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Authors: Auston Habershaw

Iron and Blood

BOOK: Iron and Blood
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EPIGRAPH

Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

—­
W
ALT
W
HITMAN

 

“W
ell, you are certainly dismal today. You look like the walking dead,” Carlo diCarlo observed.

Tyvian didn't bother scowling, but he did manage a snort. “I was up well past dawn, that's all.”

Carlo moved to signal his coachman. “We
could
stop for some karfan. There's a little place—­”

Tyvian held up his hand. “No! I'll not attend a party with brown teeth. Bags under my eyes are preferable. Drive on.”

A coach was a relatively rare form of transport in Freegate, given that a significant portion of the city streets featured stairs, but Tyvian was glad of the novelty as they jostled over the cobblestones toward the diplomatic quarter of the city. Directly adjacent to the sprawling Beggar's Market, it was there that the various governments of the world had once kept their embassies before the Municipal Council of Freegate had cut all formal diplomatic ties with everyone.

At the time they had done it because the Illini Wars and the conquests of the Mad Prince Sahand forced the traditionally neutral city to become entangled in a worldwide conflict. Kalsaari assassins and undercover Defenders killed each other in the streets, Dellor forcibly garrisoned troops within the city limits, and Alliance High General Conrad Varner had even entertained sacking it in order to cut off Sahand's supply routes. When Sahand and Kalsaar were finally defeated, Freegate had enough and kicked all the diplomats out. Everybody had assumed the Council and Lord Mayor would allow the embassies to be reestablished after a while, but the merchants of Freegate soon found the absence of various armed parties holed up in fortresses within their city limits to be quite pleasant, and no embassies were ever allowed to be rebuilt.

This didn't mean foreign powers weren't present in Freegate—­far from it. It simply meant they needed to keep their numbers down, couldn't operate openly, and weren't allowed to send ambassadors to harangue the Council or Lord Mayor for any reason whatsoever. As for the fortresslike embassies that dominated the Castle District—­as the diplomatic quarter was called—­they either fell into disrepair when nobody bought them or had fallen into the possession of private owners with sufficient funds who needed to possess a large, fortified complex in the center of Freegate. One of these owners was none other than a Hanim of the Imperial Kalsaari House of Theliara. It was there that Tyvian and Carlo were bound.

“I'm rather surprised you managed to secure this meeting, Carlo,” Tyvian remarked, examining his hair in a pocket mirror. He was dressed in his finest clothes—­white linen shirt with flaring, embroidered collar, purple vest with gold piping, a mink-­lined half-­cape, and enough rings and jewels to show he meant business, but not so many that he looked like he was trying too hard. He hadn't brought his rapier Chance, of course—­doing so would be a grave insult—­but he did have a stiletto hidden in his right boot. The boot, of course, had antiscrying runes etched into its interior, just in case.

“The Hanim is celebrating her thirtieth birthday, and a very select group of five hundred ­people have been invited. As I implied yesterday, one of them owed me a small favor, so I was able to get us on the guest list.”

Tyvian frowned. “Did you bring her a gift?”

Carlo chuckled. “Yes—­you.”

“Charming.”

“It will be, I promise.”

“How much do you know about this Hanim?” Tyvian asked, peering out the window. In the gray light of early evening the stylized minarets of the Theliara compound—­an architectural oddity even in the eclectic, hodgepodge environment of Freegate—­could be seen looming over the lower buildings around them like a trio of ivory lighthouses on a rocky shore. “How long has she been in town, did you say?”

“About two months. Her full name is Angharad tin'Theliara Hanim, that last bit being her title as a lady of the Kalsaari Imperial Court.”

“I am well aware of her
name
and the meaning of her
title
. Tell me about the woman.”

Carlo threw up his hands. “Who can tell with Kalsaari nobility? Lies and illusions everywhere, as always, and I haven't been able to pick out the true bits. She has taken no husband, which makes her a very valuable political ally among the beys of her family and beyond. She is no doubt a viper and an enchantress, doubly as dangerous as any woman you are likely to meet in the West, your sainted mother excluded. She is also supposed to be very beautiful, but you can take that with a grain of salt—­these Kalsaaris use so many glamours and Shrouds that they could make an old man look like a sixteen-­year-­old girl, and you'd never know without a true-­seer or mage-­compass. For all we know, this is her ninetieth birthday, and she has four husbands and a gaggle of children back in her home country.”

