The Curse of the Winged Scorpion

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False Faces

“Dalmund be buggered,” Rashari muttered under his breath, sidling closer to Fantel as he eyed Andras with a look that seemed caught between surprise, suspicion and burgeoning annoyance. “I don’t bloody believe it.”

Fantel turned to him, but his eyes were fixed on Andras. The cleric stopped before them, still smiling. The heavy reek of incense clung to his floor length robes. She noticed a posy of dried herbs strung to his belt and the hint of a naked big toe peeking out from under the hem. Fantel waited for Rashari to launch into some sham speech. He didn’t, his attention arrested by the sight of Andras’ too long and slightly blackened toenail.

“We were told that you had beds,” Fantel said when it became clear that Rashari was not going to say anything.

“Ahh,” Andras raised his eyebrows, young skin bunching over his brow. Fantel was struck again by the contrast of his blue-green eyes and dusky skin. “Travellers are you? New to this fine city. Or,” Andras paused looking from Fantel to Rashari in rapt interest. “perhaps you are believers?”

Rashari snorted. “Not bloody likely.” Fantel elbowed him sharply in the side.

“We are travellers, yes.” She conceded, as this was technically true. “We were told you offered free beds for those who need them.” She added a little pointedly when Andras continued to peer at them a little too intently.

“Ahh, of course,” Shaking himself Andras stepped back making an aborted gesture towards the stairs before stopping and looking back at them with every appearance of concern. “But perhaps you would like something to eat first? We have…”

“We’ve eaten.” Rashari and Fantel said in unison, both stopping to look at the other in surprise. Rashari smiled just slightly. “But if you happen to have a tin bath and some clean water I’d seriously consider making a generous charitable donation to whatever it is you do here.” He added, a little life coming back to him.

Andras smiled back at him, and Fantel was struck by how very similar their two smiles were. It made Fantel wonder if Andras was far less sincere than he appeared. “I’m sure something could be arranged. Please, follow me. I’ll show you to the dormitory.”

“That’s very kind of you,” Rashari simpered back, mimicking Andras’ solicitous tone so perfectly Fantel was now convinced there was something going on between the two of them. Therefore she was not too terribly surprised when Andras led them into an upstairs room filled with beds, ushered them in, closed the door firmly behind him, locked it and reached up to pull his fake beard away from his face.

“Well, well, look what the cat drug in,” He drawled, carefully cultivated Dushku accent sharpening into the harsher tones of someone from one of the Kitvik provinces. The grin he turned on Rashari was far less solicitous and a great deal more predatory. “Fallen on hard times have we, mate? Come to beg a boon from the Seraphim? Cuz I gotta tell you, I’m not sure they give a hoot for a smug git like you.”

“Aeneas,” Rashari growled a scowl twisting his mouth. “I would ask what in blazes you think you’re doing, but I’m quite sure I don’t want to know.”

Aeneas clucked his tongue. “Andras if you please. I’ve an image to maintain, y’know.” His extraordinary eyes flicked over to Fantel and rooted on her. “Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend?” He asked smile taking on a lecherous edge as he looked her up and down. Fantel threw Rashari a sharp look, one that demanded a swift and concise explanation.

He sighed and flapped a hand between them. “Feel free to tear his throat out if you wish. No one will miss him.” Turning back to Aeneas he was all business. “Is the Banaborra sect really so desperate that they have you, of all people, impersonating a cleric? I’d heard Banaborra had been hit hard by the Maree-Noir lately – not to mention that little assassination kerfuffle with the Cardova heiress – but this?” He shook his head. “This is low even for you. What’s the game this time? Extorting donations from the poor and the stupid? Maybe the old false oracle scam?”

“You wound me mate, you really do.” Aeneas shook his head sadly. “You got a real cynical side to you, y’know that? S’not good for the soul that sort of thing.”

Rashari twitched, barely perceptibly. Aeneas didn’t notice, but Fantel did. His scowl deepened. “I need to speak with the old man, can you arrange it, or should I just commence ignoring you now?”

Aeneas chuckled. “He wants to see you too. That jumped up little snot in the patrol, Arundel, sent word you were in our neck of the wood. The old man put the word out, right then, for you and your Chimera. Dunno what you’re into this time, mate, but whatever it is, it’s sure put a stitch in the old man’s britches.”

“Hmm,” an expression of concern briefly chased over his brow and his lips thinned. “I assume you can arrange a meet?”

“I’ll let him know you’re here,” Aeneas nodded. “Although he probably knows already. You ain’t exactly what I’d call inconspicuous - especially with her in tow.” Aeneas jerked his head toward Fantel. “You look dead on your feet though, and the old man likes to conduct business under cover of darkness – he’s old fashioned like that – so chances are it will be tonight.”

Rashari just nodded. “I still want that bath –and some anti-septic lotion and a roll of fresh bandages.”

