Talion: Revenant Chapter Seven
The goal of the 10,000 copy sequel challenge is to sell copies of Talion: Revenant so I can afford to take the time to write Talion: Nemesis. To build up momentum for the effort, I’ve decided to serialize the novel to the web. In this way I can let readers who’ve not had a chance to read the book to get a taste of it and decide if they want to buy a copy to support my writing the sequel. Thanks to everyone who has blogged about this effort—share the book with your friends, then we can all share in the sequel.
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Talion: Revenant is ©1997 Michael A. Stackpole
Talianna lay over four hundred leagues to the northwest. Despite the urgency of the Master’s message, I convinced Erlan that a stop at the Broad River ferry was not out of order. Hawks flat refuse to fly in the dark, so our first day could only be a short flight, and we landed in the meadow near the cabin just as the sun started to set in the west.
Weylan and Elverda were more than happy to see me and they accepted Erlan as if he had visited many times before. The Elite delighted in showing Elverda the Imperial Hawks close up while I spoke with Weylan. He admitted that living with another human being did take a little getting used to, but they both looked very happy to me.
Despite Elverda’s protests that she had nothing special to fix for us, the dinner she served was delicious. Weylan had caught some fish and she had baked bread earlier in the day. They had fresh milk from a cow they’d added to the ferry since I’d left.
Weylan smiled. “Elverda said some fresh milk would be nice so I convinced a tinker that the cow he’d taken in trade would not cross on the ferry at all well, and he consented to trade it for passage throughout the next three years.”
After dinner we talked and sang well into the night. Erlan recited an Elite poem that I’d heard a number of times in my youth, but he made it come alive. It told of an Elite and the special relationship between him and his Hawk. Like most tragic poems it ended with the hero and his faithful mount dying in a glorious battle, but the tragedy to this poem was the pain in the Elite’s voice that he’d die earthbound and would never again soar with the winds and chase the clouds from the sun’s face. Erlan presented it very well, and both Weylan and Elverda cried at its ending.
We headed out early the next morning. Fleet was interested in Weylan’s cow but I reined him away from it and we flew off toward Talianna. Before noon we let each Hawk take an antelope and after we hooded and hobbled the birds Erlan managed to steal enough meat for us to eat. We rested for a short time and then were off again.
At night we chose not to head for any settlements or even isolated farms. Aside from the way stations the Talions maintain for Elite couriers—many of which appear to be nothing more than a normal farm—no place really has the facilities to care for an Imperial Hawk. Very few farmers are eager to put the Hawks in their barns, and I can’t blame them for their reluctance. The way stations south of Talianna were a bit off line of our course, and a couple of Elites Erlan preferred to avoid staffed the only station even close to our route.
Luckily the weather remained warm and dry. We chose all our campsites for water and cover and, if we had to make a choice, we opted for a defensible position. Even so, nothing out of the ordinary happened on the journey, and three and a half days after we left Tadd and Wolf in the meadow we reached Talianna.
The view of the Tal valley from the air—when it is not choked with Festival visitors—is deceptively peaceful. The valley looked very much like any of the other valleys we flew over, and carried with it no hint of the power seated there. A patchwork of small plots with even rows—by this point in the spring, filled with half-grown plants—carpeted the valley floor. The outlying buildings looked quite common even down to the drying laundry flapping in the light breeze nearby.
Everything looked perfectly normal, if you ignored Talianna.
Talianna rose from the valley floor like a piece of earth-bone. Brilliantly white and surrounded by verdant fields, it appeared less built by man than an ancient structure uncovered by erosion; much as gold nuggets are sometimes discovered in a streambed. Pennants snapped and canopies rippled above merchants’ stalls in Taltown. Once again I felt at home and proud to belong in Talianna.
Erlan and I flew one pass over Talianna. The Hawks easily recognized Talianna below them and stretched their wings out to show everyone their power and majesty. Fleet bobbed his head once, having selected a target below, but I jerked his reins sharply to the right and broke off any stoop. The bird cried out and followed Valiant to the Mews. We landed without further incident.
I hooded Fleet and tossed the reins to a young Elite. “Feed him, but be firm.” The Elite looked at me curiously. I frowned. “Fleet wanted to stoop on the crowd.”
Erlan looked over at me from where he was hooding Val. “These birds get nasty when they molt.”
I slid from the saddle and joined Erlan’s laughter. I knew many Elites made “feints” on targets both in Talianna and on the road, but I was not going to criticize that practice standing in the Mews. Actually I should have anticipated Fleet’s action, and I did remember that he broke the attack off the instant I pulled him away from it.
