2: Made to Order
The margrave took another step into the room, gesturing with his pistol. "You're tired. I'm not unreasonable. Please, sit down."
Cam hooked out the chair near the wash basin and took a seat, carefully keeping one hand within reach of but not exactly on the holstered pistol. He wanted Valben to know he was ready, but not a threat. His eyes didn't leave the other man. Valben might not be able to exert any real power in here for as long as he kept the ward in action, but a bullet in the gut would kill all the same.
"If you were going to turn me over to the Hand," Cam said, "you'd have half a dozen men at your beck in that hallway. I can't see a single one. What do you want?" And, just in case, but a moment too late to really mean it: "My lord."
Valben's pistol hand didn't waver. "Your assistance."
"You're a lunatic. And I'm not in the business of committing to crazy causes anymore. Did that once. Look where it got me."
The taller man's face showed no offense, and instead creased in amusement. "Look what it got you as well, or so I was told. His gaze dropped pointedly to the shirtsleeve just above Cam's ready hand, but it wasn't the clothing that was in question.
Even as Valben looked that way, Cam was full of unwelcome awareness of the brand that the capital had put on him. A broken branch, for treason, the skin still vaguely raised but at least no longer puckering from the injury. It had been only a few weeks since the revolution had failed. He had almost begun to forget about the mark he bore, but now it all came rushing back, in a wash of fresh discomfort.
"I would say that mark means you're in no position to choose your employers, Ser Kallas."
It was a convincing enough, if damningly simple argument. If he didn't take whatever the margrave offered, he would be left to the mercies of the Lady's Hand again. He could not outrun both of them. Feeling distinctly cornered, Cam searched for the only opportunity to bargain that was left to him. "Tell me what you want me to do. I won't kill for you, though; I'll kill you first."
Valben raised a blond brow in mild surprise, but it wasn't at Cam's last claim. "If I wanted an assassin, I wouldn't have come all the way out here to seek your help. You're a good shot, but you aren't that good." He too took a seat, sprawling on the bed with the lazy but watchful demeanor of a hawk at rest, unbothered that his surprisingly common clothes were now disheveled. "I need a man with your talents, who isn't afraid to venture alone. Those damned Lady's Hand idiots have a terribly unseemly habit of traveling in packs. It's very hard to discern which of them are worth a skilling."
Cam bit down on his lip, suppressing a grin. "You'll need to pay me better than that, my lord – especially if the Hand is still going to be hunting me down. I don't do close calls for pauper's pay."
"I'll do better than that," Valben replied. "Letters of marque. So long as you're working for me, you'll be as free of the Hand as any man is, provided you undertake no more crimes."
Did Valben have that sort of influence at the capital? Cam marveled for a moment, before remembering that he was supposed to be suspicious. His jaw snapped shut, and he narrowed his eyes. "And then you ask me to commit more crimes, and I either commit them and go to jail for them, or avoid committing them, and the Hand picks me up once I've broken your marque?"
"You are suspicious," Valben murmured, as if checking that off a mental inventory of Cam's personality. "I'll ask you to commit no crimes. Our arrangement will be wholly within the law – both that of the nation and out here in the Southmark."
There was something that bothered Cam about those words. It almost seemed as if the margrave was omitting something very specific. But he was tired, and the other man was waiting intently. The worst that could happen would be that he would go to prison again, and get hanged this time, and that wouldn't be a new option at Valben's behest, either. "Fine. I'm in," he said, not bothering to hide his reluctance.
"Excellent!" Valben's smile was somehow broader than it should have been. "We'll speak in the morning before we head out." He swung his legs off the mattress, propping himself up. "Your ward's strong," he added as he headed for the door. "Don't waste your strength. The Lady's Hand won't be here by tonight, and if any of those drunks down there try to mess with you, I'll have them hanged just outside your window."
Cam's smile was nowhere near as broad as the grin he'd had to hide, let alone close to matching the nobleman's enthusiasm. He sat where he'd been bidden for a few more minutes, staring at the timbered wall behind him and the cheap painting done by an inept artist. There's something wrong, he told himself, and he stared at the painting as if the answer might be contained in there. He could only discern that the woman in the picture had two right hands, thanks to the lazy work of a journeyman portraitist. Nothing about Margrave Valben's words made any clearer sense than they had when the man was in the room.
He leaned down to the floor, signing the sigil backwards on the wood. The weight of the room lightened by several pounds, the barrier protecting him from the rest of the bar slowly separating into gossamer, like strands of a spider's web kicked by a boisterous child. Somehow, he believed that the margrave was telling the truth about Cam's safety tonight, although he couldn't identify why, either. I come to the wastelands and put my trust in a madman, he thought.
