An excerpt from
Path of the Sun, by Violette Malan

 

Chapter One
The bright autumn sunshine made Parno Lionsmane blink at the view from the rooftop terrace of the Mercenary House in Lesonika. The normally dark, pine-covered hills to the north looked a brilliant green, and the white-washed walls of the town itself were almost blinding. A young page ran across the courtyard below, drawing Parno's eyes from the view, but he had to squint to make out any detail in the deep shadows.
 From this vantage point it was obvious that Lesonika's Mercenary House had once been a private home. The building fronted west on a small square, with its northern wall running along a side street and the courtyard making up the east end of the structure. Its southern wall was shared with the building next door, the residence and workplace of Lesonika's foremost Mender.
  Of course, once the Mercenaries had taken it over, the building's defenses had been strengthened. The front door was sealed with stone from the inside, as were the ground floor windows; the upper windows were barred, even those on the third floor, and the staircase leading to the rooftop terrace had been removed and replaced with a ladder -- easier to kick over should the need arise. The courtyard, with its iron-reinforced gate, had been restructured into the House's only entrance.
  Everything planned. Everything familiar. Parno grinned. That was one of the pleasurable things about the Mercenary Brotherhood. The Common Rule was the same everywhere you went.
  "There." His Partner's rough silk voice murmured from behind him. Still smiling, Parno turned around.  Dhulyn Wolfshead lifted her hand from the vera tile she had just lined up on the small wooden table to the right of the trap door. Meant to hold arrows and spare cross-bow bolts in time of trouble, it doubled nicely as a gaming table in time of quiet.  
  "Blood," said Dhulyn's opponent from the other side of the table. "You have the Caids own luck." Kari Artagan pulled from her belt a pair of fine leather gloves, dyed a dark red, with an intricate pattern of silver embroidery on the gauntlets, and dropped them down on top of the array of tiles.
  "Considering the Caids have long been dust, I think my luck is slightly better," Dhulyn said, drawing the left glove on to her own hand. "These are brand new, I've only worn them once." "I'll take the greatest care of them, my Brother." Dhulyn smiled. "You may wish to win them back."
  "Oh yes, when the sun rises in the east." Kari stood and stretched, moving her shoulders back and forth. She was much more finely dressed than either Parno or Dhulyn, in blood red linen trousers, and a bright white silk shirt with a silver embroidered vest over it. An elaborately plumed hat sat on the floor next to her feet. "It's today, isn't it," she said. "Your, ah, your meeting with the Senior Brother."
  "No need to be so delicate," Parno said. "We're just waiting to be called in."
  Kari Artagan shook her head. Her red and gold Mercenary badge, identical to Parno's, flashed in the sun. "And this one cool enough to beat me at Soldier's Sixes." She indicated Dhulyn with her thumb, as she leaned over, scooped up her hat and set it at an angle on her brow. Straightening, she rested her hand on the hilt of her sword. "I'm off to find some food," she announced. "Losing always makes me hungry." She touched her fingers to her forehead.
  "You should lose more often, then," Dhulyn called out, as Kari lifted the trapdoor and let it fall with a bang. "Soon you'll be too scrawny to pull back your bow, let alone lift that sword." Kari grinned.
  "In Battle," she said. "Or in Death," both Parno and Dhulyn responded as their Brother stepped into the opening and dropped from view.
  "You could have won some money, don't you think," Parno said, taking Kari's empty seat across from Dhulyn. "Not that the gloves don't look well on you."
 "Nervous, are you?"
 "And you're not?"
  Dhulyn frowned down at the tiles while she pulled off the glove she'd tried on and tucked it and its partner into the sash at her waist. She pursed her lips in a tuneless whistle, drumming her fingers on the edge of the table, as if she saw a pattern she did not like in the spread of the tiles. Finally she blew out a breath, and swept the vera tiles back into their box.
  "What do you think is taking them so long," she said, as she closed the box, latched it, and set it to one side.
  Parno folded his arms folded across his chest. "Think of it this way," he said. "They've had months to go over the documents we left them. I'm certain the Senior Brother's decision is already made. We may as well relax, since there's nothing we can do about it now but wait to be told."
