Gin was growling deep in his throat. Miranda reached down and pinched him, hard, but that only sent the growl deeper into the dog’s chest and did nothing at all for the predatory glare the ghosthound fixed on the overdressed man riding in front of them. She pinched him one more time, then gave up, flopping forward against the prickly fur of the dog’s neck. The growling had been going on for nearly two weeks, but she couldn’t really blame Gin. She would growl at Sparrow too if she had the throat for it. Traveling with the man was insufferable.
“He’s too slow,” Gin mumbled through his long, clenched teeth. “He packs like an idiot, can barely set up a camp, wakes up too late, and he eats too much.”
“Why are you still complaining?” Miranda said. “It didn’t help yesterday; it didn’t help two weeks ago. What makes you think it’ll help now?”
“We’d have been there last week if that fool didn’t take two hours every morning getting his clothes right.” Gin’s fur bristled. “We’re in the middle of nowhere and that idiot acts like he’s going to a party every night. And he won’t stop flickering.” The dog shook himself. “If looking at him didn’t make me feel ill I’d eat him just to make it stop.”
Miranda rolled her eyes. That again. She’d stopped pressing the dog for an explanation of Sparrow’s “flickering” days ago, but getting him to stop complaining about it was like asking him to stop growling—impossible. She sat up again, looking over Gin’s ears at the path they’d been following since yesterday. Sparrow was well ahead of them, guiding his nervous horse between the thick trees like a Zarin dandy leading a shy partner through a new and intricate dance. He was certainly dressed the part. His plumed hat, orange silk coat, and chocolate-brown trousers tucked into gold-tooled boots would have been at home in any Zarin ballroom. Here in the ragged woods of the mountain foothills he looked like a misplaced tropical bird.
Gin shook his head, and the growling was back, stronger than ever. “Tell me again why we can’t just leave him in the woods.”
“Because as Sara’s second, he’s the highest-ranking Council official we’ve got,” Miranda said. “And he has all the papers we need to bribe Izo. Trust me, I would have left him at the Zarin gate if I’d thought we could get away with it.”
“Sara would have done better to send more like the other man,” Gin said. “Save us all some time.”
Miranda agreed. The morning they left Zarin Miranda had been met at the gate by Sparrow and another, a man who called himself Tesset. She had no idea if that was his last name or his first, maybe neither. Sara’s goons seemed to be one-name-only kind of people. Unlike Sparrow, however, Tesset had shown up in sturdy travel clothes, a long, brown coat and worn-in boots, and carrying a small pack. She’d been a little concerned that he had arrived with no horse, but she’d found out quickly that the lack of a mount didn’t hinder him. The man could run forever, and Sparrow’s pace wasn’t exactly breathtaking.
Right now, however, he was nowhere to be seen. That wasn’t unusual. Tesset tended to disappear for hours, running ahead to scout the area and keep them on track. Miranda appreciated his skill, but his excursions meant she was alone with Sparrow and the inane conversations he started every few hours. If Tesset didn’t vanish without a word every morning, Miranda would have insisted on scouting with him just for a break.
Gin’s growling hitched, and Miranda looked up to see that Sparrow had stopped. A moment later, she saw why. Tesset was standing beside him, his dull, brown clothes and short, brown hair blending in with the undergrowth. Miranda smiled and nudged Gin forward. She didn’t care if he’d come back to report they were about to be eaten by cannibals; any break in the monotony was welcome.
The two men stopped talking as she approached, and Sparrow’s horse began its terrified dancing that always occurred whenever Gin was closer than ten feet.
“Ah, Miranda,” Sparrow said, getting his horse under control with some difficulty. “Splendid timing. Tesset here was just informing me that we’re closing in on our destination.”
“Two miles straight ahead,” Tesset said, reaching out with a calm, strong hand to grab Sparrow’s horse before it threw him. “We’ve been passing his watchposts for the last two days, so we should be getting a welcome soon.”
“Two days?” Miranda said, glancing around at the deep woods. “I haven’t seen anything.”
“You wouldn’t,” Tesset said. “Unless you knew where to look.”
“Spoken like a true expert,” Sparrow said, leaning over his now subdued horse’s neck. “Tesset here is the closest legal thing you’ll find to a guide for this area.”
