Bayne wandered through the darkened Cilasian streets without apparent purpose. He zigged and zagged through side-streets, the way he had ever since leaving the Highlander’s Goblet, a small, run-down tavern in one of the lower class areas of Cilasia. While to the untrained eye it looked as though a simple drunk was trying to find his way home, there was purpose to Bayne’s meanderings. A purpose Quick didn’t quite seem to get, and was very vocal about. Nearly every time Bayne turned down another side-street, Quick would squeak in anger and frustration.
“Don’t get your fur in a rut,” Bayne said. “I know where we’re going.”
The two of them had left the House of Roses hours earlier, even before Nalya and the others had gone off to the King’s Palace. Bayne had raised an objection to Nalya’s insistence that Quick accompany him, but she had won in the long run. After all, they could hardly leave a Tyl alone in the House of Roses. All it took was for one returning servant to see him and he would be chased out like common vermin.
So he had come with Bayne. At least, part way. As Bayne approached the Highlander’s Goblet, he had instructed Quick to hide in the bushes nearby, explained he wouldn’t be long and that it was for his own safety that he remain outside. If even a whiff of him were scented inside, it would most certainly mean his death. Most patrons of the Goblet were of the sort that wouldn’t think twice to kill a Tyl. Many of them were willing and able to put an arrow into their grandmother for the right price.
Bayne had spent a few minutes inside, slammed back three pints during that time, and traded words with a man he seldom liked to talk to, but found a necessity.
His name was Argus, and he was the main contact for the Zoar Enclave in Cilasia. He was a man with a grim disposition, a long, thick scar running down the side of his face and a stench strong enough to clear out entire districts of Cilasia.
However, Bayne preferred that any connection to the Zoar Enclave be kept secret. Even Nalya didn’t know– let alone Quick.
But now, his meeting was finished, the Enclave had an update of his activities, and all Bayne wanted to do was go back to the House of Roses and catch some sleep. The purpose behind his random wandering was simply to shake anyone who might be trailing him. Dealing with the Enclaves, any of them, was always risky business. The Enclaves always tended to have eyes on their doings. Eyes that didn’t necessarily agree with their traditions and interests that would invariably be seen as treason in the eyes of the High Magus Council in Shavi.
Still, Bayne liked to think he was good at spotting a tail. He felt confident there was nothing to worry about, but better to be safe than sorry. Especially with it came to the Council.
Bayne rounded another corner, this time in the direction of the House of Roses. Quick made a satisfied chirp from the bag at Bayne’s side, acknowledging that they were headed the right way.
Suddenly, Bayne was blindsided. A figure erupted from around the corner and collided with Bayne, knocking him back a few feet. Before he had time to look, he heard a shrill scream and then–
–blinding pain. It felt like a fire had erupted in his eyes. He yelled out, grasping for his sword while Quick jumped clear. He had almost drawn it when he heard a familiar voice.
“Bayne! Bayne, oh my God! I’m sorry, I didn’t know it was you!” Terra’s voice yelled out.
Bayne, still blinded and unable to see had drawn his sword and was about ready to lash out at anything that might be nearby. “Terra?” he asked. “Terra, lass, is that you?”
“Yeah, it’s me,” Terra confirmed.
“Blast, child!” he exclaimed. “What magicks are these? What did you do to me? I’m blind!” He tried to rub the pain out of his eyes, to no avail. He could hear Quick squeaking excitedly off to his left somewhere.
“It’s pepper spray, I’m sorry. I didn’t know!”
Bayne’s vision started to clear a little, and he managed to get a blurry view of Terra. While he couldn’t see much, he could immediately sense something was wrong, both in her voice, and the dark patches on her face. She looked like she’d been communing with the dirt.
“What happened?” he asked her. “You look as though you’ve been rolling with the pigs.”
“Ryan!” Terra exclaimed. “Bayne, we need to find Nalya! Ryan’s hurt– I don’t know where he is!”
“What?” Bayne asked. His vision was beginning to clear, but the pain still throbbed in his eyes. “What are ye saying, girl?”
“Henna, I… she isn’t who she said she was. She… she stabbed him and knocked him over into the lake. She took me someplace, back that way. I managed to light the place on fire and escape, but she still might be looking for me.”
