Weapon of Fear: Free Chapters

Prelude

The assassin’s kick splintered Hoseph’s ribs like kindling, knocking the breath from his lungs. The room spun around him as he tumbled back over something cold and hard. He landed in a heap, pain lancing through his chest. A gasp for breath brought the tasted of blood.

A growled curse and the clash of metal from beyond the stone slab caught his ear. Hoseph blinked away the darkness edging into his vision, forcing his mind to focus on the here and now, on the fight, on the unbelievable mayhem these assassins from Twailin had unleashed.

The guildmaster and his Master Hunter had turned out to be more than anyone bargained for, daring to challenge the Grandmaster of the entire Assassins Guild, the very emperor of Tsing. They had even managed to kill two of his bodyguards, blademasters of Koss Godslayer, a feat unheard of…until now. The Grandmaster was immune to their attacks, protected by his ring from any guild assassin, but Hoseph couldn’t rely on the three remaining blademasters to contain the situation. His own attempt to kill Guildmaster Lad had proven disastrous. He needed help.

Clutching the tiny silver skull that dangled from his wrist on a thin silver chain, Hoseph called upon his patron goddess: Demia, Keeper of The Slain. Dark tendrils curled about him, her chill power infusing his flesh. The stone walls of the interrogation chamber faded away into shifting veils of gray—the Sphere of Shadows. At once, the pain of his injuries vanished. Here, in this place without physical substance, his incorporeal body could feel nothing, hear nothing, taste nothing. Grateful for the release, Hoseph was tempted to linger, but he dared not. He pictured his desired destination in his mind and invoked the skull talisman once again.

Hoseph staggered upon the uneven footing, gritting his teeth against the renewed pain. A long, torch-lit stairway rose before him and descended behind. This was as far as Demia’s magic would take him, for magical wards of immense power shielded the rest of the palace from any kind of magical transport. The imperial guards stationed at the top would rally aid. They were sworn to protect the emperor. Of course, they had no idea that Emperor Tynean Tsing II was also the Grandmaster of the Assassins Guild. Only five people in the city of Tsing were privy to that truth.

And soon, two of those five will be dead.

Hoseph smiled grimly. As a high priest of Demia, his role was to usher souls from the realm of the living to the afterlife. He would take great pleasure in doing so for Lad and Mya. He pushed himself up the steps, gasping for breath as his splintered ribs ground against one another. Blood dripped from the wound in his upper chest where Mya’s dagger had pierced him during her surprise attack, though how she had survived the Grandmasters dagger thrust, he couldn’t fathom. No matter. Demia’s grace would heal his injuries, but not quickly. In the meantime, he had a long flight of stairs to climb.

With one arm clutching his chest to stabilize his shattered ribs, Hoseph lurched forward. Lightheaded, he leaned against wall until his dizziness eased. Hurry…I’ve got to hurry. If the traitors escaped, the Grandmaster’s wrath would be terrible. He started up the stairs.

Though his legs were uninjured, his progress was slow; each breath felt as if he were being stabbed with a ragged blade. His foot missed one step and he nearly tripped. As he caught himself, the torchlight danced in his vision, then dimmed. No…don’t pass out! Forcing the darkness aside by sheer force of will, he climbed on.

How could he have underestimated the assassins so badly? He knew that Lad had been created for Saliez, the former Twailin guildmaster, as a magically enhanced weapon. But Mya… Hoseph wondered if Saliez had commissioned more than one weapon, conveniently neglecting to inform them. It would explain her uncanny speed and battle skills, but didn’t make sense. Mya was an incredibly competent young Master Hunter; her record in the guild was clearly documented.

It doesn’t matter. They can’t touch the Grandmaster, he reminded himself with cold certainty. His only worry was the Grandmaster’s reaction. Hoseph’s proposal of Mya as the perfect choice as Twailin guildmaster had precipitated this whole situation, and Tynean Tsing was not a forgiving master.

The priest stumbled against the thick, iron-bound door at the top of the stairs. Reaching for the handle, he bit back a curse as he realized that he had no key. Only the emperor and the jailor had keys to this door. As usual, the jailor had been dismissed once the preparations for the meeting were completed, retreating to a dark corner of the dungeon with a bottle of rum until summoned to dispose of the bodies and clean up. Hoseph had no time to go back down and find him.

He pounded on the door with his fist, shouting as loudly as he could, though each word cost him pain and blood. “Guards! Guards! The emperor is under attack! Assassins!”

“What?” came the voice from beyond the door. “Who is this?”

“High Priest Hoseph! Listen to me! Assassins in the dungeon! Summon the guard and break down the door!”

Hoseph fell back against the wall, his chest afire from his efforts. “Thank Demia”, he murmured as shouts rang out beyond the door.

Pounding feet and clanking armor soon announced the arrival of troops. Moments later, a heavy blow struck the door. Hoseph stumbled back as a second blow shook the door in its frame. The pounding continued, heavy implements cracking against the wood, with an occasional clang against the iron bands and hinges. The door, however, was too well built to submit to mere brute strength.

Hurry… Covering his ears to ease the racket, Hoseph tried to gauge how long it had been since he had left the torture chamber.

The pounding stopped.

Have they given up? Surely they wouldn’t

A screech of tortured metal and the crack of crumbling stone shivered the air. Hoseph backed down another step, staring as the door’s iron bands, hinges, lock, and handle all glowed eerily, then crumpled inward. Wood splintered and rivets popped. Hoseph flung up his arms to defend against the shrapnel as the stout door collapsed in on itself, as if a giant’s hand had wadded it up in a ball.

Beyond the heap of twisted iron and shattered oak stood a slim man in silver robes—Archmage Duveau. The phalanx of imperial guards and knights hung back, fearful of getting caught up in the fierce enchantment.

“Archmage Duveau! Thank Demia! The emperor’s in danger!” Hoseph gestured down the long stair. “Hurry!”

“Where?” Guards surged forward.

“The interrogation chamber.” Hoseph was about to choke out directions when he saw several of the senior guards and knights exchange knowing, unsettled glances. They knew where to go. Commander Ithross led dozens of his imperial guards past him down the steps, followed by several knights and their squires. Hoseph pressed himself against the wall to avoid being overrun. As their clatter passed into the distance, he concentrated on trying to breath without fainting.

“You’re injured.” Archmage Duveau stood before him, his robes shimmering like quicksilver in the torchlight.

“Yes. I tried to intervene. One assassin kicked me in the ribs, and the other stabbed me with a dagger.” Hoseph wiped blood from his lips and tried unsuccessfully to straighten without wincing.

“Here.” Duveau pulled from a pocket in his robe a small dark sphere about the size of an olive. He held it out to Hoseph between his finger and thumb. “Swallow this.”

“What is it?” Working with assassins for years had bred in Hoseph an unshakable habit of distrust. Though he couldn’t imagine why Duveau might want to harm him, he accepted nothing at face value.

The archmage sneered in derision. “It’s called a fleshforge. It will cure your injuries, since your death goddess apparently has little regard for the health of her priests. Now swallow it. We haven’t time for reticence. We must aid the emperor.”

“Of course.” Steaming at the offhand insult, but reluctant to anger the archmage, Hoseph popped the sphere into his mouth. It was cold and tasted of iron. He swallowed forcefully, and the sphere slid down his throat. He tensed as heat pulsed outward from his belly, but then his pain began to ebb. The ends of his broken ribs shifted, not grinding now, but moving together and knitting. The knife wound closed and the split skin sealed. Even the ache in his thighs from the long climb vanished. Before Hoseph drew another breath, he was healed.

“That was—” A sudden wave of nausea gripped him. He retched, bending forward with the force of the convulsion. The small sphere surged up his throat and out his gaping mouth.

Duveau caught the fleshforge, wiped it on Hoseph’s robe, and tucked it away. “There. Now, we must hurry.”

The two men hastened down the stairs. About halfway down, Duveau stopped and seemed to sniff the air, then grasped Hoseph’s arm as if to steady him.

“I can walk. You needn’t—”

“No time for walking.” Duveau murmured arcane phrases and pressed a hand to the wall…into the wall. The stone swallowed his hand as readily as Hoseph had swallowed the fleshforge. But the archmage didn’t stop there. He strode forward, dragging Hoseph along with him.

With no time to panic, Hoseph found himself pulled into the wall and utter darkness. Though he knew it was solid stone, he felt like he’d stepped through a gentle waterfall. A moment later, they emerged just down the corridor from the interrogation chamber.

Hoseph tore his arm from the archmage’s grasp. He was unaccustomed to being on the receiving end of a spell, and didn’t like it in the least. A clatter from down the hall drew his attention as the crowd of guards and knights arrived, clearly astonished to see Duveau and Hoseph there ahead of them. But they didn’t stop, continuing their headlong dash down the corridor.

Hoseph wanted to rush right behind them, eager to see the two assassins laid out in pools of blood. Duveau strode after them at a slower pace than Hoseph would have preferred, but he refused to cede his own dignity to the archmage. The collective gasps and cries from the warriors spurred them forward into the chamber. They found no fighting, no clash of arms, only a closely packed crowd of guards and knights around the spot where he’d left the emperor.

“Your Majesty!” Hoseph shouted as he hurried forward.

A young squire stumbled back from the crowd of guards, fell to his knees, and vomited. With a cringe of disgust, Hoseph side-stepped him and shoved his way through the strangely quiet assembly of warriors. “Your Majesty! I’ve brought—”

Hoseph stopped, blinking in shock, for a moment disbelieving his own eyes. Instead of Lad and Mya, the emperor’s five blademasters lay pale and dead in a veritable lake of blood. One was missing a head and a hand. A steel spike protruded from the head of another.

A middle-aged knight, Sir Fineal, knelt beside yet another body stretched out on the floor. Blue and gold robes streaked with blood, silver hair, a golden circlet inlaid with blood-red rubies. But all Hoseph could stare at was the emperor’s own hand clutching the hilt of the kris that had been thrust up into his brain.

No… Demia’s high priest stared in shock, unable—unwilling—to accept what his eyes were showing him. How can he be dead? They couldn’t touch him! He wears the ring! Hoseph suddenly realized that the gold and obsidian band of the Grandmaster of Assassins no longer glinted upon Tynean Tsing’s finger. The ring—the Grandmaster’s last protection from his own guild—was gone.

“Our emperor has been slain.” Sir Fineal reached down to close the dead sovereign’s eyes.

A disbelieving voice broke the silence. “He…he killed himself?”

Idiot! thought Hoseph. “But how…” Lad and Mya couldn’t have killed him. Hoseph only realized that he had spoken aloud when he felt every eye in the room upon him.

With narrowed eyes, Sir Fineal stared at the priest as he rose. “How this could have happened is indeed the question, High Priest Hoseph. You say that you were with His Majesty. What occurred here?”

“I…” Hoseph glanced about the room. Everyone stared back, expecting answers. He caught sight of the open iron maiden near the emperor’s corpse. It had, only moments ago, held the captain of the Twailin Royal Guard. Empty? Hoseph caught his breath. Where is Norwood? The captain had signed his own death warrant when he begged an audience with Tynean Tsing, believing that a spy posed a lethal threat to the emperor. The man had discovered that the emperor himself was the threat. But now he had vanished.

“Pardon, Sir Fineal.” Commander Ithross stepped from the crowd. “First squad, search the entire dungeon. Whoever did this didn’t pass us on the steps. They must still be down here. Find these assassins!”

The order sent a jolt of urgency through Hoseph. There were prisoners down here who had seen him in the company of Lad and Mya with the emperor. Allowing them to be interrogated would be disastrous.

As the squad of imperial guards hastened off, Ithross took up position next to Fineal. “High Priest Hoseph, please continue.”

Hoseph’s mind spun, parsing the facts into things he could tell them and things he most certainly could not. His eyes fell on the six slabs of stone arrayed around a heavy iron drain. Only one was occupied. Kiesha had been a beautiful woman once, an excellent thief, and a competent operative. Unfortunately, she had decided to think for herself instead of obeying orders. Though she had been alive—barely—when he left the room, her chest no longer rose and fell. A story clicked into his mind. He pointed toward Kiesha’s corpse.

