The Mayor of Grand Hollow was theoretically introducing Faye, though he showed no sign of ending his pontification any time soon. She and I stood off to one side of the stage while the fat fellow droned on and on. My feet were going to sleep. A Mayor was, what, something like the Overman of a village, only bigger? In Navri City, the top dog was the Chair of the City Council, currently Councilwoman Risa Macklin. In the three Rim Holdings held by the Brothers, each Holder–Fear, Death, or Wing, depending on the Holding–served as the Leader; I didn’t know if a similar system held true for the other fifteen mountain Holdings. Down here in the belly of the Bowl, did every city govern itself differently? Bored minds want to know.
Faye murmured quietly, too low for anyone but me to hear. “We’ve been having it too easy.”
“Huh?” I was pretty sure I hadn’t heard her right.
“Too easy, Brak. We’re overdue for trouble.”
“Okay. Wait a minute.” Was this beautiful woman, Wing’s slave, my one-time crush–okay, maybe still a little something there–was she going batshit crazy on me? Okay, so at 26 years, she was twice my age, but hardly enough to hit senility yet, right? “What’re you talking about? Just this past summer, I’ve seen my entire village wiped out by vengeful ape cats. Wing had ol’ Cleeg trying to kill him until Holder blew a wizard-hole the size of a man’s fist through his chest. The former Chair of Navri City sent an entire army to hit us from behind while twenty thousand screaming Blakto hit us from the front, along with nearly a hundred creech trying for Wing Peak Observatory as a bonus. We lost thousands of good men, plus that many more who survived that last battle but went home lacking a limb or an eye or an ear or the ability to sleep at night for the rest of their lives. So,” I hissed fiercely, “what the Hell are you talking about?”
She quirked one side of her mouth, the left-side half-smile that reached both her eyes and scrunched up her pert little nose a bit and drove me absolutely nuts. “Wow. Nice tirade. I see your point. But still,” she sobered just as suddenly, “mark my words. We need to stay sharp. Everything you say is true, but think about this. Our core group has come through everything pretty much untouched so far. Wing got all of one scratch that gave him a limp for a while, but that’s already healed up; he’s good as new. You and I got a few bruises. Brak, we should have lost that war. It’s just–”
Mercifully, Mayor Fat Fellow finished at that moment, finally introducing Faye as the next speaker for real and gesturing for her to come onstage.
“To be continued,” she grinned, trotting up the steps and striding toward the podium.
I shook my head. “Can’t wait.”
It was a huge crowd, though, and with the expected protestors firmly under control–the Mayor had mobilized his City Militia to keep them well away from the actual venue–Grain Hollow promised to be one of our more memorable recruiting stops. Sam Dennis, standing at my elbow, estimated a head count of more than eight thousand citizens in attendance. Not that he could see over enough heads to do that accurately from the ground, as short as he was, but his bay mare had hoisted him high enough to get the job done. He’d said nothing while Faye and I were whisper-talking, but then, as my aide that wasn’t his prerogative.
Some of the people who’d camped out in the City Square the longest, guaranteeing them a front row standing room only position right in front of the stage, presented a study in contrasts. There was a dark young man with an intense mien who looked like a solid possibility for the CAF, the Combined Armed Force. Most of the attendees reeked of middle-of-the-roadness, a bunch of city slickers with nothing better to do mixed in with rubes so fresh from the country there was still hay stuck in their hair, so to speak. One giant of a man, older than the average bear, who looked half naked without his war harness; I remembered him from the Fear Pass Gap battle. Why he’d be wasting his time here, I had no idea…unless maybe he’d mustered out of the Rimlander fighting forces and then thought better of it; he could be looking to sign up with the new military branch. A stout middle aged woman, hair just starting to gray, with a gigantic pair of melons big enough to be, well…melons. Several kids, some of them even younger than me, with stars in their eyes.
If any of those youngsters joined up, those stars would lose their shine soon enough. Faye wasn’t the only one who appeared to be batshit crazy this day.
She was at the podium now, taking her trademark deep breath before opening her mouth to begin her speech, a move guaranteed to rivet the attention of most males in the crowd close enough to notice.
