Read Fifth Quarter Online

Authors: Tanya Huff

Tags: #Canadian Fiction, #Fantastic Fiction, #Fantasy Fiction; Canadian, #Science Fiction, #Fiction, #General, #Fantasy

Fifth Quarter

Fifth Quarter

 

by Tanya Huff

 

Chapter One

 

There were guards on duty at the entrance to the marshal's tent but they'd expected that and were accustomed to using less obvious entrances. Problem was, there were guards on duty at the sides and rear of the tent as well.

 

"Looks like they're expecting us," Bannon whispered, his mouth lightly touching his sister's ear, the esses softened to prevent the sound from carrying.

 

Vree nodded, right hand rising to brush at the lingering caress of warm breath, eyes locked on the flickering circle of torches that left no paths of darkness.

 

The guards were spaced in such a way that removing one would alert the others.

 

She gestured at a sputtering flame; the thick knob of oil-soaked hemp had nearly burned away. Soon, it would have to be replaced. Bannon signed his agreement.

 

They were in position, ready, when the marshal's personal body servant appeared with a new torch. As the nearest guard half-turned to watch the exchange, they rose from a sheltering hollow and raced into the skirts of shadow around the base of the tent. His gaze sweeping a heartbeat behind their movement, the guard resumed scanning his assigned area.

 

Contorted to fit into the triangle of darkness, they could hear only one voice from inside, but as it rose and fell in a conversational cadence, they assumed the marshal had company.

 

Pressed flat against the ground, Vree slid under the weighted edge of canvas and continued to slide under the red-and-gold patterned carpet laid to define the floor. When she felt Bannon's touch on her ankle, she dug fingers and toes into the dirt and began to creep on her belly around the perimeter. The marshal's voice grew louder, and for the first time she heard the rough whisper that answered. Commander Neegan. She grinned. They'd expected as much and made allowances for his presence.

 

The crushed and dying grass beneath the carpet made breathing difficult, but Vree sucked air past her teeth and kept moving through the thick growth. A parade of heavy-footed officers had mashed the floor flat in the center of the tent, but out where the billowing walls touched the earth, it rose and fell like the dunes of Hedyve. Between the patterns in the carpet and the flickering shadows—the marshal was well known for conserving lamp oil—an extra pair of lumps in the floor would not likely be noticed. When Vree finally paused, she could feel Bannon's movement in the vibrations of the fabric against her shoulder blades. But only Bannon's movement. She froze, listening. Wood and leather creaked above and to her left. Both marshal and commander were seated, discussing possible routes for a massed attack.

 

"They know we're coming; what makes you think they haven't moved the furniture around?" Bannon asked, rubbing his palms together as he peered down at the diagram sketched in the dirt.

 

"Two reasons." Vree sat back on her heels. "First, the marshal always sits facing the entrance. Always. That doesn't leave a lot of options with a map table that size. Second
…"
She looked up at her brother and drew a circle around the sketch with one seemingly delicate, long-fingered hand. "… they don't think we can make it that far
."

 

Bannon grinned in anticipation. A shadow-bladed knife flickered against his palm, then disappeared back into a hidden sheath, the motion almost too fast to follow. "More fools they."

 

 

 

"Well, Neegan…" The marshal leaned back in the folding camp chair and set the empty flagon on the table with a sharp crack. "… second watch is nearly over and still no sign of them."

 

"Too early to relax, Marshal." Commander Neegan's whisper had been given him many years before by an enemy archer. The commander had not only survived the battle but seen to it that the archer did not.

 

Marshal Chela smiled, the expression bracketing the rounded curves of her face with deep creases. "I never relax," she said cheerfully. "It's why I've lived to a ripe old age." She reached for the flagon, remembered it was empty, and sighed. "There's another bottle in that case behind you, Neegan. Get it, would you."

 

"Allow me, Marshal." In one lithe motion, Bannon rose to his feet, set the clay bottle on the table, and lightly touched his blade to the commander's neck, just by the white pucker of the old scar.

 

Chela leaned forward slightly, eyes narrowed. "Aren't you removing the wrong target?" she murmured.

 

Vree tapped the older woman gently on the shoulder and laid a line of steel across her throat. "Don't move," she warned. "It's very sharp."

 

Apparently oblivious to the knife tip dimpling his skin, Neegan held out his hand. "You owe me forty crescents, Marshal. I told you they could do it."

 

 

 

"
I don't want this becoming a siege; they're on springs and we aren't." Marshal Chela laced her fingers over her ample belly, the silver and ruby ring that proclaimed her a priestess of Jiir, Goddess of Battles, gleaming on her shield hand. "Any suggestions
?"

 

Commander Leesh stepped forward, her voice a bare shade off eager. "Why don't we just charge the city? They wouldn't survive an all-out attack."

 

"Neither would most of us," Chela pointed out dryly. Leesh was the youngest of her four commanders and anxious to prove a political promotion deserved in spite of evidence to the contrary. "And try to remember that the people of Ghoti are as much citizens of the Havakeen Empire as you are. It is our duty to attempt to find a solution that doesn't end in slaughter."

 

"Governor Aralt commands a great deal of personal loyalty." Neegan's harsh whisper quieted the rising mutter of speculation. "His people follow him, not a series of… misguided ideals." The dead and dying of another, earlier rebellion made themselves heard in the pause. "He promises them glory, a return to days of petty kingdoms and hollow crowns." With a graceful gesture, the commander sketched that past in the air. "What chance does the Empire's promise of peace, order, and good government have against that?" Then he spread his hands, offering the answer. "Aralt is the key. Everything revolves around him. Remove him, and this rebellion falls apart."

