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Part Two: Chapter 25

Release me!

A bead of sweat formed to trickle down Baeldrin’s brow. The steadiness of his hands, normally unwavering, faltered suddenly under the strain.

The voice hissed again in his head, full of malice. You weaken, mortal. Free me of your own accord, and I shall leave this world with you unharmed. Do not, and…

No! the will of the master lashed out. You must obey. You’ve no choice. With a great effort he forced his hands still, wiped at the perspiration on his face, and continued the exercise, wide eyes returning to a tiny pebble over which he knelt. The folds of his fresh, crimson silk robe crawled the floor about him like a pool of spreading blood. A few strands of dark, slightly curling hair were matted to his face. His stare at the object of focus was intense.

Baeldrin had acquired this small stone and its mate from the librarian —yet there’d been a thing painfully lacking from that deadly transaction: knowledge of how to use them without succumbing in the process. Thus today (and not for the first time) he’d gambled with his very life in a venomous spirit’s presence, armed only with what insight he’d gleaned from observing the sorceress’ control of her own incorporeal minions…and caution…and, hopefully, an ocean of luck. Each time he released one of his pair—and only one, for to do otherwise at this point would be a monumental folly—he held it a bit longer than before and became a bit more comfortable with the invader of his mind. It was but a matter of time. Soon, he told himself, having learned by trial and error how to separate private thought from a sending. Soon you’ll cease to squirm. Both of you. Then my security will be complete.

In the end you shall fail, the alien voice came again, unbidden.

Had the specter heard him after all? A hole in my shielding? Baeldrin’s stare shifted to the wispy form before him. He knew it’d taken shape from dust in the air: drawn and shaped by the soul to a likeness of the flesh that’d once housed it. The figure’s appearance was that of a young man, naked, slender on the verge of emaciation. Unblinking, otherworldly eyes narrowed angrily as the prince’s gaze found them. The thing’s mouth was fixed in a scowl. Its arms were folded about its chest, hugging itself as if the room were somehow frigid.

There came a knock at the door.

“I said no disturbances!” shouted Baeldrin, not daring to take his eyes from the spirit. A break in concentration here could be lethal.

After a moment’s delay, the posted guard returned some near-unintelligible response, and Baeldrin thought that might be the end of the potential intrusion. It wasn’t.

“I’ve traveled too fast and too far, prince,” came another voice then, loud, on the border of anger itself, “…to be detained. Don’t you agree?”

Nephos Zera. The Mardothan ambassador. Expected, but not this early. Fast indeed. “One moment.”

Baeldrin focused all his thought on the focus object. Cold sweat threatened a return to his brow. Then somehow, all of a sudden, it was done. The phantom was banished again to the stone, and the stone was snatched up and concealed. Relinydd’s self-proclaimed liberator stood and, releasing a long breath, faced the door, trying to summon a measure of composure. “You may enter.”

Zera did so at once, the double doors turning in to give way. He stopped but a few paces from Baeldrin to give his perfunctory bow; then the guard shut the doors, leaving the pair to study one another. Nephos with his usually shaven head showing stubble from the road, but otherwise appearing clean, as if he’d at least quickly washed and put on fresh clothing; the prince with his wet brow and face uncharacteristically pale. “Are you ill?” the Mardothan finally spoke at what he saw, appearing genuinely worried about Baeldrin’s not-so-well-hidden state.

“No…a late night is all,” the prince lied, waving off the Mardothan’s concern. “There’s much here that needs doing.”

“I see. For a moment I thought you might’ve taken a wound in battle.”

“Me?” Baeldrin laughed, attempting to put some emotion behind it. “I never drew my sword. The witch’s pets did the bleeding for me. I can’t risk combat at present, for too much depends on my health, eh?” Reaching then for his guest’s shoulder, he smiled and clamped down a greeting. “Let’s have a drink to it, shall we?”

Nephos appeared to like that idea. Following Baeldrin to a nearby table, he took up the decanter and offered to pour for them both. When that was done, he lifted his cup: “Baeldrin, Lord of Relinydd. Heir of Domal. To your health!” He drained his glass swiftly and set it down. If the liquor had burned his mouth, he made no sign of it.

The prince took only a sip from his cup before lowering it and moving away. The drapes to the balcony had been drawn until now, fighting against the room’s single source of sunlight, but as Baeldrin arrived at that spot he let the rays win. “Come, Nephos,” he cast a glance behind him before stepping out. “See the first fruit of our labors.”

Baeldrin had commandeered this tower room from Ranod Lorege: governor of Relinydd for many years before the battle of a few days past. In name, at least, Ranod was governor still, but he’d no longer be allowed to rule this city as a king unto his own right, parted from Rardonydd in all but the titles of tradition. The man’s life was safe—Baeldrin had pretenses to uphold as part of his plans—but that didn’t mean Lorege was entitled to sit at ease in his old apartments, living it up with his gracious conquerors. No, he was currently in the dungeon, and that was where he’d stay until Baeldrin made ready to leave. On that day of parting, Ranod would be the one to stand above the crowd in the square below this very balcony—facing the dual spires of Ophim Nuarin that’d stood there since the day of Relinydd’s birth, symbolizing the relationship between the twin cities—and there loudly proclaim the follies of himself and King Acomalath, declaring the time long overdue for a return to that original relationship in the strictest sense. What the king would do when he heard of this, or what plans he already had in motion to deal with the new power in Relinydd, Baeldrin hardly cared. Whatever your decision, Father, wise or not, your council will delay you too long in its deciding. Zera has seen to that. Our secret friends shall play their part.

