(Author’s Note: This story takes place about a year before the Baranur-Beinison war.)
Brynna Thorne stood alone at the top of one of Crown Castle’s many towers. She leaned on the rough stone battlement and gazed out over the city of Magnus in the direction of the Laraka River. A warm breeze caressed her long dark hair and brought with it a mixture of scents: the briny smell of freshly-caught fish being unloaded on the docks; the sweet fragrance of bright flowers from the Royal Garden; and the faint, familiar smell of the river itself. The sight of a small merchant ship slowly moving downriver under the broad grey expanse of Kheva’s Bridge brought on a twinge of longing; she wished she could be out there on the river, back aboard her own ship, instead of being cooped up inside the cold walls of a castle, even the majestic residence of the King of Baranur.
She heard a voice in the distance; it sounded like someone was calling her name. Brynna looked around, and spotted a figure waving vigorously to her from far down below in the courtyard. It appeared to be a woman, and next to her was one of the castle guards. Brynna politely waved back, unsure of the woman’s identity. Apparently satisfied, the woman spoke to the guard and the two of them disappeared into the castle proper.
Brynna’s brow furrowed as she mentally reviewed the list of all the people she knew in Magnus. Within the first week of her arrival, before the trial started, she had visited with all the friends whom she knew still lived in the city; a few of them had moved away since the last time she was in town.
She was still pondering over this when she heard footsteps behind her. Turning, she saw a tall young woman in a simple white and green dress coming toward her from the tower entrance. The woman’s sandy-blond hair was tied back with a lavender ribbon, and her oval face was dominated by a wide full-lipped mouth, beaming with a broad smile.
Brynna felt herself returning the smile as recognition came to her. “Kadie! So it’s you!”
The other woman extended her arms as she closed the distance between them. “Brynna Brynna Brynna! Surprised to see me?”
“As a matter of fact, yes,” Brynna replied. The two women briefly embraced. “The last time I saw you was…how old is your son?”
“Sons,” Kadie corrected her.
“Another one?” Brynna shook her head. “Don’t you and Alexio ever talk anymore?”
Kadie giggled. “Well, what do you think we talk about?”
Brynna rolled her eyes. “You still look like the same old girl who used to hide whenever boys came around.”
“And you look–darker,” Kadie said, squinting one eye. “But at least you’ve kept your mage mark.” She reached out and touched the streak of blue that colored the strands of long ebony hair near the left side of Brynna’s face.
“As if I could get rid of it!” Brynna said with a laugh. “Now, do you want to tell me just what the freezing hell you’re doing here? Dawna said that you moved back to the country two years ago.”
Kadie looked over the battlements. “My, but we’re high up!” She gathered her skirts and sat down in a crenel. “Anyway, my husband has friends in the castle guard, and one of them came by a week ago for a chat. He happened to mention that the whole city was talking about the trial of some famous pirate who had been brought in by a woman ship captain. And I thought to myself, there’s only one woman who that could possibly be! So I…persuaded Alexio to take me here to see you. He had to call in many favors and do a bit of persuading himself, but it all worked out and here I am!”
“I’m impressed,” Brynna said. “And I’m very glad that you did. Living in the Castle isn’t quite how people imagine it to be.”
“So what exactly is your part in all this?” Kadie asked. “I thought you’d be away in some far-off port seeking ancient treasures or the like.”
“Well, it’s…it’s quite a story,” Brynna said.
“You know how much I like stories.”
Brynna sat down against the parapet. “Well, the whole thing started a few months ago with a book.”
“A book? What book?”
“I was on a trading run to Dargon, and a day before we were to leave I wanted to get a birthday gift for my father. So I stopped in at a local book shop and ended up buying this very unusual tome–I’d never seen it’s like before. The owner suggested I take it to a scribe he knew….”
The scribe’s name was Genarvus Kazakian, and he lived in a private residence east of the marketplace. He was middle-aged, shorter than Brynna, and dressed rather more formally than she expected. He seemed a bit nervous when he answered the door, but was pleasant enough as he ushered her into his small but comfortable study. A boy of about fifteen years was busily cleaning the fireplace; he straightened up as they entered the room. Kazakian introduced the boy as his assistant Abiro, and sent him away to make them some tea.
