Chapter 48 Read Along: Tendrils of Darkness
“This is Prince Peldrin’s tent, not King Reginald’s,” said the sentry.
Daen had assumed the giant tent in middle of the royal pavilion would be what they were looking for. “My apologies,” he said, starting away.
“Hey,” the guard called after him, “where’s your palrock?”
With that one question, their carefully laid plans unraveled.
Preoccupied by controlling the crowd Cahrin and Copius had drawn, the guards hadn’t noticed Daen remove one of the spikes holding the wall of the pavilion to the ground so he and Biltrin could slip inside. From there, it had been as simple as finding the king’s tent, which turned out to be not so simple. Worse, it seemed there was more to pavilion security than Daen had anticipated.
“Palrock?” he stalled. A quick survey of his surroundings confirmed other visitors of the pavilion wore a necklace with a smooth, black rock hanging from its end. It made sense to tag those who lawfully entered. As a sentinel, he should have noticed it right away, but he had purposely been avoiding others inside the pavilion for attention begets attention, the saying goes.
“Yes,” he continued, “that is one of the subjects we wish to speak with His Majesty about.” He could not believe that was the best lie he could come up with.
Apparently, the sentry couldn’t either. “Intruders!”
Daen and Biltrin broke into a run. The tent guards held their positions—the safety of the prince being paramount—as others heard the call and gave pursuit.
The king’s pavilion was massive, a royal camping ground. Foppish men and women of court struggled to keep clear of them, while servants carrying trays of food and entertainers practicing their trade cursed at the disruption.
Biltrin was panting as they came to a cluster of small tents bunched against each other, likely a camping area for the servants. Daen burst into a drooping tent big enough to sleep two. As he suspected, it was empty, the servants on duty at this hour. Biltrin crashed through the flap, burying his face in the floor, breath heaving in and out. Not long after, a dozen or so feet pounded by, along with the crunching of armor. Daen was about to peek outside when he heard cautious footsteps approaching.
Whoever it was entered a nearby tent, and then another. Daen pulled a dagger from his belt and waited behind the tent’s opening. As soon as the intruder poked his head inside, Daen pressed steel below his chin.
“Do not breathe a word,” he whispered.
The guard was dressed in a light chain shirt marked with a field marshal’s rank. His lips pulled back in a grin as he saw Biltrin on the ground. “Billy!” he bellowed in a coastal accent. “I can’t believe it’s you.”
Biltrin rose and motioned Daen’s knife away so he could greet the newcomer with a hearty embrace. “Finster, you rusty old battering ram. What are you doing nosing around?”
Daen sheathed his knife with a disgusted sigh, giving up his effort to hush the pair.
“Heard there were trespassers, maybe even assassins in the king’s pavilion. Couldn’t have that. Thought if I was gonna hide, these empty tents would be a mighty fine place.”
“Look at you. It’s been so long since you’ve used your blade you’ve started to think first.”
“That’s about to change.” Finster’s face creased in worry. “I was keeping the peace near Revlin when I heard the news. We’re headed out tomorrow, part of a larger force making its way to—”
“I hate to interrupt here,” Daen said, “but we have rather pressing business with the king. Perhaps as a friend of Biltrin’s, you can provide assistance.”
Finster looked pleased. “I assume this has something to do with half the guards in the pavilion chasing their own tails?”
“It might,” said Biltrin.
“You know I’m up for anything that puts those wet nurses in a tizzy.”
“So you can get us an audience with His Majesty?” asked Daen.
“No. No, I can’t. This isn’t my show. I am more or less a visitor. Like yourselves—only I was given lawful entry.” He chuckled lightly. “But wait here. There is something I might be able to do.”
With Finster gone, Daen reverted to speaking in whispers. “Do you trust him?”
“There’s not a lot a worn-out dog like me trusts anymore, but Finster, he’s one.”