  Dhulyn stared at him, her blood red brows raised high over her stone grey eyes. "I'm the Outlander," she said, the ghost of a smile on her scarred lips. "I'm the one who is popularly supposed to be naturally phlegmatic. What makes you so cool?" The corner of her mouth crimped and Parno laughed out loud.  "There," he said, slapping his thighs. "I knew you weren't as calm as you looked." He leaned forward, elbows on the table, and extended his right hand towards her, waiting until Dhulyn took it in her own before speaking. "What's the worst that can happen?" he said, lowering his voice.
This was something they'd tossed back and forth many times during the weeks it had taken them to cross the Long Ocean and return to Lesonika, where they knew this hearing would be waiting for them. Dhulyn smiled her wolf's smile, and gave the only answer either of them had.
"They can't separate us," she said. "Whatever they decide, that's beyond them." Still holding his hand, she leaned back in her chair. Mercenary Brothers Partnered for life, and not even the Brotherhood itself could dissolve the bond once it was formed. "Since the worst can't happen," Dhulyn continued, "anything else they decide will be tolerable. Exile, for example, either to the lands across the Long Ocean --"
"Which would be manageable," Parno cut in. "Or to the court of the Great King in the West, which would not." "Caids take it, we've done nothing wrong." Parno exhaled sharply and released Dhulyn's hand. "Then we have nothing to worry about." They rose to their feet as light footsteps sounded in the hall below, and Jay Starfound stuck his head above the landing. Unlike Kari Artagan, Jay was a resident Brother in Lesonika, a dark-haired, oval-faced man with a sharp-pointed beard covering a scar at the corner of his mouth. The colours of the Mercenary badge tattooed on his temples and over his ears flashed a startling green and red in the sunlight. "Brothers," he said, touching his finger tips to his forehead. "You're wanted." Nothing, neither his tone, his choice of address nor his impassive face told them anything they wanted to know. Dhulyn, tucked the box of vera tiles under her left arm and gestured to Parno to precede her. Dhulyn Wolfshead had expected Jay Starfound to escort them to the ground floor hall, the largest room in the House, unaltered from its previous existence and still used for meals. Instead, he lead them only as far down as the second floor, where they entered what had once been a private salon. The tiled floor was a warm golden colour, and the walls still bore the murals of a forest scene, faded but rich in detail. A work table had been set up between the two barred windows, and behind it, in a tall wooden chair with padded arms and back, sat the oldest Mercenary Brother Dhulyn had ever seen. His head had been shaved smooth, his eyebrows were still dark and wiry, but the hair on his arms and the backs of his hands was grey. Those hands were gnarled, the knuckles swollen, and his face was heavily wrinkled, especially around the place where his right eye was missing. Dhulyn blinked when she took in the faded blue and red of his Mercenary badge. She had never seen those colours before. The Senior Brother of Hellik raised his head as they entered and fixed them with his one pale blue eye. "I am Gustof Ironhand, called the Boxer." Gustof's voice was unexpectedly light and musical. "I was Schooled by Jerzon Horsetooth." Which explained the old colours of his badge, Dhulyn thought, and why she'd never seen them before. "I have fought at Ishkanbar, at Beliza and at Tolnek." As was customary, he cited only his last three battles. "I have come from Pyrusa to review your case, as I am the Senior Brother in Hellik." And so he would be, Dhulyn thought, if he'd been Schooled by Jerzon. Jerzon Horsetooth had been dead for decades, his School dissolved. Gustof Ironhand could very well be the oldest Mercenary still alive. It was his age, Dhulyn imagined, and not his injury, which had led him to settle into a Mercenary House. "For the record," Gustof gestured at Jay Starfound sitting to one side, pen and parchment at the ready. "Would you also formally identify yourselves?" "I am Dhulyn Wolfshead." She was