"...Richard S. Tuttle, who I believe is one of this century's leading authors of innovative fantasy tales."

Patricia Spork, eBook Reviews Weekly



Chapter 1

The Balomar soldiers halted in front of the inn, which was several hours ride from the Khadoran city of Chastise. The cortain rose in his saddle and silently issued orders to his men. One squad of twenty soldiers rode past the inn and positioned themselves on the road to the east. Another squad turned and blocked the road to the west.

 “Is this really necessary?” Lord Oktar questioned. “We have no right to block the road.”

 “I promised Marshal Berman that I would take every precaution,” replied the cortain. “As soon as we determine that the inn is safe, our men will unblock the road. I will keep a few men posted on the road to make sure that no armies are approaching, but the rest will make camp behind the building.”

 The lord of the Balomar clan nodded with resignation as the cortain issued orders to the third squad of soldiers under his command. Four soldiers dismounted and approached the inn. Two went around to the rear of the building while the other two opened the front door and entered. Within moments the soldiers returned with Marshal Berman in tow. The marshal paused outside the front door of the inn as his eyes swept the area to note the position of the Balomar troops. He nodded with approval as he approached Lord Oktar.

 “Well done, Cortain,” the marshal said. “Have your men make camp out back. One squad at a time may enter the inn and dine while the rest keep watch.”

 “What about blocking the road?” asked the Balomar lord. “That is uncalled for since the Emperor’s decree regarding attacks on neighboring clans.

 “It is not neighboring clans that triggers my caution,” explained Marshal Berman. “There have been strange reports of murders recently. I will not allow the Lord of the Balomar clan to be assassinated under my watch. The road will be watched, but not blocked. Let’s get inside.”

 Lord Oktar nodded, and the cortain ordered his men to dismount. Half of the squad preceded the Balomar lord into the inn, and the other half followed. The soldiers filled the benches on one side of the common room, reserving the far corner table for their lord and marshal. The other half of the common room was left open for travelers. The innkeeper’s eyes brightened as he watched the soldiers taking their seats. The three lone travelers already in the common room watched with curiosity, but soon returned their attention to their meals.

 “Tell me about these murders,” prompted Lord Oktar after he had ordered meals from the innkeeper.

 “There is little to tell,” frowned the Balomar marshal. “They are random attacks, and no one can see the reasons behind them.”

 “They are not attempted robberies?” inquired the lord.

 “No,” Marshal Berman shook his head. “They are just senseless murders. The assassins are unknown to the victims as best we can tell. People are afraid to stray from their estates.”

 “Have any of the assassins been caught?” asked Lord Oktar.

 “Not yet,” replied the marshal, “but I have spoken with the neighboring clans, and we have all agreed to try to capture one.”

 “Well, I don’t think a lone murderer is going to take on an entire corte of troops,” shrugged the lord. “That would be suicide.”

 “You are probably correct,” nodded the marshal, “but I will keep you protected regardless. Why are you not returning directly to the estate?”

 “Emperor Marak is still having trouble convincing some of the clans to send their troops to Khadoratung for training,” explained Lord Oktar. “He asked me to visit some of the recalcitrant lords and convince them of the need to join together.”

 “Why are they refusing?” frowned the marshal. “Emperor Marak has the blessing of the Lords’ Council in this endeavor. Do they think the battle with the Jiadin is the end of our troubles?”

 “Some do not see any troubles on the horizon,” conceded Lord Oktar. “They are demanding proof of the Emperor’s warnings.”

 “How can he prove anything to them before the invasion is actually launched?” responded the marshal. “Must they see the armies of the enemy to realize the danger that they are in?”

 “Some would probably try to find an innocent explanation even then,” sighed Lord Oktar. “I do not have much hope of success for this mission, but I promised Emperor Marak that I would try my best.”

 “How long will you be away from the estate?” asked the marshal.

 “Perhaps a week more,” shrugged the lord. “I do not plan to spend a great deal of time at any one estate. If they will not listen to my plea, I will leave for the next estate.”

 “I want every precaution taken,” Marshal Berman demanded as he turned to the cortain beside him. “Lord Oktar is to be always surrounded by your men. Do you understand?”

