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Carte Blanche

Discussion in 'The Hooded Crow Inn [Fiction]' started by Lindae, Jun 24, 2011.

  1. Lindae

    Lindae Guest

    The front door had warped in the damp. It rasped against the flagstones as Ilana pushed through. A bitter wind, pricked with rain, lashed the stone walls and the unkempt jungle of the garden; it moaned deep and hollow in the eaves.

    She found her father huddled on the dining room carpet, close to the hearthfire. He was crouched on his knees, his head bowed, his hands lifted to his face or to his throat; she couldn't see, with his hood in the way.

    At first Ilana thought that he was praying, and she let him be.

    She went out to the kitchen where the lamplight was good and, sliding her longsword from its sheath, she checked the blade for smudges. Not an hour had passed since she'd cut down some slavering meat puppet out to the east of Umbra, a towering golem sculpted from gobbets of flesh and strung haphazardly together with ropy sinew, and a bloody blade would rust quickly in this weather.

    The quick field job she'd done with a shred of cloth and a clump of damp dead grass had been good enough, though. The sword glinted spotless and sharp as a serpent's fang in the lamplight. She wiped it over again once, just to show her love, before sheathing it and hooking it to the rack with the others.

    Her father met her in the hallway with his hood lowered and his head tilted slightly back to expose his throat. Aghast, Ilana sprang backward.

    Someone had sliced him from ear to ear, leaving a yawning gash. She could see the amputated stubs of vein and sinew, the arteries gaping, the strings of pale and bloodless meat. The wound did not pump as a slit throat ought to, but drizzled an inky fluid; Lindae's robes were soaked with that same mockery of blood, his hands coated in it from trying in vain to hold himself closed.

    "Who did this?" Ilana demanded.

    He tried to speak, but all that came out was a tuneless whine. In the roof, the winter wind was making the same sound. Ilana heard thunder snarl somewhere off toward the alps, and longed suddenly for the fireside. Taking her incoherently wheezing father by the hand, undisturbed - after the initial shock - by the strange slick feel of his dead man's blood, she dragged him back into the dining room and pressed him forcefully into a chair.

    Then she fetched a pen; an inkwell; a piece of parchment; and a sewing kit.

    Ilana was no fine seamstress. She mended him as she would a torn tunic, closing the hole in his throat with thick black thread. By the time that she was finished, he looked like he was wearing a necklace of barbed wire. It was an ugly repair job, clumsily knotted and trailing string; but he could lift his head now, and the wound was no longer leaking, so she considered it a success.

    Lindae's writing style was far from succinct. He was only halfway through his letter when she packed up her needle and thread. All of the important information was there, however.

    Magincians, it read. Dante Lamperouge, Valek Typhoon, Lynne, Circe the bartender. Revenge for Nicholas and his slut. They tried to force a confession but I would not have it. Cut my throat anyway.

    Ilana looked down at her father. He gazed back up at her. His eyes were dark as raw blackrock; there was a trace of somebody else's blood in his hair, human blood drying red against the grey.

    "Can you talk yet?" she asked him.

    He tried, but nothing came out but a hiss. Obviously frustrated, he slapped the quill down on the parchment, spattering ink across the lines of spidery script.

    A log cracked in the fireplace. Wincing at a twinge in her back, for she was almost fifty and the rain did badly by her, Ilana straightened up. She glanced out the window, where the mist hung low and roiling white.

    "Finish your letter," she said to her father. "I'll send owls."


    *

    She sent four owls, out of their flock of twelve. They were handsome snow-white birds, hand-reared, well-trained; Ilana fed them black rats grown fat on barley and wild rice, and they served her well for it.

    Before she let each one go, she held them briefly, loving the calloused clutch of their talons on her wrist, and looked deep into their sun-gold eyes. She whispered "in lor" to them, touching them with charms so that they could see through the fog and the night - for three of them had quite a way to travel.

    When she released them, they hung silver-edged in the air a second and seemed to melt away into the mist. Ilana stood at the open window for a few minutes, looking out across her family's fields to where the land dropped away into the void. In the fog, it looked as though someone had simply erased the countryside and left the blank white page behind.


