Bartan Kiyat licked his lips nervously as he hurried through the halls of the fortress of Yanskia. The halfling had been quite clear in his instructions: the missive he brought was to be seen by Warlord Tusilov, by the Raven’s eyes alone. And yet it had come from the sunlit lands of Anuire…the lands to which his daughter had been taken…
Since Chantou’s departure nearly eight years ago, the Kiyat family had risen in the world. The Raven treasured loyalty and rewarded obedience in his own peculiar way. No longer was Bartan’s wife, Megje, forced to work her fingers to the bone scrubbing pots in the estate’s kitchens. And Bartan had become an important man, a respected man. A trusted man. He licked his lips again, breaking into a trot.
The fortress of Yanskia was one of the few permanent structures in all of Ust Atka. The provinces of the lands known as the Raven’s Realm had once been crippled by tribal warfare, and even ten years ago none would have dreamed that the vast, fertile taiga of Dmitriya and Ayon could be used as anything more than staging grounds for battle. Now Ust Atka was the breadbasket of Vosgaard. Its people prospered, and the warring tribal lords had pitched their tents side-by-side beneath the blood red arms of the Raven, under the shadow of the black walls of Yanskia.
After what seemed an eternity, Bartan reached the Great Hall, where yet another feast was in full tilt. The bellows of the army commanders and the hoots of Warlord Tusilov’s favored lieutenants rang through the vaulted rafters as they tossed encouragement and imprecations at two figures locked in combat in the center of the hall. A warrior, back and arms corded with muscle, strained against a massive white-furred reptile, whose tail lashed dangerously close to the hall’s smoking braziers as it struggled to pin and devour its human opponent. Bartan skirted wide around the spectacle, approaching the Raven’s high table with his eyes downcast.
“A missive for you, my lord,” he said, dropping to one knee and proffering an envelope.
“A missive, Seneschal Kiyat?” Warlord Tusilov repeated. The effect was unnerving, as the Raven’s voice echoed hollowly from within the matte black helm that he never removed, throwing Bartan’s words, and his guilt, back at him again and again and again. Tusilov lifted the envelope and surveyed the seal, a hand in red wax. It was impossible to tell from behind the black steel faceguard, but Bartan could feel that his lord was smiling. The feeling increased as the Raven cracked the seal with one gauntleted finger and scanned the contents of the letter.
“Ah, my Jebe,” the Raven sighed, and his helm echoed back, Jebe…Jebe…Jebe…
“Shall I send any reply through the courier, my lord? The halfling yet waits at the portcullis. He said that he would return to Lord Tosokhdai immediately.” The Raven did not answer, staring silently at the letter. Bartan licked his lips. “If…if there is nothing else, my lord…I will take my leave of you…”
He had nearly made it to the end of the high table, bowing awkwardly and walking backwards, when the Raven spoke. “I will send a reply to the Lord Tosokhdai, of course, for is he not my favored son?” His gauntleted hand beckoned Bartan closer, and with his heart pounding, Bartan returned to the foot of the Raven’s throne. “I think perhaps I shall not entrust my reply to you, though, Seneschal Kiyat,” Tusilov continued. The matte black helm turned, a single eye burning above the faceguard as the Raven stared out at Bartan. “This seal, Seneschal Kiyat. It was opened before I touched it. The halfling courier, I think, respects Lord Tosokhdai. He would not have read this missive.”
Bartan’s knees gave way suddenly and he found himself nearly prostrate on the floor at the Raven’s feet. “Forgive me, my lord, forgive me,” he babbled. “I did not know what I was doing! I only thought…I only thought that perhaps there might be some news of my Chantou from the sunlit lands. Her mother still cries at night, my lord, in her sleep, crying out for our baby…”
His apology was cut short by a roar from the gathered lords and soldiers. In the center of the hall, the warrior deftly flipped the lizard onto its back, holding its snout shut with one powerful hand and gesturing with the other for a weapon with which to strike the killing blow.
“Asha!” the Raven cried, his hollow voice booming over the cheers of the throng. The warrior looked up, bashed the lizard’s head once against the flagstone floor, and rose to walk over to her lord. Asha Borokiev was an intimidating woman. Dressed for sport in a sleeveless tunic and loincloth, she radiated strength and purpose. The varsk’s teeth had torn a hole in her tunic as they wrestled, and Bartan could see clearly the blackened mark of a skeletal hand just above her muscled left breast.
