“Is there anything else I can get you, Madame Chimera?” Meira placed a long stemmed glass before Fantel on the table, removing the plate of orange rinds and puff pastry crumbs as she did so. Over an hour had passed since their arrival but the elder Innis sister continued to hover with wide eyed attentiveness, and much to her annoyance, Rashari’s nickname seemed to have been adopted by Tamaki’s entire family as a standard form of address.
“No I am fine, thank you.” She met the young woman’s eyes, hoping that she would leave finally. Tamaki had disappeared upstairs to the family rooms above the tavern with her father and the soppy boy to see Tamaki’s mother some time ago. She and Rashari were tucked away in a private room on the tavern’s ground floor safe from the prying eyes and rabid curiosity of the local patrons.
“And you sir?” Meira turned to Rashari who was picking fastidiously at his own sweet pastry. He had a healing compress and fresh bandages over his wounded shoulder and had been persuaded, albeit reluctantly, to part with his sky blue coat long enough to have it cleaned. Fantel had been intrigued to discover that the high collared vest-coat he wore under his outer clothing was padded with thin steel mesh just like the coat. The skin underneath had split, needing stitches, and the wound site was livid with bruising but the padding in his coat and jacket had stopped the bullet from going too deep into his skin. Fantel wondered if all Raiders were so well prepared against random bullets or if Rashari had dressed with a mind to being shot. The mesh alone did not explain how the ghost inside the bullet had failed to kill him. Armour, no matter how good, was no match for necromancy, even if the physical bullet had failed to punch through his body the ghost should still have entered through the shallow wound. Blood was a key component of necromantic magic. By all logic the wound should have been fatal. Fantel had yet to decide if she wanted to know how he had survived badly enough to ask him. He’d been quiet and somewhat subdued for the last hour, disinclined to talk despite having asked her to accompany him for that very purpose. Now he looked up and favoured Meira with smile that did not reach his eyes.
“I could not ask for anything more.” He assured her. “You have been the very spirit of hospitality.”
“Well, alright.” Meira looked a little sceptical, and perhaps a little disappointed that she could not linger further but, finally, she made to leave them in peace. “I’ll make up the guest rooms with fresh linen for you both – and I’ll get started on fixing your coat.” She winked at Rashari as she backed out of the door. Tamaki’s family had opened their home to them for the night, but Fantel had no intention of taking up the offer. Watching Rashari she suspected he didn’t either. Still he didn’t waste any time plying his charms on Meira while he could.
“You are a perfect angel.” He put a little more effort into his smile this time, but to Fantel he still seemed like an actor giving a sub-par line reading. They both watched the door close behind Meira.
“Explain human,” Fantel said as soon as she was sure Meira was out of ear shot. Curling her hand around the stem of her glass she sipped her drink and watched him over the lip of the glass. “What game are you playing? What do you want?”
“What if all I want is the pleasure of your company?” He asked a trifle caustically dropping his dessert fork onto the plate of shredded apple turnover. He looked tired; bruised circles darkened the skin under his eyes and his mouth was drawn into a moue of displeasure. He caught the look Fantel threw his way and raised his right hand in surrender. “Alright, alright; I owe you an explanation, or several. So, what would you like to know?”
“What business did you have in the Dagoman’s woods?” She demanded, deciding that she would start at their first meeting and work from there. “You were not lost – you allowed Tomah to catch you as he led me to the mansion. Why?”
“I knew you were a sharp one from the moment I laid eyes on you.” Cupping his cheek in his right hand, elbow propped on the table, Rashari picked up his fork again, poking at the mutilated remains of the pastry he had mauled without eating. “The truth is I wanted to be found by one of the Dha-hali; I wanted them to know I was part of the Veridree raiders.”
“Because then they would be suspicious ahead of time and jump to precisely the right conclusions when Smith attacked the Dagoman in his private suite.” He explained with the air of one imparting an unnecessary and obvious detail. “If I’d left it to chance there was a possibility the Dha-hali would blame one of the other raider sects invited to the auction. As it is, even Einar has the necessary brains to put two and two together and come up with Veridree.”
Fantel frowned replacing her glass on the table. “You wished to cast suspicion on yourself?”