Bayne looked at Terra through blurry eyes. “What of Cale?” he asked.
“Cale got arrested at the Ball, it was Dueck. He accused him of being an assassin– but he’s the one who hired Henna. Astara. Whatever her name is,” Terra said. “We’ve got to find Ryan. We need to make sure he’s okay.”
“Aye, aye,” Bayne said. “Where did it happen?”
“I don’t know,” Terra said. “Some bridge somewhere, we were walking along the waterfront back to the House of Roses. She came at us there, I don’t remember much after that. She knocked me out.”
Terra shrugged. “Last I heard from her she was at the Palace with some Corpus guy trying to convince the King to let Cale go.”
“I think so,” she said.
Bayne wore a grim look on his face, squinting through his swollen, red eyes. “And this is what happens when I leave her be,” he said, shaking his head.
“Bayne! Ryan’s hurt! We need to find him, he might be–”
“Don’t even say it, lass,” Bayne said. “We’ll find him all right, I’m certain of it. If he’s still breathing, we’ll find him.” He changed direction and started to walk towards the King’s Palace.
“And if we don’t?” Terra asked.
“Then I’d start praying to whatever gods ye might have,” Bayne said.
Nalya followed closely behind the little girl as she led her to a small cottage erected by the riverside in an area known to be populated mainly by Cilasia’s poor and downtrodden. It was a rundown shack by most of Cilasian standards, constructed of wood and stone, and it looked as though not a single Geomagi Architect had ever even laid eyes upon it. The yard, small as it was pressed up against the shoreside, was littered with refuse and lengths of wood, old barrels and other jewels pulled from the waters of the lake. It wasn’t much to look at by any standard.
The girl led her up to the front door and opened it wide. “Mum!” the little girl announced. “Lady Ruus is here!”
Nalya entered the door just as the matron of the house, an older round woman with pink cheeks and a gap between her two front teeth walked into the room, wiping her hands clean on her apron. Nalya’s heart skipped a beat when she saw the bloodstain running the length of her arms and apron.
“Lady,” the woman bowed courteously. “I apologize for not coming myself, but I had to send the child. He’s in a rough sort.”
“He’s alive?” Nalya asked.
The woman nodded. “For now,” she said. “He took a blade between the ribs. I healed him best I could after pulling him out of the lake. He’d be dead already if Maryn hadn’t seen him fall in.”
“Maryn?” Nalya asked.
The matron motioned towards the little blond girl. “Maryn,” she said. Maryn smiled at Nalya.
“How did you know who he was?” Nalya asked.
“Maryn and I seen you walking through the city gates this morning– we were at the market, selling lilyfruit. It were his clothes that reminded me who he was and who he’d been traveling with. Don’t see the likes of them around Halen much.” She picked up a dark, wet rag from a nearby table and showed it to Nalya. It was Ryan’s t-shirt. There was a large hole in it.
“Will he be okay?” Nalya asked, rushing into the room past the matron to see. Ryan lay unconscious on the bed, stripped to the waste. His chest was stained with blood, but the wound had been healed into a thin white scar. Maryn had spoken true. The older woman was surely a healer. Nalya felt her heart ease.
“As I said, he’s in a rough sort,” the matron said. “I had thought that healing him alone would have been enough, but he’s getting worse by the moment. I thought he were bleeding on the inside at first, but now I’m not so sure. Has the feel of a poison, it does,” she said.
“Poison?” Nalya turned around to face the woman. “You’re sure?”
“As sure as I can be,” the woman said. “He’s pale as a snowfield, and he’s running a fever.”
“Is there an antidote?” Nalya asked.
“I’m sure there is,” she said. “And I’d be happy to tend to him with it, if I knew the poison that was used. I might have been able to tell if the knife had still been stuck in him, but I guess his attacker took it.”
Suddenly, another thought struck Nalya. “Terra!” she exclaimed. “Terra, there was a girl with him. Her hair was red– the color of blood, did you see her?”
“I saw her,” Maryn said. “She went away with the black-haired girl.”
Nalya looked back at Maryn. “Black-haired girl?” She shot the matron a questioning look.
“Well, don’t look at me,” she said, shrugging. “I saw nothing.”
