Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Chapter Fourteen: Shadows(Part Two)



"Name?" Estelle asked, a little while later, as the young man helped her into a small tent at the edge of the gathering she'd tried to avoid.

"Belthor, son of Morse," he told her. "And you?"

"I'd prefer not to say," she replied. Belthor frowned.

"Why not?"

"Would I be wearing a mask if I wanted to give out my name willy-nilly?" Estelle counter-asked. Belthor nodded after a moment.

"Oh. Okay." He eased her to a seat on top of a trunk, and now Estelle took the time to look left and right. The tent had few enough items in it - this was definitely a traveling company - but what was here was arranged haphazardly, scattered left and right and giving Estelle the impression of a young man whose life took place very much outside of this small space and who never intended to share it with anyone.

"How are you planning on getting me home, Belthor?" Estelle asked.

"Oh, um." Belthor paused to grab what looked like a pair of trousers from the ground and throw it behind the first large thing he passed. "Uh, just let me..." He kicked an empty bottle under a spread bedroll. "I don't usually have company."

"I'll survive," Estelle said, patience starting to wear thin. "Plan?"

"Oh, well." Belthor swallowed. "Chartreuse looks to be about your size. I can slip over to her tent-"

"You mean Flowers?"

"Yes, she likes those kind of dresses." Belthor relocated his thoughts after a moment. "I can lift a dress of hers, and a bag to put your...uh, outfit in. You can walk on through Rosa like nothing's the matter. Probably even catch a carriage."

"The dogs?"

"Three hundred people have come through this little clearing today," Belthor said. "We keep a bit of a protective charm up to dampen scents and roll them all together into a nondescript...blended smell. They can't find you from me in here."

"Why?" Estelle asked.

"This is Master Kulkas' company," Belthor said, very earnestly. "And some wizard-hating creatures can track scents. It's only in our interests to protect ourselves."

"So you're a wizard, Belthor?"

"What? Oh, no! No!" He shook his head. "I'm only fifteen! I mean, um...I'm from a little town, very far away from here, about a million miles from any important places. But I always liked magic stories, you know? So I kind of taught myself some of the art, and...well, one day, a recruiter wanders through the town, and hey, I impressed him, and he takes me to the Grand School of Magic in the north."

"...an apprentice?"

"An initiate," Belthor corrected. "There are four of us. Whoever impresses Master Kulkas the most gets a staff."

"And then you...become a wizard?" Estelle asked.

"Oh, heavens, no," Belthor said. "That gives us the right to go to the Academy for real, though. Take classes with all the masters...all that. Then, once we've proceeded far enough there, we get our wands."

"What's the difference between a staff and a wand?" Estelle asked.

"Size," was Belthor's immediate response, before he reddened considerably. "Well, um. To use magic, you've got to have runes...you'd know all about that."

Estelle glanced at the tent flap. Her pursuers were likely scouring the woods where she had taken out Belthor's companions. She needed them to move on.

"I have time," she said, rubbing her head through her helmet.

"Oh...uh, okay." Belthor glanced around. "Uh. Do you want something to drink? Eat?"

Estelle's throat was very dry. "Sure."

"I think I..." Belthor fished a little bag of carrots from the next best thing to nowhere, and then a bottle too dark for Estelle to tell what was in it. "Here you go."

"Carrots?" she asked, but that didn't stop her from taking it all gratefully. "Thank you, Belthor, son of Morse."

"I don't eat meat," Belthor said. "I do no harm to the world. Or, I try, at least. So yes...carrots. And water."

Water. Estelle could live with water. She opened her helmet enough to expose her mouth but not the rest of her face, and ate and drank. "So, runes?"

"Runes," Belthor agreed, with a little jump. "Uh, each god or goddess, major or minor or forgotten, has a rune. And you have to have that rune to invoke their power. You carve it into your staff, or onto your wand, see."

"But some people use magic without either," Estelle pointed out. "Like Flowers."

"Tattoos," Belthor said. "You can get runes tattooed onto your body."

"Then why doesn't everyone?"