They kept quiet after that. The next time someone approached, Daen recognized the step. A hand poked through the tent flap gripping two palrock necklaces. “Put these on and follow me.”
The sun had sunk during their wait, leaving their passage lit by clusters of torches mounted on poles. Backtracking, they ended up once more at the prince’s tent, though Finster led them around the back where four sentries stood at a different entrance. It occurred to Daen that he had not been wrong in his initial assessment that the king resided here. Only it wasn’t one massive tent, but two tents erected back-to-back with the king on one side and the prince on the other.
“These men have business with the king,” Finster said with authority.
One of the guards disappeared inside. When he came back out, he lifted the flap. “This way.”
“See you around, Billy, and good luck,” Finster said under his breath.
The small, circular room they entered reminded Daen of a castle antechamber, with two chairs on each side of a narrow table that held a stack of official-looking papers. An opening at the back led to a much larger and more lavish area.
“Take a seat,” said a stately voice from behind the opening, which they obeyed. Daen kept his gaze level, not wanting to appear to be snooping among the papers.
Finally a man wearing the blue robes of the Western Kingdoms entered, followed by two guards in red-and-white PIKE uniforms. He took a seat across from Daen, picked up his papers, and tapped them into a neat stack before placing them back down.
He cleared his throat. “I am Hedun Rue, advisor to King Reginald. You can refer to me as Master Hedun, if you wish.”
One of the PIKE merchant guards bent to whisper in Master Hedun’s ear. The advisor nodded, and the guard left the tent. Master Hedun produced a thin-lipped smile. “Tell me, who here requests an audience with His Majesty?”
“I, Daen Cernver and Corporal Biltrin…”
“Gronth,” Biltrin finished. Daen felt foolish not knowing the surname of this man he had shared battle with.
“So you are,” said Master Hedun. A servant girl placed a cup of amber liquid on the table in front of him. He took a deep sip, savoring the taste, before adding hastily. “May I offer either of you something?”
“No, thank you. Perhaps in less urgent times.”
The servant girl disappeared into the interior room, where Daen caught a glimpse of an older man in blue. He fought the desire to insist they see the king at once. No, he must not. He had been party to enough affairs of court to know these things could not be forced.
Master Hedun nodded. “Now what is it you came to see His Majesty about?”
“Master Hedun,” Daen began, glancing hesitantly at the remaining PIKE merchant guard who stood over the advisor’s shoulder. “We have traveled far and withstood much hardship to be here. Please understand I have the most utmost respect for the guidance you give to the king. But what we have to say is for His Majesty’s ears alone. This is a matter of the kingdom’s immediate welfare.”
“Young man, I advise in matters regarding the kingdom’s welfare. You will speak with me if you wish to be heard at all.”
It did not seem they had much choice. Daen looked sidelong at Biltrin. The veteran warrior shifted nervously in his chair. “Very well. The soldier I bring with me was part of the PIKE caravan that was ambushed and later found in Uthgar.”
“A survivor?” Master Hedun looked as if would leap out of his chair. “Why hasn’t the king been informed of this earlier?”
“This man has been on the run ever since the ambush, his life threatened on numerous occasions. He has only now been able to make it this near the king.”
“I don’t understand,” said Master Hedun. “Why would anyone want this man dead?”
Daen leaned in close, hoping to keep his words from the ears of the PIKE guardsman. “Because he knows that Nastadra was not responsible for the attack on the caravan.”
Master Hedun’s shock gave way to a curled smile. “That’s quite a tale, I should say.” He leaned back in his chair, sipping lazily from his cup. “Are you sure I cannot offer you two some drink? Water or tea, perhaps?”
Why is he so nonchalant at the news? Daen’s temper began to stir. “We are not thirsty. I only wish the king to know that this war is for naught.”
“Yes, yes, I heard you the first time.”
Daen pushed his chair back, no longer keeping his voice between them. “I do not think you understand. There is a deception going on of the highest order. The king needs to be informed at once.”
