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FOURTEEN: Lady of Mystery

"Show him in," Ragnarson told Prataxis. He rose, extended his hand. "Colonel. Sorry I took so long with the Thing."

"I understand," Oryon replied. "Congratulations."

"Save it for a year. Probably be sorry I took the job. I wanted to talk about Balfour. My people came up with something."

"Oh?"

Ragnarson hoped Oryon's response would betray something about Guild thinking. He related the tale Valther had told. "Will you want Captain Jokai's body?"

"I'd have to ask High Crag. What the hell was Balfour doing in Uhlmansiek? His log says he was taking the week to go hunting around Lake Berberich. Something's going on here. And I don't like it."

"I've been saying that for a long time. Any idea why he'd kidnap my friend?"

"No. This Rico creature.... The whole thing baffles me. I'll ask High Crag, of course."

"I still won't renew the commission."

Oryon's thick lips stretched in a grin. "I noticed the guards at the Treasury."

"I get some strange ideas sometimes."

Oryon shook his head. "Wish I could understand why you're scared of us. Maybe I could change your mind."

"Wish / understood it. Just an intuition, I guess. Victory Day is coming up, by the way."

"My staff is planning the evacuation. We'll move out come sunrise Victory Day. We expect to be out of Kavelin within five days. Because of the confinement to barracks, I haven't informed High Crag or made transit arrangements. I doubt there'll be any problems."

"Good enough. We'll put on a going-away party for your boys."

"Can't bitch about that."

"Don't want any hard feelings."

"Keep me posted about Balfour. Or our agent after I leave."

"Will do. Thanks for coming." He followed Oryon to the door. "Derel, want to find that woman for me? The one who wants to see me?"

"All right."

Ragnarson selected one of the mountain of requests that already had appeared on his desk. Everything held in abeyance during the Queen's indisposition was breaking loose. Every special interest was trying to get his attention first. "Hey, Derel. Get me a big box."

"Sir?"

"So I can file the stuff I want to 'put aside for further consideration.' Like this one. Guy wants me to come to the opening of his alehouse."

"Sir? If I might? Act on ones like that if you have time. Chuck the ones where some Nordmen insists on his right to collect ford tolls. Giving breaks to important people and cronies is a deathtrap. It's Wessons like that soldier-turned-innkeeper who are your power base. Keep them on your side. I'll get that woman. Half an hour?"

He took ten minutes. The word had reached her. He encountered her downstairs.

"Marshall? The lady."

"Thank you, Derel." He rose, considered her. She wore traditional desert costume. Dark almond eyes peered over her veil. There were crow's feet at their corners, though cunningly hidden. She was older than she liked.

"Madam. Please be seated. Kaf? I'm sure Derel could scare some up."

"No. Nothing is necessary." She spoke a heavily accented Itaskian of the Lower Silverbind.

"What can I do for you? My secretary says you hinted it has to do with Haroun bin Yousif."

A sad little laugh stirred her veil. "Excuse me for staring. It has been so long.... Yes. Haroun. He is my husband."

Ragnarson settled into his chair. "I never heard of any wife."

"It is one of the unhappy secrets of our lives. But it is true. Twenty-three years.... It seems an eternity. Most of that I waswife in name only. I did not see him for years at a time."

Ragnarson's skepticism was obvious. She responded by dropping her veil. It was an act which, in her culture, was considered incredibly daring. Women of Hammad al Nakir, once married, would rather have paraded nude than reveal their naked faces.

Ragnarson was impressed. He didn't have Derel throw her out.

"You do not recognize me still?"

"Should I? I never met a woman with a claim on Haroun."

"Time changes us. I forget that I'm no longer the child you met. She was fourteen. Life has not been easy. Always his men run-when they do not ride the desert to murder my father's men."

Ragnarson still didn't understand.

"But you must remember! The day the fat man brought me to your camp in Altea? When I was so much trouble you pulled up my skirts and paddled me in front of your men? And then Haroun came. He scared me so much I never said another word."

Why couldn't women just say things straight out? He tried to remember Mocker dragging a tart into some wartime camp....

