Part Four: Rhea
Chapter Twelve: Eagle Pass
Chapter Thirteen: Rhea
Chapter Fourteen: Criminals and Scholars
Chapter Fifteen: Revealing the Truth
Despite her statement, no one challenged as Eloise took charge, having her mother's body taken to the crypt and ordering the troops back to the bulwarks. Gathering the courtiers into the banquet hall (the great hall being shrouded in black until the new emperor arrived), the former princess explained as best she could what had happened, including why she wouldn't take the throne.
To a completely hushed crowd of minor ladies and lords, Eloise told her story. She spoke of how Selene's first husband, the former Tillurian Champion, Sir Anthony Perkins, had an affair prior to his death with one of Selene's ladies in waiting, Isabelle. On his deathbed, both the champion and his mistress confessed their sin to the distraught queen, as well as informing her that Isabelle was pregnant. No one else was present at the confession, and though Selene's first instinct had been to banish Isabelle, she chose instead to trade the woman's silence for the baby. As Isabelle had not wanted the child, she made the deal. Escaping to one of the summer palaces, Selene informed the country that it was she who was pregnant, important for a queen who was still young and without an heir, and no one had questioned the move. When Selene returned with a beautiful girl nine months later, again no one questioned. And when, a few years later, Selene's lady in waiting, Isabelle Moreau died of consumption, and Selene had a memorial erected to her in the garden, still, no one questioned. And none of it would ever had mattered, because no one believed the myth of the key, not even the Queen herself.
Eloise paused, letting the courtiers absorb this. For a moment, no one spoke...until a woman screamed. The chamber erupted in noise and accusations, lesser nobles practically climbing over each other in their fear and greedy hope to make a claim to the throne. But when the horns of Farron's army sounded at dawn just outside the main gates, the reality of what had happened drowned them all, and a silence as heavy as a blanket of chain mail enveloped the room.
By the time the doors were opened to welcome the new emperor – who was strong enough to be carried inside on a chair carried by eight men (his healers having worked all night to seal the wound in his back and replenish his blood, two of them dying in the process) – Eloise was gone.
On the river, a small boat with two lovers paddled back down between the merchant ships into the city of Tallus, and was soon lost among the buildings and masts. If the watchmen who had seen them leave the night before had been paying attention, they might have noticed that one figure on the boat seemed much smaller, and the other taller.
Eloise looked up to stare at Nathan as he pulled the oars, his expression quiet, the bandage on his head hidden beneath a heavy hood. Casey lay with her eyes closed near the bow, covered by a blanket, while Ezra lay in the middle, one hand clutched to his chest, also under a blanket. Nathan had been too weak to do much more than relieve the thief's breathing, so Ezra was still struggling with the pain of Farron's last blow. Alongside, five men swam quietly, none saying a word. No one looked at Chris, or at Vin. The scout was, according to Nathan, in better shape than when he had arrived at the castle.
By the time the sun reached its zenith, nine riders were several miles into the woods east of Tallus, heading in a direction roughly parallel to the main southern way up into Eagle Pass – towards Rhea.
When they finally stopped for supper that evening, the deciduous trees had already started to make way for to pine, and the flat lands were becoming decidedly more hilly.
JD pulled up next to Casey, silently dropping from his mount and taking her reins. Still dazed, she barely looked at him. Not far away, Buck was doing the same for the former princess, whose tearstained face was a disquieting image compared to the self-assured expression she'd worn just twelve hours earlier. Still, Eloise managed to smile at Buck's tender care, and he nodded reassuringly in response as he gripped her hand.
Ezra listed in the saddle, his chest still hurting. Riding next to him, Josiah was there to push him back up. The old mage seemed to have made the thief's care his main concern since the palace, as if he were to blame somehow for the hurt caused to the younger man. Next to Josiah, Nathan was the mage's other concern. At times, he had pulled Nathan's mare along, letting the healer nap some in the saddle. When they stopped, Vin was there to help Josiah get both men to the ground.
Nathan grumped immediately, insisting he was well enough to treat Ezra now. No one argued, accepting the stubborn nature. It was a trait they all shared equally.
As Josiah moved to set the wards, something he could almost do in his sleep now, Chris snared JD and Vin to make camp and help him find dinner. Vin fairly bounced at the chance for activity, the only one among them who didn't feel too tired to think. Rolling his eyes slightly, the paladin followed Vin into the woods.
Nathan put his hands to Ezra's chest and a faint yellow glow took much of the soreness from the ribs. By the time he was finished, Josiah had completed setting the wards and was working on the fire.
"You were lucky Ezra," Nathan said tiredly, pulling away and rubbing his eyes. He had a miserable headache and, in the tradition of healers, had no ability to heal himself. Josiah was setting a pot to boil to clean some bandages for Nathan's head. The healer sighed and sat back, but was still focused on Ezra, "You were lucky that Farron was hurt. He didn't have enough power to do more than hit you with a glancing blow."
"Glancing blow?" Ezra repeated, rolling his shoulders and testing the healing that Nathan had done. There was still a twinge, but he the ribs no longer seemed to crunch every time he moved. "I'll have you know, Master Jackson, that that glancing blow felt like someone driving a lance through my chest."
Nathan snorted, "And how would you know what it feels like to have a lance driven through your chest?"
Ezra screwed up his face, "Figure of speech, sir." Josiah snickered over by the fire. JD wandered up, having finished with the horses.
"What I don't get," JD said quietly, his natural exuberance tempered by his tiredness, "is how come Farron knew that Vin and I were up there, but not that Ezra was behind him?"
The same question had been plaguing Josiah, though he was pretty sure he had it worked out. Before speaking, however, he looked appraisingly at the thief, who shrugged in return and immediately swore as it pulled on his still sore muscles.
"Farron was distracted, Master Dunne," the thief suggested. "Surely he can't be aware of everything all the time."
"On the contrary," Josiah interrupted, coming over as well, "at that moment, filled with the power of the Mandate's full strength, he should have been aware of all of us."
Ezra frowned a the mage, "Well then, what would you suggest, O esteemed mage?"
"All I can guess is that it has to do with your aura, or rather, lack of one."
"Lack of one?"
"Your aura, or color as my sister put it, is clear, Ezra. You have one, but it is not....I suppose the word is visible to magic seekers. Hannah called you the child of light when she first was able to discern you. She said she could sense you not by the color you were, but by the fact that you didn't have one. As if you were surrounded by a prism of color, pure light."
"Pure light?" Ezra grinned, "And yet we still need a fire to see by when the sun goes down. From that description, I wonder why I don't glow in the dark." The incredulity in his voice was not lost on the mage. Even after all they'd been through, Ezra still had doubts. The older man shook his head, smiling himself. Ezra laughed.
"Now mage, are you sure it is not more like a void? That is, that I have no color at all? Or maybe, it is just too faint to see. I've never considered myself to have that powerful a presence."
"Wouldn't we all like you to have less powerful a presence," Nathan muttered, adjusting the cloth around his head. Ezra shot him a crooked grin.
Josiah turned to look at the pot on the fire, which was steaming but not boiling yet. "If you didn't have an aura, Ezra, Hannah would not have been able to see you at all. It would have been as if you didn't exist. But obviously the Mandate's power is not like that of an oracle. It senses auras only when they reflect danger to itself, it does not sense more than that. It cannot sense people, for example. Thus, since you have no aura, per se, Farron couldn't see you. I know Hannah often had trouble seeing you most of the time, and she had years of practice. She said you used to flit in and out of her vision like a firelfy."
Ezra narrowed his eyes, not commenting on the fact that a firefly's life span was often about as long as food on Buck's plate. After a moment, he simply shrugged again...and swore again.
"Probably should stop doing that," Nathan commented dryly. When Ezra glared in reply, Josiah laughed, and JD grinned. The water was boiling by now, and the mage got up to dip some cloths in it to make bandages. At almost the same moment, Chris melted out of the woods, a couple of rabbits hanging off a stick over his shoulder. Vin came behind, a small sack filled with mushrooms and greens in his hand.
"Wait, don't go away Josiah," JD said, jumping up to help Josiah at the fire. The mage offered him a strange look, as if to ask where the boy thought he might be going. "I had another question," the kid continued, "I wanted to know how come Farron didn't die? I mean, I saw Ezra stick that knife in his back – that woulda killed any normal man, and yet Farron's still alive..."
"I was curious about that myself," Chris added, putting the rabbits down near the fire and drawing his knife. Josiah sighed as he pulled the bandages from the pot, watching the steam rise from them.
"The Mandate gives Farron the strength to stave off death...for a time. It will sustain him long enough to get to a healer, who, if strong enough, can draw on the Mandate's overweening strength to repair any damage. The Mandate will also use the healer's own energy to replenish itself, though exchange is not as equal as it is in a normal healing." Josiah looked at Nathan, who pursed his lips. "It also, as you saw, gives him the strength to transport himself short distances, like to a hospital tent when he's in battle, or out of the Great Hall, as he did in Tallus."
"So...he can't be killed?" JD had his hands on his back, his tone hushed. "He's invincible?"
"No, just that we have to be quicker next time," Josiah handed the dripping bandages to the kid, who held them while the mage unwrapped the dirty ones from Nathan's head. Josiah's face had flushed at the last statement. If he hadn't hesitated, if he hadn't given up so easily, they might not have had to worry about Farron anymore.
"What he means," Vin piped up from where he had sat down to help Chris clean the rabbits, "is that, next time, we send Ezra in first. Then, if he can get close enough to do the same again," he smiled at Ezra, who arched an eyebrow, "then the rest of us can come in and finish it before Farron can get away again."
"Because one man can't do it alone," Chris nodded. "But if we all take a part..."
"We can take the bastard down," Vin finished, driving his knife deep into the rabbit.
"I like that idea," Buck agreed, walking over from where he had been sitting with Casey and Eloise and squatting so that he was eye level with the others. The two women were now chatting quietly, comforting each other, and Buck had felt out of place. His expression darkened as he looked at the women, "The Gods know, I could care less about the Mandate, or the black prince, right now. I want that man dead."
Ezra's eyes flew to Buck's face, open and wide, catching two words in particular, "What do you mean, black prince?" he asked quietly. Buck didn't answer, just looked at Chris. The paladin glared back at the Captain.
"Simply that, at some point, Ezra, we will have to know where he is," Chris turned to find Ezra watching him intently. "You are not stupid, Standish. If we kill Farron before we learn how to deal with the Mandate, then it will infect his son. And if that happens...." He trailed off, matching the black stare of the thief.
"What side will you be on, Ezra," Buck asked.
Ezra's jaw tensed, his eyes shifting to Chris and then back to Buck, and shook his head. "You expect me to answer that?"
"You think I'll give him up? So you can kill him?"
"No...well, not necessarily..."
"Not necessarily!" Ezra quickly got to his feet, stumbling only a little before finding his full height. Chris and Buck stood up as well, while JD and Nathan instinctively shifted back to get out of the way. Before the argument could get any further, though, Josiah jumped into the middle, arms raised.
"Stop! Stop this now!"
"It was coming, Josiah," Buck said coldly, not taking his eyes off of the thief's. Vin jumped in to stand next to the mage, his sharp blue eyes catching Chris's.
"There is no need to talk about this now. We're all tired and hurt, and we've just been through hell. Back off Chris."
The paladin stared at the scout, a flash of betrayal crossing his features before they firmed up again. "Buck is right, Vin. Ezra should know. Especially now that we are on the way to Rhea. I don't know how much time we will have between the time that we get there and when Farron returns to Rhea to be crowned emperor, but when he does, we will kill him."
"No," Josiah stepped forward to block Ezra from the two Brishnians, "as much as I want that, Farron has the full power of the Mandate in him now. We need to learn how to diffuse it before we approach him. Even if we could get to Ezra's prince in time to kill him before he went mad as well, it is better we deal with the Mandate first."
Chris was watching Josiah now, his brow creased. Then the oddest thing happened...Ezra started to laugh. As soon as the others realized what the sound was, they all turned to look at him. Ezra's laugh turned into a dark smile and he crossed his arms.
"Farron doesn't have the full power of the Mandate, Josiah. He's still missing one piece. And that makes him far more vulnerable. More to the point, if you kill him now, before he gets that piece, then my Prince will not go mad...at least not quickly. And therefore, these fatalistic demands of my Brishnian friends are not only premature..." he looked at Chris, "they are insulting to my intelligence. You honestly believe I would give up my prince, while you get to hold on to yours? I will give my lord up when and only when there is no other option. Do you hear me?"
