Hiros paused, catching his breath. Fighting was hard work, even when he wasn’t doing anything himself.
The second bodyguard had been put down as easily as the first. This third one though…
“Are you ready to die yet?”
The woman stared at him and took a step forwards, her twin rapiers ready to skewer Hiros if the assassin made one false move.
“Not exactly, no. I haven’t had a chance to run an island yet, so if you could just delay a-gah!”
He darted aside as her trailing rapier flew forwards, aiming for his heart. It skidded across his armour, scraping a gouge in the leather.
“Have you never heard of banter?”
He was more angry at the assassin for not getting him out of the way faster than he was at the woman. After all, she was just doing her job.
As the other rapier darted forwards, he fell into a rapid retreat around the room. The rapiers darted in, one after another in a constant swarm of deadly metal darts. A single lapse in concentration on his part, or the assassin’s, and he’d be dead.
Funny how his thoughts kept coming back to his impending death. The thoughts weren’t exactly helpful to maintaining the State either.
And until the assassin found a way to take back the advantage, then he would be out of luck.
The assassin continued his measured retreat always staying just one step ahead of the prisoner’s darting rapiers. His brother watched from the side of the room where he was perched atop a stack of crates.
“Brother, slow down a bit! Or speed up! If you keep retreating at just the right speed then she’ll catch on to the ruse. Or worse, the King will. He is a sharp one”
His brother’s constant comments throughout the three fights had not been helpful. They had been more annoyance than aid.
Still, he grudgingly sped up his retreat, even throwing in a stumble or two to further the act of desperation.
His brother was right, after all. His brother was always right.
The assassin frowned as he dropped into a backwards roll, just enough to put some space between himself and the onslaught of the prisoner’s thrusts.
His name was Egon Adler. His brother was Gerulf Adler. And they were the two best fighters in all the world.
Which was why he found the lack of a victory over this woman all the more galling.
She was but some lowland whore from the backwoods of Destria, or some worse place. She was in the service to a thrice damned pirate, and fought with twin rapiers. She was the most foolish looking fighter he had ever seen, her fighting style was laughably outrageous, and she should not have been able to hold him off this long.
But her speed was truly prodigious.
Egon dropped to his knees as the first rapier came in, and knocked the second aside with his short sword. His longsword came around to take her hand at the wrist, but she was gone again, the prisoner rolling over his body even as he threw himself forwards, away from the blades.
He was in no danger himself. Gerulf would kill the prisoner before it could strike the killing blow. While it would end the link and ensure Hiros’ death, such was a necessary risk.
However, neither brother could afford to let that happen. Not when Natasi’s plans were on the line.
He would rather die than fail her.
He paused as that thought echoed oddly in his mind. It was…Wrong. Slightly off, but he could not tell why. And then he could no longer think about it as his pause earned him a narrow gash across his cheek.
Hiros gasped at the pain as his focus wavered.
The assassin started his retreat again, but Hiros could not help but wonder why he had stopped in the first place. Unless they were trying to kill him after all…
But no. No, they would have done that sooner.
He continued to reassure himself, continued to focus solely on concentrating, focus on focusing itself. The pain was not that bad, not that bad at all.
And then he felt the burn of poison begin to spread from the wound.
Egon sidestepped a thrust and brought his short sword arcing down towards the woman’s wrist.
Finally, her thrust had left her over-extended. With her other arm out to the side she would not be able to bring it around in time to force him to abandon the chop. Which meant she would need to dodge.
A cruel grin split the assassin’s face as his longword swung in from the other side. If she dodged that way, she would get a nasty cut. Which meant that her only choice was to pull back, disengage that way.
And disengaging that way would mean-
As the shortsword crashed into the rapier, pressing then snapping it, Hiros felt the shock travel up his arm as if through a fog. Whatever she had poisoned him with, it was not good. It was leaving his mind fine, but his body was not his to control.
He grinned at that, or tried to. His eyes were even not under his control, the lids stuck open, only the orbs themselves free to move.
Still, she had just sealed her own doom. As sensation fled from his mind, there was less and less to distract him. Soon he would be able to take any hit at all and not lose the State. While the thought of taking “any hit at all” was not reassuring, the second part was.
And, he thought as the end of her rapier clattered on the ground, I may not even need to take any more hits at all.
Egon’s grin of victory did not last long. The prisoner had stepped away, and was standing there, simply watching him, head cocked.
Had the link been broken? Had the fight been too much for Hiros? Was he going to fail Natasi?
Or was this simply some new ploy on the part of his foe?
And then he remembered the cut on his cheek. It didn’t bother him at all, even though she’d had a chance to possibly make it far worse.
“I’ve got it brother!” Gerulf sneered at the prisoner as he toyed with his throwing dagger.
“As do I. Hiros has been poisoned”
“Thoughts on what kind?”
“I’d say paralysis. They’ll want to keep him alive and toy with him later”
“And something to just make him fall asleep is not as fun as the slowing of movements until he stiffens entirely”
“My thoughts exactly”
Gerulf and Egon seemed taciturn and withdrawn to all others. The reality was, the brothers had no need to talk overmuch to anyone else. Each was the other’s best friend. They guarded each other’s backs, fought side by side more times than they could count, and had been there for each other since the beginning. Egon had been watching out for his little brother since Gerulf had killed their father. Their mother had been missing since long before that.
