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SIXTEEN: Deaths and Disappearances.

Ragnarson woke with a start. "Eh?"

"Colonel Oryon, Marshall."

"Thank you, Derel."

His dream had been grim. He had been trapped at the heart of a whirling mandala with good and evil chasing one another around him, the champions of one as vicious as those of the other. The struggle had consumed everything he loved.

Fiana. Elana. Two children. Mocker. Already gone. Who would be next?

Rolf? What had become of Rolf, anyway? Bragi hadn't seen him since returning from Karak Strabger. Commanding the Palace Guard wasn't much, but it was a job, with its duties.

Would it be Haaken? Or Reskird, a friend of two decades? Haroun?

The Haroun he knew and loved was an idealization of the Haroun with whom he had adventured. He didn't know the Haroun of today. Today's Haroun was a different man.

Who else? His children. Especially Ragnar, in whom he saw his immortality. Ahring. Altenkirk. Gjerdrum.... They were friends, but they hadn't gotten the grip on his soul the others had, perhaps because he had met them later, after the world had hardened him. Likewise Valther and Mist. Nepanthe, though.... He had a soft spot for Nepanthe and Ethrian, his godson.

And for Ravelin. Kavelin had its claws in him. And he couldn't comprehend it.

"Marshall? You wanted to see me?"

"Oh, I'm sorry." Ragnarson's hair had grown shaggy through inattention. He brushed it from his eyes. "Grab a chair. Derel, bring something to sip."

"Your secretary says you've got something new on Balfour."

"Yes. But hang on a minute. There's a couple people I want to sit in."

Valther and Mist were a long time arriving. More than an hour later than he expected. He tried to make small talk, reminiscing about the El Murid wars, the civil war, basic training at High Crag, whatever he and the Colonel had in common. Oryon waited it out. But he got antsy. He had his evacuation to prepare.

"Derel, what's taking them so long?"

"I don't know, sir. I was told they'd be here as soon as possible."

"Must be a family crisis," Ragnarson told Oryon. "Pretty sickly, their kids. Derel, have you seen Captain Preshka?"

"No sir. I've been meaning to mention it. He hasn't turned in his pay sheets. He's gone to pieces the last week."

"I'll talk to him."

"Here's Valther now, sir."

Valther and Mist filed in, Valther slump-shouldered, pale.

"What happened? You look like death warmed over."

"Trouble. Nepanthe and Ethrian are gone."

"What? How?"

"I don't know. Gundar was the only one who saw what happened. He doesn't make much sense. Says a man came. Nepanthe went away with him. She packed for herself and Ethrian, and went. Gundar thinks the man said he was supposed to take her to Mocker, who's hiding because you and Haroun want to kill him."

"I'll talk to him later. There's got to be more. Derel. Put out the word. How long have they been gone?"

Valther shrugged. "Since this morning. They've got at least four hours' start."

"Another move against us?"

"Probably. This's starting to look big, isn't it?"

"Yeah. I found a new angle, too. That's why I wanted you.

"I had a visitor. Right after you left, Colonel. Bin Yousif's wife."

Bragi let them settle down before adding, "She's also El Murid's daughter. That's not as important as what she told me. About why Haroun has been so peaceful. And about Mocker and Balfour."

He told the story. It elicited a covey of questions.

"Look, I don't have any answers. Valther, fit the pieces into your puzzle. Mist. The man in black. Tervola?"

"He must be. But the mask isn't familiar. It sounds like Chin's, but the black and gold are wrong.... We could check. Didn't you capture Chin's mask at Baxendala?"

"There was a mask. I don't know whose."

"Chin. I remember. Get it for me. I'll tell you if it was Chin."

"Derel. See if you can dig the thing up. It's in the Treasury vault. We were going to display it when the army got rich enough to afford its own museum."

Prataxis bowed and departed. His writing materials he left lying in a sarcastic scatter.

"I'm getting that man's goat," Bragi observed. "If Gjerdrum don't get back pretty soon, he'll quit on me. I don't think I can manage without him. Colonel. You haven't said anything."

"I don't know. I don't like it. Our people conspiring with Shinsan? If that came out it could destroy the Guild's credibility."

"Yet you don't dismiss the possibility. How come?"