Miranda gave Tesset a curious look, and he shrugged his broad shoulders. “I grew up around here,” he said simply. “Of course, that was back when these hills were nothing but a patchwork of ragged gangs, before Izo pulled them all together. In a strange way, Izo’s made it easier for us. If things were still the way they were in the old days, we would have had to bribe half a dozen petty bandit lords by now.”
“The benefits of unified government are myriad for all walks of life,” Sparrow said with a sigh.
Miranda ignored him. “How did Izo do it?” she asked. “Pull the gangs together, I mean. Have there been other bandit kings?”
“None like Izo,” Tesset said, shaking his head. “There’ve been a few leaders whose gangs got pretty big, but nothing on Izo’s level. Right from the start, Izo was smart as well as strong, very charismatic, and, most important, ruthless. He raided other bandits as much as he raided the Council, and eventually there was no one left strong enough to stand up to him. No one knows exactly how many men he controls, but considering the reports from the border towns, I’d say at least five thousand fighting troops, maybe more. Anyway”—he turned and started walking again—“we’ll see for ourselves in a moment. He’s already sent a welcoming party.”
Miranda scowled. “How do you—”
“He’s right,” Gin said, pricking his ears up. “Men and horses approaching from the north.” He gave Tesset a respectful look. “That man must have ghosthound ears to hear that.”
“Or advanced knowledge,” Miranda murmured. “Keep on guard.”
Gin nodded and they began to follow Tesset, who was still dragging Sparrow’s horse by the reins, down the path. Miranda sat high on Gin’s neck, straining to catch the jingle of approaching horses, but all she heard were birdcalls and the wind in the trees overhead. After several hundred feet, Tesset stopped again and stood in the center of the path, waiting. Gin’s ears were swiveling madly, but to Miranda the forest was achingly silent. She was about to lean down and ask the hound what he heard when the men stepped out from behind the trees.
There were too many to count. The forest was suddenly full of men dressed in drab colors, sitting on their horses like they’d been waiting. Though no glint of metal showed at their hips or boots or anywhere else knives were generally kept, Miranda was sure they were armed to the teeth and would show it well enough if provoked, and she kept a firm hand on Gin’s fur. Tesset and Sparrow, however, looked perfectly calm, even a little bored by the men’s sudden appearance. They waited patiently until the oldest of the bandits, a tall, lanky man with prematurely gray hair, nudged his horse forward.
“Welcome, strangers,” the man said, his voice thick with a coarse, mountain accent that turned words into gravel. “What brings you so bold into King Izo’s trees?”
“Diplomacy, good sir,” Sparrow said, his words dripping with politeness. “We seek an audience with your master, and his trees seemed a good place to start.”
“Audience, eh?” The bandit scratched his scarred chin. “And what does a peacock like you want from the king of bandits? We already got a fool.”
This raised a huge laugh from the men, but Sparrow’s smile only deepened. “It’s Sparrow, actually, and I come on behalf of the Council of Thrones to make your master a very generous offer.”
“Generous?” The bandit’s eyebrows shot up. “Now I know you’re lying. The Council don’t know the meaning of the word, not without a hook wrapped inside. Why don’t you save our time and your skin and just tell us the catch now, before we string you up for the crows?”
“Nothing would delight me more,” Sparrow said. “But my offer is for Izo’s ears alone.”
The bandit gave him a long, hard look, then shrugged. “Your death wish, pretty bird. Follow us.”
The bandits turned and started into the woods, falling into a loose circle around Miranda, Sparrow, and Tesset. Their formation was ragged, and Miranda got the feeling they were used to riding much closer around prisoners, but several of the horses were already wide-eyed being so close to Gin, and the bandits weren’t taking any chances. As they rode, Miranda could see how the bandits had snuck up on them. Every bit of their tack, from the bridles to the stirrups and even their horses’ hooves, was wrapped in wool cloth to make no sound. They rode in absolute silence, communicating through hand movements when they talked at all. In answer, Gin began to creep as well, matching their silence as though it were a competition. Tesset was also silent, his boots soundless on the leaf-strewn ground. By contrast, Sparrow was garishly noisy, his heavy bags and flashy tack creaking and jingling like a circus cart.
