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The barest sliver of a crescent moon floated peacefully over the sleeping city of Mirashai. Soft golden was its color, but it shed no light on the broad, paved streets or gloomy alleys that laced Korkyra's ancient capital. An enigmatic smile in the dark sky, it captured the eyes and imaginations of the usually alert palace sentries. They leaned on their pikes, inhaled the gentle salt breeze that blew inland from the Calendi Sea, and composed poems for each other.
They did not see the shadow that slipped over the palace walls. It dropped soundlessly into the royal courtyard and crouched behind the queen's favorite roses. It studied the garden, noting where the guards were, where a patch of gravel might turn noisily underfoot, where a tree or bush or shadow might provide cover as it made its way to the garden's far side.
It started off, moving phantomlike among the unwary sentries. As it ran, a stray moonbeam fell upon its face, lending glitter to dark eyes. A black mask hid any other features.
A guard coughed. The intruder snuggled in the shadow of an orange tree and peered around. He had not been spotted. He moved on, swiftly, silently, and came to a door.
Its cracked wooden surface and rusted hinges betrayed the antiquity of Korkyra's palace. There was no lock; in troubled times it was barred on the inside with an oaken beam, his sources had warned. But finally, the nation was at peace. He expected no bar.
Putting his shoulder to the wood, he pushed. There came the faintest creak, inaudible to the sentries. Still, he took no chances but reached beneath his cloak, extracted a sealed pot of oil from the pouch on his belt. Whenthe seal was broken, he carefully collected the wax fragments and returned them to the pouch, leaving no evidence of his passage.
He smeared the pot's thick contents around the edges of the door and into the rusty hinges. When he tried the door again, it eased open without complaint. He slipped inside.
There were no lighted sconces in these seldom-traveled levels. Darkness was utter, intimidating. He took a breath, felt for the wall, and hurried on, counting his steps carefully.
Somewhere ahead he'd find a passage and a way to the western tower. His hand found a niche and a basin of water, once herb-scented, now quite torpid. He allowed a faint smile. Ten steps more to the passage.
He made his way stealthily. Most of the halls he traversed were dark, a few dimly lit by weak, slow-burning lamps. Once, a squad of soldiers passed; he heard their heavy footfalls and hid in a side passage until they were gone.
A winding stairway carried him to the next level and another black corridor. He crept along toward a distant brightness, the royal passage, illuminated by a hundred lamps and torches. There, he would find another stair ascending into the western tower.
He would also find a guard, so his sources informed him.
Several strides from the royal passage, he stretched flat on his stomach. The stone tiles were cold even through his tunic. He crawled to the end of the darkness. Face close to the floor, he peered into light.
A gleaming silver plate hung behind each lamp, reflecting the firelight, turning the hall into a place of burnished brilliance. The corridor was wider than he expected, the ceiling high and vaulted. Frescoes decorated the upper reaches. The floor was a chessboard of pink-and-white marble.
He glanced right. That way led to the throne room and other parts of the palace. He glanced left. At the hall's far end was a small, arched doorway and beyond, a stair mounting into darkness.
By the door, a guard stood rigid, a veritable mountain of muscled flesh. His right hand gripped a huge iron-tipped lance; his left rested on the haft of a wicked double-bladed axe, which hung from a strap on his weapon belt. Polished metal rings sewn to his leather armor shone brightly.
The intruder crept back into darkness and stood. He unlaced his cloak, let it slip to the floor, and removed his mask. Gloved fists rubbed furiously at eyes until they burned. He opened his tunic to the waist. In a wrist-sheath, he wore a short, thin-bladed dagger; he reached up his sleeve and loosened its catch-strap.
Then, in a low and rasping voice he began to sing an old tavern song. He slurred the words, made a shambles of the proper melody. He sang softly at first, then louder.
He scuffled noisily into the brighter passage, set a weaving course for the stairway.
The guard snapped alert at first sight of him. The lance swung down. Two eyes glared suspiciously from beneath a helmet rim. "Who's there?"
The intruder flashed a big, disarming grin. He reached for the tapestried wall to steady himself and took another wobbly step. "Gon' sing for the queen," he announced boisterously. "Sing a little song for the queen, yes sir!" He cracked out another verse, grinning, wobbling.
The sentry frowned with stern disapproval, leaned the lance against the wall, and bore down on him. "You're drunk, sir," the guard declared. "Find another place to sing before you wake Her Majesty."
"Gon' sing for the queen." The guard bent near. With feigned carelessness, the intruder tripped on his own heel and pretended to fall. Reacting by well-intentioned instinct, the unwary guard reached out to catch him.
