The Pirates and the Witch
TOOK A SIP OF HIS COFFEE AND DAMNED NEAR SPIT IT RIGHT BACK OUT.
It was cold, bitter, and thick as calking pitch. A perfect complement to the tack his morning had already taken.
He set the tin mug on the ornate wooden table standing at attendance beside the stuffed green velvet chair he sat in. Then he leaned back, threw his legs up onto the padded stool, and made himself as comfortable as he reasonably could under the circumstances. Time to watch his brother fuss through his usual morning ritual.
Lucifeus stood before him aboard a squat stepping stool, fists berthed on his hips, slowly turning side to side as he studied his reflections in the three full-length mirrors angled before him.
He wore a fine deerskin jacket dyed nearly black, with lines of leather fringe dripping from the seams of each arm and across the breadth of his back. Black boots polished to a blinding sheen rose to knee length over his dark blue cotton britches. Straight shoulder-length black hair rimmed his face. Fastidiously groomed eyebrows punctuated each of his steely blue eyes, and a finely groomed moustache rode down the curve of his smile lines before coiling up over his cheeks.
A short, elderly servant stood on the carpet behind him, holding up an additional hand mirror for extra measure. This vanity dance would go on until his brother either passed his blessings on the man-god in the mirror or burst into a tirade about this trespassing wrinkle here or that unruly seam there.
Mal slouched lower in his chair and took another slug of the wretched coffee, more out of boredom than interest in the vile brew. As he did, he pondered a familiar question: when had his brother’s vanity had grown so obscene? In the years they’d terrorized the Sea of Hope he’d been called the Pretty Pirate, though never to his face. At least, not by anyone who valued their skin. His brother once overheard a crewmember jestingly refer to him by that title, a mistake that resulted in the poor sailor suffering a near mortal keelhauling. The barnacles on the hull tore the sailor up so badly, it’d ended up costing him an arm. From that day forth, no sailor within shouting distance of the Laughing Molly ever dared to whisper that nickname.
Mal tolerated his brother’s narcissism because, in spite of it, he was supernaturally charismatic and profoundly compelling leader. Men and women would fall over each other for the opportunity to serve him, men because of his ungodly magnetism and women because of his everything else. Yet, in the ten years they’d been landside, his arrogance had evolved into this hour-long morning ritual, this loving, pathetic dance with himself before those damnable mirrors.
“Is Hoot ready?" Lucifeus asked as he adjusted the tufts of white linen flowering from his jacket cuffs. His manservant stood before him securing a wide black belt around the waist of his jacket.
“Hoot's in the brig,” Mal told him once again.
“Excellent. He’s readying the interrogation, then?”
“No, Luce. He’s making you breakfast. What do you think?”
His brother offered no sign he’d heard. He and his reflection leaned toward each other and each of them carefully smoothed the long hair back from their temples. It appeared his brother was finalizing his dress, and Mal thanked the gods of Pentyrfal for it. The man-god has passed his blessings; let the day’s festivities begin!
Unfortunately, just as his hopes had risen, it appeared the gods were not with him at all. Just as it seemed the ritual might finally be ending, Lucifeus abruptly lurched upright and cried out, “Gods’ hooks! What in the name of the Calina’s flower is this?”
Mal covered his eyes.
“Graeve!” Lucifeus barked at his elderly attendant, “Look at this! Look right there! What the hell is that?”
The short, portly old manservant nearly jumped from his skin, but quickly recovered and dove into the fray to examine the indicated hairs. He stood on his toes before the stool, picking through the offending strands.
Mal clenched his teeth. Please, he prayed, not this. Not today.
“Is that a… a white hair?” his brother bellowed at the mirror.
“I-I don’t see anything, sir,” Graeve cried.
This was the absolute worst-case scenario so early in the morning: his brother sifting his manicured fingers through his perfect hair in search of renegade gray. His hair was as black as coal tar with the bluish patina of a well-polished cannon. The last time he found a white hair, he’d wasted two hours with a servant creeping through the rest of it in search of other stowaways that must surely be hiding there.
Mal had neither the time nor the patience for it today. “Curse you, Luce!” he said, slapping the padded armrest, “It’s already pushing eight bells. We don’t have time for this bullshit.”
His brother smoothed his hair back with the palms of both hands, his eyes firmly anchored on the man opposing him in the mirror. “Sink me!” he said with a self-satisfied grin, “It’s merely a highlight, nothing to fret. And thank Pentyrfal for it. I’m too bloody young for the grays, don’t you say?”
“The devil, too. I’m thirty-seven, not a minute older.”
“Well, I’d call that a miracle of science, considering I’m your younger brother and I’m thirty-nine.”
“You ought to send for Hoot,” Lucifeus said as he turned his face this way and that in the mirror, “We should begin the interrogation soonest. The day grows no younger.”
Mal scowled at that. It was just the more of the same.
“It’s a hell of a thing, don’t you say?” his brother said as he smoothed his jacket, “Finding the savages in the Nolands? And just two days before the festival?”
“Blow the savages!” Mal said harshly, “And blow the cursed festival! You indulge the crew too much. They’re fat and soft, and they get fatter and softer by the day.”
His brother glanced back at him as the manservant smoothed out his tapered linen collar. He was smiling that condescending smile he’d so effectively mastered over the years.
“What?” Mal said, “It’s true and you know it.”
“The Eve of Calistra falls but once a year, dear brother. When the Blessing of the Trees begins tomorrow, there’ll be seven unholy days of abstinence for most of the crew. They deserve to be coddled just a tad tonight. Gods know they'll be a disagreeable enough bunch over the next week.”
“You never pampered a crew when we were shipside. When we were at sea and respectable, you—”
“Respectable and damned poor, as I recall. Bloody hell, Malevolus, we're not at sea anymore. I'd have thought ten years ashore would've careened that manner of thinking out of your skull.”
“I swear to gods, Lucifeus! Father should’ve done the world a favor and pinched your head off at birth!”
His brother flashed an ivory smile back at the mirror. “My, but wouldn’t that’ve been a waste?”
“Hellsteeth!” Mal said, again slapping the padded armrests, “If you were any prettier you’d have a womb.” He considered grabbing the nearest sword and stealing that pretty head right off that primped body. The morning had started off badly enough, and now he felt a foul mood blowing down on him. And as always, his natural tendency was to steer straight into it.
Lucifeus turned and sent him a look. “Mal, put away that scowl and listen to me carefully. I won't have you spoiling this day for the crew. The wood nymphs scare the men enough as it is during Blessing Week. I won't have you irritating them as well with your ‘I remember when’ stories, and berating them for failing your antiquated expectations. Do you hear me?”
“Aye, Cap’n Fark! I hear you. My only wish is that you’d hear yourself. The Freehold won’t run itself. And capturing these savages doesn’t make our day any easier.”
Lucifeus accepted his saber from the servant and slipped it gracefully into the scabbard on his right hip. “All right, Mal,” he said as he adjusted the weapon against his thigh, “Point taken. Have Hoot set up the prisoners. I’ll see them beneath the Dancing Tower in fifteen minutes.”
“Are you deaf or stupid? Hoot’s already in the damned brig!”
“Do say?” Lucifeus said, looking truly surprised, “Then precisely what are we waiting for?” With a sincere laugh, he walked toward the door, the short servant scrambling in tow behind him, smoothing out any hint of wrinkles following in his Captain’s wake.
Mal squeezed the flesh between his eyes. They were complete opposites, he and his brother. Lucifeus was the handsome one with the commanding personality and clean hands. Mal was the plain one with the whip and dirty conscience. Lucifeus drew the men and women into their world and bade them do his will. Malevolus kept the world organized, the books straight, the wages paid, and the crew in line. It was the perfect marriage: they were each miserable in their own flavor.
Mal looked over at his brother standing in the doorway idly brushing the hairs of his meticulously groomed moustache with his bejeweled index finger.
“Aye, Captain Fark?” Mal asked with no little acid.
“Send for Esoria. Have her meet us in the tower as well.”
Another pang of irritation seized him. “What in the Nine do you need the witch for? A hot poker and some pincers have always been good enough in the past.”
“Just do it, will you, Mal? They’re Vaemysh trackers, and two of them are elites at that. I dare say they won’t bend at the sight of a bruise or a few drops of blood.”
Mal saluted him with his coffee mug. “Your word, Captain,” he said before downing the remains of the cold, unsavory brew.
“You’re a hell of a good partner, Captain Fark,” Lucifeus returned.
Despite his sincerest wish to coddle his vexation, Mal was unable suppress a grin. With his brother’s footsteps fading down the hallway, he raised his empty coffee mug up toward the equally empty door and declared affectionately, “To Captain Lucifeus Taerrien Fark, patron saint of assholes everywhere.”
As he pushed himself up from the chair, he caught his own reflection in the same mirrors his brother had been gazing so adoringly into just moments before. The difference in their faces was so stark, anyone who didn’t know them would never dream to call them brothers.
While Lucifeus’s face was chiseled and polished, Mal knew his own was rugged and worn. He looked every minute the man who’d spent the better part of his life pacing the deck of a pirate ship while chasing down profits across the whole of the Sea of Hope and the oceans beyond. His hair was chronically tousled and the once dark and dashing brown had softened to the color of washed-out mud. His face was as lined and worn as an old leather apron, a stark contrast to the powdered perfection of his brother’s. His preferred attire was a suit of rough brown buckskin, faded and careworn, the suit of a man of work and callouses rather than pomp and circumstance.
He wondered how they could come from the same belly and yet be so completely opposite in both character and design. Then again, perhaps they weren’t brothers at all. Perhaps one of them had washed ashore in a basket to be taken in by parents too generous of heart to refuse such a sorry event. That would mean there was no blood shared between them after all. What a divine thought that was!
Cheered with his new perspective, Mal saluted the careworn man in the mirrors and stepped out of the room.
