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Master of the Cauldron: Chapter Eleven

       Last updated: Saturday, August 28, 2004 22:28 EDT



    Though her mounted escort was quite willing to clear a path, Sharina was content that the carriage proceed back to the palace at the speed of ordinary traffic. They were returning by the next radial street to the east of the river. That was partly to spread Princess Sharina's public presence more widely through the city--but also partly, Sharina suspected, because Under-Captain Ascor hadn't wanted to risk an enemy preparing an ambush along the route they'd taken before.

    Tenoctris sat on the opposite bench of the compartment with a lap-desk across her knees. She'd checked several documents from her satchel as they rode along. Sharina had her finger in a scroll even now to mark a place, though she was pretty sure the old wizard didn't need it any more.

    At present Tenoctris was murmuring an incantation bove a seven-pointed figure she'd sketched on her desk. It must take enormous concentration to manage that in a rocking vehicle, but Sharina had already learned that doing anything well took concentration. A fuzz of scarlet wizardlight pulsed above the heptagram, barely visible even in the shade of the compartment.

    Sharina smiled and drew a bamboo sliver from the wizard's satchel. She marked the place in the scroll with it, then leaned out the window. By supporting herself with an arm, she kept from being bounced hard into the frame. Even at a walking pace, the iron-shod carriage wheels banged sparks from the cobblestones. She'd as soon have been on foot, though that wasn't comfortable on stone either.

    The Blood Eagle riding on the carriage step glanced at her, then returned to checking his side of the road for threats. Sharina didn't recall the soldier's name. She frowned: she should learn who all her guards were. It was the least she could do for men ready to throw themselves between her and danger at the first opportunity.

    This route passed through an affluent suburb instead of the concentration of commercial buildings across the river. The residences were single-family dwellings rather than apartment blocks, though the fronts at street level were rented to shops, taverns and restaurants. By now Sharina had been inside enough expensive city homes to know that the family rooms would face the courtyard and gardens inside.

    Among the residences stood a small temple. It must be very old, because the sides were of stuccoed brick--only the facade had a marble veneer. It was well kept, which was unusual for a neighborhood temple. The stone was white instead of gray from ages of city grime, and two workmen on a scaffold were touching up the pediment reliefs with red and blue paint.

    "Stop!" said Tenoctris suddenly. "Where are we? Stop, please, there's something wrong!"

    Sharina glanced over her shoulder. Tenoctris still held the sliver she'd been using as a wand, but the desk had slipped off her lap. Her face had the wide-eyed look of someone awakened from a nightmare.

    Sharina stuck her head out. "Stop the coach!" she shouted. She didn't know if the driver could hear her over the rumble of the tires.

    She'd have opened the door but the guard was in the way. Instead she wormed her whole torso through the window and said, "Stop now!"

    "Whoa!" bellowed Under-Captain Ascor, riding on the driver's bench. He grabbed the reins and heaved back hard. Unlike the driver, he didn't have gauntlets. Nobles generally had experience with horses, driving them as well as riding, while in Barca's Hamlet nobody did; even the plowing was done by oxen.

    The two horses rose onto their haunches, protesting with shrill whickers. The carriage bumped them from behind, slamming them forward in the traces. The off mare skidded and almost lost her footing. Behind the vehicle, the cavalry escort milled and shouted curses.

    The guard jumped to the pavement. One of his fellows on the roof handed down the shield and javelin he hadn't been able to hold while he rode on the step. Sharina flung open the carriage door.

    "What's happening, your highness?" Ascor demanded. He looked back toward the commander of the escort who was shouting questions. In a wholly different voice he snarled, "Shut your bloody mouth, you baboon! I'm talking to the Princess!"

    "Tenoctris?" Sharina said. The wizard had edged to the door to get out, so Sharina hopped down to give her room.

    "Is there a temple?" Tenoctris said. "Yes, there it is! Please, I want to go into it. I think there's something very wrong. There's forces here that aren't natural. And I think it's a recent thing as well."

