Traitor’s Hilt – Chapter 07

Professor Karialis shook her head, her face wearing that disapproving look she used on  students.  It had been a long time since Tsaria had seen that look directed at her, and of all the things said and unsaid by her instructors and trainers, this was the one that had the greatest effect on her.  She held her head high, her face neutral, her eyes following her instructor as the older woman circled the room, moving toward her desk chair.

“You realize that even if no one else heard you speaking, the look of the blade after it had finished with him gave you away,” Karialis said, arriving at her chair and pulling it out from under the desk.  “It was clever enough to try to trick the younger acolytes by muttering as if you were spellcasting, but if any of them happened to notice what the blade was doing, the rumor will spread through the mountain within a day.”

They were in Professor Karialis’ quarters again.  It was evening, nearly curfew time for the acolytes, but the Justicars could move about as they pleased.  The freedom that came with her new rank was still settling into Tsaria’s mind, and the weight of what she’d done to Jersen seemed like a distant threat.  Grob stood in the corner, silently watching them with empty eye-sockets.  Karialis sank slowly into the comfortable desk chair, motioning for Tsaria to sit across from her on the larger leather chair.  Karialis waited, quietly, for Tsaria to explain her chosen action.

“It is more important now than ever that I show power,” Tsaria said, evenly.  “His accusation was right – and if I had just killed him, other acolytes and justicars may still think I wasn’t strong enough to be worthy of my rank.  Now… there’s no doubt.”

Karialis sighed.  “Again, the appearance of strength outranks the intelligent course of action.”  She closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them and looked right into Tsaria’s eyes.  “How many times I have wished I was training you at Xantallis, instead of here.”

Tsaria looked up at her.  “I can’t help but think that with my… gift… that I’d have been shunned from your home.  Do you think they’d have taken me?”

The instructor smiled, nodding slightly. “Yes, even as well as you’ve proven yourself here, I wonder if you’d have done even better there.  You are one of the most gifted students I’ve seen in over a hundred years.  You’ve mastered spells and curses that even some of the necromancers can’t perform.  That combined with your fighting skill make you the deadliest justicar in a long, long time.”  Karialis sighed.  “That is why Kadax believes you’ll be the one to take his place.”

Tsaria took a deep breath, exhaling slowly to drive out the anger that thought produced.  “I’ll have to disappear.  My assignment abroad has been posted; I’ve been ordered to pass into Tradsina and join a small group not far from Njannotta.” She shrugged.  “It’d be very easy to just… not arrive at my post.”

Karialis nodded.  “Rumors are everywhere about what really happened, and some even may prove to be of help to you.  I overheard one of the younger acolytes telling a friend that they heard you’d turned that fool completely to dust.”  She chuckled quietly.  “They’ll believe anything, some of the children who study here.  Brought up as slaves, knowing nothing but scrubbing, cooking, carrying, and being beaten.”  She paused.  “You know, no matter what Kadax thinks you may or may not be capable of, the other knights and justicars will be very nervous – threatened by your power.”

“I know.”  She looked at her tea again, then said, “I suppose if I’d been happy with my life for the past 6 years, it’d be harder to think about trying to escape this.”

Karialis didn’t answer.  She merely watched, and listened.

“You know, for 6 years I have dreamed of ways I could escape.  If I could just get out of the mountain, I could find some way to make my way. I’ve had dreams of joining up with a traveling circus for a while…” She laughed, bitterly, remembering the nomadic family she had grown up with.  “After a few years it was clear that the only chance I’d have would be when I had a posting abroad. All I had to do was survive that long.  Now, they’ve given me all the tools I need to not only disappear and stay invisible to them, but to survive out in the rest of the world.”  Tsaria smirked at this.  “I mean, I remember the circus used to hire local mercenaries to guard them from one city to another… who better to protect a merchant caravan than a shadowknight in disguise?”

Karialis snickered.  “It’d be quite a rude awakening for the bandit gangs.”  She took a deep breath, then continued.  “You do know that they’ll send people after you if it’s discovered that you deserted.”

Tsaria nodded.  “I doubt I’ll encounter a shadowknight that will recognize me out in the rest of the world.  Besides, if I do… they’ll be more interested in collecting my head than in escaping to spread the word.”

