According to Navri City protocol, Captain Wallis Norkin existed no longer. In his place, there stood a naked and nameless male slave, six feet two inches of male human, to be identified henceforth as #89536. His owner, the esteemed Councilwoman, could of course name him as she chose, but to the world at large, the name would mean nothing. On the record, only the number counted.
“Jinx,” Risa murmured to the bodyguard on her right, “your surcoat.”
The man handed her the garment, which she handed #89536 without further comment. The slave, of course, knew protocol as well as any man in the room. After all, as Captain of the Militia, he’d been in charge of countless captures over the years, tracking down escaped slaves (there were always a few) and returning them to their owners.
Buttoned and belted, the coat reached to mid-thigh; his privates were covered. This disappointed more than a few of the women in the audience, #89536 being well proportioned and equipped as he was. “Not bad at all for an older fellow,” one citizen’s wife commented to her sister. “Guess Macklin doesn’t want to share all that much.”
“Hey,” her sibling observed, “she’s been a widow for a while. And they say once you’ve had a slave, nothing else will do.”
The Macklin party headed out, the bodyguards using a diamond formation to shepherd the Councilwoman and the slave who walked a mere step behind her. Two steps behind was the norm, but there was still danger here. Four guards could only cover so much space. The noise from the crowd outside was…not deafening, but disturbing. Hundreds of low-voiced conversations, too much cover for mischief, should Chair Carson have mischief in mind.
And the fat weasel always had mischief in mind.
Old Bob had made no attempt to bring the carriage in close to Council Lodge. Had he done so, they’d have been trapped anyway, hemmed in on all sides by the excited throng, the lookie lous with nothing better to do on a workday than gawk at the unthinkable, a Councilwoman who’d taken a famous condemned criminal as her personal slave…and then clothed him immediately. It just wasn’t done, or at least it had never been done before. Which was pretty much the same thing.
The tiny group would have been pressed beyond tolerance…but the Jenner Family had been activated. Dozens of hard-eyed men pushed away from the wall, surrounding their politically savvy cousin, ready to shove any human obstacles out of the way without ceremony. Not that they needed to make actual physical contact with very many people; the short swords in their hands and the armbands displaying the Cougar Rampant were more than enough to cow the average Navri Citian.
And yet. And yet, the assassin slipped right through that Jenner-powered wall. A small man, five four at most, wearing the nondescript clothing of a street worker. Later, some Family members on duty that day admitted they hadn’t noticed him at all until he was behind them, in where Risa Macklin and slave #89536 and Risa’s bodyguards were.
They didn’t notice the fellow, in fact, until there was blood on the cobblestones and the screaming had started, wild shrieks that turned out to be coming from two women in the crowd.
The screams did not help matters, but they were understandable. One of the screamers was sister to the bodyguard known as Veg, the other was his mother, and a good bit of the blood on the stones belonged to Veg. The rest of the blood belonged to the assassin himself, a dead man never identified by name but suspected of belonging to the Assassin’s Guild in Brighart. That Guild was the strongest in all the Bowl, and many of their operatives were small of stature.
Councilwoman Mackie stood, knees bent, a bloodied fighting blade in each hand, head swiveling, looking to be sure there were no more enemies to kill. At her side, slave #89536 had assumed a fighting crouch, barefoot and unarmed, surcoat having ridden up so that his privates showed a bit, yet looking none the less deadly for all of that.
The Family was chagrined, but they were professionals. Ranks were tightened to the point that a cockroach could not have slipped through. Two of the men swiftly searched the corpse, ascertaining only that there were no identifying marks on what was left of the assassin, no documentation. They did not have to worry about the killer being thoroughly dead. Veg had thrown his body in front of the man’s strike; there’d been no time to bring his weapon into play. Then slave #89536 had kicked over the falling bodyguard’s torso and smashed a bare foot into the little guy’s face, breaking his nose rather thoroughly.
Risa Macklin herself had done the rest with her knives. The assassin’s head was not quite separated from the rest of his body, but close enough for government work. Beyond that, his diaphragm, liver, and heart had all been perforated.
A couple of snapped commands, and Veg was lifted, carried by half a dozen men, a seventh man doing what he could to apply pressure to the chest wound. Perhaps not the heart. A lung, maybe. He was not conscious, but he might yet live, could they but reach Macklin Compound in time.
