Monthly Archives: September 2015

The Mind’s Armor – Chapter 15

The volley of arrow the shadow archers fired wasn’t enough to block out the sun. The summoner who called them was powerful, but even still there were limits to how many avatars they could manifest at any one time. Dae took that as a good sign. After she defeated one of their members, she wasn’t sure how the Denarius Consortium would react, or the kind of resources they would have to bring to bear.

From the reports she’d gleaned of the Duke’s celebration of the Royal Unification Gala, the Consortium had been composed of six “merchants” plus an equal number of “attendants” and a like number of hanger-ons such as Lorenzo. That made them one of the smaller parties invited to the affair, but by virtue of being foreigners, they stood out.

Dae was able to obtain testimony from a number of different party goers affirming that the Consortium claimed it was a newly formed business enterprise and that this was the members first time visiting Gallagrin. More than one of the guests reported a sense of unease at being in a Consortium member’s presence, and that the “merchants” seemed less interested in mingling and discussing business than they were with determining what activities their fellow Inchesso countrymen were involved in.

That wasn’t damning evidence by itself. All nations in the Blessed Realms relied on spies to one extent or another. Inchesso in particular was known for cultivating a rich intelligence gathering network. Its neighbors didn’t object much as the primary goal of Inchesso’s espionage efforts seemed to be spying on itself.

Gallagrin had a long history of internecine struggles between its nobles, but despite having hosted a full blown civil war six years prior, it was still a model of trust and camaraderie compared to its neighbor to the east. For Inchesso it wasn’t a question of whether a particular noble family had a blood feud with another family, but rather a which blood feud they felt like using to justify whatever act of betrayal they had planned at any given moment.

It never made sense to Dae how a country could sustain itself under that level of internal pressure, and to some extent Inchesso wasn’t sustaining itself. Once the most powerful of all the nations in the Blessed Realm, Inchesso’s influence had been shrinking for centuries as the blood of nobleman and commoner alike ran into the gutters and out to the Red Coast.

Inchesso’s decline was slower than its history suggested though, which told Dae there were powers at work within the country. Powers that shaped which feuds were carried through to bloodshed and which merely lead to unpleasant dinner conversations.

Whatever the goal of those powers were, Dae guessed they didn’t involve supporting the Denarius Consortium. If they had, if Lorenzo’s murder was carried out by a party with the support from whatever cabal actually ruled Inchesso, then they would have had much better resources to throw again two Pact Warriors than a single summoner.

Dae pondered that and watched as the arrow storm drifted towards her, their flight slowed to the pace of leaves falling on a windless day.

People who were unfamiliar with Pact Warriors tended to assume that the time they spent transforming was when they were at their most vulnerable. People who tried to take advantage of “opening” usually did not have a chance to learn from their mistakes.

Kirios, Dae’s pact spirit, had waited, patient as only something ageless can be, when Dae called him up. He sat on her shoulders as an invisible, insubstantial mantle of power. The moment she released him though that power unfurled.

Light flared out from Dae, radiating from eyes and mouth and chest and hands and legs. It was the energy of the pact spirit’s incarnation, a tiny fraction of the magic is brought into the world, radiating away. Kirios missed it less than Dae missed the road dust that she kicked off her cloak each night when she got home.

In the moment of transition, Kirios was the most fully at his peak. His power was released into the material world and the constraints of the Pact were, for the brief instant of the transformation, not yet fully binding.

The arrows in flight drew bolts of golden lightning which arced from arrow to arrow and then back to the archers that fired them. Nothing the lightning touched survived.

Dae had no say in that, and had to struggle harder to complete the transformation. If Kirios’ power was allowed to run out of control her attackers would certainly be destroyed but a worse fate than that awaited her.

Gritting her teeth, Dae forced the light streaming from her to coalesce into the rigid metal plates and mail of her armor. It wasn’t the armor she’d designed during her Pact Binding ceremony. That was lost to her. Lost with the fall of Star’s Watch.

In its place, she wore the mail of a commoner. It was armor devoid of any ornamentation or augmentation, just like her surname, and so it suited her. Ugly but functional. It was as much as she could aspire to but the gauntlet’s still felt subtly wrong when she looked at them, like they were incomplete.

Beside her, Dae watched as Kael transformed as well. His transformation was more theatrical than her own. Each piece of his armor materialized separately, slamming into place with a crashing, metallic, thud. To the uninitiated, it looked much stronger and more forceful than Dae’s since they could see the weight and power of each element of Javan’s attire. The extended duration of the transformation was a liability and a crutch in Dae’s eyes though.

By taking more time to transform, Kael was able to bind each piece of armor more easily. Novices pact binders performed the basic armor manifestation spells over a period of hours, working slowly to build their control of the magics in simple, clear stages. As their skills improved, the pact binders learned to accelerate the process, weaving multiple threads of control around their spirit’s power at once. The most skilled transformations were performed with little fanfare or displays of power at all, but Dae didn’t strive for that either. Too much care in transforming was a waste of time, but allowing the change to be visible and clear was useful on its own. More fights were won on the psychological battleground than by actual force of arms in her experience.

“What in the Holy Goat’s hairy butt was that?” Kael asked as his transformation completed. Above them, the archers that had been disintegrated by Dae’s lightning riposte reformed from the smoky clouds they’d been blown into.

“An ambush,” Dae said. “Topside now, unless you want to play pincushion down here.”

As though they’d practiced it, the two Pact Warriors leapt two stories into the air to land on the roofs of the buildings on the opposite sides of the alley where the shadow archers were firing at them from.

A swipe from Dae’s blade as she landed split the two nearest archers in half. Though they only appeared to be composed of dark smoke, cutting through them was like hacking trees in half. Fortunately for Dae, Kirios was more than capable of felling trees or shadow archers in a single blow. Unfortunately, the shadow archers were more than capable of reforming when their bodies were destroyed.

Parrying another volley of arrows from archers on the other side of the roof, she looked around to get a sense of the forces set against them. The odds weren’t grim, not with Kael drawing the attention of the archers on the southern building, but thinning the opposition’s numbers wasn’t looking like a promising option either.

“Why aren’t these things staying dead?” Kael asked, shouting from one building to the other.

“Summoner’s got to be nearby,” Dae said. “Must be resummoning as we drop them.”

An arrow clipped her directly between the shoulder blades. Kirios stopped the thorny bolt from penetrating her torso, but she felt his protection fade slightly in exchange for that. Two more shots hit her. One clipped her shoulder but lost its force to the curve of the plating there. The other struck her dead center on the side of the thigh. Kirios shielded her from that blow as well, but another drop of his secured power vanished in turn.

Dae leapt thirty feet, from the side of the building she was on, to the opposite corner and sliced through the trio of summoned archers who had landed blows on her. From the center of the roof another trio of attackers materialized though and plinked away still more of Kirios protection.

“This isn’t going to go well if we can’t make some headway,” Kael shouted as though Dae was unfamiliar with the limitation a Pact Warrior fought under.

The phenomenal power offered by a Pact spirit came with a price. Once the transformation was complete, the spirit placed as much of its power into the armor and weapons as the Pact Warrior could hold. That was far from the full amount of magic the spirit truly possessed though. As a Pact Warrior’s available magic ran down they had two options. The sensible one was to withdraw from battle, before the transformation ran out of magic and the protection granted by the spirit wore off.

The second option was to call on more of the spirit’s power. More Pact Warriors died attempting that than were ever killed directly by their enemies. The mildest form of failure was that the Pact Warrior’s call for magic would be unanswered and they would revert to their purely mortal form immediately. The more common failure mode was that the power would be given, but it would burn the warrior from the inside as they failed to control it. Occasionally the magic fire would be explosive enough to also take out their opponents, which was seen as at least a partial victory by some.

In the worst case though, the warrior would get the power they called for, but rather than the warrior controlling it, the raw, mindless, destructive force would control them. The resulting creature would often undergo a second transformation and would become a true monster. More than one grand battle had been called to a temporary and immediate truce when a failing Pact Warrior turned berserker and began slaughtering everything on the battlefield.

“Find the summoner and we can finish this,” Dae shouted back to Kael.

The problem with that strategy was that summoners knew they were the weak link of their forces and, as a result, learned to hide themselves well if they planned to live beyond their first battle.

The other problem with looking for the summoner was that they had the resources to keep Dae distracted. Resources in the form of a fresh horde of the shadow archers materializing to supplement the first group.

“Getting busier every second here,” Kael said, dispatching an archer with a series of five strokes that rendered it into well dispersed pieces. Behind him, two more archers materialized, launching arrows as they did so.

“Head to the ground, see if he’s hiding out there!” Dae said. Technically it wasn’t her place to issue orders to Kael. He outranked her. That was in theory. In practice though Kael was more than happy to get off the rooftop and dropped over the side and to the alley below without a word of backtalk.

He wasn’t going to find anything. Dae knew that. For the summoner to be calling in the unending stream of archers, they had to be somewhere which offered visibility to the rooftops. That limited the possibilities tremendously. There were only two buildings that were close enough and had the proper view of the roofs Dae had chosen to stage the fight near.

If she wanted to place the obvious bet, Dae would have picked the Casbel Grain warehouse as the spot where the summoner was. It was accessible, and it was slightly closer (which made for easier spell casting) and it offered multiple avenues of escape. A smart summoner would be hiding there with a small army of summons waiting in the wings in case anyone found them.

While Dae didn’t doubt her adversary’s intelligence, she was also reasonably sure they weren’t on the Casbel Grain warehouse.

Around her, the horde of archers swelled faster than Dae was taking them down. More and more arrows pounded through her defenses, chipping away bigger and bigger chunks of the Kirios’ magic.

Unleashing a burst of speed that surpassed sight, she flew to three corners of the roof and struck down the groups there before collapsing to one knee, panting.

As she caught her breath, the archers reformed and she sprang at them again. And again. And again.

A shot from one of the bows landed and shattered her shoulder guard. She downed the archer responsible and another arrow fractured a section of armor at her hip.

With one last rush, she cleared all of the archers from the roof and collapsed, gasping for breath. It took a long moment, but not as long as Dae getting her breath back, before a small contingent of archers reformed.

Dae rose unsteadily but as she did her armor fell away from her and arrow after arrow thunked into her chest, transfixing her like a target dummy.

As she fell to the roof, Dae forced a smile off her face. Everything was going right according to plan.

