Tome of Báirseach book 2
- The Rod of Xerus
Wounded, betrayed and alone, Cal has escaped to Tarquis, losing everything… again. In Sanquous, dark forces are mustering as it edges closer to all out war. Their leader missing, the Ilfannde face the wrath of the Draguul and their tyrannical High Priest. If ever there was a time for a saviour to arise, it’s now. The question is, will she?
‘Give me the weapon! Give me the weapon!’
But I can’t move, I’m transfixed by the horror in front of me; the engulfing flames, the man in the centre of them covered head to foot in fire, screaming at me, pleading with me even through the roar of the inferno, and that smell; the stink of burning flesh.READ MORE
I wake with a start in a tangle of soaked sheets, almost tripping over them as I sprint to the bathroom. A flash of pain as my shoulder connects with the doorframe but I manage to get my head over the toilet bowl with nothing to spare. Each time the images flash back a fresh bout of retching grips me until there’s nothing left but empty, painful cramps. When they’ve subsided enough to stand I hold my head under the tap, rinsing the sweat and swilling my mouth until it’s clean. The gaunt face in the mirror has dark rings under her eyes. How long has it been since I slept through, a week? I don’t want to admit it but the visions are getting worse, that was next level. It’s like I’m there. If only I knew who it was I’m seeing. There is something familiar about that voice but I can’t place it and I don’t really want to try remembering any of the horrific details.
The smooth marble of the floor is cool under my feet as I make my way over to the tall windows. It’s morning but from the silence beyond still early. Even with the curtains drawn the room is filled with light. When I part them slightly to look out, almost every building, every surface, even the street itself, is made of pale stone, glistening under a honey sky. Up here on the fourth floor the skyline is a symmetrical mountain range of towers and domes. Delicately carved archways and buttresses contrast with the smooth clean lines of the pavements and cobbled streets below. It’s quite simply beautiful but I’m barely taking it in.
Yesterday’s interview is nagging at me. Some old guy called Johannus had a bunch of questions about the attack at Rensa and how we pulled it off. He was interested in the Ilfannde; who did what, who’s plan we were following, what the mission objectives were. I didn’t give much away, I still don’t trust them. By the way he was tapping his fingers and the set of his shoulders I could tell he wasn’t pleased. A knock at the door brings me back from my thoughts. When I open it I get a pleasant surprise; I parted company with Meriel yesterday and, given her condition, wasn’t expecting to see her any time soon. She ducks quickly inside, holding a tray of what smells like breakfast. I’m not sure my stomach is ready for food but I am famished.
‘Hey, wow, your arm looks all better. They did that in one night?’
‘Medical technology is pretty advanced here. It’s inefficient for workers to be off sick or injured.’
As I look over the contents of the tray, she steps closer and I register the worried look on her face.
Leaning in she whispers, ‘You have to go. Now.’
‘What? Why? I’ve only just got here.’
‘I’m not supposed to be here, I can’t stay. They know you’re not leading the Ilfannde; that’s the only reason they were interested in you. Johannus is reporting to Cavalex, the Supreme Hierophant, as we speak.’ She steps back to look me earnestly in the eye. ‘You don’t get how things work here, Cal. If they don’t have a use for something, they get rid of it.’
‘What? You mean they’re...’
‘I don’t know but it’s not safe. You’re not exactly under house arrest, not yet anyway, so you can leave and you need to. Right away.’ I can see the pleading in her eyes and I’m touched by her concern for me, considering how we met. Taking my hand, she closes my fingers over a folded, cream coloured piece of paper. ‘I didn’t realise you had contacts here. You have some strange friends, Cal. Read the note. He said you need his help and for your sake I hope he has a plan. Look, I’m sorry, I have to go.’
She turns to leave but I catch her and before she can protest, give her a hug.
‘Thank you. Be safe.’
She nods, gives me the briefest of smiles before hurrying out the door. Glancing down at the note I have an eerie sense of déjà vu. It’s a simple street map with arrows leading to a cafe, and a single word, “Breakfast?” It’s signed D.M. It can’t be. How could he get here? Despite Meriel’s warning I can’t help smiling as I change into my brown robes, folding the note into a pocket. A final quick check around the room. Have you got everything? Yep. Luckily I didn’t bring much which is just as well, it would look suspicious if I had a pack on going out for a morning stroll. Stuffing a couple of crisp breads from the breakfast tray into my mouth I head for the door. A guard is sitting across the hall but he makes no move to stop me as I turn towards the wide sweeping staircase leading down to the hallway and entrance.
Stepping outside my eyes take a moment to adjust to the brightness, as I scan around to get my bearings. I don’t have much experience of cities but I doubt anywhere on Earth looks like this. The architecture is refined, classical, like the pictures of ancient Greece we studied in Art. Maybe the person who designed the Acropolis saw this place and went away to make a poor copy. Against the pale marble backdrop colourful butterflies, bigger than my hands, shimmer like shoals of fish between the neatly pruned trees that line the pavement. The song of colourful birds with long flowing tails fills the air and as I turn into a square the light is captured in rainbows of mist from the fountains rising into the morning light.