I shouldered my saddlebags and headed down the hill to the Siegegate. I’d been more than three months away from Talianna, between one assignment and the next. Though winter blanketed the valley with one last snowfall the day I left, the ground had been bare weeks before that so the valley did not look that much changed to me. It felt good to be back, and would feel better if I found Marana waiting for me.
Bored with their duty, the Warriors at the gate decided to be difficult. It bothered the larger one that he’d not seen me leave the gate earlier, and he wondered why I had saddlebags when I had no horse. “Who art thou?” he demanded. His voice, along with his look, marked him a Rian who’d managed to win entry to the Warriors as an adult. That accounted for his arrogant challenge, but did not excuse it.
I stiffened. My eyes blazed at him. No Warrior watching the gate had any reason to demand anything from a Justice and my exhaustion eroded my restraint. I balled my right fist even as his partner shouldered through the stream of people pouring in and out of the gate.
His partner saw the Justice emblem on my jerkin, and could see from the sweat stains that I’d been traveling for a long time. I saw he even noticed that I’d not shaved for days—as per the Master’s message—and he suddenly concluded something was unusual here, and with a Justice that meant only one thing. Still the Rian only saw a disheveled Justice and decided it was his duty to force me to conform to the rules and regulations of the service he had worked hard to join.
“Who art thou?!” The Rian’s voice rose to a bellow, as if his volume could bludgeon me into submission. He ignored the hoarsely whispered advice offered by his partner and put a hand out to stop any effort I made to go around him.
Slowly and deliberately I raised my right hand and opened my palm so both of them could see the skull. The smaller Warrior blanched immediately and withdrew, but a mask of uncomprehending anger still possessed the Rian’s face. Because I stood within the shadow of Talianna—as the itch beneath the tattoo reminded me—I could but utter one word, so I filled every syllable with all the rage boiling up inside me. “ Sharul !”
The Rian stood there dumbly then jumped back as if a viper coiled on my chest to strike at him. “He’s Sharul, Niles, Sharul !” The other Warrior nodded with disgust at the Rian’s display of surprise and waved me past them both.
Sharul. Unclean—or rather “one who needs cleansing.” A Justice who has taken lives through the Skull is prohibited from speaking any but that one word when he enters within the shadow of Talianna. Until I completed the Shar ritual I could not speak with or touch another human inside Talianna, lest they have to complete a ritual of their own. I would not eat or drink. I did not exist as a living human until I had undergone Shar.
Enough of the crowd had heard the two Warriors and my reply to know I was Sharul. They cleared a path for me to the Eastgate. The people stood and stared, with little children poking their heads out from between adult legs, in awe and horror of me. I looked at the crowd and tried to recognize people I knew, but as my gaze touched theirs people turned away and secretly made signs or breathed prayers against evil.
Everyone saw me as a monster because I could kill in a way that repulsed them and confused them. They would rejoice if I destroyed their enemies, but were terrorized when I walked among them while Sharul. Yet let me be two minutes outside the Shar chamber, wandering around Taltown, and they would carry on as if I were a favorite customer or very good friend.
That reaction embittered a number of Justices, but I learned early on to accept it. People are fickle, but they try to view everyone in a positive light if given half a chance. I decided long ago to give them that chance.
I entered the long, dark tunnel into the Star alone. The shadows swallowed me and cooled me while my footsteps echoed and heralded my arrival. At the far end of the tunnel, before the doors that led to the supply corridor, a clerk stood and bowed. I paused and returned the bow. He did not meet my eyes and said nothing to me. He respected the great burden I bore while Sharul and would do nothing to irritate or inconvenience me.
My saddlebags slipped from my shoulder almost accidentally. I ignored them and proceeded beyond the clerk; my long strides greedily devoured the distance between me and the Shar Chamber itself. I knew the clerk would clean the saddlebags and deliver them to the room I had been assigned. The only part of my luggage that would not make it to my room would be my journal. The clerk would deliver that to Lord Hansur so he could review my performance even as I cleansed myself.
All the doors between me and the Shar Chamber stood open so I had to touch nothing. No one walked the corridors, which saved my friends the awkwardness of refusing a greeting, and afforded me the luxury of silence. I did not find the isolation disquieting. It settled my nerves and let me gather my thoughts in preparation for Shar.
I turned the last corner and took a dozen fateful strides through the half-light to the door of the Shar Chamber. The doors themselves are narrow, only two feet wide for each of the double doors, but are cast of bronze and look heavy and strong. Magical runes, arcane symbols and designs of great antiquity and importance, scarred the doors’ surfaces, but darkness swallowed all but one of them. Inscribed on two halves of a circle in the center of the doors, the simple line drawing of a skull that matched the death’s-head on my palm glowed with a coruscating red light.