The sleeved dagger lashed out, bit deep, straight into the guard's unprotected throat. The intruder twisted the blade and jerked, severing the windpipe. A gurgling rush of air was all that came of the man's attempt to scream. He crumpled, quickly dead.
Hastily, the intruder cut a strip from the dead man's cloak and stuffed it in the gaping wound to prevent more blood from spilling on the tiles. Too much of the telling crimson already stained the floor; he mopped it up with the rest of the cloak. Someone might happen by. A missing guard could be explained by a dozen things--drink, women, nature's necessities--but blood told a more chilling tale.
Seizing the body by the heels, he dragged it back into the dark passage he had emerged from. No one would come that way until morning. He recovered his own cloak and made for the stair.
Narrow stone steps wound higher and higher. He felt the wall constantly as he ascended. There were lamps on the walls, but no light in them. The only illumination came from two small windows whose wooden shutters had been left open. A faint, pale moon grinned as he passed them.
At the top of the stairs he found a short corridor and a single door. On noiseless feet he crept to it, loosening the short sword in the sheath he wore strapped to his thigh. Slowly, he drew the weapon out.
On the other side of the door the High Queen of Korkyra slept with her lone guardian. His gloved hand pushed on the smooth, polished wood. He had been paid well for this night's work.
It was time to earn his money.
Frost sat on the edge of the high window and stared at the moon. The stone was cool against her bare buttocks. An easy wind rustled the scant nightshirt, her only garment. She sighed, and her small breasts heaved gently under the thin material. She breathed the salt air, smelled the rich odor of flowers from the garden far below.
She closed her eyes. The night was full of ghosts and bad memories. She imagined she could hear the sea waves as they roared upon the shore and shook the vessels anchored in the harbor. The sound of breakers and thrashing foam played in her mind, and she thought of a little girl who once stood among the rocks at the ocean's edge calling in a tiny voice for the wind and tempest that came at her command.
She drew a deep breath and sighed again. It was on such nights as this that she had worked her wildest magics and bent the elements to her will. How she had rejoiced in the energies that surged within her, forces that rose, bursting free like an arcane and potent song! She recalled all the sensations: the crackling on her skin, the immense gulf that opened in her mind, from whose dark depths had sprung the power she had wielded so effortlessly.
But that was long ago. Now, her witch-powers were gone. Her sorceress-mother had closed that gulf forever, cursed her daughter with a dying breath and stripped away all vestiges of her eldritch talents.
Frost told herself it no longer mattered. She didn't miss the magic. She had been much younger in those days, a very different person, and a little girl. Such things easily captivated little girls, and they never saw the dark price their souls would eventually pay. Still, she remembered ....
What had become of that little girl at the ocean's edge?
The Calendi Sea was only two miles away. She seldom went there anymore. The blue, crashing waters always brought back memories of Esgaria and the place where she grew up by the shore. She couldn't bear those memories anymore or the nightmares they so often brought.
Tonight, though, it was no nightmare that kept her from sleeping.
She looked up at the pale moonlight and the dim silver stars that peppered the sky. A low, moaning wind chased a wisp of hair from her eyes. She cast her gaze over the towers and minarets of Mirashai. In a far-off window, a candle flickered and went out.
"Time to go," she whispered to herself. It was almost a sigh. She looked across the room to the queen's silken draped bed. Aki no longer needed her. The war with Aleppo was over. Korkyra was at peace.
She had found friends, made a respectable place for herself here. Why it wasn't enough, she couldn't tell. But it wasn't.
"Time to go," she whispered again. The increasingly sedentary life of Aki's court left her too much time to think, too much time to brood.
What would Aki say? For over a year Frost had stood by the little queen's side as champion and guardian. Aki had given her authority not only over the palace elite guard, but also over most of her personal advisors.
Frost shook her head and turned her gaze back to the night sky.
Aki was young. Too young to bear the responsibilities of a crown, Frost mused. She should have had a longer childhood, a chance to play and be a young girl. All that was lost now, thrown over for a golden circlet.
She remembered how the young queen had watched as her father's murderers, Aleppan spies, were put to death in the traditional Korkyran manner. Aki never flinched as the two men were hanged screaming by their feet and their wrists cut. Even as the dust soaked up the red blood, she set the crown on her own head, and all the armies hailed her as their rightful ruler.
Frost had been a soldier then, a common mercenary.