    *


    One owl headed south to the centre of the city. The next day, when the weather cleared, Ilana would ride down there herself. If the necrarchs did not want war, then there was nothing that the Seiren family, old and wealthy though they were, could do to change their minds. But the necrarchs would not let this matter go lightly. Of that, she was confident. Murdering a foreign noble - even one who could not be murdered, at least not by normal means - was no petty theft; it was an act of warfare.

    One owl headed to Dawn, and one to Magincia. They carried the same message. It was not a friendly one.

    The final owl also went to Magincia, but by a different route. This was no snowy Lunarian barn owl, as were the rest of its flock, but a more nondescript creature - small where its fellows were large, drab grey in colour, and barely noticeable as it winged its ungainly way across the sky. It carried a letter; a list of names; and a signed cheque.

    The cheque was blank.

    The list read, "Lynne the blacksmith; Dante Lamperouge; Valek Typhoon; Circe the Bartender; Nicholas Tarrant, should he return to us; Peter Tarrant; and the girl Maggy."

    The letter simply read, "To Jenny. Whatever you ask. Dead is good. Alive is better."
     
  2. (*OOC note: Permission was given by the original writer of this thread and the person the notes were intended for.. for the following*)




    A drab grey bird may not seem conspicuous, but when you are leaning back against a Magincian throne staring up at the sky set against a sandy beach in the distance, it is possible to spot. One motion from her wrist and the Seagull was off and headed directly for the strange creature hovering above Magincia.

    Paranoid perhaps, but with the increase in guard activity and the events of last night, Lynne was not taking any chances.

    The Seagull was really not a match for the owl but it distracted the winged wonder long enough to drag it to the balcony, thus giving Lynne the upper hand. Fingers that had been hardened by years of slinging a sledge hammer and prying metal apart with tongs wrapped themselves around the birds wings smothering the feathers beneath. With her other hand she ripped off the message and began to read.

    The calm lifeless facade she had plastered to her face most of the day faded with each name. Attached, in addition was a blank cheque already signed. Unrelenting, each of the listed forced her to clutch the owl tighter in her opposite hand until not a single breath of life stirred within it. Haphazardly tossing the bird over the balcony she clutched the monetary statement and list even tighter.

    Her first stop.. was the Modest Damsel.. leaving a discreet word for Lord Lamperouge to contact her. Her second stop was The Trade Company building. The Sea Witch would be last..
     
  3. Lindae

    Lindae Guest

    Ilana came before the council with her head bared and her braided hair uncovered as a sign of respect. Adorned with garnet bangles, white as goose feathers and never having felt the touch of the barber's razors, it was long enough to loop her feet when she stood upright - floor-length, and then a foot or more besides. Behind her walked her daughter Tamar, clad in her best hooded cloak - dark navy-blue with red velvet lining; Seiren colours - and carrying the end of the braid so that it wouldn't drag on the flagstones. The council watched them in silence as they proceeded up the hallway, their bare feet silent on the black marble, and knelt side by side before the stairs. It was Tamar's first time on the debate floor. Ilana could see her hands shake as she gripped the silvery rope of her mother's hair, but her face was bland and inscrutable.

    "I come before you," Ilana called to them, "to plead on behalf of my family."

    The watchers gazed down upon her impassively. The nape of her neck prickled under the weight of two dozen stares, some from eyes and others from dead, empty sockets. They were all men, the Senate having always been barred to women, and were dressed in identical robes of rust-red linen. Around every neck was a chain, or two, or three, forged from a wide variety of metals and precious stones according to the wearer's rank - from the cast black iron of Daedel the bloodletters' representative, an accomplished man who had nevertheless been born amongst the peasantry, to the steel and moonstone links of the necromancers, and up to the magnificent medallions of white gold and ruby worn by Ifan Shafiri, the standing Prime Minister of Umbra.

    "Get up, Lady Ilana," he said now, "and speak."

    She stood. Tamar scrambled upright too, clutching her braid.

    Although the girl was tall for her age, she was dwarfed by the pillar beside her. The debate hall had been carved directly into the side of the mountain, a long-dead volcano, and the pillars had an organic, writhing look about them; they were black igneous rock, with a natural rippled pattern where they had been liquefied and remade in the intense fires that forged the world, and they grew from the floor without joins or seams. All around them, the walls were carved with an intricate mural of the seven sigil animals of the great ancient houses of Umbra - the serpent; the night mare; the red fox; the dire wolf; the ki-rin; the ermine; and the many-branched reaper - frolicking and fighting amidst a stylised landscape of fiery suns and horned moons and snow-capped mountain ranges. And in every corner, wreathing the pillars, lining the walls, clustered in monstrous sculptures near the high domed ceiling, there were bones: skulls of every size, from blue wren through human to great wyrm; bristling tapestries of ribs and spinal columns; vast hollowed-out vertebrae from animals that Ilana did not recognise.