Mal walked out of the great log lodge that served as the fort’s headquarters, and stepped into the cool shade of the covered porch lining the compound.
When they’d built the first few roughshod huts that were to eventually become Fark’s Freehold, Lucifeus had refused any more trees to be felled than absolutely necessary to clear space for the original buildings. He’d insisted that the forest’s grand trees with their bloated crowns whispering in the shoreline winds above them reminded him of the sails of the Laughing Molly. It was a grip of melancholy Mal had never seen his brother to fall victim to before that moment. But they’d only just left the wreckage of their beloved ship burning on the Widow’s Bay a few days earlier, and given the genuine tragedy of that loss, Mal could find no heart to refuse him.
At first, Mal had serious doubts about moving their operations landside. They’d been born in the bowels of a ship, and he’d fully expected to find his return to the gods on the deck of the same. In the end, however, it turned out smuggling on land wasn’t much different from pirating, except perhaps for being immensely more profitable. As they prospered, the original huddle of shacks that’d made up the early Freehold quickly swelled into a self-contained village and, eventually, into a vast city-fort permanently housing nearly ten thousand crew and families. The grounds outside the fort often hosted several thousand more transient loyalists, their numbers constantly shifting as the smugglers and merchants came and went.
They’d built Fark’s Freehold here in the Neutral Outerlands just beyond the jurisdiction of the Allied nations, who would never recognize them as a sovereign entity, but who also could never intervene due to the burden of their own treaties. With its back to the Sea of Hope, and on a craggy shore too threatening to be approached by any bullying fleet, the Freehold was nearly invincible. The vast, flat plains of the Nolands protected the prow of the compound, plains so exposed they would leave any aggressor with far greater wounds than the Freehold would ever sustain, should the foolishness of an assault be entertained.
Through all these subsequent years of the Freehold’s growth, Lucifeus had adamantly refused to allow any trees be removed from within the fort grounds without his explicit permission. He’d even gone as far as to hang one new crewmember who’d unwittingly cut a particularly large branch from an ancient tree near his house without the Captain’s permission. That poor man dangled from the Dancing Tower for a week after his execution, punished harshly for the crime of ignorance.
So, the trees were allowed to grow unharrassed, though the layout of the town suffered as a result. The garrisons, stores, and houses were arranged in odd clumps and angles, situated at the convenience of the trees, and none of the roads in the twenty thousand acre fort ran straight for very long.
Mal walked across the dirt compound toward the front gates to inspect security, as was his morning routine. The air was chill and crisp, filled with the scent of morning fires and the sweet flavor of roasting bacon, onion sharpened potatoes, and freshly brewed coffee that fully insulted the mug of tar he’d just finished.
He climbed the wood plank steps up to the gangway running along the top of the garrison’s forewall alongside the main gate. Twenty feet above the earth, he stopped and looked out through the sharpened posts composing the outer wall at the swell of green meadow that was the Nolands. From here he had a grand view of both the inner and outer grounds of the fort. He propped his boot on the muzzle of a cannon and leaned into his raised knee. Shading his eyes against the blinding white light of the sun, he surveyed the action surrounding the walls.
As was usual, both sides of the wall were a hive of activity. Traders passed in through the gates with carts heaping supplies, while others passed out with purses tightened with gold. Dogs chased each other through the legs of the milling crowd. Shopkeepers swept the porches of the stores lining the parade route feeding into the fort’s heart. Produce and seafood sellers pulled their carts through the crowds and cried their wares. Militia officers barked orders at a few gangly squads of colorfully dressed recruits jogging in loose formation down the cobblestone main street.
A hundred feet farther down the rampart wall, just on the other side of the fort’s wide gate, a guard clanged the old ship’s bell to signal a wagon entering the compound. This was the sign of a visitor of some importance. Minutes later, four massive Baeldonian warhorses clopped through the entrance towing a wagon of equal proportions. A worn and tired tarp covered the wagon’s bed, stretched to exhaustion over a heaping mound of contraband. A dirty old Baeldon with a long white beard and longer white hair drove the team forward with a song of clicks and whistles that flowed as easily as if he were singing in his native language.
It was Morgan Cafsteel, one of their most dependable and most profitable smugglers.
“Morgan!” Mal shouted down at the Baeldon, “You’re a week late. I was growing vexed. Word has it the price on your head’s up to two hundred treklas, courtesy of the new sheriff of Parhron City.”
The Baeldon cupped a hand over his eyes and squinted up at Mal. “Is that so, Cap’n?” he called back in a rumbling voice.
“Hell, yes! I’ve seen the circulars myself.”
“Calina’s tits! Ain’t it about time those useless Parhronii finally realize my worth? What the hell took ‘em so goddamned long?”
“I’ve half a mind to ship you back myself and cut our losses!” Mal shouted down at him, “Time is gold, or so it’s said.”
“You ain’t got half the army you need to try it! Curse my blood if I can’t take you and that gorgeous brother of yours together, with hands tied to feet to even the odds!”
“Well, I dare say I’m not nearly man enough to come down and find out,” Mal called back. It wasn’t a lie.
“You’re a sensible man, Cap’n!” the driver yelled over his shoulder as his cart rolled deeper into the compound proper, “The Handsome Boy may’ve gotten the beauty, but you run circles around him in brains!”
Minutes later, Mal was back down in the commons and making his way through the crowd as we worked the route deeper into the compound. He walked along a cobblestone street toward a massively tall, square building that rose five stories high. It tapered toward the top like a windmill without blades. Each of the top three levels had deep decks running around the full perimeter. Wide gangplanks secured by an intricate scaffolding of chains and ropes jutted straight out from the middle of each level like the dead branches of a nightmarish tree held aloft by cobwebs.
This was Lucifeus’s Dancing Tower, reverently referred to by the crew as Fark’s Tree. It was a theater of death with ample seating. Luce could hang thirty-six unfortunates at a time from these gallows, forty-eight in a pinch. Mal knew this to be true because his brother had once put it to the test. His brother believed in discipline. More to the point, his brother was particularly fond of hangings.
When he was within fifty feet of the building, Mal realized why so many complaints had been coming in from the men in the family sector of the garrison this past week. The air was thick with a putrid, sickly-sweet odor that was so heavy, he more tasted than smelled it. From beneath his shading hand, he looked up at four bodies silhouetted against a bright blue break in the trees far above him. They swayed lazily in the breeze on the northern gangplanks at the top level, nearly seventy feet above him.
“Hellsteeth! How bloody long is he going to let them rot up there? It’s been a week already!”
Still cursing, he marched up to the building and pushed his way through a fortified oak door impressively burdened with a heavy iron latch. The sharp smell of hot oil nearly knocked the wind out of him as he passed into the darkness beyond. Fighting his breath, he descended a wide oaken stairway a dozen steps into the gloom.
This room was set well into the earth. Essentially a dungeon without a castle, it had no windows and was always as black as a grave. Even the roaring fire and several large ship lanterns couldn’t fully rent the darkness. Despite his intimate familiarity with this room, he had to feel his way blindly forward as his eyes grudgingly adapted to the sudden drowning of sunlight.
For anyone entering here unwillingly, this room was an eighty by eighty square foot pit of hopelessness with only one way out. Ten tight, narrow cells lined the back wall behind the bared teeth of well-maintained iron bars. Directly across the wide room from the cells sat a massive fieldstone fireplace filled with a generous fire and a bulky cauldron of simmering oil. Covering every inch of exposed stone wall surrounding that fireplace hung the desperate tools of persuasion, all well maintained and glimmering under a recent coat of oil.
A long, heavy wooden table hunkered directly before the fire. Mal was surprised to see Lucifeus already there. His brother sat between the table and the fireplace in a large, armed wooden chair, with his polished boots propped up on the table and the hearth crackling at his back. He sucked casually on a long, thin clay pipe and buffed his fingernails with a chamois.
Across the table from him, parked side-by-side with their faces to the fire, sat three luckless Vaemysh warriors. They sat with forearms laid out on the table before them, shackles binding their wrists and forearms flat against the scarred planks. The dancing fire sent their faces flickering in and out of shadows, lending them an appearance like their presence in this world might be tentative and unstable. It was an accurate prediction.
As Mal moved into position before the fireplace, he passed a behemoth of a man standing just behind Lucifeus. He leaned casually to the side, bare shoulder against stone hearth, mammoth arms crossed over a mountainous chest. He was clean-shaven, with a perfectly bald skull wrapped neatly in a bright lavender headscarf. Below the face, however, he was as hairy as a bear, with a thick, gnarled mat of black fur covering his bare arms and shoulders, and erupting from his loose leather vest.
“What say, Hoot?” Mal said as he stepped up to warm his hands before the blazing fire, “Your missus pinch that kid off yet?”
The hangman’s blush was apparent even in the shadows. “Not yet, Cap’n,” he said sheepishly, “Esoria, she says another week more’n likely. She’d be usually right, ye know. Least, so’s I hear it said.”
Mal patted him affectionately on the chest. “You be sure to let me know the minute the brat’s bawling, savvy? I’ll make sure you have everything you need.”
“Aye, sir. Cap’n Luce, he already told me the same.” The big man’s blush deepened. “Ye both of ye knows I appreciate it, ain’t that right? That comes from me missus, too.”
“We’re glad to help, Hoot. You’ve been loyal to this crew since the day we set shore.”
Mal turned around to face the table with its bounty of prisoners. He leaned into his fists on the thick, blemished planks and studied the three savages. The heat of the fire felt most welcome against his back. The chill in this room always seemed inescapable, and he knew it was more than simply because it was ten feet underground.
Before beginning his assessment, he looked over at the richly polished boots propped so nonchalantly on the tabletop beside him. He followed them back to his brother who was still buffing his nails. Lucifeus squinted at him through a tapestry of pipe smoke, a wry smile beaming wraithlike through the fumes.
“What the hell has you so amused?” Mal asked him.
