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Tendrils of Darkness — Chapter 26: Late-Night Encounters

By / June 25, 2017 / no comments

Wax Stamp 26

Late-Night Encounters

 

Zeph risked a furtive poke around the corner.

Queen Pandare and the man in gray were gone. So strange. Only hours ago, she had told him she was opposed to an alliance with Azren. But in light of what he just overheard, he wasn’t so sure.

He dismissed any notion of following them. These barren hallways offered no cover. Besides, the best way to follow someone was to know where they were headed. In this case, he was fairly certain the queen would return to her bedchambers. His hand closed around the door handle and turned. It was unlocked. In the back of his mind, he could hear Cahrin lecturing him on how he could be executed if caught in the queen’s bedchambers. If caught.

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The room was illuminated by obsidian gargoyles hovering in the corners with candles in their hands. An intricately carved molding framed a ceiling portrait of Brekad, the god of opportunity, wielding jewels in one hand and the reins of a majestic horse in the other. An oversized four-poster bed dominated the space, and two rounded trunks extended from the bottom corners of the bed like the paws of some great war cat.

Shuffling through the trunks, Zeph came up with nothing but some fine clothing and more shoes than anyone deserved to own—too stuffed with, well, stuff for him to hide in. He peered beneath the bed. Empty, save for a layer of dust. As good a hiding place as any.

He lifted the bed skirt and slid under on his back. And then he waited, passing the time by staring down at the circle of cross-hatching on his thumb. Lord Berrian had said he’d been marked so as not to be lost. If that was so, why had no one come for him? Were his parents dead, or was there a change of plans? Maybe they did not want him after all.

He ruminated on the possibilities, drifting into a light slumber until he was awoken by the door, followed by voices.

“ . . . quite impressive, really,” said the queen, stressing the word really in her southeastern accent. “Your master is well prepared.”

“That he is.” Zeph detected a slight sibilance to the man’s voice that he hadn’t noticed before. “Though he would prefer not to intervene at all. Are you certain you cannot apply your considerable womanly charms to the king?”

“You’re precious, Kreeb. You’ve seen my husband of late. He is immune to such things. He will not even come to our room at night, so obsessed he is with those stones.”

“I do not question the truth of your words. It is just what my master desires most.”

“And what I desire most is an alliance without any obstacles,” said the queen.

“Then it should be as you say.”

“Come, let us sit.” Footsteps came toward Zeph; the bed sagged. “Comfortable?”

“The game Your Majesty plays is dangerous.”

Zeph could see Kreeb’s cloak from beneath the skirt, a hardy wool meant for travel.

“What are you implying, my dearest Kreeb?”

“Only that your ambition could become a liability.”

“Ambition is the seed of power. Would not your master like an ally with power?”

The bed shifted. “Make the arrangements, and you will find having me as a friend much to your liking,” Queen Pandare purred.

The bed shook, sending a ripple down Kreeb’s cloak to the floor next to Zeph. “I am sure of it.”

That cloak. The servant of Azren was always covered head to toe. What is he hiding underneath? Zeph reached out and touched its edge. It felt smoother than he expected.

“Now go,” said Queen Pandare, “and we’ll meet again tomorrow.”

He raised the garment from the ground ever so gently.

“Tomorrow, yes, it will be as we discussed. And Your Majesty, do not let the king forget to w—”

“You think me a fool?” The queen’s tone was frigid.

“Of course not.” Kreeb got off the bed, and the cloak nearly slipped from Zeph’s grasp. One pinky still snagged its corner. “I only thought to remind you.”

“Many a man has underestimated me.”

“I assure you, Queen Pandare, I have no intention of doing that.”

As Kreeb started away, Zeph flicked his hand up. He caught a flash of something—or nothing, he wasn’t sure—except a color. Red.

Zeph snatched his hand back. Kreeb paused. Did he feel the intrusion? There were no more footsteps.

“What is it?” the queen asked.

Zeph held his breath, his heartbeat the loudest sound in the room. Finally he heard Kreeb move toward the door.

Zeph allowed his chest to rise and fall once more, pondering what was said, what could have been red, and what it all meant. Before long, he was asleep.

