allegiance is sold to the highest bidder.
You know them?
I know of them, and I have some unfinished business with them, the Karayan said as her nostrils flared with rage.
Shocked at the sudden change of demeanor of the other, Chris hesitantly asked, Did Lilly hire them?
No respectable human being would use their services! After taking a breath to collect herself, Lucia answered the question in a much more civil manner. I will tell you where she is because now more of her story makes sense. A few years ago, she was forced into exile. She lived with us for a while, but when a few merchants from your country spotted her here a month or so ago, she fled to Caleria.
Exile? Chris asked, not even trying to hide the astonishment in her voice.
There was an uprising in her country against her father.
I didnt know that, the former knight said quietly. I hope he is well.
When Lilly lived among us, she spoke very little of her home. I believe she was doing so out of respect for my sons beliefs. The older woman took a long breath as she paused in thought. But now that I know the Locusti are involved, I fear that Gustav is dead.
May I ask how you know these people?
Lucia didnt answer. Reaching under the low table, she produced a long piece of wood with intricate carvings running down it. She inspected on end of it, and then tilted it and held it into the fire. A second later, it caught, and the former chief put her lips to the opposite end, drawing in a long breath. After exhaling the smoke, she passed the pipe to Chris and posed her own question. Do you have any children?
The Zexen accepted the pipe, knowing that refusing it would be an insult. Before drawing off it, she answered, I have two sons. But what
Just answer my questions and Ill explain while we smoke, Lucia said with smile. Your sons, they will become knights?
The smoke slowly escaped Chriss lips as she forced herself not to choke as it nearly came back up her throat. My elder son, Ryan, probably will, but Geoffrey took ill as a baby.
They will surprise you.
Chris gave a look of complete confusion as she passed the pipe back to Lucia. Im sorry, Im not following you.
Lucia seemed to ignore her, and drew off the pipe before speaking, her voice somberly reminiscent. Hugo did the same to me, you know. He used to be careless and would rather run off than practice his fighting skills. I never thought hed take anything seriously, but he did. He made me proud to be his mother. I just wish his father could have seen him grow up. After a pause she met Chriss eyes, Years ago I told you that we were very much aliketwo strong women who had learn to show weakness as well as strength in order to have children of our own. You remember that discussion, dont you?
Still puzzled, Chris reluctantly took another breath off the pipe as her face flushed at the memory of the conversation. I admit it is not a bad sort of weakness.
Lucia grinned at her. Of course its not, and theres no shame in enjoying it.
I suppose youre right again, Chris said, before a moment of content silence passed between the two of them.
Looking down at the table, the Karayan returned the conversation to a serious tone. Now we have another thing in common-- we both seek revenge upon the Locusti for the same reason. Twenty-five years ago they murdered my husband. He and eight others were out hunting one day. They didnt come back. When we found them, they were stripped naked and their bodies cruelly marked with a branda bulls-eye.
Im sorry to hear about your loss, Chris said softly, knowing quite well that the words were trite.
Lucia gave a nod of thanks and then scowled. I swore to the spirits that Id avenge his death, even if it took a lifetime. Hugo never knew his father because of these people. Hopefully the same fate wont befall your children.
You think theyve already killed Percival? Chris asked, her voice nearly catching in her throat.
I dont know for certain, but all the information your father uncovered for me shows they have no honor or care for human life.
Chris closed her eyes. My father
Lucia nodded as she took the pipe back and put it out. One of the many things Wyatt did for me while he lived with us was to uncover their identity. He tried to track them using his contacts, but they proved to be quite elusive.
Lucia stood up, a calculated resolve in her gaze. If you truly want to locate these people, I suggest that tomorrow you leave for Caleria and find Lilly. Bring her back here, and well see what else she knows. I regret that I really didnt ask her too many questions before, because as I said, we did not wish to get involved, and she didnt offer much information, probably out of respect of our feelings on the matter.
Chris got to her feet, and put her hand on her hip. I will go. I swore to my children that I would bring their father back to them, and I certainly intend to keep that promise.
And if theyve already killed him? Lucia asked gently. What will you do?
With eyes half-hooded in resolve the former knight responded tenaciously, If he dead, he deserves a proper burial, and I will seek revenge on the person who killed him. As you said Lucia, we are quite alike.
The Karayan smiled at her. Then Ill have my men pack some provisions for you. You know its about a weeks ride from here.
Thank you, Chris said as she offered her hand.
