A Note from Nessa'fur:
Um, ok, so yeah. This interlude has been a bit ridiculous. I know. I'm sorry. You all probably thought that Violet Fire was done, over, complete-as-it-will-get-anyway. So did I. I've been trying to write the Goddess-forsaken Epilogue (which, by the way, is how I always refer to it. The Goddess-forsaken Epilogue) for what? Seven? Eight months now? I really want to get it out to you guys-you've stuck with me this long and you totally deserve to know what happens and have all the loose ends tied up and maybe get a little real closure, right? Right. Well here's the thing.
This is not the Epilogue.
It was (a lot of) the Epilogue until George started meddling again and Alanna got all time to make like a Goddess on me. And made it really hard to tie up all the loose ends into one, nice shiny Goddess-forsaken Epilogue. So this isn't the Epilogue. I don't know what it is though, because (in my opinion) the story I came to tell ended when Ana and Will finally got off their big, stubborn high-horses and got together. There was a reason I titled the last chapter "The Last Chapter". Because it was. The Last Chapter.
But I STILL don't have the Goddess-forsaken Epilogue done and since yesterday my own personal version of pigs flying past my window happened (by which, in mean, I discovered that Rose Zemyla finally picked up Reconciliation again, which I thought was doomed to the pits of abandoned fanfic hell) and I looked at what I had so far and realized that even without the actual Epilogue bits this would be the single longest chapter of the fic. So this little bit of not-much-really, but lets be honest we all (me included) wanted to know how the heck Darius got down from the tree, is my promise to you all that even if it takes eight more months I will get the Goddess-forsaken Epilogue done. And this story will be a closed loop. Finally.
What Happened After
~ ~:~ ~
In his dream, Darius awoke to find himself lashed to a tree.
And in the strange and singular way of dreams he did not find this surprising or unusual.
Being tied to a tree wasn't particularly comfortable—all that rough bark chafing at his clothing, not to mention what sounded like several generations worth of flies swarming around his head—but it did give him an excellent view of his surroundings. Somewhere beyond the treetops which hemmed his horizon, the sun was setting; its waning rays filtered through the thinning foliage of autumn. The branches rubbed together in the wind, making mournful music (which he could just hear above the buzzing of the flies); the almost-bare limbs seeming to reach out toward him as the shadows grew longer.
He looked to his left, and found the source of the flies. Beneath the swarming horde a little package of what might have once been bread and cheese was neatly suspended from a nearby branch. It was close enough that he could have nibbled it, if he had been so inclined. Not that he was. Maggots might be a delicacy in the former Thaylian province of Ushbek, but he had never been able to understand the appeal. He preferred food that didn't wriggle.
Darius tested his bindings, but they were tight and craftily knotted. Of course they would be, for in that inexplicable way of dreams he suddenly knew that Ana had tied these knots. Yes, he recognized his own patient (and, when necessary, impatient) teaching in the lay of the coils. The good news was he knew how to undo the knots quite easily—given enough time.
The bad news was he was suspended about twenty feet off of the ground, with nothing beneath his feet but open air. Thus, his main act of Escape Artist Extraordinaire would be shortly followed by an encore of a Very Long Fall—a long fall headfirst, as Ana had kindly tied his feet separately. He would be forced to loose his arms and chest first…and then would have to bend over to untie his legs.
It was a conundrum that made him wonder if it wasn't better to just stay tied to the tree. After all, this was a dream; his situation was bound to change with mercurial speed.
And besides, it kept him safely above the giant spiders with human faces which were consuming a dead horse down on the forest floor.
Giant spiders with human faces were consuming a dead horse down on the forest floor.
Well that was a bit unexpected. Usually his subconscious stuck to more traditional metaphors.
This might be the strangest dream I've had to date, Darius thought, always the objective observer. Maggots and massive spiders…
Then the wind shifted, and the smell hit him.
It was a smell he recognized from too many years spent walking through the bloody fields of battle. It was the smell of death, of decay—of bodies bloated and rotting in the hot sun and sundered flesh moldering with putrid infection.
He felt the bile rise up in his throat, even as the wind shifted again, blowing the smell away from him.
Unfortunately, away from him meant that he was now downwind of the human-faced monstrosities on the ground. As one they paused in their feast, lifting their horrible faces to the wind. One of them raised its head further, its beady eyes traveling up the trunk of the tree to where Darius was strung up.
"Of all the weird and horrible creatures I've met in Tortall," Ana's voice said in his memory, "I think that spidrens were the worst. Sure, demons might be impervious to magic…but they are slow and clumsy on the ground. Spidrens, on the other hand, are wicked fast. And what they lack in brains they make up for in sheer viciousness."
The spidren's mouth dripped bloody streaks of viscera as it bared its teeth in a savage smile.
This was no dream—it was a nightmare. One Darius knew he wasn't likely to wake up from.
The spidren pointed at him, chattering to the others in its alien tongue. Instantly they were all looking at him, flashing five identical grins of gleeful malice.
Nothing like a having your dessert already trussed up and helpless, Darius thought grimly, throwing himself against his bonds as two of the spidrens broke off from the others and scuttled towards his tree. If I get out of this alive I am going to kill Ana.
The first spidren made it to his tree and began climbing up it without out pause, the second one close behind.
Darius felt the bonds around his chest give just a little bit.
It was enough.
He twisted his head and drew out one of his many daggers from the collar of his coat with his teeth, immediately beginning to saw through the top-most cord. He felt the binding part just as he felt the tickle of a long, hairy leg brush against his own.
Darius looked up, into a face smeared with horse blood and filled with carnal glee. He felt the rancid breath of the monster across his cheek as it giggled…
…which promptly became a gargle as Darius snapped his head forward and thrust the dagger between his teeth into the creature's eye. The spidren shrieked as it lost its footing and toppled out of the tree, taking the one beneath it along for the ride.
The others reacted instantly, abandoning his poor horse's corpse and swarming toward his tree, their faces snarling with anger.
Darius twisted and bucked, his muscles screaming as he sought to free his hands and chest. Out of the corner of his eye he saw two of them climbing the tree next to his, while two more advanced up his own. The fifth one was writhing on the ground, his dagger still protruding from the gory void of its eye socket.
His right arm sprung free just as one of them sprang at him. Darius watched the creature's flight with a practiced eye, drawing his arm back at just the right moment to be able to punch it squarely in the face as it arced toward him.
The sound of his fist shattering the bones in the monster's face was music to his ears.
He didn't have much time to enjoy it, however, because the next one was already crawling over him as the first fell through space to join its brother convulsing on the ground. He felt the spidren's claw rip into his side, but it didn't stop him from retrieving another of his daggers and slicing off one of its numerous legs. It hissed, but didn't lose its grip on him, so he lopped off its head for good measure.
Darius gagged as the spidren's foul blood sprayed across his face, then the world was spinning horribly as the headless spidren fell, its body tangled in the ropes around his chest. He caught a glimpse of a bloated, hairy body just beneath him, then he found himself staring upward at the spidren advancing from above, his body painfully twisted as the cords around his legs suspended his fall.
His arms and chest were free, but hopelessly tangled in the ropes as the dead spidren's body shuddered in its death throes.
Awful, horrible, bloody death descended upon him from above and below.
Darius closed his eyes and cut through the ropes around his legs. He felt them sever as something—razor sharp claws, no doubt—sliced across his back.
Then he was falling.
The spidren below him screeched as Darius barreled into it, along with the still twitching remnants of its comrade and enough rope to tie a two-hundred pound man to a tree.
When you fall in dreams, you are supposed to wake up before you hit the ground. You aren't supposed to be able to die in your dreams.
But this was no dream, and even with the bodies of two spidrens beneath him Darius hit the ground hard enough to drive all the breath out of his body and fill his vision with darkness punctuated by searingly brilliant stars. But it was a better fate than that of the spidren beneath him, which obligingly went squish as he landed on top of it.
Darius groaned, rolling away from the macabre scene. He blinked rapidly to clear away the stars in his eyes, even as he desperately fought against the ropes still entangled around him. He had to get himself free before the other spidren came out of the tree…
Too late, he thought, as the thing barreled into him point-blank—apparently neither strategy nor subtly were its strong suits—bowling him over and sending waves of agony shooting through his battered body. His head felt like there was an entire platoon marching in lockstep inside of it.
