The Last Tale of Yajikali

Chapter XLIII - The Marquis’s Deck

by Charles Matthias

Cover | Contents | Prologue | Book I | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | Interlude I
Book II | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | Interlude II
Book III | 31 | 32 | 33 | 34 | 35 | 36 | 37 | 38 | 39 | 40 | 41 | 42 | 43 | 44 | 45 | 46 | 47 | 48 | Interlude III
Book IV | 49 | 50 | 51 | 52 | 53 | 54 | 55 | 56 | 57 | 58 | 59 | 60 | 61 | 62 | 63 | 64 | 65
66 | 67 | 68 | 69 | 70 | 71 | 72 | 73 | 74 | 75 | Epilogue

“That’s much better,” the Marquis crooned, rubbing one finger across the cards. Each Keeper felt something heavy brush over their chest. “Bishop Hockmann, you have done very well. They were precisely where you said they would be.”

The older priest nodded his head mechanically. “It is only a matter of knowing the land, your grace.” A smile crept up Hockmann’s cheeks. “There truly was only one way they could go. It was your aides who made the capture.”

The Marquis nodded, gazing first to Zagrosek, and then to the cloaked Runecaster. Zagrosek’s face was empty of anything but obedience. Agathe crossed her arms and let her cowl fall even further over her face. “They sometimes do as I wish,” du Tournemire conceded, his smile turning to a frown. “And sometimes,” he looked at Zagrosek and poked his finger at the cards. The black-clad Sondeckis doubled over in pain. “Sometimes they do because they know it is their only choice. Is that not so, Krenek?”

Zagrosek said nothing, his eyes dark and full of hate as he stared at du Tournemire. The Marquis laughed and strode to the Sondecki. He nudged his side with one boot. “What, nothing to say? You who always have a pithy remark? Do you do as I ask because it is your will, or because you have no choice?”

“Your will, of course,” Zagrosek replied through clenched teeth. “I have no will left.”

Upon the throne, Duke Schanalein laughed and clapped his hands. “Very good, very good, Marquis! But do you intend to continue to humiliate your aides or will you introduce me to your captives?”

The Marquis shot him an amused glance. “All in good time, your grace.” He stared at the Keepers for the first time, eyes falling on each of them in turn. They each felt a burning sensation beneath their skin when he stared at them, as if his eyes were magnifying lenses focussing the sun’s rays.

When he saw Charles, he snapped. “Agathe, let this thing go. I want it to see me.”

Agathe stirred, face turning inside the cowl. “He is dangerous. He can move through stone.” The Marquis jabbed his fingers at the cards and Agathe doubled over, her cowl falling back. The gashes in her face began to bleed as she screamed, a sound so awful that the Keepers felt momentary pity for her.

“You forget who holds the cards. Now let him go.”

Agathe lifted one hand, and Charles felt himself loosen. He collapsed on the ground, blinking, and looking around. He immediately pushed his paws into the stone, but to his surprise, discovered there was nowhere to go. The castle was built from blocks held together with cement, and no matter which way he pressed at it, he could not pass through that barrier.

Charles looked up and saw the Marquis nodding his head. “You see, Agathe, you should never question me. I know precisely what can and cannot be done by these pathetic Keepers. They can do nothing to touch me. Nothing at all.” He folded the cards into a single deck, and rubbed it between his fingers. The agony filling their bodies abruptly vanished.

“That is right. I do not need to give you pain to keep you on the ground. But I assure you, if any of you does move from where you kneel, the pain will be doubly worse for your friends. Do we understand each other?”

None of them said anything. Charles noted the few soldiers in the throne room. They would not be much of a challenge. The Marquis did not carry any weapon that he could see, and Zagrosek was still gasping from pain. Bishop Hockmann was fumbling with his glasses, and Duke Schanalein seemed only half-aware of what was happening before him. But Charles knew as did the others that the Marquis was right, there was no point in fighting. If the rat even tried, Agathe could freeze him in place again with a single thought.

The Marquis nodded and then turned his back on them. He addressed the Duke; “Your grace, I present to you the fools following ancient prophecy. They believe they are destined to destroy me and bring my plans to naught. But here they are, captive and incapable of action. Prophesied ones, hah! These before you are no instruments of legend. They are simple men and women who have no idea what they contend with.”

