Myrande forced herself to not look behind her. For the third day in a row, she had noticed — out of the corner of her eye, always — someone in black following her as she walked the streets of Magnus. The Countess of Connall had sighted the black-robed man several times the first day, more the second, and now, the third day, she managed to glimpse him everywhere she went: the market, Crown Castle, Marcellon’s house, and the town house which Myrande refused to call home. She had no doubt now. She was being followed.
“Do you see him again, your excellency?” her maid Yara asked softly.
“Aye,” Myrande answered. “He’s standing beneath the carpet- merchant’s pavilion. No, Yara, don’t look!” The Countess practically pulled her maid’s arm from its socket. “He can’t know that I know he’s here.”
“Why not?” Yara wondered. “It’s probably only one of Sir Edward’s men, my lady, or perhaps someone that your lord the Count or the castellan sent.”
“If Sir Edward or Luthias sent someone to look over me, they would have told me,” Myrande insisted. Neither Luthias her husband nor the Knight Commander would play such games with her, and certainly never during war.
“Perhaps the High Mage then,” Yara soothed, inspecting some less-than-fresh fruit.
“Marcellon doesn’t need someone else to keep an eye on me,” Myrande snapped. “He can see me in his crystal whenever he wants.” The young maid made a holy sign of Cephas Stevene while her lady rolled her eyes. “He’s no demon. Stop that.”
“He spooks me, excellency.”
“He’s very kind and good,” Myrande reminded her. “Has he ever harmed you when I’ve sent you for him?” Yara shook her head, but she shivered. “And –” Marcellon, Myrande thought. “How often have I sent you to Marcellon’s house this week, Yara?”
“Not once, your excellency, although we sometimes go together.”
The Countess of Connall folded her lips and thought. “We can’t do anything unusual,” she decided, taking Yara’s arm and leading her away. “We don’t know why that man is following us.”
“I wouldn’t be so –”
“Hush and listen. We’re going to Marcellon’s house.”
“He won’t be there, your excellency. Don’t you remember? There’s a grand Council meeting this day, and the High Mage will be there.”
War Council. Myrande emitted a short sound of anger and exasperation. With a War Council in progress, she would be unable to rely upon Marcellon’s help, or Sir Edward’s, or the King’s. Still, Myrande knew that she needed help. She was being followed, and for a reason. “Is it time to return to the house?” she asked her maid.
“Aye, your excellency.”
“Let’s go.” Myrande turned from the market place and began to walk toward the Royal Quarter. Sir Edward had raised a fit when he had found that she walked instead of rode around the city, but Myrande, now Countess, found that she grew tired of not moving. “We have much to do.”
Myrande undressed quietly, climbed into bed, and blew out the bedside lamp. Devoid of any moonlight, the room went black. Immediately, she piled the pillows lengthwise beside her and covered the top one with a black silk veil. She slipped out of the bed silently, donned the shirt, pants, and boots she had prepared, and crawled to her closet where her strung bow waited.
The Countess drew the quiver over her and fastened her bracer and glove. Selecting an arrow, she nocked it, sat, and waited.
If all goes well, Myrande thought, there will be an end to this tonight. She had observed the man in black follow her and Yara home, and Myrande had sensed that he — whoever he was — would make a move tonight. If he was from Luthias, he would come to the door. If not — well, Myrande had prepared for that.
The Countess first sent a message to Sir Edward Sothos, the Knight Commander. Myrande knew that he would most likely be in conference with King Haralan and Marcellon, but that was a chance she had to take. Besides, if the message didn’t reach him, it would probably reach the King or the High Mage. In the brief note, Myrande asked for a military escort to come to her home as soon as possible. Perhaps leaving the city would discourage whoever had followed the Countess, but Myrande doubted it.
The escort had not come, but news had: Sir Luthias, Count Connall, Knight Captain of the Northern Marche, had completed some victories against the Beinison army and was a day away from Magnus. Knowing that her husband was on his way to join her helped Myrande’s peace of mind somewhat. If worse came to worse, Myrande decided to ride with only her own guards as escort and join her husband tomorrow. Tonight, with no moon, it was too dangerous to ride.
The follower needed thwarting, though. Myrande had no idea what he wanted, so she, with all her experience as a seneschal, had prepared for the worst. The Countess had ordered the wet nurse to put the twin babes to bed, but after the candle was darkened, the nurse was to take Morwyn and Julia to *her* room and keep them there with her children. Myrande herself had put pillows in the cradles to replace her red-haired daughters. She also had made a bundle of diapers and clothes.
Myrande had instructed the grooms to be able to ready horses at a moment’s notice, but not, under any circumstances, should they prepare the mounts beforehand. She had commanded the kitchen workers to prepare a bundle of food for travel.