Nalya walked into the room and placed her hand on Ryan’s forehead. It was hot, and his skin had turned even whiter since she had arrived. “How long does he have?” Nalya asked.
“Hard to say,” the matron said. “He could last until morning– perhaps even tomorrow night. But if he hasn’t the antidote before morning, he’ll be walking the Trail of the Dead.”
Nalya felt suddenly helpless. Ryan had been attacked. He was near death, and would be dead by morning if she didn’t do something. Terra was gone as well, no doubt captured by Ryan’s assailant. She searched her mind for answers, but came up with none.
She needed help. She couldn’t do this alone.
She needed to find Corpus. She needed to find Terra. She needed to prove Cale’s innocence. It was all starting to overwhelm her.
“Can you watch him?” Nalya asked. “Make him as comfortable as you can?”
The old woman nodded. “I’ll do what I can,” she said. “But you best hurry, Lady. I’ve no guarantee that he’ll last even until morning.”
Nalya nodded and then headed towards the door. She stopped before reaching it and turned back. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Your name. Could I have your name?”
The matron smiled and looked back at Nalya. “My name is Ezabeth,” she said. “Go quickly, Lady. He’s relying on you now.”
The knock at the door came loudly, and woke Arynn from a deep sleep. He opened his eyes, blinking as he woke up, unsure if the sound was real or had been a part of a forgotten dream.
The knock came again, loud and frantic at his door. Arynn climbed from his bed and grabbed a thick wooden club that he kept behind his bedroom door for occasions such as this. The knock came again as he approached the door.
“Who’s there?” Arynn demanded.
“Arynn!” the familiar voice came from behind the door. “You fool, let me in!” It was Astara. Arynn leaned his club up against the side of the wall and opened the latch, swinging the door open.
Astara rushed inside and closed the door behind her. Arynn walked back into the room and lit a lamp, allowing light to flood the room. When he faced Astara, however, his jaw dropped open. Her clothes were dirty, disheveled. Black soot-marks scarred her face and a thin line of dried blood ran from an open cut in her forehead.
“Astara, what happened?” Arynn asked, aghast at the state she was in. “Are you hurt?”
“I’m fine,” Astara said, walking into the room. “I just ran into a little trouble. I need to stay here until morning.”
“A little trouble? You look as though you were attacked!”
“I was,” she said, cutting him off. She slumped over into a small chair and ran her hands through her hair, sighing heavily.
“What’s going on?” Arynn demanded.
“Nothing,” Astara said. “It’s none of your concern.”
“None of my concern? You come pounding on my door at the darkest of hours, you’re bleeding and dirty, and it’s none of my concern?” Arynn exclaimed. “I want to know what happened, Astara!”
“I made a mistake, all right?” Astara exclaimed. “You were never this nosy before.”
“You’ve never showed up bleeding at my door in the middle of the night,” he shot back. “Astara, what mistake? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing that concerns you,” she said, then looked over to the table where a number of small vials sat. She recognized the small vial of gasoline she had brought for him earlier. “What have you learned?” she asked, trying to change the subject.
Arynn sighed, giving in. “You means besides the extremely volatile nature of the substance?” he asked. “It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen, or smelled. It has the consistency of water, and burns faster than oil. I poured a little bit on a piece of paper and held it up to the candlelight. It went up so fast I barely had time to drop it before it burned me.”
Astara scoffed. “It figures. These ones are fond of fire, I think.”
“Which ones?” Arynn asked. “Astara, you’re going to have to start explaining yourself.”
Astara shot him a defensive glare. “It doesn’t concern you, Arynn. Don’t let it.”
“It concerns me enough to ask for my help, not give any explanations for it, and then come in looking like you are, demanding a place for the night?” Arynn asked. He turned his head to one side. “Where did you get that substance?” he demanded. “What happened to you?”
Astara growled. “If you must know,” she said, crossing the distance between them in seconds and speaking only inches from his face. “I stole it. I stole it from people I’ve been hired to kill. I’ve already killed one of them, while the other’s rotting away in a dungeon at the palace– a man I still must kill somehow! And I look like I’ve been in a fight because I have– a stupid fight won more through trickery than skill because of another that I’m supposed to have captured!”
