Not long after Aryden had left, I did as well. I traveled by way of the kitchens, where I picked up some breakfast on my way. With so few hours of sleep, I longed for some coffee, but the delicacy had not made its way outside of the Sisters, so I settled for a hot tea with some bread and cheese.
As refreshed as I could expect to be, I traveled the long stretch back to the im Varde home in New Vaina. The walk refreshed, but thoughts of what I would do or say upon confronting Daedys darkened things substantially. I tried to push back my speculations, to wait for Daedys’ own words as to why he’d tried to have me killed, but the possibilities spilled forth nonetheless.
Like before, several of the constable’s men, those rough thugs best suited to keeping the peace through threats and violence rather than providing serious protection as Gamven’s watch did, congregated at the fence to the im Varde home. Unlike before, they only watched me with cold eyes, making no motions toward me and saying nothing. I’d have liked to think that my past demonstration with their fellow bravo had earned this respect, but it was likelier that something else caused them to keep their distance—a command from their master or perhaps some other knowledge about the less direct danger I represented.
I had no desire to engage with them if they were wiling to let me alone, so I strode past to the gate, and then to the home’s front door. Striking the knocker, I waited patiently, tapping my foot idly, for Mosan to greet me.
After a moment he swung the door open, a look of surprise upon his face. “Lord amn Ennoc,” he said, quickly recovering his expression. “You wish to speak with Master Daedys?”
“Very well, my lord.”
He led me again to the im Varde parlour and its collected grandeur. “Would you sit, my lord?” he asked.
“I’ll stand, thank you.” I wanted to keep my sword ready and my feet free to move should the need arise.
The constable kept me waiting for some time; while I tried to keep an eye on the doorway into the parlor, I distracted myself somewhat with the inspection of the furniture pieces that decorated the room. Given this time, I noticed details I had not before. The furniture was all of fine craftsmanship and quality materials, indeed, and, aside from those pieces intended and used for sitting upon, like new. Too new, given the style of the pieces, of a fashion many decades gone.
The decorative furniture in this room was just that—decorative. I pulled at one of the drawers on the writing desk to find that it did not open. The desk had the look of a desk but not its function, as if it had been made as a set piece for some work upon the stage—the impression of a desk, but not its essence.
I took one of the books from the nearby shelves and opened it to find only blank pages within the leatherbound cover, the faint smell of mildew emanating from within. The parlor, then, had been meant to keep up appearances, to give a showing of the kind of wealth enjoyed by the merchants of Old Vaina without the cost. I imagined that the parts of the im Varde home I’d seen—the entry and this parlor—were the extent of the building decorated so lavishly, concealing considerable humbler accoutrements within the living spaces used by the family.
I thought about how growing up in such a place might have shaped Orren—the constant reminder of the sham of the political settlement between the magnates of the Old Town and New that so impressed those without access to the truth, the resentment at the manipulation of the amn Vaini, forcing them to keep up such appearances while being left outside that prosperity that accrued to the town. Moral or not, I understood better the origin of the boy’s ambitions.
In the corner of my eye, I caught Daedys entering the room, clad in a robe over his nightclothes, a look in his face that intimated he may not have been finished drinking when he’d returned home last night. He wore no weapons, though he could have been concealing a dagger or other blade beneath the robe.
“You’ve come to discuss the attempt on your life yesterday?” He asked, fatalistically more than expectantly. His voice made clear the hungoveredness implied by his disheveled appearance.
His bluntness took me aback for a moment. “I have.”
“I don’t have any information yet, but my men are searching for a man missing part of his thumb.”
He doesn’t know that I know, I thought to myself. Of course he didn’t, how could he? Perhaps I’d not fully recovered my wits myself. “The man must be someone above general suspicion, someone who could have entered the lord’s keep without attracting attention in the first place.”
“I thought the same myself,” Daedys offered.
“Someone in your employ? One of your constable’s men?”
He frowned, but I saw through it. “Hmm,” he said. “That’s possible. I hadn’t thought of it.”