“On the Veridree raiders,” he corrected succinctly. “My objective was to ensure Einar would blame the attack on Veridree. Raiders are notoriously fractious and the failure of his little shindig has given Einar a bloody nose he won’t soon recover from. He’ll be planning his revenge even as we speak.”
Fantel was getting annoyed. Rashari was answering her questions but his answers failed to deliver any actual explanation for his actions. She was no clearer on his motives now than before she had asked the first question. “You work for the Veridree raiders – why would you want to incite conflict with the Dha-hali?”
Rashari smiled bitterly. “Tell me Madame Chimera do you know how a man frees himself from servitude to a Raider lord?”
Fantel frowned. “No.”
“Death.” He smiled, bright and sharp.
“Explain.” Fantel spoke through gritted teeth.
Rashari waved a hand, as if to ward off her irritation with his answers so far, “Traditionally speaking, once a man is suborned in service to a raider faction that servitude is a lifelong contract. The only way to be released is to die. Unless,” Rashari paused, dark eyes glittering in the low light coming from the single phantasma ceiling lamp, “a man is lucky enough to outlive the one he is bound to serve. In my case I was sworn in service to Remus– and through him to Nylous, lord of Veridree.”
“So that’s why you killed Remus; to escape your bondage?”
“I never intended to kill Remus.” Rashari said, a thread of frustration – even anger – colouring his tone. “He attacked me. I had no choice but to finish things while I had the upper hand.” He stared at Fantel, intently, almost willing her to believe him. “You were there. I offered him his life, but he was right. Only one of us was leaving the enclave alive.” Rashari shook his head, looking properly disgusted.
“I don’t understand.” Fantel stated flatly. “Why did you attack the auction? Why announce your presence to the Dha-hali? Why free the rest of the slaves?”
Rashari was quiet for a moment, thinking, before he answered. “It was about Bashi.” He said quietly addressing the table top instead of Fantel directly.
“The man Remus shot. Who was he?” Fantel did not think she had ever met a human who made such a production out of simply telling the truth. Stealing the horns of an ogdegre while he slept would be easier than pulling a simple explanation from this human.
“Aluhahn Bashi is – was – the richest man in all the Bhuvam isles; the head of the Bashi Phantasma Mining Corporation.” Rashari said after a discernible pause. “Einar wooed him for months, looking to gain a controlling interest in the mines. With Bashi in his pocket Einar would have had access to as much phantasma as he desired – and could challenge Nylous for control of the Verus Channel.” Rashari drummed his fingers over the table top and quirked an eyebrow at her, silent question implicit.
Fantel nodded in understanding, “Verus is the main sea trading route between the Tybur and Dushku continents. I imagine it is lucrative for raiders.” She flexed her fingers around the delicate stem of her glass. “So you killed Bashi to prevent a Dha-hali alliance?” She was not unfamiliar with such machinations, and could well believe this was the sort of thing raiders did to one another, but still, why then had he freed Tamaki and the other women at the same time? Why would a raider care about a group of anonymous slaves, and why had he worked so hard to tip his hand before the attack? It almost seemed as though he sought to sabotage his own side.
“I didn’t kill Bashi,” Rashari snapped surprising her. He raked his hands through his thick hair, causing it to stick up every which way from his scalp. He stared down at the table, holding his head in his hands. “Nothing went as planned. I was commissioned by a third party to steal the gem stone in Bashi’s possession. In exchange for handing the stone over to the Bhuvanti Suluman I would receive protection from my former master. Obviously everything went awry when Remus killed Bashi.”
“What is that stone you took? Remus seemed to think it was important. You do too.”
Rashari stared at her for a long moment, a muscle in his jaw ticking. She thought he wouldn’t answer. Then he pushed back from the table and pulled the pouch containing the stone from his belt. He tipped it out of the suede pouch onto his crumb covered plate. The stone was perfectly round and about the size of her palm. It rolled across the porcelain until it stopped against the rim, liberally covered in pastry crumbs. The stone was a dark, tumultuous blue, cloudy and opaque. It barely reflected the rainbow shimmer of the phantasma lamp overhead.
