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|Three sections, each describing different events taking place in Cyarus after the assassination. Music: Apocalyptica, Harmageddon and a couple songs by the Andrew Sisters, who happen to be singing in the kitchen at the mo. :D :D :D||
Cyarus was a huge city, sprawling along the border of Lirshon for many miles, populated by countless thousands. The great palace towered above the city, a jewelled crown resting upon the brow of the majestic Mount Isis. From this grand building, the throne of the Aranim royalty, encircling tiers of lesser dwellings spiralled outwards, sloping gently down to the floor of the valley where a crooked maze of streets webbed about the thousands of homes, warehouses, shops and temples that housed and provided for the less wealthy citizens of Cyarus.
Many guilds had sprung up over the years, and the tall steeples and ornate architecture of the guildhalls surrounded the six big town squares Cyarus boasted. The most powerful guilds had a great deal of control over Cyrasian politics, and their most illustrious members had formed a firm alliance by creating the High Council, a group of nobles and merchants who advised the Cyrasian monarch.
Now, less than forty-eight hours after Sarista’s assassination, the High Council convened.
Sarista was not mourned. His rule had been a relatively short one, and no one, not even his close family, cared much for his passing. Lord d’Linn-Aranim, the younger brother of Sarista, was present, his wife, Lady d’Linn, by his side. She had no share in the Aranim title because she had married into the family, but her advantageous marriage gave her some social bearing in the royal court. The d'Linns had shamelessly pursued power for years, and d'Linn-Aranim's black eyes glittered greedily like a thieving magpie's.
Over thirty other nobles and lords were there, many with their wives — there were not many single noblewomen in Cyarus as any brothers, older or younger, would inherit the title first. Women usually gained that status through marriage, although two single women graced the circle of seven that was closest to Cyarus' monarch.
These seven advisors from the seven strongest guilds were overseeing the meeting. The first to arrive was Lord Galion Joram, the leader of the Guild of Finance, dressed neatly but plainly in black; his eyes were grey and startling in their intensity.
Beside him stood Llaus Delinne, unobtrusive in his robes of soft grey that signified his allegiance to the Guild of Tailors, marked as its leader by the red and white ribbon pinned to his shoulder. His wife, Lady Susannah Noeller, accompanied him. She headed the Tanner's Guild, closely associated with the Guild of Tailors, and was equal in authority to her husband.
Lee Hughes, a man raised from being the third son of a minor lord to the status of high nobility because of his extraordinary intelligence, had become the leading professor of Cyarus' first university. He had a slightly absent-minded expression, but his mind was as clear and brilliant as diamond.
Lady Keziah Margarita of the Trade Guild, a talented magic-user, and Rowena Emille-Ki’reth, slender and beautiful, of the Guild of Agriculture, were already seated. In contrast to Lady Emille’s neat, carefully dressed hair, Lord Jarret Saffros-Trenneth wore his in a thick, black tail at the back of his head. It was bound with red cords, but the rest of his hair had been shaved off completely. His face was weathered and dark, unlike many of the delicately pale nobles seated around him, and a small cross had been carved into the flesh just below his right ear. He was the highly respected head of the Security Guild, as well as Cyarus' War General.
The High Council met in the Assembly, a relatively small chamber empty of any furniture except a ring of heavy, ornate chairs. Placed in the east wing of the palace, the Assembly's narrow windows overlooked the city, but one could see that this room was intended for business, not pleasure.
Men and women took their seats solemnly, without talking or laughing. It was, after all, a solemn occasion.
“My lords. My ladies. The council is convened,” Lord Hughes declared when everyone had taken his or her seat. Hughes stood in the center of the ring, and he calmly surveyed each person’s face in turn as he spoke. “I will be brief. As we are all well aware, Lord Sarista Aranim, may he rest in peace, has been assassinated. ”
There was a hushed murmur from his listeners.
“His murderer was a female werewolf.” The council murmured again, louder than before. “Silence, please. This werewoman, Misao ri'Sarenga Oriko, was an ambassador from the Werehome. She came to negotiate for the custody of the criminal werewolves held here in Cyarus, and she brought two male werewolves with her who may or may not be involved in her crime. One of her companions, Shiraka, a dedicated follower of Isis-Anyn, died shortly after the Festival of Beasts due to wounds sustained in the fighting.
“According to our records, Oriko intended to sign a simple contract between Cyarus and the Werehome; the werewolf authorities would send us a certain amount of silver, decided upon by mutual agreement, for every werewolf criminal we turned over to them.
“Of course, this contract was nothing short of an insult to Sarista. A werewolf himself, he had loathed the species ever since he was bitten in his youth. Knowing as he did that many of the exchanged criminals would be released, he turned the offer down immediately.
“Lady Emille-Ki’reth has further information about the assassination and will now address the council.”
Lady Emille stood up and briskly took her place in the center as Hughes went to his seat.
