“Well, it was a memorable funeral,” Fannita said. “It had that going for it.”
“You gotta give it points for that,” Saluriman replied with an amazed shake of the head, which suddenly made him wince in horror and disgust. He was still wearing Atticus’ body. Ear expanders and all. The sensation of his newly acquired ear lobes bouncing back and forth around his neck made his skin crawl like an Asps R’ Us discount snake pit. Why do today’s little mutants do this to themselves? He wondered.
Sal flopped down on the on berth in disgust so hard he made the boat rock. Fanny frantically wobbled from one foot to another trying to regain her balance while the boat rocked. She suppressed a desire to glare at Saluriman who she knew would have ignored it on general principle.
Intimate and cozy could have been words to describe the boat’s cabin. Cramped and damp would however be more accurate words. There was so little space only one of them could move at a time. The other had scrunch him or herself out the way while that was going on. The odor of mold was redolent. It was harder to find spots where the the paint wasn’t in peels then those few remaining patches of paint that were valiantly clinging to life. The vast expanses of wood that were laid bare were blotchy and black. The overhead was as near to a literally an accurate description of the ceiling as was physically possible and the brightwork needless to say, wasn’t.
They had only arrived in town that morning. And hadn’t been able to get a room at an inn because of the funeral. At one place they had been offered the use of the stable which made Fanny laugh. She was still a practicing Christian. Sal would occasionally make jokes about her needing more practice. She would retaliate by almost but not quite crying in front of him. Letting the tears well up in her eyes until they shimmered brightly. Sal would ignore the whole guilt show but it always worked on him to a small degree. He liked that about her.
Still, housing had remained an issue for them. They both had places in town, naturally but the two of them wanted to avoid being seen in them. What Sal had in mind for Asheatay would only work if they weren’t making any kind of ripple at all. The best way to avoid being on the radar is to travel underground. Speaking of underground, he had considered using his emergency hideout but he had finally (and with some regret) decided that that was only for genuine life and death emergencies, which this honestly wasn’t.
He didn’t want his preppers stash discovered because some footpads had followed him and Fanny into the catacombs looking for an easy Mark. Also and slightly more embarrassing, he had been booby trapping the hell out of that place for centuries and he wasn't quite certain he could remember where and what all of them were at this point. Sal was reasonably confident he could survive the odd random blast of his own devising, (back at Jordan’s Tower he frequently did so). But he was pretty sure that Fannita could not.
So they had ended up buying this half rotten old scow. Ostensibly to reclaim rare lumber from it’s timbers. Its former owner could barely suppress his giggling as Fanny, wearing a wool cap, thick framed glasses, and a bow tie, with her expensively mussed and badly dyed green hair, crawled all over the tub. Oohing and ahing over wormridden planks that she was loudly misidentifying as rare Xandellian Mahagony when it was obviously just painted teak. All the while Sal, ‘yes deared’ her constantly. The picture perfect, feminist husband.
When Sal had finally named a decent price for the damn thing, the owner had dug in his heels and demanded fifty percent higher. And the son of a bitch wouldn’t move off it. He didn’t negotiate at all. On the one hand Saluriman did not like to be skinned like a gullible peasant boy buying “magic beans” (a story that still made Sal maliciously giggle). On the other hand he loved the idea of rich hipsters being taken to the fucking cleaners. So finally, he just paid the man.
“So, love. Any joy?” He asked her hopefully.
Fannita was just back from the palace and taking off her hated hipster habit. “There was plenty for Muhira,” Fannita sallied.
Sal frowned. He was aware that he was supposed to find this kind of thing deep arousing but he didn’t. He just didn’t.
“If you could skip the gorier details?”
Fanny sneered and stuck out her tongue, then she began her tale. “The funeral has actually worked to our advantage. Everyone is too busy at the moment to pay much attention to anything slightly out of the ordinary because everything is currently very much out of the ordinary. My bribe was just sufficient to get me an introduction to Muhira but not of course Princess Perseverance herself.”
“As expected,” Sal commented.
///“So anyway,” Fanny continued. “Muhira was delighted to make the acquaintance of a rare, silly but attractive, recent and desperate female graduate with a degree in in Political Science with way too much student loan debt and no connections at court.”
“When the hell did that shortage start?”
“Oh there is always surplus of them to be sure,” Fannita said, “But imagine what ninety percent of them look like.”