He tossed the deck into the air. The cards hung there, spread apart in a mosaic that suggested something profane. The Keepers averted their eyes, for it hurt to even look at it. “Let us begin with the lowest card present, the Five of Spades.” He plucked a card from the mosaic, and gave it a pull. Jerome fell forward, unable to stop himself from crawling on hands and knees to the base of the dais. “Yes, come here, Five.”

Jerome gasped and lifted his eyes. The Marquis bent down and grinned. “Jerome Krabbe, born in the city of Makor in Sonngefilde, he joined the Sondecki order at the age of seven. For eighteen years he trained in the art of the fighter, never once using a weapon in all his life. A single blow from his fist can crush a horse’s skull, not to mention a man’s. But for all this, his life has no meaning. He now spends his days trying to hide his friend’s location from the Sondecki order while pretending to look for him. A sad man, for whom this duty begins to take its toll. But he can take solace in the knowledge that his duty will soon become meaningless, just as his life has been meaningless for so long. What good is a Sondecki who cannot even uphold the virtues of his clan? What good, Jerome, are you?”

Jerome sneered. “Better than you!”

“A tongue on this one,” the Duke observed with a laugh.

“A most distressing quality, I concur.” The Maquis snatched another card from the mosaic and gave it a twist. Kayla fell to the ground, screaming in agony, bloody tears streaming across her cheeks. “I suggest you apologize for your remarks, Jerome. It is the only way Kayla will find any relief.”

Jerome bit his lip and said nothing. “Or perhaps you do not care for the skunk?” The Maquis grabbed another card. Abafouq let out a howl as his arm bent back over his shoulder. “Eventually I will select someone you do care for.”

The Sondecki hissed, but managed to say, “I am sorry.”

“Hardly contrite, but it will have to do.” The Marquis let go of both cards, and then waved the Five of Spades in Jerome’s face. “Now crawl back to your place, Krabbe!”

Jerome did, head hung low, sweat pouring from his face. The Marquis flung his card back into the mosaic, and drew out another. “Ah, the Six of Spades. The former merchant of dubious meats. Do present yourself, James.”

Unlike Charles, the donkey knelt on the carpeting. He dragged himself forward, ears folded back, making almost no sound at all. The Marquis bent down and patted James between his ears. “That’s a good little beast. You know your place well, don’t you? A year ago, you had never even touched a sword! How can you think to stand against my power? You cannot. Cower like you have always cowered. Cry like you have always cried, and get back out of our sight!”

James cringed, but fell back with the others, eyes shut tight, doing his best not to cry. Charles saw his flesh trembling, and he hoped it was in fury.

“The Seven of Spades, the man who was a woman. Lindsey, the woodcutter from Arabarb.” Lindsey’s red beard dragged on the floor as he crawled forward. He did not lift his head, lips set in a snarl where they could not be seen by Schanalein or du Tournemire. “You fled to Metamor when your land was overrun by the armies of Baron Calephas and the wizard Nasoj. At Metamor you became a man, and have since tried to pretend that you are happy this way. How empty your masculinity, how empty your boasts, and how empty your heart!”

Lindsey tensed, eyes narrowed in hate. But he said nothing, allowing the Marquis to continue to heap invective upon him. “What a sad thing to face a person who hates themselves. How could we possibly lose to one such as he?”

The Marquis dismissed Lindsey and took the next card. “The Eight of Spades, Kayla, another who has long hated themselves. After you became a skunk, you hid yourself in the confines of the Intelligence Bureau. So afraid that others would flee your endearing aroma, you even doubted the advances of your lover. Now you come seeking to avenge what I have done to him. Do not be filled with fear. I have taken very good care of his soul, giving it every torment it so richly deserves!”

Kayla snarled, body tensing. The bracer on her wrist began to warm with her inner fire, and she leapt to her feet, snarling and raking with her claws. The Marquis squeezed the card and she was knocked aside as if a great hand had reached down from the heavens and throttled her. “I do believe I told you not to try such a thing. Now you will pay the consequences. Choose one of your friends to suffer for your mistake.”

Kayla rose to four paws, and flicked her tail high, snarling at the Marquis. “Never!”

“Then I will choose. How about... Misha!”

“What?” Kayla snapped, looking up in surprise.

“He isn’t here with you now, but I have him in my deck. Let us see where he is shall we?” The cards hanging in the air shifted, until the mosaic took on the appearance of the familiar fox. They couldn’t quite see where he was, but he appeared to be reading or studying something.

“No! Don’t! Make me suffer the pain!” Kayla screamed.