“Ever seen anything like this, before?” Rashari asked her curiously. Fantel shook her head. When she had first seen this bauble attached to the top of Bashi’s cane she had thought it a piece of polished phantasma ore. Now she was not so sure. It looked somewhat like phantasma, but she could sense no creeping whisper of power rising from the stone; no stale reek of the grave clinging to its smooth surface.
“This is the Heart of Anoush,” Rashari told her quietly, “One of the twelve fabled scion stones of the Seraphim. It’s been in the Suluman’s family line for generations.”
“A scion stone?” Fantel’s fingers twitched and she pushed her chair back a little, unconsciously moving away from the innocuous looking stone lying on the table. Everyone knew that scion stones contained a piece of a Seraph’s soul. Seraphim myth claimed that Dalmund, greatest of all Seraphim, decreed that each of his eleven children seal a portion of their power and knowledge into a single stone as a gift to the humans of Aldlis. Fantel knew that most of the twelve scion stones were in the possession of the High Cleric on the holy continent of Solistia to the far north, but a few stones were still held in less divine hands. The Tabrian royal house had one, the Stone of Cirroc, but Fantel never imagined she would ever be so close to a piece of a Seraph’s power.
“I have heard the story of this stone,” she said softly unable to take her eyes off it. “It is said that Anoush was a daughter of Dalmund, sister to the other Seraphim – a goddess. Like her brethren she was asked to seal some of her power into a stone. Yet it is said that she also had a great love of mortals – was in love with a human man - and did not bind a mere fraction of her power into a stone. Instead she gave her heart to the man she loved and cast away her divine power altogether. She became as a mortal herself, brought low by her love, and her issue claimed her name as their right, becoming the founders of the Bhuvam state. When she died as all mortals must, she willed that her children keep the stone containing all her godly power forever more, as a token of her undying love.” Fantel raised her gaze to Rashari. “When Dalmund discovered what she had done he flew into a rage. It was not his will that humans should have all the power of a Seraph under their command. He tried to take back the stone. The human descendents of Anoush had no choice but to relinquish her power in the face of Dalmund’s might. But they begged to keep the empty stone – the goddess’ heart – as a memento. Moved by their true grief and love for his daughter Dalmund let them keep the powerless stone. The story tells that Dalmund made the humans a promise, that if Anoush’s descendents continued to love the memory of his daughter one day that love would restore the goddess to her full power once more.” Fantel arched an eyebrow, studying Rashari keenly. “I find it unlikely that the Suluman would willingly part with such a relic.”
“That’s the funny thing about priceless relics; they are almost invariably useless.” Rashari reached out and poked the stone with one finger, rolling it back and forth across the plate. “At the very least Hannick Anoush thought so. What good is a scion stone without true power? Hannick sold the stone to Bashi for a stake in his mining corporation.” He smiled thinly. “I’m sure he thought he was getting the better deal.”
“He was wrong?” Despite her better judgement Fantel was intrigued.
Rashari shrugged, dark eyes darting away from her and skittering around the shadowed corners of the room. “A dead goddess is still a goddess.” He replied quietly. “And power, even the promise of power, is a compelling lure.”
Fantel looked from Rashari to the stone and back again. “Bashi did not believe the stone was powerless. He sought to restore the goddess to life?”
Rashari shrugged, lifting only his right shoulder. He wouldn’t meet her eyes. “I doubt he cared much for an overly sentimental myth. All the same he didn’t become a phantasma tycoon without learning a thing or two about the power of old stones.”
“How do you know so much about the Heart?” Fantel asked intently, forgetting completely to maintain her aura of indifference. She frowned as another thought occured to her. “If the story is true, then surely only those of the Suluman’s family line, the descendents of Anoush, can revive the goddess?”
“Familial fidelity doesn’t amount to much in this day and age.” Rashari replied flippantly picking up the stone and tucking it back into his pocket. He seemed to have no qualms whatsoever handling the sleeping heart of a goddess. “But there are ways. I didn’t think anyone in Veridree knew about the Heart, until today.” He stopped abruptly and pursed his lips into a thin line, straightening his shoulders. Fantel had the sense he had been about to reveal something he did not want her to know. When he looked up and met her eyes, she could see that he was about to lie to her. “As to what I know, it’s only what I was told. The Suluman realised he had made a mistake giving up the Heart and wanted it back. I was in a position to get my hands on it.” He shrugged. “So I took the job.”
