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It was a nightmare that woke him. An urgent dream. But it wasn’t one that had pictures. He didn’t ever dream of something he had never had.
And yet, the dream had sound. The laughter of [Witches], high and cackling, born out of imagination, movies. A skittering, of a large spider. A baby’s wail.
Sensation. Cobwebs, giving way to burning heat. Fire, racing around him, crackling. Frightening, elusive. Smell—smoke. But where was it coming from? In his dream, the young man looked around, reaching for it. But the fire was racing, growing, eluding him.
And in the background, he could hear more laughter. Was it a woman’s voice? A man’s? He couldn’t tell anymore. And then the heat was everywhere. Consuming. Burning. Fire.
And then Laken Godart woke up. He sat up with a start and gasped and heard someone jerk. There was a pause as the world became real and solid and Laken heard a voice.
“Gamel. I’m fine. I was just dozing.”
With an effort, Laken focused. He felt the rumble of movement in the carriage. Heard Gamel shifting. Laken shook his head. It was the same dream. But compounded with the news of yesterday. He turned his head restlessly, searching with his hearing rather than his eyes.
“Stop the carriage, Gamel. I’m going to ride in the supply wagon.”
Gamel paused. He knew what that meant. But he didn’t object.
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
Laken heard Gamel rap on the window leading to the driver’s seat. He murmured to the driver and the carriage obligingly stopped. After a moment, Gamel opened the door.
Laken reached out and Gamel helped him descend without tumbling from the seat of the carriage. Fresher air hit Laken. And wet. He grimaced as he realized he’d tuned out the sound of rainfall.
“Still raining? What is this, the eighth day in a row?”
“Yes, your Majesty. I’ll bring the umbrella—”
“No need. The supply wagon has covering. Let’s get there.”
Gamel hesitated. But it wasn’t pouring yet and both knew the skies could open up any moment. Carefully, Laken walked across soggy dirt ground. Hard-packed, but very muddy. He could smell the waterlogged soil in the air. It felt like it was still day. But he could only take Gamel’s word for it. Laken could feel no sunlight on his skin.
“Halt the caravan! Make way!”
Someone was shouting. Laken listened. The entire caravan was halting, wagons behind his carriage stopping so he could move from the carriage to the supply wagon—which had been suspiciously vacant of actual supplies the last three times he’d used it. Part of him could only grimace, but internally. This was what an [Emperor] was. A heavy weight. Ponderous. But capable of change.
Like hand-held umbrellas. It was amazing that aside from a few parasols, no one had really invented a basic umbrella. Then again, magic worked as well as an oiled rain cloak. People didn’t really need an umbrella; it was a pedestrian’s tool. But it had been a nice curio to develop, especially in light of all this rain.
Still, an umbrella didn’t really matter compared to covered wagons, did it? And the awning of what might be oiled cloth or some animal hide protected the next wagon. It was curved, but had an open back.
Laken let Gamel clamber up and then offer him a hand and pull him into the wagon and find a seat for two reasons. Firstly, because he wouldn’t doze off in the wagon as opposed to the carriage. And because the open back faced the back end of the caravan.
“Your Majesty? Shall I fetch you a blanket? Something to drink?”
“No, Gamel. I’ll just sit here. Take your ease, by all means. I will call if I need you.”
Laken was aware there was a blanket waiting for him in the corner of the wagon. And Gamel hesitated only for a moment before hopping out of the wagon. Probably to snack, or talk with his fiancé, Tessia. Or just walk near the wagon.
It was fine. Laken sat, hearing the call go forwards.
“Move the wagons! Watch the road! Potholes ahead!”
Potholes and mud. But Laken said not a word. He shifted on the hard wood, feeling the back of the wagon, slightly damp from where water had inevitably leaked in. And he held still. They wouldn’t notice him at first.
He sat there a while. Listening. And from behind the wagon, at the end of the caravan, heard a foreign language, the sound of movement. Murmurs, laughter. Conversation. Arguments. Crying.
None of it sounded like monsters. As the wagon rolled on, bumping, uncomfortably navigating the muddy roads west and north, back to Riverfarm, Laken knew the other wagons were being pulled. And here at least was a convention of this world, although the wagons had had to be built. But the iron bars, the cage-like wagons—those were a [Slaver]’s legacy. And then, it was darkly appropriate to the people they held.
But how else would you keep them from escaping or trying to attack the guards that rode in number with them again? And just as crucially—protect them? It was still an injustice, but a necessary one. Something Laken couldn’t apologize for.
There weren’t enough words in any language to apologize. And Laken had tried. Until he’d realized how worthless words were. So he listened. And soon, they knew he was there. And then…the noise stopped.
Day 60 – Laken
I know they’re there. But they’re so silent I could be alone but for the sound of the wagons, the horses. Because they know I can’t see. So they make no sound. Not a clue to give me a sign they’re alive.
They can probably see me. I’ve had Gamel describe what it’s like in this strange caravan more than once. The wagons don’t ride in a single line; that’s stupid and the road’s large enough to carry them three or even four abreast. At least, if there’s no traffic flowing the other way.
We’re travelling down a regular highway. Made of dirt, true, but it beats trying to travel cross-country. Roads are very necessary for wheels not to break on rocks, or struggle going down sharp inclines or getting trapped in divots in the ground, etc. You learn something new every day.
So the prisoner’s carts, the wagons filled with Goblins are rolling just behind my wagon. No—to the left and right occasionally. Following the riders in front, and my carriage. The Goblins are at the back of the caravan, which is obviously not where you want to put anything valuable.
It’s the first spot to be abandoned or attacked. Which is why the Goblins are there. I didn’t choose it; the [Caravan Master] refused to have the Goblins’ carts in the lead. Which is also a dangerous spot, but there’s the symbology of having Goblins in the back. They can’t ‘lead’ or be seen to be ahead of good Humans. Plus, they throw their poop and stones at the riders.
And that’s fine. If there’s anything I’ve learned after, god, what is it, two months now? It’s that I can’t win every battle. I shouldn’t even try. What’s valuable is winning the battles that need to be won. And getting around three hundred Goblins back to Riverfarm alive is a trial in itself.
Having Riverfarm standing would be good too. But I have a choice and I’m making it. We’re close to home. If it weren’t for these rains, we’d be closer. As it stands, I could lose them if I rode ahead. So here I sit.
Silence. They definitely know I’m here. It’s actually quite surreal. Because if I asked Gamel, he could tell me. Hundreds of Goblins. Crimson eyes, staring at me. I don’t understand what ‘crimson’ is, or really get the fact that their eyes glow in the dark. But it makes Gamel wary.
As for me—I listen. I can hear the animals pulling the wagons making sound. Hear conversation from the drivers, but not much. They don’t like having to drive the wagons with the Goblins. There’s a rotation system so they can drive the other wagons or the carriage, and apparently they’ve even taken to gambling for who has to drive the Goblin wagons every day.
Good, I guess. It means they’re resigned to it. And if the drivers do spit at the Goblins or hurl insults, they’re not doing it now. Because I’m there. And I’m…listening.
He jumps; he thinks I didn’t notice that he’d pretended to leave. I sigh. I’m blind. Not deaf. If he’d left, I’d hear him splashing. He wavers.
“Take my phone.”
So saying, I reach into my pocket and pull it out. I hear a breath, almost awed. Gamel accepts it. I nod to the wagon.
“There’s a bunch of Goblins riding in that wagon, right behind us, isn’t there?”
“Yes, your Majesty.”
“Toss the phone. Try not to hit the driver.”
I hear a pause and an unvoiced objection. But again, we’ve done this dance before. How many days is it? I count.
Around fifty four days since we really began moving. Forty since the Goblins were treated like animals and not like prisoners. Thirty seven since I could sit anywhere near them without being in danger of being hit by something. Twenty one since the wagon drivers learned the lesson about tormenting them. Eight since the rains began, slowing our progress to a halt. It’s so bad it reminds me of Liscor. I thought spring was ending.
Oh, and eighteen days since I gave Gamel the order the first time to throw the phone. After eighteen days, he doesn’t even try arguing. He just sighs.
“Yes, your Majesty.”
“Thank you. Hey.”
I turn. I can hear silence, but I know they’re there. I nod towards where I think Gamel is and speak to the Goblins.
Gamel throws the phone. I don’t know what he aims at. But I never hear it hit the ground. It doesn’t bounce off a wagon driver’s head—I’d hear the swearing. And it doesn’t hit the bars. I hear Gamel settle back, watching.
Well? But I don’t ask. If they think Gamel’s telling me what they’re doing, the Goblins will just stop doing it. In their way, they’re tenacious; they can sit in silence, motionless, for hours, until I give up. Even the children. So I don’t ask. I wait. And I hear them shuffling around. Then I can’t help it. I turn my head.
“Gamel, a blanket. And tell me what they’re doing.”
“A Hob has it, your Majesty. One of the…Redfangs.”
I can picture him, in my head. There’s only two Hobs in the caravan from the Redfang tribe, who are apparently famed for their skill in battle. It was a Redfang Goblin that killed the Goblin Lord. Garen Redfang, their Chieftain. And another slew a high-ranking [Knight], Sir Vumat. And of those Hobs, only one is male.
I’ve asked Gamel to describe him. So I imagine the Hob, young—they all look rather young. But older than the rest, in his late twenties perhaps appearance-wise. Squatting, or sitting, his loincloth and belt worn. Bare-chested, covered in the faded war paint they wear.
The remaining Redfangs apparently have more stripes than exposed skin. I don’t know how they make anything like a dye, even with blood, but apparently that [Shaman] has something to do with it.
Gamel fusses over the blanket with me as he continues describing the Hobgoblin’s actions. And I listen. When we return to my lands, I want to see how close my image of these Goblins is to reality. I’ve learned about them. But only as an outsider. I know things, but I don’t know what they mean. And they refuse to talk to me. And that’s fine.
“He’s using your phone, sire.”
“Of course he is.”
And here’s where my imagination really has to strain. But there’s this…Goblin. Sitting, while the other Goblins cluster around him, peering at the glowing screen. And I’m told they can use it as adeptly as me. Scrolling from screen to screen with a delicate flick, handling the iPhone with the utmost care, despite the fact that you can just [Repair] it and charge the battery and fix the screen in one go.
For a few minutes, the Hob does just that. Then he makes a decision and it takes the Hobgoblin only a second to open the app he wants. Hah—it took the Goblin children less than an hour to start using Siri’s voice commands the first time.
It shouldn’t surprise me, honestly. I’m told there’s a video of a monkey of some kind figuring out how to use an app on a smartphone. And if a primate could do it, Goblins should understand it—better than Humans, actually. Gralton and Yitton both freaked out when I took a picture of them (off center), and they both treat it as if it’s made of diamonds.
Which it is, I suppose. But it’s worth something here. No—more than anywhere else. And in that sense, my iPhone holds a treasure from another world. Which is what the Hob listens to now. He doesn’t use headphones; that would mean he’s the only one listening to it. But there’s a start—a strain of music. And then even the wagon drivers stop grumbling. Because they know what’s coming.
I can hear it. It begins with a violin. And an accordion, both instruments that few in this world could play. And a man’s voice begins to sing. By my side, Gamel sighs. Because he recognizes it too.
The music’s distant, but familiar; the Goblins make no sounds as the wagons carry them. They listen, to a German singer. Irony of ironies, it’s a song I’ve played in this world.
Viertel vor Sieben.
There’s no way they can know what the song means. And yet, I think they do. It’s the Hob’s favorite song. He’s played it fifty three times. And yes, I count. There’s little to do on this caravan besides talk and listen. Less for a blind man; I can’t ride or practice swordplay or hunt like Gralton or Yitton. So I think. Appropriate, for an [Emperor].
The German music plays, a gentle, sad song. Nostalgic. And I can’t even fathom what the Goblins must look like. But they all listen. The Humans riding, the Goblins in the wagon. Listening to a song from another world.
At least in this, I can say Earth is unmatched. The songs and music and stories written as our society progressed and technology allowed more people to become songwriters or experiment is something this world lacks. We may not be better people. I’m proof of that. But we have this.
Music. And the song lasts for just over five minutes. And it makes the time go faster, it really does. The rain begins to pour again, and the people grumble. The wagons roll on and the animals are unhappy. But the Goblins listen. And the next song is quite unlike the first. The Hobgoblin starts six different songs before a short argument in Goblin occurs. I hear a smack, a whining sound. And then a second song.
“Oh. I know this one.”
The beat to this song makes Gamel stir. And I can just imagine other riders ahead pulling back. Because you couldn’t copy this kind of music. At least, I haven’t seen anyone playing the bass. And the song’s in English. It makes me smile a bit.
Seven Nation Army by White Stripes. It’s not my music. But when my parents helped me set up the iPhone, my father got a hold of it. And he inflicted his music on me by putting his favorite songs on the iPhone. Make no mistake; I’m grateful for the variety now. But—I pause.
“Odd. I haven’t thought of my father in…”
A wailing guitar solo interrupts me. I hear an animal protest, and then the Goblins. They’re stomping or striking the bars or floor of the wagon to the beat. I smile, turning my head so they don’t see.
That’s when I hear footsteps. I hear him jump into the wagon a second before he lands; he surprises the hell out of me. Gamel sees him and announces his name, as if I couldn’t tell from his scent.
The [Dog Lord] throws himself into a seat opposite me. he smells like his wet hounds and a lot of rain and mud. Gamel politely moves back to give us room. I nod at Gralton.
“Did you get anything on your hunt?”
He laughs. He sounds as rough as he apparently looks. But I’m not fooled; he’s intelligent. He just likes dogs.