“I was summoned by His Majesty to aid in the passing of that prisoner’s soul to the afterlife.”

“You did that to her?” Fineal interrupted.

“I did not. As you undoubtedly know, His Majesty preferred to conduct his own interrogations.” Hoseph suppressed a smile as the man shifted uncomfortably. A knight doesn’t like to be told that his master was a sadist, even if he might suspect it. “As I did my duty, two assassins appeared from nowhere.” He couldn’t very well tell them that Lad and Mya had come at the invitation of the emperor himself.

“They just appeared?” Ithross asked. “The way you and Archmage Duveau just appeared down the corridor?”

Hoseph shrugged. “I don’t know. My attention was on my task. His Majesty’s blademasters defended him, but the two were preternaturally skilled.”

“Skilled?” The knight loomed over Hoseph, staring down at him with flinty eyes. “Two assassins kill five blademasters, and all you can say it that they were skilled?”

“Sir Fineal, please,” Ithross protested. “We need answers, not accusations, and this investigation falls under the jurisdiction of the Imperial Guard, not the knighthood.”

The knight clenched his jaw, muscles writhing under his close-cropped beard. “Of course, Commander. Please. Ask.”

Ithross turned to Hoseph. “Can you describe these two assassins?”

“Yes. A young man and woman, both slim and light-skinned. His hair was sandy colored, and hers was red and short.” He didn’t see a problem with giving accurate descriptions. If they had escaped the palace, he could have the entire city looking for them in no time. “That’s about as much as I could tell in the furor. I tried to intervene, but I was badly injured, as you saw.”

“So you ran.” Sir Fineal sneered.

“Of course, I ran.” Hoseph stared at the knight without quailing. “If I hadn’t, I, too, would be dead, and none would know what had transpired here.” Hoseph longed to sneer back, but maintained his equanimity.

“An amazing story, High Priest Hoseph.” Ithross turned to the archmage. “Archmage Duveau, we have seen by your own example that the dungeons can be accessed by magical means. How is that possible, considering the palace wards prevent magical travel?”

Duveau glanced sidelong at Hoseph, obviously disgruntled at having questions directed his way. “The dungeons are not protected by the wards, Commander.”

Ithross looked skeptical. “I was told that the wards extend around the entire palace.”

“And His Majesty explicitly instructed me to maintain only those wards already in place, which does not include these lower reaches. There have been no wards on the dungeon for longer than I have been archmage.”

For one day longer… Hoseph remembered the day Tynean Tsing ordered a reluctant Archmage Venron to remove the dungeon wards. Hoseph had made it look like a natural death, of course, and the following day the emperor appointed an oblivious Duveau.

“Why would he do that?” Ithross sounded incredulous.

“I have no idea, Commander. I didn’t question my orders, I merely followed them.” The archmage raised an eyebrow. “Were you in the habit of asking an explanation from His Majesty?”

Ithross ignored Duveau’s sarcasm. “Can you use magic to find the assassins?”

“Perhaps. It would require something personal of theirs. Hair, a nail clipping, or even some token that they held dear for some time.”

“What about the blood on this blademaster’s sword?” A knight lifted a stained katana. “The assassins apparently didn’t get away without injury.”

“Alas, no. Blood is a fleeting thing in the human body. I would require something more substantial.”

“We’ll have to search.” Ithross waved over his lieutenant. “Rhondont, send a runner for the emperor’s healer. Master Corvecosi may be able find something in this mess that didn’t belong to one of the blademasters, and help us piece together just what happened here. And Prince Arbuckle must be informed of his father’s death.”

“I’ll inform the prince personally.” Sir Fineal gathered his two squires and they tramped out of the room.

Hoseph bowed to Ithross. “If it please you, Commander, I’ll be off to clean up and rest. Archmage Duveau has healed my injuries, but I am weary and heartsick at the emperor’s demise.”

“No, High Priest Hoseph, it does not please me.” Ithross looked stern. “The emperor is dead, and all we have to go on is a vague description of two assassins who apparently can pop in and out at will. You may not remember much, but Master Duveau’s magic can compel you to supply us with details you may not readily recall.” He’d stopped just short of calling Hoseph a liar. “I know you won’t mind.”

Hoseph’s mind spun. Under Duveau’s spells, Hoseph’s mind would be laid bare. They could ask him anything, and he would be compelled to answer truthfully. That he could not allow, not if he hoped to get out of here alive.

“High Priest Hoseph?” Ithross’ expression shifted to suspicion, and his hand drifted toward his sword.

Hoseph smiled wearily. “Of course, I’ll do whatever I can do to help in the investigation, Commander. However, as the late emperor’s spiritual advisor, I have been entrusted with certain…personal confidences. It would be disrespectful to inadvertently reveal anything in”—Hoseph glanced around at the lingering guards and knights—“this company. Perhaps I could answer your questions someplace else? Someplace private?”

“Very well. One moment.” Ithross turned to his lieutenant. “Rhondont, secure this room. No one should be touching anything until Master Corvecosi examines the scene.”

Hoseph strode for the door without waiting for Ithross or Duveau. He had no time to waste, not with so many loose ends to tie up before he left the dungeon. Lengthening his stride, he flicked his talisman into his hand as he turned the corner, and invoked Demia’s divine power. All Archmage Duveau and Commander Ithross would find when they stepped into the corridor would be a few dissipating tendrils of black mist.

 

Chapter I

The tap on the door snapped Prince Arbuckle’s eyes from the book he was reading. He glanced at the ornate clock on his mantle. It was late. While it wasn’t unusual for him to read in bed until the small hours of the morning, a knock on the door at this hour was unheard of.

“Yes?”

The door opened and his valet, Baris, stepped in, shutting the sturdy oak portal firmly behind him. The man’s glazed eyes and slightly askew jacket roused Arbuckle’s curiosity. In all the years that Baris had attended him, he had never seen the valet less than sharp-eyed and impeccably attired, much less knocking on his door in the middle of the night.

“I’m sorry to disturb you, milord, but there is a knight here who insists on speaking to you.”

“A knight?” This was getting interesting.

Arbuckle didn’t know many of the knights beyond the few younger ones who sparred with him as part of his martial training. The older, more experienced knights were often away keeping order in the provinces or commanding troops in the field. Perhaps one of these had arrived with an urgent question of military convention, an issue requiring historical precedent. Arbuckle warmed to the prospect. Though he’d never studied at a formal university, he’d had tutors aplenty, and the palace boasted one of the best libraries in the empire. He was a true scholar of history, though few ever sought his knowledge or opinion.

“Which knight?”

“Sir Fineal, milord.”

“Fineal?” Though Arbuckle had met Sir Fineal, he didn’t know him well. “Very well.”

By the time Arbuckle had put his book aside and slipped his feet into a pair of slippers, Baris held his robe ready. Shrugging into the sumptuous garment, Arbuckle tied the sash tight and ran his fingers through his unruly hair. “Good enough. Let’s go.”

“As you wish, milord.” Baris bowed and opened the door.

Arbuckle stepped into the sitting room, the two blademasters stationed at the door slipping quietly into position behind and to either side of him. Bright lamp light reflected off Sir Fineal’s armor. Two squires hovered behind the knight, and all three bowed low as the crown prince entered.

“Milord Prince,” Fineal said as he rose, “I bear tragic news.”

For the first time since the knock on his door, apprehension trumped Arbuckle’s curiosity. He noted a red stain on the knight’s knee and boot—blood. Dread knotted Arbuckle’s stomach.

“There’s been violence. What’s happened?”

“I regret to announce, Milord Prince, that your father, the emperor, is dead.”

“Dead?” The news was so far from what Arbuckle expected that the word didn’t register at first. “Dead? How?”

“We were told there were assassins, Milord Prince, in the…dungeon.”

For a long moment, Arbuckle felt nothing. He remembered being grief-stricken by his mother’s death when he was only ten years old, so why didn’t he feel anything now? He welcomed the wave of emotion when it finally washed over him, but instead of grief he felt…what? Relief? Liberation? The second wave was guilt for his lack of sorrow. But then, he and his father had never been close, the chasm between them widening year by year. A son’s love can withstand only so much derision and ridicule. Arbuckle had long ago realized that he didn’t even like his father, let alone love him. Duty, however, he understood.

“Take me to him.”

Sir Fineal’s mouth tightened and he seemed reluctant when he said, “Milord, it’s dangerous. In addition to your father, these assassins killed five of his blademasters, and they’ve not yet been apprehended.”

Arbuckle felt a trickle of fear down his spine like a cold finger or a drop of icy water. Five blademasters… The notion seemed ludicrous. Impossible.

The two blademasters at Arbuckle’s sides stirred. Glancing back at one of them, he was amazed to see a flash of disbelief in the man’s eyes before it was secreted beneath the customary blank expression. The flash of humanity there surprised him as much as the notion of regicide in the palace.

“Has the Imperial Guard been mobilized, Sir Fineal?”

“Of course, Milord Prince, and the entire knighthood and Order of Paladin as well.”

“Then I daresay my safety is not at risk. I will go to see my father.” He turned to his valet. “Baris, some clothing, quickly now!”

“Yes, Milord Prince.” Baris dashed into Arbuckle’s bedchamber.

“Milord Prince, I would feel better if your other bodyguards also accompanied you. May I summon them?”

“Of course.”

Fineal flicked a hand toward his eldest squire. The young woman bowed and quickly exited, her footfalls echoing as she ran down the corridor.

Arbuckle retired to his bedroom to dress, his mind spinning. Who could kill five blademasters? The entire situation seemed surreal. The dungeons… He suddenly remembered one day when he was quite young, his father insisting that he accompany him down to the dungeons on the pretense of playing some sort of game. The faces of the prisoners and the stench of human confinement had sent Arbuckle running. That had been the first of many occasions when he had resisted his father’s attempts to “educate” him. What the education entailed, Arbuckle never knew. Finally—thank the gods—Tynean Tsing had stopped trying and left Arbuckle to his books.

What if this is just a ruse to get me down there? He wouldn’t put anything past his father.

Arbuckle emerged from his bedroom into a sitting room crowded with agitated warriors. Three more knights and their squires shifted impatiently. In contrast, the additional blademasters stood absolutely still save for the flicking of fingers as they conversed amongst themselves in their indecipherable sign language. Arbuckle swallowed. He’d known since his youth that blademasters didn’t speak, but had not learned until later that their tongues were cut out as part of their training. In a corner stood the imperial scribe, apparently summoned from his bed, surveying the scene and scribbling notes in his big book. All snapped to attention and bowed.

Arbuckle jerked his surcoat straight and twisted his neck to relieve a persistent kink. “Take me to the emperor.”

“Yes, Milord Prince!”

The entourage strode swiftly through the palace corridors and down myriad stairs, the knights’ armor clattering, and the blademasters as quiet as death. The sumptuous tapestries and rugs of the residential wing gave way to the ostentation of the public galleries, then an isolated corridor as bleak as Arbuckle’s memory of it. Instead of the impressively stout door he remembered, however, a heap of splintered timber and twisted iron lay aside.

“What happened here?”

“Archmage Duveau breeched the door with magic, Milord Prince,” Sir Fineal explained. “Only the jailor has a key, and he couldn’t be found.”

“I see.” The thought of such power made Arbuckle’s skin crawl. He had read about the havoc wreaked by magic in battles, but the most extravagant description of destruction paled beside first-hand observation. All the blademasters in the palace couldn’t protect against something like that. Thank the gods that Archmage Duveau is on my side. “Lead on.”

The long, dimly lit stair led to a dungeon worthy of nightmares. The thick air reeked of refuse and excrement. As Arbuckle followed the knights down a corridor, he spied within several of the barred cells forlorn figures huddled upon straw-strewn floors without so much as a blanket for comfort. His gut roiled. He understood that the empire had enemies, and that those arrested for crimes must be punished, but such squalor was inhuman.