Lucifeus shrugged his excessively groomed eyebrows. “Just excited for the show to begin, I expect.”
“Curse you, Luce! When are you planning to cut those cursed corpses down? They’re stinking up the family district.”
“Why, the very moment their sentence is served up, dear brother. The very moment, indeed.”
Mal’s aggravation swelled up full bore. “Their sentences? They’re dead, for Calina’s sake! What’s left to serve?”
“They owe me flesh for picking my pockets,” Lucifeus said as he worked his nails, “By my calculations, they’ll be paid full up in a week’s time week, soonest.”
Mal resisted the urge to kick his brother’s chair out from under him. Instead he fueled up his glare. “I sometimes wonder just who the hell your mother was.”
Lucifeus slipped the pipe from his mouth and blew a few smoke rings his way.
Time to abandon the whole affair, Mal decided. It was a useless argument and one he didn’t have the reserves for anyway. Not today. Not right now. He finished it with, “We’ll discuss it further this afternoon, Luce.”
“I expect we will,” his brother said as he pulled his feet back to the earth and dropped his chair forward, “In the meantime, what do you make of this?” He waved his pipe stem toward the prisoners. “Sink me to the Nine, has winter descended upon us early this year, Brother?”
Mal turned his attention to the miserable looking warriors sitting in bondage across the table. They were nearly identical in appearance. Each wore his or her long, pale hair bound back formally, though certainly with less discipline than prior to their capture. They sported bare, muscular arms covered in arcane tattoos, and wore fitted, sleeveless ringmail armor. Brown flax undergarments erupted from beneath the mail to jut out over the shoulders, tufting to a point like quarter-length short sleeves.
This was a sight he never thought he’d live to see: three Vaemysh warriors in full battle regalia sitting in the brig of Fark’s Freehold. These were the Nolands, for gods’ sakes. Their presence here was absolute taboo, an imperative driven by the collective word and blades of the Allied Nations. Their appearance in the Neutral Outerlands was grounds for the Allies to immediately declare war on them, a war that would almost certainly mean the destruction of their reservations and the decimation of their race. As he considered the violation, he wondered just what the hell was happening to the world when the day-to-day facts a man depended on proved wormy?
He glanced back over his shoulder at the jailer. “Looks like a pretty staunch bunch here, Hoot. Think you can persuade these savages to speech?”
The dark behemoth released a high-pitched laugh that sounded almost girlish in its delight. “Aye, Cap’n. I reckon if we start melting these snowmen with some nice warm oil, they’ll be talking real good, they will.”
Mal turned his attention back to the warriors as Hoot continued tittering behind him.
The Vaemyn on his far left stared past him at the pot bubbling on the fireplace beyond the table. This savage looked as nervous as a drunk hiding from a pressgang. Mal knew he was visualizing the foul scenes that were to surely follow, and the horror of it had him utterly paralyzed. Unfortunately, that meant he probably didn’t actually have any information to coerce. The savages would never entrust vital information to one with so thin a backbone.
The one in the middle was a Vaemyd. Worse, she was an elite tracker, the toughest kind of warrior. Trackers in general typically served as scouts, but the elites were more akin to mercenaries. She was sweating like a pig despite the chill of the room, and he understood that she carried as much terror as the first. The difference was that she’d never yield to it. Trackers weren’t inclined to roll over at the site of a hot poker or a match held to their eyes.
The Vaemyn on the far right corner, directly across from Lucifeus, wore the badge of the wolf. He was their leader, their kadeer. Surprisingly, Mal sensed absolutely no fear in this one. In fact, he didn’t sense any emotion at all. The savage sat staring straight ahead through Lucifeus and into points unknown as if he were simply meditating or enjoying some kind of trance. It didn’t seem natural. Not down here.
“We don’t see many savages up this way,” Mal said as he turned back to the fire. He removed a straw from a battered tin cup resting on the gnarled wood mantle. “Not in uniform anyway,” he continued as he lit the straw in the fire, “We do get our share of renegades, of course. Seems every fool with a cross side wants to crew up with the Freehold.”
He returned to the table, reached up and lit another one of the dusty old ship’s lamps dangling over it. As he turned up the flame, he knew the light would reveal the loveless faces of a dozen skulls stacked on a second mantle higher up the stone hearth behind him, some of which still wore a bit of their mummified skin. The frightened savage on the right nearly fell out of his chair at the sight. It always worked. At least with the weak ones.
“I do believe Vaemysh warriors are forbidden to enter the Nolands,” he said as he studied the Vaemyd in the middle. She returned his glare with interest paid. He admired that.
“Mm hm,” Lucifeus said through his pipe, “I do believe that is an accurate summation of the laws, dear brother.”
“Isn’t that right, Hoot?” Mal said, looking back at the jailer, “Aren’t they banned by the treaty, or could I be mistaken?”
Hoot rolled a fat lip out and stared up at the low, beamed ceiling. He appeared to be playing along, though Mal knew he was actually thinking about it. The brains of an astronomer weren’t among the traits required for a hangman. He was a big, dumb freebooter who’d do anything he was told, and more brains than that was over-qualification for the job.
Finally, Hoot shook his ox’s head and said, “Nay, Cap’n, I believe that’s the gods’ pure truth, it is. Ain’t supposed to be no savages wearing uniforms in these here parts.”
“Well, then it’s unanimous.” Mal turned back to the prisoners. “These savages are in clear violation of the treaties governing the Neutral Outerlands. I don’t believe the Allies would appreciate that. In fact, I’m confident they’d give us their blessing to exact the due punishment in whatever manner we see fit.”
Lucifeus slipped the pipe from his mouth. “Well, that was a short, sweet trial,” he said, throwing Mal a wink, “Exactly as I like it. The prisoners are guilty as charged. You may proceed with the interrogation, my dear brother.”
Mal glanced around for a chair. As if reading his mind, Hoot was there, sliding one in behind him. He dropped down next to Lucifeus.
Once settled, he leaned into the table and casually folded his hands on the graffiti-carved wood. “You look weary, my pale friend,” he said, smiling at the Kadeer.
The Vaemyn stirred as if waking from a nap. He gradually brought his eyes over to meet Mal’s. The savage looked at him as indifferently as if sitting across the bar from a friend while sharing a mug of bumbo. He seemed positively bored.
Mal didn’t know what to make of that. They’d interrogated plenty of elite savages over the years, but he’d never met one that wasn’t defiant as hell and angry as a hornet. “You don’t seem overly worried about the shoal you’ve steered yourself into here, Kad’r.”
The man simply continued staring back at him. He didn’t show the faintest sign of intimidation. There might even have been the hint of a smile. Mal could see it was going to be a pleasure burning the story out of this one.
“What’s your name, Kad’r?”
Again, he received only that unflinching, soulless stare.
Mal was getting quickly around to pissed. “You’re going to become much more engaged before we’re finished here, Kad’r. There may be pieces of you on every wall in this brig when we finally get there, but by my oath, we will get there.”
The Kadeer’s affect didn’t change.
Mal looked over at the Vaemyd sitting in the middle, just right of the Kadeer. She watched him closely, and there was nothing akin to love or adoration in her eyes. The arrogance of her defiance immediately fanned his irritation.
“Something you want to say to me, girl?” he said sharply, “You looking for a couple shakes of my attention? Go ahead, then. Speak it!”
She didn’t respond and she didn’t look away.
“Pray you’re not so mute as your Kad’r here when your time comes. What’s your name?”
There was a moment’s pause, and then she said through a tight jaw, “Grelia’tau. Rank of Saaro. Council's Ninth Tracker Elite Infiltrate.” Her Parhronii standard was perfect, without even the hint of an accent. In many ways, the savages were better educated than most Parhronii.
“Grelia’tau,” Mal repeated. Despite his irritation, he had to admit to being impressed that she had the barnacles to engage him. Especially given her circumstances. “And what are you doing in these forbidden parts all decked out in uniform, Saaro Grelia’tau?”
Her eyes held his for just an instant before drifting down to her hands. “Grelia’tau,” she said again, “Saaro. Council's Ninth Tracker Elite Infiltrate.”
Mal’s stomach twisted with another burn of anger. “I’d advise serious caution before taunting me, Saaro. Should you have the misfortune to know me better, you’ll quickly learn I’m not a patient man.”
She didn’t take her eyes from her hands. “Grelia’tau,” she repeated, though with noticeably less confidence now, “Saaro. Council's Ninth Tracker Elite Infiltrate.”
Mal suddenly understood. This was a stall tactic. She was attempting to draw him away from the clearly perplexed Kadeer. He knew he could eventually pull whatever information he desired from her, given enough time and resources, but he was confident it would be little more than a waste of time. He doubted she had anything near the gold the Kadeer was likely to offer. He could deal with her and her arrogance later.
No, the Kadeer was clearly his treasure chest. And so, he turned back to the man. As he did, he noticed a small amulet dangling from his left oteuryn, one of the tiny opalescent horns curling up from behind his ears. The sharp tips terminated just before his earlobes.
“What’s that on his horn?” Mal asked Lucifeus.
Lucifeus stopped working his nails and looked up. Then he dropped his feet from the table and leaned forward. He looked at it for a moment, then reached across the table and jerked it from the oteuryn. The Vaemyn didn’t react in the least. Mal found this more disconcerting than the foggy stare. Their horns were usually so sensitive that a well-calculated slap with a knife blade could incapacitate them as effectively as a kick to the balls would him.
Lucifeus held the amulet up between them so that it caught the firelight. It was a black, slightly translucent gem, maybe an inch long, carved into a skullish face. It had two sparkling yellow stones embedded for eyes. “Sink me, I do believe it’s Prae’s sign,” he whispered.
“Prae’s sign? That’s impossible.”
“Is that right?” Lucifeus tossed the token onto the table. It rattled to a stop between the Kadeer’s bound wrists. “Well, there it is. You’ve seen his standards flying. You explain it, Master Astronomer.”