They made their way through the woods and onto a well-maintained road leading up a hill between two cliffs. Though she saw no one, Miranda could hear the creak of bowstrings on the rocks overhead. Their guide whistled, and the creaking bowstrings fell silent. Grinning wide, the bandits started up the hill again, motioning for their guests to follow. The narrow path forced them to walk single file, and Miranda was cursing her luck at being forced to stay behind Sparrow yet again, especially since he kept stopping. But a few steps later, she understood why. There, just beyond the pass, lay what Miranda could only describe as a bandit capital.
It was a box canyon cut out between two rocky hills and ringed with large conifers that hid it from the surrounding woods. Inside the canyon, wooden buildings of all sizes, from one-room log huts to enormous timber halls, covered every inch of the sandy ground. Wooden lookout towers sprouted like weeds from every other rooftop, often connected to other towers by rickety rope bridges, and every one of them flew the same red banner: a crudely painted black fist floating in the air above a mountain, ready to slam down.
People came out to watch as the bandits escorted their guests into the city, and Miranda was shocked to see women and young children peering down from curtained windows. The roads between the houses were hard-packed dirt, but there were torches at every intersection, each stocked and ready for the evening lighting as in any civilized city. There were shops with their doors open to the fine weather, restaurants with the day’s offerings drawn in chalk on wooden boards, and even glass windows in a few of the larger buildings. Looking down the roads as they passed, she saw a mule-driven mill beside a bursting grain silo. Another road led to a slaughterhouse with a pen full of pigs and chickens and a sign advertising fresh meat, and somewhere just beyond that she could hear a smithy working, the banging hammers accompanied by the acid smell of steelworking.
Miranda gripped Gin’s fur. Steel usually meant swords, good ones. As they rode toward the center of the canyon town, she saw more and more men openly wearing weapons. Their swords were not the mismatched collection of stolen goods she would have expected, but standardized blades from the same smithy. Likewise, the drab clothes the men wore weren’t actually ragtag, but uniform sets cut from the same cloth. Subtly, her fingers crept over her rings, gently waking her spirits. What kind of a bandit camp was this?
At the center of the canyon the buildings opened up, and they entered what looked like a town square. Only here, the square was more like a great, sandy lot, and at its center, rather than the fountains or wells or community halls generally found at the heart of towns, an enormous pit had been dug down into the floor of the canyon. The pit was about eight feet deep and circular, braced along the edges with wooden beams to keep the soil from sliding. At one end, a raised platform stuck out over the pit’s edge, forming a small stage. The other was dominated by a large tower with a covered pavilion at the top. Red and black banners hung from every available ledge, surrounding the pit in a blaze of crimson. Miranda stared out the corner of her eye as they rode by, trying to figure out the pit’s purpose. They had almost reached the other side of the square before she realized it was an arena.
She’d heard about places where men fought to the death for the crowd’s entertainment, but seeing one in person made her feel ill. Of course, she shouldn’t have been surprised. This was Izo’s city. What more could one expect from a man who called himself the Bandit King? She’d let the town’s unexpected civility lure her into a sense of false security, but the large, brown stains on the pit’s sandy floor were enough to cure her of any further delusion. Miranda shuddered at the barbarity.
As they left the central square, the buildings changed. If this were a normal town, she would have said they were entering the government district. The construction was more stone than wood now, the buildings taller and wider, with red banners spilling from their windows like bloody waterfalls. Several buildings had their doors flung open to let in daylight, and Miranda could see the front rooms of barracks, training halls, tack stores, and weapon stocks, all well supplied. A block away, acrid forge smoke belched from a set of tall chimneys. These were matched by another set farther down the road, and Miranda began to wonder just how many forges this city had.
That thought was put out of her mind when their guide led them around a blind corner and stopped at the entrance of the most intimidating building Miranda had ever seen. Unlike the others, it was all stone and iron, built directly into the cliff face. There were no windows, only doors that led out onto archer galleries with red banners the size of Gin hanging from their ramparts. The fortress was fronted by a great gatehouse with a barbed portcullis raised halfway so that its jagged spikes hung over the entry like hideous teeth ready to snap. Inside the gatehouse, the tiny paved yard was full of armed men sharpening their swords, obviously bored. They did not look up as the new arrivals filed past, but Miranda could feel their eyes on her as their bandit guide led them through the yard to the iron-bound doors of the hall itself.
Here they dismounted, the bandits holding Sparrow’s horse as he jumped down. No one offered to hold Gin, and that made Miranda smile. Outnumbered and surrounded as they were, it was comforting to remember she still had power on her side.
