Rumors

Preface: This is Chapter 1 in a full-length novel. If you are interested in reading it in its entirety, please feel free to email me at the address at the bottom of the home page. Also know that this is book 2 in the series. If you have not read book 1, Whispers, it is highly recommended that you do so before continuing here.

I wandered the forests between the land that used to be my farm and the Tenhaji capital for months, looking for the remains of my wife. I scoured every inch of the forest and roadside. What bones I did find were mostly animal. Of the human remains, there were four children, two male adults, and one female, but too long ago deceased to be those of my wife. I was forced to conclude that she had not died and been dumped, at least not on the way to the capital or its surrounding cities, as I had so long assumed.

I returned to the farm, now visibly abandoned, every few weeks or so in hopes of fresh clues, but it was the same as when I had left years ago, minus the layer of dust now coating most of the memories. The shattered ceramic from our dish set – a wedding gift from her parents – still decorated the kitchen floor. Arrows, most snapped along the shaft somewhere, still sprang from the bed my son had hidden under, as if the frame had spontaneously decided to grow oddly straight branches. Not all of the destruction had been at Tenhaji hands, however. Some of it was my own after I had returned from my stay at the temple by the ocean. Burying my son had taken its toll on my emotions then, and it was oddly the abuse at the mountain temple that had helped me through it. Every pain they had inflicted on me, I deserved, if for no other reason than that my son had gone through worse.

Now, though, as I searched for clues, I could find nothing but her necklace, which she had put away for special occasions. I had worked and scraped for almost a year to purchase it for her. It wouldn’t give me any information now – she had hidden it from the Tenhaji treasure-seekers – but the twisted metal pendant was a sore memory for me. I kept it with me as I searched, and every time I felt like giving up, I squeezed it until the metal points pierced my palm. I welcomed the pain as I bled on it – it kept me focused.

As the summer months started to wane, though, I was forced to conclude that she might, beyond all reason, be alive. Every time the thought occurred, I discarded it out of hand, but the idea became more and more persistent as my searches continued to come up empty. The idea that she had survived all this time, while I was out, saving Hemen from my enemies, was horrifying to me, and I never dwelt on the idea for very long. It would be better if she had died. Gradually, though, my focus came to include the possibility she might have survived. What then? Had she been sold to slavery? I searched the faces of the landowners as I searched the grounds, but in the little chunk of land I had assumed I’d find her in, she simply wasn’t to be found. If alive, she could be anywhere by now. I could spend my whole life searching the entire country for her and only cover half, now that Dipentoya had united both sides of the canyon and trade had opened up between the territories. I would spend my life – if it came to that – and would not consider my time wasted, for as long as it lasted.

I discovered that dodging students from the mountain temple was easy enough for me, on the occasion I saw one. I considered killing them all, just to send the master a message to stop looking for me, but my actions would only serve to highlight my current location to him. No, I was better off slipping into oblivion, in the background, as the master continued to expand his work in both territories. I spent all the time I could in the outskirts and rural stretches of Tenhaji land, but knew I would have to search the capital city eventually.

So, by the end of summer, I braced myself and walked through the gates. Trade had blossomed over the past few months, and the oceanside capital was populated to capacity. Unlike the capital of Hemen, the palace was not the focus and reason for the city, but merely a part of life there. One could go his whole life in the city without interacting with a member of the palace. It oddly made me a little proud to be Hemeni – we had held our own against such a thriving and powerful country for more than a hundred years. As soon as I entered the city, I adopted Tenhaji clothing as well, knowing my all-black uniform from the mountains stood out in the crowded marketplace. The Tenhaji clothing was loose over my equipment, by quite a bit, but it allowed me to move comfortably and access my weapons at a moment’s notice unimpeded. Fashion was overrated.

As I strode through the throngs of people in the market one afternoon, wondering if I should find a residence here or back outside the city outskirts, I felt weight lifting slowly off my hip. My coinpurse. Without looking, I instinctively dropped my arm down to intercept with the thief’s. Assuming he was slow enough to stay there. Forearms collided as I slid mine back upward on the follow through, until my hand was able to easily grasp the wrist of my attacker. I turned as I went, until it was easy to see who it was that dared try for my money.

I was so surprised at the small face staring back at me that I almost let the young boy go. I held fast, torquing the elbow until the child was forced close and I towered over him.

What do you think you’re doing?” I asked, twisting the small wrist in my hand. Child or not, I refused to be anyone’s victim.

The small lower lip of the young boy protruded forward then as the bright blue eyes grew wet and round.

I might have been swayed by the act of innocence if he had also dropped the string that held the pouch in place. He needed to be taught that, even if it was merely a game to him, this sort of thing was not okay. He was lucky I hadn’t killed him outright. “Where are your parents?” I asked, dropping my shoulders in an attempt to be intimidating.