“That was not the punishment. Let us start slow, shall we. A bit of a cramp in his arm.” The Marquis turned the card slightly, and they could see the unaware fox clutch his right arm. His grey eyes widened in surprise as he rubbed at his wrist. “And now a clenching in his gut.” Misha bent over, eyes shut tight, muzzle opening to let out a silent gasp of pain. “And now, let’s crush his chest, shall we?”

“No! Forgive me!” Kayla shrieked. “Please don’t do this!”

“Of course,” du Tournemire smiled and the cards dispersed, Misha’s visage gone. “Now get back to your place, beast!” The Marquis took Kayla’s card and twisted it again. She scrambled backwards, one paw pressed painfully to her back. “Let this be a reminder for you, and a warning. At any time, from any place, I can bring you mind-crushing pain. You have no recourse, no solace, no hiding place, no balm, and no hope against it.”

The Marquis du Tournemire casually selected another card. “And now for the Nine of Spades. Would the pathetic little Binoq present himself!”

Charles watched Abafouq try to muster as much dignity as he could. The Binoq stumbled on his knees, but he refused to lower his hands to the throne room floor. Charles glanced briefly at du Tournemire, rage swelling in him. The ivy tightened and twisted across his back and chest. How long were they to be humiliated for this man’s demented pleasure? How could this be the same man that Charles had once long ago helped?

“Abafouq, an outcast of his race, defied his people by studying magic under the eyes of the mysterious Nauh-kaee. Ever his soul yearned to wander and learn of the outside world. Perhaps he would have been better off if he’d listened to his people and stayed where he belonged! Have you ever witnessed so unimposing a creature as he? Yet even now he thinks that he has reserves greater than we can face. How wrong he is.” The Marquis flipped one edge of the card and the Binoq fell backwards with an agonized cry. “How wrong he is!”

With an exultant grin, du Tournemire crooned, “Oh little pet of the Nauh-kaee, dusts and powders will give you nothing this day or any other. How you will wish you stayed in your caves and let the ice kill you.” He flicked the card back into the mosaic and Abafouq was propelled backwards against Guernef. The Nauh-kaee nudged him back to his knees with his beak. The Binoq gasped for breath, throat ragged and sore.

“And now the Ten of Spades, the mysterious Geurnef of the Nauh-kaee. Marvel at this wonder, this strange beast!” The Marquis rubbed either side of the card, forcing Guernef to spread his wings wide. The white gryphon did as he was bade without any indication of complaint.

“You will never see another like him. Where these others are monsters by the power of Metamor, Guernef, the Kakikagiget of his people, Listener of Winds, is a member of a beastly race by birth. Long have they hidden in their mountain crags. But this one has been master to the Binoq for five years, as a man is master to a dog. He is still a beast, and still less than the race of men!”

Guernef offered them nothing other than his remarkable appearance, and it was clear that the Duke grew bored by him. He waved one hand in irritation. The Marquis smirked and with the flick of a wrist, dismissed Guernef and plucked another card from the floating facade instead. “Now we come to the powerful cards, your grace. First, the Knight of Spades, Charles Matthias.”

There was a command to the rat’s body quite unlike the rigidity that Agathe had filled him with. It felt like the grip the jealous mountains had inflicted when trying to absorb his substance. Charles inched forward on hands and knees, tail dragging between his legs. The vine on his back pulled tight against his stony flesh, as if to protect it.

When the sensation ceased, Charles was at the Marquis’s feet. Du Tournemire stood upon a broad stone slab at the base of the dais, and he was crouched over its border. The rat pressed his paws into the stone, feeling through to beneath the Marquis’s booted feet. It would be so simple to pull him down into the stone.

And then, his whole body tightened, and he realized he couldn’t move at all. “And before you, what belongs better in a garden than the throne room, is the rat become rock, the mouse who aspires to be a mountain! He is also of the Southlands, born in Kitchelande and raised as a Sondecki since the age of seven. This one though, he has killed royalty, and for that, he left his order and eventually came to Metamor Keep. There he became a rodent, and like a rat, has hidden from his clan.”

The Marquis bent over and stroked his hand across the back of Charles’s ear. “And now he is stone, and he thinks to use that element against us. But stone does not move, but remains where it stands for the ages, or until men decide to knock it down and put something else in its place. That is his legacy. He will be a monument festooned with leaves until none can even see him. A monument to the folly of his kind!”