 The cortain nodded as the door to the common room opened. A middle-aged man entered the room. His dark cloak had a hood, but the traveler had chosen not to use it. His beady eyes scanned the room slowly as he took a seat at an empty table on the side of the room opposite the Balomar troops. The innkeeper delivered plates of food to some of the soldiers and then walked across the room to the newcomer. The stranger ordered a meal and a cup of ale. He stared vacantly across the room as he waited for his food.

 Marshal Berman watched the new arrival in silence for a few moments. When the innkeeper delivered the man’s food, the traveler sniffed the plate cautiously, his hawkish nose crinkling with concern. He finally shrugged and began eating his food.

 “Do you watch every traveler with such interest?” Lord Oktar asked as he noted the marshal’s distraction.

 “I guess I do,” sighed the marshal as he returned his attention to the Balomar lord. “It is one thing to protect a lord against known enemies, but suspecting every unknown person has become irritating. I will feel safer when you are back on the estate. Perhaps I should double your guard.”

 “An entire corte is more than sufficient,” Lord Oktar shook his head. “Any more men and I will go broke feeding them. Keep them training for what is to come.”

 “Very well,” agreed the marshal as he watched the stranger devour his food and push his plate away from him.

 The soldier across the table from the marshal noted the concern on his leader’s face. He turned to watch the stranger stand up and leave the table. The soldier’s hand drifted towards the knife in his belt, but he relaxed as the traveler turned and headed for the door.

 “Now you have made your men nervous as well,” chided Lord Oktar as he shook his head. “If a traveler cannot stop at an inn for a meal, Khadora is in a poor state indeed.”

 When the stranger reached the front door of the inn, he suddenly turned and threw a knife at Lord Oktar. The Balomar lord looked on in horror as the knife sped towards him. The room erupted in shouts with soldiers scrambling to their feet. Being crowded into the corner of the room, the lord knew there was no way he would be able to rise in time to avoid the knife. Lord Oktar closed his eyes as he waited for death to claim him.

 The nervous soldier across the table from the lord rose quickly and threw his body into the path of the knife. He grunted quietly as the knife ripped into his flesh. His body fell onto the table, sending food plates and cups of ale flying.

 A soldier closer to the door leaped to his feet and drew his sword. As the assassin turned to flee, the soldier shoved his sword into the door, slamming it shut. Another soldier drew his sword and attacked the stranger. With his back to the closed door, the assassin had nowhere to flee. The soldier’s sword struck the assassin in his left eye. The stranger slammed backwards into the door and tumbled to the floor.

 Marshal Berman leaped onto the table and ran towards the front door. He shouted orders to secure the entire building as he raced across the room. Soldiers immediately seized the innkeeper and the other travelers in the room as the marshal knelt next to the assassin and searched his body. Marshal Berman rose with a disgusted sigh.

“Throw the body outside,” commanded the marshal. “I will not him fouling the air in here.”

 Two soldiers opened the door and tossed the body outside while the marshal marched back to the table of Lord Oktar.

 “I owe you an apology,” Lord Oktar said softly to Marshal Berman as two soldiers lifted their wounded comrade off of Lord Oktar’s table and placed him on the next one. “I could not imagine such an attack. How could he have possibly hoped to survive?”

 “Overconfidence?” shrugged the marshal. “I really cannot fathom what goes through such a mind. There was nothing on his body to identify him in any way. He had a small pouch of gold and nothing else. We don’t even know what clan he hails from.”

“Is he dead?” asked Lord Oktar.

 “Very much so,” nodded Marshal Berman. “I wish I could have interrogated him before he died. Barring that, I can make no sense of his attack.”

 “Perhaps some people around here will recognize him,” suggested the cortain. “I could have my men start asking around.”

 “No,” the marshal replied adamantly. “Get your other two squads fed. You are escorting Lord Oktar away from here within the hour. I will stay and see if I can find any clues as to his identity.”

 The cortain nodded and ordered the squad to go outside and relieve one of the other squads. Marshal Berman walked over the wounded soldier.

 “I’ll be alright, Marshall,” smiled the soldier as he held a rag to the wound in his side.