“So, in other words, you know she is a Kalsaari Hanim, who may or may not be married and who may or may not be female. Really, Carlo, I'm disappointed.”

Carlo frowned and rearranged his robes to try and hide his gut. “She has done a very good job of giving my regular rumormongers the runaround, and no one outside of her household seems to know anything about her for certain, other than the fact that she's been importing all manner of exotic beasts from around the world to display in her menagerie. Selling them, too, to whatever rich dimwit wants a purple man-­eating parrot or an albino gorgon or whatnot. As I said at lunch yesterday, I try not to do business with the queenies except in emergencies, Tyvian. I'm afraid of them—­I admit it! Some of the things I saw in Kalsaari camps during the war would curl your toes.”

Tyvian rolled his eyes. “Spare me stories, Carlo. That was twenty-­five years ago in another country during a war. This is a bloody
birthday party
.”

“Hmph,” Carlo grunted. “Don't say I didn't warn you. I hope your little proposal is worth the risk.”

Tyvian didn't look at the iron ring, but he felt it tingle on his finger. “It is. Don't worry.”

T
hey were met at the gates by a pair of turban-­wearing Kalsaari mark-­slaves, each stripped to the waist to reveal their stupendously muscular, tattooed torsos. They seemed to take no notice of the freezing winter air as they inspected Carlo's invitation. Tyvian marveled at the sophistication and artistry of the enchantments inscribed in their tattoos, and noted the ease with which they wore the heavy scimitars at their hips.

While Tyvian had no doubt that the mark-­slaves would be extremely dangerous opponents in a fight, he was reassured that their enchantments in no way enhanced their mental faculties. Their search of he and Carlo was straightforward, mundane, and so poor that even a common thief could have smuggled a dagger or two past them. The only thing objectionable about the search was the sheer amount of awkward pawing Tyvian was forced to endure. By the time they were let past, he had to spend another few minutes rearranging his hair and clothing to restore them to presearch standards.

“Come on—­we'll be late,” Carlo hissed in the grand domed antechamber beyond the gate. The acoustics of the room were such that his whisper echoed off the far wall and back again.

Tyvian looked around and noted that, apart from the pairs of mark-­slaves posted at various intervals throughout the massive hall, they were alone. No one else was making their way across the oceanic floor of polished marble toward the ten-­foot-­tall double doors that were thrown open. He frowned. “Do you mean to tell me, Carlo, that we were invited to a party and we showed up
on time
?”

“What? Should we have been early?”

Tyvian rolled his eyes. “We're not going in yet.”

“Where will we go, then? We can't leave and come back—­the Hanim would hear of it! They would think it suspicious.”

Tyvian whispered into Carlo's ear so that the sound did not travel. “Pretend to be sick.”

“Are you mad?”

He squeezed Carlo's upper arm. “I will
not
be the first person to arrive at an exclusive party. It will paint us as either fawning sycophants or unsophisticated rubes, and I won't allow it. Now, either summon up some vomit or, so help me Hann, I will slug it out of you.”

Carlo shook his head and sighed. He then, through some trick of bodily control that Tyvian wished he possessed, became very green and nauseous looking. His cheeks bulged and his good eye became as glassy as his crystal one.

Tyvian smiled. “That's more like it.” He escorted the queasy Verisi pirate to one of the many doors leading out of the antechamber that wasn't the main one heading toward the party. The mark-­slaves drew their scimitars and crossed them before the door.

“You don't understand,” Tyvian said pleasantly, not knowing whether he was understood or not. “My friend here is ill, and would like somewhere to lie down for a while.”

“Are there some difficulties I may be improving upon?” The smooth, unctuous voice came from behind them. Tyvian and Carlo turned to see a slight, thin man in an ankle-­length red robe and jeweled turban—­no doubt a steward of some kind. His beard was oiled and fashioned into the shape of a particularly sharp garden trowel, and only his thin red lips were smiling. His eyes were giving off an even mix of anger and terror.