Sal imagined it and grimaced in disgust. “So she only has time for the one percent.”
Fanny nodded continuing to strip out of her costume. “She required a demonstration of loyalty from the naive graduate of a lower tier college. Which I hesitantly agreed to.”
“Well at least she got your consent.
“Actually no. Although the subject did come up. Muhira said that Affirmative Consent only applied to men before she completely failed to ask for mine.”
Saluriman’s eyes snapped open and his brow lowered itself dangerously or rather it would have if it had been his brow doing that and not Atticus’.
Fanny giggled when she saw it and then straightened herself. “No need for anything nasty my love. I was expecting it. In fact I was provoking it.”
Sal had noticed a few bite marks on Fannita’s skin that were beyond friendly. Although he nodded his assent , this Muhira was now in his people to do list. Killing the swamp elf bith would make an enemy of Perseverance but (a) Perseverance wasn’t that young, he would still be in business when she was a forgotten footnote and ((b)prime) she had hooked up with a known opponent of his. That always came with price tag.
Fanny had forged ahead in his momentary absence. “Afterward she was lolling in bed long enough for me to take a quick look at her office. Her security is terrible by the way.”
“That’s for little people. No one would dare spy on someone as important as Princess Perseverance.”
“Cleary,” Fanny nodded her head in sarcastic agreement. “Anyway, as you know Ashteay’s tower blewup about six months ago and it was shortly after that he moved into Perseverance’s orbit.”
“And he started suborning my apprentices,” Sal said and then asked, “anything on that?”
“Just a note about a lab accident.”
“Hmm, that part is just a bit odd,” Sal mused.
“What do you mean odd. They happen all the time. They even happen to you,” Fannita said.
“True enough,” Sal granted with badly feigned nonchalance. “But normally a blast big enough to take out an entire tower will usually take the magician with it and clearly it did not.”
“The rumor at court is that he lost his spell books,” she said.
“Which he obviously didn’t. I was keeping tabs on him after that event. He has been using some high level spells repeatedly. Without his spell books the only spells he could sing would be the ones still in his memory from before he lost his books.“
“And the ones that he had stored on wands, staves, rings and so on,” She added.
“True,” Sal said, gently thumbing the rings on his fingers. Bright, blingy and cheap, just the kind Atticus would wear. “But he would have had to have used those up by now. Once those artifacts are expended and his spells are sung, he would have been powerless unless he could get ahold of other spell books.”
“How does one go about getting new ones?” Fanny asked.
“One doesn’t,” he answered. And then failed to tell her anything more about that. Some things you keep in the family. No master is going to take on someone with Ashtaey’s power as an apprentice. It’s an invitation to be murdered. The best you could do if you were in Ashe’s shoes is either fade out of the business entirely (unthinkable). Go to some minor masters tower and pretend to be someone else seeking work as an apprentice, then take that chumps spell books and try and work your way back up from the mid-list, (most likely). Or else go on a treasure hunt for the books of someone who was as powerful as you but is now dead, (most stupid).
Fannita stripped off the last of her ensemble and bent over her trunk to find something better to wear. Atticus’ twenty year old body reacted violently to that. It was almost painful. He was considering...okay not he wasn’t considering, he was rationalizing giving in. It wasn’t like she would tell him, no. He knew that well enough. He had known her since he was in his late 400s she was only a teenager at the time. But he had wanted her badly even then, the problem was back then she had only wanted him to want her. Which wasn’t remotely the same as wanting him for herself.
Pride had interposed itself. Sal had promised himself that he would take her, when it was her idea and not before. Thus are failure loops established. She had come to want him over the years, first as a matter of pride and then as a matter of...well let's not drop the L bomb here Sal, he told himself. On either side.
He would grant that there was something stronger between them, than mere friendship. There were little gestures between them. There was the time she had baked him Rhubarb and Cherry Cream pie that tasted exactly like his grandmother used to make. The woman had been dead for centuries and was too vastly illiterate to have written down a recipe. How the hell had Fanny managed it?
And on his side...Okay there wasn’t much in the way of Romantic Gestures. In fairness, they didn’t come naturally to him. Oh wait there was that Mortianan diplomat. The one that had...hurt ...Fanny for his own amusement forty years ago. Fanny had said the matter was nothing and that these things happen to temple girls from time to time and they just learn to get over it. But her face had had the feel of cracked porcelain when she said it.
