Lady of Shadows: Part 10
Prologue and Other Parts
After a few terse questions to Neren concerning his cargo and passengers, Abhivada glanced up towards the walls of the fort and I felt a brief psionic pulse as she signalled for the gates to be opened to us. Neren and Enamdis climbed aboard, and the silt skimmer juddered back into motion as Bayl and Chanya bent their backs to the capstan.
We passed under the outer gateway, seeing wary eyes peering down at us through the murder holes. There were massive, glass-walled tanks of braxat bile up there, I knew, each fitted with a spigot that could quickly be used to douse anyone passing through the gateway with viscous, green-yellow fluid that would melt flesh from bone in seconds. I knew this because I had designed the tanks myself three years before, after seeing the appalling effects of undiluted braxat bile upon an unfortunate (and terminally clumsy) slave. At the time, it seemed to me that such an agonising demise was a fitting end for enemies of my lord and husband.
The gateway led us into a gloomy courtyard, over which the fort’s twin towers seemed to loom like guards escorting a condemned prisoner. It was much cooler here than outside the fort, for the walls surrounding us were so high that the sun’s burning rays could reach the stone-flagged ground for only a couple of hours around midday.
Neren approached, his staff thumping against the wooden deck. “We will spend the night here,” he said, smiling. “The fort’s senior templar has invited us to share the evening meal with her and her sister templars.”
“Truly?” I asked, surprised. Such generosity was uncharacteristic of Abhivada.
Neren’s smile broadened. “She actually only invited me. But where I go, my crew goes. I’m not going to feast on delicacies while Enamdis and the rest sit and shiver out here, nibbling on ship’s biscuit and dried inix.”
He lowered his voice then, and his smile was replaced by a look of concern. “I won’t deny this could be dangerous for you, Ysuun. It’s best you say as little as possible. I’ve mentioned we were attacked by sand devils, but I’ve said nothing of your earlier encounter with them. All she knows is that you are an itinerant healer we picked up in the wastes.” He hesitated and looked away. “I am afraid the younger templar might have gotten the impression I picked you up for… umm… less than noble reasons.”
I probably ought to have been outraged at the suggestion that a mere girl, who had probably only been a templar for a year at most, might believe me to be some noble rake’s casually-acquired (and doubtless soon-to-be-discarded) plaything, but the irony was too rich for me to feel much other than slightly chastened amusement. It seemed that the foolish girl had approximately the same opinion of me that I had of her. Neren’s very obvious discomfiture only made it funnier.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone turn quite that shade of crimson before,” I said.
He looked like he didn’t know whether to grin or scowl, but his face soon returned to an expression of almost parental concern. “I doubt any of the templars would be able to identify you as a magic-user,” he said softly, “but don’t feel tempted to use any while we’re here.”
“She’s not a fool,” Bayl rumbled from just behind us.
Neren looked startled, though only for a moment. “I still haven’t gotten used to how quietly you can move, master mul,” he said, his smile returning.
“Bayl sniffed. “Most people don’t. Course, that’s sometimes ‘cos they don’t live long enough.”
Neren raised an eyebrow. “Now, master mul, I know that’s not a threat. I know that because Enamdis is standing right behind you, and if it had been a threat, your voice would have gone up an octave right at the end there.”
“What?” Bayl sounded genuinely puzzled. He can – very occasionally – be adorably slow on the uptake.
Enamdis clouted him over the head playfully. “Because by that point, I’d have been twisting your balls off, little man!”
“Returning to the subject at hand,” Neren interjected smoothly, “I know Ysuun is no fool. But I also know how hard some untrained magic-users can find it to control their powers, especially when in a stressful situation.”
I had a hard job keeping my face straight at that. Of all of us, I was the one least in danger here. I was coming home, after all. The only difficulty would be finding the opportunity to speak to Abhivada without Neren, Enamdis or any of their crew present. Oh, and resisting the urge to pick her subordinate up by her prettily-painted toes and toss her out of a high window.
“Not a single forbidden Word will cross my lips,” I said mildly.
