The Crossroads of the Aether
“All the ways of a man are clean in his own eyes, but the Lord weigheth the spirits.”
~ Proverbs 16:2
“Your enemy is never a villain in his own eyes….”
~ Robert Heinlein
“He that is despised, and hath a servant, is better than he that honoureth himself, and lacketh bread.”
~ Proverbs 12:9
“I want you to assassinate the king.”
His Lordship Myrgen the Grey, Chancellor to Charles and Elizabeth, King and Queen of Mervolingia, stood before the cage which protected him from the deadly woman within. Myrgen kept a distance of about five feet, his grey woolen unisex robes full and loose around him like fog. He knew better than to get near her, despite the woven fetters binding her hands and ankles in front of her. He had not given explicit instructions for her hands to be bound behind her and this meant she could still kill him if he was careless. He was fully aware of her abilities and had no intention of getting anywhere near her reach. Should the woman in the cage free herself from her bonds and get her thanatoid hands on him, he was uncertain his Nubian guard, Michael, would be able to stop her before she killed him.
Her ebony tresses hung along her toned olive-skinned shoulders, as if they were as irritated at being unbound as her hands were to be bound, and her viridian gaze stumbled about the gloom of the dusty air around her, barely aiding her in the forbidding light. She had the ability to invade a person’s soul and strip it of his or her secrets, and thus, no one had ever seen anyone lie successfully to Catriona Morganosa. This fact alone made her the most deadly weapon against Myrgen in Mervolingia and he had insured the agent within her blood at present had a long duration and a very specific purpose: To impair her access to her special ability and nothing else. He needed her sharp and aware of what he was saying, but he couldn’t risk a single secret he possessed getting into her hands any more than he could afford his person suffering that fate. The drug had been made with that purpose in mind by his own hands and he was very pleased to see it working. He would not need to get his hands dirty at all. If things went that direction, he had Michael.
“I have already told you my answer. Did your agent not convey my negative response, or did I need to remove digits instead of just breaking them?” Her voice was silken poison, the Caratian accent barely noticeable beneath the perceptible assurance she exuded to Myrgen, an assurance his body would never be found, out of mercy to his next of kin.
“I wasn’t asking a question,” he tossed something at the base of the cage, metal clinking against the iron base, “and I think you’ll find my previous offer is no longer on the table.”
The once-ivory background subtly embroidered with tulips in beige silk, overwhelmed by the purple lioness stretching to the base of the cloth, now sported a new trait, that of blood. Fresh blood. The favor was the mark of Lady Tanglwyst de Holloway, owner of The Tanglwyst Trading Company, and Catriona’s secret partner. More importantly, attached to the favor, there was a small necklace with a Caratian family crest on it. The necklace was a gift of a very helpful couple, to her son.
Catriona studied Myrgen, trying to view his soul and discovering the purpose in the drug he had made. Since she would undoubtedly remember everything about this encounter later, he gave up nothing more. They had never met so she would know him more by reputation than anything. His ability to cover his tracks made him legendary in the Back Streets, Mervolingia’s seedier side where lives had bags of gold attached to them, either as backers, or bounties. Myrgen always paid up when he said he would, and never threatened idly.
“Don’t take too much time.” He turned away from her as her eyes closed in defeat and left the chamber without another thought.
* * *
“Do you think she’ll do it?” Michael sealed the door to the catacombs carefully, removing all traces of passage to the bulk of the maze in the absent-minded gesture of habit. Myrgen insisted on this because the catacombs of the Mervol Royal Palace where Myrgen lived were treacherous and confusing, and he refused to risk the life of a curious servant due to his lack of foresight.
“I’m certain,” said Myrgen. “We have her son. As much as I despise involving children in something like this, it’s done now, and she knows it.” They stood outside the secret entrance to Myrgen’s chambers; the paths navigated as much by feel as sight in the glow of the single candle lantern. The palace had suffered three fires since it was originally built and as wings were destroyed, they were buried or simply abandoned, and a maze of corridors was the result. There were several passages for the servants to bring food from the outlying kitchen buildings into the palace, but none of these connected to the two which housed escape routes for the king and queen. Myrgen’s own room wouldn’t have a passage behind it except that it was Charles’ room when he was a young king under Catherine’s regency. Myrgen turned to Michael, the small light casting insidious shadows across the conspirators’ faces in the dingy corridor.
“What about the Queen-Mother, Catherine?” Michael asked. “Have you heard back from your sources as to her scheduled return?”
“Apparently she’s due to return here within the month for a visit. I know she’s not scheduled to stay long. Charles refuses to be alone with her and can barely stand her being in the same room. She’s been assigned to the Papal City as an Ambassador of Mervolingia. My sources say she’s still dealing with her ‘victory’ on Saint Michael’s Day.” Myrgen’s disgust was blatant, an unusual thing for this secretive man. “The new Pope has the documentation of Plantyn’s assassination and is contemplating the justified excommunication of the Royal Family.”
Michael cocked his head. “I wasn’t aware you were so offended by the incident.”
