'm sick of walking the streets day after day looking for work, Grift. My bunions are giving me hell."
"Exactly how many bunions have you got, Bodger?"
"Four at last count, Grift."
"You'll be needing to walk some more then. It's five bunions that are lucky, not four."
"What's so lucky about five bunions, Grift?"
"A man with five bunions will never be impotent, Bodger."
"Aye, Bodger. Impotence. The curse of men who only take short walks."
"But the chaplain said the only way to cure impotence was a night spent in holy vigil."
"No, Bodger the chaplain never said that a night spent in holy vigil was a cure for impotence. What he actually said was a night spent with a horny virgin. Makes quite a difference, you know." Grift nodded sagely and Bodger nodded back.
The two guards were walking along a street in the south side of Bren. It was mid morning and a light drizzle had just started.
"I suppose we were lucky, Grift. Being thrown out of the guard is a lot better than being flogged and imprisoned."
"Aye, Bodger. The charge of being drunk on duty is a serious one. We got off lightly." Grift stopped for a moment to scrape the horse dung from his shoe. "Of course, it would have helped if they'd given us a month's wages before chuckin g us out on the streets. As it is now, we can barely afford to buy our next meal, let alone two horses to get us back to the kingdoms."
"You spent all the money we did have on ale, though, Grift."
"Aah well, Bodger. Ale is a basic necessity of life. Without ale a man might as well curl up and die." Grift smiled winningly. "You'll thank me for it in the end, Bodger. Besides, there's still a chance we might find work. The wedding of Catherine and Kylock is due to take place in two weeks, and there's bound to be opportunities for skilled men such as ourselves."
"No one is going to give us work, Grift. Lord Baralis is all but running the city now, and if he learned that anyone was helping us, he'd have their hides whipped." Bodger pulled his cloa k close. He hated the rain - it made his hair stand up. "We should do what I said: leave the city, cross the mountains and go join the Highwall army. Ever since Kylock murdered the Halcus king, the Wall have been taking all-comers. Anyone who wants to fight for them gets five coppers a week, a newly cast breastplate and all the goat's meat they can eat."
"If we joined with Highwall, Bodger, we'd been on the losing side." Grift spat with confidence. "The northern cities might be as mad as a peacock iAn a pie, but Bren and the kingdoms have never looked stronger. Why in the last three weeks Kylock has captured most of eastern Halcus. The whole country is virtually his. There's no telling where he'll stop."
"I heard that he wanted to present Catherine with Halcus as a wedding gift, Grift."
"Well, after what happened to King Hirayus, he's all but done it."
Bodger shook his head slowly. "Terrible thing that, Grift. The peace tent is supposed to be sacred ground."
"Nothing's sacred to Kylock, Bodger."
As Bodger lifted his head to nod in agreement, he spotted a familÅiar figure in the crowd ahead. "Hey, Grift, isn't that young Nabber over there?" Bodger didn't wait for Grift's reply. He dashed straight ahead shouting loudly, "Nabber! Nabber! Over here!"
Nabber looked around. He was an important mission and was under direct orders not to loiter, but loitering was in his soul and the sound of his own voice was music to his ears. At once he recognized the distinctly mismatched forms of Bodger and Grift. They looked wet, miserable, down-on-their-luck and, most alarmingly to Nabber, sober as a pair of bailiffs. What was the world coming to? he wondered.
Bodger ran toward him, a huge grin spreading across his face. "How are you, my friend? It's good to see you. Me and Grift were worried sick about you after the night-"
"The night we parted ways," interrupted Grift, flashing Bodger a cautionary glance.
Nabber gently disengaged himself from Bodger's spider-like grip. He brushed down his tunic and smoothed back his hair. "Always a pleasure, gentleman," he said with a small bow.
"Are you still coping with your loss?" asked Bodger in a peculiar meaningful whisper.
"Loss? What loss was that?"
"Your dearly departed mother, of course. You used to spend all your time in the chapel praying for her soul."
Nabber's whole demeanor changed; his shoulders dropped, his back arched, his lips extended to a pout. "It still grieves me every day, Bodger," he murmured tragically. The sight of Bodger and Grift's sympathetic nodding made Nabber feel bad. Swift would not have approved of him taking his mother's name in vain. Pockets were notoriously sentimental when it came to their mothers. Why Swift himself had loved his own mother so much that he had named one of his most famous moves after her: the Diddley Delve. A thoroughly sneaky and ingenious move that could deprive any man of valuables he'd concealed about his vita ls. Apparently nothing had been safe from Ma Diddley. Nabber hadn't yet aspired to the dizzy heights of the Diddley Delve, and in fact wasn't quite sure he ever wanted to.
Feeling a little guilty about stringing the two guards along, and feeling a lot guilty about them being out on the streets with no prospects - after all he was partly responsible for it - prompted Nabber to make them an offer. "If you are looking for shelter, some hot food and a chance to protect a certain high-born lady, then I know just the place you can go." As he spoke, Nabber shook his head slowly. No doubt about it, there'd be trouble with Tawl for this. Guilt would be the death of him.