The slave girl never got out her first word. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw movement where there shouldn’t be movement; every person in the audience should have been frozen in place, waiting for the pretty girl who followed the fat Mayor to speak her piece. I was already in motion, unaware of Sam a single jump behind me. The stout woman with the big melons was already drawing her arm back for the throw.
That woman is no woman and that melon is no melon.
When life and death are on the line, I go deaf. I heard nothing, not as I shoulder blocked Faye to the floor of the stage, not as I became aware of the “melon” coming apart in midair with shiny things flying out of it, not even when I saw the beautiful brunette’s eyes go wide with shock. There was blood all over, shiny flying little bits that had to have been blades of some sort, slices through her buckskins, one across her cheekbone. Her mouth went wider than her eyes; it dimly occurred to me that she must be screaming, but I didn’t hear any of it. Instead, my hands were flying, stripping her out of her clothing on the spot, audience be damned.
Pretty Eyes and the honor guard blocked the morning sun; no stranger was going to see her anyway, and the seconds it would take to carry her from the stage to a building might mean she’d bleed to death on the way. She didn’t resist, though I couldn’t tell if it was because she knew what I was doing or simply because she was out of it. If I’d been hit like that, I was pretty sure I’d be out of it.
She’d been a major part of my training though; combat medicine details she’d drilled into me during our weeks at Granite Peak Stronghold might make the difference in keeping her alive. I’d never known my mind had the high speed gear it hit now. Carotid arteries not touched; there’s a chance. Femoral arteries likewise okay. That still left what seemed like a hundred cuts all over her body, none of them deep but all of them adding up.
No. Not a hundred. Close to twenty, though.
Poison? If so, she was already dead. I couldn’t worry about that. The worst bleeder was her left calf; my belt knife cut a long strip from her own pants leg in sure, practiced moves gained during years of hunting to keep my sisters fed. Tourniquet, just below the knee. No stick to tighten the thing, but no matter; adrenaline sucked it tight enough and then some, secured with a square knot, on to the next. Right upper arm, Sam’s there and got it, his fingers moving even faster than mine with bandages and wrappings I’ve never seen before. Where’d he get those?
Hands hauling me back, away from the injured woman. I start to twist, to fight, until I recognize the voice in my ear. Sergeant Ray Morgan. “Easy, Brak,” he’s saying. “Easy.”
I hesitate, gasp out, “Faye–”
“Got her covered.” I see that he does, or rather they do; three of the Blakto honor guard warriors are hard at it now, working with the slim young Sam Dennis as if the four of them had been a team since forever.
“In custody,” the big sergeant assures me. “Chill, Brak. You’re pumping your blood too hard.”
Pumping my blood too hard? “It’s Faye that–” I begin…and then the pain crashes down. my vision goes black around the edges. I want to scream like Faye did, but it’s way past time for that. I must not pass out. Damn the–did I get sliced? I must have gotten–of course. My mind’s not working right, though. It’s all I can do to stay conscious and quiet; squealing like a girl is not an option.
By the time I win the battle and struggle back to full awareness, our people have me patched up, enough that they’re getting ready to lift me and carry me off the stage. “No!” I refuse to go, and the ferocity in my voice is somehow enough to back them all away. Ray Morgan watches me get to my feet on my own. I sway, but I stay up, and dammit, I take command. There’s no one else.
“Crowd still here?” I ask, not knowing how long it’s been since the attack went down. Not that long from the position of the sun.
“Still here,” Morgan replies, “except for the Melon Lady; we’re holding him out back. The rest are all kind of frozen in position, besides which, most of ’em likely feel they’ll look suspicious if they try to leave before anyone else does. Those weapons–”
“Later, Sarge. Ask Pretty Eyes to clear the stage, please.”
To my surprise, the warriors follow orders. Professionals in their twenties, thirties, even their forties, taking orders from thirteen year old me. But I don’t feel like thirteen; I feel like a thousand or more, enduring enough flaming agony from the hastily patched cuts to mark every single anniversary with a slice and dice party. I know my wounds are not as dangerous as Faye’s, though, not life threatening thanks to the cowhide coat I’d still had on at the time of the attack, figuring to shuck it only when it was my turn to take the podium.