Neren, Enamdis, Bayl, myself and the silt-skimmer’s surviving crew sat around a large, circular table in a lavishly-appointed receiving chamber attached to Abhivada’s quarters near the top of the eastern tower. The table was old and crudely made, obviously out of place among the silken drapes and velvet cushions. It was probably the only table in the fort large enough to accommodate us all. Abhivada joined us, along with her impatient and ill-dressed underling, whom she introduced as Jorani, and a pretty but rather plump girl of about the same age, named Kalliyan, who blinked sleepily at us as she entered. There are always three templars stationed at Bremil Fort at any one time, and they sleep in shifts to ensure there are always two on duty at any time, day or night. Kalliyan had clearly just awoken, meaning that either Abhivada or Jorani would probably retire early from the meal.
A pair of shaven-headed slaves brought trays piled high with ceramic bowls filled with spiced beans, dates, cubes of fried snake, inix and erdlu meat on skewers, and even a plate of alrasb, an elven delicacy of silt serpent cooked in faro leaves. The dates were so old that sugar had crystallised on their wrinked black skins, and the alrasb was second rate at best, with too much spice to hide the taste of the slightly over-ripe silt serpent flesh, but it was the best meal any of us had enjoyed for quite some time.
Abhivada was cordial enough, choosing to take no visible offence that Neren had brought seven uninvited guests with him to share her hospitality. I knew her well enough to realise that this had come as no surprise, and had in fact been her intention, for of course the whole purpose of this meal was to give me an excuse to enter the fort so that she could hear what I had to tell.
As the slaves entered with a second amphora of wine and began to refill everyone’s cups, I quietly excused myself, ostensibly to visit the water closet a short distance down the corridor.
Once in the corridor, I waited. My heart sank when Jorani appeared. But her former air of arrogant contempt was gone. Indeed, she looked rather self-conscious. It seemed to take an effort for her to meet my eyes.
“El… elder sister,” she stammered. “Sister Abhivada apologises that she cannot speak to you in person. Of… of course you will understand the circumstances…”
“Yes, yes,” I replied, actually more annoyed at myself for not having realised already that, as hostess, Abhivada could hardly have abandoned the meal herself to come and speak to me.
Jorani’s mouth opened and closed several times, but no words came out. I realised that she was terrified of me. It occurred to me then that I was probably the highest-ranking templar the poor girl had ever had reason to speak to. In truth, I do not often consider my own position within the hierarchy of the Templarate. As one of the Temple of Thought’s magical researchers, in practise I only really answer to High Consort Siemhouk and to the Shadow King himself. I had been thinking of Abhivada as senior to me, as she had been when last I had any real interaction with her, but she had always been one of those rare few templars who seemed to have no real personal ambition. She would have risen several ranks simply through length of service, but it was certain that I was now far above her in seniority. I found this strangely unsettling.
“I am, as Sister Abhivada has doubtless guessed, returning from a mission,” I said, keeping my voice low as much to calm Jorani as to avoid being over-heard. “You may tell her that I was sent to confirm rumours of sand devils near the Dragon’s Bowl.”
Jorani’s eyes widened. But there was excitement now mingled with her fear. “And are they true, then? That’s what’s been attacking the merchant caravans up there? I’ve seen a sand devil before. My father bought one once as a gift for my mother, but it kept attacking the other slaves and he had to have it put down. Nasty, vicious thing it was. I wonder if all the stories were true? I mean, why skin all the merchants but leave all those valuable trade goods behind? Oh…” Abruptly realising she’d been babbling, and whom she’d been babbling to, Jorani snapped her mouth shut.
Throwing her out of a window was looking even more appealing by the moment. But I restrained myself. “How old are you, sister?” I asked coldly.
“Nearly nineteen. Old enough to know better. That’s what Sister Abhivada says all the time.” A hint of her former bitter surliness was creeping back into her tone. I didn’t like it.
“Sister Abhivada is wise. You should listen to her.”
“But she’s an old woman and still so low in rank!” Jorani wailed. “I aim to be a high consort by the time I’m as old as her. What wisdom can she have for me? I don’t want to take her path. I don’t want to waste my life here!”