 “You acted properly,” nodded the marshal. “Your act of bravery will be rewarded. You will stay with me, and I will get you to a healer. Are you well enough to ride?”

 “I can ride,” nodded the soldier. “It looks worse than it is. I will be alright.”

 The squad of soldiers entering the inn paused and looked around the room. Several soldiers still held the innkeeper and the travelers at sword-point. The squad leader issued crisp instructions to his men and they relieved the soldiers still on duty.

 “What are we to do with these men?” the squad leader asked the cortain.

 The cortain turned to Marshal Berman for orders.

 “Let them go,” sighed the marshal. “I think the assassin was working alone.”

 “Assassin?” questioned the squad leader. “What assassin?”

 “The one who tried to kill Lord Oktar,” snapped the marshal. “You had to trip over his body to get in here. Concern yourself with your orders and not foolish questions.”

 The squad leader felt thoroughly rebuked, but he was still confused. He inhaled deeply to summon his courage and then faced the marshal.

 “Begging the marshal’s pardon,” the squad leader said sheepishly, “but there was no body outside. I did not know there was an attempt on Lord Oktar’s life.”

 The marshal opened his mouth to berate the squad leader, but he stopped before he had issued a syllable. He rushed to the door and threw it open. He stepped outside and scanned the area for the assassin’s body, but he found nothing.

 “He must have an accomplice,” shouted the marshal. “Did you see anyone carrying a body away from the inn?”

 “I only saw one person leave the inn since we arrived,” answered the squad leader. “He was a strange looking man with an eye put out. He rode off just a few moments before we were relieved.”

 “That is impossible,” shouted the marshal. “That man was dead. I checked him myself.”

 “He still knew how to ride a horse,” the squad leader replied sheepishly.

 * * *

 The river barge bumped to a halt as the lines tugged on the pilings. Mistake adjusted her stance as the movement threatened to topple her.

 “I never thought that I would get to see Khadoratung,” MistyTrail said softly as a gangplank was thrown from the dock. “This is exciting.”

 “I am glad that you think so,” frowned Mistake. “I doubt that Eltor and Caldal even know that we have arrived. What is wrong with them? They have refused to come out of the cabin the entire trip down the river.”

 “They changed even before that,” answered MistyTrail. “When we boarded Emperor Marak’s ship, they started acting weird. I don’t think they like being with us any more.”

 “Well I am going to find out what is going on,” Mistake said with determination. “I will not be embarrassed by them in front of the Emperor.”

 Mistake strode purposely towards the small cabin in the center of the barge. She opened the door and stepped into the small communal kitchen area. As she approached the ladder to the bunkroom upstairs, she heard the voices of the elves. She froze and listened.

 “We have to get off,” declared Eltor. “This is the end of the line for this barge.”

 “I don’t care if it is the end,” retorted Caldal. “I do not understand why we didn’t just get a ship at Raven’s Point and head home. Now we are even deeper inside the land of the humans. We have to escape.”

 “Escape to where?” countered Eltor. “We do not even know where we are. How do you expect to find Elvangar?”

 “I don’t know,” admitted Caldal, “but we must leave anyway. You know the restrictions set down by Queen Alycia.”

 “We broke those restrictions when we sailed past the Barrier Islands,” replied Eltor. “Talking to humans will not add any more punishment to our debt. We have no choice. If we ever hope to see Elvangar again, we will need the help of humans to get there.”

 “Not if I can help it,” swore Caldal. “I had my fill of humans on Motanga. I do not wish to see another.”

 Suddenly, Eltor’s head appeared over the edge of the hole allowing passage to the bunkroom. He gazed down at Mistake with a frown.

 “Is it common in this land to eavesdrop on friends?” Eltor asked accusingly.

 “Is it common among elves to keep secrets from their friends?” retorted Mistake. “MistyTrail and I have been wondering what was wrong with the two of you. Why did you not share your concerns with us? Must I resort to spying to learn the truth?”

 “Fair enough,” conceded Eltor. “We should have told you earlier, but we are forbidden from meeting humans. It is the law of the elves.”

