Tenlyres Chapter 11

Previously…
Ilsa and Blue’s mission to rescue the Keeper of Tenlyres has brought them into conflict with Ayochian forces.
During a bloody encounter with a group of scouts serving the mysterious Gray Lector, Ilsa discovers her former friend, and fellow priestess of Hathani traveled east with them. She still does not know if she can trust Cass, but know she and Blue need all the help they can get.

Previous Chapter

Cass led the group of runners from the Ayochian scouts from the back of her own steed as night began to fall across the plateau. Ilsa watched her and the great cats at the corner of her vision. She could not help the feeling of disgust with herself for killing their former riders. Yet she had only mortally wounded one of six runners in the process.

Spots of blood still clung to the sleeve of her coat. The moon began to rise in the eastern sky, opposite the setting sun. Orange light cast long shadows from the party so they stretched out before them with black emptiness. The shadow shows one side of every spirit, the side that cannot help but do harm.

Ilsa remembered her father with a flicker of annoyance. He bore a rifle across his shoulder, the butt resting in his palm. His shadow stretched across the low grass of the plain. His black and marble-furred strider stood parallel to him, facing a sunset in another time and another place.

She could practically feel the rough grass beneath her young toes, practically smell the powder from her father’s shots. To say one thing for him, he had not killed anything they did not need to survive, but at the time, she had not appreciated that fact. His imposition to take her from the edge of the plateau and further onto the steppe had left her mother in tears.

Mother had, even before her visions began to intrude, lacked the strength to stop father from taking Ilsa with him. He had told her he wanted to help her, not harm her. In the end, that had been a lie.

Later, with powder smell in her nose and the echoes of shots still ringing in her ears, father had built a fire. He had burned the weapons he would bond to her one by one, and he had branded each of her hands twice. Ilsa had not been able to resist, and it had cost her a place at Saint Banyeen’s despite her best attempts to hide the truth.

The bonds were of his style, connected to the spirit, with weapons contained by eternal fire rather than the traditional shrines used by most of Hathani’s clergy. And they showed the evidence of her father’s corruption, which would see Ilsa expelled from the garden, years later.

By the time she had joined the garden, however, Father had been gone for another four years. And she had not seen him since. The fault for her expulsion fell not fully on the monstrous shadow the sun cast from him the day he had bonded her to her weapons. No, the fault fell on Cass Kalteri and the High Priestess.

In the present moment, Ilsa turned from Cass and squeezed her eyes shut. She could only barely recall the events without tears.

Blue’s voice reached her. “So, she is the one who betrayed you.”

She looked at her friend’s concerned face. “You don’t need to be a mind eater to know that.”

“Absolutely true.” Blue guided her strider alongside Hailek. “Can you tell me if she’s really on our side?”

“I can’t.” Ilsa scowled. “But she’s been caring for my mother back in Dal. I don’t know if that means much.”

Blue frowned. “If I had enough family to know, I’d tell you.”

She nodded. “Blue. You never talk about your family.”

“Because far as I know I don’t have one anymore.” Blue smirked. “Sometimes it’s convenient, but usually, it isn’t.” She looked behind her to where Lemuel and Tirica rode behind Cass and the runners.

Ilsa followed her friend’s glance. Tirica still carried her rifle openly but had relaxed her grip over the hours so it now hung from the sling around her shoulder, unattended at that moment. They had not seen any sign of other outriders from either side. But they would have to ride all night to catch up with the Red Lector’s forces before the Ayochians reached the Central Lyre.

Tirica nodded to Ilsa, finally silent. Her face had been pale when Ilsa had caught back up after killing the scouts. She sighed. Tirica had shot two of them herself, but what kind of woman her age had seen that kind of bloodshed before?

Lemuel patted his strider’s neck with his good hand but did not look in her direction. If Tirica had been shocked by the sight of Ilsa’s actions, Lemuel could well have been horrified depending how much he had witnessed.

She did not blame him if that was the case.

She took a deep breath and turned back to Blue. “We’ll see what happens.”

“We always do, I suppose.” Blue dropped her pace and fell back on her strider.

Cass caught up with Ilsa, lower to the ground while riding on her runner’s back than any of the others on their tall striders. She turned to Ilsa. “I’ve never seen anything like that, back there.”

Ilsa’s lip twitched. “Anything like what?”

“Like how you fight.” Cass frowned. “There was a time I never thought I’d see you shoot again.”

Ilsa faced rising moon up ahead and grimaced in the diminishing orange blaze from behind her. The only times before that quickly diminishing day when she remembered shooting around Cass were nearly eight years gone, and the vast majority of them had been simple targets.

She shook her head. “I don’t like to fight.”

“That’s odd, coming from a mercenary.”

Ilsa put laid her palm on the red staff that crossed her saddlebags. “I fight for Hathani and the Unification and for that I will do things I don’t like.”

Cass frowned. “Dal is in chaos just thinking about a fight with Chogrum. You think you can stop a war?”

“I can do my duty and hope for the best.” She sighed. “I trust my leaders.”

“Who are these mysterious leaders. I’ve only heard of Koor, the priest out in Morhoen.”

“Koor is the one I’ve met when I joined as a full member.”

“Koor can’t be the only one, though. Is he?”

“I’ve spoken to others. Mostly they don’t make themselves known to outsiders.”

“So you’re not going to tell me?” Cass frowned. “Not very friendly of you.”

Ilsa shrugged. “I didn’t kill you. That doesn’t mean we’re friends.”

“But we were.”

“Too long ago.” She scowled into the distance as the sun sank away behind them.

Hailek snorted. His woolly muzzle released a stream of condensation. Ilsa shivered. The sunset brought with it a drop in temperature.

The silver moon cast only slight shadows. Twilit steppe grass raced beneath them. They passed out of the region dotted with tower grasses and continued the ride east.

Every few minutes, Ilsa released a breath into her cupped hands. The wind picked up, blowing dust and rivulets of snow. Ilsa wondered how many kilometers they were from the Central Lyre. The Keeper of Tenlyres would likely still be near the timeless landmark. Oshomi tradition dictated the keeper stay close to that place for some mysterious reason. Ilsa had studied them, but she knew little of what to make of their strange religion, focused as it was on animals and plants left unmodified by human hands.

They rode expertly bred, but not otherwise engineered, horses. They trained horses, dogs, and birds without the aid of the signals used in civilized cultures to condition animals. In some ways they were intentionally primitive, but Ilsa had the feeling what they adopted from the settled societies was more pragmatic.

Striders might be virtually tireless compared to horses, and runners could out pace any normal animals, but the advantage of each was slight over a horse in many circumstances, and the Oshomi tradition revered the horse first. Ilsa frowned as she recalled her mother’s vision, the one she had told Ilsa about when they had last seen each other. Body of a horse, face of a nomad woman, and a voice like Ilsa’s. The human mind could play tricks on itself, and those tricks could often be less than funny.

Mother’s mind was no exception.

Ilsa urged Hailek forward, pushing the strider toward the silver beacon of moonlight on the horizon. Beneath the moon, a shadowy shape flickered in gray and white, riding ahead of Ilsa and Blue and the others. She frowned at the distant rider, but there was no mistaking he tall shadow belonged to a strider with a human on its back.

