This time, I dreamt myself back to Naevcastel, where I walked the corridors of Tess’ house in the darkness. I could feel the eyes watching me, her fae servants following me as I passed, muttering and giggling to themselves.
We’re going to eat you, they whispered to me. You’re never going to leave this place alive. Run, little boy. Run away. A candle lit my way, the flame flickering as my hand shook. I walked on down the corridor anyway, trying to ignore the darkness that closed around me like a shroud. I needed to reach the door. I could see it, always just out of reach. If I didn’t reach it before the candle died, they’d have me. They’d eat me. I wanted to call out, to beg for Tess’ help… She won’t hear me. Even if she does, she’ll leave me to them. She doesn’t love me, not really… The candle began to sputter and die. I fell to my knees, waiting for the creatures to take me…
A chair, hard beneath me. I shivered, the cold touching me even beneath the thick woolen blanket wrapped around my shoulders. I blinked once, twice, trying to make sense of what I could see. Flames. Flames, roaring in a fire place. A fire place set into a white washed wall. Two chairs before the fire place. Tess. Sat in one of the chairs. Staring at me. Smiling. Holding a glass of golden light. Mercury.
Dressed in a long simple robe the colour of summer corn, the fur of some unknown animal lining the collar, Tess didn’t look any different to the last time I had seen her. For an instant, the fire light refracted through the glass in a broken caleidoscope of light, playing across the reflective surface of her mask and twining in her raven hair streaked with white. My first conscious thought was how old she looked. And what happens when she’s gone?
I blinked. “What?”
“Good evening. You’ve slept all day.”
I tried to make sense of that and then the memory of that morning came rushing back.
Without even realising it, I shoved aside the blanket and rose to my feet. Fury dulled the pain in my chest, filling me with added adrenaline. I took a step towards her, raising a hand as if to strike her. She just sat there, swirling the mercury in her glass and smiling at me. Anger flared again, wave after wave leaving me trembling.
“Bitch? Monster? Witch? Sorceress? Whore?” She snorted. “Please, Daniel. You know the names people give me. I’ve earned every single one of them, with blood. So go on. Slap me. Punch me. Call me names. Let it out so that we can get on with what is important.”
Important?! Irsys’ nails, she really didn’t care. She had as much as raped me, forcing her magic on me so that I would be at her beck and call whenever she wanted. She had almost killed me with that spell, dragging me back to her against my will.
Part of my anger, I admitted to myself, was directed at myself. I had always answered those summons without question. And if you had known? That question surprised me. I forced myself to think about it. If I had known? If she had asked me before putting those chains around my chest? I knew the answer. You would have said yes. You would have said yes to anything back then.
That hurt more than the betrayal. If she had only asked me instead of forcing it on me, I would have agreed to let her wrap her hand around my heart and squeeze. I had loved her, back then. As a mistress. As a mother. As a lover.
Cast adrift by my own thoughts, I stumbled backwards and fell back in the chair. I felt as if I had been struck by a piece of driftwood. My chest ached, though whether from the physical scars of the summoning spell or from the revelation of her betrayal, I couldn’t tell. I would need time to make sense of it all. Now wasn’t that time, though. I hated doing it, but I nodded.
“What do you want?”
“That’s better,” Tess said, her voice soft. “I do need your help, Daniel. And if it can make you feel any better, I have removed the spell. I’ll use some more Justinian’s seeds to show you, if you don’t trust my word anymore. You’re free.”
I almost asked her to do it, just to spite her. Instead, I shook my head. I was tired of games.
“No. I trust you… for now. Just tell me what you want.”
Instead of answering me, she stood and walked over to a small table on top of which sat a glass decanter and two glasses. She looked at me, quirking an eyebrow. I hesitated. Did she want to confuse me? Dull my wits with alcohol? I decided that if she wanted to, she could just use her magic to do that. Besides, I hadn’t had a drink since the tavern where this had all started, and my body screamed for a taste. I nodded. She took her time pouring a glass of gold mercury, then brought it back to me. I forced myself to take a just a sip, as she returned to her own seat and sat down.
“I need you to reap a soul for me.”
I swallowed, and shook my head even before it had finished burning its way down my throat. I took another moment to enjoy the familiar sensation before speaking. “I told you five years ago, Tess. I’m done being your assassin. I reaped enough souls to last a lifetime on your say so. No more. You want someone dead, you’re going to have to use a knife.”
“I don’t want you to kill a man,” she said. “He’s already dead. I want you to find out how he died.”
I settled back in my chair, cradling my glass in my palm to warm the potent alchemycal brew. Then I just looked at her, eyebrow raised. I didn’t expect her to laugh.
“You’ll never change, my Daniel.” She sounded almost fond. “Still looking for reasons, after all these years? After all you saw? Even as a child, you always asked why.”
“Not reasons,” I said quietly. “Just truths.”
“You should know better than most, those are dangerous things. They rarely match what we were hoping for. In this case, though, I think that this should interest you.”
She reached into her robe, rummaging around in those innumerable pockets and finally drew out an object wrapped in a white linen cloth. She tossed it to me, then steepled her fingers, looking over them at me as I unwrapped it. I folded the fabric back to reveal a silver cross, the crossbar curved into a crescent moon. A stab of fear pierced my chest at the sight. I drew in a deep breath and looked up at her.
“A Purifier’s cross.”
"Have you been following their sect since…?" She trailed off, unwilling to finish the sentence.
I allowed my thoughts to wander for a moment. The Purifiers were a fanatical sect of the Panthionist cult. They blamed King Harold’s breaking with the “true” faith for the unleashing of the Great Change that had covered the Breton Isles in the Wyrding Wood. As far as they were concerned, our very survival angered the Many-Gods. An affront that could and must only be remedied by fire. And those were some of the least colourful claims. Such as the rumour that the Queen is the whore of Saeth, that she consorts with the fae King and goes to wild orgies in the Wyrding Wood.
"I've been hearing whispers for the past few weeks about a group of them entering the city by sea. Sent by the Lord High Inquisitor himself all the way from Roma. Benjamin has been keeping his little spies busy, looking for some sign of them. I’ve used a few of my more ingenuous disguises to infiltrate the courts, when I have been able.” Tess could be a very free prisoner when she needed to be. “But I’ve found nothing beyond the mad ravings of the last few priests left in the Dregs. Until now.”
She stood up, putting the glass down on the table. I watched her move across the room to a bookcase next to the fire. After studying the books for a moment, she selected one seemingly at random and pulled. I heard a click, followed by the dry rumble of alchemycal machinery behind. Coming to my feet, I followed her over, stopping a few feet away. The bookcase swung open, revealing a dark passageway redolent with the smell of musty dust.
Tess paused before passing through the door, lifting a silver candle holder from the mantel piece. I hesitated a moment as she stepped into the darkness beyond. Tess would not kill a man in dark passageways. If she wanted you dead enough to do it by her own hand, she would look in your eyes as she did it.
Now there’s a comforting thought. I hesitated a moment longer, then followed her into the darkness.