Mal watched the Kadeer uselessly fingering the worn wood for the amulet, which was well out of reach of his shackled hands. Luce was right. There was no mistaking that image. It was as vulgar as any pirate banners he’d seen.
“You’re wearing Prae’s badge, Kad’r?” he said to the savage, “Explain this to me.”
“Trust me when I tell you that keeping silent will prove a grave error in judgment. So help me gods, if you don’t start talking to me, I’ll keep you just barely alive for a month before we hang you.”
The Vaemyn said nothing. He only continued scratching his fingers at the wood, still trying to reach the amulet. Mal wasn’t even sure he’d heard the question.
Growing impatient, he slammed the table again, yelling, “Answer us, damn you!”
Hoot marched around behind the savage and gave him a brutal slap across the skull.
The weak warrior on the other end of the table nearly jumped out of his skin. He began to whimper. Even the elite tracker in the middle flinched.
Mal looked back to the Kadeer. “I’ll ask you again, Kad’r,” he said as the savage slowly push himself upright again, “Why are you wearing Prae’s sign?”
The man’s countenance, or lack of it, still didn’t waver.
Acting on a subtle hand signal, Hoot again hit the savage, this time with a thin, metal cudgel. The blow sprayed blood across the table. The weak warrior again cried out. The Kadeer said nothing.
Lucifeus scowled down at the tiny spots soaking into the sleeve of his deerskin jacket. “Gods’ hooks, Hoot!” he barked out as he hastily dabbed the chamois over the spots, “I just had this jacket made. Damn thing cost me a small fortune.”
“Sorry, Cap’n,” Hoot said, grinning, “I forget these snowmen bleed real easy.”
“Well, just be careful, blast you! Or at least slap in the other direction!”
“But, Cap’n Mal’s sitting in the other—”
“Well, just look at this!” Lucifeus snarled as he worked the chamois against the dark leather, “These are never going to come out. Damn you to the Nine, Hoot!”
Mal leaned back in his chair and squeezed the bridge of his nose. He had no mood for his brother’s bullshit this morning. “Just take it upstairs, will you, Luce? Let Graeve work it out for you. I’ll finish this up. You go have those stinking corpses cut down.”
“I’ll damned well leave when I damned well wish to,” Lucifeus snapped back. He spit on the chamois and worked it into the blood spots. “Damn me, this jacket won’t easily be replaced. The cursed tailor died of a brain seizure two days after its delivery.”
A storm brewed in his brother’s eyes. Mal knew someone was going to pay for the soil on his new jacket, and the likely debtors were sitting directly across the table from them. It was going to be a long morning.
Lucifeus finally threw the chamois down on the table before the Kadeer. “You son of a bitch,” he said right on cue, “You thought life turned grim when we brought you here? Well, you’ve no idea how dark you night’s about to get. Your sun is sinking, sir. Damn me if it isn’t.”
The Vaemyn’s vacant eyes seemed for just an instant to focus on Lucifeus, but then quickly hazed over and drifted away again.
“I see,” Lucifeus said, “That’s how it’s going be then, eh? Believe me, you’ll find that a most woeful decision.”
As Mal watched the savage, he wondered if this were perhaps some kind of meditation. Maybe the man was intentionally diverting his attentions away from the moment through a cultural trick or religious exercise. If so, he felt fairly confident Hoot possessed precisely the means to distract the Kadeer from such efforts.
He looked up at Hoot, then nodded toward the Vaemyd. “Show the Kadeer one of Grelia’tau’s fingers.”
Moving with a grace that defied his size, the hangman swept in and quickly flattened the female’s bound hand against the rough table. A short knife materialized in his other hand. Without fanfare, he neatly sliced off her pinky finger and rolled it out to the middle of the table.
It happened so quickly, the Vaemyd didn’t even seem to notice for two or three beats. But as the reality of her finger lying abandoned on the old table rushed over her, she began to struggle against the iron restraints.
Mal had to credit her for not crying out. Strength like that never failed to impress him. It was unfortunate she could never be persuaded over to their cause. Not that it mattered, Lucifeus had plans for her that didn’t require wages, and he’d never be dissuaded. Especially not with his pimp’s coat freshly ruined.
More surprising was the Kadeer’s clear lack of acknowledgement of the act. Vaemyn were unwaveringly loyal to one another, that in spite of the contrary evidence of renegades enlisted to their crew. The torture of a subordinate usually went miles toward softening the leaders, who typically volunteered to accept the punishment in their stead.
Blood poured from the Vaemyd’s amputated finger, flowing dark and plentiful across the table and filling the ancient images, letters, and runes carved deeply into the scarred wood. Hoot crossed around the table and removed a glowing poker from the fire. He then turned and cauterized the wound with the competence of a man who loved his job. A foul cloud of smoke roiled up from the table and spilled across the low, beamed ceiling. The female warrior was now snarling, and rocking violently against her restraints. She was angry enough that Mal wouldn’t have been surprised to see her pull the shackles up from the table, bolts and all.
Despite all this commotion, the Kadeer still made no signs he’d seen any of it. He didn’t react to the terror pouring from his tracker or to the weighty odor of burning flesh. His hollow eyes merely gaped unfocused into the shadowy hearth above and behind Lucifeus.
Mal looked over at his brother. “What in Terof’s Hell is going on here?”
Lucifeus shrugged. “Perhaps Prae’s vexed him.”
“It’s possible he’s suffered some kind of head injury.”
Luce shrugged at that. “And perhaps it’s just an act.”
“Why are you here in the Nolands, Kad’r?” Mal asked the Kadeer again.
Again, no reaction.
Growing tired of this game, Mal nodded up at Hoot.
The jailer leaned forward across the table and sliced off the Vaemyd’s ring finger, efficiently cauterizing her stump in nearly the same motion. This time the warrior did cry out, though Hoot immediately backhanded her into silence. The reek of burned flesh quickly overpowered even the acrid odor of the bubbling oil.
Mal leaned across the table on folded hands, looking hard into the Kadeer’s eyes. “Listen very carefully, Kad’r,” he said as seriously as he could, “Between the three of you, we have sixty fingers and toes to work with. After th—”
Mal looked over at his brother. “What?”
“Fifty-eight,” Lucifeus said again, nodding toward the fingers stewing in the congealing blood in the middle of the table, “You’ve taken two. There are precisely fifty-eight digits remaining.”
For a moment, Mal only looked at him and contemplated the beauty of watching Hoot repeat the finger maneuver on his brother’s tongue. Instead, he clenched his jaw, caged his irritation, and returned his attention to the Kadeer.
“After that, we move on to the teeth,” he said as casually as he could manage, “You do understand that, don’t you? You speak Parhronii standard well enough, don’t you?”
As they watched the Kadeer, the tortured Vaemyd suddenly slumped forward. Her forehead landed in the pool of blood and severed fingers, sending a volley of blood droplets flying.
Lucifeus gaped in disbelief at the new line of larger spots soaking into the sleeve and across the breast of his jacket. Then he threw his brooding eyes up at Hoot. “What in the nine hells did I just tell you?”
Hoot backed away from the table. His eyes were as wide as his mouth. “But… but, Cap’n... I didn’t know she’d go out so quick. I... I...”
A rapping on the brig door rescued the hangman.
Mal dropped his head back on his shoulders and struggled against the urge to scream. “I imagine that’s Esoria,” he said without looking, “Is the door bolted, Hoot?”
“Aye, Cap’n,” Hoot practically squealed. He was clearly elated to escape Lucifeus’s berating, “I bolted it after ye came in so’s ye wouldn’t be disturbed or nothing.”
“Well, you’d better let her in before she breaks the damned thing down. I have a suspicion we may need her, after all.”
Muttered words passed through the spy hole of the brig door. A moment later, Hoot slid the peep door shut, then drew back the
massive deadbolts. Daylight exploded through the room as the silhouette of a
petite, feminine figure stormed her way in, pushing Hoot out of the way as
easily as if she were four times his size instead of it being exactly the
Lucifeus rose as she glided down the stairs and into the room. “Gods’ hooks, Esoria!” he said, arms extended, “I was beginning to wonder if you’d decided to begin the Blessing Festival a day early, my flower.”
The tiny figure whispered past the machines of persuasion with the grace of an angel, her face and form hidden deep within the silken cocoon of a hooded cloak sewn from emerald green satin and lined with deep golden wolfen fur. The fabric glistened magically as she approached the firelight. Her appearance felt as foreign in the deathly grays of this room as a sunflower in a bog.
She dropped her oversized bag onto the end of the interrogation table directly between Lucifeus and the kadeer. As she did, Lucifeus swooped opportunistically into the shadows of her cowl, though Esoria efficiently repelled him with a well-placed slap.
“Keep it buttoned, Lucy!” she said snarled up at him, “I swear, you’re randy as an old goat.”
“My dearest rose,” Lucifeus said with a half-hearted bow, “You cut me to the quick.”
As she pushed her cowl away, the hearth light set her full red hair into a brilliant mass of curling flames that perfectly matched her temperament. Mal was annoyed to find his heart suddenly sailing ahead of him. She seemed to be having this effect on him more and more of late, despite his failing struggles to deny it. It did nothing to improve his mood.
Esoria pushed past Lucifeus and Mal, stopping at the front of the table, directly across from the Vaemyd. She scooped the severed fingers from the wood, then turned and thrust the bloodied ends up into Mal’s face. “You barbarians! You’ve begun your little games already, have you? You couldn’t have waited an hour for me to gather my devices together?”
Mal should have bristled at the assault, but her beauty effectively tempered his anger. Still, he forced himself to say, “If you want us to rely on your talents first, I expect you’d do well to arrive on time. I’m happy to provide you with a parlor clock, if necessary.”
“Bah!” She then turned to Lucifeus. “And what do you have to say for yourself? I thought we were moving beyond these brutal practices?”