The second guard returned with the guard they had spoken with at Prince Peldrin’s tent. “Are these the intruders?” asked Master Hedun.
“Yessir,” Prince Peldrin’s guard said.
Master Hedun placed his cup down. “Deception, you say? You mean the kind that may come from two assassins requesting an audience with the king?”
“Whatever your implication, you are mistaken.”
“With King Reginald out of the way, Nastadra could deal with the less experienced Prince Peldrin, isn’t that right?” pressed Master Hedun.
Daen stood and slammed his palms against the table, raising his voice so that whoever was beyond the opening could hear him. “Nastadra did not stage the ambush. There should be no war.”
But he could see his words were falling on deaf ears. At Master Hedun’s signal, the guards secured them.
“Take them to the torturer,” Master Hedun ordered. “Tell him to use any means necessary to get them to talk—immediately.”
Hands pulled Daen roughly away. He twisted his head around. “You are making a grave mistake.”
Master Hedun was already lost in his pile of paperwork, but through the opening to the next room, he caught a glimpse of a figure in a sumptuous blue robe. Could it be the king?
As he was yanked outside, there was Elise sitting on a post, a cluster of torches shining brightly behind her. She was eating an apple a shade lighter than the green-stoned pendant around her neck. “You know you need to tell him,” she said.
Another vision to confirm he was raving mad.
“And lose you forever? Why should I do that?” He answered her out of habit.
She spoke with her mouth full. “Suit yourself, but you’re gonna look funny all stretched out.”
“Why are you even here?” He pulled against his captors, not wanting to lose sight of her.
“Are we really on that question again?” She slumped forward, resting her chin on one hand with a bored expression.
Daen tripped as he was yanked harshly in line, and when he looked again, she was gone. Maybe that was all he’d needed to get rid of her—a good rattling. But echoes of her words stuck with him, a reminder he had asked her the same question back at Lord Berrian’s castle. You should be asking why you’re here, she’d replied. Why was he here but to speak with His Majesty, to tell him the truth and maybe avert a war? Perhaps that’s exactly what she meant. Certainly whatever consequence he would have to face would be worth it.
“King Reginald!” he shouted.
Every step took them farther from the tent, his last chance slipping away. It was not time to be coy. He could no longer keep secrets. “King Reginald, you know my father. Please—you must speak with me!”
The tent had become distant in the background. “My true name is Daen Thornver!” he cried desperately, hoping someone, anyone might care enough to listen. His failure meant blood unnecessarily spilled, lives unnecessarily lost.
“King Reginald!” He said it at the top of his lungs. “My father is King Lywrin!”
Daen heard a derisive snort before something hit his head, turning hope into a swirling blackness.
The last time Zeph had been at the PIKE warehouse, he’d only narrowly escaped. To be fair, he hadn’t known what he was getting into. Now that he had the lay of it, he was up for anything—which tonight comprised sneaking past the sentries and into the warehouse itself.
Scouting the area from across the river, Zeph felt a tinge of empathy for the sentries standing so still, doing absolutely nothing. Well, they were doing something—they were looking for people like him. But that was next to nothing as far as he was concerned.
Three nothing-doers stood equidistant to form a perimeter protecting the warehouse from any approach by land. Zeph had planned his incursion by way of the river. While still in the line of one guard’s sight, it offered his best hope to escape detection.
Most worrisome were the roamer sentries. He’d spent the last several mind-numbing hours memorizing their paths around the warehouse, a discipline he was certain Copius would have been better suited for. Conveniently, that would have left the job of wrestling the Otherworld creature to Zeph. He could imagine himself besting some hairy beast to the delight of the crowd. Unfortunately, that plan had been dashed when someone brought up Copius’s lack of climbing, subterfuge, and swimming skills.
When the sun finally disappeared behind the trees, Zeph eased into the bone-chilling river and began to wade across. Bored the sentries may be, he thought, but at least they weren’t freezing their behinds off.