The citadel doors were thrown open to let in the afternoon light, revealing what was clearly not so much a room as a natural cave improved for human habitation. The stone floor had been chiseled flat and the walls braced with wooden beams to keep the stone from collapsing. It was quite dark, and the sparse torches seemed to make it only darker. From where she stood in the sunlight, Miranda could see only about twenty feet inside to where the hall had been split in half by a wrought-metal gate marked with the same fist and mountain as the banners outside.
Sparrow squinted into the dark hall. “Very impressive,” he said, sounding decidedly unimpressed. “But we didn’t come all this way to see a cave. Where is Izo?”
The bandit grinned and pointed at the gate. “Through there. You can leave your horse with the boys. They’ll take care of your things.”
“Which is why I’m taking them with me,” Sparrow said, unhitching his bags and flinging them over his shoulder with surprising ease.
The bandits laughed at that, and their guide gave Sparrow a knowing wink before waving for them to follow him into the dark hall. The iron gate opened before they reached it, and a man stepped forward to greet them. The moment she saw him, Miranda began to shiver. She didn’t know how she knew, but she knew all the way to her core that something was terribly wrong with the man in front of her. He wore no weapon she could see, and he was skeletally thin. His face was pale and hollow, and though his clothes were fine, they hung strangely limp on his body, like rags on a scarecrow. Behind her, Gin began to growl deep in his throat.
Even their bandit guide seemed a little put off by the man. He went through the gate without looking at him, motioning for his guests to follow. The strange man just watched them pass, his eyes eerily bright in the dark as he shut the gate behind them.
On the other side of the iron gate was a smaller but far grander chamber. Fat torches hung on the walls, their smoky light painting everything in flickering reds and oranges. Rich rugs lined the stone floor and gold glittered from the ornate wooden cabinets that lined both walls. But all of it—the silks, the rare metals, the chandelier of antlers hanging from the high cave ceiling—was just a guide for the eyes, leading them toward the back of the cave. There, on a raised stage lined with an impressive display of weaponry, below a great red banner marked with the same icon of the closed fist and mountain she’d seen all through the city, was an enormous iron chair covered with furs, and seated on the furs was a man.
Miranda blinked. For all the buildup, he was not particularly impressive. Though he was sitting, it was clear he was not remarkably tall, his shoulders not particularly broad. His black hair was streaked with white, and his face, though perhaps handsome once, was now old before his time, worn by years of hard living and bad food. His eyes, however, were sharp as daggers as they watched the newcomers enter his hall. His gaze jumped from one to the next without even a raised eyebrow for Gin. He wore no jewels, no weapons, but plain as he looked, Miranda would have known who he was even without the throne. She’d seen his picture on Whitefall’s wall. This was Izo the Bandit King, the third-most-wanted criminal in Council history.
“Well, well, Garret,” Izo said in a deep, rich voice as the skeletally thin man climbed up to stand beside him. “What do you bring?”
Their bandit guide bowed. “Messengers, my king. They say they’re from the Council.”
Izo began to chuckle. “Well, well, fifteen years of getting the cold shoulder from Zarin, and here you are. To what do I owe the honor?”
Sparrow stepped forward with a flourish, his voice booming theatrically through the cave. “Greetings, great Izo, lord of bandits. My name is Sparrow, assistant to Sara, Head Wizard of the Council. This”—he gestured toward Miranda—“is Miranda Lyonette of the Spirit Court, and”—his hand shifted again—“Tesset, our guard and guide. We have been sent here by the Council of Thrones to make you an offer.”
“An offer?” Izo grinned at his bandit. “If the Council wants me to stop raiding their borders, you’re a pretty sorry showing, little bird.”
“Please,” Sparrow said. “Such matters are between you and the northern kingdoms. We are here to find a missing wizard, a man named Heinricht Slorn, who we believe has come to your lands.”
“Ah,” Izo said. “I see. You want to know if I have him.”
“Or the freedom to search for him in your woods without having to worry about waking up with a slit throat,” Sparrow said.
“The woods are fraught with danger,” Izo said with a shrug. “I’m not a charity house, Mr. Sparrow, but I could perhaps see my way toward helping you, if the price was fair.”
“I have been given the authority to be very fair in this matter,” Sparrow assured him.