They turned a corner. A crowd of knights and squires stood before a doorway, facing a line of imperial guards who blocked the entrance. Though the heavy double doors were open, Arbuckle couldn’t see through the mass of people to the room beyond.

“Milord Prince.” Sir Fineal held up a forestalling hand. “I must warn you that the scene is…not pleasant to view. The…interrogation chamber is a grim sight.”

“Very well. I’ve been warned.” Arbuckle clenched his jaw, resolving to be stoic, though the sickly scent of blood now permeated the air as well. “Proceed.”

“Yes, Milord Prince.” The smell grew stronger as they approached the line of imperial guards.

One turned to call into the room. “Commander!”

The knights and squires moved aside, but the imperial guards held their ground.

“Move aside for your lord prince,” Fineal said.

Arbuckle peered past the guards, the light of a dozen torches gleaming on the burnished metal racks, spikes, chains, and other implements that furnished the room. “Good Gods of Light!”

“Sir Fineal, I told you that—” Commander Ithross stopped as he caught sight of Arbuckle, and his eyebrows shot up, then he bowed low. “Milord Prince! I didn’t expect you to come down here.”

“Sir Fineal has told me that my father is dead, Commander. I must see him.” The guards stepped aside at Ithross’ wave. Arbuckle entered, looked with revulsion at the burnished machines of torture, then turned his gaze to the imperial guard commander. “What is this place?”

Ithross swallowed forcefully. “The emperor called this his interrogation chamber, milord.”

“You mean torture chamber, don’t you?”

Ithross lifted his chin and gazed steadily back at the prince. “His Majesty always referred to it as the interrogation chamber, milord.”

“And who conducted the interrogations?” Arbuckle forced the words out, afraid that he already knew the answer.

“I don’t know for certain, Milord Prince, but it’s rumored among the guards and knights that…” Ithross glanced questioningly at Sir Fineal and received a nod of acknowledgement in return. “…that the emperor took a…special interest in the practice.”

Arbuckle felt ill. He’d known for years that his father was a heartless tyrant. That Emperor Tynean Tsing had actually participated in the torture of prisoners, however, turned his stomach. Arbuckle fought to maintain his composure, speaking through clenched teeth.

“Show me my father, Commander.”

“Yes, milord.” Ithross led them around the room’s thick central pillar, and a cordon of guards parted.

Blood… It was everywhere, the scent so thick that he could taste it. Arbuckle stopped at the shore of a congealing crimson lake strewn with carnage. He had watched the blademasters spar many times, always amazed at their skill and stamina. Trained to be the best, inured to pain, blessed by their god, and pledged to defend their charges or die. These five had died.

“Good gods…”

A figure to his left stood from a crouch—Master Corvecosi, the imperial healer—and Arbuckle saw rich blue robes at the man’s feet. He knew instantly who lay there.

Father… Arbuckle skirted the thick pool of blood, compelled by an unnerving yet unrelenting need to see this man whom he had thought he knew. Closer, he couldn’t avoid the blood, and his shoes squelched in the spattered gore underfoot.

The healer stepped aside, bowing low. “Milord Prince.”

“What are you doing here, Master Corvecosi?” Arbuckle couldn’t take his eyes from his father’s body, the bony hand clutching the dagger that had been thrust up beneath his chin into his brain. He tried to feel pity or sorrow, but all he could think was that the old man’s cold eyes would never again stare disdainfully, his lips wouldn’t twist into a sneer, his harsh voice wouldn’t chide and berate, the hands would never again torture… He realized with a start that Corvecosi was speaking.

“…summoned to examine the scene and lend my expertise, perhaps to determine exactly what occurred here.”

“What have you determined so far?”

“I can unequivocally say that your father did not, as it may appear, take his own life. His hand gripping the dagger was very nearly crushed. Something very strong grasped His Majesty’s hand and thrust the blade that ended his life.”

“I see.”

“I have just begun examining the scene, Milord Prince, but I have already noted a few peculiarities.”

“More peculiar than five dead blademasters?” Arbuckle stared at the carnage again. “How many assassins does it take to kill five blademasters?”

Ithross mistook the rhetorical question for an inquiry. “Milord Prince, we’ve been told that there were two assassins.”

“Two?” Arbuckle couldn’t imagine anyone capable of such a feat. “How in the Nine Hells could two assassins overcome five blademasters?”

“We don’t know, milord. The only person who saw the fight has…vanished.”

Arbuckle stared at Ithross. “Vanished? What do you mean? Who saw this happen?”

“Master Hoseph was apparently here when the attack started. He escaped to summon help, though he bore injuries of his own. I was about to question him further, with Archmage Duveau’s aid, when he…”— Ithross looked uncomfortable—“vanished.”

“Vanished. You mean he actually, magically vanished? I thought the palace was warded to prevent that.”

“According to Archmage Duveau, the dungeons are not included in the wards.”

“Why not?”

“We don’t know, Milord Prince.”

Arbuckle shook his head in stunned silence. Mysterious assassins, dead blademasters, vanishing priests…what next? “What else is peculiar, Master Corvecosi?”

The dark man gestured to the blood pooled beneath the hanging cage. “I at first assumed that this blood was from the emperor, being so close to his body. Upon closer examination, however, it appears that someone was recently restrained in this device.” He touched one of the gruesome screws. “This blood is fresh, yet there is no corpse here bearing wounds so inflicted.”

“A rescue?” Arbuckle’s mind whirled. “What prisoner would precipitate such a rescue?”

The healer shrugged. “That is an interesting theory.” He strode to one of the corpses, apparently unfazed by all the blood. “And here, this man, unlike all the others, has barely a mark on him.” Kneeling, he pressed a plump hand to the blademaster’s brow and muttered under his breath. “Yes, as I suspected, he was killed with a lethal toxin.”

“Toxin?” Arbuckle knew from his reading that poisoned weapons were commonly used in some cultures. “You’re sure?”

“I’m quite sure, milord.” He rose and nodded his head absently. “Quite sure.”

Arbuckle had no reason to doubt him. He had always liked Corvecosi, one of the few imperial attendants not stifled by formality or unduly cowed by the late emperor’s imperious attitude. As a boy, the prince had appreciated the man’s quiet bedside manner, his cool hand on a fevered forehead, gentle words, and the sense of peace that followed his visits. Evidently, there was more to the healer’s art than mere knowledge of illness.

“Continue your examinations, Master Corvecosi. I want to know how everyone here died. Use whatever resources you—” Turning, ready to be away from all this death, he spied one more victim, and choked on his words.

What lay on the stone slab didn’t look human—at least, not anymore. Arbuckle stared at the corpse, willing himself to believe that the person had been dead when the skin had been peeled away in strips, the joints twisted, the bones exposed, the pearly nerves bared by careful dissection. But deep in his soul, he knew that she had been alive. This was his father’s depravity flayed and displayed for all to see.

“Good Gods of Light…” Arbuckle strode to the side of the table, heedless for the first time of the blood. There however, with the scent of death in his nostrils, staring down at her tortured body, bile burned the back of his throat. “Oh…” Arbuckle turned away and fell to his knees, heaving painfully, as if expelling any hope that his father had been a decent man. A hand touched his shoulder.

“Milord Prince, you must go.” Ithross waved, and blademasters came forward.

“No!” Arbuckle wished with all his might that he could retreat to his room and his books—his sanctuary—but he had already disgraced himself enough. This was the emperor’s doing. Only a son could atone for a father’s sins.

Wiping his chin with his sleeve, Arbuckle lurched up to stand over the slab where the poor woman lay. Had she been beautiful? Had someone loved her? Were they waiting for her to come home? He welcomed the rage that burned away the last thread of feeling that he had for his father. It straightened his back and stiffened his resolve.

“Your cloak, Sir Fineal.” Arbuckle held out a hand, and the knight immediately unclasped his cloak and handed it over. The crown prince carefully draped the deep-blue cloth over the woman’s mutilated corpse. Bowing his head, he mumbled a prayer that the gods would ease her tortured soul. “Master Corvecosi, take care of her.”

Master Corvecosi bowed. “As you wish, Milord Prince. I’ll also see that your father’s body is properly attend—”

“No!” Arbuckle glared one last time at the heap of dead flesh that had been his father, then looked deliberately away. “Divest him of any accoutrements of his former office, then burn his corpse and cast the ashes down the nearest cesspit!”

The crowd shifted and Corvecosi seemed struck dumb, standing with his mouth gaping. Only Ithross summoned the courage to speak.

“Milord Prince!” the commander stammered. “To disrespect His Majesty’s body would be…tantamount to treason.”

“No, Commander Ithross, that is treason!” Arbuckle pointed to the shrouded form on the slab, his hand shaking with rage. “That is an abomination!”

“But, Milord Prince! The nobles… They will expect a royal funeral.”

“Then we’ll bury an empty casket! I’ll not have the House of Tsing or the soil of this empire further contaminated by his corpse.”

“Milord Prince, your father was—”

“My father was a living piece of shit, Sir Fineal!” Arbuckle rounded on the knight, biting back his rage, though he could not suppress his disgust. “It’s only fitting that he spend eternity amongst his peers.”

Ignoring the shocked murmurs, Prince Arbuckle headed for the door. A last thought stopped him in his tracks, and he turned back.

“After Master Corvecosi’s investigation is complete and the bodies have been removed with all due reverence, send for me. I’ll see every vile machine in this room destroyed and the door sealed forever. Is that clear, Commander Ithross? Sir Fineal?”

“Crystal clear, Milord Prince.” Fineal bowed low, then rose with a grim smile on his chiseled features. “It will be my pleasure.”

Ithross glanced about the room in disgust and nodded. “It will be done as you command, Milord Prince.”

“Good.” Arbuckle turned and strode from the room. Blademasters took position around him, forming a five-pointed cordon as they matched his stride. Five blademasters—the emperor’s contingent.

I’m going to be emperor. The thought was nothing new, but had always been suffixed by “someday.” Now the inevitability of his future came rushing in, and with it, one more dreadful realization. I’m not ready for this!

Ready or not, he had no choice in the matter. As he mounted the stairs, Arbuckle swore to all the Gods of Light that he would be a better emperor than Tsing’s last.

 ***

 Mya toweled her hair dry, barely able to keep her arms aloft, so weak was she from the evening’s trials. She cast the towel aside in frustration, and sat on the bed.

“Quit bitching, Mya. You’re alive.” Few people could survive being stabbed in the gut—Twice!—nearly eviscerated, and hacked from shoulder to chest. Blood loss had left her weak, but her runic tattoos had healed her wounds. Only an injury to the heart or decapitation could truly end her life. Her heart ached, but not from a sword thrust. “Alive…and alone.”

Forcing herself up, she grabbed her wrappings, the long strip of enchanted black cloth that she wore under her clothes. She used them to hide her tattoos, her secret, but the magically self-repairing cloth had saved her life only hours ago, holding her chest together long enough for her to heal before she bled to death. She submerged them in the murky water filling the tub, and began to scrub.

It had cost her a silver half-crown to convince the proprietor of the Prickly Pair to send up a tub and a meal at this late hour. The water and the food had been tepid, but plentiful. She was still a little light-headed; it would take time to recover from the blood loss. The memories of the fight, she was sure, would take much longer to banish.

Sitting back on her heels, she focused on a pleasanter memory…kissing Lad in the carriage. Mya closed her eyes as she remembered the warmth of his lips, the scent of him. A little smile twitched her lips, then fell. He had kissed her back, just a little, but it was a kiss goodbye. Lad was out of Tsing by now, and out of the guild, headed back to Twailin and his family. She doubted that she would ever see him again. Her heart ached anew.

Don’t, Mya! Love was a weakness, and weakness would only get her killed.

