Marshal handed the rolled scroll to the messenger. The young man snapped a quick bow and hurried out of the tent.
“I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that,” Marshal said. He walked to the table and poured himself a drink. This morning, only Victor sat with him.
“The bowing?” Victor chuckled. “You’ve come a long way, huh?”
“It doesn’t feel real.” Marshal took a sip of water. “I feel like I’m going to wake up at some point and be back home with Mama. Or… in our tent with Volraag’s army.” He put his hand up to the tent’s ceiling to feel the material, so much finer than the army tents.
“That would be a nightmare.”
“Would it? I suppose. But maybe then some people would still be alive.”
“And people wouldn’t be bowing to you.”
Victor shook his head. “You’re always looking at the dark side of things, Mars. We’ve won a victory. The portal is sealed. You healed Antises, at least for now. And now we’re all working together. Plus, you’re King of all Antises.”
“Ugh. Don’t remind me.” Marshal slumped down in his camp chair. “I can put on a mask in front of the others, but not you, Victor. Even Talinir: I had to be King in front of him to get him to go on that mission. I hate this.”
Victor leaned forward. “Look, your goal is to get rid of the power, right?”
Marshal rubbed one of his scars. “I suppose. I mean, I want to end the Laws of Cursings and Bindings. I’m only guessing that will mean the Lords and I all lose our powers. I can’t know for sure.”
“Let’s say it does.” Victor rolled his hand, palm upward. “Then you only have to be King until that’s done. After that, you won’t have any power. Nobody will insist you stay King. Hailstones, maybe we won’t have a King any more. Or Lords.”
“You’re right.” Marshal sighed. “I haven’t… I mean, I guess I just haven’t had the time to think about what might happen after all this is done. What will I do if I’m free of… everything?”
Victor spread his hands. “I have no idea what I’ll do. And that’s the beauty of it. We can do anything! Go anywhere! Without any assassins or soldiers or gods chasing us!”
Marshal smiled. “Thanks, Vic. Without you, I don’t think—”
The tent flap swept open and Adhi entered, followed by his brother Nijamu. Marshal lost the smile and straightened up. Time to put on the mask again.
“I saw the messenger leaving,” Adhi said. “Was that the last one?”
“Yes.” Marshal stood. “The one to Lord Tyrr. It was the hardest of the letters to write. I don’t know how he’ll respond.”
“If he is a true Lord, he will come,” Nijamu said.
“You don’t know much about Lord Tyrr, do you?” Victor asked.
Marshal looked down at the map of Antises again. He had stared at it every day for weeks now. “We need all of them if it is to work,” he said. “Your father will come. Lord Rajwir, I am sure, will come.”
“Throw in you and Volraag, and you’ve got four,” Victor said. “See? Things aren’t that bad.”
“If even one doesn’t come, it will fail,” Marshal argued. “Lord Tyrr hates Varioch with a passion. I can only assume that includes me. Plus, he’s no doubt still at war. The Durunim will be invading Rasna, if they haven’t already.”
“The army here still has not moved,” Adhi reported. “We do not know what they are waiting for.”
“Every day they give us is one day closer to winning,” Victor said. “Right?”
Marshal nodded, though it certainly didn’t feel that way.
“What of Arazu?” Nijamu asked. “Who possesses the Lord’s power now?”
“Seri’s trying to find that out,” Marshal said.
Seri tossed the stone in the fire and waited. Ixchel stood nearby, as always, but no one else came close. Dravid still slept, and Jamana watched over him. Marshal and the others were busy making plans. The rest of their Kuktarman escorts were frightened of Ixchel. Seri didn’t blame them. But it did mean she had a lot of time to herself lately.
Her father still traveled with them, and she could see him at any time. And she could join Marshal’s planning meetings. Yet he would always ask questions, questions she couldn’t answer yet.
“What is it, my daughter?” The voice of Lady Lilitu came from the fire. Or the stone. Seri still hadn’t decided which.
“Good evening, my Lady,” Seri said. She did not know if she would ever call the Lady “mother.” It did not feel right, not when she had spent her entire life calling another woman by that title. “We continue on our way toward Simbala. We should arrive within a week.”
“That is good, but hardly news requiring a special report,” Lilitu replied. “What is troubling you?”
“How are the repairs going?” Seri didn’t want to get to her main questions yet, and she was genuinely anxious about her home.
“It is slow work, but the people are eager to rebuild. I will not lie to you: it will take many months, perhaps many years, before Sandu-Emuq is restored to its previous glory. We had only begun to repair the damage done to the palace by Volraag before the earthquake struck.”
