Author's Note: Forgot to post on Monday :/ So here's the last chapter, a few days late.
Book 3 Chapter XXIII: You'll Never Believe It
I have learned all kinds of things from my many mistakes. The one thing I never learn is to stop making them. – Joe Abercrombie, Last Argument of Kings
Some situations were practically calculated to evoke confusion and incredulity in the people present. Ever since her arrival in Carann Qihadal had been witness to far more of those situations than she cared to remember. Almost all of them involved Death, the Caranilnavs, or both. Naturally this would turn out to be yet another of that sort.
I don't know why I'm surprised any more.
She looked back at the princess. Rurika stared fixedly at the man on the floor. Her hands trembled as she clutched that strange flute she carried around with her. She never gave Death so much as a glance. Apparently there was at least one member of the Caranilnav family who remained unaware of their supernatural stalkers. That was quite a relief to know.
What was not a relief to know was that there were enemies out there who were all too mortal and every bit as dangerous as any sinister supernatural entity. Qihadal stalked towards the man with her sword pointed straight at his head. If he so much as looked up too quickly he had better be prepared for the consequences. She ignored Death completely. There was only so much she could deal with at a time. Besides, she didn't feel like having an argument in front of witnesses with someone invisible to others. That was a good way to make herself look as insane as her former in-laws were rumoured to be.
"Get up," she ordered, holding the sword above the man's head. She made sure to keep it where he could see it while not standing so close he would impale his own skull by obeying her.
The man whimpered like a spoilt child. "My head hurts," he wailed in Malishese.
Until now Qihadal had only looked at his clothes. She had assumed he was a Carannish assassin who'd disguised himself as a workman – or else a workman who'd decided to become an assassin. Now she realised this was much more serious than even that. She grabbed him by the collar and hauled him to his feet.
Just as she'd thought when she heard him speak. He was a Malishese man. And, unless she had completely lost her memory of her hated birth family and their countless relatives, he was one of her cousins. She neither remembered nor particularly cared which one. Goodness knew she had so many of them that she had never even met half of them. But he bore an immediately noticeable resemblance to her late and not-greatly-mourned grandfather. Even more damning, he wore a distinctive jadlai bearing the insignia of the Malishese royal family.
Qihadal pressed the blade of her sword against his throat. He sniffled and whined like a toddler throwing a tantrum. She glared at him until he shut up.
"I'd ask who you are but I really don't care," she said in her native language. "No need to ask who sent you either."
Death decided this was the perfect time to interrupt. "He was sent to assassinate Kilan. Jalakanavu's spies are even more incompetent than Nimetath and her assassins. This idiot came here because he never thought to check where Kilan actually was."
Qihadal continued to ignore her. Instead she looked at Rurika. In Carannish she said, "Go back to my sitting room. Pull the cord by the door three times to summon the guards."
The princess turned and fled as if an army of demons was after her. Qihadal moved her sword to press it between the would-be assassin's shoulder-blades.
"Start walking. One wrong move and I'll kill you on the spot."
Her cousin continued to whimper and snivel as she shooed him down the hallway. Really, his cowardice alone was enough reason for her to be ashamed they were related, never mind everything else!
They made a very odd procession. The assassin went first, shaking like a jelly on a tray held by a very clumsy cook. Qihadal followed with the point of her sword pressed against his ribs, where it would take very little effort to stab him in the heart. Last was Death, who followed with the air of someone watching a mildly interesting spectacle because they had nothing better to do. Qihadal didn't quite like having Death behind her. She did her best to keep an eye on both of her unwelcome companions. Judging by the way Death rolled her eyes, she was aware of what Qihadal was thinking.
I hope no one sees us yet, Qihadal thought. The mere idea of the awkward questions she'd have to answer was enough to make her shudder.
Naturally, since someone somewhere had a very twisted sense of humour, no sooner had she thought that than her fears came true. The three of them rounded a corner and came face to face with Prince Gialma.
Behind him was a woman all in black with black bird-like wings. At first Qihadal mistook her for Death and did a double take. Was it not enough she had to put up with one version of Death? Why did that wretched creature now have to be in two places at the same time? She looked again and realised she was mercifully wrong. Not only was this woman not Death, they looked nothing at all alike beyond both wearing black. In fact – unless she was much mistaken – the second woman was Tinuviel's dead sister. (Was she Varan or Vanie? Remembering the names of in-laws she barely knew was a nightmare.) Therefore she was, obviously, Carannish; while Death, if she could be compared to any mortal race, looked much more Nirnian.
