Louis negotiated his way up the staircase of the Council Building. He
hadnt washed or changed clothes in four days and it certainly showed,
but he didnt care. He had spent those days in that filthy cell with
Torrie, planning exactly what to say to the idiots whod put her there.
It had taken him nearly an hour to climb out of the tower, and another twenty
minutes or so to hail a cab willing to carry him. Two drivers had ignored
himlikely because of his grubby appearance. The one that finally did
stop clearly believed him to be mad when he had insisted that he was indeed
Finally at the top of the curved, carpeted staircase, he headed to the office of his one time friend, Justin Plasser. The door was open, so he entered.
The office was well appointed and quite a bit neater than his own. He found Plasser sitting behind the intricately carved mahogany desk, with the distasteful Arthur Flynnic standing across.
Louis had never liked Flynnic. He was a scrawny man with a rat-like nose and curly, red-blond hair. He was spoiled and had never worked an honest day in his life. Arthur had slithered into his seat on the Council years ago and somehow always managed to get re-elected despite his unpleasant nature and shady practices.
Upon taking notice of the former knight, the two men stopped talking. Arthur sneered, his sardonic voice creeping along his words. Id heard youve been slumming lately, Keeferson, but I didnt realize it was quite this bad.
Get out, Louis said, his voice forcibly held back in a low, even tone. Get out now.
Why should I leave? Arthur asked with flippant wave of his hand. It is you who is in need a bath. Although I suppose this is just representative of the company youve been keeping.
Im sorry, Louis snarled. I didnt realize that the tone of my voice led you to believe that was a suggestion. Now get out!
Civility just flew out the window, Flynnic said, trying to hide his nervousness as he made his way towards the door. I will see you later, Justin.
Louis smirked as the door clicked closed behind the arrogant man. It made him feel strong knowing that these days he could intimidate an enemy without a blade but with a few simple words.
Glaring at Justin, Louis held his rage back behind clenched words and half-hooded eyes. What the hell were you thinking?
Excuse me? Plasser asked as he got to his feet and tried to busy himself with shuffling some papers on his desk.
The feigned ignorance only caused Louis fury to erupt. There are no excuses for yousending an innocent woman to that horrible place just to spite me!
To spite you? No, the evidence was--
Evidence? What evidence? Louis asked, as he slowly moved closer to his former friend.
A paper, Justin said, pushing his spectacles up his nose and working his way around the desk to keep some distance between himself the approaching man. A note sent through your friend from Brass Castle to her employer.
I did that, Louis snapped as he adjusted his crutches. If you want to arrest someone, it should be me.
Justin shook his head and gave a patronizing glare to the former knight. It isnt becoming for a man in your position to take up with such a woman.
Shut up! I dont know what happened to you, Justin. You used to be rational, but now you are just like the others. So Ill tell you what I tell them! Who I spend my time with is none of your damn business! He took a long breath. Besides, this isnt about her--its about you.
About me? Plasser asked quietly, trying to quash the rising level of anger in the room. Im your friend, Louis. I just want you to realize the consequences of your actions.
Louis followed Justin behind the desk, unfazed by others insipid attempt at trying to calm him. Youre not my friend! I cant believe you have the arrogance to assume that I am going to forgive this!
Louis, taking the blame for something you didnt doespecially such an offenseis political suicide.
Now just mere feet from Justin, and no longer obstructed by the desk, Louis looked right into the other mans eyes. Not even holding back a smidgen of the hatred in his voice he snapped: I didnt ask for your asinine advice! I am confessing to the crime so you can release her.
I cant do that, Plasser said, his voice suddenly distant. The issue was already addressed at an emergency session yesterday.
What!? No one informed me of this!
We sent word to your house, but you were not there.
Of course I wasnt there! I wasnt going to just leave Torrie alone in that dungeon with rapists and murderers!
It doesnt matter, Justin replied, feigning a deep interest in a piece of paper as he again tried to inch away. There wasnt anything you could do for her. The evidence was too solid.
And Im telling you that I did it! Louis snarled as he slammed his left hand on the desk, dropping one of the crutches in the process. Why wont you listen to me?!
