Return 17

Narcissa had learned very young how to stand confidently still without looking stiff. At the moment, staying on her feet gave her a psychological edge on those around her. Juro positioned himself at her side, though back far enough that he wasn’t crowding her—no matter how Gernot and Wira read that, and Narcissa could think of a number of possibilities, he would almost certainly find himself in serious difficulties if he stayed here.

Gernot had seated himself on an elaborately carved and painted rectangular stool, and Wira on another close to him, more or less mirroring Juro’s place in fact. She thought Gernot had intended that to convey a sense of his being enthroned and her being a supplicant, but it wasn’t working and there was little he could do without looking indecisive.

A second mistake was that he had summoned all the reborn currently in this particular house, as witnesses or bodyguards or a show of force, but that only meant there would be more people present to view any loss of face against an unknown quantity. Two women, four men, all around the edges of the room; she wondered briefly why there was such an imbalance, whether it was a general trend or a situational development or only this house. The majority were uneasily on their feet, though one woman stood at military attention so rigid it was all but wooden. The owner of the house was among them, perched on a plainer stool against a wall.

“Well?” Gernot barked. “What do you want?”

Narcissa eyed him coolly. “For you to stay out of the way of Neoma’s bloodline. By assaulting two of my household, you have declared war on us directly. Declaring war on those who are your superiors is a very foolish move. For the sake of the bright blood we all bear, I am going to give you a chance, one chance only, to change your mind about that. That we are more selective about who we choose to join us does not mean we have not spread. We have, after all, had well over a century since your attempt at killing Neoma failed, and she had the span of a human lifetime before that.”

“Attempt?” Had he been human, the dark flush that surged up his face would have given her some concern about his heart. “Neoma is dead!”

“Really? Was Kieran Talir’s son at the time that you used her love of him to coerce her into submission? You know he was not. If you killed her, how did he change after her death? I know all about you, Gernot. I know that you were responsible for the region to which Neoma had been assigned to do research, before she realized to what use that research would be put, so she fled. I know you were punished for her escape, I know that you were forgiven when you announced that she was dead and Sahen’s now-dead eagle daughter corroborated that, and I know that you are under suspicion again. Your superiors were not pleased, when we cleansed Enodia thoroughly and permanently of their malicious and petty influence, and they discovered that Neoma’s apparent death had not been the end of it.”

The deep red shaded towards livid purple. This, foolish man, is why you do not surround yourself with so many during such a meeting.

“Juro, you were told to spy on them, not to talk to them!”

I didn’t even know most of that,” Juro retorted. “How could I tell them things I don’t know?”

“Juro has nothing to do with this,” Narcissa said. “We knew him for what he is the moment he came to us. We chose to allow him to stay. We do not kill without reason, after all, and he was no threat to us. When I decided I needed to speak to you directly, having an escort became convenient.”

Had she been genuinely negotiating, she would at that point have demanded that they focus on the question of releasing Kieran and Kaveri. Had she been trying to stir up mischief, she would have taken advantage of Gernot’s rage driving him to near-speechlessness to tell everyone in the room a few truths. As it was, she was reluctant to risk pushing so hard that she lost them.

“You have clearly caused an extraordinary degree of harm to Ejiro and Ilek. I can’t imagine what would be worth so much effort. Or so much risk. After all, we do all need to walk on the ground and, at least some of the time, we need food to eat. The earthborn are all in constant communication, or perhaps communion, with each other. I admit I’m grateful that they are able to distinguish between Neoma’s bloodline and yours, and are not going to be angry at us.” She shrugged, hearing several of those around them stir restlessly. Maybe they honestly hadn’t known that earthborn were connected, or hadn’t thought of the consequences of that. “But that’s your choice to make, I suppose. My concern is to spare my companions from having to tolerate one of your grotesque and utterly pointless punishments, and to offer you the opportunity to end this without giving us cause to retaliate. Your superiors will definitely be displeased with the results of that.”

“You talk a lot,” Gernot said. “I haven’t seen any reason to believe you.”

“I have,” Juro said. “And right now, they scare me more than you do.”

“Then why didn’t you report that?”

“Because I was following orders to collect information. Baran was supposed to be in the area later tonight so I could slip out and tell him what I’d learned. You sent Wira and Faiga and the rest in before asking whether I’d seen any reason not to. Details aside, it would have added up to an attack being a stupid thing to do.”

Gernot’s forehead furrowed and his lips thinned, though his colour was starting to look more normal. “I see.”