    "Second platoon, dismount!" the escort commander said as Sharina helped Tenoctris out of the carriage. The Blood Eagles who'd been on the roof of the vehicle were forcing back the servants. Both groups were trying to do their jobs, but because the thing happening--whatever it was--was unexpected, the soldiers had decided that civilians no longer had any business with the two women.

    Ascor raised an eyebrow toward Sharina; she nodded. "Right, let's take a look," Ascor said. "Straight up the steps, your highness?"

    "Yes, if you please," said Tenoctris, replying to Sharina's glance. The entourage started forward like a wave curling shoreward. The escort led and swept to either side, while the black-armored bodyguards formed an inner casing around the nugget of the two women in the center.

    The temple was less than forty feet across. An altar stood in front of a simple three-step base up to a porch supported by six unfluted pillars. Instead of a slotted screen in front of the sanctum, allowing those outside to see the God's statue, there was a two-valve wooden door.

    The painters turned to look at the commotion in the street. Together they dropped down the ropes to the temple porch instead of lowering the scaffold in normal fashion. One called a warning in language Sharina didn't recognize.

    "Hold where you are!" Ascor said. He and his men held close to the women--meaning they were moving no faster than Tenoctris could shuffle--but the troopers of the escort broke into a run.

    The temple door opened, allowing the workmen to dart inside. Another man looked out through the crack in the door. He had regular features but his skin was white. His hair an almost invisible blond, and the irises of his eyes were so pale they almost merged with his corneas.

    The temple door slammed.

    "By the Lady!" shouted the commander of the escort. "I've seen those devils before! That was one of the People, boys!"



    "Master Cashel," Enfero whispered. He didn't point, but his eyes were on Mab as she and Herron discussed the food they'd carry. "She is the same one, isn't she? Mab, I mean?"

    Cashel followed the boy's line of sight. He frowned, because there didn't seem to be any doubt.

    "Sure," he said. "I mean, she doesn't ever look the same twice running, but the way she moves is always the same. And besides, there's her fingernails."

    They'd gathered on Ronn's highest terrace, going over their baggage. To the north were the hills, black even with the sun on them. There were citizens all around, more people maybe than had been in the Assembly Hall the night before. This whole crowd had come to see the Sons leaving, if you could really call it leaving when they were just going down to the cellars of the building they lived in.

    Granted it was a really big building.

    "Lots of women in Ronn paint their nails that way," Orly protested. The Sons carried real swords but they weren't wearing armor. Mab had said it'd just be in the way on this trip. "Most of them do, in fact."

    Orly and Stasslin had been standing close enough to overhear. From the way they'd glance at each other before Enfero spoke, the three of them had talked the question over between themselves.

    "Not like hers," Cashel said. Sometimes people played games with words, thinking they were making fun of him. Maybe that was happening here, because surely even city folk could see the difference between the enamel other women used and Mab's fingers shining like light itself.

    Right now Mab had gray hair and a slim, straight build--something like what Ilna might look like in thirty or forty years, Cashel guessed. When she pointed, her nails seemed to trail a path even through the bright sunlight.

    "Master Cashel?" Enfero said again. "We thought that maybe there were different women using the same name instead of one person with different looks. But you don't think that's what it is?"

    "No," Cashel said. "I don't."

    He cleared his throat and went on, "But if it was that way, I guess it'd be even better having that many more people on our side. Wizards, that is. We might want them."

    Orly burst into laughter. "You're a wonderful philosopher, Master Cashel," he said. "Always driving straight to the heart of the problem."

    Cashel wasn't sure whether Orly was mocking him, so he got out his pad of wool and began polishing his quarterstaff. It really didn't seem like mocking, but Cashel couldn't see what else it could be. He wasn't a scholar, that was sure; and he was pretty sure a philosopher was a scholar.