The Countess herself had quietly packed a cloak, riding clothes (which mainly consisted of old shirts and breeches that Luthias and Roisart had outgrown before they had outworn them), a few gowns, and shoes. Her boots she wore now as she waited in the closet beside her naginata. The quiver held her knife, and a dagger rested in its sheath on her belt. The arrow waited patiently.
“That will never work,” Sir Edward Sothos declared with all the vehemence he could muster in his exhaustion. Dark circles ringed his eyes; the Knight Commander was pale, but his eyes flashed. ” Nehru’s Blood, your majesty –”
“Easy, Edward,” the High Mage advised, gulping hot tea to keep himself alert. “This will get us nowhere.” He turned to the Master Priest and smiled ironically. “By all means,” he began, hoping a brilliant set-down would dawn through his fatigue, “let us merely sit upon the ramparts and pray. I’m certain the Beinison army would approve.”
The Master Priest’s eyes narrowed. “Your sarcasm is unwarranted, Mage,” he seethed. “‘God helps those who put their faith in Him.’ The Word of God, second book, fourth chapter, sixtieth verse.”
“‘God helps those who act,’” Marcellon replied easily. “Word of God, Book the First, chapter seven, verse sixteen.”
“What you fail to realize, Master Priest,” Sir Edward attempted, and Marcellon felt his despair of making the Master Priest understand, “is that war isn’t a religion — not here, anyway.”
“And where is it?” the Master Priest, Jehan Redcrosse, asked haughtily. “Religion is peaceful.”
“Not in Beinison,” Marcellon instucted tiredly. “There is an entire sect of priests dedicated to the war-god Gow, a god of knights and of chivalry.”
“And how know you so much of these things?” the Master Priest sneered. “Your majesty, he is a traitor!”
King Haralan tipped his head back slowly and closed his eyes. “Hold your tongue, Redcrosse, or we shall have it cut out. Marcellon Equiville is no traitor, and he is far less annoying than you.” Haralan sighed, opened his eyes, and removed the crown. “I have such a headache,” he murmered. “This is so heavy.” The King looked at his High Mage. “They have priests of war, you say? Can they work magic?”
“The priests of Gow cannot,” Marcellon reported, drawing on his experiences as a young man, when the great wizard Styles had trained him in the Beinison Empire. “They rely on skill and chivalry. They do, however, fight, and there will probably be many in the numbers of the Beinison army, and many are, in fact, Knights of the Star.”
“Their blessings will help morale,” the King proposed thoughtfully.
“Quite probably, your majesty,” Sir Edward Sothos agreed. “And their skill in battle — and their leadership — also must be considered.”
“Other sects of the Beinison religion do work magic,” Marcellon continued his lesson. “The priests of Sanar are healers, for instance. They will go with the army, but I doubt they will fight. The Amante priests, however …”
“Who?” Jan Courymwen wondered.
” Amante, the Masked God, is also a god of warriors,” Marcellon explained. “He is a god of thieves, criminals, assassins, gladiators, and dishonorable warriors.” The High Mage grinned. “Oddly enough, he is also the patron of torturers and executioners. Some of his priests use magic destructively, as do the priests and priestesses of Erida, the goddess of pain.”
The Master Priest snorted. “All these pagan gods are false and hold no power in comparison to our God and to the prophet Cephas Stevene.”
“True,” Marcellon agreed smoothly, “but their priests and priestesses are much more useful.” Redcrosse’s face exploded with fury, and Marcellon continued easily, “Many more of their priests and priestesses are trained in magic and combat, I mean. They are quite well trained.” Almost wickedly, Marcellon smiled at the Master Priest. “It is quite unfortunate that you feel so morally opposed to God-given magic, Jehan. It would help our land a great deal to have more magicians.”
“We regret that lack,” the King concluded heavily, leaning forward to study the map of Magnus . “They have many more mages and wizards, which will create great problems for the army. Marcellon, you cannot defeat them all.”
“Don’t worry, your majesty,” Marcellon reassured him. “Most of the mages and wizards are of average skill, as are most of our mages and wizards.”
“You mean it is like soldiering,” Sir Edward ventured grimly. “Many can fight competently, but few are truly brilliant like Sir Luthias.”
“Or you,” the High Mage concurred easily. “That’s exactly it.”
“Let us get back to the problem at hand,” the King suggested tiredly. “If we cannot drive them from Magnus, nothing else matters. The Master Priest’s idea would never work.”
“You have little faith,” Redcrosse accused. “The Stevene himself told us the story –”
“I doubt your God will grant us the miracle,” Sir Edward snapped. “We must be, as the Count Connall often reminds us, practical.”
