(You can find Chapter 1 HERE.)
A high-pitched cry pierced Quiescat’s heart. In the instant he took to react, Gelasin had flung the door open and disappeared through it. Quiescat stumbled after him into the corridor.
Anxious faces peered through opening doors. A stranger, claret-skinned and yellow-eyed, stepped into the hall, naked save for his rapier. Another assassin. Quiescat froze.
The man arched a hairless eyebrow. “It’s me, Halyard.” He pointed to a pair of interlocked emblems tattooed in yellow on his chest. One of them, an alerion taking flight, belonged to his lover; the other, a peridexion tree, must be his own. Below them was a straight, bright scar. Stripped of his fine clothes and makeup, the courtesar was all but unrecognizable. He looked a much older man, particularly with his cropped pate. His signature feathery coiffure was clearly a wig. The absence of his platform shoes was likewise telling, robbing him of both real and figurative stature.
The gray-blue lowlander, Zin, burst from the opposite room in full armor, sword in one hand, dagger in the other. A murderous grin was set in the diamond of laughter lines between the sharp nose and prominent chin of his long, scrawny face. His black hair was even neatly tied back. Gelasin must have forewarned him, but not the courtesar, for some reason.
The far end of the corridor filled with the echoey thuds of rushing palace guards, arrived much too late.
“You all wait here!” Gelasin growled as he dashed into Drinith’s room. Zin’s grin slid away as he staggered to a halt. Quiescat slipped between him and Halyard and followed Gelasin inside.
The fault for this debacle lay with Quiescat, not Gelasin. Quiescat shouldn’t have let the warrior sway him. Fighting and killing was the limit of Gelasin’s understanding. He respected only killers like Zin and couldn’t countenance following anyone who didn’t share his infatuation with violence. The supposed wiser man had heeded the counsel of a bloodthirsty old fool.
Jarma stood by the bed, her face stretched with horror, a bloody axe dangling from her hand. Quiescat followed her dazed stare to where the princess lay. Gelasin’s crouched back obscured everything except her bare feet. Quiescat seized the warrior’s shoulder to pull him out of the way. Gelasin swung around and punched him so hard he flew backward across the room, smacking the wall. He kept upright despite his stupefaction. His nose throbbed with raw pain. Rivulets of blood tickled his lips and chin.
“You damned lunatic!” Quiescat spluttered.
“Sorry,” Gelasin said with a casual shrug. “Force of habit. My reflexes are honed to react instantaneously to uninvited contact.”
Scowling, Quiescat sought his handkerchief and delicately pressed it to his nose. “I’m sure it’s broken,” he observed sullenly.
“Shall I just let Drinith bleed while I set it for you? A simple procedure. I’ll just hold your beak between my hands and twist—”
“Of course not,” said Quiescat, taken aback. Trust Gelasin to make him feel contemptible despite being the victim of his fist. “How bad is she?”
Gelasin examined the wound for an unbearable length of time before he set about treating it. “She’s fine. The cut’s superficial.” He shifted to reveal the princess’s blood-spattered face. Too weak to speak, she wore a brave grin to confirm Gelasin’s assertion—and to conceal her distress from her companions. Quiescat’s relief numbed the sting of his injury.
Gelasin picked up the assassin’s blade. “Yeah, she’s fine—as long as the blade was clean. He looks like he’s from our home shard.”
Still holding the handkerchief to his stinging nose, Quiescat strode over to the headless corpse. Kneeling stiffly, he examined it. He turned one hand over to discover a tattoo on its palm: five white stars arranged in a circle. “His order doesn’t resort to poison.” The pentaculars never needed to. They always killed their quarry by dint of sheer determination and brute strength. “And they’re not from Rhumgad. They’re local.” He warned Gelasin off interrogating him with a shake of his head. The motion made his nose hurt worse.
An officer pushed his way through the onlookers walling the doorway. Beneath his massive finned helmet, his face blushed violet. “Is the princess injured?” he piped.