Saluriman The Great and Terrible had hunted the son of a bitch down that night and began making a decades long hobby of him. Sal had at last grown bored with his pleas for death last year and finally allowed him to die. (Okay actually Sal had forgotten about the little shit for years, he had only found him by accident when he had been looking for something else. Still the sentiment was there). And word sure as fuck had gotten around after that. No one messed with Fannita after that. That’s romantic right?
She looked over shoulder and smiled with something more then passing warmth. “Sal, why don’t you let me take care of you?”
She turned around and started flowing slowly towards him.
Part of him was screaming. It’s time. IT’S TIME! just admit defeat and an enjoy the hell out of losing. But there was one problem with that.
“Not with his dick!” he looked at Atticus’ body in naked revulsion. His first time with her was not not be clown sex.
She opened her mouth, so he interrupted, “Did you find him?”
She sighed and turned it off. “I found three possibilities.”
“And they are?”
“First his apartments in Perseverance’s quarter of palace.”
“Sal shook his head. Not there.”
Fanny nodded in agreement. “Perseverance is paying rent on a tower in ///name here/// that Gordianus closed last year.
“That was a stupid location for that kind of hoi polloi tower. Gordy should have known that town was never going to be able to support that kind of business,” he muttered distractedly and then returned to the matter at hand. “Possible but more likely a trap built with me in mind. It would be easier to set up an ambush rather then defend in depth. That takes time. On top of that Gordy would have built some hidden back doors into it. We all do that. So there is no way in hell Asheatay would trust it.
“Third possibility. The old royal chapel that was formally desecrated when the reign of James ended.”
“Odd custom,” he remarked, “desecrating a chapel when a dynasty falls.”
“I suppose the theory is that it wasn’t doing a good enough job protecting the royal family.”
“Hardly the buildings fault but yes. And due to His lingering presence.” No Magician would feel comfortable saying His Name. “That sort of ...place... is a blind spot for us. We don’t like to think about them. And on top of that the usual means of detection wouldn’t work there. He could set up defenses easily enough. That has to be where he has hidden it.”
“How well defended? How much of a problem is this going to be for you?” Fannita asked nonchalantly as if she had all the confidence in the world in him. Which was her way of masking genuine concern.
Saluriman smiled like a crocodile with bad teeth (had Atticus ever heard of a dentist?). “It would not and will not be a problem for me.”
He wasn’t making a frontal assault. Even if successful his brother mages would have seen that (correctly) as a sign of weakness and acted accordingly, to his severely poor profit. That he had had to do so demonstrated insecurity and vulnerability. No, much better if Asheatey blows himself up after memorizing a spell that had been just altered enough.
A known opponent of Saluriman’s taking suddenly and extravagantly dead would cause the right heads to nod respectfully.
Sabotaging spell books was quite literally the oldest trick in the book. It didn’t take a lot to foul a spell. Particularly on the high level spells. A few milli-gracenotes in the wrong (or rather the very right places) and that would be that. Sabotaging spell books was the biggest reason they all built towers in the first place. That being the second biggest disadvantage of forgetting a spell each time you sang it. You couldn't tell where a spell had been fatally altered...
Unless you could. Forging a spell is tricky business. It took skilled and steady hands, obviously but it also required precisely accurate materials. The alteration had to match the rest of the spell perfectly.
Not a problem in this case. He knew Asheatay’s hand writing as well as his own. The real problem was materials. The ink to be precise. The first thing any newly minted master would do was copy over his spell books in paper and ink that was as unique as he could manage.
So this would require two trips. For the first Sal could leave this body behind it was just a scouting mission. Find the books take a look at the materials used therein. Then use Atticus’ body to sabotage them. Atticus was clearly a client already, access should prove easy. In and out undetected and shortly thereafter Ashtaey would be no more.
Sal blinked at that thought. He had been so proud of him. He had been such a joy as an apprentice. He had indeed truly wished him well when he kicked Asheatay out of his tower.
Saluriman stopped himself and stamped out the weakly flickering flame of maudlin sentimentality. He’d start moaning, “what’s it all about?” next and before you know it, he would be taking the Long Walk. At five hundred years old he was too young for that just yet.
“To business,” he said to Fanny as she finished slipping into a comfortable looking house old dress.
“What’s next?” She asked brightly.