Seri winced. The reference to Volraag could not fail to remind her of Lord Enuru’s death. She knew Lady Lilitu remained in mourning, even through all that had happened since. It felt like a lot of time had passed, but it had only been two months. In her mind’s eye, Seri could see her sitting beside her Lord’s throne, clothed in black.
“While I delight in our conversations, Seri, I do have limited time available.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. Sorry.” Seri gathered her thoughts. “The King wished me to ask you again if you have any new information regarding the lost power of Arazu’s Lord.”
“Should I learn anything else, I will let you know immediately, Seri.” The Lady’s voice grew colder. “You know this.”
“Yes, I do. I just… he asked, and I promised I’d ask you again. It’s weighing heavily on his mind, you know.”
“As it does on mine.” The Lady sighed. “I do not yet know this young King of yours, Seri. He acquitted himself well enough during the earthquake, but it was a narrow thing. I hope he is strong enough for what must come next.”
“We all do.”
“Will there be anything else, my child?”
Seri shook her head, then remembered the Lady couldn’t see her. “Oh, uh, no, my Lady. That’s all for now. I will check in with you again when I, um, have any other news.”
“Farewell for now, child.” The voice ended.
Ixchel reached into the fire with a stick and pushed the stone out of the embers. Seri watched it cool. She never knew if the connection with the Lady ended at her decision, or not until the stone grew cold again. She had examined the stone many times in the past few weeks, with both her regular vision and her star-sight. But she still had little understanding as to how the magic worked. She wondered if the Master Mages used something similar for their communication from Zes Sivas to the six lands.
“Have you checked on Dravid?” she asked, the thought suddenly occurring to her.
“A few moments ago,” Ixchel said. “There is no change, though perhaps you could tell something different.”
Seri nodded. Ixchel never said it, but she somehow expected Seri to heal Dravid, to wake him from his sleep. But like the stone, it was a magic beyond her understanding. Or if not magic, something with Dravid’s body the doctors did not grasp. The thought pained her.
When they reached Zes Sivas, she would beg the Master Mages to investigate Dravid’s condition. The old King claimed Dravid was necessary to fix Antises. With that as their motivation, surely the Masters could solve this problem.
Of course, she still had no idea how to fix Antises. It had something to do with the Passing, and what had occurred when Marshal stopped the earthquake. But beyond that, she felt ignorant. Marshal expected her to figure it out, and she would… somehow. The book Jamana talked about would probably help, once she got a look at it.
Seri picked up the communication stone. At least she had some time to think about the problem. They would not reach Zes Sivas for at least a week, depending on how long they paused in Simbala.
“At least we’re getting to see all different parts of Antises,” she said aloud.
“I’ve seen little to impress me thus far,” Ixchel said.
Seri whirled on her, mouth open and about to snap something… and saw the beginnings of a smile on Ixchel’s face. She closed her mouth and chuckled. “Careful, Ixchel. You might develop a sense of humor.”
“If my Lady requires it.”
Marshal fell into his cot, exhausted. It seemed to be happening virtually every day since leaving the high place. When they weren’t traveling, his time became eaten up by meetings of various kinds: discussing scout reports or troop movements, trying to decide on methods to appeal to the other Lords, or just visiting those who wanted to meet the new King. When he could find the time, he also checked on Dravid, or talked with Seri about their plans. And at least once a day, he insisted on taking some time alone to work on his magic.
Tomorrow, they would arrive at Simbala. Then he would need to spend time with Lord Meluhha before setting out on the final journey to Zes Sivas. At least on board the ship, he would be able to rest. Maybe.
He longed for the days when his exhaustion came only from physical exertion. The hard work he did back home in Drusa’s Crossing. The days of walking with Aelia and Victor. The hours of training with Talinir.
Come to think of it, he needed to spend some time in sword practice. He had neglected that particular skill lately. And he even had a new sword! He couldn’t believe he had barely glanced at it since the battle with Curasir. He would correct that in the morning. Right now, he needed sleep.
But his thoughts wouldn’t leave the sword. Where had Curasir found it? Was it forged by the Eldanim? He should have shown it to Talinir and asked him before sending him away. He chided himself for overlooking the obvious.
If he hadn’t been awake thinking about the sword, he might not have noticed the assassin in time.
The blade came down at his neck. Almost without thinking of it, Marshal triggered his power, not from his hands, but from his neck and the surrounding area. The blade was repelled, but did not go far.
Marshal rolled out of his cot and scrambled to his feet. He looked back to see his attacker.