Three pairs of eyes fixed on Oryon.

"Because of something my adjutant told me. We talked a long time, after this morning."

"Ah?"

"He didn't know what it was about, but he once found a message to Balfour, from High Crag, partially destroyed in the Colonel's fireplace. The little he made out violated standing orders. The message was signed The Nine.' I'd heard rumors before that Balfour might be one of the Nine."

"What's that? I've never heard of it."

"Not many people have, even inside High Crag. It's a story that's been going around for several years. It says there's a cabal of senior officers trying to grab control. Whenever one of the old boys dies, you hear somebody say the Nine murdered him.

"The rumors started maybe three years ago. Jan Praeder claimed he had been invited to join the plot. To replace a member who had died. He said he looked into it, didn't like what he saw, and refused. He didn't say much, though, before he was posted to Simballawein, to replace Colonel Therodoxos, supposedly the member who had died. There was no mystery about Therodoxos's passing. He was killed when he interrupted a gang rape. Killed most of them before they finished him. Butthere were a lot of questions when Praeder died. He was supposedly poisoned by a jealous husband two weeks after arriving."

"Strong circumstantial evidence," said Ragnarson.

"Yes. Circumstance two: there have been eleven deaths in the Citadel since Praeder went down. That's a lot even for old men. Those guys are tough old geezers. Hawkwind is up in his eighties now. Lauder is right behind him. And they're as mean as ever. They go on like they're immortal. The others usually do too.

"The name, the Nine, I guess, comes from the fact that that would make a majority in Council. To grab control you'd have to have nine conspirators at Councilor level. Balfour was a prime suspect because he was close, despite his youth, and because he was so damned impatient with the traditional mysteries."

"That I can understand." Ragnarson observed. "That was always hokey to me. But I only made the Third Circle. Maybe there's more to it later. I'm supposed to be a general now. Maybe I could go find out."

"You'd start where you left off. You don't short-cut the Seven Steps. Your Guild rank wouldn't mean much inside the Order."

"Why not? Why would they promote me, then?"

"The same reason you don't turn them down. It makes people think you've got the Guild behind you. They want your success to reflect on High Crag.

"I'll never get into the Citadel myself. I can't master the Mysteries of the Sixth Circle. Oh, well. The organizational table is top-heavy anyway."

"Valther? Mist? What do you think?"

Valther shrugged.

His wife replied, "Colonel Oryon sounds honest. He may even sympathize a little. He has stretched his conscience today." She flashed a smile that could melt hearts of bronze. Oryon responded.

She was, simply, inarguably, the most beautiful woman in the world. Before her fall from power in Shinsan she had spent ages engineering her perfection.

"What action will you take, Colonel?" Ragnarson asked.

"I don't know. If I inform High Crag, I'll either start worse rumors or warn the conspiracy-depending on who gets my letter. I'll have to investigate myself, when I get back."

"Well, I've done what I could. Wish we could lay hands on Balfour. Valther. I've given you a whole list of things. Got anything yet?"

"No. I sent a couple men to that inn just before we came over. Told them to grab the next bunch of riders."

"Mist. We need your help. First, locate Nepanthe. Then see if you can call in Visigodred and Zindahjira, and get Varthlokkur cracking."

For an instant the woman's cold beauty gave way to pique. "You can't trust a woman? You don't think I can handle...."

"No. Because you don't want to be involved in this sort of thing anymore. And because I don't think one wizard will be enough. Not when we're toe to toe with Shinsan.... Ah. Derel. Well?"

"It's not there."

"It's got to be."

"You find it then. I took the place apart."

"Hey, cool off. I believe you. Mist?"

"Someone took it."

Ragnarson snorted. He needed an expert to tell him that? "Another job for you, Valther."

"I know. Find out who. When am I going to get some sleep?"

"Any time I'm in bed, you steal all you want. I won't be there to raise hell. Mist can help you. Can't you? At least to find out where the mask is now?"

"Yes."

"All right. Derel, I've got two more jobs for you, then I'll leave you alone. One I think you'll like. First, scare up Haaken. Have him meet meat the cemetery. It's time I saw what he did for Elana." He spoke with a throat suddenly tight. "Then write Gjerdrum. Tell him to quit farting around and get his ass back here." He signed a blank piece of paper. "That do you?"

