The wicked heroine, p.58
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       The Wicked Heroine, p.58

           Jasmine Giacomo
 

  Chapter Twenty-five

  The blood pounding in Geret’s head made it difficult to hear anything beyond his own breathing and footsteps. Rage gave him strength and speed, and he pelted through the hissing light pools on the lamp lit streets, dodging occasional pedestrians.

  Salvor couldn’t be far ahead now.

  He recalled Meena’s question about whether he’d ever killed a person before. Embracing his rage, he decided that the answer was about to change. As soon as Salvor had exposed his collaborators, and Geret had killed him, he was turning this quest around and going home. They could start again later, but if his uncle and cousin died in some evil plot while Geret and a third of the Counts were away, there was no point in trying to retrieve the Dire Tome.

  Geret rounded a corner, finding he had a well-lit view for several blocks. Yet Salvor was nowhere in sight. Geret came to a halt, breathing hard, searching for his target.

  A slight sound to his right made him draw steel and pivot to face it.

  “Fine evening for stalking, isn’t it?” Salvor looked coolly at him from the mouth of an alley.

  Geret’s lip curled; he lunged uphill toward Salvor with his sword. The nobleman’s blade remained in its scabbard, and he easily avoided the reach of Geret’s weapon.

  “Stop, you fool,” he began.

  “No, you’re the fool. Did you think I wouldn’t figure it out?” Geret growled, jabbing again, backing Salvor into the alley. “Why don’t you tell me when your cadre planned to make its move back home? Or has it already been done? Were you going to kill my uncle, or just bully him into becoming a puppet for you?” Each question was punctuated by a quick jab at Salvor’s chest, and the man repeatedly dodged.

  “You’ve been paying attention to my style during our duels on deck,” he commented.

  Geret bared his teeth. “I plan to use whatever method I need to cut the truth out of you,” he said coldly.

  Salvor’s eyes widened as he heard the cold promise in the prince’s voice. Flicking his gaze to the naked steel that floated nearer than he liked to his breastbone, he raised his hands in a gesture of harmlessness. “I’m quite sure I can come up with an explanation that will satisfy your curiosity, Geret,” he began, but Geret cut him off.

  “You idiot! I read your letter! It’s safely on its way to Imorlar as we speak, but I know the truth. Don’t pretend you didn’t write those words. ‘Dense as he is, the “prince” does not grasp my true purpose on this quest… Too bad for him. If it is to be spelled out to him, I believe it will require a large, blunt object.’” he quoted. “Are you supposed to kill me, so I can’t return home to save my uncle from Imorlar’s plot?”

  “Geret, you’re the last person I expected to intercept that letter,” Salvor said, his voice low.

  “Right, because I’m a fool; I get it. Now, who–are–your–partners?” he asked, jabbing repeatedly, making Salvor evade. With his last word, Geret lunged suddenly, slicing through Salvor’s right sleeve and drawing a deep cut through his upper arm.

  Salvor hissed in pain and dragged the Thelios-crested sword from its scabbard with his wounded arm. “You want names, trickster? I’ll give you names,” he said, blocking Geret’s next thrust and slashing wildly in defense. “Imorlar. Your uncle’s seneschal.”

  Geret bristled at the memory of how he’d enjoyed at least some of his time training with Imorlar, and it drove him to attack. He dashed past Salvor and reached out with a quick slash, forcing his opponent to parry. Passing behind him, Geret pivoted quickly, trying for a quick jab to Salvor’s back, but Salvor spun away, recognizing the tactic.

  “You want another name?” Salvor said, now on the downhill side of the battle. “Halvor Thelios. Yes, that’s right, my father. He–”

  “He lied to the quest! You were a plant, a spy!” Geret called, seething.

  Geret engaged Salvor again, and they danced around the alley in a circle of flashing blades, slashing high, cutting low. They dodged and parried, leaped and scuffled. The fight put Geret forcibly in mind of their play duels aboard the Kazhak, and he brought his full focus to bear on the fight, knowing that Salvor was his technical master.