pleased that her voice sounded cool and relaxed. "Called the Scholar. I was Schooled by Dorian of the River, the Black Traveller, and have fought at the sea battle of Sadron, at Arcosa in Imrion, and for the Great King in the West at Bhexyllia. I fight with my Brother, Parno Lionsmane." "I am Parno Lionsmane," her Partner said. His voice was deeper and firmer than that of Gustof Ironhand, but equally musical. "I'm called the Chanter. Schooled by Nerysa Warhammer of Tourin. I have fought with my Brother, Dhulyn Wolfshead, at Arcosa, Bhexyllia and Limona -- if that's to be judged a proper battle." Gustof Ironhand's smile did nothing to settle Dhulyn's stomach. "That will be one of the things we rule on today." Jay looked up. "You should note, my Brothers, that the ship of Dorian the Black Traveller is in harbour at the moment," he said. "I doubt I will need to refer to him," Gustof said. "I have here the documents of your case. Some I understand you provided yourselves before you were . . . diverted by the Long Ocean Nomads. We had testimony at that time from Captain Huelra of the Catseye, and the Nomads themselves have since provided witness --" here Gustof Ironhand tapped a rolled scroll to his left -- "which supports your own explanation for the delay in these proceedings." He laced his fingers together and laid his clasped hands on the table before continuing. "To deal with the lesser business first, I rule that the delay was unavoidable, and that the actions you took to save the lives of the Catseye's crew were such as maintain the reputation of the Brotherhood." Gustof turned a page over. "I note also that relations have been established with both the nomad traders and the Mortaxa across the Long Ocean, who have asked that Mercenary Brothers be sent to them, as counselors." Gustof looked first at Parno, then at Dhulyn. "A return to the old ways, it seems." "Yes, my brother," Dhulyn said, as the Senior Brother seemed to be waiting for a response. "Their request has been recorded, and will be sent to all Mercenary Houses." Gustof paused, picking out a paper from among the ones laying flat in front of him, while Jay Starfound finished writing. "As for the more important matter, we have here the request for outlawry from the then Queen of Tegrian, accusing you of the kidnap and murder of her son and heir, Lord Prince Edmir." Dhulyn shifted her weight from one foot to the other, but didn't speak. "This was followed by a document from the present Queen of Tegrian, withdrawing her mother's request." Gustof looked up. "You supplied this document yourselves, I understand?" "Yes, my Brother," Dhulyn said. "You see it is written in her own hand, and was sealed with the royal seal." "Fortunate for you that the present Queen of Tegrian can write." The Senior Brother's tone was as dry as a sand lizard. "It appears that the late Queen was ill, and misinformed when she accused you," he continued. When Dhulyn and Parno remained silent, Gustof Ironhand's lips twitched. "The present Queen also assures us -- for the ears of the Brotherhood only -- that her brother is well and alive." Gustof leaned back in his chair, bringing his hands together, fingertip to fingertip. "That is something we would have had to check for ourselves, seeing that, though she claims him to be well and alive, it is she and not her older brother sitting on the throne of Tegrian. "Fortunately, while you were . . . diverted by the Nomads, a small caravan of travelling players arrived in Lesonika, and gave further witness, and further proofs, to support the Queen of Tegrian's assertions." Now Gustof smiled outright, and sat forward again, his elbows on the table. "In other words, the delay in presenting your case has helped to clarify it considerably." Dhulyn glanced again at Parno, but his eyes were focused on the faded olive trees painted on the wall above Gustof Ironhand's head. The older man spread his hands out on the table and looked at them, turning his head to get them both within the scope of his single eye. "I have reviewed your case," he said, his tone returning to strict formality. "And I accept the documents I have been given. I rule that there has been no breach of the Common Rule, nor does anyone