Pulling the wrappings from the tub, she wrung them out and draped them on the back of a chair to dry. Better to focus on their other kiss, on Lad’s betrayal. Her cheeks flushed as she remembered how he’d tricked her, letting her think that he shared her feelings, then slipping the Grandmaster’s ring on her finger.

Mya held up her hand and examined the ring: obsidian dark against her pale skin, filigreed gold bright in the lamplight. It was beautiful, she had to admit. More distinctive than the band of unadorned obsidian that she had worn as Master Hunter, and more ornate than the black-and-gold ring that Lad had worn as Twailin Guildmaster. There were six guildmaster’s rings scattered across the empire. This ring was unique. There was only one Grandmaster of Assassins.

And that’s me. With a scoffing laugh, she leaned wearily against the tub and closed her eyes.

“Godsdamned Grandmaster… Lad’s crazy if he thinks I can do this.” She tried to be angry with him, but knew she couldn’t lay all the blame at his door. She’d chased power her whole life. To a frightened girl on her own, joining the Assassins Guild made sense. Strength, skill, and power meant safety. She had been ambitious and ruthless, prepared to sacrifice whoever got in her way.

Until I met Lad.

“You’re the perfect Grandmaster”, he had told her. Mya didn’t believe it for a second. “You think like an assassin, but you have a good heart.” Lad was naïve. That was one reason she’d fallen in love with him.

“He has no idea what’s in my heart.” Mya heaved to her feet. Catching sight of herself in the mirror, she stopped and stared. Her dark tattoos writhed in the lamplight, a tapestry of magic engraved on her flesh from neck to wrist to ankles. They’d kept her alive tonight. Imbuing her with strength and speed, sharpening her senses, and healing grievous wounds, they made her nearly invincible. They also made her a monster.

“No wonder Lad sent you packing.”

Stop it! If Mya expected to survive, she had to forget about her unrequited feelings for Lad and do what she did best.

“Think like an assassin, Mya.” Whirling away from the mirror, she went to her trunk and rifled through the contents, drawing out a comfortable silk shirt, a pair of supple trousers, and clean scanties. She considered her situation while she dressed.

Lad had killed Emperor Tynean Tsing II. She had no doubt that a massive manhunt for the emperor’s killers would ensue, that descriptions of her and Lad were being distributed to the city guard. Of course, that led to her next problem.

The emperor of Tsing had also been the Grandmaster of the Assassins Guild. In helping Lad to kill the Grandmaster, she had cut the head off a very large snake. Now she was the head of the snake, the master of a guild that didn’t even know she existed. Could she control it, or would it turn its fangs on her? That would most likely depend on one person.

Lady T

The Tsing guildmaster had not been overly impressed with either Lad or Mya, but the woman had seemed frightened when she escorted them to their meeting in the palace dungeons, giving Mya the distinct feeling that Lady T feared the Grandmaster. Not surprising, considering what a monster the man had been. So, would the lady welcome Mya as a liberator or revile her for a usurper?

Mya began to pace, and to think. Everything depended on how Lady T reacted. The assassins of the Tsing guild would follow her lead, and Mya had no doubt that the provincial guilds would fall in line behind the Tsing guild, the strongest of them all.

And if she doesn’t accept me?

Bound by blood contracts signed when they joined the guild, no guild assassin could even attempt to harm the wearer of the Grandmaster’s ring. Nothing, however, prevented them from hiring someone outside the guild to kill her. A chill ran up Mya’s spine as she realized that the guild wouldn’t have to hire an outsider to kill her.

“Hoseph…” Glancing around the room as if just saying his name might summon the priest, Mya swallowed hard.

Hoseph had called himself the Right Hand of Death for two very good reasons. The priest had been the Grandmaster’s intermediary with the guildmasters, able to travel vast distances in an instant. He had also been the Grandmaster’s personal executioner, able to kill with a single touch of magic. Mya had her own experience with his less lethal magic, the pulse of darkness that had filled her with utter despair, incapacitating her with every dark act and thought of her life. Mya’s past was full of darkness. If not for Lad, she would have died without raising a finger to defend herself, so overwhelmed had she been by Hoseph’s spell.

Admittedly, such skills would be invaluable to her as Grandmaster.

If I could control him

But how would Hoseph regard her unseemly ascendance? After serving an Imperial Grandmaster, would he submit to her authority? Not likely. Even if he did agree to serve her, could she ever trust him? Hoseph wasn’t a member of the guild. He could kill her, and probably would try if for no other reason than revenge. Until she knew for sure, she would assume the worst. Hoseph had no way to know she wore the Grandmaster’s ring, but he’d find out soon enough.

Then he’ll try to kill me.

“He can’t know where I am,” she murmured as her eyes flicked to the shadowy corners of the room.

Neither she nor Lad had detected anyone following them, but this was a person who could materialize out of thin air. Underestimating Hoseph could prove lethal. She glanced at the band on her finger. Could he somehow track the ring itself? Obsidian and gold danced in the lamplight as panic trembled her. She shoved it aside. Exhausted and blood-weary, her fears were easily roused. She needed sleep, but sleeping rendered her vulnerable.

“What I need is someone to watch over me…someone I can trust.” Unfortunately, the only person she trusted had just ridden out of Tsing in a carriage bound for Twailin.

Mya stopped pacing and dug her two favorite daggers out of her clothes trunk. She scraped one of the blades along her arm, pleased to see tiny hairs fall to the floor. They were clean and sharp. If Hoseph popped in, she should be quick enough to gut him. If I’m not asleep.

“Sleep lightly, Mya, or wake up dead.” She blew out the lamp, backed into a corner, and slid down the wall, her daggers ready.

Feeling slightly safer in the dark, her nervous energy waned even as her doubts waxed. Was this to be how she spent the rest of her life, hiding in the dark, afraid of death hidden in every shadow? What choice did she have?

“Have someone cut it off.” Lad’s simplistic solution came to her, and she seriously considered the option.

Mya raised one of her daggers and placed the edge at the joint of the finger that wore the ring. She drew the razor edge across her flesh, and blood welled from the tiny cut. No pain… She tried to apply pressure, but her hand wouldn’t respond. She couldn’t do it herself. The ring’s magic wouldn’t allow her to take it off or even cut it free. She wiped the blade on her trousers and sucked the blood from the already healed cut.

“That doesn’t mean I can’t walk down to the kitchen in the morning and pay the cook to do it.” The simple solution steadied her. She had an out. She could, quite literally, cut and run.

Mya had a choice to make: flee, take control of the guild, or destroy it. It was that simple. Regardless of her final choice, however, she had to survive until morning. Cold resolve steeled her fear, and she realized that Lady T, Hoseph, and the guild also had a choice to make.

“Join me or die.”

 

Chapter II

Hoseph woke to darkness and the dry, musty scent of parchment and leather. His back ached and he was chilled from sleeping on the stone floor with only a threadbare blanket, but he took no heed. Demia’s chosen cared not for luxuries. What he coveted were life’s intangibles: power and influence, order and control.

Despite the utter darkness, he knew innately that it was morning and time to rise. Calling on Demia’s gifts, a pale glow emanated from his palm. He rose, stepped to the table and struck a match, lighting the lamp there and illuminating his surroundings. The room was not large, and bookcases packed with old leather-bound volumes and racks of scrolls made it seem even smaller. The history of the Assassins Guild was recorded here, unnumbered years of murder and conspiracy. This was also the repository of the blood contracts. Every assassin signed one, binding themselves forever to the guild, submitting to their masters’ control, signing their lives over to be spent if necessary. This secret room—with the death of the Grandmaster, known only to Hoseph—represented the power and influence that he wielded as the Right Hand of Death…power and influence that had been disrupted by Lad and Mya. Anger and frustration tensed his muscles and clouded his thoughts.

“Blessed shadow of death, sooth me…” Hoseph recited the mantra until his pulse slowed and his mind eased. Dealing with death every day had taught him temperance. Hoseph hated being forced into hasty action as he had last night. The threat of questioning under compulsion had forced his flight, rendering him guilty in the eyes of the imperial guard. He’d fled a second time an hour later when he heard soldiers approaching his room in Demia’s temple where he had been gathering his meager belongings.

What he needed now was a concise plan of action. The first step, of course, was to change his appearance, for he had little doubt the city guard would be looking for him. Of course, a disguise wouldn’t fool his fellow priests and priestesses. They knew his soul. Demia, sorter of souls, gifted all her clergy with the ability to see the peculiar ethereal essence that made each person unique. This talent—useful when comforting the dying during their transition to the afterlife—made disguises superfluous. He would not be able to go back to his own temple until his name was cleared.

Doffing his distinctive crimson robe, Hoseph spread it on the floor. Then he selected a gleaming razor from his bundle of personal items, and stropped it to a fine edge. It had been decades since he had performed the ablutions of an acolyte, but old habits returned easily. Kneeling on the robe, he deftly shaved his head, letting the shorn hair fall. Unfortunately, he lacked water, resulting in a few nicks and cuts. He would have to stock the room with some essentials until he resolved this situation. When that was done, he shaved his face.

Hoseph bundled the robe to contain the hair and gazed down at his bare chest. He ran his fingers over the unblemished skin that last night had been split by Mya’s dagger. Duveau’s fleshforge had healed him completely, but there were scars that no spell could heal. An unfamiliar frisson of fear shook him. Not of death, his long-time acquaintance and ally, but of failure.

I won’t fail, he insisted. I’ve worked too hard, accomplished too much

From the bag of possessions he had managed to escape with, he withdrew his old acolyte’s robes. The coarse gray wool scratched his skin, so unlike the smooth felt of his high-priest’s robe, but it didn’t matter. Anonymity was more important than comfort. Flipping the tiny silver skull into his hand, Hoseph invoked Demia’s grace, and the room melted into mist.

Moments later, he materialized in a luxurious sitting room. The golden morning light glowed through sheer curtains. It was still early. Lady T was not present, but he hadn’t expected her to be up at this hour. Nobles were notoriously late risers. Usually when he visited, he pulled the bell rope and waited until a servant arrived to summon the lady of the house. They were used to his comings and goings. Today he was in no mood to wait. He knew that she would still be abed, so he simply knocked on the door that he assumed led to her bedroom. He’d never seen inside the room, so couldn’t use Demia’s gift to travel there. Doing so would have been dangerous anyway; assassins tended to be jumpy.

The door to his left opened suddenly, and Hoseph found himself staring down the shaft of a crossbow bolt aimed at his heart. Lady T stood behind that crossbow, her fingers on the trigger and her hair disheveled from sleep. She wore only a silk nightshift, confirming his supposition that she’d still been in bed, but her eyes shone as sharp as the tip of the crossbow bolt that could end his life with the twitch of her finger.

“Put that down, Tara. We’ve got trouble.”

“Hoseph?” Her eyes widened, and her fingers lifted off the weapon’s trigger, though it didn’t point away from his heart. “I hardly recognized you! What the hell are you doing here? What’s wrong?”

Hoseph saw no reason to beat around the bush. “The Grandmaster is dead.”

What? How?” She lowered the weapon, the surprise on her face undeniably genuine.

“The Twailin guildmaster and his Master Hunter.” Hoseph still didn’t know exactly how they’d managed it, but the who certainly grabbed the guildmaster’s attention.

“Gods of Light and Darkness…” She whirled through the door without another word.

Hoseph pursed his lips in mild irritation and followed her through a lavish dressing room and into an even more extravagant bedchamber. The bedroom was dim, the heavy curtains still drawn, and Hoseph paused to allow his eyes to adjust. The crossbow thumped down upon the expansive four post bed, and Lady T reached for a robe. With three steps, the priest reached the nearest window and pulled open the curtain. He turned to the glaring guildmaster as she tied the robe tight around her waist.

“But the emperor’s blademasters—”

“Also dead.”

Five blademasters?” Lady T’s brow furrowed as if she didn’t believe him. “I knew that Lad was a weapon, but…”

“Mya also possesses some impressive skills. She’s more than we thought.” More than I thought, he admitted to himself.