“We grew impatient, my flower,” Lucifeus said with a careless shrug, “And besides, Hoot here needs the practice. I won’t have him going a-rust with his techniques. Damn me, I won’t.”
She sent a well-aimed glare over at the jailer. “Hoot needs the practice, eh? How much practice does hacking a finger off require these days?”
Hoot immediately shrank a size. “Ye gots… ye gots to… to cut it clean, I r-reckon.” He backed determinedly into the shadows, big hands held up defensively. “And ye gots… ye gots to burn the stump afore the—”
“Now, now,” Lucifeus said, pulling her away from the cowering jailer, “Don’t go scaring poor Hoot. He only does what—”
You’re pigs! All three of you. Pigs!”
“Essie, my dearest, it doesn’t suit you to demonstrate so contrary a—”
“I didn’t ask your opinion, Lucifeus Fark!”
Esoria was a small dog with big teeth, and the last thing Mal needed was a brawl with her. Not today. Not when they were likely to need her to embrace what was rapidly appearing to be a bigger task than they’d expected.
“Truth is we’re glad you’re here,” he said, throwing Lucifeus a look he prayed the man would understand, “Appears we can use your help. Truth is I think we may need your help.”
She gave him a prolonged glare, then turned back to the table and pulled open her large satchel. She retrieved a small leather pouch from its depths and dropped the severed fingers into it before quickly stowing it away again. As Mal watched her, he had to suppress a grin. For someone so disapproving of torture, she wasn’t shy about seizing the products of it.
“I know how busy you are these days, dearest,” Lucifeus said, “What with the festival beginning tomorrow and all. Why, Calina as my witness, I thought we’d be doing you a courtesy by giving you a little extra time this morning.”
She spit into the fire, then sent him a glare that was going to leave a mark. “Have that for your courtesy, Captain Fark.”
“Hmph,” Lucifeus said with faked indignity, “Well, before you get any haughtier, perhaps you’d care to look at that gem resting there on the table. We suspect you’ll find it most interesting.”
Esoria retrieved the black amulet and held it up to the lamp hanging above the table. “This is Prae’s sign,” she said as she studied it, “It’s a horn ring. Looks carved from black bloodstone. Appears to be very old.” After a moment, she turned to Mal. “Why would the Vaemyn—?”
She stopped with the words still drying on her tongue. She turned and stepped closer to the hearth, and held the gem up to the fire. “Hm, I don’t like this,” she said as she turned it between her tiny fingers, “This is no ordinary amulet. These yellow eyes embedded here? They’re Fire Caeyls.”
“Fire Caeyls?” Mal said, “That seems unlikely.”
Her eyes abandoned the amulet, turning their assault instead to him. “Is that right? So you’re the expert on Caeyls of Influence now, Malevolus Fark?”
Mal bristled at the taunt, but knew better than to reply.
“Well, are you?” she asked louder.
“Exactly right,” Lucifeus said as he dropped into his chair, “In fact, I was telling him that very thing just a moment ago. Those are Fire Caeyls, I said. A most peculiar turn, if you ask me.”
“Lucy! Your penchant for lying is exceeded only by your vanity.” She didn’t wait for a response, but instead turned back to Mal. She held the amulet up between them. “Where exactly did you find this?”
Mal nodded toward the lead Vaemyn at the table’s corner. “In that one’s left horn.”
The witch walked around to the side of the table and leaned into the Kadeer’s face. Even with him being seated, she stood barely a head taller. She took his chin and tipped his head up, then roughly forced one of his eyes wider. “Odd,” she said as she examined it, “He doesn’t appear dead.” She moved to the next eye and repeated the act, then pressed her small fingers deep into the flesh of his neck. “I detect a pulse. He’s quite alive.”
“We’re aware of that,” Mal said impatiently, “We’re fairly adept at identifying corpses.”
“Fire Caeyls have influence only over the elements of the Wyr,” she said as she poked the Kadeer’s pale flesh with her tiny fingers, “They have no influence over the living.” The Vaemyn’s eyes seemed to flame just noticeably at her touch. “And yet, though this man may not be dead, he’s miles from his right mind. Something has him quite entranced.”
She snapped her fingers several times before his face. She closed his eyes with her thumbs and held them that way for nearly a minute. Then she positioned herself behind him. She reached forward around his head, covered his forehead with her petite hands, pulled his head back into her breast, and closed her eyes. She remained frozen in that position, muttering some indistinct prayers or incantations, for several interminable minutes. Finally, she withdrew from him, looked over at Mal and shook her head.
A shiver gripped Mal as he received her eyes. “Why does your expression feel like a shot across the bow?”
“He’s unresponsive to touch, both physical and ethereal. Further, I pressed my consciousness deep into his, but to no avail. I can detect no essence of the original man in this shell.”
“Should we be worried?” Mal asked.
“I would say most definitely so,” she said, too seriously to suit him, “I’ve been a Spiritualist Adept my entire life, as have my Mothers in the generations preceding me. In all my years of practice, I have never failed to reach the core of a living mortal’s essence when pressed by need to do so. In men who’ve received head wounds so severe that their hearts continue ticking only out of habit, there’s still some evidence of the soul that was. Why, even the freshly dead maintain some semblance of the life that was, sometimes for an hour after their hearts have abandoned their posts.”
“My dear Esoria,” Lucifeus said as he stared into the flat of his blade while rubbing a tooth with his nail, “You’re going to frighten poor Hoot out a week’s sleep. Damned irritating business, this. Pray show us some veneer of good news.”
She dropped her hands and all but bared her teeth at him. “This is a grave state of affairs, Lucy, and you should justify it with the proper reverence!”
Lucifeus shrugged his brow, but only continued cleaning his teeth in the blade.
Esoria dug through her satchel again. “With all your experience,” she said, throwing Mal a look, “You of all people should’ve seen that this one wasn’t right. You should have known he wouldn’t submit to torture.”
“Technically speaking,” Lucifeus said, “it was the woman we were torturing. Nevertheless, I assure you that, given enough time, we could make Calina herself talk.”
“Gods’ hooks! I declare you’re as lovely a face and harsh a mouth as any woman I’ve known.” Lucifeus stuck the knife into the table with some drama, and concluded, “Damn me, but you’re a hard witch to please.”
Esoria pulled a large, fat black candle from her satchel and slammed it down on the table directly between the Kadeer’s shackled wrists. “You’d do well to seal your one mouth and open your two ears, Lucifeus! The Caeyls of Influence are changing. They’re dying. Because of that and only because of that, if this truly is Prae’s work vexing him, it’s possible I may be able to crack it.”
Mal noticed Hoot still cringing in the shadows beyond the fireplace. Despite the new chill the dungeon had taken, he couldn’t resist the humor in the sight: a hulking brute of a man, a man who’d sent hundreds of mortals to their dancing death, cowering from a woman who didn’t even top out at five feet. Still, a coil wound as tightly as she could take your eye out and worse when sprung. Might be he was merely acting sensibly.
Esoria systematically pulled two corked metal vials and eight smaller red candles from the satchel, then set them down with the black candle. “You!” she said to Lucifeus, “Make yourself useful for once. Light these candles for me.”
Lucifeus briefly faked indignity, then did exactly as told. He retrieved a long match from the tin mug on the heavy oak mantle and lit it in the fire beneath.
Esoria waved at the tracker and the coward, saying, “I’ve no need to examine them. I don’t even need to get near them. I’m confident they don’t matter. They’re simply frightened.”
The weak one on the end shook so hard, Mal feared he might crack a wrist. The Vaemyd Grelia’tau, conscious again, simply sat upright in her shackles, a smear of blood slowly drying on her forehead. She was equally frightened, he had no doubt, and in a great deal of pain as well. But in typical savage fashion, she strived to cover it with anger.
“The signs all point to Prae,” Esoria said quietly. Then she paused and looked across the table at the Kadeer. “And yet…”
“And yet?” Mal said, “There’s an ‘and yet’? And yet, what?”
“I’m not sure. Though I understand them academically, I fear Fire Caeyls are not my strongest suit.”
“Esoria, dearest,” Lucifeus said as he tapped the lit match against his thumb, “Just say it. We’re big boys. Tell us what you’re thinking.”
She didn’t reply. Her eyes remained fixed on the seemingly soulless savage.
Mal had a nose for fear. He understood it. He recognized it no matter how faint its scent. He could smell it in a sailor from thirty feet away, whether in the heart of a storm or during the pitch of battle, and that smell was filling the room around him now. Esoria was scared to death. He prayed it wasn’t contagious.
“Hellsteeth, Esoria,” he said carefully, “Just say it.”
“You won’t be pleased,” she whispered back.
Mal watched Lucifeus watching the witch. His brother appeared seized by a rare moment of solemnity, a fact that did nothing to ease his own growing apprehension. Still, never mind how gruesome the news may be, they needed to know. He looked over at Esoria and said, “Please be forthwith. What is it?”
“You want the truth?”
Mal shrugged his brow. “I’m not confident ‘want’ is the proper description.”
“I don’t believe Prae is this man’s owner.”
The words landed like a punch in the stomach. “What is that supposed to mean, exactly?” He wasn’t at all sure he wanted to know.
“I mean Prae can’t use his energy to possess mortals. On a good day of Caeylsphere energy, he may be able to fill a corpse with the essence of a demon, but he cannot possess a beating heart. Not ever. This man has a beating heart.”
Mal looked at his brother, who simply shrugged back.
“You two have the deductive abilities of stumps! I don’t know how you manage to run this fort. I’m telling you it’s not Prae possessing this Vaemyn.”
“Not Prae?” Mal said, “Well… who is possessing them, then?”
“Who? Or what?”
“Or what? Those are the kind of words that can ruin an entire day. Just what in the Nine are you talking about?”