A piercing wail struck through the crowd then as tears flooded suddenly from my captive. That wouldn’t work on me. Alarmed faces turned toward us, but as I looked, none of them held anger, too. His parents, if even alive, were not nearby.

Let him go,” one citygoer said, approaching dangerously close to my range of attack.

He’s just a boy,” another woman insisted. She had two children of her own on either side.

Yeah.”

I was drawing too much attention. Reluctantly I snapped my hand open, releasing the child’s wrist. I turned to begin to explain myself when the wailing stopped as suddenly as it started. The weight on my waist disappeared with a giggle, and the brat was off and running through the crowds.

Careless who noticed me now, I bolted after him. The surprised townsfolk merely stood and stared, so dodging the crowd as I ran wasn’t much different than navigating the forests back home. I led with my shoulders as I ran, barely keeping the boy in sight as he eluded me, ducking in and around the places I could not fit. I realized as we ran that he was headed almost directly for the docks. Did he have some sort of sailing vessel? At his age, it was unlikely. The boy slid under the ropes separating the walk and the beach and dropped down, disappearing out of sight.

I stopped myself short of jumping over the ropes, instead waiting to perceive where the brat had disappeared to. I held my breath, though my body begged me not to after the dash, and listened. There were so many noises! There – a quick, shallow splash. I looked up and down the nearby beach, but no one tread in the ocean. The splashes were getting quieter, though it didn’t seem to be coming from my left or right. Down? I leapt over the ropes then, landing past the rocks on the soft sand, and the answer was right there: A small cave under the footpath, perhaps as tall as my shoulder, and the child disappeared out of the sunlight with a small giggle, my coin purse still clearly in hand.

There was a little water in the cave as it flowed out to meet the ocean, but it was not enough to stop me. I crouched down and pursued. All I could think as I half-ran was that there were no witnesses down here to see me strangle the little snot. After a moment, I thought I heard the giggle closer than before. He had stopped. Did he think that I wouldn’t follow down here? My eyes adjusted quickly as the light dimmed from behind me. After a moment I could see the child plainly.

Give it back,” I snarled, holding my hand out as I approached. If he did, I might let him live. Perhaps.

The boy held the bag close and shook his head, giggling still. Then, to my surprise, he waved at me, as if I were a friend returned to the club house. What was he doing?

My pursuits were rewarded with a sudden, solid thunk on the back of my head. I collapsed, barely able to fall correctly. The last thing I saw in the dark as my cheek hit the dribble of water was that the child was running off again, still giggling.

Demimn woke up to a finger tracing her ear. His skin was calloused, but touch was gentle. It could only have been Dipentoya’s touch. Her husband. Five months together, three months married, and the idea continued to thrill her. He was as passionate and considerate as her husband as he was as king. He had even ordered wooden floors put down in all the rooms she frequented so that they she could easily read exactly who was where and navigate almost as if she wasn’t blind at all.

Good morning, Demimn.” Her new name took her much longer to adjust to than loving him. There was only Kai and her husband left nearby that had known her back when she was called just Imn. Back before she was his queen. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”

It was as close to an apology as he would ever give. “I love you, too.” She smiled. Though he hadn’t said it outright, everything in his voice and touch had caressed her with the thought. “Slept well, I trust?”

There was a happiness in his voice as he responded. “For as long as I did, yes.” They had been together that night, and many nights previous, and she had kept him awake and occupied for much of that time. “Did you dream?” This moment, here with him, was her dream come true.

Yes.” It was fading now as she came closer to wakefulness, but she remembered bits and pieces still. “Your brother was there. Moce, too. We were eating?” What exactly, she couldn’t recall. It was some sort of long-dead carrion, which of course made no sense.

My brother?” She felt the bed shift and his voice move vertically as he sat up. “Truly?”

She sat up too, curious why he would be bothered by this. She had never even met the man. “Of course.” With a little effort she found his shoulder and put a hand on it. The skin was warm – he hadn’t put a shirt on since last night. “Does that bother you?” she asked.

He had told her the truth about his older brother losing his claim to the throne only once, but she remembered clearly. Dipentoya had been his brother’s adviser, married to a court lady, when the then-king decided Dipentoya’s wife was favorable to his own. Behind Dipentoya’s back, his brother wooed his wife away until she became pregnant by him. At that, the king lost interest, and told Dipentoya about the whole thing as if the whole ordeal were some sort of joke. When Dipentoya asked his wife about it, she confessed it all plainly. He had been heartbroken, it was clear to Demimn even as he told the story, but accepted the situation, determined to keep his brother’s honor intact despite the affair. He told his then-wife as much – that he would pretend like the child was his own – but the next morning, he found that she had poisoned herself, and the child inside her as well. Rumors about the palace became scandal. The queen regent – the brothers’ mother – sent the older away, shortening his name and taking his crown and title as he went into exile. Dipentoya never celebrated inheriting his throne, as he was still in deep mourning at the whole affair for months. Gradually, though, he had accepted the duties that came with the diadem, and saw his leadership as an obligation to what his country needed him to be instead of merely his birthright or a replacement to his brother.