Which doesn’t mean they don’t hurt like a mother lovin’ bitch.
My first words come out strong, my changing voice deciding not to betray me just yet. This is a good thing.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” I begin, “and the occasional transvestite assassin wannabe, I bring you entertainment like you hardly ever get down on the farm, or even onstage at the theaters here in the city for that matter!” I paused, just for a beat. No laughter. “What you have just witnessed, those of you who are close enough to see what happened, was an attempt to derail your future. There are those among us, whether Grain Hollow locals or imported terrorists makes no matter, who do not want to see the TranStatePact succeed. Worse than that, they want to deny You the People of your Constitutional right to be fully informed. They tried to shut us down just now by using a bomb throwing agent, a really bad guy dressed as a really ugly woman!” Pause, two beats–and then laughter, a tide beginning up front where people were close enough to see the blood on my face, rippling back through the crowd as what I’d said was passed on back.
I had them. I really had them.
My speech went on nearly as long as the Mayor’s, without the boredom. Then, closing out, it hit me.
“We’re going to have a question and answer session, folks. I know you’ve got questions. I know I have some of the answers. Raise your hands and let me call on y’all…up front, in the black shirt.”
“Ain’t you a little young to be the main speaker for something you say is as important as this misguided pact with the Devil Blakto?”
“Yes. Yes, I am. And sir, I commend your courage.”
“Your courage, sir.” Green Snake, the young Blakto woman warrior I desperately wanted to court, happened to be posted beside the front corner of the stage. I caught her eye and beckoned. She leaped lightly up onto the stage and trotted over to stand beside me, intuitively understanding the part I wished her to play. She stood in a ready stance, relaxed, the butt of her short lance grounded next to her right foot, its wicked tip catching the sunlight perfectly to bounce it smack dab in the questioner’s eyes. “It takes guts to call a pretty little thing like Green Snake here a Devil Blakto, don’t you think?”
I was hoping Green Snake’s command of the English language was up to snuff. Apparently it was; she dimpled and blew the hostile questioner a kiss with her free hand.
“Especially,” I added, “since she could take you out in a heartbeat–on the battlefield or in the bedroom!”
Something you might not know, the Blakto have a truly wicked sense of humor. The bigot’s neighbors in the crowd were elbowing him in the ribs, guffawing. His face was beet red; he was spluttering helplessly. Every Blakto in our entire honor guard, on the other hand, wore an expression of extreme and highly suspicious innocence.
I pointed to another man with his hand raised.
“Miz Faye,” the grizzled oldtimer asked, “will she be okay? It looked pretty bad, what we could see before your soldiers sealed off our view.”
“Don’t know yet,” I shrugged, “but I’ll tell you two things. Number one, we’ll keep you posted, get word to your Town Criers when we know one way or the other. Number two, nothing will stop the message we have to bring to the entire Cautan Confederacy. The TranStatePact is essential for our very survival; we will get the word out.”
And so it went.
We didn’t make it out of Grain Hollow until shortly after noon, a good two hours later than originally planned, and when we went, it was with our entire detachment of 500 warriors on high alert. Faye was still with us, riding on a pile of blankets in one of the medical wagons commandeered for the purpose, tended by our two top healers. She was in and out of consciousness due to the blood loss, they said, but not likely to die any time soon.
She might wish she were dead, though. The official report listed seventeen blade slices, several of them opening significant veins. My quick action, word was, had saved her life. I didn’t know about that; I just wished I could have recognized the danger a few seconds sooner. Maybe if I hadn’t dismissed her worry that we’d been having things too easy….
Well, it wasn’t easy now, nor did it look to get any easier for a while yet. The next major city on our tour calendar was Track Crossing, a good two weeks or more of hard travel to the south of Grain Hollow. Nobody was predicting how soon Faye would be back in action, if ever. She had more than three hundred stitches holding her hide together; even though the wounds were shallow, there were just so many of them. Even if she miraculously recovered fast enough to take the stage in Track Crossing, there were quite a few small villages between here and there.
I’d have to cover all of those, without a doubt.
“Huh?” I came out of my brown study, staring with pain filled eyes at my aide.