Tyvian nodded. “Ah, yes. I was just telling your slaves here that—­”

The steward executed a short half-­bow. “My endless pardons, sirs, but your repetition is not necessary. I, Fariq the slavemaster, hear all that the marked hear.”

Tyvian smirked. “That must get rather noisy sometimes.”

“Ha ha.” Fariq laughed like a mechanical clock. “Truly you are the most amusing man I have met.”

Carlo wretched, placing his hands on his knees. Tyvian patted his back. “As you can see, my friend could use a private spot to relax. Motion sickness, you know?”

Fariq's nostrils flared. “Such a thing is regrettably impossible. Her Beauteousness, the Hanim, in her immortal wisdom, has forbidden foreign visitors from all but the approved places. If you will follow me, please.” He motioned toward the tall doors.

Carlo hacked and gagged up a string of saliva that drooped, slowly, toward the spotless floor. Tyvian saw Fariq stiffen at the sight. “Look, Farroo, if my friend doesn't get a chaise and a chamber pot, pretty soon he is going to baptize Her Beauteousness's floor with the contents of his stomach. Just a room, man—­you may lock us in if you like.”

Fariq, stiff as a board, made a hasty and terrified decision. “You will come with me. Do not stray from the path, for not all of the passages in the Hanim's sumptuous and impeccable abode are safe.”

Looking over his shoulder every five seconds to ensure they were behind him (and that no one else saw), Fariq hastily ushered Tyvian and Carlo to a different door than the one they stood before and up a plush-­carpeted staircase that led to what Tyvian guessed would be the third floor of the compound. Then they traveled through a series of winding halls and interlocking doors that were as labyrinthine as they were impressive. Colorful mosaics adorned the walls, each room tastefully decorated with porcelain vases and intricately woven rugs, and each door uniquely carved wood with gold inlay. Finally, Fariq led them into an airy enclosed veranda filled with expensive cushions, glowing feylamps clad in brass, and one chamber pot, also of brass, which had been placed prominently at the center of the room. Before Tyvian could compliment Fariq on his choice for their repose, the slavemaster had closed the door behind them. He heard it lock with a heavy clunk—­a mechanical lock, and a heavy-­duty one at that.

Carlo immediately recovered and threw himself down on a pile of cushions. “I really hate doing that, you know. Inducing nausea isn't like faking a blush.”

Tyvian went to the wooden lattice that enclosed their veranda from the air beyond. He found himself looking down at a long rectangular courtyard. He could tell immediately from the green grass and the vibrant flowers resting along the banks of a reflecting pool that it was sorcerously abjured against the cold. In it he saw a pair of mark-­slaves standing guard on either side of a large door, just as impressive and stationary as all the others they had seen since arriving. It looked as though this door led to the street outside. He grunted. “The Hanim certainly takes her security seriously.”

Carlo waved off Tyvian's comment. “Bah—­at least half of those slaves are illusions. Possibly two-­thirds. I don't know how much you look into the slave markets—­”

“Not at all,” Tyvian spat.

Carlo raised an eyebrow. “Well pardon me—­I didn't realize you were clad in all white tonight, Your Holiness. In any case, a true mark-­slave, especially the bodyguard types you see around here, costs more than your whole flat. Even an Imperial House like the Theliaras are unlikely to own more than a ­couple dozen of them. Some of those chaps might just be regular slaves but painted up to look like they are marked.”

“That eye of yours see anything interesting around here?”

Carlo shrugged. “Wards and illusions are all over the place, so it's difficult to tell—­you didn't think this place
naturally
looks like some queenie pleasure palace, did you? Suffice to say that the clearest thing I can see is the layout at the party you have delayed us from. The food looks scrumptious, and it's getting cold. How long do we have to wait?”

“At least fifteen minutes. Who else is at the party?”

“A ­couple guildsmen who look terrified, a brace of Eretherian ladies with a young knight escorting, a ­couple turbaned Kalsaari merchants—­nothing exceptional.”

“The Hanim?”

“Has yet to appear.”

“Good. She wants to make an entrance. Let's just make sure to make one just before her.”

Carlo snorted. “How will we know when that is?”

BOOK: Iron and Blood
2.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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