Josiah stared at Ezra for a second, frowning so deeply his eyes almost disappeared beneath the weight of his dark brows. When he turned again to look at Chris, his expression was guarded.
"What is he talking about, Sir Larabee."
Chris shook his head once and backed up a step. Snorting, Ezra sat back down on his rock.
"Chris?" Vin asked, turning from the paladin to Buck and to Ezra. The thief shrugged his shoulders at the scout's stare. Let them tell it, he was saying. The Captain glared at Ezra, then crossed his arms.
"What do you know?" he hissed, tapping his gloved fingers on his arms.
"Oh please, Captain. I knew the minute I saw you with the boy and his so-called mother. Billy and Mary Travis indeed. Not only are the names unoriginal, but you took the last name of the beloved mayor of Eagleness. I can't believe no one else noticed." He shut his eyes and slid down the rock to lie against it. "I could hide a tiger in a sheep pen better than that."
"Billy and Mary Travis?" Josiah breathed, "What about them?"
"Who are they?" JD asked.
"Prince William...now, I suppose, King William the third of Brishnia, and his aunt, Lady Marion, the Duchess of Senata," Chris said slowly, not meeting anyone's eyes. "I brought them to Four Corners to hide them after Farron burned down Adenn Castle."
"The rumors were true?" Vin said, eyes bright. "Why didn't you tell us?"
"Yes, how could you keep that from us? After all of this?" JD added, hands outspread.
"Well, if Ezra can protect his Prince, so can we protect our King!" Buck retorted, still staring daggers at the thief. Ezra didn't notice. He had his eyes closed.
"Ezra's a liar, Buck!" Vin retorted, "That's what he does! I would have thought better of you, and of you!" Vin rounded on Chris, the betrayal now in his gaze. The paladin just shrugged.
"It is difficult to tell a secret after holding it so close for so many years," Chris whispered. "We would have told you...when it became necessary to do so. There seemed no call before."
"No call...great. Is anyone else harboring secrets that we don't need to know yet?" Vin wheeled around to look at them all, seeing the innocence on JD's face as the only answer he was going to get.
"Vin...they had their reasons," Josiah tempered. "The important thing is what this means. If William is alive...then Farron does not have the Key of Truth."
"And he never will," Chris responded fiercely. "I'll kill him before he ever touches that boy."
"Chris has become a mite over-protective of young Billy over the years," Buck muttered. Chris glared at him, but the Captain was not about to be fazed.
"I knew she wasn't your sister," Josiah smiled, trying to lighten the mood.
"Hell no," Buck agreed, taking the cue. "Otherwise that would have been a pretty incestuous relationship."
"You make a nice looking family," JD said innocently, the only one to truly mean what he said. This made Buck and Josiah laugh, though JD couldn't quite see why, and even Ezra chuckled a little, despite himself.
Chris growled at all of them. This made them all laugh harder, and even Vin cracked a smile. He still felt oddly betrayed, but the mood was lightening. Chris rolled his eyes.
"Can we get back to Farron, please?" the paladin demanded. The name had the desired effect, the smiles falling from everyone's faces. "So what does it mean that he doesn't have Truth, Josiah?"
"It means exactly what Ezra said. Farron is vulnerable, more so than if he were to have the full power of the Mandate, meaning we can still get close to him before he knows we are there. It means, my friends, that we can kill him, and that Ezra's prince, if he is a good man, may be able to withstand the infection of madness it brings. We can still win."
"Provided Ezra's prince is a good man," Buck repeated. "And provided we can find the answer in the Rhean library to break it up again."
"Yes. But it gives us breathing room. I admit, I was afraid that, with full power, he would have been able to sense us the minute he got back to Rhea, and I was going to have to find a way to prevent that. Something which I don't think is possible. Now, we can get close. And hopefully, Ezra can get even closer."
"Whoop de do," the thief muttered. "Yeah for me."
"Then the plan hasn't changed," Chris said stepping forward to stand over the thief. When Ezra looked up, Chris extended a hand. The thief looked at it a while, then grabbed it, allowing Chris to help him to his feet. Chris smiled, to which Ezra responded with a crooked one of his own.
"We got to Rhea," the paladin stated. "We go for the library, and, when Farron arrives home to his lovely wife and throne, we kill him. Any questions?"
"Yes," came a voice from the back, causing the men to turn to look at the women they had forgotten. Eloise was standing with Casey leaning against her shoulder, "What about us?"
Eagleness was a town much like Four Corners. It sat in the heart of Eagle Pass, nestled in a valley deep within the Southern Reaches, and had the same feeling of independence that marked JD's home. The difference was that it was much bigger, and, though Four Corners would never admit it, more prosperous. This was in part due to the fact that Rhea and Tallus were much greater cities than Adenn and Leda, and far more traffic traveled between the two than to either of the northern capitals. Also, the Southern Reaches were not as high as the Mid Reaches, meaning the Pass was a much easier road to travel.
The seven men, however, did not choose to go into the city, despite the fact that it was probably the only town other than Four Corners where Vin could walk unharmed despite the bounty. Instead, Eloise, Casey, Buck and JD were the only ones to head into town, while the others took an outside route known to Ezra. The thief knew more back ways and passageways than a fox in the hunt.
The goal was simple. The mayor of Eagleness was probably one of the most honest and trustworthy men in all of the Four Kingdoms – Mayor Orrin Travis – and it was Buck and JD's intention to ask his help in finding a safe means to get Eloise and Casey back to Four Corners. Though both the former princess and oracle had insisted they wanted to help, it was far riskier having them along. When faced with the logic of the argument, presented by Nathan (since he was considered the most honest of them all), the two women finally agreed.
When Buck and JD rejoined the group a few days later, somewhere east of the Eagleness and only about a week and a half distance from Rhea, the two men were alone. Neither, however, seemed to happy.
"I've never wanted to go home so much in my life," JD said sourly, to which Buck elbowed him good-naturedly in the ribs.
"Are you talking about Four Corners kid...or Casey?"
JD grinned, but didn't answer. After all, it was already pretty obvious.
The heart of the Four Kingdoms, some called it. Others termed it the jewel, the soul, the center. No matter what appellation was attached, there was no question that Rhea was a capital city in all senses of the word. Besides being the largest, she was the oldest and most prosperous. People came from miles around just to get a glimpse of the gold leafed domes and silver towers. Marble graced every pillar, and copper and brass pipings were as common as brick on the sides of houses. She sprawled out from the lake like a spilt drink, the poorer sections of town mixed in with the more wealthy, without order or style. She was said to have five centers, depending on the day of the week, and the mood you were in. Finance was east, the markets to the west, theatres to the north and restaurants to the south. Music, art and history were everywhere. Though Tallus may have a greater merchant class, Rhea was where the culture was. When seen for the first time, it was almost surreal in its beauty.
JD didn't say a word as they paused on the gentle rise that led into the city. He simply stared, his mind wondering if this was the way it was always going to be from now on. It seemed everything he saw stunned him so much he was rendered speechless.
Vin, though never fond of cities, let out a low whistle, himself also seeing Rhea for the first time. "I understand why Farron wants to be crowned here," he whispered. "This city deserves to be the seat of emperors."
"It's okay, as big, rat infested cities go," Buck said, cleaning his nails. "If you like that sort of thing." Vin and JD both looked at him incredulously.
"My mother once told me," Ezra said quietly, his eyes narrowed, "things are most beautiful from a distance, so avoid getting too close. Rhea has as much ugliness inside of her as beauty."
The thought was sobering, and no one spoke for a moment. Finally Nathan snorted.
"I know of many things that are equally if not more beautiful closer up." He shot a look at Ezra, but the thief didn't respond. Then he smiled, "and one of them lives in that city." This caught Ezra's attention, and everyone else's, except Josiah, who laughed. Still smiling, a whimsical look crossed Nathan's face as he leaned forward to rest an arm across his lap, his mind already with that person. Buck was about to ask what her name was when JD interrupted him.
Sitting up a little straighter in the saddle, the kid pointed to the shimmering lake beyond. "Is that the castle?" he asked, indicating an enormous structure sitting atop an island on the lake, joined to the mainland by a graceful arching bridge. The sun was setting behind it, silhouetting the castle. Lake Rhea, an enormous body of water several miles wide, stretched all the way to the purpling mountains in the distance.
"Yes, and the library is there as well," Josiah said.
Rhean Castle was made of the same gray and red stone as the others castles and manors in the Kingdoms, but, long ago, some King had her walls whitewashed, making the structure gleam. Over the years, the kings and queens who'd owned her had taken advantage of the times of peace to expand her, resulting in a dizzying array of turrets and towers with no overall scheme, and no logical perspective. Magic had been employed at times, resulting in impossibly supported arches and flying buttresses that seemed to connect to nothing.
"She's a puzzle to get around," Ezra said, tilting his head. "I've been inside her many times, and I swear, some part of her changes every season."
"Are there secret passages, like at Tallus?" Chris asked.
Ezra shook his head, "Yes, but most aren't secret. The castle is so old that most of her was mapped out centuries ago. There are lesser used passageways, which we will use, but the guards patrol them all. The trick is knowing the hide-holes along the way."" He frowned, looking at the others. "There is no way I can sneak us all in, though."
"That's all right," Nathan nodded. "Josiah and I have a way into the library. Our professions signal us out as scholars, and I happen to know the president of the City University."
"Eban?" Josiah arched an eyebrow at Nathan, "is he still president?" The healer nodded.
"And how is the lovely Raine?" the mage added. Nathan blushed such a deep maroon, it was hard not too laugh. Buck slapped his thigh, a deep belly chortle echoing down the rise.
"I'm sure we can stay with them. It will be much safer than staying in a hotel, and more comfortable," the healer said. "Eban is no friend to Farron, and he will help us with getting into the castle. They all know him there, because he and his daughter Raine use the library so often."
Chris pursed his lips, "I don't like the idea of staying with him. It'll put him in too much danger. But getting his help to get you into the library is a fine idea." He looked across at Ezra, who was staring at the Castle with a placid expression. "So, can you get the rest of us in without trouble, Ezra? Do you know some secret underground passageway into that place?"
The thief shook his head, "Not exactly, no. No one has attacked Rhean Castle for, I would guess, Millennia? She has always been a prize to be won, like a fair maiden, and no one has fought in this city or at the castle since before the Ancient Empire. Cathacus is littered with pockmarked and ruined castles that bore the brunt of real attacks. So, her passageways were created more as accidents in architecture, and as means to sneak between certain rooms and the kitchens, not as escape routes."
"So, how do we get in?" The captain peered at the bridge, noting that to try and take a boat would not work. It would be spotted before it even left the harbor.
"In the past, I've managed to cross by sticking to the underside of the bridge, where there are some doors and narrow paths. They were placed there by the builders, and never removed, since it is a useful way to inspect the bridge when it needs repair. After that, we have to climb."
JD's face blanched slightly, "Climb?"
Ezra nodded, not noticing the change in the kid's expression. "Yes. One thing I've learned about people, and this includes guards and watchmen, is that no one ever looks up. We can get around the castle pretty easily along the buttresses and arches. The library, for example, has a large glass domed ceiling, and the stacks reach up almost the whole way to the roof."
"Almost?" This time, JD's voice caught, and Ezra finally looked across. When he saw the kid's white face, and Buck with a hand over his face trying not to say anything, he raised his eyebrows.
"You have a problem with heights, Master Dunne?"
"Oh...uh," JD looked with pleading eyes at the others, but they cold only look back. He lowered his head, "They scare the hell out of me."
"You're from the mountains, kid. I would of thought heights were something you were born to," Vin said. A sheepish grin crossed the boy's face.
"I stayed pretty close to town, Vin, and never got close to edges. I can handle heights from a distance," he glanced at Ezra, who raised an eyebrow, "but I never got too close."
"Sound advice," the thief nodded.
"He can be my apprentice," Nathan interjected. "Easy enough. He's a bit old for it, but I'm sure no one will check. That way he can go in the front door with me and Josiah." The kid let out a huge breath, the relief plain on his face.
"Sounds good," Chris nodded. "For now, though, we just have to get into the city. We'll enter Rhea the same as Tallus – in pairs. Vin, I think the dress may be called for, since this is Farron's city now." The scout shot him an acid look, but didn't disagree. "So, does anyone have suggestions on where to stay?" Instinctively, he looked at Ezra. The thief shrugged and nodded.
