An Act of Treason

When he arrived at the academy, Nazeed was pacing restlessly in the receiving hall, which was empty but for the bawd, who was careful not to look at either of them.

“We don’t have much time,” Nazeed said as he led Masiph through the twisting hallways of the brothel to the alley behind, and from there to the gnarled byways that surrounded it. “We have to be across Uenam by nightfall.”

Masiph did not reply, nor did he say anything when a covered palanquin materialized on an empty street and, after they had slipped within its confines, began to carry them farther to the west. He knew better than to ask what they were about, especially with the ears of the carriers so near. Instead he settled back into his seat and put a quid in his cheek, hoping the aslyn would shake off the drowsiness he felt from the ale he had been drinking. Nazeed paid him no mind throughout their journey, staring off into the palanquin curtains, lost in his own thoughts, which only made Masiph more nervous. It was unlike him; normally he was quick to set the youth at ease.

They switched palanquins several times in their journey, exiting on one empty street and following a circuitous route set by Nazeed to another quiet avenue, where a palanquin awaited their arrival. In this way they gradually made their way to what Masiph recognized as the eastern edge of the Uenam, where Nohritai families of middle rank had their estates. He did not understand the abundance of caution Nazeed was using, given that they could both reasonably account for their being in the area without issue. Unless he was worried about them being followed, but who would know to follow them?

By the time they reached their destination—an unremarkable street near the Uenam Walls—night was falling and the lamps were in the process of being lit. Masiph thought he recognized the street they were on, though he could not be entirely sure in the darkness, but they did not remain there long, Nazeed leading him immediately to the servants’ paths that ran among the various estates. They were all unlit, though Nazeed had no difficulty finding his way among the many alleys. As they went along, Masiph caught snatches of conversation from the gardens of the estates they were passing, all unremarkable and yet somehow ominous because of that.

Finally, after many further twists and turns that left Masiph confused as to where exactly they were—having never used the servant paths himself—Nazeed drew to a halt before an estate, small even for the area, and slipped within through the servants’ door, which had been left unlocked. They moved quickly across the insubstantial though immaculately maintained gardens, to the main house, where Nazeed went unerringly to the third window, which had been left unbarred. They crawled in through that to a darkened room that Masiph, squinting against the shadows, thought was an aslyn room. It was small enough, the low table was there and he could feel the sitting rugs beneath his feet.

There they remained, crouched on either side of the door, for what seemed like hours to Masiph. The hallway beyond was dark as well, and the house seemed quiet, though Masiph strained at the slightest sound of activity. The family, he surmised, must be out for the evening and the servants gone to their quarters. Which meant a long wait.

He had nearly fallen asleep, the beer settling in him, when the sound of footsteps approaching started him to wakefulness. A glimmer of illumination followed the steps, growing brighter as the sound came nearer. Glancing across to the other side of the doorway, Masiph saw that Nazeed was gesturing furiously at him to rise. After staring at him uncomprehendingly, the ale making him stupid, Masiph mimicked Nazeed, standing up and pressing his back against the wall near the doorway. Another gesture from Nazeed told him that he was to stay against the wall when the man entered.

The footsteps came to a halt just beyond the door, and the light from the lantern danced as whoever it was raised it up to look about the hallway, as though to ensure he was alone. Nazeed stepped away from the wall and sat at the aslyn table, gesturing again with his hand for Masiph to stay where he was. The door opened a moment later, light flooding the room, causing Masiph to blink, and a Nohritai stepped within. Seeing Nazeed, he nodded and went to the table to sit opposite him, setting the lantern on the table between them.

“Is that wise?” Nazeed said with a gesture at the light as Masiph closed the door and barred that path, standing with his arms crossed.

“I am not going to stumble about in my own home,” the man said with an imperious wave. He glanced toward the doorway, noticing Masiph for the first and nearly jumped to his feet, his face going white with fear.

Masiph felt the blood drain from his own face as well as he stared at the man and realized that he knew him. He was a trade administrator in the Vazeir’s Palace. Ancestors save me, he thought, I am doomed. Nazeed, he saw, was expressionless, glancing from one man to the other as though waiting to see who would act first. After a moment, Masiph managed to master his emotions and stared levelly at the two men.

“What in ancestors’ name is this?” the administrator demanded, bringing his fist down hard on the aslyn table, shaking the lantern.

A smile tugged at Nazeed’s lips. “Are you trying to rouse the whole house? What would Husem Ruleth say if he found us here?”

“The old fool,” the administrator began to say before stopping himself and adding more quietly, “State your business and let us be done here.”

“Very well,” Nazeed said. “We have concerns about the other night with our mutual friend.”