“My lords, my ladies,” she greeted them, “After Lord Sarista refused the offer of the Shadowood werewolves, he left the Ambassadors' Chamber abruptly. The members of his harem testify unanimously that he returned to his own chambers shortly after the interview with Oriko.
“Sheila, his First Concubine, informed me that he seemed very angry. Some minutes after he entered his chambers, he ordered the entire harem out, and called for the nameless Bondservant who fought at the Festival of Beasts.”
The story was well-known to every man, woman and child in Cyarus. Everyone had heard of the silver-haired man who had fought so well at the Festival. The assembled High Council members already knew that Misao had brought the man to Cyarus and locked him in one of the arena cells, and how he had escaped only to be half-killed by the other Bondservants.
No one had stepped forward to claim responsibility for allowing Misao use of the cell, but she had insisted that its enchantments were necessary for her prisoner, whom she had accused of attempted murder. Lady Emille went on. “It is believed that Sarista was injured in some way during the interview with the prisoner, and that this prompted him to call for one of his skilled Cyrasian healers. The servant he sent to fetch a healer was found dead in the corridor not far from his rooms, and the guards claim that they didn't see anything. Oriko got past them and entered Sarista's chambers.
“Once she arrived she attacked him in his weakened state. They both perished in the fight, and the Bondservant vanished. The doctors have informed me that he shouldn't have been able to move after the Festival, but somehow, he disappeared.
“Finally, I would make an appeal to the council, and it is this: I ask that we decide on a course of action without delay. This man, this Bondservant, for want of a better word, has escaped. If he could move after Oriko assassinated Sarista, then the Bondservant is culpable of murder, or accomplice to murder, as he made no attempt to assist the king or report the murder. He must be brought to justice, and whatever information he has may be of value. The same goes for Oriko's remaining companion, who is believed to be heading for the Werehome. The Shadowood werewolves must be brought to account for this gross breach of faith!”
“And what do you propose we do, Lady Emille-Ki’reth?” Lord d’Linn-Aranim spoke mockingly. “Launch an offensive against the Shadowood?”
A ripple of laughter ran around the circle.
Lady Emille regarded Lord d’Linn with a frown. “Please, my Lord, do not make this any harder than it already is. You are understandably bitter about your brother's death, but do not let it intrude on this gathering.”
D’Linn snorted but was silent.
“Lord Sarista, as some of you might know, put together a force of elites in his lifetime. After his death, this team’s allegiance automatically passed to the council. I suggest that we use this force both to seek out the rogue Bondservant and to investigate the Shadowood. They can be mobilized in…”
“To the council?” Lord d’Linn asked slowly.
Emille glared at him. “My Lord— ”
“No, hear me out. Wouldn’t their allegiance pass to… the next king?”
A tense silence fell. Emille broke it.
“That is not the matter at hand, my Lord,” she said.
“But it is,” he replied smoothly, “Surely the new king must be decided before we can make decisions that are rightly his.”
Lord Delinne spoke up: “I agree with Lady Emille. The Bondservant must be caught and the Shadowood brought to account, and that cannot be delayed by further discussion.”
“But surely,” put in Lady d’Linn, “the matter of kingship is the most important matter to be discussed here today?”
Lord Farrick and his wife, along with one or two other couples, made sounds of agreement. Lady Margarita and Lady Noeller leaned forward, thunderous expressions on their faces, ready to do battle.
Then Lord Saffros-Trenneth spoke. His voice was calm, controlled — and furious.
“Are we even going to argue over what it is we are discussing?” he queried, “Are we children playing guessing-games? Lady Emille, if you please.”
An embarrassed silence descended over the council again, and Lady Emille nodded in Lord Saffros’ direction. He was the unofficial head of the seven, and the council listened when he spoke.
“Continuing from the interruption…” she said dryly, “The special force can be mobilized in half an hour.”
“Half an hour?” Lord Farrick asked incredulously.
“They are experts, Lord Farrick, experienced soldiers who work as one unit. They are highly skilled individuals. And, altogether, they number just fifteen.”
“Fifteen?” Lord d’Linn exploded, “What use are fifteen men in such an enterprise?”
“Sometimes, stealth is preferable to force, my Lord,” Emille answered, “They can track the Bondservant and Oriko's friend if they enter Hell itself.”
“Oh, very dramatic, my Lady,” d’Linn sneered, “But the Shadowood's reputation surpasses Hell's to some degree.” Somebody chuckled. “And we don't even know for sure that's where the werewolf is headed. Are you sure these — elites — can handle this task?”
“If they cannot, Lord d’Linn, then who would you suggest?”
D’Linn snarled and lapsed back into silence.
“Perhaps now we can make a decision,” said Emille with a tight smile. There was a short pause, and then Lord Saffros-Trenneth said: “We have made our decisions as a whole already. Speaking for the Seven, I ask that we mobilize this force immediately before any more time is lost.”
His firm, commanding tone swayed many of the other lords and ladies, and, one after another, they gave their consent. D’Linn-Aranim, however, remained silent, and his wife glared blackly at Lady Emille. Apart from them, only Farrick and a few others held their peace, and it was well known that Farrick was d’Linn’s supporter.