“Is that so?” Izo sat back, stroking the stubble on his chin. “Give me an example.”
“Well,” Sparrow said. “Take your latest incursion into Council lands. Your men burned and pillaged the city of West Clef, and Markel of Sorran, the rightful lord of West Clef, is understandably upset. He’s been pushing the Council to formally declare war on your little operation for years. Now he’s got a few hundred dead tradesmen and a burned Council tax office to add to his complaint. He may be a small border lord, but his words are falling on very sympathetic ears at the moment. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Council voted to take action within the year. However”—Sparrow raised a long finger—“should your help guide us to our man, alive and well, I can promise you that no declaration of aggression will ever get past committee. A great promise indeed for such a small inconvenience on your part, don’t you agree?”
The thin man leaned over and whispered something in Izo’s ear. The bandit nodded and began to smile.
“Great indeed,” he said, sitting forward. “But why are you wasting my time with talk of missing wizards? Why not get straight to why you’re really here?”
For a moment, Sparrow looked surprised, but the expression was gone so quickly Miranda thought she’d imagined it. Izo, however, missed nothing.
“I’m no backward mountain horse thief,” he said slowly, shifting his eyes to Miranda. “I make it my business to know everything I can about what goes on in the Council Kingdoms, but even if I were ignorant as you seem to think me, I would know the name Miranda Lyonette, the poor Spiritualist who keeps bungling the capture of Eli Monpress.”
Miranda stepped forward, red-faced, but stopped when she felt a hard grip on her wrist. She looked over to see Tesset shaking his head.
“Did you think you could just slip her past me?” Izo scoffed. “Did you think I would not know? You said yourself, this is my land. I know everything that happens here, and I would never miss something as splendidly convenient as the three of you just happening to show up in my town the day after Monpress himself mysteriously appears inside my borders.”
This time even Sparrow looked shocked, and Izo grinned so wide Miranda could count his gold-capped teeth.
“Oh, I knew,” he said. “I was thinking of how to catch him myself. Ninety-eight thousand gold standards will catch any man’s attention. Though, now that you’re here, things are more interesting than simple money.” He turned his smile to Sparrow. “I may be a bandit, messenger bird, but I’m not stupid. I know what kind of power your mistress Sara can throw around in the Council when her mind is set.”
Sparrow made a good show of looking abashed. “I would never imply—”
Izo waved his hand. “Save the flowery talk. Truth be told, I don’t really care why you came into my lands, be it hunting missing wizards or thief catching. But if you want to do whatever it is you came here to do, then here are my terms.” He leaned forward on his throne. “First, I want all charges and bounties against me dropped. Second, I want full recognition of my sovereign right to the northlands, from the Sorran border to the mountain peaks and from the edge of the Shaper lands all the way to the eastern sea.”
He sat back when he was finished, enjoying the stunned silence.
It was Miranda who recovered first. “Impossible!” she cried. “Sorran to the peaks? From the Shaper lands to the sea? That would make you the largest kingdom in the Council! It’s never going to happen. You’re a bandit and a murderer, not a king. You have no sovereign right to anything.”
Izo gave her a hard look. “Is this the Council’s answer?”
“Not at all,” Sparrow said, cutting in front of Miranda before she could say anything else. “If you help us find Heinricht Slorn, and get us Monpress alive, and we are able to bring both safely back to Zarin, Sara will see to it that you become a king in full.”
“Done!” Izo said, standing up. He marched down from his throne and took Sparrow’s hand, shaking it hard. “Garret, make our guests comfortable. Tonight, we plan a trap even the famous Monpress can’t weasel out of.”
Their bandit guide saluted and waved for them to follow. Miranda was still trying to get a word in edgewise, but Sparrow’s sharp heel was digging into her foot. She gave him a murderous glare as the bandit led them out through the iron gate and back into the hall. They walked in silence down the steps and under the gatehouse. When they reached the main road, their guide ducked almost immediately into a small alley, stopping at a wooden guesthouse right beside the keep. Garret left them with promises they’d be called when Izo wanted to see them again, and Sparrow tipped their guide well before dumping his bags on the largest of the soft beds downstairs.
“Well,” he said. “I don’t see how that could have gone better.”
“Really?” Miranda said. “Because I don’t see how it could have gone worse. Izo? A king? You just sold a crown to the most violent criminal in Council history.”
