Chapter Twenty-Two

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Orrus clutched the small, gilt frame with both hands, his brows furrowed. An outside observer might think he were inspecting a piece of artwork, but this was no fine painting. Rather, the fancy frame surrounded a wooden slab, its flat face rough and unpolished. The top half of the piece of wood was marred with black, spindly letters, like initials gouged into a tree trunk by eager lovers. Yet the words in the wood, which looped over and around each other in one crowded, confused cluster, spoke of secrets only for Orrus and his closest advisers to know.

A few lines near the top of the slab read:

More Cor. troops on way to Arn. Arn. overwhelmed.

Arn. king slain, young nephew reigns.

Nephew parleyed with Cor. king, rules as puppet.

These sentences, short and abbreviated as they were, had served as the basis for Hygot’s intelligence on the political situation between Corim and the kingdom of Arnyuth in Orrus’s father’s time. The twin half of the wooden slab, hewn from the rare vithetel tree native to the Gray Swamp, was in possession of a spy originally sent to live in Liacri by Orrus’s father. The spy, unlike so many others, had made it to Corim and managed to pass as a Corimian. He maintained a life there with a government post to this day, while still holding loyalty to the Hygotian crown.

A phrase near the bottom of the slab read:

Cor. has missing Mir. runners

That confirmation of the Mirish leader Bertio Fellgate’s suspicions had come recently, and it hadn’t been doing any wonders for Orrus’s sleep. If the Corimians were detaining Mirish runners… Well, Orrus knew enough about Corim’s war-happy predilections to draw some unfortunate conclusions.

The same day Orrus had learned of the Eshkhal fiasco, he’d scribed a question on the vithetel slab.

Fire in bog, spreading to Fenl. News?

Receiving a response back, however, could sometimes take weeks. Free space on the wood was precious, so the spy in Liacri took his time to gather information, lest he waste space by sending the wrong message too hastily. Orrus kept the vithetel slab close, eager for a reply.

Today, just as he was buttering his toast at breakfast, he spied a telltale, silvery mist materialize over the surface of the wood. Ever so slowly, the mist fused into blinding lines of silver-white, searing the message into the slab in deep, black letters.

Cor. sending Mir. back to Fenl. with message. Rumors Fenl. unrest high, king seeks Mir. and Fenl. loyalty. No fire here.

Such a lengthy message—and Orrus could see the need for it.

“Is something wrong, dear?” Queen Lisia’s high voice quavered as her eyes darted to the vithetel slab from the other end of the breakfast table.

“Nothing to worry about, darling,” he lied, even as he pushed away his untouched plate and gestured for the guard at the door. Such sensitive information wasn’t for the queen to know. “Flank, council room,” he barked at the guard.

Edmond Flank traced the new addition to the vithetel slab with a trembling finger. After a long, silent minute, he finally opened his mouth to speak. “This overshadows the other news I wished to tell you.”

“Good news?” Any glimmer of optimism was welcome at this point.

“Unfortunately not, Sire. The Firefly Hollow Killer tried to take a seventh victim, a young girl from Fenlick studying at the Royal Dance Theater Academy. She survived, but he escaped the city guard, again.”

Orrus nodded dully. Under other circumstances a killer terrorizing the women in the capital would take up more of his attention, but now there were real glimmerings of war on the horizon. How many lives had the killer snuffed out? Five? That was nothing, nothing, compared to what war with Corim would entail.

“Let us focus on the Corimian situation first.”

“Yes, Sire.”

Orrus sighed. “Bertio Fellgate was right. No doubt he’ll be gladdened to see his runners returned. The question now is whether whatever message they bring back to Fenlick will be enough to sway them to Corim’s side.” Orrus could well imagine what the essence of the message would be: join us or die. He swore. “I’ve never liked Fenlick. Playing neighbors to the Mirish and the Corimians, affecting cosmopolitanism. They may be tempted to turn their eyes farther east.”

“I am confident our subjects in Fenlick will not stray, Sire. These are trying times there, but they know their proper place.”

Orrus narrowed his eyes. “Disloyalty is catching. Notions of revolt spread in whispers and insinuations.” Just as fire was racing underground in Bleskar Bog, so too could sedition spread throughout the kingdom. He could almost feel it, bubbling beneath the surface. “Is the news about Fenlick circulating in Haplyr?”

Flank looked down at his hands. “Some people are talking, of course. Not many. But the Queen’s Fair is days away. Visitors from Fenlick will no doubt be in town.”

Orrus let the conversation lapse into silence. The Queen’s Fair, a killer running amok, the fire, the missing runners… Why did it all have to happen at once?

“There may be a way to control the situation,” Flank said after a minute.

“What do you suggest?”

Flank pinched the bridge of his nose. “This problem is predicated on the runners finding their way back to Fenlick with Bleskar Bog in such… disorder. If Holy Emperor Ichas is truly scheming to bring the Fenlick people and the Mirish over to his side, he’ll do whatever it takes to ensure the runners don’t perish on the crossing.”

Orrus gave a comprehending nod. “You think he will provide them some Corimian devices so they can safely make it back to Fenlick with the bog burning.”

“Yes, Sire.”

“If we can lay hands on those devices and learn their secrets, then perhaps…” He fell silent, not daring to voice the desperate wish in his mind. Perhaps Hygot would finally be able to defend itself. “Send Arik back to Fenlick. He’s familiar with the town and the situation, and with a bit of luck he’ll reach Fenlick before the runners. Order him to intercept the runners before they arrive, kill them so they cannot deliver Ichas’s message, and steal any magical Corimian devices they carry.”

“A sensible plan, Sire. I’ll send Arik out straightaway.” Flank rose to leave, but Orrus raised a hand.

“No, hold on,” he breathed, mind racing. He needed Hygot united, needed to sway his people so they had no other option but remaining loyal to the crown. Some amount of finesse was needed… If he were too heavy-handed he’d push them away, and that could be the beginning of the end.

“Sire?” prompted Flank.

Orrus fixed his adviser with a fiery expression. “Send another spy in Arik’s place. We have need of him here in Haplyr.”