Finally, Saffros-Trenneth stood up. He favoured Lord d’Linn with a piercing stare, but the man returned it boldly, a smug twist to his smile that was worrying. What was the man so pleased about?
“The majority is agreed,” he said, “I must ask that those in opposition give their consent.”
Farrick looked at d’Linn for guidance and seemed relieved when d’Linn shrugged.
“If it is required of me, I give it,” he said, as though the matter no longer interested him one way or another.
Lord Farrick was quick to speak after his master, and the others gave way as quickly.
“Then, as we are all agreed,” said Lady Emille, “I will give the order. The members of the special force in question are known as the Isis Hounds.”
“I was under the impression that they were no more than a tale to frighten children!” said Lord Simon, a balding, middle-aged man seated beside Lord Hughes.
“Well, it is true that Lord Sarista kept them a secret, and no wonder — they are all Bondservants, tried and tested by their years in the arena,” Lady Emille replied. Into the shocked silence, someone began to speak, and then everyone was talking in a confused babble. Over and above the noise, Emille continued: “They are the elite; the strongest, the toughest, the most skilled with hand-to-hand combat and weapon skills — Sarista faked their deaths and secretly took them into his service. Even then he was not satisfied. He employed the greatest instructors in both the Northlands and the Southlands to train his special force under cover of training the ordinary Bondservants. So he honed the Isis Hounds to perfection, keeping them a secret until they would be needed. And now they are needed!”
“But that is sacrilege!” cried Farrick, “How could we follow Lord Aranim’s example and disgrace the name of Isis-Anyn?”
“Cyarus is not ruled by Isis-Anyn.” Saffros-Trenneth’s voice cut through the objections like a knife. “Those who allow themselves to be governed and dominated by a deity come to nothing! The Isis Hounds are right for our purpose and we need not concern ourselves about their origins! Would you rather they were executed? We need them, Farrick, and I will not permit religious arguments!”
Such a vehement speech had not been heard on Saffros' lips before, and Farrick leaned back, white-faced, from the furious man. Farrick didn’t dare to look at d’Linn, but just cringed back into his chair in shame. In the uncomfortable silence, Lady Emille walked over to the servant who was standing with his face to the wall and touched his shoulder lightly. The man turned at her touch.
“Take this message to Saa Wulf: Be prepared. Make haste.”
The servant had been one of Sarista’s personal slaves, his hearing removed so that a messenger could always be at hand when necessary. He read Emille’s lips and bowed deeply. Even when he stood straight, his eyes were only on a level with her shoulder.
When the man had exited the room, Lady Emille took her seat again without a word.
Lord Saffros-Trenneth, knowing that Emille was at her limit, took her place in the middle of the circle.
As he spoke, he touched the deep scar on his jaw.
“It is the will of the Seven that this council be adjourned until the criminals are found. We will discuss the matter of the crown when the Isis Hounds have completed their task. I apologize for the abrupt dismissal, but the Hounds must receive their briefing immediately.”
“You can’t just slink off like that, Saffros,” growled d’Linn, “I demand that we continue to discuss the right of succession!”
“You are not in a position to demand, d’Linn,” replied Saffros, his anger gone and his usual calm composure returned, “Perhaps you will recall that the High Council is assembled and dismissed at the word of the Seven if the king is not present.”
“I demand it!”
“If you would be so kind as to hold your tongue, my lord, while the blessing is given,” said Saffros, and it was a command, not a request.
“By Sret, I will not be brushed aside so…!”
“Be silent!” thundered Lord Saffros-Trenneth, “If you cannot accept the authority of the Seven, perhaps you desire to be king yourself?”
D’Linn went as white as ash and swallowed audibly.
“That was not…” he began feebly.
“If you cannot control your tongue, I will ask Lady Margarita to still it for you.”
Keziah Margarita flexed her fingers and green sparks crackled in the air.
Finally, d’Linn eased back into his chair and was silent.
“By Isis-Anyn Goddess of War, by Sret God of the Underworld, by the gods of heaven and the gods of earth, go in peace. Let there be no enmity between us. Let unity reign among us. Let us serve and be humble.”
“Serve and be humble,” the Council chanted.
“Let us work together to strengthen.”
“Work together to strengthen.”
“Let us take hold of the future.”
“Amen. It is decided.”
The nobles and lords rose, bowed, and filed out. Only the Seven remained, standing by their seats and watching the others leave. As the last couple, Lord and Lady Theres, exited the chamber, Lady Emille collapsed into her chair with a groan.
“D’Linn!” she cried, “He is as transparent as rice-paper and as stubborn as a mule! Is there no way to get him — I don’t know — exiled, or executed, Jarret?”
Lord Saffros smiled wryly.
“Unfortunately, no. Although he possesses all the intelligence and cunning of a dung beetle, he is clever enough to disguise his intentions, at least partially.”
