Boots squished through the rotting garbage of the alley. Pontus motioned for Chec and Felle to draw back into the recessed doorway of the tenement. They ducked out of sight, swinging the thick canvas sack, along with its struggling occupant. Pontus drew his short sword and his dagger and pressed himself down against a splintered barrel. Over his rapid heartbeat, Pontus listened for movement. Another footstep came, a few moments later, and another. Through the broken staves, Pontus saw a boot. Finely stitched leather, with the edge of silver embroidery showing under the owner’s trouser cuff, the boot was decidedly out of place for the Gut, Asian’s dirtiest—and most dangerous—district. Fresh stains from the alley stood out on the otherwise clean wool of the trousers.
More footsteps came down the alley, opposite the narrow side-street where Pontus was crouched. He opened and tightened sweaty hands around the blades. One of them, maybe . . . but two? The brick of the tenement was cool against his back, but uncomfortable, and Pontus resisted the urge to shift positions. The shadows of early evening weren’t deep enough to hide his movement.
“Any sign of them?” one of the men asked. Them? Pontus thought. Us?
“I lost them in the market,” the other replied. “For a moment, at least. I thought I saw them come down here.”
“Bel shred their souls,” the other swore. “That’s all it takes. I’ll head down here. You go back to the market, keep looking.”
The boot-and-trouser turned and disappeared, and a moment later the other man stepped into view. He wore a studded leather jerkin and had a sword in one hand, a buckler strapped to his other arm. As he came around the corner, his eyes fell right on Pontus, and he let out a shout. “Maf,” he said, “I got one!”
He didn’t have time for more. Pontus surged forward. He caught the man’s sword with his dagger and thrust with his own sword. The other man turned the blade aside with his buckler and smashed the small shield into Pontus’s face, then twisted his sword free. Pontus’s dagger flew from his hand, clattering to the stone.
Blood filled Pontus’s mouth, and he staggered back a step. He spat blood and shouted, “Chec, get him out of here!” Chec and Felle emerged from the doorway and, without a second glance, sprinted down the narrow street, the canvas sack bouncing with every step.
The squelch of garbage saved Pontus’s life. He turned and the second man’s blade slid along his ribs instead of into his back. Pontus stumbled back again, trying to get the two men in front of him, his sword low and steady. He pressed one hand against the wound, but didn’t look. Looking always made him sick, made him worry. Better not to think about it, at least for the time being.
“Looks like you were right, Maf,” the man said.
Maf didn’t respond. The narrow street kept the two men from circling around him, but Pontus knew he only had a few moments before they rushed him. He bent, drew a thin throwing knife from his boot, and threw it underhanded as he stood. The knife caught Maf in the shoulder, spinning him around. Pontus shifted his stance and then sprinted forward, sword held low. He knocked aside the other man’s sword, sweeping his blade so close to Maf’s face on the carry-through that the second man slipped. Pontus crashed into the other man, slamming into the alley wall and then into the rotting garbage of the street. The man lay still beneath him, his eyes unfocused.
Pontus rolled onto his back as fast as he could, expecting to see Maf’s sword coming down on him. The other man was nowhere to be seen though. Without waiting to press his luck, Pontus picked himself up, took one last look at the man he had knocked down, and sprinted down the alley.
As he ran, his mind raced as well. Both men had worn plain gray doublets over white shirts, brown trousers, and good boots. Pontus knew that type of man; they were either some nobleman’s guards, in disguise, or guildsmen, or maybe a merchant’s guards. He hadn’t crossed any of the guilds or merchants, at least not lately. Considering his recent acquisition, Pontus thought it likely that these men belonged to a lord. But why the disguise? he wondered. Why not just march down here with a full troop? More importantly, if they are Luca Reaze’s men, why are they in disguise? And if they aren’t, whose are they?
Pushing aside questions for which he had no answers, Pontus pressed his hand, already sticky with blood, back over the wound. He needed a surgeon. As he left the alley, someone started out at him, and Pontus brought his sword up, heart pounding.
“Felle,” he said, recognizing the slender man. Felle had the canvas sack draped over one shoulder, and he hunched under the weight. The sack was suspiciously still. Pontus lowered the sword.
“Went back for you,” the man said, rubbing his raw nose.