They sat down at a table in the center of the room. Brynna watched Kazakian examine the book; he used a large round lens mounted on a wooden handle to peer closely at the cover and pages.
“It is certainly very old,” Kazakian murmured after several minutes. “And the writing is very precise.” He put down the lens and looked up.
“What about the language it’s written in?” Brynna asked.
“That I am not entirely sure about. The letters do not belong to any script or alphabet that I am familiar with. Although, I do have an idea….” He got up and pulled a book from a nearby shelf. Returning to the table, he opened the new book to a certain page. He used the lens to scrutinize the cover of Brynna’s book, then looked over to the open pages of the other book. After a few minutes of reading, his expression became triumphant. “By the beard of Ol! I cannot believe this!” He turned to Brynna and said excitedly, “Captain Thorne, you have purchased a most significant tome!”
“How significant?” asked Brynna, her interest mounting.
“Firstly, have you ever heard of the Mystics?”
“Of course. They were an ancient race that lived on Makdiar about three or four thousand years ago. My mother used to tell me stories about them.”
Kazakian nodded. “But if my suspicions about this book are true, then it may be that the Mystics did not merely exist in stories, as most people believe.”
Brynna was about to ask him what he meant when Abiro returned with the tea.
“Just put it over there, will you?” Kazakian motioned to a low table in front of the fireplace. “And fetch my writing desk.” Abiro nodded and moved to comply. Kazakian turned back to Brynna and continued his explanation. “You may know, Captain Thorne, that the Mystics are widely considered mythical by most scholars, and that those who do research on them are generally scorned. I fall into the latter category, and have gathered much information during my years of study.” He went on to reveal that the Fretheod people, who ruled much of Baranur over two thousand years ago, sometimes made references to the Mystics in their literature, and even included samples of their script in various texts.
“The symbol on the cover of the book you bought is exactly like the one depicted here in this Fretheod volume on religion. The symbol was apparently used by a Mystic sect known as the Ara’la Takkon. Unfortunately, not much is know about the sect, but their ‘holy book’ is commonly known as the Codex Araltakonia.”
Abiro returned with the writing desk. Kazakian opened it and took out a sheet of parchment, a quill, and a bottle of ink. Brynna moved the books aside to make room on the table.
“Will that be all, milord?” Abiro asked.
“Yes, yes,” muttered Kazakian. Remembering Brynna, he added, “Unless you would like some tea, Captain Thorne?” She declined, and Abiro left the room with the tea tray. “As I was saying, this book may very well be the sacred text of the Ara’la Takkon. If so, it will do much to prove that the Mystics did once exist.” He paused and looked at Brynna with a serious but hopeful expression. “If I may ask a great favor of you, Captain Thorne–would you be willing to take this book to Magnus for proper study?”
Brynna considered for a moment. The capital was a two-week journey upriver from Port Sevlyn, her home and final destination. The crew of her ship was due shore leave, though, and the ship itself was in need of repairs; but it would be no trouble for her to continue on to Magnus by herself, and besides, it would give her the opportunity to visit some old friends there. “If it’s that important, I’d be glad to do it,” Brynna said.
The scribe nodded his thanks and hurriedly scribbled on the parchment. “It is imperative, then, that you get this book to the Royal Scholar. He’s an open-minded fellow–I met him while I was studying at the University–and he will no doubt be very interested in properly authenticating and translating the tome.” He signed the parchment with a flourish. “Present this letter to him, also. It contains a brief summary of my conclusions, and instructions for you to be compensated for delivering it there.”
Brynna smiled in mild amusement. The scribe had certainly loosened up upon determining the book’s significance. “I had no idea it was of such historical value when I purchased it.”
Kazakian nodded vigorously as he imprinted his seal on the parchment. “It is most fortunate that you came across the book and brought it to me. A devout man might see the hand of a god or two in this!”
“Do you believe it was written by the Mystics?” asked Kadie.
“Well, I looked at it very closely during the voyage,” said Brynna, “and as I said the writing wasn’t like anything I’d ever seen before. But in any case, as we neared Port Sevlyn the Voyager came under attack by Commander Challion–”
“He’s the one who’s on trial, right? Didn’t he used to be in the Royal Army?”