"I know the underside of this city pretty well, Chris. May I suggest meeting at an inn called The Royale Arms?" Off to the side, Nathan flinched.
"The Royale Arms?" Chris repeated.
"South side of the city. Go straight down the street from the center called Commons Avenue, take a left after the red awning onto Sutherland and keep an eye out for the inn's sign. It's a basement pub, so difficult to see. But no one will bother us there."
Chris frowned, noticing that Nathan had reacted strongly to the name. "Are you sure we can trust the owner?"
Ezra pursed his lips, "Probably as much as any of them, Chris, but I did save the man's life once. I figure he owes me." Nathan was staring at Ezra openly now, and the thief began to feel uncomfortable. "Something the matter, Master Jackson?"
"You saved his life?"
Ezra frowned more deeply, and nodded slowly. "Why?"
"That man is a killer, Ezra. His reputation is thicker than the mud at the bottom of the lowest sewer. How did you save his life?"
"There was a brawl in the bar. I got him to safety. He promised to shelter me next time I got into trouble. Simple as that."
Nathan was shaking his head, "I don't think we should stay there Chris."
Chris was watching Nathan, not replying immediately. "Do you know somewhere else, Ezra?"
"Sure...but I'd put more faith in The Royale Arms than elsewhere. Like I said, the proprietor owes me."
"What's his name?"
"I'd rather stay at Eban's."
"All right...Ezra, throw out another."
The thief sighed heavily, leaning forward in the saddle. "All right...how about The Golden Sands?"
"Dicky O'Shea's pub?" Nathan shook his head, "No, no, no. That's even worse."
Ezra rolled his eyes, "Fine. Um...how about the Mitre?"
"The Mitre?" Chris looked over at Nathan, the healer had to admit to a shrug.
"It's owned by a man named Mosely," Ezra said, watching the healer. Nathan was about to say he didn't know this one when Josiah cleared his throat.
"Wait," the mage frowned, "Reverend Mosely? Had a daughter named Claire?"
"Can't stay there. Man killed his daughter." Josiah said this with some finality, his mouth set in a grim line. Ezra's eyebrows shot up, he hadn't known that. It was rare when he didn't know something pertinent like that. Chris sighed, wiping a hand across his face.
"Ezra, do you know any place that isn't run by a criminal or a cutthroat?"
The thief snorted, "If we want a place to hide, Chris, honest taverns are not going to be safe enough. The Guard always thinks twice before entering the less reputable pubs, and though some may not believe there is such a thing as honor among thieves, it does exist. We'll cut each other's throats, sure, but no one would give up another to the Guard. Besides, going someplace else could put the proprietor's at risk."
"He's gotta point," Buck shrugged, looking at Nathan. The healer shook his head. Chris sighed again.
"Well...is there anywhere else you can think of?"
Ezra grimaced, "I can... think of one other place. The proprietess is something of a...formidable woman with very strong principles. She doesn't owe me anything, and she may turn us away. If she decides to hide us, though, she would die before giving us up. She's somewhat single-minded that way, loyal to a fault."
"I don't know her first name. Everyone just calls her Ma Nichols."
"Nichols?" Nathan coughed into his hand, "as in the Nichols Brothers? THE Nichols Brothers?" Ezra placed a hand over his eyes in exasperation, but Nathan wouldn't be stopped. "Crazy, insane people with their own code of honor that is so twisted, it makes Ezra look like a saint."
"Thanks," the thief muttered.
"I've heard of them too," Josiah said, "and something you said there is of point, Nathan. They have a code of honor, something none of the others that Ezra mentioned do. If we got them on our side, we would be safe there." Nathan looked pained, but Chris forestalled any more argument with a raised hand.
"Can we get them on our side, Josiah?"
"The Nichols Family," Nathan huffed. "This is insane. We must really need help if we are asking help from them. I say we stay with Eban."
"Eban lives in one of the richest neighborhoods in Rhea, Nathan, where the patrols are as common as the beggars in the market square. We'd have no way of getting in and out without putting them constantly at risk." Josiah was firm, but Nathan still shook his head. He was tired of sleeping outside and staying in rat-infested barns when it rained. He wanted a real bed, without fear of roaches and lice.
"The rest of you go stay wherever you want...I'm staying with Eban."
"We need to stay together, Nathan," Vin said, not hiding his worry.
"We will be together, just not when we're sleeping."
"And if one of us gets into trouble?"
"Then one of us will be on the outside to get the others out," Nathan made it clear whom he thought would be getting in trouble.
"Nathan, be reasonable."
"I'm tired, Josiah. The sun is going down, and I think we should go before they close the gates, don't you?"
"Chris, say something," JD pleaded, looking to their leader. Nathan locked dark brown eyes on Chris's steel colored ones, his expression set.
The paladin shook his head, "Fine, Nathan. Stay where you want. We'll stay with the Nichols at..." he looked at Ezra.
"The Weepers. It's in the area known as the Digs, near the north side of the city, off Keswick Avenue. Same directions as before, but travel down Keswick instead of Commons. When you see the martyr's monument, you'll see the pub's sign."
"The Weepers," Chris tripped over the name a little, but was not about to change his mind now. "And if we're not there, we'll be at the Royale Arms. Take Josiah and JD with you to Eban's, then meet us there."
As the sun fell lower on the horizon, making the Mid Reaches look like tiny black saw teeth on the horizon, they all drifted off in groups. First JD, Nathan and Josiah, the mage having lent the kid one of his robes, then Chris and Vin...as husband and "wife." Vin complained a bit, since they made him ride sidesaddle. Finally, just Buck and Ezra were sitting atop the hill, with Ezra staring coldly at the castle.
"Been there many times, have you?" Buck asked.
"When I was a kid, yes, not so much now. Farron loved visiting Rhea...it was something he coveted for as long as I knew him. That's why he came here first, when he started this insane drive to recreate the Empire. I remember following him and the Prince around the corridors, Farron pointing out pieces of the castle as if they were his. Well, I guess they are his now."
"He still needs Truth."
Ezra nodded slowly. "He'll find Billy, Buck. I'm betting the Mandate will draw him to the boy like a moth to a flame. He'll come here first, get himself crowned, then he'll spend every dime this Empire has to find the final Key."
"That will take time. And we'll stop him before he gets close."
"Yes." Ezra still stared at the castle, his eyes seemingly drawn to one tower in particular. Buck tried to follow the stare, his mistrust of the thief still itching at his shoulder blades. Even after Tallus, the Captain could not deny his certainty that Ezra would betray them all some day. It was like a rock under the mattress.
"Shall we get moving, Standish?"
Ezra nodded, kneeing his horse and letting it have its head towards the walls of Rhea.
As the evening darkened the sky, men fired up the gas lights and fire baskets along the streets of Rhea, dazzling the heroes as they moved along the cobbles. Vin had grudgingly changed into the dress before entering the city, the only bonus being that Chris had had to stable their horses by himself at the hostlery by the gate, and was carrying most of the weapons. Now they headed slowly but surely towards the area known as the Digs, where Ezra said Ma Nichols' pub was.
The scout adjusted the light blue shawl covering his head and hair, brushing a few stray locks of his lanky brown hair forward to better hide his face. Chris watched him with an amused air, noting that Vin moved very easily in Ezra's blue dress these days, unlike the first time he'd worn it...and tripped on the skirt after two steps. Now he almost looked...comfortable...in the outfit.
Vin jumped a little when the paladin striding next to him started to snicker, the sound being such an unusual one.
"Something funny?" he asked, shifting his shoulders and smoothing down a stray crease on the bodice. Chris laughed harder, and Vin stopped mid-smoothe. His eyes darted to Chris's face, glare in full force.
"Um, darling?" Chris said, unable to stop grin spreading on his face, "I don't think the crease is entirely gone." Vin slapped him on the arm, and Chris laughed even more.
They reached the central square, a large circular intersection with a gold plated statue in the middle. Six wide avenues shot off from the roundabout, one of which led directly to the bridge leading to the castle. Facing it, Queen Rhea stood proudly atop a miniature version of the castle, though it looked somewhat different from the current incarnation – more defensible. The statue was of a strong boned woman with a long, thick braid down her back and a simple circlet around her head. One hand held a plain, double-edged sword pointed towards the ground, while the other was wrapped around a tablet that she held to her chest. The words that had been inscribed on the tablet had long since faded under centuries of weather until only the words "for the Kingdoms" could be read.
Vin stared with unabashed wonder, while Chris just glanced at the tall monument. He had been to Rhea a few times, and had seen the sights with the Brishnian King. The memory jolted him, and the amusement he had felt earlier at Vin's expense faded.
As they reached the other side and started down one of the long avenues, a man and a woman with curly blond hair who had been sitting on the statue's steps got up to follow them. Neither Chris nor Vin noticed, not until a few blocks later when three more men and another woman moved to step in front of them. The woman was handsome, with light brown hair that curled around her face in soft ringlets, and she carried herself with the air of a competent fighter. The fact that she wore a long rapier and dark brown breeches highlighted the effect. She stepped forward, and nodded at Vin.
"You are Vin Tanner," she said coolly, "I like the disguise. We almost missed it."
Vin frowned, and Chris placed a hand on the sword at his belt. Vin wore no weapons openly, the pack on his back hiding his crossbow and short sword, putting them out of easy reach. Chris also wore a pack, but he carried his long broadsword across his back openly, as well as the short sword and dagger at his waist. But what intimidated most seemed to have no effect on the woman, who actually smiled.
"Please, don't misunderstand," she said, raising a callused hand, "We are not here to attack you, or take you in for the bounty. We work for the Nichols family, and we want to help you."
Vin's frown lightened to express a more puzzled look, "I'm sorry?"
"Explain," Chris ordered. The woman flicked light hazel eyes at him, and nodded.
"My name is Lydia, and I work for Ma Nichols. Two years ago, King Farron had her eldest son hanged for treason, with no other evidence the word of some old man with an unstable mind. Since then, she has put the energy of her entire network into taking Farron down. When our Oracle told us about the seven men coming to Rhea to stop him, and when we saw the wanted bills Farron placed for you, Mr. Tanner, we set spies on the gate to wait for you."
"So much for Ezra's dress," Vin muttered to Chris. "Spotted by strangers in a foreign city."
Lydia smiled, "It is a good disguise, Mr. Tanner. In fact, it was your companion who alerted us. Not too many men like him enter the city these days. It was only after trying to identify him that we recognized you."
Vin glanced at Chris, who just flexed an eyebrow.
"So, what is it you want?" Chris asked, his hand still on his sword.
"I am to escort you to The Weepers pub, where Ma Nichols will meet you. You can stay there while you are in the city, at no charge. You have the protection of the Nichols family for as long as you are here, as well any information and help we can provide. Of course, you do not have to stay with us, but we can provide a safe environment." She leaned on one leg and stuck out a hand, "Do we have an agreement?"
Chris looked her up and down, and slowly started to smile, his earlier amusement returned. "Does your boss understand who is in charge?" he asked quietly.
Lydia pursed her lips, and matched Chris's smile. There expressions at that moment were so similar, they might have been related.
"She is a single minded woman, but she has always believed in the old magics and the Oracle has her ear. She will yield to you, because the Oracle demands it."
"This Oracle must be an impressive person," Chris said, smiling.
"Oh, believe me she is," Lydia grinned, then took a step back. "But then, you can meet her yourself." She bowed slightly and turned to the side, so that Chris could join her, which he did, completely forgetting Vin in the process.
In the background, the other men surrounded the scout and pretended to check him out, complete with lascivious comments. Vin was about to retaliate when the blond curly haired girl shouldered in next to him and took his arm.
"Personally," she breathed in his ear, "I like the idea of a man in a dress – makes him easier to get to." Her tongue licked the edge of his ear and then she strolled off, leaving a stupefied group of boys behind her.
Ma Nichols was exactly as Ezra had described her – formidable. Steel gray hair capped her head, held back tightly by black combs. Her dress was also all black, with bits of black lace sewed into the lining. She was tall and somewhat broad, with a back that was ramrod straight. Her very presence demanded attention, her piercing blue eyes measuring each one of the seven with a practiced eye. When she saw Chris, her gaze locked.
"You are in charge?" She had a slight Erinish accent, a soft brogue typical of people from a small island off the coast of Brishnia. According to Lydia, Ma Nichols had immigrated to Rhea when she was just seventeen, determined to marry money, something unattainable on Erin. She ended up marrying the heir to the largest crime family in the city. Now, fifty years later, her husband was dead and she was undisputed matriarch of a network of spies and informants almost as large and ruthless as Farron's.
