Under the piled blankets, the bodythief formerly known as Darilan Trevere opened her eyes.
Someone else was in the room.
She knew who it must be, and her hand slid under the flattened pillow to pull Serindas surreptitiously free. The akarriden blade kindled in her grip, its hunger scathing along her nerves; it had been a while since she’d fed it. Since the Forest of Mists.
She wanted to forget that, wanted to wake in the morning still pretending to be the laundress whose body she had taken. Sometimes the woman’s personality bubbled up in the back of her head, her soul still only half-digested, and the bodythief thought she could adapt to that lifestyle, that persona. Walk away from the years of espionage and killing.
But now he’d shown up. Her scheming lunatic of a maker.
She heard him approach the bed. The distortion that had woken her was a portal, which meant that he’d been observing her; mages couldn’t open portals to places they hadn’t seen. At that thought, anger brushed aside the sullen obstinacy that had kept her in bed.
When she sensed him leaning over her, she attacked.
The akarriden blade cut through the blankets as if through air, and a glitter of blue light fell around her like silent shards of glass: his arcane ward. Serindas guided her as she blindly thrust herself from the bed, twisting out of the tangles of cloth. Another blue ward burst, and his footsteps retreated.
Then a great hand of force caught her up and slammed her to the wall.
The breath fled her lungs. The last blanket fell away and she saw the room from above; she was pinned almost at the ceiling, her socked feet kicking far over the bed, nightgowned buttocks jammed against the top edge of the shuttered window.
Her assailant stood with one gloved hand clenched around thin air, holding her in place by proxy; she could feel the invisible threads of his power cold on her skin. The only light in the room came from Serindas and the portal: a shimmering doorway in the far corner that showed a slice of laboratory space, all black basalt and frosted glass. Despite the dimness, the man’s shallow-water eyes glittered in his white face, and he smiled that detestable smile at her—the thin smile that only touched one corner of his mouth. “Good morning, Vedaceirra. You look well.”
“Enkhaelen,” she hissed. The akarriden blade pulled at her hand like a hound on a leash.
“That would be ‘Inquisitor Archmagus’ to you, my dear,” said Enkhaelen, and released her with a flick of his hand.
She fell from the wall and hit the hard pallet of the bed in a crouch, snarling. The blade told her to lunge, but Enkhaelen had stepped out of range; no move she could make would bridge the distance fast enough to keep him from reacting.
Enkhaelen adjusted the cuffs of his black outer-robe casually, the silver thread in his gloves and sleeves glimmering with its own subtle light. He was the same as he’d always been: a small man, slim, clad in black and deep-blue robes that seemed outsized, his inky hair unruly, his scar-split right brow sardonically uplifted. It was a sight she had detested for forty-five years.
“So, what are you calling yourself now?” he said.
She didn’t want to answer, but had learned to pick her battles with him. His calm demeanor hid a capricious cruelty, and resistance brought that side out fast. “Dasira,” she muttered.
“Going back to your roots? But not the full Vedaceirra.”
“Well, as long as you don’t make yourself obvious. We wouldn’t want Cobrin to figure you out the moment you walk up to him.”
“He’s out of the woods. I’m putting you back into play.”
Dasira’s mouth went dry, knuckles whitening around Serindas’ hilt. “You can’t make me.”
“Of course I can. Do you really want to deliver that kind of challenge?”
No, I want to slit your piking throat.
But she couldn’t say that. Enkhaelen would just laugh, then demonstrate the power he had over her. She didn’t need a reminder.
What she needed even less was to be sent against Cob again. Now that he’d embraced the Dark spirit of the Guardian, he was lost to her—and ‘Darilan’ was dead to him. There was nothing she could do. “Find someone else to carry out your dirty work,” she spat.
“Oh, I already have.”
That was like a punch to the chest. A knot formed in her throat—too many emotions too tangled to define. “Who?” she said, eyes narrowed.
“Why don’t you go and find out?”
Enkhaelen cut her off with a raised hand. “Dasira, I’m not sending you to kill your friend. I’m not a fool. I need you to protect Cobrin the same as you always have. The same as I’d always intended you to do. Have I ever asked you to harm him?”
Dasira swallowed thickly, the akarriden blade tugging in her grip. The past swarmed her: those five years spent guarding an orphaned slave-boy, feeling all the time like she was rearing a calf for slaughter because she knew he was the bait for a trap—a cage to imprison the Guardian so that it could be destroyed for the good of the Empire. The pressure had finally snapped her and she had chased him from the Army, into the Heretic Lands to meet his fate.
And then Enkhaelen and the Crimson General had sent her after him.
She didn’t want to remember the pursuit, the fights, the red gouges Serindas had opened in his flesh. The pain on his face as he’d brought the broken sword down. As she’d let him.
“No, you didn’t ask me,” she said tightly. “You ordered me.”
“I ordered you to retrieve him. You betrayed me by trying to kill him. But I’m willing to forgive that,” said Enkhaelen, gesturing dismissively. “What I really want is for him to talk to me.”
Dasira stared at him in disbelief.