Who would be out here, riding by night on a white strider? Ferdinand Thoss rode a white strider. Ferdinand Thoss had been moving east. Ilsa fished in her saddlebag for her binoculars. She retrieved the double lenses with cold fingers and then peered through them as Hailek continued forward at his steady, disciplined pace.

The figure on the strider’s back belonged to man in a heavy coat with the bulk of ballistic armor beneath. No mistake from the hair and build, though Ilsa could not see his face. The thief and grave robber, Ferdinand Thoss was riding ahead of them. The slight pain of the stitched cut on Ilsa’s leg reminded her of the sharpness of his bonded lance.

She lowered the binoculars and looked over her shoulder at the rest of her group. Cass and Blue rode ahead of the Chollushes, side by side. Ilsa had to wonder, if they had been talking, what had they said to each other. She frowned at the two of them.

“We’ve got company up ahead.”

“Friend or foe?” asked Cass.

“A bit of both.”

Blue raised her eyebrows. “You recognize them?”

“It’s just one rider. Ferdinand Thoss.”

Lemuel pushed his strider forward. He caught up alongside Blue. “Thoss is heading our way?”

“He’s riding the same direction we are,” said Ilsa. “I just saw him.”

Lemuel squinted into the distance. “You can see anything in this?”

Ilsa tilted her binoculars to indicate them to him. “It’s definitely him.”

“Who is he?” asked Cass.

“A thief and outlaw from Chogrum.” Lemuel scowled. “He steals from the living and the dead equally.”

Ilsa could not disagree with that. “He’s also a weapon bond. A lance and two javelins, at least.”

Blue nodded. “Could be dangerous.”

“I don’t think he’d be against us.” Ilsa recalled Ferdinand’s trade with her back at Palend’s Manor, information for his freedom. “He owes me.”

Cass glanced at Blue. “Do I want to know why?”

“He overspent his side of a trade of favors.” Ilsa put her binoculars back into a saddlebag. “Trust me.”

“I can trust you, if you can trust me.”

Ilsa grimaced, and then turned to face forward in the saddle. She urged Hailek forward, choosing to chase down Ferdinand rather than reply to Cass. She gripped his furry hide with her bare hands, letting his wool shelter her fingers from the cold. Hailek, ever reliable, found the strength to accelerate. His feet pounded over the plain.

Ferdinand’s strider must be slowing, for she began to catch up quickly. She closed the distance to less than a kilometer. He did not look back, evidently unaware of her approach.

Ilsa pressed her legs into Hailek’s side to urge him to quicken his pace, sacrificing ease of the ride for speed. He obeyed. With every spring of Hailek’s legs the moon bobbed. She caught up within fifty meters. Ferdinand turned and looked back at her.

When he spotted her, he tugged on the reins of his strider. The animal wheeled to face Ilsa and Hailek. Moonlight cast them in cold light. Reflections of the same light danced on the glassy patches of snow frozen to the ground.

She drew in Hailek’s reins until he stopped, just ten meters from Ferdinand and his white strider. His face split into a white grin beneath his dark hair. “Priestess. It’s good to see you again. Eager to speak to me, are you?”

The sounds of runners and striders approached from behind Ilsa. She kept her eyes on Ferdinand as she sat back in her saddle. She folded her arms, reins still in one hand, and wished she could wear gloves without rendering her bonds unusable.

“I suppose I was. We’re deep in Oshomi territory. What are you doing out here?”

“Still trying to get back to Chogrum.” He frowned and fished in the pocket of his coat until he retrieved a battered compass. He looked at the device as he shifted it in his bare hands. “Damn thing must be broken, I thought I was headed southeast.”

“You’d better turn that way, then.” She pointed to the south. “We’re getting pretty close to the Central Lyre.”

“Sh-Shit. Th-that’s n-not good.”

The others caught up, Cass first with her runners in tow, followed by Blue, then Lemuel and Tirica. Ferdinand raised his eyebrows. “Seems you’ve grown, priestess.” His gaze roved from Cass, to Blue, to Lemuel, and then came to rest on Tirica. “I see you’ve recruited some old friends.” He did not sound unhappy to see them, though, because he spoke without a stutter.

Tirica glared at him. “Where are you going, Thoss?”

Ferdinand raised his compass. “The wrong way, apparently.” He shook his head. “Look, I’m not up to anything unlawful. Just trying to get home.”

Tirica put one hand on her hip while the other moved toward the pistol on her belt. “I don’t believe you.”

“Believe it or not. It’s the truth.” Ferdinand raised both hands. “And to be honest, girl, I’m getting tired of you trying to pick a fight.”

She grimaced at him. “You seemed ready for one, last time I saw you.”

“Yeah, but its the middle of the night.” He jabbed the hand with the compass at the moon overhead. “Can you at least wait until morning. Pistols at dawn, maybe?”

“You’d lose that,” said Tirica. “I’ve never seen you even hold a gun.”

“I think you’d be surprised.” Ferdinand shifted his gaze to Lemuel and grinned. “Tell her to ease up, Lemuel.”

Lemuel clenched his reins in his gloved left hand. He looked to Ilsa. She met his gaze and then nodded to him. Lemuel took a deep breath. “Tirica, there’s been enough killing for one day.”

“I’ll leave him ‘til tomorrow, then.” Tirica shot a glare at Ferdinand. “Tomorrow, Thoss.”

“Tirica,” said Lemuel in a firm voice.

“No, brother. If we let him go we’ll just have to deal with him later, when we may not have the advantage. And I’m sick of taking orders from this priestess.” She turned her glare toward Ilsa. “This mission of hers doesn’t matter to me, and besides, she’s a Dalite. For all we know she’s been lying to us all along.”

Ilsa matched Tirica’s glare. Blood ran hot through her, threatening to ignite into outright rage. She unfolded her arms, breathing deep. She did not have time for anger. Still, one hand clenched, halfway to summoning one of her pistols. Lemuel was right though. Enough blood had been shed today.

Blue closed her eyes, but spoke firmly. “I think you’ve all said enough. Now listen to me.”

“Why should we?” Tirica rounded on Blue. “You’re a traitor to our city.”

“A city is not separate from the rest of the world.” Blue spoke softly. “All things connect to each other, and when they fight, they all suffer.”

“Unification bullshit,” Tirica said. “Give it a rest, mind eater.”

“I won’t.” Blue’s eyes opened a crack, but appeared unfocused. “Please, keep your voice down.”

“Blue?” said Ilsa, “What do you sense?”

Blue’s eyes closed again. “Horses.”

Ferdinand’s eyes flicked to Blue. “H-Horses?”

Blue’s eyelids pressed down tight. “And riders.”

“Oh no.” Lemuel’s face went pale. “Oshomi outriders?”

Ilsa looked around, searching the darkness for any sign of the riders. Her breath misted before her, maddeningly obscuring her vision. “How far.”

A flicker of blue-white electricity crackled to the northeast, behind Ferdinand. The whole group fell silent, listening for the riders Blue had detected. At first the sound of hooves seemed soft in comparison to their arguments, but then Ilsa smelled powder traces, old-fashioned, maybe even primitive. Burnt ozone stench reached her nose.