"What place?" asked Grift suddenly interested. It was telling he never asked what lady.
Nabber crooked his finger and drew both guards close. In his lowest and most furtive whisper, Nabber gave out the address of the hideaway. "Knock three times on the door, and when someone comes tell them you're there to deli ver the snails. Say Nabber sent you." There it was done now. Tawl would have to take the two guards in - either that or murder them. Moving quickly along from that particular unsettling thought, Nabber said, "Anyway, I must be going. I have a message to deliver to the palace."
He was just about to step away, when Grift caught at his arm. "You're a fool if you go to the palace, Nabber," he said. "If you're caught by Baralis then Borc alone can save you."
Nabber freed himself from the guard's grip, smoothed down the fabric of his sleeve and tipped a bow. "Thanks for the advice, Grift. I'll bear it in mind. See you later." With that he was off, losing himself in the crowd as only a pocket could.
He didn't look back. It was getting late and Maybor would be anxiously awaiting his return. Nabber shrugged to himself. He could put it down to the rain: a street full of watery sewage on the move could slow a man down quite considerably.
It really was quite a pity he was on a mission, as by far the best time for pocketing was during rain showers. People jostling into each other, cloaks held above their heads, eyes down - it was perfect. A man could round up a lot of coinage in the rain. Maybe he could put in a little pocketin' later, after the note was delivered. It would certainly be a good idea to keep out of Tawl's way. The knight would be mad as hell about Bodger and Grift turning up on the doorstep, and even madder about the note.
Nabber felt in his tunic, still there. Dry as an archbishop in a desert, and yet another thing to feel guilty about. The problem was that Tawl didn't know about the plan. He and Maybor had concocted this amongst themselves, and Nabber was quite sure that the knight would not like it one little bit. It was a gamble, there were risks - which in fact was why Nabber had agreed to it in the first place: he could never resist a risk - and, at the end of the day, nothing to gain from the whole thing, only a little personal satisfaction on Maybor's part. Still, Nabber understood the need for personal satisfaction - Swift himself had lived for it. Besides, he liked to be out and about, being cooped up in the hideaway all day with Tawl, Melli and Maybor was not his idea of fun. Deals needed to be struck, pockets needed to be lightened, cash needed to circulate, and he was the man to do it.
Before he knew it, Nabber found himself by the storm conduit. Bren had no sewer systems to speak of, but it did have a system of drains and tunnels which prevented the city from becoming waterlogged during the countless storms and rain showers that came down all year round from the mountains. The problem was, as Nabber saw it, that the city lay between the mountains and the lake. Any water that ran off the mountains, wanted naturally, as all water did, to join with its larger watery friends, and Bren was stuck right in the middle of the course of least resistance. Hence the network of storm channels and drains that were built to divert the water both around and under the city.
The duke's palace - or was it the duchess' palace now? - being situated right on the shore of the Great Lake, was naturally well-supplied with such tunnels. And it was to one of these that Nabber had made his way. Of course he hadn't counted on the rain. He was going to get very wet, might even catch his death. There was one conciliation, though: all the spiders would have drowned. Nabber hated spiders.
A quick look left, a quick look right, no one around for the moment, so off with the grill. With speed and agility that would have brought a tear to Swift's eye, Nabber swung himself down into the drain channel. His feet landed, splash, in a stream of cold, smelly and fast-rising water. He quickly shunted up the wall, dragged the grill back in place, and then jumped down into the water. Knee-deep now. He had to get a move on, he didn't want it reaching his neck. No, sir. No dead spiders down his tunic.
The smell was appalling. The rain brought out the worst in a city; churning up long-dried horse dung and slops, carrying blood from the knackers yard, grease from the tallow drums, and bearing a circus full of carcasses along in the swell. By the looks of things everything had ended up here, down under the palace. Nabber took a last longing look around - there were lots of interesting looking floaters that were crying out to be investigated - and then entered the full darkness of the tunnels.
This was familiar territory. No one loved the dark as much as pockets. Nabber's feet found their way with little prompting whilst his eyes searched out lightness in the shade.P Up and up he went. Stone staircases wet with slime welcomed him, barrel-ceilings lined with moss echoed his every move, water rushed ahead of him on its way to the lake, and shadows and dead spiders trailed behind.
At last he came to the entrance he needed; the one in the nobles quarters. Putting his eye to the breach in the stone, Nabber looked out onto a broad quiet corridor that was lined with old suits of armor. He knew it well. Busy with servants on their way to light fires and warm baths in early morning, it was a still as a chapel by midday. Guards only patrolled here once an hour, and most noblemen were well away by now. Nabber took a deep breath, briefly asked for Swift's own luck, set in motion the opening mechanism, and then stepped into the hallowed ground of the palace.
Feeling a peculiar mixture of excitement and fear, the young pocket made his way to Baralis' quarters. He had a letter to deliver, an answer to be awaited upon, and his own skin to be saved at all cost.
