A New Source To Bleed
Much about the stables brought contentment to Count Ainslen Cardiff. Whether it was the aroma of manure, the smell of horseflesh, the animals’ stomps, snorts, and whinnies, or the feel of hay underfoot, each contributed in its own way. None gave him as much pleasure as the horses themselves.
“You enjoy this place, do you not?” Fair-haired and of even fairer complexion, Count Leroi Shenen walked with his hands behind his back. Beyond his ability to sense emotions, the man had always been an astute observer.
Ainslen disliked that about Leroi. It made the man’s quiet voice and relaxed demeanor more than a tad disconcerting. “I do.” With his admittance, Ainslen pushed his horn-rimmed glasses down onto the bridge of his nose, and allowed himself a disarming smile. “It is one of the few places in the citadel where I get to see life unaffected by politics. All the horses want to do is to run free.”
He gazed out toward the field where a few of the animals trotted or cropped at grass. Dying rays of sunlight eased across the slope above, illuminating the surrounding hills in long lances, and reflecting from his mansion’s windowpanes on Mandrigal Hill. Within this dip in the land the rest of Kasandar was invisible. Not silent though. If he strained, he could pick out the noises as the citadel wound down for the coming night.
“So why not let them be truly free?”
“They could be if they really wanted to. The truth is they have become accustomed to captivity. They enjoy their life as it is. Anything else might kill them.”
“Much like the dregs in the Smear then,” Leroi said, “and not too different from the shackles we wear.”
“Like them, we are stuck in a cycle, doomed to play out our hands in struggles and politics from one generation to the next, never truly able to step away from what we worked for over the years lest we lose it all.”
Ainslen knew Leroi fancied himself an avid player in Far’an Senjin as well as somewhat a philosopher. Hearing House Hazline’s leader voice distaste for the game was surprising and refreshing. He thought all the counts relished its intrigue and the chance it provided.
Leroi stopped at a stall where a red dun mare peered at them. “Beautiful,” he whispered.
“This one is Marjorie.” The mention of his dead wife’s name sent a trickle of old grief through Ainslen. The heat of suppressed anger attempted to follow, but he squashed it.
“Named after your wife?” Leroi arched an eyebrow.
“Yes, this was her favorite.” For a brief moment, Ainslen allowed the memories of his wife’s smiling eyes and high cheekbones to suffuse him in warmth.
“Sorry for your loss.” A faraway expression crossed Leroi’s face. “The pain never truly leaves us.”
Ainslen waved the count off. “The Gods give; the Gods take away.” He let out a deep breath. Such an admission took a lot from him. “It’s the way of life.” It had taken a few years to come to that realization, many spent ready to drop from a stool with a rope around his neck in these stables.
“Speaking of life, what progress have you made against the Consortium.”
Pausing before he answered, Ainslen considered what he could reveal. It was no secret that he worked to dismantle the guilds and bring them in line with his own plots. However, considering the effect his plans might have on the economy in the short term, especially to men like Count Shenen, he needed to tread carefully. “Well enough, I suppose. If you’re worried over whatever goods they bring in from Kheridisia, Helagan and the like … goods you covet, then be at ease. I have no intention of preventing that part of their endeavors. Kasandar needs it. Kasinia as a whole does, more so now than ever, if the stories of the fleets leaving the Farlands prove to be true.”
“So you would not try to cripple my chances should Succession Day present itself during our time?” Leroi searched Ainslen’s face.
Count Cardiff smiled, this time allowing his desires to shine through. “I could say no, but it would not be the truth, would it? You said it yourself. The game is as much our life as our life is the game. By defeating everyone, my rule would be that much stronger.” He stepped closer to Marjorie and stroked her nose. Snorting contentedly, the horse nuzzled his hand.
“At least you’re honest. I have to respect that.”
“I grew out of deceit years ago.” Ainslen recalled his younger days, his brown hair almost to his waist when he served as one of the King’s Blades. To most, he appeared a shade of that former man in strength, which is precisely what he wanted. “I think laying out all my cards serves better in this case.”
“And those would be?”
“Mandrigal and Hazline are among the strongest houses. Together, we can assure ourselves of victory.”
“True,” Leroi conceded, “but we still have eight other major houses to consider. We will need at least one or two of the others.”
“Easy enough to arrange.”
“In the end, one of us must lose while the other claims the ultimate prize,” Count Shenen said, his face studious. “How do you feel about that?”