"Because only the masters of each deity's reclusive monastic orders know their rune," Belthor said solemnly. "Even if I had a rune tattooed on me...oh, actually, here." He rolled his sleeve back, and Estelle blinked as she saw a large...squareish shape inked onto his bicep.

"Uh...what is it?" she asked after a moment, when she couldn't apply any further level of description to it than squareish.

"It's the rune of the Goddess of Healing, Nerien," Belthor explained. "I mean, to me? It looks intricate and beautiful and complex. I'm guessing you just saw a square-like shape."

"Yes." Estelle blinked as pieces connected in her mind. "It appears as one thing to some people and something else to others, doesn't it?"

"It appears in its full glory to those its patron deems worthy of knowing it," Belthor said, and Estelle paused. Again, he reddened. "Not that you aren't worthy, you know, but...um. Each god has criteria. And they make wizards go on quests to learn the runes. Only the oldest of the masters know all of them, and they can't teach runes to others for the same reason you can't see the glory of Nerien's art."

"Then how does a magic school work?"

"They teach basic spells, the kind that belong to the very minor gods who don't stand on ceremony so much as the major gods," Belthor explained. "And they teach theory of magic. Histories of the orders. Personalities of the gods, so you know what you're getting into. Advisers talk to you about what order you should seek runes and patronage in. Some people come in with natural abilities, too. We call them-"

"Gifted."

"...yes," Belthor finished, a little nonplussed. "How did you know that?"

"I've been around a few places," Estelle said by way of non-answer.

"Oh." Belthor blinked. "Well, the thing is, anyone can carve anything on a staff, or a wand. Wands are shorter, handier, more powerful - but not as many runes. Tattoos can only be put on by the various orders' masters. Plus you can't have opposing gods' tattoos next to each other, but magic tattoos all have to be connected in one big artwork...it becomes a puzzle."

Estelle filed that away. "So how do you impress the master and get your staff?"

"Lots of things," Belthor said. "Just...you can be great at magic, or you can impress him with your knowledge, or you can do something impressive on the trip. Or you can get recommended by someone along the way, someone Master Kulkas would listen to. Someone weighty."

Estelle nodded. "So it's a competition. Hence why your buddies-"

"Yeah." Belthor shrugged. "Sometimes it gets rough. If I couldn't handle it, I wouldn't have come along when Master Kulkas offered me a chance."

"So why didn't you fight them with magic?" Estelle asked.

"Because I only have Nerien's rune," Belthor said. "I don't know many truly powerful spells. All I can do is heal, not harm. Not that there's a problem with that. I quite appreciate that kind of power. It just...isn't so useful in a battle."

Estelle nodded. She shifted her weight and took a long drink.

"You...look like you hurt," Belthor said slowly. "What happened to you?"

"Long story." That was as far as Estelle wanted to go.

"You got in a fight, didn't you? Is that why people are after you?"

"Kid," she said, and only realized how patronizing that sounded after she'd already leaned forward, "if I really wanted to talk about it to someone I'd just met, don't you think I'd already have broached the topic?"

Belthor paused. "Oh. Right. That makes sense." He inhaled. "Um. Can I...well, it's kind of...I just...I'm trying to-"

"What?" Estelle bit off.

"You really look like you hurt," Belthor finally said. "And I do have the rune of the Goddess of Healing. I can soothe your pain and speed your recovery."

Estelle hesitated. She glanced down at her burning ribs.

"What would it entail?"

"It, um." He swallowed. "You'd have to...take off your shirt. Just far enough for me to touch the wounds, that's it, I swear! Skin contact. That's all. And then you could just sit back and I'd do the rest."

Estelle raised one eyebrow at the young man, but if she'd really felt threatened by him, she'd have taken her chances on the main road. He felt like a kindly, perhaps a little over-awkward teenager, not a convincing predator in disguise.

Then again, he'd be a piss-poor disguised predator if his disguise didn't work...still, Estelle felt very secure that she could break any dozen or two of his bones whenever she felt the urge to do so, even in her diminished state. There was a lot of comfort in that feeling.