"Concentrate, Jack. Concentrate!"
Stillfox's voice was tiny, immeasurably distant. Outside of time. Still, such was the power of the human voice, that Jack found himself obeying it anyway. He had to concentrate. His consciousness plunged to his belly whilst his thoughts focused on the glass.
"Warm it, Jack. Don't smash it."
Every muscle tensing, every hair on end, each eyeball drying for want of a blink, Jack tried to do what Stillfox asked. He sent himself - there was no other word for it, he sent that which made him who he was, what rested in his mind and bounded his thoughts - outside of his body toward the glass. It was terrifying. The terrible vulnerability of forsaking one's body, combined with the bitter-sweet lightness of the soul. How could men do this? he wondered. How could Baralis and Stillfox and Borc knows who else ever get used to the shock?
"Careful, Jack. You're wavering."
Part of him wanted to shout out, "Let me waver then." Better half in his body than not at all. Instead, Jack concentrated harder. Through the thin, busy particles of air he traveled, to the hard slick surface of the glass. Only when he got there it wasn't hard. It was slick, but strangely soft; malleable as lead, running like slow honey or a fine summer cheese. He felt the downward push of the glass, and began to understand how false and artificial its current state was. It had been shaped unnaturally by man, and was quietly fighting its constraints. It would take centuries, perhaps eons before it reverted back, but it would eventually succeed. Nothing had a memory as long as glass.
Jack knew all this without as much as a single coherent thought. He just knew it, that was all. He also knew, in something more akin to instinct than intellect, that the glass would welcome the warming. It would6 not fight him. The warming would bring it that much closer to its goal.
Strangely, it was this knowledge that empowered Jack. No longer a man with a whip, he became a man with a key. Gently, so gently, tip-toeing with his mind, he melded with the elements of the glass. Fear skirted periphery-close, but he paid it no heed; nothing mattered only the join. If Stillfox spoke now, Jack didn't hear him.
He became aware of the vibration of the glass, strong, unwavering, almost hypnotic. Jack felt himself falling in-time with it. How right it felt, how very right.
"Jack! Be careful! You're losing yourself." Stillfox's word carried more weight than speech alone, they were heavy with sorcery. Jack felt the other man's power. It was repugnant to him. The glass was his, and he would brook no interference. Then suddenly, something was forcing its way between him and the glass, a sliver of thought turned to light. It acted like a wrench, cleaving apart the join. Jack fought it aggressively. He had been rocked into acquiescence by the vibration of the glass, and now he was a giant awakened. No longer warm, the glass grew hot. An orange line began to glow around the rim.
"Jack, I command you be gone!"
Jack felt a powerful shearing, saw a bright flash of light, and then he was torn away from the g lass. As he sped back to his body, the glass exploded outwards sending chunks of molten glass flying through the air. Even as he settled himself within flesh and blood, the fragments hit him. Scorching, sizzling, cracking like whips, they landed on his chest and on his arms. Jack, dizzy with the shock of returning, shot up from the chair. His tunic was smoldering, the skin burning beneath. Too new in his body to feel pain, Jack could only feel horror. He had to get away from the glass. Pulling at his tunic, he tore it from his shoulders. Gobs of hardening glass tinkled onto the floor.
The moment the pain started, Jack was hit from behind by a wave of coldness. Reflex-quick, he spun round. Stillfox was standing close, a large empty bucket rested, dripping, in his hand. Water. The herbalist had poured water on him. He took a step forward. "Jack-"
"Leave me alone, Stillfox," cried Jack, raising his arm in warning. Tired and disorientated, he was shaking from head to foot. "You shouldn't have interfered. I had it. I was in control."
Stillfox voice rose to a matching anger. "You fool. You were in control of nothing. The glass was controlling you. You nearly lost yourself to it."
Searing pin-points of pain goaded Jack into a rage. "I tell you the glass was mine!" He beat his fist against his side.
The herbalist shook his head slowly. He let the bucket drop to the floor. When he spoke he pronounced his words very carefully. "Make an error in judgment like that again, Jack, and I swear it will be your last. I will not step in and save you a second time. I am nobody's nursemaid."
Abruptly, he turned and made his way toward the door. Without looking round he said, "There is ointment in the rag-stoppered jar above the fireplace. See to yo ur burns." The door banged shut behind him.
Jack immediately slumped into the chair. The anger, which had fired his blood only moments earlier, left his body with his very next breath. He felt hollow without it...and ashamed. Bringing his head down toward his knees, Jack rubbed both hands against his face. How could he have been so stupid? Stillfox was right; he had lost control, losing himself to the vibration of the glass. It had been so hard to resist, though: a siren's song. Jack searched his mind and came up with a few choice baking curses which he hissed with venom. How was he ever going to learn to master the power inside?