With a pitiful shake of his head, Justin spoke. Dont lose your head over some peasant girl. I know you may not be as desirable as some young men, but surely your assets are worth enough to find a suitable wife.
Louis was not a violent man nor one to lose his temper in such short order. But after four days of that horrible place, four days of seeing Torrie in misery, four days to reconsider his friendships, and now Plassers outright insults, it was over. His blood could only boil so high until it spilled out into visceral rage. Feeling his left hand curl, his body adjusted his balance on the opposing crutch. And then, not even a second later, his fist made crushing contact with Justins nose.
The blow was expertly placed. Justins glasses flew from his face and landed in a mess of shards on the floor. Blood streamed from his now crooked nose, marring his face and shirt. His hands jumped to nurse the injury, but disbelief held in his expression.
Louis shouted at his former friend, I cant believe you turned into just another greedy, soulless bastard! You were one of the few people on this damn Council that I thought cared about the people more than himself!
Justin shook his head as he produced a handkerchief from his jacket pocket and pinched it to his nose.
Louis just stood there with his fist still clenched and blood on his hand. He had no more words for this idiot.
A few moments passed in silence, and then Justin spoke in a hushed voice, his nose still bleeding badly. This is bigger than you and I and our petty problems, Louis.
Whats bigger? We serve the Zexen people, do we not?
Plasser coughed as the blood ran down his throat and then whispered, Louis, Im sorry about what I said and what they did to Torrie. I wish I could help you, but I cant. Youre about to be given a choice, just as I was.
What choice? What are you talking about?
I cant give you too many details about my particular situation, not here, not now, Justin said as he glanced nervously at the door. But I can show you the options you have. He opened a drawer of the desk and began to search for something.
Cant we fight them? Louis whispered. Weve beat the corruption before.
Justin just shook his head and finally released his nose from the handkerchief. Keeping the conversation in hushed tones, he continued, Not here. And its not just local corruption.
How do you mean?
Plasser bent over to retrieve his broken glasses. I cant tell you that here.
What can you tell me?
After a moment of careful contemplation, he spoke in a shaking voice, They played Drever, too.
Justin glanced at the door and said loudly, Youre a fool, Keeferson! Then he leaned over and whispered to Louis: Threatened to shut down his familys armor shop and execute his parents for treason. Said they had proof of shipments to Tinto.
And the rest?
Im guessing all of them just sold their souls to the highest bidder.
Dammit! Louis shouted before sitting on the sofa and bringing his voice down. Doesnt make for very good odds.
No it doesnt. Theres more, but I cant say it within these walls.
Fair enough. Send me word when we can talk. Ill meet you wherever youd like.
Plasser nodded. Then he held out two pieces of parchment and spoke up again to make sure that his voice carried. Your choice is thus: sign this one, or I am to deliver the other to the prison warden.
And if you dont? Louis asked with a raised brow.
That is not a viable option, Keeferson! Justin shouted before again whispering. As I said, they have me over a barrel as well, and I will do whatever it takes to protect my children, as Im sure you would, given the choice.
Louis heart ripped in half as he read the options. The dilemma presented to him was cruel, and just thinking of each outcome wrenched his stomach. Death to his love or death to his country? Knowing the others counted on him being torn between the two, he cursed them aloud. After a long, drawn, breath, he found his resolve to battle all of the demons, and said a silent prayer to Loa begging her for guidance in doing so.
My friends and fellow Zexens, Salome called from astride his horse, gathering the attention of his army. Flanked by Roland and Leo, he glanced around at the men. They were tired but the city was finally looking more like a town and less like a morgue. Percivals men had all been given a proper burial, the streets had been cleaned, and it was finally time to say a few words of farewell before preparing for their return to Brass Castle.
After a few moments of shifting metal, a somber silence fell over the clearing in the forest. Satisfied that the men were now listening, the captain continued. As you know, the past three days we have worked hard to bury the men that we lost to a cruel and faceless enemy. Never before have I seen such ruthless and callous treatment of soldiers. I now ask that we hold a moment of silence in honor of these brave fathers, sons, and brothers who died for Zexen at the hands of a monster.