Aeneas widened his eyes. “Gonna cost you.”

“You run a refuge for the destitute,” Rashari pointed out incredulously. “You can’t seriously expect me to believe you don’t keep medical supplies here.”

“Oh we’ve got ‘em,” Aeneas nodded sagely. “They’re just gonna cost you.” He grinned. “You’re the one who mentioned extortion, after all.”

Rashari growled under his breath and turned to Fantel, hand outstretched toward the satchel she had never given back to him.

“Uh-uh,” Aeneas clucked reprovingly. “You’re forgetting mate. I know what your coin is worth.” He shook his head, bright eyes sparking with amusement. “Nah, I think I like the idea of you owing me a favour; one act of kindness for another and all that rot. What do y’say, mate?”

Rashari glanced over at Fantel and they shared a moment of perfect accord. Deftly she stepped up behind Aeneas and slipped her arm around his throat, dangling the claws of her other hand under his nose. “One act of kindness for another,” She pondered aloud, idly raking her claws through the fibres of his fake beard, which sat snugly under his chin like a small furry animal. “If you bring us what we ask, I shall be kind enough not to hurt you. Does that sound like a fair deal?”

Aeneas appeared more startled than afraid. He watched her hand as if mesmerised. “Uh…” Fantel yanked the beard off him with one sharp tug. She tossed the beard onto the floor, where it lay there like a dead rat. Lazily she brushed her claw points over his bobbing Adams apple. Aeneas swallowed hard and nodded. “Alright, alright; I’ll get you your stuff. Now give me my beard back.” Fantel let go of him, slipping smoothly away. She bent down and scooped up the beard, tossing it to him without breaking eye contact. She stepped back to stand beside Rashari.

“Figures you’d pick up a partner even crazier than you are, mate.” Aeneas muttered darkly, fussing fretfully with his beard. He gave them both a dark look before turning and leaving the room. Immediately Fantel turned to Rashari, poised to demand answers, but for once he wasn’t in the mood to drag out the suspence.

“He works for the Banaborra raider sect. So does LePortail. The old man’s been operating a satellite operation from Aramant for a few years now –not sure why. I don’t know why Aeneas is here, and I certainly don’t know why he’s impersonating a cleric.”

“And how do you know all this. I thought you were part of the Veridree sect?” Fantel frowned. Banaborra was one of the free cities of the Badlands. It was a raider stronghold and its name was synonymous with lawlessness. “There was talk of Banaborra in the Dha-hali enclave. They did not send a delegation to Einar’s auction.” Fantel blinked and turned sharp eyes on Rashari. “Tomah suspected you of being a Banaborra spy, before the attack.”

“A fair assumption, I suppose.” Rashari accepted equably.

“Is it accurate?” Fantel remembered that Remus had been a native of the Adran provinces. She hadn’t thought about it before, but it was strange that two Adran natives would give their loyalty to a Dushku based raider sect.

Rashari shrugged. “Not entirely. Banaborra likes to play both sides against the middle, that’s how they’ve survived so long. There are just as many Imperial spies in the city as there are rebels. I fell in with Remus early, and he was Veridree.” Rashari met her eyes. “Veridree pays its Adran dissidents well. We’re politically useful, especially as Nylous has his own connection to Dushku’s emperor.”

Fantel absorbed this information for later consideration; clearly the ways of raider sects were more complex and politically motivated than she had imagined. “You seem to get along well with the Banaborra sect, all the same.” She pointed out, careful not to outright accuse him of being a double agent.

“Appearances can be deceptive.” He flopped down onto one of the spare bunks. “Raiders make a lot out of sectarian loyalty but the truth is we’re really only loyal to our own agendas. Remus was Veridree because it suited him to be so. I was Veridree because I didn’t have a great deal of choice.” Carefully shrugging out of his travelling coat he started to bend down to pull off his right boot but stopped when the motion jarred his shoulder. “I admit that I’ve – cultivated – good relations with certain people in the Banaborra sect. It’s been useful in the past and I’m hoping will be again. LePortail is an information broker. There are few things he doesn’t know or can’t find out.”

“What do you want to know?” Fantel moved over to the opposite bunk, perching on the end.

“A great many things,” he muttered darkly, propping his foot on his other knee to pull off his boots. “But the truth is I only used LePortail against Arundel to buy us some time.” He glanced at Fantel as he twisted around and swung his legs up on the bed, back against the wall. He clasped his hands together in his lap. “Nothing has gone to plan since Remus shot Bashi.” Rashari stared down into his lap, fingers of his left hand drumming on the knuckles of his right. “I feel like I’m being out-manoeuvred at every turn; someone told Remus about the stone. Someone knew about my deal with the Suluman. I need to know who they are and what they want. LePortail might know something, but even if he doesn’t, he might be persuaded to run interference against Tomah or anyone else Einar sends after us.”

“Why would he help?”

