A DAGGER IN THE NIGHT
Ktan stood at the bow of the Mandrake, his elbows resting on the railing, staring pensively at the endless line of undulating waves rolling past the ship from horizon to horizon. They had left the islands behind them two days ago, and now there was no land in sight, not even to the east, the direction the ship now faced, and the direction Ktan's eyes kept roaming to. Ktan knew it was useless to look. Captain Rogers had told him the trip would take a minimum of three days in this wind, and there was no hope of spotting land before tomorrow, nevertheless Ktan couldn't keep his eyes from the eastern horizon or the hope out of his mind of by some miracle spotting the dark mass of land ahead.
They were lucky to even be here, he thought. By all rights, they should still be back on the islands. Stranded. It was fortunate there was another ship in the harbor, and even more fortunate the Captain agreed to ferry them back to the mainland, though it had taken quite a bit of coin to convince him. Ktan had been shocked to see the Lady of the Night leaving the harbor, but of course, by then there hadn't been anything he could do about it. It had taken hours to sort everything out. They had had to remain in hiding while Dason and his crew had been searching for them. Fortunately, that hadn't been long. As soon as the Lady had left, Dason had called his men back to the Red Eagle and taken off in pursuit, apparently assuming the perpetrators of the attack was on board. It had taken even longer to hunt down Saramis and to discover the full extent of Captain Fisher's treachery. They had found one of his men on the shore near where they had fought, wounded, and had persuaded him to talk. Ktan had not been happy when told that the Captain had abducted Merigan. Ktan smiled ruefully. Perhaps not happy was a bit of an understatement.
He sighed. Again he hadn't been vigilant enough. Again he had failed them. It seemed that, after all these years, luck had turned against him.
Or had it? Ktan didn't believe in luck. Or rather, believed you made your own luck. It seemed strange to him that all this ill had befallen them right after they had met that young noble...
The man they had captured had said Willbrand fought with them, had tired to save Merigan, but he was just a sailor. For all Ktan knew, the man might be a dupe, left behind to make them believe Willbrand had been trying to save Merigan when in fact he might have been part of the scheme to abduct her. Might even have masterminded the entire thing.
He smiled again. It was hard for him to picture young Willbrand being the mastermind behind anything. All his instincts told him the boy was just as he appeared to be, and more importantly, it seemed that Merigan had trusted him too, and their instincts had never let them down.
Not yet anyway. His own instincts were honed by experience, and Merigan had the added bonus of having her powers behind it, though how much that might help he could only guess. Even so, it wasn't impossible to fool their instincts, was it? Irrissa was a Maiden too, had the same powers as Merigan, even more so. Couldn't it be possible that she somehow could train someone to hide their true nature from Merigan's detection?
He drummed his fingers idly on the railing.
Sure it was possible. Anything was possible, but if she had that much power, why hadn't she caught them long ago? If Willbrand was working against them, why did he wait so long to spring his trap? He had had plenty of opportunities before now to abduct Merigan, or to kill her. Besides, when could Irrissa have trained him? Was he getting too paranoid now? He might as well suspect Saramis, or Jenya...
"I'm sure she's all right."
Ktan turned to see Saramis standing behind him.
"I didn't hear you coming," Ktan commented.
The magician walked over and stood by the rail beside him.
"Yes, I noticed," Saramis replied. "You're slipping Ktan."
"I've got my mind on other things."
Saramis fell silent, looking at his friend. They had known each other for a long time, long enough for Saramis to know that Ktan was deeply troubled, in spite of his stoic outward appearance. The lines that creased his forehead, the cold stare in his eyes gave away the fact that his outward demeanor was just a fašade, if you knew him well enough. Even his fingers drumming on the rail was a plain sign. Ktan was not one given to idle motion, or shows of nervousness. When he stood, he stood motionless.
"We should be in Hadell tomorrow," Saramis broke the silence. "Do you have any idea how we're going to get her back?"
Ktan stared at the waves. How indeed were they going to rescue Merigan? They had to be expecting Captain Fisher. The city would probably be crawling with Imperial Knights. What hope would the three of them have against so many?
He gave his head a shake. He had to stop being so damn gloomy. They'd been in tight spots before, and always managed to get out of it somehow. It wasn't hopeless. They had friends in Hadell, just like they had friends in just about every town. Saramis would have contacts.
