Chapter 46 Read Along: Tendrils of Darkness
A Precarious Plan
“Look who I brought,” Zeph announced, arriving on horseback with a darkly cloaked figure Cahrin recognized at once. “I sort of saved his life—and he, mine.”
“Raven!” Copius stood up to give greeting. “It’s g-good to have you back.”
Despite what the others thought, Cahrin had rather been hoping to see the illusionist again. She had never met a ghasiv so unflinching in his resolve.
Raven returned no pleasantries. Scanning those present, he hesitated at Biltrin. “Can he be trusted?”
Zeph leapt off and gave Biltrin a shake. “Old Biltrin here has the soldier’s code. You can trust him.”
That seemed good enough for Raven. “There is much I’ve learned since we last parted.”
As usual, he spoke without passion, but Cahrin sensed the burning desire behind his words. Raven stopped short of asking for help, but it was clear that was why he was here.
“Perhaps a trading of stories is in order,” she said.
They created a tight circle and kept their voices low while discussing what had happened since they separated. Most intriguing to Cahrin was Raven’s account of the conversation between the dogar Belatreeg and the servant of Azren.
Zeph laid his head back against interlocked fingers. “A spy in the midst of the Western Kingdoms, who would have thought.”
“Not only a spy. He’s posing as Rives, the head of PIKE,” said Raven.
The ear-carver is a dogar. Things started to fall into place for Cahrin.
“Figures,” said Selgrin. “He’s been using PIKE to help the Afflicted One all along, probably keeping him plenty flush with coin.”
Daen shifted uneasily. “The simple truth that Rives serves Azren gives credence to Biltrin’s story.”
“It certainly gives Rives a motive,” said Cahrin.
“Sure does,” agreed Zeph. “Once the Western Kingdoms and Nastadra are done beating each other to a pulp, Azren will sweep in with his armies and take over everything.”
Not unlike Clan of the Fox. Cahrin knew their strategy well. They would wait until their scouts found bodies from a recent confrontation before raiding a weakened clan.
“Then it is a good thing we are here,” said Daen. “If Biltrin tells King Reginald of Nastadra’s innocence, perhaps war can be averted.”
It was wishful thinking, in Cahrin’s opinion. “I don’t know how we’re going to convince the king to believe Biltrin’s story over the leader of the most powerful merchant consortium on Draza.”
“What reason would Biltrin have to lie?” asked Copius.
“That’s not how the king will look at it, Cope,” said Selgrin.
Zeph grinned. “What we need is the head of PIKE with his head on a spike.”
“Or Rives agreeing with Biltrin,” said Daen, nodding slowly to himself.
Now what does he have in mind? Cahrin raised an eyebrow.
Daen leaned forward and outlined the general idea. After hushed but heated debate, they hammered out the details, and all that was left was the execution.
“I see a giant hole in your plan,” Sel began, not a moment after it was finalized. “Actually, several holes, not the least of which is relying on him.” He shot a look in Raven’s direction. “It all falls apart if he doesn’t hold up his end of the bargain. And I have been betrayed by him once already.”
“I make no apologies,” Raven said. “My actions are borne out of necessity.”
“The necessity of saving your own skin.”
“I do what the weak are too fragile to accomplish and the ignorant too afraid to attempt. Not all my decisions are easy.”
For the first time that she could remember, Cahrin heard a slight semblance of emotion in his tone.
“I can’t be the only one here who doesn’t trust him.” Selgrin searched the faces of the others.
“Sel,” Cahrin spoke as delicately as she knew how. “We won’t succeed without him. Or without you, for that matter. We’re either in this together, or we stop now.”
“The One shall carry us through. I know it.” Copius dipped his head, placing a palm over the triumvirate of circles that made up his robe clasp.
Sel scowled. “Let’s pretend I’m willing to take my chances with him. How are Daen and a banged-up man-at-arms going to persuade the ruler of the Western Kingdoms to listen to them?”
“I understand the ways of royal courts,” said Daen. “I will secure an audience with King Reginald, and Biltrin will be convincing. Trust me.”
“That’s right, son of a court chamberlain,” grumbled Selgrin. “Not sure how that’s gonna help one iota here.”
“We all have our tasks.”
“Phooey, I say.” But Selgrin gave no further objection.
“So does that mean we’re set?” Zeph asked after a few moments of silence.
Cahrin had her own reservations: Once their plan was underway, there would be no opportunity to communicate with each other. Meaning if any of them failed, the rest would surely follow. But she kept quiet; this was as good a plan as any.
“There is something else,” Raven said. “The dogar spoke as if I was one of the Gems of Tazanjia. I believe we all are.”
Zeph sat upright. “We’re the gems? That doesn’t make any sense.”
“It’s not uncommon in war to use another name as a placeholder to hide a target’s identity.”
“He has a point,” said Daen. “It is basic military procedure in case messages are intercepted or conversations overheard. Only the inner circle or a crucial few would be privy to the true who or what.”
“I got it. Well, sort of. I think.” Zeph squished his lips to one side in an overly contemplative expression—not a good look for him. “So we’re the gems from Azren’s standpoint, but not the gems as far as the prophecy goes.”
