It was always messy, cleaning up after a murder. There was more than just blood to be washed off the tiles. There were all those awkward loose ends to be taken care of—alibis to be established, traitors to be paid off, witnesses to be silenced . . .
And that, Elezaar knew, was the problem. He’d just witnessed a murder.
A slight, humid breeze ruffled the curtain in the alcove where the dwarf was hiding, the tiled floors of the mansion echoing to the sound of booted feet. The faint, fishy smell of the harbour lingered on the wind, rank and uninviting. Or perhaps it wasn’t the nearby bay Elezaar could smell. Maybe the decay he smelled was here. Maybe the swords of his master’s killers had opened a vein somewhere and the stench came from the moral decay that seeped from the very walls of this house and permeated everything it touched.
Still trembling at the narrowness of his escape, Elezaar moved the curtain a fraction and looked into the room. His master’s corpse lay across the blood-soaked silken sheets, his head almost severed by the savage blow which had ended his life. On the floor at his feet lay another body. A slave. She was so new to the household Elezaar hadn’t even had time to learn her name. She was only twelve or thirteen; her slender, broken body in the first bloom of womanhood. Or it had been. The master liked them like that—young, nubile and terrified. Elezaar had lost count of the number of girls like her he had seen led into this opulently decorated chamber of horrors. He’d listened to their screams, night after night, playing his lyre with desperate determination; he provided the background music to their torment, shutting out their cries for mercy . . .
This was no subtle assassination, the dwarf decided in a conscious effort to block the memories. This was blatant. Done in broad daylight. An open challenge to the High Prince.
Not that the attack was entirely unexpected. Elezaar’s master, Ronan Dell, was one of the High Prince’s closest friends—assuming you could call their bizarre, often volatile relationship “friendship”. In Elezaar’s opinion, his master and the High Prince shared a passion for perversion and for other people’s pain rather than any great affection for each other. There were few in Greenharbour who would lament the death of Ronan Dell. No slave in his household would miss him, Elezaar could well attest to that. But even if the slaves of Lord Ronan’s house stood by and cheered the men who had stormed the mansion—was it only an hour ago?—their change of allegiance would do them little good. Slaves, even expensive, exotic creatures like Elezaar, were too dangerous to keep alive.
Particularly when they could bear witness to an assassination.
Wiping his sweaty palms on his trousers, Elezaar stepped out of the alcove and made his way cautiously through the chaos of shredded bedding and broken glass to the door. He opened it a fraction and peered out. But for a toppled pedestal and a shattered vase, the hall was deserted, but there were still soldiers in the house. He could hear their distant shouts as they hunted down the last of the household staff.
Elezaar waited in the doorway, torn with indecision. Should he stay here, out of sight? Out of harm’s way? Or should he venture out into the halls? Should he see if he could find anybody left alive? Perhaps the assassins had orders to spare the innocent. The dwarf smiled sourly. He might as well imagine the killers had orders to set them all free, as imagine there was any chance the slaves of the house would be spared.
Perhaps, Elezaar thought, I should stay here, after all. Maybe the soldiers won’t torch the place when they’re done. Maybe he could escape. Maybe Crys had found somewhere to hide. With their master dead, perhaps there was a chance to be truly free? If everyone thought Crysander the court’esa and Elezaar the dwarf had perished in the slaughter . . .
I have to get out of here. I have to find Crys.
Elezaar froze at the sound of footsteps in the hall, hurried yet fearless. He shrank back against the wall, holding his breath, his view of the hall beyond shrinking to a slit as he waited for the danger to pass. A figure moved in his limited field of vision. His heart clenched . . .
And then he almost cried with relief when he realised who it was.
The tall court’esa turned as the dwarf called out to him in a loud hiss.
“Thank the gods you’re still alive!” Elezaar cried, looking up and down the hall furtively as he emerged from behind the door.
“It’s a miracle you’re still alive,” Crys replied, apparently unconcerned about the danger he might be in. “How did you get away?”
“I’m small and ugly, Crys. People either don’t see me or they think I’m stupid. How come you were spared?”
For a moment, Crys didn’t reply. Elezaar looked up at him curiously. The brothers had always been close, even though their status as slaves had seen them separated more often than not since childhood. In fact, this was the first household they had ever served in together. Both played down the relationship, however. It didn’t do to give a master any more leverage over you than he already had; particularly a master like Ronan Dell. Crysander was such a handsome young man, with his dark eyes and long dark hair. He was also blessed (or cursed) with the slender type of physique that so appealed to masters who wanted their slaves to have all the skills of a well-trained court’esa and yet still manage to give the impression they were an adolescent boy. Crys had suffered much in Ronan Dell’s service; almost as much as Elezaar. But in different ways. And for different reasons.
The young man glanced down at Elezaar, smiling apologetically as he saw the dawning light of comprehension on the dwarf’s face. Elezaar stifled a gasp. No wonder Crys looks so unafraid. He wasn’t in any danger from the assassins. He’s one of them.
“You betrayed my master.” It wasn’t a question, or even an accusation. It was a statement. A simple fact.
“Not at all,” Crys said. “I’ve been faithful to our master all along.”
Elezaar suddenly remembered the breastplates of the soldiers who burst into Ronan Dell’s bedroom. The eagle crest of Dregian Province. He’d not had time in all the excitement to think about it before.
“We belonged to Ronan Dell, Crys.”
“You belonged to the House of Dell, Elezaar. I have always belonged to the House of Eaglespike.”
