The wicked heroine, p.60
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       The Wicked Heroine, p.60

           Jasmine Giacomo


  Geret felt as fresh as if he’d just woken up from a full night’s sleep. He lifted Salvor’s unconscious form from up onto his sturdy shoulders and carried him down to the next main road, following Meena. At the corner, Meena handed the city guardsman stationed there his bow and quiver, but her glare could have burned stone. The man wisely said nothing.

  “What did I miss?” Geret asked, as Meena turned away from the guardsman.

  “Just some local idiocy.” Meena headed downhill toward the city center, and Geret took large strides to keep up, shifting Salvor on his shoulders.

  At the next main intersection, he and Meena found a rickshaw driver willing to cart them to the docks, and he gratefully set Salvor down and clambered next to him in the narrow seat. Meena perched on Geret’s knees and tucked her feet under Salvor’s ankles. She braced herself with an arm on the side of the rickshaw and checked the unconscious man again, as if reassuring herself that she had indeed saved him. During the cramped ride, Geret told Meena all that he knew of the evening’s encounters.

  Soon they arrived at the Sea God dock. It was still bustling with late night supply loading, and no one glanced at them twice, even with Salvor loaded again onto Geret’s shoulders.

  Geret carried Salvor all the way to his quarters, while Meena kept a lookout to make sure they were not seen by anyone in their party. She opened Salvor’s door quietly, and they laid him on his bed.

  “I’ll go get Sanych,” Meena said, setting Salvor’s sword on a side table. “You stay put.”

  “Why do we need Sanych?” Geret asked.

  “You know someone else who can piece this together any better? You stay in here. I’ll be right back.”

  Meena slipped quietly out the door. Geret wondered again what Salvor had meant by “which one they’re working for.”

  He sighed. He’d just have to wait for the details. Shrugging his shoulders to roll off the tightness from carrying Salvor, he noticed that his cape and shirt were sticky with the man’s blood.

  He had just pulled one of Salvor’s clean shirts over his head–a deep blue one–when the door opened. Geret’s hand moved to his sword, until he saw that it was Meena who entered. Sanych was right behind her.

  When the Archivist saw Salvor lying on the bed–shirt soaked with blood, eyes closed–she covered her mouth with her hands and shrieked. Meena hurriedly shut the door and locked it.

  Geret strode forward. “You didn’t warn her?” he said roughly.

  Meena scowled at him. “I did. She’s fifteen.”

  Geret took Sanych’s hands and got directly between her and Salvor. “Sanych, he’s all right. Meena saved him. He’s just resting. He’ll wake up later. Right, Meena?” he asked.

  “That’s the plan,” the Shanallar responded. She strode over to the bed and started getting Salvor out of his bloody clothes. “Maybe, Geret, you’ll be good enough to find him a new shirt to wear, seeing as you’ve located his closet?”

  Geret offered Sanych a chair, but she said, “No, I want to help,” and joined Meena by the bed. He walked to the closet and pulled out a cream shirt, then laid it on the bed.

  Once the women had cleaned Salvor up and made him comfortable, they sat with Geret by the bedside.

  “How long will he sleep?” Sanych asked, glancing worriedly at Salvor’s pale countenance, his limp fingers intertwined with hers.

  “A few hours at least. His body had quite a shock.”

  The young Archivist bit her lip. “He’s just so still. Are you sure there’s nothing we can do for him?”

  Meena leaned forward and took Sanych’s other hand in both of hers. “It’s all up to him now. But I didn’t bring you here for Salvor. We need your help to save Geret from another attack.”

  “Another? Is that how Salvor got hurt? I can’t help you with that; I’ve never held a sword in my life!” Tears welled up in her eyes.

  “Sanych, relax. Just listen to Geret. Use that archival memory–who among the Counts might want Geret dead?” Meena looked into Sanych’s eyes.

  “The…Counts?” Sanych gulped. When Meena and Geret both nodded, the Archivist’s eyes darted to Salvor again, and she swallowed hard.