Darius lay on his back, his body tense as he waited for the spidren's next attack.
It didn't come.
Pound, pound, pound, stomped the soldiers in his skull.
Darius raised his head tentatively. The last spidren lay still just beyond his reach, a dagger protruding from its forehead.
He let out a long sigh.
Ana better not be dead, Darius thought, because I'm really looking forward to killing her.
Emma Townsley pulled her cloak tighter about her as the crisp autumn wind snaked its way around her, sending a brief shiver down her spine as she lounged at the top of Corus's outer wall. It was cold, and likely to get colder as autumn's nippiness ground inevitably into winter's chill, but she didn't really mind. She liked the turn of the seasons and the annual changes they brought to the world around her. After all, the stars always shone brighter in the winter sky.
She looked to the stars now as the smoke from her cigarette drifted lazily upon the breeze. She'd always loved watching the stars emerge in the sky, loved the smooth, almost imperceptible transition from dusky twilight to velvety midnight. She loved the way the sky turned from blue to navy, and from navy to black, while the stars emerged one by one to turn their eternal, shining faces upon the mortals below.
But midnight had long come and passed, yet still she lingered. She couldn't have said why, but she was reluctant to leave her solitary perch on the outer wall. Something told her she should be there, some strangle little instinct that whispered that she should stay.
And when you were a mage, you learned to listen to that little instinct. You had to, or you wouldn't be long for this world.
"Well if it isn't Miss Emma," said a cool voice to her left. "What brings ye to the wall on this chilly eve?"
Emma glanced over at the man who had approached her so silently…not that she hadn't been fully cognizant of his presence. Garrett Barnes might have a mercenary's quiet step, but she'd done far too many jobs with him not to know the instant he came within fifty feet of her.
She shrugged, stubbing out her cigarette. "I got a hunch," she said quietly, "You know how it goes."
Garrett frowned down at her, "Some nefarious deeds, afoot?" he asked, only half-jokingly. "And you ain't in the middle of it? I don't believe it."
Emma raised an eyebrow at him, "You're one to talk," she said, "nary a day goes by that I don't hear your name tied to some new plot to raid a merchant warehouse or smuggle in stolen goods from the Copper Isles."
Garrett Barnes chuckled. "You got me there. But what kind of hired sword would I be if I couldn't maintain my reputation?"
"What brings you out here?" Emma asked. "You're not thinking of taking up stargazing as a hobby, I'm guessing."
A grin split Garrett's wide cheeks. "Nope. I'm on the job tonight. Scouting out the best point of entry for some Carthaki friends of mine. Wouldn't want the guards asking questions about the goods they are bringing with em."
"I sincerely hope you aren't talking about slaves," Emma said dryly, "because you know how the King feels about that particular business practice."
"You really think I'm that stupid?" Garrett exclaimed, "Why in the—"
"Shhhhh—" Emma hissed. "Do you hear that?"
They both fell silent, their ears straining and their bodies suddenly tense.
The quiet crunch of footsteps drifted to them on the wind, along with a low muttering.
Emma dragged Garrett down beneath the lip of the wall as a man crept into sight, stealthily making his way along the outside of the wall. His movements were furtive as his gazed passed over the place where they were hidden in the shadows, and his hands passed along the wall as if seeking something along the brick face.
He paused just beyond their hiding place, looking up at the wall like he was judging its worthiness.
Then he said something. Something which was clearly a curse, but was also clearly not Tortallian. The words seemed to hiss from his lips in a tongue completely alien to her ears.
The man put his fingers into the crumbling mortar and started to scale the wall.
"You've got to be kidding me," Garrett muttered, as Emma frantically threw up a sound-proof shield around them both. "What the hell does he think he's doing? Nobody climbs the wall. That's total stupidity."
"What language was that he spoke?" Emma asked, the feeling of unease she'd felt all evening growing with every inch the man gained. "That wasn't Tortallian…"
Garrett shook his head, "it didn't sound like Carthaki," he said uncertainly. "It didn't sound like anything I've ever heard in my life."
They hear a sharp, foreign word as the man's grip faltered. He muttered a sentence under his breath which sounded distinctly threatening despite its incomprehensibility.
"I don't like this," Emma said, slowly. "I don't like this one bit."
"I know a sailor who knows lots of languages," Garrett said, watching the man's slow progress. "He doesn't live too far from here…"
"Get him," Emma growled. "And bring back-up as well. He's obviously not gifted, but it's better to be safe than sorry."
"Will he hear me if I run?" Garrett asked.
Emma glanced at him contemptuously. "Not unless he's a better mage than I am. Which he isn't."
Garrett took off without another word, sprinting down the steps and through an alleyway.
"Hurry up," Emma muttered.
Darius felt his muscles trembling as he sought to find the next handhold in the wall. He looked up at the path he'd mapped and wondered if he had enough stamina to make it the rest of the way. The fight with the spidrens and the long walk to the city had taken a lot out of him. He definitely wasn't at the top of his game… and though the bricks were solid enough, hand and footholds were few and far between. Progress was much, much slower than he'd hoped.
Fortunately, his scouting had revealed that there were no patrols around the outer wall of Corus, just the guards posted at the main gate. Which made breaking into the city ridiculously easy. The only reason he'd walked so far along the wall was to be certain that he was well away from any guards…and also so that he was in some kind of shadow. Not that the night was particularly bright, but the stars alone cast enough light to see by on a moonless night. And he really didn't want to be discovered. Not before he found his sister and beat her to a pulp.
Darius inched upward one handhold at a time, slowly and patiently making his way up the wall. He ignored the screaming of his muscles and continued to focus on the delicate operation, not allowing himself to think about the fact that he was once again precariously suspended twenty feet in the air. And this time there would be no conveniently placed spidren bodies to land on.
Finally he was able to reach up and grasp the lip of the wall. He shifted his weight once again and muttered, "Its now or nothing."
He put his other hand out to grasp the ledge, but instead he found it gripped by a pair of very human hands.
Darius froze as he looked up into the grinning face.
Then he was flying over the wall only to land with a tremendous crash as his body landed hard on the top of the stone parapet.
Darius sat up slowly, his eyes taking in the three men who stood around him, their various weapons glinting in the starlight.
But that was not what made him break out into a cold sweat.
It was that ropes were slithering around his hands and feet without a hand to touch them.
His jaw clenched in anger as a blindfold settled over his eyes. "I am going to kill her."
Emma frowned down at their prisoner, a little disappointed he hadn't put up a better fight.
"Where's your sailor friend?" she asked Garrett, only to be answered by the man himself as he trudged toward them. "I'm here, I'm here," he said wearily. "But I don't get what all the fuss is about—why'd you have to get me out of bed, Garrett?"
"Shut up," Emma snapped, "And tell me what he is saying, and in what language."
The sailor's eyes widened as he took in the prisoner at Emma's feet, muttering away to himself.
"I don't believe it," he muttered, "I never thought I'd be hearing Thaylian on these shores."
"Thaylian?" Garrett said, exchanging a glance with Emma. "Why would a Thaylian be here?"
"Spyin'?" Suggested Winny Redhand.
"He keeps sayin, 'I'm gonna kill her,'" the sailor said darkly.
"Assassin," hissed Emma, giving the prisoner a little kick.
"Think we should bring him to the King?" Garrett asked, a sinister grin pulling at his lips.
"That's exactly what I was thinking," Emma said, returning the smile. "The Rogue will know what to do with him."
Illieno had really been hoping to make it an early night, but the paper-monster on his desk was spawning at an alarming rate again, despite his best efforts to keep the piles at a manageable size.
He sighed as he glanced briefly at a report from a contact in the Copper Isles. The current Prime Minister was facilitating illicit human trafficking from Carthak—again. In the past six months the PM had personally granted landing rights to twenty-three vessels carrying young girls and boys to be sold on the black market as slaves or impressed into sex labor. His contact had recently learned that the PM himself kept two boys under the age of twelve as his "personal attendants." Illieno felt a coil of revulsion twist through his gut as he considered the services those boys were rendering. Men like that made him sick!
