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Iceblade: Chapter 10


IT IS ALMOST THREE hours after midnight by the time I get back in position, concealed flat against the wall on the corner of the Avenue of Roses. Kashia and the others are out of sight, poised to distract any marauding guards checking for curfew-breakers. Marin grips my arm firmly until I look into his eyes.

“Ariel, are we clear? No more rescue attempts. And tell Alina to be careful. No more mention of the Palace of Thorns. If Shan’domir and his associates have picked up gossip about her questions, it’s more than likely that others have as well.”

I nod mutely. Alina has had no one to teach or guide her in her role as spy so it is hardly surprising she has been taking too many risks. The constraints on this mission feel suffocating, but at least my outburst provoked Shan’domir into doing something to help those poor slaves trapped in a cycle of torture.

I remind myself of the dangers ahead. If I don’t come back from this I don’t want my last goodbye with Marin to have been framed in another argument.

“I promise.” I reach up and plant a long kiss on his lips before he has a chance to remember to be objective and professional and distant. I feel the moment he gives up on discipline and training and holds me close, his kiss reminding me how much he wants me. I press against him, sensing the tension and inner conflict in the taut muscles. If only I wasn’t an unreliable Blade adept, if only he wasn’t sworn to defend his country above all else, if only we weren’t at war––

He pushes me away, gently and regretfully.

“Stay focused, Ariel. It really is the only way to stay alive. And I want you to come back from this more than anything.”

If I don’t move now I’ll lose that survival focus. I leap for the vine stems twisting and clinging around the entrance archway and swing myself up the ledges to the roof. I have only used this strange route once before but my feet seem to remember the way instinctively. A few minutes later I’m lying on the ridge tiles above Alina’s window.

Just as she promised on my last visit, she has left the tiny window of the bath annex ajar, just enough to reach in and loosen the catch. I lower down to the window ledge, hoping she had the forethought to keep those damn hinges oiled with her lovely scented body lotion.

To my relief, the frame swings open with nothing more than a soft whisper. I ease my body through into the steamy atmosphere of the annex and then pull my harness back on, although it’s unlikely that any number of weapons would get me through the layers of guards they have stationed in the streets around the outside of this place.

I listen at the connecting door to Alina’s room. If she is busy entertaining, they are being remarkably quiet about it. I push open the door, the heady perfumed darkness reminding me poignantly of my last visit to my beloved sister. I am finding it harder to remember the naïve young girl I thought she was when we lived together in a peaceful Sylvani village.

Only one shadowy outline under the covers. Relief. I step forward and cautiously lay my hand over her mouth. I hate the fear I feel surging through her as she wakes.

“I’m sorry Alina. I couldn’t risk you screaming.”

She relaxes and pushes herself up on the pillows, rubbing sleep out of her eyes. She runs a cautious hand over my clothes in the dim moonlight.

“At least you’re not plastered in half-congealed blood and boiled oil this time.”

We both allow ourselves a stifled laugh and the sister-hug we didn’t dare try last time in case Akadian noticed any sooty marks on her too-revealing dress.

“Listen Alina, I can’t stay long. I’ve come to warn you to be more careful with your questions. At least one person has noticed your interest in the Palace of Thorns. A friend is taking care of it. Promise me that from now on you’ll be less direct and more… flirty.”

“Ariel, I’m already doing flirty. But if someone has noticed, that means I really have pushed things too far. Thanks for the warning. I’ll work on being more subtle.” She lights a candle and the outlines of the velvet-draped room flicker and dance in the uncertain yellow light. Everything is laid out just as I remember it. Side tables spread with bowls of fruit and dainty sweetmeats, a glass fronted cupboard with bottles of liquor and elegant glasses in which to serve it. This really is a gilded prison. And it makes my tough life sleeping under the stars feel like a wild breath of freedom by comparison.

Alina reaches up to her hiding place on top of the tall bed post and hands me a piece of paper. “Here’s my latest collection of spy-intelligence.”

I stare at it. Too big to get into Nightwing’s leg capsule. Looks like we’ll have to practice writing tiny messages before I leave. I tuck the folded paper into the herb bag at my waist. It nestles awkwardly alongside my collection of fresh nightbane berries. The dread of being captured alive on these city forays is always hanging on the edge of my mind.

“Alina, can you get shorter messages onto a piece of paper only this big?” I make a small square with my fingers. “I’m going to show you how to call an owl to get your messages out. You can do it at the hour before dawn each day.”

Her radiant smile almost breaks my heart. I had forgotten how much she has always loved rescuing injured animals and nursing them back to health. Maybe Nightwing will provide more reliable company than I have been able to offer her since this invasion fractured our lives. Alina tears a tiny square from the corner of her writing pad.

