The Dragonbone Petticoat

All Rights Reserved ©

Chapter Eleven

As she circled the bones, her head tipped back to take in the immense scale of the bony hooped ribs still sticky with tattered flesh, even now torn by gulls and the tiniest dracoils, their tails bobbing as they gnashed the rotted, pungent flesh with relish. Although she was a trained nurse accustomed to gore, gangrene, and the grosser, more putrescent infirmities caused by disease, she fought the urge to retch, for the scavengers summoned to dine by the foul aroma billowing from the dead sea serpents were particularly loathsome, their gorging a nonstop nausea of squelching swallows and belching on noxious meat so abundant that the beasts fattened on the tatters, including alley cats that downed so much decay they ran from plump to pudgy, to downright roly-poly tabbies, whose fat faces stretched around incessantly slobbering teeth and yellow eyes tainted by watery, deranged red.

Lady Honor didn’t know what she was looking for. Having wandered down from the quays, kicked shells and sand, skipped stones, and walked through the ribs of a gigantic sea serpent—still smelling sour and gamy despite being picked clean—she mused that if the quiet gods were just, the rags of Caldur would be among the shreds, as like finds like, so the spiritual and medical precept went, though Mother Superior meant by it that holy people should be holy, and her doctors taught the more academic principle, that contagion overran a social class entirely before ascending or descending a rung. She snickered--in Caldur’s case, both would hold true.

However, she wasn’t happy with what that entailed for herself, for, unlike Caldur, she wasn’t comfortable bedding with the scraps, or letting old age enfold her in a second-rate, secondhand life; she would be nobody’s second best while he sowed his pauper’s oats in a dyed-blonde heiress and sold out her brother to sniveling cowards.

As she sat at the sea’s edge, the surf ebbed and surged, and wavelets filled children’s footprints and towed wandering crabs up and down with drifting bones and fangs. A grizzled old man, wading far out in the surf with a fishing pole, was knocked over by the undertow, then splashed to his feet, spitting sea water and so tangled in his line that the rod thwacked his ribs, knees, and nose.

Despite her moodiness, Lady Honor smirked, a grin she as quickly covered, though she could not fully stifle her irrepressible giggle, and he turned an angry, indignant glance. As he drew near, the grizzled fisherman became more and more familiar, if no less a stranger, for he had the tanned skin, broad build, and stature of southern Vanoori, though when he came so near that his shadow fell across her lap, she could see that he was nearly a head shorter than the powerfully-built Brynelmark.

Former Brynelmark, she remembered. Though she hadn’t tendered her resignation, she hadn’t felt worthy of her order since taking Caldur for her lover. The wretched boy had become her new calling, until he proved himself a callow coward and scorned her by word and deed.

She hoped the Vanoori stranger bore no ill will, for while she was taller and stronger, he was wider, angrier, and a troubling shade of red, from sunburn and the red welts sprouting on his face and hairy chest. Thinking he might prove a nuisance if she allowed him to keep the high ground, she stood up, and took spiteful satisfaction in seeing the indignant Vanoori give way a step, then another, although the second receding step was due to his again losing his footing in the ebb tide.

“Laugh,” bellowed the Vanoori, turning the momentum of his stumbles into angry hops, “why don’t you laugh louder!”

“Please don’t shout.” Lady Honor’s wince was only half-feigned, for she had come to the beach to share the peace of the scavengers and enjoy the rotting quiet. Physical comedy did not suit her mood, she brooded, and laughed again despite herself, to the rising fury of the old Vanoori.

As a nurse, she was a student of moods, needing to know the signs of battle from stubborn, delirious, and lunatic patients, and she noticed now that her laughter not only fed his anger, it gratified it. This old man wanted to be angry, and she could guess the reason. “I’m Vanoori too, you know. We were both exiles here. Although now we can return to Vanoor.”

“Oh yes,” scowled the old fisherman, “the delights of wartorn Vanoor. Where my old master is not only a traitor, but an infamous one, whose reputation is so contagious that it might send me to the executioner’s block as well.”

“Who has ever been slain for the friends they keep?”

“How are you so naive,” spat the fisherman. “It’s not like you’re young. Not anymore.” When her face froze, his cracked into a smile, but at some telltale flicker of her eyelash or flare of her nostrils that she could not ice over, he crowed jubilantly. “Everything’s a war. Everything’s a weapon. Even words. Even laughter. We’re not just talking here, we’re fighting.”

“You flatter yourself,” snickered Lady Honor. “I pick my battles carefully and with an eye to my self-respect. When I think of trading insults with you, I feel myself slipping into the mud, old man. While I like my chances in a world where words and laughter are weapons, if I’m ever stuck in the muck with a particularly unpleasant smile, blood is thicker than mud, water, or your gassy laughter. My brother has his own infamous, equally contagious, reputation. Careful, it might be catching.”