He watched Esoria slip around the table. She again took the Kadeer’s face in her hands and twisted it up toward her. The warrior’s unfocused gaze didn’t waver as she studied him. His eyes were dark pits, his face sallow, his white hair disheveled and dirty, his lips and nostrils scabbed and dry. The savages had all endured the same abuse since their capture, but the others didn’t look nearly as worn as he did.
Esoria released the Vaemyn and gave him a quick slap, to which he offered no physical response. She stepped back from him and parked her fists on her hips. “Nay, he’s been taken. It’s beyond reasonable doubt.”
“Taken?” Mal said.
“But not by Prae?”
“Despite Prae’s amulet in his horn?”
“What does that mean, exactly?” Lucifeus said, “Taken?”
“There’s an ethereal wall surrounding his flesh. He’s been disassociated from this corporeal plane, so to speak.”
“Can you divine why?” Mal asked.
Esoria rubbed her face in her hands, then looked up at him. “Sadly, yes,” she said on a sigh, “I’m afraid I can.”
“Why doesn’t that sound like good news?”
She readjusted the large black candle berthed between the Kadeer’s shackled wrists, pulling it back toward her just a bit so that it sat between the flesh of his thumb joints with a few inches clearance on each side. Then she methodically arranged the eight red candles in a half moon around and behind it with the open end facing the affected warrior like a crescent moon.
When she’d finished, she turned to Lucifeus and sent him a glare as harsh as a bite. “Didn’t I tell you to light these candles?”
Lucifeus flinched, then proceeded to comply with her orders.
Esoria watched the Kadeer as if trying to pick his brain apart with her thoughts. She watched him long after Lucifeus lit the candles.
Mal felt the clock ticking in his head. The apprehension in the room was thick as butter. Needing to see something happen, anything happen, he placed a hand on her elbow and urged, “What can we do to help?”
She slapped his hand away. “I’m not one of your freebooters, Malevolus Fark! This isn’t going to be easy and it is sure as the hells not going to be pretty. So kindly give me some space before I have Hoot there escort you out of this miserable dungeon.”
Mal threw his hands up and backed away. Never pet a snarling dog.
Esoria growled, then turned back to the table. The light of the nine burning candles shimmered across her scowling features, casting her purposeful eyes in and out of shadows so that she appeared possessed herself.
After a long moment’s contemplation, she opened an odd porcelain canister. She scooped out three generous fingers of a greasy black ointment, which she smeared it onto the table surface to make a thick circle around the candle arrangement. She took great care to fill in every scratch, scar, and crack in the wood. Apparently satisfied with her work, she wiped her fingers clean on a green silk hanky. She then pulled several tiny skulls from her bag, all grossly misshapen, with extra eye sockets and gnarly protuberances. These she arranged at irregular intervals just inside the greasy circle on the far side of the black candle, all facing the troubled Kadeer.
As she worked, her whispered incantations flitted through the darkness. She unrolled a narrow strip of black satin across the abused wood between her and the circle, smoothing it out carefully. Finally, she placed a thin, square silver box made hideous with gaudy jewels in the middle of the cloth. As she pried the lid open, a rainbow of light flooded her face.
The blue velvet lining the interior of the box was divided into a dozen small sections, each filled with a different color of crystalline powder and tiny stone chips. Some were full, others nearly empty, but all glowed with an unnatural light like a rainbow locked in a pauper’s box.
Finally, she stood back and brushed her hands together as she studied her work. Several moments later, she drew a steadied breath, anchored her fists on her hips and looked up at Mal
“This man is gripped in a fever like I’ve never seen,” she said plainly, “He’ll never see his soul again.”
“Poor fellow,” Lucifeus said with a laugh.
“I’m not sure I’ve the skills for this,” she said directly to Mal, “This may be bigger than me. I may find need to call in my sisters.”
“Nonsense,” Lucifeus said behind her, “I’m confident you have the steam for it.”
“You don’t understand!” she barked back at him, “The ritual could kill him.”
“And pray tell how that is a disincentive?”
Mal didn’t share his brother’s levity. In fact, he felt an inexplicable sense of utter dread, like they faced impending doom, like the arrow of fate was arcing toward them and there was nothing they could do but throw down a prayer of penitence and brace for impact.
In the same breath, he was also completely stymied by this sensation, this peculiar trepidation. He’d never been one to submit to fear, not even in the midst of a firefight. Yet, something about this situation had given him a bone-deep chill, and he hated the sensation, and he hated more that he couldn’t explain it. They were just making assumptions, after all. Only the glazed warrior knew the truth. Until they understood what was happening, fear was a waste of life energy.
Esoria placed a silver ornament cast in the form of a snake on the wood just between the solitary black candle and the semi-circle of red ones behind it. The serpent’s body coiled against the table, while the head spiraled up several inches on a long neck with its mouth gaping open toward the ceiling like a tiny, macabre goblet. The open jaws were just level with the flame of the black candle.
Using Lucifeus’s knife, she pried one of the Fire Caeyl eyes from the skullish token and dropped it into the mouth of the serpent. She then took a pinch of simmering red crystal powder from the silver box and sifted it into the mouth atop the Fire Caeyl chip.
As she meticulously brushed the remnants of the red powder from her fingertips back into the silver box, she passed Mal a look that he felt clear down to his feet. That simple glance told him she was as afraid as he was. And with that dark revelation, his resolve faltered.
“I shall do my best to pry the truth free,” she whispered to him, “I’ve very little Blood Caeyl dust left, and it was wicked old when my mother gave it to me twenty-odd years ago. Given the speed with which magic is declining in this world, these crystals may well be less than worthless now. Most of my collection is more dust than gems, and the smaller the crystal the more significant the decline in vitality. What I have here is barely more active than sand.”
Mal slipped a hand onto her shoulder. “I understand. But we still have to try.”
She again slapped his hand away. “Don’t you dare condescend to me, Malevolus! This is a dangerous thing we’re doing. I could inadvertently unlock a box you don’t want to look into.”
Her words felt more prediction than warning. He suddenly wanted out of this miserable room, wanted to run out into the sunshine, run as fast and hard as his feet would carry him, run all the way to the seaside and board the first northbound ship that would take him.
“I’m ready,” she whispered to him.
He glanced over at Lucifeus, who was looking back at him in another uncharacteristic moment of gravity. Then he looked at Esoria again and nodded. “Very well. Do as you will.”
She offered him nothing back but a somber look. She then pulled Mal’s chair closer, turned its back toward the table and knelt onto it. She leaned over the chair’s back, propping her elbows on the table directly across from the warrior. She took a pinch of blue powder from the silver box and sprinkled it into the jaws of the serpent with the other dust. The powders had no sooner met than an unnatural amber light erupted from the vessel, bathing the table and the warriors’ faces in a hellish radiance.
Hoot squeaked from the shadows behind him. Mal sent him a silencing gesture. “Judging by that light,” he whispered to her, “I’d say your apothecary is more active than you described.”
Esoria scooped a generous finger-full of the yellow powder from the small box and rubbed it vigorously between her palms. When she eventually opened her hands again, they glowed as brilliantly as if painted in buttery sunshine.
Holding her open palms on either sides of the worried flame of the black candle, she bowed her head and began to chant. For several minutes, she prayed. For several minutes, the light radiating from both the serpent’s mouth and her painted palms intensified. Soon the table was illuminated as brilliantly as daylight. Her red curls glowed like a bonfire in the eerie yellow light. Her face shimmered demonically.
The Kadeer, who’d sat there in those shackles all this time without so much as a blink, suddenly came to life. His eyes locked on the serpent’s mouth, his face twisted into a mask of bewilderment. The sharp smell of fresh urine filled the air. Esoria’s words flowed low and rhythmic. The Vaemyn cried out. He writhed violently against his restraints, growling and twisting until blood smeared his wrists and forearms.
Mal gripped the back of Esoria’s chair and held on.
The air around the table began to change, as if the shadows were being drawn in from the four corners of the brig, as if the darkness itself were congealing just around the Kadeer’s head. As Esoria’s chanting swelled in volume, the smoky darkness swirling about the Vaemyn’s face grew increasingly opaque, like late summer storm clouds mobilizing around a mountain peak. The thick odor of sulfur choked the air. The table rattled beneath the desperate resistance of the Vaemyn.
Hoot shuffled back toward the cells, whimpering queerly. The two remaining savages weren’t tolerating the scene much better. The weak one actively sobbed, and the tracker pulled herself down the table as far away from the Kadeer as she could manage without chewing her shackled arms off.
The witch’s hymn grew more fevered. The yellow light cast from the Fire Caeyl dust flamed blindingly. The affected savage threw his head back and forth beneath that swirling storm of darkness, while an unearthly noise growled up from deep in his chest. Just when it seemed this gruesome dance would never end, a thunderous peal erupted through the room, punctuated by yet another brilliant flare of light.
Esoria blew the yellow dust from her hands.
The fine powder ignited as it passed through the black candle’s flames and into dark cloud imprisoning the warrior’s head. The abrupt mixture of shadows and light flashed, then the darkness flew away from the savage’s face like soot blown from a hearth. In the same instant, yellow flames erupted about the Kadeer, engulfing his face, head, and shoulders. He screamed hideously from within that unnatural fire. His fingernails gouged the wood. He threw himself from side to side.
Just as it seemed the nightmare would never end, the flame raging over the Vaemyn collapsed in on itself. It condensed into solid form, into a sphere, like a ball of liquid gold that fully imprisoned the warrior’s head. Its iridescent surface slowly rotated about him like a metallic soap bubble, rhythmically swelling and contracting as it moved. Mal saw their own contorted faces looking back from the physical surface of the bubble like demons peering out from a nightmarish portal.
The brig fell eerily silent, save for the delicate bubbling of the oil on the fire and the distant whimpers of the frightened warrior at the other end of the table.
Then the bubble abruptly popped, collapsing in on the savage’s head. In the same beat, the eight red candles in the half moon snuffed out, the unnatural light in the snake’s mouth extinguished, and they were once again in near darkness.