    Mab and Herron walked over. Athan and Manza, who'd been listening to their argument, followed in their wake. "I've convinced Master Herron that though he feels strong enough to carry a whole mountain of equipment now," Mab said, "this will very quickly change. You're better off with a knapsack of food and your swords. Even those will be heavy enough by the second day."

    "But how do we sleep, then?" Stasslin said in frowning surprise. "We're not going to find bedding on the way, are we?"

    "No, you're not," Mab said with a smile that reminded Cashel of his sister's expression when she was talking to a fool. "But it never gets very cold in the lower levels, quite the contrary in fact. I believe you'll find you can make do when you're tired enough. Which you will be."

    Cashel put the wool away. "How much food do you figure, ma'am?" he asked, paying attention for the first time to the pile of things Herron had been planning to take.

    He grinned too. There were cots in that pile, and more cookware than Ilna had in her whole kitchen in Barca's Hamlet. And there was heaven knows what all else.

    "Three days' supply," Mab said. "That should get us there and partway back if things go as I expect. I've prepared packs for all of you."

    She nodded toward another, smaller collection. The lined-up knapsacks were of some slick black fabric that Ilna'd like to see. Maybe he'd be able to take some back for her when all this was over. "Including you, Cashel," Mab said.

    Cashel patted the big leather wallet on his belt with a broad grin. He'd filled it with bread and cheese after the meal they'd just eaten.

    "Ma'am," he said, "I'm used to carrying my meals like this. Straps on my back might get in the way if, you know, I had to do something."

    He didn't much like the local cheese, even though he'd found it filling. It didn't have much spirit to it. Cashel had grown up on whey cheese because it was cheap. The cakes were flat and so hard that you had to moisten it to bite off a chunk. Most folks wouldn't have liked whey cheese, he supposed, but a mouthful now would've taken Cashel back to where life was simpler.

    His face'd sobered, but now he grinned again. The quarterstaff in his hand was a better memory for the purpose, he guessed. Life was always simple enough when he had a chance to use his quarterstaff.

    "Take your packs then, Sons of the Heroes," Mab said to the youths. She was smiling, but the expression was as sad as anything he'd seen on her face during their short acquaintance. "Take your packs, and may whatever Gods there are help you and help Ronn."

    Mab started toward the shaft that would take them to bedrock, as far as she'd said it was safe to descend that way. To get lower, they'd walk.

    The Sons shuffled to the knapsacks, hesitating to choose among things that Cashel was pretty sure were all the same. When they saw Mab well ahead of them, walking through the crowd that'd opened for her, the each snatched up a pack and carried it by the straps without waiting to put it on properly. Cashel followed behind. He glanced repeatedly over his shoulder though he didn't figure there was going to be any problem until anyway they'd gotten out of the shaft.

    The people of Ronn started to cheer: a few voices at first and then the whole huge crowd. They shrieked all sorts of things from, "Hurrah!" to "May the Gods bless and keep you!" It was easy to shout, of course, and it really didn't mean much; but the Sons' shoulders straightened and their strides grew quicker as they stepped onto the platform waiting to take them down.

    Cheering didn't mean much; but maybe it was the one thing the citizens of Ronn could do that would save these poor hopeful boys; and through them, the city. Cashel beamed like the sun overhead as he followed his companions on the first stage of their journey away from that sun; and perhaps back.



    The wind was fitfully from the north. Ilna and her companions had smelled wood smoke for most of the morning as they tramped across the rolling plain, but they were nearly on the little community before Ilna realized that the smoke rose not from cookfires but from the crushed remains of the houses.

    Then she smelled death: recent, but it'd been a hot day and the slaughter was very considerable. The chest-high drystone wall about the whole community was slammed inward at the south end, overthrown with a violence that'd flung stones the size of a man's chest a double-pace from where they'd lain in the wall.