“More than you know.”
“Are you not Augustinian, Myrgen?”
“Wholesale slaughter should never be condoned, my friend, regardless of one’s faith. That massacre was an embarrassment, not a victory. The vigorous pat on the back the king was receiving from the Bishops and most of the Augustinian Church is sickening enough to make me switch my faith.”
Michael nodded. His own Nubian homelands had been invaded by a vicious man claiming to be bringing the faith of the Saints to the heathen masses, but his mission he had also been bloodshed and had resulted in few converts.
“Don’t leave that woman alone too long,” Myrgen said as he triggered the catch which would allow him into his room. “We need her to be put on her way, not to escape. If she navigates these tunnels and finds her way out, we’re undone. Do you have the drug?”
“Right here,” Michael replied, patting a pouch in his hip.
“Good. Get on it then, before the one that dulls her senses fades from her system. It’s the only reason we have her in this position to make our request. I just hope our source was right about her.”
“As do I,” Michael said with a glance over his shoulder. “Are you certain of the source?”
“It allegedly came from Dominic D’Medici. That family, if any, would know about assassins. Now go. The sooner she’s on the task, the sooner the kingdom is no longer inflicted with the king’s cruelty and weakness.”
Myrgen entered the concealed chamber attached to his quarters, closing the door behind him, and took a moment to relight two candles which had blown out, the other twenty-two flames dancing with the shadows on the wall. He gazed up at the huge portrait of an elegant, ruby-haired woman resplendent in emerald silk and pearls. Her beautiful doe-brown eyes glittered from a hint of gold in the rims of the iris, and these subtle tricks of the artist made them seem to come alive and dance with graceful abandon in the firelight. The portrait had been done in secret by Myrgen himself, an amazing talent few knew he possessed, and was lit by a candle for every year of her life. He touched the painted woman’s gloved hand, neatly life-sized, and whispered, “And the less time you must endure the prison of your marriage, my Queen.”
* * *
Michael slipped quietly into the catacombs, leaving Myrgen to his homage. The trek was well known to him, but took a while to get from the entrance to Myrgen’s chambers down to the ancient torture chamber, left over from the Inquisition. It always gave him time to think, and he liked it for that reason. The woman in the cells below intrigued Michael. He found her features to be painfully beautiful and terribly familiar to him, as if she descended from a royalty possessed by those of his own culture. Michael was Nubian, his dark flesh common among the jungles and deserts that distinguished that distant continent. He was an oddity here in Mervolingia, since most Nubians were sold in Mande, but Myrgen never treated him like a slave. He had not expected that when he was first brought to this kingdom.
Michael had been out to slay a lion as his rite of passage. He had studied his feline quarry before killing him and claimed the heart as proof he had succeeded. He was returning home when he was hit with a net and captured. He was thrown into a slave ship and taken to Mande. A man bought him and went into a tavern with Michael in tow. The man was an obnoxious drunk and ended up in a fight. Michael was still bound in irons when the first attacker turned on him. As a strong young man raised to be a warrior, he used the chain on the first man who came after him, slapping the man across the face with it.
This repelled the first man well, but it angered one of his friends, who came after Michael, intent on teaching him his place in polite society. Michael, most impolitely, shattered his jaw with an upper cut with his double fists. The man hit the door to the tavern, flying out of it with sufficient force to knock the wind out of him, simultaneously alerting the townsfolk to fetch the city guard.
Myrgen was in the city at that time, on business for the Mervol crown and spending his new salary, when he saw the first of the tavern patrons hitting the cobblestones outside the pub. He moved over to the man and barely missed being hit by the next patron who attacked Michael. Myrgen, uncontrollably curious at this point, went to the tavern and opened the door wide while being sure to stay out of the path of catapulting bar patrons. It turned out he chose the correct side to stand on because Michael put another patron through part of the doorjamb opposite Myrgen.
Myrgen and Michael got their first looks at each other then. Michael ate up much of the doorway with his huge frame and was utilizing items at hand, or foot, in his defense. The man he was fighting at the time was trying to bite him, so he popped his elbow into the man’s jaw, causing a few teeth to disintegrate. By Nubian standards, Michael was a true vision of strength and determination, his long bones and impressive muscles perfectly offsetting the youthful good looks which were actually becoming less attractive as the fight wore on and some of his attackers got in successful shots.
By the time the City Watch arrived, there were four more men on the streets and Michael was on the floor with six men holding him down with great effort. Myrgen watched the entire scene from the doorway. Michael’s owner had been crushed beneath the heavy table Michael’s captors were using to secure him. Michael fully expected to be executed for his crimes and Myrgen took great interest when Michael was taken away and locked up.
At the jail, Michael was sentenced to death for slaying fifteen men single-handedly in a tavern brawl. This impressed Myrgen, and he used his money and influence to take possession of Michael, switching the paperwork in the jail, and thereby sentencing another man to death while sending Michael to the auction block. Michael figured he did both men a favor.