  Geret picked up his tale from earlier in the evening when he’d left Sanych at her door, repeating all the names he’d learned from Salvor. Sanych listened in silence, her free hand pressed over her lips.

  When he had finished, Meena got them both a cup of hot tea and began her own tale. Neither Geret nor Sanych had any idea where Meena had spent her day, so they both listened raptly.

  “I took a horse and rode up to the volcano,” she began. “It didn’t take too long, but longer than last time.” She could see Sanych was dying to know what happened; she smiled indulgently at the young girl. “I had to go there, you see, because that’s where I hid the key.”

  “The key to what?” Geret asked, leaning forward.

  “The key to the book’s otherworldly prison.”

  “What? There’s a key?” Sanych burst out.

  Meena grinned for a moment. “Yes, and no one can take the book from its hiding place without it. But anyone who possesses the key could conceivably retrieve the book, so I brought the key here from Shanal, nearly four hundred years ago.”

  “I can’t believe you didn’t mention the key,” Sanych pouted.

  “I’d think you’d be used to that by now,” Meena said, raising an eyebrow. “Hiding it was the first thing I did after locking that dark volume away. I knew that Heren Garil Sa was about to erupt. I stayed here in Ha’Lakkon until the signs of the coming eruption were so constant that evacuations were taking place from every port.

  “And then I climbed into the mountain. The key is as indestructible as I am, though neither of us were intended that way. Originally, I only wanted to destroy the key. But I didn’t want to chance my own destruction in case the key and I were linked more strongly than I thought, so I chose instead to hide it in one of the many lava tubes that riddled the slopes of the volcano. I left Ha’Hril, satisfied that, between the magic of the key and the magic of the mountain, no one would ever learn its location.

  “Today, the key called to me just as strongly as it ever did. It took a bit of smashing and picking to reach it, but it’s in my possession again.”

  Meena put a hand to her breastbone and winced for a moment, then withdrew a small black orb straight out of her body and held it out to show them. It fit easily in her palm, glistening wetly in the light, and seemed to pulse just below the threshold of hearing.

  Sanych wrinkled her nose, then looked puzzled. “Do you smell that?”

  Geret concentrated for a moment, then looked at Meena. He needed no confirmation; he’d smelled it earlier this evening. “Blood.”

  Meena nodded. “There’s enough blood in this tiny sphere to fill a body. Specifically, my body. This key is a product of the book itself; I had to empty my veins into it in order to hide that black opus from the world. Because I healed so quickly, it didn’t kill me like it should have.” A dark cloud of memory passed across Meena’s eyes for a moment. “I was supposed to die. He was supposed to take the key and destroy it. But things didn’t work out that way.”

  “Who’s ‘he’?” asked Sanych.

  “Ask me in Shanal. That is where his story should be told.” Meena’s eyes grew thoughtful as they stared at the small black orb.

  While Sanych gritted her teeth at yet another put-off, Geret asked, “Wait, Meena. We only came to Ha’Hril by accident. When were you going to tell us about this key? We could easily have planned to come here from the start, if we’d known. We might have gone all the way to Shanal without even knowing we needed a key!”

  Meena turned a cool green stare in his direction. “Exactly.” She pushed the sphere back into her body, where it disappeared without leaving any trace. “And I’m going to be the one to keep the key.”

  “How did all your blood fit in there?” Sanych asked hesitantly.


  Sanych understood and nodded. She recalled Meena’s use of that single-word answer to the Masters of the Temple of Knowledge.

  “No, wait, Meena,” Geret protested. “I meant, how did you plan to get the key? Ha’Hril wasn’t on the Kazhak’s itinerary.” He squinted. “Did you have something to do with the riot in Yaren Fel? To try and divert us to a closer port?”

  Sanych, who hadn’t been present for the “overarching themes” conversation, darted her eyes quickly between the other two. “What?” she blurted.