    There'd been four stone houses with thatched roofs, round-ended and longer than they were broad. The track of destruction which began at the outer wall continued through the houses, smashing them into total ruin. At the north end of the community the wall was opened again, this time outward. The creature had departed, leaving only death and wreckage behind.

    "I pray that the Gods are real," said Davus harshly. "So that they can build a Hell to hold the thing that now reigns as King but does not do a king's duty to the land!"

    Birds rose from their feast, mostly crows and vultures but including a few cranes whose long beaks would've found food others couldn't reach. Squawks of peevish anger replaced the muted caws and clucks Ilna'd heard as she approached. There'd been enough carrion for all in the village, so the scavengers hadn't needed to fight.

    Davus placed a stone in the pocket of his sash and prepared to sling it. Chalcus touched his arm. "Save it," he said. "We don't want to eat them, and we can't kill them all. It's better not to start."

    Davus shuddered but nodded agreement. They'd reached the hole in the wall, but none of them chose to enter.

    "It was bad luck," Davus said quietly. "It must've come in the last watch of the night. Everyone would've been asleep. There'd have been no warning."

    "What 'it?'" Ilna said. "What did this?"

    "A troll like the one we waked from the bluffs," Davus said. "Very possibly the same troll."

    He looked at the village a moment longer, then rubbed his eyes with both hands. "Trolls hate all life that isn't stone like them," he said. "They don't move very fast, as you saw, and they're stupid. The villagers could've led it away if they'd seen it coming, tricked it into following one of them who'd have hidden when he'd drawn it out of sight. It was just bad luck."

    Two houses had burned out completely when the thatch was crushed down onto remains of the hearth fires. The other two had not, but the troll's slashing stone arms had made a job of destroying them. Ilna remembered the way the creature had paused to smash to splinters the tree it'd chanced against as it staggered away from the cliff.

    Here the victims had been sheep and humans. The troll had held a man--she thought it had been a man--by the ankles and flailed him several times against the compound wall. Everything upwards from mid-chest was splashed over the stones or on the ground outside.

    Ilna thought of suggesting burying the remains, but there were scores like him in or around the other huts. They simply didn't have time.

    And anyway, it was just meat. That was the only way to think about what had happened here.

    Chalcus shrugged. "You two go on around and find a place to camp. Get a fire started."

    He nodded to the flattened hamlet, then added "I'll find us something to eat."

    "What is it that you mean to do?" Davus said. His voice was low, but it was no more calm than the growl of a dog about to lunge--and no more friendly.

    "Gently, friend," Chalcus said as if he was stroking a child. "There'll be stored grain that we can take with no harm to those who stored it, I think. No meat, not even what might've been cured beforetimes. Eh?"

    "Sorry," said Davus. "I'm on edge, and it makes me foolish. Sorry."

    Davus started off, skirting the wall to the left. A pine grew from between two exposed blocks of stone. The lower half of one slab was dark with seeping moisture.

    "Chalcus?" Ilna said. "We can do without the food, you know."

    "Aye, love, I know that," the sailor said. He gave her a lopsided smile and nodded to the ruins. The birds were settling again, having decided the humans weren't enough of a threat to interfere with a feast like the present one. "I don't mind. I've seen worse, you know."

    His mobile, laughing face was briefly that of a man dead for a month. "I've done worse, truth to tell; though those days are behind me now. Or so I hope."

    He patted her hip gently. "Go help Davus with the fire, and I'll be along in a little bit with the makings of ash cake, as we have no pot for porridge."

    Ilna touched Chalcus on the cheek, then rejoined Davus who waited a little way along. Meeting Davus' still, observant eyes she blurted, "He's a good man." She knew she sounded defensive, and she hated the weakness that had driven her to speak.

    "Yes," said Davus, seeming to transfer his attention to the three chips of quartz he was juggling. "And if the truth were known, it might be that a wrathful man like myself has more on his conscience than Master Chalcus does--"

    He met Ilna's eyes.