Karialis rose from her seat, crossed the room to a bookshelf, and pulled a small box from the top shelf.  “Have you learned how to cast your harm-shield?” she asked.  Tsaria nodded.  It had taken a lot of re-reading of the instructions, and even more practice.  Tsaria was still uncomfortable with the feeling that lingered for hours afterward, the sensation of slight pressure on all her skin.  Karialis opened the box, and drew out a fine silver chain with a small pendant.  After returning the box to its shelf, she turned to Tsaria and placed it around her neck.

“This is another of those things that no one should see you with,” she said, taking a step back.  Tsaria held up the pendant to look at it- a small, coin-sized disk of silver colored metal with no markings or etchings anywhere.  She thought it plain at first, but then realized it had been polished to a near-mirror shine, and while it looked very old, it had no scratches anywhere on its surface.  “I doubt anyone in this mountain would recognize it.  Even so, I wouldn’t suggest you take the chance.  Any sign of allegiance to any but the order of shadowknights will mean death.”  Tsaria looked up at her, smiling, knowing they were both thinking the same thing.

“That will stop the Guardians of Xantallis from attacking you.” Karialis said, her expression returning to neutral.  “Of course, the lesser wandering dead in the outer ruins will still chase you around, but even if they caught you they wouldn’t be able to overpower you.  Getting through the outer part of Zhan’tiol will still require you to be unseen.  There are many people there, human and dark-elf, that would welcome a shadowknight into the city, but if they know about you, they’ll wonder what business brings you, and word may eventually leak back here to the mountain.  And besides, if they find out you’re going to the ruins, you’ll definitely get questioned about it.”

Tsaria stood, and tucked the pendant away under her arming clothes.  “I don’t know when I’ll go there… I have a lot of things to think about once I get outside the mountain, to figure out what I want to do.  Shall I carry a message to anyone there for you?”

Karialis smiled, shaking her head.  “No need.  You go on now, girl.  And good luck to you.”

Tsaria moved to the door, but paused on the threshold.  What could she possibly say, to make clear what she felt?

“Professor… you’re the only thing that has kept me holding on to the person I was before.”  Karialis had turned away from the door, but Tsaria saw her nod.  Then she strode out of the room, making her way to the armory to gather what she needed to take leave of the mountain.

*****

The market area of the city of Dalidesi was crowded.  Tsaria willed herself to relax as she entered the mob of people.  Half of her screamed that she was amongst people who would kill her the moment they discovered what she was, the other half calmly replying that with her nondescript clothes and armor, there wasn’t anything to give her away.  This silent argument continued as she strode along the rough streets, learning the city’s shape before entering any given building.

Outwardly, there were no defining signs that a shadowknight had left the mountain.  Her instructors had been telling her for months that Dalidesi was to be avoided – the city closest to Shadow Mountain would have eventually noticed if her kind often appeared there.  And because of that, Tsaria felt at least somewhat secure stopping here to look for work, food, or rest.  After wandering the streets for most of the morning, it occurred to her that what she was really looking for was a gentle entry into the outside world – a slow dive into the ocean of people she’d been separated from for so long.

Ahh… it has been so long since I’ve felt the sun, the sword whispered.

She smiled, then replied in her own whisper, “I could give you more, but I’d gather a lot of attention walking around with a drawn blade.”  She hadn’t heard it chuckle quite like that for a long time.

The city was dull, almost devoid of color, as many large cities were.  Even Tsaria’s earth-colored arming clothes seemed brightly hued from underneath the dusty grey steel plates she wore.  Few plants sat in windows, and fewer trees growing between buildings, reaching for the sun where the nearby buildings would allow it, added color in small patches.  The people were dressed well, but it seemed that the lack of color was contagious.  Most of the people on the street passed her without a word to her, or to anyone else. They just seemed to mind their own business.  This suited her just fine.

Inside a small tavern, she bought some food and sat down in a corner to rest.  She’d seen a few different caravans organizing on the outskirts of town, their members standing out by their bright clothing even more than Tsaria did.  Some were only a few wagons, some dozens, and a few included monstrous wooden box-wagons, built to protect a small fortune in tradeable goods. Not one of them caught her eye, or seemed like they’d hire her directly.

A number of mercenaries were in the tavern with her, scattered at their tables, relaxing before they hit the road again.  She watched them all, distantly, while she let herself get used to the idea of being out in the real world again.