“You didn’t kill him, did you?” Pontus asked, eyeing the sack
“Don’t know,” Felle said. “Could be. Chec rapped him once on the head.”
“Bloody Bel take me,” Pontus said, “if I just got skewered for kidnapping a dead man. And I lost a good knife on top of it all.” He let out a sigh. “I’m not carrying him when I’ve just been carved like a ham, so you’re going to have to make do.”
Felle just rubbed his nose and nodded back down the alley. Chec was walking towards them, wiping a narrow throwing knife clean on a scrap of gray cloth. “You left me to clean up after you,” the big man complained, rolling his massive shoulders. “The one you knocked down was still awake; it just took him a little to get moving again.”
“Bloody Bel,” Pontus swore again. “Well, I owe you one. I wondered where that second one had gone. But if you killed him,” he nodded to the sack, “I may not be so grateful.”
Chec shrugged, grabbed one end of the sack, and started down the street. Felle stumbled after, trying to get a hold on the sack and keep up at the same time. Pontus turned and headed the other way, cursing the blood that was still running down his side. He wouldn’t trust a surgeon in the Gut with a shaving-cut, let alone a wound like this. And that meant more walking.
The crack of sorcerous thunder faded slowly, lingering unnaturally in the air. The shock served its purpose. It awakened him to himself, if only for a few moments.
Erlandr. His name. He had no time to think about it; the studded cudgel whipped through the air towards his head. Erlandr ducked, but not fast enough. One of the metal spikes caught the top of his head. It tore his scalp, leaving a line of pain and blood behind it. The force of the blow knocked him to the side.
The man with the cudgel grinned, revealing a missing front tooth. He swung again. Erlandr barreled into the other man. Blackness cut off the edges of his vision, blocking out the run-down buildings of the small town. He had little time left before the curse took him again.
The cudgel glanced off Erlandr’s shoulder. He slammed his fist into the man’s throat. The man wheezed and dropped to one knee.
Erlandr shook his head. He pressed a hand to the cut. Pain blossomed, white light behind his eyes. For a moment he could think clearly. No sword. His hand shook, longing to trace the cheira. He could not do that, not now. By Bel, where is my sword?
The moment of clarity passed. Where am I? Erlandr thought.
The alley was dark. Behind him, Erlandr could hear the clash of metal. Shouts echoed off the broken cobblestones. There was a flash of green light, and Erlandr blinked, trying to clear his eyes.
The man in front of him was regaining his feet. He held a rough-looking mace in one hand. What’s he doing here? Erlandr wondered. What am I doing here?
He had no time for more questions. “Ishahb burn you,” the man growled. Erlandr did not pay any attention to him. He heard something else. Blood. The thought beat in time with his heart, insistent, vibrating. Something dark, a hole at the center of his heart, echoed. His own voice. Blood.
“Blood,” he whispered.
With a snarl, the man lunged forward. He swung the mace around in a wide arc. Erlandr barely saw it. Its whistle through the air did not register. He could only hear that word, his word, could only whisper it through chapped lips. Then pain. He felt ribs crack from the blow. The force of it knocked him back against the alley wall. Every breath was agony. Clarity flooded back into him.
Through tears of agony he saw the dull metal of the cudgel. No time for the sword; he needed blood now. The curse would not wait. Erlandr stumbled forward, left arm going numb as the cudgel struck him again. Erlandr grabbed the man by the throat, his right arm still strong. Blood. The other man clawed at his arm, flailed ineffectually at him with the mace, but Erlandr was too close, and his need was too strong. He could smell it now, blood on the air. Iron and copper and life.
He bit the man’s throat, as consciousness faded. It was instinct. A wolf taking its prey. Blood blossomed in his throat. Foul and life-giving. He was less than human.
Knowledge came with the first salty taste, self-awareness. He drank until the darkness was driven back.
“Got what you needed?” The voice was thick with disgust. An old man’s voice. Tired.
Erlandr paid him no attention. Self-loathing came with self-awareness. Disgust at himself, at what he had become. Underneath it all, fear—fear of death, the fear that haunted his steps. Too close this time. It almost claimed me. The blood was thicker now, slower. He had had enough.