"Okay," Estelle said. She paused to close up her helmet just in case, then reached down and opened her chestpiece. She pulled the sides apart, gasping as her sides lit up from the relieved pressure. Her hand snaked down and she pulled up her sweat-and-riverwater stained shirt underneath to reveal her stomach.

"Oh, my." Belthor knelt before her, hands up by his head as he hesitated. "I, uh. Okay. I'm going to...just going to put my hands on your sides, right where those bruises are. Just...resting them there. Nothing else."

"Noted," Estelle said, hiding a smile at how careful the initiate was. She wondered if she had the honor of being the first woman he'd ever seen undress even a little bit.

"Okay." He touched her, and she hissed through her teeth at the pain. Belthor swallowed and paled, but he didn't pull back. "Nerien!"

Pale white light washed over her stomach. Estelle fought down a cry as the pain redoubled, as if it was angry at the attempt to subdue it...and then it very well did subside, almost completely. Just like that, it was over, and Belthor very quickly lifted his hands and stepped back.

"You're half-healed," he said. "I couldn't do more. But I did numb the entire area, so you can make it home without limping."

"Thank you, son of Morse," Estelle said, examining her less-bruised stomach.

"Let me just go...steal that dress," Belthor finally said. "Then I'll leave and you can change and slip out without me seeing who you are."

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Chapter Fourteen: Shadows(Part One)



Estelle staggered through the trees, clutching her side. She hurt. The world spun under the moonlight.

She could barely stand, so she instead leaned on one tree, gauged distance, and then threw herself at the next. Her hair trailed over her shoulders, infested with sand and brambles.

"High ground," she whispered to herself, over and over. "High ground. Shelter."

Her feet were bleeding as she stumbled over rocks and branches. It wasn't enough to stop her. She'd survived a mutiny, a storm, a week alone at sea, a wreck...

"I'm not going to die," was her mantra now, as she emerged from the thick embrace of the jungle and found herself at the foot of a mountain. "Hellfire and high water may come, but I'm not going to die."

***

Estelle staggered through the trees, clutching her side. The moonlight filtered through the branches around her, and she was hot inside her armor and her helmet. She could hear her breaths echoing around her head.

With a grunt, she removed the helmet. She almost whimpered as the night breeze hit her face, out of sheer unrepentant joy. She let it run over her skin and through her hair for a long moment, breathing in the darkness and letting out the fear.

Breathing hurt. She winced and groaned. The moment ended as soon as it began.

She heard the barking of dogs in the night behind her.

This was bad. This was very, very, very bad. Estelle glanced ahead at what was her only possibility for salvation: the river. She stumbled over to it, using her bow as a crutch and praying it didn't snap in half.

Her boots landed in the cool water. Estelle paused to lean down and scoop up a double handful from the river, pouring it first down her throat and then over her face.

Something was wrong. They hadn't been afraid, or intimidated...or even hesitant. She wasn't frightening. She wasn't threatening.

Sessions had been right. She was unsure of herself. She had training, and she could shoot an arrow better than anyone, and she certainly had no intention of dying, but that wasn't enough. The task she'd given herself was bigger than survival. It was bigger than her training with the Guiding Light. It was...it was...

It was bigger than Estelle.

That was a thought to gnaw on as she made her way down the river, hoping the lack of footprints would stymie human pursuers, and the water might erode some of her scent to throw off their canine companions. How could one woman, one human, hope to wage war on Aurora and Ward Garredin, two of the most powerful and influential people in Nurem outside of the King himself?

"They can't," Estelle whispered in the light of stars and moon reflected from the rivers. "I can't."

More barking in the night, but Estelle thought it was getting further away. That was good. She hissed as her ankle hit a hole in the rocky riverbed, and nearly turned. That would be immensely unhelpful.

Her eyes flicked up the river as far ahead as she could see on this exceptionally bright night. She didn't see any more rapids...

Estelle shouldered her bow. She took a breath, replaced her helmet, and waded further out into the current, feeling it grab at her legs with little hands of foam and motion. She spread her arms out as soon as her waist was under, and noiselessly slipped into the water on her back.