  Meena merely laughed. “No. I really didn’t have enough time to set that up. I merely suggested to Captain Galanishav that we alter course to Ha’Hril, rather than try to make Hynd. He found my suggestion eminently reasonable.” Meena’s slight smugness left Geret wondering exactly how she’d brokered that deal. “But I would have come here for the key with or without that riot, and with or without any of you. Except perhaps Sanych.” The Shanallar smiled at the Archivist, who wasn’t sure if the words were a compliment.

  “All right. But how did you know about the attack on me?” Geret asked, getting back on track with the events of the evening.

  “I’ve got good hearing. That main street where the guard had apparently gone deaf is one of the roads that leads out of the city and up over the volcano’s flanks. I heard the clash of swords and the shouting. Saw a few people hurrying out of that street. I didn’t know it was you and Salvor in the alley then, of course. Ironic, isn’t it? Just trying to be helpful, and I ended up saving your sorry skin!”

  Geret gave her a wry smile. “If you hadn’t come along, we’d both be lying in that alley. Again, you have my thanks. Consider your life debt repaid,” Geret said.

  Meena nodded graciously to him. “So that’s everything, Sanych,” she said. “Can you make sense of it all enough to pull out a name? One of the Counts other than Runcan, perhaps?”

  “I’ll need a few minutes to think.” Sanych put her middle fingers delicately against her temples and frowned, then relaxed and closed her eyes. The others could see her eyes flicking back and forth occasionally under her lids.

  Eventually she sighed and shook her head, opening her eyes. “I don’t see anything definite, without more information. I’m so sorry.” Her eyes turned to Salvor, still asleep on the bed.

  “It’s not your fault, Sanych,” Geret said. “You’re a wonderful addition to this team. We’ll just have to get you more information, is all.”

  Meena’s sharp voice cut in. “Think again, princeling. We don’t want them to know you suspect anything. We’re stuck on this ship for quite a while, with little clue to the dangers we’re facing.”

  Geret sat back in his chair and scratched his chin, then nodded, albeit with reluctance.

  Sanych, still upset, added, “I’ve never known of a Count to stoop to murder.”

  “That doesn’t mean they haven’t gotten away with it secretly. When Salvor wakes up, I’ll want him to talk to you and see if you can figure it out together. And if there’s anything else I can think of, I’ll tell you as well.”

  “All right.” Sanych nodded. “What do we do now?”

  “We need to act normally,” Meena said. “We’ll say that Salvor was attacked by thugs and Geret saved him, and leave it at that.”

  Geret and Sanych agreed, and Geret escorted the ladies back to their rooms and made sure they bolted their doors before taking a moment to compose himself. Then he went and knocked on the Counts’ doors and informed them of Salvor’s condition. Both Sengril and Armala appeared as shocked as Runcan was, and Geret cursed his lack of court experience, leaving him unable to read subtleties in their demeanors. He was sure one of the two suspects was shocked at the attack, while the other was merely shocked at the wrong target being wounded.

  They all insisted on seeing Salvor and summoning the ship’s physicks to tend him. Geret let them do both. He told them Meena had helped Salvor, but he made it seem that she’d done that only after Geret had brought him back to the ship.

  The physicks proclaimed him sleeping deeply and said they would check on him in the morning. After the Counts returned to their rooms with promises of doing the same, Geret took one last look at the sleeping man.

  “You still owe me more answers, Salvor,” he murmured quietly. “You can’t die now.” His lip curled, and he added guardedly, “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but…get better soon.” Geret turned and left the room, taking Salvor’s key and locking the door behind him.

  A few moments later, he tapped on Count Runcan’s door. When the man let him in, Geret’s face was a mixture of doubt and determination.

  “Is Salvor awake already?” Runcan asked, shutting the door behind Geret.

  “No. But it’s because of him I’m here. It’s probably no secret he and I don’t get along. I think that in this case I have to trust him, though.”

  Runcan’s eyebrows rose. “In which case, exactly?”

  Geret sighed, put his hands on his hips and faced Runcan directly. “In the case where you’re all spying for my uncle and didn’t think me worthy of letting in on the secret.”

  “Oh.” Runcan turned and indicated a padded armchair. “That case. Perhaps you’d better sit down, then, my prince,” he said.