The Mind’s Armor – Chapter 14

Dae left Commander Ketel’s office glad to be rid of the stench of the assassin she’d dragged back from the ambush site. It had been long and unpleasant work to carry the body that far. Without her Dawn March heraldry on display the Nath Watch probably wouldn’t have let her in the gates, but rank did have its privileges.

The barracks were sparsely populated, which wasn’t an uncommon scenario in Nath. With the “close connections” between Duke Telli and the commander there wasn’t much call for the Dawn March to fulfill its primary duty of regular reviews of the watch and the Duke’s personal forces. Instead the officers were assigned various cases as though they were backup members of the Watch.

Anything the city guards couldn’t handle, or didn’t want to, filtered up to the Dawn March and then, under normal circumstances, into one of the many fireplaces in the barracks where the case amounted to a few moments of warmth and little more.

The casefile on Lorenzo’s murder wouldn’t hit the hearthfires though. It fell into the “someone sufficiently important cares about this” category. That didn’t mean that it would actually be investigated however. A real investigation would have some slight chance of turning up the real culprits and, given that the killers were well connected enough to know when, where and how Teo was being transported out of the city, it was a safe bet that the person behind them was powerful enough to send the investigation down all the wrong tracks.

Since she had been officially removed from the case, Dae had no further stake in seeing the problem averted though. According to the Dawn March by-laws she was to stay as clear and uninvolved with the ongoing investigation as a regular civilian would be. Generally this struck her as a good operating principal. If an officer was removed from a case, it was usually for incompetence and the last thing the investigation needed was for them to muddy the waters further with their blundering. A poorly run investigation didn’t just allow the guilty party to escape, it confused things to the point where guilt and innocence were impossible to determine for anyone involved, including the investigators themselves.

Thanks to her general attitude, Dae was used to being removed from cases. Most of the time in fact her attitude was due to having no interest in working on whatever “important case” was assigned to her. She might discover that a flour merchant was cutting his wares with sawdust and the commander wouldn’t let her choke him to death with his own product? She might as well get kicked off the case and let someone else deal with the guy, as far as she could see.

“You do not look like a woman who has been giving the rest of the day off,” Javan Kael said as Dae strode out of barrack’s main offices.

“I’m off the case,” Dae said.

“Good then, that makes two of us,” Kael said.

“How much did it cost you?” Dae asked. “I had to pay an arm and a leg.”

“I saw the body you brought in here Kor. There was more left than an arm and a leg.” Kael fell into step with Dae, following her out of the barracks HQ and into the bustling streets of Nath.

“Yeah, but the rest was all white meat,” Dae said. “Can’t stand the stuff myself.”

Kael drew back a half step.

“That’s disgusting Kor,” he said, letting her merge into the crowds. “I’d be proud, but coming from you that just doesn’t sound right at all.”

“Maybe I’m not myself?” she said, pushing further into the later afternoon bustle that swamped the city’s narrow streets.

Kael used a combination of his larger form, his Dawn March heraldry, and lifetime of skill at navigating crowded mobs to push himself through the throng and catch up to Dae.

“What’s got you so worked up about this one?” Kael asked.

“I’m not worked up,” Dae said. “I’m focused.”

“Yeah and the last time I saw you focused like this is never, so what’s special now?” Kael asked.

“Who says anything’s special now?” Dae asked.

“You do,” Kael said. “Normally when you get an afternoon free you spend a few hours brooding at you desk and then you go and get plastered at whatever dive will have you.”

“And you just skip the brooding,” Dae said.

“This isn’t about me,” Kael said.

“That’s probably the first time I’ve heard you utter those words,” Dae said. “I’d almost think you mean them except well, this is you talking.”

“I notice you’re not heading to the Low Quarter either,” Kael said. “Which tells me you’re not drinking either.”

“The night’s much too young to say that,” Dae said.

“It’s afternoon,” Kael said.

“Plenty of time then right?” Dae said.

“What worries me is what you’re going to do between then and now,” Kael said.

“Probably get myself killed,” Dae said.

“Dammit Kor, it’s not a joke when you’re serious about it,” Kael said.

“And you would care why exactly?” Dae asked.

“Because I’ve got an inkling about who you’re going to get to kill you, and I don’t need the Duke killing me too for being associated with you,” Kael said.

“Seems funny that you’re walking beside me then,” Dae said.

“Pretty hard to strangle you if I let you get out of arm’s reach,” Kael said.

“Anytime you’d like to try…’ Dae said.

“Seriously, why are you going to bother the Duke,” Kael said. “Or are you going to pretend that we’re not walking directly towards the castle now?

“I’m not pretending anything,” Dae said. “I’ve just got a few questions for his Grace.”

“You’re off the case Kor. Those aren’t questions you’re allowed to ask anymore.”

“Didn’t say they were questions about this case,” Dae said.

“So you’re just trotting up to the castle to ask the Duke what exactly? How he like his eggs in the morning?”

“Road safety,” Dae said. “The roads out of Nath have some serious ruts in them.”

“And you’re going to ask the Duke about that?”

“It’s his job to maintain all the bridges, tunnels and roads in Nath,” Dae said. “It’s why he collects all those taxes right?”

“That’s a thin excuse Kor, real thin,” Kael said.

“Good, there seem to be a lot of thin excuses going around, I’d hate to miss out on my share” Dae said, dodging around a fruit cart that was being driven home for the evening by its owner.

“What I don’t get is what kind of connection you’ve got to this Inchesso kid that lit your fire up so high,” Kael said.

“It’s not the kid Kael,” Dae said. “But it probably should be, shouldn’t it?”

“Plenty of kids get themselves dead Kor,” Kael said. “There’s no point in bringing the Duke down us for one of them that’s a foreigner.”

“So you’d be more engaged if it was a local kid?” Dae asked. “Or maybe one of your kids?”

“I don’t have any kids Kor,” Kael said. “At least not any I gotta pay for.”

“You’re a gem Kael, a real gem,” Dae said.

“What I am is honest,” Kael said. “And that’s something you don’t seem capable of being.”

“What makes you think I’ve lied to you Kael,” Dae asked. “Everything I’ve said could be true.”

“Just because your words are true doesn’t mean you are,” Kael said. “You’ve been going around like you’re above the rest of us even if you never said it in so many words.”

“You sure that’s not a personal complex you’re wrestling with there Kael?” Dae asked.

“Don’t think so,” Kael said. “I’m not a complex person.”

“Your words, not mine,” Dae said.

“You’re not that complex either Kor,” Kael said. “You think you’re some kind of holy crusader, here to help all the little people, only you’re trying to be all humble about it and pure, not looking for fame and glory and money while you do it.”

“Yeah that’s me,” Dae said. “Helping out every orphan I can find at the bottom of a whiskey bottle.”

“That’s right,” Kael said. “Because you’re smart.” It was an accusation Kael spat out like a wad of acoustic contempt. Dae laughed, struck by how ridiculously off target the comment felt.

“If I’m so smart, why aren’t I living it up like you are?” Dae asked.

“Because smart doesn’t cut in this world,” Kael said. “Smart just lets you see how pointless it all is. You crawl into those bottles because you’re smart enough to see that if you cripple yourself you can’t be held responsible for all those poor old ladies and little toddlers that nobody can do anything for.”

“Doesn’t sound like a smart plan to me,” Dae said. “Eventually you sober up after all.”

“Can always reach for another bottle,” Kael said. “Or you can wake up.”

“And what do you think there is to wake up to?” Dae asked.

“You don’t need the bottles Kor,” Kael said. “They’re fun enough, don’t get me wrong, but all you really need is to figure out the trick to life.”

“And that would be?” Dae asked. They were still far off from the castle, and she wanted to make sure to keep him distracted for as long as possible. If Kael figured out that they were being followed, he could screw up her whole plan.

“The real trick to life is that you just can’t care about it,” Kael said. “All those sad sacks you spend your night’s killing yourself over? None of them matter. And none of them will care if you save them. Not the next day anyways, they’ll just ask what you’re going to do for them now. All they are is a big mess of problems and no matter how many you solve, there’s a dozen more that they’ll invent so that they can keep sucking away at you.”

“Sounds like a pretty miserable deal,” Dae said. “Let me let you in on a little secret though.”

“What?” Kael asked.

“All those kids and old ladies and sad sacks you think I’m bent on helping? You know how many I’ve drunk to forget?”

“No, and I’m betting you don’t either,” Kael said.

“None,” Dae said. “I never drank with even one of them in mind.”

Kael narrowed his eyes and searched Dae’s expression for a sign she was lying, but nothing more than an empty slate greeted him.

“The truth is, you don’t know me at all,” Dae said. “I’m not some noble paladin. We’re different from each other by maybe the thickness of a slice of paper.”

“That’s another one of your pretty little lies,” Kael said. “If you thought you were like me, you’d end it right then and there.”

“Sad thing to say Kael, although maybe that explains why you think I’m trying to kill myself right?” Dae maneuvered them into a side alley and spared a glance down at a puddle before stepping over it. The reflection in it showed her everything she needed to see.

“I think you’re trying to kill yourself because I’ve seen plenty of officers just like you,” Kael said. “Young things, fresh out of training, thinking they can change the world and save everyone in it. Can’t tell them anything and they keep thinking like that right up until they’re floating face down in the sewers somewhere.”

“I’m not a young thing anymore,” Dae said, counting her steps down the alley and estimating where the midpoint was.

“You’re young enough,” Kael said.

Ten more steps to the center of the alley.

“Young enough for what?” Dae asked. Eight more steps.

“To think you matter, to think you can change how the world works,” Kael said. “Except that never happens. The world’s too big for us and nobody gets to change it because too many people like it just how it is.”

Three more steps.

“Kael, I never wanted to change the world,” Dae said. “And I never wanted to save everyone. In the end there’s only one person I care about saving.”

Last step.

Dae caught the first arrow half a foot away from her left eye and the second half an inch from Kael’s throat.

“The rest of you I save is just because it’s convenient,” she said and broke both of the arrows.

On the buildings around them, dozens of archers composed of shadow and thorn began to appear, drawing back their bows and releasing a flight of arrows down upon the two unarmored officers.

The Mind’s Armor – Chapter 13

The corpse landed on Sendrick Ketel’s desk rousing him from what should have been a pleasant late afternoon nap. Flesh crashing onto cheap wood and the subsequent thud of papers and brick-a-brack on the floor was nowhere near as disturbing as the smell the seethed out from the rotting body. Ketel managed to get one eye open and have his worst fear confirmed. Officer Daelynne Kor had returned from the crazy hunt she’d gone on.