The current had to be moving at close to five miles an hour, which was considerably better than what Estelle could manage, limping in the shallows on an improvised crutch. Plus, this didn't aggravate her injuries nearly so much. She breathed shallowly as she floated downriver, enjoying the cool and basking in the stars splayed out overhead.

"What have I ever done?" she whispered to herself, floating away from the debacle her raid had become. "What have I ever done myself?"

Estelle couldn't perform the task she'd set for herself. In that moment, lying in the white light, she found it simply impossible. No human possibly could.

The current carried her on. More trees were ahead, lining the shores on both sides, and Estelle saw darkness coming. She stared up at the half-moon hanging high above.

"What am I?" she finally whispered.

***

Estelle clambered out of the river a few miles downstream, when she was closer to Rosa. She found a tree branch she could rip free, and that became a crutch that she wasn't afraid to lose. Doggedly, she made her way onward to the coast, approaching the edges of the city. She took in the sight of some kind of traveling camp ahead, and quickly plotted a course around-

She heard hooves. Estelle froze. She glanced backward, unsure of who-

"He's dangerous," a voice warned, back in the direction of the river. "Stick with your partner, engage him together. No one goes after him alone, understand?"

Sessions' guards.

Estelle turned and started away as fast as she could. Running was a laughable proposition at the moment, but she could do a bit better than a weak hobble. Her improvised crutch dug into the loam as she hurried toward Rosa-

"T-this isn't going to solve anything!"

That came from ahead. Estelle blinked at the young man's voice exclaiming in the dark. She heard the sounds of at least two more sets of footsteps over the pine needles.

"Shut up." Another man's voice. He sounded like a big one.

Nothing for it. Cutting around to the right led Estelle onto the main road, in plain sight, and cutting left would bring her into the encampment. Going back took her to Sessions' men. She had to advance and figure out step two once she was there.

"Look, I think Master Kulkas will notice if one of us just disappears-"

"We'll tell him what happened," a woman's voice soothed as Estelle approached. "You didn't think you could make the cut, so you went on home. Simple as that, stable boy."

Estelle pulled a branch down. She leaned on the tree it belonged to as she studied what lay ahead.

Pinned against a tree was a young man dressed in a green...robe of some sort. His hands were raised in supplication, and holding him there was the big man Estelle had heard, wearing similar garments, save his were scarlet, and far more ornamented than the victim's. Also present was a dark-haired woman about Estelle's size in a flowery blue dress that seemed to blend into the night. Her face was alight with glee and malice.

"I have no intention of leaving," the green one said, his voice wavering. "Do what you want."

"That an invitation?" It was that moment when Estelle fully decided Red and Flowers were planning on murdering the green one. Why was an interesting question, but entirely secondary at the moment. Her path to liberty was forward through this clearing, and inside it were two bullies preparing to kill a presumable innocent.

Estelle glanced up at the boughs above.

"You're the weakest of us," Flowers began.

"Which means I'm hardly a threat," Green cut in. "Absolutely not. So this is wasting your efforts, isn't it? You know I won't be Chosen. So you ought to go and knock Vivian out of the running-"

Red punched him. He subsided.

"You're the weakest of us," Flowers resumed, "which means you should be the first to go. Natural selection, remember? The principles of nature. It'll be enjoyable to compete with Vivian, but you? You're nothing."

"You won't get away with this," Green mumbled, clutching a nose dripping blood. "I'll tell Kulkas what you've done. I'm not leaving."

"He hasn't figured it out, has he?" Red asked in a dumbfounded voice. "We're not beating you until you run off, Bel. We're beating you until you stop breathing." He caught Green's throat. "Go on. Fight me."

Estelle landed right behind him, her crutch held over her shoulder like a baseball bat. Red turned with remarkable and commendable reflexes. Estelle was impressed all night, but she still took her shot, and she was faster still. Red's jaw dislocated, perhaps even broke, and he almost flipped head over heels onto his back.

He'd probably survive. Probably. Estelle really didn't care one way or the other, though.

