The belly of the drau mothership was filled with a vast network of corridors and rooms, difficult to navigate for even the most experienced soldat.
Mirdir paused, peering through the crack in the door through which a splinter of dim light bled. Everything else was a shade of black, the corridor absolutely unlit save for the small blue flames that glowed on his wrists. Tied to his forearms were several stubs of black wax that burned with a cold blue flame - drau candles. He let some of the smoke drift over the door and onto its hinges before opening it noiselessly and then he slipped inside.
Mirdir had memorised the route, and took a moment to sketch the room in his mind’s eye. Around the corner, two guards would be standing on duty. And beyond the door they guarded, his destination: the Leader’s chamber.
Mirdir moved slowly, taking care to remain silent. He let a small amount of dark smoke drip from the candles at his wrist to pool at his feet. Drau smoke muffled sound, but it also decreased friction - Mirdir, who wasn’t the most graceful at the best of times, suppressed his nerves and took each step as carefully as possible.
Two guards, two swings of the chain knife into each of their flanks. It would be over in a flash. He had practised the movements repeatedly, day after day. Swing the chain knife left into one guard, then twist and guide it around his body into the other. He rehearsed the action in his mind one last time. It was a cruel twist of fate that this duty was left to him, neither an expert in open combat or assassination. But at least he was loyal. And that loyalty would guide him to perform beyond his natural ability.
Mirdir allowed the candles to burn brighter for a moment, billowing oily smoke which he guided around his body, coating himself in shadow. He took a deep breath and rounded the corner. After turning, five strides forward, then strike. He let his body lead him. The tiny amount of light was enough to make the room seem bright to his dark accustomed eyes. He almost froze in the middle of his second step. There was only one guard standing beside the door. Facing away from him. He braced himself, and continued. No matter. The other guard must be on break. It only made things easier. On the third step the guard’s face angled towards him. Mirdir cursed internally. No stopping now. From the guard’s point of view, a shadow was striding towards her out of the corridor. The guard began to cross his arms. Fourth step. Pinpricks of blue lit up on the guard’s arms as she reached for the knives at her shoulders. Fifth step. Now or never. He performed the movement he had practised again and again until he could do it perfectly, whipping the chain around and setting it straight just in time to bury it into the guard’s neck. But the knife didn’t connect. The guard had dodged his attack effortlessly, mere inches to the left of his strike, and began to dissolve into the shadow leaking from the candles on her arms.
In a contest of shadow versus shadow, Mirdir knew he couldn’t win. And if he was caught, he would be hung on the torture tree for a hundred years. Better to die now to die now and try and hide from the Leader’s retribution than let himself be caught alive. He set his chain knife into a long blade and readied to sink it into his own chest. A hand from nowhere caught the blade before he could, another wrapped around his neck. Too fast.
Mirdir allowed the shadow from his candles to slough off him. He had been caught. It was over.
“Long live the Tsarina,” he yelled, half hoping that his conviction in saying this would lend him strength against the fate that awaited him.
The guard clamped a shadow drenched hand round his mouth to silence him. But the echo of his shout reverberated for a moment against the wooden walls.
long live the Tsarina -ina -ina…
“You fool, I know you. You’re one of ours,” the shadow snarled. “We’re on the same side. What are the - are you doing?”
The guard allowed the smoke to fall from her, revealing the face of a furious female drau.
“Falma? What are you doing here?”
“What do you think?” Falma hissed. “What made you think -”
“I thought -” began Mirdir. “I thought I was the only one left. I saw you die back on the island.”
“I faked it, you idiot. Did you not read the latest dispatches? If the leader gets hold of the dark heart, the rebellion will be crushed.” She froze, tilting her head. “Someone’s coming,” she said.
Mirdir couldn’t hear anything, but he trusted Falma’s senses better than his own.
“What do we do now?” he whispered.
Falma spoke slowly and surely. “You’re going to do exactly what I say.”
The lean drau guard that had been first on the scene held the amp stone close to his cheek and spoke into it. “We’ve caught one low rank and one rankless off-limits, both of them burning blue. And the door guard are missing, presumed deceased.” The response was too soft for Mirdir to hear. “Are you sure?” he said. “Both of them?” He squinted at Mirdir and Falma, and nodded. “Very well. We’re on our way.”
“Where are we taking them?” asked the shorter one. “The Chair wants to speak to them personally. Come on, we’d better get them moving.”
Mirdir watched as a hood of dark cloth was yanked over Falma’s head, and then was plunged into darkness as another was pulled over his own.
When the hood was torn from Mirdir’s face, he winced in a bright light that was otherwise absent in the drau ship. The council rooms were situated beneath the prow of the mothership, with a large clear window revealing the bright sky beyond. When his eyes adjusted he could see that the ship had just begun its descent towards the port of Pandaemonia - the island spread below them, widening and narrowing again, and looming in the distance, the giant needle like structure they called the Tyrant’s Tower.
A tall cloaked figure stood before the window, still as a statue, silhouetted against the blue white sky. The hand of the silhouette was daintily holding the stem of a glass of light blue frostwine that sparkled in the light. The Leader.
Mirdir’s hands were tied behind his back, kneeling on the cold darkwood floor. Another figure drifted across the room towards Mirdir, a hunched older drau trailing a heavy looking robe. The Chairman. He was holding a glass vial in his hand.