She had been twelve years old when she’d been taken to the mountain.  Six years.  In all that time, she’d had no contact at all with a normal person of any race.  She had had to remind herself several times to be polite to everyone she met, or at least indifferently quiet, fighting to throw off the habit of speaking roughly to everyone. That habit had been part of daily life at the mountain.  She chewed slowly at a leg of roast chicken, breathing deeply of her new freedom, and trying not to think of the danger that came with it.

As she finished her food and prepared to leave, an argument that had started quietly began to grow.  Now the two men were standing, their table between them.

One of them was normal height, well-dressed and wearing a traveling soldier’s brigandine.  He was middle-aged, from the look of his face, but an officer at least within his group.  His manner of speaking was that of a patient man who had been pushed nearly to his limit.

The man across the table from him, however, was rough, a little ragged, and obviously used to getting his way because of his impressive size.  His face was unshaven, his eyes dark and a little beady.  He was at least a head taller than his officer, and was continuing a debate or argument that had apparently been gathering for weeks.

“It wasn’t nothing important, boss, you know how it is,” the taller one said.  His tone was a mixture of respect for an officer and exasperation.

“It was important, Scorrol, because even the smaller families are our employers,” the officer replied.  “We can’t afford a reputation like the one you’re building for us.”

“A reputation of what?” Scorrol replied.  “All I did was ask her, that’s all.  When she said no, I left her alone.”

“You left that one alone.  I’ve had four other complaints about you, and most of them you did not just ‘leave alone’.”  The officer sighed again, shaking his head.  “We don’t go for that long between cities, and we pay you enough for you to exercise that lust of yours when we stop.  All I’m saying is that you need to control it on the road, and keep it away from our clients.”

“Cmon, boss, you saw how beautiful that girl was.”  Scorrol smiled in an unpleasant way.  “You’re telling me you wouldn’t have asked her?  You would have just passed her by?”

The officer shook his head, pressing his fingers against his temple.  Then his hands flared outward, as if he was trying to cast off the stress his man had been forcing on him.  “You really don’t understand what that does to our business, do you?  I’ve had about enough of explaining for you, Scorrol.  If we didn’t need the extra sword on this trip, I’d leave you behind right here.”

That last line pushed Scorrol too far.  After a pause, he said, “Tell you what, boss- you find someone that can best me, and I’ll walk away right now.”

Tsaria saw her chance, and took it. “That shouldn’t be too hard,” she called across the room.

Everyone in the tavern spun to look at her.  The two men turned to her, surprised, then Scorrol burst out laughing.

“Some little dark elf wench thinks she can best me?  Come outside here, little girl, and I’ll break you in half.”

She stood, then walked straight up to him.  Scorrol hadn’t gotten a good look at her from the shadow of the table, but looked her up and down appreciatively.  She stood facing them both, then said to the officer, “I beat him, and I take his place?”

The officer looked from one of them to the other, then said, “Disarm him, and you’ve got a job.  No need for blood.”  He turned to Scorrol.  “You disarm her, or you lose your place.”

“You can’t be serious!” Scorrol shouted, getting angry.  “You can’t take her over me, just like that!”

“It was your challenge, boy,” the officer said.  “You’d better keep it.”

“Are you afraid you’ll lose?” Tsaria taunted him, quietly, then turned toward the door.  She walked outside, then stopped out in the middle of the street, turning to face the tavern’s door.  Scorrol emerged a minute later.  The officer was just behind him, followed by a handful of the other patrons.  She drew Traitor slowly, and waited.

Scorrol stood like a brawler, sword out in front of him like it would protect him.  His armor reminded her of a patchwork quilt, probably stolen from men he’d defeated.  She stood relaxed, arms at her sides, the point of her sword nearly touching the ground, just looking at him with an expression of disgust on her face.  The crowd fanned out from the tavern door, forming a loose semi-circle, crossing their arms before them and muttering to each other.  Tsaria had the impression that bets were being placed.  The officer she’d spoken to was at the front of the crowd, hands on his hips, his face inscrutable.

The fight only took 20 seconds.  Scorrol moved in quickly, his leading attack sloppy and easy for her to avoid. Before he realized what had happened, she had thrown him to the ground and put the point of her sword at his throat.  His employer stood behind them both, clapping his hands softly and shaking his head.  Money changed hands in the crowd behind him.

“Not only are you a better fighter, but someone your size will certainly cost less to feed,” he said.  He looked at his ex-employee.  “Scorrol, you’re out.  Don’t dwell on it too much, man- you’ll have no problem finding work.  Just don’t tell anyone you were bested by a woman half your size.”  The crowd behind him laughed, and Scorrol’s face turned to rage.