“You’re turning native,” snorted the fisherman. “That wasn’t human speech--that was a Klyrnish rock garden. Or was it a threat?”

“As if,” snorted Lady Honor. “You should be so lucky.”

“Who’s your brother?”

“He moves in certain circles. I doubt you’d know him.”

“Try me.”

“He goes by Nine Tails.” As the color drained from the old Vanoori’s face, she realized she had underestimated him; if he had heard of her brother, he either moved in affluent or criminal circles. “What’s your name, old man?”

“Jeor,” he grumbled.

“You know my brother,” Lady Honor said flatly, and the fact was confirmed by his two shuffling steps back, downcast eyes, and murmured reply.

“Yes,” muttered Jeor, “my master is Leondias Andercruik. I am his sergeant of arms.”

“Still?” Lady Honor smirked.

“Fine,” grunted Jeor. “Was my master.”

“I can understand why you’re not proud to own it. Wasn’t that seditionist clapped in chains by his allies? He would have been better off if my brother did not renege on that job.”

“You don’t like him,” he growled.

“All I know about your master are rumors, Jeor. Having never known him, I can neither like nor dislike the man, but I would be lying if I said that I liked the rumors. That said, I’m impressed that he still commands your loyalty.”

“You’re putting words in my mouth,” he grumbled, with a cagy look.

“Why would I, when the truth scrawled on your face makes you so easy to read?” At his shuddering flinch, Lady Honor breathed a satisfied smile. “You know, Andercruik is near enough to receive your salute. Last I heard, he’s in yonder tower.”

“You haven’t heard?”

“Heard what?”

“He’s changed hands.”

“You mean he’s escaped.”

“Yes.” Jeor’s shoulders slumped. “I had my chance to help. Another servant, his favorite”--here Jeor spat--”found me in The Diamond.”

“Those are expensive suites,” said Lady Honor. “Just how have you been living in Klyrn all this time, Jeor?”

“I had my pay,” said Jeor evenly.

“Didn’t you take part in the siege?”

“Of course I did.” When the realization of what he admitted came home to Jeor, his ashen face blanched even more, then he turned brusquely to stamp through the ebbing surf, kicking up wet sand in his haste.

These bones hadn’t been picked clean yet, Lady Honor thought wryly as she lagged behind at a leisurely pace. “Leonidas wasn’t the only traitor, was he, Jeor? You knew about the invasion too.”

While the color bolted back to Jeor’s face in his cruel chortle, he only half-turned his head, and kept wading away from Lady Honor. “So what if I did? We’re in Klyrn.”

“Haven’t you heard? Vanoor is Klyrn now. And our Emperor takes a rather impartial view on justice.”

“Why would he care how Vanoor was sacked, so long as he sacked Vanoor?”

“Well, let’s have a think about what you did, Jeor.”

“Don’t call me that,” bawled the grizzled man, “you don’t know me.”

“On the contrary. Who else knows you so well in Klyrn? If you had your pay with you, you not only knew about the invasion, you planned to betray your beloved Leonidas at the earliest opportunity. And since you’re living fat in a choice hotel, we can assume you absconded with the lion’s share of the payroll.”

Jeor stopped, clenched his fists, and turned. His downcast eyes flicked through the ebbing water, no doubt scanning fruitlessly for some brutal fragment to even the odds against the Brynnelmark. When he raised his eyes to meet her face, they drew his shaggy eyebrows into a glare of pure hatred, and he bellowed, “how much?”

“I’m guessing you bagged it all.”

“No,” rasped Jeor, his breath suddenly ragged, “how much do you want?”

“I was only taking your measure, Jeor,” Lady Honor said evenly. “I don’t want any of Leonidas’s money.”

Jeor snorted. “It’s not his, it’s mine.”

“You’re still calling him master. Of course it’s his. The purloined payroll is only keeping you on independent means until you can rejoin him—or am I wrong that you’ve squandered your days fruitlessly, finding no meaning in things.”

A look of agony passed over his face. “Of course I would rejoin Leonidas. In an instant. Would he take me back, do you think?”

“Heavens, no,” giggled Lady Honor. “This is your delusion, Jeor. From what I’ve heard, Leonidas Andercruik is a reasonable man. Anyone who buys his life and sells his country has no need for a waffling turncoat, except maybe as entertainment.” She sized him up. “You’re big for a fool--how would you look in motley?” She convulsed in laughter.