Arynn looked back at Astara, the shock showing clearly on his face. “You… killed one? Who did you kill?” he asked.
Astara threw her arms in the air and swore, but Arynn wouldn’t give in. He repeated the question.
“An outlander!” she exclaimed. “I’ve killed an outlander! Stuck him with a poisoned blade and threw him into the lake. Is that what you want to hear? That I’m a killer?” She moved closer to him. “An assassin?”
Arynn shook his head. “But you… you were–”
“I was what, Arynn?”
Arynn looked back at her. “Astara, what’s happened to you? You weren’t like this before. You were–” He shook his head. “I won’t believe it.”
“Believe what you want,” she pushed him out of her way and walked over to a basin full of water. She began to wash her face and clean her wound while Arynn only stared dumbly after her. “I’ve no time for this,” she said. “I’ve got to figure out what to do.”
Arynn couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Astara, an assassin? Had she always been as such? Even before, when–
–when he had caused the death of a noblewoman. When he had inadvertently poisoned her. When he lost his right to practice alchemy.
That was when he had last seen Astara. That morning, after he had concocted her tonic. After he had spent the night with Astara. After he had left her alone with the tonic.
“Astara?” Arynn asked.
Astara looked up from the washbasin, impatience showing clearly on her face.
“Did you kill the Lady Tommin?” he asked.
Astara only stared back at him, expressionless. It was through the look she gave him that he had his answer. She never said a word, only went back to washing her face. Arynn took a step back, unsure what to do.
“Make no mistake, Arynn,” she said. “There’s nowhere you can run that I won’t find you. I’m fond of you, and I’d rather not have to slit your throat, but if you threaten my freedom, I will kill you.”
Arynn froze, not sure where to go or what to do. Astara finished washing her face and looked back at him. “I won’t hurt you Arynn,” she said. “Not if you don’t cross me. So long as you keep that in mind, you need never fear me.”
“Astara, you killed a noble!” he exclaimed. “One under my care! Did you not think I wouldn’t be blamed for her death?”
Astara didn’t answer.
“Did you not even care?” he asked.
“Caring,” Astara spat out. “You and your caring. Your silly little emotions. Be a man, Arynn! I know you can be at times, I’ve seen it.” She walked over and caressed the side of his face. “All those times in your bed you’ve shown what a man you can be.”
“Be quiet!” Arynn exclaimed, closing his eyes.
“Fine,” Astara said. “Be a poor, weak little man.” She threw her arms in the air. “A useless little insect! Run off and find the nearest guard, tell him all of your weak, useless little stories. I would imagine the Alchemist’s Guild would be greatly interested in your continued practice.”
Arynn seemed taken aback. “You wouldn’t.”
“Try me,” Astara said. “And what the Guild won’t finish, I will. Keep that in mind, Arynn Shima.” She turned back to the mirror mounted on the wall nearby. “Now sit down and listen. I need your help.”
It was well past midnight when Corpus finally left the King’s Palace. He had taken some time to discuss matters with Nadus, then quickly went to trade a few more words with Cale before he decided to go and track down Nalya. She should have returned to the Palace by then, and when she didn’t show, Corpus began to grow worried.
He descended down the great steps that led into the Palace. Below, it opened into a wide street that led travelers in any direction they wished to go in Cilasia. Corpus was about to turn down the street towards the House of Roses when he caught view of two people walking towards him. He almost ignored them entirely until he saw bright orange ribbons gleaning in the lamplight of the city. He recognized the two almost instantly. It was the outlander, Terra, and Bayne Dalon. Corpus walked up to them.
“The great Bayne Dalon,” Corpus said, smiling. “It has been a while, has it not?”
“Aye, Corpus,” Bayne said. “You were still wet in the nose from your days at the academies.”
The two men embraced each other in a strong and firm handshake before Bayne turned to Terra. “The girl was kidnapped,” Bayne said. “She believes Ryan to be hurt at the very least.”
“Hurt? Kidnapped?” Corpus asked, his eyes wide. Suspicion began to set in.
“We were walking back to Nalya’s house,” Terra explained. “We were attacked on the bridge. I was taken, the last I saw Ryan he was being thrown over into the water. She stabbed him.”