“My lord,” the warrior-woman said as she reached the throne. “Shall we feast on varsk flesh tonight?”
“Indeed, Lady Borokiev, indeed. I might ask you first, Lady Borokiev, how we repay betrayal in the Raven’s realm?”
“With death, my lord,” Asha replied.
“And how do we repay valor?”
“With feasting.” Asha’s teeth gleamed, her smile carnivorous in her dark face.
“I think, Lady Borokiev, that the varsk has proven a valorous competitor this night. While Seneschal Kiyat…” The Raven’s lone eye turned toward Bartan, the silence of his helm echoing. “Shall we repay valor, Lady?”
Asha nodded curtly, her braided black hair falling over her shoulder. “With pleasure,” she said, and Bartan knew that he should run, that he should get up and flee, perhaps convince the halfling courier to take him away to the sunlit lands. But with the Raven’s eye upon him, his body would not obey. Asha lifted him by the scruff of his neck, as easily as a child might lift a newborn kitten, and tossed him to the center of the hall. The lords and soldiers rose to their feet, cheering and catcalling. The varsk shook itself out of its stupor.
As the lizard reared back and closed its teeth around his chest, Bartan’s last thought was of Chantou.
“Well I do not know how he has done zees, but he has persuaded zee Royal College to allow him to create a linked portal.”
“Astonishing. More liverwurst, Maximilian?”
“No thank you, Cal, I have had quite enough.” The leathery Brecht man patted the corner of his mouth with the edge of the tablecloth. “But why? Why would they do eet?”
“I do not think that this is such an important question,” rumbled a third man, speaking in a heavy Vos accent. This man was broad as a barn and sat slumped low in his chair with his fingers laced across his paunch, a tangled beard spreading over his chest. “Why do they do this, why do they do that…it is what we have asked for years and for years, no? Perhaps they want for you to find him, Maximilian. Perhaps they want you to find him, so that they can find us.”
“Tell us about the boy, Maximilian,” the man addressed as Cal urged.
“Very well. He was…let me see…he was young, yes, and had good talent, I could see that. But zee taint was on him. I could smell eet from across the room. Why those blind fools at zee College could not…why they would have trusted him…”
“I must agree with Raadko on this, Maximilian,” Cal put in gently. “You seem to have forgotten that our battle is not with the Royal College, however we disagree with their policies. Our battle is with a force much more ancient and much more menacing than ten stuffy old men.”
“We perhaps ought not to talk so freely about the old men,” Raadko rumbled, scratching his chest and letting forth a belch. “We are not such spring chickens now.”
“This is true,” Cal chuckled. “Shall I call for some dessert?” At both men’s assent, Cal rang a small bell sitting on the table near his left elbow. A pretty, florid-faced serving girl appeared a moment later.
“Gentlemen.” She bobbed a curtsey to the three men, took orders of hot spiced wine and cakes, and moments later the three friends were enjoying their sweets and contemplating the presence of the new factor in the Imperial City.
“And so what are we to do about him?” Maximilian asked, lighting a pipe. “You are right of course, you are right, zee things we are fighting…they are bigger even than that pompous ass Morel.”
“Yes, what do we do about him?” the man called Cal seconded, his sharp blue eyes probing the face of each of his dinner companions in turn.
“We do nothing,” Raadko growled. “We wait and we see. Perhaps they at the College allowed him to build this portal to draw us out, no? So we will wait and see what he will use it for and how he will change, and we will not give them so much the satisfaction.”
“I could not agree with you more,” Cal said. Maximilian frowned and clenched his teeth around the stem of his pipe, but he nodded.
Lofton sparkled in the late autumn. The crisp, clean air from the Northern Marches mingled with the cold breezes rising from the Tuor River and swept the streets of capital city of Alam, ringing silver bells hung above shop windows in preparation for the Eve of the Dead.
Soraene Alam sat by one of the arched windows of Tuor Castle and practiced her embroidery. In, out. In, out. The motion of the needle through the cloth and the pulling of the thread soothed her, calming her thoughts, bringing her into focus. She murmured, blue eyes gazing down at her hoop.