I reached my right hand up and out and pressed my palm against the skull sealing the door. The perpetual chill in my palm abated for a heartbeat, as if the Shar Chamber returned that part of me to me; then it went cold again and I felt a tremor in the doors. They rang with a click from inside. I felt pressure against my hand, so I lowered it back to my side.
The doors slowly, evenly, swung open and out toward me. Incense smoke drifted out like mist to spill over me in the first step of the Shar ritual. No evil spirit or demon bound to me by chance or deliberate curse could abide the smoke and would be banished by it. Furthermore, the symbols worked on the doors barred them from entering the chamber because even the Shar ritual could not cleanse their black souls.
I let one wave of the sweet smoke wash totally over me from head to foot before I stepped forward. The doors closed silently behind me and would admit no one else for Shar until I completed my ritual. In the next three hours I would see or hear no one. I would be alone with my conscience and if I could not justify the actions I’d taken in the past three months I would never leave the Shar Chamber alive.
I stood in the first of several smaller chambers and alcoves set within the Shar Chamber. Incense choked this first chamber. The acrid smoke poured into and filled the narrow space from censers set high up on the walls. Though the heavy smoke burned my eyes and lungs, I forced myself to breathe and purged my body of any evil spirits lurking within my chest. Breath wheezed in and out as tears rolled down my cheeks, but I passed from that chamber only after I satisfied myself I harbored no supernatural evil inside my body. The doors in front of me—smaller doors cast in brass—opened at my touch, and I stepped through into the Shar Chamber proper.
The Shar Chamber’s vaulted ceiling glowed with a gentle amber light that wavered and flitted unbound from spot to spot. It played through the stony arches like lightning trapped within a thunderhead, yet never made a sound or flashed brightly to the floor below. A pool of steaming water dominated the center of the chamber. Multicolored tiles arranged in a pattern that seemed random to me lined the pool. I’d often marveled at the delicate design but whenever I tried to follow the pattern consciously I found myself drifting off and remembering the true purpose of the chamber. I am certain there is a very subtle enchantment woven into that design, but it never seems to matter enough to me after Shar to inquire about it.
Lastly, and oddly foreboding in this place of peace and sanctuary, across the pool stood the black slab. The cold stone reflected none of the vault’s light. If not for the gold inlaid circle and skull in its exact center, the slab would seem to be nothing more than a slice of midnight bound by sorcery and trapped inside Talianna. The last phase of the Shar ritual took place in the chamber beyond that slab.
I stepped to the right and knelt in the first alcove. Here I removed all my clothing and separated it into two piles. I placed all leather items including my boots and weapons belt in one pile while I sorted all cloth items into the other. I picked the cloth items up and placed them in a small, wicker basket. Services clerks would come later, remove those clothes and have them cleaned or burned.
Before I picked up my weapons and leather to move to the next alcove, I took a small, earthenware jug from a hollow in the wall and uncorked it. The scent rising from it was heavily spiced and full of wine, but it could not disguise the cloying underscent of an emetic. I choked it down and promptly threw it back up again—along with anything remaining of my breakfast—into a basin to my left. I took a small swallow of water from a goblet deeper in the hollow and rinsed my mouth out before I wiped my face and replaced the jug where I first found it.
I picked up my leather apparel and weapons gear and carried it to the next alcove. There I drew my tsincaat and ryqril and set them aside. Kneeling on the cold stone floor, I poured liquid from an urn onto a cloth and, beginning with my jerkin, cleaned my leather. The liquid smelled of vinegar and removed the salt stains and other grime easily. I set each piece, when done, aside to dry. When I had finished cleaning the leather I unstoppered a squat brown jug and rubbed everything down with a polishing oil.
Though part of me knew how much time passed as I knelt there and worked, I did not consciously keep track of my time. Working on the leather, cleaning and polishing it, was certainly symbolic in the Shar ritual, but it was something else as well. It was a simple task that had a beginning, middle, and end. Unlike so many of the tasks I was asked to perform as a Justice, this task started at one point and would end at another, and at any point in the process I knew how close or far I was from finishing. Success was easy to measure. Such a simple job did not annoy me as it did others because, for me, it provided a reference point within reality and reassured me that while I dealt with good and evil, and the vast gray area in between, there were jobs that could be finished and finished well. In its own small way it confirmed the possibility of progress, and how any task that could be started could also be completed.
I rose and left the leathers neatly folded in a pile with my boots beside them. I took up my weapons and slipped barefoot through the open archway into the next small, round alcove. There I knelt again, this time beside a pot of jeweler’s polish, and worked on the tools of my trade.
I took great care to clean the blades. I lavished upon them the deep cleaning I would have given ordinary blades. I dragged the polishing cloth along each edge, searching closely for the nicks I knew would never appear, and waited for even the tiniest tug or snag. I studied both my tsincaat and ryqril for any signs of rust or weakening. There were none, because the blades were perfect, and would remain so until I died.