“For you? Nothing much. Just watch this body, it going to be largely uninhabited for a few hours. After that I’ll be able to handle the rest myself.”
“Sounds simple enough,” Fannita replied. “Then what?” She asked with not at all innocent smile.
“I’ll dispose of this body.” He said and then after a moment's hesitation added. “Then you will meet me back at Jordan’s Tower. We have some long standing business to take care of.”
Fannita blinked in surprise and barely suppressed delight. “You know I’m all about business, my love.”
Grod stood at rigid attention in Hoard-Brigadier Rauoo’s office. He knew he was in trouble but damned if could figure out for what this time. And for once that really bothered him. He was only eighteen months away from the twenty year mark and retirement. That is always the point when the career killer event happens to someone. Working his way up the ladder again would put eight years on his contract and frankly he wanted to be done with the whole damn thing. Retirement beckoned with her siren’s song, it was time to get out the boat and his knees were shot.
The Hoard-Brigrider was studiously ignoring Grod while he reviewed a TPFFD order, making a few pen and ink corrections here and there on the eleventh draft.
Grod surreptitiously looked around the office. The general impression it gave him was one of luxury had been brutally imposed upon spartan tastes.
There was a tall and well crafted hickory bookcase with shelves neatly and precisely packed with expensively leather bound editions of every item on the Army’s Required Reading List. The books had gold gilt edged paper and the titles were engraved on the leather rather then printed. They were as pricey as they were beautiful and there was no doubt in Grod’s mind they had never left the book case.
The office was large enough to accommodate two sofas. The one nearest the main desk was gigantic, a richly brown leather nailhead, stuffed so deeply that, sitting upon would be like resting on a cloud bank (without the cold and wet). The only thing that got to enjoy that sofa were the stacks of overflow paperwork that had migrated from the general’s desk, plus several dogeared paperbacks chronicling the adventures of Jorax the Barbarian. The other at the back of the room was cheap, faded and threadbare with a distinctively Rauoo shaped dent in it’s cushions.
A massive, yet stately desk formed the locus consular of the room and was treated with similar contempt. Framed by battle standards and colors. It was a near to threatening antique, blackened with age and intricately carved with reliefs of the great orc battles from former times of glory. It was clear that the only use Rauss had for it was as an external filing cabinet. Almost hidden by the gigantic desk was an extremely battered field desk that looked as if it had been dragged across half the world. It was however kept neat, tidy and had been carefully mended. It was also the one Rauoo was using to massage his deployment schedule on.
The only expensive thing that appeared to be receiving any kind of respect was a cigar humidor made of finely chiseled cedar that had been a gift from King Ronald.
Okay, this isn’t getting better with time and I’ve been a good boy or at least as good as I can realistically manage, Kevo-Grod thought to himself. “Career Banner Sergeant Kevo-Grod, requests permission to speak, sir!
Rauoo’s pen kept scratching for a few seconds more. Underlining here, circling there, scowling and striking out a particularly displeasing word somewhere else. Finally he answered without looking up, “speak.”
“Be advised sir. Paragraph seven, subsection b. Reads as “puppy” wear it should be “small warg.”
Rauoo’s pen broke.
He threw down it’s shattered remains and then looked up at Grod. Who genuinely blanched at the Hoard-Brigadier's ’s fury.
“I heard you had some trouble during the Field Pageant?” Rauoo said in voice that was too calm to not be very dangerous indeed.
Oh. That, Grod thought to himself. Yeah, getting into duals with members of the Royal Family probably did standout in one’s SRB. “It was a private matter between gentlemen...(sigh)...gentlebeings that was satisfactorily resolved. The affair is now closed sir.”
“Grod, you have no idea how much it pisses me off when you play stupid.”
“I...don’t understand, sir.” And for once Grod didn’t. He had expected an ass chewing for insubordination and some kind of “here’s my shit-bird” punishment detail just for public show. But nothing worse than that because someone would have to charge Duke Bryan with fraternization just to make a real charge sheet stick. Who was going to do that? Well his mother for one but she wasn’t actually in the chain of command. So Grod was pretty sure his ass was covered. Although it was a little strange that no one had spoken to him at all about that little misunderstanding with the crown prince.
“Why didn’t you kill him?”
Well, that just took a dark turn, Grod thought to himself. If you do something stupid in the military and it works out, you have used, “good initiative.” But if it doesn’t work out...”I thought that would have been bad judgement on my part, sir”
Rauoo breathed deeply and steadily for a few silent moments before finally speaking, “I am going to ask you again. Why didn’t you kill him?”