outside of the Mercenary Brotherhood have legitimate grievance against you." Dhulyn let out a sigh as muscles she hadn't known were tense, relaxed. Parno's shoulders dropped an almost imperceptible amount as he touched the fingers of his right hand to his forehead. Dhulyn repeated his gesture with her own right hand. Still, the old man had said 'no one outside the Brotherhood'. "We thank you for your time and your attention to our dilemma, Gustof Ironhand," she said, her voice almost a whisper. "We are in your debt." The old man returned their salute and leaned back once more in his chair, this time signalling them to sit as well. He waited until they had drawn up the backless chairs more suited to Lesonika's warm climate and Jay Starfound had departed with his scrolls before speaking. "My time and attention are indeed valuable," Gustof said. "I am gratified to hear you acknowledge as much. I have had to come twice from Pyrusa to attend to what you call your 'dilemma' -- no direct fault of your own, I grant you," he added, lifting his palm toward them. "Nevertheless, this House, and the Mercenary House in Pyrusa have undertaken actions on your behalf, and Brothers other than myself have been called upon as well. There is a manner in which you can repay these . . . favours if you will, to our Houses, and to the Mercenary Brotherhood as a whole." Long-winded type, Dhulyn thought. Substitute the word 'fine' for 'repayment' and you'd have it just about exactly right. Why not just out with it? As if she or Parno would refuse any request from a Mercenary Brother. This would only be some boring contract no one else wanted, private wall guards perhaps, or a frontier outpost facing an amiable neighboring kingdom. The type of job, lasting only a few moons, that usually only junior Brothers who had yet to prove themselves in a real battle would take. "We are Brothers," she said, both as a way to acquiesce, and as a reminder. "And there would also be the matter of the stabling of our horses." "You do well to remind me." Again, the faintest of smiles floated across Gustof's lips. "As you may have heard, the Princess of Arderon is to wed the Tarkin of Menoin. She has travelled with her own people as far as Lesonika, and as a neutral body we have been asked to provide her an escort by sea to the court of her betrothed. If you will undertake this task for us, we shall consider our expenditure of time repaid, and the accounts balanced." "Is it a large party?" Dhulyn did her best not to make a face. Menoin was an island, and they would have to travel by boat. After crossing the Long Ocean twice in the last three moons she had been looking forward to getting back onto a horse. Gustof shook his head. "The Arderons are notoriously plain in their style of living. The Princess has a kinswoman as her immediate attendant and witness, and two body servants. They take also four mares in foal from the royal stables as a wedding gift." Dhulyn smiled back at him, careful not to let her small scar curl her lip back in a snarl. 'Plain in their living style' indeed. An understatement if she had ever heard one. The Arderons considered themselves to be descendents of and kin to the Horse Nomads of the Blasonar Plain, and affected the purity of living and conduct of their kinsfolk. Even the members of their Royal House were expected at the least to be instructed in arms, and in the cleaning and care of their own horses. "They are woman-ruled, are they not," Dhulyn said. "I'm surprised they are willing to send a daughter away." "This is a cousin of the present Tarkina, who has four female children of her own. There is little chance that Princess Cleona could inherit." The three Mercenary Brother exchanged identical smiles; they all knew how easily a small chance became a certainty. "Surely there are royal ladies of more note closer to Menoin than Arderon?" Parno asked. Though he rarely spoke of it, he had come from a High Noble House himself, and such speculation was in his blood. "Certainly," Gustof said. "But there are ancient ties between the two, ties which the Tarkinate of Menoin seems most interested in re-establishing." He leaned forward. "There is something more regarding the lady of