She withdrew her blade, then sheathed it, and walked back to the tavern door.

“My name is Sannart,” the officer said. He extended his hand.

“Tsaria.” She took his hand and shook it, a greeting she could barely remember performing.  “Your man there sounds like he was a growing problem anyway.”

Sannart nodded.  “It’s just hard to find people who are as intimidating as he is.”  He looked her up and down.  “Not that you’re unpleasant to look at, but you don’t seem quite as formidable at first glance.  He got us past a lot of ambushes just because people wouldn’t dare cross him.”

She smirked.  “The ones that try you now will be sorry they did, I assure you.”

He paused for a moment, and looked behind her at Scorrol, then returned his gaze to her.  “Business, then.  Pay is by percentage, doled out at each destination as the caravan pays us.  There’s 5 of us currently, and because I’m the team leader and I do all the management, I take two shares, so we divide the payoff into six.  The merchants provide meals for us, but I recommend you get yourself some food for the road.  Sound fair?”

She nodded.  “Where is your next trip to?”

“Marialis, and we’re leaving just after noon.  The merchants are getting their train together, and they’re a little behind schedule.  Do you need to get anything from an inn room?”

She smirked.  “Nothing.”  She spread her hands wide.  “What you see is what you get.”

“Need to pick up any supplies?  I can front you a little money, for the entertainment,” he smiled.  When she shook her head again, he said, “Allright, why don’t you get your horse and meet me at the west gate and I’ll introduce you to the rest of the team.”

She nodded again, then turned to make her way to the stables.  The patrons of the tavern had gone back inside, now that the show was over.  She passed a large bakery, looking in at the ovens for a moment as she rounded the corner.  For a moment she marveled at how easily the conversation had come to her, especially after all the speeches about how hard it would be to blend in.  The sun was nearly overhead now, casting its light down the streets and alleys and brightening the houses, despite their bland coloring.

She had almost reached the stable door when Traitor’s senses touched upon the large man approaching her from behind.  She stopped, completely relaxed, then turned her head sideward and spoke loudly enough for her voice to carry.

“Ready for a second round?”

Traitor felt him lunge forward, in a clumsy attempt to grab her from behind and catch her arm before she could draw her sword.  It was the obvious move, and would have disabled her quickly if her sword had been her only defense.  To his surprise, when she turned, her hand was nowhere near the sword at her side.  He heard her muttering under her breath, but didn’t understand the words.  He looked down, confused for just a moment, before both of her hands came up and impacted his chest.  Where they struck him, there was a great spark, and when his vision cleared he was flat on his back again.

*****

The merchant caravan she now worked for wasn’t overly large, but it wasn’t small, either. 12 wagons in total, about 70 people who would take turns walking and riding.  They were lined up just outide of the west gate, waiting for Sannart to give the word to start moving.  The five mercenaries scattered throughout the train.  Tsaria’s position was 3 wagons behind the lead, where Sannart rode alongside the lead wagon, chatting with the leader of the merchant clan.  This was not their first trip together, Tsaria had gathered, and the head of the clan was relieved when he’d learned that Scorrol wouldn’t be along this time.

The people were tough, she could easily see.  They weren’t like herd animals – they were fiercely devoted to each other, and would take up arms and fight together if any of them were attacked. It was clear this had happened before, at least once.  She saw weapons at the ready here and there, beside their owners on the driver’s benches or beneath the wagon’s chassis, between the wheels.  There was a look in each of their eyes – curiosity (because of her skin), caution, relief (no doubt because of Scorrol’s absence), and underlying the others, strength.  They’d been through hard times, and survived.  They all expected perfectly well to have to fight on this trip, too.  It seemed inevitable to them.  They didn’t speak a word to her, though… in a train of all humans, even the mercenaries, she was the only elf of any kind, and being a dark elf didn’t make any of them want to approach her.  They kept a polite distance, nodding to her when their eyes met but never speaking.  She preferred this.  A conversation would inevitably lead to questions about where she came from, and she did not yet have a ready answer.

By day, they were moving, and Tsaria’s job was simple – wait for something bad to happen.  Even while she watched the families make an overnight camp just off the road, and go about preparing dinner, her attention was trained outward, Traitor’s senses augmenting her own.  Nothing larger than a fox passed within shouting distance of their camp, except for another caravan that passed them, choosing to continue on a little farther before stopping.  They rumbled past, and soon the evening was quiet again.