Though trust was clearly thin within the ranks of the reborn, he must put some faith in Juro’s reliability, or he wouldn’t have bothered sending him to spy.

“And you believe we have your companions here?” Gernot said.

“I know you do,” Narcissa said. “Do you expect me to believe any denial of that fact? One woman, Lirit’s daughter. One amarog, Talir’s son. You attacked them at our campsite. You kidnapped them. You are holding them here. You consider them heretics because we do not play your silly violent games or acknowledge any authority other than that of our mothers themselves. You intend to torture them to death, which would be unpleasant for them although about as successful as when you did so to Neoma. You think that their deaths will somehow redeem you in the eyes of your superiors, although even if it worked, you will not have eliminated Neoma’s bloodline, nor have you any hope of ever doing so. Nor will it earn Talir’s forgiveness, only her further disgust and anger.”

“And you think I’m going to simply release them? On your word that you are somehow a threat and also that if they’re released and we no longer have hostages, you won’t interfere with us further?”

“I didn’t say that. I said we wouldn’t retaliate for the personal attack. Whether we will interfere when you are doing things that displease our mothers is another matter entirely.”

Gernot flushed red again. “You have the nerve…”

A shout outside, then running feet indoors and a male voice shouting, “Intruders! With the prisoners!”

What?” That was less a word than a roar. Gernot came all the way to his feet in one motion, fists clenching. “Catch her—Juro too! And stop those intruders!”

Ikenna and Baran and the woman with the military bearing all bolted for the door; the rest spread into a net, blocking both entrances to the room and closing in.

Narcissa considered trying to hold her ground, but Gernot’s explosive rage at being deceived would make any such attempt futile, she was sure.

She wasn’t worried about herself nearly as much as about Juro.

An odd thought struck her… would it work? Could it?

She slid a hand under her mantle to seize the hidden knife. She pulled it halfway from its sheath, then closed her hand around the blade hard, enough to feel the razor-sharp edges bite through skin and draw blood. Freeing the blade entirely with her bleeding hand, she kept it concealed under her mantle, point-down so her blood would run from the hilt down along the blade, as she turned to Juro.

He’d slumped in place, still on his feet, but no hope in his face. He’d gambled everything on this, knowing the odds, and he’d kept his side of the bargain; she couldn’t let this happen without at least a last toss of the dice.

I’m sorry… this is the best I can do. I hope I get a chance to explain that I know you didn’t betray us.

She lashed out with the knife, tearing across his upper arm deeply enough that she saw blood shimmering aquamarine in the poor light, with luminous violet staining the edges of the wound. Juro yelped, slapping his other hand over the cut as he jumped back. He didn’t look particularly surprised, only resigned.

One of the muscular men seized her from behind, twisting the knife painfully out of her grasp.

“Take them out to the storeroom where the others are,” Gernot commanded. “Put her in the empty cage, and make certain Juro is tied.”

One on each side, and they knew how to keep a firm grasp despite all the escape tricks Tyrel and Madoc had taught her… but if they were going to be outside even briefly…

Rather annoyingly, a heavy blanket was dropped over her head, turning the world into stifling darkness.

She could still feel the change in air pressure as they cleared the doorway, though, and heard a howl she thought was Kieran, and a couple of rapid heartbeats later, she sensed a faint touch on her lower arm and her sandalled feet, Lirit’s light.

I can’t see you but I know you’re there. I need to change, please, right now!

Lirit obliged instantly, so swiftly Narcissa wondered whether her mother had simply been waiting for a decision on her part.

The sensation that had once been unsettling and had become familiar was pure relief right now, as she felt herself growing insubstantial.

The blanket thudded to the ground, with a barely-audible tinkling of her jewellery raining down beneath it.

In hare form, Narcissa stayed crouched on top of the blanket for less than the blink of an eye, before she fled. Run first, Tyrel had drilled into her and Lysandra both. Work out the direction later. Don’t wait until you know where you’re going, that’ll give an enemy time to keep you from running at all. Get out of reach, then figure out the rest. Considering how fast you can run, he’d added drily, and the effectiveness of being able to go up instead, you may not even need to do much figuring.

“Block the gate!” she heard Gernot bellow. “Let that rabbit out and you take her sins!”

That wasn’t good, since there was still a man with a spear at the gate, and the woven fronds would slow her just enough getting through to make her briefly vulnerable. She kept one eye on the sky for that owl. She could outrun anyone in this much moonlight, never tiring, which gave her time to think about what to do.

And where was her family?

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