He raised his head, the blood cold and wet against his chin. Erlandr resisted the urge to wipe it off, though disgust and horror mingled within him. He would drink again. Always again. “I am myself,” he said. He forced a grin as he looked up at his old friend, his old enemy. It would not do to let Adence see him weaken. The moment the old fool was no longer afraid . . . well, Erlandr was not sure what would happen. “Again.”
Adence made a gesture, almost unseen in the darkness, and a shivering blue flame, white at its center, appeared in his hand. He wiped stringy, white hair from his forehead, revealing his balding pate, and then slid his thin arm back into his worn coat. “Is there no way you can attend to your needs,” he said the word hard, like a blow, “regularly? This time you blacked out just moments after those mercenaries showed up.”
“It happens when it happens,” Erlandr said. No need to say that he couldn’t bear to do it while he was still himself. That the only mercy of the curse was the oblivion that came near the end. One day, maybe, he would not hear that word, would not drink, and would finally die. It was a small, darkling hope.
“We were lucky,” Adence said. “I used the last of the teeth tonight; when they find us next, it will be close.”
Erlandr sighed and then gasped as pain shook him. His ribs. Cold sweat beaded on his brow as he tried to stand up.
“I need your sorcery,” he said.
Slipping one bony arm under Erlandr’s, Adence helped the other man to his feet. “How bad is it?” the old man asked flatly.
“Some cracked ribs,” Erlandr said. “Can’t move my left arm very well either.”
Adence said nothing as they moved back to the street. Erlandr expected no sympathy, but the old man would help him. Both exiles, criminals, murderers. Worse than murderers. Bound to each other by mutual hatred and need and fear. All for a night I cannot remember. Where is the justice in that? To know my crimes only when I dream. To live them, again and again, and forget myself upon waking?
“Do the gods punish us, Adence?”
“You don’t believe in the gods,” the old man said.
“If there are gods, they are cruel and silent. But we punish ourselves.”
Only silence from Adence.
“You think I deserve punishment?” Erlandr said.
“Why do you do this?” Adence snapped. He stopped near the edge of the alley and pulled away from Erlandr. Erlandr let out a gasp of pain and leaned up against the wall for support. “Why must we go through these things over and over again? You took everything from me, Night Sister blast you. Why do you play out this charade for decades? To torture me?”
“Tell me what I did,” Erlandr said. He knew what the old man would say; he knew the charge leveled against him. His mind wandered, true, but he remembered from day to day. It was the past he could not remember. “Do you remember how it happened?”
Adence did not answer. He knelt, his free hand tracing a cheiron in the air. Silvered light flickered around his fingers. Erlandr did not know this cheiron; the most powerful of the cheira were unique to the separate schools of magic. It blazed to life for a heartbeat, sending a brilliant light down the alley. An opening onto pure chaos, bleeding energy into the world.
The old man whispered the hepisteis, the secret words that gave the power shape and form. He laid one hand on Erlandr’s arm.
Energy, alien to Erlandr even after all those years, sped through him, repairing bone and flesh. He drew a breath. The energy vanished, a puff of smoke in the strong breeze of reality. Erlandr was whole again. He stepped away from Adence and into the main street of the small town.
The stench of burning flesh filled the air. The light was better here, strong enough that Adence extinguished his flame with a flick of his hand. Craters marred the uneven cobblestones, craters where the teeth, those strange parakeis of Cemilian sorcery, had been sown. Long patches of soot marked the stones where Adence’s magical flames had cut down men. Erlandr did not stop to count the bodies. It did not matter. If there were more, they would come again. If not, well—more would come anyway.
“I tried to hide us last time,” Erlandr muttered. Fatigue washed over him. The curse took its toll, even when it brought new life. “You try it this time.”
Adence’s voice was flat. “I will try. He will find us again, I think. I have used up my tricks.”
“Time,” Erlandr said. He could barely keep his eyes open. “So little time. Where has it gone?” He glanced once more at the bodies. “Death hunts me.”
“Too much time, I think,” Adence said, barely loud enough to be heard.
As Erlandr staggered forward, still supported by Adence, he heard the older man whispering under his breath. The air hummed and shifted, echoing the cracked words that slipped past Erlandr’s hearing. The words of Cemil the Undying himself. Words of power. Adence made sure that Erlandr could not hear them. It did not matter. Erlandr had his own words.