"No I don't," he replied. "There's really no way to make a judgment until we get there and see what the situation is. They'll probably ship her off to Galias as soon as she arrives, with a squadron of Imperial Knights as escort. It will take them a few days to get there, and they'll be vulnerable on the road. Even with their head start, hopefully we can intercept them before they reach the capitol."
Saramis nodded slowly, but there seemed to be more on his mind.
"That's assuming we can get horses," he said slowly.
Ktan looked at him sharply.
"Why wouldn't we?" he questioned.
Saramis hesitated a moment before replying.
"Most of the coin we garnered from my show on the islands, before it ended so abruptly, was spent buying us passage on this ship, and our coffers were low before that. I'm afraid our funds are running short."
Ktan gave him a sour look. The last thing he needed right now was to have to worry about coin.
"We have enough to buy horses?"
Saramis looked unhappy.
"Well, yes, probably. The problem is the quality of the horses. You know the Imperial Knights only use the best steeds. We'll be able to buy horses, but I suspect not very good ones. Given the fact that we're so far behind already, I'm worried that we might not be able to catch up."
Ktan's drumming became more incessant. Finally he pulled his hand away and folded his arms across his chest, a smoldering look in his eyes.
"Great," he snapped. "Merigan is captured, everything is falling apart, and you tell me we might be stopped because we don't have enough coin to buy decent horses?"
Saramis just looked at him helplessly.
"It's not my fault," Saramis said defensively, as if he expected Ktan to think just that. He knew Ktan didn't really like to think about coin. It was usually left up to him and Jenya to make sure they had enough. He resented that sometimes. Ktan seemed to shunt off the responsibilities he wasn't interested in to the others and then just expected them to handle it. Coin didn't grow on trees. They had to get it from somewhere. Whether he liked it or not, one of these days Ktan was going to have to face reality and realize that people weren't always going to help them out of the goodness of their heart, or because they at one time supported the Maidens. If they were ever going to go up against the King for real, they were going to have to be well funded or they would get nowhere. However, this didn't really seem like the right time to point that out to Ktan. "You and I both know we weren't expecting to spend coin booking passage on the Mandrake when we already had paid for the Lady."
For a moment Ktan glared at Saramis. In fact, he was thinking that Saramis was at fault, at least to some extent. Saramis was the one in their group with extravagant tastes, the one who always wanted the best food and accommodations, the one who was most likely to frit their coin away.
But Ktan knew that was unfair. Saramis might be the most willing to spend their coin, but he was also the major provider of it. Ktan couldn't count how many times Saramis had come through for them when they had needed coin, whether with one of his magical shows, his ability to borrow from rich merchants, or his thieving skills. The fact of the matter was that without Saramis they would have run out of coin long ago. Merigan had always been too young, and he and Jenya didn't have much in the way of skills except for their fighting ability, but he had to admit there weren't many job openings for disgraced knights on the run.
Besides, getting mad was foolish. It was more important to concentrate on what could be done.
"Do we know anyone in Hadell we could borrow coin off of?" he asked.
Saramis pondered this, the frown on his face indicating his feelings on the matter.
"Perhaps," he replied. "It's too close to the capitol for my tastes, and most Maiden supporters as well. There were a few here last time I was here, but that was years ago, and the taxes keep most merchants away, except those favored by the King of course."
"Surely you must know one or two people," Ktan pressed. True, it was close to the capitol, and Saramis hadn't been here in years, but they had never yet been to a town or city where Saramis didn't know someone.
The unpleasant look remained on Saramis' face.
"There are a few possibilities, yes," he conceded. "We won't know until we get there of course, but I just think we should be prepared for the worst."
Ktan shifted his weight uneasily. Prepared for the worst. Yes. He had always prepared for the worst. He suspected that was the main reason they had always avoided it. What was the worst now? He didn't think they would execute Merigan before they got her back to Galias. This was something he thought Irrissa would want to witness. Even at the worst, they had a little bit of time.
Or did they? How much did Irrissa know, he wondered? Who had Captain Fisher spoken to? How strong had his suspicions been? How sure had he been that Merigan was a Maiden? If he hadn't been that sure, he might have only made arrangements to have her picked up without telling them anything. The Imperial Knights might not even know Merigan's true nature, they might only suspect. Irrissa might not have been told anything at all. On the other hand, if Fisher had been sure, he might have sent word directly to Irrissa. She might even be in Hadell herself, waiting for the ship to arrive. They might have performed the execution already. It might already be too late.