The virulent circumstances surrounding their first meeting caused Myrgen to name this new acquisition “Michael” after the Archangel who led the battle against Lucifer’s minions, as a reminder to Myrgen of how deadly this man could be, and Michael accepted this. After that, Myrgen treated him with the respect of a trusted ally instead of a possession, much to Michael’s surprise, and a loyalty was forged in the bonds of that trust. It took a year for Michael to learn enough Mervolingian to understand more than hand gestures, but Myrgen had been ever patient with the process and now Michael was proficient.
Myrgen had trusted Michael with everything from his life to his secrets, either of which Michael could have destroyed at will, but Myrgen actually intrigued Michael. One thing was certain: Life with Myrgen was never boring.
* * *
The Nubian opened the door to the chamber where Catriona’s cage was housed and went over to stand in front of her prison, looking at the captive woman before him. Long waves of ebony hair, which she usually bound in a braid for convenience, announced their freedom across her toned shoulders and back. Her mocha skin, darker in the scant illumination of the large room, held her customized scent from a special oil, its suppleness arguing against her known profession of captaining a ship. She was decorated in doeskin leather gloves and boots, unencumbered by the societal feminine trappings of veils and hoops which emphasized the gender differences to an extreme. However, the leather-trimmed trews and high-necked bodice lined in battle-ready silk, which she wore without a corset, refused to deny her status amongst the fairer sex, and even without her special gift of insight, she could see that the young Nubian feared his admiration of her would interfere with his mission should he linger overlong in contemplation.
He took out a bottle and darts from his pouch and tainted the tips of the weapons with the drug. She caught the sheen of the poison on the darts and recognized the treatment. It was a rather insistent sleeping agent, about as virulent as the drug used to dull her senses. That drug was starting to wear off and she could move like normal but deeper brain functions were evading her. He loaded the dart into the blowgun and stood before the cage facing her. Catriona lifted her head, leveling her gaze at the man. His eyes widened as he recognized the signs of the drug impairing her wearing off, and his movements took on an urgency as he blew the first dart, aiming for her shoulder. Catriona moved imperceptibly left and the dart passed through the cage, harmlessly. Puzzled, he loaded another dart and blew.
He moved closer, to give the dart less time to be avoided, and executed.
The dart slid across the floor behind the cage to lie next to the other two.
He moved in.
This dart hit one of the bars as it passed her, the pinging noise loud in the darkened room.
He moved in. Again.
She dodged. Again.
Frustrated and angry, the young man took the last two darts out of the case and threw them to either side of her, determined to hit her.
When these last two darts came at her, she dodged the left one but jerked her head as if caught by the right one, grazing the metal edge of her shackles across her own cheek, drawing a thin weal of blood. Concealing the dart, she slowly raised her head, looking again at the Nubian, turning her cut cheek slightly more to her aggressor, expertly showing but not showing him the damage.
He saw it, and relaxed, satisfied. He puttered around the table, resealing the bottle and straightening his doublet. She wavered and then collapsed into a heap near the back of the cell, falling so her hands would end up near one of the errant darts. She was hoping to grab one and conceal it as he waited for the sleeping agent to fuller affect her. As she lay there, her face closer the dart, Catriona noticed the substance on the tip was changing color, blurring into a shade and substance which was deadly instead of sleep inducing as she’d first surmised. The subtle scent of a jungle paralytic she had seen before had seeped into the wood containing the dart tip. The two agents were reacting and had she actually let the dart graze her skin, well, she realized her “playing dead” act would be considerably more convincing. It made no sense for Myrgen to capture her, coerce her into this act with kidnapping, and then kill her before the job was done. The Nubian, while young, had clearly used a blowgun before today and was expecting her to be knocked out, not dead. He also knew nothing of this interaction.
That changed her plan completely. If she poked the Nubian with the dart as she had planned, he would die instead of falling asleep, telling her nothing. The drug in her system was taking its time wearing off, a trait for which it was undoubtedly engineered, but it was wearing off. She just needed this man still around when it did. If she could read him, she would know what was really going on. She closed her eyes, waiting for him to do whatever he had planned.
The door to the cell screeched open, echoing off the stone walls. There was something important about the stone walls, but her addled brain could not remember the significance. All deeper thought and memory was caught in a muddy matrix, blending together. Her survival skill was all she seemed to be able to access. Her muscles responded as she expected, for the most part, meaning if she could stall enough, she would be able to shake the drug’s influence. She hoped to be able to do it in time.
She felt the man disengage the rope from around her waist, freeing her from the attachment to the cell. He picked her up, careful and gentle, which confused her. He was obviously here to maintain her capture, yet he was not treating her with the disregard of a man accustomed to this line of work. He was also not handling her like a rapist, a behavior with which she was all too familiar. His hand placement, his positioning on his shoulder: This was respect, and its presence disarmed her. She was accustomed to receiving respect from her crew, her people, her family, but from a kidnapper and ruffian? The conduct confused her and she forgot herself for a moment.
The Nubian stopped, dropping her to the floor. She opened her eyes just in time to see his large fist hurtling towards her jaw, then she was fading into blackness.