One of the Durunim stood in his tent, holding a strange dagger. In fact, everything about this assassin felt wrong, confusing Marshal’s senses, both physical and magical. Like all the Eldanim and Durunim, the attacker looked taller than his physical body appeared. But in addition to that, this one did not seem to be in one place at a time. His body shifted back and forth, but Marshal couldn’t tell where it physically stood. Magically, Marshal couldn’t sense him at all, as if this particular Durunim held no magic within him. Yet that couldn’t be true.
The dagger, forged of some sickly green metal, vibrated on its own. Some kind of liquid dripped from its tip. If the blade managed to cut him at all, it would probably be a very bad thing.
“Victor!” he shouted, then remembered his friend would be guarding Volraag at this time. Still, some of Adhi’s guards would be close enough to hear him.
He directed a burst of power at the Durunim. And punched a hole through the side of his tent, missing the assassin completely. As his attacker moved, Marshal had even more trouble identifying its location. The confusion of his senses grew worse with the motion. Queasiness threatened his insides.
The dagger swept in towards his stomach. He fell back into one of Talinir’s defensive stances and managed to shove the attack to the side, but not by much. Up close, he caught a glimpse of the Durunim’s eyes. They glowed with a dim red fire in the midst of his colorless face.
Voices approached outside.
Marshal needed space, but too much power would harm those who rushed to help him. He released a burst of magic in all directions. It should be enough to drive the assassin back without damaging anyone else. “Stay back!” he yelled.
His attack worked well enough, but only for a moment. The assassin fell back to the tent wall before falling to the floor. The fall confused Marshal. That shouldn’t have happened. And then the assassin rolled across the ground with blinding speed and stabbed.
The dagger pierced through the top of Marshal’s left foot. Pain lanced up through his body, but it also gave him focus. In that exact moment, he knew the precise location of his attacker. He unleashed a massive burst of power straight down at him, not holding anything back. A cloud of dust filled the tent. After a few seconds, Marshal allowed a tiny burst of power to radiate out from himself, pushing the dust away.
His attacker lay completely still, driven into the ground by the force of Marshal’s power. He could not possibly have survived. Marshal grabbed the dagger and pulled it free from his foot.
Before he could contact those outside, Marshal felt something climbing up his leg. In a horrific instant, he realized it was not climbing up his skin, but inside it. The dagger had delivered some kind of magical poison which was already working its way up. He didn’t want to think about what would happen if it reached his vital organs.
But Marshal’s control of his own power had been growing in leaps and bounds since they left the Starlit Realm. He dropped the dagger, grabbed his own leg above the knee and focused. Vibrations ran through his lower leg and foot. At first, it did nothing to halt the rise of the poison. The toxin twisted through his shin and approached his knee.
Marshal concentrated. If the Durunim had used a traditional poison, he might not have been able to stop it. But this poison consisted of some kind of magic, and it vibrated. Every vibration could be countered, Seri said. Marshal cycled rapidly through various patterns until he found the right one. He let a gentle surge of his power flow through his leg until it pushed back on the poison. He amplified its power and pushed. The toxin retreated down into his foot, which still hurt like fire.
With one last burst of power, Marshal drove the poison back out through the wound. It erupted from the stab in his foot and flowed onto the floor. It pooled into a small circle, where it continued to tremble.
“Come in!” Marshal called to those waiting.
Nijamu burst into the tent, followed by two of his soldiers. He stared at the crushed assassin for a moment, then noticed Marshal’s bleeding foot. “Send for a healer,” he ordered, and one of the soldiers slipped back out.
Marshal picked up his camp chair and sat down. He lifted his foot and put pressure against the wound. He could hold it there until someone arrived who knew what they were doing.
“I am sorry, my King,” Nijamu said. “We should have anticipated that the enemy would try to strike at you.”
Marshal looked at the dead assassin. “I don’t think…” He paused. “I don’t know if they thought this would actually work. I think they did it just to show me they could, and to test our abilities.”
Marshal nodded, thinking. “I got lucky here, but what if they send these kind of assassins against the other Lords?”
The soldier returned with a bustling healer who hurried to Marshal’s side. As he bent and took over dealing with the wound, Marshal lifted his head.
“Put more guards around Volraag,” he ordered. “And find some more messengers. I have new letters to write to the other Lords.” He looked down at the floor. “Find someone who knows how to handle dangerous things. I want to send them all a sample of that poison to show them what we’re up against.”
He reached for paper and ink. It looked like he wouldn’t be getting a good night’s sleep after all.