    "--black though the sins of his former life may have been."

    He understands, Ilna thought. And because Davus understood, it was just possible that what he said was literally true; as it might have been for Ilna herself--black though the sins of Chalcus' former life undoubtedly were.

    "What's there to be done about a creature that did this?" Ilna said, nodding toward the ruin as they passed its northern edge. "What can be done to a troll?"

    "By ordinary folk?" Davus said, quirking a smile. "By you or me? Little enough, I fear. Run away, for it's not quick. Lure it off and hide, as the folk here might've done; for trolls aren't bright either."

    The pine's branches for a man's height up the trunk were dead. Davus eyed them, then gripped one at mid-point and snapped it cleanly. He squatted and with a frost-split hammerstone began pounding the wood to kindling.

    "But the Old King...," Davus continued as Ilna examined the spring. There was a basin under the seepage, a quite adequate one as soon as she cleaned out the leaf litter. "He had a jewel over his forehead. It gave him power over stone, control of all sorts: power to direct and to loose and to bind."

    He looked up and added, "The Old King would've changed the troll back to a boulder. If it hadn't gotten far from the cliffs--and trolls generally didn't get far in his day--he'd have sent it back to those cliffs first. Letting it be with its kind, you see, so long as it couldn't harm men."

    "What happened to the jewel?" Ilna said. The slaughter that'd happened here, massacre of the village, must've bothered her more than she cared to realize. When she heard her words, she knew the answer and spoke it: "The New King has it. The creature, Nergura said it was."

    Davus struck sparks expertly into his pile of tinder, using a flint and a thumb-sized crystal of fool's gold that he must've found unnoticed along the way. He smiled in satisfaction at the smoke twisting from his fireset, then looked at Ilna and said, "Yes, the creature. In a manner of speaking I suppose it's only fair. The jewel is the creature's own egg, you see."

    "Egg?" Ilna repeated sharply. "Then it's going to hatch into more of the things?"

    Davus bent over, feeding larger fragments of the branch to the wood fibers that he'd used for tinder. He chuckled. "No," he said, "not that one, any more than the hen's egg you boil for dinner is going to start clucking. The power is there regardless, but trying to use it with the egg still alive is--"

    The chuckle returned, deeper and grim as a death-knell.

    "--a good way to guarantee that you'll not live to the end of the spell yourself. Or at least that was the story that people told in my day."

    Ilna looked over her shoulder. Chalcus was leaving the hamlet with a jaunty step and a basket balanced on his left shoulder.

    "Ah, we'll feast like lords and ladies tonight, my friends!" the sailor called when he found Ilna's eyes on him. "Wheat and beans and honey, a whole comb, wrapped in a palm frond and fit for the greatest king in all this fine world, I'm sure!"

    "Perhaps the Old King spared the mother because he'd slain her child, the egg," Davus said softly as he built up the fire. "That's the sort of thing a man might do but a king should not, allowing sentiment to affect his rule. Who knows what's in a man's heart?"

    "Who indeed," Ilna said. "He was a sentimentalist, your Old King?"

    "Him?" Davus scoffed. "Not him! He was a choleric fellow with a quick tongue and a hard hand. But justice mattered to him, and perhaps his sense of what was just led him into the error of sparing an enemy."

    "If that's what happened," said Ilna, "then his choice had a bad result; but not so bad, I think, as the result of deciding to ignore justice."

    She rose to her feet smiling--broadly for her--and took the basket of scavenged foodstuffs from Chalcus. She had to believe in justice, because without a sense of justice there was no difference between the Ilna os-Kenset of today and the woman who'd come back from Hell, bringing that Hell along with her.

    If that was the case, then Ilna and all the world besides were better off dead.



    Garric, bending over the pile of clean linens folded on the handbarrow, followed Liane along the corridor. Though it was still an hour short of dawn, most of the hall lamps had burned to glows.