While she had levelled her most steadfast stare to project confidence, when his eyes emitted a deadly glare, Lady Honor dared neither look nor step away, for Jeor’s wish for a murder-worthy rock might be granted by the ebbing tide, and while his fishing pole looked flimsy, she didn’t want its battleworthiness tested on her skull.

“So,” he began, “you were just having a run at me?” Jeor’s smile was so forced that it looked painted on, as stiff as portraiture. “It’s all a joke.”

“Oh no,” said Lady Honor. “While I don’t want Lord Andercruik’s blood money, you do have something I want.”

***

While the water was nearly green from the coppery glint of the reflected gaslamps, on the marble patio, the shadow cast by the cones of illumination mingled with the simulated sunlight. Although only two bathers enjoyed The Dimaond’s indoor pool, a half-dozen rested on deck chairs bolted into the gray stone, including Jeor, whose hairy chest was so tangled, gray, and dry that he looked brittle, like some poolside statue of sandstone. The old Vanoori was such a discontented roommate that Nine Tails wished he would become a permanent installation.

While he averted his eyes from his sister’s bruises for the most part, this studied avoidance occasionally succumbed to the temptation, taking in the welts left by Caldur’s ham hands and elephant feet with a livid glare. Nonetheless, he kept his tone light and jovial. “Did you see your boy on the seaside?”

“Caldur is a faithless lover, brother,” said Lady Honor. “Having left me these reminders, we won’t soon see his face.”

“I’d like to leave him a love mark or two,” growled Nine Tails.

“Knowing you, brother, I’m not so sure how to take that,” said Lady Honor.

“Trust me, sister,” said Nine Tails. “Even after taking him down a peg or two, he’s a different species.” After a moment, he mused, “not that I claim to be human, having killed so many. The thought of adding even one more gives me pause. I had hoped the serpents would have a bit more stamina. I don’t relish the prospect of returning to work.” Lady Honor saw the frown before it slipped back in her brother’s mask of calm.

“A conscience in you looks so out of place,” groused Lady Honor. “He doesn’t count. While you might be higher in the natural order, he’s not human either. If you’re an assassin, he’s only an ass, Nine Tails.”

“I rather like asses, sister. And none of your insinuations. I only mean that I’ve run a dozen horses into the ground while chasing a contract, but asses are too smart to suffer such a death. Service and sacrifice are commendable, but balking, and refusal to work yourself to death, shows intelligence. Integrity is disposable, but character is a commodity. Not that Caldur’s irreplaceable, but what if I found a suitable use for your ass-faced boy?”

“After what he did?” Her voice was so scathing that Nine Tails stepped back, as if he feared to be stung again by the waspish tone.

“I’m not saying he should survive it. We must kill the horse in him to make an example of the ass, you see.”

“Oh, I see.” Lady Honor drizzled as she stepped out of the pool. “You know, there’s a townhouse you can have all to yourself.”

“I thought you’d be pleased if Caldur had a short-lived role in my plans?”

“Pleased,” she snorted. “I don’t want to hear any news of Caldur other than his obituary.”

“Forget I said anything.” Nine Tails stepped from the pool with a lively step that sprinkled the stone. “Our room was a good get.”

“Aside from the faithless brother and obstinate uncle.”

“Almost too good to be true,” said Nine Tails.

Snatching his hand, Lady Honor pulled him to a stop. “What do you mean?”

“What?” he barked. “What could I possibly have meant?”

“Maybe Jeor isn’t as dumb as he looks.”

“He certainly is,” snorted Nine Tails. “But as even dumb people can be deadly, we must be circumspect.”

“What did you have in mind?”

“We should case the premises.” He sighed. “We’ll get dressed, and take our day the way we planned, drinking and exploiting the amenities, except we’ll split up to cover more ground. Unfortunately, that means we can’t get more than halfway drunk or halfway to a good time.”

“Sounds dull,” said Lady Honor.

“It’s a worse disease than dull--a boredom inflamed by agitation. Tedious, as we know not what we’re looking for, but tinged with desperation, as we hope not to find it anywhere on the premises. A scavenger hunt without prizes, and victory only in either not rousting out any creepers, or by eradicating every nightcrawler under stone.”

“Playing that game will only make us feel like losers,” said Lady Honor, “by fanning the fears that fuel our double delusion, so I say we wait.”

“Wait on what? For Jeor to slip a knife in your ribs?”

“He might have done that on the beach,” said Lady Honor.

“That’s it,” said Nine Tails. “You’ve hit the nail on the head.”

“What could you possibly mean by that?”

“We haven’t given Jeor the benefit of the doubt. What if he’s not so stupid for a slip of the tongue of that magnitude? Moreover, let’s assume he is not only selfish, as befits his story, but uncharitable, and as stubborn as his mule face would suggest. Could such a man, regardless of leverage, ever be persuaded?”