Fantel frowned. “You are lying.” There was nothing in his expression, or tone of voice, to give him away, but Fantel was absolutely certain that he was lying, or at the very least, not telling her everything. “You lied before, to Remus, when he accused you of plotting against him. There is more to this story you tell than you would have me believe.”
Rashari blinked, a split second of consternation flashing behind his eyes before his lips quirked in the barest hint of a smile. He inclined his head almost regally. “Well - yes,” He admitted studying Fantel intently. “But I have to wonder Madame Chimera, why do you care? Surely the twisted machinations of raiders hold no great interest to you? Especially when knowing the truth could make your own situation even more precarious.” He smiled then, dark eyes flat and hard behind a carefully constructed wall.
Fantel shifted, suddenly uncomfortable. “What do you mean?” She asked warily, carefully sitting back in her chair and stretching her fingers over the table.
“Only that I had assumed you’d be more interested in your own predicament than mine.” Rashari replied politely, casually looking around the room in an exaggerated show of nonchalance that was almost flamboyantly disingenuous. Fantel stared at him, refusing to ask him to explain when she knew she was being baited to do so. After another moment of feigned nonchalance Rashari gingerly rolled his injured shoulder, not quite managing to hide a wince as he did so, and turned back to face her directly.
“The true reason I asked you to come with me has little to do with Nylous or the stone. We escaped the Dha-hali enclave together; we had words before the attack began. Any of Einar’s men asking around in the marketplace or skyport are likely to discover a witness who can attest to seeing the two of us together.”
“What is your point, human?” Fantel sensed a trap in his words but could not fathom why what he said should sound so ominous.
He hitched his right shoulder in another half-shrug. “It strains the bounds of credulity to suggest we are anything but partners in crime.” He met her eyes head on. “Einar and his men will think you were in on the raid from the beginning. You are, I regret to say, implicated by association now.”
Fantel’s claws extended in a rush, and she dug them into the edge of the table, gouging chips out of the wood. “You planned this.”
Rashari eyed the scratches her claws had left in the polished table top. “Hear me out before you eviscerate me.” Fantel glared at him and he hurried on. “I admit that I should have mentioned the danger of our being associated before now, but I didn’t precisely plan meeting you. How could I? Our meeting was coincidence, Madame Chimera; pure serendipity. I believe in chance, and in seizing opportunity when it comes my way. Meeting you was a boon indeed.”
Fantel arched both brows unsure whether to be outraged or impressed by his presumption. “I do not see how our meeting is any great boon.” Despite her growing annoyance she realised to her chagrin that her curiosity was still greater. She wondered what odd compulsion stopped her from leaving right now, or gouging out his dark, glittering eyes with her claws. It made no sense that she continued to let this human manipulate her, yet she had no will to leave.
“The fact that you were Einar’s captive in the first place suggests to me that luck has not been on your side of late.” Rashari told her before his tone became a little more diffident. “I would also suggest that not being sold into slavery is something of a boon.”
Fantel narrowed her eyes. She could not entirely dispute his logic, but nor did she like the direction of the conversation. “I am not beholden to you.”
“Good gods no,” His eyes widened in genuine surprise and he almost laughed. “Frankly madame you do not strike me as the sort to be beholden to anyone or anything.” He flexed the fingers of his left hand, palm up, lying on the table top so she could see the faceted stone embedded in his flesh. The stone had been green earlier, now it was a milky white. “I have a proposition.”
“You are bold indeed.” She warned him.
He glanced up quickly and smirked. “Well nothing ventured, nothing gained.” Folding his fingers closed over the stone set into the centre of his palm, he clenched his fist tight enough to flex the metal filaments embedded in his skin. “Today’s events have forced me to change my plans.” He admitted gaze turning inward as he frowned slightly. Fantel could not imagine the nature of the thoughts passing like quicksilver behind his eyes. “I have a…need to travel west, out to the Battlan Steppes. Humans don’t tend to do well unaccompanied out there and if today has taught me anything it is that I can’t trust any of my usual associates. There is more than one rat at work in this mess.”