So when they were alone together, as they were now, they talked, almost non-stop. There was truly no need for another friend.
Egon didn’t know how Gerulf felt about Natasi. He didn’t want to have to share her. But, he wasn’t going to bring up the problem unless it became one. He would rather lose Natasi than his brother. And he knew his brother felt the same way.
“Well brother, what are you waiting for? Give the woman the show she wants”
Egon grinned again, and fell into a ready stance. He took a moment to rub the blood from his cheek, then began to advance on the woman, but a bit more stiffly than before.
His grin grew wider as the prisoner began to dance to her puppetmasters strings, darting away from him.
Hiros almost laughed when the woman danced away from him. She didn’t want to kill him. She just wanted him to tire and fall flat on his face from the poison.
Apparently the assassin wasn’t going to give her the chance to make it a game of attrition.
Hiros’ face was stuck in the last expression he’d had on it, a grimace of pain. He assumed that to the crowd it looked like rage when coupled with his now ferocious attack.
The assassin sent him leaping after the woman, longsword leading, shortsword ready to stab at her. He hit the ground running as she darted away, and finally caught up enough to swing with the longsword. She deflected it easily enough, but that left her open to the shortsword.
But it wasn’t a killing thrust.
Egon slowed himself even more, his legs quaking a bit as if he was unsteady. A cut that should have landed missed as she danced aside.
A few more passes like this, and he would have her.
The Shadow Prince stared at the docks ahead of him. They were a mess of caravels, schooners, barges, longboats, ships and boats of every kind. The docks themselves were crowded with those there either to rob, to steal, to hawk their wares, to or to go to or from the vessels.
And, oddly enough, there was a single floating tower hovering at the end of one of the docks.
That’s it. That is where you were going.
He had been going to the tower? But why?
His voice rung out across the ship. It was no longer hoarse and low like it had been when he’d first awoken.
It was loud, it was clear, and he recognized the same notes of command in it that the captain had in his own.
The foppish man wandered over to stand beside the Shadow Prince.
“What is that tower?”
“A Destrian defense tower my lord. They float over the land and help the bastards to enforce their draconian rule”
The Shadow Prince had noticed a subtle shift in the way the captain spoke of Destria over the course of the voyage. From just another country, to a hell for criminals, and then to a hell for its citizens. It seemed that the captain had trouble keeping his story straight.
The Shadow Prince had not challenged him on it yet. He wanted to see how far the lies would go.
“Why would I have been going there?”
The captain scowled. The Prince was just about to give up on an answer when he spoke again.
“Another…memory?” Dashiel sounded unhappy about the fact. But that made sense. He and Weeros had been trying to convince the Prince since day one that the voice in his head nothing but lies.
How exactly he had gotten a liar locked into his skull with him they never could explain.
“Yes Captain, another memory. Would you be so kind as to explain why it would want me to go there?”
“Well, to capture you of course. If you were to approach one of those, they’d arrest you for sure”
“Except I was wearing the uniform. And there were closer garrisons than a floating tower I’m sure”
“Yes, but the towers are best equipped to ferret out spies and liars. The soldiers inside are trained for that kind of thing”
“Very well then” It was still all lies, but another question had occurred to the Prince instead “If that is true, then what is it doing here?”
Dashiel grimaced and shook his head.
“I’m afraid my lord, that I do not know”
Egon fell to the ground as the rapier darted overhead, then dropped his longsword, scrabbling after it with barely moving fingers.
“You think she is buying this?”
Egon didn’t bother to answer his brother. It took a lot of effort to curtail his natural instinct to beat at her with everything he had, and while still staying alive and also being slow, he didn’t want any other distractions.
He managed to lever himself into a kneeling position with his right arm without bending it. He’d been feigning its paralysis for some time now. By the lack of suspicious actions on the prisoner’s part he assumed that he’d guessed right about the poison.
Swinging his short sword numbly for a moment he finally let his arm fall to his side. He made one mighty surge of effort to stand, and then let himself fall before his legs moved too much.
“Brother, you should have been an actor. Your performance is masterful”
Gerulf began to clap slowly.
Hiros slumped on the ground. He could still move his eyes enough to look up at the woman as she moved to stand in front of him.
“I like banter when I’m the only one who can do it. Or, how about we save it for the torture rooms eh?”
She laughed and turned to face the crowd.
There was still a lot of cheering, but much of it sounded forced. Hiros had been the new favourite, and his defeat was unpopular.
Especially since so many people were losing money because of it too.
Then he felt his legs tensing beneath him. Perhaps the gamblers had been too quick to pay what they owed.
His left arm arced up as he rocked onto his heels. The blade cut a furrow along the woman’s back, and then went sailing further up into the air. As he rolled backwards and came to rest in a crouch the hilt came down squarely in his raised right hand.
As his arm was swung down, his sword and arm acting as a spear, his legs propelled him forwards once more.
The woman had only barely managed to react to the first cut when Hiros buried the blade to the hilt. It burst out through her chest with a spray of blood as she gasped in astonishment.
Now would have been the perfect time to say something incredible, but he still couldn’t move his body.
Instead he cut the link, and continued to fall forwards with her.
He finally relaxed as fights broke out in the crowd over who owed who how much. The gamblers were definitely going to regret being too quick to pay.