“Where are we going?” he asked.
“They came from the north,” Adence said. “We go east this time. If we can reach the Heart, we can take ship.”
Erlandr shook his head. Whoever hunted them had gotten past their enchantments too many times. He was too quick, too skilled. More men would come, it was only a matter of where. And when. Time. Death hunts me.
The waves broke on the shore. A sandcastle, tiny in the distance, vanished beneath the water.
“The ships are lost,” Joaquim said. “The messenger came this morning.”
The waves drew back. No sign remained of the sandcastle.
“I’m sorry,” Viane said. “I truly am. But I’m still not going to marry you.”
“This is your chance, you stupid girl,” Joaquim said. “A month ago, I wouldn’t have even thought twice of having you as a wife.”
“A month ago you tried to rape me under the First Bridge,” Viane said. “If I hadn’t had a knife with me . . .”
“Bel take you,” he snapped. “I wasn’t going to rape you. You bloody well wouldn’t be standing here with me in a garden if I had tried. Be serious about this; a month ago I could not have married you, even if I had wanted. My parents wouldn’t have allowed it.”
“But now that the creditors are calling,” Viane said. A smile crossed her wide lips.
“Bloody Bel,” Joaquim said. “It’s not a joke, Viane. Yes, the creditors are calling. Yes, word is starting to spread about the ships. It will be days, not weeks, before things fall apart. We have until Semença, but do you really want to see me dragged to the galleys to pay my father’s debt?” He realized he was shouting. Joaquim flushed when he saw a pair of elderly men watching him. In a lower voice, he continued, “We need your father’s capital to get by for a few months. Let me use that to get my father to say yes. This is your bloody chance to help yourself, too, you know. To stop being a fisherman’s daughter.”
“That’s not who I am,” Viane said. “I’m not just some fisherman’s daughter.”
Joaquim recognized her tone. He knew he had her. “You are,” he said, mustering his most off-hand manner. “I should have realized, though, you wouldn’t have the sense even to make something better of yourself.”
He turned his back to her. It would be a dozen heartbeats, he wagered, before she realized her mistake. She always did, always came to remember her place.
One hand, soft on his shoulder, turned him around.
Her slap sent stars dancing before his eyes.
Joaquim stumbled on a loose paving stone and cursed. A woman passing by, wearing the loose, white dress of an Apsian matron, glared at him. He barely noticed.
“Find yourself another wife.”
“Viane,” Joaquim said, feeling his cheeks heating, “You’re making a mistake, you foolish little girl. I’ll let it slide for now, because I love you.”
Her chest heaved for a moment, as though she were struggling to breathe. “Goodbye, Joaquim.”
“Take some time to think about your life, Viane,” Joaquim said. “Unless you can cast those nets as well as your father, you’re in for a rough future. I’m offering you something better.”
She turned, heart-stoppingly beautiful in her blue dress, never mind that it was years out of style. Somehow Joaquim liked it even more for that. Without another word, Viane made her way from the garden.
Joaquim rubbed his cheek and tried to drink in her figure as she walked away. Then, with a wink for a young, pretty matron coming toward him, Joaquim sauntered toward the edge of the garden. Viane would come around; more than anything, she was desperate for approval, for standing in the world. He could give that to her. It was a perfect relationship.
The park sat almost at the heart of Apsia. Broad-trunked oaks lined the paved path, which was wide enough for a dozen men to walk side by side, and dark black dirt framed the beds of flowers. Lilies, yellowed and withered like the leaves of an old book, competed in vain with bright red poppies. A low, weathered stone wall stood at the edge of the park, beyond which ran Fisher’s Lane, one of the main thoroughfares of the sea-port city. A mass of people surged and pressed their way along the street, and the noise of their passing washed over the divider and into the relative calm of the park. The matron—pleasantly plump, with nice, curly hair, now that Joaquim thought about it—had almost reached him. Joaquim hesitated, eyeing the woman’s firm breasts, her inviting smile.
Joaquim watched the matron, torn, thinking of the lonely, Apsian housewives, and trying as best he could to balance his own urges with memory of Viane. His future wife would not appreciate infidelity—that would have to wait until after the marriage.
