The man held a pencil portrait of Jenna in his hands, his gaze hard as stone.
“Dead or alive?” He asked in a deep throated voice, heavy with borderland accent.
The man who sat opposite him had his face in darkness, and probably had a kerchief tied over his mouth to muffle the voice so that no one would recognise it in the open without disguise.
“She has to be brought to me alive and in good health, Leader.”
They were sitting in the cellar of an inn ten miles west of the palace’s main gate, and the location had been chosen by his client. Guessing by the weight of Arisian gold weighing down the purse on his belt, this client was very rich.
People walking on the floorboards above them were making thumping noises which barely managed to reverberate inside the cellar. The soft ghish... ghish audible now told Leader that a man with a limp was walking across the floor above to sit at the corner table. In front of him, a single candle was flickering on a table. The chair had been turned at such an angle that the occupier’s face was in the shadow. Behind the chair stood four huge men with swords at their waists, but the edgy look in their eyes made Leader feel that he wouldn’t be able to blink before the swords would come out of their scabbards and plunge into him unless he behaved.
“As you say, so shall be done. I shall have this girl for you before the seventh sunset from now. But why this girl specif-” he was cut off by a hiss from the guard standing nearest to the chair. He bowed down so low that the golden chain hanging around his neck almost brushed the ground and walked up the stairs to vanish into the crowd bustling outside the inn.
The man sitting on the chair rose and allowed the one who had hissed to take his place instead, and then spoke.
“You should not have made that sound. A clever man could understand who was more concerned about that question and put two and two together.”
“If Leader had been as intelligent as that, then he would have murdered the king and sat on the Royal Throne of Arisia. If he can’t fool the sentries on the palace’s main gate to gain entry, who are real fools; we don’t think he can put two and two together.”
“Ah, of course.”
Leader walked out of the inn’s door in a hurry, but not before running into a maid and causing all the glasses of wine on her tray to fall to the ground. He quickly mingled with the crowd moving away from the inn and soon made himself disappear into the side alleys and congested streets of the Palash marketplace. The single hiss had been sufficient to tell him that the person sitting on the chair in front was merely a decoy, and the guard standing next to the chair had probably been the actual client. He had learned quite early in his life that playing the fool was the best if you intended to outsmart your enemy. Had he expressed his realisation by even slightly tilting to the guard while bowing, he would have been killed for fear of compromising the identity of the client. Let those dim-witted fools think me a fool, for I shall have the last laugh. If he could determine the identity of his client, he could make a huge fortune by blackmailing him.
When he reached the brick wall he had been looking for, he pulled the third brick from the left bottom and waited. The lever inside clicked, went down and the wall slid three feet towards the right to reveal a ladder going down into the ground. After checking to see that nobody was watching, he climbed down and emerged at the mouth of a huge cave. These caves were spread for miles underground, opening at concealed locations all around the Royal Palace as well as inside the kingdom and outside. They were used by Darsins, the most feared tribe in all of Arisia. Initially, they had been confined to these caves as punishment for disturbing the great Flow of Time. Steadily, with the passage of time they grew stronger in number and strength, and began merciless attacks on innocent citizens of the country. Such was their fear that nobody dared to venture out of his house at night, and those who did were considered to be Darsins themselves because they weren’t afraid of the Nightkillers. Darsins killed at night, when the darkness had won over light in its ancient battle for existence.
Leader picked up a crystal dagger, made of glass so fine that it was hardly visible to the eye even in daylight. Next he picked up a packet of soluble sleep inducing poison from a chest containing a thousand more, and finally a rope made of shreds torn from velvet curtains, so that they didn’t leave any marks on the bonded. He came out of the storage chamber, locked it and after consulting a cave map he chose a tunnel that would give him access to an opening a hundred paces outside the Arisian kingdom’s stone walls. Death twinkling in his eyes, he strode forward and disappeared into the darkness of the cave in front of him.
The man stood from the chair and prepared to leave by pulling a hood over his face and sleeves over his hands.
“If Leader fails, you must kill him as soon as possible.”
“It shall be done.”
“We want to go to the conference at the Palace library which we were supposed to attend.”
Three guards bowed while one remained standing. “Yes, your majesty.” The company of hooded men ascended the stairs without sounding a step.
King Darshen hated these trips outside the comforts of his palace, clad in rough cotton that discomforted him. But after the Stargazers’ reports, this meeting had become essential.