By the time he’d made it to the edge of the dock, his legs felt like icy weights hanging from his body. He could see each sentry and roamer by the light of torch clusters placed around the warehouse. When he was certain he’d accounted for every last sentry, he turned his attention to the blotches of darkness between the torches. Those areas were where he would tread.
Only one sentry stood close enough to hear a man make shore, and he wouldn’t be moving away unless drawn. That meant it was time to do what Zeph hated most: wait—in the cold, wet water with the fish or whatever else was down there brushing at the ends of his numb feet.
He shivered from head to toe. He hoped Sel wasn’t right about Raven. In Zeph’s limited experience with the dark illusionist, words like “coarse,” “unfriendly,” and even “disagreeable” came to mind, but he still saw Raven as someone who did what he said he would.
“Who goes there?” the nearest guard called.
Zeph stood motionless, clenching his jaw to keep his teeth from chattering.
The guard moved away toward Raven’s distraction, giving Zeph the opportunity to make shore. Staying low to the ground, he slunk—as much as he could in his half-frozen state—to the darkened areas between the torch clusters and from there to the base of the warehouse. He rubbed the life back into his arms, then scratched his climbing claws against the dirt to dry them.
The sentry was still away when he started up the side of the warehouse. He climbed quietly at a steady pace. Speed would do him no good if he was discovered. About halfway up, he paused at the gentle clinking of armor. One of the roamers? He shouldn’t be coming this way already. Either Zeph had misread his route or the distraction had caused a schedule change.
He dug in with a climbing claw while pulling out a throwing dagger with his other hand. A well-placed blade would be his only option should he be spotted. Footsteps sounded beneath him; probing eyes scanned left to right. He held his breath, conscious of each droplet falling from his sopping clothes.
The sentry continued past, and Zeph allowed a silent sigh to escape his frigid lips. He was in the clear—or at least he thought he was until a climbing claw let out a high-pitched squeal.
He was slipping down the wall.
The roamer stopped and spun toward the sound. Zeph dropped his throwing dagger and latched onto the wall with his other climbing claw. He pressed his body against the warehouse wall, black clothes blending into the darkness. From the corner of his eye, he could discern the outline of the sentry facing him, watching, listening, waiting. After a hundred of Zeph’s heartbeats, the guard turned around and moved on.
The rest of the climb went without interruption—just your average ascent up a sheer surface while practically freezing to death. It reminded him of one of Darseer Rolt’s training exercises.
Zeph grabbed the windowsill and pulled his head above the opening. What he saw next nearly made him let go.
Selgrin woke up with a bitter smell in his nostrils and mud on his face and hands. A crude bandage wrapped his shoulder where the knife had impaled him. With every movement, the wound burned like a branding.
He was sitting in a thick steel cage about half his height. A single torch gave a haunting view of Rives—Belatreeg—staring contemptuously through bars running in both directions. A few feet behind, Wertlin was seated on the surface of a desk, tossing a spear between his hands.
“We’ve been waiting for you to join us,” said Rives.
Selgrin eyed the cage, searching for an opening he might fit through.
“There is no escape,” said Rives, “not even for the Dersimeysous.”
Compelled to test those words, Selgrin imagined the smallest rat he had ever seen and willed himself into that form. But there were limits to Selgrin’s size, large and small, and he felt as if he were squeezing himself into a scabbard. When he was done, he could hardly use his tiny lungs for air.
He scurried to where he remembered a gap between the floor and its lowest bar and pressed his rat body to the floor, trying to squeeze underneath. Halfway through, something tickled at his tail, then grabbed and pulled it tight. He was jerked back into the cage, then to the side. His backside slammed into the cage once, twice, three times. Rives was trying to force him through another opening.
“Trapped like a rat.” Rives sniggered at his own joke. “You’re not going to fit no matter how hard I pull, though believe me when I say I intend to try.” The pain was excruciating. “I wonder what will happen to your dogar form after I’ve torn off your tail. Of course, you can end this game and I’ll spare you further discomfort.”