“And how does the old saying go? Beware an Eaglespike bearing gifts?” Elezaar stopped abruptly as the sound of footsteps grew louder. “We must find a better place to hide!”
“There’s really no need—” Crys began, but before he could finish, a troop of soldiers rounded the corner. Elezaar began to panic, wondering if there was any point trying to make a run for it. There wasn’t, he realised quickly. Crys might escape but with his short, stumpy legs, the soldiers would run him down in a few steps. The dwarf glanced up at Crys again, but the young man seemed unafraid. He simply shoved Elezaar back into the room, out of sight, then turned to the captain of the troop as the invaders approached. His heart pounding, Elezaar leaned against the wall, wondering how long it would be before he was caught. Crys might betray him in some misguided attempt to prove his loyalty to Lady Alija. Crys might betray him to save his own neck.
Or he might not. He was, after all, Elezaar’s brother.
“Did you find them all?” Crys asked as the soldiers stopped in front of him.
Elezaar’s heart was hammering so hard, he was sure they must be able to hear it in the hall. Through the slit in the doorway, he watched the officer in the lead sheathing his sword as he neared Crys.
“Thirty-seven slaves,” the man confirmed. “All dead. There should be thirty-eight, counting the dwarf. We didn’t find him.”
“And you won’t,” Crys told them. “He’s long gone.”
“My lady wanted nobody left alive,” the captain reminded him.
“No credible witnesses,” Crys corrected. “The Fool could stand on a table at the ball tonight in the High Prince’s palace, shouting out what he’d seen here, and nobody would believe him. You needn’t worry about the dwarf.”
The soldier looked doubtful, but Elezaar guessed they were running out of time. And it was easy to believe some strange-looking, half-witted dwarf was too stupid to bear witness to their crimes. Assuming he even survived long on the streets of the city.
“I suppose,” the captain agreed doubtfully. “What about you?”
Crys shrugged. “My fate has been arranged for days. I’ve been sold. With the Feast of Kaelarn Ball going on at the palace tonight, by the time your handiwork has been discovered, I will have been safely under lock and key at Venira’s Emporium for hours.”
“Then we’re done here,” the captain agreed, his hand moving from the hilt of his sword to the dagger at his belt. Elezaar saw the movement—he was eye-level with the captain’s waist—and opened his mouth to cry out a warning . . .
Then he clamped it shut again. To utter a sound would cost him his life. If Crys was in danger; if he couldn’t see that Lady Alija would never allow a court’esa to live when he could testify to her direct involvement in the assassination of Ronan Dell—well, brother or not, Elezaar had no intention of sharing that danger with him. Besides, the man may simply have been moving his hand to a more comfortable position . . .
The captain’s blade took Crys without warning. Elezaar’s brother didn’t even have time to cry out. The soldier drove the dagger up under the slave’s rib cage and into his heart with businesslike efficiency. Elezaar bit down on his lip so hard it bled and turned his face to the wall, unable to watch something he had known was coming and had been powerless to prevent. He heard, rather than saw, Crys fall. Heard the creak of leather as the captain bent over to check that Crys was dead; heard the fading stamp of booted feet and the scrape of sandals against the polished floors as the soldiers retreated, dragging Crysander’s body behind them.
Elezaar stayed facing the wall for a long, long time.
It was dusk before Elezaar found the courage to move. In that time, the room full of death where he waited had filled with the buzz of hungry flies, attracted to the feast laid out for them.
Immobilised by fear though he was, Elezaar had not wasted his time. His body was still but his mind had been racing, formulating and then discarding one plan after another.
The first thing he had to do was find somewhere safe, and for a court’esa bonded to a house that had just been wiped out, that was not going to be easy. The slave collar he wore would betray him if he tried to flee into the city. Even if Elezaar could find refuge among the homeless and the unwanted on Greenharbour’s streets, they were too hungry and too desperate to shelter him for long. Particularly if there was a profit to be made by turning him in.
No. If he wanted to survive this, he needed protection. And Elezaar intended to survive this. He had a score to settle. His brother may have been a misguided fool, thinking he could betray one master for another, but his life had been worth more than a swift knife to the belly, just to keep him quiet.
Protection. That was what Elezaar needed. But who would protect a slave? More to the point, who would protect a Loronged court’esa? A dwarf court’esa at that?
Someone who will profit from it, Elezaar realised. What had Crys told the captain? My fate has been arranged for days. I’ve been sold. With the Feast of Kaelarn Ball going on at the palace tonight, by the time your handiwork has been discovered, I will have been safely under lock and key at Venira’s Emporium for hours.
Elezaar finally found the courage to move.
Venira. The slave trader, he thought, as he opened the door. He stopped and looked down at Crys’s blood pooled on the floor. Tears misted his vision for a moment. Elezaar wiped them away impatiently. He was too hardened to grieve for his brother. There was too much pain down that road. The dwarf looked away and forced himself to keep moving. It was almost dark. If he was caught on the streets alone after the slave curfew, he’d be in serious trouble. Or someone might come looking for Ronan Dell. He was expected at the ball tonight. The High Prince might send someone to fetch him if he didn’t show.
And Venira’s slave emporium closed at sunset. If Elezaar couldn’t get to the slave quarter before the slaver left for the night, he ran the risk of a night in the streets, one he was quite certain he wouldn’t survive.
Safety lay, Elezaar knew, with the slave trader. He’d already bought and paid for a Loronged court’esa from Ronan Dell. Elezaar would see that Venira got his merchandise. As arranged.
Just not the court’esa he was expecting, that’s all.
Copyright © 2004 by Jennifer Fallon