“Because the leader of the Banaborra sect brokered the deal with the Suluman to steal the stone; I have a feeling he’ll want to know what has happened.”

Fantel narrowed her eyes thoughtfully. “What are you planning to do when we reach Battlan?” She had not asked until now because there had been too many other things to occupy her thoughts, but she had wondered. Battlan was vast and it would be fairly easy to hide the stone out on the Steppes and be sure no one would ever find it, but it seemed unlikely that Rashari’s plan would be as simple as that. Nothing else about him had been simple after all.

He met Fantel’s eyes. “There is an abandoned Imperial research facility out on the Steppes. Years ago the DeLunde Institute conducted experiments into transmuting phantasma back into pure anima. The researchers built a machine capable of refining phantasma to a degree never before achieved. They were looking for a source of inexhaustible power, recycling the dead back into pure life energy. The experiment was…less than a success…and the project was terminated. The facility still stands however, and most of the equipment should still be there. I intend to use it to either destroy the Heart of Anoush or to free whatever is left of the Seraph inside it.”

“These experiments are the reason you know about deific energy? That’s what you mean, is it not? The inexhaustible power, is deific power?” Rashari nodded warily. Fantel frowned. “You said deific energy came from dead serephim. Are you planning to kill the goddess Anoush?”

“I don’t even know if she’s still alive to begin with,” Rashari pointed out, a little stung. “Really, it’s not like I go around planning to kill people all the time.”

“You killed a man when we first met.” Fantel replied, dryly. “A man you planned to double cross. How do I know you don’t make a habit of it?”

Rashari opened his mouth, thought better of whatever he was going to say and sighed, shoulders slumping in defeat, “Fair point. Still, for the record I really don’t go around engineering the death of everyone I meet. If I did the streets would be piled high with corpses.” He shook his head. “I’m hoping the machines in the lab might be able to wake her up. After that,” He shrugged again. “I don’t know. Maybe the seraph will have an idea for a good hiding place.”

Fantel stared at him. “You really have no plan at all, do you?”

Rashari sighed; a great heavy breath that lifted his shoulders and left him slumped against the wall. “Not really, no. Improvisation is more my forte.”

Fantel studied him in silence. Rashari played with his laced fingers, rolling his thumbs. “What do you want from me, truly?” She asked him. She’d been wondering all along. Why had he wanted her to come with him, what ulterior motive did he have, and why, of all the people he might have passed on his travels, had he fixed on her specifically? It couldn’t just be coincidence, could it? Rashari needed a guide to get him over the Steppes and Fantel just happened to be a captive at the time he made his break for freedom, so he’d fixed on her because she was from Battlan. It all seemed so random, and Fantel – child of the Chimeri – did not believe in random chance. Everything happened in accordance with the Mother’s grand design. Fantel might have torn herself free of that weave, but that did not mean fate could no longer lay hands on her destiny.

Rashari looked up and smiled at her, unguarded and sweet. “I’m not sure. I saw you standing in those woods, in shackles, being pushed around by Tomah, and yet, the look in your eyes.” He shook his head, grinning. “You were bored. Not scared, not even angry – you were just bored.” He paused and looked at her seriously. “I’m not sure what it was; I suppose I was intrigued,” he gestured aimlessly around the room, “Maybe I thought you like me.”

“Like you, how?” Fantel wasn’t sure she wanted to know the answer, while at the same time it was the only thing she really wanted to know.

Rashari met her eyes. “Damaged, broken -missing some vital component. It takes a very special sort of indifference toward life to be so uninterested in the prospect of a lifetime of slavery.”

Fantel sat back on the bunk. She felt suddenly exposed and did not like it. This was not the first time he’d implied they were the same inside. Fantel didn’t like it now anymore than she had on board Vedeca. “You do not know anything about me.”

Rashari watched her solemnly. She did not like the hint of sympathy in his eyes, or the sincerity. “I know that you do not want to be here, Madame, and believe me when I say that I am sorry for that. But I am grateful. I have this feeling that you and I, we are cut from the same cloth, outside of the usual pattern, and irrespective of where this partnership leads us, I want you to know that I am truly glad to have met you.”

She was at a loss for words. She wasn’t sure what to do with this sudden outpouring of sentiment she neither wanted nor completely approved of. She didn’t think he was lying to manipulate her. What he said was at least consistent with his actions. She just couldn’t quite fathom the sort of person who would trust a complete stranger based on a random sense of fellow-feeling. Especially a person as calculating, evasive and insincere as Rashari had shown himself to be. Then again, he was also a dreadfully contrary person, so perhaps he would trust a stranger simply to be difficult.

She could not meet his eyes. “If we are to meet with LePortail this evening we should get some rest now.” She said fussy with the thin blanket folded at the end of the bunk. She didn’t look, but she could Rashari smiling at her.

“Alright; sleep well Madame Chimera.”

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