“We got a doe. Regular, not Corus. I saved you a cut. We’ll eat it tonight.”
I incline my head.
He grunts dismissively.
“Not much challenge in a dozen warhounds bringing down a deer. A herd now—or a bear, that’s different. I’ll treat you to bear once we get to this Riverfarm of yours.”
“Not my bear.”
“Hah! You have to show me that one. A Mossbear for a pet? And they call me a savage. You gave the Goblins your phone-thing again, didn’t you?”
He sounds…not disapproving. That would be Yitton. But there’s an edge and I sense him shifting. To look at the Goblins? I pause. Interesting.
“Something bothering you? You don’t like the song?”
That would be odd. Gralton’s into music like this, or even harder. Gralton growls softly, like a dog.
“I like the music. Not as much as the other ones you’ve shown me. But this one makes me uneasy because those Goblins like it. What’s it called?”
“Seven Nation Army. Why?”
I hear Gralton pause. The wood creaks as he leans on it, perhaps grasping it with his huge hands.
“They seem to have adopted it as one of their favorite songs. Probably because of the words.”
“The lyrics? What about them?”
“I don’t know if they count. But in the last battle, Velan the Kind was brought down by about seven separate armies.”
The song’s on replay. The Goblins echo the beat. And it gives the music a new meaning.
The Goblin King. Velan the Kind. This Goblin Lord. Thousands of years—tens of thousands even—of Goblins being monsters. Goblin Lords and Kings causing destruction while Goblin Chieftains lead tribes, surviving despite being labeled a threat by practically every nation in the world. Gralton’s words only remind me how much of an outsider I am.
“Well, it wasn’t written about Velan.”
“Someone else beat a seven-nation army?”
“Oh, something like that.”
The [Lord] waits. But I don’t give him anything more. He has to have his suspicions. I don’t know if he or anyone would make the logical leap. But he has to suspect. And if I wasn’t sure of him, I’d be worried. But sixty days is a lot of time. It’s enough time for Goblins to master an iPhone enough to make a playlist full of their favorite songs. And shuffle the location of all my damn apps. And it’s enough time for me to get to know two men.
The second approaches after Gralton. And he requests entry to the wagon before climbing up. He smells like rain, and metal. Not much else; Yitton Byres keeps himself clean. And he’s far different from Gralton’s relaxed nature.
“You shouldn’t give it to them, your Majesty.”
“It’s Laken, Yitton. We’ve been in each other’s company for a month.”
I can picture the man sitting with his back straight against the wagon. Gamel’s described him for me; unlike Gralton’s usual stubble, Yitton has a maintained beard. His dark brown hair is turning to grey, and he moves with the weight and gravitas of his class in his mind. As if being a [Lord] is something to be equal to, rather than Gralton, who wears it as he pleases.
“I—apologize, Laken. It’s a first for me to be on close terms with royalty of any kind.”
“Well, among friends, I’d insist on it. Otherwise, an [Emperor] is quite lonely. And unapproachable. That makes a tyrant, I imagine.”
“Is this another lecture about dictators, Emperor Godart? Because if it is, I’d rather listen to the Goblins.”
He makes another sound then and I’m pretty sure Yitton just elbowed him hard in the side. The two are surprisingly chummy for such different men. Enough so that Yitton will actually do that, or so I’m guessing, I’ll have to ask Gamel later. I just smile.
“No lectures, Gralton. I’m just listening. And if you two are so inclined…unless you have anything to talk about?”
Well then. I sit back and all three of us—and Gamel—just listen as the Goblins play more songs. It’s funny, but the music from the iPhone probably attracted the two [Lords]. Because as entertainment goes, it’s still the most novel thing in the world for them. And really, there’s nothing else to do. We’ve talked, argued, debated, and taught each other. We’ve been on this road a long time.
It’s been two months. Of delays, escape attempts. Death and guilt and grief. And somehow, still too little being done. I’ve left my empire. And I could have ridden ahead, using Skills and switching horses or hiring a carriage.
But the consequence would have been the deaths of the Goblins here. Because from the moment I demanded their capture as prisoners instead of execution on that battlefield, they’ve been under threat of death. If I left them with the guards—even under Gralton’s command or Yitton’s—I have no doubt there would be an ‘escape attempt’ where all the Goblins died. The same as if I let them go.
They would be hunted, tracked down. So I stay. And I don’t try to force people to be nice to the Goblins. Not anymore. That’s a mistake. I just let them keep their distance. And slowly, time does what even an [Emperor] cannot.
Two months means the people, Lord Gralton and Yitton, Gamel—everyone—is used to the Goblins by now. It means that even if they hate the Goblins, I’ve argued them into acceptance. Unlike the very vocal groups who wanted to execute the Goblins, children and all, on the spot. That’s…progress. That’s the benefit of time.
And I only have to accept that it’s an investment of time that I have to give. A gamble. If Riverfarm falls to dissent or the [Witches] or…anything while I’m gone, it’s not worth the cost. And if I get back with a bunch of Goblins? I’ll have more problems.
But I’ve thought about what to do. I have just one plan. And it might work. Or it might fail. But it’s surely better than doing what the logic of this world says is the only course.
An hour passes. Just like that. I know because I can count it in the songs that are played. And reluctant as I am, I know the battery’s getting low. And I need that phone; it’s useful. Not least because I can store notes on it or use it to record sounds. Because it’s mine. And the Goblins are surprisingly respectful of that fact.
They could have snapped it in two, and I’m pretty sure the [Mage] riding with us couldn’t repair that. They could have deleted my music, or apps, and I wouldn’t get them back. But aside from recording some very unpleasant noises and messing with my configurations—like turning off the voice help so I can’t navigate with it—they haven’t done anything else. This is something. So I turn and raise my voice.
The iPhone goes quiet instantly. The goblins, who’d make some sounds while listening, go silent. I nod, smiling.
“May I have my phone back?”
A pause. I can hear some distant shuffling. And then—Gralton catches the iPhone in front of my face; I can feel the wind and hear the impact in his palm. I try not to jerk back in alarm, but it’s instinctual. I hear tittering Goblin laughter. But I like to think they wouldn’t throw it like that if they knew Gralton wouldn’t catch it. I don’t test that theory. I just nod.
I don’t hear a response. But I have my iPhone back. They had their music, for a moment. They still won’t talk to me.
We have an understanding. And they will never forget what role I played. But I want to believe I’ve shown them I’m trying. To…to do something.
“Lord Gralton, Yitton, will you join me for a walk?”
We leave the covered wagon. The rain’s slowed again. But Gamel hops off and shields me with an umbrella as I walk with the two [Lords]. Gralton swears as he splashes in some mud.
“Rain. This is uncanny. Has someone been fucking with the weather? Because if this is Magnolia pulling rain towards her fields or some idiot—”
“You think it’s unseasonable?”
“I don’t know. And I don’t care. I just want to be out of it.”
“I have to echo Gralton’s sentiments, your M—Laken. So much rain is unusual, although not unheard of. Byres lands don’t get as much, but we’re based in the foothills. What about Radivaek lands, Gralton?”
“I have no idea, Byres. I don’t count how much rain I get. Is it this bad in Riverfarm, Laken? Because if it is, I’ll ride ahead to my lands until the summer.”
I frown, thoughtfully.
“I don’t know. I haven’t asked. There was good rainfall, but Prost hasn’t mentioned that.”
“Ah. Because of the news about the…[Witches].”
The two go silent. Gralton spits after a second. Which sounds disgusting.
“Witches. I ran one off my lands, once.”
“Really? You never said.”
“I didn’t remember.”
Yitton sighs, loudly. Gralton scratches, grunting.
“I forgot, alright? It’s nothing like what’s happening in Riverfarm, anyways.”
“For my sake, Gralton, what did happen?”
“Nothing. Some villagers started complaining to me and they wouldn’t shut up. Said a [Witch] was cursing their farms. Doing black magic. I sent some people over and they said she probably hexed a farm. There was some business about debts the village owed her. I didn’t care. I told my people to make the villagers and [Witch] swear under truth spell what had happened was what happened. Turns out it was all true. They paid her to take care of some nasty illness, and they didn’t want to pay the entire thing. So she hexed their fields and half their crop died and they had an infestation of bugs.”
“And what did you do to restore order?”
The [Dog Lord]’s pause was telling.
“We ran off the [Witch].”
“You didn’t force the village to pay her what they owed?”
I imagine Gralton shrugged during the next pause.
“She hexed them. So I decided she could get lost.”
“She cursed the village. Either that, or they lost too much from the fields. Place was deserted in two years.”
Silence. Lord Yitton makes a sound, and I just think. Curses. Broken promises. And [Messages] from Riverfarm. Increasingly worrying messages. I was so relieved to hear Durene woke up. But after that?
The rain pours down, unceasing. And I have to wonder if these [Witches] are like the ones in the stories from my home. Again, I don’t know, but I have to trust that Ryoka won’t make any deals with them. But with that said, I won’t treat them like monsters. Like Goblins.
“Emperor Laken. You had a [Message] from Riverfarm last night. An urgent one. May I ask what it was about?”
Yitton breaks in quietly. Very politely too, because it’s his and Gralton’s—okay, mostly Gralton’s—money that’s paying for these [Messages], the escort, food, and so much else. I nod.
“I did. And I’ve been pondering my response. It’s still…early morning?”
“That’s right. As far as I can tell. What happened?”
I tell them.
A simple story. Rehanna, a woman twice bereaved. A changeling made of cloth. A bargain struck. Of course, they know about the Coven. But this? Gralton makes a noise. Yitton’s just deathly silent.
“Your thoughts, gentlemen?”
“Get rid of the [Witch].”
“You tried that, Gralton. And look what it brought you. Your Majesty, I have to counsel intervention, but of another kind. That…[Witch] is clearly a powerful one. At least Level 40 if she can create something like that. I have to imagine even higher. I would request aid.”
“From Magnolia Reinhart or Tyrion Veltras.”
I frown. It’s the same advice both gave me when the coven appeared. But both ideas sound like bad ones, especially from what I know. Then again, accepting any deal…the [Witches] are waiting for me. And they’ve claimed one victim. But she made the choice.
Rehanna. Yitton is silent, waiting. Gralton clearly nervous. I shake my head.
“I’ve thought about both suggestions. But I’d rather be there and appraise these [Witches] myself, Gralton, Yitton. If you’ll stick with me, we could at least counter a coven.”
Or so I hope. Both men agree. We’re allies. Of convenience, yes; our lands are close enough that’s it’s practical. But fate’s made us friends. I only hope I’m not leading them into trouble. But I am grateful for their company. I pause as I stare north and west. I know that’s where Riverfarm is. I can sense it. And something else.
“I won’t deny, it bothers me. I wish I was there. I don’t feel like Riverfarm is safe. It feels…hot. Like something hot is coming. On the wind.”
“I could do with some sun. But you’re talking about your lands, aren’t you?”
Gralton’s voice is measured. And when I nod, he speaks. For all he’s impetuous, thoughtless at times, he’s higher-level than Yitton or I. And he doesn’t scoff at my dreams or feelings.
“Premonition. I’ve had that too, vaguely. When a bunch of damn Crelers set up a huge nest in my lands. A feeling like something was creeping up on me from behind. I was walking around my estates, looking for rats or insects for three weeks until it was nearly too late. I had to hire three Gold-rank teams and Baudin the Brass.”
I nod. Two stories from Gralton in a day. That’s how he tends to give advice, through the lens of his failures. Yitton is more contemplative.
“In the past, the Byres house has clashed with [Witches], as well as other monsters. We were vampire slayers in another age, the first [Knights] who rode with the Five Families before that. They believed any threat could be defeated with silver and steel. But they armed themselves for each threat in turn. And many of the Byres line have perished in battle.”
So would silver be enough to defeat a [Witch]? That’s Yitton for you. Cautious advice rooted in history. I consider both points. And in truth, my answer is simple. It’s…all I can give. We’re moving as fast as we can in the rain. And I am blind outside of my lands. Far still, from home.
“Thank you for your advice, you two. I don’t know if we’ll make it. But in light of this—I’d like to adjust our course. Towards Radivaek lands. If we take a northern route, we’ll stick to the main roads.”
The two men confer and Gralton pulls out a small map.
“It’s still two days’ fast ride to my lands from where we’d split to Riverfarm. And that’s if I left the caravan and rode as fast as I could. Call it four or five days if I set out now. And I’d have to leave my dogs behind.”
There’s a note of expectancy in his voice. I nod.
“I’d prefer your company, Gralton. But if things get worse, I’d ask that you ride ahead towards your lands.”
In case he needs to bring back his army. Gralton agrees quietly. Yitton moves; I can hear the chainmail as he adjusts it and his belt.
“In that case, I will accompany you, Laken. Byres lands lie past Riverfarm.”
That’s him too. As if he’s not accompanying me and slowing his return for my sake. I smile.
“I’m lucky to have such companions. That’s the plan, then. Gamel?”
I take a breath. [Witches]. Ryoka. I turn to Gamel. I can’t leave the Goblins. Yitton and Gralton couldn’t stop the guards from attacking the Goblins, or the other villages, cities, and towns we’ve passed. I can. We’re too far. But I can only hope. So I give my order.
“Send a [Message] back as follows: ‘Let no one strike a deal with Witch Belavierr. But do not try her yet. Collect evidence for a trial which I will preside over. If this Coven is to be trusted, see what they do when no bargains are struck. And give Rehanna every kindness. Do not take the…baby away. Leave her be.’ Tell them to wait. Wait for me.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
Gamel hesitates, and then Yitton takes the umbrella. He hurries away, splashing, as the rain falls. And I listen. And I wait. I curse the rain. We’re not moving fast enough.