Brynna nodded. “He was Knight Captain of the Southern Marches, but was discharged for forcing himself on a peasant girl.”
“Disgusting,” Kadie said, making a face.
“Exactly my thoughts,” Brynna agreed. “After his discharge, he became the leader of a band of pirates, and was widely sought for various crimes. He wanted the Codex, but I refused to give it to him….”
“You haven’t answered my question,” Brynna said. “Is this a raid? If not, I’d very much like to get under way. Tell your mage–the conscious one, that is–to give us the wind back.”
Challion leaned over the rail. “I have one other objective, and I think you know what I mean.”
Brynna shrugged. “Do elaborate.”
“The Codex Araltakonia, Captain Thorne. I wish to purchase it from you.”
Cydric turned to Mandi. “The what?” he whispered.
“That book you were looking at in the cabin,” she replied in hushed tones.”The one on her desk–it’s supposed to be as old as the Mystics!”
“Sorry. I don’t have what you’re looking for,” Brynna replied, folding her arms.
“No lies, no games, Captain! I know you acquired it back in Dargon. But I’m prepared to offer twice what you paid for it.”
“In truth, Commander, I never thought our paths would cross again–the dragon whale seemed rather attached to you, as I recall.”
“I got the better of the creature, in the end,” Challion answered. Hitching his trousers up around his ample waist, he said, “Well, three times your purchase price, then. You’ll be making quite a profit.”
“The knowledge in the Codex is beyond price. In any case, what do you want with it? You’re by no means a scholar–neither are your mages.”
Challion rubbed his fleshy face and exhaled loudly. “My final offer–quadruple the amount you paid to acquire it! A fine trader such as yourself cannot fail to recognize a wonderful bargain such as this.”
“True, but I also recognize barjee squat when I hear it. And I’ve heard enough,” said Brynna. “Spear detail, forward!” Several crewmen went over to the remains of the scorpion and picked up spears from the storage box. After dipping the points into the tar pot, they lined up alongside Brynna at the rail. Kayne lit up a torch and stood behind them.
“It always comes to violence, hey Skoranji?” Challion said to the balding man. To Brynna he said, “Very well. If you do not wish to sell the book, then I am afraid I will just have to take it.”
“You and what battle fleet? Your men won’t set foot upon this ship,” Brynna shot back.
The balding man spoke. “Truly now, m’ dear? Be you willin’ to test your pups ‘gainst me bloodseekers?”
“Would you be willing to bet on it, Captain Skoranji?” Brynna asked, smirking. The Voyager crew laughed. Even from his vantage point, Cydric could see Skoranji turn red.
“Please, please, let’s not bring my friend’s fondness for gambling into this,” said Challion. “I appeal to your reason, Captain Thorne. Give the Codex over peacefully, and we’ll part on friendly terms.”
Brynna shook her head. “You raffenraker, do you seriously think you intimidate me?”
Challion motioned to the green-robed man, who lifted his arms and spoke a short phrase. An intense green glow limned his hands, then a ball of light the same color formed and shot toward the Vanguard Voyager. It came to hover over Kayne, then sped downward to strike him full in the chest and knock him backwards. It then ringed his neck, and slowly the First Mate rose into the air.
“Certainly not, Captain. I know better than to threaten you. But a threat to your friend is another matter,” Challion said, smiling.
“True men do not hide behind magic,” Brynna returned coldly, gripping the rail so hard her knuckles turned white. “Let him down, Commander Challion. Now.”
“We are going to board your ship. If you or any of your men resists, mister Kayne will no longer have the use of his head.”
“First let him down, damn you. Then I’ll give you the Codex.”
“The book first, in exchange for his life. That is your only option.”
Brynna chewed on her lower lip, then finally agreed.
“You didn’t!” Kadie exclaimed.
“Well, at that moment I didn’t have much of a choice ,” Brynna said. “But when I found out that Cydric and Mandi were hiding on deck, I secretly instructed Mandi to get my bow and arrows and have Cydric make ready to kill the wizard when I signalled.”
Kadie’s eyes widened. Brynna slowly shook her head and sighed. “I don’t like having to kill, you know that. But sometimes it’s the only way.”
