Authors: Glen Cook
Tags: #Fantasy, #Fiction, #General
I stared down at the woman I would bury just days before we were to have celebrated our wedding. Anger simmered inside me without controlling me. I had avoided unreasoning rage, so far. I was more drained by my loss and was now approaching the gates of desolation.
Barate had traveled further along the sad road. He had started plucking halfheartedly at future plans.
He eased me farther back into the house, away from other ears. “This had to do with what we were talking about at Mother’s house yesterday.”
“Did it happen because I went to the Al-Khar?”
He considered before answering, “That doesn’t seem likely. That creature, Min, evidently caught Strafa coming home. I think she was here to tell Strafa that she’d been designated the Algarda Champion. Instead of Kevans.”
I had myself under control. My mind was working, some. I wanted to bark, “What?” and maybe something about why the hell Strafa when the whole tournament absurdity was always about kids busting each other up . . . ? Except I had enough rationality in stock to realize that I knew no such thing, I had just inferred it from what had been said at Shadowslinger’s place. Too, I wondered, “How come you know all that?”
Barate said, “I was on my way here to see Strafa about Kevans . . . I came around the corner while it was happening. If I hadn’t shown up when I did, the big woman would have died, too.”
“You saw who did it?”
“No. Strafa was airborne but falling. The big woman was on her knees, cursing, holding her chest and bleeding. We’ll get into all that once Mother gets here. Strafa was still alive then. She begged me to tell you how much she loved you. She tried to guess who did it. Then she stopped breathing and her heart stopped. I couldn’t get anything started again. I don’t have the power . . .” He stopped talking, took deep breaths, forced himself to become calm.
He did have that Algarda talent, an ability to manage emotion. To go cold as death when calm and calculation were needed.
He exhaled. “That one was still conscious. She tried to talk. She called herself Vicious Min. She looks mixed-breed, maybe groll, but I don’t think she’s from this world.”
“So that ridiculous tournament thing hasn’t even started and somebody jumped somebody else.”
Barate nodded. “Yes. I don’t think that breaks the rules. I don’t think you can cheat, the way Mother explains it. But this would come close. The selection of participants has only just begun and the contest is down a probable Champion, maybe has a Dread Companion dying, and has you, if you’re the Mortal Companion, potentially crippled by grief. That has to be an encouraging start for somebody.”
I tried channeling the young Garrett who crept through snake-filled, croc-infested swamps to find strangers to murder in nightmares gone by. That Garrett was always scared but never out of control. He got on with getting on.
Once a Marine . . .
er showed up while I was dealing with the notion that I had been tagged to be Strafa’s sidekick by the Operators. Her Mortal Companion, formally.
There was a lot of formality in this murder game.
The old sorceress arrived in such a dark mood that those who were not part of the family began clearing off as they found plausible excuses. Her reputation was kingdomwide.
The red tops faded fastest, including Target, who seemed content to hand me over despite the charge the Director had laid on him. Preston Womble disappeared even earlier, never being missed till I realized that I hadn’t seen him since I’d spotted him leaning over Vicious Min like he meant to kiss her good-bye.
Dr. Ted was among the last to go. He told Barate, “I did what I could, which wasn’t much. That woman may be something supernatural. You’ll likely have better luck having your own people work on her.”
His meaning got through. He meant people like Shadowslinger, who went into seclusion as soon as she arrived. Or Bonegrinder, who had come with her. Or Tara Chayne Machtkess. I had no idea where she fit or what dark skills she mastered. Strafa hadn’t explained and it hadn’t occurred to me to ask.
Dr. Ted’s parting words let me know that, though he lived on the Hill, he wasn’t part of what made the Hill what it was. He was just a physician. Probably one of the best since he served such a select clientele, but not a man tapped into the darkness himself.
Nor was Barate. He had been skipped by the family knack. I don’t know why. Maybe he had picked the wrong father. Maybe the knack skipped every other generation. Kevans was short on mystical skills, too.
