Book 1 of the "Souls of the Saintland" Series. Thine Enemy's Eyes: Chapter 1 Teaser.
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Book 1: Thine Enemy's Eyes. (c) 2010 FJP
“He that is despised, and hath a servant, is better than he that honoureth himself, and lacketh bread.”
“I want you to assassinate the king.”
His Lordship Myrgen the Grey, Chancellor to Charles and Elizabeth, King and Queen of Mervolingia, stood before the cage which protected him from the woman. Myrgen kept a distance of about five feet, his grey woolen unisex robes full and loose around him like fog.
“I have already told you my answer, when you asked this of me before through your agent.” Her viridian eyes tried to be sharp, but he could see the effect of the mind-muddling drug administered to capture her. They wobbled over to the large black man in what would be a darting glance otherwise, then back to Myrgen. Her Caratian accent, though not heavy, was more apparent as well, yet he did not deem it wise to take any of these observances for granted. Her hands were tied in front of her instead of behind, and that fact alone gave him cause to keep his distance. The agent to whom she referred had returned with her refusal, but was no longer useful at sleight of hand as a result of the encounter.
“So I remember. However, I wasn’t asking a question.” He tossed something at the base of the cage, metal clinking against the iron, “and I think you’ll find my previous offer is no longer on the table.”
The once-ivory background, subtly embroidered with tulips in beige silk overwhelmed by a purple lioness stretching to the base of the cloth, now sported a new element, one of blood -- fresh blood. The favor was the mark of Lady Tanglwyst de Holloway, owner of The Tanglwyst Trading Company, and Catriona’s secret partner. More important, attached to the favor was a small necklace with a Caratian family crest on it. The necklace was the gift of a very helpful couple to Catriona’s son.
“Don’t take too much time.” He turned away from her as her eyes closed in defeat.
* * *
Michael, Myrgen’s personal Nubian guard, sealed the door to the catacombs, removing all traces of passage to the bulk of the maze in the absent-minded gesture of habit. The catacombs of the Mervol Royal Palace where Myrgen lived were treacherous and confusing, and he refused to risk the life of a curious servant due to his lack of foresight.
The palace had suffered three fires since it was built and, as wings were destroyed, they were buried or abandoned, and a maze of corridors was the result. There were several passages for the servants to bring food from the outlying kitchen buildings into the palace, but none of these connected to the two that housed escape routes for the king and queen. Myrgen’s own room wouldn’t have a passage behind it except that it was Charles’ room when he was a young king under the Queen Mother Catherine’s regency.
“Do you think she’ll do it?”
Myrgen turned to Michael, the small light casting shadows across the conspirators’ faces in the dingy corridor. They stood outside the secret entrance to Myrgen’s chambers; the paths navigated as much by feel as by sight in the glow of the single candle lantern.
“I’m certain,” said Myrgen. “We have her son. As much as I despise involving children in something like this, it’s done now, and she knows it.”
“What about the Queen-Mother, Catherine?” Michael asked. “Have you heard back from your sources as to her scheduled return?”
“She’s due to return here within the month for a visit. I know she’s not scheduled to stay long. Charles refuses to be alone with her and can barely tolerate her in the same room at court. She’s been assigned to the Papal City as an Ambassador of Mervolingia. My sources say she’s still dealing with her ‘victory’ on Saint Michael’s Day.” Myrgen’s disgust was blatant, an unusual thing for this secretive man. “The new Pope has the documentation of Plantyn’s assassination and is contemplating the justified excommunication of the Royal Family.”
Michael cocked his head. “I wasn’t aware you were so offended by the incident.”
“More than you know.”
“Are you not Augustinian, Myrgen?”
“Wholesale slaughter should never be condoned, my friend, regardless of one’s faith. That massacre was an embarrassment, not a victory. The vigorous pat on the back the king was receiving from the Bishops and most of the Augustinian Church is sickening enough to make me switch my faith.”
Michael nodded. His own Nubian homelands had been invaded by a vicious man claiming to be bringing the faith of the Saints to the heathen masses, but his mission he had also been bloodshed and had resulted in few converts.
“Don’t leave that woman alone too long,” Myrgen said as he triggered the catch that would allow him into his room. “We need her to be put on her way, not to escape. If she navigates these tunnels and finds her way out, we’re undone. Do you have the drug?”
“Right here,” Michael replied, patting a pouch in his hip.
“Good. Get on it then, before the one that dulls her senses fades from her system. It’s the only reason we have her in this position to make our request. I just hope our source was right about her.”