Lord Hughes sat down heavily, chuckling to himself.
“You do have a way with words, Jarret,” he commented.
“Thank you, Lee. Seeing as it is socially unacceptable to beat the Sret-damned idiot, I must resort to verbal abuse. However, I believe the Isis Hounds are awaiting instruction. Rowena, shall we go?”
Lady Emille took his hand and he helped her to her feet. The two of them left the room quietly. Lady Margarita, Lord Delinne and Lady Noeller were discussing the reactions of the nobles to the Seven’s suggestion and listing d’Linn’s supporters. Joram leant on the windowsill, his forehead creased in thought.
Although the Seven had joined forces because of simple necessity to begin with, over the years they had become a close-knit unit, perhaps not close friends as such, but an alliance of strong men and women who respected one another.
Keziah Margarita was explaining the finer points of politics to Delinne.
“Farrick has been d’Linn’s for many years, but I wonder about Lady Josephine. Although she is Farrick’s wife, she is not so supportive of d’Linn-Aranim's ambitions as her husband thinks. If we could speak to her privately, she could become a great ally; Farrick can be something of a formidable opponent when his blood is boiling.”
“True, but what can she do? Farrick treats her like a concubine…”
“Ah, but there it is. Josephine has a sharp tongue, and she loves to gossip. Get her to whisper a rumour here, a rumour there — before you know it, Farrick will be dismissed as a drunkard or a philanderer, and his position of authority will deteriorate. Plus, she will find sympathizers among the other women.”
“By Isis, Keziah, your mind has no want of sharpening!” Delinne stroked his mustache, lost in thought. Keziah grinned mischievously, her green eyes sparkling at his praise.
“Oh, it takes little more than a woman’s mind, Llaus. What you men suffer from is a lack of finesse. Lady Josephine will be staying at the palace for three more days, during which I will be sure to communicate with her.” Susannah gathered her long grey hair at the nape of her neck and tied it back with a thin cord. Her black eyes twinkled as she watched Llaus, her husband, twist his wedding ring on his finger with an absent-minded frown on his face. <p> “Come, Llaus. I missed breakfast this morning, but my appetite has returned now that the matter of the Hounds has been decided. Keziah, Galion, are you hungry?”<p> Lord Galion Joram turned from the window with a smile and followed the others out of the chamber. <p><p> Many religions were tolerated in Cyarus: the dark occultism of southern tribes, the worship of the sword followed by a certain warrior sect, the ever-present Christianity whose followers were sometimes rumoured to be cannibals among other things, although the members were known for their kindness and charity. <p> And yet the dominant religion was Re-Isis, or the worship of Isis-Anyn. Hers was a fairly widespread religion, and she had laid claim to the souls of more than a few beyond Cyarus’ walls, drawing them annually to Cyarus for the great Festival of Beasts. Some of her worshippers could not travel to the city so frequently, and for them the holy pilgrimage to Cyarus could only take place every four years for the Quarter Festival, or maybe only once in a lifetime. <p> Now, shortly after the Festival of Beasts, the city was flooded with pilgrims and worshippers, hundreds of them, some with their whole families and all their possessions. <p> Jude stood in the shade beneath the eaves of a tavern, his eyes closed against the brightness of the sun glaring down into the street. He'd had a real problem on his hands when he realized he'd have to leave the palace without being noticed. <i>Without being noticed</i>, when his pants, the only item of clothing he still possessed, were soaked with blood, his hair was bright silver and lamentably recognizable by anyone with half a brain and he had just gained a whole new inventory of interesting and horrible scars.<p> The only option left to him had been Sarista's wardrobe, and thankfully, the werewolf's tastes had leaned rather obsessively towards black. He'd had to rip the Aranim insignia off the shirt, the pants were baggy and nothing fit, but at least he was clothed and less noticeable, especially now that his hair was hidden underneath a broad-brimmed grey hat.<p> People thronged past him, sweating, swearing and shouting, ignoring the sweltering heat as they traded and bartered. Moneychangers from the Guild of Finance had set up their tables everywhere, and merchants queued up to have their foreign currency exchanged for Cyrasian coinage.<p> Although this was a less reputable part of Cyarus, the occasional litter still barged its way through, borne by straining slaves, lifting some important dignitary well above the coarse, common folk and hurrying him away to his mansion.