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Authors: J.S. Morin

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BOOK: Aethersmith (Book 2)
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“Greetings, Foxblade,” Tod spoke, using his best imitation
of Rashan’s voice. He had always thought he did it better than Jodoul’s
impression, which had given him the idea in the first place. He tried hard to
keep his expression neutral as he spoke, unlike his more animated natural
demeanor.

“What’s this now?” Foxblade replied, startled by the sudden
introduction of a magically controlled thrall to the conversation, conveying
words in the warlock’s own voice, it seemed.

“I am Rashan Solaran, Warlock of the Empire, High Sorcerer,
and the blood-stained right hand of the emperor.” Tod hoped he either
remembered that bit all correctly, or at least that Foxblade knew it no better
than he. “You are Foxblade, once known as Harton Mrull, leader of the Grey
Hoods and orchestrator”—Tod knew the warlock liked using big words like that
one—“of more than his share of trouble in Kadris.”

“Hey, I am a valuable mover of coin in Kadrin and we’re no
worse—and a lot better—about it than the noble houses. If you—”

“Enough,” Tod interrupted, hoping that he was not pushing
his luck beyond reason. If he were to get run through for his ruse, it would
not be for lack of gusto. “Spare me your perspecations. It is not the trouble
you cause that interests me, but the things that you hear in the perpetration
of your dealings. I want to know what happens in Kadris and I want you to find
out for me.”

“Wait. You’re trying to hire me?” Foxblade sounded
skeptical.

Jodoul had a hand in his pocket, fiddling with the tiny
smoke vial in case things went badly. The opportunity to bluff their way
through with a jelly-poisoned blade had wandered off the road a few lies back.

“You misunderstand. I do not intend to pay you; I am
recruiting you into the service of the Kadrin Empire.” Tod wanted to get around
the idea of having to explain why they were now paying coin to the Grey Hoods.
Besides, it was much the same argument Rashan had made to him when pressing him
into service as a guard at the Tower of Contemplation, though his job involved
a modest salary. “Let us just say that while in service to the Empire, certain
deeds may go overlooked … certain deeds that I may start becoming disconcerted
with should you turn down my offer.”

“Umm, what would that involve, exactly?” Foxblade was
sweating. He clearly had little desire to work for the warlock, but even less
desire to be thought to be working against him. He was happy being entirely
ignored by the warlock, the Imperial Circle, and anyone with more blades at
their command than he did for that matter.

“Plots, alliances, the movement of aggravated amounts of
coin,” Tod explained, trying to think what Warlock Rashan might possibly want
with a gang of thugs that mostly ran protection shakedowns and petty-theft
jobs. “If you know these tunnels, you know that there is one that runs beneath
the palace kitchens. You will meet me there personally at midnight on each date
that ends in five.”

“Well, I guess,” Foxblade responded meekly. He was
unaccustomed to being confronted. Normally he would have killed a man who spoke
to him thus, or at least ordered someone to do so on his behalf. Yet he seemed
unwilling to risk harming the warlock’s lackeys.

“Oh, and see that these imbeciles are sent back with that
goblet. I tend to all details, large and small. Do not become a detail,” Tod
finished and then took the stone from his forehead. “Sorry,” he apologized to
Jodoul. “Weren’t me sayin’ it. He was callin’ me one, too, so’s it’s not like I
was havin’ a jape at ya.”

“If you just hand over that goblet, we’ll be on our way,
fellows,” Jodoul said, taking over the conversation from a relieved Tod.

They left shortly thereafter, goal achieved.

* * * * * * * *

“Excellent work. I am proud of both of you,” Rashan
complimented them, goblet in hand. “There is a small gathering tomorrow morning
just after sunrise. You two shall attend. You have earned it. We will be
gathering in the emperor’s suites.”

Jodoul whistled. “Sounds fancy. We gotta dress up at all?”

“No. Your uniforms will serve,” Rashan replied, turning to
leave.

“Hey, don’t you wanna know how we got the goblet?” Tod asked
after him.

“I told you when I gave you the task that I did not care how
you went about it. If I now ask of you how, you might think that in the future
you will have to answer such questions as well, which I do not want,” the
warlock replied, pausing just long enough so he could finish before leaving
earshot of the two guards.