  Salvor finally managed to grip Geret’s sword wrist and shove him bodily away toward one of the alley’s ashbrick walls. Geret thudded against the bricks with a cough. Salvor checked his blood-soaked sleeve for a moment and then said, breathing heavily, “My father agreed to go on this quest, knowing all along that he’d bail out at the last minute and send me in his place. That was the plan!” he shouted, slashing his blade through the air.

  Geret rushed forward, holding his sword out in front of him. Salvor adopted a wide ready stance. At the last moment, Geret slid to the bricks below him and skidded into Salvor’s left leg with his feet, hooking the man’s ankle and shoving his knee back, making him stumble and fall backward. Geret tried to get a leg lock on him, but Salvor kicked him in the chest and he flew backward, dropping his sword.

  “Who else?” he wheezed, rolling over and reaching for his sword again.

  Salvor was already on his feet. He tried to kick away Geret’s sword, but Geret threw himself into Salvor’s legs, tangling them. As they fell together, Geret clambered bodily up Salvor until he sat on his chest. He twisted the sword from Salvor’s grip and punched him in the face several times.

  “Who else!?” he shouted in the man’s face.

  “Runcan…” Salvor bubbled through a bleeding nose, “Gerzal, Rentos too.” Geret did not know those Counts well; they stayed behind when the quest left, to advise the Magister as they always had.

  “By Wisdom…” Geret breathed. There really was a conspiracy. An odd sound made him look down at Salvor; Geret was surprised to see him laughing quietly through the blood flowing from his nose.

  “You think this is funny? I’m about to kill you,” Geret grated.

  “You’ll want the last name, Geret. The ringleader.”

  Geret froze, his neck muscles taut. “Who?”

  “Beret Branbrey, His Wisdom the Lord High Magister.” Salvor’s chest heaved in silent laughter.

  “I don’t understand.” Geret’s mind went perfectly, completely blank.

  “You fool.” Salvor grinned bloodily. “We’re the good guys.”

  “You’re lying,” Geret insisted. “Trying to save yourself!”

  Salvor rocked his head back and forth on the alley bricks. “Your uncle assigned me to protect you. The arrogance, our initial meeting–Imorlar and I set it all up. We wanted you to fall for the ruse. You had to hate me, so the others wouldn’t suspect we were all working together. You, me, Imorlar. All helping your uncle defend against the conspiracy of his greedy enemies. But, as I suspected, you were too dense to see it.”

  “That’s a lie,” Geret said, but his heart wasn’t in it. He recalled how Salvor had been the one to send the troops back to look for him in the silver sands of Kirth. How his uncle had kept the truth of Addan’s madness from his own Dictat. “Imorlar had me doing boring stuff.”

  “Just because you weren’t aware of the importance of your work doesn’t mean you’re not with us. All the information you gave Imorlar was used to determine which Counts were trustworthy and which were not. Your uncle was very grateful for your services, though he couldn’t say so. You had to be kept in the dark, to keep you safe.”

  “So why tell me now?” Geret gave Salvor’s grey collar a shake.

  “I’m still sworn to protect you, Geret, even from yourself. This quest is more dangerous than you know. If you told what you have just learned tonight to the wrong person, your life would be in danger.”

  “I’m still not convinced you’re not that wrong person,” Geret growled. In the distance, numerous footsteps approached.

  “Then how come the better swordsman’s lying on his back, beaten bloody? You don’t have a mark on you, Geret. I would never bring grievous harm to my sworn prince. I gave your uncle my oath of honor. He is in danger, Geret, as are you. But not from me; not from us.”
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  Tingles swept through Geret’s entire body, and his eyes stared at the bloody work of his hands upon Salvor’s face. The grooves of his knuckles were lined with the man’s blood. His beaten opponent remained silent, watching Geret’s face; they both knew that his life hung in the balance.

  And then, so did Geret’s.

  “Anghi lo bei,” a low voice said from the alley’s mouth, and as Geret and Salvor both looked over, several other figures joined the speaker.

  “Quen ur mettau?” one asked the first, gesturing between Geret and Salvor with the point of a dagger.

  The first man grinned and pointed to Geret, and the men began to advance into the alley, drawing short swords or pairs of daggers.

  “Wisdom! Let me up,” Salvor hissed. Geret leaped away, picking up both his own sword and Salvor’s. He pivoted to face Salvor as the man spun to his feet, but then he suffered a moment of indecision.