Charles’s body softened again, but he found his paws ejected from the stone. He pushed hard against it, but it was as firm and solid as metal. “That’s right, silly rat,” du Tournemire crooned. “You wish to crawl into the floor, but you cannot if I hold you here. Now get back, and strike the pose most befitting a fool such as yourself.”

Despite all attempts to the contrary, his body was not his own. Charles crawled back across the floor, and then covered his head with his hands like a cowering peasant, where he felt himself frozen in place again. For the first time in a long time, he felt real anger inside of him, burning like earth blood. He would not be a monument for this man!

“The Priest of Spades is a most interesting individual, truly the last of his kind. Come to us, Zhypar Habakkuk, last surviving member of the Felikaush!” Habakkuk waddled forward, eyes lowered. There was no defiance in them, but neither was there any resignation. Habakkuk stared at the world as does a man going about his daily affairs

“At a young age he knew his kind was coming to an end. Haunted by those visions, he has conspired to do the only thing he could think to do, try to stop me.” Du Tournemire smiled and patted the kangaroo on the side of the cheek. “I am afraid that you have failed. No precognition will save you now. You are mine. And when you die, the Felikaush die with you. Does that thought please you, to know that your death brings an end to your entire line? Let us say it again then. When you die, the Felikaush will die!”

Habakkuk took a deep breath, but gave no other outward sign of his anguish. The Marquis did not appear disappointed that his barbs brought no reaction, but he did dismiss the kangaroo without another word.

“Now we come to the Queen of Spades.” He drew a card form his deck and frowned. “The hawk.” He glanced from Agathe to Zagrosek and then to Hockmann. “Where is the hawk?”

“She flew into the sky before my net could capture her,” Agathe said, her voice stiff. “She will not remain free for long.”

The Marquis nodded, and walked slowly over to where Agathe stood beside the Keepers. He looked her up and down, and with one hand pulled her robe from over her shoulders and down to her feet. Beneath the purple robe she bore only a linen smock. It hung loosely on her emaciated frame. They all stared at her, shocked to see a creature as powerful as her so frail. It looked as if she hadn’t eaten in months.

“You failed me, Agathe,” the Marquis said in a very quiet voice. His face was devoid of expression, and his voice only hinted at malice. “I am very disappointed in you.” He turned on his feet and returned to the base of the dais, leaving the Runecaster standing almost completely naked before the Keepers and all of the Duke’s guards.

The Maquis cupped the Queen of Spades in his hand, and then spread his fingers through the rest of the cards that hung motionless in the air. “Let us see where the clever hawk has gone to.” The cards shimmered, and then flew in a circle over the Marquis’s head until they coalesced into the shape of a hawk with outstretched wings.

In that form they all could see towers of stone. The Keepers peered hard, but wondering how the Marquis could do this with cards, and also wondering if they would see their friend. But the hawk never showed. Du Tournemire stared for several long seconds, but nothing changed. All that existed in that strange shape was the towers.

“Ah, very clever. She is hiding. And waiting. Duke Schanalein, you might want to send some pikemen and archers to the towers. I think they’ll find a red-banded hawk up there, but one that is not nesting. Flush her out, then shoot her down. Do not kill her, just puncture a wing, enough to bring her down.”

The Duke nodded. “Of course. When we are finished here I will order my men to do so. If she is here, then she is waiting to find an opportunity to free her friends. She will not move unless she knows she can find them.”

“Very true. There is no hurry.” The Marquis smiled and then drew his hand through the cards, destroying the shape of the hawk. “She will be mine too, just like all of her friends.” With a flick of his wrist, he snatched a card from the mass suspended in the air. “Let us continue, for we are almost done. The King of Spades.” He scanned the keepers, until his eyes settled upon one of the two pearl-grey skinned Åelf. With slow deliberation, du Tournemire’s smile grew until it stretched from ear to ear. “I have often wanted to meet one of your kind, ancient and powerful, full of pride and mysterious to men. But now, here, before me, you are humble and callow.”

Measured steps brought him before Andares, who stared straight ahead with unbowed eyes. Andares was several inches taller than the Marquis, but if du Tournemire was irritated at having to look up at the Åelf, he did not show it. “There is one singular quality you possess that makes you very curious, Andares-es-sebashou. You have never before seen my deck. I created it myself you know, carved each and every card by hand. All of the lines were drawn by my hand. Would you like to see the card I made for you? I have seen you, watched you in it these last few years. I watched you journey to Ellcaran to bring Kashin the Yeshuel to Ava-shavåis over a year ago. I saw you as you waited in the mines of Qorfuu only three months ago. I know you very well, and have carved your likeness very well. Let me show it to you.”