Flowers and Green both jumped back, and Green slammed into his tree. He fell over in a heap. Flowers, on the other hand, lifted a finger and pointed it at Estelle. "Don't move!"

She threw her branch at the woman. Flowers ducked, then popped back up. "Klamnet!"

Something glowed on her arm. An instant later, a blast of something bright and hot bored into Estelle's chest, and she was flung backward to the ground. The world spun more, and her ribs burned worse, and she coughed convulsively.

A magician.

"I invoke the God of Death," Flowers muttered, her voice high and nervous as she loomed over Estelle. "Hor-"

Wham!

Flowers abruptly fell over, mid-word, beside Estelle. She looked very surprised as consciousness faded from her eyes.

"Ohhhh, gods." Green threw the crutch branch away with a horrified look in his eyes. "Oh gods, gods. What have I done?" He clutched his hair. "Is she dead?"

"No." Estelle rolled onto her side. She dug her fingers into the dirt and pushed herself up onto all fours. "Just knocked out."

She heard those hooves in the night again. Estelle swallowed as she rose. She'd lost time.

"Th-thank you," the young man said. "They were going to kill me."

Estelle glanced back as she heard more shouting. She hobbled over to her crutch and picked it up.

"You look hurt." The man hurried after her. "Really hurt."

"I have to go," she said. Something went over his face.

"Those men I'm hearing are after you, aren't they?" he asked.

Estelle ignored him. She started for the road.

"You know, you'll draw a lot of attention, hobbling down the streets like that. I don't know where you're going, but getting there without a bunch of people seeing you will be a problem."

"I'm resourceful," Estelle said.

"Oh, no doubt," the young man backtracked, raising his hands. "But...can I help?"

She glanced back at him. "Help...how?"

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Chapter Thirteen: Darkness(Part Two)



The six guards were about to fan out. Two would engage Estelle from one side, then the others would come in behind her. Teamwork. She was alone and had no one to cover her back, which gave them the advantage.

But they weren't spread out yet.

"Bloody-" was all Sessions managed to get out as Estelle flung him bodily across his study. He hit his collection of men like a bowling ball, and three of them collapsed under his weight. Estelle's bow flew into her hands in the instant of clearance she'd won, and she drew a shaft back.

On came the other three. Estelle fired, and one collapsed, clutching his chest where the arrow had punched right through his armor. Then she had to raise her bow to parry a series of sword strikes from the next two. She missed one block, and grunted as a blade battered her side, thanking the gods for her armor.

I'm not going to die.

The first man got the tip of a bow in his eye, a strike that came more from savage instinct than any training. He recoiled, and that was Estelle's opening to flip her bowstring around his neck and flip him head over heels into Sessions' desk. She didn't have time to recover her bow, but that was fine. She caught the next guard's arm and spun him past her straight onto the balcony. One kick and he went over the rail with a shriek.

Estelle bared her teeth. Three more? She'd take care of the Lord's guards and pick up where she left off.

"Kill it!" Sessions shouted. It? That offended Estelle. Out came Callan's knife.

Something broke as she wrenched it violently with her free hand. Something else screamed with she severed its windpipe and jugular in one economical slash. Her knife vanished after a moment, until she noticed it protruding from a corpse's ribs. The third man managed to hit her upside the head with his sword hilt, which made the world tilt and Estelle's ears ring, but she had her helmet, and she promptly took advantage of that to headbutt him and then put him through a pane of glass she hadn't already shattered.

"That was six men-" Sessions sounded aghast. Estelle cheerfully caught him by the throat again and pinned him against a wall.

"Where were we?" she asked. "What's happening?"

"There's a ship," Sessions spilled. "In the harbor. The Star. She's loaded with-"

The floor abruptly cracked. Estelle had a moment to glance downward before it conclusively shattered, and she and Sessions tumbled down to the next level. The bodies of her foes landed next to her, and Estelle seized her bow and knife as fast as she could.

"Apologies about the floor," said a man's voice. Estelle glanced up at him, standing ahead of her with malice shining in his eyes.