He told all of this to Demimn one night, about a month after they were married, and hadn’t spoken of it since. His discomfort this morning made sense if she had ever actually met the man, as Demimn was his wife now, but that he had merely been a character in her dream. The concept shouldn’t shake him like that. It was impossible the voice she had associated with the man was even his. Why would Dipentoya be so annoyed at the mention of it?

What’s wrong?” she asked again when he didn’t respond right away.

Just surprised is all.” He wasn’t going to lie to her that easily.

No you don’t.” She put her other hand on his face so he couldn’t turn away. “What is it?”

There was a moment of deep silence before he answered her. “He sent me a messenger yesterday.”

Really? Eight years later and now, so soon after their union, he decided to make contact? “What did he want?” she asked.

I don’t know. I sent him away again without hearing. Nothing good can come from him, I assure you.” It was rare her husband spoke ill of anyone, enemy or otherwise. This cautioning Demimn against him was the closest he had ever gotten.

I won’t mention him again, then.” There was no need for her words to upset him if they didn’t have to.

Only between us.” He pulled her hand close to his and kissed her hairline. It was his way of saying that she could mention his brother so long as no others were around. No secrets from him, he insisted. Demimn was more than happy to comply.

Should I kill him?” The voice summoned me back from whatever dreamland I had been in. Along with consciousness, came a hearty headache.

Not yet,” came a commanding but female reply.

At those words, I realized I had been carried in the arms of some very large and very capable person. Until then. I was dumped unceremoniously from the arms, dropping four feet or so to a wet but rocky floor. I couldn’t help groaning as I curled slowly at the hard fall on my side. I had not landed so poorly since the first years of my training with the order. I noticed a steady but distant dripping as I tried to collect my thoughts.

Get up, man,” the female voice commanded.

I opened my eyes again, this time intent on seeing my surroundings. I was in a cave, apparently deeper than my pursuits of the child had taken me. The dripping came from a point in the rocky ceiling into a small pool in my line of vision. I was on my side – I knew that already, didn’t I? – and there were at least four people in my line of sight. Instinctively I put my hands down in front of my core and got my feet under myself. I was crouching like a frog for only half a moment before standing. Fending off the dizziness took a little more acting than I was accustomed to, however.

You are Hemeni, aren’t you?”

I found the voice to my right and turned to see a powerful-looking woman sitting in the only chair I had yet seen, wearing pants, one leg draped over an arm of the chair in a half-leaning and casual position. She watched me expectantly – right. She had asked me a question. What was it again? I forced myself to blink as I recalled her words.

Does it matter?” I asked after a moment.

I guess not anymore.” We watched each other for a moment before she sat up straight, producing an item, seemingly out of thin air, with a flick of her wrist.

In the low light, it took me a moment to recognize it, but when I did, I lunged. My wife’s necklace! This woman had no right to touch it! She pulled a short blade, as if out of nowhere, and held it at my throat as I plunged forward, stopping myself just in time. The necklace was still held tauntingly just out of reach.

She laughed in my face at my reaction. “You’re a quick one! What’s your name?”

I looked her in the eye, fuming. “Give it to me.” We were close enough that I could easily take the metal pointed at my throat and redirect its danger to her before she could react. I would nick my own skin in the process, but the pain would be negligible.

She caught the necklace up in her hand, Tenhaji eyes bright with gleeful anticipation. “You can have it.” I started to move toward it, but she matched me, keeping the blade pointed at my throat. “Or,” she smiled, still watching me, “you can have your weapons back.” It was then I noticed the blade at my throat had been pulled from the sheath I kept at my bracers while I was out cold. I hated myself for not noticing that she had taken the weapons – all of them – sooner. I could tell now without searching that the weight was missing from my sides and the small of my back, where I kept them. Those were a part of me – who I was was defined by those curved daggers now. How many times had I bled on them before the master decided I had earned them? I would never know the answer. Not that it mattered.

As always, when presented with a choice, I tried to find a way out – a third road. “How do I get both?”