Lucia took the womans hand and then pulled her into an embrace. No, thank you Chris. You have brought me hope that a vow I once made I will finally be able to fulfill, even now in my older years. I will pray to the spirits for your safety on the journey and that you and your children will not suffer the same grief that I did.
Kylan adjusted the false beard as she walked with Troian down the pier that led to the town of Dubios. Following the crudely paved street, they passed deserted stores, abandoned homes, and finally arrived in the square. It was silent, all signs of life carefully plucked away, and the buildings left as the only testimony to the once vibrant town.
Once in the square, the Captain and her First Mate glanced around. The woman gave a smirk at her handiwork that had caused the stillness. Standing there in the center of the dead town was a creation of precise engineering and morbid destruction. It was a gigantic oblique blade, ominously suspended between two dark timbers. A glint of sunlight ambled across the edge of the weapon, stopping only on the huge smear of dried blood in the middle of it.
Still admiring her invention, Kylan grinned. Did any of them accept my gracious offer?
No, my Captain.
She snorted disdainfully. Loyalty to their embittered country will be their undoing, but at least they will sate the hunger of my Lycontane.
Troian simply nodded to the smug woman, who was starting to look around, clearly agitated. Patience was definitely not one of her virtues, and those who made her wait would face a reprimand.
My contact is late, she said flatly as she glanced down into a puddle to check the disguise and make up.
The fat mans eyes trained off in the distance at the citys large wall. Like many Zexen-built walls it seemed impermeable. Nearly thirty feet high, and at least ten feet thick, it had done well to protect Dubios in the past. A solid iron gate graced the center of it, adorned with spikes to deter any who would dare to invade.
As Kylans expression began to melt into something even less pleasant, a man approached them from behind. He was tall and stout, with an impossibly thick neck. Greasy red hair snaked from his head, and fell about his shoulders as his slender blue eyes focused on the two in the square.
Ah, Harvey. Good to see you again, Troian said, resuming his role as the Captains Voice.
Im alone, so the disguise isnt necessary, Kylan. Harvey said tersely as bowed to his superiors. When the woman glared at him, he changed his tone and added, Always a pleasure to serve.
For what Im paying you, it should be, the woman snapped.
Harvey sneered but bowed his head nonetheless, and asked the question that he was expected to. What is your desire?
Kylan smirked at him and gave her demands as if she was ordering off a menu. The Zexens will return shortly. Dispense with their comrades. Put up a fight when they least expect it, but in the end give them the city. Afterwards, take your men to the rendezvous point. Oh, and be sure that my invention remains here. I want them to see it.
Is that all? He asked sarcastically.
Kylan held out a hand written letter and a small metal ring. Place these with them as well.
In plain sight? Harvey asked as he took the items.
Yes, be sure they can be easily found.
The slimy man was hesitant as he asked, Anything else?
Troian produced a scroll from his jacket pocket. Assign someone dependable to this mission. We want to make sure its done correctly.
Harvey raised a scruffy brow as he took the mysterious package and opened it. As he read it, his mouth twisted into a sneer. Your clients are getting better at providing specific information. Be sure to thank them for that as well as the opportunity for one of my men to cross swords with such an illustrious foe.
Kylan glared at him before she put him in his place. Enough of your dramatics. Just make sure its done right.
Harvey quickly read the rest of the assignment. Quick and painless? Thats no fun.
Rubbing the false beard for effect that she didnt need, the Captain grinned like a cat. That is the clients wishes. However, since his men have killed so many of ours over the past few years be sure he suffers.
With pleasure, my Captain, he replied with a slight bow and then left.
The woman turned on her heel without even looking to see if her mate was following. I hate that man! Hes so indignant!
He was one of your fathers strongest allies, Captain, Troian said tiredly as he trotted up to her. He will complete the mission.
Im not worried about that, she spat, quickening her pace and changing the subject with a smirk. Andrew best be up and working in the kitchen when we get back on board. I will so enjoy telling him about the fate I have just bought for his friend.
Roland wasnt surprised to find Salome staring out the windows of the meeting room. The view off the second floor of the castle was especially amazing when bathed in the evening sky, and such a sight could grant a moment of peace to the viewer, no matter how distracted he was otherwise.
Although he didnt want to interrupt his friends thoughts, the elf did want to go home some time that evening. After a moment of standing there without being recognized, he asked, You wanted to see me?