Prataxis's smile was wicked. "Perfect, sir. Absolutely perfect. Oh. I couldn't find Trebilcock."

"Probably whoring around. He runs with a strange crowd. He'll turn up." But Ragnarson was worried. Too many people were out of sight. Michael might have found something and been silenced.

"I'll look for him too," Mist offered.

"You want to find me someone, find Haroun. Valther, you be home later?"

"I imagine."

"Okay. I'll be out to see how the house is coming. And to talk to Gundar."

"What?"

"I told you to take the house apart to find this Tear of Mimizan, didn't I?"

"Yes."

"Well?"

"Haven't made any headway. My people are all in the field."

"Uhm." Valther was going to have to show more initiative. "Borrow them from Ahring. Or Haaken."

"All right. All right."

"You needn't destroy the house," said Mist. "I'll find it if it's there. I know it well...." Her eyes clouded as she remembered a cruel past, when she had been mistress in Shinsan and warring with the Monitor of Escalon.

She must be getting restless, Ragnarson thought. Being a housewife isn't what she thought. She might need watching too.

This was getting touchy. The people he knew he could trust were being stripped away. Those who, potentially, could help most he didn't dare trust. Wizards. Witches. Mercenaries. People whose prime loyalties were to themselves.

And somebody wanted him dead. He didn't doubt for an instant that the false Harish Cultists' primary mission had been to murder him.

"Enough. There're a thousand things we can discuss. But not now. I'm going to the cemetery. Derel?"

"I'll have a horse readied."

"Someday you'll be rewarded."

"Thank you, sir."

To the others, "Sorry I ran you all over. I'm getting desperate, trying to make sense out of things. I feel like a fly in a spider web, and can't make out the spider."

He strapped on his new sword, donned a heavy coat. The nights were still chilly. He left ahead of his guests.

The cemetery lay on a hill north of Vorgreberg, beginning about a mile beyond the city gates. It was large, having served the city since its founding. All Vorgreberg's dead were buried there. Rich or poor, honored or despised, they lay in the same ground. There were divisions, family areas, parts set off for different religions, ethnic groups, and paupers put down at city expense, but all bodies ended up there somewhere. There were graves in the tens of thousands, mostly marked by simplewooden wands, but some in vast and ornate mausoleums like that of the family Krief, Kavelin's Kings. It was there that, before long, Fiana would be laid to rest.

The sun was on the horizon. A chill wind had come up. Ragnarson entered the open gate. Time and weather seemed appropriate.

"Bigger than I remembered." He had forgotten to ask where Elana lay. He spied gravediggers working in the paupers' section, asked them.

It was near the top of the hill. Haaken had gone all out.

The three new graves were easily spotted. There were no markers yet. Ragnarson decided to keep them simple. Ornateness didn't suit Elana.

He didn't see the leg till he tripped. He felt around.

He had found his missing Commander of the Palace Guard.

Preshka had been dead for hours. At least since morning. Ragnarson rose. His anger was indescribable.

There were flowers under Rolf, wild flowers, the kind Elana had loved. It must have taken him hours to gather them. The season was early.... Someone had cut him down on his way to respect the dead.

Ragnarson tripped again.

He found another corpse.

This one he didn't recognize.

He scrambled around in the gloaming, searching amongst the headstones and decorative bushes.

"What're you doing?" Haaken asked.

Ragnarson jumped. He hadn't heard his brother come up. "Counting bodies."

"Eh?"

"Somebody jumped Rolf here, last night or this morning. He did a job on them before they finished him. I found three already."

Haaken searched too. "That's all you'll find," he said a minute later.

"Why?"

"He was crawling toward her grave when he died. If there'd been any of them left, they wouldn't have let him."

"I wonder."

"What?"

"If they'll run out of assassins before we run out of us." He paused. "Let him lie where he fell."

Haaken understood. "It'll cause talk."

"I don't care. And I won't be buried beside her. I'll die on a battlefield. She always knew that. She should have some-one.... And he was more truw than I."

"He was a tough buzzard," said Haaken. "Lived ten years longer than he had any right. And crippled he takes three of them with him."

