An Assassin At the Door

The same unworried face, a hint of a smile forever curling his lips, faced Keleprai, though he was grinning deeply now as he related to the Gver the impetuousness of their young Qraul.

“He is still a child, of course, but he does not realize it.”

“We didn’t either at that age. It’s a delightful blindness.”

“No, I suppose we didn’t,” Cepedutherupt said, nodding slightly. They sat on either side of a table laden with steaming dishes of food in the Gver’s personal quarters. “He’s set on making his mark like his father. He wants to be free of us old men.”

“I wish him luck. I thought I would be rid of Tehh as soon as I became Gver, and now I think he’ll outlast me.”

Keleprai picked at a dish of lentils and duck in a sauce heavy with onions and garlic. There was an extra plate set at the table for the High Adept’s Disciple, who normally attended these meetings, but he was nowhere to be seen. Keleprai had not raised his absence with Cepedutherupt. Adept’s kept their own counsel, it was said, and he disliked the man at any rate.

“I hear that we are changing the Sea Challenge.”

The High Adept laughed. “Rakai is in, yes. It’s been discussed many times before.”

Something must have shown in his face, for Cepedutherupt set his fork down and shrugged his shoulders. “He wants to assert himself, like I said. He wants to take chances and have them pay. There’ll be outcry and outrage and all that, but really, the Challenge doesn’t mean what it meant in our father’s Realm. There’s many who will agree.”

“Silently,” Keleprai said, and Cepedutherupt shrugged again. It was true there was only pride and prestige at stake now with the Challenge, no trading rights to be gained, but that had, in the strange way of these things, served only to make the competition even more imperative to those involved. He did not believe for an instant that the decision had been Laterala’s, either. Cepedutherupt would not stir this hornet’s nest without some reason. In truth he agreed with the decision, but the fact that he had not been asked, his agreement assumed, needled at him.

The Adept did not give him a chance to pursue the issue. “Tell me, what news from the border?”

“There was an incursion past the pyrsedies less than a month ago. Nothing unusual and no real consequence. There’ll be more activity now that we’re coming into summer. There’s nothing in the reports to worry.”

“My greatest worry is the desert.”

Keleprai could not disguise his shock. “In truth? With the Realm as it is?”

“Even so. They will be a grave problem, sooner than you believe. I have given blood to the matter.”

Keleprai eyed the Adept. “I suppose this has something to with alkemya and all that. Well, these matters I leave to you of course, but I don’t see why we need to worry about the Shadows. We have enough to worry here without going outside the Realm to find it.”

“True enough,” the Adept said, and smiled. “It is something to think about anyway, when you are reading those reports.”

“Half the Realm debates each morning when they get up whether they will pay fealty to the Qraul or not, and you would like me to pay attention to the wanderings of vagrants.”

“Perhaps there is purpose where we see only aimlessness.”

Keleprai frowned. “You cannot truly believe that?”

“I don’t know, to be honest. Yours is an eye I trust, though.”

“I can have the pyrsedies under my command increase their patrols if you would like.”

Cepedutherupt nodded his thanks. Keleprai poured himself another measure of wine and resisted a smile. He had no intention of increasing the patrols. Too much expense and bother for what he was certain would come to nothing. There were only the basest of reasons behind what the creatures did. They wandered the deserts following the seasons in their tribes, striking into Craitol when the opportunity presented itself. They were scavengers—no greater purpose animated or governed them.

Was this truly the reason for this audience, he wondered. To increase the patrols of the desert? A full and complete waste of his day, then. The Adepts were always going on about what they had scried, and more often than not it proved to be of little more worth than what any thaumaturge in any village in the Realm would see in the entrails of an ardeh.

“Have you heard the latest talk from the court?” Keleprai held his hands out. “Well, they are saying that Laterala is a follower of the Lasisen Senteurists.”

Keleprai frwoned. “The Apysel? On what basis?”

“His mother,” Cepedutherupt said. “She has taken the vows and is living in their cloister.”

“What madness has possessed her?”

“Who’s to say. But you know as well as I that the boy trusts her word as much as anyone’s. Well, everyone knows that. Hence our problem.”

Keleprai nodded. The Lasisen Senteurists were a radical sect that worshipped Senteur alone and sought to denigrate the place of Ulternon and Melinon in the theology. According to their belief Senteur was the sole father of humanity, with Melinon little more than an empty receptacle. Many in the Realm favoured Senteur among the Gods, and believed it was he who had triumphed in the struggle among the three, but to exalt him as the sole God of worship was unheard of. There had always been something in Senteurist belief which leaned towards this, but for many, even other Senteurists, it was a step too far.