"Gods! You're Yasmid? El Murid's daughter? Married to Haroun?" He strangled a laugh. "You think I'll swallow that?"

"So! You call me a liar? You had my skirts up. You saw." She bent and raised her skirts.

Ragnarson remembered the winestain birthmark shaped like a six-fingered baby hand.

"And this!" Angrily, she bared small, weary breasts. Over her heart lay the Harish tattoo worn by El Murid's chosen.

"All right. You're Yasmid."

Incredible. The daughter of El Murid, missing twenty years, appearing here. As Haroun's wife.

The marriage was the sort of thing Haroun would do to drive little knives into his enemy's heart. Why hadn't he ballyhooed it over half the continent?

"I did not expect you to be easily convinced. I made that my first task. I brought these." She showed him jewelry only Haroun could have given her and letters he couldn't read because they were in the script of Hammad al Nakir, but which bore Haroun's King Without a Throne seal.

"I believe you. So why're you here?" He decided to check with

Valther. Men of the desert didn't let their women roam free. Not without an uproar.

"My husband has disappeared "

"I know. I've been trying to get in touch."

That startled her. "He has sworn to kill my father."

"Not exactly the news of the century."

"No. Listen. Please. After he came back, after the war in your country, after he started to attack my father, but turned north against your enemies instead....

"That hurt him. He had it in his hands. Al Rhemish. But he let love for friends sway him. He surrended his dream to help you."

Haroun had come out of nowhere with thousands of horsemen to harry O Shing through the Savernake Gap and into the plains east of the Mountains of M'Hand. Bragi hadn't understood Haroun then, nor did he now. For friendship? Haroun would murder his mother for political expedience.

"So?"

"When he came home, a year later, he was so tired and old.... He didn't care. I made him promise he wouldn't hurt my father if my father didn't harm him."

"Ah! That's why he's been laying low. Been a long time since he's done anything. Just skirmishing to keep his people interested."

"Yes. That's my fault."

"He's changed his mind?"

"Yes. He told Beloul and Rahman to prepare the final offensive. He sent El Senoussi and El Mehduari to collect the wealth and fighters of the refugees in the coastal states. He ordered the deaths of my father's agents wherever they are found. It will be bloody."

"It's been that for years. It'll go on till Haroun or your father dies."

"Or longer. We have a son. Megelin! The boy is filled with hatred."

"I don't see what you're after. Or why Haroun made this about-face. He keeps his word."

"He thinks my father broke the armistice. My father's men here, Habibullah and Achmed, kidnapped your fat friend."

"Mocker. What's become of him? I sent him to see Haroun a year ago. He disappeared." He wouldn't say more till he heard her version.

"I'm not sure. Maybe Haroun is. The Marena Dimura told him what happened.

"Habibullah was one of my guards when Mocker kidnapped me. What they called kidnap. I wasn't very smart then. And he could talk, that fat man. I came willingly. I thought I could make peace. Anyway, your friend almost killed Habibullah that night. I suppose he's wanted revenge ever since."

"Derel," Ragnarson called. To Yasmid, "Could you face Habibullah now?"

"But why? Won't that make trouble? They have all forgotten me now. If they knew.... It would just make trouble."

"Sir?" Prataxis asked.

"See if Habibullah what's-it can come over."

"Now?"

"As soon as possible."

"I don't think...." But Prataxis went.

"I'm running that man half to death," Bragi muttered. "Wish Gjerdrum would get back." Prataxis was supposed to be arranging appointments for ambassadors and factors for the caravan companies.

"Pardon me," Ragnarson said. "You needn't reveal yourself. You think Habibullah had Mocker kidnapped because Mocker embarrassed your father? Because of it Haroun plans to start fighting again?"

"One operation. One planned for years. All or nothing. He thinks the tribes will rise to support him."

"Yes. So. But El Murid doesn't have Mocker. And Haroun knows it. The Marena Dimura down there are his spies."

"I'll tell you what I know. Some men killed Habibullah's men. They handed the fat man over to a man in black. Haroun believed the killers went into the north to hide."

"Wait. The man in black. Tell me about him."

"The Marena Dimura say he was tall and thin. He wore a mask."