    Garric was surprised to see that lamp above the door to his own suite was as dim as the others. The Blood Eagles were usually much more punctilious about their duties--and lighting the faces of those approaching Prince Garric's room was very much a part of their duties.

    "This isn't right," said Carus, quizzical and mildly irritated at a failure of discipline. Then, in a voice without any emotion at all, he said, "It's an ambush, but don't run, on your life don't run, they've got javelins and you've only got a dagger."

    But my sword's in the anteroom of the suite, Garric thought. Using the linens for cover as he continued to pace forward, he slid the dagger out from under his tunic and held it flat beneath the left pole of the barrow. Perhaps they'll wait for us to enter instead of attacking in the corridor where they might be interrupted.

    The eight guards were twenty feet away and, as Carus noted, all but the under-captain commanding the squad had javelins. If Garric and Liane turned to run, they'd be spitted like chickens for roasting before they got three steps toward safety at the turn of the hallway.

    "When you get the door unlatched," Garric muttered, hoping that Liane could make out his words, "get in and get clear."

    "All right," Liane whispered back. Her pace, a sullen shuffle, didn't change.

    The watch would've changed at midnight, so the features beneath the black helmets properly weren't those of the Blood Eagles on duty when he and Liane went out. Garric, watching as best he could with his face bent down, didn't recognize any of them.

    "They're none of them men I've ever seen before. The uniforms are right, but they're not Blood Eagles," Carus said, seeing through Garric's eyes. That put the seal on what Garric had known in his heart--in the pit of his stomach--already.

    The guards were all watching him. That wasn't right: two men should've been looking the other way down the corridor in case the 'servants' were a deliberate distraction.

    Garric had expected to be recognized on his return tonight--well, this morning--despite the proper pass stamped with the wax bulla of his personal secretary, Liane bos-Benliman. Being identified now wouldn't have mattered much. Attaper would probably hear about it and complain in forceful terms about what Garric had done, but he couldn't stop what'd already happened. Garric hadn't expected the guards to be waiting for him, though. But of course these weren't guards.

    Liane held out the pass, a palm-sized potsherd with the information brushed in ink on the inner side. She bent her head away with the shy propriety of a modest girl meeting a group of men.

    The man wearing the white horsehair crest of an officer grunted, "Go on," He didn't touch the pass or demand that Liane and Garric look him in the eye.

    Garric caught the scent of decay. It was very faint, but he was sure of it.

    "Dead men," Carus said, his image tense and grinning. "Cattle and horses smell different, not so bad; but dead mules stink even worse."

    Liane reached for the latch lever calmly, then snatched it down and leaped inside. Laundry spilled from the handbarrow as Garric followed her, dropping the handles so that his dagger was free.

    He tried to slam the door shut behind him but a heavy body hit it from the other side before the latch clicked. An arm pushed through the gap, swinging a sword blindly.

    Garric slashed through the elbow tendons.The forearm sagged at the joint, then dropped to the floor. The muscles were rotten tatters hanging from the bones, oozing putrescent fluid.

    Garric's sword dangled in its scabbard from the back of the chair in which a servant was intended to sit in case the prince needed something during the night. As Garric reached across his body to draw the longer weapon, the weight of several men crashed into the doorpanel. They threw him backwards, off-balance with the tip of the blade still caught in the sheath. Three black-armored guards shoved in, one slightly in front. His javelin was raised to thrust through Garric's chest.

    Liane hurled the bedroom lamp into the guard's face. Oil splashed as the three-headed silver dragon bounced away. The one lighted wick didn't ignite the spilled fuel, but it blinded the guard for the instant Garric needed to stab up through his throat.

    Garric's dagger-point jammed in the guard's spine at the base of the skull. He let go of the hilt and grabbed the chair with his left hand, then skipped backward into the doorway between the anteroom and the main part of the suite. He had the sword clear now.

