The Past, the Present, and Azren
It had been two days since their arrival at Duradune, and already Cahrin felt back to her old self.
She glanced in the mirror. The color had returned to her face. Her energy was improving, and in her own unbiased assessment, she was in a very good mood.
She stretched as she got out of bed. Another midday nap to regain her strength. This life she lived with the ghasiv—what a tenderfoot she’d become. If Pa’hu could see her now, he would surely disapprove.
She sighed at the thought of Pa’hu. She would trade a lifetime of these ghasiv comforts for a week in the harsh beauty of Ked’coon with her spirit mate.
“At least I am not as lazy as you,” she admonished Norweegee. When he wasn’t begging for food, the little pink beast was perpetually curled up in sleep, today on the corner of the bed.
A knock at the door turned out to be Zeph. She did not remember inviting him to her quarters.
He was smiling like the village idiot. “Ready to feast like fifty cannibals locked in a cabin?”
It can’t be that time already. She glanced down at her morning robe in frustration.
“Do I look ready?”
She slammed the door in his face, then called through. “Don’t you know a rhetorical question when you hear one?”
On further reflection, she decided, she was in a relatively good mood.
“I’ll, um, meet you downstairs,” Zeph mumbled from the other side.
She considered going dressed like she was. She was a Northerner, not some lady of court, and she would not apologize for that. Then again, she did not want to offend their gracious host. She picked out the least formal dinner attire she felt would be appropriate.
“You, stay,” she instructed Norweegee. As if I have to tell him that.
Daen and Zeph were waiting outside the dining hall so they could enter together when she arrived. The master of the castle was sitting at the head of the table. He rose at their entrance while dismissing all formalities.
“Please, no one is obligated to bow in my presence—except maybe Trudor, and that’s just because I like torturing him.”
Trudor, who stood against the wall fidgeting, gave a short bow in response. “It is my honor to show the utmost in respect, my lord.”
“And mine to receive it,” said Lord Berrian with mock seriousness. “Now, shall we dine?”
Before anyone could respond, a finely groomed boy of twelve or thirteen years burst into the room, panting. “My lord, some strangers are in the courtyard below. They have your daughter.”
Cahrin noticed the lord’s expression slip—could that be disappointment?—before he recovered. “Send them in. Now we truly will have a feast.” He clapped his hands and sent a message to the cook that the dining party would be larger than expected.
The boy returned with four persons in tow. To Cahrin’s great pleasure, she recognized two of them, a one-handed dogar—the dependable Selgrin—and her dear friend Copius. The other guests were a handsome blond woman and a hooded man dressed in all black.
Lord Berrian rose to embrace his daughter. “My Abigail.”
“Father,” she replied. The embrace was short but showed genuine affection. She motioned toward her companions. “These are my friends who rescued me.”
Lord Berrian thanked Copius, waving aside his attempts to show fealty. When he came to Selgrin, his manner was less amicable, despite Selgrin’s polite and overstated bow.
“A dogar,” he intoned without enthusiasm. “Unusual friends you’ve made, Abigail.”
“Unusual circumstances they were, Father.”
The dark-clad stranger, introduced as Raven, failed to show the lord any outward respect.
“I did not rescue your daughter,” he said coldly. “I’m here because I have business to discuss.”
Lord Berrian didn’t miss a beat. “Very well, then. You too are invited to dine with us, though I do ask to see the faces of the guests who sit at my table.”
Without a word, Raven pulled back his cowl, revealing a mutilated visage. It reminded Cahrin of the face of her cousin after he had been mauled by a bear. The ice of the mountain had kept him preserved for three days until they found him.
The lord took a quick inward breath. “May Brekad have mercy,” he whispered.
“Would you prefer I put it back on?” asked Raven without a hint of emotion.
“Yes, uh, perhaps since we’ll be eating, that would be best.” Lord Berrian looked from one newcomer to another. “Please, all of you join in our feast. We celebrate my Abigail’s return. But first, let us become acquainted . . .” His throat caught.
Cahrin was giving Copius a light kiss on the cheek while Daen and Zeph locked hands to forearms with Selgrin.
“I take it some of you already know each other,” said the lord, as they took their seats.
“Seems like a lifetime ago we were on some Alliance missions together, save for Sir Dark and Brooding.” Zeph yanked a thumb in Raven’s direction. “Who knows what he was up to.”
“Any adventures worth sharing?” asked Lord Berrian.
“There was one . . .” Zeph began. Cahrin saw Daen shoot him a look that neither he nor Lord Berrian appeared to notice.
“Do tell, do tell.”