    It was a foreboding place, but one that she had fond memories of. She recalled walking under this arched roof as a girl of five, hand in hand with her father, hearing him identify every bone and every skull in the place. And this is a red dragon skull, Ilana. And this is an arctic wolf skull. And this is a grizzly bear skull; and this is a great hart's skull; and this one, this plated monster of a thing - this was once a man...

    "I am Ilana Seiren," she said. "Daughter of Lord Avshalom Seiren and Princess Kusaragi Moeko of Tokuno; widow of the Commander of the Guard; and mother of a Captain." Clasping her fingers together, she bowed her head to them. The bloody maroon of their robes was dappled with candelight, the fanged stalactites above them almost lost in shadow. "Gentlemen, I am here to ask for your backing against the State of Magincia."

    "We received your letter," said Shafiri tonelessly.

    "I am glad," Ilana replied.

    "I hope that your father is recovering."

    "His phylactery is safe, so he'll live. He can't talk at the moment. Hopefully it will be character-building for him." Ilana folded her hands over the slight swell of her abdomen. They were no lady's hands; she had been a soldier for many years, and they were ugly with corded scars and poorly set broken bones, the fingernails gnawed short and the palms leathery with callus. "But it is the gesture that matters rather than the result in a situation like this, isn't it? This... Typhoon did not know that my father was a lich. He slit his throat regardless. For all intents and purposes, he murdered an Umbrian citizen. Do you agree, Lord Ifan?"

    "It was an aggressive act, yes," Shafiri murmured, his voice non-committal.

    Unlike the majority of the council, Shafiri was alive. He had dark brown skin, like most living Umbrians, and he looked unusually bright and vivid amidst the greyish and sallow faces of his peers. Now that the crafters had come up with a way to sculpt dead human meat into something that looked and functioned almost as live flesh, the dessicated look was out of fashion. There were still skeletal liches in the audience, though; their abyssal gaze was inescapable, their clenched smiles frozen and unsettling.

    "You say that you have concerns about the political climate in Magincia...?"

    "Magincia," said Ilana, "cannot be trusted."

    She glanced to Tamar. Their eyes met briefly. Her daughter had miraculous eyes - sunlit hazel, almost amber, strikingly pale against her dark skin; they were her father's eyes, though the angle at which they were set and the fleshy fold of the eyelid was reminiscent of her grandmother, a lesser princess of Tokuno. She also had a fine unblinking stare, and could weep on command. Ilana had taught her both. They were useful skills.

    "It is an unstable state," she continued. "Britannia has recently called to form a Council, as you well know, and there is widespread dissatisfaction about Magincia's inclusion under Britannia's dominion. They are a proud nation, and newly reborn, and they feel that they deserve sovereignty. You know how dangerous a nation in the throes of civil unrest can be, Lord Shafiri."

    "Yes," said Shafiri, whose grandfather had driven a sword through the last Emperor of Umbra forty years beforehand, and who had stood by as all six of the man's children were beheaded and thrown dismembered into the void.

    "The people are planning a revolution," Ilana added. "My daughter went to the isle yesterday..."

    The audience looked to Tamar. Her autumnal eyes widened like a startled deer's, but she retained her composure enough to manage a brief, graceful curtsey. "They're planning a revolution, my lord," she said, her voice barely quavering. "I heard them discussing it. They want to separate from Britannia and form their own country. But... but the Britannians have sent guards, they don't want to let them go... there's going to be trouble between the Magincians and the Britannians, I think, if they don't get those guards out of the city. In my opinion." She fidgeted, almost dropping her mother's braid. "It is only my opinion, my lord. It may not be right."

    "It sounds right enough, Tamar," said Ilana.

    She looked back to the gathered council, squeezing her daughter's hand in reassurance.