"Mask?"

"A metal mask. Maybe gold. With jewels. Like those creatures on the walls of the temples in the jungle cities. The killers were afraid of him."

Ragnarson buried his face in his hands.

"Haroun has vanished. I fear he will try to murder my father so there'll be confusion when he invades Hammad al Nakir. I came here because I hoped you could do something."

"What?"

"Stop him."

"I don't understand."

"I love my father. He was a good father. He's a good man. He means no evil...."

"Nearly a million people died during the wars."

"My father didn't do that. He didn't want it. That was the fault of men like Nassef. His generals were brigands."

Ragnarson didn't contradict her. She was partly right. But her father had given the order to convert the west, and to slay anyone who didn't accept his faith.

"What could I do? I don't know where Haroun is. I've only seen him once in the last ten years."

She wept. "The Fates are cruel. Why do the men I love spend their lives trying to kill each other?

"I shouldn't have come. I should have known it was useless. All that planning, that trouble getting away, hiding from Haroun's men..... All for nothing."

"Maybe not. There's a possibility.....The old story of the enemy of my enemy."

"Excuse me?"

"There's a greater enemy. One your husband and your father could agree to be more dangerous than one another."

"You're being mysterious."

"I hate naming the name. I've seen the men in black before. I've fought them. They call themselves Tervola."

The color left Yasmid's face. "Shinsan! No."

"Who would impersonate a Tervola?" But then, why would Shinsan grab Mocker? What was the connection between Balfour and Shinsan? Did that permeate the Guild? And this Willis Northen, who used a Marena Dimura name, was a Kaveliner Wesson..... Had Shinsan penetrated Kavelin?

"Derel!"

But Prataxis was gone. Ragnarson wrote names. Oryon. Valther. Mist. Trebilcock. It was time he found out if Michael had learned anything.

"Does anybody know where Haroun went?"

"No. He just disappeared. He didn't even tell Beloul or Rahman. He does that. Everybody complains. He promises, but keeps doing it. I think he will try to get my father."

"If I could contact him, this war might be averted. Your father. Would he listen to you?"

"Yes."

How confident she was after all these years. "He's changed. He's a fat old man now. They say he's crazy."

"I know. People come from the desert to Haroun. They all say that. They say he's betraying the ideals he seized the Peacock Throne for.... Men like Nassef changed him."

"Nassef died a long time ago. I killed him."

"A bandit named Nassef is dead. But there are more Nassefs. They have walled my father off and taken control."

"He still has his voice. The Faithful would support him if he spoke publicly. Disharhun is coming, isn't it?"

Disharhun was the week of High Holy Days celebrated in Hammad al Nakir. Pilgrims went to Al Rhemish to hear El Murid speak.

Ragnarson was thinking only of Kavelin. If Haroun launched an incursion from Kavelin and Tamerice, and failed, El Murid would have a legitimate case for counteraction. It might initiate a new round of wars.

"Don't I have trouble enough?" he muttered. "Haroun, Haroun, maybe I should've cut your throat years ago."

He still considered Haroun a friend. But he had never really liked the man much. A paradox.

Haroun had always been too self-involved.

"Marshall?"

"Derel? Just a minute." To Yasmid, "Will you reveal yourself?"

She replaced her veil. "I'll decide after I see him."

Bragi went to the door. "Ah. Ambassador. Glad you could come."

"I need to speak with you, too, Marshall. Our intelli-gence...."

"Excuse me. Derel, send for Valther, his wife, and Colonel Oryon."

"He just...."

"I know. Something came up. On Balfour. I need to see him again. And see if anybody knows where Trebilcock is."

"On my way." Prataxis wasn't pleased. His own work suffered more anymore while he handled tasks Gjerdrum should have done.

"Thank you, Ambassador. Come in."

Habibullah cast a suspicious glance at the woman.

"Yes. That bandit bin Yousif...."

"I know. And you know why, too, don't you?"

"What?"

"There's an interesting story going around. About a man who paid to have a friend of mine kidnapped. Who also happens to be a friend of the bandit you mentioned."

Habibullah refused to react.