Arderon. Rumour has it that some years ago an application was made on her behalf, and later withdrawn, to Dorian the Black Traveller." Parno cleared his throat. "The Princess wanted to become a Mercenary Brother and then changed her mind?" "According to what Dorian tells me, she was turned away." Gustof looked aside, the fingers of his left hand tapping the arm of his chair. Dhulyn glanced at Parno, but he only lifted one shoulder. What the older man said was likely. The histories told that at one time the Brotherhood was more numerous than it was now, but it took a particular kind of person to become a Mercenary Brother, and more than half of the applicants to the three existing Mercenary Schools were turned down. And seeing that less than half of those who were accepted survived their Schooling, the numbers of the Brotherhood remained small. She studied Gustof's lined face. Was he old enough to have seen the numbers dwindling, even in his own lifetime? As if he felt her speculative gaze on him, Gustof drew in a deep breath and sat straighter. "A small party," he repeated. "And as the Black Traveller is in port, and it does not matter to Dorian what route he takes while he is Schooling, we have decided to allow the Arderons to use his ship for the Princess's journey to Menoin." "And Dorian has agreed?" The words were out before Dhulyn could stop them, her tone of frank disbelief bordering on discourtesy. Evidently Gustof Ironhand thought so as well, for he only smiled again his thin, old man's smile. "Perhaps you would do better to ask him yourself." His tone was so unmistakable that Dhulyn found herself on her feet, with Parno already turning toward the door. "One question, Senior Brother, if I may," Dhulyn said. "Certainly." "The players, did they perform The Solder King?" Dhulyn asked. "They did indeed. In Battle, my Brothers," the old man said. "Or in Death," they replied. The Mercenary House was not large enough to have its own stable, but Dhulyn found that the public stable nearby had taken good care of their horses while they were on the other side of the Long Ocean. "How old do you think Gustof Ironhand is," Parno said as he threw his saddle across Warhammer's back. The big grey gelding had pretended not to know him when they had first arrived, but a pretence it had clearly been, and the horse now nudged him companionably, snorting into his face. "Sun and Moon only know," Dhulyn said. "I'd wager my second best sword he's been a Mercenary Brother longer even than you've been alive." She tested Bloodbone's girth and turned to her saddle bags. "In fact, I'd wager he's been Senior Brother here in Hellik longer than that." "Think he could still hold his own?" Dhulyn stopped what she was doing and considered Parno's question seriously. "His hands moved well, though his knuckles are so swollen. He's had years to learn to compensate for the single eye. As for strength," she shrugged. "Technique beats strength almost every time. If his enemy was close enough, I'd say Gustof could still kill." * DHULYN IS STANDING BEFORE A GRANITE WALL, THE BLOCKS FITTED SO CLOSELY THAT SHE HAS TO TOUCH THEM TO FEEL THE SEAMS. THE STONE IS SMOOTH AND COLD, CREATED BY THE HAND OF SOME MASTER CRAFTSMAN OF THE CAIDS. HER FINGER TIPS PASS OVER SOME IRREGULARITY AND DHULYN STANDS TO ONE SIDE, ALLOWING SHADOWS TO FALL WHERE HER FINGERS HAVE BEEN. A FACE STARES BACK AT HER FROM THE WALL, WIDE-BROWED, POINTED OF CHIN, THE NOSE VERY LONG AND STRAIGHT, THE LIPS FULL CURVES. THE EYES HAVE BEEN FINISHED WITH TINY CHIPS OF BLACK STONE, SO THAT THE FACE DOES INDEED APPEAR TO BE STARING . . . . A THIN MAN WEARING A GOLD RING IN EACH EAR IS BENT OVER A CIRCLE OF STONES, USING A SPARKER TO SET DRIED GRASS AND TWIGS ALIGHT. A PILE OF BROKEN BRANCHES SITS TO ONE SIDE READY TO BE PLACED IN THE FIRE. HIS LARGE HANDS HAVE LONG FLAT FINGERS. HIS STRAW-COLOURED HAIR IS COARSE AND THICK, CROPPED SHORT. DHULYN'S OWN SHADOW FALLS ACROSS HIM AND HE LOOKS UP. "HERE," HE SAYS, STRAIGHTENING TO HIS FEET AND REACHING TOWARD HER. "LET ME HELP YOU WITH THAT." . . . A SHORT YOUNG WOMAN, ROUNDED AND WELL-DRESSED, STRANDS OF DARK, CURLY HAIR ESCAPING FROM A SEVERE HEADDRESS, HANDS DEMURELY CLASPED AT HER WAIST, LOOKS AROUND THE