“You can tell the Duke I found one of his assassins”, she said.

Ketel was immeasurably pleased to see that she wasn’t still garbed in her Pact armor. Kor was a temperamental asset with unpredictable connections. As a hound, she was a useful mallet for solving otherwise intractable problems, but Ketel was never perfectly comfortable that she wouldn’t turn on her masters someday. Or that he could feel sure he knew who she thought her master really was.

“Careful how you say that Kor,” Ketel said. “Don’t want people to think you’re making an accusation against His Grace.”

“Right,” Dae said and let silence linger for half a breath too long. “Of course I mean the assassins the Duke is searching for with all possible vigor.”

Ketel had encouraged Dae to learn to play politics, but the closest she’d come was knowing when to shut up occasionally. Whenever she lost the sense to do she became one of the bigger pains in Ketel’s backside.

“When they hang you, make sure to look in the crowd,” Ketel said. “I’ll be selling popcorn.”

“I’m not going to hang commander,” Dae said. “They’ll never get me to the noose alive.”

Ketel looked at his subordinate and struggled to find a sign of human emotion there. If she had any, they were too well hidden for his sleep addled mind to make out. In the long run that was for the better he decided. The Duke had requested her specifically for this investigation and there was no hope that it was going to turn out pretty. That the Duke had known to ask for her in the first place told Ketel a wide variety of things that he had no reason or interest in reflecting on.

“Probably going to kill you myself before then,” Ketel said. “Now would you care to tell me why this pile of festering puss is on my desk and not down in the morgue where it belongs.”

“You worked in Inchesso for a while right?” Dae asked.

“Spent a summer in one of their blighted swamps,” Ketel said. “If I never see another fire tick it’ll be too soon.”

“Ever seen a poison like this one?” Dae asked, pointing at the corpse’s mouth.

Ketel had seen plenty of dead bodies in his line of work. A few had even been ones he hadn’t killed himself. Despite his experience though, he’d never seen a corpse quite like the one Dae had slammed onto his desk.

The assassin, assuming that Dae was telling the truth, had been a young male of Inchesso descent. His skin was darker than the wood of the desk he lay on but there were veins of white scar tissue that radiated down his body. Following them back up, Ketel saw they converged around the assassin’s mouth.

“This looks old,” Ketel said, poking at the assassin’s scar with the tip of his knife.

“They’re not,” Dae said. “He looked fine after I bet him.”

“What happened?” Ketel said. “And start from the beginning. I’m going to have to tell the Duke all about this.”

“Don’t know what the beginning was,” Dae said. “But you can tell the Duke that I’ll work it out.”

Ketel wondered if Dae was insane or suicidal. She’d been damaged goods when she first arrived and the years she’d spent on his payroll hadn’t done anything but make her more cynical. Taunting the Duke wasn’t part of her normal mode of operations, but Ketel knew that behind the cynicism and weariness, his hound had a sharp mind too. She couldn’t know exactly what the Duke was up to, Ketel was farther in the loop than she was and he had no idea what the Duke’s plan was (and no desire to find out either). Even the mystery of it though looked like it was enough to tell her something was wrong.

With a mental shrug, Ketel pushed those thoughts aside. So long as whatever mess Dae dropped herself into didn’t splash onto him, Ketel didn’t care how wrong things were or what the Duke or his underling did to each other.

“That’s very cute,” he said. “Now explain this body, or get out of my office.”

“Remember how I told you our vampire informant was going to be attacked?” Dae asked.

“Yes, and I told you no one was going to bother with a witness who’d already given their testimony,” Ketel said.

“I packed him up on a carriage to the Queen’s Guard,” Dae said.

“Which I did not authorize,” Ketel said. “We could have protected him here.”

“You didn’t protect one Inchesso prince, why would you think you could protect another?” Dae asked.

“Wait, the vampire was a prince?” Ketel said.

“Former,” Dae said. “His noble house was wiped out. Happened when he was a kid.”

“How’d he get away?” Ketel asked.

“He didn’t,” Dae said. “He was already in Gallagrin. Part of the same page-transfer program that Lorenzo was working under.”

“If he’s the heir though, why didn’t someone come and bump him off,” Ketel asked.

“He’s not the heir,” Dae said. “I looked in his history while we were grilling him. Before his family fell, his mother officially disowned him. Stripped him of name, rank, everything.”

“Isn’t that awful for him,” Ketel said. “We still could have protected him.”

“Sure,” Dae said.

The presence of a dead body on his desk helped Ketel keep his anger in check. He’d watched Dae train and from the scores she earned on the yearly tests he knew his Pact was widely more powerful than hers. Or at least that’s what the numbers said.

“Anyways, I rode with our witness,” Dae said.

“And I didn’t authorize that either,” Ketel said.

“Dock my pay,” Dae said.

“You’re getting billed for cleaning up my office too,” Ketel said.

“Can I burn it down then? Dae asked. “Always wanted to light this place up.”

“Get on with the story,” Ketel said. He pondered the value of a good fire. There were lots of documents in room that should never see the light of day. Some that he collected a nice weekly revenue from by keeping them secret and others that would land him in a noose alongside a bunch of important people. Since having leverage on important people was a key tactic in avoiding the hangman’s noose, Ketel decided against “blazing inferno” as a method of reclaiming his office space.

“We weren’t far outside of Nath when someone, this guy here probably, dropped a tree on us,” Dae said.

“That could just be your winning personality you know,” Ketel said. “Plenty of times I’ve wanted to drop a tree on you. Like now for example.”

“You wouldn’t use a tree,” Dae said. “Trees can miss. You’d use poison.”

“For you I’d consider doing both,” Ketel said. “You’re special like that after all.”

“Not as special as our witness then I guess,” Dae said.

“They did more than just drop a tree on you I take it?” Ketel asked.

“This guy had a bunch of local muscle with him,” Dae said.

“The locals still alive?” Ketel asked.

“They were when I left them,” Dae said. “But the woods aren’t exactly safe at night.”

Ketel closed his eyes and sighed. The murder investigation was supposed to be a simple matter. Send in the least fixed up person on his payroll, she’d identify the body, put two and two together that the Inchesso Prince’s friends were behind the murder and the Queen would be properly warned by someone she trusted. What wasn’t supposed to happen was Kor turning the incident into her own private war and stirring up trouble with the local leg breakers. That was going to cost Ketel money, and Sendrick Ketel hated anything that was going to deprive him of his expected and required cash flow.

“Lorban,” he shouted.

“I already sent him to tell the Slaughter Pigs to pick up their guys,” Dae said. “If they’re not all drunk already they might even get there before the wolves do.”

“Yeah, you’re definitely off this case,” Ketel said.

“Kael’s going to be heartbroken,” Dae said. “Or did he already come to an arrangement with you?”

“Your partner has the good sense to treat this case as it deserves to be treated,” Ketel said.

“He wants to drop it like it’s a lava rock,” Dae said.

“I stand by what I said. And I still want to know how this guy got like this!”

“Well, after they dropped the tree on us, we had a bit of a disagreement,” Dae said.

“A disagreement? Did he bring the wrong sort of tea and biscuits?” Ketel asked.

“No, just the wrong sort of weapons,” Dae said. “They were packing enchanted arrows.”

“Enchanted arrows?” Ketel said. “That’s out of the Slaughter Pig’s league. If they had that much coin they’d go bother some place nicer than here.”

“I figure it was special supplies for this job,” Dae said. “They were hunting a vampire after all.”

She reached in her back pocket and tossed a pair of broken arrows on top of the corpse.

“See anything interesting about those?” she asked.

Ketel didn’t want to see anything about them at all. Every little detail that he was forced to acknowledge was a thread in the noose he knew he’d someday hang from.

“Look like regular bird stickers to me,” Ketel said.

“Think so?” Dae said. She picked up one of the broken shafts and plunged the arrow into the corpse. White hot fire flared from the wound and a truly foul smoke poured out.

“Uh-hugh”, Ketel struggled to get to his window before he wretched. Dae made it as far as his waste basket, which was more considerate of her than he’d expected.

“Ok, that was not my best idea ever,” Dae said once she stopped heaving. “You see my point though.”

“I see that you’re a hellsborn menace is what I see,” Ketel said.

“Never claimed I wasn’t, but leaving that aside, magic arrows, right?” Dae asked.

“Fine, yes, the arrows were magic,” Ketel said. “What does that have to do with this guy?”

“He was the only one who wasn’t a local,” Dae said. “And he had Pact armor.”

“Pact armor? What is he?” Ketel asked.

“An Infiltrator? A Shadowform?” Dae said. “I don’t know. I never served in Inchesso, and they’re pretty secretive about their pacts there.”

“You beat him?” Ketel asked.

“His armor was pretty thin,” Dae said.

“You might be right then,” Ketel said. “Maybe an Infiltrator type. But those are rare. Why send one here? And for a worthless lump like that vampire?”

“I’ve been asking myself the same things,” Dae said. “Don’t think I like the answers I can come up with either.”

“I don’t like any of this,” Ketel said.

“This last part’s not any better,” Dae said. “After I had him down and broken out of his armor he managed to swallow a pill that did what you see here.”

“He killed himself like this?” Ketel asked. “That doesn’t make sense. They’ve got about three hundred poisons in Inchesso that kill you nice and peacefully. There’s one that literally kills you with happiness. Why would anyone take one that left them looking like this?”

“The white scars you see were just the aftermath too,” Dae said. “However that pill killed him, it hurt, a lot. Took maybe ten seconds to work and he was beyond screaming the entire time.”

“Surprised you didn’t kill him yourself then,” Ketel said.

“I probably should have,” Dae said. “It was bad enough though that I wasn’t sure I knew what I was seeing.”

“Well you don’t have to worry about seeing this at all anymore. Like I said, you’re off the case now. The Duke’s having the trading Consortium brought in and he’ll handle the questioning.”

“Right. That sounds like it’ll turn out well.” Dae said. “Guess I should just head back home then for a nice quiet evening.”

Dae smiled at him as she left and Ketel shook his head. Nothing good ever came of Dae smiling.

Ketel started to make a mental checklist. He needed someone to get the corpse off his desk, he needed someone to send word to the Duke about what had transpired and he needed someone to keep an eye on Dae who was very definitely not going home and very definitely not going to leave the case alone.

