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Back at Raz's place, I did my best to put the pieces together. Problem was, they all felt like they went to different puzzles.

I had a missing kid. I was reasonably sure he was somewhere around the Imperial capital of Loningel. If for no other reason than the same doorway he'd traveled through had dropped me here.

Beyond that? I had no confirmed sightings. No solid leads. What I had were a series of strange goings-on since he arrived, none of which could be coincidental.

I knew the Twin Magi had to be at the center of it somehow. Whatever happened at the tower that night, they'd spread not one, but two separate rumors to obscure the truth.

Of course, that was supposing I'd gotten the truth from their shared wife, Lyse. She had an angle of her own to play, one that may or may not have involved feeding me another line of BS.

As I nursed my beer, it occurred to me I needed to know more about the dead man in the tower, the human officer from the Emperor's Own.

Whether he'd been killed beforehand, as Lyse said, or had died in the assassination attempt, the man's identity might shed some fresh light on the situation.

At a minimum, it could help me untangle the truth from the lies.

Early the next morning, I rented a mule to take me south of the city, to where the Emperor's Own had been on maneuvers a few days back. As before, a troop of around two hundred clay golems were performing flawless drills, at the silent mental commands of the humans in their glowing armor.

I drew my mule up to the edge of the roadside and sat, observing. Turns out I wasn't alone. Another lone rider had come down to watch the festivities. I didn't recognize him at first, because he wasn't wearing the finery of the Knights Protector. It was Brother Ryne, the knight who'd slugged me one when his boss came in the room.

I gave him a cheerful greeting.

To his credit, he returned it. To him, the beating was just business. I could respect that.

I nodded to the nearly-silent army down in the field. "Impressive. Aren't they?"

"Soulless machines," Ryne said. "They'll never be a match for a man with a strong sword and a pure heart."

"Not all of them are machines," I pointed out.

"No," Ryne conceded. "But I have to wonder about the kind of men who agree to let those wizards... taint them so."

"How do you mean?"

"Their armor," he said making the sign of the Eternity Cross. "It grants them power over these monsters. But who has the power over the armor?"

"It's not the officers inside?"

"To a small degree, yes. They must have autonomy in order to function on the field. But I have seen what happens when the Twin Magi disagree with an officer's order."

"What happens?"

Brother Ryne considered. "Have you ever watched a Tuck and Willa performance in the square?"

I had. It was the local equivalent to Punch and Judy, a traditional puppet show featuring a lovable buffoon and his long-suffering wife. Sort of like Everyone Loves Raymond with marionettes.

"When the Twin Magi need to 'correct' an order, the man in the armor moves as if he's a life-sized version of Tuck. He moves as if someone else is pulling his strings."

Two thoughts occurred to me, then. The first was what one of Wyatt Collins' friends had said way back at the Stocker Park public pool. About how he moved like a marionette when he climbed up on the diving board.

The second thing I remembered was the odd formation of the Emperor's Own I'd seen a few days ago, right here in this field. I'd been too preoccupied to pay much attention at the time. I just knew it registered as wrong somehow. It didn't look like any medieval battle formation I'd ever seen.

What it did look like was was a standard I-Formation. A basic offensive formation in football.

"What happens when one of those armored guys gets killed?"

Ryne scoffed. "The armor is impervious. The very idea that one could be beaten, let alone killed—"

"Just humor me."

Ryne shrugged. "If it did happen, they would replace him. The Twin Magi have an entire stable of eager young men, willing to trade their souls for power."

"And he'd just take his place on the line, serving alongside the rest?"

"Of course. The Emperor's Own need officers to control them. Otherwise, they're just statues. A vacant slot in the officers' corps could mean as many as fifty or a hundred dormant golems."

"Wouldn't he stick out?"

"I don't see how. Once armored, the man has no need to eat, sleep, or drink. Even his face is covered at all times. He'd be indistinguishable from his fellows."

Indistinguishable. Right. Unless you're too stupid and hungover to see the obvious.

I had him. Not three days ago, Wyatt Collins was a hundred yards from where I sat. I'd looked right at him from the comfort of Prince Ardan's carriage.