Sick, but also sad. Sad that some men resorted to purchasing sexual slaves in order to find fulfillment. Sometimes Illieno couldn't help but wonder if the world-at-large were more accepting…if love and attraction were not dictated by strict gender lines, if marriage and commitment were not preordained to exist exclusively between a man and a woman... Perhaps the Prime Minister of the Copper Isles was a symptom of their society, a symptom of the disease of hatred and bigotry…
No, Illieno thought, the man is a child molester. He must be brought down.
He scribbled a quick note to another one of his contacts, the head of housekeeping to the current Queen. She would see to it that the PM's private activities would be discovered in a suitably public and damaging way.
Too bad, Illieno thought, his mouth twisting cynically as he tied knots in sequence, I liked his politics.
Illieno placed the missive in his stack of outgoing messages. Tomorrow he'd bring them to Harrison to spell the scrolls to self-destruct unless the knots were untied in just the right order—a unique sequence for every individual contact—but for now…
For now, Illieno looked forlornly at the towering stacks of parchment. He never seemed to get ahead these days. I need a secretary, Illieno thought, not for the first time and not for the last.
In truth, he was overwhelmed.
In the weeks and months after the war with Scanra Illieno had been scrambling to reestablish his contacts abroad and to get a handle on the intelligence reports that had been piling up while Tortall had been preoccupied with internal affairs. Illieno knew he was miserably under-informed, but he was also over-worked and there was only one of him and only so many hours in the day. His had stable contacts in the Copper Isles and the Yamani Islands (largely thanks to his extensive extended family on his mother's side), as well as a smattering of agents in Cartak, but all of his Scanran spies had been recalled or killed during the war and he had yet to remedy the situation. He also had no idea what has going on in the Eastern Lands—The Thaylian Empire was a particularly frustrating blind spot. Illieno was reduced to sifting through the rumors of ale-sodden sailors in order to discover any news of Thaylia.
And the rumors from that quarter were troubling. The last two ships to reach port from those parts brought tales of the collapse of the mighty Empire—sailors whispered that the Empress was dead and that civil war had over-taken the City, leaving the provinces to fend for themselves. Yet no matter how much ale he purchased or how carefully he phrased his questions, no one seemed to know of Ana.
Illieno pressed his palms to his burning eyes, his throat suddenly tight. He was just so bloody tired.
I need someone I can trust, Illieno thought, for the thousandth time. Someone capable, reliable, and intelligent enough to sort the vital nuggets from the irrelevant without me needing to babysit them. And once again, he thought of her and cursed the Gods for taking away such a perfect friend…and perfect assistant. Karma, he thought, I could really use you right now. I will never forgive you for leaving me…and I will never forget you for saving him.
Illieno leaned back in his favorite chair, allowing himself just a moment to sit back and enjoy the fact that he no longer had to work in the bloody palace, where nothing was really his idea of secure unless it was Will's bathtub or that Gods-forsaken Chamber of the Lioness that everyone was so touchy about (everyone being Lara when he gently suggested clearing out a room in there to be his office). Sometimes he still couldn't believe that they had come to him, with an offer he couldn't have refused even if he'd wanted to. "It don't usually work this way," Bobby Smelter had said, "but we lost so many lads during the fightin' that nobody wants more bloody work. We've done some discussin, we have. And everyone agrees that you're the only one that everyone can agree on to take his place…"
But there were advantages and disadvantages to wearing several hats simultaneously. At the moment, the biggest disadvantage was that he didn't have a good hold over either of his professions. He also hadn't worked up the courage to tell Will that the reason he was spending so much time in the City was because he was now the King of Thieves. And he may have forgotten to mention to his new friends that he was already employed by the government.
When he felt his jaw crack for the fifth time from continual yawning, Illieno decided to throw in the towel. The paperwork would still be there in the morning, but he couldn't say the same for himself unless he got some sleep. He stood up and stretched; his muscles stiff and inflexible from too many days of sitting behind a desk. For a brief moment, Illieno was tempted to just torch the remaining paper-work, but the thought of burning a buried gem of information stayed his hand.
He hadn't even gotten out from behind the desk when a sharp rapping on his office door announced the visitor. Short, long, long, short—the signal for an urgent message.
Illieno let another sigh pass his lips, but it quickly morphed into a yawn. So much for slipping out early.
"Sir?" Grizzly said, opening the door and poking his head in. "I thought you was still here…Tovy Arens just came from the gate—he's got some news ye'll wanna hear right off."
"Send him in," Illieno said, already knowing that whatever Tovy had to say was going to be interesting. Grizzly was a discriminating gatekeeper. At this time of night only the most vital messengers were allowed in.
Tovy Arens was still in his King's Own livery, obviously having come directly from his post. It was risky for lone soldiers to walk around this part of town in duty dress. Illieno took note of the detail but refrained from filing it under either bravery or stupidity—that distinction could definitely wait until morning.
"Well?" Illieno said, "Spit it out."
"I saw her," Tovy whispered, "she's back."
Stupidity is looking likely. Illieno frowned, taking in Tovy's wide eyes and half-vacant expression.
"Who did you see?" he asked, mustering patience, "Who is back?"
Tovy looked at him with wonder-filled eyes, then he smiled. "The Champion," he murmured, "Lady Ana."
Illieno sank slowly into his chair as the words penetrated his mind.
"Are you sure," he asked, his voice hoarse. He cleared his throat, and then said with quiet rancor, "If I find out this is some sort of joke…" No need to finish that thought. One of the perks of being the King-Of-All-Things-Not-Quite-So-Pretty-In-The-City was being able to pull off the trick of letting sentences hang. He found it much more satisfying to let other people fill in the blanks of the implicit threat.
"No!" Tovy exclaimed, "I swear on my father's grave—it was her! She rode up to the gates just as we were closing 'em for the night. Her horse was all a-lather and she was all dirty from traveling, but there is no mistaking her with that hair and those eyes…"
Illieno realized his hands were shaking, and clenched them into fists. Irritation and exhaustion were totally swept away as he gestured for Tovy to sit. "Where was she headed?" he asked, "Did she say anything? Exactly how low ago was this? Tell me precisely what happened."
He was going to kill her.
Darius stumbled along blindly, his bound wrists chafing painfully as his captors shoved and prodded him along streets so rough and uneven they must have been paved with the oldest cobblestones in the universe. He had no idea where they were taking him—he'd lost his sense of direction several twisty turns ago—but from the smells and sounds around him he could tell they were not on a pleasure stroll through the must-see tourist attractions of Corus. The smell of garbage and unwashed humanity was overpowering. And he didn't need to understand Tortallian to recognize the laughter of drunks or the cat-calls of prostitutes prowling for their next John.
From the sounds of their breathing and their quiet conversation, Darius estimated that his escort consisted of four men. Three of them were heavily armed—he could tell by the heavy tread of their feet—but it was the fourth one that really worried him. He could take the others easily, even gagged and blindfolded as he was, but the little one with the light step was a…what had Ana called them?
A mage. He was a mage.
Anger made Darius bite down too hard on his gage, inadvertently sinking his teeth into his tongue in the process. His curses were muffled by the gag, but the men must have understood his sentiment, because one of them poked him sharply in the kidney, growling what was undoubtedly the Tortallian version of, "Shut up, you!"
She was so dead.
Darius lowered his head, letting his body go limp. The men shouted at him, but he refused to move, refused to react as two of them grabbed him and started dragging him backwards. He ignored the pain in his armpits where the men were grasping him and the uncomfortable way his legs and feet bounced on the uneven paving. Instead he concentrated on his bound hands. They had done a shoddy job of tying him up—the cords were tight, but the knots were amateur. When the men finally stopped, dumping him unceremoniously to the ground, Darius had the coils reworked to his satisfaction.
He listened to the men talking—it sounded like a negotiation of some kind. There were more voices than there had been. The street they were on was relatively quiet compared to where they'd been, so much so that the sound of a door slamming nearby made him jump.
He lay on the uneven ground, letting his senses roam. His captors were close at hand, but he thought there were less of them. His hands were essentially unbound…but where was the little one? The mage. Darius couldn't hear his voice in the murmured conversation a few away, but his escape would be wasted if the mage was close enough to incapacitate him with magic.
The door opened again, and then Darius was being hauled to his feet though no hand touched him. He felt his skin crawl.
Magic, he thought, darkly. I was right not to waste my advantage.