“Got an herbal paste from one of the healers. He says it’ll ease the hurt in your blade cuts and keep infection out to boot. Want me to apply some?”
“Uh…yeah. Sure. And thanks; there are a couple stinging my back that I’d have some trouble reaching.”
Sam climbed into our wagon, skirting the driver to join me in the hide covered interior. I’d have been riding on horseback instead of in the wagon, but all things considered, it couldn’t hurt to travel this way for a day. Maybe two.
“Our people have any luck interrogating the assassin?” I presumed they’d been at it.
“About that. Hang on now, this may feel cold.”
“Yikes! Uh, yeah!”
“The Melon Lady isn’t talking. Pretty Eyes and Colonel Carp would both like a crack at him, but they decided to let him sweat a while in case you wanted to handle the, um, interview.”
“Unh.” Such interviews were usually fatal in the end, but…”They think I’m up to it? I’m pretty sure our senior military people know how to be persuasive.”
Sam shrugged. “You’re our leader now, at least till Faye gets back on her feet. You can delegate the interrogation if you want; lots of leaders do that. But I’m thinking you’ve got an edge that might break this bastard.”
“What? Sam, the prisoner is obviously a hardened assassin of some experience. I’m, well, curse anybody else who might say it, but I’m still a beardless boy. What makes you think I could succeed in breaking him where older hands might fail?”
“That’s just it, Brak. Your youth will work in your favor if you can scare him a little. A fellow your age can be scarier than a forty year old any old time of the day, believe me. Nobody can predict what a crazy-assed teenager might be capable of doing, right?”
I felt my eyes narrow. “You know something you’re not telling me. A whole lot of something.”
“Yep,” he agreed, making himself comfortable. I was guessing he’d tied Roxy to the back of the wagon, leaving her to follow along. “A whole lot of something. You need to sleep a bit before I start? This could take a while.”
“Hunh. Like I could sleep after that. Get to talking.”
Talk he did. By the time he was done imparting information and how he came by it, the sun was setting and our little army was pulling off the road, naming off sentries, and setting up camp. My mind was reeling, but Sam had been right; I really might have a chance to shake the assassin up.
And I had a plan. “Have one of the guards pass the word. Here’s a list of the people I want present when I question Mr. Melon Lady. Also, I want the killer brought to our campfire for supper.”
“You’re going to eat him?” Sam didn’t sound all that surprised at the idea. From what he’d told me, it wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility that he’d…no. Not that.
“Hey, cut me a break. Wounded warrior over here, remember? I’m allowed to fumble with my phrasing a bit.”
“Okay, boss.” My aide grinned and set out to do my bidding.
I was impressed with the killer. Neither large nor stoutly built once he was out of his padded woman’s dress, he was in fact a slender man, no taller than five-three if that. In his early forties from the look of it, though I’ve been known to miss by a mile when it comes to pegging a man’s age. (As for pegging a woman’s age, forget it.) One eye was a bit squinty, likely the result of the scar right under that eye. He’d figured out it was me in charge. He didn’t blink much. He calmly accepted food from Green Snake’s hand, his own wrists being iron-shackled behind his back. Our honor guard Captain, Pretty Eyes, flanked him on one side; Sergeant Ray Morgan loomed on the other.
You’d have thought the man was dining in his own home, attended by servants. Either he considered us his social inferiors by a large margin or he was endowed with a set of balls the size of the moon. Probably both.
After supper, our bellies full and the campfire under a blanket of stars the perfect setting for torturing an enemy, I got the ball rolling.
“You’re going to tell us every little thing you know about your assignment,” I told him quietly.
He studied my face for a long moment. “No,” he replied just as quietly. “I’m not.”
“You don’t fear torture.”
The fellow snorted at that. “Of course I fear torture. Only a man with no nerve endings and a curiosity to see what his insides will look like on the outside would lack that fear. And I assure you, I am the least curious of men.”
“And yet you’re talking to me, man to man, despite the fact that earlier today you had nothing to say to anyone.”
His eyes twinkled in genuine amusement. “All your soldiers did was bang me around a little. Your approach is different. More conversational. Plus, you’re such a cocky little bastard, kind of like my youngest son. I don’t figure to be alive come sunup unless your torturers are more skilled than most; I might as well use you to remember the boy during my last, um, relatively pain free moments. Eh?”