KITCHEN OF WHAT LOOKS LIKE A MINOR HOUSE. THE WORKPLACE IS WELL-APPOINTED, WITH BOTH OPEN HEARTH AND TILED OVENS, POTS, CROCKS, AND A WORKTABLE LARGE ENOUGH TO ACCOMMODATE FOUR PEOPLE. THE YOUNG WOMAN WALKS THROUGH THE ROOM, TOUCHING, ALMOST CARESSING OBJECTS AS SHE PASSES THEM. SHE MAY BE SEEING THIS FOR THE LAST TIME, DHULYN THINKS, OR ELSE SHE'S BUT NEWLY COME HERE, AND IS MARKING HER NEWLY ACQUIRED TERRITORY WITH THE TOUCH OF HER HANDS. BUT THEN DHULYN SEES THAT THE BOWL THE WOMAN TOUCHES IS CRACKED NOW, THE WOODEN LADLE SPLIT, THE CROCKS BREAKING AND LEAKING THEIR CONTENTS ONTO THE FLOOR. FINALLY THE YOUNG WOMAN COMES TO THE TABLE AND, SMILING, STANDS READY TO LOWER HER HANDS TO ITS SURFACE . . . A TALL, THIN MAN WITH CLOSE-CROPPED HAIR THE COLOUR OF WHEAT STRAW, EYES THE BLUE OF OLD ICE, DEEP ICE, SITS READING A BOUND BOOK LARGER THAN ANY SHE HAS EVER SEEN. HIS CHEEKBONES SEEM CHISELED FROM GRANITE, YET THERE IS HUMOUR IN THE SET OF HIS LIPS, AND LAUGHER IN THE FAINT LINES AROUND HIS EYES. DHULYN KNOWS SHE WOULD LIKE THE MAN IF SHE MET HIM, AND THAT THIS IS A VISION OF THE PAST, BOTH HER PAST AND HIS, AND SHE WONDERS WHY SHE SEES IT AGAIN NOW. THE MAN TRACES A LINE ON THE PAGE WITH THIS FINGER, HIS LIPS MOVING AS HE CONFIRMS THE WORDS. HE NODS, AND, STANDING TAKES UP A HIGHLY POLISHED TWO-HANDED SWORD. DHULYN OWNS ONE LIKE IT, THOUGH SHE DOES NOT USE IT OFTEN. IT IS NOT THE SWORD OF A HORSEMAN. SHE CAN SEE NOW THAT HIS CLOTHES ARE BRIGHTLY COLOURED, AND FIT HIM CLOSELY EXCEPT FOR THE SLEEVES WHICH FALL FROM HIS SHOULDERS LIKE INVERTED LILIES. HE TURNS TOWARD A CIRCULAR MIRROR, AS TALL AS HE IS HIMSELF, WHICH DOES NOT REFLECT THE ROOM, BUT SHOWS A NIGHT SKY FULL OF STARS. HIS LIPS MOVE, AND DHULYN KNOWS HE IS SAYING THE WORDS FROM THE BOOK. HE MAKES A MOVE LIKE ONE OF THE CRANE SHORA, AND SLASHES DOWNWARD THROUGH THE MIRROR, AS IF SPLITTING IT IN HALF. BUT IT IS A WINDOW, NOT A MIRROR, AND IT IS THE SKY ITSELF, AND NOT A REFLECTION THAT THE MAN SPLITS WITH HIS CHARMED SWORD AND THROUGH THE OPENING COMES SPILLING LIKE FOG A GREEN-TINTED SHADOW, SHIVERING AND JERKY, AS THOUGH IT IS AFRAID . . . ANOTHER FAIR-HAIRED MAN, BUT THIS ONE YOUNGER, SHORTER, AND SQUARER THROUGH THE BODY. GUNDARON OF VALDOMAR SITS WHERE DHULYN HAS OFTEN SEEN HIM BEFORE, AT A TABLE, LOOKING DOWN INTO A FINDER'S BOWL. DHULYN KNOWS SHE'S SMILING NOW, HOPES THAT THIS IS NOT ALSO A VISION OF THE PAST. SHE WOULD LIKE TO SEE THE SCHOLAR AGAIN. * Parno watched Dhulyn out of the corner of his eye as they sat at breakfast on the aft deck the next morning. She'd experienced Visions during the night, but apart from one involving the Green Shadow which they knew came from the past not the future, there was nothing that required prompt sharing or action. Her Sight was more regular now, and if she could not always control what Vision came, and though they still came unbidden, they were not quite the unpredictable and useless things they had once been. In fact, just lately, they had occasionally been greatly helpful, something neither he nor his Partner had ever hoped to see. Dhulyn caught him looking at her and moved her head ever so slightly from side to side, though she smiled the faintest of smiles while she did it. With a nod just as minute, Parno did his best to put thoughts of Visions from his mind. They'd little enough time for speculation this morning. Their assignment had begun when the Arderon nobles came aboard the evening before, and now they were only waiting for the rowing tugs to come and pull the Black Traveller out of harbour. With the Princess of Arderon paying passage, Dorian of the River, Mercenary Schooler and called, like his ship, the Black Traveller, had no need to wait for the tide. They both sat at the Captain's table, with Parno across from Dorian, and Dhulyn on his right. Parno turned sideways in his seat with his back toward his Partner. His job was to keep his eye on the Princess Cleona, sitting three paces away with her cousin, being served breakfast by the two attendants they'd brought with them. Princess Cleona had declared that she preferred her guards did not stand over her while she ate, and since this was, after all, Dorian's ship, and there was no one on board that