 

"And how do we remove him?" Chela asked, although she strongly suspected she knew what his answer would be. Although his most recent promotion responsibilities kept him from exercising his skills,

 

Neegan was quite possibly the best military assassin in the seven armies. "Aralt's locked himself up tight in the governors stronghold."

 

"I have two who could do the job. "

 

Leesh snorted in disbelief.

 

The marshal ignored the interruption. "Aralt's no fool for all his posturing. He'll be expecting the attempt. "

 

"Yes," Neegan agreed.

 

"These the two who removed Pahbad?"

 

"Yes."

 

"You're assuming that two will succeed where a single assassin might fail." He'd fought to have them trained together using that very argument and had been proven right time after time but, this time. Chela shook her head. "No. They'd never get to him."

 

Neegan smiled. "Would the marshal care to place a small wager
. …"

 

 

 

As she slid her dagger back in its sheath, Vree felt the familiar bleakness that came with the end of a mission. One moment, she and Bannon were a single unit with the use of not one pair of eyes or ears or hands, but two; the next, she stood alone. This time, the dislocation was almost painfully abrupt. This time, they had no retreat, blood singing, back to safety. This time the separation occurred just as senses climaxed at the "kill."

 

And there's nothing worse then melodrama in the middle of the night
, she told herself scornfully as she made her way around the table to Bannon's side, ignoring with long practice the sexual undertones in the original, melodramatic thought.

 

The marshal fought the urge to touch her throat where she could still feel the cold pressure of the blade. "I'm inclined to believe Commander Neegan's assurances that you two can target the governor. When can you go in?"

 

"We've been mapping the stronghold since the army arrived, Marshal." Bannon spoke for them both. "If the weather holds, we could make an attempt as early as tomorrow night."

 

Chela nodded. At this time of the year in the southern part of the Empire, there would not be rain. "Make it then."

 

 

 

As they left the tent, Bannon reached out and smacked one of the guards at the entrance on the butt. "Nice work," he said, loudly enough to turn heads.

 

"How'd you get in there, you little shit!" the soldier demanded, flushing a ruddy scarlet in the torchlight.

 

Bannon laughed, dancing back out of his way. "I can't believe you didn't see us march right by."

 

Well aware that this failure would mean nights spent at other, less prestigious duty posts, the guard weighed the odds of nailing the brother before the sister reacted and decided discretion was the better part of not having his throat slit. "Sod off," he snarled.

 

Bannon laughed again and draped his arm across Vree's shoulders as they moved out into the camp. "How about wasting a quarter-crescent in the baths."

 

She glanced over at him, fighting the tremors that started under his touch, telling herself they were caused by the tension of the last few hours, nothing more. His dark eyes glittered in the charcoal mask and she could feel the brittle energy coming off him in waves. "Wasting?" she asked, pointedly wrinkling her nose.

 

Ivory flashed in the shadow of his face as he lifted his hand to grin at the smudge of lighter skin showing through the camouflage. "Well, there's always a bit of cold water in a borrowed helmet___"

 

The baths, one of the many businesses that followed the seven armies with the intent of separating soldiers from their pay, shut down at the end of the second watch. It took an extra half-crescent to convince the proprietors to keep the fires going a little while longer.

 

Vree lay back in the warm water and tried not to listen to the appreciative murmurs of the bath attendants as they scrubbed her brother. It made no difference that they'd murmur the same nonsense over her had she not made it very clear that she preferred to wash herself. Fingers puckering, she sighed and dragged herself out of the tub.

 

"You're too skinny, sister-mine. You should eat more."

 

Vree snorted and straightened, reaching for one of the soft cloths hanging on the line beside her. "I'll remind you of that at the next wall we have to go over."

 

"And I'll deny every word." He lifted an arm and tried to snake it around the slender waist of the departing attendant. She twisted lithely away, damp braid flicking a practiced dismissal as she left. Bannon turned to her companion who backed up a step.

 

"Forget it, Bannon," the young man declared, tossing a cloth at the tub and covering a yawn. "You're finished, and we're closing."

 

A few moments later, as the lamps went out behind them, Bannon rubbed a dribble of water off the back of his sister's neck and asked, "Coming with me?"

 

Vree shook her head. "No." He always asked. The answer never changed. After a kill, he needed distraction, but she needed quiet. "You going to Teemo's?"

 

The whores at Teemo's were regularly inspected by the army healers. An empire had not been won by either ignoring the needs of its soldiers or the consequences of disease.

 

"I thought I might."

 

"Remember we're working tomorrow night. Don't stay too late."

 

His sigh lifted the damp hair off her forehead as he leaned forward and smacked a kiss down on the crease between her brows. "Don't fuss, sister-mine. I'm old enough to take care of myself."

 

Old enough. As she watched him stride away, Vree heard the echo of a piping voice demanding to know why
she
always had to be older and when would it be
his
turn. Sometimes that one year difference stretched impossibly far. The one year between six and seven; the corporal had brought the news of their mother's battlefield death to her, she'd had to tell Bannon. The one year between fourteen and fifteen; Neegan had wanted them both in his command, had been able to pull enough strings to get them there, so she'd been held back for further training until army regulations said Bannon was old enough to be posted. The one year between twenty and twenty-one… Old enough.

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