She scowled in the moonlight. Lightning without clouds. A bolt of electricity shot from the night, booming with instant thunder. The lightning bolt struck Ferdinand and his strider, then leaped in an arc to Ilsa and Hailek.

Searing pain exploded through her nerves. Her ears rang with the thunder and she shuddered in the saddle. She could not hear her own agonized scream.

Ferdinand slumped forward against his strider’s neck as the creature bucked and whined with pain. The bright scar of the lightning bolt upon Ilsa’s vision began to fade. Hailek shook. She held on with her one good hand as her strider released an involuntary whimper.

The thunder of the lightning bolt reverberated in the air. Ilsa’s head jerked to the left and she glimpsed Tirica and Lemuel circling behind her to meet up with Cass and Blue. Ilsa shuddered with another agonizing shock of electricity leaping through her muscles. She swung her head back in the deafness left by the thunder.

Moonlight illuminated a dozen Oshomi riders spreading to encircle her and the others. They looked gray in the moonlight. The one in the lead rode on a huge horse and carried the two-pronged lightning lance, now dark with its electricity expended. He rode up to Ilsa, big and old with a heavily scarred face. She blinked at the pain, but could not unlock her jaw to speak. More hoof beats drummed behind Ilsa’s back.

As her hearing returned she heard the big man speaking from the back of the horse front of her. His words were in the language of the Oshomi, but she caught most of their meaning. “They are not from the west.” He turned to another rider who caught up beside him. “For now, keep them alive. They could be useful.”

Then he yanked Hailek’s reins from Ilsa’s numb fingers and pulled the strider with him as he turned his steed toward the moon. Ilsa gritted her teeth as the Oshomi led her, and Ferdinand and the others, toward the Central Lyre. One way or another, she had to get there, but at that moment, it was all she could do just to stay in the saddle.

Tenlyres Chapter 10

Recap

Ilsa and Blue are on a mission to rescue the Keeper of Tenlyres from the onset of war. And war is near.
The two of them have met up with a scholar and his sister at the manor and now must race to catch up with the Red Lector’s army.

Previous Chapter

One day’s ride west of Palend Manor the sun rose behind an illusory haze, evidence of the Red Lector’s war magi in action against the Oshomi. Ilsa glanced at Blue from her saddle, as Lemuel and Tirica climbed onto their striders. The scholar and his sister had not slowed them down the previous day, but they moved slower in the morning.

Tirica shot a disgruntled look in Ilsa’s direction. “Hey, I’m not used to getting up at the ass-crack of dawn.”

“Fair enough,” said Ilsa. “But we are in a hurry.”

“You think I don’t now that?”

“I think you’re dragging your feet.”

“I am not anywhere to close that.” Tirica’s face flushed. “You should watch yourself, priestess.”

“I try to,” said Ilsa. “That’s why I’m worried we won’t get to the central lyre in time.”

“Alright, cool it.” Blue rode her steed between Ilsa and Tirica. “If it’s any consolation, you’re both wrong. We need their help, Ilsa. And we also can’t be at each other’s throats’, Tiri.”

“My name is Tirica. Don’t try to get familiar.”

“I once knew a girl with the same name as you.” Blue grimaced at some memory she had never shared with Ilsa. “She was stubborn too.”

Ilsa frowned at her friend. “Alright. I’ll leave it there.”

Tirica glared at Ilsa, then at Blue, and then rode her steed ahead of them toward the rising sun. Lemuel caught up with Ilsa and Blue on the back of his own wooly black strider. “I apologize for my sister. She is not always happy with my decisions even when she goes along with what I want.”

“Really?” Blue smirked. “I couldn’t tell.”

Ilsa couldn’t help a small smile. “I wish it was that easy. The way you two argue makes me think she respects you.”

He sucked his teeth. “More than I deserve.”

“Maybe so,” said Blue.

“Maybe not,” said Ilsa.

“Oh this is gonna be a good day. We can’t agree on anything this morning.”

“Seems that way,” said Ilsa.

Blue grinned. “Gotcha. Sweet irony, am I right?”

Ilsa released a bark of laughter. “You are.”

Lemuel smiled. The sunlight glinted on his glasses. He guided his strider into a lope after Tirica. Ilsa and Blue did the same.

They rode east at speed. They had passed the ninth lyre the previous afternoon, but the central lyre was still not visible, even with the vast distances one could see on the steppe.

Ilsa rode on one side of Lemuel, with Blue on the other and Tirica in the lead by a few great strides. For her part, Lemuel’s sister kept looking around, scanning for danger. As they moved further east and away from the Lotok formation that curved around Palend’s manor tower grass became more common, sprouting up so high it could block the view. Luckily, few of those clumps were dense enough to hide anyone from a distance if one kept her eyes on the stand while moving forward.

They followed the trail of footprints and broken grass left by the Red Lector’s troops.

At about ten in the morning, Ilsa smelled increasingly familiar Ayochian powder, borne on the eastward breeze. She looked back and spotted a line of six runners with riders in Ayochian Blue uniforms also galloping along a trail left by the Red Lector’s column, less than a kilometer back from Ilsa and the others.

They were not scouts from the Red Lector’s force, and they did not carry a standard. Ilsa had to guess they were from the rearguard, and thus owed their allegiance to Boraij Kanan. And through their general, they were controlled by the Gray Lector.

She turned to Blue. “Ayochian outriders. Behind us.”

“That nose of yours is damn useful.” Blue glanced back at the scouts, then turned to look at Lemuel. “Can you fight?”

He raised his shrunken right arm. “I’m afraid I’m rather useless in physical altercations.”

Ilsa nodded. She looked back. Each of the riders behind them looked to be on a fresh steed, judging by the pace of the great cat-like beasts. “We’re not going to get away from runners if they keep that pace.”

Blue shook her head. “Well, Lemuel. Best get your sister. This is gonna be up to the three of us.”

“There are six of them, and three of you.”

“Truly a scholar. You can do math.” Blue took a breath. “I can try to even the odds, at least, a little. And Ilsa doesn’t miss.”

“My sister is a good shot,” said Lemuel. His eyes looked watery with nerves. “Fine, if we have no choice.”

“There’s always a choice.” Ilsa sighed. “I’ll try to negotiate first.”

“If they really are with this renegade Gray Lector, what good will that do?” said Lemuel. “We don’t even know this person’s true goal.”

“We should, at least, try to find it out.” Ilsa folded her arms.

Blue turned to her with a furrowed brow. “I hate to say this, but they’ve got us outnumbered two to one. If we let them get close enough to talk, that advantage becomes a lot bigger.”

“I understand.,” said Ilsa. “I also don’t think—”

“No, priestess.” Tirica must have slowed her steed because the three of them had caught up with her. “We’ve got you outvoted. Shoot first, and see if we can take any of them alive afterward. That’s what I say.”

“You’re too eager to kill.”

“And you’re too reluctant.” Tirica pulled her rifle from the straps that held it to her saddle. She loaded it with a fresh magazine. “Am I wrong?”

Ilsa grunted. “One can never be too reluctant to kill.”

“Unless you die because of it,” said Blue. “We have the advantage now. Let’s not waste it.”

Tirica checked the slide and safety of her rifle and turned her strider toward the scouts. She looked through the telescopic sites of the weapon. “They’re riding with weapons out.”