"I'm not complaining," Sessions said. "Just save me!"

Estelle drew an arrow. The man shot his hand out. A chunk of the floor about a foot in diameter rocketed upward and slammed into her gut, and bow and arrow alike fell at her feet as they were lifted an inch into the air.

Estelle dropped to her hands and knees, gasping for breath. Her entire ribcage felt like it was on fire. She clenched her fists and hissed, trying to get up-

"That was disappointing." Something else hit her shoulder, and she tumbled to the side right over her bow, crying out as she wound up on her back. "One hit and quit. It's more fun when they fight back."

Estelle again felt that sense of eclipse, but it was different. Again she fought it down. She had to remain calm and composed. Otherwise...

She leapt to her feet. A chunk of stone flew past her head, and she bounded forward. Her hands wrapped around the Gifted man's neck, and her weight applied to his upper body was enough to tip him over like a tree. He collapsed on his back, and Estelle bore down on his throat as he thrashed and battered at her arms.

I'm not going to die.

His struggles grew weaker...weaker...

A door opened. Estelle turned and her blood ran icy as she saw what must have been at least two dozen more guards. Her ribs burned, her shoulder ached in a personal and uncomfortable way, and the world seemed to tilt.

Fight?

No, was her only thought. Just...no.

Time to leave.

She abandoned the rock-thrower. Her hands swept up her bow, and she turned for the first window she could find. Voices shouted warnings and orders behind her, but she didn't care. Estelle vaulted over a table and tore for the window, pulling out another grapple arrow and setting it to the string-

Wham! A chunk of masonry hit her back. She tumbled, but rolled on her injured shoulder with a cry of pain and kept going. A glance in the window showed the reflection of the rock-thrower, on his feet and stumbling after her as he clutched his neck.

Ten yards. The glass loomed ahead, and the dark beyond it. An alarm bell was ringing.

"Stop her!" Sessions cried. Estelle ducked more on instinct than anything else, and an instant later she heard the bang of a gunshot. The window cracked as a small hole appeared in it.

Five yards. Her fingers tightened on arrow and bow.

"I'm not done with you, woman!" The rock-thrower was on her heels, and his hands were inches from her shoulders. He lunged forward, and Estelle cried out as his arms went around her. She turned, trying to unload an elbow or two on him-

He hit the glass first. The window shattered from their combined weight, and both of them tumbled straight through. He screamed. She screamed. She also hit him with her elbow in free-fall, on instinct more than thought.

It was lucky that he'd caught her. It meant his body took the brunt of the impact as Estelle crashed down beside Lord Sessions' swimming pool, the stone beneath them cracking. The world spun wildly around her for a minute, and she lay dazed.

She gradually became aware that her enemy wasn't moving.

"There! Over there!"

Estelle lunged to her feet, staggering as her head almost exploded. She scrambled for her knife and found it, but bow and arrow were off to her left. She managed two steps that way.

The first blow hit her in the back. She stumbled forward, only to take another shot from the second man, this one to her head. Her hands came up and she blocked another strike, but something was wrong. Very wrong.

They're not intimidated. They're being aggressive.

Estelle knocked one strike aside, withdrawing. She couldn't take two on one in her current state, so she had to force the fight down to a one-on-one-

The first man took his shot. Estelle seized his arm and flipped him over onto his head by the pool. With a twist, she snapped everything below his shoulder, then casually shoved him into the water.
The second man took his shot. He was good. He had power. His heel cracked across Estelle's helmet, and she nearly collapsed. The world flashed red and black and spun left and right.

I'm not going to die!

She never remembered what she did to the man. Whatever it was, it was nasty. He wound up in a sobbing heap on the ground, broken bones and blood aplenty. Estelle stumbled past his form, reclaiming her bow with numb fingers.

There was the tower she'd cleared. Estelle set her teeth, aimed her shot, and fired into the dark. She tested the strength of her line, then started climbing.