<p> Watching the citizens and foreigners go by, Jude found it easy to distinguish between them. Only Cyrasian noblemen and foreign dignitaries could afford to avoid the sun; those who spent all day outside working at some trade were sun-dark, many of them almost black. A lot of the foreigners, on the other hand, were very pale in comparison, having come from further north where the weather was inclined to be cooler. <p> A dwarf strode past, his war axe swinging from his belt and his plaited red beard hanging to his waist. The crowd parted to let him through, knowing that although dwarves were, of course, short, one should be very respectful to them. Their axes were always sharp, and from where he stood, Jude could see the notches cut into the axe-handle, representing all the enemies this dwarf had defeated in person. <p> A little way beyond the red-bearded dwarf, a tall, fair-headed man was making his way down the street towards Jude. The man wore a rather tattered jacket, the blue tattoos on his pale skin in plain sight through the tears and rents in the garment. Those who noticed the way his hair grew down his back like a lion’s mane shook their heads darkly and looked away, making the sign of Isis-Anyn to ward off danger. No one liked the werewolves except the werewolves themselves, and this man seemed to take pleasure in letting everyone know what he was. His <i>ri</i>, the fang-mark, was tattooed boldly on his forehead. <p> Jude went to the door of the tavern, paused, and walked up the rickety wooden steps. It was stuffy and airless inside, but it was also dark and he could talk to the werewolf in private. Once he was inside, the bartender, a greasy, rat-faced man, oiled his way up to him.<p> “What will ye be having this fine day, sir?” he whined, dry-washing his hands.<p> “Two pints of whatever sewage you happen to serve here,” replied Jude, “And a table upstairs.” His eyes had grown accustomed to the gloom and he could see the narrow staircase leading up to a sort of gallery where a few extra tables had been set up in the hope of an overwhelming amount of customers. <i>Unlikely</i>, thought Jude. The place was filthy, pervaded by a sour, stomach-turning smell and dimly lit by a few sputtering lanterns that did no more than create shadows. There were no windows.<p> The ratty man nodded violently and scuttled away to his bar, apparently without taking offence at Jude’s words.<p> Hearing someone come into the tavern after him, Jude crossed the dirty floor to the stairs and began to climb them. The roof sloped down low overhead and it was even hotter, but no one else was upstairs, ensuring at least some degree of privacy. <p> He took a seat at the nearest table and waited. Presently, the blond man came up the stairs after him. The werewolf’s pupils were dilated and Jude knew that Misao’s friend could see perfectly, even in that half-light. <p> “Well?” growled the man, standing by the table. “How did you know I was still in the city? And why did you seek me out?”<p> “You've made no effort to disguise your presence here,” Jude observed dryly, “And I hoped that you wouldn't leave the city until you knew what had happened to Misao. Once I discovered that you had stayed, I wanted to find out why. ”<p> “Misao was my — wife,” the man replied slowly. Werewolves do not marry, but he spoke in terms that Jude would understand. <p> “Then you know she is dead.”<p> “I know.”<p> The werewolf pulled out a chair and sat down facing Jude. His eyes were piercing and bright blue, the <i>ri</i> on his forehead black and glistening.<p> “Let us be blunt, human. There is no love lost between us, and rightly so. But we both need a way out of this city, and we are both wanted criminals.”<p> Jude lifted his drink, sniffed at the contents and set it down again with a grimace of distaste. He said nothing.<p> “The High Council will convene soon. They may have gathered at the palace already. Cyarus will be locked down completely before sunset.” The werewolf leaned forward, and Jude smelled his rank, musty animal scent. “If they find us, we will be executed. You should have made good your escape a long time ago. I don't know what foolish bravado dulled your wits, but I can assure you, you will suffer for it!”<p> “After Misao healed me, it took all the strength I had left to get out of the palace without being discovered.” Jude shoved the two beer mugs off the table in his anger. “A <i>child</i> could have captured and restrained me! The best I could do was steal some clothes and cover my head...” <p> Kneading his forehead with the heel of his hand, Jude sighed and closed his eyes. He was still tired, and his body still hurt; it took a great deal of effort to put a leash on his temper.<p> “Once I got out of the palace, I collapsed in an alley somewhere... that was foolish, I know that... but it was out of my control. I was blind, deaf...” Jude shook his head irritably, impatient with his own weakness. <p> “She — she <i>healed</i> you?”<p> “Yes.” Jude looked up at the werewolf, whose eyes were wide with shock. <p> “But why?”<p> “I was hoping you could tell me.”<p> The werewolf's hands opened and closed, opened and closed, a surprisingly obvious sign of his inward uneasiness. Finally, he unsheathed all his claws, letting them puncture the soft grey gloves he wore over his three-fingered hands; werewolves have no little finger.<p> “Misao, Shiraka and I were not following the instructions of the Werehome.”<p> “That much seems evident. Greyling Arias-Ri-Kol would never risk a direct assassination that could be traced back to any command of his.”<p> “Our cover story was true enough. No werewolf held any love for Sarista, and he hated his own species; only pure-blood, true-born werewolves can aspire to become Greylings, and that had been Sarista's ambition since he was bitten as a boy. When he tried to claim this position by right of combat, however, Arias-Ri-Kol defeated him as easily as my sire turned me on my back when I was a cub.