I settled the tsincaat and the ryqril in the rack at the alcove’s edge and passed to the next alcove. It had a stout, wooden door that opened at my touch and closed behind me. I stepped into an utterly black room. I stood and waited.
The room’s heat built slowly and seeped into my body. First sweat beaded up on my nose, then rolled down from my temples. My black hair caught the heat, trapped it, and felt hot enough for my head to burst into flames. Sweat moistened my armpits and slicked my flanks while it streamed down my chest, thighs, and buttocks. Soon I stewed in glaze of my own perspiration and could taste the salty fluid on my lips.
The internal heat rose as soon as my outer body surrendered any attempt to keep me cool. Blazing warmth waded through the torrents of sweat washing down my body and seared into my lungs. My nostrils burned with every breath and the back of my throat dried like a drought-bled riverbed. I calmed myself and forced myself to breathe slowly past my swollen tongue to save my lungs. I shut my eyes against the heat and the sting of sweat. Though my body begged me to leave the room, I resisted because this part of the ritual was not complete for me.
I set aside the physical discomforts and withdrew into my mind. There, with cool deliberation that mocked the inferno torturing my body, I painstakingly reviewed my conduct over the last three months. I relived every incident, every hour of time I spent away from Talianna. I checked all my actions against my responsibilities as a Justice, then checked them again against my own personal code of conduct.
As a Justice I was allowed leeway in my conduct, and it would be ludicrous to suggest I held myself to a stricter standard than my masters demanded, but ultimately I had to live with my decisions. I was determined to make sure the choices I made were ones I could freely justify to myself and feel good about.
I don’t think I’m special in this regard. I am merely a man who realizes he is capable of mistakes, but I am also a man who is willing to take responsibility for those errors. That is a decision I made long ago, and it is one I have chosen to live with. I have my own code of justice and I work within it. After all, if I do not control myself, how can I be asked to dispense justice to others?
I decided that nothing I had done while chasing Morai was unjust. I was uneasy with how I left Tafano, but the memory of his horse’s death stole away any guilt I might have felt. Satisfied by, but not totally pleased with, my conduct, I left the hot alcove.
The Shar Chamber’s air struck me like a punch, wrapped me up in an icy blanket, and tried to peel my skin off to get at the warmth inside me. The air was not really that cool, but it was terribly cold in comparison. I descended into the steaming pool immediately, and only after the water had rewarmed my flesh did I notice that my leathers and weapons had been removed from the chamber.
The deliciously warm water had been lightly scented with a spicy perfume I long ago commented that I liked. The comment had been made in passing to a clerk, and it had instantly become part of my record. Somewhere, hidden deep within the Services archives, a file existed concerning each and every Talion. It contained notations about his habits, preferences, and dislikes so the Services clerks could do everything to make his life pleasant. Of course, the records could be, and occasionally had been, used to make an arrogant Talion’s life an exercise in slow torture.
I interrupted my bath to drink down a goblet of watered wine. It quenched my thirst, and I managed to keep it down by drinking it slowly, before I returned to the bath and scrubbed every inch of my body. The week’s worth of grime and bird scent, which had been loosened in the sweat chamber, washed off easily. After I’d scoured myself, I lay back in the water and floated in perfect warm comfort for far too little time.
Finally, and reluctantly, I stepped from the pool and used two thick, white towels from a chest to dry myself. I combed my hair as best I could without a mirror and refolded the towels. From the same chest I took the two pieces of clothing that signified my physical purity. I tied a white strip of silk around my forehead and belted on a white silk loincloth. The ends of the loincloth extended just past my knees and were decorated with a black skull front and back.
I positioned myself in front of the black slab of stone and touched its golden center with my right palm. Silently, slowly, the stone withdrew upward into the wall like a shadow shrinking from the sun. A small dark chamber carved from the same shaderock lay beyond the receding door. I entered it and was entombed.
Across from the doorway stood a solid altar with a wide base and sharply sloped sides that narrowed to a top about two handspans wide. Seamlessly and smoothly chopped into the front of the altar was a cube open at the front and top. Shining radiantly, a skull carved of crystal sat within the alcove. A perfect replica of the death’s-head tattoo on my palm rose in relief upon its brow. Behind and above it, illuminated by the white-argent glow, I saw the hilts of my tsincaat and ryqril. A Services clerk had sheathed them in the altar’s flat surface.
I crossed to the altar and knelt. The fabric of the loincloth rustled and the sound thundered through the small room. I waited until all echoes of sound faded and all the while stared into the sightless sockets of the skull. With silence restored and at peace inside myself, I raised my hand and pressed my palm to the forehead of the skull.