    The guard with the dagger in his throat fell forward. The appearance of normal flesh sloughed away, leaving a corpse so decayed that both arms separated from the shoulderblades when the torso hit the floor.

    Two more guards came on, their spears raised over their shoulders. The remainder of the detachment bunched behind them. The one on the left thrust. Garric caught the javelin point on the chair seat. He twisted chair and spear to the right as he lunged low, stabbing the other guard beneath the cuirass.

    His sword grated into the hip joint. On a human enemy--and the guards weren't human now, whatever they'd been in life--Garric's thrust would've severed the great artery in the thigh. He jerked his point free in a gush of decay, not blood, but the effect seemed to be the same: the guard's body rotated as his leg collapsed. It was a rotted corpse by the time it hit the floor.

    Thought would've made Garric retreat a step into the bedroom so that he could use the doorway to constrict his enemies. He wasn't thinking. There wasn't time for thought, only for the instincts his warrior ancestor had honed in vicious battles a millennium past. He drove forward again, hacking through the leg of the guard who'd let go of his stuck javelin to draw his sword. Garric's stroke threw the guard sideways, over the body of his fellow. The fluids of their decay mixed as their stinking corpses partially disintegrated.

    Now Garric jumped back. He was gasping through his open mouth and his lungs were on fire. Guards pushed forward, slipping on the bodies of those who'd been in the lead.

    "Watch out!" Liane screamed. She and the male servant banged the door into its jamb, brushing Garric's left arm because he wasn't quick enough to get clear. The female servant slid the bar through the staples.

    Bodies hit the door from the other side, but the panel was sturdy and through-bolts anchored the staples. Garric bent forward to breathe with the least constriction. Liane and the servants were doing something, sliding a couch against the door he supposed, but all he saw for the moment was the blurred grain of the cherrywood doorpanel. There was nothing he needed to see just now, so his body was putting all its effort into recovering so it could meet the next test.

    Sharper blows shook the door. A spearbutt squealed through a crack which widened as the guard levered his shaft sideways. A sword and another spearbutt struck the panel together, breaking a board out of the core which had been covered on both sides by veneer.

    Garric backed a step. A guard reached through the opening to pull the bar. Garric thrust, aiming for his throat. His point glanced off the flare of the guard's helmet but gashed flesh through the shoulder straps. The arm jerked back quickly.

    Two more guards rammed the door with their shoulders. The panel bowed inward between the upper and lower crossbraces. Garric lifted the chair to use it as a shield again. The javelin had cracked the seat; only half remained attached to the back.

    Guards smashed through the door, swords raised. Liane hurled a quilt over the first pair. Garric thrust home and jerked his blade free in a cloud of white goosedown. His ears rang with shouts and the thunder of his own blood.

    Garric backed and stabbed again, hitting a gorget but punching through the thin bronze in a gush of foulness. The guard collapsed, but the anteroom was full of black-armored bodies. There were more in the hall trying to force their way in. It was going to be over very quickly.

    Garric stepped forward again, his legs wobbly but his decay-smeared blade thrusting straight for the next guard in the doorway. This one parried expertly, locking Garric's crossguard with his own. Garric tried to knee the guard in the groin but his bare foot slipped in fetor and he went down instead. It was over now beyond question, but Garric dropped the chair and seized the guard's sword-wrist with his left hand.

    "Your highness!" Lord Attaper cried. "Your highness!"

    Garric's eyes focused: he was struggling with the commander of his bodyguards. The other men, in the anteroom and now slipping past Garric and Attaper to search for further dangers within the suite, were real Blood Eagles. In the corridor behind, Blaise armsmen shouted questions.

    Garric tried to wheeze a greeting. The word wouldn't come out. He'd have fallen sideways if Attaper hadn't held him up.

    "What in the Sister's name is going on!" Attaper said.

    Garric could only shake his head. He was smiling, though. The only thing he was sure of was that he was still alive; but that in itself was reason to smile.

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