The decision was taken from him as he reached the gate. Viane stood just beyond the low wall, and Joaquim was past the matron.
She stepped close to him, her body hovering near his. He could feel the heat radiating from her body, even under the summer sun. “I don’t need you,” she said in a low voice, her breath on his ear, “but do you need me? There might be another way to keep your poor old mother from going to the galleys as well.” She gave him a strained smile and stepped back.
Joaquim let out his breath. He felt like someone had dumped a bucket of cold water on him. “What’s that?” he said. “Shall I take up whoring like your friends?” He walked into the crowd.
Barely loud enough to be heard over the din of Fisher’s Lane, Viane called out, “I’m going to the Breakers tonight. I’ll see you there.”
Bel take you, Joaquim thought. Without looking back, Joaquim pushed past two elderly men, ignoring their angry shouts, and stomped down the street. Bel and the Sister of Night can split me in two if I’m going to follow her into the Gut after dark.
Dag waited for the dagger to slide between the old man’s ribs. The edge of the hidden blade glinted in the footman’s sleeve as he helped the baron of Famia out of the carriage. Dag knew where to look, what to look for. The slightest tremble in the red, chapped hands. The footman’s stiff, unnatural posture. There was a moment where the baron’s life hung by a thread, one of those moments of decision that change the course of empires and pass, unnoticed, by the world. And then the baron was walking across the yard, and the chapped hands were shutting the door, and the tip of the blade disappeared, unused, as the man hurried toward the coach-house, hands shaking like a week-dry drunk.
With a long breath, Dag sank back into the neat row of bushes. The wagon, driven by a single man in black, followed the coach down the lane, away from the manor toward the coach-house. The shrouded bundle in the back shifted and bounced as the wheels hit a bump. Dag’s lips gave a small twist at the sight.
He left the hedge and walked around the grounds of the manor, turning his lightweight cloak inside out and stuffing his shapeless hat into his satchel. When he returned to the road that ran by the small estate, Dag seated himself beneath an old willow across from the coach-house. He waited with the patience of years of experience.
When the footman finally emerged, almost two hours later, he staggered down the street toward the village below. Dag rose and walked to meet him. He almost felt sorry for the man; clearly, the footman had no stomach for killing. The footman staggered, the reek of sour wine rising on the wind, and Dag slipped an arm under him.
“Thanks,” the footman said, the word slurred.
Dag slid the narrow blade in his hand between the man’s ribs, into the heart. The footman spasmed, his back arching against Dag’s supporting arm, and went limp. Blood ran down his side, dripping onto Dag’s boot and into the dust of the road. Dag dragged the footman’s body off the road, past the willow, into the tall grass of the Apsian champaign. He dropped the man in a narrow ditch, stripped off his cloak with its insignia, and stuffed it in his bag.
Without a backward glance, Dag approached the manor from behind to search out a new hiding spot. He had a matter of hours now, not days, with the footman dead. Judging by the defenses of the manor, it seemed unlikely it would take that long. It was a place built by a military mind, a place of war—not of deceit. A thick, high wall, strong gates, guards in the towers. Nothing that would keep out a lone man, though—not with the gates wide open.
And yet two of his best men—the only two he had brought with him—were dead after trying to get to the baron. Both dead! It seemed impossible, even after all of Brech’s warnings about Trenius Evus, baron of Famia. How could an old man avoid the most skilled assassins of eastern Jaecan? And why take Grunge’s body?
The footman’s failure was less of a mystery. Dag had not expected the footman to go through with the murder, but it had been a chance, however small, and he had been pleasantly surprised by the power of greed before.
Killing Trenius Evus in his own manor would complicate things even further; the plan had been to kill him while he was visiting his liege lord, to throw all of Apsia into frenzy. Dag shook his head. Ishahb burn you, Brech; you had better come through on your end. Apsia’s most brilliant military mind needed to die, and dead was dead, whether at home or on a visit.
Dag got down on his belly in the high grass and crawled toward the manor, grateful that at least the ground was dry. Nothing ever went according to plan.
Irwa ran one hand across her almost-bare scalp. The short hair bristled against her hand and tickled her palm. The feeling always relaxed her, and she sorely needed to relax. The rough cotton robe, a faded crimson with yellow cuffs, chafed her neck, damp from the sweat of the late summer afternoon.