Varan stared at Death with the horror of a child caught climbing out a window in the early hours of the morning. Death, on the other hand, looked at her with mild curiosity at most. Gialma looked from the assassin to the empress to the creature looming behind them. The book he'd been holding fell out of his hands and landed on the floor with a clatter.
At last Varan spoke. "What?"
A very good question. Qihadal wasn't going to stand around and answer it here, though. Not when her wretched cousin might decide now was the perfect time to make an escape attempt. Yes, he seemed pathetically cowardly. But if he really was, why had Jalakanavu given him this mission?
Gialma finally found his voice. "Where's Rurika?"
Of all the things for him to be worried about! Couldn't he see she wasn't here and therefore was in no immediate danger? Weren't there a few more important questions for him to ask first?
"She's safe," Qihadal said shortly. "This man is a hired assassin. If you want to be useful, find the captain of the guard and tell him to send his soldiers. They should have been here by now."
When it came to plans going wrong in unexpected ways, Qilnadiz had far too much experience to be fazed for long. Once he recovered from his musical instrument-induced daze he tried to escape before anyone else came. He failed. Apparently that damn girl had hit him even harder than he thought. It was the only logical reason he could find for why his arms and legs kept going beneath him when he tried to get up.
Luck was against him. He was a sitting target when the so-called empress showed up. Qihadal may not recognise him but he had no difficulty recognising her. The entire Malishese royal family viewed Qihadal as a traitor and a whore. In their minds her father had shown her mercy by sparing her worthless life and she repaid him with ingratitude and betrayal. Never for a minute did it occur to them to consider the situation from her perspective. Qilnadiz certainly never spared any thought for what she had been through.
He cobbled together a plan as she held him at sword-point. What he needed to do right now was to make her underestimate him. What better way to do that than by pretending to be in the grip of mortal terror? He went along with her every command. He allowed himself to be arrested and taken away by the guards. He didn't protest when they shoved him into a cell and locked the door.
As soon as he was alone he began to examine his new and unwanted accommodations. There was very little to give him any hope of escape. The floor was bone dry and paved with heavy stones set closely together. The walls were thick and devoid of any cracks. The window was on the other side of a metal grille. The door was made of iron and locked on the outside. It only had the slightest gap above the floor. Not nearly enough even for him to pull the key through, assuming that by some miracle the guards had left it in the keyhole and he managed to get it out.
If he was in a Malishese prison he would have been in more danger of being tortured to death without any questions asked first. On the other hand he would also have more of a chance of bribing the guards or being rescued by his friends. Here he couldn't speak the guards' language to offer them a bribe. And what friends would come to rescue him? The Iquisaal certainly wouldn't bother. As for the whore who called herself an empress? The mere idea was laughable. No, he would just have to stay here and wait for an opportunity to escape.
Carrying out his mission was preferable if he ever wanted to be allowed back into Malish - or to live safely once he got there. He wasn't such a fool that he would try to do it at unnecessary risk to himself. But if the chance presented itself... Well. He would be even more of a fool not to take it.
What an eventful day, Kilan thought sourly. It's barely lunchtime and all hell's already broken loose.
The first excitement was a very welcome telegram from Nimetath. Welcome, but puzzling. For what felt like months he hadn't heard a single thing of what was happening on the assassins' mission. Death only provided intermittent updates. Varan gave even fewer, and hers were of the sort calculated to baffle and alarm. According to her the assassins had teamed up with some foreign teenager. Kilan didn't believe it for a minute. Yet what reason did she have to lie? So he had many reasons to be worried about what they might be doing.
Now Nimetath told him that they had achieved their goal. The war was over. But, for some reason he couldn't understand, Jalakanavu was still alive. He couldn't imagine any situation where they could have persuaded her to end the war. His mind conjured up ludicrous images of them discussing it over tea. What in the world had happened in Malish? Nimetath hinted darkly at there being a great deal more to the story than she could tell him at present. She promised to explain it all in person.
Kilan shook his head as he reread the telegram. She'd better have a good explanation.
Then there was the equally puzzling telegram from Princess Ixerthi. This one was outright insulting as well as puzzling. She demanded in no very pleasant terms why he had sent children into Malish.
What is she talking about?
The only one of the assassins who could be considered a child was Wenguoling. Even that was a stretch. Kilan had never heard anyone call an eighteen-year-old a child before. Besides, Nimetath had chosen him herself because he passed whatever test she set all the would-be assassins.