It was difficult enough, Keleprai knew, for any Gver or Qraul to rule without some suspecting that he favoured this sect or the other. Even choosing among the Morning, Midday, or Evening was fraught with peril, which was why most high nobility followed the choices of their fathers. People were apt to take to the streets if they perceived that some group or other was favoured over their own. He had been careful throughout his rule to play no favourites and be part of the agnostic mass in these things. This was even more dangerous ground, though—if it became accepted that Laterala followed some sect, then no Palace would be safe from the mob. The first cloister that Lasisen had built in Lastl had been burned and the Cureders beaten to death.

“When did she do this?” he asked.

“Two months now. I have tried to keep it quiet, but of course it was no use,” Cepedutherupt said. “You know her better than I—you grew up together, did you not? Send word to her, try to speak reason.”

A rap at the door interrupted them. They both turned, frowning, to stare at its blank visage before Keleprai got to his feet and went to open it, a few choice words for Nasyren already on his lips. Before he reached the door it swung open and someone he didn’t recognize stepped through. A short, compact man, his dark shade suggesting he was from the Mgetir Isle, wearing the dress of a Palace attendant. He had his mouth open to yell at the Master of Offices for allowing this unforgivable breach of protocol—the High Adept was here in secret, for Gods’ sake, you couldn’t allow some attendant to just come wandering in—when he saw the man had a dagger in hand.

He fumbled for the ceremonial dagger he always had at his side, but the attacker was already upon him, thrusting the dagger at his throat. Keleprai managed to stave off the blow, grasping the man’s wrist and holding him at bay. While they struggled, Keleprai called out to the guards who should have been at the outer doors of the quarters. There was no response and the attacker gave him a grim smile.

“Hold,” Cepedutherupt said in a voice gone cavernous, freezing the intruder momentarily. It was enough that Keleprai was able to extract himself and get his own dagger free. The attacker eyed the two of them warily, holding his dagger out before him.

Glancing over, Keleprai saw the High Adept’s eyes begin to change, glazing in the way that all Adepts and their Disciples did when practicing their art, as if they had become unhinged from the rest of their body. It would be over quickly now, he thought. Once Cepedutherupt had the attacker under control he could step in and finish him.

Just as he thought they had victory easily within their grasp, he saw the assassin’s eyes turn as well. He did not have time to brace himself before the alkemy hit him like a sharp gust of wind. The very floor he stood on was unstable; it was something like being on the sea in a storm. There was the same trembling, the plunging of his stomach to his bowels and the sudden chance that his insides might come rushing out of his body.

The assassin and Cepedutherupt were locked in a desperate struggle, unseen but for the grim tauntness of their faces. Keleprai tried to take a step forward, to intercede in some way, but he doubled over, clutching his head in agony as the alkemy flooded the air. It was too near him, all this power, and he was only feeling the excess spilling over from the battle. His body felt numb and his nose started to run so that he wondered if it was bleeding.

When he at last managed to raise his head he found himself looking upon an almost absurd scene. The assassin was moving towards the High Adept with painstaking slowness, as though he were terrified the ground beneath was about to fall away. At the same time Cepedutherupt was immobile, seemingly not aware of the other at all. Desperately, Keleprai tried to intervene, but he fell to his knees with his first step. The alkemy crackled in his ears, but he knew there was no sound being formed, just as there was nothing visible in the air. It was all in the realm of the spirits.

By the time Keleprai regained his feet the assassin had buried his knife to the hilt in Cepedutherupt’s side. He yanked it free with a triumphant gasp. The High Adept’s expression remained unchanged, and as quickly as it had come the intruder’s grin vanished. His hand remained in the air, holding the dagger at an odd angle while he screamed as he was suffused in a white glare. Smoke started to rise off him and his eyes rolled back into his head, his tongue flopping out of his mouth. Finally, he collapsed to the ground in a heap.

The stench of burnt flesh was overwhelming. Keleprai was left reeling. His body felt raw and stiff, like he had been lashed and beaten for hours. Cepedutherupt, he saw, had fallen to the ground. The silence was oppressive and he wondered if he had somehow lost his hearing during the battle.

He forced himself to his feet, fighting the vertigo, which was still overwhelming in the aftermath of the alkemy. He managed only a step before he went to his knees and retched, sending the meal he had just eaten to the floor. That made him feel better, though, and he got back to his feet and walked over to the assassin, pushing him onto his back with his foot. Having assured himself of the man’s demise, Keleprai stumbled out of the room and down the hallway to find Nasyren.

from Realm of Shadows

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