Once the group was secure within the Compound walls, Risa Macklin led her new property and her three remaining functional bodyguards to her personal citadel, a stronghold within a stronghold within a stronghold. No assassin would reach them here, at least not without a Rimlander caliber army to back him. Veg, in and out of consciousness, pale from loss of blood, was settled on a table in Surgeon Glosshart’s care. Glossy was young, but he was skilled; the Councilwoman could turn her attention to other matters, starting with her Steward.
“Stew,” she began, “are you ready to record?”
“As ever,” the stooped man replied. “As ever.”
“Right. Number one, Veg’s family. Get word to them, in writing, that his salary will continue at 100 percent, live or die, hale or crippled.”
“Yes, Ma’am. For how long? The standard thirty?” House Macklin had long practiced such thirty year pensions for any who fell in defense of a Family member, whether or not the stricken fighter healed up completely, died on the spot, or anything in between.
“Hm…thirty…plus two, Steward. Had it not been for Veg’s sacrifice, the assassin would surely have made his kill. The bonus is warranted.”
“Done, then. Next?”
“Next, have a set of my late husband’s clothing brought for Wallis, here.”
“The slave, Ma’am? You’re going to clothe him in–?”
“Yes, Steward. I’m going to clothe him in. It’s not like those buckskins are getting any use at the moment, now is it?”
“Uh…no, Ma’am.” Every other slave in the city wore coarse woolen tunics and cheap sandals or nothing at all. But it wasn’t his place to question the Councilwoman, Steward reminded himself. It took a lot of reminding, sometimes. Risa Macklin was no respecter of convention.
“That’s it–oh, except for food and drink.”
“I’ve already arranged that, Ma’am.” Steward was too polished as a House facilitator to feel offended by his employer’s doubting he’d organize such things as a matter of course, but it was close. Deep down inside, he was a little miffed.
The clothes showed up post haste. #89536 silently handed Jinx’s surcoat back to its owner and donned the finery without comment, standing at attention when he was done.
“Oh, for Sunshine’s sake, Wallis, you look like the Witch of Warsecke shoved her broomstick up your ass! Good snot and burnt biscuits, man, relax a little, will you? By which I mean, pull up a chair at the table. We need to talk.”
#89536 did as directed, still saying nothing–but his eyes widened a bit.
Risa studied him, pondering, turning her mug of sweetened alfalfa tea in her hands. “That’s always been your trouble, Wallis Norkin,” she said finally. “You’ve always believed in authority and followed the rules like they were handed down from the Creator Itself. Well…I guess I’m the authority in your life at the moment, so, slave, here’s an order for you to follow. For the brief time you’re legally my property, you are to act like a man. That is…oh Hell, just chill out enough so we can talk like two human beings. Starting now.”
Wallis Norkin stared at her in astonishment, took a slow, deep breath…and finally spoke. “What do you want me to say?”
“Ah! Good! Its vocal chords are rusty, but it’s sentient! Praise the Almighty!”
“Yep, Wallis Norkin. Now, we don’t have much time to waste, so pay attention. I bought you no more than two hours ago–”
“To save my life. Which I still don’t understand.”
“Oh. Right. I should explain that. See, it’s not like I’m that taken with your manly charms, even if I did grab you and lay a smooch on you the first day we went to school together.”
“And scared me half to death.”
“Yeah. You never were…never mind. What I need to tell you is that I had to keep you from being executed. Not for personal reasons, even though I might still have done it for those alone. But more importantly, Chair Carson and his hench-buddies were going to have you filled full of arrows despite the undisputable fact that to do so without a unanimous vote from the Council would be in direct violation of Constitutional law. If you were killed and they got away with it, that meant they would have successfully broken the Constitution entirely. Just one incident, sure, but that’s all it takes. One spark to set off a wildfire. One hole in the dike to rupture the dam. Those evil bastards intend to do away with the Cautan Confederacy Constitution. They’ve said as much in their speeches, and this would have given them the first wedge to pry apart the legal structure that holds our entire society together, not just Navri City but the entire Bowl.”
“Oh.” Wallis Norkin was not a stupid man. His thinking was hidebound, always had been, but there was nothing wrong with his thinking capacity, once he fired it up. “I…see what you mean. I missed that entirely.”
Macklin snorted. “Not like you had an excuse or anything, figuring to be murdered in the morning and all.”
“I don’t make excuses.”
“No. You certainly don’t. Death before dishonor.”
“But here’s the thing, Wallis. Executing you was not the only arrow in the Carson quiver. Did you know the Chair has been training an entire army–not a group of City Militia, but an entire legion of soldiers who are taught to kill, to take no quarter, and to act at the behest of the Chair and only the Chair?”