Once the outsiders thinned out, Shadowslinger reappeared long enough to summon the rest of us into the room Strafa called a library. There weren’t many books there, actually, though they seemed plentiful to me. Singe would go gaga over the ones dealing with economics.
I have to admit, Strafa’s future husband found books mildly threatening, though he would read one occasionally.
The dread sorceress was no longer content to sit, bask in fireplace warmth, and let her son do the talking. “I have made the funeral arrangements,” she announced, making it clear why she preferred not to speak for herself. She had a pipey little-girl voice that was completely unintimidating. Put her behind a screen, you’d think a cute eight-year-old was back there chirping. “You will be there. You.” She thrust a long, fat, wrinkled, dark, dry, and crooked finger at me.
“Ma’am? Yes, ma’am.”
My response amused Tara Chayne and Richt Hauser. They figured I’d gone chicken because I didn’t have Strafa to run interference.
There was some truth to that, though less than they thought.
“Your vows were not legally finalized. However, this family will proceed on the basis that they were in place in practice. Arrangements are being made to complete the legal formalities. You are the husband of Furious Tide of Light now, in fact as well as prospect.” Her ritualistic tone balanced the baby voice. In fact, it felt like she was casting a spell.
She took time to look for someone who wanted to argue. Kevans looked sour but disinclined to object in words.
Bonegrinder and the Machtkess woman looked puzzled. Barate’s pal Kyoga, silent and nearly invisible today, didn’t understand at all.
Shadowslinger said, “This could have significant legal implications someday.” She looked me in the eye. “You and I will discuss that later, after the funeral and our war with the people who made this happen.”
Little-girl voice or no, anyone anywhere with guilty knowledge had to feel Death’s cool breath on the backs of their necks.
Shadowslinger had one of the darkest reputations on the Hill. Today she made it sound like that reputation was understated and was now headed toward a darkness deeper than any visited before.
She kept talking to me. “We aren’t going to do anything obvious. You will begin the hunt after the funeral. You will not be subtle, as we discussed yesterday.”
We did? When? I didn’t remember that. Maybe my knack for getting distracted was betraying me. Or maybe Strafa was supposed to clue me in and never got around to it.
I needed to find out what Shadowslinger really expected.
She told me, “You will find out who murdered your wife.”
All right. “Yes. No doubt about that. I’ll spend the rest of my life on that if that’s what it takes.”
“Good. But don’t act on it before we have a chance to talk it over. Once you do find out who is responsible, that is. Nothing. Understand?”
“You’re a good man. Much too good to have what will happen weighing on your conscience afterward.”
I opened my mouth to protest. I couldn’t imagine anything that awful. Not at that moment, in the emotional state that I occupied.
She gave me no chance to butt in. She never would. She was that kind of matriarch. In her own mind she was the soul and will of Family Algarda. The rest of us were the feet and fingers that executed the Will.
“You’re all too good. I’m not.” She closed her eyes and smacked her lips.
Street legend accused her of having eaten some of her enemies. She’d never denied it, but I’d always considered it psychological warfare. Seeing her there dreaming of fava beans and . . . something, though, I was less inclined to be skeptical.
sounded elsewhere in the house, probably not far away. Never opening her eyes, the old horror said, “There is an eavesdropper in your house, Garrett. Deal with her.”
r led me on a very short chase. She was close enough to hear Shadowslinger tell me to get her. Fear rattled her. I caught her heading for the front door, in the open, apparently wading through invisible mud up to her hocks.
“Helenia? You need to catch up with Preston and Target.”
I had forgotten her completely. Preston and Target had stayed underfoot, but she had faded away, out of sight and out of mind. Which might be her special value to the Director. She might be one of those people with a knack for being overlooked, which can be frustrating when you’re young, but becomes a priceless skill in the spying and law enforcement games.
I owed Helenia some so didn’t feel right doing anything beyond telling her to make herself scarce. “Before those less pleasant people back there take notice.” I thought that the most unpleasant of them all probably wanted Helenia to carry tales to her boss. It would be like her to use the Guard and Unpublished Committee to work her mischief.