The men snapped to attention, and held their statures silently until Salome spoke again. Thank you. Let us all offer a prayer to Loa that the souls of our comrades will be welcomed into her kingdom, reunited with their ancestors and blessed to see their loved ones from above.
In unison all of the knights of the Zexen army raised their weapons and shouted, In Loas name we pray!
After a heavy breath, the captain lowered his mace. I want you all to know that I have already sent word to Zexay about the fate of our friends--
Before Salome could finish the sentence he was interrupted by a swishing sound, followed by a harsh pain that shot up his left leg. His horse forgot its training and reared, but did not manage to unseat him. Then, not even an instant later, before he could shout a command, before he could react to the pain in his leg, before the horse could return its forelegs to the ground, before he could even glance down to see how bad the wound was, another bolt flew. Raising his weapon in a futile attempt to deflect the blow, he cursed as the arrow struck him just below the opposing shoulder.
The force from the second bolt knocked him back and forced him to drop the weapon, the sudden shift in his weight further agitating the already distraught horse. He tried to right himself in the saddle, but could not. Resigned to hunch over in agony, he grabbed the horses mane for support and then glanced down. The first arrow had gone clean through his thigh, the saddle, and into the horse. Bloodhuman and equinecreated in an unsettling pattern as it drizzled down the animals flank.
Still doubled over on the horses back, he turned his head and saw the wound on his shoulder. It wasnt bleeding as bad as the other, but it smelledsort of like sulfur. And, it burned. It burned unmercifully as if someone had poured hot oil into the wound and then set it ablaze. He wanted to rip the bolt out, to stop the hurt and the burning, but knew better.
Again he tried to persuade his body to sit up but it wouldnt cooperate. He felt his hands shaking, and under the leather gloves, his palms sweat. The world seemed to be moving slower, but he still fought the urge to succumb to the pain and just close his eyes.
Watching the scene from his awkward crouched position, it looked as if it were played through a stained glass window. A blur of orange had surrounded him, someone had his reins, and shouted orders were coming from Roland. A curse slipped from his lips, directed against his inability to be of any use and the lack of control he was showing in front of his men.
He couldnt see much, but was determined to keep his eyes open. Focusing on the noises, he tried to follow what was happening, despite the intense distraction of the racking pain.
Somewhere in a distance he couldnt determine, horses galloped away. Armor clanked. Blades were drawn. More shouts filled the air. Angry, vengeful cries from the men melded into a single voice.
How dare they interrupt a funeral?
Kill those cowards!
They wont take our Captain!
Theyre in the damn trees! That was Leo, he thought. Shoot them down!
What seemed like eons passed and then arrows flew. Metal shrieked against metal. The thin streaks of light that cast down through the trees reflected off armor in motion. Flesh was met with blades. More screams. Bodies hit the ground with horrid thudding noises. Blood began to cover the thin grass. He heard someone calling his name. No honorifics, just his name. He thought it to be Roland, but wasnt sure.
Pictures began to form in the grass below him. Soft, tranquil images of happier times painted themselves on the green canvas, giving each one a wraithlike glow of color. A quiet moment in his study at home. A ride with his son. A drink with Chris. A party in Zexay. A celebration with Roland following a successful battle. A walk in the garden with Ardeth. The illusions didnt last for more than a moment, but they called to him, tempting him to fall down and join them, but he resisted.
And then there was quiet. The only noises heard were the horses breathing. A moment later, the knights began to relax. The battle, if it was even long enough to be called that, was overand they had won.
The circle of knights that had surrounded him opened up to let Roland and Leo through. Salome tried to sit up again, but could not. Tasting blood in his mouth he spit it out, and then turned his head just enough to face his trusted officers who walked over the images in the grass.
We won. We killed all of them, Leo said, his voice sounding strangely distant. Some of the men are searching the bodies now. I told them they could keep anything they find.
Salome dropped his reins. His arms hung on the sides of the horses neck, and the grass was looking closer and more inviting now.