“The Luessan? It was exactly as I told you.”

“Was it now?” Nazeed said. Masiph felt his breath go still in his chest at the mention of the dead merchant. What had gone wrong, he wondered.

“You would know better than I,” the administrator said, a note of unease entering his voice, though his demeanor remained haughty.

“Yes, I would,” Nazeed said. “Your man was seen.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Do not pretend with me. The boy was there,” Nazeed said, gesturing at Masiph, “and he saw your man.”

The administrator, disdain clear on his face, turned to look Masiph over as though he were the lowest of plebeians. His expression vanished in a second as he recognized just who Masiph was and whirled to face Nazeed again.

“What is the meaning of this?”

“I warned you how far our reach was,” Nazeed said, even as he reached across the table and knocked the man senseless with his dagger.

The administrator sprawled forward, knocking the lantern over, spilling the oil and flame onto the floor. Masiph, the ale still slowing his thoughts, watched as Nazeed frantically gestured for him to smother the flames while he subdued the administrator. It was only when the putrid smoke reached his nose that he reacted, taking his outer robe and throwing it upon the flames. As Nazeed dragged the still-unconscious administrator from danger, Masiph righted the lantern and stamped on his robe to extinguish what remained of the fire. It went out quickly, though the smoke remained, stinging their eyes and nostrils.

“Quick now,” Nazeed said, waving away the smoke and handing Masiph his dagger.

Masiph stared down at the blade in his hand, the weight of it now disturbing, though he had held any number of similar weapons before. He turned to look at Nazeed, a question on his face.

“Cut his throat,” Nazeed whispered to him. “Quickly. Someone will smell the smoke before long.”

Masiph looked doubtfully from the administrator to the blade. “Why?”

Nazeed seized him by the shoulders, looking directly into his eyes. “He recognized you here tonight. You saw it as well as I. And he betrayed us. He gave us the information about the Luessan, but he had someone there to see who was there to do the job. He was planning to betray us. He cannot be allowed to live.”

“How do you know there was someone there watching us? I didn’t see anyone. Lisser didn’t say anything. You said I saw something.”

“Lisser saw nothing as well. We have another man in the Palace; more than one, in fact. He informed us that this whoreson had gone to those above him, telling them that he knew who had killed the Luessan. If he lives, he will certainly reveal your involvement. Your father will know. We cannot risk it. You cannot risk it. You must kill him. Quickly now, before we are discovered.”

Masiph nodded. He knew Nazeed was right. Even if he was lying about the man knowing about his involvement in the merchant’s death—Masiph had thought he looked surprised to see him—there could be no doubt the man was aware of his involvement now. It was a test as well, he knew. Nazeed wanted to see how far his loyalty would take him, to bind him more fully to their cause. And this would absolutely. Would Ibrazol even spare him the charges of treason were he go before him begging for mercy his hands covered in blood of the man from the Palace? Doubtful.

These thoughts flickered through his mind in an instant, time slowing to an agony, as Nazeed shoved him to where the administrator lay. Masiph crouched over the man, fingering the dagger, his mouth dry. His eyes burned from the smoke and he could feel the itch of a cough in the back of his throat. The dagger was poised in his hand but still he hesitated, unsure how to do this. Did he have to, he wondered? There must be another way.

Voices from somewhere else in the house disturbed his reverie. Below him the administrator stirred, blinking his eyes and coughing at the smoke.

“Cut his throat,” Nazeed said, anger in his voice. “Before we’re discovered.”

The sound of footsteps approaching and someone calling out, “It’s in the aslyn room,” spurred him to action, adrenaline blotting out any further thought. With a vicious motion, he drew the blade across the man’s throat, causing his eyes to fly open and a cry of surprise to sound. Whoever was approaching gave a shout and started to run toward the room. Masiph watched for a moment as the administrator struggled to breathe, air escaping out his throat in red bubbles. He plunged the dagger into the man’s chest for good measure.

Nazeed was already gone out the window and Masiph stood to follow him, only to find that the administrator had hold of his arm and was rasping bloodily, trying to call on whoever was approaching. Masiph kicked himself free, leaving the dagger behind in the man’s chest and his burnt robe on the floor, and tumbled out the window. As soon as he regained his feet, he started to run, plunging without heed through the garden to the servants’ door, where Nazeed awaited him. Behind him he could hear shouts as the alarm was raised.

Nazeed embraced him, as though they were brothers now, and they both ran, Nazeed leading the way, to an empty street where a palanquin awaited them.

——

The above excerpt is from A Council of Shadows, the second volume of The Shadow Men, a richly imagined epic fantasy. It is currently available at Amazon, Kobo and Smashwords.

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