29 Storis 1138
In the morning, we returned to the office to work on Teregenia Silvalt’s case. I left the Company file on our table; Bran had mentioned he was staying at the Belleview, and I’d invited him to a late supper. No need to drag him out in a Wet ice storm when I could deliver his passcard. As for his survivor or partner or whatever the mysterious Quin Byssus was, Avah dropped the subject and I wouldn’t resurrect it. Bran could tell me what that man meant to him any time.
Avah disappeared at midday — another session with the tooth Healer — and my office grew cluttered as marked books accumulated on my worktables and floor. I shoved a stack of genealogies on the floor deeper under my desk and heard the odd sound of something rolling, then striking the wall.
I crawled beneath and found the package I’d received just before Linzara appeared at my office. I’d completely forgotten about it. It wasn’t a depositions box, so unimportant.
I sat on the floor as rainy ice coated the streets with a perilous layer. The return direction inked on the canvas was nonsense, Cimenarum, Curia District, 25 Welces’ Square. 25 Welces’ Square doesn’t exist. The Square has three addresses, significantly more complex than a simple number and street: the Karsai, Prava House and the Judicatura. My personal address had been 1 Welces Square, Steward’s Office, Box 4; my official one had been the Prima Ascendara’s Office.
If this came from an assumed address, it could mean me harm. In better weather, I’d ride to Archilavast so their Observers and Transposers could examine and unwrap it from a distance, but four millae in this weather might be four hundred, and this might kill me if I let it sit much longer. It probably wasn’t a bomb, else kicking it would have triggered the explosion, and certainly the post wasn’t gentle. Bombs are based on fire oil, and it’s tricky stuff. It’ll burn anywhere, and jostling ignites it.
Some acids remain inert until touched or dampened, but everything’s damp, and the canvas looks sound. Someone had always before done this for me, save for letters to my personal box, and those came from Ragin and my tutors, all trusted. Chances were good that as long as I didn’t touch whatever lay beneath the wrappings, I wouldn’t die immediately.
That didn’t mean this meant me no harm. Some Ingeniae can imbue an item with puissance that forces someone to act to his will. However, it requires touch, and it’s not easy. When Da died, there were only two Technisars in the country, both at the Judicatura, who set traps for recalcitrant defendants. I knew both, trusted both, and expected both would take their own lives before cooperating to harm me. However, Savrin might have others.
He wouldn’t send an object to fetch me — he’d just summon me.
I donned my gloves, defended my mind completely, and reached up to my desktop for my knife. Color and sound drained from the world. I dislike being so heavily defended; it’s like being half-blind and half-deaf.
Whoever packaged this was determined it would be anonymous. The canvas wrapping was the commonest sort, and once I unpicked the stitches holding it closed, it wasn’t any more clear. The ends of the cylinder were two slices of a branch about six inches in diameter. Heavy pasteboard had been wrapped around the circumference and tacked and glued in place. I cautiously picked the tube up and shook it. Nothing rattled, and it weighed little — perhaps five pounds.
I got to work with the knife, whittling through the pasteboard until I could saw through it. Whatever this container held, it had been built to withstand fire, flood and earthquake. If it is a bomb, it may have already detonated without breaking its own bonds. A light snow of scraps built up around me as I worked around the tube, until finally, I could pry the damned thing open.
The tube appeared to hold a crude cylindrical pillow made of rough canvas. “This is just ridiculous,” I muttered. I eased the roll out, then picked out more of the large stitches so I could unwind the wrappings. I felt no shape until I brushed away the chopped straw stuffing and found my indigo Ascendara’s sash, my embroidered sigil clear, wrapped around something.
That should have been destroyed. I’d left it on my desk, with my Ascendara’s signet ring. Why is it here, folded around something long and rigid?
I reached for a glass pen and wiped the nib on my coat where the ink wouldn’t show — an advantage to wearing mourning — then teased the nib under the folds until the point caught. I pulled the silk away, not wanting to touch it until I knew it was safe, but my curiosity got the better of me.