Ten weeks now he'd been with Stillfox. Ten weeks since the aging herbalist had found him hiding in the bushes on Annis' west road and taken him in. Ten weeks of instruction and straining and failure. Every attempt to draw power seemed to end in disaster. Stillfox had been patient at first, slowing his pace, whispering words of encouragement and advice, but by now even Stillfox was losing his patience.
Jack rubbed his temples. He was making so little progress. Sometimes it seemed as if he could only draw power when there were real dangers: real life situations that stirred the rage within. Here in Stillfox's quiet cottage, nestled in a sleepy village ten leagues short of Annis and a mountain's girth west of Bren, all the dangers seemed like insignificant ones. There was no one threatening his safety; he wasn't being hunted, threatened or conned. The few people he cared about where 'in no danger, and judging from what Stillfox had told him about the war, it appeared that things were calming down in the north. With nothing and no one to fight for, it was hard for Jack to summon rage and direct it toward a glass, or whatever else the herbalist set before him. These things weren't important to him - skill alone wasn't worth fighting for. There had to be some emotional attachment: someone or something to get angry about. For the first month he had been unable to draw forth anything unless he focused his mind on Tarissa.
Tarissa. The pain in Jack's arms and chest flared to a blaze as her name skimmed across his thoughts. He stood up, kicking the chair behind him. He would not think of her. She was in the past, long gone, as good as dead. He refused to keep her alive in his thoughts. She had lied and betrayed him, and no amount of tears or pleading would ever make it right. Magra, Rovas, Tarissa - those three deserved each other. And he had been so stupid and gullible that he good as deserved them too.
Jack walked over to the fireplace and picked the rag-stoppered jar from the mantel. Over the past few months Jack had learned that he needed to be harsh on both Tarissa and himself, it was the only way to put a stop to the pangs of regret. He was a fool and she was a villain, and that was all there was to it. Nothing more.
Taking the rag from the jar, Jack sniffed at the contents. Whatever it was it smelled bad. Gingerly he dipped a finger downward. The liquid was cold, greasy and the color of dried blood. Borc only knew what it was! Whenever Stillfox was preparing to use the contents of one of his jars, he would first dab a droplet on his tongue to test that it was still potent. Jack had no intention of tasting this, though. Let it kill him slowly by invading his wounds rather than poison him swiftly on the spot.
Jack began to dab the ointment on his burns, first his arms and then his chest. The process took a lot longer than he'd thought; not only were his hands shaking wildly, making it difficult to target the areas in question, but a natural squeamishness on Jack's part didn't help either. Yes, it was only stinging, he told himself - and since leaving Castle Harvell he'd endured much worse than a handful of glass-burns - but it was the idea of causing himself pain that he wasn't happy with. The burns were throbbing away quite bearably until he put the ointment on them, then the real torment began. The ointment stung like lyeG in an open wound. It seemed to get under his skin with a thousand tiny barbs then claw its way back to the surface. Was this Stillfox's revenge?
"Jack. Don't use-" The herbalist burst into the cottage. Seeing Jack with the jar in his hand, he stopped his cry in mid-sentence. He shrugged his shoulders rather sheepishly. "Never mind it won't kill you."
"What will it do then?"
"It was meant to teach you a lesson." The herbalist's voice dropped to something close to a mutter. "Only I think it taught me one instead: there's little satisfaction to be gained from acting out of spite." He looked up from the floor. "Never mind. The ointment may pain you for a few days, but it should do you no harm in the long term."
Jack was too surprised to speak. He threw an accusation of a glance at Stillfox, but really, in the bottom of his heart, he knew he'd deserved it. He had endangered both himself and Stillfox, and when the herbalist had tried to help him he had fought him off. Jack threw the jar onto the fire. "Let's call it quits," he said.
Stillfox smiled, the lines around his eyes and on his cheeks instantly multiplying. Jack noticed for the first time how very old and tired he looked. "Here," he said, pulling the chair near the fire. "Come and sit down, I'll warm you some holk."
The herbalist waved his arm dismissively. "If I had needed someone to look after me in my dotage, Jack, I would have picked someone a lot comelier than you."
Jack nodded in acknowledgement of the reprimand. "I'm sorry, Stillfox. I don't know what's got into me. I'm just so tired of failin g all the time."
Stillfox pulled a second chair close to the fire, bidding Jack to sit. He brought a blanket and laid it over Jack's bare shoulders. Finally, when he had settled himself in his seat, he spoke. "I won't lie to you, Jack. Things have not been going well with your training. I think part of the problem is that you're just plain too old. You should have been taught earlier when your mind was still open and your thought process not so..." the herbalist searched for the right word, "rigid."
"But I only felt the power for the first time a year ago." A year ago, it hardly seemed possible. His life had been so chaotic for so long now, that it was hard to believe that there had ever been a time when things were normal. He didn't even know what normal meant anymore.
"You might have only been aware of this power during the last year, but it has been with you all your life." Stillfox leant forward. "Sorcery doesn't come to anyone in a burst of blinding light. It's real, visceral, as ingrained as instinct and as compelling as a beating heart. You were born with it, Jack, and someone should have taken pains to discover it sooner. If they had, you wouldn't be here today; a fugitive hiding in a foreign land, leaving nothing but destruction in your wake."