Mal told himself to breathe.
Esoria slouched at the edge of the table, silent now except for her delicate panting.
The affected savage sat still as death. A thick layer of faintly shimmering yellow dust fully covered his face, neck, and shoulders, filling every crease, every line, every pore. His lips, his teeth, his nostrils, even his irises and the whites of his eyes were fully painted in the powder. He looked like a bust of himself carved from a massive Fire Caeyl.
“It’s bad,” Esoria whispered, “Worse than you’d ever guess.”
“Worse?” Mal whispered back, “What the hell does that mean?”
She used the back of her hand to push a renegade curl of red hair back from her face. “I mean I was correct in my initial surmise. Prae has nothing to do with this, not directly at least.”
“What? How’s that possible? Who else is powerful enough to do this?”
“Or mad enough,” Lucifeus added behind him.
“You don’t understand,” Esoria said as she studied the Vaemyn, “This man is a hack.”
Mal’s first impulse was to laugh and tell her she was crazy, that everyone knew hacks weren’t real. But as the facts of what he’d seen here this morning lined up in his mind, he found himself mired in doubt.
“A hack?” Lucifeus said, “I don’t believe I heard you right.”
“You heard me exactly right.”
Mal studied her for a moment, then said, “A hack, you’re saying. You mean a hack like a demon’s hack? Like the old stories?”
“Is there another kind of hack I’m unfamiliar with, Mal?” she snipped.
Mal considered the other two prisoners. The female tracker still held as far back from her damaged Kadeer as her restraints allowed. The frightened one now sobbed so hard, he couldn’t draw a proper breath.
“What about them?” he asked.
“They’re clean. Not that it matters. This one used the last of my Fire Caeyl dust, so we couldn’t test them if we wanted to. But the Kadeer is now pliable. He’ll answer your questions so long as you present them straight and clear. But you’ve only one shot at it, so I implore you to question him wisely and with Calina’s speed.”
Lucifeus moved to the end of the table, so that he stood between Esoria and the hack. He stroked his moustache with an index finger as he watched the Vaemyn. “Gods’ hooks, Esoria!” he said seriously, “Are you telling us a wyrlaerd is out there somewhere? Walking freely in our plane?”
“It’s the only explanation I can offer, Lucy.”
“A wyrlaerd? A Divinic Demon?”
“Are you having trouble hearing today, Captain Fark?”
Lucifeus just looked at her.
Esoria pushed her fingers through her hair and readjusted a clip to better control the rebellious red curls. “Only Divinic Demons can possess living mortals,” she said as she fought with her hair, “No caeyl controlled by a mortal has ever been able to do that. Therefore, the only logical conclusion I can draw is there’s at least one demon out there somewhere.”
“At least one?” Mal hated the words. “Are you trying to make it worse or what?”
“Well, of course, I am, Captain Fark. Don’t you know that’s what I live for? To make your lives miserable!”
“Task achieved,” Lucifeus said with a half-hearted snort.
“Do you want the truth or not?” she pressed.
“A thousand years and more,” Lucifeus said, “That’s how long since the Divinic Wars. And all that time without so much as a whiff of the demons. Why, they made nary even an appearance during the Fifty Year War. So pray tell, why now? What is the elemental difference in this particular juncture?”
“There are those among us who say it was only a matter of when,” Esoria said, looking from him to Mal, “That given enough time and the proper circumstances, the demons were preordained to come back. And for your Fifty Year War, it’s said Fren’ba Shen nearly succeeded in raising the wyrlaerds even then, that only his assassination averted it. It’s common knowledge he was Prae the Biled’s mentor. Is it such a stretch to assume the mad mage has succeeded where his predecessor failed?”
Mal avoided looking at Lucifeus. They both knew too well how right she was, but he wasn’t ready to face it. Not yet. He needed more proof before he’d willingly march down that road.
“A hack is nothing more than a vessel for the demons,” she went on, “A wyrlaerd can send its essence out from its corporeal house to probe places and times it’s visited before. However, it cannot explore new places or times until it has physically entered them. A hack acts as an extension of the demon. It allows the wyrlaerd to explore new realms by proxy. A hack, for all practical purposes, is the demon.”
Mal looked at the yellow painted eyes of the Kadeer and fought back a chill. “Can the demon see us now?”
Esoria shook her head.
“No?” he said, looking at her, “How can you be sure?”
“They communicate through water.”
Mal looked over at a fat water barrel squatting next to the base of the stairs below the door. “Hoot, is that barrel full?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Esoria quickly intervened, “It has to be living water. A river or creek or pond. Water is the blood of Calevia, the greatest gift of Calina to her mortal subjects. They can’t communicate with each other from this room. And absent that water vessel, the hack is lost.”
“Then it appears we’re safe,” Mal said, “The demon may not know we have him.”
“Well,” she said with a disheartening shrug, “so I believe.”
“You believe? Hellsteeth, Esoria, what does that mean? Will the hack’s owner know or won’t it?”
She smiled up at him. “Would you prefer the short version?”
Mal braced himself for what was surely going to finish murdering his day. “Just say it.”
“There’s no way to know for certain. The knowledge we have has been passed by oral stories through dozens of generations of the Wiccan Sisterhood. There’s no documentation surviving the era of the Divinic Wars, or none that I’m privy to, at any rate.”
The hack suddenly threw his yellow-painted face back and released a long, gurgling gasp. Then his head fell to his chest and he went still. Everyone else in the room stopped breathing.
When it became clear the savage wasn’t going to move again, Esoria whispered, “He… he’s ready. You can talk to him now, but you must hurry. I cannot predict how long my control may last. I’m not a mage, so my prowess with caeyl energy is weak at best.”
Esoria slipped out of her chair and crossed around the table behind the hack. From there, she leaned in over his shoulder and whispered into his ear. The hack’s face gradually lifted, rising slowly, methodically, as if slowly pulled by invisible strings. His eyes were open wide, but still fully coated in the yellow dust.
Mal slid down into the chair vacated by Esoria. The yellow face across the table mirrored the masks of the flesh eaters he’d once encountered in the wilds of the Asneotl Island chain in the far western Fairworn Sea. A horrific tribe of giantish aborigines, they ritualistically killed their victims by slowly inserting paralytic thorns into their flesh, a process that could take weeks.
“Mal, you must hurry,” Esoria pressed.
Mal licked his dry lips with a drier tongue. Then he nodded and began. “What is your name, Kad’r?”
The hack’s blinded eyes drifted across the room as if searching for an answer in the shadows. Gradually, he turned his yellow face back to Mal and proffered a bizarre grin. “What is it you ask of me, mortal?”
“What is your name?”
“Well… Dietra’va, of course.”
“What’s your mission in the Nolands, Dietra’va?”
The hack laughed and shook his head.
“Try again,” Esoria whispered, “He’s fogged with the caeyl dust. Keep pushing. Keep him focused. Smith your questions straight and clear.”
Mal nodded. “Dietra’va, what is your mission in the Nolands? Why are you here?”
This time there was no hesitation. “I am advance scout for the Raen Army, jh’ven?”
Mal’s stomach sank. “Raen Army? I already hate the sound of this.”
The hack released a barking laugh, and said, “I already hate the sound of...” He froze mid-sentence, cocking his head oddly. “What?” he whispered, “What? I can’t hear you.”
“Goddamn it!” Mal said, glancing up at Esoria, “What’s this, then?”
“What?” the hack said again. He looked around the room with his painted eyes. “What? No, I can’t hear you!”
Mal felt the blood desert his head. It was the most macabre sight he’d ever witnessed, this hack trying to communicate with his demon master.
“I can’t hear you,” the hack whispered again. He twisted around in his seat. “Where? Tell me where!”
Esoria grabbed a tin canister from her satchel and quickly unscrewed the top. She dug a couple fingers through the thick green paste inside it, then maneuvered behind the hack. She wrapped an arm tightly around his head and hastily smeared a series of symbols across his forehead.
As she worked, the hack rolled his yellow-painted eyes up toward her. “What are we doing?”
“We’re making the voice go away,” she whispered as she worked.
“Making the voice go away,” the hack said with an almost silly laugh, “Making the voice go away. Making the—”
As Esoria drew a final circular symbol just above the bridge of his nose, his eyes flared and he seized up in the chair.
“You have to hurry,” she said as she sealed the canister, “Even without water, the wyrlaerd’s grip is wicked. I can’t keep him talking for long.”
Lucifeus leaned his elbows onto the table and looked closely at the hack. “Dietra’va. Pray tell, precisely where is the Raen army going?”
The hack’s head fell low to the table. He slid his face in serpent-like motion between his shackled arms and up toward Lucifeus. Mal watched the painted yellow eyes glaring at his brother and struggled against the repulsion it brought. The hack was using his taer-cael to compensate for his blindness exactly the way a snake uses its tongue.
“The Prou Division lays siege to Smeck’s Gate, jh’ven?” the hack whispered, “The Vau Division lays siege to Coddler’s Gate, jh’ven? You lay siege to me. I lay siege to you.” He bared a mouthful of teeth caked with yellow dust and hissed at him.
Mal forced his eyes away from the sight, focusing instead on the words. Coddler’s Gate. Smeck’s Gate. They were portal cities, gateways through the deep Wall of Morleph, two hundred miles southwest of the Freehold. The seven hundred mile wall shared a common border with the Nolands.
“They’re laying siege to Mendophia,” he said, looking at Lucifeus, “To what end?”
“To block the Mendophs,” the hack offered unsolicited, “You must block the Mendophs, jh’ven?”
“Block the Mendophs?” Lucifeus said, frowning, “Block them from what?”
The hack laughed. “Block the Mendophs! Block them from assisting the Allies, of course.”
“Assisting the Allies with what?” Lucifeus pressed.
The Vaemyn scowled and released a queer whine. The yellow dust covering his face wasn’t glowing as intensely as it had been just moments ago.
