Bezreddyn had lost contact with Romnan and Qualzath, the only remaining friends from his youth. Both had grown up with him and knew him. Now, they had vanished and his son was to blame. Hadrax had besieged Korlabdis, forcing his friends to flee. He could only hope that they were safe and alive.
At the moment, though, he had deeper concerns. Con, his grandson, was hungry. Magick could only do so much, everything else depended on nature. And babies depended more on nature. Not that he minded, but milk flasks with false nipples were hard to come by as was a ready supply of fresh milk, especially within the city. Magick could keep the milk cool enough to keep a while, or warm it to the right temperature before feeding, but it could not produce it quite as well or as nourishing as goats, sheep, or cattle.
Through a merchant, milk was expensive. More expensive than if bought from the farmers. What made it difficult was the fact that the governess, the boy’s natural mother and acting nursemaid, had been called away on business leaving him to search out alternatives. Still, he couldn’t fault her. she was only doing what her office demanded of her and he admired her for it.
Even more astounding was the fact that she had designs on unifying Sudia, which wasn’t a bad idea. In his youth, he could remember the four lands being autonomous kingdoms that formed a loose confederation. Each land had its own ruling elite, complete with king, duke, baron and earl—all the way down to constable and sheriff. When the invasions took place, Austryn fell. Then Sudia. Then Estryn. And finally Nordia.
The barbarians who conquered Austryn were pushed out by a new invasion, forcing them to conquer a new kingdom. After twenty four invasions, their successors were spread fairly evenly among the four lands. Six Orders, each having risen from a tribe, inhabited each of the four lands. When the Wars of the Gods were over, a new nobilis rose from the ashes to take the reins and unite the four lands. At first, the nobilis were beneficial. They helped rebuild what had been a shattered and divided Renge. He had watched them as they drew away from the proud heritage the lands had in the magicks and leaned toward a less earth-based governance grounded in chaos and darkness. Over five hundred years, they slowly became a part of the cancer that ate away at the lands.
Perhaps it was good that Kyrzhad was impotent. It meant that the royal line was at its end. Well, almost. If the emperor ever found out about Con, he would have the boy seized and taken to the capitol city of Tyrannikos in Austryn. Con, by law, was the last heir to the empire. But the boy could never be told. Nor could the emperor find out.
He found a milk flask and poured milk into it. The soft leather flask expanded as it filled. Once it was full enough, he tied the fill-end shut and used magick to cause a nipple to appear at the end. At his touch, magick warmed the milk to just the right temperature and he began feeding the boy. He smiled as the babe suckled.
He sang a soft lullaby, keeping the child calm. At the memorized intervals, he burped the child and then returned to the feeding. After the boy was done, it was time to change him and lay him down to sleep. Bez rocked the cradle and sang a soft lullaby until the child was asleep.
In recent days, he’d had little time to go about his duties as bard but he didn’t care. The child was more important. When he did go to perform his duties, he did not remain on the streets long. Still, he loved his grandson and wanted the best for the boy. He hoped that the boy would grow to follow him as bard. If he had a successor, the curse of the gods would be lifted. Once it was lifted, he would be allowed to die.
After the boy went to sleep, Bez’s mind wandered back to the thoughts of the twin mages. Had they gotten away safely? Had they found safe haven? Or had Hadrax executed them?
Niobe found herself in the thick of battle and found it thrilling. The highwaymen had set upon them seemingly from nowhere, but she had surprisingly expected it. Why, she had no idea. It just seemed that she had.
She handed herself with such grace and ease that she was beginning to wonder if she had been meant to lead the life of a warrior. She was in awe of the fluidity of the assassins as they fought, marveling how quickly the battle was moving. Her blade seemed to melt the flesh it touched, cleaving flesh and bone as if it were empty air. Even more amazing was the fact that her training was paying off more than she’d ever imagined.
She quickly took charge, betraying her identity to all, but led valiantly and victoriously against the foe. She was swiftly gaining mastery of her skills, even with the enchanted blade. With each opponent, she was beginning to take notice of their weaknesses. Their blind spots.
Side by side with Frigaana, she wove a deadly arc of destruction that no foe could escape. But as soon as it had begun, it was over. Sobahn brought forward the leader of the band, now a captive.
“Milady,” he stated, pushing the man to his knees before her, “We captured their leader. He says he has a message to deliver to you and you alone.”
She pulled her helmet off. “Out with it, man,” she replied, “From whom and what is your message?”
“The emperor has sent his greetings with a warning, governess,” the highwayman hissed, “Cease your attempts to solidify the southlands and he will belay the order to attack Yndarr and all cities of Sudia. He expects me to deliver him your reply.”
“What do you think, Frigaana?” she inquired, looking over at the goddess.
“He shall deliver our message,” the goddess answered coldly, “but not the way he believes.” The goddess paused. “It is time to involve Nalembahr the Beheader.”
Niobe watched the highwayman grow pale. Apparently he knew of the Beheader.
“No,” he begged, “by the gods, no!” He was now shaking in sheer terror.
“My brother gods,” Frigaana began, “I call upon you now. Send the Beheader to fulfill a task for us and to bear a message to the ruling emperor.”
The sound of great hooves thundered in the distance, growing louder as a giant horse approached. Upon the horse sat a dark hulk with glowing eyes. One of the numerous gods of death, Nalembahr was supposed to be the most vicious and bloodthirsty of all because he was also a god of war. Frigaana was rumored to be his paramour, and his role as a god of war was the reason he was called “the Beheader.”
“You always did love to make a good entrance,” the goddess smiled, “didn’t you, my love?”
“Aye, my love,” the dark figure replied, a dark thunderous chuckle following behind the words, “especially when you call.”