 

Section Break

 

Raven wandered the web-infested corridors, deep in his own musings. He was aware of a streak of pride even Azren could not destroy. It was why he despised being pitied and refused to submit to others. Though unable to remember the time before his capture, he liked to think he had principles then. That he would not have considered the path he was now set to follow.

But he was no longer that man. His pride, his pain, his passion—they all were insignificant. He lived only for the destruction of Azren and those who stood with him, though admittedly he used the word “lived” loosely. His days and nights held no pleasure, only planning and preparation. So he did what he must, pushing aside any remaining dignity to accomplish this goal.

The sound of his unflinching march through the corridors echoed, reminding of a drumbeat that still haunted his sleep. It was a dull pounding he withstood night after night during his time in captivity. His thoughts shifted to the visitor in the gray cloak, the one who had recognized him. He couldn’t shake the feeling they had once been more than mere acquaintances. It was a sense of familiarity, more than anything else, bereft of either acrimony or warmth.

What was it he’d said? Because you were lost and now you’re found. As if Raven were some pet of Azren’s who had wandered off. He fought against the idea. He had escaped from Azren’s domain. He couldn’t recall how, but he remembered the torture. He remembered the imprisonment. There could be no other explanation for his freedom.

Raven came to that same door up against the alcove. He rapped twice before entering without waiting for an answer. At a table, just as he had been earlier that day, sat the king. He glanced up, an annoyed look on his face.

Raven got down on one knee and waited until he was motioned to rise.

King Hybris’s annoyance was replaced with his usual kindly smile. “Have you come to fix stones with me?”

A fruitless endeavor. Then again, he had seen little since his escape from Azren that accomplished much. People scurried like mice, falsely believing what they did mattered in the least.

But accommodating this cloudy-minded fool could bring more profound results. King Hybris held the key to central Draza. He alone would determine if Azren wasted resources against Einor.

“If Your Majesty wills it,” Raven said without emotion.

“Ah, someone who cares about this kingdom as much as I. Take a seat. There are some pieces for you right over there.” The king motioned to a pile of broken stones.

Raven did as he was told, grabbing an armful and bringing it to the table. He toiled alongside the king for nearly an hour before speaking.

“I request a favor of Your Majesty.” The words grated on his soul.

The king finished attaching a piece to the half-complete stone in front of him. “A favor, you say? What would you ask a king?”

Raven caught a touch of peevishness in the tone. King Hybris himself was full of pride.

“Do not form an alliance with the Afflicted One.”

The king’s forehead crinkled in thought. “What is your stake in this?”

“He did this to me.” Raven pulled back his hood to reveal the deep red scars underneath. “He will do the same to your lands.”

King Hybris studied Raven for several moments before returning to his work. “It is a very distinguished face,” he said some time later.

Raven sat in silence, working on the shards in front of him. Putting a stone block together was like solving a giant puzzle. Perhaps it accomplished nothing, but the work was both calming and engaging, without hard choices to be made, only complete concentration on a matter with little scope or consequence. He finished his first block much more quickly than the king. He went back for more pieces and laid them on the table.

“Have you come to a decision?”

“Oh, yes,” replied the king. His brow furrowed as he contemplated the placement of a rock shard as if his life depended on it.

Neither of them spoke again. Raven continued to work until his second block was pieced together. By then the king had fallen asleep, a cheek resting against his nearly completed masterpiece.

Raven returned to his room. He usually waited to go to bed until he was so tired that sleep would overcome him, allowing little in the way of nightmares. Even then, they would eventually crawl inside his head, feeding on his thoughts like leeches to awaken him with a start.

Tonight, he dreamed he was at the king’s banquet table, but this time the gray-clad man was seated beside him and in place of the king sat a tall figure in a flowing black cloak, his face obscured by its hood. Instead of food, they were served cracked stones that had meticulously been pieced together. Only between the layers of rock was not the sticky white filler that Raven and the king used but thick, crimson blood.

 

Section Break

 

She led him in a circuitous route downstairs, around corners and over debris. The farther they went, the colder Daen felt. Elise stayed in sight but refused to answer any question intelligibly. She kept telling him they were going somewhere important. He marched on for what must have been hours until the landscape melted away before him. A sharp pain in his back coincided with her frowning like a child. And then she was gone.