The Mind’s Armor – Chapter 12

When Teo was arrested he assumed he was going to spend the rest of his life, painful and short though it might be, in one of the Dawn March’s dungeons. When he was loaded into an unlocked and rather comfortable wagon he was puzzled, up till the moment that he understood he’d been used as bait. From there he presumed the trip to the dark and dreary dungeon was going to resume as scheduled.

“This is not at all what I expected a prison to look like,” Teo stared at the soaring, white stone ceilings and gem bright, rainbow windows of the palace they stood in.

Officer Sol had driven their carriage into a wide underground passage inside the capital city’s third wall. That matched Teo’s original expectations, though after their conversation, the vampire had thought Sol was not particularly interested in upholding the Dawn March’s more questionable mandates like locking up an innocent man. Their carriage had passed through numerous checkpoints though, and, with each one, Teo heard an additional lock clicking shut on the remainder of his life.

When the carriage finally came to a halt, Teo expected to find himself in the bowels of a fortress with rusty locks and mold growing everywhere. A busy transit hub was something he couldn’t have expected or imagined under the circumstance, so the presence of other carriages and carts and a whole marketplace of commercial trade goods struck him much the same as an invading army would have.

Sol had eventually talked the vampire out of the carriage, assuring Teo that he hadn’t driven them to Pandemonium’s shores.

From the Underhub, the two ascended through an even more tightly guarded series of checkpoints until they were standing in a reception room that was more elegantly appointed than any estate Teo had ever seen while in on the Telli’s service. Everything in the room was done in fine satins, or polished gems, or rich, dark woods with gold and silver accents providing a warmth and light that left Teo feeling both relaxed and in awe at the same time.

“You have some funny ideas of what ‘protective custody’ entails vampire,” Sol said. “Just wait here for a bit. I’ll get our presence announced and we can see about getting you turned over to the Queen’s Guards.”

“I’m sorry, but what are you saying?” Teo asked. “The Queen’s Guards are going to arrest me? I’m afraid I’m really not that important.”

“Oh you poor, poor wretch,” Sol said. “If you didn’t want to be that important, you should never have let the Captain get her hands on you.”

“Believe me I wish that could have been avoided,” Teo said.

“No use crying about it now,” Sol said. “I’ll just go and tell the proper folks what’s up. I expect it will take a while. These sorts of people always move slow. If you don’t hear from me in five or six hours, I’m sure someone will be by with lunch. Shouldn’t take much more than a day to get this sorted out though so you probably won’t need a billet for the night.”

And with that Teo’s driver was gone, leaving him alone in a room that could have hosted breakfast for twenty with room left over for the servants to pass unnoticed. Teo settled in for a long wait, perplexed at the turn of events that led him from lying  bleeding and broken in an alley to sitting on a couch that was so comfortably cushioned he wasn’t sure he was capable of leaving its embrace. He didn’t have a great deal of time to consider his situation however as barely a half hour later a page arrived in the room.

“You are summoned to attend an audience with the Her Majesty,” the page said. “Please follow me.”

“Did you saw Her Majesty?” Teo asked. “As in Her Majesty the Queen?”

“Yes, sir,” the page said. She held her position at the door with great patience. Teo remembered serving similar duties. There was always the tension between the desire to fulfill your appointed duty as quickly as possible and the desire to avoid annoying someone who could be an honored guest.

Teo rose from the couch, regretting the departure from the lazy stupor he’d sunk into, and nodded to the page.

“Thank you, please show me where to go,” he said. In the back of his mind, his thoughts spun and scrambled and shattered apart on each other trying to answer the question of why he could be meeting with the Queen, of all people in the realm. The temptation to ask the page what was going on was strong, the young girl was the only source of information he had, but he knew from experience that she almost certainly knew nothing of his situation and that even if she did there was no method short of mind control that would pry the information out of her unless she’d been instructed to tell him.

The two walked in silence, down Royal hallways, up Royal staircases and through Royal doorways, each of which managed to convey its exalted status in the materials they were composed of, the architectural styles applied to them and the fact that there were more guards per square foot than Teo could remember seeing in most lending houses.

With his mind caught trying to absorb the whirlwind of spectacles that surrounded him, Teo barely noticed when they arrived at their destination.

“Presenting Teolicianza Si’Nostrum,” the Queen’s seneschal said as Teo was led into the room.

“We would have privacy with this witness,” the Queen said and to Teo’s horror, everyone else in the receiving room filed out in an orderly fashion, including Sol who had apparently been presenting Teo’s case to the Queen moments earlier.

Standing before the sovereign of his adopted realm, Teo could summon only two thoughts to mind. First that it was crucially important with royalty to address them at all times in a manner befitting their station and second that he had never once received training in the proper etiquette for dealing with the supreme ruler of the Gallagrin.

“You have rather vital information,” the Queen said, gesturing for Teo to come forward and take a seat at one of the testimonial desks before her. “Say what brings you to my court today.”

“My apologies your Majesty. I was not aware…” Teo said, struggling to think of where to begin his tale and what the Queen might consider to be vital information. He eased into the cushioned chair which put him directly in front of the Queen and glanced around looking for some obvious clue as to where to start explaining his situation.

“You weren’t aware that you were being sent to us?” the Queen said, guessing at the probable cause of Teo’s flustered speech.

“Regrettably, no,” Tea said. “I would have endeavored to present a more appropriate semblance both in appearance and manner.”

“Neither your appearance nor your manner displeases us.” the Queen said. “Your tale grows more intriguing each moment though. What game is she playing I wonder?”

“I am not at all sure of the games others may be engaged in Your Majesty,” Teo said. “I suspect my role is only a minor one.”

“On such have kingdoms been won and lost,” the Queen said. “Please begin your tale wherever you would like, we would hear all of it and will have questions on many of the details, if our intuition is correct.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Teo said and began to recount his story, starting from his arrest by Officer Kor and working largely backwards in time from there.

The Queen listened intently to his story, prodding him gently for additional information on areas he was tempted to skip over. Her questions were broadly focused, but Teo had the sense that there was a central figure the Queen was trying to discern through his eyes. At first he thought she was interested in hedging in Duke Telli to determine his connection to the matter but the longer they spoke the more her questions tended towards oblique inquiries as to Officer Kor’s status. Despite not having a great deal of insight into the strange woman’s psyche or situation, Teo grew increasingly comfortable speaking about his experiences. The Queen was warm and considerate and seemed genuinely grateful to have a new source of information on her kingdom.

Then they came to the news of the murder at Castle Nath.

The Queen’s consideration and gratitude remained but when she learned the name of the boy who’d been slain, a name Teo had only overhead while he was being questioned by the Dawn March, all of the warmth drained from her features.

“Are you certain of what you heard?” she asked him. “Has Lorenzo truly been murdered?”

“I will stand by my recollection of what the Dawn March officers stated,” Teo said. “Whether they were speaking the truth however is beyond my capacity to ascertain.”

The Queen rang a small bell that sat beside her throne, and a moment later the page who led Teo to the receiving room entered through a small side door.

“Your Majesty?” the page asked and bowed low in her sovereign’s presence.

“Send a missive to Telli,” the Queen said. “He is to report here, to me, today, with any information he has concerning any members of my Page Corp who were on holiday in Nath.”

“At once Your Majesty,” the page said and left the room so quickly Teo thought she’d simply vanished.

“Please, continue your tale,” the Queen said. Coming from royalty it was a command, not a request, but the Queen’s demeanor left Teo with the sense that it was a command he could have asked permission to refuse if he had good reason.

“My words feel as though they are all a jumble,” Teo said. “I do not know for sure if this is connected, but I would find it straining coincidence if it was not; we, Officer Sol and I, were accosted on the journey here. Someone felled a tree in front of us and attacked with enchanted arrows at the very least.”

“Yet you appear safe from harm,” the Queen said. “Is that why you appear so famished?”

“No, I was not the one who fought off the attackers,” Teo said. “Officer Kor had ridden in secret on the top of our carriage. When we were ambushed she revealed herself and took the fight to the attackers.”

“And what became of her?” the Queen asked.

“I’m not certain,” Teo said. “Officer Sol seemed to feel she was in no danger and she’d ordered him to continue on in the event of an emergency, so he drove us off before the battle was decided.”

“She’s gone back to Nath,” the Queen said, her voice softer than it had been.

“There is still a great deal of uncertainty regarding the murder from what I gather,” Teo said. “And I don’t believe Officer Kor has a great deal of faith or trust in the other members of her barracks.”

“That is a view which is perhaps warranted,” the Queen said.

“I didn’t mean to cast aspersions on any of your agents, Your Majesty,” Teo said.

“Perhaps you should,” the Queen said. “We know well the effect our father’s reign had on this kingdom. And our grandfather’s before that and our great grandmother’s before them both. Even our own ascension to the throne has left us with a variety of perilous issues to contend with.”

“I’ve heard that you’ve made great strides in the last six years though,” Teo said, hoping to lighten the atmosphere.

“For each piece of the house which is rebuilt, two more threaten to crumble,” the Queen said. “There was no kindness between our father and ourself but perhaps we can extend him the mercy of acknowledging how the crown can drive one to madness.”

“If I may do anything to help lighten that burden…” Teo said.

“Your words today have revealed a heavy load that we must carry,” the Queen said. “But it appears to be a load we were destined to carry regardless of whether we were aware of it or not.”

“Which of my words have given offense?” Teo asked.

“No offense has been given, but we see the pattern now,” the Quee said. “Someone is moving against us. Someone resourceful, someone clever and someone who is determined to take my throne and, quite probably, my life.”


The Mind’s Armor – Chapter 11

Queen Alari Gallagrin woke, as she did most days, in solitude. The Royal Bedchamber was located in the highest spire of castle, its doors and windows braced to prevent even the slightest sound from escaping the sanctuary the room provided. The quiet was a gift from the chambers previous occupant, the departed and unmourned King Sathe. Alari had removed every other trace of the Butcher King from the room when she assumed the throne, but had found the shutters as valuable for keeping sound out as her father had found them for keeping sounds in.

For the four thousandth time, the Queen’s hand drifted to other side of the airy mattress and found only the chill of empty sheets where once there had been comfort and warmth in even the darkest of nights. She couldn’t return to those days, no matter how many times her dreams lured her to them, too much had changed over the years of her reign. There had been too many prices to pay, and too many losses she had failed to account for.

Beside her bed, the cradle stood as it had for over a year. Unused, unneeded. A remembrance that Alari wanted no reminder of. Her staff, the ones who had known her from when she was a girl, the ones she trusted, had asked, in their gentle, respectful fashion, if they could remove the simple piece of furniture until it was needed again?