“But to kill the Grandmaster…it’s unbelievable. They had blood contracts! They wore rings!”

“Lad never signed a blood contract. It was the Grandmaster’s plan to force him to sign one at this meeting. He did, however, wear the guildmaster’s ring.” Hoseph nodded solemnly. “I don’t know how they managed to circumvent the magic of their rings, but the Grandmaster is dead. I saw his body.”

Lady T’s eyes narrowed as she gazed at the priest. “And where were you when this happened?”

Hoseph waved an impatient hand. “I tried to intervene and was sorely wounded. I went to summon the Imperial Guard.”

“And you couldn’t,” she wiggled her fingers in the air, “magic him out of harm’s way?”

Hoseph breathed deep—Blessed shadow of death…—before answering. His conscience had pummeled him with this question all night. He didn’t need her to remind him that he had failed to save his master. “As you said, they wore their guild rings. There was no reason to think that they could lay a hand on the Grandmaster.”

Lady T frowned, twisting the ties of her robe in thought. “So what are we going to do? The Grandmaster held the reins of the empire. Now those reins are cut. We’ve lost our political influence, our future.”

“Not so.” Hoseph had already thought this through. “There’s no reason why we can’t gain back everything we’ve lost. Crown Prince Arbuckle put off marrying only to spite his father, but now he’ll have to produce an heir; the nobility will insist.”

“We don’t know what Arbuckle will do once he’s crowned emperor.”

“He’s a weak-willed fool, Tara.” Hoseph’s lip curled in derision. “He’s more interested in his books than in ruling. Have you ever known him to take a vested interest in governing this empire or interacting with the nobility?”

“He hasn’t taken part because he hasn’t been allowed to. We don’t know what he’ll do.”

“I disagree. Arbuckle has done exactly as he’s been told for his entire life. If he’s told that the people with experience governing this empire are willing to take the reins for him, that he need do nothing but read his books and produce an heir, he’ll do as he’s told. If he needs additional incentive, we still have the provincial dukes under our thumb. They’ll do our bidding, or suffer.”

Our bidding?” She cocked an eyebrow at him. “You forget that you’re not in the chain of command, Hoseph. You were the Grandmaster’s intermediary, not his second in command.”

Blessed shadow of death, sooth me. As much as it chafed him, his position had changed; he would have to cajole and compromise to get his way. But in the end, it would all work out. Hoseph bowed his head to Lady T in silent acknowledgement.

“Once we have an heir, Arbuckle will be eliminated, and we’ll ensure that the child receives the proper upbringing and training. It worked once, it will work again.”

“And who will be Grandmaster in the interim?” She narrowed her eyes at him. “I sincerely hope that you don’t think it will be you.”

So that’s what she’s worried about. He smiled in contrition. “Don’t be ridiculous, Tara. I’m no assassin. My place is in the shadow of power, offering guidance. I consider you the obvious choice, of course.”

A wry smile spread across the lady’s lips. “Until the royal heir is trained up, then you kill me to give him the ring. I’ll certainly serve as interim Grandmaster, but I’ll not wear the ring, except on a chain around my neck.”

“That would suffice. By the time the child is grown, you’ll have a duchy and be the Emperor’s closest confidant, if we play our cards right.” The priest rose and gave her a significant look. “But first we have to find and execute these two rebels. They took the Grandmaster’s ring.”

“They’d have been fools not to. But that raises a new problem. One of them has undoubtedly put the ring on. No assassin can touch the wearer.”

“I can.” Hoseph lifted a hand, the pearly glow of Demia’s death magic radiating from his palm. “You find them, and I’ll kill them. But be wary. For the attack to succeed, it must be a complete surprise.”

“Of course it does!” She glowered at him. “Don’t deign to teach me my business, Hoseph!”

“You haven’t seen them fight, Tara.” There it was again, that trill of fear up his spine. Failure

“Some of my people encountered them night before last. I’m aware of their prowess.” Her glare remained undiminished.

“Very well.” He nodded respectfully. “Find Lad and Mya. They can’t have gone far or fast. They took an injured prisoner with them.”

“A prisoner? Who?”

“The captain of the Twailin Royal Guard.” Hoseph quickly explained the sequence of events that had brought Norwood to Tsing, including Lad’s association with the man while searching for his wife’s killer. “Find the traitors. I’ll inform the provincial guildmasters of the Grandmaster’s death and our plan to pressure the provincial dukes to manipulate Arbuckle.”

“Can I ask you a question before you flitter away?”

“Of course.”

“Why the disguise?”

“I was…implicated in the emperor’s death. They were going to question me under magical compulsion, which would risk exposure of the guild. I couldn’t let that happen, so I fled. I’m sure they took that as evidence of guilt, and that the entire constabulary is searching for me.”

Lady T cocked her head and scrutinized him, a lopsided smile on her lips. “I can arrange a better disguise for you.”

Hoseph stiffened as he drew the hood of the acolyte’s robe over his head. “Though I must forego my high priest’s robes for the immediate future, I would not insult my goddess by disavowing my allegiance altogether.” He looked deliberately around the room, committing the space to memory. If their relationship didn’t work out, he might have to pop in someday…or night. “I’ll be in touch.”

Clasping the silver skull hidden in the sleeve of his robe, Hoseph called on Demia’s power, and the room melted into shadow around him.

 ***

 Arbuckle wasn’t sure which ached more: his hands or his eyes. He flexed his fingers, wincing at the blisters on his palms. He had wielded an axe for more than an hour, along with several knights and squires, demolishing the vile instruments of torture in his father’s interrogation chamber. Afterward, he had watched with grim satisfaction as the doors were sealed and the keys destroyed. There would be no torture during the reign of Tynean Tsing III.

Except for paperwork, he lamented as he gazed at the parchments strewn across his desk. Ignorant of the intricacies of the running of the empire, Arbuckle had insisted he be brought up to speed. Most details were handled by functionaries, but he had to know how things worked. He’d been studying since he had woken after too few hours of sleep, and his eyes were bleary. A knock at the door startled him to attention.

Tennison, his father’s secretary—my secretary now—his ever-present ledger and pen at the ready, hurried over and answered it. “The crown prince is busy. I can fit you in…well, not until after he lunches.”

Arbuckle leapt at the chance to escape the paperwork. “Tennison, who is it?”

The secretary stepped back into the room, his sharp features pinched and his eyes wide. “Milord Prince, it’s Captain Otar of the Imperial Guard, and Master Corvecosi. I told them—“

“Relax, Tennison. I’d like very much to speak with them.”

“Very well, milord.”

Arbuckle gestured to the seats opposite the desk as his visitors entered. “Gentlemen, come in please. Would you like some blackbrew?” Servants hurried forward.

“No, thank you, Milord Prince.” Captain Otar bowed stiffly and stood at attention, declining to sit.

Corvecosi looked longingly at the silver tray laden with cups and a steaming pot, seemingly fought a private battle of propriety versus need, and acquiesced. “Thank you, milord.” He sank into the chair and sipped the dark brew, sighing in bliss. The man looked exhausted.

“I daresay we’ve all spent a sleepless night.” Arbuckle waved for another cup himself, though his head was pounding already with it. “Captain, you first.”

Otar remained at attention, his gaze fixed over Arbuckle’s head. “I apologize for not being here last night, Milord Prince. I was out of the palace on personal business and didn’t hear of your father’s death until I returned. You have my condolences.”

“You can’t be everywhere at once, Captain, and Commander Ithross did very well.” He sipped blackbrew and put down his cup. “Thank you for your condolences, but I’ll not grieve my father’s passing after finding out what a vile creature he truly was.”

The captain stiffened, but didn’t reply.

Arbuckle wondered how much Otar knew about the emperor he had pledged his life to serve and protect. Was his discomfort umbrage, or was it unease with the secret he’d kept for so long? “What progress have you made in your investigation?”

Otar clenched his chiseled jaw. “Not much, milord. We have no identification of the woman found in the interrogation chamber. There’s no record of her arrest or how she came to be in the palace dungeons.”

“That’s rather strange, don’t you think?”

“Indeed, milord. According to the guards, no one but the jailor, His Majesty, and his blademasters have entered the dungeons in weeks.”

“Archmage Duveau contends that the dungeons are not warded against magical intrusion. Do you think she may have been brought in by magical means?”

“It’s possible, milord.” Otar shrugged. “You would have to ask the archmage about that.”

“And we have no theories why my father tortured the woman?”

“The emperor conducted many interrogations, Milord Prince. She may have been a spy. I would not deign to question the actions he took for the sake of the empire.”

“Yes, few would have confronted my father on any matter.” One incongruent fact suddenly struck him. “You said that only the jailor, emperor, and blademasters have entered the dungeons in weeks, but Hoseph was there when the emperor was attacked, inside the dungeon.”

“I understand from Ithross’ report, milord, that High Priest Hoseph disappeared from the dungeon to evade questioning. They assumed he used some kind of spell.”

“Invocation,” Corvecosi said with a mild smile. “Priests employ invocations, not spells.”

The muscles at Otar’s jaw bunched and relaxed. “Perhaps he entered using the same invocation.”

“And maybe he brought the woman in with him,” Arbuckle mused. “His disappearance certainly makes him appear guilty of something.”

“I regret to inform you that he is still missing. His rooms at the temple were searched, and a guard was stationed there in case he returns.”

“Anything else, Captain?”

“There are some…irregularities in the palace visitors’ log for yesterday.” Otar’s eyes flicked to Arbuckle’s for a moment before reassuming their distant gaze. “A Captain Norwood of the Twailin Royal Guard, along with his sergeant, were granted an audience with His Majesty, but there’s no record of either of them leaving. The carriage they arrived in is still in the stables.”

“I remember them.” Arbuckle frowned. “The captain wanted to see my father about a matter of security, and insisted that they be alone. I guess they were right about the danger. Or…maybe they were the assassins. Have you tried to find them?”

“Of course, Milord!” Otar sounded put out. “We’ve searched the palace, and I alerted Chief Constable Dreyfus to seek them. We’re also watching all the city gates for them, as well as your father’s assassins from the descriptions provided by High Priest Hoseph.”

Arbuckle cock an eyebrow. “The descriptions he provided right before he vanished into thin air? Do you think we can trust that?”

“They are suspect, but it’s all we have to go on.”

Arbuckle sighed. So many questions and so few answers. “Very well, Captain. Master Corvecosi, you mentioned some peculiarities at the scene. Anything new?”

Corvecosi nodded. “Several things, Milord Prince. The first is that the unfortunate woman—she was young, by the way—died not from her wounds, nor by being eased into the afterlife, as Master Hoseph said.”

“How did she die then?”

“Poison. The same poison that killed the blademaster I showed you.”

“So…” Arbuckle tried to make sense of what the healer was saying, “…the same assassins who apparently killed the blademasters and the emperor, also killed the woman he was torturing?”

“So it would seem, Milord Prince.” Corvecosi sighed and rubbed his eyes. “There were some other clues, milord, that suggest the prowess of the assassins.” The healer pulled from his pocket a slender metal spike. “This was completely embedded in a blademaster’s skull.”

“What is that?” Arbuckle peered at the four-inch steel spike.

“An implement of torture, milord. We found others scattered about, and one in the thigh bone of the woman.”

“Gods…” Arbuckle’s stomach roiled.

“This one was thrown or magically propelled with extreme force. Inhuman force, one might say.”

“Inhuman? How?”

“Magically enhanced strength is not unheard of, milord.” Corvecosi gestured to Arbuckle’s blademasters. “Your own bodyguards are blessed with it by their deity. These assassins must have had some kind of magic to accomplish such feats.”

Arbuckle leaned back in his chair and blew out a frustrated breath. “So, these unknown assassins have not only the ability to appear and disappear, but also inhuman strength. What next?”

“Aside from those in the…” Corvecosi glanced at Captain Otar, “interrogation chamber, four other bodies were found elsewhere in the dungeon.”