the Mercenary Schooler did not vouch for, Dhulyn had decided to let the Princess have her own way. This time. Still, throughout the meal, as he was handed bread, cheese, figs and cups of ganje, Parno kept one hand always free, and close to a weapon, while his eyes were constantly shifting, checking the area immediately around the Princess for anything that shouldn't be there -- the wrong attendant, one of Dorian's sailors, even a sea bird flying oddly. Dhulyn, he knew, was studying the larger field of danger, watching who was coming up the ladder from the main deck, who -- if anyone -- was in the rigging over their heads, and how close their duties brought them to the Princesses. Even here, where Dhulyn herself had been Schooled, they would take few chances. The Princess of Arderon and her young cousin were dressed in a combination of travelling leathers and quilted silks, densely embroidered, and their short half-boots were thick with beading. They were both in trousers, as befitted their horse nomad heritage. Their blouses had high collars, and narrow sleeves, and their vests, worn open in the morning sun, would fasten with large buttons carved from oyster shell, a luxury and mark of wealth on the inland plains. Princess Cleona was the older and shorter of the two women, but both had the same golden hair, and creamy skin, and their strong features marked them as close kin. They were neither of them beautiful, Parno thought, but it would be hard to mistake them for anyone else, or to forget them, once seen. "So why did you turn down the Princess's application? She looks fierce enough to me." Parno kept his voice politely low. Without turning, he accepted with his right hand the refilled cup of ganje Dorian the Black gave him, and leaned his elbow on the table. Dorian laughed, handing a matching cup to Dhulyn. The Mercenary Schooler was a tall man, well over Parno's height, with skin so dark it seemed to have blue highlights. Though he had already been a Schooler for some years when he had rescued and begun training the eleven year-old Dhulyn, Dorian seemed ageless, his face unlined, and his straight black hair thick and showing no signs of grey. "Ferocity has very little to do with it, as you well know, my Lion. Nor was it, as some have suggested, her royal status. We have many times had successful applicants from among royal Houses, over the years. No." His eyes grew more serious, though his mouth maintained its grin. "Cleona wished to join the Brotherhood because she was unhappy with her life, and that is insufficient reason to be accepted among us. We know that there are those who have a need to flee from their lives, but they must also be, in some fashion, running towards ours." "Surely that old connection can't be all that lies behind this willingness to offer her escort to Menoin? With us to guard her, she could have taken any ship in port," Dhulyn said, her voice like rough silk. "Ah, but the captain of any ship in port could not tell you what Gustof Ironhand, Senior Mercenary Brother of Hellik, needs you to know." "Something he could not tell us himself, evidently." "Something no one else knows -- yet. Something that we hope no one else will ever need to know." They had all been speaking quietly out of courtesy for the nearness of the noble passengers, but Dorian now fell into the nightwatch voice, so quiet that very likely even the apprentices serving them would not hear a word. Parno resisted the urge to turn and look at Dorian again. He would have given much to see the expression in the older man's eyes. "Can you tell us now?" Dhulyn said. "We'll have to take turns sleeping during the day, if we're both to be on watch tonight." Dorian took the last swig from his own cup and signalled to the apprentice hovering nearby, eyes round as coins. It was rare for youngsters like these to see, let alone to serve, seasoned Brothers like the Wolfshead and the Lionsmane. The youngster nodded and touched his forehead in response to Dorian's signal before scooping up the now empty jug of ganje and turning to go down the ladder to the main deck. Dorian leaned in. "A little over a year ago the old Tarkin of Menoin sent to the Mercenary House in Pyrusa for two bodyguards." Dhulyn