Someone shoved him and Darius went sprawling as he tripped over the doorframe. He clutched his hands together behind his back and took the fall on his side, wincing as his shoulder connected with hard stone. He heard laughter, then someone grabbed him and forced him upright again.
"No funny stuff." A voice hissed in his ear, in heavily accented Thaylian. "Emma here has got an eye on you. One bad move…and you be dead faster than you open your mouth to scream."
Hmm…so the mage is a woman. Darius thought, no wonder her step was so light!
Darius bowed his head, consenting to be led through what sounded like the back hallway of a tavern. He stumbled up several flights of steps—five to be precise—and down a long hallway. He was certain he could find his way out again, provided he could take out the mage first.
Someone knocked on a door—short rap, long rap, long rap, short rap—and he heard the person inside respond. Then he was herded into the room. He counted the footsteps retreating back down the passageway—it sounded like two pair of feet. One stopped just beyond the doorway, while the other continued on. That left three of his escorts…and whoever was already present in the room.
His blindfold was suddenly ripped away, the gag upset in the process. He spit out as much of it as he could while taking in his surroundings. He noted how far away the two men on his left were standing. He did not see the mage but he caught her shadow in his peripheral vision and realized she was closing the door. A huge desk took up the bulk of the back half of the room. Darius looked at the face of the man seated before him, half-hidden behind haphazard stacks of several trees worth of paper, and judged that it would take him at least thirty seconds to get up, navigate around the cluttered desk, and cross the space between them. Then the man raised his head and their eyes met.
For a moment, Darius was startled by the green of those eyes—by the intelligence which weighed him, the authority which challenged him...and the astonishment that made them grow wide.
Then the door swung shut behind him and Darius was propelled into movement.
He spun, his hands springing free as he pounced upon the mage as she turned from shutting the door. Her eyes widened in shock but her lips had no chance to voice a spell before Darius's hands tapped her in two vital places and she collapsed, unconscious.
Five seconds, he counted silently.
Smoothly, Darius side-stepped her falling body, turning to meet the attack of the muscle-head telegraphing his punches from across the room. Darius used the man's momentum to throw him head over teakettle, then blocked the knife-thrust of the heavy-footed lummox who barreled up behind the first by sending the thrusting arm shooting past him.
Calmly, he disarmed the knife-man as he lunged again, using the heavy hilt to drop him with a smart rap on the temple.
Knife in hand, Darius glanced at the man he'd thrown across the room, who was just stumbling to his feet. Their eyes met. A dagger appeared in the other man's hand for the briefest instant before he hurled it straight at Darius's heart. Darius stepped smoothly aside from the dagger's arc and plucked it from the air, returning it to its owner with lightning speed. The knife in his left hand followed in quick succession, pinning the man's hand to the wall as he tried to spin away from the first dagger. Darius could help but smile as he saw he'd judged the direction of the man's dodge perfectly; the first throw narrowly sliced through his belt, which severed completely as the man twisted to try and free his pinned hand, causing the man's breeches to fall around his ankles.
Darius whirled again, prepared to meet the attack of the man behind the desk—and froze.
He was gone.
Something sharp and cold pressed against his neck, even as he felt a second prick in the small of his back.
He could feel the man behind him, but there was no arm, no knife, no body!
Then suddenly an arm appeared before him, the tanned hand casually tapping the dirk against his jugular. Darius swallowed, closing his eyes. The smell of cloves and cinnamon was strong in his nostrils.
"I am going to kill her," he grumbled under his breath.
The door opened behind him, and Illieno heard Grizzly gasp as he took in the scene. "Boss?" he questioned, somehow able to convey several pertinent questions with a single syllable.
"Situation under control, Griz," Illieno said, "Would you send Sally up, please? Looks like we need her healing touch. Lock the door behind you."
Grizzly grunted his assent and the door swung shut again, the lock clicking as it was driven home.
"Are you the translator?" Illieno asked, glancing over at the man staring in shock at the blood dripping down the wall from his pinned hand. He didn't appear to notice that his pants were bunched around his ankles, nor, indeed, that his undergarments were a week overdue for a washing. "Oy!" Illieno called, repeating his question. The man blinked a couple of times, then cleared his throat. "That's me. I speak some Thaylian."
"What is he saying?" Illieno asked, careful not to let his knife stray too far from the man's throat. Illieno may have had a good two inches on him in height, but this fellow was built. Built from an entirely different blue-print than Illieno's tall and lean design—his shoulders seemed wide enough to have their own hemisphere. Illieno watched a vein throb in the man's throat and tried really hard to ignore the close contact of their bodies, but every time he took a breath he got a lungful of the stranger's scent. It soured his temper that a man who was likely an assassin had sweat that smelled so delicious. It was indecent.
"I think he's saying, 'I'm gonna kill her', that's what kept muttering when we captured him" the translator said, after some hesitation.
Illieno frowned. He hated being right all the time.
…But there was something fishy going on. A professional would never reveal himself in such an obvious way.
"What's your name?"
The translator cocked his head, "My name or his name?"
"Your name," Illieno growled, his patience running thin.
"They calls me Lucky Hammersmith," the man said, a little haughtily.
What a bloody stupid name, Illieno thought. "Okay, Lucky. Translate for me," he said.
"If ye haven't noticed, sir," the translator said, "I'm kinda wounded over here."
"I'll get to you!" Illieno snapped. "Tell him what I say."
Lucky grumbled something under his breath, but didn't openly protest. "Tell him to sit in the chair," Illieno said. The translator said something that sounded like reptile speech—all hissing vowels and short consonants. But the Thaylian seemed to understand. He nodded, and Illieno lowered the knife at his throat and stepped back, careful not to let his guard down. The man was unbelievably fast—his alacrity reminded Illieno uneasily of Will, whose speed he had always regarded as a bit supernatural—and was obviously exceptionally trained. Illieno breathed in a refreshing lungful of un-assassin-scented air and felt better straightaway.
The man walked smoothly to the chair before Illieno's cluttered desk and sat with deceptive ease. He looked at Illieno impassively enough, yet his light brown eyes sent a thrill through Illieno's system again.
Those eyes were dangerous. A man could drown in those eyes.
Illieno tore his gaze away, glancing down at the mage and battle-hardened mercenary that this man had incapacitated with all the ease of tying a bootlace.
"I admit it—I'm impressed," Illieno said, gesturing at the unconscious pair. "Very neatly done. Not that you would have gotten far; anyone who emerges from that hallway without the proper escort is—" he snapped his fingers, "instantly incinerated." It was a bluff, but the Thaylian couldn't know that.
The brown-eyed man shrugged as he heard the translation, then—moving his hands very slowly—he pointed at the gag that he had only half-managed to spit out. Illieno nodded his assent, and the man untied it, throwing it aside with a disgusted look.
"He says, 'It was worth a try'," said the translator, his voice strained.
Illieno sighed. "Yell if he so much as twitches," he said, and went invisible. He smirked with satisfaction as the prisoner's jaw dropped in astonishment. Then he sheathed his daggers and bent down to check on Emma and Padtrik. Both were still unconscious, but their pulses were strong and their breathing steady. Then he strode over to where Lucky Hammersmith was pinned to the wall. Illieno yanked the dagger out of his hand, unable to stop himself from rolling his eyes as Lucky yelped and clutched his bloody member to his chest
"Pull up your pants," he snapped, "Sally will be here in a moment,"
Illieno glanced around, but—seeing no readily available cloth—turned back to Lucky, who was trying to pull his pants up with one hand.
"You're not gonna die," he said, just managing to keep the irritation of out his voice. "I need you to translate for me again."
Out of the corner of his eye Illieno saw the prisoner surveying his office, his gaze deceivingly disinterested.
"Don't even think of it," Illieno growled, "the windows are shatter-proof and only open on my command. Those other doors are both locked with spells and wouldn't be of use to you anyway."
While Lucky translated, Illieno felt a shiver run down his spine as he realized that the brown-eyed man was looking directly at him. He stepped across the room with his lightest tred and the eyes did not track his movement. Illieno quickly smothered the sigh that threatened to escape. He was far too exhausted to deal with this right now.