The figures she was stitching shifted and bunched, a tangle of threads which resolved itself into a castle of black stone and a muscular woman feasting on roasted varsk meat. Soraene sniffed, murmuring again. The threads tangled and re-formed. This time the picture showed tall minarets, a desert sunrise, and a veiled woman holding out her hands to a grey-skinned figure seated on a throne. A figure cloaked in darkness looked on from the background. Again the lady of Alamie murmured, using words from a language that had been dead for a thousand years. The threads re-worked themselves. And this time Soraene’s perfect brow furrowed as she saw a shambling horde, their rotting arms tearing down a castle wall, a lacquered black palanquin suspended between bony shoulders.
“Fool!” she cried, casting her embroidery hoop aside. It took her a moment, breathing the crisp air flowing through the window, before she felt calm enough to walk to the chamber’s door and call for a servant. “Please send for the Khinasi physician,” she asked the middle-aged woman who answered her call. There was no need for her to specify further, for among all the men of medicine and learned sages who had arrived to attend her father, only one bore the sun-darkened skin of the Khinasi lands. Naturally, the other doctors had alternately deferred to him and interrogated him about his methods, for the learning of the city-states of Avani was renowned.
“You send for me, my lady,” the man said as he entered the room. The Khinasi’s voice was smooth as silk, his skin a perfect shade of brown, his eyes bright as lamp oil. “Is your father unwell once again?”
Soraene turned from the position she had resumed by the window. “Tell me, sir…or madam…how far do your arts of dissembling extend?”
The Khinasi physician blinked in confusion. “My lady, I cannot know what you mean. I have tried to deal truly with your esteemed self and with your inestimable father, may Avani’s light…”
Soraene held up her hand to forestall any further pious aversions. “Please, changeling, your denial does no credit to yourself or to your art. You are immensely talented, I will own. Even when I took you to my bed, I was still unsure of your exact nature. Thankfully you provided me with quite an…extensive sample that night with which I could test your origin.”
The Lady Alam said this with no shame, no seemly blush, looking the physician straight in the eyes. He opened his mouth to voice another protest, but saw by Soraene’s steady blue gaze that any further deception was unnecessary. With a half-smile he said, speaking now in a light Brecht accent, “I give you credit, my lady. I did not quite guess at the extent of your…oh, I suppose paranoia is the right word for it…when I bedded you. Believe me, it took all of my considerable powers of imagination to provide you with that ‘sample,’ as you so delicately called it. You, madam, are a terrible lay.”
Soraene’s chin rose and her expression became even icier. “I will forgive this slight, for now. I will even go so far as to forgive your disguise, your deception, your information brokering, and your hamhanded treatment of my father. You see, changeling, my eyes are everywhere in Lofton, and indeed across Anuire. Little escapes my notice. And I have just discovered something rather shocking.” The beautiful blond paced in front of the window, hands clasped at the small of her back, the Khinasi’s dark eyes tracking her. “A good friend of mine has placed himself in a tenuous predicament. I have need of your skills to improve his lot.”
“Oh?” The Khinasi’s black brow arched. “This sounds intriguing. I’ll tell you what, my lady. As you are so merciful in forgiving my many transgressions, and as I bear you so much sympathy due to the unsatisfying sex life you will undoubtedly continue to enjoy, I will agree to help you.” Soraene opened her mouth, but this time the physician held up a hand. “On two conditions. One, you tell me why it is that you bleed your father nearly to death each night after you send the physicians away.”
As though on cue, a piteous moan arose from behind a curtain strung across half of the large chamber. Soraene did not even glance toward the sound. “I must give you credit as well, then. You have seen much.”
“Well,” the Khinasi replied modestly, “your work may have been subtle enough to fool a physician, but you’re clearly no assassin, my lady.”
“And your other request?”
“Ah, yes.” The physician strode forward, stopping an arm’s length from the lady of Alamie. “You must, of course, cease any attempts to murder, destroy, or disenfranchise the Wizard Caine. He may be a serious twit, but he is a friend.”
At last, Soraene’s cold face registered a hint of surprise. “Indeed, you know the Wizard Caine? Sir, it must be fate that has brought you to me. Please, make yourself ready, we will leave in just a moment. I agree to your conditions, and will explain everything to you as we go.”