Behind her, she could hear the shouting of men and the howling of dogs.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Chapter Thirteen: Darkness(Part One)



Estelle cracked her neck as Kui pried open one of her trunks. Her lips parted into a cold smile with every piece of arm, leg and torso armor that he laid out on her bed.

"The plan?" Kui asked, not for the first time. Estelle reached up to pin her hair back.

"Lord Sessions," she recited. "He'll be at his summer home, and he knows information that I need. I'm going to go there, and find it."

Kui scowled as he stood the reassembled armor up on its feet. "It'll be dangerous, Estelle."

"I can deal with dangerous." She spread her arms out and stepped backward into the suit. She waited as Kui sealed her arms and legs in. The armor tightened in that very personal way, and somehow it seemed like power to Estelle.

"Bow." Kui offered her the weapon in question and Estelle slung it over her shoulder. "Pistols. Knife." Thigh holsters and a sheath on her hip. She also had a quiver attached to each thigh, filled with black-feathered arrows.

"Helmet."

Estelle took the last piece of her...outfit? Costume? Well, whatever it was, she took it. She gazed into the empty eye sockets for a long moment.

Then she opened it up and slipped it over her head. The helmet closed around her, and just like that, Estelle was gone, eclipsed by...something else.

"How do you feel?" Kui asked, as if from far away.

Whatever the feeling was that Estelle had touched on, it faded rapidly. She inhaled deeply, divorcing herself from that sense of eclipse. "Ready."

"I'd be less worried if you were nervous," her companion told her.

"Nerves are for the fearful," Estelle replied. "I'm not afraid. I'm angry."

"I'm not sure the difference between the two is so great as all that," he said. "Don't go into this on a wave of self-assured certain fury. Be careful. Take your time and not your chances."

"I know what I'm doing." Estelle turned for the door onto her balcony. "If anyone asks-"

"You're fast asleep and I'm waiting to see if you want anything, but you wouldn't like to be disturbed," Kui recited.

"I'll be back as soon as I can. Well before sunup." She pushed the doors open and strode onto her balcony in the cold night air. She barely felt it through her armor, but what she did feel, she savored. She imbued the scents of the city and the sounds of its late-night stillness, and her eyes took in the quiet blankness of a world where the dark reigned over such small lights as candles and lamps.

"You're sure this is wise?" What Estelle fervently hoped was Kui's last question.

"It may not be wise, but it's necessary," she said. "Aurora and Ward were willing to assassinate their own niece to start an Iron Sea War for the sake of their business. That implies to me that they aren't going to stop there - they've got to be fanning the fires as energetically as they dare right now, and Sessions is close enough to them that he'll know what form of fanning they're engaged in."

She clambered onto the railing. Her fingers brushed the ends of the various arrows she'd outfitted herself with. That trimaran she and Kui had stolen had been some manner of supply ship, and it had been full of not just gold and provisions, but also weapons, like the pistols Estelle now laid claim to, and ammunition for them.

Including enough arrows to outfit an army. Not all of them standard-issue.

"Be careful," Kui repeated, in a low voice.

"I'm not the one who needs to worry." She drew a specific shaft back to her cheek.

An instant later, an arrow with a thin cable trailing from its end arced into the night, and Estelle leaped, swinging toward the faint, far-between lights of Rosa in the dark.

***

Lord Sessions' house was a large, elaborate semi-palace on the landward side of Rosa, nestled in a valley and flanked on two sides by a pounding river thick with foam as it coursed over rapids that had sent more than a few unlucky or unprepared riversmen to their deaths. Bluffs loomed east and west, and there was a tower on each of those bluffs, feeble lights doing their level best to beat back the wall of night. Two guards manned each tower, lanterns in hand and cudgels on their belts.

It would have been unreasonable to expect constant vigilance on any night. On a beautiful, calm summer's night with the river murmuring gently and the stars exploded over the sky above in a panoramic display of nature's glory...it was more than unreasonable.

The first guard, Estelle subdued with a vicious, altogether inescapable chokehold. He lost consciousness in eight seconds with her arms wrapped around his throat, and she deposited his still form in the bushes almost without thought. Onward she traveled, drawing an arrow and setting it to her string.