“Umm, well, just be expecting a visit from the leader of the
Grey Hoods night after next at midnight, beneath the palace kitchens. He works
for you now as an informant,” Tod shouted after Rashan, who did not turn, but
closed his eyes, lowered his head, and chuckled beneath his breath.

* * * * * * * *

Tod did not belong in the emperor’s chambers. Every scrap of
fabric, every little plate, every odd little trinket decorating an alcove was
worth more coin than he would ever earn in a lifetime. He sat next to Jodoul on
a divan and tried not to touch anything, even trying to keep from putting his
full weight on his seat.

Around the room, some of the other guests appeared uneasy as
well. A hairy ogre of a man dressed in a peasant’s feast-day best stood trying
to avoid leaning against the wall he stood next to, the painted image of
Emperor Tameron hovering over him disapprovingly. A reedy thin man with a
merchant’s look to his eyes kept his hands folded in his lap as his eyes bought
and sold each item in the room. A stunning young sorceress dressed in black sat
perched at the edge of her chair, studiously ignoring the rest of them. The one
who seemed most at ease, aside from their host, was the long-haired dandy of a
sorcerer—nearly as pretty as his female colleague—who lounged in a high-backed
chair with gold arms.

“Welcome, all of you,” Rashan greeted the assembly. “Some of
you may have some inkling of why I have called you all here, but not all. You
should know that you all have one thing in common: you have each passed a test
I have set out for you.

“When I returned to Kadrin, I found that it had been left in
a shambles. Our armies had grown soft and shrunken to the point where Megrenn
now stands at our borders awaiting the spring thaw to attack. The emperor was
revealed to be nothing but a puppet of aether, controlled by the Inner Circle
and a few key lackeys. The nobles began quarreling as soon as they found out
that there was no clear successor to Emperor Dharus and I spend hours a day
listening to them petition for bastards, eighth cousins, and outright frauds to
ascend the throne. I found the highest positions in the land filled by
arrogant, comfortable imbeciles and ruthless, conniving traitors. Against these
foes I had little: a few chance companions and my kin. I was entirely certain
of neither.

“But this is where you come in, all of you. I have taken
your measure and learned you for your strengths and faults. For every one of
you, those faults could have cost you your life, had another sort of man come
in my stead. You are rule breakers, truth benders, opportunists, and by some
measure, traitors yourselves. I not only cast you free of these rules that
would threaten your very lives should you come under the power of someone other
than myself, I cast you free of all rules entirely.

“You are now my Unfettered. You answer to no law but my
orders. The tasks given to you were given with the understanding that I cared
not how they were completed. This will be the manner of future assignments as
well. If you must steal, cheat, kill … whatever you need to do, do it. Should
you get caught by any Kadrin, demand to see me. I have already alerted all the
noble houses and the army that all such requests must be honored. If any
besides you Unfettered use this privilege, I will deal with them individually.

“One other thing I ask is this: that nothing be withheld
from me. I do not slay underlings for failure, or for bearing ill news, nor do
I vent anger against those who disagree with me. I value loyalty and honesty.
Deal with your enemies how you like, but deal truly with me and you will never
have to fear.

“Does anyone have any questions?” Rashan paused, waiting for
his carefully rehearsed speech to sink in.

“So … you mean, you don’t care what we do?” Jodoul asked
slowly.

“So long as you do what I tell you, all else does not
concern me. Allow me to suggest something. I notice that most of you seem
uncomfortable in these lavish accommodations. That is ridiculous. There is no
living emperor to offend and I just told you I do not care what you do. Go
ahead and break something,” Rashan suggested.

No one in the room moved.

Rashan frowned. “Like this, see?” The warlock moved to one
of the glass-paneled doors that led out to the wintry cold of the balcony. With
one finger, he poked a pane hard enough to break it, shattering both the glass
and the eerie silence that fell over the room each time he stopped talking.
“Now one of you. I will not force you, but feel free.”

The pretty sorceress reached out to a porcelain vase on a
small table next to her and gave it a gentle shove. It toppled to the floor and
smashed into a thousand pieces, each piece likely still worth more than a gold
lion. She winced at the sound, but Rashan clapped.