Arbuckle sat up straight, his eyes snapping to Otar’s. “What? Who else was killed?”

“Your pardon for not mentioning it earlier, Milord Prince,” Captain Otar said with a bow. “They were just prisoners, by the look of them, though they wore simple smocks rather than prisoners’ attire. They were found in a small room at the far end of the dungeon, behind a locked door. The room was outfitted as a dining chamber, but there was no food to be found, and the men appeared to have been ill-fed for some time.”

“How did they die? Master Corvecosi?”

Corvecosi shrugged. “I don’t know. They bore no wounds, and they weren’t poisoned. The remaining prisoners are alive, but in ill health, malnourished and infested with various forms of vermin.”

Arbuckle clenched his jaw, recalling the poor wretches he’d seen. “Please see that they’re cared for. And I want every square inch of that filthy place cleaned.”

The healer nodded. “I took it upon myself to assign that task to my apprentices.”

“What about the jailor? Isn’t that his job?” His attention shifted back to Otar. “Has he been questioned about all this?”

The captain looked stricken, stammering out his reply. “Not yet, milord. We found him out cold in an unlocked cell, drunk. And not for the first time, if the pile of empty bottles is any indication. We’ll question him as soon as he is capable of answering.”

Arbuckle wondered at captain’s agitated reply, then recognized the man’s fear. Under Tynean Tsing II, he would have been punished for failing to have all the answers. I’m not like my father! “My apologies, Captain. Do carry on, and keep me informed.”

“Of course, Milord Prince.”

“Master Corvecosi, thank you for your insights.”

“It’s my pleasure to serve you, milord.” The healer stood, then nodded to the prince’s hands. “Would you like me to heal your blisters before I go?”

Arbuckle shook his head. “Thank you, but I’ll keep the reminder of a deed well done for a while longer.” Arbuckle flexed his hands, remembering the satisfying crash of the torture devices shattering under his blows. My father’s legacy

A smile flashed across Corvecosi’s lips before the two men bowed, then left.

Arbuckle flexed his hands again. “So, Tennison…”

“Yes, Milord Prince!” The secretary hurried to the prince’s side, his ledger already open and his pen poised above the page.

“Relax, Tennison. It’s nothing urgent. I only wanted to ask your opinion.”

“My…what?” The secretary looked startled.

“Your opinion.” Arbuckle had always considered Tennison an pretentious prig, but now the truth shone clear in his pinched face. He’s frightened. This is my father’s true legacy—fear. “I must announce my father’s death, but I’m wondering how to do it. I’ll draft an announcement to be sent to the nobles, of course, but simply posting a notice to inform the commoners seems…insufficient.”

“It is dire news. They will be…devastated.”

Devastated?” Arbuckle fixed Tennison with an incredulous stare. “Is that really what you think the common folk of this city will feel at the news?”

“I…” Tennison swallowed with effort.

“Tennison, relax!” Arbuckle stood, but the man remained rigid with terror, obviously unconvinced that he wasn’t being lured into a trap. Time to change that. “You needn’t be afraid of me. I’m not my father! I need you, above anyone else, to tell me the truth.”

“I…” The man blinked and swallowed. “I will, milord.”

“Good. Now, tell me how I inform the commoners of the emperor’s death. They deserve something more than a mere statement. An apology, an explanation…something.”

A boyhood memory flashed in his mind, the face of a pretty young girl, the daughter of the chambermaid who had cleaned his room since he was a babe. The girl had accompanied her mother to work one day, and a young Prince Arbuckle had been delighted to meet another child. His father had nipped the friendship in the bud, lecturing his son on the impropriety of nobility mingling with commoners. “Subjects are to be subjugated, not befriended!” Arbuckle never saw the girl again, and a new chambermaid cleaned his room the next day. He wondered where the girl and her mother had disappeared to, and tried not to picture the poor tortured woman in the dungeon.

“They deserve more.” Arbuckle began to pace. “They’ve been through hell at my father’s hand, and need to know they can expect better from me.”

“So…tell them that, milord.”

Tennison’s simple solution struck Arbuckle like a thunderbolt. “Of course!” He flicked an impatient hand at the secretary’s leger. “I’ll personally announce the emperor’s death! We need someplace public, and large enough to accommodate many!”

The secretary’s brows arched in surprise, his feather quill quivering over the leger. “Milord, I didn’t mean—”

“No, it’s perfect!” Arbuckle warmed to the proposal. “Draft posters to be distributed throughout the city immediately. I will appear at the Imperial Plaza this afternoon to make an important announcement. See to the details for transportation and security.”

“Yes, Milord Prince.” Tennison still looked horrified, but there was something else there, too.

Hope? Arbuckle wondered. The thought brought a smile. Yes…that’s what the commoners need. They need hope.

 

Chapter III

At the chime of the doorbell, Dee dropped his polishing rag. With Lad off to Tsing, there wasn’t much for him to do. The continuing investigation into the murder of Lad’s wife was running without much help. Collating the information in preparation for Lad’s return was his only real guild-related duty for the time being. Desperate to be busy, Dee had resorted to touching up the silver. Answering the door came as a welcome break.

Peeking through the lens mounted in the center of the door, however, Dee thought the break might not be so welcome after all. A hooded acolyte stood on the stoop, probably seeking a contribution.

“I’m so sorry, good brother,” Dee said as he opened the door. “My master’s out of town, and I’m not authorized to give donations in his stead. Perhaps if you come back when—”

“I know your master’s not home, and I’m not here for a donation. I’m here on guild business, and I’ll not discuss it on the stoop.” The man’s scowl was clearly not intended to entice generosity, and his face was unfamiliar.

Dee had been fooled once before by a spy in a clever disguise, and had vowed that would never happen again. However, if the man was actually a guild messenger, this certainly was not something to discuss on the stoop.

Stepping back, he waved the visitor in. “I have no idea what guild you’re talking about, but if you have business, you may come into the foyer.” If this was a trick to get entry for some nefarious motive, the man would be in for a surprise. Dee could summon two Enforcers in seconds. He closed the door and confronted the alleged acolyte, his arms crossed. “Now, what’s this about?”

“Who’s in charge of the Twailin guild?” The demand came without warning, and in a tone intended to intimidate.

Dee wasn’t.

“I don’t know you, sir, and I don’t know what guild you keep referring to. I’ll have your name and business, or you’ll be out the door this instant.”

The acolyte pushed the hood back off of his head, giving Dee his first good look at his features. The man’s pate was shaved smooth, his features were angular, and his eyes cold. When he spoke, his tone came as sharp as a newly whetted razor.

“My name is Hoseph. I’m the personal assistant to the Grandmaster of the Assassins Guild. You are the assistant to Guildmaster Lad of the Twailin Assassins Guild. You need to tell me who’s in charge of the Twailin guild in your master’s absence.”

Dee tensed, but maintained his long-practiced composure as his mind raced. Personal assistant to the Grandmaster! The claim seemed incredible, but rang true, given the man’s knowledge of Lad’s identity. It also explained why he seemed unaccustomed to being questioned. “Master Blade Sereth was put in temporary command.”

“Very well. Have him here at this time tomorrow so that I may speak with him.”

That didn’t sound good at all. Why would the Grandmaster’s assistant be here in Twailin when Lad was visiting the Grandmaster in Tsing? Had something happened to Lad and Mya? “May I tell him what this is in regard to?”

Hoseph stared for a moment, his eyes as blank as a viper’s. Finally he said, “Tell Master Sereth that the Grandmaster of the Assassins Guild has been murdered by Guildmaster Lad and Master Hunter Mya. These traitors are to be sought and apprehended. I’ll give Master Sereth the rest of the details tomorrow.”

“What the—”

Before Dee could complete his question, his visitor flipped a gleaming silver trinket from his sleeve, uttered a word, and dissolved into a swirling cloud of black mist.

“Gods of Light and Darkness!” Dee staggered back as the last of the vapor dissipated, the implications of the man’s visit and startling exit struck him. Black mists… Hoseph was the priestly assassin Lad had warned them about, the man who had twice interfered in the investigation of Wiggen’s death, once by killing Baron Patino, and again when he tried to kill Lad’s informant.

The thought worked like a key in his agile mind. Details fell into place like a row of tumblers. Kiesha—click! Patino—click! Black mists—click! Hoseph—click! The Grandmaster dead… The key stuck there, refusing to open the door on the final truth.

Dee tried to work it out. If Hoseph didn’t want Lad to solve Wiggen’s murder, and he works for the Grandmaster, then…did the Grandmaster have something to do with Wiggen’s death?

Lad had vowed to kill whoever was responsible, and Hoseph had said that Lad and Mya had killed the Grandmaster. The theory made sense, but in reality, Lad and Mya couldn’t lay a hand on the Grandmaster. The rings they wore wouldn’t allow it.

It doesn’t matter. The Grandmaster was dead, and the guild blamed Lad and Mya. Oh, there’s going to be all Nine Hells to pay for this.

Dee hurried to the back of the house. The two Enforcers sat at the table drinking blackbrew and flirting with the pretty kitchen maid, who promptly curtsied and scurried off.

“I’m going out for a while.” Dee grabbed his suitcoat. “Don’t allow anyone into the house.” He dashed out before they could ask any questions.

Outside, Dee slowed to a dignified stroll. He was a gentleman’s assistant, and he had to maintain that image. At this time of morning the streets were bustling, so he had no trouble flagging down a hackney. Sereth’s fencing salon wasn’t far, just on the edge of Barleycorn Heights, but Dee hadn’t taken the time to change from his house shoes to walking shoes. Truth be told, the hills in this part of town wore him out. Years spent working for Mya, and now Lad, had softened his muscles. But then, he’d always been more assistant than assassin. He gave the driver the address and climbed aboard.

Leaning back against the carriage cushions, Dee’ mind wandered to his two masters. He’d enjoyed working for Mya. The Master Hunter was intelligent, sharp-witted, and unfailingly loyal to her people. The youngest Master Hunter ever in Twailin, she had earned their loyalty in return. Secretly, Dee had harbored a decidedly unprofessional infatuation for his boss, even though he knew nothing could ever happen. He had often watched her cast glances at Lad and wondered if something might be going on between them, but he now knew that Lad was utterly devoted to his family.

Lad… Being the guildmaster’s assistant was an entirely different experience. No less gratifying, but challenging. There was an intensity to Lad that Dee found both unnerving and thrilling to be around. Working for someone who could snap you like a twig—a living weapon in emotional agony, no less—was daunting. Still, Dee’s empathy for the man who had lost his wife firmed his resolve to help him in any way he could.

The hackney pulled up in front of Sereth’s studio, and Dee was out the door before it even came to a halt. He tossed the driver a silver crown.

The driver caught it deftly. “Thank’e, sir!”

Sereth’s assistant, Lem, answered the door and let Dee in. The Master Blade was sparring with a student, so Dee stood out of the way, forcing himself to relax and consider what he knew about the man.

When Mya had been warring with the other guild factions, Dee had dug up all he could about the masters and their people. As Master Blade Horice’s bodyguard, Sereth had been high on the list. Though an accomplished swordsman, he preferred short blades to long, was hard-working, and until recently lived in a dreary apartment in the Docks District. More recently, he’d discovered that Sereth had a wife who had been held hostage by the Thieves Guild. Lad had helped free her, and had sworn Dee to silence about the entire affair. For that alone, Sereth owed Lad his loyalty.

The pace of the sparring shifted. At first glance, the fencing master and his student had appeared evenly matched, but suddenly, in a lightning exchange, Sereth scored several touches, one to each leg, one wrist, and a fourth that cracked the student’s wire mask hard enough to snap his head back.

“Enough!”

At Sereth’s command, the student immediately stopped and took off the wire mask. A shock of blonde hair and sweetly rounded face proclaimed that the student was, in fact, a young woman, not a young man.

“Very good, Lady Racine, but you’re guarding your core overmuch and leaving openings elsewhere.”

“You’re so fast!” She was breathing hard, her face glowing with sweat. “I couldn’t cover everything.”