The Mardothan was at his side now. “I must admit, prince…and forgive me for it…that your design for this city’s taking seemed to me nigh folly. Yet I don’t think I’ve ever been so glad to have been wrong. My congratulations to you on a brilliant victory!”

Baeldrin mused on those last two words a moment, lifting his cup again for a sip. “You should’ve been here, friend. Our fists were on the barred gates before they ever saw us. And their fear…Daemon, it was glorious to behold! Imps and goblins…ha! Fairytales come to life before their eyes! I’m surprised they didn’t just open the gates and surrender then and there.” Another sip. “If the damned Sinians hadn’t been here, they probably would’ve.”

Zera spat at the mention of his hated foes. “And what of the plainsmen? I trust you’ve made an example.”

“Oh yes. One thing I must give them: they’re not cowards. They could’ve fled easily enough, leaving the natives to their own—but they didn’t. A runner or two perhaps, to bring tidings to their king. Otherwise most died, with but a few of their wounded left for us to corral. Saedus’ ghoul alone must’ve slain two score of their best, just while my gaze fell on him. He’s quite the savage.”

Nephos frowned. His question wasn’t fully answered. “So what was done to the captives?” The Mardothan’s hatred of Sinia ran deep.

“Those who could stand? Stripped and beaten in the square. Like dogs.”

A smile. “Fitting indeed! And the natives who resisted?”

“Already released. Freed, if you will, from the taint of those foreigners. Our propaganda shall be fetters enough for them, at least for some time. And Lorege will remain faithful after we’ve gone. Valreecius shall see to that.”

“I’m impressed.”

Baeldrin looked as if he’d speak again—but suddenly his face turned to the sky, and he fell silent.

“What bothers you?” asked Zera after a moment, conscious of the change in his host.

“Saedus, Argen Van, Dragan…what’s there not to trouble me?” He pulled his eyes and thoughts from the clouds, focusing once more on his guest. “We have control over our part in this, Nephos. But the others…” He left the rest unsaid, keeping his sideways gaze locked on the shorter man beside him.

The Mardothan thought on that for a few breaths. “I can’t speak as to your kin, but I’ll venture it of Van. He’s no stranger to deception, surely—you and your patroness have greatly profited from that. But I’ve known Argen half my life…”

“You misunderstand,” said Baeldrin, cutting off the Mardothan’s argument before it’d rightly begun. “Not treachery. Idleness and incompetence…these are the things I fear now. Van presented us an opportunity by forcing himself on King Oen’s daughter—but that was an act to your people’s disliking, however much pride prevents them from admitting it. Berac didn’t want war with Sinia, even from the start. And certainly not now. Am I wrong?”

“You only state what I myself have told you.”

“But what’s the man done for us since? The Spider talks to Argen now and again, so she says, through some damned sorcery she thrust on him years ago. But to my knowledge they aren’t doing anything. Berac still reigns…and Berac’s not under our control. I’ve only his words of faith, brought to me through lips not his own. The man should be removed…”

“Berac won’t turn on you. That’s foolishness. Anything to drive Sinia from his doorstep, he’ll do. Gladly.”

“I hope you’re right.”

“And your brother? It’s his incompetence you fear? Forgive me once more, prince, but the DoomBringer is much renowned, sorely hated though he is among my people. Surely his task isn’t beyond him?”

“If it were a trial of arms alone, he should prevail—as he always does. But I’ve seen a new thing in him now, and it’s not to my liking.” The prince’s eyes moved back to the clouds.

As nothing more on this seemed forthcoming, Zera decided it best to change the subject. “What toll did the battle take on your army?”

“With the best and brightest of Relinydd off seeking glory in your homeland, I feel somewhat shamed to report any loss at all. But as I said, the city’s veterans and the Sinian reserve made a brave showing. Casualties were considerable, but little more than we envisioned. Saedus’ monsters have served their purpose, and soon I’ll tolerate them no more.”

When the prince’s eyes came down from the sky this time, Zera saw in them that today’s meeting was at its end. The cup that Baeldrin had been nursing was suddenly taken up in earnest and drained, then its bearer turned to move back indoors. “Make yourself at home here, friend. My servants are yours—but for now I must attend to other matters.”

“Very well, prince. I take my leave…yet perhaps I can delay your troubles a bit longer.” The ambassador from Mardotha strode then to the chamber’s double doors, opened them wide, gestured to someone without, and stepped aside—and in walked a comely young woman with short, curly auburn hair. Her nose and mouth were veiled. Her body was hidden beneath a flowing black robe.

The Mardothan grinned at Baeldrin’s reaction then promptly passed through the doors and shut them behind.

The black robe slipped to the floor.

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