Ten minutes later, with the first rays of golden light sifting through the high rise buildings that dominated the central part of the city, the small party of Black Hoods began their march towards the palace. It was a sober affair, made more so given Melvin’s reticence and the purpose that brought them out at this early hour. The pedestrian traffic was not as thick as it had been on their arrival, but was still quite substantial. It was a mix of shift workers making their way home from a night’s toil in the factories and people on the morning pilgrimage to join the King for breakfast.
“I never realised that the King was so popular,” Jordan remarked.
“He’s not,” Belsair replied. “But when so many people are starving, pretending to be loyal and getting fed as a reward for said loyalty seems as good a deal as any.”
“So much for King Julian being the great benefactor of the people, then.”
Belsair shrugged. “Compassion isn’t one of the King’s strong points. To him, this is just another game, another opportunity to revel in his power.”
“Surely he can see how divisive his policies are?”
“That’s hard to say. At the eye of the hurricane, the world is peaceful and the sky is blue. In the midst of such a phenomena, it is very hard to believe the destruction that has come just moments before, or the destruction that is to come later...”
“I’d have to be naïve to fully accept that explanation, though.”
“Indeed you would. But think of it like this. How often do you think the King sees people who aren’t posturing and posing before him? Apart from his immediate circle of advisors, there would be not a soul who would dare utter the truth to the King; the truth that pertains to life beyond the walls of his palaces, anyway. The exercise you will see this morning is a matter of putting on airs and graces. The King sees a suitable cross section of society at breakfast, hears not a peep from any of them, and can continue pretending that there are no problems.”
“You think he is pretending?”
“Of course he is. I don’t doubt the King is stupid. He knows what is going on. But until someone with enough pluck comes along to deliver the message, he won’t act on anything.”
“So... why our mission then, if a message is all that is needed?”
Belsair abruptly drew to a halt, so abruptly that those walking behind him almost bowled straight into him. But he had no eyes for them. He was glaring at Jordan. And while there was no anger in his mien, there was a look of challenge. His eyes searched Jordan’s face, the scrutiny total.
“They have nooses ready for those who wish to make such announcements, my friend,” Belsair said, softly. “And a monarch suspicious enough to string people up on a whim.”
Jordan swallowed, felt a knot click in his throat. Still, Belsair held his gaze. In the milliseconds before diverting his eyes, he added one last comment. “Not even men of the calibre of Darellion Kraithé are truly safe from His Majesty’s paranoia. And if that man, great as he is, could have his neck popped at the King’s behest, then none of us are safe.”
Belsair allowed a few moments of silence to pass, sufficient for the message to sink home. Jordan nodded. He understood the implications, understood them well. Seemingly satisfied with Jordan’s response, the Master of the Knife turned around. “We’re nearly there,” he announced, matter-of-factly, as if this short jaunt was a common occurrence.
And sure enough, they passed from the last dark and dingy street into an open avenue, beyond which was a large park of immaculately maintained grass. It was indeed the jewel in the tarnished crown of Ma’arnar; or, depending on your take of the situation, another example of the ever-growing divide between a rogue monarch and his despairing subjects. Wide cobble-paved boulevards divided the huge expanse of reserve into neat quadrants. These boulevards were swarming with masses of people, most of who looked out of place in the sheer luxury of the surrounds. Dotted at regular intervals along the many paths, soldiers in the garb of the House of the Sun—the blood red sun floating on a field of gold—watched proceedings. They all wore the same listless expression on their faces, that species of dutiful boredom sentries wore when their mission of the moment was beneath their station, broken only momentarily when pointing directions to the palace, or haranguing those stupid enough to wander off the paths.
Ah, yes, the wonderful palace of Ma’arnar... Jordan had seen its likeness in many pictures and etched on coins, but none of these representations would ever do it justice. For starters, the sheer size of the palace could never be fully appreciated in simple two dimensions. Nor could the audacity of the place, with polished marble towers, each one ending in a gorgeous spiralled dome that caught the morning sunlight so that they dazzled and sparkled like kaleidoscopes and the intricate colonnades that opened the main atria, giving the illusion of yet more space. None of this could be accurately portrayed in any lithograph or the tiny etchings on the silver and gold surfaces issued from the Royal Mint!
The whole effect was to promote size and space, to make anyone walking within those colonnades and underneath those towers feel small and insignificant. And while there were no heavy walls, and gatehouses to impose a sense of dread and security, Jordan knew by reputation and long conversation with Felipe Belsair that each tower had a compliment of arrow slits with a superior bowman sitting in duty ready to launch projectiles at any person deemed a threat. Right now, there would be hundreds of pairs of eyes glaring down at the throng gathered below and just as many tightly drawn bows at the ready. While a large-scale army wouldn’t be held back by such as this, the defence was enough to hold them back long enough to secure the King and his important dignitaries within the main keep, which was sufficiently disguised so as not to be obvious.
This was known colloquially as the Summer Palace. It was where the King spent the warmest months of the year, where the open plan allowed cool maritime breezes to drive away much of the summer heat. Winter was spent at the Grey Palace, the dour, heavily fortified hulk in the mountain passes, surrounded by large forests that provided more than enough firewood to fend off the bone-numbing chills prevalent in winter. Had Julian elected to take his court there, then Jordan would have disembarked from the locomotive at the Railway terminal, waited for the engineers to turn the engine around and replenish the coal supply, then would have boarded once more and taken his sorry arse home to Tor.
But no, things were going according to plan. The plan first, the plan last, and if luck should hold out, the plan would be executed to perfection, pun intended.