My flesh felt like I’d raked my palm across a cactus or caught a glowing ember and held it tight. The skull itself radiated cold as my tattoo always did; in fact my own flesh seemed more a part of the skull than it did a part of me. I felt something flow into my body, ripple like a snake along my arm and coil into my brain. I could feel it slithering through my thoughts and retracing the same pathways I traveled in the hot room. It examined what I had done and judged my assessment of my own actions.
I felt no pain, no fear, no joy. It observed me as I might observe quarry from afar. I could not hide anything I had done, but I felt no need to hide. I was content with myself and my actions.
It began to withdraw and I felt it pulled something with it. Flashes of Rolf’s life brushed past my consciousness, followed quickly by visions of the horse’s life. The skull drew these other lives from me, took their life force away and cleansed me of the ghosts that might haunt me. This last phase of Shar left me totally clean.
It left me and I withdrew my hand from the skull. I breathed a deep sigh. I stood and pulled my weapons from their slots in the stone. In response to their removal a panel of stone to the right opened up. I walked through it into a corridor. The wall sealed itself up and in a small basin carved from the wall I found a wooden disk with a room number on it.
Services assigned me a room on the uppermost floor of the Justices’ wing. While I felt somewhat sorry for the Fifteens who got moved into other rooms for the duration of my visit, I was more concerned over the fact that I was housed in the Justices’ wing, as opposed to being given a room in the Star. This meant I’d get another mission quickly. I would be in Talianna long enough to be briefed and then sent out. That, coupled with my orders not to shave, clearly suggested I was in line for a covert mission where my identity as a Talion had to be obscured.
The residents of the upper floor peeked out of their rooms at me as I walked down the hallway. What they saw was a tall, lean, well-muscled man with a fair amount of black hair on his chest. The gold Imperial-sized scar on my left shoulder came from a wound I got too far away from magicians who could heal it properly, which in and of itself was remarkable, and the four days’ worth of black stubble gracing my chin certainly marked me as different. Clad only in a Shar loincloth and headband and carrying my weapons unhomed I made, at best, an unusual sight.
I reached the room assigned to me and pushed the door open with my right foot. The interior looked exactly like the room I’d left behind three months earlier. My Tashari blanket, a gift sent from Orjan, even rested diagonally across the mattress as I’d last tossed it the day I was ordered out in pursuit of Morai. My clothing, including the newly washed clothing I’d had on the road and those items I’d left in Talianna, hung in the wardrobe. Other personal items—my razor a notable exception—were arranged on the dresser top in the same order I had left them when I last packed to leave.
I leaned back against the doorjamb and laughed aloud. After the disorder of months on Morai’s trail, constantly facing the threat of death or injury, the image of Services clerks scurrying about to get my room, whichever room that turned out to be, arranged exactly as I had left it three months ago forced me to chuckle. It also gave me a feeling of belonging, of literally having a home, and a place to return to after so much time.
I took the swordbelt from the bed, slid my tsincaat and ryqril into their sheaths, and hung the belt in the wardrobe. Then I lay down on the bed, waited, and watched the door. I did not have to wait long.
As I had done as a Fifteen displaced from his room by a visiting Talion, the Fifteens quickly knocked on the doorjamb and entered. “Talion, we hope our room will be adequate for your stay.” The speaker was a tall, thin boy. His roommate was short and stocky.
“I think it will suffice.” I shifted a bit, as if moving to avoid a lump in the mattress, but they did not grimace. The whole exchange was a little game Talions play with those who will replace them. These youths knew the game well and waited for the next round in which they could ask their “guest” about the outside world.
As a youth I’d very much enjoyed listening to Talions tell about their adventures, and as a Justice I enjoyed sharing stories with the novices. Still there was something about these two boys and the eager light burning in their eyes that made me uneasy. I narrowed my eyes and watched the smaller novice blush. I was in trouble.
“Talion, we would be honored if you would share with us some insights about the world.” The taller novice’s delivery was flawless and very respectful.
I nodded slowly and kept watching the other novice. “What would you have me tell you about?”
The smaller novice squirmed a bit, but was too pleased with himself to be upset. “Perhaps it will seem trivial to you, but we will soon face our Journey and we wondered if you would tell us about your Journey year.”
Oh Jevin, you bastard! “I’d rather tell you about something more recent.” I thought I could skirt the Fealareen’s ambush but I walked right into the second half of his snare.
“Yes, tell us about Morai. Wasn’t he the one who…?” asked the tall youth. His roommate choked back a laugh.
I frowned and cut him off. “Yes, he was. But that was another day, another time.” Both of them recoiled and were afraid they’d overstepped their bounds, which they had, even if it was at Jevin’s suggestion. I hated having one story about me outlive all the others, especially when it described a set of circumstances I could have done little to alter. “Does everyone know that story?”