Salome drew himself to his full height of nearly a hand over six feet, but did not turn around. I need two more lieutenants. Do you have any suggestions?
Roland didnt need to ask which positions needed to be filled, nor why, but he could certainly tell that simply having to make such a decision was bothering the other man. The soldiers have great respect for Melville Lankingston. They know he fought with us back in the Fire Bringer War when he was just a boy. He is still young, but you could offer it to him on a trial basis until Borus returns.
Salome nodded silently.
That is my suggestion. As to the other vacancy perhaps Phillip Arton? He trained under Percival before being knighted and he certainly has the capability to lead.
Fitting, I suppose, the Captain said as he finally turned around to face his friend. Thank you for the recommendations. At the moment I dont feel like I could make an objective decision on such matters.
I understand. Is that all you wanted to talk about?
No, Salome said as he took a seat at the large circular table in the center of the room. I know you are anxious to go home to your family, but I have a plan to take Dubios back and I need your help to implement it.
All right, the elf replied as he sat next to his friend. Tell me what you want me to do.
Brushing the bangs of his dirty-blond hair from his face, the Captain said, I want you to leave tomorrow with the womena full day ahead of the rest of us. There are a few tiny towns just outside of Dubios. Stop at one of them and buy the oldest, lamest horses you can find and some rickety carts. Fill the carts with straw and barrels of wine.
The straw shouldnt be a problem to find there, but the wine?
Take some from the castle cellar, he said with a shrug. Ten barrels should be more than plenty.
And when we get to Dubios?
Have the women put on the dresses you acquired for them. Then have them announce themselves at the gate as wine peddlers.
You think the enemy will believe that? Roland asked with a raised brow.
Im sure of it. Theres probably only a small group of soldiers holding the citya hundred men at most. Salome grinned as he added: Im sure theyll be thirsty.
What about the men we encountered in the woods?
If you travel as traders, they shouldnt bother you, if they are even still there. I have the feeling that after our last encounter their mission was considered complete. But, on the off chance you do run into them, be sure to take note of their location.
Roland didnt like to second-guess the Captain, but one point bothered him. You dont believe that there are any civilians inside the city? That is it just being held by soldiers?
He pinched the bridge of his nose in thought. If there are, they are Zexens. I doubt Tintoor whomever we are actually fightinghas bothered to try to move settlers in. Its too expensive and too soon. Besides, all the intelligence that Louis has gathered for me shows that Tintos treasury was exhausted years ago.
Fair enough, but then how do you think they are financing this war?
Its hard to say, Salome said, exhaustion overtaking his tone. It seems that orchestrating wars has become the game to play as of late.
Roland tilted his head ever so slightly. Harmonia?
Im not sure, but Ive sent some letters to a few of my contacts. Louis is also doing his best to find out as well.
All right. Now, about Dubios, once we are in the gates, what do you want us to do?
Reconnaissance. I want to know the exact location of every building and every guard. Check the trees, the walls, check every place from which the enemy could possibly ambush us again.
Theres more. The second night let the women serve the wine to some of the men in the city. When they are drunk enough, bind their hands and lock them up. If there are more than I anticipated, take care of as many as you can, then get out of the city and burn the wagons. If I see the smoke, Ill know well need a different plan.
Should we drug them? The elf asked as he rubbed his chin.
No, Salome said as stood and reclaimed his place near the window. In the event they force your group to prove its not poisoned or drugged, youll be able to do that.
Roland nodded. It sounds simple enough, if not a bit more deceptive than your usual schemes.
Although I prefer a head-on fight, with enemies that are scurrilous phantoms, we have to be more cunning, he said before turning back around to look out over the castle.
Larkstyles Tavern was one of the sleazier dives of Vinay del Zexay. Located just off the docks, it attracted mostly sailors, but other folks with less attractive occupations also frequented it. The place was poorly lit, with just small candles on the tables for light, but this provided a much-needed cover for the transactions of the shady clientele. In a corner of the establishment sat two men who didnt fit into the ale-soaked the atmosphere at all. No one dared to interrupt their intense conversationnot even the surly barmaid.
You and the others will need to secure a unanimous vote to quash any doubts the masses might have about such a move, the tall redheaded man said as he adjusted the scarf around his shoulders.
Justin Plasser shook his head as he cursed under his breath. His colleagues had forced him to meet with this horribly arrogant man to prove his sincerity to the group. The young Councilor wished the conference would end, because in the few minutes he had sat with the man, he had already decided that he despised him. Youll never get it. Not with Keeferson and what little bit of remaining support hell generate. People are strangely sympathetic to him.