*****

The trip was quiet until they were within a day of their destination.  They were passing through a number of small hills, the tall prairie grasses waving in the breeze.  Marialis was visible on the hills before them, a colorful speck on a field of green.

Tsaria felt Traitor go tense for just a moment. She closed her eyes and let his senses take over her own.  He could only reach out so far, but he could feel malice directed at her, from both sides of the road ahead.  People were waiting for them.  She spurred her horse forward, catching up with Sannart at the head of the train.

“There’s an ambush up ahead here,” she said.  “I’m guessing maybe ten or twelve of them, but only four archers.  My guess is that they want to kill the four of us, leave you and the merchants alive and strike a deal.”

His eyebrows rose.  “So you can smell an ambush, eh?”  A smile crossed his lips.  “I can feel it too, but not in quite as much detail.”  His smirk disappeared, and he looked forward again.  “So what do you think we should do about it?”

“In my opinion, we should spring the trap.”  She spurred her horse again, riding out in front of the train about a hundred yards before stopping.  She looked around, but couldn’t see anyone.

This is the place, Traitor whispered.  There are seven on either side.

She rose her voice, loud enough to carry over the grasses.  “We know there are fourteen of you.  We also know you were only planning on killing the escorts, and striking a deal with the merchants.  I will only ask you once to allow us to pass by peacefully.  We will not hesitate to slaughter you, and the seventy men and women in the caravan will take up arms and overwhelm you even if you do kill us.  We are not a clan to pay tribute.”

Traitor’s senses forced themselves upon her, and she felt the intention of the man on her left before he loosed his arrow.  She looked directly at him as his fingers released, and the arrow flew past her, harmlessly.  She dismounted and drew her sword.  Then she muttered under her breath, and her shape disappeared from the road.

There was silence for a minute, then movement among the grasses on both sides of the road.

“Where the hell did she go, boss?” a rough voice called out.

“Keep quiet, idiot!  She’s invisible, but she’s still here.”

A sudden shout of pain gave them her location.  As the bandits turned to look, many of them gasped- the archer who had fired at her had been pulled up to his feet, held above the top of the grass for them to see, and had three or four mortal wounds already.  She held the dying man up for another moment, then dropped him and vanished again.

The others shouted his name, and a few ran over to the place he fell, but soon they had wounds of their own.  Within minutes, Tsaria was back in the middle of the road, visible, and mounting her horse.

“Only one of you was mortally wounded,” she called out to the moans from the grasses.  “I hope you think twice when you see me pass by again.”  She turned the horse, setting him into a slow trot back toward the following wagons.

As the train approached, Sannart rode out to her, then looked around them for the sources of the sounds.  He looked at her, and shook his head.  “Didn’t leave any for the rest of us, did you.”

She merely shrugged, and returned to her place in the train.

*****

Djaral entered the meeting hall last, after the rest of the ambassadors.  He looked around, picking up as many minor details as he could.  His old master’s voice came to him across decades, as it often did when he was in such an unfamiliar and potentially dangerous situation.  Mind your surroundings.  Insignificant things can become all-important just by being noticed.

The huge, oak doors were beautiful, but without decoration; intended to be imposing and royal.  The more he looked around, the more he got that impression from the decor and the architecture.  The stone ceilings were high, and well-polished.  The columns were made of differing shades of black granite; simple, round, strong and powerful.  The banners that hung from the ceiling were thick, heavy, and brightly colored, with scenes from important battles or famous moments in the history of the kingdom, Djaral supposed.  He didn’t know many details of the old history of Asharida, and the gap in his knowledge embarrassed him privately.

His place in this diplomatic mission grew from his knowledge of history.  Most of the junior instructors at his academy had an area of non-magical study, and history was one of the most popular.  He had come to this meeting to advise the old soldier who led the mission – which was silly, in Djaral’s opinion.  The history he was meant to advise upon would be mostly about the Great Wars, and his officer had fought on the front lines for most of the conflict.  The old soldier knew almost everything he needed to about those times.

The meeting table was a large, rectangular slab of oak, dark and polished.  Most of the colors in the room tended toward warmth; reds, purples, some oranges.  The herald who had led them into the room walked them past the large table, to a smaller sitting area on the far side of the room, where he asked them all to take seats in the large leather chairs, arranged in a circle.  Djaral waited for the leader of his mission to sit, then seated himself facing the door they’d entered from.