Something is coming. Something is already there. [Witches]. And I smell smoke before I feel the fire.
Day 61 – Fierre
It was days like today that made Fierre the Vampire hate being…well, her. Just a bit. Hate the fact that she was Fierre the Vampire, not Fierre the [Broker], or Fierre the [Opener]. Sometimes, often, she was proud and knew she was one of the few of her kind. Other times, she wondered if she could have been something else.
Because a Vampire gained no levels. A Vampire was like an animal, or one of the sub-races, like Ogres or the true Giants of old. But even Goblins leveled.
You could argue it was there to give balance. If a Vampire could level, surely they would be [Warriors] without peer, or [Mages] with access to magics beyond normal spellcasters. Vampires had many powers, and old Bamer had told her stories of the Vampires of old, and how they’d tapped into blood magic, shape shifting—even though her father forbade those stories most of the time.
Well, her mother liked to tell those stories as well. Grand castles and balls, elegant and deadly rulers of the night. Whereas in reality, Fierre’s father, Himilt told her that it was better to be what they were. People in hiding. Because Vampires had once ruled part of Izril. And they had fallen. Died to [Knights] and silver and magic and fire.
So why couldn’t they give it up? Fierre’s family lived in a crumbling castle, herding sheep. Caught between the present and the past. If they could leave, perhaps they’d be happier. Ordinary people who just had to stray away from the sun.
And who were sick. Fierre coughed into one sleeve as she paced the small room she operated as one of Reizmelt’s few Openers. One of three, in fact. The class [Opener] was a specific, stylistic one; it was more common to have an [Informant], [Fence], [Broker], or some other class fulfill the same role. Fierre would have liked any class, though. Because she knew what Skills such people got.
“If I was an [Informant], I could use [Source Information] and find someone. Or even [Thousand Mile Conversation] if I was really high level.”
She bit her lip hard, feeling her pointed canines sinking into her flesh. It didn’t really hurt; Fierre was hard to hurt and she healed fast. Another benefit of being a Vampire. But she’d been on the other end of [Thousand Mile Conversation] just once. Someone could talk to you a thousand miles away as if they were standing right next to you.
Fierre vividly recalled that, fumbling for information for the broker about a deal gone south, hearing them harangue her as she dashed out to verify what they wanted in person.
That was the power of a Skill. True, a Level 30 Skill or maybe even Level 40, but a Skill nonetheless. Fierre was willing to lay down twenty gold pieces that the [Informant] who had that Skill could probably use it once per day. Imagine that! How could a Vampire compete?
Well, with the ability to regenerate from being stabbed in the stomach, the ability to rip the iron door in Fierre’s room off its hinges, and so on. But still, Vampires had lost a great deal of their powers. If Fierre had been like Himilt’s great grandfather, she could have flown to Riverfarm like a bat. But she couldn’t shape shift. Or turn into mist.
So she paced. And after three more laps of the tiny room, Fierre heard a knock at the door. She froze, listening. There was a certain pattern to the knock she was listening for. If the person on the other side got it wrong, she was gone.
She waited. The rapping was three raps, pause, a rap, and then someone kicked the door. Good enough. Fierre still checked through the metal slot. She recognized the person at the other end and opened the door immediately.
Which meant three locks. It made it all the harder for a [Thief] to get in. And ironically, Fierre was most concerned about [Thieves]. She had to be; an Opener’s office contained as many valuables as a Merchant’s Guild. Information, secrets, items of certain value. Her stock and trade.
“Took you long enough.”
It didn’t earn respect, though. The raggedy [Mage] who stumped into Fierre’s office looked sour. Fierre bit back a response or the urge to slap his perpetually flushed, drunk face off his head. He was a poor [Mage], not brave enough to be an adventurer, a drunk in fact. But he made his living by casting and receiving the [Message] spell for the criminal underworld in Reizmelt. And unfortunately, Reizmelt didn’t have much of a shady underworld. It was more like a ten-foot deep pit.
This [Mage], Gailt, was Fierre’s regular contact. She knew of two other [Mages] who might cast [Message], but there was such a thing as loyalty among associates. And Gailt was cheap and somewhat reliable. He knew the cost of betrayal, at least.
“What’ve you got, Gailt?”
Fierre yanked the one chair in the room out for him. The [Mage] stumbled into it, unsteady. Fierre’s sensitive nose told her he was already two drinks into his day. And it was basically dawn. But that was the beauty of Gailt’s job. He could be drunk all day and so long as he received [Message] spells and passed them on quickly, he could earn a living. And again—Gailt was professional in his own way. So he didn’t waste time.
“Got a message back from Filk at last. That [Broker] you lit up yesterday with all those threats?”
“[Fence]. His primary class is [Fence]. What’d he say? Did you get the [Message] to Ryoka? Did she respond?”
“One thing at a time! Yeah! I got it to her. I confirmed it with that stuttering bastard in Riverfarm. Idiot can’t even receive well.”
Gailt grimaced as he rubbed one ear. He unsteadily sat upright, closing his eyes for a moment. Fierre waited, trying not to break the edge of the desk she was holding in frustration. The man opened his eyes at last.
“First things. Your Runner got the message. That’s what the [Mage] in Riverfarm says. ‘pparently she didn’t know she could get ahold of you through me. So her [Message] is straight to you. It’s—‘Fierre, thanks about Belavierr. She’s as dangerous as you said. Please let me know if someone’s asking. She made a cloth baby. Not alive?’ There’s a question mark there, by the way. Uh—‘I have to stay. Not in danger. I think.’”
“She thinks? Did she not get my [Message]? Did she not hear that bounty?”
Fierre stared at Gailt in disbelief. It was rhetorical, but the [Mage], in the way of his kind, seemed to take it as a personal question only he could answer.
“Well, she’s not saying why she’s there. My guess is that it’s got something to do with that coven. Or that delivery for that [Emperor] bloke. Either way, your friend’s in it deep. Too bad she didn’t give you more details.”
The Vampire girl closed her eyes, annoyed. She was trying to think. If—
“Aha! I bet she thinks you’re getting charged by the word, like what the [Mage]’s Guild does. She doesn’t know I’m being paid different. Not that I’d mind being paid by the word.”
“Gailt. I’m trying to think.”
Fierre growled at him. The [Mage] didn’t look impressed.
“I’m just trying to help. At least this Runner girl knows you’re on her side. She said ‘please’ and everything. Why’re you starting a fight with the [Fence] in Filk for, anyways?”
“That’s right! The [Fence]! What did he say?”
The girl turned to Gailt. He grinned lopsidedly at her.
“You want it word for word, or the summary?”
“I think he told you to go stuff your uh—unmentionables into some other stuff. And do all kinds of things that I don’t think you’d like! Short of it is that he says piss off. He’ll sell information on that Stitch Witch and coven to anyone he likes.”
The Vampire girl stared at Gailt. And then she began cursing. He grinned, lolling back in his chair as she tried not to overturn the desk and smash it in half. She eventually sat and yanked out a drawer. It was neatly filed, with pieces of information on…well, everything.
Fierre was an Opener. Even if she didn’t have the class, she opened letters, paid Runners for their secrets, and negotiated the sale of information. That meant she’d dipped her toes into the part of the world that the official law of the cities wouldn’t tangle in. It also meant that Fierre’s worth was contained in what she knew.
And as stated, a [Thief] would love to get his or her hands on that information to sell to a Watch Captain, [Lord] or [Lady], another [Broker], or any number of organizations. And yet, it was a dangerous game to play. Information was money and power. But it could also be danger. Which was why Fierre trusted Gailt, for all he was a drunkard. If he sold the [Messages] that he handled, or if people thought he was filing away what he relayed, he’d be dead very, very quickly. It was Fierre who had the power in the relationship. In connections, coin, and yes, information.
“That bastard wants to ignore me? Does he think because he’s the top [Fence] in Filk he’s anything like an [Opener] in a city like Reizmelt? Filk doesn’t even have a damn Thieves’ Guild! Fine! Gailt! Send a [Message] to—”
She consulted her parchment, breathing angrily. Gailt sighed as he put a finger to his head.
“—Daufica Longshel. Wait, is that right?”
“Nope! I know her. Beautiful lady, or so I want to believe. Beautiful mental voice.”
Fierre glanced up.
“She’s sixty years old.”
She was rewarded by Gailt’s look of distress and a single digit. He closed his eyes.
“Go to Rhir and die, Fierre. What do I say?”
“Tell her I want a message sent to Ratwhisperer. Make it painful and thorough. I’m also paying her eight big ones—light up his office.”
“Send a message—oh. Eight gold for—are you sure?”
He looked a bit rattled and more sober than a moment ago. Just like last night. Fierre’s eyes flashed dangerously, but she kept them from turning red.
“Do I look like I’m joking, Gailt?”
She saw his mouth pop open, and then decide to close. The man closed his eyes and Fierre sat back. She clenched her fists. This was unlike her. If you decoded what she’d just said, she’d just paid Daufica, a [Mage] who also doubled as a [Fixer]. Unlike Fierre, she dealt in very real things. And Fierre had hired her to send a few people to the [Fence]’s office and beat him. Perhaps with broken bones. And then burn it down.
Some might call that an extreme reaction. And it was certainly nothing light. Fierre was pretty certain she could get away with it. The ‘Ratwhisperer’ as he called himself (his real name was Jenkil Thert), didn’t have the clout to fight back. If he tried, Fierre had a secure iron door, a number of protection deals with Reizmelt’s top gang, and she was a Vampire. Hiring a group of people to beat her up was a fatal mistake.
Even so, it was dangerous. Fierre didn’t know why she was doing it. Maybe because Ryoka was her friend. She was one of the few people who knew who Fierre was who wasn’t a Vampire. And she was…different.
Fierre’s mother, Colfa, hadn’t been able to control her. And Himilt, Fierre’s father, had told Fierre to her face that Ryoka was someone to watch. Although he’d meant that as a warning.
All of this was simply background, though. Fierre just wanted Ryoka not to die. And unfortunately, Ryoka didn’t know enough about the way people like the Ratwhisperer worked. Or she’d have never sent—Fierre squinted at her notes.
“Charlay the Dustrider. Nicknamed Dusty Charlay, one of two Centaur City Runners in this region. As good as Ryoka—better for short trips. Why’s she following Ryoka about?”
“That a question I’m asking?”
“No. Shut up and send the [Message].”
Fierre sighed. She massaged her temples, trying to figure it out. What was Belavierr the Stitch Witch doing in the middle of nowhere? It had to be connected to the [Emperor]. Although that was something even the biggest names in the criminal underworld were marking as an unsubstantiated fact.
Part of that might be genuine embarrassment, though. An [Emperor], appearing out of nowhere that not even the best [Informants] and [Brokers] had heard of? It made them all look like fools. It couldn’t be true. And yet, Tyrion Veltras had summoned this [Emperor] himself. And he had trebuchets.
“Either way, that’s why the coven’s there. So how does Ryoka—right. She delivered a package for this [Emperor] in Invrisil last winter. The pieces are there. But—she delivered a bunch of healing potions and stamina potions, all low-grade, to Lady Rie Valerund. With Charlay the Dustrider. At the same time the coven shows up.”
The Vampire girl was used to conspiracies and plots. But this was enough to make her head genuinely explode. It couldn’t be coincidence! Could it? But she couldn’t see through the pattern. All she knew again, was that Ryoka had erred.
The Ratwhisperer had probably known the coven was in Riverfarm’s area, but Ryoka had inadvertently confirmed them being there. And when he’d heard about Belavierr’s presence, he’d immediately seen the same thing Fierre had: an opportunity to earn a lot of gold.
“Where’s my bounty list?”
Fierre hunted around her desk. Gailt didn’t look up or open his eyes.
Fierre checked it. It was the wrong drawer. She looked up, scowling. The [Mage] shrugged.
The right drawer held a list of bounties. Some alive, some dead. But also rewards for information. Fierre paged through it. Yup. There wasn’t a reward; there seldom was, but the Ratwhisperer could earn a tidy sum by telling any of the groups out for Belavierr that she was present in Riverfarm.
That was probably what he was doing right now. Reaching out and nudging, say Wistram. He’d inquire if they were interested in Belavierr’s location and if they said ‘yes’, they’d begin negotiations for coin. If the Ratwhisperer got what he wanted, he’d tell them. Or go to another name on the list.
Like Roshal. Roshal had a huge information network and gold to burn. And if they didn’t pay, there was the Order of Seasons. Or he could just sell the information to other [Brokers] for cheap, waste the monetary value of the information that way.
“Either way, Ryoka gets hurt.”
Fierre stared down at Belavierr’s sheet with her lips compressed tightly. If word went out that someone with that kind of bounty was there, every [Bandit] and desperate [Mercenary] or adventurer in the region would go after Belavierr. Never mind that it was probably suicide to go up against someone with that kind of bounty. They’d try it.
Or if someone like Wistram or Roshal got ahold of the information and had anyone in the area—they practically defined the idea of collateral damage. And who knew what Belavierr would do if angered.
“She hung an entire village to death.”
Gailt looked up. Fierre stared at her report.
“The Stitch Witch. She hung them all. Men. Women. Children. In Terandria.”
The [Mage] looked up. And even he and Fierre, jaded though they were from stories, had to pause.
“Why? Do you know?”
“No. No one does. But she’s a [Witch]. It was probably a deal someone made.”