“Well done. Everyone, this is Celia Mistfield, Fifth Circle.
Her task was to prevent Sir Monfred Halleigh from keeping his appointment to
present his case for imperial succession. He did not appear at his appointed
time for an audience and has not yet petitioned for a new one.” Rashan looked
around the room expectantly.

The huge man by the painting of Tameron turned and regarded
the dead emperor’s likeness, then gently lifted it by the bottom of the frame
with one finger, loosing it from the cord by which it hung. The man’s finger
was not enough to balance the portrait and it toppled sideways to smash on one
corner against the floor.

“Tameron was the least favorite of the emperors I served and
that likeness of him brought me no fond memories,” Rashan proclaimed, beaming.
He was clearly enjoying the little acts of vandalism he was inspiring. “I
present you Sanbin Colvern, a weaponsmith from Raynesdark. His task was to forge
a weapon from a dragon’s tooth, a feat he has not only achieved, but
duplicated. I shall not go into details now, but it is quite a tale in its own
right. Now who would be next?”

Jodoul leaned forward to reach an exquisite crystal decanter
filled with an amber liquid. He unstoppered it and took a sniff. Nodding in
approval, he poured it sloppily across a half dozen small matching crystal
goblets until there was none left. Then he took the empty decanter and casually
dropped it over his shoulder to smash on the floor as he lifted one of the
goblets to his lips.

“Marvelous. Our brandy connoisseur is Jodoul Brect, one of
my personal guards in the Tower of Contemplation. He and Tod Hellet …” Rashan
paused for a moment and looked at Tod, who took a moment to pick up on his cue.
Tod then snatched up the stopper to the decanter, and pitched it through yet
another pane of the glass-paneled door, prompting Rashan to continue his
introduction. “He and Tod navigated Kadris’s underbelly to find and retrieve an
object stolen from the palace.”

Not waiting to be prompted, the lounging sorcerer casually
tossed a small wire cage containing a beautiful songbird across the room.
“Catch,” he called out to the thin nervous man who had heretofore avoided
contact with anything in the room. Aghast, the man lunged to catch the bird,
which was just close enough for him to reach before it crashed to the floor. He
caught nothing but air, however, and knocked over a display case of ornamental
daggers in the attempt. The bird cage, being nothing but an illusion,
disappeared entirely.

“Wonderful. Full credit to our resident illusionist, Faolen
Sarmon, Third Circle. Should anyone tell you that the smuggler ship
Song of
Night
ran aground due to rough seas or a drunken helmsman, he is lying. As for
his cat’s-paw in the destruction of that display of daggers, meet Aelon Beff.
Aelon also fought at the Battle of Raynesdark as part of the militia. He was a
great help in finding a trading company that does business both here and in
Megrenn. We had need of such men.

“Other than the items that would be irreplaceable, it would
likely cost the Empire thousands of lions to repair the damage we have just
done here. I never liked this sitting room, and since my previous tenure, it
has only grown a hundred winters uglier in my eyes. Once I leave you, I suggest
you acquaint yourselves with one another and feel free to continue ravaging
these tasteless furnishings. Before then, though, there are two matters.
Firstly, any questions you might have …” Rashan waited expectantly.

“We passed your tests. Did all? Were there others who failed
and if so, what became of them?” Aelon asked.

“Fair questions, both,” Rashan replied. “In fact, no. Not
all whom I tested were successful. Through no action of mine, two died and the
rest returned to whatever duties they held before, with no blight in my eyes.”

“Did everyone accept your offer?” Celia wondered.

Rashan smiled. “Nearly all. One suggested I attempt a rather
painful anatomical contortion when presented with my offer.”

That drew chuckles from everyone.

“And is he still alive, too?” Celia followed up.

“I brought no harm to anyone I tried to recruit. That is one
thing you are simply going to have to see for yourself over time. I am not
wanton or capricious in how I bring violence, even to those I may dislike. Fail
me and I trust that you will learn from your failure. I do not like failings,
but I understand how they can be taken to advantage. Killing those who fail or
dissent is utter foolishness,” Rashan said. It bothered him how history had
taken the detailed nuances of his life’s work and painted over them with a
thick brush, turning him into a caricature. It would take time, he knew, to
alter those perceptions.

BOOK: Aethersmith (Book 2)
12.73Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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