“You insinuated as much only a moment ago. It’s nothing new. Continue.”

“Why you, Lady Honor? What would he gain in bringing you to this lavish hotel?”

“You’re not suggesting...”

Nine Tails brayed a ridiculous laugh so contagious to Lady Honor that she could not help falling apart herself, into a snorting giggle that exploded into an ugly guffaw.

“Oh, quiet gods, no. Not at all.”

Lady Honor’s mirth crumbled into a deep scowl. “So I’m not pretty enough for that old man.”

“Obviously not,” laughed Nine Tails. “Don’t take it personally. In my line of work, I’ve met many committed hedonists. On passing middle age, these wastrel heirs and weaker partners become jaded and power-hungry, then beg me to kill their benefactors, on whose dime they wined and dined. Though he’s a pettier beast, Jeor is no different. Having pursued it for half his life, he’s now dead to beauty. And as beauty never had much to give that ugly lout, is it any surprise the fool’s only in love with living?” When Nine Tails smothered a smirk behind his hand, it peeked out in advance of a vulgar ripsnort. “Not that he ever lived or loved for a woman’s charms.”

“I’ll take that on your authority,” said Lady Honor. “Then what’s the answer? Assuming, as you say, that I played into his hands, why would he bring me here?”

“No you. Us. To be precise, me.”

“Having looked for those Vanoori so long, you’re bound to see them everywhere.”

“I considered that,” said Nine Tails. “Actually, I considered a few possibilities, including one so likely that I would shudder to contemplate it if it wasn’t so laughable.”

“You mean Caldur.”

“You need say no more on that.” His voice dipped into a deadly seriousness. “No, that merchants’ cabal.”

“So this is all about you?” Not bothering to suppress the scorn she felt, Lady Honor let the acid drip from her words. “Then we have nothing to worry about. We both know you’re perfectly amazing. Short of poison or sneaking up on you when you’re sleeping, what chance would they have against a legendary assassin of the highest caliber?”

Nine Tails’ face seemed to sink in a bit, his brows contracting and his lips pursing, as if he bore up under a three hundred pound load. When his eyes met hers, his brows knotted moodily. “Both methods are practical in a hotel.”

Lady Honor laughed. “So they are. And I was beat up outside our townhouse. You should know more than anyone that there are no safe places.”

“But there are safe persons,” said Nine Tails stridently, “and I’ve prided myself in being a very prudent killer compared to my contemporaries. Why should we not take care? If I’m wrong, it’s no skin off my back, and if I’m right, they’ll take more than that.”

Lady Honor rasped a frustrated breath, then said, “Fine. I had planned on napping, but let’s barge in all the doors. After all those forced social calls, we might meet someone interesting, or at least see something amusing.”

“And in making so much commotion, lose our advantage. Not likely.”

Lady Honor knew what he was leading up to,

and it irked her to no end,

for they had finally landed suitable accomodations after a month in Klyrn. “Won’t anything else satisfy you?”

“But you hate Klyrn.”

“I like The Diamond!”

“It’s a few notches better than your hospital, or the other brothels of Duremar, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Andercruik’s estate on that soaring island.”

“Yes, brother, but we both know you’re into the architecture, when you’re not into the anatomy of the cute ones on staff, and I’m all about the amenities.”

“Who says there won’t be amenities?”

“In Vanoor?”

“Why would I go back there?” scowled Nine Tails. “Returning to my stomping grounds only means a revival of old habits. I’m done with killing.”

“Are you done with pay? With money?”

“You know me so well,” smirked Nine Tails. “I may entertain a job or two, just to keep my hand in. I see myself becoming a bit of a hobbyist.”

“A murder hobbyist?”

“You’re right,” he mused, “better to call myself a consultant, even if I’m doing all the heavy lifting. Whatever it takes.”

“Whatever for?”

“From here on out, it’s nothing but travel and deluxe accomodations for us.”

“But not Vanoor?”

“No.”

Turning to a mirror inset in silver-chased wood that ran the hall’s length, Lady Honor leaned in, pretending to attend to some blemish while she examined reflected passersby. “Don’t look now,” she murmured. “I may owe you an apology.”

There they were, seated on ottomans clustered around a tea table, chattering away with bursts of musical laughter as if they hadn’t narrowly escaped their own murders mere months ago. Except Secely, whose hooded, smocked head presented such a mummified appearance that she looked more like one about to check into a mausoleum than a hotel.

Not only had Nine Tails not smiled so broadly since sailing from Vanoor, he puffed up proudly, as if he had laid them there like so many eggs. Then his smile dipped cruel and low, his eyebrows knitted in a wry scowl, and he skulked to just behind Secely’s chair.