At her question, the others turned to look at the paladin, who was lounging against a post in this attic room at the top of The Weepers. Rhea, Ezra had said, was a city of rooftops – they were the main thoroughfares of the criminal classes, as commonly traveled as the streets. Indeed, this attic had two doors in it that led to the outside, and Chris had positioned himself in front of one of them. It was not surprising, therefore, that the attic would be Ma Nichols main planning center
Chris looked back at his men, measuring their expressions. They had never officially made him the leader...it had just sort of happened.
"I guess I am," he said slowly. When no one challenged, or even frowned, he relaxed slightly. Ma Nichols merely nodded.
"And are you here to kill Farron?"
Chris watched her a second longer before replying, "We are here to stop him, yes."
"Yes, we are here to kill him. But not until we are sure we can control the power he possesses."
"Aye, the Mandate. We know of it, too well I'm afraid. It has been what has kept him alive, despite some of the best assassins this city has ever known," she snorted. "Tell me, gentlemen, how exactly do you expect to get close to him?"
Chris just shook his head, not answering. Ma Nichols' gray eyes flashed, clearly not appreciating being rebuffed. It was not something she was used to.
"Fine. Well, whatever your plan, gentlemen, my people are at your disposal. My Oracle has promised me that you are the way to Farron's demise, and I trust her. But she also tells me that, if you fail, or if any of you are lost, Farron will never fall. Thus, may I suggest your plan be a good one." Shooting one last glare around the room, causing all but Chris and Vin to look away, she stepped over to the trapdoor that led into the main part of the Public House and, with the help of some of her sons (she had eight of them), she made her way down.
A couple of minutes later, the seven men were alone. Buck breathed a huge sigh of relief.
"One hell of a lady," he breathed.
Josiah chuckled. "Looks like I don't have to worry about whether we can get the Nichols family on our side," he said. Chris nodded.
"Yep, let's just hope she doesn't help too much."
"Amen, brother," the mage agreed.
"I thought Oracles were rare – how come she has one?" JD said, absently staring at the closed trap door.
"They're rare, yes. But if you are as rich and powerful as Ma Nichols, it is not hard to understand how she might have found one," Ezra said, looking at his hands. "In fact, I met the little girl while Buck and I were waiting for the rest of you to arrive."
The Captain started, and looked over at Ezra. "The little girl? The daughter of the waitress I was hitting on?"
Ezra nodded, "Her name is Olivia. A most amazing child. She came right up to me, and, with the most serious expression on her face, asked me if I knew that I was invisible." He grinned, "Confused the hell out of me, I can tell you, until she told me who she was."
"That little thing?" Buck shook his head. "What a burden for one so young. Does Ma Nichols treat her well?"
Ezra shrugged, indicating he didn't know. The Captain frowned and leaned forward on his chair, his face dark. He didn't like the idea of people using children. He needn't have worried, it was obvious to Ezra that the little girl was the one who used Ma Nichols. A most "gifted" child.
"Buck, we should talk about tomorrow," Chris said, moving in to sit on the floor next to Nathan. The healer was being very quiet, having said nothing but "hello" since arriving. It was obvious he was not happy about being here. On Josiah's insistence, he had not bathed upon getting to Eban's, and still wore his traveling clothes...because his regular clothes were too rich. That, combined with moral problems with working with the criminal element, had him barely speaking. He looked ready to faint when Ma Nichols first took his hand.
Still reliving it, the healer didn't notice when Chris asked him a question. When JD nudged him, Nathan looked up, his eyes slightly glassy.
"I asked you if Eban was ready to help us?"
Nathan nodded, "He and his daughter will be there, I have their word. We'll be in the library when the rest of you arrive, in the west wing, where the older books are kept."
The next morning dawned bright and clear, with not a cloud in the sky. It was fairly typical weather for the fair city, where the seasons were mild most of the time and the sun was almost always dominant. For JD, used to the constant drizzle and grayness of the Mid Reaches, it felt wonderful.
As the sun slanted in through the glass dome far above their heads, Nathan looked across the library table and sighed. She was beautiful, his Raine. Well, technically, she wasn't his, but, right before he had left Rhea to go see Josiah, he had asked her to marry him. She hadn't answered yet, in part because of the uncertain future, but her welcome last night had been...very promising. Her dark brown eyes scanned the large tome in front of her with a professional air, one finger trailing down the center of the page to keep her speed reading focused. Black curly hair hung down to cover her face, hiding her features from everyone but Nathan. Sensing his scrutiny, she looked up briefly and flashed a grin. He returned it easily.
They had come in together that morning, Raine being a scholar in her own right, earning a degree from the same university that her father administered. Her degree was in history, so it was with a familiar nod that she greeted the guards at the gate when they arrived. She guided them unerringly towards the rear stacks of the library in the musty west wing and had pointed all the books written in the last years of the old Empire and of the new reign of Queen Rhea. Dust covered all of them.
A peddle suddenly dropped onto the table a few inches from his face, causing him to jump back as it bounced a few times. Looking up to find its source, he soon found himself smiling crookedly. Thirty feet up, sitting atop one of the stacks like gargoyles, four faces stared down at him. Ezra, dressed in his thief's black again, was tying a rope to the top of the bookcase with Chris's help, while Buck and Vin smiled back at Nathan. The scout waved, and adjusted the crossbow across his back. They had left most of their weapons behind at The Weepers, though each had taken their favorite pieces – Chris had his long broadsword on his back, Vin his crossbow, Buck a shortsword and his hammer, and Ezra his spear-pointed shortsword and matching dagger. Because of their roles as scholars, neither JD, Josiah nor Nathan had their weapons, not even Josiah's staff. Weapons weren't "allowed" inside the castle walls.
Raine looked up as well, her mouth open slightly in surprise, while Eban, Josiah and JD wandered over from where they had been sitting.
"Nice entrance," Josiah called quietly, "and none of you even got wet! I'm impressed."
"We wanted to push Buck in," Vin replied in a hushed voice, "but Ezra was afraid he would be too heavy on the ropes in wet clothes, him being so large and all." The Captain cuffed Vin on the head, and the scout returned with a brazen grin.
"Nathan, do a quick check," Chris hissed as Ezra finished securing the line.
Nodding, the healer went to look down the narrow rows of the stacks and along some of the corridors to make sure they were alone. They were set well back from the main library, and though Raine had assured them that no one ever came back here, they didn't want to take any chances. Assured, he nodded up at the men and beckoned them to come down.
Ezra dropped the rope down and pulled a few times to double check the hold. Then, wrapping it around him, he steadily made his way down. Buck followed, his movements jerkier and faster. Vin came next, his movements almost as smooth as the thief's, and then Chris, who slipped down with a somewhat impatient motion. When the paladin reached the floor, he breathed a sigh of relief.
"Chris? This is Eban Freeman, and his daughter Raine," Nathan introduced the two scholars, and they both smiled up at Chris. Eban was a short, stout Moorish man with sharp eyes and graying hair, around which he wore a cloth band. His smile was broad and his grip strong as he took the paladin's hand. Chris frowned slightly, and tilted his head to the side.
"Have we met before?" he asked.
"Yes, Sir Larabee, we have. I was the one who escorted you and King William III of Brishnia on their tour of the city, many years ago."
Chris nodded, "Right, I remember. And you...you were just a girl then," he said, taking Raine's hand. She blushed and nodded, and Chris smiled more brightly, "You've certainly grown."
"Ahem," Nathan interrupted, taking Raine's free hand, "shall we get on with the research?"
"I'll keep watch," Vin said quickly, moving back to the rope. "The stacks are close enough together that I can move closer to the main halls of library and keep a pretty good vigil."
"Good. If nothing happens, come back in a few hours, and one of us will relieve you."
Vin nodded, and swiftly climbed back up the rope, using the bookshelves as a ladder. Meantime, Nathan introduced the old man and his daughter to the others.
The day passed slowly, coming to an end when the closing bell tolled through the stacks like a mourning call, pealing across the heads of the frustrated researchers. So far, all they had found were a few brief histories that said that Rhea had traveled extensively across the Kingdoms then, abruptly, had closeted herself off for three months prior to the death of her father. There was no information about what she had done in that time. Josiah had found one record which mentioned that she had made a best friend of one of her father's chief healers, spending as many hours with him as with her own company. The mage was trying to determine the significance, if there was any, when the bells tolled.
Eban stood and stretched, his old joints cracking. "Well, I'm afraid that this is it for me, gentlemen. I will not be able to spare tomorrow to spend with you, but Raine will be here."
Raine stood with her father and took his arm, "Are you all planning on staying here in the library tonight?" she asked, noticing that no one else had moved.
"Not me," Nathan grinned, shutting his book with a slam. "I certainly do not plan to give up the comfort of a feather bed again for a while."
Chris looked over at the healer, the edges of his mouth turning down. Still, he didn't say anything, and instead walked over to the table and placed the small volume he'd been reading down on top of it.
"The rest of us will stay here, sleeping atop the stacks. They're as wide as any pallet, if not wider than most. That way we can continue researching. We don't know when Farron will be done in Tallus and return, and we need to use this time as efficiently as possible."
"Um..." JD's face paled, and his eyes darted up the stacks.
"C'mon JD, it'll be fun, like sleeping in a very high bunk bed," Vin assured him, draping an arm across his shoulders. "Besides, you had no trouble in Tallus, when we were in that peephole."
"That was only ten feet up, Vin," the kid replied testily, "I can jump that. These..." he looked up the dark bookshelves, they seemed to loom even higher with every second, "these are a lot higher." He swallowed, and looked across at Chris. The paladin rolled his eyes.
"Fine – go with Nathan. But I want both of you back as soon as this place opens, understand? And keep your faces covered when you leave. Ma Nichols has no real presence up in the university area, so you'll be on your own, remember that."
JD grinned and nodded. He was so happy, he almost bounced as he made his way over to where Nathan and the two scholars were standing. The healer smiled smugly and patted JD's shoulder.
"See you in the morning, boys," Raine said, waving goodbye. "The guards will sweep back here, so I would get yourselves up high until they douse the main lights. Do you have a lantern?"
Chris patted one of the packs they had brought and nodded, while Ezra lifted another lantern out of his own pack. Raine smiled farewell, and turned to follow her father, who had already moved away.
"Sleep well on the hard wood," Nathan chuckled, heading after her.
"Be careful," Chris called after him.
"Was that wise?" Josiah asked, stepping forward, "Letting them separate from us for another night?"
"Nathan had a good point when we first decided the sleeping arrangements. It might be a good thing to have someone on the outside. Besides, I still have all of you, right?" Chris turned to look at the others, all present except Buck, who was on watch. When he met Ezra's eyes, the frosty green eyes looked quickly away. Chris frowned.
"We should all climb to the top of the stacks now," Ezra said, covering his odd behavior. He was putting things into his pack and slipping it on. "The guards will be checking to make sure everyone has left, and it'll be a while before they're finished."
It was a few hours after midnight, and Ezra glanced down upon his companions with shadowed eyes. Behind him, Josiah and Vin were both sleeping along the top of two of the stacks, bits of rope tied to their waists and attached to the bookshelf just in case they did something foolish, like roll over too far in their sleep. Down below, Buck and Chris were reading, while Ezra was supposed to be on watch.
Supposed to be.
No one had come in hours, and the library was as still as a tomb. The amount of dust on the floors and shelves proved Raine's opinion that no one ever came back here. It was enough to convince him that they really didn't need a watch, not until Farron returned.
Ezra pulled a length of black tinted rope out of his pack and wrapped it around him like a sash. He took nothing else from the pack except another dagger. His short, spear pointed sword was attached to his back with the strap he always used when he knew he'd be climbing. Pulling the buckle tight on the strap, he made sure he could easily reach the hilt. Satisfied, he got up and quietly made his way down the length of the bookshelf he was on, then hopped across to the next one. In minutes, he was lost in the shadows.
Vin watched him leave, his blue eyes watching the lithe movements of the thief. He had sensed Ezra's anxiousness all day, and had been expecting the thief to try and sneak off. Moments, later, he got up from his own "bed," strapped on his crossbow, and got up to follow.