Who sent it? Not Ragin — he hasn’t been in Cimenarum in almost a quarter-year, and then only for a conclave of Justiciars and Justiciar Advocates. Not Ethene; she hadn’t been to the Karsai since just after I left. That ended the list of those I trusted, who were permitted to enter the Karsai and remove something and who knew were I lived now. None of the servitors nor hallyers had been told my destination; publicly, I remained secluded at Monserat in mourning. Mina and Meri wouldn’t be allowed to remove something from the Karsai.
The silk unfurled like a parade banner and the mystery deepened. The Ascendar’s sword lay before me, a plain weapon with a wire-wrapped hilt, the blade’s swirling dark and light metal hidden in the simple scabbard.
This certainly shouldn’t be here. Ragin should have it — no, he has his own. This should have gone to the Armory to await another Ascendar. “Bleeding wisdom,” I swore under my breath. I’ve stolen regalia in my possession. If found here, I’d have no excuse. This is treasonous.
With the pen, I flipped the card tied to the guard so I could see the sigils. It read, You may find these useful, in a clerk’s uniform, impersonal script.
I laid a single gloved finger on the hilt and felt no compulsion to shove the sword through my middle nor set off for the nearest cliff. Nothing seemed to invade my mind, nor did my defenses waver, as they would if someone attempted an assault.
I removed my glove and touched the sword. No change. I cautiously let down my defenses. No change. If these items had been altered by some Ingenia, I didn’t notice. Still, I couldn’t keep them. The office lacked a cache large enough for a yard-long sword. It would have to reside in my bedroom, the first place an Investigator would look and the last place I wanted it.
I folded the sash and put it in my coat pocket, swept most of the straw and scraps into the bin, then rolled the canvas to reuse when I sent documents south. Not until I stood to stack the wrappings with the rest did I see the silk sack.
“Bleeding hells!” Someone’s trying to incriminate me. I didn’t bother with gloves or pen; when Da commissioned my diadem, he’d ensured it couldn’t be altered. I tipped my — not mine, the Ascendara’s — waterstone diadem onto my palm. The flexible gold band set with blue waterstones had been bent, but not broken. It would have to be reshaped, but good gold withstands some abuse. I cursed under my breath in several languages while I thought of a hiding place for these.
These objects complicated my life considerably. Possessing the sword was bad, but the diadem was practically an invitation to be declared a rebel. I’m thinking it, but I’m not ready to declare war. I can’t pay for it, I don’t have the manpower, and let’s not forget the difficulties of communicating in a nation where minds can be read. I’d seized on the Silvalt case because it offered a slow, but possible, peaceful solution. Besides, my year of retreat and quiet wasn’t finished and though I disliked Savrin’s policies, I hoped we might compromise when we met again.
Unless someone wants me prosecuted. These objects will. Who not amongst my allies had sufficient permissions to obtain sword, sash and diadem? Mathes, of course; Savrin’s Chancellor; his Steward, now another Lethian; the Optimus and Savrin himself. All of whom could mean me harm and this had the hallmarks of Mathes’ manipulation.
What to do with the damn things? Return them? That’s admitting guilt. Destroy them? The sash, easily, but the sword? Nothing short of diamond would so much as chip the blade. Ascendar swords held their edges for years; Ragin’s had only needed to be re-edged twice, despite almost daily use when he’d been on Border Patrol during the worst raids.
As for the diadem, I could pry out the stones, pound the gold flat or melt it, but Da commissioned it for me. That’s a final betrayal. I considered it. Not tonight. I tucked it into my pocket, too, with the odd card. Right now, the sword can stay under my desk.
I walked to the end of the block for a late midday meal, expecting Avah to be back when I returned, trying to work out who had the best motive and opportunity to set me up, and wondering how long until someone arrived to arrest me for stealing regalia. Not a good tenday for a quiet office. I couldn’t have gone to Cimenarum myself — I’d seen Telia, Linzara Silvalt, Celadane, Bran Darlamand and Mistress Katin at the noodle-shop — but I could have met with someone, and Avah was too close to me to be considered objective. Even the marginal defense that I had been an unwilling recipient wouldn’t help without a Perceptive, and I trusted few of those left in the Judicatura. Just because we can read minds doesn’t mean we can’t lie about what we read. Further, Perceptives are unparalleled at defending their minds. If we don’t want someone in, they won’t get in.