Gailt shuddered and sat up.
“I don’t get paid to hear that kind of shit. I just send [Messages]. And I sent yours. That old hag in Filk says she’ll get it done. Tonight. You uh, want confirmation?”
“Yes. Tell me the instant it happens.”
The [Mage] sighed, but he didn’t protest much. He made his way out of the room and Fierre locked the door after him. Then she sat and put her head in her hands.
If it was anyone but her, Fierre would be selling the information and trying to do it before the Ratwhisperer sold his. It was worth gold, and a lot of it. Fierre had money, but she wasn’t exactly the top player in the region. Thirty gold pieces, or even fifty would be huge. Instead, she’d spent eight gold to earn her an enemy.
And Fierre couldn’t even feel that bad about it. Gloomily, she began to secure her desk, locking each drawer with a magical key that would keep the files safe. She left the small room, locking up.
She couldn’t work right now. She was too bothered. And frankly, not in the right headspace to be cautious in opening a letter or dealing in some underhanded information trade. She decided she needed to drink some blood, and maybe consult with someone. But she really couldn’t do more for Ryoka. Even if she wanted to.
The Vampire girl pulled her hood up as soon as she stepped out of the alleyway. The sun was a painful brightness on her skin. If she stayed out in it exposed, her skin would quickly grow sunburnt or begin peeling. And even with layers on, Fierre hurried through the street and the morning light to get back to the Huntress’ Haven before she began suffering.
At least that was one thing. As Fierre slipped in through the doors—Madain hasn’t left on his daily hunting trip yet—she flitted up to her room and unlocked another chest with a second magical key. She pulled out a glass bottle and saw some of the blood had dried. Annoyed, Fierre uncorked it, and drank. She had to scrape the bottle and the blood wasn’t the best.
Fierre glowered as she drank. It made her feel better, but she hated sheep. Pig tasted better, but she’d have to go back home to refill her stash. That, or eat a lot of bloody meat, and the [Butchers] got suspicious if you asked for that too often.
“In the old times, we drank the blood of Humans and Gnolls and Drakes. We ruled Izril in the shadows, just as our kin ruled Terandria and even parts of Baleros. Few of us ever went to Chandrar, but we walked in twilight and darkness, even in Wistram’s halls. We were aristocrats and mages, kings and queens. Heroes and legend.”
Bitterly, the Vampire girl quoted old Bamer’s stories. She made a face as she uncorked a water bottle and got the rest of the blood out by adding some water. That tasted horribly, well, watery, but every drop counted. It wasn’t as if Fierre could prey on a stray dog or harass some poor [Farmer] around Reizmelt. If one person saw her, she’d be dead.
She tossed the empty glass jar back into the chest and locked it. Then Fierre lay on her rough bed and stared up at the ceiling. She could hear Madain moving about below, smell him too. Unwashed, hung over—but the smell of his blood ran in Fierre’s nose as well. It smelled sweet.
“Ignore it. You’re full. You’re full.”
Fierre chanted to herself. She wasn’t a baby any longer. She had self-control. That was why her parents had let her move to Reizmelt. But all Vampires longed for that sweet flavor. Real people’s blood. It wouldn’t be hard, would it? If Fierre went downstairs when Madain was blackout drunk. He wouldn’t feel a thing.
“And if he did wake up, he’d squash your skull, Fierre, Vampire or not. He’s Gold-rank. And he could throw a javelin through the entire inn. You’d be dead.”
The girl scolded herself. It didn’t stop the longing. The worst part was that Fierre knew what real blood tasted like.
That was the dirty secret all Vampires probably shared. From Fierre to her older brothers—she knew Rivel had done it—to Bamer. And Fierre knew her father had drank blood; it was how her mother had become a Vampire. Fierre shifted uncomfortably at that thought. Ew.
But also—yes. Blood! It was true Vampires of this modern day lived on animal blood. It was safe that way. But they’d all tried real blood. Oh yes, they’d tried it.
Sometimes it was just a nip if they had a Human friend, like the few trusted communities that lived among Vampires. Or else, it was blood obtained covertly, at night, or some other way. Fierre had bribed a girl to give her and Rivel blood; the girl had thought it was for an illicit alchemy potion. And Fierre and Rivel had drank it down, awash with guilty pleasure.
Fierre could still taste it, and the two other times she’d had blood until her parents had found out. It was so much better. Not sweet, or savory, or any one flavor. Blood differed after all. But it was so much more satisfying than animal blood. It was what Fierre wanted. What she craved.
And yet, it hadn’t changed things. It hadn’t given Fierre the powers of old Vampires, or cured her cough. She coughed now, wetly, hearing it rattle in her lungs. She was sick. She was always sick. And her father was sick. Colfa had a rash that hadn’t gone away for two months. Bamer…Bamer was dying. Vampires were all sick. And the Human blood hadn’t helped.
“It never does, Ryoka.”
Fierre imagined Ryoka was sitting across from her, listening in one of their late-night chats. She hadn’t told Ryoka this. She’d seen Ryoka pausing, listening to her talking about being sick. And yes—Fierre had come to the same conclusion Ryoka hadn’t voiced. All Vampires did.
What if them being sick was because they drank animal blood? It was logical! Surely, it was just them having bad food that was weakening them, making them so ill. And so over the centuries since they had begun succumbing to illness, there had been experiments. Vampires had tried living only on Human blood, or Drake, or a mix of Drake, Gnoll, Human—all kinds of blood.
They’d tried the purest blood, virginal, attempted to fix their diets. It didn’t stop the sickness. So they had concluded that it wasn’t just the quality of blood. They were just…sick. It wasn’t the type of blood that was throwing Vampires into decline. They were simply losing their powers, weakening for another reason.
“But I thought it would be me. So did Rivel. You should have seen us, Ryoka. The day after we drank blood, we were trying to fly and shape change. Just like Vampires. But the blood only tasted good. Maybe we had a bit more energy, but it doesn’t help. We’re just losing our powers. We have some. Mother can use her eyes. And Bamer can shape change, although he’s old. But no one knows why we’re like this. It’s not the blood.”
She closed her eyes. And in her head, Ryoka said something indistinct. Fierre missed her. And she knew that she wanted her friend to live. Because she was Fierre’s friend. Her first, real, Human friend.
After a while, Fierre rolled over and got up. She had a few cards left to play. She hadn’t worked this job for nearly four years in Reizmelt and other cities before this for nothing. And now she had something to spend all those little favors and reputation on. She left the inn, hopping out the window into the alleyway since Madain had locked the front door and left.
This was how the underworld worked. At least, in Human cities. Fierre had no idea how Drake cities functioned; apparently the law was a lot more dangerous. But in the north, the local Watch usually understood there was some space for a criminal element. Organized crime was better than no crime, and so if someone crossed a line they were nabbed, but the Watch didn’t try to exterminate most gangs.
But it did depend on the gang. And it was gangs, and the Rogue’s Law that dominated how the underworld worked from city to city. There was a jargon to it. Fierre knew it by heart. She headed into a pub despite the early morning, keeping to the shadows, in order to make contact with Reizmelt’s top gang.
Call them organizations, associations. Loose alliances. But in the end, they were a gang. A group like the Sisters of Chell, who had control over a street, a city, or spanned multiple cities like the Sisters. Some were infamous, others dangerous to cross. Reizmelt’s was local. But dangerous. Still, Fierre regarded this gang as somewhat civilized and intellectual for a gang; they were mostly [Rogues] and [Thieves] as opposed to [Thugs] who’d run protection rackets. This gang just used thievery, eschewing regular conflicts with the law. And they had an actual system in place.
Fierre tapped into it as she went to the [Bartender] in charge of the day-and-night bar, The Blasted Pyromancer. It was a nice bar, and she’d been here often. The [Bartender] saw her coming and Fierre sat down on the fourth-furthest seat and ordered an ale.
And that was it. She’d requested a meeting. How had she done it? Was it the fourth seat, or ordering a light ale? No. It was her giving the [Barman] a look as she sat down. You didn’t need to be stupidly complex. He could read facial expressions. So he smiled and filled a mug from his keg.
“Rough day, Miss Fierre? You’re normally not one for day drinking.”
“Everyone has a bad day, William. And I’m not working as a [Laborer] today. Or helping Miss Kelysta with her alchemy stuff.”
William the [Bartender] raised his brows. Fierre had seen him signaling to the man in the back as he’d filled the keg; they had a false wall. This was the hideout of Reizmelt’s gang. They didn’t really have a name. They were just ‘Reizmelt’s Gang’.
If they started giving themselves names, Fierre would bet they were hoping to expand their territory. And that might mean some serious fighting in back alleys; there were smaller gangs in the city and neighboring cities who might object to a bigger power.
“Well, we’re all entitled to our days off, Miss Fierre. Enjoy the drink. Can I get you something to eat? We’ve got some nice snacking foods. Walnuts, harvested fresh.”
Fierre sipped her ale, ignoring it, really. It was hard for her to get drunk. She waited until she saw the man step out of the back and signal her. She followed him into the back as William calmly attended to his bar. Simple, effective.
“What do you want?”
The [Rogue] sitting in the back of the bar might have been the contact on duty, who was something like Fierre for his gang. Or he might have been the leader himself; Fierre hadn’t inquired into the gang’s inner workings. Knowing too much about them might make them paranoid of her if they found out. She sat down with her drink at the table in the back. She eyed the man’s closed book and bowl of cracked walnuts. Then she looked at him.
“I just called for a group to deal with a [Broker] in Filk. They’re going to get him and burn his office down. If he escalates, I’d like my place to be safe. Because I’ll escalate right back.”
The [Rogue] blinked. He looked at Fierre and then sat back. His fingers absently began to twiddle and he stopped himself. Fierre could even sense his heartbeat this close; it was elevated, but only a bit. He was more curious than anything, but his face didn’t show it.
“Fierre, right? We know your reputation. What’s the big quarrel between you and someone in Filk?”
“He has a secret. And I have a secret. He’s not cooperating. That’s all you need to know.”
He let that go.
“So he gets a lesson. Say it doesn’t work—he has protection.”
Fierre snorted. The Ratwhisperer couldn’t afford that. She doubted he even had an iron door. The [Rogue] nodded.
“Say he does, though, or gets lucky. The Watch shows up and he doesn’t get the hint. What’s your aim?”
“I’ll settle it. First time’s a warning. Second time he’s gone.”
This time the man blinked. He looked Fierre up and down.
“How much trouble are we expecting?”
“He’d make an offer. I doubt he can afford more than ten gold either way. Twenty if he’s desperate?”
The [Rogue] thought about this.
“We can handle that. No one’ll come knocking. But you owe us a tenth of what the bounty was.”
“Good. Thank you.”
Negotiations were done. Fierre stood up. If anyone accepted the bounty, the gold would be poorly spent. Reizmelt’s gang would make it clear those hired had to forfeit the gold—or they could settle things. Either way, Fierre was protected.
There were harsh, binding oaths that might obligate someone to fulfill their promise at the cost of their lives—blood promises, or vows made by the Rogue’s Law. But the Ratwhisperer wouldn’t be able to get anyone to make that kind of agreement. Fierre would lean on him until he gave in. Or she’d stop him cold.
It was what she could do for Ryoka. As for Belavierr—Fierre hesitated. She looked at the [Rogue], sitting there. He glanced up at her.
What would the price be to take out Belavierr, the Stitch Witch? Fierre didn’t ask because the price would be more than she could afford if she sold every bit of information she owned. Yes, the criminals of the north had specialized groups. From the Assassin’s Guild to gangs or individuals who could take out people for a price.
But if Fierre had to come up with a list of gangs who’d take that kind of request, it was a short, short list. And none of them, from the Gentlemen Callers who were part of the Brotherhood of Serendipitous Meetings, to the might of the Blackrock Collective in First Landing, or the Vanishers were based around Filk. She couldn’t help Ryoka that way.
Unless someone who was hunting her went after the [Witch]. But if it was Roshal, or Wistram—no. And who else could do that? Fierre shook her head, realizing the [Rogue] was waiting.
She left the room, and then the bar, and then had to go back and return the mug to William. He gave her a concerned look, but Fierre was too preoccupied to notice. She spent the rest of the day in her office, listlessly opening two letters and exchanging a secret about a [Clerk] in Reizmelt planning on leaving the city with her employer’s gold to have a romantic getaway with her significant other.
She really shouldn’t have put that in writing—or at least, paid a City Runner for an urgent delivery. They tended to want to know why most of the time. Fierre sold that tidbit to the employer in question via the Merchant’s Guild, who was only too happy to protect their people and offer Fierre a nice little bounty.
But she was really waiting. Waiting for a response from Daufica. Impatiently—but Fierre knew better than to prod the woman. Still, Fierre was counting the hours. How long until the Ratwhisperer would conclude negotiations with Wistram or whoever he was trying to sell the information to? She could just imagine him trying to get the best deal; even if he was rushing, it would take him a while. It would for her.
But maybe he would leap at the first offer? She should have asked Daufica to check if he’d sold anything, or contacted the Ratwhisperer’s [Mage]. But that would tip them off that there was something valuable he possessed—
It was night and Fierre stomped back to the Huntress’ Haven without hearing from Gailt. Mad Madain and Alber took one look at Fierre’s face and didn’t say anything as she ate a bloody steak. She didn’t linger on it, and went up to her bed. And lay there, restlessly, for two hours until she heard someone throw a rock at her shutters.
“Fierre. Psst. Fierre.”
Gailt took a step back as Fierre threw open the windows and then jumped down onto the street. He stared wide-eyed at her, but Fierre was too caught up to come up with an excuse. Ryoka could do it, why not her?