“She?” Corpus narrowed his eyes. “Who? Who stabbed him?”
“She called herself Henna, once,” Bayne said. “Traveled with us a ways, from Hillside Downs into Cilasia.”
“Henna?” Corpus asked. He knew a girl named Henna once. She was killed years before, in an act of cowardice and violence. His cousin, killed by his sister.
“That wasn’t her real name,” Terra said. “She said her name was Astara. She took me, but I managed to escape.”
Corpus narrowed his eyes. “Astara,” he said, then shook his head.
“You know her?” Bayne asked.
Corpus nodded. “As I suspected. I could smell her involvement here.” He looked to Bayne. “She is the exile.”
“The exile?” Bayne asked, incredulous. “The Cloudstalker’s exile?”
“Cloudstalker?” Terra asked. “What am I missing here?”
“It’s complicated,” Corpus said. “But the one you call Astara was once my sister.”
Terra’s jaw dropped. “Your sister?”
Corpus nodded. “She betrayed our family. She was sent into exile for the murder of a cousin. Her name was Henna.”
Bayne and Terra looked at each other.
“Ryan!” Terra said. “We can’t worry about this right now, we need to find Ryan!”
“I’ve already done it,” another voice came from behind them. They turned to see Nalya walking swiftly towards them. She ran straight to Terra and swept her into a deep hug. “Are you okay?” she asked. “I heard you were taken!”
Terra nodded. “I’m fine,” she said. “I got away.”
“Consider yourself fortunate,” Corpus said. “Astara is as crafty as she is deadly.”
“You found Ryan? Is he okay?” Terra asked.
Nalya nodded. “For now. His wound has been healed, but he’s been poisoned.”
“Poisoned?” Corpus asked. His face turned grim once more. “This doesn’t bode well.”
“Is he going to be okay?” Terra asked.
“If we can find out what poison was used, then there’s a chance we can administer an antidote,” Nalya said, then looked to Corpus. “Did I hear right? Astara? Your sister?”
Corpus nodded. “Apparently she’s made herself known,” he said. “It would have been Astara that struck the Constable, I can smell her all over that place. She’s the only one who could have evaded the guards. That means that Dueck and Astara are in league,” Corpus said.
“Isn’t that proof enough? Can’t we go to the king with that?” Terra asked. “Then we can catch her and make her give us the antidote.”
Corpus shook his head. “The Halish Council would never take the word of outlanders. Not unless the outlander had proof.”
“So we just need to catch Astara and Dueck together?”
“Precisely,” Corpus said.
“So where’s Dueck?” Terra asked.
“It’s not that simple,” Corpus said. “He’d deny it all.”
“Not if he doesn’t know we’re there,” Terra said. “Quick?”
Quick poked his head up from Bayne’s shoulder, squeaking in reply. Terra pulled her camera from her purse and started playing with the settings.
“A Tyl?” Corpus asked. “He might be able to sneak up on him and listen– but the Council–”
“No, Corpus,” Nalya said. “This might work. That device has a magick eye and ear. It will remember everything that is said and the faces of all those present. We could send Quick in– we wouldn’t even have to catch him with Astara if he says something out of sort with the camera listening.”
Corpus eyed up the device. “Truly?” he asked, looking to Terra.
Terra nodded. “It’s a digital camera. I just set it to video mode, and I changed the batteries before we went to the Palace. It should last long enough to get what we need.”
“Dueck will be asleep now,” Corpus said. “But he’ll be up with the dawn, pushing for the Constable’s execution.” He knelt to the ground and regarded Quick for a moment. “You know how to use the device?”
Quick nodded and saluted, squeaking.
“I taught him how to use it a few days ago. He’s got it,” Terra said.
“Well, then, Quick. You’ve got an important mission ahead of you. Do you feel up to it?”
Quick saluted again, nodding. He wore a determined look on his little ferret face.
Corpus stood back up. “I will take you to where he sleeps. You’ll wait until morning, then follow him and get the evidence we need.” He looked over to Terra and Nalya. “The two of you should tend to Ryan, see if you can’t find out what ails him.” He looked to Bayne lastly. “You come with me. We’re going to find my sister.”