Both of them smiled sheepishly. “Yes.”
Before I could start a countercampaign against Jevin, a chime rang throughout the building. It signaled the evening meal and, as tightly as Jevin had woven his trap, it came not a second too soon. The youths darted out of the room; then the shorter one stopped and poked his head back in. “Will you be sitting with us?”
“Perhaps. I must see if others have plans for me.”
He ran off and I shut the door. I changed into more suitable clothing. Instead of leathers I donned a black silk robe with a skull embroidered on the left breast. The robe had been cut to just below waist length and I belted it with a white silk sash. I selected some black silk trousers, put them on, and tucked them into the top of my boots. Actually a regulation uniform, Allen and his seamsters custom-made it for me from material I’d purchased during one of my missions. It was comfortable, light, and did not sap the feeling of well-being I had after Shar.
Properly dressed but without weapons, I walked through the quiet, empty hall, down the stairs and through the supply corridor. I walked to the Star’s north wing and came into the mess hall. As can be easily imagined of a room filled with hundreds of hungry people, it was chaos.
The huge room took up the whole of the Star’s north point. The kitchen, located in the extreme north corner, was staffed by Services personnel and novices under punishment. Long tables filled the rest of the room and fourteen individuals crowded around each one. Each of the identical tables had a Sixteen at both the head and tail to maintain some sort of order. The tables were grouped by branch, starting at the north end with Justices, Wizards, Elites, and Archers, then widening out to accommodate the Warriors, Lancers, and Services. All Talions, except those on exercises, watch or special duty, ate at the same time.
The lords of each branch, His Excellency, and the Master sit and take their meals at a table set upon a dais in the northermost point in the room. On occasion one of them will rise to address the assembled multitude. The room has excellent acoustics which makes such a task relatively easy, though such addresses are usually kept short and come before food is actually served.
The rules in the mess are quite simple and every novice learns to work around each one to his own benefit. Take one and pass the rest. If you finish a dish and someone wants more, you go get it. No throwing food. Everyone takes turns scraping and stacking the plates. On the surface it would seem that so simple a set of rules could not be misinterpreted or twisted, but the rules are, and more than once it has been suggested that Justices, not Sixteens, should supervise the tables.
Services Talions wheeled carts laden with bowls and platters between the tables. They deposited one dish for each part of the meal at the head of the table. After a Sixteen took is portion, he passed the dish on, generally heading it the long way around the table from any novice who bothered the Sixteen for some reason. For a simple system it worked as well as could be expected, though feeding troughs had been offered as a viable and more orderly alternative.
I looked across the room toward the Lords’ Dais. Tables beside it were usually reserved for Talions back from the field. I smiled as I recognized Jevin and quickly crossed to his table.
“Jevin, how are you?”
The Fealareen smiled a full grin, stood, and clapped me on both shoulders. “They said you had returned, but no one told me you had left Shar.” I could see that he was dying to ask if my hosts had interrogated me yet so I gave him no sign of their first attempt. Jevin waved me to the chair across from him. “Sit, Nolan, sit. What a night for you to return. We’re having liver!”
I grimaced then quickly scanned the nearby tables. “Marana’s not here?”
Jevin wolf-grinned. “You’ll have to cool your ardor, she’s off on a mission. She left quickly about a month after you did. I’ve had no word since then, but I just got back last week.”
A cook wheeled a cart to our table. I took the bowl of liver and selected a small charred portion of the meat. The cook winked an eye at Jevin and produced a portion of raw beef liver. Jevin smiled, a membrane nictitated up over his eyes for a second, and he licked his lips.
“Did you have much trouble tracking Morai?” Jevin asked his question between gulps of liver.
I shook my head, both to answer his question and to comment on the enthusiasm with which he devoured the meal. I had a hard time choking liver down even when it was burned black. “I can’t eat this stuff.”
Jevin laughed lightly. “You eat it cooked. You might as well boil leather for boots. Liver is meant to be eaten raw.”
I spooned some green beans onto my plate and passed the bowl to Jevin. He looked at the beans the same way I had looked at the liver. “We’re even. Want some applesauce?” I passed it to him and he emptied what little I’d left him onto his plate.
“How did Morai get away this time?”
“Why, did you have a bet with someone on his method?”
“No, I heard some Elites laughing about a Justice…”
I cursed. “Damn that Erlan.” I paused. “Morai dropped me into a man-trap pit easier than if I’d been blind.” I shook my head. “I thought I had him. He was standing there, large as life, and the ground just dropped out from under me.”
Jevin sat back and wiped his mouth with a tablecloth. “You did get the others?”
I narrowed my eyes and stared at him. “You could rephrase that, old friend,”
Jevin nodded and chuckled. “How did you get the others?”