“Then get faster.” Sereth noticed Dee. “I’m afraid we’re out of time for now, but remember; speed comes with practice. Practice at home with a metronome as I showed you, and keep increasing the tempo. I’ll see you in two days.”

“Thank you, Master VonBruce.” She saluted and racked her practice sword, and Lem helped her remove her thick plastron.

“Master VonBruce.” Dee strode forward and executed a respectful bow. “My master sends his regrets that he’ll be unable to attend his upcoming lesson. He’d like to reschedule if possible.”

“I’ll have to check my appointment book. Come with me.” Sereth led Dee from the studio into a small office, closed the door, and offered him a seat. “What’s happened?”

“Do I look that upset?” Dee prided himself on his ability to maintain an unruffled façade.

“No, but you never just pop in unexpectedly. I figured something was up.”

“Something is. I just had a visitor.” Dee quickly related the story of Hoseph’s visit and his ideas of the priest’s involvement in recent events.

“Mother of…” Sereth’s oath trailed off, and his eyes drifted down to his hands.

“How could they kill the Grandmaster? Is it even possible?”

Sereth glanced up. “If anyone could do it, I’d bet on Lad and Mya.” To Dee’s raised eyebrows, he said, “You didn’t see them at Fiveway Fountain. They fought like…nothing I’ve ever seen before.”

“But what about the Grandmaster’s ring? How could they even touch him?”

“I don’t know, but there was Saliez…”

Of course, Dee remembered. The Grandfather. According to rumor, the former Twailin guildmaster had been killed by Lad, despite magical constraints that prohibited him from harming the man who had contracted him to be made.

Dee took a deep breath. “What are you going to do?”

“Meet with Hoseph.” The Master Blade seemed surprised at the question. “I would be foolish to refuse.”

“If I can point something out without getting killed…” Dee crooked a smile to make sure Sereth knew the comment was in jest.

“Go ahead.”

“We owe no allegiance to this Hoseph fellow. He’s not in the chain of command. If the Grandmaster truly is dead, our loyalty is to Lad.”

Sereth pursed his lips. “It’s more complicated than that, Dee. If Lad and Mya did somehow kill the Grandmaster, then they’re traitors to the guild.”

“But if the Grandmaster’s dead, who’s calling the shots?” Dee couldn’t believe he was hearing this. “Your life doesn’t belong to Hoseph, it belongs to Lad.”

“I need to think about this before I make a decision.”

“But he saved your—”

“Enough!”

Dee tensed. He’d expected more loyalty from Sereth, but he couldn’t flout his orders. Lad had put the Master Blade in charge.

Sereth stood and opened the door, a clear signal that their meeting was over. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning at Lad’s house.”

Dee nodded in assent, unsure whether he had masked his apprehension, and left. To him, the matter was simple. His loyalty belonged to Lad, not some nebulous dead Grandmaster in far-off Tsing. But he didn’t dare alienate the Master Blade. Should Sereth be appointed guildmaster, Dee would have no choice but to work with him.

Or die.

 ***

 Arbuckle strode into the Great Hall, his blademasters in tight formation around him, and stopped short. The cavernous chamber seemed to have shrunk, so filled was it with imperial guards, knights, and squires, all clad in gleaming armor and weapons. The herald announced his entrance, and the entire room bowed as one. A flutter of apprehension mixed with pride filled him. These men and women were sworn to him, and with them he would banish his vile father’s shadow.

Struggling to maintain a composed mien, Arbuckle announced, “It’s time, Captain Otar.”

“Milord Prince.” Otar stepped forward and lowered his voice. “This is unwise. You put yourself in peril needlessly. Your father would never have—”

“I am not my father, Captain. The sooner you accept that, the better we will get along. Besides,” Arbuckle tugged at the hem of his dress doublet, a bit snug now that he wore a fine chainmail shirt beneath it, “with all of you around me, I’m well protected.”

“Heralds could just as easily announce the emperor’s death, milord,” Otar argued.

“No, Captain, they couldn’t. Heralds and posters are impersonal. I must show the populace that things will change.” Arbuckle smiled to the captain. “But thank you for pointing out that my father would never do this. Now I’m certain it’s the right thing to do.”

“If you say so, Milord Prince, but I’d have my objection to this foray noted.” Otar nodded to the imperial scribe hovering just outside Arbuckle’s cordon of blademasters. The man’s pen was busy as always, recording every word.

“So noted, Captain. Now, I’ll say a few words before we leave.” Arbuckle stepped up onto the gilded dais at the head of the room and scanned the assembled crowd. “Ladies and gentlemen.” Every eye snapped to him, and Arbuckle felt a twinge of apprehension. He was unused to making speeches.

Just tell them the truth.

“This the start of a new era. For more than forty years, Tsing has been ruled with an iron fist. That reign of tyranny is over. I am not my father, and things are going to change. We will maintain order, but we will institute justice as well. Every citizen of Tsing deserves the same rights. With your help, I intend to give them those rights.”

Armor rustled as they shifted. He saw surprise on some faces, resolve on others.

“Change will not come easily, but is necessary. History tells us that oppression leads to rebellion and the death of empires. We—you and I—must show the common people that there is no need for rebellion. Today we bring them hope.”

Several in the crowd nodded, though a few frowned. Arbuckle hoped that was simple worry, not rebellion.

“I expect that they will welcome the news. They may even get rambunctious, but,” Arbuckle lowered his voice, aiming for a stern but unthreatening tone, “your mission is to protect me, nothing more. There is to be no offensive action. The constabulary will deal with any unrest. Any questions?”

A single cricket would have seemed loud in the ensuing silence. Surprise wreathed every face, guard and knight alike. Their reactions brought a smile to Arbuckle. They were used to being ordered to action, with no questions allowed. They were learning that he was not his father.

“Very good.” He gestured to the towering doors that led to the palace foyer and the courtyard beyond. “Let us proceed.”

The clatter of metal echoed through the Great Hall as the troops parted to allow the crown prince passage, then followed him outside. Arbuckle boarded his carriage and settled into the soft seat, his scribe tucking into the opposite corner. The carriage shifted as his blademasters leapt into place with the driver, atop, and on the rear. Within minutes all were ready, and the carriage lurched into motion.

Arbuckle peered out the window, but could see little beyond steel and horseflesh. A cordon of knights and squires rode around his carriage, and the Imperial Guard marched behind. Arbuckle had envisioned a more discreet contingent.

It’s like an invading army

Arbuckle slouched into his seat, disgruntled at the thought. He despised his father’s brutal policies, and had tried to dissociate himself from them whenever he could. As crown prince, he had stood beside Tynean Tsing II during audiences and attended social functions he couldn’t get out of, though he refused at every opportunity. The emperor had long ago stopped trying to instruct his only son and heir in governance and statecraft. Arbuckle had tried instead to learn his duty from books, gleaning what he could from historical successes and failures. But reading was no substitute for experience, and he felt ill-prepared to rule the vast empire.

I thought I’d have more time…

After what seemed an interminable duration, but was probably less than an hour, the procession halted, and Arbuckle’s mood brightened. It was time for the people to meet their future emperor, time for them to learn that he was not his father. A buzz rose over the clatter of hooves and armor, the voices of the commoners gathered in the plaza.

“We’ve reached the Imperial Plaza, Milord Prince!” Captain Otar opened the carriage door. “There’s quite a crowd. I’ll say again that I don’t think this is a wise thing to do.”

“Then I’ll go down in history as Arbuckle the Unwise, Captain. This plaza epitomizes my father’s injustice. This is where I need to be.” He swallowed hard and stepped from the carriage, pausing a moment in the door.

The Imperial Plaza was as horrific as he remembered. Rows of pillories and whipping posts surrounded a cluster of gallows, an appalling number of them occupied. Above it all, the imperial flags snapped in the breeze. The deep-blue crested banner fluttered upside-down, proclaiming a death within the imperial family. Constables and mounted lancers girded the perimeter punishment area in a solid wall of steel.

The buzz of voices rose as the crowd caught sight of Arbuckle. Commoners by the thousands craned their necks to see him. Though notice of the gathering had been last minute, it seemed as if half of the city’s population had attended.

“Milord Prince!” Chief Constable Dreyfus approached with a squad of constables, grim men and women in tarnished mail with hands on swords. He waited until Arbuckle’s blademasters allowed him through their protective cordon. Bowing, Dreyfus got right to the point. “This is a dangerous place. This rabble could go off at any moment!”

“This rabble, as you call them, Chief Constable, look fairly calm to me.”

“For the moment, yes, Milord Prince, but so does a tinderbox before it goes up in flames.” He looked around, obviously nervous. “Trust me. They’re like curs. Toss them a morsel and they’ll turn around and bite the hand that feeds them.”

“A dog that has been beaten for forty years has good reason to bite, Chief Constable!” Arbuckle forced down his temper. Dreyfus and his constables dealt with the dregs of society every day. No wonder they were jaded. “I respect your opinion, but please refrain from disparaging the people you are sworn to protect!”

Dreyfus looked stunned, but recovered quickly. “All I’m saying, milord, is that I can’t guarantee your safety.”

“That’s not your concern, Chief Constable. The Imperial Guard will see to my safety. Your job is to maintain order. Protect the city and the populace from harm. I want no brutality here!”

“As you wish, milord.” Dreyfus bowed and retreated to command his constables.

“Good. Now, where…” Arbuckle scanned the field of punishment and saw what he needed. “There.” He pointed to one of the gallows. The platform was high enough that he would be visible to the entire crowd. “There! I’m going there.”

“But to expose yourself—”

“Captain Otar, how can I address the people if they can’t see me?” He glared at the man and pointed again to the gallows. “We’re going there!”

“Yes, milord.” The captain clenched his jaw and shouted orders.

The Imperial Guard formed a double row from the carriage to the gallows, shields facing outward. Arbuckle proceeded down the passage between lines of guards, his blademasters tightly knotted around him.

Good Gods of Light! Beneath the gallows dangled the body of a woman, a rope cinched tight around her neck. I can’t change my mind now. He mounted the steps of the gibbet, his footsteps hollow on the well-trodden wood. A breeze fluttered his robe, wafting the scent of blood, infection, and death through the air. Arbuckle struggled not to gag as he gazed out across the sea of people.

“People of Tsing!” he shouted, hoping his words would reach to the edge of the crowd. “I am Crown Prince Arbuckle, heir to the throne of Tsing. The emperor, my father, is dead!”

Surprisingly, the people remained silent. Arbuckle had expected cries, maybe catcalls, perhaps some cheers, but not a sound reached him beyond the shuffling of feet and the clatter of armor and hooves on stone. He examined the crowd, looking from face to face. A few glanced sidelong at the squads of constables, but not a single eye met his.

Fear… Ice water trickled down his spine with the realization. They’re terrified.

A lone shout of, “Good riddance!” rang out from the crowd, and a squad of constables surged forward.

“Stop right there!” Arbuckle bellowed. “I’m here to speak to the people. If they choose to speak back to me, they have the right. No one here will be punished for speaking out. There will be justice under my reign!”

“What justice?” A man surged forward to the cordon of constables, his accusative hand thrusting between the shields to point. “How dare you speak of justice standing above my wife’s corpse! There ain’t no justice for common folk. Only for you nobles!”

A murmur swept through the crowd, and Arbuckle could hear the rage in it. He looked back at the rope trailing down through the trap door in the gallows, and realized that the man was right.

What a hypocrite I look.

“There will be justice!” He raised his hands. “I pledge to you, there will be the same justice for all, noble and commoner alike.”

The murmurs grew louder and the crowd shifted, a few more catcalls and epithets ringing out. The constables fidgeted, but remained in place. Arbuckle had to demonstrate his sincerity, but how? Show them you’re not your father.

Turning to his nearest bodyguard, he held out a hand. “Give me a dagger.”

The blademaster immediately handed over the dagger from his belt.

