Tyrel, Madoc, and Mirren pressed close to the stone wall, hoping to stay concealed in the shadows. Lysandra clung to the wall above them, her tiny body wedged into a bit of decorative carving at the top, as she watched what was happening on the other side of the sturdy wooden doorway that blocked their access.
Tyrel couldn’t actually hear Narcissa and Juro at the front. Shouting wasn’t like Narcissa at all. A single expressionless look from her could convey more about her confidence in her own power, and her opinion of whoever was so foolish as to challenge her, than any amount of bluster or threat. He wasn’t at all comfortable with Narcissa walking into a hostile environment essentially alone. It was hard to argue, though, that it should keep a lot of attention on her at the front of the enclosure, and give the rest of them an opportunity to slip in the back.
Their princess had been fierce in her insistence that she was responsible, in part, for Kaveri and Kieran being alone, and that with her moon-sister in danger of torture, she considered even a high level of risk to be acceptable. And it was a very high level of risk. But if it worked, it would buy them time.
Of course, if things went wrong…
No plan ever went exactly as intended. The simplest approach was usually the most likely to succeed, since the more factors you had to depend on, the more likely one of them would fail. But even without a true failure, there was always something unexpected. The trick, of course, was making sure that the end result was as close as possible to what you were aiming for, or at least wasn’t catastrophic. That was easier and more reliable than trying to cling to the details of any plan, as long as you were sufficiently quick on your feet to adapt.
He heard Lysandra move, and looked up just in time to see her slip over the crest of the wall. The defences weren’t constructed to keep out shapeshifting enemies. Defences against humans and local wildlife were laughable against Lysandra.
Sure enough, only heartbeats later, he heard a bar being moved—it sounded heavy—followed by a second one, and the door cracked open. “It’s clear,” Lysandra whispered.
They pushed the door aside only as far as necessary to get through it, and closed it behind them, Madoc helping Lysandra heave the bars back into place while Tyrel and Mirren kept watch. The space surrounded by the wall was free of the prickly plants, but the grass was patchy and poor even near the fountain where the spray should have kept it lush. There was one major house in sight, and multiple outbuildings, round ones with sturdy roofs of shingles running lengthwise.
A direct raid, with a distraction, was about as straightforward as possible. Assuming that what Onyeka had observed was correct and that Juro had told the truth, the scope for disaster should be limited.
“Which one?” Mirren asked Lysandra. All clothing had been changed to splotchy darkness, breaking up outlines. Even Lysandra had discarded her preferred Enodian dress for trousers and tunic in the same camouflage pattern, though both fit much more closely than locally typical. It would be useless against eyes that saw by moonlight, but against humans, it should help. They needed it: cover was going to be minimal.
“That way.” Lysandra gestured. “Stay near the wall until we’re closer. I’ll watch.”
“Be careful,” Tyrel whispered. “You’re visible in the air.”
“I won’t be in the air, just higher.” She changed back to her honeyfox form and launched herself off flat ground before the others could move to help. She didn’t go far, though, only landed at the top of the wall, above their heads.
They couldn’t be sure that no one would come out to the yard, and it would take only one glimpse and one shout to betray them. Creeping along the wall and staying in its shadow was going to be slower and frustrating, but it was more likely they’d get there. Changing shape would greatly increase stealth, but make it impossible to carry weapons, and they were probably going to need those.
The scream echoed oddly around the buildings and inside of the wall, climbing in pitch and volume and ending abruptly.
Just behind it was a canine whimper that trailed into a howl. Tyrel recognized Kieran’s voice, but rather than claiming territory or announcing triumph or summoning his pack, it held only fear and misery and confusion. Juro had described locked cages in a space without moonlight, and if Kaveri was tortured in front of him…
“Kaveri,” Madoc said flatly. Mirren looked too pale in the moonlight, and Tyrel heard Lysandra fluttering in agitation above.
“Juro said…” Mirren began, and didn’t finish.
“We can’t help her if we get caught,” Tyrel whispered harshly, fighting every instinct that wanted to run to Kaveri immediately and tackle whatever had just dragged that scream from her. “Juro said he wasn’t sure they’d do everything the same as normal. Lirit can heal it, one way or the other. Keep your voices down and don’t get stupid. Lys, show us which building.”
Lysandra took off instantly. Tyrel watched which roof she landed on, and nodded. “Not much farther. I shouldn’t need to lecture cats on stealth. Move.”
* * *
Narcissa, grateful that she’d already put some effort into her appearance in order to answer the invitation earlier that evening, took a deep breath as she paused outside the main gates of the enclosure. Broad-leaved rush-like grasses had been woven through the lattice of metal-bound wood to provide more privacy within.
“You’re sure?” Juro asked quietly. Standing up straight, he was half a head taller even than Lysandra, who had a couple of inches on Narcissa. Hastily moonspun clothing, basic stuff in local style, suited him poorly, she thought.
“I’m sure. This is my family at stake. Are you?”
He shrugged. “I’m in this deep…” He didn’t bother to finish.
“Once we finish this, you can tell me how someone who looks to have come from the far north has as another form an animal found only on a single large southern island.”
“Once we finish this, I devoutly hope we’ll all still be able to do a lot of talking. In case I’m not… Northern seafarers. Trading colony on the island. I was born there.” He shrugged and yanked hard on a heavy rope next to the gate.
“In case we aren’t,” Narcissa said softly, past the sound of a bell jangling on the other side of the wall, “ask Sahen directly for the truth. They speak rarely but it happens.” She composed herself, straightening her spine and raising her head a little further. Since, from what Juro said, anyone inside would be either from the other bloodline or serving them knowingly, she looked up at Lirit and asked a small favour. Lirit’s intense distress and apprehension reached her with the violet light, and a rush of love and support as well.