“I understand,” said Kadie. “But then what? He was able to do it, I suppose, or else you wouldn’t be here telling me about it!”
“He did, and that enabled us to fight back….”
Gulping a quick breath of air, Cydric leaped up, drew a bead on the Black Swan’s magic-maker, and let the arrow fly. It sped through the air in a flash of silver, and smacked deep into the sorcerer’s left eye.
The man screamed, clutched at his face with both hands, staggered forward, and pitched over the rail into the river.
Kayne fell to the deck as the green ring vanished from around his neck. “Battle positions!” shouted Brynna. The Voyager crew surged forward, scooping up their weapons and whooping in defiance.
Cydric ran over to check on Kayne. Challion cursed as Brynna severed the grappling lines.
“Are you all right, sir?” Cydric asked, helping Kayne to sit up.
“Never did like wizards,” the First Mate replied, rubbing his throat.
Brynna instructed two crewmen to take Kayne below, then ordered the spear detail forward again. She retrieved the torch and re-lit it.
Challion ordered the Swan’s oars back into the water, then directed Skoranji to prepare the ballista for a counterattack.
Brynna handed the torch to the first spearman, who lit up his weapon and passed the flame to the next man. After the torch made it down the line and all the spears had been lit, Brynna gave the order to let fly.
Several of the burning spears struck the side of the Black Swan. A few of them landed on the deck, and one managed to hit a sail. The fire spread quickly, forcing Challion to abandon his plans for a retaliatory strike in favor of saving his ship from the flames.
Cydric and Mandi watched the action from the rail. As Skoranji dashed madly about the deck of the Swan calling out orders, a breeze rippled across Cydric’s cheek. At the same time the helmsman cried, “We’ve got the wind back, Captain!” Cydric looked up and saw the ship’s sails billowing proudly once more.
“Get us under way immediately!” called Brynna.
As the Vanguard Voyager slowly pulled away from the enkindled Black Swan, Cydric could see Commander Challion standing motionless at the rail, flames licking at his back. Suddenly he shouted out across the widening gap between the ships.
“I will not forget this, Brynna Thorne! I cannot be defeated so easily–revenge will be mine, in the end!”
Brynna came over and took the bow and arrows from Cydric. “Wrong, Challion. It ends now!” she said. She nocked an arrow and fired. It struck the Commander square in the chest, penetrating his breastplate. Challion gasped and fell back into the fire.
“Was that really necessary?” Kadie asked.
Brynna was silent for a moment. “You have to understand, that wasn’t the first time he and I crossed each other. I was just so frustrated and angry that he had attacked me and put my crew in danger again. I really wanted it to end.”
“And I suppose it has, hasn’t it?” said Kadie.
“With the trial, yes. When we arrived in Port Sevlyn, I saw a Royal Navy ship in dock, under the command of Captain Xane Hellriegel. He’s the one who actually went back and captured Challion and the crew of his ship.”
“And you rode with them all the way here to Magnus,” Kadie finished.
“Yes,” said Brynna. “I was rather surprised to see how quickly they brought Challion to trial, though. Apparently this is one case the Crown wants disposed of as soon as possible. And, since I was one of his victims, I testified against him. The King is going to announce the verdict soon, so I came up here to wait.”
“Well, I’m sure there’s no doubt about what it’s going to be,” said Kadie. “But how did Challion even know you had the Codex?”
“He claims that a woman hired him to obtain the book from me and deliver it to her, in exchange for a large sum of money. Unfortunately, the woman he described hasn’t been found, and he claims he knows nothing else about her.”
“What about the Codex itself?”
“The scholars have been debating over it since practically the moment I brought it in,” Brynna said with a grin. “They seem to have divided into two armies–those who believe it’s authentic and those who believe it isn’t. I still got paid, though.”
“You’ve certainly made your mark on this city, haven’t you, Brynna?” Kadie said with admiration. Her emerald-green eyes took on a faraway look. “Your life is so much more exciting than mine. You’ve seen and done far more that I could ever hope to!”
“That’s what many people think, but the truth of it is…well, don’t tell my mother this, but sometimes I think of giving it up. Just settling down and raising a family like you’ve done.”
“Would you really do that?”