"They'd sing him into the sagas at home. I'll miss him."

"You don't seem very upset."

"I halfway expected it. He was looking for it. Anyway, there's been too much. They got Nepanthe and Ethrian this morning."

"What?"

"Somebody talked her into going off with them. Gundar saw them. I'm going over there from here. Why don't you come too? We've got things to talk about."

"Okay."

"Wait down the hill a minute, then."

Haaken moved off a short distance.

Ragnarson wept then. For his wife and children, and for Rolf. Rolf had been both a true friend and a loyal follower. No one could have asked more of the man than he had given voluntarily. Again Ragnarson affirmed his determination to avenge the dead.

Then he joined Haaken.

"The first thing I need," he said, "is a plan for partial mobilization. I want to start after Oryon crosses into Altea and there's nobody left to argue with me."

Haaken commanded the Vorgreberger Guards, a heavy infantry regiment begat by the force Ragnarson had com-manded during the civil war. He was also Bragi's chief of staff.

Jarl Ahring commanded the Queen's Own Horse Guards, consisting of one "battle" of heavy cavalry and two of light. The army Ragnarson was building included another five regular regiments, each numbering six hundred to seven hundred and fifty men organized in three battles. Each regiment regularly drilled twice its number of volunteers, who could be integrated in case of mobilization. The volunteers, in turn, were responsible for training their neighbors. Counting Nordmen and retainers, Marena Dimura scouts and mountain troops, and regular garrisons and border guards. Ravelin could muster a field army of twelve thousand five hundred overnight, and be assured of a steady supply of partially trained replacements.

"How broad a mobilization?" Haaken asked.

"Just alert the ready people at first. But don't bring them in. Let them finish planting. Step up the training."

"You'll scare hell out of our neighbors."

"If they've got guilty consciences.... No. The enemy is Shinsan. Let that leak when you issue the orders. No more leaves. Training in full swing from now on. And reinforce Maisak and Karak Strabger. We've got to hold the Gap. I'll do what I can diplomatically. We'll have a first class plenipoten-tiary."

"Who?"

"Varthlokkur. If they don't listen to him, they won't listen."

"You won't get much backing. I mean, I can take your word that Shinsan is moving again. But you'll have to produce hard evidence to convince other folks."

"I'll work on it. And about two thousand other things. You know, Haroun wanted me to take over as King here. The bastard is crazy. And look what he wants to be king of. Hammad al Nakir is a hundred times bigger than Ravelin."

"Hammad al Nakir runs itself. It's got a whole different tradition."

"Could be."

They reached Valther's home. "Any news?" Bragi asked.

"Not much. Nepanthe, Ethrian, Haroun, Rolf....She couldn't find a trace. They're either shielded, or...."

"Or?"

"Dead."

"Rolf's dead. Definitely. We found him in the cemetery. He took three of them with him."

"Three of who?"

"Ones like we had at my house."

"Harish?"

"No pretense this time. But they were the same breed. What about the jewel?"

"It's not there."

"Where'd it go?"

"She doesn't know."

"It keeps piling up, and that's the best we can come up with? Nobody knows anything for sure? But I do. I'll get them if they don't get me first."

"That goes without saying," Haaken remarked sarcastically.

"Eh?"

"They knew that before they started. That's why they tried to kill you first."

"Oh. Where's Gundar? Let's see what he's got to say."

Gundar didn't tell them anything new. His description of Nepanthe's visitor fit the six dead assassins.

"Guess we can kiss her off," Haaken whispered.

"Quiet!" Bragi muttered. "This'l! give Valther a bigger stake. Maybe get some action out of him." He felt that Valther was dragging his heels. Why? His brother-in-law kidnapped, his brother murdered.... That should have been motivation enough. If Nepanthe didn't move him, Ragnarson reflected, he would have to find a new chief spy.

His paranoia had reached the point where he suspected everyone. Anyone he didn't see working as hard as he- \ irregardless of how hard they hit it when out of his sight-was somehow betraying him.

That, too, may have been part of the enemy plan. A cunning adversary operated on many levels.


FIFTEEN: The Strangers Appointment | All Darkness Met | SEVENTEEN: Michaels Adventure



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