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Croaker finished his story. The prince and his sister had listened agape. The
Radisha recovered her poise first. She'd always had the harder edge. "Way
back, Smoke cautioned us that there might be more going on than met the eye.
That there might be players in the game we didn't see."
All eyes turned to the unconscious wizard. Croaker said, "Prince, you used
that sticker pretty well tonight. Think you'd have trouble pricking him if he
asked for it?"
"No trouble at all. After what he's done the trouble I'll have is not sticking
him before we get a story out of him."
"He's not all bad. He walked into a trap trying to do what he thought was
right. His problem is, he gets an idea in his head and he can't get it out if
it's wrong, no matter what evidence you hit him with. He decided we were the
bad guys come back for general mayhem and he just couldn't change his mind.
Probably never will. If you execute him he'll die thinking he's a hero and
martyr who tried to save Taglios. I think I can waken him. When I do, you
stand by to stick him if he tries any tricks. Even a puny wizard is deadly
when he wants."
Croaker took an hour but did tease the wizard out of life's twilight and got
him to choke out his story.
Afterward, the prince asked, "What can we do? Even if he's as contrite as he
says, the Shadowmasters have a hold we can't break. I don't want to kill him
but he is a wizard. We couldn't keep him locked up."
"He can stay locked up in his mind. You'd have to force-feed him and clean him
like a baby but I can put him back into the coma."
"Will he heal?"
"His body should. I can't do anything about what the devil did to his soul."
Smoke's past cowardice looked like outrageous courage now.
"Do it. We'll deal with him when there's time."
Croaker did it.
Chapter Fifty-Six
Shadowspinner's shadows remained blind to my whereabouts. He did not seem able
to adjust. And his bats were useless. Were in fact extinct in that part of the
world where my band stole through the night.
I signalled a halt a mile from where my scouts said Spinner had established
his camp. We had come a long way in a short time. We needed rest.
Narayan settled beside me. He plucked at his rumel, whispered, "Mistress, I'm
of a divided mind. Most of me really believes the goddess wants me to do this,
that it will be the greatest thing I've ever done for her."
"But?"
"I'm scared."
"You make that sound shameful."
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"I haven't been this frightened since my first time."
"This isn't your ordinary victim. The stakes are higher than you're used to."
"I know. And knowing wakens doubts of my ability, of my worthiness... even of
my goddess." He seemed ashamed to admit that, too. "She is the greatest
Deceiver of all, Mistress. It amuses her sometimes to mislead her own. And,
while this is a great and necessary deed, even I, who was never a priest,
notice that the omens have not been favorable."
"Oh?" I had noticed no omens, good or bad.
"The crows, Mistress. They haven't been with us tonight."
I had not noticed. I had grown that accustomed to them. I assumed they were
there whether I saw them or not. He was right. There were no crows anywhere.
That meant something. Probably something important. I could not imagine their
master allowing me freedom from observation for even a minute. And their
absence was not my doing. And I doubted it was Shadowspinner's.
"I hadn't noticed, Narayan. That's interesting. Personally, it's the best omen
I've seen in months."
He frowned at me.
"Worry not, my friend. You're Narayan, the living legend. The saint-to-be.
You'll do fine." I shifted from cant to standard Taglian. "Blade. Swan.
Ready?"
"Lead on, my lovely," Swan said. "I'll follow you anywhere." The more stressed
he became the more flip he was.
I looked them over, Blade, Swan, Ram, Narayan, the two arm-holders. Seven of
us. As Swan had observed, the obligatory number for a company on quest. A
totally mixed bag. By his own standards each was a good person. By the
standards of others everyone, excepting Swan, was a villain.
"Let's go, then." Before I grew too philosophical.
We did not have to talk about it. We had rehearsed farther away. There would
be no chatter to alert Shadowspinner.
It was a slovenly encampment. It screamed demoralization. But for Spinner my
ragbag army could have beaten those Shadowlanders. And they knew it. They were
waiting for the hammer to fall.
We passed within yards of pickets who sat facing a fire and grumbling. Their
language resembled Taglian. I could understand them when they were not
excited.
They were demoralized, all right. They were discussing men they knew who had
deserted. There seemed to be a lot of those and plenty of sentiment for
following their example.
Narayan had the point. He trusted no one else to find his way. He came sliding
into the hollow where we waited. In a whisper that did not carry three feet he
told me, "There are prisoners in a pen to the left, there. Taglian. Several
hundred."
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I turned that over in my mind. How could I use them? There was potential for a
diversion there. But I did not need one. "Did you talk to them?"
"No. They might have given us away."
"Yes. We'll stick to the mission."
Narayan went ahead. He found us another lurking place. I began to sense
Shadowspinner's nearness. He did not radiate much energy for a power of his
magnitude. Till then I had been sure only that he was in the camp. "Over
there."
"The big tent?" Narayan asked.
"I think."
We moved closer. I saw that Shadowspinner felt no need for guards. Maybe he
thought he was his own best guard. Maybe he did not want anyone that close
while he was asleep.
We crouched in a pool of darkness, a dozen feet from the tent. One fire burned
on its far side. No light came from within. I eased my blade out of its
scabbard. "Blade, Swan, Ram, be ready to cover us if something goes wrong."
Hell. If anything went wrong we were dead. And we all knew it.
"Mistress!" Ram protested. His voice threatened to rise.
"Stay put, Ram. And don't give me an argument."
We'd had the argument already. He did not give up. I moved forward. Narayan
and his arm-holders drifted with me. So did the smell of fear.
I paused two feet from the tent, drew my blade down the canvas. It cut without
a whisper. An arm-holder widened the slash enough for Narayan to slip through.
The other followed, I went next, then the first arm-holder.
It was dark in there. Narayan held us in place with a touch. He was a patient
hunter. More so than I could have been in his place, knowing the moon was
about to rise and rape away the darkness. Its fore-glow had been visible as
we'd approached the tent.
Narayan started moving, slowly, certainly, disturbing nothing. His arm-holders
were as good as he. I could not hear their breathing.
I had to rely on extraordinary senses to keep from stumbling over things. I
felt the Shadowmaster's presence but could not pin it down.
Narayan seemed to know where to go.
There had to be hangings ahead. No light from the fire outside reached us. How
I wished for some light.
Light I got, unexpectedly. Just enough light to unveil the awful truth.
Shadowspinner was off to our left, seated in the lotus position, watching us
through a grim beast mask. "Welcome," he said. His voice was like a snake's
hiss. It was feeble. It barely carried. "I've been waiting."
So the shadows had not been fooled after all.
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He guessed my thoughts. "Not the shadows, Dorotea Senjak. I know how you
think. Soon I shall know all that is inside your head. You arrogant bitch! You
thought you could take me with three unarmed men and a sword?"
I said nothing. There was nothing to say. Narayan started to move. I gestured
slightly, a Strangler's signal. He froze. There was a chance if Shadowspinner
truly believed these men unarmed. [ Pobierz całość w formacie PDF ]