Ktan lowered his arms and gripped the railing again in frustration. He had to stop letting his imagination run away with itself. They had always made it though these things; he had to believe they would somehow manage it this time as well.
"What about Willbrand?" he heard Saramis question.
"What about him?' Ktan said with a shrug.
"Captain Fisher's man said he swam out to the ship. Do you think he could have done anything?"
Ktan gave him a look.
"What could he have done except get himself captured or killed?' Ktan replied.
Saramis looked at him for a moment.
"You don't give him much credit, do you?'
Ktan swiveled around to look at him, and Saramis thought perhaps another outburst was coming, but when Ktan spoke his voice was even.
"I have to admit I underestimated the lad," he replied. "But it's not that. What could you have done in that situation, or Jenya or I? One person couldn't take on the Lady's entire crew, no matter who they were. And he couldn't slip onto the ship without being seen."
"He might have been able to with Merigan's help," Saramis pointed out.
Even though Willbrand had shown his worth more than once, he had also done enough boneheaded things to make Ktan skeptical that he could be of use in this situation.
"Perhaps," he conceded. "Even if that's true, how does it help? Even if he's free what can Willbrand do by himself in Hadell, once Merigan is taken into custody by the Imperial Knights?"
"I don't know," Saramis replied. "But you can't count him out altogether. Perhaps he can think of some way to slow them down..."
Ktan wasn't ready to buy that. Willbrand was honest and braver than most, but he still had little experience with this sort of thing. The truth was Ktan just didn't think he was clever enough to pull something like that off.
"Let's hope so," was all he could think of to say. "Like everything else, we'll just have to wait until we get there to find out."
One thing they had guessed that became immediately clear as the ship pulled up to the dock the next day was that they hadn't underestimated the presence of Imperial Knights in the area. The city seemed to be infested with them. Being so close to the capitol, the townsfolk were used to seeing them, but now there were so many cantering through the streets and prowling along the waterfront that even the most obtuse citizen had to realize that something was up.
Still, they didn't seem to mind as long as the something that was up had nothing whatsoever to do with them.
Even so, this seemed a good sign to Ktan. If everything had gone according to Fisher's plan, Merigan would be on her way to Galias by now, so why would there still be so many knights here? Perhaps they had remained behind in the hopes of catching Ktan and the others in their net as well.
Or perhaps something had gone wrong.
Though the presence of so many knights still here gave Ktan some hope, it was also a hindrance. They were searching every ship that came into port, and there were guards posted almost as soon as the ship reached the dock to prevent anyone, or anything, from being slipped off the ship unnoticed. No one was allowed to leave the ship until it was searched and cleared. Given that they were so close to the capitol, and that Ktan was rather well known in these parts, it seemed to them that the chances of recognition were high.
They explained this to Captain Rogers, hoping he could assist them in this dilemma. He didn't seem anxious to do so. Considering the fact that for perhaps the first time in his life, his ship had no contraband merchandise aboard, it seemed a shame to him that he had to go through any trouble for little or no profit. In fact, although he never actually said it, he seemed to be of the opinion that his best course of action might have been to turn them over to the Imperial Knights in hope of getting a small reward in return. However, a not so veiled threat from Ktan that if he did so the warrior would make sure the man lost his head if it was the last thing Ktan did made him suddenly much more cooperative. He dressed both Ktan and Jenya (since finding a woman on the ship would be almost as suspicious as finding Ktan) and sent them up into the rigging as the search commenced. Fortunately, it seemed the Imperial Knights were more interested in contraband than inspecting the crew, and they did not seem to pay any attention to Ktan and Jenya suspended high over their heads. It was a good thing too, for the look of terror on Jenya's face as she clung for dear life to what she considered entirely inadequate lines with nothing but the swaying deck far below her would have been more than enough to tell them that, in this particular case, they were dealing with no sailor.
After the ship had been cleared and Jenya was back on firm ground, Saramis ventured forth to see if any of his old contacts still remained in the city. It was late afternoon by that time, and he did not return until after dark. Ktan considered this a good thing, for he still wasn't anxious to wander around the city in broad daylight with all the Imperial Knights about. Captain Rogers looked plainly relived as they walked down the gangplank off his ship.