Succumbing to the inevitable, Selgrin reverted forms, leaving Rives holding thin air. No sooner was he back to normal when the butt of a spear rammed against his throat. A hatch in the cage had been opened, large enough to allow the spear to be thrust through.
“Attempt to change again and Wertlin here—who incidentally is a champion spearman—will impale you like a piece of meat,” Rives said.
Selgrin stared back defiantly.
“You must know you’re already as good as dead. But there are others to consider. Should you continue to be stubborn, I promise to have your brother, who presently sits in a Feralintero prison, executed. So think carefully before answering this next question. Yours is not the only life on the line.”
Rives’s deprecating smile made Selgrin’s blood boil.
“And be forewarned that a lie will fare no better than your previous failed attempt to deceive me. Now really, giving me that letter under the guise of Simerol was pathetic. I’m curious whose idiotic plan was it, hmm? No matter. Rest assured that living among the humans so long has taught me to spot treachery quite easily. I’m afraid you have to be much more devious to fool me—and frankly, Dersimeysous, I don’t think you have it in you.”
Rives glanced at Wertlin, signaling him to pull the spear back enough to allow Selgrin to speak. “It’s time for you to tell me what the real letter from Azren said.”
Selgrin kept his mouth clamped shut, refusing to play along.
“I have no more time to waste on you.” He pulled out writing material from the desk and began to write. “‘Dearest Father,’” he said aloud as he wrote. “‘It has come to my attention that keeping Delisrakin alive is a risk to our plan.’” He lifted his quill and made eye contact with Sel. “Once this request leaves my warehouse, there will be little hope for your brother. My father, the soon-to-be Chamber Head, will make certain of that.”
Allies with Azren, Velotanin the Chamber Head—could the plight of my people get any worse?
“I’ll make this easy on you,” said Rives. “If the letter you brought me said that Azren would not assist in the assassination of the king, I can only gather that the original conveyed the opposite. Nod once if this is true.”
Sel nodded hesitantly.
“Good. Then bulstan have been sent to aid me. When will they arrive?”
After a long pause, Sel mumbled, “They are here already.”
Rives rubbed his hands together greedily. “I see even the Dersimeysous knows when it’s time to yield. One last answer. Tell me, where do the bulstan wait for me?”
Selgrin cast his eyes downward, shaking his head.
With another signal, Wertlin thrust the wood butt into his neck.
“I don’t play games!” shrieked Rives. He continued in a perfectly mild voice. “You should know that about me, even from our childhood.”
The pressure of the spear made it hard to breathe, but it was not his welfare that concerned him. “At the crossroads,” he said hoarsely. The spear let up. “Where the Old Road meets with the Arn.”
“And he breaks like a brittle leaf of autumn,” Rives leaned forward to finish scribbling his note and then pocketed it. “Now I must leave to dispose of a king. Wertlin, kill the Dersimeysous and dump him in the river.”
“Please…” Selgrin could not fathom any harm coming to Delis. “Don’t send that to your father.”
“Oh, this?” He patted his pocket with a wicked smile. “This was never meant for my father. It is addressed to the king—an invitation to his murder.”
“Don’t look so glum,” called Rives on his way out. “Your confession may be the key to returning our people to glory, like it was before the War of Elder Kind, before the humans came, when there were no enemies, only trading partners. Turns out you, Dersimeysous, might be the savior of the dogar after all.”
Selgrin swallowed hard. All he’d ever wanted was to return his people to prominence—but not this way, at the expense of so many lives. And certainly not with Azren.
Wertlin pulled the butt of the spear from the cage, spun the weapon around and thrust it back inside.
The move was so fluid it caught Selgrin off guard, missing his heart by a single finger width. He cried out in agony.
Twisting the spear as he yanked it free, Wertlin said, “Be still and I will end this.”
Then he thrust at Selgrin again.
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