A cool gust fluttered her short nightshirt and startled her from her reverie. She yawned. Her own bed, less ornate than Aki's, waited in a corner near the door. The deep cushions beckoned. She was bone-tired, but not yet ready for sleep. She hugged her legs close, leaned her head on bent knees. A heavy strand of hair hid her face.
Time to go, she told herself again. She smiled faintly and closed her eyes.
A sudden stir in the air brought her out of a light doze, a gentle draft that brushed the wrong side of her body. She looked up and caught the dim flash of metal, heard the ripping of bedclothes. A shadow moved beside her bed.
She rose silently to a crouch on the windowsill and leaped.
Then, too late, she remembered the moon. Her shadow raced before her, alerting the intruder. He whirled, dodged her outstretched arms. With a bitter curse, she landed in a heap on the bed, sprawled among the thick blankets and cushions, her back an inviting target.
From the corner of her eye she saw the blade rise. She twisted furiously. The point bit deep in the mattress, barely missing her ribs. Again the weapon flashed. She threw herself aside, half-tangled in the shredded quilts, and lashed out with her feet.
Her foe grunted and crashed to the floor. She scrambled from the bed, listening in the dark, hoping for the clatter of his blade on the uncarpeted stone tiles.
That sound never came. She peered into the blackness; was the intruder invisible? Did he have some spell or charm that prevented her from seeing or hearing him? Or was he just good at his craft? She swore after this to keep a lamp lit, no matter what the hour. The damned darkness swallowed everything.
"Frost? I thought I heard something."
Frost barely made out the silhouette of Aki's head poking through the silken drapes of her bed. At the same time a swiftly moving silhouette crossed by the window.
She lunged and cried out as a coverlet fallen from the bed caught her foot. She fell heavily and rolled to her feet. Too late.
A gloved hand seized Aki by the hair and jerked her through the veils. The little queen screamed once before the same hand released her hair and clamped brutally over her mouth. She struggled and twisted but clearly her small strength was no match for the strength of her captor. Suddenly, she froze as the point of a short sword touched the flesh above her heart.
Frost's sword hung on a peg just above her pillow. She dived for it, snatched the scabbard, rolled over the bed, and came to her feet, blocking the only way into or out of the chamber. Her weapon came free with a hiss. The long blade gleamed, catching the moonlight.
For a tense moment there was no other sound but her own breathing and a muffled whimper from Aki. The light through the window drew a tenuous line across the room, a line neither she nor the intruder seemed willing to brave. She could not see him clearly, but his silhouette was target enough for her sword.
"Drop it." The voice was a harsh whisper. "I'll kill her if you don't."
She gripped her sword tightly in both hands, bastard-style, and swayed ever so slightly on the balls of her feet. When she answered there was a cold, challenging edge to her words. "Then what will you hide behind?"
"Move from the door, or she's meat."
"She's dead anyway if I let you leave with her. You'll cut her throat in one of the dark passages."
"You want to watch her die here and now?"
She kept her voice calm, but her palms were beginning to sweat. "Yes," she answered. "Then, she'll be swiftly avenged." She hesitated. The sword above Aki's heart did not waver. "Or I can make you a bargain. Let her go, and I'll give you fair time to get away before I call the guards."
The intruder didn't answer at once. "My terms," he said at last. "Drop your sword out the window, and I'll release her. You escort me from the palace."
Frost shook her head. "You found your way in alone, and you can find your way out. I count my own life valuable, too."
The sword moved to Aki's throat. For a dreadful moment Frost feared she had bargained too hard. Then, her foe answered, and there was an undisguised note of mirth in his voice.
"Capturing your opponent's queen is supposed to be an enormous tactical advantage."
The metaphor was not lost on her. She had watched many nights while her father had played the Game of Kings with other nobles.
"Stalemate, this time," she said. "Worse, if you reject my offer."
A heavy silence settled on the room. Even Aki was still. Then, "They say you murdered your parents and a brother, too."
She stiffened. Even here. The story had followed her even to Korkyra. Her grip tightened on her sword until her fingers went cold and half-numb. "Then you know it will mean nothing for me to cut you down."
"No, I suppose not." The tension had left his voice. He seemed relaxed, even conversational. "I've heard other tales about you, too, in the taverns and among the rabble."
"Quit your chattering, magpie," she hissed, annoyed that he could sound so calm. She trembled from head to toe, and her cheeks burned. She longed for nothing more than a chance to carve him. Who was this fool that dared poke in the ashes of her past? She swallowed hard, striving for a measure of control. "What's it going to be? Aki has a long day tomorrow and needs her sleep."
A deep laugh echoed in the room. "Gods! The bitch dares to be impatient with me!" He laughed again. "Maybe you're a sorceress after all, as some say."
