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Soulblade: Chapter 14


THE REST OF THE DAY disappears in a flurry of preparation. Farhaz provides supplies, carefully packed into saddlebags and protected against Annubia’s searing heat. One advantage of my temporary diversion to Khotann is that my ride can now become a packhorse for the others’ onward journey to Rapathia.

Then, oh bliss, the house staff offer to wash all our clothes and prepare baths. I try not to think about how long it will be until there is another chance of such luxury.

I take advantage of a lull in the proceedings to catch Farhaz without a bevy of domestics gathered around him.

“Farhaz, can you include our prisoner in the bath and laundry invitation?”

“Of course. Marin mentioned that you are still trying to disregard his past crimes and win his cooperation.”

“Without much success so far, I fear. Our resentment and his arrogance don’t mix well. But one of our Samarian peasants managed to put hyacinth powder in his clothes. It was her only chance for revenge after his troops raided her village. Removing the irritant may put Dragar in a better mood.”

The assassin’s hawk-like features crease into a rare grin.

“It would seem that your peasants have some degree of Nishan training?”

“I would say that some of us simply have a natural talent for mischief.”

“Indeed. This I have noticed for myself.”

There is still a twitch of amusement on his face as he goes out to instruct the domestics. I hope it means he is no longer angry with me for accepting Zandar’s initiation without his permission. Not that I had much choice in the middle of that terrifying encounter outside the pinnacle of Rahimar.



IT WRENCHES MY HEART to say goodbye to Marin and the others in the cool dawn of the following morning. I watch them as they set out on the western road, hugging the foothills of the coastal range. There are so many unknowns ahead for all of us and the chances of finding each other again, alive, are slim. I tell myself to focus on what I have to do in the next few days as I watch their outlines melt into the morning mist.

Farhaz finds me a horse from the stables. Desert-born, tall and rangy, the mare is light and swift over the stony surface of the little-known trails we take through the farmlands. Farhaz finds the route with uncanny accuracy as he turns away south and heads for the highway that will take us to Khotann on the edge of the great desert.

The ride to Khotann is long and hard. The coast plain is well watered by rivers flowing from the mountain range and for the first two hours of the morning our route meanders through pleasant orange groves and walnut forests that have been planted to shade the wheatfields. But by midday the land has become hot and dry and the sun beats down mercilessly on our heads. Farhaz has given me a bright yellow sand-robe of fine Annubian silk to shield the savage fire of the sun, but to a northern-born forest-dweller like me its protection feels woefully inadequate. It is a relief on the second day when the great walls of Khotann appear in the far distance, glowing red-gold in the last rays of sun.

Farhaz turns off the highway and follows dusty farm-tracks to another Nishan safe-house, this one set within a protective cluster of date-palms and thorn bushes.

“Ariel, I will not be able to get past the city gate-guards now this deadly search of the Khalim’s has become so intense. But Shan’domir’s Nishan bodyguards are already here and we can send messengers to bring others when we need them.”

“You mean Shan’domir’s dancing girls managed to keep their real identities secret?”

“Fortunately. What was equally advantageous was that because of their previous association with his disgraced friend, the Khalim showed no interest in hunting them down and adding them to the royal harem.”

“I seem to recall having a near miss with that fate myself.”

Farhaz merely raises an eyebrow, acknowledging his own part in rescuing me from that particular abduction.

The house is larger than the one outside Al’harin, built from smooth honey-gold adobe and laid out in a hollow circle to enclose a cool and pleasant courtyard. Low palms with wide fronds shade the grass and flower borders around the small lotus pool and fountain at its heart. A curved and pillared colonnade lines the walls, with a long table set beneath.

Farhaz tells me to pull up a chair as Shan’domir’s bodyguards hurry outside carrying bowls of food. They move smoothly around the table, laying out platters of spiced meats and marinated fish, bowls of dates and nuts, pomegranates and oranges. I notice how completely they have abandoned their fluttery, simpering mannerisms along with the filmy clothing they previously used for their undercover roles as seductive dancing girls.