Harsh words, but true enough. "Is it too late then? Is there nothing I can do?"
Stillfox sighed heavily. "You must keep trying, you have no choice. Power will keep building up inside you, and unless you learn to either focus or curb it, it will ultimately destroy you."
"But there are risks even learning. The glass-"
"Everything is a risk, Jack. Everything." The herbalists voice had lost all of its country accent. "Walk to market and there's a risk you will be robbed, run-over or stabbed. Marry a girl and there's a risk she'll die in childbirth. Believe in a god and there's a risk you'll find nothing but darkness on the other side."
"Trust someone and there's a risk they might betray you," said Jack softly, almost to himself.
"Jack, your power is very great. So great it frightens me. The few times when you have managed to focus successfully left me speechless. You have been given a gift, and it would be a terrible tragedy if you never learned to master it."
Jack eased his chair back from the fire. The heat was burning his already tender arms. "Perhaps if I move on to live creatures, not inanimate objects, I-"
"There is even worse danger there," interrupted Stillfox. "Animals can and will fight back. Speed is of the essence in such drawings. You must master the technique of entering before we go any further." The herbalist gave Jack a searching look, and then stood up. "Now, I think it's time you had some rest. You've had a quite a shock and those burns do not look good. A little lacus will help."
Jack was glad of the change of subject, he'd had enough of sorcery for one day. Possibly enough to last lifetime. He didn't bother to wish he was normal: wishing was something he'd given up long ago."
Baralis rubbed idly at his fingers. It was summer now, but still they pained him. It was the all-pervasive damp that did it. Tomorrow he would see Catherine about changing his quarters, he was tired of living like a mosquito suspended above the lake.
On his desk lay the various maps and charts, once the duke's they were now his. Maps and so many other things: a whole library of ancient books, rooms filled with antiquities and arcane devices, cellars full of secrets and strong-rooms full of gold. The duke's palace was a huge unopened treasure chest, and the duke's death had given him the key.
Oh but he had so little time, though. Hardly a moment to himself since the funeral. There was so much to do, and so much to be done. Just managing Catherine alone took a quarter of his day. She was child - demanding, prone to temper-tantrums, constantly craving attention - and he was partí father, part nursemaid, part suitor. She would summon him to her chambers at all hours of the day, and he never knew what he would find once he got there; tears, anger or joy. When there wasn't a problem she would invent one, and she was never satisfied until she had exerted her will over him in some small way. It was all a game to Catherine, and it suited Baralis to let her think that he was just another piece on the board.
Baralis stood up and walked over to the fire. He was master of the game, his will was the power behind all of Catherine's moves. The new duchess was just a beginner when it came to the art of manipulation. She might learn fast, though. After all she was being taught by an expert.
Just how great an expert he was could be judged by the events of the past five weeks. First, he had shifted the blame of the duke's death onto Tawl, Melli's protector; second, he had persuaded Catheri ne to agree to go ahead with the marriage to Kylock; and last, despite Kylock's heinous act of regicide, he had persuaded both the court and the common people of Bren to support the marriage.
Well, more accurately, Catherine had persuaded them. Three days after the news of King Hirayus' death had reached the city, Catherine had, on his instructions, gathered her court around her. In no uncertain terms she told them that she fully intended to marry King Kylock and anyone who objected to the match should come forward now and let their misgivings be heard. One man made the mistake of coming forward. Lord Carhill, one-time advisor to the duke, and a man whose only daughter was married to a well-to-do lord in Highwall. The minute he stepped from the ranks, he was seized by the ducal guard. He was executed, then and there, before the court. That night his sons were hunted down and beheaded, the following day his land was seized in the name of the duches s.
The sting was taken from the whole affair, by one single calculated act of compassion. Catherine had taken Lord Carhill's wife into the palace, publicly proclaiming that the poor widow would never want for food nor shelter. This little performance was for the benefit of the people, not the court. Catherine might be firm, they said, but at least she is not without charity. Baralis pursed is lips in distaste. The common folk were easily swayed by such showy acts of mercy.
In fact public opinion was the least of his problems. Catherine was seen to be a tragic figure; her father murdered, a heavy responsibility newly-fallen upon her shoulders, alone in a world drawing perilously close to war. Of course it helped that she was young and beautiful. Beauty was yet another thing that swayed the common folk.
Baralis shook his head slowly. No, his problems were not with Catherine and the people of Bren. His problem was with Kylock. What would the new king do next? Maybor's eldest brat, Kedrac, was finishing-off Halcus for him, yet would he stop there? Was Annis next in line? And if it was, when did he plan to take it? Baralis only hoped he left it till after the wedding. Bren might be supporting the marriage at the moment, but it was an uneasy suspicious support, easily shaken by unfavorable news. And never would there be news so unfavorable as Kylock's overwhelming greed.