 “You have chosen a fine time to reveal that,” frowned Mistake. “We have arrived in Khadoratung, and we are expected at the Imperial Palace within the hour. There is no way to change that now.”

 “You cannot force us to go,” Caldal said loudly.

 “I cannot,” Mistake conceded, “but go you must. If you tried to leave now without seeing Emperor Marak, he would suspect that you are allied with Vand. He would order your arrest.”

 “Allied with Vand?” protested Caldal. “Nothing could be more ridiculous.”

 “She has a point,” interjected Eltor. “This emperor has provided passage for us to Khadoratung so that he might meet us. If we disappeared at the last moment, who could blame him for being suspicious? We must go, Caldal. We have already broken the law by speaking to humans. Another one won’t make a difference.”

 Mistake heard Caldal grumbling under his breath, but the elves started descending the ladder. She retreated to the deck of the barge and waited alongside MistyTrail. A few moments later, Eltor and Caldal joined them. The elves stared at the city of Khadoratung as Mistake led them off the barge and away from the dock.

 The wharf area was busy with men bustling to and fro as they unloaded a long line of barges. The smell of overripe fruit permeated the air and Caldal started breathing through his mouth. Mistake hurried the small group past warehouses and trade shops as they moved deeper into the city. Eltor looked curiously at the tradesmen and their goods as he passed by. Within minutes they were at the edge of a vast marketplace. The group involuntarily slowed down as Eltor, Caldal, and MistyTrail took in the immenseness of the market. None of them had ever seen a market so large.

 Mistake gave up trying to herd the small group directly to the Imperial Palace. Eltor and Caldal studied each of the stalls intently, while MistyTrail roamed on ahead quickly scanning the tables as if searching for something in particular. When MistyTrail reached the end row, she turned and strode along it. Suddenly, someone grabbed her arm, and she whirled around, a knife automatically sliding into her hand. The man’s eyes widened in horror as MistyTrail brought the knife up between them.

 “Hold,” the man swallowed hard. “I did not mean to accost you. I thought you were Mistake. I am sorry.”

 “You know Mistake?” MistyTrail asked, her eyes narrowing with distrust.

 “Yes,” the man nodded vigorously. “I am Wendal. That is my stand over there,” he added as he pointed to a small stand a few paces away. “You look remarkably like her.”

 “I am her sister,” MistyTrail smiled weakly as she returned the knife to its sheath. “She has mentioned you. I am sorry if I scared you.”

 “Well you did indeed scare me,” Wendal chuckled nervously. “I see that you are as quick of hand as she is, too. It must run in the family. Please come back to my stall. I dare not leave it unattended.”

 MistyTrail nodded and followed the merchant back to his stall. She gazed at the expensive merchandise with interest.

 “Where is Mistake?” asked Wendal. “Has she come with you?”

 MistyTrail looked around and saw her small group of friends a dozen stalls away. She pointed them out to Wendal.

 “She will be here soon,” answered MistyTrail. “We are on our way to visit the Emperor.”

 “Are you now?” grinned Wendal. “I would suspect that your statement was all bluster if I did not know your sister. What makes you think the Emperor will see you?”

 “He sent for us,” answered MistyTrail as she picked up a piece of jewelry and examined it. “We rescued two elves from the Island of Darkness. Emperor Marak wants to talk to them.”

 “The Island of Darkness?” responded Wendal. “It sounds scary.”

 “It was,” MistyTrail sighed as she placed the jewelry back on the table. “I am sure that the Emperor will see us promptly.”

 Mistake saw MistyTrail talking to Wendal. She grabbed Eltor and Caldal by the arms and hurried them towards Wendal’s stall.

 “Take them to the end of the market,” Mistake commanded MistyTrail. “I will catch up to you in a moment.”

 MistyTrail frowned and was about to object when she saw the displeasure on Mistake’s face. She smiled politely at Wendal and then herded the elves away from the stall.

 “So you found your sister,” beamed Wendal. “I never had a doubt that you would succeed. She looks very much like you.”

 “That she does,” nodded Mistake, “but she is prone to telling tall tales. I am trying hard to break her of the habit, but it is hard. Sometimes I think she doesn’t even know what is real and what is fancy. I hope she didn’t say anything really crazy. She embarrasses me sometimes.”