"If it were true," she answered, "be sure I'd blast your soul to hell!"
Again, the room grew quiet. Again, the intruder broke the silence.
"All right," he said, "the game is yours, but we'll play again another time." He stepped forward into the light that spilled through the window with Aki locked tightly in the crook of his arm. The short sword still hovered near her throat. Even in the faint illumination she could not see his face.
"You'll give me a fair start, on your honor?"
"A fair start," she affirmed, "before I send the guards to hunt your carcass through the city."
He moved toward the door, keeping Aki between himself and the point of Frost's sword. She backed away, but not so far she couldn't reach him if his own blade wavered a hair.
He paused at the threshold.
"Let her go," Frost said.
His grip on Korkyra's child-queen did not lessen. "Not a night for assassins, it seems." He shrugged his shoulders. "Ah, well, had I succeeded, I was to leave this behind. Now, it's just extra weight to a running man." He sheathed his sword, though he still clung to Aki. The empty hand disappeared inside his tunic for a brief moment. Then, he tossed something that clattered at her feet. "It belongs to my employer. You may know him."
She glanced at the thing on the floor, barely visible in the gloom. "What--"
Aki's startled cry was scant warning as the intruder pushed the little queen straight at her sword's point. She twisted to avoid splitting her royal charge. Little queen and guardian fell in a tangle of arms and legs, and Frost felt cold metal slice her shoulder. She had no time to think of the pain. In the doorway, the assassin balanced a dagger in his fingertips.
She reacted swiftly, tugging Aki's smaller body under her own. She heard a thunk and opened her eyes to see the quivering blade sprouting from the leg of a stool near her hand.
"It goes without saying"--the intruder laughed--"I could have put that in your heart at any time."
"Liar," she began, but there was no chance to ask him how he would have done that with a child in one hand and a sword in the other. He made a short bow and vanished in the outer gloom.
She let out a string of curses with a viciousness that surprised even her. She pulled Aki roughly to her feet. The youngling's arms went around her waist, and her hands locked tightly. Aki trembled all over.
"It's all right now," Frost soothed. "He's gone, and we're both fine."
Tears misted in Aki's azure eyes. "Who was he?" she cried senselessly. The child part of her overwhelmed the queenly part. She buried her face in Frost's short nightshirt.
Frost separated herself from Aki's grasping arms and retrieved the object the assassin had left behind. It was a medallion. Her fingers traced the device raised on its surface. She started, and slowly the fire rose in her cheeks again. No mistaking that emblem. She didn't need a light to recognize that seal.
"It wasn't your life he wanted, little one." She ran the tip of her tongue over her lips, tasting her own sweat. The assassin had not gone to the wrong bed, as she first thought. "He came for me."
Aki gave her a quizzical look. The mist began to clear from her eyes.
"An old enemy dogs my tracks," she explained. "I'd completely forgotten him, a nearly fatal mistake." She picked up her sword. "Stay here and wait until I come back. Lock the door."
"Where are you going?" Aki asked with wide, innocent eyes. "You gave your word he'd have time to escape. On your honor."
Frost gave her a stern look. "Honor is a precious thing, Majesty. Like an orient spice, learn to use it sparingly." She stepped into the blackness beyond the threshold, then whispered back, "I only promised not to alert the guards. I said nothing about pursuing him myself."
She closed the door behind her with a soft thud and waited until she heard the bolt slide home. Her bare feet made no sound on the chill stones as she advanced. She listened for footsteps ahead. Nothing broke the eerie silence.
There's more light in the bowels of hell, she thought, wishing for a torch or a lamp. Could he have gotten away so quickly? Or was he crouched unseen somewhere ahead, ready to plunge his stubby sword into her vitals? She held her sword out before her, as a blind man might hold a stick.
Her right fist clutched the medallion, the sigil of Lord Rholf. The old man governed a city called Shazad in Rholaroth near the border of her own Esgaria. Two years before she'd been forced to kill a pair of his drunken sons. Rholf and his remaining sons chased her, bent on vengeance, but she thought she'd eluded them when she crossed into Chondos. Rholarothans feared that land with a superstitious dread. Yet somehow he'd managed to find her again.
I'll not be hunted, she swore. I'll have to end this if it means returning to Shazad.
She came to the stairs and began a cautious descent, feeling for the edges with her toes. Near the bottom the darkness began to dissolve as she approached the bright royal passage. The passage was empty. No sign of the intruder or the guard who should be on duty. She kicked the wall and cursed again.