Emma stirred on the floor, moaning slightly as she put a hand to her head and blinked. Just then he heard Grizzly knocking his return. Illieno made himself visible, calling the all clear. The door swung open and Sally Sathers stepped into the room, her sandy hair falling over her shoulder in several long braids. She looked around with an amused smile hovering about her lips as the door closed behind her, her eyes roving over the prisoner in the chair, Lucky, Padtrik's prone body, and the way Emma was clutching her head in her hands, her face scrunched in pain. Then Sally stepped right into Illieno's personal space. "You called for me," she said, looking up at him in a way she probably imagined was coy. Illieno crossed his arms and resisted the urge to back away from her. Men did not back away from Sally Sathers. Well, most men, anyway.
Illieno raised an eyebrow, suddenly wishing he'd sent for another healer. "Lucky over there could use your attention," he said, pointedly. Sally threw him a little smile and then sauntered over to where Lucky was still standing by the far wall. He ignored them, glancing quickly back to the brown-eyed man—who was lounging in his second-best chair as if he owned it, his expression bored as hell.
Illieno turned to Emma, helping her to her feet. "How are you feeling, love?" he asked. Sally Sathers shot Emma a dangerous look from across the room, but Em didn't notice. She blinked up at him, then her eyes widened.
Only to narrow to slits as they fell upon the prisoner.
Her hand moved faster than he could react, her voice snapping a spell that cracked through space like a whip. The brown-eyed man flinched as tiny little Emma yelled her spell, and three parallel lines of blood bloomed across his face, like he'd been clawed. Emma raised her hand again, her face vivid with rage, but Illieno caught her arm in its upward arc. She turned her glare on him, her lips snarling.
"That's enough for now, darlin'," Illieno said with a smile. "Why don't you wait outside with Grizzly? If I have any trouble getting answers from him I promise you'll be the one I call on to change his mind." Emma glared at him, but didn't protest his suggestion. Instead, she turned again to the prisoner and flicked her finger casually.
Chains sprouted from the floor, wrapping themselves around his ankles, chest, and arms. The man closed his eyes as the chains slithered over him, effectively securing him to the chair. His face revealed his disquiet, his mouth unconsciously shuddering even after the chains had settled.
So, Illieno thought. You don't like magic. Looks like they had something in common.
Illieno jumped about a foot as Sally Sathers appeared out of nowhere and put a hand on his chest. He felt her magic tingling through his body and slapped her hand away sharply. She gasped and held the hand like it was grievously injured, her eyes wounded. "I was just making sure you were unhurt," she said breathlessly, her hand reaching toward him again.
Emma snorted loudly from beside him. "Sure you was," she said sarcastically. Emma glanced up at Illieno's face and one corner of her mouth twisted upward. "Come on, lassie," she said, prodding Sally toward the door, "time to let the boys play." Em gestured and Padtrik's unconscious body was lifted into the air; she moved her hands like she was conducting music and Padtrik's body jerkily reached out toward Sally, who made a disgusted sound in her throat and fled, her exit closely followed by Padtrik's hovering form.
Em pressed a key into Illieno's hand, nodding at the chains. Then she winked and strolled out, whistling off-key as she shut the door behind her.
Hmmm…Illieno thought looking after her. I really must get to know Emma better. She might make an excellent assistant someday.
The chained man cleared his throat, drawing Illieno's attention. He spoke briefly, his face revealing a surprisingly good humor considering the circumstances. His voice was a little hoarse though.
"So, what now?" Lucky translated, not even looking up from the examination of his once-again flawless hand.
"Now I ask questions and you answer," was Illieno's reply. "I'm sure you know the drill."
The sides of the man's mouth lifted briefly as Lucky gave his translation.
Illieno opened his mouth for the first question, but the man spoke again before a sound escaped his lips. Illieno's eyes widened with shock as he recognized his own name in the words. He felt frozen to the ground as he stared at the prisoner.
"What did he say?" Illieno choked, glancing at Lucky's incredulous face. His mouth hung open as he glanced back and forth between Illieno and the Thaylian. "He's lying," Lucky said. "I'm sure of it."
"What did he say?" Illieno repeated, his face darkening.
Lucky frowned. "He said, 'Shall we cut to the chase? I am not a spy, I'm not working for anyone, I don't want to steal your secrets, and I don't want to have to hurt anybody else. I would also bet my sister's good health that you are Illieno. Which is probably the best luck I've had all night—for a bit I was certain that this was the den of the King of Thieves.'"
Ha, Illieno thought. This is the den of the King of Thieves.
But the brown-eyed man hadn't finished, and the next name that fell from his lips shattered the paralysis that held Illieno's feet.
The sound of his dagger leaving the sheath was no louder than a whisper, but it halted the Thaylian's speech like a bell tolling impeding oblivion.
Illieno closed the distance between them in two furious strides; his fist clenched the dirk so tight that his knuckles were white as he used the blade to tip the man's chin up. Their eyes locked, and Illieno felt a twinge of satisfaction run through him as he saw fear glittering there.
"How do you know Ana?" Illieno hissed.
Darius felt the tip of the dirk biting into his larynx as he stared into two green eyes that shone with a murderous fury. He swallowed, suddenly uncertain of his control of the situation. He didn't trust the translator to communicate his words accurately and uncensored—and it was plain that Illieno was angry enough to slit his throat if his answer didn't satisfy. The time for games was over.
"Ana is my sister," he said with slow candor, "I changed her diapers when she was a babe in arms and taught her how to ride and shoot. I followed her here after she snuck away from our campsite earlier this evening. The gates to the city were locked so I was forced to climb the wall in order to gain entry. That was when I was ambushed and brought here. The rest you know."
Darius looked steadily into Illieno's eyes as he spoke, hoping the truth of his words wouldn't get lost in translation.
The translator gave what sounded like a much abbreviated version of Darius's speech. The skepticism in his voice was obvious, even in an alien tongue. Nevertheless, the words seemed to have a calming effect on Illieno. The dagger relaxed against Darius's neck, though its point was not completely retracted. He didn't need the translation of Illieno's next question—the meaning was clear.
"Darius de'Mar at your service," he said, bowing his head briefly, "though I would thank you not to spread the knowledge about. The name de'Mar is a dangerous one to have these days."
"Illieno's is smart man," the translator sneered in his mutilated version of Thaylian speech, "he not convinced you speaking true. He thinks it very…convenient…you show up here just when Lady Ana comes back. Wants to know why you say you was going to kill her."
Darius could have kicked himself for his stupidity. He threw the translator a dirty look and said, "Your translator may know Thaylian words, but is clearly unfamiliar with our expressions. 'I am going to kill her,' was a way of saying that I am extremely angry at my sister and she is going to be in a world of…in lots of trouble when I see her again."
Illieno raised an eyebrow at the translation, his face clearly doubtful. Then he fired off a series of questions.
"Illieno wants to know: why you so angry with her? Why you not with her? And if she really is your sister, you tell where her birthmark be, what her favorite song to sing be, and who her father be."
Darius laughed—he couldn't help it. He looked up at Illieno and saw a wicked humor in the ironic quirk of his mouth. He held up five fingers.
"I'll answer the questions in reverse," Darius said. "I knew Ana's father as Thom Trebond—though you would call him Thom of Trebond I think…"
The first of Illieno's fingers went down as soon as the name Thom Trebond crossed his lips, though the translation lagged behind.
"Ana can't sing worth a damn—she is completely tone-deaf—not that that ever stops her from singing her father's lullaby. I believe it goes something like, 'hush now little one fear not the night, the Lioness will watch over you tonight'…and Ana has no birthmarks, unless you count all her freckles. Though I don't want to know how you know that."
The dagger lifted away from his throat even as Illieno grinned at the translations of his words. He put down two more fingers, and raised his eyebrows.
Darius sighed. He'd been hoping Illieno would let the last questions go.
"Ana wanted me to stay behind while she returned to Corus, but I didn't want to let her go alone when her reception was uncertain…and—I admit—I didn't like the idea of being by myself in a country where I don't speak the language. I thought I'd convinced her, but…" Darius sighed. "She tied me to a tree and left me in the woods," he muttered, his face flushed with embarrassment. He knew what they what they would think: a tiny little speck of a thing like Ana shouldn't be capable of tying a man his size to a tree. She had totally cheated, but he knew it was pointless to say that.
