It’s happening again, Saebrya thought, watching Ryan’s sweaty form toss in his sleep. The sipper was fastened tightly to his abdomen, moving with every shallow rise and fall of his chest. A single loop of its segmented body had wrapped around Ryan’s waist, and the rest of it disappeared through the wall, twitching back and forth in the village outside.
Ryan had not said a word since the sipper had sunk its fangs into his chest. He was breathing in tiny gasps, his curly black hair plastered to his face. He was delirious, thrashing and incoherent as his silver ether flowed down the sipper’s gullet, pulsing in little waves as it swallowed gulp after gulp.
It had taken three men to carry Ryan back to the inn after Saebrya beached the boat at the village, all of whom had given her apologetic looks and then departed as quickly as possible, leaving Saebrya alone with the monstrous sipper. The serving girls had made an effort to stop outside Ryan’s door, talking loudly about the latest disease Ryan had caught from the wild girl. Even Ryan’s mother didn’t seem as worried as she should have been. The matronly old woman had come in, seen her son sweating and in a fever, and told Saebrya to get liquids in him.
Now, her tears used up, Saebrya sat in a corner, desperately trying to come up with a plan. Every time Saebrya approached, the sipper’s faceted black eyes followed her. Even though everyone else walked through the sipper like it was made of air, Saebrya stayed back, knowing that if the big body twisted suddenly, it would crush her like a horse stepping on a mouse.
In return, the sipper’s black eyes followed her around the room, as if it knew that Saebrya was its only real threat.
Though just what kind of threat, Saebrya wasn’t sure. The segmented body that stretched through the village was as hard as solid rock, and when she tried to kick it, she only hurt her foot. It had to be a mile long, or more. She had followed it out the Laughing Babe Inn and out to the river, where it disappeared under the water in a dark shadow that only she could see.
On the way back, she kicked the segmented tail every few steps, just to see if she could get a reaction. She caught several villagers watching her progress, and glared at them until they went about their business.
Down by the river, Saebrya found a smaller, spined sipper that was still feeding on the trail of ether that the villagers had scattered in carrying Ryan up to the Inn. She turned it over, broke off the big spine on its back, and then sat down beside the big sipper’s tail and began trying to pry the huge black plates off of its back.
She only succeeded in breaking the spine.
The big sipper didn’t even twitch.
Anguished, Saebrya returned to the inn, and was stunned to find Ryan awake, sitting against the wall by his bed. He was panting, his face pale, as he looked at her, his chest completely obscured by the sipper’s head.
“I…can feel…this one,” he panted, giving her a sheepish grin. “Get…it off…me please.” There was a note of terror underlying his words, one that he was obviously keeping under tight control.
Saebrya felt tears threatening. “Ryan, I don’t know what to do. It’s too big.”
Ryan peered up at her and scooted further against the wall. As the movement, the sipper tightened its grip, and Ryan gasped.
Propping himself up, Ryan managed, “How big?” When she didn’t reply, his eyes grew wide. “Bigger than the one on the…baby?”
Saebrya bit her lip and nodded. She still had twin scars in her arm from where the sipper had bit her after she’d pulled it from the child.
Ryan tilted his head against the wall, panting. “So what do we do?”
Find the Vethyle with the hounds. Saebrya fought the idea off miserably. If she took Ryan to the Vethyles, the Vethyles would take him away from her to train him as an Auld.
Then, looking at Ryan leaning against the wall, struggling to breathe, the same part of her said, Do you really have a choice?
Softly, she said, “We need to go to Siorus.”
He turned, sweaty and frowning. “Why?”
“There’s someone there I think might be able to help us.”
“The Vethyle woman?”
“No,” Saebrya whispered. “Her uncle.”
Rhydderch hadn’t come out of his cups in a week. Ever since Ganlin Hall got cut off from the rest of the world.
Vespasien pondered this as he poured himself another glass of barley wine. Some sort of tryst with Agathe, then? Was the poor hound missing his bitch?
Vespasien chuckled to himself. The Ganlins had built their stronghold over a hundred miles into the deepest, most rugged terrain known to man. Getting back without a weigh-line was going to take weeks…if they got back at all.
Poor Rhydderch. The man’s beside himself without his corpulent kennelmate.
He was still grinning about this ten minutes later when a commanding knock almost took his door off its hinges.
“Enter,” Vespasien called, expecting a page with more wine.