I cursed. The brother knight didn't appreciate that, but at least he didn't hit me this time.

I asked him to give his boss my regards, and gently kicked the flanks of my mule, wishing I'd rented something faster.

 

###

 

My inspector's paperwork was no good at the Etherial Tower this time around, and I didn't have anything to bribe my way in with. I had to settle for sneaking in.

The repair crews were still hard at work, so I stowed away in a wagon full of lumber bound for the tower. A bored guardsman gave the wagon a cursory once-over, not even bothering to move any of the planks.

If he had, he would have found me.

Once inside, the driver went off in search of a privy before unloading. I took the opportunity to slip away.

I ran into the first clay golems from the Emperor's Own somewhere around the third floor. They were standing motionless, like idle machines. They made no motion to stop me, not even when I slipped up the stairs between them.

I had a sudden sinking feeling in my gut. I made myself feel better by palming one of the daggers in my tunic.

The upper floors were deserted. I saw hardly anyone, except for clutches of Emperor's Own clay golems. Like the two on the stairs down below, they stood idle, and made no motion to stop me when I passed.

The floor right below the Twin Magi's living quarters was an ornate conference hall. That was where I found most of the officers.

Apparently, there was at least one thing magic armor wasn't invincible against. That was another guy wearing the same stuff. Judging by the positions of the bodies, someone—either Balada, Grewaldt, or both—had done that marionette control thing that Brother Ryne had mentioned, and forced them all to fight each other.

The aftermath was a room full of crushed skulls, snapped limbs, and spilled guts. It smelled like a slaughterhouse.

Upstairs wasn't as messy, but that wasn't saying much.

I found the door to the Twin Magi's living quarters slightly ajar. The first thing I noticed was Lyse. I wouldn't have to worry about keeping my promise to bring her crossworlds. She's been beaten to death with something hard and knotty. Her beautiful face reduced to a pulpy mass of broken bone, ruptured skin, and blood.

Lying next to her, in a tangled heap of long, twisted limbs, was Grewaldt. Someone had laid open the back of his skull. The edges of the wound were scorched and blackened.

I found Balada sitting on a large, ornate couch, his fat stomach blending into the sea of pillows.

"You were supposed to be out chasing leads," the old wizard said.

"Thank your wife. She tipped me that something was off about your story."

He laughed bitterly. "My wife. Yes. My loving, devoted wife. I thanked her well enough, I think." He gripped the thorn wood staff tighter in his good hand.

"Why?"

"Why? Because that bitch insisted on strutting around Loningel like a cat in heat. I may not have been able to perform my duties in the bedroom. I understood a young woman has needs. I understood, damn it. I asked only that she keep up appearances, and keep her lovers' trysts a secret."

"What about Grewaldt?" I asked. "Did he understand?"

Balada snorted. "The fool cared not. That whore galavants around town insulting us, dragging our reputation through the gutter, and he tells me to ignore it. Ignore it! Can you even believe such a thing? My partner. Phah! He was weak."

I got closer, taking care to move slow. "I get doing Lyse and Grewaldt. But why all the officers, too? What did they have to do with any of this?"

"They would have insisted on stopping the rest of my revenge."

Another step closer. "What kind of revenge? What are you talking about?"

"The whore died easily. No one will remember her. But the man who cuckolded me? His name will be cursed for a thousand generations. His failure will be so complete, so total, that no one will forget him until the sun itself dies."

He was talking about the mystery man, the one Lyse had intended to meet before I interrupted. Admittedly, my first thought was for the Emperor. Why else would Balada insist on crippling as much of the Emperor's Own as he could before going through with it?

But the Emperor himself was never much of a womanizer. That was more his son's MO. Whether he'd taken holy vows or not.

"The Regent Protector," I said.

Balada's smile was one of the most evil things I'd ever seen. "When my golems march up to the Citadel of the Holy Mother, Prince Ardan and his knights will have no chance of stopping them. They'll rip the Veil of the Mother from its tabernacle, burn it to ash, and kill every living thing in the Citadel. The Regent Protector will not be able to protect himself, much less his holy charge."

"Why tell me?"

"Because, young man. It's too late for you to do anything to stop it."

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BrainLeakage

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