“Yer coin or yer spleen,” said a voice from behind him.

He blinked the sleep from his eyes. He was outside, wearing little more than a linen nightshirt that reached down to his ankles. He could see he was still in the worst part of Camere, only he did not recognize exactly where.

The rain had stopped, but the ground was wet. Unfamiliarity with the area combined with the ill-lit streets would make returning to The Bed of Nails Inn an adventure. And that was assuming he could navigate through the sea of local ruffians—like the one holding a knife to his back.

He raised his hands and turned his palms inwards to show he was weaponless. “I shudder to disappoint you, but I have no coin, and my spleen will not likely fetch you the riches you seek.”

After a thorough examination of his captive and realizing how correct Daen was, the ruffian sighed in disappointment. “I don’t s’pose you have any family members who’d pay fer yer safe return?”

“Unless you plan on taking me to the Isle of Nalesc, I am afraid not.”

“How’s a hard-workin’ criminal gonna catch a break?”

“How about a break of the neck, Thelroy?” said another voice from farther behind Daen.

“L-Lieutenant Kiel. I was jus’ clearin’ the riffraff. That’s all.” Thelroy sheathed his dagger, allowing Daen to turn around.

Elandra wore a longsword at her belt, but her strawberry blond hair tumbled down her back in carefully twisted ropes. Daen found himself distracted by her beauty before forcing his gaze to his assailant, a stout little man with pudgy hands who appeared plenty well fed to Daen.

Elandra allowed a twinkle of mirth to brighten her expression. “Riffraff, eh?”

“Look at him. No belongins or nuthin’.”

“I bet you found that unfortunate.”

“Probably sleeps on the street. You wouldn’t want that.”

“No, I wouldn’t,” said Elandra. “I may just have to put him up for the night at my establishment.”

“Put him up fer the night? How ’bout poor Thelroy?” Thelroy pressed his pudgy hands to his chest. “He don’t have a room fer the night.”

“Sorry, Thelroy. You’re not so pretty. Now off with you, before I find you a room with bars.”

Thelroy looked like he was about to protest before changing his mind under Elandra’s less than forgiving gaze.

She turned her mocking focus to Daen. “Taking a leisurely walk, are we?”

He was not sure what to say, afraid either a yes or a no would make him sound raving mad.

“And without a weapon—or pants, for that matter. I thought you cleverer than that.”

“Perhaps you wish to change your assessment,” said Daen.

“What would you think if you caught me out here all alone at night, no weapons or armor to speak of?”

“I would think you either very foolish or very brave.”

“I suspect there is more to it than that.”

As there was more to Elandra than the tough warrior act she put on, he decided. “Your instincts betray you. I declare I am nothing but a brave fool.”

“My father has a saying,” she said. “‘Brave are those who confront the unexpected. Honorable are those who seek no advantage from their strengths. Greedy are those who can never be fulfilled. But a fool is just a fool.’”

“I should like to meet your father. He sounds very wise.”

“No, no he is not. He is just a fool,” she said with all seriousness. “Follow me back to the inn if you value your life.”

She started back without a look over her shoulder.

 

==> Continue Reading Chapter 27: Norweegee’s Agony

 

book-cover-with-spine

Tendrils of Darkness: Book 1 of The Black Trilogy comes courtesy of a partnership between Will Spero and Best Fantasy Books. Enjoy a new chapter every Sunday available right here. 

Learn more about the people, magic and places of Draza along with a detailed map and history at TheBlackTrilogy.com. Questions and comments are welcome, email [email protected].

About the author

Will Spero

Will Spero grew up in a world of Dungeons and Dragons, David Eddings and The Princess Bride. A time when heroes were meant to be, well, heroic, and villains had the blackest of hearts. These early indulgences to his imagination might explain why he made a career out of embellishing the ordinary (a.k.a. “marketing”). Will enjoys spending time with his wife and three kids as well as a lap-sitting terrier. When he is not conquering the world of the mundane, he writes fantastical stories for any who wishes to read along.

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