The missive from the shaik had been brief: Come to my office at dinner. The end of the holy week was supposed to be a time of festivity and relaxation; Irwa had left the concerns and duties of her congregation behind for a week as she journeyed to Amghar, the provincial capital, to celebrate. Any chance of relaxation had vanished, though, when she awoke with that slip of parchment on her pillow. Does he know?
For the hundredth time she asked herself what the man could possibly want with her. Her congregation was too small for notice, and she had brought in a respectable amount of tithes and offerings. No reason for the shaik to notice her.
The alcove where she waited was bare of decoration except for a small mosaic of yellow glass—a rising sun—over the door to the shaik’s office. The thick, brown bricks were cool except for where sunlight fell through the narrow window. From outside came the dusty summer air. Irwa shifted on the brick ledge where she sat. The discomfort was intentional, Irwa knew, but that did not bother her. Sacrifice for Ishahb was a privilege. To be able to sacrifice was, itself, a privilege.
The door swung open and the shaik stepped out. Shaik Qathir Tohan was a slender man with a thick, well-groomed beard and shoulder-length hair. His eyes drooped down at the corners, giving him a sorrowful look so exaggerated that it bordered on the humorous. His thin, tight lips dispelled any levity. Irwa had seen his like at court countless times—the face of a man who took himself too seriously. She shut those memories away. Her place was here now. A place of service. The shaik gestured curtly for Irwa to enter the room.
Thick carpets covered the brick floor, woven with a circular pattern of gold and red. Qathir sat behind a desk that took up most of the room. He pushed aside a pile of tightly rolled scrolls and motioned for Irwa to take the stool in front of him. She did, arranging her robe around her, and was pleased to find the stool well-padded, in spite of its plain appearance. She barely noticed the fluttering in her stomach now; the pounding in her heart was so loud she thought the shaik could hear it, and she could feel her hammering pulse with every breath. Ishahb protect me, he can’t know. He can’t.
The shaik’s sad, drooping eyes barely seemed to see her. When he spoke, Irwa started. “You’ve made a name for yourself,” he said, his voice friendly and low.
“Excuse me,” Irwa said. “A name?”
“You are unwavering, Priestess, in your commitment. The others speak of you. Ever since you revealed your fellow initiate’s . . . indiscretions, I have been impressed by your willingness to make sacrifices in order to obey.”
Irwa flushed; the words were flat, without the hint of praise. Her coffee-colored skin did not show emotion easily, but she could feel the heat in her cheeks. “I am sorry if I have erred, Shaik.” Ishahb send he is only going to scold me about snitching, she prayed.
“Don’t be upset,” the shaik said, a smile touching his thin lips. “Obedience is not a sin. Ishahb is a god of work and sacrifice. He rewards those who obey. You seek only to obey, I think.”
“Of course, Shaik,” Irwa said.
“Your deed was the correct one, Priestess. Tell me—was it hard to reveal your friend’s indiscretions?”
Irwa shook her head. “No, Shaik. I did what I thought was right, as I said.”
“A rare trait,” the shaik said, “this integrity. I wonder—were you always like this? You do not speak of your past.”
Ishahb save me. “It is not required, Shaik,” Irwa said. “We leave our lives behind when we come to Ishahb’s service.” Rote words from the initiation. Words that were her only shield.
“You speak the truth, Priestess,” the shaik said. “However, at times, Ishahb’s will requires something different. Ishahb’s gifts are not to be thrown away so easily; you could do much in his service.”
The words hit Irwa like a blow; she struggled to keep from gasping. He knows.
“Priestess, our god asks something of you, something exceptional. Fitting for someone with talents as exceptional as your own. The empire sits at a crossroads, and there are those who would turn it from Ishahb’s appointed course.”
Irwa struggled to think. “I will do whatever Ishahb commands, Shaik.”
There was no change in his expression, and Irwa wondered if she had made a mistake. “Such dedication, Priestess,” he said. “Such dedication. Let that dedication be the fire that lights your way as you do the will of our god. You must now take up your part in performing Ishahb’s will for our empire.”