Her shot missed. It hit the wood right next to the second guard, where he stood nicely backlit by his tower's lamps. He jumped and ducked for cover before pausing to glance out into the dark.

That was all the time Estelle required to climb - almost flow, like a shadowy creature - over the rail behind him. She tapped his shoulder, very casually, and as he spun about expecting his partner, she swung her bow like a bat.

Crack!

He'd live. Minor concussion, of course, and a healthy nap, but Estelle wasn't in the mood to casually murder her way through an entire staff of guards merely attempting to feed their families. On the other hand, she was even less inclined to let them stop her.

She drew an arrow as she took her place on the high ground, surveying the building's defenses. The other tower was further forward, and since the bell hadn't been rung, they were likely blissfully unaware of any intrusion. Their attention would be towards the road into the valley.

Estelle's gaze turned to the house itself. It was a large, opulent thing, reminding her of nothing so much as a gilded lobster alight from the inside as it perched at the corner of the river. She heard the barking of dogs in the night, and she supposed they were either pets, guardians, or both.

She took aim by the light of stars and moon, and out went her second shot of the night. Another cable trailed it, and Estelle grinned in satisfaction as it anchored itself in a tree halfway down the slope. She wrapped the end of the rope around her wrist, shouldered her bow, and then off she swung, eyes fixed ahead with single-minded zeal.

Her arms hurt as she released the rope, flying through the air and landing on the roof with a thunk. She rolled to burn momentum, then rose to her feet, silently surveying the terrain. All was quiet and still in the night.

Again that sense of eclipse rose in her, but she subdued it, as efficiently as she could. She was Estelle. Allowing anything else to distract her now would be a major complication in her operation. She took a moment to breathe.

Then she turned and dropped to the first balcony she saw. Estelle landed lightly, and she pressed herself against the frame of a large glass door. She glanced inside, and she saw a figure framed by the lights. Another dull shape was sitting behind a desk, and this man Estelle supposed was Lord Sessions. Whoever was standing had to be a business partner.

Even as Estelle watched and tried to decide between waiting or going now, the partner turned. She caught a flash of green as he did, but then the man was gone and the door swung shut behind him.
She waited for one more minute to ensure he'd fully left.

"What the hell-" Sessions cried as glass shattered and Estelle landed on his desk in a crouch. Her hand shot out and her fingers wrapped around his throat.

"Let's talk," she said, as glass shards rained over the Lord's study in a storm of clinks and crashes. She hefted the man out of his chair, then flung him backwards into the heaviest object she could see, which turned out to be a support column. She loomed over him. "Aurora and Ward Garredin are attempting to provoke war between the Clans and Nurem. How?"

"Whoever you are, you don't want to get on our bad side," Sessions snapped, glaring up at Estelle. "We are everlasting. We have powers you cannot comprehend."

"Not likely." Estelle grabbed him again, raising a fist. "I asked you a question."

"Is this your first time?" Sessions asked. "You're overselling it. Putting on that tough front. You're unsure of yourself. Compensating through violence-"

She punched him. Blood sprayed the carpet by his side, and he cried out.

"I asked you a question. I will not ask it a second time."

"The Clans sent John MacTavish as an ambassador," Sessions finally burst out. "He's here to smooth the waters."

"MacTavish is a warrior clan."

"John is not a warrior," Sessions insisted. "Some mess with his wife a long time ago, I don't know what. Who cares what the Clansmen do and why? But they call him the Peaceable Lord. He's their best option for a diplomat. Does a lot of that stuff. I guess if you're a big-name merchant, you get experience in negotiation."

"So he's coming," Estelle said. "When?"

"Should be here already," Sessions said. "But nothing's happening for a few days."

"And then what does happen?" Estelle asked.

"Well..." Sessions paused, and his eyes flicked over Estelle's shoulder. "You drop me and surrender peacefully?"

She turned, at the same time as the door behind her crashed open to reveal half a dozen armed and armored guardsmen. They brandished their swords in the lantern-light.

"It's either that or die where you stand," Sessions finished.