“I smelled them because they’ve got ready powder somewhere in their group.” Ilsa sighed inwardly. “I admit it, but it’s likely they’re probably not planning to let us talk either way.”

Blue and Ilsa turned their striders.

Ilsa turned to Lemuel, then motioned to the nearest stand of tower grass. “Go, hide over there. We’ll find you once the fighting is done.”

“Good luck.” He rode his steed toward the tower grass. He had almost reached the tall grass, when Tirica’s first shot cut the air and polluted Ilsa’s nose with the smell of burning Chogrumian powder.

One of the riders approaching from the west rocked in his saddle though the shot must not have been immediately lethal. The Ayochians shouted warnings to each other. In seconds, they all had weapons in hand and were slowing their runners. A hundred meters away and the shots quickly began to buzz and whistle through the air.

They shot without any real hope of accuracy. Blue’s eyes were unfocused as she mentally reached out toward the scouts. Ilsa gave her friend some distance. She rode toward the scouts.

Clenched fists.

A pistol appeared in each hand. She braced one on her hip and loaded the other, then repeated the process for the second weapon. She thumbed both safeties off. She kept Hailek going westward with her knees, and leaned around him in the saddle. She took aim, despite the thirty or more meters between her and the scouts.

The pistols felt light in her hands, and she was grateful for their small caliber, a rare insight of her father’s that still helped her. Damn it, you may have tied me to the name Black Powder, but I am not going to follow your path. Her lips drew back in a snarl.

Ten meters from the scouts. Behind her, Tirica’s rifle sounded again. She must have missed this time, for the scouts focused on Ilsa. One of them twisted a shotgun toward her.

She squeezed one trigger. The man with the shotgun fell. Blood leaped into the air as he tumbled from the saddle.

Ilsa shot another scout as the man scrambled for a machine gun. His arm snapped back, but he got a burst off. The shots stitched into the air over Hailek’s head. Her pistols barked again. The machine gun fell silent.

A third scout spurred her runner to leap at Hailek’s neck from one side. Ilsa whirled in the saddle. She fired her first shot underhand. Pain flared in Ilsa’s wrist from awkward recoil position, but she fired again. The second shot hit the runner in the foreleg. The riding cat sprawled out of Hailek’s path, claws flicking through the air with no flesh to rend.

The rider screamed and went down under the wounded steed. Still she reached for a pistol. Ilsa beat her to the draw, and the scout fell limp. Red trails ran up to her uniform’s collar.

Ilsa turned and came face to face with a fourth scout. This was the one already hit by Tirica’s first shot. This close, she could see the man had suffered a broken collar bone from the bullet. He swayed, one hand on his chest while the other claw toward a pistol. Ilsa shot him in the hand. He screamed and lost his balance. He fell from the saddle and lost his pistol in the fall.

She turned toward the last two scouts. A shot rang out from Tirica, and one of them fell from the saddle. The other ducked her head and then dropped to the grass of the steppe below, dragging a redwood staff from her saddle in the process. She threw back her hood in a flash of strawberry blond hair. A submachine gun materialized in her hand.

Cass Kalteri trained the weapon on Ilsa.

“Hold your fire,” The red-haired priestess said through gritted teeth.

Ilsa stared at her. She heard herself yell to Tirica. “Stop shooting. We’ve won.”

Cass looked up at her from the ground. “I told you to be red. Should have known that wouldn’t be your problem, Ilsa.”

Trickles of blood ran down Ilsa’s forehead. More spattered cover her sleeves, with speckles of red on the shirt she had taken from Palend’s manor. She lowered her pistols, breathing hard.

“Cass. What are you doing here?”

“Looking for you, damn it.” Cass looked around at the fallen scouts. None of them moved, except for the blood leaving their wounds. Ilsa gasped for air. She had done this. Again, she had killed without care. Never mind that she had protested Tirica and Blue.

This kind of killing was always within her.

She nodded to Cass, feeling light-headed.

“Ilsa.” Cass looked toward Blue and the others. “If I’m correct about your mission, we need to go.”

“We?” Ilsa scowled. “Those days are long gone, Cass.”

“Maybe. But today, I’m here to help you. Just didn’t think I’d have to keep you from killing me first.”

Ilsa grimaced. “Let’s ride. You can explain why you’re here on the way.”

Tenlyres Chapter 9

Recap

Ilsa and Blue are on a mission to rescue the Keeper of Tenlyres from the onset of war. And war is near.
After encountering the thief and adventurer, Ferdinand Thoss, at the Palend Manor, the two of them have fallen behind the Red Lector’s forces who are still headed east. However, Ilsa learned the depth of Lord Palend’s enmity against the Red Lector from a message Palend sent to an Ayochian rearguard on the plain, addressing a mysterious ‘Gray Lector’.
They rested one night in the manor, but the longer they wait, the further they fall behind.

Previous Chapter

Cover

Morning light poured through the window of the manor house and fell onto the bed and woke Ilsa. She opened her eyes, felt the three fresh stitches in her leg were Ferdinand’s lance had cut her, and grimaced. He could have just punched her. On the other hand, the blood made her story to Lord Palend more convincing. She could hardly complain much. It had worked.

From what Ilsa could tell, Lord Palend trusted her more now than he had before. A pang of guilt ran through her stomach. But all of this was necessary.

One of Palend’s groundsmaids had bandaged her leg the previous afternoon and later made sure to change it before Ilsa slept. Ilsa climbed out of bed and glanced at the white bandages on her thigh. Fighting as a mercenary in Morhoi, an occupation where men and women were lucky to have a full single set of clothes, she had gotten used to being filthy. For the short term, she considered a cut a day for a bath a day a reasonable trade. She was no stranger to cuts and burns.

Ilsa walked toward the window where she had left her clothes. Her wounded leg twinged as she reached the chest of drawers. She dressed, but her leg’s nerves complained more and more as she did. Fully clothed, she buckled on her ammunition belt and walked to the door.

She stepped out into the hallway on the second floor. Hardwood gave a slight bounce under her step. A jolt of pain ran through leg from the wound in her thigh to the back of her knee. She grunted and shifted to lean against the wall plaster. Once the pain subsided she continued down the hall, ginger on her feet and one hand pressed to the wall for balance.

After limping down the stairs, she made her way to the dining room. The smell of cooking meat greeted her from the kitchen on the other side of the long hall that stretched along the Eastern outer wall of the mansion. Sunlight poured into the room and cast Lord Palend’s shadow from where he sat in his chair at he head of the long table.

He turned and smiled at Ilsa as she entered the room nearby him. “Good morning, priestess. How is your leg?”

She bowed her head to him. “It’s a bit painful. Looks like he may have cut deeper than I first thought.”

“Hopefully it’s not an infection.” Palend scowled. “I wouldn’t doubt the blackguard who did this does not keep his blades clean.”

“He is a weapon bond. I’m not entirely sure why, but once summoned, the weapon arrives completely clean.”

“Completely?” Palend raised his eyebrows.

“It would be difficult to find a more sanitary blade than one conjured through a bond.”

“Well, that is good, I suppose.” Palend shook his head. “How is your friend, the mind eater?”