    "Britannia is forming a Council," she said. "We in Umbra have learnt that a Council is stronger by far than a single monarch. A single madman can bring a nation to its knees, but a Council fosters unity and strength." She raised her hands slightly in supplication. "Britannia has never been a threat to Umbra, gentleman. It has been too scattered, too poorly-organised, too rife with in-fighting... but now some visionary fool seeks to unify the divided kingdoms, bring in the prodigals, and gather the fragile fingers into a fist. Britannia, I will remind you, includes Trinsic. They are a warlike people, and they have long been close bedfellows with our old friends..."

    "Luna," said Shafiri.

    "The Paladins of Trinsic consider Luna to be something of a motherland," said Ilana. "The two cities are bound by white magic and religious fervour. And we know what the Lunarians think of us, my lords. We all know that."

    She paused.

    "Now is not the time to display weakness, my lords," she said finally. "I am a soldier. I am the widow of a soldier, the mother of a soldier... my brothers are soldiers, my father was a soldier, and his father before him. We know war. The days before war are a time for strength and force, not weakness. Not pacifism. Not forgiveness." Now she raised her voice - only slightly, but the hard rock acoustics of the hall lifted her words into resounding echoes. "Magincia has sinned against our people. They are weak. Umbra is strong. Now, on the eve of unrest, is not the time to roll over and show our belly to weaker nations. Now is the time to retaliate! To fight!" Her voice dropped. "To lay foundations."

    The council stared at her.

    "Foundations," said Ilana. "We are in a rare and valuable position to lay foundations, my lords."

    Her words hung in the air a moment before dying away. Some of the lords looked puzzled. But Shafiri was leaning forward, a strange look on his bland face - a smile? Almost a smirk. He looked almost amused. Although it was a presumptuous thing for an ageing widow to do, she met his eyes, and did not blink.

    "Go on," he said finally.

    "Magincia is Britannia's enemy," Ilana told him, more quietly. She was speaking directly to him now. While there would be a vote to decide what to do next, nobody had any illusions about equality; it was Shafiri's vote that counted the most, and it was Shafiri who would, in the end, decide. "Britannia is facing a political upheaval from within its own borders that will weaken it, even if it does not destroy it. Magincia is arrogant, and its people think that they can attack and threaten ours without retribution. My lord, what we have here is an opportunity to both show the world that Umbra will not be spat upon, and to strengthen our bonds with Britannia. If we strengthen our bonds with Britannia, then we gain sanctuary from whatever Trinsic and its infidels are planning for us. Magincia is a weak nation, and its armies cannot harm us. Declaring war upon them can only be to our benefit at this time."

    "Does Magincia have any allies?"

    "Only one," said Ilana carefully, "and it is not much of an ally. A small, inconsequential independent kingdom in the north of Britannia. Impoverished, scrappy, constantly at odds with whatever ruler is in place. My father says that their monarchs disappeared some time ago, that nobody knows what became of them, and that their prince has been locked in a basement for most of his life." She smiled, slightly, then let the expression fade. "It is a godforsaken little town in a sub-arctic backwood. There would not be more than a hundred people in it... I'd be surprised if it even has an army. It is called Dawn."

    "Like the queen," said Shafiri.

    "Quite. I believe it is a bit of a sore point."

    "How strong is the alliance?"

    "The man that my father... fought with... came from Dawn," said Ilana. "The vigilantes who accosted him were Magincian. The two towns have a kinship. They are devoted to each other."

    Shafiri nodded, and smiled.

    "You have said enough, Lady Ilana," he told her. "Go now. We will discuss this. If you return in an hour, we will have an answer for you."

    Ilana nodded. Taking Tamar's hand, she bowed once to the assembled council, retreated a few steps, then turned and left the black hall.

    They sat together on a bench beneath a withered tree. Bare twigs cracked the sky overhead. While the rain had stopped temporarily, the ground had softened and turned to silty mud, dark as coal and gritty underfoot. The trees were garlanded with red glass teardrop lanterns, beaded with rain and throwing pools of cabernet light. Although the council had been uncommonly gentle - they respected Ilana for her family and for her own achievements; old widows were usually laughed off the debate floor - Tamar was shaking. She was only young. Ilana was not demonstrative, so the hug that she gave the girl was halting and a little stiff, but it was genuine and Tamar seemed to appreciate it.

    "You did well," she assured her. "You did very well."

    An hour was long enough for them to go home for some lunch - fried wild mushrooms with goat's cheese and charred tomatoes, served with crispbread and hommus; Ilana's father dined with them, neither drinking nor speaking, but sitting at the table in companionable silence and slowly making his way through an overripe pomegranate - before it was time to return to the debate chamber.