“It was our last mission together,” Zeph said, leaning into the table. His voice took on an ominous tone. “An uncharacteristically cold spring had blanketed the land, and—”
“Please, Zeph,” Cahrin said. She knew they would be here all night if he continued with his typical embellishment. Besides, this was not a tale one told in all its gory detail. “Let me tell it.”
“If you insist. But I warn you, Lord Berrian, it’s about to get a lot less interesting.”
“At least it will be accurate,” she said. “The Council Head—Tupilid was his name—asked us to investigate a number of disappearances. There was no special urgency to the matter. It was routine, I would say.”
“Or appeared that way at the time,” added Daen.
“If I may,” said Lord Berrian, “this Tupilid, wasn’t he murdered? Quite a scandal, as I recall.”
Zeph quickly answered. “There’s a story to that—”
She cut him off once again. “If only we were not currently in the middle of another. Tupilid was found dead the very next day, but by then we were already on our mission, unaware of the treachery.”
She took a sip of wine before continuing.
“We arrived at our destination, and despite many hours of searching and questioning no one knew how these people had vanished or had seen anything unusual. One of our party left after dark to do her own investigating. She did not return.” Poor Elise. She’d done her best to tell it delicately, knowing Daen blamed himself for her death.
“Did she ever turn up?” asked the lord.
She nodded. “On the following morning, we found her lifeless in a nearby cavern along with these filthy creatures of death. They were . . . everywhere.” She felt weak just thinking of it. “We retreated, returning later with the local militia, but the undead were nowhere to be found. After many days without further disappearances or traces of the living dead, we gave up and reported our findings to the Council. It was the worst of our missions. A comrade had died, and we were left with more questions than answers.”
That wasn’t the whole story or even the whole truth. Elise had still been alive when they showed up, and the details of her death were so harrowing that Cahrin wished never to speak of it again.
“There was more to it than that,” said Daen.
She looked up in surprise. “Perhaps it is best we leave it be.”
But he seemed determined to get it off his chest. “The body of our dead companion vanished with the undead. We never had the chance to give her a departing ceremony—to say farewell. In fact, until recently I believe this is the first any of us have seen of each other since then.”
Quiet pervaded the dining hall until their host announced, “Then tonight we will feast to more than one reunion.”
One course after another arrived at the table, each more exotic than the last. As tantalizing as the food was, Cahrin had trouble putting aside those terrifying memories of the past to enjoy herself. It wasn’t until Zeph’s boisterous retelling of his assassination attempt of Daen, followed by her so-called rescue, that she felt some cheer creep in.
“ . . . and then I said to him,” Zeph split a wine-induced grin, “you’re too far forward. A near-sighted cyclops could spot you.” He burst into laughter at his own wit.
Daen smiled weakly. “I remember the details somewhat differently, but the story proves one thing: the Council is as corrupt as it ever was.”
“There you go again, jumping to conclusions,” said Zeph.
“And how would you explain their actions?”
“Misinformed, confused—too much Levarian wine, if I had to guess. That stuff is known to have long-term effects.”
“They seemed in their right minds to me,” said Selgrin.
Cahrin set down her utensils abruptly. “Who cares about the Council? It is the appearance of the man in gray, the servant of Azren, we should be worried about.”
Their host looked uncomfortable. “How do you know that man serves Azren?”
“He said so himself. Back when I was with my people, he came to them and offered an alliance with his master.”
“But Azren’s death has been well documented,” Lord Berrian said. “This talk is preposterous.”
She was about to respond angrily when they were interrupted for the clearing of dishes to make room for the next course.
Lord Berrian’s contentious expression turned to a smile as he rubbed his hands together excitedly. “Ah, you are all in for a special treat. We conclude this evening with a delightful beef custard, followed by a berry tart.”
“Sounds delicious,” said Daen. “I only hope our visit does not deplete your stores.”
“There is always a full pantry at Duradune. The caravans know what I like, and they stop here often. I restocked recently courtesy of a PIKE caravan.”
“Is that so?” asked Lady Abigail.
“It is indeed. Rives, the head of the PIKE merchant consortium, stopped by personally to give his regards,” said Lord Berrian.
“Rives,” Lady Abigail repeated with dread. She described an incident on the road during which Rives had sliced off the ear of a Heavy. Even for a ghasiv, Cahrin thought, it was atrocious behavior. “He’s a beast,” Lady Abigail continued. “I would not have him at my table.”
Lord Berrian held up a finger reproachfully. “You should do well to consider where your next meal comes from before you make such a statement, my dear.”
“Really. Father, even you would not stoop to such levels.”
“Perhaps not. But our position is far from certain. We must walk carefully and take advantage of opportunities as they arise.”
The tension between them hung for a moment until Copius blurted, “But what’s this about the Gems of Tazanjia?”