Norkin’s face turned ashen. He’d not lost color when facing his own murder by the City, but this…. “That–no. I did not know. How many troops?”
“My sources estimate between five and seven thousand. It’s not been easy, trying to get an exact count. Family Jenner has already lost three of our best operatives, caught and slaughtered like so many sheep.”
“It gets worse.” The Councilwoman’s voice was grim. “We’ve uncovered information that Carson intends to move the entire NCA, what he’s calling the Navri City Army, into action. Soon. The Brothers have sent word that the Blakto Nation is massing, getting ready for the first major attack on the Bowl in twenty years. Battle will be joined along the outer slopes within days.”
Norkin’s eyebrows rose. “And Chair Carson is sending the NCA to reinforce the Rimlanders?”
“No. No, not at all. If anything goes wrong before the NCA can strike, Carson will say that’s what they were sent to do–but if that evil fat weasel’s plan works out, Wing and Fear and Death will all be facing outward, toward the enemy without–”
“While the enemy within takes them from behind. Or, correct me if I’m wrong, takes Wing Holding from behind. If this treachery can occupy Granite Peak Stronghold while the owner is away, the weakened troops returning from battle with the Blakto will never be able to root Carson’s bunch out of there.”
“See? You really can think when you’re not completely blinded by tradition.” Risa took a deep swallow of her tea, hugely relieved that her secret weapon actually got it. “One thing more. The newly appointed GNCA, General of the Navri City Army, happens to be Camber Sam.”
“But…but Camber Sam is dead. Been dead these past three years or more. I should know. I myself directed the arrow squad that riddled him after he was sentenced!”
“He did not die.”
“How? And why? There’s no more evil Soul in the entire City. It doesn’t make sense.”
Risa Macklin sighed, reaching across the table to pat her slave’s hand reassuringly. “Not sure how it was done. With the blindfold, a stunt double could have done it, maybe, if he was drugged. As to the why of it, you’ve answered your own question. Our best guess is that Carson wanted and needed the lowest of the low to head his takeover bid. He’ll have plenty of Big Lies ready to shove down the people’s throats, but no commander possessing a shred of integrity would obey an order to assault Granite Stronghold, murder every man, woman and child therein, and so on and so forth.”
“But,” the former Captain breathed, “a convicted criminal with no shred of conscience would be happy to do the job.”
“Exactly. Now, here’s the thing. We need to get word to Wing Holder that treachery is in the wind. None of our usual couriers can do it; Carson’s thugs are watching every road. If they see a traveler they so much as suspect of being in some way affiliated with Family Jenner or House Macklin, they’ll CTK. Capture, torture, kill. But a slave, now….”
“That won’t work. The whole city knows I’m your slave.”
“Three days from now, you won’t be.”
“I’m selling you to a Lollakey merchant who happens to be in town and also happens to be one of our allies. Oh, and another thing. By law, I have to have you branded if you’re mine for 30 days. We need you to be a slave for a while, but we do not need a big S marking your forehead. The Lollakey merchant will then sell you on impulse to a Starbow craftsman who will pass you on to a Track Crossing miller. From there, it’s on to a Grain Hollow meat processor. By that point, your papers will have been falsified; there will be no trail that ties you to Navri City in any way. Your accent could, if you talked too much, but you’ve never been loose of lip.”
“Plus, if I keep you here in the City, more assassins will be sent. As long as you live, you stand as a symbol of Chair Carson’s failure to enforce his will in a public forum. He cannot tolerate that; the weasel will go to any lengths to eradicate this stain on his record.”
“But if I’m out of the city….”
“Precisely. Once you’re clear, I’ll have the word put out that you were sold to an owner of one of the Sand Castle City mines. Carson cannot reach that far.”
“And besides, he’ll be happy with the thought that I’m dying by degrees in the copper mines…but how am I to reach Granite Peak from Grain Hollow? And why should the Wing Holders believe me if I do get through?”
“Questions, questions.” The Councilwoman grinned. “That’s on a need to know basis, and at this point, you don’t need to know.”
“In case I get nailed before….”
“In case. I haven’t told you the worst part, though.”
“If you do get through–the odds aren’t great, I have to say, but if you do–you’ll end up being owned by Wing Holder, and there’s a very good chance he’ll grant you your freedom in return for your service.”
“But? I hear a but in there.”
“But…you’ll never be able to return to the City. Your life would be forfeit. I can see to it that your family is cared for; they won’t starve. But you’ll have to become a Rimlander, in every sense of the word.”
Slave #89536 looked stricken. He hadn’t thought of that.