As if all that confusion wasn't enough, now he got some very garbled reports from Zasordoth Palace. Some claimed that Empress Qihadal had been assassinated. He dismissed that as an outright lie. If she really had been, the entire royal court would have told him all about it by now. Others said an enemy army had attacked. Still others said it was just a small group and they were all caught at the door.
When in doubt there was one person who could generally be relied on to know the whole story.
She appeared within seconds of his call.
"I suppose you want to know what's happening in Zasordoth," Death said. Her grin implied it was something highly amusing – to her, at any rate. "Rurika knocked out an assassin before he got anywhere near Qihadal. The last I saw she was boasting about it to Gialma. Says she'll have her maokuan put on display as the weapon that foiled a murder attempt. Goodness knows that's the only use she'll ever have for it; she certainly can't play it."
Kilan tried to follow this. He failed. "Let me get this straight. What has a musical instrument got to do with Rurika knocking out an assassin?"
"She hit him with it."
That startled a laugh out of Kilan, even though the rest of the situation was hardly amusing. "Where is the assassin now?"
"In the palace dungeon." Well, that was one less thing to worry about. "Planning his escape." Damn it. "But Qihadal has a battalion of guards in the dungeons. He won't get out. Jalakanavu doesn't know he's failed yet. When she hears about it she won't risk sending another assassin for a while."
That would have been a great deal more reassuring if she had left off the "for a while" part.
The last time Hailanyu had visited Risingau Palace felt like a lifetime ago. Was it really just under two months? How could so much have happened in such a short time? He stared at the ceilings and hallways as if he expected them to disappear if he took his eyes off them for a minute. When he finally reached Tinuviel's office he stopped short and stared. Not because anything was different or extraordinary, but because everything was exactly the same.
Fortunately for his pride his cousin pretended not to notice his odd behaviour. "Sit down, Hailanyu. I'm glad to see you're back safely."
Not nearly as glad as I am, Hailanyu thought. He shuddered at the memory of some of the mission's more hair-raising moments.
"I've called you here because Nimetath's report was incomplete. She doesn't seem to know what happened at the end of the mission. But according to her you witnessed all of it. Could you explain?"
For one terrifying moment Hailanyu's mind went blank. All he could think of was Kiroshnoy. How would he ever explain that?
Might as well give the emperor fair warning. "You'll find it very hard to believe. Sir. I mean, it sounds like something out of a book."
Tinuviel almost smiled. "So do many other things I hear every day."
Hailanyu took a deep breath. "Well, you see, it all started beside a lake…"
By the time he finished Hailanyu was utterly convinced he was in trouble. Every word he'd said was absolutely true. The problem was no one could possibly believe it. Tinuviel kept a straight face and listened without any sign of being angry with him. Painful experience of some of his teachers meant his calmness made Hailanyu fear an imminent explosion.
"It seems I need to thank Princess Kiroshnoy then. Without her help the mission would have been a complete failure."
"You believe me?" Hailanyu asked incredulously.
Tinuviel nodded solemnly. "I've heard some strange reports about what happened in Malish. They make sense now."
Hailanyu had been prepared for disbelief. He'd even been prepared for anger. But this! He knew no sane person should ever have believed his story. Yet he could hardly say that out loud. It carried the implication that he thought the emperor wasn't sane.
"So yes," Tinuviel continued. "I do believe you. There are many things in our family even stranger than Kiroshnoy. Ask Gialma. He can tell you all about them."
Hailanyu felt slightly insulted on Kiroshnoy's behalf. Then he realised what else Tinuviel had said. "...Gialma?"
The first time Gialma saw Hailanyu after his return was on one of his infrequent visits to his parents' house. This one had no other purpose than to see for himself that his idiotic little brother hadn't gotten himself killed.
The first words Hailanyu said left Gialma reeling. "Emperor Tinuviel told me you know about strange things in our family. What did he mean?"
Gialma thought of Varan. Of Death. Of mirrors to other worlds and of walking corpses. He shrugged helplessly. "I have no idea."
END OF BOOK THREE
 jadlai = A necklace, usually gold or silver, worn by Malishese royals and nobles that has a symbol or insignia showing which family they belong to.
Second Author's Note: Thanks to everyone who's read this far! An extra thank you to those who've reviewed :D There will eventually be a third book in the series. It's currently untitled and doesn't have a plot, but it will probably be one of my NaNo projects next year.