Walk carefully, wise daughter. Gernot who is in command here is he who hunted and killed Neoma. He was punished for her escape and again more recently for Kieran’s survival. His illness is one I cannot heal.
That was a chilling thought. The knowledge wouldn’t have made her choose differently, but if facing someone with a grudge, it was best to know it in advance.
Hidden under her mantle, at Madoc’s insistence, was a slim-bladed knife long enough to give her a way out, no matter what. That was some comfort, but how could she use it, knowing she would be leaving her family, including both her sisters, one of them in acute danger of extreme pain?
The gate opened a crack, showing a human man who was probably local, or near to it. The spear in one hand didn’t look friendly. “What?”
Juro waved towards Narcissa, who had considerable experience waiting with outward tranquillity despite what might be happening inwardly. “Open up for the lady. She wants to negotiate. And Gernot is going to want to hear what she has to say.”
The guard blinked, took in the sight of Narcissa, in a moonspun Enodian dress of pale violet with borders of deep amethyst squared spirals and a mantle of countless shades of lilac and mauve and amethyst in an abstract design, a lilac veil over her braided and coiled hair, gold jewellery gleaming. Lirit’s light glowed strong and dramatic around her.
“Well?” Juro said impatiently.
“I don’t have any orders…”
Juro sighed. “You recognize me, yes?”
“You see one woman standing beside me, yes? Not an army? Not a hungry and angry mob? One woman?”
“Open the gate before I report you to Ikenna as being obstructive and uncooperative.”
“I… I’m sorry, yes…” With hands that trembled perceptibly, the guard flung the gate open wider and backed away.
“Thank you,” Narcissa said coolly, stepping through. She gave Juro an expectant look, and he nodded towards what was clearly the house, light showing through several windows.
“This way, my lady.”
She nodded. Juro went ahead, hastening to open the door and stand aside, waving her through.
The room inside resembled the one she’d been in earlier that evening in another house: opulent to the point of being gaudy to her Enodian aesthetic sense—though by other standards, she admitted that it was probably splendidly luxurious and indicative of great wealth and taste.
Within, a trio of men were seated around an ornate table, only glimpses of the inlaid surface visible past a sprawl of maps and other documents. One was obviously local, his hair black and curly and his skin very dark brown, and he was very well dressed, the fabric of his his clothes woven in intricate colourful patterns. Another had roots somewhere unfamiliar to Narcissa, his skin a muted bronze and his hair dark brown, his build intimidatingly muscular, similarly dressed though the colours were more muted. The third had brown skin with a distinctly golden or yellowish tone, also dark haired, in local styles and rather light mixed colours.
All three looked up immediately, though it was the second who said, in unconcealed displeasure, “Yes, Juro? And who is she?”
“My lady,” Juro said, ignoring him, “may I present Wira, who just spoke, Ikenna, master of this house, and Baran.”
Narcissa inclined her head barely enough to be noted, acknowledgement only. “I am Narcissa Diamantina. I am Lirit’s daughter, I am of Neoma’s bloodline, and you have kidnapped two members of my household. I am here to discuss their release.”
Wira, who was according to Juro’s information the second in command, scowled. “Juro…”
“He told me nothing,” Narcissa interrupted. “Including revealing himself. But we knew from the moment he first appeared. We simply chose not to act at that point. We saw no reason and no significant threat. To us, at least.”
“You could only have known if he was careless.”
“Or if the moons have given us gifts you do not share.” She crossed her arms and tilted her head slightly, keeping her tone calm bordering on conversational. “We thwarted your plans in Enodia, although I’m sure you haven’t seen fit to tell your own people that. You will not be able to gain a foothold in Enodia, or even cross the border, without being identified and watched. Do you think that was luck?” She smiled as Wira and the others fidgeted in place. “You know nothing of us. Neoma’s bloodline has diverged from yours in more than beliefs, by the grace of our mothers, but you do not know how. You do not know our numbers. You do not know our allies and our friends. We did not take the confrontation in Enodia personally. But by attacking two of us directly, you have declared war on a force that you have underestimated greatly. Because we are all of the blood of the moons, I am here to give you one chance to return them peacefully.”
Wira hesitated, and his gaze went to Juro. “Is she bluffing?”
“No,” Juro said without hesitation. “Not considering what I’ve seen since I was sent to spy the day before yesterday. They have abilities well beyond ours and powerful allies as well. I didn’t know they’d spotted me, but it really isn’t a surprise, considering everything else. We really need to take this seriously. If anyone had actually bothered to ask me before attacking, I could have told you it was a very bad idea.”
Even through the stone walls of the house, that scream was audible, and the howl after it.
Only a lifetime of experience in the merciless arena of a royal court, where every catch of breath and every twitch of a facial muscle would be noted, kept Narcissa still.
She did allow her lips to thin and her expression to harden. “And while they will heal, we will not be pleased if they have been put through one of your absurd and ignorant punishments. I have had enough of explaining myself to underlings. I suggest for your sakes you summon Gernot here immediately to negotiate with me in person. If you are concerned for his safety in the presence of a stranger with unknown abilities, you may feel free to have as many of your people as you wish present to guard your great leader against me.”
The third of the trio, the one Juro had named as Baran, looked to Wira for permission; getting a nod in return, he left the room.
How far could she push this? This wasn’t telling fortunes with a travelling show, where making a mistake in reading someone had minimal consequences—although the potential gain was correspondingly higher as well.
And while she had a way out, Juro did not, and he did not deserve to be abandoned.
She pushed the thoughts away. She would keep the attention of their enemies for as long as it took, and she would find a way to escape with their new ally and, she hoped, his friend. Nothing else was acceptable.