“Sister Abhivada is old, yes. She has outlived many templars with your… more ambitious approach to life. And no life lived in service to the Shadow King is wasted, sister. To say your life may be wasted borders on disloyalty.”
Jorani blanched at that, but her desperate frustration outweighed her fear still. “But you have reached high rank, elder sister, and you are much younger than Sister Abhivada! What did you do to attract the attention of the Shadow King?”
It was an honest enough question, for all that it was impertinent. “Our lord and husband chose me for my skill with magic. I learned to use it to heal, rather than merely to destroy, and to infuse it into physical objects. It is a rare gift. But, perhaps more importantly, I can see how things fit together, how they work, and how they can be improved. Machines or spells. Potions or people. In some ways they are the same. The Shadow King has a great interest in such things.” I glared disdainfully at Jorani’s half-naked body. “He sets much greater store on such skills than he does upon physical beauty, no matter how brazenly it is displayed.”
“That is easy for you to say,” Jorani muttered. “You are both beautiful and skilled.” Then she blushed, as though only then realising she had spoken aloud.
I was taken aback. But I suppose someone as young and sheltered as Jorani had seen very few half-elves in her short life. The exotic strangeness of my eyes and ears must have seemed like beauty to her naïve eyes. There was, of course, the possibility that this innocence was all a sham, and that her words had been a deliberate attempt at flattery. But, somehow, for all her faults, Jorani seemed too honest for such artifice. Dressed as she was, the thought of her being capable of any form of subtlety was, frankly, laughable.
“We stray from the point of our conversation, sister,” I said, rather more severely than I had intended. “You may further inform Sister Abhivada that I have confirmed the rumours and will be reporting directly to the Shadow King tomorrow when we arrive in Nibenay. I recommend that she communicate with the Temple telepathically and tell them of our imminent arrival.”
Abhivada’s most significant talent – and presumably the reason she had been stationed here at Bremil Fort – was her unusually long-range telepathy. We had joked, we young shadow-brides, that she could sense, and punish, any mischief from the other side of the Naggaramakam, and probably from the other side of the Ringing Mountains too if necessary. My friend, Chanthou, had even asserted that Abhivada would still know what we were up to even when she was dead and her spirit fading into the Grey. But Chanthou had always had a rather morbid sense of humour.
Jorani was nodding. “She is already going to talk to them tonight. We have finally captured the Kirre, but we can’t spare the guards to escort her back to the city for her execution.”
“Who?” I asked, bewildered. Why would a kirre warrant execution? Surely such a beast would be sent to the arena? And who uses the word ‘execution’ to refer to the killing of a wild animal, anyway?
“Apologies, elder sister.” Jorani’s dark eyes lit up at the realisation that she knew something I didn’t know. “The sand devils haven’t been the only ones attacking travellers in these parts. A band of feral elves, led by a sadistic hellion who calls herself ‘the Kirre’, have been murdering and robbing people on the road to Cromlin for nearly a year. But we finally caught up to them. It was a complete slaughter: we butchered every last stinking one of them except their leader. Such a quick death would have been too good for her. No, she’s to be sent back to Nibenay so they can stick her on a spike over the Mekillot Gate.” She grinned. A forthright young woman, yes, and rather a bloodthirsty one too, it seemed. She might do well in the Temple of War.
But her news wasn’t really of any great interest to me, beyond my quiet satisfaction that there were now fewer elves in the world than there had been a few days before. The public impalement of an infamous bandit leader would doubtless cheer the citizenry of Nibenay, reminding them that the Shadow King’s Law, for all its rigid severity, was there for their own good, to keep them and their city safe and secure. As my lord and husband would say, “Even the most worthless miscreant can improve the world, if only by being forcibly removed from it.”
“I had best return to the meal,” I said, “before my travelling companions start to think I have a bladder the size of the city reservoir.”
Jorani giggled, then hurriedly stifled it as she remembered who I was. I swept past her as she bowed her head in respectful submission – an effect that was rather spoiled by the half-snort of stifled laughter that burst from her as nervousness and delight warred within her.
Much to my surprise, I found I didn’t much want to toss her out of a window anymore. Not a high window anyway.