Charles turned one eye to watch, horrified by the thought of what was about to happen. All the Marquis would need to bring the same control over the Åelf was for him to touch that card. The magic would bind them together, and one more ally would fall prey to the Marquis’s whim.

And that is when the rat noticed a most curious thing. Andares’s wrists were bound behind him with thick cord, but on closer inspection the rat realized that the Åelf was holding those same cords between his fingers. How long had it been since he’d untied the knot, Charles could not guess. But as he watched, Andares’s fingers reached up to the long black braid that hung down his back. From the end, he drew out a long bone-white needle.

The Marquis, obviously unaware of what was happening, lifted the King of Spades and held it out before him, readying to press it against Andares’s forehead. With lightning-quick reflexes, Andares swung both his arms around and drove the needle through the Marquis’s wrist. With his leg he gave the man a kick to the stomach, sending him backwards into the dais.

The cards still hovering in the air sped like arrows at the Åelf. Andares ducked beneath them, but then felt a heavy weight crush into his back. Charles, against his will, had leapt upon the Åelf, grabbed him and shifted into his massive centaur-like six-legged form. Andares gasped for breath, but was unable to turn with several hundred pounds of stone on his back.

Sneering, the Marquis climbed to his feet and yanked the needle from his wrist. Blood stained his blue doublet, and continued to flow. “You may have thought that was a clever trick, Andares-es-sebashou. But it was a foolish one. Very foolish. You thought all I could do for you friends was give them pain? The greatest pain of all is to watch your body act against your will, with no hope of being able to stop it. And you will watch that now, as a lesson to all of you. This fluttering and trembling in resistance is useless. Agathe!”

The frail, scarred woman approached. The Marquis extended his wounded arm over which she drew several signs that glowed a brilliant blue before fading into nothing. The hole in his wrist closed shut, but the bloodstains remained. “There should be a few spiked shoes amongst their belongings. Bring me one.”

The woman looked to the guards, one of whom produced the requested shoe after several seconds search. She handed it to the Marquis, who examined it with disdain. After several seconds, he turned to the black-clad Sondecki and called, “Zagrosek, bend this into a brand. I care not what the brand be, just something that can be used to burn their flesh.”

Zagrosek nodded, walked to the Marquis, and began to bend the metal with careful twists. The Keepers stared wide-eyed as the spiked shoe was turned bit by bit into a long rod with a cris-crossed end. Charles was still laying on top of Andares, wishing he could make his body move, but he’d become as stiff as a statue again. Though he weighed more than four horses, Andares did not appear to have much trouble breathing. It was small comfort, but it was still comfort.

Yet, Charles could not understand why the Marquis just didn’t kill them. It was abundantly clear that they could do nothing to stop him. Did he want them alive for some reason?

The Marquis nodded in approval to Zagrosek and took the newly fashioned brand and hefted it in his hands. “You may have thought that the pain I give through the cards, while excruciating, is bearable because it brings no lasting damage. I can break bones if I chose to do so. And I can strangle the life out of you if it is my will. But you are right, it does lack a certain visual appeal.”

He surveyed the Keepers and his eyes settled upon James. The donkey was on his hands and knees still, ears drooped low. He shivered under the Maquis’s gaze. “A brand is most often applied to cattle, horses, slaves, and criminals.” He held out his fingers and one of the cards flew between them. “Whatever category this one falls under, you be the judge.” He rubbed over the card, and James brayed in surprise. His hands disappeared into hooves, and his clothes stretched and tore at the seams as he grew into a full donkey. His eyes filled with fright, but his could not lift his hooves from the stone.

Another card settled between the Marquis’s fingers, and Lindsey rose to his feet. “Agathe, please warm this brand. It must be red hot.” As the woodcutter approached, the Runecaster drew several more symbols. The cris-crossed end of the brand began to glow a bright red, and waves of heat rose from its surface.

The Marquis held the brand out to Lindsey, whose face was filled with horror, but whose hands took the brand and whose feet advanced upon the paralyzed donkey. James brayed in fear, tugging at his fixed hooves, as the woodcutter neared. Lindsey lowered the end and without hesitation pressed it against James’s flanks. James screamed in agony, a sound both fully animal and fully intelligent. But Lindsey did not remove the brand, despite the tears of frustration staining his cheeks.