While Lady Honor bore no pity for her, when her brother loomed over the miller, she felt a fluttering in her guts. If he had wanted to negotiate, he would not choose the wounded one for his prank.As she waited for the slaughter to unfold, she leaned against a pillar.

When Haran, Micheren, and Arami laid eyes on Nine Tails, their faces seemed to shrink, their jaws drooped morosely, and their skin whitened, until Micheren was white as paper, but streaked by veins bluer than ink, and even the darker complexions of Haran and Arami seemed flecked by flour.

Although Secely droned on, she labored through, as if she only talked with some difficulty around lisped and rounded words. “To sum up,” she said, “the advantages to moving on are numerous, while the arguments against staying in Klyrn or returning to Vanoor are many. Not only is a Grand Exhibition now taking place in Ardem, but the contracts are lucrative, and there will be no end of clients.”

Nine Tails’s smug rejoinder was fat with gloating: “Numerous advantages, lucrative contracts, and endless clients. A great place for a hired killer. Sign me up.”

When Secely gripped the arms of her chair, Nine Tails laid one hand on her shoulder, and her rising motion stopped with a clatter of the chair’s legs.

“Leave us!” screeched Micheren. The tiny tanner’s voice seemed to split the room. “I’ll call the guard.”

“What guard?” While Nine Tails phrased the question innocently, he took a step back from Secely’s chair. “I see no defenders.”

“There are hundreds in earshot.”

“All of whom are too tired, preoccupied, or cowardly to care about themselves, let alone you.”

“Kill us then!” Micheren shouted. Secely screamed, Haran wailed, and Arami grabbed the tea kettle, although to Lady Honor, it seemed more like he meant to run away with it than use it for a missile. When Nine Tails made no move, Micheren sneered and leaned back in his chair.

“Don’t get comfy, skin trader,” said Nine Tails.

“Say what you came to say, assassin.”

“No tea? I expect hostility from fellow Vanoori, but I thought Haran and Arami had better upbringing.”

“You poisoned Perida,” said Haran. While the coffee roaster couldn’t make eye contact, his lip quivered, and his nostrils jetted air in outrage.

“Should I have asked her to eat a stiletto?”

“There is no hospitality for the poison giver,” said Arami. While he lifted watery eyes to Nine Tails, his face was creased with bitter anger, and his tone was almost apologetic.

“I see,” said Nine Tails, with a tsk tsk tsk. “Your vaunted Klyrnish hospitality goes up in a puff of smoke when poison is on the table.” When Lady Honor could not help rolling her eyes, Nine Tails pinked a little, no doubt hearing the flat stupidity in his insipid attempt at sarcasm.

“And Vanoori light their homes with cow fat, and grow wheat from manure!” When they squared off each other, the deadly assassin looked no less ridiculous than the puffed-up, posturing bookbinder, for though the latter would not last one second against her brother, in descending to name calling, Nine Tails looked more the fool than the bookworm. Expecting to intimidate his quarries, Nine Tails had been baited into a verbal squall.

“Brother, what did you have in mind?”

“Honestly, I wasn’t sure.”

“Surely you don’t expect to honor Andercruik’s contract.”

“Why not?”

“Well, he’s dishonorable.”

“Two wrongs don’t make a right.” The assassin snorteed with derision. “And what of my to-do list? Should they never get scratched out?”

“Brother, I have an idea that might satisfy your...well, I can’t call it honor. I know you too well. It’s spite that drives you,” said Lady Honor.

“So what if it is?”

“Who am I to judge? After so many days in Klyrn with my brother, I begin to empathize with your point of view. It may be a small, bounded point of view, contracted to a petty perspective, but having my own irritant in recent days has helped. As my red and puffy eyes are now as squinty as yours, we are now eye to eye.” She turned to the merchants and fixed them all with a contemptuous glare. “Your lives for Caldur’s.”

“No!” said Haran and Arami as one.

“Are you in earnest?” Micheren leaned forward with his hands clapped together, as if in rapt contemplation of the offer. As if it was a new contract to table, sign, and solemnize with a seal.

When Secely said nothing, and knotted her arms together in a tight clasp, Lady Honor looked down her nose with a sneer.

“Why not?”

“It may be all the same to you,” said Micheren, “but you are party to no contract.”

“Only the accident of birth,” said Lady Honor, “and that longest and most tangled of bonds, the ties of family. No matter how often I wish it were otherwise, Nine Tails is my brother, and, more to the point, I am his sister. As he has always looked up to me--another accident of birth, in more than one way--I can swear to his keeping his word in such an agreement.”

“Sister,” Nine Tails snarled, “until now, you have never presumed so much.”