“What? Did Daufica do it? What took her so long?”
The [Mage] scrubbed at his hair unsteadily. He was still drunk. But his voice was uncharacteristically serious.
“She didn’t do it, Fierre. I mean…the Ratwhisperer’s uh, dead.”
“What? How? Did they go too far?”
Fierre’s stomach lurched. Had Daufica’s people killed the [Fence]? She hadn’t wanted to do that. She’d been prepared to, but—no, maybe this was a good thing. The cold part of her, the part she thought of as really Vampire, told her that it was for the best. Yes, if he was dead, he couldn’t tell. But she stopped as she saw Gailt shake his head.
“It wasn’t her people. They never got a chance. The Watch was already there and two of Daufica’s [Thugs] were caught. She’s not charging you. But you’re not getting your gold back—”
“I don’t care about that!”
Fierre did, but it was a lesser concern. She hissed at Gailt, looking down the alleyway.
“Who killed him, then?”
The [Mage] gulped.
“They think it was magic. A curse.”
The Vampire girl paused. Only now did she see Gailt fully in the moonlight. He was pale. Sweating. He smelled afraid, even through the alcohol. He went on, stumbling over the words.
“His tongue was sewn to the roof of his mouth. Blocked his throat. His nose was also sewn shut. He choked to death.”
Fierre felt a cold chill run through her body. And Vampires were already cold. She hesitated, her tongue touching her canines uneasily.
“Did they—did the Watch—maybe it was someone else?”
Gailt shook his head.
“He was in a locked room. And the [Mage] they brought in said there was serious magic. Serious. Fierre, that’s a curse. I’d know it anywhere. The kind the big gangs use. If it was Bela—”
He choked on the words. Changed them.
“The Stitch Witch, maybe she put a curse on…?”
On anyone trying to rat her out? Oh yes. Fierre felt another chill. She’d heard of curses like that. But that was serious magic. But this was a serious [Witch]. Gailt was licking his teeth.
“I’m—this is deep, Fierre. Daufica was telling me about it. You could see the Ratwhisperer’s face. Everyone in Filk is talking about it. Look, I’m not being paid to—”
“I want you to send a [Message].”
“To Daufica? I don’t know if she’ll pick up. She’s really upset—”
“To Ryoka. Tell her what happened. Send a spell to the [Mage] in Riverfarm and ask her for a reply.”
Fierre saw Gailt gulp.
“But that’s where she is. I—I don’t think—”
“Gailt. There’s no curse that would work on you telling her how the [Fence] died. Don’t even mention B—her name. There’s no way you’ll be affected. Magic isn’t that broad.”
Fierre said that, but she watched Gailt send the spell nervously. And he was so uneasy that she eventually had to offer to buy him a drink. They made their way to The Blasted Pyromancer and he proceeded to drink himself nearly into oblivion. But he managed to receive the [Message] that came back.
He wrote it down; ironically, he could write it even when he slurred his words beyond comprehension. Fierre stared at the [Message] as Gailt passed out on the table. She stood up, reading it.
Everything’s fine. She’s dangerous, but I think it’s safe for us. I’ll be here a bit longer. Don’t cross her, Fierre. And don’t worry about me. I have to do this. Thanks for the help.
Fierre pondered over the message several times in her room. Us. Ryoka thought it was safe after hearing that? Why did she have to do it? What did this [Emperor] want from her? It was maddening, and Fierre was close to biting a hole in her pillow over it. But she eventually passed off into an uneasy sleep because she’d done what she could. Ratwhisperer was dead. And the Stitch Witch’s spell had killed him.
Only one thought woke Fierre, as thoughts did, slamming into her with the weight of sudden realization. She sat up in the middle of the night.
“So who was Ratwhisperer talking to when he died?”
She stared into other darkness, as bright as day for her. And she wondered. But the Vampire girl could only lay back in bed, eyes wide open. She was too far away. She didn’t know what was happening in Riverfarm. And there were things that made even Vampires uneasy. But if that was so, there was another truism.
Everyone had their enemies. And everything could die.
Day 62 – Talia
Her full name and title was Lady-Dame Talia Kallinad, Knight of the Summer. But in practice, she was just Dame Talia, or just Talia among friends. Before she’d left Baleros, she’d been pleasantly surprised to hear her younger brother, the [Strategist] and current pride of the Kallinad house, Wil, call her ‘Tal’, as if they were children.
But that was nearly a week and a half ago, and Talia had been stuck with ‘Dame Talia’, or ‘your Knightship’ by the mocking [Sailors]/[Pirates] on the long trip back to Terandria. She missed her brother already, but she was still aglow with pride. All of her family was; the household was still buzzing with talk of the Titan’s game at Daquin and the events therein.
No one was talking about Liscor’s election, or even Pallass’ upcoming election. Izril was totally off the map in terms of popular discourse among the social circles of Terandria. The talk of the day was still on Chandrar and the war between Tiqr and the alliance of nations that had declared war on the Empress of Beasts.
Day by day, more provinces were being seized and the question was if the Empress would fight to the death or surrender, or if Flos, the King of Destruction, would make his move. Twice now, his forces had clashed on the border of Nerrhavia’s Fall in ‘accidental skirmishes’, but the gigantic kingdom had repulsed Flos both times, even if they’d gotten the worst of the skirmishes.
Some had argued that invalidated his claim to peace, but no one could say who’d started each skirmish. And the fact that he hadn’t declared war as Tiqr was slowly consumed was an argument that he was keeping his vow.
But that was global politics. You could also point to a very nasty incident between House Kallinad and another rival house, a minor war between two kingdoms in Terandria, or news of a Gold-rank team slaying a Manticore—the kind of thing Terandrians talked about. But the biggest event everyone was firm on was Daquin’s game. And Talia smiled every time they talked about it because she had been there. And it had been a member of House Kallinad that had won!
Okay, not ‘won’. It was that scrawny Lizardgirl covered in sewer waste who’d technically won. But anyone with an eye had seen that it was Wil’s daring strategy, bringing four warships from another continent to challenge the Iron Vanguard that had provided her with an opportunity to win!
Talia couldn’t help but brag about it to everyone she met. He had challenged Tulm the Mithril, legend of the Iron Vanguard and held his own! And for his deeds, the Titan of Baleros had acknowledged the feat and granted Wil the victor’s prize along with the Lizardgirl: the right to ask any one question he wanted.
That was worth the cost of sending so many [Soldiers] abroad. It was even worth the cost of prevailing on so many [Knights] to take part in the war game as well. House Kallinad stood to gain far more than they had spent, in fame and prestige alone, but also by a good question if Wil asked it.
Talia knew her father had high hopes of Wil. She did too. But as she strode through the bright courtyard that was her true home, not the ancestral Kallinad residence, Talia wondered if her Order saw things the same way.
The bright, fiery courtyard gave Talia the impression she was walking through fire, though she’d walked this spot hundreds of times. The courtyard of the Season of Summer was scrupulously maintained, and the color scheme designed to reflect yellows and reds and oranges, the color of fire, of summer.
It was beautiful, to walk on the colorful flagstones, or stop between the huge, everburning braziers that meant this part of the Order’s fortress-grounds would never be dark. Talia walked on, into the center of the vast keep. She passed by frescos decorated with heroes of old, ceremonial armor, some pierced where their wearers had died or decorated in outdated fashions, past a garden in full bloom, property of the Season of Spring, and then one of the general courtyards.
Talia stopped to watch the dozens of [Knights] and [Squires] training there, dueling with sword and shield, or mace, or two-handed weapons under the wary eye of instructors. She smiled.
Some of the [Knights] walking with Talia chuckled. They walked on, their armor glinting with various shades. Many wore identical colors, the bright green and yellow and blue of the [Spring Knights], or the reds and purples and silver of the Season of Autumn.
A few had Talia’s colors, although she had personalized her armor. Still, she wore the gold and orange and hints of white proudly. She was a [Summer Knight], twenty eight, and a full member of her Order. She looked around as her fellow [Knights] walked on. It had been a long journey and they had just arrived in their order’s stronghold after disembarking in Kallinad harbors.
They were no doubt eager to rest and return, but Talia lingered a while, taking it all in. The sprawling fortress-keep was made of four quarters, each to one season, and the center was neutral ground. And it was as iconic in its way as any of Terandria’s venerated treasures for its legacy and the history of the warriors who called it home.
This was the Order of Seasons. Of the many [Knight] orders of Terandria, famed for its ancient traditions and lineages, the Order of Seasons was still one of the most iconic. They were a [Knighthood] of four distinct factions, one to each season, and their ranks were vast and their deeds famous in history. And they were long allies with a number of nations and noble houses. Enough so that over a hundred had answered House Kallinad’s call for aid. Well, there were practical reasons too.
“Admiring your return, Dame Talia? Just remember that our Knight-Commander will want to see you.”
An older man spoke behind Talia. She turned and saw Sir Kelm, helmetless but wearing his armor, nodding towards her. She smiled.
“Of course, Sir Kelm. I only hope he’ll judge our expedition worthy. We brought back no trophies, but I like to think we won acclaim for our Order!”
The older [Knight] smiled, but a touch ruefully.
“For House Kallinad, certainly. I only wish there weren’t so many of these…magical reproductions of our [Knights] toppling from their horses. The Iron Vanguard can certainly boast that its ranks can stand up against our Order.”
That stung Talia’s pride. She swept at her brown hair, vexed, before touching the sword at her side.
“Only because we weren’t using lances and we couldn’t charge as hard as if we were on the battlefield, Sir Kelm!”
Patiently, the older [Knight] shook his head.
“And if we had? The Iron Vanguard didn’t employ its weapons either. I’m afraid we underestimated the games at Daquin. Certainly we can claim a victory, but I imagine our Commander might object to the perceived failings of our order.”
Talia bit her lip. It was a fair point, and calmly made. She looked at Sir Kelm and flushed, knowing he’d bear the brunt of that objection if it came. He’d backed her request when she made it and he was the highest-level and most senior [Knight] who’d led the Order of Seasons in Daquin.
Sir Kelm was a Knight of the Autumn, or a Fall Knight. Or a [Autumn Knight] if you wanted to be precise, but ‘Fall Knight’ was a joke the younger members of the Order sometimes used to refer to the lower level of skill in combat the Knights of the Autumn possessed. They were scholars, or [Knights] who pursued projects, or simply took to magic more than most [Knights].
But there was nothing scholarly about Sir Kelm’s build. He was a fine member of his Season; it was only some of the junior members who tended to lose every competition based on physical strength. Still, more than half of the [Knights] in Daquin had been from his order and he nodded, a chagrined smile on his face.
“I will make my report to Knight-Commander Calirn of course, but he requested you first.”
Talia cleared her throat, embarrassed.
“Sir Kelm, had it not been for you volunteering your Season’s [Knights], we surely wouldn’t have been able to push the Iron Vanguard and allow Wil to claim his victory. If there was any fault, it was only that we underestimated Tulm the Mithril himself.”
She was relieved when the [Autumn Knight] laughed and shook his head. He was graying, but his class and levels made him spry as he walked with her further into the keep.
“It’s kindly said, Talia. But I won’t make excuses. I thought the daring of our arrival would be enough, but I should have asked for more of your Season rather than trusted to the Autumn Knights. It is a lesson we will take to heart. And hopefully watching our Season being unhorsed again and again by Dullahans will convince my Season to spend as much time in the practice courts or on the grounds as in the libraries.”
Talia nodded, smiling slightly. There was no real enmity between the four Seasons, but each one had their strengths and weaknesses. They were strongest united, but it was true that a force of [Autumn Knights] had been a mistake. Knights of the Summer or Spring would have been ideal, with a few Knights of the Winter mixed in, even.
“Once again though, Sir Kelm, House Kallinad owes the Order and your Season a debt. We’ll surely repay it.”
Sir Kelm waved that away as he stopped at an intersection. The Season of Autumn’s grounds lay beyond, and Talia saw tinted glass, costly, but beautiful, creating shadows and a quieter, fall ambiance in the corridor beyond. Sir Kelm smiled as he turned to her.
“Our alliance is an old one. Just ask a proper question of the Titan. And tell us what the answer was!”
“If possible, Sir Kelm.”
Talia bowed, wondering if she could. Wil had been told to ask something for House Kallinad. Talia had argued that the Order deserved part of the question’s benefit, but she’d been overruled by her father. Sir Kelm smiled, and departed. That left Talia to find the Knight-Commander of the Order of Seasons.
You could write a book about the Order of Seasons. In fact, there were several in the libraries that the [Autumn Knights] liked to frequent. But in general, the Order of Seasons was comprised thusly: four Seasons operated from their headquarters in Terandria, east and south on the continent, near Kallinad lands, who occupied a small southeastern coastal area famed for its wealth in shipping.
Between the vast forests that were owned by the order, which stretched to the untamed cavernous hills that sometimes produced Goblins or other monsters, and the rockier terrain that led to the coastal cliffs which provided parts of Terandria with natural defenses, the Order of Seasons had built its home, in the heart of the forest, where once a half-Elven empire had risen, countless ages ago. And noble houses and even sometimes royalty sent aspiring [Knights] or children to become members of the Order of Seasons, along with the gifted applicants from across the continent.
There were at least two thousand Seasonal [Knights] in the headquarters at any given time, and far more were abroad, fighting in armies, crusading, or fulfilling functions across Terandria and the world. It was a famous order, and each Season wielded considerable power. And each had their own Grandmaster. Talia answered to hers, the Summer’s Champion, but she could also be commanded by senior members of other Seasons at need. And in the stronghold of the Order, another figure could command even the Grandmasters, as a first among equals.