She hadn’t let them. It brought a fresh wave of pain to see the cradle there each morning, but she could bear the pain, at least more so than she could bear the bone deep certainty that she would never have need of it again. She was too damaged, in too many ways, for that dream to ever become real.

Melancholy ate away at her, like the sea crashing in waves on the beach of her mind. The beach pushed back each small surge of tide but not without piece of it eroding away one pebble at a time. As storm tossed as she felt though, Alari nonetheless pushed herself out her bed and began her morning routine.

For the other royals in the Blessed Realms, or any noble in her kingdom, the day would start much the same; upon waking they would call for their servants to begin preparing both attire and the morning’s repast. Alari’s appetite was a fickle thing though and until she was ready to greet the world she had no need for her royal regalia.

So she wrote.

The Queen’s Diary was ensorcelled with a killing curse, but, even still, she encrypted the thoughts that she recorded within its pages in code. Most of her missives were simple letters to her future self. Observations she wanted to record for later consideration, lists of problems to be addressed rather than forgotten and, occasionally, dreams that stood out with particular clarity.

As she took quill and ink to the next page of her diary, Alari’s thoughts shifted away from her melancholy and to the melange of dream and memory that she’d walked in before opening her eyes.

She was ten once more and the castle was the giant endless labyrinth that she’d seen it as then. Outside the walls of the castle, the world was dark and horrible, but inside the castle there was room for adventure and exploration.

“We should raid the armory!” the child Alari had said. The excitement that accompanied those words echoing down across almost two decades.

“What for?” her handmaid asked, hoisting a wooden dowel onto her shoulders. As makeshift swords went, the dowel had been adequate in real life, but in Alari’s dream memory it shrunk to the width of her handmaid’s pinky finger.

“If I am to be the Queen, my knight must be properly outfitted!” child Alari said. The adult Alari, who was watching the dream play out as little more than an observer still felt her childish awe at the idea of being Queen someday.

In child Alari’s mind, her reign would begin on her twentieth birthday, once she’d had the time to learn everything that a Queen needed to know. She would be so smart by then that everyone would listen to her and do what she said because she’d be able to convince them with just the right words.

Alari’s journal writing stopped there. Even guarded by a killing curse and written in code, it was difficult to record that she’d ever been as naive as her dream had shown she was.

As a gift to her future self though, she returned her quill to the page. She’d already paid the price for her naivety many times over, hiding it from herself wasn’t going to make it any easier to avoid mistakes like that in the future.

“If I’m your knight, shouldn’t I be keeping you out of danger?” her handmaid asked Alari.

“Won’t you have an easier time doing that if you have a proper weapon and armor?” child Alari said. Her handmaid thought about that and brightened at the idea.

“You’re going to be the best Queen ever,” she said.

Child Alari clung to those words so tightly that they survived in her memory long past the time when the Queen’s experience proved them untrue.

Down wildly distorted dream corridors which never existed in the real palace, the two girls raced. Memory and dream splashed against each other and Alari saw visions from years later. The castle under siege. An older version of herself racing up the spire instead of down, ascending to her throne and the fatal destiny that stood between her and it. She almost lost herself in that memory, its gravity warping the dream with the same force that it warped her soul. Ahead though, almost lost in the distance, she saw her handmaid beckoning from the doorway to the castle’s treasure trove.

The memory of her days of childish foolishness offered little hope of earning wisdom, where recalling her most desperate struggle might bring Alari the insights she needed to ensure that it was never repeated. Regardless, she chose to follow her handmaid. She re-fought her battles constantly in her mind, if for one moment she could see her long lost friend again, even knowing it was only in a dream, the choice was easy for the Queen to make.

The treasure room appeared much as it had in reality. No gems or gold or finely crafted objects. Those were secreted elsewhere and neither Alari nor her handmaid had any interest in them. For the two girls, the true treasures were the ones that offered tangible power; steel plated mail, enchanted swords that thrummed with the power contained within them, and far out of their reach, behind wards they couldn’t hope to dismantle, the sigil stones needed to work a Pact binding ritual.

“This one looks about the right size for me,” the handmaid said, hoisting a sword as long as she was tall up to inspect it.

“Can you even swing that?” Alari asked.

“Of course I can,” her handmaid said, making the attempt and managing to not quite topple over in the process.

“Now, you’re really are my knight!” Alari said, delighted at the show of prowess and strength.

“I will protect you from all dangers, my lady! If anyone tries to hurt you, I’ll chop their head clean off!” her handmaid said, bowing to the child-would-be-Queen. The memory of that pledge stung Alari. She had a whole kingdom to defend her, regular troops by the legion, and full Pact Knights, and the mantle of the Royal Regalia she had wrested along with the crown, but she didn’t feel even a thimble full as safe with all of that as she had when she believed her handmaid’s vow.

“Then I name you here and now, my first and truest Knight,” child Alari said.

“Aren’t you supposed to wait till I’ve done some deed of valor to do that?” the handmaid asked.

“If you’re willing to be my Knight, then that’s the bravest thing I can think of anyone doing,” Alari said.

The dream shifted, consumed by the memory of her father that had tinged her words with fear even then. King Sathe had never posed a direct danger to his daughter, but even as a child she could see the madness that held him in its grip, and she knew his rule couldn’t last forever.

In her diary, there were already hundreds of pages that carried Alari’s thoughts about her father so she stopped at adding more. She’d woken from the dream at that point anyways so some part of her mind was willing to let those ghosts rest for the day.

Fully awake, if not fully pleased to be so, she finally signaled for her servants to enter and begin preparing her for the day.

An hour later she joined her husband, Consort-King Halrek, for the first of the day’s many sessions with their supporting noble lords.

“You look well this morning,” Halrek said, glancing up from a budgetary map of the Duchy of Tel.

“It’s kind of you to say so,” Alari said. “Has there been any word from the northern provinces?”

“Not yet,” Halrek said. “The rebuilding there should be proceeding according to schedule, but with the gala…”

The Royal Unification Celebration had been Alari’s idea originally and she still acted as one of its chief sponsors. The civil war that placed her on the throne had left huge rifts in the society of Gallagrin. One day of celebration a year couldn’t undo the damage that had been done, not alone at any rate, but as part of an overall campaign of reintegration she could see some positive changes coming out of it.

As with many of her youthful ideas though, Alari had been surprised at the reception her plans for healing the country’s wounds had garnered. She thought her enemies in the civil war, her father’s supporters, would be the ones to spurn her offers of peace and reconciliation. Many of them had leapt at the chance to return to the good graces of the monarchs in power though. By contrast, the people who had sided with her in the war were the ones who were the most disdainful and opposed to the process, citing the heavy rebuilding costs that still remained and the need for the royalty to remember those who supported them, Alari found that her closest allies were in many cases her strongest opposition as well.

“We should dispatch envoys to the north,” Alari said. “If their couriers are being mislaid, we might need to increase the Inward Patrols.”

“Our borders are still a concern,” Halrek said. “North, East and West, we are beset by neighbors who don’t look at us with a friendly eye.”

“At least there is Paxmer that we may rely on,” Alari said. Her husband having once been a prince of Paxmer, relations between the two countries were at the most peaceful that they had ever been, this despite the damage Paxmer wrought on Gallagrin during the latter’s civil war.

“Yes, we could draw down our forces on the southern border to reinforce the north, but that’s a long march and places the troops out of use for quite some time,” Halrek said.

“We can discuss that with the southern lords today then,” Alari said, already able to picture the bickering that was likely to ensue at the suggestion that royal troops would be redeployed from the locations where they were currently spending their hard earned gold.

“Your Majesty, a special courier has arrived from Nath for you,” one of the royal pages said to Alari.

“From Nath?” she blinked in surprise. She had seen Duke Telli at the gala a few nights previously and he hadn’t mentioned anything of significant importance that was due to occur within his domain. “Escort the courier into my receiving room.”

Alari left Halrek to attend to the beginning of the meeting. Nothing of merit would be discussed for the first half hour anyways so she felt in no rush to rejoin it. A special courier for her though was unusual enough to capture her interest.

When she arrived at the receiving room, the Queen found her guest already waiting before the throne.

“Your Majesty, may I present Sergeant Sol Korshin of the Dawn March,” the Queen’s seneschal  said.

“Please rise Sergeant Korshin and state your business,” Alari said.

“I’ve been sent to convey a vampire into your care and keeping,” Sol said.

“I am not in the habit of collecting sentient beings,” Alari said, a chill running through her at even the hint that she might continue a family tradition. “Who sent you.”

“Officer Daelynne Kor of the Dawn March Nath Barracks,” Sol said.

The name was strange in Alari’s ears but within a breath she placed who Sol represented.

“Did she send a message with the vampire?” Alari asked, grateful that she was already sitting down.

“Yes, she said if you hadn’t yet heard of a reason to be concerned about Nath, then you should question the vampire immediately,” Sol said. “She also wanted me to say that she’s ready to chop off a few heads if you ask her to, but I think that’s just her ruthless streak showing through.”

Alari forced herself to breath, and to suppress the smile that wanted to brighten her face. The vampire bore horrible news, she had no doubt about that, but the short message that accompanied him let her know that she wasn’t facing it alone.

The Mind’s Armor – Chapter 10

There was screaming, and burning, and all manner of horrible racket before Teo’s carriage lurched forward. The sudden jolt as the horses surged ahead slammed Teo into his seat and cracked the icy cocoon of fear that immobilized him. As the din of combat receded into the distance, Teo waited for his nerves to steady themselves. An inner voice that sounded like the Duke’s told him that he should feel relieved that he was safe once again, and that the attack had been redirected. Instead his hands shook.

There was no one else in the carriage, a fact for which Teo was miserably grateful. Running away from the battle was bad enough, but the fear that lingered would have been unbearable if anyone had seen it.

A thousand, million, lessons as a boy taught him that brave men leapt out of carriages and crushed their enemies for daring to assault them in situations like the one he’d been in. Only weaklings cowered when they were threatened. Teo didn’t want to believe that he was a coward but he hadn’t jumped out to fight beside Officer Kor. He could have. The door wasn’t locked, despite his being “under arrest”. He could have, but he hadn’t. And he hadn’t wanted to.  

Struggling with the paralysis that was still sending shivers down his body, Teo drew his knees to his chest and curled into as small a space as he could. The first arrows that were fired hadn’t reached him but if the assassins were working with enchanted arrow heads, then they might have any manner of unpleasant tools to employ against him.