Then it hit him: The margrave had said that the arrangement was legal on this side of the border, but hadn't mentioned Gaarik one way or the other. "You stupid son of a bitch," he told the incompetently done portrait, imagining it to be his reflection. "You let him trap you." The portrait only stared back in daubed incomprehension.
At least he was going to be out of the reach of the Lady's Hand – but now he would be the somewhat faithful assistant to a nobleman who might have him sold to the Gaariki for lands or power. He'd wanted to be the one doing the bargaining, not the one who was bargained, and he wondered if death at the hands of the militia wouldn't be an easier, more pleasant solution.
If he was going to get the business end of a gun, metaphorically or realistically, he'd have to be ready. He drew out his pocketknife, flipping it open and pressing the blade to his flesh. Between his bloodied nose downstairs and the ritual he was about to perform up here, he'd have to be careful not to spill too much. Dying through some damn fool accident in a flea-ridden rented room was not what his brother had prophesied for him.
"You think he'll follow through?"
"He'll have to." Valben shrugged. What the wanted man had desired to do was inconsequential. He'd agreed to the plan, however warily and largely unknowingly, and a man's word was his bond. And even if it wasn't, Sandis Valben, Fourteenth Margrave of Southmark, could ensure that it would be. He knew the rough extent of Kallas' abilities, and the man was merely a con artist at best, using his abilities to keep himself safe from the overeager police force, and nothing more. He had no idea of the true power that could be called upon.
"I don't know why you insisted that your man had to be a wanted criminal. They won't be happy about that, you know. They already aren't. They're saying that you're probably a rebel yourself."
Valben's eyes narrowed. "Do I look like one?" He was dressed in the best finery that money could buy in the capital, ruff neatly frilled out at the collar and gold buttons neatly fastened. He'd changed into this after he'd left Cam Kallas to consider his distinct lack of options; the hunted man would have taken even less kindly to being accosted by an aristocrat who was dressed the part. "I am doing this for the kingdom, I assure you. My loyalty to you and to Norwess remains unchecked. Would you like me to sign a contract in blood?"
His visitor sighed, a world-weary noise. "Always with the sarcasm. One day I'll get tired of that."
"But not yet." Valben looked down at the floor, where his shadow stretched long in the lamplight. It still seemed strange that the other figure cast no shadow, but he had become used to it by now. "To answer your question, Your Grace, I chose the criminal because he had nothing left to lose. His only other option is marching out of the gin-joint and putting a noose around his neck, or getting a bullet in his head. And he knows it. So even if he may not be eager to cooperate, he will. And you can tell the council that if they can wait, we will produce results. I didn't trek all the way out here after him merely for the sport of it."
The visitor's uncertainty was quickly subsumed by a vaguely reluctant agreement. Perhaps the formal address had changed his superior's attitude. "The council trusts in you, and so must I." The phrase was deliberate, implying no actual trust on the part of his visitor. "See to it that your plan works, Sandis. We can't afford mistakes. His type is too rare to waste as a Gaariki sacrifice."
Not a literal one, Valben thought. The idea of simply giving the enemy such an advantage did not sit well with him. But he took the point, and nodded briefly. "I have ensured its success. You can tell the council that we will have left by tomorrow, and we stand to reach the Gaariki in a matter of days. I'd have us there sooner, but you know what the penalty is for willworking in Gaarik. Even my title wouldn't protect me from it."
Cam Kallas would be insurance from harm for both of them, though. The Gaariki would see his potential. Valben had already seen it, and even a nation of tattooed, drunken decadents would notice it as well.
Next to him, the figure rose, with a rustling of silks that were twenty years too old for fashion. Looking up, Valben smiled vaguely at the Duchess of Thoste, noting the pallor on her face and the brittle state of her hands. Other men would think she was dead, and would think he was a necromancer for meeting with her, but he was no death-worker, and he knew better. The Duchess was not dead, and she could not die. He had made sure of that a decade ago, when the high fevers had begun to ravage the Norwessan aristocracy.
The duchess gave him an expectant look, and Valben rose as well, taking her hand. It felt dry, like it was made of dust and twigs that would snap apart if he held it the wrong way. Her lips set in a thin, determined line, and she stared at the portrait card of Kallas that he had offered her. It was a less than flattering depiction, taken while the man was in Highmount Prison, and the slight man's expression was one of exhaustion and defiance. "This is who we're pinning our hopes on," the woman murmured, half-amused and half-suspicious.
"The only other person I was aware of with his abilities was his brother, and they weren't half as developed. Micha was executed in the last days of the revolution, at any rate, and while I can prevent death, I can't reverse it." Valben reached out for the card. "Surely you remember that warning." As he slid the card into his pocket, not bothering to give it a second glance, he started to escort the duchess towards the door, but the woman pulled her arm away. If she had not outranked him, he would have been startled at her rudeness to him, but instead he simply withdrew his arm, folding it at the elbow against his jacket. "Your servant, Ilena."