“As do I,” Michael said with a glance over his shoulder. “Are you certain of the source?”
“It came from Dominic D’Medici. That family, if any, would know about assassins.” Myrgen had trouble believing the rumors about this woman, that she had the ability to strip men’s souls of their secrets, or that her sword appeared from the earth in her hand, or that she convinced a man to slay his own son before committing suicide. The Back Streets held as many superstitions as reputations, often mingling the two for effect. Regardless, with a D’Medici recommendation, her credentials still were impressive, even if the D’Medici in question was a mere puppet.
“Now go. The sooner she’s on the task, the sooner the kingdom ceases to be inflicted with the king’s cruelty and weakness.”
Myrgen entered the concealed chamber attached to his quarters, closing the door behind him, and took a moment to relight two candles that had blown out, the other twenty-two flames dancing with the shadows on the wall. He gazed up at the huge portrait of an elegant, ruby-haired woman resplendent in emerald silk and pearls. Her beautiful doe-brown eyes glittered from a hint of gold in the rims of the iris, and these subtle artist’s tricks made them come alive and dance with graceful abandon in the firelight. The portrait had been done in secret by Myrgen himself, an amazing talent few knew he possessed, and was lit by a candle for every year of her life. He touched the painted woman’s gloved hand, life-sized, and whispered, “And the less time you must endure the prison of your marriage, my Queen.”
* * *
Michael slipped into the catacombs, leaving Myrgen to his homage. The trek was well known to him, but took a while to get from the entrance to Myrgen’s chambers down to the ancient torture chamber, left over from the Inquisition. It always gave him time to think, and he liked it for that reason. The woman in the cells below intrigued Michael. He found her features to be painfully beautiful and familiar to him, as if she descended from a bloodline possessed by those of his own culture. Her dark hair was wavy, not kinky, but her lips had a Nubian fullness and her skin had a mingled caramel color too dark to be Mandian, too light to be Nubian.
Michael was Nubian, his dark flesh common among the jungles and deserts that distinguished that distant continent. He was an oddity here in Mervolingia, because most Nubians were sold in Mande, but Myrgen never treated him like a slave. He had not expected that when he was first brought to this kingdom.
Michael was out to slay a lion as his rite of passage. He had studied his feline quarry before killing him and claimed the heart as proof he had succeeded. He was returning home when he was hit with a drugged dart and captured. He was thrown into a slave ship and taken to Mande. A man bought him and went into a tavern with Michael in tow. The man was an obnoxious drunk and ended up in a fight. Michael was still bound in irons when the first attacker turned on him. As a strong young man raised a warrior, he used the chain on the first man who came after him, slapping him across the face with it.
This repelled the first man well, but it angered one of his friends, who came after Michael, intent on teaching him his place in polite society. Michael, most impolitely, shattered his jaw with an upper cut with his double fists. The man hit the door to the tavern, flying out of it with sufficient force to knock the wind out of him, alerting the townsfolk to fetch the city guard.
Myrgen was in the street, when he saw the first of the tavern patrons hitting the cobblestones outside the pub. He moved over to the man and barely missed being hit by the next patron who attacked Michael. Myrgen went to the tavern and opened the door wide while being sure to stay out of the path of catapulting bar patrons. It turned out he chose the correct side on which to stand because Michael put another patron through part of the doorjamb opposite Myrgen.
Myrgen and Michael got their first looks at each other then. Michael ate up much of the doorway with his huge frame and was utilizing items at hand, or foot, in his defense. The man he was fighting at the time was trying to bite him, so he popped his elbow into the man’s jaw, causing a few teeth to disintegrate. By Nubian standards, Michael was a true vision of strength and determination, his long bones and impressive muscles offsetting the youthful good looks which became less attractive as the fight wore on and some of his attackers got in successful shots.
By the time the City Watch arrived, there were four more men on the streets and Michael was on the floor, held down by six men with great effort. Myrgen watched the entire scene from the doorway. Michael’s owner had been crushed beneath the heavy table Michael’s captors were using to secure him. Michael expected to be executed for his crimes and Myrgen took great interest when Michael was taken away and locked up.
At the jail, Michael was sentenced to death for slaying fifteen men single-handedly in a tavern brawl. This impressed Myrgen, and he used his money and influence to take possession of Michael, switching the paperwork in the jail, and thereby sentencing another man to death while sending Michael to the auction block. Michael believed he did both men a favor.