<p> “Returning to Cyarus in a rage, Sarista organized his older brother's death and took the throne before the rightful heir's ashes were cold. Nothing could be proved against him, of course, and as soon as his inauguration was over, he began his systematic persecution of our species. <p> “Arias-Ri-Kol had his assassination plans laid, but Misao — we — intended to forestall him.”<p> Briefly, the werewolf showed his teeth in an unpleasant smile. “I believe the human expression is killing two birds with one stone.” Jude raised a questioning eyebrow, and the werewolf continued, “We were outcasts from the Werehome. Arias-Ri-Kol is something of a traditionalist, and Shiraka's practice of Re-Isis didn't sit well with him. And Misao and I — we refused to change partners. Werewolves don't take mates for life, or so that bastard Arias insisted.”<p> “And so you hoped both to murder Sarista and implicate Arias in the act.”<p> The werewolf nodded. “Or at least, that was our plan at first.<p> “We were part of a sect, some sort of radical faction that claims to be protecting the world from a great sorcerer, a man who will drown the seas in blood and sow the land with corpses... or some rubbish like that. I never really understood what was going on. The only reason we joined was because it was a group willing to accept and support anyone; for rogue werewolves like ourselves, that was an opportunity too good to pass up.”<p> Jude tipped his chair back and contemplated the grimy ceiling.<p> “Where did this group meet?”<p> “They lived in a kind of commune on the Serring Heath, a huge, unclaimed stretch of land to the east of the Werehome, technically a part of some ancient estate. They all gave themselves code names and wore white robes, but we put up with it because they accepted us for, or despite, what we were. <p> “We began to realize that they were not just a simple, peaceful community when we found out how they train certain promising children to become assassins. The group we joined was still small, as yet, but their numbers were added to every day. We worked with them and even made friends among them, but we never shared their strange beliefs.<p> “Then, some time after we'd joined them, their leader asked us to perform a small task for him. It was a simple murder, a carefully-planned raid on a certain village and a clean removal of a certain man. We did what he asked of us; killing is a part of life for werewolves, and we had no qualms about doing the sect leader a favour.<p> “But the requests got bigger. At the time, we relished it. We had no aim in life, really; I lived for Misao, and she for me,” a look of pain crossed the werewolf's face, “and Shiraka lived for us and for Isis-Anyn. <p> “In time, we were undertaking all kinds of tasks for a man whose name we didn't even know; to us, he was <i>Ytoshi</i>, in our tongue, 'the seeing hawk'. It meant nothing. When we heard that he wanted us to spy out the situation in the Werehome, we were delighted. It was the ultimate test of our skills to return to the Shadowood, where a moment's hesitation could mean our deaths. <p> “Finally, he told us about you. To us, you were one in a million, just another man that needed to be captured, tortured or killed. Ytoshi told us to take you to Cyarus. That was the first strange command we received. The second was to leave you there in a safe place until we received further orders. Looking back, we should have seen that this task was different, bigger and more important than usual, no matter how Ytoshi tried to play it down. But we were eager to do as he'd asked, willing to try.<p> “So we set up our trap, but one of Arias' children got to you first. Not that it mattered. Once you had disposed of her, it gave us a good reason to take you into custody, as it were.”<p> Jude scowled, but said only: “And after you captured me?”<p> “We had difficulty escaping the Werehome unscathed. Arias blamed us for almost killing that girl, as though Misao hadn't saved her worthless life. When we did manage to leave the forest, you made trouble all the way here. We had to drug and spell you continually to keep you quiet, and we couldn't get a single fire started from the Werehome till Cyarus!”<p> Lythrà whispered lovingly in Jude's mind and he grinned wearily. Of course she wouldn't have allowed the werewolves the luxury of fire.<p> “However, once we reached the safety of Cyarus with our ambassadorial speeches prepared, Misao became worried about you. Your resistance was wearing her out, so she got permission to lock you in an arena cell, one of the special confinement prisons used for magical beasts and the more desperate, murderous kind of criminal who usually faces execution in the arena. <p> “As soon as you were out of the way, we were attacked and almost murdered in our beds. Shiraka caught one of the assassins. We knew him well, a young man who had called himself Wolf because he admired us so much. Shiraka took his time, and after several hours in a hidden place, he had tortured the boy to the point of death.”<p> The werewolf seemed a little uncomfortable.<p> “There was so much blood,” he said quietly, “Shiraka took him apart like a sacrifice to Isis-Anyn, but he did it slowly. We could hear the screams for a long time...”<p> There was a pause, and then the werewolf continued his tale.<p> “We knew that Ytoshi had ordered our deaths. We also knew that Wolf and those with him were to have been waiting outside your cell on the night of the Festival of Beasts, waiting to open your cell and turn you over to the one who would come for you. Shiraka learned much from Wolf, but towards the end, the boy was screaming anything, absolutely anything, and begging Shiraka to end it.”