Ezra skittered across the thin flying buttress leading to the main part of the castle, as sure footed as a cat. In his black clothes, he was almost invisible against the night sky, and it was hard for Vin to follow. Several times, he thought he had lost the thief, but then the shadow of a man would pass a window or lighter piece of stone, and Vin was on his way. The scout's eyes were very sharp, better than most, which is why he had been chosen to be a scout, as well as why he was such a good archer. He had to rely on that sight now, because if he were to get any closer, he was sure Ezra would hear him. Taking in a deep breath, he crossed the same buttress...and tried not to look down at the flagstone courtyard fifty feet below.
Nathan shifted in his sleep, his brow furrowing as he found himself slowly awakening. Something had disturbed him, and as his senses came into focus, he quickly realized it was the smell. An acrid stench filled his nostrils, invading his mouth and making it difficult to breathe. At almost the same time, he was aware of the heat, and kicking off the bedclothes had done nothing. Had they banked the fire in the hearth too high?
Brown eyes flew open as he realized exactly what was wrong, and a sharp yell exploded from his lips. He was surrounded by flames – the room was almost entirely engulfed. He watched in shocked fascination as one part of the sash curtains hiding the bed caught flame, the red and gold licking up the navy fabric in a single smooth motion. How had he not woken before?
Dimly, he became aware of other noises – JD was yelling somewhere, and Raine was screaming. She and her father were on the floor above, while he and JD were on this, the third floor. At this point, though, he could have been in the kitchen for all that he was aware of anything. All he knew was fire and smoke, burning into his lungs and killing him far faster than any of the actual fire would.
And there was no way out.
Ezra dropped onto his haunches inside the small stone corridor and simply listened. Nothing moved, not even a rat. He was alone. For some reason, the hairs on his neck were prickling, usually a sign that he was being watched. His clear green eyes swept the hall, already accustomed to the darkness, and looked for anything out of place among the shadows. He knew the walls and rooms of this castle well enough not to need a torch, and, in fact, any bright light right now would probably have blinded him.
Satisfied, he crept down the hall until he reached a short wooden door. He checked the hinges with his fingers, pleased to find them freshened with oil. Taking a deep breath, he pushed the small door outwards, and looked upon the dimly lit Great Hall.
It was twice the size of that at Tallus, though mostly in height. Huge gothic windows started halfway up the walls and let in the bright moonlight, bathing the room in a comforting pale blue glow. It had two hearths, both of which burned embers, and a handful of candles were still alight on the iron chandeliers, but the room was so large that they did little to disturb the moon's glow. The Hall was much prettier this way, he thought absently. When lit by daylight, it was gaudily bright, decorated mostly in yellows, golds and purples -- the colors of Rhea.
The secret door shut easily behind him and he slid down the wall, avoiding the various weaponry attached to the walls as decoration – mainly spears and pikes, all wrapped with yellow ribbons. He hadn't quite reached the far doors when he whipped around to look back at the tiny door he'd just left, and stopped.
Had it just closed? He watched for a couple of seconds, but it didn't move. Suddenly the shadows all looked wrong, and he stopped breathing for a moment. Then he shook himself, telling himself that he was being foolish.
Swallowing, and feeling more uncomfortable with every moment, he faced the wall where he had stopped and knelt down. His fingers traced the wood paneling, until a soft click was audible. Another tiny door identical to the one he had just left opened and he slipped inside.
Vin held his breath, hiding behind a curtain to the right of the first little door. As soon as he was sure Ezra had moved on, he came out and jogged down the wall to the same spot. Fingering the door the way Ezra had, he too found the catch and slipped back into the walls.
In the background, several shadows detached themselves from the walls and walked steadily around the Hall lighting the torches.
Nathan rammed his hands against his ears to block out the sound of the flames, and curled into a ball at the head of his bed. Sweat poured down his face, but he barely noticed it. His breathing was ragged now, each intake burning his throat. He thought he could hear someone calling his name, calling for help, but he didn't know who. Did it matter? By the Gods, he felt like he was drowning!
Spots appeared in his vision, and he shut his burning eyes, burrowing deeper. He was about to start praying to every God he had ever heard of when he felt a cool breeze touch his face. Surprised, he looked up to see a ghostly figure standing at the end of the bed, watching him with a sorrowful expression. Opening his eyes wider, he was surprised to see that it was Josiah he was imagining. The mage was shaking his head, looking disappointed. Nathan reached out to him with one hand, but the mage held up a hand, then pointed back at the healer.
I can't help. You're alone here.
Flames caught the edge of the large mattress, and Nathan skittered to the side that was still clear. He became fascinated with the growth of the fire as it melted along the sheet.
Oddly, an image of Ezra popped into his mind. The thief stood just next to the bed, flames licking at his trousers. A crooked sneer sat on the thief's face, the same one that he'd had when they'd first met. Then, abruptly, the sneer fell, and the Ezra whom he'd traveled and fought with shone through. The vision clasped his hands into fists and lowered his head, his meaning clear.
You keep thinking your better than me, so prove it. You're supposed to fight.
He coughed, shaking his head at the vision. Black smoke filled the room, obscuring much of it from view.
Suddenly, as clearly as if he had really been there, Nathan saw Chris right in front of him, the paladin's face bruised and battered the same way as it had been in Tallus. His jaw was set, as if he were once more begging Nathan to save Vin. But this time, the paladin was expecting the healer to save himself. It can't end like this, not like this! Chris's words rang through Nathan's head like a clarion call.
Shutting his eyes, Nathan focused on his tears, on the way they cooled his face. At just that moment, he heard JD scream his name, for Nathan to help him.
When the healer's eyes opened again, they were filled with determination. Gritting his teeth, he jumped off the bed, planning on running through the fire to the door. It was not going to end like this, Chris, I promise!
Time slowed. Blue light pulsed all around him, through him. It enveloped everything around him, cold and heavy, as if he'd just jumped into the ocean. When his bare feet touched the floor, the carpet squelched wetly beneath them.
Dazed, he stared around the now dripping room. The blackened walls where the fire had roared just moments before were damp. The whole room had been doused.
All the teachings that made him a healer suddenly had him looking inward, to find the magical energy that had just surged through him. Way down deep, he saw it. A faint blue ribbon of light, disappearing into nothingness. Grabbing it with his mind before it faded, he opened his eyes and pointed a hand at the door. A single thought was all it needed, as water exploded outwards and blew down the wooden frame. The amount of power coursing through him was incredible!
Vaguely, he heard JD screaming in the room opposite as he walked calmly into the hallway and threw open the boy's door. The kid was curled up on his bed the same way Nathan had been, holding his blanket over his mouth. Brown eyes met brown eyes, and the healer grinned. Moments later, JD's room was as wet as Nathan's.
JD's mouth fell open, awed.
"Grab your boots, kid. I don't know how long I can do this," Nathan rasped, voice sore from the smoke. "The fire will be back, and we have to get upstairs to the others."
The trepidation that had filled the thief since starting this trek reached its peak as he stared at the tiny door leading to her room. Kneeling down, he placed a hand to his forehead, upset to feel the faint dampness of sweat. She would be disappointed in him if he didn't look absolutely perfect and composed. Calming his breathing, Ezra wiped his forehead with the back of a handkerchief and smoothed down his hair. Then, a roguish smile lit his face and he reached up to grab the one curl that always seemed to stick up and fall forward, and pulled it so that it would do so on purpose. She had always hated that curl, endless amounts of her saliva having been employed to push it into place when he was little, a thing he hated. He had never wanted to be perfect anyway.
Calmer now, he pushed the door open and crept into the bedroom. It was a large circular room at the top of one of the many towers, dominated by a large king-sized bed. A fire had been lit in the tiny hearth on the opposite side from where Ezra had snuck in, mostly embers now in this late hour. A figure shifted under the bed covers where it was lying on its side, and the thief smiled.
Sliding over to the bed, he placed a hand on shoulder.
"Mother?" he whispered. The figure turned over onto its back, and bright white teeth smiled back at him. Ezra backed up, hands already moving to his weapons, but he was too slow.
All around him shuttered lanterns were opened, bathing the room in a bright light, forcing Ezra had to cover his eyes. When he looked up again, he found seven men with crossbows surrounding him, quarrels aimed at his throat. His eyes darted back to the bed, his lip quivering slightly as a fully clothed Farron threw back the covers and swung his feet to the floor.
"Hello son," the emperor smiled, "Where have you been? I expected you hours ago."
Josiah nearly fell off, his dream was that bad. When the rope caught him, pulling against his robe, he came awake with a start. He'd been thinking about blood and blood magic, the two mixing to create some seriously peculiar anxiety dreams. One in particular stuck in his mind – it was the image of Hannah screaming for him to come back to Four Corners because they'd buried her alive, but he was being prevented by a cobweb of ropes holding him in place. It took him a minute to remember that he had tied himself down, and where he was. Untying the rope, he looked around, stopping when he saw that both Ezra and Vin were missing. Puzzled, he got up and jumped a few stacks to peer down to the floor below.
Chris and Buck were both there, reading, just as they were supposed to.
Securing the rope that led to the ground around his waist, the mage slowly made his way down, earning him a puzzled glance from both men on the ground. He landed with a soft thud, and made his way over to a the paladin.
"Ezra and Vin are missing," he said quietly, "I don't know where."
Chris's eyes narrowed, absorbing this, then he threw the book he'd been reading to the floor. "Damn it!"
"Perhaps they are just scouting?" Buck suggested, rubbing his eyes and yawning.
"I didn't see them anywhere up there, and the moon is bright enough tonight that I could see pretty far," Josiah replied.
"They must have gone outside," Chris said. "Damn it! I knew when Ezra wouldn't look at me all day that he was plotting something. And yet I let him take the watch...." He trailed off, rubbing the bridge of his nose between his fingers.
"We'll just go after them, Chris, they can't have gotten far," Buck said, walking over to the rope. "After all, how much trouble..." He would have finished the sentence, but the crossbow pointed at him from the aisle on the other side of the bookshelf stopped him.
Chris looked up when Buck didn't complete his sentence, then whipped around when he heard rapid footsteps come up behind him. Five soldiers appeared as if from nowhere, crossbows up and raised. Josiah cursed as five more men appeared on the other side, also armed.
"Now, you boys don't look like librarians," Buck said congenially, his eyes not leaving those of the man opposite him. The guard smiled slowly.
Vin leaned against the stone wall of the corridor just outside the room, unable to move. He'd heard Ezra get caught, but that wasn't what had stolen his breath. It was what Farron had called the thief, and the scout's mind was tripping. Gods above, was Ezra the....
Noise down the corridor finally jolted him back awake, and he pushed himself up. In either direction, the corridor curved around into shadow, the shape of the hidden passageway imitating the shape of the tower it wrapped around. Shutting down his other senses, he became aware of footsteps heading towards him from the downward spiral. With a swallow, he did what was natural and headed in the opposite direction.
Unfortunately, the bedroom Ezra had entered was at the top of the tower, meaning that after one more turn, the secret passageway not only got smaller...it ended. The scout skidded to a halt in front of the blank wall, too startled to do anything for a moment. Then his fingers desperately began to feel along the edges of the stones, hoping beyond hope...
Suddenly, his fingers caught something, and the wonderful clink of a releasing mechanism had him grinning. Part of the wall slid back, and he jumped through without thinking.
And promptly fell.
"Oh Hell Vin!" Ezra groaned, putting his hands to his face. Two guards looked down at the man sprawled at their feet, slightly startled expressions on their faces. Slowly, they moved sideways and pointed their crossbows at the newcomer. Three more guards were peeking in through the hole near at the top of the wall that Vin had fallen through, looking down on their quarry. Vin rolled over and, after seeing all the guards, flashed a smile.
"Well, how do boys! I seem to have gotten a bit lost. I was looking for the kitchens? A guy can get damn hungry sneaking around foreign castles." Standing, he made sure to keep his hands from his sides in a non-threatening position. Behind him, three more guards dropped through the same hole, all landing on their feet, and joined the others. Vin grinned at them, then at Ezra and Farron.
"Now, this seems like a private family reunion, so I'll just get out of your way, yes? I'll be in the kitchens, should you need me. Is that the door? It's a lovely design," he pointed to a large oak doorway along one wall, and started walking. A crossbow in his face stopped him. "Or I could stay right here," he drawled, "I guess you can't fool them all, eh Ez?" When the scout looked at him, all smiles gone, the thief looked to the floor. He knew full well that Vin was hiding his anger at being lied to behind the joking facade.