I laughed aloud. “Oh, well played! I remind you of your son, you say? You’re referring to Tedwardo, I presume?”
My timing was perfect. Of course, he’d given me the perfect setup. His face went white. Rage wasn’t in it, what flared in his eyes was pure unreasoning terror. I took a long pull from my tea mug, savoring the flavor, waiting just long enough before hitting him with the next shot. “The BGOA has been good to your family.” Brighart Guild Of Assassins, that would be. None but those of the Guild itself were supposed to know that; outsiders marked themselves by referring to the Assassin’s Guild. “You’ve been able to hire help for your poor wife despite her fractured mind requiring skilled caretakers who cost a bundle. Kavin has been making a name for himself, following in your footsteps. Oh. Excuse me. He was making a name for himself until he got caught botching an assignment in Lollakey last winter. And then there’s your lovely daughter, apple of your eye, little Qualien; she–”
“You can shut up about that bitch!” Stunned as he was to realize I knew intimate details about his family, details no outsider should ever have known, it was Qualien who shattered the assassin’s composure utterly and forever. “She’s no daughter of mine!”
“No,” I shook my head sadly, “I suppose not. Disowning a beautiful young woman simply because she refused to murder for hire as your line has done for a dozen generations…that is of course a Guild requirement. You had no choice. You really did show a rather unseemly vindictive pleasure in reading the proclamation, though. Even some of your Guild brothers and sisters found it excessive.”
I paused, holding out my mug for Green Snake to refill. Sam would normally have handled that little chore, but his absence from this evening’s festivities counted as a necessity, or at least a sensible precaution. He’d changed his appearance considerably since leaving Brighart, and his name as well, but his build was too typically Brighartian to let the assassin get a good look at him.
The killer took a good long while to think it over, but in the end he asked a simple question. “Are you threatening me with harm to my loved ones?” His voice was steel under silk; I’d clearly shot to the top of his Kill List.
“Yep,” I nodded agreeably, “that’s exactly what I’m doing. For starters.” Neither I nor my advisors were about to start a slaughter campaign against civilians, but the Melon Lady didn’t need to know that.
“If you pursue such a course,” he stated flatly, his eyes utterly devoid of life, “you condemn your entire precious TranStatePact to termination.”
I gave him the Oh really? look. “Bullshit, Urugen Vabb. You and your precious BGOA consist of fewer than three thousand registered assassins. Your reputation inspires fear–and sometimes respect, I’ll give you that–throughout all of the belly of the Bowl, not so much in the Rim. It does that. But it does that through propaganda. Your precious Guild sows terror, the knife in the night, the Springer bomb that unleashes dozens of razor edged flying blades in all directions, the conviction in the average citizens that any hit put out on them is a guaranteed death sentence. Right?”
Bless his black heart, the prisoner didn’t see where I was heading with this. “Yeah. So?”
“So,” I continued. “Wing Holder is no civilian. In fact, he’s another breed of cat altogether. There’s been a contract out on him for more than nine years, yet he’s still doing what he does, treating the threat with contempt and going on with his life.”
“What makes you say there’s a hit out on Wing Holder?” Vabb’s eyes looked wary now; I really should not have known about this.
I went on as if he hadn’t spoken, leaning forward toward him for the first time, my tone suddenly intense. “Murderer, do you have any idea what you’ve done? Did you know that Wing once killed three young, strong men who refused to stop torturing a pair of cats with which they were entertaining themselves? Just cut ’em up when they drew blades on him, left ’em lying for the wolves, and took the cats home to Granite Peak Stronghold, both of the injured felines cradled in his arms as he rode? One of the cats died from its injuries; the other lives in his personal quarters to this day. Never mind the various operatives who’ve tried to fulfill the contract and ended up fertilizing the earth instead. Think about those cats, killer. Think deep. Think hard. For the past nine years, he’s merely defended himself any time a Brighart assassin has tried for him, but now? If he’ll kill men for being mean to a couple of cats, what do you think he’ll do if his woman dies from her injuries and nobody’s been brought to justice for the attack? Eh?”