<p> The rickety chair creaked alarmingly as Jude shifted his weight. <p> “Did you find out who was supposed to come for me?”<p> “Wolf called him Ufraxas.” The name brought no memories.<p> “And then Misao...”<p> “Let you escape,” the werewolf said heavily.<p> Jude smiled. “But why did she still carry out the assassination order? It seems a most... illogical... thing to have done.” <p> “Don't act like you knew her!” the werewolf snarled suddenly. “You think there were no casualties when Sarista lost the battle for the Werehome? Her whole family, Sret dammit, Sarista killed her parents, her brothers, her sisters, just for being directly related to Arias! No one ever heard about it, of course not, and who cares about the damn werewolves anyway? And then the bastard started reciting their names, one by one, boasting of how he'd killed them.” His claws dug into the tabletop, slivers of wood curling up about his fingers, but then he became calmer, paused, and added, “And maybe she wanted to prove herself to Ytoshi again. Wanted to be accepted back into the fold. Or she was angry, and that clouded her judgement. Probably a combination.”<p> Perhaps death was a part of life for werwolves, but Jude could almost taste the raw pain Misao's mate was experiencing as the reality of her death drove home. <p> He stood up slowly, stretching out the aches in his muscles and lifting the brim of his hat so that his blue eyes were just visible in the gloom. <p> “I gave Oriko the blessing before she died,” he said softly. “I granted forgiveness. Her debt is paid.” <p> It was an ancient custom of the werewolves' that Jude had learned about in his youth, the granting of absolution to a dying werewolf. It had seemed appropriate at the time, but now his words sounded flat and empty, and he got no response.<p> The blue-tattooed werewolf was lost in thought, and after a moment Jude walked down the stairs and gave the lurking barkeeper a wide berth. The sound of a chair being pushed back came to his ears. Jude paused in the doorway, then turned and looked back.<p> The werewolf was leaning over the railing and staring down at him. When he spoke, his words took Jude by surprise.<p> “My name is Luther. My <i>ri</i>-name is Sabatku. There will be friendship between my children and your children while the <i>ri</i> stands.”<p> Slowly, Jude bowed his head and placed a clenched fist over his heart. A werewolf's oath was not to be taken lightly.<p> “My name is Jude. My <i>ri</i>-name is Lythràel. Let there be friendship between us while the <i>ri</i> stands.”<p> Luther didn’t bother to take the stairs. He vaulted over the shaky railing and landed neatly on all fours. The few customers in the nameless tavern muttered uneasily and the barkeeper huddled in a corner, dry-washing his hands frantically, as Jude and Luther left the gloomy building together.<p><p> The rapidly spinning grindstone made sparks fly from the scimitar's curved blade. Its owner leaned forward to examine his work more closely as he guided the metal against the stone with the practiced hand of an expert. <p> “Saa Wulf, Lady Emille and Lord Saffros-Trenneth have arrived.” <p> “Very well, we will meet them in the courtyard. Is everyone properly equipped?” His accent was thick, and the words sounded a little awkward on his tongue.<p> “Yes, sir.”<p> “How did the new girl manage?”<p> “Fairly well so far. However, she has added five minutes to our preparation time.”<p> Saa Wulf straightened up. Sunlight glinted off his bald head and glittered in his dark eyes. He slid the jagged-edged scimitar into its sheath on his belt. <p> “Not good enough, Alabaster.”<p> Alabaster bowed in assent. Her skin was dark, smooth and bronzed, and her hair light brown; it was woven into many long, tight plaits that she’d tied back with a brightly coloured strip of leather, and a milky white stone hung by a silver chain around her neck. A great bow of yew was strapped to her back and a quiver of arrows was slung over her shoulder.<p> Saa Wulf’s sweat-darkened shirt strained across his broad shoulders and over his bulging biceps — Wulf was a huge man, towering above the woman beside him like a giant. At fifty, he was the oldest of the Hounds; the new girl was about nineteen, the youngest, having joined them only recently for a trial period. <p> “I can carry them!” The angry shout came from inside the smithy, ringing through the courtyard where the Isis Hounds stood in complete silence. <p> Alabaster cursed and darted inside, Wulf at her heels, running with a grace that did not match his heavy build. <p> “Travelling light! I tell you that I won’t…!”<p> Christelle, the new young recruit, stopped abruptly as Saa Wulf and Alabaster entered. She held a throwing-axe in each hand, her blonde, shoulder-length hair in disarray and her face dark with anger. A young man stood calmly before her, the apparent object of her wrath. <p> Wulf strode over to the girl and slammed a fist into her stomach. <p> As she doubled up, gasping, he brought back his hand and swung it into the side of her head with a crack. <p> She crumpled and lay stretched out on the floor, trembling.<p> “You are a disgrace,” Wulf said tonelessly, “Do you know nothing of the discipline required of the Isis Hounds? First, you try to seduce another Hound. Second, you show disrespect — to me, to Alabaster your training master and to other Hounds. Christelle d’Linn-Aranim! You flaunt your title, but Hounds do not have titles! I will not tolerate you any longer!”