 “Actually,” grinned Wendal, “we barely had time to say hello before you arrived. I hope you have time later to stop by for a chat. I would like to know what you have been up to.”

 “I will try,” Mistake said cheerily as she left the stall and hurried to catch up to her friends.

 Mistake caught up with the others and guided them out of the market and into a large well-groomed park. She paused when they were free of passersby.

 “What did you tell Wendal?” asked Mistake.

 “Not much,” frowned MistyTrail. “Why are you upset? I thought he was your friend?”

 “In a way he is,” shrugged Mistake, “but that does not mean that I share things with him freely. Wendal is the most expensive merchant in Khadora. He buys and sells anything that commands a large price.”

 “Well I wasn’t going to steal any of his wares,” pouted MistyTrail, “if that is what you were worrying about. That is your thing, not mine.”

 “That is not what I was talking about,” Mistake retorted angrily. “Sometimes what commands a large price in Khadora is information. Did you stop to think that some people might pay to know that there are elves in Khadora? Emperor Marak asked us not to share any information with anyone until we talked to him first.”

 “Well we ought to go see him then,” countered MistyTrail. “There is no reason for us to stand in this park debating it. Let’s go.”

 Eltor and Caldal had dismissed the conversation when it started. The elves stood in the park gazing at the Imperial Palace. The massive white building sat behind a high black metal fence with gates sprinkled along its length. They watched people coming and going and saw soldiers marching in and out the doors in a wide variety of uniforms.

 “Are you sure that this emperor will even speak to us?” asked Eltor. “We may have to wait days just to find out if he will speak to us.”

 “He will speak to us,” assured Mistake as she exhaled in frustration. “Come on. Let’s get this over with. I am tired of being a shepherd.”

 Mistake led the way through the park to the black fence. She opened one of the gates and marched the group to the steps leading to the door. Four Imperial soldiers stood guard outside the door. They stared at the small group as they approached. Mistake winced as she imagined what they must look like. Eltor and Caldal were still dressed in the Motanga uniforms they had stolen. The garish red uniforms were torn and ill fitting. Mistake and MistyTrail were dressed in animal skins, but even their clothes needed mending in more than one place. She chewed on her lower lips as the eyes of the soldiers bore into them.

 “What is your purpose in coming here?” demanded one of the soldiers as soon as the group reached the bottom of the steps.

 “This is not going to go well,” Caldal whispered to Eltor. “It will not be days of waiting. It will be weeks.”

 “I am Mistake,” announced Mistake as she flashed a white pin before the soldiers’ eyes. “I have been commanded by Emperor Marak to bring these three before him immediately upon entering the city. Please send a runner immediately to inform the emperor of my arrival.”

 The nearest soldier’s eyebrows rose in surprise at the bold response. He stepped to the door and cracked it open. He whispered to someone inside and then closed the door.

 “Marshal Chack will be here in a moment,” the soldier declared. “Please stand off to one side while you wait.”

 “I am sure his response will be swift,” retorted Mistake. “Anyone coming behind us can wait.”

 The soldier shook his head and glared at Mistake. He was about to demand that she move to one side when the door opened. Marshal Chack walked out and stood on the top step. He stared at Mistake and the others around here. He smiled thinly and shook his head.

 “Let them in,” stated the Imperial marshal. “I will take care of them.”

 One of the soldiers opened the door and Marshal Chack led the small group into the palace. He halted in the massive entry foyer and stared at the group again.

 “Do you know how to find the soldiers’ dining room?” he asked Mistake.

 “I know where it is,” Mistake nodded.

 Marshal Chack reached into a pouch and handed two small white pins to Mistake. “Put one of those on your sister and one on yourself,” he commanded. “Go to the dining room and wait there. I am not going to let these two men roam the halls in those uniforms. I will take them to change their clothes. They will meet you there.”

 Mistake was suspicious about the arrangements, but her eyes gleamed with the thought of having two more Imperial pins. She reached out and grabbed the pins. Marshal Chack gently took Eltor and Caldal by the arms and led them away.


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