“Perhaps we should wait for Sir Luthias,” Marcellon recommended gently. “It is past midnight, and we are all quite tired. Perhaps we should sleep. A few bells of sleep will give us all new perspective.”
“I agree, your majesty,” Sir Edward said quietly. The High Mage knew from the Knight Commander’s very voice how exhausted he was. “We are accomplishing nothing this night.”
“Then we shall conclude and return to this in the morning,” the King decreed, standing slowly. “Guard!” One of the King’s Own cautiously opened the heavy door. “Bring the messages.”
“There are but three, your majesty,” the guard reported. He offered one scroll, tied in a blue ribbon and sealed with the arms of Dargon, to the King, who unrolled it. The guard gave a plain, folded paper to the Knight Commander. Suddenly, the King chuckled. “How odd,” he answered the questioning eyes. “The Duke of Dargon has news that the infamous pirates of the Eclipse are sinking the Beinison navy.”
Marcellon’s mouth quirked without surprise. “What’s that you have, Edward?”
“A message from Luthias,” Sir Edward answered, smiling. “The conqueror comes, and he expects to reach the city by dawn.”
“Good,” the King declared as the guard handed Marcellon the last scroll, sealed in gold and tied with a red ribbon.
The magic rippled through Marcellon’s blood, and he dropped the scroll as if it burned. “Mon-Taerleor,” he breathed, and the High Mage knew the message without needing to read it. The threats were already clear. Marcellon drew strength from within and composed himself.
“What is it, Marcellon?” the King asked anxiously, and then Marcellon knew how much the message had affected him. If it showed on his face …
“It is from … an old friend,” Marcellon answered slowly. “I must meet him at dawn.”
“You haven’t even opened it,” the Master Priest snorted. “How can you know? You are a demon’s own spawn –”
Marcellon sent the man a blue glare.
“Leave us,” the King commanded, his mouth set angrily. With a bow toward the King and a contemptuous look at the High Mage, the Master Priest scurried from the room along with all the servants. When the door thundered shut, Haralan asked again, “What is it, Marcellon?”
Marcellon drew a deep breath and felt his body calm. His mind still felt uneasy, though, and he chose his words with care so as not to worry the King and the Knight Commander. “I am … challenged,” he said, smiling at Sir Edward as he elected the final word. The smile dissolved.
“Who could challenge you?” Haralan wondered. “You are the most powerful mage in Baranur!”
The smile again flirted with the enchanter’s lips. “In Baranur,” the High Mage repeated, “aye. In the world, only one of three. One of the three challenges me.”
“Marcellon, you cannot go,” Sothos objected softly. “We need you too much.”
The High Mage shook his head sadly. “I must go. I have been challenged.” When Sir Edward appeared enlightened, Marcellon actually laughed. “No, my friend, it is not a code of honor which will brand me coward that I fear. The one who challenges me will meet me on the hills outside of the city at dawn. If I am not there, he will take out his ire on our approaching army. And God help Luthias if he finds my old friend … Luthias will try to kill him, and then our conqueror, as you call him, will surely die.”
The King’s tired eyes awoke. “Your old friend … that wicked mage you trained with … Mon … Mon …”
“Mon-Taerleor,” Sir Edward supplied gravely, “the one who tortured Sir Luthias .” The Knight Commander turned to the High Mage. “Take care, old man. May Nehru guide you.”
Myrande jerked out of her sleep and cursed herself silently. She had vowed to stay awake, and the mugginess had, for a while, made it quite easy, but the Countess had fallen asleep anyway. Myrande, wondering what had awakaned her, used the tip of the still-nocked arrow to push aside her closet curtain.
Something moved above her bed. Myrande was unable to see clearly without moonlight or candles, but the stars shining through the window glinted off shiny steel. The knife dived into the pillows which Myrande had substituted for herself.
Without thought, the Countess drew the arrow, anchored, and released.
The unseen assassin cried out in pain and whirled. Myrande didn’t see eyes or body, and she froze. The invisible voice howled again, and although Myrande saw nothing, she heard footsteps, hard and heavy, come toward her.
There was no time for another arrow. Myrande dropped the bow without a thought and snatched her waiting naginata and slid her hands into their familiar spots. For a split second, the Countess of Connall listened to the approaching, invisible foe. His dagger glinted. Myrande swung her naginata high and struck.
The shock of contact jarred both Myrande’s hands. She had hit something hard; collar bone, she thought, and she hoped. Oh, God, let it not be armor! The naginata didn’t move. Myrande yanked at it desperately. The weapon was twisting; her invisible opponent was moving.
Something buried itself in the wood behind her; Myrande couldn’t think. She wrenched the naginata free and struck again without thinking. The blade swished the air.