Roland sighed as he pulled some cloth strips from his saddle bag and then dismounted. We have to get you off that horse.
Salome barely gave a growl in response.
Looking closely at the wounds, Roland spoke in an unusually cheery voice, Theyre not mortal, but I bet they hurt like hell. Well get you to a surgeon and youll be fine. Thats a good thing because I dont want to be the one to explain these holes in you to Ardeth. Shed likely kill me for letting you get yourself into such a mess! Better you to fight that battle, my friend.
He forced a tiny smile at the elfs attempt at humor.
Im going to break off the fletching, then lift and slide your leg off the shaft, Roland said before looking back up at Salome with a grimace. Its going to hurt, but its the best way to get you to a medic.
Do it, he whispered, mustering all of his strength to form the two simple words.
Hold the horses head tighter, Roland said to the knight who had been gripping the wounded animals reins. Whatever you do, dont let it throw its head.
Leo scratched his chin. Maybe we should kill it first.
No, Roland replied. I dont want it to fall on him.
Twitch it, Leo said as he removed his belt. At least thatll keep it distracted.
Salome couldnt see them wrap the strap of leather around the horses upper lip, but a moment later, he felt the animal slightly relax underneath him. Preoccupied by the annoying pressure on its face, the horse seemed to forget about its other pain.
Roland turned to someone standing in front of the horse. Ready?
Salome braced himself, but when the arrow was broken, and his leg moved, the pain was just too much. Roland was fast, and attempting to be gentle, but dragging the shaft of the arrow through his muscle was excruciating. Between the torture of the wounds and the dizziness he could no longer fight to stay awake. Letting out a pitiful whimper, he closed his eyes and finally gave into the bliss of unconsciousness.
Torrie was cold. Even the jacket Louis had given her wasnt providing much warmth. It was far too big for her, but it was the only thing bringing any sort of comfort while he was away. She didnt want to admit it, but her day without him had been long and frightening. The man in the cell next to her did nothing all day but harass her to the point of tears. He was vile, disgusting and seemed to get a perverted pleasure from seeing her reactions. His insults and filthy suggestions she could ignore, but when he ripped his pants off and rubbed himself against the bars, she was genuinely terrified.
The sudden drop in temperature told her that the sun had set, even if she was well below ground. The guards had changed for the night, and the evening portion of bread and tea had been brought. She didnt feel like eating it, even though she was quite hungry. As she leaned down to pick up the tray, the disgusting man next to her reached between the bars and snatched her wrist. She dropped the food as she fought against him. His grip was strong, so she turned to face him and push herself away with her free hand. That was her mistake. He grabbed onto the front of her dress and tore it, exposing her breasts. He giggleda shrill, satanic giggleas she covered herself and ran back to the bench.
Now, hours later, she was tired and hungry but she would not rest. Louis had promised her that he would return after the Council meeting, and while she didnt doubt him, she feared something was wrong. It was late. Too late. What if he had given up on her? What if they had arrested him, too? What if he had realized that no matter what he did, the other Councilors would just continue to harass him about his choice in a lady? She grit her teeth in anger at her own thought. She had nothing to be ashamed of! She might not be a titled woman, but she certainly was not a whore! And those who worry about such trivial matters as ones social standing shouldnt be paid so much mind! She loved him, and he loved her. Wasnt that all that really counted?
Just as she found a bit of joy in thinking of all the time shed spent with Louis, the disgusting man next to her threw the contents of his chamber pot into her cell. Her stomach retching from the smell, she tucked her legs up under her dress and wrapped her arms around her knees. Biting her lip in an effort not to sob, she said a silent prayer that Louis and the children were well. Even when Louis was with her, Ryan and Geoffrey had constantly been in her thoughts these past few days. Though she knew they couldnt have found a better temporary home than with Lady Harras, she often pondered what their future would hold.
Years ago, when her mother had died, Percival had done his best to care for her. She was well fed and loved, but there were just some things a man couldnt provide for a little girl. And when she moved to Zexay to live with Borus family, despite Lord Roberts insistence that she was part of his family, she still felt like a servant.