"Did you find out what's going on, Saramis?" Ktan questioned when they reached solid ground.
"I know more than we did before," Saramis replied. "Though I'm not sure if it's good news or bad. The Lady never arrived here. She fled east along the coast, being closely pursued by the Red Eagle. Rumor has it that the Eagle caught the Lady two nights ago, and after a pitched battle the Lady was sunk. They were close to shore and the scuttlebutt is that Captain Bartro and a handful of his crew made it to shore and escaped."
"Captain Bartro?' Jenya spoke up. "What happened to Captain Fisher? Was he killed?"
"Yes," Saramis acknowledged, "but supposedly it happened before the attack by the Eagle. They said he went mad and his own crew was forced to kill him."
Jenya's forehead creased.
"Went mad?" she said slowly. "Do you think that might have had anything to do with Merigan?"
"Or the book?" Saramis added, looking at Ktan.
Ktan glared at him in return.
"What, you think Fisher opened the book and it fried his brain? Are you telling me you actually believed all that mumbo jumbo?"
"Hey, you never know," Saramis replied a bit defensively. "Do you have another explanation?"
"Could Merigan have done that to him, without the book?" Jenya suggested.
Ktan frowned. He supposed that if the illusion Merigan created was horrible enough, and the person particularly susceptible, it might be possible, but Merigan had never done anything like that before.
"I don't know," he replied. "I don't think so. But there could be any number of other explanations. Captain Fisher could have been losing his marbles for a long time and its just coincidence that it happened now. Besides, all this is just a rumor right? For all we know, that may not be the way it happened at all."
Saramis said nothing, but he did not look convinced.
"Anyway, that's not important," Ktan continued. "What is important is that we find Merigan. At least now we know for sure she's not in the hands of the Imperial Knights. This changes our plans. Where did the Lady go down?"
"Further up along the coast," Saramis replied. "Just northeast of Donelan."
"Hmmm," Ktan said slowly. It appeared they still had quite a bit of traveling to do.
"How do we know this Bartro fellow didn't turn her over to the Imperial Knights?" Jenya stated.
"We don't even know for sure if she survived the battle," Saramis said very slowly, looking at the others.
Ktan returned his glance with a thoughtful expression.
"We all know Merigan is very good at hiding when the need arises," he said. "I'm confident she survived. In fact, the battle might have given her just the opportunity she needed to escape."
Ktan was not nearly as confident in his words as he sounded. She had to have survived. She just had to.
"What you say gives me hope," he said. "But we still need horses and coin. Saramis, did you find out if any of your contacts are still here?"
Saramis hesitated. The look on his face made it seem a simple yes or no was not an option he was mulling.
"Saramis..." Ktan said slowly.
The magician opened his mouth, and then hesitated again. Now both Ktan and Jenya were looking at him closely.
"Well, sort of...” he said finally.
"Sort of?" Jenya questioned. "Care to explain that to us?"
Saramis looked like they had run into a squadron of Imperial Knights.
"There is one person who may be able to help us," he said finally.
Jenya looked at him closely.
"But?" she said. "I sense a 'but' coming on here."
She was right.
"But she's not really someone I'm anxious to see again," Saramis continued.
Ktan did not look happy with Saramis' waffling.
"Can this person help us or not?" he stated.
"Yes," Saramis replied, as if the word had been forced out of him.
"So what's the problem?" Jenya questioned.
Saramis said nothing for a moment. His eyes glanced around them as if looking for a way to escape.
"Saramis, we don't have time for games!" Ktan said sharply. "We're talking about Merigan's life here!"
That seemed to snap the magician out of it.
"All right," he said. "Her name is Jocatta. She's the owner of a trading company located in the northern section of the city. I'm sure she'll be able to do something for us but..."
He turned to look at Jenya.
"But you have to do me a favor."
Jenya looked at him surprised.
Jenya's face went from puzzled to suspicious in one swift motion.
"And just what exactly do you want me to do?" she said.
From the way Saramis hesitated, it was quite clear that Jenya's suspicions were justified.
"I...I want to tell her that you're my wife," he said finally.
"I want you to tell her you're my wife,' he repeated "She has this thing for me and..."
"I don't care if she has a thing for you!" Jenya cut him off. "That's your problem, not mine. If you think I'm..."
"Would you just listen to me for a minute!" Saramis snapped. "She wouldn't leave me along. I couldn't get rid of her. I told her I was married, but she didn't believe me. She even tried to abduct me, to force me to marry her."