I point to the damaged page. “Don’t leave that where someone might see it. It might scream ‘I’m a spy’ at anyone who has done this sort of thing before.”

“Hmph. Good point.” She shoves the pad under the mattress.

“What do you officially use it for anyway?” I suddenly wonder if someone might be trying to test or trap her, but she gives me another mischievous grin.

“Some of my clients adore it when I write them silly little love poems. I’ve even had a few back––though I’m not impressed with Rapathian poetry. Never use one superlative when ten will do.”

I groan inwardly at the thought of how deeply she seems to be getting involved with the enemy hierarchy. I push the thought aside before I run out of time to get through the essentials of owl messaging.

“Can you think of anything useful that you might have omitted from your message, especially regarding what the Usurper wants to take from Samaran, apart from gold? Write it on that square and we can send it as a test.”

Alina closes her eyes and concentrates, then slowly shakes her head.

“Sorry. Most of them just brag about gold and slaves and being wealthy. When not bragging about how many Samarians they’ve killed.”

“Sissy, you’re amazing. I don’t know how you manage to smile and flirt while having to listen to all that.”

She lets out a long breath. “That isn’t the hard part. What is difficult is trying to remember who I really am once they have gone and I’m safe again.”

Her confession is so close to my own fears about what I’m becoming that I can’t find words to reply. I give her another hug and the bag of torpid pills. It must be almost owl-time. I steer her towards the tiny window in the bath annex. We will just have to send a blank test message. I hand her the slender whistle and she blows silently through it, smiling again as she grips it in her teeth. I feel tears prickling my eyes.

That is exactly how Marin holds it.

“Oops, I just remembered!” She almost drops the whistle on the floor. “Yesterday Akadian was going on about Lord Farang. About him being not just a traitor but a greedy double-crossing traitor as well, trying to beat Purmut to the treasure. Do you think he meant the Northland gold?”

Another clue. “No, Sissy, I don’t think it is gold. And it means we are a little bit further in trying to work out what devious plan Farang is up to. Or rather, what the Usurper knows about his devious plan. Quick, put that in the note before Nightwing arrives.”

While Alina scribbles furiously, I take the whistle and try again. At last I hear the soft beat of wings and the owl lands on the window ledge. Another of Alina’s entranced smiles and any twinge of regret I might have felt at losing my first wild companion vanishes. I show her how to unclip the capsule, slip the rolled note inside and replace it on Nightwing’s leg. I feel sure we are slower than Marin is at this task but the owl is remarkably patient. A gentle push and a flurry of soft grey feathers, and the message vanishes into the night.

“Remember, she will be circling, waiting for your signal an hour before dawn each day. Only call her when you need her, to reduce the risk.” My worry now is that my sister looks so excited she will be calling the owl every night and someone will notice.

“I’ll be careful, Ariel. Promise.”

She holds my weapons for me while I wriggle through the tight window frame, then blows me a kiss before I disappear onto the rooftops.


I BARELY MAKE IT BACK through the grimy alleys and streets to Kashia’s underground spy-base before dawn. I sense there are at least two of her distraction team watching over my progress but they are like shadows in the night and I don’t catch even a glimpse of them.

I repeat the coded pattern of knocks on the delivery entrance to a seedy alehouse and the door opens. The woman on guard automatically turns her face away as I enter and points to the stone steps leading down to the cellar where we met Shan’domir. Access to the connecting door involves squeezing behind one of the barrels and knocking again.

Marin opens the heavy timber door and lets me in, his relief evident even though he only gives me a brief hug before stepping back. The others are gathered around what looks like a map spread out on the unevenly paved floor. I lean over, trying to decipher the spidery lines.

“What’s this? I thought you would all be catching up on sleep by now?”

“We can sleep later.” Marin kneels and points to the side of the map. “Kashia received a message an hour ago. It was about the captured Samarian generals that Farang betrayed so that he could set two of his own traitors to command the army in their place. The generals are still prisoners but have recently been moved to a different part of the castle dungeons. There is a connection with this section of underground tunnels that the enemy hasn’t yet discovered. It means we have a chance to get them out.” His finger traces an indistinct route across the page.

“Why the rush? Wouldn’t it be better to spend more time gathering information?” Even as I say it, I’m wondering if maybe I’m just tired. Caution isn’t usually my first reaction.

Marin notices the same thing but it appears the plan has already been well-developed while I was busy teaching Alina owl-messaging.

“We need you on this one, Ariel. The access from the tunnels to the dungeon is a tight squeeze with several guards on the other side. They have to be dealt with before you can open the door to let the rest of us in.”

Something doesn’t feel right about this.