Brynna half-shrugged and gave a slight shake of her head. “I don’t know–I mean, you remember what happened with Tarant?”
Kadie nodded, remembering the time when a 23-year-old Brynna had accepted a marriage proposal from a young man, but later broke off the engagement in order to take advantage of the opportunity to become captain of her own ship. “So what you mean is, you don’t know if you even could settle down?”
Brynna sighed. “Well, I suppose I eventually will, but it won’t be for a while, at least. Maybe someday if I ever get tired of adventuring.”
They talked a while longer about family and friends. Presently, the castle guard who had escorted Kadie came up the tower and informed Brynna that the King was about to render his verdict.
“Oh, came I come too?” Kadie asked hopefully. “I’ve never been to a trial before!”
“Of course. Let’s go,” said Brynna.
The Audience Chamber of the castle had filled almost to capacity with various courtiers and nobles by the time Brynna and Kadie arrived. The guard led the two women through the murmuring crowd to a bench near the front of the room where sat the other witnesses against Commander Challion. Kadie marvelled at the vast expanse of the great hall, and expressed great interest in the colorful banners and huge tapestries that hung on the walls.
A few minutes later, a black-haired man in a gold and green tunic strode solemnly into the room from the double doors at the rear. Brynna explained that he was the Falcon Herald of Baranur, distinguished by the image of the blue falcon in the center of his tabard, and by the silver circlet he wore on his head.
The Falcon Herald reached the front of the hall and stood in front of the throne. “Your respect for His Majesty, King Haralan of Baranur!” he intoned. The room fell silent. A moment later, the doors opened to admit an entourage that included several guards, the High Priest, the opposing Advocates, various functionaries, then the King himself surrounded by soldiers of the King’s Own. Brynna instructed Kadie to bow her head like the rest of the crowd as the King passed by.
When the entire assembly had installed itself at the front of the hall and the King had seated himself on the throne, the Falcon Herald motioned for the congregation to be seated. Commander Challion was then brought in, flanked by guards and iron-shackled at the wrists. Brynna saw that although his arrow wound had fully healed, he still carried himself as if he was in great pain–no doubt a ploy to gain the King’s sympathy.
The guards made Challion kneel before the throne. King Haralan stared at him for several long moments, stroking his chin. Brynna’s heart pounded in her chest as she waited to hear the verdict. Finally, the King stood up. A page handed him a golden scepter, which he pointed at the large man kneeling before him.
“Artemus Challion, former Knight Captain of the Southern Marches, the accusations that have been brought against you are most grave. You have committed crimes against your country and stained your honor. It is my judgement, then, that you be declared guilty of all charges, and punished accordingly.”
The hall exploded with scattered cheers and excitement. Brynna leaped up and shouted with elation. Dimly, she heard Challion shouting in protest. The Falcon Herald called for quiet, and when the noise died down the King continued.
“Because of your past service to the Crown your life shall be spared, but you shall be held in the dungeon for fifty years, or until the end of your days. Furthermore, all of your possessions shall be seized and used to pay restitution to those whom you have caused injury. This I decree, before God and the Kingdom.” He handed the scepter back to the page. “This tribunal is concluded.”
“No!” shouted Challion as the guards forced him to his feet. “Your Majesty, please! You cannot do this to me! I implore you–” He roared in defiance as the guards began dragging him away. Catching sight of Brynna, his face contorted with rage. “I *will* have my revenge, Captain Thorne!” he snarled. Brynna gazed coolly at him, smiling faintly in satisfaction. When he was finally out of the room Kadie remarked, “My, but he was angry! Aren’t you frightened?”
“Not at all. He won’t be bothering anyone for a long while.”
The High Priest said a brief benediction, then the royal entourage moved out of the hall. The crowd broke up, some leaving the hall, others milling about.
“So what do you do now?” Kadie asked as she and Brynna headed for the doors.
“I collect my restitution, I suppose!” Brynna said with a laugh. Just then she spotted a familiar face coming towards her out of the crowd. “Come on, let me introduce you to someone.”
A tall well-muscled man in the uniform of the Royal Navy stopped and congratulated Brynna. She thanked him and gave Kadie a little push forward. “Captain Hellriegel, may I present Acadia Farrondale.”