Farron had been watching this with a bemused air, but then he gave a short laugh, "By the Gods, you're the Tillurian scout, aren't you? Vin Tanner of Tascosa. The one I...," he stopped, nodding in an impressed fashion, "My, my, may I say, Ezra, your friend here looks astonishingly healthy for a dead man," Farron tilted his head as he examined Vin.
"Likewise," the scout replied as one of the guards pulled the crossbow from off his back.
"Me, dead? I never came close, scout. You think a single blade can do more than slow me down a little? You, on the other hand..."
"Leave him be, father. He doesn't remember anything," Ezra snapped, fingers twitching by his sides. The emperor turned to the thief, a strange expression on his face.
"I'm sorry, did I say you could speak?" Farron asked. Vin's eyes widened as he saw Ezra's face pale. The thief lowered his head, making him seem younger.
"No sir," Ezra muttered, not looking up.
"No sir? In fact, it sounded like you just tried to order me. Did you?"
The thief swallowed, and he shook his head lightly in response. The edges of Farron's lips lifted into a sneer.
"You think you can challenge me?"
Ezra flinched, "No sir."
Farron snorted. "No sir," he mocked. "Gods Ezra, thirty years of age and you are still a pathetic little weasel of a boy." He looked over at Vin, who was pretending deafness. Farron didn't buy it. "Have you ever seen such a feeble man, scout? He was always this way, faded to nothing whenever challenged by someone better than him. His mother and I once hoped he would outgrow his natural mousiness, but he failed us. We found him the best blademasters and hand to hand fighters, but they told me he could barely hold a foil, much less a real man's broadsword. Tutors from Rhea complained of his lack of attention, and general stupidity. By the time he was ten, we had both given up."
All Vin could think was, ten? When I was ten I was still chasing chickens around the backyard.
Ezra fidgeted as Farron looked back at him. Slowly, the emperor smiled.
"You really thought you could best me, didn't you, son? You, of all people! I should have had you killed when I had the chance, when I found you sneaking around Leda after I had banished you. Would have saved a lot of people the poison of your presence. Oh, but your mother begged, and there was a time when I would have done anything for her." Shaking his head, he looked around at the guards, zeroing in on the one wearing the insignia of a captain. "Take them to the Great Hall. I think better when I'm not sitting on my wife's bed."
Ezra remained rooted when one of the men put a hand on his shoulder, "Wait," he said, shaking slightly as Farron turned his eyes back to him, "What did you mean, there was a time you would have done anything for her? Where is she?"
Farron clicked his tongue and started to brush down his sleeves in a very familiar gesture to the scout. "Frankly," the emperor said quietly, not looking up from his grooming, "I don't know if being stubborn is wise, little one."
Ezra flinched visibly at the nickname. "You think I care? What have you done with her?" He threw off the hand and stepped closer to his father, who sighed as if he were dealing with a willful child. Seeing them together, Vin saw what they all had missed, none of them having ever seen the emperor when he was calm. The two men had the same face, though Ezra's eyes were pure green and his nose was a little smaller, and Farron's chin was less square. Farron also had a couple of inches of height on his son, which he used to his advantage as he stood to stand over his son. Of course, the scar on Farron's cheek took away quite a lot of the resemblance, as well as the frown lines around his mouth and eyes.
Farron smiled, "You want to know where she is? Very well. Last time I saw Maude, she was, I believe, living quite comfortably in the dungeons. I understand that she has done some pretty nice things to them. Joining cells together, making her ladies in waiting cover the bars with cloths, bringing in flowers to hide the stench. But then, Maude's taste always was very good," he said.
Ezra's mouth fell open, "You had her put...? Why? She was your most ardent supporter!"
"True...she was. Indeed, if it hadn't been for her, I probably would never have begun this whole thing. Her clever mind won me my first two thrones. But she began to bore me recently, telling me she didn't want another child and asking me to reconcile with you. I finally had enough when I discovered that she was in contact with you."
"With me?" Ezra shook his head, "I haven't seen her since..."
"Don't lie, boy. You forget to whom you speak. You think that simply because you've...grown...that I still can't read you like a book? I admit, you are taller and..." he poked Ezra in the side, causing the thief to wince slightly, "thicker, but you still have my face, and I know it too well." Farron shook his head, "She was feeding you information, slowing down my defeat of Tilluria. Not that it mattered."
"Tilluria..." Ezra took a step back, "Speaking of the red castle, why are you not still there? You should have been there for at least a week, sorting out your new reign."
Farron narrowed his eyes, "You're right, of course, but seeing you changed my priorities somewhat. I left a large contingent of soldiers there, and my right hand man, and headed out the day after you left. My own son with these renegades, what devil thought up this sick joke? Regardless, you're too dangerous – I can't have you sneaking up on me again. Of course, the Mandate will not let me kill you myself," his face darkened slightly, the only sign of true animosity in him since Ezra's arrival, "but I have no qualms about ordering it done."
Ezra backed up another step, and this time two sets of the guard's hands found their way onto his shoulders and arms. Off to the side, he saw that two other guards had already snapped irons on Vin's wrists and were likewise holding him.
"Take them to the Great Hall," Farron ordered again. "His friends must be getting bored by now."
"The power...it's gone," Nathan hissed, looking at his hands. "I can't feel it inside me anymore." The disappointment was strong in his voice.
"So, now what?" JD asked, looking down the still wet stairs to the third floor below. It was a blackened shell, as was this, the fourth floor where they had rescued Raine and her father. Further down, they could still hear the fire crackling on the first and second, growing again in strength.
"I heard the claxons of the fire brigade," Eban said, holding on to his daughter's hand. "And after what you did," he looked at Nathan strangely, then shook himself, "it should have done enough to prevent the fire from reaching us before the fire brigade has it under control."
"I'm not so sure," JD coughed. Smoke was still spiraling up from below, though it was more white than black.
"Why not? The smoke isn't as strong," Raine said, looking at Nathan. The healer had his eyes closed, searching for the elusive power he knew was there deep inside. Where had it gone? JD whacked him on the arm.
"Wake up, Nate! You did your job, get over it. Hell, I've had something like that happen to me twice now, and I've never even gotten close to controlling it the way you did."
"But you're not trained in the arts," the healer muttered, "I am. I should have been able to hold onto it...."
"Frankly, healer, I could care less about that right now, but getting out of here does! Now, I may not be as learned as the rest of you, but I know full well that a fire does not engulf an entire house all at the same time. It creeps up on you, and there is usually more warning, especially in a four story house with servants and the like."
"Oh my God! The servants!" Raine's strickened face turned to her father, but he shook her off.
"I sent them away for the night, because of the sensitive nature of our guests," Eban said. "What are you suggesting, JD?"
"I'm saying my whole room was ablaze before I woke up, and from the looks of these walls, the fire was burning at the same rate up here as it was below."
The discussion had finally clued in the healer, and he looked around. "Wait, are you thinking it wasn't a natural fire?" he asked blankly.
"It couldn't have been; it had to have been created with magic," JD replied. "And I'm betting that, whoever set it, is still out there, waiting to make sure we all burned to a crisp. If we go out the front door, they'll just find another way to kill us."
"Who would want you dead?" Raine stuttered, looking at them. "Who would even know you are here?" When they looked back with knowing looks, she shook her head, "Oh no, it can't be. How would Farron know you are here? He's not even in the city!"
"He could have followed us," Nathan said slowly, "If he left directly after claiming the Tillurian throne, he would have been no more than a day behind us. And with that transporting power he has, he could easily have not only gained time on us, but gotten into the castle without us knowing."
"Doesn't explain how he knew you were here, or where you were sleeping!" Raine tried, but JD only grunted.
"If he got here today, all he had to do was watch the castle gate and give the guards our descriptions. Even if he didn't see us enter this morning, I have no doubt he saw us leave. Oh hell! We should have stayed with the others!"
"Too late now," Nathan muttered. Then his eyes widened, "Oh no...the others!"
"He'll have them by now."
"Gods! What a mess!"
"Look, this is all very enlightening," Eban interrupted, "but may I remind you that we are in a burning building here? With the possibility of magic empowered assassins waiting outside for us?"
"Wait. What is it that Ezra said?" Nathan said abruptly, looking up to the ceiling, "About thieves and roofs?"
"Roofs?" Instinctively, Raine turned to look at the trapdoor that led to the attic. JD followed her gaze and nodded.
"He said they were almost as good as roads, because so many of the houses are close together."
"Why would your friend know about thieves and roofs?" Raine asked innocently. Nathan had been afraid to tell her about Ezra, or even about where the others were staying in the city. She looked at him, but before he could come up with a suitable answer, Eban interrupted them.
"My roof is peaked, boys, We'd slide right off."
JD shook his head, "Is there a ladder for that trap door? We could use that as a way across. Is either one of the buildings next to you flat roofed?"
"They...they both are," Raine said. "And, a few houses down is Mrs. Whitlow's house. She has a garden on her roof, and a proper door!"
"Locked," Eban reminded her.
"She locks herself up there all the time; I know where she hides a key." Raine was glowing, the excitement of the possible adventure lighting up her face. Nathan couldn't hide his surprise at her willingness. Eban, however, was less enthralled.
"If we wait, maybe the fire brigade could protect us?" the old man suggested, a vision of himself sliding down the dark blue tiles on his roof strong in his mind.
"Doubt it. Raine, where is the hook for the trapdoor?" Nathan asked, walking over to it. Eban shook his head, looking back down below, the idea of leaving his house in this manner feeling both cowardly and suicidal.
Below them, the fire had regained some of its strength, the roar of the flames getting louder again. Suddenly, the house groaned as the lower supports started to fail. Eban jumped at the sound.
"Get moving son! We haven't all day!" the old man shouted as Raine handed Nathan the rod with which to open the hatch. The healer grinned, not mentioning that he liked being called son by the man. Raine kissed him on the cheek as the trap opened, and Nathan grabbed the rope that dangled out, connected to the ladder.
The house creaked again, and shuddered.
When Farron strolled into the Great Hall followed bleakly by both Ezra and Vin, it was to find Chris, Josiah and Buck all kneeling on the floor. Bruises marked their faces, and Buck was openly bleeding from a cut to the jaw. Black stares caught the emperor, who smiled back brightly. Fires blazed in both hearths now, and all the candles and torches had been relit.
"Ah, the paladin! How nice to see you again! And the mage, still got that sickle in hand, old man? No? Shame, I could have used it. And as for you..." Farron stopped in front of Buck and frowned, puzzlement creasing his features. Then he shrugged, "Now, you I don't know. Oh well, not that it matters." He patted Buck on the head, and the Captain snarled and made to bite the hand. Farron just laughed as he pulled away.
"You made such wonderful friends, Ezra! This one is seems particularly low on the evolutionary scale, maybe a few hundred thousand years?" In response, Buck spat on his shoes. Farron didn't react, except to narrow his eyes slightly. The guard standing behind the Captain cuffed him hard on the back of the head, and Farron walked away, chuckling.
Ezra looked stricken at seeing them, "How did you find them?"
"My guards spotted the Moor leaving the library today, accompanied by that murdering whoreson who killed Ravennie. While my men followed them, I only had to take a few steps into the library before the Mandate confirmed that your friends were in there, trying to find a way to kill me." He looked meaningfully at the thief, "You should really have told them to give up, Ezra; their animosity towards me is pointless. You of all people know that I can not be beat. Indeed, I'm surprised that you yourself haven't simply run off already. After all, isn't that what you do best?" Farron shook his head as Ezra looked away, clicking his tongue with disapproval.
"By the way," Farron continued, "I thought you should know, I'm going to have that wing of the library you were in demolished tomorrow. I was going to pull it down today with you in it, but, annoyingly, I couldn't be certain you were in there to be destroyed with these others. I also considered storming in, but then I had a much better idea. I knew you would try to see your mother, and, I admit, I wanted to surprise you, just as you surprised me so nicely in Tallus. Worked quite well, I believe. And I didn't lose any men."
"Not quite," Chris mumbled, and Buck smiled. Farron glanced at them as if they were ants, then looked back at Ezra. The thief was actually shaking slightly.
"And Nathan and JD?" Ezra asked, his voice cracking slightly. Chris glanced at him, surprised to hear actual fear in the man's voice.
Farron waved his hand dismissively at the thief, "The Moor and the boy? Well, that was an even more annoying problem. See, they were with a couple of this city's most pre-eminent citizens, President Freeman and his daughter, and I couldn't just arrest them or have them all killed without suffering a dangerous drop in public opinion. Not that it matters to me all that much, but a ruler always prefers disgruntled but apathetic subjects to angry, defiant ones. So, I burned their house down while they slept."