“And what is my part, Shaik?” Irwa asked. Ishahb be merciful.
Nodding to himself, the shaik said, “The Jaegal Empire is both the beginning and the end, the point to which we must all Return. The time of Return, we believe, is almost at hand.”
Everything fell into place. “Mane,” Irwa said.
“Mane,” the shaik agreed. “The unfaithful, the heretics who cast us out. The time of Return has come, and a war with Apsia would leave us sorely unprepared to reclaim those blessed lands.”
“Shaik,” Irwa said, her heart racing again. “Why speak of Apsia? We are at peace; the war is decades past. The emperor has turned his face to Mane.” She bit her tongue; the words revealed too much of her familiarity with court. The shaik did not notice, though—or was not surprised.
“Not all would have it so, Priestess. Some seek war for their own gain, not according to the will of our god. They profane the course of the empire. There is a man who must die in order for the Return to go forward, Priestess.” He paused. In the silence, Irwa could hear the sounds of the festival outside. It seemed impossibly distant. Already I am cut off from that world, Irwa thought.
“You must understand, Priestess,” the shaik continued, “that in the eyes of Ishahb, the life of any individual must be weighed against the greater good of the Return.” Qathir paused, examining her with droopy eyes, and added, “This man would lead the empire down the road to a ruinous war with Apsia, a war that would compromise the possibility of Return for years, decades even.”
An assassin. He wants me to be an assassin. Her hands trembled. Outrage and disbelief warred within her. By the Burning Sword, could I do such a thing again? By Ishahb’s holy light, I left it all behind. I am someone else now. Irwa wanted to run her hand across her hair, wanted to laugh, but she swallowed instead, tasting the hint of hysteria in her own thoughts. The roil of emotions wouldn’t let her think; her mind circled the thought over and over again, all the while feeling the shaik’s sad, drooping eyes on her.
“You are already absolved of any sin, Priestess. Ishahb commands this death; you are simply the instrument of his will. And rest assured that you will be rewarded. Upon your return, you will assume duties as the chapter head in Hin.” Hin. One of the largest cities in the empire, larger by far than Amghar. And she would be chapter head of the Unseeing there. And what does the shaik get? she wondered for a moment. It was a thought from her old life.
“Shaik,” she said. “What you ask—I am not the person I once was—”
The shaik nodded in understanding. “You will not be acting alone, Priestess. My superiors have made me understand that you are a skilled practitioner of Khaman. You will not be required to take his life yourself, but you will provide protection. This man has access to powerful sorcery; he has prevented other agents of Ishahb’s will in the past.”
Another practitioner. And one skilled enough to detect assassins. That meant Khaman as well—divination and illusion were faces of the same coin. Who could it be? Irwa had known all the true masters of Khaman. The thought of facing one of them after years of autorotation—no, she told herself. Ishahb commands this. I will be strong enough.
The shaik said, “We must keep our agents isolated in the city. If we were to draw the attention of others, even certain factions of the church, we could lose everything. Your efforts will be coordinated nevertheless.”
“How is that, Shaik?”
The smile returned, grimmer this time. “You have attempted to keep hidden certain talents, Priestess, for whatever reason. The time for that is past. No,” he stopped her, “you will not be made a member of the Fourth Corner. The Unseeing has its own need for priests and priestesses who are initiates in Ishahb’s arts. You will use your art to communicate with me until I guide you to your companion.”
If the shaik had hit her with a fence post, Irwa could not have been more surprised. Not the Fourth Corner. So there is still a chance to be free of it after all. “As you command, Shaik.” Duty and sacrifice. Even sacrifice of self.
“You leave tomorrow, Priestess. You will find gold and supplies in your room and you will begin your journey west, towards the Codense province. At sunset, you will contact me with your arts.”
“Goodbye, then, Priestess. Enjoy the blessings of this last night of the holy week.”
Irwa nodded again, hoping it was a suitable response. The cauldron of emotions within her still boiled, faith struggling with despair. The last night of celebration did not promise any release. Irwa wandered for hours, pursued by a life she had thought long left behind. The sounds of laughter and festivity that echoed through the city were dim, filtered through the dark cloud that had fallen over her. Not until night had closed over the city did Irwa think to ask whom she was supposed to kill.
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