The details of Rives’s discarded note poured forth, and Lord Berrian weighed in. “Those gems are more myth than legend,” he said. “Kalendistrafous prophesied they would help win us the Great War, and yet they were never found. Why anyone thinks they would turn up now is beyond me, though I have to admit if someone were to lay their hands on the gems, they’d be worth half the coin in the Western Kingdoms—for sentiment, if nothing else.”
Cahrin often felt left out in conversations about ghasiv history. She had not heard of these Gems of Tazanjia, and might have questioned the others for more information if weariness had not outweighed her curiosity.
Servants came in carrying what looked like a pie, bubbling with brown goodness. The lord closed his eyes and breathed in the aroma. “I promise you will have difficulty keeping your bellies from overflowing with this delicacy.”
The servants carved up small portions and delivered a piece to each guest.
“Does your library contain any lore on the gems?” asked Daen as a slice of meat custard was placed in front of him.
“It’s a modest library, I’m afraid. If you’re keen for details, you would be better off searching the archives of one of the realm capitals. Perhaps you can become a historian on the subject,” he jested.
“This really is good,” said Zeph, still chewing.
“I would serve nothing less,” said Lord Berrian, obviously taking great satisfaction in his guests’ enjoyment. “Tell me, Zeph, what brings you to Duradune?”
“After rescuing Cahrin from a Yridark prison, we were looking for a place for her to recover.”
“Oh, please.” Cahrin refused to play the maiden in distress. “You call that a rescue?”
“Still in denial.” Zeph shook his head. “I’m just saying, if it weren’t for us, you would have had a second smile a boot could fit through.”
“I never asked for your help.”
“Maybe if you didn’t get all angry-eyed after seeing that servant of Azren, you wouldn’t have needed it.”
Lord Berrian broke up the dispute with a good-natured chuckle. “Don’t tell me you too subscribe to this naïve fantasy that Azren lives?”
“There have been rumors of his second coming for years,” Zeph replied. “It’s said his keep in the northwest remains occupied and any who go there never return.”
“You talk like a scared kitten, Zeph. There hasn’t been a peep from the north since—since Azren was mortally wounded during the Great War. That was over forty years ago. Even if he had somehow survived, he would be a harmless old man by now.”
“Azren survives,” an impassive rumble came from the other end of the table, “and he is as deadly a foe as you will ever meet.” They were the only words Raven had spoken since he had been seated—and to Cahrin, the most startling of the night.
“You know, when I was a boy,” Lord Berrian said, “I swore there were hideous creatures hiding under my bed.”
Typical ghasiv. Were Lord Berrian a Northerner, he would have simply called Raven a liar. The hooded stranger did not appear offended. Instead, he went back to eating as if he couldn’t care less if Lord Berrian or anyone else believed him.
Cahrin spoke softly, as the night of feasting had worn her out. “I, for one, would like to hear how you know Azren is alive.”
The table quieted except for the sound of Raven scraping the last remnants of food from his plate. He did not seem to recognize that all eyes were upon him.
Lord Berrian cleared his throat. “My dear,” he said, addressing her, “no one can be certain of these claims. It is rumor and conjecture—and fear—that prevails.”
Raven slid his chair back and rose, removing his hood once more to reveal red gouges that still looked fresh and painful. “I know he lives because I have been to his keep. I have seen him with my own eyes. It was Azren’s hands that forged this face. And it’s I alone who will deliver him to death’s door.” Most unnerving was the cold-blooded gaze Raven gave to each one of them in turn, as if daring them to show disbelief—no, to show compassion. “It is time for me to take my leave. Lord Berrian, I must speak with you alone. Where may I await an audience?”
Cahrin sat back, stunned into silence by Raven’s announcement. They all were. Someone who had seen Azren in the living flesh since his presumed death. It was unheard of.
After several long moments, their host ended the silence. “Trudor, find our guest a room.”
“Certainly, my lord.” Trudor bowed deeply and led Raven away.
“I too am done for tonight,” said Cahrin, using the table to help her stand. She was worn out and wanted time to think on this revelation. Lord Berrian rose politely as she started toward the exit.
“L-L-Let me walk you to your room,” said Copius.
“I can make it there myself, though I wouldn’t mind the company of an old friend.”
The lord appeared genuinely disappointed. “Will all of you leave before the berry tart is served?”
Cahrin had no desire to stuff herself further. “I’m afraid the night has sapped my strength. Lord Berrian, thank you for your hospitality.”
Copius, who had stepped back toward the dining table at Lord Berrian’s words, straightened when he realized her mind was made up. “Perhaps a midnight snack,” he said, patting his midsection.
“At your pleasure.”
With that, Cahrin proceeded to her room and blessed sleep.