In time, as they rode steadily on, the flames of the arrows that transfixed the side of the carriage fizzled away and the metal heads cooled so that their bright orange heat dulled to a dim red. For longer than Teo could count, the carriage raced as fast as the horses could pull it and the sounds of the battle faded to silence as the fight fell miles behind them.

With the passing of the hours, Teo’s stomach grumbled, the needs of the body not wholly suppressed by the turmoil of the mind. He hugged his knees tighter to his chest and tried not to think of how long it had been since he’d last fed.

Ren’s life force was bright and strong. After a feeding, he seemed barely diminished outwardly, but in Teo’s eyes the spark within the Duke’s son was noticeably dimmer for days afterwards. It was why Teo insisted that they wait so long between “nibbles” as Ren called their blood giving sessions.

They hadn’t been nibbling when the Duke “caught” them together, though it might have been better if they were. That would have solidified Teo’s claim that his “vampiric nature” overwhelmed him and perhaps allowed Ren to return to his father’s good graces.

The more Teo ran that horrible day over in his mind though, the less sure he was that anything about his relationship with Ren was really at fault for the Duke’s reaction. On the surface the Duke’s ranting and verbal abuse had been directed at a commoner who presumed above his station.

To the Duke, his children were little more than resources to use in the private wars noblemen were always waging against each other. Ren was a second son, and the youngest born which left him as a pawn of lesser worth than his siblings but still potentially useful to secure an alliance with another house or sell to a faction which needed a noble figurehead. His relationship with Teo was problematic on a number of levels, with the two biggest being the severe lapse in judgment he showed involving himself with someone so far below his station and the second, and less forgivable one, being the fact that Teo was a vampire.

Few people knew about the feeding requirements of Teo’s bloodline, and fewer cared. What most saw was an undead monster that drew its strength from the blood of the living and, when properly fed, was a match for even a Pact Warrior. Where most Pact Warriors could only maintain their transformation for a limited time though, vampires were effectively transformed permanently and were believed to be less-than-sane as a result. This belief wasn’t unfounded either. There were many who took the transformation poorly, and some bloodlines that were composed primarily of monsters. Teo himself knew that in certain areas he was no longer capable of acting with reasonable self-control. Only physical restraint and direct pleas from Ren had held Teo back from taking the lives of a pair of noblemen who disparaged Ren’s character within Teo’s earshot a week after he was first turned.

That incident, and others like it, couldn’t have escaped the Duke’s attention, but he hadn’t deigned to notice or comment on any of them before the night he barged into Ren’s bed chamber. Something about the fear that Teo felt then, helped him navigate the fear he felt while curled up in the back of the carriage.

Then he’d lost the person he loved most in the world. Then he’d been beaten and cast out of the only home he had. Then he’d been left starving in a ravine. Compared to that, his current fear was still miserable, but it was a misery that he could survive.

Reflecting on himself, Teo felt his fear yield to shame and then to absurd and shallow mirth. Vampires were supposed to be unholy terrors. Creatures of power and mystery who were untouchable and unkillable. Teo knew that none of those things were true. Without blood, and the life force it carried, he was weaker than he’d been even as a boy. The Duke’s assault had been well timed in that sense. Teo had gone so long not feeding from Ren that he’d lacked anything like the strength to fight back.

The Duke could have killed Teo in front of his son, and was possibly intending to, but Ren’s pleading had caused the nobleman to stay his hand. The death sentence was converted to banishment on pain of Ren following every one of his father’s directives and Teo never again seeing Ren.

In many senses a death sentence would have been a kinder fate for Teo, but it would have hurt Ren more and Teo couldn’t bear the thought of that.

The carriage slowed to a halt and Teo felt a fresh stab of fear lance through him. They’d left Officer Kor far behind them. If there was another ambush, no unexpected savior was going to spring up to fight for him.

“What’s happened?” he asked, calling out more softly than he meant to.

“We’re far enough away from the fray and the horses need a rest,” the driver said. “No good hiding spots here either, so we can wait a bit and see if the captain catches up with us.”

“The captain?” Teo asked.

“You call her ‘Officer Kor’,” the driver said. Teo heard him get down off the front seat and walk forward.

“Do you need any help with the horses?” Teo asked, raising his voice so the driver could hear him.

“Sure, if you know how to set a harness,” the driver said.

“I do,” Teo said and pushed himself through the last vestiges of icy fear that froze him to the seat.

Outside, he saw that the carriage was resting in a large sloping field. The driver had moved them over to a well trampled area near a small stream that ran beside the road. Beyond that, short blue and yellow and green grasses swayed in the breeze.

Here and there flocks of sheep wandered about, kept together by grey elven shepherds and their canine companions. The other side of the road was much the same, but without the stream and with the added presence of small, sparsely placed houses woven together from isolated stands of trees. Ambushers might hide in the tree houses but even from there they would face a long gap to get to their targets on the road.

“We had a hard run, make sure none of the leathers come loose,” the driver said.

Teo took the horse the driver wasn’t working on and began to inspect the harness and gear that tied it to the carriage as he had done countless times with the Telli horses. Pages didn’t normally have duties like that, but Teo was so inseparable from Ren, that he would up attending to a variety of duties to buy them more time together.

“Why do you call Officer Kor ‘the Captain’?” Teo asked as he worked on the horse.

“Whatever rank she holds, she’ll always be my Captain,” the driver said.

“You’ve served with her before?” Teo asked.

“Served under,” the driver said. “She was our leader at Star’s Watch Keep when it fell.”

“What happened to Star’s Watch Keep?” Teo asked. Beyond the fact that his life had been focused on Ren for the last few years, Teo had never been one to pay much attention to the various skirmishes his adopted kingdom became embroiled in. Aside from a brief period six years previous when a bloody civil war had flared across the kingdom, Teo’s life had been untouched by the ravages of armed conflict.

“Paxmer,” the driver said. “Paxmer happened to Star’s Watch Keep.”

Pieces of overheard information fell into place, enough for Teo to hazard a guess at what had occurred.

“Star’s Watch was a border keep wasn’t it?” Teo asked. “It was one of the ones lost during the Unification War.”

“Unification War, heh. That’s what people call it now,” the driver said. “The war we fought was never about unification though.”

The driver spit the word “unification” out like it was formed of toxic bile.

“I don’t mean to pry, but I gather that Officer Kor deserves more recognition for the role she played than she’s received?” Teo asked.

“She’d disagree with that notion, but I don’t.” the driver said.

“What did she do there?” Teo asked, trying to picture what a conflict on the border between Gallagrin and its neighboring country to the south would look like.

“I could you tell you stories, lot’s of stories, but the big thing is what she didn’t do,” the driver said.

“I think I’d like to hear those stories,” Teo said. “Unless I miss my guess they’re the kind of stories more people should know about than do.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” the driver said. “What’s your name vampire?”

“Joe,” Teo said, thinking of the advice he’d received. “Though if you’re a friend Officer Kor’s then it would be more accurate to call me Teo.”

The driver smiled, a twinkle in his eye suggesting that he recognized Teo’s reference.

“Well you can call me Joe too,” the driver said, “Or if you want to be accurate then you could go with Sol.”

“So what was it that your Captain didn’t do that stands out for you Sol?” Teo asked.

“She didn’t run,” Sol said.

“That’s an admirable quality in a leader, but Star’s Watch was destroyed anyways wasn’t it?” Teo asked.

“It was burned,” Sol said.

“Why?” Teo asked. “I thought, when border keeps were captured, the invading army tried to keep them intact to use against the enemy side?”

“That’s the standard doctrine,” Sol said. “It’s how changes in the boundaries are made to stick, and in Gallagrin’s case, if you don’t have a stronghold to work from, the mountains will kill you.”

“I’m confused then, why take the town only to destroy it?” Teo asked. “Especially when we wound up as allies with Paxmer by the end of the war. The attackers had to know that was coming, didn’t they?”

“I’m sure they knew that was one of the plans,” Sol said. “But in the early days of the civil war, it wasn’t clear who was going to win, so when Paxmer decided to join into the little duskup we were having, they came with the main purpose of destroying our ability to invade them, just in case the wrong side won. I think they didn’t care about claiming territory at that point because it might have united us all against them instead of letting us fight each other..”

“Oh yes, that’s what started the whole civil war wasn’t it?” Teo asked. “The Butcher King wanted to invade Paxmer.”

“Sure, that’s one of the stories they put out,” Sol said. “But we didn’t hear about that until after the war was done. All we knew was that one morning we were in the clear and then next there were forty thousand troops advancing on our gates.”

“That’s a big army isn’t it?” Teo asked.

“Big enough,” Sol said. “Star’s Watch was designed to hold the pass it sat in against any army Paxmer could assault the place with, but that was before people knew about the kind of siege weapons you could make by binding pact spirits to catapults and trebuchets.”

“They smashed through the walls?” Teo asked, guessing at why the keep had fallen.

“They could have, but the Captain led a night raid out and burned all the ones they’d moved up to the front lines,” Sol said.

“That sounds incredibly dangerous,” Teo said picturing a raiding party fighting into a camp of forty thousand soldiers to destroy heavy machinery.

“It was,” Sol said. “The Captain fights like a damn demon, but even that only got half the raid party back to the keep.”

“You said she burned all the siege weapons, so how did the keep fall?” Teo asked.

“After they lost the siege machines, the Paxers called one of their Dragon Generals to the front lines,” Sol said.

“Dragon General?” Teo asked. “Is that like a Pact Knight?”

“Yes and no,” Sol said. “Dragon Generals are as tough as our Pact Knights, so about ten times better than your standard Pact Warrior, but they don’t bind themselves to a pact spirit.”

“Ten times better than a Pact Warrior?” Teo asked. “Who can stand against something like that?”

Even well fed, and driven by the deepest blood compulsion, Teo wasn’t sure he would be able to fight something as powerful as what Sol described.

“The Captain, for one,” Sol said. “That’s why she took his challenge when he issued it.”

“What was the challenge for?” Teo asked.

“The terms were single combat, between the two of them,” Sol said. “The prize was the loser’s life.”

“Why would your Captain take a fight on terms like that?” Teo asked.

“Because when it came to a battle, the General was going to be able to kill a lot of us regular troops before she was able to join with him,” Sol said. “She could do the same to their side but they had a lot more troops to spend on a fight than we did.”

“So dueling with him was her best chance to end the threat that he posed.”

“It was,” Sol said. “Or it should have been.”

“What happened?”

