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.
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?”
“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.”
“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.”
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.