Lucky was laughing too hard to translate. Darius glared at him, wishing he'd been a little less precise with his belt-shearing throw. Finally he stuttered out the translation and Darius watched Illieno's face transform.
Illieno was one of those people who laughed with his entire body; the sound that emerged from his lips merely the audible manifestation of the glee that seemed to erupt from every pore. His green eyes met Darius's and he couldn't help the answering smile which rose to his lips. The wicked sparkle was back, and Darius decided that he could become quite fond of that impish gleam.
A memory popped into his mind unbidden.
Ana's hair whipped in the breeze as they stood side-by-side at the rail of the gently rolling vessel. The sailor's delight of a red sunset lit her face in its ruddy glow, erasing the sickly pallor that had for too long overshadowed her features. But she was getting stronger every day and every day she amazed him with her forbearance and perseverance. It had been a triumph, the day she emerged from her bed and took her first toddling steps without his arm to support her. With the joy of her triumph came too a twinge of sadness, for it meant that they would soon leave their sanctuary. He had enjoyed having her to himself and knew that things would never be the same once they reached their final destination. But her enthusiasm had won him over at last, and he found himself asking eager questions about Tortall.
The enthusiasm enlivened her face now, as she spoke of the friends they would meet at journey's end. He asked leading questions because he knew that in her secret heart Ana was afraid to return and she needed to find comfort and courage in teaching and telling. In all honesty, he was not particularly interested in her answers. He knew that when the time came he would discover their characters for himself.
But there was one name that always caught his attention more than the others. Perhaps it was the sly glee that entered Ana's eyes when she spoke of him that fascinated him so…or perhaps it was the way she described him, with his ready wit and even readier laughter, his steadfast loyalty and mysterious talents. Or perhaps it was just the fact that he had been the one to stand by her side when everyone else had turned away and the world was ending before their eyes. Yes, perhaps it was merely the fact that Illieno Reinhart had been there for her when he was not that made him perk up his ears whenever his name crossed her lips…
"I just can't wait to see his face!" Ana grinned, "I bet it takes him a whole thirty seconds to think of up something to say." Ana glanced over at him, her eyes taking on that familiar mischievous edge. "I really cannot wait to introduce you two," she said, giggling an infuriating little giggle. "Between the two of you I'm sure you'll figure out how to unravel the fabric of the universe within a year or two."
Darius had long since given up trying to get her to explain such nonsensical remarks, now he just played along.
"Well, it is a good thing the Gods aren't around anymore—wouldn't want them to interfere with my grand plans for world domination."
Ana grinned, "Don't worry," she chimed, "I'm sure when you add me and Karma to the mix we'll figure out how to put it back together again…within at least a decade."
No, it was definitely that giggle, Darius thought. That giggle that said she knew something he didn't. He hated that giggle.
Darius blinked, realizing that he had been staring at Illieno for much longer than was strictly proper. He dropped his gaze to his hands and felt the blood rise to his cheeks as all of Ana's sly remarks suddenly took on new meaning.
He glanced up at Illieno again, but looked away almost immediately, suddenly unable to meet that green gaze. He couldn't be sure, but he thought that he'd glimpsed understanding dawn on Illieno's face.
Illieno's heart raced in his chest, pounding so loudly he thought the Gods in their distant realms would hear it. He willed himself to look away from Darius's face, willed his heart to slow and the hope that rose up inside him to have patience.
He knew nothing of this man, nothing save that he was undoubtedly Ana's brother, that they had treated him in an infamous manner…and that he had absolutely beautiful brown eyes.
Illieno glanced at Lucky and was relieved to find him blessedly oblivious. "Tied him to a tree! Ha!" he chuckled to himself.
Illieno cleared his throat pointedly, turning back to Darius—who, he couldn't help but note, was smiling a little foolishly at his fingernails. "Well," he announced, "I'm convinced. Even if tying her brother to a tree wasn't a classic Ana move, there is no mistaking the familial resemblance of your blushes."
A frown crossed Illieno's face at Lucky's short translation. "Did you tell him what I said?" he asked, his tone a bit sharper than he intended.
Lucky shrugged, "I told him you believe him. I, myself, am not so sure."
"I didn't ask for your opinion," Illieno retorted sourly, "and when I say something to him I expect you to translate word for word. The same goes for everything he says." There really was no reason for him to be so angry, Illieno reminded himself. Just because Lucky had denied him an opportunity to impress Darius with his brilliant wit was not an excuse for distemper.
Worry lines appeared between Lucky's brows, and he shifted his weight nervously, "Sorry, yer Rogueness," he murmured, "I'll do me best to stay true to what ye say."
Illieno glared at Lucky until he dropped his gaze. He inhaled deeply, surprised at the loathing he felt toward one of his own 'subjects'. He wondered how much of that hatred was actually frustration that he and Darius could not communicate directly. Illieno knelt before the chair, slipping Emma's little key into the lock resting by Darius's ankle. The chains evaporated as the key turned, and he saw Darius shiver as he got back to his feet.
"Do you know any Tortallian?" he asked, wondering why it hadn't occurred to him to ask before.
Lucky was prompt with his translation but it was clear that Darius had understood the question because Lucky had hardly gotten two words out before he replied with the universal gesture for "a little"—two fingers converging.
"Few words." Darius said, rather clumsily. "Ana teach me."
"What do you know?" Illieno asked through Lucky.
Darius thought for a moment. "Hello," he said. "Please. Thank you. Yes. No." He paused, then pointed to the dagger still in Illieno's hand. "Knife." He made a gesture like drawing a bow. "Bow, arrow. Sword." He pretended to unsheathe an invisible sword.
Illieno rolled his eyes.
"She totally would teach you the names for weapons," he muttered, only to find himself completely elated by Darius's laughter when Lucky promptly gave the translation. They shared a smile, which transmuted into a laugh as each read the others' thought on their faces: Ana was in deep, deep trouble.
Ana awoke for no apparent reason, her eyes snapping open of their own accord and her heart pounding as if her life were in danger. For a moment she was terrified, terrified that the events she'd been reliving in her dreams were just that—a wishful dream.
Then she felt her body rising and falling with Will's every breath, felt his arm across her hip and the soft tickle of his chest hair upon her cheek. She felt a smile pulling at her lips even as tears started in her eyes as she listened to the sound of him breathing and the slow, even rhythm of his heart.
Surely there was no place safer than where she was right now…so why had she woken?
Ana closed her eyes, letting her Gift fill her innards until her fingertips tingled, reveling in her unobstructed ability to tap it, then with a mental hand wave she sent it exploring.
For a few blissful moments Ana just lay in Will's arms, content to inhale his scent with every breath.
Then she sat bolt upright, as an alarm bell went off somewhere behind her eyes.
There was someone in the room.
She felt Will stirring beside her, his sleep disturbed by her sudden movement, and straight away she was furious.
Violet fire burst from her palms with a searing intensity, instantly illuminating the entire room.
Which was empty.
She felt Will's muscles tense next to her and she knew he was alert and awake. He sat up slowly, a wicked looking dagger appearing out of nowhere in his fist. His other hand touched her shoulder as he whispered, "What is it, Ana?"
"Show yourself," Ana growled. "Or I will start lobbing fireballs in every direction."
"Why is it," a familiar voice drawled from the foot of the bed, "that whenever we have a heart-warming reunion scene you are always over-doing the dramatic lighting?"
Illieno popped into existence, leaning casually against a bed post as he threw her his trademark smirk.
"And," he added, quirking an eyebrow, "you're always naked."
"Goddess, Illieno!"Ana swore, flicking her wrists and sending the violet flames dancing across the room to light the lamps. "I could have killed you!"
Illieno grinned unrepentantly, "You can't kill me," he teased, "Who will teach your twelve children to laugh and neglect their studies while you two are busy playing the Hero and the King?"
He tossed something at her and she reached out automatically to grab it—a wadded up ball of cream-colored fabric. Ana frowned at it, then looked up at Illieno with curiosity in her eyes. "I think everyone here would be more comfortable if you put that on," he said dryly.
Ana glanced over at Will, who shrugged. "I could kill him," he said, the corners of his lips twitching, "Then we could go back to bed."
His breeches hit him in the face, smothering the string of curses that erupted as his belt and boots followed shortly thereafter.