Their clinging black Nishan silks reveal all the sinewy power and skill they could bring instantly to any fight. Their quick smiles of recognition and greeting feel like an acknowledgement of their trust and loyalty for this new task. It brings a leap of confidence to my heart as I recall how excluded I had felt from their previous mission, never mind that they had explained it was because there had been no time for us to learn the subtle moves and communication of close teamwork. Now it seems that my role with Zandar and my admittedly limited Nishan training has been deemed sufficient for this latest emergency.

I hope I can live up to their expectations.

Farhaz indicates the tall dark-haired girl I had met only briefly on my previous visit with Shan’domir.

“Nilan here has been leading the team since Falina left the bodyguards to spy on the Khalim’s palaces for us. She will lead the mission to create a distraction while you break Shan’domir out of his chains.”

Nilan gives me an appraising stare. “Ariel, are you sure you can work with Zandar on your part of this plan? We have doubts that he would be willing to get involved in an internal dispute because of his pledge to avoid harm to Annubians.”

“I’ll know once I have called him and listened to what he says. But first, tell me about my friend Falina. Is she all right? Has she suffered because of her association with Shan’domir and the disgrace of the Nishan?”

“Not as far as we know. Shan’domir was captured easily because he was summoned to come alone by the Khalim to discuss ‘secret plans’ but was instead snatched by the palace guard. Falina was of course disgraced because of her origins with Shan’domir’s dancers––but her role as an assassin-spy was not suspected. The Khalim preferred to inflict humiliation on her instead of death or torture. He relegated her to an inferior and permanent role in the garrison sector of the palace complex. She is now delegated to cleaning out the royal stables. In the last message we received from her, she said how delighted she was with her new posting. It gives her better access to the rear gate, to let us in when the time comes.”

Her words are a sharp reminder that this plan still feels every bit as insane as when Farhaz first mentioned it.

“Nilan, I understand the idea that seeing Zandar rescue the Master of the Nishan will send a clear message to the people and to the Khalim that the League of Assassins is not to be trifled with and that their leader is a powerful man. But if the Khalim is as prideful as you say, he will most likely take it as an insult––as well as a challenge by a powerful warrior clan. It could start a civil war. Especially if your group of Nishan assassins is seen actually attacking the palace guards.”

There is a long silence. I suspect I have simply articulated what they have all been secretly thinking––but have been unable to think of anything better. Taking out crime lords and slavers is a little more straightforward than challenging a despotic ruler, especially as up to now they have been leaving the political strategy to their commander. Who is now imprisoned and unable to advise them.

I decide to break the silence before we all become too discouraged to plan anything at all.

“Can you draw a map to show where Shan’domir is being held captive?”

“Of course.” Nilan moves some of the platters aside and arranges knives and pieces of fruit across the table to mark the walls of the palace. “The royal apartments are at the front. The windows overlook the gardens and fountains as well as the wide avenue approaching the grand gold-plated entrance. Everything about the building is designed to impress the Khalim’s visitors; the mural-decorated corridors, the fancy over-furnished rooms, the crystal chandeliers. There is only one reinforced door at the rear of the decorative side of the palace complex that leads into the military side that holds the storerooms, the guardhouse, and the Tower of Taskana where the prisoners are kept.”

“Taskana? Like the desert?”

Her face becomes drawn. “Yes. Its name means the same thing. To die alone.” She notices my puzzled look. “I have heard that in your country, despised prisoners are kept in clammy, damp dungeons underground. Here, those places are valuable. They keep the wine cold in the summer, and are built with coiled ducts to circulate cool air into the living apartments. Conversely, a tower like the Taskana becomes a hideous oven in the heat of the day. When the jailers have finished extracting all the information they think they are likely to get, they leave the prisoner to die alone from heat and thirst.”

“But you are sure this is not yet Shan’domir’s fate?”

“Falina’s report, sent yesterday, said that she had seen bread and water being dispatched to the tower, enough for seven prisoners. The same number as the day before. That is the one hope we all cling to.”

“Only seven? I would have thought that someone as ruthless as the Khalim would have many prisoners?”

She shakes her head. “The only purpose of these captives is to provide information. Once it is clear that no more useful intelligence is forthcoming, they do not last long.”

Taskana.

It is a grim warning, to be held in readiness for my attempt to fight my way out of there with Shan’domir.

I must not be captured alive.


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