“A great pleasure,” Hellriegel said, taking Kadie’s hand and pressing it to his cheek. The young woman gave a nervous giggle. “Ah–it’s–I’m delighted to meet you,” Kadie falteringly replied, a wide grin on her face.
Brynna explained that she and Kadie grew up together in Port Sevlyn, and that Kadie moved to Magnus upon her marriage. “And didn’t you say you moved again?” she asked, casting her friend a prompting look.
“Oh–ah, yes, we did,” Kadie answered, casting her eyes shyly downward. “After my second son was born, my husband decided that we would need a bigger place to live, and so we moved to a town not far from the city.” She flicked her gaze up at Hellriegel, then over to Brynna.
Hellriegel made small talk with them for a few more minutes, then asked Brynna if she would like to join him later at a local dockside pub.
“I’d like to, but..perhaps some other time,” Brynna replied.
“Are you sure?” asked Hellriegel. “You do, after all, owe me a dinner.”
Brynna smiled. “We’ll see.”
“That’s as good an answer as I’m going to get, eh?” Hellriegel said with a slight nod of his head. “Hope to see you, then, Captain Thorne. A pleasure, Lady Farrondale.” He smiled as he took his leave of them.
Kadie stared open-mouthed at his retreating back. “Did you hear that? He called me lady!” She put a hand on her chest and turned to Brynna. “WHY didn’t you accept his invitation?”
Brynna shrugged. “I…it didn’t seem appropriate.”
“You spent two weeks on a ship with the man! Don’t tell me nothing happened!”
Kadie sighed and mimed slapping Brynna across the face several times. “Is your mind still there, Brynna? HOW could nothing happen between you and…” She glanced back and breathed a sigh. “And him!”
“Don’t let Alexio hear you talk like that. He might get jealous.”
“Realm of the gods, Brynna, it looks like you’re not even trying!”
Brynna put a hand on her friend’s shoulder. “You haven’t seen the Royal Gardens yet, have you? They have the most beautiful variety of roses that my mother would give anything for. Would you like to go see them?”
Before Kadie could reply, a young disheveled-looking man dressed in red and gray scholars’ robes came rushing up to them. “Captain Thorne?” he asked breathlessly, looking at Brynna.
“Yes, what is it?”
“My name is Cullan, I’m with the Scholar’s Council at the University of Magnus. May I speak with you?”
“It’s about–well, we, that is, the Council, would like to make a proposition–I mean, we’d like to make an offer, uh….”
“An offer of what?” asked Brynna with slight annoyance.
The young scholar visibly composed himself. “Are you available this afternoon? The Council would like to see you before you leave Magnus. It’s about a possible expedition.”
“An expedition to where?” Brynna asked, concealing her sudden rise of interest.
“That will be discussed at the meeting. Will you be able to attend?”
“Yes, of course. Thank you,” Brynna replied.
“Very good, Captain. Um, someone will be sent for you at around three bells.”
Brynna nodded, and the young man departed.
“He seemed excited,” Kadie observed. “Do you know what he was talking about?”
“I’m not sure. I should have at least asked him about the Codex,” Brynna said. She turned to Kadie. “Well, why don’t we go see those roses now?”
Meanwhile, in the infamous Fifth Quarter of Magnus, a gaunt dark-haired man angrily made his way into a pub called the Silverchance Tavern. The man swept through the common room and pushed through the crowd in the gaming parlor until he came to one of the private booths at the back. He flung aside the curtain and stared wordlessly at the older, more expensively dressed man who sat at a small table with a slender auburn-haired young woman beside him.
“Ah, Veltain! What news, eh?” the older man said, turning from his young companion.
“Challion has just been sentenced,” Veltain said tightly, eyes narrowed.
“At last,” the older man replied. “Well, sit! Tell us about it.”
The gaunt man stood for a moment, breathing heavily, then ripped the curtain back across the booth’s entrance and slammed himself into a chair. “You were wrong, Javaro. Challion has only been sentenced to imprisonment, not death!” He rested his elbows on the table and cupped his face in his hands.
“Then it would seem that the King is in a merciful mood today!” Javaro chuckled and took a sip of wine from the silver goblet before him.