Mistress Katin gave me a seat at the bar, a bowl of my favorite daily soup — a spicy, creamy mixture of spinach and mushrooms and whatever else goes in soup — bread, cheese and a cassia bun. I dawdled over it, trying to work out my best reaction to the objects. For once, she noticed I wasn’t fully present and didn’t try to chat. She just made up a similar basket for Avah, calculated the tenday’s bill and accepted my draft. I wandered back to the office, still half-sunk in my thoughts.
For tonight, it could lie under my mattress. Tomorrow, I’ll ask Telia if she has an idea. Ethene said I could trust her… or maybe I’ll take it out to Darav. It shouldn’t be somewhere obvious; a criminal keeps the spoils close.
I should drop it off the Crook bridge and let the current return it to Cimenarum. That wouldn’t work, either. With my luck, the scabbard will float and it’ll wash up on the banks. Worse, in some ways, if it sinks. Then I can’t prove where it is when someone challenges me about it.
I had no good solutions, that was certain. I cut through the barren back garden that might be pleasant if we ever did something with it. I listened as I opened the door. Silence, so Avah hadn’t returned, but the door between my office and Avah’s was closed. I didn’t remember closing it; I only did so when I had a client in conference because the oil stove turned the room stifling. It wasn’t yet that warm, so it hadn’t been closed long, but it was warming. I heard nothing from the other rooms. I put the basket on my desk and took off my outer coats, my nerves fully alert. Something here was wrong.
You may find these useful, the card on the sword read. My mouth went dry. How I might find a sword useful? Is someone trying to warn me? They’d arrived several days ago; if someone wanted to help me, I hadn’t helped much. Had I opened the package upon arrival, the sword would be utterly useless, already hidden beneath a couple hundredweight of wardrobe or milliae away.
Could a Prognosticator foresee my distraction? That’s barely possible, but Prognosticators don’t see the future at will. It’s too chaotic. At best, they receive short flashes and those can change. A Prognosticator’s training has little to do with the ingenia itself; they mostly learn to interpret the flashes and maintain their focus to endure them.
They usually only see points of crisis, when the future can shift. Some philosophers believe every second of every day is a crisis, but some moments seem more critical than others.
Now, I had reasoning that almost made sense. If some Prognosticator foresaw whatever was coming next, she could have ensured that I got what I needed in time. Immediately, I couldn’t even consider how that had been done, but I needn’t. Worst case, assuming that happened, I’ll startle Avah and reveal the sword. Best case, this closed door and my sword warn me. Maybe that’s the worst case. Hard to know.
I knew where the floors creaked. My door made little noise and the floors were well insulated; if someone was in the outer office, all they would have heard was the back door opening and closing. I’ve little time.
I need to be able to move. I rid myself of my high-necked dress coat. It only reached my knees, but its skirts would hinder me. In shirtsleeves, I’ve less protection, but more ability to move, and if I’m right, I better be better than I ever was in the studio. I hadn’t practiced in almost a year, and little in the year before Da died. I’m stiff and as graceless as an ice-skating ox, with a lame shoulder. If someone’s out there, I’ll have to fight around furniture and low ceilings. Our outer office barely measured four yards by five, but between bookcases, desk, file cabinets and chairs, it was a minefield. Too bad I’m good with the sword, not knives.
My skin prickled with gooseflesh. It’s either colder than I thought, or I’m frightened. I made myself breathe carefully, long inhalations and silent exhalations. This is excessive. Avah closed the door because she didn’t want to be disturbed. She’s probably hard at work and you’re preparing for war. All these thoughts flashed through my mind in heartbeats, as puissance flooded my mind almost without volition, waiting to be channeled and used.
I left the scabbard with my coat and tested the blade. It shaved the back of my hand, leaving it curiously bald without those few fine hairs. The four sigils engraved into the blade, In Honor Bear Me, gleamed faintly in the retreating sun’s dim light. Another worry. The office is getting dark. I’ll fight cold, cramped and blind. And out of practice.
This is stupid, don’t try to be the hero, you’ll just be dead. Don your coat, cross the street, borrow Master Bridger’s three strapping sons, and send him for the Guard. Be sensible, Rien.