Pallid, Helenia bobbed her head and backed away, headed for the street. I followed her out, sort of herding her at first, then just accompanying her once we hit the flagstone drive. I stopped outside the gate. She headed west. I noted that the ugly black coach, surrounded by red tops but lacking Target, waited two blocks downhill. So. There had been a plan.
I should have seen it coming.
I was distracted by emotion, of course.
Helenia walked faster as she moved farther away and the mud got shallower. She brushed past people who came out of the lane running alongside the property, flinching away from them.
I forgot Helenia.
Headed my way were the doll girl and groll that Strafa and I had seen near Shadowslinger’s place last night. The girl had said something. I hadn’t been interested at the time. I had forgotten the incident.
They came up even with me, strolling, neither making eye contact. The little girl held the groll’s hand as though they were about to step out in a pavane. One step past me she said, “I warned you.”
The odd pair moved on while I gulped air and tried to get the watermills of my mind to turn over. I opted for a strategy that had worked in the past. The hell with thought or planning. Charge! Get stuff happening, then sort through the wreckage.
When I moved the groll shed his trance and looked back. Suddenly, Vicious Min looked like a runt. The groll eye nearest me glowed red. A trick of the light, surely, but it was sobering. He was not in a friendly mood.
. I did recall that Strafa, far better equipped to deal with the strange and supernatural than was I, had died right here, on this street, twenty feet from where I was about to make a huge, potentially lethal mistake of my own.
I stopped. I watched for a moment. Then I turned, wound up my lazy old legs, and hustled after Helenia.
My new family was pleased to explain, minutes later, that my mind was not yet working right. I should have summoned them immediately. One of them might actually have been able to do something. Shadowslinger seemed particularly interested, especially once I revealed that Strafa and I had had an earlier encounter with the same pair. In fact, she seemed quite disturbed but then closed down on her thoughts except to suggest that those two must be connected to the tournament, maybe as a Champion and Mortal Companion or Dread Companion, working some tactical angle.
When Shadowslinger rolled out, with Barate behind her chair, with Bonegrinder foaming at the mouth and Tara Chayne Machtkess sniffing delicately, there was no pretty doll or ugly chaperone to be seen. Machtkess told us, “Their scent has dispersed.” She eyed me like she had begun to question my intelligence.
Bonegrinder felt the surface of the street, shook his head. “No warmth left behind, either.”
Shadowslinger said, “He didn’t make it up. He saw what he saw.” Her head turned slowly. She looked up at me from slitted eyes. “His word is gold.” As we headed back up the drive, she told me, “You have been given a thread to pull. Find out who she is, then yank it.”
My word needed not stand alone. Helenia and the red tops had seen the strange pair. But there was no need to offer witnesses. I was Strafa’s husband. I belonged. Now, with me welcomed by Shadowslinger, there could be no doubts about my report.
It was a unique feeling, though. Kind of warming. I seldom got as much support or trust even from Dean, Singe, or Penny.
They, though, had been schooled by me and Old Bones alike to question everything and those relationships had grown organically rather than dramatically.
• • •
New council of war, family-style, briefly. Shadowslinger chaired and did the talking. She reiterated her strategy. “We will take it easy till after the funeral. We will use that time to tame our emotions and consider our resources. After the interment we will gird our souls for war and rectify the imbalance.”
I got a definite sense of understatement there. I pictured an apocalypse developing within her mind.
“We will devour the Operators bite by slow, bloody bite, raw. Do you all understand?”
She was playing off her evil reputation now, maybe hoping Strafa’s servants, in attendance as always, would mention her mood while gossiping with servants from other households.
I hoped she wasn’t feeling literal. I hoped her reputation was exaggerated.
After speechifying scary the horrid woman handed out assignments, a few of which did make it sound like she meant to eat somebody. The jobs were odds and ends we could pick up, snip off, wrap or unwrap, while we tamed our shock, pain, and crushing hatred, awaiting Strafa’s funeral. I got one of the heavier loads.
She thought I ought to keep my mind occupied.
I do have a tendency to brood when things aren’t going well.