As the duchess reached the door, Valben shut his eyes lightly and repeated the incantation: "Space is a sheet of paper, which I may fold at my will." As the Thostian finery around him started to disintegrate, he gradually found himself back in the room next to Kallas, with furniture just as suspect as Kallas' lodgings had been. If they knew he was a margrave, they would have given him the finest room in the house. He could not afford such luxury, though he had the money for it. There was no room for gossip, even if it stood the smallest possible chance of reaching the Gaariki before they did. Kallas had recognized him, but the man had been a thorn in his side before, and he was sure, given the criminal's current disposition, the man was in no rush to publicize either of their identities.
The duchess was suspicious of him, and Kallas distrusted him as well. He would prove them both wrong, though. The mission would be a success, and even if Kallas did not survive, the overall consequences would be minimal. Kallas' abilities were irreproducible, but they did not add anything. They only subtracted. And a world with less subtractive magic would be fundamentally unchanged, merely out of balance.
He had searched too long and planned too well. Confident in his course of action, Sandis Valben poured himself a jigger of plum brandy and stretched his long limbs in the chair. It would be a long wait until morning, but in case Kallas tried to escape, the margrave could not simply fall asleep. The least he could do was to make himself comfortable.
Here I am, relying on a half-breed felon with abilities I could never duplicate in all my studies, and the man would sooner see me dead than successful. It was a pensive thought, and not a worried one. He wondered, too, if the duchess shared Kallas' probable feelings towards him, and decided it was at least half likely. None of the capital's ring of peers made much of a secret about hating the others, beyond the smokescreen they tried to keep up for the benefit of the freemen. Little did the rest of the world know what bound the ruling families together. The recent rebellion had almost given the secret away. For that alone, Kallas owed him.
He remembered the first time he had met the Kallas brothers, half a decade ago. The older one, Micha, had been about Cam's age now, even if pockmarked from some plague or other. Micha had killed Valben's coachman with a single shot, from a distance that would have been impressive if it hadn't been quite as antagonistic. The younger one, who was now in the room down the hall from him, had done the actual robbery. The killer was dead, but having the robber in his employ was proving remarkably satisfactory, even on the very first night.
"I'm the only thing keeping you from death," he murmured towards Kallas' picture in his pocket. "I wonder if you know that already."
Outside, the night was black, too cloudy for stars, and the darkness above was as vast as the desert below. Three men sat around a campfire, one keeping watch and the others beginning to doze. It had been a hard ride from Highmount, but the trading post had been a place to get thin, watery soup with some unidentifiable meat in it, and so they had decided to bunk down by the pathway. It was uncomfortable land, rock-hard and barren, and inwardly Lieutenant Sepp cursed the fellow who had led them this far. All this way for a prison escapee, and not one of any real physical ability either. He had been promised a bonus for leading the squad this far, but he knew he wouldn't receive it. They had started out with five men in the squad, but one had turned back to Highmount, complaining of the fever. Sepp could not risk contagion amongst the entire party, so he had been forced to let the first deserter go. The second one had disappeared at the trading post, and though Sepp partly wondered if the man would return, he would not have found much fault with a real desertion. In this heat and inhospitality, he knew, he could expect less loyalty than he would have in Norwess City.
"Lieutenant? You still awake?"
"I'm on watch, Eddard. Of course I'm awake."
The junior man let out a huff that might have been closer to a laugh on a better night, and propped himself up on his elbow, studying the lieutenant. "Do you think it was worth it?"
"The war? Not particularly," Sepp said absently.
"No. This commission. Being sent to this hellhole. Seems to me, the man doesn't want to be found, we should just let him go."
Sepp spat into the dirt, turning to face the ascetic-looking boy. Eddard never should have enlisted, he thought. The fellow had the look of an academic – a librarian, to be precise – not of a soldier. Gold-rimmed spectacles, a soft and fleshy face, and well-manicured hands did not a soldier make. Supposedly Eddard was the strongest willed of them to enact wonders, but at times like this, Sepp wondered if the boy could even summon the ability to rise for breakfast, let alone anything more enchanted.
"If we let him go, we'll not only be out of a commission, but they'll call for our heads instead of his. I take it that 'being made an example of' is not on your upcoming agenda, Ed?"
Eddard shrugged, holding up his hands in a gesture of defeat. Sepp reached for his brandy, taking a sip. Guardsmen, all of us, and sworn to protect the Lady's interests in Norwess. Sworn to keep order, and to prevent dangerous individuals from exercising their abilities. Out here in the desert, though, he was unsure the Lady had any reach. Order was not a common thing out here, he had discovered, even to the finest point: His men and he had frayed shirt-cuffs and dusty boots, and would have been embarrassed to walk around in that state in the capital. It didn't matter a jot here, and that freedom was alien, its possibilities suddenly frightening.