  Geret sat, and Runcan joined him.

  Geret steeled himself, looking intently at Runcan. The slim, red-haired man seemed as calm and centered as he always had. That he was secretly allied with Geret’s uncle, against some sort of takeover plot, seemed bizarre and otherworldly. Geret relayed the entirety of the evening to the Count, including Meena’s miraculous healing of Salvor.

  “So he was telling me the truth?” Geret asked, squinting in disbelief even now.

  “I’m afraid he was, Geret,” Runcan confirmed, nodding. He explained that Count Thelios and his son had worked closely with the Magister for two years, protecting his interests while appearing apathetic, in order to be approachable by the opposition. He also added that the assignments Imorlar had given Geret were an attempt to make him aware of the larger scope in which the Dictat operated, to prepare him for dealing with them as well.

  “You see,” Runcan said, leaning forward, “this quest is but a distraction created by the Magister. He’s separated Sengril and Armala from their conspirators back home. They cannot communicate easily anymore, and the plot against your uncle has hopefully stalled out.”

  “So what is it they’re after? What do they want?” Geret asked, leaning his elbows onto his knees.

  Runcan sighed. “We don’t know. They’ve been efficient at covering their tracks, hiding their communications. Before the quest left, we hadn’t been able to learn of their true purpose, but they’ve been working at it for years. Years, Geret.”

  Wisdom, what have I waded into? Geret thought. “They’re not the only ones with secret ways,” he said aloud. He told Runcan that Meena had detoured the ship here to Ha’Hril so she could retrieve the key that only she knew existed, and that she kept it within her body with some form of magic.

  Runcan exhaled slowly and ran his fingers through his light red hair. “If we push her, she will merely leave us and retrieve the volume alone. And then destroy it. We must not aggravate her. And we must not aggravate Sengril or Armala. They’re doing their duty as Counts on this quest; they know it’s punishment, and they accept it. Their part in any plans back home is on hold, and there’s nothing served by fighting the part they’ve been given in the meantime.”

  “How can you be so sure? Eight men just tried to kill me in an alley! Are you so confident it wasn’t one of them?”

  Runcan looked shocked. “Geret! The Counts are not thug lords! Their warfare is conducted in the ways of trades, tariffs, and alliances with like-minded merchants. Vint is as civilized a nation as you will find! I fear you’ve been living a bit too far into your imagination, lad. No Count would resort to base murder simply to tip the scales in his favor.”

  “You know that for sure? You’d bet your life on it?” p
ressed Geret.

  “I would indeed,” Runcan said, meeting Geret’s eyes. “I’ve known these men for decades. Their actions are not dissimilar from what mine would be in the same situation.”

  Geret blinked. This sort of cultured warfare was a bit above his comprehension; he had no idea that his uncle and the Dictat operated on such a cerebral level. Although, he had to admit to himself, with Wisdom as their model of perfection, the Dictat embodied the nine wisest men in the entire land, save his uncle. Geret felt a little hurt that the Magister hadn’t told him about the quest being a distraction for the Counts, as well as a means to save Addan’s life. His uncle was a true puppet master, causing everyone to dance to their own small parts of the greater song, unaware of how much there was that they did not know.

  Until now. Now it was starting to come together. He rubbed his forehead vigorously, wishing he could scrub away the fuzzy feeling in his mind.

  “I’m not so sure I can just accept that,” he admitted. “If Salvor had been killed, would you still feel as certain?”

  Runcan leaned forward onto his elbows. “Even more so. They would never endanger him; they believe he’s willing to join their side, remember? Any thugs sent to kill you by them would have specific instructions to avoid harm to Salvor, or any other potential ally.”

  Geret nodded as if convinced, but in his mind he recalled that the sword strike that had pierced Salvor’s heart had been aimed at his; the nobleman had leaped in the way at the last moment.

  “I’ll take my leave, then,” he said. “Hopefully Salvor will wake soon. I have more to discuss with him.” He rose and stepped to the door.

  “I’m sure you do, lad.”

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