I crossed to the door, my sword on guard, and listened with every sense I possessed. Nobody lurked just beyond the door, but someone was out there. Just one. Not Avah’s violet and rose scent. This person was birch, for caution, and anise — for… what? I’ve never smelled this before. What does it signify? And another sensation, like steel and ice wrapped in seawater, cold and sharp, but inert. A death — recent, violent, and human.
I realized with a sinking heart. Forty-six guards, my father and now Avah had died for me. Archilia, no more deaths. If it be your will, take me but stop letting those misfortunate enough to breathe near me die. I shan’t surrender to this murderer — no suicide — but I shan’t die easily. If it be your will that I die, make him quick. If darkness is insatiable, let me fall next.
The door would swing silently on well-greased hinges. Not my doing, nor Avah’s, but the caretaker’s. I preferred the warning of noisy hinges. Why, Archilia? I was in the office alone for hours. Why not send him then? Why kill Avah, too?
My best chance is to move quickly and end this before it starts. The Ascendar’s sword could slice ham thin enough to read through, but it can’t chop bone, so I’d target either throat or belly. The neck is certain death, but a quick curving slash to the midsection would carve him like a goose.
If you won’t be sensible, stop stalling and do this, Rien.
I shoved the door open. My luck failed. He was watching it. I made myself ignore the copper-iron stench, blinded myself to the red spill on the floor and the body on the desk. The blinds filtered the light, making the room dim, and my world narrowed to the brown-clad torso and the blades in his hands.
Two knives. Keep him out of reach. Blade on guard, forward, body turned sideways to present a smaller target. My height but shorter arms. I’ve the advantage of reach. Stay out of range. Thrust right, up, shoulder. Eliminate the right hand. I sidled around an open file cabinet, almost slipped on files tossed on the floor. I took the momentum and thrust forward for the bicep. The blade sinks, just a pink, he parries left, thrusts right. Pull back. No armor. Riposte. Slash left. Dodge the chair standing crazily away from the desk. Another pink. Blood blooms. Red, not enough.
“Where is it?” he growled.
It could mean anything. Parry right. Return to guard. Get the desk between us. Slash. Right handed, concentrate there. He pushed forward, trying to trap me against the sticky front door, but I pulled back, stepped lightly left, towards the conference room, my body taking over. Slash, parry, parry, riposte. His side bled. No room, nowhere to flee, no time. If I turn my back, his knives fly. Step, thrust, parry. Don’t see her body.
Another odor in the room, familiar but wrong. Fuel oil, the raw, rancid scent rather than the gentle singe. I slipped again, on blood or paper, and this time he got the advantage. His left hand flashed out, but the pommel made contact, not the blade. Pain bloomed in my face, a familiar one. My jaw. Step, guard, slash, but he was already inside my guard. “Where is it, bitch?” he repeated.
I ducked my head as the knife came at my throat. He was so close I could feel heat from his body, smell his last meal on his breath, see the weave of his coat. Too close to use a sword, but not too close for knives, and I had no retreat left — the conference room knob in my right hand wouldn’t turn.
I’ve the Ascendar, I remembered as I imperfectly dodged his second blade. It sliced open my coat and sizzling pain raced up my arm, but I knew from a thousand small cuts over the years that it wasn’t mortal. With a foe inside one’s guard, there’s a trick that wouldn’t work with another blade, and only for someone left-handed fighting with a right-handed weapon. Usually, only the inner edge of a curved blade is honed, but the Ascendar is razor-edged on both because it can tolerate it. One parries with the flat, not the outer edge. In the left hand, the outer edge leads. I pressed forward, my head down, and dropped the sword perpendicular to the floor. I drew upwards. It parted his coat with a hiss, sank into his skin like a wire through butter and opened him like a wet bag.
The stench slapped me as his body shuddered. I pulled back, stepped left, kept my head down and my face out of the splatter. I’d known it would happen, but I’d never used a sharpened blade. I’ve never drawn blood.
Ragin’s practical lessons always included the truth of this moment, unlike my guards. But being told isn’t the experience of ropy, glistening viscera and blood by the gallon and the stench of his bowel. I didn’t know he wouldn’t have the breath to scream.
My sword flashed again and another wound opened, across his throat. Now blood showered the room, me, everything. He fell.
It couldn’t have taken more than a minute, but it lasted eternities.