"What?" Buck yelled, pulling at his bonds. He managed to almost get to his feet before a guard pushed him back down.
"Yes, the blaze was quite magnificent. I could see it from your mother's room, Ezra, while I waited for you."
"You cretin!" Chris shouted, fighting with his bonds. Josiah put his head to the floor, his eyes shut. Vin didn't seem to react, though he had flinched slightly. His focus seemed to be turned inward. Farron noticed none of them, focused entirely as he was on the thief.
"They're dead?" Ezra whispered.
"They brought it on themselves, son," the emperor said simply.
Buck was still trying to get around the concept of JD's death, but both Chris and Josiah instantly looked up at hearing the appellation so casually thrown out by Farron.
"Son?" Chris asked tightly, staring at Ezra. The thief's jaw tensed.
Farron turned to them then, as if for the first time, and his face brightened with amusement as he took in the three men's expressions. "Wait, they didn't know? Oh for shame, Ezra. How could you keep such a thing from these men, especially after being with them for so long? It's been, what, almost two months since Hannah brought you together? I am impressed." Farron continued to laugh as he made his way up to the large ornate throne in the center of the far wall. Unlike the throne at Tallus, which had been a simple design of stone, dark cedar and blood red pillows, the Rhean throne was all marble and gold, with bright yellow velvet pillows with violet markings. Purple curtains draped the large chair, also heavily embroidered with gold. The emperor threw himself into it, and hung one leg over the ornate arm.
"You're the prince?" Chris repeated, staring at Ezra with bright eyes.
"His royal highness, Prince Assizran of Danaeria, the black prince, lazily nicknamed Ezra by his mother," Farron introduced formally, "He was banished in his fourteenth year for being a worthless guttersnipe."
"Assizran?" Chris repeated, still staring at Ezra.
"I did warn you, paladin," Ezra said mechanically, "I told you I was only loyal to one man. I'm surprised you didn't figure it out sooner."
"Saints alive, Ezra. All this time...." Josiah swallowed harshly, his eyes reflecting disappointment.
"Why didn't you tell us?" Chris demanded, moving to stand on his knees to better see the thief.
"Because, as you so aptly put it Chris, I am not stupid," Ezra replied quietly. His eyes darted to his father's face. Farron was grinning widely, enjoying this. Ezra dropped his head, "I know there is no point now, but I am sorry. I never meant....You gave me a second chance, Sir Larabee. I should have honored that. I didn't....I'm sorry."
The hall fell silent, until Farron started to clap. He stood and walked up to this son, so that he could see his face. "Tell me," he whispered, lifting up the younger man's chin, "would you ever have told them?"
The question hung in the air as father and son locked gazes. Finally, Ezra wrenched his chin away and dropped his gaze.
"I don't know."
Farron snorted, "Of course you wouldn't boy; you are your mother's son. You would have lied to the end, just to save your hide. How the hell you could be related to me, I could never figure out. After the way I raised you..."
Ezra jerked, and he looked up. "Raised me?" he asked, "Did you say, raised me? Father...if I saw you more than twice a year, it would have been a miracle. You kept me hidden away, with endless scores of tutors and no companions my age unless we were visiting someone."
"It is not my fault no one could stand you, Ezra. The only one who even asked about you was that red-headed fraud of Selene's. Tell me, did Eloise recognize you? I seem to remember the two of you getting into some trouble down those closed off waste chutes leading to the river when you were six. Selene and I nearly went crazy looking for you, thinking someone might have taken you...." For a moment, a little of the man Farron had once been was there on his face, as the old memory crossed his mind. Then, just as quickly, it was gone, submerged beneath the maddened hatred that consumed him. "Of course, I realize now what a blessing it would have been had the two of actually been lost! A false princess, and a sniveling brat of a prince."
"That's enough!" Vin yelled suddenly, his blue eyes blazing as he glared at the emperor.
The outburst was so surprising, it had both Ezra and Farron looking at the scout with confused eyes.
"I'm sorry?" Farron asked, honestly interested.
"Leave him alone," Vin stated firmly, matching Farron's gaze. "Haven't you whipped him enough?" Next to him, Ezra shut his eyes and lowered his head.
Farron smiled, "I don't believe I asked your opinion, scout."
"And I didn't ask to be here, listening to your bile," Vin growled. "Every word out of your mouth is venomous, although, considering the source, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. But why the hell do the rest of us have to listen to it? All you are doing is wasting our time."
Farron blinked, "Wasting...your time. Apparently, Ezra, dying has done very little for your scout's survival instincts."
"At this point, I'd rather die than have to listen to you any longer," Vin spat.
Farron laughed, "Typical Tillurian. Lemmings, all of them. Should have chosen better companions, son."
"Just kill us and get it over with, Farron," the scout hissed. Farron's grin fell, and he looked at Ezra.
"Your friend wants me to use the Mandate, doesn't he?"
"Why don't you?" Ezra asked quietly, not looking up.
Farron shook his head, once again ignoring the others. "I would like to, son, but, you forget, I can't use it against you. Gods, how I wish you had a sibling, so I could have destroyed you long ago." He raised his hand, the Mandate flaring to life, but the moment he looked at Ezra, it faded, and Farron winced at the backlash it caused. As he had said, the Mandate would not let him intentionally kill Ezra – after all, it wanted somewhere to go when Farron died.
"If it kills you along with me, I'm all for it," the thief whispered, actually meaning it. For the first time since being pulled in here, Ezra looked up, his green eyes clear. Part of him screamed at the idea, but that part was no longer in control. Fact was, it hadn't really been in control since he'd turned around in Tascosa -- he just hadn't noticed.
Farron stared at him, his face going blank. Then he did something completely strange. Reaching out, he touched Ezra's forehead, pushing back the stray curl with an almost gentle touch. The thief flinched from the touch. At the reaction, Farron's sneer returned, and he dropped his hand and looked behind his son to the guards.
"Get a message to the town crier. Tomorrow at noon, for crimes against the empire, the traitorous black prince, Assizran of Danaeria, will be beheaded in the central square, beneath the statute of Rhea."
The guard Farron had spoken to bowed and moved to turn, but then stopped. "Um, what about these others?" he asked, indicating the other four men in the room.
"What? Oh, right. Fetch some thrushes and cloths, will you? I hate the idea of getting blood on the flagstones. It took them hours to scrub Kinya's blood off that dais." He smiled at Ezra, who was wide-eyed, "I would destroy your friends with the Mandate, but considering its unreliability as to your scout," he glanced at Vin, who arched his eyebrows, "I feel better using a sword. Besides," he turned back to his son, his finger reaching out to draw an imaginary line along Ezra's neck, "the sensation of separating a man's neck from his body is so much more satisfying, don't you agree?"
Mrs. Whitlow was either a very sound sleeper, or she was with the rest of the street, watching Eban's house collapse in on itself from the fire. Eban himself stood in the shadow of the Whitlow's enormous front steps, Raine's hand on his shoulder.
"I lived half my life in that house," the old man muttered.
"We need to go, Eban," Nathan whispered. "The fire will be out soon, and then they'll start looking for bodies. When they don't find any...."
"Of course, of course," Eban held his arms close, thankful for the warmth of the summer night as he was wearing nothing but pajamas and a coat he had stolen from the Whitlow's front cupboard. He still felt bad about that.
"Where are we going to go? We can't go to the university, or to any of our friend's houses," Raine said, "they'll look there."
Nathan sighed and looked over at JD. The kid nodded, already knowing the answer.
"We have help, Eban."
"The Nichols Family," JD agreed brightly.
"What?" the old man actually staggered. With an understanding look, Nathan took the old man's arm and led him away.
Four wooden blocks the size of cut tree trunks were dragged into the Great Hall, and thrushes were laid on the ground around them, covering up the nearly white flagstones. Ezra had been forced to sit on a chair facing the blocks, where he watched the preparations with a dazed air. The chains had been taken off his wrists, so that the only thing actually holding him down were the guards standing at his back. Meanwhile, his father tested sword after sword for the right weight and balance, shouting angrily with each one that displeased him.
Chris, Vin, Buck and Josiah had all been herded to one side and forced to kneel with their heads to the floor. They all had their eyes open except Josiah, who was searching within him for a source of magic. Without his staff, he couldn't focus on outside energies, but he knew...KNEW...that he had the power of air inside of him somewhere. He had felt it augmenting his wind magic every time he had used it, so it had to be there. But like Nathan, he couldn't find it. The same feelings of failure that he'd felt at Tallus crept up on him, no matter how hard he tried to fight them.
Suddenly, Farron's angry shouts of annoyance turned into one of joy. Ezra blinked and looked over, then grimaced as Farron hefted a long, two handed broadsword – Chris's. The lamp light shone off of the iridescent handle and the silver of the pommel, making it appear to glow.
"How beautiful – The sword of Adenn. Your paladin's sword is truly impressive, Ezra. It's heavy, yes, but so well balanced for such a long piece of weaponry." Farron slashed to the left and right a few times, but stumbled when he attempted a thrust. His face twisted slightly.
"Oh well, I'm sure I'll get used to it. For now, it'll serve its purpose very well."
"Father, don't do this," Ezra said, standing slowly. Farron just looked at him, then turned back to the sword. Ezra frowned. "Please?" he asked.
"Did that tone ever work with your mother? Because I'm almost certain it never worked with me. In fact, last time you asked me not to do something, I think I banished you." Farron pointed the sword at the four kneeling men, "Move them to the blocks. Put the scout on the first one. This time, I'm going to make sure he dies." The guards moved instantly into action.
"One more word Ezra, and I will have you taken out."
"Enough!" Farron hefted the sword and stalked across to his son with the blade pointed at the thief's chest. Ezra stood up shakily to face him. "Get him out of here!" Farron snarled, pushing the thief back into the hands of the two guards watching him.
"No! Farron!" Ezra struggled as they pulled him away, "You can't do this!"
The emperor walked away, feigning deafness. Ezra bellowed angrily and wrenched himself from the two guards. Running forward, he moved to stand in front of Farron. The emperor stopped, his eyes narrowed.
"What exactly do you expect to accomplish with this? Guards!"
Ezra raised a hand to stop the men flanking him, "I know where the last Key is."
Farron dropped the sword, "You what?"
"Ezra, no!" Chris shouted, trying to sit up, but a guard held his head down, "Don't!"
"I know where the last key is. I'll tell you if you let them go."
"You snake! Stop!" Chris managed to throw off his guard, but two more were quickly there, pulling him down again. Buck, Josiah and Vin started to fight as well, but Ezra was oblivious. All he could see was Farron.
The emperor, meantime, started to grin. "Finally, you have shown me you have some use!"
The thief grimaced, "Let them go."
Farron bit his lip, "I'd rather not."
"Let them go. I want to see them released and allowed to walk freely back across the bridge into the city. The battlements atop the front gate should provide enough view."
Farron shook his head, "And how do I know that you won't cross me and lie?"
"You said you knew when I lied."
"True, but I would still like some insurance. Maybe one of them should stay behind? I really do want to see that scout killed. I can't tell you how it irks me to see him there...."
"You have me and...you have my mother."
"Maude....what a wonderful idea. If I get even the smallest inkling that you are lying, I'll simply toss her off the battlements."
Ezra shook his head, "No, I didn't mean...I thought you wanted to have another child with her."
"I can get another wife. Doubtful I could get one that I like as much -- there's no one quite like your mother, Ezra – but for the last Key, I'll make the sacrifice. Of course, if you tell the truth, she'll live."
"I'll tell the truth."
"Yes, I believe you will." Farron waved at his men to allow Chris and the others to stand.
Ezra glanced across at them just once more before allowing Farron to lead him away, his mind well aware that the look Chris had given him would stay with him for the rest of his life. There was pure hatred on the man's face, and it chilled him to the core.
Maude held onto Ezra's arm as she leaned against him, standing atop the battlements facing the city. A false dawn blanketed it, leaving its structures dark as the light brightened along the distant horizon. Maude was confused, not understanding what they were doing up there, but for the moment she was content to feel her son's heartbeat beneath her fingers, relishing in the feel of his arm in hers after so long. When Ezra was growing up, she had been almost as neglectful as her husband, but she could never just let him go, as Farron had done. She had hid it well, but those times when Ezra had stolen a moment to see her after his banishment had been some of the brightest moments of her life – especially after she had seen what awakening the Mandate had done to her husband's mind. She would be the first to tell you that Farron had not always been as he was now, that he had been human once, but that man had died when he gained that scar.