“You–you already have me. I threw the Springer. I’m the only guilty one….”
It was my turn to snort. “Yeah, right. We have you, the tool used to do the injury. Big whoop. I’m his apprentice, Urugen Vabb, and I can tell you this. If we don’t come up with the real enemy, the folks who hired you, Wing Holder will start by eliminating the BGOA entirely, erasing it from the face of the Earth as if it never existed. That might satisfy him, but if it doesn’t, he’ll take out your families next. All of them, from the graybeards to the unborn babes. If he really loses it, he’ll finish up by wiping out Brighart, slaughtering the population and razing the buildings and salting the earth when he’s done.”
The Melon Lady, Third Captain of the BGOA, was shaking. He tried to control it, but the trembling was visible in the subtle rattling of his chains.
“He couldn’t do that,” he said, but there was no conviction in his voice. “No one man could do that.”
“If it were anyone other than Wing Holder,” I shook my head sadly, “I would agree with you one hundred percent. But I’m not convinced he’s a man as you and I know the species. Think about it, Vabb. You’ve heard the reports from the battle at Fear Pass Gap. The Rimlanders were trapped between twenty thousand Blakto on the one side and seven thousand Navri City Army troops on the other. There weren’t but fifteen hundred or so Rimlander warriors left fit to fight, yet Wing Holder pulled off the upset of the century. In the end, the NCA was wiped out, the Blaktos cut down to size, and the remaining Blaktos turned into Wing’s allies. Does the man who could pull that off sound like he’d have a problem eliminating your home town?”
In the end, he gave it up. We’d have to check it all out, of course; trust but verify. But I was inclined to believe him.
Urugen Vabb hadn’t attempted to bargain for his own life. I respected him for that. His entire concern was for his people, his family and the Assassin’s Guild that was more than family to him. His city, too; he was a patriot, utterly loyal to King Raritus Vonn.
We might end up setting the man free and sending him back to work for us as a double agent. Not yet; we weren’t certain he hadn’t lied to us even at the end of the evening’s discourse, nor did we know what sort of cover might work for him, considering that he’d failed in his attempt to kill Faye.
Once he was out of sight, escorted by the usual guard to the jail wagon, Sam Dennis slipped back into the firelight and seated himself comfortably on the ground.
“You’re looking pleased with yourself,” I noted, “as well you should.”
“I’ve had worse nights. You’re one hell of a natural mind bender, Brak.”
“Thanks. I’ll take that as a compliment. I think. But wow, is that man ever pissed at his daughter for leaving his family’s chosen profession.”
“Yeah, he’s not much into forgiveness or tolerance or any of that.”
“You said your Dad was the same way. Have you heard from Qualien since the day the two of you ran away from Brighart?”
“In a way.” Sam lifted his gaze from the flames, dying down as they were for the night. There was pain in his eyes. “I hear her voice in my head every day…but I haven’t seen her. I headed for Navri City, but we agreed it would be smarter for us never to be seen together, nor for either of us to be able to tell where the other one went. She might have left the Bowl altogether, through the southeast trade route.”
“You miss her, huh.”
“More than you can possibly know, Brak. More than you can possibly know.”
All right, this was getting to be a downer of a conversation. I felt for my friend Sam, but enough was enough. At least we knew–or thought we knew, anyway–the identity of Urugen Vabb’s employer. A coalition in Track Crossing, he’d said. Not the City Council, oddly enough, but a group of merchants who feared their profits in various ventures would evaporate if the TranStatePact held. It wasn’t clear why they’d gotten that idea. They hadn’t told the assassin all that, but Vabb was no fool; he never took an assignment without knowing both his employers–far better than they realized–and their motivations.
Well, we were headed the right way, anyway. My wounds should be down to a mere collection of itching scabs by the time we reached Track Crossing. With luck, Faye would be able to participate in our final planning sessions. But whether she was or not, the merchants would pay.
Now, with the help of my friends, I just had to figure out how to use the arrest and execution of a few city notables to elevate our recruiting results instead of smashing them flat.
And Faye had to pull out of her fevered, semi-comatose state. She just had to.