“The caeyl dust’s energy is waning,” Esoria whispered urgently, “You must hurry.”
“Dietra’va!” Mal said, “Prevent the Mendophs from assisting the Allies with what?”
“Resistance, of course,” the Vaemyn said on a groan, “Resistance! Resistance! Resistance!”
Lucifeus slapped the table. “The Allies! That’s it, by gods!”
Mal’s pulse rapped against the back of his eyes. The air felt thick as bilge water. He glanced at Lucifeus, but was afraid to say the words he knew they were both thinking.
“Don’t you see?” Lucifeus continued, “If Prae’s sealed off the wall to stop the Mendophs, it means he’s coming north through the Nolands with his armies.”
“The Nolands!” the hacked shrieked, “Ay’a! On to Notown, jh’ven?”
“That makes no sense,” Mal said, avoiding looking at the horrific hack, “To what end? There’s no cover out there in the plains. The Allies would know he was coming a month before he hit the southern border of Parhron.”
“Depends on his speed,” Lucifeus argued back, “With Parhron and Baeldonia on the verge of war... well, you’ve seen the reports from our scouts. The Allies are preoccupied. There’ve been no sightings of Allied patrols in five months.”
“Notown,” Mal said as the truth took bloom, “Of course! Notown has a harbor.”
Lucifeus slapped the table. “Aye! Transports, yachts, privateers, merchant ships.”
Mal willed himself to look at the hack. After a moment, he said, “Dietra’va! Tell me now, what exactly does Prae want?”
The hack laughed as if tickled by the question. “Everything,” he said, grinning.
“Everything? What does that mean?”
The hack’s head again drooped toward the table. He glided his oteuryns across the scarred wood as his blinded yellow eyes rolled up toward Mal. “Better to ask what he doesn’t want, jh’ven?”
Mal slammed the table. “What doesn’t Prae want, then, damn you?”
The hack’s eyes swelled eerily. “He doesn’t want what he doesn’t know!”
“What in the Nine is that supposed to mean?”
“He doesn’t want what he doesn’t know, jh’ven? What he does not know, jh’ven? Jh’ven?”
Esoria grabbed the hack by the hair and dragged him back into his seat with strength that shocked Mal. “Dietra’va!” she yelled into his face, “Who owns you?”
“No!” the hack screamed. The table heaved as he wrestled his restraints. “No! No! Don’t!”
She cranked hard on the wad of hair, twisting his head up awkwardly. “Who owns you?” she yelled again. When the hack didn’t answer, she threw an arm around his head and pressed her thumbnail deep into the circular symbol painted in the center of his forehead. “Who owns you?” she said more forcefully.
The hack stopped fighting. His yellowed eyes drifted up to her. His jaw quivered as if he wanted to speak, but was somehow foiled from doing so.
“Who?” she demanded, pressing her thumb harder into his brow, “Who! Owns! You!”
“You don’t know what you ask!” he shrieked, “You don’t know what you ask! You don’t—”
She tightened her grip on the hack’s head and drove her thumbnail deeper into the green symbol. “You’ll damned well tell me who owns you!” she commanded him, “You will tell me now!”
The hack screamed again, louder and more desperately this time. “Goelvar!” he screeched, “Goelvar owns me! Goelvar! Goelvar!”
Mal grabbed the edge of his chair for support. The name landed like a knife. Judging by the look on Lucifeus’s face, Mal was confident he’d undergone the same horrible revelation.
“Tell me where the demon is,” Esoria ordered the hack, “Tell me where Goelvar is!”
“South!” the hack cried out, “South in Dragor’s Field! At Lord Prae’s keep!”
“Why is Goelvar here? What does it want?”
“No!” the hack shrieked, “Don’t! I can’t! I can’t do this!”
“What does Goelvar want?”
The warrior screamed. “No! No! No!”
She drove her thumb brutally deep into the rune. Blood oozed through the yellow paste. Orange streaks dribbled down over the hack’s eyes, nose, and cheeks. “Dietra’va! I command you to tell me what Goelvar wants!”
The table bounced manically as he fought her will, but she was clearly too powerful for him. “The blade!” he screeched, finally, “Goelvar wants the blade!”
“What blade? What blade does Goelvar want?”
“The Blood Caeyl! Goelvar wants the Caeyllth Blade! Stop now! Please! Stop!”
The dust covering his head flashed like heat lightning against the darkness of the brig. The hack shrieked and threw his head back hard enough to knock Esoria away from him. Blood streamed from his eyes, nose, and ears. He rocked forward and back so violently that the end of the table banged up and down with his rhythm. Blood flew where the metal restraints tore at his flesh. For just a moment, Mal worried the shackles would give.
Then the hack’s spine arched hard enough to crack the back of the chair. His breath locked in his chest. He froze that way with his back curved wickedly, his head cocked back farther than it had a right, his blood-streaked yellow face gaping in horror at the ceiling. Distended veins throbbed viciously on his neck, and a pathetic gurgle bubbled up from his throat. After several pulsing seizures, he collapsed, slumping forward onto the table. A pool of blood spread out from his face and swelled its way across the wood.
No one moved. No one spoke.
Blood thrown from their compromised leader covered the other two prisoners. The coward had actually slipped one bloody hand free of its shackle and softly whimpered. Blood trickled over the table’s edge and plinked delicately against the floor planks.
Mal didn’t need to check to know the man was dead. He stood up and waved at the remaining savages. “Hoot! Get these two into a cell.”
For the first time in all their years together, Hoot didn’t obey.
“Hoot! Get these savages into a cell now!”
Hoot shook free of his terror. He’d barely unlocked the coward’s one remaining shackle before the savage broke free and ran for the nearest cell unescorted. Grelia’tau followed a moment later, with only a bit more dignity, and minus a couple fingers.
Lucifeus helped Esoria around the table. The woman was sweating and pale. She felt her way into her chair with trembling hands. Mal threw an oily cloth down on the table to stop the approaching line of blood, then squatted beside her.
“You look like hell,” he said as he stroked back her hair.
Lucifeus dropped a tin cup on the table and hastily filled it from a dusty bottle of mead. The sweet scent of the wine cut through the smell of blood and fear suffocating the room. He lifted the mug to her. “Here, my flower. Drink.”
She accepted the mug, but made no attempt to drink.
“Are you up to talking?” Mal asked her carefully.
“The blade,” she whispered, “You want to know what the hack meant.”
He laid a hand on her arm. “Nay, I know too well what he meant.” He threw a glance up at Lucifeus. “I want to know if the demon knows what we’ve done.”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
“Goelvar,” Mal said carefully, “You know this name?”
Esoria’s frightened eyes watched him too closely. “I do. And I suspect you do, too.” Then she lifted the mug and drained the wine. When Lucifeus tried to refill her, she waved him off. “This is a very bad thing,” she said, wiping the back of her tiny hand across her mouth.
“Aye,” Mal said, looking up at his brother, “We need to assemble the officers’ council.”
Lucifeus nodded. “We’ll send out couriers to summon them. Though it’s doubtful at best we’ll have them all in the compound any earlier than daybreak tomorrow. More likely, late evening.
Mal rubbed at the tension gripping his eyes. “Tree’s in Notown tracking down Nathan Roell and a small gold shipment he seems to have misplaced. I’ll send a runner out after her as soon as we finish up here. If we’re lucky, we can retrieve her by tomorrow midday. Wilc’s on his way back from Mendophia, due to arrive tonight, I believe. ”
“Hoot!” Lucifeus called, “See Essie back to her quarters. Get her anything she needs.”
“Then take those savages up and hang them from the third tier north.”
“Belay that order!” Mal said quickly.
Lucifeus turned on him. “They’re trespassers! Worse, they’re invaders, and they’re going to dance for it. It’s the law.”
“Luce, they have information. We need to extract it first. You can hang them later.”
After a moment of dueling glares, Lucifeus backed down. “Aye, you’re right. Sink me if I’m not indulging my impatience.”
“They’re not going anywhere. You’re being sensible.”
His brother nodded. “Dear me, yes. I most certainly am.” Then he waved at the Kadeer slumped forward before him with his pasted yellow eyes gaping vacantly into the pooled blood. “You may hang this one instead.”
Hoot looked at the dead warrior. Then he turned back to Lucifeus. “But, Cap’n?” he said dully, “Pretty sure he’s already dead.”
“Then he shouldn’t offer much resistance, should he?”
Hoot’s eyes dropped to the floor. He looked even more confused than usual.
“Let it go, Hoot,” Mal said, hoping to just get past this bullshit, “Don’t try to understand. Just… just take Esoria home, and then come back and hang the hack before he goes stiff.”
Shrugging, Hoot said, “Aye, Cap’n. Reckon it don’t make no sense to hang a guy what’s already dead, but I guess no one wants my opinion nohow.”
“And wash the caeyl dust off him first. We don’t need to stir up any questions.”
Mal squeezed Esoria’s shoulders, then bent down and whispered in her ear, “You’re fantastic. I’ll never ridicule your witchy ways again. I swear it before Calina.”
Essie kissed him on the cheek. “I’m holding you to that.”
“Once we have the officers assembled, I’ll send someone for you. You try to get some rest until then. I can see you’re exhausted.”
Lucifeus walked over to Hoot and patted him on the chest. “What happened here stays here, Hoot. You understand me?”
“I bloody well mean it, now. I don’t want a crowd of hysterics outside the council chambers later.”
“Understood, Cap’n Lucifeus. I ain’t gonna say a word to nobody, not even the missus.”
Lucifeus heartily slapped the man’s abundant arm. “Good man. Now see Essie home.”
Hoot grunted and nodded, then helped the witch gather her things.
As they walked toward the brig’s exit, Lucifeus seized Mal around the shoulders and said into his ear, “I have a feeling it’s going to be a longer day than we expected, Brother.”“Aye,” Mal said without humor, “And it’s likely to be an even longer night.”