Presently, they observed the flow of people gravitating towards the centre of the courtyard, from where they would be herded like cattle into the banquet hall and the trestles set up for their breakfast. Once everyone was settled, the King would make his dramatic entrance, replete with the sounds of trumpets blaring and the royal figure himself dressed in splendid robes of gold edged purple. As was befitting his most noble status, the King would be served first, followed by his Queen, and any other dignitaries who were nominated that morning to join the façade. Once they received their portions—normally brought to them straight from the kitchens, piping hot and tested for poison by some anonymous scullion who wouldn’t be missed if the food was indeed spiked—then the rabble were allowed to descend upon the smorgasbords and sate their appetites. While they fed their faces, a string quartet filled the air with sensuous music, much of which went unappreciated, drowned out by the noise of hundreds of feasters gorging themselves.
“During the dining phase,” Belsair had said, “make an excuse to get up and walk around often. Note where the sentries are. Note how many there are. Once you’ve counted them for certain, double that number. There will be those in mufti pretending to scoff like the rest of the peasants, but in reality, keeping their eyes peeled for trouble.
“When it comes time for the King’s address to the commoners, thanking them for their loyalty and congratulating them for being simple minded serfs slaving away to secure his position, make sure you’re located near the east exit. Without fail, this will be where the King will make his exit. From there, it is up to you to make the right moves... if you know what I mean.”
Jordan had nodded acquiescence at that last statement, delivered by Belsair with a slight nod of his own and a brief, mischievous wink. Yes. Jordan knew exactly what Belsair meant. The watershed moment of the entire enterprise; delivering Melvin to his destiny, and securing his own. Timing was the essence here, split second timing, knowing the exact moment to strike for maximum effect, even if it meant martyrdom.
That was a risk Jordan was prepared to take, if not for the realm, then surely for his own honour. And was he scared of dying? Yes. Not so much of the dying itself, but the fact that once dead, that was it. Your legacy was measured on that which you had achieved, so if Jordan died without achieving his objective, then the sum total of his legacy would be a huge deficit. There was no way to amend that.
“Strike hard and strike to count,” Jordan muttered under his breath.
From somewhere within the massive complex, an iron bell tolled six times. This was the signal that breakfast was ready for the masses; for Jordan and Melvin, it was the moment of truth. Endgame.
They drew up into a circle. There would be no pre-mission pep talks. All time for such had long since passed. This was the mere formality of farewells. Should success be in the offing, then maybe the members of this party would meet again and share the tale of what was to transpire. If they were lucky. And the chances of having such luck were, as far as Jordan knew, extremely slim.
“I guess we are most grateful for your assistance in this matter,” Jordan said. He reached out with his hand, to grab hold of Belsair’s wrist in the traditional handshake of close confidantes. He assumed that the time spent on the train and the time navigating the clogged streets of Ma’arnar gave them both some kind of bond. It was also in part a way of thanks that Jordan found hard to say.
He was surprised, therefore, when Belsair seized his arm not at the wrist, but farther up his arm, almost at the joint of his elbow, and squeezed tightly. Those black eyes that were considered rare in this part of the world now blazed balefully across the gap of inches between them. Belsair flashed his winsome teeth, but there was no longer any warmth there. Jordan heard the sound of metal clinking, and utterly astonished, looked down at his wrist and saw a manacle. He looked back up at Belsair’s face, trying to pierce the coldness, to find the companion and fellow Black Hood underneath. He couldn’t find it.
Jordan struggled to free himself from the manacle, from Belsair’s steel grip. Worst of all, the way Belsair’s eyes placed their own clamp on his own. It had only taken scant seconds, but he sensed the sudden change come over the three-man party. Next to him, Melvin struggled; he too, was entrapped by a manacle, this by one of Belsair’s companions.
“What the hell is happening?” Melvin queried, voice raising an octave as the raw edge of panic seized him.
“Should you tell him, sir?” the companion named Aldernon said.
Belsair smiled some more. His whole demeanour had changed. No longer did he look stooped, hunched over. Somehow, the kink that Jordan was sure he’d seen in Belsair’s back was gone. So to the rheumatism that had so affected the man’s joints. He stood taller, stood easier, moved lithely. Jordan was astonished to find that even the man’s hair appeared darker, as if he were growing ever more youthful right before his eyes. And then, Belsair’s trusted companion had called him “sir.” Not exactly the title one greeted a Black Hood with, at least not in the manner of deference now afforded to Belsair. And yet it had happened—was happening—as sure as Jordan drew breath. And the manacles.
“I think my friends here are worthy of an explanation,” Belsair said. He sounded different, the words weighted with a quality far removed from the history Belsair had painted over the course of two days of travel. He was no longer a master thief, a silent killer. Just what was he?
But before Jordan could splutter for an explanation, Aldernon reached into one of the voluminous pockets of his overcoat and pulled forth a silver whistle. Three sharp shrills sliced the air, and for Jordan and Melvin, signalled their death knell. Out of nowhere, or so it seemed, men appeared. All of them wore the garb of the House of the Sun, the blood red sun floating on a field of yellow. More than enough of them held naked swords; all of them meant business.
Belsair stepped away a few paces from Jordan, and let slip his cloak. Even Jordan’s lips let loose a gasp of shock. He was staring at another House of the Sun cloak, and seeing Belsair dressed so seemed all the more an insult. Melvin visibly paled, came quite near to pissing in his pants. Jordan, though, always the one with the highest convictions, simply glared, admitted defeat. However, supplication was the last thing on Belsair’s mind. His smile was cruel, a twisted jag of lips exposing many teeth.
He spoke again, all traces of the assassin banished. And the words he spoke were a steel-gloved hand that seized Jordan’s heart and crushed it into pulp. “Your travelling companion is none other than Darellion Kraithé. You are now under arrest for high treason.”