He was Knight-Commander Calirn. And Talia normally expected him to be fulfilling some duty of command, which was often pressing, such as speaking with a monarch, or seeing to an argument between the Seasons. But as she strode into the center of the keep, she heard a clamor.
Talia saw an [Autumn Knight], dressed in robes rather than armor, sprinting past her. And Talia, born to action, took off following. Because the other woman was running straight into the heart of the cathedral that was the domain of the Knight-Commander.
“Where is the Knight-Commander? I have a [Message] for him!”
“In the War Room!”
A [Servant] answered, wide-eyed as the [Autumn Knight] shouted at her. The young woman ran left, and Talia overtook her. She knew the location by heart, and burst into one of the central war rooms at the same time as the [Autumn Knight]. She blinked as she threw open the grand double doors and felt the freezing around her. She exhaled and saw a cloud of vapor—and a man, standing in cold, grey and pale blue clothing next to a pair of shivering [Servants]. He turned and looked up.
The [Autumn Knight] stopped, and shivered. Calirn blinked, and seemed to notice the cold in the room. He did nothing, but Talia felt the air warming. She was unaffected; her armor was still warm despite the cold, but the two [Servants] and [Autumn Knight] relaxed at once. Calirn nodded to Talia and then promptly ignored her.
“You have another report, Dame Wera?”
The Fall Knight nodded, breathless.
“I have, Knight-Commander. The [Message] came to our Order through our general receiver, not—”
She gestured to one of the [Servants], who was holding a magical scroll that could be used to facilitate communications more smoothly. Calirn frowned.
“Why? We were in communication with the [Broker] directly. What has changed?”
Talia blinked. The Order of Season was speaking with a [Broker]? But she listened as the [Autumn Knight] shook her head and searched for words.
“Dead, Knight-Commander Calirn. He’s dead.”
The Knight-Commander’s pale grey eyes focused on the [Autumn Knight]. And the chill that emanated from him was biting. Intense. Talia had known Knight-Commander Calirn for years, if not personally. She had seldom seen him like this. He was a Knight of the Winter, of course. He spoke one word.
“A curse, Knight-Commander. Apparently, the man was found with his tongue stitched—to the roof of his mouth. His nose was sewn shut and he died—”
One of the [Servants] made a faint sound. Talia put her hand on her sword uneasily. What was this? Calirn’s expression darkened.
“Then it may well be her. Or one of her ruses to distract the hunters on her trail. Was there anything else?”
The [Autumn Knight] shook her head.
“No, Knight-Commander. Just a request for gold. It was one of his associates that sent the message—”
“Did they say where the Stitch Witch was? Did they confirm the rumor?”
“No. They didn’t.”
The woman shook her head again. Calirn said nothing, but his expression was thunderous. And Talia started.
The Stitch Witch? The name was familiar. Then Calirn spoke.
“Belavierr. This has her magic about it. But if no one can confirm it was actually her, then it could be another one of her thousand misdirections.”
And then it hit Talia. She looked at Calirn as wide-eyed as the [Autumn Knight]. The female [Knight] reached up for her spectacles that had fallen off her nose in her run here.
“The Stitch Witch herself. Belavierr. Could it really be her, Knight-Commander?”
That was all Calirn said. Talia couldn’t hold it in anymore. She burst out, looking from Calirn to the [Autumn Knight].
“Knight-Commander! Is it really Belavierr? The Stitch Witch? The enemy of our Order?”
If there were a list of infamous names of enemies of the Order of Seasons, only a few were names and not entire organizations. And of them—Belavierr. People didn’t even tell children’s stories about her in Terandria. They were too terrifying. The [Autumn Knight] nodded, looking excited rather than scared?
“The one who cursed the Griffin Prince? The murderess who destroyed the city of Halen overnight? The—”
“I see you recall her infamy, Dame Talia, Dame Wera. Yes. That is Belavierr.”
The censure in Calirn’s voice made Talia blush. She realized she was passing into rudeness and bowed.
“I apologize, Knight-Commander! I didn’t mean to intrude, but I saw Dame Wera running and you had summoned me upon our return. I come from Daquin, where we struck a victory for our Order!”
She looked up hopefully. Calirn stared at her.
She paused. [Knight] Wera and the two [Servants] were giving her wide-eyed looks. They’d probably seen the broadcast, but Calirn just looked blank. Talia coughed lightly.
“The…game at Daquin, Knight-Commander? The one organized by the Titan?”
He paused, and nodded.
“Of course. The game. Congratulations, Dame Talia. I understand the Summer’s Champion is quite pleased. The Fall Sentinel has reservations as to the outcome. As do I. I would speak with you about the expedition, but later. I must attend to this.”
He abruptly turned to one of the [Servants].
“If the [Broker] in Filk is dead, the information must be confirmed. Find me a list of [Informants] across Izril. Prepare a [Message] requesting confirmation of the Stitch Witch. One that can be verified by truth spell.”
The [Servant] nodded and rushed out of the room. Talia was taken aback, but not by much. The brusqueness and attitude were emblematic of Calirn’s order. He was a [Winter Knight], one of the few who stayed for any length in the Order’s headquarters.
Knights of the Winter were solitary, independent. Even if their talents led them to take command of armies, they were by nature alone. For in the cruelest colds, in the desolation of the deepest winters, these few moved alone. Accordingly, they were often the most senior, [Knights] who had passed through all four seasons or abandoned their old season as they aged.
True, some [Knights] were freshly inducted into that branch of the order due to personality or becoming squires or aides to senior members, but it was still the smallest of the four seasons. Some said the most powerful, and perhaps they were, individually. But no [Knight] was beyond any other full member, even the Knight-Commander, so Talia spoke up.
“By your leave Knight-Commander, if it is Belavierr the Stitch Witch, give me leave to assemble a lance immediately! We can prepare a vessel and ride for Kallinad’s harbors at once! The [Captain] that brought us from Baleros is likely still in port. If we [Messaged] them, we could be landing on any part of Izril in—”
“Dame Talia. This is not a matter for junior members of the Order of Seasons.”
Calirn’s voice was cold and flat. Talia paused. Calirn turned to Dame Wera.
“Summon the Grandmasters.”
The [Autumn Knight] had been dancing with the same eagerness as Talia, about to ask her own questions. At Calirn’s words she went pale. She looked at the Knight-Commander, then turned and ran. Talia stared. It was one person! The four Grandmasters weren’t summoned like this except for emergencies! But it was the Stitch Witch. She’d killed more [Knights] of the Order of Seasons than…Calirn was looking at her.
“Knight-Commander? Surely we should put a lance on alert if there is even a chance of this rumor being true? Or any active-duty members near this city of…Filk?”
It occurred to Talia she didn’t know where that was. She tried to study the maps on the war room out of the corner of her eye. Where was it. North? Calirn’s voice was brisk.
“A ship would not catch the Stitch Witch, Dame Talia. No matter how fast the [Captain]. Nor is Filk on Terandria. It is in Izril. Thousands of miles away. More importantly, I will not send an entire lance to their deaths, Summer Knight Talia. Or you.”
Crimson flared in her cheeks at the implication.
“Ser Calirn! You believe a Season of Spring and Summer Knights would fail to dispatch a single [Witch]?”
Knights of the Spring and Summer were rightly regarded as the true might of the Order of Seasons. The Knights of the Spring were most plentiful, being comprised of new [Knights]; those who fought en masse in wars or were simply green as their season.
Some were veterans of course, but theirs was youthful Season, full of energy and drive. And it was a logical step for experienced Knights of the Spring who had gone through a few years of actual combat to become Knights of the Summer. They were the pinnacle of martial might. They brought battle to evil where it was found. The Summer Knights crusaded to other continents, or slew terrible monsters in their lairs.
Knight-Commander Calirn surely knew all this. But was he calling for a small team of [Winter Knights]? He shook his head.
“I would not pit a full lance of my brethren of the winter against her. The Stitch Witch is no foe that can be defeated by sheer numbers. She would consume any number of Knights of the Spring. And the Autumnal Season has pitted their magic against her and lost in times past.”
That drew Talia up. And made her uneasy for the first time so far. The way Calirn talked about Belavierr was too familiar. She was just one of those legends for Talia. But—she suddenly realized there was frost on the walls. It was so cold that even she shivered.
Then the door blew open. The frost melted as a man dressed in gold blasted into the room. The Summer’s Champion, the Grandmaster of Talia’s Season, strode over to Calirn. His hair was as fiery as his temperament. He was the youngest of all four Grandmasters, ironically, and that meant he was in his late forties. He spoke curtly, ignoring Talia, his eyes locked on Calrin.
“Is it true? The Stitch Witch has been sighted?”
That was all. The Summer’s Champion spoke an oath and the temperature in the room shot up. Calirn stared at him and the Summer’s Champion recalled himself. Both controlled their auras and Talia stepped back.
“Dame Talia? You’ve returned?”
The Grandmaster of Summer turned to her, surprised. Then he glanced at Calirn.
“Congratulations will have to wait, Dame Talia. We must attend to this. The Stitch-Witch—”
“Are you sure it’s her?”
A woman walked into the room. She was the Spring’s Warden, and somehow she seemed younger than her fifty years of age. She still looked vibrant, a flower despite her age. Calirn looked up.
“The other two are hurrying here, but they will be at least ten minutes each. The Winter’s Watcher is three miles distant.”
The Knight-Commander nodded.
“I see. Then we begin. Dame Talia—remain if you wish. But remain silent.”
He didn’t send her away, which surprised only Talia. The two Grandmasters stepped forwards. They embodied their titles, as some of the highest-level [Knights] of their classes. They listened as Calirn spoke.
“This is what we know. A [Broker] contacted the Order of Seasons, claiming to have credible knowledge of where the Stitch Witch was present. He swore under truth spell he could identify her location beyond reasonable doubt; he had sent someone to verify her description.”
The Summer’s Champion crossed his arms skeptically.
“And he was sure?”
“Beyond reasonable doubt. He could still try to cheat the truth spell.”
The Spring’s Warden frowned. Calirn waved their objections aside.
“The agent the [Broker] sent was sure. And if it was her—it would not be hard to tell.”
The two Grandmasters paused, and then nodded. Talia looked from face to face. The Spring’s Warden was distant, troubled, but the Summer’s Champion burned. And Knight-Commander Calirn’s face—they had met her. Talia remembered another tale of Belavierr. But they were tales. This was a frightening reality.
The Summer’s Champion turned, restlessly regarding the maps on the walls.
“Where is Ser Raim? He and the Hunter’s Guild have been searching for her for three years. How is she in Izril? What boat did she take?”
“She wouldn’t need boats.”
The Spring’s Warden nodded.
“An entire continent away. And yet, if it is true…”
The [Servant] that Calirn had sent to send the [Messages] returned, breathless. He stopped still when he saw two of the Grandmasters in the room. Calirn looked at him.
“Send word to the Fall Sentinel to prepare his Season for a grand ritual spell. I do not know when or if it must be cast. Inform the Academy of Wistram that we may need their assistance. And tell Ser Raim to return to the order in all haste. Request the Hunter’s Guild to replace his presence with their members and return the primary hunting party with Ser Raim.”
“You’re serious about this?”
Calirn ignored the Summer Champion’s incredulous look. He kept giving orders as the [Servant]’s eyes flickered, memorizing each word.
“Have the [Informants] information on the Stitch Witch?”
“All the replies we have collected claim ignorance, Knight-Commander.”
“In that case, get in contact with this [Fence]’s acquaintances. Anyone who might be able to verify the Stitch Witch’s whereabouts. Offer a bounty. A substantial one.”
The [Servant] nodded, waited, and then raced off. Talia looked around. And the two Grandmasters exchanged a glance. A grand ritual spell? Recalling the active hunters for Belavierr? It could only mean one thing.
He thought it was her.
“It could be a ruse. She’s done the same before to throw us off.”
“Yes. But her curses kill those who attempt to betray her whereabouts. And Izril—it fits one other piece of information I was given by the [Broker]. There is a coven there. Seeking to bargain with an [Emperor].”
“An [Emperor]? Why would one be in Izril—”
“If it is her, how can we confirm it? Using a grand ritual would be a waste of resources if we err—”
“We must hope that one of the [Informants] has the means to communicate her whereabouts or confirm her presence despite the curse. But every effort must be taken or else she will slip through the Order’s fingers again. We prepare but do not act unless we are certain.”
Calirn interrupted the two. He looked pointedly at the Spring’s Warden. She nodded after a moment. Talia was spellbound. But she couldn’t help it. She burst out and all three [Knights] turned to her.
“Ser Calirn, do you believe Ser Raim is up to the task if it is the Stitch Witch herself?”
She knew he was of her Season, but like many [Knights], she had never met him personally. And Calirn had refused to send a lance! The Summer’s Champion made an incredulous sound.
“Dame Talia, you’ve not met Ser Raim, have you?”
“I have not, Grandmaster.”
Talia bit her tongue. The Summer’s Champion looked at Calirn and the Knight-Commander answered for him.
“Ser Raim has exceeded Level 40, and is thus one of the finest members of the order. You, Lady Talia, are over ten levels below him. There is no comparison. Moreover, he has the Skill to put an end to the Stitch Witch himself. And the will.”
Level 40? That put Ser Raim as one of the finest [Knights] the order could field. But not the best. And a lance was still better! But Talia had embarrassed herself enough. The Spring’s Warden was nodding. There was no malice as she explained to Talia, as if the [Knight] were still in the Season of Spring.