“Much? I see nothing but little causes here. If a coffee roaster, a bookbinder, a miller, and a tanner are of such small account that no hero will come to their rescue, why should an assassin lay them low?”

“Must you advocate for the flies, when I am a sworn flyswatter?” grumbled Nine Tails.

“Flies?” said a new voice. “Where?” A youngish woman, clad in the ocean blue trimmed with sky blue that marked her as hotel staff, set down a tray of thin, papery wood on which rested a clay pot and six cups. “Not in The Diamond,” she added proudly.

“Six cups?” Nine Tails had a quizzical expression. “When did you order this?”

“Not I,” Micheren leaned back, then, as if lured in by the steaming tea, bobbed forward, dropped a dollop of cream into a cup, pinched a sugar cube in, then stirred it with a spoon. Once again reclining, very carefully so as not to spill his brimful tea, he eyed Nine Tails. “It’s such a good idea that surely none of us thought of it,” he chuckled grumpily. “It must be gratis.”

“Free tea?” scowled Haran. “Last week, sea serpents blocked this harbor, and right now, pound for pound, tea costs more than gold.” He eyed Nine Tails with a suspicious grin. “Are you poisoning us, Nine Tails?”

Nine Tails rubbed his chin. “I follow your train of thought, coffee man, and admit it’s reasonable. As I dislike sharing my tea time, and serving poison is a great way to take cowards unawares, I’ve poisoned more people than I’ve entertained. While none have willingly braved my blade, many have happily downed my tasty cordials.”

“I see,” said Haran. “So if I drink this tea, I’ll save you the fatigue of chasing me.”

“Well, yes, if I had poisoned you.”

“That would leave your sister.”

“Lady Honor is a Brynnelmark,” said Nine Tails stiffly. “Would you be so kind as to retract that statement?”

“Consider me chastised.” Haran’s low but sharp murmur was less apologetic than sarcastic. “And surprised.”

“If you would know the giver, pose your question to the staff,” said Lady Honor.

“Even if what you say is true,” said Haran, “I still say the tea is poisoned.”

“Nonsense.” Stooping to prepare his own tea, Nine Tails added no sugar and only a thin stream of cream.

“You’d gamble your life?”

“What are the stakes? The tanner already downed his cup.” The assassin nodded at Micheren, who set his cup down with a clatter, then leaned back with a satisfied smile. By now, his leaning in and out began to seem a feature of the ottoman, as if it was some kind of Klyrnish jack-in-the-box.

“It’s delicious.” Secely had lowered her scarf, the better to touch her bluish, bruised lips to the teacup rim.

“May I be blunt?” Haran glowered at Lady Honor.

“No. You’re free to speak your piece, but be polite.”

“I’m guessing you were more nurse than warrior.”

“I know my way around a sword,” she growled, “I can show you the way, if you want.”

“It’s just that you’re short for a Brynnelmark.”

“Is that so,” laughed Lady Honor. “You’re the right size for a coffin.”

“Will you be putting me there? I don’t think your brother will be in any condition.” Haran’s face was moist with sweat, and his wide eyes trembled.

“What is wrong with you?”

“Other than the assassin doubling down on our contract? I might complain about the poisoning of my friends.”

“He said he hadn’t done that.”

“It’s the one who served our tea,” said Haran. “While out shopping for cyanide with a thought to ending our feud with Andercruik, I saw her there. Not that she was browsing, like me. No, she was behind the counter, weighing and packaging my purchase.”

“Maybe her sister,” said Nine Tails. “Or, literally, any other Klyrnish lady. All these Klyrnish look alike to me, you know. As you can see, it’s not cyanide, I’m perfectly...” His sudden wheeze sounded not like the ragged, suffering breath of those dying by degrees, but a constricted snuffle, then a suffocated death rattle.

Fear rose for her brother, but her Brynnelmark training rose faster, snipped the fear short, and drew herself so tight that she felt herself to be in the hospital, her days at Klyrn more dream than memory. When Nine Tails swayed, she clasped him to herself, and when he slumped, a dead weight, she hoisted him over her shoulder.

“Help her,” she barked, for Secely’s slump was so liquid that she slid from the seat to the floor, and her head slapped the carpet.

“There’s no use,” said Haran. “Not if it’s cyanide.”

“It’s not cyanide, fool,” she said. “Do they look dead? It’s much slower, and much, much worse, as much punishment as assassination.”

“Then I was right.”

“Is this you helping?” When Lady Honor turned Nine Tails onto his back, they hurriedly flopped the other victims face up. “I suppose I should have been paying attention. Tell me about this killer?”

“She bagged my order.”

“You’re being coy.”

“I’m not.” His chin dropped and lilted there, as if afraid to close.