“They met outside the gate to the Keep, just the two of them,” Sol said. “We were all watching from the keep’s walls but the Captain told us she would personally flay us alive if we interfered in the fight.”

“Did she win?” Teo asked. “I mean she’s still alive so she must have right?”

“She should have won,” Sol said. “Watching them two of them fight was like nothing I’d ever seen, and to be honest I have no idea which of the two was better, but by all that’s holy, the Captain should have won.”

“But she didn’t?” Teo said.

“She didn’t,” Sol said. “She was doing well, but then the General called in his trump and everything fell apart.”

Teo tried to put together what Sol had told him so far and came up with one horrifying possibility.

“You said he was a Dragon General?” Teo said.

“Yes, and I’m betting you can guess what that means,” Sol said.

“He called in a dragon,” Teo said, blinking in disbelief at the idea.

“One of the Ancients. Like I said Star’s Watch didn’t fall.”

Teo saw tears well up in the older man’s eyes as the memories drew Sol back to that day six years prior.

“It burned.”


The Mind’s Armor – Chapter 9

Teo sat in the back of the armored carriage, staring through the tight, iron bars that secured the windows and wondered which of the many poor life choices he’d made were to blame for his current predicament.

Trusting in the odd Dawn March officer who’d saved his life and rented him a secure room had seemed like a reasonable choice. She couldn’t be on the Duke’s side, not if the Duke was having her followed by an assassin. She hadn’t acted like she was following the same master as the rest of the Dawn March either. Their conversations, both in the alley and at the monberry shop held the wrong tenor for that.

But she’d arrested him. It wasn’t even an arrest-in-name-only either. He’d tried to leave the monberry shop on his own and Officer Kor had produced her pact blade and marched him at swordpoint into the Dawn March barracks. There’d been paperwork and a deposition and a flurry of legal things which Teo had never even heard of. All he was certain of in the end was that the woman he’d thought could be a valuable ally had made sure to drag as many of the Dawn March through the tiny interrogation room as she could.

Over and over she’d had him repeat the basics of his story, each time allowing the Dawn March personnel to ask whatever questions they wished. Most seemed to be intrigued by his relationship with Ren, but none of them had the first inkling of how a vampire bond worked.

That wasn’t entirely surprising. Vampires didn’t tend to go out of their way to describe their feeding habits. There was no rule against speaking on the subject, but in Teo’s case, the act was so intimate that he had no desire to discuss it with strangers.

When they asked, as they inevitably did, about how much blood he drank and how his “victim” survived the feeding, he responded with the barest of facts.

When he fed, Teo drank less than a pint of blood. His partner, and he always corrected “victim” to “partner”, was tired and spent afterwards but within a day was feeling better and within a week was back to their full strength. Teo “fed” like that only once a month at most, and often went longer to ensure his partner’s safety.

That sort of routine was at odds with what people expected to hear. In their minds vampires fed constantly and were the most unrepentant of killers when they did so. Teo couldn’t deny that there were unrepentant vampiric killers but that tended to occur when you took an unrepentant mortal killer and converted them to vampirism.

For those more knowledgeable about vampires, this wasn’t that surprising. While a vampire was given greatly enhanced physical capabilities and senses, their core persona remained as it was. Those who fell into corrupt and violent behaviors were either practicing such before hand or wished to do so but were constrained by their lack of power.

Teo had an added advantage there however, his bloodline was looked on as being one of the “safe” breeds. All vampires were driven by a passion that was central to their nature. That was was what allowed them to survive the transition from mortal to undying. In Teo’s case that passion, his core hunger, was for intimacy.

The Dawn March officers joked that he was a ‘sex vampire” and not so different from any of them. In practice though, sex was only the barest, least sustaining part of what Teo hungered for. The connection he needed was one of the mind, body and spirit. It wasn’t love, or at least not the sort that people wrote pretty poems about.

When he’d been given the gift, the Blood Mother who woke him explained that what she offered was not a peaceful, harmonious blessing. There were horrible people who bore the Blood of the Bare Heart, vampires who had bonded with a mortal and then turned their backs on the rest of the Mindful Races entirely. Teo had scoffed at the idea but in the years since then he’d seen how easy it could take root. With Ren at the center of his life, it would have been easy to lose care or interest in anyone else.

Even under the current circumstances, Teo knew that it if came to choosing between Ren and kingdom, then the kingdom would burn. The sole hold that he had on his sanity was the line of thought that ran from the Duke banishing Ren to the notion that so long as Ren was away from his father’s sphere of influence then the Duke would have no reason to do his son any harm.

If that changed though? Teo knew he would do something idiotic. The best that he could hope for would be to take down some of the threats to Ren before being put down himself. It wasn’t much to hope for, but Teo knew his limitations.

He kept that particular kernel of his psyche hidden from the Dawn March. No sense letting the Duke know that he could control Teo that easily if he turned his mind to it. Not that the Duke needed a vampire on his payroll. As far as Teo knew, Duke Telli had the Nath division of the Dawn March to draw on in time of need, in addition to his own personal troops, the city guard and quite probably a contingent of the royal forces, given the favor King Halreck showed him.

With that sort of backing there was very little that could inconvenience the Duke and nothing that Teo could think of that could seriously threaten him.

Not even a vampire on a mission of vengeance.

When he was a boy, Teo couldn’t have imagined seeking vengeance on the Duke. The Telli family had been his salvation when his natural one failed him. He was never clear on the specifics, he’d been too young to know at the time, but what he’d pieced together later was that his Inchesso family had wound up on the wrong side of a vendetta. Knowing that the end was nigh, they’d shipped several of their children off to other countries as pages or clerics assistants or even pact squires.

Teo had spent months longing to return home when he first arrived at Elinspire, the resort estate for the Telli family. That changed the day the final letter arrived from Inchesso for him. It told him in clear, simple terms that his home was gone. His family had fallen before a bigger, more powerful syndicate and his title and position were no more.

There was an attempted assassination a month later, spies for the rival family managed to infiltrate the castle and were ready to put an end to an errant heir who might cause trouble a generation down the line. The attempt would have succeeded to but the Telli house guards caught the assassins and the Duke made such a brutal public spectacle of them that no more attempts were made.

Even at a young age, Teo understood that the Duke’s reaction was not because he wished to protect Teo but because the assassins had threatened something that Duke Telli considered part of his property.

At the time Teo was delighted to think of himself as belonging to the Duke. It made him feel protected and worthy. As the years passed though, he began to see what it meant to be someone else’s property.

Strangely perhaps, it was the Duke’s behavior towards his children that bothered Teo far more than how the Duke treated him. Each of them were mishandled and mal-cared for by the nobleman and each showed the scars he left on them in their own manner.

Ren, the youngest son, drew inwards, his voice vanishing for weeks at a time without anyone being aware that he hadn’t spoke a single word. Or at least anyone except Teo.

Their relationship had started at different times. For Teo, the first time he saw Ren, he was struck by the boys quiet presence. Teo saw the wordless youth and yearned to bridge the silent chasm between them. Their time together was limited at first, but it grew over the years, as did their regard for each other. The beginning of their acknowledged relationship was hard to place as well. Ren suggested it was the first time they’d kissed, but that had been on a dare and signified little at the time except for their solidarity against the mad whims of Ren’s sister.

Rather than a single event, Teo thought of it as the gentle changing of the seasons. The two of them had been close, and then moved closer in such small steps that no one day held a particularly important declaration of love. Teo couldn’t even remember the first time he’d told Ren that he loved him. The words passed easily between them, changing naturally from professions of companionable affection to a deeper more enduring acknowledgement of the commitment they’d made to each other through their deeds rather than mere words.

There wasn’t anyone else Teo could imagine giving his heart to, so when the Blood Mother had told him what the price would be for his continued life the only question he’d asked had been addressed to Ren.

It hadn’t been a proposal. It hadn’t been a declaration of passion either. Not precisely at any rate.

“We’ve been together for a long time,” Teo said. “I won’t leave you now. I will take the gift the Blessed One offers. But I will not ask that you take the other end of the burden. Will you stay free of this pledge? May we continue with each other as we have been? You are too precious to me for there to be any yoke of obligation laid between us.”

Ren had answered in his customary soft voice but with a firmness to his words which Teo rarely heard there.

“No. We cannot continue on as we have been,” Ren said. “All things change, and so must we. Already I carry an obligation to you. With no one else can I find the joy that I can with you. No one else lives within me as you do. You are forever in my thoughts and forever in my heart. There is no burden that you can carry which I will not feel the weight of as well. If you will have me, I will carry your heart, as you already carry mine.”

Of all the decisions Teo ever made, that one alone he was perfectly sure of, even though it had led him eventually to a cage of misery, far from the one he loved.

A cage which abruptly shuddered and came to a rough stop.

“What happened?” Teo asked the carriage driver.

“A tree just fell across the road,” the driver said, a disturbing lack of surprise in his voice.

There was a thunk on the side of the carriage, followed by three more just like it. Arrows. They’d punched through the walls of the carriage. So they were enchanted. The searing hot flames on their tips gave that away too.

“And there would be the archers, right on queue,” the driver said.

“We’re under attack?” Tero asked, knowing that it was a foolish question. Officer Kor had assured him that she would would be the first target of any assassins that were sent out, but the Duke apparently had enough that he could afford to detail a contingent to deal with an errant ex-page as well.

Not that Teo knew for certain the Duke was connected with the assassins or their misdoings, but after the beating the Duke gave him, not to mention separating Teo from Ren, the vampire wasn’t in a particularly charitable mood towards the nobleman.

“You’re on your own for this one,” the carriage driver said.

“Wait! I’m still locked in here!” Teo said.

“He wasn’t talking to you,” Daelynne said from on top of the carriage. Her voice sounded strange and inhuman. As a vampire, Teo wasn’t used to unnatural things sending a chill down his spine but he shivered at her words nonetheless.

A moment later, as she dropped from the top of the carriage to the ground and began advancing on the ambushers, Teo saw why he’d been instinctively afraid.

Daelynne was garbed in her armor and she walked with a bearing that screamed for mayhem. The ambushers had one hope of surviving the encounter. They needed their own Pact Warrior. Even if they had one though Teo wasn’t sure if that would be enough to save them. There was a hunger that radiated off Daelynne that put his own vampire constitution to shame.