He sensed some magical energy in the room, but nothing that attracted his attention.  He had expected defensive spells and protective magic, and had found it scattered throughout the castle.  There were most likely going to be other wizards listening in on the coming conversation, ready to stop him if he tried any magical attacks or mischief, but that was nothing new or surprising.

He looked over to his lead ambassador, who was shifting uncomfortably in his seat.  Kyamad was an old soldier, who had been sent as an emissary to six different nations and had served his nation for decades.  He was not used to meeting directly with the royalty, however; most of his negotiations had been with representatives.  And today’s topic would be very uncomfortable to present to the king of another nation.  He wore his dress uniform from his military service; it had been decided that he should project a strong, but non-threatening, image at this meeting.

The herald announced the entrance of the king.  All the ambassadors stood, and King Tyalon swept into the circle with a welcoming grin.  “Welcome, my friends,” he said.  He motioned for them all to sit, which they did, and he took his place facing them all.

“My heralds have not informed me as to the reason for your mission,” Tyalon was saying, “but I presume it must be of some importance for them to have sent six of you here.”

Kyamad cleared his throat.  “King Tyalon, this will be difficult news to deliver.  There has recently been an incursion on Tradsina’s land by soldiers wearing Asharidan heraldry.”  He paused for a long moment, reading the king’s face for a reaction – and what he saw was surprise.  “Within the past weeks, your majesty, there have been reports from six different villages along our borders- they each say that a small army of Asharidan soldiers arrived at the marketplaces with wagons and proceeded to take food and livestock from our people.  There was minimal force used, but in some cases your soldiers did get violent with our marshals and militias.  Thankfully no lives were lost, but our people were depending upon the profits from sales of their surplus.”

Tyalon had listened to all this silently.  His mouth hung slightly open in a distinctly un-kingly manner, and fire blazed behind his eyes.  “This is a serious accusation. You have proof that this was soldiers from my army?”

Kyamad nodded.  “They were wearing the livery of your regular army, fully armed for combat.  Our king Jriemas was shocked that you would undertake such a-”

“I have no knowledge of this,” Tyalon interrupted, “but I assure you that it was done to disgrace the name of my kingdom.  I gave no such order.  You may convey to King Jriemas that I will find the perpetrator behind these events, and force them to make reparations.”  He took a deep breath.  “This is grave news to me, both that someone would attempt such subterfuge, and that I had not heard of it before.  I can only presume it is some other group that is trying to create strife between our two nations.  These actions you speak of are nothing more than bare-faced theft, and could be considered an act of war.  I would have no part in it.”

Tyalon stood, and the ambassadors all stood with him.  “I apologize for cutting our meeting short, but there is little more for me to say here.  I must take counsel, and address this matter immediately.  If you had other concerns, I can have one of my ministers speak to you.”

Kyamad shook his head.  “Our mission was to inform you of this event.  Your offer to make those guilty repay our people is well received – we were instructed to ask for this.”

“Tell your king that I ask his patience while I penetrate this mystery, and that I do not wish for hostilities between our nations.  Thank you.”  He turned again, and strode toward a far door, with his hands clenched into tight fists.  The two guards parted before the door, opening it for him swiftly, and closing it behind him just as swiftly.  Djaral watched him go, then looked back to Kyamad, whose expression was dark.

*****

“No, my king, he said he had no knowledge of the incursions,” Kyamad said, looking back at the image of his sovereign.  The face was angry, shimmering in blue from the effect of the spell.  “He instructed me to ask you for your patience, and said he has no wish for hostilities between our nations.”

One of the advisors behind the king’s image spoke, loudly enough for Djaral to hear.  “Ridiculous!  He would never insinuate that he is not in control of his own army!”

Kyamad replied, “He said he believed it was another group trying to start a war between us.  He made the same observation I did upon first hearing the news, my king, that it was an overt act of war.”

This king’s expression was unreadable.  “What is your observation, Kyamad?”

“My lord, I believe he is acting for us.  Without having met him before, I believe he is playing innocent to buy more time to do whatever it is he’s planning to do.  By asking us to be patient while he ‘investigates’, he gets the time he needs.”