“No.” Fantel interrupted him already knowing what he wanted. “I will travel with you no further. You have already involved me in your schemes far enough.”
Rashari frowned, brows angling sharply over the bridge of his nose. He pulled his left arm off the table and sat up straight in his chair. “You realise that you will be hunted by the Dha-hali? Yes, they know you escaped with me, but don’t forget that Einar took a fancy to you quite aside from that. He is not a man to let his property up and wander off.”
“I belong to no man.” Fantel started to rise from the table. It was passed time for her to leave.
“Yes, yes – I know.” He flapped a hand waving off her words as he would a buzzing insect. “I wonder just how far you are willing to go to assert your autonomy, however? The Dha-hali are unlikely to respect your opinion on the matter. How many bodies do you think you shall have to wade through before Einar gives in, eh?”
“You threaten me?” Fantel towered over as he sat looking up at her, claws fully extended and twitching.
“Oh for the gods’ own sake,” Rashari snapped shoving his own chair back – the legs scraping over the wooden floor. “No. I am trying to help you.” He glared at her, dark eyes hot with true anger. “Whatever my intentions, you and I are now in this together; don’t you see that?”
Fantel felt a burst of answering anger kindle inside her. She was no longer amused by his presumption. “I need no help from a human.” She spoke in a cool, level tone, as quiet and remote as a winter snowfall.
“Is that so?” In contrast Rashari’s angry words snapped with the tension of a gathering storm. “And I suppose you intended to sprout wings like a goblin and fly yourself off that bloody mountain?” He threw his hands up in the air, frustration writ large across his face. “Do you enjoy wearing chains and being ogled by ill-bred bastards? Was I remiss in rescuing you from slavery?”
Fantel had not felt anger like this in a long time. Her back was rigid with affront. “You did not rescue me human.” She spat back. “You speak of things you know nothing about – you are like all your kind, presumptuous and arrogant.”
“Me?” His voice rose, incredulous and mocking. “Madame you are the one being ridiculous. Circumstance has thrown us together, we have the same goal – to remain free and alive – and we have a common enemy. The dictates of logic demand that we stand a better chance of survival together than apart.”
“You think me a fool?” Fantel hissed. “Do not seek to play me with words, boy. We have nothing in common. Whatever trouble you are in you cannot coerce me into helping you further.” They were face to face, scant inches between them, eyes locked together in a bitter battle of wills. “You helped me and the others off the mountain for your own ends. You wished to use us as a distraction.” Fantel poked him hard in the chest with one claw, close to his wound. “You planned to trick me into helping you with tall tales of ancient gods. I am no one, a lone chimera of no account. It is not me Einar will hunt down. It is you. Do not seek to manipulate me by claiming my life is in danger. The only one who endangers my safety is you.”
Rashari’s mouth was pinched into a thin, white line, bloodless and tense. Anger drew his skin taut over the sharp angles of his cheekbones. His dark eyes glittered with fury but he could say nothing to deny her accusations. She watched him wrestle with the truth, and felt her anger flare hotter still. She realised with a pang that she was disappointed more than anything else. It was so rare that she found humans interesting enough to sit down and talk with, and now this one human who had caught her attention turned out to be so thoroughly false. She dropped her arms, claws retracting as she curled her hands into tight fists at her sides.
“You are wrong.” Rashari spoke at last marshalling his anger and controlling his tone. He did not meet her eyes, gaze instead locked on the table top. “But I see that nothing I can say will alter your opinion. Your mind is made up.” He stepped back, putting distance between them and ran his hands over the front of the charcoal grey vest he wore, smoothing out invisible creases, despite the fact that the vest was already ruined and blood stained. They both watched his hands fuss with his clothing until he finally found courage to meet her eyes.
“I will take my leave of you, Madame Chimera.” He told her words clipped and formal. “I wish you good fortune with the Dha-hali.” With one last sharp nod to her, quick and brusque, he turned smartly on his heels and strode to the door. He was gone from the room in the blink of an eye.