“It’s not like he’s getting his crown on the cheap,” Sparrow said. “He is sacrificing a ninety-eight-thousand gold-standard bounty.”
“Men like Izo don’t deserve crowns,” she grumbled. “Do you honestly think Sara will be all right with this?”
“Sara will be delighted.” Sparrow’s voice grew very dry. “Remember, sweetheart, I’ve worked with her far longer than you, and I’ve seen her make men kings for less. Monpress is something special to her, more than Slorn, and far more than you or I. If letting some bandit play king is all it takes, she’ll consider him cheaply bought.”
“But it’s not right,” Miranda said.
“Who cares?” Sparrow answered. “If you get a chance to nab Eli and clean off the dirt he kicked all over your shiny white tower, what do you care about how he was caught? So a bad man gets away with his crimes, so what? It happens every day. That’s how the real world works, sweetheart. Bad people doing bad things and getting rich off it. Powers, girl, for all we know, this may be the best thing that could happen to this situation. At least if Izo’s a king under the Council of Thrones, he can’t go raiding his neighbors anymore. Did you think about that?”
Miranda bit her lip.
“Didn’t think so,” Sparrow said. “We need you here, Miranda. You’re the one who knows Eli. Don’t get all moral on us about things you can’t change. Focus on the good. Catch Eli, go home a hero, and let us deal with Izo. Okay?”
“Okay,” Miranda said, stomping up the stairs toward the loft bedroom.
There was no way Gin could fit into the small house. So the moment she got upstairs, Miranda threw open the window only to find the ghosthound had anticipated her, jumping up and making himself comfortable on the roof of the neighboring building, much to the alarm of the current inhabitants. He crawled over when he saw her open the shutters and stuck his head in.
“I hate to say it,” he growled, “but the bird boy has a point.”
“I know,” Miranda snapped, flopping down on the bed. “I don’t want to talk about it. I’m done with Council politics. Let’s catch the thief and go home.”
Gin rested his jaw on the windowsill. “How are you going to catch him?”
“I’ve got a plan,” Miranda said, burying her face in the pillow. “This time, he’ll be the one who’s surprised.”
Gin gave her a suspicious look before pulling his head out again and setting about the serious business of cleaning the road grime off his silver, shifting coat.
* * *
Izo sat on his throne for a long time after his guests left, taking in the feeling. After so many years of scrabbling at the edges, fighting like dogs with other bandits over every inch of backward woodland, he was almost there. He would be Izo the King.
“Just as the Master promised.”
Izo flinched at the cold voice and turned to find Sezri standing over him, a skeletal horror draped in a mockery of flesh, his dark eyes glowing in the sunken shadows of his sockets. Izo turned away. He had no intention of tainting his moment of triumph with the thin man’s creepiness.
“The Master is with us always,” Sezri continued. “Watching, listening; nothing is hidden from him. Truly, you could ask for no better ally.”
“Aye,” Izo said, standing up. “And I’ve paid for it. Your ‘Master’ had first pick of every captive we’ve taken over the last three years, not to mention all our wizard children. There’s not a soul in this camp who can hear the winds anymore, thanks to you. Your master said he’d make me king.”
“And you’re well on your way to being one.”
“By a lucky guess, and none of your doing,” Izo sneered, walking over to his weapon wall. “This Monpress tip was just a lucky break for you. How could you know he’d be up here? Or that the Council dogs would be on his trail? I was the one who put two and two together and made the deal, so don’t act like I should be falling down on my knees to your boss. I pay my tribute and I’ll reap my reward, but don’t think you can lord a lucky strike over me and call it a plan.”
Sezri stared at him, his too-wide eyes brighter than ever. “You should be more careful with your assumptions,” he said slowly. “The Master has hands everywhere, and he plays a game on a higher stratum than any of us can comprehend. The arrival of Sara’s monsters, the appearance of Monpress, your own position at the nexus, it was all laid out by the Master, and it will all fall apart without his continued goodwill. You would do well to remember that.”
Izo sneered. “We’ll see.”
Sezri just smiled, a strange baring of teeth that was more unsettling than his glare. “That reminds me,” he said. “In order to make sure the capture of Monpress goes smoothly, our Master has sent another of his children to help us.”
He made a beckoning motion with his skeletal hand, and Izo’s guard went up. Sure enough, though his room was ordered empty and locked at all times, a figure stepped out of the shadows beside the wrought-iron door. Izo gritted his teeth. He hated how they could do that, slip through shadows like fish through water.