“But why would one of your men try to kill me?”
“I have no idea,” he said. He feigned the appearance of shock as he said, “Could one of my own men be responsible for my nephew’s death? Have you uncovered evidence that might indicate that?”
“Then it’s likely not one of mine, is it?”
“Perhaps not,” I allowed. “But then, who? One of the lord’s servants? A member of Gamven’s watch? And then, why?”
“You must be getting closer to uncovering Orren’s murderer,” Daedys said.
“Or I’ve found something else someone wants kept secret.”
The constable looked directly at me now, trying to read my meaning in my eyes. Let him, I thought.
“I’m sure you come across sundry secrets in your work, Iaren, some only embarrassments to an individual and some of much greater import,” he said.
“Yes, as I’ve come across one of yours. Several, in fact.”
His face hardened, “And what are those?”
“You’re familiar with a spirit that makes its home in Vaina,” I began.
“Of course I am; it’s why you’re here.”
“No. Not the phantom preying on the amn Vaini. Not your nephew. The other one. An ancient spirit, not from here originally, but that has made its home here. Has cultivated worship here.”
“I’m not familiar—”
“But you are. It’s been your ally in the prosperity of this town, a champion of the common folk who till the fields and tend the herds—of the people who sustain Vaina while a small few get rich.
Originally, folk here took up with the spirit for good crops and safety from disaster. But it seems that that became insufficient when it did not bring wealth enough to compete with the im Valladyni and the im Darqosi, while the amn Vaini increased their influence and power by reliance on your assured harvests, without so much as acknowledging the equal value of the service New Vaina provides. Some of those within the group pushed for more…aggressive…action. Perhaps that’s what Orren was up to?”
His expression revealed nothing in response to my sudden thrust. “You think my nephew had something to do with this…cult?”
“Don’t play stupid, Daedys. It doesn’t suit you. This cult is why you sent one of your men to kill me. It has nothing to do with Orren. Not directly, anyway. You’re trying to protect your best weapon against the amn Vaini, your own interests. Nothing more.”
“Do not insult me by lying, constable,” I commanded.
“Then you’ve come to what? Arrest me? Take your vengeance? You’ve come alone, so you haven’t disclosed your accusations to Lord Aryden. That was a mistake.” Calmly, he produced from within his robe a small pistol, not much larger than his hand, its clockwork mechanism allowing for ready use even from concealment.
I might have flinched at having the firearm pointed at me, briefly wished that I’d brought my own. But I recovered myself and my calm quickly, part of my mind preparing for a defensive sorcery if such became necessary. “I do few things haphazardly or by accident, Master Daedys,” I warned. “I did not come for violence, nor for threats. I came for information.”
“I have none of that for you,” the constable said, almost wistfully. “I cannot trust you to keep this secret from Lord amn Vaina, and I will not be responsible for the blood in the streets if that damnable priest of his hears of a cult in the town. You understand, I hope.”
Behind him, the three bravos from outside entered the room. He must have sent Mosan for them before he met with me, a backup plan for just this situation. The men smiled darkly, hungry for blood and unconcerned with any sense of honor in the getting of it. Not that I cared much for honor either. Regardless of the supposed nobility of any particular circumstance, I prefer my blood to stay in my body, thank you very much.
“There is, perhaps, one way this doesn’t have to end badly for all of us,” Daedys said. “As you’ve said, there are secrets enough in Vaina already; I’d like not to have to keep your fate as another one. If you leave, now, and do not return, and never speak of what you saw here, I can live with that—and so can you.”
A sardonic smile passed over my lips. “Were it so easy, Daedys. But I took a job and I gave my word. I’m not leaving until that job is finished.”
“That—that’s your sense of honor?” the constable asked, somewhat incredulous.
“I don’t know about honor,” I admitted. “But a man has to have a code. Besides, your master has already made me a better offer.”
“What does that mean?”