The Mind’s Armor – Chapter 8

The monberry shop on the corner of the Dyemakers Road and Lowhill Street offered no defenses for the patrons and no protection for eavesdropping. The colorful wooden tables and chairs were laid out within a moderately-sized railed-in area that allowed the customers to both see and be seen. For those seeking to rendezvous with friends or associates the setup was ideal. For those seeking to hold a clandestine conversation it was decidedly less so.

“I have to confess,” Teo said. “This is not quite what I expected when you said we needed to continue our conversation somewhere safer.”

“You don’t feel safe here?” Dae asked. She took a long, slow pull from her lemon water and watched the vampire fidget.

“I feel exposed,” Teo said. “This is too public, we’re going to be seen.”

“There are a number of spots we could be observed from,” Dae said. “And with most of them we couldn’t even tell if someone was watching us.”

“And yet you brought us here from that lovely, little, secluded alley,” Teo said. “Shouldn’t I at least be wearing my hat?”

“Not with the great big umbrella we have overhead,” Dae said. “Plus that would defeat the purpose of this.”

“You want us to be seen,” Teo said, understanding flickering to life in his eyes. “You want anyone who was following you to know you’ve spoken to me specifically.”

“It’s for your own good,” Dae said.

“How do I profit from this?” Teo asked.

“You have information I lack,” Dae said. “If you give it all to me, then it will be too late for anyone to kill you.”

“I think anyone foolish enough to tail a member of the Dawn March in her own city would be happy to kill me out of spite,” Teo said.

“Probably,” Dae said. “You’re could be the one loose end they need to tie up , but if I’m right and you’re seen talking with me now there won’t be quite the sense of urgency involved in silencing you.”

“You seem to know quite a lot about what’s going on,” Teo said. “Do you even need the information I carry?”

“I don’t know all that much,” Dae said. “What I have is a lot of guesses based on weak evidence. With luck, you can help turn those into actual clues.”

“I’m afraid what I know is largely unsupported as well,” Teo said.

“I’m not looking for trial-ready testimony,” Dae said. “I just need to know who to keep an eye on.”

“That will be challenging in this instance,” Teo said. “I’m gifted at tracking people and the one following you eluded me.”

“We’ll see about that in a bit,” Dae said. “For now though explain why you were out in the tempest last night?”

“As I said, I was searching for a group of merchants from Inchesso,” Teo said. “Or at least people who were traveling as merchants.”

“Since you don’t seem the type to follow people for their snack potential, I’m going to assume that there was something special about these merchants which attracted your attention?” Dae placed her lemon water on the table and stretched her left arm across her chest to loosen  her shoulder muscles. A glance around the plaza they were in confirmed her suspicions that her quarry wasn’t in place yet.

“They carried no merchandise,” Teo said. He drank from his cup of hot monberry as though the stuff was as precious as the blood his body actually craved. With any other drink such behavior would have attracted attention but it was how the rest of the patrons of the shop consumed the beverage as well.

“Perhaps they were traveling to purchase their wares in Nath and bring the merchandise back to Inchesso?” Dae asked.

“Possible, but unusual,” Teo said. “Most merchants try to make money in both directions of a trading route. Bring to Gallagrin goods that are plentiful in Inchesso and then return to Inchesso with goods found only here.”

“Odd to pass up that sort of profit but you saw something else that tipped you off, didn’t you?” Dae said.

“I was traveling to Nath on the roads from Elinspire when I first met them at a Traders house where road from the Inchesso border joins up,” Teo said. “I overheard them muttering in Cascalain, one of the dialects I’m familiar with. I tried to join in on their conversation but they rebuked me and fled to their rooms for the evening.”

“Not an atypical response to encountering a vampire on the road I would imagine?” Dae asked.

“In hindsight, no, it was not, but it did pique my interest in them,” Teo said. “I might have forgotten all about them though as the hurt feelings faded if I hadn’t run into them one more time, at the Gailman’s Bridge checkpoint.”

“Did they see you there?” Dae asked.

“No,” Teo said. “I was being somewhat aloof. I didn’t have the toll needed to pass the bridge.”

“Gailman’s is a Royal bridge,” Dae said. “There’s not supposed to be a toll to use Royal bridges.”

With Gallagrin being a land of mountains, and gorges, and wide, powerful rivers, the maintenance and defense of its bridges was a serious cause for a concern. And a serious opportunity for those seeking to supplement their income.

“Yes, someone should tell the Duke about it,” Teo said. “Though it’s probable that he already knows as the ‘merchants’ bore a letter which allowed them to pass unhindered.”

“And you believe he wrote it?” Dae asked.

“Gailman’s Bridge is on Telli land. Apart from the Duke’s, the only seal a letter like that could carry which would have enough force to carry the bearer through is the King’s or Queen’s and as you say, the Royal bridges are supposed to allow free passage, so why would they pen a writ of passage for just one group?”

“Several possible reasons I can think of,” Dae said. “At least on the King’s side. But I can tell that you’re story is not done yet.”

“Indeed,” Teo said. “The incident at the bridge left me with a deeper curiosity as to the merchants motivations and connections so I followed them.”

“I’ve read that vampires are superlative hunters,” Dae said, stretching her right shoulder muscles. Her eyes glanced briefly upwards as she did so and a predatory grin rippled over her lips.

All of the curtains on the second floor of the Hotel Weskette which lay across the plaza were drawn open. All of them except one.

Dae was delighted to see this because it was just the kind of mistake an out-of-towner might make when doing a quick survey of the environment. Twenty minutes earlier the curtains at the Weskette had all been drawn shut. The second floor rooms were rented by the hour though, so the cleaning staff did multiple passes through them and left the curtains open to show their availability for occupancy, a fact Dae had learned on an earlier case which had taken nearly a crate of the worst bilge she could find to blur her memories of. She would have to check with the reception desk at the Weskette, but her gut told her that it was very likely that her mystery pursuer was watching her and Teo as they spoke.

“Hunting prowess is an innate aspect of our condition,” Teo said. “It’s much easier to be silent when your heart is absent.”

“And what did your pursuit reveal?” Dae asked.

“That for as talented as my natural abilities make me, the ‘merchants’ are somehow better,” Teo said. “I lost them twice on the trip to Nath. Both times I recovered their trail only by exerting myself to get ahead of them and lying in wait at choke points they were required to pass through.”

“That’s unusually skillful for a group of merchants,” Dae said and asked, “How many traveled in their company.”

“A half dozen,” Teo said. “Or a half dozen that I could see. As things went, I can’t swear that there weren’t other traveling with them as outriders. That may have been how they were able to throw me off the trail.”

“That’s an impressively large group to hide from a pursuing vampire,” Dae said. “What did they do once they reached Nath?”

“They took up residence in the Low Quarters,” Teo said. “They didn’t stay in any one location long, but they visited the same taverns repeatedly.”

“Did you approach them again?” Dae asked. They were too far from the Weskette for any observer to understand what they were saying, but luring her mark in closer seemed an unlikely prospect from Dae’s perspective. Whatever her pursuers orders were they didn’t include open mayhem in the light of day on the streets of Nath by all appearances.

“No, I wanted to get a sense of what brought them to Nath and I doubted they would be very forthcoming,” Teo said.

“Why the trip into the rain then?” Dae asked.

“I followed them earlier that day to the Duke’s castle,” Teo said. “I feared his life might be in danger but they proceeded into the palace under the same letter they showed at the bridge checkpoint.”

“Why would you fear for the Duke’s life?” Dae asked.

“My countrymen’s reputation as poisoners and cutthroats is largely incorrect but not wholly unearned,” Teo said. “When someone wishes to hire an assassin, I am afraid to say that Inchesso is often where they turn.”

“So what happened when the merchants left the castle?” Dae asked.

“I don’t know,” Teo said. “I waited for the rest of the morning, and through the afternoon for them to emerge but I saw no further sign of them. That’s why I was revisiting the locales I’d seen them in and inquiring if they’d been by that evening.”

“And then you ran afoul of the Watch,” Dae said.

“Not to mention a most unusual member of the Dawn March,” Teo said. “This morning, when I felt recovered, I returned to my roost overlooking the castle’s main gate. I saw you enter and I saw one of the ‘merchants’ take up a perch perilously near my own. When you emerged he began to follow you, and I to follow him, and that brings us to where we sit presently.”

“Not quite,” Dae said. “There’s some bad blood between you and the Duke otherwise you would have gone to him with your concerns right away.”

“Once, maybe,” Teo said. “But I am no longer welcome in his home or his holdings. By rights I shouldn’t even be here.”

“What offense did you commit against him?” Dae asked.

“I loved unwisely,” Teo said.

“That would be Ren I take it?” Dae asked.

Teo nodded, but didn’t speak.

“What was your position in the household?” Dae asked.

“I was given to Duke Telli as a page when I was young,” Teo said. “I rarely saw him, so I can not claim to have much connection with the man, but I attended to his children often.”

“As a vampire?” Dae asked.

“No, that came later,” Teo said. “I was badly injured in a hunt when I was fifteen. The Duke ordered me left where I lay, believing my wounds to be fatal. He was probably correct but Ren disagreed with him and stayed behind to tend to me. He kept me alive until the witching hour stole in and the Blood Mother found us.”

“Is that why Ren has your heart?” Dae asked.

“No,” Teo said. “It was his long before then.”

“And the Duke wasn’t fond of this arrangement I take it?” Dae asked.

“Duke Telli doesn’t pay much attention to his youngest son,” Teo said. “We were together for years and nothing was said of it. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that he ‘discovered’ us and cast me out.”

“And what happened to Ren?” Dae asked.

“I don’t know,” Teo said. “I imagine at least banished from their home at Elinspire. The Duke was ranting about that as he beat me.”

“Does Ren have somewhere else to go?” Dae asked.

“His mother’s kin, though the Duke did not provide for them overly well from what I have overheard,” Teo said.

“You were traveling to Nath when you encountered your countrymen,” Dae said. “Why?”

“I sought to plead with the Duke,” Teo said. “Not for myself but for Ren. I thought he might believe that everything he saw and heard was because my vampiric nature had taken over and that Ren was blameless.”

“That would have left  quite a burden on you,” Dae said.

“Yes, well, I planned to leap into the great fire pit in the center of the Duke’s hall to prove my words,” Teo said, “But it’s come to me that such a plan may not produce quite the result I was hoping for.”

“No, I suspect it wouldn’t,” Dae said.

“So where does that leave us?” Teo asked.

“That leaves me to track down some more information and, hopefully, be assaulted by one or more Inchesso assassins,” Dae said. “You on the other hand will get to enjoy the Queen’s hospitality while you are under arrest.”