But Ryan and Geoffrey at least have each other, she reminded herself as she mulled their fate. Even if Percival were dead, and Chris never made it back, those two little boys would find their strength between themselves. Sure, theyd be loved and cherished by any number of their parents friends, but she hoped it would never come to that.
She thought of the document Louis had drafted that would give him custody of the children in case the unthinkable happened. She hated that blasted thing because although it served to protect the children, it felt like a bad omen. Still, when she had been asked, she carefully penned her name in witness just under Lord Salomes and watched as Louis stamped his seal at the bottom.
Thinking about signing the wretched paper brought something to mind. A tiny smile crossed her lips as she recalled something Percival once said to her when she was still a child. It was a simple thought, and one she really didnt understand at the time, but now she embraced it. Never cast your lot with omens as Sadie is too wise to send them to us. We must make our way, and only turn to her for guidance of our own decisions; not beg her for heralds.
Missy! A crude voice with a terrible stutter called, interrupting her thoughts. Get up, Missy!
Glancing up, she saw the warden. He was an older man with a bald head and missing teeth. His clothes hung off his gaunt frame and he seemed to sneer uncontrollably when he spoke.
The warden slipped a key into the lock of her cell and pushed it open. Well now, Missy! Fancy girl like youwhat are you waiting for? An engraved invitation?
Excuse me? Torrie asked as she cautiously dropped her feet to the ground and pulled the jacket over the torn bodice of her dress.
Get up, Missy! Your time has come! The warden said, shaking the shackles he held in his free hand.
My time for what? She gasped, fearing the worst.
Come on! Dont make me get the guards, Missy!
Rising to her feet, Torrie sighed as she made her way towards the door. So this was it. This was the end. Whatever Louis had tried had failed. She just wished theyd let her say good-bye to him. Would they even grant the last request of an accused traitor? She doubted it and dejectedly held out her hands as the tears started to fall.
The rough man savagely wrapped the shackles around her wrists. Stop your crying, Missy!
He led her out of the dungeon and up the towers spiraling staircase. She moved slowly, not only because of the dread that followed her, but the precarious and uneven steps were made more dangerous when seen through tearful eyes. Her wrists were aching by the time they made it to the top, but suddenly that small pain was not important.
Leaning against the wall of the wardens room was her hopeLouis. Cleaned and dressed, he smiled at her as he adjusted his weight on his crutches. With just a raised eyebrow he glared at the crotchety warden.
Im sorry, milord, the warden stammered, fumbling to remove the shackles. Just a precaution we take with all of the prisoners.
Right, because shes so dangerous, Louis replied, sarcasm percolating his words.
The weights were gone and a moment later Torrie was free. She rushed straight for the comfort of Louis arms. Trying not to shed more tears, she buried her face in his chest, and held him as if she couldnt let go.
He brushed her dark curls soothingly and whispered, Im sorry I didnt go down myself. I feared it would only slow your release. Are you all right?
She nodded slightly, but didnt say anything as she clutched him, tears of relief trickling down her dirty face.
I have a coach waiting, Louis said as he gently released her. Its very late. Lets get you home.
Arm in arm, they walked out of the prison and into the dark street of Vinay del Zexay. The town seemed dead; there wasnt any noise nor movement and the sliver of a moon barely cast shadows. Waiting there in the silence was a small hansom cab driven by a young man and pulled by a well bred horse. Louis opened the door of the carriage for her, and she climbed in. It took him a few moments to do the same, but he rejected any offer of help.
Driver! Louis called as he leaned out the window of the cab. To my home, quickly.
The carriage started to move, but Torrie was hesitant to lay her head on his shoulder. Are you sure you want me there?
Why wouldnt I?
Looking at him firmly she said, This is because of me, Louis.
No, he replied with a touch to her cheek. This is due to the cowardly actions of a Council who are selling out their own country.
Its no matter. Dont bother yourself with it right now. Ill tell you more when the time is right and when I gathered more information.
No, please, forget about everything. You are what Im concerned with at the moment. Are you well? Im sorry this took so long.
Im fine, she said warily, disliking the fact that he was dodging the subject. I suppose we should pick up the children.