Ainslen envisioned the gears spinning in the man’s head. Leroi believed himself to be the stronger practitioner in soul. If Succession Day came down to a final duel between Mandrigal and Hazline, Leroi could picture himself winning. That suited Ainslen’s purposes. “If we have no issues serving the other, then it matters not.”
For an instant, Count Shenen’s eyes grew cold, and then he smiled, the lines adding to his wrinkles. “Of course. This proposed union of yours would also ensure that we don’t turn on each other. At least not immediately.”
“Just so.” Ainslen dipped his head.
“I will have to speak to Elaina. As you know, the girl is headstrong. Like her father.” Leroi grinned.
The drawling Marishman accent stopped Ainslen before he answered Leroi.
He turned, opening his mouth to reprimand Shaz. He’d asked not to be disturbed in these negotiations. The scowl on the slant-eyed assassin’s scarred face twisted Ainslen’s stomach. Only one thing would bring the man here.
“If you will excuse me, Count Shenen, I must attend to this,” Ainslen dipped his head in apology.
Brows drawing together in a deep frown, Leroi waved him off. “Go, take care of your business. It is of obvious importance. I think we have come to a mutual agreement anyway. We can work out the details on another day.”
Trying his best to ignore his heart’s tremulous flutter, Count Cardiff inclined his head and hurried after Shaz.
“My son did what?” Count Cardiff’s face grew heated as he considered Shaz’s words. He removed his glasses and set them aside lest he flung them across the chamber.
“The young master entered the Smear, your lordship.” Despite Shaz’s thick Marishman drawl, not a single bit of concern leaked from his words.
The slight trepidation over Winslow’s wellbeing seeped away with the knowledge that if things were worse, Shaz would have delivered such dire news first, yet to allow the boy to enter that district was near unforgivable. Ainslen spun from the window with its expansive view of the lighted streets surrounding the Ten Hills. Chest heaving, fist clenched to prevent the urge to strike at the man before him, he took one step forward, and stopped.
Any other servant might have cringed or began to apologize but not Shaz. The assassin slouched back into the chair across from where the count faced him. The man was implacable. The burn scars across the left side of his face didn’t so much as twitch. Not once did Shaz’s gaze waver. His expression was as flat-eyed as a village idiot.
Ainslen washed his hand through his short curls. Mistaking the slant-eyed Marishman for being slow of wit would be another person’s last mistake not his. Instead, the count inhaled deeply, taking a whiff from the scented candles burning within the room. Ginger spice drifted in smoky wisps. Much like the tea Marjorie used to make and the perfume she favored. Where the thought of her sometimes drove him into a frenzy, on this occasion, it soothed him.
“Explain yourself.” Ainslen still glared at Shaz, if with a little less intensity.
“What’s to explain? I followed Winslow and Gaston, and they went into the Smear.”
“You are mistaken. You mean they ventured near the Smear.”
Shaz remained silent and expressionless.
The boy was a fool, lacking the understanding of the risk he’d taken. If the wrong person had gotten word of his intentions, he would be dead right now, just another victim of Far’an Senjin. As much as Winslow had grown stronger over the past year, he lacked the physical gifts to survive what he wanted most: to apprentice with the King’s Blades. I should have seen this coming. The boy had ever been stubborn, defiant even. When he set his mind to something, Winslow pursued his goal like a hound on the hunt. But to throw himself into that test to such an extent?
“Is he hurt?”
“No, your lordship. A little worse for wear, smells filthy, but otherwise fine.”
Tension eased from the count’s shoulders. The tight mass in his stomach unknotted. “How could you let this happen?” He ground his jaw. “You were supposed to prevent him from doing anything foolhardy. This … this …” Count Cardiff shook his head.
“The men you sent with me were useless. They wouldn’t listen.”
“Where are they now?”
Shaz produced a necklace from under his cloak. Several ears hung for it. “I put their ears to better use.”
“Saved me the trouble,” Ainslen said, “but that doesn’t solve the issue of you losing track of Winslow.”
“Unlike your kind, no amnesty exists for me in the Smear,” Shaz said, his accent more pronounced than the average Marishman when they spoke Kasinian. “I followed as best I could. If I had gotten any closer, the Consortium’s enforcers would have had my head on a pike.”
“And they would have paid.”
“I would still be dead, your lordship,” Shaz said. “I have a certain attachment to my life, thank you very much.”