"Seems cursing is all I'm good for tonight." Her words echoed meaninglessly in the corridor and faded away. She turned to mount the stairs.
Sudden sounds of racing feet and rattling weapons made her stop. A squad of the palace guards spilled into the hall from one of the adjoining passages. Tras Sur'tian himself, commander of the elite force, led them, his aging face grim and creased with worry. Some of the worry seemed to disappear when he saw her.
"Aki sounded the alarm!" he called gruffly.
She held out a hand to halt them and nodded. There was a velvet cord by the queen's bed, and a bell attached to it in the guards' quarters. A faint smile lifted the corners of her mouth. Aki must have rung it the minute her guardian left the room, throwing "honor" to the winds.
"She's all right now."
Tras Sur'tian said something else, but she didn't catch all the words. Instead, she wondered why his men were grinning in such an idiotic fashion. Then, a light draft spilled down the stairway from the unshuttered windows above, and she remembered with a start that all she wore was the thin nightshirt she slept in. Embarrassed, she waved her sword. "I'll cut the lips off the next man who smiles." Their grins faded.
Tras Sur'tian glowered at his men and ripped the cloak from a young lieutenant's back. She murmured thanks as he draped it over her shoulders.
"You're hurt," he said, spying the blood that trickled down her arm.
"My own sword," she said as ungentle fingers probed the wound. "I fell on its edge. Clumsy of me, but not serious."
Hastily, she sketched the details of the intruder's surreptitious visit. Tras Sur'tian gave orders and half his men sped away to seal the exits from the palace grounds. Too late, she secretly feared.
"First thing in the morning I want to see every man who was on duty tonight," he told the lieutenant. "I'll know who fell asleep, or I'll hang the lot."
"Let's see to Aki," Frost said. "She's alone right now and no doubt frightened." She hugged the cloak tighter around her shoulders and hurried up the stairs. The lamps borne by Tras Sur'tian and his squad lighted the way this time, and passage was much quicker.
"Hell of a country that puts a child on its throne," she muttered.
Tras Sur'tian agreed. "The choice was not mine or yours to make."
"I can't stay with her any longer, Tras." She touched her old friend's shoulder. "I was thinking of leaving anyway, but now my presence is a threat to her safety. Aki mustn't be in the way if my enemies try again."
Tras Sur'tian nodded understanding. They moved quietly up the last of the stairs. When they reached the door to Aki's bedchamber, Frost pushed. Locked from the inside, as she had instructed. She called out.
Again she called, and a third time. Tras Sur'tian's hand clamped on her shoulder. "Let me try," he said. One time only he called Aki's name, his booming voice filling the narrow corridor. Then he slammed his massive frame against the wooden door. It shook on its hinges, but held. A second assault broke the bolt; the door sprang open.
A sickening stench of brimstone and sulfur boiled into the passage, filling her lungs with choking fumes. She staggered back coughing, nearly tripping over a man who had fainted behind her. Smoke stung her eyes. Someone bumped roughly into her, gasping for breath: Tras Sur'tian.
She took a deep breath, covered her face with a corner of her cloak, and rushed into the room. No trace of Aki. The walls were scorched and blackened as if a fire had raged through. Wisps of thick smoke clung to everything. Yet despite the smoke, the walls, all evidence of fire, nothing was burned. Furnishings, carpets, tapestries were all intact.
Tras Sur'tian pointed to the silken sheets strewn upon the royal bed. The canopied veils were thrown back. Five long, charred streaks ruined the fine material. The sentries all pressed closer for a better view.
"It has the shape of a large handprint," one guard observed.
Indeed it did.
"Sorcery," whispered Tras Sur'tian. He made a hasty pass in the air. "The work of demons."
The soldiers imitated his passes, invoking the protection of the One Korkyran God.
Frost leaned on the windowsill and drew a clean, slow breath. The spires and minarets of the sleeping city made dark silhouettes on the star-speckled horizon. The sudden wind that stirred her hair did nothing to cool the flush of anger that ignited her heart. Her gaze swept the courtyard below, then the palace boundaries and beyond, as if from her high vantage she might penetrate the gloomy shadows that swallowed up the streets and alleys.
Tras Sur'tian came to her side. "Come away and let me tend your arm." His voice was low, thick with fear and sorrow. "There's nothing more to do here."
She shook him off. It had been her job to protect the child-queen. She had failed. The blame was hers. She gripped her sword-hilt until her knuckles went white and threatened to break the skin.
Where was Aki?
She looked up at the moon for an answer.
The pale crescent was still a smile in the night sky.