“Captain Otar! I’m going to cut down this poor woman. Have your men catch her. They are to treat the body with respect, do you hear me?”

“Milord Prince! Why?” The captain stared up at him with wide, questioning eyes.

Otar’s surprise made Arbuckle realize that he had misinterpreted the captain’s mindset. He hadn’t been upset to learn that his former master was a sadist and disagreed with the notion that commoners deserved any consideration whatsoever, let alone respect. Time to educate him, Arbuckle resolved

“Because it is her due! Now do as I say or I’ll have you removed from your post, Captain!”

“Yes, Milord Prince.” Otar’s voice was sullen, but he gave the requisite orders.

Arbuckle leaned out over the open trap door and gripped the rope, sawing the keen blade through the strands. The prince realized his mistake as the rope parted and the rough hemp ripped through his blistered palm. A hand grasped his shoulder, and another snatched the rope beneath his fist. One of his blademasters had saved him from dropping the body, and maybe tumbling after it.

“Thank you. Lower her gently.” Arbuckle released his grasp, his hand bloody.

Another murmur swept the crowd as the blademaster lowered the body into the arms of two imperial guards waiting below. Easing the woman to the ground, one removed the noose while the other unclasped his own cloak and wrapped the forlorn figure in a makeshift shroud.

“Very good!” Arbuckle returned the dagger to his bodyguard, then called down to Otar again. “Captain! Have your people take her to her husband. Release the rest of the prisoners to their families. Use your cloaks to wrap the dead.”

“Milord, this sets a bad precedent.”

“Carry out my orders, Captain!” Arbuckle warned.

Otar shook his head. “I cannot countenance this action. It’s foolhardy and dangerous!”

Arbuckle bristled. If he couldn’t control his own Imperial Guard, how could he hope to govern an empire?

“Very well, Captain.” The man relaxed for a moment before Arbuckle bellowed, “Commander Ithross, relieve Captain Otar of command and place him under arrest! You are acting captain of the Imperial Guard as of this moment.”

Ithross moved forward with a squad of guardsmen.

“What? You can’t—”

“I can and I have, Master Otar. You’re under arrest. Hand over your weapons, or you’ll be taken by force.” To Arbuckle’s immense relief, the captain unclipped his sword belt and handed it over to Ithross, though his face darkened with rage. Unclasping his cloak of office, he flung it to the ground and allowed himself to be led away.

A cheer rang out from the commoners in the fore of the crowd.

“Commander Ithross, did you hear my orders to your former captain?”

“I did, Milord Prince.” Ithross saluted smartly.

“Carry them out at once.” He looked around. “Sir Fineal!”

The knight rode his charger forward. “Milord Prince.”

“I want the knights to assist in the release of the prisoners.”

“At once, Milord Prince!” Fineal snapped orders, and soon the knights and their squires dismounted to join the Imperial Guard.

Sparks flew as steel cleaved chains and struck locks from stocks, but the soldiers took the greatest care with the prisoners, helping them to the waiting arms of their grateful families. The effect on the crowd was gradual but profound. Murmurs of disbelief swelled to shouts of elation and cheers. Those receiving bodies wailed, but many more wept tears of joy.

Arbuckle raised his hands. “People of Tsing!”

Silence fell. Arbuckle’s heart raced at the sight of their upturned faces, no longer fearful and despairing, but hopeful. A new eagerness and spirit shone in their eyes.

“I know you have suffered long under my father’s rule, but I’m here to tell you that I will not perpetuate his policies. As a pledge upon my word, I grant full pardons to all those who were being punished here in the plaza, and vow to personally review the case of every prisoner currently being held in this city. Those cases found unjust by me will be dismissed.”

A murmur of disbelief swept through the crowd, and a voice called out, “What of our dead?”

“I can’t make up for your losses, but every family who brings to the palace the cloak we have wrapped your dead in will receive compensation.”

“Blood money!” someone cried, and a dangerous murmur began.

“No!” Arbuckle shook his head. “This is not blood money, but compensation for wrongs perpetrated by your emperor. Gold can’t bring back the dead or pay for your sorrow, but it can feed your children.”

“How do we know we can trust you?”

Arbuckle almost smiled at the question. Already they were more emboldened than they had been in years. Trust is earned… But how to convince them? He clenched his fists, and the pain from the torn blisters on his palms ignited his memory of that morning, of the satisfaction at destroying his father’s implements of torture. Of course!

“Commander Ithross, get me an axe!”

Within moments, Ithross hurried up the gallows steps, a battle axe in hand, and the hint of a grin on his face. “I’m afraid it’s not quite a woodsman’s tool, milord.”

“It’ll do, Commander.” He nodded at the tall square frame of the gallows. “Care to join me in an encore of our morning’s work in the interrogation room, Commander?”

“With pleasure!”

Arbuckle hefted the battle axe in his aching palms. It felt good despite the pain. Hauling back, he swung with all his might, and the blade bit deep into the soft pine. A cheer went up from the crowd. Wrenching the blade free, he swung again while Ithross attacked the other support. Blood dripped from his torn palm. After several more strokes, the gallows framework lurched.

“Ware below!” called Ithross, and the nearby guards backed away. With one final blow, Arbuckle smashed through the remaining support and the frame crashed down onto the cobblestones.

Another ragged cheer rose from the crowd.

Arbuckle turned to Ithross. “Commander, have your guardsmen tear down every single post, pillory, and gallows. Pile it all right here!” He pointed down to the space beneath the gallows.

“Yes, Milord Prince!” Ithross fired off orders, and the Imperial Guard hurried to comply.

For nearly an hour they toiled, and the crowd watched in amazement. An enormous mound of broken timber rose beneath the platform upon which Arbuckle stood. He called for a skin of oil, and emptied it down through the trap door, then raised his hands for silence.

“Today is a new beginning!” he bellowed. “Today we begin to right the wrongs! Today I show you my commitment to bring justice to this empire! One justice for all people, rich and poor, noble and commoner alike!”

The cheers echoed off the buildings around the plaza, so loud that they reverberated against Arbuckle’s chest. He held high the torch that Ithross had fetched. “You, the common people of Tsing, are the life and blood of this empire. This realm was built by your hands, your sweat, your labor! With this flame, I ignite a fire to burn away the injustice of the past and temper a pledge for justice in the future.”

Arbuckle dropped the torch down through the hatch in the platform. Fames immediately flickered amidst the well-oiled wood, and the fire quickly spread. The crown prince descended the platform’s steps amidst a flurry of sparks and raucous cheers from the crowd. By the time he reached his carriage, the bonfire raged, flames soaring into the sky. The crowd cheered, and he even saw some delighted folks dancing and clapping. Many Imperial Guard and knights grinned, while several of the younger squires hooted with relish.

“Chief Constable Dreyfus, pull your constables back. Protect the surrounding buildings and keep order, but let the people gather to enjoy the bonfire. It’ll do them good.”

“Yes, Milord Prince.” Dreyfus didn’t look happy, but immediately began relaying Arbuckle’s orders.

“Commander Ithross, back to the palace!”

Arbuckle climbed into his carriage and fell against the cushions with a hearty sigh. “A good afternoon’s work, if I may say so myself.”

“Yes, Milord Prince.”

Arbuckle started at the voice. The imperial scribe sat tucked once again into his corner. Suddenly the crown prince realized that the man had been nearby throughout the entire foray, constantly scratching on his ledger, as quiet and unobtrusive as a shadow. In fact, as far as he could remember, this was the first time Arbuckle had ever heard him speak.

“Do you know, I don’t believe I’ve ever learned your name.”

“It’s Verul, Milord Prince.”

“Well, Verul, how did you like my little speech?”

The scribe looked sheepish. “I…I don’t know, Milord Prince. I’m so busy writing the words that I don’t have time to listen.”

“I know what you mean. I was so busy speaking, I don’t remember exactly what I said. May I re-live it by reading?” He gestured to the thick book in the man’s lap.

“I’m afraid it’s not legible yet, milord.” Verul turned the volume around to show a page full of incomprehensible markings. “It’s just shorthand now. It’s transcribed every night by the archivists.”

“I wondered how you wrote so quickly to get it all down. Would you bring the archive to me once it’s been transcribed?”

“Of course, Milord Prince.”

Arbuckle leaned his head back and closed his eyes, tired but happy. His first action had been a resounding success. He hoped it was good portent of his upcoming reign.

 ***

 Mya watched the imperial carriage pull away, Crown Prince Arbuckle tucked safely inside. The spectacle had fairly dumbfounded her. This was Tynean Tsing’s son?

The Grandmaster had considered his heir inept and unfit to rule his empire. He was right. But then, Arbuckle didn’t intend to rule this empire, but one of his own making. Lad would like that.

As the constables’ line dissolved into squads, the crowd surged forward. She allowed herself to be taken with them until she felt the heat of the bonfire on her cheek. She felt a trickle of sweat on her neck, not due to the sweltering temperature—her enchanted wrappings kept perfectly comfortable, regardless of heat or cold—but the crowd was getting overly rambunctious for her comfort.

She dabbed her neck and examined her fingers. I hope my hair dye doesn’t run.

Certain that a hunt would be underway for the emperor’s murderer, she’d made a quick purchase from a cosmetic shop that morning. A hasty application had colored her distinctive red hair black. Not that it mattered much, tucked up under a cap. She had disguised herself as a boy to venture out today. She’d been right to assume there’d be no nobles in the crowd. Her fine traveling dresses would make her stand out in a crowd like this.

Pushing her way back through the crowd to the edge of the plaza, she swung up onto a street lamp with a few other cavorting boys, and gazed out across the sea of people. Everywhere, they celebrated—dancing, laughing, singing—drunk on the freedom that their new ruler promised. Here and there, however, small pockets of people huddled close, talking low, their faces showing not elation, but anger or malice. She hopped down and moved near one group, cocking an ear to hear them over the hoots and howls of the crowd.

“…don’t believe a word of it…”

“A trick!”

“Just wait…”

The squads of constables that hung around the edge of the plaza watched everyone closely, especially those who seemed less than elated. They stood, facing the crowd with shields at the ready, as if they expected to be bowled over by an angry mob at any moment.

She examined the crowd: shopkeepers in worn suits and long aprons, charwomen with dingy skirts and rough hands, mothers carrying pink-faced babies, shipyard workers with wood chips in their hair, ne’er-do-wells missing hands, eyes, or legs and smelling of the foulest gutter. The entire spectrum of the city’s working and lower-class citizens had attended the assembly.

A dangerous crowd, even if most of them are happy.

An uproar caught her ear, and she looked to where a small troupe of rowdies jeered and laughed at a squad of constables. Only yesterday, the officers would have immediately set about bludgeoning the young men into submission. But Arbuckle had said there would be justice, and he evidently meant it. The squad held themselves in check, ignoring the unruly youths, though Mya could see hands on swords. The rowdies took full advantage of their new-found freedom, cat calling and making rude gestures. They traded around a rum bottle, drinking and laughing at the grim constables.

Mya sighed, recognizing the type. There were always those few who just wanted to stir up trouble. Raucous laughter erupted, and one of the youths threw the empty bottle at the constables, where it shattered against a shield.

And there it goes.

The squad leader drew her sword, and the rest of her squad followed suit, stepping into a tight formation of shield-sword-shield. They took a menacing step forward. The ruffians scattered, but a couple snatched brands from the bonfire. As they ran from the plaza, they yelled back a bastardized version of Crown Prince Arbuckle’s words. “Light a fire for justice!”

“Uh oh.” Mya moved toward the nearest alley.

Drunk idiots with torches was a bad combination in a city this tightly packed with flammable structures. The constables intercepted one of the torch-wielding morons, dropping him to the cobbles with a shield to the face. Several others cried out in alarm, however, and cat calls started flying.

Protests of “Damned caps!” and “Fires for justice!” ripped through the crowd like rolling thunder warned of an approaching storm.

Mya turned and walked away. She had the distinct feeling that the celebrations were about to take a turn for the worse.