The assassin’s insolence grated him, but Ainslen did his best to ignore it. From another person, Shaz’s reason might have been an excuse, one that might have led Ainslen to take his head, but few things existed to dissuade the Marishman from doing his job. On that short list, certain inhabitants within the Smear rose near the top. “I will have to do something about them.”
“What of the other counts?”
“They’re too greedy to see the dangers the dregs and the Consortium present if we continue as we are regardless of what commodities they make available,” Ainslen said.
“They might disagree. How else would you being to acquire goods from Kheridisia, Helagan or the Farish Ilses? Since King Jemare banned their merchants, the Consortium has been an almost priceless outlet.” Shaz smiled. “Unless the issue is more than the guilds.”
For a servant, Shaz was too smart for his own good. Ainslen refused to voice an opinion, instead thinking to himself. Even with the importance of the Smear’s black markets, something else within the district bore more importance. It resided within the people themselves. They had made an art form of hiding their abilities, avoiding the ancient decree that they must serve within the Kasinian Empire’s armies. Some parents went so far as to suppress any signs within their children. Such acts led to stunted growths as well as a culling of their own. Despite this, they produced enough special children that it warranted the Ten Hills and the Soul Throne sending those of noble birth who were of the appropriate age near the district for the yearly test. To most children, the Trial of Bravery was a game; to others, it was a challenge; to those who wished to apprentice with the King’s Blades, it was much more. Winslow was the latter.
The thought of the trials curdled Ainslen’s insides. He glanced across the room to the large painting near the hearth. Marjorie, her hair like thistledown, features smooth, chin precise, smiled back at him. Kenslen was next to her, his features a mirror of his mother’s. Beside them, arms around his wife and son, stood a younger Ainslen, hair to his shoulders, eyes deep set, pleasure on his face. He hadn’t smiled much in the year after he had the artist draw the portrait.
Memories of Marjorie’s demise crawled their way into his mind.
Kenslen had proven to be more special than Ainslen dreamed. On the boy’s eighteenth name day, Ainslen allowed him to take the Trial of Bravery. Apprenticeship with the Blades would bring out the young one’s power. Much to Ainslen’s delight. But Marjorie hadn’t approved. As strong as it seemed Kenslen would be, he was also smaller than most boys his age, and his mind wasn’t as quick. Instead of venturing near the Smear as instructed, Kenslen crossed the border. When confronted by guild members, he attempted to make friends. They beat him bloody. Kenslen defended himself, killing several with his power. Although pregnant, Marjorie chased after him. Word spread quickly. By the time she found Kenslen, older more experienced dregs had arrived. She gave her life for Kenslen to escape. When the guild members finished with Marjorie, she was but so much pulp, dropped outside the Smear like offal. She died within the next hour.
And so began the Night of Blades.
The revenge Ainslen sought that night had went mostly unfulfilled. No matter how many lives he took, it would not return Marjorie. Still, in his single-minded focus to bring those responsible to justice, he’d discovered another path. One that would bring to fruition one of his life long dreams, while at the same time lending its help in laying waste to the guilds.
“Your lordship, snap out of it.”
The words cut like a knife.
Torn from his reverie, thoughts full of malice, Ainslen spun to face Shaz. “You dare touch my mind?”
Sweat rolled down the Marishman’s forehead, yet his expression remained placid. “Look at yourself.”
Even as Shaz said the words, the glow caught Ainslen’s eye. It suffused his balled fists and ran up his arms. In a wavy, off-white haze, it surrounded his entire body. Deep inside his core, his soul craved for release. The energy could take any form he wished. He always felt it was too bad he could not create something beyond reality’s limits.
After a deep breath, Ainslen allowed his essence to recede. “Thank you,” he muttered.
Shaz inclined his head..
“So,” the count said, “my son survived the trial. I’m certain he’ll be here shortly to demand his apprenticeship with the King’s Blades.”
“Will you grant him permission?”
“Even if I refused now, I would eventually have to let him go.” And I have no reason to stop him. After all, this is what I wanted. Ainslen stroked his chin. There was a way to play this to his advantage if he reacted in the right fashion.
Judging from what he’d siphoned from Winslow before, his son would have drawn others to him. If not melders, then those who had extraordinary souls. Maybe this boy was one of those. Strength recognized strength.
If I play this correctly, not only might I discover the Consortium’s movements, I’ll have a new source to bleed. Mired in thoughts of his ascension, Count Cardiff smiled. “Give me all the details.”