“Tell me where you were.”

“The assassin’s guild.”

“This you’re to blame!” she yelled.

“How is it my fault?”

“You beat around the bush while your friends drank poison.”

“Put yourself in my shoes!” he wailed. “Imagine you weighed coffee, not bodies, and he was not your brother, but your death. I could barely breathe.”

“Quiet,” she said. “Guard the door.”

“With what sword?”

“Oh, pick up your spine. I know you’re a coward. Just watch the door, and tell me when they come.”

“Who?”

“The assassins! They’ll want to finish the job.”

“You mean Nine Tails. Why should they care about us?”

“You had best leave then. They won’t discriminate between witnesses and targets.”

“I’ll do it,” said Arami glumly. “Try to help her.” Then the bookbinder strode over to the door, peeked both ways down the hallway, and leaned against the jamb.

Lady Honor seethed. “If all your coffee-fuelled cowardice can do is run, then run, Haran.” At his confused, hurt look, she lowered her sarcastic pitch. “Bring me the old, heavyset Vanoori at the pool.”

“But the assassins...”

“Won’t be coming from the pool, will they?”

As the sharp-tongued but yellow-spined merchant hastened into the hall, Lady Honor bent over Micheren. His breath was so faint that she did not feel it on her cheek, and had to turn a little farther before his exhalation tickled her ear. The tanner’s eyelids were tight as drawn sheets, and whiter than the miniature ivory animals decorating the Diamond. His mouth foamed a telltale yellow, indicating one of two kindred poisons: iutelia, a narcotic only lethal in doses larger than an ounce, a copious quantity that would settle like dust in a teacup; and, evernel, so much deadlier that a droplet on the tip of a pin served for a local anesthetic, or, diluted in drink, was a somnific, hypnotic, and hallucinogenic of such strength that users knew not whether they dreamed or lived, and told of years passing under a night’s influence, while mourning phantom spouses, spectral children, illusory property, and ghostly wealth. More than that likewise brought uncanny dreams, but nine times out of ten they ran their course in minutes, causing cardiac arrest or the sudden paralysis of the lungs, in the intense fright brought on by lifelike nightmares.

For fear of losing the trust of their clients, the Brynelmark had kept secret a cruel but redemptive property of the toxic herb, for not all would agree that since even unendurably bitter suffering must end, it was preferrable to death. Nonetheless, even swine that liked to wallow in their own pain would eventually seek recourse in the most brutal remedies. And the Brynnelmark liked to be the only ones to dole it out; it fit with their self-image of being sadistic miracle workers.

Taking the teapot in one hand, and Nine Tails’s chin in the other, she squeezed his lips open and poured the steaming tea down his gullet until he convulsed in her grasp, flopping back to the floor, his head thudding on the carpet, his arms flailing, and streams of tea streaked with viscous white puke flooding his hair and the rug. Even a half-teaspoon of Evernelwas a powerful emetic, producing such instantaneous purging that it was its own best cure in the moments after being poisoned.

As Nine Tails was young and strong, less than half the pot brought on violent vomiting. Turning to the two merchants, she cursed the quiet gods for such a choice, and trickled the remaining tea down Secely’s throat.

When the miller gasped and puked, flecking Lady Honor’s fingernails with vomit, the Brynnelmark dropped her with disgust, and the gagging merchant rolled against Nine Tails, where they wriggled against each other like earthworms pulled from under a rock.

When Micheren shuddered and lay still, his face was wracked with an oddly sarcastic smile. While Secely was of an indeterminate age, now even harder to guess from her many contusions, Micheren was, without a doubt, old. While being a tanner had preserved him, so that to an untrained eye his corpse might suggest an untimely death, Lady Honor knew from the subtle signs of hidden years, such as the gray roots of dyed hair, the age spots along his neck which he had not masked with make-up, and his shrivelled, arthritic hands, that he was thirty years older than he presented to the world. Not only would such an elderly patient not react to the remedy, but the cure might have proved as fatal as the poison.

With a snarl of disgust, Lady Honor clutched the puke-soiled, writhing Nine Tails under his armpits and hoisted him over his shoulder. While she was a few inches taller, twenty pounds heavier, and more muscular of limb, he was a weighty burden, and she staggered momentarily before finding a slightly wider footing. His still-thrashing poisoned throes, flailing arms, and kicking feet so seemed to be splashing their way, that whether toward life or death, he looked in a hurry to get there.

“While I like you speechless, brother,” she grunted, “I prefer your pithy epigrams to this constant whining that will be the death of us both.”

Haran ran back so pell-mell that he nearly choked himself on Arami’s arms propped on the doorway, but seeing the bookbinder just in time, he ducked as he flung himself breathlessly in the room. “What are you hiding?” he shouted.