"I don't care!" Jenya exclaimed. "It's not my problem. Why do you have to drag me into this?"
"I'm not dragging you into it," Saramis replied. "You just have to let me say you're my wife. You don't have to say anything at all, or do anything. Just let me do the talking."
"You are dragging me into it," Jenya contradicted. "You think I want people to think that I'm married to you?"
Saramis looked at her for a moment.
"You'd just be pretending," he said. "And besides, what's so horrible about being married to me?"
"Do you want the whole list of just the short version?" Jenya replied icily.
"We don't have time for this," Ktan warned.
"Why can't you just tell her the truth?" Jenya questioned, ignoring Ktan.
"I already told you!" Saramis replied. "If she finds out I'm single she's going to want me to marry her!"
"Did you ever consider just telling her no?" Jenya responded.
"I...she..." Saramis sputtered. "You don't know what she's like!" he finished with. "She'll want me to marry her right then and there, and she won't give us a dime until I agree to go along. It'll hold us up for days!"
Jenya stopped and looked at him for a moment.
"Why Saramis, I do believe you're afraid of this woman," she stated.
Saramis looked even more embarrassed.
"You haven't met her," he grumbled.
"No, but we're going to, if she's the only one who can help us." Ktan cut in. "I want you both to remember that we're doing this for Merigan. We have to find her as soon as possible."
Saramis looked at Ktan and nodded, then turned toward Jenya again.
"Yes, as soon as possible," he agreed.
Jenya glowered at Saramis.
"Ktan..." she started, but he held up his hand.
"I'm not going to get involved in this," he stated.
Jenya turned her attention to Saramis once more, the look on her face causing him to take a step away from her.
"You said you last saw her years ago," she pointed out. "How do you know she still feels the same way about you? For all you know, she might have forgotten all about you by now."
"Somehow I don't think that's likely," Saramis replied. "But if that's true, there's still no harm done in telling her you're my wife. Besides, we should be able to tell pretty quickly. If it seems like she has no more interest in me, then you're off the hook. Is that acceptable?"
Now it was Jenya's turn to hesitate. She didn't want to be involved in any of Saramis' stupid schemes, but it seemed he was determined to drag her into this one and it didn't appear there was a lot she could do about it, but she wouldn't forget this.
"Fine," she said finally. "But if you do something stupid like put your arm around me, you better be prepared to not be able to clap for the rest of your life."
"Not be able to clap..." Saramis said slowly.
"Difficult to clap with only one arm," Ktan pointed out.
Saramis looked at Jenya sourly.
"That's fine with me," he snapped. "Considering cozying up to you is pretty much the last thing I want to do myself."
"Good," Jenya responded.
"Fine," Saramis retorted.
"You sound like you're married already," Ktan couldn't help but observe.
"Oh shut up!" they both snapped.
"If we're all done now," he said. "Maybe we can get on our way before the entire city guard comes wandering by?"
They continued down the street in silence. The city seemed to be laid out with no planning whatsoever, much the same as Pantaglia. Streets turned and twisted seemingly at random, and at times they turned down one lane only to come to a hairpin turn and end up going back in the same direction. More than once Jenya openly questioned whether Saramis knew where he was going, but the magician seemed too annoyed with her to bother with a response.
The street they were on narrowed until it was no wider than a footpath, with barely enough room to walk two abreast. Jenya looked up at the tall buildings looming up on either side of them and commented on what a wonderful place it would be for an ambush.
"I'm taking us to the back entrance," Saramis said. "The only other way is down the main street, and we're bound to run into some Imperial Knights that way."
The street was slowly turning to the left, and, although well lit by torches, in the narrow alley they couldn't see very far ahead. Ktan and Jenya both held their hands near their swords.
Finally Saramis stopped in front of one of the buildings, quickly knocking on an ornately carved oak door.
For a moment there was silence.
The door swung open and a well-dressed young man stood looking at them.
"May I help you?"
"I need to speak to Jocatta," Saramis stated. "Tell her it’s Saramis Ash."
The man frowned at them for a moment, then nodded and closed the door without inviting them in.
"Hope she remembers you," Jenya stated.
"I have a feeling that's not a concern," Saramis replied.