There was such a delicate balance to be maintained: Annis and Highwall were now certain to move against Bren. The question was would they leave it until after the wedding, or would they move before? Baralis received daily reports from the two mountain cities, and there was no mistaking their intent: mercenaries, armaments, siege engines and chemicals were flooding into both cities. Tavalisk was underwriter to them all. The chubby interfering archbishop was seeing to it that Annis and Highwall had unlimited funds with which to purchase the necessities of war. It seemed the south were willing to pay a high a price to keep trouble away from their prosperous shores.
Baralis sighed, not deeply. All would have to be dealt with as it came.
Then there was his second problem: Maybor and his wayward daughter. Where were they? What did they know or guess about the assassination? And what did they plan on doing next? Would they quietly leave the city, content that they were at least alive? Or would they try and make some claim upon Catherine's inheritance? Knowing Maybor, it would most likely be the latter of the two, the Lord of the Eastlands had never styled himself a shrinking violet.
Just then, Baralis was distracted from his thoughts by the sound of a commotion at his door. A few minutes earlier he had been aware of a knock sounding, but had paid it no heed - Crope was ordered to send everyone away except Catherine. A shrill scream pierced the rain-clear air, and Baralis rushed across to the reception room.
Crope was in the doorway. Huge arm stretched out infront of him, he had a boy dangling by the scruff of his neck. The boy was squirming and kicking with venomous gusto, but Crope had him firmly in hand.
"You kicked Big Tom," accused the hulking servant.
"Leave it out, Crope. It's only a rat!" cried the boy. "You should count yourself lucky old Thornypurse hasn't set eyes upon it. She would have had it squeezed and bottled by now."
"No one's gonna' bottle Big Tom," said Crope, lifting the boy higher into the air.
"If you don't put me down this instant, Crope, I'll personally see to it that old Thornypurse is rubbing Big Tom's oily remains into her wrinkles before the day is through."
"Put him down, Crope," ordered Baralis.
"Down, Crope." The tone of Baralis' voice killed all protest instantly and Crope lowered the boy to the ground. "Leave us now," said Baralis.
Crope flashed Nabber an evil look, muttered something comforting to the large and rat-shaped bulge in his tunic, and then backed away.
Baralis turned to the boy. "So, Nabber, what brings you here? Come to turn your friend the knight in?" He stretched a smile designed only to show the sharpness of tooth. "He's wanted for murder, you know."
The boy looked a lot more scared now than he did when he was in Crope's clutches. He was trying to cover it, though; smoothing down his collar with a nonchalant air, and then raising his fingernails to the light to check for dirt.
Baralis was extremely pleased by this surprise visit. If one waited in one's web long enough, the prey would always come. "You've been wading, I take it?" Baralis indicated the boy's britches which were soaked to the knee. "I must say, it's just the day for it."
The boy looked most indignant. "What about you, Baralis? Attracted any new crawling insects lately?"
"Come inside," hissed Baralis, annoyed at himself for stooping to trade insults with a mere boy.
Nabber looked quickly to his left and right. "I'm not sure that I want to."
"Aah," Baralis said slowly, in the manner of one about to draw a logical conclusion. "Then you're afraid."
"I am not! Let me past." The boy stomped into the room.
Baralis smiled behind his back.
The boy made a quick survey of the room. Once satisfied that they were alone he pulled a sheet of sealed and folded paper from his tunic. Before he handed it to Baralis he said, "I'll be wanting an answer straight away."
Baralis snatched it from him. The blood-red seal was Maybor's: the swan and the double edged sword. Like the man himself, it took quite a breaking. Quickly, Baralis read the spidery uncultivated script. Once finished he turned to the boy. "Why does he want to meet me?"
Nabber shrugged. "Don't ask me. I'm just the messenger."
Baralis took a thinking breath. The boy was a liar - and not a bad one at that. "Am I to understand that I am to come with you now?"
"Yes. Here and now. No henchmen, no weapons, no chance to warn the guard."
"How do I know this is not a trap?"
Nabber smiled sweetly. "Who's afraid now, Baralis?"
Baralis curbed his desire to strike the boy. "And what if I refuse and send for the guard anyway? I could have your secrets out of you on your very first scream." As he spoke, Baralis noticed that Nabber was edging, none too discreetly, toward the door.
"Ah well, my friend," said Nabber, hand upon the latch, "you'd have to catch me first."
The boy was young and therefore could be excused his stupidity. "Do you really think I would let you out the door?"
The latch was up, but Baralis' hand was faster. "Nay, boy. Leave it be! I will agree to come with you." Baralis found himself breathless. There had been a brief instant where he had considered drawing power against the boy, but curiosity overcame caution. He wanted to see Maybor. He wanted to hear what what the great lord had to say. Maybor had taken quite a risk sending a boy who could disclose his own, and presumably his daughter's, whereabou
ts straight into the heart of the palace. There must be a good reason behind it. Oh Baralis knew he could seize the boy and scrape the truth right off his plump, youthful tongue, but his love of intrigue had been sparked. There was a game to be played here, and after all, what good was power without the thrill of power games?