“You see,” the Marquis said, his voice cutting through the donkey’s cry, “I can use the cards to inflict wounds that will never fully heal.” He drew back his hands, and Lindsey drew back the brand. Smoke rose from the wound, but as it cleared, they could all see the blackened flesh and the symbol burned there.

Charles felt Andares stir beneath him. “You have made your point. I will not see you hurt them any more.”

The Marquis let go of Lindsey’s card and took the King of Spades again. His smile grew as he crossed to where the Åelf was pinned beneath the six-legged stone rat. “I knew you would come to your senses. Charles, you may let him up.” The rat found his body his own again, and was quick to climb off his friend. Andares did not appear to be in pain, but he did stand stiffly.

Slowly, the Marquis extended his hand, the card resting in his palm. Upon its face was the Åelf bearing a ceremonial ivory sword. Andares met du Tournemire’s gaze, and set his fingers on top of the card’s face. The air thrummed with energy. Andares’s face went slack, and he fell to his knees. “Much better, slave,” du Tournemire crooned and patted the black-haired Åelf on the head. “Now remove all the rest of your weapons.”

Andares touched his cuffs, and from each withdrew long slender needles. These he dropped on the floor at the Marquis’s boots. He then reached for his collar, and undid the buttons at his neckline. His fingers slipped gently beneath the cloth, and withdrew two small daggers. From his boots he produced a large hook and a sliver of thin rope. And out of his belt a curved dagger.

“Krenek, did you search him or were you betting which of these he’d use first?” The Marquis shuffled his boot through the pile and laughed to himself. “That is my deck, and now it is nearly complete. But there is someone here who does not belong. Let us see.” He took the two steps to stand before the second Åelf who watched everything with a sorrowful expression on his brow. “It is you. You are not in my deck.”

Qan-af-årael shook his head. “No, I am not.”

Du Tournemire stared at him for a very long time. His smile faded until it was replaced with intense scrutiny. The Keepers breathed and watched, but could do little else. James’s hooves were still firmly planted, his brand still smoking. Lindsey still held the brand, unable to let go of it. Charles couldn’t even shift into his normal two-legged stance, all of them were frozen where the Marquis had left them, as if they were but toys that he arranged.

The Breckarin guards had long been uncomfortable in the presence of the Keepers, even more so near the Marquis. Now they quailed and shifted as far away as they could Even Duke Schanalein looked wary as he squirmed on his throne. They were in the presence of two giants, creatures of unimaginable power and presence.

“You are very interesting,” the Marquis finally admitted. He took a step back, and rubbed his thumbs together. “I can see more power in you than I have ever witnessed in any other. Yet you do nothing. You can destroy my deck and wreck the power that I possess if you choose. And you stand here and watch me fill your friends with pain. I will admit that your reticence makes me curious.”

Qan-af-årael folded his hands before him, and lowered his eyes. “You see a great deal, but your eyesight will always be clouded by Marzac. I do not possess the fire needed to destroy those cards without also destroying those within them. How many do you hold in that deck?”

The Maquis clasped his hands together and rocked back on his heels. “A great many know the power in the cards. But how do you know you cannot harm the cards without harming those in them? What if the cards were destroyed, wouldn’t that free them? Why don’t you try and find out?”

“You play games at this hour, but why?” Qan-af-årael stood taller, old eyes narrowed. He studied the Marquis as an alchemist might study an ingot. “You lurked in the shadows for so long, why reveal yourself now?”

Frowning, the Marquis let go of his cards and crossed his arms. “Because I no longer need to hide. I have already won. Surely you can see that. All you remain are frayed ends to be bound. Those who would reveal my secrets... are free to do so!”

Charles, no longer feeling the compulsion from the Marquis’s cards, glanced once at Agathe, and then snapped, “And before, those who sought your secrets were killed?”

“I have killed no one,” the Marquis admitted with a sly grin. “Though many of you sorely tempt me.”

“Your wizards have!” Charles replied, hoping the Marquis would allow him to continue speaking. “Zagrosek killed Patriarch Akabaieth, and if I’m not mistaken, Agathe killed Wessex!”

The Marquis rolled his eyes and took a card from the deck. “I do not believe I was talking to you. Learn your place, statue.” Charles’s body became immobile again, but at least he’d uttered what he’d wanted.