“I haven’t seen her this morning.” However, Ilsa had told Blue the truth the previous day, before Lord Palend and the Suel’s returned from Fort Sardul, and after Ferdinand’s escape from the manor.

“I hope the Oshomi did not hurt her too badly.”

Ilsa shrugged. “She isn’t used to meeting another mind eater who can match her. Blue is very skilled in her art.” She knew what she said was true, but unimportant truths did not help her feel better about her lie to Lord Palend. However, he still had not mentioned the Gray Lector or his conversation with the Ayochian rearguard. Though he admitted to hating the Red Lector, supporting some sort of assassination attempt otherwise seemed beyond him.

“I see. You know, I’ve only met a few mind eaters in my life. And none from Chogrum.”

“They are the rarest form of magi, from what I understand. Chogrum trains more than Dal, but they’re colleges are almost unknown in Morhoi.”

“Interesting.” Palend drew in a deep breath through his nose and then sighed happily. “Well, it seems the lighter meat is about done.”

Ilsa sniffed, following the smell of the cooking meat. “Lighter meat? You eat them out here?”

“Why, of course. Our old generator here at the manor began to fail last winter, and once the new one arrived, I had the old one slaughtered. Of course, given the size of our generator, my staff and I have been eating the meat we from one lighter for over a year.”

Ilsa smiled. “I’ve never had lighter before. In Morhoi they have a taboo against it.”

“But you’re not from Morhoi.”

“I wasn’t preparing a lot of different kinds of meals either. On campaign, things get very stretched, even if you’re on the winning side.” Ilsa did not want to go into the other hardships of war, but if the Red Lector died Ayoch might well step in to fight Chogrum more seriously. “You were never a soldier, were you, Lord Palend?”

“Never,” said Palend. “But I’ve seen death on this plateau.”

Not enough death to keep you from plotting against an enemy, evidently, Ilsa thought. She limped to the table. A woman appeared from a door on the near wall behind Lord Palend’s seat, carrying a serving platter of steaming slices of meat that ranged from dark to light in color. The woman set the platter before Lord Palend, just in front of his own large dinner plate.

“Please, have a seat, priestess. I don’t believe Hathani forbids meat, am I correct?”

“True.” Ilsa pulled out the chair nearest Palend. She sank gratefully into the seat. “How can I refuse?”

From the passage behind Ilsa, a squeal of excitement announced Blue’s arrival. She stepped into the room wearing a long white dressing gown she must have borrowed from someone on Palend’s staff. “I knew I smelled lighter meat! Lord Palend, I would be infinitely grateful if you would supply me with a few slices of this delicacy. It has been years since I’ve had any!”

“Of course, of course.” Palend’s lined face split into a grin. “You seem far more excited than Priestess Barrett.”

“Never mind, Ilsa. She doesn’t know what she likes, and if she does, she seems set on denying it.” Blue walked to the table, grinning wide and sniffing at the air.

Ilsa grunted. “I know what I like.”

Blue pulled out a chair and sat down.

Palend called for two more plates. As the server brought out plates for Blue and Ilsa, Jia Suel marched into the room from the entrance leading to the front of the house. “Lord Palend,” she said. “Your other guests have arrived.”

“Ah, good.” Palend smiled. “Send them in.”

Ilsa looked at Blue in surprise, unable to keep the cold sense of fear from creeping down her spine. Could the Ayochian rearguard have made it to the manor so soon? Did that mean the Gray Lector, whoever that might be, was here too?

Palend chuckled. “Don’t look so alarmed, priestess. I have a feeling you are familiar with both of these guests. Blue told me you encountered my friend Lemuel and his sister on your way here.”

“Lemuel Chollush?” Ilsa could have laughed with relief, but held it in. “The scholar from Chogrum?”

“Indeed.” Palend smiled. “I made his acquaintance in the summer when he passing this point on his way west.” He turned to Jia. “Please, direct them in here. I’m sure they’ll appreciate the food as much as Blue.”

Blue laughed so loud, the server stepped back from her in surprise. “I doubt that they’ll match me, Lord Palend.”

“Perhaps not.” Palend shook his head.

Jia ducked out of the room, and then returned a few moments later with the Chollush’s following her.

Lemuel looked unruffled, especially for having traveled across the central plateau for at least another few days. Somehow, his pale face remained free of stubble and his long dark hair could have been washed that morning for all Ilsa could tell. He wore a coat as dark as his face was pale.

His shrunken right hand folded into his ordinary-sized right palm. He carried his two scroll cases on his belt, perhaps, Ilsa guessed, containing rolled data screens as well as rolls of paper for notes. A calligraphy box hung behind them on the belt.

Plant piles needed plants to interface with inside every device humans used to view the data stored in the genetic code of each one. Ilsa stood, though her bandaged leg twinged with pain, and turned toward Lemuel and his sister.

The younger Chollush looked almost as put together as her brother. She wore the same dark traveling clothes and black cloak and an empty holster on her hip. Her eyes flashed as she met Ilsa’s eyes. Their gazes locked.

Lemuel might be a scholar, but his sister fancied herself a killer. Ilsa did not like that in someone so young. Tirica did not break her gaze from Ilsa’s, stubborn eyes but with little else to indicate defiance.

The room was silent except for the sounds of Blue eating. Her fork scraped on the plate. A knife rasped as she carved a piece of meat.

“Ilsa Barrett.” Lemuel bowed low to Ilsa. “It is good to see you again, priestess.”

“And you, Lemuel.” Ilsa nodded to him and Tirica.

Lord Palend motioned to the table. “I see we are all acquainted. Sit, my friends. We have breakfast to eat.”

Lemuel smiled. Tirica turned toward Palend and dipped her head. “Thank you, Lord Palend.”

“Please, all of you, call me Chakeb. On this plain, as everywhere, the point of status and money is to do good, not demand respect.”

“With respect, Chakeb. That makes me less than comfortable,” said Lemuel.

“And you should know, that is no argument at all. Take a seat, my friend.” Palend laughed and waved at the table. Tirica and Lemuel followed his motion and walked around to the far side of the table and then sat down across from Ilsa and Blue. Palend turned to the server. “Two more plates, please.”

The server bowed and then bustled out of the room. Ilsa sat down again. She faced across the table at Tirica.

Lemuel coughed to clear his throat. “I regret to say this.” His Chogrumian accent seemed thicker as he slowed his voice. “I have to warn you, Chakeb, there is another Ayochian force heading this way. I don’t know their intentions though they fly the banners of the Red Lector.”

Lord Palend’s eyes widened slightly. “More Ayochians?” He frowned though he had already known about the Ayochians, being that he had sent them a message through his plant pile. “How are they traveling?”

“Armored vehicles,” said Lemuel, “A column of forty or fifty crawlers with some striders and runners as outriders. There must be at least five hundred soldiers, but there could be a lot more.”

“Could be twice as many, depending on the crawlers.” Ilsa glanced at Lemuel. “You’re sure they have crawlers?”

Tirica scowled at Ilsa. “My brother wears glasses, but he has eyes like you and me.”

Blue spoke through a mouthful of food. “She’s got you there.”