Murmured assent came from behind the king, and his image nodded slightly.  Then it turned to Djaral, who was holding open the portal.  “What do you think, wizard?  What did you pick up from that meeting?”

Djaral took a deep breath, then gave voice to his initial reaction; “My king, I believe he’s telling the truth.  Some of his mannerisms may be acted, yes, but his eyes told a different story.  He was greatly angered and distressed at the news and the accusation we brought to him, and I believe that he left our meeting to shout at his military advisors.”

The king listened silently, then at Djaral’s pause, said, “Go on.”

The wizard sighed again.  His knowledge of history gave him a different perspective on politics and current events than most people.  This knowledge was bending his thoughts toward a grave interpretation.  “My lord, this is perhaps as disturbing as if he was preparing for hostilities with us, or provoking us.  Perhaps more.  I believe he was being too honest with us, and may come to regret it.  He is a young king, with less experience in these matters.  If he was truly unaware of this, that means his intelligence service failed him as well as his military advisors.  Our spies that followed those wagon trains from our villages reported back that they had been taken to major cities inside of Asharida and distributed to the people there.  If it had been someone else impersonating the Asharidan army, they’d probably have kept the food for themselves.  And even if they hadn’t, that size of an operation should have been reported by his own spies and informers.  If he truly has not heard of this, which I believe, that points to only one possibility…”

The king nodded.  “Someone close to him is setting up a coup, and plans to use conflict with us to accomplish it.”

Djaral nodded.  The other ambassadors remained silent, waiting for instructions.

“I’ll need to take counsel to decide on a course of action.  You will stay there and await instructions from me.  If Tyalon sends an invitation for a meeting, don’t hesitate to take it, and report to me on anything relevant that you hear.”  The king’s image turned away, and the connection was broken from the other end.

Djaral rubbed his hands together- they were slightly numb from holding open the spell.  Kyaman turned, and sat on his bed.  “Might as well get some sleep, men.”  The others left the room, heading for their own inn rooms down the hall.  They were given good rooms, even though they shared them in pairs.  The inn was nice, and very comfortable, and the ale downstairs had proven to be of very high quality.  Djaral sat on his own bed, facing Kyaman.  The two shared no words, but held each other’s understanding through their eyes.  After a moment, Kyaman opened his travelling chest and pulled out his sleeping clothes.

*****

It was early in the morning when Djaral woke.  Instead of waking slowly, as he normally did, he found himself completely aware almost immediately.  Something in his senses was screaming danger at him, but he couldn’t put his finger on it.  He swung his legs over the side of his bed, and noticed Kyaman standing, drawing a short sword from his traveling chest and unsheathing it.

Then they both heard a loud thump from the adjacent room, where they knew two of their comrades were sleeping.  Kyaman stepped up to the door, silent as a cat, and opened it slowly.  They heard another thump, and he moved out into the hallway while Djaral stood and pulled his own weapon from his travelling chest- a long iron rod that would magnify his own magic.  He muttered a word to it, and the end began to glow with a dim crackle of electricity.  The glow slid down the rod, over his hand, then engulfed his whole body, then faded.  He felt its protection, comforting him and calming his nerves.  Moving toward the door, he perked up his ears as best he could, but he could hear nothing.

Another loud thump, and a groan that sounded like Kyaman’s voice.  Djaral took four steps to get to the next door, opened it with the rod, then took a step back.

There were two shapes on the floor that should have been his fellow ambassadors.  They were wearing the right clothing, and one had a sword drawn, but they were decaying into a dark, shapeless mass that seemed to be melting right before his eyes.  His mind screamed a warning, his perception of magical energy sending warnings about what he was seeing.  This was the source of his discomfort, and it was terrible; some kind of poison that forced a body to decay.  He ran a few more steps to the last door, which stood open, and found Kyaman, on his back, his skin turning grey and seeming to just evaporate into nothing.  He was still breathing, and his eyes caught Djaral in the door, but he could not speak.

Then something hit Djaral hard in the lower back.  His muscles twisted him backward and sideward, and he fell to the ground right beside his lead ambassador.  He turned his head to see a darkly-dressed figure sheath a small knife, then turn toward the stairs that led to the tavern below.  Djaral could already feel what was happening, and tried desperately to cast some spell that would halt the effect of the poison, but nothing happened- his control over magic had left him, fizzled away while whatever poison he had been infected with did its work.  He lay on his side, crumpled, and felt his body slowly cease to function.

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