    They entered the hall the same way they had before, Ilana walking ahead, Tamar carrying the train of her hair. Shafiri greeted them without a smile, but with a nod of regard. Tamar curtseyed. Ilana stayed upright, staring him down.

    "Your words are wise, Lady Ilana," he said. "We have made our decision."

    She inclined her head slightly.

    "Let us strengthen our bonds with Britannia," he continued. "Let us hold our enemies close. We will declare war on Magincia. No assaults will be made on their city, but any Magincian who sets foot inside Umbra is a dead man. Let it be the same for this... Dawn. We will assert ourselves. It is a new world coming, and it would not do to meet it cringing." Then he smiled, again. It was a rare thing. "Lady Ilana, as the wronged party here, and as the widow of our dearly missed Lord Commander, I will give you the honour of sending the declarations."

    "I shall," she replied with a nod.

    She didn't mention that she already had.
     
  4. Lindae

    Lindae Guest

    "You've stitched him up like a bloody football, you fool of a girl."

    "I am not a seamstress," Ilana said dourly.

    Lindae sat between the two women, silent and passive as Malka picked apart his hastily sewn-up throat and, with no hint of squeamishness, jabbed her fingers into the wound. She was a great anatomist, but she lacked bedside manner, and she handled her little brother with a brusqueness that befitted what he was - a side of butcher's meat magicked into life. Lifting his chin to give her better access and trying to ignore the discomfort of his sinews being plucked and prodded at like unravelling harpstrings, he stared fixedly at the wall. Moss grew in the cracks there where the mortar had rotted away. Stone tables strained under the weight of a thousand bottles and beakers - thimble-sized bottles of salt and powdered saffron and yolk-yellow sulfurous ash; slender piccolos of paraffin oil and slick molten mercury; jars of dessicated bat wings and pickled foetuses and the leathery coil of grass snakes in formaldehyde - and a human skeleton stood in the corner, clad in a wedding dress that trailed a hem of stained rotting lace.

    "Look at this," Malka scolded Ilana. "You've sewn his vocal cords together. No wonder he can't talk. How did you do that?"

    "I have little experience in repairing the undead."

    "Bloody oath you do. Go make yourself useful, would you? Run along down to the carpenter in town and fetch me some good fine catgut. Not bloody baker's twine, for God's sake. Avi, what have you been teaching this girl? Useless, the lot of you." She poked Lindae's exposed larynx roughly. He gagged. "Slava wouldn't have botched this; he knew you can't lace a dead man up like a leather boot and expect it to mend."

    Ilana departed, muttering.

    "I heard that," Malka barked after her. "Watch your mouth - you may be a woman grown but that doesn't mean I won't box your ears."

    Catgut was used to string instruments. Lindae thought that it produced a wan and feeble sound. His harp, an intricately carved monster of a thing that stretched from floor to ceiling, was strung with wyrmgut; it had seventy-two strings - from hair-fine filaments that broke after two plucks and sounded like pins dropping on a marble floor, to ropelike bass strings, thicker than Lindae's fingers, that growled rather than sang and had to be wrenched like sailing cords - and produced a richer, more resonant music that could be heard halfway to the city on a clear day. But catgut was fine and almost invisible, so it made for better stitching. Most of the necromancers used it. Lindae preferred to graft magically, but that took more time and was too painful to use on living flesh.

    As the door scraped shut, Malka sat down opposite, folded her lumpen hands together, and stared at him. She was nine years older than him, a shrivelled old dried apple of a woman, her body bent and skewed by rheumatism and chronic gout. When they both stood upright, her spine was hunched so sharply that her head was about level with Lindae's waist. Nevertheless, she saw him and would always see him as her youngest brother, the baby of the family, and her plaything by right; when she had him at her mercy, as she did now, it was as if he was six years old again and tied to a dining chair while she painted his face and tied satin bows in his hair.

    "A letter came for you," she said.

    He regarded her inquisitively. Malka took a rolled parchment from the pocket of her shawl, flattened it out, and handed it to him.

    If she is hurt in any way, what remains of Umbra will rain down on your head.
    -Magdalena


    Lindae squinted.

    "What have you done, Avi?" Malka asked him.