“Members of the council, we’re gathered here to witness the outcome of a murder attempt upon our highest office. And to decide on a suitable punishment for its perpetrators.”
The Chairman smiled crookedly. Several of his teeth were missing, replaced with sharp silver capstones that glinted in the light. Mirdir’s mind raced. Unlike Falma, he was an unknown to the leader and the council. If he claimed responsibility for the materials, for the assassination attempt, perhaps there was a chance to save her.
“For this reason,” continued the Chairman, “we have gathered not only the high guard, but also the council, so that all might be aware of the traitors in our midst. They are everywhere. A treachery that climbs like a vine, and even threatens the position of our dear Leader.” Behind the Chairman, the silhouette took a slow sip of frostwine.
“This treachery, this conspiracy -” flecks of spit flew from the Chairman’s mouth. “It divides us. It weakens us. It will stop us winning the war. They call themselves Loyalists, but truthfully, they are the very opposite. Traitors. And vermin. A stain on the Tsarina’s name.
“Two of them, dear council, kneel before us today. The very day before we alight at Pandaemonia, they have attempted to poison our leader with greenvine venom. To paralyse and then assassinate him.” He raised the small vial of liquid in the air. “They had no hope of succeeding, of course. But the attempt was made. Our leader has proposed a swift and exact penalty: to be bound to the torture tree until they have repented. And to be questioned and interrogated so that we might root out the remainder of this conspiracy and ensure the leader’s safety. Those who vote in favour raise your hands.”
A flurry of motion sounded behind him. Mirdir knew that the council had all raised their hands. There were few who dared defy the leader.
The chairman smiled. “Unanimous.” He pocketed the vial of poison, and produced a long slender knife from the arm of his robe and toyed with the point of it. “Any last words before the tree, traitors?” he asked, his gaze flitting between Mirdir and Falma.
Say something, thought Mirdir, trying in vain to summon the willpower to speak. You coward. You utter, utter coward.
“I am not the traitor here,” Falma replied, coolly. “My loyalty is with the Tsarina, not this heresy you have dreamed up. As yours should be. I will happily hang on the tree for her sake. How lucky for you your faithful dog barked in time.” She nodded towards Mirdir. “Or I would be wiping your blood from my knives by now. Yours and your false leader’s.”
The Chairman’s eyes flicked across to Mirdir. Ashes. What was Falma thinking?
“Faithful dog?” said the Chairman. “How interesting. Is this true?”
“They were fighting when we found them, Chairman,” came a voice from behind Mirdir. One of the guards who had brought them here. “It’s likely the low ranker heard the commotion and tried to intervene.”
“Then it seems I have made a small error in their assessment of the situation.” He drifted across the floor towards Mirdir. “Whom do you love, soldat?”
“I - I love the leader,” Mirdir replied.
“That’s right.” The Chairman licked his lips. “As do we all.” He looked over towards the silhouette at the window which made a barely visible gesture.
“Very well,” said the Chairman. He looked to the guards behind Mirdir. “Untie this one. Bind her and take her back to the island. And make sure she has a comfortable journey.”
Mirdir looked across to Falma, but she did not return his gaze. Instead she was staring straight ahead at where the leader stood, motionless. Like a tiger waiting to strike.
And as soon as the guard approached her, she did.
Despite their candles having been taken from them, Falma moved like smoke itself. In one fluid movement, she unfolded herself from her kneeling position, bringing her tied together hands beneath her legs and in front of her, and kicking one leg vertically upwards into the approaching guard’s chin. She whirled around, carried by the momentum of that initial strike, bringing her arms crashing into the guard’s stomach, and taking the chain blade from his waist.
Mirdir watched agape. This was a master assassin at work.
Falma didn’t stop. Now her body was wheeling across the room, barely seeming to touch the floor, hurtling towards where the leader stood before an onlooker could even blink. She actually had a chance, thought Mirdir. Her speed was like nothing he’d ever seen, and this was without even using her candles. How fast was she in shadow, he wondered.
From the corner of his eye he saw the Chairman pointing towards her, helpless to stop her as she spun away impossibly fast. But why was he still smiling?
Too late Mirdir saw the drip of dark shadow launch itself from the Chairman’s outstretched finger. A tiny blob of ink, like a bullet, gliding frictionless through the air, faster than his eye could follow, faster than…
Mirdir tried to yell to warn her, but he was frozen, his adrenaline soaked awareness far keener than his muscles and his voice. He was trapped in a moment. He watched the drip of shadow as it travelled and collided with Falma’s cheek, just below her left eye. The glass vial that had been concealed inside shattered, and the green liquid splashed onto Falma’s skin. Immediately, her body locked in place, every limb stiff as stone, and she fell like a statue to the floor.
The Chairman cackled. “Pretty good,” he said. “Pretty good.” At the window the silhouette sipped from its glass as if nothing of note had happened.
Mirdir watched them carry Falma’s frozen body from the room and realised he was the last element of the rebellion left aboard the ship. The last one left who could stop the leader. And he knew he was not capable of it. As the guards untied him, and the Chairman leered over him praising him for stopping an assassination, he only felt a deep deep shame.