She herself was fairly healthy, despite spending almost three months in the dungeons, but her skin was too pale and her eyes shadowed. Ezra gripped her hand in his briefly, then let go.
The sound of the portcullis being raised and the main doors being opened had him leaning forward, and Maude leaned with him.
Down below, four men walked slowly onto the bridge, then turned to look up. Ezra nodded at them. None of the men nodded back. Instead, they turned and continued away down the bridge. Ezra watched them until they disappeared into the walls of the city. It was possible that Farron had a trap laid out for them there, but he had done what he could.
"Well, where is it?" Farron asked, turning to his son, "Where is my Key?" Maude's eyes widened.
Shutting his eyes, Ezra hesitated, until a yelp from his mother when a guard pushed a sword up her back woke him up. Swallowing, he told Farron exactly where Billy was, his voice flat and emotionless. Farron grinned.
"Thank you, son. I had a feeling he was there...hell, the Mandate almost sings to me of the truth of your words!" Farron held up his arms and crowed, while the guards moved forward to take Ezra and his mother back to the dungeons.
Maude just stared at her green eyed child, her own pale blue ones measuring his face. Once they were away from the emperor, she pinched his arm. He looked startled, as he looked at her.
"What just happened?" she asked. "What did you just do?" He just shook his head.
At the bottom of the steps leading down from the front gate, they stepped onto another set of battlements, lower down and to the side. Ezra still had no chains on, and, if the guards had been paying attention, they might have noticed that he no longer walked with a defeated step. In a single subtle motion, both his right arm and left arm jerked slightly, and a tiny pellet dropped into either hand.
About halfway down the walkway, Ezra threw the smoke pellet in front of them, instantly blocking the guards walking in front of them from view. In almost the same motion, he threw the fire pellet at the feet of the guards behind. One of them screamed as the flames engulfed his trousers, while the other had had the presence of mind to jump to the side. But he was nowhere as quick as the thief.
Ezra slammed his fist across the man's jaw, then twisted around to shoot his foot out as one of the guards hidden by the smoke emerged from the chaos – knocking that guard of the battlements to the courtyard below. Grabbing a knife from the belt of the man on the ground trying to put out the fire, Ezra flicked it around and threw it into the smoke. A surprised yell was cut off, as the other guard trapped in the smoke stared blearily down at the knife in his gut before he crumpled.
In the meantime, Maude daintily lifted up a foot and kicked the burning guard in the head. Down below, guards in the courtyard were shouting.
Ezra took her hand and kissed it, "Shall we go?"
"Far away," he promised. He jumped atop the battlements facing the lake, and Maude physically stepped back.
"You can't be serious. I don't want to die, Ezra."
"We won't, trust me."
"There are only rocks down there! We'll be smashed to pieces."
"I can't. It's suicide."
Ezra kneeled down, and grabbed her shoulders. "Please, it's the only way."
She shook her head, and he shut his eyes. When he opened them again, they were bright. "Goodbye," he whispered.
She nodded, and kissed him on the cheek. Then he turned and jumped. She dashed forward and leaned over, just in time to see him plunge into the black water of the lake. The water frothed white around where he went in, proof of the large black granite rocks that existed just below the surface. It wasn't deep enough. There was no way.
When she looked up again, she saw Farron next to her, also staring down at the rocks below.
"He killed himself," she said, her voice breaking. "He jumped....how could he have done that?"
Farron snorted, fixing her with a blank stare, "You know what?" he asked, smiling slowly, "I believe this calls for a celebration." He looked at a couple of new guards, standing nearby at attention as the others cleared away the dead. "Take her to my bedroom," he ordered, walking off.
Maude let someone take her arm and pull her after, but she was no longer aware of anything but what her son had done. It was the only bright thing she had left to focus on now.
He had lied.
She was so proud of him.
Lydia grinned as Chris thanked her with a cool nod. When the four men had crossed the bridge, it was too find a quiet city littered with bodies wearing guard's uniforms. Ma Nichols had had her people watching the castle and the road leading up to it, just in case, while she mobilized a small army to try and rescue them. When they had seen the guard mobilize in preparation for what had clearly was supposed to have been an ambush, she turned her army on them. Lydia told Chris that Ma Nichols would be pleased that she wouldn't have to actually storm the castle.
They headed swiftly to The Weepers, where Nathan and JD waited. Buck instantly embraced the boy into a bear hug, much to the kid's embarrassment, while Nathan couldn't stop talking to Josiah and Vin about what had happened at the house, about the power he sensed and even controlled for a brief time. But Chris never spoke, listening with a stone face as Ma Nichols explained to him how she had fetched all their horses and packed them ready to leave. What weapons they had left at the Weepers were packed onto the horses, but she guessed that they might have lost a few things. So, she had added some things from her own arsenal. Chris thanked her quietly, while the others were slightly warmer in their gratitude. She accepted it all stoically, as she seemed to accept everything.
"Where will you go now?" she asked him, when she caught him checking the girth on his saddle.
"Probably to my death," he told her. She lowered her eyes and huffed slightly. Then she looked over at the chestnut horse, which lacked a rider.
"What about that one?" she asked.
Chris glanced over at the horse, but didn't answer. She huffed again, more angrily this time.
"I rather liked Ezra Standish, you know. He was very good at his art. Never knew a better thief," she shook her head, and smiled a little, "or better liar."
Chris was about to retort angrily, but movement by the side of the pub stopped him. Pushing her aside, he pulled the short sword she had leant him.
Dripping wet, his arms wrapped around him tightly, a shivering Ezra stepped away from the shadows of the alleyway. One leg was bloody from a long scrape, the trousers shredded. In two steps, Chris had the sword at his throat, both hands on the pommel. Pale green eyes looked back at him, not blinking.
"I made a promise," the thief whispered, "not to run out."
The sword shook slightly in the paladin's hand. In the background, everything had ceased.
"But I never...promised...not to lie," Ezra continued. "Now that you know who I am....what are you going to do?"
Chris blinked, clearing vision that had started to blur. "How could you?" he hissed.
"I," the thief shut his eyes, "I was afraid." He opened them again, and they focused on the golden glow of the rising sun on the blade. "Only two people have ever truly frightened me, Sir Larabee, my father...and when Hannah touched me. The first is obvious. The second...." he frowned, the reflecting sun making his eyes seem even paler as his pupils almost disappeared inside the iris, "I felt my death in that touch, Chris. I felt all our deaths. By not telling you who I was, I think I was trying to forestall it."
"I am not talking about your damned blood," the paladin hissed, pressing the sword deeper. "I am talking about Billy!"
Ezra's eyes flew up, "Billy?" he rasped.
The paladin shook his head, "He is just a boy, Ezra," he hissed. "He could have had years before Farron found him. Our deaths are nothing compared to him, don't you see? Someone somewhere might have figured out some other way to stop Farron before..."
"You think I told Farron where Billy is?" Ezra's interrupted. "How could you think I could?"
Chris looked startled for a moment, his eyes searching Ezra's, surprised at the indignation he saw there. Then Vin was there, his hand on Chris's where it held the sword. Gently, he forced the paladin to pull back on the weapon. A thin red line welled up with blood on Ezra's throat, looking like a tiny papercut.
"You lied?" Chris still held the sword high, despite Vin's actions. But Ezra was unaware, his jaw trembling now as much from anger as cold.
"No Chris," he sneered, "I never lie. That would be wrong."
The paladin seemed not to know how to react to the sarcasm, while Ezra just blinked, his pride fading as he looked again at the sword. Buck appeared at Chris's other shoulder and placed his hands on top of Vin's. Silently, the others trailed him, each putting a hand on the blade. Slowly, they pushed it down.
Abruptly, the sword clattered to the cobblestones, and Chris turned away, leaving the knot of men facing the thief. Vin accepted a blanket from Ma Nichols and wrapped it around a now violently shivering Ezra.
"So where did you send Farron?" he asked, hugging Ezra slightly to warm him up. The thief offered him a smile in thanks, the expression lighting his face, but it was dulled by the tears now raining down it. Vin wondered if Ezra knew he was crying.
"Leda. I told him you hid Billy in Farron's own capital city, because you figured he would never go back there," Ezra replied. "But, Vin...it won't work. I could see it in him, controlling him. That man, whoever he is, is not my father. Flippant one minute, vituperative the next, and all the while violent and vicious in his humors...." Ezra shook his head. "He was mean before, Vin, but never like that. The Mandate is all there is for him now. Worse, I'm willing to bet that it will also find Billy for him, and soon."
"It's possible," Josiah agreed quietly.
"It is more than possible, mage. I could feel it."
"Yeah, but now that the library is gone, what can we do? We know nothing more now about how to stop him than when we started," Buck said, slamming his fist into the wall of the pub.
"There is only one thing we can do. Protect Billy for as long as we can. Go there and prepare to meet Farron when he comes. A last stand, if you will."
"Protect him, against odds that are probably going to be hundred to one," Chris muttered, from by the horses. "Seven men against an army. Would you really play those odds, Ezra?"
"There are no odds when there is no choice, Sir Larabee. You are Billy's champion, so you must protect him for as long as you can, at the expense of all else. And by my promise, I will go where you do, until you kill me."
Abruptly, Chris snorted, and slapped Solon's hide. Then he glanced briefly at Nathan, "Heal him. I want to leave here now, and I don't want his highness whining about a little scrape."
Sensing the sudden change in tone, Ezra mock frowned and looked at his leg, "Little scrape?"
Chris turned to him, and Ezra was pleased to see a crooked smile on the paladin's face. "Little scrape," he stated firmly. "It could have been much bigger, not too mention higher up," he said, touching his neck and grinning more widely. The thief made a little "o" with his mouth, and Chris tipped his head.
Acceptance and Apology, all in one.
Nathan moved Ezra over to a chair, then knelt to look at the leg. As he placed a hand on it, he looked up at Ezra. "Funny, your blood doesn't look blue," he said cheekily.
Ezra blinked, and a crooked smile crossed his face. "I was very happy to see you and Master Dunne alive and well, healer."
"Yeah," Nathan said. "Same to you. By the way, I need to thank you for introducing me to some of your criminal habits." Ezra tilted his head at the remark, but didn't press.
"Are you all right?" Josiah asked, quietly sidling up and pulling the blanket higher on one of Ezra's shoulders. The thief nodded. The mage smiled.
"It will be all right, Ezra. That I promise you," he whispered. Ezra smiled lightly and returned his gaze to Nathan.
"Royal pain in the ass, ain't he?" Vin asked Buck as they leaned against the wall, bringing Ezra's eyes up again. He found the scout grinning like a cheshire cat.
"A real prince among men," Buck agreed, his tone the opposite of Vin's. Reaching out, he touched Ezra's wet head, "I finally know who you are," he said solemnly. "I knew there was a reason I couldn't bring myself to trust you, HRH. Something was always wrong with the way you acted, but it's not there anymore. And my doubt has gone with it." He held out his hand, which Ezra just looked at for a moment, before tentatively reaching forward to take it.
"Thank you, Buck."
"But you cheat me at cards again, and I will kill you." Buck smooshed Ezra's head down, pushing all the hair forward into his face, then walked away laughing. Ezra snorted.
"HRH?" JD asked, walking across to Buck, who handed him the reins of his horse. Little Olivia had been holding JD's hand, but she let go and backed away as he moved to mount.
"His Royal Highness," the Oracle said quietly, watching the others also mount their horses. Nathan was the last, having helped a newly healed Ezra before getting on his own. Goodbyes were said quietly and quickly, the healer the only one to look back as they rode away. He was watching an upper story window, where a brown eyed woman waved once before hiding herself away again.
Then, the seven were gone again, disappearing down the empty early morning streets towards the North Gate. Ma Nichols dispatched men and women to guard them and make sure they weren't followed.
Olivia sat down where Ezra had been and closed her eyes. For an eight year old girl, she looked as if she wore the years of an eighty year old woman.
"What is it now?" Ma Nichols asked, coming over to sit next to her. Olivia opened her eyes and frowned.
"They have returned to where they belong, where their power is the strongest, though they do not know it yet. In Four Corners, they will either finish this, or they will die. And if they do...." The little girl shivered in the cool air, and Ma Nichols pulled her close.
Continued in PART FIVE