“But yes,” the Marquis continued, “Agathe did kill that silly little mage.” He stepped over to the nearly naked Runecaster and traced one finger under her chin. "A very nasty invocation she laid upon his corpse I might add. But this is growing tiresome.”

He stalked back to Qan-af-årael and gazed into his stony countenance. “You will do nothing then? Very well. My victory is assured.” He turned and stared at the man on the throne. “Duke Schanalein, I want all of them placed in your dungeons. Separate cells naturally. Agathe will cast magical wards to prevent them from escaping. You only need keep them here until the Solstice.” He glanced at the Keepers again, and then smiled. “I will leave Agathe with you, in case that hawk ever turns up.”

Duke Schanalein rose to his feet, brows furrowed. “Are you leaving us so soon, your grace?”

“I am.” The Marquis held out his hands and the cards fell from the air into an orderly deck in his palms. “My carriage leaves within the hour. Zagrosek will accompany me. I have but one thing left to do, and it can only be done at the Chateau.” He turned back to Qan-af-årael. “That is why I no longer fear you. All the times you could have stopped me are past. Even if you somehow escape and come to Marzac, you will be corrupted too.” He grinned wide and then turned to Zagrosek. “It is time.”

Zagrosek nodded and followed him as du Tournemire left through one of the doors at the rear of the throne room. The Keepers could do nothing but stand and wait, still held fixed by the Marquis’s will. Once the Marquis and Zagrosek was gone, Agathe bent and lifted her purple robe over her shoulders again. She turned her face on them, her empty socket blazing with fire. “Duke Schanalein, if your guards would escort them to the dungeons, I will follow and make sure they do not escape.”

The Duke of Breckaris nodded and shouted the order. As one, the Keeper’s legs moved. Qan-af-årael kept his gaze fixed upwards, as if contemplating a starry sky that only he could see.

Kurt was already late when he arrived at the nunnery. His captain was expecting him back at the barracks, but that was one place he wouldn’t be showing his face tonight. Or at least if he did he was going to need a very good excuse.

The Breckarin nunnery was built on a rise in the labourers district. The cloister walls were at least a dozen feet high, and Kurt could hear the chirping of birds nesting in its crenellations. The only entrance was through a pair of wrought iron gates fashioned like the branches of the yew. The keystone bore the emblem of Yahshua’s crucifixion.

Kurt waited at the gate for only a minute before one of the nuns came to see who it was. The nun was several years his senior, but still possessed the gentle beauty of youth. “Sister Lucy, Yahshua’s grace be with you.”

She smiled, made the sign of the yew, and unlatched the gate. “Yahshua’s grace be with you, Kurt. Are you here to see Tugal?”

“Aye. I’m afraid if I wait it will be too late. Please hurry!”

Lucy hastened to open the gate. “Reverend Mother says she is recovering well, but she still has nightmares.” She swung the gate open and Kurt bounded through. He then grunted and bounced from one foot to the other as Lucy latched the gate behind him. Once finished she led him down into the complex of close-knit buildings. The sound of women’s voices united in song hung over everything.

“She did not know there were people who lived their lives for others, and she had never heard of Yahshua!” Lucy marvelled as they ascended a cramped staircase. Kurt kept one hand on his sword to keep the scabbard from scraping the wall.

“Then we’ve done two good things,” Kurt replied. The stairs ended in a half-open doorway. Beyond was a small room with a window too narrow to fit even a child. The room had a pallet with linens, a crucifix upon one wall, and two chairs. The Mother Superior, in full cassock, sat in one. In the other, dressed in dark leggings and a loose tunic was Tugal. She saw them enter, and while she did not smile, her features softened.

“Reverend Mother, Kurt is here to see Tugal,” Sister Lucy almost whispered, waiting just inside the doorway but not passing through.

The nun turned and smiled a weathered face to both of them. “Thank you, Sister.” Then to Tugal she asked, “Is there anything else I can do for you, dear one?”

“No, Reverend Mother,” Tugal replied, her voice firm, but lacking the acid Kurt remembered from their first meeting. Then, as if only now recalling it, she added, “Thank you. I will call if I need anything.”

The Mother Superior rose, gently patted Tugal on the shoulder, then held out her hand. “Sister, could you aid me down the steps?”

“Of course, Reverend Mother!” Lucy slipped one arm under her shoulders and guided her out the door. Kurt stood aside to give them room. Once they were on the stair, he closed the door behind them.