Ana giggled as she slipped out of bed and lifted the tunic over her head. But Illieno's startled gasp and vehement oath made her freeze in the middle of shrugging it on, her nerves instantly on high alert.
"What is it?" she asked, glancing around.
Illieno was staring at her, a look of horror on his face.
Ana pulled the tunic down self-consciously, lacing it tightly for maximum coverage. Illieno looked up and met her eyes, his mouth open in dismay.
She raised an eyebrow, "I know girls aren't your thing, 'llieno," she said, summoning a smile. "but I think you're over-doing the disgust factor," she leaned toward him and stage-whispered, "Will appreciates the gesture, but I prefer your usual indifference." She grinned at Will, but her smile faded as she saw that now he was staring at her too, his hands frozen in the act of buckling his belt.
Ana glanced back and forth between them. "What?" she asked, holding up her hands. "Has my face suddenly broken out in green spots?"
"You know about Illieno?" Will blurted, just as Illieno whispered, "Your stomach—what happened to you?"
"Er…" was Ana's brilliant response.
Illieno shook his head and blinked, then held up one finger in Will's direction. "We will come back to that," he said, "but first I want to know why it looks like someone carved a hole in your stomach."
Ana studied the floor, shifting her weight. "It's a long story," she said quietly, "and I'd rather not go into it all now…but suffice it to say that I was wounded. I had to spend some time recuperating, but I'm practically as good as new now."
Illieno frowned at her for a moment, then muttered something under his breath. Ana's brows drew together in response. She could have sworn he'd said, "Understatements must run in the family."
What was that supposed to mean?
But before she could ask about it Illieno distracted her again.
"A moment of clarification, if you would Ana darling," he said brightly. Ana raised an eyebrow, surprised at the sudden change of tone. "How long have you known my…uh…preference?"
Ana rolled her eyes at him. "I suspected as much about two weeks after I met you…" ("Ha!" Illieno cried, grinning at Will). "But," Ana continued, "I didn't know for sure until we met the Seven Protectors." She grinned slyly at Illieno. "You didn't spare Queen Thayet a second glance, but you were practically licking your lips and blowing kisses at Raoul of Goldenlake."
Will burst into laughter while Illieno pouted and protested that he was never so obvious. But Will stopped laughing when Illieno turned to him and held out his hand expectantly. "You owe me a new cloak," he announced. He stroked his chin thoughtfully as he said, "I'm thinking emerald brocade with fox fur trim."
Will crossed his arms and then looked across the bed at Ana.
"He told you, didn't he?"
Ana giggled, catching on to the exchange. She bounced onto the bed. "Nope," she said, "not a word." She crawled across the expanse, then stood up and kissed Will on the nose, her arms settling comfortably around his shoulders. "Looks like Illieno will finally get some clothing that isn't black!"
Will gave her her favorite lop-sided grin. "I'll buy him an entirely new wardrobe…" he turned his head to peer at Illieno, "…if he swears to leave now and never set foot in my bedchamber again."
Illieno cocked his head, his eyes glittering with mischief. "I'll take that offer…as long as I can take Ana with me."
"Not on your life," Will said, his arm going firmly around Ana's waist.
Illieno laughed, then clapped his hands together. "Good!" he said, "Glad that's settled. The field-trip wouldn't have been as fun without you."
Ana and Will exchanged a glance.
"We're going somewhere?" she asked.
Illieno grinned. "Of course!" he cried, "do you think I would roust you from your love nest just to say hello and annoy you with my playful banter?"
Ana and Will both opened their mouths, but Illieno continued hastily. "On second thought, don't answer that," he said. "But there is a point to the intrusion. I am in need of your translation skills."
Ana felt her brow furrowing. "My translation skills?" she repeated slowly.
"Yep," Illieno replied, not a whit bothered by her troubled frown. He really was too cheerful for this time of night. "A crazy man tried to climb the wall into Corus a while ago, but luckily me laddies intercepted him and brought him to me. Keeps babbling on in Thaylian, but my current translator is no good; he only knows a few words and phrases."
Ana gasped, her eyes wide with dismay as the realization sunk in. Darius.
Illieno nodded, knowingly. "Yeah, that's how I thought you'd react. It's all right; we got him chained up good and proper. He kept mumbling about killing you—but don't worry, we wouldn't let an assassin harm you."
Ana clapped herself on the forehead. "What have I done?" she cried. She leap off the bed and ran up to Illieno. "Take me to him right away," she said, her voice pleading. "We have to get him out of there!"
Illieno looked down at her. "Too late," he said. "I already sprung him. He's waiting for you in the lesser library along with Lucas, Lara, and the Brood. I sent Tohmas a note too, but he hadn't shown up by the time I left to fetch you."
Ana stared up at him, then her face darkened.
"Don't," Illieno said, "It wasn't nice but you deserved that moment of panic."
"What in Mirthros-name are you up to, Illieno?" Will snapped, coming up next to them, "That wasn't funny."
"No," Illieno said, uncharacteristically serious. "You know what else isn't really funny? Knocking out a man you care about, lashing him to a tree and then leaving him alone in a forest full of bloody spidrens."
Ana felt her jaw drop in horror. She stumbled backwards, her welling eyes searching Illieno's hard face. She felt Will's arms wrapping around her, but his silent comfort only made the tears flow faster. How could she have been so stupid? So selfish?
Illieno looked up at Will and then back down at Ana. "Okay," he said, "I get it—I totally understand that you guys needed to work out your shit without the rest of us sticking our well-meaning but meddle-some heads into your private business. However, somebody had to knock you out of fantasy land and remind you of reality at some point. And since apparently I'm the only one brave or stupid enough to risk your everlasting resentment, I'm the one who is going to do it."
He inhaled a deep breath, looked them both firmly in the eye, and began again.
"I am absolutely furious with you both, you know," he said, but his voice held no anger, only simple honesty. "I can't believe you left your brother like that, Ana—completely vulnerable and only knowing a couple words of Tortallian!" Illieno shook his head. "He was nearly killed three times before we could figure out who he was. Thank the Goddess he's even more resourceful than you are in a tight spot."
Ana closed her eyes as Illieno paused, the tears still dripping down her face. Guilt roiled in her stomach and shame made her lips tremble. She was the worst sister that had ever existed. Even Marghi had had the unity of the Empire at the heart of her betrayal—Ana's own was due to purely selfish reasons. He will forgive me, she thought miserably. He will forgive me though I do not deserve it, for that is Darius's way.
Illieno's lengthy sigh made her look up at him again. "A day is hardly enough time to get to know someone," he murmured, "but I have a feeling that your brother would have underplayed the stress you put him through and made like everything was sunshine and daisies." Ana nodded. He had judged Darius quite accurately, considering the circumstances. "But I couldn't just let this pass," Illieno continued. His eyes met hers for a protracted moment, and a sudden suspicion woke in her. "You've had your reconciliation period," he said, "but now I think its time that Tortall get reacquainted with her Champion and King."
Ana studied the ground for a long moment, then she stepped out of Will's arms and threw her own around Illieno. He squeezed her tightly for a moment then held her at arm's length. "I really missed you, kiddo." He said, his voice hoarse. "Tortall just isn't the same without you."
Ana smiled up at him through the tears shining in her eyes. "Thanks, 'llieno," she murmured. "I needed to hear that…and you're right Darius wouldn't have been so…"she laughed dryly, "frank."
She cocked her head and her smile took on a knowing edge. "You like him, then?" she asked slyly.
Illieno's glower was betrayed by the way the corners of his lips kept twitching. "I don't believe that's any of your business," he said loftily.
"Illieno," Will said slowly, his face troubled. "…how can you have known Darius for an entire day? Don't you mean a few hours? It's still dark…you can't have known him that long…"
Illieno frowned at them. "The sun just set," he announced, looking curiously between them. "We laughed when you didn't appear for breakfast…and smiled knowingly when you skipped lunch, but missing three meals in a row was a bit much. I mean, nobody can survive on love alone—not even you two."
Ana's jaw dropped and she turned to Will to find in looking just as thunderstruck.
"We slept all day?" she asked, her voice rising on the last two words.
It was Illieno's turn to look astonished. Then he started giggling.
"What?"Ana and Will asked.