Instead, Rhydderch Vethyle entered, shutting the door hard behind him. He looked more than half drunk. Under one arm, he carried two bottles of wine. He set one of his gifts down in front of Vespasien, popped open the cork on the other, and slumped into Vespasien’s favorite chair by the fire.
Saying nothing, he took a deep swig directly from the bottle’s neck.
“Auld,” Vespasien said, trying not to allow the little hairs on his neck to stand up at this odd display. He sat down in a much less comfortable chair beside the Auld and poured himself another glass of wine. “What do you want?”
“You’re a spy.”
Vespasien choked, spraying a mouthful of wine across his rug. He wiped his mouth, blinking. “Excuse me?”
“You’ve worked for the Emperor of Etro for the last twenty-five years of your life, ever since you were arrested as a child for pickpocketing a merchantier on the streets of Etro. You saved yourself from losing a hand with pretty words—I’m still trying to figure that one out—and instead were inducted into the Emperor’s network of eyes and ears…and saboteurs.” Rhydderch glanced at him and took another swig from the bottle. “Right so far?”
Vespasien was suddenly finding it very hard to breathe.
Taking his silence as agreement, Rhydderch looked back into the fire and continued. “You have had twelve successful missions, each one resulting in a small country or city-state falling to Etroean rule. You’ve received top honors from the Emperor himself, have dined with him in his private chambers, and you are rapidly becoming one of the wealthiest lowborn Etroeans in the world simply as an aside from your normal duties as the Emperor’s top eyes in Bryda.”
Rhydderch paused, watching his reaction. “You’re a spy. Do I need to continue?”
Vespasien set his goblet down, wondering where he’d left his dagger.
“So I ask you, spy, how much would I have to pay you to kill someone?”
Vespasien blinked. “Excuse me?”
“Several someones, actually. Two, for sure, but I think there are more.”
“I’m not an assassin,” Vespasien said, indignant.
“You killed my dogs.”
Vespasien’s mouth fell open. When he could speak, he said, “How long have you known?”
“Since the day I rode back to the Spyre after tracking you down,” Rhydderch said. “Now answer me. How much would it cost?”
“I’m not an assassin,” Vespasien repeated, feeling weak, now.
“You’d better learn,” Rhydderch said. “They suspect me. You, however, could poison them all with those fancy little powders you peddle and none would be the wiser until they were all dead.”
“I’d lose my reputation,” Vespasien said, stupidly.
Rhydderch leaned forward in his chair, the wine-bottle in his lap. “Let me put it this way, spy… You will kill these people for me, or I will give your name to the Unmade.”
Vespasien licked his lips. “Who do you want killed?”
Rhydderch smiled and leaned back. “Laelia Vethyle and her brother Taebin.”
“Your niece and nephew?” Vespasien said, appalled. “But they’re your kin—”
Anger flashed in Rhydderch’s face and he leapt forward, eyes furious. “They’re not my—” His jaw locked tight and he leaned back, looking back into the fire. Eventually, he said, “I want them killed. Kin or no.”
Vespasien considered. Neither Laelia nor Taebin made use of his wares, which would make poisoning them difficult. It was doable, though. He had killed Aulds before…it just took strategy.
Now where was his dagger? He began patting his robe, wondering if he’d left it under his pillow.
“You have five days,” Rhydderch said. “If they’re not both dead by then, I will come looking for you.” He smiled. “And don’t run back to Etro. Aggie still wants a taste of you, and I’m inclined to give it to her.”
Hmm. Time to kill some more dogs. Scanning the room, Vespasien located his dagger on the shelf by his workdesk, gathering dust from where he’d left it after picking his teeth. He grimaced and stood. “So what did your niece and nephew do to you to earn such animosity, sir Auld?”
The man’s jaw locked again, and Vespasien stopped moving toward the dagger when he saw tears in the Auld’s eyes. How interesting.
“They killed someone important to me,” Rhydderch said.
Probably a whore. As innocently as he could, Vespasien said, “Does this have anything to do with the weigh-line going out at Ganlin Hall?”
Rhydderch glanced at him sharply. “What do you know about that?”
Vespasien held up his hands. “Just what your kinswomen tell me.”
His eyes narrowed. “In bed.”
Vespasien grinned. “Is there any other way?”
Something passed over Rhydderch’s face and he quickly turned back to the fire. “I have a different idea, spy.”
“And what’s that?” Vespasien asked, sidling closer to his bookcase.
When Rhydderch turned back, his eyes were cold. “Make her fall in love with you.”
Vespasien blinked. “Excuse me?”