“You’re looking better, Tugal. How are you feeling?” He waited for her to invite him to sit, and even then, he continued to fidget. The news he had was too important to wait, but he had to remain courteous if he wanted her help.

“Better. I do not sleep well, but Reverend Mother’s prayers have helped. I never knew... so many things.” Distance filled her eyes momentarily, but she turned to Kurt and stared at him. “And you Kurt? I have not seen you in many days.”

Kurt grunted. “I know. Bishop Hockmann sent us into the woods under Zagrosek and Agathe’s command.” At the Runecaster’s name, Tugal flinched. “We just returned today, with a band of Keepers.”

Shock filled her face. “Keepers? The beastmen of Metamor?”

“Aye, we took them prisoner. The Marquis wanted them. I watched him interrogate them. It was... horrible.” Kurt had to close his eyes and utter a quick prayer to cast those vile images from his mind. “But from what you told me, I think these are the same Keepers she had you chase through the Barrier Mountains.”

Tugal licked her lips and gripped her knees. Her eyes looked down into Kurt’s lap, but for a time, she didn’t really see him. Kurt shuffled his feet for a moment, waiting for her to come back. The few other times they had spoken, this had also happened, and he’d learned there was no use calling to her until she wanted to speak again.

It took her at least a minute to lift her eyes, but when she did there was anger burning in them. “Everyone I thought was my friend lost their lives chasing those beastmen. That woman killed several of them because we failed. Why she left me alive, I don’t know. And now they’re here as prisoners?”

Kurt nodded. “The Marquis ordered my father to keep them in the dungeons. He left Agathe to make sure they do not escape. Zagrosek and du Tournemire have already left Breckaris, and I don’t think they mean to come back. This is our chance, Tugal.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Chance for what?”

“To break my father free!” Kurt’s whole body hummed with excitement at the possibility. “If we free the Keepers, they might help us defeat Agathe and break whatever spell has been placed over my Father. You can have your revenge on her!”

“Revenge?” she said the word as if it were ash upon her tongue. “The revenge I want is to make the bastards who raped me know my pain. But they are all dead now.”

“You said she did nothing to stop them.”

Tugal mulled that for a moment before replying, “The Sisters here have told me of Yahshua, who forgives all our sins. It is such a remarkable thing, to know that he suffered like the rest of us, and did it out of love. Would I have ever heard of him if I had not followed her and suffered Metamor’s curses?” She fell silent again, her face confused.

Kurt leaned forward gently. “I don’t know. But I do know that nobody deserved to suffer the way I saw those Keepers suffer. The Marquis has fouled everything he touches, and he controls my father the Duke. Agathe is his willing servant, or perhaps she is a slave like my father. Either way, I think if we free the Keepers, we can break the Marquis du Tournemire’s hold on this land.”

He lowered his eyes for a moment, then lifted them and stared directly into hers. “Tugal, I need your help to do this. I can’t ask any of the other soldiers, because they wouldn’t understand. Nor would they be willing to cross Agathe after what they saw her do. I was hoping you would help me in this one thing.”

Tugal looked away for a moment and put her knuckles against her teeth. A shudder passed through hr body. “I’ll need a weapon.”

“I can get you one, but the guards are my father’s men, and some may be my friends. I don’t want them killed.”

Tugal sneered, and the way her eyes met his, Kurt felt like a child all over again. “I won’t need it for them!” Her gaze softened and she asked, “When do we do this?”

“Once dusk falls in a few hours. I know how to get into the dungeon, bu we’d never get in during daylight.”

Tugal rose to her feet, hands clenched in fists. “Then we have no more time to waste. I must thank the Mother Superior before I leave. And I think... yes, I know I want to pray.”

Kurt decided that sounded like a very good idea.

Cover | Contents | Prologue | Book I | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | Interlude I
Book II | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | Interlude II
Book III | 31 | 32 | 33 | 34 | 35 | 36 | 37 | 38 | 39 | 40 | 41 | 42 | 43 | 44 | 45 | 46 | 47 | 48 | Interlude III
Book IV | 49 | 50 | 51 | 52 | 53 | 54 | 55 | 56 | 57 | 58 | 59 | 60 | 61 | 62 | 63 | 64 | 65
66 | 67 | 68 | 69 | 70 | 71 | 72 | 73 | 74 | 75 | Epilogue

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