Like many of the buildings, the cobbled streets have a time-worn grandeur that seems to enhance their beauty rather than diminish it. The whole place just looks right; perfect, as if waiting for an artist to turn up and paint it. The only things that stand out against the tranquil beauty are the people, as they scurry past, heads bowed and shoulders hunched. There’s no cheer, no happiness on display and the few conversations I witness are in hushed tones and brief sentences, almost as though they’re afraid of being overheard. I draw a few quick glances in my plain brown robes. No one else is wearing brown, so I stand out even more than usual. My chatty guide of the evening before told me that the colours of the garments have something to do with “rays”, whatever that means. I didn’t get it but as I figured I wouldn’t be staying, I wasn’t really paying attention.
After a couple more streets I take the note from my pocket, comparing the sketched symbol on it with the sign outside the cafe across from me. This must be the place. Inside, I head for a booth as the waiter brings me over a menu. A few people are sitting at tables near the window and as I check them out a guy walks in to take a seat at the counter. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out he’s been following me. The booths are separated by carved, latticed screens and I’m trying to see if any of the others are occupied when I catch sight of a familiar sharp-toothed smile from the one to my left.
Count Morlucci leans closer to the partition, keeping his voice low. ‘You know, they do the best coffee here. It’s almost worth risking imprisonment for.’ He pauses for a sip before continuing, ‘I’ve always prided myself on having a certain knack for finding people but you, my dear girl, have proved annoyingly difficult to keep a trace on. I was most surprised to find you in the Sepharim capital of all places. Hardly the safest spot for a Sanquoun princess, wouldn’t you say? Perhaps you’d care to tell me the nature of your current predicament?’
‘I wish I knew. I’m here by accident, I was trying to help a friend. She got hurt and I couldn’t leave her. She’s the one you gave the note to. They’ve been so nice to me then this morning she turns up with a breakfast tray and tells me I’m in danger but I have no idea why.’
From beside me I hear a sigh.
‘Ah, yes, their young outcast. I’m relieved my trust in her wasn’t misplaced. I fear she’s right, I only hope we’re not already too late.’
My heart sinks, I’m just so lost in all of this.
‘Too late for what? Why would they tell her to invite me here, treat me like a guest of honour then turn on me? I don’t get it.’
The Count gives a humourless laugh.
‘I’m afraid you’ve been caught up in a power struggle that’s been rolling on for centuries. To Cavalex, the Supreme Hierophant, you represented something of an opportunity. You’re a piece to be moved and played on the chessboard of his campaign against Ishomin, our friend, the High Priest of the Draguul. But he wanted a queen, he already has more than enough pawns.’
‘Why does he even care about Ishomin and Sanquous?’
‘Who knows. Perhaps he sees the Sanquoun Priesthood as a travesty of their one true faith; a betrayal of the pure Meleonite creed. The Draguul priesthood was started by an outcast from here after all; a fallen angel, so to speak, who rose to power, carving for herself a new life and a new fate in what he considers a lower world. I suppose it’s always frustrating when those we shun end up doing rather well, isn’t it?’
What he says makes sense and it’s filled in a few pieces of the puzzle but there are still more gaps than picture. I can’t hide my relief that he’s here but I wonder how much he knows about the events of the last few weeks.
‘After everything that’s happened, do you still trust me?’
‘Why, yes. I have picked up some information others within the Ilfannde may not be privy to. But believe me, Cal, the truth has a way of coming out in the end.’
‘Meriel said I shouldn’t trust them but they told me I’d got them all wrong; that they’re only interested in peace and want Ishomin gone for the good of the people.’
‘I’m afraid they’ve been playing you; using her to groom you. As I’m sure you’re aware, we’re being watched right now.’
‘Do you think he can hear us?’
‘Not as long as I’m wearing this.’ I glance a little to my left. On his finger is a gold band with a fine black serpent woven around it. ‘The Ring of Silence ensures that neither I nor my conversations can be heard if I don’t wish them to be.’
‘An artifact. Where did you get it?’
‘From your father. He was a powerful Maker and a good friend. It’s saved my life more than once. As I said when we first met, I owe much to your family; to your father in particular.’
The man at the bar has turned round to look straight over at us, dropping all pretence that he’s here for any other reason than to keep an eye on me. Keeping my eyes straight ahead I hold up the menu as if studying it, covering my mouth as I speak.
‘So what do I do now? How do I get out of this place? Have you come to rescue me again?’
‘In a way. But this time escaping won’t be enough.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘The Sepharim have manoeuvred you into a corner, Cal. If your friend is right they may soon feel they have no further use for you and they’re not known for their mercy or for leaving loose ends. You can’t go back to Tarquis, no one there is in a position to help and on Sanquous Ishomin wants you dead and the Ilfannde don’t trust you.’ I don’t know what to say. Once again my options have narrowed to the person sitting next to me. ‘You need an advantage. Something that will tip the balance in your favour.’
‘My dear girl, I didn’t come here without a plan but it’s a risky one. If it goes wrong I doubt either of us will live to tell of it.’
‘That sums up a lot of my plans lately.’
‘Then may I take that as a yes? Are we in agreement?’
‘When we first met, I didn’t trust you. But you risked your life to save mine. I do now.’
‘Good. Then, in a moment I’m going to leave. Once I’m gone get up and head for the restroom at the rear of the establishment. Use your charm to go out through the back wall and once you’re in the alley turn right. At the end, turn right again and you’ll see the city wall. There’s an open archway. I’ll meet you on the other side of it. Move quickly but don’t run.’
Laying the menu flat on the table I run my finger along a line of text I can’t read as if confirming my choice. When I glance up the Count has gone. Right, let’s try this.