Tom led his horse off the road, down an old trail to a creek. He tied the reins to a tree and put a feedbag on its mouth. He could see the blinking of sentry fires about half a mile up the hill through the trees. The moon was almost set; it was about half an hour before dawn—when the darkness was at its deepest and the fears of men began to take root in the loss of sleep.
He was most of the way back to the road when he heard men walking toward him. There was no chatter, but there was also no attempt to be quiet. He moved behind a tree and waited for them to pass. There was enough light from the stars for him to guess their number at between twenty and thirty. None of them seemed to have any kind of military training—they were just walking. No formation, no cadence, no cohesion to the group at all. Just a bunch of regular guys out for a walk in the middle of the night. He shook his head. If he had any doubt the Sorceress-Queen was nearby, it would have been gone when he saw the ragtag group. She was building an army alright. One poor bastard at a time. When they passed by, he moved from behind the tree and blended in with them.
An image came to his mind unbidden and almost made him laugh. The image was of winged monkeys on their way to do the bidding of a different witch. Music played in his mind: Oh-wee-oh…yo-ho-oh. Oh WEE oh, YA-HO-OH!
Andy and John were doing their level best to convince Clio that he was absolutely the wrong guy to try to rescue Aemilia. Thus far, their results were predictable. Andy was standing in front of the door and had already made it crystal clear he was not going to move out of the way. Clio would have to step over his dead body before he was going to leave the apartment. For his part Clio said nothing, but his eyes made it clear he was not ruling anything out.
John saw that Andy was out of gas. He kept his voice level—a feat neither of the other two were able to imitate for the past hour—and said, "We got you out. We'll get her out."
Clio spun on him. "You think I will sit here and do nothing while the two of you risk your lives to save my woman? Preposterous! I will not hear of it!"
Andy opened his mouth to say something, but John's upheld hand stopped him. "Here's the deal, Clio: if you go after Aemilia, Cedric's gonna die."
"Of the three of us, you're the one with the most knowledge of first aid. What do you think that little bulldog's gonna want to do when he wakes up and finds out the guild has Aemilia? You want to save her because you love her and you want to get married. We get that. He's going to want to save her because he got the crap kicked out of him trying to protect her. Guess who wins in the guilt department?"
Clio froze. His fists were knotted at his sides. "I had not considered that."
"Course you hadn't," Andy said. John was glad to hear his voice was calm again. "No way you could have. You're making our point for us—you ain't thinking clearly, and no one blames you for that. It's not time to act…yet. Let's have some breakfast and you can tell John and me where you think they're hiding her and how we can get her out."
Sistelli stared at the blond woman strapped to the chair. Her hair was matted to her head, stringy with sweat from her long struggle against his men. She was not going to kick him this time. They spared no rope lashing her legs to the chair, and only one of the men who captured her had to pay the price.
He was fairly sure she was unconscious. They administered a liquid when she screamed herself hoarse. A few drops in the water left her as pliable as she could be, and its effects would be felt for at least two days. She suffered no beating, though he ached to give her one—or something else. Experience had shown him that women, unlike men, could not be beaten into giving information. Other things, yes…but not information.
He snapped his fingers in front of her face. "Aemilia, wake up now." She mumbled something he could not understand and sighed deeply. He picked up a pitcher of water from the table and stuck his hand in it. He flicked his fingers and spattered her face. She frowned prettily and shook her head. Her eyes came open, but were unfocused. "Do you know where you are?" he asked.
"No, no." He gave his warmest chuckle. "Nothing like that, my dear. The sun is shining. Light streams through the window on your left, carrying with it the smells of the sea. Can you see it and smell it?" There was no sun and they were quite a way from the sea, but it was also not a dungeon. He sometimes referred to this secondary apartment of his as a cell—where he hid when he felt the need—but it was far from a dungeon.
She breathed deeply. There was a sleepy quality to her voice he found quite provocative when she sighed, "I hear the seagulls, too."
Seagulls? Perhaps I put in a few drops too many.
"Where is Clio? I want my husband-to-be…"
She said it with the tone of a little girl asking for her favorite doll. Sistelli arched an eyebrow. Perhaps he used just the right amount of the liquid after all. "He will be here soon, my lass." He did not thank her for the stake she had just given him he could drive through two hearts, although he could have. She would not remember any of this.
"When is the happy day to be?" This was too good not to pursue. The answer would be enough, and once given would tell him as well where he could find the Americans."
Her voice was thick with sleep, but filled with energy nonetheless. "Eighteen days hence!"
"A small, private affair, no doubt…?"
"Oh no! My goodness, no! It will be…grand!"
He was about to press her further, but stopped before framing his next question. A soft noise from the hall, as if something bumped the wall next to the door, brought a quick frown to his face. He turned his head away from Aemilia for but a moment, then snapped it back to look at her. "Why do you cry?"
"Fret not, good sir!" She sucked in air and her shoulders shook. "I am only picturing in my head how beautiful everyone will be!"
Ketra caught the guard on her shoulder as he slumped, but did not predict the path of his boot when he fell into death throes. It brushed the door and rattled it in its frame. She rolled his dead weight off her thighs and let him rest on the floor. Pulling her dagger from his side, she wiped the blood on his tunic and looked at Sarah.
Sarah glared at her and waggled a finger. Of course, her kill was absolutely silent. Ketra knew she would never hear the end of that. Still, they could hear the voice of the man in the room talking to Aemilia. They still had surprise on their side.
Sarah stood and removed the her black cloak. They would no longer need to disguise themselves as protectors. Ketra did the same.
"Aemilia? Are you still with me, girl?" Sistelli was several feet away from her, the better to gauge the effect of the drug. Giddiness was an unusual reaction, but not unheard of.
"Of course I am, you goose! I cannot seem to move." She giggled. "We should probably do something about that. This is the kind of thing I must save for my husband!"
The door burst open. Sistelli spun, his hand reaching for the hilt of his sword. He saw two women rush in, and time slowed. They were holding hands. His sword was free of its sheath. Their free hands rose in the air as his blade came up and back.
That was the last he knew before a kick—though they were too far away to touch him—took him in the gut. He felt his feet leave the floor as the air left his belly. As if from a distance, he heard his sword clatter to the floor and Aemilia scream…or laugh. His teeth clattered and slammed down on his tongue when his head hit the wall behind him. He saw the women in front of him go double; a trick of his vision—which was growing yellow and black at the edges. Darkness took him.
"Why hello ladies!" Aemilia said. She saw the fuzzy form of fat Sistelli on the floor. "Welcome to the party! Ooh. You did not kill that nice man, did you? We were having such a talk!"
Sarah rolled her eyes. Ketra knelt and began undoing the binds on Aemilia's legs and hands. "No, my friend. We did not kill him."
Ketra finished untying Aemilia. "He will wish we had…when he wakes. Can you walk?"
"Of course I can walk." Aemilia stood. She put one foot in front of the other, wobbled into a near-pirouette, and collapsed to the floor in a puddle of skirt and fit of giggles. "Just not right this moment!"
The two women from Crescen put her arms over their shoulders and half-carried her out the door, and past the bodies of the dead guildsmen. Aemilia thought it was a wonderful pre-wedding party. She sang, and laughed, and babbled as they bore her toward their apartment. Men watching gave each other knowing winks—imagining the wild night one of their species must have been privileged to live. Women shook their heads and clucked their tongues…for the same reason.