Selgrin had spoken little this night. It was evident their host didn’t like him, or at least his kind. He mused over what Raven had told them: Azren, alive and well. If it was true, it would turn everything inside out. The land was still reeling from the last time Azren had waged war upon Draza. A scary thought indeed, but also an opportunity to bring humans and dogar together as allies—if it was true, and if his people didn’t make the same mistake twice. He felt a flush of urgency. What if Azren is currying the dogar’s favor right now while I sit around feasting?
“All this talk of Azren has got me thinking,” he began, eager to voice his thoughts. “If he is alive, there is one place he’d make his presence known. It’s the dogar capital, Feralintero.”
He had been longing to return to the city where he was born. Now he had more than a reason; it was an imperative.
“Enough already,” said Lord Berrian. “There has been no inkling of Azren in forty years. To think he would suddenly show up in Feralintero is foolishness.”
“In the last war,” said Selgrin. “Azren recruited the dogar because of our special talents. If it’s war he wants, he’ll ask for our help again.”
Zeph kicked his legs up on the table. “Sel’s got a point, and I’m not just talking about the end of his nose.”
“Please, Zeph, even supposing there’s some truth to the Azren rumors, you will not satisfy your curiosity there,” said Lord Berrian. “My land is physically closer to Feralintero than any other. From experience, I’ll tell you that the dogar do not take kindly to outsiders coming to their city. You wouldn’t get within a spear-length of the outer wall.”
Selgrin had similar worries; not so, Daen.
“My respects, Lord Berrian, but they cannot stop us. The Treaty of Vermouth, which the dogar signed after the war, states they can no longer keep their cities free from humans.”
“Then it’s settled,” said Zeph.
Lord Berrian sighed heavily. “While I think this excursion will prove fruitless, how could I undermine the wishes of one I am as fond of as my own son, as well as another who rescued my precious Abigail? If you need provisions or any other assistance, please let me know.”
Selgrin inclined his head respectfully. “I see you’re every bit as gracious as your daughter.” He felt a duty to be an ambassador for the best of his people, spreading goodwill and dispelling any mistrust the humans bore. Of course, the wariness ran both directions. Treaty or no treaty, the inhabitants of Feralintero would be less than enthusiastic to welcome outsiders. Considering the circumstances of his departure, they might not even allow him back in.
“We shall leave tomorrow,” said Daen.
“The three of us only,” added Selgrin. He figured Cahrin would benefit more from resting at Lord Berrian’s castle, and Copius would stick out more sorely than a blade of grass in No Man’s Land.
“Now, where is that tart?” Lord Berrian called out, then turned to his guests, embarrassed. “Excuse me.”
He rose and disappeared into the kitchen. Selgrin could hear his horrified gasp from the dining hall.
Selgrin rushed into the room with the others close behind. Two dazed, teary-eyed servants stood over a fallen woman the size of both of them put together.
“Felice.” Lord Berrian’s face appeared to sink in on itself.
The fallen woman’s lips were parted and held a tinge of purple. The food-stained apron she wore had ridden up to her chin.
“She shook, m’lord, all over like she had a frightful cold, then . . . fell,” said a serving girl who had swollen wet patches beneath her eyes.
Selgrin has witnessed something like this before. “I believe she was poisoned.”
On the kitchen island sat a brown-crusted dish heaped with a steaming platter of berries.
Zeph picked up the spoon lying next to it, streaked purple by recent use, then stared back at the platter. “I dunno about the rest of you, but I’m stuffed.”
Selgrin cast a sympathetic look toward the dead woman. “Ever seen someone die from poisoning? It’s a miserable way to go.”
There was a convenience to poison that made it popular in Feralintero. His own cousin had sputtered about, then keeled over on the family’s best table. When his uncle pulled the body away, a piece of bitten-off tongue had been left behind. He shuddered at the memory.
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Zeph. “If you’re going to die anyway, at least you get a final pleasant taste. Can’t say the same about being flayed to death or burnt to a crisp.”
“Zeph,” said Daen disapprovingly.
“Some berries are by their nature poisonous,” said Lord Berrian.
“My lord, you should consider the likelihood that someone was trying to kill you.”
“No, I do not believe this to be the case.” Lord Berrian set his jaw resolutely.
“Of course it’s the case,” said Zeph. “I’ve seen it before: lazy assassins trying to get the job done without getting their hands dirty.”
The lord didn’t respond, his attention fixated on his cook. “My poor Felice. Served me well for ten years.”
“We are sorry for your loss,” said Daen.
“It will be felt by all who knew her, of that I’m certain.” Lord Berrian wiped away an escaped tear before he rose and gave his guests a tight-lipped frown. “I believe this concludes our feast, though not as I had hoped.”
Not as any of them had hoped. An accident, murder—whatever it was, Selgrin did not feel safe at Duradune.
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