"You've probably heard the story yourself. Especially the part about the kidnappers failing to deliver their goods." He retold Yasmid's tale.

"Where did you hear this fairy tale?"

"Several sources. Today, from this lady."

Habibullah eyed her again. "Why would Shinsan kidnap a fat fakir?"

"Good question. I've even wondered why El Murid's agents would try it."

Habibullah started to make excuses.

"Yes, I know. But these days we're pretending to have forgiven and forgotten. Doesn't El Murid say that to forgive is divine?"

"What the fat man did was a crime against God Himself...."

"No, Habibullah."

The ambassador turned.

Yasmid said, "You hate him because he made a fool of you." To Ragnarson, "The men of my people can forgive a wound, an insult, a murder. Habibullah has. But he can't forget the pain of being made a fool before his friends in the Invincibles. No. Habibullah, admit it. He told you those stories and showed you those tricks, and you believed he was your friend. You spoke for him to me. And he tricked you. That's why you risked another war to get him."

"Who are you? Marshall?"

Ragnarson smiled, licked his lips. "Mr. Habibullah, I think you suspect already."

Yasmid dropped her veil.

Habibullah stared. And it wasn't her boldness that astonished him. "No. This's some trick, Marshall. Have you leagued with the minions of Hell? You call up the dead to mock me?"

"I think Habibullah was in love with me. I didn't realize it then. I think a lot of them were."

"My Lady."

Ragnarson gaped as Habibullah knelt, head bowed, and extended his arms, wrists crossed. It was an ultimate gesture, the surrender to slavery.

Ragnarson could no longer doubt her genuineness.

"Rise, Habibullah." She replaced her veil.

"What would My Lady have of me?"

"Speak honestly with the Marshall."

"I've gotten what I needed. Except this: Can you escort the lady to her father? More successfully than you did my friend?"

Habibullah became El Murid's ambassador once more. "Why?"

"I've got no use for your boss. I wouldn't shed a tear if somebody stuck a knife in his gizzard. The world would be better off. That's why I don't bother bin Yousif any more than I have to to keep the peace with Hammad al Nakir.

"But that peace is critical to me now, with Shinsan sticking its nose into Kavelin. I'm grasping at straws. I need my flanks free. Yasmid implies that she'll be the go-between in arranging a truce between her father and her husband."

"Her husband?"

"Bin Yousif. You didn't know?" Got him now, Ragnarson thought.

"It's true," Yasmid said. "And it was my choice, Habibullah." She explained how she had engineered the recent peace.

"Unlike the Marshall, I'm not concerned with Shinsan. But I'll play his game to keep my men from murdering each other."

"Are there children?" Habibullah asked. "He mourns the fact that he has no grandchildren. The wars cost him that hope."

"A son. Megelin Micah bin Haroun."

"That would please him." El Murid's name had been Micah al Rhami before the Lord had called him.

"It would make more sense to send your son," Ragnarson observed. "That way each principal holds the other's child hostage."

"No. Megelin would murder his grandfather."

"The risks should be equalized."

"I've decided, Marshall. I'll take the risks."

"Ambassador?"

"Yes?"

"Will you escort her? Or are you committed to this war you've made almost inevitable?"

"I haven't kissed the Harish dagger. I didtft realize the results would be so grave. One fat man. A nothing, from the slums. Who'd notice? Who'd care? I still don't understand."

"And I don't understand why you want him after so long."

"I'll do it. For the Lady Yasmid."

"Good. Let me know how it goes. Oh. A favor. Whenever you get another wild hair, get approval from Al Rhemish."

Habibullah smiled thinly. "My Lady?" He offered a hand. "Is there anything else?"

"No." She rose.

"Then we'll go to the embassy. We'll leave as soon as guards can be assembled."

Ragnarson saw them past the door of Derel's office. Already they were playing remember when.

He settled in to wait for Oryon, Valther and Mist. He should get at that paperwork.... Instead, he closed his eyes.

It was strange, the twists fate could take. So Haroun had a wife. Amazing.


THIRTEEN: Regency | All Darkness Met | FIFTEEN: The Strangers Appointment



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