  If he gave the sword back, Salvor could kill him. These men might even be working for him. His eyes flicked to the advancing men.

  Salvor wiped his bloody nose with a sleeve and raised his hand to receive the sword Geret still held.

  Geret remembered when Salvor had advanced on him after their very first duel, bright blade in hand. He had only handed it over, despite the look in his eyes.

  Geret tossed the sword. Salvor caught it by the handle and brought it to bear toward the other assailants, and he and Geret stepped closer together for mutual protection.

  A thrill passed through Geret: he had chosen wisely. He set all ramifications of that choice aside and focused on living long enough to sort through them.

  The thugs spread out in an arc, blocking the entire alley. Geret counted quickly; there were eight of them. And he’d just beaten his only ally bloody.

  Not the best odds.

  “Run?” he suggested to Salvor.

  “No. I want to know which one they’re working for,” Salvor responded, eyeing the advancing, grinning men.

  “Which who?” Geret asked.

  But there was no more time to talk. The thugs didn’t want them collaborating on strategy, it seemed. Two of them advanced on each of the young men, while the others blocked the exit.

  Salvor leaped at one of the men immediately, causing him to stumble back. He occupied the man’s space and flicked a jab at the second attacker as well, putting them both on the defensive inside three seconds. Geret realized now wasn’t the time to take notes on Salvor’s style. His two opponents rushed him at the same time, determined not to be taken down by a single foe.

  The alley rang with steel on steel, grunts, curses and shouts. Passersby quickly fled, not wanting to be pulled into the scene or killed for witnessing something they should not.

  As the fight stretched to two minutes, then three, Geret and Salvor focused their efforts on working as a team against their opponents, tangling them up and cutting them down.

  Salvor reached down to a downed thug and scooped up a dagger. Instead of keeping it, however, he tossed it to Geret, who caught it and immediately flicked it toward one of the men in the back, catching him in the upper chest. The man dropped his short sword and clutched at the weapon embedded in his chest, then sank slowly to the bricks.

  Salvor slashed at his remaining opponent, making him back off a step, and scooped up the dead man’s other dagger. “For Wisdom’s sake, keep this one!” he shouted, tossing it to Geret as well.

  Geret grinned wickedly, leaping aside from a slash to catch the dagger. He pivoted around behind one of his attackers and drove the smaller weapon into the man’s kidney a few times. The stabbed man stumbled into his ally, who shook him off and lunged at Geret, catching him a grazing blow against his ribs.

  Geret hissed; it stung like fire. The three rearmost thugs rushed up to help the other two finish the job before they lost too many of their number.

  Geret frantically ducked and slashed, leaped and twisted, but three on one was too much for him. He found himself backing away, unable to do much other than parry and dodge. A glancing blow to his left arm made him drop the dagger; it skittered downhill, leaving him with only his sword.

  “Salvor!” he called, noting how awkward it felt to ask the man for help when he’d been intent on killing him ten minutes ago.

  Salvor parried a sword strike, punched one opponent in the face, and pivoted to kick the other in the knee. He dashed toward Geret and drove his sword into one of the prince’s attackers from behind. The target fell against Geret as he went down, though, and Geret stumbled. The other two men leaped toward him, and Salvor lunged at one of them with a full-body tackle, knocking him to the ground. He rolled off the man, gaining his feet in a flash, but the prince’s third attacker chose that moment to strike.

  Salvor lunged forward, and the thug thrust the sword home.

  Geret gasped and swore.

  Salvor went limp with a sigh, the short sword throbbing with the rhythm of his heart, and collapsed back into Geret’s arms.

  “Folly, no!” Geret cried. There were still three men in the alley who wanted him dead, and his only ally had just sacrificed himself for nothing. He set Salvor down gently and stood over him, seething, sword at the ready.

  The men advanced on him, wary. The one who had stabbed Salvor snatched up Salvor’s family sword and taunted Geret with it.