She paused a moment, searching my eyes, then flicked the dagger, spinning it around until it slid into a small pocket in her sleeve. “Why were you chasing our little Magpie?” she asked, leaning back in her chair and extending a hand to one side. The same young boy I had pursued under the city now ran to her. In a moment, he was close enough for this lady to run her fingers through his hair. Fury boiled up in me again, and I knew without thinking that I could kick the boy in the head before anyone could react. If I spun as I did, the boy might just land face-first in that pool of water. I refrained myself, though, as much as I wanted to. I had to play nice if I wanted my things back, at least for now.

He stole my money.” Of the choices, it was my lowest priority, as it was the most replaceable. I was regretting my pursuit more and more the longer I stayed in this damp cave. I couldn’t leave yet, though. Not without my things.

Those weapons, plus the fact that you kept up with Magpie, lends me to think that you have more skill than fashion sense.”

I wanted to prove her true, but had yet to see my favored daggers. Killing her, and the boy, wouldn’t be difficult. How many others were in the room? I spun abruptly, partially to scan the room as I walked away, and partially to show that she didn’t intimidate me. “You didn’t answer my question.” There were three men also with us in the room. One was by the door, fletching an arrow, and another in the back, smoking some sweet pipe and watching the scene silently. The third stood out the most to me, located closest to where I had woken up. He was gigantic! He belonged in a circus, not hunched over in this wet cave watching me try to understand my surroundings. The only one armed was by the door, if you didn’t count the massive size of the man closest to me as a weapon. I could handle them, though, I was sure. The bigger they were, the easier it was for me to run circles around them.

You didn’t answer mine,” the woman responded.

I wasn’t inclined to give my name to this ragtag bunch of thieves. “Call me whatever you want.” Having assessed the room, I turned back to her. She was watching me, hand still laced through the young boy’s hair.

We shall see.”

I knew then I had to set one thing straight. “Let’s be clear here. I don’t plan on sticking around. I want my things back, and I want them now, or I will take them back. I promise you, you won’t be around to have an opinion of my name if I choose the latter.”

My little speech had an impact on the odd woman, as she stood from her chair then, looking me straight in the eye. Her outfit was loud as bits of cloth and ornamentation dangled down, covering her pants to make it look like she wore a very long and elaborate skirt when standing. The young boy, whom she had called Magpie, watched her expectantly with those large eyes. The woman bristled, as if about to counter my threat with her own, but seemed to stop herself. Instead, she smiled at me before responding. “I’ll tell you what. You agree to help us with this one task, and I’ll give you your things back. Both the necklace and the weaponry.”

The idea struck me as absurd at first. To steal my things and hold them ransom until I did as they asked? I should just kill everyone in the room and loot them. Someone had to have my weapons. But if they didn’t have my daggers on them, I would have no avenue to pursue to find them. Better to cooperate now – learn the town without these guys hunting me – then turn on them when I felt like it. “I’ll need my daggers at least if you want me to kill someone.” Then, as soon as I got them, or even saw them, I could take back what was mine. It was worth a shot, at least.

Who said anything about killing anyone?” the woman asked, alarmed. Right. She didn’t know about my skill set, just that I was fast enough to keep up with the little Magpie. “No, we have an agent in the field trying to get in with a local baron. He knows Wind and Shadow –” She must mean two of the men behind me – “And wouldn’t believe Oak. So we need you.”

I only admitted to myself that I did not follow what she was planning. “What exactly do you need from me?”

Baron Egon has a thing for married women. You pretend to be Vixen’s husband for as long as it takes to convince him, and once she’s in, you’re free to go.” The thought turned my stomach. Sure, I killed people for a living, at least until recently, but at least it was honest work. This playing games seemed to me like taking the long way around.

Why not just break in and steal whatever it is you’re after?” If they were thieves by trade, as it seemed to me by their blatant stealing of my equipment and subsequent blackmail, would it not be easier to just take what they wanted?

One cannot just steal true love.” She said the last two words in a mocking fashion, but I could see some emotion there too. Blackmail tended to be something I knew only a little about. Sure, in the order we would deal with it on occasion, but we were more keen on keeping secrets than exposing them. I had killed two blackmailers in my time there, but had never been one.

So I just kiss some woman on the forehead and I get my things back?” If that was what was needed to continue my quest for my wife, so be it. She didn’t have to know. So long as it was all for show. I would hate myself if finding her meant breaking my vows to her.

That’s the idea. But he has to see it. Believe it.”

I want the necklace back then,” I bargained. “As a sign of good faith.” I didn’t want this woman to think she could keep using me like this forever. Having the reminder of my wife nearby would help me feel connected to her, despite my plans to pretend to be married to another.

I held out my hand, and the woman produced the jewelry once more. “Deal.” She placed it in my hand firmly, though a smile was beginning to dawn on her face. She was enjoying this far too much.

I took the string and, without a convenient place to put it, I laced it around my neck so the pendant hung inside my shirt. “Where do I find this Vixen, then?”

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