“Dame Talia, the Stitch Witch is a foe our Order has faced before. Sporadically, yes, over the decades.”
“Even so. We have experience in dealing with her, and we know a few of her weaknesses, and how she preys on others. One aspect we are certain of is that her command of fabric and thread is unmatched. If we sent a full lance against her, even were they all veterans over Level 30, she could choke many to death purely with the threads in their garb. She is unassailable by low-level [Knights]. The team hunting her, which includes Ser Raim as our representative, have all taken precautions against her.”
“The Hunter’s Guild seeks her as well. Their classes are specialized. In truth, our Order keeps only one member on her trail; she is elusive to the point that it bleeds resources attempting to find her.”
The Summer’s Champion explained. Talia nodded.
“Then what drives Ser Raim to follow the Stitch Witch?”
Both Grandmasters quieted. The Summer’s Champion folded his arms. And the Spring’s Warden replied.
“She slew his fiancé, Knight of the Autumn, Dame Fale. Years ago. Almost a decade, in fact.”
It was all that needed to be said. Calirn turned. He had been plotting the distance from the Order’s headquarters to Filk on a map.
“So. She is no foe to be underestimated. And the distance is vast. The information uncertain. Perhaps this is one of her many games or illusions. But if it is not—the Stitch Witch has blighted Terandria. Aside from the Necromancer, she is one of the few ancient foes of our era. It is a debt older than you or I that our Order owes her. I would see it settled.”
All the [Knights] nodded at that. And it was Talia who felt a stirring of apprehension. To say it like that put Belavierr on the same level as Az’kerash, the monster who had died during the Second Antinium War. And he had killed just as many of the Order’s [Knights]. The Season of Summer had lost nearly two hundred [Knights] to him. And they would send one if Belavierr was really there? She looked at Knight-Commander Calirn.
“Can it be done, then? If it’s her—”
His face was grave. Bitter. Focused. But then Calirn looked up. He saw Talia’s face. And suddenly—he smiled. Talia stopped, and Calirn straightened. The Knight-Commander nodded, once.
“Yes, Dame Talia Kallinad. It can be done. Our Order has slain Dragons and brought low beasts of every ilk. We have ended worse monsters than Belavierr the Stitch Witch. But we are not all-powerful, or even foremost. We are one of many, which is why we temper our strength of arms with humility. Forge alliances with other Knight-Orders and noble houses and kingdoms. It is why we would dedicate multiple lances of [Knights] to a competition in Baleros.”
Talia saw the Spring’s Warden smile, and heard the Summer’s Champion laugh. Calirn was calmer. Cooler, like frost. But not without passion. The [Servant] came rushing into the room, followed hot on his heels by two more, all calling out [Messages] from Ser Raim, the Hunter’s Guild, queries, replies—Ser Calirn ignored them as the other two Grandmasters snapped replies. He looked at Talia, speaking as one [Knight] to another.
“We are not all-powerful. So you rightly ask if one [Knight] can defeat her alone when many would fail. I say yes. Because it is this [Knight]. And his will would burn even a monster of aeons. He has the strength.”
And Talia could only bow her head in reply. Her earlier excitement was gone, put out by the [Winter Knight]. But she felt a colder resolve, the kind that came from his Season. And for once, she thought it might be right to become a [Winter Knight] in time. She had thought she would burn forever, but there was an ageless certainty to Calirn’s face. A cold eternity of resolve.
Talia retreated as the Grandmasters and Knight-Commander turned to preparing for a battle that might not come. An if. A chance to slay a nightmare, a dark legend.
She turned at the doors. Knight-Commander Calirn regarded her gravely. He raised a finger and pointed to a map of the Order’s stronghold and the nearby area, tracing a long journey to the north and east.
“If you wish it, ride out to meet Ser Raim. And if you can still claim he would falter in front of the Stitch Witch or any foe that treads this earth, I will grant you leave to assemble a lance of your finest brethren and accompany him if the reports are confirmed. Otherwise, you will wait in reserve. For make no mistake; if she is there, we will strike. And if I must call upon the grand ritual ten times, I will see her brought down.”
The words chilled Talia and sent her running for the stables. She was on the road as the Order of Seasons stirred to life, as news passed across the keep. Talia rode out, journeying as fast as her mount could take her. She rode for hours at full speed, refreshing her horse. And still, she made little distance compared to the party that raced towards the Order of Seasons. They covered ground like lightning. Because they were on the hunt. She saw them riding towards her and saw him, among the [Hunters].
And then she met Ser Raim. And she understood why he had been chosen. Because he alone could burn like the sun.
Day 63 – Fierre
She didn’t hear from Ryoka. But something was happening. Of that, Fierre was certain. She’d reached out to an [Informant] in Filk, and then one in the smaller town of Mafalt that had one [Mage] capable of slinging a [Message] spell. Both reported the same thing.
[Bandits]. Wagons going out, giving away free food? Flocks of crows. Not enough rainfall. Rumors of [Witches]. No—a confirmed Coven. A missing [Emperor].
Rumors and gossip. Which was what Fierre was used to. But no one would confirm Belavierr’s presence. Word had spread. And yet—Fierre had that. From Ryoka of all people. It bothered the Vampire girl. She was sitting in her office, trying to figure out why Ryoka was spared.
“She didn’t really confirm it. She sent Charlay to ask for information. But in terms of intent, a curse might not hit her because she wasn’t trying to tell me or the Ratwhisperer. Does that make sense?”
She looked up at Gailt. The [Mage] was sitting in her office, looking hung over and annoyed. They were conducting the day’s business—that of selling the information Fierre received. He paused in sending his latest [Message] and shrugged.
“Sure. I don’t know curses well, but magic’s got limits. It’s about intent and wording—gah! Why’re you so hung up on it? Oh, right—”
He completed the sentence at the same time as Fierre.
“Because Ryoka’s there. Dead gods, it’s not like she’s the only City Runner. She must be some friend. You don’t hang out with your other clients. Or anyone else.”
“Well, Ryoka’s different.”
“Huh. I’ll say. She looks Drathian. But she said she’s fine. So?”
“So, she has a habit of putting herself into danger. Do you know she did a delivery to the High Passes?”
“What, the High Passes? She is crazy. But what can you do, Miss Fierre? Bribe the [Witches] not to turn her into stew?”
Fierre didn’t answer that. She was afraid that a Vampire wouldn’t be much use against a seriously high-level [Witch]. But she could do something, even if it was only dragging Ryoka back with her. Gailt shrugged as he scratched at his side.
“Shame you don’t have that magic door in Liscor, right? The one that got everyone all stirred up? I heard the Brotherhood and the Sisters both wanted to know how the heist failed. I pity the idiots who got on both their bad sides.”
Fierre rolled her eyes, impatiently.
“There are ways of travelling a long distance besides that door, Gailt. Fissival can teleport. They do it all the time. So can Wistram. There are dozens of cities capable of it! And other ways besides.”
“So why’s the door so good?”
“It’s because the door’s cheap. And it doesn’t require a spell circle or [Mages] to operate. Any gang would love to get their hands on it because it’s cheaper than what exists. Not because it’s unique. Now, shut up. I want you to send the contents of this message to Yale in Invrisil.”
She slid a bit of parchment she’d been writing on over the desk. Gailt read the message.
“There’s going to be a raid on the [Merchant] caravan taking a bunch of clothes south past Invrisil? Ooh, I’d better go buy all the fancy silk up before the price skyrockets.”
“Gailt. I’m not in the mood.”
Fierre crossed her arms. The [Mage] sighed, but sent the [Message]. He was yawning as Fierre scribbled another [Message] and she could see him about to ask for a drinks break he wouldn’t get. Then he sat bolt upright.
“Message from Filk! It’s loud and confidential! Mage’s Guild!”
Fierre looked up in alarm. Someone was going through official channels? And paying a lot? She waited. Gailt looked around, opened his mouth, and then his lips compressed. He reached out and grabbed her quill and a bit of parchment and began to write. Fierre could see his eyes staring blankly ahead as his quill danced; even he wasn’t actively reading the message, just relaying it. He mechanically folded the parchment, then handed it to her. Only then did his eyes clear.
“Dead gods damnit, I hate doing that! That’s why I quit working at the Mage’s Guild! What does it say?”
Fierre ignored him. She was staring down at the message on the parchment. And her heart, which beat slower in her cold body nevertheless skipped a beat.
The Stitch Witch has a daughter. Thirty gold to alert the Order of Seasons immediately.
Fierre’s head snapped up. This time Gailt’s eyes didn’t unfocus. He grimaced and rubbed at his head.
“It’s from Daufica. Someone just paid her to send a [Message] to you. They want to say that the [Message] you just got is verified by truth spell—Daufica’s saying she can see the confirmation. Stamped and signed and all. And he’s telling you that the Order of Seasons—”
“—is paying money to confirm the Stitch Witch is near Filk. They want her exact location. They’re offering gold too.”
Fierre completed the sentence. She’d heard the exact same thing. But like the other [Informants], she’d decided staying alive was more important than any number of gold coins. But who was sending the [Messages]?
“Gailt, who was—”
“That’s it. Sorry, fellow’s gone.”
What? Fierre snapped at Gailt as he lowered his hand.
“Who were they? Who sent that [Message]? Ask Daufica, now!”
“Fierre! I can’t do that. She’s a [Fixer]. That’s confidentiality—”
Fierre slammed one hand on the table. Gailt jumped.
“What did he look like? Tell Daufica this isn’t negotiable! Whoever it is wants me to take on the same curse that killed the Ratwhisperer! Who was it?”
The [Mage] hesitated, and then put a hand to his brow. Fierre couldn’t hear the invisible argument that lasted for eight minutes, but eventually he lowered his hand, sweating. He looked up at her. Shrugged.
“Hat. Dark clothes. Big smile. That’s it. Human. Pale skin. He was also armed. But he was talking about [Witches].”
“That’s it? She didn’t get anything else?”
Fierre sagged in her chair. The Vampire girl stared at the ceiling, frustrated. Then Gailt spoke slowly.
“She thinks he was a [Witch Hunter].”
Fierre blinked. She sat up. And she looked at Gailt. He stared back at her. That changed a lot. She stared at the [Message] from the Order of Seasons asking for information. At the message from Filk.
How did you keep Ryoka safe? Make sure the [Witch] was dead. Especially one like this. Ryoka said she was fine. Was she? Fierre wanted to ask. But either way…
The Order of Seasons was a [Knight] Order. Terandria. Fierre consulted her notes on them. She had a dossier about most major organizations. They didn’t kill innocent people. And they had a reason to hate Belavierr. She could tell them and earn a very sizeable salary.
But there was a curse. And Fierre didn’t want to cross that. If she asked Ryoka—or would Belavierr know? Would that trigger the curse? Because now Fierre was tempted. Gailt was watching her, very nervously. The Vampire girl stared at the blank parchment she used.
Her fingers drummed restlessly on the table, next to the quill and ink. Gailt nervously edged towards the door.
Day 65 – Fierre
She didn’t write a message to the Order of Seasons. Not when she was asked, and not for two days after. Fierre had a few good reasons why she should: they could chase off or defeat Belavierr. They were a decent Order who didn’t cast mass-destruction spells. They could actually take on a monster like Belavierr. And they paid well. But she had a few other good reasons not to take the offer.
She didn’t trust the [Witch Hunter]. He could be aware of the curse and hoping she’d die trying or that she had the ability to survive it. Fierre could see buying some powerful magical protections—but she still didn’t trust the motive. Also, Ryoka had said Belavierr was fine. Maybe the Stitch Witch was helping Ryoka? Her daughter was in Riverfarm. She had a daughter?
But the main reason, the crucial one was that Fierre really didn’t want to die. And she knew there was a curse. The lowliest [Informants] knew there was a curse. Twice now, the Order of Seasons had upped its bounty. They were offering four hundred gold coins for someone to verify Belavierr was there beyond reasonable doubt.
Fierre had that. Oh, yes she did. But she also knew three people had died trying to inform the Order of Seasons. One had been strangled by her collar. Another had been pulled in front of a wagon and run over despite having ample time to roll away. Their clothes had stitched themselves into the ground. The last—Fierre hadn’t even been able to get a good description.
The curse was alive and well. So Fierre refused to try, even though her fingers itched to write the message. Part of her was simply vexed the Order of Seasons was hesitating. Four dead [Informants] didn’t paint you a picture? But then again—Belavierr had a reputation for doing stuff like this. Fierre had asked for more information on her and it had been—cautiously—relayed.
Stuffed dolls that looked like her and turned violent. People with faces she’d stitched to look like hers. Blood debts and pacts, signed which made people turn on each other to protect her, or let her get away. People swearing they saw her, only for it to be revealed that it was a mass-illusion. A delusion. Magic cast on a tapestry. Rumors.
That was the ability of a high-level [Witch]. Part of Fierre wanted to doubt Belavierr was even in Riverfarm. But Ryoka had asked by name. And provided a brief description. Fierre shuddered. Orange ringed eyes. That was some kind of magical effect if you ever heard of one.
And she had a daughter. How much was that information worth? Fierre sat in her office near midmorning, absently playing with a quill. After a moment, she shook her head. She’d been doing this for nearly two days straight. Always coming to the same conclusion.
“No. Nope. It’s too risky. Ryoka says it’s fine. It’s too risky.”
She put down the quill. Stared at it. Pushed it to the edge of her desk. Then she flicked it off. With a sigh of relief, Fierre sat back. She put her feet up on the desk. Stared at them, sat back up and brushed the bits of dirt off. She sighed.