<p> The girl was weeping noisily. Alabaster grimaced in distaste and kicked her in the ribs, sending her skidding across the floor and bringing her up against the wall.<p> “Weakling,” she spat, tossing her braids and drawing her hunting knife.<p> “No,” said Wulf, “If we kill her, her father will be furious. She is dismissed, and she can make her own way home. As for you, girl,” he continued, turning to Christelle, “If you think to betray the Isis Hounds, be sure that your death will come swiftly. You were never intended to be a Hound. Get out of my sight!”<p> Sobbing and snivelling, Christelle dragged herself to her feet and limped out of the smithy. <p> “Good riddance,” remarked Alabaster.<p> Abruptly, Wulf turned to the young man standing nearby.<p> “Jet, why did you not bring her to order?” <p> “There are no excuses,” replied the man, bowing low.<p> “Go join the others in the courtyard. Your rations will be cut for today and tomorrow, and you will take first sentry duty every night for a week.”<p> “Sir.” The man obeyed immediately. Five small, dark stones pierced his right ear, glittering from the top to the lobe in a half-circle. <p> “Saa Wulf, Lord Saffros-Trenneth has arrived.” A middle-aged man with greying hair stood in the doorway, a black sheath strapped to his side. A golden bracelet set with a red jewel encircled his upper arm.<p> Wulf glanced around the smithy quickly and nodded to Alabaster, who stood at ease near the weapon racks. She followed him out into the brilliant sunlight, the scent of sweat strong in her nostrils and the heat baking the very air she breathed; every breath seared her lungs. The alabaster stone gleamed on its chain, resting at her throat like a snowdrop against her dark skin.<p> Her heart swelled with pride as she surveyed the Isis Hounds, elites who had been trained to kill from birth, standing at attention before the whitewashed wall of the palace. The messenger quickly joined their ranks and placed his fist over his heart, straightening his back and paying no heed to Lord Saffros as the nobleman walked past him, smiling approvingly. <p> Lady Emille-Ki’reth strode briskly across the courtyard towards them. Alabaster turned to greet her, bowing politely and murmuring a greeting.<p> Saa Wulf bowed too, although it was merely a formality. In his domain, Wulf owed allegiance to nobody.<p> “Saa Wulf, Alabaster, my thanks for your quick response,” she said.<p> “We are yours to command, my lady,” replied Wulf, touching his forehead and mouth and adding, “The Council is, at present, the Voice of Isis-Anyn.”<p> Wondering uneasily if there was veiled menace in his tone, Rowena Emille looked away, watching Jarret inspect the thirteen Isis Hounds whose gazes were firmly fixed on some invisible spot on the far wall of the courtyard. Their discipline was impressive. <p> “Saa Wulf,” Jarret began, turning so that he could see all the Hounds, “Your instructions are as follows: trace the Bondservant and Oriko's last companion, Luther. I will leave it to your own excellent abilities to find them, as they have long escaped the city. The importance of this task cannot be underestimated. If news of an iminent struggle over the succession gets out, Cyarus will be in great danger. We have many enemies who would use this time of division and uncertainty to their own advantage. Do you understand what responsibility rests on your shoulders?”<p> “It is understood,” said Wulf, his words clipped and curt.<p> “Much depends on you,” Jarret stressed, wiping the sweat out of his eyes.<p> “We shall leave at once,” growled Wulf, “They will be found, my lord. Isis Hounds do not fail.”<p> “Then I have no more to say to you,” said Jarret quietly, “Farewell, and may Isis-Anyn grant you speed.”<p> His eyes rested on Wulf for a moment, measuring and calculating until he seemed satisfied, and then he turned his attention to the thirteen Hounds before him. Every one of them was experienced, their own particular skills honed and perfected over the years; Jarret placed the youngest among them at about twenty-eight. He could see that they were all different, all individuals with their own images, habits and fighting styles, allowed to break away from the strict uniformity of new recruits to some extent for the sake of increased efficiency. However, their discipline was by no means lacking, as Jarret had already noticed.<p> The Isis Hounds looked to Saa Wulf. Jarret turned to him.<p> “You have expelled Christelle,” he commented lightly. Wulf nodded and signalled to the Hounds, who turned as one unit and jogged out of the courtyard by a side door. Alabaster followed them, and Wulf regarded Jarret and Rowena blankly.<p> “Isis-Anyn does not tolerate weakness. D'Linn-Aranim has no sway in Her domain.”<p> Rowena brushed a strand of hair out of her eyes and glanced uneasily at Jarret. D'Linn knew only too well about the Isis Hounds, and his price for secrecy had been Christine's admission to the elite force. They could only hope that the revealing of the secret to the entire Council would keep D'Linn's tongue in check.<p> Saffros-Trenneth looked as much a warrior as any Isis Hound as he nodded to Wulf.<p> “Very well,” he said slowly, “But be cautious, Saa Wulf. Division comes as much from within as from without.”<p> Wulf's obsidian eyes gleamed as he deliberately touched his brow and then his mouth in the way of the worshippers of the Goddess. <p> “I serve,” he growled, turning on his heel and striding away.<p><p> </html>
|Jude Ch. 3||Jude Chapter 8|
|Jude Ch. 1||Jude Ch. 5|