Izo felt even less happy about this new arrival when the man stepped into the torchlight. He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, another skeleton like Sezri, perhaps. Whatever it was, this man was not it. He stomped out of the shadows, a giant, taller than Izo’s best bruisers and built like a bull. Scars ran across his body, some pale and ancient, others red and angry, crisscrossing his muscles like deep-dug canals. His clothes were filthy and they hung from him with the same shapeless weight as Sezri’s dark rags. He stood crooked, with his left shoulder higher than his right, as though his left arm pained him. Izo understood that any man with scars like those could be expected to carry a serious injury, but whatever was wrong with the man’s arm was hidden by the long, dirty cape he wore flung over one shoulder.
Sezri waited until the man was fully in the light before continuing. “Izo,” he said, “may I introduce Berek Sted.”
Izo’s eyes went wide, and he began to grin in spite of himself. “Berek Sted?” he said, all anger forgotten. “The Berek Sted? The famous pit fighter? Powers, man, you’re a legend!” He grabbed Sted’s uncovered hand and shook it hard. “The boys here love you. I tried to find you to invite you to join us a year ago, but you’d disappeared.” His voice trailed off. A foot and a half above him, Sted was glaring down, his eyes shining with the same unsettling light as Sezri’s.
Izo dropped his hand and stepped back. “I guess I know why, now,” he muttered. “Still, it’s an honor to have a legendary fighter in my camp.”
“I didn’t come here to put on a show for bandits,” Sted growled, his scarred face pulling up in a sneer. “I came because this is where Josef Liechten will come.”
Izo paused. “Josef Liechten?”
“Monpress’s pet swordsman,” Sezri said. “Sted is here to deal with him. With Josef out of the way, Monpress’s party should be no trouble at all.” He smiled wider, forcing Izo to look away from the hideous sight of a human face pulled in ways it was never meant to go. “Is not the Master thoughtful?”
“Very,” Izo muttered.
“You will call the Council dogs tonight,” Sezri went on as though Izo had not spoken. “Let them take the thief and the girl he keeps with him while Sted handles Liechten. Monpress is fickle, so we may not have long to act. Set it up quickly and you will be king before the month is out.”
Izo couldn’t help grinning at that thought. “There, at least, we agree,” he said, stomping down the stairs from his throne. “I’m going to make the rounds. We meet at sundown. I want both of you there.”
Neither of the men answered, but Izo just kept walking. He was king here, not them, and he would not stoop so low as to look back to see if they would follow. Instead, he pushed his way through the iron gate and stomped into the yard, yelling for his guard. Tonight, everything needed to be perfect, for tomorrow he was going to make himself king.
Sted watched the iron gate swing closed with a deafening clang. “He’s older than I expected,” he said when the sound of Izo’s shouting had faded. “Shorter, too.”
“Izo has been the Master’s servant for many years,” Sezri said. “Our numbers are greatly increased by his ambitions.”
“Who cares about your numbers?” Sted snorted, shifting his arm beneath his cape. “When do I get to face Liechten?”
“That depends on you.” Sezri’s voice was decidedly colder this time. “Follow the plan and you will have everything you desire. Be an idiot and I’ll rip the seed right out of you and give it to someone more worthy.”
Sted gave the skeletal man a sneering smile. “Is that what the voice tells you to do?”
Sezri’s eyes glowed brighter than ever. “He doesn’t have to,” he said, his voice carrying a hint of the strange double harmonic Sted had come to associate with well-entrenched seeds. “Unlike you, or the girl who had that seed before you, I am an obedient servant of the Mountain. In the end, the Master’s desires will be fulfilled. I suggest you make sure you’re on the right side.”
“I’ve only got one side,” Sted said, shifting his arm below the cloak again. “Mine.”
“So I’ve heard,” Sezri said. “You should watch yourself, Sted.”
“I do,” Sted said, turning away. “Better than anyone.” He stepped sideways, slipping into the shadows. “See you at the briefing.”
He gave the thin demonseed one last smirk before vanishing into the shadows. Sezri glared a moment at the empty space where he had been, and then vanished as well, disappearing like a puff of smoke on the wind, leaving the great hall empty and dark as the sun began to set behind the mountains.