    He shook his head in bewilderment.

    "You do know, so don't you plead innocent to me. Who is this Magdalena woman, who have you kidnapped, and - most importantly - is she planning to trap you in a falling building, or just collect the ashes of Umbra into a jar and empty it over your head?"

    Lindae turned the parchment over and rummaged in his pocket for a pencil. Since he'd lost his voice to that scoundrel Valek on the godless, gnat-ridden chunk of sand that they called Magincia, he had been communicating with his family in short handwritten notes and occasional outbursts of interpretative dance. Having had his vocal cords severed completely, he could not so much as hum. Even his laughter was silent. He and Alouenikah, who couldn't read his notes, were developing a sort of rudimentary sign language; it was an ungainly sort of thing, though, talking with one's hands, and the old gypsy was prone to interpreting his gestures in unexpected and frankly alarming ways, so he was eager to get his voice back as soon as possible. With any luck, Malka would be able to fix him before the day was out.

    Magdalena is a chef from Shieba - she is employed in Dawn, possibly by the Tarrants. I haven't kidnapped anybody yet and I don't know what she's talking about. Perhaps her cat ran away.

    "Are you sure?" Malka asked suspiciously.

    Lindae gave a single, tired nod. He had been at war with Magincia and Dawn for approximately twelve hours now, and he was already sick of it. Ilana had managed to talk the rest of the council into severing their ties, though, and he was powerless to convince them to retract their decision; the situation was his fault, but now he was just a helpless cog in the mechanism.

    It was all because of that slimy little pickled liver of a witch. He wondered briefly if that was who Magdalena was talking about - but, no, it couldn't be; her body had been long since discovered, and her ashes hopefully thrown into the caldera of Mount Mont-Or where they belonged. Try though he might, he could not understand the outrage over the assassination of Proserpina. Certainly she had been an attractive specimen - even Lindae could recognise that, 'though the appeal of peppermint-green hair was questionable - but her beauty had begun and ended with her pretty face; inside, she had been like a mouldering apple shot through with maggots: foul, cruel and inhuman. Any man who would champion her on the basis of a cute little nose and a big juicy bosom was a fool and a lech. She had been a monster. Lindae was glad that she was dead. If she came back, he would kill her again. He would kill her a thousand times. And he would kill anybody who tried to defend her.

    Like Tarrant.

    Reaching beneath the table, he felt around for the sleeping vollems. Both of them were under there, one draped catlike over her master's feet, the other curled into a loose ball beneath the blanket of his own wings. His fingertips brushed a scaled hide - small, tight, delicate scales, not armoured like a dragon's, but flexible enough that the vollem could twist and turn and strike in midair - and he ran the palm of his hand over the creature's haunches and down the length of its serpentine tail, feeling the muscles like iron wire beneath the skin. Sariel twitched, dreaming. Lindae could see the pads of an upturned paw, and the black talons, three inches long and sharp as meathooks. Her scales were snowy white, polished to a pearlescent sheen. So long had Tarrant been in dying that both vollems had been coated in blood by the time the job was done; it had taken hours of attention with a damp chamois cloth and a brush to clean away the congealed gore, and Semjaza, who had taken a bite out of the dead man before Lindae could stop him, had been coughing up scraps of black leather for days.

    They were efficient but messy killers. Tarrant's office had looked like a slaughterhouse after the incident. It would have been useless to try to clean up all the mess and dispose of the body before the scene was discovered, but Lindae still regretted not having tried to cover his tracks. It seemed to be an open secret that he had done it. He wasn't sure why - vollem prints and methods of attack were not particularly distinctive; dire wolves were similarly messy in their dispatch, and there was no shortage of dire wolves up on the Hyperborean Peninsula - but the fact remained that he had somehow been caught out.

    That didn't matter, though. What mattered was that he had pleaded innocent to the crime, and that the Magincians had tried to kill him anyway. Whether or not he had killed anybody was, at this point, inconsequential.

    Ilana returned with a pouch of catgut, a sewing needle, and a bowl of warm water.

    She laid the materials out on the table, then left. Malka inspected them briefly. When she was satisfied, she reached back into her shawl and drew out a gleaming dirk. Burying her fingers in Lindae's hair, she pulled his head back until he could almost hear his spine creak, and laid the needle-sharp point of the dagger against the groove of his jugular vein.

    "Hold still," she said.