“Laelia. Make her fall in love with you.”
Distracted by this new change in direction, Vespasien said, “You’re telling me you want me to get your niece in bed with me.”
“Oh, yes,” Rhydderch said, chuckling over his bottle.
The man smiled up at him. “So we can destroy the Vethyles.”
Vespasien was intrigued, despite himself. “We?”
“Laelia is the power behind Cyriaca’s fluff,” Rhydderch said. “She is the one who controls the family. Pulling strings. Moving pieces. It would fall apart without her.”
Vespasien turned away from the bookcase, beginning to think that the Auld’s offer was genuine. “So you want to lead, is that it?”
Rhydderch cast him a look that could have singed stone, had he not been half drunk. “I am not one of them.” He spat on Vespasien’s rug. “I would die before becoming the head of this serpent called the Vethyles.”
Vespasien’s eyes fixed on the gob of saliva on his priceless antique rug. At any other time, he would have commented, perhaps even killed, but sharing the space with a spray of wine that he himself had put there made it a little difficult to find complaint.
Vespasien went back to his chair, empty-handed. “Tell me, Auld. Who did they kill?”
Rhydderch’s jaw locked with anger again, and he said nothing for some time. Then, finally, he said, “The Ganlins.”
Vespasien frowned. He hadn’t heard of any Ganlins dying. They had all gone to some auldling’s ranking ceremony up in the mountains. Unless… Agathe and Rees had both been at the party when he had tipped. A frightening, delicious feeling began to creep up his back and into his chest. “Which ones?” he asked, daring to anticipate the answer.
“All of them,” Rhydderch said.
At first, Vespasien thought he’d misunderstood. Then, at Rhydderch’s look, he realized his mistake. He slumped into the chair, overwhelmed. “Truly?”
“Laelia bragged about it to me herself,” Rhydderch said. The rims of his eyelids were wet again and he turned back to study the fire.
“So let me get this straight,” Vespasien said, “You want to help me?”
“I think a relationship between us would be mutually beneficial,” Rhydderch said.
Rhydderch turned to look at him. Even drunk, the man’s intellect was frightening. “It’s beneficial for me in that I get to see my niece utterly destroyed before I kill her. It’s beneficial for you in that I won’t gut you for killing my dogs.”
Vespasien considered. “If it makes any difference to you, Rhydderch, your dogs attacked me first.”
“Perhaps if they were better trained—”
Rhydderch slammed his wine bottle on the table to cut him off. Angrily, he said, “They did exactly what they were supposed to do in the situation where some moron was trying to run them through their paces. They tried to cut him from the gene pool.”
Vespasien’s mouth fell open. “How did you—”
“You left your wine glass in the barn, fool. I found the bottle in the loft. You’d been watching me, and decided to try for yourself.”
The man was smart. Vespasien had to give him that.
“So,” he said, “How do you plan on getting me into Laelia’s bed?”
Rhydderch laughed. “Oh no. You’ll have no help from me. If she caught one whiff I’m involved, you’d never set foot within her chambers.”
Vespasien wrinkled his nose. “I see an awful lot of effort on my part, and very little on yours.”
Rhydderch turned to him, and the look he gave him made Vespasien delightfully afraid. “You get into her bed,” Rhydderch said, “And I will help you feed her lies that will bring down the Spyre.”
Vespasien got chills. “How wonderful.”
Rhydderch nodded and stood. He picked up his half-empty bottle and went to the door, but he hesitated before stepping outside. “Keep in mind,” he said, “The woman is smarter than you.”
“I see,” Vespasien said.
“No, you don’t see,” Rhydderch said. “But you will.” At that, he turned and opened the door to the hall.
“Rhydderch,” Vespasien said, stopping him. The Auld shut the door momentarily, glancing back. Vespasien chose his words carefully. “I’ve begun to suspect your niece’s tastes lean in a more…feminine…direction. I’ve made overtures before, and she’s never shown even a hint of interest. What makes you think I can get her in my bed?”
Rhydderch said nothing for some time, staring at the priceless carpet. Then, finally, looking up, he said, “There’s something about you, spy, that sometimes makes people do what they normally would not do.”
With that, Rhydderch jerked the door open and left.
He took the wine with him, Vespasien thought.
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a.k.a. Sara King, sci-fi/fantasy/thriller writer from Alaska. Check me out on Amazon or Patreon! Email me at [email protected] to get on my beta-reader list for upcoming work, or just to say hi. :)
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