Dae relaxed and tipped her chair further back, a warm sensation of certainty spreading from her toes up through all points of her body until it settled into her heart.
“The Queen’s your employer?” she asked the Inchesso summoner, just to make certain he was willing to stick with that claim.
“Yes,” Biago said. “Our contract carries the Royal Signet. So it doesn’t matter what you discover here, or where I try to run. The Queen will overrule your findings and my guild will restore my honor and expunge any witnesses they can find.”
“Can’t say I’m thrilled with the notion of fighting a whole guild that thinks someone as powerful as this one is an expendable pawn,” Kael said. “And you’re insane if you think any of us are going to stand against the Queen’s wishes.”
Dae steepled her fingers in front of her mouth to hide the vicious smile that was twisted her lips into a shark’s grin.
It had been six years since she last saw the Queen. She hadn’t been able to meet Alari’s eyes then, and their parting had been filled with a cold, aching silence broken only by the terse, formal words required between a vassal and her liege.
Joining the Dawn March was Dae’s idea. As was her change in title and name. Everyone from the Lord Marshall of the Dawn March down to the lowliest squire in the Nath barracks read that decision as having been “suggested” by the Queen.
Theoretically, the Dawn March was as close to Royal Service as Dae’s role as the commander of Star’s Watch Keep had been. Both the outpost commanders and the officers of the Dawn March reported to a chain of command which was directly controlled by the Regent of Gallagrin.
When she was a child, Dae was told more stories of the gallant hellions of the Dawn March than any other group. They were the brave souls who rooted out the worst villains in the kingdom and brought justice to those whom the law couldn’t otherwise reach. Dae dreamed of joining their ranks for years, even after she began to see that the reality of Gallagrin’s wealthy and powerful didn’t match the fairy tales she’d grown up on.
By the time she transferred to the Dawn March, she was able to enter it with the disillusioned eyes of an adult, but it was still her decision to do so, despite no one else believing that.
To the rest of the world, Dae’s transfer to the Dawn March was both a demotion and a dishonorable discharge from her military role. Where legends had once been told of the Dawn March’s daring and honor, the centuries of tarnish that had built up on the corruption fighting institution robbed it of its luster. The Dawn March was so well bought by the interests it was meant to stand against, that everyone knew it to be the place the bad and the worthless were cashiered so that they would do as little damage as possible.
At the time that had suited Dae’s desires perfectly. Somewhere she could be worthless. Somewhere she couldn’t do any harm. In the wake of Star’s Watch’s burning, that was what her soul cried out for and she was more than willing to oblige it.
From the first day she’d reported to the Nath barracks, she’d heard the whispers of how people chose to define her. Where once she’d been praised as a prodigy, the voices in the barracks called her a failure, and she knew it was true. Where once she a trusted member of one of the kingdom’s most elite companies, in the Dawn March she was surrounded by those who took no pride in either their position or the duties bestowed upon them and she became one of their number, taking pride in nothing. Those were the truths that ate away at her soul until she had had to replace the missing pieces with the spirits she could find in a bottle, but there was one rumor that she didn’t listen to, that she couldn’t.
The last meeting between the Queen of Gallagrin and the former commander of the Star’s Watch Keep was a private one. No one knew what was said between the two women, and so everyone speculated wildly on it. The general consensus was that the Queen had cast Dae out, and that Dae took the job with the Dawn March because she hated her liege and wished to join the one organization where she could retain her pact spirit and yet never have to see the Queen again.
Dae hadn’t corrected that impression. She hadn’t addressed it at all. It wasn’t something she could bring herself to even think of.
Sitting opposite Biago and hearing his claim of the Queen’s guilt in the Lorenzo’s murder filled Dae with warmth for one reason; she knew Alari hadn’t done it.
Her earlier reasoning about the deception Biago’s true employer would employ was solid, but not definite. It would have been foolish for his employer not to deceive the assassins in his employ but people made mistakes all the time, even very smart people and very stupid mistakes kept company with each other on a regular basis.
Dae’s certainty didn’t spring from her logic. It rose from something deeper and something much simpler.
She knew Alari. Six years separated them, but it could have been sixty years or six hundred and it wouldn’t have mattered. For years, Dae had been the only one Alari could share everything with, and Alari had been the only one whom Dae could trust completely. Dae had seen Alari on her best days and her worst ones. She knew Alari’s pettiness, her cruelty, and her malice as well as she knew her friend’s joy, and kindness and selflessness.
When Dae heard how the civil war ended, and of the sacrifices Alari had to make to secure the new peace, she hadn’t been surprised, only heartbroken. Dae knew the shape of Alari’s soul, she knew the actions her friend was capable of, the losses Alari could endure, and the burdens the new Queen could bear. What shattered Dae was the knowledge that Alari had been forced to act and endure and bear up without her. That in Alari’s very worst hour, Dae hadn’t been there for her.
Dae hid that wound and buried it under silence and sarcasm. No one knew her true feelings, and so she’d been drawn into the plot as a perfect catspaw. They mistaken her for someone too stupid to give up easily, someone who could find a believably well buried clue and someone who would be all too willing see the Queen burn.