He brushed her matted hair from her face. I think Ardeth can watch them for one more night. Besides its late. Id hate to wake them.
She sighed. I feel bad imposing on other people.
Dont--not this time at least. You need some time to recuperate from your ordeal. Stay at my house tonight.
Do you think thats appropriate?
How would it not be?
She took his hands. I just fear what other things the Council will do to you.
Dont worry about them, he said before giving her a kiss on the forehead. As I said, tonight, you are my only concern.
Smiling at him, she replied, All right, then.
Good! Im having a special meal made for you, and I bought you a new dress. I hope you like it. I admit Im not an expert on womens clothing.
She giggled, and then pulled him closer, Thank you, Louis. I dont know where Id be without you.
I could say the same for you, my love, he whispered before bestowing a tender, yet passionate kiss on her lips.
Kylan smirked at the latest communication from one of her contacts. Things were going so well. She would have said it was perfect, if she had believed that such a state of being existed. Five years in the making, and it was finally going to pay off. Still, she felt the need to cause a little more grief for her prisoner, so she sent for him and a bottle wine.
Two of her men brought him up from the galley where he had been assigned to work. Although his hair was matted from the salt in the air, and his clothes rumpled from wear, he was still attractive, and held a grave defiance in his eyes as he looked at her.
Ah, my dear Andrew, she said as she motioned for the others to leave. I was afraid wed lost you to the hole, but then I realized you were just too stubborn to die.
He said nothing.
She kept her voice pleasant, musical even as she waved him into the chair opposite her. I hope you are enjoying the galley. I learned a great deal about you from my client, and they did tell me that you were quite the cook. From what I hear its the only discipline in that you outclass your wife!
Again he just glared at her, but took a seat.
She poured the wine into two glasses and placed one in front of him. Drink.
He looked away.
Dont refuse my hospitality, Andrew.
He still didnt accept the drink.
Youre an obstinate one, arent you? Ah well, more for me, she said as she drank from his glass. Now, I have something to tell you.
What is it? He asked, his voice devoid of any emotion.
You can speak! I almost feared Id turned you into a mute!
His eyes narrowed, but he said nothing.
Well then, she said quite flippantly. I killed your friend Salome Harras. Nothing personal, mind you, Andrew. Just business.
He raised an eyebrow at her in disdain, Why do you tell me this?
Well, thats not what I really wanted to tell you but I figured you should know. My men received orders to get rid of him. And they did, rather painfully as I understand it. She ran her finger around the rim of the glass with a smarmy grin. I will say that his service record was quite an interesting read, though.
Percival looked at her skeptically. How could you get a service record?
I have my ways.
Im sure you do, but I dont care to hear about them.
She ignored his impudence and gave him a smirk. You dont curse me for killing your precious captain? Or maybe you dont care because Ive heard some interesting things about him and your beloved wife.
I will mourn my friend in private, he said fighting to keep his voice as steady as possible.
Fine, she said, getting up to circle around him. You hate me, dont you?
Your lack of regard for human life is despicable.
Thats ironic coming youa man who kills people to make a living. Were essentially the same you know.
I am nothing like you! He snarled before getting to his feet.
Yes you are. Whether or not you admit it doesnt matter to me. Putting a hand on his anger-heaved chest, she leaned into his face and grinned. You didnt say you hate me.
I hate you, he said, his dark, wrathful eyes fixed coldly on hers.
Good! Now, I have some other news for you, too. She moved back to her chair and took another drink of his wine. Im moving the fleet. My other ships are headed to a rendezvous, but were going to Vinay del Zexay to wrap up some business. During that time, youll be confined to the brig. Cant have you wandering off!
He gave a dubious glance but sat back down now that she had his curiosity piqued. Youre going to sail right into Zexay? How could you get landing papers?
Easy, she said with a grin as she produced a parchment from inside her shirt. Im one of their best traders of wine. And how you Zexens love your wine! See, my papers are here. Im sure you recognize the seal of my sponsor.
Percivals breath nearly caught in his throat as he saw the stamp of the Redrum family gracing the document that the woman had waved in his face.