Seven assassins, foiled by the watchfulness of the princess’s retinue, had previously failed to kill Drinith of Kaplar. Now, somewhere in the palace of her host, the Aether Emperor, an eighth crept unchecked toward her bedchamber. In a premonition, Quiescat had seen the man flitting between shadows in dimly lit corridors as he moved inexorably nearer her door, his bland, blue-black countenance rigid with concentration, the blade of his dagger as black and cruel as his purpose. Quiescat had already witnessed every blow of the impending struggle. He had seen her standing blood-spattered over the corpse of her would-be killer. But the vision gave Quiescat little comfort. The child he had raised from a baby was about to face a consummate killer in single combat, and the exiled Oracle of Godsdoor could do nothing but wait and pray his prescience proved true.
Slouched in his seat, wringing his sweaty hands, he stared at the dragon amber tiles covering the bedroom floor. He was only vaguely aware of the Crevast, the void between worlds, howling for his attention beyond the long windows. The aging warrior, Gelasin, couldn’t be ignored so easily. Quiescat kept glancing up at that tense knot of bone and sinew wrapped in drum-tight green-black skin and battered armor. His lean mouth always verged on an insolent smile, owing to the rugged, matte black scars in his cheeks where his honor tattoos should have been. Leaning against the wall, his arms folded, he appeared to be the very embodiment of smug indifference.
“How can you stay so damnably calm?” Quiescat whispered. “Our princess’s life is in danger.”
Gelasin arched an amused eyebrow. “I have faith in you,” he said with a whiff of sarcasm. “And I’ve faith in her. She must prove to her prospective subjects and allies that her right to rule extends beyond an accident of birth. Thanks to you, she’s ready for the assassin’s every move. She faces more of a dance than a battle.”
Quiescat snorted. “Don’t thank me. I never should have agreed to this escapade.”
Gelasin’s eyes narrowed. “You’re not questioning your vision, are you?”
“No.” Quiescat massaged the aching stiffness in the back of his neck. He knew his prevision was true.
Unfolding his arms, Gelasin straightened. “Are you certain she’s safe this time? The sequence of moves I worked out with her is specific to the attack you described, down to the wielding hand that the assassin favors. She’s not wearing her mail shirt precisely because, according to your vision, it was an unnecessary burden. If you’re wrong…” He gripped the hilt of his sheathed dagger and stared at the door. His whole body compressed as if ready to pounce toward it.
The sudden tension in his demeanor tempted a smile from Quiescat. The renegade, having so often pooh-poohed his misgivings in the past, now turned to him for reassurance. “She will win. The vision is certain.”
Relaxing, Gelasin folded his arms and rested back against the wall, but he kept glancing at the door. “It wasn’t just symbolic or something?”
“It wasn’t allegorical,” Quiescat said wearily. He missed the ambiguity of cryptic dreams, but such things were the poetry of youth. His prophetic glimpses had turned prosaic long ago. Since Godsdoor’s fall, his visions had become limited to fixed points nailed into a dark and uncertain future. After tonight, only one would remain: the moment of his death. It, too, drew close. He had replayed it so many times, it no longer inspired fear, but only a gnawing sense of loss and failure. He could see nothing beyond it. It might be a blessing. Never mind the recovery of her throne; the odds were stacked against Drinith’s very survival, and he didn’t want to contemplate her death.
Could his prophetic insight fail? Could she die tonight? Prescience was a fickle gift, prone to misinterpretation. No, he couldn’t be mistaken. She still lived in his final vision. Unless her presence was an illusion, a trick of some kind, the sort Fate loved to play.
Gelasin pursed his lips. “She’s not alone. Jarma’s in there with her. Between the two of them… You saw Drinith kill him.”
Quiescat winced, nodded.
“I slew my first man when I was fourteen,” Gelasin said. “Drinith’s almost nineteen.”
Quiescat shook his head in disgust. “I’m nearly fifty and I’ve never killed anyone.” That is, not in hand-to-hand combat. Quiescat had caused far more deaths than the warrior ever had or would. His prognostications had divided families, started wars, pitted kingdoms and empires against each other. Yes, his words had possessed the power to kill until the tyrant Magian the Infinite had driven him from his temple.
Gelasin gestured with his forefinger and thumb at the pits in his cheeks. He smiled. In the dull light, they became two jagged black holes in his face. “You didn’t get what once adorned these cheeks until you had killed in the service of the Emperor of Kaplar.”
When Quiescat first encountered Gelasin, the warrior had scorned that same emperor. He had deigned to join Drinith’s retinue only because his detestation of Magian eclipsed even his hatred of her father, Hemrath. The subsequent years as her protector had inspired a change of heart, a nostalgia for the life he had forsaken, and a fierce loyalty to the heir of his former liege. It made his reckless urgency to thrust her in harm’s way even more infuriating.
The fault didn’t lie with Gelasin. He acted according to his nature. Quiescat could have stopped this. He should have. He still could.
“I weary of this,” he declared, slapping his hands on the armrests.
A sudden clamor from the neighboring bedchamber transfixed him mid-rise. His fingers dug into the padded leather, but he remained frozen in a pained hunch, terrified that anything he did, no matter how slight, might sabotage his vision as his princess fought for her life.
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