A blow hit her. It felt like a fist, but cold steel caressed her skin on the right side. Someone is trying to kill me! Myrande screamed internally, and Ittosai Michiya’s long training came to life within her. Myrande raised the naginata and struck.
Something hit the floor, and then a heavier burden fell.
“Countess! Your excellency! Open the door! Oh, God!”
Shaken, the Countess of Connall grasped for anything to hold her up, and using the naginata as a staff, she stumbled to the door and weakly threw open the bolt. “Lights,” was her first order. Gaining control of her voice, she looked at the two guards and Yara . “Tell the grooms to saddle the horses. We’re leaving.”
One of the guards bowed and retreated; the other reached for torches, and Yara brought wine, which Myrande gratefully swallowed. “Someone tried to kill me. Yara, go check my daughters.”
“Aye, excellency,” Yara agreed, and she obeyed.
“Bring it over here,” Myrande instructed the guard with the torch, then her feet glided beneath her, and Myrande crashed to the floor. Blood covered her; beside her was a headless corpse swathed in black from neck to toe. Myrande’s arrow protruded from his side.
“The head is here, your excellency,” the guard reported, helping his lady to her feet. “You should have had extra guards.”
“Assassins don’t strike when there are extra guards,” Myrande pointed out, steading herself with the guard’s help. The man-at-arms gave her comment a condescending look, and Myrande rolled her eyes, not wishing to explain. Instead, she made her way to the disembodied head.
It, too, was a ghastly sight, wrapped in black except for the clear, brown eyes, and soaked in blood at the base. The Countess glanced at the body, then at the head.
“What is he, excellency?” the guard asked, kicking the head toward its body.
“Don’t do that,” Myrande said. She moved toward both head and body. “Castellan Ittosai has told me about a caste of Bichanese assassins who dress all in black, mask and all.”
The guard knelt beside the body and examined the long sword with a wide hilt-guard. “This sword isn’t Bichanese, your excellency. Look at it.”
Myrande glanced at the sword and nodded. It was a short sword, but it had two edges, unlike any Bichanese katana or wakasashi that Michiya had shown her. Heedless of blood and gore, Myrande unwrapped the head — and gasped.
The man had creamy, olive skin about the same hue as Myrande’s, a well-formed jaw, and handsome brown eyes, unslanted and wide. He is- -was not Bichanese, Myrande decided firmly, but he was beautiful. The only imperfection on his face was a odd, vicious scar on his left cheek. Myrande studied it and tried to conclude whether it had been a sword or a brand which had marred him.
“Who was he?” Myrande whispered.
“Perhaps this will tell, excellency,” the guard suggested helpfully. He held up a bloody gold chain with a red medalion depicting an executioner’s hood. “Have you ever seen such a thing?”
“Never,” Myrande agreed. She glanced down at the handsome, scarred face — her husband, too, was handsome and scarred — and she wretched violently. Oh, God, she thought desperately, I have killed a man.
“My lady!” Yara cried from the door. “Where are the little ladies? Their cradles are ripped to shreds with a knife, but there is no blood, and they are gone.”
Myrande’s nausea extinguished like a candle in a gale. “You son of a whore,” Myrande muttered, and she spit gladly on the man she killed. Feeling a great deal calmer, Myrande turned to her maid. “Wake the wet nurse. Lady Morwyn and Lady Julia are with her.”
“Serves you right,” Myrande decided, and she rose and kicked the body. “May all others who seek to kill my children meet your fate.”
“Your excellency,” the man-at-arms interrupted, and he held a paper. “It has your seal.”
Myrande snatched it and broke the wax. As she suspected, it was her message to Sir Edward . “Go. I must change these bloody clothes. Have some other man come to take care of the body. Then, we leave.”
“Aye, your excellency,” the soldier agreed, rising. At the door, he turned. “Forgive my boldness, excellency, but where are we going?”
“Never mind,” Myrande ordered, stepping over the hideous corpse. “If I tell you, someone might overhear, and I don’t want this to happen again. Trust me. We’re going somewhere safe.”
Luthias Connall was weary, in truth, but the excitement he felt when he could see the distant lights of Magnus more than overcame the fatigue. Soon, Luthias thought, he could hold Sable again, and when he next slept, he could sleep with her beside him.
Before that, of course, Luthias knew that the King would soon require him to be in the War Council, and while Luthias enjoyed planning strategies, he generally disliked the Councils. If the Council were made only of Knights, soldiers, generals, and the King, they would be bearable and perhaps stimulating. The young Count of Connall despised, however, the “game-board generals” who believed they knew all of war.
Still, he was going home — almost. Luthias had seen more of Magnus in the past year than he had of Dargon, or his own castle in Connall .
“A few more bells,” Luthias sighed, and next to him, his aide Ittosai Michiya smiled.