Dae’s shark smile sent a thrill racing to the tips of her fingers. Whoever was behind Lorenzo’s murder had made a terrible error when they let Dae get involved in the investigation and it was going to be delicious watching them learn just how wrong they were to endanger Alari in an arena where Dae had anything to say about it.
“You’re forgetting something Kael,” Dae said. “We busted a forgery house two months ago. And another one six months before that. And two others a year ago.”
“You’re still thinking there’s a grand mastermind at work here?” Kael asked.
“Maybe not so grand, and maybe not so much of a mastermind,” Dae said. “Ask yourself though how hard it would be to fool a bunch of Inchesso assassins with a fake Royal Seal?”
“We verified the seal,” Biago said. “It was legitimate.”
“Verified through who?” Dae asked. “You don’t have the original Seal to compare to, and Inchesso counterfeiters don’t hold a candle to our local Gallagrin scum.”
“We have contacts in Gallagrin,” Biago said. “We are not stupid.”
“Those would be the same contacts who brought you commission? Right?” asked Dae.
Biago scowled at the accusation but didn’t try to deny it.
“Don’t feel bad,” Dae said. “You’re not exactly in a trust inducing line of work. That your guild has any contacts outside of Inchesso at all is a mark of prestige. You may not be top notch but you’re at least respectable.”
“Doesn’t sound like you respect them much,” Kael said.
“I respect them just as much as I respect you and the rest of my fellow officers,” Dae said.
It was Kael’s turn to scowl at that.
“I still think if the Queen’s involved in this we should just drop it,” Kael said.
“You want to let him walk?” Dae said. “It sits right with you that he and, what, a half dozen other professional killers, murdered a boy who was too young to shave?”
“I’m less concerned with a dead boy who isn’t going to get any deader than I am with my own neck, which I’d like to keep in its current, unslit, condition,” Kael said.
“You’ve got a pact spirit,” Dae said frowning at Kael in distaste.
“Yeah, and I’m old enough to know that it doesn’t make me invulnerable,” Kael said. “We’ve got Biago here on the hook now. If he tries to call up any of his little shadows we can take his head off his shoulders before he pronounces the first syllable of their name. We both know we’ve got to sleep at some point though.”
“We don’t have to worry about that,” Dae said. “Biago doesn’t want to kill us, he wants to die to restore his family’s honor. If we go to sleep, he’s not going to risk attacking us and having our pacts defend us. He’ll off himself with the fastest tools he can find.”
“I will not need to kill myself, my guild will come for me,” Biago said.
“And you’re counting on that because that’s how they can be sure that the job was actually done,” Dae said. “That’s an awfully strong fixation on honor you’ve got for a guy who was willing to murder a child.”
“You understand nothing,” Biago said.
Dae studied him for a long moment.
“You’re not worried about honor to gain your family’s favor are you?” she asked. “They have your family don’t they?”
“What do you mean ‘they have his family’,” Kael asked.
“Standard technique for the life bound assassin guilds,” Dae said. “Failure always ends with death. Either the assassin takes their own life or their family is killed in their place. And then the wayward assassin is killed as soon as the guild can find them.”
“Doesn’t seem like you’d get many recruits like that,” Kael said.
“You do if you’re giving out pact spirits,” Dae said.
“I thought only the Royal houses gave those out?” Kael said.
“It’s the same in Inchesso as it is here,” Dae said. “Everything’s for sale.”
“How do you know that?” Kael asked. “You never served in Inchesso.”
“I’ve read all kinds of things I shouldn’t have,” Dae said, leaving out the explanation that most of her knowledge on the underworld came from the intelligence reports that King Sathe commissioned and that Dae and Alari pilfered when no one was looking.
Reams of scrolls that the adults were bored to tears by became a secret treasure horde for the two girls, and the first of many rebellions that eventually tore the country apart for a brief period.
“Sounds like our assassin got a pretty raw deal then,” Kael said.
“Not as raw as the one Lorenzo got,” Dae said.
“I wasn’t the one who killed the boy,” Biago said.
“Sure you did,” Dae said. “Even if you didn’t hold the dagger, you were with them when your guildmate did the deed. You agreed to take the contract. Lorenzo lost a lot of blood. There’s plenty to cover your hands too.”
“You are right,” Biago said. “If you seek justice for the boy, then you should kill me too.”
“I’m not that kindly,” Dae said.
A knock on the door to the small apartment captured the attention of everyone inside it.
“Your guild a particularly polite one?” Kael asked.
“It’s not his guild,” Dae said. “It’s the other party that’s interested in talking to our friend here.”
Biago and Kael both looked at her in confusion but Dae simply gestured to the door, waving Kael over to answer it. The Dawn March officer looked at Dae, and then at the prisoner and then at the door, trying to decide which of the three was the least dangerous. With a renewed scowl he settled on the door as the safest option and walked to it calling out “Who’s there?”
“Squire Telfin,” a young man called back. “I’ve come from the barracks with new orders.”
“Your presence is being requested,” Dae said to Biago.
Kael let the squire into the room
“Commander Ketel said to bring the prisoner back to the barracks. The Inchesso ambassador is demanding to see him. The prince’s family is coming here and are requiring that the culprits be presented to them in chains when they arrive!”