“I would not be so quick to that conclusion,” Daen said. “The words of seers are mysterious by nature, even to those who say them.”
Cahrin wrapped her arms around herself against the cold and rocked gently, pondering the implication. Her people believed magic, including the foretelling of the future, to be ghasiv foolishness. And yet here she was, summoning creatures from Otherworld and traveling with earth elementalists and illusionists. But still. “What exactly are you saying, that we are the subjects of a prediction made forty years ago, simply because Azren referred to us as the gems?”
“Maybe Azren had no choice in the matter,” said Daen. “Perhaps he was fulfilling his role when he named us after them.”
“All this talk of destiny—you’re beginning to sound like Zeph.”
“Who is to say that Kalendistrafous was referring to the Great War when speaking of the gems and not this second war with Azren?” Daen’s voice was agitated. He dove into his backpack, pulling out the minstrel’s tale on the prophecy to show them. “Look here: ‘With the diamond’s beauty comes a chill that’s icy cold, but the powers held within will surely warm the soul.’ Could that not be referring to you, Cahrin?”
“Certainly not—you must be mad,” she replied. “The seer’s words are just that: words.”
If Daen was correct, it would mean the choices she had made were not choices at all. Her father’s death, her abandonment of her spirit mate—all of it—had happened because of some prophecy. She refused to believe it.
Zeph cleared his throat noisily before Daen could reply. “I hate to say it, but even a Northerner can be right some of the time. I mean, it’s not that you’re as crazy as she says, it’s just that seers don’t predict things that far in advance. A week or a month maybe, but not decades. Besides, we don’t know the whole of it, only bits and pieces spun by a bard.”
“Which is why we would do well to seek greater insight on the matter. Perhaps once we are done here, we should pay a visit to the capital of the Western Kingdoms. Dalfeyn is known to have the greatest library on Draza.”
“Or,” said Selgrin, “you could go ask Kalendistrafous about it.”
“That old coot’s still alive?” asked Zeph.
“As far as I heard. He is half dogar, you know.” Upon seeing all the slack jaws, he continued. “What? You think a human would name her son Kalendistrafous?” There was little arguing with that logic.
Copius raised a hand like a schoolboy seeking permission to speak. When all eyes turned to him, he began, “I j-just don’t understand why Azren would want us all dead.”
Sel shrugged. “Don’t know about the rest of you, but even before the Great War, I rallied dogar against him.”
“Perhaps a friend of an enemy is also an enemy,” said Cahrin. “Azren may have designs on all those you care for.”
“The Afflicted One has other reasons for wanting my demise,” said Raven.
“Don’t we all,” Selgrin said. “Anyway, I have plenty of friends who haven’t been targeted.”
“Are you sure you don’t mean acquaintances?” asked Zeph.
Selgrin shot him an angry look in return. “I have other friends.”
“Sure, if you say so, Sel,” said Zeph. “If that’s not it, could it be chance? We’re talking about Azren here. He probably tries to kill a whole bunch of people.”
“Yes, Zeph, that makes perfect sense,” answered Cahrin. “In fact, why does Azren even need an army if he could just pay assassins to kill all who oppose him?”
“Sure would make things a lot easier for him.”
Cahrin clenched her fist in frustration. Sometimes she wished she carried around a stick to crack Zeph across the head when he said something stupid.
“There seems to be no rhyme or reason to it,” said Selgrin. “A dogar, a monk of The One, a Carc assassin, a Northerner, and a sentinel from the Isle of Nalesc… I can’t figure it.”
“I think I can.” Daen fingered his chin intently. “Two years ago, we were brought before the Council of the Alliance and put on a mission of great intrigue—a mission that went terribly wrong.”
“C’mon, Daen,” said Zeph, “that had nothing to do with Azren. It may have seemed like a big deal at the time, but even you have to admit what we found never amounted to anything. Look, we all know how much you cared for Elise. It’s only natural you’d want her death to mean something—”
Daen punched the ground. “It did mean something!” His voice drew unwanted attention from nearby campsites, and he continued in a softer tone. “All of you know the truth of it, deep down. How can finding undead in the middle of Draza not be significant? The Council practically retched when they heard our account. The only way they knew how to deal with it was to ignore it. If any of you question my words, answer me this: When is the last time you were assigned to a mission with one another?”
“Not since then, but—”
Daen cut Zeph off. “Exactly, not a single instance. Too much of a coincidence, I say.”
“Maybe,” said Zeph, “I still think we should explore the theory that Azren is targeting friends of Sel. Truth be told, we have no proof that Sel has any friends besides us, and I’m thinking while he might not want to admit it, he holds a special place for dark and brooding.” He gave Raven a knowing glance.
“That’s quite enough, Zeph,” said Cahrin, before Sel’s face became any redder with rage. “I’m sure Selgrin has many friends.”
“Just saying, a few names—”
She dug her fingernails into his arm.
“Ouch! Or maybe Rives knows why Azren wants us dead,” Zeph finished.
It seems with enough pain, even Zeph could have an intelligent thought. “Good point.” She nodded appreciatively. “And if everything goes according to plan, he should have plenty of incentive to tell us.”
The others agreed, save Daen, who turned away looking frustrated he could not continue to vent his anger.
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