The virulent circumstances surrounding their first meeting caused Myrgen to name this new acquisition “Michael” after the Archangel who led the battle against Lucifer’s minions, as a personal reminder of how lethal this man could be, and Michael accepted this. After that, Myrgen treated him with the respect of a trusted ally rather than a mere possession, much to Michael’s surprise, and a loyalty was forged in the bonds of that trust. It took a year for Michael to learn enough Mervolingian to understand more than hand gestures, but Myrgen was ever patient and now Michael was fluent.
Myrgen trusted Michael with everything from his life to his secrets, either of which Michael could have destroyed at will, but he was intrigued. One thing was certain: Life with Myrgen was never boring.
* * *
The Nubian opened the door to the chamber where Catriona’s cage was housed and stood before her prison. Waves of ebony hair spread across her shoulders and back and her silk-lined bodice and pants kept her battle ready, as her profession as a ship captain demanded. Although she defied society’s gender-emphasizing fashions of hoops and corsets, she did indulge in wearing a unique scented oil and doe-skin leather gloves and boots, but she didn’t need them to show she was a woman. Even without her special gift of insight, she could see that the young Nubian feared his assessment of her would interfere with his mission should he linger overlong in contemplation.
He removed a bottle and darts from his pouch and tainted the tips of the weapons with the drug. She caught the sheen of the poison on the darts and recognized the treatment. It was a rather insistent sleeping agent, about as virulent as the drug used to dull her senses. That drug was starting to wear off, and although she could move normally, deeper brain functions were evading her. He loaded the dart into the blowgun and stood before the cage facing her. Catriona lifted her head, leveling her gaze at the man. His eyes widened as he recognized signs that the drug was wearing off, and his movements took on an urgency as he blew the first dart, aiming for her shoulder. Catriona moved imperceptibly left and the dart passed through the cage. Puzzled, he loaded another dart and blew.
He moved closer, to give the dart less time to be avoided, and executed.
The dart slid across the floor behind the cage to lie next to the other two.
He moved in.
This dart hit one of the bars as it passed her, the pinging noise loud in the darkened room.
He moved in. Again.
She dodged. Again.
Frustrated and angry, the young man took the last two darts out of the case and threw them to either side of her, determined to hit her.
When these last two darts came at her, she dodged the left one but jerked her head as if caught by the right one, grazing the edge of her fingernail across her own cheek, drawing a thin weal of blood. She raised her head with effort, looking again at the Nubian, turning her cut cheek more to her aggressor, showing but not showing him the damage.
He saw it and relaxed, satisfied. He puttered around the table, resealing the bottle and straightening his doublet. She wavered and then collapsed into a heap near the back of the cell, falling so her hands would end up near one of the errant darts. She was hoping to grab one and conceal it as he waited for the sleeping agent to overtake her. As she lay there, her face closer to the dart, Catriona noticed the substance on the tip was changing color, blurring into a shade and substance that was lethal, not sleep inducing as she’d first surmised. The subtle scent of a jungle paralytic she had seen before had seeped into the wood containing the dart tip. The two agents were reacting and had she let the dart graze her skin, well, she realized her “playing dead” act would be considerably more convincing. It made no sense for Myrgen to capture her, coerce her into this act with kidnapping, and then kill her before the job was done. The Nubian, although young, used a blowgun like he was raised with one and was expecting her to be knocked out, not dead. He also knew nothing of this interaction.
That changed her plan. If she poked the Nubian with the dart as she planned, he would die instead of falling asleep, telling her nothing. The drug in her system was taking its time wearing off, a trait for which it was undoubtedly engineered, but it was wearing off. She just needed this man still around when it did. If she could read him, she would know what was really going on. She closed her eyes, waiting for him to do whatever he had planned.
The door to the cell screeched open, echoing off the stone walls. There was something important about the stone walls, but her addled brain could not remember the significance. All deeper thought and memory was caught in a muddy matrix, blending together. Her deepest survival instinct was all she was able to access. Her muscles responded as she expected, for the most part, meaning if she could stall enough, she would be able to shake the drug’s influence. She hoped to be able to do it in time.
She felt the man disengage the rope from around her waist, freeing her from the attachment to the cell. He picked her up with respectful attention, which confused her. He was here to maintain her capture, yet he was not treating her with the disregard of a man accustomed to this line of work. He was also not handling her like a rapist, a behavior with which she was all too familiar. His hand placement, her position on his shoulder: This was respect, and its presence disarmed her. She was accustomed to receiving respect from her crew, her people, her family, but from a kidnapper and ruffian? The conduct confused her and she forgot herself for a moment.
The Nubian stopped, dropping her to the floor. She opened her eyes just in time to see his large fist hurtling towards her jaw, and then she was fading into blackness.