  “Come and take me, then. If you can,” Geret gritted, body pumping with more adrenaline than he’d ever felt in his life. He felt so alive at this moment, he thought he might take flight, or breathe fire–

  A loud bang erupted at the mouth of the alley, echoing painfully in the semi-enclosed space and startling everyone. Geret thought he could see a puff of black against the mere dimness of the Ha’Hril night, and felt hope blossom in his heart. He leaped at the man who had just stabbed Salvor, slicing his arm as the man clumsily tried to parry. Geret kicked him in the knee, then the sword hand. As the man cried out and reached for another weapon, Geret grasped his sword in both hands and spun in a tight circle, bringing his sharp blade down on the man’s neck.

  Apparently it’s harder to decapitate someone than the stories say, Geret thought, watching the man writhe helplessly and scrabble at his gushing neck.

  Another explosion rocked the alley, much closer to the two remaining thugs. They stopped advancing on Geret and looked up, past him. Geret kept his eyes on them.

  A voice called down, echoing in the alley. “Ha’Hril kadden fa, naut ensa.” In quick succession, two black-fletched arrows sprouted from the thugs’ chests. One man collapsed where he was. The other raised his sword and got all the way to Geret with a last, pathetic swing. Geret blocked it easily and shoved the man over onto the bricks, then stabbed him in the heart for good measure and payback.

  He stood for a few moments, panting heavily. Sweat dripped off his strained face, and he mopped his brow with a sleeve. He turned and looked up at the roof behind him.

  “Thank you, Meena.”

  Meena nodded, bow in hand. She unstrung it, tossed it down to him, and skittered down a support beam to the alley floor. The bow’s wood was dyed black, and he realized it wasn’t Meena’s.

  “The city guardsman a few blocks over will be wanting that back. I’m not sure he deserves it,” she said.

  “I wish you’d been one minute earlier,” Geret said, moving over to Salvor’s side. He knelt by the man and reached out to slide Salvor’s eyelids over his blank hazel gaze.

  Meena grabbed his hand. “One minute? Move over.” She bumped him away with her hip, and Geret caught a whiff of bitter minerals from her hair. She knelt next to Salvor’s body, feeling at his vital areas with gentle hands.

  “Meena, he’s dead. The sword was throbbing with the beat of his heart.” Geret’s voice cracked, and he gulped. For the first time, he thought of how he was going to tell Sanych that Salvor was dead.

  “Geret, when I tell you, and not before, I want you to pull the sword out of his chest.”

  “What?”

  “Do as
I say, princeling,” Meena ordered, eyes on Salvor.

  Geret had been through such an emotional gamut the last half an hour, he didn’t argue or question any further. He merely stepped across Salvor and put his hands lightly on the short sword’s handle. “Tell me when.”

  Several more seconds passed. Then Meena said, “Now!”, startling him. He jerked the sword up roughly, though he had intended to merely slide it out. All thoughts of whether it even mattered on a dead man evaporated as he stared, openmouthed, at Salvor’s first shuddering breath.

  Meena held the nobleman’s shoulders down as he convulsed, eyes rolling. Geret dropped the sword and leaned onto his chest as well.

  “What did you do?” he asked, in total disbelief.

  “I’ve given him a chance. He was nearly gone. It’ll take him a while to come around, if he comes around at all.”

  Salvor’s convulsions ceased, and he subsided into unconsciousness. Geret laughed for a moment in amazement, then looked at the skin through the hole in Salvor’s shirt. It was completely healed over.

  “Meena…” Geret began, but he couldn’t find any adequate words.

  “You do your job, Geret, and I’ll do mine,” Meena said with a small smile. “Now, hold still. I see you’re bleeding, too.”

  Geret dutifully held still while Meena checked him over, and felt an odd redistribution of warmth within himself under her ministrations. She didn’t seem to do anything other than gently check on his wounds, but when he lifted the torn part of his shirt to examine his own sword wound, his skin was as unbroken as Salvor’s.

  “I…I don’t know what to say. I didn’t quite believe…still having trouble…” He felt his side again and grinned, shaking his head. “I can’t think of the right words, except ‘thank you’.”

  “At least your mother raised you to be polite, Geret,” Meena smiled. “Now, let’s get back to the Kazhak before anything else happens out here, shall we?” She snatched up Salvor’s sword and strode out into the street.

 
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