"Take me to him," he said.
Maybor ordered a second mug of ale, then settled back in his chair. He was not exactly drunk, but he was definitely pleasantly potted. It was good to be out. A fine tavern, a blazing fire and a buxom serving girl to flirt with: why he hadn't enjoyed himself so much in a long time. For the past nine weeks he'd been holed-up like squ irrel in a jar, and now, having managed to escape for a short while, he was determined to enjoy himself.
Still, enjoyment took many forms and the best was yet to come.
The ale arrived, its fine head frothing over the brim. The girl who brought it took great pains to lay it carefully on the table. Her bodice was cut modestly enough, but additional cleavage was revealed during the process of the slow bend. Maybor liked women who played coy.
"So, my beauty," he said to the girl. "Does the tavernkeeper here have strong arms in the crowd?" He had intended to ask this question of the tavernkeeper himself, but he rather liked appearing mysterious to the young and comely girl.
The girl giggled foolishly. "Oh aye, he does that, sir. You can never be too caref;ul when it comes to the riffraff."
Maybor ran his fingers down the plump arm of the girl. When he reached her hand, he pressed a single gold coin into the waiting palm. "A man in black will soon be coming here to visit me. Ask the tavernkeeper to set a watch on the door and if he is escorted by anyone other than a young boy, I would appreciate it they were held there, until I make my escape." Maybor allowed his leather pouch to gape open. It was loaded to the draw-string with the duke's own gold. "I trust this place has another way out?"
Greed improved the girl's looks, brightening her eyes and bringing a flush to her cheeks. "Oh yes, sir. There's more than one way to leave The Brimming Bucket."
Well pleased, Maybor nodded. "I trust I can count on you to let my wishes be known?"
The girl hesitated a moment. "WelXl, sir, naturally I'd be glad to help such a fine gentleman as yourself, but-"
"You'll need some extra coinage to ensure the word is well spread."
"Well, I hate to ask, sir, but you know what men are like. They hate to do anything on just the promise of gold."
Maybor handed her a fist full of coinage. He knew exactly what men were like. "And when you've done that," he said, "bring me a footstool for my feet. The floor is running with ale, and I want to give my shoes chance to dry."
As the girl cut across the tavern to its keeper, Maybor's eyes flicked toward the candle on the sill. Down a notch since he'd last looked. Damn! Where was the boy? What was keeping him? Had Baralis decided to hold him in the palace and torture the truth out of him? Maybor brought the second jug of ale to his lips. Somehow he doubted that. He knew his enemy well, and Baralis would come, not just because he was curious, but also because he was compelled to do so.
Maybor downed a throat-full of the golden brew. He wasn't a superstitious man, indeed hated any mention of mystics and magic, but he and Baralis were connected in some way; their fates were intertwined. They fed off each other. And it had been along time for both of them since their last meal.
Nabber wasn't at all sure that he liked being Baralis' escort. The man's presence had a distinct effect on those around him: people scattered like rats in torchlight whenever he walked by. Nabber shook his head grimly - the man would never make a pocket. Of course he had the feet for it, though. He and ÄBaralis had been walking for quarter of an hour now and not once had Nabber heard a single footfall from his black-robed companion. Swift would die for feet like that.
The rain had stopped the moment Baralis passed under the palace gate. The streets were damp, steaming, fragrant with a variety of rainy smells. As they walked south the district changed: fine stone buildings gave way to precarious wooden structures that leant against each other for support. The faire offered by the street hawkers changed accordingly. Near the palace they had sold fresh lampreys, artichokes and saffron. Here they sold meat pies, peas pudding and bread.
As they turned into the street which boasted The Brimming Bucket, Nabber risked a quick glance sideways. Baralis did not look happy. In fact he looked rather venomous, his features no more than a pale insignificance when compared to the darkness of his eyes. Nabber sniffed solemnly. He hoped Maybor knew what he was doing.
The Brimming Bucket was lit-up in anticipation of the night. Smoke and candlelight escaped from the shutters and the boldly-painted sign creaked brightly in the wind. Nabber noticed a man standing by the door; his right hand was resting inside his tunic and, after one quick scope of the two of them, he directed his gaze toward the floor. A look-out, no doubt set to watch by Maybor. Well, he certainly could have been more discreet about it. Nabber doubted very much that the man's purpose had gone unnoticed by Baralis.
"Here we are," said Nabber, hoping to distract Baralis' thoughts away from the look-out. "Maybor is waiting for you inside."
Baralis nodded once. "I know."
Inside he went. Poorly rendered tallow gave off smoke that stung his eyes. He was all senses, a being purely of perception: if there was danger he would search it out. Even before his eyes grew accustomed to the smoke, he had eliminated sorcery as a threat. He was the only one in the room with power beyond flesh. The knowledge brought confidence in its wake. No matter what happened now, he would be able to deal with it.