Veltain looked up, annoyance clear on his face. “Don’t you understand? They may interrogate him further–he might even lead them to her!” He stabbed a finger at the young woman, who calmly took a long puff on the pipe she was smoking and exhaled in Veltain’s direction.
“Why must you always be so scared?” she said in a smooth voice. “You’re nothing but a mouse in a pit full of snakes.” She looked away and sucked on the pipe.
“Damn you, Taja!” Veltain said tensely.
Javaro sighed. “Calm yourself, Veltain. Nothing has changed. Challion still knows nothing of us. What does it matter that he wastes away in a rat-infested dungeon instead of twirling at the end of a rope?” He slipped his arm around the young woman’s bare shoulders. “And do you really think he could recognize her outside any of her many disguises?”
Veltain slapped both palms on the table. “The true issue here is that the Codex is now lost to us, thanks to your total mishandling of the whole matter! If you had done as I suggested–”
Taja looked at him sharply. “If we had done as you suggested, every mage in Baranur would be knocking at our doorstep! You have no concept of subtlety, mouseface.”
“You call hiring pirates subtle?” Veltain sneered. “I would call that desperation born of ineptitude. I’m going to recommend that the both of you be expelled from the Triarch at once!”
Javaro leaned across the table. “There’s no need for that, Veltain,” he said in a low voice. “The situation may still be salvaged.”
“You utter fool!” Veltain spat, nearly rising from his chair. “Without the Codex, the Triarch will remain no more powerful than a band of street urchins! I find it incredible that they entrusted the task to you!”
Javaro’s eyes narrowed. “One cannot foresee all that may go wrong,” he said. “Nor can one accurately predict the actions of another.”
Veltain smirked. “You thought retrieving the Codex would be simple, given that Captain Thorne is a woman.” He ignored the look that Taja threw him.
“I am a patient man, Veltain, but I am starting to become annoyed with you,” said Javaro, gripping the stem of the goblet.
“You’ve become soft. Soft and weak. You have no place with us anymore!”
Taja took the pipe out of her mouth. “You quivering little mouse,” she said with sharp disdain, her pale blue eyes mocking him. “Why don’t you go find a cat to put you out of your endless state of fright?”
“Bitch,” Veltain said.
“Meow,” replied Taja.
Javaro frowned. “I don’t want to ever see you again, Veltain,” he said. “Leave us.”
Veltain threw up his hands and quickly rose from his chair, nearly knocking the table over. “Gladly.” He turned and made to open the curtain. Suddenly he spun around and with a motion almost too fast to see, hurled something at Javaro. Taja screamed as the man’s eyes popped wide, a many-pointed metal star embedded in his throat. Blood bubbled from the wound as Javaro gurgled and slumped over.
Veltain’s arm flashed again. Taja jerked aside as another metal star buried itself in the wall. She ducked down and shoved the table hard against Veltain’s legs. The gaunt man lost his balance and tumbled backwards, bringing the curtain down as he fell. Several of the patrons in the gaming parlor looked up in startlement as Taja ran out of the booth, screaming wildly. Veltain scrambled to his feet and started to pursue her, but changed his mind after seeing the young woman tearfully imploring a pair of leather-clad men to help her.
Veltain almost made it to the back door before the two men caught him. At Taja’s insistence, they took him outside into the alley behind the tavern. Taja followed, sobbing. Her expression changed as she watched the men punch and kick Veltain. After a few minutes she told them to stop. She took a pinch of tobacco from one of the pouches she wore around her slim waist and sprinkled it into the bowl of her pipe. After lighting it, she told the men to stand Veltain up against the wall and move away. She approached the man’s bruised and bloody form and put her face next to his.
“You shouldn’t have killed Javaro,” she said icily. “And another thing; just because you’re dealing with a woman doesn’t mean that things will be simple.” She took a step back and puffed on the pipe. A moment later, she exhaled a cloud of smoke into the gaunt man’s face. Veltain coughed and waved his hands in front of him. Taja and her two confederates watched from further down the alley as Veltain’s coughs became ragged gasps for breath. Soon he was on the ground, wheezing violently. He kicked and struggled, clawing at his chest. Finally a tremor rippled through his body and he lay still. Taja smiled with satisfaction as she led the men away.