Correctly, it seemed, for a few moments later the man opened the door again. He ushered them in, through a large kitchen area and then into what appeared to be a well-furnished common room. There he left them, saying Lady Jocatta would be with them shortly.
A large fire burned brightly in a stone fireplace, filling the room with dancing shadows. The odor of incense pervaded the air. Saramis deemed it the scent of rosemary. Jenya wrinkled her nose in distaste at the smell. A pile of dark cushions filled one corner of the room, but before anyone could relax, a figure entered.
"Saramis! I knew you'd come back someday!"
Ktan turned and found himself staring into someone's midsection.
He lifted his eyes; they all did, and found themselves looking at a woman who towered over all their heads.
In spite of what they had come to expect from Saramis, both Ktan and Jenya couldn't help but stand there and stare.
Jocatta didn't seem to notice. She was deeply tanned, with dark hair, almost as black as Merigan's, tied back by a gold ringlet and dropping to midback. She had dark blue eyes, and a small upturned nose that looked positively microscopic on a woman of such immense proportions. She wore a blue silk shirt and matching pantaloons, with perhaps half a dozen gold ringlets encircling each wrist. She walked over to Saramis and wrapped her arms around him, pulling him to her until his head was buried between her breasts.
"It's so nice to see you again," she exclaimed. "And after all these years. But I knew in the end you'd come back to me. Just couldn't resist my charms, could you?"
With some difficulty, Saramis managed to disentangle himself from Jocatta's arms.
"It's nice to see you too," he said after he caught his breath. "If I may, let me introduce my companions. This is Ktan, a close friend of mine."
"Charmed," Jocatta said, blatantly looking Ktan up and down. She obviously liked what she saw, for she smiled warmly.
"And this is my wife, Jenya," Saramis continued.
The smile instantly vanished. She lifted her head and stared imperiously at Jenya for a moment.
"So this is the mysterious wife," she said dryly. "Not much to her, is there? And what's this? She carries a sword? What is she, some kind of barbarian?"
"I'm not a barbarian," Jenya replied curtly. “I'm..."
A look from Saramis stopped her in mid-sentence.
"She's from the north," he said quickly. "A lot of women carry them there."
Jocatta lifted her nose in the air.
"Well, if you ask me, it's all very uncivilized. I had no idea you had such an exotic taste in women, Saramis."
The magician looked for a moment at the woman who towered head and shoulders over him.
"I thought it was obvious," he muttered.
"Well, come, I must be a good host. You're just in time for dinner. You can sit next to me Saramis and tell me all about your adventures, and why you haven't come back to visit me sooner."
"I can hardly wait," Saramis replied in the voice of a man being led to the gallows.
Dinner was served promptly, almost as if Jocatta had been expecting guests. It was quite delicious too, and that, along with the freely flowing wine, soon had Saramis at least in a much better mood.
He explained their predicament as they ate, embellishing on quite a few facts, especially his part in the events, but neither Ktan nor Jenya bothered to correct him, having gone through this many times before. Jocatta assured them she would help all she could, but of course, it would have to wait for morning. As soon as they had done eating Jenya suggested she do a bit of reconnoitering around town to see if she could find out any more details. Jocatta, obviously drooling at the chance to talk to Saramis without her around, thought this an enormously wonderful idea. Ktan, however, wasn't near as keen on it. He would have gone with her if he could, but the chance of him being recognized was just too much of a risk. The fact that Jenya would need to go out without her sword or armor, which would have made her perhaps even more recognizable than Ktan, only made him more reluctant. In fact, though Jenya was much more comfortable in her riding gear than a dress, she knew that the more feminine she appeared the more likely she was to get a man to loosen his tongue and she quickly changed into one of the few she had. Even in a dress she was more than capable of handling herself, and had proven it many times. She wasn't shy about pointing out to Ktan that he was just being overly paranoid after what had happened to Merigan, and that the dagger sheathed safely in the bodice beneath her skirts would keep her quite safe. Saramis seemed to want to protest as well, but as he eyed the tall woman sitting next to him, Jenya suspected for a very different reason.
In the end, Ktan's protests had been silenced. He was smart enough to know when he was in an argument he couldn't win.