Baralis looked around the room. Thirty pairs of eyes were gazing upon him. The floor was awash with slowly souring ale: the tavern reeked of it. Maybor was sitting at a lower level infront of the fire, and Baralis didn't spot him at first. Silhouetted against the light, Maybor stood up and beckoned him forth. Baralis crossed the room and stepped down intâo the enclosed space of the fire-well. Two other men sat in the fire-well; old men who drew-in their chairs when Baralis entered their domain. Unlike the rest of the tavern floor, which was raised off the ground and paved, the floor in the fire-well consisted purely of packed-down earth. It was even wetter than above, and the old men sat crossed-legged, one foot apiece resting in the pool of ale.
"Aah Baralis," said Maybor, with an expansive sweep of his arm. "I'm so pleased you could come."
"Cut to the meat, Maybor," hissed Baralis.
"As charming as ever, I see." Maybor sat down. When Baralis made no motion to sit, he said, "Stay where you are and you give me no choice but to shout my news all over the tavern."
"News!" Baralis was scathing. "The petty intelligences of a fugitive on the run do not count as news to me."
Maybor was not in the least effected by this tirade. Calmly he drummed his fingertips against the wood. "If you didn't come here to listen to what I have to say, then I am forced to conclude that you came to see my handsome face instead."
"As ugly as your face is, Maybor, it still might be the greatest of your charms."
Maybor beamed. "I'm glad you think so, as I'm hoping to pass my features down in the blood."
Baralis felt the skin on his cheeks flush. He had a sudden, overpowering sensation of foreboding. As his stomach constricted, the world shifted and refocused. The Brimming Bucket turned from tavern to snake-pit. Maybor changed from drunken fool to fiend. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, my dear Baralis, that in less than seven months time I shall be a grandfather. Melliandra is with child and-"
"Oh yes. The chîild is the duke's. The marriage was consummated."
"You are lying."
"Why, Baralis, you're trembling. I thought you would be pleased."
Baralis, annoyed at showing weakness, drew breath-close to Maybor. "Your daughter is a whore, who has rutted with every man who crossed her path. Don't expect either me or the good people of Bren to believe a single word of what you say."
Maybor reached out and grabbed Baralis' robe close to the throat. "My daughter was a virgin when she married the duke."
Baralis was aware that the noise in the tavern had died down. He was also aware that two well-built men had moved from their position at the bar to the top stair leading down to the fire-well. The only movement was from a sick looking cat padding through the ale toward the fire.
"I wouldn't be so sure that Melliandra was a virgin if I were you, Maybor," Baralis said slowly. "She certainly showed me a few new trickâs when I had her."
Baralis saw the knife flash. By the time it raked against his cheek, a drawing was on his lips. He let it build on his tongue while he pulled away from the table. The two men behind had moved to the second stair. Maybor remained seated; he seemed content to have drawn blood.
"Your lies will not win in the end, Baralis," he said. "Melliandra's son will have Bren to himself."
Baralis didn't even acknowledge the words. He stepped upon the first stair of the fire-well, and then let the sorcery out. Beneath his palms the air shimmered. It crackled with a blue light: a charged streak of lightening aimed straight at the beer-covered floor. With his back to the room only Maybor, the two old men and the cat saw it flash. Baralis spun-round as the ale began to sizzle.
One of the old men screamed first. Then everyone began to scream - one voice indistinguishable from another. The smell of hops was carried on the warm ripple of air that hit Baralis' back. The two men who had moved from the bar made no attempt to stop him. Baralis felt the familiar wave of weakness. People rushed passed him toward the fire-well; shock on their faces, eyes cast downward to avoid his gaze. He had to get away from here, to get back to the palace. There was one thing he must do, however. Weary though he was, he formed a second drawing as he walked across the room.
A compulsion weaved its way through the air; fine as sea spray yet wide enough to cover thirty people. It settled like dust and was drawn into the lungs like a fragrance. The very air itself became a message, and it was quickly translated by the blood. After Baralis left, no one would remember his passing. He would be a mysterious man in black, nothing more. Every person in the tavern would give a different description of him and no two tellings would be the same. He could not risk his identity becoming known.
By the time he reached the door, he could barely walk. Outside he stumbled, legs buckling under him, heart racing ahead. A man with a mule loaded with cabbages stood in the street watching him.
"Take me to the palace," he murmured. "And I will make you a rich man." Even then, when nothing seemed left, he squeezed enough forth to put a compulsion behind the words. It nearly killed him.
The last thing Baralis saw before he fell into darkness were two baskets full of cabbages being thrown onto the road.
Maybor wasn't entirely sure what had jus t happened. In the small area of the fire-well all hell had been let loose, yet he had remained untouched by it. The two old men lay slumped against their table; hair on end, feet and ankles blackened as if burned. The cat lay dead on the ale-washed floor. Its paws were still smoking. All around him people were fussing and panicking and muttering about a man in black. It was time to get out of here. Swinging his feet from the footstool to the floor, Maybor stood up and pushed his way toward the door.