"You spent—" giggle, "almost an entire—" more giggles, "day locked up together…and you were sleeping the whole time?" Illieno was bent almost double with laughter now.
"Well," said Will, "not the whole time."
Illieno shook his head at them, an impish little grin splitting his cheeks. "I won't tell, I swear. Wouldn't want to ruin your reputation."
Ana's stomach gurgled loudly, momentarily startling them all. Chuckling, Illieno snatched Will's tunic and Ana's leggings from where they lay draped over the end of the bed, tossing them to their owners. "Now finish getting dressed and we'll see about getting some food into Ana's belly—sounds like its ready to stage a rebellion!"
Ana pulled on her leggings and then retreated to a nearby chair to don her boots, smiling a little to herself as she realized she was wearing the same outfit she'd worn for the Feast of Anointing. That must be Lara's doing, she thought happily, grateful not to have to put on the travel-stained clothing she'd arrived in. But she paused in the middle of lacing her left boot as something Illieno said finally clicked in her mind.
"Wait a minute," Ana said slowly, her eyes wide as she turned to Illieno, "What reputation?"
Darius wandered through the stacks of a beautifully furnished library, his gaze roving longingly over shelf after shelf of incomprehensible titles. He could not wait to be able to decipher the mysteries held within the tomes; his scholar's mind itching with curiosity about the knowledge contained in this Tortallian treasure trove. He'd always loved books—loved the weight of them in his hand, the whisper of ancient pages carefully turned, the heavy, musky odor of paper and aging leather. Books and the study of them had been his passion and his pleasure all his life, his only escape from the hard realities of command and warfare.
Drifting among the aisles with his fingers brushing over ancient bindings and his ears filled with the distant sound of children's laughter, Darius felt an alertness tingling beneath his skin, a sharp awareness that he had never known, not even in the heat of battle. He felt as if he was only now waking up, and wondered if he had only dreamed that he had once led the largest army in the known world, that realms large and small had once fallen at his command, that he had once lived in a City that had never known the sparking touch of magic.
Less than a day he had been here, but already he understood the love and the longing in Ana's eyes when she spoke of Tortall. There was something about this place that sought to fill a void within him that he had never known existed. Darius looked at the books around him and knew that he could be content here, content in a way he'd never dreamed possible until only a few hours ago.
The tenor of the distant noises changed and Darius realized the children must have left. There were only three voices now, three adult voices that must belong to the big man Illieno had identified as Lucas, his wife Lara, and another, the voice of the blond-haired man with the wise eyes who had healed the cuts on his face and body earlier that morning. But it was not until he heard the sound of a door opening and Ana's voice crying out in joy that he turned and made his way back to the long table which held the remnants of their meal. Kind and polite as Ana's friends had been to him, he couldn't help but feel the intruder to their intimacy. Pantomime was a frustrating means of communication (the translator had been dismissed in the early afternoon and hadn't returned, much to Darius's satisfaction. The man had gotten on his nerves.) and it had not been long after they finished eating that Darius signaled his desire to explore the library through copious hand gestures. It had been a long day, a long day spent waiting in vain for Ana and the King to emerge. His anger at her had faded by the time Illieno fetched him from the guest room they'd stashed him in for the morning meal, but even inviting and entertaining as her friends were he still longed for her arrival. He knew she would dispel the awkward tension of his unexpected presence.
Darius turned the final corner of the last bookshelf and stopped to take in the scene before him. His sister was chattering in Tortallian to Lara, who held her face in two hands, using her thumbs to wipe away the tears which streamed from Ana's eyes. He felt a smile pulling at his lips as he watched Ana laughing with joy, her hand reaching out to take the blonde's hand—Tohmas, that's what he said his name was—as Lucas blinked furiously by her side.
"You must be Darius," a quiet voice said in Thaylian. Darius turned to find a man with curly black hair shot through with silver approaching him. His sapphire eyes twinkled with the smile that lifted the corners of his mouth and softened his hard features. "It is an honor to finally meet you," the King of Tortall said, holding out his hand a little awkwardly, "though I apologize for the delay of my greeting."
Darius shook the proffered hand, and returned the smile. "The honor is mine," he said diplomatically, "for long have I wanted to shake the hand of the man who saved my sister's life. For that you have my eternal gratitude." Darius bowed his head, and when he continued his voice was humble, "I have no gift that can repay such a debt, but I would offer to you what talents I possess and hope that my service might serve as recompense, for I have come to you a beggar with nothing save that which my two hands may provide."
And Will replied, "Let there be no debts between us, for you have returned to me that which is most precious and which I had thought forever lost. The only service I would ask of you is that of friendship, and—if you would do me the honor of granting your permission—of brotherhood."
Darius looked up into Will's face and was comforted by the anxious sincerity hidden beneath the serious tone. "I would be a negligent brother, indeed, if I did not insist upon nuptials after such an interlude," he said, grinning. "But, in truth, you had my blessing long before I arrived at your shores." Darius leaned in conspiratorially, "I knew she loved you because she avoided talking about you at all costs when she was awake, but your name was constantly on her lips when she slept."
"Are you talking about me?" Ana asked, catching them both looking at her as she made her way across the room to them. "I hope you aren't telling stories, Darius."
"Only good ones, sister dearest," Darius said, winking.
"And by good, he means entertaining," Will added, with a teasing smile. Darius grinned at Will, suddenly feeling that they would get along quite well.
Ana frowned at them both, but when she turned to Darius her eyebrows drew together with worry. "Darius," she whispered, reaching up to touch the three parallel scars that ran from his left temple to his jaw. "I'm so sorry…I should never have left you!"
Darius couldn't bear the sight of her tears, not after all of the hardships she'd been through. "Shhh," he hushed her, wiping them away with the back of his hand. "Hindsight is always clearest, but don't worry—it was an adventure! Tohmas even let me keep the scars as a souvenir," he said cheerfully, "I think it makes me look dashing."
Ana laughed through her tears. "Illieno was right," she said, "you forgave me far too quickly." She smiled, and then that giggle was back. "You know, I think he was probably madder at me for that then you were."
"Was he, now?" Darius said, his eyes going involuntarily to where Illieno stood with Will, just a few feet away. Their eyes met, and he felt a blush rising from his toes. He looked back at Ana, "I think we're going to have a chat about Illieno very soon, but first I think you need to teach me a few useful phrases of Tortallian."
"Like what?" Ana said, her eyes twinkling, "I want you, I need you, let's make love?"
"That might be a good start," was Darius's thoughtful response.
"Are they talking about me?" Illieno whispered anxiously, his eyes on the place where Darius stood just a few feet away. "I swear I just heard him say my name…what's he saying?"
Will grinned as he heard Ana's response to Darius's request. "He said that you're freaking him out with all the sappy looks you keep giving him," he said, his voice completely deadpan.
For a moment Illieno's eyes widened and his face fell. Then he caught the wicked grin on his friend's face. "That's not funny!" he huffed, punching Will in the arm. "I'm being serious here."
Will laughed. "Has the world gone crazy?" he teased, "Illieno Reinhart being serious?"
Illieno pursed his lips and glared. "Just because you got your happy ending blah blah blah doesn't mean the rest of us shouldn't get ours," he said petulantly.
Will rolled his eyes. "I seem to remember a certain somebody telling me once that words were totally unnecessary. I believe your exact words were that I should just 'shut up and kiss her already.'"
Illieno raised his eyebrows and crossed his arms. "I believe you also didn't listen to that little piece of advice, now did you?" he said caustically. And then the implication of Will's words sunk in. "Wait, what?" he said. "Really?"
"Really." Ana said, as she and Darius joined the conversation. "What are we talking about, again?"
"Well," said Will in Thaylian, "Illieno has this really weird rash..."
Ana burst into giggles, as Darius frowned curiously at Illieno.
"What'd you say?" Illieno demanded. "WHAT DID YOU SAY?"
Will couldn't hold the serious face; he erupted into laughter at the panicked look in Illieno's eyes.
"Why do I get the feeling," Darius said, his eyebrows high on his forehead as he glanced back and forth between Ana and Will's mirth. "That you two are going to milk this language thing for all its worth?"
"What'd he say?" said Illieno.
"He said he hopes it's not contagious," Ana giggled.
~ ~:~ ~