Wolfshead leaned forward, putting her cup carefully down on the table. Parno sat up straighter, though he still did not take his eyes from the Arderon Princess. It was not unusual for a ruler, or even a High Noble House, to use Mercenary Brothers as personal guards, if they could afford it. There were some who even preferred it, since the question of trust would never arise. Still, it seemed an ominous way for Dorian to begin. "You say 'the old Tarkin'," was all Dhulyn said aloud. Dorian nodded. "The one who originally contracted for the marriage to our Princess." "She seems a little older than the usual wife-to-be." Dhulyn glanced at her Partner. Dorian smiled. "Indeed. But she is the Tarkina of Arderon's closest female kin -- other than her own daughters -- unmarried and of child-bearing years. The two countries, Menoin and Arderon, were once most closely related, and this alliance is vital, some tricky point of political tradition depends upon it. Of course the alliance is still possible, still desirable, perhaps even more so, now that the old Tarkin is dead." "Dead?" Dhulyn had no need to say anything more than that one word. Both her Partner and her Schooler understood what she was really asking. How did the old Tarkin die, when he had two Mercenary Brothers as body guards? Dorian nodded, accepting a jug refilled with steaming hot ganje before motioning the youngster away. "A sudden illness -- though definitely not poison. A Healer was sent for, but one could not arrive in time." Again, nothing unusual there. Of all the Marked, Menders were most common, then Finders, and only Seers were rarer than Healers. Many Healers still followed the old custom of travelling a route prescribed by their Guilds in order to provide the most service, though there were always rumours of Healers in royal Houses, and Dhulyn knew from her own experience that the Great King in the West had one of his own. "Word was sent to us that being released from their contract by the death of the Tarkin, our Brothers had left Menoin, had in fact taken ship for Ishkanbar." Dorian poured fresh ganje into all their cups before continuing. "I know what you are thinking. Though I'd wager the two of you rarely send word to the nearest Mercenary House of your comings and goings." "Not as often as we did when we were newly badged," Dhulyn said. "If we're near one of our own Houses, we'll stop of course, even go a half-day's ride or so out of our way. But send word? No, not usually. Still, as you suggest, not uncommon in new-badged Brothers." "As one at least of these was." Dorian took a swallow of hot ganje and grimaced. "Kesman Firehawk, Schooled by Yoruk Silverheels, away to the west. But the other you may know, Delvik Bloodeye, called the Bull, Schooled by Nerysa Warhammer." Parno shrugged without turning. "After my time, though I think I've heard the name." "So, with an experienced Brother there, no alarm would have arisen -- ordinarily -- no special notice given to the fact that they have not been heard from since." "Ordinarily?" "Gustof Ironhand was the Senior Brother who sent these two to Menoin. He, now that the old Tarkin is gone, is the only one who knew that the contract had asked for two Brothers as bodyguards not for the old Tarkin, but for the heir, the young man who is now Tarkin." "With a specified term set?" "No term." "So their contract did not expire on the old man's death." The tone of Parno's voice, even nightwatch quiet, set chill fingers dancing up Dhulyn's spine. "They should still be in Menoin." "And I'll wager my second best sword that you've sent to Ishkanbar, and these Brothers never called into the Mercenary House there, to announce their arrival," Dhulyn said. "Otherwise, we would not be having this conversation now." "It is always a joy to find that one's students are still as sharp as two daggers, even all these years after leaving their School." "So we're not being given a minor punishment by being sent to Menoin as the bodyguards of the Arderon princess," Parno said. "That's merely our excuse for arriving there unasked for." Dhulyn was nodding, her eyes fixed on Dorian's still smiling face. "We are being sent to find our missing Brothers."

Violette Malan 2010