“I have to get back to work. Be safe, not greedy. Greedy gets you killed.”
She shook her head, sighing deeper. Fierre put her head down on her desk, then decided to do some paperwork. Absently, she began sorting her notes, adjusting them. She was creating a portfolio of the world, storing old details, information. Anything could be useful. She decided to add a note about Riverfarm to her files. She already had a substantial one on Ryoka. She also had a great filing system she’d come up with herself. It even made it easy to append notes. Absently, Fierre mumbled as she wrote.
“Riverfarm possess [Riding] force. Known as Darksky Riders. Cross-check with [Emperor] Skills? Current population est. 2,000+. Notable inhabitants: Lady Rie Valerund. [Steward] Prost. Former Farmer? Uh…”
She bit her lip.
“Visited—visiting Coven. Mavika, alias Mavika the Raven. Outstanding bounty. Eloise. Former [Lady] of Terandria. Wiskeria, Silver-rank Adventurer, the Celestial Trackers. Hedag the [Executioner] (also [Witch]), outstanding bounty. Alevica the Witch Runner. Outstanding bounty. Nanette, apprentice of Califor. Califor…no known alias or bounty. Uh—one, two, three…”
She paused. Yawned. Too many sleepless nights over the stupid Belavierr thing. Even a Vampire needed rest and she was a night person. She counted. Seven? That wasn’t right. She frowned. Then slapped her forehead and rolled her eyes.
“Oh, right. Belavierr. The Stitch Witch. Mother of Wiskeria. Outstanding boun—”
The quill froze as Fierre reached for the inkpot. She stared down at the parchment where Riverfarm was listed. Her eyes fixed on Belavierr’s name.
“Oh no. No, no, nononono—that doesn’t count!”
She sat up. Looked around wildly. Every muscle in Fierre’s body tensed as her stomach lurched. Nothing in the small office moved. Fierre held still, and then relaxed. She laughed, shakily.
And then she heard the scream.
This is the tale of a [Tailor]. He was sewing with a steel needle, carefully stitching a line in a dress he was adjusting. He lifted the needle and it tore through his finger. The [Tailor] stared at the hole in his flesh. Blood began welling in the ragged wound.
Then he began to scream. His apprentices looked up and saw the needle flash past them. Then more needles, tearing loose of the needle books and cases. They flashed out of the shop. One apprentice was too slow to jump out of the way. The needles went straight through her.
Another shop was a [Shopkeeper]’s store. The needles on display shot out of the glass, flying in a swarm, tiny flashing shapes that shot down the street, curving, joining more that flew from a [Blacksmith]’s forge, off the anvil, out of a home. Through a [Guardsman] and his armor. They flew towards a small back alley. An iron door.
Fierre heard the screams. She looked up and edged to the back of the room, staring at both doors leading into the small chamber.
The doors to her room were solid iron. Not enchanted, but a sturdy barrier against any usual threat or [Guardsman] if there was a raid. Fierre had a trap door that led to the basement where she could flee, or she could go through the shop entrance. She looked at the trap door, then the locked doors. She hesitated a moment too long.
The needles hit the door like sharp rain. Fierre jerked back in horror as a dozen glittering tips appeared in the door. They’d gone through the solid iron! But there they lodged. Outside, people were screaming, calling the alarm in the streets of Reizmelt. But the deadly rain had stopped.
Fierre stared at the glittering needles lodged halfway through the door vibrating. She laughed, hysterically, seeing them straining. But the metal held them. Fierre edged towards the second iron door, fumbling for her key. The needles twisted to follow her. She froze. Then she heard a scream of tortured metal. The door began to bend. The needles began sliding towards her.
The Vampire girl’s breath caught. She stared at the needles. Then she screamed as the first one tore its way loose. She flung up her arms.
It took five minutes for the Watch to find the two dead bodies. [Guards] raced towards the scene, weapons raised, following the trail the needles had taken. They’d gone through everything. People followed, against common instinct. They came to a spot familiar to a few in the crowd, [Guards] included. An Opener’s workspace.
The door was torn open. Everything was silent inside. The crowd halted, afraid to look closer. The [Guards] hesitated, and then shouted for people to keep back. Inside, the room was silent.
Shredded. The parchment on the desk, the desk—even the magically protected drawers were destroyed. The needles had ripped everything to incomprehensible shreds. The room was still. Save for a body lying on the floor, the needles lying still.
And then the body sat up. What looked like a very young woman sat up. Her clothes were tattered. Needles covered her. But the holes were already closing.
Her pupils were red, her eyes bloodshot. Her fingers clawed, teeth biting. Fierre spat a needle and yanked three out of her throat. She stared at them, then began pulling out more sewing needles. They fell to the ground.
Some were wood. Others iron. Or steel. But there was no silver. There was a very angry Vampire. She stomped out of her ruined office, through the back door, ignoring the gathering crowd, pulling her hood to cover her features. She found Gailt in his usual watering hole. He took one look at the blood and her shredded clothes and dropped his drink.
She thrust a bit of parchment into his face.
“Send this to the Order of Seasons. And collect the bounty.”
Fierre’s voice rasped. Gailt read the [Message] and went pale. He began shaking his head and Fierre grabbed him.
“No! Not on your life! I’ll die!”
“I just tripped the curse. Send it now, or I’ll take this needle and show you what happened to me.”
The grip that held the [Mage] was terrifyingly strong. And there was a resonance to Fierre’s voice that terrified the man. He stared at her and thought of the curse. Then he realized he couldn’t breathe. He choked. Fierre held him and stared at his face. The [Mage] looked at the parchment, at her face. He tried to breathe. And then slowly, jerked. Nodded.
She let go of him. Gailt collapsed onto the table. Shakily, he put his finger towards his temple, cringing, eyes darting. Fierre stood over him, swaying. Both looked around. Waiting.
Nothing happened. No needles flew. The curse was burnt. Gailt collapsed on the table, trembling, as the force of the reply from Terandria rocked him back in his seat. He began muttering.
“Yes! Confirm! Yes! We’ll do a truth—yes!”
He shuddered and his eyes crossed. Then he blinked. He looked up. Fierre stared at him, teeth bared. He nodded.
The girl stared at him. Gailt nodded, trembling. Fierre blinked. Then she sighed and let go of Gailt. He stared at her. He opened his mouth to scream at her. Then he saw Fierre reach up. She pulled at a needle on the side of her head, where it had been buried up to the point. She drew it out as he turned white and passed out. Then her eyes rolled up and she collapsed on the ground.
And across the world. Knight-Commander Calirn shouted a word like an avalanche. And a [Knight] and a group of [Hunters] looked up.
Day 65 – Laken
We’re riding together, talking. The horse is moving under me, and I’m resting my hands on the saddle horn. Trying not to look like I’m clinging to the saddle.
I hate riding. I can’t control a horse, and I’m fairly certain they know I’m blind. To be frank, a blind man leading a horse is enshrined in the hall of bad ideas. But I put up with it because the horse I’m riding is content to follow Gralton and Yitton. And they’re good riders. And because we’re chatting.
About Riverfarm of course. But their lands as well. Since Belavierr’s incident with Rehanna, I’ve gotten daily updates and never mind the cost.
It’s not been that…bad. Troubling, yes. But nothing worse has happened with Belavierr, so I consider that a boon. There had been more incidents of course. But Mavika was predictable and minor given what could have happened. And Hedag?
“No. It’s not an issue, Yitton.”
I patiently turn my head. The [Lord]’s been objecting to what went down for the last thirty minutes. I shake my head as Yitton replies in a strained voice.
“I don’t deny that the outcome was beneficial, Emperor Laken. But the question is one of law.”
“I’d do the same thing in her place. In fact, I will do it. There is nothing wrong with what this [Witch], Hedag did, Yitton. Unless you disagree? Gralton?”
Yitton bites his tongue and makes a sound. No one would disagree. And Gralton’s uncharacteristically silent. Sarcastically, fed up with the debate, I go on.
“What she did was undeniably good.”
“She violated the law.”
“I would never fault her for it.”
“Yes, your Majesty. But it is the principle of the thing. The law must apply to all, or it is not law.”
“Well then, I’ll change the law to allow it.”
“Your Majesty! The people of your empire have rights!”
“Not to that, Yitton!”
I take a deep breath. I calm down a bit, hearing silence.
“I’m sorry. I know you’re making a reasoned point. But I don’t think it’s wrong. And if Lancrel’s people object or this Councilwoman Beatica or that [Mayor] I’ve heard so much about complain, I will deal with it. But I’m not ordering her punished. And when I get back, I’ll sort it out. But as far as I’m concerned, that’s proof of [Witches] being a good thing.”
“I’m afraid I must disagree, your Majesty.”
There’s a tone in Yitton’s voice that makes me grind my teeth. He can be more stubborn than Gralton or me put together! Sixty…five days is more than enough time to find out what you don’t like in someone. But he has a point. I sigh.
“I’m sure there’s time for reasoned debate. In fact, I’d love to introduce you to Ryoka. She seems to have hit the issue on the same points as you. We’ll address it when we get there. Let’s change the subject. Gralton? What news of your lands? Is it raining there? I hope Riverfarm likes all this rain we’re bringing them.”
Sourly, I glance up. It’s raining on my oiled cloak. No umbrellas while riding, thanks. Gralton pauses.
“I do have news. My people are telling me there’s a bunch of sick bastards on my land. So I told ‘em to quarantine them like you said, Laken. That will help?”
“You actually remembered our discussion about the Black Death? Wait—sickness?”
The man grunts.
“Shouldn’t I? You don’t forget something like that. And I have lots of dogs. And people. There’s always something. Doesn’t sound too bad. I’ll hire some [Healers]. Always helps. Not as bad as [Witches]. Byres?”
“Nothing from my lands, or so my wife claims.”
The [Lord]’s voice is a bit short. I haven’t heard the last from him. I sigh and rub my head. I’m out of sorts. I haven’t been sleeping well. And the rain’s falling on my head. Despite it, my cloak feels hot. I shrug at it, irritably.
And then I hear pounding hoofbeats in the mud. I turn my head and hear a voice.
“Your Majesty! A [Message]! Urgent!”
“Gamel? What is it? Riverfarm?”
I twist, suddenly worried and Gralton halts my horse. Gamel halts, panting. I hear a horse, his urgent tone, something rustling.
“No, sire! It’s from Terandria! The Order of Seasons is sending you a [Message]—”
“The Order of Seasons? What does it say?”
Gralton leans over. I hear Gamel exclaim. The [Dog Lord] frowns. The rain’s falling, but I’m shrugging off my cloak. It’s hot. I hear him muttering, reading out loud.
“They’re coming—no, they’re notifying you they’re sending—what in the name of—”
Impatiently, I turn my head.
“Yitton, can you read it out loud? Gralton, hand it to—”
And then I feel it. One second it’s gone, and then it’s blazing in my head. I shout and the horse rears. I can’t grab at the reins. I can feel myself falling, hear a bellow from Gralton. And Yitton catches me halfway down. But that’s not what makes me shout. I can’t hear Gamel shouting at me, Yitton’s voice.
It’s in my head! No! My eyes! It’s so—I push at my eyes.
“What’s—god! What’s happening—”
“Laken! What is it?”
I flail wildly. It’s right there! What is—I’ve never—
And then I realize. It’s light.
Light. In my head. A beacon. Blazing. I can feel it. Coming north. And west. From Riverfarm. I sit up, shaking. It’s burning. I twist as the others swing from the saddles.
“Your Majesty, what’s happening?”
“Are we under attack? Is it Riverfarm?”
Gralton draws a sword. Yitton’s supporting me. I shake my head. Croak.
He pauses. Then gets what I mean. I hear an intake of breath. All I can do is feel the beacon in my head. They’re there. Intruders! A fiery blaze. And she’s there too. I can feel them. Gralton whistles. I hear a horse trotting.
“It’ll take me three days to get to my estates! I can bring an army to Riverfarm in two days!”
He doesn’t wait for a reply, but takes off, roaring for the caravan and his guards. I stand up, shaking. Gamel’s chasing a horse. Yitton supports me.
“What is it?”
“The Order of Seasons sent someone. Belavierr’s there too. They’re—trouble, Yitton. Something is happening in Riverfarm. And I’m not there.”
Five days. I try to shut my eyes, but the light’s still there. I should have sent Gralton the instant the coven arrived.
“I can’t leave the Goblins. If I do—”
Can I? I leave, and what does Yitton do? The [Guards]—I hesitate. Yitton makes the decision for me. He snaps as people gallop towards us, shouting urgent questions.
“We push on. Fastest speed. Tell the [Mages] to prepare [Light] spells for night riding. We’re pushing on through the night! We will be at Riverfarm in exactly five days!”
He overrides the objections, snapping orders with uncharacteristic force. The people withdraw. I’m still standing. Yitton speaks urgently to me.
“Laken. If you ride now, there is no guarantee you’ll be able to stop whatever’s there. Wait for Gralton to bring an army to bear. He can muster thousands. More if need be. This could be targeted at you. A magic-user can easily attack you with a small escort. You cannot risk your life.”
I know. I know that. But I stand there. Listening to Yitton talk about five days. Riverfarm holding out. And I think of a [Witch] that could hang a village in a night. A blazing [Knight]. Fire and conspiracy and death.
Durene’s there. Prost, Rie. Ryoka, Frostwing, Bismarck. I turn my head north and west. And I climb in the carriage as it rolls forwards, as the caravan doubles its pace and Gralton and his escort race ahead.
I know in my marrow, in the burning in my eyes, that we will be too late.