“Yes, I can see that it needs someone smaller than the rest of you who can also fight off several large jailers. But they would know about a spare door and would have already checked out where the tunnels on the other side lead to!”

Kashia edges closer. “This underground system is ancient, part of the legacy of the Knights of Eldaran after they gave up their right to the throne and became guardians of the king. It was designed as an escape route for the king if the castle were to be attacked and overrun.”

“And even now it has been kept secret from all but the Eldrin?”

“Of course. No point establishing an elite kingsguard unless they have a watertight security system. The reason we need to act now is because those two generals are well-known and respected by the army captains. If we can get them out of that dungeon, we have a good chance of getting rid of Farang’s two traitors and reinstating our two loyal commanders. We regain control of the army just as the Emperor is preparing for his invasion of the Northlands.”

I have to admit it makes sense. I wish I knew why something feels off about the whole thing. I am about to repeat my question about the door when Kashia answers it anyway.

“The Knights of Eldaran knew what they were doing when they constructed these tunnels. The door is part of the wall, invisible from the inside. I can show you where the hidden lever is that will release the lock. When it is closed behind us as we make our escape, any pursuit will be cut off.”

“And why is there also a way in from the outside, albeit a tight squeeze?”

Kashia looks surprised. “Dual-use of course. If the king were to be captured and imprisoned, the Eldrin could get in from outside and rescue him.”

“Fine. Show me how to identify this hidden lock.”

Kashia leads me to a corner of the cellar and points to a section of crumbling mortar between the damp stones.

“Put your left hand here.”

I slide my fingers into the crevice and discover that I can curl them around the edge of the stone to push on a small iron lever. There is a dull click. And nothing happens.

“It doesn’t work.”

“It isn’t meant to. The purpose is simply to instruct the knight who is designated to go inside so they can act quickly when they arrive. The location of the lever in the dungeon is one blade-length to the left of the hole in the tunnel ceiling where you will enter.”

It is the first time I have been referred to as a knight, but I assume it is more an acknowledgement of the ancient designers of this system than a change in my own status.

“And it will be at shoulder height for a man?” It occurs to me this might be too obvious.

Kashia breaks into a rare smile. “Of course not. It is only one blade-length from the floor. Never put a secret lock anywhere near eye-level for anyone. In any case, the most suitable candidates for getting through small gaps are almost always women.

I glance at Nem, who gives a self-deprecating shrug. She may be shorter than I am, but her sturdy and muscular build would demand a few extra inches of width in a tight tunnel.

I step back and wave Kashia to the exit. “Lead on. We had best get this done before Lupine thinks we’ve abandoned her to permanent guard duty outside the city walls.”


BY THE TIME I HAVE followed Kashia and the others through what seems like an interminable labyrinth of damp, cobwebby tunnels, I have rehearsed at least a dozen reasons that I hope will persuade Jantian to abandon any plans he might have for my future career as spy or assassin. I need space and air and preferably sky above me to be able to even think clearly. This claustrophobic maze of cramped tunnels and dripping roofs comes packaged with distracting layers of slime underfoot and rat-like scurrying sounds in the shadows. Kashia’s eerie firefly-lights only add to the creepy atmosphere of the place.

She stops. The way ahead is blocked by a solid wall.

I run my hands over the damp stone.

“It doesn’t feel like this has moved for centuries.”

Kashia tries not to look offended. “Give my spy-network some credit! We always ran regular maintenance checks on our entire support and escape system. Until the palace was taken over, that is.”

“But nothing since then?” I hesitate. “I mean, you don’t know if anything on the other side has been discovered or sabotaged?”

“No. Our sources inside the palace are low-level servants who use their listening points cautiously to avoid detection. Once you get in, stay sharp, adapt fast, and remember everything you can to report back after this operation is over.” Kashia links her fingers together to offer me a push up to the roof, thus informing me that the time for questions has ended. I glance back at Marin for reassurance and as always he is quick to provide it.

“Ariel, just get that door open and we’ll be in there with backup within seconds.”

I’m impressed by the way Kashia doesn’t flinch when I set my disgustingly slimy foot into her linked hands. A quick leap and push, and I reach for the dark ledge just visible above my head. Then it is easy to swing one leg up and over the ledge and inch my way along to the promised narrow opening.

And hells, it really is narrow. Another episode of removing harness and trying to breathe out as I squeeze through the constricting tunnel. Cobwebs cling to my face and stick to my eyelids as I push my way along it. After what seems an age but is probably no more than a few minutes, I feel the outline of a raised tile on the floor.

Lifting the tile and pushing it forward and out of the way is not easy in such a confined space, especially as I have to lift it far enough to avoid the telltale scraping that would alert any jailers who happen to be standing underneath.

At last I get the slab out of the way and look down into the cavern below.


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