“She’ll live,” Gelasin sneered.
“The Aether Emperor must be informed.”
“Disturb your master’s sleep if you must, but the princess has already dealt effectively with the threat—as any fool can plainly see.” The officer, top lip twitching, let the effrontery pass.
“We’ll need a new bedchamber for her, obviously,” Gelasin added. “Take care of that, won’t you?”
The officer spun on his heels and elbowed his way through the sea of gawkers. Gelasin bounded after him and herded them across the threshold. Quiescat’s acolyte, Abecedar, squeezed inside before the warrior slammed the door, his dark eyes bugging more than usual as they darted about the room.
“Master, you’re hurt! How?” He reached for the bloody handkerchief Quiescat pressed to his nose.
“No need to concern yourself.” Smiling, he gently brushed Abecedar’s hand away. “It was an accident. Right, Gelasin?” He shot his rival a condemning glance.
“Hey, I said I was sorry.”
Clutching a bed sheet around her with one hand, Jarma still held the axe in the other. Her red and gold wig leaned precariously to one side. A shred of dried glue marked her forehead where her paste jewel had been located. She looked lost and a little annoyed. She had reason to be. Distracted by Drinith’s injury, everyone had forgotten the poor girl.
“Are you okay?” Quiescat reached out to reassure her, but she flinched from his touch. The axe slipped from her fingers and clattered against the floor. Abecedar stumbled over it and threw his arms around her. She didn’t hesitate to reciprocate his consoling hug. Quiescat did his best to suppress a smile. Would she be so eager for his attention after Abecedar succeeded him? Many people dreaded the Oracle of Godsdoor more than any assassin. They feared the truth he possessed, even those who sought to learn it. His temple had been razed during Drinith’s infancy, and the only future he could now glimpse was his end, but the mystique of his position still daunted most folk—except Gelasin. To him, the oracle, like the princess, was just another weapon to wield in his personal war against Magian the Infinite. But then, the warrior appeared to fear nothing, not even death.
“You never said she’d be wounded,” Gelasin carped.
“I warned you of the dangers.”
The rawness of Quiescat’s indignation surprised Gelasin. Quiescat hadn’t foreseen Drinith’s wounding and his unease about Gelasin’s scheme had been vague at best. As his powers waned, the seer clung even tighter to the illusion of omniscience. Yes, the great Oracle of Godsdoor had degenerated into a petty street conjurer dependent on deception and sleight of hand to keep a step ahead of the other vagrants.
Gelasin pressed: “You never said—”
“If I had, would you—”
“Enough.” The disconcerting faintness of Drinith’s voice silenced him. Her feeble effort to rise drew everyone to her. Even with Gelasin and Abecedar supporting her, she looked as though she might collapse at any moment.
“Sit on the bed,” Gelasin urged.
She shook her head as she pressed a hand to her bandaged wound. “Take me from here,” she said, desperation edging her voice. “Somewhere I can wash away this bloody mess.”
“You’re crying.” It took Quiescat a moment to realize Jarma was talking to him. “I’ve never seen tears shine so,” she added. Gelasin and Drinith likewise looked upon him with keen interest.
Abecedar, meanwhile, regarded his master with a predatory leer. He knew what these tears meant: another prophecy had come to pass, another step nearer Quiescat’s end—and, with it, the passing of his oracular power to his sole acolyte. Poor misguided fool! It was too late to warn him. He had already committed his life to the pursuit of the gift. He wouldn’t listen any more than Quiescat had in his day.
“Don’t weep for me,” Drinith said. “I’ll be fine.”
Quiescat mirrored her wan smile and wiped the tears from his cheeks. He must relinquish his ability to his acolyte, or it would die with him. Drinith needed oracular protection and Quiescat was spent, a husk of a man who couldn’t see beyond his impending death. But was Abecedar ready for this terrible burden?
Fatal Shadow is available for pre-order on Amazon.