You have more faith in him than I expected.
The sandy-haired man pushed his spectacles up on his nose before taking a sip from his wooden mug. Ive seen him sway votes with just a few heart wrenching, charismatic words.
A haughty grin flashed across the tall mans face. Not this time. Things are about to change. The people will be crying for war in less than a few days time and youll need a strong alliance to beat your unscrupulous enemies.
How can you be so sure this will open those doors? Plasser asked as he nervously glanced around.
As I told your comrades years ago, Zexen will have to make some concessions, but Im sure that in the end both of our respective nations will be pleased with the outcome.
I hope you are not playing us, Justin warned as he drank again from his mug.
The redheaded man casually ran his finger through the flame of the candle. Didnt I fully predict the actions of your own Silver Maiden? The people have already started gossiping that she has returned to end the war. That in itself shows their hopes of victory have been revived, and the best time to crush hope is when it is at its strongest. Then theres no chance it will be resurrected.
Yes, Ill give you that. She certainly didnt waste a moment before rushing into town and demanding to be allowed back into the Army.
As Ive said before, knowing what motivates people helps in exploiting them, he said conceitedly. Now, with her gone, were ready for the next step.
Justin shifted uncomfortably in his seat. So this next step then it is
Most necessary and information has already been sent to the people who will take care of it, as well as their payment.
All right. They are reliable?
The supercilious man snorted. Theyve certainly kept your Army busy for the past five years.
I dont mean that. I mean can they be trusted?
The redheaded man glared at him. I trust no one.
How do you know them, then?
As Ive already explained to some of your cohorts, I encountered them in my travels. Its best left at that. Now, in regards to the next tactic, you seem hesitant. I dont understand. You people wanted a war and I made one for you. Wheres your bloodlust? Next time I think your colleagues should reconsider who they send to meet me.
The young Councilor glanced off the distance as if to check for eavesdroppers, but could not make out much in the dim tavern. Sending Chris on a fools quest was one thing, but killing Salome Harras seems a little extreme in comparison.
The redheaded man gave a bored sigh and seemed exasperated at having to explain his reasoning. Without him, your Army will be in chaos and that is essential for the next part of the plan.
Plasser nervously scratched the back of his head. Youre absolutely sure? While the others dont seem to care, murder does bother me.
The man smirked, his green eyes reflecting the candlelight and causing him to appear most sinister. Thats what you and the others are paying me for--to be absolutely sure. Knights are killed in battle all the time. Its not murder, its an occupational hazard.
Justin didnt answer, but simply took another sip of his drink, the sweat on his hands nearly causing him to drop the mug.
The arrogant man continued to play with the flame of the candle as he spoke, his tone remaining completely blasé and full of disdain. Besides you dont really believe that Chris Lightfellow ever led your Army do you? Harras was doing it all a long and just using her as the pretty face that would give his orders. I have to hand it to him, it was a brilliant strategy, and I doubt your Army would have stood as strong against the Grasslanders had he not refused your Councils original offer of the Captain position.
How could he convince her to go along with such a scheme? Justin asked, now a little less agitated now that the conversation had devolved from plotting to simple gossip.
The redheaded man ran a hand through his disheveled hair and answered the question nonchalantly. Stroked her ego, played on her sympathieswho knows. Maybe they were sleeping together. It doesnt matter. I would have done the same had it achieved my goal of winning a war.
It doesnt make any sense, Justin said with a shake of his head.
Impatience and annoyance at the young mans ignorance were not held back as he gave a smirk-drawn response. Let me try and put it in terms that you can understand. If you were a solider, would you rather pledge your life to a beautiful young woman or a homely middle-aged man?
You have a point there, Plasser replied flatly.
Glad that you could see it. Now, youll have to trust me on this one, but if you truly want to form a worthy alliance, well need Keeferson to agree as well. Arrangements have been made in that department, since as I said, solidarity is imperative for everything to work.
Dont tell me you intend to kill him, too? The bespectacled man whispered.
His lips curled into a near-chuckle, but still he replied in the same disinterested voice. No, it wouldnt serve any purpose. Besides, you and your friends would do well to learn how to gain the sympathies of the people as he does.
With a scowl Justin asked, Well then, what?
Producing a small piece of paper with a broken seal, the tall man slid it to the young Councilor. You are simply going to make him an offer he cant refuse.