“Where’s Jeor?” she barked, tottering towards the doorway.

“Your Vanoori was not there, as you know full well.”

“I don’t like you,” said Lady Honor, “but better to put a fool to use than none at all. Arami, make way.”

When Secely wailed with terror and agony, the Klyrnish merchants ran to her.

“I wouldn’t move Nine Tails if I didn’t have to,” said Lady Honor. “Leave her there.”

“Poor Micheren.” Arami kneeled by the dead tanner. “What did you do?”

Ignoring him, Lady Honor staggered into the hall, then headed for the pool. Not only were assassins sure to be stationed at The Diamond’s lobby and doors. but if Jeor could vanish from the pool, anyone could do it. Reluctantly, she began to revise her low estimation of Andercruik’s former guardmaster. Not only was he smarter than he looked, but adept at dissumlation, having for his model Leonidas, an infamous master of treachery. That said, Jeor was so accustomed to following orders and being a second in the shadows, that she was certain that the plot was not his own idea. If a better traitor had sent Jeor to gain Lady Honor’s confidence, she should be on the alert everywhere in The Diamond, for his co-conspirator no doubt idled close at hand.

Reaching the pool with her sick, deathly burden, whose throes had subsided into groaning, she passed countless sunbathers before one shifted onto her stomach, glanced upward, shrieked, and scampered for the exit on all fours. The other poolside idlers, roused, ran after her, trailing and draping their covers onto sunlit stone, so that the human swarm thronging the exits was half-naked or completely bare. <

“This is no plague,” she called, “but poison.” While that knowledge might calm a reasonable mob, they only mobbed the exits with more savagery, leaving Lady Honor to sway under her groaning burden as she eyed first the skylight, then the walls. While there was no approach to the skylight window short of becoming a fly, along the walls were bathrooms and the servants’ door, which Lady Honor had until that moment presumed locked, for it had attracted only a few cowards that wrung at its handle feebly before joining the throng crushing the halls.

While hundreds had been enjoying the vast pool, the exits would no doubt clear in under a minute. Nagged by the thought that she could not spare that precious minute, Lady Honor set Nine Tails none too gently in a chaise longue, then turned to the door. Having forced the doors of lunatics, addicts, potential suicides unable to come to grips with their diagnoses, and other stubborn patients whom she had nursed by the kindly application of brute force, Lady Honor now had a preferred method for opening a door. By no means original, it was nonetheless noteworthy for being highly effective. While taller and weightier nurses could simply stomp doors flat, Lady Honor--who looked down on most men and women, but was the smallest and lightest Brynnelmark by far--exploited the momentum of her trim, sinewy physique. Having backpedaled to the rim of the pool, she charged, turning her face at the last moment, as well as the shoulder that burst the wood, snapped the lock, and buckled the door inward.

While intense pain rippled from the giantic bruise pooling even now under her robe, it was nothing she had not suffered before, and Lady Honor shrugged it off, turning to Nine Tails—who teetered at such a steep slant to the floor that he might collapse at any moment, but somehow, miraculously, on his feet.

“Annacia?” he murmured. That Nine Tails never used her birth name was instant evidence of how far gone he still was. “Why are you...Where is Andercruik?”

“We’re in Klyrn, Salus,” she whispered back, grasping his forearms in a tight clench that she instantly regretted for being too violent, having intended it as an embrace. “Why would Andercruik be here?”

“This is his madness, Annacia,” said Salus. “Not ours. You should know better than to use my name. Andercruik would learn who we were and where we were born.”

“Andercruik is the emperor’s prisoner, and no one is listening.”

“Find him!” When Nine Tails’s face set in its familiar scowl, a rippling wave of nausea that disturbed this grim expression. “He’ll kill father.”

“He already did, Salus.” She shook him gently. “You’ve been poisoned. Do you want your revenge? Shake it off.”

“Is it slow and sweet, Annacia? Tell me he isn’t dead yet.”

“I wish I could.” With all the heart left to her, Lady Honor wished it so. Salus was all she had left.

“Does he know?”

“How could he?” said Lady Honor. “I’m the only one you’ve told. If we die here in Klurn, no one will ever know.”

“Klyrn?” He wiped his mouth and eyes. “This...this...this is The Diamond.” He turned about, swaying as he took it in. “I like it here. Why are we leaving?”

“Assassins, Nine Tails.” She surveyed him head to toe. While his leery swaying inspired no confidence, he had found his footing for the moment. It couldn’t be much worse, but it would have to do. “But you’ll be the death of me,” she grumbled, then pulled him through the servant’s door and down a long hall lit by gaslamps.

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