The night air was crisp and cool as Jenya stepped out once more into the streets. She had come out the front door this time, out onto the main thoroughfare. In spite of the darkness, it was still quite crowded, with pedestrians as well as horse drawn carriages. She made her way slowly down the street. She didn't really know where she was going, just following the crowds, figuring they would lead her to the taverns. She was quite right, and soon found a street with a number of pubs running the length of it. She walked by them, glancing in the doors, looking for one that seemed the liveliest. The boisterous sounds of the crowd drew her to one in particular. Looking in she saw the room inside was enormous, and nearly filled to capacity with people. She stepped inside and looked around. She couldn't see very far through the sea of bodies, but she could see enough to notice that there were many more Imperial Knights in here than in the other bars. She realized how much more dangerous that made this place, but it also made it that much more likely that she would find some useful information here. She hadn't come out here to play it safe. With just the slightest hesitation she plunged into the crowd.
She managed to make her way up to the bar, wedging her way in between two Imperial Knight on one side and a group of city guards on the other. She caught the eye of the Innkeeper and waved him over.
"Give me a dragonfire," she spoke up when reached her.
He looked at her for a moment, then shrugged and took her coin from the table.
The Imperial Knight beside her swung around to look at her as the Innkeeper turned away.
"A dragonfire eh? That's a bit strong for a little girl like you," he commented.
Jenya gave him a look.
"I'm not little," she said.
The man looked her up and down.
"Perhaps," he said, "But it's got quite a kick."
"So do I," Jenya replied.
The Innkeeper finished her drink and slid it in front of her. Jenya picked it up and gulped it down, then banged the mug on the counter.
The Imperial Knight looked her up and down. Whatever he was looking at, (and it didn't take a genius to figure it out) he seemed to approve, for he suddenly grinned.
"I'll say you do," he stated. "You've done that before."
"Once or twice," Jenya admitted, grinning back at him.
"My name's Gargan," he said.
"You from around here?' he questioned.
"More or less," she responded. "I take it you're not?"
"No, I'm from Dramon," he answered. "And wish I was back there."
"Why do you say that?' she questioned. "Hadell not exciting enough for you?"
"Actually that's about the truth," he replied. "Oh the nightlife is about the same, but I'm in charge of training back at Dramon, and I enjoy it. Here, all I do all day long is wander around looking for suspicious characters, or spend my time searching for contraband on the ships that come in, though of course we never seem to find any. As if the merchants who slip things in here haven't already figured out how to get around all that."
"I see," Jenya said slowly. "So what are you doing here anyway? Why aren't you back in Dramon then?"
"Orders, of course," Gargan replied. "We're supposed to be searching for some girl."
"Gargan!" the Imperial Knight next to him hissed, nudging his arm.
Gargan nudged back, harder.
"Oh shut up, Palder! It's not like that's not common knowledge around here."
"Some girl?" Jenya said slowly. "Why would Imperial Knights be looking for some girl?"
Palder suddenly leaned forward and looked at her from around Gargan. It was obvious he was quite drunk.
"Why would you want to know?" he snapped.
Gargan grabbed the man's head and pushed him back.
"I told you, shut up!" he said. "What, do you think Lyta is some kind of spy?"
Jenya did not bother to correct the mispronunciation of her phony name.
Palder rocked unsteadily in his seat.
"I need another drink," was all he said.
"Me too," Gargan added, peering down at his mug. "Innkeeper. Another round. And one for the lady as well!"
The Innkeeper came over and filled up all their drinks again. Jenya drank this one much more slowly. She'd done her share of drinking, but it had been a while. Dragonfire was a notoriously strong drink and right now she had to keep all her wits about her.
She glanced at Gargan again, but at the moment he seemed more interested in his glass than her. He seemed to have forgotten what they were talking about and she was hesitant to bring it up again lest he become suspicious. Nonetheless, he had seemed to dismiss his friend’s accusations out of hand. Perhaps one more try.
"Why would Imperial Knights be looking for a girl?" she repeated.
That got his attention again. The man turned to look at his partner but Palder only gave him a sour look. Gargan swung around to look at her again. He didn't look as drunk as his friend. He looked around for a moment, then leaned toward her, lowering his voice.
"The Queen is looking for her," he replied. "It's all hush hush, but I've found out that they think she's some kind of witch."
Jenya feigned surprise.
"A witch?" she said slowly. "I thought there weren't any witches anymore."
The man shrugged.
"That's the scuttlebutt anyway," he said. "Supposedly a ship was to bring her in, and she was to be taken straight away to Galias. Something went wrong though. The ship never arrived here, instead headed up the coast, east. It was said it was being chased by none other than the Red Eagle, the ship of the Admiral of the Fleet. Turns out the witch stole some kind of book."