“Thank you.” I wiped my mouth. “Rolf and Chi’gandir died at the Broad River ferry. I killed Vareck in Pine Springs and I had Grath executed by Pine Springs’ Lord Mayor. Brede ambushed me and the minstrel whose song you butchered, Selia ra Jania, and died in the woods at the base of North Pass. Tafano wanted an honorable duel but set his horse on me. I broke his legs. I don’t know if he’s dead, and I don’t care.” Memories of Tafano’s horse, while not as acutely painful as before Shar, took my appetite away.
Jevin shook his head. “That was a nasty crew for Morai to be running with. You could have been killed if they’d jumped you all at once.”
I smiled. “Yeah, I would have been in trouble but Morai divided them up when he got word I was on their trail. He kept Brede and Tafano with him, knowing he could arrange it so they would fight me one on one. He knew the others, paired off as they were, would be hard-pressed to work together and get me. Still Rolf and Chi’gandir almost did the job.” I forced another piece of liver down, knowing I’d be very hungry in the morning if I did not. Applesauce helped the taste immeasurably.
“I got sent after Rostoth ra Kas.”
I nodded. “That should have been little more than a training exercise for you. He’s only a slasher, not a cunning murderer.”
“You aren’t kidding.” Jevin speared another piece of liver, this one barely cooked, from the bowl. “He would have been easy but they wanted me to bring him back alive!”
I rocked back in my chair. “Alive? That’s odd. I wonder what they want with him?”
Jevin shrugged his shoulders. His mouth was too full to comment but the gesture told all.
I watched my friend eat. I’d always marveled at his ability to wolf down mountains of food. No matter how much he ate, though, there always seemed to be room for more. And there was not a single ounce of fat on that gray-green body of his.
I leaned back in my chair. “So, there has been no word from Marana?”
Jevin shook his head. “She came in from her last mission on the Daar-Thran border: some Daari cultists raiding Thran villages for sacrifices. She cleaned it up with her usual efficiency, apparently leaving the surviving cultists with the impression they had angered a nasty jelkom with their antics. They’ll not be a problem for a long time yet.”
I shivered. Despite her problems I hoped my love for her would turn her away from her own savage side. What I did to Tafano was not easy for me, but for her it would have been a matter of course. Marana reveled in the mystical terror the Justices held for common people. For all I knew her way was better than mine, but for my own sanity I had to hope that was not the truth.
Jevin continued eating and spoke between gulps of liver. “She did not need Shar, so she was sent out almost immediately. All I know is that she headed east. Rumors suggest she went out because there was trouble with the last Black Wagon.”
That surprised me. The Black Wagons were sealed wagons that traveled into and out of Talianna very infrequently. Elites usually escorted them and I’d never heard of any problem with a Black Wagon before.
Though many tales got told of what the wagons contained, and many guesses were made whenever one rolled in or out, no one aside from the Master or His Excellency knew for certain what the wagons carried. I always assumed, because it was easiest, the wagons contained gold or prisoners. It was within the realm of possibility for someone to have attacked the wagon, but the person organizing the raid would have to be very brave, very stupid, or a traitor: a renegade Talion. But there were no renegades, unless you counted the recalled Janian Talions… .
Before I could ask Jevin any questions about the wagon, he stiffened and swallowed quickly. He stood and bowed. I turned, rose, and repeated his action.
Lord Hansur smiled and returned our bows. “Nolan, have you finished eating?”
Whether or not I had finished, his question signaled the end of my meal. “Of course, my lord.”
Lord Hansur nodded to the Fealareen. “Jevin, you will excuse us.”
“Yes, my lord.” Jevin bowed and sat. He waited until Lord Hansur turned his back before he speared the last of my liver. I followed Lord Hansur away from the table and chuckled. Some things never changed.
Jevin had not changed and neither had Lord Hansur. His face was perhaps a bit more seamed and thinner than when I first met him, but his body was still the same tall, lean, wiry skeleton that looked frail but was not weak. Some of the other lords showed their age, but Lord Hansur did not. He was ageless; as ageless as the skull tattoo on his palm.
We left the mess hall and walked through the Star’s corridors to Lord Hansur’s rooms. Lord Hansur shut the door behind me, then crossed around to his desk and sat. He waved me to the chair facing him, and then he picked up my journal.
He leafed through the book. “Your conduct was satisfactory, if a bit strange in Pine Springs. In the future I would prefer you to deal with the politicians in private. I realize there have been no bad repercussions because of your actions, but I am sure you can share my dread for a day when an offended noble decides to slay those who remind him of his humiliation at your hands.”
I bowed my head and rubbed my left hand over my face. “You are correct, my lord. I will change my behavior in the future.”