There are times in the Army that you are expected to lie to your superior, in truth your superior would rather be dragged over a mile of dragon’s teeth and dipped in lemon juice than have to listen to you telling him the truth on those occasions.
And then there are those other times where you would be better off swimming in molten lead then lie. The career enlisted orc knows which one is which.
“He’s a good kid, sir,” Grod didn’t say more then that.
Rauoo clenched his good eye and rubbed the socket of his bad “eye,” Then he took a deep breath to calm himself.
“I know Grod,” Rauoo said with something that could be accused of being sympathy, if you had never actually seen sympathy in your life and had only heard it described to you.
Rauoo waited for a few moments more. Just to see if Kevo-Grod had anything more to add. He didn’t.
“Grod, we can’t afford to have Branadoc on the throne. That's’ all there is to. That kid will be the death of thousands just because none of his enemies can take him seriously. We’ll lose hundreds in border skirmishes in the first month as they probe at our boundary defenses.
And you are smart enough to know that, Grod.”
Grod nodded his head silently, while he chewed on his lip thoughtfully. It wasn’t like Rauoo could order him to commit high treason. He could probably Request Mast on that point. It certainly sounded like an illegal order. Except that Rauoo wasn’t ordering. He was just point all of the things that Grod already knew. Finally it was his turn to talk, “Sir, I request annual leave of absence.”
Rauoo turned back to his field desk. “Why are you bothering me with that? Take it up with your S-1’s office.”
“Aye sir,” Grod said quietly. It wouldn’t be too difficult. Just go back to the Capitol on leave. Drop in to briefly say, hi to his Grace the former regent. And while I’m there come up with some pretext to see the Prince. We laugh about our dual and I offer him a chance to spar with with me. He’ll accept because that’s how that kid is hard-wired. The training accident writes itself. Naturally I’ll be quietly carted off and staked but that’s only to be expected after all.
Grod then added, “I’ll deliver your coronation gift to the Prince Branadoc myself.” Which would take care of the pretext.
Rauoo looked up briefly startled but then mentally worked through the details. “Ah, yes,” he peered over at his expensive book case, filled with costly books he never read. One of those would work nicely.
Grod swept the clearly much beloved humidor off of the General’s desk.
“Hey, asshole!” Rauoo was so startled he could only manage indignant instead of hyper rage.
“A thoughtful gift should require some...sacrifice sir.” Grod twisted the knife just a little. Just enough.
The room fell silent for a moment and then Grod made his farewell, “By your leave sir.”
Hoard Brigadier Athor ab Wellsinion ab Iweriu-Rauoo rose to the Position of Attention, and then said in a formal salutary tone, “fair winds and following seas, Banner Sergeant Kevo-Grod.
Fannita was working on some embroidery, it was dull but it helped her to pass the time. Occasionally she looked over at the lolling form of Atticus and treated herself to private shudder. She was about as far from a blushing virgin as you could get, (unless you paying her a lot of money). Still, she found it rather disconcerting that while Sal had been inhabiting that sallow stick-figure of a “man,” she had found the body of Atticus intensely desirable.
She had been trying rather hard with Saluriman...a lot more then she usually did. It had not been causal teasing but a very serious attempt at seduction. It had almost worked. She knew she had almost and at last gotten over the finish line with Sal.
But now the idea was revolting. Revolting as in, money be damned I’m not doing that, kind of revolting. It had been a long time since she had a that that she wouldn’t do. But the that in question was without doubt Atticus.
There was nothing about the little snot that wasn’t repellent to her from his...
“ARRRRRRGGGGHHHHHHHHH!!!” the body of Atticus sat bolt upright screaming at the top it’s lungs. Waving it’s arms frantically and it’s eyes rolling around the room in desperate hysteria.
“Atticus? Is that you?” Fanny had her hand wrapped around a stilleto tucked into the top of her right stocking. If it was Atticus he would have to be...
“No, of course not!”
Relief washed over Fannita as crabby but familiar tone of Saluriman came bellowing out of the mouth of creepy ass little magician. “What’s wrong love? She asked in heartfelt relief. Sal was fine that was all that really mattered to her. Everything else could be fixed.
“My body has been murdered.”
Or not, Fanny thought.