“That same spirit to which you feign allegiance even now sent a messenger to me. I know that there is disagreement between you and those who side with you and the spirit’s own more loyal supporters. That messenger both disavowed the cult’s involvement in my attempted assassination—pointing the finger to you in the process—and promised me safety should I not interfere with the spirit’s designs.”
Daedys looked around exaggeratedly before turning back to me. “I don’t see any protection for you here. Perhaps you’ve failed to see what some of my fellows have also missed—our patron spirit is not The One: is neither omnipotent nor omniscient; is not infallible. It may have had much time to gather wisdom and intelligence, yes, but that does not mean its decisions and decrees are always right.”
“But you are?” I asked.
“This time, yes. A more…forceful approach is necessary to the guile and deceit our patron espouses. This seems to leave us at an impasse, Lord Thaumaturge. But I will maintain my offer to spare your life a little longer. Let us depart this place as friends—or at least not enemies. You may leave Vaina to its fate, yes, but I’m sure there are others who will need your help—who you can actually help. Perhaps its best that you not be so shortsighted and that you think of future unfortunates.”
I had to admit, he made a compelling argument—as much as there was one to be made. But I could not bring myself to consider only future possibilities, when a present calamity stared at me from Vaina castle. The question, then, became whether I would lie to him to escape.
Quickly, I ran through the possibilities with that part of my mind not preparing for a working of defense. If I said I’d leave, I’d no doubt that Daedys’ men would accompany me until I’d actually left, maybe all the way back to Ilessa. If they let me get so far—I wasn’t sure that these bloodthirsty bravos wouldn’t attempt to permanently remedy the danger once we’d made it far enough afield, whether or not it was their master’s command to do so.
Even if I made it out of town and survived, I’d just be coming right back, and Daedys would have his agents on the watch for such a thing. It would only prolong the confrontation between us. No point in such dilation.
With my right hand, I began to draw my sword; I extended the left to protect a sorcerous shield. Just in time, too, for Daedys’ pistol’s pan flashed briefly before the barrel erupted, the heavy ball rebounding from my shield as if hitting a wall.
The fury of the pistol in close quarters thundered from the walls, stunning everyone within and causing us to hunch, hands to ears instinctively. Were it not for the deadly intent of the shot itself and the pandemonium soon to follow, our collective suffering might have been comical.
I recovered just in time to ward the first incoming sword strike with my own blade. The space within the parlor allowed some room for the maneuver of both feet and blade, but a fight between four people would be tight indeed. I’d attempted to turn my parry into a riposte against my first attacker, but the incoming thrust of the second required me to redirect my weapon to a second parry instead.
With my left hand, I drew my dagger from its sheath at my back—I needed more steel were I to continue to deflect the attacks of all three men. If I could survive long enough, I might find an opening wide enough to take one of the men out of the fight and improve my odds.
Circling steel clashed against sonorous strikes as I moved my hands and weapons back and forth between the attackers. The furniture offered sufficient obstacles to assist in my evasion of the occasional attack but restricted my footwork to the narrowest of margins in turning or sidestepping to avoid injury. I would grow weary against such and onslaught, I knew, though slow maneuvering brought be closer to the parlor door and potential escape. Daedys had disappeared.
My best advantage was that my opponents were suited to the brawl rather than the fight proper; they’d become more used to striking swords against bucklers to make great clamor and show of bravery than to actually kill. I played by no such rules and, besides, I had no buckler with which to ward myself, only my sword and dagger. Their training and experience caused no great hesitation in their willingness to swing steel at me, but they employed technique made sloppy by half-hearted use, offering me just enough to parry blows that might have otherwise overrun my defenses.
For my own part, I noticed some loss of skill of my own; a casualty of more time spent in books than with blade, I admit. Only during the press of their assault did I regret such a choice and, if I managed to survive without so much as a scratch, I imagine I’d have left the thought of returning to more arduous study of the art of defense (which idea currently loomed large in my mind) quite quickly.
Alas, I did not come out unscathed; as my footwork brought me round to the opening from the parlor to the hallway, something heavy fell across the back of my head, a sudden, sharp shock that lead to momentary oblivion.