Lord Hansur smiled gently. “I can also understand what you did to Tafano, but I submit that was not the wisest thing you could have done. If he heals you will have a very big problem on your hands.”
I marveled at Lord Hansur’s evaluation method. He did not rant as some other lords did. Coolly he reminded me of the unnecessary risks I’d taken and advised me against them. In effect he suggested what actions he felt I should avoid, but he did not expressly forbid any action. He retained control of me, but did not put me in a situation to resent that control.
I found it interesting that he handled each Justice differently, if tales told by other Justices of their evaluations were true. Whereas I might be praised for an unusual solution to a dangerous situation, another Justice might be chastized for having gotten into such a situation in the first place. Each Justice was measured against the standard of the laws we enforced, but more importantly each Justice was judged against himself. Lord Hansur asked for the best from each of his Justices, and he got it.
“Nolan, Morai’s escape is a minor problem. The fact that he has eluded you so many times is not as bad as it might seem. Because he has escaped you, men believe him immune to your power and are willing to join him. He keeps them in line, curbing their baser instincts, and brings them out where we can get at them. If I did not know he allowed us to get his men so he’d have an easier time splitting up the loot, I’d imagine he actually worked for or with you.”
I smiled sheepishly. “I only wish he did work with me. If he did I would’ve been out of the pit when the Elites arrived.”
That brought a smile to Lord Hansur’s face. “I must apologize for that. Your immediate return was necessary. A situation has arisen, one that you are uniquely suited to deal with. You will be briefed on it in the morning.”
“My time is mine until then?”
I rose and he handed me my journal. I turned to leave but his voice stopped me.
“You might take Jevin into Taltown and have him show you the newest braising pit. A businessman all the way from Gull came here to treat us to culinary delights beyond, as he put it, ‘your reach, my Lord Talion.’ ”
I laughed aloud. “That ought to be worth some time.” I bowed. “Until the morning, then.”
Lord Hansur returned my bow and I left. I found Jevin in another room down the hall from mine. Despite his protests that he could not eat another mouthful, no matter how well the Gull merchant prepared marinated liver, he came with me. We found the stall with ease, though getting through the press of people was less simple.
I shouldered my way past two Lancers, and one considered starting a fight, but that was before he got a good look at Jevin. The merchant, and two children, were doing a brisk business. The merchant took the money and the children delivered the wares. Most people brought their own platter, or paid a silver Provincial deposit on one of the merchant’s wooden plates.
“What will you have, my lords?” The merchant’s chubby cheeks were bunched around the corners of his wide smile.
A thread of smoke passed by me and made my decision simple. “I would like half a chicken. Jevin, do you want anything?”
“Nolan, I couldn’t.”
The Fealareen grinned wolfishly. “Well, only to be polite.”
I laughed. “Of course. .. .”
Jevin looked at the merchant. “The usual, kind sir.”
I slept well that night. The chicken was delicious, and I have to admit the merchant’s treatment of liver actually made it palatable. With my belly full I drifted off into a thick slumber and remembered none of my dreams.
Morning came none too quickly, and I awoke refreshed. I stretched and got out of bed. A note sealed by the Master lay on the table in my room. It read: “Feed yourself, then come prepared to my chamber.” The “prepared” meant only one thing: he wanted me fully armed and ready for combat.
The directive puzzled me, but that was not unusual. A normal Talion like myself is not meant to know what the Master is thinking. I’m meant to follow orders and do my job. If I have to think while doing it, well, that’s part of the job.
Since I had been called for an audience I decided to eat only a light breakfast. I ran to the mess hall, stopped to tell Jevin I’d not be eating with him, and walked back to the kitchen. I grabbed a bowl of stew and ate it while standing, then returned to my room. I quickly brushed all my leathers and donned them. Instead of the sleeveless leather jerkin I’d worn on the road I opted for a full-sleeved, padded jacket. A leather tab on each sleeve extended far enough to cover the back of my hands. I strapped on my weapons, which included buckling my spurs onto my boots. Fully prepared, I headed to the Master’s Chamber.
The iron-bound oak doors of the Master’s rooms swung open before me. No incense choked the room this time. The Master sat in his dragonthrone and Lord Hansur stood beside him on the dais. The other lords and ladies: Fletcher of the Archers, Isas of the Elites, Kalinda of the Warriors, Cosima of the Wizards, and Eric of the Lancers stood on either side of the dais. His Excellency, Lord of Services, was not present.
The carpet had been peeled back from a trapdoor. The broad wooden door stood upright like a Warrior prepared for inspection. It opened onto a black void.
“Justice Nolan.” With a voice just a trace weaker than I remembered it, the Master addressed me solemnly.
He pointed to the opening in the floor. “The Darkmaze.”
“If you can, kill whatever you find down there.”
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