“Fair point.” Ilsa sat back and took a deep breath. “But that only makes our mission more urgent. If those crawlers get to the central Lyre first, the Oshomi will have to flee, and then who knows where they’ll take the Guardian of Tenlyres.”

“The Guardian of Tenlyres.” Tirica’s scowl darkened. “What’s so important about this person?”

“Sister—”

“I’m serious, Lemuel. Why bother protecting one person when there’s a way about to begin?”

Blue gulped down her food and frowned down at her empty plate.

“The Unification believes the Guardian of Tenlyres might have the divine authority to end a war, but that won’t happen if Ayoch captures the guardian.”

“The Unification is bullshit.”

Ilsa glared at Tirica. Blue looked up from her greasy plate with a grimace on her face.

Lemuel raised his good left hand. “Tirica—”

“No, Lemuel. They don’t have a real reason, just superstition.”

“You’re wrong.” Ilsa closed her eyes. “The Guardian is a powerful figure in Ayochian lore. Historically, the Lectors owe their existence to this place. Five Lectors. Ten Lyres. Each Lector is officially the protector of two Lyres, and Ayoch has always wanted to possess them, as well as the Guardian. If the Guardian pushes for peace, most of the Lectors will too. Without Ayoch’s support, Dal will want peace with Chogrum.”

“Lectors don’t rule Ayoch. The queen does.”

“Sister.”

“Lemuel—”

“No, this time, I know you’re wrong. Without the authority of the Lectors, even a supposedly divine monarch does not control the Ayochian people.” Lemuel took a deep breath and turned to Ilsa. “Please, Ilsa, let us help you get to the Guardian.”

“But brother, what about your research?”

“If there is a war the future could be at stake.” Lemuel sighed. “I do not usually like to admit this, but we have to live in the same world as everyone else, regardless of any knowledge we have of the past.”

Palend raised his eyebrows. “Lemuel, my young friend, you have grown since I last spoke to you.”

“I should hope so.” Lemuel looked down at his shrunken right side. “I have to make up for the things I cannot change, somehow.”

Palend nodded.

Lemuel turned to Ilsa. “Will you accept help from my sister and me?”

She frowned at him. Blue put a hand on Ilsa’s forearm. “We’ve fallen behind. We need all the help we can get.”

“You’re right.” Ilsa folded her hands beside her plate. “I don’t like to admit that, any more than you like to admit history isn’t anything, Lemuel.”

He smiled weakly at his sister.

Tirica shrugged. “I’ll protect you, whatever you choose, brother.”

“Thank you, Tirica.”

“Just tell me one thing,” said Tirica.

“Alright,” said Ilsa.

“Are you willing to kill for your mission, priestess?”

Ilsa’s eyes narrowed. The memory of killing the Oshomi rider during the fight near the Ninth Lyre returned, as did the numbness in her heart and mind that followed. She set her jaw. “I will do what I have to do.”

Tirica nodded. “Glad to hear it.”

Palend whistled. “You three are all so serious. If you want to reach my age, perhaps you should be more like Blue. Please, let us eat.”

Blue laughed. “I’ve been trying to tell Ilsa that all along, old man.”

“Blue,” Ilsa muttered.

“Just accept something for once.” Blue burped. “Enjoy yourself.”

Ilsa rolled her eyes but refused to argue. “We have to leave later today,” she said, “but for now, I’ll try to relax.” She dished up a slice of lighter meat with her fork. She took a knife and carved the food for her breakfast.

Tenlyres Chapter 8

 

Recap
Ilsa and Blue are on a mission to rescue the Keeper of Tenlyres from the onset of war. And war is near.
After a skirmish with the Oshomi, Ilsa and Blue have returned to Palend Manor to recover their strength.
When they arrived at the manor, Ilsa discovered the thief, Ferdinand Thoss had broken in, and was siphoning money from Lord Palend’s account through a plant pile. Ferdinand and Ilsa find that Lord Palend has been in contact with the Red Lector’s general, Boraij Kanan as well as a mysterious figure known as the Gray Lector.
Ilsa has decided to lie to Lord Palend about her encounter with Ferdinand in order to secure shelter at the manor until Blue can recover from a mind eater attack.

Previous Chapter

A hundred Oshomi riders circled the scouts at a distance, and then charged towards the Red Lector’s column. Kaij shouted an order and the scouts turned their steeds to ride back toward the main column. Ilsa and Blue rode with them.

Her heartbeat accelerated as first shot cut the air, a single echoing clap from somewhere near the column. She could not tell who had opened up first, the Ayochians or the Oshomi. In the next moment, the resounding crack of the first shot was lost in the roars of the fusillade that followed.

Bolts of electricity shot from a few Oshomi, the ones who carried lances with straight metal prongs instead of angled points. Those lightning catchers rode ahead of the rest of the nomads. The sound of their weapons rumbled across the plain. Men and striders pitched to the ground from within the Red Lector’s formation.

Ilsa grimaced and clenched her branded right hand. She drew her submachine gun from within the bond. Her hands worked automatically and she loaded the forty round magazine under the weapon’s sleek barrel. All of this without Hailek breaking his stride.

The sound of gunfire and thunderclaps died away for an instant as the Oshomi skirted along the hastily forming lines of the Red Lector’s forces. Ilsa and Blue on their striders fell behind the accelerating runners of the scouts, but they made it to within a hundred meters from the head of the column before the shooting resumed.

Uniformed and armored Ayochian soldiers on light striders still taller than horses, returned fired on the Oshomi. They lacked the thundering lances wielded by Oshomi lightning catchers but made up for the absence of the terrifying weapons with sheer numbers and the discipline of their engineered steeds. The blue and red line wavered along its length, but at no point did it break.

In the lead of the scouts, the Red Lector’s sons outpaced even the others on runner-back. Ilsa watched Kaij level a rifle as he drew alongside the front his father’s troops. He slowed his steed and fired. An Oshomi lightning catcher who had been lining up a shot on the Red Lector’s command party fell from the saddle.

Yunn pressed his palms together and the ground rapidly iced over beneath the hooves of a group of galloping nomad horses. The animals whinnied in surprise, skidded, and several of them fell.

The other scouts began to catch up with Kaij and Yunn. They readied guns and slowed their runners. Another great shout went up from the Oshomi, and half the riders swept around in a ring to encircle the Red Lector’s command party at the front of the column. The Ayochian line behind the Red Lector’s group broke.

Ilsa turned in her saddle to follow the path of some dozen more Oshomi stringing themselves out to attack the scouts at the head of the column. She raised her submachine gun and traced the route of the lead rider, a big woman who almost casually fitted an arrow to her towering bow at full gallop. Ilsa flicked her weapon’s selector to semiautomatic, to improve her aim and not waste bullets.

She looked down the iron sights of the machine gun. The lead rider loosed an arrow toward Ilsa and her steed. Ilsa drove her heels into Hailek’s flanks. The strider lurched forward. He grunted as the arrow slashed across the back of his head and made blood flow into his mane from a cut behind his ear. Ilsa did now want to shoot, but she knew in that moment she would not have the choice for long.

Wind whistled in her ears, audible even over the sound of screams and shots and thunder. She squeezed the trigger. She smelled the powder ignite inside her weapon.

Speed of movement. Judged by sight.

Distance. Estimated with precision.