A shock ran through Jenya at this, though she managed to hide her reaction. A book! Had someone found out about the Book of Redemption? That certainly wasn't something the Admiral would have advertised. If that news got back to Irrissa...
"A book?" she said slowly. "What kind of book. And why would that be important..."
"Gargan, Palder, there you are!"
Jenya turned around to see another Imperial Knight standing behind them. She instantly paled and turned away.
She recognized the man!
"I've been looking all over for you. We've got to get back to the garrison..."
He stopped. Jenya could feel his eyes on her back. Slowly her hand slid down between the buttons of her dress.
"Who is that woman?" the man questioned slowly.
"Her name is Lyta, Maxus, and she drinks like a man," Gargan spoke up helpfully.
Jenya felt a hand on her shoulder. She turned around slowly to see Maxus staring at her. Her hand had reached the hilt of her dagger.
"Do I know you," he said slowly.
Jenya held her breath. It had been over fifteen years since she had seen him. She was nearly twice as old as she had been then. Would he remember?
She shook her head.
"Your name is Lyta?" he questioned.
She nodded. There didn't seem much point in correcting it.
"What do you do here?" he questioned.
"I work at the mill," she replied. It was the first thing that she could think of.
Maxus frowned at her.
"Where is your home?" he asked.
"Over on the north side," she replied.
"Where? What street?"
"Stone lane," she guessed. She knew hesitating would be worse than a lie.
"Stone lane? Isn't that over by
"Shut up," Maxus said. He grabbed hold of Jenya's arm. "Come with us."
Maxus pulled her roughly to her feet.
"I've done nothing wrong!" she said. "Let me go!"
"Nothing wrong? We'll see about that," Maxus responded. He pulled her toward the exit. "Come along you two," he said, looking back at the others.
People looked up at them as he pulled Jenya out the door, but no one was about to interfere with three Imperial Knights. They walked down the street and then turned into a dark and deserted alley. Maxus looked around to make sure that no one but his friends had followed him. Whatever he was going to do, it was obvious he didn't want any witnesses. His grip tightened on Jenya's arm.
"Now, the truth woman!" he said.
"I told you the truth!" she retorted.
"There is no
Maxus pulled her closer to him, his free hand unsheathing his sword, but at the same time Jenya's dagger glinted in the moonlight.
Maxus gave a grunt as she drove it into his stomach.
"Good lord, she's stabbed me!" he shouted, at the same time Jenya grabbed hold of his arm, pulling the sword loose from his grasp. She spun around to face the others as Maxus fell to the ground.
The sword whistled through the air, and Palder stumbled to the ground, dead while still fumbling to loosen his own weapon. Jenya turned just in time to block a blow from Gargan that would have decapitated her.
They exchanged blows, the clash of steel ringing through the alley. Jenya retreated slowly, trying to take the measure of the man. His technique was quite good, but she expected no less since he was, after all, an Imperial Knight. Still, he did exactly what almost every man she'd ever fought did.
He underestimated her.
His sword slashed out. She ducked under the blow, quick as a cat driving her own sword up, under the man's breastplate and into his chest. He gagged for a moment, and then fell forward.
And just like that, it was over.
She turned and looked to see Maxus staring at her from the ground, blood seeping out from under the hand clutching the wound in his side. She slowly walked over to him until she stood above him.
"There's only one woman...who can fight like that," he said slowly, a drop of blood running from his lip. "Jenya Dulance."
"Yes, Maxus," she replied. "It's me. It's been a long time. A long time since we were both Sacred Knights. A long time since the Witch War, when you chose to side with the King."
"And you with the witches," he said.
"The Maidens," Jenya replied. "There were no witches."
"Perhaps," Maxus conceded. He coughed. "Nevertheless it was you who were defeated. Seems I was the one that made the right choice."
"Maybe," Jenya said softly. She looked up and down the alley. The sounds of battle must have attracted attention. She didn't have time to dally.
Maxus seemed to sense this too.
"Well, what are you waiting for?"
Jenya glanced around once more. Then she slowly raised her sword. He knew who she was. They both knew she couldn't let him live with that information.
"It's what I would do, in your position," he said, looking at her.
To his credit, he did not flinch when the sword came down.