“I know he won’t,” Enkhaelen continued. “Not yet. He’s angry about some nonsense, just like you, and he’s likely to swallow a lot more nonsense very soon. I can’t show up and expect him to be civil, the way I apparently can’t show up without you attempting to kill me. Which I don’t begrudge, by the way. It keeps things exciting. So I would like you to be his bodyguard, and my emissary.”
I told Lark something like that, she thought. Look how that turned out. Left for dead, and she stole all my stuff.
She kept staring. After a moment of looking expectant, Enkhaelen frowned. “What?”
“You want me…to get him to talk to you.”
“More or less. Make him aware that I mean him no harm.”
“You know I hate you, right?”
“Then why—“ she started, then stopped herself as she realized her voice was pitching up toward a shout. The laundress’s apartment had reasonably thick walls, but there were still neighbors around her, and she could do this calmly. She was almost certain of it.
“My dear,” he said into her silence, “I find your honesty refreshing and your resistance both false and futile. If I only worked with those who liked me, I would have quit at age five—and I notice that you’ve neither tried to escape nor forced my hand. Like it or not, you want this job.” He smiled slightly and added, “It’s entertaining to watch you wriggle on your own hook.”
Her thoughts went incoherent with rage. She leapt for him and hit his wards—smooth solid half-spheres of blue energy—and Serindas pierced through six nested layers of them in one strike. If the quillons hadn’t hit the scattering shards, the blade might have gone further.
The tip stopped just short of Enkhaelen’s cheek. An instant later, she was falling upward. Plaster puffed out around her as she slammed into the ceiling, then was wrenched back down.
She tried to put her legs beneath her but had no time. The one knee she got in place blazed with agony as she slammed down on it, the joints strained near to snapping. Her forehead bounced off the floor and she saw white stars, felt her stomach try to lunge up her throat. It took a few moments of concentrated not-puking for her to realize that she had been released.
She lifted her head, panting, and saw that Enkhaelen had once again taken what distance he could in the small, sparse room. He stood by the wood stove, its embers almost dead behind the grate, but what would have been an opportunity with another opponent—a chance to slam someone’s face to the hot metal—would be lunacy against him. He was the Archmagus of Energies. Fire, lightning, all forms of raw power were his playthings.
The fury died. In its place was the old familiar lump of bitter iron. Inescapable servitude.
Someone banged on the floor from below, and Enkhaelen snorted. “Ah, neighbors. Won’t you be happy to get away from that?”
She regained her feet awkwardly, right knee throbbing. The akarriden blade urged her forward, but she tossed it on the bed instead. On her left arm, the black bracer clenched, and a tingling numbness rushed through her as the anesthetics hit her bloodstream. A moment later, something jerked back into place in her knee, and she straightened.
“Direct me, maker,” she said hollowly, hating the words. Hating him.
He crooked a finger, and she approached with all the obedience she could muster. The thought of grabbing the fire-poker and turning his head into a bloody mess came and went.
“I brought this for you,” he said, drawing a glinting object from an inner pocket of his robe: a tiny metal stud with a cabochon black jewel set in it. “For communication purposes. I’m sure you’ve worn such things before. Turn your head.”
She did so, realizing when he leaned close that she was shorter by several inches. That was typical of him, stuffing her into a body he could tower over, but while it rankled, it was not as discomfiting as it would be with her other superiors. Enkhaelen had never been one to take advantage of such things. His touch was clinical as he gripped her by the ear, fingers icy even through the glove, and she suppressed her instinct to reach up and break his wrist. He pressed the stud to her earlobe, and she winced at the sudden searing pain. Then it was gone and he let go, and she stepped back and glared.
“There,” he said. “Now as long as you don’t lose your ear somewhere, I’ll be able to contact you. And if you do lose your ear… Well. Don’t think that will shake me.”
She fingered the stud carefully. It was flush to the skin, and she felt no thrum of magic, but like Enkhaelen had said, she’d used such things before. Most recently in the Shadowland of Bahlaer, to call in reinforcements for Cob’s capture—though that hadn’t turned out well. “Is it two-way?”
“For communication yes, activation no. I have better things to do than let you whine at me whenever you please.”
She rolled her eyes, annoyed. Now that she had accepted the job, impatience set in. Enkhaelen had always been the most difficult of her superiors to work for. “Then how am I supposed to—“
“I’ll contact you periodically. I’m sure you can hold your own against the usual mishaps.”
“All right, then where the pike is he?”
“Cantorin, on the Wyndish-Amandic border. Here is traveling money.” He plucked a pouch from his robe and tossed it at her, and she caught it neatly. “I glimpsed him when he left the woods, but then the Guardian took over, so I’m counting on you now.”
“And how am I supposed to fool the Guardian?” The very thought sent a nervous frisson up her back.
“I don’t expect that you will. But good luck!”
With a jaunty wave, the Inquisitor Archmagus stepped through the portal and collapsed it behind himself. Dasira scowled at the empty wall, then turned on her heel. She had to weed through the laundress’s belongings and pack, figure out how to get to Cantorin and find Cob, decide what to say when she saw him…
Decide whether or not to just stab herself with Serindas right now.
Piking maniac, she thought. And he didn’t even tell me who else he was sending.
Light help me, some day I will kill him.