Cover. Nonexistent.

Only the shifting steppe winds could interfere. Half of Ilsa would not have been surprised if the Oshomi had the wind on her side.

Wind or no wind, the rider tumbled from her saddle. Ilsa trusted the aim her father had taught her those years ago when he had first branded her to bind her weapons to her spirit. The woman she had shot would not rise, thanks to the bullet in her heart.

“Hathani keep you,” murmured Ilsa. She turned Hailek toward Blue. The sound of the battle faded into the background as her friend met her gaze.

Blue nodded to her.

Ilsa shivered. She had taken another life. All too quick. Far too easy. She rode toward the Red Lector’s troops.

Blue’s eyes lost their focus as she devoured the courage of the Oshomi riders behind Ilsa. The string of riders that been trying to outflank the scouts broke and retreated from the battle. Ilsa watched them go, numb to the scene.

Ahead of her, she glimpsed Ozleji Sammhar, the Lectoral Protector trained by Ilsa’s father, brandish a massive hand cannon of a pistol in one fist as he hefted an ornate shotgun in the other. The fanged visor of his helm was down, hiding his face. The few Oshomi who had closed with the Lector’s command party lay broken and bloody on the ground before him, shredded by shot along with their horses.

Some Oshomi were still close by, but all of them were in retreat.

Blue turned to Ilsa. “I’d say this was the battle he talked about.”

“Yeah.” Ilsa lowered her machine gun to her side and flexed her free hand. “Let’s get out of here.”

Blue nodded. Then she flinched. A tremor ran through her whole frame. She swayed in the saddle.

“Blue?” Ilsa asked.

Blue grimaced. “There’s a mind eater here.” Sweat ran along her brow. “Whoever it is, is taking a swing at me. No problem. I can handle—” Her last word became a scream of pain. She shuddered and then slid sideways.

Ilsa reabsorbed her machine gun and urged Hailek sideways. She caught Blue before she could fall completely from her saddle. Her friend looked up at her face with dull eyes.

“Shit.” Ilsa’s grip on Blue’s shoulders tightened.

“That’s what I was gonna say.” Blue went limp, but her heartbeat remained audible.

Ilsa pulled her friend sideways onto Hailek’s saddle, then grabbed the reins of Blue’s strider. She glanced in the direction of the Red Lector, then down at her friend’s slack face. She turned the two striders back toward Palend’s Manor.

“Just a few kilometers,” she said to Blue. “I’ll get you some help.”

 

Ilsa supported Blue along the front of the saddle as the two of them rode through the gates of Palend’s Manor. Blue’s strider loped in behind them. Her friend looked up at the great house as they entered the yard. At first, Ilsa thought Blue was still unconscious because she had thrashed and shifted at different times on the ride back.

Then Blue said, “This place again?”

“Yeah.” Ilsa sighed. “At least, they aren’t shooting at us this time.” The stitched wound in her shoulder throbbed as a reminder of their last entrance to the building.

She halted Hailek and in the yard, a few meters from the front of the house. “Can you get down from here?” she asked Blue.

“Sure. Don’t worry about me.” Blue twisted her waist and then lurched into a sitting position. “Don’t worry.”

“Excuse me if I do.”

“No thanks. You gotta relax a little. Some Oshomi mind eater just dropped a bomb in my mind. I’ve done that to too many other people to whine now.”

Ilsa grunted and swung her legs over one side of the saddle. She dropped the line and descended it to the ground.

She looked around the yard and found no sign of any people or even the metal sentries that had greeted them last time. With Oshomi forces clashing with the Red Lector only a few kilometers to the east, Palend may have ordered most of his people inside, or they might be sheltering at Fort Sardul, not far away.

Blue groaned and started to climb down the line from Hailek’s back. Ilsa waited below, looking upward, ready to catch her friend if she slipped.

The wind whistled over the walls. Ilsa scanned the parapets from the inside. She finally spotted a shape, barely humanoid, on one wall, looking east. One of Palend’s plant-brained metal guards, she could tell from the silhouette. Everyone else seemed to be indoors if they were in the manor at all. But someone had opened the gates for them.

Ilsa frowned and glanced back toward the gatehouse. A man with long hair and ballistic armor stepped out from the gatehouse, all too familiar. Ferdinand Thoss, a man the Chollushes had called a dangerous bandit, looked down from the wall at Ilsa and Blue in the yard. Ilsa frowned up at him, one question circling in her mind.

What is he doing here?

Blue struggled to the bottom of the line. She slumped against Hailek’s leg. “Who is that?”

“The grave robber from the Western Lyre.” Ilsa shook her head. “Somethings wrong.”

“Definitely.” Blue grimaced and sank to the ground, still pressing against Hailek’s leg. The strider paid her no attention.

“Blue,” said Ilsa. “I’m gonna go talk to him.”

“Be careful. He has a weapon bond.” Blue grimaced. “And I’m not exactly up for stopping him.”

“I’ll see what he’s doing here. Hopefully, it won’t come to that.” She began to march back toward the wall. She considered producing one of her guns, but she had already taken one life today. Blood she had not even truly seen with her own eyes now spread across the steppe grass beside the Ninth Lyre. Ilsa stopped a few yards from the gatehouse.

She looked up at the spot where Ferdinand stood. He met her eyes. “Priestess Barrett,” he called. “It’s good to see you again.” His gaze shifted to the garden on the south side of the manor house where black-trunked trees completely unnatural to the steppe stood, cultivated by Lord Palend and his servants.

Ilsa returned her eyes to Ferdinand’s face. “I hope I can say the same. What are you doing here?”

“I’m a guest of the old lord of this manor. Besides, I hoisted this gate for you and your mind eater, so shouldn’t you be grateful?” The corners of his lips turned upward in a small smile. “What ever happened to not looking a gift-horse in the mouth?”

Ilsa glanced at the gates, still standing open. Something was off about what Ferdinand said, and he was Chogrumian despite the traces of Morhoen ancestry she guessed he had in his past, judging from his unusual facial features.

“That a Chogrumian saying?”

“Nah,” said Ferdinand. “But when you grow up on a farm you get used to the concept.”

“A bad gift is a bad gift.” Ilsa grunted. “You still heading east?”

“That I am.” Ferdinand paced along the top of the wall. “Charming though you are, I have a feeling I should leave sometime today.”

“Oh? Could it be you aren’t as welcome here as you said before?”

“What an odd accusation. I assure you, priestess, I am in good stead with the lord of this manor.”

“Interesting. His servants didn’t want to trust Blue just because of her accent.”

“Interesting is right. Pr-priestess. Y-you have c-cut right to the h-heart of th-this.” His stutter grew obvious despite his apparent attempt to suppress it. Ilsa recalled the way he had muddled his speech back at the Western Lyre when upset.

She clenched her hand to produce a pistol, just in case. Once she opened her hand she would be armed, but she hesitated. Ferdinand stared at her for a moment. His eyes narrowed for an instant, then he bolted along the wall that encircled the manor, heading toward the garden.

Ilsa cursed. She opened her fingers and then locked the gun that appeared in her hand in a tight grip. She swiped a magazine from her belt and loaded the pistol, but did not thumb off the safety until she hit her stride. Her finger hovered outside the trigger guard as she ran.

Ferdinand did not look back. About ten meters from the garden he dropped into a low crouch, still moving at a high pace. A sound like a tree branch whipping against stone rang through the air. In Ferdinand’s next stride he leaped off the parapet, gripping a wooden javelin in each of his fists. He launched farther than would be possible for an ordinary human. He flew into the garden of gnarled black trees and vanished from Ilsa’s view even with the branches bare from winter.

Ilsa looked after him with a grimaced, but kept her pace up and ran toward the garden. Her heartbeat became loud to her as she reached the tree line on the outside of the dense copse at the center of the plot of cultivated soil.

She searched between the trees with her eyes, seeking any sign of Ferdinand. Evidently the large lance with the basket guard was not the only weapon he had bonded to him. At range her guns should have a significant advantage over his javelins though the small spears were designed to be thrown, so he would not be completely defenseless.

Best to be careful. If Ferdinand was sneaking around the manor, where were Palend and his servants? Had he hurt them?

Ilsa took a deep breath. It did little to slow her heart. Good, because I may need the adrenaline if he has any more tricks up his sleeve. She stalked to one black tree trunk and then pressed her back against it. The smells of fertilizer, moss, and fungus mingled in her nose.

Ferdinand’s soft footsteps crunched slowly over the stiff grass and traces of snow and moved toward the center of the copse of trees in the garden. Then his footsteps stopped. “W-well, th-this could be inconvenient. I’m gonna need new boots.”

Ilsa peered around the tree trunk. Ferdinand paced around one side of a plant pile where it emerged from the earth in a clearing at the center of the garden. The pile looked like a mound of dark green bulbs piled about a meter over the ground, but with small tendrils creeping out and upward, reaching toward the pale sun. Behind the pile, a fuzzy white mountain shifted.

The heavier sound of a strider rumbled to Ilsa’s ears as Ferdinand’s steed stood up from behind the pile, shocking white against the deep green bulbs and yellowish tendrils of the plant pile. Ferdinand reabsorbed his bonded javelins into his bare feet and then patted the strider’s side with an open palm.

Ilsa held her breath and watched him reach up and take a tablet from a saddlebag that hung down his strider’s white flank. He knelt down beside the pile and extended the connector pin from the tablet. He turned to look over his shoulder. Ilsa darted back behind the tree. She took the pistol she held in both hands and double-checked the safety. It was still locked. She thumbed it off but kept her finger off the trigger.

He might be quick to draw, but judging by his movements earlier, she was faster.

She stepped out from behind the tree trunk, barrel of the pistol down. “Ferdinand Thoss.” She walked forward with careful, deliberate steps. “What are you doing?”

Ferdinand looked up from his tablet with a start. He turned toward Ilsa with a grimace on his face. “I’m checking up on Lord Palend. Looks like he’s been busy networking.”

“Networking?”

“Yes, quite a bit of networking.” Ferdinand’s eyes moved to the gun in Ilsa’s grip. “I think you may interested in this.”

Ilsa scowled. “So you’ve hacked into his connection logs?”

“It’s not difficult to do if you know where to look.” Ferdinand bowed his head. “Ilsa, you may want to hear this.”

“Alright.” She took another step toward him. “What’s interesting?”

“Lord Palend contacted an animal pile on the plains west of here this morning. Turns out, that plant pile is registered to some Ayochian General called Boraij Kanan.”

“General Kanan.” Ilsa remembered the heavyset angry man in the Red Lector’s command tent the night before. She frowned. “But he’s already riding east with the Red Lector.” She walked to Ferdinand’s side and looked down at the tablet he crouched before.

He nodded. “The message is to his second in command, some captain whats-his-name. Who cares? The message was to be relayed to the General, according to the log.”

“What did he say?” Ilsa peered down at the screen.

“Not so fast.” Ferdinand quickly shifted to hide the screen from Ilsa with his back. “I want you to promise to let me go before I share.”

“That depends. Why were you here in the first place? Something tells me you didn’t come here to help me spy on the Red Lector’s general.”

Ferdinand took a deep breath. “Maybe Chollush was right about me being a thief. I’m here to skim some funds from Palend’s account before I head east. Dalite credit can be useful in Chogrum, you know.”

Ilsa frowned. “I believe you. If it’s just money, I can let you go.”

“Good.” Ferdinand smiled. “You’re very reasonable, especially for a priestess.”

“Don’t push your luck.”

“Alright. Alright.” He shifted so she could see the tablet.

She read the transcription of the digital message from the screen. Her lips began to murmur the words as her gaze moved down the screen.

“General Kanan should know that I have his back against the Red Lector. When the time comes I will see Haram beaten, one way or another. Tell him I’m happy with his performance last night, and I think I played my part for Haram to put more trust in him. I may not pay homage to your religion but you may trust my alliance with your Gray Lector. One last thing. Be careful should you choose to move too soon. An honor bound priestess of Hathani is traveling with Haram at the moment. I have a feeling she may interfere though I cannot fully predict her actions. Please inform the general. Respectfully yours, Lord Chakeb Palend.”

Ilsa scowled. “Lord Palend is working with the general? But he threatened to kill Palend last night.”

“The performance, perhaps?”

“Looks like it. The general must have been faking.”

“But he connected with someone who worked for a Gray Lector. Ayoch has five high-up Lectors, right? Each one named for a color?”

“Yeah.” Ilsa’s breath caught and she paused with realization. “But none of them are called Gray.”

“Yeah,” said Ferdinand. “Looks like they’re planning something against the Red one.” He yanked the pin from the plants, leaving a small hole in the bulb he had stabbed to access the memory of the pile. Without information to process, the tablet’s screen immediately went blank, showing the pattern of a leaf beneath the glass cover. He stuffed the device into his saddle bag and turned to Ilsa. “Time to go. Good luck.”

“Thanks,” she said.

“Thank you, priestess. Hope your friend is alright.”

Ilsa nodded. “Blue should be fine. But she’ll need a day or two of rest. I was hoping Palend would let us stay here.”

“Then you’ve got one more problem. Thanks to his sentry’s logs, Palend’s gonna notice I was here, even if you let me go.”

She frowned at him. “Do you have any ideas?”

He nodded to her. “If you look like you tried to stop me, he’ll definitely let you stay.”

“You’re right.” She clenched the grip of her pistol against her palm brand.

“We’ll look like we fought.” He extended one arm away from his steed. “That work for you?”

She frowned. Deceiving Palend would not have felt good just an hour ago, but he had deceived her and Blue, if only for an apparent personal vendetta against the Red Lector. She took a deep breath and then nodded to Ferdinand.

He smiled. “Good doing business with you.” He produced the steel lance in a flash. The edge of the blade sliced along her outer thigh.

Ilsa gasped with pain and thrust her arm out. She fired her pistol skyward. The gunshot roared and Ferdinand’s lanced slipped back into his bond. He leaped onto his steed and rode out of the garden and toward the gateway.

She looked down at her leg. Blood ran from the cut in her slashed pants, shallow, but painful. She swayed, dizzy, and then started to limp after Ferdinand. She would tell Blue the truth, and they would make plans on how best to talk with Lord Palend. She blinked at the pain and kept limping forward.